The Iron Knight, Page 51Julie Kagawa
I groped for his shoulder, putting a hand on it to stop him. Puck bristled, angry and indignant, but I knew what the Guardian was asking. Before, I didn't know what being human meant. I couldn't understand. Not as I was.
I did now.
The Guardian didn't move. “The Ensoulment Ceremony begins at dawn. Once started, it cannot be stopped. I offer you this one final choice, knight.
Should you wish it, I can unmake everything that happened to you—al memories of this place, everything you have learned, as if the trials never happened. You can return to Winter with your friends, no different than you were before, an immortal, soul ess fey.
“Or, you can claim your soul and keep everything that comes with it—conscience, human weakness, mortality. ” The Guardian finally moved, switching its staff to the other hand, preparing to disappear.
“Whatever your decision,” it continued, “when you leave this place, you will never return.
So choose wisely. I will return when you have decided which path you want to take. ”
I drew in a slow breath, feeling the promise that bound me, that oath I had made to Meghan, dissolve. I'd kept my vow: I had found a way to return to her, to be at her side without fear. I was free.
And I had a choice.
I didn't go back to my room, though I vaguely remembered where it was. Instead, I sought out the courtyard, found a stone bench beneath a withered tree, and watched the stars f loat through the End of the World.
Mortal or faery? Right now I was nothing, balanced on the edge of humanity and soul essness, neither human nor fey. I was so close to having a soul, to finishing my quest and being with Meghan. But if the future the Guardian had shown me was true…if I was destined to die, forgotten and alone, then was it worth that pain?
I didn't have to go back to the Iron Realm. My vow had been fulfil ed; I was free to do as I wished. There was no guarantee Meghan would be waiting for me to come back, no assurance she wanted me to come back. I could return to the Winter Court, with Ariel a. It could be as it was before….
If that was what I really wanted.
“Hey. ” Ariel a's soft voice broke through my musings, and she joined me on the bench, so close our shoulders were touching. “Puck told me about the last test, and the ceremony in the morning. I take it you haven't come to a decision yet. ” I shook my head, and her soft fingers brushed a curl from my forehead. “Why are you stil agonizing, Ash?” she asked gently. “You've come so far. You know what you have to do. This is what you wanted. ”
“I know. ” I slumped forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “But, Ari, that last test…” Closing my eyes, I let the memories of another life wash over me. “I saw my future, with Meghan,” I said, opening my eyes to stare at my hands. “I became human and went back to the Iron Realm to be with her, just like I wanted. And, at first we were happy…I was happy. But then…” I trailed off, watching a blue comet soar lazily through the sky above. “She never changed,” I murmured at last. “She and my son, they never changed. And I…I couldn't keep up with them.
I couldn't protect her, couldn't fight beside her. And in the end, I was alone. ”
Ariel a was silent, watching me. I raked my hands through my hair with a sigh. “I want to be with them,” I admitted softly. “More than anything, I want to see them again. But, if that's my future, if I can't avoid what lies ahead…”
“You're wrong,” Ariel a said, surprising me. I sat up, blinking at her, and she smiled. “That's a future, Ash. Only one. Trust a seer on this.
Nothing is certain. The future is constantly changing, and no one can predict what will happen next. But let me ask you this. In this future, you said you had a son?”
I nodded, feeling a hol ow ache in my chest at the thought of Kierran.
“Do you miss him?”
I let out a breath and nodded, slumping forward again. “It's strange,” I murmured, feeling a lump rise to my throat. “He isn't even real, and yet…I feel like he's the one who died. His existence was an il usion, but I knew him. I remember everything about him. And Meghan. ” The lump grew bigger, and I felt my eyes stinging, moisture crawling down my cheeks. I could see Kierran's smile, feel Meghan's breath against me as we slept. And though my head knew those memories were illusions, my heart violently rejected that thought. I knew them. Every part of them. I remembered their joys, their sorrows, their triumphs and hurts and fears. They were real to me.
“My family. ” The admission was a mere whisper, and I covered my eyes with a hand. “Meghan, Keirran. I miss them… they were everything. I want them back. ”
Ariel a put a hand on my shoulder, easing me close. “And even if that future came to pass,” she murmured in my ear, “would you want to miss it? Would you change anything, knowing how it will end?”
