Fae took the book to a table in the corner of the Mourner’s Collection’s Red Section, and the Star sisters gathered around with her to take a look at it.
Maxwell’s Findings on the Intangible and Illness Collectively Known as Collapse.
Maxwell. The Master of the Basin of Antiquity wasn’t someone Fae expected to think of again, but here was his name on the book they were searching for. And then there was the other word.
First Fae heard of it when talking to Gerick Irsotz on the Plains of the Fallen, when he mentioned the rumors that the artist who came before Fae, Oliver, had been taken by the sickness. Selphine had mentioned it once again, though she thought the rumors less likely. And then…
How strange, that they would escape from creatures infected by Collapse, only to come to a book detailing Collapse. Perhaps finally the mystery of this strange disease, and its corresponding Intangible, would be solved. If anyone knew about it, Maxwell was a likely candidate. He oversaw a repository of knowledge – much of it lost to the rest of the universe – that was far too vast for Fae to know.
Fae found it so strange to think of the world beyond her in such grandiose terms. For so long, Earth was all there was. Sure, there were planets and stars beyond, but everything humans knew about space found it to be eerily uninhabited.
Now, Fae had learned about a whole world beyond her own, something vast and strange and wonderful. She hadn’t found little green aliens, but instead a magical race of people that looked an awful lot like humans. And she’d discovered that “the world” was far too big to be thought or talked about in such small terms.
Still, talking and thinking about the entire universe is going to take some getting used to.
“So the creepy guy with the crystal ball still had information for us,” Mercury said, grinning. “Who would’ve thought?”
“I think calling him creepy is a stretch,” Jupiter said. “He seemed like an all right guy to me.”
“Creepy is definitely not a stretch,” Neptune said, eyeing the book with distaste.
I’m with Jupiter. I mean, looking at us through a crystal ball was way out of bounds, but he also destroyed it when he saw how much it bothered us. And if I was all by myself for the rest of my life… I’d want to know what other people were up to.
He seemed nice. And he wanted to help us with every chance he got. Now he’s managed to help us without even intending to.
“How did a book written by him get here anyway?” Neptune asked. “I thought he was locked away in the Basin of Antiquity.”
“Maybe he wrote it before he took up his post,” Fae suggested. “Or he might have ways of sending things out into the rest of the universe. His domain is a place where things arrive from all over. Maybe he can send things out, too.”
“Does it matter how it got here?” Jupiter asked. “Let’s read it, already. We have two reasons to want to know what’s in here, now.”
Fae nodded. Right. First the Intangibles and my drawings leading me to this symbol, and now the Fates need a cure.
Fae turned to the book’s first page, and the girls began reading.
“Maxwell sure likes to ramble a lot,” Jupiter said, cheeks smushed as her face sunk into her hands. They were only ten pages in, and she was already showing serious signs of boredom.
“All of this seems like an introduction, and not the actual information we need,” Mercury said.
“We can’t afford to skip a single word,” Fae said, reading intently.
Neptune nodded, also still fully engaged. “Don’t lose focus already. We’ve barely started.”
“That’s what makes this terrible,” Jupiter groaned. She sat back, stretching her arms up overhead. “Hey, I’m gonna go see if they have any coffee or anything around here. Does anyone want anything?”
Mercury chuckled. “You’re hopeless,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”
“I’ll take a coffee if you find anything,” Neptune said. “Fae?”
Fae nodded, not speaking as she continued to read. Mercury laughed. “Four coffees. Got it.”
The blonde and redhead wandered off, leaving Fae and Neptune to their reading. Neptune was sitting to Fae’s left, so her blue hair obscured her face to Fae. Still, she was clearly reading intently, and Fae was more focused on the book than on her partner’s expressions.
After twelve pages of rambling preamble, with Maxwell writing about his journey and research in far too specific, dry terminology, they came across their first illustration – the box-within-a-box that marked the cover of the book as well.
“This is the symbol regarding Collapse,” Maxwell’s writings explained. “I do not know where it originated, or how long it has been used as such, but its symbolism is clear. Like looking down into a vast, bottomless pit, as if the ground, the very planet beneath your feet, has collapsed utterly and entirely. This, from what I have seen, is the condition of the soul of those infected with Collapse. Their entire universe has fallen away beneath them, and they are forever falling, with nothing to stand on, nothing to ground them, nothing to tether them to reality, to hope, to life itself. It is a haunting state of existence that causes my entire being to quake with fear and sorrow at the thought of those who must endure it. And so, with this knowledge in hand, I begin my journey in search of knowledge, in search of truth, and, perhaps most importantly, in search of a cure.”
