It was the familiar dream, the one where she flew threw a pink fog following a golden light. The last time she’d had it, it had led her to the grove where she’d met Annabelle.
“What are you going to show me this time?” Shana asked.
In the castle, she stopped in the hall of paintings.
That was new to her. She’d never stopped before. Did the dream want to show her something?
Once again, the paintings were different. They never showed the same scene twice. Her eyes were drawn to the smallest, tucked between two massive paintings of mountain ranges. This tiny painting wasn’t much bigger than her hand, but it was intricately detailed. Beautiful trees were spaced out wide in a spacious, dreamlike forest. Balls of glowing light seemed to dance, bobbing and bouncing here and there, fuzzy and indistinct in shape. Their texture looked rather like Altair’s, now that Shana looked closer…
“The Wood of the Wisps.”
A voice made Shana jump, both in shock and in anger. Before she looked, she knew who was speaking, and she wasn’t pleased to see his shining face.
“Why do you keep invading my dreams?” Shana asked, glaring at the Radiant King.
“As I told you before – you invited me,” the King said calmly. “I cannot enter a dream without being invited.”
“I didn’t invite you,” Shana said. She turned away, running down the hall of paintings until she exited into the open and launched herself into the air, flying once more through the pink fog. The golden light was nowhere to be seen, but that was no worry. She could find her way.
Wait – how was she doing this?
Not once had Shana ever controlled her own actions in this dream. She could control how her head turned and where her eyes went, but her movement was autonomous. At least, that’s what she’d always thought.
Had she always been able to control where she went?
Experimenting, Shana banked left, then right. She ascended, putting on speed, and suddenly she was blinded as she emerged from the pink fog into a dazzlingly bright sunrise. She turned away, blinking spots from her eyes, and looked out across the sky.
“Wow,” was all she could say, taking in a breath as she found herself above the clouds, in a brilliant and colorful place she’d never before seen.
“Indeed,” the Radiant King said, and Shana glared at her beautiful view, not deigning to turn around and look at her stalker.
“Get away from me,” she said.
“Where are you?” the King asked. “You’ve vanished from everywhere my agents and I can see. That’s a rare feat.”
“Why are you watching me like a creep?” Shana asked. “Leave me alone.”
“I thought we were close to an agreement before,” the King said. “The Endless Night will come, whether we wish it or not.”
“You take children hostage and yet you talk about saving the universe,” Shana said. “It’s hard to understand your intentions. And it’s especially hard to believe you’re anything good.”
“I can explain –”
“Save it,” Shana said, cutting the King off and diving back down into the fog. She flew as fast and as aggressively as possible, constantly changing direction at breakneck speed.
Part of Shana’s speedy retreat was her hesitation.
What if darkness really was going to swallow up the universe? What if she was the only one who could stop the Endless Night, and the only way she could was by teaming up with the Radiant King?
What if his kidnapping of dozens of children was just a misundersta–
Yeah, no. That was definitely a bridge too far.
So why was she so conflicted?
Is it because I want to be the chosen savior of humanity? Am I that arrogant without even realizing it?
I mean, being a hero like in a fantasy story would be way cool and all, but…
Not at the expense of children. Not at the expense of anyone.
That’s not heroic. That’s evil.
The fog began to blur and warp, and Shana’s vision grew dark. A voice called out to her on the air – the Radiant King’s voice – but she couldn’t make out his words. One second, then another, and all went dark.
Shana woke up.
Next to her, Altair stirred, cozying up closer against her, providing precious warmth.
The sky above was still dark, so she’d woken up too early. No alarm clocks – or reliable clocks at all – here in the Final Frontier, so she had to rely on the sky to tell the time. Thankfully, it was fairly simple. Daylight hours were similar to summer days on Earth, which meant their group of six had been following the light – awake and traveling from dawn to dusk.
Night was deadly out here, or so Maribelle said. She’d been a good guide for them so far, so their group hadn’t faced any danger yet.
The strange thing was that they were on this journey at all. They’d long since exited the small radius in which the door back to Lock would be. When Shana and Shias had mentioned the door and their key, Maribelle had shaken her head.
“We’re not looking for the door,” she’d said.
“Why not?” Shana had replied.
“It’ll take too long. I’ve worked with Lock before, and I know his methods. It can take a few minutes to find the door, if you’re lucky. Most often it takes days, or even weeks. I know the way out from the Final Frontier, so we’re better off taking the reliable, known path.”
And that had settled it, and put the six of them on an adventure. Shana couldn’t deny that it was rather fun, even if the Westward Plains so far provided bleak scenery. It was still unlike anything Shana had seen or experienced before.
Kathryn was the one who’d asked, sidling over next to Shana and sitting back against the rock wall of the valley they’d camped in. Shana sat up, sitting with her, and Altair wriggled out of the sleeping bag to curl up between the girls, his faint blue glow affording a bit of light in the darkness.
