The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 17

The staircase wound around the inside of the Tree, climbing ever higher. It sloped gently, at an angle seemingly designed for steady, comfortable progress. As the family climbed, they passed other souls and were passed in turn. None of the souls appeared to be rushing, but each soul or group of souls moved at a pace that suited them.  Now that the Human’s family had been reunited, there was no reason to worry about reaching a destination in a hurry. No pressure to avoid falling behind. Instead, the group traveled easily. The children were able, in this form, to travel as quickly as the adults, and nobody tired. Time slipped past.

As the family climbed higher, the light from above grew brighter. The glimmering green of the Tree’s great leaves became a steady green glow that illuminated the inside of the Tree. After what could have been hours, or days, or even years, the family reached the lowest branches of the tree. Like the roots below, these were hollow. Ledges ran around the circumference of the trunk, allowing those on the staircases to reach the branches if they wished. For some branches, the hollows ran out of sight, with the destination obscured by a soft green light. Some others, however opened onto platforms made of overlapping enormous leaves. These areas took on a multitude of forms. Some were great feasting halls where souls rejoiced in the presence of their fellows while radiant beings oversaw the festivities. Others were beautiful gardens, where souls could rest eternally in dappled shade near pools of brilliant blue water. One stood out from the others by being decidedly not a place of rest or celebration. This one was a battlefield. Masses of souls, wearing gleaming armor of gold and silver, clashed against one another. Their cries were not screams of terror or rage, however, but of joy. Here, they could strive against a worthy enemy without ever losing comrades or suffering injury.

At each ledge, some souls would peel off from those climbing and seek one of these openings. They seemed drawn to their proper place just as had the souls below. None of these places attracted the Human’s family, however. The Human began to worry. Would a living soul be welcome in one of these places, or would this just be another separation?

The family continued to climb, past places where souls joined their departed kin, past worlds which resembled one another yet each higher one was more beautiful and restful, eventually reaching the top of the Tree. The staircases reached a broad canopy, and the souls who climbed this high stepped out onto broad, springy foliage. The overlapping leaves were each the size of the Human’s old house, and there was no fear of falling through, as they only gave slightly beneath the Human’s feet, and did not move at all at the passage of the souls.

Here, more beings could be seen. These were different from those below, however. They shone with brilliant light of many colors. Each was different in appearance, but all radiated a sense of benevolence and welcome. Some resembled human form, but with immense wings. Others were masses of many wings and eyes. One varied from male to female each time the Human looked, both forms beautiful to behold. Some had no defined shapes, while others took the forms of animals, or had a mixture of human and animal traits. Some embodied aspects of nature, light and fire and water and the stars in the sky. The air was full of sound. The whispers of the leaves provided a backdrop for the sounds of joyous song that came from many directions.

Many of the remaining souls moved off towards one of these beings. In some cases, they were warmly welcomed, and moved past onto spreading branches beyond. Some of these areas seemed to contain still more glorious beings, while others shown with brilliant light. The souls who entered these latter seemed to join with the light, becoming one with the divine they sought.

The Human’s family did not seek any of these areas. In life, they had not followed any particular faith. Coming, as they did, from traditions that rejected them, the Human and the Human’s love had not felt part of the faiths of their people. The Human wondered what became of those who did not have a spiritual home in the Present. They had escaped Oblivion, but the City of which so many had spoken was nowhere to be seen. The Human’s family, however, seemed to know where to go, as they started off, pulling the Human along.

Here, between two grand branches, was a smaller limb. It was still broader across than the path the Human had followed for so long, but it was far smaller than the branches around it. It bent up ahead, and the Human could not see where it led. The Human’s family did not hesitate, though, and they proceeded into the glowing foliage.

The branch twisted and turned, rose and fell, and the Human marveled that they could travel so far out from the great trunk and the branch was still broad enough to hold them. Turning one final corner, the branch cleared the canopy, and the family stepped out into the open.

Ahead, the leaves of the branch made a clearing like those the Human had seen before. On the far side, a great silver arch overhead. It was covered in writing from many tongues. They all read the same thing, “The World To Come”. Beyond the arch, the surface of the leaves took on a silvered hue, and the leaves merged together to form a broad boulevard. Ahead, buildings of the same material glinted in a light that came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The family approached the arch and stepped through.

Among the buildings, souls drifted about, and other, more solid beings went about what appeared to be normal daily business. Seeing the Human’s family standing in the street, one of these beings stopped and came nearer.

It was a bit taller than the Human, and was as solid as the Tree had been. It did not waver or shift in any way. Its face was smooth except for great dark eyes. Its head was smooth and grew no hair, but always seemed to emit a faint aura of warm light instead. It wore a robe that shifted colors gently from one to the next. When it spoke, no mouth was evident, but the Human heard the words nonetheless. Its voice was warm and kind.

“Welcome. You have come far. Be joyful that your journey is both at an end and yet just beginning,” it said, bowing slightly.

“Thank you,” replied the Human. “What is this place?”

“This is the end and the beginning. Where the Past meets that which is to come. Here, souls who have ended their journey rest until they are ready to venture out anew. You are not a soul, however. How did you come to be here?”

The Human told the being the tale of loss, grief, despair, hope, and perseverance that bridged the death of the Human’s family and their arrival here.

“It seems you HAVE come far,” chuckled the being. “Do not worry. You will not be separated from your loved ones. As they spend time here, they will remember their lives and you. Souls here remember their lives and contemplate what they have learned and what they have yet to know. Those that desire to return to life can be reborn and live anew. Some choose to do so together, in fact. Those who have reached the end of their journey, who feel no pull to return to the Present, remain here until the end of all things.”

“What happens then?” asked the Human. “Does all of this disappear?”

“Oh no!” laughed the being. “Time does not ever truly end. Once all souls have reached their chosen rests, they will return to the divine. All souls came from the Infinite and to the Infinite they will return, bringing with them all they have learned and experienced. For some, the path will be very long and painful. Some throw themselves into Oblivion, so great is the burden they carry. There, they will forget their pain, hate, and suffering. This will allow them to rejoin the rest of us as whole beings. Once we are all reunited, we will begin the World anew. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall always be.”

The Human stood silent for a moment. “How long have you been here?” the Human asked.

“Long enough that I am nearly ready to return to the Present for my next life,” said the being with joy. “I’ve started taking on a form already. I wonder what life I shall live this time? In the past I have learned so much, and I wish to learn even more. But that is for another time. For now, let us find you all a place to stay. And you, my friend, you have a decision to make.” The being gestured to the family and led them further into the city. They passed beautiful fountains and plazas, tall spires, houses of worship of many types, each ringing with song. Eventually, they came to a street lined with houses. Each had a small garden where jeweled flowers grew. Many had children, some still insubstantial, and others nearly as solid as the family’s guide, playing out front. The being brought the family to a house that bore a resemblance to the home they had once shared. It even had a bench out front. Behind the house, trees stretched into the distance, shining with the same light as the World Tree.

“This seems like it will suit you!” exclaimed the being. The Human’s family moved towards the door of the house and the Human tried to follow, but the being interfered, reaching out a hand.

