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.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 4

The Human walked on through the path in the forest, keeping in mind the Fey Queen’s admonition to hurry. The forest continued on in monotonous sameness, and the path meandered generally towards the sunset. As time passed, the Human began to wonder if the sunset was getting any closer or if this was all just a futile exercise. Just as the Human was beginning to lose hope, the path started to dip downward and narrow, leading underground at the base of the mountain the Human had seen in the distance, earlier. The Human stopped at the entrance to the tunnel and looked around, searching the forest to see if the path continued above ground. It did not. The Human did not have a torch or any source of light, so the blackness of the tunnel was frightening. Walking through the dark forest without a path did not seem like a better choice, however, so the Human drew up straight and stepped into the darkness.

The Human’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer light past the entrance, and the light revealed the path to be covered in soft dirt, which showed no tracks. It sloped downward slowly, disappearing into true darkness. The Human walked forward, slowing as the light disappeared. Eventually, all was black. Reaching out with searching hands, the Human stepped cautiously forward in the dark, testing each step to ensure there were no ledges or cliffs ahead. After a few minutes, the Human realized it was not truly dark. A faint glow emanated from several of the rocks along the sides of the path, with an even paler glow coming from the walls and ceiling. Looking closer, the Human saw the light was coming from short, fuzzy plant-like growths on the rock, like glowing moss. The patches of moss shone in blues and greens and silvers, giving just enough light to see. The Human was also not alone in the dark. Soft skittering sounds indicated insect life was represented, and quiet, echoing chittering sounded like bats. Just like above ground, however, the animal life here was fleeting and insubstantial, leaving little more than echoes as evidence of its existence.
Eventually, the path’s surface changed from dirt to rock, and then the walls fell away as the path opened up into a large cavern. Stalactites and stalagmites jutted up from the ground. The light grew stronger, with light emitting from crystalline growths clustered at the bases of the stalagmites. The light revealed the colors of the rock, oranges, ochers, white, black, browns, and yellows. The Human stopped and stared, taking in the beauty of the place. This place was so… solid. Unlike the rest of this world, the rocks here felt real. The light was less diffuse. The colors remained true. Nothing looked like it would waft away in a breeze. The Human took a deep breath, and found a sense of comfort at being among things that felt real.
The path resumed on the other side of the cavern, leading along a tunnel not unlike the one at the cave opening. The only difference was the presence of the glowing crystals. This path sloped downward more sharply, however, and the Human became more and more aware of the sheer mass of rock and earth that was piled overhead. The Human had never been prone to claustrophobia, but that fear threatened now. Only the comfort of the solidity of the place made it bearable.
The Human came to the next open cavern with relief. This cavern was different from the first. The stalactites and stalagmites met in mid-air to create columns. The columns were spaced regularly, with an open path remaining leading straight down the center of the room. The ceiling was so high as to be invisible. Glowing lights were visible above, but they seemed to be floating high in the air. The Human entered the cavern, walking down the clear path towards an area at the end of the cavern that was raised off the floor. It was not a simple mound of rocks, but appeared to be a carved, smoothened dais with a large cluster of crystals in its center. They stood several feet taller than the Human, and each was a large around as good-sized tree. At the base of the cluster, some of the crystals had been broken off smoothly, stopping around waist-height. It created the look of a large throne. The Human reached out to touch the smooth, glowing surface when a voice grated from the shadows behind the dais.

