Of course, it could also be much simpler. A magical effect wouldn’t have affected Audrey, and yet she was having a hard time focusing on anything else herself. The dragon didn’t have to be magical to be fascinating and terrifying; it just had to be a giant flying lizard. “What’s it doing now?”
“Still nothing,” Duke reported. His upper body was so far out of the window that he was practically sitting on the frame, head craned to watch the dragon. “It’s just... circling. Like it’s looking for something.” He pulled himself back inside and gave Audrey a grim look. She could still see the remnants of that dread in his face, though in his usual fashion he was pushing it aside to deal with the problem he couldn’t run away from. “It’s centering on the library,” he said, not that she’d needed the confirmation. “I can see the briars from here. I think they’re getting taller.”
“Hold that thought,” Audrey said. The two things were related, that much she was certain of, but she’d have to take a closer look at the situation to work out how. And that would have to wait until they could get to the station.
They arrived ahead of Nathan, and while they were waiting for him Audrey climbed onto the roof of one of the larger trucks in the parking lot to get a better view. Duke was right; the briars were definitely taller than they’d been this morning. They dwarfed all the surrounding buildings, and the library itself – which had already been taller than it should be this morning – was completely lost to view. It shouldn’t exist, and there shouldn’t even be room for it to exist in. Audrey risked a look at the edge of the tangle, bracing for the same nausea that she’d gotten from looking along the garden wall at the two realities trying to exist side by side. It didn’t come, which was almost worse. The briar patch was making itself just as real as the surrounding town, possibly even more so. Duke’s earlier warning about the three-day deadline came back to her. It was getting worse, and they didn’t have much time to fix it.
Her view was obscured by the bulk of the dragon, making its rounds and sweeping in between the library and the police station. It was a good distance away, but she could still hear the heavy whump of its leather wings beating the air. It was a perfect storybook dragon, all muscle and glossy black scales, and it watched its surroundings with a keenness that went beyond animal intelligence. It was beautiful and terrifying, and Audrey thought she was starting to understand what it was looking for.
The truck rocked for a second as Duke climbed up beside her. He sucked in his breath at the sight of the dragon, and she felt him tense. “Duke,” she said quietly. “Try to get its attention.”
“I can’t get its attention, not with my immunity,” she explained.
“Why does anybody have to get its attention? Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid?”
“It won’t come after you,” she promised. She wrapped a gentle hand around Duke’s arm. “Trust me. Please.”
The way Duke looked at her was something she didn’t think she’d ever forget, like he was weighing every interaction they’d ever had before deciding how to respond. “Cover your ears,” he finally said, his hand going to the whistle around his neck.
The sound was deafening, even with the warning. Ears ringing, Audrey watched the dragon raise its head, wisps of smoke curling from its snout. It veered away from its previous course and swept over them, darkening the sky and tying Audrey’s stomach in knots. Oh, please let me be right. She sidled in against Duke again as it dove towards them, making no sound but those heavy wingbeats. It tilted its head to study them with one large and bright eye as it passed overhead, then rose again with a dismissive flick of its tail and returned to its previous circling. Audrey’s knees went slack with relief, and she could feel Duke sag beside her.
“What the hell was that?” Nathan’s voice was unexpected enough to tear Audrey away from the dragon. He sounded like he wasn’t sure whether to be confused or frightened as he climbed into the bed of the truck. Out of the corner of her eye Audrey could see his own truck stopped haphazardly in the middle of the lot, as if he’d stopped it and jumped out of it in a hurry to try to defend them.
“It was her idea,” Duke said hurriedly. He had a hand out to help Nathan up onto the roof beside him, but he abruptly pulled it back and clenched it at his side, face shutting down. Nathan didn’t seem to notice. There was a lot he didn’t notice, apparently, and now Audrey was beginning to wonder how she’d missed it all. All the time she’d spent wondering exactly what was going on between them, and ‘long-denied love’ had never even occurred to her. Especially in this town, where love that had somehow gone wrong seemed to be at the heart of almost everything, she should have seen it coming.
She pushed the thought away as Nathan pulled himself up on his own and Duke subtly shifted his weight to put as much distance as possible between them on the small roof. “Watch what it’s doing,” she said, tracing the dragon’s path in the air with her finger. “It’s just circling the library. There are people everywhere, but it’s not going after anyone. It came just close enough to us to get a good look at us, and it hasn’t even caused any property damage, as far as I can tell. It’s watching.”
“Like it’s looking for something,” Nathan said.
“No, like it’s looking out for something,” Audrey countered. “It’s not hunting. It’s patrolling. It came out just far enough to see that Duke wasn’t a threat, then went back to staying close to the library.”
“It’s a defense system,” Duke said, starting to understand where she was going with this. “Like the briars.” He touched his forehead. “That’s what was getting worse.”
“You felt that, too?” Nathan asked.
Duke nodded. “Something kicked Caroline’s Trouble up another gear, and now there’s one more thing standing between us and stopping her.”
“You think she’s doing it on purpose?”
“Not like it matters at this point if she is or not. The story’s been set in motion; all we can do is see it through.” Duke turned to cast an eye at the sword. “Lucky you.”
Nathan turned to follow his gaze, looking at the stone with a mix of trepidation and longing. “What makes you so sure I’m the one?”
“It’s you,” Duke said flatly before Audrey could say anything. It was that same cold, resigned certainty that his voice had had during their conversation in the car, and he wasn’t looking at Nathan. Eventually he did raise his head, turning to face Nathan like he couldn’t stand not looking at him any longer. Something in his face softened so subtly that Audrey guessed she could only see it because she knew to look for it. He shook his head helplessly. “Of course it’s you,” he said again, more tenderly this time.
Whatever other nuances Nathan was catching or missing in the situation, the sheer faith in Duke’s voice hit home. His expression was the same as Duke’s had been when Audrey called him a good man: stunned, humbled, and honored. He nodded silently and climbed off the truck. When his feet hit the ground he looked back up at Duke for a moment, his face thoughtful, before turning and heading for the police station.
Duke and Audrey exchanged glances. “He’s really willing to take my word for that,” Duke said quietly.
