Fae stood at the entrance to the Nightmare Road, staring into the swirling vortex and feeling a sinking sensation in her stomach.
“It doesn’t even look like a road,” she said.
“It will once we pass through,” Gerick said. He stared at the vortex with a grim expression. “And once we pass through –”
“There’s no turning back, right?” Mercury asked. “We know. You’ve told us over and over again. It’s dangerous, but we have to go. So we’ll face the danger, and we’ll make it through.”
“The whole ‘it’s necessary, so we’ll succeed’ philosophy?” Neptune asked.
Mercury grinned. “Exactly.”
“You know there are a lot of holes in that philosophy,” Neptune said.
Mercury sighed. “I know because you’ve told me all about them so many times.” She smiled. “Relax. Pressure’s on.”
“Those two phrases don’t fit together,” Neptune said.
“She’s right, though,” Fae said. “We have to do this, whether we like it or not. Whether we succeed or not, well… that’s up to us. But we wouldn’t have been given this task if it was impossible.”
“And it sounds like the most dangerous part of all our different quests,” Jupiter said. “So once it’s over, we can handle everything else easily.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” Neptune said with a heavy sigh. “You know that’s just setting yourself up for disappointment.”
“Are we ready to go, or what?” Mercury asked. She looked back, at the valley so far away, where the artist’s alley camp could just barely be seen. “You know, Gerick, you don’t have to come with us. That’s your home, right? All those people count on you. Are you sure you want to risk your life for strangers?”
“Again?” Jupiter added.
Gerick shook his head. “I’m determined to see you girls through this,” he said. “If there’s any way I can help, I will do so.” He smiled thinly. “And besides… I’ve never actually seen the Nightmare Road, only heard tales of it and read about it. I suppose you could say my curiosity is getting the better of me.”
Fae almost laughed at that. Curiosity being enough to pull someone into such an ostensibly dangerous place was utterly absurd.
And yet a small part of Fae’s mind knew that she could turn back. She didn’t have to do all of this. Collapse… it hadn’t affected anyone she knew personally. She was safe, her family and friends and home were safe.
She could just leave.
It isn’t just curiosity for me. Somewhere along the line, I became determined to see this through. But…
Well, curiosity is a strange beast.
That’s what started me on this entire quest, isn’t it? I wanted to know things. I wanted to know what my drawings meant, I wanted to know why the Dominion was calling out to me. And now that I’m here, staring at the start to the most dangerous journey of my life…
I want to know just how dangerous it will be.
I want to know if we can do it. I want to know what it’s going to take to succeed.
I want to know if I have what it takes for this.
“Fae?” Mercury asked. “You’re the leader. We go when you go, right?”
Fae felt a little strange, as she had for a while, being looked at as a leader.
But it’s true. This is my quest, so I have to be the leader.
Here we go.
Fae stepped forward into the vortex. All light and sound vanished, and she felt momentarily weightless. In that moment, a question stuck in her mind.
Should we have been holding onto each other?
Light and sound returned, and Fae’s feet touched down on solid ground. Immediately, she turned around in a circle, looking for Gerick and the Star sisters.
But she saw no one.
We should have been holding onto each other.
Fae stood alone on a black stone platform, with no sign of a way back. The only path leading off of the platform was a long, narrow staircase, going on farther than Fae could see.
All around her was darkness, swirling and murky. Shadows and shapes seemed to flit here and there, but whenever Fae looked directly at one, it was as if it never existed.
And she was all alone.
“I’ll just wait,” she said softly. “It was a really weird entrance. Pretty scary. Of course they’d hesitate to go through. I’ll just wait, and they’ll come through soon.”
Fae waited, listening to the distant howl of a wind that she never felt.
No one came to join her.
I’m… really on my own, aren’t I?
They probably went through the vortex, but were taken somewhere else. We should have been holding onto each other, then we might have ended up in the same place. Hopefully they held onto each other. They probably think I’m really stupid for going through alone. I didn’t even say anything. How stupid is that? I’m the leader, I could have said “I’m going now,” or “Let’s go,” or “Any thoughts on how to tackle this?” But I just walked through, like an idiot.
