Fae sat with Madeline, the Star sisters, and Selphine in the private sitting room next to the entrance hall of Eventide Archive.
“So Maxwell uncovered much of the mysteries of Collapse…” Selphine said, staring at the table in thought. Fae and the others had relayed to her their entire journey since leaving her so long ago. “And you ended up pursuing it to the Nightmare Citadel, and now know where it’s gone and what you must do to destroy it.” She took a deep breath, then let it out. When she looked up, she wore a calm smile. “I can’t tell you how impressed I am with you girls for accomplishing so much.” She nodded to Madeline. “And it’s wonderful to meet you, and encouraging to know that this group has grown larger and stronger. From what you’ve experienced, it’s clear you’ll need all the help you can get.”
“I wish we could actually stay here,” Mercury said. “After all that’s happened, coming back here is so relaxing.”
“And I wish I could say what I’ve been able to say to others before,” Selphine said. “Often there are time constraints, meaning there’s waiting before traveling to a new Location, giving those in transit a chance to properly rest. But for the Valley of Ruin, there is no such constraint.” She stood smoothly. “Come with me, please.”
She led them out into the Archive proper, up a set of stairs towards the far corner, and through a sliding door that opened into a stone chamber that contrasted from the warm glow of Eventide Archive with a cool blue atmosphere. There was the faint sound of trickling water, and the lighting seemed like blue light reflected off of water. It cast strange, moving waves of light on the walls, floor, and ceiling.
A little farther in, the chamber opened up in a wide circle, in the center of which was a pool of water. Rising up from the center of the pool was a small stone pillar that trickled water gently into a bamboo cylinder. When the cylinder filled, it rocked forward on an axle, pouring out its contents into the pool and then rocking back, stopping against a stone ledge with an echoing, wooden knock.
“Things sometimes come to me here,” Selphine said, kneeling at the pool’s edge. “Like a message in a bottle coming in on the tide, I receive objects of importance, always from mysterious places and peoples. I don’t always know of their origin. But this item came to me during your journey, as if someone knew you would have need of it when you returned to me.”
“Something came here for us?” Fae asked.
Selphine nodded, reaching her hand into the blue waters. When she pulled it out, she held a circular doorknob, old and weathered with hints that it had once been resplendent gold. She stood, handing the doorknob to Fae. “This will open the door to the Valley of Ruin,” she said. “And, when you wish to return, you can use it to come back to Eventide Archive.”
The doorknob was cool and heavy in Fae’s hand.
“If you don’t know where it comes from, how do you know what it does?” Mercury asked. “It even leads straight back to your place.”
“I have ways of discerning these things,” Selphine said with a coy smile. “The ability to lead back to Eventide Archive is a new addition, one that I find very intriguing. It seems you have a mysterious benefactor.”
“Helping us get where we need to go,” Fae said. “And helping us get back to you.”
Like someone’s watching me?
Who would know that I need to find and destroy Collapse, and also know that I’m ready to pursue it, and also know where it specifically is I need to go first?
But no. Fae didn’t pursue the next thought, a thought that had been growing in her mind ever since setting out for the Enchanted Dominion.
I need more information. I need to see where all of this leads.
“Fae, are you wearing the amulet that can warn of the Sealed Vessel?” Selphine asked.
Fae reached into her bag and pulled out the amulet in answer.
“You should keep it on you at all times from now on,” Selphine said. “Knowing that the Sealed Vessel specifically wants you – and that after your first encounter the amulet should be able to detect her – you don’t want to be caught unawares.”
“If she shows up again, Royal Raven’ll just send her packing again,” Jupiter said with a grin.
“I don’t think it’ll be that easy,” Madeline said. “I was able to chase her off because I caught her by surprise. Head-on, I think she’d be more than a match for all of us.” She smiled apologetically. “Despite how it looked, I’m not much of a fighter.”
“Do you know anything about this ‘True Vessel’ business?” Neptune asked Selphine.
“I wish I did,” Selphine said. “But it makes the ‘Vessel’ part of it all that much more curious. Sealed and Broken… someone has tried to create something out of a person twice, and failed twice. Why they think Fae is the key, and what it even would mean to become the ‘True’ Vessel, I do not know. But just that line of thought sickens me.”
You and me both.
“We should get going,” Fae said, clutching the doorknob tightly. “When we’ve destroyed Collapse, we’ll come right back to you.” She paused, steadying herself.
Why do I get so nervous over such simple things?
“Thank you,” she said. “You’ve done so much for us, and you’re prepared to do so much more. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”
“And I will always be ready to aid you,” Selphine said with a smile. “Now go. And good luck. I eagerly await news of your success.”
