Back in Eventide Archive, Fae and her companions sat with Selphine in her room, seated on the floor around the rectangular table. Fae told Selphine, with occasional assistance from the others, about their trip to the Garden of Memory, their meeting with Kairyu, and all the Dragon had said. Sonya’s notes came in handy along with Fae’s notes to ensure they shared every detail. Kokoryu had said quite a lot, and all of it was important. But when all was said, Fae knew already where she wished to go.
“I’d like to go to the Celestial Shore,” she said.
“Oh yeah, that’s one of the three big things,” Mercury said.
“And the one that seems most in our reach,” Fae said. “We need to reach the Core Locations and meet the Spiral Dragons. And… Kokoryu said there’s someone waiting for me there.”
“Which could be god or bad, given our track record so far,” Mercury said.
“Probably good,” Madeline said, looking at Olivia.
“And once we hit the Celestial Shore, that just leaves the…” Sonya started, trailing off.
“Chapel of the Unreturned,” Neptune said.
“That’s right,” Selphine said, tapping the table. The surface rippled, and then three “maps” of each Sector of the Enchanted Dominion appeared, with the Core Locations glowing brighter than other Location names.
“The Celestial Shore’s in Sector Two,” Madeline said, leaning closer and looking at the names. “Is there a place in the same Sector that can lead us there?”
“There is a lake,” Selphine said, tapping the table again, “at the bottom of the Starlight Spires.” The surface of the table rippled, and “Starlight Spires” floated out from Sector Two, gleamed bright, and then transformed. The table now showed a city of towers floating in the midst of a vast, starry veil. The lowest point of the city, a stone shrine, sat at the base of a tower, and this was the focus of the image in the table. “From here, the Constella Acolytes can guide you down to Lake Constella, through which you can reach the Celestial Shore.” She frowned slightly. “At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never taken the path, or been to the Celestial Shore before.”
“It seems a little easy, right?” Jupiter asked. “The Garden of Memory at least needed a special key and knowing where the secret door is. What about the Chapel of the Unreturned?”
“That’s far more complicated,” Selphine said, “and treacherous a place to reach. But just because I know of the shrine and the Acolytes doesn’t mean it’s common knowledge. They reside at the bottom of Starlight Spires, which makes them something of a secret.”
“People rarely go below center in Starlight Spires,” Neptune said. “And the path to the shrine starts far out towards the perimeter of the city, where most is forgotten or abandoned. It’s not unlikely that few would know of it, and fewer still would actually travel down to it.”
“The Celestial Shore isn’t a tourism hot spot or anything, either,” Mercury said. “None of the Core Locations are. Most don’t even think about visiting them, and those that do don’t usually have an amazing guide.” She smiled at Selphine.
“Is there anything we should know about the Celestial Shore?” Fae asked. “Chapel of the Unreturned sounds ominous, and the Garden of Memory had things we needed to be wary of.”
Selphine shook her head. “No, the Celestial Shore is, by all accounts, a safe place,” she said. “And beautiful beyond compare, an otherworldly land of serenity and peace.”
“Sounds like a nice change of pace after everything,” Mercury said with a smile.
“Kokoryu warned us about the Dragon there, though,” Madeline said. “So maybe not so serene and peaceful for us.”
“Just another Spiral Dragon,” Jupiter said with a shrug. “Fae’s got their number by now.”
I hope I do.
I’m… not so sure, though.
“Who could be waiting for me there?” Fae asked, looking to Selphine for answers. “Are there people who live there?”
“As far as I know, there aren’t,” Selphine said. “There aren’t settlements or even buildings. I’m… honestly not even sure what its purpose is, beyond being a Core Location. The other two have vital functions in the universe, but the Celestial Shore… I just don’t know.”
“It has to be someone who knows you need to go there,” Sonya said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “So someone who knows about your drawings, about whatever or whoever in the Dominion is calling out to you.”
“But who could that be?” Olivia asked. “Someone knowing so much about her and her quest…” She shivered.
“Wasuryu knew about it all, didn’t he?” Neptune asked.
