“The Westward Plains on the Final Frontier, eh?” Lock asked.
Shana nodded. “That’s where Annabelle said Maribelle would be,” she said. “At the last home.”
Lock leaned against a workbench, scratching his chest. “A very odd place to be,” he said. “Well, if Annabelle said that’s where Maribelle is, then that’s where she is. I can send you there. However, you should know that getting back will be up to you.”
“So your power only works one-way?” Shias asked.
Lock nodded. He lumbered over to a furnace and removed some metal tongs from a rack on the wall. Using those tongs, he inserted a lump of metal in a bowl into the furnace. “One-way… that might not be perfectly accurate,” he said, turning back to the Dawn Riders. “I’ll give you the means to get back. But it’ll be up to you to find a door.”
“A door?” Shana asked.
Lock pulled the lump of metal out of the furnace, pouring it out of its bowl into a metal cast patterned like a large, old-fashioned key. “This key is tied to two doors,” he said. “And those doors are twins. The first will take you where you want to go. The second will bring you back to the first. Of course, since you’ll be in the Enchanted Dominion, you can return to Grimoire in all sorts of ways. But it’s never easy or simple. With this key, you have a guaranteed path home.”
“But you said it’s up to us to find the door,” Shias said.
“Does that mean it’s difficult?” Shana asked.
Lock began working on the metal within the cast as it cooled with small tools. Shana was so used to the image of a blacksmith being someone hammering something very loudly on an anvil, but here Lock was using his gigantic fingers to deftly handle tiny tools – tapping lightly here, filing off gently there, carving thin lines here.
“It can be,” Lock said. “Even I don’t know where the door’s twin goes. It always ends up in the same Location as you, and usually within a one mile radius. But it could be buried underground, or stuffed in some stranger’s closet. But you shouldn’t worry about that.”
“Why shouldn’t we worry about it?” Kathryn asked. “It seems kind of important to know where our exit is.”
“Focus on what you’re there for,” Lock said. “Find Maribelle. Even if you can’t find the exit, you can always find a way back. Just make sure you don’t lose the key.” Lock stood up, putting tools away before lifting the finished key out of its cast. The key was about six inches long, and remarkably ornate, with intricate tracery running all along it. He held the key out to Shana, and she took it.
“What happens if we lose it?” Shana asked.
“Then you can’t get back through the exit,” Lock said.
“Yeah, we figured that out,” Kathryn said, folding her arms. “Is that all?”
“Like, if we lose it, do we die or get horrifically dismembered or anything?” Ben asked.
“D-don’t say that!” Rae said, covering her ears.
“Nothing like that,” Lock said. “You just can’t open the door back.”
“This is remarkably anti-climactic,” Ben said with a pout.
“Anti-climactic is better than deadly and dangerous,” Shias said.
“I agree!” Rae said, her hand shooting up in the air like she was in a classroom.
“So, are you ready to go?” Lock asked.
“Wait, that’s it?” Ben asked.
“Stop begging for more drama,” Kathryn said, punching Ben in the arm. “I’m ready to go.”
“Same here,” Ben said, quickly following up Kathryn’s declaration.
“Let’s do it,” Shias said.
“I’m r-ready,” Rae said, nodding to Shana.
Shana smiled. “Let’s go,” she said.
Lock gestured for them to follow as he walked towards the back of the workshop. Navigating around the large main furnace and then through shelves and racks of tools and completed items – mostly keys – the five teens followed the Locksmith until they passed through a door into a small back room. There, they gathered around a door.
It was a strange door. Rather than being connected to a wall, it was standing in the center of the room, unattached to anything except the floor.
“So this door takes us to Maribelle?” Shana asked.
Lock nodded. “Just turn the key before opening and it’ll take you where you want to go,” he said.
“Thank you for everything,” Shana said, smiling up at the massive blacksmith. “This gets us one step closer to freeing Annabelle.”
“When you do save the Small Lady,” Lock said, “ask if she’d like to see me. She speaks to me quite a lot, but… I haven’t seen her face in a very long time.”
“You got it,” Shana said. She turned the key in the door’s lock and then opened it. The open doorway was obscured by a sheet of white light.
