The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 7

[Note: The illustration for this chapter will be coming eventually, but I didn’t want to delay this chapter any longer. I will be taking next Monday off, for a weekend away with the spouse, so the next chapter will be up June 1st.]

Confused, the Human shrugged and turned back towards Sunset. The Human put the crystal into the turtle shell container. It was safer to keep it out of sight.
After walking for quite a while, the Human noticed more live trees appearing on both sides of the path. Eventually, a grand forest surrounded the path, obscuring the sunset sky. It was no longer as quiet as the forest near the Human’s home had been. Here, among towering trunks, strange sounds echoed. They did not sound like any animal the Human had ever heard, but they seemed to belong to some sort of wild creature nonetheless. It had become even darker, and the light from the crystal was now visible through the walls of the turtle shell container. It was subtle, but enough to keep the Human from tripping on the roots that now pushed up through the surface of the path. At first, this only happened sporadically, but eventually, the path was no longer at all flat. As the Human picked through the roots, it became clear that the path was slanting downward. The Human hoped the path would not become completely obscured, for without it, there was no assurance that the Human’s family would be findable.

In the distance, the Human heard something strange. It was faint, but clearly not the sound of an animal. It was music! Anxious to see another human, or even one of the Fae, the Human pushed forward more quickly through the gloom. Gradually, the path reemerged from the tree roots and the trees became larger, but more widely spaced. The canopy was nearly lost against the darkening sky. The path now wound around the great trees, and the Human lost track of which way was towards Sunset. The sounds of music grew louder. Someone was playing a stringed instrument while someone else sang. The melody would shift seamlessly between songs, and, even at such a distance, it was clear that the musician and singer were of great skill.
The path rounded a particularly huge tree and the Human stopped short. There, running through the trees, was a small river. The roots of the trees nearest the shore had combined with the flow of the water to make a scalloped shoreline. There were large boulders in the river, an on them were the apparent source of the music. On one, a handsome man stood, playing a violin, while a beautiful woman sat on another nearby, singing. They stopped playing as the Human appeared from the wood. Once the music faded, the Human took notice of the many individuals that surrounded the players. They sat on tree roots, on stones, or in the water, which had the same blurred surface as the creek near the Human’s house. Those who were gathered to hear the musicians turned as one to stare at the Human. The Human stared back.