“He knew about some of it, at least,” Fae said. “But if he was the one waiting for me, Kokoryu would have said. She made it pretty clear she hates him.”
“That’s a piece of the puzzle I never expected,” Selphine said. “A sibling of the Spiral Dragons who turned against them, was exiled, and earned their ire… something must be done about him, after all the evil he’s wrought in secret.” Olivia shivered again, and Sonya nodded, her expression grim.
“For now, we need to get to the Celestial Shore,” Madeline said. “How do we get to Starlight Spires?”
“It’s a fascinating place,” Selphine said. “Millennium Vista, its central landmark, has a very many doors on the bottom floor, each door leading to different Locations on a rotating schedule. Most of those doors are just exits, one-way. But there are a few that are two-way — you can enter Millennium Vista from the other side. Unlike my doors, or other exits and entrances between Locations, those two-way doors aren’t on a rotation. Let me see where the Archive is currently connected to…” She tapped the table, and the image rippled to change to three images: one of the great plateau in the Basin of Antiquity, one of a flashing thunderhead, and the third of a collection of buildings that looked rather like a university. Selphine smiled. “Good, that won’t be difficult at all. Hawthorn Academy.”
“A school?” Jupiter asked.
“One of the premiere educational institutions in the Dominion,” Neptune said.
“It’s where I received my education,” Selphine said with a smile, “so very long ago… Professor Hawthorn, the Academy’s headmaster, can show you the way to the door to Millennium Vista. From there, the path is simple enough. I’ll give you a map so you won’t get lost.”
They were on the move quite quickly from there, Selphine procuring a map of Starlight Spires for them and then sending them on their way, turning the dial at the Archive’s door to red and then opening it. A cool breeze blew in, carrying with it the sweet aroma of flowers.
“Thank you again,” Fae said. “We’ve relied on you so much, and you’ve always been so good to us.”
“You’re most welcome,” Selphine said with a smile. “Now go. And know I’ll always be here, ready to aid you in whatever comes next.”
Through the door they went, stepping out onto firm, grassy turf. The wind was stronger now, out in the open like this, and as Fae turned around…
She gaped in awe.
Looking one way, she saw the Academy’s buildings, red and beige bricks with ivy crawling up the walls, circular windows shining in the sunlight. But turning away from that, she was staring at the clouds.
Hawthorn Academy was built on an island, floating in the sky.
“This is way too awesome!” Mercury cried, racing with Jupiter to the edge and gazing over.
“We’re so high up!” Jupiter shouted, laughing with giddy glee. “There’s an ocean, like, miles below us!”
Fae wasn’t going to stand on the very edge, that was far too reckless for her tastes, but she came over until she was just a few feet from the island’s perimeter. She could see, as clouds parted in the distance, a vast ocean down below them, so far down from this dizzying height.
“It’s beautiful,” Olivia said softly, pinching Fae’s sleeve to stay by her side. Fae nodded, gazing around Hawthorn Academy’s campus. The scent of flowers was a constant, and there were many flower gardens scattered around the grassy field. A central hill rose up to a ring of flowers surrounding a tall, gnarled tree with twisting branches fanning out wide, covered in green leaves edged in red and orange.
“I wouldn’t mind an actual tour,” Sonya said, adjusting her messenger bag. She had a wide-eyed look of amazement and awe, and kept turning around in a circle, taking it all in. “I know we don’t really have the time for it, I just… well, I can always come back here someday.”
“Don’t come back alone,” Mercury said, grinning. “I want to see this place again, too.”
“Don’t act like we’ve already left,” Neptune said. “Come on, let’s go find the headmaster.”
They went to the largest building, one that surrounded a tall tower that rose nearly twice as high as every other building of the Academy. The main hall of this central building had a reception desk, and there they learned that Professor Hawthorn’s office was at the top of that tower.
“What message would you like delivered?” the lady asked as she dialed a number on the rotary phone.
“We’re guests, sent from Selphine Miora, who was once a student here,” Fae said. “And we’re looking for passage through here to Starlight Spires.”
The lady relayed that message through the phone, waited a moment, then nodded, smiling as she hung up the phone. “He’ll be right down,” she said. “He sounded rather surprised.”
