Shana watched as Heart, having delivered her message, vanished into thin air.
“So the test has already begun?” Maribelle asked, looking around the tower.
“How do we get to the world of Nightmares?” Annabelle asked.
Her question was swiftly answered by a powerful blast of wind. Shana and the three Princesses were sent flying, tumbling over the edge of the tower and out into empty space. The world flew by in a blur as Shana flipped end-over-end, losing all sense of location or motion.
And then, suddenly, she crashed to a stop. For several moments Shana lay on rocky ground, dazed and hurt and out of breath.
“But where’s the tower?” Isabelle asked.
Shana slowly sat up, looking around. The first thing she noticed was that the Princesses were fine. Maribelle was standing, alert and attentive, taking stock of their surroundings. Isabelle and Annabelle were on their feet as well, looking perfectly healthy and unharmed.
Only Shana was hurting, and she hurt everywhere. Nothing seemed to be broken, but she did notice a few cuts on her hands and forearms, and a scrape on her knee where her pants had been torn. Pushing herself to her feet with many restrained groans and moans, Shana looked around and wondered the same thing as Isabelle.
Where was the tower?
They had to go back to it when they found the Eternal Flame, but how could they do that if they couldn’t even find it? And a sinking sensation took over Shana. They’d been thrown off the edge of the tower… what if the only way back was to climb up it? Were there stairs? Ladders? It was a tall tower, judging by how long they’d fallen.
What were they going to do?
“You okay, Shana?” Annabelle asked, taking Shana’s hand gently. Shana nodded, taking deep breaths to steady herself. She wasn’t okay, but she was better than she probably had any right to be after such a fall. She needed to take hold of the positive things, and also to look around at the strange world she’d fallen into.
It certainly looked like a world of Nightmares. The rocky ground was black and jagged, with no smooth or rounded areas in sight. Craggy, gnarled trees jutted up towards a canopy of black leaves, their warped features wrapping around each other and around rocky formations with such closeness that it looked as if they were trying to choke the life from anything they touched. A sort of mist hung in the air, thin and black and gloomy, and it didn’t just impede sight, but also gave the entire forested wasteland an aura of foreboding.
The light of the Dreamworld was gone. The pink clouds, the golden rays that gave Shana such hope, had vanished.
“It’s hard to see very far in any direction,” Maribelle said. She stretched out her hand, as if to take hold of something, but nothing happened. She stared at her outstretched hand, a puzzled expression on her face. “My… my sword.”
“Takina?” Isabelle asked.
Maribelle nodded. “I can’t call her.”
That shocking revelation had Shana scrambling in her pocket for her bookmark Talisman. Pulling it out, she raised it over her head and summoned Altair.
Or she tried to.
But Altair didn’t appear.
“No,” Shana said softly, feeling as if a tiny knife was worming its way into her heart. “No, no, this can’t… no.”
“What’s wrong?” Isabelle asked.
“I can’t summon Altair,” Shana said. She found it hard to breathe, a tightness in her chest that wouldn’t go away. “I can’t… he won’t…”
“It doesn’t seem like we can use any magic at all,” Maribelle said, waving her hand in the air.
“That’s a pretty big problem,” Annabelle said, staring out at the dark trees. “Some of the dangers we’ll face are physical, right?”
“That’s what Heart said,” Shana said, taking deep breaths in and out, slowly collecting herself.
She didn’t have Altair. That was… Shana didn’t have a word for how horribly devastating that was. She didn’t always have him out by her side, but she always had the ability to summon him. They’d never been truly separated.
What could she do?
First Shias and the others… then I have to come in here without Delilah… and now Altair…
Small hands squeezed each of Shana’s, and she looked down to see Annabelle holding one hand, Isabelle holding the other. Both stared up at her with hopeful, encouraging eyes.
Shana forced a smile, squeezing their hands back. “We’ll be all right,” she said, looking up through the gloom and out into the woods. “We just need to figure out which way to go to find the Eternal Flame.”
“There’s supposed to be a path to follow,” Maribelle said. She climbed on top of a rocky formation to try and get a better look around. “Do you remember how mother described it?”
“It’s blue,” Shana said, recalling the words from Lady Kodoka’s journal. “And narrow, and faint, and very difficult to find. But to find it…”
“We need to be unafraid,” Isabelle said. “I can do that. I’m never afraid when I’m with my sisters.”
