When Mister Midnight returned to Midnight Bridge with Maribelle, Shana was shocked at the woman in Maribelle’s arms. They looked so alike, there really could be only one possibility.
“Your sister?” Shana asked, gazing at Maribelle hopefully.
Maribelle’s eyes glistened with tears as she smiled. “Yes,” she said breathlessly. “It’s because of you, Shana. I’d thought I’d lost all of my sisters, but after reuniting me with Anna and Belle-Belle, you gave me hope that they weren’t all lost. And the way in which Sarabelle left, of her own accord… I’m so glad she wasn’t gone forever.”
“But I thought you two went to the Radiant Palace,” Shias said. “Why was Sarabelle there?”
“She was the Gold Knight,” Midnight said. “Let’s sit down, and we can explain everything. And…” He looked around at the Dawn Riders. “I suppose introductions are in order.” As he walked away, he muttered under his breath, “Awful lot of visitors lately…”
While Midnight and Maribelle explained things, Mineria looked after Sarabelle, and Ingrid went around serving tea and sandwiches. When the full story was told, Shana sat back, completely stunned.
After all that stuff about fighting against the darkness…
Well, I knew the Radiant King was a bad guy. I just never imagined how bad.
At least Sarabelle is back. And Hestia and a bunch of the others left the Radiance for good.
Caleb, you won’t have it quite so rough.
“How is she?” Delilah asked, watching over Sarabelle with Mineria.
“She’s very weak,” Mineria said.
“Probably because of her Contract,” Maribelle said bitterly. “She didn’t have to eat, or drink, or sleep. But because of that, now that it’s broken…”
“All of that lack of nourishment or rest is taking a sudden toll on her,” Mineria said. She smoothed back Sarabelle’s hair, gently trickling water into her mouth. Sarabelle accepted it slowly, and her eyes fluttered slightly before closing again.
“She’ll be all right, though,” Maribelle said, stroking her sister’s hand. “It’ll take time, but she’ll recover. Especially once she’s back home. The air there will do her good.”
“Now that all of our cards are on the table,” Midnight said, “what’s the deal with you kids? Which of you are Caleb’s siblings, and why are you all here?”
“Don’t scowl so much,” Ingrid said, refilling Midnight’s cup. She smiled apologetically at the teenagers. “He isn’t used to having so many guests, and he’s a bit of a loner, so you’ll have to forgive him.”
“But you had our brother,” Shana said.
“He was here because he needed to be here,” Midnight said. “Stop talking around things, stop bantering, stop asking questions. Why are you here? My house isn’t a tourist destination, no matter what Caleb told you.”
Caleb, why didn’t you mention how grumpy and mean your teacher was?
Well, I mean, I guess you kind of did, but I thought that was a training method, not a personality trait.
“Do you want me to do it?” Shias asked.
Shana shook her head. “This is my quest, I’ll explain it.”
And so she began, starting off with how she was the Dreamer, and covering some of the adventure she’d been through with Maribelle, and how she’d restored the Library of Solitude. She delved into far more detail when she got to her vision at the end of that test, of Nocta and the Nightmare Citadel, and what Gwen had told her about Enchanted Summons.
“Nocta was yours, wasn’t she?” Shana asked, gazing hopefully at Midnight.
From the moment she’d first mentioned her vision of Nocta, Midnight had looked away, and he hadn’t looked back at her since. Slowly, he sighed, and that single breath contained such a wealth of guilt, regret, and pain that Shana’s heart broke all at once.
“Not was,” he said softly. “She still lives. The bond between Summoner and Summon holds true until death. And yes. She’s mine, and that King stole her away from me.” His eyes flashed with anger, and he stood suddenly. “I’ll be back.”
He strode swiftly from the room, exiting the house entirely. The sudden slam of the door as he left made everyone in the room jump.
“Where’s he going?” Kathryn asked.
“I think I know,” Ingrid said, walking to the windows. She nodded. “Yep. He’s just going off to think.”
Shana joined her at the windows, watching. Midnight went around behind the house and out to the patio, where he sat on the bench with his back to the house, gazing out into the dark void beyond.
“Now what do we do?” Kathryn asked.
“I guess we wait,” Shana said.
Ingrid nodded. “I’m sure he’ll help you,” she said. “I’ve only heard him talk about Nocta once, and he barely said anything, but… it’s a very painful topic for him. He wouldn’t hesitate at all to go to her aid if asked.”
