Pop Goes the Shepherd

Ehmily of the Gonner House was supposed to be picking the blackberries as they reached their peak plumpness in those early summer months.  Instead she merely picked half of them and immediately consumed the other half as her reward.  She stopped briefly and took a seat in the lush grass just outside the castle grounds to contemplate how she would explain the half-empty basket to her handmaiden.

She was a girl of twenty-three but still a child in the eyes of her noble parents, so she was rarely allowed to go anywhere without a handmaiden or two.  Her current guardian had thought it safe enough to pick berries on the other side of the field, so she was safe from House eyes for now.  The only eyes she wanted to take in her long raven hair, pale skin, and shimmering green eyes were far away.  You see there was a boy…  His name was Hymnock and he was of a rival House.  The scandal of their union could destroy both Houses and even the poor settlements stuck in the tar of their vengeance politics, but every other summer or so Ehmily and Hymnock managed to find moments under the trees and between the blackberries where they could roll about and permanently bend the grass with their passion.

A stick snapped.  Ehmily quickly swallowed a blackberry and tried to find the source of the sound.  Hymnock emerged from behind a tree.  He was just as she’d remembered him from two summers ago, only a touch broader in the chest.  Just as the trees absorb the sun’s radiance without praise or thanks, the two did not need to exchange words.  They ran to each other.  Hymnock was so close.  He saw the purple glisten on her lips from the blackberries.  He was an inch from tasting her, from feeling the explosion of passion they’d waited two silent years for.

Pop went Ehmily!

Hymnock tried to wrap his arms around the cloud of purple bubbles she left behind, but they slipped away from him and rapidly rose into the sky.  Darn, I was so excited to tell their story.  It was a dream really; it had everything from war and betrayal to a nation-defining berry cobbler and blindfolded swordplay.  Unfortunately Ehmily was removed from that possibility when she effervesced away.  Oh well.  It just means I’ll have to find a better story for you.  Let me see… Oh there’s one.

It was a bit early in the day for Jopson to be skulking about.  He’d walked by moonlight so much in the past decade that the sight of the sun often made him yawn.  He did his best to stifle the noise so the nobleman he was tailing would not hear.  The crowded market streets did that for him, but being careful is what made him the best.  It’s what made the Duke of Ferrendig willing to cough up so much gold for his services.  The gold in turn motivated Jopson to come out of his most recent hideaway in the light of day.  The man he tailed kept a busy schedule and Jopson needed to master every detail of it.

Ferrendig wasn’t just paying for information you see, he had bought a replacement.  Jopson needed to find an opportunity to pull his target away from the population, slit his throat without staining his finery, and then take the man’s place.  After that the complicated phase of the plan would begin…

Pop went Jopson!

I know you’re frustrated.  I am too; there’s no need to point fingers.  I’m well aware you don’t want to hear the story of the tiny yellow bubbles Jopson left behind.  That’s just the trouble I face trying to tell stories about the world of Effer.  It’s their meta-laws, which are a bit feistier than those of places like Earth.  Humans and animals in Effer have to obey the natural order of the land around them whether they like it or not.  The involuntary instantaneous transportation known as ‘effervescing’ is just a fact of life to them.  It happens randomly and without warning, sometimes seconds apart and sometimes decades.

Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way.  Creatures tend to effervesce more frequently during periods of emotional intensity or stress; it’s asking for trouble to find a situation where exciting things are already happening and expect them to stay that way.  I need to find someone enjoying a calmer moment before their life becomes a flurry of exploration, love, or violence.

I’ll take a quick second to look.  Okay.  He should work.  This one doesn’t start with a love affair or skullduggery, so try to stay with me until it gets going.  Our hero this time is a goofy, laidback, young fellow named Larmie Bo Pipper.

He chased a rooster out from behind a horse stable.  He wasn’t young enough for it to be a children’s game; he was twenty-four and that crowing chicken was serious business.  Larmie carried a long stick with a loop of rope at the end of it that he used to wrangle any domestic animals he managed to find.  It was the standard piece of equipment for the shepherds of Effer.  The animals of their world effervesced just as much as the people, which complicated the raising of livestock quite a bit.  Most townships settled into a system where young men without much potential or connection handled the corralling and sale of the farm animals that popped in and out of their lives.

Larmie lassoed the rooster and pulled it close to his chest.  The bird protested at first but quickly calmed and breathed through its open beak rather than scratch at its temporary owner.  It knew there would be other chances to be free.  He stroked the bird’s comb gently and walked home.

Home for Larmie was a small shack.  It had at some point been painted green, but the exterior had fallen victim to peeling in the sun and splintering in the winter and now looked vaguely furry.  The building had been home to various shepherds over the decades and tended to be adopted shortly after its previous owner effervesced.  Someone, two shepherds before Larmie, had built a lovely fence and gate to hold all the livestock in the field just past the shack.  The one before Larmie had built a full chicken coop.  Larmie…  Well, he hadn’t done much of anything.  In his defense, the livestock didn’t need much else.  If they had wanted a brothel or a city hall he might have bothered to build them one.

The rooster seemed content when he placed it inside.  There were plenty of interesting females for it to protect: chickens, ducks, quails, and a few geese.  Larmie didn’t choose which animals effervesced into his path, so he took each and every one that he knew produced tasty eggs.  He was proud of how full he kept the coop, something he couldn’t do for the adjacent pasture.  Dragging pigs, cows, and sheep to his home was far more difficult and, in his eyes, hardly worth the effort for the extra money.  The roof over the coop also reduced the rate of effervescing, so the poultry were more reliable than the grazers as well.

The simple observation that having a roof over your head reduced the odds of effervescing at any given time by about half was something that defined many of Effer’s societies.  Plenty of people spent their lives indoors, terrified they could lose their home and their family at any moment.  They built massive palaces with thick walls that reduced the chances even more and often found that after successfully avoiding effervescing for sixty years they hadn’t actually done much of anything at all.

The simple shack with its whistling walls full of termite and beetle tunnels made it so Larmie’s township didn’t keep their shepherds for very long.  Before he knew it he would be somewhere else. Wrangling birds with slightly stranger plumage.  Milking cows with fewer spots and tinier ears.

Larmie sat in his one chair in front of his one table as the sun descended and unwrapped his dinner: half a loaf of bread, a thick slice of tangy yellow cheese, and two hard-boiled eggs with a pinch of salt.  He had an egg halfway in his mouth when someone knocked on his door.  The sound shook the shack and practically took the door down.  Larmie licked the salt off the egg, set it down, and rose.  His hand paused near the handle.  He didn’t get visitors often.  In fact, he’d been robbed more times than visited.  Eventually he decided to open the door regardless, since the shack’s walls couldn’t even stop a hummingbird from barging its way in.

“Oh, thank you!” the visitor declared as he stepped inside.  He dropped himself into Larmie’s one chair.  The visitor was an old man with a long gray beard and a worn hat with a wide floppy brim.  He had strange, luminous, blue stains on the front of his rumpled shirt.  He set down his large overstuffed pack next to the chair and Larmie heard several objects inside fall off each other.  One of them started ticking but the visitor kicked at it until it stopped.

“My name’s Gable,” the man said.  “I just popped in this morning and I had the darnedest time finding some hospitality.”

“I’m Larmie.  There’s an inn in town.  It’s not two miles from here,” Larmie suggested.

“Oh I haven’t the money for a room,” Gable chuckled.  He picked up one of Larmie’s eggs and ate it in one bite.  “Could uthe thum thalt,” he suggested through full cheeks.  Larmie sighed.  He might have been angry at another time, but the rooster had worn him out and it wasn’t like he was suffering for eggs.  He went out to the coop and retrieved four more to share with his guest.  Maybe I can get some good stories out of him, he thought.

“So where did you pop in from?” Larmie asked while he boiled the eggs over a child-sized iron stove and nibbled on the cheese.

“Terrible place,” Gable started.  “Very hot.  The sun burned me before I got this hat.”  He lifted the cap to show his bald peeling scalp.  Larmie set down the cheese.  Gable picked it up and took a hearty bite.  “I didn’t find anything there.  There were people sure, but not a decent soul among them.”

“It kind of sounds like the underworld,” Larmie noticed.

“Oh no,” Gable said with a smirk.  “I’ve seen the underworld.  It’s much more pleasant.”

“You’re lucky you had your pack with you when you popped,” Larmie said.  “When I got here I had nothing but my pants.  No shirt, no shoes.  I was washing my hair under a spigot at the time.  I had no money but I still had soap in my hair.”  Gable guffawed and smacked the table.  It threatened to collapse.  Even the walls shook a little, like they were ready to give out in solidarity.

“It looks like things turned out okay for you,” he said as he wiped a tear from his eye.  “Shepherd’s not a bad job.”

“You ever been one?”

“I’m kind of one now.  Not looking for animals though.  Looking for good people.  The kind of person who opens his home to strangers.”  Gable’s face grew serious.  “I’ve got plans boy.  I’m going to build a paradise.  Could use somebody to wrangle animals for it.  You interested?”  Larmie looked at the man’s disheveled clothes and decided he had his life more together than Gable did.