“It’s going to be all right,” Maribelle said, climbing down from her perch. She smiled at Shana and her sisters. “We don’t need our magic to conquer the dangers in here. We just need to be brave. This place thrives on fear. But with courage, we can find our way and return the Eternal Flame to the Forge easily. Right?”
Shana swallowed, imagining it was her fear in physical form that she swallowed, pushing it down and away so she didn’t have to worry about it.
Be brave. You have friends here. You have help. You’re not alone.
“So we just… be brave,” Shana said. Another deep breath, followed by a smile. It was going to be okay. She wasn’t alone.
“I think I see something there,” Annabelle said, pointing past Maribelle to a pair of trees that were thicker and more foreboding than the others. Walking carefully over the rocky, jagged ground, the girls came to the trees and found what they were looking for: a faint, blue path. It was smooth, unlike everything else, and it even had a soft glow to it. But it didn’t go very far before it seemed to vanish, because of how densely packed the trees and rocks were.
“We’ll have to go single-file,” Maribelle said, taking the lead. “Annabelle, if you can take the rear, we’ll let Belle-Belle and Shana stay in the center.”
“I’m on it,” Annabelle said. Isabelle followed Maribelle, and Shana followed her. Both of her hands were still held by the Princess twins, even as she had to crouch down and walk very carefully, often sideways, to avoid the spiky branches that jutted out at them.
“Remember the landmarks,” Maribelle said. “There are three.”
Shana went over Lady Kodoka’s instructions in her mind. There was the blue path, which they would have to follow all the way to the end, and then back again. And along that path would be three landmarks that would mark the way, though Shana found that somewhat confusing. If the path was constant, why was there a need to mark it only after the girls were on it?
She’d always gotten a sense while reading the journal that Lady Kodoka was holding some things back. It was as if she couldn’t tell them exactly what they would face, and had to leave out some details.
Shana figured that made sense. It wouldn’t be a proper test if she was given all of the answers ahead of time.
What hung in the air unsaid was Shana’s role. Lady Kodoka had said many times throughout the journal that the Dreamer was the key. It was up to Shana to harness and make use of the powers of Heart.
The problem was… Shana still had no idea how to do that.
Lady Kodoka hadn’t explained it at all, but she’d made one thing clear: Shana was the key to all of this.
But how? What could Shana do? They’d just barely started, and already she was relying on the Princesses, rather than taking the lead and doing… well, whatever it was that she was supposed to do.
In a way, Shana was glad the Princesses weren’t bringing it up.
But them not bringing it up only made Shana dwell on it more.
If I don’t figure this out… we’ll fail, right? If I can’t use Heart’s power like I’m supposed to, that’s it. We’re done. We don’t stand a chance.
But how do I do it? Why hasn’t anyone explained that to me?
“The path’s fading,” Maribelle said, stopping and looking back at the others. “Stay calm. We’re going to be okay.” She smiled. “There’s no need to –”
Whatever she was going to say cut off as the ground gave way beneath the girls. Suddenly they were falling through space, rocky shrapnel hurtling downward around them. Shana barely had a chance to look down and see where they were heading before –
She landed in water, and Shana’s momentum carried her under, so quick and deep that it took four seconds just to resurface. Gasping for air, she kicked her legs as she cast about for the others.
Annabelle had kept a hold of her hand, and was treading water in the rapid river next to her. Maribelle was ahead of them, bobbing with the current.
“Belle-Belle?” Maribelle called out, trying to swim upriver but failing. The current was just too strong, and it threatened to pull any of them under at any minute. Roiling rapids surged and foamed, too dark to see beneath. “Belle-Belle!”
“Isabelle!” Shana called out, dipping under as she did so, choking on water for a moment. “Isabelle! Where are you?”
“Here!” came the small, distant voice of Isabelle. Shana turned to look downstream, and saw Isabelle far ahead of the girls, flailing and sputtering but keeping herself mostly above the water. “I’m okay!”
“Hang on!” Maribelle called out, kicking forward, swimming powerfully ahead, deftly navigating the sudden twists and turns in the current. She reached Isabelle, and Isabelle clung to her shoulders while Maribelle fought against the current until Shana and Annabelle caught up.
