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The Iron Knight, Page 38

Julie Kagawa

Page 38


  “Nope, that's just screwed up. ” I shot him an annoyed look, and Puck grinned to soften the words. He raised his hands. “But, if that's the way you feel, then more power to you. At least you know what you want. Just thought I'd make sure. ” With a grunt, he shoved himself off the wall , tapping my shoulder as he passed. “Wel , good luck to you, prince. There's a bottle of plum wine and a f luffy down pil ow cal ing my name. You need me, I'll be in my room, hopeful y well into a stupor. ”

  “Puck,” I cal ed before he could leave the room.

  He turned in the doorframe. “Yeah?”

  “If I…don't make it back…”

  I felt him nod. “I'll take care of her,” he promised quietly. “Both of them. ” And the door clicked softly behind him.

  I didn't sleep. I stayed in the window and watched the stars, thinking of Meghan, and Ariel a and myself. Remembering those bright, shining moments with each of them…in case I didn't see them again.



  “It is time. ”

  The Guardian's voice cut through the silence, and I jerked my head toward the robed figure in the middle of the room. It stood expectantly, gripping its staff, watching me through the darkness of the cowl. The door behind it was stil closed.

  “Are you ready?” it asked without preamble. I took a deep breath and nodded.

  “Then fol ow me. ”

  Puck and Ariel a joined us as soon as we left the room. Together, we trailed him through the vast hal s of the castle until he led us outside, into an ice-covered garden. Skeletal trees stood encased in crystal, sparkling with icicles, and a fountain in the middle spouted frozen water. For a moment, it reminded me of home, of the Winter Court, before I shook that thought away. Tir Na Nog was not my home any longer.

  Above us, across a stone bridge over nothing, a huge jagged mountain rose up from the depths, the peak barely visible through the haze that surrounded it. Wreathed in ice, it glittered in the cold lights of the stars, slick and sharp and treacherous.

  The Guardian turned to me. “Your first trial begins now. From here on, you must do this alone. Have you prepared yourself ?”

  “Yes. ”

  The cowl nodded once. “Then meet me at the top. ” And it was gone, leaving us to stare at the mountain for a few moments of silence.

  “Well,” Puck remarked, gazing up at the looming obstacle with his hands on his hips. “As tests go, climbing a mountain isn't that bad. ”

  Ariel a shook her head. “I seriously doubt that's all there is to it. ” She glanced at me, worried and solemn. “Be careful, Ash. ”

  I glared up at the obstacle before me. The first thing that stood between me and a soul. I clenched my fists and smiled.

  “I'll be back soon,” I muttered, and sprinted across the bridge. Leaping onto the base of the mountain, I started to climb.

  Pul ing myself onto a narrow ledge, I sat down with my back against the wall to catch my breath. I didn't know how long I'd been climbing, but it felt like days. And I was stil a good way from the top.

  Far below, the castle looked comical y smal , like a child's toy, even as large as it was. The mountain was proving harder and more treacherous to climb then I'd expected. The jagged obsidian rocks were as sharp as a knife's edge in places, and the ice refused to honor my Unseelie heritage. I had never slipped or stumbled on ice before, but here, it seemed all bets were off. My hands were cut open from gripping the rock, trying to balance myself, and I left smears of blood against the mountainside where I passed.

  I shivered, rubbing my arms. It was also freezing up here, which was a complete shock for me, as I never got cold. The sensation was so alien and unfamiliar I didn't know what it was at first. My teeth chattered, and I crossed my arms, trying, for the first time in my life, to conserve heat. So this was what it was like for mortals and Summer fey in the Unseelie realm. I'd always wondered why they looked so uncomfortable in the Winter palace. Now I knew.

  I licked dry, cracked lips and pushed myself to my feet, staring up at the top. It was stil so far away. I started climbing again.

  The jagged cliffs went on. I lost track of time. I lost more blood as the bitter cold ate into my limbs and turned them heavy and clumsy.

  Eventual y, I wasn't thinking anymore, my body moving on its own, just putting one limb in front of the other. Exhausted, bleeding, and shaking with cold, I finally pulled myself onto a ledge, only to find there was no mountain left. A f lat expanse of rock and ice stretched out before me. I had finally reached the top.

  The Guardian waited, patient and motionless, in the center of the plateau. Panting, I pushed myself to my feet and walked toward it, forcing myself not to shiver, to ignore the cold. It didn't move or say a word as I came to stand before it, the blood from my hands dripping slowly to the ground.

