Chapter 1

Here to Help

The sun shone on a neighborhood thriving with activity: teens played basketball in a driveway, a child drew a chalk picture, their parents applauded and a man taught his son to ride a bike.

"Thanks for taking time off to teach me!"

The man ruffled his son's hair affectionately. "You're much more important to me than work. Now I have to run an errand for your mother. I'll be back by dinner."

The man ran down the street while his son did another lap. He ducked behind a house and leaned against the wall. "You are no longer in need of help, " The man smirked. "son."

The man snapped his fingers and his form began to melt and shift. Where a short man once stood there was now a tall elfin creature. Long golden-brown hair fell down his shoulders with two strands around his face where purple eyes shined with mischief. The elf-like creature looked down at his outfit-a business suit-and frowned.

"This will not do. Not at all. Mortal fashion has diminished over the centuries." He snapped his fingers again and his clothing warped into stylized Renaissance under a traveler's cloak. "Much better."

He waved at someone.

"Hello! I am Tasio the Trickster, at your service." He made an elegant bow. "Trickster by race, mind you, I'm actually a helpful guy." The Trickster took flight and soared over the boy happily pedaling in circles. "That boy for example: his father's too busy to teach him. He called for help and I appeared, cleverly disguised as his father, of course."

His gaze locked on an apartment building and the women inside. One talking nonstop while the other grimaced. I wish she would shut up.

"I'm finely in-tuned to human suffering." The Trickster snapped his fingers and first woman suddenly stopped talking. Her mouth moved but no words came out. She shouted but coughed instead. Her friend called the doctor and discovered she had laryngitis.

The Trickster spotted a man rushing to a fleeing bus. I wish I could catch this bus! Tasio snapped his fingers again. The bus's front tire sprung a leak and lurched to a stop, thus buying the man enough time to catch up.

"There are many ways I could have helped that boy." The Trickster's eyes gained a malevolent gleam. "I could have arranged for his father's company to shut down. Then he would have all the time in world." The malevolence returned to mischief. "But I'm not that kind of trickster. If you don't believe me then stay and watch."

Tasio alighted on a skyscraper and phased to the room below. A big old man shouted over his desk at a meek little guy. The old man was bald except for an enormous mustache and bushy eyebrows, as if his hair retreated from his head to his face. His suit was covered with military metals.

"How many times do I have to tell you Private Eric?" The man bellowed. "Every solider has a role in the success of any mission! The company is doomed unless everyone plays their part!"

The guy had short black hair and wore a suit that came out of the bargain bin. All he did was nod and say, "Yes, General Hanson." at every scolding.

Tasio patted him on the head. "What do you think? Does he need my help?"

"And you'd better have that report ready by tomorrow!" Hanson yelled.

"Yes sir." Eric mumbled, head still down.

"I can't hear you!" Mr. Hanson shouted.

Eric stood up, saluted and shouted. "Yes sir!"

"That's more like it! Dismissed!" Hanson saluted as well and Eric marched out the office.

Tasio was in a mock salute. "Hanson used to be a general." The Trickster phased through the wall where Eric was slouching and gave him bunny ears. "Eric here is a private."

How am I going to finish that report by tomorrow? Eric sighed. He shuffled to the elevator and lazily pushed the button. Tasio followed him in. I'm gonna lose this job...and the unemployment clerk's gonna glare at me again.

The doors parted to reveal a handsome man. He leaned casually against the wall next to the elevator. "So Private Eric returns from another battle with the General, are you KIA yet?" The lame military puns continued impacting as he advanced in the other direction. They had little effect as they were the same ones from yesterday. He turned a corner and his mood suddenly improved.

"Hey Eric." Said a woman passing by. "What's up?"

"Emily! I'm..uh... I'm writing a Reguffin. Report! I meant report! H-hanson wants me to w-write a report on the company's newest acquisition."

Tasio danced like a little kid watching puppies. "Aw! Would you listen to that stutter? See how his cheeks color?"

The wimp navigated cubicles on his way to the exit. Not because it was a maze but because he had to avoid his co-workers. If he didn't, he would bump into them, which would cause a scene, which would draw more attention to him, which would make it even more painfully obvious how useless he was. So he had to be aware of everyone moving in the pathway; behind him, in front, and to both sides. They never noticed him so he had to get out of their way.

Tasio made a great heaving sigh. "See what I see have to work with?" His voice changed; the frustration of someone holding a ketchup bottle over a burger. "Now if only he would ask."

Eric sighed and trudged out of the building. He picked up his pace when he saw a his car being towed. "Hey that's my car!" He tripped over his own feet and stumbled on the pavement.

"Sorry, but the computer said you missed the last payment. I gotta do my job." The tower turned on the radio and drove off.

Eric lay flat and groaned. "Well, at least things can't get any worse."

Tasio grinned. "Ohhh, you shouldn't have said that."

A clap of thunder greeted Eric's words. With rain falling on him like the waste of mocking birds, he walked down the street. Being transparent, Tasio stayed completely dry. Eric was soon drenched. The rain continued until Eric reached his apartment building and stepped through the front door, where it abruptly stopped. Sloshing and dripping water he walked passed the front desk. There a man was leaning back and reading a newspaper. When he heard the sloshing he dropped it.

"Eric! You're soaking wet!"

"I know." He said meekly.

"What happened to your car?"

"It was impounded."

The man pounded on the desk. "You made your last payment! I saw you do it."

