The iron queen, p.48
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       The Iron Queen, p.48

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 48

 

  “It won’t matter if the false king conquers the Nevernever now, will it?” he countered. “I’ll still be here, and so will all the Iron fey, but you oldbloods will become a thing of the past. And not even her highness will be able to stop it. ”

  “That’s not going to happen,” I snapped, turning on him. “I’ll stop the false king, just like I did Machina. ”

  “Glad to hear it. ” Glitch leveled a stare at me. “But did you ever think about how you’re going to stop the spread of the Iron Realm? Just because the false king is gone doesn’t mean we’re going away as well, princess. The Iron Kingdom will continue to grow and change the Nevernever, and in the end the courts will come after us anyway. I agree that, right now, we have to stop the false king, but you’re only delaying the inevitable. ”

  “There has to be a way,” I muttered. “You’re all faeries, you use glamour the same way. You’re just a little different, that’s all. ”

  “We’re not,” Glitch said firmly, “a little different. Our glamour kills oldbloods. Summer magic is deadly to us, as well. If you think we can hold hands and be friends, princess, you’re only fooling yourself. But we need to stop soon, or this army will be too exhausted to fight anything. ”

  I shook my head. “No, we have to keep moving. At least until we’re out of the tunnels. ”

  “Why?”

  “Because…” I closed my eyes. “He’s almost there. ”

  All three faeries stared at me. “How do you know?” Ash asked softly.

  “I can feel him. ” Goose bumps rose along my arms, and I hugged myself, shivering. “I can feel the land…crying out where he passes. It feels…” I paused, searching for words. “It feels like someone is dragging a blade across the surface, leaving a scar behind. I’ve been able to sense him ever since we passed Ferrum’s old chamber. The false king…he’s getting close to the wyldwood now, and he’s waiting for me. ”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  THE LAST NIGHT

  Eventually, we came out of the tunnels.

  The night was remarkably clear as we set up camp, a tattered, ragtag army pitching tents on the edge of a bubbling magma lake, the air smelling of sulphur and brimstone. I didn’t want to camp so close to the lake but Glitch overrode me, saying the smell would mask our presence, and besides his army was exhausted thanks to my forced march through the packrat tunnels. Even Ash and Puck were tired; they wouldn’t say anything, but the gaunt looks and pale faces told me they weren’t feeling the best. Their amulets were almost used up. The Iron Realm was finally taking its toll.

  “Go lie down,” I told them both, once Glitch had left to help the army pitch camp. “You’re both exhausted, and we’re not doing anything else tonight. Get some rest. ”

  Puck snorted. “My, aren’t we bossy today,” he said, though it lacked his usual energy. “Give a girl an army and it goes straight to her head. ” He yawned then, scrubbing his scalp. “Right, then. If anyone needs me, I’ll be passed out in my tent, trying to forget where I am. Oh, look, demon fey, lake of liquid hot magma—does this remind you of anything?” He grimaced, giving me a weak grin. “When I said I’d follow you to hell and back, I wasn’t trying to be literal, princess. Ah, well. ” He lifted one hand in a cheerful wave. “See you tomorrow, lovebirds. ”

  “What about you?” Ash asked as Puck sauntered off, whistling loudly.

  “You’ve been walking just as long as the rest of us. We won’t have another chance to rest before we reach the battleground. ”

  A flash of movement caught my attention. For a moment, I thought I saw a furry gray cat leap onto a boulder near the edge of the lake. But the air around him shimmered with heat, and he was gone. “I know,” I said, squinting in the hot, dry air. “And it might sound strange, but I feel fine. You go on,” I continued, gazing up at him. “I know you’re tired. Get some rest before the battle. I’ll be around. ”

  He didn’t argue, which showed me just how exhausted he was. Stepping close, he placed a soft kiss on my forehead and walked off toward the ring of tents farthest from the lake. I watched him until he vanished behind an old, twisted monolith, then I wandered down to the lake edge. This close to the lava, my skin felt like it would peel off my bones if I scratched at it, and I didn’t dare venture too close to the edge. One slip or stumble, and it would end very badly. Magma bubbled sluggishly, curling in slow, hypnotic patterns of orange and gold, strangely beautiful in the hellish glow. For a moment, I had the brief, crazy urge to skip a pebble across the glowing surface, then decided that would probably be a bad idea.

