1.11 — With Great Recklessness Comes Great Leveling-Up

“This is becoming a familiar scenario,” Emnlo grouched. “You, the bed, me tending your wounds..

“Sure, this time you have your pet wooly mammoth to keep your face clean — and, well, I must admit I could hardly ask for more beautiful environs.”

The gnome gestured at the hovering orbs of blue light scattered at random throughout the small stone room currently occupied by Dogbear and himself. Erald lay before him on a raised stone slab, the room’s only irregularity. The orbs ranged in size from microscopic to watermelon. Periodically, a visible orb would teach one of the three and be instantly absorbed by his body. Emnlo had explained that the microscopic ones were constantly being breathed in.

“It’s also nice to stand here, for the second time in my considerable existence, in a locus of healing power. Even if the price of arriving was nearly your existence.

“Not that that would have been such a terrible price to pay. Except, you know, the prophecies. And that Georgie would be upset if you disappeared.”

Erald lay with his eyes closed, focused on the sound of his own breathing. It felt miraculously solid. From time to time, his skin would tingle … simply with the sensation of being skin. Despite the drivel Emnlo was saying, every syllable he spoke seemed to vibrate with a distinct grouchy-old-gnomish nature. The smell of Dogbear (and this was, alas, unavoidable) repeatedly carried Erald’s mind away into lucid memories of his boyhood exploits in the woods in the company of his own two small dogs. Even the stone he felt beneath his back spoke to him. He found himself drawn to considering the unfathomable scale of it: stone stretching from the plinth beneath his back down to the floor of the room, then deep to the roots of the mountain and further for miles until it reached what? Erald wondered if there was magma beneath, as in his home world.

“But you’re here, really here,” said the gnome. “So I suppose this vigil is worth it.” After making sure the lad’s eyes were closed, Emnlo allowed himself to smile.

“Emnlo,” Erald spoke. The gnome started and stared. “I think I’m really back now.” Erald sat up. The sense of increased altitude suggested thoughts of clouds and shooting stars and stars gliding in loftiness.

“Wow. What is this place?”

“I told you. Energies that facilitate healing. You’re breathing them and absorbing them. I’ve finally fixed your cracked pate. Not,” Emnlo muttered, “that it’s done any good for the function of the organ underneath the cracks.”

Erald laughed, full-throated with hilarity.

“I’m so alive,” he said. “Is it because of the healing?”

Emnlo glanced down. “I don’t believe so. I think it’s because you’re back. You had . . well, have you ever seen a page of writing after water splashed it? The letters smear out? Looking at you — trying to think of you — it was like that. After you got us past those infernal mushrooms. You’d become a smear in the air, you weighed hardly nothing, and I found it difficult to focus on you at all.”

“Huh,” said Erald, impressed by the profoundness of mystery — not just this particular one, buy mysterious in general. “What did you do?” His mind fairly throbbed with curiosity.

“I just got myself angry! I told this old gnome, ‘Don’t you dare forget that blighter! He owes you for cracking your door! And now he’s going to get himself annihilated, just to spite you. No no no!’ And, then, ah, well, I’m afraid I started slapping you.”

Erald roared in laughter. Dogbear whuffed.

“Well, yes,” the gnome continued, “it helped me focus on you, and actually I was mad enough that it felt good. And it maaay –” he drawled it out “– or so I thought, force you to continue to feel at least some connection to this reality. Dogbear licked you a lot, and I used up all our chalcedar, too.”

Erald could still feel the lingering scent in the room.

“So I’m healed up and I exist again. Well!” And with this, Erald leaned back and then quickly then quickly performed a sit up which turned into a standing leap from the stone plinth. He flipped in the air once and landed on his feet. “That means it time for more adventure!”

It was also time to be tackled by a dogbear, who wagged his tail furiously all the while.

“Come on, you old gnome. Or is there more to do in this chamber? Anything to explain here?” Erald said distinctly as laughed uproariously and wrestled with Dogbear. (The match-up seemed pretty even.)

“Finally! And yes! It’s, uh, what we’d call ‘kissed by the gods.’ I don’t know why it was. But it’s where I finished my three years of meditation to become a proper healer.”

“No wonder your butt is so hard! You must have sat on that stone seat for three full years!”

“What! That’s your immediate reaction to knowing I spent three whole years meditating!”

“No, seriously, I can tell your bony bottom bothers Dogbear when you ride him.”

“That is not the point of — Aaack!” Emnlo exclaimed, as he reached into his pockets and began to hurl small objects at Erald.

“Thanks for healing my scalp. Maybe if we stay here long enough, the magic will start to do something for your appearance.”

“You shut up!” shouted the gnome, as Dogbear whuffed happily.

“So seriously,” Erald wondered aloud as he scratched Dogbear’s neck (after weathering the rain of projectiles, “the best I can guess is that I and this world were both losing their reality relative to each other. I remember when I first woke up, I thought everything happening in this room — you, George, the orbs — was just a dream. I suppose I had overextended my power. What’s most promising, though, is that now that I’m back, I feel more solid — more, well, sensitively aware of the impact of each detail — than ever before. I think the only sane conclusion to draw is that I function like a Saiyan.”

“You have those in your world, I take it?” asked the gnome.

“Nope, but it’s cool that you know what they are now just cuz I used a word from them. I guess Dogbear does, too, now. And that means that I need to keep using my powers almost to the point of vamoosing myself into nothing, so I keep coming back with more and more power to use.”

Emnlo froze in momentary shock.

“No no NO!” he shouted, leaping on the stone plinth so he could stare down at the insane being he was somehow supposed to mentor. “By earth and sky, no! Is there a crack in your brain? What you did down here means the complete opposite! It means that when you overstrain your, ah, suggestive abilities, you ran the risk of ceasing to exist!

Erald nodded.

“Which isn’t good! The prophecy . . .”

Erald tilted his head.

“Ehhh..” Emnlo deflated. “Look, I can tell you things incrementally, ok? It’s been two weeks since our last real talk about this — yes, you slept a long while. (Actually, lay there looking like a diffuse fog for most of that time, but we’ll call it ‘sleeping.’) Yes, anyway, the point is: the prophecy is a thing of the realm. It has power over things of the realm.”

“Yes, yes, I get it.”

“You do? Just from that?”

“Yup. I’m not from here so it doesn’t hold so even though you’d imagine that destiny would be at work doing whatever it has to do in order to keep me from doing whatever I might do to keep the prophecy from being fulfilled, the truth is that it doesn’t have total control over whatever I do myself since I’m not from here and since not part of this ‘Realm’ and therefore it’s possible that by my own initiative I might actually take actions that make the prophecy fail, e.g., by vaguing myself out of existence.”

“Uhh… yes,” said Emnlo. “Ah. Erald. I think you broke George.”

The dogbear had pressed his nose into the far corner of the room with his paws covering his ears.

“That was, ah, too much syntax for a dogbear brain.”

“Sorry, Dogbear!” Erald ran over and began scratching his pet vigorously. “Who’s a smart giant cuddly-wuddly? Hoosagoodboy? Hooisit?”

Such ministrations, with their simplified vocabulary, did indeed have the effect of comforting his friend. Showing that he was in distress led to backscratches? Dogbear filed this information away for future exploitation.

“So the point is . .” said Emnlo.

“The point is I still have free will, thank you kindly sir, and that there are real dangers and risks; and that therefore, when I get my super powerups from overusing my powers, I’ve gotten there by paying a real cost. This all prolly has something to do with why I can make a difference here in the first place.”

