“They need to feed on human souls.”
Ethna’s words sent a chill down Fae’s spine. To her right and left, Cedna and Frenna continued to repeat that horrifying word:
“I think we might want to leave,” Mercury whispered.
“I can’t allow that,” Ethna said, her emotionless green eyes staring at the girls. “The Enchanted Dominion needs the three Fates. I must not allow my sisters to fall to this infection.”
“Since when do human souls cure Collapse?” Jupiter asked.
She shouldn’t have said the word. Cedna and Frenna turned on Jupiter, staring her down as they repeated with more frantic energy.
“It isn’t a cure,” Ethna said. “But it abates the sickness, restores their minds, if only temporarily. You four came just in time.”
“We really should go,” Neptune said, her voice an even softer whisper than Mercury’s.
Fae agreed. But for some reason, her legs wouldn’t move. It wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t a trap.
Fae was just so frightened, and confused, that she couldn’t bring herself to move.
“Help,” she said softly. “I can’t… I can’t move on my own.”
“Don’t leave,” Ethna said. “We need you.”
“And we need to get out of here,” Jupiter said. She grabbed Fae by the strap of her shoulder bag and pulled.
That was enough. Fae was moving, and now she wouldn’t stop. Turning towards the stairs, she barreled down them as fast as she could, with the Star sisters racing alongside her.
“You cannot escape!” Ethna’s voice called, echoing off of the black rock walls all around them. “No one does. No one can. You must serve a power higher than yourselves.”
“No thanks,” Mercury said.
The path down the stairs was suddenly blocked by a high wall of scarlet flames. Fae only avoided walking right into it by the sisters grabbing and pulling her back at the very last second. The heat from the fire seared her skin, and Fae’s heart pounded in her chest.
“Now what?” Jupiter asked.
Fae looked around, spying an opening in the wall. “Through here!” she shouted, racing through the narrow doorway.
Now they were in a long, narrow corridor. It sloped steadily downwards, winding back and forth on itself, and then going on straight for long stretches before suddenly turning. Haunting sounds echoed all around her. Moans and wails, screams and shouts. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of voices.
“What is this?” Mercury asked. She touched the wall, and jumped back as the dark hall was suddenly brightly illuminated.
All around them, on either side, were prison cells. In these cells were so many people that Fae’s heart caught in her throat. They looked so gaunt and lifeless, and yet they had just enough strength to cry out, to beg for mercy, for freedom.
“Help us,” came a raspy, deathly moan from next to Fae. A woman who was no more than skin and bones at this point stared at her with hollow, sunken eyes. She barely had enough strength to raise her hand, but she managed to place it against the bars of her cell, only for a moment, before it fell to her waist.
“They look…” Neptune said, staring in horror. “I don’t… I don’t understand.”
“They look like they’ve had part of their souls sucked away,” Fae said, her heart barely believing her words.
Was this what she came all this way to discover? That the Fates were monsters, feeding on human souls, keeping captives in these disgusting cells?
Why had her drawings brought her here for this?
The halls rumbled, and voices echoed along the walls, wordless but clearly coming from the alien, powerful Fates.
“We should keep moving, before we end up like the rest of these people,” Mercury said.
On the girls ran, through the halls of prison cells, with Fae wondering if they would find an escape… or only delve deeper into the trap the Fates had prepared for them.
Soon they emerged from the prisons onto a wider staircase which ran both up and down. The girls chose to descend, but were soon stopped as walls of scarlet flame blossomed to life both in front of and behind them, trapping them entirely.
“Now what?” Jupiter asked.
Fae’s mind raced, and suddenly she realized something. “I haven’t tested this specific move before,” Fae said, pulling out one of her stylus Talismans, “but other similar techniques have worked in the past, and the theory is sound.”
“Whatever it is, if it gets us out of here, I’m all for it,” Jupiter said.
Fae nodded, and raised her Talisman. Focusing on the air before her as if it were a physical wall, she began to draw.
