The shouts and battle cries faded off into the distance as Bennett barred up the barn door. The storm remained, and battered the roof. Stacks of hay stood top to bottom in both the lower floor and the loft. Behind him, Luann Reynolds ran toward a ladder in the back. Just moments ago Bennett was meeting her for the first time at a Waffle House off the interstate in some town in middle Tennessee. She'd promised a story, and he got one.
"We won't be safe long," she said. "Up here."
"Whatever you say." Bennett had thought she was crazy when she emailed him, and when he spoke to her on the phone, and when she saw her in the parking lot. But after what he had just seen chasing them, he would do whatever she said. He waited for her to reach the top, and climbed the ladder after her. "What the hell were those things?"
The ceiling was low. Luann stayed on her hands and knees. "It's just like I said. Those were gnome warriors."
"Gnomes…" Based on her first email, Bennett had thought she was some crank with a unique bigotry against people with dwarfism. But the people that chased them were only about a foot tall, and had turquoise and magenta skin, and wore iridescent plate armor. And they'd come with those animals, the most bizarre things he'd ever seen. "And they were riding…"
"They're called forest greeps," Luann said. "They went into hiding at the same time as the gnomes."
"After the Civil War?"
"Right. You understand now why I called you?" Luann picked dried grass off her shirt. "They've disappeared into history, but they still exist. They're not just a cartoon mascot for a tourist trap. They're real, and the world needs to know."
"You may be right," Bennett said. "The idea that they actually helped beat the Confederacy… They'd have to rewrite the history books. How'd you find them?"
"How else? I'm on a hike across Sequatchie County, and I find a strange mirror in the middle of nowhere, and I fall into it into a day-glo cave kingdom." She took out her phone. "I tried to take pictures, but they all came out blurry." She showed him a photo that could have been a close-up of an eyelash, for all it mattered.
Bennett would have liked some pictures himself. He tried to take some at the Waffle House, but he dropped his phone, and it got crushed in the gnome-and-greep stampede. "All right, assuming we get out of this alive, how do I convince an editor to take the story?"
"Don't worry. I brought proof." Luann reached into her handbag and pulled out three glowing jewels, one red, one green, and one blue. "I think they have special powers, but I haven't figured out how to use them."
"I've never seen anything like them," Bennett said. They weren't just beautiful, and they didn't just glow. A thin mist swirled around them, almost dancing, building strange runes within the glow. He reached for one. "May I?"
"Take one, please."
Bennett plucked the red one out of her palm. A warm energy shot through his fingers. "Wow. Incredible. Do you know what they are? Where'd they come from?"
"I found them when I was exploring their world. I didn't think anybody would miss them."
The gnomes' shouts emerged outside the door. They were crafty creatures, and couldn't have been fooled for long. Metal clanged in rhythm from behind the barn, interspersed with sudden percussive chants. They must have surrounded the whole place.
Bennett shot Luann a curious look. "Ms. Reynolds…"
"Please, call me Luann."
"Luann, these jewels wouldn't happen to be the reason they're chasing us, would they?"
"N-no. I think the gnomes are trying to keep their existence secret. They wouldn't even let me leave."
"Did they give you a reason for wanting to keep you?"
She scratched her arm and looked away. "No."
"It wasn't because of the jewels?"
"What do you take me for, some kind of criminal?"
Bennett didn't want to say "Yes" or "No," but there was something about that first email she'd sent him that made him wonder. Some of his friends had gotten similar messages. There was a marked emphasis on how famous they'd become when they broke the story, and how much money they'd make on the book and movie deals. Bennett, though, was content just being a reporter and columnist for an online news magazine. The occasional appearance on CNN was as famous as he ever wanted to get. Truth was, he'd mainly agreed to meet with her because he liked Waffle House.
The gnomes bashed at the door. The wood split apart, and the blade of an axe pierced through.
"Tell me the truth," Bennett said. "How did you get these jewels? Tell me."
The axe struck again, leaving a gash through which the gnomes and greeps could look through.
"Are they here for you?" Bennett brandished the jewel. "Or are they here for these?"
The boards in the door split open, and the rain splattered in—rain that hadn't started until the chase began. The sky had been clear only an hour ago.
Luann said, "They… may… be more valuable than I first suggested."
"How valuable?" Bennett saw a gnome warrior step through the gash in the door, the armor concealing every inch of his flesh, making him resemble a giant beetle. The axe that had chopped through the door was attached to the end of his gauntlet. A couple of troopers in lighter armor hopped in.
"Well," Luann said, "there was this shrine…"
"Oh for the love of… You stole religious artifacts?"
"You expect me to leave this kind of treasure alone? I could be set for life!"
The warrior waved a hand, and the two troopers began to scout through the lower level of the barn. That hand—the one without the blade—came up and drew the helmet off, revealing a weathered face with a silken white beard and a single antler above the left eye. He set the helmet on the ground.