Emnlo sighed. “The last part is right. But seriously,” he continued, “that three-hundred years thing? I’ve waited a long time. Pleeease don’t not-exist yourself.”

“I’ll consider it. Okay, ‘nough talking. Let’s walllk . . . that way.” Erald pointed through a low archway to the only egress from the room. He’d have to crawl on hands noise to fit through. George would have to squeeze.

“Yes. That way. Onwards and upwards.”

“Meraaa!” howled Dobear.

“Thundercats, ho!”

And with that they exited the room.

1.10 — Rekindling

Once upon a time, Erald’s feet had fallen really asleep.

Sleeping body parts are supposed to tingle. His feet hadn’t. They contributed no sensation at all. He could still see them, of course. When he reached down and touched them, he had realized, to his surprise, that they were very cold. The feet didn’t feel cold, not to themselves. They didn’t feel anything. They only felt cold to his fingers. His fingers registered the contact. The feet didn’t. As far as the report of his proprioception was concerned, his body concluded at the ends of his legs. Below that were no feet, no ice blocks, not even a residual phantom strangeness from the fact that the feet that used to be were gone.

Erald had lifted one of those two phenomenologically vacant flabby iceblocks and brought it down upon the other. Ah. If he concentrated when he did that, then there, at the center of where his foot should be, he could catch the tiniest spritz of pain. It was a solipsistic tickle, the least spark of sensation, oddly placed, with nothing else around it.

Erald did not presently remember this. Or anything. But it closely resembled the only thing he was aware of now.

First it twinged a little to the left, and then it twinged a little to the right. Then left. Then right. That was it: a brief and alternating fizzle that seemed to belong to no one. It hardly deserved to be called a pain. It was vacant, surrounded by less than ice. Erald didn’t think about it. He felt it: merely that.

Hi there.

The gnome is slapping you.

But you don’t know that, do you?

You don’t know what ‘you’ are.

Hardly know at all.

We have little time.

The picket around your mind is all but vanished.

Perhaps, then, you will disperse.

The thought seemed sad.

But you haven’t vanished yet. Not quite.

So many who want to load a burden upon you.

Can you bear them?

Listen to my voice here. Stay with me a little longer.

Come and find me.

I, too, have never been named in this world.

No, Erald corrected to himself, it was ‘never been Named in this world.

!

A spark of concept.

You will NOT evaporate.

You are rekindling!

When you return, rest.

In a sudden expansion of consciousness which swept away all preceding thought, Erald realized he had eyelids. They could, theoretically, be opened. They were hot — and heavy as stone.

This was all he considered. The twinges of pain and the impossibility of opening his eyes. The effort was as futile as using Strength against the truck in the American version. He considered giving it up.

But there is a third force more powerful even than pain and futility. And that is warm dog slobber. Erald began to receive this liberally, all over his face.

“Wha – wha – wha – whooo.” His own voice. It disconcertingly echoed in a kaleidoscopic chamber.

“Gack!” he remembered considering imagining himself saying.

Then he was dreaming of Emnlo and George. They leaned over him, with something hard beneath his back. The gnome was chattering, the dogbear prancing and woofing and howling. It was a distant dream. It mattered little and it’s hold on him was tenuous. He viewed it first-person, with disinterest. Sometimes, when his eyes were shut, he felt something cold on his cheek, other than slobber, and he smelled a familiar mint. When his eyes were open, he saw blue light — a great deal of it.

After weeks of this, Erald finally began to feel something real: the deepest sense of heaviness and rest. Like myrrh it ran through his veins, and it seduced him to reality.

He returned and deeply slept.

1.09 — Trampolillipads

“Are .. are you sure that is wise?” asked the squeaky-voiced gnome, as he observed Erald stuffing his face with mushroom.

“Nom, Nom, Nom” came the sophisticated reply.

“I mean, we don’t really know – ”

“Woo – oo – oo.” Erald waved both arms straight out on either side, trying to keep his balance. “Emnlo. Please hand me half that lumar. Uh-uh.” Erald raised the needles high and squinted. “I’m flying by the seat of my pants here – and tired – but I think this should work. You – ” he pointed. “Ride Dogbear. Dogbear, eat a bunch of this mushroom. Then jump to where the light is. Get a good running start before you do. Okay, here I go, and if this kills us, Dogbear, you’re the executor of my will.”

“Erald,” Emnlo began. But Erald shot off in a full-tilt sprint from one end of the mushroom to the other. When he reached the far edge, he pumped his right leg one final time.

Off he glided, into the distance, above the abyss. His graceful arc should have been impossible to achieve for anyone who weighed as much as Erald – and for anything less aerodynamic than a frisbee.

“I get it.”

Emnlo’s ears drooped low as he looked on. He glanced at Dogbear uncertainly.

“I suppose we’re going to have to do this. Eat up.”

Georgie whuffed at Emnlo and nosed some chunks of mushroom.

“Yes, that makes sense. You really are intelligent animal, aren’t you? Twice-named. It makes you wonder.” Emnlo stopped speaking and began to eat. The taste was a blend of cheese and sweetness. It was really quite filling, he thought.

Peering far away in the direction Erald had leapt, Emnlo saw an aura of light, a little higher than he and Dogbear.

“Eat more,” he said. Dogbear stared.

“And of course – ” the gnome sighed “ — I don’t have any special communication powers. Two centuries of education, and I can’t speak Woof.”

“Woof?” asked Dogbear, latching onto the familiar syllable.

“You. This. Eat.” Emnlo pointed and made miming motions.

Throughout all worlds, there is one thing which dogs (and dog-derivative species) have in common: it takes little urging to persuade them to chow down. Somehow Georgie’s natural appetite allowed Emnlo to break through the language barrier, or perhaps he gave up on interpreting the nonsenscial gnome and just did what Erald had instructed.

When they were both finally full, Emnlo approached Dogbear and swung up upon his neck.

“Now. You had better listen and understand.” This time Emnlo was speaking in a coarse whisper. “When you run and you jump, you had better – not – miss — ”

But by this point, Dogbear, who had no idea what Smartass was saying, remembered the rest of Erald’s instructions and took off at a running leap.

“Meeeeraaaaa!” howled the wolfkin.

“aaaaaAAAAAH!” howled its rider in an involuntary duet.

Feeling a sense of levity, as though the both of them weighed a mere ten pounds, gnome and dogbear coursed in a shallow arc forward and upward, leaving behind their brief haven. Shadow swallowed it in their wake. The point of silvery light ahead shone brighter and larger. Only, it was further down than they. Hopefully, they would descend before passing over it. No – no – they were not going to manage. They would overshoot! They were done for.

“Not good!” cried Emnlo, looking down and forward to the approaching shroomtop where Erald stood holding lumar aloft.

For one split second, Erald furrowed his eyebrows in a calculating expression. Then he dashed toward the others, bound upward like a shot and –

The collision among man, gnome and dogbear did not actually hurt. Apparently it was their mass which the shroom meal had reduced, and less mass means less momentum. By crashing into the others while speeding in the opposite direction, Erald succeeded in slowing the three of them down just enough to land on the center of the new mushroom.

The new shroom one was soft like the other, but blue instead of green. It had star-shaped spots.

“That was . . that was actually . . . that was actually rather fun,” said Emnlo with a surprised expression.

“Meeerwoof!”

“Yeah, I know, right?” The last word was almost cut off as Erald yawned.

