Whatever Nathan had expected — some kind of dungeon or torture chamber — it wasn't this. Unlike the rest of the fortress, this room wasn’t all stone. The floor was wood, and the ceiling and walls were crisscrossed with wooden beams. In one corner, red and yellow flames crackled in a large fireplace loaded with logs. A stack of cut wood lay nearby. Each end of the room was draped with a wide, colorful tapestry unlike anything Nathan had ever seen except for in the movies.
There were no windows. No light coming in. Only the fire and the torches, two on each wall. The room was vast, and at its center was a long table roughly hewn from trees without the same talent that had gone into the construction of the fortress itself. But it was a table, and good enough to use for a table's uses. The chairs around the table were only slightly better constructed.
What drew Nathan's immediate attention, though, were the plates of food that were spread out across the table. At the center was the largest roasted turkey Nathan had ever seen. He could smell it now, even over the stench of Cragskull, and his mouth began to water. He didn't remember when he'd eaten last. There were large iron pitchers that he thought must have water in them, or at least something he could drink. There were plates of boiled potatoes and some kind of green vegetable that he wouldn't even think about eating if he weren't so hungry. There were other things as well, but Nathan ignored them.
Slowly, he stepped toward the table. Cragskull didn't try to stop him. The monster just stood near the open door and watched as Nathan made a plate for himself of turkey and potatoes and some kind of cake that he'd never seen before. He sat down on one of the uncomfortable chairs and started to dig in. There were no forks or knives that he could see, other than the huge carving knife sticking out of the turkey, but Nathan didn't care.
He'd eaten with his hands before.
Most of the turkey was gone, and a few of the potatoes, when Nathan paused a moment in his eating. He glanced up at the turkey. At the huge carving knife jutting from its breast.
One of the doors slammed open behind him with a crack that made him jump from his chair, knocking over his plate and dumping potatoes onto the floor. Nathan spun to see that, by the huge double wooden doors, Bob Longtooth had entered and now stood by Cragskull. The sabertoothed-tiger man's huge tusklike teeth jutted down from his upper jaw, even as Longtooth gnashed his teeth, smacking his lips.
Nathan didn't know if he was reacting to his own presence, or the presence of the food. But he didn't want to know. Quickly, he scrambled under the table and came up on the other side. His eyes were wide as he stared at Longtooth, and the slashes in his back began to burn like some phantom reminder. But Nathan didn't need anything to remind him who had made those slashes.
"Hello, boy," Bob Longtooth growled happily. "Looksss like the General couldn't sssave you after all."
As hard as he could, Nathan tried to come up with a response to that. Some defense of the General. But what could he say? Finally, he only said, as defiantly as possible, "He'll come after me."
From the hallway beyond the wooden doors, two dark shapes appeared. There came a loud snorting and Longtooth and Cragskull scrambled quickly aside. Now Nathan saw that there were not two but three dark shapes, and they ambled powerfully into the room, snorting and grunting, scraping the wooden floor with their knuckles.
The Simian Sisters. Nathan blinked twice. Stared.
"They . . . they shouldn't be here," he said, almost to himself, as he stared at the three identical mountain gorillas.
But even as he stared at them, he knew what was to come next, and he backed up even further as he stared out into the hallway. He stopped only when he backed into a tapestry-covered wall that allowed him to move no further.
The Jackal Lantern entered the room.
Nathan knew what the Jackal Lantern looked like. His father had read him the books and shown him the pictures. But really seeing him . . . Nathan didn't feel angry anymore. He tried to get mad, but he just couldn't. His breath came in short, ragged gasps, but he paid no attention. He was barely thinking, completely consumed with fighting his fear and the hot, burning sensation of impending tears that came to him now.
It moved like a huge dog, though its upper paws were more like hands than anything a dog might have. But for a dog, it was awfully mangy and lean, and he knew that it was really a jackal, which was like an African coyote or something.
The Jackal Lantern moved into the room and stood on its hind legs, arms crossed before it, to stare at Nathan as best it could stare. For the Jackal Lantern had no real head to speak of. Once upon a time, according to the stories, it had had a real head. But now it only had a pumpkin, face carved to look vicious and savage. And inside that pumpkin, orange light burned so brightly that it shone like a flashlight across the room.