“We just walk into that?” Shias asked, covering his face against the glare.
“Go right ahead,” Lock said. “And good luck.”
“Thank you,” Shana said. She took a deep breath and stepped through the white light.
The room and the door vanished, and suddenly Shana was hit with a familiar experience.
However, she’d never experienced this while awake.
She was dreaming.
It wasn’t an ordinary dream, but one of her strange, lucid, magical dreams. In it, she was standing on a tall tower, overlooking a courtyard. It was night, and incredibly dark, as if the only light in the entire place was faint starlight. Far below her, Shana saw three people. She recognized the first – Annabelle. And there was a girl beside her who could have been her twin. Standing with the two was a young woman, with hair a darker shade of red than the other two, tied in a long braid that hung down to her waist.
The courtyard was rather spacious, with shadows of trees and tall hedges all around. But in front of Shana, that courtyard connected to a massive stone building. Its size defied explanation. The entire city of Grimoire could have fit inside it and left plenty of space besides. Shana had marveled at the size of the Radiant King’s palace, but this… she couldn’t fathom it. Towers around the perimeter, like the one Shana stood on, seemed to mark other courtyards. The gloomy grey stonework was dotted with sparkling sections that Shana thought were glass reflecting what little light there was.
Suddenly, the woman with the long red braid appeared right in front of Shana atop the tower.
“Wah!” Shana shouted pathetically, leaping back and then wind-milling her arms to keep herself from falling off the edge. “You… how did you…”
“Take us to the center,” the woman said, pointing to the gargantuan building. Shana looked where she indicated, a dome of glass in the center of the structure that also served as its tallest point. “There, we can reclaim what was lost. But only together.”
“Together with who?” Shana asked. “Who are you? And where is this place?”
But the dream was already fading. As Shana looked at the woman for answers, she was struck by the immense sorrow on her face.
And then, the dream was gone. Shana found herself standing in a field of green grass fading to brown. A cool, dry gust swept over her, blowing her hair all about, and Shana had to grab her hat tightly to keep it from flying away.
“The Final Frontier, huh?” Kathryn said, popping into existence next to Shana. “It does kind of feel like we’re at the end of the world, doesn’t it? I mean physically, not, like, apocalyptic or anything like that.”
Shana, looking around, had to agree. The grass had a sort of “barely clinging to life” look to it. The wind seemed to want to push them away, rather than let them continue further. And besides the grass, the plains around were dotted with odd stone structures, ruins from some bygone age so weathered and crumbled that it was impossible to decipher what they’d once been. Wind howled through the gaps between the stone, singing a foreboding song.
On the breeze, Shana smelled… salt. And in the howling and rushing wind, she also heard the sound of waves.
“We’re near the ocean,” she said, smiling.
“And that must be the Last Home,” Shias said, joining the pair with Rae and Ben in tow. Ahead of them, up the hill, was a sort of old-fashioned farm house. A low stone wall ran a wide perimeter around it, and Shana could see sheep grazing in the fields within. A waterwheel was turning at a slow but steady pace on the far side of the house.
“You okay?” Kathryn asked, nudging Shana.
“Yeah,” Shana said, shaking her head. “Just… I had a dream.”
“A dream?” Shias asked. “But it only took us a second to go through the door.”
“Dreams don’t really care about time,” Shana said. “I’ll tell you about it later. Let’s go meet Maribelle.” She tapped her bookmark in her pocket and Summoned Altair. The little blue dog seemed impervious to the winds as they began their ascent, running around and wagging his tail happily.
Up the hill they climbed, and it felt steeper than it was. There was no discernible path, and the ground beneath the grass was bumpy and rough, making it hard to take steady, consistent steps. All the while, the wind blew straight into their faces, making every effort to send the five tumbling back the way they’d come. Rae, the smallest of the group, ended up clinging to Shias’ arm for balance and to keep from getting blown away.
Finally, they reached the top of the hill, and stood before a simple wooden gate in the wall. Shana pulled the latch and swung it open, and she was surprised at how it resisted the wind. Despite its simple design, the hinge that it swung on was very intricate, likely serving as buffer against the force of the gale. Inside, a sheep wandered up to Shana, nudging her gently with little stubby horns. Shana laughed, petting the little creature atop the head, and she marveled at how fuzzy he was. Altair sniffed the sheep, and the sheep sniffed back, making Altair quite happy at this pleasant social interaction.
