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The Iron Knight, Page 35

Julie Kagawa

Page 35

  “Pale imitations cannot hope to take me down,” he snarled. But he favored his left forepaw, and his shaggy coat was streaked with blood.

  Glancing down the hal , he narrowed his eyes at the melee behind me.

  “Too many Goodfel ows for my taste. ” He snorted, and curled a lip.

  “Should I start biting off heads?”

  “No. ” I put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. “You're hurt. Stay here and guard Ariel a. Make sure nothing happens to her. Don't leave her side, no matter what happens to me, understand?”

  The Wolf growled, but nodded. I glanced over my shoulder at Puck; he was stil hanging on, surrounded by his twins. “Watch out for her ref lection,” I said, backing away from the Wolf. “It's stil around here somewhere. ”

  “So is yours,” the Wolf replied. “In fact, I'd say it's waiting for you. ”

  I looked up. Other Ash stood within a mirror a few yards away, gazing right at me. He gave me a mocking salute, then walked away, through the mirrors, around a corner and into the other hal way.

  I rose, gripping my sword tightly. “Take care of her,” I said without turning around. “I'm ending this now. ”

  I walked steadily to the place where Other Ash waited, cutting down another Puck as he lunged out of a mirror. Two more Pucks stepped out to face me, grinning, but a pair of ice arrows struck them in the chest, one after the other, and they vanished in a swirl of leaves and twigs. Around the corner, out of reach of the deadly arrows, Ash the Winter King waited for me, the wall s and mirrors around him coated in frost.

  My reflection regarded me with a look that was almost pitying, his sword held at his side. “What are you doing, Ash?” he asked coldly, and gestured around the hal way. “What are we doing here? Becoming human? Gaining a soul?” He chuckled without humor, shaking his head. “Souls aren't meant for us. Do you think, with all the blood and death on our hands, that we could ever earn something as pure as a soul?” He narrowed his eyes, seeming to stare right into me. “She's lost to us, Ash,” he whispered. “We were never meant to be together.

  Let it go. Let it go, and give yourself to the darkness. It's the only way we'l survive. ”

  “Shut up,” I growled, and lunged at him.

  He parried my thrust easily, cutting at my face. I dodged, and we circled each other in the hal , looking for weaknesses. There weren't many I could exploit, however. This opponent knew all my moves, my fighting techniques, and though I could say the same of him, it didn't help that I was fighting an enemy who knew exactly what I was thinking before I knew myself.

  “You can't beat me. ” Other Ash smiled, cold and vicious, reading my mind. “And your time is running out. The doors are about to close, and I have all the time in the world. ”

  I took a half step back and bumped into Puck, retreating from his own doppelgängers.

  “Hey, ice-boy,” Puck greeted without looking at me. I could feel him breathing hard against my back. “I'm getting kinda bored of this. Wanna trade?”

  I blocked Other Ash's jab to the face and slashed at him in return.

  “Can't you take anything seriously?”

  “I am serious! Duck. ”

  I ducked as a dagger f lew overhead, barely missing my ear. A false Goodfel ow whooped with laughter, and my anger f lared. “Al right,” I snapped, swinging my sword in a wide arc, forcing Other Ash back a step. “On three, then. One… two…three!”

  We spun, half circling to the left, taking each other's places and the ref lections that came with them. The two Other Pucks blinked at me, surprised, and leaped back as I lunged at them with a snarl. One pulled something out of his pocket and threw it at me, but I'd fought Puck on countless occasions and knew all of his tricks. The furry bal erupted in-to a squealing badger, f lying at my face, but I was already slicing at it, cutting it from the air. It shattered in a tangle of twigs and pine needles, and I lunged through the cascade, plunging my sword into Robin Goodfel ow's chest.

  He dissolved into a swirl of autumn leaves as the last Puck leaped through the curtain with a howl, stabbing viciously with his dagger.

  “This seems familiar, ice-boy,” Other Puck said, grinning savagely as we parried and sliced at each other. “Think you've got the guts to actual y go through with it this time?”

  I responded by slashing at his face, barely missing him as he ducked.

  “Oooh, that had a bit of temper behind it. ” He sneered, eyes gleaming as he circled back. “But don't think I'll go easy on you, just because of our history. I'm not like my other half—weak, pathetic, restrained…”

  “Loud, obnoxious, immature,” I added.

  “Hey!” the real Puck cal ed from farther down, dodging as Other Ash slashed at him. “I'm standing right here, you two!”

  Other Puck laughed, a cruel sound that made me bristle with loathing.

