It is important to note that the translucent being’s full name was “Chaim, The Spirit of the Lonely Hollows”. On his wolfish face was a maudlin mixture of vague melancholy and unfettered boredom. His claws seemed chewed down to nubs (as a human might chew his own fingernails out of anxiety), and his overall look seemed as one older than his age (which was already impossible to guess), especially due to his haggard expression. He carried with him a long, sturdy shepherd’s hook; suspended from the curve was a large, swinging paper lantern, much in the style of the orient. The spirits first words, when seeing the towering, gaunt, bearded figure, dressed in animal skins, were stark.
“Don’t Hurt me! I’ve got so much to give!”
Now Petka Fawcett was an amiable chap by all accounts, and offered a hand of friendship to the strange being who attempted to do likewise, only to have an icy, wintry chill shoot up Petka’s arm as the spirit’s hand passed through his own,causing him to shudder involuntarily.
“Very sorry Mr…” trailed off the spirit’s shaky voice.
“Petka A. Fawcett. Please to meet you, good sir. And your name?”
“Gods, been a while since anybody asked me that! Sorry, sorry- please call me Chaim- like Hi-Em, but the first syllable comes from the back of the throat.”
“A pleasure Chaim.”
The moon, hanging low in the sky seemed to eye them suspiciously, as if that great white rock, in addition to his tidal duties had somehow failed in allowing the chance meeting of the mortal and immortal. But aside from the lunar stink eye (really a crater from a comet-collision somewhere in time out of mind), it provided a brilliant white light, tinged with the softest blue, which illuminated the little clearing where the two stood, making their simple greeting. Honestly, the clearing itself was very much a boon to Petka, as it seemed he would be able to sleep under the stars instead of the creaking boughs of many trees– and he had met a singular new friend to boot.
“Come, come…” trailed off Chaim, worrying at some loose thread in his careworn robe; he led Petka to the middle of the clearing, and sat upon a stump that seemed made for the purpose. He planted his staff in the dirt, allowing the eerie yellow glow of his firefly-lit lamp to add a certain otherworldly lux to their surroundings. After doing so, the spirit wrapped his lanky arms around his thin frame and shivered slightly.
“Cold?” asked Petka, “I have an extra fur, should you need it.”
“Oh, I appreciate it, truly I do Petka, but it would likely fall right through me- I’m incorporeal, so so physical things just don’t stay put. I can really only physically touch things that are on the same plane as me, though, and to quote the rules, ‘this regulation is subject to change at the pleasure of the reigning higher authority without notice’”.
“If I may ask a question…,” said Petka uncertainly, as he was unsure of how to address a Spirit of the Lonely Hollows, “How is it then that you are cold? Being incorporeal that is.”
The spirit gave a little laugh.
“It seems, Mr. Petka A. Fawcett, that the gods have determined that I have too much joy in my life.”
There was a brief, though no less awkward silence, where Petka waited for some elaboration, but was greeted only by a non-sequitur.
“Gods, I’m bored,” said Chaim with a deep sigh.
“Would you like play cards? I have-” Petka began, sympathetically, though his words were cut off almost immediately after being spoken– the ghostly Chaim stood up, cursed, and began to kick over little stone piles, booting small rocks to and fro. From the recently demolished rocky mounds emerged little human-ish creatures about three inches tall, all sporting red hats, blue shirts, black boots, and white beards. Even their cheeks were rosy, and each sported a reddish-purple gin-nose- in fact, if not for the circular, sharp-toothed lamprey’s mouth and grasping, prehensile tongue, one might have mistaken them for some sort of fairy folk or mischievous gnome– but the wide, lunatic eyes and sucking shrieks they made when disturbed conveyed a distinctly malign intent, especially when one held by Chaim hissed and spit and clawed at Petka who was already a good foot out of reach, and was even still slowly backing away.
“Wearing high boots, huntsman?” asked Chaim as he roughly stomped the little, hissing creatures with his feet, which each exploded in a shower of viscous green goo mixed with little hats and trousers. Helium oaths and curses filled the little clearing as Chaim continued his mad gnome eradication dance.
