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The Iron Knight, Page 33

Julie Kagawa

Page 33


  The scorpions were getting louder, more frantic, as if they knew we were scant seconds away from solving the riddle. Their legs and cara-paces scraped against the rock, an ocean of noise surging around us.

  Grimalkin sniffed and shared a glance with the Wolf.

  “I believe the last two are fairly obvious, are they not?” he mused, sauntering toward the pil ar that said Knowledge. “I do agree, knowledge is sometimes a terrible burden. The last pil ar is yours, dog. I do not think we can argue your strength. Your intel igence, perhaps, but not your strength. ”

  “What about Ariel a?” I glanced at her, looking a bit lost on the edge of the platform. “She has the burden of knowledge as well , not just you, cait sith. ”

  “Ariel a is a Winter fey, and we already have a Winter,” Grimalkin replied easily, hopping onto the broken pil ar of Knowledge, peering down at us all . “And I think you would be in favor of solving this quickly, prince. In any case, I believe we have to stand on the pil ars together. That is general y how these puzzles work. ”

  The Wolf growled, leaping atop the broken stone, huge paws close together on the edge. “If this does not work, cat, I will make sure to eat you first before the scorpions get to us,” he muttered, balanced pre-cariously on the smal platform. Grimalkin ignored him.

  Puck and I followed suit, jumping easily onto the broken pil ars, as the sea of scorpions chittered and writhed below us. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, the sphinxes' eyes opened, searing blue, their voices echoing through the room.

  “You—” they breathed, sending a ripple of power over the sand “—have chosen…incorrectly. ”

  “What!” Puck yelped, but it was drowned by the furious buzz of mil ions of scorpions, stirred into a frenzy. “No, that can't be right. Furbal 's never wrong! Wait—”

  “You—” the sphinxes breathed again “—will die. ”

  I drew my sword, tensing to drop down as the scorpions rushed forward, scaling the platform and spil ing over the edge. Ariel a gasped and stumbled backward, as the living carpet of claws and legs and stingers began covering the platform.

  “Stay where you are!” Grimalkin's voice rang through the chamber, booming and steely with authority. We froze, and the cat turned wild golden eyes on Ariel a, baring his teeth, all his fur standing on end.

  “Time!” he spat, f lattening his ears. “Time is the fifth answer, the cog that turns the wheel! Stand in the center now!”

  I clenched my fists as Ariel a ran to the middle of the platform, the f lood of scorpions closing in from all sides. They swarmed up the pil ars, crawling over my clothes, legs and pinchers digging into my f lesh. I lashed out and sent dozens of them f lying, but of course there were always more. They were not stinging…yet. But I felt the seconds ticking away, and knew that if the creatures beat Ariel a to the heart of the dais, we were finished. Puck yel ed a curse, f lailing wildly, and the Wolf roared in fury as Ariel a finally reached the center of the dais.

  As soon as she set foot in the middle, a shiver went through the air, starting from the center of the dais and spreading outward, like ripples on a pond. The f lood of scorpions halted, inches from swarming Ariel a, and started f lowing backward, leaving the platform and crawling down from the pil ars. I shook the last of the tiny predators off me and watched the carpet recede, disappearing beneath the sands once more.

  In seconds, they had vanished completely, and the dunes were stil .

  “You have chosen…correctly,” the sphinxes whispered, and closed their eyes again.

  Ariel a was shaking. I leaped from the platform and went to her, wordlessly pul ing her close. She trembled in my arms for a moment, then gently freed herself and drew away, smoothing her hair back.

  “Wow,” Puck muttered, dusting off the front of his shirt, “now, that was weird. And to think, I never thought I'd live to see the day…. ” He trailed off, grinning.

  I eyed him wearily. “Fine, I'll bite. You don't mean the scorpions or the sphinx. We've seen much stranger then that. ”

  “No, ice-boy. I never thought I'd see the day when Grimalkin was wrong. ”

  Grimalkin, stil on his broken pil ar, didn't react, but I saw his whiskers bristle as he glanced our way. “Goodfel ow,” he said with an enormous yawn,

  “I feel obliged to point out that, had I been wrong, you would all be ful of tiny holes right now. Anyway, we are wasting time. I suggest we move out, quickly. I certainly do not wish to be stuck here until the end of time with any of you. ” And before we could reply, he leaped down and trotted off in the direction of the now-open door, passing between the sphinxes with his tail held high.

  I looked at Puck, smirking. “I think you offended him, Goodfel ow. ”

  He snorted. “If I ever worried about that, I'd never open my mouth. ”



  The door past the sphinxes opened to another narrow corridor, empty of fire-breathing dragons this time, but no less strange. It stretched away into the darkness, lit only by orange candlelight, f lickering against wall s. The f lames seemed to f loat in the air, ref lecting off the surfaces of hundreds of ful length mirrors lining the corridor on both sides.

