Fae rapped her knuckles against the wooden door.
“I still think this feels fishy,” Jupiter said.
“They call us ‘honored guests’,” Mercury said. “They can’t be all that bad.”
“Coming!” came a voice from beyond the door, making all four girls jump. There was the sound of several locks clicking, and then the door swung open, revealing the person within.
“You’re here!” he said happily. Peering at the girls through large, round spectacles that magnified his dark blue eyes, the man smiled widely and adjusted his bow tie as he stepped aside to usher the girls inside. His dark hair fell to his shoulders free and loose, and despite his apparent youth – looking to be in his mid-twenties – his attire and body language suggested someone much, much older. “Do come in, ladies, do come in. It’s simply delightful to meet you.”
“How did you know we were coming?” Fae asked, passing through the doorway into a much cozier space than the bleak stone corridor outside. It was a spacious study, with lacquered wood walls and an array of comfy seating arrangements around a stone fire pit in the center of the floor. Bookshelves lined the walls, while shelves and desks scattered around the study bore an eclectic collection of items – dolls and figurines, globes, clocks, dice, writing implements and paper, and quite the variety of half-finished leatherwork, from gloves to cuffs to patches to emblems.
“I know everyone who comes to the Basin,” the man said, closing the door and ushering the girls to sit around the fire. “And, should any of them manage to find my hidden abode, I welcome them as guests. But!” The man raised a finger, wagging it in the air dramatically as he paced around the study. “You four are very special. And I’m quite excited to meet you.”
“All four of us?” Mercury asked. She took a seat on a couch, and Neptune sat next to her. Jupiter grinned, plopping down on Mercury’s lap and draping her legs across Neptune’s. The three girls all just went with it, making it clear to Fae that this was perfectly normal for them. Meanwhile, Fae was screaming “personal space!” in her mind. “I mean, the three of us are just here for Fae. She’s the one who needs to be here, and has important things to find. Can you help her with that?”
“Don’t sell yourselves short,” the man said. “You ladies are tremendously important. Ah, but where are my manners?” He gave a sweeping, dramatic bow. “I am Maxwell, Master of the Basin of Antiquity. And this is my secret study. Though ‘study’ is perhaps not the right word for it, as I also live here. Well, to be more precise, I can never leave this place at all, so I’m sort of confined here, but I don’t like to think of it that way. After all, if this is a prison, it is a nice prison, and even then, I didn’t come here against my will.”
Fae stared at Maxwell, uncertain of what to say – or if she’d even be able to get a word in at all. He was quite chatty.
Though maybe that’s because he’s stuck here all alone. Since it’s a secret place, I doubt he gets many visitors.
“What’s so special about us?” Fae asked. “What makes us important compared to your other visitors?”
Maxwell adjusted his spectacles and took a seat across from the girls, though it was only brief. He was soon back on his feet, and it was clear he was too excited to stay in one place. “Well, you should already know why for yourself, Fae,” he said. “After all, it’s not often that a human is called by the Enchanted Dominion. To my knowledge, a call such as yours – through artwork – has only happened once before. And as for you sisters…” Maxwell studied Mercury, Jupiter, and Neptune in turn. “Well. I think you three also know, at least a little bit. You’re searching for something, aren’t you?”
Fae was taken aback. Not because she didn’t know about the sisters, but because she’d forgotten, and she felt guilty. She remembered now, what seemed like an eternity ago, when the girls had led her up to the Bay Overlook to take her to the Cartographer’s Waystation.
We want answers about things, just like you do, Mercury had said.
And yet the sisters had focused all their effort and time during this trip on Fae. Why? What about their own journey?
“How do you know that?” Neptune asked.
“I’ve heard of your exploits,” Maxwell said, plucking a thin, blue-covered book off of a shelf and flipping through to about the three-quarter point. “You’ve stood at the edge of the Unfathomable Emptiness and came back with your sanity. That’s a rare feat.”
“Unheard of until we did it,” Jupiter said, hopping up from her sister’s lap and leaning over Maxwell’s shoulder to gaze at the pages. “No way, she really did write about it!”
“Blaire said she was going to,” Neptune said.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think she actually would,” Jupiter said. “Come on, it’s pretty cool, right?”
“What’s the Unfathomable Emptiness?” Fae asked.
“It is a truly frightening Location,” Maxwell said, handing the book off to Jupiter. She went back to Mercury’s lap, holding the book out so her sisters could read with her. “It’s… well, just as the name describes it. It’s unfathomable, something words simply can’t express. People go mad there.”
“Blaire’s a bard,” Mercury said, her tone shaking with excitement. “A bard. Like, bards don’t even really exist on Earth anymore. So if someone comes up to you and says ‘I’m a bard and I will write tales and sing songs of your exploits,’ you don’t normally take them seriously. But she was telling the truth!”
“So what do you want with us?” Neptune asked, eyeing Maxwell suspiciously. “You’ve welcomed us as guests. Do you intend only to flatter us, or is there a mutually beneficial purpose to this?”
