Shana was parched.
It was the sixth time she’d felt such thirst in three days, and the growing familiarity of the sensation was unwelcome. Unfortunately, water was scarce in the Final Frontier, and especially here on the Westward Plains, so they had to ration their supply between every long-awaited stream, pond, or waterfall.
These are the things about grand fantasy adventures that no one writes about, Shana thought, not for the first time. She stopped at the edge of a long slab of rock, panting for breath as she gazed out across the horizon.
Green and brown and grey, set against a bleak white sky.
If all she saw were the colors, it was an ugly, unappealing place.
But there was so much more. The rock she stood on, tilted at a shallow angle, would have been five stories tall if stood up straight. All across its weathered, cracked surface were beautifully intricate spiraling designs. She’d seen much the same in all of the stone here, ruins of a long-forgotten civilization. Even if what they’d built no longer stood, the craftsmanship and beauty they put into it remained. Even in devastation, the stones formed lovely formations. Some, like the one Shana stood on, served as their own sorts of hills and lookout positions. Others leaned against each other, like they were saying “If we fall, we fall together!” and fall they did not, because they could rely on each other. Some had broken into hundreds of pieces, and those pieces had somehow arranged themselves in fascinating shapes, like rock constellations. Much of the stone was overgrown here and there, lending a certain natural charm to the landscape.
And at times, Shana and the others’ path took them near the outskirts of the Westward Plains, where they saw the same shattered, crumbling view they’d seen from Maribelle’s house. The edge of the Enchanted Dominion – perhaps the known universe – was mysterious and hard to look at for very long. Like something out of a fever dream, the way that water, air, light, and ground all were simply suspended in the air, in fragmented disarray, often like an impressionist painting rather than actual real landscape, was confusing and nonsensical. It seemed to have a strange, hauntingly magnetic draw to it that made Shana avoid looking for more than a few seconds.
Shana hopped down from her rocky perch with Altair in tow, descending crumbling stone stairs to the grass below, where Maribelle stood waiting for the group.
“Why did you choose to live all the way out here?” Shana asked.
It had taken her all this time to build up the courage to ask the question. Maribelle’s demeanor had successfully won the battle against Shana’s curiosity for several days. The woman seemed at times serene and happy, but at other times broken, despairing, and lonely.
But Shana’s curiosity was difficult to fend off forever.
“I needed to be alone,” Maribelle said, her dark brown eyes like twin pools of subdued sorrow. “I thought I’d lost everyone. My mother… my sisters… all gone. After searching for longer than a human can comprehend, and never finding even the slightest clue, I assumed they were truly lost forever, and so I… left.”
At first, Shana wanted to ask about Maribelle’s father. There was only mention of a mother and sisters, after all. But something in Maribelle’s voice and expression stopped her. Instead, she smiled. “I’m glad there’s still hope,” she said.
Maribelle smiled. “Me, too,” she said. “Thank you, Shana.”
“But wait…” Shana pursed her lips. “How did Annabelle know you were here?”
“We visited this place once, Annabelle and me. I told her that if I had lived a different life, one without such a family around me, I would have lived here.” Maribelle sighed. “In truth, I had hoped she would remember that dream, if the worst happened. It was so long ago, and yet even then… I could feel the coming darkness. Mother could, as well. If only we’d known what ruin it would wreak.”
“The Endless Night,” Shana said. “Is it… really happening? Is that what you mean by the darkness?”
Maribelle eyed Shana with a puzzled expression. “You know about the Endless Night. Interesting. It hasn’t begun, and isn’t currently happening. But… the first stages have been completed. Yet if two of my sisters remain, and we are able to reach the center of the Library, we may be able to stop it.” She looked away with a heavy sigh. “But nothing is certain.”
“Hey!” Ben called out. He stood at the top of the rock, staring down at them. Kathryn, Rae, and Shias soon joined him. “Didn’t you say we’d reach the main part of this place three days ago?”
Maribelle sighed, this time one of annoyance. “You’ve asked me every day since then,” she called up to him. “What did I say?”
Ben muttered something under his breath.
“That the way has changed,” Kathryn said for him, punching him in the arm. “And it will take longer, but we’ll get there.”
Maribelle smiled, motioning for them to follow as she started onward again. The four atop the rock came down the stairs – Kathryn excitedly, skipping multiple stairs at a time, while the rest were more cautious, especially Rae – and followed after her with Shana.
“Thirsty?” Kathryn asked, bumping up against Shana and holding up her water bottle.