“No, thank you.  I’m comfortable here.”  Gable did not look happy with that answer.  He adjusted himself in the chair.  They sat silently for a moment.

“Suit yourself,” Gable said, suddenly returning to a smile.  “I appreciate what you’ve done for an old man like me.”  He ate his third egg and the last of the bread.  Then he dragged his pack over to Larmie’s straw mattress and stretched himself across it.  “I’ll get out of your hair in the morning.”  He rolled over and quickly fell asleep.

Like everything else, Larmie had only one bed.  He wrapped up the remaining scraps of food and stored them away before heading out to the coop.  It was warmer than the shack anyway and he’d just filled it with fresh straw.  He didn’t know it but most of his chickens were descended from a very smart breed native to another continent, so they had the sense to not foul their coop with dung when they knew they’d be set loose in the morning.  That allowed Larmie to lean himself up against the back of the coop, cover his legs with straw, and relax to the quiet coos and trills of the resting birds.  His new rooster approached and clucked once as if to say Everything’s good here boss.  Then it nestled down next to him and they both fell asleep.

He awoke to the sound of the rooster pecking at the door.  Several of the birds milled about in front of it, wondering what was taking so long.

“Just a second,” Larmie groaned as he stretched his arms.  He went to clear the straw away and noticed he had a blanket.  It was Gable’s pack; it had been emptied, unfolded, and stretched over him.  Larmie stood up and shook it.  Did he carry all his stuff when he left?  I hope he did leave.  I’d need a second coop to feed him.

Larmie pushed the door open and all the birds flooded out.  The geese waddled off towards the pond.  The quails sequestered themselves in the shade under the coop.  Larmie threw the pack over his shoulder and went to check on the cows, sheep, and pigs.  He leaned up against the fence and counted.  Three… four… five!?  Three popped away last night?  From now on just birds.

Pop went a lamb!

Pop came a lamb!

The confused little animal took a moment to realize it had just effervesced a grand total of forty feet.  Unfortunately for Larmie, those forty feet were the difference between inside the fence and the rest of the wide world.  He had to immediately break his poultry-promise and chase the springing bleating little creature up a hill.  He was nearly out of breath when they reached the top.  He reached out to grab it but the defiant lamb nipped at his hand, lost its balance, and rolled down the hill.  Larmie took a deep breath and chased it down.

There was something very odd.  He’d chased animals a hundred times before, but never quite felt the way he did now.  Something was off.  It was a bit like part of him was still asleep.  Larmie ignored the feeling, accepted the risk that he was just chasing one of the dream sheep people count, and continued the pursuit.  The lamb’s bravery gave way when it came to some very tall grass it was reluctant to enter.  It leaned up against the plants like they were a brick wall and bleated helplessly.  Larmie grabbed it.  He stroked its fleece to calm it.  Now I can catch my breath, slow my heart…

That was it.  Larmie had been running as fast as he could.  He was breathing hard, but the rhythm of his heart had not changed.  Its beating had not sped up during the chase.  Just the steady thump thump thump it had been running all night.  Larmie wondered if his body had just become that accustomed to chasing rogue animals about.  Perhaps the chase was just his natural state now.  He returned the lamb behind the fence, tracking his heartbeat the whole way.  It was so stable that it almost irritated him, like water dripping onto an empty pan.

Rather than accept the oddity, he decided to test it.  First he checked to see that Gable had in fact left.  There was nothing of the old man left but the blanket and a depression in his mattress.  Then he went outside and pictured a location: the inn Gable had so plainly refused.  Surely a two mile run into town could make his blood pump a little faster.  He picked up his wrangling pole from where it leaned against the shack.  He started jogging.

When Larmie reached the dirt roads just outside town he picked up speed.  Come on heart, go faster.  His forehead sparkled with sweat.  His body responded to the stress in all the right ways except the one he was looking for.  Thump thump thump thump thump.  His heart still seemed to think he was relaxing under a tree with a good book.

He came up on the inn and blew past it.  The people milling about watched him pass and wondered how a simple shepherd could be in such a hurry.  He weaved his way in and out of the crowd as he reached the heart of town.  He only stopped when a funeral procession came down the main road and blocked him.  Men and women in black garb burned candles and rang small silver bells as they carried a coffin past.  Larmie leaned up against a stall that was selling fish.  The smell of the crayfish hit him just as looked into their shiny little black eyes, which made him slightly nauseous.  I could kill myself with this running, he realized.  Without my heart warning me it’s too difficult to tell how hard I’m pushing my body.

As he caught his breath he noticed a person standing on the opposite side of the street.  Their sex was unclear as they wore a flowing blue cape and hood that obscured much of their body.  Judging by their hairless jaw and height, Larmie guessed they were female.  The figure also wore a pair of unusual glasses with perfectly round lenses.  The lenses, from Larmie’s end, looked opaque and like they were filled with ripples.  She smiled at Larmie.  He was now confident it was a woman because he felt the back of his neck get even hotter.  He calmed himself and tried to force the red color out of his face.  She walked towards him.  Larmie slicked back his hair with his own sweat.  When she reached him she pulled off her hood and revealed a brown ponytail.  She kept the glasses on.

“What were you running from?” she asked coyly.

“Maybe I was running to something,” he answered, trying to be suave despite the sweat stains under his arms.

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “It looks like you’ve already got everything you could need.”  He smiled at what he thought was a compliment.

“I may have everything I need, but I would certainly run for the things I want.”

“What do you want?”

“I uhh… well…  I guess I’m not sure.”

“Then why were you running?”

“Oh you know.  Just trying to get the blood pumping.”

“You’re likely to pop away from here if you keep stressing yourself like that.”

“Do I have a reason to stay?” he asked with a stupid smile.

“I certainly don’t want you to leave until you give me your secret.”  Her expression changed.  Her playful smile disappeared.  The bug-like lenses of her glasses angled down and stared deep into his chest.  Larmie suddenly felt like one of the crayfish drying out next to him.

Larmie had one bed, one stove, one table, and one chair, but he didn’t have a single secret.  He was about to tell her when two men in the same robes and hoods emerged from the alley behind him.  They surrounded him on all sides.  Larmie’s hand tightened on his wrangling pole.

“It’s about time,” the woman said and smacked one of the men on the arm.  “I signaled you two a minute ago.  He could’ve gotten away.”

“We can’t see any signal through your glasses,” one of the men said.

“Well go on, look for yourself,” she said.  “He’s got it.”

The older and burlier of the two men carried a walking stick with a polished stone grip.  He lifted the object, ran his fingers halfway down its length, and then dipped them inside the wood.  He pulled a pair of glasses, just like the woman’s, from the stick’s innards and placed them on his face.

There is something else about Effer that I neglected to mention.  While the effervescing is certainly the most noticeable aspect that separates it from places like Earth, Effer’s entire framework is fundamentally different.  What you might call physics they call the meta-laws; as they can rarely manage to maintain consistent educational systems, there aren’t many professors or experts in Effer that can tell you about them.  A human, animal, or object in Effer, if approached and poked, will respond in the way you expect.  In the terms of their meta-laws, when viewed through the eyes of gods and magical beings, you can see that things in Effer are actually quite thin-skinned.

There is a school of magic in Larmie’s world, difficult to master, that allows one to store smaller objects within the form of something bigger.  It’s like delicately inserting a tiny bubble into a larger one.  There was no secret compartment in the man’s stick; he had simply stored the glasses within its wood.

The glasses, made from glass infused with the bubbles people leave behind when they effervesce, could see inside things and identify any objects hidden within.

“By the golden calf,” the man said as he pondered Larmie’s chest.  “He’s practically got a storefront inside him!  How many layers is that?”

“What?” Larmie gasped.  Though he was a peasant, most were aware of the basic rules of storage magic.  Putting things inside living creatures was technically possible, but always killed the creature.  It was the discord between the calm stasis of inanimate things and the steady thump of a living heartbeat.  Eventually the body would be convinced it too was an object, the heart would slow, and it would die over the course of a few hours.  There were many legends about what a miserable way to go it was.

Larmie was miserable, but only because of the uniformed thugs surrounding him.  Even though he couldn’t get his heart to speed up, it didn’t seem to be slowing down either.

“What’s inside me?” he asked.

“Don’t play dumb,” the woman said.  “You expect us to believe you don’t know you’ve got one of the most valuable things in history tucked away in your bosom?”

“So it is in there?” the burly man asked.  “I can’t see it through that glow.”

“Just grab him,” the woman ordered.  “I don’t know what that is either, but it’s got to be past that.  I’ll dig it out of him.”  Both men grabbed Larmie’s arms and pinned him against the wall.  One of them covered his mouth so he couldn’t scream.  Larmie could taste a bit of the fine cheese the man had for lunch.  It smelled richer than the stuff he was used to.  His panicked mind briefly wondered what people who could afford such fine cheese needed from him.

