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For weeks he wandered alone amongst the trees, living off the land; breathing and eating and sleeping, and searching. The birds overhead sang to him, but he spoke no reply. The creatures in the brush came uncomplaining to his traps, though he did not thank them. The tread of his scuffed old army boots and the sweeping of his stick said all that he had to say.
When he had sojourned long enough a path revealed itself to him. The mortal slung on his rucksack, scratched his new beard, and set upon the way.
Night had fallen by the time he came to the clearing where a tree of indeterminate species grew from the naked bedrock. The withered grey moon hung directly above it, so low that it seemed to be resting in the tree's highest branches.
The mortal negotiated the circumference of the tree. It was wider around than the terraced house in Southend that he had haunted in the years before he had taken to traveling.
Two more circuits revealed a small opening at the base of the tree, where the two roots had split the trunk around a spur of rock. He bent down and peered inside, but he could see only darkness. The mortal reached his hand towards the aperture, then hesitated. Instead, he poked it with his stick.
Something squealed inside the Tree of Indeterminate Species. The mortal jerked his hand away as it snatched the stick from his grasp. Another scream issued from the aperture, followed by a spray of woodshards. Then, there were no more sounds.
The mortal considered the aperture from a safe distance, suddenly glad that it was not bigger. He wiped his hands on his dirt-stained jeans, adjusted his rucksack, and looked for a low-hanging tree limb.
Thus, the mortal climbed the Tree of Indeterminate Species, moving up and around its knotted trunk until he was high in the canopy of the forest. By the time he could see through the foliage, the moon had rotated out of view. The rocky clearing below had filled with shadow. From his new vantage, it seemed as though he had climbed out of a well.
The sky looked flat, as though it had been skinned from the universe and drawn taut upon a wire frame. The stars shone unflickering and intense. The mortal did not recognise any of the fixed constellations, but the scenes they depicted were detailed and vivid.
At the top of the tree he discovered a new opening in the trunk. Inside was a golden slippery-dip, which twisted down into the darkness.
The mortal laughed. His voice rang clear, though he had not used it for weeks. He climbed onto the chute and gravity spiralled him down into the tree on the seat of his pants.
The Moon Above, the Star Below
The mortal was deposited into a vast, dark chamber. He picked himself up and fumbled open his rucksack for his SureFire torch. He swung the flashlight about, but it would not shine. The mortal put the SureFire away and instead struck a flame from a small, silver lighter.
The cavity inside the tree was far wider than the globe of illumination cast by the lighter's tiny flame. His boots clocking softly on the bare rock, he set forth in what he hoped was a straight line.
The mortal walked until he reached a rough-cut wall, wet with sap and ridged with capillaries. If he followed the tree-wall for long enough he would surely find an exit.
In minutes or hours or days he came to a breach in the tree-wall, where two roots had split the trunk around a spur of rock. Just inside the aperture lay the skeleton of a creature that was a bit like a sloth, or perhaps a badger. The badger-sloth's ribs had been stoved staved-in by some blunt instrument. There were shards of wood in its serrated jaws.
The mortal nudged the little corpse with his boot. He snapped shut his lighter and bent down and picked up the skull. He wrapped it carefully in an old t-shirt and put it in his rucksack.
When the mortal turned his back on the aperture, he found that he was unable to strike a new flame from his lighter, though there was still fluid in its reservoir. He tried it again and again, until even the flint refused to spark.
He put the lighter away and sat down with his back against the tree wall. His legs ached. His heart pained him. His eyes hurt, so he closed them. He was trapped; he would never escape. He would fall asleep, there inside the tree, and never awaken.
The mortal opened his eyes. He could see a blue-white radiance in the distance. He blinked hard, but it would not go away. The more he looked at it, the more it came to resemble a star. The star had five rounded points, like an asterisk.
The mortal set off towards it, and the asterisk retreated before him, leading him deep inside the tree. He rushed after it, but walk, run or stumble, he could not close the distance. His feet became entangled and he fell.
When the mortal picked himself up, the star had vanished. Ahead, he could see the breach in the side of the tree. The asterisk had led him in a circle.
The mortal sighed and trudged towards the aperture. It grew as he approached it, and, by the time he reached the gap, he found that it was large enough to let him pass. He ducked his head and eased through, pulling his rucksack after him.
The Spinning Compass
The mortal emerged into daylight. Grassy meadowlands sloped away in all directions. Close by was a river, blue and fast and clean. In the distance he could see a forest of bare, black-skinned trees.
