Down the stairs into the Basin’s repository of knowledge Fae went, until the path finally leveled out and the narrow stairwell opened into a vast room. Fae stared in awe. Shelves and shelves of boxes, books, vases, jars, bags, files, and so much more filled the space, stretching out under blue lights as far back as Fae could see, and then some.
“We only have eleven minutes to search all of this?” Fae asked.
“About eight minutes,” Neptune said, eyeing her watch. “And we’ll need to give ourselves one minute, at the minimum, to get up the stairs and out to dry ground before the Basin fills.”
“And one minute isn’t much time,” Mercury said. “Okay. Let’s get moving. We each have the list of symbols.”
“Right!” Jupiter said excitedly, waving around her sheet of paper on which Fae had drawn copies of the five symbols they were seeking out. She started heading out to the right, while Mercury headed left. As those two stuck along the perimeter, seeing how far the outside walls went, Neptune headed down the center a short ways before turning left.
Suddenly, Fae was all alone.
Guess I’d better get moving. She held up her list, occasionally glancing at it under the blue light as she took her time, starting from the very first shelf. She’d seen the symbols enough times to have them memorized, but she still liked to reference them so she knew for certain what she was looking for.
The first two symbols seemed related. Both looked like simplified artist’s renditions of ceramic jars. The first had a sort of rope tied around its top, as if holding down a covering. The second was broken, split down the middle, with some kind of substance pouring out of it.
The third symbol was a box within a box. The inner box was darker, and the shading suggested it was a sort of vanishing point. It made Fae think of staring down into a square pit, so deep that she couldn’t see the bottom.
The final two symbols were very simple. The first was a flame, and the second was an eye. The eye was one that Fae found she couldn’t look at very long. There was no pupil, just a very large, dark iris. It unnerved her to see an eye drawn in such a way, almost like it had no soul.
She could see it in her mind, and that was enough. By the time Fae had finished examining her shelf, Neptune called out loudly in the lonely space.
“Five minutes!” she called.
Already? I’m too slow. Fae took the next shelf faster, forcing herself to pass over things that were interesting and caught her eye if they didn’t display the symbols she was looking for. Speeding up her search, Fae managed to look over two more shelves before Neptune called out again: four minutes.
Can we really find all of these in time? I’m still almost right next to the stairway. And… Fae looked beyond again, as far as she could into the repository.
She couldn’t see the end. The shelves could easily stretch for miles.
Eleven minutes would never be enough time to even reach the back of this place and then return. Are there some things in here that are simply impossible to find?
No. Selphine said it changes every time the Basin fills and drains again.
So if we don’t find our five items, then we just leave and come back, hoping for luck to give us better results?
How long is this going to take?
Neptune announced the three minute mark. Jupiter and Mercury bantered back at her, but no one said they’d found anything yet.
I’m not very fast or athletic. Is one minute enough time to get all the way up the stairs? And even then, it’s a long distance between the door outside and the stairs up to the shore. Should we start leaving now? Try and time our next trip here better, so we have more time once we arrive? Run as much as we can, even down the stairs to shave off more seconds? Every second counts like this.
Fae realized she’d spaced out from checking her shelf, so she started over from the top, scanning over the contents. It was easy to get drawn in by how intricate, fancy, old, and intriguing the items here were, but she couldn’t afford that.
Suddenly, Fae’s eyes widened.
“Found one!” she called out, pulling a small clay urn off of the shelf. It was marked with the top symbol, the one of the container that was tied up. “Top symbol!”
“Good one!” Mercury shouted excitedly. “Let’s find the rest!”
Fae tucked the small urn into her bag, then moved to the next shelf. Its weight didn’t bother her since the bag was enchanted – it could hold far more items than it seemed, and cancelled out the weight of its contents, keeping a constant and comfortable weight at all times. Unless one of the symbols was on a car or something really big like that, Fae would be able to carry all five items marked with the mysterious symbols.
“Two minutes!” Neptune called out.
“I found one!” Mercury shouted with glee. “The weird square symbol!”
“Thank you!” Fae cried out, breathless with excitement and anxiety.
Can we really do it? Can we get that lucky?