Shana shook her head. “It isn’t time yet. I don’t want to mess things up and leave us out of water before the next chance to refill.”
Kathryn shoved the bottle into Shana’s hands, and it sloshed with the sound of water within. “It’s more than half full. Take a sip. You look awful.”
Shana frowned but did as she was told, sipping slightly and then returning the bottle to Kathryn. Even this small bit of water felt like a wondrous, if brief, reprieve. She’d been even thirstier than she thought.
“You okay?” Shana asked.
Kathryn grinned. “I’m always okay. Don’t hesitate to speak up if you need something. You’re the most important one here, except for maybe Maribelle.”
“I’m not –” Shana started.
“The Dreamer,” Kathryn said, holding up a hand and raising a finger for each point she listed, “the one who made the promise to Annabelle, the one who found Annabelle in the first place, the one who knows what our end goal is, not to mention the one who founded this team to begin with. Plus –” She leaned in, wrapping an arm around Shana, “you’re my best friend. Which means you’re more important than me.”
Shana laughed. “But you’re my best friend, which means you’re more important than me.”
Kathryn shook her head vigorously. “It doesn’t work that way. I said it first. Plus, you have all those other points on your side. You’re definitively the most important person here. It’s scientifically proven.”
“I don’t think that’s science…” Shana laughed some more, nudging her shoulder against Kathryn. “Thanks.”
It wasn’t much longer before Maribelle led them down into a valley where, hidden behind a multi-story tall pile of crumbling stonework, they found a trickling waterfall feeding into a lazy stream. They drank from the waterfall and refilled their bottles from it, then set off once more, climbing up and out of the valley. Soon they came across a faded stone road, overgrown in many places, but visible enough that they could follow it.
“This marks the edge of the Westward Plains,” Maribelle said, gazing at the road triumphantly. “We might reach the Share House before nightfall.”
“That sounds like a nice place,” Ben said.
“It isn’t what it used to be,” Maribelle said, “but yes. It’s still that much.”
“How far from there to leave the Frontier?” Shias asked.
“It depends,” Maribelle said. “But no more than six days. If we’re lucky, we could do it in two.”
“So… I take it this place is weird?” Ben asked.
Maribelle nodded. “You could say that. The Final Frontier may well be the largest Location in the Enchanted Dominion. Some speculate that because of its size, it’s taken on characteristics of the Dominion as a whole – namely, that it doesn’t have a constant size or shape. It’s changing, shifting, rotating, expanding, shrinking…”
“How do you find your way so easily?” Shias asked.
Maribelle smiled. “With patience and experience. I’ve lived here for a very long time. And though the Westward Plains are mostly uninhabited, the rest of the Final Frontier, especially closest to its exits, has quite a number of people. Others before me gained the knowledge necessary for navigation – I learned from them.”
“She’s so cool…” Rae muttered softly. Judging from the reactions of the group, Shana thought she was the only one who had heard. She smiled.
Yeah, she is pretty cool.
The landscape around the road started to take on its own shape, something more constant than the seeming randomness of the rest of the Plains. Stone pillars stood tall on either side. Though they were crumbled and worn, and many leaned this way or that rather than standing straight upright, none were toppled over. Beyond the pillars were more recognizable remnants of houses and other buildings. Four walls, now broken and worn down to just standing a few feet tall, and missing their roof, marked many buildings of varying sizes. Doorways, divisions between rooms, shape, size, and how spaced out they were all gave a sense of what they might have once been. Shana let her imagination come to life, piecing together the possible truths of this lost civilization.
Several round walls seemed to mark towers, and most of them stood alone and had a fairly uniform size and placement – perhaps they were watch towers? They reminded Shana of the old towers that dotted Grimoire here and there, remnants from the earliest days of the city’s founding, though those had been maintained and preserved. Larger towers were often close to other buildings, usually quite massive buildings in their own right, suggesting they would have been connected by some kind of bridge on a higher floor.
Sprawling structures that seemed to be many rooms connected by long hallways between them, not fitting into a strict box shape, seemed to Shana like they could be schools or museums. Some of the larger houses also had smaller buildings close to them, which Shana thought to be sheds for tool storage.
There didn’t seem to be much of a pattern or separation between larger and smaller buildings. Homes of all sizes seemed to exist alongside each other, and with them the school-like buildings and more unconventional locations.