“He trusts you,” Audrey said. “He tells himself that he doesn’t, but he knows better.”
Duke made a little sound that said he didn’t believe her, but wished he did. “Come on,” he said, climbing down to follow Nathan. “I know you don’t want to miss this.”
There was so much more that Audrey wanted to say on the subject, but this wasn’t the time. Not that it ever would be the time, in Duke’s opinion, and as bad as Audrey felt about picking at his wounds she felt like leaving them alone would do more harm. She’d been speaking from the heart when she’d said that Nathan needed to know that someone loved him that much, and if he couldn’t hear it from her... It was probably a selfish thing to do, trying to push someone else she trusted and cared about into pursuing Nathan just because she couldn’t, but was it really unforgivable if she truly thought there was a chance it might work out for them? Nathan obviously cared deeply for Duke, despite his frequent insistence to the contrary. There was a spark there, and they should both have the chance to see if it was the kind that might be kindled into love, rather than the anger they’d both held on to for so long. A bitter voice in the back of her mind reminded her that she and Nathan should have been allowed the same chance, but she forced it into a corner with all the other things she didn’t want to think about. Better to be happy for someone who might have a chance than to resent her own lack of one.
Nathan was waiting for them at the stone, watching the sword like he expected it to move on its own. There were a handful of officers watching him through the station window now, but nobody was willing to go outside and possibly interfere. Audrey saw him give a little shrug, a sort of ‘here goes nothing’ gesture. The world seemed to hold its breath as he reached out his hand, and continued to hold it as he hesitated, freezing just inches from the hilt. Come on, Audrey thought. You can do this. You’re the hero of this story.
Again, Duke beat her to the encouraging words before she could say them out loud. “For god’s sake, Nathan, don’t you dare chicken out on this one.”
It might have been crude, but it was effective. With a long-suffering glare at Duke, Nathan gritted his teeth and grabbed the sword. It slid from the stone with no resistance, moving so smoothly that Nathan had to take a step back to adjust for the amount of force he’d put into the gesture. There should have been a light streaming down from the sky as he raised the blade, or swelling music from somewhere. Instead there was just the whisper of the normal sounds of the world seeping back into it, and a tiny but heartfelt sigh from Duke.
Audrey couldn’t blame him. She’d always considered Nathan handsome, but now he was a storybook prince, poised and statuesque. “Wow,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. “That, uh. That suits you.” Beside her, Duke managed a mute nod.
Nathan gave her that sheepish little-boy look that he always got when someone complimented him. “You think so?” He gave the sword an experimental swing. “Probably not too practical for everyday use, but...”
“And it’s not fighting you?” she asked, telling herself to dial back the blatant admiration.
“No?” Nathan said quizzically. He laid the blade flat across his other hand and examined it, testing its weight. When he opened his right hand Audrey could see that it was unmarked, with none of the welts it had raised on Duke. “It’s...” He hesitated. “It wants to be here with me,” he finally said. Now he was smiling at the sword, like it was the one that had complimented him. “Let’s go see what it can do.”
The sound that rose then was what a jet engine might sound like if it could scream in rage. It reverberated through the ground and then through Audrey’s chest, rising in pitch and intensity as it came closer. She spun around to face the library and the dragon, which was now streaking towards them far faster than something of that size should be capable of, wreathed in plumes of orange fire. Audrey’s knees did give out this time, and she had to steady herself against the side of the police station.
Duke had a white-knuckled grip on the handrail of the steps, looking paler than Audrey had ever seen him. “Audrey?” he said weakly, some of his usual bravado trying to come through. “I think it’s decided we’re a threat now.”
The sword had a weight to it. Nathan couldn’t feel it in its resistance to his grip or the way his muscles had to work to move it, of course, but he could feel the weight of it as a presence throughout his body and mind. It had decided to let him carry it, and it was going to make sure he knew what a big deal that was. He just hoped he wouldn’t fumble too badly when the time came to use it.
He had also hoped that the time wouldn’t come quite so soon. When the roar started, instinct tightened his grip on the hilt. The dragon was coming for him, he knew with all certainty, to eliminate the sword and whoever was carrying it. It would go through anyone and anything that got in its way without hesitation. And from its current angle of attack, ‘anyone and anything’ included Duke and Audrey, still frozen with fear just a few feet away. The fear had its claws in Nathan, too, but the sword seemed to offer some degree of protection. Or maybe it had tapped into the part of him that had always been ready to defend the two of them with his life and was just preventing anything else from stopping him.
Whatever it was, something pushed him past the initial burst of terror and pushed him forward, even if he did stumble the first few steps as he edged past Duke and Audrey. He had to get away from them, and get everyone else out of harm’s way. Not taking his eyes off the approaching dragon, he flicked on his radio. “Laverne, evacuate the station. Get everyone out the back and as far away from the library as possible.” He turned it off without waiting for a response and turned back to his friends. “Get out of here.”
“Not gonna happen.” Both of them still looked terrified, but they were presenting a unified front, following him as he went back to the parking lot to try and get out into the open. It was really the only response Nathan had expected from them, but he’d still had to try to keep them out of harm’s way. A sharp gesture did at least keep them from following him up onto the truck they’d been watching from earlier. He didn’t need Duke to tell him that dragons needed to be met by formal challenge.
The entire sky went dark as the dragon came closer, its wings beating the air into a hurricane. It dropped to the ground in the parking lot with a thunder that shook the earth and nearly knocked Nathan off his feet, cars crunching under its claws. It stood just a few yards away from Nathan, lowered its head at him, and let out a warning growl.
It was big. That was as specific as Nathan could be about its size; it might have been just a little bit larger than a house or just a little bit smaller than an aircraft carrier. It was definitely too big to fit in the parking lot, despite the fact that it was there. It’s exactly the size it needs to be to fill all available space, Nathan found himself thinking, not sure if it was just his best guess or additional knowledge that the story had dropped in. It was definitely big enough to fill all the available space in his perception. Its cold, bright eyes had him pinned under an intelligent and wary gaze, waiting for him to make his move. It hissed, and a small plume of flame rose from the corner of its mouth.