"Apparently something went wrong."

The man growled and grabbed his coat. "That does it! I'm giving those grease monkeys a piece of my mind."

"You don't need to do that." Eric said quietly.

"Eric, you need to stand up for yourself! Or this will just keep happening."

"I know."

Eric walked to the elevator thinking: I wish I could be confident like Alex. Tasio chuckled. It was the excitement any bottle holder feels bubbling up when the ketchup finally sags down.

The elevator dinged and Eric stepped off. He groaned when he saw his door open. Inside the kitchen/living room, a man with the frame of an Orangutan sat on his couch watching TV. On the cushion to his left was a carton of milk and on the cushion to his right a bowl of nachos.

"Oliver, what are you doing here?" Eric asked.

"Watching my soaps."

"Why are you watching them here?" Oliver grabbed a handful of nachos and stuffed them in his mouth, dropping crumbs. Eric said nothing. They'll brush right off...

"I'm recordin' the game on my TV." Oliver said while chewing.

Eric sighed. "Oliver, I've had a bad day, do you mind leaving?"

Oliver took a swig from the carton and some of it splashed on the couch. Still Eric said nothing. There were plenty of stains on his couch already, what was one more?

"Now? But it's just getting good! See, Gregory just slept with Patrica without knowing she's his sister and Stephanie walked in on them and got really jealous because she wants to be in bed with Gregory but won't admit it. After the commercial there's going to be a cat fight!"

Tasio shook with chuckles.

Oliver picked his nose. "I'll leave as soon as my soap's over."

Eric trudged to the only other room in his apartment, his bedroom. He changed out of his wet clothes and sat at his desk. Every so often, Oliver would laugh or cry or turn up the volume and Eric would lose his train of thought. It's so hard to focus with Oliver there, I hope the soap ends soon.

Night fell as Eric continued working. He didn't hear the TV but snoring instead. Oliver must have fallen asleep...I can't ask him to leave now. That would be rude. The snoring disrupted his focus even more . Eric dropped his head on the keyboard.

"I need help...someone help me."

Ecstasy appeared on Tasio's face. It grew wider and wider and wider until it split his face. The ketchup had finally left the safety of the bottle and splatted on his burger. Now he could eat it! With a cry of happiness he threw up his arms and shouted,

"YES! Finally!" He spun on the desk and tapped his new friend on the head. "Hello!"

The human at the elf-like creature..."AHH!"... and jumped away; tripping over his chair in the process. This set Tasio into a fit of laughter and he rolled in mid-air. "Who...what are you?"

Tasio bowed. "I am the Trickster Tasio and I am here to help you."

Eric stopped trying to get up and stared. "Help me?"

"Yes, help you."

"With my report?"

"That...and other things."

" I must be dreaming, it's the only possible explanation." Eric said and rubbed his eyes. Tasio flicked his forehead. "Ow!"

"Feel that?"

"Yes!"

"Then you're not dreaming."

Eric glared at the smiling trickster. "Then I've had a mental breakdown from stress!"

Tasio put a hand to his chin. "That one is harder to prove you wrong on. You're just going to have to trust me."

Eric looked skeptical. "You said you were a trickster, so is this a trick?"

"Rest assured, your life will be better once I have helped you." His obnoxious grin was hardly convincing. "If you need more assurance, here's my resume." Tasio reached into his mouth and pulled out a small scroll. It was so old the paper was yellow and frayed. The edges were torn and the metal clasp holding it together was red with rust.

"This is a list of all the people I've helped." He removed the seal and let the paper roll out. The list fell to the floor and raced across the room. Then, in complete defiance of the laws of gravity, it rolled up the wall, across the ceiling, down the other wall, and back to the floor. Eric's mouth fell open as the scroll created another line. The process repeated until the north and south walls were completely covered in ancient moldy papyrus. It stopped in the center of the room where, under its own power, turned to the east wall and continued rolling until the remains of the room where covered in their entirety. "Where do you want to start?" Tasio asked pleasantly.

Eric shook his head. "There's no way you've helped all these people."

Tasio placed the back of his hand to his forehead in a dramatic gesture. "Oh no! Someone found out my secret!" He made a dagger out of his left hand. "With this I atone for my lie!" He stabbed himself and collapsed on the floor sprawled out. Eric' eyes widened and he rushed to Tasio's body.

"I'm sorry! Don't die!"

Tasio's body sprang like a mechanical trap. "Kidding!"

Eric screamed and grabbed his heart. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
"No, of course not. I'm here to help you remember?" Tasio smiled at Eric's anger. "You see, I'm immortal. I've been alive for a zillion years." He leapt and sat crossed legged in midair with his hands in his lap. "Now would you like to see my resume or not?" Eric looked at the papyrus that was currently his carpet and wall paper. Suddenly his head started throbbing.

"I don't have time! I have to do this report!"

Tasio sat at Eric's desk and speed typed for one minute. Then he printed a pile of neatly collected papers with the title 'Eric's Report' on top. "Now do you have time?"

Eric shrugged. "I guess so." Tasio's face light up like a light.

"Wonderful!" He dove into ancient scroll and pulled out the very beginning. "Ok! Here is where humans were first starting out: they had to eat meat raw and were cold in the winter, so I gave them fire...Here's where humans were tired of nomad life and so I showed them domestic crops...When humans wanted to get from here to there quicker, I showed them the wheel...Oh here's a good one! The Great Vowel Shift...that was a lot of fun..." Eric's eyes grew heavy. The stress of his day was catching up to him and Tasio's list just went on and on and-

"WAKE UP!" The poor human was scared out of ten years growth. Tasio laid back laughing and pointing at Eric. "You make the funniest face when startled."

