Noggle Stones

 

 

From my flesh I make this scroll.
I draw ink from veins that bleed.
With my heart I craft these words;
I’m this book that you now read

In darkness I walk in circles.
In circles I walk forlorn.
Yet in you I live forever.
For when you read, I am reborn.

(Unknown goblin author, Age of the Bending Oak)

CHAPTER 1

GOBLINS AND GAMES

 

The bee danced within its glass jar prison, and the embers in the fire died to dull orange and gray. Bugbear, the keeper of goblin wisdom and culture, pulled his blanket about him and drew in his arms and legs, huddling into a ball on the forest floor. He considered warming himself with a cup of banderberry root tea, but the fire was far too low. Tudmire would need to return with firewood soon or there would be no fire left to rekindle.

Now, sleep tugged at his heavy head. Sleep. Dreaded sleep. Where the dreams were alive and angry. Where faces danced before him, mouths pulled into screams and eyes wet with tears. The dreams... oh, how they had tormented him. Dark visions clouding his mind. Sinister whispers filling his ears. Unspeakable terrors clotting his blood.

And yet it was the dreams that inspired him to search for the lost ruins of Whittlegrip’s monastery. It was the dreams that sent him on his scholarly journey into the study of Non-Logical Thought.

And it was the dreams that had brought him here, huddled in the forest at night before a dying fire, a bee in a jar his only companion. The dreams... how he craved them and how he loathed them. The inspiration they granted, and the terror they inflicted. He wanted to deny them... to evict the torment from his head. Yet they always came, like unwanted dinner guests with dreadful eating habits.

As the bee’s buzzing drilled into his head, fitful slumber fell upon him, like an assassin, killing him a thousand times. Dark shapes slithered and slunk. Evil voices bellowed and shrieked. He wandered alone in a world of gray, a colorless landscape stretching to the limits of his sight. In the sky above, images formed... dim and dreary like drawings etched in mud. He saw an archer, drawing her bow against an unseen foe. And he saw an animal, loping along upright like a goblin. And he saw something even stranger... a monstrous face, obscure and unclear, yet somehow important... somehow burnt into his skull. This image forced Bugbear’s dreaming mind to recall an illustration of an odd and forgotten race he had seen in one of his books of ancient lore. They were called humans, and a more ridiculous myth he had seldom studied. The three images then turned to him and pointed, speaking as one: “You should wake up. The game has begun.”

With a gasp and a shudder, Bugbear found himself awake. The fire was rekindled, and Tudmire had returned... with three unexpected guests. Large people. Ten feet tall. Pale purple skin. Big warty ears. Small red eyes. Long spotty noses. Ogres.

Tudmire crouched with them before a Noggle Stones board, moving pieces here and there. The ogres watched on with dumb amusement, a bag of copper coins on the ground beside them.

“Gambling,” Bugbear hissed.

Bugbear threw his blanket aside, tucked the bee jar into his coat-of-many-pockets, and stormed over to his cousin. “Tudmire!” he barked. “I sent you for fuel, not for fools!

Tudmire turned back to Bugbear and waved him off. “Shush, you mouthy mouse! I’m about to win!” And with a surprisingly nimble movement of his thick fingers, Tudmire slid his three white stones over the opposing black stone.

“Ha!” he blurted. “I’m the Noggle Lord!” He stood and danced about the bewildered ogres and the grumbling Bugbear. His voice reached high into the night, filling the air with echoes of laughter and gloating. Then he stopped before the ogres, holding out his hand and smiling with all the teeth he could muster. “My winnings, if you please!”

The ogres shrugged as one. The largest passed the bag and a yellowed scroll over to Tudmire. “Goodly gamings, little gobling,” he said with a smile. “Thanks you for the invitings.”

Tudmire swept into a deep bow before the ogres. “My pleasure! Unlike some goblins, I appreciate and enjoy the company of ogres!” As Tudmire rose, several black, white, and gray stones tumbled out of his sleeves. He stood for a moment in the light of the campfire, sheepish and uncertain.

The red eyes of the ogres fell upon the pile of stones. Slowly the dim light of realization swept over them and their faces turned from masks of confusion to reflections of rage.

“Cheaterings!” the largest blurted as he overturned the board and sent stones showering into the air.

“Cheaterings!” the other two shouted.

“Smasherings!” the largest yelled as he advanced on the trembling Tudmire.

“Run, you fool!” Bugbear commanded as he took Tudmire by the hand and pulled him off into the thick tangles of brush. Pockets and paths unfolded before them, as Bugbear imagined they might. For he had placed his mind in a Non-Logical state where possibilities in thought could become truth in reality. And so they scurried, scampered, and scrambled, the green things opening before them and closing behind them.

Until finally, his thoughts exhausted, Bugbear collapsed in a worn-out heap. Tudmire squatted down beside him as the leaves and branches covered them in a canopy.

