The Iron Knight, Page 53Julie Kagawa
Following Grimalkin down the corridor back to the temple, we reached the heavy stone door of the gauntlet. For a moment, I feared we were too late. The Wolf lay in the doorway, unmoving, his huge head resting on his paws. Bloody foam spattered his mouth and nostrils, his fur was dul and f lat and his ribs stood out sharply against his black pelt.
Through the opening, the spirits stil clawed at him, trying to drag him back into the temple, lost and trapped forever. But even col apsed and apparently lifeless, he was stil as unmovable as a mountain.
“Pity,” Grimalkin remarked as we drew close. “Not the end I would imagine for the Big Bad Wolf, crushed under a door, but I suppose he is not invincible after all . ”
The Wolf 's eyes opened, blazing green. Seeing us, he gave a feeble cough and raised his head from his paws, staring at me. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth.
“So, you made it after all ,” he stated. “I suppose I should congratulate you, but I find I care very little at the moment. ” He panted, his eyes f lickering between me, Puck and Grim, and pricked his ears. “Where's the girl?”
Puck looked away, and I took a breath, raking a hand through my hair.
“She's gone. ”
The Wolf nodded, unsurprised. “Then, if you wish to leave by this route, I'm sure you can slide under the stone. These spirits are annoying, but they should not pose a problem anymore. ”
“What about you?”
The Wolf sighed, resting his head on his paws again. “I have no strength left. ” Closing his eyes, he shifted painful y on the rocks. “Nor do you have the strength to move this door. Leave me. ”
I clenched my fists. The memory of Ariel a's sacrifice was stil a painful burning in my chest. “No,” I said, making the Wolf crack open an eyelid. “I've already watched one friend die today. I will not lose another. Puck…” I stepped forward and put my shoulder against the bottom of the slab. “Come on. Help me move this. ”
Puck looked dubious, but he stepped up and braced himself against the rock, wincing as he tested it. “Oof, are you sure about this, ice-boy?
I mean, you're human now…. ”
He trailed off at the look on my face. “Right, then. On three? Hey, Wolfman, you're gonna help out, too, right?”
“You cannot free me,” the Wolf said, eyeing each of us in turn. “You are not strong enough. Especial y if the prince is a mere mortal. ”
“How very sad. ” Grimalkin strode up, stopping just shy of the Wolf 's muzzle, barely out of snapping range. “That the great dog must rely on a human to save him, because he is too weak to move. I shal sit right here and watch, to remember this day always. ”
The Wolf growled, the hair rising along his back. Planting his feet, he braced his shoulders against the slab and tensed, baring his fangs.
We pushed. The stone resisted us, stubborn and unmovable. Even with the combined efforts of Puck and the exhausted Wolf, it was too heavy, too massive, for the three of us to move.
“This isn't working, prince,” Puck said through gritted teeth, his face red from the strain. I ignored him, digging my shoulder into the rocky slab, pushing with all my might. It scraped painful y into my skin, but didn't move. On instinct, I opened myself up to the glamour around me, forgetting I was only human.
I felt a shiver go through the air, a rush of cold and suddenly, the slab moved. Only a fraction of an inch, but we all felt it. Puck's eyes widened, and he threw himself against the rock, pushing with all his might, as the Wolf did the same. The spirits shrieked and wailed, clawing at the Wolf as if sensing he was slipping from their grasp. Closing my eyes, I kept myself open to the cold, familiar strength f lowing through me and shoved the stone block as hard as I could.
With a final, stubborn groan, the slab gave way at last, rising a mere few inches, but it was enough. The Wolf gave a snarl of triumph and skittered out from beneath it, ripping himself from the grasp of the spirits stil clinging to him, leaving them in the doorway. Puck and I jerked back as well , and the door slammed shut with a hol ow boom, crushing a few spirits into mist.
Panting, the Wolf staggered to his feet, then gave himself a violent shake, sending fur and dust f lying. Glancing at me, he gave a grudging nod.
“For a mortal,” he growled, heaving in great, raspy breaths, “you are remarkably strong. Almost as strong as…” He paused, narrowing his eyes.
“Are you sure you received what you came for, little prince? It would be annoying if we came all this way for nothing. ” Before I could answer, he sniffed the air, nose twitching. “No, your scent is different. You are different. You do not smel like you did before, but neither do you smell…entirely human. ” Flattening his ears, he growled again and stepped back. “What are you?”
