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They stood together in silence for some time.

"I'm sorry about all this," he said at last. "We'll get Nathan back, TJ. I only wish I'd had the foresight to see it coming. I might have prevented it completely."

Thomas shook his head now. "It's my fault," he said. "I'd forgotten about Strangewood, I guess. It was just dreams to me after a while, and over time, I started taking the dreams for granted. When Nathan was born, it just didn't seem that important anymore.

"It never occurred to me that I might be . . . hurting anyone."

Suddenly, Fiddlestick fluttered his wings. The General winced at the loud music in his ear, and father and son both raised their eyebrows and looked at the dragon. In that moment, the General didn't think Thomas had ever looked so much like him, and he smiled just a bit.

"Fiddlestick?" Thomas asked.

"You didn't do anything, Our Boy," Fiddlestick said gravely. "We could have gotten on without you. The General has explained a lot to me on our journey together, things I supposed I always knew but never understood. We were here before you. And maybe some of us would be gone, or things would change drastically, but I think we'd be here after you. But even if that weren't true, what the Lantern has done is evil. Your Nathan has done nothing. Yet it is he who suffers for our fears."

Thomas nodded grimly. The Peanut Butter General reached out and placed a hand on his son's shoulder, gripping it firmly. Brownie came up then, and it seemed he had overheard at least part of the conversation.

"Let us go, then," he said. "We'll find the foothills tonight, and tomorrow morning, we save the boy Nathan."

"Tomorrow morning," Tinklebum said merrily, madly, "the Jackal Lantern dies."

Several hours later, they broke through a stretch of trees to find the earth turned hard. Scrub grass led to stone and earth, and ahead, the mountains rose to the sky. The tallest of the Bald Mountains was straight ahead.

"Well, then, here we are," said Brownie.

"So where are the Rangers?" Thomas asked. "It seems that Redleaf has let us down."

Behind them, the wood came alive with thudding steps and whispering branches, with blowing leaves and crackling roots. Thomas whirled to see six trees separate themselves and walk forward. Redleaf was there. So were Whippor Will and Black Bark. Ahead of them all, Captain Broadbough stepped forward and lowered his branches in a kind of salute.

"You underestimate us, Our Boy," Broadbough said. "Many of our number have died by fire, but we are with you. The Jackal Lantern must be stopped, not merely because of the threat he represents to the wood entire, but for the evil he has already done."

Thomas was nearly overcome with emotion. Relief, honor, fear, hope, and so many other feelings warred within him.

"Thank you, Captain," he said. "You give me faith."

That night, they slept safely beneath the branches of the guardians of the wood.

Dawn would come too soon.

* * * * *

Torchlight flickered off the damp walls of the Jackal Lantern's audience chamber. On all fours, he paced the stone floor, the flame inside his pumpkin head blazing more brightly than usual. A low growl escaped him as he moved about the room.

It was the heart of his fortress. The place where he was accustomed to retreating from the wood, from the world. He could not be touched here, not ever. Or, at least, that was what he had believed before Our Boy turned away from Strangewood and it all began to fall apart. The Lantern was the king of fear in the wood, but he had suddenly begun to grow fearful himself, which was why he had stolen the child; to force Our Boy to pay attention.

But now, deep within his fortress, the Jackal Lantern had never felt so vulnerable. He would kill the child if he had to, if Our Boy would not listen to reason. If he cared so little for the wood, at the very least, he ought to give that power to old Jack. As far as old Jack was concerned.

"Mmm," the Lantern moaned with a grin of his jagged pumpkin teeth, the light throwing grotesque shadows from within his head, the horrid dreams that shone from his mind.

If Our Boy would not cooperate, then old Jack had nothing to lose. He would tear Thomas Randall's heart from his chest and fry it for his supper. He would pop The Boy's eyes between his teeth. He would make sausage of his viscera, and salad from his brains.

And then, along with the rest of Strangewood, the Jackal Lantern would rot.

It was this very real possibility that was swirling around his brain when the door to his chamber burst open, iron and wood slamming against stone. Cragskull stood in the open doorway, ragged beard flecked with spittle as if from a rabid dog, and a noxious cloud of smoke wisping from his split skull.

"My Lord Jack!" Cragskull shouted.