“I said before you had a choice to make. You already have your memories. But you do not remember any prior lives, correct?” The Human nodded. “I thought so. Since you came here without dying, the memories of your past life have not been cleared away. The grief that brought you here is keeping you in this form.” The being gestured to the Human’s body, dark and solid and heavy. “What you must decide is this: will you release your grief and pain and, with them, your present form? You will need to let go of your desires, fears, even your memories. Know that they will return with time, but the process of releasing your attachments will be difficult. In a way, you will be letting yourself die. So that you may be reborn.”

The Human was stunned. To come so far to lose everything again? To forget the very people who meant so much? The being stepped close, and put a gentle hand on the Human’s shoulder.

“Remember, though, that your family will still be with you. You will remember them in time, as they will you. If you cling to what you have now, you will lose them nonetheless when they are ready to be reborn and you cannot follow. Their cycle will continue. You must decide if you can release your bonds and join them.” The being stepped away, and, bowing low, turned and left the Human. The Human turned back towards the house. Through the window, the forms of the Human’s family could now be seen just a bit better than a few moments before. The children were following one another around the house, and the Humans’ love had taken a seat by the window, just as in life.

The Human sat on the bench outside of the house that now held the promise of joy, considering what to do. There was nothing to be lost but sadness and reminders of what had gone before. The Human’s eyes closed.

When the Human woke, the world had become very strange.

It seemed a long night had passed leaving the Human somewhere new.

There was no grief for what was lost.

The Human turned and saw a house made of silver, with gleaming green trees behind it. From inside the house, movement and laughter could be heard. The Human rose and went inside.

Once there was a Human who lived at the edge of the forest.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 16

The tunnel sloped downward gently, eventually evening out as it met an immense circular chamber so large, that most of it was out of sight behind shadows and the press of souls. The floor showed the rings that made up the interior of the World Tree. Rings without number. Around the edge of the chamber, a set of darkened tunnels branched off in a downward direction, like roots branching from a central stem. The mouths of these tunnels were not just shadowed, but lacked light in a way that reminded the Human of the path from the Rock King’s domain. The Dark seemed to rest there. The walls of the chamber were lined with thousands of staircases, spiraling up into the branches above. The roof of the chamber, which was so far away as to be blurred by distance, glowed with shimmering light. What looked like the branches of the Tree spread out of sight.

The floor of the chamber was filled with souls milling around. It was not a bare floor, however. Pale echos of light could be seen here and there among the press. The Human approached one nearby and saw that it was a window in midair. It showed a series of images, each of a human back in the Present going about their daily life. In front of the window sat a soul. This soul did not have the restless quality possessed by many of the others. This one was a bit more solid-seeming, and the Human had an impression of great age and wisdom. From time to time, the soul would touch the window with a sense of great love and kindness. The humans shown in the window all resembled one another, and, the Human now saw, the soul as well. Each window around the great chamber seemed to be showing an ancestral soul the lives of their descendants, allowing them to watch over and guide those left behind. These places acted like stones in a river, their stillness causing eddies in the current of souls flowing around them.

Above the heads of the souls hovered a variety of beings. They were of many shapes and species, some combining animal and human characteristics. Souls gathered below them, and the beings would reach down and chose souls from their crowd to guide either towards the staircases, or towards the tunnel. Some even were directed to other areas within the chamber. Some beings made their choices with careful and calm deliberation, using great tomes or scales to weigh the deeds of the soul and decide their fate. Other seemed to know by instinct where a soul should be, and would fling some into a nearby tunnel, while lifting others onto a staircase. Some stood by the base of a staircase guiding the way of those who sought them, but even with these, some souls turned away and joined the crowd rather than ascend.

These souls joined the many who neither oversaw their families nor sought judgment. This group seemed without purpose. They were formless and listless, similar to those along the shore who lacked even the drive to make it this far. The wanderers tended to drift towards the edge of the chamber. The Human was horrified to see that if they came near the mouth of a tunnel, tendrils of Darkness would reach out and tug at them. Many, without any obvious objection, allowed themselves to be pulled into the Dark. It seemed that those who lost hope were prone to falling into Oblivion.

As the Human walked further into the chamber, more details became evident. There were other chambers that branched off from this one. Some took the form of great halls where souls sat calmly, apparently in contemplation. Others were filled with souls being tormented, but these places did not have the hopeless Darkness of the tunnels. These souls seemed to have hope that their suffering would end and serve a purpose. Still others opened onto great fields where souls wandered aimlessly.

The Human was happy to see that a good number of souls sought the staircases without being directed there. They seemed to move with purpose as they entered the chamber, or as they exited one of the side chambers, and headed for the nearest staircase. These seemed more formed than those that wandered the chamber, and a palpable joy emanated from them.

The chamber was dim, only lit by the light from the branches. In an attempt to see better, the Human raised the crystal overhead. The surrounding souls flinched back, as if in pain. They seemed to wither before it, and some seemed to seek a nearby tunnel to escape the blinding light. Hurriedly, the Human placed the crystal back into the shell container, arranging the mirror behind it to reflect more of the light through the front shell. This dimmed the light enough that the souls returned to normal.

For what seemed like hours, the Human wandered the chamber, hoping to find souls that looked familiar. Had the Human’s love and children already left this place? Had they been pulled down into Oblivion? No. They were full of joy in life. Surely that would help them resist the pull?

The Human neared the center of the chamber, where the rings became smaller and smaller, the heartwood of the Tree. Here, the Human found a small opening in the floor, the same size as the end of the walking stick. The Human planted the end of the staff into the opening and it stuck fast, fusing with the wood around it. The Human then, in a moment of inspiration, affixed the shell container to the top of the staff using the straps. It now stood as a lantern, acting as a beacon to light the center of the chamber. The floating beings turned to note this, but did not alter their behavior. The souls continued to flow around the room, moving around the Human as they did around the ancestral souls and the crowds seeking judgment.

Except. There. A small disruption in the flow. A small patch of discontinuity in the blur of passing souls. It drew closer, and then, after so long, the Human saw them. Three souls, one larger, and two smaller, standing at the edge of the space around the staff. They did not approach closer, and seemed somehow hesitant. The Human reached out a hand, slowly, not wanting to startle them. The larger soul turned away from the light to face the Human. Its form shivered and slowly took a slightly more distinct form, like those of the ancestors. It reached out an arm towards the Human. It had not lost all memory! The soul was still the Human’s lost love in some way. The two smaller souls drew closer to the larger one, and, touching it, began to solidify slightly as well. The children had some surviving self as well!

Moving carefully, never turning away from the trio of souls, the Human took the container down from the staff and stepped slightly away. The three souls followed. The Human reached out to touch the staff, which had already begun to sprout new leaves, thinking a prayer of thanks to the Tree for its help.

The Human slowly walked towards the wall, holding the light aloft, and avoiding large concentrations of souls, so as not to lose sight of the three following. The nearest staircase was near the entrance of a tunnel, and, as they drew close, tentacles of Darkness reached for the Human’s family. The Human stepped between the souls and the opening of the tunnel, holding the light to one side to lead them to safety. So focused on their movement, the Human did not notice a larger tentacle reaching from the opening until it was too late.

