Chelsea returned from her road of memories, expecting to find the pier and her doppelganger waiting by the boat.
But the pier was gone. Her doppelganger was nowhere to be seen, along with the boat.
“Did we take a wrong turn somewhere?” Gwen asked, standing on the rocky shore and staring out across the dark water.
“We came back the same way we entered,” Chelsea said. Her owl, perched on her shoulders, let out a small coo of puzzlement. Chelsea tilted her head back, rubbing up against her owl’s chest as she gazed up into his eyes. “Do you know how to get out of here?”
Her Summon couldn’t speak, but he communicated with her through what Chelsea took to be some form of telepathy. His thoughts didn’t come to her in words, and yet she could understand what he “said.” Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to leave.
“Hey!” Chelsea called out, glaring at the darkness. “Other me! Where’d you go? Are you upset because you failed?”
A small, sinister voice floated to her across the water.
“Did I really fail?”
Chelsea didn’t recognize the voice. It wasn’t the one that spoke into her mind, nor the voice – her voice – of her doppelganger.
“Who are you?” Chelsea asked.
“What is there left for us to do?” Gwen asked.
“What have you accomplished?” the strange voice asked. “What can you do, if you return to the Library? How have you changed at all?”
The water rippled, and a bridge rose out of it, its wooden planks rocking gently, glistening with wetness.
“Do you honestly feel different?” the voice continued. “If you want to see for yourselves… go forward.”
“I don’t like this,” Gwen said softly.
Chelsea shook her head. “Me neither. But what choice do we have? Besides, we’ve done fine so far.”
“But I…” Gwen looked away. “I’m scared. Scared of myself.”
Chelsea paused. She could understand why. And underneath her bravado, and her desire to just move forward…
She was scared, too.
Because she felt like she was losing track of herself. She had her owl back, and thank goodness for that, but…
Her heart was torn in two. She had two paths she wanted to walk down, and neither of them seemed like they could give her what she wanted, not fully.
She was scared probably for the same reasons that Gwen was.
She was still so full of anger, pain, and hatred.
What could she do with all of this? She was no stranger to happiness, and yet it was always so fleeting.
Often, her happiness flitted away by her own hand. She couldn’t bear to be happy for long, not as long as the objects of her rage, the objects of her grief, still stood.
But seeing what such hatred had driven Gwen to brought Chelsea no joy.
If that’s what her mission of vengeance did to her soul, why can’t I just turn away?
What do I do with all this anger? I’ve tried burying it, but it resurfaces despite my best efforts. I’ve tried letting it loose, redirecting it towards constructive means, but it isn’t enough.
It doesn’t satisfy.
“I’ve still got you,” Chelsea said softly, staring at Gwen. “And you’ve got me. Whatever’s across here, we don’t have to face it alone.”
Maybe if we just face this together, that’s the key.
Gwen nodded, her golden eyes staring across the bridge defiantly. “Let’s go.”
They started across, walking in single file because the bridge was too narrow for them to walk side-by-side. Chelsea led the way, reaching a hand back, clasping Gwen’s wrist firmly, while Gwen’s fingers wrapped around Chelsea’s wrist.
If they went forward, they’d go forward together.
If they fell, they’d fall together.
And then they’d pick each other up together.
The waters around their floating bridge were frighteningly calm. Even as the planks bobbed and swayed, the water barely rippled from the movement. There was still light in this darkness, just enough light to see by, but where it came from, Chelsea didn’t know. Her owl Summon’s own glow barely penetrated the murk, serving only to illuminate Chelsea and Gwen’s faces.
But it was a reassuring light.
Gwen laughed softly behind Chelsea.
“What is it?” Chelsea asked.
“It’s just…” Gwen said, and Chelsea could hear the smile in her voice. “You look very funny from the back like that.”
Chelsea pursed her lips, looking up at her owl. Perched on her shoulders as he was, he probably hid her entire head from view for people looking at the pair of them from behind. His snowy white form, glowing with its own light, must look odd against Chelsea’s perfectly ordinary body.
“She’s making fun of us,” Chelsea said. Her owl cocked his head to the side and let out a short coo of amusement. “Oh, you’re taking her side?” Her Summon cooed again, the same tone. Chelsea shook her head, looking forward once more. “Traitor.”