“Do you seek to sit upon the Rock King’s throne?” it asked. The Human froze in place. The voice did not sound angry, but the rough, grating tone made it hard to be sure. It spoke again, sounding a bit closer this time.
“Looking at you, I think you are far too small to comfortably sit upon that throne. You also seem to be made of soft stuff, and would likely be cut by the sharp edges of the crystal. Best not to try.” There was a sound like a basket of small rocks being emptied into a pile. A laugh? The Human took a step back from the throne, hand lowering. The Human replied.
“I meant no offense. The beauty of this place dazzled me, and I only sought to examine it more closely.” The Human bowed. “Please accept my apologies if I have trespassed. I was told to follow the path towards the sunset, and that path led me underground to this place.”
“Oh, do stand up. It is not often that I have the opportunity to converse with someone as solid as myself.” The voice came closer still, and what seemed to be a pile of rocks stepped into the light. It towered over the Human, and the boulder on the top of the pile had a semblance of a face. Two divots appeared to serve as eyes, and a crack could be taken for a mouth. It did not move when the voice spoke, but it moved through expressions. It currently smiled, much to the Human’s relief.
“Are you the Rock King?” asked the Human.
“I am indeed. You appear to be a Human. I have not seen your like in an age. And considering how old I am, that is no small amount of time.” The Rock King moved to the crystal throne and sat with surprising gentleness. It arranged itself into a more organized shape, with rocks piled into the shapes of arms and legs. The Rock King inclined its head. “Tell me how you came to be in this land, small one. I would hear your tale.”
“I lost my family to a fever. I had nothing I cared for left for me, and in my despair I seem to have found myself here in the Faded Court.” The Human stopped as the Rock King began to laugh.
“What did you call this land?” the Rock King chuckled.
“The Faded Court. That is what the Fey called this place. They said it was of the Past, and that I had come from the Present,” the Human replied, somewhat confused.
“They would name an entire realm after themselves,” the Rock King shook its great head in amusement. “This land is the Faded Kingdom. The Court is simply the small area claimed by the Fey. They lounge around and gossip and preen and consider themselves the rulers of all they survey. Of course, they haven’t explored more than that one meadow, much less conquered the Kingdom. That Queen of theirs has no power here, and only has that title from her living self. What you met was a mere echo of true power. Now here,” the Rock King gestured widely, “is a true kingdom. I rule the Below. I am no echo, because I am truly eternal. They Fey may live endlessly, but they were born. I have always been and always shall be, until the end of all things.” The Rock King’s voice grew in volume as it spoke, leaving the Human’s ears ringing by the end of the speech. The Human shrank back from the sound, ears covered protectively.
“Ah, little one, I forget myself,” said the Rock King apologetically. “You were telling me about why you travel. Please continue.”
“Well, your Majesty, the Fey Queen told me that if I hurried, I could catch up with the souls of my family  before they reached Oblivion. Then, I would have to decide if I joined them in that place. I have no desire to forget myself, but I need to be with my family. Is this path still heading in that direction? My family is two weeks ahead of me, and I have not time to waste on wrong turns.”
“Ah, yes. There were four in your family, am I correct? I saw a cluster of human souls drift through here recently. I do not track days, as I care not for the habits of the sun, but I believe you are catching up to them.”
“Four, yes!” replied the Human, excited, “My love and our three children. Can you point me in the way they went, or give any suggestions on how to reach them more quickly?”
“I understand the desire to see them again, but they will not know you. To see their empty eyes will likely bring you much pain, Human. Why not stay here, among solid things, and make a new life? My court may not be as colorful as the Fey, but we are a kind, patient people.” The Rock King motioned, and the lights above brightened, illuminating piles of rocks along the edge of the room. They started to move, revealing themselves to be smaller versions of their King. The smallest was still much taller than the Human, however. They moved closer, bowing their heads towards the Human, gathering behind the throne.
“I could not live here without my family any more than I could live in the Present with that same absence in my life. I met a rabbit that spoke of a place where all things are known. Perhaps I can bring my family there and they will remember me. It might be possible to…,” the Human trailed off as the Rock Kings face changed. It was no longer smiling, but now looked grim.
“You speak of the Future,” grumbled the Rock King, “a place far out of reach for such as you. You speak of dreams and fantasies. You would refuse my hospitality to chase phantoms. This is not the proper way for a solid being to behave. You lack patience. You lack respect.”
“I mean no offense, your Majesty,” the Human bowed again, “and your realm is fine and beautiful. I fear that as solid as I am, I am not as solid as you. Like the Fey, I was born, and I seek things that are fleeting, yet dear to me. Would you be able to restore the memories of my family? If so, we could happily live here among your people.”
“That is not a thing that I can grant,” said the Rock King. “Mortal memories are insubstantial and temporary, not the stuff of rock and stone. Our memories can never be taken from us because they are part of our being. We are the earth and the root of all things. We cannot create things that are temporary, only grow and improve things that have always been. I see that you are not to blame for your haste and your desires. I fear I cannot do much to help. I can grant you this, however, to help you move safely through my realm.” The Rock King reached out and handed the Human a fist-sized crystal that shone brightly. “Some of the areas ahead lack the glow of this place, and are full of terrors. This light will keep them at bay. Be sure you do not drop it or obscure it, or they will surely destroy you down in the dark. The path continues behind my throne. Stay straight and do not wander from the path, not matter what you see or hear. My people can endure all things, but you cannot. The path will take you back to the surface, but you will not be out of danger. Beware of the beings ahead. There is a way to the Future City, but it is far from my realm and outside of my awareness. Be watchful and clever and perhaps you may find your way there.” The Rock King inclined its head to the Human again, and the Human bowed deeply in response.
“Thank you for your gift and your advice. I shall keep them both close to me. If I can restore my family, it would please me greatly if I could bring them here to see your realm.”

