Chelsea didn’t find things quite as eerie as the others did.
“This is strange, but should we really be concerned about it?” she asked. “Now we have a clear path to the center. We can get there faster.”
“But it feels like a trap,” Annabelle said. “We should be careful.”
“And we will be,” Chelsea said, twirling one of her silver lighters in her fingers. “But standing around being scared isn’t gonna get us where we need to go.” She nodded to Isabelle, seated atop Maribelle’s shoulders. “Right?”
Isabelle grinned, nodding. “Yup!” She kicked her legs happily. “Come on, Mari, we don’t need to be scared. Let’s just go ahead and get to the center!”
“Well, before we go there…” Shana said. “There’s something I need to share with everyone first. I had one of my dreams, and I was given a clue that will help us save the Library.”
“What kind of clue?” Merric asked.
Shana took a deep breath, and then held her hand to her chest as she recited lines of verse:
“There comes a path before the end
A branch to answers that you seek
The hope to help the Bastion mend
There is no shame in being weak.”
“So we need to look for a path before our destination,” Merric said, nodding thoughtfully.
“I like the last line,” Isabelle said, raising her hand, smiling at Shana. “There’s nothing wrong with being weak.”
Shana smiled and nodded. “I like it, too.”
“I’ve been wondering if there would be something else,” Maribelle said. “You said the Princesses of Solitude can heal the Library, but… there are only three of us remaining. Likely, whatever system is in place within the center was meant for all ten of us.”
“Then let’s get going,” Chelsea said. “Is everyone ready?”
“I am!” Isabelle said, raising her hand.
Lorelei laughed. “You’re always ready.”
As they went around the group, everyone was ready to go. They departed from the hub that held all of the bedrooms for the Princesses of Solitude, and for a moment, Chelsea felt a sense of melancholy.
Ten bedrooms for ten sisters, but… there are only three sisters left. We used four rooms last night.
Now that I see a visual representation of what their family used to be… I can’t wrap my mind around how the three sisters are now. Isabelle’s so cheerful. Annabelle seems so calm. And Maribelle is kind and caring, with only hints of the sorrow she must feel.
I lost my parents. But those three… they lost their mother, and seven sisters.
And look at them. They didn’t get lost in rage or pain. Is that what it means to let it go? To mourn, but not be consumed by the pain? How do you strike that balance of desperately wanting the ones you love back, and continuing to live your life? What fills the holes in their hearts?
There was something, a small something, that Chelsea could feel starting to mend the damage in her heart. Because of the way it felt, she knew that it was that same presence that had met her in the room of impossible light.
The first ring, from what Chelsea could see in the darkness illuminated by the various colors of the Summons, was much larger than previous rings. Farther out from the center there were massive hub rooms, but the corridors weren’t this huge. There were large spaces – like the hall where Chelsea and Gwen had entered the darkness – but nothing like this. This corridor towered above her, and her owl had to make an effort to fly high enough to illuminate the ceiling. The walls had many frames for paintings, but they were all empty, a fact that Isabelle lamented multiple times. The strange thing was, Chelsea couldn’t see any signs of canvas being ripped from the frame. Was it cut loose so close to the frame that you couldn’t tell? Or had the paintings simply… vanished?
That was a thought too creepy even for their current environment, so Chelsea tried to think about other things. The halls also had miniature gardens, little flower boxes against the wall here and there, and a few potted trees that had grown to a respectable height. Windows and the occasional skylight no longer let in light because of the darkness outdoors, but Chelsea was impressed with how lively the foliage looked. It had been the same in the outer gardens, as if the sun wasn’t needed for these plants.
Magic’s a pretty cool thing. I know Miss Roqueman uses magic to help her flowers grow.
Of course, that’s also because she’s a terrible gardener, and every plant she doesn’t tend with magic dies on her. Poor lady.
This truly would be a beautiful place when light was restored to it. Chelsea didn’t know how much time she’d spend here once it was safe and restored, but she hoped she could spare a little bit.
Thinking about the future made her look at Isabelle and feel a pang in her heart. Would she be leaving Isabelle to live in the Library in safety? Of course Chelsea would have to leave, and Isabelle had her sisters with her, so…
And Caleb never got to see this place, or get Isabelle here like he promised her. And I know how he feels about his promises. Those two really hit it off when they met, too.
Chelsea’s owl hooted at her, cocking his head to the side as he flew past. Chelsea sighed.
Don’t get confused. You know the difference.