“I dunno, having people praise us seems mutually beneficial to me,” Jupiter said.
“I have something for you,” Maxwell said. “And don’t worry, Fae, I have helpful things for you, as well. After all, I am the Master of this place. I can procure anything for you from the repository.”
“So you can get us everything we need?” Fae asked. “We don’t have to test our luck in there again?”
Maxwell smiled. “Not at all,” he said. “Your luck proved exceptional when you found the entrance to my study.”
“What do you have for us?” Neptune asked. “And what do you know about us, really?”
Jupiter, probably sensing the ice in Neptune’s tone, scooted off of her playful spot on her sister’s laps and into a more proper sitting position next to Mercury.
“There’s no need to be so tense,” Maxwell said, holding up his hands innocently. “If it’s a secret, I can keep it. I rarely talk to anyone, and I can assure you, I’m not a gossip. I just… well. Here. I’ll show you.”
The Master of the Basin plucked a translucent sphere off of one of the tables, carrying it over to the center of the room.
Don’t tell me he has a crystal ball.
Holding the sphere above the fire pit, Maxwell let go, and the orb floated in place. It began to spin, until images appeared within it – images of Mercury, Jupiter, and Neptune.
He seriously has a crystal ball. That’s… Fae struggled not to laugh. The ideas of crystal balls, magic wands, flying broomsticks, and other stereotypically magical objects were frequently made the butt of jokes among the magical community in Grimoire. Because, of course, magic didn’t work like that.
Except, apparently, it could.
Well, it’s a sphere that’s enchanted to enhance Divination Magic, most likely. It’s not like crystal balls and flying broomsticks are impossible. They’re just… horribly cliché.
“What’s all of this?” Mercury asked, leaning closer to the crystal ball.
“I’m unable to travel beyond my study,” Maxwell said. “So I devised this orb as a way to see beyond my limited confines. It also can remember what it’s seen before.”
“There’s a lot of us,” Neptune said, scowling at the orb.
“Well, I’m focusing on you three, because that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?” Maxwell asked. “See – here!” The ball suddenly stopped spinning, and the images resolved into a single picture of Mercury, Jupiter, and Neptune standing at Cartographer’s Waystation. Mercury and Jupiter were heading towards the shore that served as an exit from the Waystation, looking back at Neptune, who was waving goodbye to them from the Waystation’s porch.
“This is when you started studying with the Cartographers,” Mercury said. “Maxwell, how do you have this? You can just see anything?”
“I happened to stumble upon you,” Maxwell said. “I like to simply browse the universe through this – watching people and events transpire that I can never see in person. One day, I saw this scene of you sisters, and I decided to listen in.”
“I’ve had enough,” Neptune said, standing up and walking towards the door. “I don’t care how lonely you are, you can’t just spy on people’s personal lives.”
“Guess we’re leaving,” Jupiter muttered, following after her sister. “And just when it was getting interesting, too.”
“Please, wait!” Maxwell shouted. He plucked the crystal ball out of the air and hurled it against the wall, where it shattered in spectacular fashion. The largest shard remaining wasn’t any bigger than Fae’s smallest fingernail. “See?” Maxwell gestured desperately at the wreckage. “Please, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Just… please. Don’t leave. Not yet. I… I just want to help.”
“Then get to the point,” Neptune said, turning back towards Maxwell. Her hair still obscured one eye, but the eye that Fae could see seemed to burn with barely contained anger. Fae couldn’t blame her. If that crystal ball had shown some private moment from her own life, she would have been the one storming out.
“I just…” Maxwell started, and then sighed, staring at the floor dejectedly. “I’m sorry. I don’t get many visitors. I don’t interact much with people, and… well, I was never very sociable to begin with. I…” Another dejected sigh. “I’ll make this quick, then.” He walked to a space between two bookshelves and placed his hand against the wall. It pulsed with a silvery pattern, and then dissolved to reveal a small cupboard. From it, Maxwell pulled four objects, three of which he gave to Fae. Each bore one of the three symbols she was missing: the broken jar, the fire, and the eye. The fourth item, Maxwell handed to Mercury, who was the farthest away from Neptune.
“What’s this?” Mercury asked, turning the object over in her hands. It was a locket in the shape of a circle, with a silver star embossed on its metal face. It appeared old and weathered, but had signs of being well-cared for – the weathering was light, as if part of the intractable effects of time, and there were no signs of real damage. Mercury opened it and gasped, eyes wide in shock.
“What?” Jupiter asked, as she and Neptune rushed over to look. Their reactions mirrored Mercury’s, and when Mercury held it up for Fae to see, she was rather surprised as well.
Inside the locket was a picture of three little girls who were unmistakably Mercury, Jupiter, and Neptune. Even as toddlers, they had their distinctive hair colors.
“How do you have this?” Neptune asked, giving Maxwell the same angry glare from before.
“It came to me,” Maxwell said, holding his hands up innocently. “Many items wash up in the Basin, as if the waters collect the lost valuables from all across the Enchanted Dominion. I’ve had this for only a few years.”