The woman touched all her fingertips together and made a small circling motion with her arm.  Her hand approached like a drill ready to drink oil from the ground.  Larmie could practically hear it whir like a machine.  He tried to swing his wrangling pole, but with his arms pinned the loop of rope just shook weakly.  He looked at the crayfish.  Now it’s your turn to get ripped from your shell, they seemed to say.  They’re going to bore a nice hole in your middle and pour hot butter inside.

Larmie screamed through the man’s hand and kicked the wall.  Her fingers were an inch away.  The blank glasses hid their greedy eyes, made them look like owls dispassionately disemboweling a rodent.  They held him tighter.  The woman’s nails touched his shirt, hot and moist with sweat.  They passed through.  They tapped his flesh.

Pop went Larmie!

Don’t panic.  I won’t let this story get away from us; this time we’re going to follow him through that veil of meta-bubbles.  He might be able to escape those thugs, but he can’t shake an indefatigable narrator like me.  I know a little sleuthing trick for following the people of Effer; it’s a bit difficult and frustrating, so I didn’t bother to try it with Ehmily or Jopson.  We’re too invested in Larmie to give up now though.  I just need to check what color bubbles he left behind… hmm… orange.  I would have pegged him as more of a sea foam kind of guy.

I can describe the veil to you but I doubt you’ll be able to picture it; it’s something like a three dimensional drip painting where each drop reflects light in all directions.  Strings and strings and strings and plumes of bubbles of all colors.  There’s an orange one that looks like Larmie’s shade.  Wait, no, that’s not his.  Oh darn, that story is really interesting too, but I’m here in this nose-tickling mess for Larmie.  Got him!

Pop came Larmie!

He landed in a section of dry forest.  His body crunched the yellowing grass and pine needles as he rolled to a stop.  He’d managed to bring his wrangling pole with him, so he used it to stabilize his feet and pull himself up.  He looked around and saw nothing but forest and meadows.  It would be impossible to be a shepherd with no people around.  Larmie should’ve been thinking about his lack of true hunting skills, but his mind was preoccupied by the people in blue that had tried to crack him open.  He could still feel the woman’s hand spiraling towards him.  He lifted his shirt and ran a hand across his sternum.  Did Gable put something inside me?  Is that how you repay hospitality these days?  That woman said it was one of the most valuable things in history. I don’t know if I can just ignore something like that.  It could still kill me.  Maybe it’s a big nugget of gold that will slowly turn my insides yellow until I’m just a statue they can prop up in some courtyard.

While he pondered this, a bush rustled nearby.  He turned to look and saw a furry figure emerge from it.  After a moment he realized none of the fur was attached; it was a woman wearing a coat, thick fur boots, and a snout-shaped hood fashioned from the head of a moose.  The big permanently-flared nostrils gave it away.  She had emerald vines loaded with white and purple berries tattooed on her bare arms.  She carried two dead rabbits by their feet in one hand and an axe with a black stone head in the other.

“Hello,” she said in a strange accent few had ever heard; her words were heavy and grumbling, like the breath of a hibernating bear.  “I am Fengirl of Vinterlond.  Who are you?”

“I am Larmie of… nowhere in particular,” he answered.  He was too busy staring dumbly at her dirty blonde hair and eyebrows, strong jaw, and warm pink lips to remember his chest was still exposed.  When he realized he let the shirt drop and held his wrangling pole forward like a scepter.  “I just popped in.”

“There is a town, three days’ walk, that way,” she said with a little smile.  If anything could’ve sped Larmie’s heart, it was that look.  Her smile was friendly, but firm in a way that suggested it was very difficult to get more than that from her.  If she ever laughed it would only be during the happiest moment of her life.  Larmie took a second to check.  Thump thump thump.  No change.

“I’ve never heard of Vinterlond,” he said when it looked like she was about to walk away.  Fengirl’s smile grew imperceptibly.

“Then you must share this meat with me, so I can tell you the tale,” she said.

Larmie followed her instructions and constructed a small fire pit and roasting spit from sticks and stones. While he scooped soil out of the center he noticed Fengirl grabbing at the air.

“Are the flies biting?” he asked.

“No, I am catching light to make the fire,” she answered.

“You can do that?”

“All in Vinterlond have learned.”  She spread some straw in the base of the pit, lowered her closed hand, and pressed the captured light down.  Some of it slipped between her fingers like rising oil and the rest caught in the straw and created a flame.  She sat down next to it, pulled out a stone knife, and expertly skinned and gutted the rabbits while Larmie fed larger sticks to the fire.

“So where is Vinterlond?” he finally asked.  He needed the conversation to distract him from the enticing smell of the meat and her mesmerizing green eyes, one on each side of the fire’s single curl of silky smoke.

“I cannot say.  I do not know where I am in relation to it.  What I can tell you is that it’s perfect.”

“You must be sad you popped away.”

“Only some.  We have another technique that kept us from leaving.  When everyone effervesced away they did so purposefully.  We decided, a few months back, that our lives were too orderly.  We needed to spread the Vinterlond spirit to the world, so we let the bubbles take us.  There are probably no people left there.”

“How was it perfect?”

“Everything had harmony.  Our trees and flowers bloomed in the winter so sadness would never overtake us.  The stings of our bees only tickled.  While the laughter distracted you they would carry the hive away.  In these lands, bird mothers must sit upon their eggs to warm them.  Eggs in Vinterlond create such heat that we use them to warm our hands.”

“And you all chose to leave that?”  Larmie pictured himself peeling a self-boiled egg, removing the shell in one easy piece, and watching a friendly bee sprinkle pink salt over it.

“Perfection is for nature, not man,” she explained.  “We need change to grow.  So here I am, changing.”  She ripped a leg from one of the rabbits, the fire seeming to politely avoid her hands, and sank her teeth into it.  Larmie was more careful with his piece.  He blew on it several times while Fengirl smirked.

“I guess I don’t know the perfect way to eat rabbit,” he said.

“Where did you come from Larmie?”

“A town…  Like most others.  I was a shepherd.  I’m not sure how, but I wound up very important to some strangers.  They tried to capture me and rip a treasure out of my chest.”  He took a bite of the rabbit and swallowed.  He wondered if it would hit the hidden object on the way down.

“What treasure do you have?” Fengirl asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully.  “Someone stored it in me while I slept.  I’m not sure how I’m still alive.”

“A shepherd hmm?” she muttered, unbothered by his tale of kidnappers and treasure in the flesh.  “You must be very good at catching animals.”

“Oh umm, I guess I am.  Why do you ask?”

“You could help me hunt these forests.  You could be my man.  Will you stay with me?”  Larmie coughed and struggled to keep hold of his piece of rabbit.  A trickle of hot grease burned one of his hands and he dropped the meat.  Fengirl snatched it out of the air before it could hit the dirt and handed it back to him.

“You don’t even know me,” he sputtered.

“My eyes have seen perfection many times.”

“And you see perfection in me?”

“No, I see goodness in you.  And strength.  You will be a wonderful partner.  I will teach you the secrets of Vinterlond and we will be happy.”  She moved and sat next to him, placing her hand on his thigh.

“Where would we live?” he asked, flabbergasted.

“Here.  We will build a home.”  Larmie was about to protest when he remembered his perforated shack.  He felt the cold night wind throwing its javelins through the holes in its walls.  It couldn’t be much worse, he realized.  Even the shack would be much warmer with a woman by his side.

“Are you going to use that technique to keep us from effervescing apart?” he asked.

“No.  Change is natural.  We will not fight it.  We will be together as long as life allows.”

I’ll go ahead and tell you that Larmie said yes, partly because he didn’t know what else to say.  We don’t need to dwell on it since we have a lot of ground to cover and it wasn’t much of a courtship anyway.  They quickly settled into a rhythmic duet of duties and then into love.  Like most true love, there was never an explosion of passion.  It came with closeness: a novel writing itself one sentence at a time.

They built a small house and cleared the trees around it so they could grow zucchini, sweet peppers, and beans.  Fengirl did most of the hunting while Larmie trekked into town every month or so for any supplies they needed.

She taught him the many tricks of Vinterlond: how to yawn in a way that made attacking beasts instantly drowsy, how to convince earthworms to be your shoelaces, how to capture light in the palm of your hand, how to swim without getting wet, the secret knock that convinced turtles to come out of their shells, and hundreds of others.  There was only one thing he could give her to repay the kindness, other than his love.

Their children were born four years into their life together.  Fengirl’s fertility was up to Vinterlond standards, so she had a healthy litter of three girls and two boys.  It wasn’t until after they were born that she explained Vinterlond children to Larmie; they often made friends with animals and spent much of their early life slightly feral, so they were born with sharp canines and twitching noses so they could better play with the other furry things of the forest.  Larmie had to tolerate many playful nips as they grew.  When the last of their baby teeth came out he celebrated; there was no more need to keep them at bay with his wrangling pole.