The Lantern snarled and leaped across the room, fire blazing in his head. He slammed into Cragskull, knocking the filthy man to the floor. Old Jack's claws tore Cragskull's clothing and slashed his chest, and he growled and snapped at the intruder's face.

"No, please, stop!" Cragskull whined. "I . . . I'm sorry, but I . . ."

"Silence!" the Jackal Lantern hissed. "You dare much, fool."

"No . . . please," Cragskull whimpered. "It's Bob, my Lord."

But then the need for words was over. For the Jackal Lantern heard the grunting and snuffling of one of the Simian Sisters and looked up to see the dark shape of a huge mountain gorilla in the corridor. A moment later, she entered his chamber carrying the limp form of Bob Longtooth. His fur was matted with dried blood.

"Longtooth," old Jack whispered. "Shit."

Then he roared, loud and long, the flame inside his pumpkin skull fluttering weakly as he let all his energy fly from him. The gorilla gently lay Longtooth on the stone floor and left the room as quickly as she was able. Cragskull sat by Longtooth's still form, but the Jackal Lantern ignored them both, raging and stalking across the room, back and forth, mind awhirl.

In a flash, he was next to Cragskull again, staring down at Longtooth. He noticed the tiger man's chest rising and falling.

"He lives," said the Jackal Lantern.

"Yes," Cragskull said weakly, the relief obvious in his voice, usually so vicious and cynical.

"Then he will fight," the Lantern said confidently. "Clean him up and put him in a bed somewhere."

Green fire flickered from Cragskull's cracked head as he hauled Longtooth up.

"This is his fault," Cragskull grunted. "The Boy's."

The Lantern froze. "Our Boy did this?" he asked, incredulously.

"The Queen of the Wood gave Bob these wounds," Cragskull said. "But it would never have happened if it weren't for that stupid piece of meat."

The Lantern nodded, relieved. He didn't see Thomas as much of a fighter, but Cragskull's words had given him pause. No, he would prevail. He would rend the Boy's flesh if that was what it took.

But he wouldn't need to. Not at all. Not as long as he had the child, Nathan, upstairs. With Nathan in his possession, Thomas would do whatever old Jack desired.

A sudden fluttering of wings drew his attention, and the Lantern turned to see Barry Crow settling onto the stone floor of the corridor outside his door.

"Permission to enter, my Lord," said Barry.

Ah, thought the Lantern, some of my servants know a bit about protocol.


Barry flew into the chamber and settled on the high back of Jack's chair.

"What is it, bird?"

"It's the boy," replied Barry. "He's dying."

Despite the fact that he was deeply troubled, the Jackal Lantern did not rush up to the chamber where the boy was being held. It would not do for his subjects to witness him in a panic, which was, indeed, what he felt at that moment. No. Rather than lope up the winding stone stairs and run, scrabbling, down the corridor, old Jack walked upright on his hind legs, chest thrust out, fire flickering in his pumpkin eyes.

Even when Cragskull had gone off with Longtooth to tend to the tiger man's wounds, the Lantern did not relax his self-control. Things were not going as planned, but he wasn't about to share his concern. Not even with the crow, who'd been the first of the denizens of Strangewood to pledge loyalty to old Jack, and to his plan.

Barry Crow had killed his own brother at the Lantern's order. As far as old Jack was concerned, that had been a beautiful gesture.

When he reached the corridor upon which Nathan had been housed, he could see candlelight shining brightly from the chamber some way down. Before he arrived at that door, however, he heard the clack of hooves upon stone, and knew that Feathertop was with the sickly lad. And where he found Feathertop, he suspected he would find Grumbler.

The Lantern paused and held up a hand to indicate that Barry should do the same.

". . . not good. If he doesn't get some medicine, at least some food in him or something, and soon, he's gonna die," Grumbler was saying.

"We knew that was a possibility," Feathertop replied, though his voice did not sound as confident as the Jackal Lantern would have liked.

"Yeah, but . . .” Grumbler said grimly. "I don't know. What I do know is that I never signed on for this."

At that moment, the Jackal Lantern chose to storm into the room. The door was open only halfway, and he used all of his considerable strength to slam it open, so that the entire room shook as with thunder to recognize his presence. Fire licked from his eyes and his jagged mouth and his orange skin seemed to glow with the flames therein.