“Mine,” hissed the Darkness, as the tentacle tightened on the Human’s leg. “You are always and forever mine. Forsaken by those that bore you, outcast from your home, bereft without your family, you have no hope, no purpose, no reason to continue. Let go and drift with me, let go of the pain and close your eyes. Oblivion is without pain. In time, even your sanity will go.”

The Human felt heavy. Cold began to spread out from the tentacle’s grasp. It had been such a long journey with no true rest. Even if they reached the branches above, would the Human’s family be themselves? Was a spark of recognition enough? Why climb so high only to be disappointed. Why not let it go and fall into Oblivion.

A bright light pierced the Human’s closed eyelids, snapping them open. The Human had dropped the shell container, and the crystal had rolled free. Somehow, in spite of obvious pain, the Human’s love had grasped the crystal and lifted it to the Human’s face. The soul shivered with effort, and the hand holding the crystal wavered as if lifting a great weight. The souls of the children stood on either side and reached for the Human’s hands. The Human could feel a faint pressure from them, despite their diaphanous forms.

Awake once more, the Human took the crystal back and turned, thrusting it out at the Darkness. It blazed brighter than ever before.

“Begone, creature of hopelessness and fear! You cannot hold me if I chose not to be held. I have found my family, and neither you nor any other being will take me from them!” cried the Human.

The Darkness shrank back with a thin squeal of pain. The tentacles could still be seen writhing within the tunnel, but they could not enter the light. The Human set the crystal down at the entrance to the tunnel and backed away. Reaching out, the Human took the hand of the nearest child. The child took the hand of the larger soul, who took the hand of the other child. As one, the family moved to the staircase and began to climb.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 15

As the boat headed out into the open water, it became clear to the Human that this was not a lake or sea, but rather a huge, circular river. Smaller rivers flowed into it, radiating out like spokes from the hub of a wheel. The current of the river, which the Leviathan had called Lethe, moved swiftly around the island in the center, and the boatman had to steer carefully to avoid being swept away. The boat flew across the still water with unnatural speed, and the island across the water grew noticeably. Beneath the surface of the water, which was still mirror-smooth, despite the current, the Human could occasionally see glimpses of the Leviathan’s scales when it rose close to the surface.

By this point, there was almost no light left in the sky. The island was only visible because it blocked the thin gray sliver that defined the horizon. In the center of the island, the Human could just make out a shape that seemed to be the only object taller than a stone. It seemed to give off some slight green light, but it was too far to make out details.

As the boat drew closer, however, it became clear that this object was, in fact, a tree. A tree the size of a mountain. Its size had been obscured by distance, but it now dominated the horizon. The island was mostly made of roots, with just enough earth to fill the spaces between. These roots were wider across than the path the Human had been following. Wider than the river through the forest. The rose from the earth in graceful arcs, plunging back down into the earth and twisting around one another to form an immense gnarled surface. Moss covered them in many places, creating the illusion of a lush meadow dotted with wooden boulders.

The boat came to rest in a gap between the roots, wedging the keel securely into its berth. The boatman gestured that the Human should disembark. As the Human stepped carefully onto the roots, the true scale of the tree became viscerally evident.

The island formed by the tree’s roots was large enough that only the slightest curve could be seen along its edge. The trunk in the center was the size of several large villages laid out end to end. It seemed more like a wall than a cylinder. The bark was a range of browns and grays. No shade seemed out of place for the bark of a tree, but it was odd to see them all together. The branches of the tree stretched out as far as did the roots, creating a mirror of the the island in size and shape. It was so far above, however, that the details of the branches and leaves were lost. The leaves gave off a green glimmer, which was what the Human had seen from the boat. The canopy was so far above, it seemed more a part of the sky than of something anchored to the earth.

Careful to avoid falling down between the roots, the Human set off for the trunk of the great tree. A vibration ran through the roots, and a constant low creaking noise filled the air. It felt like several days walk before the Human neared the trunk. Time was so strange here, though, that it was impossible to tell. As the Human traveled, the going became easier. The roots became wider and less gnarled, creating broad avenues on which the Human made good time. The branches of so large a tree should have cast a shadow, despite the green glimmer from the leaves. However, it seemed the sky was brightening as the Human walked. Reversing the trend towards sunset, the sky now lightened. At first the gray of the horizon spread upward slowly. This was not confined to one region of the sky, however, and the Human could see a ring of light as it appeared to be pre-dawn along the entire horizon. Then, color began to seep back into the sky. Reds and oranges crept up from the horizon and the world became visible again. The Human put the crystal back into the shell container. The glow of the crystal and phoenix feather through the side of the container was more than enough to light the way.

The roots began to slope upward, like foothills. The going became more difficult, and the Human was glad for the walking stick the Fae queen had granted so long ago. By now, the sky was alive with color, as it appeared the sun would rise in every direction at once. The Human was relieved to see light again, but travel was becoming more difficult. The roots sloped steeply up to the trunk, and there appeared no way to scale them further. Turning to one side, the Human decided to circumnavigate the tree, looking for some sign of where the souls who passed on had gone.

It was like walking along a mountain range, but one where the mountains reached up to and became the sky. There had been no sign of souls since the Human arrived on the island, and the Human began to worry that perhaps it was too late.

Abruptly, the Human could go no further. An immense gap in the roots created a canyon that ran into the base of the trunk. Here, the Human found the souls. They streamed in from all directions, the slight distortions they left in the air combining into a shimmering river that flowed between the roots towards the hole in the trunk. On either side of the tunnel, two creatures stood, overlooking the flood of souls, one on either side. They appeared more solid than most things in this world, but their shapes were continually changing. Now a hart, now an eagle, now other avian forms, now a huge fish, now a dragon, now a phoenix, the guardians were always themselves, but never any one shape for long. They watched the souls and the shore with unceasing vigilance. Carefully, wary of provoking such a creature, the Human approached the guardian on the near side of the tunnel.

“Greetings,” the Human called out. The guardian’s head was the height of a large tree in any normal forest, and the Human was unsure if it could hear a single voice from so far below. Slowly, the great head turned and the guardian blinked to focus on the tiny Human at its feet.

“Greetings,” it responded, cocking its head to one side. “What are you doing here? You are not like the others.” Its voice was surprisingly gentle for its size.

“I am seeking my family. They were taken from me, and I wish to be reunited with them. And to seek the city of the Future with them.”

“I know nothing of any city, but all souls that attain the Island of the World Tree come here or one of the other three entrances. They enter the Tree and what becomes of them is not my concern. My duty is to guard the tree. The souls do what they will according to their nature.”

“Other entrances?” the Human asked.

“One for each direction. They all lead to the heart of the Tree,” the guardian replied while turning back to scan the horizon. It appeared to be losing interest not that it had seen that the Human was not a threat.

“May I enter the heart of the Tree?” asked the Human. “Perhaps I can find my family there.”

“I’m afraid not,” responded the guardian. “Mortals are only allowed past as souls.”

“But…,” the Human took a step closer to the edge of the canyon, intending to plead further with the guardian. At this approach, the guardian’s head swung down sharply, blocking the Human from coming closer. Its fangs/beak/horns flashed in the dawn light.

“You may not pass,” growled the guardian. “Your kind has no right.”

