The iron knight, p.29
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       The Iron Knight, p.29

         Part #4 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 29

 

  I sliced two spider creatures from the air at once, black ichor splatter-ing my face and neck. “Now's really not the time to reminisce, Goodfel ow. ”

  Puck yelped and cursed, slapping away a spider on his neck, his hand coming away stained with red. “I wasn't reminiscing, ice-boy,” he snapped, angrily kicking the spider away. “Remember that cool little trick we did? I think we should do that now!”

  The spiders' numbers were increasing; I'd cut one down only to have four others come at me from all sides. They were everywhere now, crawling over the railing and skittering across the roof. Ariel a and I stood back-to-back, protecting each other, and the Wolf was going berserk, bucking and rol ing as spiders crawled all over him like monster ticks.

  “Come on, prince! Don't tel me you've forgotten!”

  I hadn't forgotten. I knew exactly what he wanted me to do. It was risky and dangerous and would take a lot out of us both, but if the spiders kept coming, we might not have a choice.

  “Ash!”

  “All right!” I yel ed back. “Let's do it. Ari, stay close. Everyone else, take cover now!”

  I stopped fighting for an instant, feeling several of the creatures land on me, their slender legs scuttling up my clothes. Ignoring them, I knelt and drove the point of my sword into the wooden f loor.

  There was a f lash of blue, and ice spread out from my blade, covering everything. In an instant, it had coated the deck, the railings, the benches, even some of the spider things, freezing them in place. It covered the branches of the thorns around us and spread a thin sheet of ice over the water around the boat. Though the spider things continued to pour out of the brambles, dropping onto the deck, for a moment, there was absolute, frozen silence.

  “Now,” Puck muttered, and I pulled up my blade.

  The ice shattered. With the sound of breaking glass, it fractured into thousands of razor-sharp edges, glinting in the darkness. And at that instant, Puck unleashed the whirlwind.

  With a roar of Summer glamour, Puck's cyclone whipped through the thorns and surrounded the boat, shrieking and causing the smal craft to lurch sideways. It picked up debris in its wake, branches, spider bodies and thousands of fractured ice shards, spinning them through the air with the force of a tornado. I grabbed Ariel a and pulled her close as the Wolf hunkered down beside us, hunching his shoulders against the wind.

  When the winds finally ceased, we were surrounded by twigs, branches, melting ice and spider parts, oozing over everything. Icicles stuck out of the benches and wall s like crystal shrapnel, and black ichor was splattered everywhere.

  “Yes!” Puck cheered as I sat down on the f loor, leaning against the railing. “Home team, one—spiders, zero!”

  Ariel a looked at me with wide eyes. “I never saw you two do that before. ”

  “It was a long time ago,” I said tiredly. “Before we ever met. When Puck and I…” I trailed off, remembering the years when Robin Goodfel ow and Prince Ash thought they could take on the world. Reckless and defiant, spurning the laws of the courts, they sought out new and greater chal enges, always reaching for more, and got into more scrapes then anyone had a right to come out of alive. I shook my head, dissolving the memories. “It was a long time ago,” I finished.

  “Regardless. ” Grimalkin abruptly materialized, sitting on a bench with not a hair out of place, his tail curled around himself. “If the two of them have any more tricks like that, they would do well to remember them. Summer and Winter glamour, when used in conjunction instead of against each other, can be a powerful thing. Thankful y, neither of the courts has ever figured this out. ”

  The Wolf shook himself, spraying ichor and spider parts everywhere, making Grimalkin lay back his ears. “Magic and parlor tricks,” the Wolf snorted, wrinkling his muzzle, “wil not get us to the End of the World. ”

  “Well, duh,” Puck shot back. “That's why we're on a boat. ”

  The Wolf gave him a sinister look, then stalked to the front of the boat, not caring about the spider parts scattered about the deck. For a moment, he stood there, sniffing the air, ears pricked forward for any hints of trouble. Finding none, he curled up in a relatively clean spot and closed his eyes, ignoring us all .

  Ariel a looked down at me, then at Puck, who was yawning and scrubbing the back of his head. “That took a lot of power, didn't it?” she mused, and I didn't argue. Releasing an explosion like that would leave anyone drained. Ariel a sighed and shook her head. “Get some rest, the both of you,” she ordered. “Grim and I will take last watch. ”

  I didn't think I would sleep, but I dozed fretful y as the ferry made its way through the endless tangle of brambles. Despite assurances from Ariel a and the Wolf that nothing followed us, I found it impossible to relax. Often, I would be jerked awake by a splash or a snapping of twigs somewhere in the thorns, and every once in a while the scream of some unfortunate creature would echo through the branches. Eventual y, everyone gave up trying to rest and spent the journey in a constant and exhausting state of high alert. Except Grimalkin, who vanished frequently and made everyone nervous while he was gone.