“Welcome child, welcome!,” called a warm voice. It belonged to what appeared to be a woman, who was seated on a large boulder, and appeared to be presiding over the performance. She stood, wearing a skirt of shimmering gold and a white shirt with pearls sewn onto it in intricate designs. Wrapped around her was a large snake who rested its head on her chest and seemed as tame as could be. Her skin was a deep, rich brown, and seemed to be slightly wet, although her long, curled hair was dry. She held a comb in one hand, and a mirror lay next to her on the rock, forgotten for the moment.
“Thank you, lady,” said the Human, bowing. “I did not mean to interrupt.” The violinist and singer appeared more amused than offended, so the Human hoped this encounter might resolve itself smoothly.
“Lady! Please, call me Mother. I am the Water Mother, and you appear to be one of my children from the Present. I have not seen any of you here in a very long time. I have to travel to your world to see you, usually,” she said. Her voice was musical and friendly. “Your people are in need of much love and care. But I don’t mind. A Mother only wants the best for her children. Children!,” she called, addressing those gathered, “Welcome our visitor!”
“Pleased to have you join us,” said the violinist. “I am Neker. I also have fond feelings for your people. They are so beautiful and they love my music so. He bowed low, his shoulder-length blond hair falling forward.
“Ignore him,” said the singer. “He claims to love your kind, but my brother is full of lies. I am Nixe.” She inclined her head, revealing slitted ear as her dark, damp hair fell forward. The Human was startled to notice that was not, as it had first appeared, wearing a green skirt, but rather her lower half was that of a green, iridescent fish.
“Pleased to meet you both,” said the Human, trying hard to remember why these names sounded so familiar.
“Oh, leave the poor thing alone,” said a high, lilting voice to one side. “We all know you both are terribly careless with your human toys. You have no appreciation for what a bit of worship can do for you,” said a pale young woman with dark, wavy hair. She sat on a smaller boulder below that of the Water Mother. She wore a flowing white robe that clung to her body. I have had many names, Human. I wonder if you know them…,” she smiled slightly.
“Worship! Ha! Humans are good for nothing but sport,” claimed a creature in the water on the other side of the Water Mother’s boulder. It rose out of the water, revealing a creature with the body of a man, but with gills on the side of its head, and the fin of a shark on top. It smiled, and shark-like teeth glistened.
“Agreed!,” came a cry from the bank near the Human. In the shallows sat a black dog-like creature with black, smooth skin. Its appendages, including its tail, ended in hands. It grinned toothily. “Their eyes, teeth, and nails are all quite delicious.”
“True, they are quite tasty,” said a green creature paddling in mid-stream. “I like the liver and blood, myself. They’re good for more than food, however. It’s quite fun to play pranks on them.” The creature looked like a humanoid frog, with a water-filled depression on its head. “Human, I am glad to have you here. Your kind can be quite amusing.”
The Human bowed, trembling, not wanting to give offense.
“Ah, ah! You won’t get me that way!” said the green creature. I’ve fallen for that one before. If a kappa bows, we lose the water in our heads, and then we’re helpless against you. Remember everyone, humans can be tricky! It’s part of their charm.”
“I meant no-,” the Human began.
“Oh stop, all of you,” interrupted the Water Mother. “I told you to welcome our guest, not terrify the poor thing. Come, child, sit by the water and rest your feet. My darlings will not harm you while I am here.” The Human obeyed, sitting where the path dipped into the water. It rose again on the other side, and the Human wondered how to reach that point when the river was filled with those that wanted to taste human flesh.
Neker, the violinist walked over to the Human, his feet just barely dipping into the water as he walked. He sat to the Human’s left, just close enough to brush shoulders. The singer, Nixe, swam over and sat to the Human’s right, similarly close. The Human sat very still.
“So, Human, tell us why you are here,” said Neker, leaning in closer.
“I’m seeking my family,” said the Human. “They died not long ago, and I am trying to find their spirits.”
“Such a sad tale,” said Nixe, leaning in from the other side. “And did you lose your wife as well?”
“I’m sure you mean husband,” argued Neker.
“Which is it, dear?” asked Nixe. “Normally it is quite easy to tell man from woman in your kind, but, for some reason, I’m having trouble with you.” Before the Human could answer, Neker broke in.
“Ah ha! You have a bit of both about you. No wonder you caught the attention of both my sister an I. Usually she prefers men while I like to attract ladies. And the occasional child. So, tell me, Human, what of your family.” The Human swallowed hard, uncomfortable with the closeness of the strange siblings.
“My love and my children died of a fever. Before that we lived together quite happily. My children were born to other parents, but we took them in when they were very young, and we had such a wonderful life together. It’s strange, I had trouble remembering details before, but now it’s coming back,” the Human said with a smile.
“And you are seeking them here?” asked Nixe. “Why?”
“Because without them I have nothing,” replied the Human.
“Such loyalty is beautiful to behold,” said the Water Mother. She had appeared directly before the Human. The Human started, not having heard her approach.
“Normally I demand that those who enter my realm pledge to be faithful to me when they return. I shall not ask that of you, however, as you are sworn to another. I can see your heart could never be mine,” she said, sounding regretful.
“That is true, Mother,” answered the Human. “I love my family very much.”
“We could help you forget,” Nixe whispered in the Human’s ear.
“Yes, I’m sure we could,” agreed Neker on the other side. Both siblings reached their hands around the Human’s waist before drawing back with cries of pain. The Human looked up to see that the Water Mother had each of them by an ear and was twisting.
“Naughty children!” she cried. “If I have decided this child of mine shall go free, then you are not to contradict your Mother!” She dragged them both away from the Human, who was trying very hard not to smile. The other creatures seemed amused by this discipline as well. The Water Mother dragged her errant children back to their rocks in the middle of the river and returned to her own seat on the great boulder. She picked up her comb and mirror.
“Now, my child, you may be on your way. I apologize for the behavior of my wicked ones. Here, take this with you. Perhaps it will be of service. She tossed her golden-framed mirror to the Human, who caught it quickly, lest it shatter on the ground. The Water Mother gestured an the water covering the path drained away, opening a clear way for the Human to walk safely.
“Thank you Mother,” said the Human, bowing again. “I am grateful for your aid.”
“Best of luck to you, child. May your loyalty be rewarded with kindness,” answered the Water Mother.

The Human walked quickly across the path, as the water flowed back across the path inches behind the Human’s feet. Once on the other side, the Human turned back to look, but the gathering had vanished. Only the river, the rocks, and the trees remained. Putting the mirror into the turtle shell container, the Human turned and continued on down the path.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 6

The Human stumbled on through the tunnels, running as fast as the light from the crystal would allow. Eventually, a point of light shone ahead, which grew quickly. Staggering out of the tunnel, the Human blinked against even the dim light. The world was blurred and wispy once again, with only the rocks surrounding the cave mouth appearing solid. The sky appeared a bit darker than it had been where the Human had entered the Faded Kingdom. It appeared the trip underground had moved the Human significantly closer to Sunset. There was still no sign of the Human’s lost family, but hopefully that would change shortly. The Human set out down the path, holding the glowing crystal for comfort in the gloom. The trees on either side of the path were no longer tall and healthy, but wizened and twisted. Leaves only rarely flickered on their limbs.

