Delilah still felt out of place.
She’d been ecstatic when Shana had invited her to join the Dawn Riders. Being a part of a team was a wonderful thing that she longed for.
But she didn’t feel like part of this team. Shana, Shias, Kathryn, Rae, and Ben had already been through so much together. Though Delilah was incredibly close to Shana, when Shana was around her twin brother and her friends…
Delilah felt more distant from her than ever.
And now she was with them on the Nightmare Road, a path fraught with peril. The stakes were higher than ever, and Delilah was here, and she felt…
Like she was completely out of place.
You can’t have your heart and mind be so troubled, not now. You have to focus. Shana and the others are counting on you. And the more frightened or worried you are, the more likely this place will prey on those feelings.
Shana had told them all of her first trip into Nightmares, of the fears and dangers she faced along the way, of how that place had fed on her own fears and doubts.
About how she had let her teammates down, because she hadn’t been focused.
I can’t do the same to her. I almost let her down at the Library, too…
Stop it. Stop being so worried.
It didn’t help that Delilah couldn’t summon her Felines to join her. The only one whose magic would work in this place was Shana’s, and even then only her strange Dreamer Magic that Shana didn’t fully understand.
Their best weapon, as Mister Midnight had put it, was courage.
“I taught your brother the same thing,” he’d said after the doors closed behind them. “Danger is very real. But fear is a choice. Fear is up to you, and in this place, you need to recognize that more than ever. Because fear is the one weapon this place has to use against us. And courage is the one shield we have against that.”
Logically, Mister Midnight’s words made sense to Delilah.
But logic did not always go hand-in-hand with the human mind. One could know something to be true and still struggle to accept that truth.
And so Delilah was frightened. And her fear only increased the more she realized that very fear was what could destroy her siblings, and her allies, as they undertook a tremendously important quest.
The Nightmare Road itself wasn’t so frightening, not at first. The mist that seemed so dark when they’d entered, so closed in around them that they could barely see ahead of themselves, had steadily parted and thinned. It hung about them still, a constant reminder of the place they were in and the fears that would prey on them, but it allowed them to see more of what they faced.
Where Shana’s journey through Nightmares had been through vast, open spaces with a sense of disorientation without the blue path that showed them the way, the Nightmare Road was much more restrictive. It was about half as wide as Midnight Bridge, perhaps twenty yards across from left to right, and on either side was a sheer drop into dark, spiraling emptiness.
The Road itself rose and dropped, sometimes breaking apart with gaps that needed to be leapt across to the next section of floating rock. There were crumbling stairs so steep they had to climb nearly vertically, using their hands as much as their feet. Twice now the Road had seemingly ended, with only a swirling dark mist below them.
Two leaps of faith. Both rewarded, so far, with the next section of the Road.
But that was frightening enough. What if the next time, the solution wasn’t so simple? What if they couldn’t just jump?
You can’t be afraid. That’s exactly what those leaps of faith want you to feel.
All was dark and quiet. They could never see very far ahead, but occasionally, far off through the dark mist, there seemed to be some sort of light – faint, like a twinkling star – that shone for a moment before vanishing into the mist.
However much the Road twisted and turned, that light was always before them.
Shana thought it was a hopeful sign, a little bit of light fighting against the darkness to make sure they knew the way to go. Delilah wanted to think that.
But this entire place unsettled her. It was hard to hope in a tiny light that wasn’t even always visible.
She trailed at the back of the group, having volunteered as a “rear guard.”
But in truth, she stayed behind everyone else because she couldn’t feel like a part of them. Even in this dark quietude, Shana and her friends bantered back and forth here and there. They were a small spot of cheer in the oppressive atmosphere of fear.
Mister Midnight walked ahead of them all, tall and strong, his face constantly fixed forward. If anyone had a purpose to be here other than Shana, it was him. He was fighting to save his Summon.
Delilah had grasped onto that mission of his with powerful empathy. But she hadn’t been able to make it her own. It was his Summon, not hers, that was in danger. While she would surely be at the front, tall and strong and prepared for anything, if her Felines were on the line…
She could feel for Mister Midnight, but trying to make someone else’s purpose and goals her own wasn’t enough to assuage her scattered heart.
The Road spiraled, up and up, with crooked metal lamp posts springing up on either side, glowing a strange, dark purple light. That light seemed to beckon the darkness, rather than illuminate it. All around them a blackness swirled, and when Delilah waved it away with her hand, the mist seemed to form into hands of its own, briefly holding Delilah’s before fading away.
That was Delilah’s first clue, her first sign that caused a shock of fear to lance through her heart.
Don’t. Please. Not here.
Stop with that, and never come back. Please.
