He swung the fighting picks in front of him, like murderous clockwork, ready to follow his master's orders, no matter what his previous misgivings had been. He was ready to kill.
The slavering grizzly barreled through the entrance with the power and destructive capacity of an avalanche. The growl shook the walls as Brownie reared back slightly and lifted his right paw, claws glinting in the torchlight.
The claws came down, ripping open Cragskull's chest. His scream was high and piercing. He stumbled back, then, with the strength of his fear, brought one of the fighting picks around to bury it with a thunk into the bear's chest.
It didn't even slow Brownie down.
With both paws, he reached out and grabbed Cragskull, lifted the filthy man above his head, and roared so loud that Cragskull could hear nothing thereafter.
Weakly, he brought the other fighting pick down and buried it in the grizzly's back. Brownie staggered, wilted, and nearly fell. He began to drop Cragskull. But he held on. The grizzly hugged Cragskull to him tightly and reached his right paw up, only to plunge it into the green fire burning in the opening in Cragskull's head. Brownie's claws caught the edge of exposed skull, and, even as Cragskull began to smell the scent of the bear's burning fur, there came a horrid tearing sound and a massive crack.
Brownie tore off the left side of Cragskull's face.
Nothing but green fire came out, save for a flash of putrid smoke.
The bear stumbled. Fell. His blood spread like oil across the damp stone floor.
Tittering like a mischievous child, Cragskull began to cry and wheeze. He looked up with his one remaining eye to see the Peanut Butter General coming through the door with The Boy, then, pushing past them, ran off into the wood. The half of his head that was missing burned higher than ever.
When Fiddlestick flew down the stairwell and banked into the entry corridor, the music from his wings reflected his mood. It was like a mad, desperate calliope tune, played in three-fourths time.
The light from outside silhouetted the Peanut Butter General where he stood in the doorway. Past him, Fiddlestick could see the lower branches of one of the Forest Rangers — probably Captain Broadbough — who was now guarding the entrance to the fortress.
Then he saw Thomas, kneeling just in front of the General. Kneeling by the huge, still, bleeding form of Fiddlestick's greatest friend in the world. Thomas had the grizzly's blood on his hands, and he was silent and cold. Numb.
Fiddlestick was not numb, though he prayed for that curse.
"Brownie!" he cried, and the music from his wings, despite its rapidity, became a dirge.
A moment later, he fluttered his wings and settled down next to the grizzly. His eyes were closed tight, but he was breathing. Shallow, yes, but breathing was breathing.
"We've got to get him out of here," Fiddlestick said.
"As soon as we have Nathan," Thomas said.
The dragon fluttered his wings, the sound more like breaking glass than music now. Tiny jets of flame spurted from his nostrils. For a moment, he wanted to scream at Thomas, to blame him for all that had happened. That would have been the simplest thing to do. But then he looked down at the badly bleeding grizzly, at the glazed, half-open eyes of his friend, and he thought of what Brownie might say.
The blame belonged to all and none. To the Jackal Lantern most of all, and those who had been seduced by him. Yet, even they could not be held solely responsible for what had happened here. Sometimes, thought Fiddlestick, the storm came whether the land needed rain or not.
He looked at Thomas. "All right," he said. "We'll get Nathan out. But then you're on your own. If Brownie dies, I don't know if I want to save what's left of Strangewood."
A look of pain and grief crossed Thomas's face, but he only nodded.
"I'll be back," the dragon whispered to his gravely wounded friend.
Then he settled on the shoulder of the Peanut Butter General, and together, the three of them moved on.
The fortress echoed hollowly around them as they wound their way up a massive stone staircase that seemed to be the heart of the structure. Thomas was amazed that the Jackal Lantern didn't have more muscle to aid him. He'd expected dozens of warriors, shanghaied from all over Strangewood. But then, the wood had never been more than sparsely populated, and Thomas had done little to change that in the years during which he had been its rather unwitting caretaker.
His breathing echoed in the winding stairwell.