The tip of her stylus glowed with purple light, and as Fae drew, the light left a trail behind it. Lines and shapes were formed, floating in the air, staying true to their developing shape. Soon, Fae stopped, checking her work. Before her, floating in the air, was the image of a purple wave from the ocean racing towards the shore. She tapped the drawing with her stylus once, and it floated forward, into the wall of fire. The wave burst in violet sparks, spreading all across the flames, and…
The fire was extinguished. As if water had been poured onto the wall of flame, it hissed with steam, receding and sputtering, but unable to keep its shape. Within seconds, the path down was clear once more.
“That was –” Jupiter started.
“Admire it on the way,” Mercury said, shoving her sister forward. The girls ran together, descending the stairs, and Fae found a small smile on her face.
I haven’t used magic in a long time. And I’ve never tried that particular technique, but it worked perfectly.
The halls shuddered and shook, the moaning wail of the Fates echoing all around them, and Fae’s smile quickly faded. This wasn’t the time for admiring her work. They needed to find their way to the ship and get away from here.
“I can hear water,” Neptune said. There was an opening in the wall to the right, and she led them through it. “This way.”
“You’d better be right about this,” Jupiter said, following after her with Mercury and Fae close behind.
“Please,” came the voice of Ethna, reverberating all around them, though she had a sad, tragic sound to her voice. “Don’t leave. My sisters…”
Her voice faded as the girls exited the dark hall and out on to the dock, with the ship waiting in the water before them.
“Don’t leave!” Ethna cried, and the whole chamber shook around them so violently that the girls struggled to keep their feet under them. Jupiter stumbled completely, but Mercury kept her from falling, and soon all four were aboard the ship.
“Where to, ladies?” came the disembodied voice of the captain, as if it was a perfectly lovely day without any freakish screaming or tremors. “I can take you anywhere in the Dominion, within reason, though if it isn’t the Crimson Docks, I’ll have to leave you where I take you.”
Fae’s mind raced. Did they go back to the Docks? Was that the best choice?
Where else could they go?
Anywhere, huh? And we have plenty of places we still need to visit, and questions that need answers. I don’t want to go back.
“Just take us b–” Mercury started.
“The City of Anguish!” Fae shouted.
Instantly, the boat was in motion. For a moment, it simply reversed out of the Fates’ Dwelling, slow and steady, no hurry at all.
And then, as it had when it took the girls to the Fates, everything changed. Fae saw every part of her vision stretch, distort, and warp around her, until she couldn’t tell up from down. Her eyes were ringing, her heart did flips, and she realized that she really should have taken a seat before offering a destination. Colors flashed by, vivid and bright and swirling, and then they became more subdued. Up above her, the kaleidoscopic sight was made of dark blues, greys, and blacks, while the sides, lower area, and center contained more greys with flashes of muted reds and yellows.
Slowly, the strange sights squashed back together, falling into place, and sound came back to Fae.
She wasn’t at the Crimson Docks. She wasn’t even on the ship anymore.
She was on her knees in the middle of a dark street, and it was quite wet. What was that sound?
Oh. It was raining.
“Great,” Jupiter said, rising and slicking back her red hair, which was already drenched. “Just great. Can we get off the street?”
The girls headed to the left, where a dingy outdoor café had an extended canopy blocking off the rain. Taking seats around a small table, the Star sisters stared at Fae.
“So…” Jupiter started, her expression blank, “why’d you send us here?”
Fae felt nervous under the three-way scrutiny, but she reached into her bag and pulled out one of the objects from the Basin of Antiquity: a leather box. Inside was a tattered scrap of weathered parchment, with the message: “Anguish. Collection. Red. Top shelf.”
“Oh, right,” Jupiter said, groaning. Her hands were constantly going to her soaked hair, desperately trying to get it to its usual spiky, wild style.
“So we need to find the Mourner’s Collection,” Fae said. “And then ask about the other clues: red, and top shelf.”
