“Welcome, Fae Greyson. Mercury Star.”
The otherworldly voices called out to the four girls, but for a moment, the voices were disembodied. They seemed feminine in nature, but they were in many ways not human at all, making them hard to wrap one’s mind around. Fae and the Star sisters had reached the top of the stairs, entering into a cavernous room that seemed completely empty. Red torches ringed the perimeter, their crimson light reflecting off of the glassy black rock and a shallow pool in the center of the room.
But the girls seemed to be alone.
Fae opened her mouth to speak, but she couldn’t manage to form words.
There was something about this place… a presence, a force, a sensation… that left Fae feeling overwhelmed. There was power here, ancient and uncaring, and it made Fae’s mind go blank.
“Do not be afraid,” one of the voices said – Fae thought it was the first voice. There was something to its quality – it seemed slightly higher than the others, and it resonated in a way that didn’t set Fae’s nerves on edge. There was something almost – almost – comforting about it.
“Why not?” Asked a different voice – the second one, Fae was sure. It was the deepest of the three, if only by a slight amount, and the way it spoke was slightly faster than the more measured, melodic first voice. “Fear is good. Fear puts them in their place.”
“Fear of what we are,” the third voice said. It was like two voices – a clear, distinct tone, and then a whisper beneath it, like it carried a tiny hint of malicious intent.
“Fear of powerlessness,” the second voice said.
“Fear of humanity.”
“Fear of life.”
“Fear of death.”
“Fear of pain.”
“Fear of the unknown.”
“Courage,” the first voice said. “We will not harm you.”
“We might,” said the second voice.
“We should,” said the third.
“We will not,” the first one repeated. “Come closer, children. Let us see your faces.”
Fae almost stepped forward… but she stopped.
Two delighted in creating fear. One rejected the other two.
Who could Fae trust?
“I think we’re fine over here,” Jupiter said, attempting a whisper but, as always, failing utterly.
“Don’t reject us,” the second voice said.
“You’re too far away,” the third, whispery voice said. “It’s hard to talk at such distance. And you aren’t nearly frightened enough, with the stairs so close behind you.”
“You came for a reason, didn’t you?” the second voice asked. “You need us. You seek knowledge.”
“You seek truth,” the third voice said.
“You have questions,” the first voice said. “We can answer them. Please, don’t be afraid.”
“Why won’t you show yourselves?” Fae finally asked, finding her voice, if only for a brief moment.
The three voices were silent for several long seconds.
“She’s a bold one,” the second voice said.
“She’s a fun one,” the third said.
“If you are prepared to begin,” the first voice said, “then say so now, and we will show ourselves to you. If you are not, then perhaps you should leave –”
“They cannot leave!” the second voice cried, its power shaking the stone of the cavern.
“They must not leave!” the third voice shouted, its whispering undertone grinding on the walls.
“Be calm, my sisters,” the first voice said. “Peace. You are unwell.”
“We are all unwell,” the second voice said bitterly.
“And nothing can make us better,” the third voice said. “This is our fate. The fate of the Fates.”
“But what’s the matter?” Fae asked.
“Nightmares,” the second voice said.
“Frightmares,” the third voice said.
“Fear infects us all,” the first voice said. “Here. I will show myself, if the others will not. Please, do not be frightened.”
The pool in the center of the room rippled, and the waters bubbled and glowed with a white-green light. Slowly, something rose up out of the waters, graceful and elegant, until, with much of its body still submerged in the pool, it stopped, towering over the girls.
Fae’s eyes went wide. The first of the Fates was so…
White feathers adorned her entire body, glistening with water and glowing with a faint green aura. She had no limbs, her entire body sort of serpentine, curving and flowing gracefully. Her eyes were green, swirling depths that Fae could sink into, and she had no mouth, nose, or ears that Fae could see, but her face – though it was only eyes, Fae saw it as a face – seemed serene, if perhaps a bit…
“I am one of the Fates,” the first voice said, and now the voice clearly came from the feathered, alien being in the pool. “My name is Ethna.”
“She revealed herself,” the second voice said. “Should we follow?”
“I think we should,” the third voice said. “Look at their faces. We might make them so frightened, it will be wonderful to see.”
“That sounds positively delightful,” the second voice said. The air to Ethna’s left shimmered, until a being with a blue aura appeared. She was smaller than the first Fate, but her body was very similar. She was serpentine, but not scaly, instead with feathers all across her long, curving body. A pair of small, lovely wings extended from her body, and she flew in the air, doing somersaults and spins, eyeing the girls with narrow, mischievous eyes that swam with swirling blue color.