“These little freaks bite hard and suck your blood; if you’re especially unlucky, dead, or both, then eat up your flesh, if you’ve got any! I don’t, but they still try, and the bites sting like a bastard- Like bastard!”
When the ruckus was over, and the long chorus of howling obscenities had ceased to fill the air (which then grew uneasily silent), Chaim was attempting to wipe the green muck from his feet on an unsoiled patch of dirt.
“Apologies for the outburst,” said Chaim, emitting a long, weighted sigh, “They’re actually a species of burrowing rodent- like a menacing vole in a gnome costume. Bloody hell.”
“Well, perhaps I ought to leave you to it, Sir spirit. A good road to you.”
And with, Petka tipped his tri-cornered, eagle-feathered cap, shouldered his massive bow and pack, and began to leave the moonlit clearing, passing by a gnarled (and staring?) oak.
“Wait! Human! I mean Petka!” shouted Chaim in a near panic, “Come now, stay a while. I mean, how often does a human meet a gen-u-ine Spirit of the Lonely Hollows? Have a sit, and let’s chat- I’m full of all manner of strange, and allegedly true stories from the darkest corners of the earth. Oh, and yes, I can tell you are wondering about the green sheen my feet have taken on. You see, I can stomp on those singularly disgusting creatures, but don’t have anything to actually wipe off their fetid blood with. Egg on my face! It has to evaporate, or be washed by the rains or in streams.”
“Well, this is something!” said Petka, barely able to contain his excitement, “So what causes you to linger in such a lonely place? What other creatures inhabit the forest? Are there creatures of Faye? Wood Apes? Mermaids in the streams?!”
“Petka, good sir, one question at a time! But I do appreciate your enthusiasm. Hardly anybody comes out to see me anymore. I suppose I should start from the start… um, the beginning that is.
“Many thousands of years ago, there were these, so called, ‘old gods’ and, of course, as the ancient legends say, they now lie sleeping somewhere. As humankind- that is to say, humans of your generation and, um… model– expanded their villages further into the woods, and their faith turned to a more centralized and divine divinity, the old gods, well, “shrugged off” humankind and went to sleep- usually under a mountain, or in some deep river; perhaps at the bottom of the sea.
“Now, make no mistake- and it bears repeated- these ‘gods’ are not divine in the true sense of the word. They are just bigger, stronger, and older than most everything else, and can die if enough pointy things are stuck in them and cause them to bleed. Nevertheless, by whatever power, they can create life- or at least spark its creation- to an extent. If a god is killed, the leftover worshipers- in whatever form they took, would either move on to a different god, or worship the dead one.”
“In the olden days- heavens, it seems like a millennium ago- spirits like me were basically created by one of these so called little gods, though we didn’t have the luxury to disappear or go to sleep, so here I am. I still walk the old paths, hoping to run into somebody who can actually see me. And, full disclosure, even though I’ve been around for over two millennia, I know a lot as I was no more than a tour guide, or more accurately a Pilgrim Education Engineer and Walkabout Safety Officer- but had and continue to have no actual authority.”
“Still, Sounds impressive,” mused Fawcett, sipping on a hot mug of over-sweet coffee.
“Oh, it’s just a title. A greatly exaggerated one at that- I think, put in place by some semi-divine Human Resources Department to make us wandering spirits really feel like an associate or team member or some other nonsense. But enough about my so called ‘career’. Now I believe you asked about wood apes?”
“Yes!” replied Petka, leaning closer to the fire with bursting curiosity.
“Well to start, you humans see what you want to, even if that ends up being nothing at all. Those wood apes live in the trees, but to humans they- how do I say- wear the hats of birds- sparrows, cardinals, magpies- you name it. That’s how humans see them. In truth, the dirty thieves will nick anything that isn’t tied to your person, and you’d never even notice that it was lost until it was long gone.”