“May I get you anything?” a waiter asked, trudging up to the girls. He was dressed all in black, with a black waist apron sloppily tied, and a black notebook in hand.
“We’re fine for now,” Mercury said.
“Oh,” the man said, his face crestfallen. He turned to leave. “That’s… fine… I’ll just… leave…” As he trudged away, he started sniffling, and the sniffling quickly turned to open weeping, even as he walked to take another table’s order.
Fae looked around the table in confusion, only to see Mercury trying and failing to hold back giddy laughter. “I love this place so much,” the blonde said, shaking her head. “Everyone’s so dramatic.”
“Shouldn’t we have asked for directions?” Neptune asked.
“Right, probably,” Mercury said, giggling away. “We can ask someone else, I’m sure.”
“We need to do something about this rain,” Fae said, staring out at the street.
The sky over the City of Anguish was a dark, dismal grey, and rain poured down from above unabated. It wasn’t a storm, or a wild downpour, but it beat down steadily and constantly. There was hardly any wind to speak of, so the rain fell almost straight down, as if the clouds themselves were weeping onto the city.
The paved streets were grey, and the buildings were all built out of a drab, grey stone. There were occasional splashes of color here and there: signs for shops and restaurants were painted with muted colors, and occasionally the drapes over someone’s upper floor window were bright, rather than the constant grey. Blue was a frequent color as well, not that it helped the nondescript look of the city all that much.
The cafe the girls sat at was on the perimeter of a city plaza – a large, open circle with a stone fountain in the center. The fountain didn’t spray water up into the air, but instead let it fall down from the statue at its center, one of a man and woman clutching each other tightly, their heads tilted sideways and contorted in, fittingly, anguish. Their eyes were where the water came from, pouring down onto the first tier of the fountain, and then filling and overflowing down to the second, and then finally third and bottom tier.
There weren’t many people outside, but the few Fae saw carried umbrellas, though they didn’t always use them properly. Befitting the city’s name, everyone looked sad, depressed, or worse. One man wandered back and forth out in the center of the plaza, openly weeping, his umbrella often tilting too far to one side or the other, causing him to get drenched.
The man didn’t seem to notice. He was far too busy being sad.
“Before we go anywhere…” Mercury started, “shouldn’t we, I dunno, talk about what just happened? What’s going on with the Fates?”
“Two have succumbed to Collapse,” Neptune said. “It appears they found a temporary solution by feeding on souls.”
“Not just any souls,” Mercury said. “Human souls. Realize how weird that is?”
Fae took a second, and then her eyes widened. “Human,” she said. “So it doesn’t include Enchanted.”
Mercury nodded. “I wonder what that’s all about,” she said. “And I’ve never heard of anything about treating the symptoms of Collapse with a gross diet of human souls.”
“But the people we saw… they weren’t dead,” Fae said, thinking. “It’s like… like they’re only taking parts of their souls. Unless there’s somewhere else that we didn’t see, where the dead go. But there were so many in those prisons, if they were truly desperate, you’d think they wouldn’t have so many people still alive.”
“So you can’t die from having your soul consumed?” Jupiter asked, scoffing. “Sounds pretty far-fetched to me.”
“And yet they had many human captives still alive,” Neptune said.
“So what do we do?” Mercury asked. “Fae needed to see the Fates. Her drawings called her there, but they couldn’t help her.”
“So maybe it was just a trap,” Jupiter said. “Maybe the calling came from the Fates, so they could have another soul to feast on.”
“I don’t think so,” Fae said, hand to her chin as she thought. “It feels like the same calling inspired all of the drawings, from each of the three paths. And the drawings for the Intangibles so far haven’t led us astray. I think…” She paused, because the next part sounded crazy to her. “I think we need to find a way to save the Fates from Collapse. We need to find an actual cure, not their terrible symptom-stopper.”
“But how?” Jupiter asked.
