The Plains of the Fallen were not what Fae expected.
Neither was traveling from one Location to another in the Enchanted Dominion, for that matter.
She and the Star sisters had stood on the shore of the Cartographer’s Waystation, and then, with one simple step out into the water…
Her feet had landed on solid ground.
The ocean was gone, and so was the Waystation. All around her were rolling hills coated with a brownish-green grass, and… stones.
“Cheerful, as usual,” Jupiter said, stepping ahead of the group, twirling one of her drumsticks. “So? Any clue where this ‘artist’s alley’ is where we’ll find our art expert?”
“Never heard of Gerick Irsotz,” Neptune said, hands on her hips as she surveyed the expansive surroundings. “And I’ve never seen other people at all any of the times I’ve been here.”
“How does that work?” Fae asked, finding a way out of her shock. She turned and stepped back the way she’d come, but she landed on grass again – Cartographer’s Waystation wasn’t so easy to return to, it seemed.
“Magic,” Mercury said, grinning. “The Enchanted Dominion is coursing with magic at a cellular level. Everything you see, hear, smell, feel, taste… if it’s here, it’s got magic in every single millimeter of it.”
“I don’t know exactly how the Locations work,” Neptune said. “No one’s been able to explain it effectively to me so far. But from what I understand, every Location is a sort of… bubble? Like its own self-contained world, all these Locations float around in the giant bubble that is the Enchanted Dominion. And since they’re always moving, the connections between them are always changing.”
“But this is where we entered,” Fae said, stepping down forcefully, expecting something to happen. But nothing – she was still where she was, with no change in the scenery. “So why does going back the way we came not take us somewhere else?”
“Exits don’t lead to other exits,” Neptune said. “They aren’t like doors. When you step out of one Location, you end up at a whole other space within the next Location, and it can take anywhere from minutes to days to find your way to the next exit. There are exceptions, though.”
“Yeah, like the ship from Hollow Island,” Jupiter said. “It’ll drop you off right at the boundary of a Location, no matter which one it might be.”
“And URS trains have predefined disembarking points,” Mercury said. “Not only that, but they’re specifically tied to Locations, so no matter how much those Locations move, a URS train can always find it.”
“And there are some Locations that can only be accessed through special means,” Neptune said. “Like Hollow Island – I don’t know how your siblings ended up there, because I’m not sure the methods for getting there, but it’s a stroke of luck they were able to get off the island so quickly.”
“And what’s that other place, the Location that people think is lost?” Mercury asked, finger to her lips. “I don’t… agh, what’s it called?”
“It’s a library, right?” Jupiter asked.
“The Library of Solitude,” Neptune said, nodding. “No one seems to know where it is or how to get there.”
“Okay,” Fae said, looking up at the sky. “So we’re where we need to be, and when we need to leave, we’ll have to find some other spot, right?”
“And I know where all of the exits are,” Neptune said, smiling. “So we’re all set once we’ve finished here.”
“Is the sky different everywhere?” Fae asked, still looking up. The Waystation’s sky had been a white field with lights bursting into life and then fading here and there. Over the Plains was a very different sky, and it cast a strange gloom over the place. Grey and murky, there were hazy yellow lights that made it feel like a cloudy afternoon. But it didn’t feel right. Looking around, Fae got the sense that the colors she saw in the grass and trees, the stones and rocky formations, weren’t actually what she saw. Maybe it wasn’t just the sky. Everything looked like someone had put a sepia-toned filter over the world, and then tried to add the color back in by painting over it, but just ended up with a smudgy, washed out mess.
“The Waystation Sky is what you see in most Locations during the day,” Mercury said. “But some Locations have their own… unique charm.”
“Charm,” Jupiter said, rolling her eyes. “Not how I’d put it.”
“It’s dreary here, that’s true,” Neptune said. “But at least it isn’t raining. Let’s hope the weather holds. We don’t even know where we’re going.”
They walked onward then, walking up a hill and then back down, winding between two hills, and then cresting yet another. At the top of each hill, Fae marveled at the sheer space around her. Wherever the exits from the Plains of the Fallen were, she hoped they weren’t all at the borders of the Location. It could take weeks to travel everywhere there was here, and so much of it looked exactly the same. There were no signs of borders – they could be miles from the nearest exit.