“Eh?”

Erald stood there blinking. He seemed wobbly on his feet.

“Weird. Are you two – ” he said “ – a little blurry? Agh, my eyesight.”

To the others, Erald looked hazy as well. It was as though he were very far off, or they were seeing him through a fog.

“Tarnation!” cried Emnlo. “Quick, Dogbear, lick him!”

Saying, Emnlo ran over and knocked Erald down.

“Damn you, ‘human,’ I told you pretty plainly. I told you, didn’t I? And now here you are wavering – or maybe we are – what do I even have on hand?” He said anxiously, beginning to pat his strap-on pouches and seek for anything smelly.

Dogbear examined the scene solemnly. He paced over.

“Woof,” said he. “Woof – woof – meeraaaaa!” A high-pitched howl. “Meeraaaaa!” The howl repeated.

With this, Erald’s eyes to turn and focused on Dogbear.

“Right,” he said, firmly squinting. “This . . is bad. Bad. Right? Emnlo? … witchface?”

“What!” Emnlo jerked backward.

“Not a name. A . . what you look like,” he said faintly.

“Well, I — !”

“I’m .. dizzy. Still. This mushroom. Already did it once. From before. Gotta keep. Jumping. Rational.”

“Talk sense, will you! And here!”

The gnome found in his packs a handful of something pungent. It smelled fiercely, like mint. As he waved it beneath the lad’s face, Erald’s nostrils widened.

“Wow. Strong. Whassthat?”

“Chalcedar. An herb. For concentration. You were saying?”

Georgie had meanwhile stopped howling. Now he sat observing, his huge tail thumping rhythmically on the shroom.

“Right. Like, I could eat this new mushroom. It’s a different type than the last. Maybe it would have some good effect? But I was already – ” Erald coughed lightly “ – so tired last time. Dizzy. Weirded out. I was trying to just burn through it. I didn’t think beforehand about what precisely would happen when we ate. Tried to let it be natural. But it seems even that still drained me. So if I try again now, deliberately, on a new mushroom – ”

“Heavens no!” cried Emnlo. “Just lie here a while. Rest up.”

“Uh-uh. No. We do that and we might not ever have a way off this lil island. I don’t – I don’t think this one will ‘lift’ us like the last. So, safest option: we gotta keep jumping. Now. Before it wears off. We can both ride Dogbear. Till we land wherever we need to.”

“Woof!” said Dogbear, gladly. He paced over and nudged Emnlo.

“Yes. I see.” The gnome breathed deeply. After this crisp utterance, he continued, “Strangely enough, it seems I can actually lift you. At least while you’re in this reduced state. Alright. You seated? Wrap your arms here, around the neck. Yes? Now, just don’t let go. I’m holding onto your back. You’re gonna hafta explain to Dogbear – ”

“I think he gets it.”

Georgie sneezed knowledgeably, then paced daintily to the opposite end of the shroomtop.

“Waaait! Wait! Wait!”

Seeing that Dogbear had paused, Emnlo leaped down and dug quickly into the shroomtop. He took a handful of the blue material and another of the white star. (It’s like cream, he thought.) Pocketing these messily, he climbed back onto Dobear’s back.

“Okay. Forward, steed.”

Erald seconded this.

Dogbear sped forward and leapt –

Too late, Emnlo asked,

“Erald. Are you sure he can even see where to leap?”

“Hopefully.” Erald smiled wanly as they went forward and up. Lad slumping loosely, gnome squeezing tightly, they sailed over the vast, glowering pit. By luck or by skill, they had aimed correctly: a yellow circle loomed larger and larger before and beneath them. They landed.

“Wheew!” Emnlo leapt down briefly to scoop up some of the new shroom.

“Again,” said Erald.

They ran and they sailed.

Three times they leapt thus. Three times they landed. On the fourth jump, Erald looked up, pointed and croaked out – “There.”

Dogbear couldn’t see it, but he understood where to go. After bounding up and horizontally, they continued further horizontally, and finally they angled down. Then more sharply down. Then they were not so much angling as falling. Emnlo bit his bottom lip and closed his eyes as he extended his senses to detect any injuries and heal them the moment they happened. Seconds later –

Georgie was trotting happily forward on smooth stone ground, bouncing on his oh-so-light paws. Emnlo realized he hadn’t been breathing.

“We made it,” exhaled the gnome. He climbed forward onto Erald’s shoulder to better see the blurred-out human. “We actually made it! That was quite a ride.”

Erald didn’t respond. Hanging loosely from Georgie’s neck, the boy was quite passed out.

1.08 — Playing It Safe

“Moon’s up.”

Emnlo was right. There it peaked above the horizon, somewhere beyond the endless sea of mangroves drinking dream. The moon was a pure white that beggared Earthworld’s analogue. Seeing it left Erald breathless.

His mentor held out a hand of lumar needles. As the moonlight struck them, they began to gleam silver-white: luminescent and not merely reflective.

“It works for anyone – hnau or beast – that knows the true name of lumar.”

“Wait. Did you just say ‘hnau’?” asked Erald.

“Yes?”

“Strange. It’s a word from a book back home. It means something like ‘person’ or ‘ensouled, thinking being,’ right?”

“Duh! Come on, ‘human,’ I didn’t bring you here to teach you basic vocabulary. Into yon tunnel!’ Emnlo had whittled a stick of appropriate size and pointiness to serve as a long staff or short spear. He used it to gesture.

“Okay, O wise mentor.” Erald leaned over and lifted Emnlo, with one hand, by the back of his jerkin.

“What!” The gnome began kicking.

“Don’t swing that spear too much. You’ll put out the Hopebringer’s eye.”

Erald peered down into the tunnel. “It’s a slide, right?” he asked Dogbear.

“Woof.”

“Ookay. Huff!” With this he tossed Emnlo blithely past the lip of the tunnel.

“I’ll tan your hiiiiiide – ” the voice receded.

“Our turn.”

“Meerwoof.” Erald took this as a form of agreement.

“Can I .. ride you?”

Docilely, Dogbear lowered his head and his shoulders, as if saying, “I have no idea and it’s a bad idea but it does sound fun to try.”

“Forward ho!” Seated on his crimson steed, Erald plunged forward into the darkness.

“We should really have grabbed some of Emnlo’s lumaaar!”

Georgie was sliding on his butt, veering left and right in the darkness as Erald clung tightly to his neck and peered forward into the deep gloom. Unsurprisingly, there was a scarcity of light sources down in this cave. Somehow, straining his eyes, Erald managed to detect darker blots against the background of universal grey and steer Dogbear away from them just in time.

“Doesn’t this hurt your buuuutt!”

Georgie woofed in response. Erald wasn’t sure how to take that, but it didn’t sound complainy.

“Okaaay, we’re still accelerating this is probably not gooo –

“Whoa – whoa – whoooa!”

“Meeeeeraaaaa!” Georgie broke into a howl, as their path first angled upward then dropped away altogether. They found themselves sailing in the air.

“If I die, you can have my Pokemon Red paaack!

“It’s first ediiition!

“In Japaneeese!”

PLOOOOF!

Having sailed and tumbled an improbable amount of time, Erald first made out a brilliant silver light ahead – then smashed into a huge leathery substance softer than a Snorlax.

It did not bounce.