Another hoot, and another sigh.
You know why. I had to come up with it on the spot. Don’t take it personally.
The next hoot was one of amusement.
You really shouldn’t tease me like that. It’s very rude.
“He’s quite expressive,” Gwen said, walking alongside Chelsea.
Chelsea sighed. “Sometimes too much,” she said. “But I guess…” Chelsea looked past Gwen to Delilah. “Hey, can you tell me a few things about Summons?”
Delilah looked thrilled at the possibility, and came over to Chelsea and Gwen with big eyes full of anticipation. “What do you want to know?”
Chelsea pointed at her owl, who then started flying in loops and figure-eights to try and avoid her pointing, but her finger followed his movements. “Do Summons all tease their Summoners?”
Delilah laughed. “Well, he was just awakened a few days ago,” she said. “He’s technically still a baby. All of my Felines were more mischievous in their early days. I think it comes from curiosity. The world – and even their bodies, like they’ve just been born – are brand new to them. They’re excited, and they pick up on everything around them. So yeah, he’ll tease you for a while. But he’ll probably mellow out in time.”
“I’m sure there are healthier ways to express curiosity,” Chelsea said, raising her voice just slightly to make it clear she was directing that at her Summon. She chuckled. “Well, it’s kind of cute now and then. It just doesn’t stay that way when he’s at it all the freaking time.”
“He picks up on you, too,” Delilah said. “Summons take after their Summoners. While they can change to accommodate what you want from them, they’ll always have at least a little bit of you in them.”
“And you’re feisty,” Gwen said, nudging Chelsea. “No wonder your owl’s so precocious.”
Chelsea sighed. “Fine, I’ll live with it.” She smiled up at her owl, who was flying backwards so that he could look back at her. “He’s saved my life more than once. And he’s very comforting to have around.” She pursed her lips in thought. “I’ve never had a pet before. I guess this is kind of what it’s like to get a puppy or a kitten. They’re adorable, they’re comforting, and they drive you crazy.”
Delilah and Gwen both laughed. “That sounds about right,” Delilah said. “And they grow up, just like everyone and everything.”
“I can work with that,” Chelsea said. “Thanks.”
Delilah smiled brightly. “You’re welcome.” Shana called to her, so she waved to Chelsea and Gwen as she returned to her sister.
After a while of walking in silence, Chelsea thought of something. “You know, Gwen, I never thought about it at the time, but… why were you at Hollow Island when we were? I don’t think you ever said.”
Gwen laughed. “Oh, I was just passing through,” she said. “I like riding the Dreamtide and seeing where the waves take me. I had boarded from the Cosmic Bazaar, but when we arrived at Hollow Island, I decided to just wait until the next destination. Hollow Island isn’t a place one usually goes to intentionally.”
Chelsea nodded. “Yeah, I get that. I wouldn’t go back, that’s for sure. Cosmic Bazaar, huh? What’s that place like?”
Gwen’s golden eyes lit up. “Oh, it’s marvelous. It’s like the name suggests: a massive outdoor shopping center with sellers from all across the universe! It takes days just to walk from one end to the other, so people often go there for weeks or even months at a time. It’s somewhere you don’t want to go without a lot of money saved up though, of course.”
Chelsea laughed. “So what’d you buy?”
“Lots of fabrics, needles, thread, accessories,” Gwen said. “Those I just sent on to my workshop. I also sold some things – I go to the Cosmic Bazaar as a seller about… oh, about once every two or three Earth years. My wares always sell out so quickly, so I have plenty of time to shop. And this jacket,” she pulled at the collar of her red and gold jacket to show it off, “was something I simply couldn’t leave without.”
“And here I thought that jacket was your trademark,” Chelsea said. “But you’ve only had it for a little while.”
Gwen smiled. “Yes, I felt like… well, it’s silly, but I feel this way a lot about clothes. I felt like it was meant for me.”
“You’re a tailor, all right,” Chelsea said with a laugh. “And a really good one.” She pulled at the collar of her own jacket, the one Gwen had made for her. “I’ll be wearing this jacket for a long time. Hey, maybe when I go back home, you could –” Chelsea stopped short as she realized what she was about to say.
Gwen, to her surprise, smiled. “I’d love to go to Grimoire with you,” she said. “ I know it holds horrible memories for me, but… well, that was a long time ago. And I know I see Grimoire, and Earth, all wrong. That’s why I should go with you. And I want to. I don’t want to be afraid of my past anymore.”