It wasn’t even a minute later that Professor Hawthorn met them in the reception hall. He had a very professorial look to him, with his combed auburn hair, neatly trimmed but thick beard, and round spectacles. He dressed in red and beige, with a long, elaborate coat. The bronze chain of a pocket watch ran from a pocket to one of the buttons. His eyes were a burgundy color, and twinkled with tiny motes of golden light, like distant, glittering stars.
“You came from Selphine Miora?” he asked, his voice a warm, mellifluous tenor. “She’s still the Head Archivist at Eventide Archive, correct?”
“Yes,” Fae said with a nod. “She’s been a very helpful guide, and she said we could reach Starlight Spires from here.”
“Indeed you can,” Hawthorn said with a broad smile. “Come, come. I can give you a tour as well. You look like quite studious individuals.”
“We’re actually in a bit of a hurry,” Fae said.
“Though I’m sure you could tell us about some things on the way to the door,” Sonya said eagerly. “Without taking any detours, of course, but you could show us what you can…”
“Certainly, dear girl,” Hawthorn said with a chuckle. He looked around at the girls and then nodded, looking slightly surprised. “I’ve never had such a large group of Humans in my Academy before. Seems a shame to rush you right off, but perhaps when you aren’t so busy, you’ll consider visiting again.”
How can he tell that we’re Humans just by sight?
“It’s the eyes,” Olivia said softly, seeing the confusion on Fae’s face. “Enchanted and Halfchants have eyes that you’ll never see on Human faces.”
“Eyes, huh?” Fae asked as they walked, following the amicably chatting Hawthorn. He and Sonya were hitting it right off, and Fae found herself smiling to see the former Broken Vessel, former prisoner at Fault Line Dungeon, so happy and energetic. “That’s really all it is?”
“At a glance, at least,” Olivia said. “Some are subtler than others, like Selphine, but they always have some kind of glow or pattern, or both, in their eyes that Humans just don’t.”
“Do you know why?” Fae asked.
“Magic,” Olivia said. “Enchanted have a deeper connection to magic than we do — it’s in their blood, a part of them. It’s why they don’t need Talismans. And it manifests in them physically: in how they age, and in things more immediately noticeable.”
“Like their eyes…” Fae said, thinking over the Enchanted she’d met. She hadn’t been paying close attention, especially given that some of them had more subtle eyes, like Selphine. But now that she thought back on them, their special eyes, eyes no Human would ever have, stood out to her more than ever before.
“I must say, it quite surprised me to hear you were sent from Selphine,” Hawthorn said, leading the girls through the next building and out onto an exterior walkway. It had a metal rail along the outer side and a stone wall on the inside. They were at the edge of the island, with a sheer drop right next to them, so the railing was quite welcome. “She was one of my prize pupils here at the Academy. Along with her two friends, Gerick Irsotz and Maxwell. Quite the trio, those three were.” He chuckled, nostalgia in his tone.
“Gerick and Maxwell?” Fae asked, blinking in surprise. “They were all friends?”
“Oh, they were thick as thieves, to use a Human expression,” Hawthorn said, laughing. “I’m quite fond of that one. Yes, they were each, in their own way, something of outsiders when they first arrived here, spending more time alone than they did with anyone else. I noticed, gave them each a little friendly nudge towards each other, and next thing I knew, they were the fastest of friends. A bit troublesome at times, especially as a trio, but goodness, who isn’t when they’re a student?”
“They never even mentioned it,” Mercury said.
“Maybe they’re not friends anymore?” Jupiter asked.
“But why not?” Mercury asked.
“You’ve met all three of them?” Hawthorn asked.
“Yeah, they’ve all helped us in different ways,” Mercury said. “But they never mentioned each other at all.”
“Gerick mentioned Selphine,” Neptune said. “But not like a friend would. He just mentioned her because he asked her about Oliver.”
“Oh, that makes it all even weirder!” Mercury said, frowning. “What happened between them?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say,” Hawthorn said, stroking his beard. “I haven’t seen any of them in so very long — except Maxwell, briefly. If you met him, then it must have been at the Basin of Antiquity, am I right?”