“You would be welcome. May a kind wind guide your way,” the Rock King rumbled. It gestured and a section of the wall behind the throne moved aside, revealing the path. Bowing once more, the Human raised the shining crystal high, walked to the doorway, and stepped through into darkness.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 3

The Human walked for a time through forested twilight. Eventually, the trees gave way to one side of the road, revealing a meadow. This space was full of tall grass and flickering flowers, clearly not a place tamed by the hand of humans or occupied by Fae. The Human saw a small shape darting through the grass. It occasionally leapt into the air on long, joyous arcs, reaching into the sky before landing nimbly and again dashing away. The Human stopped and watched for a time, enjoying the exuberance of the small creature in what was generally a quiet and somber land. Eventually, the creature dashed towards the Human, revealing itself to be a white rabbit, large for its kind, and with a look of more intelligence than the Human had known rabbits to possess.

“Hello, Human!” cried the rabbit. “It has been long since I have seen such as you. Your people and mine have a way of meeting when one is on a journey. Are you on such a trip? What do you seek? Where are you going?”
“Greetings Rabbit,” said the Human, guessing at the creature’s name and bowing slightly, “I am, indeed, on a journey. I am searching for my family. Have you seen them? They are not like me, but are spirits. The Fae said they would have gone this way, seeking Oblivion.” The rabbit’s ears drooped sadly.
“Ah, a human with manners. That is good to see. Yours is a sad tale. I have not seen your folk, but I am not one to stay in one place. I change with the moon, and am only fully here because the moon is full in this land. You can just see it peeking over the horizon over there.” It sat up and gestured with its paw. The Human looked and could just see a glimmer of silver light through the trees.
“What does the moon have to do with you being here?” asked the Human. The rabbit gave a deep sigh.
“Have my deeds been so forgotten? Or are you of the people who see other things in the face of the moon? It is no matter. Once, long, long ago, a great teacher among the humans was traveling, and was without food and water. He feared he would die. I offered my body to feed him, and he honored my sacrifice by placing my likeness on the moon.”
“Who was that man?” asked the Human. “That story sounds familiar, but remembering things is difficult of late.”
“Some say it was the Buddha, others Quetzalcoatl, when he was a man. I do not recall. Humans are much alike to me. It was a very long time past, when the people of the East were one people, before they had spread so far. Perhaps it is only a story, and I remember falsely. It matters little. At any rate, I am able to go where the light of my shape shines, so here I am. There are other stories about me and the moon. And about me and your people. Some are less pleasant.” The rabbit scratched behind its ears and looked off into the woods on the other side of the road.
“You say you are seeking your family,” asked the rabbit, “but if they are spirits, then they will not know you. Why throw yourself into Oblivion for those whom you cannot touch and who will not know you? It seems a waste.”
“They are all I have. Even if I can just look upon them, I can remember our lives and the joy we shared.”
“How far ahead of you are they?” asked the rabbit, cocking its head to one side.
“The Fae said it was two weeks, but I do not know how time is measured here. Sunrise never comes, so how can we count days?”
“Ah, but the sun does rise,” said the rabbit, “just not here. There is a land of the Future where all is known and the sun always rises on a new day.”
“Truly? Would my family know me if they were in such a place? Could I take them there?” In excitement, the Human stepped towards the rabbit, placing a foot off the side of the road and into the meadow. The rabbit froze and stared at the Human in anger.
“I should have known. Just another human come to take what is mine. To enter my territory and kill my kin. To till our fields and wear our skins. You could not content yourself with staying in your place, could you.”
“But Rabbit, I did not mean any harm!” The Human took another step towards the rabbit, hands outstretched, baffled by the change in the rabbit’s demeanor.
“’Rabbit, help me!’ ‘Rabbit, tell me what I want to know!’ ‘Rabbit, die for me and mine!’,” the Rabbit mocked the Human, backing up slowly. As it retreated, its coat became yellow, and what the Human at first took for a shadow became a long, black horn sprouting from its forehead.
“My name is not Rabbit, or, rather, it is not only Rabbit,” growled the creature. “My people run and run from yours, but it is not our only response. I am also known as Al-mi’raj. Have you heard of me?”
“I have heard the name, but thought it to be myth. Stories told by poets of horned, yellow rabbits that would run through any who trespassed, and who feared none. Who could only be controlled by magics.”
“And do you have such magics, human?” the rabbit asked, taking a step back towards the Human.
“I do not. I meant no offense. I was excited by your mention of the Future and stepped amiss.”
“Then why did you continue towards me when it was clear I did not want you in my meadow? You are just like those of your kind who hunt and kill mine without thought. I shall show you we are not your prey!” The rabbit charged, snarling, head lowered. The Human turned and ran back towards the road, fearing what death would be like in this strange place. Stumbling back onto the road, the Human glanced back and came to an abrupt stop. Al-mi’raj was gone. Off in the field, a white rabbit again danced about, leaping towards the sky.