“Oh, how pretty!” called a rough voice. The Human looked around and saw a large crow in a nearby dead tree. The tree did not have even the few leaves of the others in this area. Perhaps it had been dead a long time. The crow hopped down to a closer branch and cocked its head.
“You, my friend, are a strange one,” it remarked, turning its head again to examine the Human from a different angle. “I haven’t seen your like in this land. Now, in the Present, your kind and mine, well, we go a long ways back.”
Wary of giving offense, the Human bowed deeply and politely asked the crow’s name.
“Ah, that is a tricky question isn’t it? After all, I am not just a crow. I am the echo of many crows from many lands where many tongues are spoken. You may call me Crow, but that is not quite right. I am also the echo of the ravens, the magpies, and the jackdaws, and other similar folk. I wonder what your people thought of mine. Some humans think us fools, others see us as the bearers of wisdom, others view us with the dread of death, while still others see us as vermin to be killed.” Crow fluffed its feathers and hopped to another branch.
“I never had much use for superstition,” replied the Human, “but I know some of my neighbors were afraid of crows, while others viewed them with respect.”
“Ah, a reasonable balance, then. So, you are carrying something that I find quite beautiful.” Crow’s eyes fixed on the crystal. “Would you be willing to part with it? Hmm?”

“It was a gift,” began the Human.
“So. I cannot ask you to give up a gift,” interrupted Crow. “And then I would be in even further debt to your kind. Can’t have that. Hmm. Perhaps I have a solution. And an entertainment! It can be frightfully dull around here.” Crow pecked at the tree for emphasis. “Here is what I propose. I will pose a riddle. If you answer it correctly, I shall answer a question for you. Keep in mind that my kind carry knowledge between realms, so I know quite a bit.”
“And if I cannot answer?” asked the Human.
“If you cannot answer, then I shall STILL answer a question for you, but now you must also give me that crystal in exchange.
The Human looked down at the crystal, considering. A source of light would be useful closer to Sunset, and it had the ability to keep at bay something as powerful as That Which Dwells Below. However, knowing more about this place would be helpful, and perhaps Crow could help find the Human’s missing family members.
“Agreed. Ask your question,” answered the Human.
Crow hopped back and forth on its branch, looking at the Human with one eye and then the other.
“Hmmm. What to pick? I know all the best riddles, so there are quite a lot to choose from,” it mused. After a short time it stopped and faced the Human, head cocked to one side to look at the Human directly.
“What runs straight from future to past, yet winds and curves along its path?” asked Crow.
The Human’s first inclination to was to answer ‘time’, but time ran from the past to the future, didn’t it? Of course, the Human had moved from the Present to the Past, so maybe time did run in that direction… The Human sat down on a nearby rock to think. Crow hopped from branch to branch, looking pleased with the Human’s confused state. The Human looked up at Crow above and tried to think about what it would have picked as a difficult riddle for a Human. As a bird, it would have a very different view of the world. It would see things in three dimensions, not just two. Could the answer be ‘time’? Perhaps Crow saw time differently. Flowing like a… That was it.
“The answer is ‘a river’,” answered the Human, proudly. Crow’s feathers puffed up indignantly. It seemed angry.
“Curse you! You got it too quickly. Well, at least I can count my debt paid by helping you for free,” grumbled the bird.
“So, now I get to ask YOU a question,” said the Human. “I already know how to find my family, so I shall ask something else. How about this… ‘How do I get my family to the Future city?’, so they can remember themselves?” Crow started to laugh hysterically, flapping its wings, and stomping its feet on the branch.
“What’s so funny?” demanded the Human, angrily.

“This is the cheapest debt I’ve ever paid off. I’ve already told you the answer!” laughed Crow. It took off from the tree, circled overhead three times and flew off into the forest away from Sunset.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 5

The glow from the crystal pushed valiantly against the dark. It illuminated a small sphere just large enough for the Human to see a few feet down the path. Enough to avoid a crevasse or pit. As the Human stepped into the darkened tunnel, the door to the Rock King’s throne room slid shut, cutting off the outside light. The Human held the crystal aloft, attempting to avoid becoming dazzled by the light. Peering into the dark, clutching the walking stick in one hand and the crystal in the other, the Human stepped slowly forward.
For a time, the only sounds were the Human’s footsteps and breath. That breath came fast and shallow, as the Human tried in vain to see anything beyond the light of the crystal. Only the small circle was visible, and the tunnel could have ended just beyond the light or opened into a massive cavern for all the Human could tell.

