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The Iron Knight, Page 28

Julie Kagawa

Page 28


  She stepped closer, placing a soft hand on my cheek, so near I could see my ref lection in her starry eyes. “Finish this quest,” she whispered, and pulled away, walking to the aft of the ferry without looking back.

  An indefinite time later, I woke from a dreamless sleep and gazed around, realizing it was nearly my turn for watch again. On the opposite bench, Ariel a slept soundly, a purring Grimalkin curled up beside her. A strand of silver hair fel across her eyes, and I raised my hand to brush it away before I realized what I was doing.

  Clenching my fist, I turned and wandered toward the bow of the ship, where the Wolf sat in the moonlight, gazing out over the river. His ears were pricked, his nose raised to the wind, the breeze ruff ling his glossy black pelt.

  “Change is coming,” he rumbled as I stepped up beside him and leaned against the rails, careful y balancing my weight. Even when the Wolf was sitting down, the top of my head was barely level with his shoulder, and wherever he went, the boat tilted, very slightly, to the side. “I can smel it.

  Either something is approaching us, or we're very nearly there. ”

  I looked down, watching a fish twice as long as the ferry brush up against the side, regard us with one enormous silver eye, and sink back into the depths. “Do you think we'l hit anything before we reach the Briars?”

  “Hard to say,” the Wolf replied. “I'm surprised we made it this far without any trouble. If you believe the cat, it's because the ferry is a part of the river, and passes through dreams without drawing any attention to itself or its passengers. ” He snorted and curled a lip, as if just realizing he had spoken about Grimalkin in a nonviolent manner.

  “If you can believe anything he says, anyway. Besides, that will probably change once we hit the Briars. ”

  “How far?” I asked.

  “Couldn't tel you. ” The Wolf raised his head and sniffed again. “But it's close. The Briars has a particular smel , unlike anything else in Faery. ”

  He turned and regarded me with burning, yel ow-green eyes. “I hope your girl knows the way. I've stalked the Briars countless times, and I've never seen the End of the World. ”

  “She'l get us there,” I said softly. “I trust her. ”

  “Real y?” The Wolf snorted, looking back toward the river. “I wouldn't. ”

  I turned, narrowing my gaze. “What do you mean?”

  “Pah, boy. Can't you smel it? I guess you wouldn't. ” The Wolf turned as well , lowering his head so we were face-toface. “Your girl is hiding something, little prince,” he said in a low growl. “She reeks of sadness, of indecision and guilt. And desire, of course. It's even stronger than yours.

  Oh, don't pretend not to know what I'm talking about. Both of you smel like rutting deer that don't know whether to f lee or just get on with it. ” He bared his fangs in a brief smile as I glared. “But I would be careful around her, boy. There's something she hasn't told you. I don't know what it is, nor do I care, but she doesn't want this journey to end.

  You can see it in her eyes. ”

  I glanced at Ariel a, knowing the Wolf was right. She was hiding something, something more then her emotions or her visions or the many futures I knew she had seen. I saw the gleam of golden eyes on the bench and knew Grimalkin was watching me, but at that moment I heard the f lapping of wings, and a large black bird swooped in to perch on the deck.

  It changed to Puck in a swirl of feathers, making the Wolf wrinkle his nose and sneeze. “Heads-up,” Puck announced, raking feathers from his hair.

  “We're coming up on the Briars, and it looks like the river goes right through it. ”



  The Briars rose before us like the black face of a cliff, an endless wall of thorns, vines and branches, clawing at the sky. From a distance, they appeared to move, swaying and writhing, never stil . Of all the places in Faery, the Briars were the most mysterious, and one of the most feared. It was here long before the first faery emerged from human dreams, and was said to encircle the entire Nevernever. No one knew how it came to be.

  But everyone knew about it. Within the thorns, the trods to every door and gateway in the human world lay hidden and well protected, waiting to be discovered. Find the right trod, and you could go anywhere in the world. That is, if you could survive the things that lived in the thorns.

  And the Briars themselves were always hungry.

  No one had ever traveled all the way through the thorns; there were rumors that the maze went on forever. But if what Ariel a said was true, the End of the World lay beyond the Briars, and somewhere beyond that lay the Testing Grounds.

  The five of us—myself, Ariel a, Puck, Grimalkin, and the Wolf—stood side by side at the front of the boat, watching the Briars loom before us.

  The river wound sleepily toward the wall of thorns, into a tunnel of in-terlocking branches. As we drew closer, we could hear the Briars move, creaking and slithering, eager to welcome us into its embrace.

  “Quick question. ” Puck's voice broke the silence. “Did anyone think to bring a can of Off?”

