The Iron Knight
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I felt breathless, stunned. all the while I'd been venting my anger and grief against Puck, the cause of my suffering had been preparing for something far greater. And she hadn't even been able to tel me about it.
Ariel a paused then, closing her eyes, her mouth tightening. “I knew you would fal in love with her, Ash,” she whispered. “The visions showed me, years before you would see her for the first time. I wanted to go to you, to let you know that I was alive. I knew what you were going through, I heard of your oath against Puck. I wanted to tel you so badly.” Her voice wavered, making my gut twist. “But I couldn't. I had to let you meet her, fal in love with her, become her knight. Because she needed you. And because we all needed her to succeed. I believe Faery itself brought me back to ensure the success of Meghan Chase. I couldn't let my feelings for you stand in the way. I…I had to let you go.” She took a deep breath, and her voice hardened. “I chose to let you go.
“I knew you would come here.” Ariel a faced me, the stars glittering in her turquoise eyes. “Eventual y, I knew you would come. I know your quest, Ash. And I know why you're here. You want to become human, to be mortal, so you can go back to her. But things aren't so black-and-white now, are they? And so I will ask a question of you. I know what you must do to become mortal. But the road will be hard, and some of us might not survive it. So, this is my question. Do you stil want to become human? Do you stil want to be with Meghan Chase?”
I took a slow breath to calm my churning mind. I couldn't answer, not when the love decades dead was standing not five yards away staring at me. Without a word, I turned and left the glade, back into the mist-shrouded hol ow and the silence of my own thoughts. I felt Ariel a's eyes on me as I left, but she did not fol ow.
Alone, I stood in the place where Ariel a died, the great wyvern skeleton curled around the edge, and tried to process all that had happened.
She was alive. all this time, she had been alive, knowing I was out there, watching, yet unable to contact to me. She had been alone for so long. It must have been horrible for her. If the situation had been reversed, and I was the one watching, knowing she would fal for another, it would have driven me insane. I wondered if she had waited for this day, the day I finally returned to this spot, hoping that we could be together again.
But there was someone else now. Someone who waited for me, who knew my True Name and commanded my loyalty. Someone I'd made a promise to.
I felt Puck's presence at my back but didn't turn around. “This is crazy, isn't it?” he muttered, coming to stand beside me. “Who would've thought she was here all this time? If I had known…” He sighed, crossing his arms to his chest, letting his voice trail off. “Things sure would've turned out differently, wouldn't they?”
“How did you know?” I asked without turning around, and felt his confused frown at my back. “How did you know I wouldn't kill you?”
“I didn't,” Puck said with forced cheerfulness. “I was really, really hoping you wouldn't. That would've sucked a lot, I think.” He stepped closer, joining me in staring at the dead wyvern. His next words, when they came, were very soft. “So, is this thing between us finally over?”
I didn't look at him. “Ariel a's alive,” I murmured. “I think that dissolves the oath—I no longer have to avenge her death. So, if that's true, then… yes.” I paused, waiting to see if the words felt right, if I could say what I'd wanted to say for decades. If the words were a lie, I would not be able to speak them. “It's over.”
Puck let out a sigh and let his head fal back, running his hands through his hair, a relieved grin crossing his face. I shot him a sideways glance.
“That doesn't mean we're all right,” I warned, mostly out of habit. “Just because I'm not sworn to kill you anymore doesn't mean I won't.”
But it was an empty threat, and we both knew it. The relief of not having to kill Puck, being free from an oath I never wanted, was too great. I wasn't failing anyone by letting him live. For now, the Unseelie demon inside me had been sated.
Though I'd spoken the truth when I'd said we weren't all right. There was stil too much fighting, too much anger and hate and bad blood between us.
We both had years of words and actions we regretted, old wounds that went too deep. “Puck,” I said without moving, “this changes nothing between us. Don't get too comfortable, thinking I won't put a sword through your heart. We're stil enemies. It can't ever be the way it was.”
“If you say so, prince.” Puck smirked, then surprised me by turning completely serious. “But right now, I think you have larger issues to deal with.” He glanced back at the glade, frowning. “Meghan and Ariel a—that's a choice I'd never want to make. What are you going to do?”
Meghan and Ariel a. Both alive. Both waiting for me. The whole situation was completely surreal. Meghan was the Iron Queen, far beyond my reach.
