“Well, let’s keep reading,” Fae said, turning to Chapter Twelve: “The Impossible Search, and Clues In the Heart of Darkness.”
“Ominous title,” Neptune said. “But considering what his goal is going forward…”
Fae nodded. She wasn’t too concerned over the ominous titles. After learning so much about how to cure the Collapsed – and that she was the one who held the surest cure – she was eager to read on. It was better than dwelling on the conflicted thoughts within her.
Me, a hero?
Right away, Maxwell brought them into his journey.
“I have come to the conclusion that Collapse has been hidden somewhere far away. It was formed by a strange cult, an evil religion that makes me shudder just thinking about their aims. Whatever happened in the Valley of Ruin, I do not think that the ones who worshipped the living darkness and formed Collapse were simply wiped out. I think they had something to do with where Collapse is now, and in order to discover what they did with their horrifying creation, I fear I must willingly seek out the darkness. Before, in my earliest searches, I continually found the living darkness by accident. I could return to any of those Locations and endeavor to push further, but time is short, and I must make do with the movements of the Dominion before I can no longer travel freely. Thus my journey brings me to Titan’s Head.”
On the next page was a full-page illustration of a colossal structure shaped like a human. Formed from stone, wood, metal, and glass, the only way for the entire titan to fit onto the page was to make Maxwell, standing on its head, a mere speck. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people could stand comfortably together atop just the head of the massive, inanimate titan, and indeed there was a city there, with buildings drawn to scale – and thus, very tiny – with such impressive detail that Fae continued to feel more respect for Maxwell. He was quite the artist, and she was glad for that. Words could only do so much – being able to see things visually helped Fae to understand the journey he was on.
There were more cities across the titan. An outstretched arm served as a bridge from a shoulder city to a city on its open palm. Tunnels burrowed through the midsection of the massive torso, and a cross-section on the next page showed that within these tunnels were subterranean cities built within the structure, sprawling and massive, lit with crystalline lights and clever use of mirrors to bring in natural light from the outside. The titan’s feet were submerged in a great ocean, and a long, severed forearm and hand functioned as an island, with tiny boats traveling between the feet and this strange island. There were a great many stairs, with platforms built as landings and rest points up and down the giant structure, and there were also gondolas on metal cables that traveled quicker paths like elevators.
After the illustrations, Maxwell launched into a multi-page exposition on the workings of just the city on Titan’s Head, before finally getting back to his journey.
“Atop Titan’s Head is an observatory and research center run by an old… I suppose most would call him an old friend, but for me, he is an old acquaintance and colleague. He has always endeavored to study the mysteries of the Dominion, and his specialized telescope can see things beyond what many others can. In fact, it was he who discovered and started charting the movement of the Locations throughout the Enchanted Dominion, and his efforts led to the boom of the Cartographers and the establishment of Cartographer’s Landing. He has lived longer than any other Enchanted still with us. If anyone has seen the movements of Collapse, it will be him. If he has even just a clue, that will be a great boon to my journey.
“And indeed he does know something, though he is reluctant to tell me. We are of the same mind: trust is something not easily given, and too easily broken. In order to earn some measure of trust from him, I have shared with him all of my notes up to this point. Not everything you have read so far is shared with him, as some of the writings earlier in this book are augmented by discoveries I made later, but almost all that you know by this point in reading, he now knows as well. And knowing where Collapse comes from, and what it has taken just to get this far, strikes a chord of fear within him just as it does me. He is ready to share his knowledge, but it comes with much explanation. I will leave every word and detail here so that you may delve into them and have all the information I also possess.”
So Maxwell began a very long portion of minute details, technical terms, and lengthy exposition, going on longer than Fae ever expected, before she sat back, nearly a hundred pages later, still not to the core of whatever Maxwell’s colleague had to share with him.
“Lots of stuff about ordinary movement of Locations,” Neptune said with a sigh. She started peeking ahead, turning pages forward without reading. “How long is this chapter, anyway?”