Nathan wasn’t sure what to do next. He held out his hands, the left one palm out and the right one bringing the sword up across his body. “Easy,” he said warningly, as if he was trying to warn down a wary dog.
The dragon’s head jerked to follow the movement of his hands, serpentine neck folding back with another hiss. It wasn’t watching him, it was watching the sword. And it didn’t want to get any closer to it than it had to.
Encouraged by this, Nathan jumped down from the truck to the ground without looking away from the creature, grateful that he couldn’t feel what that move had probably done to his knees. The dragon twitched back again before pushing forward into an aggressive crouch, making small noises to itself. Then it lunged, uncoiling like a snake and diving for him with an open maw. Someone screamed Nathan’s name in terror as he dove to the side, waving the sword wildly.
The scream was drowned out by a shriek of pain and rage. The dragon’s teeth snapped together with a sound like an iron gate as it pulled back, shaking its head. A trail of dark blood flowed from a gash on its muzzle. Nathan had managed a hit, but judging by the volume of the growl as the dragon dropped back into its attack position the only thing he had managed to do was anger it.
The creature roared again, aiming a tight jet of cherry-red fire at Nathan, too quick for him to dodge. He raised the sword to block it, aware of the futility of the gesture, and discovered that it wasn’t futile at all. The blade split the flames, sending them splashing harmlessly around him and dimming them to a weak yellow. There was a crackling sound that might have been the edges of his clothing scorching, but as far as he could tell the fire had no other effects.
The dragon huffed out a plume of indignant smoke as it pulled back, reassessing its attack strategy once again. It snaked its neck around, spitting a few experimental fireballs at Nathan from different angles, all of which the sword blocked. With a frustrated snarl it lunged for him again with teeth and talons, grabbing for him with a claw large enough to wrap around an oak tree. Nathan swung the sword again, this time opening furrows across the dragon’s knuckles. The next lunge was sloppier, fueled by the creature’s fresh pain and anger, but the dragon returned to caution at the last moment and pulled its head back, the sword whistling through empty air just in front of its nose. Nathan turned the slash into a stab, taking a massive step forward and aiming for the underside of the dragon’s chin while it tried to recover its stance. The sound of heated air surrounding him in a rush like a furnace stopped him, however, and he was able to pull the sword back up just in time to deflect another fireball.
Both of them fell back, watching each other and looking for an opening to make a move and not finding it. Nathan wasn’t sure how long he could stay lucky in blocking the dragon’s fire if he closed in, and the dragon was clearly not willing to let the sword take another bite out of it. The entire world narrowed down to the two of them, the only sounds their breathing and the occasional crunch of metal as the dragon shifted its weight on another car, the only light coming from the orange tongues of fire around the dragon’s snout and their silver reflections in the sword. It was a stalemate, and Nathan couldn’t see how to break it.
Something high and shrill cut into the standoff, a chattering scream that came from somewhere behind Nathan and was coming closer. Something small and grey whizzed by Nathan, using his free arm as a springboard, and launched itself at the dragon’s face. The high scream was drowned out by one much lower and louder, the dragon reacting in blind fury to this new assault. It shook its head, trying to dislodge the grey blur that Nathan now recognized as a squirrel, clawing at the dragon’s eyes and snout and screeching what Nathan was sure were unrepeatable obscenities in its native language.
This was too much for the dragon. It reared back and spread its wings, still shaking its head, Snowfall’s tail waving wildly but his body clinging fast to the dragon’s face. Trying to get away from this new attack, the dragon launched itself into the air, the wind from its wings knocking Nathan off his feet. Their mutual screams of fury faded as the dragon gained altitude and distance, still flying erratically as it tried to escape.
Audrey’s hand on Nathan’s arm brought the rest of the world back. “Are you okay?” she asked breathlessly.
It took him a moment to respond. “Yeah, far as I can tell,” he said. He looked back to the sky. “Was that Duke’s squirrel?”
“He came out of nowhere,” Duke said, not even bothering to argue this time that it wasn’t his squirrel. He shook his head. “Takes care of whatever he thinks he owed me,” he said quietly.
Nathan suppressed the sudden twist of guilt in his stomach. Duke looked like he’d lost a friend, but there wasn’t time to offer his sympathies now. “Come on,” he said, motioning them both towards his truck. “If it’s distracted, it’s not guarding the library.” Opening the driver’s side door, he almost jumped in before remembering the sword in his hand. Strange how natural it seemed. After a moment of uncertainty about what to do with it, he laid it across the dash so he could keep his hands on the wheel, then climbed into the truck.
Audrey climbed in right beside him, but Duke was staring at the sword and looking thoughtful. “Keep the engine running,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He took off at a quick jog towards his own truck, still parked on the street across from the station. Parked illegally, of course, but that had at least kept it out of the dragon’s path. He dug in the back for a moment before coming back with a machete in one hand and an axe in the other. He tossed them into Nathan’s back seat and climbed in after them. “Let’s go.”
Nathan pulled out of the parking lot immediately, but narrowed his eyes at Duke in the rearview mirror. “It’s weird enough that you have one of those in your truck...” he started.
“I’m sure I had a good reason at the time,” Duke returned evenly. “Just be glad I don’t clean it out as often as I should. If we’re going to be trying to push through the briars, I don’t think one little sword is going to do it.” He passed the axe to Audrey in the front seat. She looked as doubtful as Nathan had, but took a firm grip on it anyway.
And Duke did have a point. The story Nathan remembered from his childhood – or that Caroline’s Trouble was telling him he remembered – was absolutely clear that the sword was the necessary thing for getting to the library, but the sword itself didn’t seem confident the briars were going to part around it as easily as the dragon’s fire had. It would be a bad idea to dismiss any potential advantage out of hand. And probably a worse idea to think too hard about how he knew what a sword thought. He nodded. “We can use as much firepower as we’ve got,” he said. “Just be careful. We don’t know how much damage anything other than the sword is going to do.”
