Shana was dreaming.
She hadn’t been to the Dreamworld since she saved the Library of Solitude, so for a moment she was caught off-guard. But then excitement welled up in her, and she leapt from her starting point, the narrow spire of rock, out into the pink mist, flying between golden rays of light. She found the castle, and instead of landing on the wall like she always did, she flew up one of the towers, hovering as she reached the top.
“This is it,” she said softly, staring. There was the Dream Forge, shining with light. This was the tower that she and the Princesses had started their trial on. She flew down, landing in the center. For a moment she just waited.
“Hello, Shana,” came the wonderful, familiar voice of Heart. Shana turned, and saw her magenta skin, her golden eyes and hair, and broke into a wide smile.
“Heart!” she cried, racing forward, wrapping Heart in a hug. Heart was warm, and soft, and when she hugged her back it made Shana’s heart go all fluffy and happy inside.
“You’ve been through a great ordeal,” Heart said gently, stroking Shana’s hair. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”
Shana shook her head. “It’s okay. I made it somehow. But now…” She pulled back, staring up at Heart. “I have a new task, and I don’t understand much of it. I was hoping you might have some answers. And I also… I don’t understand my powers. I thought I was supposed to have special abilities, magic I could use in the Dreamworld and in Nightmares, but there was nothing I could do.”
“You could fly, couldn’t you?” Heart asked.
Shana frowned. “Barely. It was more like falling very slowly.”
Heart laughed, a musical sound that brought a smile to Shana’s face. “With time and practice, you can learn to do more. I’m afraid there’s little I can actually teach you.” She pointed to Shana’s chest. “Your power as the Dreamer comes from your heart. It’s up to you to learn, to explore, to be creative. I can tell you this, though: your power as the Dreamer is not to fight, not with destruction or pain, at any rate. Your power is to bring knowledge, and most of all, to bring hope.”
“Hope…” Shana said.
Heart nodded. “Hope is a far more potent weapon than you might expect.” She held out her hand. “Come with me. There’s something I’d like to show you. I may not be able to help you gain new powers, but I can teach you more of Dreamworld, more of what you can do and see here. It may help you and your friends.”
Shana took the offered hand, and the pair flew into the sky. Soaring through magenta clouds, they passed familiar landmarks. Shana saw the platform with the windows, from which she’d seen the vision of Bronn in the past. And there was the staircase that had led her to the poem that had given her such strength, largely thanks to its final line:
There is no shame in being weak
Shana thought, perhaps, she shouldn’t have forgotten about that. After all, she’d been remarkably weak when she faced the trials of the Dream Forge, and yet she’d succeeded.
Further on they flew, until the clouds parted, revealing a circular barrier of clouds around an open space, in which floated a…
Shana’s eyes lit up and her heart soared at the sight. It was a circular tower with no ceiling and few walls, open to the air, with a spiraling staircase running up its center. And on each floor, there were bookshelves, so many of them, shining in the golden light that filtered down from above.
“The Dreamer’s Library,” Heart said, flying down with Shana to land on the top floor of the tower. Shana walked up to the nearest shelf, placed her hands against the spines of the books.
“What are they?” she asked, puzzling over them. Not a single one had words along the spine, and when she pulled one off the shelf, there were no words or art on the cover. Each book was a different color, but that was all that seemed to mark them.
“They are journals, of a sort,” Heart said. “Knowledge passed down from previous Dreamers. One day, you will add to this library. You may find useful information here, though for your current predicament, I can at least get you started.”
“So you know what I need to do?” Shana asked. “You know what that vision means?”
“It was no vision,” Heart said. “You were in the World of Nightmares, and what you saw was Nocta, the Nightmare Queen.”
“Nightmare… Queen?” Shana asked. “So then that ruined fortress behind her…”
“That is her home, the Nightmare Citadel. She spoke of Collapse… to think the Queen could be infected by such a disease…”
“It’s a disease?” Shana asked.
Heart nodded. “Collapse is an infection of the soul, and it is born from a horrid weapon of darkness.”
“So then my task is to heal her sickness,” Shana said. “But why am I supposed to save the Nightmare Queen? Aren’t nightmares bad?”
Heart smiled. “Nightmares are… different. They aren’t evil, if that’s what you’re asking. They are born from our individual fears – a reflection of our own terrors. In that, they could be seen as evil, for fear is an evil thing. But in a way, they can be good.”