Fae nodded, looking around at her friends. Each of them looked back at her, their expressions showing their readiness.
She held out the doorknob, instinctively knowing what to do, slotting it into thin air as if placing it into a door. She twisted, and pulled.
A door opened.
Through its ethereal opening, Fae could see a grey, ruined world beyond. She stepped through, and her friends followed. Once all were through, Fae closed the door and the doorknob fell away, once more loose in her hands.
Fae felt like she’d stepped into a place she’d been before. Of course she hadn’t been here before, but the real Valley of Ruin was so perfectly replicated in Maxwell’s drawing of it in his journal on Collapse that it didn’t seem like a strange, alien place at all to her.
There were no complete buildings anywhere, but the echoes of thousands, with collapsed walls, fallen pillars, shattered roofs, and so much more. The girls stood at the center of the Valley, the narrowest point, though that was still easily a hundred yards left to right. Above them loomed the remnants of a great bridge that had once spanned the highest point of the Valley, and beneath their feet were the crumbled ruins of the bridge’s center.
It was grey, and brown, and the sky above was a pale cloudy veil. A faint, ghostly breeze whistled in the emptiness.
Fae felt it, then, a feeling that hadn’t struck her since before she’d left to see the Enchanted Dominion.
She felt the inescapable compulsion to draw. In an instant sketchbook and pencil were in her hands, and the lines came swift, beyond Fae’s recognition, her hand moving on its own. She was dimly aware of one of the Star sisters calling out to her, and dimly aware of Madeline interrupting with a “Don’t disturb her. Let her finish.”
So she drew, turning in a slow circle as she did. When one page was filled, she turned to the next and continued. Then a third page, and a fourth, a fifth, then a sixth. As she finished the sixth page, she looked up.
She was facing back the way she’d started.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she let it out slowly as she looked down at what she’d drawn. The Star sisters and Madeline came near to look as well.
Six pages, horizontally oriented, created a startling scene – a full three-sixty panorama of the entire Valley of Ruin as visible from this the central, highest point.
But the Valley wasn’t one of Ruin. The buildings in Fae’s drawing were whole, as was the bridge above, and the streets, and the stairs…
And there were people. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, packed into four sketchbook pages with startling detail that Fae was envious of. She’d never drawn anything so detailed, so lifelike, so real.
Every single one of them was different. There were men and women, young and old, children, and even Summons, wondrous creatures in all sorts of different sizes and shapes.
“Fae…” Madeline said softly.
“It’s the Valley,” Fae said. “Before Collapse, before it was destroyed.”
At the bottom right corner of the final page was scrawled in tiny print: DON’T FORGET.
Suddenly, Fae felt a flood rush through her, and she dropped to a seat on the rubble. She would have fallen back completely, but Madeline and Neptune caught her, steadying her as she sat. Her body was numb, nothing would move because…
“I…” she started, struggling against the flood.
“I remember them all,” she said, gritting her teeth against a sudden rush of pain.
“What do you mean?” Neptune asked.
“Their names…” Fae said, struggling with air as her breaths came in ragged, swift gasps. Her eyes fluttered open and closed, again and again. “Every single one. I remember… all of them. They’re all… in my mind.”
“But… how?” Madeline asked.
This has never happened before. The drawings…
They don’t come with…
Stop… please… I can’t… I can’t hold all of this!
There are so many names… too many names…
Don’t add on top of that! Don’t —!
“He’s on his way to propose to his girlfriend,” Fae said, pointing at a man who was just a pinprick on the second page. “She’s struggling with the death of her grandfather. He’s looking for inspiration for his next story. She wants mommy to buy her candy. She’s waiting for her father to come home from work.” The words came almost too swift to be intelligible, and Fae flipped back and forth, rapidly pointing from one person to the next as she relayed the state of their minds, their hearts, their beings, in these…
“He doesn’t know his brother’s helping bring Collapse into the world,” Fae said. “He doesn’t know his daughter’s helping with Collapse. She doesn’t know her father’s been sacrificed for Collapse already. She doesn’t know her uncle’s helping with Collapse. They don’t know their grandparents have been sacrificed for Collapse. She doesn’t know her husband’s helping with Collapse.” Again and again she went, pointing out all of the people who don’t know, who didn’t know, who couldn’t know…
She couldn’t point to anyone actively involved in Collapse, because they…
They’re already in that place. Deep below the —
But the flood of information came on and on, and then suddenly she pointed a trembling finger to a pregnant woman smiling as she held her husband’s hand. For a long time, she said nothing, staring at the image, her eyes filling with tears.
