How had it all gone so wrong?
Shana couldn’t answer that question, but as she was running for her life, she didn’t have much time to think. All she could think, through tears in her eyes and tightness in her heart, was that she had failed.
Maribelle and Isabelle were gone.
A squeeze of her hand reminded Shana that she wasn’t alone. Not yet. Annabelle was still with her, holding her hand and running with her, shockingly more composed than Shana was.
More than her pain and grief, Shana had to focus. She had to find a way forward.
How do we get out of this nightmare library?
It seemed to have no end. How many flights of stairs had they climbed? How many doors had they gone through, desperately trying to lock or barricade them shut behind them?
And still they were pursued by evil librarians and their patrons.
Of all the places, why an evil library?
“W-we can’t be frightened,” Annabelle said, her voice wavering for a moment. “That’s the only way we can find the path.”
“But without –” Shana started.
“They accepted the risks,” Annabelle said. The pair hunkered behind a heavy metal cabinet filled with reference materials, and even in the shadows Shana could see the pain on Annabelle’s face, the struggle the little girl was going through in the absence of her sisters. “And they’re not dead. As long as you succeed, we’ll all get out of this alive.”
Shana knew that. But for her, that only made it more painful. After all, Maribelle and Isabelle had sacrificed themselves for her sake.
For my sake, because I can’t defend myself.
For my sake, because I can’t fight the terrors we face.
Annabelle took Shana’s hands. Both of theirs were trembling, and Annabelle squeezed tight. “We need you to be safe. We need you to be the best you can be. I know it hurts, losing the ones you depend on. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have little Altair, when he’s always by your side, but I know what it’s like to lose siblings and friends.” Annabelle’s blue eyes stared, wide and pleading, into Shana’s. “I know the pain you’ve been dealing with ever since we reached the Library. Please. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. You can be brave, I know you can.”
“But how do we get out of here?” Shana asked. “How do we even find the path again? We still have two more landmarks, and we have to come all the way back with the Eternal Flame. How can we do that, when we’ve already lost half our group and we’re not even close to halfway there?”
“We do better,” Annabelle said. “We were fooled into thinking we were safe. It doesn’t have to stay that way. We just have to make sure to never forget where we are.”
The world of Nightmares.
This wasn’t the real world. They couldn’t deal with it like the real world.
And the path should reveal itself to them. They didn’t need to find it, so much as they needed to be open to it. Shana closed her eyes, shutting out the distant, wicked cries of the librarians and patrons in pursuit of the two girls. She shut out the dark, endless library she’d been running in for so long.
She shut out her fear and uncertainty, and took hold of the hope she could find.
Maribelle and Isabelle were still alive, waiting for Shana to complete this test. The stakes were high – if Shana failed, she wasn’t the only one who would pay a price. But more than the stakes, more than the pressure, was the hope that she hadn’t lost her new friends forever.
Delilah was also waiting for her, and fighting valiantly to protect her. Caleb was out there somewhere, and Shias had given all he could to make sure Shana reached her destination safely. Fae was on her own journey through the Enchanted Dominion, but it wouldn’t last forever, and when she came back to Grimoire, if Shana was able to be there with her, they could continue to reconnect and reestablish their bond as sisters.
There are people who love me, and though they’re far away, that doesn’t diminish their love. If I hold tight to that, I can handle anything.
Even though they aren’t all right here with me, they’re with me in spirit.
Besides, I still have Annabelle with me. She’s so much stronger than I am, despite being the youngest in her family along with Isabelle. She watched her own sisters…
Shana couldn’t relive the horrific ways in which the nightmare dangers within the library had overwhelmed and eliminated Isabelle and Maribelle. It was small comfort to know they were still alive outside, when what Shana and Annabelle had seen were some of the most gruesome, horrifying “deaths” they could have imagined. It had broken Shana, and nearly broken Annabelle, and they’d lost the path for so very long as they raced throughout that library with no direction, just doing their best to survive.
And despite that, she’s still so brave. If it had been my siblings… I’d be done. There’s no way I could keep going, seeing that happen to my family, even knowing that they’re still alive outside waiting for me to succeed. That was too horrible to put into words.
If Annabelle can be so brave, I can be at least a little less fearful.
Shana opened her eyes and saw a faint blue line in the carpeted floor of the library, leading around the other side of the reference shelving. Shana stood, Annabelle with her, and the two smiled at each other before following the path, hand-in-hand.
The path didn’t go very far before it reached an open doorway, wind blowing into the library, a bright light blocking their view beyond. Together, Shana and Annabelle walked through the doorway.