“Do you have anything else for us?” Neptune asked.
Maxwell shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s all. But… well, I know that symbol. It’s the symbol of the Sanctuary. And if that’s where you wish to go, you’ll need that locket. It –”
“We know,” the triplets said in unison, staring reverently at the locket.
“We know all about it,” Mercury said softly.
“Let’s go,” Neptune said, her voice less icy this time as she turned to leave. Fae looked to the sisters, and then to Maxwell, uncertain of what they should do. What had started rather pleasant had quickly turned sour, and Fae wasn’t sure she wanted to leave things as awkwardly as they currently were.
“Thank you,” Fae said meekly as she followed after the girls, placing the three items Maxwell had given her into her bag. She was the last to the door, and stopped before closing it, looking at the Basin’s Master apologetically. “I’m sorry.”
Maxwell nodded, eyes downcast. “Take the door next to the ladder,” he said. “It’ll get you back faster.”
Somehow, the girls had missed that there was a metal door next to the ladder. They went through it, and were shocked to find that it deposited them on the far shore of the Basin, just a few feet away from the door back to the Eventide Archive.
“You didn’t have to be so cold,” Mercury said, staring at Neptune meaningfully.
“He spied on us,” Neptune said. The locket had ended up in the blue-haired girl’s possession, and she clasped its thin silver chain around her neck, then tucked the locket under her shirt. “Who knows what else he might have seen? It’s a total breach of privacy, by some lonely man in a cave.”
“It was a lot nicer than a cave,” Jupiter said. “But yeah. The spying thing is kinda gross when you take a few seconds to think about it. And he had me a little creeped out from the start.”
“He destroyed the crystal ball,” Mercury said.
“And he’ll undoubtedly make another one,” Neptune said, glaring at the plateau across the water. Her hand touched the spot where the locket rested. “He never should have seen this.”
“But he did get it back to us,” Mercury said. “So now we just need to find out how to reach the Sanctuary.”
“What Sanctuary?” Fae asked.
“The Silver Star Sanctuary,” Mercury said. “It’s… the only link we have to our past.”
“Your past?” Fae asked.
Jupiter shrugged, but she took on a more serious expression than Fae had ever seen from the energetic redhead. “We… don’t remember our parents,” she said. “Or where we came from. One day, we just… ended up in Grimoire. Like waking up after a long sleep. Over time, we’ve begun to remember some of what we’ve lost, and our time in the Dominion has helped us pick up more tiny clues here and there, but… well. The only major hint we have is the Silver Star Sanctuary.”
“The first hint was our last name,” Neptune said. “From what we can tell, it’s no coincidence our last name is ‘Star.’ And even though that sounds like a plausible last name, if rare… there’s no one else with that name on Earth. What parents or other relatives we have are a complete mystery.”
“We started to remember a locket,” Mercury said. “But only the inside. The picture of us as little kids. And then we just remembered a name: Silver Star Sanctuary. But somewhere else, where we learned a bit about the Sanctuary, we learned you need an emblem to get in.”
Neptune pulled the locket out, holding it up so Fae could see the silver star symbol on it. “This is the symbol,” she said. “When tied to a specific object through a special kind of magic, it creates an emblem, a sort of key to the Sanctuary. The only problem is… well, no one we’ve ever met has ever seen or used an emblem to the Sanctuary before, or been there.”
“It’s all history,” Jupiter said. “Mostly oral history, too, which is the pits, because some people recount it differently than others.”
“We think it’s like the Library of Solitude,” Mercury said. “One of the Lost Locations, a Location that’s become disconnected from the rest of the Dominion, with only special, mysterious, and hard to discover ways to reach it. There’s no one alive – that we know about – who’s ever been there. But…” She stared across the water, her eyes filled with emotion. “We need to get there somehow.”
“Now we have the key,” Neptune said. “We just need to reach the Sanctuary.”
“Maybe Selphine knows something,” Fae offered, her head spinning. These three girls didn’t even know their past? They didn’t know where they came from, who their parents were? And yet they seemed so fun, energetic, and happy with their lives on the outside. How much of that was just a mask?
“Well, whether or not she does,” Mercury said, her usual smile returning, “we’re with you right now, Fae. You’re going to be seeing so much of the Dominion – including places we’ve never been – so, I hope you don’t mind if we try to help ourselves while we help you.”
Fae shook her head. “Not at all,” she said. “I… I can’t even imagine what things must be like for you.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Jupiter said, laughing. “We’re fine. We’ve always had each other, after all.”
As the sisters started returning to their usual attitudes, Fae couldn’t help but see the pain buried beneath all of that. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to see the triplets the same way.
What do I do? Fae wondered. Do I just keep going along on my quest? They said it could help them, but I don’t know.
But how could I do this without them? What if they decide they need to leave me in the middle? Do I go with them?
Will they even let me go with them to the Silver Star Sanctuary? Are our paths just destined to part?
As the girls headed back to the Eventide Archive, Fae found her head whirling with questions. And in the midst of them all, she found herself without a single answer.