Something streaked past my face from behind, and Other Ariel a jerked, freezing in place, as the shaft of an arrow jutted from her chest.
She slumped, reaching out for me, then evaporated from sight, the arrow dropping to the ground and shattering on the f loor.
I turned and saw Ariel a on her feet beside the Wolf, her bow raised and the string stil vibrating from where it had loosed the shaft. Her gaze met mine, eyes hard, and she nodded.
"Well, that was fun," Puck stated as we hurried over, passing the two Grimalkins, watching us with identical bemused expressions. "I've always wanted to see myself die in a horrible ice explosion. You never pulled that stunt while we were dueling, ice-boy."
"Save it for later," I said quickly. "We have to keep moving."
"It is too late."
We turned as the Grimalkins stood, waving their tales. "You have failed," one of them stated, regarding each of us imperiously. "Your time is up. The doors are getting ready to close." And, in true Grimalkin fashion, he vanished without a trace.
"Hold on," Puck said, pointing to the one remaining cat. "Which Grimalkin disappeared…?"
"Puck, there's no time! Come on!"
We tore down the mirrored hal way, past our reflections, which were back to normal again. The corridor finally opened into a large circular room with pil ars soaring up into the darkness of the ceiling. On the other side, through another long corridor, I could just see a tal , rect-angular space of light.
And it was shrinking.
As we tore across the room, voices suddenly echoed around us, low moans and wailings, making the candles f licker. From the wall s and the f loors, pale, misty figures began emerging, clawing at us as we passed. A trol , coming up through a broken pil ar, latched on to my belt, trying to drag me down. I struck out with my blade, cutting through its arm, dissolving it into mist. With a wail, the trol drew back, but its arm reformed and knitted itself back onto the elbow, coming at me again. I dodged and continued my mad rush to the door.
The chamber was rapidly fil ing with wraiths, grabbing for us, snatch-ing at clothes and limbs as we passed. They didn't hurt us, only latched on and held tight until we cut ourselves free. "Staaaaaay," they whispered, reaching for us with ghostly hands, dragging us down.
"You cannot leave. Stay with us, those who have failed. Your essence can remain here with us forever."
The Wolf gave a defiant growl and surged forward ahead of us all , but for the rest of us, it was too late. As we sped across the room and down the corridor, I already knew we wouldn't make it. The rectangle was just a tiny square now, the stone door slowly grinding shut. So close.
We were so close, only to run out of time in the end.
The Wolf hit the door with just enough room to slide out, lowering his head to dart beneath the opening. But instead of going through, he slammed his broad shoulders into the bottom edge, splaying his feet to brace himself in the opening. Panting, he locked his legs against the frame and heaved up against the inevitable push of the door, and amazingly, the huge stone rectangle ground to a halt. Wraiths crowded around him, grabbing his legs and fur, leaping onto his back. He snarled and snapped at them, but didn't move from his position in the doorway, and the ghostly figures could not budge him.
Slashing at wraiths, I reached the doorway first and whirled around, waiting for Puck and Ariel a. Wraiths followed them, clawing and grabbing. One snagged Ariel a by the hair, yanking her back, but Puck's dagger sliced down, cutting through its hand and pushing Ariel a on. She stumbled into me, and I caught her before she could fal .
"Puck-" She gasped, turning in my arms.
"I'm fine, Ari!" Puck howled, leaping back from the crowding wraiths.
I nodded and released her. "Go," I repeated, echoing Puck. "We're right behind you."
She rol ed beneath the door, barely avoiding a banshee that lurched out of the f loor. I stabbed the wraith through the head and glanced at Puck.
He was backing down the corridor, stabbing at hands and dodging the fingers that grabbed for him.
"Geez, you guys. I know I'm popular and all , but seriously, you're a bit too co-dependent for me. I'm going to need you to step away from my personal bubble." A wispy vine-woman curled ivy tendrils around his arm, and he sliced through them with his dagger. "No! Bad wraith! No touchie!"
"Will you get over here?" I shouted, stabbing a redcap clinging to my leg.
Puck gave a final swipe with his dagger and lunged toward the door, scrambling through the opening. I turned to help the Wolf.
He was covered in wraiths, so many that I could barely see him through the ghostly figures. And more were f loating up, rising out of the f loor and coming through the wall s, trying to drag us back into the room. An ogre lunged through the wall from behind, reaching for my arm, and I twisted away.
"Don't worry about me," the Wolf snarled. "Just go!"
