Selphine led Fae and the Star sisters out into the Archive proper, and up along a set of wide stairs with bookshelves and desks built into them to an alcove in the corner.
“You have maps here?” Mercury asked, surprise evident in her voice as Selphine pulled out four large sheets of paper and unfolded them onto a desk.
“Only of the different Sectors,” Selphine said, “and they aren’t current or exact.”
Fae understood what she meant. Each of the maps was more of a diagram made up of words inside different circles. At the top of three of the maps were large titles: Sector I, Sector II, and Sector III. The fourth map didn’t have a title at all.
“The Enchanted Dominion is divided into Sectors,” Selphine explained as Fae took a kneeling seat next to the Archivist. “While these Sectors always overlap at one point, that point is always changing. So, for example, Sector I frequently overlaps with Sector II at these two Locations.” She pointed out the names – in Sector I it was the Plains of the Fallen, while at Sector II it was Sunset Square. “Do you know about how the Locations are always in motion?”
“Yes,” Fae said. She knew at least in theory, anyway – it was still hard to wrap her mind around how that made sense.
“So the Locations in each Sector are always connected in a spiraling fashion,” Selphine said. She traced a line among the circles in Sector I, connecting one Location to the next in a spiraling circle that led towards the center: Chapel of the Unreturned. “This spiraling pattern shifts on a schedule, so it’s easy to follow, unlike the connections between Sectors, or how special gateway Locations connect to the rest.”
“Gateway Locations?” Fae asked.
“Like the Cartographer’s Waystation,” Neptune said. “They’re places that aren’t directly connected to any specific Sector, but instead can lead to anywhere in the Dominion, depending on timing and other factors.”
“And that’s why they’re on this,” Mercury said, pointing to the fourth, untitled “map.” Fae noticed a list on it titled “Gateway Locations.” Underneath it was the Cartographer’s Waystation, as well as five other Location names.
“So I take it this structure is important to my three possible journeys?” Fae asked.
Selphine nodded. “What’s fascinating is this book,” she said, opening up the sketchbook with the symbol of the Spiral Dragons. “Each of the three Dragons is confined to a specific Sector. And in this book, it seems to be telling you to travel to the center Location of each Sector – almost as if it’s calling you to seek out each Dragon.”
“You can meet and communicate with the Dragons?” Fae asked.
“In theory,” Selphine said.
“They have physical form,” Neptune said. “But there aren’t any believable accounts of people actually interacting with them. Aside from a few brief sightings, no one’s made contact.”
“But it may well be that the center of each Sector holds the key,” Selphine said, pointing to the center Location of each Sector: Chapel of the Unreturned for Sector I, Celestial Shore for Sector II, and Garden of Memory for Sector III.
“So I have to travel to every Sector,” Fae said, nodding. “Guess I’ll be at this for a long time.”
“There’s more than that,” Selphine said. “Your journey in the book marked by the Fates is entirely confined to Sector II. And your journey marked by the Intangibles is confined to Sector III.”
Fae started to understand. “So I could potentially go on all three journeys at once,” she said. “While I’m in one Sector on one of the other journeys, I could also head to the center of that Sector and see what I need to see – maybe even talk to a Dragon.”
Talk to a Dragon. Fae felt like a little kid as she said those words. What would that be like? She was starting to feel excited about her journey now. If only Shana could come with her. She’d be totally giddy right now.
“So what are the details?” Fae asked, leaning forward as Selphine opened up the book marked by the Intangibles.
“This is the easiest to start,” Selphine said. The first drawing on the page was what looked like a vast lake without any river or streams serving as an outlet or inlet. A rocky island sat in the center.
“Ooh, the Basin of Antiquity,” Mercury said, grinning as she stared at the drawing. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“The Basin regularly empties and then refills,” Selphine said, flipping ahead through several drawings. Each one showed the Basin again and again, with the water level at different heights. Sometimes the rocky island in the center was completely covered. Other times, the Basin dried out so much that Fae could see the bottom. “When it is fully emptied, a door is accessible, which leads into a repository of knowledge. Your time in there is limited, because when the Basin outside fills up, the water also seeps into the repository.”