Eric gave the floating trickster a nasty look.

"Now let's see your case." Tasio reached behind his waist and pulled out a second scroll. "Eric Watley, 21 years old, grunt for Hanson Enterprise. Vital Stats: Intelligence-bottom of the class. Strength-defeated by milk jugs. Speed-outrun by turtles, Confidence-huh?" Tasio scanned the page then the other side. "...The stat isn't listed. There's just an 'N/A' thing where it should be." Eric dropped his head, knowing it to be true. If there was one thing his older brother, his parents, and his coworkers all agreed on was the fact that he was spineless.

"Eric Watley, you have the lowest stats of anyone I have ever helped. You're not an everyman, you're not even a typical loser. You are the kind of loser that other losers feel sorry for. Oh wait, here we go...it says you are comparable to a rock."

Eric perked up."A rock? Like I'm tough and enduring?"

"No. It means you're dull, don't move unless pushed and aren't likely to change through out your life." Tasio patted Eric's head as the human cowered again. "But a master sculptor, like myself, can help you become a fine work of art." Tasio put the scroll away. "Now you should get some sleep because I will help you first thing tomorrow. Now off you go." Tasio scooted Eric to his bed and tucked him in.

Eric woke to the sound of his alarm clock. He slammed it off, rubbed his eyes and sat up: no sign of Tasio or the papyrus wallpaper.

Must have been a dream. He rolled out of bed and changed from his T-shirt and boxers to his pitiful business suit. Of course it was a dream. A dream brought on by stress. He walked to the bathroom to brush his teeth. An elf appears out of nowhere and says he'll help me. It's ridiculous. He grabbed his brief case and opened the door to the kitchen. The sight that greeted him drove all thoughts of 'dream' from his mind, and drop both jaw and briefcase.

There stood Tasio, at the stove, in a frilly pink apron. He was even humming a little tone and swaying to the beat. The Trickster must have realized he was being watched as he spun and beamed.

"Morning Honey! Sleep well?" Eric blinked, then blinked again. He rubbed his eyes and pinched himself. Tasio was still there and still wearing a pink apron.

"I think I'm still sleeping." Tasio carried a frying pan filled with waffles, eggs, and fruit to the table and placed it down with a glass of milk.

"Now, Dear, we went over that last night, must we discuss it again?"

Eric walked straight to the couch and shook Oliver awake. Never once did his eyes leave Tasio. The moocher groaned and rolled over. Eric continued shaking until Oliver woke up, "What's up Pal?" Eric pointed his finger at Tasio and asked,

"Do you see a golden haired elf wearing a pink apron?" Oliver looked at Tasio, who waved, then back at Eric.

"...No."

"But he's right there!" Eric grabbed Tasio's arm and shook it. "You don't see him?"

"Eric, there's nothing there." Tasio made funny faces.

"He's making funny faces right in front of you!" Oliver's hand passed through Tasio.

"Eric...maybe you should see somebody." Oliver said, getting more unnerved by the second. "You have been under a lot of stress lately."

"You got a buggy in your left nostril." Tasio observed. "Tell 'em, Eric." Eric relayed the message and Oliver found that he indeed had a buggy.

"Eric, is this some kind of imaginary friend?" Oliver asked, " You know, to avoid acknowledging that you were staring at my nose?"

Tasio jumped on Oliver's head, perched on his shoulders and made a big show of checking the man's hair for bugs and eating them. He celebrated by beating his chest and hollering.

"NO!" Eric Shouted. "Look! He's on top of you! Tell me you see him!"

Oliver slowly backed out of Eric's apartment, into his own and locked the door. Tasio phased back in and pouted.

"How rude. That was a fabulous imitation. The least he could have done was applaud."

Eric groaned and rubbed his forehead. "Why can't he see you?"

"Because he didn't ask for help, you did." Tasio explained. "No one can see me or hear me but you." He picked up Eric and dropped him in a seat. "Now eat your breakfast, it's the most important meal of the day, you know."

Eric picked up a fork and poked the eggs."Is this stuff going to improve my life?"

"Yes." Eric shoveled it all into his mouth, swallowed, and choked. Tasio slapped his back until it came back out. "You shouldn't eat it all at once, it's bad for digestion."

"Digestion?"Eric asked. "I thought it was magic."
"Magic? How come?"
"You said it would improve my life!"
"A balanced breakfast can improve anyone's life. Didn't you know that?"

Eric rubbed his forehead once more. He really didn't need a headache today. Medicine would never fix a headache ache like the one feeding him right now.

"So when are you going to help me?"
"I am right now. Eat up." Eric started eating again but slowly this time. It was actually pretty good; Eric hadn't eaten food like this since he was young. Maybe having Tasio here won't be so bad..."By the way...when does that place open?" Eric looked down at his watch.

"I'M LATE!" He ran out the door and Tasio hovered after him.

"I suppose this would be a bad time to tell you that I adjusted your alarm clock?"

"You did what!"

"You weren't getting enough sleep." Tasio protested, "Really, I'm surprised you haven't burned out." Eric dashed through the hall and almost slammed into the elevator. He pressed the button but the numbers seemed to change at a snail's pace. Tasio lounged in mid air and inspected his nails.

