The iron queen, p.29
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       The Iron Queen, p.29

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 29

 

  And then, something monstrous broke through the trees, lumbering onto the field. A huge iron beetle, the size of a bull elephant, plowed into the chaos, crushing fey underfoot. Four elves with metallic, shimmering hair sat atop a platform on its back, shooting old-style muskets into the crowd. Summer and Winter fey fell under a hail of musket fire as another beetle broke through the trees. Swords and arrows bounced off the dark, shiny carapaces as the tanklike bugs waddled farther into the camp, leaving death in their wake.

  “Fall back!” Oberon’s voice boomed over the field as the beetles continued their rampage. “Fall back and regroup! Go!”

  As Summer and Winter forces began drawing back, a ripple of Iron glamour washed over me, coming from the bugs. Narrowing my eyes and peering through the madness, I looked closer. It was as if the bugs came into clear focus through a blurry background; I could see the Iron glamour shimmering around them, cold and colorless. The thick, bulky carapaces were near invulnerable, but the beetle’s legs were thin and spindly, barely strong enough to hold the monsters up. The joints were weak and spotted with rust…and the ghost of an idea floated through my mind.

  “Ash, Puck!” I whirled on them, and their attention snapped to me. “I think I know how to take down that bug, but I need to get closer! Clear me a path!”

  Puck blinked, looking incredulous. “Uh, running toward the enemy? Isn’t that like the opposite of what fall back means?”

  “We have to stop those bugs before they kill half the camp!” I looked at Ash, pleading. “I can do this, but I need you to guard me when I get up there. Please, Ash. ”

  Ash stared at me a moment, then nodded curtly. “We’ll get you there,” he muttered, raising his sword. “Goodfellow, back me up. ”

  He lunged forward, against the tide of retreating fey. Puck shook his head and followed. We fought our way through the center of the field, where bodies of faeries—or what had been faeries—littered the ground. The fighting was much thicker here, and my bodyguards were hard-pressed to keep the enemy off me. A roar of musket fire rang out, and a wyvern screeched and crashed to the ground a few yards away, flapping and thrashing. The bulk of the beetle loomed overhead, shiny black carapace blocking out the sun.

  “Is this…close enough, princess?” Puck panted, locked in battle with a pair of wiremen, their razor-wire claws slashing at him. At his side, Ash snarled and crossed swords with an Iron knight, filling the air with the scream of metal. I nodded, heart racing. “Just keep them off me for a few seconds!” I called, and turned back toward the iron bug, staring at its underside. Yes, the legs were jointed, held together by metal bolts. As a spindly leg swept by, I dodged and closed my eyes, drawing Iron glamour from the air, from the bug and the trees and the corrupted land around me. Musket fire boomed, and the screech of swords and faeries rang in my head, but I trusted my guardians to keep me safe and kept concentrating.

  Opening my eyes, I focused on one of the insect’s joints, on the tiny bolt that held it together, and pulled. The nut trembled, shaking with rust, and then flew out like a cork, a brief glint of metal under the sun. The insect lurched as the leg crumpled and fell off into the mud, and then the whole beetle started to tip like an off-balanced bus.

  “Yes!” I cheered, just as the wave of nausea hit. A stab of pain ripped through my stomach, and I fell to my knees, fighting the urge to vomit. A shadow engulfed me, and I looked up to see the enormous bulk of the insect falling sideways, scattering Iron fey and faeries alike, but I couldn’t move. A blur of darkness, and then Ash grabbed me by the arm, yanking me upright. We leaped forward, as with a mighty groan, the beetle crashed to the ground and rolled over, crushing the musket elves beneath it and nearly killing me in the process. On its back, the beetle’s remaining legs kicked and flailed uselessly, and I giggled with slight hysterics. Ash muttered something inscrutable and pulled me into a brief, tight embrace.

  “You enjoy making my heart stop, don’t you?” he whispered, and I felt him shaking with adrenaline or something else. Before I could form a reply, he released me and stepped back, a stoic bodyguard once more. Panting, I gazed around to see the Iron fey drawing back, vanishing into the metal forest again. The other beetle seemed trapped under a writhing mess of vines, tangling its legs and dragging it down. The musketeers on its back had been impaled with huge spears of ice. Mab and Oberon’s doing, probably.

  “Is it over?” I asked as Puck joined us, also breathing hard, his armor spattered with some icky black substance, like oil. “Did we win?”