The Human hurried away, eager to put the changeable creature far behind.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 2

The Human found a path through the trees at the edge of the clearing, one that had not been there before. It seemed to begin right at that point and continue off towards the sunset, leading towards a large mountain in the distance. Here, it wove through the forest, with the flickering trees on either side.
The Human walked for a time. With no sun or stars to act as guides, it was difficult to know how much time had passed. The Human did not hunger or thirst, so time slipped by without any way to count it.
The Human came to a large moss-covered boulder that jutted into the path, nearly blocking the way. While sliding around the edge, between the boulder and a tree trunk, the Human noted how smooth the stone was, and how it was not as solid as the other rocks. Then the boulder spoke.
“Hello, Human,” it said. Its voice was low and warm; louder than that of the Fae, but still quiet. Not wishing to appear rude, the Human stepped clear of the boulder and bowed to it.
“Good day to you.”
The boulder turned slightly, and the Human saw that it was, in fact, an enormous tortoise. The shell was nearly as tall as the Human, and as the tortoise’s head emerged, it looked the Human in the eyes with ease. It was more solid than the Fae, and the Human could easily see its facial features, especially its deep, old eyes.

“It has been a very long time since I have seen a mortal being here who was not destined for Oblivion,” said the tortoise. “A very, very long time. It is good to see someone from the Present.”
“Are you immortal, like the Fae?” asked the Human. The tortoise chuckled. It was a warm, dry sound, like a blanket on a chill night. It made the Human feel safe and sheltered.
“Oh no. I am Turtle. I am the echo of many of my kind, or perhaps those in the Present are echos of me. I wonder what one would call an echo that proceeds from the Past to the Present…” Turtle looked thoughtful, its eyes unfocusing into the distance. The Human was just about to speak when Turtle blinked slowly and began to speak again.
“Yes. My apologies. I spend much of my time in thought. It is difficult to hold my mind in one place sometimes. Where was I?”
“You were introducing yourself. Your name is Turtle?” prompted the Human.
“Not my name, exactly, but it will serve. I have many names. I have been called terrapin, turtle, and tortoise; Mzee, Ijapa, Jebuti, Shetyw, Akupara, Kurma, minogame, Tu, Kim Quy, and Maheo. Some have said I was wise, or a trickster, or evil, or a warrior. All of this for one animal. I suppose it is why I am here. Also, even my mortal selves live for a very, very long time. Some will never die except through illness or injury. I have seen many centuries past and your people have killed, eaten, honored, and worshiped me throughout. Now, as for you, Human, why are you here? Your people do not come here as I have, and you do not have the look of Oblivion about you.”
“I am seeking my family, who were taken from me. I found the Faded Court, and the Queen sent me this way, towards the sunset, to find them. I hope to see them again, if I can catch up to them.”
“If your family are souls, then they are heading towards Oblivion. All dead things go there, in the end. However, you are still alive. Why would you seek such a place?” Turtle furrowed its great brow in concern.
“I have nothing in the Present. My family was all I cared for, and if their place is here, then so is mine.”
“Hmmmmm,” said Turtle. “You say the Fae Queen sent you on this path? Were you warned about Oblivion?”
“Yes. I am frightened of it, but it seems less fearsome than returning to the Present to live a life without those I love,” replied the Human. Turtle looked at the Human for a long moment.
“I fear you may have been here too long to return to the Present, in any case. Your Moment may have passed, stranding you here. I have many fond memories of your kind from the Present, along with many that are less so. In honor of the Humans who cared for Turtles, I shall tell you a secret. I do not think the Fae know it, or perhaps they have simply forgotten it. It is this: there is a way for souls to remember who they are. If you can remind your family of their selves, and return their minds to them, then they will no longer seek Oblivion. You and they could then remain here until all things fade away.”
“Thank you, great Turtle,” said the Human, bowing again. “Do you know how I can do this thing?”
“Sadly, I do not. I do not know how I came by this knowledge, just that I know it. I know a great many things. I see you have a walking stick. Did the Queen give it to you?” The Human nodded and Turtle continued. “I also have something that may help you on your way.” Turtle pulled its long neck back into its shell. When Turtle emerged, it was holding a package in its mouth, which it gave to the Human. The Human opened the wrapping to find a turtle shell that had been sealed all around except for where the neck should be, where a flap of leather had been fastened. A strap looped from one edge to the other, letting it be carried easily.
“I do not know where this came from, but it is solid, as you are. It can hold many things. One of your kind made it from the shell of one of mine, and it was held in great reverence. Take it with you, and it may be of use.”
“Thank you once again,” said the Human, putting an arm through the strap.
“May your trip be swift and safe,” said the Turtle, as it slowly pulled its neck back into its shell. “I fear it shall not be, but I wish it all the same.”

