Just past sunrise the following morning, Fin, Snook, Hilfa, and Melville met their new guide in front of the inn. He'd brought some additional supplies for the journey, but was unsure of exactly what would be needed as the travellers had neglected to specify exactly where they were traveller or how long it would take. 'I got enough supplies to last a week', he told them. 'If we need more than that, we may want a sixth horse, or other beast of burden.

'One week should be plenty' Melville assured him, and they headed out of town on a eastward road leading towards Bales, Snook poking their new companion with his stick 'sword' intermittently.

'So, what's the plan?' asked their guide once the group was beyond the town border and the roads were largely empty of fellow travellers. 'Some big secret, I take it,m but you'll have to tell me eventually if I'm to guide you.' Snook jabbed him with the stick. 'I don't suppose you guys are just on a mission to dispose of the kid somewhere out in the wilderness, because that would be great.'

'Sadly, no, that's not on the agenda,' responded Fin. 'You promise not to abandon us when you learn of the plan?'

'Unless you're planning on crossing the border to blow up an enemy encampment or something heinous like that.'

'Oh. we're crossing the border to bring much needed medical supplies to neutral parties near the enemy encampment.'

'Ah, that's okay then. So, where are the medical supplies?'

'In those bags labelled "explosives".'

'I see. Well, is there an approximate route planned out, or is that entirely up to me?'

The group showed him the map with the hastily drawn red line marking the recommended path, but pointed out that it was a hastily drawn recommendation by a resident of Sawbill, so probably not as clever as whatever an experienced explorer of the region could come up with. The guide agreed, pointing out how the line ran through a swamp, crossed two rivers at their widest points, and passed through a large wooded area filled with zombies and unherringable trees.

'Crickey!' exclaimed Melville, unable to recall the piratese equivalent term. 'That is bad. What route would you propose, oh most wise and experienced guide?'

Their guide plotted a rough path along the map, with the reminder that they may modify it from time to time to deal with unexpected surprises, such as new forests springing up from the ground and vicious beasts chasing them off course.

'I can just burn the beasts!' Snook informed the others.

Just then, a Cheshire cat appeared. 'Indeed you can, but if you throw any more sparks on me, I'll put rabid mice in your bedroll,' said the cat.

'Holy mackerel! A talking Cheshire cat!' exclaimed the guide. 'Quick, burn it!'

'No!' said Hilfa. 'She's our friend. Her name is...we never got your name, did we?' she asked, turning to the cat. 'You know ours, but we don't know yours.'

'Why is it you think I know your names? You never introduced yourselves, as I recall.'

'Oh, didn't we? I guess we figured since you were a figment of our collective imaginations, you'd already know. I'm Hilfa. This is Snook the wondernut, Fin the aggravating, Melville Pennybrook the failed pirate'--('hey!')--'and an as-of-yet unnamed guide we hired yesterday. Oh, and the horses are named John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Pete.'

'Pete's name is really Stuart,' amended Fin.

'I thought it was Brian,' threw in Melville.

'No, it's Pete,' insisted Hilfa.

'I'm Sven Zoot,' said the guide. 'And you are?'

'These people never imagined a name for me. I suppose I could just use the ones used by the trout, but really, that's just a nickname they came up with. My real name can only be chosen by those people imagining me, and apparently they're not too big on bothering with names.'

'You can be Alberta,' said Hilfa.

'That's a place. You don't name an imaginary unreal Cheshire cat after a place!'

'Cheshire is a place,' Fin pointed out.

'Yes, but my name isn't Cheshire. I'm a Cheshire cat. Are you a Fin human?'

'The word is "fine", and yes I am.'

'Jokes that bad lose you karma with the Zombie Trout gods,' responded the cat.

'Zombie trout aren't gods,' said Sven Zoot. 'They're dirty undead river fish. I doubt such things exist.'

'So you're saying that the gods don't exist?' challenged the cat.

'No, I'm saying that Zombie Trout probably don't exist, and along with the tacit claim that the gods certainly do exist, that entails that the gods probably aren't Zombie Trout, as a thing can't both exist and not exist.'

'I'm managing pretty well, I should think.'

'I thought you denied earlier that you existed,' commented Hilfa.

'I meant in the sense that I was merely imaginary, but I exist in your minds. Consider: your dream is a real thing, but its contents are not.'

'But you're the content, not the dream itself,' said Fin.

'Dreams' contents are all in your head, whereas I'm floating along the path beside you.'

'But dreams are in my head too.'

'No, they're in little thought clouds floating above your head.'

'You're not above my head.'

'Maybe the frame's too short so I was put next to you instead.'

'This is all very confusing,' commented Sven Zoot.

'And stupid!' exclaimed Snook.

'That's my line,' Fin told Snook.