“Let’s hope he succeeded in finding one,” Neptune said as Fae turned the page. Finally, they found their first chapter title: “The Beginnings of the Search, and the Most Vital Questions.”
For several more pages, Maxwell rambled, repeating himself several times, and using far more words than necessary to convey his point. In many ways, though the book had the appearance of a textbook or research document, it read very much like a personal journal. Maxwell didn’t hide any of his feelings, fears, doubts, or hopes, and in fact, for reasons, Fae couldn’t understand yet, it seemed that this one quest – to learn about Collapse, and find a cure for the illness bearing that name – was one that was intimately personal to Maxwell. He talked of this as if it was his life’s journey, as if…
Well. Fae didn’t want to make any assumptions so soon. They weren’t even twenty pages in, and the tome wasn’t exactly a light and breezy one.
The next page of interest was a full-page illustration: a map. It was labeled “Valley of Ruin,” and the map itself certainly fit the name. There were no clear complete buildings, only lots of sketched lines of fallen pillars, collapsed walls, and shattered roofs. The valley ran from the bottom of the page to the top, and was narrowest in the middle. A large bridge, now broken in the center, bridged the narrowest gap, and on either sides of it there were a few ruined towers on the top level of the valley, but most of the remnants of civilization were in the depths of the valley itself. An arrow indicated a dark passage in the left wall of the valley, and the next page explained what that meant.
“I found something I’d never seen before in this place. As my time of wander and adventure is running out, it is fortuitous that I should discover this hidden stair during what may well be my final visit to the Valley of Ruin. In the wall of the Valley, what first looks like natural rock is revealed on the windiest days to have once been the entrance to a temple of some sort. Its visage is frightening, and I am loathe to enter such a haunting place. But the search for answers demands courage, and these long-lost depths are unlikely to be anything truly dangerous.”
The bottom half of that page showed the visage of the temple’s entrance. A hollow opening revealed a wide stairway swiftly descending into dark depths. That doorway was designed to look like the gaping maw of some eldritch abomination, and numerous eyes were carved into the wall above the entrance, lidless and predatory.
“Descending the stair, I find that the black marks on the walls are not paint, but rather ancient bloody stains. How much blood must have soaked into the rocks of these walls to leave these stains centuries later, I cannot fathom, nor do I wish to know. I hear a strange sound in the stale, lifeless air, and it sends a chill down my spine. I fear to even commit its description to writing, but if you are reading this, then you know the danger for my life has passed. The memory still haunts me, as does the memory of what I discovered deep in that place. But those discoveries also served as the first true steps towards truth, a truth that would pierce through the generations of rumors and myths surrounding the mystery of Collapse.”
Maxwell rambled on like that for three more pages, before finally describing the sound, and what else he discovered in the frightful temple.
“The deeper I descend, the more I hear that dreadful sound. Like drums, I thought at first, like drums. But no. Not drums. The sound that pulses through the walls, the floor, the very air in this place… it is like a heartbeat. And as I descended further, and found the bottom of the stairs, I understood why.”
The next page had an illustration from the perspective of the base of the stairs. It was of a vast chamber, and illustrated Maxwell from the back for the sake of scale. He was tiny, barely noticeable, against the enormity of the chamber. The floors had inky black stains, and the corners had bulbous globs of some strange, dark substance. In the center of the chamber was a stone tablet, a monument many times taller and wider than the tiny Maxwell, and on it was painted with the black color that stained the walls and floor, the square symbol for Collapse. High above that, suspended from the ceiling by inky black tendrils that seemed to drip with goo, was a massive blob shaped like a human heart.
“I have heard of the darkness before, studied the prophecies about the Endless Night. I have never seen darkness in physical form until seeing this chamber. I was unable to explore much – the darkness in the corners and on the ceiling despised my presence, and quickly sought to consume me. I escaped unscathed, and managed to learn a lot in a short time, which is fortunate, as I know I will never go back down there. Even now, decades later, I sometimes still hear the awful, pervasive beating of that massive heart.
“But let me not lose you with the terrors of my experience. Let me explain to you what I discovered.”
Maxwell spent the next five pages in dry discourse, using a number of terms that Fae didn’t understand. But from the nature of his prose, it was clear he wasn’t explaining just yet, but rather building to his conclusions. Fae read every single word, so as not to miss important details, but it took those five pages before she found the crux of Maxwell’s discovery.
