"That…is going to be a problem."
Emily glowered at Trey. "You think?"
He shot her a look, and then turned his attention back to the 'problem'. They'd spent twenty minutes running around inside the walls of the castle while Emily tried to follow the insistent tug of the Crown's location. Four times they'd run into dead ends. When Trey finally figured out where she was trying to go, he had taken the lead, and led her to what appeared to be another dead end. But after drawing some runes on the wall with glowing fingertips, Trey whispered something in that strange faerie language, and a door had appeared in the wall, almost indistinguishable from the stone around it. With another word, the door popped open a couple of inches and Trey peered out. And realised there was a problem.
Now Emily nudged him aside and peered out of the gap into the hallway. With stone walls covered by ancient, dusty tapestries, it looked like every other corridor in the castle…except for the heavily guarded metal door. The guards were all wearing thick copper armour and helmets with face-guards.
Emily stepped back. "Is that iron?" Trey nodded. She frowned. "Wow. They seriously don't want anyone getting in there, do they?"
Trey grinned, his eyes glowing in the darkness. "Which is why it's handy that we've got a girl who has the amazing ability to touch iron."
"Being able to touch the door means nothing if it's locked. And if we can't get past the four armed guards in front of it."
There was a faint click, and then the soft ring of metal sliding against leather. Trey's sword shone faintly, illuminating his face, casting deep shadows under his eyes and in the hollows under his cheekbones. "Don't worry about the guards," he murmured, moving to push past her.
"Whoa!" Emily grabbed his arm to stop him. "What do you think you're doing? You're going to take on four armed guys – on your own?" she hissed, incredulous of his recklessness. Or maybe it was just arrogance. Stupidity? It was hard to tell the difference between them when it came to Trey.
Trey turned and raised an eyebrow at her. "I know those guys. They've been here since I was a kid. They can't fight for shi–"
Emily held up her hand. "Why would the Dark King put guards who can't fight to protect the Sylph Crown? He didn't strike me as completely moronic."
"Because," Trey said with a dark smirk, "they are the only ones who can stand anywhere near that door without dissolving. The wraiths are mostly incorporeal – not strong enough to withstand being anywhere near iron – and the trolls wouldn't fit in the hallway." He shook her hand off his arm and slid past her. Holding out his arm, he said, "Here. Hold this."
She held out her hand under his and something warm slid around her wrist. She gasped and tried to yank her hand away, but it was too late. She whined, and Trey chuckled. "Look after Jeff while I go behead some guards."
Emily held her arm straight out in front of her. "Eeew! You know I hate Jeff! I might just squish him before you get back."
But he ignored her threat and slid out into the hallway, whispering, "Stay here." Then he was gone, and there were yells as the guards noticed him. Emily stayed back from the door for fear of being spotted – also, she didn't really think she could take watching Trey take on four guards at once. Instead, she stared at the fat, fuzzy caterpillar curled around her wrist. With her other hand, she prodded at it, feeling the spindly hairs on its back, and she shuddered.
Lifting to eye level, she muttered, "You know you are disgusting, right?" The caterpillar made a weird squeaking noise and started to crawl further up her arm. She pressed her lips together to keep from screaming as it scuttled up over her shoulder and snuggled into her neck. Oh my God, oh my God, eeeeeeewwww! Stupid, gross, hugging caterpillar!
By the time Trey came back and swung open the door, her muscles ached from holding so still, trying not to tempt the caterpillar into moving again. Light spilled into the dark passageway and Trey appeared, grinning. There was a shallow slice across his left cheek, and blood was leaking from a cut on his sword arm, and his hair was mussed, but aside from that, he appeared perfectly intact. "Well, that was fun," he said, sheathing his sword at his hip. He motioned for her to come out of the hallway, but she just glared at him, rooted to the spot.
"Are you coming or what? And what have you done with Jeff?" he looked honestly worried…about the caterpillar.
Gritting her teeth, Emily hissed, "It's on. My neck. Get. It. Off. Me."
Trey snorted and moved forward. He brushed her hair aside and found the caterpillar curled in the curve of her neck. "Come here, Jeff. Time to let go," he cooed, tickling his fingers over the caterpillar's back. Emily felt the bug loosen its hold on her and then it crawled happily back onto Trey's arm, squeaking all the way. Trey frowned at Emily. "You scared him. What did you say to him?"
