Neptune sat on a blanket on the hilltop, gazing up at the darkened, cloudy sky.
Her heart felt indescribably heavy.
She reached a hand into her shirt, pulling out the locket she’d been carrying since receiving it from Maxwell. Opening it, she stared at the surprising picture within – her, Mercury, and Jupiter as children, their arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing together.
How old were we then? Ten? Eleven?
When we woke up in Grimoire, with only the faintest echoes of memories, we were already eighteen.
I don’t remember this photo at all.
Why is it just us? What about…
Even in her private thoughts, she struggled to put the two obviously missing individuals in the picture into words.
Where were they? Who were they?
All I have…
She sighed, closing the locket with a click. Tucking it back in her shirt, she gazed out over the endless hills and began to sing. It was a melody she’d often used alone, a melancholy tune that sounded of memories, longing, and loneliness. Yet she paired that tune with the words from the chorus of her and her sisters’ song “Sisters are Forever,” one of the poppiest, most joyful songs in their repertoire. Singing those words like this imparted them with completely new meaning.
“Sisters are forever, no matter
Wind or rain or stormy weather
We’ll never fall away from each other
This sisterhood is always and forever”
Another sigh as she let the last note linger in the air. A soft, cool breeze caressed her skin, lightly tousled her hair.
She sang once more, turning instead to both melody and words that had never been sung or played on stage. It was a song she often sang alone, one that felt nostalgic to her, tinged with sadness, with a faint undercurrent of hope.
“Come along with me in the pale moonlight
Soon all of your troubles will be set right”
After the first two lines, a new voice joined hers, bright and clear, and for a moment the two sang together, harmonizing with the ease they always did.
“The ones you love are close beside you
That they’re never gone is the beautiful truth
Please don’t be ashamed of the tears that fall
They testify to memories lasting through it all.”
Neptune let that last note ring out with her singing partner. Footsteps sounded softly on the grass, and her blonde sister came to sit next to her on the hill.
“It’s been a long time since we sang that, huh?” Mercury asked. Neptune could hear the smile in her sister’s voice.
“If only…” Neptune started, trailing off.
“If only we knew the whole thing,” Mercury said with a sigh.
Neptune let out a soft, bitter laugh. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? Singing about loved ones never being gone, about memories lasting through it all. And here we are, not remembering a thing about any ‘loved ones’ aside from each other.”
Mercury leaned in, bumping her shoulder against Neptune’s. “You okay?” she asked.
“I’m always okay,” Neptune said with a sigh.
“I know,” Mercury said, with another shoulder-bump. “Why do you think I worry about you so much?” She looked meaningfully up at Neptune. “Can I see the picture?”
Neptune pulled out the locket and opened it, showing it to Mercury. The smile on Mercury’s face was one of awestruck delight, as she stared at the photo of the sisters as children.
“You ever have weird memory echoes about a mask?” Mercury asked.
“A mask?” Neptune asked.
Mercury nodded, still staring at the picture. “Like… I have two voices that come up in my echoes. And one of them, I think, belongs to a woman who wears a mask. I see her sometimes. But I think I only see her in my dreams, so I’m not totally sure it’s an echo, but…” Mercury sighed, her smile not wavering. “I think she’s real. I want to meet her.”
Neptune looked away. She heard voices in her memory echoes, just like Mercury – two voices that she only recognized in memory.
But she never saw people. No faces, no bodies, no masks.
“I remember a piano,” Neptune said softly, half to herself. “White, with silver patterns.”
“I’ve never heard you say that,” Mercury said, staring at Neptune with wide, curious eyes.
Neptune didn’t reply, just staring off into the shadowed distance. A cool wind swept over the girls, and after a few seconds soared on past them, tumbling through distant hills.
Mercury still had such lively eyes, such an easy smile. Neptune, not looking at her sister, began to sing:
“Oh, I wish I was
A happy smiling Mercury
With eyes shining like diamonds
And such perfect white teeth”
“Are you stealing my song?” Mercury asked. “And I don’t have perfect teeth!”
“Yeah you do,” Neptune said, smiling.
“No, one’s slightly crooked, I can feel it,” Mercury said, her words coming out funny as she felt her teeth with her tongue. She leaned in close, opening her mouth and pointing out one of her perfect white teeth. “Come on, feel it! It’s totally not perfect.”
“It’s perfect,” Neptune said, chuckling.
“Well, fine then,” Mercury said, sitting back. And then she sang:
“Oh, I wish I was
A thoughtful, quiet Neptune
With quiet strength she cannot hide
And perfect, mysterious hair.”
