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A long time passed. Any town or settlement was long behind him now. Nobody lived in this tundra. The temperature dropped, and a layer of fog descended. Evina flew further into the Northern Wastelands, hoping that he would find what he was looking for. Then he saw the icy slopes of the mountains rise from the ground, and the labyrinth of peaks appeared before him. It was a huge area, and he was discouraged knowing that he would have to search on foot, but he had to start somewhere.
He put on his coat, landed the ship, and stepped outside. He was immediately slammed with the frozen wind, and the coat did little to protect him. There would be no rescue out here, and if he didn't find the monks it would likely become his grave. Nevertheless, he moved forward.
Hours passed, and he was trudging through the deep snow in a canyon between two glaciers. His whole body was already numb. He was in a trance, hearing nothing except the crunch of ice beneath his feet.
Then he saw something glimmer. In faint lines, the mysterious eye symbol was seen carved into the glacier.
This must have been what Pippenhopper saw when he was lost. Perhaps I'm not too far.
Evina looked all around, but there was nobody to be seen, just snow and ice. He felt strangely motivated by an urge to climb the glacier, so he started ascending slowly. When he reached the top, he crawled along a narrow ledge. Then a break appeared in the glacier, and a path led up to the top of it. From there, he found rocks, and he knew he was on a mountain. There was a lot more climbing ahead.
Hours must have passed though he couldn't measure it accurately. He was almost at the top of the mountain. Step by step, rock by rock, he went up. The view was amazing but, when he looked down, he remembered that a little slip would send him falling to an icy end.
He was almost to the top when he encountered something unexpected, an ancient wooden door. Evina stood there puzzled for a moment. Then he rapped on the door with a frozen fist, and a few icicles fell off. He didn't expect it to be answered, thinking for a second that this had all been a waste of precious time. But surprisingly, it opened with a loud creak.
A monk appeared with its face hidden behind its hood. It didn't speak but apparently saw what it needed because it promptly shut the door. Evina thought he had been rejected and was about to knock again, but then he heard voices inside. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but it was probably about him. Then the door opened again, wider this time, and he was let inside.
It was too dark to see anything at first, but his eyes gradually adjusted to see the candlelit interior. He was so glad it was warm inside, so warm compared to the arctic wind that it almost felt hot. Evina could see what species the monk was. He was a cat, but somehow different from the cats back in Toontown. He beckoned Evina to follow.
Evina walked behind him down a narrow hallway, past many rooms without doors that he didn't have time to look into, until he arrived in a chamber with a dozen other monks. They were seated to the left and to the right, and one was standing in the center. He was a kind of toon Evina hadn't seen before, a hedgehog.
After a moment's silence, the hedgehog spoke. "Woe to the forces of darkness. They never cease but must be fought. Abusers of the truth will perish. The Graphite will live."
The other monks repeated what he said.
"Greetings, guest," he said. "Please be seated."
Evina glanced around before sitting on the floor with the others.
"Now for the questions you already know I'm going to ask. Who are you and why have you come here?"
Evina had almost forgotten the answers to both questions. "My name is... Evina Gearloose, and I am here because of this." He held up the book. There was continued silence. "May I ask who you are?"
The hedgehog stepped forward and stared down into Evina's face with a piercing glare. Then finally he spoke. "We are the Children of Graphite," he replied. He reached for the book, and Evina gave it to him. "But you didn't answer my other question. Why are you here? Why should the elders listen to you? Is it just because you found a copy of our book? How can we know you are not a servant of the darkness?"
Evina could tell he needed to be a lot more open about his situation. "I'm here because of The Shadow. It sent me to find the book. Then it led me here to you."
"And no doubt you learned of its nature from the book it led you to find. This is hard to believe. It's a mysterious and mischievous force, and yet..." He paused and stared deeply into Evina's eyes. "I can see it in your eyes. It is risky, but I must assume your words are true." The hedgehog ran his hand over the book and turned around to walk back to his original position. Then he sat down. They were all in a circle now. "I am Master Sherspine. Welcome to our home, Mr. Gearloose and Shadow. You have come in our time of greatest need."
Evina was confused. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, the pieces are falling into place as we speak that will make for unprecedented catastrophe. We always knew you were coming but never knew your identity or what day you would arrive."
"How did you know?"
"These things are revealed in the dark, in whispers, but it was enough to know that the mighty hero was coming."
Evina had expected to hear this, and it both pleased and annoyed him, for while he had desired to make a final change in the world, he wasn't in the mood for being a superhero again. "Ok, how can you be sure it's me? What catastrophe are we facing? And what am I supposed to do about it?"
The master gestured to another monk to speak. It lowered its hood to reveal a white monkey. She answered him. "Your name has special meaning in a language familiar to us. I can sense you've already learned this fact. It's not so much that we know you're the chosen one for this task but that it cannot be done by anyone else."
"Why?" he demanded.
"The Shadow would never face us unless it was aware of that fact. Only one with its influence can bear the journey. This is what all the evidence suggests."
"Patience, young one. All of your questions will be addressed in time, but first, you must open your mind. Otherwise, our words will be uttered in vain. Now, please calm your mind." A monk on the other side of the room lit a stick of incense. The room began to fill with intensely fragrant smoke.
Evina grew dizzy, but his spiritual awareness was enhanced, and he felt the dark presence waning. "I think The Shadow is... falling asleep," he said.
"You would be correct," the monkey said. "The truths we must teach you would be best learned without an untrustworthy trickster trying to interfere. Now, how are you feeling?"
Evina was doing surprisingly well. "I feel calm and prepared," he said.