He glanced over at his father, thinking that perhaps he should say something. Perhaps there was a bit of knowledge, or intimacy, that they needed to share. But then he saw the way the General moved, the manner in which the consummate soldier went about the business of being at war. And he knew that this moment, fighting together side by side, was the closest they had ever been. The closest they would ever be.
They emerged on an upper floor into an enormous chamber with windows all around, looking out at the wood, and the mountain, and the Up-River where it tumbled over into the nothing beyond. From this place, the Jackal Lantern could see everything that happened around his fortress.
On the far side of the chamber was a high arch, and beyond that, another set of stairs leading up.
"This isn't the stairwell I took before," Fiddlestick said quietly. "While I was flying through the fortress, I heard Nathan calling out, but all the rooms on that floor were locked. But we're not high enough, yet. We've got to go up still."
They started across the chamber, Thomas glancing about, watching the windows for some sign of attack. Only when he was a handful of feet away did he glance back at the stairwell and seen the glow of hellish orange light in that dank space. Then he heard the click of claws on stone.
And the Jackal Lantern sprang into the chamber. His pumpkin face was aglow with slashed eyes and a mouth that shone with horrible glee. The jackal body, lithe and muscled, slunk back and forth in front of the archway leading to the stairs.
Behind him, Bob Longtooth came into the room. He was wounded, still, from his fight with the Queen of the Wood, but he seemed to have only been made more dangerous by it.
"You'll never reach him," old Jack whispered, his candle-brain burning brightly. "Not unless I allow it. And I won't do that until you repair all the damage you've caused, and make me the king of Strangewood."
Thomas gaped at him.
He didn't even pay attention when the sound of hooves clattering on stone echoed around the room, and Feathertop came up into the chamber using the same stairs they had walked moments before.
"You fucking maniac," the General snarled. "Thomas didn't cause any of this. All the burning, all the killing, all the insanity started with you!"
Thomas nocked an arrow into his bow, held it at the ready should old Jack make a move. He glanced over his shoulder at Feathertop, whom he had once loved so greatly.
"All I want is my son."
"And I want power. You will give it to me!"
A chill ran through Thomas. "I . . . I don't know how."
"Then you'll both die," said Old Jack.
Thomas drew back the string on his bow.
* * * * *
Nathan's fever had passed, but he still shivered beneath the filthy blankets. His stomach revolted and he tried to vomit, but nothing would come up. He coughed up something red and brown and wanted to cry. But he had no more tears.
There was the screech of rusty metal, and with a boom, the door to his chamber slammed open. His suit now rumpled and stained, Grumbler stepped into the room, one of his huge Colt revolvers drawn. His eyes darted nervously back into the corridor, and then he turned to stare at Nathan.
"Get up, kid," said Grumbler.
Weakly, Nathan half rose on his bed. His stomach roiled and lurched.
"Grumbler, please," the boy said. "I'm really sick. I . . . I can't. Don't hurt me."
The dwarf cocked his gun. "Get up."
Nathan tried. He sat up, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and made an attempt to stand. He slid to the floor and began to cough and retch, and spit bloody phlegm.
Grumbler stared at Nathan. The boy's eyes were sunken black circles and his flesh was yellow. The fever had broken, but he might still die if he didn't have rest and food, and he wasn't likely to have either one any time soon. Not from Old Jack.
With a grunt, the dwarf strode to where Nathan lay on the floor, reached down with his free hand, and hefted the boy up and over his shoulder as though he were a sack of grain.
Colt cocked and at the ready, Grumbler stepped out into the corridor with Nathan over his shoulder.
"Grumbler, no . . . please . . .” Nathan whimpered. "I'm afraid."
"You should be," Grumbler said darkly. "But for now, keep your mouth shut. We're gonna get you out of here."
In the hospital parking lot, Joe Hayes stared at Emily Randall with wide eyes. After she'd been attacked once again the night before, and had spent half the night giving a statement at the Tarrytown police station, she had come to Joe's house looking about as shell-shocked as he'd ever seen a human being. She'd twitched when he wanted to get close to her, and slept on her side, facing the wall, with plenty of space between them.
It wasn't him, she'd said, time and again.
