It was just a few days later that Nathan's parents told him they weren't going to live together anymore. They told him they were still a family.
He never believed them.
A single tear forced its way out and Nathan wiped it angrily from his cheek. He'd promised himself he wasn't going to cry again, and now he was mad at the dark, mad at his parents, and mad at himself for being so scared.
He started to slow down as he neared the stairs. His heartbeat slowed and suddenly his breathing didn't seem so loud.
Something smelled awful. Worse than a dozen skunks. Nathan tried to cover his nose, but the smell was everywhere. And he recognized it.
Even as he turned to look down the stairs, he knew what he smelled. Whom he smelled.
"Hello, runt," the awful creature said, and though he didn't laugh, there was laughter in his voice. "I was hopin' we'd get some time to ourselves."
The stinking steam that came from the split over the ugly thing's eye blazed up into sudden life, green fire spouting from the space where his brain ought to be.
Nathan froze, bit his lip, and refused to scream. Refused to cry. Instead, he just whispered the monster man's name.
In the back of the ambulance, Emily sat very still, jostled about by every bump and pothole on Broadway as they sped toward the hospital. The siren was wailing, and though the EMT had offered her vague answers, Emily knew they were hurrying for a reason. Thomas was in bad shape.
"Why?" she whispered.
The EMT, who was continually monitoring Thomas's condition, didn't even look up. He hadn't looked up at anything she said, and this was a question she'd asked her unconscious ex-husband a dozen times since he'd been loaded into the ambulance.
Her mascara had left black streaks like war paint down her cheeks. Emily knew they were there, but she ignored them. She had nothing to wipe her face with at the moment, and there would be more tears, she knew.
"You bastard!" she snapped, her voice brittle, and brought her open palm down on Thomas's chest.
Finally, she had the E.M.T.'s attention. The lanky man stood as best he could in the cramped rear of the ambulance and reached both hands out to restrain her gently.
"Ma'am, I know you're not yourself at the moment," he said, quietly but with much gravity. "But if you do that again, I'll put you out in the street."
Emily wanted to scream at him. To explain to him exactly what had happened here. How Thomas had failed her, and failed Nathan. They needed him now. Now! More than ever, Nathan needed his father. More than she ever had when they were married, Emily needed Thomas Randall to hold on to.
She knew it wasn't an attack. The EMTs had assured her of that. The angle made it clear it was a fall, probably when he passed out. Passed out from the overdose of barbiturates he had taken with a tumbler full of Wild Turkey. This was something he had done to himself.
"Why?" she said, her voice a harsh whisper, and she stared at the slack flesh of Thomas's face, at the total lack of awareness there. Beneath his eyelids, there was no movement. No dreaming, at least. He didn't deserve it.
Emily brought both hands up to cover her face, sighed deeply, and forced herself to stop crying. She knew her anger toward him was only a defense mechanism. The knowledge didn't do much to deflate her rage, because the rage was the only thing keeping her together. She didn't want to live with Thomas anymore, didn't want to be his wife. That didn't mean she was prepared to have him gone from her life. Without taking her hands away, she spoke to Thomas again, still in a whisper.
"I can't do this alone," she told him, and herself. "I can't lose you both."
* * * * *
Strangewood was never silent. It was never supposed to be. There was such life and color in the wood and in the creatures who lived there that silence would be tantamount to death.
It was very silent in Strangewood.
The Peanut Butter General's eyes were narrowed to sticky, spider-webbed slits and his nostrils flared. Each of his senses was taut, sensitive to the slightest change in their surroundings. He pushed his way through the trees, moving ever eastward, though there were no real paths in this part of the forest.
Legendary for their screaming, the Orange Pealers moved through the undergrowth and over exposed roots without uttering a single sound. The only noise they made as they passed through the deep heart of Strangewood was the gnashing of their teeth and the scrape of branches and leaves on the citrus skin that covered their entire bodies.
Savages. Most of the denizens of Strangewood had thought of the Pealers as nothing more than that. And the Peanut Butter General had shared that opinion for a very long time. But when he had explained to the Orange Pealers what was at stake, the tribe had pledged their lives to the General's cause. Several of them had already paid that ultimate price.
