The Iron Knight
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The Wolf rose, looming over both of us, the hair on his spine bristling.
I resisted the urge to hit Goodfel ow, even though I knew what he was doing; taunting an opponent for more information. “I am not a dog,” the Wolf growled, his deep voice making the puddles ripple. “And I work for no one.” He curled his lips in a sneer. “The favor of the Winter Queen is a substantial reward, but do not think you can order me around like the weak creatures of men. I will see you to the end of your quest alive.” He growled again and bared his teeth. “The request said nothing about whole.”
“You're not here for a favor,” I said, and he blinked, eyeing me suspiciously. “You don't need one,” I continued, “not from Mab, not from anyone. You enjoy the hunt, and the chal enge, but to agree to such a request without a kill at the end? That's not like you.” The Wolf continued to stare at us, his face betraying nothing. “Why are you really here?” I asked. “What do you want?”
“The only thing he really cares about—” A disembodied voice came from overhead, and Grimalkin appeared in the branches of a tree, nearly twenty feet off the ground. “Power.”
The hair on the Wolf 's back and shoulders bristled, though he gazed at Grimalkin with a faint, evil smile on his long muzzle. “Hel o, cat,” he said conversational y. “I thought I caught your stench creeping through the air. Why not come down here and talk about me?”
“Do not demean yourself by stating the ridiculous,” Grimalkin replied smoothly. “Just because my species is vastly superior does not mean you should f launt your idiocy so freely. I know why you are here, dog.”
“Real y,” Puck cal ed, craning his head to look up at the cat. “Wel then, would you like to share your theory, Furbal ?”
Grimalkin sniffed. “Do you people not know anything?” Standing up, he walked along the branch, the Wolf 's gaze fol owing him hungrily.
“He is here because he wishes to add his name to your tale. His power, his entire existence, comes from stories, from myths and legends and all the dark, frightening and amusing tales about him that humans have invented over the years. It is how the Big Bad Wolf has survived for so long. It is how you have survived for centuries, Good fellow. Surely you know this.”
“Well, yeah, of course I knew that,” Puck scoffed, crossing his arms.
“But that stil doesn't tel me why Wolfman is being so helpful all of a sudden.”
“You are on a quest,” the Wolf went on, finally tearing his gaze away from the cat to look at me. “The queen told me of this. That you, a soul ess and immortal being, wish to become human for the mortal you love.” He paused and shook his head in grudging admiration, or perhaps pity. “That is a story. That is a tale that will endure for genera-tions, if you can survive the trials, of course. But even if you don't, even if this tale becomes a tragedy, my name will stil be in it, adding to my strength.” He narrowed his eyes, staring me down. “Of course, it would be a better tale if you manage to reach your destination. I can help you in that respect. It will make the story longer anyway.”
“What makes you think we need, or want, your help?” Grimalkin asked loftily.
The Wolf gave me an eerie smile, all fangs, and his eyes glinted in the shadows. “I will be in this tale one way or another, little prince,” he warned.
“Either as the great wolf that protects and guides you to your destination, or as the tireless evil that tracks you through the night, haunting your steps and your dreams. I have been both, and such roles are easy for me to slip into. I leave the choice to you.”
We stared at each other for a long moment, two hunters sizing each other up, checking strengths and weaknesses. Finally, I nodded and careful y sheathed my blade.
“All right,” I said as Puck blinked and Grimalkin snorted in disgust. “I'll accept your help for now. But I make no promises about our continued all iance.”
“Neither do I, boy.” The Wolf regarded me the way a cat would observe a mouse. “So, now that we have an understanding, what should we do first?”
Overhead, Grimalkin sighed, very loudly. “Unbelievable,” he said, and the Wolf grinned at him and ran a pink tongue over his jaws.
Grimalkin was not impressed. “May I remind you,” he continued in that same bored, annoyed tone, “that out of this entire party, only I know the way to the seer. And if a certain dog forgets its manners, you will all be up the river without a paddle, so to speak. Remember that, prince.”
“You heard him,” I told the Wolf, who curled a lip at me. “No chasing or attacking our guide. We stil need him to reach the seer.”
“Please.” Grimalkin sniffed, and leaped to another branch. “As if I would ever all ow that to happen. This way, and do try to keep up.”