“I’m sorry,” Isabelle said, hugging Maribelle tight.
“It’s fine,” Maribelle said with a smile. “You never were a strong swimmer. Just hold onto me.”
“It doesn’t look like we can do anything except let the current carry us,” Annabelle said, coughing as a bit of water shot into her mouth. All around them were tall, black cliffs, with no shore in sight. The sound of the river grew stronger and stronger, nearly drowning out the girls’ voices so they had to shout to be heard.
“I can’t see what’s ahead,” Maribelle said, keeping to the lead of the group, somehow making it look easy to stay afloat even with her little sister clinging onto her shoulders for support. The river seemed to slope downward, which helped explain its steady increase in speed. So where were they going?
Please don’t be a waterfall. It’s always a waterfall in the movies. Don’t be a waterfall here. I’m already sick of falling. Please –
“That’s a waterfall!” Isabelle shouted, pointing ahead.
“Just stick together!” Maribelle said, fighting to stay close to Shana and Annabelle, who were holding tighter to each other the farther they went. “Everyone hold onto me. We’re going to be fine.”
“How are we going to be fine?” Annabelle asked. “There’s a waterfall right in front of us!”
“Because I won’t let anything happen to my favorite sisters,” Maribelle said, somehow grinning in the face of mortal peril. “Or to the one who helped me reunite with them. Stay close to me and everything will be fine.”
How do you make courage look so easy? Why can’t I be like that?
“Hang on!” Isabelle shouted, holding tight to her big sister. Annabelle grabbed onto Maribelle, and then Shana did, and the sound of rushing water drowned out whatever Annabelle was shouting. There was a sudden blast of water, the girls were accelerated forward at frightening speed, and despite their best efforts, they were swallowed up by a foamy swirl.
And then they were falling.
Spat free from the waterfall as if it didn’t like how they tasted, Shana and the Princesses shot out over the edge into empty air, plummeting through the sky towards the ground so very, very far below.
As she fell, Shana realized she could finally see the sky of the world of Nightmares.
She wished she couldn’t.
Black and red clouds roiled high above them, and dark lightning lanced across them, chaining with other bolts of lightning that arced and slashed across the raging sky. Constant, percussive thunder rolled through the air. The horizon in all directions seemed like it was on fire, the flames tall and blood-red, sending thick, black smoke up to join the clouds above. Below them, where the waterfall ended, was a small lake that was surrounded on all sides by jagged, rocky ground, and beyond that was a wasteland of rocky spires, craggy cliffs, and rivers that flowed with fire instead of water.
As she was falling, looking out at the bleak, desolate landscape, Shana had a thought.
In the Dreamworld, she could fly. Was that part of Heart’s power?
Shana had to try. Considering they were falling so far to what might be a very sudden – and fatal – stop, this might be their only chance. Not to mention, flying across this horrifying world of violence would be much better than walking through it.
So… how do I fly?
What did it feel like in the Dreamworld? What was it that made Shana so confident she could defy gravity, soaring through the skies, when she couldn’t possibly do such a thing in the real world?
Even when my heart was troubled or heavy, I could still fly in the Dreamworld. I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be… brave? Hopeful? I don’t really get it, but… please work. Please.
Shana stretched out in her mind, focusing on the feeling of flying in the Dreamworld. She didn’t have wings, as cool as that would have been, she was just able to soar around. It wasn’t like swimming, like some people describe flying in their dreams (because why would it be like swimming? Air is totally different than water). It just… was.
The lake where the waterfall ended was coming up faster and faster. Having had this long just to think, to process, and to prepare, Shana knew they were falling from such a height that even water wouldn’t save them from an untimely demise. Of course, this was a strange world like the Dreamworld, so maybe the rules of physics didn’t apply here?
Don’t get distracted! You always were too scatter-brained. Focus. Focus like Shias. You’re twins, you can totally do what he can, at least a little bit, if you really try hard.
And then, slowly, her heart in her throat, Shana began to slow down. She was holding onto Maribelle and Annabelle, and Isabelle was holding onto Maribelle, so the Princesses slowed down with Shana. Their deceleration continued, but Shana wasn’t so sure about this. The water was coming up awfully fast, and she wasn’t flying so much as she was just falling slowly. She needed to fall even slower or, better yet, stop falling entirely.
