She opened the back door and set the bag on the floor.
When she shut the door and turned to open the driver's door, he was standing right behind her.
"Emily, listen," he said, his voice a combination of grunt and whine.
Then he started to laugh, a nervous sound that came from somewhere deep inside him.
Emily slammed both hands against his chest, shoving him backward, and tried to run. But he was stronger and faster than she'd thought. He laughed even louder, even more wildly, as he grabbed her with both hands, spun her to face him, and slammed her so hard against the car that pain shot through her back and her neck snapped back uncontrollably.
"God, please, don't . . ."
"Look at me!" he growled.
"You've got to listen," he said, almost snarling at her. "You've got to believe, or they'll both die. We'll all die."
His entire face was covered with a light fur. His nose was pushed out from his face slightly. His teeth were fangs, glistening in the light from the streetlamp. His ears, though, were the worst. They were high up on his head and pointed, like those of a wolf or something. He was hideous.
"Don't you recognize me?" he asked.
Then that laughing again.
Emily started to scream.
"Step away from the woman!" a voice shouted.
Walt Sarbacker's voice.
Her mind reeling, pain shooting up her arms from where he held her so tightly, she glanced over to see that Sarbacker was approaching slowly, his gun leveled at her attacker. Relief flooded over her. He must have been tailing her himself, despite what he'd said. On his own.
But he had a gun, and this . . . thing didn't have any weapons at all.
"You have to believe," he growled again, and he slammed her against the car, staring into her eyes.
"Look at my face," he demanded. "You know me. You've read all the stories, I know you have."
"Step away from the woman! Now!" Sarbacker ordered again.
Emily's eyes widened as she stared at her attacker.
The detective had moved around so that he was standing less than ten feet away, just off to her right.
Once again, she was slammed against the car. She thought she heard one of her ribs crack, and a jolt of agony shot through her.
Emily shouted, reacted. She brought her knee up between his legs with all the force she could muster. It was all she could think of to do, and her attacker made no move to defend himself. He yelped like a wounded animal, stared at her with frightened eyes that made her, just for a moment, want to reach out to him.
"Down on the ground, now!" Sarbacker shouted.
He rushed the attacker, who turned on the detective, laughing with that high, keening, lunatic hysteria, and then leaped toward him as if to attack. Or defend himself.
Sarbacker fired once.
The thing with a man's body and the face of an animal fell to the parking lot in a tumble of limbs. The blood began to pool rather quickly under him.
Keeping his eyes and his gun on the attacker, Sarbacker slid over to stand beside Emily.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I think . . . I think so," she replied.
"Did he say anything? Do you have any idea why he was after you?"
Emily stared at the limp figure. "You didn't get a good look at him, did you?" she asked.
"Why, someone you know?"
"Maybe. In a way. Turn him over, please."
"What?" Sarbacker asked. "Why?"
"Please," Emily said.
With great caution, his weapon at the ready, Sarbacker used his right foot to flip the body over. He swore under his breath as he saw the fur, the fangs, the ears.
It was still alive. Still breathing. Though, judging by the amount of blood pouring from it, that situation was soon to be remedied.
"Jesus Christ, what the hell is he?" Sarbacker whispered, mostly to himself.
The wounded and dying thing began to giggle weakly.
Emily knelt down beside him, though Sarbacker shouted at her to keep away, motioning with his weapon.
"It's true, isn't it?" she asked, reaching out to touch his face. "You're . . . I'm sorry, it's been a long time. I can't remember your name. You haven't been in any of the books in a while. What was it they called you . . ." Emily thought for a moment.
In that moment, the creature died. Its eyes closed forever, its heart stopped pumping. Seconds later, it began to fade away. To diminish, the way the sunlight slipped over the edge of the world at the end of the day. Moments after that process had begun, it was as though he had never been there.
"Laughing Boy," Emily Randall said quietly.
Walt Sarbacker was still standing on that spot, staring at the empty pavement, when other officers arrived to back him up. Her attacker, Emily explained, had escaped. Detective Sarbacker had fired a single shot, which frightened him off. He'd saved her life, she said.
No, she couldn't explain why he refused to speak.
