A strand of moonlight broke away from the trees and glided toward me. I watched without interest, knowing it was a hallucination. As it got closer, it shimmered and changed shape, sometimes resembling a deer, sometimes a goat or a pony. A horn of light grew from its head, as it regarded me with ancient golden eyes.

“Hello, Meghan Chase.”

“Hello,” I replied, though my lips didn’t move and I had no breath to speak. “Am I dead?”

“Not quite.” The moonlight creature laughed softly, shaking its mane. “It is not your destiny to die here, princess.”

“Oh.” I pondered that, my thoughts swirling muzzily in my head. “How do you know who I am?”

The creature snorted, swishing a lionlike tail. “Those of us who watch the sky have seen your coming for a long time, Meghan Chase. Catalysts always burn brightly, and your light shines unlike any I’ve seen before. Now, the only question remaining is, what path will you take, and how will you choose to rule?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You aren’t supposed to.” The moonlight creature stepped forward and breathed. Silver air washed over me, and my eyelids fluttered shut. “Now, sleep, my princess. Your father awaits you. And tell Grimalkin that I choose to help, not as a favor, but for reasons of my own. The next time he calls on me will be the last.”

I didn’t want to sleep. Questions swirled to mind, buzzing and insistent. I opened my mouth to ask about my father, but the creature’s horn touched my chest, sending a rush of heat through my body. I gasped and opened my eyes.

The moonlit grove had disappeared. A meadow surrounded me, tall grasses waving in the wind, a faint pink glow lighting the horizon. The last traces of a weird dream fluttered across my mind: moving trees, talking deer, a creature made of frost and moonlight. I wondered what was real, and what had just been the effects of the delirium. I felt fine now—better than fine. Some of it must have been real.

Then the grass rustled, as if something crept up behind me.

I whipped around and saw my backpack sitting a few feet away, bright orange against the green. Snatching it up, I pulled it open. The food was gone, of course, as were the flashlight and the aspirin, but my extra clothes were there, crumpled into a ball and sopping wet.

Confused, I stared at the pack. What could have brought it here all the way from the goblins’ camp? I didn’t think Grimalkin would have gone back for it, especially since that would have meant crossing the river again. But, here was my pack—moldy and wet, but still here. At least the clothes would dry.

And then I remembered something else. Something that made me wince.

Unzipping the side pouch, I pulled out my dripping, water-logged iPod.

“Dammit.” I sighed, looking it over. The screen was blurry and warped, totally ruined, a year’s savings down the drain. I shook it and heard water sloshing inside. Not good. Just to be sure, I plugged in the headphones and turned it on. Nothing. Not even a buzz. It was well and truly dead.

Sadly, I replaced it in the pocket and zipped it back up. So much for listening to Aerosmith in Faeryland. I was about to go looking for Grimalkin when a giggle overhead made me glance up.

Something crouched in the branches. Something small and misshapen, watching me with glowing green eyes. I saw the outline of a sinewy body, long thin arms, and goblinlike ears. Only it wasn’t a goblin. It was too small for that, and more disturbing, it seemed intelligent.

The monster saw me watching it and offered a slow smile. Its teeth, pointed and razor sharp, glimmered with neon-blue fire, just before it vanished. And I don’t mean it scuttled off or faded away like a ghost. It blipped out of sight, like the image on a computer screen.

Like that thing I saw in the computer lab.

Definitely time to go.

I found Grimalkin sunning himself on a rock, eyes shut, purring deep in his throat. He cracked open a lazy eye as I came rushing up.

“We’re leaving,” I told him, shrugging into my backpack. “You’re going to take me to Puck, I’m going to rescue Ethan, and we’re going home. And if I never see another goblin, nixie, cait sith or whatever, it’ll be too soon.”

Grimalkin yawned. Infuriatingly, he took his sweet time getting up, stretching, yawning, scratching his ears, making sure every hair was in place. I stood, nearly dancing with impatience, wanting to grab him by the scruff of the neck, though I knew I’d probably be shredded for it.

“Arcadia, the Summer Court, is close,” Grimalkin said as he finally deemed himself ready to start. “Remember, you owe me a small debt when we find your Puck.” He leaped from the rock to the ground, looking back at me solemnly. “I will claim my price as soon as we find him. Don’t forget.”

We walked for hours, through a forest that seemed to be constantly closing in on us. In the corners of my eyes, branches, leaves, even tree trunks moved and shifted, reaching out for me. Sometimes I’d pass a tree or bush, only to see the same one farther down the path. Laughter echoed from the canopy overhead, and strange lights winked and bobbed in the distance. Once, a fox peeked at us from beneath a fallen log, a human skull perched on its head. None of this bothered Grimalkin, who trotted down the forest trail with his tail up, never looking back to see if I followed.

Night had descended, and the enormous blue moon was high overhead, when Grimalkin stopped, flattening his ears. With a hiss, he slipped off the trail and vanished into a patch of ferns. Startled, I looked up to see a pair of riders approaching, glowing bright in the darkness. Their mounts were gray and silver, and the hooves didn’t touch the ground as they broke into a canter, straight for me.