Fae eyed the stairs, the only clear path in this dark place. They stretched on forever, vanishing into the swirling, murky darkness far beyond.
And they kept going down.
What are they descending towards?
No. I can’t take anything here at face value. Gerick said as much – it’s just like a nightmare. Except actually dangerous. Things will change and shift, and it’ll constantly prey on my fears.
So I have to be ready for anything.
I have to try to not be afraid, no matter what happens.
Fae took a deep breath, let it out. And then she remembered her most useful tool. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the candlestick bell. Raising it aloft, she rang it once…
But no sound emitted.
Fae stared up at the bell.
She wasn’t holding it.
Fear. Inescapable, unbidden, it gripped her heart with its icy claws. She reached into her bag.
But her bag was gone.
She didn’t have her art tools, or her Talismans, or the bell. She had nothing but the clothes she was wearing.
Okay. Now I get it. I can’t count on anything.
It’s fine. Deep breaths. Focus. I just have to move forward.
Fae stepped out onto the stairs.
And was immediately somewhere else.
Darkness still swirled around her, but that darkness existed outside of windows. She was in a hallway, its walls to the left and right entirely glass, while the floor beneath her feet and ceiling overhead were made of black marble.
The hall felt cramped and closed in, making Fae instantly uncomfortable. And as she looked ahead and behind, she found she had no sense of direction. The hall continued on in both directions to no end that she could see.
There aren’t symbols or signs. It’s all featureless.
Where do I go?
Fae was frightened, but she couldn’t let that paralyze her. She picked a direction – she couldn’t tell if it was the direction she’d been facing or not, having turned around in a circle to examine the place – and started walking. Her boots clicked and clacked noisily in the stillness, echoing on down the hall in eerie fashion.
Every step, Fae expected to end up elsewhere. But on and on she went, in the same hall, with no new sights or sounds.
And every step, Fae wished the others would appear to join her.
I was always so content being alone. I liked solitude.
But in this place, the first thing I hope for is others to be around me.
Did Mercury, Neptune, and Jupiter change me? Or is it just that I’m so scared I can’t help but want to not be alone?
On and on she walked, and still no sign of anything new.
Maybe if I think about other things I won’t be so frightened. This is actually kind of peaceful, in a way. It’s quiet, and there isn’t anyone around to disrupt that. And even though it’s so dark, I can see just fine. Where is any light coming from?
Just as Fae started to distract herself with analyzing the hall and her surroundings, she stopped.
Before her was a wall.
That wasn’t –
She turned around, and a wall was behind her, as well.
She was closed in, with no way out. And it was far too cramped. Fae felt her pace quicken, and her breathing began to come in short gasps.
I have to get out of here. There has to be a way out. I just need to think!
She turned to one window, staring out into the darkness. Above her, below her, beside her, there was nothing but emptiness. The same sights awaited her out the opposite window.
If I could even open these windows, it would just be a suicide jump.
But maybe there are walls on the outside I could climb on. Maybe something new will appear if I open this place up.
Either way, I need to get out of here!
Fae pressed against one window, then the other. She felt along their perimeters, searched with her eyes, but found no way of opening them.
The walls seemed to have closed in, just a little bit.
She didn’t have her bag, but she did have…
I hope this will do the trick.
She took off one of her boots, tying the laces around her wrist and holding it tight, angling its slight heel as if it was the head of a hammer. She pulled back, and swung. The impact against the window sent a shock through her arm, but a small web of cracks also appeared in the window. Her efforts were rewarded, if even just slightly.
One more swing, and then another. Her arm ached, but the cracks expanded, deepened, widened.
The walls seemed to have closed in, just a little bit more.
Fae hammered away, her breath coming faster, sweat sticking some of her hair to her forehead.
