Fae looked once again on a place she had intended to visit again when she had the chance: the Plains of the Fallen.
It was the same as she remembered – oddly colored, as if a sepia filter had been laid over the entire landscape. Colors had an inconsistent quality to them, and the sky above was stubbornly overcast with clouds that Fae felt would never leave, or so much as move. Though there was a breeze, however slight, the clouds above were static, as if painted on the sky rather than being real.
“Do you ever get the feeling… like you’re being watched?”
The question came from Jupiter, and she asked it in such an obviously “creep-you-out-horror-story” way that it was comical rather than ominous.
“If you’re referring to the Fates’ warning,” Mercury said, “no. I haven’t. And that’s what worries me.”
“The Sealed Vessel is following you.”
That warning from Ethna to Fae and the Star sisters hung over them as they wandered across the Plains of the Fallen.
“How could they be following us, though?” Fae asked.
“That’s what I wanna know,” Jupiter said.
“We’ve been in several Locations where we should have been able to notice any pursuit,” Neptune said. “Small, confined spaces like Eventide Archive, and empty places like the Basin of Antiquity. And we’ve gone to the Fates’ Dwelling twice, leaving it to different Locations each time. I don’t know how we could have been followed.”
“So the question is when they started following us,” Mercury said, hand to her chin in thought. “And I just can’t think of any time they could have. They could have followed us in Sunset Square and the Crimson Docks, but outside of those crowds we should have noticed them.”
“It’s not just the when,” Neptune said. “I’m curious about the how and the why as well.”
That’s what Fae focused on. Why would they be followed? She thought back to Selphine’s explanation of who – or perhaps what – the Sealed Vessel was. They were a person whose personal feelings and desires had been sealed off, creating them into a vessel for… something. Selphine couldn’t say, but that clue about the person’s desires being sealed away was telling to Fae.
It meant that the Intangible within the Sealed Vessel was the one that desired to follow the girls. And if an Intangible was at the core of their pursuit, it could command powers the girls wouldn’t be able to detect until it was too late, even with the amulet that was supposed to alert Fae to the Vessel’s presence.
Fae had only seen two Intangibles in action, and only indirectly: Collapse and Child’s Innocence. Both had tremendous power – what kind of power did the elusive, inexplicable Vessel have? And why would it make the girls into targets?
Fae could only think of the Sealed Vessel’s pursuit of them in antagonistic terms. After all, Ethna’s warning had included some ominous language: “They will catch you unawares. Do not allow them to overcome you.”
Clearly, Neptune was thinking about that part of the warning, as well. “So the Vessel is going to ambush us at some point,” she said. “That could be extra dangerous.”
“Yeah, we’re not fighters,” Jupiter said, “we’re musicians! How are we supposed to deal with sneak attacks?”
I’m no fighter, either. I have a bit of self-defense abilities, but I know from experience that I, well, don’t have the experience to use them effectively. If we’re ambushed, “caught unawares,” then I really won’t have much of a chance to do much.
The girls stopped atop one of the many low, spacious hills characteristic of the Plains of the Fallen. It was taller than the ones around it, so they could see for miles around. Graves, tombs, memorials, markers, crypts… so much to memorialize the dead from all across the Enchanted Dominion and Earth. Why humans would also be marked and remembered in another world, Fae couldn’t be certain, but she remembered what Gerick Irsotz had said about this place. Those who had graves here were those who went unremembered in their homes. They’d died with no one to bury them, no one to make a way for their name to last long after they were gone.
How could so many pass on with no one to remember them? No one to mark their memory?
Fae had spent many, many afternoons and evenings throughout her life wandering the different cemeteries in Grimoire. She read the names and epitaphs, did the math to see how old people were when they died, and thought about what these people were like. Why did one person get a tiny, barely marked gravestone right next to someone with an elaborate marker covered in text? Why were some graves constantly covered in flowers, while others went unadorned for years on end?
To think that so many had no one except the artists of the Plains of the Fallen to remember them by made Fae’s heart ache.
I’ll remember you, the best I can. And especially…
It was several more hills before Fae saw them: the vast mounds densely packed with unmarked white crosses. Were there more than the last time Fae had been here? It was hard to tell, but there were millions, perhaps tens or even hundreds of millions. It was staggering, to see so many tiny crosses packed together, each marking a life lost and forgotten, not even a name to remember them by.
Fae climbed a hill next to them, looking for a point where she could see the entire field of crosses at once. Like the last time the girls had been here, they’d started to drift apart, their conversation quieting out of respect for the dead. As Fae found her spot, she pulled out the right sketchbook – one with a blue, glossy cover with a little sticker of one of those Feline characters that Shana had put there so many years ago. Why Fae had used this sketchbook for the picture she sought, she didn’t know, but she quickly flipped to the right page.
There was her sketch of the crosses, of the vast mounds. Looking at her sketch and then the scene before her, she could see that… yes.
