The Iron Knight
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I will certainly not partake in that endeavor.” He wrinkled his nose and padded from the room.
I knelt down beside the bed. “Ari,” I muttered, grabbing the delicate shoulders and shaking them gently. “Wake up. We have to go, now.”
Ariel a f linched away from me, raising her hands in sleep as if to reach out for someone. “No, Ash…no,” she whispered. “Don't…please, no.”
“Ari!” I shook harder, jostling her thin frame, but she only whimpered and sank deeper into sleep. Finally, I gathered her to me, lifting her in my arms.
She was so light, like twigs held together by wispy cloth. Clutching her to my chest, I stumbled from the room.
Grimalkin met me at the door, followed by a yawning Puck scratching the back of his head. He gave me a sleepy nod as we passed. Together, we ventured into the last room down the hal , where the huge form of the Wolf was curled in a corner, his rumbling snores vibrating the wall s.
“Okay,” Puck said, leaning against the doorframe, looking like he was fighting to stay on his feet, “I agree that we have to get out of here now, but… who wants to wake up the puppy?”
I nodded toward a corner. “There's a broom. I have Ariel a—I think you should take care of the Wolf.”
“Hmm, that's okay, ice-boy. I'm kinda partial to not having my head bitten off.”
“Goodfel ow!” Grimalkin spat, right before he disappeared, “Above you!”
I spun, stil holding Ariel a, as a Forgotten dropped from the ceiling—the innkeeper from before, only now her eyes were blank and glassy, her mouth an open hole as she lurched toward Puck.
The Wolf 's eyes snapped open. Without warning, he sprang to his feet with a roar and lunged through the doorway, massive jaws clamping over the Forgotten's spindly frame. The faery wailed and dissolved like mist in the breeze, and the Wolf shook his head, turning back to glare at us.
“It's impossible to sleep with the pair of you around,” he growled, baring his teeth. “Now, are we leaving, or are you two going to stand there barking at each other all night?”
Forgotten were beginning to drift up the stairs like zombies, faces slack and mouths open. Puck and the Wolf met them side by side, teeth and daggers f lashing in the dim light, cutting a path to the exit.
Ariel a sighed and murmured in my arms, and I held her close, determined that no Forgotten would touch her.
We burst through the door of the inn and stopped, staring at the huge mob of Forgotten surrounding the building. The Forgotten stared back, silent and motionless, mouths gaping like landed fish. The Wolf snarled and lunged forward, snapping at the air, and the Forgotten drew back, offering no resistance. But they were so starved for glamour, for memory and emotion and life, that the Wolf stumbled and nearly fel , his strength siphoned away.
The ground lurched, and I nearly sank to my knees, fighting to stay upright. “Keep moving!” I cal ed, as Puck swiped at several Forgotten that pressed closer, driving them back. “Get to the dock! We have to make it to the ferry!”
The Forgotten parted for us like waves, not resisting, forcing no confrontation, but their hunger was a constant thing, draining our life, making it harder and harder to move. I glanced over at Puck and saw him turning as gray and washed-out as the Forgotten around us, his once-bright red hair dul and colorless. I couldn't see Grimalkin, and hoped the cat wouldn't simply fade into nothingness while invisible, which we would never know.
The dock loomed before us, a lifeline in the dark, and on the River of Dreams, I saw the faint edges of a ferryboat through the mist. Puck and the Wolf, staggering and nearly leaning on each other, reached it first, and Puck yel ed at me to hurry, before vanishing into the fog.
Just as I reached the dock, something latched on to my arm. I felt a stab of pain, an emptiness so strong it was physical, and went to my knees as the sharp thin man appeared before me, his long fingers grasping my arm.
“I figured it out,” he whispered, as I struggled to make my body move, respond, anything. But I was numb, drained, only barely conscious, as the thin man continued to draw out my life. I felt my glamour slipping away with my strength, sucked into the black hole that was the sharp thin man. Ariel a slumped against my chest as my grip failed, and his gaze followed her.
“My, you're strong,” he continued in an amiable voice. “So much life.
Such powerful memories and glamour and emotion. You do not be-long here.
Not yet. Upset the balance, you have. Even those who are nearly faded have come back, and now they will linger even more. Because of you.”
“Not…yet?” I could barely get the words out. The crowd of Forgotten had gathered again, surrounding us with open mouths, their combined pul so strong I nearly col apsed. The thin man looked at me, surprised.
“You do not know?” He tilted his head, and for a moment, it vanished.
“Your essence is unraveling. Bit by bit. Soon, you will be unable to remember your name, your promise, who you are, and you will be consumed with fil ing the emptiness inside. But it will never be enough. In time, you will find your way to Phaed, to remain here with the Forgotten, and the Promise-breakers.” He nodded, a sharp gesture in the coiling fog. “But not yet.”
