Arc II Chapter 48: Riddles in Rhyme

 

Fae leaned against the rail, tablet in one hand, stylus in the other. While she was standing over the large central atrium of the Mourner’s Collection, that wasn’t what she was drawing, instead letting her imagination and her thoughts guide her hand. Drawing was always soothing to her – except when it was frustrating which, as with any other creative pursuit, did happen from time to time – and she needed something soothing right now. She’d spent three days so far in that corner of the library reading Maxwell’s book with the Star sisters.

Too much time with too little space with too many people. I really needed this break.

It seemed all four of the girls had. Mercury had gone out into the city – to torment the locals, no doubt – and didn’t plan to be back until the evening. Jupiter had found that the library had soundproof study rooms, and she’d converted one into a practice room and was wailing away on her drums. Neptune, meanwhile, was chatting with Julia at the service desk.

Julia had been a big help as the days wore on. Since she’d been working at the Mourner’s Collection, she’d also taken up living there. She’d found there were bedrooms, probably for employees, and since she had the master key to the library, she also had access to the rest of the keys. Because of her generosity, Fae and the Star sisters had free lodging for as long as their research journey took.

Fae’s drawing came to her like magic, but not in the way that the magical drawings that had set her on this journey did. In fact, she hadn’t had one of what she’d come to call “Enchanted Drawings” since coming to the Enchanted Dominion. But she was still able to get into the zone where her hand seemed almost to move on its own, and things came very easily to her.

It’s a good thing, too. I really don’t need to have a bad drawing day today.

She’d taken to drawing exclusively on her tablet while here. Since she was part of a group, and highly valued her privacy, she stuck with tablet and stylus. Password protection was not a feature in her paper sketchbooks.

Fae’s drawing took shape into a picture of Shana, on the night they’d met to go to the Falling Stars show. She was smiling, as she always was, and was wearing her hat, apparently her favorite hat, the one that Fae had gifted to her for Christmas so very long ago. Though the drawing wasn’t exactly like the memory – at Shana’s side was her little blue Summon, Altair, though in this drawing he was just black-and-white. Fae didn’t feel like applying color.

For a moment, staring at the finished drawing, Fae smiled. She missed her sister dearly, and a lot of that had to do with timing.

We were just starting to get close again, after so long and so much distance. And then… well, to her it must look like I seriously abandoned her. What’s going through her mind?

Shana, please don’t be mad at me.

Fae flipped back through some of the other drawings she’d made on her tablet here at the Mourner’s Collection. Some were characters from her favorite shows and video games, others were original characters whose stories existed mostly in Fae’s mind. But many of these drawings were clearly Fae trying to work out what they’d discovered so far from Maxwell’s journal.

They’d taken to calling it his journal because it read very much like one, and the actual title of the book was too long for how often they talked about and referred to it. So far, they were halfway through it, and there was still no sign of a cure. Maxwell’s journey to discover the truth behind Collapse was a winding one, and no one could say he wasn’t being thorough. He left no stone unturned, followed every lead, and with every chapter – with every page, really – Fae found herself respecting the mysterious Master of the Basin of Antiquity more and more.

I wish we hadn’t left him on such bad terms.

Fae’s drawings relating to Maxwell’s journal weren’t anything close to polished – sketches, scribbles, Fae’s way of taking notes and distilling thoughts into some sort of form she could more easily work with. She wasn’t much for words – that was Caleb’s domain, he was constantly thinking out loud when he thought no one was looking, which had driven Fae crazy when they both still lived together at Greyson Manor – and her sketches probably didn’t look like more than their physical form to someone else. But to Fae, they were detailed, if messy, notes on everything that had gone through her head in the last few days.

In a way, they were Fae’s journal.

From the Valley of Ruin, Maxwell had then traveled to another Location Fae hadn’t heard of yet – the Forlorn Peaks. Fae had made several sketches of the Peaks and, more importantly, the frightening sights below.

The Forlorn Peaks were a misty valley that appeared be made up of tall spires of rock jutting out from an impenetrable layer of fog. Or so it seemed. The reality was that the fog was, in fact, penetrable, and Maxwell had climbed below to discover something quite terrifying. He’d drawn it the best he could, and Fae had extrapolated on those drawings, her sketches a combination of Maxwell’s illustrations and his notes on what he’d seen.

