It was the best she could do. Despite drawing on Enhancement Magic, the air had grown so heavy. Pressure pushed down on her, like something large and physical, and yet there was just empty, dark space around her.
I can still see the path, she thought, glaring ahead as she dragged herself forward. I’m going the right way. Just hang on, Gwen. I’m coming.
The windows into Gwen’s life, and the statues of people that played a role in it, had vanished a long time ago. Darkness had closed in around the grey stone path, and Chelsea could barely see more than a few feet in front of her.
As she pushed herself onward, her mind dwelled on the tragic scenes of Gwen’s life.
I never would have guessed. You’re so kind and friendly, and you have the most peaceful and beautiful place to live.
Though… I guess that’s a necessity, after all you’ve been through.
Don’t let this stop you, Gwen. Don’t let the darkness take you. Don’t let it win.
With those thoughts came doubts, creeping into Chelsea’s mind. Why shouldn’t Gwen let the darkness take her? Hadn’t Chelsea…
Shut up. I don’t need this right now. I’m here for Gwen.
But she hadn’t brought Gwen into this. Why did she feel so guilty? Gwen had gone into the darkness of her own free will. A voice had called to her, just like Chelsea.
But why? Why were they in this dark, painful place? Why did Gwen have to relive the most horrible moments of her past?
And why do I have to deal with a weird doppelganger-clone-thing of myself? And even as I think about her… why do I feel sorry for her? She’s some weird reflection of myself. She’s probably not even real.
I know I said I’d keep going with her, and I know she said there’s something important for me in this place, but I really just want to leave. Why am I even here?
And, like clockwork, as soon as Chelsea started questioning her place her, started wanting to leave, something nudged at the back of her mind. A wordless voice, seductive and persuasive, pulled Chelsea back. This was where she was supposed to be. There was so much to learn here. So what if it hurt sometimes? Pain was necessary for growth.
Chelsea knew that better than most.
In the distance, Chelsea heard a voice. No words, just a choked, subdued sobbing.
“Gwen!” Chelsea called out, gritting her teeth and grunting as she pushed herself to a kneeling position. “I’m almost there! Just hang on!”
The sobbing voice in the distance didn’t respond. Chelsea huffed, yelling at the air as she stood against the pressure. “Screw you, darkness,” she said. “I’m coming through.”
One step at a time, Chelsea continued on, until the darkness parted and the pressure abated. The stage where she’d seen Gwen from the river came into view, and Gwen was still there, on her knees and surrounded by bodies.
“Gwen!” Chelsea leapt onto the stage and raced over to her. “Gwen, it’s all right. I’m here. Come on.”
Gwen looked up, and she looked awful. Her golden eyes were bloodshot and raw, and what subtle makeup she had worn stained the space around her eyes a soft purple, with tracks running down her cheeks. The expression she wore was the haunted gaze of someone who’d sunk into the deepest pits of despair.
“Chelsea?” Gwen asked. Her voice was raw and scratchy. “You’re… but why? How? What are you –”
“I’m getting you out of here,” Chelsea said, placing a hand on Gwen’s shoulder. She offered her a reassuring smile that was slightly forced despite her best efforts. Smiles didn’t come easily in this place. “You’re not alone. Come on. Let’s go.”
“But they…” Gwen looked around at the bodies surrounding her.
“Forget all of this.” Chelsea tried pulling Gwen to her feet, but was met with resistance.
“They didn’t deserve this,” Gwen said, shaking her head. “I… I did this.”
“Whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault,” Chelsea said, pulling again at Gwen. “This place… it preys on our doubts and our pain. It preys on the worst of us. Don’t pay attention to anything in here.”
“It was my fault,” Gwen said, nodding.
“Stop,” Chelsea said, kneeling down in front of Gwen. “Just look at me. Don’t look at anything else. This wasn’t –”
“It was!” Gwen shouted, grabbing Chelsea by the shoulders. “I killed them!”
Chelsea paused, looking around. She didn’t recognize any of the bodies. She’d thought they were Gwen’s parents, haunting her long after they were gone, but no. These people hadn’t been in any of the windows.
“What happened?” Chelsea asked, her voice softer. “It’s okay, Gwen. Talk to me.”
Gwen stared at the floor between them. Her hands shook, and that shaking continued to her shoulders, then down her torso, to her legs. Chelsea squeezed her shoulders reassuringly.