“Don’t jump ahead,” Fae said, brushing her hand aside and making sure they were back at the page they’d stopped on. “I don’t want to give in like that. We need to know everything here, even if it doesn’t all seem that way right now. I don’t want to miss anything.”
Neptune laughed, stretching. “I know,” she said. “I guess after days of reading, now that we’re so close, I just got antsy.”
Fae nodded. “You’re not the only one.” She stretched too, stifling a yawn. “But we’re almost there. We just need to stick with it.”
“My sisters had better be grateful,” Neptune said, though there was no bitterness in her tone, and when Fae looked she was just shaking her head, smiling. “Ah, well. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.’ You ready to keep at it? I think I’m staying here until we’re done, no matter what hour it ends up being.”
Fae nodded. “Once more.”
“It appears that Collapse has changed Locations many times, though never changed hands. By that I mean literally: none has touched Collapse itself, not even those who created it. They use tools, vehicles, devices, and horrifying magic to move it, but even those who made it dare not lay a hand on it. This alone speaks volumes as to what this Intangible may be capable of and purposed for, and any who seek it out as I have should take great care not to touch it directly. As for where it has gone, it appears I must follow its trail. For it has moved many times until, a very long time ago, it stopped. While one might assume that means it now rests where it was last seen through the telescope – beneath the gaze of the Three Watchers – that seems tremendously unlikely. Such a common traveling destination is no place to hide such a vicious item, and indeed, if it was there, certainly there would be symptoms. So I will follow its trail, and endeavor to find where it has gone, now that my colleague can no longer see it.”
Maxwell’s trail took him through several Locations, and at each one he found signs that pointed to Collapse having spent a brief time there. From the frightening, lonely top of the Silent Peak to the calming expanse of the Sea of Tranquility, from the ivy-strung walls of Hawthorn Academy to the lakebed beneath the gaze of the statues known as the Three Watchers, Maxwell found the same signs. Where Collapse had been were traces of a deeper, more frightening kind of living darkness. It didn’t writhe and foam like it had in other places, but was like the darkness in the unnamed place Maxwell had visited.
It was solid.
At each Location where Collapse had been, it left behind a small, dark room. This room’s walls, floor, and ceiling were formed from the living darkness, so deep and so solid that they trapped all light that touched them. Maxwell stepped foot within every single one of these rooms, casting aside his fear for the sake of the truth.
In each one, he heard echoes.
“Like I heard in that frightening temple within the Valley of Ruin, there is a heartbeat. It pulses faintly in each of these rooms, but I shudder to think what it could mean. There is also… a voice.
“I wrote earlier of the boy Oliver, and how he told me he was instructed to draw the symbol of Collapse by a voice. He described that voice to me – it was a whisper, with a commanding presence. It asks no questions, and will respond to no queries or comments. And it frequently repeats one word, a word I’m sure you can guess: Collapse.
“Here in these rooms of darkness, I hear a voice that is, quite frighteningly, much like the one Oliver described. It has a commanding presence, and it responds to nothing, no matter how much I speak to it. It asks no questions, because its statements are fully confident in the belief that whoever hears will obey. I entered four of these rooms, and I do not know how I managed to keep myself from obeying the voice. Perhaps a fifth time would have done me in. But each time, it was saying the same things, making the same demands. ‘Come find me. Come touch my surface. Come know the infinite truths. Come be one with my power.’ And yet despite its commands to find it, it offers no clear clues of how, exactly, one would do so. Perhaps it sensed in me my desire to find Collapse in order to destroy it. I do not know. But these rooms are calling out to people, beckoning them into the darkness. The Collapsed are infected by what we describe as a disease, but I do not think that is the right word for it. There is no virus, no bacteria invading their bodies. If anything, it is an infection of the soul, and I would prefer to call it plainly what it is.
“The Collapsed are possessed. They are filled with addiction and obsession, to the greatest degree possible. Worldly addictions and obsessions show a glimpse of what it is to be Collapsed. Those who fall prey to such things often cannot see beyond their addiction. They cannot find it in themselves to live without it. They must pursue their addiction above all other things.