"Good, now you must be well rested before I can answer the rest of your questions. Master Sniffens, will you escort Mr. Gearloose to his room?"
"Yes, Master Pearl," a voice answered. It sounded like a young girl. A monk stood up, and a pink hand took Evina by the arm. He was obedient and followed her to a small, unadorned room like all the others. There was a simple mat to sleep on and a couple blankets. He turned around, and the monk lowered her hood. She was a mouse much shorter than him and appeared very young. "I know you are eager to learn," she told him, "but you must rest before we can explain."
"Alright," Evina agreed reluctantly. "And by the way, how old are you?"
She looked confused. "Two hundred forty-two. Why do you need to know?"
"Never mind," he insisted. He sat down on his mat and she left.
I don't think I can sleep here. This place is so strange, and yet the toons in there could have all the answers. How can I calm down and sleep at a time like this? Time is running out!
Nevertheless, he tried the best he could to rest, and he eventually succeeded after some time. There were no dreams.
He woke up the next day, or at least it felt like the next day. He was feeling much more relaxed than before. Night and day probably didn't matter here because the lighting inside and outside never changed. The Shadow was still asleep, but he didn't expect it would last that way forever. He stood up and walked to the main room where all the monks were silently seated in the same positions as before. Perhaps they never left the room. Another stick of incense was burned, and while the smoke began to spread, one of the monks handed Evina a tray of food with some grains and fruit. His mind was opening again, a feeling that was difficult to describe, but it was calming, and he felt readier than ever to start whatever he was supposed to do.
Almost as though it was in response to his thoughts, Master Sherspine spoke, "Yes, it is time to talk. You want to know about this catastrophe and your part in all of this, yes?"
"Yes," Evina replied.
"First, I must explain who we are, why our words should matter to you, and why should you trust us. The Children of Graphite is an order so ancient that it has no known beginning. We are found on almost every world in the tooniverse. We seek to protect it and unlock its mysteries."
"Why do you hide from the other toons?" Evina interrupted, and he was suddenly embarrassed for sounding rude.
"We prefer not to get involved in their story. That is their job, not ours. We seek the common good of all life, not just the beings of one world."
"And you communicate with the other groups?" Evina felt inquisitive and couldn't help but ask all the questions on his mind.
"We are united, connected, whatever you'd like to say. The point is, we believe we know what's best for the tooniverse. We want to make sure it is protected, and we need your complete trust. You do trust us, yes?"
"Yes, I trust you," Evina said.
"Very good, because you may not be pleased with what you are about to hear. This catastrophe is nothing short of the destruction of both toon and human universes. This is no rumor; it is a fact and closing in on us far too quickly. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Evina said again, even though he was completely confused.
"Make no mistake! The problem we face is much greater than the criminals in Toontown, the portal closing, or the quarrel with the sun. Perhaps you know something of this?"
Evina thought about it. "Doom," he whispered.
"Yes, Doom, although he was only a byproduct of the true root of the problem. We have pinpointed the real threat. It is still on Earth. Your job is to find it and eliminate it."
"Why can't anyone of you do it?"
"Ah, this is where the problem gets tricky. This is why you, with The Shadow, must do this alone. We believe this evil is driven not by a toon but by a memory, a diseased memory. And how would one go about fighting something so formidable when it is not tangible?"
"I don't know," Evina admitted. As hard as he tried to keep his mind open, this was hard to take in.
"Let me explain it this way," Sherspine suggested. "While in this universe, the other one does not actually exist. To the humans, we do not exist. What we are after is in neither. But for every division, there is a place in between, even if it can't be seen. Tell me, where can you be somewhere that lies between what exists and what doesn't?"
Evina considered it. "I still don't know."
"Are you sure?"
Evina racked his brain, but nothing made sense. Then, just before he was about to give up, the answer presented itself. Now it felt quite obvious. "Dreams."
"Yes, Mr. Evina, dreams. There is a place where every creative thought ever imagined by every human that ever lived is crammed into a single realm. It is between what is real and what is not. What I speak of is the dream zone, or limbo as it is sometimes called. The dream zone is stranger by far than either of the two universes. I can sense that you've already seen our problem, even if it was only a small part."
"I have." Evina remembered the recurring nightmare that caused him to leave Toontown in the first place. "So, basically, I have to go to sleep?"
"No," Sherspine said. "Sleeping will not help you, even in the deepest slumber. Even we, through our knowledge, practice, and meditation, have only just scratched the surface. And the deeper one goes, the more bizarre and unpredictable things become, the harder it is to escape. That being said, we must ask you to do something impossible. And unfortunately, there is no alternative." He paused for a moment.
"What must I do?" Evina begged to know.
"You must do what we have never done before. You must traverse this plane of existence and physically enter the dream zone. Only then can you find this enemy and neutralize it."
"How do I go inside?"
"We are almost certain of a way to let you in. You will be taught."
"And once I neutralize that threat, whatever it is, how do I get out?"
There was not an immediate response. Evina had been afraid of the answer, even though it wasn't entirely unexpected.
"We cannot promise you will," the master admitted. "You will cease to exist as reality in both universes. The chance of escape is slim if not nonexistent. But if you cannot do it, no one can."
"Please don't be offended that we're asking you to sacrifice yourself," the white monkey said. "It is for the good of all life."
"It's fine," Evina said. "Don't worry about me. My life is already about to end soon because of The Shadow. And you already know that, don't you?"
They were silent for a moment. At last, the hedgehog spoke. "So, you agree to do it?"
"I suppose another death sentence couldn't hurt at this point. So, yes, I'll do it."
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