“So if we stay in there too long, we’ll drown,” Jupiter said, tapping out a rhythm on her legs.
“That’s cheerful,” Mercury said.
“About how long would we have in there?” Fae asked.
“If you enter the instant the door is available, about twenty-five vrems,” Selphine said.
“Vrems?” Fae asked.
“The smallest unit of time measurement in the universal system,” Neptune said. “Twenty-five vrems is a little more than eleven minutes.”
“Not a ton of time,” Mercury said. “How big is the repository?”
“It is quite vast,” Selphine said. She turned past the different images of the Basin, to a series of drawings that were simply symbols. “There are five symbols here which you should seek out inside the repository. I believe that when you find them, whatever they’re associated with inside the repository will give you the information you need to move forward in your quest.”
“So you’re guessing,” Jupiter said. “You don’t really know what we’ll find.”
“That’s correct,” Selphine said. “I wish I could do more for you. But the repository is frequently changing, and these symbols… they aren’t familiar to me.”
“So why is this the easiest to start?” Fae asked.
Selphine pointed to the map of Sector III, where a line connected two circles – one for the Eventide Archive, and the other for the Basin of Antiquity. “The Basin is always directly linked to the Archive,” Selphine said. “So no matter the time, you can always instantly cross from one to the other. Each Sector has at least one pair of Locations like that.”
“So we could go into the repository,” Fae said, “write down what we find, and then come back to you to help us move forward from there.”
Selphine nodded. “That’s correct,” she said with a smile.
“So what are the other paths?” Fae asked. “Where else am I being called to?”
Selphine opened the book marked by the symbol of the Fates and Fae’s artist “signature.” “This path leads to, and then surprisingly stops at, the Crimson Docks,” she said. “That tells me one of two things. Either what you’re supposed to learn or find is at the Docks themselves, or… you’re supposed to get on a ship.”
“Why does the way you say that sound so ominous?” Fae asked.
“Because ships from the Crimson Docks only go to one place,” Neptune said. “Fate’s Dwelling.”
“There, you might meet the Fates,” Selphine said. “Or… you may see things, discover things, be awakened to things, that you never expected, and perhaps never wanted. Fate will take hold of you, one way or the other. And coming back from Fate’s Dwelling is far more difficult than going there.”
And we were off to such a positive start, Fae thought. “Well, if it’s calling me there, then I have to go, one way or the other, right?” she asked.
Selphine lowered her gaze and spoke in a hushed voice. “Yes, I suppose that is true.”
“Although the best way to get there is through Sunset Square,” Neptune said, staring at the line between Sunset Square and the Crimson Docks on the map for Sector II.
“Gross,” Mercury said.
“What’s wrong with Sunset Square?” Fae asked.
“The people there have a bit of a… distaste for humans,” Selphine said.
“Putting it lightly,” Jupiter said, rolling her eyes.
“Is there a better way to the Docks?” Fae asked.
“Not likely,” Selphine said. “I have some time charts…” She snapped her fingers and a small black booklet popped into existence, falling into her hand. She opened it, flipping ahead to about halfway through. “Here we are. Passages to the Crimson Docks…” She shook her head. “There won’t be anything other than Sunset Square for several more days.”
“Unless we try Gambler’s Crossroads,” Jupiter said, an excited grin on her face.
“Yes, and potentially end up somewhere even farther from our destination,” Neptune said dryly.
“Better to stay focused and take the clear and reliable routes, right?” Mercury asked, looking at Fae.
Fae nodded. “Right,” she said. “So, what else should we know?”
“If you’re planning to go to the Basin first, then there isn’t much,” Selphine said. “I can go over everything with you now, but I think the information from the Basin’s repository will be vital in informing your next moves. Depending on what you find, you could be heading anywhere in the Dominion.”
“We need all the information we can get,” Fae said, looking to the Star sisters. “Let’s go to the Basin first.”