Yet they marched at his side. For if the General failed, they might well all be dead.
But the silence of the Orange Pealers, though amazing, was not nearly as extraordinary as the silence of the small orange and green dragon who sat on top of the Peanut Butter General's shoulder. The General had asked Fiddlestick to come along mainly because if navigation were ever needed, the little dragon's wings would become indispensible. It would take an emergency, however, to get to that point, for when Fiddlestick flew, he made music. It was impossible for them to know precisely what agents and monsters the Jackal Lantern might have roaming about Strangewood searching for opposition. But the melody of the dragon's wings would most surely draw unwanted attention.
So, for now, Fiddlestick sat on the General's shoulder, his talons stuck in peanut butter. Despite the dragon's generally polite demeanor, he'd complained about this fact no fewer than half a dozen times since their journey had begun. The General had promised him that, when the time came for him to fly, not an ounce of the sticky stuff would stay on the dragon's feet. Fiddlestick did not seem comforted by these assurances.
The General was growing tired of giving them.
The General was, in point of fact, growing tired of a great deal regarding this scenario. Though nothing mattered to him more than the safety of the boy, sneaking about in the forest was not, in his opinion, the proper way for a soldier to behave. A terrorist, perhaps, but not a soldier.
Still, he knew enough about soldiers in jungles to keep him alert.
They traveled in silence for another mile or so, slow going through the trees, and then the forest became less dense and there was more room to move. No trodden path, but space enough that one could stride freely beneath the canopy of branches that was woven together above them by nature or fancy. The General had never been quite certain which of those two made the laws in this place.
The dragon's wings fluttered slightly as he repositioned himself on the General's shoulder, and for only a moment, it was as though someone had run their fingers lightly along the strings of a harp. The General grunted in frustration, but said nothing. Fiddlestick had been, upon reflection, an excellent traveling companion. He kept silent when asked and was far more intelligent than the General would ever have given him credit for.
The dragon's scales rested against the peanut butter, and his tail lay along the General's back. The General felt it all. The imprint of each scale, the gentle question mark left behind as Fiddlestick's tail moved to take yet another shape. The talons in the peanut butter moved slightly, though this time the dragon controlled his wings.
Something was amiss.
"You are troubled, dragon?" the General asked.
The Pealers were off in the trees to either side, one far ahead on recon, and one trailing behind, watching their flank. But several nearby glanced up at the General, surprise in the mad chaos of their wide lemon-yellow eyes. The General glared at them, and they looked away.
"Shouldn't I be troubled, General?" Fiddlestick replied, with none of the glee that usually tinged his voice.
"There is a great deal that is troublesome at the moment," the Peanut Butter General agreed. "Things we must do that I am certain you and your friends never imagined."
Fiddlestick was silent for a moment. Then, with the air of confession in his voice, but no malice, he said gravely, "I never thought I would be sitting on your shoulder, allied in a single cause. Not after the times you tried to kill me."
There was a sudden screech above them, and a fat owl snorted its displeasure at their passing, spread its wings, and lazily dove from a thick branch, only to glide to a tree just yards away, where it settled down again. They had seen all manner of creatures as they cut through the deepest part of the forest. They had passed the huge, crumbling stone figure of an ogre who'd strayed too far from his cave and could not return home in time to avoid the sun. Hares and birds were in large supply, and they had, the General believed, seen a small patrol of flying squirrels making their way through the trees. But they were too fast for him to have gotten a close enough look to be certain.
There was life in Strangewood.
That was something to consider.
There was more at stake here than the life of Nathan Randall. Or the sanity of his father. There was Strangewood itself. And each creature in Strangewood had its own concerns. Just as did the dragon they all called Fiddlestick.
"I never wanted to kill you, dragon," the General admitted, though reluctantly. "It is my role, you see. We all have our part to play in this world, and mine was to menace the kindest, simplest of creatures. You were among them."
Fiddlestick laughed. "Nothing personal, huh?"
The Peanut Butter General smiled. "Nothing personal," he repeated.
