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The Iron Queen, Page 35

Julie Kagawa

Page 35


  “Are you sure we’re still going the right way, princess?” Puck asked, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun. I gazed out over the dunes, squinting in the harsh light, and felt a pulse somewhere on the other side, the beacon that was calling me.

  “Yes. ” I nodded. “We’re still on track. Let’s keep moving. ”

  The desert and the cliffs seemed to go on forever. Just walking through the sand proved challenging; though it held our weight, we still sank into the dunes, up to our knees sometimes, as if the desert wanted to swallow us whole. Every so often, the sand hills would be swept away by the wind, revealing what lay beneath. Strange items rose to the surface, like driftwood bobbing in the waves. Everything from socks to pens, forks and spoons, keys, earrings, wallets, Matchbox cars, and an endless amount of coins, were unearthed for just a moment, glinting in the light, before the sand curled over them once more, hiding them from view.

  Once, out of curiosity, I bent and scooped a bright pink cell phone out of the sand, flipping it open. Of course, the batteries were long dead, and the screen was dark, but there was a faded sticker on the front, a Hello Kitty with Japanese kanji beneath. I wondered how it got here. It obviously had belonged to somebody at one time. Had they simply lost it?

  “Thinking of making a call, princess?” Puck asked as he caught up to me and raised an eyebrow at the phone in my hand. “Reception out here probably sucks. Though, if you do get a signal, try ordering for pizza. I’m starving. ”

  “I see,” I said abruptly, making Puck frown in confusion. Gesturing around at the dunes, I continued. “I know where we are, sort of. I’ll bet all of these items were lost at one time, in the mortal world. Look at this stuff: pens, keys, cell phones. This is where it all comes, where the lost things finally end up. ”

  “The Desert of Lost Things,” Puck said dramatically. “Well, that’s appropriate. We’re here, aren’t we?”

  “We are not lost,” I told him firmly, tossing the cell phone away. It hit the sand and was swallowed immediately. “I know exactly where I’m going. ”

  “Oh, good. And here I thought we were taking the scenic route. ”

  “We’ve got trouble. ” Ash’s curt voice interrupted us. The Winter prince came striding up the dune with Grimalkin trotting behind him, his long fur standing on end. A sudden blast of hot wind tossed his hair and made his cloak snap around him. “There’s a storm coming,” Ash said, and pointed across the desert. “Look. ”

  I squinted over the dunes. On the horizon, shimmering in the heat, something was moving. As the wind began to howl, filling the air with grocery lists, homework sheets, and baseball cards, I saw a wall of swirling, glittering sand, eating up the ground as it flowed toward us like an unleashed flood.

  “Sandstorm!” I gasped, stumbling backward. “What’ll we do? There’s nowhere we can really go. ”

  “This way,” Grimalkin said, sounding much calmer than I was feeling. A gust of wind tossed sand over his back, and he shook himself impatiently. “We have to get to the cliffs before the main storm arrives, or it could become unpleasant. Follow me. ”

  We headed for the cliffs, fighting the sand and wind that shrieked around us, ripping at clothes and stinging exposed flesh. As the storm drew closer, heavier items began to fly through the air, as well. When a pair of scissors hit me in the chest, skittering off the dragon-scale armor, my blood ran cold. We had to get to shelter quickly, or we’d be sliced to pieces.

  The edge of the dust storm roared over me like a tidal wave, screaming in my ears, pelting me with sand and other things. With my eyes squinted nearly closed, I couldn’t see where I was going, and dust clogged my nose and mouth, making it hard to breathe. I lost sight of Grimalkin and the others and struggled blindly through the maelstrom, one arm covering my face, the other held out in front of me.

  Someone took my hand, pulling me forward. I peeked up and saw Ash, head and shoulders hunched against the wind, dragging me toward the looming cliff wall, a dark curtain in the middle of a stormy sea. Puck was already crouched behind a jagged outcropping, huddled against it as streams of sand flowed around him, bouncing odds and ends off the stones.

  “Well, this is fun,” Puck said as we ducked behind the rock, huddled together as wind and sand shrieked around us. “It’s not every day I get to tell someone I was attacked by a pair of flying reading glasses. Ow. ” He rubbed his forehead, where a bruise had started to form.

  “Where’s Grimalkin?” I yelled, peering into the raging wind. A plastic doll head struck the rock inches from my face and went bouncing into the storm, and I cringed back.

  “I am here. ” Grimalkin materialized behind the rock, shaking sand from his coat in a dusty cloud. “There is a small opening in the cliff wall a few yards down,” he announced, peering up at me. “I am going there now, if you care to follow. It is more comfortable than cringing against a rock. ”

  Hugging the wall, arms raised to shield our eyes from sand and flying objects, we trailed Grimalkin along the cliff until we reached a narrow crack, a corridor that snaked away into the rock. The opening was tight and narrow, and there wasn’t much room to do more than stand, but it was better than being out in the storm.