“I meant no offense,” said the Human hurriedly, backing away and raising both hands in surrender. The guardian froze in place, staring at the walking stick. Slowly, it lowered its body and bowed its head.

“It is I who should apologize,” it said softly. “I did not see what you carried. The Staff has been lost for so long, I despaired of ever seeing its return.”

“The Staff?” The Human looked at the plain length of wood with some confusion. “It was given to me by the Fae queen.”

“I should have known her kind would have coveted such a thing,” said the guardian. “Despite not knowing its true nature, they would have sensed its age and hoarded it away. They must have seen something special in you to part with it.”

“I met a great tree in the forest who said it was part of Yggdrasil,” the Human began. “Is this…” the Human gestured towards the great Tree.

“That is one name for the World Tree. Others call it the Tree of Life. It has many names. Your people have been tied to the Tree since before you had speech. You all seem to recognize the Tree as sacred. The Tree is known as a creator, the source of eternal life, the bridge between worlds, the source of knowledge and life. And you hold a piece of it in your hand. With that piece, you may pass. I only ask that you leave the Staff with the Tree before you go. It belongs here.”

“Agreed. Thank you.” The Human bowed low.

“May you find what you seek,” replied the guardian, straightening to keep watch once more.

The Human turned and sought a way down into the flood of souls. It took careful climbing, but the Human was soon standing along the edge of the ‘river’. The souls made no sound, and were just as insubstantial as the lost souls on the shore of Lethe. These moved with a purpose, though. The glimpses of form the Human could see were of bodies in determined motion.

Removing the glowing crystal from the shell container and raising it overhead, the Human joined the press of souls and entered the tunnel into the trunk of the great Tree.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 14

With renewed energy, the Human continued down the path. It sloped gently downward, and the darkened, blasted land began to lose even its burnt coloration, fading to an ashen gray. Ahead, a mild rise in the landscape blocked the view ahead. Cresting the hill, the Human stopped, stunned by what lay beyond the hill.

The land continued its slow descent from the base of the hill, an ashen plain marked only by the occasional burnt stump of a tree. These stumps stopped a few hundred paces from the base of the hill, however, replaced by smooth ash. The ashen plain eventually found an end at an immense, dark, still body of of water. The water spread far out into the distance, with a faint shore barely visible at the horizon. To either side the shore curved away, giving the impression that this body of water was somehow circular.

The Human sank to the ground. There was no sign of a way across the water. No trees were intact enough to construct a raft, no boat traffic could be seen, and the distant shore was much too far away to be reached by swimming. Then, the Human noticed something that marred the smooth line of the ashen shore. A blurred shape paced back and forth along the edge of the water, seemingly without aim or pattern. Rising, the Human moved closer.

Up close, the shape was shaped like a person, but was far more indistinct than any of the beings the Human had so far encountered. It was nearly transparent, visible more as a distortion in the air, than as an object.

“Hello?” inquired the Human. “Can you hear me?” The shape did not respond, but continued to restlessly flit back and forth along the shore. Then, a bit further along the shoreline, the Human spotted another such shape. And then another, and another. The shore was swarmed with indistinct shapes milling along the edge, as if they, like the Human, desired to cross the water.

The Human moved to the edge of the great sea, hoping that perhaps it was shallow, and thus could be crossed, at least partially, by wading. Ripples flowed outwards as the Human stepped into the water, marring the smooth surface. The ripples continued endlessly, without diminishing, unlike what the Human remembered from back in the Present. Then, all at once, the ripples froze in place, and a low rumbling could be felt through the shore. With a great shattering sound, the surface of the water began to move again, but this time with a great swell, as something immense began to rise from the deep.

It appeared to be one long, great creature that spread off beyond the horizon in each direction, following the curved shoreline. As it rose, waves of water were pushed towards the shore. The faint figures pulled back, retreating from the water. The Human stood fast, letting the waves flow past and then recede. The huge creature was not just rising to the surface, but it was moving towards the shore.

Slowly, the gargantuan bulk drew closer. It slowed as it came, and when it came close enough for details to be visible, the Human could see scales covering its skin. A bulge became visible in the line of its body, and the Human saw the head of the creature emerge from the water. Strangely, it held what appeared to be the tail of a similar creature in its mouth. It did not seem to have eyes or any other way of sensing the world, but the Human could feel the focus of its attention. As the head drew up on the beach, it never released the tail in its mouth. The tail trailed off into the water, becoming thicker as it went, until it became the right side of the creature’s body, leading off into the horizon. This beast was biting its own tail!

“How did you come here?” A great pressure filled the Human’s mind. It did not resolve into words, but the meaning was somehow clear. The Human hurriedly bowed.

“I seek the spirits of my family who should have passed this way before me.” The Human was suddenly struck by the thought that perhaps the faded shapes along the shore were spirits. Were the Human’s family among them? How could the Human recognize them? They did not seem to interact with the world other than to avoid the water.

“I am not concerned with the travels of shades,” rumbled the great beast. “My concern is how one of your kind came to this place. You do not belong here, and you must leave. These waters are not to be disturbed by the living. Although, you are not entirely living, are you?” The Human again felt the force of the beast’s attention. Eyeless, it seemed to peer directly into the Human’s mind and soul, and it did not seem be be impressed by what if found.

“I do not know how I came to be here, Great One,” answered the Human. “My grief pulled me to this place, and all those I have encountered told me I must follow this path to find my family. I did not mean to disturb you or this place. Please, did my family come this way, and, if so, is there a way to follow them?” There was a rumbling pressure that felt like low laughter.

“Great One. Could it be that you do not know me? I am the beginning and the end. All is one in me. I shall rise at the end of time, and yet time, and I, have no end. I am the border between chaos and order, between Past, Present, and Future. I am the World Serpent, the Ouroboros. I hold back the waters that would flood the land, and the land that would cover the waters. If you came down the path behind you, you may have seen an echo of Myself in Jormungandr, yes? Still battling the Storm God, I imagine.”

“Yes,” replied the Human. “Along with the rest of the Dragon’s heads. The Storm God said they would fight until the end of time.”

“And yet,” rumbled the World Serpent, “I have no end. I suppose what they say is still true, in a way. Were one or both of them to die, it would mean that chaos and order were no longer in balance, and all would end. You seek the spirits of your family. You have come a long way to find them. Assuming they were not among those lost souls along the shore, here, then they would have made their way across to the Isle.”

“Is there a way to tell if the are still here?” asked the Human. “These spirits do not seem to know I am here.”

“These are the Lost. They had so much fear in their souls that they refused to make the last leg of their journey. They feared Oblivion so strongly that they have condemned themselves to an even worse fate. They have only to take a step, and they would be saved, but their fear keeps them from even so small an effort. They refuse to continue the cycle, and are thus Lost. Were those you seek full of dread, fearing all things?”

“No,” answered the Human, relieved. “They were full of love and life and joy. Even when they sickened, they did not fear what came next.”

“Good. Then they would have made it to the Isle.”

“But how? I see no boats. Should I swim?”

“Only if you wish to lose all that you are!” laughed the great serpent. “The waters of Lethe will erase what holds your Self together. They embody chaos and are poison to the Selves of mortals. You must wait for the boatman. He will carry you across safely, but you must pay your way.”