“You’re supposed to properly rhyme,” Neptune said, narrowing her eyes slightly at her sister’s description of her.
“I totally rhymed,” Mercury said, grinning.
“Because you added an ‘ooh’ at the end,” Neptune said. “Rhyme with the words, not by adding weird noises.”
“It’s not so easy to do off the top of your head,” Mercury said.
“So if you have perfect teeth,” Neptune said, “and I apparently have perfect hair, then what does Jupiter have that’s perfect?”
“Ooh, I got this one!” Mercury said, grinning.
“Oh, I wish I was
A jittery, goofy Jupiter
With crazy mad rhythm
And perfect skills with computers”
“You really struggled with that one,” Neptune said.
“Shut up, it was fine,” Mercury said, pouting slightly. “And it’s my song, so I say it’s all about having fun with it, not about making it fit perfectly.”
“Fair enough,” Neptune said.
“It’s not skills with computers!” came the voice of Jupiter, slightly labored from hurriedly climbing the hill. “I’m skilled with all kinds of tech stuff.” She plopped down behind Neptune and Mercury and then squeezed her way between them. “If you’re gonna sing about me, get it right.”
“Hey, we’re not the tech wizards,” Mercury said. “Besides, I was trying to at least sort of rhyme.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jupiter said, throwing an arm around each of her sisters’ shoulders. “So anyway, why didn’t you invite me to the party? What if I hadn’t heard you singing?”
“Neptune didn’t invite me,” Mercury said with a shrug.
“So we’re both party crashers,” Jupiter said with a grin.
“Do you see any people in your memories?” Neptune asked. Jupiter’s joking demeanor immediately turned serious.
“People?” the redhead asked, raising an eyebrow. “I… well, I hear voices.”
“How many?” Mercury asked.
“Two,” Jupiter said. “Same as you guys, right?” Mercury and Neptune nodded. “But I… hmm. I don’t think I see anyone. I don’t have a lot of those memory echo things, though. There are some voices, there’s those few lines of that song we all get… and I see a drum set.” Her mouth split wide in a grin. “It’s the coolest freaking kit around, pearly white with silver rims and cymbals, I love it! I wish I could…” her smile faded and her voice softened, “…play it…”
“Do you think that’s the kind of stuff waiting for us in the Silver Star Sanctuary?” Mercury asked.
“If that’s really home,” Neptune said. That last word hung in the air, and all three girls sat in silent reverence of it.
“Do you think Fae will go there with us?” Jupiter asked after a while.
“I hope so,” Mercury said, smiling. “I want her to be a part of our journey, just like we’ve been a part of hers. At this point… it would feel incomplete if we found it just the three of us.”
Jupiter nodded. “She’s gotta be there,” she said. “I mean, if she wants to.”
“But we can’t dwell too much on that now,” Neptune said. The locket still hung open, and she closed it firmly, tucking it back in her shirt. “Collapse needs to be destroyed. And so much more.”
“We’ll gather clues along the way,” Mercury said. “We wouldn’t have found that locket without Fae. And that locket’s the key to entering the Silver Star Sanctuary when we find it. Without Fae…”
“We’d have no chance,” Jupiter said.
“We should thank her properly,” Mercury said.
Neptune nodded. “We will,” she said.
Fae ducked back into the tent where Madeline was sleeping.
I really shouldn’t eavesdrop.
But at first it was just… I enjoyed their singing.
I wasn’t supposed to hear all of that.
And anyway, I should be thanking the three of you. You started me on this… you’ve guided me through so much…
I wouldn’t stand a chance without you. And I would still be floundering in confusion and angst back home without you, wondering without a single clue what my drawings are all about.
You’ve helped me so much.
Knowing that you want me to come with you to the Silver Star Sanctuary when we find it…
That means the world to me.
She sighed, sitting across from her sleeping friend.
If only I could say those things to their faces.
She looked beside her at the small table. There was a dim lantern on it, and next to that lantern was a leather-bound book.
But for now, I should get back to reading.
She’d already read half of the strange book given to Shias at the Nightmare Citadel. Given to him by a man who had been sitting up against Collapse itself, who bore a ring with the symbol of Collapse.
As Fae had discovered through reading, that man had been the youngest of the group who had created that evil Intangible in the Valley of Ruin.
“Created” isn’t quite the right word.
They thought they did, that they were the authors of its existence. But they were wrong. All they did was call it into existence. And it wasn’t until far too late that they realized what they’d done.