Beneath the fog was darkness. Not just any darkness – living darkness, the kind that Maxwell had encountered deep in that temple within the Valley of Ruin. It was a festering, roiling blackness, filled with sharp tentacles and bulbous globs. Most disturbing were the faces.

Either in the darkness, or formed of the darkness itself, were grotesque faces that cried out in wordless, soundless agony. Maxwell had been too disturbed by the sight to draw them, but Fae wasn’t so timid – although she couldn’t really know what effect the actual sight would have on her, since she hadn’t been there like Maxwell. Representing the living darkness through static drawings was difficult. From Maxwell’s descriptions, the darkness often appeared to be flat, two-dimensional, and that was owing to the fact that it was as dark as darkness could get – no light touched it, it cast no shadow, it had no reflections or shading. Yet it was, in fact, three-dimensional, a paradox that Maxwell described as “unsettling at best, and frighteningly disturbing at worst. It cannot truly be described, no matter how hard I try, and must be seen to be believed. And yet I would not wish this sight on anyone, let alone twice, as it now has been for me.”

One of Fae’s sketches of this roiling darkness had a moon in the corner, with inky strands of darkness reaching out to consume it. That was due to a term that had only come up once so far in Maxwell’s thoughts, but had stuck out to Fae:

The Endless Night.

Maxwell was disturbed at finding the living darkness in the Forlorn Peaks, as if it shouldn’t be there. He’d been expecting something else, had been hoping to travel down to the bottom, wherever that might be, but the living darkness had thwarted him. He had a passing query: “I shudder to think what this might mean, and my thoughts are, for a moment, drawn to the frightening prophecy of the Endless Night. So far, however, I lack evidence to connect that to Collapse, so I will focus on the task at hand.”

Fae had many scribbles of the box-within-a-box symbol of Collapse, and she was very puzzled over it. Clearly, it was one of the Intangibles her drawings had pulled her towards. Why? For what purpose? With her drawings also taking her to the Fates, she thought – and hoped – that her drawings were trying to get her to find a cure.

If there was a more sinister purpose in store for her, Fae didn’t want to think about that. Especially with what she knew – and didn’t know – about Oliver. The boy had also drawn the symbol for Collapse – had been “told to” by a mysterious voice – and that was frightening, to say the least. Fae had never heard a voice telling her what to draw, but what if that’s what it always was? What if her senses made it so she didn’t notice the voice at all, and thought it was just her hand moving on its own? What if Oliver was more attuned to whatever strange force was calling both of them to draw strange things they’d never seen, so he could hear the voice, but Fae couldn’t?

Fae hoped she was wrong about that. She didn’t like the idea of these Enchanted Drawings being something sinister or evil. When she drew them, she felt a sense of peace, of joy. There was something special, something light and uplifting about the entire process of creating them, a sense of wonder that spurred her on towards discovery. If some sinister force were playing with her emotions for its own gain, Fae would be very upset. And, she supposed, by the time she found out that was the case, it would be too late.

Think happy thoughts, and hope for happy things.

Stymied by the Forlorn Peaks, Maxwell had spent some time in the Eventide Archive, comparing notes with Selphine. She knew very little about Collapse, but she did her best to work with Maxwell to sift through the rumors and myths to a closer understanding of the truth, and her own insights using Maxwell’s findings up to that point were very helpful. Maxwell spoke very highly of her, though Fae found it interesting now that Selphine had sent them to the Basin of Antiquity, but not mentioned Maxwell. That fact lent more credence to Fae’s theory, which is that Maxwell had gone on this journey before he’d decided to become the Basin’s Master. It was an interesting look into the life of someone she had only seen confined to a small room. Thinking of that awkward, anxious man going on a journey of such wide-reaching scale made him enviable to Fae. She often felt similarly – confined to the real world, with the only real adventures happening in her imagination.

And yet now, she supposed, she was on her own real-life adventure. It was an exciting revelation, piercing through all this talk of darkness with a ray of light.