“That looks like hesitating to me,” Ben muttered, earning a swift kick in the shin from Kathryn.
“Leave him to it,” Mineria said, closing her eyes as she smiled. Her smile didn’t last long though, and she gazed out the window at Midnight with sadness in her glittering emerald eyes. “His past is one full of pain and sorrow, but having Nocta torn away from him… that, I think, was the most painful day of his life. He never forgave the Crystal King, and because of that…” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t speak for him. He’ll tell you what he wishes you to know, when he wishes you to know it.”
“So we just…” Shana said, sitting back down on the couch.
“Wait,” Delilah finished, sitting next to her.
Mister Midnight stared out into the darkness.
But his mind wasn’t on the darkness at all. His mind was on memories from so long ago, and yet as fresh as yesterday.
The Crystal King.
How long had it been? For a master of Time Magic, time itself seemed very strange, and it was easy to lose track of it. A minute could be a minute.
Or it could stretch out into a thousand.
And how many times had Midnight used his Locational Time Magic for students, stretching a matter of hours out into the length of an entire year?
Time was, ironically, a foreign concept to Midnight after all he’d been through.
And yet some things, no matter how long ago, never seem to grow distant.
He still remembered his delight – one of the last times he’d felt such an emotion – when his master, the previous Mister Midnight, had taken him to the Wood of the Wisps. All these marvelous Will Wisps, in more colors than the young Lancelot had ever dreamed existed in all of creation. And just a simple touch sent the most extravagant joy through his entire being.
They were magical, more than anything Midnight had ever known.
And when he’d found that one – his one – he’d asked the previous Mister Midnight if he could have it.
Both Lancelot and that Mister Midnight had known, of course, about the Crystal King’s ban on Enchanted Summons.
And both of them held that ban in the same contempt.
“Why this one?” Mister Midnight had asked.
“Because…” Lancelot had said, holding onto a squishy portion of the black Will Wisp’s small, amorphous body. “Because she’s so lonely.”
“She?” Midnight asked.
Lancelot nodded. “She’s a girl, and she’s lonely. She…” He stopped, for a moment, because that little Will Wisp had locked onto one painful memory of Lancelot’s past. Lancelot stared, and he felt that the Wisp, though it had no eyes, was staring back at him.
“She’s just like me,” he said softly.
“Say no more, Lance,” Midnight said, stroking his beard, an understanding glint in his dark eyes. “If you left here without her, both of you would suffer. Just do your best to make sure that King never finds out about her.”
And in an instant, Nocta had been born. That small blob of blackness had transformed into a round-faced barn owl. Glittering black feathers flew into the air every time the little bird flapped her wings, and even as a baby, with all the energy and curiosity and spunk of a baby, she still had a somber, melancholic soul to her.
But with Lancelot, her sadness was lessened. And with Nocta, Lancelot’s own sadness was lessened.
I was still so young back then, though. I thought I’d seen things. I thought I knew pain.
Just like every kid thinks they know everything…
Nocta became a fierce fighter. “Of course she is,” Midnight said at Lancelot’s observation. “She’s like you, after all.”
A fierce fighter. And that was when I was just a boy.
Well, no one would ever claim I lived an ordinary life.
Or a peaceful one.
But with time, things changed.
The previous Nightmare Queen died.
And that King had made the most hideously cruel decision of his ignoble reign.
And I was forbidden from ever approaching the Nightmare Citadel.
Midnight rolled up his right sleeve, staring at the long black brand that twisted around his forearm.
Only, that brand had started to fade.
So, the Crystal King really is gone. Maybe not dead, but his power is broken.
Then maybe I really can help. Maybe…
Midnight rolled his sleeve back down, looked out into the void.
You were taken by Collapse. I’m surprised I wasn’t, too.
But, then, you were taken somewhere to be completely isolated. I still had others. I still had purpose, and freedom.
How many times did you save my life? I suppose it’s time I saved yours.
But even if he succeeded in freeing Nocta from Collapse…
Will we still be parted? Must you still remain Nightmare Queen? Such a horribly frightening title for a far less frightening, and much more noble, role than people realize. There must be a Nightmare Queen.
But must it be you?
Midnight stood and reached into his pocket. Out came a pitch-black pocket watch. Its chain had long ago been broken, and the crest on its face had faded. But as he opened it, the interior was still shiny and new.