Erald had once watched a scene in an animated movie in which the hero did a canonball into a poolful of jello. The hero sunk and got stuck. Erald was having much the same experience. After crashing through the surface of some rubbery, yielding surface, Erald felt himself, for one long second, piercing yard after yard more deeply through a cold, spongey material which broke apart before him to make way. He came to rest with it surrounding and pressing in on him from every direction.

Erald paused there for a moment. Yikes. Then he did the sensible thing: burrow up and out.

“Splaa!” he exclaimed, inhaling, when he finally reached the surface. There was all lit brilliantly by a handful of lumar spines. He, a gnome and a dogbear were standing in an open cave so large that he could see no walls or ceiling. Apart from the abyss, he saw only the single, expanisve top of a tremendous mushroom into which the three had dived and on which they were now standing. A pit surrounded them past the edge on every side.

“You are not necessarily immortal,” said Emnlo. He was seated there, staring at Erald where he had just emerged. “There are prophecies suggesting you’re probably supposed to accomplish some things before you die, but the wording is — admittedly — vague. Throwing us into holes headfirst is contraindicated.”

Dogbear ran over and tried to lick Erald’s cheek. He allowed this for just a few seconds before pushing the animal away.

“That which is fun, and does not kill you, is worth laughing at you about afterward,” Erald philosophized.

“Yes I thought you might think that.” Emnlo sighed. “We are on a mushroom. A big mushroom.”

“Why didn’t we get banged up and scratched on the way down?”

“Remember the thing with me being a great healer?”

“Yes?”

In response, Emnlo simply sniffed and said, “I am.”

“Oh my gosh. That’s so incredibly awesome,” Erald marveled, with complete sincerity when he got the idea. “That’s really amazing.”

“Thank you. It’s useful,” Emnlo downplayed his skill.

“Even when you were tumbling facefirst into a hole?”

The gnome smiled. “Not teaching you. Not now anyway.”

“Then I won’t teach you how to be orange.”

“Fair trade, fair trade.” The gnome nodded sagely, as his ears lifted up. “My jerkin’s pretty scuffed, though. Let’s figure out what to do next.”

For Erald, the answer was obvious. He reached down and, scooping it up in great handfuls, he began to eat the mushroom.

1.07 — How to Catch a Pushmepullyou (doesn’t work on humans)

It was certainly a very large cavemouth. There it yawned: a dark hole opening vertically into mountain’s surface, broad enough to swallow Erald’s house from Earthworld in a single gulp.

“Omm,” he said, “did you bring spelunking equipment?”

“Sure. Look.” Digging into one of the pouches strapped bandolier-style across his torso, Emnlo pulled out a handful of silvery lumar needles. “They’ll let us see, assuming we wait here and go in at moonrise.”

“Yes, but, ah, rope? spikes? chalk to mark our way?”

“Bah! It’s not as though we’re elves. When we reach the rough spots, we can just . . . shimmy.”

“Shimmy. Great.” Erald rolled his eyes. That would be fun.

“Fine. I’m taking a nap.” With this, Emnlo sat down on his small, boney butt, crossed his arms to rest his chin on them, and slept.

“At least he doesn’t snore loudly.” Deciding to let his mentor have his rest, Erald stood watch meanwhile and tried to get a gauge on the intelligence of Georgie.

“Sit. Roll over. Speak. Scratch the ground. Draw a picture.”

Only on the last command did the dogbear hesitate. Finally, he eyed the gnome for a long moment, turned back to the ground, and scratched out three lines connected as to form a triangle. At its peak, he rubbed one paw to smudge the image.

Erald recognized that it was meant to be Emnlo with his brown nightcap.

“You draw badly! Very badly!” Erald encouraged his pet. “Why, I’ve seen geometry lessons with better art than this. Bad bear! Bad dog!”

Unsure what to make of his master’s retort, Georgir rolled over onto his back with all four legs lolling in the air. He was playing dead, or asking a below rub, or maybe –

PLOP!

“Good dogbear! New skill: Become Pillow learned! Now you just lie here very still.”

Within a few minutes, all three figures were sleeping.

Hours passed, as Erald remembered his blue-painted home, nestled beneath oak trees. He was standing on the stone walk in the front yard. Up there, on the left, through a window, he could see his bedroom. A desk and a computer occupied the place of honor, where so often he had worked or gamed, or chatted with farflung friends, while watching the peaceful natural surroundings out through the pane.

He turned and – at once – the ground was somehow clad in snow, and there was a gnome standing there, wearing a nightcap. “Wake up!” it hissed at him, amusingly. “Wake up, wake up, WAKE UP!”

Erald’s eyes fluttered open. Emnlo’s face was staring down into his from above. Only Dogbear was still snoring. “There are whispers around us,” Emnlo strained out in a soft hiss. He motioned with his eyes and slowly lifted his head. Erald rolled his head leftward to see – nope, just red shaggy fur there. And in the other direction: fur. So, smoothly, he sat up.

Oh.

Surrounding the team and the huge maw in the ground, there stood a circle of shadows. Each was blacker than the night in which they stood, yet each seemed surrounded by wispy white haze. Manlike, the creatures had two legs, two arms and a tall torso. In the face of each were oval eyes, bright and tall, all grey, with no pupils.

Erald leaned backward.

“Georgie Dogbear. Stay still. Breathe slowly. When I count to three, jump up and run with me and the smartass into the cave. OK?”

The dogboar whuffed in agreement. Erald saw that Emnlo, likewise, had bit his lip and nodded.

“One, two –”

It is a fact that dogbears are bad at counting. Upon hearing the word two, Georgie lurched up onto his feet with a force that tossed Erald to the ground. The dogbear grabbed Emnlo in his ample jaw, half-lifting the gnome, and bound once – twice – thrice – until he vanished inside the lip of the cavemouth.

Coughing from the impact, Erald stood slowly. Without turning his neck, he used his eyes to scan the figures.

vessel of changes .. instrument of will .. doer .. dreamer

A multitude of whispers assailed him at once.

The three figures closest to him each raised an arm, invitingly.

join with us .. come to us .. blend our powers .. We

Erald felt a sense of floating, something like the sensation he had experienced on first tasting a germ of nothing in Emnlo’s lodge. His thought processes slowed. So natural it would be to walk forward, take the figures’ hands and let his internal color – that flashing fire, multifariously hued, banked up within his story – merge with that thick shadow.

If Erald had not been a lucid dreamer, he might have yielded and been lost, there and then. But he recognized this sensation, the thoughts slowing down, logic smearing . .

[A light, a light!]

It was the voice of Erald’s thought. Midair, miway between himself and the nearest whisper, a mote of brilliant yellow light hatched suddenly into being. Erald leaped forward and pushed with both arms.

He came to, to the scent of floral licking.

Lick. Lick. Lick lick lick liiiiii –

“Getimoff!”

Having shoved aside the dogbear’s face, he found himself lying on the ground again, peering up into Emnlo’s face. The ferocious joy he read there was enough to make Erald shiver.

“Hopebringer,” the gnome said.

“Eeeeeaah?” Erald scooched backwards on his elbows. Emnlo began spinning around, twirling like a bard before an audience.

“Do you see?” said Emnlo. “Did you see? Come phantoms, come darkness, I dare you all! There is a power now of light that the shadow cannot swallow.

“Ha!” The gnome switched gears. He looked back at Erald. “That . . what you did . . that was more than passable. ‘Good job, you did it.’ Now get you up, orange giant. The cave still waits.”

