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The Iron Queen, Page 30

Julie Kagawa

Page 30


  Mab and Oberon stood at the edge of the crowd, both as still as the trees themselves. Beyond the rulers, the glimmering forest of steel stretched away into darkness.

  “We have given you everything we can,” Oberon said as we approached, his solemn voice echoing over the crowds. “From here on, we can only wish you luck, and wait. Everything is up to you now. ”

  Mab raised a hand, and a goblin stepped out of the crowd to stand before us, dressed in that leafy camouflage that made him look like a bush. “Snigg will take you to the edge of the forest where it becomes the Wasteland proper,” she rasped, her gaze lingering on Ash. “Beyond that, you’re on your own. None of our scouts have ever returned from venturing deeper. ”

  Oberon was still watching me, his green eyes unreadable in the shadows of his face. It seemed to me that the Erlking looked tired and haggard, but that could simply be a trick of the light. “Be careful, daughter,” he said in a voice meant only for me.

  I sighed. That was as much fatherly affection Oberon was going to dole out.

  “I will,” I told him, shifting my pack to my other shoulder. “And we won’t fail, I—” I barely stopped myself from saying “I swear,” not knowing whether I could keep that promise. “I won’t give up,” I finished instead. He gave me a brief nod. Ash bowed to his queen, and Puck grinned at Oberon, defiant to the end. I looked down at the goblin.

  “Let’s go, Snigg. ”

  The goblin bobbed and shuffled away into the trees, becoming nearly invisible in the brush. With Ash and Puck at my side, I stepped into the forest, following the bobbing mound of vegetation through the trees, and the camp soon faded behind us.

  “I RECOGNIZE THIS,” Ash muttered after several minutes of walking. Following the goblin scout, we ducked and wove around trees whose trunks looked like they’d been covered in mercury, shiny and metallic in the dappled light. “I think I know where we are. ”

  “Really. ” Puck sounded sarcastic. “I was wondering when you’d figure it out, prince. Granted, none of the masses knew how close they were, either, so props for knowing your history. ” He snorted. “You can bet both Oberon and Mab knew it, and deliberately didn’t let on. Typical. ”

  “Why?” I glanced around, seeing nothing unusual—beyond the strangeness of a completely metal forest, anyway. “Where are we?”

  “This is Fomorian territory,” Ash said, narrowing his eyes. “We’re heading right for Mag Tuiredh. ”

  I blinked at Ash. “What’s Mag Tuiredh? What are Fomorians?”

  “An ancient race of giants, princess,” Puck answered, ducking a low-hanging branch. “Semiaquatic, clannish and the ugliest bastards you’d ever have the misfortune of seeing. Deformed and twisted, the lot of them. I’m talking onearmed, one-eyed terrors with hooves growing out of their heads, limbs in places they’re not supposed to be. One of their queens even had a set of teeth on each of her—”

  “Okay, I think I got it. ” I shuddered, skirting a bush with metal thorns growing out of it like needles. “So, are these giant things hostile? Do you think they’ve been killed by the iron?”

  “Oh, they were definitely hostile,” Puck continued cheerfully. “In fact, they were so hostile, we had a war with them, long, long ago. I think it was the only other time Summer and Winter cooperated, right prince? Oh, wait, you weren’t even around yet, were you?”

  “They’re extinct, Meghan,” Ash said, ignoring Puck. “They’ve been extinct for centuries. Summer and Winter completely wiped them out. Mag Tuiredh was their city. It’s nothing but ruins now, and generally everyone avoids it. It’s an evil place, full of curses and unknown monsters. One of the darker places of the Nevernever. ”

  “And the perfect place for the new Iron King,” I mused.

  We fell silent then, for the trees abruptly fell away and the Iron Kingdom stretched out before us.

  I remembered the heart of Machina’s realm, the flat, cracked plateau, spiderwebbed with lava, and the endless railroad that led to the black tower. This was different, a blasted, rocky desert with huge, jagged outcroppings and uneven hills. Looking closer, I saw that some of the hills were huge piles of junk: tires, pipes, smashed cars, rusty barrels, satellite dishes, broken computers and laptops, even the wing of an airplane. Street lamps grew out of the rocky ground or atop distant outcroppings, glimmering faintly in the haze. The corroded red moon, balanced atop two pointed ridges, seemed closer than ever.

