Addressing the kids, Wigman yelled over the clamorous sound of the clanging bell, which continued to ring unabated, even though the alarm had clearly been heeded, “You’re in the land of the Titans, kiddies,” he said. “No one threatens a Titan of Industry on his own ground.”
The rain was falling harder now; the last light of the day was dissipating westward. Prue and Curtis trudged despondently up the hill of junk away from the circus and the noises of its shuttering. Their hair was soaked through from the freezing rain; their clothes clung chilly to their prickly skin. Septimus stood at Curtis’s shoulder, his fur so soaked with rain that he most resembled a used bath towel, wadded up on the floor of a water-wet bathroom. Prue didn’t think she’d ever felt more defeated than she did now. Her heart felt like it had sunk as far back in her rib cage as it could manage, like a cat cowering from a vengeful owner. It seemed to weigh down her every step as she navigated the discarded television sets and box springs of the junk heap.
“I suppose we’ll just head back to the moles,” she said. “Without Esben. They’ll be able to take us to South Wood, where we can try to find this other maker. Right?” It was like pulling a filled bucket from the depths of a well, so great was her effort in finding the will to speak about what lay ahead.
Perhaps, she reasoned, regardless of these apparent missteps, she was on the right path anyway. Perhaps the tree foresaw this hiccup—Esben’s unwillingness, his implacability—and the dominoes would continue to fall in their favor. Kismet, was what her mother had once called such things. A kind of magic symmetry to the world. She wasn’t sure, however, how long they’d be able to string such events together before something eventually went wrong. No, it was best that they just soldier on. Return to South Wood. Rally the people. Something was bound to offer itself.
Curtis remained silent; Prue assumed he hadn’t heard her.
“I mean,” Prue continued, “we’ll have to see if we can just make do with one maker. Maybe one is enough after all; maybe we can be his eyes. What do you think?”
“I’m not going.”
“What?” Prue stopped abruptly.
“I said, I’m not going.” Curtis walked past her, making his way over the garbage-strewn ground. “I’m sorry. I made an oath. I have to go back to the camp.”
“What are you talking about, Curtis? What about the tree?”
Curtis stopped and pivoted, glaring at her. “The tree! The tree! All this talk about the tree!” His voice was quavering with emotion. “I don’t hear plants talk, Prue. For all I know, this is some weird hallucination you’re having. And I’ve humored you this far. Find the makers? Reanimate the heir? What’s all that supposed to even mean? How is that supposed to help anyone?”
Prue could feel tears springing to her eyes. “It is,” she managed. “It is going to help things. I know.”
Septimus had remained silent; he watched the two of them from his perch at Curtis’s collar. The boy spoke again. “I told you, I made a vow. The longer I’m away from that camp, the more I’m going against it.”
“So just like that. You’re leaving me.”
“Well, don’t put it that way. I’ve been with you for a long time now. And all along, all I’ve wanted to do was get this thing taken care of so I could find out what happened to Brendan and everybody. That’s where my, you know, allegiance is.” He paused, as if measuring the impact of his next words. “Prue, maybe you should just go home. Go back to your parents. Maybe this whole thing with Alexei is just over our heads.”
“Me?” Prue asked, taken aback. “I should go back to my parents? You’re setting the standard here, Curtis. What about your parents?”
“I know, but—”
“But nothing,” countered Prue. “I know what I have to do. The boy—the tree—told me. Everything else is unimportant right now. You know what? I haven’t thought about my parents this whole time. For some reason, it’s like my heart isn’t in the Outside anymore. It’s there. There in the Wood.” She pointed angrily at the horizon to the west. “I’m a Woodian, Curtis. North, South, Wild. What I do now, I do for the tree. I’ve been called. Nothing can change that. You’ve got your oath and I have my calling. My life in the Outside is over.”
Curtis stared at her, unsure how to respond. “Fine,” he said, after a beat.
“Fine,” said Prue, battling the swelling emotion in her chest. “You go do your thing. Find your bandits. I’m sorry for whatever harm I caused you and your brothers and sisters. I have to do this.” She turned and continued down the trash heap; the shack that housed the ladder to the underground was not far off.
Curtis remained. “Listen,” he called after her, the defiance in his voice softening, “we’ll reconnect in South Wood. How does that sound? Let me figure out what happened to the bandit camp; I’ll stick around to rebuild if necessary. I’ll send word when I can join you. The moles will help you out, I’m sure.”
“I’ll be fine,” shouted Prue over her shoulder. “It’s not like I needed you around when I was looking for Mac.”
That last bit stung. Curtis watched his friend disappear around a pile of transistor radios. A clutch of rusted springs lay at his feet and he kicked them, angrily.
“Can I speak?” asked Septimus.
“Of course you can,” responded Curtis.
“Don’t be so hard on her,” he said. “She’s a lot more fragile than you think.”
“Maybe so. But she definitely doesn’t let on.”
“Humans are weird that way. Something I’ve always observed.” The rat smoothed back his whiskers, flicking water from the tips of his claws. “So what’s the plan?”
“Back to the camp, find the survivors.”
“In that case, we should get moving. We’ve