Fae’s messiest scribbles were relating to Maxwell’s most challenging journey, one which was frustratingly vague and ill-defined in Maxwell’s journal. He traveled to two places which he refused to name, and described them both in very broad strokes, leaving out far too many details. The best the girls had found about the first was: “A dark, frightening place. It is different from what I’ve ever encountered so far regarding the living darkness. It’s as if the darkness has taken on a more tangible, solid form. It no longer moves, forming solid walls, stairs, floors, ceilings… I don’t understand it. Where once I felt as if I could not touch the darkness at all – and, indeed, I still will not dare – this place… I can move within it. Though every step makes me feel frighteningly confined, though with every moment I wonder if the walls around me will suddenly erupt in the writhing mass of darkness that seeks to devour me… I must continue on. I must do my best to find answers. And, indeed, I shall, though not the answers I am seeking.”

Whatever those answers were still had not been revealed, four chapters after that description. But Fae hadn’t let that place fade from her memory, and had done her best to draw such a place, scribbling dark, black structures that shut out all light – not easy to render, even with digital art and all its many colors and shaders.

The second place had had even less description: “Long I tread through this kaleidoscopic whirlwind of nonsense. Where am I? Who am I? These silly questions nonetheless invade my mind, and every moment my grip on reality sinks lower. And yet… there, in the midst of… walls? Windows? This place is simply impossible to describe, and yet I can see, now and then, the symbol, the symbol of what I seek. Collapse. There are answers here, but I fear I may not have the ability to discover them. Even now, writing about it after miraculously escaping, the memory fades too quickly. Where was I? How did I get there? How did I get out? I’m afraid I cannot tell, and this truth shakes me to my core. I do not know what I just experienced, I only know that it was real, and no dream. How I know this… I apologize. I do not know how I know.”

And that was it. Fae had clung to that one descriptor – “kaleidoscopic” – and done her best to come up with possible visual interpretations. Lots of color, swirling and roiling and refracting in so many ways that it boggled the mind. And there, in flickers and glimpses, was the symbol of Collapse.

Though Fae and the Star sisters couldn’t make sense of these two places yet, they needed to keep the information they had in mind and not forget. If they ever found themselves in such places, they would need to remember everything they’d learned.

Fae’s last few sketches were more detailed, owing to Maxwell traveling to places and discovering things that he was willing and able to describe in full. Still, the information could be summarized fairly easily, and was more building towards something than containing any blockbuster revelations. Maxwell found little clues at four more Locations: the Fault Line Dungeon, Topside Cove, Slumbering Spiral, and the First Bell Tower. Despite the tantalizing chance at information relating to the rest of Fae’s journey – she remembered that the Sealed Vessel was contained at the Fault Line Dungeon, and she’d have to go there someday soon – Maxwell didn’t actually enter the Dungeon itself. Instead, he traveled along a staircase that descended deeper into the Fault Line itself, until he could descend no further.

Far down, miles deep below the Dungeon, the living darkness blocked the stairs.

“Here, too? How is the living darkness in so many places? What is its purpose? Does it seek Collapse, too? I have a sense that the living darkness, though it played a part in creating Collapse, no longer has possession of the Intangible. Perhaps it wishes to reclaim what it once made. I do not know, but discovering the darkness in so many places is disturbing indeed. What seemed an isolated incident at the Valley of Ruin seems to have spread. What caused this? The one bit of solace I can find in these discoveries is that the darkness continues to exist in hidden, forgotten places, far away from civilized society. But if it were to spread…”

Topside Cove and Slumbering Spiral, while fascinating Locations, didn’t offer much that was exciting. Within Topside Cove – an underwater, upside-down city that Fae desperately wished to visit for herself – Maxwell met a man who had once been Collapsed, but had mysteriously recovered. Unfortunately, said man didn’t remember anything of his time infected with the illness, but there were still useful pieces of information. He had been among his family – a wife and daughter – when he’d suddenly fallen to the sickness, and they had thankfully been swift to act. The man, named Richard, had been confined in Topside Cove’s institution for those infected with contagious diseases or mental illnesses, and had remained there under observation for seven years, until he suddenly recovered. During that time, Richard remembered nothing at all – to him, it was as if he went, in an eyeblink, from dinner with his family, to seven years later tied up in an institution. He didn’t even know of the passage of time until he was told (he wouldn’t notice by others around him aging, as the Enchanted age extremely slowly).

