The Iron Knight
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“Don't stare into the forest too long, prince,” the Wolf growled, as something rustled in the bushes to the side. “Direct eye contact will draw attention to yourself from the things that live there. And they aren't pretty, trust me.”
“You mean they're even scarier than you?” Puck joked, and the Wolf gave him an eerie smile that was all teeth.
“I was born from human fear and suspicion,” the Wolf growled, sounding proud of the fact. “Their stories, their legends, gave me power. But these are creatures of human nightmares, pure, mindless, screaming terror. They come crawling out of that river and escape into the forest, and the forest twists and warps into a landscape of what humans fear the most. If you want to meet some of these creatures, feel free to draw their gaze. Just try not to go insane when you finally see one.”
Puck snorted. “Please. Who do you think you're talking to? I caused some of those human nightmares. I've seen it all , Wolfman. There's nothing that can freak me out any—whoa!”
Puck leaped backward, almost tripping over himself. Grimalkin hissed and vanished, and I drew my sword. On the banks of the river, holding a fishing pole in two white, longfingered hands, an enormous, wild-haired creature turned to stare at us.
I stared at it. It was fey, it had to be, but I'd never seen anything like it.
It didn't have a body, just a huge, bulbous head covered in shaggy white hair that hung down to its knees. No, not knees…knee. The giant had one thick stump of a leg ending in a massive clubbed foot, dirty yellow toenails gripping the ground like a giant claw. Two long arms sprouted where its ears should've been, and a pair of huge, uneven eyes gazed down at us with detached curiosity.
I tensed, ready to attack should the giant lunge at us. That single leg, once taken out, would make it easy to bring this huge creature down.
But the giant only blinked at us sleepily, then turned to gaze at the river again, where the string of his fishing pole met the water.
The Wolf panted, grinning at Puck, who had leaped to his feet, furiously brushing mud from his pants. Ariel a stepped up beside me, her apathy forgotten as we gazed up at the strange creature, continuing to fish as if nothing had happened. “What is that?” she whispered, clutching my arm.
“I've never seen a creature like this before. Is this some kind of human nightmare?”
“It's not a nightmare,” the Wolf said, sitting down to watch us. “It's fey, just like you, but it doesn't have a name. At least, none that anyone can remember.”
“I did not think any stil existed,” Grimalkin said, reappearing on a piece of driftwood, his tail stil f luffed out to twice its size. He peered up at the oblivious giant and sniffed. “This may be the very last one.”
“Well, endangered or not, maybe it can help us,” Puck said, edging up to the giant's treelike leg. “Oy, stumpy! Yeah, you!” he cal ed as the giant's massive head swiveled around to stare at him. “Can you understand me?”
The Wolf blinked at Puck, astonished, and Ariel a pressed a little bit closer to me. I could feel her soft fingers gripping my arm, and casually reached for my sword hilt. “I'm not about to scrape you off the bottom of its foot, Goodfel ow,” I warned.
“Touched that you care, prince,” Puck cal ed back, retreating a few steps to meet the giant's gaze, craning his head up. “Hey there,” he greeted, waving cheerfully. “We don't mean to intrude, but would you be able to answer a couple questions?” He blinked as the giant continued to stare. “Uh, bob once for yes, twice for no.”
The faery shifted, and I tensed, ready to attack if it tried to stomp Puck like an irritating cockroach. But the giant only pulled his line out of the river and turned to face Puck square on.
“What…do…you…want?” it asked, very slowly, as if it was just remembering how to talk. Puck's eyebrows shot up.
“Oh, hey, you can speak, after all . Excel ent.” He turned to grin at me, and I stared back, unamused. “We were just wondering,” Puck continued, giving the giant his best charming smile, “how much farther to the End of the World? Just as a curiosity. Do you know? You look like a local, you've been here awhile, right? What do you think?”
“I…do not remember,” the giant said, frowning as if such a thought pained him. “I am sorry. I do not remember.”
“You won't get anything useful out of him, Goodfel ow,” the Wolf growled, standing up. “He doesn't even remember why he's here.”
“I was…looking for something,” the giant mused, his large eyes going glassy. “In…the river, I think. I forgot what it was, but…I'll know it when I see it.”
“Oh.” Puck looked disappointed, but only for a moment. “Wel , how about a boat, then?” he went on, undaunted. “If you've been here awhile, you must've seen a boat f loating down the river once or twice.”