I sliced through a ghostly sidhe knight that reminded me faintly of Rowan. He dissolved instantly but began reforming as soon as my blade passed through his body. "I'm not leaving you here to die."
"Foolish prince!" The Wolf glared back at me, baring his fangs. "This is your story. You must reach the end of it. This is why I came-to ensure the story would go on." He snapped at a goblin near his face, and the thing erupted into a misty cloud. "The wraiths cannot leave the temple, it seems, but they are not letting me through, either. Go now, while there is stil time!"
"Ash!" Puck cal ed from the other side of the door. "Come on, ice-boy, what are you waiting for?"
I gave the Wolf one last glance, then dove through the opening, rol ing to my feet on the other side. The wraiths wailed, crowding beneath the door, reaching out for us, but they could not get past the threshold.
The Wolf panted, shaking from the strain of holding the door and the dozens of bodies that tugged and yanked at him. "Get going, prince," he growled, looking me in the eye. "You cannot help me now. Finish your quest, complete the story, and don't forget to mention me when you pass it on. That was our bargain."
I stared at the Wolf, my mind churning, trying to think of a way to help him. But the Wolf was right; there was nothing we could do. Raising my sword, I gave him a solemn salute. "I won't forget what you've done."
"Pah!" The Wolf, despite the strain, bared his teeth in a disdainful laugh. "You think this will kill me, boy? You should know better than that. Nothing in this pitiful gauntlet can harm me. Nothing."
I seriously doubted that. The Wolf was strong, and he was immortal, but he could be kill ed. He could die, same as anything else.
"Now, go," he told us, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. "I'm getting tired of watching you gape like a herd of startled deer. I will hold the door for your return, assuming we will have to come back the same way. Nothing will move me until we are done here for good."
"How very…doglike," said Grimalkin, appearing beside Ariel a, gazing at the Wolf in disdain. "Brave. Loyal. And ultimately stupid."
The Wolf panted, baring his teeth. "You wouldn't understand, cat," he growled, curling a lip in his own show of contempt. "Your kind knows nothing of loyalty."
"As if that is a bad thing." Grimalkin sniffed and turned away, waving his tail. "And yet, who is on the correct side of the door? Come, prince." He twitched an ear at me. "We did not come all this way to be stopped at the finish line. The dog has made his choice. Let us move on."
I gave the Wolf one last glance. "I'll be back," I told him. "Try to hang on. When I'm done with this, I'm coming back for you."
He snorted. Whether it was because he didn't believe me, or because it took too much strength to talk, I didn't know. But I turned my back on him and walked the final few paces out of the temple.
Grimalkin was sitting at the end of the hal , silhouetted beneath a stone archway, his tail curled primly around himself. Beyond him, I could see a black sky littered with stars. But they were huge, glowing things, almost blinding, as if we were far closer than we had been in the Nevernever. I heard the roar of water as I approached Grimalkin, and heard Puck's slow exhale as we joined the cat at the end of the hall.
The vast emptiness of space stretched before us, endless and eternal.
Stars and constel ations glimmered above and below, from tiny pinpricks of light to huge pulsing giants so bright it hurt to look at them.
Comets streaked through the night sky, and in the distance, I could see the gaping maw of a black hole sucking in the surrounding galaxy, bil ions of miles away. Huge chunks of rock and land f loated, weightless, in empty space. I saw a cottage perched on a boulder, spinning endlessly through space, and a massive tree grew from a tiny plot of grass, its roots dangling through the bottom. Beyond a stream of jagged rocks, past a treacherous-looking rope bridge over nothing, an enormous castle f loated among the stars.
Below our feet, the River of Dreams f lowed from beneath the hal and roared over the edge into empty space, fal ing into the void until we couldn't see it anymore.
I drew in a deep, slow breath, feeling my companions' amazement match my own.
We had reached the End of the World.
THE TESTING GROUNDS
Ariel a found the stairs. We made our way down the narrow, crumbling path to the bottom of the cliff, gazing out into the void. A rock f loated past my face; I tapped it and sent it spinning away into space.
"The end of the Nevernever," Ariel a mused, her silver hair f loating around her like a bright cloud. She sounded sad again, and I wanted to comfort her, but restrained myself. "How many have been here, I wonder? How many have seen what we're seeing?"
"How many have dropped off the edge and are drifting through space right now?" Puck added, peering over the end of the cliff while hanging on to a sickly tree trunk growing from the rocks. "I keep expecting a skeleton to f loat by. Or maybe they just keep fal ing forever?"