The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 10

[Note: I start my summer schedule this week, so I’ll be catching up on illustrations. Thanks for your patience!]

As the Human moved deeper into the forest, the trees grew closer together, but not as tall or straight as before. Their branches intertwined, as did their roots, creating the appearance of an immense, many-trunked organism. The sky was completely blocked, and the Human was grateful for the glow that made its way from the crystal through the turtle shell. The Human stopped short. There had been movement out among the trees. Peering, the Human saw lights dancing about through the woods and heard faint strains of distant singing. Having heard enough stories about what happened to travelers who followed fairy lights, the Human remained on the trail and continued on.

The trail made a sharp turn and abruptly opened up onto a clearing. Unlike the one with the great tree, however, this area of the forest was not soft and green. It was dark and full of stones. Standing in the center was a small house. At first it seemed to be a normal cottage, but its shape seemed to twist and none of the corners were true. And every time the Human looked, it seemed have subtly altered those corners. It felt like part of the cottage was always just out of sight. Drawing closer, the Human saw that what had at first appeared to be piles of firewood were in fact crouching legs. The cottage could walk! The Human had heard of such places back in the Present, and had heard many stories of those who dwelt within. A Witch with such a home would have great power, but would also be extremely dangerous. She would be as likely to destroy the Human as help, and would want a high price for any aid. Standing straight, the Human gathered what courage was available and approached the door.
The door whispered open as the Human raised a hand to knock. The doorway was pitch black. The forest had gone completely silent and a breeze, the first the Human had felt in this land, pushed from behind, urging the Human to enter.
“If you’re going to disturb me, it’s rude to be slow about it,” muttered a low voice from the dark. “It is foolish to waste a Witch’s time,” it continued. The Human stepped forward.
In a sudden blink, the dark of the doorway disappeared, and the Human was now standing in the center of a foyer. The cozy entrance room had doors leading off into several directions, including back the way the Human had come. That door, though, was closed tightly, although the Human had not closed the door when entering. Looking around, the Human saw four doors. No, three. No, five. As soon as a door would pass out of the Human’s sight, it could change location, appearance, and size, or disappear altogether. The Human turned with a start as a door to the right, a wooden one coated in worn red paint, opened and a voice called out.
“Wipe your feet and come in,” it called. The Human looked down and a doormat had appeared in front of the red door. Carefully wiping off the dust of the road, the Human entered.
This room was a small library. Shelves of books lined each of the four, no, five, no… never mind, walls. In the center of the room was a small pit in the floor where a fire shimmered. It flickered faster than fires in the Present, and while it was primarily red, yellow and orange, other colors appeared for brief flashes. It gave off an appealing warmth. Over the fire, a tripod held a kettle that was just starting to boil. Next to the fire was a pile of cushions of many colors and styles. Seated cross-legged in the pile was the Witch.
“Have a seat,” the Witch said, nodding to a cushioned stool that had appeared behind the Human. The door the Human had used to enter the room seemed to have vanished. The Human sat.
“Thank you for…,” the Human began.
“How do you take your tea?” interrupted the Witch. “I have quite a variety of options,” the Witch gestured to a wooden box on the Human’s lap. Its lid was ajar, revealing a dozen or more small glass jars with dried leaves of every color, as well as some items that the Human did not recognize. Was that a beetle? The Human found one that appeared to be regular black tea and handed it over to the Witch.
“Sugar? Honey? Lemon? Aether? Ichor?” the Witch cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Um. Plain is fine,” murmured the Human. The Witch gestured, and the Human found that the box had been replaced with a fine porcelain saucer and handleless cup. Both were painted in delicate lines that seemed to have meaning, although they did not have the look of words. In response to another of the Witch’s gestures, hot, black tea appeared in the cup. The Human quickly took hold of the saucer to avoid spilling the cup’s contents. The aroma was intoxicating. Floral, but deep and warm. The Human tried to hide a cautious sniff to see if this was actually tea, but the small smile on the Witch’s face made it clear this attempt was unsuccessful. The Witch raised a similar cup filled with a deep red liquid that glowed slightly, and took a sip. The Human did the same with the tea. It was, quite simply, the best tea the Human had ever had.
“So. You are my guest. I have served you tea. Do your people follow the rules of hospitality? Do you know what this means?” asked the Witch, taking another sip. The cup now contained a crystalline blue liquid that gave off small sparks.
“Yes, I do. Thank you,” answered the Human, bowing slightly. “I must say this is not the reception I expected.”
“I’m sure. I’ve no intent to open an teahouse. The spooky door thing does help keep away traveling salesmen, though,” the Witch chuckled.
“You are not what I expected, either,” ventured the Human.
“You expected something more along the lines of ancient and evil crone? Maybe with a bad eye and lots of warts? Bones in her hair and fewer teeth than fingers, and not a full set of those, either?” the Witch asked with a raised brow.
“Well, the stories,” began the Human.
“Psh!” the Witch waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t speak to me of stories. Tell me how you see me.”
The Human started to reply, and then stopped, unsure of what to say.
“Let me guess, I’m not fitting into any convenient descriptors, right?” prompted the Witch.