“Cheating at Noggle Stones, Tudmire?” Bugbear huffed at his cousin. “Did you really think you could slip extra stones on the board without being noticed? Honestly! If you were going to cheat, you could have at least been more original and less obvious about it.”

“Cousin,” Tudmire began, “they’re bloody ogres. How was I supposed to know they’d gather enough wits to see through my... uhm… misinterpretation of the rules?”

Hoarse voices thundered behind the goblins. Oak trees groaned and splintered as the ogres rampaged through the night. Nocturnal animals scurried, fluttered, and slithered from the chaos. Even the moon and stars seemed to take shelter behind the heavy gray clouds.

“Where for you going with our treasures, little goblings?” one brute yelled. “You been taking advantage of our good natures with your trickeries!”

Bugbear brushed a few branches aside to peer into the gloom. He could see the silhouetted ogres, savaging the forest with their tantrums. Slender fingers of fear began prickety-pick-picking at his brain. Out there in those huge callused hands death waited. He shook his head and exchanged his fear for fury.

“Gambling with ogres anyway,” he hissed. “What were you thinking?” He turned back to his cousin and squatted into hiding. “They didn’t even have anything of value... just a few coppers and a tattered, old parchment.”

Tudmire pulled the bag of winnings close to his chest. “You don’t understand gambling. It’s not what you win, it’s that you win.”

“Maybe I don’t understand gambling, but I do understand dismemberment. And so do those thugs out there.”

The goblins glared at each other, each shifting in place with aggravation. For being cousins they presented a striking contrast. Bugbear wore the clothes of a gentleman... cleanly pressed olive colored coat, spotless white shirt, bright plaid vest, matching olive breeches, and buckled brown shoes, whereas Tudmire wore a stained gray shirt, fraying suspenders, dusty brown breeches with patches at the knees, and scuffed black shoes. Even their hairstyles were as different as right and wrong... Bugbear’s a frazzled tangle of thick brown from the top of his head all the way to the unruly mutton chops which sprouted from his cheeks... and Tudmire’s a wispy clump of haphazard strands combed over the top of his head to hide an ever expanding baldness.

“You never listen to me,” Bugbear said as the confrontation continued. “And now see what comes of it!”

“Angry you making us!” another ogre shouted. “Your bones we be crushering for these flustrations!”

Bugbear snatched the parchment from Tudmire’s hand. “We’ll give them back their things, apologize, and get out of this with skins intact.”

Tudmire protested, trying to snatch the parchment back. “It’s my property. After all, I cheated them fair and square.”

Bugbear’s leathery skin crinkled into a mass of angry wrinkles and his eyes widened into bloodshot saucers. Even in the gloom of the night, his face lit with his rage. He shook the parchment before Tudmire. “Listen, they’ll have their valuables back whether we hand them over now, or they pry them from our dead hands. We’re barely a fourth their size, Tudmire. We don’t stand a chance against them unless we use reason.”

Tudmire slid back. “You’re having one your spells again, cousin. Have you taken your medicine, lately?”

Bugbear’s head cocked as though some stunning thought had set it off balance. “No. Come to think of it, I haven’t had my medicine. Perhaps a dose of my banderberry root tea would help me to think more clearly.” Bugbear reached into his vest pocket with trembling hand. As he did so, the parchment fell from his grasp. It unrolled at his feet, unleashing such an unnatural and brilliant light that the goblins fell back as though struck by a thunderbolt.

“What did you do?” Tudmire yelped. “The ogres are certain to see that!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Bugbear gasped. “The parchment... it has some kind of peculiar luminous quality.”

“You mean it’s magic?” Tudmire said.

“No. I’ve told you before, magic is a foolish superstition. Like Snaggy Mary Tittle-Top, or human beings.”

“But Grand Uncle Crick says...”

“Grand Uncle Crick is a dear old soul,” Bugbear interrupted, “but he lives in the past. This is the Year of the Dappled Beetle in the Age of the Unstrung Harp. We live in modern times. With modern sensibilities. Science rules, magic fools!”

Bugbear picked at the scroll with dainty, uncertain fingers, until, with a sudden rush of conviction he pinched the vellum at a corner and lifted it. “No. This is a purely scientific phenomenon,” he said, examining the strange paper. “Perhaps it would be hasty to turn it back over to the ogres just yet. After all, as I was appointed Bugbear by the High Council of Ysgol Gwybod, it is my duty to expand and improve upon goblin culture and knowledge.”

“There you go flaunting that fancy Bugbear title of yours again,” Tudmire snorted. His baggy face then perked with curiosity. “What are all those squiggly lines there?”

“That would be writing, you dullard,” Bugbear said, with a dismissing wave of his hand. “Although, I’m not certain what language. It has a structure similar to dwarfish, but less harsh. More fluid, like elfish in many ways. But then again it has a goblin-like boldness to it as well. Given time perhaps I could...”

