The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  Keeping clear somehow of the brambles, the black-cloaked stranger eased through the lingering shadows. What was he up to? Questor Thews didn’t know, but he was convinced he would be better off if he did. He kept thinking that he ought to be doing something, but he really had no idea what.

  Bunion chittered quickly, urgently.

  “No, wait here,” Questor advised. “No swimming the moat until we know what he’s up to. No heroics. We’ve lost enough people as it is.” And he wondered again where Abernathy had gone.

  Kallendbor had come into view now, trailed by his officers and retainers. Most were armored and ready for battle. War horses were being saddled. Weapons were being brought down from the heights in wagons and foot soldiers were lining up to receive them. Questor’s mouth tightened. Apparently Kallendbor was growing tired of the siege already.

  Scarlet light swept over Sterling Silver and its encircling lake and spread across the meadow. It reached the bluff face where the black-cloaked stranger had stepped out of the shadows. It began to climb toward the woods beyond.

  Questor squinted against its glare. The stranger had moved well out into the open and was facing the bluff.

  “What is he up to?” the wizard muttered suspiciously.

  In the next instant the stranger’s arms lifted beneath his concealing cloak, his body went rigid, and lines of fire arced downward into the earth. The wizard started. The stranger was using magic! He exchanged a worried glance with Bunion. There were shouts now from the central part of the meadow, where others had seen the flames. Kallendbor was atop his charger, shouting order at his officers. Men were milling about, not certain what it was they were supposed to do. Lines of soldiers afoot and on horseback were drawing up into formation. Farmers and villagers and their families were caught between fleeing and sticking around to see what would happen.

  Had they possessed sufficient foresight, they would have chosen flight. There was a deep, ominous rumble from within the earth, and the sound of stone grating, as if an enormous door had swung open.

  Uh, oh, Questor Thews thought belatedly.

  The bluff face seemed to rip itself apart, torn like shredded paper, obliterated behind the sundering of the air in front of it. Scarlet dawn light poured into the black hole that was left, filling it with shifting color and smoky shadows. Thunder boomed, shaking the earth and those who stared openmouthed from both the meadow and Sterling Silver’s ramparts. The hiss of monsters mixed with a clash of armor and weapons. Everything rose to a shriek that sounded of things dying in terrible agony.

  Questor went dry-mouthed. Demons! The black-cloaked stranger had summoned demons!

  A fierce wind whipped across the meadow, flattening tents and standards and causing horses to rear in terror and men afoot to drop to their knees. Kallendbor had his broadsword out, holding it forth like a matchstick against a hurricane.

  Demons emerged from the rent, their armor bristling with spikes and jagged edges, all blackened and charred as if burned in the hottest fire. Their bodies smoked as they leapt from the gap onto the meadow floor, steam leaking from their visors and the chinks where their armor was fastened by stays. They were lean and misshapen beings, all bent and twisted like trees on a windswept ridge stripped bare and turned as hard as iron. They rode beasts that had no name and lent themselves to no description, things out of nightmare and horrific fantasy, creatures out of shadowy netherworlds.

  Out from the darkest recesses of Abaddon they came, spreading right and left about the solitary figure of the black-cloaked stranger, sweeping from lake to bluff rise and filling up every inch of ground in between until they covered the far end of the meadow. The dawn’s blood hue settled over them so that they had the look of coals on which a bellows had been turned, the heat etched into the fissures and cracks of their black forms like fire burned into metal.

  Questor Thews felt his heart move into his throat.

  When the black-cloaked stranger turned to face him from across the lake, he knew that real trouble had arrived on his doorstep.

  * * *

  “You ate the bird? You ate him?”

  Abernathy stared in disbelief at Fillip and Sot, who stood crestfallen before him, the satisfied smiles slowly melting from their faces.

  “He deserved it,” Fillip mumbled defensively.

  “Stupid bird,” Sot muttered.