The pole rarely left his side.  It, and his heartbeat, were the only things left from his old life.  His heart was steady as ever, never skipping a beat or speeding up, even while he was intertwined with Fengirl in bed.  He made his peace with it; if she couldn’t get it going then nothing could.  His heart counted the moments as they mounted.  The seasons.  The years.  Larmie lived there with his family, happily, for fifteen years.  Two of their children effervesced away before they reached eleven, but Fengirl and Larmie were confident they would find their way.  They had been raised well and carried the spirit of Vinterlond with them.

One night they settled into bed, the children asleep in the next room.  He watched Fengirl’s eyes close.  She started to snore.  He couldn’t help but love the sound.  He caressed her hair and stood up to fetch some water, slipping on his shoes to avoid the cold floor.  Without knowing exactly why, he grabbed his wrangling pole from off the wall and used it as a walking stick.  His hand was closing around the metal pitcher when…

Pop went Larmie!

We won’t see Fengirl again, because Larmie will never see her again.  Do not despair.  I’ll give you a small taste of the rest of her life so you know everything turns out okay for her.  Basically, there’s a reason I didn’t try to tell any stories about the people of Vinterlond.  They’re too perfect, nauseatingly so.  They already understand way too much about the world around them.  Any time trouble approaches Fengirl with gnashing teeth she merely sidesteps it or knocks it on the head with something until it changes its mind.

Three weeks after Larmie effervesced away, she was busy working the garden with her three remaining children.  The oldest, by one minute, was teaching the youngest, by three minutes, the Vinterlond technique of un-rotting vegetables.  They both held shriveled zucchinis and coaxed them back to freshness with compliments and whispered poems.  The third spotted a line of people approaching the house and quickly warned Fengirl.  She stopped tilling the soil with her hands and rose to greet them.

It was three men, dressed in blue finery not suited to such rugged terrain; they looked like a line of male peacocks sullenly dragging their tails after unsuccessfully trying to woo some females.  They wore foggy glasses that made Fengirl smirk.  Her trained eyes could see everything the glasses saw and then some.  Based on Larmie’s descriptions, she guessed they were of the same order that tried to steal her man’s treasure.  Fengirl had seen into Larmie’s core many times, but never thought it relevant to bring up what was hidden inside.  He didn’t need it to be an excellent partner or father.

The men dragged themselves to her, panting heavily.  One of them unfurled a piece of parchment and held it up.  A charcoal likeness of a younger Larmie stared back at her.

“Have you seen this man?  He would look older than this by now.”

“I have,” she answered.  The men ripped off their glasses and squinted at her.

“So, it’s true!  Someone in town said he lived up here in the woods.”

“He was my love,” she said plainly.

“Where is he now?”

“The bubbles took him in the night weeks ago.  He was a good man.”  With that she turned back to her garden and plunged her hands back into the fertile soil.  One of the dejected men kicked a nearby tree.  After a decade and a half the Seekers of the Fountain had missed him by just a few moons and a few trees.

Pop came Larmie!

He landed in the middle of a bloody battle.  A sword slashed towards his face, cleaving through the last of the orange bubbles.  He leaned back and blocked it with his wrangling pole.  He snagged the warrior’s wrist and pulled him forward.  The man wore red leather armor and had a tree tattooed on his forehead, the roots burying themselves in his eyebrows.  He let out a battle cry and, ignoring the fact Larmie wore pajamas rather than armor, continued trying to attack.

Two soldiers in brown armor came from behind Larmie and pushed the red one back.  Larmie was grabbed around the wrist and pulled away from the center of the skirmish.  He did his best not to step on the bodies or the trails of bloody grass near them.  He was pulled into a large brown tent and released.  A man in ornate armor who wore a small, jagged, black crown looked up from his map with all its little wooden soldiers and ships to greet Larmie.  They shook hands.

“What’s going on here?” Larmie asked.  It started to dawn on him that it was not a nightmare and he had been pulled from his family.  Fengirl was quickly fading into a memory in his heart.  He felt it.  It hurt very much, but still his heart did not falter.  Every pump simply stung.

“I am Commander Barbrook,” the crowned man declared.  “This is the fourth company of the Gonner army.  You’ve popped into a long and dreary war.”  He looked Larmie up and down and stared at the wiggling worms keeping his shoes tied.  “Don’t know as I’ve seen one like you before.  Where are you from?”

“I have been separated from my family,” Larmie said in response.  “I’m going to do what I can to get back to them.”  He turned to leave, but was blocked by a guard.

“How do you expect us to win a war with all the effervescing that goes on out there?” Barbrook asked.  “My ankles are stained red by the daily tide of blood.  I don’t have the time or the patience to convince you to stay.  By the will of nature you have shown up, so you’re being conscripted.  These men will take you to get your tattoo.  Anyone with one is one of ours, anyone without is an enemy.”

“What do you expect me to do?” Larmie shouted as he was dragged from the tent.

“Kill every fool with a tree on his forehead,” Barbrook said nonchalantly as he pushed a tiny soldier around his map.

Larmie was taken to another tent where an aged woman missing several fingers and teeth had a needle waiting.  He was held down as she tattooed a blackberry on the back of his neck.  It was the slightest blessing that he hadn’t popped onto the other side of the field and been made to endure a tattoo across his forehead.  He whispered to the worms on his shoes, told them to save themselves lest they be forced to crawl through bloody dirt for the rest of their lives.  The worms silently undid their knots, wriggled off his boots, and burrowed into the ground.

Any hopes of escaping died when he realized how widespread the conflict was.  Glances at maps showed swaths of units all across the side of the continent.  If he tried to run he would just stumble into another unit and get conscripted all over again, so he was forced to fight.

Larmie never considered himself a violent sort and fifteen years with Fengirl had taught him several ways to avoid the issue.  Each time he recalled one of her tricks his heart ached and his fingers grew lax, convinced there was nothing else worth holding on to.  Popped, dead, what’s the difference? he often thought.  She was still taken from me.  He stuck to the periphery of skirmishes when he could, opting to use his wrangling pole instead of a sword.  Eventually he made friends with a blacksmith who forged him a new pole of metal that was topped with stronger black rope.

The campaign took him away from the shore and up into the mountains.  Months passed.  Larmie managed to avoid taking a life directly.  He was very close once; he was trapped up against a cliff face with barely room to stand and a pike man was charging towards him.  A cannonball struck the stone above them and started a massive rockslide.  As the boulders crashed and tumbled towards them, Larmie recalled what Fengirl had told him about the behavior of rocks; they weren’t very creative and tended to fall in the same pattern every time.  He performed the Vinterlond dance of stones, a lovely routine with plenty of hops and twists that, when performed correctly, dodges all falling rocks.  The pike man was not so fortunate and was carried down the mountain to join the rest of the marching dead.

In another instance he had been knocked over by a heavily armored knight and was moments from being crushed by his war hammer.

Pop came a bride!

The startled woman ran across the knight’s path, the extremely long train of her dress tripping them both.  Larmie was able to get to his feet and flee before the armored turtle righted itself.  The bride fled from the field, dress emblazoned with bold grass stains.  She was very grateful at not having to go through with it, even if she had to run through a battlefield to escape.

Whenever Larmie asked about the conflict at the core of the war he was shrugged off.  Nobody seemed to think it mattered.  They were there and they had a purpose, so many took the war into their hearts like a lover.  They couldn’t be anything else because the world they popped into needed soldiers.  There was no time to think of passion or destiny when the damn treeheads were marching.

There came a day when Larmie gained three friends in the morning.  They had all popped in from different places and shared stories with him: a woman whose windmill fed an entire village, a teen who missed his twelve pet turtles, and a man who had been struck by lightning several times and was thoroughly convinced it was coming back for him.  It’s a shame he wasn’t struck in Vinterlond, Larmie thought.  The lightning there just fills you with energy and strength for a few months.

Larmie lost those friends in a battle that very night, to swords and fire instead of bubbles.  After that he could stand it no longer.  He marched into Commander Barbrook’s tent late in the evening with the intention of dueling the man, claiming the crown, and releasing all the conscripts.  He wasn’t even sure if the crown would give him any claim to authority, but it was the only plan he had.

He was surprised to find a different man in the tent, wearing Barbrook’s crown.  This fellow had a much longer beard and an impressive paunch.  He was seated at a table, cramming food down his throat and drinking rich wine.  Larmie smelled the roast chicken, pan-seared vegetables, bacon fat, and the dollops of herb-filled butter.

“Who are you?” Larmie demanded.  “Where’s Barbrook?”

“He popped two months ago,” the new commander said.  He let out a small belch and wiped his mouth on a napkin.  “I am Commander Tockter.  Why are you out of bed soldier?  You’ll need your strength for tomorrow’s engagement.”

“I don’t understand,” Larmie said.  “Are you with the Gonners?”

“No.  I popped in and was conscripted just like you, six years ago.  Hard work earned me this crown.”

“You could have ended all this!” Larmie shouted.  “Do you even know what we’re fighting over?”

“The orders come from the Gonners each month, so our services must still be required.  Do the treeheads not still march?  They have not ended their campaign of bloodshed.  Why should we concede and let them overrun the land?”