The library vanished. Wind whipped against the girls as they stood on a long, narrow bridge of stone. Behind them was nothing but a sheer drop into an endless abyss, the same that awaited them to the right and the left. Before them, the bridge led to a small, rocky platform. It was hard to see what was on it, so the only thing the girls could do was go forward. Shana led the way, walking single-file with Annabelle behind her, clutching her hand. Wind buffeted them, beat them, pulled at them, but still the girls walked on, not giving in to the relentless assault.
Their path was narrow and dangerous, but it was clear.
They reached the end of the bridge, stepping onto a platform slightly wider than the bridge. In the center of the platform was what they could now see clearly: a lamp post. It was made of silver, and its light, high above, glowed the same blue of the path they’d been following.
“The second landmark,” Shana said softly, and the wind’s unyielding offensive suddenly died away. Shana placed a hand against the lamp post…
And the landscape transformed.
In the blink of an eye, the lonely abyss vanished, and the girls now stood on a wooden platform floating in the air. Before Shana had a chance to survey her surroundings, or say a word, the platform collapsed beneath her feet. Suddenly the girls were falling, tumbling through the sky and, unable to right herself, Shana couldn’t get a clear view of anything.
I can fly! Or at least slow our fall. I just have to…
But Shana didn’t get a chance to fly as she came to a sudden, painful stop.
It felt like she’d landed on hard stone, which, considering the speed and distance of her fall, should have killed her instantly. But she didn’t even have broken bones, and had somehow kept her head from slamming into the stone, protecting her from a concussion. She hurt, a lot, and not for the first time – or, she suspected, the last time – but she was okay, and she stood up, dizzy and wavering, to try and take stock of her new situation.
All around them was a vast desert. Somehow, they’d landed on the only part of the barren landscape that was solid rock, missing a drifting sand dune by mere inches. And before them, snaking its way across the sands, was the blue path they needed to follow.
“You okay?” Shana asked, stumbling to the edge of the stone until her foot sunk a few inches into soft sand.
“I’m fine,” Annabelle said, again shocking Shana with her resilience. Despite many falls and tumbles, Annabelle and the other Princesses had done just fine, while Shana continued to accumulate more bruises and scrapes. “It sure looks like a long way, though.”
“At least things are simple here,” Shana said, setting off along the path. “Besides, judging from what we’ve faced so far, the landscape can change at any time. I’ll take empty and barren over… well, a lot of things we’ve seen so far.”
Shana was starting to get a grasp of this strange world of Nightmares. It was just like real nightmares, able to change at any time, and it did its best to confuse, disorient, frighten, and overwhelm those within it. It kept changing its game, and Shana started to actively consider what the purpose of each new area and challenge was. Here in this vast desert where, despite sand dunes blocking her sight in many directions, the path she needed to follow was visible for miles and miles ahead, Shana figured out the game easily.
It’s trying to make us feel hopeless. Trying to make it seem like we’ll never reach the end, by showing us so much of the path with no end in sight. The longer it stretches on, the harder it is to believe that we can reach the end.
That’s simple. I can handle that. We just keep moving forward.
What worried Shana, nagging at the back of her mind, was that she hadn’t faced any of her own personal nightmares. A library turning evil was a surprising turn, preying on what Shana loved and turning it against her, but she hadn’t faced any of the fears and dangers she’d expected. While it might seem reasonable to avoid doing what Shana expected, Shana knew that, faced with the nightmares and fears she knew were within her, she couldn’t be certain of the outcome. Could she handle the fears she knew about? Could she survive nightmares she’d dreamt in the past made real?
Shana doubted it, and that made her heart quake with worry.
The blue path before her flickered, pulling Shana back into the moment.
I can’t be afraid. That’s the only way the path will appear and show us the way to the Eternal Flame. Besides, we’ve seen two landmarks so far. The third stands at the very end of the path, so as soon as we see that, we’ve made it. We’re almost to the halfway point.
What will we be faced with on the return trip? How will things change to keep us from bringing the Eternal Flame back to the tower?
No. I can’t worry about that now. I need to get to the Flame first. Once I have it, I can worry about what comes next.
The sun grew hotter as the girls’ journey wore on, and as it reflected off of the bright sand, Shana was soon so hot that the only reason she wasn’t soaked in sweat was because it was so impossibly dry. She was certain she was sunburned on every part of exposed skin, and her mouth and tongue longed desperately for relief.
Could she keep going? The path wound on for miles and miles still, with no end in sight. Shana had figured out what the Nightmares were trying to do to stop her and Annabelle, but knowing its game didn’t make her immune to it.
