The town of Yokhein started as a somewhat tenacious settlement carved out of the woods. The humble hamlet did boast a small main street with several businesses and (despite being just shy of coal-country) made a decent living and were relatively self-sufficient between farming, gardening, and hunting. However well the citizens fared, left to their own devices, the town was primarily built around (and named after) the summer mansion of Hethious Yokhein, who was (of all things) a mad (that is to say insane) button magnate. His button business had boomed for several generations, but the third of the Yokhein line was a bit touched in the head- some say it was a curse from a rival zipper concern, but it was likely the Yokhein’s propensity for second cousin-incest as to “preserve the bloodline”, much in the same way as the kingdoms of old. They fared relatively well until the birth of Hethious who was pants-on-head crazy– a veritable cesspool of madness showing all the features of known madnesses and included a few strains of madness that seemed to exclusive to Hethious’ moldering brain. The man was completely harmless, as he seemed to be perpetually locked in a battle of wills against buttons, of whom he was greatly mistrustful.
“Too many eyes,” he would mutter bitterly of his products, scrutinizing each carefully as if fully expecting one to blink.
The old Yokhein mansion was originally perched on a sun-blessed hill, surrounded by a pristine wood; a small, well maintained, winding stone path, wide enough to accommodate the horse-carts of dignitaries, led to towering home a small lanterns on either side of the path bit back the darkness. It was said that prior to his more absurd and public shows of clownish lunacy, he held many elegant balls and masquerades, inviting only the cream of the “aristocracy” that a backwater, hodunk town could offer among the simple cobblers and rough and tumble woodsman. There were about four such “aristocrats” and they all wore sixteen-button gloves. Their names have been forgotten by history, which is all the better for history, as these people, labored under the narcissistic notion that they were somehow better than the others because of their ostentatious mode of dress and the fact that they kept company with a wealthy, but well-known madman. But enough of faux-royalty, as there are plenty examples in our modern world (such as the modern day “suck up” or “brown-noser”, the term having originated from early Victorian times and involved a ritual quite as literal as you would care to imagine).
In any event, time and progress, as they are want to do, continued to clear out the woods and the rough settlement grew into a quaint little village, with both straight and winding stone streets that would take one to a simple inn or pub -Yokhein was really what any of us would call a picturesque town- farmers farmed and brought their produce to the vast open air market; cobblers cobbled, and Marsden Molino, the bartender of the village’s watering hole, served glass after glass of beer, pausing only to polish a glass enough to lend sufficient plausible deniability to the fact that it had been washed. A regular slice of Americana was Yokhein, and the people were generally happy and in the end, it was good, old fashioned sweat-equity that turned Yokhein into the successful village it had become.
Once a proper town, the old Yokhein mansion, which had been long abandoned, was promptly renovated and used as the Mayor’s home, the city hall, courthouse, and post office. If there were any ghosts in the creepy, ever-creaking mansion, they were surprisingly mum- though, some of the more inebriated guests who stayed overnight at the mansion would swear that they could see the faint, transparent figure of Sir Yokhein himself, playing an eternal game of “who blinks first” with a particularly large and (as ascribed by the late Sir Yokhein) truly malicious button, as indeed all buttons were- and if given the chance, would drag one to the hellish depths of true depravity. In any event, the sad specter would sit immobile, under the light of a waning moon, engaged in an eternal battle- why, it was nearly the perfect example of an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object, what with ghosts not needing to blink, and buttons being unable to do so. But I have wandered away from my story, and left you, perhaps, with the idea that buttons are malicious, bloodthirsty fiends, merely biding their time since their inception. I’m not saying this isn’t true, and one can never be too careful, I suppose.
Yokhein was primarily farming village, but they also relied on a small band of huntsman who would venture into the woods to bring back game- deer, turkey, wild hog- to supplement the diets of the hard working men and woman of the little berg. These huntsmen were well respected, and often, when venturing into the virgin wood, brought back stories of the fantastic and incredible; stories just bizarre enough to be true. The tales ranged from peaceful, if not overly curious, wood-apes, to tree-monsters; wolf-men often made their menagerie, and a tiny, mushroom village of sentient pugs who rode cassowary into battle against upright and sentient pigs left many at Marsden’s pub drunk on fantasy as well as whiskey and ale.