“Making friends everywhere he goes,” Kathryn said, grinning at the dog.
“He’s too likeable not to,” Shana said, laughing. The fields smelled quite nice, and she noticed there were flowers planted all along the front wall of the house, in the perfect place to be protected from the harsh winds, while letting those same winds carry their sweet aromas forward. She led the way across the fields, along a stone path that led to a wooden porch and the front door.
The stairs creaked with each step. At the door, the group looked to Shana expectantly.
I guess we are here because of me, Shana realized, smiling. She was glad to be here. This was one step closer to saving Annabelle from the Radiant King and his servants, all people that Shana couldn’t bring herself to trust. The King said all sorts of pleasant things, but… he was holding a child captive against her will. That was enough for Shana to want to fight against him with everything she had.
She knocked three times on the door, rapping her knuckles against the faded blue wood. For two long moments she waited, and then she heard footsteps inside. Hope and anticipation rose within her. What would Maribelle be like? How would she react to hear that her sister was a prisoner?
The door opened slightly, revealing only a pair of dark brown eyes. Despite that, Shana instantly recognized the person they belonged to.
“Who are you?” the woman inside asked, her voice exactly the same as that of the woman in Shana’s dream. “Why are you here?”
“We’ve come from Annabelle,” Shana said. She’d been practicing these opening lines over and over in her head, carving the message Annabelle had given her into her heart. “Your sister wants you to know that she didn’t leave. The Radiant King took her. He’s holding her hostage in his palace.”
The dark brown eyes widened, and the woman pulled the door open to reveal what Shana had expected. The dark brown eyes, the long red hair braided down to her waist, the sorrowful expression, it was all the same as what she’d just seen in her dream. Maribelle was dressed more plainly than in her dream, though, outfitted in just a long blue dress with a white apron over it. Like Annabelle, she was barefoot, and there were no signs of shoes inside the doorway.
“She told you this herself?” Maribelle asked.
Shana nodded. “She did,” she said. “She helped us escape from the Radiant King’s palace, sending us with directions to find you.”
Maribelle studied the group for a long, silent moment. Finally, she nodded slightly, turning away and gesturing to them to follow her inside the house. “What kind of directions?” she asked. “It’s one thing to know where I am. It’s another thing entirely to get here.”
“She sent us to the Locksmith,” Shana said, walking across hardwood floors to a sitting area, taking a seat on the couch that Maribelle indicated. Altair hopped up on her lap, while Kathryn plopped down next to her, and the rest of the group arrange themselves around the sitting area as Maribelle stoked a small fire to life in the fireplace .
“That was clever of her,” Maribelle said. She stood while the Dawn Riders sat, studying their faces. She spent the longest time on Shana. “You’re the one she specifically sent, aren’t you?” Shana nodded. “I see.” Altair watched Maribelle with ears perked up, studying her. Maribelle’s lips turned into a small smile, and she knelt down, holding out her hand to the Summon. The little dog hopped down and gratefully accepted Maribelle’s hand, letting her pet him all over. Maribelle laughed softly. “He’s very friendly.”
Shias leaned forward in his seat. “Can you help us?” he asked. “Can you save Annabelle?”
“Why do you wish to save her?” Maribelle asked. Her eyes stayed on Altair as he rolled over and she started rubbing his tummy.
“Because she asked us to,” Shana said. “Because she’s held captive by really powerful people, and she’s scared, and she’s just a little girl.”
Maribelle smiled. “She’s not as young as she looks,” she said softly. She stood up, leaving Altair to return to Shana’s lap. She studied Shana’s face once more. “You’ve seen me before.”
Shana nodded. “In my dream,” she said. “I… I just had it. But it felt… familiar, somehow. I don’t think it’s the first time I had that dream. But it’s the first time I really remembered it.”
“Tell me about it,” Maribelle said. Shana explained it rather quickly – it had been a brief dream, after all – and then waited for Maribelle’s response. The woman stared out the window thoughtfully for some time before speaking.