“Yes,” Neptune said, her tone flat. Clearly she still looked poorly upon Maxwell for how he’d observed the girls through his crystal ball.
“He came to me just before he became the Master of the repository there,” Hawthorn said. “One of my duties — though a duty I’ve only had to administer twice — is managing the mastery of the Basin’s repository. There must always be a Master of the repository, and they must always be voluntary. The Master before Maxwell was someone I recruited — there wasn’t anyone lining up to agree to that lonely existence, so it took some searching and persuading. But when a new Master was needed once more, Maxwell came to me. He was quite eager to take the position.” He nodded thoughtfully. “I should really go visit him sometime. How was he when you saw him?”
“Seemed fine enough,” Mercury said with a shrug. “A little socially anxious, though.”
“A little?” Jupiter asked, raising an eyebrow.
“He’s always been that way, though,” Hawthorn said. “Solitude hasn’t changed him all that much, I see. Good, good. I worried about him quite a lot when he was a student here. I’m glad he’s doing well. Ah, here we go — inside for a bit.”
The outer walkway had descended slowly, winding around the island’s rocky perimeter, and they now reached a metal doorway. Hawthorn led the way inside, revealing lacquered wood floors and walls, and open doors peering into libraries, laboratories, studies, and classrooms.
“Hawthorn Academy is a place of rigorous — but very individualistic — study,” Hawthorn said. “Students work hard, but primarily within their own paths. They choose their topics of study, they craft their own personal projects, that sort of thing. And so we have a wide array of professors teaching here — one professor to every three students is our ideal and reality.” He smiled back at the girls. “It must be quite different from Earth’s institutions.”
“Sure sounds like it,” Mercury said.
“And fascinatingly so,” Sonya said, gazing in wonder at every room they passed.
“Did you found the Academy?” Jupiter asked. “Is that why it’s named after you?”
“Oh, no, ‘Hawthorn’ isn’t my name,” Hawthorn said, laughing. “It’s a title. There was a ‘Professor Hawthorn’ before me, and there will be one after me, quite like my counterpart of sorts, Mister Midnight. If you must know, my name is Arctorius Riswald Excalaban.”
“Counterpart?” Sonya asked.
“Mister Midnight and I are both Masters of Time Magic,” Hawthorn said. “Though I don’t have a Time Mage student at the moment. We each have our own specific duties beyond training Time Mages, but that’s what we have most in common.”
“Time Magic, huh?” Madeline asked, casting a glance Fae’s direction.
Yeah, yeah, I know.
Fae didn’t say anything about her brother, though. What would be the point? Besides, Hawthorn very quickly moved on from that to more explanations and chit-chat with Sonya.
They exited this corridor to another exterior walkway that continued down around the island’s perimeter, wind whipping at faces and hair. This path took them to the island’s bottom, and a door into a large domed chamber with several doors around the wall, each with a different symbol engraved above them.
“That one leads to Millennium Vista,” Hawthorn said, pointing to a far door with a field of stars engraved above it. “I wish you girls well on your journey, and certainly hope you’ll visit again. I do enjoy meeting new people.”
“I’ll be back,” Sonya said, beaming. “You can count on it.”
And then they left, through the door and out into Millennium Vista.
“Hey now, watch where you’re going!” shouted a voice. There were other voices grumbling, too, and Fae and the others were shoved and jostled by a sudden flow of crowded traffic.
“Sorry!” Mercury said, multiple times, working hard to placate the crowd and help their group move out of the way of everyone. Olivia clung to Fae’s arm, ducking her head and staring at her feet as they worked their way through the crowd. Finally breaking free, the girls found their way to an empty space by the far wall and took a breather.
“Geez, this place is nuts,” Jupiter said, shaking her head at the constant, hectic flow of travel in the vast, multi-tiered chamber. Fae had to agree, staggered by the sudden shift from the peaceful Academy to this utter madness. There were thousands of people here, at least, constantly in motion, their chatting and occasional yelling so loud. They were filing into and out of doors, hundreds of doors, each with signs above them displaying where the doors were connected to, and clocks above those ticking down a timer. A bell rang, harsh and clanging, and Fae saw several of the signs above doors shift to display brand new Location names.
