The Iron Knight
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“Always.” As the swarm of hobyahs began edging forward again, I put two fingers in my mouth and blew out a piercing whistle.
A sudden, haunting howl echoed it. The hobyahs cringed, spinning around, their eyes going wide with fear.
The Wolf hurled himself into the midst of the hobyahs with a roar that shook the ground, and the creatures screamed in panic. “Dog!” they shrieked, throwing up their hands and running about in terror. “Dog! Dog!”
The Wolf bared his teeth. “I. Am not. A dog!” he roared, and lunged for the nearest hobyah, grabbing it by the head and shaking it viciously.
I took Ariel a's hand and pulled her away, Puck close behind and muttering curses. The hobyahs didn't try to stop us. Together, we f led the camp, hearing the Wolf 's roars and the hobyah's squeals of panic echo behind us.
“Ash,” Ariel a said, grabbing my arm, “wait! We're not being fol owed.
Stop for a moment, please.”
I staggered to a halt, ignoring the urge to put my hand against the nearest tree to stop the ground from spinning. The chaos in the hobyah vil age had long faded behind us, but I'd wanted to get as far from the creatures as possible, in case they decided to come after us once more. If the Wolf left any alive.
My chest and shoulder stil burned where the hobyah shaman had spat on me. Ignoring the pain crawling down my back, I leaned against a cool, mossy trunk and gazed around, trying to get my bearings. The trees here were giant, ancient things, and you could almost feel their eyes on you, cold and unamused by the intruders in their midst.
“Well, that was all kinds of fun.” Puck blew out a breath and raked a hand through his hair. “Just like old times. Except for the whole getting drugged and having to be rescued thing. That's gonna sting later, I just know it.” Groaning, he sat on a nearby rock, rubbing a bruise on his shoulder. “Nice of you to come after us, ice-boy,” he drawled. “If I didn't know better by now, I'd almost think you cared.”
I forced a smirk in his direction. “It wouldn't be nearly as satisfying if I didn't get to kill you myself,” I replied, and Puck grinned.
A cool hand touched my cheek. I looked up into Ariel a's concerned gaze. “Are you all right?” she asked, placing the other palm on my forehead.
I closed my eyes against the softness. “You're burning up. What happened?”
“You smel sick, prince,” the Wolf growled, coming out of nowhere.
“Like weakness. You won't make it to the End of the World like that.”
“The shaman,” I replied. “He…spit on me. Did something to me, I think.” The burning in my chest and shoulder had gone numb and was now spreading throughout my body. I realized I could no longer feel my arm.
“Hobyah venom is hal ucinogenic,” the Wolf continued, curling his lip.
“You're in for an interesting night, little prince, if you wake up at all .”
The trees were beginning to move strangely, centuries-old giants swaying like will ows. I squeezed my eyes shut to clear the visions, and when I opened them again, I was lying on my back while tiny lights danced and swirled over my head.
Someone's face bent over me, starlight eyes fil ed with worry. She was beautiful, a vision come to life. But she was fading, growing dimmer and dimmer, until only her eyes were left, staring at me. Then they blinked, and the world cut out altogether.
Where am I?
Mist surrounded me, coiling along the ground in ragged patches, blanketing everything in white. The air was cool and damp, holding the quiet stil ness of early morning. I smel ed pine and cedar and heard the soft splash of water, somewhere up ahead in the fog. I didn't recognize my surroundings, but for some reason it all seemed vaguely familiar.
With nothing else to do, I started walking.
The mist slowly cleared away, revealing a smal green pond encircled by pine trees. The faint babble of ducks echoed over the stil ness, and several of the green-and-brown birds glided through the water toward a pale figure standing on the bank. I stopped and drew in a quiet breath, and for a moment I couldn't move, afraid that the scene before me would dissolve and I'd be left chasing shadows.
She wore jeans and a white shirt, and her long, pale hair was tied in a ponytail, fal ing softly down her back. Her body was slender, more en-ergetic than graceful, her fingers quick as she tore bread crusts and tossed them into the water. There was a glow about her now, a f lickering halo of light, swirling with glamour and power. Against the darkness of the pond and trees, she looked bright and vivid and alive, a light burning against the shadows.
For a moment, I just watched her, tossing crumbs into the water, smiling as the ducks swarmed over them. I knew this wasn't real; the real Meghan was back in the Iron Realm as the powerful Iron Queen. I knew this was a dream; or perhaps I had died and faded away and didn't know it yet. But seeing her stil made my heart beat crazily, made me long to pul her close and let that light consume me. If it burned until there was nothing left, would that be such a terrible fate?
