With a great snapping of twigs and thorns, the back of the cage came loose, and I was free.

“Run!” Grimalkin yelled, and I didn’t need encouragement. We bolted into the forest, the enraged cries of the goblins on our heels.


Moonlit Grove

I tore through the forest, branches and leaves slapping at my face, following Grimalkin’s shadowy form as best I could. Behind me, twigs snapped, snarls echoed, and the angry cursing of the goblin chief grew louder in my ears. My breath rasped in my chest, my lungs burned, but I forced my legs to keep moving, knowing that if I stumbled or fell, I would die.

“This way!” I heard Grimalkin shout, darting into a patch of bramble. “If we can get to the river, we will be safe! Goblins cannot swim!”

I followed him into the briars, bracing myself for thorns tearing at my flesh and ripping at my clothes. But the branches parted easily for me, as they had when I was with Puck, and I slipped through with minimal scrapes. As I exited the bramble patch, a great crashing noise echoed behind me, followed by loud yelps and swearing. It seemed the goblins weren’t finding the path as easy to navigate, and I thanked whatever forces were at work as I continued on.

Over the roaring in my ears and my own ragged breaths, I heard the sound of rushing water. When I staggered out of the trees, the ground abruptly dropped away into a rocky embankment. A great river loomed before me, nearly a hundred yards across, with no bridges or rafts in sight. I couldn’t see the other side because a coiling wall of mist hovered over the water, stretching as far as I could see. Grimalkin stood at the edge, almost invisible in the fog, lashing his tail impatiently.

“Hurry!” he ordered as I stumbled down the bank, exhaustion burning my legs. “The Erlking’s territory is on the other side. You must swim, quickly!”

I hesitated. If monster horses lurked in quiet ponds, what would great black rivers hold? Images of giant fish and sea monsters flashed across my mind.

Something flew past my arm, startling me, bouncing off the rocks with a clatter. It was a goblin spear, the bone-white tip gleaming against the stones. The blood drained from my face. I could either stay put and be skewered, or take my chances with the river.

Scrambling down the bank, I flung myself into the water.

The cold shocked me, and I gasped, struggling against the current as it pulled me downstream. I’m a fairly strong swimmer, but my limbs felt like jelly, and my lungs were gasping to suck in enough oxygen. I floundered and went under, snorting water up my nose and making my lungs scream. The current pulled me farther away, and I fought down panic.

Another lance zipped over my head. I looked back and saw the goblins following me along the bank, scrambling over the rocks and hurling spears. Terror shot through me, giving me new strength. I struck out for the opposite shore, arms and legs churning madly, fighting the current for all I was worth. More spears splashed around me, but thankfully, the goblins’ aim seemed to match their intelligence.

As I drew close to the wall of mist, something struck my shoulder with jarring force, sending a flare of agony across my back. I gasped and went under. Pain paralyzed my arm, and as the undertow dragged me down, I was sure I was going to die.

Something grabbed my waist, and I felt myself pulled upward. My head broke water and I gasped air into my starving lungs, fighting the blackness on the edge of my vision. As my senses returned, I realized someone was pulling me through the water, but I could see nothing around me because of the mist. Then my feet touched solid ground, and the next thing I knew, I was lying in the grass, the sun shining warmly on my face. My eyes were closed, and I cracked them open cautiously.

A girl’s face hovered over mine, blond hair brushing my cheeks, wide green eyes both anxious and curious. Her skin was the color of summer grass, and tiny scales gleamed silver around her neck. She grinned, and her teeth flashed as sharp and pointed as an eel’s.

A scream welled in my throat, but I swallowed it down. This…girl?…had just saved my life, even if it meant she wanted to eat me herself. It would be rude if I just shrieked in her face, plus any sudden moves might spark an aggressive feeding frenzy. I couldn’t show any fear. With a deep breath, I sat up, wincing as a bolt of pain lanced through my shoulder.

“Um…hello,” I stammered, watching her sit back and blink. I was surprised that she had legs instead of a fishtail, though webbing spanned her fingers and toes, and her claws were very, very sharp. A small white dress clung to her body, the hem of it dripping wet. “I’m Meghan. What’s your name?”

She cocked her head, reminding me of a cat that couldn’t decide whether to eat the mouse or play with it. “You’re funny-looking,” she stated, her voice rippling like water over rocks. “What are you?”

“Me? I’m human.” The moment I said it, I wished I hadn’t. In the old fairy tales, which I was remembering more and more of, humans were always food, playthings, or the tragic love interest. And as I was quickly discovering, the inhabitants here had no qualms about eating a speaking, sentient creature. I held the same rung on the food chain as a rabbit or squirrel. It was a scary, rather humbling thought.

“Human?” The girl cocked her head the other way. I caught a glimpse of pink gills under her chin. “My sisters told me stories of humans. They said they sometimes sing to them to lure them underwater.” She grinned, showing off her sharp needle-teeth. “I’ve been practicing. Want to hear?”