"You could take the stairs, you know." Eric rushed to the stairs, ran down several flights and nearly tripped the rest of the way. He was almost to the front door when Tasio spoke up again "Oh, and Eric, I do believe you forgot your briefcase." Eric groaned before running back to the stairs and taking them two at a time to get back to his floor. Huffing and puffing he reached his apartment and grabbed his briefcase. He ran back to the elevator, which still hadn't arrived, and reluctantly took the stairs. By the time he was in the lobby, the elevator dinged.

"A little help?"

Tasio blinked. "With what?"

"Getting to work!"

"Oh right!" Tasio snapped his fingers and light blinded Eric.

When his eyes recovered Eric was no longer in his apartment lobby but he wasn't at Hanson Enterprises either. He was in a place made entirely of rock and full of dust. It was very cold and so quiet Eric could hear himself breathing. Why did he send me here? It looks like a quarry.

Dust arose in a great cloud. "Who are you?"

Eric jumped and saw a tall man standing behind him. He wore a dark mantle whose hem seemed to ebb and flow as the overhead lights swayed. It was hard to tell the person from the clothing; like he was wearing darkness.
"Um...uh..." Eric scratched the back of his burning neck. "I...I'm..."

"Where'd you come from?" His eyes narrowed. "You don't look like one of us."

If I tell him a trickster zapped me here, he'll think I'm crazy. "I...My superior and I were checking the safety standards of the mine," Eric said slowly, "and I got separated from him." The mantleman stared. Then his expression softened and he looked with a mixture of curiosity and pity.

"That makes sense. If you go down this tunnel you'll come straight to the elevator." He lifted his arm and the mantle moved with it like the skin of a bat's wing. He pointed down the tunnel and through the dust Eric could see a red light. "It's about to shut down for the day. You should hurry." The arm disappeared beneath the mantle.

"T-thanks." Eric's whole face was burning. He couldn't stand bothering someone for information and asking about an exit made him feel even more embarrassed. The echo of drills reached his ears with the sounds of far off talking.

"You're welcome. I will tell the others you're here." He re-entered the dust cloud and disappeared. Seconds later the dust settled and Eric could see the red light of the elevator clearly.

Who the heck was that? He didn't look like a miner...And where's Tasio? He's supposed to be helping me... The lamps went out, plunging Eric into total darkness. He stopped; afraid to move an inch. There was nothing but darkness as far as the eye could see. It was like being in a void. His pulse quickened, his mind swam. Thoughts deserted him and he felt like screaming. The only thing that stopped him was the fear he wouldn't hear himself.

Wait! Its a straight tunnel. It doesn't matter if the lights are on or off. The tunnel is still straight so I can't get lost. With that calming thought Eric could feel his pulse slow and his panic subside. He walked confidently through the darkness. He walked so long he felt as if he'd walked for miles yet the red light loomed in the distance. This plus his earlier hustle took their toll on him. The noises of the mine echoed and melted into something resembling a voice.

You should rest... Whispered in his ear. Take a load off. You'll feel better. Whispers surrounded him and caressed him; gently urging him. Eric's eyes drooped. There's no shame in resting. Lie down and regain your strength. He leaned against a wall and slid down it. Yes, rest... rest...rest...forever...

The...the elevators... They...close soon...Eyes shot open. I need to hurry! He got up and walked a little faster. The whispers vanished and were replaced by the normal sounds of the mine. The lamps flickered on and Eric saw he was on the rim of the elevator. The car was just coming down but when it opened it was empty. Why did it come down if no one's on it? He stepped in regardless and the doors closed behind him. The elevator ascended without his action.

And as it ascended the air became hot and moist; soon he was sweating. By the time the elevator stopped he'd taken off his jacket and tied it around his waist. The doors parted and Eric discovered the reason for the increase in heat.

He was in the mouth of an active volcano. The lava churned and swirled like a lake and spouts of fire and steam shot up at odd intervals. The immense heat was like a physical force and smothered him. After he recovered from the initial shock, he saw that there was more here than rock and lava. Along the rim was a steel tower extending into a bridge that ended in a balcony overlooking the mouth.

Maybe someone over there can tell me where I am. Eric began walking to the structure. Clearly I can't count on Tasio. By the time he arrived his throat was parched and his clothes were soaked with sweat but the inside offered no relief. Stainless steel glowing orange by fire and lava containers and all manner of techno babble generators. They hissed and buzzed as Eric passed. No one's here...

He found the stairs. I'm getting more exercise today than I have all month. Still he found no one. Someone's gotta work here. Someone was leaning over the rim at the top and it was someone Eric knew well. A pair of arrogant eyes zero in on him. Recognition flashed in both and Eric's went down.

"Eric, should be this far from your cradle?" Aaron asked.

Eric approached hesitantly, "Aaron, where is this?"

Araon's haughty sneer grew. "Oh is the widdle baby lost?" The lava continued to churn and hiss.

"Yes, I need help getting to the office."

Chuckles were his answers. "Mama Emily would waste time helping the widdle baby but Aaron is far too busy with more important work." He turned back to the volcano with his notepad and machines. An enormous surge of fire erupted and smothered the balcony with its heat. It filled Eric's heart and shot like lightening in his veins.

