Turning away from the big Birch elf, Sammy shot Argenta a foul look before stomping toward the Discharge Desk visible near the mid-point of the hall. Cloak askew, Alba leaned against the outside of the semi-circular structure with his arms dangling over the top platform. The current clerk, a small vole wearing an ancient looking pair of black-rimmed glasses, and a royal blue, arm-band, could be seen huddled on the opposite end of the upper tableau, his whiskers twitching violently in the Reaper’s direction. Moving quickly, Sammy drew close enough to the desk to be able to read the words Go Zingers!, on the clerks armband, before stopping abruptly. His expression changed from angry to stricken. Shooting Alba a tired look, he turned around and walked back. Halting in front of the doctor, he craned his neck upward and struggled to pull his face into a look of penitence.
“I need to go to the Species Lab.” His eyes jerked toward Argenta as the rataphant snorted through his trunk. Swallowing hard, Sammy looked back at the elf’s discouraging expression and added a flat please to his request. He dropped his gaze a minute later as the doctor shook his head.
“A Reaper won’t go anywhere but to the Reapers.” The finality in Alba’s voice was like a dark cloud passing over the sun. “I know you want to get your friend back, but there really is nothing I can do now.” Looking more apologetic than anyone had during Sammy’s entire convalescence, the doctor reached out as if to pat the gnome on the shoulder, then paused, his hand hovering just above the black fabric of the robe. “You put on the cloak,” he said.
A heavy bang sounded from somewhere deep inside the building, and the floor tiles shimmered slightly for just a second, then returned to their normal, bland state. None of the trio seemed to notice.
“What if I took it off?” Sammy said desperately. “Could you send me to the lab, then?”
“You don’t understand. Discharge orders aren’t made by us, they’re made by you, the patients.” Looking resigned, he sighed as the gnome stepped back in surprise and began to sputter.
“How… is… how is that possible? How can I make my own discharge orders?”
“Everyone who steps into the Indigo Beam knows exactly where they’re going, that’s why nobody ever leaves until they’re ready.” Alba gave him a quizzical look. “I really thought you knew that, Sammy. How did you think Tink managed to stay here for two years?”
“I thought he was just too sick to leave, really. I never gave it much thought,” Sammy admitted.
The doctor frowned at Argenta as the rataphant snorted again, much harsher this time. Sammy’s response was immediate. Teeth bared and hands locking into fists, he charged at the nurse.
“Do you have something to say, mister rat-elephant-dangling-man-parts!”
By reflex, the Birch Elf made a grab for him, but the gnome dodged. Looking terrified, Argenta gave a high-pitched bugle and scrabbled backward with his trunk and claws held out defensively. Being on the short end of the hallway, the east wing ended there, leaving the nurse with few options for avoiding the small Reaper’s touch, and all of them ended the same way – with nowhere to go.
“Go ahead,” Sammy growled sarcastically. “Jump.”
The light dimmed around them, as Alba the Reaper streaked on a shadow to Sammy’s side with his hand stretched out to snatch him, his face a mask of determination. At the same instant, the entire hospital erupted with the cacophony of rapid banjo music. All four of them froze as screams and yelling swelled from the opposite end of the hall, and the pounding of many feet could be heard slapping along the floor. Turning to watch the far end of the hall, Sammy squinted his eyes.
Golden hair streaming behind her, Trypette raced around the corner. Arms pumping, she flew past the discharge clerk, who was now hopping frantically up and down, and ran directly at the large Birch Elf. Her dark eyes were as round as plates as she skidded to a halt and gasped for air. Her chest heaved as she tried to speak.
“gasp… in… the… osp… it… al… gasp…” The banjos drowned out her words. Both Albas, Sammy and Argenta all stared at her, their faces identical slates of blankness. Holding back his hair branches, the doctor leaned down, getting as close to her as he could.
“What?” Almost instantly he jerked back upright as Trypette abruptly filled her lungs and screamed into his ear.
The entire group twisted to face the far end of the hall as the stampede of footsteps arrived on the blaring, repeating swell of ‘Dueling Banjos’. The heavy, flapping sounds of large wings could be heard followed by drum-like thumping. Heading northward along the joining hall was a bright, pink dragon. Four feet in length, the beast’s wings smacked against the walls as it struggled to fly. Right on its tail, charcoal cloak snapping in his wake, ran Tink. As they disappeared down the hall, a mob of yelling, shrieking, hospital workers and patients exploded into view.