After nearly an hour of walking, we reached the city streets.
I paused and gazed around, wishing we had more time to explore. I’d always wanted to go to New Orleans, particularly during Mardi Gras, though I knew Mom would never permit it. Even now, New Orleans pulsed with life and activity. Rustic shops and buildings lined the street, many stacked two or three stories atop one another, with railings and verandas overlooking the sidewalk. Strains of jazz music drifted into the street, and the spicy smell of Cajun food made my stomach growl.
“Gawk later.” Grimalkin poked me in the shin with a claw. “We are not here to sightsee. We have to get to the French Quarter. One of you, find us some transportation.”
“Where exactly are we going?” Ash questioned as Puck flagged down a carriage pulled by a sleepy-looking red mule. The mule snorted and pinned his ears as we piled inside, but the driver smiled and nodded. Grimalkin leaped onto the front seat.
“The Historic Voodoo Museum,” he told the driver, who didn’t look at all fazed by a talking cat. “And step on it.”
VOODOO MUSEUM? I WASN’T sure what to expect when the carriage pulled up to a shabby-looking building in the French Quarter. A pair of simple black doors stood beneath the overhang, and a humble wooden sign proclaimed it the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Dusk had fallen, and the sign in the grimy window read Closed. Grimalkin nodded to Puck, who muttered a few words under his breath and tapped on the door. It opened with a soft creak, and we stepped inside.
The inside was musty and warm. I tripped over a bump in the carpet and stumbled into Ash, who steadied me with a sigh. Puck closed the door behind us, plunging the room into blackness. I groped for the wall, but Ash spoke a quick word, and a globe of blue fire appeared over his head, illuminating the darkness.
The pale light washed over a grisly collection of horror. A skeleton in a top hat stood along the far wall beside a mannequin with an alligator head. Skulls of humans and animals decorated the room, along with grinning masks and numerous wooden dolls. Glass cases bore jars of snakes and frogs floating in amber liquid, teeth, pestles, drums, turtle shells, and other oddities.
“This way,” came Grimalkin’s voice, unnaturally loud in the looming silence. We trailed him down a dark hall, where portraits of men and women stared at us from the walls. I felt eyes following me as I ducked into a room cluttered with more grisly paraphernalia and a round table in the center covered with a black tablecloth. Four chairs stood around it, as if someone were expecting us.
As we approached the table, one of the desiccated faces in the corner stirred and floated away from the wall. I screamed and leaped behind Puck as a skeletal woman with tangled white hair shambled toward us, her eyes hollow pits in a withered face.
“Hello, children,” the hag whispered, her voice like sand hissing through a pipe. “Come to visit old Anna, have you? Puck is here, and Grimalkin, as well. What a pleasure.” She gestured to the table, and the nails on her knobby hands glinted like steel. “Please, have a seat.”
We sat down around the table as the hag came to stand before us. She smelled of dust and decay, of old newspapers that had been left in the attic for years. She smiled at me, revealing yellow, needlelike teeth.
“I smell need,” she rasped, sinking into a chair. “Need, and desire. You, child.” She crooked a finger at me. “You have come seeking knowledge. You search for something that must be found, yes?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
The hag nodded her withered head. “Ask, then, child of two worlds. But remember…” She fixed me with a hollow glare. “All knowledge must be paid for. I will give you the answers you seek, but I desire something in return. Will you accept the price?”
Defeat crushed me. More faery bargains. More prices to pay. I was so much in debt already, I would never see the end of it. “I don’t have much left to give,” I told her. She laughed, a sibilant hissing sound.
“There is always something, dear child. So far, only your freedom has been claimed by another.” She sniffed, as a dog might when catching a scent. “You still have your youth, your talents, your voice. Your future child. All these are of interest to me.”
“You’re not getting my future child,” I said automatically.
“Really?” The oracle tapped her fingers together. “You will not give it up, even though it will bring you nothing but grief?”
“Enough.” Ash’s strong voice broke through the darkness. “We’re not here to debate the what-ifs of the future. Name your price, oracle, and let the girl decide if she wants to pay it.”
The oracle sniffed and settled back. “A memory,” she stated.
“A memory,” the hag said again. “One that you recall with great affection. The happiest memory of your childhood. I’ve precious few of my own, you see.”
“Really?” I asked. “That’s it? You just want one of my memories, and we have a deal?”
“Meghan—” Puck broke in “—don’t take this so lightly. Your memories are a part of you. Losing one of your memories is like losing a piece of your soul.”
That sounded a bit more ominous. Still, I thought, one memory is a lot easier to pay than my voice, or my firstborn child. And it’s not like I’ll miss it, especially if I can’t remember. I thought about the happiest moments in my life: birthday parties, my first bike, Beau as a puppy. None of them seemed important enough to keep. “All right,” I told the oracle, and took a seat across from her. “You’re on. You get one memory of mine, one, and then you tell me what I want to know. Deal?”
