Fae lay back in the grass, staring up at the grey, murky sky of the Plains of the Fallen.
How long are we going to be here?
Days and nights were imperceptible from each other here, with the sky barely changing. Gerick told her and the girls when each day started and ended, which is the only way they would have ever known the passage of time.
They’d been here for nearly two weeks since saving Kairyu. And yet the preparations still went on.
“The journey to the Nightmare Citadel will be the harshest you will ever face,” Gerick had said. “While we wait for the path forward to open, we should do all we can to prepare ourselves.”
Most of that preparation was done by Gerick, as he traveled beyond the artist’s camp to visit people he wouldn’t speak of. He also went down in the Dragon’s Den and spoke with Kairyu many times.
Fae had been doing the same. She had much to ask Kairyu, and Kairyu had many…
Well, she didn’t have answers. Not the kind of answers Fae was looking for, anyway. Instead, she had riddles, thoughts, hints.
“Is it so strange for an artist to have their art called into being by magic?”
“You will find what you seek along your journey.”
“Discovery of the truth is far sweeter than being told the truth.”
And Kairyu had seen to the heart of Fae’s struggle, of Fae’s desires. Her most recent words of wisdom resonated with Fae the most:
“We must go on adventures to find where we belong.”
Is that why my adventure isn’t over yet? Because I haven’t…
“Hey-o,” came the familiar voice of Mercury. She stood over Fae, staring down at her, her golden hair framing her perfect smile. “Deep thoughts?”
Fae sighed. “You could say that.”
“Not much else to do while we wait other than think,” Mercury said, taking a seat next to Fae. “We play music, and you draw, and sometimes we all play games, but… yep. Thinking’s what takes up the most time around here. It’s a good place for thinking.”
“Do you ever feel conflicted?” Fae asked.
Mercury stared at Fae, her face a brief expression of surprise. She looked up into the sky, silent for a long moment.
“A little bit, now and then,” she said softly.
She seems so steady and confident all the time. But I guess…
I guess we all struggle sometimes.
Mercury reached into her shirt, pulled out her locket with the silver star on it. “When Maxwell gave this to us…” she said, opening it to look at the picture of her and her sisters as children. “I… I kind of wondered. I wondered if continuing to try and find out about our pasts, about the Silver Star Sanctuary, was really worth it. We’re happy, you know? We love playing music at Grim Night’s. We love Grimoire, and the University. And we can always explore the Dominion when we want. Why do we need to mess with that happy life by searching for answers to a past that doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on our present?”
Mercury closed the locket and tucked it back into her shirt. “But…” she continued, and then faced Fae again, smiling. “I want to know, you know? I’m happy with where I am and what I have, but if there’s something more out there for me… for us… even if it might not be the happy ending we hope for… I want to know.” She let out a heavy sigh, laying back on the grass. “We have to go on adventures to find where we belong.”
“Where did you hear that?” Fae asked.
Mercury laughed. “Dunno. It’s like… a memory I’ve always had. I told you, right? About how the three of us just sort of… woke up, as young adults, with no memory of anything before? Well, ‘no’ memory isn’t totally accurate. Each of us remembers little snippets – images, impressions, words – and that’s one of the ones I remember. I don’t recognize the voice that said it, but… hearing that voice makes me feel warm inside.”
“So you don’t know where you belong?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be so restless. Grimoire’s a wonderful place to be, but… well, I guess you could say I belong with my sisters. But as for a place, or a purpose… I…” Mercury sighed. “It’s like, ‘what can I do that the other few billion Humans can’t,’ you know? Not like the meaning of life, but the meaning of my life.” She laughed. “Sorry if I’m coming across as cheesy.”
“You’re not,” Fae said softly.
The meaning of my life.
“I should change what I said,” Mercury said. “I don’t just belong with my sisters.” She turned her head, smiling at Fae. “I belong with you, too.”
Fae couldn’t look at Mercury. She was too bright, shining with a light all her own.
Does she really mean it?
After all we’ve been through together, why am I still so…
“You want to know about your drawings, right?” Mercury asked. “Why the Dominion called out to you. And I bet it’s frustrating.”
Fae nodded, knowing exactly what Mercury meant.
It was frustrating to keep being sent on other tasks, on other journeys. She just wanted to know why, why the Dominion called to her, why the Dominion wanted her to do all of these things. Why did her search for answers keep bringing up new questions, and always questions unrelated to her own hopes?
