Shana sat back, speechless after reading through the entirety of Lady Kodoka’s journal. She’d kept things simple and concise, but there was still quite a lot to take in.
“Why can’t we tell anyone else?” Isabelle asked.
“Because mother said so,” Annabelle said.
“But –” Isabelle started.
“I’m sure she had her reasons,” Maribelle said with a smile. “Even if she didn’t explain them, it’s best for us to do as she asks. Right?”
Isabelle looked down sadly. “But… will we ever see Mommy again?”
“After what she wrote there…” Maribelle started, then sighed. “I don’t know.” She lifted Isabelle’s chin with one hand and smiled down at her. “But we must have hope. Just like she said we should.”
“Shana?” Annabelle asked. “Are you all right?”
Shana nodded. “Yeah, I’m all right, I just…” She shook her head. “I just can’t believe what my role in all of this is. I thought I just got useful dreams sometimes to give me information. But now, finding out what it really means to be the Dreamer… and knowing the consequences if I fail…”
“You can do it,” Maribelle said.
Shana nodded. “I have to. Even though I’ve never used any of Heart’s power… I have to. And Lady Kodoka explained it pretty well.”
“And we’ll be by your side,” Isabelle said brightly. She was accompanied by a bark and a tail wag from Altair, seated in Shana’s lap.
Shana laughed. “Right. We’ll do it together.”
Shana put the journal back on the desk and then left the room with Altair and the Princesses. Outside, the rest of their group looked at her expectantly.
“Sorry I can’t explain things,” Shana said. “But we know what to do. And we’ll need your help, because none of us will be able to fight while we work on saving the Library.”
“We can handle it,” Chelsea said with a smile.
“Basically,” Shana said, drawing with her finger on the wall as the group gathered around her, “the center of the Library, unlike the rest of the Library, has only seven floors. We need to go to the fourth floor – the very center of the center – and there’s a thing there. Sorry, I can’t –”
“No need to keep apologizing,” Lorelei said. “Tell us what you can, and don’t worry about the rest.”
Shana nodded. “There’s something there where the Princesses and I have to gather. While we do what we have to do, we’ll be vulnerable. That’s why we need all of you to keep us – and the thing – safe. The slightest touch of darkness will ruin everything. At best, we’ll have to start over. At worst…”
“Let’s make sure it doesn’t come to the worst,” Delilah said.
“Depending on how things go, our task could take anywhere from ten minutes…” Shana hesitated, and her shoulders dropped. “To ten hours.”
“And we’ll likely need to clear living darkness away from the thing in order to reach it,” Maribelle said. “And I… unfortunately, I will need all of my strength in order to give us the best chance to succeed. So will Shana. That means we won’t be able to aid you in the fight to the center.”
“We’ll handle it,” Chelsea said, her confidence not wavering. She chuckled. “Ten hours is a long time, so… try and finish things quickly, okay?”
Shana laughed, but it was a short laugh with little heart in it. With all she knew, it was hard to feel the humor. She appreciated Chelsea’s attempts to keep her spirits up, though.
“It isn’t much farther to the center,” Merric said, pointing down the hall. “If everyone’s ready, we can go now and end this for good.”
Or die trying, Shana thought grimly.
Forward they walked, and for the part of the group that hadn’t read the journal, things continued as they had before. Chelsea, Gwen, and Lorelei chatted amicably, and Merric and Maribelle even talked to each other, while Isabelle rode atop Maribelle’s shoulders.
Now that Shana realized it, she and Annabelle were perhaps the only ones truly shaken by what they’d read.
On the way to the room for the Dreamer, Annabelle had occasionally held Shana’s hand. Now she gripped it tight, and showed no signs of letting go soon.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Delilah asked, walking alongside Shana.
Shana looked at her little sister and smiled. “Just… stay with me?” she asked. “Until we get there?”
Delilah nodded, smiling back at her. “Can I add to that?”
“I’ll stay with you until the very end.” Delilah took Shana’s other hand and squeezed it comfortingly.
