The Iron Knight
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A face rippled across my memory, different from Ariel a's; pale-haired and blueeyed, smiling at me. “This quest, my earning a soul, is all for her.”
“I know,” Ariel a replied. “I saw you together, Ash. I know what you feel for her. You always loved…so completely.” Her voice trembled, and she took a deep breath, meeting my gaze. “Al I ask is that you let me help you. That's all I want.” When I stil hesitated, she bit her lip and her eyes fil ed with tears. “I haven't seen you in years, Ash. I waited for this day for so long—please don't walk out and leave me behind. Not again.”
Guilt stabbed at me, and I closed my eyes. “Al right.” I sighed. “I guess I do owe you that. But, it won't change anything, Ari. I have to keep my promise to Meghan. I won't stop until I've earned a soul.”
She nodded, almost distracted. “It's a long way to the End of the World.” Turning from me, she walked over to the shelves, her next words almost inaudible. “Anything can happen.”
THE RIVER OF DREAMS
Leaving the hol ow with Ariel a, Puck, and Grimalkin, I was eerily reminded of another journey, one that was disturbingly similar to this. I believe the human saying was déjà vu, and it did seem strange, traveling with very nearly the same companions as before. Myself,
Grimalkin, Robin Goodfel ow…and a girl. It was strange; not very long ago, I'd thought Meghan reminded me of Ariel a, but now, watching my old love glide through the mist as she led us out of the hol ow, my only ref lection was how similar—and how different—Ariel a was to Meghan.
I pushed those thoughts away, focusing only on the task at hand. I could not let myself be distracted from my goal. I could not start comparing the two, the love from the past and the girl I would do anything for, because if I did I would go mad.
The Wolf joined us almost as soon as we left the hol ow, materializing from the darkness without a sound. He sniffed Ariel a curiously and wrinkled his muzzle at her, but she gazed at him calmly, as if she had expected him. No introductions were made, and the pair seemed to accept each other without reservation.
Leaving the hol ow behind, we made our way through a forest of thorn trees, bristling and unfriendly, with bits of bone, fur and feathers im-paled between them. Not only were the trees covered in thorns, the f lowers, the ferns, even the rocks were all pointed and barbed, making it important to watch where we put our feet. Some of the trees had taken offense to our presence, or were simply bloodthirsty, for every so often they would take a swipe at us with a gleaming, bristling branch. I noticed, with a certain annoyance, that they left the Wolf completely alone, even moving aside for him to pass before taking a swat at me if I fol owed. After dodging several of these assaults, I finally grew tired of the game and drew my sword. When I sliced through the next thorny limb that whipped out at my face, the trees finally left us alone. For the most part.
“What is she like?” Ariel a asked suddenly, surprising me. She had been quiet up until now, wordlessly leading the way until the closeness of the thorns forced her to ease back, to let me go first with my weapon. A longbow of gleaming white wood lay strapped to her back—she had always been a deadly archer—but the only blade she carried was a dagger.
Caught off guard by her question, I blinked at her, confused and wary.
“I thought you already knew.”
“I knew of the girl, yes,” Ariel a replied, ducking a vine covered in thin, needlelike barbs. “But only f lashes. The visions never showed me more than that.”
Behind us, Puck's gleeful whoop rang out as he dodged an attack, followed by the rustle of several trees that continued to swipe at him as he danced around. He was obviously enjoying himself, and probably stirring the forest's ire to even greater heights, but at least his attention was elsewhere. Grimalkin had long disappeared into the thorny undergrowth, stating he would meet us on the other side, and the Wolf 's dark form was padding ahead, so it was just me and Ariel a.
Uncomfortable with her scrutiny, I turned away, hacking through a suspicious-looking branch before it could lunge at me. “She's…a lot like you,” I admitted, as the tree rattled in outrage. “Quiet, naive, a little reckless at times. Stubborn as a—” I stopped, suddenly self-conscious, feeling Ariel a's gaze on the back of my neck. “Why are you asking me this?”
She chuckled. “I just wanted to see if you would answer. Remember how difficult it was getting any real answers out of you before? Like pul ing teeth.” I grunted and continued clearing the way, and she followed close behind. “Wel , don't stop there, Ash. Tel me more about this human.”
“Ari.” I paused, as memories rose up, both blissful and painful. Dancing with Meghan. Teaching her to fight. Being forced to walk away as she lay dying beneath the limbs of a great iron oak. A root took advantage of my moment of distraction and tried to trip me, but I sidestepped and moved us both away. “I can't…talk about it right now,” I told Ariel a, whose sympathetic gaze read far too much. “Ask me again some other time.”