The spiraling ascent ended, and the group descended along slowly sloping, crumbling black rocks that never provided sure footing. Ben, a natural klutz, constantly fell flat on his butt, sliding here and there, which only made Kathryn laugh again and again at his failures. That laughter was a bright noise in the darkness. Shana and Rae helped each other along, and Mister Midnight occasionally slowed in the front, looking back and offering helpful advice or a brief hand to hold to steady someone.
Delilah took it slower than the others, carefully picking her way amongst the rocks. When she finally did stumble under a vanishing foothold, she barely caught herself. And when she looked up…
There was a hand, reaching out to her.
“Shias,” Delilah said, staring at her brother’s concerned expression. She took his hand, and he helped her up. Together, the siblings slowly picked their way forward.
“You doing okay back here?” Shias asked.
Delilah opened her mouth, but then closed it.
Of course he knows I’m not. He’s too perceptive to lie to.
But what do I say? I don’t… I don’t know how to talk about this. And I’m just supposed to be brave, right? This is on me, and I have to face it myself.
“I will be when we get through this,” Delilah said, marveling at how Shias was able to always find the smallest, most imperceptible solid spot amongst the sliding, crumbling landscape. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Shias said. He rarely smiled, or emoted at all with his face or voice, so Delilah had trouble figuring out how truthful he was being, or what he was feeling underneath his positive reply. “It’s strange, though. We haven’t encountered any of the real dangers that Shana did during her test. We just keep walking along. Maybe it’s because we’re all being brave, but… that seems too simple.”
“Simple?” Delilah asked, letting out a sigh of relief as she reached level, solid ground.
Shias nodded. “This place is supposed to test us – or, I guess specifically, test the Dreamer. I don’t think it’s as easy as just us being brave to stay safe. Perhaps we’re being lulled into a false sense of security. Maybe this is a test of endurance, looking to steadily wear us down before launching its true dangers. I’m not sure, but I don’t think we should ever feel safe here, no matter how brave we manage to be.”
You could stand to be more reassuring.
“It also doesn’t seem as imposing as what Shana described from her test,” Shias continued. “But I’m sure we’ll see what’s truly in store for us in time. Stay close to us, okay? It’s best for us to not get separated from each other.”
Delilah nodded. “I will.”
Shias continued to walk alongside her, but after a few paces, she dropped a little bit behind.
She was drawn to the back of their group. It was the one place she felt the slightest bit like she belonged.
Or maybe it was just the solitude that drew her there.
Maybe I’ve just been doing things alone for too long.
I hid my Felines from everyone. I went out at midnight every night to fight Snifflers alone, never telling anyone. The only reason anyone found out about my Felines was because I got caught up in a different battle.
I always trained alone, and studied alone, and…
It never bothered me.
But being here with all of them bothers me. Am I just better off alone? Do I work better alone?
But I want to be part of something. I thought I was with Chelsea and Lorelei… but…
Delilah stopped at the bottom of a new climb, placing her hand on a short strip of railing and looking out into the darkness.
Why does this feel…
Delilah looked down at the railing, and then up, at the lamp post that stretched out an arm over her head, a purple lantern dangling above her.
She turned around, looking the other way.
Out in the mist…
What was that?
Delilah took one step towards it, and the dark mist parted.
She stared out at the very first fork in the Road, a narrower path thick with dark overgrowth, winding its way out into the gloom.
“Guys,” she called. “There’s a different path here.”
“What?” Shana asked, looking down from the top of the hill. She stared where Delilah pointed, and then started climbing down. “Are you sure?”
“What…” Delilah started, looking at her sister, and then back out at the narrow path. “Of course I’m sure. It’s right there.”
Shana hopped down from a rock, standing right next to Delilah, peering into the mist. “I don’t… see anything.”
Delilah, puzzled beyond belief, took a few steps forward, until she could step out and put one foot onto the start of the narrow path. It was solid, steady.
This was no illusion.
“You can’t see where my foot is?” she asked, staring at her sister. Shias and the others had joined her, and they all stared at Delilah like she was crazy.
“That’s so weird,” Shana said, coming forward to stand next to Delilah. She stepped out, putting her foot right next to hers, and let out a sudden laugh of surprise. “Whoa. It doesn’t look solid, but it is. That’s super weird!”
“See? It’s re–” Delilah started, but then her eyes went wide.
Of course she recognized this place. It was the second clue. And the sudden voice that floated to her on the wind, singing a sad song…
That was the third clue.
After the third, came…
“We need to run!” Delilah shouted, pushing Shana ahead, scrambling towards the hill. “Run, hurry!”
“What is it?” Shana asked.
“I’ve put us all in danger,” Delilah said, feeling panic grip her heart.
“Calm down,” Mister Midnight said sternly. “Your fear is what put us in danger, but all you need to do is cast it aside. Don’t be afraid, and the danger will pass.”
“But I –” Delilah started.
She heard the voice grow louder. And with its song came the sound of waves.