“The Library of Solitude,” she said softly.
“The Library?” Shana asked. “That’s… that’s where one of my sisters is.”
“You have sisters as well?” Maribelle asked.
Shana nodded. “Two,” she said.
“And one of them is inside the Library of Solitude,” Maribelle said, eyeing Shana suspiciously. “You’re certain of this?”
“The Cartographers told us so themselves,” Shana said, hoping that appealing to their authority would help Maribelle believe her.
“That’s…” Maribelle paused, rubbing her bottom lip with two fingers. “And in your dream, there were two other girls with me, one of whom looked like a twin to Annabelle?” Shana nodded, and Maribelle’s eyes widened the slightest bit. “Isabelle…” She turned away, facing the fire. “I thought all of my sisters were lost. My mother and I… we searched together for them for a very long time. But then I was even separated from my mother, and thought her lost as well. I…”
Shana stared as the fire inside the fireplace molded and shifted with Maribelle’s story. The flames displayed two female forms, walking together, but then one was pulled away by unseen hands, leaving the other alone, looking about frantically.
“I gave up,” Maribelle said, her voice filled with sorrow. “I left them, and our home, and the rest of the world, behind. I’d always wanted to come live out here one day in peace, but…” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Not like this.”
The fire returned to its original state as Maribelle’s story ended.
“So come with us,” Shana said. “Save your sister. There’s still hope for you and your family.”
“The place you saw in your dream,” Maribelle said, turning back to Shana. “It was the Library of Solitude. In it, you say I told you ‘take us to the center.’ Were those my exact words?”
Shana nodded. “And that you could reclaim what was lost, but only together,” she said.
“I hope that is true,” Maribelle said. She walked out of the sitting area to a set of stairs leading up. “I’ll be back in a moment. Give me some time to prepare.”
“Going well so far,” Kathryn said, smiling.
“She seems so sad,” Rae said softly, staring at her feet. “She thought she lost her entire family. I hope we really can help her.”
“Are the sheep gonna be okay if she leaves?” Ben asked.
“Really?” Kathryn asked. “That’s what you’re worried about?”
Ben shrugged, rising up to walk to the window. “I’m just saying,” he muttered. For a moment, he stood at the window in silence, until he started gesturing for people to come join him. “Guys. Guys. Check this out.”
The window faced out the back side of the house, a place they hadn’t seen. When Shana looked out, she gasped.
“The Final Frontier,” Kathryn said softly. “It really does earn its name.”
Maribelle’s house, it turned out, was on a hill that ended at rocky, jagged cliffs. Beyond those cliffs, an ocean stretched out, but it didn’t go very far. Perhaps a mile out across the water, everything simply ended. The water, the sky… it was all gone. The edge of the water gave way to a sort of crumbling, shattered mosaic, like the entire world were breaking apart, before it finally stopped at a strange, unsettling nothingness.
“We’re at the very end of the world,” Shana said, trying to wrap her mind around that reality. Was that crumbling finality constant? Or would it continue to shatter and erode inland, eventually swallowing up Maribelle’s house and fields?
“I’m ready,” Maribelle said, her footsteps sounding on the stairs as she came back down. She had changed into a white dress and a dark blue bolero jacket. Around her neck was a circular locket on a golden chain.
“What is that?” Ben asked, pointing out the window at the crumbling edge of the world.
Maribelle watched him quizzically for a moment, and then simply chuckled, before turning towards the door. “Come on,” she said. “I need to instruct the livestock, and then we can leave.”
“Instruct them?” Shana asked, following Maribelle out the door.
“Of course,” Maribelle said. “They’ll need to take care of the farm while I’m gone.”
Shana smiled. Maribelle’s voice and bearing had changed. She stood taller, and she spoke with confidence and purpose.
This is what family does for us. Maribelle’s off to save her sister.
And if we’re supposed to go to the Library of Solitude… then I’ll be seeing Delilah again soon.
Hopefully, sometime soon, all five of us can get together again. Until then, I’ll just keep doing the best I can.
Hang in there, Annabelle. We’re coming to save you.