"Idiot!" he roared. "You come to me for my protection and enter into my service, knowing full well the obscenity I am capable of! And here you are, whining like some malingering rodent."

He began to take a breath, and froze. Barry Crow had settled on the footboard of the child's bed. Feathertop and Grumbler merely stared at him openmouthed. Under the disgusting blankets, the child, painfully thin now, began to cough and wheeze horribly. Yet his eyes did not open. His skin had a tinge of green and yellow, colors not usual to the palette of human flesh.

Then Jackal Lantern’s gaze ticked back toward Grumbler, and he leaped across the room as though he might fall upon the dwarf and shred him. Instead, he stopped just in front of the diminutive curmudgeon and, with the back of his right forepaw, cuffed him hard across the bridge of the nose, shattering it.

Grumbler shouted; blood spurted from both nostrils.

The dwarf's right hand twitched, moved a quarter of an inch toward the holstered weapons the Lantern knew he wore under his coat. They moved no further. Instead, Grumbler stared at him in silence.

"All of Strangewood hangs in the balance, dwarf," the Jackal Lantern sneered. "The life of one child is nothing in comparison. As long as he lives until Our Boy arrives, that's all that matters. If you are such the coward that you cannot stand at my side in this coming conflict, then leave now. Please. The sight of a coward sickens me."

Old Jack thought it best not to mention that he needed Grumbler. Nor that, should the dwarf decide to leave, he would be dead before he reached the door. But, though he was obviously furious at both the blow and the insult, Grumbler made no reply, either verbal or physical.

"So," the Lantern said, as if the confrontation had never taken place, "you think he needs food."

"When he's not delirious, he refuses to eat a damn thing," Feathertop said, and neighed quietly, then stamped his hooves. "He may well die if he doesn't eat."

In the corner was a small wooden platter upon which sat a too-moist block of cheese and several slices of grainy, dark bread. The Lantern retrieved the cheese and began to use his claws to cut the slightly moldy edges off of it. When that task was completed, he broke off a small piece, walked to Nathan's bed, and put the food to the boy's mouth.

Nathan did not even open his eyes.

The Jackal Lantern pressed the point of a claw against the boy's cheek, puncturing his flesh and causing Nathan to awaken with a startled cry of pain.

The boy whimpered. His eyes widened when he saw old Jack, and he seemed to dig himself deeper into the mattress, moving as far away as he could manage while staying on the bed.

"Please," the boy croaked. "Please don't . . ."

But that was all he could manage before his body was wracked once more with coughs that made him visibly weaker with each passing moment.

"You will eat," the Jackal Lantern said.

That was all.

Then he brought the small piece of cheese to the boy's lips. The boy flinched, but after a moment, staring at the Lantern and quivering with fear, he opened his mouth and allowed himself to be fed. He chewed, slowly, painfully. After several moments, he tried to swallow; an effort that brought about the most severe bout of coughs yet. The cheese was spit up on the filthy bedclothes.

Nathan clutched his throat, tears streaming down his cheeks, even as his eyes began to lose their focus.

"I can't swallow," he said weakly. "It just hurts so much. Like it . . . shrank."

Then he fainted, there on the mattress. The Jackal Lantern felt the need to retaliate somehow for the insult of having the cheese regurgitated in such appalling fashion. But the boy was clearly beyond punishment. No, as difficult as it was for him to consider, it was up to old Jack to keep the little meatbag alive. At least until his father arrived.

Which would be soon, no doubt.

"Take care of him," the Jackal Lantern growled, glaring at Feathertop and Grumbler. "If he dies, so do you."

* * * * *

An hour before dawn, the Forest Rangers lifted the others up into their branches and began to climb. It was a long and arduous task for the Rangers, but at least the small band joined together to storm the fortress would be fresh for battle by the time they arrived at the peak.

Mr. Tinklebum sat in the foothills and watched them go. It had been decided by all — and the news broken to him by his good friend Fiddlestick — that it would be next to impossible to keep him quiet during the approach to the fortress. The way that the General and Our Boy had whispered together beforehand, and the way that Brownie had objected, and Fiddlestick had made mournful music with his wings, Mr. Tinklebum wondered if there were more to it than that. He wondered if they didn't trust him.