After a moment, Fiddlestick sighed. "I'm just worried about the others, I suppose. Brownie and Mr. Tinklebum will likely be all right, as long as they stay where they are. But I wish we could have sent someone else besides Laughing Boy . . ."
"There was no one else," the General said harshly. "That damned hyena would have laughed at the wrong moment, or been too thick-skulled to listen to a simple command. He was the only one we could spare."
Fiddlestick's wings ruffled, and he moved up on his haunches on the General's shoulders. He craned his neck around to look right into the General's eyes, his snout beneath the General's cap, a tiny spurt of flame coming from his nostrils. His double-lidded eyes closed and then opened.
"You mean he was expendable?"
The General froze in place and turned his own head so that he could face the dragon directly. "We're all expendable, Fiddlestick. All of us. Without Our Boy, there is no Strangewood. If Nathan dies, Our Boy will never come here again. In trying to save us, the Lantern will kill us all. We are all expendable."
He began to walk again, the Pealers scrambling madly through the brush beneath the trees. They passed an incredibly overweight gray wolf sleeping on the dirt, snoring loudly as what sun the trees let through dappled his fur.
"Good thing we're all expendable," Fiddlestick said, after the silence had stretched on too long.
The General frowned. "That's a terrible thing to say. How could that be a good thing?"
He could feel the dragon shrug.
"Well," Fiddlestick replied. "We keep going on straight east this way, we're likely as not to run into the Queen of the Wood. She doesn't take kindly to visitors."
Unsettled, the General allowed his left hand to rest lightly on the pommel of his sword.
* * * * *
Cragskull held Nathan's shoulders tightly and grinned, showing filthy green teeth. His beard was more matted than ever and his hair was stringy. Nathan closed his mouth and tried not to breathe. This close to Cragskull, he though he might throw up.
The split-skulled monster just laughed. "Are you afraid, little boy?" he teased. "You gonna piss your pants again?"
Nathan shook his head vigorously and tried to back up into the hallway. Cragskull, who was several steps down from him, held on tightly. Nathan had a moment to wish the evil thing would slip on the moss that grew between the slick stones.
Then Cragskull picked him up and threw him over his shoulder, and Nathan's stomach contorted with revulsion at being so close to him. He closed his eyes at first, but eventually, when he was forced to take a breath again or pass out, his eyes opened again. Inches from his face, something black and slimy crawled in Cragskull's hair.
Nathan screamed, no longer even aware of the stench.
Cragskull stopped halfway down the steps, dropped Nathan painfully on his butt on the stone, and then slapped him hard across the face. Nathan's eyes were wide, staring at the green flame that shot up from the crack in the bastard's head. Bastard was a word he wasn't allowed to use in either of his parents' homes. But Cragskull wasn't just a monster, he was a bastard.
"Did that hurt?" Cragskull asked, face stretched into a maniacal smile that made Nathan whimper.
He could feel the heat from that green flame.
"Yes," Nathan admitted in a small voice.
Cragskull shoved his face right up to Nathan's, eye to eye, nose to nose, mouth to mouth, and screamed with fetid breath. "GOOOOOOOD!"
Nathan flinched and bit his lip.
"I'm not gonna cry, you stinky, ugly bastard!" he yelled, eyes filling even as he did. But he stopped it right there. No crying.
Cragskull howled with glee.
"Listen, you little shit," the monster sneered, "you've been invited to dinner. Unless you want to be dinner, I suggest you shut your little boy trap and keep all that piss and puke and shit inside your body. Crying's okay, though. Ol' Jack likes to see little ones cry."
He grabbed Nathan's wrist and began to roughly drag him down the steps. Nathan scrambled to keep his feet beneath him, put one hand on the stone wall, and then pulled it away. He wiped the slimy goop from the wall on his jeans and kept up, still biting his lip, still refusing to cry.
Nathan wished Cragskull was dead. He hated to think it, because he knew it was wrong. But he couldn't help it.
At the bottom of the steps, Cragskull hauled him along by the arm down a long hallway and eventually brought him to a large set of wooden double doors with heavy iron rings in them. With one powerful hand, Cragskull yanked open the right-side door and it swung wide for them to enter.