  “I'm here,” I rasped into the silence. “I passed the first of your tests. ”

  A deep chuckle. “No,” the Guardian said, making my stomach sink. It lifted its staff a few inches into the air, and a ripple of power erupted from the tip, spreading outward into space. “You have only found the location of the first testing ground. We are not done yet, knight. The real test begins… now. ”

  It brought the staff down, striking the point on the rocks. Cracks appeared from the tip, spreading outward, as a rumbling shook the ground. I dove away as part of the earth col apsed beneath me, revealing gaping holes deep into the mountain. A hell ish red glow spil ed out of the craters, and a wild shrieking fil ed the air, along with the sound of wings.

  “Survive,” the Guardian told me, and disappeared.

  Creatures poured from the opening in a mad rush of wings; scaly, furry, feathered and smooth. They looked like dragons, or wyverns, or monstrous birds, a chaotic mass of wings and claws and teeth, none of them the same. Except for one thing. Their chest cavities were open, and where their hearts would lie, there was only a void, a black hole fil ed with stars and black spaces of their own. The beings exploded from the gash, wailing in voices that seemed to echo across the emptiness of time, and dropped from the sky to attack.

  I drew my sword, startled by how cold the hilt was, and slashed at the first creature, cutting through a spindly neck. It shrieked and col apsed on itself, the hole in its chest seeming to draw it in. Crying, it was sucked into its own black hole, and I leaped back as the rest of the f lock descended on me all at once.

  I stumbled, my limbs heavy with cold, and one of the creatures struck out with a furry talon, catching my shoulder and ripping a gash down my chest.

  Pain erupted through me, greater than any I'd felt before, and I clenched my teeth to keep from screaming. My body wasn't moving as it should, too clumsy and awkward, as if it belonged to someone else.

  Another creature slashed at me as I retreated, striking my face and leaving deep claw marks across my cheek.

  Half-blinded by pain, I lurched backward, bringing up my arm to unleash a hail of ice daggers into the swarm. If anything, it would at least slow them down. But as I swept my hand out as I had done thousands of times before, nothing happened. Only a few spits of ice, instead of the deadly f lurry I was used to. Stunned, I opened myself up to my glamour, trying to draw it from the air as I'd always done.

  Nothing. No glamour, no magic, no swirling emotions or colors. I felt a deep stab of terror and loss as I backed away, trying to think. Had a binding been placed on me, locking away my glamour? Was there a seal over the area, preventing magic use? I realized with horror that it was none of these. Even through a binding or a seal, I would have been able to sense my glamour. I felt only emptiness. As if I had never had magic in the first place.

  In the split second my guard was down, one of the creatures pounced on me with a snarl, driving us both to the ground. I felt teeth in my shoulder before I plunged my blade through its throat and it was sucked into oblivion. But the other creatures swarmed
around me, shrieking, clawing, biting and kicking. I struck out with my weapon, slashing wildly from my back, and several creatures vanished into themselves. But there were always more, tearing and ripping, almost frantic as they pressed in, their shril voices echoing all around me. I felt jaws crush my arm, hooked talons in my stomach, gouging it open. I felt my f lesh being torn away, my blood misting in the air and streaming to the ground. I tried to get up, to make one last stand, to live, but the pain suddenly drew a red-and-black curtain over my vision, and I knew nothing more.

  And then, it was over. I was lying on the cold stone f loor of the castle, whole and intact, the Guardian gazing down at me. From the corner of my eye, I saw Puck and Ariel a peering on anxiously, but the pain streaming from every part of my body made it difficult to focus on anything.

  “I failed. ” The words were bitter in my mouth, the weight in my chest threatening to crush me. But the Guardian shook its cowled head.

  “No. You were never meant to survive that, knight. Even had you kill ed the first wave, they would have kept coming. No matter what you did, or how long you stood against them, they would have torn you apart in the end. ”

  I wanted to ask why. Why I'd been spared. Why I wasn't dead yet. But, through the pain and the confusion and the shock of stil being alive, my mind was stil reeling from everything that had just happened. The strangeness of my own body, suddenly weak and awkward, refusing to move as it should. The blinding pain, the agony I couldn't shut out as I used to. And the complete emptiness I felt when I tried to use glamour was worst of all .

  “This is what a mortal body feels like,” the Guardian continued, as if reading my thoughts. “It is physical y impossible for a human to move as you do. Their bodies are clumsy and tire easily. They are susceptible to cold, weakness and pain. They cannot draw on any magic to aid them. They are, in the end, quite unremarkable. Strength is the first thing you must give up if you wish to gain a soul. ”

  The Guardian paused, all owing time for that statement to sink in. I could only lie there, panting, as my mind recovered from the shock of being torn apart. “The first trial is over,” the Guardian intoned. “Prepare yourself, knight. The second begins at dawn. ”