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The Iron Knight, Page 37

Julie Kagawa

Page 37


  “Let's not find out,” I said, turning to the castle, feeling it beckon me like a distant siren cal . “The Testing Grounds are our goal—we're going to reach it without anyone fal ing off the edge of the world or drifting through space. Watch out for each other, and be careful. ”

  “Hey, don't worry about me, ice-boy. Gravity isn't so much of a problem when you're a bird. ” Puck glanced at me and sighed in mock ag-gravation. “Someday, I have got to teach you people how to f ly. ”

  A river of f loating rocks stood between us and the castle. Grimalkin strode up to one and looked back at us, twitching his tail.

  “I will meet you at the castle,” he stated, and hopped lightly onto one of the rocks. It spun lazily, easily holding the cat's weight. Grimalkin blinked at us as the rock drifted away. “I trust you can make it to our destination without me for once,” he said, and headed for the castle, leaping from rock to rock with the inborn grace of a cat.

  “You know, sometimes I just hate him,” Puck grumbled. I stepped onto one of the rocks, bracing myself as it tilted slightly, but it appeared to hold my weight well enough. “Come on,” I said, holding out a hand for Ariel a. She took it, and I pulled her up beside me, though she didn't meet my eyes.

  “We're almost there. ”

  We picked our way over the treacherous terrain, leaping from rock to rock, trying not to look down. I glanced back once and saw the door of the temple jutting from the face of a cliff, and that cliff sprang from a wall of briars, stretching away to either side, farther than I could see. It emphasized the vast infinity of this part of the world and made me feel very smal .

  “I wonder if anything lives out here,” Puck mused as we crossed a shattered stone bridge, twirling aimlessly through space. “I thought the End of the World was supposed to be fil ed with monsters and here there be dragons and things like that. I don't see any…oh. ”

  I knew by the tone of his voice that I wasn't going to like what I saw next. “Don't tel me. ” I sighed without turning around. “There's some sort of huge monster out there, and now it's coming toward us. ”

  “Okay, I won't tel you. ” Puck sounded faintly breathless. “And, uh, you probably don't want to look down, either. ”

  I peered over the side of the bridge.

  At first, I thought I was looking at a continent f loating beneath us; I could see lakes and trees and even a few houses scattered about. But then the continent twisted around with a f lash of scales and teeth and drifted toward us, a leviathan so huge it defied belief. It spiraled up beside the bridge, a mountain of scales and fins and f lippers, rising out of the void. Its eye was like a smal moon, pale and all -seeing, but we were insects beneath its gaze, dust mites, too microscopic for it to know we were there. An entire city was perched on its back, gleaming white towers standing at the edge of a glistening lake. Smal er creatures, as big as whales, swam beside it, looking like minnows compared to its bulk. As we stood gaping at it, unable to move or look away, it twisted lazily through the air and continued into the ethereal-ness of space.

  For a long moment, we could only stare after it, hardly able to process what we had seen. Finally, Ariel a drew in a shaky breath and shook her head in disbelief. “That…was…” She seemed unable to find the right description.

  “Incredible,” I finished softly, stil gazing after the creature, and no one disagreed with me. Not even Puck.

  “Here there be dragons,” he murmured in an awed voice.

  Gathering my wits, I took a step back. “Come on,” I said, glancing at the others, who seemed a little dazed. “Let's find the Testing Grounds and get this over with so we can go home. ”

  Leaping careful y from rock to rock, wary now of the monsters at the End of the World, we finally reached the gates of the castle. Past a courtyard fil ed with statues and twisted trees of a kind I'd never seen before, up another f light of steps f lanked by snarling gargoyles, Grimalkin waited for us at the hal way into the castle.

  He was not alone. A familiar robed, hooded figure stood beside him, watching us as we walked up the stairs.

  “You have come far,” the Guardian intoned, nodding his head. “Few have made it to this point, and fewer stil can keep their sanity intact at the End of the World. But your journey is not yet over, knight. The Trials await, and they will be more harrowing than anything you have encountered thus far.

  No one has ever survived what you are about to face. I give you one last chance to depart, to turn around and leave this place alive and whole. But know this—if you leave, you will remember nothing of what brought you here. You will never find the End of the World again. What is your decision?”

  “I've come this far,” I said without hesitation. “I'm not backing out now. Bring on your tests. When I leave this place, it will be as a human with a soul, or not at all . ”

  The Guardian nodded. “If that is your choice. ” It swept out an arm, and a ripple of power went through the air, freezing me in place. “Let it be known, before these witnesses, that the former Winter prince Ash has accepted the trials of the Guardian, the prize for completing the tests being a mortal soul. ” It lowered its arm, and I could move again.