She worked her way through the next shelf, and then another, picking up the pace even as Neptune called out the one minute mark. Mercury and Jupiter, the ones who had gone out the farthest, started making their way back, following different aisles than they had on their way out in an attempt to find the rest.
Fae grabbed a book, gasping in shock, but stopped herself from calling out.
False alarm. The cover looked sort of like the eye symbol on her sheet, but it was just a circle with a weird pattern. Gritting her teeth, Fae continued to search, desperation building.
I don’t want to keep doing this over and over. I want to find everything now. Please let me find everything now. We got so lucky, finding two already. I don’t want to keep gambling again and again. I have so much I need to do. So far I need to go. I can’t get stalled here.
“We gotta go!” Neptune shouted, and Fae could hear the hurried footsteps of the Star sisters as her heart sank. She heeded the warning nonetheless, rushing the best she could to the stairs.
“Come on, Fae!” Mercury called out, giving Fae a little push as they started up the stairs. “It’ll be fine. We already have two. Nearly halfway there in just a few minutes. We’ll time it better next time, and we’ll search even faster. We’ll find everything before you know it.”
“But for now, we need to run,” Jupiter said, leading the pack at a frantic pace. “I don’t like swimming.”
“You were on the swim team in middle school!” Mercury said.
“Why do you think I didn’t continue it in high school?” Jupiter called back. “It was dumb.”
“You were good,” Neptune said.
“No point being good at something you don’t like,” Jupiter said. “Run faster so we don’t need to swim!”
“Too late,” Fae said, heart rising into her throat as she heard a dripping sound.
Water started trickling down the stairs. At first it was just a small line of water here, another there, until soon, the stairs were coated in water, and the girls’ steps splashed and sloshed as they ran.
“Take this,” Mercury said, shoving a small leather-coated box into Fae’s hands. Fae hurriedly shoved it into her bag.
“I see the door!” Jupiter shouted. A few more steps, and she yanked it open, letting in even more water along with the bright light from outside.
“We can make it!” Fae said, racing forward and outside as water reached her knees, slowing her pace considerably.
“Hate to break it to you, sis,” Mercury said, “but we’re definitely gonna have to swim.”
“I hate this place,” Jupiter groaned, still trying to run in the steadily deepening water, pushing ever forward towards the shore.
“Don’t,” Neptune said, pulling her sister to a stop. Fae stared at the blue-haired girl in shock. Stopping? Here?
“We won’t make it to the shore in time,” Neptune said. “And it’s too far to swim for me, at least. But look.” She looked up, and Fae looked with her, shuddering as the water reached her waist. It seeped into her shoes and pants, a sensation Fae wasn’t remotely fond of. Thankfully her bag was waterproof, but swimming with it wouldn’t be easy.
She understood what Neptune was getting at, though. They were right next to the towering plateau. “You think we’ll have safe ground to stand on?” she asked.
Neptune nodded. “We just tread water until we’re high enough up, and then we can test things out,” she said. “At any rate, it’s easier than trying to swim all the way to shore.”
“Treading water for that long?” Jupiter asked, groaning.
“And we don’t even know how long it takes for the Basin to fill and drain,” Mercury said.
“I can’t swim very well with my bag,” Fae said, cringing as the water reached her chest. “Treading water is manageable, though.”
“I guess that’s fair,” Jupiter said.
“Here we go,” Neptune said, beginning to float as the water got too high. Fae and the other girls followed suit, and began to pass a strange time where all they really did was tread water and wait as they rose higher and higher while the Basin filled.
“This is so boring,” Jupiter groaned.
“I think it’s kinda fun,” Mercury said, splashing water at her redhead sister. “Come on, can you say you’ve ever done this before? It’s like we’re in a water elevator.”
“Are the items safe?” Neptune asked, swimming closer to Fae.
“Yeah, the bag’s enchanted,” Fae said. “Completely waterproof, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Two out of five,” Mercury said. “If we get lucky again, we could finish this off in one more trip down there.”
“So we got the weird jar one and the square one,” Jupiter said. “So we have…”
“The broken jar, the fire, and the eye,” Fae said.
“Selphine said these were all in the book marked by the symbol of the Intangibles, right?” Mercury asked.
Neptune nodded. “But I can’t think of which Intangibles these symbols go towards,” she said. “There are so many, and probably a lot that I’ve never heard of.”