“I had another dream,” she said.
“Well, then that means you’ve adjusted to this place already,” Kathryn said, laughing softly. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the noise.”
That was the hardest part Shana’s first night. Wind whipped across the Westward Plains all day and all night, meaning even though they were alone in a wide open space, it was never quiet. Their campsite tonight – and ever site before – had been expertly picked by Maribelle to provide ample shelter from the winds so they wouldn’t be tossed around while they slept, but there was nothing to be done about the constant whooshing and whistling.
“What was the dream?” Kathryn asked.
“Like the one where I found the grove,” Shana said. “Flying around and all that. But this time, the Radiant King was there. It’s the second time he’s invaded my dreams, but he keeps saying I invited him there. As if.”
“Maybe it’s a dream thing.”
The new voice was Rae’s. She crawled over to join the pair, staying in her sleeping bag and looking like a very cozy inchworm. “Dreams come from our subconscious,” she said. “So maybe you subconsciously invited the Radiant King.”
“That sounds gross,” Shana said, making a face. “How could I invite him without knowing about it? And why can’t I send him away?”
“Just keep trying,” Kathryn said. “Tell him to ‘buzz off’ every time he shows up. What did he want, anyway?”
“To know where I am,” Shana said.
Kathryn rolled her eyes. “Like an obnoxious call from your parents: ‘Where are you? You were supposed to be home an hour ago!’ Except he’s not a parent so that makes him more like a creepy stalker.”
“That’s what I called him,” Shana said.
“So you have some control in your dreams,” Rae said.
Shana pursed her lips. “Yeah, that’s a new thing,” she said. “I’ve never been able to control myself in that specific dream. Or, I mean… I don’t know. I never thought I could.”
“Maybe the whole ‘Dreamer’s Heart’ thing is a superpower,” Kathryn said, grinning. “And you’re finally learning to control it. You keep having that same dream, and once it led you to Annabelle. Maybe being able to fully control yourself in that place will let you see and learn a lot more.”
“I’ll have to keep trying, I guess,” Shana said, staring up at the night sky. Like the King’s Palace, and Cartographer’s Waystation, the sky was different than home. During the day, there wasn’t a sun, but instead just light in the sky – here in the Westward Plains, daylight meant a grey sky, like a cloudy afternoon, but with occasional flashes of yellow and orange. Nighttime wasn’t pitch black, but rather a deep, dark blue. Shapes, silver and lighter blue, floated high above in the night sky, like strange geometric stars.
“I’m worried about home,” Rae said softly. Shana looked at her, watching her face. Rae’s small, mousy features tended to look worried and scared most times, but over time Shana had come to recognize the shifts in Rae’s expressiveness and emotional state. And right now, Rae was truly concerned. “I… I was entrusted with an important package. I delivered it to my mother, and she locked it in her vault, but… it was stolen.”
That was surprising. A mage family’s vault was the most protected place in their entire home. The Greyson vault was a place Shana had never even been allowed to set foot in. The secret to removing its protections belonged only to her parents. To think that someone had broken into the Shoto vault…
But more than that, Shana was surprised to hear Rae talk about the package. She knew exactly what it was, of course: the Piper’s Flute. It seemed an eternity ago that she and Shias, and eventually Caleb as well, had followed Rae to Grimoire’s Grimoires.
What did it mean that the Flute had been stolen?
“It was stolen the s-same night your s-siblings disappeared,” Rae said, staring at Shana with tears in her eyes. “I-I’ve wanted to tell you for so long, b-but…”
“It’s okay,” Shana said, instantly pulling Rae into an embrace. “It’s not your fault that it was stolen, anyway. And we know Caleb and Delilah are doing just fine. There’s nothing to worry about. And besides…” Shana sighed, pulling away from Rae and making sure she met her gaze. “I followed you. The day you delivered the package to Grimoire’s Grimoires. I thought it was just a game, like Shias and I were pretend detectives, but… I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner.”
“You…” Rae stared at Shana in disbelief for a moment, and then, unexpectedly, she giggled. “Pretend detectives. That’s just like you, isn’t it?”
Shana found herself laughing too.
“Secrets between friends are a pain,” Kathryn said, laughing along with them. “Both of you better stop keeping secrets. Speaking of which…” she leaned in close, eyeing Shana and Rae suspiciously, “you aren’t keeping anything from me, are you?”
Shana laughed even more, clearly Kathryn’s intended reaction as she grinned. “Good,” she said. “I don’t like secrets.”
“Me neither,” Rae said, shaking her head. “I can’t even keep them that well. They make me feel sick.”
