They walked out of the Deep Dark Woods into a clearing, ringed by trees which stood apart from the forest. Leaving Granny's house had been hard, but all of them understood that time was of the essence. The Leprechauns had a head start on them for the Pole, and while Eostre could have caught up with them by herself, even she agreed that such a strategy was foolhardy.
"What I still can't fathom is what they hope to accomplish by framing Father Christmas or his elves with the death of Dieter," John said, adjusting the straps of his backpack. He watched as the rest of the group entered the clearing and then swept his arm out in a grand gesture toward the ring of trees. There were twelve in all.
“Welcome to the gateway to the seven holy days,” John said.
On each of the twelve trees was a symbol, carved into the wood. In addition, not one tree was alike. There was a dead tree, its bark black, and its limbs twisted as though it were in agony. A jack-o-lantern was carved into its bark. Another tree was filled with buds of spring, which kept blooming and dropping petals even as they looked, leaving a multicolored carpet at the roots. The symbol carved onto it was a decorated Easter egg.
“That’s my tree,” Eostre said to Lara, who was grinning.
“This is the clearing where Jack Skellington came to…” Lara said.
“Well, his name isn’t Jack or Skellington,” John said. “But he is the Pumpkin King, and it is where the fellow with the messy hair and a penchant for black got the idea.”
"Tim Burton traveled the Tree?" Lara asked, unmasked surprise in her voice."A man with that much magic in his work," Charles said, "has almost always traveled the Tree.”
“Walt Disney?” Sunny asked.
Charles nodded. “Not enough, but he did travel. Enough for the magic to be in the work…but not enough…”
“For…?” Sunny raised her eyebrows.
“Let us not speak ill of the dead,” Charles said, and nodded to John. “You have the floor.”
“I came here many years ago,” John said. “And passed through that door.” He pointed to an evergreen tree, covered in holly and snow.
“What door?” Andrew asked.
“The trees are the door. And each has a different way of entering,” John said, approaching the evergreen. He pulled back a branch and then another, and Andrew could see that miraculously, they were parting, opening to allow John to enter. When he had pulled enough branches aside, he stepped through the opening and beckoned for the rest of them to follow. “This will take us where we need to go!”
“It’s where I got the idea for the Wardrobe, among other things,” Jack said with a wink, stepping past Andrew and into the opening.
One by one, the group walked through the opening. Andrew stood, waiting with Charles until everyone was through. As Charles stepped through the opening, Andrew caught movement out of the corner of his eye.
Stepping into the clearing was a man dressed in blue jeans, sandals, and a hooded knit sweater. He had long dark hair, a beard, and was clearly of Middle Eastern background.
“Shalom,” the man said, smiling at Andrew.
“Hi,” Andrew replied.Two dogs stepped into the clearing from behind the man, a German Shepherd and a mixed breed who reminded Andrew of what he figured Snoopy would look like if he were a real dog.
“Just out for a walk,” the man said. “Taking these ladies further up the Tree.”
“Oh,” Andrew said. “Well, have a nice walk.”
“Already have,” the man replied. “I’d wish you the same, but I’m not sure it will all work out that way.”
The German Shepherd whined, and looked up at the man.
“Nala seems to think she could do you some good on your journey,” he said. “But sadly, those worlds aren’t for her or Patches anymore.” He patted Nala’s head. “Come on ladies.”
The three of them walked to the other side of the clearing and disappeared into the Deep Dark Woods. Andrew watched them go.
“Come on!” Lara called from the opening of the evergreen. “You really need to see this! It’s incredible!”
Andrew jumped at her voice, but quickly gathered himself and passed through the opening in the branches. Once he stepped through, John folded the branches back into place, closing the entrance.
On the other side, the place where John had reset the branches was on the sole Evergreen on top of a high mountain. All around them, for as far as Andrew could see, were mountains. The sky was dark, but a clear winter’s night, filled with sprays of constellations and a full moon, a silver disc hung on a black curtain. Deep powdery snow covered everything in sight.
“Incredible,” Andrew breathed.
“Listen!” Blackout said, and they all turned in the direction of a noise growing steadily louder.
It was the sound of a train, approaching along a set of tracks that ran along the steep mountain, and down into a deep valley.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me this is the Polar Express,” Ripper said derisively to no one in particular.
“Seeing is believing,” Jack said with that mischievous grin. “All aboard!” he shouted as a great black steam engine pulled into view, the beam of its light cutting through the night like a sword.