There were many more crosses than last time.
Her heart aching within her chest, Fae slid her sketchbook back into her bag. Raising her left hand, stylus Talisman in hand, Fae looked out across the solemn scene and began to draw.
Her movements through the air were flowing, as graceful and elegant as she could muster, and her stylus traced a line that changed colors as it went – from green, to blue, to red, to yellow, and many more. Fae took her time. What she was doing was something she’d never attempted before, and she needed concentration. But more than that, she wanted to do it right.
She wanted to do it for the uncountable souls gone too soon.
I’ll remember you. Forever.
Finally, Fae finished, and she tapped the center of her drawing, willing the Energy Magic into life. Would it work? Fae had no idea, but she was bursting with hope.
Slowly, Fae saw the results of her magic come into being.
All across the fields of crosses, new growth slowly, gracefully sprouted up from the grass. Around each and every cross, more than Fae could believe, colors bloomed.
Fae gave every single cross a bouquet of flowers.
Twining around each and every cross, a variety of flowers – daffodils, roses, violets, lilacs, daisies, irises, hydrangeas, freesias, poppies, forget-me-nots… every flower that Fae could think of, and perhaps a dozen more she’d invented on the spot.
And in the small spaces between each cross, sprouted lilies.
Fae watched her work until it was completed, and then closed her eyes.
I will remember you. Forever.
Fae walked for a long time along the perimeter of the field of crosses, occasionally stopping and looking out across them, at the new life and color that spread farther than her eyes could see. Cresting another hill, Fae took one last look.
I’ll return. I promise.
And then Fae left, following after the Star sisters as they made their slow, solemn way towards the artist’s alley.
It was several hours before they arrived at the familiar locale, but the sky didn’t seem to have changed at all. Thinking back on it, Fae realized that last time she’d been here, it had been for over a day, and yet the sky had never changed then, either. The sad grey skies fit, in a way, for such a solemn place.
But Fae hoped in her heart that one day the sun would shine on this place.
Let them feel the warmth and light of the sun. Let them feel the cool refreshment of rain. Let them feel the changing of the seasons, the roar of thunder, the weight of snow, the rush of wind.
Onward they walked, entering the artist’s alley. It was much as Fae remembered, with the same eclectic bunch at work on their different projects, paying no mind to the new arrivals. A few looked up and, recognizing Fae and the Star sisters, offered a brief greeting, but they were busy, and had no time for the kind of awkward, drawn-out greetings and exchanges Fae associated with so many places she’d traveled and visited on Earth.
These are my kind of people.
At the far end of the valley filled with booths, tents, and stalls, Gerick Irsotz was in his tent, and emerged to welcome the girls. He was the same as Fae remembered him – grey hair tied back in a ponytail, blue eyes shining with warmth and kindness. He was even dressed the same as before: dark blue jacket-cape with brass buttons, white pants tucked into brown leather boots, and, Fae’s favorite detail, the “holsters” on the side of each boot that held pens, pencils, and brushes.
“Welcome once again,” Gerick said, addressing each of the girls by name with a smile. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your return?”
“We have some questions to ask you,” Fae said. “We’d also like to share some information. We’ve learned a lot about Collapse and Oscar.”
“Oscar?” Gerick asked.
“He’s the boy that you told us about,” Mercury said. “The artist with a similar start to his journey like Fae.”
Gerick nodded. “Ah, so you learned his name. That’s already more than I knew. What did you learn?”
Gerick and the girls sat down, and Fae, along with the sisters – mostly Neptune – relayed everything they could in a reasonable span of time. They talked about Oscar’s journey that Selphine had shown them, and about Maxwell’s journal, in particular his notes about Oscar and his drawing of the symbol of Collapse. They shared a highly shortened version of Maxwell’s findings about Collapse, and finally concluded with his list of possible Locations where the Intangible could reside.
“The Deepgrave,” Gerick said, leaning back, a hand to his chin as he gazed into the distance in thought. “You truly wish to go there?”
“It’s where we have to go,” Fae said. “Collapse could be there, and we need to at least find it, even if we can’t do anything about it.”
“We can at least tell someone who can deal with it,” Mercury said. “Do you know how to get there?”
Gerick, still with a far-off look in his eye, bobbed his head in a hesitant nod, as if he didn’t want to say yes, but felt like he had no choice. “I can take you to the entrance,” he said softly. “But…” He tilted his head back, staring up at the cloudy sky, and let out a long sigh. “Ah, to allow four young girls to go into such a place alone would be terribly irresponsible of me.” He looked at the girls, a stern glint in his eyes. “You are committed to this path, no matter what?”
“If you don’t take us there, we’ll just track down one of the other spots,” Jupiter said with a shrug.