“Die, you thieverous little greaselings!” The three ogres ripped the brush away from the goblins, exposing them in the dull moonlight. Two of the brutes reached down with ham-like hands, grabbed the stunned cousins by the scruffs of their necks, and hoisted them into the air. The third hissed at them, “Your little feets carries you far from us, and you hides well behind your things of green. But we sees the big flashings and lightnings! And you speaks all too loudish!” The fiend snatched the now unlit scroll from Bugbear’s grasp. “Be giving us the rest of our belongings! Else we crushes your bones evers so slowly and not nearly so fastly.”

“Oh, you festering fool!” Bugbear yelled at his cousin. “Now we’re done for, thanks to your grubbering greed!” He twisted and turned in the ogre’s grasp, trying to reach Tudmire with his wild slaps and punches.

“Shut your bloody gob!” Tudmire countered. “If you hadn’t been wasting our bloody time with that bloody scrap of bloody paper, we wouldn’t have been bloody surprised, you bloody twit!”

“Oh, blame me!” Bugbear said. “Blame me! At least I was interested in scholarship rather than dollarship! That’s something worth dying for, I’ll tell you!”

“There’s no profit in death!” Tudmire yelled. “Unless it’s yours!”

“I doesn’t know, Loomis,” one ogre said to his leader. “Maybe we be saving us troubles if we lets these goblings killing each another for us.”

“They does seem to have a powerful hateness for each one of the other, Nigel” Loomis remarked. “But they is goblings, and goblings is filled of trickeries. We kill them ourselfs, to be safety. But firstly we best be collectoring our thingies post hastal, boys. We doesn’t wants gobling bloodieness all over its. You shakes them and I’ll sortify what falls loosely from them.”

“Did you hear that?” Tudmire whined. “They’re going to shake us clean and kill us!”

“Yes,” Bugbear said. “I tried to warn you. Ogres tend to do things like that.”

The ogres turned their prisoners heads-over-toes, and the shaking commenced. From Bugbear’s oversized coat pockets dropped all manner of books, papers, gadgets, contraptions, odds, and ends. Calculations, journals, experiments... delicate pieces of a scholarly puzzle he had studied for years, now lay scattered upon the forest floor. His saucer eyes doubled in size, for even he was amazed at the volume of items he had gathered, and even more amazed that his stunted little body was capable of carrying it about all this time.

“Blimey, Loomis!” the third ogre gasped. “This little feller has more ownings than a museum!”

“Right you be, Dubbin,” Loomis said. He rummaged through Bugbear’s belongings. “But they is mostly worthless things.”

“I beg your pardon?” Bugbear said. “You just happen to be looking at a lifetime of scholarly study!”

“Well, if this is all you gots to be showing for it,” Loomis laughed while holding up the bee in a glass jar, “then I says you been wasting yourself a lifetime.”

“Do not mock me!” Bugbear exclaimed, a rage boiling through his veins. “You cannot even begin to understand the importance of my work!”

Loomis picked up a small tin, opened it, and fingered through a fine powder. “And where in do you finding the impotence of this?”

“That is my medicine. Nothing more!” Bugbear blurted. “You need not concern yourself with it.”

Loomis sniffed and snorted and tasted the powdery stuff. “Not bad. Try some, boys.”

The other two ogres snickered and dropped their stunted prisoners. “You stay putses!” Nigel ordered the goblins. “We be eatings, but we also be watchings!” They gathered about Loomis and picked at the tin. “Let us be tasting this new pleasure.”

“My tea,” Bugbear whined as he pulled himself from the dirt.

Tudmire crawled to his cousin’s side. “Are you all right?”

“My banderberry root tea,” Bugbear sighed. “They’re eating it.”

Tudmire brushed the pine needles and dust from his clothes. “At least we aren’t dangling upside-down anymore,” he said, slicking back his few strands of hair.

Bugbear gripped his cousin about the shoulders. “I need it, Tudmire. I need my medicine. I don’t think I can endure another dream.”

Fear seized Bugbear. Oh, how he dreaded seeing those wretched, alien creatures again. The dreams... the nightmares... only the tea had staved them off. It was Duergar, the village gardener, who had told Bugbear of the healing properties of the banderberry root. But now Duergar’s gift was being devoured by the ogres. And Bugbear’s mind was being devoured by unfettered rage.

“I shall crush the heathens with my bare hands!” Bugbear exclaimed. He lurched forward, veins bulging like willow roots, teeth grinding like millstones. “Lowly, insignificant buffoons!”

“Shush,” Tudmire cautioned as he caught his irate cousin by the coattails. “They’ll hear you.”

“Faugh! Even if they can hear me, they lack the intellect to understand my brilliant oration!”