“I'm…not really sure myself. ”
“Well . ” The Wolf shook himself again, seeming to grow a bit more steady on his feet. “Whatever you are, you did not leave me behind, and I will not forget that. If you are in need of a hunter or someone to crush your enemy's throat, you have only to cal . Now…” He sneezed and bared his fangs, glaring around. “Where is that wretched feline?”
Grimalkin, of course, had disappeared. The Wolf snorted in disgust and began to stalk away, but with a shiver and a loud grinding noise, the stone door started to rise.
We tensed, and I dropped a hand to my sword, but the spirits on the other side of the door had disappeared. So had the entire room. Instead, a long, narrow hal way stretched out beyond the frame, empty and dark, fading into the black. The cobwebs lining the wall s and the dust on the f loor were thick and undisturbed, as if no one had walked this way in centuries.
The Wolf blinked slowly. “Magic and parlor tricks. ” He sighed, curling a lip. “I will be glad to be done with it. At least in my territory, things are honest about trying to kill you. ” He shook his great, shaggy head and turned to me. “This is where we part ways, prince. Do not forget my part in the story. I might have to hunt you down if you happen to forget, and I have a very long memory. ”
“It's a long way back to the wyldwood,” I told him, pul ing out the smal glass orb. The swirls of magic within left faint, tingling sensations against my palm as I held it up. “Come with us. We'l return to the mortal realm, and from there you can easily find a trod to the Nevernever. ”
“The mortal world. ” The Wolf sniffed and backed up a step. “No, little prince. The human realm is not for me. It is too crowded, too fenced in. I need the vast spaces of the Deep Wyld or I shal quickly suffocate.
No, this is where we say goodbye. I wish you luck, though. It was quite the adventure. ”
The Wolf padded toward the dark, empty hal way, a lean black shadow that seemed to fade into the dark.
“You sure, Wolfman?” Puck cal ed as the Wolf paused in the frame, sniffing the air for any remaining foes. “Like iceboy said, it's a long way back to the wyldwood. You sure you don't want a faster way home?”
The Wolf looked back at us and chuckled, f lashing a toothy grin. “I am home,” he said simply, and bounded through the door, melting into shadow.
His eerie howl rose into the air, as the Big Bad Wolf vanished from our lives and returned to legend.
Grimalkin appeared almost immediately after the Wolf had gone, licking his paws as if nothing had happened. “So,” he mused, regarding me with golden, half-lidded eyes, “are we returning to the mortal realm or not?”
I raised the globe but then lowered it, gazing at the cait sith, who stared back calmly. “Did you know?” I asked in a low voice, and the cat blinked.
“Did you know the reason Ariel a was here? Why she came along?”
Grimalkin turned to groom his tail, and my voice hardened. “You knew she was going to die. ”
“She was already dead, prince. ” Grimalkin paused and looked back at me, narrowing his eyes. “She perished the day you swore your oath against Goodfel ow. Faery brou
ght her back, but she always knew how it would end. ”
“You could have told us,” Puck chimed in, his voice f lat and strangely subdued.
Grimalkin sneezed and sat up to face me, his golden eyes knowing. “If I had, would you have let her go?”
Neither of us answered, and the cat nodded at our silence. “We are wasting time,” he continued, waving his tail as he stood. “Let us return to the mortal world so that we may be done with this. Grieve for your loss, but be grateful for the time that you had. She would have wanted it that way. ” He sniffed and lashed his tail. “Now, are you going to use that globe, or should I wish for wings to f ly back to the wyldwood?”
I sighed and raised the glass, watching the magic swirl within. Taking it in both hands, I gazed past it to the End of the World, at the bril iant void that never ceased to amaze. With a deep breath, I brought my hands together and crushed the glass between them, releasing the magic into the air. It expanded outward in a burst of light, engulfing us, and for a moment everything went completely white.
The light faded, and the sounds of the human world began: car engines and street traffic, honking horns and the shuff le of feet over pavement. I blinked and gazed around, trying to get my bearings. We were in a narrow all eyway between two large buildings, overf lowing Dumpsters and heaps of trash lining the wall s. A ragged lump in a cardboard box stirred, mumbled sleepily, and turned its back on us, frightening a large rat that went scurrying over the wall .
“Oh, of course. ” Puck wrinkled his nose, stepping back from a pile of rags crawling with maggots. “With all the meadows and forests and big swaths of wilderness that I know stil exist in the human world, where do we end up? A filthy, rat-infested all eyway. That's just great. ”
Grimalkin leaped atop a Dumpster, looking surprisingly natural in the urban environment, like a large all ey cat prowling the streets. “There is a trod not far from here,” he stated calmly, picking his way across the rim. “If we hurry, we should reach it before nightfal . Fol ow me. ”