'Bollocks to you!' said Snook. Then he ran up ahead and started slashing at bushes with his stick.

'And /that/ sounded like it was Hilfa's line,' Fin said to no one in particular. 'Snook is getting increasingly erratic in his speech behaviour. In the past, he was consistently brief and spontaneous, but now he's utilising a wider variety of patterns.'

'I guess he had to mix it around a little to keep things interesting. A crazy person who always behaves the same way won't add a continually morphing dynamic to the group,' commented Melville. 'Anyway, didn't you used to speak only in single-word sentences, usually monosyllabic?'

'Yeah, but that was before a bunch of nutcases joined me and started saying things requiring carefully-articulated rebuttals.'

'Yeah, we really get some good dialogue going sometimes, don't we?'

'You guys are nuts,' commented Sven Zoot.

'You don't know the half of it,' the cat said to Sven confidentially.

'Snook's the crazy one. We just have a fun dynamic,' explained Melville.

'Yeah. Hilfa and I argue because she's often wrong and I'm always right. Melville is naive, but also the adult. Snook's the wacky interjector. You can be the outside observer who notices our peculiarities and contemplates and ponders them in a relatively objective manner.'

'I have a similar inner monologue' called Snook from farther down the path.

'Sven's new to the group,' rebutted Fin. 'You've been here from the beginning. Plus, you're crazier than any of us.'

'You know, usually when I appear you all spend your time talking to me, not discussing your own failings as a group,' said the cat, clearly annoyed at the tangential conversation. 'How can you just ignore the floating imaginary unread Cheshire cat who talks about having visited the Zombie Trout gods in her past? Are you really all that jaded already?'

'I'm not,' said Svenn,' but, then, I'm not used to the others yet either. You really aren't that much more bizarre than they are in many respects.'

'And what of you? Are you bizarre?'

'Well, let's see...okay, when I was ten, my parents decided to sell me into slavery. That's an unusual past, most certainly.'

'The same thing happened to Snook and me,' said Hilfa.

'Oh. Okay. How about how I once worked as a pirate for a brief stint?'

'I did that,' said Melville. 'But sadly, I discovered that piracy does not pay very well.'

'Not if you're stupid,' muttered Fin.

'Did you guys know I once saw a lime? I don't mean one of those fake limes you see in museums to let people know how to recognise one, but a real, life lime?'

'I used to have a lime of my own. Several, in fact. I left my last one with an annoying lemon merchant just before I met these blokes,' said Fin. 'Is their nothing unique in your personal history? You're the oldest one here. You should have plenty of stories of adventure to wow us. You've explored all these inland areas, haven't you? Ever felled a tree with a herring? Ever spotted a trick-or-treater dressed as a zombie? Ever touched a wild tree?'

'That last one, yes!' said Sven happily. 'By accident. For a while I thought I might have to amputate my hand, but it turned out that trees aren't that bad.'

'Oh, now you're just being silly. Us denizens of the Tanenbaum Region dislike trees, but we're not /that/ panicky about them. That's been established. Now, if you'd travelled through a forest, /that/ would be a feet worthy of song and story.'

'Gosh, no, of course I've never done /that/. I'm not stupid. I know the dangers of the wilderness and I've survived this long by /not/ tempting fate. I don't go in forests; I don't jump over bottomless chasms; I don't steal eggs from the motha bird.'

'What's a motha bird?' inquired Melville, genuinely curious. (Usually he was just faking interest when asking stupid questions.)

'Perhaps I'll tell you sometime. They're rare, so you need not concern yourself with the finer points of motha bird avoidance just now. If I see one, I'll point it out and tell you to stay away, but you can't really expect a low-wage guide to pre-emptively warn you of potential follies of wilderness travel, now can you?'

'I suppose not,' said Melville.

The Cheshire cat scowled. 'That's it. You guys suck. I'm just going to go take my gems of wisdom somewhere that they'll be appreciated. The /gods/ listened to me, but do you guys? No, you're too busy talking about dumb birds. Motha birds don't even taste good. So bye now.' And with that, she was gone, and the group was left with no new gems of wisdom to digest.

'We have no new gems of wisdom to digest!' exclaimed Fin most uncharacteristically. 'Whoa is us! I'm sure what she's said in the past will be turn out to be pivotal as how events unfold, but this time we drove her away before receiving the potentially life-saving words. Alas, alack.'

'She's just a cat,' muttered Hilfa. 'And not even a real cat, at that. Anything she could tell us would just be stuff we imagined, so it's not like we've lost anything by not having her here to speak.'

'She was our symbolic window into our collective subconscious minds,' Fin responded forebodingly. 'We will regret how this conversation ended, mark my words.'

And before their part in the tale ended, they most certainly would.