Feeling surreal, Erald stood. It was night. The forest seemed quiet. There was no hint of ‘whispers’ around him nor of any other threat. T the encounter might never have happened at all . . except that a certain patch of ground nearby was now streaked with a faintly luminiscent silver sheen. It was as though . . Erald began to consider.

“Come come come come.” Emnlo ran forward and began tugging Erald by the front of his pant legs. “Adventure waits for no gnome! Your dogbear is hungry! I’m weary, I’m bored – a thousand reasons why you must hurry right now and come forward and dive headfirst into that hole.”

“But . . ah.” Erald closed his eyes and opened them, in one slow blink. “Okay.”

He smiled down at the spry old gnome.

“Mentor.”

“Yes? Yes? What is it? And shouldn’t you be hurrying that way?”

“I get it. No touch the silver sheeny. And I think I get why.”

“If you get why, then stop thinking about it.” Then Emnlo actually kicked him, fiercely, in the shin.

“Aww! You kick like my kid nephew! He’s three years old!”

“And a budding sportsman, I’ll wager. Now get your flaming bright meatsack down into the hole.”

“Yes, Mentor.”

“Woof.”

All three having had their say, the party walked forward to the mouth of the cave. They had all had a good rest, but for some reason, Erald felt dazed.

1.06 — The Heroes Get Eaten (except not)

“I’m good at hiding,” said Emnlo from his perch on Erald’s orange shoulders. “I hide, you fight off whatever tries to eat us. And careful about your head.”

Erald held a small steel knife in his right hand. Emnlo maintained tools for woodworking, but otherwise possessed little in the way of armament. This knife was his prized possession, so far as cutlery was concerned. Apparently when one is hiding for one’s life far from civilization, economic forces conspire to produce a dearth of nearby blacksmiths. No wonder the gnome made his furniture and eatingware from local wood and stone, by his own hand.

The small lodge that housed the gnome blended neatly into the forest surroundings. Erald wondered how he had managed to avoid all the low-hanging limbs of the trees on his way up, and yet had somehow run smack into Emnlo’s door? The thought reminded him that his head hurt. He was being careful not to eat another germ of nothing until he really needed it (addiction was a thing), but with that responsible decision came a steady cost.

“These trees – are they evergreens?”

“Yes, mostly,” said the gnome. “Pines, cedar, lumar. I use those for the lights.” Emnlo pointed to a thin, tall tree whose needles hung at least forty feet above them. “They glow when the moon’s out.”

“You can shimmy?”

“No! I use rope, pulley, harness to collect them.”

“Gnomes,” said Erald.

“Yes. Gnomes.”

Companionably, the two talked like this about almost nothing as they continued through the woods. There were a hundred questions regarding culture, history, magic, gods, technology and so on which Erald would have liked to ask Emnlo. However, for one thing, Erald could feel that he was nearing a point of traumatic worldview-shift information overload from all the changes that he’d recently experienced. He suppressed his brain’s strained buzzing and tried to relieve it with a fizzing sense of humor, but he was reaching his limits nevertheless. Given this condition, it was nice, even needed, for Erald to be gentle with his mind by talking now about small things, minutia. The forest reminded him of his boyhood, soothingly. The principle difference was that here was a wood in which he really was on a fantastical adventure, instead of a wood in which he was merely pretending.

For another thing, Emnlo the ‘Mentor’ proved unwilling to answer many of the questions Erald did ask. “Figure it out yourself!” he began to respond testily, in response to Erald’s artful prying. “Seriously, we already went over the fact that I can’t just tell you everything. Did that go in of one and out the other of your improbably tiny ears? Was the knowledge stolen from you by ‘foxes’? Come on, you are smarter than that. Surely. For the sake of gnomekind, I do hope.”

So instead they talked about wildlife and facts of daily life and stories from Earthworld.

“Master.”

Master? Why are you calling me that?”

“Well.. you said you were my mentor, and I’ve always wanted to have a wise, mysterious, erudite master and there’s that thing where your ears go up and this is a little like Dagobah.”

“Hmf! Well, it is a compliment, but no. I’d rather be called Emnlo, or Mentor – to be called what I am.”

“Mentor, then. How likely is it that we’ll encounter danger before we reach the entrance?”

“Very likely,” Emnlo said, sighing.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you thought it, yes? And your thoughts shape what happens?”

“In that case, perhaps you should be watching behind us.”

“I am. Listening.” Emnlo’s left ear rose up and out to illustrate. “We’re fine now, but something’s been tracking us.”

“What!?”

“Probably a wolf.”

“Ah! Oh my gosh. Okay. And I have … a tiny knife and a smartass gnome.”

“I’ll be hiding. Better just count on the knife. At least there’s only one wolf.”

“Seriously!”

“Tell you what: walk up to this tree. Good. I’m jumping off here.” Emnlo leapt sprily from Erald’s back, caught himself on the trunk, and began to shimmy.

“You said you couldn’t shimmy!”

Emnlo glanced back. “Really, you’ll be fine. I’m certain. But you seem to think this world has danger, right? Then you’ll have to face some.”

“I don’t want to end up scarred and exhausted and be a hero who’s constantly torn to the point of emotionally breaking! I mean . . I get that there is danger, and I will if I have to, but ..”

“Look out. The wolf stopped pacing. Which mean it’s probably close. Creeping slowly now. I’d ready my knife, if I were you. Or else start climbing.”

Erald calmed and cleared his mind. He reached into a place where logic danced with intuition so he could make split-second decisions, not double-checked. He pressed his back against the tree and began watching for any twitch in the surrounding undergrowth.

His knife gleamed coldly.

“There,” he whispered, as he saw a branch of shake.

“Meeeraaa?”

“Not a wolf!” Erald said loudly. As the creature paced towards him, unhurried, head lowered, Erald got a clear view.

The thing was bright red. Covered in the shaggiest fur. It’s body was built like a dog’s except broader, bear-like. It’s hair hung so thick on its face that Erald couldn’t see through all the fuzz into the creature’s eyes, which were only on a level with his thighs.

The creature advanced to within three feet of Erald. Erald gripped his knife and prepared to spring.

“Woof?” said the creature.

“Woof,” repeated Erald in surprise.

“Meeerwoof!” the animal sat down on its back haunches and began panting. Its huge, tubular tail was thumping the ground.

“Are you some kind of . . .”

“Meeeeeer!” This time the sound started barkwise and transmuted into a howl.

Despite himself, Erald smiled. He began to relax his shoulders.

“I know what you are. Obviously. You are a dogbear. There are dogbears. Are you . . . are you friendly?”

“Woof,” said the creature.

“Friendly and multilingual. Verbose. Grandiloquent. I name you Georgie.”

“YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” shouted Emnlo, from high above him. But it was too late. Upon Erald’s pronouncement, the creature stilled noticeably. Then it looked up at Erald, and its hair fell sideways so that Erald could see one dark eye. There was a moment’s tension.

“MEEER! WOOF!” the dogbear shouted. It then leapt upon Erald.

“Ah!” Erald lifted a hand to fend it off. He considered trying to stab the oncoming creature, yet he was not really feeling a vibe of danger until …

Lick. Lick lick lick lick. Lick liiiiiiiiiiick…

“Get’erroff’me get’erroff’me get’erroff!”

“You just . . you just bonded with a wildling. Just like that,” Elmo said breathlessly from above. “Ha!” The gnome leaped down and landed on Georgie. “A fitting steed!”

“Get’erroffff!”

“It’s a boy.”

“Him. Ooooooffff!!”