Damn right it wasn't him. But what was it? That was what was killing him. The guy who'd attacked her — and who'd apparently still gotten away despite the fact that the cop who'd been on the scene got off a couple of shots at him — hadn't had time to violate more than her personal space. Joe wasn't insensitive. He knew she must be feeling incredibly vulnerable, the way the bastard had been stalking her. But in the past, she had come to him for comfort, and now, whatever she was seeking, she was searching for inside of her own head.
In the morning, she'd barely spoken a word. They'd eaten breakfast in relative silence and driven to the hospital in the rain, with only the rhythm of the windshield wipers to note the passage of time.
Several times he'd tried to ask her what was haunting her. She had mumbled some excuse, but never an answer.
Now, as they stepped out of the car into the rain, Emily brandishing her umbrella as if it might shield her from further questions, Joe reached the limit of his patience.
"Jesus God, Emily, talk to me!" He stared at her, waiting for a response that never came. "Please," he added as an afterthought. "I'm trying to be here for you, but you won't let me in."
Her hazel eyes softened, and she looked at him with something like pity, which only confused him more. Rain ran through his close-cropped hair and streamed down his face. He wiped it away with his hands, nearly overwrought.
"After all I've been through with you, I thought the least you would do is include me," he said, genuine sadness in his voice. "I wanted this to work. I want to be there to catch you when you fall, to hold you when you cry, and to kiss you when you laugh. Now I don't even know you."
Emily moved nearer to him, and Joe realized after a moment that it was only to share her umbrella, to shield him from the rain. She moved to go inside, but Joe couldn't do it. Not another step toward that hospital. The life that was inside belonged to Emily, and unless he was part of that life, he had no place inside those walls.
Finally, she opened her mouth. He thought she might be crying, but couldn't tell with the rain spattering her face.
"Em?" he asked.
"I'm going to call my lawyer this morning. I'm dropping the request for full custody," she said.
He could only stare. At length, he asked, "Is it Thomas? You still want to be with him?"
She smiled kindly. "Not at all," she said. "I love him. I've told you that. Part of me always will. But I can't do it to him. It's something that you could never understand."
Joe reddened. "Don't fucking patronize me, Emily," he snapped. "Maybe if you tried to explain it . . ."
She snapped. The lifelessness on her face was erased, subverted from within by a hysteria he had never seen in her before.
"I can't explain it!" she screamed. "Jesus Christ, Joe, please just stop! If I let myself think about it, really think about it, even for a second, I'd lose my mind completely. Please, just let it go!"
He blinked. She was breathing fast, nearly hyperventilating. Her eyes were wide, as though she were as astonished by her behavior as he was.
"God, Emily, what's wrong with you?" he asked, as gently as he could.
But the moment that he said it, he knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say. Emily hardened. Whatever raw emotion she had just shown him was bottled up now, tucked away inside the stone face of a heartless statue. As if he had reached out and simply turned her off, with the flick of a switch.
"You're a good man, Joe," she said. "But this is good-bye."
She turned and walked toward the hospital entrance. He started after her, but stopped after three steps. There wasn't a moment's hesitation in Emily's stride. Not once did she turn to see if he was following. Whatever had happened to her, whatever had broken inside of her, he tried to tell himself he could fix it, if only she would give him the chance.
But as she disappeared inside the hospital, Joe Hayes thought about how much work it was going to be to fix it. How much baggage he had already accepted, trying to love her.
She didn't want that from him.
With one final glance, he turned, got back into his car, started it up, and headed for home.
Inside the hospital, Emily walked rigidly to the elevator and rode up in silence. She strode to the nurses' station outside of Nathan's room, tears slowly tracking down her emotionless face.
"I need to see Dr. Gershmann immediately," she said.
Fortunately, Gershmann was doing rounds. She waited silently for nearly fifteen minutes before he appeared, and when he did, she acknowledged him only with her eyes before striding into Nathan's room, knowing that he would follow.
She did not look at the prone form of her son.
She could not.
It would make the impossible seem all that more ridiculous.
"Mrs. Randall, what's wrong? Has something more happened?"
"Isn't this enough?" she asked bitterly.