Home > The Iron Queen (The Iron Fey #3)(5)

The Iron Queen (The Iron Fey #3)(5)
Author: Julie Kagawa

“I look forward to it.”

“You wait. You’ll be sorry when something grabs me and I scream loud enough to wake the dead.”

Ash smiled and let me go. “They’ll have to get past me first,” he promised, a steely glint in his eye. “Besides, most things that would grab you are just nursery bogies—irritating but harmless. They only want to scare you.” He sobered, and his eyes narrowed, peering around the cemetery. “The real threat will be the Grim, assuming this cemetery has one.”

“What’s a Grim?” I immediately thought of Grimalkin, the smart-mouthed talking cat who always seemed to pop up when least expected, demanding favors in return for his help. I wondered where the cat was now, if he had returned to the wyldwood after our last adventure. Of course, being in a cemetery, a Grim might also be a grinning skeleton in a black cowl, gliding down the aisles with a scythe in hand. I shivered and cursed my overactive imagination. So help me, it didn’t matter if Ash was here or not, if I saw that coming, people on the other side of the city would hear me scream.

An eerie howl cut through the night, making me jump. Ash froze, lean muscles tightening beneath the fabric of his shirt. A lethal calmness entered his face: his killer’s mask. The cemetery went deathly still, as if even the ghosts and nursery bogies were afraid to move.

“Let me guess. That was a Grim.”

Ash’s voice was soft as he turned away. “Let’s go.”

We continued down several more aisles, stone mausoleums flanking us. I peered anxiously between the tombs, wary of bogies and galley beggars and anything else that might jump out at me. I searched for the mysterious Grim, my creeped-out brain imagining werewolves and zombie dogs and scythe-toting skeletons following us down the streets.

Finally, we came to a small stone mausoleum with an ancient cross perched on the roof and a simple wooden door, nothing fancy or extravagant. The tiny plaque on the wall was so faded it was impossible to read. I would’ve walked right past it, if Ash hadn’t stopped.

“Whose tomb is this?” I asked, hanging back from the door as if it would creak open to reveal its grisly contents. Ash walked up the crumbling granite steps and put a hand against the wood.

“An older couple, no one important,” he replied, running his fingers down the faded surface as if he could sense what was on the other side. Narrowing his eyes, he glanced back at me. “Meghan, get up here, now.”

I cringed. “We’re going inside?”

“Once I open the door, the Grim will know we’re here. Its duty is to guard the cemetery, and the remains of those in it, so it’s not going to be happy about us disturbing the dead. You don’t want to be out here alone when it comes, trust me.”

Heart pounding, I scurried up the steps and pressed close to his back, peering out over the graveyard. “What is this thing, anyway?” I asked. “Can’t you just slice your way past it, or turn us invisible for that matter?”

“It’s not that easy,” Ash explained patiently. “Church Grims are immune to magic and glamour—they see right through it. And even if you kill one, it doesn’t die. To destroy a Grim, you have to dig up and burn its real body, and we don’t have the time.” He turned back to the door, murmured a quiet word, and pushed it open.

A blast of hot air wafted out of the open crypt, along with the musty scent of dust and mold and decay. I gagged and pressed my face into Ash’s shoulder as we eased inside, shutting the door behind us. The tiny room was like an oven; I was almost instantly covered in sweat, and I pressed my sleeve to my mouth. Gasping into the fabric, I tried not to be sick at the scene in the middle of the floor.

On a raised stone table lay two skeletons, side by side. The room was so small that there was barely enough room to skirt the edges of the table, so the bodies were quite close. Too close, in my opinion. The bones were yellowed with age, and nothing clung to them—no skin, hair, or flesh—so they must’ve been here awhile.

I noticed that the skeletons were holding hands, long bony fingers wrapped around each other in a gruesome parody of affection. On one knobby, nak*d digit, a tarnished ring glinted in the shadows.

Curiosity battled revulsion, and I looked at Ash, who was staring at the couple with a grave expression on his face. “Who are they?” I whispered through my sleeve. Ash hesitated, then took a quiet breath.

“There is a story,” he began in a solemn tone, “about a talented saxophone player who went to Mardi Gras one night and caught the eye of a faery queen. And the queen bid him come to her, because he was young and handsome and charming, and his music could set one’s soul on fire. But the sax player refused, because he already had a wife, and his love for her was greater than even the beauty of the faery queen. And so, angry that he spurned her, the queen took him anyway, and held him in the Nevernever for many long days, forcing him to entertain her. But no matter what the young man saw in Faery, and no matter how much the queen tried to make him her own, even when he forgot his own name, he could not forget his wife back in the mortal world.”

Watching Ash’s face, the shadows in his eyes as he spoke, I got the feeling this wasn’t a story he’d heard somewhere. This was a tale he’d watched unfold before him. He knew of the Token and where to find it because he remembered the sax player from the queen’s court; another mortal caught up in the cruelty of the fey.