  “But you didn’t have to eat him!” Abernathy shouted, furious now. “Do you know what you’ve done? The bird was the only one who knew how to get us out of here! He was the only one who knew how to open the box! What are we supposed to do without him? We are trapped in this cave and the High Lord is trapped in the box and we cannot do anything about either!”

  The G’home Gnomes looked at each other, wringing their hands pathetically.

  “We forgot,” Fillip whined.

  “Yes, we forgot,” Sot echoed.

  “We didn’t know,” Fillip said.

  “We didn’t think,” Sot said.

  “Anyway, it was his idea,” Fillip said, pointing to Sot.

  “Yes, it was my …” Sot stopped short. “It was not! It was yours!”



  They began shouting at and then pushing each other, and finally they rushed together kicking and biting and fell to the cave floor in a tangle. Abernathy rolled his eyes, moved over to one side, and sat down with the Tangle Box on his lap. Let them fight, he thought. Let them pull out their hair and choke on it, for all he cared. He sat back against the cave wall, pondering fate’s cruel hand. To have come this close and be denied was almost too much to bear. He watched the G’home Gnomes battle across the cave floor and into the shadows. He still couldn’t believe they had eaten the bird. Well, maybe he could. Actually, it made perfect sense, given who he was dealing with. For them, eating the bird was a natural response. He was mostly angry at himself, he guessed, for letting it happen. Not that he could have anticipated it, he supposed. But, still …

  He ruminated on to no discernible purpose for a time, unable to help himself. The minutes slipped by. From back in the dark, the sounds of fighting stopped. Abernathy listened. Maybe they had eaten each other. Poetic justice, if they had.

  But after a moment, they emerged, cut and scraped and disheveled, their heads downcast, their mouths set in a tight line. They sat down across from him wordlessly, staring at nothing. Abernathy stared back.

  “Sorry,” Fillip muttered after a moment.

  “Sorry,” Sot muttered.

  Abernathy nodded. He couldn’t bring himself to tell them that it was all right, because of course it wasn’t, or that he forgave them, because of course he didn’t. So he didn’t say anything.

  After a moment, Fillip said brightly to Sot, “Maybe there are still crystals hidden back in the cave!”

  Sot looked up eagerly. “Yes, maybe there are! Let’s look!”

  And off they went, scurrying away into the darkness. Abernathy sighed and let them go. Maybe it would keep them out of further mischief. More time passed—Abernathy didn’t know how much. He thought about using trial and error to figure out the rune sequence that would open the door, but there were dozens of markings about the door and he had no hope of finding the right combination. Still, what else could he do? He set down the Tangle Box and started to rise.

  Just as he did, the locks on the cave door triggered, and it began to open. Abernathy froze, then flattened himself against the wall to one side. The door swung slowly inward, grating and squealing as it went, letting in a faint twinge of reddish-gray light from the approaching dawn.

  Abernathy caught his breath. What if it was the black-cloaked stranger? He closed his eyes involuntarily.

  “Biggar?” a familiar voice called tentatively.

  Horris Kew’s plow-nosed face shoved into view as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Abernathy stayed perfectly still, unable to believe his good fortune.

  “Biggar?” the other called once more, and came inside
the cave.

  The stone door began to close behind him. Abernathy moved between the door and the conjurer, and said, “Hello, Horris.”

  When Horris turned, Abernathy leapt on him and bore him to the floor. Horris shrieked and tried to break free, struggling mightily. He was all bony arms and legs, and Abernathy couldn’t hold him. Horris squirmed out from under his attacker, dragged himself to his feet, and reached for the door. Desperate to hold him, Abernathy fastened his teeth in the other’s worn supplicant’s robes and braced himself on all fours. Horris tried to pull free, but couldn’t quite manage it. Abernathy growled. The two struggled back and forth in front of the door, neither able to gain an advantage.

  Then Horris Kew caught sight of the Tangle Box, shrieked anew, tore himself free with a mighty rip, and snatched up the box. He was making for the door and safety, kicking out at Abernathy furiously, when Fillip and Sot charged out of the darkness and catapulted into him, knocking him from his feet and flat on his back where he lay gasping for breath.

