Marley stood watch over Montrose’s prone form. The others came and went, but she stood waiting. There was a sliver of remorse for her words to Barnabus, but truth is found in anger. Hopefully Teddy could find him and assist in the search, but also talk some sense into the bear.
“We should be looking for a way to help Montrose, not trusting that mad bear to succeed!” Ambrose thumped his paw against the wall. Sonny nodded his agreement, though Latricia seemed pensive. She had taken the habit of waiting to see how Marley reacts before settling her mind on a subject. Hamish sat watching them all. He rarely spoke, which was unnerving to see the corgi so subdued.
Marley looked around at the assembled faces before stopping at Ambrose.
“No. As perturbed as I am with him, I cannot deny that Barnabus has a reputation for success. We must give him the time to return.”
Ambrose did not look convinced, but said nothing more.
Marley returned to her thoughts, not voicing the question in her mind: How could Barnabus have freed her years ago but be helpless to do the same for Montrose?
Eventually Hamish returned, walking over to Marley.
“Stratha wants you to visit,” he said.
“Curious,” she replied, “but I am not willing to leave Montrose.”
Laticia stepped up, placing her paw on Marley’s shoulder.
“I’ll stay with him,” she whispered. “If not for him, I would have lost more than an eye.” She sat down on the edge of the bed and took the bear’s paw in her own.
Marley looked at the young bear before nodding at Hamish, leading the way out of the room. The small group made their way down the twisting streets to Stratha’s subterranean lair. The bear led the way inside without bothering with knocking. Stratha looked up in annoyance, but shrank back from the cold, violet eyes boring into her.
“You called on me, witch,” she snarled, “speak quickly.”
Taken aback, Stratha tried to salvage her haughty demeanor. “You have an endangered companion. I have news for you…” she broke off when Marley interrupted.
“You aided those two fools to go somewhere they shouldn’t have stepped foot. You are the reason for Montrose’s condition. This had best be good.”
“I have information regarding Shankill. He has another cabinet being constructed in a young woman’s dreams.” She held out a smooth stone carved into the likeness of a book. Marley accepted the token, closed her eyes, and her lips moved slightly as though she was whispering to herself.
“Very well, witch. I will look into this.” The bear turned on her heel and stormed out into the street, followed closely by her companions.
A hollow chuckle sounded out of the shadows. A marionette shuffled up behind Stratha, stroking her withered cheek with a shaking wooden hand.
“Very good, very good! More fruit for a garden!”
Stratha shuddered under the puppet’s touch.
“Just remember our deal, marionette.”
Hamish, Ambrose, and Sonny followed Marley through the Crossroads. Eventually they arrived at a door decorated in finely carved wood and pastels. She entered without hesitation and the others trooped in behind her. The inside of the door and frame, though, were rotted, green with mold and decay.
Their surroundings were a bucolic neighborhood, the streets lined with lush trees. Behind this were gingerbread houses with more pastels apparent. The bears and corgi walked the streets looking for signs of their destination.
“Well, this looks promising at least. The nightmare has not begun yet,” said Sonny.
Marley looked at him with a grim expression, walking over to a tree. She drew the Queen and swung hard, easily slicing through the trunk. The inside was full of pulpy, rotted wood. The bear said nothing, but continued down the street.
“Marley,” Hamish whispered, “anything could be hidden within this nightmare. We should leave and return with more bears.”
The bear nodded in agreement, but still seemed reluctant to withdraw.
“Hamie, I can’t just walk away. I don’t know why, but I have to continue.”
“That’s Barnabus speaking through you,” Ambrose accused.
Marley rolled her eyes and continued the search. Hamish, also unvocal, stayed by her side.
The small group continued down the street, reaching out with their senses to find some thread to lead them to their quarry. After some time, they began to draw in to a particular house. It was a bland, two-story of suburbia, barely distinguishable from those nearby. Marley hesitated. They were a long way from the door, making escape troublesome.
“This is it,” said Ambrose, “let’s get to this. Hamish looked at the bear, noting its greater than normal aggression. Ambrose led the way into the building.
Marley and Hamish fell in on either side of Sonny to protect the younger bear. He claimed to feel better, but both suspected he was still in pain.
The interior was much like the trees, crumbling and rotted. Cords, draped like webs, covered the space. Sonny made a soft croaking sound as Marley and Hamish raised their swords. There were scuttling sounds coming from the adjacent rooms. Marionettes appeared, creeping along the cords. Ambrose had yet to draw a weapon.
Marley grabbed Sonny and threw him through a gap towards the staircase ahead of them. She and Hamish followed him through and began to race up the stairs dragging the younger bear between them. Suddenly he was tugged out of their grasp. Spinning around, they saw him disappearing out of sight, his screams muffled by the soft, brittle wood of the walls. Marley began to pursue him, but Hamish wrapped his arm around her waist, dragging her up the remaining steps. Before rounding the corner, she saw Ambrose approaching the stairs with a web of cords in his paws, carrying them as a net.
Hamish grabbed the bear by the khimar and continued pulling her along. She gave a pained roar and broke free of his grasp. Hamish was thankful to see she was running alongside him. As they burst into a wider space, there was a cabinet ahead. Without slowing, both swung their swords, shattering the device. Marley growl;ed and ducked into a nearby room, closely followed by the corgi.
They were in a bedroom, decrepit as the rest of the structure. Hamish reached into her pocket and snatched out the token Stratha had given her. He grabbed her by the paw and rushed at a nearby mirror. Both disappeared through the cracked surface as the door behind them burst open.
They landed in a heap in the dimly lit room below street level. Marley leapt to her feet to search for the witch, but froze in horror. Stratha was tightly bound to another cabinet, the flesh sagging on her already sparse frame. Her head lolled forward, there was a slight groaning sound from her. Hamish looked over the bear’s shoulder and shuddered.
“There is nothing we can do for her,” he said softly.
The pair stepped back and quietly slipped through the door. Behind them there was a barely audible voice:
“Run, little stuffed animals. Go find the beast hidden in felt. You need his untamed ferocity.”