One swing. And then another. And another. And –
There! She’d done it, stepping back and letting out a gasp of triumph as the glass fell away, shattering completely. A harsh wind came pouring in, and Fae winced at the frigid, biting nature of this air. She stepped towards the edge of her opening, but the wind came from one side, and then another.
If I get too close, it’s just going to pull me off the edge. There isn’t anything to hold onto, nothing to brace myself with.
But where else can I go?
Fae put her boot back on, tested her traction against the marble floor. Her boots didn’t slide, but held fast if she applied enough pressure.
Though that could change any second.
No. Don’t think about that. This is all you can do with what you have, so make the most of it.
She pressed down hard with one foot, while slowly creeping forward with another. Pressed her hands against the wall, though there was nothing to hold onto, just to steady herself. The wind whipped at her, ripping her hair free from its ponytail so that it flew all about in her face, obscuring her vision. Carefully, slowly, she used one hand to hold some of her hair back, keeping it out of her eyes.
A little farther, and she could just barely see out along the edges of the hall’s exterior.
What she saw was far from comforting.
She wasn’t in a hallway anymore. She was in a stone box, suspended in empty space. Nothing attached to it, and as far as she could see there was nothing to jump or fall to.
She was all alone in her box, in the midst of utter, endless darkness.
And her box was slowly closing in on her.
I can’t stay here! But where do I go? There’s nowhere to go.
Can I climb up? There’s nothing to hold onto. The ceiling’s too high for me to jump to, and with this wind I’ll probably just get pulled away anyway.
I can’t do any–
No! I can’t just give up! Not after all I’ve come through, all I’ve done just to make it this far.
There’s so much I still don’t know. So much I still haven’t accomplished.
And I can’t…
I can’t die here. All alone, away from Shana, and Delilah, away from Madeline, away from Mercury, and Neptune, and Jupiter.
Even away from Caleb, and Shias. From Mom and Dad.
If nothing else, I have to die somewhere where they’ll know what happened to me. Where they’ll be able to bury me somewhere properly.
And I should try not to be so morbid. I can’t die here! I have to do something, even if it seems like there’s nothing to do. What did Gerick say? What did Kairyu say? What clues do I have that I can work with?
Thoughts and words floated to Fae’s mind through her hazy fear. The Nightmare Road… what was it? There was something that she was trying to hold onto, something important that held the key to her success here.
That was it! The Nightmare Road wasn’t a purely physical construct. She couldn’t rely just on her senses.
And she could manipulate it, in a way.
If she was brave. If she was bold. If she was hopeful.
If she was fearless.
Easier said than done.
The walls closed in tighter around her. She still had room to move, to escape her box.
But not for much longer.
Fearless. But that’s not the same as being stupid, right? And the only thing I can think of… the only escape from here…
Is a really stupid idea. There’s no way it would or should work.
But am I supposed to believe that? Is this just what the Nightmare Road wants me to think and believe? Is it a test?
Fae took a deep breath.
The walls closed in tighter.
Fearless. Be fearless. It’s not stupid. It’s fearless. Okay. Here we go.
Please don’t die.
Fae let out her deep breath, and ran forward. Two steps, and then she leapt, out into open air. The frigid, biting wind slammed against her like a physical wall, tossing her aside so that she spun round and round, losing all sense of direction, of momentum, of consciousness…
Don’t black out!
Fae screamed that desperate thought in her mind. As vertigo gripped her, she shut her eyes, fighting a battle of the mind to toss out all fears, to focus entirely on being fearless, on being brave, on being what she needed to be to succeed in this horrible place.
The wind was knocked out of her as she landed on something soft, tumbled along it, and then came to a stop against something harder. Her head spun, her stomach did flips, and Fae fought against the desire to empty her breakfast onto the ground.
Slowly, Fae opened her eyes.
She was laying in dark, wet grass. Her back was against the trunk of a leafless tree, its dead branches reaching out and upwards like a skeletal hand grasping in vain for life.
Above her, the sky was the same murky, endless darkness. Swirling, ever swirling in its strange, indecipherable pattern.
