It was Peter. Somehow, this was his fault. The fool was climbing down from one of the trees as quickly as he could, and a thick stream of fire was following him, speeding down the trunk in a lethal blaze. In a flash of blue coattails he reached the ground and staggered back, looking up into the inferno with wide eyes and a satisfied smirk.
“Peter!” Aidan called. The fool didn’t hear. He took off in the opposite direction, and for one wild moment Aidan thought he was abandoning them. But then he realized that he must be going to find Lori; they might be able to handle themselves, but there was no way Lori could survive a fall like that or escape being toasted to a crisp. He gagged and choked as he followed the fool back towards the heart of the glad, cursing his body for thinking it still had lungs. Green light shone mercilessly through the growing flames and lit his way in nightmare colors.
“Lori!” he called when he reached the place at which they had parted. “Peter!”
There were faint cries echoing over the roar of the fire and the groan of burning wood. Peter had gone to the left, while Lori had walked straight ahead. The blaze was much worse in the center, but Aidan hesitated only briefly before choosing that path. He brought his one remaining hand to the level of his eyes and pressed forward.
When he found her, Lori was in a terrible fix. She was bound to the trunk of her tree by several thick branches, one of which was cutting into her throat. Her arms were stretched and held by smaller limbs, while her head lolled forward onto her chest. Backlit by green, it was an awful sight. The flames licking their way down from the top branches made it even worse.
Aidan paced back and forth on the ground below. There were no branches close enough for him to grab, and climbing was going to be difficult with only one arm. He needed to sprout wings or grow a couple dozen feet, but neither of those things seemed likely to happen before the fire reached her. He began to shout, calling her name in a desperate attempt to wake her. She didn’t even stir, but suddenly a dark shape several branches above her moved. He took it to be another malicious branch, but then the fire illuminated it and he saw that it was much worse.
It was several branches, twisting together to form one cohesive image of blackened wood. As he watched, it became a face with gaping, hollow eyes and a mouth ringed with twig teeth. It was like the evil twin of the mythological Green Man, with dead leaves for hair and a sneer that only grew as it noticed Aidan on the ground below.
“Anyone I want,” it echoed in Sir Hugo’s voice. “Death does what I will.” He opened his mouth wide and the branches surrounding Lori moved her closer to him. She winced and gave a feeble twitch, but that was the only sign she was aware of her impending demise.
“Lori!” Aidan screamed. He had no desire to watch her die, daughter or not. He began scouting the ground for rocks, sticks, any hopeless thing he could throw. There were a few blackened twigs and pebbles—nothing useful.
A shot of blue nearly knocked him to the ground. In a few long, calculated strides, Peter reached Lori’s tree and began to climb. As the fire chewed eagerly on his coat-tails he hauled himself onto her branch and stretched a hand towards Lori’s waist.
For a handful of seconds, he seemed to be groping her hips. His expression changed from determination to uncertainty, and his eyes dropped the ground, whereupon he at last noticed Aidan.
“Knife?!” he shouted. “She doesn’t have it!” He seized hold of the branches that were drawing her up to the demonic face. It was a losing battle. Aidan got on all fours—threes, really—and began patting the ground around the tree’s base. While he searched, Peter struggled to pry away some of the smaller branches.
“Found it!” Aidan cried in triumph. He held the knife aloft—just as the top of the tree snapped. An ear-splitting shriek of a thousand tongues filled the air, and the branches holding Lori in place withdrew.
Peter caught her by the arm, barely. Her eyes snapped open just as the tree’s severed head crashed to the ground in a fury of smoke. “I’ve got you,” the fool said. “Find a branch and start climbing down. Get as far as you can and then jump.”
Lori did as he said, though her progress was slow and she was obviously in pain. First one foot found branch, then the other, and soon Peter had let go of her and she was standing on her own, pressed up against the trunk. It was then that she truly noticed where she was and panic began to sink in.
“Stay calm,” Peter ordered as her eyes widened in alarm. “Climb down, one step at a time. Tristan will catch you if you fall.”
“He’s only got one arm!” she squeaked.
The fool sighed. “I was trying to be comforting. Climb.”
Aidan waited anxiously as they climbed towards him. Trees in all directions had been caught in the blaze and were beginning to shriek and burn. There was hardly any green light left, but in its dying glow he could see his two companions clearly. Peter jumped first. He landed rather shakily and gripped Aidan for support. An equally unsteady grin lingered on his lips. “Their bark is worse than their bite,” he said.
“That’s awful,” Aidan replied, keeping an eye on Lori’s movements. If the fool had a retort or not, he didn’t hear. He was too focused on her; she had reached an impasse and was lingering nine or so feet from the ground. It wasn’t a terribly far drop, but she had frozen. Blood was dripping down her shoulder, oozing out from under a tear in her borrowed coat.
“Come on,” Aidan called, cupping his lone hand against his mouth. “You’ll be fine!” She couldn’t see what he did. The fire was less than four feet from her head. She had to jump now, if she was going to jump at all.
Lori leaned forward, held her breath, and let the last branch slip through her fingers. She plummeted the distance and landed firmly on her feet…one of which twisted sharply to the left. She cried out and sank to her knees.
Aidan and Peter were at her side in a flash. They hauled her up and began to run, staggering away from the trees as best they could in an awkward six-legged race. Plumes of smoke and flames went up behind them, and Aidan felt the reassuring weight of at least one owlet carcass in his pant pocket. He hope Lori still had her owlet; if they could just make it through the next gateway they would be all right. At least, that was a nice thought.
They veered sharply to the left before reaching the bottom of the hill. Peter, who had been keeping the closest eye on their flight, jerked Aidan and Lori along. It was a terrific struggle to move horizontally on the steep slope with any sort of haste, but they managed. Lori was nearly biting through her bottom lip in pain by the time they reached a gap in the strands of curling smoke. Trees were splintering, their dead branches tumbling down the hill and lighting the grass on fire. In another minute they were in the clear, just in time for Lori’s ankle to give out completely. She sank to the side, nearly weighing Aidan to the ground.
“None of that!” snapped Peter. In a single motion he knelt and scooped her up in his arms. She clung to his neck as he stood, her head resting against the stained fabric of his coat. Her eyes were beginning to flutter closed. The fool held her close and took off at a run.
Aidan watched them vanish through a pocket of air before turning his gaze to the trees one last time. There was nothing to see but destruction and chaos. Nothing to hear but the final groans of the executed souls who were once again reduced to ashes. Was Sir Hugo watching, somewhere in his theatre? Very likely. He must have been watching before, somehow, and there was every chance he would continue to do so. But suddenly Aidan was no longer afraid.
Obviously the disembodied director felt threatened. He was laying pitfalls for them, and he had done his best to undermine Aidan’s resolve. What he had done or said to the others was unknown, but he imagined it had been much of the same. Knowing that Sir Hugo was nervous made him feel ten thousand times better about the fact that they still didn’t have a proper plan.