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The Iron Queen, Page 31

Julie Kagawa

Page 31


  I scowled and took a few steps forward. “Where do you think you’re taking us?”

  He twitched an ear. “Ironhorse told me, should I ever find myself in the Iron Realm with you, to look for an old friend of his. The Clockmaker, I believe was his name. And he is fairly close. Lucky for us. ”

  “Why go to the Clockmaker? Why not just look for the false king?”

  “Ironhorse implied that this was important, human. ” Grimalkin blinked and sat down, thumping his tail impatiently. “But, if you do not think so, by all means go wandering about until the amulets lose their power and you are completely lost. Or, was that your plan all along?”

  I glanced at the boys. They both shrugged. “Seems as good a plan as any,”

  Puck said, rolling his eyes. “If the cat knows where he’s going, that is. I’d hate to get lost in here. ”

  Grimalkin sniffed, curling his whiskers in disdain. “Please, do not insult me. Lost? Since when have I ever led you wrong?”

  I sighed. “Here we go again. ”

  AFTER A NIGHT OF WALKING, I realized just how big the Fomorian city was.

  I’d imagined Mag Tuiredh as a city of sprawling ruins: crumbled stone walls, half-erect buildings, and just a scattering of large rocks where a castle once stood. And perhaps, if it had been in the real world, that’s all it would have been. But in the Nevernever, where age and time didn’t exist and even the structures resisted the concept of decay, Mag Tuiredh loomed tall and threatening in the hazy distance, black towers belching smoke into the mottled yellow sky.

  “How old is this city?” I asked, shielding my eyes to peer across the barren landscape. Even through the mottled yellow-gray clouds, the light still glinted off a thousand metallic things, flashing in the sun and blinding me. Puck and Grimalkin had seen some movement in the rocks, and were scouting around to find the source of it.

  “No one really knows,” Ash replied, his gaze sweeping over the landscape.

  “The Fomorians were here before us, and their city was already massive. Back then, Mag Tuiredh sat half in and half out of the mortal realm, in a place known today as Ireland. Because humans still worshipped us as gods and the Nevernever was still very young, many faery races preferred to live in the mortal realm. The Fomorians had already enslaved several lesser races, and tried to do the same to us. Naturally, we didn’t take very kindly to that. ”

  “So there was a war. ”

  “One that rocked the foundations of both realms. In the end, Mag Tuiredh was pulled completely into the Nevernever, and the Fomorians were driven into the sea. That was the last anyone saw of them. At least, that’s the story I’ve heard. ”

  “But if they’re gone…” I looked back to the city and the dark smoke boiling into the sky “…why are those things still smoking?”

  “I don’t know. ” Ash shifted his gaze to the distant towers. “Mag Tuiredh supposedly sat empty for thousands of years, but who knows what it’s been turned into now. Judging from that smoke, I would say Mag Tuiredh is no longer uninhabited. ”

  “Bad news. ” Puck suddenly dropped from an overhead slab, landing beside us with a poof of dust. “We’re being followed. Grim and I saw something that looked like a giant metal insect, buzzing along behind us. I tried to catch the little bastard, but it saw me coming and booked it. ”

  “You think there are more of them?” Ash tensed and dropped his hand to his sword, probably remembering the gremlin hoard swarming him in the mines on our first trip here. Puck’s eyes darkened, and he shook his head.

  “Dunno. But I think someone knows we’re here. ”

  Grim popped into view on a rock, twitching his tail. His wispy gray fur stood on end like he’d just come out of a dryer with horrible static cling. “There is a storm coming. We should seek cover. ”

  No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a flash of lightning lit the sky and the air filled with the tang of ozone.

  The hairs on my neck stood up. “Grim,” I gasped, whirling on the feline, “get us out of here! We have to find shelter now!”

  Whether it was my terrified look or the panic in my voice, the cat didn’t dawdle this time. We fled, scrambling over dirt and rock, while above us the sky turned from yellow-gray to black in a matter of seconds. Sharp-smelling wind whipped at our clothes and made my eyes water, and the air around us felt charged with electricity. A thread of green lightning slashed the sky, and the first drops began to fall.

  A searing pain stabbed me in the thigh, and I clenched my teeth to keep from screaming, knowing one of the acidic drops had just hit me. Somewhere behind us, Puck yelped in shock and surprise. My stomach churned, and I could no longer see the cat in the darkness and rising wind.

  “Grimalkin!” I yelled in desperation.