  I squeezed into the corridor, sighing in relief. My ears rang from the shrieking wind, and sand clung to everything: hair, lips, eyelashes. Taking off one gauntlet, I wiped my face, wishing I had a towel, and tried combing the sand from my hair.

  “Ugh. ” Puck shook his head like a dog, sending dust and grit flying. Ash glared at him and moved away from the shower, standing beside me. “Ack. Blech. Oh, great, I’m already starting to itch. I’m going to have sand in every crack for months now. ”

  Grinning at Puck’s statement, I reached up and ruffled Ash’s hair, sending a rain of dust to the ground. He winced and gave me a rueful look. “I wonder how long the storm will last,” I mused out loud, watching sand hurl past the opening. Catching sight of Grimalkin, grooming rigorously on a nearby rock, I called out to him. “Grim? Any ideas?”

  The cat didn’t even slow down. “Why do you ask me, human?” he asked, licking himself as though his fur was on fire and not just covered in sand. “I have never been here. ” He shook his head, then moved on to his paws and whiskers.

  “We could be here for minutes or days—I am no expert of the sand and wind cycles in the Desert of Lost Things. ” His voice was thick with sarcasm, and I rolled my eyes. “Although,” he continued, furiously scrubbing his face, “it might interest you to know there is a tunnel around the corner to the right, half-hidden behind a bush. Perhaps you should see to it that it is empty, and not filled with Iron spiders or something equally unpleasant. ”

  We drew our weapons. Talk about a rock and a hard place. The last thing we wanted was to be trapped in a narrow corridor with an enemy bearing down on us and the storm at our backs. With Ash in front of me and Puck bringing up the rear, we edged forward until we found the tunnel Grim was talking about, a gaping slash in the rock wall, dark and uninviting, like the open mouth of a beast. Cautiously, Ash poked his sword through the opening, and when nothing immediately leaped out, I eased forward to peer inside.

  At first, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it looked like an ordinary stone tunnel, maybe to a cave system or something similar. But then I saw that the tunnel had been carved out of the rock, that a clump of familiar white mushrooms grew on the wall near the entrance, and an old metal lantern hung on a nail farther in. This wasn’t a random cave. Someone had been using these tunnels, and recently.

  And suddenly, I knew where we were.

  “Princess, wait,” Puck warned as I stepped in farther. “What are you doing?”

  “I know what this is,” I muttered, taking the lantern off the nail. It still had oil, and I coaxed a tiny flame to life, lifting it up. The light glinted off a toy fire engine lying next to a rock, and I had to smile. “Yes,” I murmured, bending down to pick up the to
y truck. “This is a packrat tunnel. I’m sure of it. ”

  “Pack what?” Puck frowned as he ducked through the opening, still keeping his daggers out as he glared around uneasily. “Rats? Giant iron rats? Oh, thank goodness, that’s so much better than spiders. ”

  “No. ” I glared at him as Ash sheathed his sword and stepped into the tunnel, gazing around cautiously. “Packrats. Little Iron fey that carry mounds of junk on their backs. We met them on our first trip through the Iron Realm, when I was looking for Machina. These tunnels should lead right to their nest. ”

  “Oh. Awesome. That makes me feel so much better. ”

  “Will you stop it? They’re harmless. And they helped us before. ” I put down the truck and stepped farther into the tunnel, raising the lantern as high as I could. The burrow snaked away into pitch blackness, but I felt that same odd pull, coming from the dark.

  “Where are you going, human?” Grimalkin appeared on a nearby rock, watching me intently. “Do you know the way through these tunnels? It would be highly annoying if we became lost following you. ”

  “I know the way,” I said softly, taking a few steps forward, deeper into the burrow. “And if we can find the packrats, they’ll be able to help us. ” Turning around, I saw all three hanging back with varying dubious expressions, and sighed. “I know what I’m doing, guys. Trust me, okay?”

  Ash and Puck shared a brief glance, and then Ash pushed himself off the wall to stand beside me. “Lead the way,” he said, nodding into the darkness. “We’ll be right behind you. ”

  “For the record,” Grimalkin stated as we ventured, single file, into the black,

  “I do not think this is a good idea. But, as no one listens to the cat anymore, I will have to wait until we are completely lost to say ‘I told you so. ’”

  THE TUNNELS WENT ON. Like a giant rabbit warren or termite nest, they twisted and curled their way through the mountain, leading us deep underground. I followed the strange pull, letting it guide me through the seemingly endless maze of burrows, Ash, Puck, and Grim trailing behind. The stone-worked tunnels all looked the same, except for the odd broken toy or piece of junk scattered among the rocks. Several times, we passed through a nexus where multiple channels broke off in different directions. But I always knew which way to go, which tunnel to follow, and didn’t even think much about it, until Grimalkin gave a sudden, irritated hiss.