“We’re heading to a library here, right?” Neptune asked. “We can look for books on Collapse after we find the book that clue is leading us to.”
“We’ll have to trudge through all this rain, though,” Fae said.
“We can get umbrellas almost anywhere,” Mercury said, her cheerfulness and humor practically a blazing sun in the center of this dismal atmosphere. “We can ask anyone and they’ll give theirs up without a fuss, though that’s pretty mean – even if it is kind of funny. But they also have free umbrellas for use in every shop.”
“Like this one,” Neptune said, raising her hand. The despondent waiter returned, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve.
“Yes?” he asked, a brief flicker of hope on his face.
“Could we get four umbrellas, please?” Neptune asked.
“Oh, you’re not…” The waiter’s face fell again. “You’re not eating anything.” He turned away to head inside the café’s interior, and was sobbing when he returned with four jet-black umbrellas. “Have a… a… have a day.” He wandered away, briefly stumbling out into the street, where he was instantly soaked, before trudging back under the canopy, not even bearing to look up at anyone.
“Is everyone like that?” Fae asked.
“In their own way,” Mercury said, spinning her umbrella. “There’s tons of variety here. You’ll get wailers, shriekers, silent criers, snifflers… and then there are the passive-aggressive ones. They’re the funniest, because they try to take out their depression on you, but if you start crying, they start crying, and if you smile, then they practically lose their minds. It’s hilarious.”
“You’re awfully mean-spirited sometimes,” Neptune said, rolling her eyes. She unfurled her umbrella, stepping out into the street. “Shall we go find someone to ask for directions?”
“Ooh, can I pick the person to ask?” Mercury asked, following her blue-haired sister.
“That’s a terrible idea,” Jupiter said, glad to have her umbrella as she walked out into the rain. Fae followed after the sisters, and they started towards the far end of the plaza.
“There are plenty of signs around here,” Neptune said. “We won’t need to ask for directions at all.”
“That’s so boring,” Mercury said, pouting as they strolled the rainy streets.
Signs led them out of the wide plaza and down a regular road. The streets here were relatively wide – wide enough for easy vehicular travel, and yet Fae didn’t see the slightest signs of cars, trolleys, or even horse-drawn buggies. It was all foot traffic here – not that there was much traffic to speak of. Those who were out on the streets tended to move quite slowly, and rarely in a straight line. Weaving back and forth, mumbling to themselves, sniffling, even openly weeping, the people of the City of Anguish certainly didn’t get anywhere quickly. Many of them didn’t even seem like they had a destination in mind. And as she walked, Fae got the sense that this wasn’t just a city full of sad people. It was as if depression and anguish had seeped into the stone of the streets, the metal of the lamp posts, the clouds in the sky, the rain itself. While there were stores and restaurants, and people working there, they didn’t seem to operate like regular businesses. Employees strolled in seemingly whenever they wanted, and wandered away whenever they got bored, or sad, or too emotionally compromised to go on working for the day. Fae saw one woman dressed like a waiter turn people away from the restaurant she seemingly worked at, saying “The owner is just too sad. I’m sorry, but we won’t be opening today.”
The craziest thing to Fae was that everyone who was turned away seemed to understand perfectly, nodding their heads, or even weeping on behalf of the restaurant’s owner.
Fae looked at Mercury, and was stunned by the childish joy on the girl’s face. She had said she loved this place, and Fae could, on a logical level, understand why someone might find all of the over the top, dramatic sadness permeating the very air itself to be humorous.
But in her heart, Fae found the city deeply disturbing.
And there must be… how many people living here? Thousands? Tens of thousands?
And they’re all like this? Every single day?
An elderly man bumped into a middle-aged woman by accident. She turned on him, venom in her eyes as she screamed at him to “Watch where you’re going, you blundering idiot!” And yet, as soon as the sobbing man apologized to her, the fire left her eyes. She fell back against the wall, a hand to her chest, and tears started streaming down her face as then she, too, apologized to the man.