“Yeah, I can’t think of any that have to do with eyes or fire,” Mercury said.
“What really are Intangibles?” Fae asked. “They’re these things that can’t be fully explained, I get that, but how well can you explain them if you try? All I know about is Collapse.”
“And we don’t even know what Collapse is,” Mercury said with a sigh.
“I still don’t like this,” Jupiter said, glaring at the water that was carrying her higher and higher.
“We’re halfway there, calm down,” Mercury said.
“Some of the other ones I know of are the Dreamer’s Heart,” Neptune said, “Hope’s Release, and the Lingering Will. You can get a sense of what Intangibles are just by hearing more of their names, right?”
Fae nodded. “They’re more like concepts than actual things,” she said.
“Except these concepts have somehow become things,” Neptune said. “Despite the name, Intangibles can, in some cases, be touched, even carried and used. Not all of them can, though. Some people suspect Collapse is something that uses a person, rather than a person using it.”
“And the Dreamer’s Heart isn’t an actual heart, but a quality to a person,” Mercury said.
“The Lingering Will is just like it sounds,” Neptune said, “a will, a desire, left behind by someone long past. It’s one of the Pluralized Intangibles – there can be multiple Lingering Wills at any given time.”
“But most Intangibles are a single entity,” Mercury said.
“So each of the five symbols on our list is tied to an Intangible,” Fae said. “But why? Five Intangibles, when you can only name four. That seems like a lot. And what are we supposed to do with them?”
“Well, some people seek out an Intangible, not in order to reach the Intangible itself, but because of what it can reveal or guide that person to,” Neptune said. “Those who have sought out Hope’s Release have done so in order to find out what they truly hope for – the greatest hope of their heart, the one thing they desire above all else.”
“They can’t just figure that out for themselves?” Fae asked.
“Well, think about it,” Mercury said, splashing a grouchy Jupiter with water, and quickly receiving a splash in return. “Can you honestly name your greatest fear? I like to use fear as an example more than hope, because a lot of people think they know what they’re most afraid of… but actually don’t. It’s hard to know unless you’ve really been faced with it, and people are usually afraid of so many things that it’s hard to narrow it down. Heck, the thing you fear most might be something you can’t even think of at all without being faced with it. Your greatest hope is kind of similar.”
“Right,” Neptune said. “You have a lot of things you hope or long for, a lot of things you desire. But what’s at the top of the list? What do you want more than anything else? It’s hard to say.”
“But it’s ‘Hope’s Release,’ not ‘Desire’s Release,’ so isn’t that different?” Fae asked. She took a look up the plateau. They were about two-thirds of the way up now. “Hope and desire… they’re different things. Wanting something doesn’t mean you’re hoping for it – a lot of things we desire are things we expect to have, or things we can actively attain on our own. Hope is… it’s something else. It’s what you want without knowing you can get it, or without knowing it’s possible, or even thinking it’s impossible, but you hope for it anyway. Or maybe… that’s why you hope for it – because it’s otherwise impossible. You can’t really achieve it yourself. But you hope anyway, because what else can you do but hope for something so far outside your reach?”
“We hope for things that aren’t entirely in our control,” Neptune said, nodding. “But a lot of people confuse desire and hope. And people who seek out Hope’s Release often come to learn something about themselves that they never knew before.”
“Anyone else think this is super weird?” Jupiter asked, staring at the plateau as they began closing in on the top. “Like… we’re on a water elevator.”
“I already said that,” Mercury said.
“It is pretty weird,” Fae said, watching as the top of the plateau crept closer. “And we’re going to have to do this on the way down, too.”
“Oh,” Jupiter said. “I hadn’t thought about that.” She resumed sulking, complaining about getting wet as Mercury splashed water in her face, ruining her spiked-up hairdo.
I wonder how high the water will rise. Fae looked across to the far shore, with the door to Selphine’s Eventide Archive, and tried to judge height based on that. It’s hard just eyeballing it. I hope it’ll be shallow enough for us to stand on top of the plateau. As much as Jupiter complains about the ascent, the descent is going to be the worst. It was so humid when we entered, and now it’s cooled and dried a bit, but once the water starts evaporating to drain again… and we have to sit in it and wait until it reaches the bottom… ugh. My hair’s going to hate me.