  The Wolf gave him a confused look, and I raised an eyebrow. “Do we even want to know?”

  “Mmm, probably not. ”

  Ariel a leaned forward, gazing up at the looming expanse of black thorns, awe written plainly on her face. For a moment, it reminded me of the first time I had seen her, that pretty young girl staring at the winter palace in amazement, stil innocent of the ways of the Unseelie Court.

  But she was different now, not the girl I had once known.

  Ariel a caught me looking at her and smiled. “I've never seen the Briars,” she said, glancing back at the wall of thorns. “Not like this.

  They're so much bigger in person. ”

  The Wolf snorted, wrinkling his nose. “I hope you know where you're going, girl,” he said in a dubious voice. “If we get lost in there, you'l be the first one I'm going to eat to keep from starving. well , after the cat, anyway. ”

  I glared at the Wolf, but Ariel a shook her head. “We won't have to worry about getting lost,” she said in a distant voice, not even looking at us. “The river will take us where we need to go. To the End of the World. ”

  “Great,” Puck said, grinning and rubbing his hands. “Sounds easy enough. Let's just hope we don't fal off the edge. ”

  Gripping the railing, I stared up at the moving wall . This is it. The last barrier before the End of the World, and one step closer to keeping my promise. Meghan, I'm almost there. Wait for me just a little longer.

  As the ferry slipped beneath the Briars, what little light there was dimmed to almost nothing, leaving us in pitch darkness. Extending my arm, I drew a tiny bit of glamour from the air, and a globe of faery fire appeared in my palm, washing everything in pale blue light. I sent the bal ahead of us, lighting the way down the channel, where it bobbed and weaved and cast weird shadows over the bristling tunnel wall s.

  Grimalkin sniffed. “I do hope that does not attract anything,” he mused, watching the bobbing light as if it was a bird, just out of his reach. “We are not will -o'-the-wisps, trying to get creatures to fol ow us, after all . Perhaps you should put it out?”

  “No. ” I shook my head. “If something comes at us in here, I want to see it. ”

  “Hmm. I suppose not everyone can have a cat's perfect night vision, but stil …”

  Puck snorted. “Yeah, your perfect kitty vision does us no good if you don't warn us that something is coming once in a while. Poofing away doesn't count. This way, we can at least have a heads-up. ”

  The cat thumped his tail. “Additional y, you can paint a neon sign over our heads that says, ‘Easy meal, fol ow the flashing lights. '”

  “Or we could use you for bait…. ”

  “Does anyone else hear that?” Ariel a asked.

  We froze, fal ing silent.

  The Briars we
re never stil , always rustling, slithering or creaking around us, but over the thorns and the sloshing of water against the branches, I could hear something else. A faint chittering noise, like claws clicking over wood. Getting closer…

  The Wolf growled low in his chest, the fur along his spine beginning to rise. “Something is coming,” he rumbled right before Grimalkin vanished.

  I drew my sword. “Puck, get some light back there now. ”

  Faery fire exploded overhead, a f lash of emerald-green, lighting the passageway behind us. In the f lare, hundreds of shiny, eight-legged creatures scuttled back from the sudden light. The tunnel was ful of them, pale and bulbous, with bodies the size of melons and multiple thin legs. But their faces, elven and beautiful, stared down at us coldly, and they bared mouthfuls of curved black fangs.

  “Spiders,” Puck groaned, and drew his knives as the Wolf 's growls turned into snarls. “Why does it always have to be spiders?”

  “Get ready,” I muttered, drawing glamour to me in a cold cloud, feeling Puck do the same. “This could get messy. ”

  Hissing, the swarm attacked, dropping from the ceiling with muffled thumps, legs clicking as they scuttled over the deck. They were surprisingly quick, leaping at us with bared fangs, legs uncurling as they f lew through the air.

  I hurled a f lurry of ice shards at the attacking swarm, kill ing several in mid-leap, and raised my sword as the rest came on. I cut a spider out of the air, ducked as another f lew at my face and speared a third rushing at my leg. Ariel a stood behind me, firing arrows into the swarm, and the Wolf roared as he bounded and spun, ripping spiders from his pelt and crushing them in his jaws. Puck, covered in black ichor, dodged the spiders that sprang at him and kicked the ones that got too close, sending them f lying into the waters below.

  “Aggressive little buggers, aren't they?” he cal ed, yanking a spider from his leg and hurling it over the railing. “Kinda like redcap spawn, only uglier. ”

  He ducked as a spider f lew overhead, hissing, only to be snapped out of the air by the Wolf. “Hey, prince, remember that time we stumbled into a hydra nest, just as all the eggs were hatching? I didn't know hydras could lay up to sixty eggs at a time. ”