“Whatever you’re doing, keep it up!” Maribelle said encouragingly as their descent continued to slow.
Shana grinned. It was working! She was doing something worthwhile, something to help the others, and it was working! Just a little bit more, a little bit more and she’d be able to get them on the move better than ever.
They finally came to a complete stop, hovering in the air, just inches from the water. Shana felt like she was fighting against hundreds of pounds of resistance pressing down on her, something she hadn’t felt when flying before. Was it because she was in the world of Nightmares? Were her abilities weaker here? Did they require more effort?
Still, they’d stopped. Now all Shana needed to do was –
Shana and the girls dropped the last few inches, too suddenly to take a breath before being submerged in the dark water. Shana kicked to the surface, sputtering and coughing as she got her breath back, and then slapped the water with her hand.
I was so close!
Maribelle, Annabelle, and Isabelle surfaced just fine, and with Shana, they didn’t have to swim much. The outgoing current from the waterfall carried them to the shore, and they sloshed up onto the black rocks.
“At least it’s hot and dry here,” Maribelle said, undoing her braid and squeezing the water out of her hair. “We shouldn’t have to be stuck in wet, heavy clothes for too long.”
“That was so cool!” Isabelle said, staring up at Shana with wide eyes. “I thought we were gonna die, but you stopped us! You’re amazing.”
Shana felt her cheeks grow hot, and she smiled and patted the girl on the head. “Thanks,” she said. She looked out across the foreboding landscape ahead of them. “I just wish I could fly. Then we could get where we’re going so much faster.”
“I don’t know about that,” Maribelle said. She’d started working on Isabelle’s hair, helping her squeeze the water out the best she could. All of the Princesses had thick, long red hair that must be exhausting to try and dry. Shana was glad for her thin hair, and glad that she didn’t let it get too long. “The path seemed to stick to the ground. If it was visible from the air, that would be great, but we may have to walk whether we want to or not.” She smiled at Shana, tickling Isabelle gently to get a giggle out of the girl. “Anyway, Belle-Belle’s right. That was really amazing. I knew you’d be able to figure out your Dreamer powers.”
I wish I actually was figuring them out. I only knew to fly because I’ve done that in the Dreamworld. Have I done anything else in the Dreamworld that hints at powers I might have?
If I have, I don’t remember any of them.
Heart, if you can hear me, then please help me out. You’re part of me, right? You’re inside of me. I need your help a lot right now.
“I found the path,” Annabelle said, pointing ahead of them. There it was once more, the narrow, smooth blue path that glowed oh-so-faintly. It wound its way up a hill, then disappeared around a rocky spire.
“We still haven’t seen any of the landmarks,” Maribelle said, “so it’s probably a long way yet for us to go. Let’s do our best to move quickly. I’m sure the others outside are having a rough time defending us.”
That put a damper on Shana’s spirits. She’d seen a glimpse, just before entering the Dream Forge, of the darkness coming in greater strength and numbers than ever before.
How long could Delilah and the others hold out? She knew they must still be doing well, because just as Lady Kodoka’s journal had said – the slightest brush of darkness against the Dream Forge would, at best, force them to restart their trial.
At worst, it would kill them all.
Delilah’s Felines are totally amazing. Chelsea’s a beast. Lorelei and Gwen are super dependable.
They’re going to be fine. I need to focus on this. I need to focus on using my powers properly, on figuring out what it is I can do to help us succeed.
“Shall we?” Maribelle asked, stepping up to the path.
Shana nodded. “Let’s go.” She followed after Maribelle, and the group fell into their earlier formation: Maribelle in the front, Annabelle in the back, with Isabelle and Shana between them.
Winding around the rocky spire, the path led them up a steep climb towards a rocky outcropping, a sort of ledge at the lowest level of a tall, foreboding cliff face.
As they climbed, Shana racked her brain over the things Lady Kodoka had hinted at without outright stating them.
“The Dreamer’s Heart is linked to The Light, her powers intrinsically opposed to the forces of darkness. The physical dangers within the world of Nightmares can only truly be conquered by Heart’s strength. Do not try to fight them by ordinary means. Let the Dreamer take the lead, destroying the dangers in your path, and providing hope and light to face the non-physical challenges you will face. For the most difficult part of your journey will not be fighting monsters, but facing the fears that plague your hearts.”