Push him! A voice pounded in his mind and raged in his thoughts. Do it! The voice commanded. Push him! Eric's eyes turned red and he advanced on the unknowing Aaron. There's no one else around! No one will know! He chambered his arms and prepared to shove Aaron over the balcony railing and into the boiling lava below.

But then he froze. Push him! He deserves it! Fire in his mind grew hotter as the voice became more demanding. His arms burned with the desire to push Aaron but were frozen in place. Do it! NOW! Eric still didn't budge. The Fire in Eric's mind grew hotter still and he blacked out.

Eric was soaking wet. Not with his own sweat but with something else. He lay in a shallow pool of water gathered in the center of a small cavern. Small holes in the ceiling allowed beams of sunlight to illuminate the cave and the reflections on the water made a pretty display on the walls. Another strange place and still no Tasio in sight...Just my luck.

Eric's stomach growled. I'd better look for something to eat, and drink too. Unfortunately for him the pool was salt stood up and walked out of the cavern into a larger one.

Many pools were scattered in this one. Stalagmites rose from the ground to point to stalactites hanging from ceiling. Occasional water would drip from them and drop into the pools or the smooth rock floor. Each drop sent a clear sound echoing in the chamber. All this beauty was lost on Eric for the only thing he noticed was the exit, or lack thereof.

Footsteps from the far corner of the room drew his attention. A cloaked figure hunched on a staff hobbled in his direction then stopped at the pool in the center.

"Can you tell me how to get out of here?" The figure looked at him but a hood obscured it's face. It pointed at the pool with a sleeve covered hand. Eric saw only water, rocks and small sea creatures. "Yes it's a nice pool but I need to know how to get out of here."

Drop. Who are you?

Eric looked for the voice but it echoed with the water drops. They were the only noises in the cavern besides Eric's rapid breathing.

Drop. What are you?

"Are you doing this?" The figure continued pointing at the pool. It neither moved nor spoke.

Drop. Why are you?

"What does it mean?" Eric demanded of the figure. Its only answer was to point at the pool. Eric spun around and around, searching for any who could be speaking. He ran to the other side of the cave but found only a solid rock wall. Water dropped all and created a chorus of plops and bloops.

Plop. Who are you?

Bloop. What are you?

Plop. Why are you?

Mist flowed from a hole in the ceiling. It surrounded Eric as a dome and instantaneously turned to water and hung in the the air before becoming ice and landing with a thud. Just like in the darkness Eric began to panic. The ice melted into water and hung in the air before shifting back into mist and swirling away. Eric's nerves were so frayed he sat down. Leaning over the pool he splashed himself.

Bloop Who are you?

Plop. What are you?

Bloop. Why are you?

That's it! He rushed back to the center pool. "Who am I? I'm Eric Watley."

Water dropped into the pool and rippled the surface. Inside Eric saw himself getting pushed around in elementary school, "Wimp! Weenie!" A second drop and Eric saw himself getting pushed around at high school. "Loser! Nerd!" A third drop and Eric saw himself getting pushed around at his jobs. "Useless! Incompetent!"

If you are Eric Watley, then this is who Eric Watley is.

"What am I? I work for Hanson Enterprises."

Mores drops fell and created more ripples. The first one showed him choking on tests; academic and otherwise. The second showed him receiving pink slip after pink slip. The third showed him running errands for various people without wanting to.

If you are Eric Watley, then this is what Eric Watley is.

"Why am I?..I...I don't know."

A drop of water and the following ripples showed a group of people sitting on the ground. One by one they stood up and walked to a cliff which they all scaled. At random points on the cliff face were caves that some passed on their way to the top and others crawled into. Some of them lost their grip and fell, and of these fallers some regained their grip, some were caught by others, and the rest of them continued to fall until they hit rock bottom. Those that fell split into two groups; those that got up and those that lay still forever. None of these people were Eric; he was still sitting.

If you are Eric Watley, then this is why Eric Watley is.

"Normally, I would love to play riddles with you but I really need to go. I'm late for work!"

The figure rose its arms and giant hands of water rose from the center pool. They grabbed his arms and yanked him backwards. Eric fell through suddenly much deeper water and gasped at how cold it was. Water rushed into his mouth and he snapped it shut. The hands pulled him ever deeper into the watery abyss despite his struggles.

Who are you? The voice was all around him now, everywhere at once.

What are you? His lungs screamed for oxygen.

Why are you? Just as he lost consciousness he heard a new message.

What do you wish to be?

"Hey..." Eric groaned and covered his ears. "Hey! Are you alright?" Eric still didn't open his eyes. A foot kicked his side. It was a woman in a lap coat. "Are you alright?"

His side hurt from her kick but he said, "I'm fine."

The woman had green hair. He shook his head to clear it of water but the green haired woman was still there. Then again her lap coat was coated in grass stains. Maybe its some kind of experiment?

He was sitting on a beach, and once again, completely soaked . Before him was an endless ocean and behind him a jungle and then a cliff that rose above the clouds.

"Where am I?"

"You're at the Tunrig Research Facility." The woman said, "Technically the facility is on top of that mountain. It studies atmospheric phenomenon."

"Could you show me a way out of here?"

"Sure, we'll go to the lab and arrange a ride."

Eric hastily stood and followed after the woman. Now that he had a calm moment, a few things began to slide into place. Darkness...Fire...Water...Forest...Earth.. A wind based facility...It sounds like a classical element club. If I'm right then after wind should be light. Then Tasio will show up.

