Fae led the way into darkness, candlestick bell in hand. Madeline, Mercury, Neptune, and Jupiter followed her in.
The portal snapped shut behind them.
All was starless night.
“Heck if I’m walking around in pitch-darkness,” Mercury said. Her guitar pick Talisman gleamed with light, and two glowing orbs shot forth, hovering over the girls’ heads.
“I can hear it,” Fae said softly.
“Hear it?” Jupiter asked.
They all went silent, listening. There it was, faint at first, but more noticeable the longer they listened.
Like a heartbeat.
“Which way?” Neptune asked. She, along with everyone else, was looking at Fae.
Fae raised the candlestick bell and rang it once. Its beautiful tone rang out, and her heart swelled with hope at the sound.
But the darkness did not abate. Nothing about their environment changed.
“Why didn’t it work?” Jupiter asked.
“It did,” Fae said. “It’s this place. There’s something about the darkness here that won’t just retreat at the tone of the bell. I don’t think… I don’t think the darkness is a feature, or something that overcame this place.”
“What does that mean?” Mercury asked.
“This place is darkness,” Madeline said, earning a nod from Fae. “Like that place Maxwell talked about in his journal, right?”
“I think this it,” Fae said.
“The Lands of Night, huh…?” Mercury asked, staring at the endless sea of darkness all around. Though her glowing orbs illuminated the group, they did nothing to reveal any features about the landscape. Walls, ceilings, floors… nothing could be ascertained.
“I think it’s coming from this way,” Fae said, starting forward.
What struck her was that, despite the darkness, despite the confusion of the place…
She wasn’t afraid.
I’m not even worried. And that was before I rang the bell.
The end. The end for Collapse. The end of our pursuit of it. Nothing’s going to stop us.
She was surprised at her confidence, but she didn’t dislike it.
I’ve spent too many years in self-doubt. And I have things to worry about, but they aren’t in this place.
Here, all I have to worry about is Collapse. And I already know how that’s going to end.
The Lands of Night – for that’s where Fae was certain they were – were a strange place. They walked, and their feet felt solid ground, but looking down was like looking into an open, bottomless pit. There didn’t appear to be any floor beneath their feet, and yet clearly there was.
She thought she was leading the group in a straight line, and yet they never ran up against walls, against any sort of physical obstacles.
All was a void of darkness.
The heartbeat of Collapse was drawing nearer.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.
Steady, constant, on it went, its deep, percussive thumping permeating the atmosphere.
Neptune called forth a trio of orbs of light, and Mercury added several more, so the two could send out orbs as scouts, shooting forward and to the sides, up and down, into the void of night.
None of the orbs they sent out got very far before vanishing, as if swallowed up by the darkness.
Fae rang the candlestick bell again.
“Come on out!” Jupiter shouted, glaring at the darkness. “It’s only a matter of time before we find you, you know.”
A voice spoke into the darkness. It was a whisper, one that glided over the air, coming from all directions.
It spoke only one word.
The ground suddenly gave way beneath the girls’ feet, and they were falling, plummeting down into the abyssal void.
“Just hang on!” Fae cried out over the screams of her friends. She clutched the candlestick bell tightly and rang it with confidence.
A circle of light appeared, and the girls’ momentum slowed until they landed softly on their feet in the light.
“Nice try, jerk,” Jupiter said, glaring at the darkness.
“It’s still close,” Fae said.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.
She started ahead, and when she left the light to walk into the darkness, the ground was solid beneath her feet.
“Collapse,” said the whispering voice again. Fae instantly rang the bell, and while the ground wavered beneath her feet, it didn’t give way.
But there was more in the darkness. What had been a void of starless night now had shapes moving within it, just barely distinct from the land itself. The shapes were accompanied by sounds: scraping claws, hissing maws, snapping jaws.
“Here comes trouble,” Neptune said. She and Madeline stepped forward, and Madeline Summoned Raven, though kept her on her arm for the moment.
Fae drew her stylus Talisman and drew in the air. Stars, beams, other sorts of symbols and designs that, for her, represented one thing: light.
She tapped her finished collage and it burst forth with light, shooting forward in many separate glowing streams. They pierced the darkness, shot through the shapes, and the landscape around them erupted in harsh, pained screams.
“Which way?” Mercury asked. “We probably shouldn’t stay here.”
“This way!” Fae said, leading the way forward. She rang the bell, once, and then again. She could see a faint ripple of energy pulse through the darkness with each peal, and shapes were thrown back, disintegrated, or crushed in their wakes.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.
“We’re getting closer!” Mercury said, grinning. “I can hear it really well, now.”
Fae suddenly came to a skidding stop, and her friends bumped into each other in their scramble to stop with her.
“Wait… what…?” Jupiter asked, trailing off.
What had been an endless void of night was now a circular arena, its dark walls towering over them, its imposing barriers surrounding them.