Ariel a—alive, unchanged and whole—waited just a few yards away.
Possibilities and whatifs swam through my head. For just a moment, I wondered what would happen if I just stayed here, with Ariel a, forever.
The pain was swift and immediate. It wasn't stabbing, or fiery, or unbearable. More like a fraying of my inner self, a few threads tearing away, vanishing into the ether. I winced and stif led a gasp, instantly abandoning that train of thought. My vow, my promise to Meghan, was woven into my very essence, and breaking it would unravel me, as well .
“My promise stil stands,” I said quietly, and the glimmering threads of pain vanished as swiftly as they'd come. “It doesn't matter what I want, I can't give up now. I have to keep going.”
“Promises aside, then.” Puck's voice was harder now, disapproving. “If there was no promise, Ash, no oath that bound you, would you keep going?
What would you do right now, if you were free?”
“I…” I hesitated, thinking about the paths that had brought me here, the impossible choices, and the two lives that meant everything to me.
“I…don't know. I can't answer that right now.”
“Well, you'd better figure it out quick, prince.” Puck narrowed his eyes, his voice firm. “We've screwed both their lives up pretty bad. At least you can make it right for one of them. But you can't have it both ways, you know. Pretty soon, you're gonna have to make a choice.”
“I know.” I sighed, glancing back at the glade, knowing she watched me, even now. “I know.”
Ariel a was waiting for us when we returned, standing under the elder tree, talking to the empty branches. At least, it was empty until two golden eyes appeared through the leaves, blinking lazily as we came in.
Grimalkin yawned as he sat up, curling his tail around his feet, and regarded us solemnly.
“Made your decision, have you?” he purred, digging his claws into the branch holding him up. “Good. all this agonizing was getting rather trite.
Why does it take so long for humans and gentry to choose one path or the other?”
Puck blinked at him. “Oh, let me guess. You knew Ariel a was here all along.”
“Your kind does have a f lair for stating the obvious.”
Ariel a was watching me, her expression unreadable. “What is your decision, Ash of the Winter Court?”
I drew close enough to see her face, realizing it hadn't changed in all the years she'd been gone. She was stil beautiful, her face lovely and perfect, though there were shadows in her gaze that hadn't been before. “You told me you knew the way to becoming mortal,” I said softly, watching for her reaction. Her eyes tightened a bit, but her expression remained neutral otherwise. “I made a promise,” I said softly. “I swore to Meghan that I'd find a way to return. I can't walk away from that, even if I want to. I need to know how to become mortal.”
“Then it is decided.” Ariel a closed her eyes for a long moment. When she spoke, her voice was low and distant, and it raised the hair on the back of my neck. “There is a place,” she murmured, “that resides at the end of the Nevernever. Beyond the Briars that surround Faery, beyond the very edge of our world, the ancient Testing Grounds have stood since the beginning of time. Here, the Guardian awaits those who would escape Faery forever, who wish to leave the world of dreams and enter the human realm. But to do so, they must endure the gauntlet. None who accepted this chal enge returned sane, if they returned at all . But legend states that if you can survive the trials, the Guardian will offer the key to becoming mortal.
The gauntlet will be your test, and the prize will be…your soul.”
Ariel a regarded me solemnly. “Yes. A soul is the essence of humanity.
It is what we lack to become mortal, and as such, we cannot truly understand humans. We were born from their dreams, their fears and imaginations. We are the product of their hearts and minds. Without a soul we are immortal, yet empty. Remembered, we exist. Forgotten, we die. And when we die, we simply fade away, as if we never existed at all . To become human is to have a soul. It is that simple.”
I glanced at Puck and saw him nodding, as if this all made sense. “Al right,” I said, turning back to Ariel a. “Then, I need to get to the Testing Grounds. Where are they?”
She smiled sadly. “It is not a place you can just walk to, Ash. No one who has gone to the Testing Grounds has ever survived. However…”
Her eyes glazed over, becoming as distant as the stars. “I have seen it, in my visions. I can show you the way.”
“Can you?” I gave her a long, searching look. “And what would you ask in return? What would you have me swear?” I stepped closer, dropping my voice so only she could hear. “I can't give you back the past, Ariel a. I can't promise it will be the same. There's…someone else now.”