The iron knight, p.52
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       The Iron Knight, p.52

         Part #4 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 52

 

  “You were a good friend, Puck. ” Ariel a smiled at him, though her eyes were shadowed, far away. “I'm happy I could give you two another chance. ”

  Feeling betrayed, I gripped her shoulders, hard enough to make her wince, though she stil didn't look at me. “I won't let you go,” I snarled, though my voice was beginning to crack. “You can't do this. I'll keep you alive by force if I have to!”

  “Prince. ” Grimalkin's cool, stern voice broke through my desperation.

  The word lanced into me, shimmering with power, compel ing me to listen, to obey. I closed my eyes, fighting the compulsion, feeling my panic grow. The cait sith was cal ing in his favor.

  “Don't, Grimalkin. ” My words were a hoarse rasp through gritted teeth. “I will kill you if you order me, I swear I will. ”

  “I would not force you,” Grimalkin said in that same quiet, calm voice.

  “But this is not your decision, prince. It is hers. all I ask is that you let her make that choice. Let her choose her own path, as you have done. ”

  My composure broke. I fel to my knees with a sob, clutching at Ariel a's dress, bowing my head. “Please,” I choked, tears streaming down my face.

  “Ari, please. I'm begging you, don't go. I can't watch you die again. ”

  “I was already gone, Ash. ” Ariel a's voice shook, too, her hand resting against the back of my head. “Al we had was borrowed time. ” I sobbed, kneeling before her, as her fingers stroked my hair. “Let me do this,”

  Ariel a murmured. Her fingers slipped under my jaw, gently turning my face to hers. “Let me go. ”

  I couldn't speak. Shaking, nearly blinded by tears, I let my hands fal to my lap. Ariel a pulled away, but her palm lingered against my cheek for a silent moment. I caught the tips of her fingers at the end, felt them slip from my grasp. “Remember me,” she whispered.

  Then she turned and stepped toward the Guardian, who raised a hand to guide her forward. “It will not take long,” it said, and I thought I heard a note of admiration in the impassive voice. Ariel a nodded, taking a shaky breath as the Guardian raised a hand to her forehead, brushing back her silver hair.

  “Will it hurt?” she whispered, so faint I barely caught it. The Guardian shook its cowled head.

  “No,” it said gently, and a light began to form under its fingers, growing brighter with each passing second. “There will be no pain, Ariel a Tularyn.

  Never again. Close your eyes. ”

  She glanced at me. For a moment, she looked exactly as she had when I first met her, unbowed by sorrow, her eyes shining with joy. She smiled, a real smile of love and happiness and forgiveness, and then the light grew too bright to look at and I had to turn away.

  Deep within me, something stirred. The darkness that I'd kept locked away, the part of me that was all Unseelie: hate, violence and black rage, rushed to the surface with a roar, seeking to overwhelm me. But it was met by something bright and pure and intense, a miasma of light that seared away the darkness, fil ing every corner and expanding outward, until there was no place left for the blackness to hide. I shivered, reeling from the f lood of light and color and emotion, not knowing how empty I had been until that moment.

  The brightness faded. I was kneeling on an empty platform at the End of the World, moondust and rock swirling around me. The Guardian stood a few feet away, alone, leaning on its staff as if winded.

  Ariel a was gone.

  The Guardian straightened, gazing at me through the darkness of its cowl. “Take a few moments for your grief,” it said, cold and formal once more.

  “When you are ready, meet me at the gates of the Testing Grounds. I have one last thing to give you before we part. ”

  I barely noticed when the Guardian left. Numbly, I gazed at the spot where Ariel a had stood seconds before. Grimalkin had also disappeared, the parapet that held him empty and bare, as if he'd cleared out the second the ceremony was finished. I tried to be angry at the cat, but it was futile.

  Even if he hadn't come, Ariel a would stil have made her decision. I knew her well enough to know she would've found a way. I couldn't muster any rage through the numbing grief weighing me down like a heavy blanket. Ariel a was gone. She was gone. I had let her go, again.

  A presence stepped up beside me, but it wasn't the Guardian. “It wasn't your fault, Ash,” Puck said quietly. “It never was. She made her choice a long time ago. ”

  I nodded, stil not trusting myself to speak. Puck sighed, crouching next to me, gazing around the tower. “I don't know about you,” he said, completely serious, “but I'm about ready to go home. Let's get Furbal , check to see if the Wolf is stil alive, and get out of here. ”

  “Yeah,” I muttered without getting up. “Just…give me a few minutes. ”

  “Right,” Puck said, and I expected him to leave. He didn't, but settled on the ground beside me, crossing his long legs. And we gazed at the spot where Ariel a had smiled at me and disappeared in a bril iant burst of light, as fitting an end as I could think of. After a moment, Puck put a hand on my shoulder.