“Let’s see what they think of us,” the third voice said. To Ethna’s right, the air swirled, red like the fire of the torches, until the third Fate appeared. She was the smallest of the Fates, and her feathers seemed to undulate along her body as if to imitate the flickering nature of the crimson flames in the torches. Four wings, in a spiral around her form, beat in a rhythm, and her red eyes gleamed with something that struck Fae as, if not outright malicious, at least unkind.
“So,” the first Fate said, tilting her head down as if to get a better look at the girls, “what brings you to us?”
“You already knew our names before we got here,” Jupiter said. “You mean you don’t know what we want?”
“I don’t like her,” the second Fate said, twisting in an S-shape before straightening herself out. “She’s a rude one.”
“A disrespectful one,” the smallest Fate said.
“A mean one.”
“A cruel one.”
“Don’t you think ‘cruel’ is going a bit far?” Jupiter asked, frowning. Clearly she wasn’t as put off by the Fates’ enormity, and the strange sense of power in this place, as Fae was.
“Maybe don’t antagonize them,” Neptune said dryly.
“What can you help us with?” Fae asked. She rummaged in her bag, pulling out the notebook with all of the drawings marked the symbol of the Fates – a swirling letter that seemed like an F embedded into a G. “I was sent here, by the magic that’s been calling out to me, inspiring me to draw things. I…” Fae’s thoughts failed her.
What did she want? What should she ask?
“We didn’t call out to her,” the blue Fate said.
“We didn’t send for her,” the red Fate said.
“We know much about your drawings, Fae Greyson,” Ethna said. “We were not the ones who called you, but we know there is indeed a force in this Dominion that seeks you out.”
“But why?” Fae asked. “And who or what is it? How do I find them?”
“She thinks we know everything,” the second Fate said.
“We don’t know everything,” the red Fate said.
“We can’t know everything.”
“We wish we knew everything.”
“We don’t see the past. We only see the future.”
“And we only see the future that we need to see.”
“Nothing more,” Ethna said, “and nothing less. We do not see all. We only see what needs to be seen.”
“So what have you seen for me?” Fae asked.
The Fates were silent for several long moments, before Ethna spoke again. “It is difficult to say.”
Fae puzzled over that. She could feel the power in this place, and she could see for herself that the Fates were inhuman, something ancient and magical.
What was so difficult? Why did they beat around the bush?
Fae thought they probably knew exactly what to say, but they were trying to deceive or trap her and the triplets somehow. She’d have to be very careful. They had revealed their forms, but things were still very uncertain.
“Difficult is not the right word,” the blue Fate said.
“Difficulty is unknown to us,” the red Fate said.
“Don’t you two have names?” Fae asked.
The Fates all stared at her, silent for several moments.
“Cedna,” the second, blue Fate said.
“Frenna,” the third, red Fate said.
“There is something we must tell –” Ethna began.
“’Must’ is too strong a word,” Cedna said. “We need say nothing.”
“But they have come all this way,” Frenna said. “And they are still not very afraid. Perhaps they should be rewarded.”
“I thought you wanted them to be frightened?” Cedna said. She flew slightly closer to the girls, her blue eyes swimming as she observed them. “Why reward them for something so foolish?”
“Bravery is very foolish indeed.”
“I’m going to tell them about –” Ethna began.
“No, don’t!” Cedna shouted. There was a brief pause, and then Cedna and Frenna both began laughing, a strange noise from such alien voices.
“You should not be so rude,” Frenna said. “She is our sister, after all.”
“Family is not so important. The Greyson girl would agree with us.”
“She doesn’t understand though, not fully.”
“And she need not understand fully. Full understanding is folly.”
“But she should understand this much. Sister wants to tell them something. She was told to, after all, so we should let her.”
“Thank you,” Ethna said. “I must first tell you about Dragon Riddles.”
“Dragon Riddles?” Fae asked. She remembered the term from talking about the Spiral Dragons with Selphine, but she couldn’t remember what it meant. And why were the Fates telling her about Dragons?
“I can only tell you what I can tell you,” Ethna said. “And I must tell it to you in the order it was given.”
“So many rules,” Cedna said, doing a little loop-de-loop in midair.
“Laws,” Frenna said, “would be the most proper term.”