There weren’t any other cars on the road, or at least none with drivers. Those who had been able to overcome the dragon’s influence enough to drive away had already done so, and the rest had abandoned their cars to flee on foot. Nathan wove around the empty vehicles as deftly as he could, but a few blocks away from the library the entire road was blocked by a dozen different cars that had apparently run into each other and been abandoned. “Looks like we’re walking,” he said, getting his truck as far off the street as he could and cutting the engine. Audrey and Duke climbed out after him, the three of them handling their weapons with varying levels of comfort. Audrey kept twisting the axe in her grip, trying to work out the best way to carry it. Duke, of course, walked like he wandered down the street carrying a machete every day of his life. Nathan tried to imitate his gait, letting his body balance out the new weight of the sword on his right side, and winced as the blade scraped against the asphalt, gouging it. The sword seemed to growl its disquiet in his head. He eventually settled for holding it across his body, the grip in his right hand and the blade resting loosely on his left. It was inelegant, and left him convinced that he was going to trip and decapitate himself, or at least lose a few fingers, but at least he could walk without tripping over it.
The tangle of briars around the library was even bigger than Nathan remembered it, if he really did remember it at all. The black and green stems with their curved thorns were right up against the line that marked the safe zone now, and the hissing as they writhed filled the air. He took a few steps towards them, raising the sword. The hissing became even louder, and the edge of the tangle began to pulse outward, but nothing tried to grab for him the way it used to when he’d test his luck as a kid. There was an experimental darting motion from one tendril, much like the test charges the dragon had attempted. The briars knew the sword, too, and unlike the dragon they weren’t willing to challenge it head-on.
Nathan wasn’t much more willing to challenge them. He could tell by the briars’ reaction that an attack would have an effect, but where would he even start? The tangle was like a solid wall, the brambles as thick as his arm knotted together in a dense cluster. There was nowhere for him to get the sword in to swing it; everything was blocked off by everything else.
This was suddenly a secondary concern when a now-familiar roaring split the sky again. The dragon had apparently shaken its assailant loose and was coming back for another pass, and it was coming in from behind them. The problem was all too clear to Nathan: Turn the sword away from one, and the other would instantly attack his undefended side and whoever was on it. He risked a look at the dragon, which was already close enough for him to see the blood glistening on its scratched face. It was coming in low, folding its wings to streak down the street between the buildings, and as it came it opened its mouth. The dry furnace rumble of its throat made Nathan’s decision for him. Whatever the briars might do to them, it would still take more time than fire would. Taking a deep breath, he turned and ran between Audrey and Duke, putting himself between them and the dragon, and raised the sword.
Nathan could smell the heat of the air around him as the flames split again, creating a protected wedge that he prayed was wide enough to include Duke and Audrey. The dragon came so close he thought it had decided to ignore the danger of the sword and take a bite out of him anyway, but it pulled up at the last minute in a deafening rush of fire. When the roar of superheated air finally died away, to his great relief Nathan could hear sounds of human movement behind him and smell a reek of acrid smoke. There was clearly some kind of struggle going on, but the other two didn’t sound injured. “You two all right?” he asked without turning around, still trying to track the dragon’s movements in anticipation of a second pass.
“Yeah,” Duke said shortly, the word coming out as more of a grunt of effort. “Little help, here?”
Nathan risked a backwards glance. Directly behind him, the briars were on the attack. Duke’s machete and Audrey’s axe were keeping them away from his unprotected back, but didn’t appear to be doing any real damage, the blades only deflecting the thorns rather than cutting them. To either side, however, the flames that had splashed harmlessly around the sword’s protective wedge had carved smoking corridors about a foot wide into the solid wall of thorns. The burned plants hung limp and unresponsive, making no effort to close these gaps. It was the opening he’d been looking for. “Keep them busy for a minute; I think I can get us in.” Taking a deep breath, he dodged to the side and made a sideways slash into the far edge of the hole to his right.
There was an unnatural shriek as the briars drew back from the blade’s reach, but a few didn’t make it in time. The sword went through them with little resistance, and the cut briars stopped moving as abruptly as the burned ones had. Another few strokes widened the gap enough that a person could squeeze through it. “Come on,” Nathan said, pushing Audrey through the gap and ushering Duke to follow her. Continuing to strike sideways to keep the gap widened, he followed after the two of them into the darkness of the briar thicket.
The tunnel of burned plants was full of choking smoke, making it difficult to navigate. Here and there the end of a briar still smoldered, but nothing was still seriously burning and the damage hadn’t spread any further than the original places that were touched by the dragon’s fire. So much for just burning our way through, Nathan thought, remembering the last time he’d had to force his way through a wall of living plants. Those roots had been easier. They hadn’t fought back.
Not that these were at the moment, either. He had expected the briars to dive for them out of the edges of the tunnel, trying to seal it off again, but nothing moved; the passageway remained clear. “Did that kill them?”
“Enough of them,” Audrey said. She pointed to a spot where the tunnel wall was bulging outward as if something was pounding at it. “The burned ones are packed densely enough that the live ones can’t push past them. It’s like a cauterized wound.”
“And it won’t get better if you pick at it,” Nathan said. “Knock any of the dead ones loose and you leave an opening for the live ones. Everyone stay away from the sides.”
“What happens when we get to the end of the burn?” Duke asked quietly.
“We’ll figure it out when we get there,” Nathan said firmly.
A short distance in, before they reached the end of the burned patch, the briars abruptly thinned from an impassable wall to a dense forest. The thicket was easier to walk through now, and dim light filtered in between the thorns, but without the protective barrier of plants burned by dragon fire or cut by the sword there was nothing blocking the live ones from attacking. Without discussing it, the three of them automatically fanned out into a triangle, with Nathan in front to clear a path and Duke and Audrey behind him to block attacks from the sides. Even though the other weapons couldn’t cut through the briars the way the sword did, they did seem to be causing the plants pain and making them hesitant to attack. The briars still had the advantage of numbers though, and within a few minutes all three of them had collected a variety of scratches and deeper cuts.
An occasional wave of darkness blotted out the dim light, accompanied by the heavy sound of wing beats the dragon still trying to reach them but not willing or able to break through the thorns. These occasional passes seemed to be the only thing breaking up the journey, which was starting to feel to Nathan like it had lasted endless and unchanging hours.