What did it mean that Shana’s powers came from The Light? Shana had asked Maribelle, since she’d seen Maribelle blast shadow-Hollows with beams of pure white light, and Maribelle had explained that those small bits of her magic came from The Light. “You should be able to do the same thing, once you learn how,” she’d said.
The only problem was learning how, of course. As they walked, Shana regularly raised her hand and willed light and energy to pour out of it.
Nothing ever happened.
She also tried flying a few times, but she couldn’t manage to leave the ground at all. She could feel the resistance against her flight, like she had when stopping their descent, so she was doing something right. Was she just not strong enough?
Should I have gone to get some training before we tried to do this? Should I have just slept until I finally got to the Dreamworld and could talk to Heart about all of this?
Did we make a huge mistake by coming straight here after reading the journal? I’m not at all prepared for this.
They climbed to the top of a cliff, from which they could see… not very much at all. The landscape ahead seemed to constantly rise, so more cliffs blocked their view, rising higher than the one they’d just ascended.
And still, there were none of the three landmarks.
“Well,” Maribelle said with a sigh, “mother did say it could take as long as ten hours.”
“We’ve just got to keep moving forward,” Shana said, following the path. “The faster we go, the sooner this will end.”
“But we still have to go back the way we came after we get the Eternal Flame,” Annabelle said. “And it’s…”
She trailed off, so Shana looked back at her, only to see her looking back the way they’d come.
The landscape was completely different.
For one, the waterfall was nowhere to be seen. For another, the cliff they’d just climbed up wasn’t a cliff anymore. The wasteland behind them was as flat as could be, for miles in every direction.
“It’s playing with our heads,” Maribelle said, staring back at the strange new world behind them. “Just like when we fell to the river – the ground we were walking on before vanished, like it was never there at all.”
“It’s a world of Nightmares,” Shana said, nodding. “It can do anything it wants.”
“Just like real nightmares,” Annabelle said.
“Well we just keep going forward, right?” Isabelle asked. “We don’t have to worry about going back until we have the Eternal Flame.”
Shana nodded, turning to head forward, and their group continued. The constant thunder rumbling above was foreboding, and the landscape was barren and dead, but Shana slowly found that it wasn’t so bad. It was scary to look at, kind of, and she wouldn’t want to walk in it forever, but it sort of had a “stereotypical evil place” look and feel to it. She wasn’t scared of what she saw.
She was scared of what she couldn’t see.
What dangers would plague them ahead? What horrors did this wasteland hold?
“There’s a landmark!” Isabelle said excitedly, pointing up the steep path they were climbing. Shana could see it, near the top of the cliff: a glowing blue door in a silver frame. The girls raced ahead, eagerly hoping to reach the first sign that they were making actual progress on their journey to the Eternal Flame.
When they reached the door, they found that the path stopped at the door. The door stood in open ground, so they could go around behind it, and saw that the path didn’t continue beyond it.
“Does this mean we go through?” Isabelle asked.
“The journal didn’t say anything about that, though,” Shana said. “If this is a landmark on the path, then it should show us where the path goes next.”
“Maybe that’s the whole point of it being a door,” Maribelle said. “The path continues through it to… well. Let’s take a look.” She opened the door, revealing what lay beyond, and Shana was surprised at the sight.
“It’s so ordinary,” she said. Through the door was the interior of a library not too dissimilar from the public library in Grimoire. It had a modern look to it, with a skylight letting sunshine in from above. Somewhere in the distance a piano was playing a charming, upbeat tune.
“Looks like we’re supposed to go through,” Annabelle said. The blue path continued into the library, winding its way around a bookshelf and out of sight.
“All right, but stay alert,” Maribelle said. “I don’t like this. It feels too pleasant, like it’s on purpose.”
“Like it’s a trap,” Shana said, and Maribelle nodded. The girls entered the library single file, and once they were all inside, Shana turned around to see that the door they’d come through had vanished.
“We don’t need to go back yet, anyway,” Maribelle said. “It’ll be fine. Just stick to the path.”