The hag bared her teeth in a smile. “Yesssssssss.”
She rose up over the table, framing my face with both her claws. I shivered and closed my eyes as her nails gently scratched my cheeks.
“This might feel a bit…unpleasant,” the oracle hissed, and I gasped as she sank her claws into my mind, ripping it open like a paper sack. I felt her shuffling through my head, sorting through memories like photographs, examining them before tossing them aside. Discarded images fluttered around me: memories, emotions, and old wounds rose up again, fresh and painful. I wanted to pull back, to make it stop, but I couldn’t move. Finally, the oracle paused, reaching toward a bright spot of happiness, and in horror I saw what she was going for.
No! I wanted to scream. No, not that one! Leave it alone, please!
“Yesssssss,” the oracle hissed, sinking her claws into the memory. “I will take this one. Now it is mine.”
There was a ripping sensation, and a bolt of pain through my head. I stiffened, my jaw locking around a shriek, and slumped in my chair, feeling like my head had been split open.
I sat up, wincing at the throbbing in my skull. The oracle watched me over the tablecloth, a pleased smile on her face. Puck was murmuring something that I couldn’t make out, and Ash regarded me with a look of pity. I felt tired, drained, and empty for some reason, like there was a gaping hole deep inside me.
Hesitantly, I probed my memories, wondering which one the oracle took. After a moment, I realized how absurd that was.
“It is done,” the oracle murmured. She lay her hands, palms up, on the table between us. “And now I will uphold my end of the bargain. Place your hands in mine, child, and ask.”
Swallowing my revulsion, I put my palms gently over hers, shivering as those long nails curled around my fingers. The hag closed her pitted eyes. “Three questions,” she rasped, her voice seeming to come from a great distance away. “That is the standard bargain. Three questions will I answer, and I am done. Choose wisely.”
I took a deep breath, glanced at Puck and Ash, and whispered: “Where can I find my brother?”
Silence for a moment. The hag’s eyes opened, and I jumped. They were no longer hollow, but burned with flame, as black and depthless as the void. Her mouth opened, stretching impossibly wide, as she breathed:
Within the iron mountain
a stolen child waits.
A king no longer on his throne
shall guide you past the gates.
“Oh, fabulous,” Puck muttered, sitting back in his chair and rolling his eyes. “I love riddles. And they rhyme so nicely. Ask her where we can find the Iron King.”
I nodded. “Where is Machina, the Iron King?”
The oracle sighed, voices erupting from her throat to whisper:
In Blight’s heart
a tower sings
upon whose thrones
sit Iron Kings.
“Blight.” Puck nodded, arching his eyebrows. “And singing towers. Well, this gets better and better. I’m sure glad we decided to come here. Prince, can you think of anything you want to ask our most obliging oracle?”
Ash, deep in thought with his chin in his hands, raised his head. His eyes narrowed. “Ask her how we can kill him,” he demanded.
I squirmed, uncomfortable with the thought of having to kill. I only wanted to rescue Ethan. I didn’t know how this turned into a holy war. “Ash—”
“Just do it.”
I swallowed and turned back to the oracle. “How do we kill the Iron King?” I whispered reluctantly. The oracle’s mouth opened.
The King of Iron cannot be slain
by mortal man or fey.
Seek out the Keepers of the trees.
Their hearts will show the way.
No sooner were the last words out of her mouth than the oracle collapsed on the table. For a moment she lay there, a desiccated old woman, and then she just…disintegrated. Dust flew everywhere, stinging my eyes and throat. I turned away, coughing and hacking, and when I could breathe again, the oracle was gone. Only a few floating dust motes showed she had been there at all.
“I believe,” Grimalkin said, peering over the table rim, “that our audience is over.”
“SO WHERE TO NOW?” I asked as we left the Voodoo Museum, stepping into the dimly lit streets of the French Quarter. “The oracle didn’t give us much to go on.”
“On the contrary,” Grimalkin said, looking back at me, “she gave us a great deal. One, we know your brother is with Machina. That was a given, but confirmation is always beneficial. Two, we know Machina is supposedly invincible, and his lair is in the middle of a blighted land. And, most important, three, we know there is someone who knows how to kill him.”
“Yeah, but who?” I rubbed a hand over my eyes. I was so tired—tired of searching, tired of running in circles with no answers to anything. I wanted it all to end.
“Really, human, were you not listening?” Grimalkin sighed, exasperated again, but I didn’t care. “It was not even much of a riddle, really. What about you two?” he asked, looking to the boys. “Did our mighty protectors glean any bits of knowledge, or was I the only one paying attention?”
Ash didn’t reply, too busy staring down the street, eyes narrowed. Puck shrugged. “Seek out the Keepers of the trees,” he muttered. “That’s easy enough. I assume we should go back to the park.”
“Very good, Goodfellow.”