“Her son…” she started, her voice catching in her throat. “She’ll never… she’ll never meet her son.”
This is the day.
The day that Collapse comes into the world.
The day that this valley, so full of life and people and dreams and hope…
She fell back against her friends, feeling as if she could finally breathe, sucking in air like she’d been shut off from it for ages. She closed her eyes, quieting her thoughts as best she could.
How does it all fit?
Because she still remembered all the names, all their stories.
And yet it wasn’t clawing at her, overstuffing her, bursting inside of her.
It had settled, finding its way into places where Fae never knew she had room.
I know all of their names. Every single one.
“I don’t understand,” she said softly, eyes remaining closed as she felt a tear roll down her cheek. “The drawings… they’ve never done this before. They’ve never come with… information.”
“So why this time?” Madeline asked.
“It’s like their souls are crying out for vengeance,” Mercury said.
“Not vengeance,” Fae said, shaking her head.
But the past…
It is crying out.
Even Maxwell never found out about this place before Collapse, not beyond vague clues. No one knows, do they?
No one except me, now.
“The past cries out to be remembered,” she said softly.
“Can you stand?” Neptune asked gently.
“Give her a chance,” Mercury admonished. “She just got her brain filled with a billion names. I’m surprised she can talk.”
“I’m just saying,” Neptune said, “we should move as soon as we can.” Her hand gave Fae’s arm a gentle squeeze. “So we can put an end to what destroyed this place, killed so many people.”
Slowly, Fae nodded. “It’s all right,” she said, opening her eyes. She looked at Mercury and gave her a grateful smile. “I can stand as long as I have you guys, right?” Mercury smiled back at her. “And besides… we have a job to do.” Slowly, with the help of Madeline and all three Star sisters, she rose to her feet. “I won’t forget,” she added softly, clutching the sketchbook tightly. “So let’s finish this.”
Each new step forward was easier. Fae’s mind calmed, she regained control of her body, and forward she went. At first she was aided by all four girls, and then only by Madeline, and then she was leading the group under her own power. Through winding, crumbling streets, down stairs that were barely still intact, ducking through and clambering over broken, destroyed houses…
She led the way through the broken remains of a once bustling, vibrant, beautiful place, to the site of the valley’s destruction. She turned a corner and exited out onto the bottom level of the valley, and there she saw it.
The hollow opening in the rocky wall of the valley, like a gaping maw of some nightmarish monstrosity. Numerous lidless, predatory eyes were carved into the wall above the entrance.
Through the arch, wide stairs led down, down, down.
Fae reached into her bag and brought forth the candlestick bell. Madeline and the Star sisters readied their Talismans.
Together, the five descended into the depths. Mercury and Neptune called forth globes of white, magical light, and Madeline brought out Raven, her own lavender glow adding to the illumination.
Just as Maxwell had described, the walls were stained with black streaks – streaks that he had determined were made by blood. The ceilings were so high, the stairs so wide, making the whole place feel…
Down they went, silence closing in around them.
Down, down, down.
Just as the silence seemed unbearable to Fae, a sound pierced the emptiness.
Behind her, Neptune was humming softly. It was a warm, hopeful tune, and it lightened Fae’s heart a bit.
Then Mercury’s voice joined in, adding bright clarity to the tune. Jupiter soon followed, energizing the song, and adding along with her voice a steady tapping on her thighs with her drumstick Talismans, giving it a strong, resolute rhythm.
The humming turned to singing openly, with no words, just the music filling the hollow descent. Three voices joined together in beautiful harmony, their joy, strength, and hope tearing into the darkness, filling Fae’s heart and mind with…
The bottom that had seemed so far away suddenly came upon them, and the five girls stepped out into the great chamber where Collapse had been birthed into the physical realm. The Star sisters sang a moment longer before stopping in such a way that their final notes rang out in the vastness, echoing in on themselves, resonating far beyond the ending of the song.
Raven trilled brightly, flying up and around the chamber, and the globes of light from Mercury and Neptune also spread out, searching every corner of the place.
It was utterly empty.
Fae remembered well the illustration Maxwell had drawn of this chamber. The black stains were here, and in greater number than the stairs leading down. There was the stone tablet in the center, carved from the very stone that had been hollowed out for this chamber, its painted façade of Collapse worn and weathered.
But the globules of darkness, the pulsating thing above the tablet shaped like a heart, those were gone.
They were from the living darkness. So the darkness is gone now?