“Collapse, the Intangible, was constructed. Since some have asked the question of me, I suppose I should clarify – the massive monument with the symbol of Collapse within the temple was not the Intangible itself, but rather a marking, a memorial of what transpired in that chamber. Where the actual Intangible is – and what it actually looks like – I do not yet know. Unlike all other known Intangibles, which are natural elements of the universe, Collapse is synthetic. For what purpose it was made, I do not yet know. What its true nature is, I do not yet know. But I do know that the living darkness had a role in its creation – and, I assume, a role in the destruction of the civilization that once made the Valley of Ruin, well, not a ruin. For whatever reason, these people, or perhaps only a small group of these people, created a temple to worship the living darkness as a deity. Whether it was people or the living darkness itself that created Collapse, I must discover elsewhere, as the clues within that horrific place were not enough to provide complete answers. And where the Intangible itself is provides yet another mystery. All those infected with Collapse – the illness – seek the Intangible as if possessed. They can think of nothing else, and they can seek out no other goal for themselves. And yet, from all we so far know, Collapse – the Intangible – has never once been found. And we can be very grateful of that fact. Knowing even just a part of how Collapse was formed, and by what, makes it clear to me that it spells ruin and disaster should anyone find it and make use of it.”
The final pages of this first chapter – another twelve – were more Maxwell-styled ramblings about his extra days in the Valley of Ruin, exploring the ruins themselves, discovering things that had nothing to do with Collapse. He had a certain air of melancholy to his prose, and more than once spoke of this being “the last time” he would visit the Valley. Finally, the chapter ended, making way for the next, titled “Examining the Illness, its Causes, and its Symptoms: Part One.”
Fae leaned back, stretching her arms overhead, and then tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling – and stretch her neck, which was cramped from leaning over the book. Laying it out on the table so Neptune could read it with her didn’t lead to the most comfortable reading posture. Her eyes also needed a break. They weren’t very far into Maxwell’s book, but aside from a few passages here and there, it was very dry and had taken them quite some time to get this far.
“This is going to take a long time, isn’t it?” Fae asked, rolling her neck slowly to work out the kinks.
“Seems that way,” Neptune said with a sigh. She looked around them, her one visible eye showing a slight amount of concern. “Where are Mercury and Jupiter? It can’t take that long to find out if there’s something to drink in this place.”
“Should we go look for them?” Fae asked. “I could stand to stretch my legs a bit.”
Neptune agreed, so they left their little nook in the corner, Fae carrying the book with her. Out from the Red Section, they looked in either direction, but didn’t see the other two girls on this floor. Leaning out over the rail to look down at the rest of the library, Fae still saw no sign of them. They’d be easy to spot – their two vibrant hair colors were easy to pick out in a crowd. Mercury’s blonde was more golden than any hair Fae had seen, and Jupiter’s red was bright and fiery, unlike any redhead Fae knew. In the drab atmosphere of the City of Anguish, those two girls – and their blue-haired sister – stuck out in a big way.
Down the stairs they went, back to the ground floor, and wandered towards the entrance. There, they spotted that two of their four umbrellas were missing.
“So they went outside,” Neptune said, sighing as she shook her head. “Those two are always so restless. It’s hard to get them to sit still for anything.”
“I gave them directions.”
The voice came from Julia, still manning the service desk. She brushed her bangs aside and adjusted her glasses, smiling at Fae and Neptune. “They said they wanted to get some coffees, so I told them about a few options,” she said. “I can’t be sure if any one place will be open, you know? People will just close down shop for any reason, though mostly due to crushing sadness. It’s a very strange city. Did you want to go after them?”
Fae shook her head. “I think it’s fine,” she said. “If they don’t come back in too long, maybe we’ll send out a search party.”
“You never know what kind of trouble Mercury will get up to in this city,” Neptune said with a frown. “She treats it like a playground, but the people, no matter how funny she thinks they are, are still people. I hope she doesn’t cause too much trouble out there.”
“Did you find the book you were looking for?” Julia asked. Fae nodded and, figuring it was harmless to show her, passed the book across the desk to the girl. When Julia opened it, she gasped at the title. “An entire book on Collapse? This… this is amazing! Do you know how many scholars would pay their entire life savings for this?”
“Information on Collapse is really that rare, huh?” Fae asked.
Julia nodded, her eyes alight with excitement. “Oh yes!” she said. “I studied it for a term paper, and had to abandon the entire project and choose a new topic, because there’s simply so little knowledge about it, and the majority of what we ‘know’ about Collapse is rumor at best.” She held up the heavy tome, letting out a breathless sigh. “Libraries are truly treasure troves, and this is, undoubtedly, the greatest treasure I’ve found at such a trove.”
Fae found herself smiling at Julia’s enthusiasm. Certainly, Collapse was a grim subject, and yet the desire for knowledge, especially on true mysteries of the universe, was something that Fae could get excited about. Learning something that no one else knew was, indeed, like finding buried treasure.