I wish you could. I really do.
It wasn’t long before they reached the door to the center. It wasn’t hidden or disguised, but it certainly stood out from any doors Shana had seen before, even in the Library.
The door was a circle with no visible handle. An intricate pattern was carved into its metal face: like the cover of Kodoka’s journal, there was a turreted tower over a rotated crescent moon. But all around that large symbol in the center were four-pointed stars, rotated so that they all looked like little silver x’s.
“Only the Lady or a Princess can open this door,” Merric said, stepping back and looking to Maribelle.
Maribelle nodded. “I know how these work,” she said. Walking up to it, she stopped inches away, and then looked up at Isabelle. “Belle-Belle, do you want to do it?”
“Can I?” Isabelle asked. Her usual energetic enthusiasm was muted, but her little voice still carried a tone of childish wonder.
“You just place your hand against the star in the center of the tower,” Maribelle said. “Go ahead.”
Isabelle smiled, wide-eyed as she placed her hand against the solitary star in the center of the tower symbol. On contact, all of the stars on the door suddenly lit up with silver light, glowing for three seconds. When their light faded, there was a low groaning noise as the door began to rotate, wheeling to the side to reveal the path beyond. It was a massive door, at least three feet thick, and it must not have been opened for a very long time, as it creaked and moaned with every motion until it came to a booming stop.
“That was really cool,” Isabelle said in an awed whisper.
Beyond the door was a long bridge over a chasm of emptiness. The bridge had a metal face, with silver along its edges, and no railings or walls to prevent an accidental drop over the side. The silver along the edge of the bridge glowed very faintly, but in a flickering, desperate sort of way that made Shana think it would have once been very bright. Above the bridge at intervals of about thirty feet were crystal chandeliers, shining in the same faint way with silver light.
The bridge stretched forward for hundreds of feet, but Shana couldn’t see what lay at its end. Was there darkness? Was there a trap waiting for them?
Chelsea stepped ahead of the group, silver lighters in hand, her owl hovering a few feet overhead. “Let’s be ready for anything,” she said softly. She looked right, then left, and then took a step forward, turning back towards the entrance and clicking the lighter in her right hand. A bolt of emerald flame shot forward, hitting the inner wall to the left of the door, and Shana stepped inside to watch.
Chelsea’s fire spread, forming a sort of “H” pattern before stopping and burning out. Its light flickered as it burned to reveal that she’d spotted tendrils of living darkness on the wall. When the flames were gone, her owl flew over, using his light to illuminate the wall. There was no darkness left.
“Chelsea, Gwen, you two take the front,” Lorelei said, ushering the group forward as she moved towards the back. “I’ll protect the rear. Delilah, split up your Felines the way you think is best.”
“You’re on recon duty, tough guy,” Chelsea said, nodding to her owl. He hooted once and then flew out and away in a slow circle, staying near the walls and illuminating the air and ceiling above for traces of darkness.
Delilah sent Redmond to the front while Felix and Nekoma guarded the rear, and she kept Reginald by her side. The butler cat and Altair had started to bond, and the two walked alongside each other, eyes peeled for danger.
Above the yawning chasm, their group marched on. The bridge was wide enough for four to walk alongside each other, but they stayed in a narrower line, not wanting to venture too close to the edge.
All along the way, thanks to Chelsea’s owl and several floating balls of flame she sent out to illuminate the far reaches of this impossibly large chamber…
They found no more living darkness.
That small, scattered batch of tendrils near the entrance was it. And when they reached the other side of the bridge, they found themselves standing before another circular door with the same symbol on it. Once again, Maribelle carried Isabelle to the door and had her touch it, opening it to reveal what was next.
“Now we’re actually in the center,” Maribelle said, following Chelsea and the Felines into the next room.