“Nobody lives on this land!  Nobody cares!  This place has nothing!  All we do is fight here.  These mountains are a graveyard bursting at the seams.  Has anyone even checked to make sure the peaks aren’t just the bodies of yesterday’s battle?”

“I will not be spoken to this way soldier,” Tockter said.

“I’ll speak to you however I want.  We sit out there every night and eat crusts and broth while you’re in here with the fatted hen!”

“We all suffer the shortages of war,” Tockter insisted.  “This boon was mere luck.  A rooster popped in this morning and the cook managed to catch it for me.  My average meal is hardly better than the rest of the men.”

Larmie looked at the chicken, half of it picked clean.  He thought about how it could be the offspring of his rooster back from his time in the shack.  If the new shepherd there knew any of the Vinterlond husbandry techniques that extended an animal’s life, it could have been the original rooster himself.  Larmie flew into a rage like he’d never experienced.  His heart did not speed but its thumps grew heavy as anvil strikes.  He attacked Tockter with his wrangling pole.  He wrapped the rope around the man’s fat neck and squeezed.  Tockter burbled for help and two armed guards rushed into the tent.  They pulled Larmie away and knocked him unconscious.

When he awoke he thought, for a brief moment, that he had effervesced.  He wondered if the welt on the back of his head was just where a particularly large bubble had popped against his skin.  When the world around him became clear he recognized the place.  He’d been set on a stone square surrounded by wooden gates: the place where they hung or whipped disobedient soldiers.  He tried to look up at the sky, but was stopped by the big wooden shackle around his neck and arms.

“It’s no use,” a fellow prisoner said from a few feet over.  “The only way out of these things is to pop out of them.”

“Are we to be disciplined?” Larmie asked.

“Disciplined to death.”

You’re smart, so you probably already know Larmie doesn’t go out this way.  We haven’t even had an opportunity to see his hidden treasure yet!  It did come quite close though.  A few hours after he awoke Larmie had to watch as a hooded executioner arrived, took his fellow prisoner up to the gallows, and tied a noose around his neck.  He pulled the switch without hesitation, as the man begged for his life.  He dangled and choked for three seconds before…

Pop went the prisoner!

His white bubbles rolled up the rope and into the sky.  This frustrated the executioner greatly, so he immediately moved towards Larmie.  He put a grimy iron key in Larmie’s restraints and started to turn it.

Pop went the executioner!

Larmie thought he was lucky at first, but when he tried to shake loose nothing happened.  The key was still in the lock but it hadn’t been turned enough.  He shuffled through the tome of Vinterlond techniques in his memory.  Is there anything that can get me out of this one?  Fengirl, my dear, I know you’re gone but you help me every day.  He did know how to grow his fingernails into the shape of a key, but that would take at least a few hours and he couldn’t reach the lock anyway.

Pop went Larmie!

Pop went soldiers!

Pop went leaders!

Pop went horses and their riders!

The prisoner and executioner had just been the first in a great wave of effervescence.  The rainbow of bubbles filled the sky late into the evening, providing quite a show to those in neighboring lands.  Primitive tribes prayed to the column of bubbles.  Slightly less primitive tribes made wishes on it.  Such concentrated numbers of people popping away at the same time is quite rare, but not unheard of.  Seeing someone pop tends to heighten anyone’s emotional stress, which brings them closer to popping too.  What happened in those mountains was a foaming chain reaction, the culture of war purging itself from the many battlefields.

When the wave passed, two soldiers remained.  They were locked in fierce combat.  The one with the blackberry knocked the one with the tree to the ground.

“You will pay for what you’ve done, treehead,” the soldier declared as he raised his weapon.

“Wait!  What have I done that you blacknecks have not?”

“It doesn’t matter; this is my chance to end this.”

“We both have a chance!  Look!  Everyone else has gone.”

“So?”

“So… Why was this war started?  Do you know?  I don’t.”

“I’ve been fighting so long… I stopped caring years ago.  Only hate fuels me now.”

“Perhaps this land needs us.”

“You mean…”

“We’re the last.  One blackberry and one tree.  No hateful eyes whose gaze can burn the land behind us and push us forward.  No more war.”

“…  Alright.”

And so ended the long and dreary war.  It simply fizzled away.  There wasn’t even anybody left to reflect on the horror of it.  The two soldiers joined forces and recruited anyone who popped in as citizens of a new peaceful land where people could get whatever tattoos they wanted.

All those lives lost for a fleeting grudge that was nurtured into a rabid flurry by spite and treasure.  It was a tragedy.  It is not a tragedy for us though, because this is not our story.  We need to get back to Larmie.

Pop came Larmie!

He landed in a giant bowl of twigs with a leafy bed.  It was night there, with a full moon overhead.  This puzzled Larmie, as the moon had been nearly empty the night before.  In Vinterlond the moon is always full to light your way in the dark, Larmie remembered his lover saying.  He felt warmth on his face and took in the sight of five oblong boulders.  They were light blue in the moonlight, with brown speckles focused near their wider bottoms.  He moved towards one and held his hands up.  Its radiant heat helped restore the circulation to his hands that the shackles had cut off.

These are eggs, he realized.  Vinterlond eggs.  He tried to put his arms around one but found it too wide.  She never said there were birds this big.  He worried about the mother coming back and seeing him as a giant plump grub, but then he remembered the mothers didn’t stick around to warm their eggs.

The shackles had drained his energy and the soothing night air seemed to rise and overtake his head like warm bathwater.  He nestled himself between two of the eggs and covered his legs with leaves.  He was reminded of that night he spent in the coop, his last day with the unpredictable heartbeat of a man.  He resented Gable.  His heart could not gallop when Fengirl loved him.  It could not flutter when his children were born.

He reached for his wrangling pole, only to remember he did not have it.  It had been with him, in some form, since his shepherd days.  He cried over it.  He cried the way he never got to when the war stole his moments of respite and swallowed his selfishness.  It’s all so fleeting.  Love.  Purpose.  Peace.  Why do I bother?  The world’s just going to rip it from me.  Send me off course.  Hell, I’ve gone from sleeping near birds to sleeping near eggs.  I’m moving backward.

Despite his inner turmoil, he could not overcome the tranquility of a Vinterlond night.  Sleep took him and swaddled him in dreams.  All dreams in that place are good, so as he rested he grew a smile.

The nest was hundreds of feet in the air, held by the branches of a mighty tree that was thousands of years old.  When a tree reaches that age, it can’t help but become more understanding of the creatures that rest in its branches.  It watched Larmie’s dreams and thought, just as Fengirl often did, that he was a good man.  It focused its energies into a small branch just below the nest.  The branch began to grow and twist.  It came up through the bottom of the nest, straightened out, and grew a woody vine loop at its tip.  Then the tree snapped it off, dropping the freshly grown wrangling pole into Larmie’s lap.  His arms wrapped around it reflexively as he rolled over.  Perhaps Vinterlond could be his true home.

Pop went Larmie!

When Larmie awoke, he was disheartened to see he was no longer in Vinterlond.  Perhaps Fengirl was right.  People may not belong there.  He was resting against a bale of hay, the left side of which was being munched on by a fat brown calf.  He pulled his sore body off the ground and examined the wrangling pole in his hands.  At least I got a souvenir.  The calf eyed the hanging tip of the wrangling pole greedily and tried to grab it with its tongue.  Larmie held it out of reach and saw three more calves approaching.

He was in the middle of a square pen connected to both a field and an alley that appeared to lead into a city.  As the calves licked at his shirt he raised the pole even higher.  Thunk!  He looked up and saw a pavilion roof.  He guessed the city was quite well off if they could afford putting a roof over their livestock.  He hopped over the gate, walked through the alley, and joined the crowds on the street.

H was surprised to find a long roof stretching over most of the street as well.  The people, though densely packed, seemed very careful to not let their swinging arms exit the shade.  Their culture feared the effervescence, as people who specialize in setting down roots often do.

Larmie inserted himself into the mass, with the intention of making his way to the front of the building attached to the calf pen, but the crowd had other plans.  It pushed him downstream by nearly a block.  He was about to break free and walk along the uninhabited roofless edges of the street when he spotted four heads in blue hoods moving as a unit.  It couldn’t be, he thought.  Even if they’re the same group, there’s no way they’re still looking for me after all these years.  What Larmie did not know was that the Seekers of the Fountain was no local club that met once a month in the butcher’s chilled basement.  Their order had chapters set up in most cities and towns, as there are always people eager to join something exclusive and well-dressed.

Larmie pulled away from them, broke out of the crowd, and came face to face with a yellowed poster of his younger self.  Next to it was a much newer piece of parchment with a guess at Larmie’s current appearance.  It was not far off.  Larmie stumbled backward into the crowd.  He was pressed into the group of blue hoods.  They had their heads down and their eyes forward, so they did not notice him.  Larmie tried his best to maneuver away, but each time he was pushed back into them.  Eventually he gave up, fearing he would be pushed against one of them enough to force a glance.  He put his head down and shuffled along with them.