This was not a real place; he knew that immediately. Here, every sensation felt more vibrant, more meaningful than those in the world from which he had come, but only because his senses were not acting in their proper accord. The air had a distinct flavour on his tongue, but he did not feel it in his nose. The horizon receded as he approached it, but the vanishing point seemed to vary in order to provide him with the most pleasing view.
The illusion of perspective operated across all of his senses, not to mention his reduced capacity to think logically. In this place he might sleep, but he would have no dreams.
The needle of his compass spun erratically in one direction, then the other. He snorted and put it away. The black forest seemed a dangerous place, but the river would surely lead to some kind of habitation. He set out towards it, rolling his shoulders and his neck as if to slough off the grimness of the real world, like a snake shedding an old skin. He had not bathed for days, but he felt cleansed and renewed.
This was the place he had sought and he felt lucky, if not blessed, to have found it.
Only three kinds of mortal were permitted entry into the Realms of the Faerie — lovers, poets, and madmen — and he was most certainly to be counted amongst their number. He, who sought the most beautiful thing in the world.
High in a Tower
Far away, on the perimeter of a Realm that had no borders, there stood a dark and jagged tower.
So dark was the tower that it stained the very skies it broached. So thick was the slime of evil coating its shaft that it left a residue upon the eyes of any who looked upon it.
The tower had not been built from stone and wood and mortar. It had been cast whole from rune and ritual and will ... and the magus who had willed it dwelled there yet.
The magus sat in the top room with his back to the window, his shadow upon the tomes and scrolls spread open before him. After a time, he looked up from his texts. The magus rose and went to his instruments.
Symbols flashed across his scrying mirror, written in an alphabet that no other wiseman might recognise. Patterns that no other seer might discern were revealed to him when he shook the pan of divining bones.
The magus shed his robes and donned instead the vestments he had worn in the days before he had raised the tower. He gathered to him weapons he had not borne for innumerable years, and smiled a smile his lips had not borne for longer still.
Another of his kind had come to the Realms, and it would be impolite not to welcome him properly.
At twilight, the mortal made camp on the western bank of the river. He had nothing left to eat, but he was too tired to hunt or forage, so he retired without supper. He rested until dawn, though he did not sleep. He was no longer hungry when he broke camp.
At noon, he came upon a village: threescore low buildings, crouched in a valley that the river had cut between two small hills. Some of the dwellings were round and some were angular; some were flat-roofed and some were thatched. Some were made of stone, some of mud. Others were constructed of wood or iron or glass. None of the buildings were aligned the same way. There did not appear to be any roads running amongst them, besides the main thoroughfare.
It was a market day, and the single avenue was lined with carts and stalls and tents. Bright-dyed fabrics and colourfully painted signs declared the vendors and their goods in dozens of languages, few of which were familiar to the mortal.
The village folk were generally shorter and slighter than the mortal's kind, though some were broader and taller than any man. Some were gnarled and deformed, others were straight-backed and handsome. Some had furry hides, while others were knobbed or silken or glassy. The villagers' dress was as varied as their skins — if they wore clothing at all.
The mortal felt strange as he walked amongst the folk, ungainly in size and uncouth in his manufactured clothing. This did not discourage merchants from propositioning him everywhere he went, in his own language and in many others. They offered him jewels and refreshments and spells and weapons, animals and fortunes and maps. The mortal only smiled, and shook his head, and kept on walking. He knew that anything purchased in the open marketplace was likely to be ephemeral ... and if it was not, it was probably cursed. Any price he agreed to would be far dearer than the one he thought to pay.
But one merchant was not easily dissuaded. It scurried about the mortal, tugging at his garments; wheedling and whining and imploring him to stop. When it became clear that the merchant would rather be trampled to death than allow him to proceed unhindered, the mortal acquiesced.
The merchant was a slight creature, dressed in robes of blue and green silk. Gold sparkled at its neck and upon its wrists. Its face was long and fine-boned; its ears were pointed; its eyes were narrow. The merchant's left hand was made from steel-sprung glass.
"Anything you desire, sirrah," said the merchant. Its breath smelled of cinnamon and sulphur. "I can give you anything, an you meet my price."
Most of the wares in the merchant's stall were sealed in small containers inscribed with arcane script. A mangy white terrier with faint brown markings was tethered to a cabinet. A lustrously plumed black falcon was chained to the awning.
"If you can provide me with anything I could name," the mortal replied, "what need have you for my price?"
The merchant bobbed its head. "There are prices that you alone can pay. There are things of value that cannot be taken unless they are first given."
"I have nothing of worth."
"You are wrong, sirrah," said the merchant. "You have power."
He shook his head. "I'm no sorcerer."
"Not all magic is sorcery," said the merchant. "But all power is magic."