The Human bowed low in thanks and headed down the road towards the sunset. 

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 1

Once there was a Human who lived at the edge of the forest.
The Human had known great loss and was full of grief.
The Human’s grief was so powerful that it consumed days and nights.
One night was so long that it stretched on nearly forever.
When the Human woke, the world had become very strange.
The first thing the Human noticed was that the early morning light was coming in through the walls.
The walls themselves had become pale and insubstantial.
They seemed to be slowly evaporating and drifting away on the wind, yet they did not disappear.
Leaving the house, the Human noticed that the young trees near the house were barely visible, just wisps of themselves, while the tall, ancient trees of the forest still appeared to be mostly solid, although their leaves were blurred and indistinct. They flickered and ran through all of the colors known to leaves. The Human sat on the bench outside of the house that once held such joy, considering what to do. There was nothing here but sadness and insubstantial reminders of what was once a home and family.
The Human left the house and walked down the path towards the nearby stream. The rocks by the stream were nearly normal, with only a slight blurring of their surface. The stream had become swiftly flowing fog. It was only now that the Human noticed how very quiet the world had become. The stream made just the slightest murmur, not it’s normal cheerful clamor.
The birds were just flits of mist, flickering among the trees, making only dim echos of their normal song.
The Human turned and followed the stream downhill until it broadened out into a pond in a clearing. In the clearing, the Human saw a very strange sight.
In the clearing stood a pavilion. Under it, tall figures stood and sat on soft cushions of cloud, having what appeared to be a celebration. They spoke softly to one another and ate and drank insubstantial morsels that appeared from nowhere on the low tables that were scattered among the cushions. Hints of music drifted through the hushed air, but the Human could see no musicians playing.
As the Human stepped closer to the pavilion, the tall figures turned and looked, surprised to see a Human here. One, wearing a sky-blue robe, came closer to the Human.
“Human! How do you come to be here, and so solidly?” asked the figure in a near whisper. Its question caught the Human off-guard, and the Human looked down to see a dark and solid body with none of the pale mistiness that so much of the world possessed. The tall figures themselves were blurred and translucent, and would sway in the breeze, although they never blew away as mist should.
“I do not know where I am, much less how I came here. What is this place? I thought I knew this clearing well, but all is strange and I have never seen your like before.”
“This is the Faded Court. It is the place all things go when the Present moment passes on. We were the Fae. You appear to be a mortal Human. Your kind does not persist here long, though, so we have not seen a Human since we were of the Present.” The Fae gestured for the Human to follow back to the pavilion.
“There are no other Humans here?” asked the Human.
“Humans are here for brief moments after their Present passes. We see flickers of them, but your kind lives so shortly and moves so quickly, you do not leave enough of an impression on the world to have a presence here in the past. We only see them for any time when they are very old and have stayed in one place for a very long time. The Fae are immortal, and we stay in our favored places for centuries at a time. That is why we rule the Faded Court. Humans have no power here. Why have you come?” The tall Fae peered into the Human’s solid face with curiosity.
“I did not come here by choice. I slept for a time and when I woke, I was in my home, but it was not the home I knew. Everything was strange, and I went looking to see what had become of the world.”
The Fae looked at one another, and despite their blurred faces, the Human could tell they were concerned.
“You must have been in great pain to have sought the Faded Court so strongly to come here in your Present form,” the first Fae said. “Come and see our Queen, and perhaps she can help you.”
The Human was ushered towards the tallest of the Fae. She was nearly as solid as the Human, but not quite. The first Fae leaned in and whispered to her briefly and her eyes widened. She leaned down to gently touch the Human’s face. Her touch was like a slight breath of wind. When she spoke, it sounded like a bell ringing in the far distance.