The bridge soon came to an end, depositing the girls onto a set of worn wooden steps that wound their way up a weathered hill. Now they could walk side-by-side, still holding onto each other. Such constant contact would normally make Chelsea feel uncomfortable, but there was something very comforting about it here. Maybe it was the bond she and Gwen had formed over their shared tragedy. Maybe it was the oppressive darkness, providing a need for closeness and reassurance.
Whatever it was, Chelsea was glad to hold onto Gwen, and have Gwen hold onto her.
The stairs continued to climb, and the dark grass of the hill was soon dotted with cylindrical lanterns on stone pedestals. They shed a green light through their cloudy glass that called to mind Chelsea’s emerald fire. A little farther, and the stairs stopped as the hill leveled off to a plateau, ringed by the green lanterns. Before the girls was a strange building, built like a Japanese temple with its triangular roof that splayed out at the ends. It was a building mostly open to the air, with tall wooden pillars lining wooden walkways. Above the entrance dangled a long, thick rope embroidered with many round bells. While the temple’s exterior was clearly visible, beyond the rope and through the entrance was darkness.
Chelsea and Gwen stopped at the set of three wooden stairs leading up to the building’s bell-embroidered rope. They looked at each other, and a wordless agreement passed between them. One, two, three, up the stairs they went. With their free hand, both of them gripped the rope and gave it a single shake.
The bells rang out clear and bright, a strange contrast to the atmosphere of the place. The darkness over the entrance of the temple parted like a curtain, and the girls walked farther on, leaving the outside world behind.
The building’s interior was a single small room that was largely empty. Save for a strange shrine on the far end, there didn’t seem to be anything else within the space. The shrine itself was a wooden shelf, and upon it was a single candle sputtering with green flame. On either side of the candle was a framed photograph.
Slowly, step by step, the girls approached the shrine, until, just inches away, they could finally see what the pictures were.
The one on the left was Chelsea – or her doppelganger. No, looking closer, Chelsea could see it wasn’t exactly like her or the other. While this picture of Chelsea showed her with long hair like the other, and dressed all in black, her face was different – older, perhaps in her thirties – and her green eyes blazed with a light all their own.
The Chelsea in the picture was smiling, but it was a smile that unnerved Chelsea. It looked sinister, wicked, like she was taking joy in doing something terrible.
The picture of Gwen was similarly different from the Gwen Chelsea saw, as well as the younger Gwen she’d seen in the windows. This Gwen was a queen. She sat upon a golden throne, the air behind her shining white, and atop her head was an elaborate golden crown. Her face was the picture of contentment… at first glance. Her soft smile, her comfortable head tilt, gave the appearance of happiness.
But her eyes weren’t quite right. Gwen’s golden eyes normally burst and flickered, dazzlingly full of life.
This Gwen’s eyes were cold.
“You can be happy,” the strange, disembodied voice from the water said. “You can be powerful. You can have more than you ever dreamed. You can –”
Chelsea and Gwen spoke as one, a fact that surprised them both. They looked at each other for a moment, eyes wide, and then burst out laughing.
“We’ve had enough out of you,” Chelsea said, smiling.
Gwen nodded. “And we’ve had enough of this place. You have nothing to offer us that we want.”
And the voice did not respond.
Chelsea and Gwen turned to leave, but the exit from the small room was again curtained by darkness.
“We can just walk through it, right?” Chelsea asked, though she couldn’t ignore the sinking dread in her stomach.
“Let’s hurry,” Gwen said with a nod.
The girls rushed forward, but a sudden invisible force slammed into them. Chelsea fell backwards…
For a brief moment, Chelsea was completely submerged. But the water was shallow – she sat up and her head was free, gasping for breath. The water only came up to her chest.
The temple she had been in was gone. Worse still, she’d lost her hold of Gwen, and the golden-eyed girl was also gone.
Hovering over her, Chelsea’s owl hooted as he flapped his wings, looking down at her in dismay.
“You could have kept me from falling, couldn’t you?” Chelsea asked, pushing herself up to her feet. Her owl came down in a wide circle, landing gently on her shoulders. “Did you see what happened to Gwen?” Her Summon’s response was negative.