“This is Collapse, the illness. This is what the voice within these rooms attempts to foster. And this is why the Collapsed are made up of those who have fallen into the deepest pits of despair, of rage, of pain. They are the ones most susceptible to empty promises, to the desire to be filled by anything, even if that thing would destroy them.
“To what end the living darkness desires this, I do not know. But these rooms have also offered a key to the truth about Collapse. The Intangible moved around many times in order to plant these rooms – to draw more people to its cause, to its religion. Why we do not see those who worship the living darkness anymore is, I think, self-evident. Their work across the Dominion is finished, and now they are with Collapse – guarding it, perhaps. Worshipping it, most likely. Waiting for others to arrive and join their number.
“And where is Collapse? In the end, I have only narrowed down the options, rather than finding a definitive conclusion. But I can tell you this: each of the Locations I will list contain secrets and truths about where Collapse lies, and what the darkness intends. One of these places is also known by a second name, though I know not which one it is. That second name is: The Heart of Darkness. It will be up to you to discern which Location is this Heart of Darkness, for I have not discovered that. But here is the list, the possible Locations, one of which is absolutely where Collapse now waits.
“The first is the Unfathomable Emptiness. The second is the Deepgrave. The third is the Nightmare Citadel.
“Three Locations. All three are phenomenally dangerous, and no level of skill and planning can guarantee success or survival. No matter who you are, or how many are with you, you will need at least a small measure of luck, particularly if you have to investigate all three Locations before finding the Intangible. Once you find it… well, I hope that you can discover how to destroy it. I have not, though I have some theories, and I will list them here, at the end of this book.
“For this is, indeed, the end. My time has run out, and I now pass on this knowledge to you, in the hopes that you can do what I could not. If you do not feel up to this task, take this book to someone who is, if you know them. Find someone, or a group of someones, who can destroy Collapse for good. Find someone, or a group of someones, who can bring hope to the Collapsed and cure them.
“Thank you for reading. I hope this knowledge finds its way into the right hands.”
Fae and Neptune read over Maxwell’s theories, and then found themselves at the end, with one more repeat of his thanks.
“So what’s the plan?” Neptune asked, looking at Fae expectantly.
Fae stared back at her. “Plan for what?” she asked.
“Are we going to cure the Fates? And are we going to be the ones to try and track down Collapse, or do you want to pass that on to someone else?” Neptune looked down at Fae’s tablet, where she’d written down the three Locations Maxwell had listed near the end. “My sisters and I have been to the Unfathomable Emptiness, but only to its edge. And I know where the Deepgrave is, though I’ve never gone there, because, well… no one goes there. It’s that dangerous. But the Nightmare Citadel…”
“Does it have to do with the N–” Fae started, then stopped herself. Lowering her voice, she asked again. “Does it have to do with the Queen?”
The Nightmare Queen. Fae hadn’t thought about her for a very long time, but she’d kept her in the back of her mind. Back at the Plains of the Fallen, when speaking with Gerick Irsotz about Collapse, he had mentioned the Nightmare Queen, and how some believed her to be linked to Collapse. Hearing the word “Nightmare” come up again – and for a citadel, no less – created a clear link in Fae’s mind.
Neptune nodded. “Many think so, but, like the Deepgrave, no one goes there. I’m not sure anyone alive knows how to get there, to be honest.”
Fae closed Maxwell’s journal, running her finger along the leather cover. He’d put so much effort into passing on these truths, and though he’d often wasted words, they hadn’t been uninteresting words. In the end, he’d found out all that he could, and he had passed on all that he could.
Fae’s drawings had shown her Collapse. They’d called her to the Fates. And with this new knowledge in hand, she knew what their first objective must be.