“Listen, Bugbear,” Tudmire continued in soft, soothing tones. “My dear, dear Bugbear. You aren’t thinking straight. Your mind’s all askew, like a spinning coin that can’t decide which side to land on. Please,” Tudmire said, tugging at Bugbear’s sleeve, “come sit and wait. Maybe when they’re done with your tea, Loomis and his brothers will show a bit of pity and let us go.”

“No,” Bugbear hissed. He stared at the brutes as they feasted on his tea. And from the midst of his disordered mind, a small strand of sanity wormed its way to the surface. “I have a plan.” Bugbear shook Tudmire’s hand from his coat and stepped forward to confront the ogres.

“O’ great merciful Lady Luck!” Tudmire gasped. “The little maniac has a plan!”

As they saw Bugbear approach, the ogres wiped the powder from their mouths. “What be you wanting? We gives no permissions for you to be movementing!”

“I was just wondering if you’d be willing to reconsider...”

“No!” Loomis barked. “Go backs over there and waits to be killt!”

Bugbear turned to Tudmire. “You were right, cousin,” he said. “They aren’t interested in negotiating. But, I suppose we can at least take consolation in the fact that they’ll never find where we hid the Treasure of Eglwys Cacynen!”

The ogres stared at Bugbear with mouths agape. “What Treasure of... whatever it was you just says?”

“Yes,” Tudmire said, his loose face tightening with delight, “what Treasure of Eglwys Cacynen?”

“Oh, you remember, cousin,” Bugbear continued. “The vast horde of goblin wealth that we hid away before we were captured.”

“We never...”

“Of course you remember. Gold coins. Rubies. Sapphires. Emeralds. And the magical cauldron. Certainly you remember the magical cauldron.”

“Be showing us your gobling treasures,” Loomis demanded. He cast aside the tin of tea as he and the other two ogres lumbered forward.

Bugbear eyed the fallen tin with drooling desire... but then remembered himself and his clever plan. “Oh, dear,” he sighed. “I’ve given away our secret, cousin. What a fool am I. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Well, I... I... I,” Tudmire stammered.

“Yes, of course you can,” Bugbear continued. “Anyhow, the treasure is right over there.” Bugbear pointed to a hollow log laying alone in a stream of moonlight.

“Be fetching it for us,” Loomis demanded.

“I should say not,” Bugbear said. “Tudmire and I strained our weak little bodies severely enough putting it there. I don’t believe we could handle any more such exertion. No. Moving treasure is an honor reserved for those strong enough to bear it. Goblins are better suited for standing back in awe.”

“Yes,” Loomis agreed. “That making senses. You heard the little gobling, boys. Let’s be bearing our honors.”

Dubbin shambled over to the cousins. “I be watching these maggots. They may still be filled with more trickeries.”

“Good thoughting,” Nigel said.

Loomis and Nigel confronted the log, like cautious, scavenging animals hovering before some unknown carcass.

“Puts your handses in there,” Loomis ordered. “Sees if the gobling is truthful.”

“I tain’t putsing my handses in there!” Nigel balked. “There coulds be nasty anermals in it! Log lizards, and wood winkies, and rot weasels, and such!”

“Bah!” Loomis scoffed. “Baby babble! There be nothings in there to be afraidness of!”

“Then you puts your handses in,” said Nigel.

Loomis’ face curdled with anger. “No! I is the eldest brother! I is the rules maker! And I is making a rule right now! You is putsing your handses in the log to be getting our treasures!”

Nigel grumbled, but as he saw Loomis’ massive hand knotting into a fist, he seemed to rethink his opposition. “Well, seeings as how you’ve mades it a rule and all...”

Nigel wallowed on his stomach as his burly arms reached and clawed and clambered inside the rotting hollow log. “Best be thinkering up some newer rules, boss,” he said. “If there are treasures in there, they ‘tisn’t cooperating with me handses.”

Loomis turned to Bugbear, his tiny eyes glowing red. “Why ‘tisn’t he able to be pulling out the treasures?”

Bugbear shook his head. “Obviously because someone needs to be pushing it to him from the other side.”

“Ah!” Loomis gasped with joyous revelation. “Ah! Very cleverly! Yes! This log shall not be outsmartsing us this day!”

“But it’s night,” Nigel corrected.

“Shuts up with you!” Loomis snapped. “Back to your reachings. I be pushering from the other ending.”

And so Nigel returned to his wallowing and turning and straining, while Loomis mirrored him at the other end of the log. Their legs beat the ground as they toiled against the troublesome log, struggling to retrieve their elusive prize.

“Oh!” Bugbear exclaimed. “Oh, they’re almost there. Yes. Almost. If only someone had the strength to just give them a right good shove. Oh, but where to find such a someone? Where in all this endless woods?”

“I be someone,” Dubbin said.