I just want to know where these drawings come from. If I keep being sent on these other quests…
Why? Why me, of all people?
“It must be frustrating for you, too,” Fae said. “You just want to find the Silver Star Sanctuary, but –”
“Are you kidding?” Mercury asked, laughing. “I love this adventure! If I’d just jumped out into the Dominion for another search, without you and your own journey, I never would have found this locket. And I never would have healed the Fates, or learned the truth about Collapse, or watched someone become a Dragon Friend. I’m glad I approached you.”
“You –” Fae started, but halted her question.
She came to me, out of the blue. That’s what started all of this.
“Why did you?” Fae asked.
“Well, I’m a fan of your animations, for one thing,” Mercury said. “So I always wanted an excuse to talk to you. But it was sort of… lucky chance. You were sitting by the window at Grim Night’s, and I walked past, and saw you drawing Cartographer’s Waystation. It was the perfect opportunity. If you’d been sitting somewhere else, at a different time, it never would have happened. I didn’t know what it would lead to, but… well, I’m glad I got so lucky.”
Fae smiled, just a little. “Me, too.”
Lying like this, just chatting back and forth, being a bit vulnerable with someone… it suddenly shot a pang of guilt through Fae’s heart.
Because there was someone she’d left behind. Someone she should have told about her journey.
But if I’d told her…
She would have insisted on coming with me, wouldn’t she?
Madeline, I… I’m sorry.
I should have at least given you the choice. And I miss you. I hope you’re doing all right back home.
“That’s my stupid problem,” Fae muttered.
“What’s your stupid problem?” Mercury asked.
Fae’s heart hammered nervously.
I said that out loud?
“I…” she started, unsure of what to say. Or, rather, unsure of if she should say it to Mercury.
We’re friends, right? Somehow, that’s what we’ve become, though I never expected it, or pursued it, or felt worthy of it.
“I’m inconsiderate,” Fae said with a sigh. “Not, like, what most people mean when they say the word. I mean, I don’t consider other people. I don’t think about others. It’s not intentional, it just… happens. So I… I didn’t really think of my parents, or my siblings, or my friends when I left Grimoire. And now I’ve been gone so long, and I just… feel really stupid. I should have at least told Madeline.”
“Friend of yours?”
Fae nodded, smiling. “The very best. But then I left without saying goodbye, without leaving any indication or anything. I just… vanished. She must be freaking out, if she isn’t totally furious with me. I mean… how do you do something like that to a friend?”
“You said it yourself, didn’t you?” Mercury asked. “Being inconsiderate. It isn’t intentional, your mind just goes other places, and by the time you do think about your friends, it’s too late. If she’s your best friend, she probably already knows that about you. But even if she doesn’t…” Mercury grinned, staring up at the sky, “she’ll forgive you. That’s what you do when you love someone.”
She completely believes everything she’s saying.
And she really would. She’d forgive anyone she loved, for anything at all, wouldn’t she?
How does someone so earnest and loving even exist? How does one person shine so brightly, so confidently?
Would Madeline feel the same? Is that what love is, what friendship is – being able to forgive anything?
Not for the first time, Fae’s thoughts turned to her family.
You’re supposed to love your family, aren’t you? And that means forgiving, doesn’t it?
Why do I hold so much… stuff… against them? Shana’s so good, and Delilah too, and I don’t hold anything against them. But why did I just brush Caleb off in Sunset Square? He’s annoying, but everyone’s annoying sometimes, right?
And Mom… and Dad…
Why do I push them away? Why was I ever mad at them to begin with?
Fae was utterly bewildered by her sudden questions. Because, quite truly, she couldn’t at all think of what had turned her against her parents, what had pushed her to become more and more withdrawn, more and more distant, more and more…
But for what?
Why don’t I know why I feel the way I do? And why can’t I stop feeling this way, if I can’t think of a reason to feel this way? That’s so stupid.
“Do you really not remember your parents?” Fae asked.
Mercury shook her head. “Not one bit. None of us do. I think – or maybe I just want to believe – that the voice I sometimes hear in my memories is my mom’s, but… no. I can’t picture them, I can’t think anything about them. Same with home. And when we woke up in Grimoire… we didn’t recognize that city at all, either. We didn’t even know what continent we were on, let alone the country or city.” She laughed. “Everything ended up working out, and we figured things out fast enough. But… it’s weird, isn’t it? Having a giant gaping hole where your childhood should be, where home should be, where family should be.”