  Puck nodded, but his eyes were grim. “In a matter of speaking, princess. ”

  Puzzled, I looked around, and my stomach twisted. Bodies from both sides lay scattered about the field, some moaning, some still and lifeless. A few had already turned to stone, ice, dirt, branches, water, or had faded away entirely. Sometimes it happened instantly, sometimes it took hours, but faeries didn’t leave physical bodies behind when they died. They simply ceased to exist. But, more disturbing, as I looked closer, I saw that the Iron forest had crept even closer, so much that it had spread to the center of the camp. As I watched in horror, a young green sapling turned shiny and metallic, gray poison creeping up its trunk. Several leaves snapped off and plummeted down to stick in the earth, glimmering like knives.

  “It is spreading even faster now. ” A shadow fell over us, and Oberon swept up on his warhorse, eyes glowing amber beneath his antlered helm. “Every battle, we are forced to fall back, to give more ground. For every Winter or Summer faery that falls, the Iron Kingdom grows, destroying all in its path. If this keeps up, there will be nothing left. ” Oberon’s voice took on a sharper edge. “Also, I thought I told you to stay out of the battle, Meghan Chase. And yet, you fling yourself into the heart of danger, despite my attempts to keep you safe. Why do you continue to defy me?”

  Ignoring the question, I looked to the dark forest where the last of the Iron fey were disappearing. Just beyond the tree line, I felt the Iron Kingdom crouched at the edge, eager to creep forward again, watching me with its poisoned glare. Somewhere out there, safe in his land of iron, the false king waited for me, patient and assured, knowing the courts couldn’t touch him.

  “He knows I’m here now,” I murmured, feeling Oberon’s eyes on me, as well as the twin gazes of Puck and Ash, and swallowed the tremor in my voice. “I can’t stay—he’ll send everything he has at you trying to get to me. ”

  “When will you leave?” Oberon’s voice held no emotion. I took a quiet breath and hoped I wasn’t sending Ash and Puck straight to their deaths.

  “Tonight. ” As soon as I said it, I shivered violently and crossed my arms to hide my terror. “The sooner I go, the better. I guess it’s time. ”

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  INTO THE IRON REALM

  I folded the blanket carefully and placed it in the pack, next to the packages of dried fruit and nuts and the goatskin of water. Water, food, blanket, bedroll…was there anything else I needed for the camping trip to hell? I could think of a few purely human conveniences I’d kill to have right then—flashlight, aspirin, toilet paper—but Faery refused to humor my half-mortal side, so I’d have to do without.

  Behind me, the tent flap opened, and Ash stood there, silhouetted against the tent wall and the eerie red light of the moon. “Ready?”

  I flipped the bag shut and fumbled with the ties, cursing softly as my hands shook. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose,” I muttered, hoping he wouldn’t catch the tremor in my voice. The ties slipped from my fingers again, and I growled a curse.

  The tent flaps closed, and a moment later his arms were around me, covering my shaking hands with his own. Closing my eyes, I relaxed into him as he bent close, his breath cool on my neck.

  “I don’t want to be their assassin,” I whispered, leaning into him. He didn’t say anything, only fisted his hands over mine, drawing me closer. “I thought…when I killed Machina…I wouldn’t have
to do anything like that ever again. I still have nightmares about it. ” Sighing, I buried my face in his arm. “I’m not backing out. I know I have to do this, but…I’m not a killer, Ash. ”

  “I know,” he murmured against my skin. “And you’re not a killer. Look. ”

  Opening his fists, he held my hands in his, stroking my palms with his thumbs.

  “Perfectly clean,” he said. “No stains, no blood. Trust me, if you could see mine…” He sighed and closed his fists again, curling his fingers around my own.

  “I would save you from my fate, if I could,” he said, so soft I barely heard him, even as close as we were. “Let me kill the false king. I have so much blood on my hands, it wouldn’t matter. ”

  “You would do that?”

  “If I can. ”

  I thought about it, content to feel his arms around me. “I guess…as long as the false king dies, it doesn’t matter who kills him, right?” Ash shrugged, but I felt uncomfortable with that decision. This was my quest. I had agreed to kill the false king. The responsibility was mine, and I didn’t want anyone to have to kill for me again, especially Ash.

  Although, I still didn’t know how I was going to accomplish any of this when we got there. We didn’t have a magic Witchwood arrow this time. We just had…me. “Let’s not worry about it now,” I said, not wanting to think about it anymore. “We have to reach him first, anyway. ”

  “Which we’ll never do if you two keep groping each other every two seconds,” Puck announced, entering the room with a swooshing of tent flaps. Blushing, I stepped away from Ash and pretended to check my pack. Puck snorted. “If you two are quite ready,” he said, pushing back the cloth, “we’re all waiting on you. ”

  We left the tent, stepping into the cold, still night. My breath clouded the air, and sooty flakes landed on my face and hands. On each side, lining the way to the forest, the armies of Summer and Winter watched us leave, hundreds of fey eyes glowing in the darkness. Somewhere in the camp, a wyvern screeched, but other than that, everything was silent.