“Why, yes! Yes you be... uhm… are,” Bugbear replied. “But my question is, are you strong enough to push them far enough in to where they can get the treasure?”

“Bah,” Dubbin answered. “I be winning the Con Courian County skull crackery two years running, I be.” Dubbin pointed to several large bumps atop his head. “Sees them? They’s my trophy lumps. No one cracks their skull as well against hard things as I does. Not even Loomis.”

“Very impressive,” Bugbear said. He addressed Tudmire. “Cousin, I believe we have found our someone.”

Tudmire looked to his cousin with a face all skewered up in confusion.

Bugbear smiled. He liked it when only he knew what he was thinking. “Well then, dear champion, I suggest you get to cracking that skull of yours against your brother’s backside.”

Dubbin nodded like a dumb animal being praised by its master. “Yes. Cracking I will go.” The ogre set himself into a solid, charge-ready stance. His breath pouring from his mouth like smoke from a dwarven furnace, he rubbed his feet into the earth for leverage. And then he charged, his considerable bulk a blur of motion as he rammed his lumpy, distorted head into Nigel’s backside. There was a great splintering of wood, a great movement of earth, and a great howling of ogres.

“Who be shovering his head up me arse?” Nigel bellowed in a muffled rage.

“I be helpering you finding the treasure,” Dubbin groaned, his head wedged inside the log next to his brother’s rear.

“Moronics!” Loomis cursed as he found himself jammed inside the log and up against a tree.

“Ha ha!” Bugbear laughed. “Delightful! Delightful!” Like a drunken acrobat he skipped and danced and pranced his way to Loomis and plucked the scroll from the ogre’s back pocket. “An excellent manipulation of events!”

“Bugbear, you bloody fool!” Tudmire cursed. “With those big oafs wedged into the log, we’ll never be able to get the treasure out!”

Bugbear sighed... sighed in the way that very intelligent folk sigh when confronted with the ranting of very unintelligent folk. “History lesson, cousin.” He sauntered over to his scattered belongings and commenced gathering them. “Eglwys Cacynen was a goblin monastery founded ages ago by the venerable Whittlegrip. Legend has it that this order developed a new philosophy based upon the concepts of Non-Logic. They studied bees in particular.” He held the bee jar aloft and stared at its prisoner with wide-eyed delight. “Bees, cousin. Creatures that defy logic. They fly even though their fat little bodies are disproportionate to their flimsy little wings. The old tales say that Whittlegrip and his monks actually discovered the secret of the bees... how they use a rotating rather than vertical wing motion to stay aloft. From this startling discovery, Whittlegrip developed the four basic precepts of Non-Logical Thought, which can never be repeated enough. Number one: Reality is Thought. Number two: Logic restricts Thought and thus restricts Reality. Number three: Abandon Logic, abandon restriction. And number four: Unrestricted Thought equals unrestricted Reality! It is said that he even performed a series of successful experiments proving these precepts. But then unknown forces rose against the monks and destroyed their ranks. And the knowledge was lost... for a time. But I have taken up the search for this forgotten science! And I am on the verge, dear cousin. Soon I shall rediscover the lost Treasure of Eglwys Cacynen! Do you hear me, Tudmire?” Bugbear found empty air his answer. “Tudmire?”

Bugbear turned about to see his cousin sitting in a patch of moonlight, picking coppers from the ground. “Forty-five. Forty-six. Forty-seven...”

“Bah!” Bugbear grumbled, trying to manage his armful of scholarly treasures. A dull metal skittering met one of his footfalls. “Oh dear!” he cried. “My precious tin of tea!” He fell upon the ground, scattering all but his bee jar as he groped blindly through the dark. “Where is it? For the love of sanity, where is it?” His fumbling fingers fell upon the cold metal edges of the tin. “Ah, my medicine!” he sighed. He tucked the jar beneath his arm and ran a finger along the inside of the tin. “Just enough for one dose.” Trembling, he brought the ambrosia-laden finger to his mouth.

From the pile of belongings at Bugbear’s feet, the scroll crackled with luminance once more. And once more Bugbear fell back, scattering his remaining tea to the night winds and shattering his jar upon a rock. The bee was free. “My tea! My bee! My tea! My bee!” the goblin screeched.

Tudmire looked up from his copper collecting. “What’s that you say? Oh! You’ve lit up that paper again, have you? Excellent! I can see more coppers now!” And he returned to his greedy endeavor.

“Tea or bee?” Bugbear muttered to himself. “Tea or bee? Which is the most important? Which shall I search for first? Only time for one! The tea or the bee! The tea or the bee!” His head turned from side to side, like the pendulum of a tightly wound clock.