A photograph occupied the top of the watch’s interior. It was him and Alexandra, as children, arms around each other, smiling.
And perched on Lancelot’s shoulders, seeming to smile too, was Nocta.
Midnight snapped the watch shut and tucked it back in his pocket. He turned back towards his house, his coat fluttering behind him like a cape.
I’m coming for you, Nocta. I’m coming to save you.
Midnight returned just as Shana and the others were bidding Maribelle and Sarabelle farewell.
“She’s recovered enough that I think I can handle the rest,” Maribelle said, smiling. Sarabelle stood beside her, arm over her shoulder for support, looking frail and sickly but, somehow, smiling just slightly.
“Say hello to Annabelle for me,” Shana said.
“And Isabelle for me,” Delilah said.
Maribelle laughed. “I certainly will,” she said. She looked past the teenagers, to Midnight, and nodded once. “There aren’t words in any language to properly thank you. You…” Her eyes shimmered with tears, and she blinked them away. “Thank you.”
“Take care of her,” Midnight said, nodding.
Maribelle and Sarabelle stepped together through the door that linked Midnight Bridge to the Library of Solitude, and disappeared.
“I can’t believe you have such a beautiful place under your bridge,” Shana said, spinning in a circle, looking all around at the crystalline cavern beneath Midnight Bridge.
“You’re saying my bridge isn’t beautiful?” Midnight asked.
“I mean, well…” Shana started, then shrugged. “So anyway! Will you help us?”
Midnight nodded. “As the Dreamer, you should know how to get to the Nightmare Citadel. Are you prepared?”
Shana stared at him, blinking. “Uh…” she started. “I… didn’t ask Heart about that.”
Midnight tsk’ed. “At least figure that out. Once you’re ready to go, we can leave.”
“So that means you have to sleep,” Kathryn said.
“But… Heart doesn’t always show up,” Shana said.
“Then keep going back to sleep until she does,” Midnight said. He stepped aside, gesturing towards the stairs up to his house. “Ingrid will show you a bed you can use.”
“But I’m not –” Shana started.
“And we have excellent sleeping draughts if you aren’t sleepy,” Midnight said. “While you figure it out, the rest of us will be ready. As soon as you know how to go, we should leave.”
“So quickly?” Shias asked.
Midnight nodded. “There aren’t any preparations to make for this kind of journey, except those preparations you make within your own mind. Steel yourself against fear. That’s all you can do.”
Shana walked along, heading back up to the house and laying down in the bed Ingrid showed her. Sure enough, she wasn’t the least bit sleepy, and she thought it was odd trying to sleep when it wasn’t even dinner time yet, but the sooner she did, the sooner they’d be able to go to the Nightmare Citadel.
“It’s bitter,” Ingrid said, handing Shana a mug of pale blue liquid. “But it’ll have you sleeping like a rock in no time at all.”
“How do you get along with Mister Midnight?” Shana asked. She coughed at her first sip – it was extremely bitter – but once she knew what to expect, she was able to force the rest of it down. “He’s so grumpy, and you’re so… sweet.”
“Thank you,” Ingrid said, smiling. “But once you get used to Mister Midnight’s temperament, he’s a really wonderful person. He’s been through a lot – far more pain than most – and it’s colored his outlook on the world and other people. But despite all that, he’s still kind. He’s still good. He just prefers to keep to himself.”
“If you… say so…” Shana said drowsily. The draught was doing its work, and the world was blurring before her eyes. Her head hit the pillow before she knew she was falling. “I… just want… tell Shias, he… books…”
And then Shana slept.
And, in an instant, awoke in the Dreamworld.
“That was fast,” she said, standing on the rocky spire where she always started. Despite how much the sleeping draught had completely knocked her out, she was totally alert and attentive here in the Dreamworld. She took a deep breath, and then called out for Heart.
“No need to be so loud.”
Heart’s voice drifted to Shana’s ears on the wind, but she couldn’t see her anywhere. “Where are you?” Shana asked.
“I’m waiting for you,” Heart replied. “Come to the castle. I will meet you atop the wall. I…” Heart paused, and when she continued, her voice seemed sad. “I know why you’ve come. And I am ready to show you the way.”