“I have no coin,” said the Human. “What payment does the boatman seek?”

“That is up to him,” answered the serpent. “He should arrive shortly, drawn by the call of your soul. Take care when you board his boat, however. You must not make more ripples, and were you to fall into the water violently, far more than your memories would be lost. If the chaos of the waters gained access to a living soul, the balance would fail, and the Waters would cover the Earth once more.”

“Thank you for your warning,” said the Human, stepping carefully back from the edge of the water. “I shall take care.”

“See that you do.” The World Serpent began to slide back into the water, eventually disappearing from sight. The water became mirror-smooth once again. The Human sat down to wait, hoping for patience.

It was not long before a small dot appeared on the horizon, directly out from where the path entered the water. It drew closer, and the Human saw it was a boat with a figure at the prow, using a long oar to push the boat smoothly across the water. With a soft crunch, it pushed up onto the ashen beach, just next to the path.

The boatman, tall and angular under the shifting folds of an ethereal black robe, reached out a hand towards the Human. The hand at first appeared to be skeletal, but it was, in fact covered in a sort of flesh. It was insubstantial, like the Human’s cabin, translucent and wavered like fog.

“I need to cross,” said the Human. “What is the fare?” There was a long pause before the boatman spoke with a long-disused voice.

“Gold,” rasped the boatman. The Human despaired. There had been no coin in all of this strange world. The Human opened the turtle shell container, hoping to find something of worth, and saw the gold framed mirror from the Water Mother. The Human was loathe to part with such a gift, but it was the only gold available. The Human held the mirror out to the boatman.

The boatman reached to take the mirror, but froze as soon as he made contact with the frame. It was a long moment before he shuddered and pulled his hand back.

“This came from the Mother,” he whispered. “With her blessing, you have been given passage on all of her waters, even here.” The boatman gestured for the Human to board.

Carefully, mindful of the World Serpent’s warning, the Human clambered into the boat, and carefully put the mirror back into the container.

“Thank you. I need to go where the spirits of the dead go. Is that the Isle?”

The boatman nodded silently and pushed the boat away from the beach. With a deft motion of the oar, the boat turned and headed for the far shore.

 

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 13

As the Human walked, the air grew warm and dry. More than once, the Human had to stop and cough as the air filled with with a fine ash. The ground was studded with burnt stumps of trees, and the blackened bones of small animals who had not escaped the blaze. The ground took on a glassy look, as if from a fantastic heat. Strangely, as the devastation grew worse, signs of life could be found. A blade of grass pushed through a crack in the baked ground, while a tiny leaf was just budding from the side of a blackened stump. The air was a mix of ash, heat, and the occasional whisper of spring. The sky was nearly pitch black above, with just a sliver of Sunset  to be seen ahead. Turning, the Human noted a slight glow that resembled the light just before dawn. It was so faint as to seem illusory. The Human turned back towards the Sunset and trudged down the path.
The air became uncomfortably warm. The earth itself radiated heat, and, in the deeper cracks, embers flickered. A hot breeze fanned the embers to life as it brushed past, but there was no fuel left to feed the embers into flames. The path began to slope downward sharply, and the Human could see that the path descended into a large bowl-shaped depression. It appeared to be headed to the heart of the devastation, a large mound of burnt wood, still lit with fitful coals.
As the Human drew close, the mound of wood resolved into what seemed to be a huge nest, carefully woven from wood the size of the Human’s wrist. The nest sat just to one side of the path, at least 10 paces across, with the lip rising chest-high to the Human. The heat emanating from it was nearly unbearable. Hot gusts pushed out, forcing the Human to lean forward to make progress, one arm raised to both light the way and provide protection from the ash. As the Human drew even with the nest, it shuddered, and the air suddenly cleared as a new, even hotter wind blew away the ash. The coals in the nest flared nearly back to life, and the Human staggered back. The crystal was no longer needed to see the path, as the glow from the nest was nearly as bright as a torch. The Human drew closer to the nest, peering over the edge to see the source of the heat. Inside, sat an egg, as wide as the Human was tall. The shell was a glowing pearl white, with streamers of red, orange, and yellow light flowing over its surface. Blue and green sparks played around it, as it began to rock slowly back and forth. Fascinated, the Human stood and stared, too enraptured by the beauty to be afraid.
The sparks flew more densely as the egg shivered and with a sound like nearby thunder, a crack appeared across the center of the shell. Beams of brilliant crimson, gold, and white flew from the crack, forcing the Human to raise a hand protectively. The air vibrated, not with a true sound, but with a palpable joy. The crack in the egg grew wider and a metallic red beak forced its way out into the air. A head feathered in gold and orange followed. The eyes, both a crackling electric blue, locked onto the Human. The beak opened and the Firebird sang a note like the dawn after an eternal night. The Human felt tears of rapture begin to flow. For the first time since coming to this dim place, the Human knew joy.
The Firebird shouldered its way out of the shell, which turned to find white ash as it fell away from its former occupant. Shaking the ash from its feathers, the Firebird cocked its head to one side and took a cautious step towards the Human.
The Firebird sang notes of light and warmth which formed radiant thoughts in the Human’s mind. “Blessed are you who first grace my sight, O child of the Present. My rebirths come once in a thousand years, and rarely have a witness, much less one who comprehends what is unfolding. Pray, tell me what brings you here to my presence. To be born is often a lonely thing, and I thank you for sharing it with me,” it sang.
The Human drew a breath of clean, warm air and spoke, bowing as far as the edge of the nest would allow.
“Truly I am blessed to have witnessed such a miracle. I only happened to be here through an unfortunate chance. Your rebirth has been the one true moment of grace in this land and for some time before I arrived here. I seek my family, who passed into death without me. My grief brought me to the Past, and I am seeking to restore my family to me.”
“It is good that you seek restoration, rather than Oblivion. That cursed place offers not the cleansing power of destruction, only dissolution. I can see the grief at the heart of you, and would offer a way to remove it.”
“Is it in your power to restore my family to me?”, asked the Human, hopefully.
The Firebird stepped forward, perching on the lip of the nest. Its legs were covered in golden scales, and its talons shone like red gold. It shook out its tail, and spread it out into a broad fan. The pattern was similar to that of a peacock, but in ruby, topaz, and amber rather than sapphire and emerald. The warm light that shone from its feathers illuminated the blasted land around the nest. As the light drove away shadow, life began to spring forth in earnest. Blades of grass pushed through the layer of ash, and tree roots broke through the patches of fused glass. Saplings struggled out from the burnt stumps, shattering the charcoal shapes as they grew. Flowers sprouted from the cracks in the ground, which had become filled with rich soil.
“I offer rebirth, not restoration,” the Firebird sang, with an edge of sadness. “True rebirth comes through cleansing destruction. It is a joyous process, but much would be lost. You would be reborn in the Present, free of sorrow and loss. You could start anew, and find a happier path.”
“But I would not have my family with me,” said the Human.
“If you can bring them to me, I can offer them the same, but they would be washed as clean as you. You would all return to life, but at its beginning. Perhaps you would find one another again, but not as you once were.”
The Human was silent for a long moment, as life flowed through the crater, new buds blooming, leaves turning towards the Firebird for light and life. There was so much beauty in rebirth. Since the Witch had not given any way to find the Future, perhaps this was a better way. Even if the Humans family was not together, surely it was better than Oblivion?
The Human spoke slowly. “I thank you for your offer, brilliant one. It is a far kinder one than I could have hoped for. If I am unable to find a way to restore my family, then rebirth will be the path I choose. Thank you again.” The Human bowed once more, and, raising the crystal, started to move off down the path.
“Wait!,” cried the Firebird. “Bring that stone to me. Let me see it more closely.” The Human turned and lifted the crystal, the glow of which was barely visible in the radiance of the Firebird. The great talons of one foot took it gently and raised it to a sparking blue eye. The Firebird trilled quietly as it turned the stone about.
“This come from the Rock King, does it not?” asked the Firebird. The Human nodded. “You have used its light to face the Dark, as well.” The Human nodded again, but the Firebird did not appear to notice. “I believe I have another way to help you,” it sang. Returning the crystal to the Human, the Firebird reached back with its beak and pulled loose a feather from its splendid tail.
“Take this. Use it along with the other gifts you have gathered. It may be enough.”
“Enough for what?” asked the Human.
“Enough for you to face what you must,” replied the Firebird. “I cannot foresee what shape it may take, but your most difficult task is still before you. It will be dark and difficult, but I see you have the strength to face it.”
The Firebird bowed low before the Human, who returned the gesture.
“May the blessings of light and life guide you,” sang the great bird, “and may you find the love you seek.” Straightening, it spread its wings, which were feathered in the same fiery tones as its tail. It leapt into the air and soared in a spiral over the crater. Its song rang out, tones of rapture, hope, and joy. It circled higher and higher, until it appeared to become a distant yellow star.