Suddenly in the unearthly glow, Bugbear caught the flitting flight of a small form. With the grace of an airborne ballerina, the bee settled upon the edge of the scroll. Using great caution and care, Bugbear picked up the arcane parchment, gently lifting the bee to meet his gaze. It perched there, waving its antennae, and looking to him with endless honeycomb eyes. The bee brought its forelegs together, almost as if in prayer. And then the parchment exploded.

Light scattered in every direction. The entire world was engulfed in luminance. Bugbear could feel the earth beneath his feet trembling and shuddering as though it was alive... and very, very afraid.

Wave after wave of golden and white lights lapped over, under, and into each other. The sky thundered with primal force, ripping and re-forming, collapsing and growing. It seemed as though the world was ending. Or perhaps it was just beginning.

“What is all this noising?” Loomis barked from the log. “What mischiefs be you tricksterers confoundering out there?”

“Cousin!” Bugbear yelled as he peered into the blinding white and gold maelstrom, “can you hear me?”

“Yes,” came Tudmire’s timid reply.

“This scroll has done something! I don’t know exactly what, but chances are we won’t live through it! And before we die, I wanted you to know something...”

“What’s that?”

“This is all your fault!”

The lights swirled a few moments more, separated into sparkling grains, and danced away upon the winds. The thunder dwindled into soft, lazy rumbles. And the earth settled once again into its unmoving stance.

Bugbear shook the stupor from his head. Slowly his eyes focused and he again became aware of the forest and the night. The parchment glowed ever so faintly in his hands, and as the bee took to flight, the light died completely. “Whatever it was, it’s over,” Bugbear gasped.

There came a splintering sound. C-c-c-cr-aaaac-c-c-ket! And then there came vengeful voices. “Your trickeries travail you not anymore, little goblings! Soon breaking free we will be!”

Bugbear took up as many of his belongings as he could shovel into his stunted arms. “Tudmire! Enough of this dawdling! We must run!” He scurried into the brush.

Tudmire sprang after his cousin, and soon the goblins were scrambling through the thickets and briars.

“What happened back there?” Tudmire asked.

“I don’t know,” Bugbear admitted. “Some kind of luminous display, I suppose. Maybe a freak electrical storm. Maybe...”

“Maybe it was magic!” Tudmire gasped.

“Again with the magic? Nonsense! All phenomenon have a scientific explanation, Tudmire! This one just takes a bit more thought is all.”

“It’s magic,” Tudmire said.

“I swear if you say that word one more...” Bugbear stopped. He glanced about the forest. “Wait a moment. This isn’t the way to the village.” He looked up to the night sky. “The village is west and...” Bugbear’s words stuck in his throat.

“And what?” Tudmire asked, looking about in confusion.

“By Pappersnap’s toe trimmings! The stars are all out of place!”

“What? That’s ridiculous! Stars don’t just up and bloody move willy-nilly. Unless they’re magic, that is.”

Bugbear felt impossibilities ricocheting through his head. “I can even make out stars that don’t exist! Madness! Madness! We’re lost beyond lost, cousin! Stranded in a strange land!”

The sounds of falling trees and harsh voices shook the goblins to alertness. “We are free, we are! And now you be dead, you be!”

“Time enough for stargazing later!” Tudmire said. He grabbed his cousin by the collar and pulled him into action.

Bugbear ran, as did his thoughts... skimming through a fog, dancing in the twilight, tripping along dusty roads. This was not the world as he knew it. And as he felt the scroll warm and throbbing in his hand, he could not help but think, “Magic?

CHAPTER 2

THE MAGNIFICENT MANCHESTER

 

Puh-tack! Puh-tack!

It must be raining, Martin Manchester thought as the warm droplets splattered upon his cheek, semi-waking him from his slumber. Funny. He did not remember seeing any clouds before he made camp. No matter. He pulled his bedroll over his head and rolled over with a sleepy sigh.

He considered retiring to the warmth and dryness of his caravan. But he had spent his entire life inside. From his sickly childhood spent in bed, to his wasted adulthood spent in his father’s tobacco shop, always he had been inside. Human beings were not meant to be confined in such unnatural ways.

Puh-tack!

Another splatter.

Now finally he followed his dream... a dream that was born the day his Uncle Theodore, the traveling vaudeville magician, visited for Thanksgiving. Oh, he was a colorful character! Full of wild stories and ribald jokes! And he taught young Martin tricks... card tricks mostly, but they were enough to ignite his imagination and stoke his ambitions.

Puh-tack!

Manchester floundered beneath his covers.

Then last month, when word came that Uncle Theodore had died, the old feelings and dreams welled up once again. He knew that he had to get away. He had to finally leave his sickbed and experience the world as Theodore had. His father offered to buy him a train ticket to Addison, as that was world enough for him. But Manchester needed more.

Puh-tack!

Confounded rain!