  This time, I didn't brush it off.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  THE RETURN

  Puck and I didn't speak as we walked through the empty, dark corridors of the Testing Grounds together, lost in our own thoughts. I glanced over once and saw him hastily wipe his eyes before quickly turning a corner. The hal ways seemed emptier now, the shadows deeper, as we navigated the hal s with one less than when we had started out.

  Ariel a was gone. I didn't know how she'd done it, accompanying us, helping us, knowing all along that she wasn't coming back. This was twice I had lost her, twice I'd been forced to watch her die. But at least she had chosen her path this time. She had made her choice long ago, and if Faery brought her back, then surely it would not let her disappear as if she had never existed. A life as bright as hers must linger on somewhere; Ariel a Tularyn was far too loved and cherished to simply fade away and be forgotten. It was a smal comfort, but I clung to it with my remaining composure and hoped that, wherever she was, whatever state she existed in, she was happy.

  Outside, the tal figure of the Guardian waited at the bridge, the stars and the dark, hazy outline of the distant Briars floating behind him.

  “This is where we part,” it announced as we joined it at the edge. “Your quest is finished, knight, your journey complete. You will not see me, or the End of the World, ever again. Nor will you remember the path you took to get here. But, as you are the first to earn your soul and survive, I offer you one last gift for the journey home. ”

  It extended an arm, dropping something smal and glittering into my palm. It was a globe of darkened crystal, about the size of an orange, the glass fragile and warm against my skin.

  “When you are ready,” the Guardian said, “break the globe, and you will be transported out of Faery, back to the human world. From there, you may do as you wish. ”

  “Back to the human world?' Puck peered over my shoulder at the glass. “That's kind of out of the way. Can't you give us something that will take us to the wyldwood or Arcadia?”

  “It does not work that way, Robin Goodfel ow,” the Guardian said, speaking to him for perhaps the very first time. “You may choose to return to the wyldwood the way you came, but it is a long way up the River of Dreams, and you will not have the ferry to protect you. ”

  “It's all right,” I told Puck, before he could argue. “I can get to the Iron Realm through the mortal world. If…you can open a trod for me, that is. ”

  Puck glanced at me, understanding in his eyes, and nodded. “Sure, iceboy. Not a problem. ”

  “But,” I added, looking at the Guardian, “there's one more thing we have to check on before we leave. We left a friend behind at the temple when we came here. Is he stil there? Can we save him?”

  The Guardian straightened. “The Wolf,” it said. “Yes, he is stil alive, though hi
s spark has grown weak. He remains trapped beneath the door, and you will have to free him before you can take him to the mortal world with you. ”

  “You can't open the door?” Puck asked, scowling.

  “The gauntlet was never closed,” the Guardian said f latly. “As long as your friend remains in the door, keeping it open, the gateway is stil in effect.

  The door must seal completely before it can be opened once more. ”

  “I suggest you hurry,” Grimalkin said, appearing on a f loating rock near the edge, watching us disdainful y. “If you insist on helping the dog, do it quickly so that we may go. I, for one, would like to get home sometime this century. ”

  Home, I thought with a sharp longing in my chest. Yes, it was time to go home. It had been too long. Was Meghan stil waiting for me? Or, as she'd suggested in the dream, had she moved on, found happiness with someone else? Would I return only to find her in the arms of another? Or, even worse, as a terrible fey queen like Mab, unmerciful in her power, ruling through fear?

  I was afraid, I could admit that. I didn't know what waited for me at the end of my quest. But despite what I might find, even if Meghan had forgotten me, I would return to her, no matter what.

  “Knight,” the Guardian said as we started to cross the bridge. Puck looked back, and I waved him on. He made a face and left us. “Do not discount the gift you have been given,” the Guardian continued in a low voice, as Puck followed Grimalkin over the bridge. “The soul of a Winter fey resides within you. You are no longer part of Faery, but neither are you completely mortal. You are…unique. ” The Guardian drew back, the faintest hint of amusement beneath its impassive voice.

  “We shal have to see where it takes you. ”

  I bowed to the robed figure and crossed the bridge, feeling ancient eyes on me the whole way. When I reached the other side and turned back, however, the Guardian was gone. The enormous bulk of the Testing Grounds was f loating away, growing rapidly smal er and less distinct, until it vanished into the End of the World.