They ran up stairway after stairway, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the troll.
"I hope your plan is a good one," Bryce huffed as they climbed. "I don't want to lose that car."
"I don't blame you," Eddie said. "I've got something we can use as a weapon against the troll."
On the seventh landing, they came to a broad hallway with a wide column of sunlight streaming in. The silhouette of the huge statue stood a few dozen feet back out towards the river.
"Okay, we need a room to hide in," Eddie said. "Look around for somewhere with a doorway--a place we can take them by surprise." He opened the pickle jar, extracted the pickles and dropped them on the ground.
"What are you doing?" Bryce asked, his hands on his knees, heaving for breath.
With the last pickle out, Eddie smashed vinegar potato chips in his hand and dropped the crumbs in the jar of pickle water.
"Find a room," Eddie said.
"Man, that's sick," Bryce said.
Bryce ran off to search as Eddie continued to make his pickle juice mush. The odor was horrific. As he worked, a birdlike screech echoed up the stone stairs. Footsteps followed. Cornelius was coming. Eddie dropped the potato chip bag, put the lid on the pickle jar and ran.
He collided with Bryce as he rounded a corner near the statue. The pickle jar slipped out of his hands. In a fluid motion, Bryce dropped the shock baton and caught the jar.
"They're coming." Eddie said.
"What's your plan?"
Eddie pointed at the shock baton, then at the jar. "That for the dog, and that for the troll."
Bryce held up the jar and studied the mush within. "You're kidding me."
"Come on. We've got to get ready."
* * *
Gristle the reptilian dog led the way up the stairs, yipping and keening in his raptor voice. Ganny hung on to his lead, fighting to keep the beast in check and keep her footing. Gristle stopped and sniffed at the pile of pickles and the empty chip bag.
"Looks like they lost their lunch, Boss," Ganny called back.
Cornelius huffed up the stairs, ascending three steps at a time. "Don't get distracted," he ordered. "Keep that dog on their scent."
"Why you think they threw these pickles here?"
"To distract the dog. Keep moving."
Gristle chewed experimentally on one of the pickles. Ganny yanked on his leash, pulling him away. The creature let out a quick yip, then caught the scent of their prey and darted past Ganny, towing her onward.
Cornelius followed. He stopped as they neared the statue. He squinted up at the robed figure cast in marble, the adoring rodent held in one palm. The troll froze.
"What is it, Cornelius?" asked the boy.
Cornelius turned. He hadn't heard the boy follow. The youth showed no sign of being winded, standing calmly, blindfold barely concealing the sickening light that filtered out through the folds of the fabric.
Cornelius turned back to the statue. "It's something scarier even than you."
"It is only stone. It has no power."
"But it gives me the heebie jeebies all the same."
"Boss," Ganny cried from down a corridor. "I found them."
Cornelius glared up at the statue a moment longer. He turned to follow.
The troll strode down the hallway, his eyes darting down each side passage. He found Ganny and Gristle inside a wide chamber, the dog growling and yipping at the taller of the two boys. The thief held the creature back with a cattle prod, jabbing it at Gristle's snout as he advanced. The baton made contact, and the dog fell back on its haunches and yipped with surprise.
Cornelius stood outside the chamber door for a moment. Where was the other one? He pulled his handgun from its holster.
Eddie waited, crouched beside the door frame. The dog had nearly seen him. If Bryce hadn't been standing in the open as bait, the dog would have gotten Eddie first.
Eddie heard a foot shuffle just outside the door. This was it. The troll jumped into the doorway, he swung a gun towards Eddie. Eddie jumped up and launched the contents of the jar at the monster's face.
The troll stepped back in surprise. He dropped the gun and threw his hands to his face. White smoke rose from the creature's skin, and he let out a roar of surprise. He stood there, frozen in pain for a moment. Then he dropped his hands, his eyes burning furiously. Before Eddie could react, he reached out and snatched Eddie by the hair, lifting him off the ground.
"Ow!" Cornelius shouted. "That hurt!"
"What," Bryce said. "That was it?"
This distraction was all the dog needed to dodge past the shock baton and leap onto Bryce's chest. The weapon clattered out of his hands. The girl laughed in triumph. "Get'em, boy."
Cornelius's face bore a red blotch from the burn. He turned to Ganny. "Don't kill him just yet," he ordered.
Eddie struggled to get free, tugging at his hair and whipping his short legs around.
"So, that was your plan?" Cornelius asked. "Vinegar?" He swung Eddie into the wall.
Eddie's shoulder smashed hard against the stone. He collapsed to the floor, panting. "The acidity," he said. "Your skin is alkaline, and I figured..."
"It hurt like hell, lad. I'll give you credit for that." Cornelius scratched at the irritated skin on his neck. "But you should have known you'd only piss me off." He stooped for his gun and waved it at the boy. "Get over there with your friend."
Eddie stood, defeated. He rubbed his shoulder, eyes downcast, and moved back towards Bryce, who still lay back on the floor, the reptilian dog hovering over him, his face held out of reach by Ganny.