As we left the forest of thorns, darkness fel very suddenly, as if we'd crossed some invisible barrier into Night. One moment, we were in the perpetual gray twilight of the wyldwood and the next, it was pitch-black except for the stars. And a new sound began to filter through the silence of the forest, faint at first but growing ever stronger. A constant murmur that slowly progressed to a dul roar, until we finally emerged from the trees to stand on the banks of a great black river.
“Wow,” Puck mused, standing beside me. “The River of Dreams. I've only seen it a few times before, but it never ceases to amaze me.”
I agreed with him, albeit silently. The surface of the river was black as night, ref lecting the star-fil ed sky above and stretching on and on, until you couldn't tel where the water ended and the sky began.
Moons, comets and constel ations rippled on the surface, and other, stranger things f loated upon the misty black waters. Petals and book pages, butterf ly wings and silver medals. The hilt of a sword stuck out of the water at an odd angle, the silver blade tangled with ribbons and spiderwebs. A coffin bobbed to the surface, covered in dead lilies, before sinking into the depths once more. The debris of human imagination, f loating through the dark waters of dream and nightmare.
Swarms of fireflies and will -o'-the-wisps f loated and bobbed above the waves like moving stars, adding to the confusion. This was the last familiar border of the wyldwood. Beyond the river was the Deep Wyld, the vast, uncharted territory of the Nevernever, where legends and primeval myths roamed or slept, where the darkest and most ancient creatures lurked in obscurity.
The Wolf gazed across the water, calm, unruff led, almost bored. I had the feeling he had seen the River of Dreams many times before, and wondered how far downstream he had been, if he made his home in the Deep Wyld himself.
I looked at Ariel a. “Where to now, Ari?”
The lights of the river ref lected in her eyes, and will -o'-thewisps darted around her, burrowing into her hair. Standing there on the riverbank, glowing and wraithlike, she looked as insubstantial as mist. Raising a pale, delicate hand, she pointed downstream.
“We fol ow the river. It will take us where we need to go.”
“Into the Deep Wyld.”
“How far?” The River of Dreams supposedly ran forever; no one had ever been to the end of it, at least, no one who had survived to tel the tale.
Her eyes were as distant as the stars overhead. “Until we reach the edge of the world.”
I nodded. Whatever it took, I was ready, even if it was impossible.
“Let's get going, then.”
A familiar gray cat sat on a barrel half-submerged in the mud at the river's edge, lazily swatting at firef lies that bobbed overhead. As we approached, a large wooden raft, covered in algae and trailing ribbons of weed, broke from a cluster of branches and f loated toward us, unmanned. The planks were wide and sturdy, the logs holding it up thick and enormous, and it was large enough for even an enormous wolf to sit comfortably. A long wooden pole rested at the back, halfunderwater.
“Oh, hey—look at that,” Puck said cheerfully, rubbing his hands together. “Seems like the river knew we were coming. I'll drive.”
I put my arm out as he started forward. “Not a chance.”
“Psh. You never let me do anything.”
The Wolf curled his lip in distaste, eyeing the raft as if it might lunge at him. “You expect to reach the End of the World on that? Do you know the things that live in the River of Dreams? And we're not even at the nightmare stretch yet.”
“Aw, is the Big Bad Wolfie afraid of a few nasty fish?”
The Wolf gave him a baleful stare. “You wouldn't say that if you'd seen some of the fish in the Deep Wyld, Goodfel ow. But more important, how will you ever reach the End of the World if I bite your head off?”
“It's all right,” Ariel a said quietly before we could respond. “I've seen us…fol owing the river to the end. This is the way we need to go.”
The Wolf snorted. “Foolish,” he growled, but hopped lightly onto the wooden planks. The raft rocked under his weight, splashing water over the edge, but held. “Wel ?” He turned, glaring back at us. “Are we going to get this absurdity under way, or not?”
I helped Ariel a into the boat, then stepped onto the platform near the back, grabbing the long wooden pole. As Puck entered, looking pens-ive, I nodded at Grimalkin, stil sitting on the barrel. “You coming or not, cait sith?”
He gave the raft a dubious glance, curling his whiskers. “I suppose I must if I wish to see you to the End of the World.” Standing, he tensed his muscles to leap off the barrel, but hesitated, narrowing his eyes.
“Although, I will issue this one warning. If I end up in the river because some idiot decides to rock the boat—” He f lattened his ears at Puck, who gave him a wide-eyed look of innocence “—I know several witches who would be happy to bring down a particularly potent curse on said idiot's head.”