Chapter Four

The Hunter

“Get up.”

The cold voice was the first thing I heard the next morning, cutting through layers of sleep and grogginess, bringing me fully awake. Ash loomed over me, his posture stiff, regarding me with empty silver eyes.

“We’re leaving,” he said in a flat voice, and tossed something on the bed, where it landed in a cloud of dust.

A thick, hooded cloak, gray and dusty, as if all color had been leeched out of it. “Found that in the closet,” Ash continued, turning away. “It should keep you from freezing. But we need to go, now. The sooner we reach the Winter Court the better.”

“Where’s Grim?” I asked, struggling upright, reeling from his sudden change in mood. Ash opened the door, letting in a blast of frigid air.

“Gone. Left early this morning.” He waited, still holding the door, as I swirled the cloak around my shoulders. When I drew up the hood, the prince nodded briskly. “Let’s go.”

“Is something coming?” I asked, jogging after him through the snow, my breath puffing in the air. Everything was covered in a new layer of ice. “Is the Hunter getting close again?”

“No.” He didn’t look at me. “Not that I can tell.” I swallowed. “Did I…do something wrong?” He hesitated this time, then sighed. “No,” he said in a softer voice. “You did nothing wrong.”

“Then why are you being like this? Ash? Hey!” I lunged forward and grabbed his sleeve, bringing us both to a halt.

“Let go.” Ash’s voice held the subtle hint of warning. I shook off my fear and stubbornly planted my feet.

“Or what? You’ll kill me? Haven’t you already made that threat?”

“Don’t tempt me.” But his voice had lost its coldness—now it just sounded tired. He sighed, raking his free hand through his hair. “It’s not important.

Just…something Grimalkin said. Something I already knew.”

“What?”

He turned. “Meghan…”

In the distance, a howl echoed over the trees.

I jerked, and Ash straightened, his gaze sharpening.

“The Hunter,” he muttered. “Again. How could it catch up so quickly?”

The howl came again, and I shivered, drawing closer to Ash. “What is it?”

The prince’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know. But this stops now. Come on!”

Ash kept a tight hold on my hand as we sprinted through the snow. I thought of the bridge and the impossible chasm that Hunter had, somehow, cleared, and hoped this plan would work out better. It didn’t seem likely that we would outrun whatever tireless beast was behind us.

The forest thinned, and jagged cliffs rose up on either side of us, sparkling in the sun. Huge blue and green crystals jutted out from the sides, sending fractured prisms of light over the snow. Ash led me through a narrow canyon, sheer cliff walls pressing in on either side until it opened up in a snowy clearing surrounded by mountains.

The howl rang out again, echoing eerily through the gully we had just come through. Whatever it was, it was closing fast.

“This way.” Ash tugged on my hand and pulled me toward the far side of the clearing. Between two pine trees, a dark blot in the cliff face marked the entrance to a cave, icicles dangling from the opening like teeth.

“Go,” Ash said, pushing me forward. “Get inside, hurry.”

I scrambled through the opening, being careful not to stab myself on the icicles, and straightened, looking around. The cave was huge, a vast, ice-covered cavern, sunlight slanting in through the holes in the roof far, far above us. The ceiling sparkled, every square inch covered with sharp, gleaming icicles, some longer than I was tall.

A breeze howled through the cave, and the icicles tinkled like wind chimes, filling the cavern with song.

“Ash,” I said as the Winter prince came through the opening, shaking snow from his hair. “What—”

“Shh.” Ash put a finger against my lips, shaking his head in warning. He pointed to the skeletons scattered about the cave, half-buried in snow. The bones of some large animal lay sprawled on the ground nearby, a fallen icicle jutting through its ribs. I winced and nodded my understanding.

And then something black and monstrous exploded through the cave mouth, snapping at my face.

Ash jerked me backward, his hand snaking around my mouth to stifle my shriek, as the snap of teeth echoed inches from my head. If Ash’s hand hadn’t been pressed hard against my lips, I would’ve screamed again as two burning, yellow-green eyes peered at me from the face in the door.

It was a wolf, a huge black wolf the size of a grizzly bear, only longer and leaner and a thousand times more frightening. This wasn’t the majestic creature you saw on the nature channels, loping through the snowy wilderness with its pack. This was the rabid beast in every horror movie about wolves: dark shaggy fur, slavering muzzle, glowing, pupil-less eyes. Its lips were curled back to reveal shiny fangs longer then my hand, and ribbons of drool dripped from its jaws, crystallizing in the snow.

Only its head fit through the opening, but it turned its muzzle in my direction, and I swore it grinned at me.

“Meghan Chase. I finally found you.” Ash pulled me back farther, toward the far end of the cave, as the enormous wolf thrashed and wriggled in the doorway, somehow, impossibly, sliding through. My heart thudded as the creature rose to its full height inside the cave. He seemed to fill the chamber. Ash shoved me behind him, pressing me against the wall beneath a rocky overhang, and drew his sword. The wolf chuckled, the deep tone making my skin crawl, and bared his teeth in a savage grin.