"Well, well, well," Cornelius said. "You gave us quite a chase, lads. I like a good hunt. But the best part of the hunt is its ending. That's when I get to hear you scream."
"I can scream really good," Eddie said. "You don't actually have to hurt us."
"Oh, but that wouldn't give me any pleasure at all. You've got to mean it."
"Can I sick Gristle on them now?" Ganny asked. The dog strained at his leash, his slobbering jaws snapping at Bryce and Eddie from inches away.
"Gristle can have what's left over when I'm through with them," Cornelius said. "No, I think we'll give these two special treatment. Let's introduce them to the silent partner of our gang."
The blindfolded boy stepped into the room. "I'm not your partner, Cornelius," he said in his eerie calm. "Just an interested party."
"Whatever you are, it's time you paid your rent and give these boys a lookover."
"As you wish." The boy walked towards his prey.
"This here is Wink," said Cornelius. "At least, that's what I call him. His blindfold is a courtesy to the rest of us. You see, Wink's got a gift for making connections. He'll dig into your souls, jumble up what's in there and draw your worst nightmares out to the surface."
"That's not how it works," Wink said with a sigh, stopping beside Ganny.
"Well, it's close enough. One glance from Wink will leave you pants-crapping insane. You'll gouge your own eyes out to make the bad memories stop. You'll beg for the dog to eat you when Wink is through."
Eddie took a step backwards, bumping into Bryce.
"Let's start with the little one," Cornelius said. "I'd like our thief to get a look at what he's in for."
"As you wish," said Wink. He drew off his blindfold.
Eddie tried to look away, tried to force his eyes shut, but somehow, he couldn't do either. He watched in terror as the boy turned his eyes on him. Wink's eyes blazed with sickly yellow light. Eddie stared, mesmerized.
A helpless horror devoured him. He descended into the harrowing experiences of lost memories. He sank into quicksand. He fell from a mountain cliff. Insects devoured him. No, wild beasts tore him to pieces. It felt as if he'd lived a million lives, and he now experienced all his most grisly deaths. He had experienced them all, every fatal end, and behind it all, there was the screaming, screaming, screaming...
But it wasn't Eddie that screamed. It was the boy with the glowing yellow eyes. He had thrown his hands over his terrible eyes, and now Wink doubled over, screaming.
"What the hell is wrong with you, lad?" demanded Cornelius.
Wink shouted incoherently, his body tense, his head flailing from side to side. He put his hands up to his temples and let out a loud, horrified wail.
The troll watched, his eyes shadowed with uncertainty. He moved to step forward but stopped. "Wink, what is it?"
"It's him. It's the one. It's... "
Eddie watched him, astonished. Wink's invasion into his mind had been bad. So why was Wink the one now bent in terror?
"He killed the future," Wink moaned. "He--he..."
Cornelius glanced from Eddie to Wink, then back again. "Bullshit."
Wink raised a shaking finger of accusation, his eyes shut, turned away from Eddie. "He's cursed! He's cursed! He..." Wink turned and ran. He slammed into Cornelius and bounced back as if he'd hit a stone wall. With barely a pause, Wink continued around the troll, wailing all the way down the hall.
As his screams faded, the rest stood in stone silence. The troll regarded Eddie, who stared back, mystified.
"You are not the Godsbane," Cornelius said, but uncertainty was clear in his voice.
"Boss?" Ganny said.
The Troll said nothing. He held up his left hand, the one he'd used to hold Eddie up by the hair, then wiped it on his jeans as if it were contaminated.
"Boss, what do we do?"
"I should shoot you," Cornelius said to Eddie.
Eddie didn't reply. He had no words for this situation.
The troll aimed his gun at Eddie's forehead, held it there for a moment, then lowered it. "Ganny, let's go."
Ganny tugged at Gristle's leash. The creature resisted a moment longer, its eyes still on Bryce. Ganny yanked hard, and it surrendered, turning reluctantly to follow her out past Cornelius.
The troll paused in the doorway. "You know, this is a piss-poor apocalypse."
Eddie's mouth was dry. "I'm... um... sorry?"
Cornelius nodded and left.
Eddie and Bryce stood frozen. A minute passed.
"What just happened?" Bryce asked.
"I'm not sure."
"Who did they think you are?"
An engine roared outside. Bryce ran to the window. Eddie followed. "They're leaving," Bryce said. "That's all of them, and they're leaving the car behind."
"So, I guess we win."
"I don't see how."
Confused, they both left, walking back down the corridor. At the end, the statue waited, towering over them, the Earth in one hand, a rat in the other.
"So what is this guy's deal?" Bryce asked, nodding to the statue.
Eddie studied the hooded figure carved from marble. A rat? Why a rat?
"No idea," Eddie said.
"What? No comments about the fake history of the rat dude? You have something weird to say about everything."
"I don't know anything about this guy."
He circled the statue to the front and looked up into the shadow of the hood, trying to spot the face. Nothing was there. Eddie's eyes dropped to the base of the statue.
On the marble pedestal, carved in huge letters, he found one word.