"I am Chief-Lord Bolg." His voice roared like a raging waterfall. "You harbor a fugitive from our land, who has stolen something priceless to us. If you value your life, you will turn over this fugitive or her stolen items."
Luann pulled Bennett behind a pile of hay. He grabbed her hands and tried to pry them open. The gnome couldn't have been clearer: the jewels or their lives. He just had to throw them out to Bolg down there and then find a way back home. If only Luann's skin weren't so slick with rain and sweat, and her nails weren't scratching his arms.
The floor of the hayloft rattled from the gnome troopers clomping up the ladder. Bennett knew he shouldn't have answered that email. She was no crackpot—he was willing to grant that. No, this woman was nothing more than a greedy opportunist who'd gotten in over her head. He did not recover from that fist fight with a Northern Alabama ISIS supporter just so General David the Gnome could murder him over jewelry.
Bennett tossed the red jewel to the middle of the hayloft. Now he had both hands free. He locked her arm in his elbow, wrenched her fingers open, plucked out the remaining jewels, and threw them to the same spot as the red one.
Luann bit his hand.
Bennett clenched his teeth and held back a shout. She tried to crawl over him to get them back, but he threw his arms around her and wrestled her down. Bennett peeked around the hay. The gnomes reached the top of the ladder and found the jewels. One of the gnomes waved down to Chief-Lord Bolg. In a moment the Chief-Lord pounded his feet up the ladder. He took off the gauntlet with the axe on the end, releasing his hand.
Bolg took a box and a set of tongs from a pouch on his waist, kneeled, and murmured what might have been prayers as he picked up a jewel with the tongs, as carefully as if he were picking up a hot coal, and laid it inside the box.
"Stop! Stop, please!" Luann stretched her hand out with tears in her eyes as the gnome locked her fortune in a box. Bennett held her back.
Chief-Lord Bolg and his troopers stared straight at them. Bennett seized up, squeezing harder on Luann, staring at that axe-gauntlet on the floor. But the gnomes returned their attention to the box. Bolg raised the box and bellowed out a pair of indistinct syllables, then repeated the ritual with the other two jewels. He handed the box to one of the troopers, who bowed and wrapped it in a cloth embroidered with the same runes the jewels gave off. Cradling the box in one arm, the trooper climbed down the ladder. The other trooper bowed, then went down after him.
Bolg put the axe-gauntlet back on. "You have done well to return what you have stolen. I am a gracious Chief-Lord, and therefore will forgive this slight against our people. Be warned, base thief, that should you ever return to our realm, we will have your head."
Bolg pointed at Bennett. "And you, scribe, will never tell of what you have seen. When the gnomes are ready to reveal ourselves, we will. Until then, do us this favor, and let us pass into legend."
Bennett nodded. Such a big voice, from such a tiny, tiny man.
Bolg jumped off the ledge, straight to the ground, and put his helmet back on, concealing everything except the antler and the beard. "Farewell, thief and scribe. I pray we never meet again.". He gave the soldiers outside a wave, and they withdrew. The tails of the greeps whipped past the gash in the door. The rain had stopped. Chief-Lord Bolg walked out as a silhouette against the sunlight that reached into the barn.
Bennett relaxed his grip. Luann crawled off of him. She still had streams of tears on her face. "How could you…"
"It's very simple," Bennett said. "I don't want an axe in my skull."
"But our story…"
"Your story." Bennett got up and walked hunched over to the ladder. "Maybe my editor can pay for the damage."
"Who cares about the damage? We could have both had more money than we knew what to do with! We could have gone down in history."
"I'll have to see if I can manage." He climbed down.
On his way back to the door, Luann yelled, "You call yourself a man? You could have taken that little piece of crap."
"Not taking that chance." A fist fight with an ISIS sympathizer was one thing. But Chief-Lord Bolg had the hardened face of one who had defeated many enemies much bigger than himself. "On second thought, you try settling things with the farmer. I'm going home." Bennett reached the door, with the hole big enough for maybe a dog to pass through. He raised the bar and walked through the wheatfield toward the highway. The gnomes and greeps had left no sign of their presence, other than the dew from the rain.
The sign for the Waffle House where he'd met Luann stood on the hill up ahead. Bennett had thought that morning that he might get a different type of story. But if he were to risk his life for journalism, he at least wanted it to be the kind someone could explain to his mother. "He was working with a whistleblower to expose corporate crime." Or "He was infiltrating an extremist group." Not "He was an accessory to theft of magic artifacts that belonged to your lawn decorations."
Bennett arrived at the parking lot and got straight into his car. He didn't care about his pulverized phone. He didn't see it on the sidewalk, which meant someone had probably picked it up and thrown it out already.
Luann would probably catch up if he stayed here too long, so he drove off and had lunch at a different Waffle House.