Shana flew, the pink clouds parting before her as she soared under and between beams of golden light. The castle was always the first location on her journey through Dreamworld, so she reached it quickly, and saw Heart standing atop the wall, near the entrance to the hall of paintings. Drifting down gently, Shana alighted on the wall and looked at Heart.
Heart stared back at her sadly, but that sadness quickly vanished as she shook her head. “You’ve come to find a way to the Nightmare Citadel, correct?” she asked.
Shana nodded. “I’ve found Mister Midnight, and he’s ready to go save Nocta,” she said. “But…” She looked around. “How do I bring everyone else with me?”
“Once you approach the exit from this castle, you can call your companions into the Dreamworld,” Heart said. “Come with me.”
Heart walked ahead, her silver cape glittering in the light. They entered the castle, walking down the spacious hall that Shana knew so well. Paintings adorned either wall, all showing sights and scenes that Shana didn’t recognize.
“What are all of these?” she asked.
“You may find their use in time,” Heart said. “But they aren’t necessary to your current quest.”
They walked ahead, turning at the halfway point of the hall, descending down a staircase that Shana was certain had never been there before. It curved back on itself, opening out into a tall, arching chamber that was dark, with no windows to let in light. Torches high on the walls flickered with blue light, amplified through circular glass discs like spotlights.
All of the blue beams of light converged on the center of the chamber, where a tall set of dark double-doors stood. They were carved with horrified faces and the terrors that caused them – dark, shapeless things that seemed to morph and shift even on the wooden doors.
Before the doors was a marble pedestal, and atop it, a silver sphere. Heart stopped at it. “This is how you can bring your allies and friends to you,” she said. “But be warned. The path you are about to tread is a dangerous one, fraught with peril and fear. You have already seen what the nightmares can unleash upon you, and with the Nightmare Queen consumed by Collapse, things will only grow more and more frightening.”
“Is it like the Dream Forge?” Shana asked. “If the nightmares attack my friends –”
“They will be all right,” Heart said. “But they will be expelled from the Dreamworld, with no way to return. Do not worry for their safety if they are consumed by the fearful forces you will face. The only one whose safety is at stake is your own. If the Dreamer is consumed by nightmares…” Heart looked away. “She will be forever lost.”
Shana reached out to Heart and took her hand in hers. Heart looked at her, surprised, and Shana smiled. “Please don’t be afraid for my sake,” she said. “I’ll have wonderful friends by my side, and I’ve learned a lot after overcoming the trials of the Dream Forge. Plus, Mister Midnight is super powerful, so he’ll be a big help. And I know I’ll always have you.” She placed a hand against her chest. “You’re the Dreamer’s Heart, so you’re in my heart. No matter where I go, even if I can’t hear you, I know you’re here. So I can always be brave.”
Heart smiled, giving Shana’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Of course. Well then. Call your allies, and prepare for the journey ahead. Once you pass through the doors, there is no coming back until you reach the Nightmare Citadel.”
Shana placed her hand against the silver sphere, following Heart’s instructions. It was quite easy, actually – she just had to think of her friends and the ones she wanted to take with her, and she saw them in the sphere. One by one she selected them, and one by one she watched them fall suddenly asleep. When she ended with Mister Midnight, all of the ones she’d chosen suddenly appeared around her in the castle.
“That was you?” Kathryn asked.
“That was… very strange,” Rae said, staring at herself, as if she couldn’t believe she was real.
“You must be…” Midnight started, staring at Heart.
Heart nodded. “I am Dreamer’s Heart,” she said. “Or Heart, for short. I will be opening the door, but that is all I can do for you, I’m afraid. The journey to the Nightmare Citadel is… entirely up to you to complete.”
“We’ll make it,” Shana said, looking around at each of her friends, smiling. Shias, Delilah, Kathryn, Rae, Ben, and Mister Midnight were all here with her, and all of them looked ready for the journey ahead.
“We’re ready,” Shana said, nodding to Heart. Heart stepped to the doors, placing a magenta hand against the dark wood. An echoing boom resounded, and slowly, the doors opened inward.
Beyond lay a landscape of dark fog and mist, obscured so that no details could be made out.
They were going in blind.
“Let’s go,” Midnight said, stepping through the doors. He started to disappear through the fog and mist, so Shana rushed ahead.
“Come on!” she said, urging her friends on. As she ran ahead, she looked aside at Heart, offering her a smile.
Heart looked back at her, tears in her eyes, and waved goodbye.