“War is hell– I’s seen it,” would muse a stoic huntsman by the name of Yeller McGuilicuddy, “But to the enterprising huntsman, it results in a lot of salt- pork- with enough left over to fashion socks that I’m…not…presently wearing..” And whether the story of a mushroom village of sentient, ever-warring pugs was true or not, Yeller did seem to always bring in the most amount of pork– though there was no reason to assume the snorting porcine beasts had any sort of preternatural intelligence; further, one hoped that in consuming some of Yeller’s catch that they were not consuming a thinking being.
But wild, cryptic, and sentient flora and fauna aside, there were always tales of grand, hidden kingdoms in the woods about Yokhein; there allegedly existed a Kingdom that lay in a mist-veiled valley, invisible to human eyes unless one went through several trials, as described in a book of ivory and leaves which had long been long lost to the ages. Perhaps the tome was hidden in the hollow of a tree, or it lay dust covered, in a village full of sentient pugs… or perhaps one of the wood-apes knew of existence- and insofar as none of the aforementioned wonders of the wood could be actually verified by persons other that the huntsman who dared travel into the dangerous wood, it was bumped down to the realm of folklore and fantasy.
The story- however unbelievable- said that at the end of said trials was a crown, and that upon donning it, one would be able to see the kingdom, causally saunter in, and marry the beautiful but widowed queen, and thereafter reap all the rewards of royalty and living a life in a hidden, breathtaking kingdom of white alabaster accented with gold; of strange stony temples dedicated to even stranger gods, and of course the pure wonderment of basking in the fantastic rather than merely enduring the prosaic. The crown earned the moniker “The Crown of Fools”, as anybody (huntsman or no) who pursued it inevitably vanished. One huntsman was even was said to have been shackled in the linen fetters of marriage with a gentle wood ape and never returned– the rest were said to be messily devoured by lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), and while the latter was certainly true, the townsfolk certainly couldn’t discount the former.
The physical description of the Crown itself varied, depending on who you would ask. Doctor Martineaux, who, while a staunch man of science (but not so prosy as to completely disregard the fantastic) believed the “crown” would be woven of clover and twigs, much like a bird’s nest and (he would add) feasibly would contain one to three birds. The town fool Barnabus Smithy believed that the crown glinted with gold and was speckled with stones most precious and would frequently ask (as if oblivious to its status as pure folklore) where to “git one”.
Despite the description of that fantasy kingdom and its crown, its location was considered by all to be in the darkest parts of the forest primeval, far beyond where any huntsman ever wanted to, or in fact needed to go to get a good hall of fresh meat. The town itself had carved out of the woods in the shadow of the old Yokhein place– and when nature is whispering at your back door, she tends to impart one with an eerie sense of foreboding, as if one weren’t quite alone, and that the forest itself looked upon its human intruders with a mix of suspicion and awe.
Nature, as a rule, did not give up secrets or captives easily, so most of the working folk kept a wide birth from entering the woods beyond where they could see the gabled peaks of the Yokhein mansion, as a way to get back to civilization with their haul of berries or medicinal herbs and roots. The crown then seemed to serve no more purpose then as a warning for children not to stray too far from well-trod paths, and certainly never to go to forbidden places in search of forbidden things- for even the most fabulous riches are worth naught to the fool who died in vain pursuit of them. Our story, like most pieces of folklore and legend, did seem to the Mayor to have elements of truth in it, despite its rather fantastic arc and the delivery of its chronicle by a bitter buzzard.
Long after Old Mister Yokhein had passed to his peculiar purgatory, Mayor Fontaine- a jolly, paunchy chap- had employed several huntsmen- the chief huntsman was a man named Petka Ambrose Fawcett, who was singular among even the most competent of his peers. Fawcett would disappear into the foreboding forest and reach the darkest corners, noting topology, geography, and hand-drawing maps that showed the best places to hunt, gather, and fish. He was filling in the dark spots which had previously only been represented by drawings of trees, monsters, and over-amorous ape-men.
