The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 5

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

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

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 3

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

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

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