A frustrated roar from the dragon finally broke the eerie silence, followed by Audrey snapping out, “Just how thick is this thing?” her breathing heavy with effort. She was the least injured of the three of them – like every other fairy tale element the briars weren’t attacking her directly – but she had taken her share of hits as they shot past her to attack the other two. “Are we even still going in the right direction?”
“Don’t ask me,” Duke grunted. He was covered in sweat and blood, and his hair was coming loose from its ponytail. When did he tie his hair back? The thought pushed into Nathan’s head as he noticed the return of Duke’s familiar profile for the first time, feeling like something that had been out of place had finally clicked back. It must have been some time around when Nathan woke up in the barn, but then, he reminded himself, he hadn’t exactly been looking at Duke at the time.
“We are,” Nathan said, much to his own surprise. Apparently while he’d been distracted by other matters he’d actually been trying to answer her question.
“How do you know?” Audrey asked, shooting a dubious look at him in between fending off attacks.
“Because the sword knows,” Nathan said, not realizing that it was the truth until he said it.
“Of course it does,” Duke muttered, mostly to himself. Nathan wasn’t sure if the tone was agreeing or exasperated, or Duke’s patented blend of the two.
Audrey slashed at another encroaching briar, conceding with a tilt of her head. “Guess I can’t argue with that.”
Nathan risked another sideways look at Duke, and at his ponytail. The voice in his dream... it had warned him, or maybe just advised him, that there was something he wasn’t looking at properly. Was this a hint at what it had been trying to tell him? What else wasn’t he seeing about Duke?
Consideration turned into brief panic as he caught sight of the briar that was streaking in on Duke’s blind side. With a grunt Nathan caught Duke by the back of his shirt, pulling him close and out of its reach. The thorns that would have gutted Duke instead streaked past him, though not without tearing through his shirt and leaving a long streak of red across his ribs.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Duke grunted, his breath coming in a hiss of pain. He continued leaning against Nathan, trying to get his breath back, and forced his hand away from his side, assessing the wound. “I’m okay. It’s not deep, just ugly.”
Nathan was less certain of that. A dark stain was spreading rapidly from the tear in Duke’s shirt. “You’re bleeding,” Nathan said unnecessarily.
“So are you,” Duke said, suddenly tense as he realized how close he was to the various cuts littering Nathan’s forearms. He jerked away from Nathan, checking his own exposed skin with trepidation. Nathan tensed up himself, waiting for one of the blood spots on Duke’s exposed forearms to disappear and turn his eyes silver. When a long moment passed in which nothing happened, Duke let out a heavy breath of relief. “It’s fine,” he said past Nathan to Audrey, who had been watching this incident with concern but was reluctant to leave her post on Nathan’s other side. “Only blood on me is mine.”
Would any of mine help? The words formed in Nathan’s mind and almost came out of his mouth before he recognized them. The briars had left him with exposed blood to spare, and if a little extra strength might get them through the thicket faster... He shook the thought away. Duke’s weapon still wouldn’t be any match for the briars, no matter how strong he was, and Nathan wasn’t entirely sure he was willing to make that offer just yet anyway. “You sure you’re all right?” he finally asked.
"Yeah," Duke said shortly, straightening up with a wince. He gave Nathan a speculative look, apparently catching something strange in his expression. “Are you?”
Nathan nodded, waving the thought away. “I’m fine.” He tightened his grip on the sword; it was humming to him in a way that sounded like anticipation. “Keep moving. I think we’re almost there.”
Now that he knew the sword was telling him which way to go, it seemed to Nathan that they made faster progress. Before too long, there was a darkness ahead of them that seemed thicker than the briars, which started to resolve into the shape of an enormous clapboard wall. There was a stretch of wall that the briars seemed to be avoiding entirely, a patch with HAVEN PUBLIC LIBRARY painted about eight feet off the ground. The wall was otherwise featureless except the overnight return slot, complete with the little friendly plaque giving the library’s operating hours and the reminders about overdue fines. The door that should have been there was absent, leaving no evidence that it had ever existed. “Well. Now what?” Nathan said, half to himself.
Duke shrugged with one shoulder, the other arm still holding his wounded side. “Open sesame?” he hazarded. When that produced no response, he eyed the sword. “That thing’s gotten us this far. Think it’s the answer this time?”
Nathan didn’t think so, but the sword didn’t seem to object to the idea. Hefting the sword, he pulled back and took a swing at the wall, trying to slice through it the way he had the briars. Rather than the expected heavy thud of metal against wood the impact rang like a church bell, echoing like it was announcing their presence, but not leaving even a scratch on the wall. It also rebounded hard enough that he could hear his teeth clicking together.
Audrey winced in sympathy. “You okay?”
Nathan released the sword and gave his right arm a shake. He didn’t seem to have done any real damage, but he was still glad he couldn’t feel that.
“Looks like you got its attention, at least,” Duke said, nodding towards the building. Streaks of gold light were streaking from beneath the slats of the wall, chasing each other across its surface and racing like flames running down a fuse, twisting and merging until they formed clear words: This door is open to all who hold the keys to the kingdoms within.
The three of them stood in silence for a moment, trying to decipher the riddle, before Audrey’s mouth formed a sudden Oh of understanding. “We’re dealing with a librarian,” she reminded them.
That last piece of the puzzle fell into place for Duke and Nathan at the same time. Nathan reached into his back pocket, pulling out his wallet and flipping it open. “Is this what you’re looking for?” he asked the wall, holding up his library card. Beside him, Duke had done the same thing.
With a crackling sound, the lights burst out from the words and flowed down the wall to outline a door that was far bigger and more ornate than the one the library usually had. It creaked open just a crack, not far enough for Nathan to see inside. “Stay between us,” he warned Audrey. “If the door disappears and leaves you locked out...”
“For once it’s a good thing this Trouble doesn’t recognize me,” she said, half to herself. “I don’t have a library card,” she explained when Nathan gave her a questioning look.
“And you’ve been here how long?” Nathan couldn’t help responding. Beside him, Duke just gave her an incredulous look.
“One crisis at a time, all right?” Audrey said dryly.