“I…” started the Human before giving up. The Witch wore a robe of shifting deep reds and purples, with tiny bones stitched into the fabric, making intricate, whirling patterns, belted with what appeared to be a living vine that reached out tendrils to grasp nearby objects. The Witch was neither old, nor young. Neither light, nor dark. Neither female, nor male. The Witch was not simply in between these extremes, but rather seemed to be shifting along each continuum from one moment to the next.
“You should know that my appearance is just what you can perceive of my nature. How many doors did you see in the foyer?” The Human took a second to follow the shift in topic.
“I am not sure. At first I thought four, but…”
“My house is not fully in this realm, and neither am I. We are a matched pair,” the Witch patted the floor affectionately, “and we have been together for a very, very long time. I am not from this place any more than you are, but I am not from the Present. I extend through all realms and all places. I know your people, but many other peoples consider me to be their own. Your people fear me, and for good reason. I am not to be challenged or annoyed.” The Witch’s eyes became very dark at that last, and the room dimmed although the fire seemed very bright. The Witch sat back into the cushions, appearing calm once more and the room brightened. “I want to hear why you have come to me. I want to hear what you seek.”
“I seek my family. My love and our children. They were lost to me and I am trying to find them.”
“And then what? Throw yourself into Oblivion? Do you wish me to help you destroy yourself?”
“No. I wish for them to remember me and themselves. I want them back. Back as I knew them.”
The Witch shook their head sadly. “That will not be possible. They cannot return to the Present. Neither can you, at this point. Your Moment is long gone.”
“I understand that.”
The Witch leaned forward, leaning their chin on their hand, elbow resting on their knee. “Then what, pray tell, do you want from me?”
“I met a man on the path through the forest. He said you knew how to help my family remember. To regain their true selves and avoid Oblivion.”
“Ah. I see. He told the truth. I extend through time, and can see many paths. I can tell you how to return your family’s minds. I even know how to return them to a semblance of solidity, such as you possess. But, what are you willing to pay me for this knowledge? Is it not customary to pay for such a valuable bit of assistance?” The Witch’s smile had become uncomfortably wide, with a predatory edge. “Keep in mind that I have all that I desire. My home is infinite and I can create what I need. What could a temporary thing like you offer me?”
“I have my walking stick. The great tree said it had power, and it did protect me in the Dark. I have this container given to me by Turtle. It is sturdy and holds more than it appears to. I have these,” the Human took the crystal and mirror from the container, “from the Rock King and the Water Mother. That is all I possess.”
The Witch was suddenly sitting very close to the Human, and leaned in close. Their breath was alternately hot and cold, and the Human saw that the pupils of their eyes were not solid black, but appeared to have tiny lights within them. Lights seemed very far away, like stars.
“Oh, you have much more than that. True, these things have power. That wood is as ancient as I, and nothing evil can bear its touch. Anything placed in that container can never be stolen from you, no matter how deft the thief. That crystal will ever light your way. The mirror, ah, I’ll leave that for you to discover.” The Witch covered the mirror with their palm and placed it back in the container, along with the crystal. “I have marvels that put them all to shame. No, what you have to trade is something unique to yourself. Something I cannot create or call to me.” The Witch reached out a finger and touched the center of the Human’s brow. “You have a soul. Love. Memories. Stories. All unique to you. As brief as you are, you have something I cannot steal, any more than I could take that container from your shoulder. But, if you trade them willingly, then I could possess them.” The Witch licked their lips lightly and sat back, sighing lightly. “What will you trade? What is worth the souls of those you love?”
The Human sat for a long moment, considering. “I can tell you a story.”
“A story. Why would a story be worth what I can give you? You lose nothing in the telling, so it hardly seems fair.”
“You would lose nothing by telling me how to help my family, so I would argue we would be even,” answered the Human, too quickly to have considered the consequences of contradicting the Witch. The room went deathly silent. The fire no longer moved, and the steam from the teacups froze in midair. The Witch’s hair was the only thing that moved. It rose as if in a wind, now long and dark threaded with black. The Witch rose, still cross-legged, a few feet into the air and all the light in the room seemed to pull away from the two of them.
“You seek to haggle for the souls of your family?” asked the Witch is a voice that was barely audible, but yet resonated with great power. The Human nodded slowly, gripping the walking stick tightly and hoping that it might help protect against this being. The moment held for an impossibly long time. Then, suddenly, the room lightened, the fire resumed its dance with a burst of color, and the tea steamed warmly. The Witch settled back on the cushions and threw back their head in gales of laughter. The books on the shelves vibrated, and the Human had to clutch at the teacup to keep it from bouncing onto the floor.
“You know the value of stories, and I like your refusal to sell them cheaply!” laughed the Witch. “It has been many ages since someone thought to strike a truly fair bargain with me. Most cower and offer all that they have or try to swindle me. The first get the deal the offer, while the others,” the Witch’s smile was sharp, “they get a deal of my choosing. You, however, are honest, both in your intentions and in your assessment of your worth. We have a deal. Mind you, the story must be of great value to you.”
“It is. It is the story of how I found my love.”