“They reflect our own fears, sometimes fears that we didn’t even know we had. If we are able to face those fears, to overcome them, to understand them… then we need not be afraid anymore. To understand oneself must include understanding one’s fears. Nightmares can help us do that, forcing us to face things we wouldn’t consciously confront. And through our nightmares, we can become braver.”
“So the Nightmare Queen… she helps people find their courage?”
Heart stared off into the clouds, a sad expression on her face. “That is what she’s supposed to do. But I saw your trials in the Forge, and more than that… well. Collapse has corrupted her, and she isn’t doing her job properly. She needs the Dreamer to save her.”
“But she also said I needed to find the ones who can help her,” Shana said. “Do you know who they are?”
Heart shook her head. “I wish I did. But I have some clues that may aid you. For one, you noticed that the Queen is a Summon.”
“She is?” Shana asked. “I mean, she looks like one, but… she could talk! And I thought when Summons are separated from their Summoners, they turn into…” Shana shuddered, remembering what she’d seen with Maribelle on the Westward Plains.
A bell chimed in the distance. “Ah,” Heart said. “I’m sorry, but our time is waning. Listen – your friend, Gwen, she knows about Summons – Enchanted Summons. Ask her, and she should have the answers you seek about the Queen’s nature.”
“She’s the Summon of an Enchanted?” Shana asked, stunned by the revelation.
Heart nodded. “As for who else can aid the Queen… that will get you started. And there are others who will intersect with your path, others who you can trust to aid you. And now, Shana, I am sorry. That is the best I can do for you. Good luck.”
All blurred, and faded, and Shana woke up.
She turned her head, blearily checking the time. It was only 5:30 in the morning, far too early for her to worry about getting up right away. And besides… turning her head the other way, she smiled. Delilah lay next to her, or rather, halfway on her, having tossed and turned through the night. Her face was pressed against Shana’s arm, and she’d drooled all over Shana’s sleeve.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?” Delilah had asked the previous night, coming to Shana’s room already dressed in her pajamas, with pillows in hand. “I just… I don’t feel safe sleeping alone.”
And of course Shana had said yes. How could she ever turn away her little sister? And despite only being three years younger than Shana, and now a high school student, she looked much younger, and Shana found it hard to resist a little sister as cute as Delilah.
And of course, she knew how frightened she would be if she’d been followed and threatened by Duo. She’d want to sleep with her sister, too.
Delilah stirred, eyes blinking halfway open. She lifted her head, wiping her mouth with her sleeve, and then noticed Shana was awake. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled groggily. “I drooled all over you.”
Shana laughed. “It’s okay. I drooled all over Altair, after all.” She looked at the foot of the bed, where Altair was rubbing his face and side all over the covers, shaking himself furiously, trying to free himself from Shana’s saliva. Delilah started giggling, and then laughing out loud, and Shana joined her, two sisters laughing at a silly little magical dog, and at each other.
This is a good way to start the day.
“You sleep okay?” Shana asked.
Delilah nodded, rubbing her eyes. “Yeah, like the dead. I didn’t dream or anything. I still feel like I’m asleep…”
“Well, I can prove you’re awake,” Shana said, grinning. She snuck her hands over, going after Delilah’s ribs, tickling vigorously. Delilah yelped, shrieked, and then burst out laughing as she struggled in Shana’s grip, begging her to stop. “See?” Shana asked, stopping, propping up on one arm and smiling at her sister.
Delilah took a few moments to catch her breath, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah, I’m definitely awake.” She sighed, staring at the ceiling. “Hey, do you think mom and dad found Caleb, yet?”
“I think they would have woken us up if they had,” Shana said. “But I bet they’ve got more and more people helping search. He’ll turn up, soon. Besides, he’s Caleb. He can get out of anything.”
“You’re not worried at all?” Delilah asked.
Shana shook her head, but paused before replying. “Well… I’m a little worried. I don’t like not knowing where he is. But I think if he was in real danger, or hurt, or worse, we’d know.”
“Because he’s our big brother!” Shana said. “It’s like, sibling connection, or something. We always know when one of us is in serious danger.”
“I’m not so sure about that…”
“Altair knows I’m right, don’t you?” Shana asked as Altair, finally clean of drool, came wandering up to snuggle. His little tail wagged, and he nosed against Shana before turning to Delilah, nestling in against her chest.