There were quite a number of people in the library, dressed perfectly ordinarily, and none of them looked the least bit perturbed by the girls’ entrance through a magical doorway. The library was spacious and open, with bookshelves spaced far apart from each other, and plenty of comfy seating arrangements, with couches and chairs often situated next to large windows that looked out on a rural town with low buildings, and farms in the distance.
If this is someone’s nightmare, then maybe I won’t mind the world of Nightmares so much.
Rounding the bookshelf, the girls found that the path led up to the service desk. It was in the shape of a half-circle, and long enough to house ten different stations along it, at which different ladies worked. Each of the ladies was dressed in an identical uniform – blue buttoned shirt and grey skirt, and all of them had their hair tied up in identical buns, with matching pink hair pins through the center. They even wore identical silver-framed half-moon spectacles. Three of the ten librarians had their sleeves rolled up past the elbow, while the rest kept their sleeves long and properly buttoned. They ran quite an age range, from the youngest, one of the ones with her sleeves rolled up, about Shana’s age, and the oldest with wrinkles like trenches on her craggy face, hair so silvery-white it was almost translucent.
Only one of the stations was open, as the other nine had rather long lines. It was this open station that the blue path led up to, conveniently enough, and it was staffed by the librarian around Shana’s age, who looked up at the new arrivals with a bright, warm smile.
“Hello, there,” she said, her voice beautiful and kind. “How can I be of service today?”
“What are we supposed to ask?” Annabelle asked in a whisper. “There was nothing in the journal about this.”
Maribelle stepped up to the desk confidently, and then leaned over it, looking around on the other side for the path. She shook her head, turning to the others. “It doesn’t continue. Guess we need to ask about it.”
“What doesn’t continue?” the librarian asked.
“We’re trying to find the right way to go,” Maribelle said. “Perhaps you can help us? There should be a symbol for us to find.”
“Ooh, like a scavenger hunt?” the librarian asked, eyes lighting up. “That sounds delightful! What’s the symbol like?”
“It’s like a rook, from chess,” Shana said, “But it’s on top of a crescent moon, turned sideways so it’s pointing down. And on the front of the rook is a symbol like an eye. The lid is gold, while the iris is pink.”
The librarian put a hand to her chin, pondering the details. Her gesture also revealed a name tag, which read “Lily Rose, Librarian.” “I don’t know that I’ve seen it before,” Lily said. “Do you have any clues of where it might be?”
“Well, it’s supposed to be along a path,” Shana said. “But the path seems to have stopped here, so we thought we’d ask for help.”
“Along a path…” Lily opened a drawer and pulled out a thick book that she leafed through. “It’s a curious symbol. Sounds fascinating. Let’s see… ah. Here we go. The Dreamer’s Tower. Why didn’t you just say so?”
Dreamer’s Tower? I’ve never heard that term before.
“You know where it is?” Isabelle asked hopefully. But as she leaned towards the desk, Maribelle put a hand on her shoulder, protectively pulling her back.
Shana was puzzled by Maribelle’s gesture, but seeing the warning in the older Princess’s eyes, Shana took another look around.
She’d been lulled in by familiarity, by comfort. Shana had always loved libraries, and only now did she realize that she’d thought of this as the real world.
It wasn’t. None of this was real. Shana’s slow turn to survey the library left her seeing things for the first time, and she was suddenly very frightened.
The people who seemed to have been comfortably reading before weren’t reading at all. Their heads lolled limply, their eyes rolled back into their heads. The piano player wasn’t playing a cheerful tune – it was a frantic, staccato song that sounded like a cry for help, and it was no wonder. He was playing the piano while a librarian stood behind him, holding a gun to his head.
And then there was the service desk. All ten librarians there didn’t look nearly as kind and pleasant as before – not even Lily Rose, who Shana had fallen into believing so easily because of their closeness in age. The eyes behind each pair of half-moon spectacles were cold and analytical, almost predatory, as each librarian turned their gaze on Shana and her allies. Not just the librarians, but all of the customers standing in line turned as one to gaze coldly at the Dreamer and the Princesses.
The worst was Lily. Her pleasant smile had widened to inhuman proportions, a vicious sneer accompanied by glaring, venomous eyes.
“Welcome, Dreamer,” Lily said, her voice sending shivers down Shana’s spine, “to your final resting place.”