* * * * *
As if it were a call to arms, the music of Fiddlestick's wings filled the air. The dragon swept up into the sky high above the field of battle, and then he was gone. Upon their arrival, it had been agreed that Fiddlestick would infiltrate the fortress and try to gauge what kind of opposition they faced. If he could find Nathan quickly, all the better.
For some reason, when the dragon had flown in through a high window in the fortress, out of sight and now earshot, Thomas shuddered. The chill wind blowing across the rocky plateau at the top of the mountain cut through to the bone, but that wasn’t it.
Somewhere in that fortress, his son was still alive. He knew it. And somehow, they would get him out.
"TJ, pay attention!" a sticky voice roared.
Thomas turned his gaze back from the high walls of the fortress to the battle at hand.
The Simian Sisters had emerged from the fortress and were attacking. The huge mountain gorillas could tear a man apart in one motion. But to do that, they'd have to reach him. The Forest Rangers had moved in to prevent that from happening. Their branches dipped down to batter the Simians, keeping them back. Brownie had burst through their line and was even now grappling with one of the gorilla triplets. Thomas could hear the fury in his roar and saw the jagged gashes Brownie had already torn into the ape's face.
But now one of the Simians had broken through the Rangers. They were enormous, but it worked against them at times. Their swinging limbs tended to get in the way of one another.
"Which one is it?" the Peanut Butter General cried as he held his sword at the ready, moving to intercept the gorilla.
Thomas stared at her, the huge, slavering beast the Jackal Lantern had sent to destroy him. And he knew her. He had, after all, created her. When Thomas had first come to Strangewood, the Simian Sisters had not existed.
"Rebecca," he told his father.
The General stood in Rebecca Simian's path, and Thomas stared into her eyes. A great sadness descended upon him. She wanted him dead. The Jackal Lantern's orders, yes, but still, it was a horrible knowledge.
The Peanut Butter General raised his sword, hacking at Rebecca's hands and arms to keep her from striking him. She fell back and he stepped in and used all his strength to thrust the blade forward, impaling Rebecca as she roared her pain and fury.
She died then.
And the trees began to scream.
Two of the Forest Rangers — Black Bark and Redleaf, Thomas thought from a quick glance — were on fire. He stared in horror at them, and then at the rest of the battlefield. The General was running toward the burning trees even as Brownie still grappled with Abigail Simian, and Captain Broadbough attempted to trap her sister, Coretta, in his branches. Still defending Thomas, though his men were burning.
That was enough.
Thomas ran toward them, screaming for them to stop. For the dying to end. He didn't even recognize his own words, only the horror in his voice. The tears had dried and all he felt now was a numbness and a void within, a void where Nathan ought to be.
He was twenty feet from the battle, from the burning trees and from his father, who was, even now, climbing the screaming trees, hacking the flaming branches away, trying to save them by amputation. Thomas saw the way the sun shone off the brown, oily peanut butter that caked his father's entire body, and he was filled with revulsion.
This was not a fantasy world.
Suddenly, and instantly, he recalled a lunch with Francesca that seemed so long ago and far away. She had said that Strangewood frightened her, in a way. Thomas had not understood. But now he looked at his father, at this mad monster with flashing sword, and he knew it.
He knew that fear.
From above him came a mad cackling comprised of the cawing of a bird and the laughter of a vicious creature. They were one and the same. Barry Crow sailed above him on wings black as night, taking the rays of the sun and turning them away with disdain. Another creature Thomas had thought of as a friend, as good, who had turned to the Jackal Lantern's savagery when the moment of truth had arrived.
As to the fate of Dave Crow, Barry's brother, who had warned him, Thomas had no knowledge. Nor had he hope.
Barry held a long rope in his talons and water dripped from it. It had been soaked. But at the end of the rope was tied a blazing torch, wrapped in woolen rags. It was a massive thing, an improbably large ball of fire. And now, as Thomas stared, he knew how Black Bark and Redleaf had been caught on fire.
The crow swooped lower, about to drag that blazing torch through the upper branches of Captain Broadbough.