And there were a lot of towers. Shana couldn’t think of a city like it, and she longed to see what it had once been like, to walk its streets, to explore its buildings. Why was this road, of all roads, flanked by these tall pillars? Had other structures or ornaments once adorned or connected them? Was either side of the road a completely different city, and this road served as the boundary between them? Or was it a city like Grimoire, where one major road cut through the center of the city, for no other reason than to have a major road in the only place it would fit?
Looking over at Shias, Shana could already tell her twin was going through a lot of the same thoughts as she was. He had his analytical face on, and he kept looking to either side, taking in the view. One thing the twins both loved was exploring, and Grimoire had been a fantastic place for them to grow up in because of that. She was sure that Shias had the same desire to wander these ruins that she did.
“Stop,” Maribelle said suddenly, a hushed voice just loud enough for everyone to hear and obey. She crouched low to the ground, but otherwise didn’t move, so Shana and the others followed suit, Shana hugging Altair tight.
Silence stretched on, punctuated only by the howl of the wind across the road. Maribelle didn’t speak or move, so neither did the others. Shana desperately wanted to ask a million questions, but she tried to just stay motionless and alert at the same time.
That was a difficult task. Maribelle wasn’t even moving her head, so Shana assumed that she couldn’t, either. Her field of view wasn’t great. She’d turned diagonally when Maribelle called for them to stop, so she was looking across the road and mostly saw the ruined city. The path ahead lay to her left, and she couldn’t see very far along it.
Even with the howling wind whipping her hair, Shana swore she could hear her own heartbeat as it pumped harder and faster, anxiety and fear building up inside her.
Though nothing seemed to change, Maribelle slowly turned until she was facing Shias, fixing him with a serious stare. “Be ready,” she said in a whisper. Shias nodded. “Everyone stay close to Shias, but stay right here on the road. Don’t do anything else unless I say so.”
Shana, Kathryn, Ben, and Rae crept in until they were all grouped close around Shias. Maribelle stood, her gaze steely. She took a deep breath, let it out.
And then she took off running.
Shana watched in dismay as Maribelle raced along the road at a full sprint, her bare feet noiseless on the stone. One second passed, and then another.
Then there was a sound. Like a sudden thunderclap on a seemingly clear day, the booming, percussive blast made all five of the Dawn Riders jump. The road, exactly where Maribelle was running, instantly exploded in a fiery blast, smoke and light swallowing up the redhead, accompanied by a scorching wave of heat that singed Shana’s eyebrows.
“No!” she cried out, leaping to her feet and starting to run. Shias grabbed her wrist and jerked her back.
“Trust her,” he said, soft and stern.
Tense seconds that felt like hours passed, one after another. The smoke cleared.
Maribelle was still standing, seemingly unhurt.
But she wasn’t alone.
Before her stood a dark figure, twice as tall as Maribelle and seemingly clothed in darkness itself. Waves of shadowy blackness roiled around him, billowing over his broad, massive shoulders. In one hand, the figure held a giant staff, capped at the end with a midnight black scything blade that curved round like a crescent moon. At its broadest point, the blade was as wide as Maribelle was tall, and at its tip, it hooked back in like a giant fisherman’s hook.
Accompanying this new presence was a complete change in atmosphere. The air seemed thicker now, like it was closing in around Shana. The temperature had dropped precipitously, and her breath misted in front of her. Color drained from the world, leaving the Westward Plains even bleaker than they had been before.
The figure spoke, and his voice was silky and soft, like a whisper on the night air. But underneath, it held a tone of malice that filled Shana with dread.
“Princess of Solitude,” the figure said. “You should not have left your refuge.”
“You should not try to stop me,” Maribelle said, her voice clear and bright. “I don’t belong here. You know that as well as I do.”
The figure cocked his head to the side. “And you know as well as I the price you agreed to.”
“You lied to me, Dullan. My sisters are not lost.”
“I cannot speak falsehoods. Some of them are lost, no matter what your heart desires.”
Maribelle held her right hand out to her side, and the air around it shimmered. The fabric of reality seemed to tear open for a moment, and out of this tear, in a blaze of golden light, came a long, shining sword. Colors became more vibrant, in direct defiance to Dullan’s arrival. Maribelle gripped the sword tightly and brandished it before her dark, towering foe.
“You will let me pass,” she said, her voice projecting the authority of royalty. “I’ve had enough of your half-truths and bargains.”
Dullan stepped back. It was a small step, as if an involuntary reflex, but Shana saw that he had.
“I cannot allow you to pass,” Dullan said.
Maribelle took a step forward, and Dullan stepped back. “I would rather not go through you,” Maribelle said.