 

The Human looked at the feather, which gave off a brilliant light far brighter than that of the crystal. It was too bright to look at for long, so the Human placed it into the turtle-shell container. It was now apparent that the shell was translucent, and the container shown a warm yellow, with streaks of brown. Again raising the crystal to light the path ahead, the Human began to climb out of the crater.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 12

The Human held up the crystal once more and trudged back down the path to the clearing of the great tree. The tree was now quiet and did not attempt to speak to the Human. Nor did the Human wish to talk to the tree. It now seemed that only determination would serve to find the Human’s family. Despite the promises of the Tinker and the great tree, the Witch had granted nothing but wasted time and frustration.

The Human found the original path again and set off, hoping that this side trip had not cost too much time. There was no real way to tell time here, and the Witch’s house had been so strange that the Human could not trust the memory of time passing, either. The path wound through the forest, switching directions frequently, and the Human became more and more frustrated with the slow linear progress.
After a time, the silence was broken by a deep rumbling sound, more felt through the ground than heard. It was answered by another, sharper noise. Both came from up ahead, and the Human picked up speed to see what was causing the sounds. More sounds came, growing louder as the Human approached. The leaves on the trees visibly shook, now, as insubstantial as they were, and the Human could feel the ground trembling.
Finally, rounding a last curve in the path, the forest gave way to a broad plain. The plain was strewn with broken and burnt trees, water-filled divots, churned earth, and parched patches of dried mud. The cause of this desolation was clear. In the center towered a giant of a man. His head was wreathed by the crackling glow of lightning, and he wore shimmering armor of a style the Human had never before seen. He stood so tall his face was lost to distance; only visible as a paler area wreathed by silver-streaked hair, above a great beard, and below the flickering lightning crown. He was locked in combat with a beast that the Human had only ever heard of as fiction. A many-headed dragon faced the giant. It had more heads than the Human could count, each one different from the others. It had as many tails lashing behind it. As the two fought, their footsteps caused the booming sounds the Human had been hearing. Their attacks blasted the land, and the dragons steps, especially, altered the ground as it paced.
The Human could just make out the path winding across the plain, appearing to head straight across. The giant and the dragon, however, fought astride it. The path was so damaged by the battle, the Human worried that skirting around the two would mean risking losing the path altogether. Somehow, the Human had to find a way past the two combatants.
As the Human watched the battle, hoping that the fight would move away from the path, something about this contest seemed familiar. The giant fought with a huge mace, trying to crush the dragon’s heads as they darted in to snap at him. The dragon had taken some wounds, and where they bled, the ichor smoked and burnt the ground. Other wounds leaked vermin and snakes, insects, and scorpions fell from the dragon’s flanks. The giant managed a strong blow on one head, a sinuous one with drooping mustaches, and it fell limp. As the giant turned to attack another, this one a scaly monstrosity resembling a huge black snake, the first head healed before the Human’s eyes and reared up to rejoin the battle.
The giant was not unscathed, either. As the battle raged, he turned more towards the Human, and it was apparent that he was blind in one eye, and his armor had several great rents in it. His left arm hung limp, as if the sinews had been cut. One of the dragon’s heads, this one metallic green with a horned nose, darted in towards that weakened side. The giant started back, and tripped over a fallen tree. When he hit the ground, the force was great enough to trigger a massive earthquake. The Human fell, clutching the ground, glad to be out from under the trees at this moment. Before the dragon could press the attack, however, the giant made a wild swing with his mace, clearing enough space to stand.
One of the dragon’s rearmost heads had a nearly human look. It had jet black eyes and hair and seemed reluctant to join in with its brethren. As it looked about its gaze fell on the Human standing where the path entered the plain. It stared, surprised. This, in turn, caught the attention of a fish-like head nearby, who turned to see what had caught the first head’s attention. A third and then a fourth head did the same, until all of the heads not actively fighting were staring at the tiny anomaly. At this point the giant noticed something was unusual in his opponent’s behavior, and took a step back, circling to his right to get a view at whatever was so fascinating to the dragon. This, then, caused the dragon’s other heads to look. Soon, the three of them the giant, the dragon, and the Human stood staring at one another in silence.
“Excuse me, great ones,” said the Human, bowing low. “Would it be possible for me to get past you on the path? I have far to go and not much time.”
“And where are you going?” asked the dragon head that looked nearly human.
“I am seeking the spirits of my family. They would have come this way, moving towards Oblivion. I am trying to catch up with them before they are lost to me forever.” The human dragon head nodded sympathetically.
“I understand the draw of family. I miss my wives. Back in the Present, we were so happy. Here, however, I am tied to these other aspects of myself, and unable to be with my loves.”
“Is that why you do not join the fight?” asked the Human, curiosity overcoming caution.
The black snake head whipped around to face the human head.
“You are not fighting? No wonder we have been unable to make progress.”
“I am not the only one! Leviathan was not fighting, either!” retorted the human head.
“Do not drag me into this, Kaliva! I have my own reasons for not engaging in violence with our honored opponent,” said the fish head.
“Both of you! All of you there in the back! You leave the fighting to Yamata, Jormungandr, Illuyanka, Typhon, Xianliu, Yam, Apep, myself, and a few others. Why do you not join us! We could win if we were united!” cried the black snake head.
“Zahhak, you know why I do not fight,” answered Leviathan. “I am fated to die at the end of time. As you are, Jormungandr,” Leviathan nodded at a snake-like head near the front. “Are you so eager to bring about the end of days?”
“Bah! Superstition! We are the Dragon! We cannot be slain!” answered Yamata, the head with great mustaches.
“You can, as you well know!” cried Kaliva. “Or do you forget that time you got so drunk you fell asleep and all but one of your heads was slain so fully only one of you now remains!”
“That wasn’t just me! Illuyanka drank too!,” roared Yamata.