“I’ve always wanted to go,” Mercury said, grinning. Jupiter and Neptune offered nods and agreement, as well.
“Then let me show you the way,” Selphine said with a smile.
“You’re not going to come with us?” Neptune asked.
“Oh, no,” Selphine said with a soft laugh. “My days of travel and adventure are long past. I must stay here. But I will aid you in every way I can.” She stood, leading the girls down to the Archive’s main floor and back to the entrance hall, where their shoes were waiting for them. While the girls put their shoes on, Selphine turned a dial next to the door. It had three different settings, each marked by a color – red, blue, and yellow – and she turned it to blue.
“Through here is the Basin,” Selphine said, opening the door. A gust of humid air came in, making Fae wrinkle her nose in disgust. She hated humidity.
“Feels like it’s almost empty,” Selphine said. “You should hurry. Just follow the stairs down. The door is embedded in the central plateau. You can’t miss it.”
Fae, sketchbook and pencil in hand, led the way through the door. She stepped out from Eventide Archive’s warm, comfortable lighting to bright sunlight beating down from above. Another warm, humid gust swept over her, and she fought against instinctual grumpiness.
Now isn’t the time for complaining, she reminded herself. You have work to do.
Mercury, Jupiter, and Neptune soon followed. While Mercury and Jupiter looked around excitedly, Neptune looked about as grumpy as Fae felt, and she patted down on her hair as if to keep it from being transformed by the humidity.
While the climate was unpleasant, the view was quite beautiful. Fae and the sisters stood on a sand-colored rocky shore, looking out across a wide expanse where the sand-colored rock met white-gold sky at the horizon. Below them, crystal-blue water was rapidly vanishing from the Basin.
Now I get it, Fae realized. It’s so humid because the Basin drains by evaporating – and evaporating really fast.
“Hey, I can see the door!” Jupiter announced, pointing.
Before the girls was a rocky staircase leading down to the Basin’s floor, and about fifty yards from there was the base of the rocky plateau in the Basin’s center. As the water evaporated, slowly a metal door was being revealed.
“We’d better hurry,” Neptune said, eyeing her watch as Fae led the way down the stairs. “I’ll keep an eye on the time.”
By the time the girls reached the bottom of the stairs, the water had evaporated enough that they could walk on slick, hard ground. Here at the bottom, the humidity was strongest, and seemed to close in on Fae. She hadn’t exerted herself and wasn’t remotely out of breath, but she was already drenched with sweat.
Thanks a lot, water cycle.
They rushed across the distance between them and the door, and Fae opened it, swinging it inward on squeaky hinges. A rush of cool, dry air blasted her in the face, and it had a scent of… well, Fae couldn’t quite place it.
It just smelled… old. Ancient, even, conjuring up images in Fae’s head of paleontologists uncovering skeletons that had waited for centuries under clean, dry soil. It was the scent of age, without the pungent smell of rot or mildew or other gross old things. It was older than decay, perhaps older than scents themselves.
Peering inside, Fae could see a narrow metal staircase that led down, sparsely illuminated by cold blue lights encased in metal cages on the walls.
“Not as inviting as I’d hoped,” Mercury said, leaning past Fae to look.
“Let’s not waste any time,” Fae said, leading the way inside. Humidity swiftly gave way to the cool dryness of the Basin’s repository. Once the sisters filed in behind her, Neptune, taking up the rear, closed the door.
Down the stairs they went, Fae wondering what they’d find within. Every new step on her descent simply revealed more stairs.
Somewhere down here were items and knowledge relating to the five symbols in Fae’s sketchbook. Judging by the time-consuming descent, and what Selphine had said about the repository’s vast size, Fae worried if she’d have enough time to find everything.
But more than that, Fae felt her heart begin to pound in her chest. Anticipation overrode her worries. Walking down these stairs, Fae realized she was finally here. She’d started her quest for real. Before her lay the first clues to why the Enchanted Dominion called out to her.