Page 20

Stuck beneath the windshield wiper was a single black feather.

On the ground just in front of the car lay the mangled corpse of a huge black crow, its blood pooling around it.

Absurdly, Emily thought of Thomas's story, the crow he'd seen that he truly believed had spoken to him. She even thought it was Dave Crow, one of the twin birds from Adventures in Strangewood. For a moment, her mind started down a path that would do neither of them any good. It wasn't uncommon. Anyone who had walked in a cemetery at night or heard a tree branch scrape the side of the house in the wee hours of the morning might have entertained the same foolishness. Emily knew better. She shook it off, smiled at herself, and then looked disdainfully at the cracked windshield.

"I hope there's nothing wrong with you, Thomas," she said to the night. "'Cause I'm sure as hell not paying for that."

The car was still running, and as Emily opened the door, she heard a caw high above. She craned her neck to look up and saw a black shape cross the moon. It might have been a bat, if not for the cawing. But it wasn't a bat. It was another crow, just like the one that had splintered her windshield, dying in the process.

Its twin.

As he glided over the home of The Boy, Barry Crow's heart was heavy with anguished guilt and grief. Dave was his brother, his twin. Every memory in Barry's life was a memory that included Dave.

But Dave had tried to reach the woman. He would have spoken to her. For those who had allied themselves with the General had realized that she was The Boy's anchor in this world. If she believed in him, and held on to him, he might be able to return to Strangewood, along with Nathan. That must not be allowed to happen. The Jackal Lantern's plan did not include her. There was no room for her in the story he had been spinning, and so she must not believe.

If Dave had spoken to her, she might not have heard him at all. Strangewood had never really touched her, and so she might have been unable to understand what was asked of her. But they could take no chances. The woman must not become involved.

She must never believe.

Barry cawed, and a feather slipped from him and drifted to the ground as though a tear had fallen from his wing.

He had taken his own brother's life so that Strangewood might live.

Emily had knocked more than a dozen times before she dared use her own key to gain entrance into Thomas's house. As she stepped over the threshold, she called his name. The syllables came back to her like an echo down a canyon, like the roar of the ocean within a hollow shell.

The house was empty of life.

But not empty.

She found Thomas on the carpet in the living room in a puddle of his own dried vomit. His eyes were rolled up in his head, only the whites showing, and his breathing was shallow, with too-long lapses between breaths. The gray streak that ran through his hair above his left ear was caked with blood, and Emily realized he must have hit his head somewhere.

Unless he had been attacked.

With a gasp, she stepped back and looked around the room. Thomas believed someone had been stalking him. Now Emily was forced to wonder if he was correct. For a moment, she stood frozen in the living room above his still form, vacillating between her fear and her concern for this man with whom she had brought Nathan into the world.

Then she moved. Whether he'd been attacked or not didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that he needed help. She went to the phone, saw the blinking red light and the little number “10,” signifying the number of messages he'd received and either ignored or never gotten around to listening to.

Even as she lifted the portable phone from its cradle, Emily began to hyperventilate. She felt as though the world had dropped out from under her, and she was tumbling away into the void of oblivion.

First Nathan, and now Thomas.

Several minutes later, she found herself sitting on the cold tile of the kitchen floor, the phone still clutched in her hand. She didn't remember speaking to anyone but knew she must have, because she could hear the siren wailing as the ambulance approached.

A sudden wave of anger swept over her, and she glared at Thomas where he lay, possibly near death, on the living room floor.

"No," she said softly, furiously. Then she screamed it. "No!"

She hurled the phone at him. It arced across the kitchen and into the living room, bouncing on the carpet several feet away. Red lights strobed through all the front windows and turned the interior of the house into an infernal kaleidoscope.

Emily buried her face in her hands and whispered her ex-husband's name, and then the name of her only child.

* * * * *

Nathan came awake slowly. His awareness, at first, extended no further than the inside of his own body: his tongue against the back of his teeth, the soft breath flowing through his nostrils, the sensation of sunlight on his eyelids. A yawn took him unaware, and he stretched his entire body as his mouth opened wide to accommodate it.