She sat up – slowly, to contain her vertigo and nausea – and leaned against the tree, looking all around. This dark plain, slick from recent rainfall, stretched on forever.
Though forever, in this place, was likely a very relative term.
She reached up, adjusting her glasses, thanking her lucky stars that they hadn’t fallen off in all the flying and falling and spinning and crashing. They weren’t even broken or bent.
The same went for her body. She ached, and probably had a few bruises, but as she stood shakily, nothing appeared to be broken. Her sense of equilibrium was returning, too.
So far, so… good?
So far, so still alive and functioning. That’ll work for now.
She let out a long sigh, then turned in a circle, surveying her situation.
In three directions, the plain stretched on, featureless and endless.
In one direction, however, Fae saw a faint light atop a thin line, like a street lamp in the distance. The light glowed a pale blue, and seemed to pulse from dim to bright at a steady, constant rhythm.
It’s a little too obvious of a destination. But what am I going to do, walk off into the endless nowhere?
I can’t just amble around this place. I do have to eventually find the end of it, and reach the Nightmare Citadel. To do that, I’ll need to take whatever it gives me, and in return…
Try to be fearless.
Even if that last act was really stupid, it did save my life. I can keep going because I took a crazy leap of faith.
I hope that’s the only time I’ll have to just blindly hope for a good outcome.
Fae started walking, minding her footing on the wet grass. Steadily, the light drew closer. It was on a hill, she realized, and as if triggered by that realization, the ground began to slope upward. With every step, Fae seemed to be climbing a steeper and steeper path, until soon she was having to use her hands, grasping at the wet grass, going slower and more carefully now so that she didn’t slip or slide. After a time, she looked down.
That was a terrible idea.
The ground below her didn’t steadily slope away. It was a sheer drop, and as Far looked back up, she realized she was climbing straight up, with only the smallest of rocks jutting out from the grassy wall to cling to. They were slippery, and jagged, biting into her hands and fingers.
But where else am I going to go?
Up she climbed, sweating and gasping, one hand, one foot, after the other. She took more care with each new hold, and yet still she found pain awaited her hands. After a while longer, she stopped.
Blood was slowly, faintly trickling from her left hand.
No. Not my hands… not my left hand, especially.
Please don’t… don’t be permanently…
Fae clung tighter with her right hand, which hurt all the more, and pulled her left hand away to look at it. The cut that bled openly was a small one. It didn’t look like anything truly horrible might happen.
But if she continued to climb…
Fae tilted her head back, staring up the endless slope, at the light so far above, that only seemed to go higher and higher as she stared.
I went the wrong way. I made the wrong choice.
I can’t sacrifice my hands. That’s… there isn’t anything…
Fae reached out her right hand’s little finger towards the grass, gently brushing against it.
The blades of grass were razor sharp, and instantly cut a long, thin line down her finger.
And that’s how it is.
Fae looked down again, at the sheer, horrifying drop below her.
Her breathing grew faster, her pulse quickened until her heart was pounding so hard in her chest she thought it might burst right out of her.
Why am I contemplating this? It’ll kill me, won’t it?
But I can’t keep climbing. I can’t do this to my hands. They’re…
They’re everything. If I lose them, I can’t live anymore. There’s no point to anything without my hands.
So I just…
But I can’t. I can’t…
Fae looked up, desperately willing the light to come down to her level, or for stairs to appear, or an elevator.
But the light kept ascending.
Blood trickled down her right hand, along her wrist, staining the end of her sleeve.
There’s really only one thing I can do.
But that isn’t being fearless. It’s being reckless. It really will get me killed this time.
Will it, though? If I’m really fearless, then can I change this place?
Refusing to let my hands be destroyed isn’t something to do out of fear. I’m drawing a line in the sand. I’m not going to play this Nightmare Road’s game, not if it means sacrificing the most important thing I have.
Your move, Nightmare Road.
Fae took a deep breath. As she let it out…
She let go of the wall.
And she fell.