  Abernathy took back the Tangle Box, started to give it to Fillip, and thought better of the idea. Using his free hand, he hauled Horris Kew back to his feet and shook him so hard he could hear the other’s teeth rattle.

  “You listen to me, you troublesome fraud!” he hissed angrily. “You do exactly as I say or you will regret the day you were born!”

  “Let me go!” Horris Kew pleaded. “None of this is my fault! I didn’t know!”

  “You never know!” Abernathy snapped. “That’s your problem! What are you doing here, anyway?”

  “I came looking for Biggar,” Horris managed, swallowing his fear in great gulps of breath. “Where is he? What have you done with him?”

  Abernathy waited for the other’s breathing to slow a beat, then brought them nose-to-nose. “The Gnomes ate him, Horris,” he said softly. Horris Kew’s eyes went wide. “And if you do not do what I tell you, I am going to let them eat you as well. Do you understand me?”

  Horris nodded at once, unable to speak.

  Abernathy moved back a fraction of an inch. “You can start by opening the cave door and getting us out of here. And do not attempt any tricks. Do not try running. I shall have a good grip on you the entire time.”

  He propelled Horris back to the entrance, Fillip and Sot following close behind, and waited while the terrified conjurer worked the rune sequence and triggered a release of the locks. The door opened ponderously, and conjurer, scribe, and Gnomes stumbled back out into the light.

  Abernathy swung Horris Kew back around to face him. “Despite what you think, this is indeed all your fault, Horris, everything that has happened, so I do not want to hear you say anything else. You have one chance to set things right, and I suggest you take it. I want the High Lord set free. I want High Lord Ben Holiday back in Landover. You put him in the box; now you get him out!”

  Horris Kew swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing, his cheeks and mouth making a sucking noise. He looked like a scarecrow left out in the field long after its usefulness has reached an end. He looked like he might collapse into a pile of straw. “I don’t know if I can do that,” he whispered.

  Abernathy gave him the meanest look he could muster. “You had better hope you can,” he replied softly.

  “But what will they do to me once they’re free? Holiday might understand, but what about the dragon and the witch?”

  “You will have bigger worries if you do not set them free.” Abernathy was in no mood to bargain. “Speak the words of the spell, Horris. Right now.”

  Horris Kew licked his lips, glanced down at the G’home Gnomes, and took a deep breath. “I’ll try.”

  Abernathy, without releasing him, handed over the Tangle Box and moved around behind him. One hand clamped about the conjurer’s skinny neck. “Remember, no tricks.”

  Dawn was a red glare through the shadowy mass of the forest about them as it chased the darkness slowly west. Abernathy did not like the look of it. Bad weather was moving in. He was already thinking about the trip back to Sterling Silver, about the siege, about Kallendbor and the black-cloaked stranger. He gave Horris Kew’s neck a sharp squeeze. Horris began to speak.

  “Rashun, oblight, surena! Larin, kestel, maneta! Ruhn!”

  And the top of the Tangle Box disappeared instantly in a misty swirl of wicked green light.

  Ben Holiday saw the crack appear in the blackness of the wall before him and turned toward it instantly. It glimmered as he raced for it, Nightshade and Strabo a step behind, then broadened as if the entire wall had been split apart. Fairy mist spun wildly, drawn to the brightness as if become a living thing. Ben flung himself into the breach, heedless of the consequences, knowing only that an opening of any kind offered a chance to get free. The light seemed to suck him up, to draw him into a vortex that twisted him about like a feather in a great wind. He was conscious of the witch and the dragon being drawn along with him, all three of them caught up in a whirlwind of motion. The gloom and the mist disappeared below him. The Labyrinth faded away. Above, the light took on a greenish glow, and there were shadows that swayed and rippled—tree branches and leaves, he realized—and sky, still dark with night’s departure, and the smell of earth and moss and old growth, and the coppery taste of something like sulfur, and the sound of voices crying out …

  And then he was spit out into the forest gloom of Landover, come back once more into the world from which he had been taken. He found himself standing less than a dozen feet from Abernathy, Horris Kew, and Fillip and Sot, all of whom stared at him wide-eyed and openmouthed.

