The Iron Knight
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“Who are you?” I searched for the owner of the voice, but the presence slipped away, keeping to the very edge of my vision. “Why are you showing me this?” This was nothing new. I was ful y aware of what would've happened had the Iron fey been victorious. Though, even in my worst imaginings, I had not pictured quite this much destruction.
“Because, you need to see, really see, the second outcome for yourself.”
I felt the presence move closer, though it stil kept infuriatingly out of sight.
“And your judgment was impaired, Ash of the Winter Court. You loved the girl. You would have done anything for her, regardless of the circumstances.” It slid away, behind me, though I'd given up trying to search for it. “I want you to look around careful y, son of Mab, and understand the significance of your decision. Had Meghan Chase not survived to become the Iron Queen, this would be your world today.”
The burning inside was growing unbearable. Each breath stabbed like a knife, and my skin was starting to blister as well . It reminded me of the time I'd been captured by Virus, one of the Iron King's lieutenants, and had a sentient metal bug implanted in me. The bug had taken over my body, turning me into Virus's slave, making me fight for her. And though I'd been ful y aware of everything I did, I was powerless to stop it. I had felt the metal invader, like a hot coal in my mind, burning and searing, making me nearly blind with pain, though I couldn't show it.
This was worse.
I sank to my knees, fighting to stay upright, as my skin blackened and peeled from my bones. The pain was excruciating, and I wondered, through my delirium, why I hadn't woken yet. This was a dream; I realized that much. Why couldn't I shake myself free?
I knew with a sudden, grim clarity. Because the voice wasn't letting me. It was keeping me here, tied to this nightmare world, despite my efforts to wake. I wondered if it was possible to die in a dream.
“I'm sorry,” the voice murmured, seeming to come from far away now.
“I know it's painful, but I want you to remember this when we meet again. I want you to understand the sacrifice that had to be made. I know you don't understand now, but you will. Soon.”
And, just like that, it was gone, and the ties holding me to the vision were released. With a silent gasp, I wrenched myself out of the dream, back into the waking world.
It was very dark now, though the skeletal trees glowed with a soft white luminance that left them hazy and ethereal. Several yards away, Puck stil sat in the branches, hands behind his head, chewing the ends of a grass stalk. One foot swung idly in the air and he wasn't looking at me; I'd learned long ago how to mask my pain and remain silent, even in sleep. You don't show weakness in the Unseelie Court. Puck didn't know I was awake, but Grimalkin crouched in the branches of a nearby tree, and his glowing yel ow eyes were fixed in my direction.
The tone of his voice wasn't exactly a question. I shrugged. “A nightmare. Nothing I can't handle.”
“I would not be so sure of that, were I you.”
I glanced up sharply, narrowing my eyes. “You know something,” I accused, and Grimalkin yawned. “What aren't you tel ing me?”
“More than you want to know, prince.” Grimalkin sat up, curling his tail around himself. “And I am not a fool. You know better then to ask such questions.” The cat sniffed, regarding me with that unblinking gold gaze. “I told you before, this is no simple task. You will have to discover the answers for yourself.”
I already knew that, but the way Grimalkin said it sounded ominous, and it irritated me that the cait sith knew more then he was letting on.
Ignoring the cat, I turned away, staring into the trees. A stray sod emerged from the darkness, a tiny green faery with a clump of weeds growing from its back. It blinked at me, bobbed its mushroom hat, and quickly slipped back into the undergrowth.
“This seer,” I asked Grimalkin, careful y marking the place the sod had vanished so as to not tread on it when we left. “Where is it located?”
But Grimalkin had disappeared.
Time has no meaning in the wyldwood. Day and night don't really exist here, just light and darkness, and they can be just as fickle and moody as everything else. A “night” can pass in the space of a blink, or go on forever. Light and darkness will chase each other through the sky, play hide-and-seek or tag or catch-me-if-you-can. Sometimes, one or the other will become offended over an imagined slight and refuse to come out for an indefinite amount of time. Once, light became so angry, a hundred years passed in the mortal realm before it deigned to come out again. And though the sun continued to rise and set in the human world, it was a rather turbulent period for the world of men, as all the creatures who lurked in darkness and shadow got to roam freely under the lightless Nevernever skies.