“Run!” she shouted, shoving Shana and the others ahead of her, scrambling up the hill after them.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
I can’t shut off my fear so easily. It’s too late for that, now. If I could have prepared myself…
No. I never can against this.
Just run. Hope for the best.
And let everyone else go ahead of you. Because if all else fails…
“We can handle it together,” Shana insisted, but Delilah pushed her once more. They crested the hill, started racing down it on the other side.
“Just run, please,” Delilah said, trying her very best to keep her voice calm. Her own panic would only worry the others. “We can outrun it.”
“We’ll be okay if we’re fast.”
“Just stay ahead of me. I might be able to stop it if it gets too close.”
…It’s for the best.
“Okay, let’s go!” Shana called out, rallying the team to her. Shias looked back, his sharp, analytical gaze on Delilah. She stared back at him, trying to keep her expression neutral.
But that wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. So instead, she tried to put her own plan, her own fears, into her eyes, to tell Shias all she could without words.
You did the same for her before.
Slowly, Shias nodded once. He ran ahead, helping Shana rally the others.
Once all eyes were off of Delilah, she stopped. They’d started climbing again, up a winding staircase. Soon, they’d vanish out of sight.
Delilah turned around, her hands shaking with fear. The song was louder, the waves stronger.
The flood was coming, urged onward by the siren’s song. Delilah had faced this nightmare many times before. She’d always tried to run, and always failed. But she tried anyway, desperately, because her fear spurred her onwards. She couldn’t control herself.
But here, now, for the sake of her siblings, she must.
Take me. Leave the rest. Take me and my fear. Leave the others.
Shana… I’m sorry.
“Delilah!” Shana shouted, somewhere high above.
Delilah swallowed a lump in her throat, fought back her rapid, panicked breaths.
“It’s okay!” she shouted, frustrated at the quaking in her voice. The mist before her parted, and on came the water, rushing, foaming, swallowing all in its path. “Just keep going! I’ll be fine!”
“No, you don’t have –” Shana started.
But Delilah didn’t hear the rest. The waves crashed into her, and all sound was wrenched away, save for the water and the siren’s song.
Delilah was tossed, buffeted, pulled, whipping about here and there, a slave to will of the waves. Common sense left her as her lungs burned for oxygen, and she opened her mouth to take a breath.
Suddenly, all was quiet. The vicious violence of the water abated, and Delilah found herself floating in the most peaceful way imaginable. All around her was not the darkness of the Nightmare Road, but a light blue color, tinged with white.
The siren’s song had left, but in its place came a new song. It was deep, wordless, and filled with melancholy and regret. There was pain, and sorrow, and, above all things…
The most crushing, heartbreaking loneliness Delilah could ever imagine. It swept over her, and tears fell from her eyes, mingling with the water all about her.
Above her, in the depths of the endless ocean, the most beautiful creature swam. She was massive, large beyond imagination, and glistening white from head to tail. Tendrils dragged away from her body, drinking in the precious water all around her. Her many, uncountable fins beat steadily, peacefully, carrying her along.
She was on a journey. A journey to find the one she’d been parted from. And slowly, she turned her head.
Startling white eyes stared straight at Delilah. And in their glistening glow, Delilah was pulled into her memories, her desires, her song.
Delilah stood on the land. Waves beat against rocks to her right, and to her left was a deep, dark pit, so wide that its far side served as the horizon for the vast landscape Delilah stood upon.
Deep in that pit, a dark creature stirred. It raised its head, and deep, dark blue eyes gazed up at Delilah.
And then it began to sing.
Its mournful, lonely song matched that of the beautiful white creature in the depths. They were a pair, and they longed for each other.
But they were parted, against their will. Their tragedy struck Delilah’s heart. Wind howled across the lonely landscape, and then whipped against Delilah.
Down and down she fell, outside the pit, past the cliffs, towards the great, wide ocean. Just as she thought she’d fall forever, she met the water.
Not with a crash, not with pain. The ocean reached up its swirling hands to greet her, to embrace her, to pull her into its depths gently.
Delilah floated, deeper and deeper. The song of the creature in the pit had faded, but the song of the white creature in the ocean returned.
Delilah wept for them both.
All went dark, for a moment, and then Delilah saw something in the water. She was moving towards it, against her will. As it came into sight, she panicked.
“I can’t go there!” she cried out, her voice muffled and strange in the water. “I’m useless there. I can’t… I know I can’t go back to Shana, but… I can’t go somewhere just to wait…”
The song ended, and a still, small voice spoke.
Delilah thought for only the barest moment, and then replied. “To Grimoire! Take me back home, let me help Caleb, if I can!”
All was dark.
And then, slowly, light came into being. Steadily it grew, blackness turning to grey turning to cold white.
And in that light, Delilah heard the song of the magnificent white creature she’d seen in the water. And she knew.
This is where I belong.