She scrubbed her hand over her neck where the bug had been. "I told him – it – I told the bug it was disgusting. Ugh." She made a face, and Trey scowled at her. Before he could start on his 'Caterpillars Are People Too' speech, she shoved past him into the hallway. The four guards were down on the ground, some of them covered in blood. She tried not to look too closely as she stepped past their unconscious – she wasn't convinced they were just unconscious, but it made her feel better to imagine they were – bodies to get to the door. Trey shut the door of the secret passageway and, with some more fancy words and sparks, the door melted away into the wall like it had never been there.
Emily eyed the heavy iron door. It appeared to just be one massive block of metal – there were no key holes or number pads or any visible way to get in. "I don't suppose you could magic your way through the door, could you?"
Trey frowned, hanging back about five feet from the door. "I can't do magic on iron. Just being this close makes me feel sick."
Emily sighed. "So…how are we getting in?"
"You could just try pushing it."
She snorted, putting her hand on the door and pushing half-heartedly. "Yeah, like they'd just leave the door…open…" It swung away easily under her hand, and she gaped. Trey chuckled.
"Yep. They really are just that stupid. They forget that Fortunes aren't allergic to iron." He shrugged. "Like I said, stupid."
Beyond the door was a shining room with iron-plated walls, marble floors, and a single metal table at the back of the room. The room was lit with a foggy glow that seemed to come from nowhere, and there were hooks all over the walls. A faint grey mist flowed around the room, and Emily swore she could see screaming faces in the smoke.
Emily swallowed as the buzzing under her skin that had been so perpetual, she'd almost forgot about it, suddenly vanished. They were definitely in the right place. She took a deep breath, feeling lightheaded and strange without the tugging in her gut. Hovering on the threshold, she whispered, "What is this?"
"It used to be an armory. Looks like they spruced it up." He took a step closer, and winced. "Damn, there's so much iron in there, it's like a force-field," he hissed. Emily, unaffected, started to take a step into the room. Trey grabbed her arm, pulling her back. "Don't!"
She reeled back, startled. "What? Why? The Crown is in there! I can feel it!"
He gave her a hard look. "Because that smoke will kill you. You see those faces? Those are souls of faeries who have already tried to get to the Crown. Believe me, I know this stuff; it's called Carnivorus Fumus. Literally, Carnivorous Smoke. It devours a person's body and retains their soul." There were shadows in his eyes that made Emily wonder just how he knew this – had he seen it happen to someone? Had he witness someone being eaten alive by smoke? – but she was too afraid to ask him.
She swallowed and said in a small voice, "But we need the Crown. How do we get past the smoke?"
Trey shook his head, looking frustrated. "I don't know. I never expected him to use it as a protection system – it was always more of a torture device. Punishment. Dammit!" He spun away, rubbing his hands over his face. "Bugger, there's no way past that stuff without getting eaten alive."
Emily stood in the doorway, staring at the shifting smoke, watching different faces appear and disappear in the fog. Then she looked at her hand on the iron hand, and bit her lip, wondering… "Trey?"
"Yeah?"
"You said…those are the souls of faeries?"
He turned slowly, a warning clear on his face. "No. I know what you're thinking, but no. Don't even try it, Emily. It's too risky." Lightning flickered in his eyes, blue lines of magic rising under his skin with his agitation.
She shook her head, frustrated. "But it's possible, right? It's possible that smoke won't hurt me – just like the iron doesn't hurt me – because I'm not a faery. I'm human…mostly."
He strode forward and grabbed her by the shoulders. "No, Emily. I've never seen a human go in to the smoke. I don't know what will happen."
"But it's possible, right?" she repeated, raising her voice. Trey ground his teeth, working his jaw. She lifted her eyebrows. "Right?"
His expression was enough to tell her the truth: it was possible the smoke wouldn't kill her.
"I'm going in," she said, trying to pull out his grip. But he held tight.
"I won't let you risk killing yourself! Not for this! Not for anything!" His eyes bored into hers, electric blue and intense.