The events of the day puzzled him but now that he could see the pieces he could put them together. As he thought something warm and solid built up inside him. Some would recognize it as 'confidence', but Eric couldn't.

"Hey, take a look at this and tell me what you think." The woman's voice broke his chain of thought and Eric looked where she pointed. A fly was caught in a web and a spider was eagerly crawling towards it.

"I see a fly and a spider about to eat it."

The woman rolled her eyes. "Well yeah, but don't you feel sorry for the fly?"

Eric shrugged, "It is sad but the spider has to eat."

The woman slapped Eric on the back, just like old friend would. "Ain't it the truth! The spider eats the fly or starves. In my youth I felt awful for the fly. Then a friend of mine called me a spider killer." She chuckled. "Oh well, we're all young and naive at the start but we get over it, right?"

"Yeah... I guess."

"We're here." The pair stopped in front of an elevator at the base of the cliff. She pushed the call button and waited. "Hmm...The elevator must be broken again." She walked away from the elevator and towards a shack. She walked in but it was a man that walked out; a stocky man in a lab coat and hardhat with a pick ax in his belt. He was muscular and covered in dust and stone fragments. In both hands he carried pulleys and harnesses. I knew it.

"My cousin said you need to get to the research facility. Without the elevator this is the only way." He helped Eric into the equipment and energetically started climbing. Eric grabbed the first handhold hesitantly.

"Come on, don't be scared." Eric grabbed the second hold and pulled himself higher and higher. After they had climbed a fair distance, the man said, "You'll be fine as long as you don't look down." Which of course made Eric look down which was all it took to make him freeze. "I told you not to look down! Just focus on the top."

Eric did just that. His eyes did nothing but look for handholds and the distant summit. He made good progress this way. As long as I don't look down, it isn't so bad. then his arms tired and his breath came in gasps.

Fall!Fall!Fall! Fall! A new voice surrounded him. It pulled on every inch of his body as if trying to wedge him off the cliff. The very mountain seemed to resist him. Sharp edges cut his skin and loose pieces gave way when he put his weight on them. He could have sworn hand and footholds even moved out of his reach.

Fall!Fall!Fall! Fall! Fall! A length of rope landed on his head. Eric gulped; it was his lead rope. Now the only thing keeping him from a long drop was his own hands and feet. He continued to climb without assistance and the mountain continued to gnaw at him. Fall!Fall!Fall!Fall! FALL!

One handhold broke and then a second. Eric overbalanced and fell into empty air. I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die! His life flashed before his eyes but he found no comfort in it. The bulk of it was in the water cave: picked on, fired, bossed around, ignored; little that brought him joy or relief.

However...Deep down inside him...something pulsed. NO!

He reached out and grabbed a piece of rock jutting out from the cliff. The sudden stop nearly tore his arm off but he hung on. He grabbed the rock with his other arm and tired to pull himself up, but his arms were too tired.

"Come on!" The stone-man's voice sounded from far above. Eric could only see him as a tiny speck he was so far up and the submit was even further. Eric looked down and saw clouds beneath his feet. If I fall I'm dead but the summit is so far away. I'll never make it. His hands slipped and Eric hurried to renew his grip. With his arms feeling like jelly and his feet dangling in mid air Eric realized he had a choice: Fall or pull himself up. Eric bit his lip and pulled himself onto the ledge despite the complaints of his aching muscles.

"Good job, but it's about time." The dusty climber said. Eric blinked and had a brief spell of confusion. Instead of the ledge he was sitting on top of the mountain.

"...Wasn't I... much further down?"

"Well yeah, we had to start at the bottom."

Eric shook his head. "No. I mean just now, wasn't I much farther down?".

"No, you were at the ledge and pulled yourself up." His eyes widened. "Ah you must have had Cliff Fright. It's a common condition for novice climbers where they exaggerate the distance between themselves and the top or bottom."

He pulled Eric to his feet. "Now let's get you a ride to wherever it is you need." A ring tone came from his pocket and he pulled out a device. "Uhhuh, yeah, sure. I'll be right there." He put the thing back in his pocket. "I gotta get to work, just go to the main building and they should help you."

Eric's forehead vein throbbed. "...You had a cell phone?"

The climber nodded as if it were common sense. "Yeah, so the lab can always reach me."

The vein throbbed harder. "...So why didn't you call for help when the elevator was broken?"

The climber put a hand to his chin. "Huh... I don't know. Well see ya." And the climber walked away. Eric's fists clenched so hard he left nail marks.

Still angry, he walked towards the main building of the facility. It was a large steel structure with windows cut into the shapes of triangles. There were windmills on the top and a large antenna in the center with smaller ones spread out among the sides. The door opened automatically and closed with a swoosh. Inside was a woman with long brown hair and a lab coat. She was bent over a table fiddling with something Eric couldn't see.

"Ah yes of course! If I take this chemical here...and this element here...I will create the perfect solution!" She shouted and twirled with two vials of chemicals. Eric stopped in his tracks; she looked like she was dancing with them. He tried to get her attention but she didn't notice. A dog walked out from behind the counter and barked..

"Oh we have a guest? Thank you for telling me, Hacen."

"Who's Hacen?" Eric asked.

"He's my lab partner."

Eric saw no one else in the room but the dog. At first he thought the woman was insane but then another thought occurred to him. Maybe the dog is a trickster.