They were trapped.
“But how?” Mercury asked. “Not even a sound, or a movement? Where’s the door we came through to get here?”
“It probably doesn’t have to follow the rules we expect,” Madeline said. “This place isn’t natural.”
“Collapse,” said the voice, and the walls were suddenly filled with freakish, dark monsters, jeering and shrieking, howling and hissing.
A great beast rose from the floor of the arena, serpentine and covered in spikes, rising up, up, up, until it towered hundreds of feet over the girls, its vast bulk coiling around the perimeter of the arena, surrounding them.
“Hey, wait, this isn’t what we’re here for,” Jupiter said.
“This isn’t right,” Fae said.
“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.
“We’re missing something,” Fae said, racking her memory. “Collapse… it can’t…”
“Watch out!” Mercury shouted. She pushed Fae and Madeline just as a spiked tail came crashing down where they’d been standing, shattering the floor with vicious force.
“Don’t stay in one place!” Neptune called out. “Watch its movements carefully!”
This isn’t right.
Fae shook her head, even as she worked to avoid the next swipe of the beast’s massive tail.
It’s what we’re after. It’s what we’re fighting. That voice that keeps speaking the one word…
That’s Collapse itself, isn’t it?
But Collapse can’t…
“Jupiter!” Mercury cried, barely managing to tackle her redheaded sister out of the way of the beast’s next attack.
“Collapse can’t fight us,” Fae said, staring.
“Sure looks like it’s fighting to me!” Mercury said.
“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.
“I mean…” Fae started, shaking her head, gathering her focus in such a cacophonous, distracting arena.
“It’s trying to distract us,” Fae said. “Because Collapse infects those who are at rock-bottom, who have given up to despair, to fear, to hopelessness. But we haven’t. Its only weapon against us is gone, so all of this is just an illusion!”
“It’s a very real illusion,” Jupiter said.
“The only weapon Collapse has against us are lies,” Fae said, raising the candlestick bell. “Everyone! Come to me!”
Madeline understood right away, placing her hand over Fae’s on the bell’s handle. Neptune was next to arrive, grasping the bell with them. Mercury and Neptune ran over, stumbling in the wake of another crushing tail slap against the arena floor.
But they made it. Both girls grasped the bell tight.
“All together, now,” Fae said. She counted to three, and then the five girls rang the bell as one.
Its peal was different than ever before, with a fullness, a powerful resonance, that sounded so much stronger, so much more complete, than any time Fae had rung the bell alone.
The arena, the monsters, the great beast, all vanished.
Moreover, the void took on more solid form, the darkness coalescing into floor, ceiling, and walls that formed a long hall.
At the end of the hall was a great door.
And on its way to the door, grinding across the floor, was a large, dark cube.
“That’s it!” Fae said. She ran forward, and her friends ran with her.
We’ve found it. And it hasn’t reached its destination. We can stop it here, stop it now, forever!
When they drew close, the great cube came to a stop. Its heartbeat was deep, strong, its thrumming vibrating the floor, making Fae’s head ache.
“Why’d it stop?” Jupiter asked.
“Let’s just ring the bell and be done with it,” Mercury said, reaching for the bell. Together, the five girls raised the bell and rang it as one.
Its powerful, resonant peal sounded forth.
But nothing happened.
“Why didn’t it work?” Jupiter asked, panic rising in her voice.
“Stay calm,” Neptune said.
“But that thing’s totally freaking me out!” Jupiter said, shaking her head.
“What do we need to do?” Madeline asked, looking to Fae.
I don’t know. If that didn’t work, even though it’s so much more powerful than the other times…
What else can we do?
The cube seemed to be laughing at the girls, its heartbeat thrumming with a faster, more staccato rhythm.
So you know. You knew you were in trouble, but you knew there was a chance we might not have the full picture.
“What are we missing…?”
“We can’t be afraid now,” Mercury was saying, shaking Jupiter by the shoulders. “Come on, calm down!”
“Hope carried us this far,” Neptune said. “We can’t believe it will abandon us now.”
“Is that all there is to it?” Fae asked.
“Is what all there is to it?” Madeline asked.
“I just…” Fae started. She stared down the cube, clutching the candlestick bell tightly in hand. “I think… we’re almost there. We need to ring the bell together. But… it can’t do all the work for us.”
“We did a lot of work getting here,” Jupiter said.
“The bell can radiate hope,” Fae said. “But we need to be hopeful, too, I think. I mean…”
“It’s okay,” Madeline said. “I think you’re onto something, too. Don’t back down now.”
Fae nodded. “We have to remember the hope it’s given us before,” she said. “Remember when we cured the Fates. Remember when we drove back the darkness in the Valley. Hold tight to those memories, to that hope, and feel it in our hearts, pour it out of us when we ring the bell. We have to fight this thing together, not just let our weapon carry us to victory.”