“When you finish with it, be sure to tell me,” Julia said, sliding the book back to Fae. “I’d love to read it myself. Don’t worry, though – I won’t sell it or anything. It’s library property, after all. Library books aren’t meant to be sold off to the highest bidder.”
Fae smiled all the more. Julia and Shana would get along so well.
Fae and Neptune made their way back up to the Red Section, which was still unoccupied, leaving them with a quiet corner in which to resume their reading. The second chapter was largely dry and rambling. The content focused on actual individuals infected with Collapse, which sounded like it would be interesting (and largely relevant to Fae and Star sisters’ recent encounter), but was mostly talking to witnesses of Collapse victims, rather than actually encountering those infected. As Maxwell said:
“Each day becomes more and more dreary and drudgerous, as I fail to find any actual victims of Collapse. I know that they exist – how could I not, with such overwhelming evidence? – and yet they are far more elusive than I had hoped. Of course, knowing from eyewitness accounts that those infected with Collapse – hereafter dubbed ‘Collapsed’ – are tremendously violent and cannot be reasoned with means that I must be cautious, and count my blessings that I have not been accosted by a Collapsed in my long life. Still, learning from others about these Collapsed helps me to gain a broader understanding of the illness, and how and why it might show the symptoms it does, considering its connection to the elusive, synthetic Intangible that continues to remain only a shadow, untouchable and unfindable. Why do these people seek out the Intangible with such mindless, reckless abandon? Does the Intangible, from its unknowable distance, cause the sickness? Is the sickness an unintended byproduct of the creation of the Intangible? What will happen should a Collapsed, in fact, find the Intangible they so desperately desire? I fear that it will unleash ruin and destruction, but how can I be certain? I must continue this pursuit. I must learn more.”
After several more pages of ramblings and frustrations, Fae turned the page and gasped. There, taking up the entire page, was an illustration of a boy whose face she knew well, if only from seeing pictures and moving images of him.
“Oliver,” Neptune said, as surprised as Fae.
It was Oliver as a boy, when he still had light and joy in his eyes. He seemed to be posing for the illustration, holding out a sketchbook with a proud smile on his face. And yet what was drawn on the sketchbook made Fae’s eyes go wide.
It was the box-within-a-box. The symbol of Collapse.
This wasn’t the same as the actual, simplistic symbol that Fae had drawn, and that Maxwell had discovered in the temple. Oliver had taken artistic liberties with his. The two boxes actually looked like a proper square pit, and the shading along the “walls” of the pit…
Fae stared. There were inky black splotches, like the stains that Maxwell described in the temple, and that she’d seen on the floor of the chamber in the earlier illustration. Oliver’s rendition of the Collapse pit symbol was stained with blood. Whether the smiling boy knew what he had drawn was a mystery, but Fae’s eyes were glued to each and every word as she read further.
“This boy, Oliver, is a very curious individual. He is, in fact, a human. I have not encountered a human before – I don’t frequent Starlight Spires, and my journeys often take me to the fringes of the Dominion, so I rarely have the opportunity. You may notice he has a very frightening drawing of the symbol for Collapse. The boy knows nothing of what he has drawn, but he is quite proud of it, and excited about it. He says that a voice ‘told me to draw this.’ When pressed for more details, he says that every single line, every splotch, every smudge, is not of his own creative thought. His pride comes from how perfectly he drew something when the only instructions he had were verbal. And certainly, for a boy his age, that is a remarkable feat.
“Unfortunately, my time with Oliver was short. He appears to have come into the care of Selphine Miora, but curiously, he has not shown her this drawing. With a cheeky grin, he whispered to me ‘it’s my secret drawing.’ I confess I cannot fathom the mind of a child, and so I am torn. Part of me feels as if I should be horrified with this revelation, and the simplistic humor with which Oliver treats it. Part of me thinks it more appropriate to see this seeming childish innocence as actual innocence. Though if he is innocent of his drawing, and whatever mysterious voice told him to draw it, I suspect he will not remain innocent for long.