And then there were the tombstones. Varying in size, shape, style, and the amount of text on them, there must have been millions. Sometimes they were widely spaced out, and other times they were so densely packed together that the four girls had to detour around the entire group of stones because there was no space between them. Conversation became scattered. It was the usual attitude within a graveyard:
Be silent, out of respect for the departed.
Even Jupiter, the energetic chatterbox of the sisters, was more subdued than usual. She carried herself in a carefree fashion, still twirling her drumstick, sometimes tapping it against her leg, but she didn’t talk much.
Fae was fascinated by the stones themselves. She always loved exploring Grimoire’s three different graveyards, examining the epitaphs on the stones. Combining the words with the stone’s size and style and placement, Fae felt like she could get a sense of people she had never – and would never – meet.
The Plains of the Fallen felt very similar, if on a much larger scale. Fae didn’t recognize the language on most of the tombstones. She could usually at least recognize different writing systems, having a good eye for languages, but there was a certain type of script that was very common in this place that Fae had never seen before. It used simple, blocky shapes, rather like Nordic runes, but then there were symbols that were more complex, combining elements of the unfamiliar runes with a pattern of lines and shapes that reminded Fae of kanji, if those symbols were made out of runic shapes and winding spirals intertwining with each other.
But there were some that Fae could read. Two so far had been in English, and had been by far the most pitiful of the tombstones. One grey slab less than a foot high simply read “A Loving Father.” A slightly larger black stone was embossed with the message “I Will Not Fear, No Matter What May Come. 1856-1912”
Other than those, Fae was confronted with unreadable text for her. French and German, Russian and Arabic, Japanese and Korean, she saw every language she recognized, even if she couldn’t translate them. And again and again, over and over, there was that unfamiliar writing that she’d never seen before. Maybe it was unique to the Enchanted Dominion. But the maps in the Waystation had all been labeled in English, so the answer eluded Fae.
There weren’t just tombstones, either. One wide, low hill was covered in simple unmarked white crosses. They were so small and densely packed together that Fae thought there must have been millions. After seeing two other hills just like that one, Fae felt her heart begin to ache. Every cross was exactly the same in size and shape, with no writing whatsoever. They were like memorials to mass deaths on a scale Fae couldn’t believe. Overcome with unbidden emotion, she found herself crying.
How had so many lives ended, and been left with not even names to remember them by?
Unable to linger, on she and the Star sisters went. There wasn’t time to stay around. They had places to go.
Deep in her heart, Fae vowed to remember those three hills covered in crosses forever.
A few hills were topped with massive structures – crypts and mausoleums and sepulchers – so massive and ornate that Fae couldn’t help but marvel at them even as she was dwarfed by their sheer size. Many were dedicated to groups of dead, but the largest monuments simply had a single name carved on them.
What was so important about Diedrick Bartholomew Ferrius IV? Fae wondered, staring at the name carved next to a door that by itself was three stories tall. And why do you need a door this tall? Were you a giant? And why is your name the only thing in English? Everything else is in that strange other language… who were you? Where did you come from? And if you have such a gigantic burial vault… Fae turned, looking out over the desolate, empty plains. She and the Star Sisters were the only humans for miles and miles around, as far as the eye could see. Why put it in a place where no one will visit? Why leave such a huge monument behind in a place where you won’t be remembered?
Why were any of these people buried here? The question hung in Fae’s mind as their journey continued. Those buried in Grimoire’s cemeteries were there because they had died in Grimoire, or they had family in Grimoire, or Grimoire was their birthplace. Whatever the reason, Grimoire had significance for them. Being buried there was the best place for them to be remembered.
But here? The Plains of the Fallen seemed like the loneliest place Fae could imagine. And there must be millions, if not billions, of people buried here.
What terrible fate had they met with to end up memorialized on a lost field beyond the human world itself?
Fae expected the questions about this place would never be answered. But at least she could take it all in, carve the sights and feelings into her mind. She shifted the strap on her bag, and it jostled with the wealth of drawing supplies within.
That was the other magic of drawing. Memories need not stay secrets of the mind. Sights and emotion could be shared with others.
“I didn’t believe the Meister,” Jupiter said, “but there do appear to be signs of civilization here.”