“See?” Mercury asked, shoving Jupiter towards Fae and the bell. “Our hearts have to be in it.”
“It’s okay,” Neptune said to Jupiter. “We’re all together in this. You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”
“Right,” Jupiter said, bouncing on the balls of her feet, staring at the bell with a determined gleam in her eyes. “Right. Okay. Right. Let’s do it!”
“There she is,” Mercury said, grinning. She grasped the bell with Fae and Madeline, and Jupiter and Neptune followed suit.
“Together,” Fae said.
“With hope bursting out of us!” Mercury said, her voice bright and clear in the darkness.
“Now!” Fae said. They lifted the bell high together, and Fae poured all she could into the next action. All her hopes, all her dreams, all thoughts of victory, of success, of goodness.
All that I hope for.
To see Shana again.
To see Delilah again.
To make things right with mom, and dad, and Caleb, and Shias.
To stop running away from my pain, stop getting lost in self-doubt.
To be all I can be, even if that’s a hero.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, right? Ringing a bell with my friends, drawing, solving puzzles, finding a way to fight the darkness in front of me…
Whatever kind of hero I can be… whatever kind of hero I’m meant to be…
To hope, with all my heart, that I can live up to that.
To hope, with all my heart, that I’ll never have to do it alone.
Five hands swung downward, ringing the bell. Light exploded into the darkness, and a great shriek filled the air for a brief moment, then was silenced. The cube, Collapse itself, dissolved in a blaze of pure, white light, vanishing into nothingness.
The light still shone, and Fae found herself staring at the door at the end of the hall, the place that Collapse was so desperate to get to.
The darkness of this place, the Lands of Night, was illuminated for the first time by the light of hope that shone from Fae and her friends.
But that light didn’t penetrate the land beyond the door. The darkness there was different, more complete, more powerful than Fae ever thought possible.
And in that darkness, she thought she caught a glimpse of a great throne, and upon it, a shadow with dark, burning eyes.
Then the light swirled around her and her friends, and when it faded, they were back in the Valley. The girls looked at each other in turn, astonishment, joy, and relief alive in their expressions, in their smiles.
Collapse was no more.
Slumbering Spiral, a great cave in the far reaches of the Enchanted Dominion. Maxwell once walked this cave, and is one of the few to have reached the very bottom of the Spiral.
There, he found and recorded an inscription. But that inscription, that poem, had been incomplete, cutting off as the chilling, vicious word – Collapse – had filled in what would have once been the end.
Now, in the wake of a wonderful victory far away, that inscription transformed. The repeated lines of “Collapse” faded away, and in their place, the poem began to write itself.
Its great clues, its great riddle, was now complete, as it should have been long ago.
Waiting, ever waiting, for one to reach the bottom of the Spiral, to see for themselves and, hopefully, solve the great riddle.
Waiting, perhaps, for a different sort of hero.
Topside Cove, a vast underwater city that, to those from other Locations and lands far away, seemed to be entirely upside-down. Its residents find it quite ordinary.
That includes a man named Richard.
Walking home to his wife and daughter, he suddenly came to a stop.
He felt a great pang in his heart, unlike anything he’d felt before.
But then he felt it radiate outward, and with it, a relief started to grow.
So long ago, he’d been infected with Collapse. And while he’d found healing, there were still echoes, memories of despair and an inexplicable fear that dwelt deep within him.
But now, those echoes were being washed away.
Could it be? Could someone have finally…?
A wide smile broke out on Richard’s face.
He was finally free.
The Gallery of Wounds, a great art collection within the City of Anguish.
In the resplendent hall, suddenly Sal looked up from his admiration of the artwork.
He’d felt a sudden pang in his heart.
“Ah,” he said softly, a small smile crossing his lips. “It’s finally destroyed. Clever girl…”
The Celestial Shore: a white shore stretching on forever, forward and back. To the left was nothing. To the right was a vast ocean, glittering like diamonds in the marvelous sunlight.
Along the Shore walked a young man. His feet were bare, his pant legs rolled up almost to his knees. The water occasionally came far enough in that it washed over his toes, cool and refreshing. A sea breeze tossed his curly blonde hair. Blue eyes, their youthful brightness dimmed, gazed out across the endless expanse.
One hand went to his chest. He wore a chain around his neck, and the object that hung from that chain was clutched in the young man’s hand.
A sudden pang shot through his heart.
The young man stopped.
“So she’s done it,” he said softly, gently caressing the object that hung from his neck. “Finally.”
A thrill ran through his body, though it was short-lived, bittersweet. A sense of freedom, and yet…
Well. I’ll never be completely free. But this…
It had been a long time since his lips had done so, but he managed a smile. Softly, he spoke again, gazing out at the sea. His other hand reached into his pocket, pulling out a pencil. He rolled it over in his fingers, an old habit of his.
“Thank you, Fae. I’m sure we’ll meet very soon.”