“Why do I have this in a section on Collapsed? I had thought to include it later, but I realized, as I was organizing this tome in its finality, that it is important to mention Oliver here. There are many rumors now, long after I first met the boy, that he has succumbed to Collapse – that he has become one of the Collapsed. Others dispute this claim, so it is far from a certainty. What is irrefutable is that Oliver, several decades after I met him, vanished. I have asked Selphine Miora about him, but she grieves as if her own son has left. I do not have the heart to press her for information. All I could gather is that she watched him walk out the door one day, and she knew, before he left, that it would be the last time she would see him. All she would say otherwise is ‘I should have helped him sooner.’ By all accounts, she had been caring for Oliver since he was a child. I do not know how much sooner she could have reached him. Though, I confess, I have never been a parent, and never very well knew or understood my own parents. I am not very well-versed in familial relationships – or any sorts of relationships, for that matter. It is a personal failing on my part, and now, in the wake of speaking with Miss Miora, I find this a far more grievous failing than I once believed. Knowledge is a noble pursuit, and a valuable possession, but understanding… that is something greater. And in this entire mysterious tale of the boy Oliver and the man he became, I find I so greatly lack in understanding that I am completely lost, set adrift and wondering if my pursuit of knowledge is entirely fruitless.
“Of course, you will find as you read this, that my pursuit was not in vain. Though I may never obtain understanding regarding people and relationships, I do attain a great deal of valuable knowledge that will hopefully aid you, the readers, in finding an understanding that I could not.”
With that, the second chapter was concluded, and Fae and Neptune sat back and stretched. And then, they simply sat, silent in their thoughts, considering all they had read so far.
“Knock, knock,” came the voice of Mercury, accompanied by her lightly rapping her knuckles against a bookshelf. She and Jupiter joined them, each carrying a steaming mug in either hand. Both girls were mostly dry, though the edges of their shoulders were slightly damp.
“What in the world took you two so long?” Neptune asked. Mercury just giggled, setting her mugs down in front of Neptune and Fae, then took one of Jupiter’s mugs. The pair sat down, Mercury grinning, and Jupiter looking like she would have rather stayed here, bored and tired, than gone out into the city.
“Two of the shops were closed,” Jupiter said, frowning. “One had too long of a wait because no one had ever heard of the term ‘hustle.’”
“Well, you shouldn’t have told them to hurry up,” Mercury said, laughing. “I mean, it was pretty funny watching them have panic attacks, but it also guaranteed we weren’t going to get anything in a timely fashion.”
Jupiter groaned. “Finally, the fourth and last stop, we were able to get coffee.” She also emptied a bag on the table, causing little single-serve packets of cream and sugar, and four metal spoons, to clatter onto the table. “But it was really far away, and it was still a long wait, so I learned my lesson and didn’t get grumpy with anyone.”
“I thought about doing it for you,” Mercury said, “but I figured you’d suffered enough. You don’t see the humor in this place.”
“Tormenting people isn’t very humorous,” Neptune said, emptying a single packet each of cream and sugar into her mug and stirring. “I’m surprised these are still hot if it was so far away and you had to carry them in the rain.”
“We’re just that awesome,” Mercury said, flashing a pair of thumbs-ups.
“Did you learn anything useful?” Jupiter asked wearily. “Please tell me you did, and you can explain it to me a lot faster than Maxwell’s writing can.”
Fae nodded, and began describing what they’d learned in the first two chapters. Of course, learning they’d only made it through two chapters got a long groan out of Jupiter, but she became steadily more interested as she heard about the actual contents of those chapters. Neptune occasionally politely interjected, and when they were finished, Jupiter and Mercury sat back for a few moments in silence.
“Well,” Mercury said. “That’s a lot of stuff.”
“You are remarkably eloquent sometimes,” Neptune said.
“So Collapse the Intangible was made in a creepy temple, there’s living darkness involved, and little artist Oliver was told by a voice to draw a super-detailed version of the symbol,” Jupiter said. “This is freaky.”
“I feel so sad for Selphine,” Mercury said. “And she seemed so sad when weleft, too. We really need to visit her again when we can. I don’t want her to lose hope in us like she did in Oliver.”
Fae nodded. She had much to do, and a long journey ahead of her, but she wouldn’t forget who helped point her way forward. Selphine Miora was very special to Fae, and she knew that any chance she got, she’d return to Eventide Archive to speak with her.
As the sisters talked, Fae flipped back to the illustration of Oliver as a child. Staring at it, she felt some of the same conflict that Maxwell described. She was horrified that the boy was grinning while holding such a disturbing image. But she also couldn’t be sure if the boy was completely innocent or not – and if he was, who could fault him for feeling pride in his work?
More than anything, though, Fae knew much of who Oliver had turned into. The images of him as an adult – jaded and broken, obsessive and lost – provided such a harsh, vivid contrast against this portrait of a smiling young boy.
I won’t let my own journey change me like it did you, Oliver. Whatever happened to you, I’ll find out – for Selphine’s sake, and my own. But I also won’t let myself be overcome with obsession. I might have an advantage over you…
Fae looked around the table at the amicably chatting Star sisters, and she smiled.
I’m not alone.