As Chris released his grip on the saber, he felt a cold, clammy hand grab onto his, hauling him and Darren out of the pit.
“Good thing I was right about you,” Chris panted. “You really are a hero.”
Darren struggled to his feet and clasped Froggy in a hug. “Yeah. Thanks, man!”
“No problem,” Froggy replied, beaming.
As soon as he let go of Froggy, Darren wrapped his arms around Chris and held him close. Both men were trembling slightly. Darren hooked his chin over Chris’s shoulder and murmured in his ear, “Thank you, too.”
Chris gave him a final squeeze before stepping back and aiming for a casual tone. “Well, that’s what friends are for, right?”
Darren’s eyes seemed to dim a little, but Chris told himself he was just imagining things.
“How did you find us?” he asked Froggy.
“The Cheermaids pointed me in the right direction. I’ve been trying to track you two down all week. The Fairy Godfather wants to see you. He promised to change me back to my original form if I’d bring you to him.”
“Yeah. He’s a good guy, but he can be kind of intense. I don’t want to cross him. You’ll come with me, right?”
Chris hesitated, glancing over at Darren. “Well, we just collected the final item for the Wishing Spell. We were planning on –”
“Of course we’ll come with you!” Darren cut in. “You just saved our lives.”
Chris nodded. “Yeah, it’s the least we can do.”
Froggy’s wide mouth grew even wider as his face broke into a smile.
Suddenly the air was split by a piercing scream. Chris, Darren, and Froggy all turned toward the sound. A familiar buckskin horse galloped into view – it was Rum Chocolate Soufflé, with Kurt Hummelocks on her back. And being dragged along the ground behind them, caught in a rope tied to the horse’s saddle, was a loudly protesting Queen Red Riding Hood.
Although her trademark hooded cape, over myriad cushioning layers of fancy clothing, fully protected Rachel’s body, she was clearly suffering a dreadful injury to her pride. As she bumped along in the dust raised by Rum Chocolate Soufflé’s pounding hooves, she let out another ear-splitting shriek.
“I order you to release me at once! How dare you treat me like this? I’m a queen! Do you have any idea what my soldiers are going to do to you when they catch you?”
“Shut up, you red-hooded harlot!” Kurt snapped, reining Rum Chocolate Soufflé to a halt near the edge of the Thornbush Pit.
Darren glanced between Kurt and Rachel with a mixture of concern and amusement. “Do you need a hand?”
“Nope, just taking out the trash,” Kurt replied nonchalantly.
“Why are you three just standing there?” Rachel cried, struggling to her feet. “Help me!”
“What’s going on?” Froggy asked.
“Can’t you see with those giant, bulging frog eyes? This lunatic is going to kill me!”
“Yes, I am.”
“Wait, why do you want to kill Queen Red Riding Hood?”
“Because I finally found out who set me up, all those years ago, with that phony invitation to a tea party at the Three Bears’ house. It was her!”
“It was a joke! Can’t you take a joke?” Rachel pleaded.
“That was no joke! You wrote that card, telling me to go on in and make myself at home while I waited for my hosts to arrive. I was expecting a trio of cute, friendly, talking animals. Well, imagine my surprise when three burly guys showed up, and they were not interested in sitting down for tea and crumpets! I barely escaped without being mauled. And then they had the nerve to press charges against me for breaking and entering. I’ve been on the run ever since, and it’s all because you wanted to steal my boyfriend!”
As he spoke, Kurt had been pushing Rachel closer and closer to the Thornbush Pit. The vines within were writhing with excitement at the prospect of a meal. Just as she was about to topple into the pit, Rachel dodged to the side and took off at a run. Kurt drew his sai swords before setting off in pursuit.
Rachel headed for the ruins of an ancient castle that had once stood beside the Thornbush Pit. Nothing was left of it but a few crumbling walls and a stony staircase that led into thin air. Twirling his swords with deadly intent, Kurt forced Rachel up the stairs. She lost her footing at the top, and tumbled down toward the pit.
Just as Rachel was about to be swallowed up by the waiting vines, a rope shot out of nowhere and lassoed her. While everyone’s attention had been focused on the drama playing out between Kurt and Rachel, Santana had ridden up on a black horse, and was now galloping away, dragging Rachel behind her.
“Son of a witch!” Kurt exclaimed. “Who was that woman?”
“She’s the Huntsman’s daughter, and I think she’s working for the Evil Queen,” Chris explained.
Before Kurt could respond, Froggy let out a distressed gasp. “Oh, no!”
The Big Bad Wolf Pack was approaching, looking bigger, and badder, and even wolfier than ever. Kurt stepped protectively in front of the others, sai swords held high.
“Well, well, well,” Rick the Stick growled. “We’ve finally caught up with our quarry, and it looks like we’ll get to bring in Kurt Hummelocks as an added bonus. The Evil Queen will be pleased with us tonight.”
Kurt looked around at the encircling pack. One thing he’d learned during his years as an outlaw was to pick his battles, and with dozens of wolves in front of him and the Thornbush Pit at his back, this was clearly not one that he was going to win. Leaning close to Froggy and Rum Chocolate Soufflé, he whispered, “We’ll be safe until they bring us to the Evil Queen. You two go for help.”
With mighty leaps, the horse and the frog soared over the wolves’ heads. A couple of the wolves turned to give chase, but Rick the Stick called them back.
“Let them go. It’s these three that the Evil Queen is interested in. And unfortunately, she’ll only reward us if we bring them to her alive.”
Then, turning to his prisoners, he added menacingly, “But I’ll bet you could survive without a few of your limbs. So come along quietly, or I’ll let my pack have a little snack on our journey.”
Kurt sheathed his swords and adopted a docile posture that Chris didn’t quite find convincing. One of the wolves picked up the sheepskin satchel in his mouth, and the rest of the pack bared their teeth as they herded the captives away from the pit.
Darren reached for Chris’s hand, interlacing their fingers. Surrounded by vicious wolves, who had taken possession of all of the Wishing Spell items, Chris supposed he should be feeling a combination of terror and despair. All of that seemed strangely insignificant, though, as he focused on the feeling of Darren’s hand in his…