"Who are you?" The scientist asked. Eric introduced himself and a gust of wind blew. It traveled through the room and whispered in every nook and cranny.

"Pleased to meet you, I am the hermit of Tunrig." Eric sweat dropped. How can she call herself a hermit when she works at a laboratory? "So what can I do for you, Eric?"

"I'm trying to get to Hanson Enterprise HQ." Eric said.

"Ah, I know that place. It's quite a ways away...Hmm, how to get you there."

She started pacing and talking to herself. The dog barked.

"No, no Hacen! That won't work!" She muttered and the dog barked again. "Of course it won't! Its too impractical!"

She then had a heated argument with Hacen. This must be how Oliver felt...

"Now that idea just might work." She grabbed pen and paper. "Let's see, the weight of the object to be transported..." She looked at Eric "And...the distance to be transported..." She scribbled calculations. "So the power necessary is..." She looked for errors. "...Yes, yes that should work."

"Now Eric, we have devised the perfect means to get you to work." She walked to a large something covered in sheets. "You shall use my genius invention..." She ripped off the sheets. "The Dynamic Air Tunnel!" It looked like an old fashioned cannon with science gizmos attached.

Eric looked doubtfully. "Is this thing safe?" .
She shrugged. "It works fine when I use it."

Eric backed away from the cannon. Getting to his job on time wasn't worth his life. He'd just have too find some other way to get back. He turned around and walked out. He was on the threshold when the wind blew by him.

Keep your mind open. A voice whispered in his ears. The wind swirled around the objects in the lab and hazy images appeared where it traveled. See what could be there. Wind swirled over Eric and flowed toward a mirror. Within it Eric saw himself wearing a different outfit and carrying a staff.

Eric sighed, Those voices again, I'm going crazy after all...Well if I'm crazy and this just a hallucination then I won't die. He walked to the back of the cannon, climbed in through the open hatch and lay down on his belly. The hermit assured him once more and closed the cannon. It was pitch black, but for some reason, Eric wasn't as frightened as he was in the quarry.

"Good, just remain calm and you'll be there soon." The scientist pushed a series of buttons, pulled a number of levers and turned an assortment of dials. Electricity surged and the Dynamic Air Tunnel hummed into life. Air rushed into the DAT and all over Eric. Wind, I was right.

It blew over his body like a storm gust; tossing his hair every which way and ruffling his clothes. Inside pressure increased and centered at his feet. The steel flap opened. It propelled Eric out of the cannon like a projectile.

Fly. Fly like a bird.

He flew through one of the triangle shaped holes in the building, across the mountaintop, into a hole in a building on the other side. The two scientists there were so focused on yelling at each other they didn't notice the crash Eric made when he landed. The sun shone brilliantly on them.

"You can't do this!" One of them shouted. "It's too dangerous!"

"Yes I can!" The other one shouted back. "For science and the human race!

"You could damage the Sun and thus the human race!"
"My experiment is flawless! Nothing will go wrong."

Look too closely at the Sun and you will be blinded. The sixth of such voices to speak inside Eric's head. Unlike the whispers of the wind and water, or the bellows of the earth and fire, this one was gentle like the darkness. He felt like his mother was warning him against playing in the street.

The first scientist threw up their arms in frustration and left. Eric groaned as the bruises he collected made themselves known and the remaining scientist noticed him.

"You! Help me do this and I guarantee that you will have a glorious future. Everything you've ever wanted will be yours for the taking!"

Eric glanced from the scientist to the glaring sun. I see where this going. Look at the Sun and be blinded by it's light; look at how noble or grand your cause is and be blinded by that instead.

Eric smirked. "No."

The scientist glared. "You are making a big mistake." Eric didn't waver and the scientist shrugged. "Oh well, I'll show you to the exit."

This room was occupied by a table, two chairs, a chess board, and a creature with pointy-ears. The last sat behind pieces of a golden-brown color and the empty seat controlled pieces made of a clear material. It was just moving a pawn when he heard the door open.

"Hello Eric!" Tasio said, smiling as always. "Are you finished working?"

"I haven't even started." He frowned. "While Hanson Enterprise does produce commercial energy, I did not to visit those places personally!"

Tasio gasped. "Ohh! I'm so sorry Eric! I must have misunderstood."

Eric rolled his eyes. "Well to prevent further misunderstandings, I want to go to room 3A of Hanson Enterprise HQ. That's Head Quarters, not Ham Quartet or Hot Quills or anything silly like that."

Tasio's grin was so big it creeped Eric out. "Right away, Eric."

Tasio snapped and Eric was blinded by light. The sight that greeted him was filled with dust and crates. Room 3A, the storage closet. Not a pool of lava, a mining tunnel, or a mysterious underwater cavern. Another difference was Tasio hovering next to him.

"Is this the right place, Eric?"

"Yes, you got it right this time."

"Yay." Eric grabbed but knob. "Don't forget this."

Tasio was holding his briefcase. Eric could have swore he was holding it at the first teleport...He left the storage closet with Tasio floating close behind. He passed a random co-worker on the way to the elevator who said he was late.

"Yeah, I know." Eric glared at the, seemingly, empty air. "My alarm clock didn't go off."

"Hanson's pretty mad, I hope your report is good enough to make up for it."

"Is it?" Eric asked Tasio.

"Yes of course." Tasio replied. "If you hadn't fallen asleep when I was reciting my resume you would have known I've helped countless people write reports. "

Aaron awaited Eric at the elevator. "Did the Baby sleep in today?"

