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The Iron Queen, Page 33

Julie Kagawa

Page 33


  “Yeah. ” I gave Ash a quick smile to ease the worry on his face, and turned to Puck again. “I’m fine—but you’re bleeding, Puck!”

  “What, this?” Puck grinned. “It’s just a scratch. ” His grin turned into a grimace as I sat him down on a rock and started tearing off his sleeve. His arm was a mess, blood everywhere, and I could see the four nasty claw marks that ran from his elbow to wrist. I winced in sympathy.

  “Ash, I’m going to need some of that salve you brought,” I muttered, dabbing away the blood. When he didn’t move, I turned on him, narrowing my eyes. “All right, I’m tired of this. I know you two don’t get along, but you need to figure something out or we’re never going to make it out of here alive. ”

  I received a rather cold stare, but he opened his bag and dug out the jar, handing it to me stiffly. Puck settled back on the rock, grinning as I bent over his arm.

  “You’re good at this, princess,” he purred, shooting Ash a smug grin over my shoulder. “Been watching ice-boy, or are you just a natural caretaker? I could get used to—ow!”

  He glared as I tied off the bandage with a jerk.

  “Don’t push your luck,” I warned him, and he gave me a huge, doe-eyed look full of innocence. It was the first glimpse of the old Puck I’d seen in a long time, and it made me smile.

  As I was gathering the medical supplies, Grimalkin appeared again, wrinkling his nose at the dead cats. “Barbarians,” he sniffed, leaping down from the rock, giving the bodies a wide berth as he trotted up. “Human, you might want to know that there are certainly other creatures that will be attracted by the commotion. I would advise you to hurry. ”



  We reached the Fomorian city just as the sun was going down. Mag Tuiredh was enormous. Not just sprawling, but huge. As in I-feel-likeI’ve-been shrunk-to-the-size-of-a-mouse huge. Like Jack-in-the-Beanstalk huge. Everything was giant-size: doorways were twenty feet tall, streets were wide enough to drive a plane through, and steps were my height. Whomever the Fomorians were, I hoped that they were really gone as Ash said. The city was ancient; I could feel it as we made our way through the mossy ruins, which towered like broken giants overhead. The original buildings were made of rough stone, but the Iron Realm’s corruption was everywhere. Broken street lamps popped up at odd intervals, grown right out of the ground and flickering erratically. Cables and computer wires snaked up walls, spread across the streets, and coiled around everything, as if trying to choke the life from the old city. In the distance, near the center of Mag Tuiredh, black smokestacks loomed over everything, belching smog into the hazy sky.

  “So, where do we find this Clockmaker?” Puck asked as we walked through a square filled with strange metallic trees. The trees were in full bloom, not with flowers or fruit, but with lightbulbs that glowed with eerie brightness. A fountain in the middle of the square bubbled a thick, shiny black liquid that might’ve been oil.

  Grimalkin looked back at us, eyes shining in the gloom. “The most obvious place possible,” he said, and turned his gaze skyward.

  Over the tops of the buildings, rising up toward the clouds like a dark needle, a giant clock tower peered down on the city with a face like a numbered moon.

  “Oh. ” Puck craned his neck back, staring at the huge timepiece. “Well, that’s…ironic. ” He scratched the back of his head and frowned. “I hope the Clockmaker is still awake. He probably doesn’t get a lot of visitors after nine p. m. ”

  Something about that statement put me on edge, even more so when I looked at Ash, who was staring at the clock in growing horror. “It shouldn’t be here,” he murmured, shaking his head. “How is it even working? Time doesn’t exist in the Nevernever, but that thing is recording the passing of it, keeping track. With every second it records, the Nevernever gets older. ”

  I remembered the way my watch stopped on my first trip to Faery, and looked at Grim in alarm. “Is that true?”

  The cat blinked. “I am not an expert on the Iron Realm, human. Even I cannot give you the answers to everything. ” Raising a hind leg, he scratched inside an ear, then contemplated his back toes. “But, remember this—nothing lives forever. Even the Nevernever has an age, though no one can remember what it is. That clock is not recording anything new. ”

  “It should be destroyed,” Ash muttered, still glaring at it.

  “I would refrain from angering its keeper until we secure his help. ”

  Grimalkin stood, stretched, then suddenly went rigid. Ears twitching, he stood motionless for a moment, listening for something beyond the circle of trees. The hair slowly rose along his back, and I gulped, knowing he was seconds away from disappearing.


  The cat’s ears flattened. “They are all around us,” he hissed, just before he vanished.

  We drew our weapons.

  Thousands of green eyes pierced the darkness, razor grins shining like neonblue fire, as a huge hoard of gremlins poured into the light. Like ants, the swarm flowed over the ground, buzzing and hissing in their static voices, to surround us. We stood back-to-back, a tiny circle of open ground in a sea of little black monsters with grinning fangs and glowing eyes.