* * * * *
Genevieve read on through some rather humdrum, though mildly interesting conversation, which continued for some time, though It seemed (at least according to Petka’s notes), as if no time had actually passed in the clearing, or rather it moved very sluggishly– the moon and its white-tinged-light with its blueish glow still hung obstinately in the sky, along with its entourage of twinkling stars of varying intensity, none of which ( and Petka made clear to note) ever actually seemed to take the shape of well-known constellation. Absent, it seemed, were Ursas Major and Minor, Orion’s belt was nowhere to be found, and Andromeda had apparently been released from her chains to pursue a career in perhaps cosmetology or find worl as a certified nursing assistant. No, instead were far less believable constellations (at least to Petka’s untrained eyes- he was no astronomer), and he noted star shapes such as “The Badlands Chili-Dog”, the unimaginative, “Man with Hat” and (as he swore up and down), a near perfect recreation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
Additionally, it seemed, that his meager fire needed no poking, nor prodding, nor additional kindling to maintain its meager light and warmth. It was as if they were in a moment stretched for infinite in front of and behind them, welcoming them to fill it with whatever conversation they might until time resumed its usual duties, and marched inexorably forward. And eventually, as any conversation between a mortal man, and a Spirit of the Lonely Hollows is wont to do, the conversation turned to things such as lost cities and hidden treasures.
* * * * *
“Sure, sure,” said Chaim in response to Petka’s question regarding the fantastic lost things that must have existed in the woods, “The mountains are full of coal and ore, and gems, maybe a vein of gold or two- but things like that are not hidden per se, but rather they are just not found yet. There is one interesting “trinket” in the immortal wood- it’s, well, a crown of sorts, leftover when the woods were less woody, and more… a number of city-states and advanced civilizations. I’m sure stories have reached your human settlements, as every now and then I trip over the gnome-gnawed bones of one of your compeers.”
“The Crown of fools? At least that’s how its known to us,” interjected Petka.
“As good a name as any,” replied Chaim with a yawn, “I’ve seen cities at their peak; I’ve seen them crumble to decadence and decay; I’ve seen their ruins as the forest took the land back- the forest always takes the land back.”
After another sip of sweet, black coffee, Petka spoke as he added another lump of sugar.
“So, what were the natures of these cities, these civilizations?”
“Hmm. The Red Kingdom was one example. Well, they- like all mortals- reached a point where the world and all its wonders became…blasé. They turned their backs on anything even approaching morality, fell into a self-destructive combination of decadence and blasphemy, and sought to resurrect some god, yadda yadda yadda. Anyway, in their mystic fumblings, they awoke a particularly crotchety old god who was sleeping underneath a large lake, and he was none too pleased with being disturbed, let me tell you. Anyway, the armies of the awakened sleeping god were bigger than the army those of the Red City, and the whole of mankind of that era was promptly subjugated.
“Things went OK for a while- heavens! It was one of the times I was really in my prime! I led pilgrims and the like through the forest, pointing out various obelisks and holy sites, embellishing them to the greatest degree, of course. But, as all gods inevitably do, this squirrel-looking-sea-monster god-thing got bored, shrugged, and went back to sleep… And time eventually crumbled the city’s Red bones to dust. The people scattered, and the forest took the land back. And that’s just one example. This world has been around for a long time and there were a lot of different so called ‘magical’ kingdoms- but they operated in a cycle- in fact, I only know of one that managed to beat the cycle- how? I believe it’s because they had the good sense to stay hidden, and not prod sleeping semi-divinities into subjugating them.”
“So this is where the crown of fools comes in?” asked Petka, almost instinctively touching the crown of his own head.
“Exactly,” replied Chaim, extending his clawed paw-hands towards the fire. “Not far from here, there is a valley filled with low-flying clouds- to look upon it would reveal nothing special- just a ‘V’ in the earth with drapes of water vapor. But, legend says that if one were to pass a certain number of tests, they would find the crown which would show them to the kingdom, and allow them to claim the throne- King of a hidden Kingdom, the alabaster white castle accented with blues and golds, and with a queen in waiting. She’s quite a hottie too- err, um, that is to say, she’s quite comely, or so I’ve heard.
“Now I know there is a city, and there is a crown, but time tends to warp tales- for all I know, they could be looking for a royal busboy, or someone to manually relieve their racing giraffes.”