"This guy needs to get a life." Tasio said. Eric smiled and Aaron frowned.

"You won't be smiling when the general is done with you." The look on his face squashed any relief Eric might been feeling and he stood in the elevator like someone awaiting execution. Which may have been accurate; Hanson looked like Grim Death.

"Private Watley, you are very late."

"I'm sorry sir."

Hanson leapt up and bellowed, "Sorry doesn't cut it on the battlefield! I won't stand for any excuse!" He sat back down. "Do you at least have the report ready?"
"Yes sir." Eric placed the report Tasio made on Hanson's desk and stood straight while Hanson looked it over. Not a minute later he tossed the whole thing in the garbage.

"Eric, what is this?"

Nausea hit Eric's stomach like a bomb. "M-my r-report sir."
"Eric, this is not a report, it is a mess." Hanson said. "Every other word is misspelled, it's poorly organized and there are smiley faces all over it."

Tasio pouted. "What's wrong with smiley faces?"

"You're work is barely up to par, often late, and you don't get along with anyone." Eric felt like a criminal standing on the gallows. Any second the trap door would open. "And now you arrive late with this rubbish? I'm sorry Eric, but for the good of the unit, I'm giving you a dishonorable discharge."

"Translation: You're fired because you're a drain on the company." Tasio said. Eric gave him a nasty glare as he walked down the hall. "Just trying to help."

"You haven't been helpful at all!"Eric shouted. "You said it was good enough!"

"I thought it was good enough." Tasio said with his chin high. "But then again, I don't know anything about this company." The Trickster shrugged.

Eric's first stop was cleaning out his cubicle. The only bright side was it wouldn't take long. There were no pictures of family or friends, no memorabilia of any kind, not even much in the way of supplies since they frequently disappeared. Tasio tapped Eric and pointed.

"Here's something I can definitely help you with. I have millennium of experience matchmaking." Normally Eric would have declined but part of him felt like taking a shot. Surely matchmaking is different from writing a report.

"What do I do?"

"The first step is the first step." Tasio said. "You have to walk over to her." Feeling like an idiot for not realizing that, Eric gathered up his courage and took that step.

"Tell her she looks nice." Tasio instructed.

"...Yyouu llook nice today Emily."

Emily smiled. "Thank you Eric."

"Now ask her about her day."

"Hhow was yyour day?"

"You know, same old, same old."

"Now ask her about her plans for the weekend."

"Dddo you hhave any pplans for the weekend?"

"I'm going to a movie with Tim on Saturday."

Eric heard a record screeching. He thought it was in his head but then he saw Tasio holding one and dragging his nails across it. The Trickster laughed nervously at Eric's glare and hid it behind his back.

"Maybe some other time, ok Eric?"

"...Sure... Sure..." Eric walked out dejected while Tasio hung in the air biting his nails. Once outside the Trickster spoke up.

"Eric...I need to apologize."

Eric narrowed his eyes at the Trickster. "Tasio...what did you do?"

Tasio downcast his eyes and shuffled uneasily in the air. "...Well...I had to find something todo while I was waiting for you to finish work, so I looked for anyone else needing help. I saw Tim and gave him a push. I had no idea you were going to ask her out too." Now depressed, unemployed and brokenhearted, Eric began the long walk home.

"Would you like me to teleport you?"

Now Eric's anger reached its boiling point. His last shred of inhibition disappeared and he threw the box at the floating trickster. It passed through him and smashed on the pavement.

"WHY? So you can zap me to a meteor crater or the bottom of the ocean?"

Tasio raised his hands defensively. "I'm just trying to help."

"Well you're not! Just leave me alone!" Eric stomped off. Stupid elf, since he came nothing's-

"Ohhhhh Eeerrrriiicccc." Eric stopped. "There is...another way I can help you."

Eric spun and glared at The Trickster. "How? Turning me inside out?"
"There's no need to get gruesome, Eric." Tasio waggled a finger. "I was giving you standard help; a jumpstart if you will...But if you need more then that I can give you heavy duty help."

"...Like what?"

"I can make all the bad things that happened today go away; a fresh start, just for you. If you'll let me." Tasio extended his hand. "Well, will you let me?"

What have I got to lose? He clasped Tasio's hand and a jolt shot through him. It was as if some incorporeal hand reached into his body and grabbed his soul. He couldn't move.

"Excellent!" The wind picked up and Tasio's hair flew around him. His eyes, nose, and mouth glowed with brilliant golden light pouring out of him. It swirled and churned before exploding outward. Gathering behind him it formed a gate; a double doored gated touching the sky. With an ominous creaking, the doors opened wide and spilled more light.

"What's going on?" Eric asked in panic. He urged and pleaded his body to move but couldn't even wiggle his toes. He didn't want to be here! Anywhere else but here! I don't want to do this anymore! Tasio chuckled; with the sinister light and his hair flying everywhere, he was truly terrifying.

"I'm helping you." Tasio jumped backwards and pulled Eric with him.

The human fell screaming through a tunnel of light. The walls pulsed like a thing alive. Countless events flashed in every direction; sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feels! Surges of gold light danced and struck him. Then his screams of fear became screams of pain. Too much to be afraid, too much for anything. He could feel every part of him warping and twisting as the golden light reached the deepest part of him. He hurtled toward a bright light at the tunnel's end and everything he knew dissolved.