Gershmann blinked, as though she'd cursed.
"Doctor, I need you to do something for me," she told him. "I need you to get my ex-husband up here. Get some orderlies and wheel him up here, and put his bed right next to Nathan's."
With a grunt, Gershmann leaned back slightly, so that he could stare at her along the bridge of his nose. He ran a hand over his balding pate.
"Mrs. Randall . . . Emily . . . I'm sure you must realize that I can't just move Thomas. He's not even my patient. And hospital policy . . ."
She was in front of him in an instant, toe to toe, staring into his eyes despite the height differential.
"Do you know why my son is still in a coma?"
"You know that we don't."
"What about Thomas?"
Gershmann didn't respond.
"What if I told you that I believe putting them near to one another might help them recover?" she demanded.
"Why would you think that?" the doctor asked, frowning.
"You don't know what's wrong with either of them. You have no way to treat them. I'm giving you something to do. I have health care proxy for my ex-husband, and I am Nathan's mother. I'm telling you to put them in the same room together, and to do it now, or I'll take them home and do it there."
"Is this for them," Dr. Gershmann asked, "or is it for you?"
Emily glared at him. Then she softened. "I just think we need to be together. As a family."
The doctor looked at her a few moments longer. Then he shrugged.
"Let me see what I can arrange," he said and left the room.
When he was gone, Emily sat and sobbed and hugged herself, and at last, she put her arms around her baby boy and kissed him and whispered promises to him that she only prayed she would be able to keep.
* * * * *
It all happened rather quickly then.
Thomas released an arrow which tore the dank air of that chamber on its way toward its target: the Jackal Lantern. But old Jack was too fast. The arrow clattered against the stone wall, and the Lantern lunged toward Thomas.
The Peanut Butter General stood in his way. His sword flashed down, hacking a gash in old Jack's shoulder. The Lantern withdrew, and the General began to back him into a corner.
"You can't do this!" old Jack whined, the light in his pumpkin head flickering uncertainly now.
Feathertop charged Thomas from behind. Nocking another arrow as quickly as he was able, he whirled. The pony with the lime green feathers sprouting from his head looked far from gentle. All the love had gone from him now and instead he bore down on Thomas snorting like a wild stallion. Thomas hesitated.
How many times had he ridden on Feathertop's back?
The pony reared, hooves rising to crack Thomas's skull.
With the sound of trumpets and shattering glass, Fiddlestick flew into Feathertop's face. A burst of flame jetted from the dragon's mouth, but the horse reared back even further and it only singed his cheek.
It was all the time Thomas needed to discard sentiment. He let fly another arrow, and it caught Feathertop in the meat of his shoulder. The pony neighed loudly, furiously, but when he came down, he backed off a few paces.
Fiddlestick screamed, "Our Boy!" and then he dove at Thomas, fire leaking from his nostrils. His orange belly seemed so vulnerable, so bright for such a dark moment.
Thomas froze, wondering if the dragon had turned against him as well. But Fiddlestick flew over his head and Thomas heard the crackling whoosh of fire being expelled from his gut. Once again he turned, withdrawing another arrow from his quiver, nocking it, drawing back the bowstring, all in one swift motion.
Bob Longtooth was on fire, howling with agony and fear. He crumbled to the ground, and it was clear immediately what had happened. The saber-toothed tiger man had been lunging for Thomas from behind, to rip him open, to end his life. Fiddlestick the dragon had burned him alive.
Even now, with flames licking up the huge tusklike teeth that jutted from Bob's bottom jaw, with his fur and skin charring to black, the tiger tried to get his paws to move forward. Thomas stepped back as Bob made one final swipe at him. Then Longtooth was dead.
"Fiddlestick . . ." Thomas began.
But the dragon was flying toward a window.
"I'm going back down to help Brownie!" he cried. "I've done all I can for you."
Thomas's eyes went wide, but he didn't reply. The dragon had saved his life twice in seconds. What else could he ask for?
In a far corner, the Jackal Lantern waited for an opening and then swiped his claws at the Peanut Butter General, who dodged quickly and then brought his sword down again. Neither of them dared get much closer to the other.
Thomas held his bowstring back, despite the pressure, and spun to aim the arrow at Feathertop. But the pony was on the move. Injured though he was, he began to trot toward the door old Jack and Longtooth had come through. The back stairwell of the fortress.