The mass of feet, fabric, and gossip carried him another thousand feet before the blue hoods moved away from the center.  He was carried with them.  A door next to the street seemed to open on its own, and the four hoods leapt from the street, across the slit of sunlight, and into the building as if they were swapping ships in the middle of the sea.  Larmie was pushed out as well and he stumbled into the dark hallway.

“Extra robes are over there brother,” the young hooded man who had let them in said.  Larmie spotted a line of blue coats on hooks and snagged one.  He quickly wrapped it around himself and pulled the hood as far down his face as he could.  He tucked his wrangling pole under his arm and tried to look natural.  I guess I’m going to see what they’re all about, he thought.  They didn’t give me much choice.

They made their way into a sitting room that had been filled to the edges with chairs.  Most were occupied by hunched blue figures.  The ones seated in front had gold finery on their robes, with yellow tassels on the sleeves and hoods.  Larmie took a seat in the back as one of the figures stood up in front of the rest.  He pulled back his hood, revealing a middle-aged face with a beaky nose and blonde hair.

“Welcome back brothers and sisters,” the man said.  Everyone in the crowd raised one fist and made a circle with it.  Larmie did so as well, a second behind the rest.  “I’d like to thank Mina for preparing this month’s palliatives.”  He picked up a basket full of scones with glossy red icing and passed them around.  An old woman stood up briefly to bow.  When the basket made its way to Larmie, who was in the last chair, he simply set it down beside him without taking one. The rest munched happily.  “Mina informs me they’re from an old family recipe that has been used to reduce effervescence for centuries.”

“Thickens all your mucus so you can’t pop,” Mina crowed proudly.  Most of the people in the back row, safe from the eyes in front, stopped chewing when they heard that and quietly passed their scones to Larmie, who silently placed them back in the basket.

“We’ll begin with our progress report on the hunt for Larmie Bo Pipper,” the man continued.  “No concrete evidence has surfaced this month.”  The audience groaned.  “I know it’s difficult to keep this up, especially since the last confirmed location was nearly a year ago.  Just remember that finding a single person in this mad fizzing world of ours takes time and cooperation.  Nobody understands the importance of time more than us Seekers of the Fountain.  We will retrieve the bottle stored inside him eventually.”

Bottle? Larmie thought.  All this is over a bottle?  What did Gable fill that bottle with?  If I find out this is over some old bottle of wine or rum I’m going to find that old man and throttle him.  I don’t even drink!

“Next on the agenda: the results are in from the Seekers’ official study on bubble colors.  It seemed purple was the most common color by two and seven tenths percent…”

Larmie listened carefully as the man droned on.  It became difficult after a while, as most of the meeting consisted of updates on their various ventures.  He displayed charts on effervescence, talked about the newest medical technologies to keep the elderly mobile, and brought in witnesses to testify about some archaeological digs their group was funding.  From all of it Larmie managed to piece together their narrative.  He guessed, correctly, that the eponymous fountain was none other than the legendary fountain of youth.  The seekers’ goal was to prove its existence, find its location, and then immediately take possession of it so that everyone who was smart enough to don a blue hood would get to drink from it and gain eternal life.

How would a bottle inside me help them?  It could be filled with water from the fountain… but where would a shabby old fool like Gable get a bottle of mythical water?  It’s probably not…  After all, if I’ve had the very stuff of endless youth in me this whole time, why am I stuck getting older with everybody else?  Sure I’m aging gracefully, but I think that’s Fengirl’s doing.  Then again, magical storage isn’t really much like drinking.

After about two hours of useless analytics and heaping praise on themselves, the meeting drew to a close.  The blonde presenter said he had another special treat for their humble little chapter.  He snapped his fingers and two acolytes came in, carrying a massive glass canister between them.  It was filled with a rainbow of effervescence bubbles, gathered from animals and people who had popped all over the city.

Larmie had also managed to deduce that, while they didn’t want to effervesce, they thought the process itself was somehow connected to the fountain.  They ended several meetings this way each year, gathering like caged gerbils around a water bottle and sucking up the bubbles in hopes of extending their own lives or healing their ailments.  He watched as the acolytes mounted the bottle in a metal stand and screwed the nozzle on.  Chairs squealed against the floor as everyone rose and made their way to the front. Some hopped over chairs while others pushed.  The polite quiet of the meeting transformed from the occasional cough and sneeze into a chaotic clamor for position.  You’d think the bottle was a plate of steak and potatoes and they hadn’t eaten for weeks.

The ones near the front used their hoods like nets to catch the jet of bubbles as it sprayed out of the nozzle.  Larmie saw the distraction as an opportunity to leave, so he stood, head down, and started walking toward the door.

An indigo bubble, odd in its largeness, nearly the size of an apple, shot out of the bottle.  One of the young acolytes tried to snag it with his hood. The bubble hung precariously on the edge of the fabric, forcing the young man to run forward so it wouldn’t roll out.  He doggedly balanced the bubble, incidentally pushing his way out of the group and into the hallway.  He almost had it… thoomp!  He collided with Larmie and knocked them both over. The young man pulled on Larmie’s hood to steady himself and saw the shepherd’s confused face.

“It’s him!” he shouted so loudly that the indigo bubble popped.  “It’s Larmie!  He’s here!”  All the heads near the bottle turned.  The last of the bubbles rose to the ceiling, without a single contestant trying to swallow them up.  They all stared, wide-eyed, at the man they’d only seen with inky eyes and a papery tan.  Larmie kicked the boy away and got to his feet.  He pulled out his wrangling pole and waved it in front of him like a torch while he backed towards the door.  The mass of blue hoods and billowing robes moved towards him like a column of jellyfish in a strong current.  Their eyes looked about to pop, full of a lust for treasure.

“Just wait!” one of them said.

“We won’t hurt you,” another chimed in.

“Let us explain!”

“Give it to us!  You can’t keep it all to yourself!”

Larmie’s back struck the door.  He reached behind, opened it, and practically fell out into the street.  Instead of inserting himself into the crowd he knew he couldn’t escape, Larmie stuck to the empty sides.  He ran as fast as he could, quickly gaining ground on the single file seekers.

Pop came a warrior!

The man appeared, running, ten feet in front of Larmie.  He wore heavy metal armor decorated with maroon gems cut to look like bubbles clinging to his surface.  He carried a sword so long that it nicked the pavilion’s support beams as he ran by them.  The man looked over his shoulder at Larmie, displaying chubby rosy cheeks.

“What are we running from?” he asked.

“Cultists!” Larmie answered.  “They want to rip me open!”

“Ah!  Those heathens!  Some sort of sacrifice to a god of guts and gristle!  My name is Sir Heertofore!” he offered.

“Larmie,” the shepherd panted back.

“I was running from the tar demon Vocivermus,” Heertofore boasted.  “I don’t run from anything less!  Go on Larmie.  I’ll hold off these heathens.”  Heertofore hopped to a stop and spun around.  The narrow between the buildings and the crowd was so thin that Larmie had to jump and step along the wall for a moment to bypass the warrior.  He tapped the man’s left pauldron as he passed and offered a quick thanks.

When the seekers reached Heertofore they were forced back by the wide swings of his sword.  The blue robes writhed and then broke over him like water, pouring into an alley and the crowd.

“Back ye devils!” Heertofore bellowed.  He sliced clean through one of the pavilion’s supports, spraying the crowd with splinters.  “It’ll take more than fancy costumes to scare me…”

Pop went Sir Heertofore!

He did buy Larmie a few seconds.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.  Oh… ugh.  Okay look, I know this is irritating, but Heertofore went somewhere extremely interesting.  I’m just going to make a quick detour so you can learn about his situation.  Then we’ll get back to our shepherd.  I’ll wrap up this bit really quickly: Larmie gets cornered, struck on the head, and carted away by the seekers. The high ranking members with the golden tassels dismiss the complaining lackeys and take their unconscious prize back to their building.  They bind him to a chair in a dark room with one door and start examining him, but don’t immediately try to remove the bottle.

Pop came Sir Heertofore!

Okay.  Sir Heertofore.  That beefcake landed on the deck of a sailing ship named Ghost Station.  The rocking of the boat kept him off kilter, se he swung his sword to keep any threats back.  Eventually the crew calmed him down and helped him exchange the sword for a dry biscuit and some rum.  It was only then that Heertofore noticed the diversity of the crew.  Even in a world full of effervescence, people still tended to group up by age, skin color, and a few other pointless things, but the Ghost Station was different.  The captain was a dark-skinned woman.  The first mate was a pale boy of fifteen.  He spotted an islander swabbing the decks and a woman with the complexion of the desert in the crow’s nest.  He asked what their voyage was all about.

“I am the captain, but I am not in charge,” the dark woman said.  “The orders come from a book, deep inside the ship, written by those who commissioned the vessel and kicked the dock away.  The book says the voyage was begun to find any other sides to our world that may exist.  Any places where the bubbles can’t reach.”

