The Iron Warrior
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And then, as I waited in the suffocating darkness, wondering when my breath would give out, I felt a presence. One that tied my stomach in a knot and made my heart nearly stop with fright. Massive wouldn’t quite cover it. Ancient didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I was underground; I could feel cold earth against my skin, my closed eyelids, filling my ears and nose. But this consciousness surrounded me, engulfed me like the ocean or the sky, eternal and depthless. I was like a grain of sand, a speck of dust. I felt if I dared open my eyes, I could be floating in the vastness of space, surrounded by galaxies and planets and stars, and this presence encompassed all of it.
Was this...Faery itself? The Nevernever, come to kill me in person? I didn’t know, but my ability to hold my breath was rapidly giving out. My lungs were starting to scream for air, and I was getting light-headed.
There were no words. No booming voice, speaking to me from across galaxies. No echo of voices in my head. But the message was as clear as if someone had shouted it in my face. Stop the Lady, it continued. Stop the Iron Prince. Restore the balance and save this world.
Abruptly, my arms were free. The force holding me immobile vanished. I flailed, thrashing in my dark grave, hoping I wasn’t six feet underground.
My head broke the surface of the earth, and I gasped, sucking blessed oxygen into my starving lungs. Coughing, I clawed my way out of the dirt, ignoring the circle of fey that had stopped chanting and were now watching me, and collapsed to my back on the ground.
Kenzie pushed her way through the crowd and sank down beside me, her face pale as she leaned in. Razor bounded up, gibbering nonsense and waving his arms, and the ring of faeries shrank away from him.
“Ethan,” Kenzie gasped, pressing a palm to my chest. “Are you all right? What the hell is going on? There was this freaky wind, you weren’t there when I woke up, and Razor said a bunch of faeries were calling for you.” She glared at the dryads surrounding us, and I groped for her hand, trying to find my voice. “What happened? What did they do to you?”
“I’m okay,” I rasped out, hoping to stop her in case she leaped up and started yelling at the dryads. “It’s all right, Kenzie, I’m fine. They didn’t do anything to me.”
She gave me a dubious look. “I just saw you claw your way out of the ground, while a circle of faeries stood there and watched. It sure looked to me like they were doing something.”
The ring of dryads and Winter fey were dispersing, fading into the woods without a sound. The two that had spoken gave me one last solemn glance, before they, too, glided back and vanished into the trees. I struggled into a sitting position, leaning against Kenzie’s arm, and gazed around. The grove was quiet now. The wind had died, and nothing moved except the ghostly forms of dryads melting into the forest.
“You okay, tough guy?” Kenzie asked once more, gazing at me in concern. I nodded, drawing in one last, deep breath, and she frowned. “What happened?”
“Oh, not much.” I looked down at the patch of disturbed earth, where I’d clawed my way out of the ground. My hands were still shaking, and I didn’t make any attempt to stop it. “Just...I think the Nevernever itself told me to stop Keirran.”
OLD ENEMIES, OLD FRIENDS
We reached the trod to Leanansidhe’s a few hours later.
“Here!” Razor announced, leaping atop a broken pillar that marked the entrance of an old ruin, stone columns and broken statues littered about the glen. “Trod to Scary Lady’s house! Through here!”
I gazed around warily. Old ruins in the Nevernever were usually occupied and were often filled with massive spiders, marauding goblin tribes, hungry giants and other fun things. “Are you sure this place is empty?”
He cocked his head at me, as if I was being deliberately thick. “Not want to see Scary Lady?”
“Well, yeah we do, but...” I sighed. “Fine. Let’s get this over with, but be careful.” Drawing my swords, I began walking toward the crumbling entrance of the ruin, Kenzie at my back and Razor scuttling over the walls. Creeping up the steps, listening for any sounds of movement, I felt strangely torn. On the one hand, I certainly didn’t want to fight my way through a horde of nasties to get to the trod, and I especially didn’t want to risk Kenzie getting hurt. On the other, I was curious to see if this new resistance to glamour would really work. I didn’t feel any different. Unless you counted feeling filthier than normal from being buried alive. If I was to go up against Keirran, and he casually tossed a lightning bolt in my direction, I would kind of like to know if I was really immune to magic before I was fried to a crisp.
But, it did seem the ruin was mostly uninhabited as we ventured farther in. Shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy overhead, spilling into an ancient courtyard with a rectangular pool in the center, shimmering in the sun. A pair of spotted deer raised their heads to watch as we came down the steps, and two piskies hovered over the water, blinking huge purple eyes at us, before zipping away with high-pitched giggles. Razor leaped onto a stone railing and bared his teeth at their retreating forms.
“Where to now?” I asked, as Kenzie gazed around the courtyard with large eyes. The gremlin didn’t answer, suddenly distracted by a large green-and-yellow spider crawling along a shimmering line of web. “Razor?” I prodded, and he jerked up. “The trod? Where is it?”
The gremlin blinked, then leaped down and scurried to where a pillar had broken in two, half the column resting against the upright part, forming an arch between them. “Here!” he exclaimed, pointing and bouncing up and down. “Trod through here!”
I glanced at Kenzie, and she smiled. “All right.” She shrugged and started across the yard, stepping over rocks and broken columns. “Back to Leanansidhe’s. Hopefully we’ll catch her on a good day.”
But when I followed Kenzie beneath the arch, nothing happened. I’d been bracing for instant darkness, for that clammy, spiderweb feeling of passing through the Veil into the Between. But there was no blackness, no tingle of magic as we went through the arch. We both came out on the other side, and Kenzie blinked in confusion, looking back at me.
“Huh, that’s weird. What happened?”
“Uh, Razor?” I stared at the gremlin, who looked almost as confused as we did. “I don’t think this is the right place. Did you forget where the trod actually is?”
“Noooo!” Razor flattened his ears and scurried forward, ducking through the arch. He appeared on the other side, same way as we had, blinked and scuttled through again. To the same effect. “Is trod!” the gremlin cried, leaping to the top of the pillars, glaring down at them. “Razor not forget! Is trod to Scary Lady’s house!”
“I am afraid the Iron abomination is correct,” said a new, sibilant voice, seeming to come from nowhere. I spun, raising my swords, as a tall, slender form turned out of thin air, smiling at me from across the pool. “That was the trod to Leanansidhe’s,” the Thin Man said, observing us from profile, his spiderlike hands folded before him. “Unfortunately, due to certain events, the roads to the Exile Queen no longer exist.”