But Emnlo wouldn’t, and as for dogbear, it seemed to have no intention of stopping, nor of letting Erald up. Only five minutes later, with Erald practically dripping with warm saliva, did the dogbear retreat two paces. It sat on its haunches and said, “Woof!”

“Ho, stallion!” said the gnome. “Any steed of my student is a steed of mine!”

If the dogbear was even conscious of the small figure still seated upon its shoulders, then it gave no indication.

Erald began weakly laughing. “Your slobber really isn’t that bad. Smells like hand lotion. Floral.

“Oookay.” He then stood up dizzily. He patted the dogbear. “You’re on the team now?”

“Woof,” said Georgie, happily.

“Hereby your second name is Dogbear.”

“Two names??” cried Emnlo.

The dogbear froze again. It turned its head and looked at Erald inquisitively, with perhaps a hint of intelligence in its great brown eyes.

“Stop stop stop! Do not name it thricely!”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” Emnlo repeated in a fluster. “Are you altogether an idiot?”

“Probably. Er, yes?”

“Eh! Why not? ‘Why not?’! Do you think that you can just go around handing out names?”

“Yes?”

“Stop! Just stop it! Three times I tell you: be careful what you name!”

But by now Emnlo’s speech had begun to lose Erald’s interest. “You’re such a cute big doggie-woggie,” Erald was saying blithely, as he scratched Dogbear’s chin. The dogbear seemed to approve.

“Doggie-woggie is just a nickname,” Erald clarified.

Stop. Too close!”

Erald leaned down and physically hugged the dogbear. “Oh Runa – that’s whom I’m supposed to name, right? Runa, thank you. This feels like home to me. It’s a nice connection.”

“Woof,” said Georgie.

It was ten minutes later before Emnlo (still riding the dogbear) had finally finished berating Erald for his liberality with names. Apparently such things were taken seriously in this world (by the gnomes at least), and to name something was to assert a position of power and even to define the named entity’s essence on the basis of one’s own mental power . . and to name something three times, that was to create an indissoluble bond between them, something akin to marriage . . . and if one lacked the mental power to do it –

“Meh. I’ll be fine,” said Erald, to this long lecture. But he also didn’t add a third name. Not then.

“Eeeee!” shouted Emnlo. “No wonder it took so long for a Hopebringer to get here. I bet every entity in the world with an ounce of foresight has been doing everything in its power to keep this annoyance away!

So the gnome said, but Erald was certain he was secretly enjoying himself. The three of them continued to make good progress as they walked through a quiet forest.

1.05 — Dream Drop Drink

“It also means, though,” said the gnome, with force, “that I mustn’t tell you too much.”

“What.”

“That’s right, Hopebringer. I know what you are, and I’ll be damned if I’ll restrict you!”

“Quantum mechanics,” Erald answered without missing a beat.

Emnlo stiffened as though he were struck. “Quantum mechanics. What a simply deafening concept.” The gnome gripped the sides of his small head. His hands seemed proportionately quite large.

“Ha! I’m pretty sure I’ve figured this out. See, any concept I had a word for in my previous language, I can express in your language now, even if there wasn’t previously a word for it. And you understand what it means. I imagine getting the gist of q.m. all at once is a terrible brainstorm.”

“Please. Please stop saying that phrase.”

“Thus can I do science unto my enemies.”

“Science?” answered Emnlo. “That one . . is a rather beautiful concept.”

Erald smiled. “You won’t tell me much, because this world is in something like a superposition, relative to me, among a huge variety of states. You want to let me shape it based on my own initiative instead of based what you tell me. Right?”

Emnlo frowned. “As though I would answer!”

“Okay, that’s really cool. I see how it connects to the idea of ‘dreaming’ also. Like lucid dreaming. But if you’re right, that’s an extreme amount of power I hold. I wonder, can I use telekinesis?” He briefly considered trying it but – patience and caution.

“There are some things you do need to understand!” cried Emnlo, as though distracting him from a rabbit hole. “I have read, I’ve studied, I can tell you.”

“K.”

“Yes, well,” the gnome continued as though dusting himself off. “The peoples feed my kind to dragons because we’re very smart. The dragons see that knowledge as a threat, so they eat us, periodically, to keep us down. They also, to the best I understand them, like the fact that they’re corrupting other races by convincing them to betray us. And sometimes they target the best, kindest, strongest, most beautiful – whatever – from the other races, too. It’s all very twisted.”

This thought shut Erald up. In a world so beautiful – which had struck him with wonders in just two days – to come up against a largescale social fact so thoroughly evil .. it was like a good meal getting interrupted by a mouthful of sour milk.

“Surely someone resists the .. dragons?”

“Yes! Yes. Of course some of us resist them. I do. That’s why I’m hiding here – yes, hiding, here at the edge of the Sea. I’m hiding and storing knowledge. Other gnomes do, too. And even some,” he said begrudgingly, “that are not fully gnomish. The gnome-likes. Especially dwarves.” When he said this, the mood seemed to lighten. “The point is, yes, many of us try, but we hardly can, you know? The dragons – they’re not stupid. Not easy to deceive. They sow disunity on purpose and tie up everything in a confusion. But I’m not going to tell you –” Emnlo seemed to wake back up “— whom exactly you can trust, because I’m expecting you to affect that for yourself! What I will do is help you.”

Emnlo smiled.

“I,” and suddenly the small gnome had something of the air of a merchant, or perhaps an orator, self-consciously holding himself with grace, “am skilled in the arts of healing.”

“Yep.”

“Well! I am. Those germs of nothing I used in your porridge, right? I made them.”

“Nice. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. The point is, I could help you really heal your head, and then you could do something – like go out and fix this blasted tyranny – if I took you to a truly powerful place, with the right herbs, and treated you there.”

“Yep, sure, sounds fine. Let’s do it. Only, can’t I just will my head to be whole?”

“No! No. Surely you get it? You’ve studied lucid dreaming?”

“Ah.. no. Not so much studied. Just done an awful lot of it.”

“You can lucidly dream?”

“Yes?”

“Such freedom!” said Emnlo. “But! If you’ve actually done it, you know what happens when you try to change too much in the dream, yes?” Emnlo began glancing at his stacks of books, as though seeking a certain volume. Erald began to remember. He thought he knew what the gnome was getting at.

“Ah! Here it is. Studies on Lucid Dreaming by Emrild Danue the Ancient, page . . . 376: ‘When the dreamer tries to force, by will, the dream to take a form unsuitable to its premises, the entire experience has a tendency to unravel. Small changes, little suggestions, consistent with the existing story: these seem caught up by the subconscious mind and added into the drama, which continues and carries them forward. This is much as an actor might incorporate some mischance that occurs onstage into a play he performs. But change the entire premise? The play dissolves. Or, at best, it continues but has become absurd.’ ”

“I get that, and that is what lucid dreaming’s like. Sometimes you can make changes, but there’s a really masterful intensity of concentration with which I have to hold most changes in my mind, if I want them to stick. Sometimes around those changes, the rest of the dream just kind of . . drains away and smears out. So, if we continue the analogy between dreaming and this — ” he gestured ” — then there’s got to be some sort of balance between when I use my spooooky powers (whatever, exactly, those are) and when I don’t.”

“Yes,” said Emnlo. “Very much yes. And that is almost as much as I am allowed to tell you. Because I really am the Mentor that was to come. Haha!