It stared at Nathan, and the boy looked down to see that its face — its eyes and nose and mouth — was projected onto his shirt by that bright light. He was marked by it where he stood in the dimly lit room.
Then he couldn't look at it again. Nathan knew if he looked up one more time, if he opened his eyes, he would start crying and he didn't know if he'd be able to stop. So he didn't look. He just wrapped his arms around his body and shuddered and tried to pretend he was anywhere but there.
"You're unkind, young Nathan," the Jackal Lantern said. There was a weird kind of echo to his deep voice, as if it came not from his mouth, but from the flame inside that pumpkin head.
"The Simian Sisters have done nothing to you, boy, yet you insult them?" the Lantern persisted.
Nathan bit his lip. Then, at length, he repeated himself. "They shouldn't be here," he said. Then added, "my daddy told me about them, but he hasn't put them in any of the books yet."
At that, the Jackal Lantern laughed, and the motion of his head cast a flickering image of his face across the walls of the room as he moved with his mirth.
"If you weren't a child, and too young to account for your foolishness, I'd eat your dripping heart for my supper," the Lantern said cruelly, and then its voice became amused again. "But of course, supper's already laid out, is it not?"
Nathan tensed, thinking the Lantern would approach. It did not. Instead, it waved a hand at one of the Simians, and the gorilla fled the room instantly.
"You wouldn't understand the rest of it, boy, but I'll tell you this much, what your idiot father puts down in those books has nothing to do with what really happens here."
The Simian who'd left the room returned, and Nathan was astonished to see that she held a large stack of books in her hands. His father's books; copies of all the Strangewood books. He almost asked how they could be here, in Strangewood itself. But then he remembered that he was here. And Grumbler had stolen some of his clothes and brought them here.
At a nod from the Jackal Lantern, the Simian dropped the books into a stack in front of the fire. Ol' Jack, as some of them called him, dropped onto all fours and sauntered over to the pile of books. His pumpkin head hung just as a dog's head would from his shoulders, but where there should have been a hanging, lolling, panting tongue, there was only a burst of orange light from the flame inside his head.
The Jackal Lantern was the most frightening thing Nathan had ever seen. As the boy watched, it trotted to the books, lifted its leg, and let loose with a stream of steaming, acrid-smelling, yellow piss, which was soaked up instantly by the books. His father's books. All the love Nathan's father had ever given Strangewood.
The Lantern stood again on two legs and glanced over at Longtooth. "Bob," he said, "the boy seems to think the General will come for him. I want Our Boy to come, but the General could be a problem. I doubt he'll come, but to be safe, take that stupid pony and go down into the wood after him. If he gets to this fortress before you, don't bother coming back. And when you find the dwarf, tell him I want to see him as well."
With a nod and a short bow, Bob Longtooth withdrew. Then, at the Jackal Lantern's instructions, Cragskull and the Simians sat down to feast upon what was left on the table.
Backed against the wall, Nathan stared at the piss-soaked pile of books. Tears streamed down his face. Nathan was furious.
The Jackal Lantern had made him cry.
* * * * *
It was nearly eleven o'clock at night when Francesca Cavallaro's phone rang. She glanced up from reading through a client's manuscript — a book that she'd hoped to be able to sell when he'd told her about it but now that she was reading it had determined it was utter crap — and noted that it was the business line she kept for days she didn't want to go into the office.
"What the hell?" she muttered angrily.
Francesca had strict rules about business hours. She made it clear to her clients. Before ten or after six, they were on their own, with few exceptions, and then they were exceptions she made.
Still irked, she very purposefully ignored the ringing and went back to the manuscript. Though she didn't know why she was still reading. Only because she'd said she would, perhaps. Because she already knew there wasn't an editor in town who was going to buy this shit without a massive rewrite.
After the fourth ring, the machine took over. That was its job.
"You've reached the home office of Francesca Cavallaro. Leave a message, or try me downtown," it announced, and then beeped in the caller's ear.