“Ooh! I do enjoy a romance.” The Witch was now quite young and had curled into the cushions like a child ready for a nap. “Tell me your story.”

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 9

Note: still working on getting caught up on illustrations. They’ll be back soon!

The Human walked for a short while, and there, winding among the great trees, was a small trail. It looked to be the sort left by animals, rather than by the feet of people. The tree boughs closed over top of the trail, blocking out even more light than was visible on the path. It did not have an ominous feeling, though, but rather one of quiet contemplation. The Human left the path and headed into the dim light.

The trail wound around the trees and the entrance from the path was soon out of sight. The Human was surprised when the trail opened up into a clearing suddenly. There was no sign of a Witch, but instead an immense tree stood in the center of the clearing. Its branches created a huge domed, arched roof above the clear area, creating the feel of a sacred space. The hush of the forest was broken her by the creak of the great bows and the murmur of a breeze that could be heard, but not felt. It seemed brighter here, but the sky did not appear to be any brighter. Instead, the leaves above seemed to radiate a warm, green light. It was dim, but with so many thousands of leaves over head, the clearing glowed. The ground was covered in soft, thick moss, and the Human found that each step sunk in a bit as the moss gave way slightly. Assuming that the trail resumed on the other side of the clearing, the Human made to walk around the grand tree, when a voice rumbled out.
“Greetings traveler,” it said. The voice was so deep as to be more felt than heard. It came from above, but resonated through the very ground. The Human stopped and looked around for the source. “Look up, little one,” said the voice warmly. There was a chuckle that vibrated from the earth up to the Human’s knees. Looking up into the canopy, the Human saw what appeared to be a face in the bark of the great tree.
“Hello,” replied the Human, bowing and hoping the bow would conceal the look of surprise. The Human had heard of forest spirits, but they were more like those beings at the river, personifications of their environment. This was something new to the Human. Even more surprising was that the tree rose up a bit on its roots, the ground around it rippling under the moss, and turned towards the Human. With a great rustling sound, the tree drew down two of its limbs and made a courtly bow in return.
“Very pleased to meet you,” said the tree. “Are you looking for the Witch? Few come this way, and they all seem to be seeking the Witch’s aid.”
“I am,” replied the Human. “This is the right way, then?”
“It is. If I may be so rude as to ask, why do you seek the Witch?” the tree asked. The Human recounted the usual tale of death, grief, and struggle, ending with the advice of the Tinker to seek the Witch. The tree looked more and more concerned and sad as the tale progressed. The smaller branches and leaves drooped, and the tree sank down further onto its roots.
“Oh my. You are the one I felt. I am part of all forests and woods and all of them are part of me. The trees near your home shivered with your grief and the echoes of your travels have reached me through my children who have lined your path. There is a gap in what I could perceive, though. That must have been when you traveled through the mountain. To have braved such darkness,” the tree shivered at the thought. “Do you truly believe the Witch can help you, or do you seek out of desperation?”
“I must believe there is some way of returning my family to me. Otherwise, I shall consign myself to Oblivion with them. There is nothing else for me.”
“Ah, do not say such things,” said the tree as a wind sighed through its branches. “Do not see death and forgetfulness as your only options. There is always hope and always a way forward. Your grief may have pulled you here, but this is not a terrible place to leave grief behind. All things fade into the Past, after all, even our pain. Everything with a beginning has an end, even pain as great as yours. Come, child, sit by me and rest. Put down your burden and think carefully about your choice.” A root flexed under the moss, rising up to create a soft seat that was just right for a tired Human. The Human gratefully sat, laying down the turtle-shell container and the walking stick. As the stick came to rest on the ground, the tree shivered.