  The Briars went on, never changing, never stil . I caught glimpses of various doors through the thorns, trods to places in the mortal world, doorways out of the Nevernever. Creatures seen and unseen skittered through the branches, furry or shiny or many-limbed, peering at us through the thorns. A giant centipede, over twenty feet long, clung to the roof of the tunnel as we drifted beneath it, close enough that we could hear the slow clicking of its huge mandibles. Thankful y, it didn't seem interested in us, but Puck kept his daggers out for several miles afterward, and Grimalkin didn't reappear for a long, long time.

  Hours passed. Or days—it was impossible to tel . The Wolf and I were standing at the rear of the boat, watching an enormous snake glide through the branches overhead, when Ariel a's weary voice f loated up from the front.

  “There it is. ”

  I turned as the tunnel opened up into an enormous cavern made of thorns, the branches shutting out the sky. Tiny lights fil ed the cavern, f loating in the air and bobbing over the dark waters like erratic firef lies. Torches stuck out of the river, some bent or leaning at odd angles, f lickering with blueand-orange f lames. They lit the way to a massive stone temple looming at the end of the cavern. It rose from the dark waters past the ceiling of the cave, extending through the branches farther then we could see. Vines, moss and thorny creepers covered the crumbling wall s, winding like possessive talons around pil ars and laughing gargoyles. Even in a place as ageless as the Nevernever and the Deep Wyld, where time didn't exist and ancient was only a word, this temple was oldest.

  I took a deep, slow breath. “Did we make it?” I asked softly, unable to take my eyes from the massive wall of stone that loomed before us like the side of a mountain. “Is this the Testing Grounds?”

  Beside me, Ariel a shook her head. “No,” she whispered, almost in a daze. “Not yet, though I've seen this in my visions. The Testing Grounds lie beyond the temple. This is the gate to the End of the World. ”

  “Big gate,” Puck muttered, craning his neck to look up at it. No one answered him.

  The River of Dreams continued, past the temple, into the thorns that surrounded the cavern, but the boat drifted lazily until it bumped against the huge stone steps that led up to the doors, and stopped.

  “Guess this is our stop,” Puck said, and practical y leaped out of the ferry onto the steps. “Whew, it's nice to be back on solid ground again,” he mused, stretching as the rest of us fol owed, easily crowding onto the platform at the bottom. Grimalkin appeared from under one of the benches, minced to the bottom of the steps, and began rigor-ously washing his tail.

  Gazing up the long f light of stairs to the temple, Puck shook his head and sighed. “Stairs. ” He grimaced. “I swear there must be like some secret code. All mysterious ancient temples must have a minimum of at least seven thousand
steps to the front door.

  I followed his gaze, frowning as I realized we weren't alone. “Someone is up there,” I said quietly. “I can sense it. It feels… like it's waiting for me. ”

  The rest of the group exchanged glances, except for Ariel a, who stood a little apart, staring back at the river. “Wel , then—” Puck sighed with exaggerated cheerfulness “—I guess it would be rude to keep it waiting. ”

  He and the Wolf and Grimalkin started up the stairs, but paused when I didn't fol ow. “Uh, prince, aren't you coming?” Puck said, glancing back at me. “Seeing as this is, you know, your party and all . ”

  “Keep going,” I said, waving them on. “We'l catch up. Yel if something comes at you. ”

  “Oh, believe me, I will ,” Puck said, and continued up the stairs, Grim and the Wolf leading the way.

  I turned to Ariel a, who stil gazed out over the River of Dreams, not looking at me. “Ari,” I said quietly, stepping up behind her, “what is it?”

  She was silent for several heartbeats, and I was beginning to wonder whether she'd heard me at all , when she took a shaky breath and closed her eyes.

  “We're almost there,” she whispered, and a shiver went through her. “I didn't think it would be so soon. I guess… there's no turning back now. ”

  “Ari. ” I stepped closer, putting a hand on her arm. “Talk to me. I want to help you, but I can't if you won't let me in. I could—”

  She turned suddenly, and before I could react, framed my face with her hands and pressed her lips to mine.

  I froze, mostly in shock, but after a moment my body uncoiled and I closed my eyes, relaxing into her. I remembered this; the feel of her lips on mine, cool and soft, the touch of her fingers on my skin. I remembered her scent, those long nights when we would lie under the cold, frozen stars, dreaming in each other's arms.

  For a second, my body reacted instinctively. I started to pul us closer, to wrap my arms around her and return the kiss with equal passion…but, then I stopped.