[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.