Mercury was laughing under her breath.
Fae couldn’t at all see what was so funny.
“Hey, what was that magic you used back in the Dwelling?” Jupiter asked.
Fae blinked, for a moment lost in her observations of the place. “Oh,” she said. “That’s just Energy Magic.”
Jupiter pursed her lips in thought. “I’ve never seen it used that way,” she said. “Or even heard of it. Isn’t Energy Magic just shooting beams and stuff at people?”
“That’s the simplest application of it,” Fae said. “But Energy Magic is all about harnessing energy – in the air, in the buildings, in the plants, in your own body – and then making use of it. It can also be used to generate or create energy of various kinds, though that has more limitations.”
“So… how does yours work?” Jupiter asked.
“I just…” Fae thought for a moment about how to explain it. “I use drawings. They help me concentrate on what I want to do, but I also found that making something more concrete, taking time on it, being detailed and complex, helps you do more detailed and complex things. So for the wall of fire, I drew water. It didn’t create water, but it was able to have the same effect as water on the fire, extinguishing it. But I had to draw a large wave, because it was a lot of fire. I wasn’t sure how much to use – I haven’t put out fires before.”
“I don’t entirely understand,” Jupiter said, “but you basically just draw what you want to happen, and it happens?” Fae nodded, and Jupiter’s face lit up. “That is so flipping cool!”
“That’s a huge oversimplification, and I have limits, but yeah, basically,” Fae said, unable to contain a smile at Jupiter’s enthusiasm.
“Here we go,” Neptune said, turning left. “The Mourner’s Collection.”
The road widened, turning into a circular perimeter around a very large building. It was four very tall stories high, with a wide domed roof, and was surrounded by…
The fenced field surrounding the Mourner’s Collection was a cemetery.
“Sure lives up to its name, huh?” Mercury asked, her chipper tone very much out of place with the scenery.
“It’s quieter than anywhere else,” Fae noticed.
There were plenty of people walking the gravel paths of the cemetery, some weeping before graves, and yet they were all very quiet about it. There weren’t any screamers or shriekers, and no one cried very loudly. There was an air of reverence that surprised Fae.
“Let’s get inside,” Jupiter said. “I want to know what the note points to.”
“Yeah, we don’t even know which Intangible it’s connected to,” Neptune said. “Even Selphine didn’t know what the symbol was supposed to represent, and the note didn’t explain that.”
“We’re probably about to find out,” Fae said. They strode up the walkway, and then up a set of stairs to the enter through the Collection’s large glass front doors. Inside, the sound of the rain faded away, and the silence was surprising. There were occasional sniffs here and there, but, like the cemetery outside, people seemed to understand that, however sad they might be, there were certain places where decency and respect dictated a level of self-control.
The interior of the Mourner’s Collection was very much a library. There were aisles of books clearly visible right away from the entrance hall, as well as reference desks and study areas, and there were a number of paintings on the walls. The entrance hall was small, a brief area to deposit wet umbrellas with a service desk manned by a lonely-looking teen girl, who was reading a book with silent tears tracking paths down her cheeks.
Even from the entrance, Fae could see that the Collection had a rather interesting style to it. The first floor was fairly ordinary but, despite the library being four stories tall, there wasn’t a clear ceiling. Across on the other side of the building, Fae could see a second level running across the wall, like a full-perimeter balcony, lined with books. And above that was a third balcony, and then a fourth. So the center of the library was wide open to the ceiling, a strange choice in Fae’s mind for a place that seemed all about drab colors and dreary atmosphere. Even in the dull grey City of Anguish, having such a spacious center area allowed in a surprising amount of natural light, and, at least compared to the rest of what Fae had seen of the city, looked a little bit cheerful.