“Freedom is lawless,” Cedna said. “Freedom is beautiful.”
“You would waste your freedom, if you had it.”
“Dragon Riddles,” Ethna said, as if the exchange between her smaller sisters hadn’t happened at all, “are traps. The Dragons will try to get you to respond to their Riddles by framing them as innocent questions or ordinary speech. Do not fall for this.”
“So I shouldn’t answer them at all?” Fae asked.
“No,” Ethna said. “If you answer correctly, horrible pains and misery will befall you. And if you answer incorrectly, you will be spared, but awful evils will plague the world.”
“Plague,” Cedna said, cackling with glee as she spun in a circle. “Like the Black Plague. That was caused by a Dragon Riddle.”
“So were many typhoons,” Frenna said, not sharing in the laughter of her sister.
“And rheumatism!” Cedna declared dramatically.
“No,” Frenna said, casting a sidelong glance at her blue, mischievous sister. “Rheumatism was always there.”
“Ah, right. Age has its downfalls. The poor humans.”
“Poor, fearful humans.”
“To deal with Dragons is dangerous business,” Ethna said. Fae found the three Fates’ voices and mannerisms more and more distinct the longer they talked. Ethna was methodical, calm, and patient. Cedna was very much not patient, moving around constantly in the air, twisting into strange shapes. Frenna…
Frenna worried Fae.
The Fate that looked like a feathery fire in the air had a strange seriousness to her. She moved very little – in fact, it could be only her eyes, feathers, and wings that moved, while her body remained unmoving. Her stillness was disquieting. And those eyes seemed to be barely masking some kind of plot or scheme being developed in secret, while she bantered with her blue sister and mostly ignored her largest sister.
“Tell her the next part,” Cedna said, bobbing her head left and right, eyes fixed on Fae. “Or…”
Frenna nodded. “The sisters,” she said. “Tell them, tell them.”
“You have something for us, too?” Mercury asked.
“You seek the Sanctuary,” Cedna said. “Poor souls.”
“Poor, unfortunate souls,” Frenna said. “It is very sad.”
“What’s sad about it?” Jupiter asked, glaring at the two flying Fates. “It’s where we’re supposed to go, isn’t it?”
“A human who doesn’t make her own choices,” Cedna said. “What is freedom if not challenging your fate?”
“Futility,” Frenna said. “Rejecting fate is futility.”
“We’re looking for it because we want to get there,” Mercury said. “We want to know what it means to us. It’s…” She stopped, looking away.
“The Silver Star Sanctuary is hidden,” Ethna said. “I can impart one more clue, but I cannot fully guide you there. You are meant to find it yourselves. But I can only tell you in the proper order. Fae Greyson… you must come closer.”
Fae started to take a step, but again she hesitated.
Why go closer? She can talk to me just fine from there.
Before, they were trying to get us to come closer. Ethna seems nice, but the other two… they wanted us to get closer so they could scare us.
Something isn’t right here.
“I can hear just fine right here,” Fae said. “Please, continue. I want to know everything I can.”
The Fates were silent for a long time. Cedna continued to make strange shapes, always moving around, looping over and around herself. Frenna stayed mostly still, her body and wings like fire.
Ethna stared straight at Fae, eyes seeming not to move in the slightest.
“It’s regrettable,” Cedna said.
“Truly regrettable,” Frenna said. “We just want to see you better.”
“Don’t you know magic?” Cedna asked. “Much of it is stronger the closer it is to the target.”
“Target is perhaps not the best word. I like ‘subject’ better.”
“The word doesn’t matter, does it? As long as it makes sense?”
“Too true, sister. You are right. Please, Fae Greyson, step closer.”
“There is nothing to fear,” Ethna said. “You came to us. This is your first time among us, as well. It is understandable that you don’t know our ways. There are many laws governing us Fates, and we must obey them. I must get a closer look at you, Fae Greyson. The same goes for the three of you, Star sisters. I wish to help. But I cannot unless you attempt to trust me.”
“I’m sorry,” Fae said. “But I’d really rather not. I need to be cautious in uncertain situations. Surely you can understand.”
“Fear,” Cedna said bitterly.
“Fear is good,” Frenna said.
“Fear makes the world go round.”
“Fear makes her little heart pound.”
“Take heart, Fae Greyson,” Ethna said.
“Take heart,” huh? The way you say that isn’t at all as comforting as the sisters’ song from the Docks.