She stood on the top of a hill between two towering gravestones, at the lead of the group, so Fae, Mercury, and Neptune had to climb up to her to see what she saw. Joining Jupiter at the top, Fae looked out across the plains. The entire landscape sloped down suddenly, forming a smooth, grassy valley. Nestled between two hills in the heart of the valley was a small scattering of tents and ramshackle buildings. It was a long way still, so it was hard to make out details, but Fae couldn’t imagine more than thirty people living there.
“An expert on magical artwork lives here?” Fae asked as they walked towards the camp.
“Let’s hope he lives up to his reputation,” Jupiter said.
“You find important people in the weirdest places here in the Dominion,” Mercury said, grinning. “It’s part of the place’s charm.”
If you say so, Fae thought. She could see Shana and Delilah feeling the same way as Mercury. Fae felt some of that sense of wonder, of curiosity at how this strange world worked and why someone so knowledgeable and important would wind up in a tiny little camp in a giant graveyard. And she had to admit, wandering a giant, foreign graveyard had quite a charm for her. She was glad she’d chosen this place over the City of Anguish – a city full of incredibly sad people did not sound like somewhere Fae wanted to go.
In that case, can this Gerick Irsotz have all the answers I need? That would be great. Or if he doesn’t, can he point us towards somewhere other than the City of Anguish? The more I think about that place, the less I want to go there.
They came to the camp, and found the grass running down the center to be worn down, in some places all the way to the dry dirt. Things looked even more haphazard and dingy up close. Tents were simple wooden poles holding up torn, faded, and poorly patched fabric that looked centuries old. The ramshackle buildings were more like stalls – slapped together wooden walls and (sometimes) a ceiling, left mostly open to the world.
And yet, it seemed the living conditions were poor because of disinterest for that aspect of life, rather than poverty. The people sitting within the stalls and tents or walking throughout the camp were dressed rather nicely, with clean and well-tailored clothes. They were an eclectic bunch – one man was dressed in a waistcoat with a golden pocket watch that Caleb would have been so jealous of, while the man he was talking to wore blue jeans and a denim jacket. While one woman dressed in a flowing, elegant kimono, another wore beige shorts and a grey hoodie. The group of men and women throughout the camp could have come from several different centuries and countries judging by their dress, but one thing was a constant among them:
They were all most certainly artists.
Everyone carried at least a pencil and paper. Artist’s easels were propped up in nearly every building or tent, with many sheets of canvas ready for painting, and paint and brushes nearby or already in use by seated painters. On a high rock overlooking the valley sat an elderly man, staring out across the vast plains as he drew in his sketchbook. Sticks of charcoal, large erasers, and a vast variety of pens were prevalent everywhere Fae looked. As artists conversed, they frequently showed or even traded their sketches, inked drawings, or paintings. A trio – one man and two women – worked with needlework and embroidery, and their stall had many beautiful embroidered tapestries draped across the counter, showing off remarkably intricately hand-sewn images of the sights all around them.
They’re all so happy, Fae realized as she looked around her. They lived in hovels, with hardly anything to their name.
But that was enough for them. They could create and share their art with like-minded individuals, and smiles and laughter and cheerful conversation abounded.
Coming here from the subdued, somber burial grounds was like stepping out of the desert into an oasis.
“Ah, visitors!” came the excited voice of a woman dressed in a green wrap dress. Her long dark hair fell in messy curls, and she had spots of paint in her hair, on her fingers, and one yellow dot on her nose, but judging by the large smile she gave the group, she didn’t mind. “What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
“Is this heaven?” Fae softly mumbled. Mercury snorted next to her, struggling to contain her laughter, while Neptune stepped forward.
“We were hoping to meet Gerick Irsotz,” she said, composed even as Mercury dissolved into a fit of giggles. Jupiter started laughing as well, though she hadn’t given any indication that she’d heard Fae.
Laughter was contagious for some.
“Ah, well, you’re in the right place,” the woman said, nodding towards the far end of the camp. “You’ll find Master Irsotz in the red tent near the back. He should be taking his lunch right about now.”
“Thank you,” Neptune said, rolling her eyes at her snickering sisters. “Fae? You ready?”
Fae nodded, casting her gaze forward. “I’m ready,” she said. For the first time since they’d arrived at the Plains of the Fallen, she took the lead, striding confidently down the worn dirt path. Hope and anticipation grew stronger within her. This was the real beginning of her journey.