Fae turned to look at Mercury. Though the blonde was staring up at the sky with a smile on her face, her blue eyes so clear and hopeful…
There was a sadness to her. A sadness Fae never would have noticed when they first met, and that most people would probably never notice.
But it’s always been there, hasn’t it? She’s good at hiding it, and her joy and optimism are honest, they’re not just a mask, but…
She’s so strong. She’s really, really strong. She keeps moving forward, she keeps giving of herself for someone else’s quest, and none of it is fake, none of it is forced. Despite all her sadness, she…
Fae sat up, brushing off her back. She looked down the hill, at the many artists going about their day – talking, eating, drawing, painting, sewing, stitching, sketching – and then beyond that, past the hills, past miles of open plains, at the rocky cliffs far off, where high above rested the entrance to the Dragon’s Den.
So many people, just going about their lives. Just doing their very best. How many of them are moving forward through sadness like Mercury? How many of them are being so strong in the face of conflict and uncertainty?
How can I be like that?
“I wonder when Gerick’s getting back,” Mercury said, sitting up with Fae and staring off towards the Dragon’s Den. “He’s been talking a lot with Kairyu.”
“She knows a lot, even if she isn’t always clear about sharing her knowledge,” Fae said. “And it sounds like we’ll need all the knowledge we can get before the path to the Nightmare Citadel opens up.”
“That should be soon, right?” Mercury asked. She stood up, offered Fae a hand, and helped her to her feet. “I wonder just how dangerous it’ll be.”
“If I could just find out who the Dreamer was, we wouldn’t have to worry about that,” Fae said with a sigh. She pulled the mirror out of her bag and stared at it. It still showed only her surroundings, with no clue of the Dreamer it was supposed to reveal.
Gerick had told them all about their two options to reaching the Nightmare Citadel. One was to join the Dreamer, who could take them there by a safer route through the Dreamworld.
The other – and only option available to them at the moment – was to take the physical path to the Citadel, a gauntlet of danger and fear that was designed specifically to repel all those who attempted the physical route.
“Still no luck, huh?” Mercury asked. “Although Selphine did say we needed to at least have a clue of who the Dreamer was to be able to see them in the mirror.”
Fae sighed, shoving the mirror back into her bag.
Shana… I used to think you’d love this adventure with me. But now I’m glad you’re not here. I wouldn’t want to put you in danger.
“Hey, there’s Gerick,” Mercury said, pointing towards the entrance to the artist’s camp, where the familiar grey ponytail of Gerick could be seen fluttering in the wind.
They met him, along with Neptune and Jupiter, and Gerick brought them to his red tent at the back of the camp. They sat together in a circle outside the tent entrance, and for a while, Gerick didn’t say anything. When he looked up, his eyes were grave.
“The path to the Citadel opens tomorrow,” he said. “And it won’t open again for quite a long time. This is our best chance. And… as much as I wish we could do more, in truth, we are as prepared for the journey as we could possibly hope to be. None of us are well-equipped for combat or self-defense, and we know no others we can take with us – nor would I ask anyone. This journey was entrusted to you, Fae, so I trust that it is possible, even with what little strength we four possess. We will simply have to do our best.”
“Do you have to be such a downer?” Jupiter asked, tilting back in her seat, kicking back and forth with one of her legs. “We know we have to do it. We know it’s dangerous. Let’s go into it with confidence and courage, right?”
Gerick smiled, though it was a ghost of a smile. “You’re right. We should keep our spirits up. Be prepared for the danger, but keep hope with us. Hope that we can triumph.”
“Hope that we will triumph,” Mercury said.
“What is there left to do?” Neptune asked.
“Nothing but rest,” Gerick said. “I’ve collected our supplies for the journey, and all the knowledge I could. I will let you know when the time has come. Until then, rest. Sleep, if you can.”
The meeting was adjourned, and the four girls walked together to a low hill near the middle of the camp, where tents had been set up for them. They sat for a while, talking about this and that, playing a few verbal games that the Star sisters knew and quickly taught to Fae.
And, eventually, they lay down to sleep, closing their darkened tents tight to simulate a night that didn’t exist on the Plains of the Fallen.
For a long time, though, Fae didn’t sleep. She stared up in the darkness, marveling at her fear of the oncoming journey, and hoping – desperately hoping – for strength.