The argument was cut short by the bellowing laughter from the giant. He was bent nearly in two, his good hand on his great thigh, shaking with mirth. His laughter was like thunder, and small bolts of lightning were shaken loose from around his head, falling to strike nearby.
“What is so funny, son of Odin?” asked Jormungandr. A green and gold snake-like head near the front sighed loudly.
“How many times do I have to tell you? That is not Thor, it is Zeus, my mortal and eternal enemy!”
“No!” interrupted a head that was hooded like a cobra. “That is Ra!”
“No! That is Yu the Great!” cried a head that resembled Yamata, but larger and with different coloring.
Soon all the heads near the front were snapping at one another, shouting the name of which enemy they thought they fought. Many the Human had heard of, but many others were novel. The heads near the back looked at one another helplessly. They seemed resigned to the squabbling, but not surprised. The giant was now seated on a nearby pile of fallen trees, drinking from a wineskin. He turned towards the Human, grinning.
“I would not try to cross when my foe is like this, little one,” came the great booming voice. “They may fight for days, and the stomping of feet and lashing of tails will be quite hazardous for such as you.”
“They seem to be arguing over who you are,” answered the Human. “How can they fight with such ferocity if they do not know you?”
“Ah, but they do. Each one sees a different aspect of me, the one it fought it life and legend. I am the Storm God, the embodiment of order and light. I have as many names as my friend here,” he gestured towards the Dragon, “has heads. He is the embodiment of chaos, in opposition to me. Although I have been known to wreak my share of destruction over the ages. We shall fight until the end of time, and then I shall finally defeat him.”
“You must have been fighting for a very long time,” said the Human, eying the destruction that stretched around the two. “Do you never tire?”
“There have been respites. As Kaliva mentioned, I have had victories, although they did not last. And I have had my setbacks as well. The sinews from my arm and my eye have been lost, and my wounds run deep. I always regain what I have lost, however. Sometimes I manage to lock my foe away under the earth for a time. Then I can find time to rest. I suspect the Dragon uses that time to recover strength as well. We always fight the more fiercely when he escapes.”
“What about those heads that do not fight?” asked the Human, walking over to sit near the Storm God.
“Ah, those. Our relationship in life and legend is not always adversarial. Kaliva reformed when defeated by Krishna, and Leviathan is not aggressive by nature. Even Zahhak has times when he becomes more like a man and steps back from the fight. He is always swayed to return to the fray, however. Jormungandr fights knowing it will be slain, but it knows it shall slay me in turn, and its hatred is so strong it is willing to pay the price to see that result.”
“You shall both die?” the Human was surprised to hear the giant speak of death so carelessly.
“In a way. When the end of time comes, both order and chaos will pass away, to be reborn in the world to come. We will end as we are and become something new. It is not so terrible a fate.”
“I beg your pardon for changing the subject, but I need to pass through here if I am to catch up to my family. I fear that if I go around, I will never find the right path in all this destruction, but the path forward travels very near the feet of the Dragon. Is there another way?”
“Perhaps. Kaliva seemed moved by your plight, as it is quite near to his own. Let me see if he is willing to help.” The Storm God cupped his hands to his mouth and blew a gust of wind towards the Dragon. When it reached its destination, the squabbling heads took no notice, but Kaliva, Leviathan, and the other peaceful heads looked up, curious. The Storm God gestured from the Human to the path, raising a great eyebrow questioningly. Kaliva nodded, and bent to confer with the rest of the rearmost heads.
After a brief conversation, the rearmost heads rose up as one, and turned towards their tails, pulling the body backwards. They were not used to exerting their will over the body they shared with their combative brethren, but with the aggressive heads distracted, they were able to get the legs to step backwards bit by bit. At the giant’s urging, the Human hurried back to the path and started along it at a fast walk, not wanting to be caught in the Dragon’s path, but not wanting to draw attention, either.
As the Human drew even with the Dragon, on of the fighting heads, a dull metal-scaled beast, caught sight of the Human passing and looked down to see that its body was moving away from its most hated foe.
“Beware my brothers!” it cried. “We are betrayed!” The other heads whipped around in response.
“Smeu! You are right!” answered Typhon. “A trick! We should have known!”
“Get it!” Called Yamata. “I hunger, and have not tasted flesh in so long!”
The forward heads surged towards the Human, and the Dragon’s feet churned as opposing instructions reached them. The ground alternately flooded and dried to desert, and poisonous ichor sprayed as wounds were stressed by the pulling. Eventually, however, the aggressive nature of the Dragon of Chaos won out and the body sped towards the Human, who was now running as fast as possible.
Fire belched from the mouth of Smeu, and other heads snapped forward, each bite coming closer to the Human with each stride. Just as the Human was covered by the Dragon’s shadow, and felt sure the end was near, the Dragon pulled short, Yamata’s teeth snapping shut a mere handsbreadth from the Human. The Dragon’s body lurched and fell heavily, as a great bellow came from behind it.
“Oho!” cried the Storm God, stepping on several of the Dragon’s tails. “You will not escape me so easily! Turn and fight! Or do you so fear me you prefer tiny prey to a true foe?”
The front heads rose as one and roared defiance. The Dragon rose to its feet and whirled around, yanking its tails from under the foot of the giant, who hopped back to avoid falling. The Human resumed running, ducking as the tails spun past just overhead, as the Dragon turned and charged its ancient foe. The Human risked a look back, and saw Kaliva looking back in return. He nodded gravely at the Human and then turned back to watch the battle. The Human, now safe from immediate devouring or trampling, still hurried across the plain, carefully staying on the path. As the distance from the battle increased, the path became clearer and wider, eventually resuming the straight and even appearance it had earlier.
As the Human walked, the sound of the struggle behind grew fainter, until all was again silent. The land grew more and more lifeless, however, and the ground took on a blackened, cracked look, like a great fire had raged here. Wary for the case of this devastation, the Human continued on.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 11

As the Human spoke, a strange thing happened. As the story was told, pictures arose in the air, becoming larger and more solid until it seemed that the Human and the Witch stood as invisible observers, seeing the events unfold before them.