“Room” was far too small a word for what awaited them. The chasm and bridge behind them had been vast, but now…
Shana couldn’t fathom it. She’d seen the size of the Library – less than the others with her, but enough to know that things didn’t add up. Even on the map, a beautifully detailed and to-scale model – up until now – of the Library, the center cylindrical tower wasn’t nearly this massive. Faint silver lamps in the shape of crystalline diamonds were embedded in the floor, walls and ceilings, and fixed atop silver posts – like tiny stars doing their best to illuminate the vast darkness around them.
Two lights in particular shone brightest. They were towards the center of the chamber – the center being hundreds or thousands of feet, maybe even as far as a mile, in front of their group – where a staircase led down into the floor.
“Seven floors, right?” Chelsea asked, receiving a nod from Shana. “So not too far to go, if they’re all like this.”
“But where’s the darkness?” Delilah asked softly. “It’s dark in here, but… it’s normal darkness.”
Chelsea nodded. “Yeah, I noticed that. Maybe we lucked out, and the darkness can’t get in here. Only a Princess could open the doors, after all.”
“And Mommy,” Isabelle said.
Chelsea laughed, nodding. “Right. And Mommy.”
“Let’s not get our hopes up,” Lorelei said. “Keep our formation as we go. We don’t want to get caught by surprise.”
“Yeah, I hate traps,” Chelsea said, speaking that line nice and loud, enough so that it echoed around the vast chamber. “I just want you guys to know. They’re the worst. They always catch me off-guard.”
“You’re so obvious,” Lorelei said, shaking her head.
Chelsea shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”
They descended to the sixth floor without any problems, finding themselves at yet another seemingly empty, vast chamber with faint lamps dotting the area. The staircase they were on led directly to the next, so they descended once more, and then again.
The fourth floor.
They’d reached it far too easily, Shana knew. But then, that wasn’t such a problem. In truth, getting here easily was fine with her.
It didn’t matter how easy it was to reach. The real challenge lay here, for Shana and the Princesses. Hopefully the others wouldn’t struggle much to protect them.
Here, on the fourth floor, everything looked the same as it had on the previous floors. But Shana knew, because of the journal, that wasn’t the case. Still hand-in-hand with Annabelle, the two shared a look, recognizing that they both knew what to do next. Maribelle and Isabelle followed them as well as they rounded the stairs, to find a small pedestal at the back wall of the staircase. On the pedestal were three silver panels.
The first, on the left, bore the tower and crescent moon symbol from Kodoka’s journal and the doors to the center. The second, on the right, bore ten x-shaped stars within a wide circle – the symbol for the ten Princesses of Solitude.
The symbol in the center stood out at a glance because of its color. Where everything else was silver or white, here was a symbol made of gold and pink. The gold formed the shape of an eye, and the center, the eye’s iris, was pink.
The symbol of the Dreamer.
“What do they all mean?” Delilah asked, staring. Then she shook her head. “Right, sorry, you guys can’t tell us stuff.”
“They’re just three options,” Shana said. “The one on the left is for Lady Kodoka. The one on the right is for all ten of the Princesses of Solitude, if they’re gathered together. And the center…”
“Is for you,” Delilah said, staring at her sister.
Shana nodded, letting go of Delilah’s hand and placing her hand against the symbol of the eye.
A musical sound chimed behind them, and they turned to see a shimmer of silver, gold, and pink lights. When the shimmering faded, there was a new addition to the fourth floor of the Library of Solitude’s center: a forge.
That was the term Lady Kodoka had used, though it didn’t look much like a forge. It had a silver, cylindrical center about six feet high as its center. Around it were concentric rings, the closest to the center being the highest, while the farthest out being the lowest: steps.
“This is what the rest of you need to protect,” Shana said, looking to the entire group. “It’s called the Dream Forge. The Princesses and I are going to undergo a test in order to restart it. If we succeed, it will flood the Library with light, purge the darkness, and restore the Light Catcher and the Bastion’s other defenses.”
“Ten minutes or ten hours,” Chelsea said, nodding. “We’ll protect you, however long it takes.”
Shana looked at her sister, and they shared a long, lingering look. “You –”
“I know I can’t come with you,” Delilah interrupted, smiling. Shana thought it looked forced, but she wasn’t going to stop her from trying to smile. “Just succeed. I’ll stay as close to you as I can. And I’ll make sure you’re kept safe.”