The bedclothes beneath his skin, where he now wiped the drool that had slipped from his mouth during sleep, were soft but felt a bit gritty. He rolled over. His mind was still warming up, and, distracted by the comfort of his surroundings, so suggestive of home, had yet to recall the path that had brought him here.

A breeze blew through the open window, billowing the gossamer curtains, turning them into playful spirits. Nathan saw them through the tiny slits he had allowed his eyes to become, lids lazily threatening to close once more, not quite certain they were through with sleep.

The breeze was cold.

Not merely chilly, as some summer mornings could be, but really, really cold.

That wasn't right.

Nathan opened his eyes, sat up quickly, and surveyed the wood and stone construction of the room about him. It was clean, certainly. As though someone had been through the day before and scrubbed until it sparkled. But the bedclothes were filthy.

The door was thick wood with metal strapping and an iron handle above the old-fashioned keyhole. Other than the window, it might have been a dungeon.

The lair of the Jackal Lantern. Nathan knew right away that was where he was. How could it be anything else? Part of him whispered that he should not be frightened, that if the Jackal Lantern wanted him killed, any of his goons could have done it. But the real Nathan, the boy-voice of his mind told him that the Jackal Lantern might very well want to have him for dinner. Literally. To suck the meat from his bones

The Peanut Butter General had said he wouldn't be hurt, but Bob Longtooth had cut Nathan's back, badly. And besides, he wasn't with the General anymore. Later, Grumbler had promised he wouldn't be hurt, but Grumbler was supposed to be Daddy's friend, and here he was working with the Jackal Lantern, so how could Nathan trust him?

It was all so very confusing.

The boy had been afraid ever since he had first awoken in Strangewood. He was still afraid now. But as he climbed from his bed, Nathan began to feel something else. Something that brought him back several years, to petulant tantrums and striking out when he shouldn't. Nathan was five and a half years old, and a very scared five and a half.

But he was also very, very angry.

He moved to the window and looked out, and his mouth dropped open as he stood and stared. Out the window was a straight fall down the side of the fortress, so straight it seemed almost like the wall leaned outward. Beyond the fortress were the Bald Mountains, and beyond the mountains, the rest of Strangewood. From up here, Nathan thought he could see it all. Everything in Strangewood. That was impossible of course, and a part of him knew that. But the illusion was a comfort, somehow. For out there in the vast forest, or somewhere along the Up-River, there were people and creatures who did not want him to be hurt. The Peanut Butter General wanted to protect Nathan.

"Please come," Nathan whispered, and then all the anger slipped away and he was just a little frightened boy again.

He didn't really believe the Peanut Butter General would come for him. But as Nathan's brain swirled like the roughest waters of the Up-River, he came to realize that he wasn't really talking to the General. He was thinking of his father. Grumbler had said the Jackal Lantern wanted Nathan's daddy to come to Strangewood. He didn't know how that was possible, but then, he also didn't know how he himself had come here.

"Please come," he whispered again.

A cold wind blew across the stripped mountaintop and through the window of Nathan's cell. He shivered and moved quickly back to the bed. He searched until he found the clothes Grumbler had given him — the things the dwarf and the pony had stolen from his bedroom the night they killed Crabapple — and dressed swiftly.

When he was dressed, he went to the door. He knew it would be locked. How could they expect to keep him in here if it wasn't locked? But he tried the handle just the same. The iron was cold to the touch, but when he turned it, there was a heavy scrape as the thick bolt pulled back and the door swung in.

Nathan blinked in surprise. He stepped out into the corridor. It was dank and deeply shadowed, flickering with orange light from torches that lined the stone walls. The fortress was built mostly of huge rocks that looked like they'd been chipped out of the mountain itself. The only wood seemed to be the buttresses used to shore up arches in the hall or the frames of doorways. Nathan shivered. For no particular reason, he glanced down at his blue-sneakered feet and saw that his laces weren't tied. His Dad always corrected him about that, trying to get him to tie his shoes. It had never seemed that important to Nathan.