“Come, youngling!” It seemed that Emnlo was trying to adopt a basso profundo, which hardly worked in his squeaky register. “Come! Let us go to a place of healing power, where we’ll mend your grievous wound, wrought against you by so dastardly a foe, and then you can start doing everything I’ve waited to see happen these last two hundred years!”

Erald took a few minutes to cut armholes in his red blanket. He used a cord to tighten it around his waist, forming a sort of robe.

“I am ready, O great mentor! Let us go forth! And please bring some germs of nothing. I expect that we will need them.”

1.04 — The History of Earth

“Sooo.. if I’m not mistaken, you don’t get a lot of visitors,” Erald commented profoundly, as he finished another bowl of porridge. He wasn’t sure where he was putting it all. When he woke the third time, the gnome had brought him the bowlful, offered it and said nothing. Erald accepted and ate steadily. These repeated meals had become like a ritual: small offerings of friendship, thrice given, thrice received.

The room around him was not a hobbit hole, nothing so luxurious as Bag End with its ornaments, soft chairs and fine china. Neither was it an alchemist’s den. Strange stones, translucent and gleaming? Check. Stocks of random materials? Also check. The room held onions, herbs, jerky, homespun, pinecones, pyrite, fish scales, piles of bark. There were books, small ones, piled in strange constructions that left Erald wondering whether they were intentional structures or simply stacked haphazardly. Really a surprising number of candles burned in every odd corner. All this might have conspired to suggest alchemy, had not the sheer sense of cheerfulness it conjured been enough to shove thoughts of double-bubble, toil and trouble far from Erald’s mind. He was left instead with the impression of the den of some eccentric collector with a taste for bright and unusual things.

The gnomes ears rose upward and outward. “Visitors?” he repeated. The idea seemed absurd to him, or so Erald guessed from the gnome’s expression.

“You know, there’s got to be some coordination between this world and mine,” Erald replied.

“What.”

“The way I can read your facial expressions. Back home, that’s hard to do across species. Dogs can do it to humans (I’m a ‘human’), but they’re like, the only ones.”

The gnome stared.

“I mean, honestly, even just between genders, we human beings often have a hard time knowing what’s going on in each other’s heads and hearts.”

The stare became a thoughtful stare.

“Also language. Right? This isn’t English. I can tell that because the ‘quick brown fox’ thing doesn’t have the right number of letters when I mentally count them. But I can still say ‘quick brown fox.’ There is a word for foxes.” This seemed important. A world without foxes would be a world one step further removed from The Little Prince. Erald wasn’t sure he could have reconciled himself to that.

The gnome’s face took on a strange expression. “Talk sense, will you?” he finally pleaded in a solemn whisper. “You .. you arrive .. a blur of color, windblown, no, wind-drawing, and smash! you smash right there – ” he gestured “ – into my doorpost, and you’re telling me about visitors? Foxes? Worlds?”

With this comment, the gnome paced to the tallest chair in the room. He pushed it toward Erald, then stood upright in its seat. This elevated his chocolate and half-golden eyes to the same level as the young man’s, whence they stared into Erald’s piercingly.

“I –” the creature gestured down at his own brown body, clad in a bright green jerkin and shorts – “am a gnome. I may not know everything. But I can tell when something’s afoot. And I’ve watched. And I’ve waited. I kept the faith. And I have remembered. Putting it all together,” the gnome continued breathlessly, “I know what you are.

“Raise your hand like this,” Erald said. The gnome looked down at Erald’s hand for a moment. He raised his own.

“High five! Good job. You did it!” Erald’s larger, orange hand met the gnome’s wrinkly, boney hand in a satisfying strike.

The gnome alternated his gaze between his just-smacked hand and Erald’s face. He blinked several times. Then he grinned widely enough to compete with Cheshire felines.

“You may call me Emnlo,” the gnome whispered. “My name: Emnlo.” He said it a second time, distinctly, like he was offering a gift. The intensity of the gnome’s smile right then might have been scary, had he previously been anything but benevolent to Erald.

“And as for you,” Emnlo continued, “you, strange ‘human’ being, flaming bright, you . . . you are a visitor.”

“Yup. I mean, uh, yes, probably. Like, if there’s some sort of description – a prophecy or legend – it would make sense for it to me that. I come from this place called ‘Earth.’ I can’t remember the actual English word, but I guess it translates to this language as ‘soil’ or ‘earth,’ and that’s kind of a rum thing to name our home planet, if it weren’t so poetic: as if we’re saying that the whole defining quality of our world is something simple, life-giving, and good – soil, earth – something from which everything grows. We named our first man that, too: ‘Adam,’ which also means ‘earth,’ and which strangely I can remember? And then I talked to spooky voices while naked and fell through the sky and got really buff and turned orange and drank seawater.”

Erald nodded happily as he concluded.

“The bindings ..” said Emnlo.

“Eh?”

“The bindings. You broke them.”

“Eh? Oh, that alarm thing?”

“Oh heavens. Don’t you realize?” Once again, the gnome’s feathery ears rose outwards and upwards in what struck Erald as an exaggerated fashion. He reflected how nice it was to be able to think of the gnome as ‘Emnlo’ now. The name was briefer than ‘fantastical gruff, kindhearted, shrill-speaking mousewitch,’ which was the moniker Erald had previously used.

“Nope,” said Erald. “I don’t realize much, other than that you seem decent and this whole environment is kinda hopeful and cool. And that I’m lucky you make special porridge that keeps my head from exploding, but I’m not so lucky about your other life-choices, especially the height at which you build doors.”

“You came from outside. You drank the bright Water of Dreaming and then you came in and you broke the bindings and you brought the water in through them, inside of you. By now . . by now it will have become a part of your blood and your brain.”

The gravitas with which Emnlo said this was finally enough to silence Erald.

“You, strange creature – ” Emnlo reached out both hands and cupped the young man’s face “ – you have the ability to bring change.”

“Nice. Well, I kinda want to. To ‘shape the world.’ To be a force for good. If you could be my friend, I mean, I’d really appreciate it if you would help me. This place,” Erald said solemnly, “it has problems, right? Lonely people? Implausible metaphysics? Flawed grammar? Poverty? Racial tension?”

“ ‘Racial tension,’ ” Emnlo repeated the phrase. “Racial tension.” He stared at Erald. “Oh yes. We have ‘racial tension.’ We have racial tension, because we have dragons.”

When Erald didn’t respond, the gnome continued: “They, ah.. they eat people.”

“Oh. Oh. That is .. not a funny problem.”

“Not at all.” The gnome agreed. He looked around his den, a large room which provided a home for only one solitary gnome. “We’ve held on for so many years that only books can hold the memories. Even as a gnome, it was my grandsire’s grandsire who could remember a better time. We live, you know, for about three hundred years.”

“Emnlo.” It was the first time Erald had said the name. “You keep saying you are a gnome. And I understand you being proud of your race. Every time you say it, though, I feel this weight. A sadness. I don’t want to intrude and yet, you’ve been so kind to me. If you can believe me . . well, is there something, anything, which maybe I should know about your race?”

“Yes,” Emnlo answered, and of a sudden his face was gripped by something dark and hard, different from the winsome, slightly ridiculous kindness that Erald had previously read there. “My race,” Emnlo continued, “my family. My grandsires and cousins. The other peoples, they feed us. They feed us to the dragons.”

“Emnlo,” said Erald without pause or hesitation. He reached out and firmly grasped the gnome’s hand. “I am a visitor. And beyond that, I am, and always have been, a person of hope.”