“Oh. It has been so long. To think that such a thing still exists… Perhaps some things truly are eternal,” murmured the tree. “Where did you get that?”
“The Fae Queen gave it to me shortly after I arrived here,” answered the Human quietly. The Human had not rested since arriving in this realm, and the quiet, rustling air, the comfort of a soft place to rest, the dim glow of the leaves, all of this was easing the weariness of the Human’s body and soul.
“Ah. It came from a very old tree, did it not?” asked the tree. The Human nodded sleepily.
“Was that one of your children?” the Human asked.
“A cousin, would be a better term. The child of my sibling. I am the echo of all the trees that ever grew in your realm. I am very old. There is another, though. Some call it Yggdrasil, or the World Tree. It holds the realms together and keeps them apart. It is the end and the beginning of many things. My sibling, but much, much older. That stick is a piece of it. It holds great power. I wonder how it came to fall?” mused the tree. “So, little one. Do not sleep. You have not the time, or you will lose your chance to find your family. But instead, think on this: what is gained if you throw yourself into Oblivion? All things end, even suffering, but that place is not a way to end your suffering early. Do not seek Oblivion. Rather, seek hope and do not relinquish your hold on yourself. You do not owe your family the death of all that they loved in you. Keep that alive. For them.”
“I fear I cannot bear the pain of losing them,” answered the Human, sitting more upright. “I have nothing without them.” The tree chuckled again, not unkindly.
“Oh, to be so young. Full of life, but blinded by fear. Those who shared your life loved you, Human. You are still what they loved. You have everything without them, just as you had it with them. You are a piece of eternity itself, and the pain you feel is part of that eternity. To seek Oblivion is to deny the very love you seek. Have you known pain in the past?” asked the tree. The Human thought of the time before knowing love and nodded.
“I was lonely and frightened for a long time before I met my love,” the Human answered. “Now that my family is gone, all I feel is that fear and pain, all the stronger this time, because I have known its absence.”
“So your pain was ended by love. Why do you think it will be different this time? Even if you do not return your family to you, love is not gone from the world. You still carry the love you felt for them and they for you. You can still find love in the world. Look around you. This is place of wonder and beauty. True, there is peril. And no small amount of pain, but that is so very much more than what awaits in Oblivion. Remember that. Mourning those who you have lost does them honor. Forgetting yourself does not. It denies their existence. After all, once you are gone, who will still love your family?”
The Human sat silent for a long moment, unable to answer that question. To enter Oblivion would be an end to pain, but to lose love, too? That seemed a great price. Tears streamed down the Human’s face.
“Thank you for your wisdom and kindness,” said the Human, looking up into the tree’s wizened face. “I had forgotten much when I came to this place, and you have helped me to remember. My love would scold me endlessly for my dark thoughts,” the Human laughed quietly. “If I lose myself, I lose all that is left of them. I shall still try to return them to me, but I won’t enter Oblivion if I am unable to bring them back to themselves.”
The tree reached several limbs down and scooped the Human up to eye level. It used a leaf to brush the tears from the Human’s cheeks. After searching the Human’s face for a moment, the tree broke into a wide smile.
“I see that you speak truly. The darkness I saw in you has receded. Be wary of its return. I shall keep my eye on you as you travel. Wherever one of my children stands, I will be there with you. If you need to remember your strength, just rest a bit with me, and I shall remind you.”
The Human gripped the nearest branch and squeezed tight.
“Thank you. I owe you much,” said the Human.