Chelsea smiled. “You and me both.”
The trek through the first ring seemed to go on forever. Without danger and battle to break up the journey, Chelsea knew it felt longer than it actually was. But that didn’t help things for her. She’d always been the antsy, impatient type, and this constant walking through empty halls would drive her insane if she was alone.
Up ahead, Merric and the Princesses discussed possible reasons for the darkness receding. Their theorizing was interesting and all, but Chelsea was confident she knew exactly what had happened.
Valgwyn had set a trap for them.
He couldn’t fight them openly. And, considering the possibility that the darkness he cultivated was a finite resource, he’d want it consolidated around him, not spread out through the massive Library of Solitude. So Valgwyn had realized where they were going and set the best trap he could for them.
Of course, Chelsea could be wrong about the darkness being finite, but considering it didn’t immediately replenish when they blasted away Hollows and gross tendrils and globs, she had a feeling that, wherever the darkness came from, there was only so much of it within the Library itself.
Valgwyn’s trap wouldn’t completely catch them by surprise. They knew to be wary about the center. But the nature of the trap itself was unknown, and that would take them by surprise at least a little bit. But along with that, this constant lonely journey, waiting at every moment for darkness to creep up on them, to disprove all of their theories, to come out of nowhere… or the creeping, looming dread and tension as they got ever closer to the center not knowing what waited for them…
Those emotional ploys could prove far more effective than a trap no one saw coming. Knowing danger is ahead, but not knowing what form it will take, and yet knowing you can’t avoid or circumvent it…
Well. If Chelsea was a scaredy-cat, she’d be pretty darn scared at the moment.
But she wasn’t. In fact, her confidence in Valgwyn preparing a trap for them at the center only made her less scared.
We go in, we fight, we win. It doesn’t matter what we face. We’ve come up against plenty of surprises so far, and we’ve handled all of them without any proper planning in advance. We’ll handle this one, too.
And if Shana finds what she needs to find to do her Dreamer thing, well. We’ll have a surprise of our own for the bad guys.
They reached their first break from the hall – a hub room, filled with bookshelves. Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, and Maribelle entered first, along with the three big Felines, and scouted it out. But there was nothing to fear.
“So is this the end?” Chelsea asked. “The center’s right off of here, right?”
Merric shook his head. “Oh, no. I think we’re about… a third of the way there?”
Chelsea couldn’t suppress a groan. She hopped down from the bookshelf she’d leapt up to and rejoined the group as they walked along, crossing the hub to the next gigantic corridor.
“Are we there yet?” Lorelei asked in a whisper, nudging Chelsea playfully.
“Yeah, yeah, real funny,” Chelsea said, waving her friend off. “You were bumping into me like that all night, you know.”
Lorelei laughed. “You already knew I move around in my sleep.”
Chelsea sighed. “And I always thought you’d grow out of it. Did you sleep all right?”
Lorelei smiled. “Like a baby.”
“I’m happy for you.”
Shana suddenly stopped at a painting. Chelsea had to do a double-take for two reasons. First, unlike all of the other empty frames, there actually was a painting here. And second…
It was a painting of Greyson Manor.
As the group gathered around Shana, she seemed to press a switch, and the painting – and the entire wall behind it – completely changed. When it all finished, the group was staring at a door with letters on it saying: For the Dreamer.
“Why’s there a room for the Dreamer here?” Isabelle asked, rocking back and forth atop Maribelle’s shoulders.
“Let’s find out.” Shana’s voice was hushed, awestruck as she ran her hand lightly over the golden doorknob. Slowly, she turned it, pushing the door inward.
Through the door was what looked like a spacious bedroom. There was a king-size, four-poster bed in the very center of the room, not against any wall. On the far side of it was a nook built into the wall, a sort of reading space with a cozy bed of cushions, and bookshelves built into the walls. The only other furniture was a large wooden desk opposite the foot of the bed, and a rocking chair in the corner to the left of the door as they entered. The walls and ceiling were a muted golden color, while the carpeted floor, the bedding, and the cushions in the nook were all a deep pink. Above the bed a dome was cut upward into the ceiling, so that whoever was lying in bed could look straight up at shimmering silver constellations against a deep purple sky.
“So the clue to heal the Library is… in a bedroom?” Chelsea asked.
