Jack was dreaming. He knew it was a dream, because he found himself picking his way through thick woods he’d never been in before.
I’m in town, he told himself. In town, in the hospital. In bed. Asleep. The closest thing to woods were two big trees growing between the parking lots and the main hospital wing.
Disbelieving did as much good as Beth said it would. So Jack treaded carefully through the thick trees. He had tried staying still, but the heavy flapping of wings overhead, and increasing numbers of pale, orange-yellow pairs of eyes made short work of that idea.
He’d mixed three parts yellow to one part red for those eyes, when he’d painted the flock of scravens in art class. Only Beth didn’t like the term ‘flock’ and insisted that such vicious scavengers would be grouped into something more sinister sounding, like a ‘murder’ of crows.
She’d also suggested that the birds clack their oversized beaks, creating a deep, castanet-like rattle just before they fell upon their chosen prey. And when the flapping died down, to be replaced by a snapping-clattering, Jack had leapt to his feet, making for safety in the narrower spaces between the trees.
That safety didn’t last for very long. Between uneven footing, low branches, and all sorts of ground-hugging thorny brambles, Jack had to focus all his attention on keeping his footing — which was why he didn’t hear the odd pat-pat-pattering pace matching his own as he struggled. It stopped when he stopped, and panting in the woods echoed his own gasping for breath.
Catryn, he thought. He’d always wondered what the catlike beast’s six-legged gait would sound like. Behind and to his left, he heard more threefold crunching of leaves and twigs.
Don’t panic, he told himself, and tried to remember all he’d read about how to escape from wild predators. Look bigger. Don’t run. Had the catryns read those same books?
No more rustling of leaves underfoot. But still, the steady panting. Catryns were patient hunters.
Scravens, catryns…. Jack wondered what other creatures of his imagination lurked in these woods. Not much longer and he’d run into a pack of….
No, he told himself. Stop. What you say, is. Guard your thoughts, she’d said. He pushed himself away from the tree he’d been leaning against. Fine. If that was a rule, he’d make use of it.
“Beth. I want out of here. I want to go home.”
A chorus of deep, feline growls rumbled from the shadows.
Jack waited. The rustling in the leaves picked up again. At the edge of the shadows, something glimmered, two points of slivery-green light.
“Beth? Can you hear me?”
More leaves, crunching under a six-legged prowl. More pairs of eyes were glowing from the shadows.
Jack edged backwards a step, then another.
A shadow detached itself from the deeper darkness, launched itself towards Jack. He raised his arms, on instinct, and something huge and heavy crashed into his left side, bowling him over.
With the last of the breath rushing from his lungs, he managed to gasp her True Name.
* * * * *
As the fuzziness cleared from his vision, Jack wondered precisely when he’d begun dreaming of angels.
Well, only one angel, ablaze in gold, a shield of blue and red in one hand, a sword of white-hot fire in the other.
The wings, Jack decided, in that moment, were the best part.
He tried to get up, wanted to help. His entire left side felt like hot pins and needles.
“Get up, John Henry Jacobs.”
It spoke with Beth’s voice, but didn’t hold any of its warmth. The eyes, turned on him, were bottomless pools of green.
“W-what are you?”
The beings’ wings twitched, throwing up a cloud of golden motes of light.
“We cannot linger here, John Henry Jacobs.”
“I am an incarnation of the fragment of power left behind to defend you here in a time of need.”
The eyes narrowed, the head cocked a bit to one side, and Jack thought he saw a hint of a smile through the brilliant glow.
“She said you would say something like that. Now rise, John Henry Jacobs. Rise and flee this place.”
Jack scrambled for footing, used one of the trees to make it to his feet. The forest was quiet, save the hissing crackle of the angel’s blade.
He glanced around. Every tree looked the same, every direction like every other.
“Where am I supposed to go?” he asked.
“Know where you wish to go, and there you will be.”
Jack closed his eyes for a moment, thought very hard, focusing.
He opened his eyes. The angel was gone, nothing but a few sparkling bits of golden light lingering where she’d stood. In his hand was the end of a strand of red yarn, stretching off into the darkness of the woods.
* * * * *
Golden light shone in on Jack from the half-opened blinds. At least, Jack thought of it as golden. It just looked reddish, shining through his still-closed eyelids. But it was warm. How long had it been since he’d felt sunlight that was actually warm, rather than some watered-down stuff that had to slog through storm clouds?
He was finally warmed up — while it wasn’t exactly cold, where he’d been dreaming, it wasn’t exactly on the warm side, either.
When he tried to roll over, though, he found a heavy numbness had stolen his left arm, his fingers a distant prickling.
He fumbled for the call button even as he dragged his eyes open.
A warm hand closed over his.
“Jack, do you really think that would be a good idea?”