“Do not think of ‘owing’. I have merely reminded you of something you already knew. Kindness towards all things is the basis of happiness. I am merely showing kindness to the piece of myself I see in you and in all things.” The tree returned the Human to the ground at the spot where the trail left the clearing and stood tall once more. “Now, go see the Witch. My old friend the Tinker is correct, the Witch may well hold the secret to helping your family remember themselves. May light guide your way.” The tree bowed low again. The Human returned the gesture and then headed down the path towards the Witch.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 8

Note: No illustration on this chapter yet. The switch from the spring semester to the summer has thrown me off. I hope to have a more productive schedule soon.

The Human continued down the path, distracted and a bit disturbed. The water spirits had awoken something in the Human’s heart that had been long dormant. Temptation.

The Human thought back to a time before marriage and family. To a time when responsibilities were frightening and seemed to spell the end of freedom. Back then, the Human had been very scared. None of the proscribed paths had seemed right. Staying in the same small town forever, conforming to the roles set out had seemed both easy and terribly hard. When one is born one way, but expected to be something else, the conflict can be daunting. There had been one particular person in the village who had seemed to desire the Human. It was a hungry, possessive desire, but it had been preferable to the loneliness that had otherwise prevailed. Those around the Human had approved of this one. It had been tempting to go along with what was expected and to be desired, while not the same as being loved, was not so terrible, was it? Choosing loneliness had been terrifically hard. No one, not even the Human’s family, had understood why the Human had chosen to refuse that one. It had been the beginning of a slow pulling-away, the Human gradually withdrawing from society, and from its expectations. It had seemed the better option compared to continually disappointing the expectations of family and friends. The Human had not, at that time, understood why that life had not appealed. That understanding came later. As the Human spent more and more time alone and hidden from the world, still that one had persisted. And there was great temptation. To hide away in a mask that was pleasing to the eye. To appear to be what was expected and desired. To eventually, just maybe, to become something that could exist in the world safely and with acceptance. To leave behind one’s true self and die in order to live the life that one was meant for. That temptation had been so very strong. And now, an echo of it had returned. True, the water spirits would have likely devoured the Human, metaphorically if not literally, but it would be a pleasant end. Desired, even if not for one’s true self. And an end to pain and loneliness had its appeal. But that would mean abandoning love and the Human’s truest self. Neker and Nixe had each wanted one part of the Human’s nature, just as that one so long ago. Neither of them, nor that old suitor, could see the whole of the Human and love it for what it was. That required love. And the love that the Human had eventually found had been sweet and pure. The Human stopped in the middle of the path and turned to look at the darkening sky. This path had been so long, and so much time had passed. Were the Human’s love and family still ahead, or had they been swallowed by Oblivion? There was no way to tell. The Human took a deep breath and continued on.
After a time, the Human saw something ahead that seemed shockingly out of place. It was an old, battered cart, made of silvered wood worn smooth by time. It was at an awkward angle, with one rear wheel off the path and snagged on a tree’s root. The Human hadn’t seen anything human-made since leaving home so long ago. This cart seemed unusually solid, as well. It lacked the wispy aspect the Human’s house had had. Drawing closer, the Human saw that an old donkey was hitched to the cart, and the load the cart was carrying was a towering pile of miscellaneous objects. Pots and pans, candlesticks and irons, chairs of various styles, scroll cases, rolls of cloth, dolls and other toys were all stacked on on the other in a precarious pile that should have tumbled down at the slightest touch.
“Why hello there!” said a voice from behind the Human’s shoulder. The Human jumped, startled, and turned to face a wizened old man. His light brown face was deeply wrinkled in a pattern that spoke of many smiles.
“Oh! Hello Grandfather!” said the Human, hurriedly bowing. “I did not see you there. This is your cart, I assume?”
“Yes, it is! And it carries my livelihood. I travel place to place, repairing pots and pans, selling odds and ends, trading for interesting things and carrying news of far-flung lands. I am called Tinker, Trader, Wanderer, and Merchant. Grandfather is not a new name for me, and I find I like it, even if it is not entirely accurate,” the old man said, winking at the last with a conspiratorial nod. “So, why’re ye traveling this lonely road?”
“I am seeking my family. They passed from me and in my grief I followed them here. I hope to be reunited with them before they reach Oblivion.”