He knelt and, with some difficulty, tied his laces. Then he stood, took a last look — what he hoped was a last look — at the bed in the room he'd slept in, and started down the hall.

Nathan was afraid, of course, but fear had slid over and made a little room for excitement. Here he was, wandering around the next best thing to a castle, and he seemed to be by himself. It was easy, for just a moment, to forget the rest. His imagination sped along in that direction for a while, ringing with clanging swords and swirling with knights . . . or even pirates.

Then he arrived at a wide stone stairwell, with arched windows cut into the curving wall where the stairs spun down into the depths of the fortress. Nathan glanced around again and, seeing nothing and no one, started down. At the first of the windows, he leaned far out, trying to see more of the fortress, to gauge how far up he was. A fine needle of pain jabbed his back, just below the shoulder blades. Nathan cried out, his face dissolving into wide-eyed panic.

Then he remembered the slashes on his back where Bob Longtooth had clawed him. When he'd leaned out the window, he'd pulled at them. Despite the soothing, healing properties of the General's peanut butter, the slashes were still there, and Nathan had strained them too much.

Biting his lip, the boy forced himself not to cry as he slowly and gingerly worked his way down the stairs. There had already been, in his five-and-a-half-year-old opinion, far too much crying. Once more, his petulance returned, and he found himself overwrought more with anger than terror.

That was his escape, he found. The angrier he got, the less afraid he was. It didn't feel good, being angry. His father always tried to tell him not to get mad about things, just to deal with them, but for now, Nathan couldn't help it. Angry was much safer than afraid.

The light from the windows above disappeared as Nathan reached the floor beneath where he'd been kept. There were more torches here, and somewhere, he thought he heard voices. What he needed to find, he knew, was another staircase. If he could keep going down, eventually, he might come to the bottom of the fortress. They weren't afraid that he'd run, he thought, or they would have locked his door.

He'd show them. He'd run as far and as fast as he could, and they'd never find him out in Strangewood.

The thought gave Nathan pause. For if the Jackal Lantern and his subjects couldn't find Nathan, the boy wondered how his father or the Peanut Butter General would find him. On the other hand, if he stayed in the fortress, they would know right where to look. At least, they would know where to look if the General had figured out it was Grumbler who'd stolen Nathan in the first place. It was all really confusing, and his head hurt a little.

As he tried to work this through his mind, Nathan stepped into the corridor and started down it, searching for the darkened opening that would lead down to the floor beneath him, and hopefully, even further. He passed several doors on his way, heavy wood just like the door to the room he'd been in. All of them were closed, letting not an ounce of sunlight into the damp tunnel of stone. It wasn't until Nathan was halfway down the corridor that he realized there were no torches at the end. No light at all, save for a tiny glow of daylight that drifted up from the left.

The other stairs, he thought. But to get to them, he had to go through the dark. Real dark. Dark enough to make it almost impossible to remember that the sun was shining outside.

Nathan kept on, his sneakers almost silent on the cold stone. He could hear his own breathing, and its loudness surprised him. He passed the last torch, and the shadows swirled around him as though taking him by the hand. The light receded behind him, and his breathing grew even louder. The brave and angry boy started to slip away, stolen by the dark.

The meager light from the stairwell was not enough to keep him brave. Nathan's heart began to pound in his chest. He could feel the pulsing of his veins in his temples and his wrists and his breath came faster. Though he could not see the stone floor very well, he began to run. His sneakered feet slapped the rock beneath them, and he remembered, very clearly, his kitchen.

The kitchen at home. Before. Before Mommy and Daddy split, and Nathan was caught in the middle. When the fights got really really bad, and Nathan cried a lot. He was a little kid then, not even in real kindergarten yet.

The wet crack of his rubber soles on the stone brought him back to that moment. His mother screaming, his father stomping about. And his mother's hand across his father's face. The one and only time Nathan had ever seen her hit anyone, and she slapped him hard enough that it made daddy's face all red.

They stared at each other for a few minutes as Nathan sat on the kitchen floor wailing like he was still a baby, screaming at them both now in words none of them could understand.