Nathan nudged the door wider with his shoulder, keeping the sword raised in one hand and holding his library card up like a shield in the other. He was sure he looked as silly as he felt, but he was taking no chances. As the three of them stepped into the room the door behind them slammed with a very final sound, causing them to turn around just in time to see the lights disappearing into a wall that was, from this side, made of giant stone blocks. Without the lights to outline it, the door was already beginning to fade. Duke, bringing up the rear, gave a shout and grabbed the door handle. It dissolved into a cluster of sparks in his hand, leaving him pushing on a blank wall and swearing expressively. Whatever happened next, nobody was getting out of here until they solved this Trouble.
Nathan looked around the room., trying to take it in. In the library as he remembered it, the entrance was a small room with just enough space for the checkout desk and a few shelves holding new releases and popular books. This was the entrance hall to a castle. Stone walls stretched practically out of sight to a vaulted ceiling, the entire place lit by an ambient glow that resembled firelight more than fluorescent lighting, and the bookshelves were made of heavy wood rather than the usual utilitarian metal. And yet it was still recognizable as the library. The carpeting, however plush it might be now, was the same municipal-looking speckled blue, and the tapestries lining the walls were just woven versions of the usual flyers for local events and posters of celebrities holding books and advocating literacy.
“Caroline Harper?” Audrey called into the vast emptiness. “Haven P.D.; we’re here to help you.”
In the library as it usually was, there was a gap between the lobby’s far walls that opened up into the children’s library. Here it was a doorway, and behind it the edge of a curved stone staircase was barely visible. Little footsteps were pounding down the stairs at speed, followed by someone calling out, “Finally!”
The short, plump woman who appeared in the doorway stopped just long enough to take a good look at them, then threw herself at Nathan with an enthusiastic hug, long hair flying out behind her. “Your friend told me you were coming. I knew the sword would find someone!”
Nathan wheezed briefly at the collision, and put his hand on her shoulder to gently push her away. “Caroline Harper?”
“Yes, and I’ve been trapped in here for days,” she said, pushing past him. Her voice was soft now that she wasn’t shouting, almost a whisper. “But now you’re here, and you’ve got the sword, and we—” She cut off abruptly at the sight of the blank wall where the door had been. “How did you get in? And how do we get out?”
“There was a door,” Nathan said helplessly. “We tried to hold it, but...”
Caroline shook her head, an expression of despair crawling onto her face. “Oh no. This isn’t good. I thought that once someone got through the briars it would all be over.”
So did I, Nathan thought grimly. He gave Duke a look. “Any ideas?” Duke shook his head silently.
“Caroline,” Audrey said gently, and Nathan stepped aside. This was her territory. “I’m Audrey Parker. Do you know who I am?” Caroline shook her head. “I’m here to help people like you,” Audrey continued. “You might not realize it, but you have a Trouble. Everything that’s happening to the library, the briars and the sword and the dragon, are all because of something you’re doing.”
“I know,” Caroline said, looking pained. “I didn’t know I was Troubled before, but I know I’m the one doing all this. I just don’t know how to stop it.”
Audrey blinked, caught off guard by this deviation from the usual pattern. “You know?”
“Of course I do,” Caroline said. “How could I not know?” She was wearing a short cardigan, and now she shrugged it off to reveal the tattoo that wrapped around one upper arm. Broad wings, claws that gave the illusion of clinging to her skin, and a face that was burned – no, not burned, ingrained in Nathan’s mind. “That’s my dragon out there.”
“Well then, call it off!” Nathan said, much sharper than he’d intended. The memory of the terror he’d forced down as he looked the dragon in the eye rose afresh, knotting his throat.
“You think I haven’t tried?” Caroline returned, sounding annoyed and impatient. “I’ve been calling to it every time it passes by, trying to get it to let me out and leave everyone alone. I know it understands, but it’s not listening.”
“You’ve been calling it?” Duke repeated. “How? There aren’t any windows or doors in here.”
“There’s a window in the tower. That’s where I’ve been staying most of the weekend.”
“There’s a tower?”
“There is now.” Caroline sighed. “You’d better come up. I can explain everything I know up there, and maybe together we can figure out how to get out of here.” She paused, and noticed their torn and bloodied clothing for the first time. “And maybe I can get you patched up,” she added.
“I’m fine,” Duke said automatically. It was like a reflex.
“Duke...” Audrey started warningly.
Caroline’s entire demeanor changed. “You’re Duke?” She drew back from them, her voice sounding like her heart had just dropped into her stomach. “Duke Crocker?”
“Okay, just hold on a minute,” Duke said, raising his hands disarmingly. He still has the machete in his hand, a fact that he realized too late. He dropped it to the ground. “This isn’t...” He didn’t seem to know how to finish the sentence.
“I know what this is,” Caroline said. “What he is. Doreen told me all about that family.” The look she gave Audrey was full of anger and hurt. “You said you were here to help me.”
“We are,” Audrey said. “And so is he. Whatever you’ve heard about Duke, he’s not what you think.”
“How do you know?” Caroline demanded. “How can you possibly trust him, knowing what he is?”
“Because what he is matters less than who he is.” Nathan’s quiet words surprised even him. But they were true, however much he might deny them to himself. He looked down thoughtfully, then raised his head and the sword. “This sword chose me, right?” He waited for Caroline’s nod. “It picked someone worthy. A decent person. Someone you can trust.” Nathan wasn’t sure how much of that really applied to him, but as long as the story thought it did... “And it wouldn’t be too pleased if I lied while I was holding it, would it?” When Caroline shook her head, Nathan took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the sword hilt, letting its thorns bite into his hand as they willed. “Duke is a thief and a liar and a pain in my ass,” he said. “But I trust him with my life. And yours.” He switched hands, holding his palm up so Caroline could see it was unmarked. “He won’t hurt you.”
Caroline’s eyes darted back and forth between Nathan and Duke, her mouth set in a fine line. Finally she nodded. “Come on, all of you.”
Nathan didn’t relish the thought of looking at Duke. When he finally did, Duke was staring at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He was silent for a long time, his face unreadable, before he shook his head and turned to follow Caroline up the stairs.