Shana did smile then, and turned away, climbing the steps to the Dream Forge. At the top, she looked down, and found the cylinder to be hollow. Within was floating a pink-and-gold sphere, cut so that it had many tiny, triangular flat surfaces, like a five-million-sided die. It was dim, but as Shana reached down and touched it, it pulsed with faint light.
“We’re on a limit,” Shana said, and each of the Princesses came up to the Forge and touched their hand against the sphere. With each touch, there was a brighter pulse, and with the last – Maribelle – a voice spoke into Shana’s heart.
“Is this everyone?”
Shana nodded. The sphere began to glow, lights sparkling around it, moving out from it, enveloping Shana and the Princesses. She took one look back, thinking of what she should say to Delilah. But as she looked through the rapidly growing lights surrounding her, she saw…
Darkness had finally appeared, surging from the walls and ceiling, racing towards Delilah, Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, and Merric like a multi-layered wave filled with monstrous beasts.
Shana tried to pull her hand away from the sphere, but she couldn’t. She tried to call out, but she couldn’t make a sound. And as she reached out her free hand to Delilah, desperately hoping to help her, desperately willing her to succeed and to survive…
The Library’s center vanished.
For a long moment, Shana was surrounded by nothing but bright white light. She turned around in a circle, her footsteps making no noise, but she was alone.
Shana opened her mouth and formed the word, but no sound came out. She couldn’t even hear her voice in her head, like she could when she was surrounded by loud noise and couldn’t be heard over the din.
She couldn’t make a sound. In this bright, endless light, she was completely overwhelmed.
Light and silence seemed to penetrate to Shana’s very core, and she was frightened.
But then a voice, still and small, spoke.
“Do not be afraid.”
And then the light and silence vanished.
Shana now stood in a more familiar place: the Dreamworld. She saw the pink clouds all around her, the golden light filtering through them beautifully. Sound returned, and she could hear sounds she’d never noticed before in this place: there were birds. The sound was faint and distant, but they sang numerous and varied songs, beautiful and free.
Annabelle, Isabelle, and Maribelle were with her. The four of them stood on a high tower that Shana guessed was attached to the castle she’d visited so many times, though she’d never been to this part of it.
No, not four of them.
Heart was there, and she turned around as the girls turned towards her, her silver cape sparkling, her golden eyes shining.
Unlike when Shana had last seen Heart, though, her expression wasn’t pleasant or expressive. She wasn’t smiling, her mouth instead in a thin line, and her eyes, while golden and bright, didn’t have the liveliness she’d seen before. When she spoke, she spoke in a strange monotone, as if she was delivering a rote, unchangeable message.
“Welcome, Dreamer and Princesses,” Heart said. “I trust that you have been told of the trial before you by Lady Kodoka or her journal, but I will explain the test ahead so that all is clear.”
Shana braced herself. She knew what was coming, and she was frightened.
“It is up to the four of you to restart the Dream Forge. To do so, you must traverse the darker side of the Dreamworld: the world of Nightmares. It is only through here that you can reach the Eternal Flame necessary to bring the Dream Forge back to life, and restore the Library of Solitude’s light.
“As such, you will need to travel through Nightmares twice: once to reach the Flame, and once to carry it back with you.” Heart turned, gesturing to a copy of the Dream Forge next to her. “This is your destination once you have the Eternal Flame. As for the test, within Nightmares, you will be beset by foes physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. Princesses – if any of you are overwhelmed or overcome, you will be forced out of this test and back into the Library, unconscious, your fate resting on whether or not the Dream Forge is started again.”
Heart’s eyes turned to Shana, and she felt a chill run down her spine. “Dreamer, if you are overwhelmed or overcome – if you fail – then all is lost. The Dream Forge will await the next Dreamer, or else be destroyed. The Library of Solitude will remain in darkness.
“And you, as well as all those who came in with you, shall die.”