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The bell-bottom clanged over the stony patch they'd crossed some short time before and approached with a demeanor even darker than Thomas had previously noted. He'd been amiable previously, but in a slightly psychotic way. Now, despite the refreshing bath, he seemed to have sunken into an anger and depression from which he might never recover. It was as though he were seething, burning, a bomb instead of a bell. Ready to explode.

It worried Thomas greatly, even having him along. Tinklebum's behavior from here on out would be impossible to predict.

As he looked over at Brownie and heard the snuffling chuckle that came from deep in the grizzly's belly as he too watched Tinklebum's approach, Thomas became uneasy at the realization that the bear didn't see it. Brownie was his ally, yes. They were comrades-at-arms. And Tinklebum was supposed to be his ally as well. But the horrors he had experienced served to make him more of a liability than anything.

Before they reached the Jackal Lantern's fortress, he would have to determine if it was even safe to have Tinklebum along. And if he could count on Brownie’s allegiance should he try to send the bell-bottom away.

Still, in spite of Tinklebum's tenuous sanity, a certain fellowship had begun to form. Though only a child when he'd first visited the wood, Thomas had always been the decision maker, the only one among them mature enough to give voice to reason. There was a power in that, but he'd always felt something of a loss from being placed in that position. As if something, somehow, had been taken from him.

This was something altogether new. This joint purpose they now shared made all the frivolous years before seem to dissipate. As a writer, Thomas had felt quite alone at various times over the years. It was a solitary profession. But aside from the tenderest moments with Emily, he had never felt a more intimate bond than this.

Despite his doubts about Tinklebum, he knew that for the life of his son and the future of Strangewood, they would stand or fall, live or die, together. It was like a dream. A form of companionship so pure that he would previously have doubted its existence. But here it was.

And, just as this thought was completing itself in his mind, the sand began to shift beneath his toes. He stared down at the surface of the river as it rushed past his bare legs — the rolled up cuffs of his pants had been twice submerged an inch or so, and lay heavily on his skin — but nothing moved under the water.

The sand and soil of the riverbed buckled suddenly, roiling beneath him so that Thomas lost his balance. Over he went, arms flailing as he fell backward, away from the shore and into the deeper water, with just enough time to see the look of pure astonishment on Brownie's face as he splashed into the cold river.

The river closed around him. Thankfully, he'd managed to hold his breath. But the water had made Thomas deaf and the pressure on his eardrums was eerie. He was comfortable, as some people were not, with opening his eyes under water, but he was angry and embarrassed and frustrated by his fall.

As Thomas struggled to get his feet under him, he looked back under the water toward the riverbank. The sun cut the water enough to cause a certain amount of glittering glare beneath the surface, and his fumbling feet had stirred up some of the silt so he could not see much. But he could see that there was something coming up out of the sand. It had thick claws and a hard blue shell.

In a voice that, underwater, could have been an anchor striking stone, Thomas said, "Shit."

With a single thrust, he propelled himself to the surface and found that, on tiptoe, he could put his face out of the water.

"Sand crabs!" he screamed.

He'd forgotten all about the things. From the look on Brownie's face — amusement turning swiftly to alarm — he wondered if the bear had ever even heard of the creatures. Tinklebum was running along the shore toward where Thomas had fallen in — where the sand crab was emerging — and it was decidedly surreal. Thomas's ears were still underwater, so while he could see the bell-bottom waddling quickly along, there was no sound to accompany him. It made the shore seem that much farther away.

A flash of blue beneath the water, and Thomas knew the sand crab was coming for him. Brownie roared and leaped into the water behind the thing, and Thomas turned and dove into the current. As he did, he felt something try to grip his leg and spun in the water to see that another of the sand crabs had come up behind him when he was not paying attention.

That was two.

There would be more.

Brownie ducked his entire upper body into the water, head, shoulders, and arms disappearing into the river. With a splash, he pulled backward, hauling from the water the snapping, hissing crab who had first unbalanced Thomas. Its trio of dark blue claws clicked together with dangerous precision and one of them closed on Brownie's right arm, not far from the shoulder. The bear growled.

