The Iron Knight, Page 44Julie Kagawa
Both of you. Just…leave me alone. ”
Ariel a stared at me…and for a moment, I saw Brynna's face when I'd told her everything was all a game. It was more than I could bear.
Ignoring their cal s, I rushed past them, escaping into the hal s of the castle.
Faces followed me down the corridors, their cold, accusing eyes boring into me, crowding my mind.
“Ash,” Brynna whispered, hugging herself in an alcove, watching me pass, “you said you loved me. ”
“My sisters,” the nymph said, appearing from around a corner, glaring at me with burning black eyes. “My family. You kill ed them all . Every single one. ”
“Demon,” whispered the old farmer, his eyes glazed over with tears, pointing at me with a trembling hand. “You took my child away. all I had left, and you took him from me. Monster. ”
I'm sorry, I cal ed to them, but of course they wouldn't hear. They were long dead, their grief and hate unresolved, and nothing I said or did could make any of it right.
I could hear Puck and Ariel a's voices down the hal , cal ing my name, searching for me. I didn't deserve their concern. I didn't deserve to know them, two bright spots in a life of darkness and blood and death.
I'd destroyed everything I touched, even those I loved. I would end up destroying them, too.
“Murderer,” Rowan whispered, appearing from a doorway, and I shied away from him, nearly blinded by tears and not watching where I was going.
The f loor suddenly gave way beneath me. I fel down a long f light of steps, the world spinning madly, until I landed with a gasp at the bottom, pain stabbing through my arm and side.
Gritting my teeth, I struggled upright, pressing a hand to my bruised shoulder, and looked around. It was dark here, shadows choking everything, the only light coming from a dying candle in the mouth of a stone gargoyle. Beside the leering creature stood a massive stone door, like the entrance to a crypt, standing partial y open. Cold, dry air wafted from the crack beneath it.
I staggered forward, squeezed through the opening, and put my un-injured shoulder to the stone, pushing with all my might. The massive door closed with a rumbling groan, shutting out the feeble light and plunging me into complete darkness.
I didn't know what surrounded me, and I didn't care. Feeling my way forward, I eased into a corner, put my back to the wall and slid to the f loor. I was cold, even starting to shake, but I welcomed the discomfort.
The darkness smel ed of dust, limestone, and death. But I couldn't escape the voices, the whispers that hissed accusations in my ears, furious, hateful, completely justified.
I shivered, with cold and with shame, and buried my face in my knees, letting the accusations swirl around me.
So, this was what we really were. What I really was.
Dawn, the Guardian had told me. My final test began at dawn. If I didn't show up for it, I would fail. And if I failed, I'd remain here forever, alone.
As it should be.
Time slipped away. I lost myself in the darkness, listening to the voices. Sometimes they sobbed, sometimes they railed at me, cruel, vicious words fil ed with grief and hate. Other times they would only ask questions. Why? Why had I done this? Why had I destroyed them, their lives, their families? Why?
I couldn't answer. Nothing I offered would bring them peace, no apo-logy would suffice for what I'd done. My words were hol ow, empty.
How could I have been so blind as to want a soul? It was laughable now, to think that a soul could live inside me without being tainted by the centuries of blood and evil and death.
The voices agreed, laughing at me, mocking my quest. I didn't deserve a soul; I didn't deserve happiness, or peace. Why should I get my happy ending, when I'd left a swath of horror and destruction behind me wherever I went?
I had no answer for them. I was a monster. I was born in darkness, and I would die here, as well . It was better this way. Ash, the demon of the Unseelie Court, would finally perish alone, mourning the lives of those he'd destroyed.
A fitting end, I thought, giving in to the voices, letting them rail and laugh at me. I would not hurt anyone any longer. My quest ended here, in this hole of darkness and regret. And, if I didn't die here, if I lived on forever, listening to the voices of those I'd wronged until the end of time, perhaps I would start to atone for what I had done.
“Here you are. ”
I raised my head as the voice slipped out of the darkness, different from the others surrounding me that were whispering their vengeance and hate. It was nearly pitch-black in the crypt, and I could barely move more than a few feet from where I sat. But I recognized the voice, as the gleam of golden eyes, appearing out of the darkness, f loated closer to me.
“Grimalkin. ” My voice sounded raspy in my ears, as if I hadn't used it for months, though I didn't know how much time had passed down here.
Perhaps it had been several months. “What are you doing here?”
“I think,” Grimalkin said, blinking solemnly as he came into view,
“that is what I should be asking you. Why are you hiding out with the dead when you should be preparing for the final test?”