“No, she certainly does not.” Grimalkin came stalking through the grass, bottlebrush tail held high in the air. The feline was soaked, water dripping off his fur in rivulets, and he did not look pleased.

“Shoo,” he growled at the girl, and she drew back, hissing and baring her teeth. Grimalkin seemed unimpressed. “Go away. I am in no mood to play games with nixies. Now, get!”

The girl hissed once more and fled, sliding into the water like a seal. She glared at us from the middle of the river, then vanished in a spray of mist.

“Irritating sirens,” Grimalkin fumed, turning to glare at me, eyes narrowed. “You did not promise her anything, did you?”

“No.” I bristled. I was happy to see the cat, of course, but didn’t appreciate the attitude. It wasn’t my fault the goblins were chasing us. “You didn’t have to scare her off, Grim. She did save my life.”

The cat flicked his tail, spraying me with drops. “The only reason she pulled you out of the river was curiosity. If I had not come along, she would have either sung you underwater to drown, or she would have eaten you. Fortunately, nixies are not very brave. They would much prefer a fight beneath the water where they have all the advantages. Now, I suggest we find somewhere to rest. You are wounded, and the swim took a lot out of me. If you can walk, I encourage you to do so.”

Grimacing, I pulled myself to my feet. My shoulder felt like it was on fire, but if I held my arm close to my chest, the pain receded to a dull throb. Biting my lip, I followed Grimalkin, away from the river and into the lands of the Erlking.

EVEN WET, TIRED, AND IN PAIN, I still had the energy to gawk. Pretty soon, my eyes felt huge and swollen from staring so long without blinking. The land on this side of the river was a far cry from the eerie gray forest of the wild fey. Rather than colors being faded and washed out, everything was overly vibrant and vivid. The trees were too green, the flowers screamingly colorful. Leaves glittered, razor sharp in the light, and petals flashed like jewels as they caught the sun. It was all very beautiful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension as I took it in. Everything seemed…fake somehow, as if this was a fancy coating over reality, as if I wasn’t looking at the real world at all.

My shoulder burned, and the skin around it felt puffy and hot. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the throbbing heat leeched down my arm and spread through my back. Sweat ran down my face, making my eyes sting, and my legs trembled.

I finally collapsed under a pine tree, gasping, my body hot and cold at the same time. Grimalkin circled around and trotted back, his tail held high in the air. For a moment, there were two Grimalkins, but then I blinked sweat out of my eyes and there was only one.

“There’s something wrong with me,” I panted as the cat regarded me coolly. His eyes abruptly floated off his face and hovered in the air between us. I blinked, hard, and they were normal again.

Grimalkin nodded. “Dreamlace venom,” he said, to my confusion. “Goblins poison their spears and arrows. When the hallucinations start coming, you do not have long.”

I took a ragged breath. “Isn’t there a cure?” I whispered, ignoring the fern that started crawling toward me like a leafy spider. “Someone who can help?”

“That is where we are going.” Grimalkin stood, looking back at me. “Not far now, human. Keep your eyes on me, and try to ignore everything else, no matter what comes at you.”

It took three tries to get back on my feet, but at last I managed to pull myself up and hold my balance long enough to take a step. And then another. And another. I followed Grimalkin for miles, or at least it seemed that way. After the first tree lunged at me, rattling its branches, it became difficult to concentrate. I nearly lost Grimalkin several times, as the landscape twisted into terrifying versions of itself, reaching for me with twiggy fingers. Distant shapes beckoned from the shadows, calling my name. The ground turned into a writhing mass of spiders and centipedes, crawling up my legs. A deer stepped into the middle of the path, cocked its head, and asked me for the time.

Grimalkin paused. Jumping onto a rock, ignoring the boulder’s indignant shouts for him to get off, he turned to face me. “You are on your own from here, human,” he said, or at least that’s what I heard over the rock’s bellowing. “Just keep walking until he shows himself. He owes me a favor, but also tends to distrust humans, so the chances that he will help you are about fifty-fifty. Unfortunately, he is the only one who can cure you now.”

I frowned, trying to follow his words, but they buzzed around like flies and I couldn’t follow. “What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You will know what I mean when you find him, if you find him.” The cat cocked his head and gave me a scrutinizing look. “You are still a virgin, right?”

I decided that last part was a figment of my delirium. Grimalkin slipped away before I could ask him anything else, leaving me confused and disoriented. Waving away a swarm of wasps that circled my head, I stumbled after him.

A vine reached up and snagged my foot. I fell, bursting through the ground, to land on a bed of yellow flowers. They turned their tiny faces to me and screamed, filling the air with pollen. I sat up and found myself in a moonlit grove, the ground carpeted with flowers. Trees danced, rocks laughed at me, and tiny lights zipped through the air.

My limbs were numb, and I was suddenly very tired. Blackness crawled on the edge of my vision. I lay back against a tree and watched the lights swarm through the air. Vaguely, some part of me realized I’d stopped breathing, but the rest of me didn’t really care.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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