“We’re going to cure the Fates,” Fae said. “Or, at least, we’re going to try. If the bell doesn’t work, I don’t know what will. And… we’re going to seek out Collapse. Wherever it is, whatever the truth behind it is, we’ll figure it out. And we’ll destroy it, or at least get it away from those using it for evil and bring it to someone who can destroy it. But I…” Fae looked at Neptune apologetically. “I know you and your sisters want to find the Silver Star Sanctuary, and want to find out where you come from and who you are, but if I could…”
Neptune smiled. “You don’t need to feel like it’s a bother,” she said. “We’re with you, Fae. Your journey is our journey. Maybe I can’t speak for my sisters – I mean, I know I can, but in the off-chance that they object – I can say that I’mwith you. Wherever this leads, whatever may come, you can count on me to be by your side.”
Fae felt a strange feeling in her chest, like her heart was light and feathery, floating up into her throat, and she couldn’t find words to respond. Her eyes watered, and she shook her head, looking away. With a sigh, she found her voice again. “Thank you.” She took a deep breath, collected herself, and stood up, picking up Maxwell’s journal. “Before we go, we’ll need to round up your sisters. And…” She patted the journal. “I know someone who called dibs on this when we were done.”
While Neptune went to get Jupiter from her improvised practice room, Fae carried Maxwell’s journal to the front desk. There was Julia, reading a book as always. She had a smile on her face, and pushed up her glasses as she hummed a tune. Fae stepped heavier on the marble floors in the entrance way as she approached so as not to startle Julia. The girl looked up and her whole face brightened as she spotted Fae. “How’s your research going?” she asked.
Fae smiled, holding up Maxwell’s journal. “We just finished,” she said. “It’s all yours.”
“Oh, thank you!” Julia said, hopping to her feet and taking the book reverently. “And good job. I hope you found what you were looking for?”
Fae thought about that for a moment. “Maybe not what we were looking for,” she said, “but I think we found what we needed.”
Julia giggled. “That’s even better. So? What will you do now?”
“Seems like we’ll be leaving.”
The new voice was Mercury’s, who led the way with Neptune and Jupiter following her. She smiled her dazzling white smile as she threw an arm around Fae’s shoulders. “We’ve got lots more to do, and now we know where to start. All because of these two.” She nodded to Fae as she wriggled away from the unwanted physical contact, and pointed to her blue-haired sister.
“Thank you for all your help,” Fae said to Julia. “This would have been a lot less comfortable and enjoyable if you hadn’t… well, taken over as temporary head librarian.”
Julia laughed. “Well, it’s been a lot of fun, and I’m glad you four showed up. I thought I’d only be around chronically depressed people the entire time, so I’m grateful for the light that you four brought to this place. If you’re ever in Starlight Spires, look me up. I don’t suppose I’ll be staying much longer after I read through this.” She held up Maxwell’s journal. “Ask for Julia Diamond in the Starlight Academy. I’ll be going home once I’m done here.”
And with that, Fae and the Star sisters left the Mourner’s Collection behind, unfurling their umbrellas as they stepped out into the rain.
“How do we get out of this city?” Fae asked.
“There’s a train station,” Mercury said. “If we’re lucky, they’ll have a line open to Sunset Square – that’s pretty common. But we’ll see what’s available and go from there.”
“If we have to wait for Sunset Square, I don’t think I’d mind,” Fae said. “It’s the only guaranteed route to the Crimson Docks and the Fates, and I don’t want to end up wandering all over the Dominion when we could take the sure path.”
“Then Sunset Square it is,” Mercury said, grinning. “Man, I’m gonna miss this place.”
“I’m sure they won’t miss you,” Neptune said.
“Hey, I stopped bothering people on the last day,” Mercury said. “Jupiter and I had a very long jam session.”
“An exhausting jam session,” Jupiter said with a long yawn. “And with perfect timing. I love being able to sleep on the train.”
As the sisters chatted amongst themselves, leading the way to the train station on the far side of the City of Anguish, Fae watched and listened to the rain. It beat against her umbrella, splattered against the stone streets, and washed against glass windows and tile roofs.
Rain was Fae’s favorite sound, and her favorite weather. Even though this city was drenched in it, and it was meant to imply sadness and despair…
Fae found herself smiling.