This place just bears…
“So it’s still ahead of us,” Mercury said, frowning at the emptiness.
“Nocta said there would be clues,” Neptune said.
“Let’s look there,” Fae said, starting towards the central tablet. The others followed, centering their lights around themselves as they walked. Though they could see far less of the chamber like that, it did make things feel more comforting, having the lights so close at hand.
At the center, Fae led the way around behind the tablet, and there she saw something strange.
“Maxwell’s journal didn’t say anything about this,” she said softly.
On the back of the tablet, written in massive letters to fill the massive stone space, was a message:
The Darkhorde’s gift to the Lord of Night
Reach your master when put to flight
No longer borne by mortal hands
Travel through the Great Night Lands
Fear no song of hope in air
Pursuit shall never reach you there
All perish in night
“What’s with the last line?” Jupiter asked, frowning.
“Run!” Fae shouted, shoving everyone towards the stairs.
“What?” Jupiter started, but was then pulled by Mercury.
“Listen to her!” Mercury cried, racing forward and pulling her redheaded sister. Madeline and Neptune needed no such assistance, sprinting after them. Fae took up the rear, running as fast as she could so she wasn’t left behind.
The darkness didn’t leave this place. It was just —
She could hear it, could feel it, the living darkness forming, pouring from walls, floor, ceiling.
“Wait!” she suddenly cried out, skidding to a stop. “Stay close to me!”
Madeline, Neptune, Mercury, and Jupiter came rushing to crowd near Fae. She turned, facing the darkness, seeing it take the form of those disgusting, bulbous growths, pulsating, rippling, groping towards the girls.
She raised the candlestick bell.
Hope brings light into the darkness.
She rang the bell. Its clear, beautiful, resonant chime rang out, accompanied by a blast of fierce, pure white light.
The darkness shrieked in terror, shrank back from this weapon it hadn’t expected.
But it couldn’t retreat. The light and music tore the darkness to shreds, out and out, until it was all destroyed.
The light dimmed, but didn’t completely fade. In its glow, Fae could see that the entire chamber had transformed.
The tablet that bore the symbol of Collapse was now white and clean, and the floors, walls, ceilings were all devoid of the vicious bloodstains, the echoes of past horrors.
There was a fluttering noise in the air, and a piece of paper floated softly down to Fae. She snatched it out of the air, and holding onto it, she turned and raced to the stairs.
She couldn’t read it yet.
She had to see.
Could it be…?
Her footsteps on the stairs were echoed by those of her friends. All around, the ascent bore no signs of blood or violence.
The echoes of past horrors were no more. Up, up, up they were clean.
Could it be…?
She came out at the top of the stairs into startling sunlight. For a moment, her eyes adjusted.
And then she looked around in wonder.
The people were still missing. But the buildings, the streets, the stairs, the bridge…
All was made whole again.
It was no longer ruined, dusty grey, but a dazzling white. And there was color, too – pennants flapped in the breeze, bearing vibrant red, green, blue, purple, and so many more. Flowers bloomed in gardens, trees shaded porches with leafy boughs, fountains poured forth glittering cerulean waters…
The Valley of Ruin would need a new name.
Pulled by one last tug at her heart, Fae ran on, up a central stair, out onto a wide causeway, through a circular plaza, and up a winding stair to a grand, arcing bridge that led over to…
She stood at the edge of the lawn, letting the breeze gently tousle her hair as she stared.
A vast meadow had been filled with beautiful white stone markers. Each one bore a name that she recognized.
“No one will ever forget you,” she said softly.
“It’s never done this much before,” Madeline said in awe.
Fae held up the candlestick bell, staring at it, wondering at its strange, unpredictable power. And she finally read the paper clutched in her hand.
Fae lifted the bell and rang it again.
Its clear tone filled the air, and then before the girls a portal opened up.
It was a portal into darkness.
“What’s that?” Jupiter asked.
“Where Collapse fled to,” Fae said. “The Lands of Night.”
“The bell’s helping us pursue it,” Mercury said.
Fae nodded. She looked back at her friends, her heart so full at the sight of them.
Alone, I’d be terrified.
But with all of you…
“Everyone ready?” she asked.
“Like you even have to ask,” Mercury said, a determined gleam in her eyes.
“Let’s go get it,” Jupiter said.
“It’s time to put an end to Collapse,” Neptune said.
Madeline stared back at Fae and nodded, her eyes saying more than words ever could.
Fae turned towards the portal and, with a confidence and hope that surprised her, she led the way forward.
Confidently, hopefully, unflinchingly, she strode forth into darkness.