I stood my ground as they approached. There was no use trying to outrun hunters on horseback. As they got closer, I saw the riders: tall and elegant, with sharp features and coppery hair tied into a tail. They wore silver mail that flashed in the moonlight, and carried long, thin blades at their sides.

The horses surrounded me, snorting steam, their breath hanging in the air like clouds. Atop their mounts, the knights glared down with unnatural beauty, their features too fine and delicate to be real. “Are you Meghan Chase?” one of them asked, his voice high and clear like a flute. His eyes flashed, the color of the summer sky.

I swallowed. “Yes.”

“You will come with us. His Majesty King Oberon, Lord of the Summer Court, has sent for you.”

CHAPTER NINE

In the Seelie Court

I rode in front of an elven knight, who had one arm wrapped securely around my waist while the other held the reins. Grimalkin dozed in my lap, a warm, heavy weight, and refused to talk to me. The knights wouldn’t answer any of my questions, either: where we were going, if they knew Puck, or why King Oberon wanted me. I didn’t even know if I was a prisoner or a guest of these people, though I supposed I would find out soon enough. The horses flew over the forest floor, and I saw up ahead that the trees were beginning to thin.

We broke through the tree line, and ahead of us rose an enormous mound. It towered above us in ancient, grassy splendor, the pinnacle seeming to brush the sky. Thorny trees and brambles grew everywhere, especially near the top, so the whole thing resembled a large bearded head. Around it grew a hedge bristling with thorns, some longer than my arm. The knights spurred their horses toward the thickest part of the hedge. I wasn’t surprised when the brambles parted for them, forming an arch that they rode beneath, before settling back with a loud crunching sound.

I was surprised when the horses rode straight at the side of the hill without slowing, and I clutched Grimalkin tightly, making him growl in protest. The mound neither opened up nor moved aside in any way; we rode into the hill and through, sending a shiver all the way down my spine to my toes.

Blinking, I gazed around at total chaos.

A massive courtyard stretched before me, a great circular platform of ivory pillars, marble statues, and flowering trees. Fountains hurled geysers of water into the air, multicolored lights danced over the pools, and flowers in the full spectrum of the rainbow bloomed everywhere. Strains of music reached my ears, a combination of harps and drums, strings and flutes, bells and whistles, somehow lively and melancholy at the same time. It brought tears to my eyes, and suddenly all I wanted to do was slide off the horse and dance until the music consumed me and I was lost in it. Thankfully, Grimalkin muttered something like “Get hold of yourself” and dug his claws into my wrist, snapping me out of it.

Faeries were everywhere, sitting on the marble steps or benches, dancing together in small groups, or just wandering around. My eyes could not take it in fast enough. A man with a bare chest and shaggy legs ending in hooves winked at me from the shade of a bush. A willowy girl with green-tinted skin stepped out of a tree, scolding a child hanging from the branches. The boy stuck out his tongue, flicked his squirrel tail, and darted higher into the foliage.

I felt a sharp tug on my hair. A tiny figure hovered near my shoulder, gossamer wings buzzing like a hummingbird’s. I gasped, but the knight holding me didn’t so much as glance at it. She grinned and held out what looked like a plump grape, except the skin of the fruit was bright blue and speckled with orange. I smiled politely and nodded, but she frowned and pointed at my hand. Confused, I held up my palm. She dropped the fruit into it, gave a delighted giggle, and sped away.

“Be careful,” Grimalkin rumbled, as a heady aroma rose from the little fruit, making my mouth water. “Eating or drinking certain things in Faery could have unpleasant consequences for someone like you. Do not eat anything. In fact, until we find your Puck, I would not talk to anyone. And whatever you do, do not accept gifts of any sort. This is going to be a long night.”

I swallowed and dropped the fruit into one of the fountains as we rode by, watching huge green-and-gold fish swarm around it, mouths gaping. The knights scattered faeries as we rode through the courtyard toward a high stone wall with a pair of silver gates in front. Two massive creatures, each ten feet tall, blue-skinned and tusked, guarded the doors. Their eyes glimmered yellow beneath ropey black hair and heavy brows. Even dressed up, their arms and chests bulging through the fabric of their red uniforms, popping the brass buttons, they were still terrifying. “Trolls,” muttered Grimalkin, as I shrank against the unyielding frame of the elven knight. “Be thankful we’re in Oberon’s land. The Winter Court employs ogres.”

The knights stopped and let me down a few feet from the gate. “Be courteous when you speak to the Erlking, child,” the knight I’d ridden with told me, and wheeled his mount away. I was left facing two giant trolls with nothing but a cat and my backpack.

Grimalkin squirmed in my arms, and I let him drop to the stones. “Come on.” The cat sighed, lashing his tail. “Let us meet Lord Pointy Ears and get this over with.”

The two trolls blinked as the cat fearlessly approached the gate, looking like a gray bug scuttling around their clawed feet. One of them moved, and I braced myself, expecting him to stomp Grimalkin into kitty pudding. But the troll only reached over and pulled the gate open as the other did the same on his side. Grimalkin shot me a backward glance, twitched his tail, and slipped through the archway. I took a deep breath, smoothed down my tangled hair, and followed.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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