Uncle Theodore had left his magic tricks, vaudevillian supplies, caravan, and mule to Manchester. That was enough to set the plan in motion. This was 1899, the cusp of the new century... the last century of the millennium! What exciting new discoveries and wonders there would be! An entire new realm of experiences opened up to Manchester! It did not matter that he had no performances scheduled, no dates confirmed, and no contracts signed. It only mattered that for the first time in his life, he had a life.

Puh-tack! Puh-tack!

Blast and bother!

“What ‘tis it, Loomis?” a coarse, rumbling voice asked.

A thin whisper of fear twined through Manchester’s body. Slowly he lowered his bed roll and turned about to find the source of this voice.

Puh-tack! Puh-tack!

They drooled over him. Twisted, nightmare faces, etched with deep lines and painted with distortion. That is what Manchester saw.

Puh-tack! Puh-tack!

“Too tall to be a dwarf, Dubbin,” the largest nightmare said. “Too ugly to be an elf. Too scrawny to be one of us.”

“Maybe it being some newly hatched dragon,” another offered, pointing to Manchester’s bedroll. “Sees how its tails wormses out from its? Asks its something.”

“What should we be asking it, Nigel?”

“Asking it if it’s seeing a pair of gobling runtses.”

One of the creatures pulled itself up into a dignified posture and addressed Manchester. “Please to be telling us, O’ wise dragon hatchling, but hast thou fort seen a duo of gobling scalawags?”

“Coo!” one of the other nightmares exclaimed. “Loomis! But the way you talks! Just likely some fairy noble folkses, I declares!”

“Shush with your gusherings, Dubbin!” the leader commanded. “You be offendering the dragon with your crass behaviors!”

The trio of terrors hovered over Manchester. Puh-tack. Puh-tack. The light from the campfire danced about the rough, inhuman lines of their faces. Ghastly lumps spotted their bodies and coarse hairs sprouted from them in unruly patches. As Manchester looked upon these monstrosities something dreadful and primeval awoke in his brain, as though he looked through a dirty, distorted window onto a world long forgotten. And he wished he had left his foolish dreams of travel and adventure buried beneath his fears and anxieties where they belonged.

“I’m a simple traveling magician,” Manchester sputtered, pulling his bedroll up to his chin and shrinking away from the putrid, steam engine breath of his tormentors. “Take my donkey. Take my wagon. Take whatever you like. Just don’t hurt me.”

“Now, listens, goodly Sir Dragon,” Loomis started, “we doesn’t want no donkeys, nor no wagons, nor no nothing else you gots. We wants two gobling thieverous greaselings, that’s be all, and nothing mores.”

Dubbin grabbed Loomis by the ear. “Isn’t dragons supposedly more boldly acting in behaviors? This one cowers like a flange-lipped buttertoad in the midstle of a wourmboggle’s nest.”

The third creature grabbed Loomis by the other ear. “He saids something abouts being into magicals and simple travails.”

“Well,” Loomis said, “let’s be getting our answers direct from the dragon’s mouth.” He turned to Manchester. “‘Tis you or ‘tisn’t you a dragon?”

“‘Tisn’t,” Manchester whimpered from beneath his covers.

“What is it thens? It ain’t nothing we ever seens before.”

“And you knows what that be meaning, Nigel,” Loomis said. “We gots to kills it.”

“Kills it!” Manchester blurted as he threw off his blanket and scurried backwards. “I haven’t done anything to you! Just leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

“Nothings personals, monster,” Loomis said. “It be ogre law to kill what’s different. Keeps things simple for us. Not as much things to be remembering, understands.”

“Then can we eats its donkey?” Nigel asked. “That gobling’s powder ain’t filling me ups too goodly.”

“A dream,” Manchester gasped. “It must be a dream. No. A nightmare. Wake up, Martin. Wake up. This never happened. You’re at home, working in your father’s tobacco shop. Safe, secure, and miserable. Wake up.”

“What’s he on about?”

“Must be addlepated,” Loomis replied. “All the more reasoning to be putsing the poor thing outs of its miseries.”

The monsters hovered over him, swaying like trees in an October wind. Flickering red thoughts erupted through Manchester’s head. He was waylaid by images of himself finally bursting from his awkward, middle age cocoon in a wild display of strength and courage. But these were lies concocted by an over-active imagination held captive in an under-active life. Manchester let out an odd string of syllables he hoped would somehow protect him. But the mallet-like fists raised high and prepared to strike.

“Oh dear!” a voice cried from a few feet away. “It seems our ogre friends have found a new playmate! How terribly sad for us.”

“Wha’s that?” Loomis said, pulling away from his intended slaughter. “Soundsing like one of them runtses!”

“Oh, yes indeed!” the voice continued. “And I’m hiding right here!”

“Where’s that?” Dubbin snapped.

“Here,” the voice answered. “Safely hidden in the campfire.”