She stared back at him and lifted her hands to rest on either side of his face. "I have to at least, Trey. I have to." She tried to show him with her eyes how scared she was, how she was also determined. They were this close – she couldn't just walk away now, no matter the danger. She had to try – for Oscar's sake, and her own.
At last, Trey closed his eyes and sighed. "Fine. But go slow. The second you feel any pain, or even just tingling or itching…come back out." His eyes flicked open, and she caught her breath at the intense look in them. "I'm serious, Emily," he breathed, "I will not have you die on my watch. If this doesn't work, we'll think of something else. We'll go back to the Sylph Court and come up with a new plan, get backup. You got me?"
She nodded. "Got you," she whispered. She started to pull away, but Trey held on to her. He murmured something under his breath. Emily frowned. "Wha–"
She didn't even get to finish her question before his mouth was on hers. Trey kissed her deeply, wildly, passionately, desperately. Stunned, Emily rose onto her toes, feeling tingles all the way down. And then he pulled away, leaving her breathless and staring at him in shock. He touched her cheek gently. He murmured, "Just in case."
Gathering her wits, Emily nodded and turned to the smoke-filled room. Suddenly, the tingles turned to jitters, and she felt her stomach plummet. She shook her head. Suck it up, Emily. This is the last step to get your hands on the Crown. Don't think about it. Don't think about what happens if you're wrong. Don't think about the pain of your flesh melting off your body, or the smoke burning down your throat, or your lungs flooding with blood… She blinked. Shit. Just move.
She moved. Forcing her legs to function, she took her first, quick step into the room, and instantly, the smoke was around her. The faces surrounded her; before they were silent, but now they were screaming and hissing, deafening. Her heart pounded with fear, and she wanted to close her eyes and run back out the door. Instead, she glanced back at Trey, who was watching with scared, wide eyes. He said something – she saw his mouth move – but she couldn't hear him over the screaming. She shook her head, motioning to her ear, and Trey's expression became frustrated. For some reason, that helped her nerves and she shot him a faint half-smile. He didn't look reassured. She took another few steps, walking backwards, not taking her eyes off Trey. The faces of dead faeries swirled, changing and shifting, different voices – mostly male, but a few female – echoing around her, replaying their death cries over and over. The smoke slid over her skin, cold and damp and sharp one second, like icy needles stabbing at her; then it was so hot it hurt the next second. And Emily kept walking, step after backwards step. Inhale on one step, exhale second step. Her heard was still racing, but that was good. It meant she was still alive.
Trey looked panicked. She thought he was yelling, but the voices were still too loud. And then the sharp edge of the metal table bit into the small of her back. She instantly forgot Trey and the screaming and the faces and the smoke which was actually starting to hurt now. Slowly, slowly, she turned to stare at the shiny iron-coated wall. Breathing deeply, she lowered her gaze to the table…and to the Crown. Emily's breath caught.
It hadn't been visible from the other side of the room because of the smoke, but there it sat, hovering an inch above a small, silken purple cushion. It was beautiful; a masterpiece of shimmering silver and gold woven together in intricate knots and bands, tiny blue gems dotted between the looping strands. Even Emily could feel the power radiating from the Crown, like a cool spring breeze raising the hairs on her arms.
She was almost afraid to touch it. But she had to. So she reached out and, so tentatively, curled her fingers around the delicate circlet. She held her breath as she lifted it, half expecting an alarm to go off, or the smoke-faces to suddenly converge and eat her. But nothing happened. She let out her breath.
She made it back to the door with the Crown in hand and crossed out of the room. The door instantly swung shut behind her with a clang. Breathing hard, she looked at Trey. He stared back for a heartbeat. Then he wrapped her in his arms, hugging her tight, and she winced at the pressure on her skin. Hearing her soft gasp, he pulled back immediately. She looked down at her arms – they were slick with a thin sheen of blood oozing from her skin. That would explain why the smoke hurt. It really was stabbing me with needles. Tiny, invisible needles…or teeth. She shuddered.
Then she raised the Crown to eye-level and smiled. I did it, she thought, pride and amazement swelling inside her chest. Her gaze flicked to Trey, who looked just as entranced by the Crown as she was, and amended, We did it.
"Well," Trey said, smirking at her over the Crown. "That was easy."