Dullan paused, and then his head tilted upward, as if looking past Maribelle. Though the features of his face were hidden by the dark shroud of his clothing, Shana suddenly felt a piercing chill run down her spine.
He was looking straight at her.
“I would rather not take those whose time has not yet come,” Dullan said. “Will you not yield?”
Maribelle took another step forward. Dullan, rather than shrinking back, lifted his hand in a swift, upward motion.
Shana barely saw what happened. Something blurred through the air, too fast for her eyes to follow, slicing through the wind in a path straight towards her. White lights dazzled her vision, and there was a crash, like glass shattering in a million pieces magnified to the volume of an explosion that set her ears to ringing. She felt nothing, but she fell backward as if pushed, and her back and head landed on something soft, rather than the hard stone of the road.
The white lights vanished, and Shana stared at the strange object on the road just two feet from her. A long black spike, wickedly sharp with many barbed edges, lay inert on the stone. Between Shana and the spike, Shias stood. In one hand he held his pen, his Talisman, and it gleamed with white light.
“Shias, you…” Shana started, staring at her brother.
Somehow, he had reacted faster than Shana could even perceive, defending her from a weapon that otherwise would have killed her on the spot.
“You okay?” Kathryn asked, and Shana realized she’d fallen into Kathryn’s lap. She nodded, dazed but quickly coming back to her senses. Altair wagged his tail at the news of Shana’s safety and licked her cheek.
“Impressive, boy,” Dullan said.
Shias replied in a strong, unwavering voice: “You will never harm my sister.”
“Dullan, you are out of choices,” Maribelle said. She looked back at Shias for a moment, eyes gleaming with pride, before facing down the towering shadow once more. “Relent. You will not succeed against us.”
“You are leading these children to their doom,” Dullan said. “And what will you accomplish? Even if you save your sister, even if you return to the Library… what then? The Daylight Bastions lie in ruins. The Light Catchers are spent. What can you do?”
“Don’t act like you’re protecting me,” Maribelle said. She pointed her golden sword at Dullan’s chest, and he backed away a step. “This conversation is over, Dullan. Leave.”
“Your price still stands,” Dullan said. “I cannot change that.”
Maribelle lunged, slashing with her sword. Dullan turned and fled, dissolving into smoke as he ran. Within seconds, he was gone. The air lessened its tight grip, and the temperature rose back to its normal state.
Maribelle rushed back to the teens, her sword vanishing into thin air. “Are you all right?” she asked, kneeling in front of Shana. Her eyes swam with emotion, a collage of pride, anger, guilt, fear, sorrow, and hope.
“I’m fine,” Shana said, rising to her feet. She beamed at her brother with pride. “Because of him.”
“That was totally amazing!” Kathryn said, shaking Shias by the shoulders excitedly. “How’d you move that fast? I couldn’t even follow it, I didn’t even know that shadow creep had thrown anything, and then pow you stopped it!”
Shias looked away. “I was ready for it,” he said. He nodded to Maribelle. “Because of you. You warned me. Thank you.”
Maribelle stood, letting out a long sigh of relief. “I’m glad it worked out the way it did,” she said. “And I’m glad I didn’t doubt you.”
“Who was that guy?” Shana asked. “He talked to you like he knew you. And… what’s the price? Is something horrible going to happen to you?”
Maribelle’s eyes clouded, and she turned away. “Dullan has haunted my family since I was born,” she said softly. “And long ago, when I came here, he thought to trap me in these far-flung reaches with half-truths about my sisters, meant to steal away my last shreds of hope.” She looked back at them for a moment. While her lips turned in a smile, her eyes flashed with rage. “Don’t worry about me. I will not rest until I see my mother and sisters safe and secure. And I won’t let any harm befall the five of you. I’m… sorry that was so close.”
Shana shook her head. “It’s fine,” she said, hugging her brother from behind, not letting go when he predictably tried to wiggle free. “We’re not helpless.”
Maribelle chuckled as she turned to lead the way once more. “I can see that.” It was only a few more steps before she stopped, pointing ahead. “See there? That’s the Share House. We’re making good progress.”
Shana peered into the distance, and she saw it, like a house obscured by fog suddenly being revealed now that they were close enough. It was very close, and Shana smiled at the promise of a proper place of rest and recovery before their journey continued.
And as they walked, though she worried about Maribelle and Dullan and how much she wasn’t being told, she was also far too happy to worry about that much. She bounced along, smiling at Shias.
She had the best brother in the world.