Delilah giggled, petting Altair gently. “Thanks, little guy.”
“Man, I kind of wish it was summer, though,” Shana said with a sigh, laying on her back and staring at the ceiling.
“But you love winter,” Delilah said.
“Yeah, but even here at the end of fall, the sun doesn’t start to rise until we’re already on our way to school. I miss watching the sun rise from home, up in the balcony, you know?”
Delilah smiled. “Yeah, I know.”
“Normally, if I was awake this early, that’s what I’d go do. But now I don’t know what to do, because there’s no sun to watch rise until we’re on our way.”
“It’s cold, so we can just cuddle until it’s time to leave,” Delilah suggested. She scooted over, Altair with her, until both were nestled up against Shana. “This is what I like best about winter.”
Shana smiled, resting her cheek against Delilah’s hair. “Yeah. Winter morning’s aren’t so bad, either.”
They stayed like that for another hour, drifting in and out of sleep. Delilah, laying on her side, drooled some more, getting both Shana and Altair. Finally they got up, and as they got dressed, Shana started telling Delilah about her dream, and about her quest to save the Nightmare Queen, and everything else she could think of.
She told her partly because Delilah was her sister, and she didn’t know why she hadn’t said everything possible to her already.
But she also told her because Shana had come to a decision, one that she was surprised she hadn’t come to a long time ago.
“You want me to join your team?” Delilah asked.
Shana nodded. “The Dawn Riders!” she said excitedly. “I should have asked you before, but, well… it was formed partly because you’d disappeared, and I wanted to find you and rescue you. But now you’re back, and I want you to be a part of it. You seemed really upset when we all showed up in the training hall, so maybe you want to be left alone, but…” Shana smiled. “Well, I don’t want to leave you alone.”
Delilah looked shocked, then stared at the floor. “But I… well I… I failed you, didn’t I? When push comes to shove, when you really need to count on me –”
Shana placed a hand on Delilah’s shoulder, smiling at her. “That was once. And seeing how frustrated and sad you were about that tells me you’re braver now than you were then. And besides, like Chelsea said, you held on just long enough. If you’d given up earlier, we would have failed. But you didn’t. And honestly, I gave up more than once inside the Forge. If I had been braver, if I hadn’t given up so easily, then I would have completed my trial faster, and you wouldn’t have had to go through so much. We’re both at fault for how things turned out in the Library, and yet look!” Shana held out her arms, spun in a circle. “We’re both alive, and more than that, we saved the Library. We struggled, and it was hard and scary and painful, but we didn’t fail. We won, against darkness and danger, and we’re both still just kids. How cool is that?”
Delilah stared at Shana, and Shana stared back. Slowly, Delilah smiled. “Yeah, I guess… you’re right. I just…” she shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to get stronger, and I’m still not where I need to be, yet.”
“So stop trying to get stronger all by yourself,” Shana said. “Let’s work together.”
Delilah nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I like the sound of that.”
Shana held out her hand, grinning. “Welcome to the Dawn Riders, little sis!”
High in the mountains east of Grimoire, in a grove that had once been full of kidnapped children, stood Marcus. He tapped his staff against the cold, hard ground, its bells ringing out in the silence.
“That makes everyone,” he said, smiling. Every last child had been found and saved. Grimoire would be a happier place today, filled with celebration.
Yet Marcus didn’t leave the grove right away. He stood in silence for a moment, and then looked out into the trees. “You scared the others away,” he said. “Why let me succeed?”
For a long while, there was no reply. And then, slowly, softly, like a small breath in the wind, came the Shadow. Darkness, formless and alive, filled the trees around the grove. Softly, a voice spoke. “I know what you are.”
Marcus stared back at the Shadow and chuckled. “So you’re afraid of me?”
The Shadow loomed up, covered the canopy of trees blocked out all light, until Marcus could see nothing. The soft voice grew, like a thunder in the distance, rumbling, menacing. “I fear nothing!”
Marcus stood, silent and still, a small smile on his face. The rumbling thunder abated. The Shadow shrank, and light returned.
“I don’t need to warn you, then,” Marcus said, “of what will happen if any more children are abducted from Grimoire. Do I, Jormungand?”
The Shadow peeled back for a moment, revealing the dark shape of a man. Then, with a breath, it vanished.