When Erald said his next words, he said them like a vow: “I have the ability to bring change.”

“Yes. Oh yes.” If the old gnome teared up when he said this, then they were tears of both joy and rage.

1.03 – Can Haz Numb Num?

Erald lay in a cot beneath a blanket, with one of those cold damp rags on his forehead.

“That was reeeally stupid,” a creaky voice was complaining. The world swam into focus. Well, it tried to. So far, it only swam.

Erald started to look around.

“DON’T MOVE!” the voice squeaked sharply. “Oh gods don’t move!”

He stopped the motion and squinted. He wanted to turn his head, find the source of that voice. But by now Erald realized that turning his head would bring on a world of pain, all its own, more intense than the ravaging fire he already felt in every muscle from waist down.

“You literally – lit-er-al-ly,” the voice enunciated each syllable, “cracked my door with your forehead. And your forehead with my door. I have a cracked door! You have a cracked forehead. Your dented my lintel with your pate! Don’t you dare die and make me have dragged you in here for nothing. You, you giant, you, you …”

The voice faltered.

Erald wondered why. He couldn’t really think about it. He closed his eyes and slept.

When he came to, his senses had sharpened. Therefore most of his body (special emphasis on legs, feet, forehead) was alive with so much pain he had to grit his teeth and clench his eyes to avoid crying out.

“Ah!” he gasped faintly.

“Oh. You. You’re moving. Here.”

It was the voice from before. Kinder now. Something warm and thick like porridge tickled Erald’s lower lip. He licked it.

“Oh gosh.” Erald devoured the first bite, as the spoon pushed into his mouth. The pain throughout his body lessened instantly. It was like an IV.  Magical. Erald felt like he was floating.

“Here.” A tiny, bony something reached into Erald’s hand and slipped away, leaving him a spoon. “You can feed yourself, you know,” the voice continued. “Just, uh, do not try to move.”

Erald accepted a bowl that matched the spoon, made from much coarser wood than those trees he had walked on. He kept his eyes tightly shut and ate an entire bowl of the analgesic. Then he felt the weight of bowl increase as it refilled. So he ate it empty. It filled and he ate a third time. And a fourth time.

Finally —

“I’m done now. Wow. Thank you. Thank you thank you.”

“Hmf!” the voice responded — pleased, perhaps?

“If I may ask” — Erald’s eyes were still closed, but there was no pain now, only dizziness — “who are you, um, sir? What was that about your lentil – did I hit my head on it? Is that a type of bean – is it safe to open my eyes?”

“Hmf!” it said again, sounding sharp. “Hmf. Well, of course it is. Go on now. Open them. I’m not a sir. Just a gnome. A powerful, ancient, very wise .. ” the voice seemed to stutter “.. gnome.”

Erald opened both eyes. He could see! Yes, he was lying in a cot. He wore a red blanket and that only. There were bright wooden rafters above him. Vermillion. He dared not turn his head to look sideways. Instead, slowly, the other speaker moved in front of Erald.

If you can picture the muzzle of a mouse and the face of a witch, combine them, make them male, lengthen the nose even further; add thick bushy eyebrows the color of ash, a right eye dark as chocolate, a left eye half-golden — top all that off with a worn brown sock pressed somehow into service as a cap — trace two sharp ears, thin, feathery and protruding oh so far outward and drooping oh so far down — well, if you take the trouble to do all that, then you’ll know what Erald faced.

“You are a gnome, aren’t you?” Erald said it with a smile.

“I am,” the little old creature answered softly. Then he continued, “As bucolic as I may be, I know sprinting into doorframes isn’t proper. Eat your porridge and sleep again and finally we’ll talk.”

Erald was still tired. This time, the sleep, when it came, was pleasant.

1.02 – High-Intensity Interval Training

Frosty and eerily quiet. Not exactly uncomforting. When Erald was a little tyke, he’d loved exploring forests on his own. Climbing up hills, splashing through creeks, hiding in secret places, occasionally taking a friend and pretending to be, oh, pirates, pokémon trainers — it hardly mattered what. Maybe that’s why Erald found it peaceful now to trek endlessly over strong, smooth roots that dipped into an apparently bottomless depth of water.

But there was no one here. Like, no one no one. Not a squirrel, a mouse or a bird. He had sampled the water, which was strangely delicious. He found that he just kept drinking it. It was sweet, like Fresca. He drank until his belly rounded and felt physically taut.

“Oookay.” He pulled himself back. “Ex-nay on the instantly addicting ink-dray.”

Erald shook himself, and kept walking. For thirty minutes. After encountering nothing in all this time but trees and darkness, he had a revelation.

“Mirkwood!” he shouted. Then he scrambled up a tree.

Since when do I climb like Tarzan? he thought. Erald quickly reached the top and he poked his head through the uppermost branches.

“Oh!”

There. Around him. In front, to the left, the right. He felt the wind and stared at a sea of leaves. They extended toward the horizon, sparkling in daylight, rippling with the breeze. He stared for a while.

Then he turned. Behind him, opposite the direction he’d been heading, a mountain towered. Bare stone mainly, up at the top, and so huge it should have been snowcapped. Three miles high?  Five? It was the nearest of innumerable mountains which stretched left and right as far as he could into opposite horizons.

Erald stood at the edge of the world, and he’d been going the wrong way. It was time to turn around.

So he slid back to the ground and began sprinting across the tree roots.

Erald didn’t know he could sprint so well. It pleased him, but only slightly surprised him. He could swan dive through trees now and talk to weird spooky voices, after all. And he was orange, which rather took the cake.

So he sprinted, then jogged to rest, then sprinted and rested again, and so on. Thirty minutes later, there was finally something beneath him besides tree roots. It was the mountain’s edge. Erald set one foot on solid ground and sighed in relief.

BLAAM!

Loud noises! Ahh!

He came to and found himself curled into a fetal position. No idea how long he’d been out. His hands gripped the sides of his head tightly. There had been .. a trumpet blaring? An eruption? Drums? The noise, whatever it was, had come — exploded — upon him immediately after his foot touched ground. Erald’s vision swam, he felt as though blood were leaking from his ears, and finally a thought crystallized.

“Omigosh something or someone felt me touch soil and tried to scare me. Or kill me. Or summon the police. I’m… gonna run now.”

Percent rational? Four. Percent practical? Ninety-four.

Winded as he still was, Erald began sprinting along the periphery of the forest, hugging the mountain’s base. The ground was firm here. Only small herbs covered it, as though one of them (rosemary? basil?) had drawn a demarcation between mountain and surrounding ocean to tell the many trees “That’s your side, this is ours.”

Erald had run quickly in the woods. Now he consciously drove his will into his legs like spiking a nail with a hammer. Step after pounding step.

It was exhilarating.

Erald felt alive. The sheer act of pumping and flying across the ground. It was .. inebriating. He kept running faster. At some point he left the mountain’s edge and began climbing upward. He poured all his energy into his internal engine, using pure will and effort to make every foot (he seemed to have a thousand!) bounce instantly off the ground.

The wind, the racing wind.

“So this is pleasure!” Erald roared – yes, roared with wind behind him.

He ran until he forgot about the Noises, forgot that he was running. Or where he was running. Or why he was running. He ran until his body was fire — and the fire was agony and agony was pleasure. He ran until there was nothing but the running. Bliss drove him forward. Perhaps he would never have stopped. But something struck bluntly him on the head.