The stairs were made of the same stone as the hall below, and they curved around it in a wide circle. The walls were lined with the same poster/tapestries, and shelves at regular intervals contained what Nathan realized after picking up a few books out of curiosity was the biography section. “It’s not actually that bad in here,” Caroline was saying. She ducked into a doorway that was hidden by one of the tapestries and came out with a first-aid kit. “The lights and the heat are working, there’s running water in the bathrooms, and there’s always food in the break room. It’s just the Internet and the phones that aren’t working.”
“Nothing that will let you contact anyone outside,” Audrey said. “Something wants to keep you isolated in here.”
“And a dragon and an angry hedge weren’t enough?” Duke said quietly.
Caroline glared at him. She was still staying as far away from him as possible, but Nathan’s word that he was harmless seemed to have satisfied her for now. “The dragon should be harmless,” she said. “This tattoo was supposed to be... like a friend. A little guardian I could imagine watching over me when I was alone at college.” She looked embarrassed. “I know how weird it sounds.”
“It doesn’t at all,” Audrey said comfortingly. “It actually makes a lot of sense. Your dragon hasn’t hurt anyone. It’s been watching over you. It didn’t even come after us until Nathan got the sword and we came here.”
“No, that doesn’t make any sense,” Caroline corrected. “You were coming to save me. It shouldn’t have tried to stop you.”
“Unless it thinks this is the only place it could protect you,” Nathan said. “It wants to keep you safe, but it also doesn’t want you to
Caroline’s eyes were wide. “I still don’t understand why it would do that.”
“You’re going to have to tell us everything,” Audrey said. “Starting at the beginning. Starting back at the fire.”
That made Caroline look even paler. “Okay,” she said. Her voice was even softer now, and Nathan could hear a faint hoarseness to it. “When we can sit down. I’ll tell you everything.”
Eventually the staircase opened up into a bright tower room, lit by sunlight. It was the children’s library, transformed in the same way that the rest of the building had been but with its bright colors and inviting shapes untouched. The sunlight, Nathan realized after a moment, was an illusion; though there were windows they were choked by briars. A few of the tapestries had been pulled down and laid out in a corner, evidently providing Caroline with a place to sleep. One of them had been crumpled up into a little nest, and at the moment it was home to a little lump of grey-brown fur.
“Snowfall?” Duke dropped to the floor, putting an uncertain hand on the squirrel’s head. “How did you...?”
“The briars will open up for me a little if I ask,” Caroline said. “Just enough for me to get a little air and try to talk to the dragon. Your squirrel must have gotten shaken off somewhere near the tower, and when I heard him shouting I got the window open and brought him in. I did say that your friend told me you were coming,” she added. “He’s a little singed, but he’ll be all right after he gets some rest.”
There was a tiny cough. The squirrel rolled over and fixed one beady eye on Duke. “We’re even,” he said hoarsely.
Duke’s grin was bright and unreserved. “Yeah, we are. Thanks, little guy.”
“Well, sit down,” Caroline said, gesturing to the floor. “I’d offer you a chair, but...”
Audrey let out a little giggle. The plastic chairs and tables usually found in this area had turned into dark wood and multicolored upholstery, but hadn’t changed their size. The effect was like being in a high-end playhouse. The way the three of them ended up sitting, in a half-circle with Caroline in the center, brought to mind a children’s story hour. The effect was ruined by the smell of disinfectant as Caroline opened the first-aid kit and passed around bandages and antiseptics. Nathan didn’t feel quite comfortable letting go of the sword just yet, and it took him some time before he figured out how to rest it comfortably across his knees while he tended to the scratches on his arms.
“Okay,” Audrey said once they were settled. She had already addressed her own minor injuries and was helping a bare-chested Duke clean and dress the wound across his side. “It’s time to tell us your story.”
Caroline exhaled. “It’s like you said, I guess. It started with the fire. It wasn’t a bad one, just a stray spark in my garage, but there was some spilled paint between me and the door. It caught fire and I was trapped there for a while. Long enough for the smoke to get into my lungs.”
Nathan nodded his understanding at the hoarseness of her voice, which was becoming more pronounced. “And you had to take some time off of work until you could talk again,” he said.
“It’s getting better,” she said. “The doctor says I’m going to make a full recovery. But I’m not there yet. As you can probably tell,” she added somberly. “I can’t speak loudly enough to catch the kids’ attention, or for long enough to do a full shift. And I miss it,” she added, fierceness in her quiet voice. “That’s why I came here on Friday afternoon. I thought I could at least do some after-hours work, paperwork and shelving and prepping for the re-cataloguing, if it ever actually happens. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I didn’t want to leave, and then when I tried... I couldn’t.” She put her head in her hands. “The library has been changing so slowly that I barely notice it while it’s happening, but the missing door and the briars were the first things to spring up. And I knew – don’t ask me how, I just knew – that I couldn’t get out, that someone had to find the sword and come for me.”
“The story took over,” Audrey said, half to herself. Louder she asked, “What’s the part of your job that you miss the most?”
“Telling stories.” Caroline’s response was instant. “It’s what I’m best at, making a story come to life.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Duke said. “Do you know what’s been going on since you’ve been trapped in here?”
Caroline’s brow furrowed. “No, how would I?”
Duke ran a hand over his face. “Your stories have been coming to life,” he said.
“Everything you’ve been bottling up is seeping through the cracks,” Audrey continued. Caroline’s eyes got progressively wider as the three of them gave her a quick summary of some of the events of the past weekend. All three of them, Nathan noticed, glossed over the Sleeping Beauty portion of the story.
“I had no idea,” Caroline said. “I thought it was just the library, I really did. Has anyone been hurt?”
“Not that we know of,” Audrey was quick to reassure her.
“Not physically, anyway,” Duke said so quietly that Nathan didn’t think Caroline heard him.
“So you can see why we’re so eager to fix this,” Nathan said. “Especially since this is the third day.”
“Two midnights gone,” Caroline said. “Obviously I want to fix this, but I still have no idea how.”
“I’m starting to have an idea,” Audrey said. “How did we solve all of the other stories? If you can’t cut them off in the first act, you have to see them through to the end. So we just have to figure out how this story ends.”
“Get the sword, storm the tower, rescue the princess,” Duke said. “We already tried that, and it didn’t work.”