So it was stil ful dark when Puck and I started out again, fol owing the cait sith into the endless tangle of the wyldwood. Grimalkin slipped through the trees like mist f lowing over the ground, gray and nearly invisible in the colorless landscape around him. He moved swiftly and silently, not looking back, and it took all my hunter's skil s to keep up with him, to not lose him in the tangled undergrowth. I suspected he was testing us, or perhaps playing some annoying feline game, subtly trying to lose us without completely going invisible. But, with Puck hurrying after me, I kept pace with the elusive cait sith and didn't lose him once as we ventured deeper into the wyldwood.
The light had finally decided to make an appearance when, without warning, Grimalkin stopped. Leaping onto an overhanging branch, he stood motionless for a moment, ears pricked to the wind and whiskers trembling. Around us, huge gnarled trees blocked out the sky, gray trunks and branches seeming to hem us in, like an enormous net or cage. I realized I didn't recognize this part of the wyldwood, though that wasn't unusual. The wyldwood was huge, eternal and constantly changing. There were many places I'd never seen, never set foot in, even in the long years of hunting beneath its canopy.
“Hey, we're stopping,” Puck said, coming up behind me. Peering over my shoulder, he snorted under his breath. “What's the matter, cat? Did you finally get lost?”
“Be quiet, Goodfel ow.” Grimalkin f lattened his ears but didn't look back. “Something is out there,” he stated, twitching his tail. “The trees are angry. Something does not belong.” His eyes narrowed, and he crouched to leap off the branch.
Right before he vanished.
I glanced at Puck and frowned. “I guess we'd better find out what's going on.”
Goodfel ow snickered. “Wouldn't be any fun if we didn't run into some sort of catastrophe.” Pul ing his dagger, he waved me on. “After you, your highness.”
We proceeded cautiously through the trees, scanning the undergrowth for anything suspicious. At my silent gesture, Puck stepped away and slid into the trees to the right of me. If something was lying in ambush, it would be better if we weren't together when it pounced.
It wasn't long before we started seeing evidence that something was decidedly out of place here. Plants were brown and dying, trees had spots where they had been burned, and the air began to smel of rust and copper, tickling my throat and making me want to gag. I was suddenly reminded of my dream, the nightmare world of the Iron fey, and gripped my sword hilt even tighter.
“You think there's an Iron faery here?” Puck muttered, poking a burned, dead leaf with the point of his knife. It disintegrated at his touch.
“If there is,” I muttered, “it won't be here much longer.”
Puck shot me a glance, looking faintly unsure. “I don't know, ice-boy.
We're supposed to be at peace now. What would Meghan say if we kill ed one of her subjects?”
“Meghan is a queen.” I stepped beneath a rotting branch, pushing it away with my sword. “She understands the rules, just like everyone else. By law, no Iron fey can set foot in the wyldwood without permission from Summer or Winter. It would be a breach of the treaty if the courts found out, and at worst it would be seen as an act of war.” I raised my sword and hacked through a cluster of yel owed, dying vines that smel ed of rot. “If there is an Iron faery here, better we find it than scouts of Summer or Winter.”
“Yeah? And what happens then? We politely ask it to go home? What if it doesn't listen to us?”
I gave him a blank stare.
He winced. “Right.” He sighed. “Forgot who I was talking to. well then, lead on, ice-boy.”
We pushed deeper into the forest, fol owing the trail of dying plants, until the trees thinned and the ground abruptly dropped away into a rocky gorge.
The trees in this area were blackened and dead, and the air smel ed poisonous and foul. After a moment, I realized why.
Sitting against a tree, his armor glinting in the sun, was an Iron knight.
I paused, my fingers tightening around the hilt of my sword. I had to remind myself that the knights were not our enemies anymore, that they served the Iron Queen and followed the same peace treaty as the rest of the courts. Besides, this one was clearly no threat to us. His breastplate had been staved in, and dark, oily blood pooled beneath him. His chin rested limply on his chest, but as we got closer, he opened his eyes and looked up.
Blood trickled from one corner of his mouth.
“Prince…Ash?” He blinked several times, as if doubting his own eyes.
“What…what are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same.” I didn't approach the fal en warrior, standing several feet away with my sword at my side. “It's forbidden for your kind to be here. Why aren't you in the Iron Realm protecting the queen?”
“The queen.” The knight's eyes widened, and he held a hand out.
“You…you have to warn the queen—”
I took two long steps forward and faced the knight, looming over him.
“What's happened to Meghan?” I demanded. “Warn her of what?”