“You saw the windows on your way here?” Gwen asked. Chelsea nodded. “There was a war. A war between Enchanted and the Radiance – humans who used twisted magical experiments to give themselves eternal life. That war was made possible by my father. He thought to deal with the Radiance, forging a political alliance that backfired on him, and all of the Enchanted. In the end, the war consumed my parents’ lives. And… I was not well for a long time afterwards. I…”
Gwen sobbed, looking around at the dozens of bodies littering the stage and the ground beyond. “I went to Grimoire,” she said. “That’s where the Radiance had come from. It was long before you were born. For several years, as secretively as I could, I tracked down everyone who had been involved in helping the Radiance come to being who still remained in the human world. One by one, I…” Gwen stopped, shaking her head.
“I get it,” Chelsea said softly, surveying the stage. There were easily fifty bodies, possibly as many as a hundred. Chelsea felt like this was prophetic, a warning to her own soul: See what Gwen’s rage did to her. See what sorrow you could bring upon yourself.
“Chelsea?” Gwen asked. She was studying Chelsea’s face, life starting to return to her golden eyes.
“I’m fine,” Chelsea said, forcing a small smile. “Come on. You don’t want to stay here.”
“They call out to me,” Gwen said. “They… “
“It doesn’t matter what they say.” Chelsea lifted Gwen’s chin up, meeting her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. Your pain and guilt tells me you’re never going back to that place.”
Silence, long and haunting, stretched out between the two girls. Somehow, Chelsea felt like it pulled her closer to Gwen.
“It isn’t the pain,” Gwen said at length. “Or the guilt. That’s part of it, and bringing all of these things back again is awful, but…” She clutched a hand against her chest as her face twisted with anguish. “It’s the hate. The old anger and rage and hatred that I thought I’d buried… it’s all still here. I thought I’d escaped it, but I still feel it, and it terrifies me. Because…” Gwen looked at Chelsea, and her expression was a mixture of guilt and anger. “I’m scared of what I might try to do to you. Or Lorelei, or little Delilah.”
“Why us?” Chelsea asked.
Gwen looked away, her expression one that should be accompanied by tears, but clearly her eyes had already dried themselves up. “The Radiance, and all those who served them, are human,” she said. “I know that only a tiny portion of humans serve or are a part of the Radiance. I know only a small few follow the Radiant King. But while my head can make the distinction, my heart cannot. Humans killed my parents. Humans ruined my home and my city. Humans took away all I love and hold dear, and left me alone and broken, and all I have is this hate and I don’t know what to do with it. It’s tearing me apart, and just when I thought it was gone for good it comes roaring back and I just can’t take it.” Her voice rose as she talked, and she gripped Chelsea tighter until she was shaking her by the shoulders.
Chelsea, for her part, was speechless. She was absolutely stunned by Gwen’s confession, largely because…
She couldn’t say it. Even looking into Gwen’s tortured eyes, even thinking that perhaps what Gwen needed most right now was someone who really understood.
Could she? Could she be that honest?
Be honest with yourself, the voice, and the other, had said.
Maybe it’s exactly what I need, Chelsea thought. I’ve only ever told one person the truth, and everyone else believes all the lies I tell them. It’s so easy to lie, when the truth’s as painful as it is.
Chelsea took Gwen’s hands gently and met the girl’s eyes. “I don’t have any answers for you,” she said softly, her eyes wet with tears. “Because I’m fighting the same thing myself. I feel like I only have two horrible choices – bury it as deep as I can and twist myself in knots over it every day, or let it loose and try to just burn it out until it’s gone. I’ve tried both options… neither of them gets rid of it. Burying it doesn’t hide it forever. And letting it loose…”
“It never lets go,” Gwen said softly, nodding. “The more you give into it, the more it wants. What do we…”
Chelsea shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “And it kills me. I don’t know what to do.”
Gwen leaned forward, laying her head in Chelsea’s shoulder as she embraced her. “I’m afraid of myself,” she said, voice shaking.
Chelsea nodded, hugging Gwen back. “I know the feeling.” She looked around the stage, until her eyes spied a path leading out in the direction of the river. Lights seemed to flicker to life, illuminating the entire path and the stone dock it ended at. “Let’s get out of here. This place has nothing for you. You should go back to the Library.”
Gwen leaned back, shaking her head vigorously. “I’m coming with you,” she said. “I’ll go back to the Library when you come back with me.”