She must have heard me, or sensed my presence, for she turned and her blue eyes widened. “Ash?” she whispered, and the smile that crept over her face warmed me like the sun. “What are you doing here?”
I couldn't help but smile back. “I don't know,” I told her, taking the hand she offered and letting her pul me close. “I think…this is a dream.” Her arms slipped around my waist, and I held her to me, closing my eyes. No burning fire, no searing light that turned me to dust, just the feel of Meghan in my arms. “Though I'd be happy if I never woke up.”
I felt her puzzled frown, and she pulled back to look at me, cocking her head. “Strange. I thought this was my dream.”
“Maybe it is.” I was having trouble thinking. The subtle shift of her body against mine, her hands tracing circles against my back, was driving me to distraction. “Maybe I'm not really here, and this will all disappear when you wake up, including me.” She held me tighter, and I smiled. “I wouldn't care either way.”
Something nagged at the back of my mind, something important that I had forgotten, beating against my subconscious like birds f luttering against a windowsil . Impatiently, I shoved it back, burying it in a dark corner of my mind. Whatever it was, I didn't want to remember. Not now. I didn't want to see, feel or think of anything except the girl in front of me.
As I bent to kiss her, she slipped her hand beneath my shirt, tracing soft fingers over my bare skin, and from there it was easy to forget everything.
Later, we lay in the cool grass at the edge of the pond, Meghan leaning against a tree with my head in her lap, gazing up at the clouds. Her fingers twirled idle patterns in my hair, and I dozed contentedly, feeling no urge to move. If I had died and this was nonexistence, then so be it.
If I was sleeping stil , then I had no intention of waking up.
“Where have you been all these months? I mean…” She hesitated, twirling a strand of my hair around her finger. “I know you can't come into the Iron Realm, but no one has seen any sign of you, anywhere. Or Puck, for that matter. What have you two been doing?”
“I was…looking for something, I think.” I reached up and trapped her hand in mine, bringing it to my lips. “I can't remember now.”
She freed her fingers, stroking my cheek with them. I closed my eyes and let myself drift. “You don't think it could be important?”
“Maybe.” Truth was, I didn't want to think about it. I was content here.
Whatever lay beyond this glen, this smal pocket of dreams or reality or whatever it was, I didn't want to know about. I couldn't remember much, but I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it involved pain.
And I was tired of it. So much of my existence had been pain, or emptiness, or loss. Meghan was here. I was happy. That was all I needed to know.
Meghan tapped my forehead in a playful manner. “You do know that one of us has to wake up, don't you?” she asked, and I grunted, not opening my eyes. “I don't know if I'm a figment of your imagination or you're a figment of mine, but eventual y this is going to fade away.”
I rol ed to my knees to face her, and she blinked as I leaned in close.
“You can go if you have to,” I said, smoothing her hair behind one ear.
“I'm not leaving. I'll stil be here when you come back.”
“No, Ash,” came a new voice, shattering the peaceful moment. “You cannot stay.”
Meghan and I both jerked up, spinning to face the intruder in our private world. Ariel a stood a few yards away, shrouded in the mist, her face grim as she watched us.
“You were very difficult to find, Ash,” she said in a weary voice. “I almost gave up when I couldn't find you in nightmare. I didn't think to look for you in the dreams of another, but it makes sense that you should come here.”
“What do you want here?” Meghan rose with the regal grace of a queen, calm and unruff led. I noticed she subtly moved in front of me when facing Ariel a, a familiar gesture that caught me off guard. The Iron Queen was protecting me. “Who are you?”
“You know me, Meghan Chase.” Ariel a stepped forward, the mist parting for her, to stand before us clearly. “I am the one who was left behind, the one Ash knew before you ever came into the picture.”
Meghan didn't move, but I saw her draw in a slow breath as the realization hit. “Ariel a,” she breathed, and I winced at the churning emotions in that one quiet word. Meghan shook her head, glanced back at me. “Is this another dream, Ash? Did you bring her here?”
“No,” Ariel a said before I could reply. “I am not a dream. Not a memory. I am as real as you are, Iron Queen. Death could not quite hold me, all those years ago.”
“Enough,” I rasped, finally shaking the fog from my mind. Memory returned in a rush: the journey to find the seer, the fateful trip down the River of Dreams, the quest to earn a soul. Stepping between them, I felt the heat of both their gazes piercing me like a thousand knives.