Chelsea turned in a full circle, her feet splashing in the water. All around her was water, as far as the eye could see. The place was dark, much like everywhere else had been, but this water had a light to it, like the surface of the ocean at night, faintly reflecting light from the stars in its lazy tide.
Behind Chelsea was the only visible structure or landmark. She recognized the type of structure from geography classes, but she couldn’t quite remember the proper words for it. It was some kind of Japanese style shrine gate, and it towered over her. Two massive wooden pillars held up an arching, elongated roof. Smaller pillars stood in front of and behind each of the main pillars, and they were topped with a cylindrical lantern emitting a soft, green glow. There was a plaque high above, on the arch at the top of the shrine gate. Whatever writing had once been on it was so faded and worn away that it was indecipherable.
“Do we go through?” Chelsea asked, reaching up to stroke her owl’s wing. He cooed back at her, a nervous, uncertain sound. “So you don’t like it, either. But…” Chelsea turned in a circle once again, staring out across the water, “there’s nothing else here.”
When she’d finished her circle, there was a figure standing under the gate.
It was the other, the reflection, Chelsea’s doppelganger.
“Now you come back,” Chelsea said, fixing the other with a steely glare. “Where did Gwen go?”
“Gwen, Gwen, Gwen,” the other said, rolling her eyes. “You keep asking about her, keep chasing after her. What good has it done you? You’re alone again. You always knew you would be.”
“Enough with that talk,” Chelsea said. “I’m sick of it.”
“Are you really ready to go back?” the other asked. “Do you really think you can handle it?”
“What are you talking about?”
The other held out her hands, as if asking Chelsea to figure it out herself.
And then she was gone.
But inside, Chelsea knew what the other was getting at.
“I still don’t know…” she said softly, bowing her head. “I still don’t know what to do.” She raised her hand to her chest, pressing against it, as if she could reach inside and pull out all the rage and hatred that had haunted her from far too young an age.
“I can bury it,” she said. “Over, and over, and over again. Whenever it resurfaces, I can just bury it again. I can do that. But…” She looked up at the gate, shaking her head. “That doesn’t solve the hurt. It doesn’t let me look at Caleb’s parents like ordinary people. It doesn’t let me be honest with the people I love.”
She looked away. “So… I could just redirect it. Whenever I’m too angry to bear, whenever there’s too much for me to hold back, I can just let it out. But not against them. I can go back to Grimoire, I can just unload against Hollows. That’s always good. But…” She shook her head. “It’s never enough. It doesn’t get me what I want. Letting it out doesn’t make it go away.”
She looked up. “We’re going through,” she said, tilting her head back just the slightest bit to push against her owl’s stomach reassuringly. One step after another, she walked forward. The water didn’t seem to make any sound now. There was just silence and darkness, and the faint light diffusing the entire strange, empty space.
Just a few feet away from the gate, Chelsea almost stopped. Her heart beat faster. Her throat seemed to constrict, and it grew harder to breathe. Now that she was this close, the gate loomed over her, like a silent sentinel, staring down at her, peering into her soul.
But Chelsea didn’t stop. Forward she marched, passing underneath the gate, the green glow of the cloudy lanterns seeming to change the very air before her.
And then she passed completely through.
Suddenly, the entire space was flooded with such bright, dazzling white light, that Chelsea couldn’t even look. She shut her eyes, but still it was blinding. She covered her eyes with her hands, and it only just reduced the light’s intensity enough for her to relax, just a little bit.
Pure, white light, brighter than anything she’d ever seen, ever experienced.
“Hello?” she asked.
At least, she thought she did. Though she opened her mouth, though she felt breath pass through her throat, and her vocal chords vibrate, she heard nothing.
It was a silence unlike anything she’d ever experienced, so oppressively silent that it threatened to drive her mad.
And yet… that wasn’t all it was.
The light, and the silence, were painful, blinding, deafening.
Yet they were also pure. Like everything wrong, everything uncertain, everything unclear, had been swept away.
All that was left was light, so bright and surrounding that there could be no shadows, no places to hide. All that was left was silence, so silent it silenced yourself, so that no falsehoods could be spoken, nothing but what was essential exist.