“Time passed,” Ash went on, “and the queen finally released him, because it amused her to do so. And when the young human, his head filled with memories both real and imagined, returned to his beloved wife, he found her aged sixty years, while he had not changed a day since he vanished from the mortal world. She still wore his ring, and had not taken another husband or suitor, for she always believed he would return.”

Ash paused, and I used my free hand to wipe my eyes. The skeletons didn’t seem so creepy now, lying motionless on the table. At least I could look at them without my stomach churning. “What happened after that?” I whispered, glancing at Ash hopefully, pleading for this faery tale to have a happy ending. Or at least a nonhorrible one. I should’ve known better by now. Ash shook his head and sighed.

“Neighbors found them days later lying in bed, a young man and a shrunken old woman, their fingers intertwined in an unbreakable grip and their faces turned toward one another. The blood from their wrists had already dried on the sheets.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked at the skeletons again, fingers interlocked in death as they had been in life. And I wished that, for once, faery tales—real faery tales, not Disney fairy tales—would have a happy ending. I wonder what my ending will be? The thought came out of nowhere, making me frown. I looked at Ash over the table; his silver gaze met mine, and I felt my heart swell in my chest. I was in a faery tale, wasn’t I? I was playing my part in the story, the human girl who had fallen in love with a faery prince. Stories like that rarely ended well. Even if I did finish this thing with the false king, even if I did go back to my family and live out a normal life, where would Ash fit in? I was human; he was an immortal, soulless faery. What kind of future did we have together? I would eventually grow old and die; Ash would live on forever, or at least until the mortal world became too much for him and he simply ceased to exist.

I closed my eyes, my heart aching with the bitter truth. He didn’t belong here, in the mortal world. He belonged back in Faery, with the other creatures of myth and nightmares and imagination. Ash was a beautiful, impossible dream: a faery tale. And I, despite my father’s blood, was still human.

“Meghan?” His voice was soft, questioning. “What is it?”

Suddenly angry, I cut off my bleak thoughts. No. I would not accept that. This was my story, our story. I would find a way for us both to live, to be happy. I owed Ash that much.

Something landed on the roof overhead with a hollow thud, and a shower of dust filtered over me. Coughing, I waved my hand in front of my face, squinting in the sudden rain of filth.

“What was that?”

Ash glanced at the roof, eyes narrowing. “Our signal to leave. Here.” He tossed something at me over the table. It glimmered briefly as I caught it—the tarnished gold ring from the skeleton’s finger. “There’s your Token,” Ash muttered, and I saw his hand dart into his coat pocket, almost too quick to be seen, before he stepped away from the table. “Let’s get out of here.”

He pulled the door open, motioning me out. As I ducked through the frame, something dripped onto my shoulder from above, something warm and wet and slimy. I put my hand to my neck, and it came away covered in frothy drool. Heart in my throat, I looked back and up.

A monstrous shape crouched atop the mausoleum, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, something lean and muscular and decidedly unnatural. Trembling, I gazed up into the burning crimson eyes of an enormous black dog, big as a cow, lips pulled back to reveal fangs as long as dinner knives.

“Ash,” I squeaked, backing away. The monster dog’s eyes followed me, their burning glare fastened on the hand where I clutched the ring. “Is that—?”

Ash’s sword rasped free. “The Grim.” The Grim glanced at him and snarled, making the ground tremble, then swung its terrifying gaze back to me. Muscles rippled under its slick coat as it crouched lower, drool hanging in glistening ribbons from its teeth. Ash brandished his sword, speaking to me though he never took his eyes from the Grim. “Meghan, when I say ‘go,’ run forward, not away from it. Understand?”

That sounded very much like suicide, but I trusted Ash. “Yeah,” I whispered, clenching the ring tighter, feeling the edges dig into my palm. “I’m ready.”

The Grim howled, an earsplitting bay that split my head open, making me want to cover my ears and close my eyes. It leaped, and I would’ve been frozen to the spot if Ash hadn’t snapped me out of it by yelling, “Go!” Spurred into action, I dove forward, beneath the dog hurtling over my head, and felt the crushing impact as the Grim hit the spot where I had been standing.

“Run!” Ash yelled at me. “We have to get off the cemetery grounds, now!”

Behind us, the Grim roared in fury and attacked.



A hail of glittering shards erupted from Ash’s direction, pelting the Grim with frozen daggers and stinging bits of ice. They shattered or glanced off the Grim’s muscular hide, not injuring the beast, but it was enough to buy us a few seconds’ head start. We fled down the aisles, dashing between crypts, ducking around statues of angels and saints, the hot breath of the Grim at our heels. If we had been in the open, the monstrous dog would’ve run me down and used me as a chew toy in three seconds flat, but the narrow streets and tight corridors slowed it down a bit. We zigzagged our way through the cemetery, staying one step ahead of the Grim, until the white concrete wall that marked the cemetery grounds loomed ahead of us.

Ash reached the barrier first and whirled to help me up, positioning himself as a step stool. Expecting to feel teeth on my back at any moment, I stepped onto his knee and launched myself for the top, clawing and kicking. Ash leaped straight up, like he was attached to wires, and landed on the edge, grabbing my arm.

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