Sean saw it too late: his hiking partner had forgotten to douse the ashes of his campfire.

“Mike, wait!” he cried. But it was too late.

The high-caliber round put Mike down clean; he toppled face-first into the ashes, his blood quenching the embers that his fire bucket had not.

Half a mile away, atop a ranger watch tower, the bear regarded the scene through the lens of his 20x Leupold. His spotter nodded, and the bear ejected his 7.62mm brass into one outstretched paw. He then tucked it behind the band of his campaign hat.

“Only you,” he growled. “Only you.”

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We saw you come here on the back of our compatriot. The words were deep and resonant, knowing and kind, and they were articulated without any motion at all on the part of the perhaps-whale save its gentle bobbing in the air. We could tell that you were in need of aid.

“Yes,” said the girl tremblingly, teaching out a hand. “I’ve lost my friend, I’ve lost my way, and I must get to the Great Eye.”

The perhaps-whale’s wordless tone grew concerned. Yes, we know of the Great Eye at Childhood’s End, it wordlessly intoned. It is beyond our power to reach.

“Why?” said the girl petulantly. “You could fly me there in minutes.”

No, we cannot, replied the perhaps-whale. For you see, we do not exist.

The girl raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You look like you exist to me,” she said.

Of course, for we are childhood dreams, borne upward by winds of belief and sustained by the power of innocent minds. But Childhood’s End is the death of all such dreams, the grey crushing that accompanies all such young things. We exist only for those who believe, or can be made to believe, and to pass through the Great Eye at Childhood’s End would be, for us, to cease.

“I don’t believe in you,” the girl replied. “Whales can’t fly.”

You, a child, should know better than anyone the difference between what one says to others and what one feels to oneself. The tone without tone of the perhaps-whale sounded light and amused at this. Suffice it to say that we would not, we could not, be speaking if that were really so.

“So that’s it, then,” said the girl. “You won’t help me.”

Why would you want help to reach such an awful place? Childhood’s End is the death of wonder and dreaming, the graveyard of games and fun, the tomb of carelessness. To pass through the Great Eye is to lose all those things. Why not stay here, stay outside it, forever? You would grow older but remain a child. does that not appeal?

The girl bit her lip.

Is that not the darkest and most desperate desire of your heart? Surely you have seen them where you live, those who never leave home, those who still wake to mother’s fresh meals, those who know nothing but play and games their whole lives.

The girl thought about poor Bear, the gobs, and all she had seen and heard up to that point. “That sounds…terrible,” she said. “As bad as Childhood’s End sounds, that sounds just as bad. Isn’t there another way?”

There is no other way. Childhood is sunshine and adulthood is night. It is one or the other, always.

“What about sunrise?” the girl said defiantly. “What about sunset? If you won’t take me there, I’ll go alone.”

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Bear’s wounds were so great that he could no longer walk, no longer use his weapons. The gobs had assumed him to be dead, a piece of worthless fluff no longer worthy of the slightest consideration now that he had ceased to hack and slash at them. Bear had cannily maintained his silence while they were about, but once they had moved on in pursuit of the girl, he cried out for aid.

It was a risk, to be sure. He might attract more gobs, or something worse. But with his body torn up in battle, there was no other way for him to continue to serve the girl as he had since the day she had come home, when they had met on the playroom floor. His service, and the completion of the Unspoken Promise, was greater than any threat from within or without.

“Hello there, little toy bear.” A silhouette loomed over Bear, the size and shape of a small child, maybe half or less of the girl’s age. “Do you need help?”

“That is correct,” said Bear matter-of-factly. “I have lost my charge, she who is as my sister, she who I have sworn to protect and see through from birth to maturity in a promise unspoken to her parents on the day of her birth.”

“That is an awfully big promise for such a small bear,” said the shadow. “I can carry you for a bit, if you like.”

“That would be most kind of you,” said Bear. “I have no way of repaying your kindness, which makes the gesture all the more noble.”

It wasn’t until the shape picked Bear up that he noted something odd. The child-sized shape’s grip was watery and cold, and the presence of shadow and indistinctness of features did not dissipate with distance or the strength of light. “I hope you don’t think it rude of me to ask,” said Bear, after they had walked for some time, “but what might I call you, and what might you be?”

“I am a shade, and you may call me Shade, for you see I do not remember any other name I might have had,” was the reply. “Long ago, something dreadful happened, and I must wander from the Gobwood to Childhood’s End again and again until I can remember what it was.”