The people who had brought Collapse into the universe called themselves “Disciples of Night.” And they had performed their wicked ritual, performed their vicious mass sacrifice, thinking they were creating a gift for the Lord of Night.
But it didn’t at all go how you imagined, did it?
You never got to see your precious Lord of Night, as if he never cared what you did.
And you never expected Collapse’s infection to affect you. You were the “chosen few,” after all.
Cults are… really freaking scary.
Fae remembered studying death cults with Madeline for a group project. They’d stumbled down a rabbit hole, where one thing led to another, and soon they were utterly fascinated with the obsessions of those driven to mad death cults.
That fascination had swiftly turned to horror, and they’d clambered up out of that rabbit hole as fast as they could, hastily changing the topic of their project to something far less grotesque.
The way desire can so swiftly turn to obsession, an obsession that turns to self-destruction…
Fae felt her heart sink.
Maxwell and Selphine both said that Oscar seemed obsessed.
Did his obsession drive him to…
No. Don’t jump to conclusions.
Especially, you know, horrifying ones.
There was enough horrifying material within the Collapse journal itself. She didn’t need to go adding ideas of her own.
And the man who gave this to Shias… he wrote it.
It’s terrifying what was inside his mind at the beginning, and what it twisted into in the middle. But…
He started to understand. Started to see what he’d wrought.
“I see clearly only when it is too late. And whether I wish to be free of Collapse or not means nothing now. For freedom is denied me and my… brethren? I thought we were family, bound by common purpose.
“No. We are no more than a pack of fools, blinded by common arrogance and greed. This is a just reward for our sin.”
While much of the journal delved into the author’s psyche, there were also clues about the nature of Collapse… and a strange man.
They never met their “Lord of Night.” But… this unnamed man the journal keeps telling of…
He’s called at different points “benefactor,” “guide,” “savior,” “villain,” “captor,” and “monster.”
Who is he? Is he still alive?
Will he try to defend Collapse from us?
There were too many questions, even as Fae dove into the remainder of the journal in the dim light. But…
I get the feeling that man won’t try to stop us.
And yet that makes me more uneasy. Because it means he has a bigger, more horrific plan in the works.
The strange thing is, with Collapse weakened as it is…
Destroying it doesn’t seem like it’ll be all that difficult. As long as we can find it, we have the candlestick bell. Ring that, fight despair with hope, and Collapse is a goner.
Where is it going? Nocta said Collapse returning to its place of origin is only the start, and that it will work a path from there to…
That’s right. She said “It will attempt to trace a trail to its master.”
It’s master is…
The Lord of Night, presumably.
We have to stop it before it reaches him. Or we’ll get what these guys wanted and meet the Lord of Night, and that’s something I’m fairly confident I want to avoid.
The journal complete, Fae sat watching the sleeping Madeline.
I still can’t believe you’re actually here.
That you’d go through so much all alone…
I have some truly wonderful friends.
I wish I knew why.
Still struggling to sleep, Fae took out a sketchbook and drew, whiling away the hours to the soothing sound of pencil on paper.
Fae finally noticed Madeline stir at lunchtime the next day. Slowly, her friend opened her eyes and looked blearily at Fae.
“How long was I out?” she asked groggily.
“Too long,” Fae said flatly, meeting Madeline’s eyes with a steady, expressionless face. For three long seconds they stared at each other like that, until finally…
Fae burst out laughing.
“Dang it,” she said. “I was hoping you’d crack first.”
“You’re always first,” Madeline said, echoing Fae’s laughter. “Nice try, though. You almost had me.” She sat up, swinging her legs off the bed and onto the ground. “And you helped me wake up quickly.” She looked around with surprisingly wide eyes, and slowly smiled. “It’s so weird. I feel totally refreshed.”
“I should hope so, after sleeping for almost a full day,” Fae said.
“Fair point,” Madeline said. She stood up and pulled out her paintbrush Talisman. With a flourish, her pajamas gleamed and then burst with light, vanishing into a portal, being replaced in the same breath by new light that transformed into proper clothing for the day. “So what’s next?”
“What’s next is you tell me all about Royal Raven,” Fae said, standing. “I didn’t know you’d turned our superhero into a real person.”
Madeline smirked. “I’ve got more personas than that up my sleeve,” she said. Her eyes shifted to the Collapse journal. “I’ll tell you about all of my different personas, and then you can tell all of us about what you read in there. Deal?”
“Deal,” Fae said.