“A voyage into the endless sea?  How have none of ye popped away?” Heertofore asked.

“You’ve got it backward brave knight, we all popped in.  None of the original crew remains.  It is the duty of those who pop in to continue on until land is reached.  If you don’t wish to write your name in the book and join our crew, we’ll give you a lifeboat.  Be warned, I’ve been captain for eight months now and we’ve seen no land.”

“What do ye do about food?  How do ye stock for an endless journey?”

“We have fishing equipment to support our tightly rationed biscuits and dried fruits that came with the ship.  It’s no bounty, but it keeps us going.  Men and women working under the hot sun, being rocked back and forth, encourages popping.  Sometimes people leave us before they even get hungry, so that helps as well.  As far as the fish… what we catch grows stranger by the day.”

The captain escorted Heertofore to the galley, where the cook was busy chopping something fishy into sections.  Wrinkled skins and fillets hung from hooks behind him, drying out in the salty air.  Heertofore stared at the creature on the counter.  Its glassy eyes seemed to contain smaller eyes which seemed to contain smaller eyes which seemed to contain…  You get the idea.  It was like a mirror facing a mirror.  Its skin was reddish and squishy like the flesh of a grapefruit.  Its teeth had grown together.

“What is this horrid beast?” Heertofore asked, aghast.

“It’s lunch,” the captain said.  “These seas… all the time they become less human.  Less understandable.  Waves going the wrong direction.  Clouds that drop out of the sky.  Water that tries to climb into your throat and drown you.  It takes bravery to be aboard the Ghost Station, but it takes much more to get off it.  Are you with us?”

“Aye,” Heertofore answered.  His bravado prevented him from admitting his fear, at least initially.  As time passed his muscles shrank and his cheeks lost their redness.  The crew rationed the biscuits tightly not because the fishing was poor, but because a diet solely of the strange fish of the endless sea caused delusions and mania.  Heertofore woke one morning to find that the rest of the crew appeared to him as gigantic gasping fingerlings.  If the hallucination had not passed in a day, he might’ve thrown himself overboard.

After three months aboard Ghost Station, Heertofore witnessed a woman’s suicide.  She tossed herself over the railing.  There was no splash.  She sank like she was still falling through the air and was swallowed by the dark teal below.  Heertofore realized they’d gone so far that they weren’t even traveling on water; it was just their combined idea of water.

People stopped popping in.  The threshold had passed, and with it, their humanity.  The fish did not look even a little like fish anymore.  They looked like stones.  The cook had to crack them open with a stone mallet to reveal the edible star-filled jelly inside.

There were no more days.  The sky was always dark, until they approached the horizon: a wilting flower of sick orange light that called to them like an itchy bump that had been separated from their bodies.  It called to them.  Tolivetodieiswhatitis, it called to them.  One nonsense word that bored into their minds.  Tolivetodieiswhatitis.

Yeah… okay.  I hear you.  The tone has changed.  I’ve gone and replaced Larmie’s adventure with some kind of terror propagated by the non-entities of non-Effer space.  That’s just what happens when you journey beyond the edges of your own existence; tone goes out the window!  I’m sorry, it was just so fascinating.  Perhaps it is best we not dwell on it, lest we lose our minds in a similar way.  Back to our shepherd.  Back to that dark room.

When Larmie awoke he was shirtless and there was a pair of hands deep inside his chest cavity.  He was too shocked to scream.  The woman attached to the hands pulled them out to comfort him.  She removed her rippled glasses and hood and ordered the two others in the room to do the same.

“Keep your hands out of me,” Larmie spat.

“Relax,” the woman said; she was quite attractive with her high cheeks and long lustrous red hair.  “You know there is something inside you, yes?”

“Some crazy old man put it in me, nearly a lifetime ago,” Larmie admitted.  “Don’t ask me why it didn’t kill me.  I don’t know anything.”

“You don’t, but I do,” she said.  “I am the greatest extractor of the seekers.  That crazy old man really did something quite extraordinary.”

“What… what is it?  You can at least tell me what I’ve been carrying all these years,” Larmie pleaded.

“Don’t worry Mr. Pipper,” she said and ran a hand along his cheek.  He was quite glad it didn’t sink into his jaw.  “We have no desire to harm you.  We just want to extract it.”

“What is it?”

“A bottle of vital soda.  Pressurized fluid from the fountain of youth.”

“What does that mean?  Do you live forever if you drink it?  Grow back the pigtails you wore as a child?

“No.  Vital soda was formulated by the philosochemist Lambotrades centuries ago.  It’s a concentration of bubbles from the fountain.  One sip will effervesce you to the fountain’s edge, wherever that might be.  Then you can drink and gain the eternal life of legends.”

“So you don’t know where it is?  You need this soda stuff to get there?”

“Yes.”

“Why… why am I not dead?  How is my heart still beating?”

“That’s one extraordinary part of that old man’s feat.  When an object is stored inside another one it enters a different, very stable state.  It doesn’t need to be sustained and won’t degrade in any way.  He inserted a ticking metronome into you.”

“A metronome?  Those things musicians use to keep the beat?”  It hit Larmie.  A metronome.  The rhythm of his heartbeat.  It never slowed and it never sped.  It just kept the beat.

“Yes.  The ticking of the metronome provided a natural rhythm for your body to sync with.  That is how you survived.”

“You seekers…,” Larmie started.  “The first time you caught me…  One of you said there was something glowing inside me.  Is that the soda?”

“That’s the tricky part,” the woman said.  She stood up and paced in front of him.  “That man didn’t want just anybody getting that bottle.  He set a trap.  There are actually four layers of objects inside you.”

“Four!” Larmie exclaimed.  “I would’ve charged people if I’d known I could be used as a safe!  What else is in there?  Why do I not weight a hundred pounds more than I should?

“I told you, the objects exist in a different state.  They’re weightless until they’re removed.  At your core is the bottle of soda.  It is stored inside the metronome, which is stored inside a clump of straw, which is stored inside a folded blanket, which is stored inside you.”

“How is that a trap?  Can’t you just take them all out at once?”

“Normally yes, but not this time.  The clump of straw is on fire.  That was the glow the other seeker saw.”

“Fire?  I’ve been on fire for more than a decade?”

“You’re not really getting this different-state thing are you?” the woman sighed.  “I’m not sure how he did it without lighting the rest of the chain.  I think he must have inserted everything first and then quickly inserted a lit match fast enough to avoid burning your skin.  I think the blanket is a fire-resistant fabric, so that when the match passed through it nothing happened.  Then he lit the straw.  If anyone tries to extract the metronome through the straw it will catch fire and be destroyed along with the bottle.”

“What about me?”

“Once the fire was pulled past the blanket and onto your skin, you would likely burst into flame as well.  If that other seeker had foolishly tried an extraction she would have destroyed the bottle, burnt her arm severely, and killed you.”

“I hope you have a better plan,” Larmie said.

“I do, and nobody has to get hurt,” the red head said with a smile.  One of the others handed her a tin cup of cold water.  She took a sip.  Then she leaned down in front of Larmie and dipped his fingers in the cup.  “I will insert this water into you, put out the fire, extract this cup, and then retrieve all the objects.  You’ll be empty as an attic in no time.  What do you say?”

“It won’t hurt me?”

“No.”

“You’ll release me after?”

“We will have no further need for you,” she said with a nod.

“Alright,” Larmie assented.

The woman rolled up her sleeves and put her glasses back on.  The other seekers leaned in nervously.  They watched, with one even taking notes on a paper pad, while she moved the cup to her left hand and positioned her right over Larmie’s exposed chest.  She made a drill shape with her fingers and moved it clockwise as she brought it closer.  Larmie closed his eyes and held his breath.

He expected a maelstrom of pain and hot spikes digging into his flesh.  Instead he felt only a light pressure, even as her hand sank wrist deep.  He counted along with the metronome in his head, waiting for the procedure to finish.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…

She held the blanket in place with her right hand as the left one entered.  She pushed the cup through the blanket and instantly twisted her arm, upturning the liquid.  She tapped around, checking if the fire was doused.  It was still hot, but nothing burned her.  She quickly removed the cup and cast it aside.  It clattered to the floor.  The seeker who took notes stashed it away in his sleeve to keep as a souvenir.

“Almost there,” she said soothingly.  She passed through the straw and then the metronome.  Her fingers wrapped around the bumpy glass body of the bottle.  Larmie finally opened his eyes and watched as she pulled a thick gray blanket out of him.  She set it on the floor and pulled the wet blackened straw from it.  She pulled the metronome from straw, still ticking away.  She used one hand to still the needle.  The ticking stopped.

            Oaaaahhhh, Larmie thought.  His mind practically dissolved from the relief.  He hadn’t been aware, but he’d always heard the ticking on some level.  His soul had been counting the days, hours, and moments nervously because it simply thought it was supposed to.  Now his heart felt floppy, irregular, and free.  It felt like a puppy trying to run too soon after waking from a nap in the sun and tripping all over itself.  It was heavenly.  Larmie hung his head back and giggled with his mouth wide open.  If Fengirl could see me now.  My heart could nip at her heels and she’d really feel how much I love her.