  Then Nightshade appeared as well, become herself once more, the power of her magic radiating off her body in small sparks and glimmerings. She flung her arms skyward, a spontaneous gesture, the white streak in her black hair gleaming like frost on coal, the cool edges of her sculpted face lifted toward the red glow of the dawn.

  “Free!” she cried with joy.

  Strabo exploded out of the Tangle Box behind her, returned to his dragon form, scaly black body uncoiling, wings unfolding, rising skyward with a huge burst of fire that rolled from his maw, hammered into the cave door, and then burned upward through the trees. Steaming and glistening, all spikes and edges, the dragon gave a huge, booming cough and rocketed away into the departing night.

  “High Lord!” Abernathy exclaimed in greeting, the relief evident in his voice. He snatched back the Tangle Box from Horris Kew and hurried over. “Are you all right?”

  Ben nodded, looking around, making certain that in fact he was. Fillip and Sot were making small squeaking sounds in his direction while cowering away from the black form of Nightshade. Horris Kew appeared to be looking for a place to hide.

  Ben took a deep breath. “Abernathy, what is going on?”

  The scribe drew himself up. “Well, actually, quite a lot, as it happens …”

  A burst of acclaim from the G’home Gnomes cut him short.

  “Great High Lord!”

  “Mighty High Lord!”

  Fillip and Sot were hugging each other and jumping up and down in glee, apparently convinced that it really was him after all. Ben gave them a tentative smile. What were they doing here?

  Abernathy tried to continue, but Nightshade had spotted Horris Kew and was starting forward in a rush of black robes. “You!” she hissed in undisguised fury.

  Ben stepped quickly between them. “Wait, Nightshade. I want to hear from Abernathy first.”

  “Get out of my way, play-King,” the witch ordered venomously. “We are no longer in the Labyrinth and no longer subject to its rules. I have my magic back, and I can do as I please!”

  But Ben held his ground, reached into his tunic, and brought forth the medallion. “We are both who we were. Do not test your strength against mine. I will hear from my scribe on what has been happening in our absence before I make a decision about Horris Kew.”

  Nightshade stood frozen in place, livid with fury. “Start talking, Abernathy,” Ben advised quietly.

  Abernathy did. He told the High Lord all about the Tangle Box and Horris Kew, the mind’s eye crystals, the black-cloaked stranger, Kallendbor, and the siege of Sterling Silver. Ben listened without comment, his eyes fixed on Nightshade. When Abernathy was finished, Ben stepped back to stand beside Horris Kew. “Well?”

  “My Lord, I have nothing to say in my defense.” The conjurer seemed totally defeated. His tall, skinny frame was hunched over in submission. “The stranger is a fairy being come out of the Tangle Box—my fault, as well—a thing of great magic and evil called the Gorse. It plans revenge of some sort against the people of the fairy mists after it conquers Landover. I am sorry I did anything to help it, believe me.” He paused, swallowing. “I would say in my behalf that I did help set you free.”

  “After you trapped us, of course,” Ben pointed out. He looked at Nightshade. “I’ll have to keep him with me for a time. I may have need of him in dealing with this fairy creature.”

  Nightshade shook her black-maned head. “Give him to me.”

  “He is not the real enemy, Nightshade. He never was. He was used as thoroughly as we were, if not as badly. Put aside your anger. Come with us to Sterling Silver and confront the Gorse. Your magic would be a great help. We worked together in the mists; we can do so again.”

  “I have no interest in your problems!” Nightshade snapped. “Solve them on your own!”

  She stared at Ben challengingly. Ben took a deep breath. “I know that what happened in the mists, what passed between us …”

  “Stop!” she shrieked with such fury that Fillip and Sot scattered into the trees and disappeared. She was white with rage. “Don’t say a word! Don’t say anything! I hate you, play-King! I hate you with every bone in my body! I live only to see you destroyed! What you did to me, what you pretended …!”

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