  “Interesting,” Puck remarked, crossing his arms to his chest. “You know, I used to say Fomorian territory couldn’t get any worse than it was. Nice to know I can still be proven wrong once in a while. ”

  Ash stepped forward, gazing around the wasteland in silence. His back was to me, so I couldn’t see his face, but he was probably remembering our last trip into the Iron Kingdom. I wondered if he was already regretting his promise. Snigg the goblin gave a feeble cough, muttered an apology, and scurried back into the forest the way we’d come, leaving us to our fate. Suddenly alarmed, I looked harder at Ash and Puck, cursing myself for not realizing sooner. We were deep in the Iron Realm now; Ash and Puck would be feeling the effects of the land, the poison that would kill them if those amulets didn’t work.

  “Are you two all right? Ash? Look at me. ” I grabbed the prince’s arm and turned him toward me, peering into his face. His skin seemed paler than usual, and my stomach twisted. “The amulets aren’t working, are they? I knew it. We should go back. ”

  “No. ” Ash put his hand over mine. “It’s fine, Meghan. They’re working well enough. I can still feel the iron, but it’s bearable. Not like before. ”

  “Are you sure?” When he nodded, I looked from him to Puck. “What about you?”

  Puck shrugged. “It’s no Shiatsu massage, princess, but I’ll live. ”

  I glared at them. “I know faeries can’t lie, but you two better not be saying that just so I won’t worry. ” Neither of them said anything, and my anger rose. “I mean it, you two. ”

  “Relax, princess. ” Puck shrugged defensively. “They’re working, okay? I know I’m not supposed to feel great, but I don’t feel like my insides are about to crawl up my throat, either. I’ll live. I’ve been through worse. ”

  “And it doesn’t matter. ” Ash faced me with an air of stubborn calm. “We’d still be here, regardless. We can’t go back now. Besides, we’re wasting time. ”

  “I agree,” came another voice, deeper in the Iron Realm. “The protective qualities of your amulets are limited, after all. The longer you stand around doing nothing, the shorter your time becomes. ”

  Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. “Grimalkin,” I sighed, turning around. “Stop hiding. Where are you?”

  The cat glanced up from a nearby rock, where nothing had been a second ago. “You,” he purred, regarding us lazily, “are late. Again. ”

  “Why are you here, Grim?”

  “Is it not obvious?” Grimalkin yawned and looked at each of us in turn. “The same reason I am always here, human. To keep you from falling down a dark hole or wandering into a giant spider’s nest. ”

  “You can’t stay here,” I told him. “The iron will kill you and you don’t have an amulet. ”

  Grimalkin sniffed. “Really, human, you are incredibly dim at times. Who do you think told Mab about the amulets in the first place?” He raised his chin, just far enough for me to catch a glint of crystal beneath his wavy fur.

  “You have one? How?”

  The cat sat down and licked his forepaw. “Do you really wish to know, human?” he asked, giving me a sideways glance. “Be careful of your answer. Some things are better off a mystery. ”

  “What kind of answer is that? Of course I want to know, especially now!”

  He sighed, vibrating his whiskers. “Very well. But, keep in mind, you insisted. ” Putting his paw down, he sat up and curled his tail around himself, regarding me with a grave expression. “Do you remember the day I
ronhorse died?”

  A lump caught in my throat. Of course I did. I could never forget that night. Ironhorse charging the enemy alone so we could have a distraction; Ironhorse shielding me from a fatal blow; Ironhorse, shattered and broken on the cement floor of the warehouse. His last words. I teared up, thinking about it. And then, I remembered Grimalkin, sitting beside the noble Iron faery just before he died, leaning close to his head. I’d thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, for I’d caught only a split-second glance before the cat was gone, but now it seemed extremely important that I remember.

  My stomach felt cold. “What did you do to him, Grim?”

  “Nothing. ” Grimalkin faced me with an unblinking stare. “Nothing that he had not already agreed to. I knew I would have to go into the Iron Realm sooner or later, and Ironhorse knew he could very well die on his quest to help you. He was prepared for it. We came to…an understanding. ”

  “Oh my God. ” The realization hit me like a hammer, and I gaped at the cat.

  “That’s him in there, isn’t it? You used Ironhorse for your amulet. ” I felt sick and staggered away from the cait sith, bumping into Ash. “How could you?” I whispered, actually beginning to shake. “Is everything a contract to you?

  Ironhorse was our friend, I would have died without his help. Or don’t you care that you’re using him like a battery?”

  “Ironhorse was prepared to give up everything for you, human. ” Grimalkin narrowed his eyes to golden slits, staring me down. “He wanted this. He wanted a way to protect you if he were no longer here. You should be grateful. I would not have done the same. Because of his sacrifice, the quest can continue. ” The cat rose and leaped from the rock, turning to stare at us over his shoulder.

  “Well?” he asked, waving his tail. “Are you coming or not?”