After leaving the lake and the dead bal ybog vil age, we followed Grimalkin through another tangled forest and across a rocky plateau, the great black Wolf trailing noiselessly behind us. The two animals didn't speak to each other, but the Wolf kept his distance from the cat, even when traveling across the open plains, so it seemed that they had worked out some sort of truce. A basilisk stirred on a rocky shelf, eyeing us hungrily as we passed beneath, but the Wolf silently curled his lip, baring his fangs, and the monster appeared to lose interest.
After we crossed the plateau, the ground turned sharply downhil and thick, thorny brambles started appearing, choking out the trees. When we reached the bottom of the slope, the briars rose around us like a spiny maze, ragged wisps of fog caught between their branches. The ground was wet and spongy, saturated with water, mud and something else. Something dark had seeped into the earth, turning the ground black and poisoned.
The air was stil , silent as a grave; nothing moved in the shadows or between the thorns, not even insects.
“This is as far as I go.”
Startled, we both turned to Grimalkin, sitting tightly on a patch of dry ground, watching us. “From here,” he said, regarding each of us in turn, “you are on your own.”
“What?” Puck exclaimed. “You mean you're not going to venture into the hol ow of death with us? Shocking. What kind of monster do you think lives here, ice-boy? It has to be pretty nasty for Furbal to f lake out on us. Oh, wait…”
Grimalkin f lattened his ears but otherwise ignored the Summer faery.
The Wolf sniffed the air, growled low in his chest, and the hackles rose along his spine. “This place,” he muttered, curling a lip, “is not right.”
He shook himself and took a step forward. “I'll scout ahead, see if it's—”
“No,” Grimalkin said, and the Wolf turned on him with a growl. The cait sith faced him seriously, his yel ow eyes intense. “You must remain here.
The val ey will not tolerate intruders. This part of the journey is for them, and them alone.”
The Wolf and the cat locked eyes, staring each other down. Grimalkin did not blink, and something in the cat's steady gaze must have convinced the much larger wolf. Reluctantly, he nodded and took a step back. “Very well ,” he growled. “I will scout along the perimeter, then.”
He shot a glare at me and Puck. “If you two need my help, just scream.”
He turned swiftly and trotted away, melting into the shadows and the trees. Grimalkin watched him go and turned to us.
“I have brought you as far as I can,” he said, rising graceful y to his feet, plumed tail waving. “The final few steps are up to you.” His gaze narrowed, watching us grimly. “Both of you.”
A coil of mist curled across the place where Grimalkin sat, and he was gone.
Puck crossed his arms, gazing past the edge of the val ey into the darkness and thorns. “Yep.” He sighed. “A really, really nasty monster, indeed.”
I gazed into the hol ow, watching the mist writhe through the thorns, creating shadows and dragons where there was nothing. Silence hung thick on the air; not a peaceful, serene silence, but the silence of a tomb, or the aftermath of a battle, where death and darkness thrived and the living had no place. I could hear the whispers of hate and fear that hissed through the brambles, ghosts on the wind. I could hear them cal my name.
Something in me recoiled, reluctant to set foot in that dark val ey. It was waiting for me, somewhere beyond the mist. Stil watching.
Filled with a foreboding I couldn't explain, I drew back, then stopped, angry with myself. Why this sudden fear? Fear meant nothing to me.
Fear was the knowledge of pain, the awareness that you could be hurt, that you could die. That was all it came down to. I knew pain. Intimately. I'd welcomed it at times, because it meant I could stil feel, that I wasn't completely frozen. What more could anything do to my body that I hadn't already lived through?
Nodding to Puck, I drew my sword and stepped into the hol ow, feeling the mist coil around me as we slipped into the fog.
A gray shroud enveloped us instantly, lit by a f lat, even glow that somehow managed to darken everything. Nothing moved in the hol ow; all life had been swal owed by the thick black briars that sprang up everywhere, choking everything out. The ground beneath us was wet and spongy, though the writhing layer of mist made it impossible to see what we were stepping on.
As I moved through the brambles, my sword held up and ready, I began to sense the wrongness of the val ey, right below my feet. The ground pulsed with hate and blood and despair; I could feel it clawing at me, the darkness of this place. I could feel my Unseelie nature rise up in response, cold, ruthless and angry.
“This place is cursed,” Puck muttered as I struggled to control myself, to stif le the darkness rising within. “We need to find this seer and get out of here, soon.”
“Ash,” something whispered through the brambles, raising the hair on my neck. I whirled, but no one was there.
“Ice-boy?” Puck stepped forward, eyes narrowed in concern. “Ash. You all right?”