Thomas frowned. He couldn't imagine that Feathertop would flee.
Then he heard a hacking cough and a whimper coming from the stairs beyond that arch. And he heard Grumbler whisper harshly to someone to be quiet.
And he knew.
"Grumbler, you traitorous bastard!" Feathertop shouted as he ran for the door.
"Nathan!" Thomas cried.
He was about to run for the archway when he heard a grunt behind him. A shout of pain, and a ripple of dark laughter. The hellish face of the Jackal Lantern flared brighter, throwing its evil shadows on the walls.
"Boy!" old Jack roared.
Thomas turned, feeling the magnetic pull of his son as the boy was hustled down the stairs and away from him. He was torn. But when he saw the Jackal Lantern standing over the still form of the Peanut Butter General, he could not move.
"Dad?" Thomas asked tentatively.
But his father lay still, his belly laid open. Peanut butter and flesh and muscle torn away, and his viscera pulled out in a tangle of pink and red and brown. Above him, standing on his hind legs, was the Jackal Lantern. There was blood smeared on the mouth of that pumpkin face, and on the monster's paws as well. But there was other blood, as well. The Lantern's own. He was bleeding freely from half a dozen wounds where the General's sword had hacked or sliced or stabbed him. Yet somehow, the Lantern remained steady on his feet. His low, arrogant, insinuating laughter echoed throughout the chamber.
Then he lifted his leg and he pissed on the floor, marking his territory, his urine mixing with the blood of Thomas Randall's father.
Thomas screamed something unintelligible, even to himself. He let fly the arrow that had been, for those odd, endless moments, resting on his bow. It stabbed through one of the Jackal Lantern's eyes, then burst through the back of his pumpkin skull and continued on its path, only to clunk ineffectually against the wall.
The candlelight in old Jack's head flickered slightly, then stabilized. Light now glowed sickeningly from the hole in the back of his head, casting the shadow of the wound on the wall.
"Our Boy," whispered the Lantern. "It was perfect here, before you came that first time. They knew to fear me. And then you came and you took all the fear away. You changed it all and made it your own.
"I'll kill you for that, if nothing else. You won't do as I wish, then you will die. Strangewood may die with you, but better that than to live without the fear of these beasts to sustain me. I was here before you. Perhaps I will still be here when you are gone."
Thomas shook his head. "You're insane. I gave you fear like you'd never imagined before. I gave you the fear of millions of children. To them, you were the worst thing their nightmares could conjure. Don't you know that?"
Old Jack laughed out loud, wincing at his wounds, finally showing some vulnerability.
"You're a fool, Thomas," said the horrible pumpkin mouth. "That isn't fear. You made me nothing but a story, a bit of evil between pages, terror in words alone. A story. There's no true fear in that. Nothing is safer than a story. Even the most terrified child can still close the book and put it down."
Thomas blinked. "You're right," he said, and he reached to draw another arrow from his quiver. "And maybe it's time for this story to end."
Just as Thomas nocked the arrow, the Jackal Lantern came for him. It roared, candlelight flashing grotesquely on the walls, and before he could even draw back the bowstring, old Jack's claws came down on him. He screamed as needles tore his face and chest.
He went down. Growling with fury, maw dripping hot wax instead of saliva, the Jackal Lantern began to savage him. Thomas screamed. The pain was more than his mind could cope with, and he began to shut down. Claws tore his belly and his groin, the muscles of his legs, and raked across his exposed ribcage.
The Jackal Lantern bounded away, some fleshy prize in its jaws. Then it crept back toward him. Whatever bit of self preservation remained in Thomas turned him over and he began to haul his body across the room. He barely realized that he was dragging bits of himself behind and beneath him.
Another few inches, and he collapsed, his cheek resting in a mixture of his father's blood and the Jackal Lantern's piss. He couldn't even smell it. As the dark shadow began to creep across his consciousness, eclipsing his mind, he thought of Nathan. Then his mind moved back to here, back to now, and he thought, it wasn't supposed to be like this.
His hand reached out a final time, and his fingertips touched his dead father's cheek.
The Jackal Lantern growled. The Jackal Lantern laughed.
Then Thomas Randall died.