Ice in his heart, his lungs momentarily frozen, Thomas reached quickly behind him, withdrew an arrow from his quiver, nocked it on the bow, pulled, and released. He watched the arrow sail through the air, knowing that he had been a bystander thus far. They were here for him, for him and for Nathan, but he had purposely held back from the actual conflict.
The arrow found its mark. It spiked through Barry's body, stopping him in midair. The crow made no final sound as it plummeted to the ground, where it landed soundlessly.
Thomas had killed Barry Crow. And, in that, he had begun to murder Strangewood.
Redleaf and Black Bark had been forced to withdraw so that they would not catch their fellow Rangers on fire. Despite the best efforts of the Peanut Butter General, who had been forced to leap to the ground at the last possible moment, both trees went up in a horrible blaze.
Captain Broadbough and the other two surviving Forest Rangers, Whippor Will and Autumn, now surrounded the open entry gate to the fortress of the Jackal Lantern. They were far too large to enter, but they had cleared the way. Or nearly so. Abigail and Coretta Simian remained to bar their passage, while the General and Our Boy were flanking Coretta even now.
Abigail was pounding her chest and preparing to launch herself at Brownie. She was bleeding badly where he'd slashed her face. His own throat hurt where her fingers had wrapped about his neck, presumably trying to break it.
In his entire life, Brownie had never been forced to behave like what he was, a huge grizzly bear.
Abigail Simian dropped on him, her fat, leathery hands searching for a grip that would do the most damage. Brownie roared, drawing the attention of Thomas and the General. But they had their own fight. He spun, trying to throw the gorilla off, but she'd gotten both hands in his mouth now and was trying to break his jaw.
"No!" Brownie screamed.
He bucked beneath her horrible weight, attempting to shake her free. Her legs were wrapped around his girth, her hands pulling, stretching his jaw muscles to their fullest extent. The pain was great, but another few seconds, and . . . Brownie swung his paws wildly, desperate to be free.
Abigail Simian screamed as an arrow pierced her shoulder, its tip scratching Brownie's back. Her grip relaxed and Brownie's thrashing tossed her off. With a roar of pain and rage unlike anything he had ever felt, Brownie was on her. He had begun to slobber like a common dog and now it was like a dog that he kept her down, forepaws on her chest.
He reared up, reached for the tip of the arrow that Thomas had fired at him, and tore it from her chest. The blood spurted into his face, the copper tang of it on his lips maddening him even further. Seized by an atavistic frenzy, he lifted his right paw, and slashed open the gorilla's belly. More blood sprayed out, matting his fur, and his claws came down again and again.
Then his jaws dropped to her gut and he began to tear.
Thomas could only stare. He had no more tears. But as he watched Brownie ripping into Abigail, he knew that the bear would never dance again.
A moment later, Brownie was up, his roar splitting the sky like thunder, and he began to run toward the entrance to the fortress in a kind of primitive canter. Thomas felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see his father, staring at him in sympathy. Behind him, Coretta Simian lay dead. Her head had nearly been severed from her neck.
"Dear God, what have I done?" Thomas asked.
"You chose," the General replied. "You chose your life, and your son, and your own blood."
And now the peanut butter man looked profoundly sorrowful. "Whatever horrors it has wrought, TJ, you chose correctly. I made the wrong choice, but I'm here now, to make it up to you."
Then the General sprinted after Brownie, his sword at the ready.
Thomas followed, his bow in hand, though not with as much confidence. He had resigned himself to the thought that nothing good could be salvaged from what had been done to Strangewood. If he could only save Nathan, that would be enough.
Cragskull stood just inside the entrance to the fortress, where torchlight flickered off walls already brightened by the light of day outside. The walls were damp and gray, and the space a bit too confined for a true battle, but Cragskull didn't care.
He would fight where his master ordered. The Jackal Lantern had given him specific instructions. Whoever came through the door first was to die, and messily, as a warning to the others. His split skull was blazing with malodorous green flame. In each hand, he held a crudely crafted fighting pick: long, wooden sticks with razor sharp daggers fastened to the killing end. He had practiced with these weapons for many years.
Hurting people was the only thing he had ever been good at. But in Strangewood, he had never been allowed to kill. Not until the Jackal Lantern took him in.