The Iron Knight, Page 30Julie Kagawa
I remembered this perfectly; every shining moment with Ariel a was forever etched into my mind. What we'd had, what we'd shared, everything. I'd built a shrine to her in my memories, careful y tended with grief and anger and regret. I knew every inch of our relationship, the passion, the feeling of emptiness when we weren't together, the longing and, yes, the love. I had been in love with Ariel a. I remembered what she'd meant to me once, what I'd felt for her then… …and what I didn't feel for her now.
Gently, I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her back, breaking the kiss. “Ari—”
“I love you, Ash,” she murmured before I could say anything more, and my stomach dropped. Her voice was quietly desperate, as if she was rushing to get it out before I could speak. “I never stopped. Never.
Even when I knew you would fal for Meghan, when I was so angry I wished we were both dead, even then I couldn't stop loving you. ”
My throat closed. I swal owed hard to open it. “Why are you tel ing me this now?”
“Because I won't get another chance,” Ariel a went on, her eyes fil ing with tears. “And I know, after your promise to Meghan, after everything we went through to get here, I know you can't turn back, but…” She pressed close, gazing up at me. “Do you stil love me? I can't…I need to know, before we go any farther. I deserve to know that much. ”
I closed my eyes. Emotions swirled within me, guilt and sorrow and regret, but for once, my thoughts were clear. “Ariel a,” I murmured, taking her hands in mine, feeling her pulse race. This would be hard to say, but I needed to get it out, and she needed to hear it. Even if she hated me in the end. “When I lost you that day, my life ended. I thought I would die. I wanted to die, but only after taking Puck down with me. The only thing I was living for was revenge, and I nearly destroyed myself, because I couldn't let you go. Even when I met Meghan, I felt I was betraying your memory.
“But it's different now. ” I opened my eyes, meeting her starry gaze. “I regret a lot of things. I wish I could've been there for you, and I wish that day had never happened. But the thing I don't regret, the one good thing that came out of it all , is her.
“Ari…I will always love you. I always have. Nothing will change that. ” I squeezed her hand, then gently released it. “You'l always be a part of me.
But…I'm not in love with you…anymore. And, despite my promise, despite seeing you again, I do this because I want to be with Meghan, nothing else. ” Ariel a's eyes glazed over, and I eased back, speaking as gently as I could. “I can't be yours, Ariel a. I'm sorry. ”
For a moment, she stared at me with a completely unreadable expression. Then, unexpectedly, a sad smile crossed her lips.
“That's it, then,” she murmured, more to herself than me. “For us, anyway. ” I blinked, and she glanced up at me, her starry eyes clear. “I didn't want you to have any doubts, in the end. ”
“Is that what you wanted?” I stared at her, aghast. “Were you just forcing me into a decision?”
“No, Ash. No. ” Ariel a put a hand on my arm. “I meant what I said. I've always loved you, and I wanted you to know before…” She shivered, hugging herself as she stepped back. “I'm happy for you,” she whispered, though her eyes were glassy once more. “You know what you want, and that's good. It will make it easier…. ”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oy, ice-boy!” Puck's voice came, rough with disapproval, from farther up the stairs. “I think you'd better get up here now!”
I scowled at Puck, cursing his timing, and glanced at Ariel a. She gazed up the steps, her cheeks dry, her expression resolved. I sensed she was making peace with herself, coming to some important decision.
“It's all right, Ash. ” Ariel a raised a hand, not meeting my eyes. “Don't worry about me. I knew, eventual y, it would come to this. ” She took a breath, let it out slowly. “It's time to move on, for both of us.
“So, let's go,” she said, turning and giving me a brave smile. “We've finally come to the end. We can't stop now. ”
Puck waited for us near the top of the staircase, the Wolf growling low in his chest beside him. But Grimalkin was also there, calmly licking a front paw in between disdainful glances at the Wolf, so I relaxed a bit.
When the cat disappeared, then I would worry.
Still , Puck looked grave as we joined him, nodding to the top of the stairs. “We've got company,” he muttered, and I looked up.
A figure stood at the top of the stairs, robed and hooded, and nearly eight feet tal . Its face was hidden in the darkness of the cowl, and a pale, bony hand clutched a gleaming staff of twisted black wood.
And, though I couldn't see its face, I felt it was looking right at me.