“There’s the exit,” Neptune said, pointing.
“Thank goodness,” Jupiter said, starting on up a ramp towards the exit, up on the third tier. “Let’s get out of here.”
As they followed after her, Olivia raised hand to pull up her hood, hiding her face when she continued to duck her head. Her grip was tight on Fae’s arm, but she didn’t complain. She was feeling rather anxious around all these people, all this noise, as well.
They weren’t out of the woods when they went through the exit, though. There was a lift ride, where the seven girls crammed themselves into a metal box with dozens of other people, nowhere to go as they waited until the lift made it over a hundred floors up.
This then deposited them into an even more crowded room filled with shops and tented booths, and the traffic here was far more chaotic than it had been in the door room far below. It was brighter here, after the crepuscular dimness of the lower floors, and more open vertically — the ceiling must have been dozens of stories above them — but that didn’t help with the jostling crowds, the constant contact, and the difficulty the girls found with just moving forward towards the tall, well-indicated exit from Millennium Vista. Mercury and Jupiter were invaluable here, not minding crowds at all, or shoving, or shouting, pushing their way to the front of the group and picking — sometimes forcing — their way through, making sure Fae and the others stayed with them.
Finally, mercifully, they were out into open air, stepping out of traffic to the edge of a vast bridge that led away from Millennium Vista. There were thousands more people pouring into the impossibly huge tower, but precious few leaving, and there were clear lanes marked for foot traffic in and out of the tower, so the girls finally had room to breathe.
“Oh, let’s not go in there again,” Madeline said, hugging her arms.
“Total madness,” Neptune said, shaking her head. She sighed. “Well, it should be a better trip from here.” She pulled out the map and started forward. “Let’s get to the Constella Shrine.”
As they walked, all of them began to relax. Sonya settled into that attitude of wonderment she’d had at Hawthorn Academy, looking all around and smiling. She often had a notebook in her hand, scrawling in it as she walked. Olivia kept her hood up, but she stopped staring at her feet, and her grip on Fae’s arm turned to a gentle pinch of just her sleeve.
Starlight Spires was a beautiful city, and that beauty was far more apparent to Fae when she wasn’t crushed in the close crowds of Millennium Vista. All around, a starry veil formed a full sphere around the vast city of floating spires connected by bridges. The stars were numerous and wonderful, above and beside and below Fae, twinkling and glimmering with silver light. There was no moon, no sun, no clouds. Just the night sky, and the millions of stars. They shone against the often reflective surfaces of the spires, giving them a silvery sheen.
The spires themselves were also beautiful, and surprisingly varied. They came in all sorts of heights and widths, and many were largely open to the air, with gardens, zoos, parks, and pools aplenty. Outdoor restaurants were common, and nearly all of the thousands of apartments and homes Fae saw had sweeping, grand balconies.
Their path took them from the dense, wealthy center of Starlight Spires far out, to the very perimeter of the tower city. Steadily, the bridges became narrower, some even having no protective rails to the sides. Spires became shorter, slimmer, and less magnificent.
Fae thought there was beauty here, too. There were ruins floating in the sky, abandoned spires left to decay, and yet they carried with them echoes of old splendor, an ancient magnificence undimmed from time and abandonment. As stairs started to take them down and they spent more time beneath bridges and spires, this “undercity,” as Neptune called it, felt wholly different from the central paths they’d walked above. There were more ruins here, and often the people weren’t gathered in throngs but scattered about, preferring to be alone than with others. Yet those people weren’t idle, and they weren’t hiding or letting their lives waste away. Many of them made music — there were numerous pianists, several guitarists, three violinists, two cellists, two flutists, and a harpist that Fae saw and heard as she went. The music was beautiful and eclectic, occasionally blending together by virtue of proximity, forming surprising arrangements that couldn’t have been entirely accidental. Many others painted, their canvas proudly displayed for even strangers to see. Some read, lounging in different positions, absorbed in the stories they consumed.