“Think you’re going to hurt me with that little thing?” His guttural voice echoed through the cavern, and icicles clinked above him, swaying dangerously. “Do you know who I am, boy?” He lowered his head, peeling his lips back. “I am Wolf. I am older than you, older than Mab, older than the most ancient faery to walk this realm.

I was in stories long before the humans knew my name, and even then they feared me.” He took one step forward, his huge paw sinking into the snow. “I am the wolf at the door, the creature that stalked the girl in the red hood to grandma’s house. I am the wolf who becomes a man, and the man who is a beast inside. My stories outnumber all the tales ever told, and you cannot kill me.”

“I know who you are.” Ash’s voice shook slightly, which chilled me even more. That Ash, fearless, unshakable Ash, was afraid of this thing filled me with dread. “But you’re here for the Summer princess, and I have my own vow to bring her back to my court. So I can’t let you take her.” He brandished his sword, the faery glamour of Winter swirling around him. “You’ll have to go through me first.”

The Wolf smiled. “As you wish.” He lunged with a roar, jaws gaping wide, tongue lolling between dripping fangs. Insanely fast, he covered the area in a single bound and leaped at us, a dark blur in the air. I shrank back as the Wolf charged but Ash whirled, glamour snapping around him, and slammed his sword hilt into the wall.

A deafening crack echoed throughout the cavern, like a gunshot. The ceiling trembled, icicles clicking wildly and then, like a million china plates being smashed at once, collapsed in a deadly gleaming rain. The Wolf paused for an instant, looking up…and was buried under a ton of pointed crystal shards.

I turned away, covering my eyes as a single high-pitched yelp rose over the clatter of smashing ice. The snow cleared, the cacophony died away, and there was silence.

I started to peek through my fingers, but Ash grabbed my hand, blocking my view. “Don’t look,” he warned softly, and I saw a spatter of red behind him, seeping through the snow, making my stomach curl. “Let’s get out of here.”

Deliberately not looking at the dark mass in the center of the room, we fled the cave, scrambling through the hole back into the clearing. Snow was falling, light wispy flakes that danced on the breeze. I took a shaky breath, and the cold burned my lungs, reminding me I was still alive. I glanced at Ash, who was staring back at the cave mouth.

“The Wolf,” he murmured, almost to himself. “The Big Bad Wolf. Few ever live to tell of seeing him.” He shook his head in wonder, glancing back at me. “I wonder why he was after you? Who sent him, that he would track us this far?”

“Mab?” I guessed. Ash snorted and his lips curled in a smirk.

“Mab wants you alive,” he said, walking away from the cave mouth, back toward the gully. I pulled my hood up and hurried after him, jogging through the snow.

“You’re no use to her dead. She was very specific about that. Besides, she wouldn’t put me at risk like that.” He paused, frowning slightly. “I think.” He sounded terribly unsure. I felt a pang of sympathy, that Ash didn’t know if his queen, his own mother, would send the Wolf after us, not caring if it hurt him. I closed the last few paces and reached out to touch his arm.

The Wolf’s giant, bloody head lunged between us with a roar, knocking me back, sending me sprawling.

Lightning quick, Ash drew his sword, a second too late.

The monster’s jaws clamped shut on his arm, and the Wolf hurled him away. I screamed.

“I told you, you can’t kill me!” the Wolf snarled, stalking toward Ash, who had rolled to his feet with his sword in front of him. The thick, shaggy pelt was covered in blood. It dripped in a steady rain to the ground, raising faint puffs of steam where it struck the snow. Icicles stuck out of his body like a hundred jagged spears. Despite that, he moved smoothly, easily, as if he felt no pain.

“Foolish boy,” the Wolf growled, circling Ash, leaving a crimson trail behind him. “You will not win this. I am immortal.”

“Meghan, run,” Ash ordered, his eyes never leaving the Wolf. His own blood dripped from his sword arm to stain the ground. “The Winter Court isn’t far from here.

You’ll be protected—tell whomever you meet that Ash sent you. Run, now.”

“I’m not leaving!”

“Go!”

The Wolf shook himself, sending blood, foam, and icicles flying. “I will deal with you momentarily, Princess,” he growled, lowering himself into a crouch.

Muscles bunched under his shaggy pelt, and the icicles gleamed as they stuck out of his thigh and bony ribs. “Are you ready, boy? Here I come!”

He leaped. Ash brought up his sword. And I charged the Wolf.

The Wolf hit Ash with the full weight of his body behind him, driving them both into the snow, ignoring the sword that slashed into him. His massive paws slammed into Ash’s chest and arms, pinning the sword beneath them. They hit the ground with the Wolf on top, those huge jaws gaping wide to bite off Ash’s head.

I slammed into the Wolf with every bit of strength I had, aiming for one of those gleaming ice spears, driving my shoulder into it. The sharp edge sliced into me, cutting my skin through the cloak, but I felt the spear jam farther into the Wolf’s ribs. The huge creature let out a startled, painful yelp and swung around, pinning me with a blazing yellow glare.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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