* * * * *
Emily sat on a wooden chair between the two beds in Nathan's hospital room, half asleep with the afternoon sun streaming in the window. The soft rhythm of the twin monitors that kept track of Thomas and Nathan's heart rates was like a lullaby to her.
Emily's eyes snapped open.
She began to scream.
* * * * *
As Thomas died, a trill of fear ran through the Jackal Lantern's body, and he actually shivered. He glanced around at the walls, at the sunlight coming through the windows. The floor still felt solid beneath his feet.
The Jackal Lantern laughed again.
Thomas Randall was dead. Our Boy. He was gone, and Strangewood had survived. Now old Jack would have Strangewood for himself, and death itself awaited any who stood in his way.
He paused. Grinned. After this battle, there were few creatures left in the wood who would dare stand in his way. Of all of them, perhaps only the dragon. And that damned dwarf, Grumbler, who'd turned traitor and tried to carry the boy, Nathan, to safety. Oh, he'd seen them go down the stairs all right. Just as he'd seen Feathertop give chase.
Good pony. Old Jack thought that he'd have to give Feathertop a position of nobility in his new kingdom.
He walked to a window that looked down on the wide plateau and the Up-River below, his claws scraping stone. At first, he couldn't see them. The only things moving were the trio of surviving Forest Rangers who waited at the entrance to the fortress below.
But Grumbler wouldn't have gone out that way. The trees would have stopped him, not knowing he had again changed sides.
Jack moved to another window, with a slightly more direct view of the riverbank and the fall into nothing in the distance. And there they were. The dwarf with the boy over one shoulder, moving across the flat stone toward the water.
"Grumbler," he snarled. "I'll eat your heart."
Growling, candle flaring in his head, he spun and headed toward the door.
Father and son lay dead only inches from one another. The peanut butter, thick as it was, had begun to slide off of the General's body. Thomas's blood had begun to flow into his father's, to merge, to pool together. Already, their blood had started to cool.
Where Thomas's fingertips touched his father's face, they twitched, marking the peanut butter with the swirling patterns of his fingerprints. A sudden buzzing filled the room and the peanut butter covering the general's chest began to heave and bubble with life.
The peanut butter exploded, and the bees swarmed out. They had been made a part of his body before, helping him to survive. Now they were free, and frenzied. The swarm hung together, the sound of their rage creating a deafening din in the room.
The Jackal Lantern paused just at the top of the steps before descending. He heard the buzzing but ignored it and started down.
The swarm descended upon the corpse of the General, moving and molding and lifting the peanut butter that had kept him alive for so long, that was his shell. For what was beneath was not the body he had been born with. It was a form that had existed only in Strangewood. In his world, he had been dead before he set foot in the wood.
The bees moved swiftly, almost blindingly fast. Impossibly fast. And with their urging, the peanut butter began to move as well. It began to flow, leaping from the General's face to Thomas Randall's fingers. It ran up Thomas's fingers, wrapping itself around his entire body as the seconds ticked by. Only moments after the process had begun, the bees settled themselves into the wounds in Thomas's abdomen, the peanut butter flowed over them.
Thomas opened his eyes. Strings of peanut butter webbed his eyelids together, but he could still see. He opened his mouth, and his tongue flicked out, ripping the spiderwebbed peanut butter away from his lips. He tasted it.
It was life.
Thomas Randall, the Peanut Butter General, climbed to his feet. He glanced about, saw the corpse of his father on the floor, and hung his head for a brief moment, offering a prayer for a man who ought to have passed on to another life decades earlier, if only his son had been willing to let him go.
Light glinted off the steel of his father's sword where it lay on the damp, cold stone several feet away. Thomas held out his hand and the peanut butter whipped tendrils out across the room, twisted around the hilt, and pulled the sword into his hand.
Then he went after his son.
The river was in sight when Grumbler heard Feathertop's hooves thundering across the rocky plateau behind him. He didn't stop to think. He spun, slung the kid down from his shoulder to lay him none too gently on the hard, windswept ground, and pulled the other Colt.
He held one in either hand, Colt Peacemakers, the favored weapons of gunfighters in America's old West. He'd found them eons ago in the Heart of the Wood. Someone had visited. Someone had left them there, along with a belt loaded with bullets. The only bullets he would ever have.