  Glancing at my own image, I paused, faintly surprised at the stranger in the mirror. The pale, dark-haired ref lection stared back grimly, clothes tattered around the edges, eyes touched with exhaustion. I barely recognized myself, but maybe that was a good thing. After all , that was why I was here; to become something else, someone else. If all went as planned, Ashal ayn'darkmyr Tal yn, third prince of the Unseelie Court, would no longer exist.

  What will it be like as a human? I wondered at my ref lection. Will I still be myself? Will I remember everything about my life in the Winter Court, or will all those memories disappear? I shook my head. It was useless to wonder about that now, when we were so close, but stil ….

  “Come on, handsome. ” Puck put a hand on my shoulder, and I brushed it off. “Quit preening. I think we're almost there. ”

  As we started down the corridor, wary of traps and pits and ambushes, I thought of Meghan, back in the Iron Kingdom. It would be dreadful y ironic, I mused, if once I earned a soul, I forgot everything about being fey, including all my memories of her. That sort of ending seemed appropriately tragic; the smitten fey creature becomes human but forgets why he wanted to in the first place. Old fairy tales loved that sort of irony.

  I won't let that happen, I told myself, clenching my fists. If I have to have Puck tell me everything, even if he has to go through our entire history, I will find a way to make it back to her. I will not become human only to forget it all.

  The hal way went on. The f lickering candles cast strange lights in the opposite mirrors, endless rows of f lame, stretching to infinity. From the corner of my eye, I saw my own dark ref lection, walking along beside me. Smirking.

  Except, I wasn't.

  I stopped and slowly turned toward the mirror, dropping my hand to my sword. In the glass, my reflection did the same…but it wasn't me. It was someone who looked like me, pale and tal , with dark hair and silver eyes. He wore black armor, a tattered cape and a crown of ice rested on his brow. I drew in a slow breath and I recognized him.

  It was me, the me I'd seen in the dream, the Ash who gave in to the darkness. Who kill ed Mab, claimed the throne and cut a bloody path through the Nevernever and the other courts. Ash the Winter King.

  He was smiling at me, that same cold, empty smirk that showed the madness behind it, but otherwise our movements were the same, identical.

  Backing away, I looked to my companions, who had also discovered the new ref lections in the mirrors. Behind me, Ariel a stared in horror at herself, pale and statuesque in an elegant court gown. Her slender hands gripped an icy scepter. But her eyes were empty and cruel, her face without emotion. A circlet glittered on her forehead, not unlike the crown of the Unseelie King. A
Queen of Winter, she stared with cold, impassive eyes until Ariel a turned away with a shudder.

  “Prince,” Puck murmured, coming up beside me, standing so that he faced my shoulder, his back to the mirror. His voice, though light, was curiously shaken. “Are you seeing what I'm seeing, or is it just me?”

  I glanced at Puck in the mirror behind us and had to stif le the urge to shove him away and draw my sword. Puck's head gazed over my shoulder, lips pulled into a vicious grin that was almost animalistic, teeth gleaming in the firelight. His eyes were narrowed gleeful y, but it was the kind of mad glee that sent shivers through you, the type of glee that found humor in drowned kittens and poisoned cattle. This was the prankster whose jokes had turned deadly, who put adders in pil owcases, let wolves in with the sheep and made all light go away at the edge of a cliff. He was shirtless, barefooted and wild looking, the Robin Goodfel ow I'd seen glimpses of when he was truly angry and out for revenge. The Robin Goodfel ow that everyone worried about, because we all knew Puck could turn into this.

  “You can see it too, huh?” Puck murmured when I didn't say anything right away. I nodded, once. “Wel , your ref lection isn't too encouraging either, ice-boy. In fact, it's kinda weird seeing us like this, because you look like you really, really want to cut my head off. ”

  I pushed him away, and our images did the same. “Ignore them,” I said, walking toward Ariel a. “They're only ref lections of what could be. They don't mean anything. ”

  “Wrong. ” Grimalkin appeared, trotting up and sitting down in front of a mirror, curling his tail around his legs. His golden eyes observed me lazily. “It is not what could be, prince. It is what already is. You all have that ref lection inside you. You just choose to suppress it. Take the dog, for example,” he continued as the Wolf came loping back, his ruff standing on end.

  Ariel a gasped, shrinking against me, and Puck muttered a curse under his breath.

  The Wolf 's ref lection was enormous, fil ing three mirrors side by side, a huge, snarling monster with blazing eyes and foaming jaws. It stared at us hungrily, red tongue lol ing between huge fangs, eyes empty of rational thought.