“Oblivion! Terrible place. Lousy business to be done there, no doubt. I think I saw yer family not too terribly long ago. I passed them and then, once I had gotten stuck, no thanks to my friend here,” the old man slapped the rump of the donkey, who ignored him, “they passed me in turn.”
“How long ago was this?” asked the Human, excitedly.
“Hmm. That there is a more complicated question than ye might know. Ye know where we are, don’cha?”
“The Faded Kindom, the Past,” answered the Human.
“Right, but do ye understand what that means?”
“This is where everything goes after its Moment has passed, at least that is what I was told.”
“Hm. Sounds like ye’ve been talking to that old Turtle, eh?” asked the man. The Human nodded. “Well, it’s not inaccurate, just incomplete. Ye see, the Past is both eternal and momentary. This,” he gestured to indicate the entire realm, “is both an instant and an eternity. Time doesn’t pass, and yet it passes constantly. How long have ye been walking?”
“I am unsure,” answered the Human. “It seems like a very long time, but I am not physically tired, nor am I hungry or thirsty. The sky has changed, but only by what would have been a few hours in the Present.”
“Ah, that’s the crux of it. Here, time is more like distance. Ye’ve been traveling further into the Past, as ye move towards Sunset. And yet, ye will never catch the sun, the light will fade as ye go. Where did ye enter this realm?”
“Near the Fae, if that helps. On the other side of the mountain from here, past the Turtle.”
“Ah, the Fae. Still holding ‘Court’, I assume? Blessed children,” the old man shook his head fondly. “So there, it was still fairly light, but here, it has become quite dim. Oblivion is the darkest black. So, what we have to figure is how fast yer family is traveling and how fast ye’ve been going as well…,” the old man stroked his beard thoughtfully. “How long before ye came here did yer family pass?”
“Two weeks,” answered the Human.
“Based on when they passed me, ye’re gaining on them, but not as fast as all that. Ye’ll catch them before they reach Oblivion, at this rate, but only just. Keep moving, and don’t give up. Ye’ll be in time. Now, it’s been awhile since I did any proper business. That lot,” he pointed back towards the river crossing, “only buy trinkets, when they buy at all. All they want to trade are songs. That one little green fella will do just about anything for a cucumber though,” the old man chuckled. “So, is there anything ye’d be wanting to trade? Name it, and I likely have it in my cart.”
“I have no money, though, sir,” said the Human. “I came here with nothing, and I have very little to trade.”
“Ah, but ye’re solid, and stronger than most around here. Perhaps ye can work for it! I haven’t been able to shift my cart back onto the path by myself, and if ye help me get on my way, that would be of great worth to me. I can’t earn a living standing still!”
“Well, since I don’t seem to need food or drink, and the weather never changes, I do not know what I could need,” began the Human.
“I know of something that may help ye regain yer family and avoid Oblivion,” said the old man. His voice had lost its jovial tone and was quiet and serious. The Human stood still, distrusting this sudden turn of luck.
“And all you want in exchange is to move your cart? That seems too cheap a price for so dear a prize.”
“Well, I don’t have the ability myself, ye see, but I know someone who will be able to help. It’s not far from here, and won’t put ye too far behind on reaching yer family.”
“It’s a deal, then,” said the Human.
After a good amount of straining and pushing, the two of them got the cart back on the road. The pile of goods swayed dangerously, but not a single thimble fell.
“Thank ye, my young friend,” said the old man as he climbed back into the seat at the front of the cart. “And now for my part of the bargain. Ye will see a trail leaving the side of this path up around that bend ahead. Follow it until ye find the Witch. The Witch knows a great many things about the Past, Present, and, yes, even the Future. If anyone knows how to help yer family, the Witch will. Good luck to ye, and ye have my blessing.” The old man gestured in the air and the Human felt a warmth all over. The old man shook the donkey’s reigns and the cart lurched into motion, the pile of good swaying rhythmically. It pulled ahead of the Human and rounded the curve ahead.

When the Human reached the curve, the cart was not to be seen, even though the path traveled straight for a long way. There was nowhere for it to have left the path, either, as the dense tree roots would block its path easily. The Human remembered tales of travelers who met old traders on the road, and, if they were polite and helpful, received a great blessing. Those old men were never quite what they seemed, and were sometimes even gods in disguise. Perhaps this had been such a man? In any case, the Human felt as if there had been time for a long rest, and the journey no longer seemed as daunting. Keeping an eye out for the trail the old man had mentioned, the Human set out with renewed energy. 

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 5

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

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

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 4

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

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

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

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