"Francesca?" a female voice, choked with emotion, began. She didn't recognize the voice, even when it went on to say, "oh . . . oh God." But she looked up and stared at the machine again. There was a long pause, and then: "It's Emily Randall. Thomas is . . . he's in the hospital. In a coma and . . . I just needed to talk to someone close to him."
She lunged for the phone, picked up, and said "Emily? Emily? Hello?" But Emily had already hung up.
With a sick churning in her gut, Francesca hung up the phone. She looked over at the clock, thought about calling back before she realized that she had no idea where to call. Probably the hospital Nathan was in, whatever that was called.
"Oh, shit, Thomas," she whispered and brought a hand to her forehead.
Tomorrow was going to be a very long day.
* * * * *
It was dusk when Thomas returned to consciousness, but he could barely see the sky through the tangle of branches above his head. He had to crouch in order to move along the path before him. It was lined on either side with pricker bushes, and several times he snagged his shirt. Thorns scratched his face and scalp and he crouched down even further.
Then he knew.
Knew where he was.
Every other time he'd come here, he had been small enough to walk that path without harm. The Scratchy Path. Even as a grown man, when he'd come here, he would be a boy again. The Boy.
It felt so different. The air on his skin, the night around him, all felt so unreal. Not like a dream, but like the few times he'd pulled all-nighters in college, when he was up so much later than everyone else that the world had stopped revolving except for him and whatever else was out there prowling about. Even the air was different those long nights. It wasn't surreal, but hyper-real.
He felt like he was nine years old again, and everything was new and dangerous and incredible. It was an adventure.
But this adventure wasn't for him. The only thing that mattered now was Nathan.
So when Thomas finally emerged from the Scratchy Path to stand on the hard packed dirt of the Winding Way, with Strangewood stretching out on all sides, he did not feel at all that he had come to a new and frightening place. Rather, Thomas Randall felt as though he had come home, to the places he had played as a boy, to find that the tree still had his initials carved in it, and nobody had ever torn down the treefort he and Lainey Levenson had built at the age of eleven.
He had returned to the imagination of his boyhood. It was all familiar to him.
And it had stolen his son.
He turned to stride north on the Winding Way, not quite sure where to begin, though possessed of a confidence he would never have imagined. But then Thomas froze as he saw Grumbler's little stone and wood and thatched-roof cottage, and the lake beyond it.
The cottage had been burned to the ground, and the blackened timbers were still smoldering. The stones had tumbled and only the little chimney still stood tall and proper.
Beyond it, the lake was black and stagnant, and silver bellied fish lay dead on the flat, motionless water.
Beneath the orange stars of Strangewood, Thomas Randall felt his imagination crumble, his nostalgia turn to nausea, and his sense of strength and confidence melt into despair.
He looked north along the Winding Way. Then south. And then he realized he had no idea how to begin, now that he was here, in a world that should have been almost a part of him and was instead a foreign territory where friends were enemies and innocence killed, where the imaginary friends of his dreams wanted his blood and the blood of his son.
Frozen, directionless, Thomas Randall screamed his son's name and received no answer.
With the back of his skull resting uncomfortably against the headboard, Joe Hayes struggled to keep his eyes open. In the darkness of his cluttered bedroom, he lay beneath a single pale blue sheet and peered at the black-and-white images flickering on screen. He should have been asleep hours ago — he had an 8:50 class to teach in the morning — but he'd turned on AMC to find a marathon of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, and that had been that.
In the wan light of the set, the black and white film draining all color from the room, as if Joe's own world had been sucked into the world of 1930s Hollywood, he finally began to succumb to the incessant demands of his body. His eyelids fluttered one final time, and then he was drifting, head still resting at an angle that would give him a hell of a stiff neck in the morning.
On television, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce droned on. The Hound of the Baskervilles bayed. Somewhere, someone rapped at a wooden door. Then pounded. Loudly.
Asleep, Joe flinched. Wherever his sleeping mind had gone, a part of his subconscious was irked by this noise. He ought to have turned the television off and nestled more comfortably in his bed. Some part of him was aware of this, and he slid down further under the single sheet and turned onto his side, holding his two pillows under his head in a passionate embrace.