The Wolf shook his head and turned to stalk down the riverbank, obviously fed up with the conversation. But the giant frowned, his huge brows knitting together, and nodded thoughtful y.
“A boat. Yes…I remember a boat. Always going in the same direction.”
He pointed with a pale white finger in the direction we were headed.
“That way. It makes one stop, just one, at the dock on the river's edge.”
I looked up sharply. “Where?”
The giant's furrows deepened. “A town? A settlement? I think I remember…houses. Others…like me. Lots of mist…” He blinked and shrugged, which looked strange because he had no shoulders. “I don't remember.”
With a final blink, he turned away, as if forgetting we were there, and none of Puck's continued prodding seemed to reach him.
“Do you know anything about this town?” I asked Grimalkin as we continued down the riverbank. Farther ahead, the Wolf had stopped again and was looking back in annoyance. I would've asked him, but he looked ready to snap someone's head off.
“I only know legends, prince.” Grimalkin picked his way over the ground, avoiding puddles and mincing his way through the mud. “I have never been to this so-cal ed town myself, but there are very, very old stories about a place in the Deepest Wyld where the fey go to die.”
I stared at the cat. “What do you mean?”
Grimalkin sighed. “Among other things, the town is known as Phaed.
Do not bother tel ing me you have never heard of it. I already know you have not. It is a place for those whom no one remembers anymore.
Just as stories, belief and imagination make us stronger, the lack of them slowly kill s, even those in the Nevernever, until there is nothing left. That giant we saw? He is one of them, the Forgotten, clinging to existence by the thread of those who stil remember him. It is only a matter of time before he is simply not there anymore.”
I shivered, and even Puck looked grave. Deep down, that was something we all feared, being forgotten, fading away into nothingness because no one remembered our stories or our names.
“Do not look so serious,” Grimalkin said, hopping over a puddle, perching on a rock to stare at us. “It is the inevitable end for all of Faery. We all must fade eventual y. Even you, Goodfel ow. Even the great and mighty Wolf. Why do you think he wished to accompany you, prince?” Grimalkin wrinkled his nose, curling his whiskers at me.
“So that his story would go on. So that it would spread to the hearts and minds of those who will remember him. But everything he does is only a delay. Sooner or later, everyone winds up in Phaed. Except cats, of course.” With a sniff, he leaped down and trotted along the riverbank with his tail held high.
A ragged mist began to curl along the ground, coming off the water and creeping through the trees. Soon it was so thick it was difficult to see more then a few feet, the river, the woods, the distant horizon completely obscured by the blanket of white.
The Wolf suddenly appeared, coming out of the fog like a silent and deadly shadow. “There are lights ahead,” he growled, the fur along his shoulders and neck bristling like a bed of spikes. “It looks like a town, but there's something strange about it. It has no scent, no smel . There are things moving around up ahead, and I heard voices through the fog, but I can't smel anything. It's like it's not even there.”
“That is the problem with dogs.” Grimalkin sighed, nearly invisible in the coiling mist. “Always trusting what their nose tel s them. Perhaps you should pay attention to your other senses, as well .”
The Wolf bared his teeth in a snarl. “I've been up and down these banks more times than I can remember. There was never a town here.
Why would there be one now?”
“Perhaps it appears as the ferry does,” Grimalkin said calmly, peering into the mist. “Perhaps it only appears when there is need. Or perhaps—” he glanced at me and Ariel a “—only those who have died or are about to die can find their way to Phaed.”
The riverbank turned into a muddy path, which we followed until dark shapes began to appear through the mist, the silhouettes of houses and trees.
As we got closer, the town of Phaed appeared before us, the path cutting straight through the center. Wooden shanties stood on stilts above the marshy ground, leaning dangerously to the side as if they were drunk. Tired gray hovels slumped or were stacked atop each other like cardboard boxes on the verge of fal ing down or col apsing with a good kick. Everything sagged, drooped, creaked or was so faded it was impossible to tel its original color.
The street was ful of clutter, odds and ends that appeared as if they had been dropped and never picked up again. A fishing pole, with the skeleton of a fish on the end of the line, lay in the middle of the road, causing the Wolf to curl his lip and skirt around it. An easel with a half-finished painting rotted in a pool of stagnant water, paint dripping into the pool like blood. And books were scattered everywhere, from children's nursery rhymes to huge tomes that looked completely ancient.