The woman removed the bottle of vital soda and rose to her feet.  The other seekers gasped quietly.  It was only five inches tall and covered in round bumps.  A metal cap held it closed.  The woman pulled out a piece of metal and pressed it against the cap, preparing to pop it open.

“Hey wait, why do you get the first swig?” one of the seekers complained.

“Because I extracted it,” she said venomously.  “One of you hurry up and kill the shepherd.”

“Wait what!?” Larmie blurted.  He tried to wriggle free form his bonds, to no avail.

“You said you’d let me go!”

“I said we’d have no more need of you,” the woman reminded, all of the warmth gone from her face.  “I just needed you to sit still.  You still know about this bottle.  You were caught at one of our meetings too.  Can’t let you spread any of our secrets.”  One of the seekers pulled out a long sickle-shaped knife and moved towards Larmie.  He screamed for help, but there was nobody else in the building.

The woman struggled with the bottle.  She grunted and pushed the metal cap as hard as she could.

“Give it to me,” the seeker who had complained said.  “I’m stronger than you.”

“Back off,” the woman shouted and retreated towards the door.  “It’s mine!”

“You just want the first sip so you can go there by yourself!” the other man accused.  “You’re going to leave us here!”  At that, they started to corner the woman.  Larmie was relieved to see the knife change directions.  He tried hopping in his chair to loosen something, but the knots were almost as good as those of Vinterlond design.

The seekers closed in.  The red head tossed her opener at them and pressed the tip of the bottle against the seam of the door.  Desperate, she started kicking at it.  Bumf!  The door groaned.  Bumf!  Bumf!

The cap flew off and ricocheted around the room.  A geyser of azure bubbles erupted from the bottle.  The uncontrollable energy sent it flying from the woman’s hands and spinning across the floor.  The stream of bubbles was five times as wide as the nozzle; the tight group of seekers could not avoid its path.  It struck the redhead in the chest.

Pop went the seeker!

The others tried to retreat back towards Larmie, but the gushing bottle struck each of them.

Pop went a seeker!

Pop went a seeker!

Larmie rocked in his chair enough for it to fall backward just as the fizzing stream hit.  The force of it smashed the bottom of the chair and loosened the ropes enough for Larmie to scramble free.  By the time he got to his feet, the bottle’s destruction was dying down.  The bubbles narrowed.  The bottle spun itself into an upright position, slowed, and eventually wobbled to a stop.  Larmie looked at the ceiling and saw it was entirely coated in big, flat, blue bubbles.  They combined and popped much slower than the kind he was used to seeing.

Larmie grabbed his wrangling pole from where the back wall, where the seekers had set it.  He approached the bottle cautiously and tapped it with the tip of the pole.  It responded like normal glass.  He poked it a few more times until he built the courage to pick it up.  Somehow, it was still full of liquid.  He placed his ear near the rim and listened to the quiet hissing.  It sounds like giggling morning dew, he thought.  Everything that hit the seekers was just the foam.  That’s how much power was stored in there.  They didn’t even get any of the real stuff.  So where did they go?

Are you ready?  This is it.  This is why I wanted to tell you this story.  I saw that Larmie would see his entire life in that one moment where he stared down the opening of that bottle.  It wasn’t part of its magic; it was just a normal man who had loved and lost growing some new wisdom.  It was just his soul climbing the trellis of his life and realizing he was finally high enough to flower.  He didn’t want to chase animals and lock them up.  He didn’t want to run from cults or battles.  He wanted to know where all of it was going.  He was eager to see.

Larmie took a mighty gulp from the tiny bottle.

Pop went Larmie!

He’d never effervesced so slowly.  He felt every part of the process that normally takes less than a metronome tick.  Passing through the skin of his current place.  Entering the veil of bubbles.  Billions of tiny pops and pokes all over his skin.  All over the surface of his brain, like it had been dropped into a glass of soda.  Passing through the other skin.  Everything warping and squeezing pack into place.

Pop came Larmie!

He was in a cavern: a cavern that was as deep underground as it could be without feeling the heat of the world’s core.  The dark stone around him rippled and dripped into strange stalactites and stalagmites.  Sometimes the drops of stone hung in mid-air between the ceiling and floor.  It was all lit with a bright blue light.  Larmie whirled around in search of the source.  He found it.  He stared out at a small blobby lake with a quiet but tall gush of crystal clear water at its center.  Giant bubbles rose lazily from the lake and passed through the ceiling without popping.

“You made it!” a voice exclaimed.  Larmie turned to see the rapturous face of Gable.  The old man was even older and now had a much longer beard filled with tiny glass beads.  He wore some kind of tattered uniform with puffy shoulders.  “You like this?” he asked, tugging at the edges of the uniform.  “It’s the official dress for the royalty of Nilfontain!”

“What’s Nilfontain?” Larmie asked, unable to come up with a better question quite yet.

“You’re standing in it!” Gable hooted.  He hobbled over and embraced Larmie, giggling all the while.  He moved to the edge of the lake, pulled off his fancy shoes, sat down, and dipped his feet into the water.  He invited Larmie to join him.  He did, but he kept his feet out of the water.  “This is my kingdom.  This is the fountain of renewal: the capitol of Nilfontain.”

“I thought all this was over the fountain of youth…” Larmie said as he took in the beauty of the cavern again.

“On my travels I noticed you got yourself in trouble with those seekers,” Gable teased as he poked Larmie in the side playfully.  “Those dummies were always ten steps behind me.  This used to be the fountain of youth.  Thousands of years ago.  When people abused it, hoarded it, it changed its mind.  It is now the fountain of renewal.  Nobody can get eternal life anymore.”

“So how does it renew?”

“Those bubbles.  They rise.  Spread out.  Become invisible before they come out the other side.  When they do they pop and make things effervesce.”

“This!?  This is why we effervesce?  How does that renew anything?”

“Gives you a fresh start.  Tosses all the baggage.  Throws you unceremoniously off the horse cart because we’d never do it ourselves.”

“I lost my family because of this,” Larmie seethed.

“You’re focusing on the wrong end,” Gable said.  “That’s like trying to feed a horse’s ass.  You had a family because of it.”  Larmie pondered that for a moment.  He wasn’t ready to forgive the fickle fountain, but he had the suspicion Fengirl would already be over such a revelation.

“Why did you leave… the way you did?” Larmie asked.

“Why did I give you a bottle?  Your hospitality.  I found this fountain decades ago and vowed to build my kingdom here.  Nothing effervesces down here, below its bubbles.  I’m too old now, but when I found you I was still recruiting.  I bottled up some fountain water, rode a bubble out, and popped all over Effer in search of people worthy to join me.  Your kindness to an old beggar earned you a spot.”

“Why all the tricks?  I could’ve died because of that fire.”

“Well I couldn’t let it be that easy,” Gable declared, affronted.  “You’ve got to be smart too.  You needed to figure it out.”

“I didn’t figure it out though.  The seekers did.  The seekers!”  Larmie stood and spun around, looking for the people struck by the bottle’s spray.

“What’s the matter?” Gable asked.

“I was trapped with some seekers.  They were hit by the foam of the bottle when they opened it.  They popped away.  Are they here?”

“Fah!” Gable grunted.  “Those greedy fools.  The foam in the soda is just that.  It can send you anywhere.  You have to drink the liquid to come here.”  Larmie relaxed.  “So what do you say Larmie?  You ready to take your place with us?  We get to take whatever we want from the surface and bring it here.  Never pop unless we want to.”

“Where is the rest of your kingdom?  I only see you.”

“I’m the only one around the fountain most of the time.  The rest are in the other caves.”

“How many?”

“forty-three.”

“Forty-three?”

“Yes…  What’s wrong with that?” Gable asked.  The old man looked quite self-conscious all of a sudden.

“It’s not very many.”

“I made a difficult test!  There can’t be very many of the best people now can there?”

Larmie looked at the fountain and then at the walls of the cavern.  Renewal eh?  Maybe that is better than eternal life.  Without these bubbles I’d be sleeping in my chicken coop and counting eggs.  I had Fengirl.  We had children.  I was a soldier.  A prisoner.  A spy.  A hatchling.  I had to be dragged, against my will, into all those experiences.  Not anymore.  Now it is my will.  I’m Larmie Bo Pipper: a nothing-in-particular and go-anywhere kind of man.  I need more endings.  A lot more endings.

“I think I’ll leave you to it Gable,” Larmie said with a smirk.  His grip on his wrangling pole tightened.  He took off running down the edge of the lake, towards a particularly large bubble that was forming.

“You’d never have to worry again!” Gable called after him.  “You’re in control down here!”

“I don’t want control,” Larmie shouted over his shoulder.  “I want life!”  Larmie leapt from the stone and over the water.  He sailed through the cool cave air and pulled his limbs close to his body.  He passed through the skin of the bubble, grin glistening through the reflections on its surface.

Pop goes the shepherd!

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