Those observing Richard noticed the same signs everyone knew – unexplained violence, and only one word in his vocabulary: “Collapse.” Since he was, as far as Maxwell knew, the only Collapsed to have been confined and observed, there was another interesting detail they’d been able to discover. For Richard at least, and theoretically for all Collapsed, his eyes had changed. It was a subtle one, especially since he normally had dark brown irises. Though the whites of his eyes were unchanged, his pupil and all other color had been drained away, replaced by a pure blackness that was eerily similar to the living darkness.

At Slumbering Spiral – a spiraling cave that caused visitors to become more drowsy the deeper they delved – Maxwell managed to make it to the very bottom of the Spiral. There, he found what few, if any, had managed to see – the bottom of Slumbering Spiral had an inscription. Fae found it to be tremendously unnerving:

“Look into the crystal eye

See beyond the pass of time

Give us all you have to spare

Hold back nothing, if you dare

Take a second look and see

Things are not –

Collapse

Collapse

Collapse

Coll–”

Whatever the poem was for, it hadn’t been completed, thanks to the sickening illness of Collapse. From the last, incomplete line of the poem to the last, incomplete “Collapse,” the handwriting became horribly scratchy and messy, as if written in a vicious, violent trance. Why the final “Collapse” cut off, Maxwell wasn’t sure, but he was intrigued by that most of all. After all, that one word was the singular obsession of the Collapsed. If someone was writing it…

Why would they suddenly stop?

Finally, Maxwell visited the First Bell Tower. Despite the name, the Location was both the tower and a quaint town built around it. The bell within the tower was said to be the first of a line of special bells, all but the first of which had been lost. This bell, and the others of its line, if others did indeed exist, when rung, would have their crystal clear tone ring throughout the entire Enchanted Dominion. The First Bell hadn’t been rung in centuries. There were many different ways to ring it, with each special tone carrying a certain meaning, and the bell was only rung in cases where the entire Dominion needed to receive a singular message as fast as possible.

Here in this town, Maxwell discovered that the First Bell had one very interesting tone that had never been used. Its description of purpose was such: “when darkness comes beyond compare, ring twice to announce for all to beware.”

Considering all of Maxwell’s brushes with living darkness, he had a lot of questions about that tone for the bell, but no one had answers. It had never been used for that purpose and, conspicuously, all other descriptions of purpose for the other tones were very clear, without any rhyming at all. That was a shame, in Fae’s mind, as the recent string of rhymes in Maxwell’s journey made things feel more magical and fantastical to her.

And that brought Fae up to her current set of knowledge. There was still a lot of journal to work through, but despite some fatigue, Fae was enjoying the journey. She wished there were more answers, but she had a feeling that things were going to come to a head in the second half, and she’d come away with the knowledge she needed to either discover a cure for herself, or use the cure that Maxwell discovered to save the Fates.

“How’s it going?” Neptune asked, returning from her time with Julia.

Fae nodded. “Fine,” she said. “You look like you’re ready to dive back in.”

Neptune smiled her usual soft, subdued smile. “I am,” she said. “I don’t think we should bother to wait for the others. They seem far more interested in letting us do the hard work.”

Fae shrugged, heading back to the corner of the Red Section. “That’s all right. I’m enjoying this so far.”

Neptune nodded. “Me, too.”

Back to Maxwell’s journal, Fae and Neptune started reading.

Their enjoyment didn’t last long. Coming to the end of Chapter Ten: “Realizations and Revelations,” the closing line caused both girls to re-read it multiple times, looking for answers that weren’t there.

“That can’t be right,” Fae said, staring at the end of the chapter. It was far too early for this, and yet she couldn’t see it any other way.

“The sad truth I have discovered about the cure for Collapse is that it is real. And that reality is the sad truth of it, because the cure for Collapse is something I cannot obtain, no matter how hard I try.”

 

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