Chelsea’s lips turned in a small smile. “Honestly, I’d appreciate the company,” she said. “Are you sure? This place is awful.”
“I think we need each other,” Gwen said. “Something called out to both of us back in the Library, and now we find out we’re both consumed with the same pain and fear. It’s no coincidence.” She wiped at her face and eyes, clearing away the stains. “Just promise me something, Chelsea. Promise me… if I can’t hold myself back… that you won’t let me hurt anyone. Please.”
Chelsea nodded. “I will,” she said. “But don’t say it so dramatically. I won’t hurt you, either. Okay?”
Gwen nodded. Chelsea tried once more to pull Gwen to her feet, and this time succeeded. Together, the girls walked away from the stage and out onto the dock, where the boat and the other waited.
“That’s – ” Gwen started, eyes wide as she stared at Chelsea’s doppelganger.
“She’s me,” Chelsea said, stepping into the boat and watching the other. “Or something. Whatever she is, she’s my guide.”
“She’s not coming with us, is she?” the other asked, staring at Chelsea warily.
Chelsea glared back. “Yes, she is,” she said. “Come on, Gwen. She’s been perfectly safe, so far.”
The other looked away as Gwen stepped carefully into the boat. “It’s fine,” she said. “I’ll take you where you need to be. But Miss Golden Eyes doesn’t belong there.”
“No stupid nicknames,” Chelsea said as the other started the boat into motion. “Her name’s Gwen. And from now on, we’re staying together. This place isn’t right. And I don’t trust you.”
“You don’t trust yourself?” the other asked.
“I have some very mixed feelings about you so far,” Chelsea replied.
“Where are you taking us?” Gwen asked. “What’s further down the river?”
“A place for Chelsea,” the other said. “She has much to learn.”
Chelsea rolled her eyes and forced herself not to respond. Talking to her doppelganger was a frustrating experience at best. Her feelings towards the other oscillated between annoyance, sympathy, and fear. Sometimes, her doppelganger seemed sad and wounded, tugging at Chelsea’s heartstrings. But she was more often annoyingly vague, or eerily sinister. For a moment, Chelsea considered asking if they could go back to the Library. But she remembered what she’d said about the Library. Somehow, it was turning into this dark place.
Was that what Merric had warned them about? Was this place part of the darkness that was encroaching on the entire universe? If it was transforming the Library, was hope already lost for them?
All around, the river was dark and silent. The voyage seemed longer this time then it had been from Chelsea’s starting point to Gwen’s path, but it was impossible to tell for sure. The silence and darkness were oppressive, closing in on Chelsea while also making the space feel wide, empty, and lonely.
You’re better off alone.
Chelsea looked at Gwen, making her best effort to defy the voice within her. Being alone had its appeal. It was far simpler. And maybe Chelsea was better off alone.
But Gwen wasn’t. And who else did Gwen have right now?
Gwen, for her part, seemed to have improved. She didn’t take her eyes off of the other, and Chelsea couldn’t blame her. Her face was no longer gaunt and hollow, and her eyes had a bit of their old sparkle to them.
“Here we are,” the other said. Lights had illuminated a pier ahead, more intricate than previous plain stone docks. Its platform on the water had a gazebo, and a long bridge extended toward the shore, which remained shrouded in shadow.
“I’d encourage you to go alone,” the other said, leading the way up onto the pier.
“We go together,” Gwen said, and Chelsea nodded.
“You’re better off –” Chelsea’s doppelganger started.
“Shut up,” Chelsea said, glaring at the other. “Are you staying here, or coming with us?”
“You may see me in there,” the other said, staring across the bridge with a strange look in her eyes. “But I can’t come with you.”
“Anything I should know before going in there?” Chelsea asked.
The other sighed, the sound tinged with sorrow. “Be honest with yourself,” she said softly. “And… don’t stray from the path.”
Chelsea turned to Gwen. “Ready?” she asked.
Gwen nodded. “Ready,” she said, though her voice shook slightly. Together the pair headed across the bridge, darkness closing around them.
“I hope this path reveals itself soon,” Chelsea said, slowing her steps as the darkness just continued to deepen.
“Do you hear that?” Gwen asked. “There’s a voice on the air.”
Chelsea stopped, listening more closely. A whisper floated on the air. When it reached her ears, it only spoke one word – a word that turned Chelsea’s blood to ice.