Can I undo my burns and dehydration? I’m the Dreamer. I have Heart’s powers. And more than that, this isn’t real. Should anyone be able to alter it at least a little bit with hope and imagination?
Shana put her mind to it, pushing past what she saw and felt.
It’s not about what I see and feel. That’s how the Nightmares can attack me, but it isn’t real. It’s a lie, and if I expose the lie…
It started to work. Shana’s burns faded away, her mouth felt moisture once more, as she imagined that this desert wasn’t a desert at all. Because of course it wasn’t a desert. This was just a nightmare. She didn’t have to wake from it to dispel its deception.
As soon as Shana started to feel relief, the sand beneath her gave way to solid rock. Just as she relished the feel of solid ground at her feet, that ground collapsed, darkness filling the space that had once been far too bright, and Shana and Annabelle tumbled through emptiness once again.
A sound in the darkened tumble made Shana’s blood run cold. This, this was a noise from her own nightmares.
It was a bell. Tolling once, its deep, resonant sound lingering and expanding, reverberating and enfolding, surrounding Shana and Annabelle until it seemed there was nothing else. A sudden rush of wind tossed the pair aside, their momentum halted just in time for them to come to a rolling landing along a brick street.
Shana didn’t need to look around to know where she was, or what she would see and hear and feel.
She knew this place far too well, for she’d dreamt it many nights as a child. Even now, nearly a decade since it had last haunted her sleep, she remembered it, and the memory made her shudder with fear. It was one of “The Three” – three recurring nightmares Shana had had as a child.
Shana and Annabelle rose to stand on the brick street. The sound of the bell, though it did not toll again, continued to echo and resonate throughout the entire town they were in. It was a strange town, cobbled together from pictures Shana had seen of Grimoire’s earliest years and of towns throughout Victorian-era England, a time and place Shana had been fascinated with as a child – until the nightmares started.
The brick street was narrow, and the buildings on either side loomed like architectural sentinels, the spires of their towers bending over the street, dim lights within their windows watching the girls. Darkened skies were pierced by the light of a moon, massive and gleaming, so large that craters and valleys were clearly visible on its surface, giving it the appearance of a vicious, hungry face.
And all throughout the night, the sound of the bell continued to sustain, never needing to be rung again.
“The path’s gone,” Annabelle noticed, unperturbed by the strange town. Why would she be? This was Shana’s nightmare, something that perhaps only Shana feared. Its existence as a piece of her childhood, rather than a recent fear, made its impact all the more powerful, for Shana had thought and hoped that she would one day escape it.
And yet here she was, standing in these darkened streets once more, the light of the hungry moon giving her a long, flickering shadow.
The town’s name was Quiet.
Soon, Shana knew, things would only become worse. She would never find the path again if she didn’t fight past her fears.
“The greatest dangers you face will not be physical at all,” Lady Kodoka’s journal had said, and how right she had been. And how smart of the Nightmares to prey on Shana’s greatest fears, rather than those of Annabelle. Shana was the most important person in this test. She was the one their success rested on.
If she was overwhelmed by old fears, it was all over.
“Shana?” Annabelle asked, turning back to her. She held her hand, looking up into her eyes with a questioning look. “What are you afraid of?”
“The Walkers,” Shana said in a whisper. “They’ll come soon, and then –”
“So we find the path before they come,” Annabelle said. “Shana, please. You can’t give into fear. You know this isn’t real. You know what’s at stake. You know you’re not alone.”
Three truths. Shana reached out for them, but they slipped through her fingers.
If this isn’t real, then why does it feel so real?
If so much is at stake, then why am I the one so much rests on?
If I’m not alone, then why can’t I be brave?
For despite Annabelle’s hand in hers, Shana felt very alone. A terrifying thought was worming its way into her mind, and though she knew it was nonsense, for reasons she could not explain, she couldn’t evade it.
Is Annabelle really here?
What a nonsensical question. Of course she was. Shana could feel her, see her, hear her.
But she could feel the ground beneath her feet. She could see the looming buildings and hungry moon of Quiet. She could hear the unending resonance of the bell all around her. If these things were not real, how could she know that Annabelle was real? What was real at all anymore?
Where is the path? Why do I have to be brave to find the path? I can’t control my fears. I can’t decide what I’m afraid of, or where my mind goes, or what my heart does. Why does the path to the end of this horror depend on things outside my control?
Why can’t the ground just collapse again and send us somewhere else? Anywhere but here, please. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to face this.
She squeezed Annabelle’s hand.
I don’t want to feel alone.
For now, despite not being alone, Shana felt alone. She couldn’t explain why, and yet she couldn’t dispel this feeling of emptiness within and around her.
I’m all alone.