“I know why you have come, knight of the Iron Court. ”
The deep voice shivered into me, coming from everywhere, from the thorns and the river and the temple itself. It echoed in my head and in my bones, cold and powerful and older than the stars. It took all my will power not to sink to one knee before the robed figure, and by Puck's lack of an irreverent smirk and the hair standing up along the Wolf 's spine, I knew they felt it, too.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the Guardian at the End of the World,” the figure intoned. “I am the keeper of the Testing Grounds, the one you will have to impress to earn your soul. ”
“And you came out just to say hi? That's awful y considerate of you. ”
Puck regained his grin and turned to me. “Don't you feel special, iceboy?
We didn't even have to go to the End of the World. Be polite to the nice hooded man, and maybe you'l get a soul. ”
“But first, to reach the End of the World, to prove that you are worthy, you must run the gauntlet. ”
“I knew it. ” Puck shook his head. “There's always a catch. ”
I ignored Puck, taking a step toward the hooded figure. “I'm ready,” I said, searching for a face behind that dark cowl, finding nothing.
“Whatever you throw at me—gauntlets, tests, anything—it won't matter. I'm ready. What do I have to do?”
The Guardian didn't seem surprised. “This trial is not only for you, knight,” it said, sweeping a robed arm at the group behind us. “Anyone who wishes to see the End of the World must first make it through the gauntlet. Alone, you will fail. Together, you might have a chance to overcome the challenges. But know this—not all who enter the temple will leave. Of that, you can be certain. ”
My stomach dropped. I didn't doubt his words, much as I hated to accept them. The Guardian was tel ing us that not everyone would survive the gauntlet. That one or more of us was going to die.
“One thing more. ” The Guardian raised a hand in the silence of that revelation. “You do not have long to find me, knight. Once the doors open, at both ends of the gauntlet, they will not remain that way forever. If you are still in the temple when they close, you will be trapped there until the end of time, joining those who have already failed. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said numbly. The cowl nodded once.
“Then I will see you at the End of the World, knight. Where, if you make it through, your real trial will begin. ”
And just like that, it was gone. It didn't fade away or vanish in a puff of smoke or even disappear like Grimalkin, becoming invisible. It simply wasn't there anymore.
I stood at the top of the stairs, feeling my companions' gazes at my back, and raised my head.
“Anyone who wants to turn back, should,” I said quietly without turning around. “You heard what the Guardian said. Not all of us will make it out of here. I won't hold anything against you if you want to leave. ”
I heard Puck's snort of disgust as he climbed the last of the stairs and stood before me, crossing his arms. “What, and let you have all the fun?
You should know me better than that, ice-boy. Though
, I will admit, the thought of being trapped with you forever makes my skin crawl. Guess we'l have to make sure that doesn't happen, huh?”
“I've come this far,” the Wolf growled, padding forward to stand behind Puck. “No good turning back now. I said I'd see you to the End of the World, and I will. The cat can leave if it wants. That would be in tune with its cowardice. But the story must go on. ”
“Please. ” Grimalkin trotted up the steps and turned to glance back at me, twitching his tail. “As if I would all ow myself to become trapped with the dog until the end of time. ” He sniffed and curled his whiskers.
“Fear not, prince. There is no doubt that I will leave if I think that you are close to failure. But these gauntlets always have some sort of ridiculously aimless puzzle or mind game to solve, and you will likely need someone with intel igence before it is done. Besides, you stil owe me a favor. ”
I nodded at them all and turned to Ariel a, stil standing a few steps down, gazing through me at the temple. “You don't have to do this,” I told her gently. “You got us this far—you've done more then I could've asked for. You don't have to go any farther. ”
She smiled that sad little smile and took a deep breath. “Yes,” she whispered, meeting my gaze. “I do. ” Climbing the stairs, she came to stand beside me, taking my arm. “To the end, Ash. I'll see you to the very end. ”
I put my hand on hers and squeezed. Puck grinned at us, and the Wolf snorted, shaking his head. With Grimalkin leading the way, the five of us approached the massive stone doors to the temple. With an earth-shaking rumble, they slowly opened, showering us with pebbles and dirt. Beyond the doors, everything was cloaked in darkness.
We didn't stop. With Ariel a and Puck beside me, the Wolf loping behind us, and Grimalkin leading the way, we crossed the threshold and entered the gauntlet.