Shana wrapped one arm around Rae, and the other around Kathryn, pulling the two towards her in a group hug. “You guys are the best friends,” she said happily. Altair, now on Shana’s lap to avoid being smushed, sat up and licked each of the girl’s faces in turn.
The three stayed awake until daylight, which wasn’t all that far away. As Shias, Ben, and Maribelle awoke, the group had a quick breakfast, and then set off across the Westward Plains once more.
The grass was long and thick, but was only ever partially green at best. Brown and grey dominated the foliage and the landscape, which was dotted with large rock formations. The stonework had a weathered, manmade look to it. These weren’t natural rocks or boulders but ruins of some sort, and their remnants suggested that these plains were once home to a vast civilization, with tall towers and massive homes – perhaps even castles. The idea of what once was here got Shana excited as her imagination came to life, but also lent an air of loneliness and sorrow to the surroundings.
“We should reach the Final Frontier proper today,” Maribelle said, her long red braid whipped about by the wind. “It isn’t much farther from there to the Winding Stair. That’s our path to the Radiant King and my sister.”
“It’s that easy?” Shana asked. “I thought we’d have to go through a bunch of places and steps to get there.”
“Simple,” Maribelle said, a wry smile on her face. “Not easy. We’ve been lucky so far. But –” Suddenly she stopped, crouching low to the ground behind a rock formation and motioning for the others to follow suit. Shana sidled up next to her, watching the woman’s face. Maribelle’s eyes were wide and alert, and she didn’t look away from a small gap in the rocks.
Following her gaze, Shana understood why. Beyond their hiding place, down a short hill, there was a frightening creature.
Tall as a two-story house and covered in glowing silver fur, the beast down the hill looked like a mix between a raccoon and a grizzly bear. Its long, poofy tail and wide, ringed eyes would have been adorable if the creature didn’t also look like it was rabid. Its eyes flared with red, vicious light, and greenish yellow drool dripped from ferocious fangs. It panted and moved in an almost pained manner, despite having no clear injuries.
“It looks… kind of like a Summon,” Shias said, staring at the monster.
“You’re kidding,” Shana said. “Summons have black eyes, always. And they don’t drool. I can vouch for that.” She patted Altair on the head.
“It is,” Maribelle said, drawing all eyes to her. “This is what happens when a Summon is separate from their Summoner. They become, over time, what you see here: Rampant.”
“Rampant?” Shana asked.
“Rampant Summons are ones that have had their connection with their Summoner severed,” Maribelle said. “Summons are supposed to live as long as their Summoner. But when they’re cut off from the one person that gives their lives meaning, they become lost within themselves. What we call Rampancy sets in, turning them into savage, vicious monsters. What you see down there is no longer a Summon. It’s a wild animal that will kill any living being on sight.”
“How did it end up here?” Shias asked.
“All Rampant Summons come to the Final Frontier,” Maribelle said sadly. “The loneliness of the land calls them.”
Shana stared at Altair. The little pup looked up at her adoringly, eyes full of love. Looking from Altair to the Rampant Summon, Shana found her heart breaking. What if Altair was separated from her? Would he turn into this terrifying monster, consumed by bloodlust?
But… if the raccoon-bear was called by loneliness, why was it so filled with rage?
If this happened to Altair, would Shana be able to save him?
“Can’t we help it?” Shana asked.
Maribelle shook her head. “For centuries Rampant Summons have come here, and for centuries researchers and healers have studied them and sought to cure them,” she said. “There is no known remedy. For now, we simply keep our distance and continue to study.”
Shana gazed at the raccoon-bear, then back at Altair. Altair clearly knew what she was thinking, and he nudged against her leg encouragingly. Standing up from her hiding spot, Shana reached to start climbing up over the rocks.
The hushed whisper came from Shias, and was followed by arms wrapping around her waist and pulling her to the ground.
“Let me go!” Shana demanded, squirming and wriggling against Shias’ grip. Altair growled at Shias, glaring at Shana’s twin, but Shias would not release her.
“There’s no saving it,” Maribelle said. The melancholy tone, coupled with her wholly sympathetic gaze, struck a chord with Shana.
“How many times have you tried?” Shana asked softly, staring back at the woman.
Maribelle looked away. “Once every year,” she said softly. “It used to be more, but age wore me down.”
“But you still haven’t given up,” Shana said.
Maribelle shook her head. “I can’t,” she said. “They didn’t ask for this. They’re just…”
Maribelle nodded at Shana’s finishing of her sentence.
“They’ve lost the one thing that gave them meaning,” she said. Her eyes drifted to Shana and Altair. “Take care of each other. Don’t let the same happen to you.”
There was something in Maribelle’s voice that suggested she wasn’t just speaking about the Rampant Summons. Had something so tragic happened to her, too?
Maribelle led them safely past the Summon, and they pushed on once more across the Westward Plains.