In the bright silence, Chelsea heard a still, small voice.
At first, she didn’t even hear the words. She was just struck by the realization that in this place, the small voice she heard was the only voice that could be heard.
Chelsea couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t be sure of anything.
But she kept her mouth shut.
Do not be afraid.
The voice was more than a voice. It spoke to Chelsea with more than words. If Chelsea had a thousand lifetimes to search for the words to describe the voice, she would never find them. It was so much, so different, so new, and Chelsea was so absolutely unprepared for it.
And yet it spoke to her.
Do not be afraid.
How could she not be afraid? In the face of something so…
How did one silence their own fear?
And in this place, this unfathomable uncertainty, this unbelievable, indescribable experience…
Chelsea’s thoughts turned to her choice.
Or redirect it?
Only two choices, and both were failures. Both led to nowhere better than where she was.
The silence stretched on. Where was the voice? Why did it only tell her not to be afraid?
Afraid of what?
Inside, Chelsea, unable to open her mouth to speak, could only internally ask: Can you help me? Is there another way?
The silence stretched on.
And then, the still, small voice came again.
Let it go.
Chelsea felt her heart flutter.
Let it go?
But… it isn’t that simple. If she could let it go, she would have done so long ago. There was no escaping her pain, no casting away her rage.
The silence stretched on.
Could it be possible? What if…
Chelsea thought. She thought about her mother. She thought about the smiling face, the beautiful voice, the loving embrace, all things she would never see or hear or touch again.
She thought about her grandparents, and her thoughts especially lingered on her grandmother’s final words to her.
She thought about Caleb. She thought about the one time she’d come into contact with his parents since she’d met him. She thought about Delilah, the little girl who had ended up with her, separated from her entire family.
She thought about the time at Gwen’s house, when Delilah had fallen asleep on her arm. She thought of how the girl had come to look up to Chelsea, to trust her.
She thought of her father.
That was hardest of all.
She thought of him before her mother’s death. He was so strong, and yet he was always so gentle with his only daughter.
He loved his wife fiercely.
She thought of him in the worst times, after Marion had died.
His strength had failed. His gentleness was gone. His soul was rent in two. And, in the end, he couldn’t bear it.
She thought of so many things, so many events, so many people and circumstances that had brought her to where she was, that had created a storm within her that threatened to overtake her every single day.
She thought of how, still so young, she had told Lorelei everything. She thought of how she had laid her hatred and her rage out bare for her best friend to see, prepared to lose that best friend and be alone again.
And she thought of how that best friend had held her hand, pulled her into an embrace, and told her she loved her.
She thought once more about her mother. She thought not about the pain of losing her, but of the love of having her.
Chelsea’s thoughts turned to love.
The love so many people had given her, despite her never feeling she’d ever deserved it.
The love that, strangely, seemed to permeate this entire space. In the blinding light, in the deafening silence…
There was also love.
And in that love, she felt one tiny, almost imperceptible, piece of her pain fade away.
It was miniscule. If she hadn’t been so focused on these things, she never would have noticed it.
There was still so much pain. There was still the hatred, and the rage, and fear.
But now there was a tiny bit less of it.
The voice didn’t speak again. The silence continued to stretch on. But Chelsea thought she felt, for just a moment, a sensation of warmth. Though she couldn’t bring down her hands to see, though she couldn’t hear a thing, she felt as if some… something, someone… like the voice, like the silence, it was so much more.
Whatever it was, she felt as if it was embracing her. Just for a moment, gentle, loving, warm arms wrapped around her.
In an instant the warmth, the light, the silence, all fell away. Chelsea opened her eyes.
She was back in the Library. Standing in front of her was Gwen.
All it took was one look. Their eyes met, and each knew the other had experienced the same thing.
What were words in the face of that?
Gwen was crying, and Chelsea realized she was crying, too.
And yet she was smiling.
So was Gwen.
In the dark halls of the Library of Solitude, the two girls fell back against the wall, slid down to a seat, and just took a moment to try and absorb, to recover from, to accept what had just happened to them.
They laughed. They cried.
And they allowed themselves to take just a tiny piece, a microscopic sliver, of the pain deep inside, of all the hate, the rage, the fear, the anguish…
And let it go.