  Thousands of voices chattered at me, like a hundred radios turned on all at once. The noise was deafening, nonsensical, high buzzing voices grating in my ears. But the gremlins didn’t attack. They stood there, dancing or hopping in place, teeth flashing like razors, but they moved no closer.

  “What are they doing?” Puck asked. He had to yell to be heard.

  “I don’t know!” I replied. The cacophony was giving me a headache; my ears were ringing, and it seemed the noise got even worse at the sound of my voice. Without even thinking about it, I raised my head and yelled “Shut up!” into the hoard of gremlins.

  Silence descended instantly. You could’ve heard a cricket chirp. Wide-eyed, I shared a glance with Ash and Puck. “Why are they listening to me?” I whispered. Ash narrowed his eyes.

  “I don’t know, but can you do it again?”

  “Back off,” I tried, taking a step forward. A whole section of gremlins scooted backward, keeping the same distance between us. Another step, and they did the same thing. I blinked.

  “Okay, this is creepy. Go away?” I asked, but this time the gremlins didn’t move, and some of them hissed at me. I backed up. “Well, I guess I can only push them so far. ”

  “Don’t ask them to leave,” Ash murmured behind me. “Tell them. ”

  “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

  He nodded. I swallowed and faced the hoard again, hoping they wouldn’t decide to swarm me like angry piranhas. “Get out of here!” I told them, raising my voice. “Now!”

  The gremlins hissed and crackled and screeched in protest, but withdrew, flowing backward like the tide, until we were alone in an empty square.

  “How…interesting,” Grimalkin mused, back to being visible again. “It is almost as if they were waiting for you. ”

  “That was weird,” I agreed, rubbing my arms, where I could still feel the vibrations of the gremlins buzzing on my skin. The gremlins were listening to me now, just like they had with Machina. Since I had the power of the Iron King, they probably thought I was their new master, disturbing as that was. I certainly didn’t want a hoard of creepy little monsters following me around, laughing and causing trouble. The whole incident put me on edge, and I was eager to get out of the city. “Come on,” I said. “I think we should keep moving. ”

  WE CONTINUED, HEADING TOWARD the tower where the huge clock kept watch over the city. Everywhere we went, I could feel the gremlins’ eyes on me and hear them skittering in the shadows. Did they want something from me?

  Or were they just curious? Apart from the gremlins, Mag Tuiredh seemed devoid of life. But that didn’t explain the smoking towers in the distance, or the flashes of Iron glamour I felt all arou
nd me.

  The farther we ventured into Mag Tuiredh, the more “modern” the city became. Rusty steel buildings sat among the ancient ruins, thick black wires ran over our heads, and neon lights glimmered from the tops of roofs and corners. Smog writhed along the streets and sidewalks, adding an eerie, creepy feel to the dead city. I wondered where all the Iron fey were. Not that I wanted to run into any, but in a city this big, you would think there’d be at least a few. When we reached the base of the clock tower, I was amazed at how huge it was; a tower of steel and glass and metal, sitting among ancient ruins that were gigantic themselves, looming over them all. But the door to the tower was human-size, bronze and copper and covered with gears that clanked and spun as I wrenched it open.

  An endless staircase ran the length of the walls, spiraling up into blackness. Ropes and pulleys dangled from thick metal beams, and monstrous gears spun lazily in the huge expanse of the middle. It was, obviously enough, like being inside a giant clock.

  “This way,” came Grimalkin’s voice, and we followed the cat up the twisting staircase until he vanished somewhere above us. The stairs had no railings, and I hugged the wall as we went higher into the clock, the floor just a shrinking stone square far, far below.

  Finally, the staircase ended in a balcony that overlooked the long drop to the bottom. Directly overhead was the wooden ceiling, and in the center of the balcony, a ladder led up to a square trapdoor, the kind you would push on to get into the attic. Puck climbed the ladder, jiggled the trapdoor, and when he discovered it wasn’t locked, eased it open so he could peer through the crack. A moment later, he pushed it back all the way and motioned the rest of us up. A cozy, cluttered room greeted us as we eased through the trapdoor, being careful not to make any noise. The floors and walls were all made of wood, with the far wall showing the back of the enormous clock face. Several tables ran through the room, every square inch of them taken up by timepieces of various sizes and designs. The walls were also covered with them. Cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, wooden clocks, sleek metal clocks—you name it, this place had it. All the clock faces showed a different time; none of them were the same. An endless ticking filled the air, and the occasional tweet, chime, or dong echoed throughout the room. If I stayed here long enough, I would go insane in a very short while.