I pulled back to look at her, realization slowly dawning on me as we gazed at each other. “No,” I muttered, surprising myself. Because all the hurt, all the pain and loneliness and watching everyone leave me behind was overshadowed by the joy and pride I felt for Keirran, the deep contentment in Meghan's arms, and the blinding, all -encom-passing love I had for my family.
And maybe, that was what being human was all about.
Ariel a smiled back, though there was a hint of sadness in her eyes.
“Then you know what you have to do. ”
I pulled her close and gently kissed her forehead. “Thank you,” I whispered, though it was hard for me to say, and I could tel it surprised Ariel a, as well . The fey never say thankyou, for fear it will put them in another's debt. The old Ash would never have let such a phrase escape his lips; perhaps this was just a sign of how human I was becoming.
I stood, pul ing her up with me. “I think I'm ready,” I said, gazing back at the castle. My heart beat faster in anticipation, but I wasn't afraid. “I know what I have to do. ”
“Then,” said the Guardian, appearing behind us, “let us not waste another moment. Have you made your decision, knight?”
I pulled away from Ariel a and faced the Guardian squarely. “Yes. ”
“And what have you decided?”
“My soul. ” I felt a great weight lifted off my shoulders as I said this. No more doubts. No more agonizing. I knew my path, what I had to do. “I choose humanity, and all that comes with it. Weakness, conscience, mortality, everything. ”
The Guardian nodded. “Then we come to the end at last. And you will be the first to claim what you have always sought, knight. Fol ow me. ”
Puck joined us at the door, and together we followed the Guardian down the shadowed hal ways, up a twisting spiral staircase, to the landing of the highest tower. Through the door, the roof disappeared into open sky. Here, beneath the stars and constel ations, where sparkling bits of moon rock drifted by, trailing silver dust, the Guardian walked to the center of the platform and turned, beckoning me with a pale hand.
“You have endured all the trials,” it said as I stepped forward. “You have accepted what it means to be human, to be mortal, and without that knowledge a soul could not live within you for long. You have passed, knight. You are ready.
“But,” the Guardian continued in a solemn voice as my gut twisted nervously, “something as pure as soul cannot grow out of nothing. One final sacrifice remains, though it is not yours to make. For a soul to be born within you, a life must be given, freely and without reservation.
With this unselfish act, a soul can bloom from the sacrifice of one who loves you. Without it, you will remain empty. ”
For a split second of blissful ignorance, the true meaning of what the Guardian said escaped me. Then the realization hit all at once, and an icy fist gripped my heart, leaving me numb. I stared at the Guardian for several heartbeats, horror slowly turning to anger. “Someone has to die for me,”
I whispered at last. The Guardian didn't move, and I felt a gaping hole tear op
en within, dropping me into blackness. “Then all this was for nothing.
Everything you threw at me, all I went through, was for nothing!”
Despair now joined the swirl of rage. I'd been through so much, endured so much, just to throw it away in the end. But this was something I could not all ow. “Never,” I gritted out, backing away. “I'll never let that happen. ”
“It's not your sacrifice to make, Ash. ”
Stunned, I turned as Ariel a walked past me, coming to stand before the Guardian. Her voice trembled a bit, but she held her head high.
“I'm here,” she murmured. “He has me. I'm will ing to make that choice. ”
“Ari,” Puck breathed behind me.
No! I staggered toward her, panicked by what she was offering. My chest clenched in horror, in helpless desperation. It was the same feeling I'd had when I saw the wyvern strike her in the heart, when she lay dying in my arms, and I could only watch as she slipped away. This, I could stop. This, I would stop. “Ari, no,” I rasped, stepping in front of her. “You can't do this! If you die again…”
“This is why I'm here, Ash. ” Tears fil ed her eyes as she turned to look at me, though she stil tried to smile. “This is why I came. I was returned to life for this moment, my final task, before Faery takes me back. ”
“I won't accept that!” Desperately, I grabbed her arm, and she made no move to pul away. The Guardian watched us, silent and unmoving, as I faced her, pleading. “Don't do this,” I whispered. “Don't throw your life away. Not for me. Not again. ”
Ariel a shook her head. “I'm tired, Ash,” she murmured, gazing right through me, at something I couldn't see. “It's been…long enough. ”
Behind me, Puck blew out a shaky breath, and I hoped he would protest as well , keep her from this insane plan. But Robin Goodfel ow surprised me again, his voice subdued but calm. “I'm glad I got to see you again, Ari,” he said, and from the tremor beneath the surface, I could tel he was holding back tears. “And don't worry—I'll take care of him for you. ”