  “The Molten Pool,” said a voice beside me, and Grimalkin appeared atop a boulder, his whiskers glowing red in the light. I was relieved to see him, though I knew he could take care of himself. “In the center of the Obsidian Plains. Ironhorse told me about this. These were his lands, back in the days of King Machina. ”

  “Ironhorse. ” I leaned back against the rock and gazed out over the pool. The boulder was warm to the touch, even through my armor. “I wish he could’ve been here to see this,” I muttered, imagining the huge, black-iron horse standing proudly at the other side of the lake. “I wish we could’ve brought him home. ”

  “There is no use in wishing for the impossible, human. ” Grimalkin sat down, curling his tail around himself, as we both stared out over the lake. “Ironhorse knew what he had to do. Do not let human guilt distract you from your duty, for Ironhorse did not. ”

  I sighed. “Is that what you had to say to me, Grim? Don’t feel guilty for a friend’s death?”

  “No. ” The cat twitched an ear and stood, facing me directly. “I have come to tell you that I am leaving, and I did not want you worrying about my whereabouts on the eve of battle. There are more important things to focus on. So…I am leaving. ”

  I pushed myself off the rock and turned to face him. “Why?”

  “Human, my part here is done. ” Grimalkin regarded me with what could almost be affection. “Tomorrow, you march into battle with an army of Iron fey at your back. There is no place for me in this fight—I am under no illusion that I am a warrior. ” He stepped forward, ancient golden eyes staring into mine, reflecting the light of the pool. “I have brought you as far as I can. It is time for you to step forward on your own and claim your destiny. Besides…” Grimalkin sat back, gazing out across the lake, the hot breeze ruffling his whiskers. “I have my own contract to fulfill, before this is all over. ”

  “You made a contract?”

  He gave me his disdainful look, twitching his tail. “You don’t believe Ironhorse asked for nothing in return, do you? Really, human, sometimes I despair. But the night is waning, and I must go. ” Leaping gracefully off the rock, he began trotting away, bottlebrush tail held straight up and proud. I swallowed hard. “Grim? Will I see you again?”

  The cait sith turned back, cocking his head. “Now, that is a strange question,”

  he mused. “Will you see me again, though I myself am no oracle and know nothing of the future? This I cannot tell you. I will never understand humans, but I suppose it is part of your charm. ” He sniffed again, waving his plumed tail lazily. “Do try to stay out of trouble, human. I will be terribly annoyed if you manage to get yourself killed. ”

  “Grim, wait. Are you sure you’ll be all right?”

  Grimalkin smiled. “I am a cat. ”

  And, just like that, he was gone.

  I smiled faintly and wiped a stray tear from my face. Grim had always vanished and reappeared at will, but this time it was different. I suddenly knew I wouldn’t see him again, not for a long time anyway.

  “Goodbye, Grimalkin,” I whispered, and in an even softer voice, lest the cunning feline be nearby listening, added, “thank you. ”

  I shivered in the hot wind, already feeling his loss. How many more would I lose before this was over? Somewhere out there, closer than ever, the false king was closing on the armies of Summer and Win
ter. Tomorrow was the moment of truth. Tomorrow was Judgment Day, where we would either be victorious, or die. I suddenly wished I could talk to my family. I wanted to see Mom’s face again, hold Ethan and ruffle his hair one last time. I even wanted to see Luke, to tell him I forgave him for never noticing me, never seeing me. Mom was happy with him, and if she hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t have Ethan as a brother. I wouldn’t have a family. My throat closed up, and longing twisted my stomach into a painful knot. Would they miss me, if I never came home? Would they stop looking for me eventually, the daughter who vanished one night and never returned?

  The wind howled across the plain, lonely and desolate, as the full realization hit me and clutched my heart with icy fingers. I could die tomorrow. This was a war, and there would be numerous casualties on both sides. The false king himself could be too much, if I even figured out a way to get into his fortress. We could very well lose. I could be struck down, and my family would never know what happened, what I was fighting for. If I died, who would tell them? Oberon?

  No, if I lost, he would fade away, as well. If I lost, it would be over. The end of Faery. Forever.

  Oh, God.

  I was shaking now, unable to stop myself. This was really it. The last battle, and it all rested on me. What if I failed? If I couldn’t beat the false king, they would all die—Oberon, Grim, Puck, Ash…

  Ash.

  Shivering, I hurried back to the camp, past the cluster of tents set up around the lake. The camp was quiet and still, unlike the wild, prebattle revel of the Summer and Winter camps. I suddenly understood the significance and would have welcomed the distraction tonight. Too many dark thoughts were swirling around my head, so many emotions that I felt I would burst. But, despite everything I felt and the crazy emotions churning inside me, it all came back to him.