This feels like a trap. I don’t know why. I’m supposed to see the Fates. But Roland did warn us about them. I need to try to learn more. I need to try to keep them happy, without falling into their traps.
That’s assuming there is a trap. What if I’m just overacting out of paranoia? It wouldn’t be the first time. I always overthink things.
But I’ve never been in real danger before – unless you count that small encounter with Hollows with Shana, but someone else saved us really fast.
I don’t know if I’m in danger now, but it feels like it.
So what do I do about it? They definitely have knowledge that I need. I can’t just leave – assuming they’d even allow me to leave. But I also can’t get too close, in case it’s dangerous.
What do I do?
“Fear makes the bones stiff,” Cedna said.
“Fear makes the mind race,” Frenna said.
“Please stop that,” Ethna said. “You’re frightening her, just like you do to all our other visitors. Our purpose is to assist, to provide knowledge. You two are making this harder than it needs to be.”
“You blame us for everything,” Cedna said.
“You never look at yourself,” Frenna said.
Fae watched the two flying Fates carefully. Something had changed in their voices. It was like…
Like they weren’t entirely sane.
Like they’d tried to behave, to act normal, but the longer the conversation went on, the more unhinged they became. Early on, they’d said some seemingly useful, sensible things. But now they were just bantering, just tossing out phrases, just taunting Fae’s fear.
What had Ethna said earlier?
Peace, my sisters. You are unwell.
Ethna did seem the most reliable of the three. Was something wrong with the other two?
But if Ethna was fine, why did she want to draw Fae and the Sisters closer? Why did even approaching them in the slightest set Fae’s nerves on edge?
Am I just fearful? Is that all this is? What if everything’s perfectly fine and I’m just freaking out for nothing, ruining my best chance at finding out where I need to go?
I understand the Intangibles, even if I don’t know why I’m pursuing them. Same goes for the Spiral Dragons.
So what’s the deal with the Fates? I’m supposed to be here. But why? What do they have for me, beyond some warnings about Dragon Riddles that Selphine probably already told me?
I don’t know enough. And that scares me. Am I making the right choice?
“There is a reason I am the largest and calmest of us three,” Ethna said. She turned her head slightly, to the left, then the right, casting a slow, steady look at each of her sisters. “Things would go much better if you would be silent and let me handle this.”
“What’s wrong with them?” Fae asked, gambling on a hunch. If she was being too forward, or too presumptuous, things were probably about to…
The single word was spoken by Cedna. Fae turned, staring at the blue Fate, who had suddenly flown closer, bobbing in the air just a few feet from Fae. Even though she was much smaller than Ethna, at this distance Fae could see that she still was more than twice the size of Fae. Her being this close… and speaking that word…
This time it was Frenna, and Fae’s eyes grew wide to see the undulating red-aura Fate suddenly as close to her as Cedna. How had she moved so fast? And why? And…
Fae’s mind raced. She’d kept the knowledge she’d learned about Collapse – both the Intangible and the disease – from Gerick Irsotz on the Plains of the Fallen in her mind all this time. The Intangible was mysterious, but thought to be a frightening weapon of some kind. And the disease was marked by the infected ones losing their minds, slowly and steadily, until they only spoke a single word…
“My sisters,” Ethna said, her voice for the first time displaying emotion, something akin to sorrow. “Please. Come back. Do not ruin this for us.”
“Ruin what?” Fae asked, her voice shaking.
Ethna’s green eyes turned on Fae, their startling lack of emotion leaving Fae paralyzed with uncertainty.
“They need help,” Ethna said. “And –”
“Collapse,” Cedna said, repeating it over and over. Ethna went silent, as her blue sister continued to rant the single word. Fae stared at the mid-sized Fate, at the blue eyes that slowly stopped swimming with life, slowly lost their color, until they turned pitch black.
“Collapse,” Frenna said, the whispering part of her voice growing louder with each repetition, as if to overtake her ordinary voice. Slowly, her eyes lost their color too.
“Please,” Ethna said. “They are not always like this. But we haven’t had visitors in so long, so their state has deteriorated. Because of the price –”
Suddenly, Ethna went silent, as if she had said too much.
“What price?” Jupiter asked. “What are you hiding from us?”
“The price for their sanity,” Ethna said. “The price to keep them from succumbing to their sickness… the only thing that keeps them whole… is feeding on the greatest source of life…”
It took Ethna several more moments to speak the words. When she did, Fae’s blood ran cold.
“They need to feed on human souls.”