“You should do the asking, right?” Mercury asked softly, nudging Fae towards the service desk. Fae felt like she shouldn’t bother the poor girl – she looked completely engrossed in her novel, and for once Fae didn’t feel like her tears were out of place. Fae had cried her eyes out for plenty of fictional characters. She didn’t want to disturb such a private moment.
Then again, who else could she ask?
“Excuse me,” Fae said softly, walking up to the girl. The girl’s large, blue eyes snapped up, staring at Fae in shock.
Yep. I’ve been there, too. Totally oblivious to the outside world when reading a book.
“C-can I help you?” the girl asked, grabbing a handkerchief from the side of the desk, adjusting her glasses and hastily wiping her face. She didn’t look much younger than Fae and the Star sisters. Her dark blonde hair was tied back in a loose braid, and her glasses had almond-shaped lenses nested in silver frames. Her eyes had a bright, lively inquisitiveness to them that Fae hadn’t seen in the faces of anyone else in the city so far, and it was a welcome sight.
“I have this note,” Fae said, handing over the note to the girl. “I was wondering if you could make something out of it?”
The girl looked over the tattered parchment several times, then nodded. “Red,” she said. “That would be the Red Section, on the third floor. And top shelf… well, you’ll have a lot to search through with only that to go on, but it does narrow things down a bit. Do you have any other information to help you search?”
To Fae’s utter surprise, the girl smiled.
“Hey, hold on a second,” Mercury said, leaning on the desk and staring at the girl. “You’re not a resident of this city, are you?”
The girl laughed – such a strange sound in this place – and shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “I’m from Starlight Spires. I’m here on a research trip, but the people here needed someone to man the service desk, because, well, first the main desk assistant got sick, then the main librarian got sick, then the reference leader was ‘too sorrowful to work,’ then the owner of the Collection was ‘utterly despondent,’ which is also code for too sad to work, and then all of the backup librarians ran out because ‘how can we go on when our superiors are so sad and ill?’ and that left an empty service desk with no one to run it. So, I figured I’d help out. Sure is a strange city, isn’t it?” She held out her hand. “I’m Julia. I hope you find what you’re looking for, and if you need anymore assistance, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve been here for two weeks and have basically been living in the Collection, so I know my way around really well.”
Fae and the Star sisters introduced themselves to Julia, thanked her, and then followed her directions to the opposite side of the library and up to the third floor. Every section of the Collection was color-coded, and their destination – the Red Section – was tucked away in a dark, cramped corner. There were a dozen large shelves in all, but they were so tightly packed that it was hard to squeeze between them. To reach the top shelf of any of them, the girls needed to wheel a ladder in ahead of them, positioning it very carefully before climbing.
One after another, they carefully examined each tome. They didn’t know what they were looking for, but Fae had an idea to start with: the symbol that paired up with the leather box, inside which they’d found the note. It was a curious symbol – a dark square inside of a lighter square, with lines running from each corner of the inside square out to the corners of the outside square. To Fae, it looked like a simplistic rendition of looking down into a deep, dark pit.
Their journey started with searching for the pit-square symbol, and five shelves in, they hadn’t found it. Even though they were looking at just the covers and spines of each book to start, it was still slow-going. How could they know how large or small the symbol might be, if it were on one of these books? It could be cleverly hidden. They couldn’t afford to be sloppy.
It was on the ninth shelf that Fae found it. The square-pit symbol was right there on the book’s spine, and again on its front and back cover, large and clear, as if in place of a title, since there were no words on the cover. The book was a large and heavy tome, with a hard cover backed by grey leather, while the two nested squares of the symbol were white for the outer one and black for the inner one.
“So?” Mercury asked, leaning over Fae’s shoulder as she took it to a table for all of them to see. “What’s it about?”
Fae opened up the cover to the first page of the book, and there they found the title.
“That’s one heck of a coincidence,” Mercury said, staring.
After what they’d been through with the Fates, Fae had to agree.
The book’s title was: Maxwell’s Findings on the Intangible and Illness Collectively Known as Collapse.