“Shana,” Annabelle said, but Shana barely heard her. For a new sound had joined the bell’s resonance in Quiet: footsteps.
These footsteps were strange, halting, with an unnatural rhythm and heft to them. They stomped, they slid, they tiptoed, they stumbled.
But they came on. And every moment, they grew closer.
“I have to run,” Shana said, though she knew it was fruitless. She couldn’t run from this. She’d never been able to, no matter how hard she’d tried.
And more than that, why should she voice such a thing? She was alone. There was no one to hear her.
Shana ran, feeling Annabelle’s hand in hers, but knowing she was alone. The Princesses were gone. Had they ever been here to begin with? If they had, why had they left? Memories flashed through her mind as her eyes swam with tears. Which ones were real in this place of Nightmares?
For some reason, she remembered Isabelle throwing herself in the path of an attack meant for Shana.
For some reason, she remembered Maribelle making a valiant stand to buy Shana and Annabelle time.
For some reason, she remembered Annabelle standing with her every moment, holding her hand no matter what.
Where had Annabelle gone?
Shana looked around, but she no longer felt Annabelle’s warmth in her hand. She no longer saw her telltale red hair, or heard the padding of her bare feet on the stone.
Had she been overwhelmed, too?
The voice that cried out from unseen streets in Quiet spurred Shana on, and she ran with wild, desperate abandon. But she quickly faltered.
It had been Annabelle. Hadn’t it?
Shana fell back against a wall, slipping into an alley, covering her ears as the footsteps of the horrible Walkers drew ever closer. There were two, then there were ten, then there were dozens, then hundreds, footsteps upon footsteps, shuffling and sliding, stomping and scratching, stepping ever closer, no matter where Shana ran.
And in the midst of that, Shana remembered.
Annabelle had been here. She’d been utterly, completely real.
And now… now she’s…
I abandoned her.
For only a short time, but long enough, Shana had questioned if Annabelle was real. She’d put her out of her mind, ignored her, forgotten her. And now…
Now that I realize I was wrong, now that I remember the truth, it’s too late.
Isabelle and Maribelle had been overwhelmed right in front of her, taken in horrifying fashion, swallowed up by monsters that would live on in Shana’s mind forever.
But Annabelle… was just gone.
Is she really gone?
Shana stood, shaking her head at the oncoming march of the Walkers. She looked left, then right, but there was no sign of Annabelle.
Where is she? She couldn’t just… disappear, could she?
Did I do this?
Shana had heard Annabelle’s voice. Annabelle had cried out to her to run.
And Shana had.
Annabelle had, like her sisters, given herself up for Shana. And Shana had let her, abandoning her to whatever grim fate she faced alone.
The resonant, unyielding tone of the bell grew louder, swimming in Shana’s ears, overwhelming her, and she fell to her knees. The Walkers came on and on, and Shana knew if they reached her, it was all over. Yet she’d never been able to escape them, not once. How could she possibly do so now?
Was that a voice?
It seemed strange. Something still and small, as if Shana was imagining it, floated in the air.
No, not in the air.
It spoke into Shana’s heart.
“Do not be afraid.”
Shana shuddered at the sudden, unmistakable voice. She’d heard it, for just a moment, as she’d entered the Dream Forge. In that transitional area filled with light, that same still, small voice had said the same words to her.
And Shana screamed.
“I can’t control what I’m afraid of!” she shouted, tilting her head back and glaring in defiance at the hungry moon. “I can’t control whether I get scared!”
The voice again, and as the final word was spoken, it was as if the voice had never existed at all. Shana sobbed, pushing herself to her feet and stumbling down the alley. Why she went on, she didn’t know. This was the end for her, and as the sounds of the bell, of the Walkers, grew stronger and louder and more numerous, she couldn’t even think. Where was she going? What was she doing? What could be done?
And then, the town of Quiet was quiet.
Silence reigned, and Shana looked up. She’d reached the end of the alley and there, right in front of her, was a latticework archway, like an entrance to a garden. Its silver surface gleamed, and through the archway ran a glowing blue path.
This was the third landmark.
Shana had made it.
Before her was a grassy grove that stretched out forever. Above her was a beautiful blue sky, broken up here and there by the most pleasant, pure, wonderful clouds she’d ever seen.
And ahead of her, on a stone pedestal, was a silver lantern. Within it flickered a small flame, its light the same blue of Altair, who Shana missed so dearly.
Before her, as if out of a dream, was the Eternal Flame.
But here, at her destination, Shana felt no relief. She felt no sense of triumph or peace. For though she’d reached the Eternal Flame, the journey of returning it to the tower still remained.
And she was all alone.