The Iron Queen(10)

By: Julie Kagawa

I blinked at her. “What?”

“I wish for you to bring me a Token. Surely that is not too much to ask.”

“Um…” I cast a helpless glance at Ash. “What’s a token?”

The oracle sighed. “Still so naive.” She gave Ash an almost motherly frown. “I trust you will teach her better than this in the future, young prince. Now, listen to me, Meghan Chase, and I will share a bit of faery lore. Most items,” she continued, plucking a skull from a table with her bony talons, “are just that. Mundane, ordinary, commonplace. Nothing special. However…” She replaced the skull with a thunk and carefully picked up a small leather bag, tied with a leather thong. I heard the rattle of pebbles or bones within as she held it up. “Certain items have been so loved and cherished by mortals that they become something else entirely—a symbol of that emotion, whether it be love, hate, pride, or fear. A favored doll, or an artist’s masterpiece. And sometimes, though rarely, the item becomes so important that it grows a life of its own. It’s as if a bit of the human’s soul was left behind, clinging to the once-ordinary article. We fey call these items Tokens, and they are highly sought after, for they radiate a special glamour that never fades away.” The oracle stepped back, seeming to fade into the paraphernalia lining the walls. “Find me a Token, Meghan Chase,” she whispered, “and I will give you back your memory.”

And then she was gone.

I rubbed my arms and turned to Ash, who bore a thoughtful expression. He stared after the vanished oracle. “Great,” I muttered. “So, we need to find a Token thing. I suppose they’re not just lying around for the taking, huh? Any ideas?”

He roused himself and glanced down at me. “I might know where we can find one,” he mused, suddenly solemn again. “But it’s not a place humans like to visit, especially at night.”

I laughed. “What, you don’t think I can handle it?” He raised an eyebrow, and I frowned. “Ash, I’ve been through Arcadia, Tir Na Nog, the Briars, the Between, the Iron Realm, Machina’s tower, and the killing fields of the Nevernever. I don’t think there’s a place capable of freaking me out anymore.”

A trace of humor touched his eyes, a silent challenge. “All right, then,” he said, leading me out. “Follow me.”

THE CITY OF THE DEAD stretched away before me, stark and black under the swollen yellow moon, steaming in the humid air. Rows upon rows of crypts, tombs, and mausoleums lined the narrow streets, some lovingly decorated with flowers, candles, and plaques, others crumbling with age and neglect. Some of them looked like miniature houses, or even tiny cathedrals, spires and stone crosses raking the sky. Statues of angels and weeping women peered down from rooftops, looking stern or in the throes of grief. Their hollow eyes seemed to follow me down the tomb-lined alleyways.

I really have to learn to keep my mouth shut, I thought, trailing Ash through the narrow streets, my skin crawling with every noise and suspicious-looking shadow. A warm breeze whispered between crypts, kicking up dust and causing dead leaves to skitter along the ground. My overactive imagination kicked into high gear, seeing zombies shuffling between the rows, the tomb doors creaking open as skeletal hands reached out for us. I shuddered and pressed closer to Ash who, damn him, seemed quite unfazed about walking through a New Orleans cemetery in the dead of night. I sensed his secret amusement at my expense, and so help me, if he said anything along the lines of I told you so I was going to smack him.

There are no ghosts here, I told myself, my gaze flickering between the rows of crypts. No ghosts, no zombies, no men with hook-hands waiting to ambush stupid teenagers who come to the cemetery at night. Stop being paranoi—

I caught a shimmer of movement between the crypts, a flutter of something white and ghostly, a woman in a bloodstained hood and cowl, floating over the ground. My heart nearly stopped, and with a squeak, I grabbed Ash’s sleeve, tugging him to a halt. He turned, and I threw myself into his arms, burying my face in his chest. Pride be damned; I’d kill him later for bringing me here.