After one particularly long excursion into the endless sea of trees, he returned and left a note for Mayor Fontaine, saying that he had befriended a “Spirit of the Lonely Hollows” who had, “shown him many secrets of the forest, and its unknown denizens, and who could guide him close to the “Crown of Fools” that when worn supposedly would dispel all illusions, and it naturally followed (though Fawcett did not include it in his note) that the wearer would see the gold-accented alabaster kingdom with walls of brass, replete with knights and a beautiful, but widowed queen of indescribable beauty; a creature of fay who would reward the intrepid seeker with Kingship and a love eternal. The finder would rule over an unseen piece of paradise, and trade exotic metals and spices with the worlds of dream, taking great airships to a Coral Kingdom perched on the edge of a warm, tropical sea in the firmament and even further to the cold, stone kingdom on the surface of the moon, populated by a race of rocky creatures, top-hatted and monocled, who fed on the even stranger creatures that could also survive such an inhospitable place- you know, that old chestnut.
After leaving this note to Mayor Fontaine, Petka gathered provisions for his long trip. He was a tall man, in his thirties, with a beard that went down to his stomach. Thin and lanky, Petka Fawcett was roughly six foot in height; he had dark brown eyes and a long, pointed nose, reddish cheeks (a blush, inspired perhaps by his shyness in civilization in general), long arms and legs, and an aura of fierce determination. People found him to be kind but reserved, and perfectly polite to all he encountered– the strange man with his leather pack, bedroll, and six-foot long bow, would always nod and offer an affable smile, talking in his counter-intuitively high pitched voice. People, observing his size might have expected a baritone, but were greeted by a friendly, high tenor.
After obtaining provisions he ventured back into the woods, never to be seen by the eyes of those of Yokhein again, and though a thorough search was performed, the Huntsman had covered his tracks to well too be found– indeed, the last line of his note was rather foreboding, reading:
“Let nobody, please, attempt to follow- for if I cannot succeed, then it is truly a crown of fools.”
Not less than a week later, the cranky carrion bird dropped the aged journals on the head of the sleepy Mayor, who then read over them rather quickly. And though the Mayor, in his reading of the exploits could hardly believe the tale, he kept the journals for posterity, allowing it to collect dust in a drawer until a far off relation came to claim whatever was left of Petka’s estate. There was not much- a modest sum of money, various trophies of his time among the outer-wilds, and of course, that timeworn stack of journals, nearly forgotten.
The story contained within the pages was bizarre, full of anachronisms, and the timing hardly seemed reasonable. But within its own narrative, Petka took great pains to explain why time had been so lax in its responsibilities. And with that, let us proceed directly to the story proper.
The tale that follows is that of Petka Ambrose Fawcett– woodsman, adventurer, and missing person. The notebooks would eventually make it to his great times seven niece, a Genevieve Spotter-Flash who would read the fragile paper with a mix of awe and disbelief- but don’t the best stories inspire such feelings, especially when rumored to be true? What she would read was a totally unbelievable, yet meticulously kept series of diaries that proclaimed the most fantastic aspects of fantasy to be true- and indeed, there were a few kernels of fact- her seven-times-great uncle had wandered into the woods, never to be seen again, there was a letter to the Mayor, and finally, the diaries themselves seemed to radiate a strange sort of aura- one saturated in either great imagination or perhaps an energy and aura entirely singular, drawn from the most obscure corners of the earth. Only by reading them could Genevieve fully understand the mystery. The morning was new, the sun had just peeked orange over the horizon, and she had nothing but time– she started reading immediately, belief- for now- suspended.
The first few chapters were normal enough (at least for a woodsman)- he had noted specific streams and their sources, the boundaries between the safe and the unknown– her seven-times great uncle, in fact, seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of the forest almost as if it were a living, conscious being– as if he had reached an uncomfortable treatise with her Arbor Highness. He took the utmost care in leaving as little trace as he possible, building only small, stony cairns where his campfire once warmed his sleeping form, and kept a modest light that encapsulated him against the darkness– the only sign that he had passed in that particular part of the forest.
To Genevieve’s surprise and quite out of nowhere, his story takes a turn for the strange when one night his seven-times-great uncle’s nocturnal wanderings had led him down some unfamiliar paths; he had paused in a clearing under the light of a full moon. Here was the first mention of “Peace Cries” which, according to the evaporated Mr. Fawcett, were key in unlocking the secrets the forest so jealously guarded; these cries were emitted by the human throat as whistles or verse (or some other such nonsense), and were taught to him by a singularly strange being– a ghost wolf-man (or man-wolf- Petka was not sure of the preferred nomenclature). Incidentally, he was not any ordinary incorporeal wolf-man, but the following chapter will shed some light on that chance encounter in the moonlit dark.