“That seems a terrible punishment for something unremembered,” said Bear in a kindly tone.

“It is not so bad,” replied Shade. “And it is much better with a traveling companion. I try to help others when I can, and the Gobwood is always full of those that need my aid.”

Bear saw the wisdom in this, and did his best to engage Shade in pleasant conversation as they walked. In time, the two came to the edge of a great crag overlooking a forested valley with jagged uplifts in the smokey distance. Atop one of them was the ragged shape of a great pleasure wheel.

“The Great Eye,” whispered Bear.

“Childhood’s End,” said Shade sadly. “The end of my journey, and the beginning of yours.”

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Without Bear to guide her, the girl could only wander aimlessly and desperately through the endless forest. She’d have given anything to have him back by her side, despite his often irritating old-fashioned demeanor, despite the secret fear that the others from school would laugh at her if they knew her childhood toy had escaped the dumpster (which had long since consumed her classmates’ toys).

Absent his determination, his steel, she was lost. It was painful to admit; twelve years old was practically grown up, after all, and what sort of grownup relied on teddy bears to guide them through far and enchanted wolds? What sort of grownup hovered on the verge of tears instead of taking charge?

And what sort was consumed by a deep and trembling fear when it was clear something was following her?

Horrified that it might be more gobs, or worse, the girl deliberately wandered through a muddy patch backwards, making it look like she had stumbled in the other direction, and then carefully doubled back through patches of fallen leaves that would betray no sign of her passing. It was a trick she had honed in years of hide and seek in the woods at Grandpa’s house, and her naturally light step allowed it to be pulled off without more than a soft rustle of fall foliage to betray her position.

The girl approached the shadow in the woods from behind, with the gob dagger drawn, though she had no idea how to use it. As the approached, the creature came into focus: a great grey blob that floated on the still air, controlling itself with large and gossamer fins. It looked like nothing so much as a large fish.

Hoping to scare it, the girl burst out of the underbrush with what she hoped was a very fierce yell and the gob dagger raised high. The curious fish-thing pivoted and faced her with a terrible gurgling sound, and the girl prepared to bury her dagger in her pursuer up to the hilt.

Then she saw its eyes.

Wide, sorrowful, fearful…they were like a mirror of her own. The girl lowered her weapon. “You’re just like me, aren’t you?” she said in her most soothing tone. “Lost and afraid.”

The creature bobbed, approximating a nod despite its lack of a neck.

“What do you say we travel together, then?” the girl said. She approached and calmly stroked the beast’s scaly surface. “We can be lost together.”

Gentle fins lofted her off the ground and onto the fish-thing’s neck, and the girl rode her newfound companion in the direction of the setting suns.

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They had bound Bear up in rough cords, and tossed his shining rapier to the smaller gobs, who shrieked and squabbled as they fought over it.

“This one…any good to eat?” The largest gob, almost the girl’s size, hungrily licked his lips as he gazed at Bear. “Lot of fight…usually…lot of meat.”

“Come off it,” the smaller gob before him said, the one who had called out orders during the ambush. “He’s all fluff and stitchings. Felt it when I got a good blow on him I did. No good for eating. Only good as a slave.”

The gobs poked and prodded at Bear, during which he maintained a dignified silence, much as he had during all those years in the playroom. The girl was eventually moved to indignation, despite her own bindings. “You leave him alone!”

“Oh, so the other morsel wants a say, do it?” The head gob said, loping toward the girl. “It thinks we’s being too rough on the nasty stitchfluff what spilled our blood?”

The large gob affixed its unlean and hungry look upon the girl. “This one…good for eating? Not all stitchyfluffy?”

The girl gave as fierce a grimace as she was able, though had her mother been there to see the effect would have struck her as more like a twelve-year-old pouting than anything. “I’m not for eating either,” she said. “Just as full of fluff as Bear.”

“That is correct,” Bear said even as the other gobs danced and taunted and cackled madly around him. “She and I are as brother and sister.”

“She look all meaty…maybe not ready for eating yet,” the large gob said, fingering his great and knobby club. “Few year as slave…that do it.”

“I’m a stuffed doll with a porcelain skin,” the girl said, hoping that desperation wasn’t creeping into her voice. “If you try to eat me you’ll have a mouthful of cuts and a bellyful of stuffing.”

The head gob sniffed at the girl. “Me nose says otherwise,” he growled.

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