“That’s how it would end if this was a story about us,” Audrey countered. “But this story is about Caroline. If anyone’s going to save her, it has to be her.” She cocked an eyebrow at Caroline. “Why is the dragon keeping you here?”
“I already told you, I don’t know!” Caroline’s voice rose briefly as she twisted her skirts in frustration.
“You do,” Audrey insisted. “It’s your dragon. All it’s doing is what it thinks you want. Why doesn’t it want you to leave the library?”
“Because...” Caroline spoke slowly, staring at the floor and searching her own mind. “Because if I leave, it’s afraid I’ll never come back.”
“Good,” Audrey said encouragingly. “Now we’re getting somewhere. You are going to come back, right?”
“Of course I am,” Caroline said. She touched her throat absently. “I know that. It’s just... hard to remember it sometimes.”
Audrey nodded sympathetically. “I know. But you have to believe it. And you have to make the dragon believe it.”
Caroline closed her eyes. She was still and silent for a long time before she took a deep breath and nodded. “I can do that,” she said, standing up. “Can everyone move away from the window, please?”
It was a struggle for her to open the window even a crack, but when she asked the briars to retreat they did. She poked her head out and watched the sky for a while before catching sight of something and giving a little whistle like she was calling a dog.
The heavy thud of wings came near to them again, and a single eye took up the entire window. The dragon made a querulous sound. “No, I’m not going to ask you to let me out again,” Caroline said. “I want you to come in here. We need to talk.” A skeptical sound. Caroline tilted her eyes up, the look of a parent about to break out the big guns. “Do you want to hear a story?”
There was an excited chirp, and the briars around the window parted as if cut by the sword. “Stay back,” Caroline warned the other three before stepping aside herself.
The dragon was too big to fit inside the tower. It was definitely too big to fit through the window. But it did, flattening its wings to its sides and diving through it to make a heavy landing at Caroline’s feet. Its tail thumped once as it pressed its nose under her hand like a cat seeking affection. “That’s it,” she said gently, stroking its head. The scratches inflicted by sword and squirrel vanished under her touch.
The dragon purred, but as it tilted its head it caught sight of the other people in the room. The purr turned into a growl, and smoke began rising from its mouth. “Stop that,” Caroline scolded, and it ducked its head guiltily. “They’re not going to hurt you, and you’re not going to hurt them. This has all been a misunderstanding. Now settle down.”
The dragon grumbled, but it sank to the floor, curling around Caroline protectively. “That’s better,” she said, taking a seat on its tail. Her voice had grown stronger, louder and clearer than it had been since they’d arrived. “Once upon a time...”
Once upon a time, there was a princess with a magical voice. When she spoke, she could tame stories and create entire worlds. The princess loved the worlds she created, and people came from miles around to hear her. But one day the princess fell under a terrible curse that stole her voice, and the stories she had tamed were set loose into a world that was unprepared for them. When the princess realized the extent of the curse, she made preparations to go on a quest and find a way to lift it.
But no one loved her stories quite so much as her companion the dragon, and when it heard of her plans to leave it was afraid she would never come back. And so it trapped her in a tower, thinking to keep her safe from the dangers of the world. And the princess was safe, but not so the rest of the world. With her stories loose the curse could only worsen. She was trapped, unable to help, until the day a brave hero and his companions came to rescue her. They tried to fight the dragon, neither party understanding that they all just wanted to keep the princess safe, and everyone was injured before the princess was able to bring them to a stalemate.
As it happens, the hero and his companions knew a way to lift the curse from the princess, but they also knew that they would have to take her from her tower in order to do so. This made the dragon afraid again, and angry that its efforts to protect her seemed so unappreciated, but the princess made it a promise: No matter how long it took to lift the curse, or how perilous the journey, she would return to it someday and continue to tell it her stories. She left it a jewel that was part of her heart to seal the promise, and the dragon was content, knowing that she truly would return as long as it held her heart.
Caroline stroked the dragon’s muzzle again. “Do you understand now?” she asked it softly. A plaintive sound. “I know,” she said. “But I promise I’m not leaving forever.” She stood and held her hand out to Nathan. “I don’t think you need that sword anymore,” she said. Silent, he lifted it to her.
She took it by the blade, and Nathan gave a startled cry as blood welled between her fingers. “It’s all right,” she said, concentrating on the sword. She spread her arms to cover its entire length, one hand at the hilt and one at the point, and brought her hands together. The sword glowed and went soft, turning into a ball of malleable light that compressed in her hands until it was a dark jewel on a silver chain. The light faded from it, but a faint red glow welled from deep in its heart. She placed the chain around the dragon’s neck with hands that had already healed as if they had never been cut. “Everything’s going to be all right now.”
The dragon made a sad sound, but it closed its eyes and pressed its head up against her hand again. It began to glow the way the sword had, and then it disappeared into her hand. A ripple ran up her arm, and her dragon tattoo flicked its tail once and then went still again. There was a line of silver ink around its neck that hadn’t been there before.
Several sounds happened at once. The briars hissed and groaned, the building creaked, and there was a crackling sound like the one the door lights had made. When Nathan was able to tear his eyes away from Caroline the room was once again the normal children’s library, briar-free windows looking out on the building next door and the library’s main entrance visible through the open wall that had previously been the staircase.
Duke was eyeing the door with great suspicion. “Is that it?” he asked. “‘The End’?”
Caroline gave him a wry look as she quietly retrieved her cardigan from the floor and bundled the sleeping squirrel in it despite a squeak of protest and a struggle as he woke up. She strode to the door with confidence, hesitating only a moment with her free hand on the door handle before pushing it open. The perfectly ordinary daylight outside, unobstructed by thorns, was the most beautiful thing Nathan had seen in a long while.
Caroline shouldered her way out onto the sidewalk, taking a deep breath of fresh air. As the other three joined her she unfolded her cardigan and set it on the ground. “It’s all right, little one,” she said gently to the disoriented squirrel bundled in it. “Go back to your life.” There was a wordless squeak, and the squirrel disappeared without so much as a backward glance. “You know better than to think anything ever really ends,” she said to Duke. “But this story... well, this is as close to ‘happily ever after’ as we’re going to get.”