The Iron Warrior
Page 1

 Julie Kagawa

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My name is Ethan Chase.
And I can’t be certain, but I think I might have died.
The dream always ends the same.
I’m in my room again. Or, maybe it’s my sister’s room or a stranger’s. I can’t tell. There are photos on the wall I don’t recognize, pictures of a family that isn’t mine. But the desk is mine, I think. The bed and the chair and the computer are mine. There’s a figure sleeping on the bed, long chestnut hair spilling over the pillow. I’m trying to move about silently, so that I don’t wake her, though I can’t remember why she’s here, in my room. If this is my room.
Whoever’s room this is, it’s dark. I can hear rain pattering on the tin roof overhead, and the distant squeals of the pigs in the shed outside. Dad wanted me to feed them today; it’s going to suck tromping out there in the rain and mud. I told him I would feed them when the rain lets up. Truthfully, I don’t want to go outside in the dark. I know it is out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for me. I’ve seen it in the mirror, reflected in the glass: a tall, thin silhouette at my bedroom window, peering in. Sometimes, from the corner of my eye, I think I see long black fingers reaching out from under the bed. But when I turn and look, there’s nothing there.
My phone buzzes on the desk. I let it ring, feeling my stomach knot and twist as the phone vibrates on the surface.
“Why don’t you answer?” the brown-haired girl asks, now sitting up on my bed. Her green eyes seem to glow in the darkness.
“Because she’ll be angry with me,” I reply. “I left her. I promised to come back, but I left her alone. She won’t let me get away with that.”
The phone falls silent. Voices echo from downstairs—my parents, telling me it’s time for dinner. I look at the chestnut-haired girl again, only it’s not her any longer, but Meghan, sitting on her bed, her long hair pale and silvery in the shadows of the room. She’s smiling down at me, and I’m four years old, hugging my stuffed rabbit to my chest.
“Go get dinner, squirt,” Meghan says gently. She’s still smiling, though I can see the tears on her face, creeping down her cheeks. “Tell Mom and Luke I don’t feel well right now. But come back when you’re done, and I’ll read to you, okay?”
“’Kay,” I answer, and pad to the door while clutching Floppy tightly in one arm. I wonder why she’s crying, and if there’s anything I can do to make her happy again; I hate it when my sister is sad.
“She’s lost someone,” Floppy whispers to me, as he does sometimes when we’re alone. “Someone has gone away, that’s why she’s sad.”
Outside my room, the hallway is dark, and the rest of the house is cloaked in shadow. A single light flickers from our tiny kitchen, and I make my way down the stairs toward it, trying to ignore the dark things that move and writhe around me, just out of sight. A boy, shaggy-haired and ragged, waits for me at the foot of the stairs. “Can you help me?” Todd Wyndham asks, eyes pleading. The shadows curl around him, clinging to his thin frame, drawing him back into the darkness. I shiver and hurry past, squeezing Floppy to my face, trying not to see. “Ethan, wait,” Todd whispers as the shadows suck him in. “Don’t go. Please, come back. I think I’ve lost something.”
Darkness swallows him, and he’s vanished from sight.
“There you are,” Mom announces when I finally step into the kitchen. “Where’s your sister? Dinner is ready. Isn’t she coming down?”
I blink, no longer four years old, and bitterness settles on me like a second skin. “She doesn’t live here anymore, Mom,” I say, sullen and angry. “Not for a long time, remember?”
“Oh, that’s right.” Mom takes a stack of plates from the cupboard and hands it to me. “Well, if you do see her again, will you tell her I’m keeping a plate warm for her?”
There’s a knock on the front door before I can reply. It echoes through the house, a hollow thud that makes the shadows writhing at the edge of the light draw back in terror.
“Oh, good. Right on time.” Mom opens the oven door and pulls out a pie, steaming and oozing red. “Ethan, would you get that, please? Don’t leave your guest standing out in the rain.”
I set the plates on the table, walk through the living room and open the front door.
Keirran stares at me over the threshold.
He’s dripping wet, his silver hair plastered to his neck and forehead, his clothes also drenched from the rain. Water puddles at his feet, only the puddle is much too dark to be water.
Below his shirt, something pulses, dark and menacing, like a twisted heartbeat. I can feel it, suddenly, right under his sternum, a twin to the weight around my own neck, the cold circle of steel hanging from a chain.
The storm rages behind him; lightning streaks across the sky, illuminating the red streaks on his face, the icy gleam of his eyes. For a split second, gazing over his shoulder, I see someone else out there in the darkness. Tall and pale, with hair like writhing mist. But the light quickly fades, and the figure is gone.
I look back at Keirran, a chill creeping through me as I see his hands. They’re soaked in blood, wet and gleaming, all the way past his elbow. One hand holds a curved blade, glimmering between us.
I meet those icy blue eyes. He smiles sadly.
“I’m sorry, Ethan,” he whispers, always the same.
And rams that blade through my stomach.
* * *
I gave a soundless gasp and opened my eyes.
Darkness surrounded me. I lay perfectly still, gazing up at what appeared to be a normal ceiling, wondering where I was. There were cracks running through the plaster, forming odd shapes and faces, but they didn’t swirl together and laugh at me as they had several times in the past. In fact, this was the first I didn’t know how long...that my mind was clear. Before, I would tear myself out of one dark, surreal dreamscape, only to fall right into another, where everything was twisted and frightening and screwed up, but you didn’t know it because you were in a dream. There were a few lucid moments where, if I thought hard enough, I recalled faces hovering over me, eyes bright with worry. One face in particular showed up in my dreams a lot, her cheeks wet with tears. She spoke to me sometimes, telling me to hold on, whispering how sorry she was. I desperately wanted to talk to her, to let her know I was all right. But I could never hold on to reality for very long, and quickly slipped back into the twisted nightmares of my mind.
I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten here, but I finally had a conscious hold on my brain. I was awake, and alert, and determined to stay that way this time.
Cautiously, I probed my shaky thoughts, gathering fractured shards of memory as I tried to piece together what had happened. First things, first.
Where am I?
Slowly, I turned my head, scanning my surroundings. I lay in a large bed, the covers pulled up to my chest and my arms at my side. The room looked like a normal bedroom, or maybe an office, though I didn’t recognize it and had never been here before. A desk sat in one corner, computer screen glowing blue, and a dresser stood beside it. To my right, a partially open window let in the cool night air, and silvery light cast a hazy glow through the room. A full moon shone through the glass, huge and round and closer than I’d ever seen before.