69 THE PACK AT THE PORTAL
They were sweaty and panting by the time they stopped again. To the east the sky was the molten gold of sunrise, though to the west it was still a deep royal blue; Christian had not realized how late it was. He didn’t know how long the fairies would keep the portal open, but he hoped the army would be able to get through. Morrow’s speech had not made him any less frightened to face Goblin or his allies (in fact, he was more frightened), but perhaps he could ride the spider into battle. Then again, the spider was so jittery it might turn and run, taking him far away with it.
Although, thought Christian, as long as they stopped to grab Minerva and the Smithsons first, that would not be such a bad thing.
“Through here,” Tirion said. His brown skin shone with sweat, but, unlike the rest of them, he breathed with ease. He parted a curtain of willow branches and ushered them through. Christian crowded in with the others; there was barely enough room for them all, made even worse by the unpleasant heat and stickiness of squeezing in between people damp with perspiration and out of breath.
It was a glade flanked by several willow trees that hid it with thousands of fluttering yellow leaves. In the center stood an oak tree so wide three of them could have stood around it and barely touched fingers. Its trunk was split down the middle, from the height of Christian’s shoulders to the ground, and the inside was cavernous.
“Are we there yet?” Liza peered outside, and the glare she wore in anticipation of another impediment melted into a sigh of relief. “Finally. Thank God.”
“Is it open?” Christian asked.
Tirion shrugged and stuck his hand into the tree trunk. His fingers vanished.
“Yes,” he said. He stepped into the tree trunk and disappeared with his long black braids swinging behind him. Morrow watched him go and then turned to the others.
“I’ll go last,” he said. “Christian, can you get to the front?”
Christian, squished between the spider and a circus pony that had known better days, said, “Maybe.”
His feet left the ground as the spider grabbed the back of his shirt with its pedipalps and picked him up. It stepped over the others and dropped him in front of the tree. Narodnaya followed, drifting eerily along behind them.
Here is where I leave you, she said.
“It is?” Christian’s heart sank. “But I was hoping you’d come with us.”
Her strange almost-smile flitted across her face. It flatters me that you should say so. But my lands—
She looked back westwards. He nodded, though he realized it meant he would probably never see her again—not unless he somehow ended up back in this world one day.
“Well,” he said, “well—goodbye, then.”
Goodbye, human. Her hair bunched around her face as she stretched out a hesitant arm to shake hands, but he grasped her fingers without shuddering at the touch of her clammy skin.
Something snarled in the surrounding trees. He paled; Narodnaya’s slit-like nostrils widened.
The circus-folk crowded together, the beasts with their claws and teeth bared, the people jangling their chains and wielding their tent-poles and cookware like swords and clubs. The ponies reared and screamed. Christian felt the spider trembling beside him. He caught Liza’s eyes across the crowd; he saw her mouth her husband’s name before she darted back into the wagon.
Morrow drew his sword and said, “They’ll try to prevent us from reaching Earth. Get through the portal, quickly, and try not to trample each other on the way out. I’ll hold them off.”
“So will we,” said Rowan. She and her sister brandished their iron-headed canes and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Rover. “Go on ahead, Mr. Abernathy. We’ll see them all out.”
“No,” said Christian, though his throat was constricted and his face white. He took up a branch that lay on the ground and held it before him like a sword. “No, I’ll stay with you.”
The snarling died away abruptly.
“That’s not good,” said Morrow.
One long, low howl sounded from somewhere just in front of him.
“Go now,” he said.
Then they saw the black, glaring faces of hellhounds in a ring around the glen. Other faces were there, too, grinning blue faces with sharp teeth and long black horns poking out of their foreheads.
Imps, Narodnaya said, but now she sounded angry. The circus-folk pushed toward the oak tree. Despite all Graham Chelsea did to steady it, Imelda’s horse reared and plunged in its traces, rocking the wagon. Christian thought of Conrad lying on the bunk inside and felt a surge of fear for him. His only comfort was that Liza was in the wagon, too, whole and well and hopefully able to shield her husband from attack more adequately than he had been able to protect Minerva or Conrad or himself.
“Everyone stay calm,” Finn shouted, but even as she did so the hellhounds sprang into the glade. One had its belly sliced open by Morrow’s sword. The circus-folk swung their tent poles and cookware, whirled the chains around their heads, pressed into the sides of the oak tree as their friends vanished into the snapping jaws.
“Get them out of here,” Morrow said to Christian. He dove into the mass of wriggling black hides, followed by the two ringmasters, yelling battle cries as they went.
Narodnaya’s eyes flashed. I will stand guard.
Without another word, she flew out over the people with her wild hair whipping behind her. She showed her spiky teeth and hissed at the hellhounds, went after the imps with savagery, and then Christian lost track of her for a while. The spider stepped on his foot with the weight of a draft horse. With watering eyes he dropped his stick and tried to usher the panicked circus-folk and screaming ponies through the portal.
Yelping broke through the hellhounds’ snarling when a ringmaster’s cane jabbed one in the eye or Morrow’s sword pierced its side, such pathetic yelping and whimpering Christian might have felt sorry for the beasts had they not been trying to kill everyone. Already half a dozen bodies littered the glade, squashed underfoot in the mad rush for the portal. Another fell with a gashed neck, but as the hellhound that had killed him set upon him, a grizzled bear bellowed at it and stood guard over the body.
“Marco!” Finn shouted. She turned on the hellhound with a look of cold fury on her face. She beat it about the head with the iron tip of her cane until it cowered from her, bleeding from its ears and nose. Then she beat it until it was dead.
The bears waddled through the portal in search of their trainers, all but the bear whose trainer was dead; it snuffled at his hair and bellowed at anyone who approached it. But the lions and tigers got into scuffles with the hellhounds and imps or cowered beneath the trees. Christian’s spider began hefting them in its pedipalps and tossing them through the portal with cries of feline dismay.
Imelda’s wagon ran over the limp black body of a dead hellhound as it rushed toward the portal. There was a pair of imps in its way—and Liza was inside, and Conrad too, with a chunk already taken out of his leg, now in danger of being devoured by the spike-toothed creatures grinning in his path—
“Conrad!” Christian shouted as wagon rattled madly past. “Liza!”
The imps howled and leapt upon the wagon. One landed on the doorstep with a shriek from Liza, but it flew into the grass the next moment as she shattered a bottle over its head.
The other imp launched its bony blue body at Graham Chelsea in the driver’s seat. The horse screamed, but the horse-master screamed worse as the imp’s teeth closed on his hand. Christian darted around the bucking horse and climbed up into the driver’s seat with difficulty, pulling at the imp’s arm. It turned around, its grin and horn bloodied with Graham’s blood—the horse-master was clutching at his right hand, and Christian saw with a jolt that his last two fingers were missing—
Something stabbed into his left hip, and he gasped and collapsed on the horse-master’s lap, writhing in pain. The imp bore down on him with its bloody grin, but its black horn was gone—
Then his spider squealed and knocked him to the ground, and the imp fell away from him and was set upon by a hungry tiger as the wagon rumbled past.
Christian groaned, but the spider picked him up and hurled him through the portal. He fell through nothingness, surrounded by shrieking, unseen apparitions that tugged at him with fingers like mist and tried to pull him off course—there were too many people falling through the portal with him, and the apparitions swirled in a confused mass, going after first one and then another but unable to get ahold of any of them—
He skinned the palms of his hands as he slammed into the ground.