It’s like a whole city of loner artists.
I love it.
Lower they went, even as they made their way closer to the middle of the city. Millennium Vista’s grand opulence could be seen from almost anywhere, and yet it didn’t seem so overwhelming here below the central paths of Starlight Spires. It didn’t shine as bright, didn’t overtake all else around it.
The beauty of the stars far below seemed more stellar here, creating an atmosphere of tranquility and calm.
They reached their final stair, spiraling downward towards what first looked like a ruin, an open stone shrine that had seen the passing of thousands of generations. And yet there were people here, with hooded purple cloaks that shimmered with starlight. Their hoods were low, hiding their eyes, but Fae could still feel them looking at her and her friends as they stopped in the center of the shrine.
“We seek passage to the Celestial Shore,” she said, looking around at the Acolytes.
One stepped forward, slender and tall, seeming to glide across the stone floor with an impossible grace. She stopped several feet from Fae, silent for long moments.
“The road to the Shore is easy,” she finally said, her voice serene and reverent. “The road of return is treacherous. Be wary when you are ready to return.” She turned, gesturing. On the far side of the shrine, a stone stair suddenly appeared, descending further down. “Through Lake Constella. Fear not the waters.”
The Acolyte glided away, leaving Fae and the others.
“So the danger starts after we’re done there,” Mercury said. “Should be smooth sailing until then.”
“We can hope,” Neptune said.
Fae started forward, leading the way. Down the stairs she went, Olivia close behind, and Madeline next behind her. As she descended, Fae saw that a wide portion of the starry veil below wasn’t sky, but water. A great lake stretched wide in a circle, rippling rarely, and only in the slightest amounts. Fae stopped at the edge of the water. The stairs continued to descend, underwater, but she was suddenly nervous.
“Fear not the waters.” Does that mean we have to go through? But we won’t drown?
Fae took a deep breath and continued down the stairs. The water was cool, and yet didn’t seem wet. It was a strange sensation, and she prepared for her head to submerge, for the desperate need to hold her breath…
Yet once she was fully submerged, the dark, starry waters of Lake Constella were gone. She wasn’t underwater at all.
She was on a vast, white shore, stretching on forever before her, behind, and to her left. To her right was a crystalline ocean, its waters dancing with light, nearly as calm as those of Lake Constella.
“Beautiful” seemed too small a word for this place, and too simple. There was nothing elaborate about the vast shore, the endless ocean. There were no trees, no pillars, no structures, nothing but the sand and the sea.
Yet there was immense beauty here, beauty Fae felt she couldn’t fathom — like it was too beautiful, and she was only able to see part of it, rather than the whole, and yet this small part was still so staggeringly wondrous, so marvelously serene, that she still could find no words for it.
Olivia was there, holding her sleeve. There was Madeline, and Sonya, and then the Star sisters.
They all stood there together, staring, breathing, struck dumb by the expanse and the beauty.
It was many long moments before Fae noticed the man. He stood near the ocean, his pant legs rolled up, his feet bare in the sand. The tide came in, washing over his toes, then went out again.
Fae stared, and for a long time, no one spoke.
“I’ve been waiting for you a long time, Fae Greyson,” the man finally said. He had a light voice, a high tenor, and there was a tinge of sadness in his tone.
“How do you know about me?” Fae asked.
The man turned around, and Fae was stunned at that familiar face, those familiar blue eyes sparkling with curiosity, that familiar curly blonde hair. He looked to be in his forties, and the brightness of youth had faded, but not so much that he’d lost who he once was. A satchel on his belt held a small sketchbook and several drawing implements.
“The power that calls out to you called out to me once, long ago,” the man said.
“Are you… Oliver…?” Fae asked, staring in shock.
The man smiled. One hand went to the chain around his neck, clutching whatever object hung from it.
Suddenly, the ocean frothed and foamed. Fae and the others stepped back at a sudden geyser, a blast of crystalline water high into the air, wide and magnificent. And when the waters tumbled down…
A Dragon. The massive head of a Dragon was half-risen from beneath the ocean, and it surveyed Fae with a mischievous gleam in its gigantic eyes.