The Dungeon, for all its eerie decor, turned out to be nothing more than a bar and nightclub, though it definitely catered to the more macabre crowd. The walls were brick, the lights dim and red, casting everything in crimson, and snarling monster heads hung on the walls over the bar. Music pounded the ceiling from an overhead room, AC/DC screaming out the lyrics to Back in Black.

There were human patrons at the bar and sitting throughout the room with drinks in hand, but I saw only the inhuman ones. Goblins and satyrs, phouka and redcaps, a lone ogre in the corner, drinking a whole pitcher of a dark purple liquid. Unseen and invisible, the Unseelie fey milled through the throng of humans, spitting in their drinks, tripping the drunker ones, stealing items from purses and wallets.

I shivered and drew back, but Ash took my hand firmly. “Stay close,” he murmured again. “This isn’t as bad as upstairs, but we’ll still have to be careful.”

“What’s upstairs?”

“Skulls, cages and the dance floor. Not something you want to see, trust me.”

Ash kept a tight hold on my hand as we navigated around tables and bar patrons, moving toward the back of the room. Grimalkin had disappeared—normal for him—so it was just us receiving the cold, hungry glares from every corner of the room. A redcap—a short, evil faery with sharklike teeth and a cap dipped in his victim’s blood—

reached for me as we passed his table, snagging my shirt.

I tried to dodge, but the space was tight and narrow, and the clawed fingers latched onto my sleeve.

Ash turned. There was a flash of blue light, and a half second later the redcap froze, a glowing blue sword at his throat.

“Don’t. Try. Anything.” Ash’s voice was colder than the chill coming off his blade. The redcap’s Adam’s apple bobbed, and he very slowly pulled back his claws. The rest of the Unseelie fey had frozen as well and were staring at us with glowing, hostile eyes.

“Meghan, go.” Ash kept his threatening gaze on the rest of the crowd, daring anyone to get up. No one moved.

I slipped past him and the redcap, who was keeping very still in his seat, and moved toward the back of the room.

“This way, human.” Grimalkin appeared at the edge of a hallway, his eyes coming into focus before the rest of his body. Behind him, the narrow corridor was tight, dim and full of smoke. Strangely enough, bookshelves lined the walls, floor to ceiling—the type you’d find in a library or old mansion, not a shadowy bar in the French Quarter.

“Okay, why is there a library in the back of a goth bar?” I asked, peering around at the books. “Spell books for the black arts? Recipes for human hors d’oeuvres?” Grimalkin snorted.

“Watch and learn, human.”

At that moment, the bookshelf at the very end of the hallway swung open, and two college-aged girls walked out, laughing and giggling. I blinked and moved aside as they passed, reeking of smoke and alcohol, and stumbled back toward the main bar. Looking back, I caught a glimpse of the room behind the panel as it swung closed—a toilet, a sink and a mirror—and stared wide-eyed at Grimalkin.

“The bathroom?”

Grimalkin yawned. “What humans will not do to keep themselves entertained,” he mused with half-lidded eyes. “It is even more amusing when they are drunk and cannot find the door. But I suggest we get moving. That redcap motley has taken quite an interest in you.” I looked back to see that the redcap had been joined by three of his friends, and all four faeries were staring at us and muttering among themselves. Ash joined us in the hall, his icy blade still unsheathed, tendrils of mist writhing off it to mingle with the smoke.

“Hurry,” he growled at us, pushing me toward the end of the hall. “I don’t like the attention we’re getting.

Cat, have you opened the trod?”

“Give me a moment, Prince.” Grimalkin sighed, and sauntered toward the panel that had so recently opened.

“Wait, aren’t you their prince?” I wondered.

“They’re Unseelie too, right? Can’t you just order them to leave us alone?”

Ash gave a low, humorless chuckle. “I’m a prince,” he replied, still keeping an eye on the redcaps, who in turn were keeping an eye on us. “But I’m not the only one. My brothers are looking for you as well. Rowan has eyes and ears everywhere, I’m sure. He’s much more ruthless than I am. Those redcaps could work for him, or they could be spies for Mab herself. Either way, they’re going to inform someone of our passing the moment we leave this place. I can guarantee it.”

“Sounds like a great family,” I muttered.

Ash snorted. “You have no idea.”

“Done,” said Grimalkin from the end of the hallway.

“Let us go.”

“After you,” Ash said, motioning me forward. “I’ll make sure nothing follows us.”

I slid the panel open, half expecting to see the tiny bathroom with the stained sink and toilet and scrawled-on walls. Instead, a cold breeze blew into the hallway, smelling of frost and bark and crushed leaves, and the gray, misty forest of the Nevernever stretched away through the door.

Grimalkin slipped through first, becoming nearly invisible in the fog. I followed, stepping through the doorway that became a split tree trunk on the other side.

Ash ducked through and shut the door firmly behind us, where it faded into nothingness as soon as he let it go, leaving the mortal world behind.

It was colder in this part of the wyldwood. Frost coated the ground and the branches of the trees, and the mist clung to my skin with clammy fingers. I couldn’t see more than a few yards in any direction. Everything was overly quiet and still, as if the forest itself was holding its breath.

“Tir Na Nog is close,” Ash said, his voice muffled by the clinging fog. His breath did not puff or hang in the air like mine did. Trembling, I rubbed my arms to get warm.

“We should move quickly. I want to get to Winter as fast as possible.”

I was tired. My legs were cramped, both from riding and walking, my head hurt, and the cold was sapping the last of my willpower. And I knew from personal experience that it would only get colder the closer we got to Tir Na Nog.

Thankfully, Grimalkin noticed my reluctance. “The human is about to fall over from exhaustion,” he stated bluntly, twitching his tail. “She will only slow us down if we push her much farther. Perhaps we should look for a place to rest.”

“Soon,” Ash said, and turned to me. “Just a little farther, Meghan. Can you do that? We’ll stop as soon as we cross the border into Tir Na Nog.” I nodded wearily. Ash took my hand, and with Grimalkin leading the way, we walked into the curling mist.

Minutes later, the howl rang out behind us.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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