“Oh, my small, frail mortal. You have my sympathy and my sorrow. Such grief is a terrible burden, and it is no wonder you sought to flee the Present for the Faded Court. What has injured your soul do gravely?”
The Human had yet to speak of the great loss, but in this place, the subject did not seem to carry as much pain.
“My family was taken from me. A sudden fever that took them all in the space of a week. I could do nothing to soothe them, and I watched them pass from me one after another, starting with the youngest, and my love was the last to leave me.”
The Queen closed her eyes and bent her head for a moment. She sat upright and considered the Human for a long moment.
“How long ago did they pass from your Present?”
“Two weeks, your Majesty.”
The Queen laughed softly.
“Dear Human, you owe me no fealty. You are neither Fae nor of the Faded Court. You do yourself honor with your good manners, however. I believe I can help you. You will need to travel towards the sunset, as quickly as you can, and you may yet catch up with the souls of your family. They have permanently left the Present and must thus pass through the Faded Court on their way to Oblivion. If you can catch up to them, you can travel with them, and, if you desire, enter Oblivion with them. Be warned, however, that Oblivion is a permanent destination. Once you enter it, you cannot leave, and will remain there with all departed souls until the end of time. At that point, even we will join you there and the world will be born anew. That is many millennia hence, however, and if you still have business in Present, you should go there instead.”
“How would I return to the Present?” asked the Human. “While seeing my lost family is all I desire, Oblivion sounds like a frightful place.”
“You must return to where you entered my Court and then it is up to you to desire to exist in the Present strongly enough to return to your place in time. If you do not truly wish it, however, you will remain here, and will lose your chance to find your family if you wait too long to seek them.”
The Human was quiet for a long while. Looking out past the edges of the Pavilion, the Human could see that one side of the sky was painted in shimmering sunset colors, yet the sun was not visible, nor did the colors ever fade to black. The Human pointed in that direction, to the left of the Queen.
“Is that the direction I must go?”
“Yes. Oblivion is in that direction. You must travel swiftly, though, as your family is two weeks ahead of you. They will be traveling slowly, as they are of this world, now, and are not solid, as you are. You can catch them, but the way will be difficult and you must not delay.”
“Thank you for your help,” the Human bowed deeply, “I shall seek my family.”
“Your story has touched me and you have provided the first event of interest in a timeless time. Take this, it may help you.” The Queen gestured and a long length of dark wood was brought forth. It had been polished smooth by many hands. The Queen presented the walking-stick to the Human, who took it. It was as solid as any tree in the Present, and the Human’s eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“How…” the Human began.
“This was carved from the heart of an ancient tree. When it perished in a storm, its soul came here fully, as all things do. It was so old that its body was pulled along with it, and the very oldest part of the tree, the heart, remained solid. This walking-stick will help you on your journey.”
“I thank you again. Your kindness is a balm.”
The Human bowed again, and set off towards the sunset, weaving through the Fae, who had gathered around, observing the Human’s audience with the Queen. Near the edge of the crowd stood one Fae who was different from the rest. She was shorter and hunched, and nearly as solid as the Queen. She plucked at the Human’s arm and leaned in.
“There is a danger the Queen has not mentioned. This land is of the past, and forgetfulness. You do not have the long memory of the Fae to protect you. You must not forget who you are or who you seek. When you find your family, they will not remember you.”
“Thank you, Grandmother,” said the Human, and turned to go. The old Fae was not finished, however.
“Beware Oblivion, child. You are alive, and thus will not forget yourself entirely as the dead souls will. You will remain aware that you exist and that you have needs, but you will be unable to remember who you are and how to live. It will be millennia of torment for you if you enter. Be sure of your choice before you follow your family beyond the threshold of Oblivion.” The Human paused and looked at the old Fae, then to the sunset, and back.

“I will take your words with me. I thank you again for your wisdom.” The Human stepped away from the Fae and strode with purpose towards the edge of the clearing.