Quickly he turned, stomped two large steps to the shore, and tore the sand crab's grip away. He held it over his head and beat it mercilessly against the ground, shell cracking, small eyes popping, claws shattering, until only green and red entrails and shards of blue shell were left.

By then, Thomas had scrabbled up the stony portion of the riverbank, where he saw not a single claw erupting from the ground. The stony portion of the shore must be safe, he guessed. At least from attack from below.

"Tinklebum! Brownie! Here!" he cried loudly, even as the sand crab he'd managed to swim past poked its stalk eyes out of the water along with its two foreclaws and began snapping at him.

Moving closer.

"Brownie!" Thomas shouted again.

But the grizzly had other troubles. The sand just at the edge of the water had begun to churn as though the earth were about to split. Several sets of claws emerged along the shore, and Thomas could see at least two other sand crabs moving up out of the water toward the riverbank. The current didn't seem to be bothering the crabs at all.

Lucky them, Thomas thought. This was what they were made for.

Without another moment's hesitation, Thomas glanced around and found the largest stone he thought he could lift. He gripped it with two hands, hefted it, and under its burden, he stomped along the stony shore to where the sand began.

Tinklebum was going a little berserk. He stood still, screaming at the crabs, his whole body shaking so much that his clapper bonged against his insides loud enough to make Thomas wince in pain. But it kept the crabs at bay for a brief moment. Long enough for Thomas to come up behind the nearest one and drop the rock.

It crushed the crab's shell, pinning it to the sand. But even as Tinklebum saw Thomas and decided it was time to move, the crab reached a quivering claw out to clamp down on the bell-bottom's leg. Whatever Tinklebum was made of, however — porcelain or steel, Thomas didn't have a clue — the claw did no real damage save a minor scratch. Then it fell away as the crab at last died.

The others were moving in.

The river burbled by at what seemed a quickened pace. The clouds were uncaring wisps above as the breeze caressed both innocent and vicious alike. It was a beautiful day to die. But Thomas was determined not to oblige.

"Brownie, come on!" he shouted at the bear, who even now was bleeding from several minor wounds as he used one flailing crab to batter another. "We've got to get out of here or we're fucking dead!"

The grizzly winced, turned his attention from the crabs for a moment, and then tossed two of them aside. With the lumbering stride of a furry freight train, he pounded along the sand toward them. In seconds, he stood at their side, bleeding and sweating, despite the chilly wind. And the crabs moved in from sand and water alike.

"Please try not to be profane," Brownie asked Thomas. "It doesn't become you."

Thomas glanced at the bear as though he were insane, but saw that Brownie was quite serious. "I'm afraid it has become me," he said sadly. "I'm not eight years old anymore."

"I think we're all well aware of that, Thomas," Brownie snapped.

For a moment, Thomas was taken aback by the bear's use of his given name, rather than the seemingly more intimate but in truth more formal name they all called him here. But then he smiled. For wasn't this just another example of the bond he had been contemplating just as they were attacked?

"Our Boy!" Tinklebum shouted. "Pay attention!"

Thomas snapped out of his momentary distraction just as a sand crab attempted to flank him from the east.

"To the wood?" Brownie asked.

"It will cost us time," Thomas hesitated.

As he spoke those words, there was a splash further out on the river. Though he was busy reaching down to heft another large stone, and urging the others to do the same, Thomas glanced out across the river. A flat black figure skimmed along the rolling water. Another broke the surface. And another, and another, and soon there were an even dozen of the broad black things gliding across the river.

"Look!" Tinklebum cried. "Oh, Our Boy, look!"

"Flying mantas," Thomas whispered.

His mind connected instantly to that moment in Philipse Manor, when he'd been sitting alone the Hudson and had seen one of these creatures on the river. He'd doubted his sanity then.

He realized now he'd only doubted it because he had forgotten so much. Lost so much that was vital to everything he was, everything he had. Strangewood was as close to him as his heart and soul, and he'd nearly let it all slip away.

With their long, thin, whiplike stinger tails hanging beneath them, the mantas swept over the crabs and attacked. Though Brownie retreated a ways toward the wood thirty or forty yards distant, Thomas did not move an inch. He knew they were in no danger from the mantas. The flying things had come to the rescue.