There was a small hut, alone in the woods. It was barely a proper dwelling, and looked to have been patched together out of odds and ends from other homes. The flap of hide that covered the door pulled aside and a younger version of the Human stepped out, blinking against the light. This hut was outside the village proper, and the Human had built it as a refuge. It was a way to avoid having to face the prejudices held by those in the village and the questions as to why the Human was not yet married. The Human’s suitor had been rebuffed a month or so before, and the rumors were still sharp and cruel. The Human’s parents were not so, but they did not understand why such a favored match should be rejected. Gathering bits of scrap from the construction of other buildings, the Human had set up a small home to gain some independence and to think over recent events. A small garden stood to one side, and the Human earned coin by doing odd jobs around the village. It was an austere existence, but it was uncomplicated.
The Human might have lived as a hermit for years if not for a farmer who came from a neighboring town seeking laborers for building project. The Human volunteered and spent a week helping raise a barn. That week was to shape all that followed.
From the first, the Human was taken with the farmer and tried to find excuses for conversation, or even eye contact. This was a new feeling. Excitement, attraction, and a slight touch of nervousness were a sharp contrast to how things had felt with the suitor. The farmer, much to the Human’s delight, seemed to reciprocate the interest. By the end of the week, the farmer asked the Human to share a meal. This became a regular habit, with the two of them taking turns hosting. At first the Human was embarrassed to have a guest in such a small and simple home, but the farmer seemed wholly at ease. It seemed that there could be a real future for them.
And then that future appeared to crumble. While walking in town, the Human met one of the town elders, a woman who was much respected for her love of tradition. The woman marched up to the Human and demanded,
“What are you doing with that farmer?! You know very well that sort of thing is forbidden. I don’t know how they do things in that other town, but we won’t have that here.” She glared into the Human’s face for a long moment. “I should have known something was wrong with you when you turned down such a fine suitor. If you wish to remain in this village, you need to live as we do. I’ll see to it the council evicts you, see if I don’t.” She turned away sharply and marched back down the street. The Human stood, shocked immobile, for a long moment before carefully turning around and walking back home, refusing to give into the desire to flee.
That evening, when the farmer arrived for the usual meal, the hut was dark and the usual smell of food was absent. Opening the door, the farmer found the Human sitting at the small table, staring blankly at the embers of the dying fire.
“What has happened?” cried the farmer, hurrying to the Human’s side.
“I…,” began the Human, but only silence followed.
“Is it your parents? Are they alright?” asked the farmer, guessing at what could cause such distress. At a near whisper, the Human replied.
“I have been informed that I cannot continue to spend time with you if I wish to live in this village.”
The farmer sat down in the other chair, sagging into it.
“While it wasn’t in such clear terms, some in my town have suggested the same. I didn’t want to worry you about it. Maybe we should just leave.”
“But your farm!” protested the Human. “You have put years into building up a wonderful home! Your crops support the town!”
“Something those who whisper should have thought about before they challenged me,” said the farmer, chuckling. “My town has similar rules to yours as to who may marry whom, and it seems that my status will not buy me an exemption.”
“Marry?” said the Human in a small voice. The farmer paused a moment, reviewing that last sentence. Then, straitening, the farmer stood and walked around the table to the Human. The farmer took the Human’s hands and pulled, leading the Human to stand.
“Yes. Marry. Will you marry me?” the farmer asked, looking into the Human’s eyes with a broad smile.
“But, your farm! My parents!” began the Human.
“I didn’t ask about property law or your parents, although you know I like them well enough. I asked about you. Will you marry me?” The Human stood in stunned silence. That same question had come from the suitor, but in that case it had not been a question, but rather an offer. One that the Human was expected to accept, as the terms were so favorable. This felt very different. The Human drew up tall.
“Yes. I will!” The two stood there embracing for a long time until the farmer spoke.
“So,” came a voiced muffled by the Human’s shoulder, “are we going to eat?” The Human’s stomach growled in response and both broke out laughing, holding on to one another for support.
“I suppose we need to survive until our wedding, so starvation is unwise,” said the Human eventually. They worked together to make a meal out of what was on hand and spent the rest of the evening in happy company. For the first time, the farmer stayed the night, as it was far too late to walk home by the time the two of them had run out of conversation.
The next morning, the Human woke and found the farmer was sitting at the table, deep in thought.
“Good morning,” the Human said, rising and joining the farmer at the table. “You seem distracted.”
“I am. I am considering our options. My farm is doing well, but finding someone to buy it who can pay its worth will be a problem. Also, there are few places we will be allowed to live. Well, I am assuming there are _some_ places. None that I know of.”
“Same,” answered the Human. “What will we do?”
The two talked for a time and eventually came to a decision. The farmer would sell their farm for the best price that could be had in a reasonable time. It would not be enough to buy another farm elsewhere, though. There were places not claimed by any town or king where people could live in their own way. It would be dangerous, as that freedom came without protection. The money from selling the farm would be enough for a wagon, a mule, and supplies they would need for a homestead. They would start their own home on their own terms.
—————
On a beautiful evening, as the moon rose through the trees, the Human and the farmer stood in the clearing near their home on the edge of the forest. They held one another’s hands and made their vows before whatever gods cared to listen. They were wed.
————
A few years passed and a nearby homestead was struck by tragedy. Both parents of that household were gravely injured when their cattle stampeded, leaving them near death. That couple had become dear friends with the Human and the farmer, and they asked that the two of them take in the couple’s baby should they not recover. They agreed. When the ranchers died a day later, the Human and the farmer became parents for the first time. The sorrow of the loss of such friends was balanced by the joy of raising such a child.
————
Time passed again, and the child was now old enough to follow the Human and the farmer into the garden to pull weeds and pick insects from plants. One morning, the Human awoke and, going outside for the outhouse, found a bundle of rags outside the front door. Upon inspection, it appeared to be a pair of infants! A note explained that the mother was unable to care for one child, much less two, and that word of the couple’s adoption of the rancher’s child had reached her ears. She asked that the Human and the farmer take in these children as well. When the farmer woke a few minutes later, it was to find the Human standing in the center of the cottage, an infant in each arm, rocking quietly with a bemused grin.
“What…,” began the farmer.
“It seems that our blessing,” the Human nodded towards the sleeping child on the other side of the room, “has attracted two more!”
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The scene blurred and faded, and the Human was again in the Witch’s house. Although it felt as if hours had passed, the tea still steamed and the fire had not burned down. But then again, time could be a warped as anything else in this strange place.
“Oh, that was a good story,” sighed the Witch. “I shall treasure it.” They held a small, glowing pearl in one hand, which they tucked into a pocket where it joined several others. The Witch patted the pocket happily.
“You have met your side of the bargain, and I shall meet mine. In order for you to save your family, you must get them to the Future. It will not return them to life, as I have said, but they will regain what they have forgotten. They will know you and themselves.”
“I know of this city,” answered the Human. “What I do not know is how to find it and how to bring my family to it.”
The Witch peered at the Human and then laughed.
“I see you have been speaking to Rabbit and the Rock King and the Crow! You already know how to find the city…”
“I do not…” interrupted the Human before the Witch’s glare forced a return to silence.
“You do know, and that is that. What I can tell you to fulfill our bargain is this: Your family will follow you wherever your light may lead.” As the Witch finished speaking, the room began to shrink, rapidly. The Human jumped from the chair in anger.
“But that does not tell me anything! Riddles do not aid me!”
“And yet riddles are what you have!” replied the Witch. The room continued to shrink, and the Human crouched, afraid of being crushed by the walls. Instead, the room faded as it shrank, and the Human was again standing in the clearing in the forest, watching an image of the Witch’s room shrink into a point of light and vanish. The Human could just see the Witch standing in the room waving cheerfully.

The Witch’s house was gone. The only sign it had ever been there was a flattened area on the grass where it had sat, and a line of over-sized avian footprints leading into the dark of the woods. The Human was alone once more.