I hunched my shoulders, closing my eyes as the voices started again, angry and painful. “Leave me, cait sith. ”
“You cannot stay down here,” the cat went on as if I hadn't spoken.
“What good is it to sit here and do nothing? You help no one if you remain here and bemoan the past. ”
Anger f lickered, and I raised my head to glare at him. “What would you know about it?” I whispered. “You have no conscience. You think of everything in terms of bargains and favors, caring nothing for those you have manipulated. I simply can't forget…what I've done. ”
“No one is asking you to forget. ” Grimalkin sat down and curled his tail around himself, gazing at me. “That is the whole point of a conscience, after all —that you do not forget those you have wronged. But answer me this—how do you expect to atone for the crimes of your past if you do nothing?
Do you think your victims care now, whether you live or die?”
I had no answer for him. Grimalkin sniffed and stood up, waving his tail. His yel ow eyes regarded me knowingly.
“They do not. And there is no point in obsessing about what cannot be.
They are dead, and you live. And if you fail this test, nothing changes.
The only way to ensure that you do not become that which you despise is to finish the quest you have started. ”
The voices hissed at me, sounding desperate, reminding me of my crimes, the blood on my hands, the lives I'd destroyed. And they were right. I could do nothing for them now. But I had been someone else then. Uncaring and soul ess. A demon, like they said. But…maybe I could start again.
Grimalkin f licked an ear and began to trot away into the shadows.
“Earn your soul, knight,” he cal ed, his gray form fading into the dark.
“Prove that you can learn from your mistakes. Only then can you become human. ”
His words remained with me long after he was gone. I sat in that cold corner and thought about my past, the people I'd hurt, manipulated, destroyed.
Grim was right. If I died here, who would remember them? If I failed and returned home without a soul, I would continue to feel nothing for my past, no remorse, no guilt, no conscience.
Brynna's voice, broken and fil ed with hate, whispered into my head. I loved you. I loved you so much, and you killed me. I will never forgive you.
I know, I told her memory, and finally pulled myself to my feet. My limbs screamed in protest, but I braced myself against the wall and stayed upright.
And you shouldn't. I don't want forgiveness. I don't deserve to be forgiven for my past. But I will make it right. Somehow, I will atone for those mistakes, I swear
I was tired, my body stiff and sore and exhausted; it took all my strength to push open the stone doors and climb the long f light of steps out of the crypt. But with every step, every jolt of pain through my bones, I felt lighter, freer somehow, the voices silenced and left back in the tomb. I could not forget them, or the crimes of my past, but I no longer wanted to die.
It was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, staff in hand, watching me behind its cowl. I felt its ancient gaze sweep through my bruised, battered body. It nodded, as if it had discovered within me something that pleased it. “The final trial is upon us, knight,” it said as I climbed the last step and stood before the Guardian. “You have survived human weakness and a conscience. One last thing remains for you to earn a soul. ”
“Where are Puck and Ariel a?” I asked, feeling guilty that I'd been gone for so long. They'd be worried about me by now. I hoped they didn't think I was dead.
“They search for you,” the Guardian said simply. “But this is not their test. The trial begins now, knight. Are you ready, or not?”
I took a breath. Puck and Ariel a would have to wait. I hoped they would understand, because the Guardian wasn't giving me time to think about it.
“Yes,” I replied, feeling my stomach knot. The last trial. The only thing between me and a soul. And Meghan. “I'm ready. Let's get this over with. ”
The Guardian nodded and raised its staff once more.
Rain pounded my back, and I opened my eyes.
I lay on my stomach on the hard ground, my cheek pressed against what felt like cobblestones, water soaking my hair and clothes. From my drenched state and the feel of the smal , round stones pressing into my face, I must have been lying there for some time. Wincing, I pushed myself to my elbows, peering through the rain to determine where I was.
A green-and-silver garden stretched out before me, lush with vegetation and blurry through the rain. Cobblestone paths twisted around smal bushes and shrubs, and larger trees hugged the edges of the high stone wall surrounding it. A few feet away, a marble fountain spil ed water into a shal ow basin, the sound of trickling water drowned out by the larger deluge.
Around me, the trees shimmered in the rain, thousands of leaves f lashing like knives as the wind tossed their branches. At my feet, wires slithered over the ground in strange patterns and curled around tree trunks, glowing like neon signs. Lampposts, glimmering yel ow in the twilight, grew right out of the ground and lined the narrow paths. I turned and saw an enormous castle of stone, glass and steel looming above me, spires and towers stabbing at the clouds.