The first sound the Human heard was the echoing drip of water from somewhere off to the left. The air felt moist and cool. As the Human passed further into the dark, there was a growing smell of dank and the air became stale. The air smelled old and heavy.
The next sound was a small splash, also off to the left. The Human froze in place, ears straining. Surely that sound was just a cave fish or a falling rock. All was silent. The dripping water had stopped at some point without the Human noticing.
As the Human started to walk again, there was another sound. This was much closer, still to the left. It was a wet, low, dragging sound. The Human froze again, raising the crystal higher and leaning forward trying to see the source of the sound. There was nothing. The Human took another step and stopped, foot in midair. There was a wet track across the path. It was as wide as the Human was tall, and it led from the left across the path and into the darkness. The Human bent to examine the track and saw it was not just water, but some sort of ichor was streaked through the moisture. It smelled of copper and immense age. Stepping carefully over the track, being sure not to touch the fluid, the Human continued on, walking as fast as the small circle of light would allow.
“SsssssSSSSsssaaaaaahhhh.” A hissing sigh sounded from behind the Human, from the right of the path. The Human whirled around, holding out the crystal.
“Who is there? What do you want? I mean no harm. I am only passing through, and with the Rock King’s blessing!” The Human tried to sound brave and confident, but was not entirely successful. Gripping the walking stick tightly, the Human turned in a circle, seeking the source of the sound.
“Hhhaaaaahhaaaahhaaaahhaaa,” came a rasping, horrifying laugh. “The Rock King has no power here. How unfortunate that it told you otherwise.” The voice was wet and thick. Each word seemed to come from a slightly different location, making it impossible to find the source.
“Who are you?” the Human managed to say, struggling to maintain some semblance of composure.
“Do you seek MY name? You come into my Dark with your tiny light and demand my name? Hhhhhaaaaaaa… You do not seem brave enough to do such a thing thing. I can only guess you did not know what you were to face. Ask me not who I am. As me what I am,” the voice sighed.
“Alright. What are you?” asked the Human, despite not truly desiring the answer.
“I am why Humans fear the Dark. I am very, very old. I am from before your people knew fire. I watched as your fore-bearers huddled in the dark, afraid to sleep. I have whispered my name in the ears of Human children just to watch them wake, screaming. I am That Which Dwells Below. This is my realm and you shall never leave it.” The voice came from behind the Human now, close enough to ruffle the Human’s hair with breath. The Human turned quickly, thrusting forward the crystal.
What stood there was horror itself. Towering in the dark, a shifting, black mass of tentacles, eyes, and teeth writhed before the Human. It had as many mouths as it had eyes and it had too many eyes to count. The part of its body closest to the crystal recoiled, the pupils in the myriad eyes shrinking to points and the mouths baring teeth and hissing.
Glancing back to be sure to stay on the path, the Human backed away from the That Which Dwells Below, holding the crystal out. The creature flowed forward, staying back from the light, the mass of its body visible only as glints of light on lenses and slime-coated tentacles. Without warning, it fell backwards from the Human and disappeared in the dark.
Turning back in the direction of the path, the Human tried to walk quickly away from the cursed place. The Human’s left foot, however, would not move. Looking down, the Human saw a black tentacle reaching from that ankle back into the darkness. It did not pull, but it would not allow any forward movement.
“You think your light can keep you safe, do you not? True, the light is painful to me. I, however, am endless. I cannot be denied what is mine by a small shining rock. You are MINE!” The tentacle yanked, throwing the Human off balance. The Human landed in a seated position, feeling the tentacle pull forward towards where the sounds of water had been earlier. Remembering the walking stick, the Human struck out at the tentacle.
The stick passed through the monstrous flesh like the creature was made of smoke. There was the slightest tug of resistance, but nothing more. The tentacle appeared unharmed. The Human’s heart sank for a moment before a terrible screech filled the cavern.
NO!” screamed That Which Dwells Below. “It cannot be. You cannot have such a thing. Not you. Not here.” The creature let out another wail of pain, unwinding from the Human’s ankle and retracting, limply, back into the dark.
“Go. Leave this place and take that accursed thing with you. I shall not let you contaminate this holy place. GO!” The last word was a bellow that came as a physical force.
The Human scrambled upright, clutching at the walking stick and crystal and ran.