“Here we go,” Neptune said, swimming closer to the plateau and climbing up onto it at the first chance she had.
“Dry land!” Jupiter cheered, splashing water everywhere as she frantically swam for the plateau’s top. As soon as she was standing, though, she started scowling at the water that continued to rise over the top. “Stop it! I just want to stand on dry land for half a second, please!”
“It seems like it’s slowing down,” Fae said, accepting Mercury’s hand up as they were the last to stand atop the plateau. The water rose to cover her ankles, then halfway up her calves, and then… it stopped, just short of her knees.
“How long do you think it’ll take to drain?” Jupiter asked.
“Longer than it took to fill,” Neptune said.
“How many other Locations are like this?” Fae asked, turning in a circle as she surveyed the entire space. “No one’s here at all. We’re all alone.”
“Not many are empty like this,” Neptune said. “Most of the ones that are serve as transitional areas rather than places of interest – the Gambler’s Crossroads, the Winding Road – places like that don’t have residents or services, but they quickly lead from one Location to another. But this… places of importance and knowledge that are also completely abandoned? They’re very rare.”
“Even places like the Forlorn Peaks have people living there, if you can believe it,” Mercury said.
“I wonder why…” Fae said, trailing off as she took in the view. With the water covering up even the plateau, the highest point in the Basin of Antiquity, there was a wide expanse of glassy water all around. Aside from ripples nearby from the girls’ movements, the water had gone incredibly still, and it was so clear that Fae could see down to the very bottom, even from what seemed to be hundreds of feet up.
“I found dry land!” Jupiter exclaimed. She now stood on a small sort of pedestal in the center of the flat ground the girls were on that rose just slightly above the water. It wasn’t the same color as the plateau – it seemed to shift and change in an attempt to match the colors around it, so it was hard to see until Jupiter was hopping up and down on it.
“Is there anything interesting about it?” Mercury asked. The girls met around Jupiter, examining the strange discovery.
“It has something here,” Neptune said, reaching next to Jupiter’s foot and grabbing hold of a curved handle. “And there’s one on the other side. Jupiter, get down and let’s see if we can open it.”
“Ruining my fun…” Jupiter complained, but she obliged, hopping down and taking hold of the second handle. She and Neptune pulled, and a hatch opened up, about four feet in diameter. Cool, dry air rushed out of it, and Fae gasped.
“It’s just like the repository,” she said, leaning over to look down. A ladder was built into the interior of the pedestal, descending down a shaft about thirty feet before hitting flat ground below. Blue, caged lights like the ones the girls had seen inside the repository lit the way.
“It’s a secret entrance!” Jupiter said happily. “We’re saved!”
“Although we might not be able to access everything,” Neptune said. “The area we were in is full of water by now.”
“Well, we can see what we can see,” Mercury said, giving Jupiter a boost up. The redhead was the first to descend, with Neptune following. Mercury turned to Fae, offering her a lift, which she took.
“No more waiting is always a good thing,” Mercury said, her voice echoing as she followed Fae down the ladder. “Though I’m glad we got to experience the water elevator. That was fun. I wouldn’t have minded taking it back down again.”
“You know…” Jupiter said, staring up from the bottom. “If water starts to come down through here, we’re kind of screwed, aren’t we?”
“Let’s try not to think about that,” Fae said, feeling her heart beat faster at just the idea of being trapped underwater.
“Yeah, happy thoughts, Jupiter!” Mercury said, punching her sister in the arm. “Come on, let’s check the place out.”
The sisters stepped aside, nodding to Fae to lead the way. From the small room at the bottom of the ladder was a hallway. Fae led the way until it turned a sharp right, and then she stopped.
“Well, that’s something,” Mercury said, looking past Fae.
At the end of the hallway was a wooden door. On it hung a simple sign, which was written on with red lettering: Welcome, honored guests Fae and the Star sisters.
“Did Selphine call ahead?” Jupiter asked.
“She didn’t even mention this,” Fae said. “So…”
“Whoever it is was expecting us all on their own,” Neptune said.
“That’s creepy,” Mercury said.
Fae stepped forward. “There’s nothing to it, right?” she asked. “They’re waiting for us. Let’s see if they can help.”