Moments later, the sand crabs were all dead or retreating into the river. The flying mantas glided over the sand briefly, then banked and returned to the river, slicing the water as neatly as the hook of a careful fisherman.

Then they were gone.

The three comrades stood alone on the shore, staring at the Up-River flowing by. After a long moment, Thomas turned to Brownie and, without putting voice to his inquiry, began examining the bear's wounds. They would need to be cleaned and dressed, but none of them were terribly serious. He would be all right, if a bit sore.

Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas saw the Bald Mountains looming far ahead in the western sky, and he had a dreadful thought. These would hardly be the worst injuries Brownie would sustain on this journey.

Suddenly, the air was split by the sound of wind chimes and carillon bells, and Thomas froze, a smile spreading slowly over his face. Brownie grunted with pleasure and Tinklebum opened his mouth to shout his happiness at this reunion.

"Our Boy, Our Boy, I knew you'd come!" Fiddlestick cried gleefully, and Thomas felt a surge of love and hope in his heart. Where some of his other friends here might be glad of his presence because they thought he held the key to Strangewood's future, he knew that Fiddlestick had genuinely missed him.

He felt the same. "It's so good to see you, little dragon!" he said loudly, over the music of the dragon's wings, as Fiddlestick's leathery green wings slowed and he settled on Brownie's shoulder, his orange belly a bit larger than Thomas remembered.

"What's this then?" the bear growled, sniffing something on the air. "You haven't come alone, have you, little one?"

There was a moment's pause, and then they all turned to see the figure standing at the edge of the wood, not yet venturing out onto the barren scrub between trees and sand. At last, the figure spoke.

"That's a brave little dragon," said the Peanut Butter General. "I'd likely be dead if not for him."

With great care, he stepped out of the wood and walked with a slight limp down the river bank toward the stony stretch of shore where they were gathered. When he was twenty feet away, he stopped, as if waiting to be invited to join them.

"It's good to see you, Thomas," the General said, with a tenderness in his voice the others had surely never heard before, if one were to judge by the expressions on their faces.

Thomas bit his lip a moment, emotions at war within his breast. Then, voice cracking, he spent all those emotions on two words.

He said, "Hello, Dad."

* * * * *

On Saturday morning, the sun shone brightly through the window of Nathan Randall's hospital room. The flowers that had come from Sentinel Software had a wonderful scent; sweet, but not overpowering. They were a peach color, but Emily couldn't remember what they were called. Something Lorena had picked out, she was sure.

But she didn't really care about flowers. Not right now.

She glanced once at Nathan, who lay unmoving on his hospital bed just as he had for what seemed like forever now, though the time could still be counted in days. Emily was frayed at the edges. It wasn't enough that she had to see her son and his father reduced to such total helplessness; now there was the break-in to deal with and the stalker, if that's what he was.

And what was he? Emily didn't want to think about it, but her mind kept coming back again and again to that face in the darkness. It terrified her, not because of the danger it represented, but because it made her wonder about the state of her own mind, and the things Thomas had said before he . . . before he'd been hospitalized.

Her jaw set and brow creased, she turned back to Dr. Gershmann, who stood leaning against the windowsill, watching her expectantly.

"I'm sorry, Doc," Emily said, her voice quavering, hands fluttering madly. "'I don't know' just doesn't cut it any more. It just isn't good enough. You people are the doctors. You're supposed to know these things."

Gershmann sighed. A bead of sweat appeared on his gleaming pate.

"Mrs. Randall, I'm sorry, there's nothing else I can tell you. As I've told you, we've been in contact with a number of specialists. Aaron Levitz at New England Memorial in Boston was so taken by the case that he's driving down next week on his own time. But so far, we simply have no idea what this brain activity means."

It was so silent in the room, despite the noise from the hall, that Emily realized she could hear her watch ticking. She stared at Dr. Gershmann for nearly a minute, at a loss for some kind of cogent response. Until she realized there was no cogent response. Then she looked down at Nathan, at the tape over his eyelids, at the way he seemed to have shrunk in his days confined to that narrow, comfortless bed. She sat down beside him, wanting to touch him, to stroke his hair and kiss his little fingers the way she had done when he was a baby.