Petka shuddered at the thought.
“Now, now, it might not be so bad as all that. They also might be looking for a fool. Or a jester. Oh, I’d make an excellent jester! Oh, don’t look so down Petka Fawcett, I’m sure that’s not so.”
“A jester? Come now Chaim, you’re better than that,” and with this, Petka attempted to pat the spirit on the shoulder, only to have his hand sink once again into a freezing, ghostly mist.
“You are a kind man, Mr. Fawcett, and your words are appreciated. Say, have you ever had a bottle of piss thrown at you? No? All the better for you. The gnomes do it all the time. It’s demoralizing, to say the least. And, of course, because they are on the same “plane”- that is to say, the aetheric one- the one encompassing all beings arcane, incorporeal, semi-divine, and fantasy, as I am, it soaks me. Who throws a bottle of piss? It’s just not something one does!”
The normally calm Chaim raised his voice to a fevered pitch, so offended (and justifiably so) was he.
“Agreed,” replied Fawcett, refilling his coffee, “That is hardly the hallmark of a noble creature.”
“Anyway,” sighed Chaim, “Back to the crown. Once can’t simply saunter into the woods, pick up a mystically hidden object, and become king of anything, let alone an ancient land of magic, derring-do and adventure- there are steps.”
“OK, great! What are they?” asked Fawcett, pen at the ready.
“Well, they are called ‘Peace Cries’. Little versus or whispers you can speak to make the hidden appear- disguises dismissed- and the forest will, albeit grudgingly, obey to some extent, giving you a chance to pass onto the trials, instead of simply eating you whole. There are, my friend, seven steps in all. Some are poems, some are riddles, one requires sleep…I’ve a little book of Ivory and Leaves that describes the first six, but not the seventh- the last one, of course, is how to access the crown itself. But hey! You’re a bright chap! I’m sure you will figure it out, and not plummet to your death- you see, the crown is just out of reach, perched seemingly in the air. You wouldn’t believe how many people, having evidently conquered the first six steps, believe they can just walk on air and grab the crown. No. That’s not how it works. Could they walk on air in their world? No! So why in the name of the blithering idiot god Gokyixxl would they be able to do so now!?”
“Take it easy man, I know I can’t fly,” Petka was a little taken aback by this sudden passion, and so he nodded in agreement vigorously.
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just a shame, is all. Anyway, before I reveal the six known steps, you’ll need to know a specific call- it’s been passed down among human hunters for generations, but like all traditions fantastic, it was ‘misplaced’. It is known as the whistle of the wolf.”
“Oh! I know that one!” said Petka eagerly.
“You know that one.” Echoed Chaim flatly, as if resentful of his loss of an opportunity to teach.
“I do! My Gran’dad taught it to me. Hold on.”
At this, Petka made a peculiar, wending whistle; less than a minute later, a five foot long 150 pound grey wolf with streaks of white, and a singularly pink nose burst through the brush, and launched herself like a missile at Petka, living ball of play-bites and licks.
“This is Raksha,” said Peter, rubbing the belly of the great beast. Raksha looked at the perplexed Chaim, growled, and bared her teeth.
“Be nice, Raksha- I’m watching you,” said Petka gently, to which Raksha replied by licking his palm by way of apology, though her narrowed dark eyes remained on Chaim.
“Ooookayyy,” said Chaim, “So your best friend is a wolf?”
“Hey, we share and share alike. A better hunter or tracker you couldn’t ask for,” said Petka, now feeding the enormous wolf some jerky.
“Well then,” said Chaim trembling slightly in the unblinking, scrutinizing stare of Raksha, “I guess I can teach you the first six peace cries. Pencil ready? Okay, take notes. listen carefully now- I’ll not repeat myself! Ah, who am I kidding, where in Tartarus am I going? Okay, here we go.”
And so, Chaim, in that seemingly endless midnight hour, began to read from his book of ivory and leaves, and Petka took as detailed notes as possible while Raksha slept by the fire and the occasional shooting star left a golden streak in the sky above, no doubt arousing the ire of the enormous, jealous moon.