“Then…you'l let us…go?”
“Of course you will go,” the sharp thin man said, as if that was obvious.
“You will go, and life will return to normal. Everyone will forget, as is their way.
You do not belong. But, her—” his gaze sharpened, staring at Ariel a “—she must stay. She is the reason you found this place. No essence.
She is empty, like we are. She remains.”
I felt a f lare of anger, but it was immediately drained away by the thin man. “No,” I muttered, trying to find the strength to pul back, to resist.
“She remains,” the thin man whispered again, and reached to take her from me.
No! A fierce protectiveness roared to life, drowning out everything else. She would not be taken away. Not again. I would not fail her again.
With the last of my strength, I lunged to my feet and drew my blade, pressing it to the thin man's neck.
He seemed surprised that I could stil move. “She does not belong with you,” he said, watching calmly as I fought to remain on my feet, keep the blade steady and hold the girl to myself with one arm. “She belongs here, with us.”
“I don't care,” I told him. “I'm not letting her go.”
A roar shattered the stil ness, and the Wolf came bounding out of the fog, scattering Forgotten like wispy birds. Shoving his huge body between myself and the thin man, he bared his fangs at the crowd and snarled. “Get going, prince,” he snapped, as the sharp thin man turned to the side and disappeared. “The boat is already leaving. Go!”
Sheathing my sword, I gathered Ariel a in both arms and staggered onto the dock, where Puck met me halfway. “Geez, you love to wait til the last dramatic moment, don't you, ice-boy?” he muttered as we hurried over the planks. At the end of the dock, a smal , faded paddleboat covered in moss and vines was pul ing away, easing back into the River of Dreams. Grimalkin sat on the railings, watching us with glowing yel ow eyes.
“Hurry!” the cat urged as the boat pulled farther away. “They are coming!”
Behind us, I heard the Wolf 's growls as he backed onto the dock, and felt the emptiness of the Forgotten sucking at me, even from this distance.
And then they were crawling onto the dock from beneath the water, reaching for us with ghostly fingers, mouths gaping like dead fish.
Puck slashed at one, cutting through it like paper, and it frayed into coils of mist, but there were always more, grasping for us, starved and relentless.
The ferry drew farther away.
Thumping footsteps shook the dock, and I turned to see the Wolf hurl himself out of the fog, bounding toward us. Dozens of Forgotten clung to him, hanging off his back and neck as he snarled and growled and snapped, shaking himself free only to have more take their places. The Forgotten crowding around our feet drew back, slipping away toward the Wolf. I started to go after them, but the Wolf turned, meeting my gaze with his burning green eyes, lips peeled back in a snarl.
“Get going!” he roared, and we went, hurrying after the ferry. Puck reached the edge of the dock first and leaped, f lailing his arms as he hit and grabbed the railing to keep from fal ing off. I was right behind him, f linging myself over the dark waters, Ariel a featherlight in my arms. I struck the edge of the boat and rol ed, curling my body around the girl to protect her, wincing as the edge of a bench hit me in the back.
I staggered upright, laid Ariel a on one of the seats, and hurried to the side of the boat, looking for the Wolf. But the fog had curled around the dock, hiding it from view. I stil heard the soft splashes of the Forgotten as they hit the water, and the Wolf, snarling through the mist, but I couldn't see him anymore.
“Pity,” Grimalkin remarked, sounding as if he almost meant it. “I was nearly used to his smel , too.”
And then the dark form of the Wolf leaped from the blanket of fog, hurtling over the river. He landed next to the ferry with a splash, spraying everyone with water, causing Grimalkin to hiss and f lee under the benches. Surfacing, the Wolf lunged out of the water, hooked his huge paws over the railing and pulled himself, dripping and panting, onto the deck.
I winced as he shook himself, sending river water f lying, soaking us all once more. Yawning, he ignored Puck's indignant yel and turned to me, gold-green eyes narrowing.
“That is the second time I saved your lives, prince. Be sure to remember that part of the story when you pass it along.”
He yawned again, showing off enormous canines, and padded toward the aft deck, weaving lightly through the aisles of narrow benches.
Curling up near the back, he laid his head on his paws, watching us all before his eyes closed and he appeared to fal asleep.
I shook water out of my clothes and took a deep breath, watching the dock slowly vanish behind us in the fog. The ferry slid noiselessly through the River of Dreams, leaving the town far behind. Already, I had forgotten its name. The people, their voices, everything I'd seen and heard, slipping from memory. I struggled to remember something a thin man had told me, something important. Something about Ariel a… and myself…