“Seems that way,” Shana said. Her voice still carried this breathless sense of awe, and she wandered around the room slowly, almost reverently, taking it all in. She stopped at the desk, running her hand along it, and then looked at it. At Shana’s touch, a thin, leather-bound book appeared in a glittering array of pink and gold light. On its black surface was a silver symbol that looked like a chess rook over a crescent moon turned ninety degrees so that its points aimed downward.
“That’s Mommy’s symbol!” Isabelle said with a gasp, pointing at the book.
“It’s one of her journals she used to keep with her,” Annabelle said. She had stayed close to Shana, and now the pair of them were staring at the book in awe. “She had twelve, all exactly like that.”
“So what’s it doing here?” Shana asked.
“I think you should open it and find out,” Annabelle said, gazing up at her. “The door said this room is for you. That must mean everything within it, too.” She looked at the book, her eyes filled with longing. “It seems mother knew about this place all along, and left a message for you.”
“The hope to help the Bastion mend,” Maribelle said, reciting a piece from Shana’s rhyming riddle. “Perhaps it’s contained within those pages.”
“If anyone would know, it would be Lady Kodoka,” Merric said with a nod.
Shana picked up the journal and took it to the bed, sitting on the edge. Annabelle hopped up next to her on the left and Isabelle had Maribelle put her down so she could sit on Shana’s right. Shana opened the book as the rest of the group sat down on the floor in front of her, and began to read.
“To the Dreamer. Whoever you are, this book is for you. It is not to be taken from this room, as there may come a time when a future Dreamer needs its knowledge. If you are reading this, then you must have need of a way to save the Library of Solitude. It is with great pain that I admit that the Princesses of Solitude – my precious daughters – are vanishing. They are the hope of the Library, and the hope of this, the greatest and most important Daylight Bastion. With each disappearance, the Bastion’s power weakens, and darkness encroaches ever closer. It was not until there were only four Princesses remaining that I met a curious individual and, through them, was able to make a bargain to keep the Library safe if the worst were to ever come to pass.”
“Only four left,” Maribelle said softly. “So this happened not long before Sarabelle went away.”
“The person I met was not someone who most would call a person. She is an Intangible: the Dreamer’s Heart. She prefers to be called Heart, though she rarely gets the opportunity to say so. With the permission of the Dreamer at that time, Heart entered my dreams for one night, for she had seen the danger that the Library was in. She wanted to help, and so we put our heads together in the limited time we had, and invented a solution. Heart’s powers come from The Light. They are the powers of light and life, the powers that created all life and goodness in the universe. They are the only powers that can stand against the darkness – the same powers that give the Daylight Bastion and the Light Catcher their strength.
“Heart can work through the Dreamer. Heart’s powers are the Dreamer’s. So, Dreamer, if the worst has come to pass – if darkness has invaded and infected the Library – read on. I will instruct you on how to purge the darkness, how to repair the Light Catcher, and how to heal the Bastion. Even more than that – should you have the aid of more than one Princess – you can even make the Library a stronger Daylight Bastion than it ever was before.
“If there are no Princesses to aid you, then… unfortunately, the path ahead will be truly perilous. But I will do all in my power to ensure that my precious daughters do not all disappear forever. Take heed – the words beyond here are for your eyes and ears – and the eyes and ears of any Princesses remaining – alone.”
“Well, that rules most of us out,” Lorelei said.
“Thank goodness we’re here, though,” Maribelle said. “Without any of us… well, I shudder to think of what ‘truly perilous’ implies.”
“Mother never was one for hyperbole,” Annabelle said with a nod. “If she speaks like that, it means something worse than anyone here has seen or faced.”
“I’m grateful I don’t have to face that,” Shana said, smiling. She then looked beyond Maribelle to the rest of the group apologetically. “I’m sorry. I… guess this means you have to leave.”
Chelsea chuckled. “We’re fine. You just find out what you need to know so you and the Princesses can save this place. We’ll have your back every step of the way.”
Shana smiled. “Thank you.”
Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, Delilah, and Merric left, along with their Summons, closing the door behind them.
Leaving the pink-and-gold of Shana’s room and returning to the gloomy darkness of the Library was a shock for a moment. Chelsea didn’t realize how much she’d grown accustomed to being in it, but having the palate cleanser of the Dreamer’s room helped put things in perspective.
This place is sick and broken. It’s where Isabelle and Annabelle and Maribelle live, but… this is no home.
Chelsea smiled, staring at the door to where Shana and the Princesses were learning the secrets to saving the Library.
“Good luck, you guys,” she said softly. “We’re counting on you.”