"Perhaps that's true," the mortal replied, "But it has the ring of nonsense to my ear. In any case, if I could purchase what I desire, I would no longer desire it."
"Name a thing you would have and I will find a way to make you a deal. I swear it."
"Alright." The mortal replied slowly, having formulated a bargain to which the merchant could not possibly agree. "I want everything that you possess. In exchange, you must accept nothing more than the words I have spoken."
A pallor spread across the merchant's face and it collapsed at the mortal's feet. Among the possessions he had forced the merchant to relinquish was its immortal life.
The glamour the merchant had laid upon his stall shimmered away, and his wares were rendered true for the mortal to see: bottles of withered flowers; shards of stone wrapped in twine; empty jars made of cracked, unvarnished clay. The fabrics adorning the stall were stained and patched. The robe the merchant wore was threadbare and ragged.
The marketplace fell silent. A hundred pairs of eyes turned upon the mortal: slitted or goggled, coloured or blank, rheumy or sharp. The terrier growled. The falcon hopped and swayed on its perch.
The mortal raised his hands. "I didn't know," he said. "I didn't mean it."
One by one, the merchants and patrons returned to their business or pleasure, though a sense of unease lingered.
The glass hand was all that remained of the merchant, lying quiescent amongst the pile of ragged clothing. Its fingers twitched on their springs when the mortal picked it up. He wrapped it in another t-shirt and put it in his rucksack.
"Sir," said a coarse voice. The speaker was a muscular, two-legged being that stood tethered to the stall in place of the terrier. It had a wet, upturned nose, dark eyes, and a lipless mouth that was filled with a carnivore's teeth. The dog-man was shorter than the mortal, though it was bulkier. It was dressed in the uncured hides of some fair-skinned, hairless beast. A dagger hung from its belt and a cutlass was secured to its back.
"Sir," said the dog-man, allowing the falcon to hop onto its arm, "We were bound in servitude to the merchant, who is no more. Now we are bound to you."
The falcon screeched its assent.
"No," the mortal replied. "Now you're free."
The falcon hopped from foot to foot and screeched again. The dog-man inclined its head, listened, nodded. Still grinning, it said, "My comrade begs you to lift the enchantment binding it to its present form."
The mortal frowned at the dog-man. "How is it that your enchantment is broken, yet the falcon's is not?"
"Mine is no enchantment," said the dogman. "I am a shape-shifter."
The mortal shook his head and looked away. "I have not the means," he said. "I'm no sorcerer."
"Then we shall trouble you no more." The dog-man set about freeing itself from its tether with its dagger. The falcon fluttered its wings uselessly and cried its pain.
The mortal spied a plain stone building in a laneway that was barely visible from the main thoroughfare. He could not read the sign that hung above it, but the door was open and it had the look of the kind of place he sought, so he went inside.
The dry goods store smelled variously of damp earth and treated wood and metal polish, but, the mortal noticed, the odours did not comingle. All manner of ordinary items crowded the shelves, hung from the ceiling, or were stacked upon the floor: oil-lamps, ropes, axes, cook-pots, and of course, dry goods.
The storekeeper was grey-haired and straight-backed, with eyebrows that grew into its sideburns. It wore trousers, a loose white shirt, a leather waistcoat, and pincenez spectacles.
"I need some things," the mortal said.
"Name them, and I will name the price," the storekeeper replied. Its voice was smooth and without accent.
"I have only the currency of the mortal realm."
"Good," said the storekeeper. "Then I know your coin is true."
The mortal bought a length of rope, tent pegs, soap, a straight razor, a whetstone, a flint, candles and some dried meat that the storekeeper told him was goat. He paid fourteen pounds sterling for the goods. The storekeeper accepted notes as well as coins.
"What do you seek here?" it asked, when the transaction was done.
"I have everything I need, thank you."
"Here in the Realms of the Land."
The mortal considered the storekeeper again. Seeing no harm in the telling, he said: "I seek the most beautiful thing in the world."
"Aye, indeed? Can you identify this object?"
"She is the Queen of the Faerie."
"Which Queen would that be?"
"The Queen of the Faerie," the mortal repeated. He had not expected scepticism from a creature of the Realms.
"There are many Realms in this Land," said the storekeeper. "And many Queens. Can you name the one you seek?"
"The only name I know is Titania."
The storekeeper shook its head. "I have not heard of that one."
The mortal gave it some thought. "If there are many Queens, which among them is known to be the fairest?"
The storekeeper shrugged. "Opinions differ. The judgment must be yours to make."
"Fair enough," said the mortal, and quit the store.
Excerpted from "Faerie Apocalypse"
Copyright © 2018 Jason Franks.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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