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.