“We’re committed to finding Collapse,” Fae said, feeling a bit odd saying “we.” She knew how the sisters felt, had heard them express in no uncertain terms that they were with Fae wherever her journey led, and such companionship was welcome, but… well. Fae didn’t understand it, and she didn’t feel as if she deserved it, however real it may be.
But a small part of her was growing thankful for it. And a small part of her was starting to feel as if she could claim the sisters as friends, just as they claimed her.
Gerick leaned forward, hands on his knees as he pushed himself to his feet. “We’d better set off, then. It’s a long journey, and if you’re going to the Deepgrave, you won’t be going alone.”
“You’re coming in with us?” Mercury asked.
Gerick nodded, a brief, wry smile playing across his lips. “That I am. I can’t have you going in alone, after all. I know a bit of the place myself, and though I’m just a humble artist, I have some defensive magic that may serve to protect you four.”
“What can you tell us to prepare for the Deepgrave?” Neptune asked.
Gerick walked as he talked, with the girls following him up and out of the artist’s alley. “It is, at least in name, a forbidden place. And for good reason. Terrors dwell within, beasts which words cannot describe that cast a pall of fear upon the entire place. It goes deeper than I know, and it is a maze. I… I do not believe you should go in there, no matter how noble your goals.”
Fae didn’t reply at first, thinking over what Gerick said, and thinking over her quest.
I don’t need to find Collapse, do I? I could just give the list of Locations and information to someone powerful, someone strong and capable. What can the sisters and I possibly do?
But… we saved the Fates. I have the bell, and maybe it’ll be useful inside the Deepgrave, too. I never thought much about hope, but now that I’ve experienced it for real, I’m understanding.
Hope has power.
The bell was gifted to me. Hope was gifted to me. My drawings led me to the items and clues that led me to Maxwell’s journal. That was no accident. I was supposed to find it.
I can’t turn back. And I don’t need to be afraid. I have the bell, I have hope, I have a capable guide, and I have…
Fae smiled, just a little bit.
I have friends.
Gerick led them away from anywhere they’d seen before, up the hills and into rougher terrain that switched back and forth, cut up and down suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a capable guide, clearly and easily showing the girls the safe paths. They were steadily moving upward, but when Fae looked back, she was stunned.
It hadn’t felt like they’d climbed this high. Behind her the Plains were low and distant, and she could see amazingly far across them like never before.
And yet still they climbed. The wind picked up, and slowly gained power and speed, whipping across Fae’s face and through her hair with vicious force. She held her bag tightly, and kept checking the pouch at her belt that held her stylus Talismans to ensure that they weren’t being blown away.
“I thought this was the Deepgrave!” Jupiter yelled over the wind. “Why do we keep going up?”
“You’ll see,” was Gerick’s cryptic reply.
They climbed for several hours before the land leveled off, but only briefly. There wasn’t much ground before them, leading a few dozen feet to a sudden, precipitous drop. On this lofty plateau was an arching stone monolith, its entrance a yawning dark staircase that vanished, steeply and suddenly, down below.
“This is the entrance to the Deepgrave,” Gerick said. He pointed to the top of the arch, where a series of foreign characters spelled out a series of words. “It reads a warning: ‘Only death sleeps here. Do not disturb its slumber.’ The ‘its’ is contentious, because the language is ancient and doesn’t have gender-specific indicators, but ‘its’ really refers to a person or persons. The language also doesn’t have differentiation between singular and plural, so we really don’t know.”
“So someone, or multiple someones, rest here and shouldn’t be disturbed,” Neptune said.
“But if they’re dead, how can we disturb them?” Jupiter asked. “That sounds like an empty warning if I’ve ever heard one.”
“The ‘death’ appears to be a name, rather than a general term,” Gerick said.
“So a person, or multiple people, named Death rest within here,” Fae said.
“Okay, now it sounds ominous,” Jupiter said, backing away from the entrance.
“I will lead the way,” Gerick said, stepping up to the entrance. Despite his warnings and clear hesitation, he showed no signs of fear. He was as steady as he’d been any other time, and his steadiness anchored Fae. “Whoever of you feels they have the strongest defensive magic or self-defense abilities, take up the rear. Most danger will come from the front, but there are times where we may be surprised or surrounded.”
“I’ll handle it,” Neptune said, ushering Fae and her sisters forward. Jupiter received a shove that sent her into Mercury’s arms.
“Come on, sis,” Mercury said, holding tight to the skittish redhead. “We’ll be fine. If you get super scared, you can always wail away on your drums.”
“I don’t think that would help us,” Jupiter whined, but she allowed herself to be pulled by Mercury.
Fae stepped ahead of them, though. She wanted to walk behind Gerick, close to the front. Whatever they would face, she wanted to see it as soon as possible. She tucked a hand into her bag, gripping the cool metal of the candlestick-bell, remembering its hopeful resonance in her heart. And in her mind, she remembered an epitaph she had read the first time she’d been to the Plains:
I will not fear, no matter what may come.