  “This way!” The cat’s yowl cut through the growing storm, and two glowing eyes suddenly appeared at the mouth of a cave in the side of a cliff. The cave was so well hidden, blending perfectly into the landscape, that had Grimalkin not been there I never would’ve seen it.

  Another drop hit my forehead, sliding down my cheek, and this time I did scream as a line of fire slashed down my skin. I could hear the hiss of the rain striking all around us, and I threw myself into the cave, followed by Ash and Puck, just as the sky opened with a roar and the rain poured down. Gasping, I lay on my back on the sandy floor, watching the storm sweep the land, while Ash and Puck leaned against the cave wall, panting.

  “Well, that was…different,” Puck gasped. “What the hell is that anyway?”

  “Acid rain,” I said, not having the will to push myself off the floor just yet. My face throbbed, and the sand was cool against my cheek. “We ran into it on our first trip here, too. Not fun. ”

  “Welcome to the wonders of the Iron Kingdom,” Ash muttered, and pushed himself off the wall, coming to kneel beside me. I took his hand and let him pull me into a sitting position.

  “Are you all right?” he asked, brushing the hair from my face, lifting it away from the burn. His fingers hovered over the wound, and I flinched despite myself, causing him to sigh. I saw Puck watching us over Ash’s shoulder, and blushed self-consciously, suddenly desperate to break the tension.

  “So, tell me the truth,” I said, only half joking. “Will it scar? Will I have to wear a mask like the Phantom of the Opera, to hide my hideous face?”

  Ash shrugged off his pack, and a moment later a cool, familiar-smelling salve touched my cheek, soothing the fiery pain. “I think you’ll be fine,” he said, smiling faintly. “No battle scars for you, at least not today. ” His hand lingered on my face a moment more before he rose, drawing me to my feet. Puck snorted and walked away, pretending to examine the cave.

  Grimalkin strutted by, tail in the air, oblivious to the rising tension. “The rain will not let up anytime soon,” he said as he passed, “so I suggest you get some rest while you can. I also suggest one of you take watch. We do not want to be surprised if the owner of this cave returns while we are asleep. ”

  “Good idea,” Puck echoed from the back of the cave. “Why don’t you take first watch, prince? You could actually be doing something that doesn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out with a spork. ”

  Ash’s lips curled in a smirk. “I would think you’re better suited to the task, Goodfellow,” he said without turning around. “After all, that’s what you’re best at, isn’t it? Watching?”

  “Oh, keep it up, ice-boy. You’re gonna have to sleep sometime. ”

  I rolled my eyes at them. “Fine. You two fight it out—I’m going to try to get some sleep. ” Unshouldering my pack, I stalked to a corner, dumped out the contents, and unrolled my sleeping bag. Lying on the sandy floor, I listened to Ash and Puck’s back-and-forth banter as they set up camp, throwing out insults and challenges. Strangely, it seemed more normal than it had been until now, and I fell asleep to their voices and the sound of the rain. HE WAS WAITING FOR ME in my d
reams again.

  I sighed. “Machina,” I said, facing the Iron King, my voice nearly lost in the surrounding void, “why are you here? I thought I told you to leave me alone. I don’t need you. ”

  “No,” he murmured, smiling as his cables cloaked him in a cage of glimmering steel. “That is not true. You’ve come far, but you’re still not there yet, Meghan Chase. You still need me. ”

  “I don’t. ” I didn’t move as he approached, the cables reaching out to snake around me. “I’m stronger now than when we first met. I’m learning to control the magic you left me with. ” With a thought, I pushed the cables away, causing them to rear back in surprise.

  “You still don’t understand. ” Machina withdrew his extensions, folding them like shimmery wings behind his back. “You use the magic like a tool, like a sword that you swing in awkward circles, cutting wildly at those around you. If you are to win, you must embrace it fully, make it a part of you. If you would only let me show you how. ”

  “You’ve given me enough,” I said bitterly. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want it. If you were alive, I would be happy if you took it back. ”

  “I could not. ” Machina regarded me with depthless black eyes. “The power of the Iron King can be given, or it can be lost. It cannot be taken. ”

  I frowned. “Then…why is the false king trying to kill me? If the power can only be given away, why is he trying to take it by force?”

  Machina shook his head. “The false king has never learned how a king is chosen. Believing he can wrench the power from you by force, he has become blind in his obsession. He does not realize his actions only make him less worthy. ”

  “If I die…then the power is lost?”

  Machina nodded. “Unless you give it away yourself, or it chooses a new successor. ”

  “Can’t I just give it away now?”