  “Your first trial begins when dawn touches the outside world. Until then, the castle is yours. When the time comes, I will find you. ”

  And it was gone.

  Grimalkin yawned and looked up at me, cat eyes blinking. “I am supposed to show you your rooms,” he said in a bored voice, as if the very idea wearied him. “Fol ow me, then. And do try to keep up. It would be vastly annoying if you became lost in here. ”

  The castle was dim and empty, with torches set into brackets, and candles f lickering along the wall s. Except for the f lames and candlelight, nothing moved; there were no insects scuttling over the f lag-stones, no servants prowling the hal s. It felt frozen in time, like a ref lection on the other side of a mirror—perfect, but lifeless.

  And it was endless, much like the void that f loated just outside the windows. I got the distinct feeling, fol owing Grimalkin down its many hal s, that I could wander its chambers and corridors forever and not see the entirety of the castle.

  Regardless, we found the guest rooms easily enough, on account of the open doors and the crackling fireplaces along each wall . These rooms were fairly well lit, with food, drink and a clean bed already laid out for us, though there were no servants to speak of. Puck and Ariel a each vanished into their separate chambers, though each room was easily big enough for the three of us and I was wary of being separated in this huge place. But Puck, after peering into a room, whooped when he saw the food-laden table and vanished through the door with a hasty,

  “Later, ice-boy,” slamming the door behind him. Ariel a gave me a tired smile and said she was going to turn in for the night, declining my offer of staying through dinner. Grimalkin, of course, trotted down the hal without any explanation of where he was going and vanished into the shadows, leaving me alone.

  Truthful y, I was relieved. There were so many thoughts swirling around my head, and I think the others recognized my need to be alone, to process all that had happened and to prepare for what was to come. Or perhaps they were weary of me, as well .

  I ate a little, prowled my room, and tried to read some of the huge tomes on the bookcase in the corner to pass the time. Most were written in strange, ancient languages I didn't recognize, some oddly blank, some with runes and symbols that made my eyes burn just from looking at them.

  One book let out a chil ing wail when I touched it, and I quickly with-drew my hand. I finally discovered, of all things, a smal book of poems by the mortal author e. e. cummings, and leafed through that for a while, pausing at the poem, “Al in green went my love riding,” one of my favorites. I smiled wistful y as I followed the stanzas, reminded of all the hunts Ariel a and I had been on and their sudden end.

  Guilt gnawed at me, though it wasn't quite as sharp as before.
I'd finally come to terms with what I felt, both for Ariel a and Meghan. I would always love Ariel a, and there was stil a part of me that longed for the past, for those days when it was me and Ari and Puck before—before her death and my oath and the decades of duels and fighting and bloodshed. But those days were gone. And I was tired of living in the past. If I managed to survive here, I would actual y have a chance at a future.

  Still , I couldn't sleep; my mind worried at the situation like a dog with a bone and my body was too hyped up to relax. I was sitting in the window with my back against the frame, watching the stars and bits of rock drift by, almost close enough to touch, when my door creaked open and footsteps padded into the room.

  “Don't you ever knock?” I asked Puck without turning around. He snorted.

  “Hi, I'm Robin Goodfel ow, have we met?” Walking up beside me, he leaned against the frame and crossed his arms, staring out at the End of the World. After a moment, he shook his head. “You know, out of all the places we've seen, and we've seen some weird places, this probably takes the cake for Most Crazy Landscape Ever. No one will believe the stories when we get home. ” He sighed and shot me a sideways glance.

  “Are you sure you're up for this, ice-boy?” he asked. “I know you think you can handle anything, but this is some serious stuff you're going to face. Crazy Ash just doesn't have the same ring as Don't-bother-me-or-I'll -kil -you Ash. ”

  I smirked at him. “You're awful y concerned for an archnemesis. ”

  “Psh, I just don't want to have to tel Meghan that you turned into a vegetable while trying to gain a soul. I don't see how that would turn out well for me. ”

  Smiling, I gazed out the window again. In the far distance, something like a giant manta ray soared lazily by, fins rippling like water. “I don't know,” I admitted softly, watching it vanish behind an asteroid. “I don't know if I'm ready. But it's not just Meghan that I'm doing this for now. ” I glanced down at my hands, resting in my lap. “I think…this is who I'm supposed to be…if that makes any sense. ”