“I gets the little booger!” Nigel exclaimed as he lunged towards the campfire. The brute reached into the flames, digging and scrounging for the source of the ridicule. “Here he be!” Nigel proclaimed as he held aloft a burning log, the flames crawling up his sleeve and spreading ever so quickly about his body.

“Ignoranormous!” Loomis cursed. “That gobling done trickered you! Now you be all on fired and a frightful sights at thats! Dropping that log and rolling on the dirts afore you be all incinderated or some such foolerness!”

Nigel did as told, falling upon the ground and rolling about until the flickering tongues of fire were extinguished. He then sat upright, his skin all bubbled and blackened, bulging and blistered.

“Ha ha!” the voice taunted. “What great sport you ogres are! To think you’d fall for such an obvious deception when any fool could tell we were hiding inside Loomis all along!”

“Ah!” Dubbin said. “You’s out-clevereds youselfs, gobling! Now we knows your where accounts!” Dubbin leapt upon Loomis, a delirious glint in his black eyes.

“Stops with you!” Loomis commanded. “More trickeries!”

The protests dwindled into muted gurgles as Dubbin reached down the elder ogre’s throat. “Coming outs, you be, dastardous goblings!” Dubbin shouted. “Not sportsing to be cowerings in my brother’s innards!”

Manchester recoiled. He almost preferred that the brutes had pounded him into the hereafter, rather than to have to endure such a disturbing spectacle. He inched away, his unblinking eyes never leaving the embattled ogres. He became aware of his wagon off to the side. A nervous instinct sent him rolling beneath it. There perhaps, he hoped, he could hide from the insanity.

There was a buzzing, at first close, then distant, then close once more. A bee, Manchester thought. What a wonderfully mundane threat! He almost laughed as it lit upon his nose. There was something familiar, something real, something sane about its tickling crawl and wispy fuzz upon his skin. Sting me, Manchester thought. Sting me so that I might be shaken back into the real world once more. Sting me so that physical pain erases emotional pain. Sting me.

“Hold very still,” a voice whispered beside Manchester, “or else you might get stung.”

Keeping his head stationary, Manchester glanced to the side. He saw naught but the open end of a glass jar easing towards him. “Who are you? What are you doing with that jar?”

“I’m trying to catch my bee,” the voice replied. “Hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed the jar from your wagon. It’s in the name of science, understand.”

Manchester could only stare in cross-eyed worry as the jar closed over his nose. The stranger slid it downward, gently inching the bee to the tip of the nose, until finally the insect flew into the jar. A stubby hand quickly snapped on a lid.

“Excellent,” the voice hissed. “Back where you belong, my little pet.”

Manchester slowly turned his head, as though it moved upon rusty gears,. Then he saw it... an imp. It crouched there beside him, clutching the jar and grinning with a mouth that seemed to cover its entire face.

“Back where you belong,” the imp tittered. “By the by,” it said as it turned to Manchester, “you may call me Bugbear. You wouldn’t happen to have any banderberry root tea, would you?”

“I won’t stand for this madness any longer!” Manchester yelled. He bolted from beneath the wagon, a rage boiling from his mouth.

“Blimey!” Dubbin exclaimed as he pulled his arm from his brother’s throat. “That there hatchling’s got hisself in a terriblous tempering!”

Loomis coughed and sputtered, his face flushed with rage and discomfort. “No more wasterings of our times on this foolershness,” he spat. “Kills everything what movements!”

Manchester took up a heavy stick. “You’ll kill nothing!” he yelled. “You’ll leave! Leave, do you hear me?” He rushed at the trio of monsters, waving them back with wild swings of the stick.

“It’s gone nasterous on us, Loomis,” Nigel said. “It be scaring me with its mean talkings.”

“Relax boys,” Loomis said as he recovered his breath. “Whatever this creachture be, it only be one.”

Manchester’s demented cackle echoed through the night air. “Yes, indeed! I am one! One fed up human being who wants his sanity back! And I’m going to start by clearing out a few hallucinations!”

Manchester laid the stick aside Dubbin’s lopsided head with a great thud. Manchester followed with a thrust to Nigel’s groin and a crack to his chin.

As the two ogres sat upon the ground in moaning heaps, Manchester glared at Loomis, patting the heavy stick in his hand. “Step right up, Mister Loomis. There’s plenty left for you!”

Loomis cowered. He bowed his head and whimpered and winced. “Leaves it alone, boys,” he whispered to his trembling brothers. “There’s something t’ain’t right with it. Could be rabid or some such nasterousness!”

The ogres stumbled into the forest, spouting cries of terror.

Manchester followed his enemies. He did not know why. He simply did. His head throbbed, crowded with anger and delirium. Run! the nervous needle-like voice cried from the far corners of his mind. Run! And never stop! And he may well have never stopped... if only he had paid a little less attention to the voice inside his head, and a little more attention to the ditch beneath his feet.