  “That's the problem with my other half,” he said, lunging forward with a series of vicious cuts that forced me back a few steps. “Somewhere in the long centuries, he managed to grow a conscience and turn completely boring. If he dies here, I'll be all that's left. As it should be. ”

  “Interesting. ” Grimalkin appeared in front of a mirror. “I do not know which is more annoying, the real Goodfel ow or the ref lection. ”

  “Well, considering they are one and the same,” said a second, identical Grimalkin, materializing next to the first, “we should be thankful that there will be only one left when this is all over. ”

  “Agreed. Two Goodfel ows would be more than anyone in this world could take. ”

  “I shudder to think of the implications. ”

  “You are so not helping, Grimalkin!” the real Puck cal ed, ducking beneath a savage head strike. “And we're not here to have tea with our evil doppelgängers! Shouldn't you two be trying to kill each other?”

  The Grimalkins sniffed. “Please,” they said at the same time.

  Over my opponent's shoulder, I saw Other Ash block an upward strike, then lash out with a kick that sent Puck sprawling onto his back. The ref lection stepped forward, raising his sword, but Puck reached back, grabbed a handful of twigs and f lung it at his assailant. They turned into a swarm of yel ow jackets, buzzing around the fake prince, until a vicious burst of cold sent them plummeting to the ground, coated in frost.

  “Hey!” Other Puck stabbed forward viciously, making me leap back to avoid him. “The fight's here, ice-boy. Don't worry about your boy-friend, worry about yourself. ”

  I backed farther into the hal , and Other Puck fol owed, smiling demonical y. “Running away?” he taunted, as I drew my glamour to me, feeling it surge beneath my skin. “Always a coward, weren't you, prince? Never had the guts to really go for the kill . ”

  “You're right,” I murmured, startling him. He frowned in wary surprise, and I smiled. “I always regretted my words against Puck. There was always a part of me that didn't want to go through with it. ” I lowered my blade, touching the tip to the f loor. Ice spread from the point of the weapon, coating the ground and the wall s, freezing the mirrors with sharp crinkling sounds.

  “But, with you,” I continued, narrowing my eyes, “it's different. You're the part of him that I hate. The part that revels in the chaos you cause, the lives you destroy. And I can say this with complete certainty—kil ing you will be a pleasure. ”

  Robin Goodfel ow's face twisted into a vicious sneer. Snarling like a beast, he lunged at me, dagger gleaming in the icy hal way. I stepped back, raised my arms and brought them forward with a shout and a burst of glamour. The frozen mirrors shattered, f lying outward in an explosion of deadly, razorsharp shrapnel, catching Puck in the very center.

  There was one high-pitched yel of dismay.

  And then there was nothing except the shards tinkling to the ground and a few black feathers spiraling down to the f loor. Other Puck was gone.

  “Very nice, Ash. ” My ref lection's voice echoed through the hal

  “But you're stil too late. ”

  I looked up, my stomach tightening. Other Ash stood in front of Puck, one hand on the faery's throat, pinning him to the wall . Puck dangled weakly, his face covered in blood, his daggers glinting several feet away.

  “You defeated Goodfel ow's ref lection,” Other Ash mused as I started forward, already knowing I wouldn't get there in time. “Congratulations. Now it's my turn. ”

  He raised his sword, and drove it through Puck's chest, staking him to the wall . The mirror behind Puck shattered, raining to the f loor in a softer imitation of the havoc I had just caused. Puck's mouth gaped; he clutched at the sword in his chest——and disappeared, vanishing in a shower of leaves. Other Ash blinked, startled for just a moment, then quickly yanked his sword out of the wall and stepped back.

  There was a blur over his shoulder, and he stiffened, jerking his head up. As I reached him, his sword fel from his hand, clattering to the ground, and he turned cold, hateful eyes on me.

  “You…wil fail,” he whispered in a choked voice, and disappeared, like mist in the sunlight.

  Puck stood behind him, eyes hooded and grim. His dagger, where it had been stuck in the prince's back, f loated in the air for a split second before plummeting toward the ground. Puck caught it as it fel and smoothly slid it back into its sheath, giving the broken mirror a rueful look.

  “Yeah, two can play at that game, ice-boy,” he muttered, and shook his head. Glancing at me, he offered a wry, slightly pained grin. “I found that oddly therapeutic, how about you?”

  “Idiot,” I told him, to hide the relief on my face. His grin widened as if he saw it anyway, and I scowled, embarrassed. “Come on, we're not out of here yet. ”

  “No, you can't leave!” hissed a voice behind me. I spun, bringing up my sword, as Other Ariel a lunged out of the mirror, her eyes blank and terrible.