Madeline talked as they walked, and Fae listened with wonder as her friend described – and demonstrated – her various transformations into fictional characters of her own design.
“And all this tailoring skill is because of…” Fae started.
“My mother,” Madeline said with a nod. “I know I rarely talked about her. But… yeah. She was – is – my hero. And she taught me so much.”
“That you kept a secret,” Fae said.
“I’m making up for that now,” Madeline said. “Though it was fun keeping Royal Raven a secret, just to see your reaction when I saved you as her.”
Fair point. That was about as cool of a rescue as rescues get.
They rejoined the Star sisters and Gerick for lunch, and after they ate Fae relayed the notes of the Collapse journal to the others.
“So we should be able to handle Collapse easily,” Mercury said.
“As long as we catch up to it in time,” Neptune said.
“It’s strange that even with such a powerful weapon of darkness, they were never able to meet the Lord of Night,” Gerick said. “But it’s good to see that the questions this journal raises are ones that shouldn’t affect your immediate task.”
“Just more questions to add to that long list of ‘stuff for the future’,” Mercury said.
“But the very good news is that the path to Eventide Archive is open,” Gerick said. “Focus on pursuing and destroying Collapse. Afterwards, continue on your journey, doing as Madeline suggested and going to each of the Center Locations, visiting the Fault Line Dungeon on the way.”
“Do we have to just leave you like this?” Mercury asked. “You’ve been with us for so long now, and you’ve been an amazing help.”
“My place is here,” Gerick said with a smile. “I’m grateful that you’ve enjoyed my company, as I’ve enjoyed yours. But this is not a sad parting. You’ll always know where to find me, and I won’t be sitting idle. I have a Dragon to talk to, one with a fantastic wealth of knowledge. If she should convey anything of great use to you, I will do all I can to send such information your way.”
“You knew the path was open before lunch,” Neptune said, realization dawning in her eyes.
“You wanted to send us off with a meal and a smile!” Jupiter said.
Gerick laughed. “Indeed I did,” he said. “And now I have. Please, don’t tarry here. You have a journey of vital importance ahead of you, one which should be embarked on with all possible haste.”
And so, with a suddenness that stunned Fae into silence, they said their farewells to Gerick and made their way to the crossing from the Plains of the Fallen to Eventide Archive. It was only just as they were about to cross the threshold that Fae finally spoke up.
“I… didn’t say goodbye,” she said, turning to look back. The artist’s alley where Gerick stayed was no longer in sight past the rolling hills.
“We’ll come back,” Mercury said. “So it’s better that you didn’t say it. This wasn’t really goodbye.”
“That’s an awfully optimistic way of looking at it,” Fae said softly. “But… we really do have to go, don’t we?”
“We have to come back eventually, anyway,” Madeline said. “You didn’t get a chance to introduce me to Kairyu.”
Fae managed a small smile.
I hope he isn’t upset that I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t mean to.
Everything’s happening so fast.
But it was supposed to be that way. Fae knew that.
It didn’t make it any easier to leave a place she’d slowly grown attached to.
I get to see Selphine again.
Her heart lightening a little more, Fae turned and followed her friends through the exit, passing from the gloomy openness of the Plains of the Fallen into the cozy, warm interior of Eventide Archive.
“Fae…?” came a surprised voice. “And Mercury, Neptune, and Jupiter, too!”
Selphine was there to greet them, and she looked stunned at the new arrivals.
“We’re back,” Mercury said with a grin.
“I…” Selphine started. She blinked several times in quick succession, and then smiled. “I must confess, I wasn’t certain I would see you girls again.” She looked to Fae, and her smile faded. “Though… I’m sorry. If only you’d arrived sooner.”
“What do you mean?” Fae asked.
“Your sisters were here,” Selphine said sadly. “You just missed them.”
Fae stared in shock. “Shana…? And Delilah, too…?”
“I’ve had quite the influx of visitors lately,” Selphine said with a small smile. “They’re on quite the journeys of their own, it seems. In fact, Delilah and Alice just left moments ago.”
But more than that…
“Moments?” Fae asked.
Selphine nodded sadly. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s…” Fae said, shaking her head. “It’s… okay.”
I haven’t seen Delilah since…
And it’s getting close to Christmas again already, isn’t it? It’ll be December so soon.
“Thank you,” Fae said softly, composing herself. “It’s good just to know they’re safe, and they have you helping them.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Selphine said. “And I’m glad to see you again. What’s next for you?”
Fae took a deep breath, then let it out. “It’s time for us to destroy Collapse.”