Shana leaned on a banister for support, staring out into the dark, endless void.
How much longer do we have to go on like this?
Are you okay?
I should thank you for protecting us, but…
I don’t want to.
I want you to be here, not gone. I know you failing here just means you get tossed back out into the world, perfectly safe. But I…
I miss you.
And I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.
“This place seems endless, huh?” Kathryn said, coming to stand next to Shana. Her ponytail had come loose, leaving many strands of blonde hair to fall down in her face. There were circles under her eyes, and a slim ghost of a cut along her neck.
Despite that, she smiled.
“As endless as your optimism,” Shana said. “I’m glad you’re here. And I’m so–”
“If you say you’re sorry, I’m gonna kick you,” Kathryn said. “You don’t have a handle on your Dreamer powers. It’s made things a bit rough. So what? All of us – except our tall, dark guest, and your brother, I guess – are total rookies. I don’t have a complete handle on my magic and style, yet. And besides…” She turned, looking down the winding stairs they’d climbed, where Shias helped Rae and Ben along. “We need you to be brave a lot more than we need you to be strong. Flash that winning smile of yours. Say some peppy stuff. You were always great at that.” She grinned. “Our fearless leader.”
There is no shame in being weak.
Shana looked ahead, at the platform that led out to a bridge, where Mister Midnight waited. He hadn’t spoken much since his early warning about being brave. And he always kept to the front of the group, hands often in his pockets, face turned away from everyone.
He’s at the front, but he isn’t the leader.
It’s up to me to help my friends.
Shana took a deep breath, then let it out. She looked at Kathryn and flashed a smile.
“That’s more like it,” Kathryn said.
Stepping to the top of the stairs, Shana called down to the three stragglers, “Come on, guys! I bet we’re almost there!”
“I bet that’s wishful thinking,” Ben grumbled. His head hung low as he took slow, trudging steps up the staircase.
“Don’t be rude, Benjamin!” Kathryn called down. “That’ll earn you a swift kick in the butt!”
“You’ll have to add it to my tab,” Ben said, waving weakly. “It’s been adding up.”
“I swear,” Kathryn said with a huff.
“It’ll be all right,” Rae said softly, and Shana realized Rae was muttering that to herself on repeat as she climbed, using Shias’ shoulder for support. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right. It’ll be… all right. It’ll… be all right. It’ll be all right.”
“Try to breathe now and then,” Shias said. Rae paused, nodding, staring at her feet as she continued to climb.
Shana continued to smile, and it wasn’t completely forced now that she saw how kind her brother was being.
He’s so dependable.
Shana turned to look out across the bridge that was their next task. And as she did, the same sinking feeling in her gut plagued her.
This isn’t at all like the Nightmares I was tested in before. It’s so straightforward. It’s dark, and empty, and lonely, and it’s going on for… a really long time.
But aside from Delilah…
It isn’t attacking us.
But maybe wearing us down is one way of attacking. We’re all exhausted, except maybe Mister Midnight. None of us can use our magic, and I miss Altair.
And while we haven’t been attacked…
Shana shuddered ever so slightly.
They’d been plagued, here and there, by subtle fears. Voices that only some of them could hear. Shapes in the darkness. Hands that reached out to grab them, vanishing at the last moment.
And sensations, things that couldn’t be so easily quantified. An icy shiver down the spine. A tingling feeling on the back of the neck. A shudder, a flinch, a whisper against the ear.
It’s probing us. Being more subtle about it than it was when I was in with the Princesses.
This is basically a dream world, right? It can go on forever. It can break all the rules of reality.
In that sense…
It has all the time in the world to tear us apart.
Shana clenched her hands into fists, gritted her teeth, narrowed her eyes.
I need to be more determined. More…
What’s the word?
“Hey, Ben,” Shana said.
“Yeah?” Ben asked.
“If you make it all the way through this to the end, I’ll treat you to Inglebard’s,” Shana said. “Three pounds.”
She turned at Ben’s silence, and was delighted to see him gaping up at her in disbelief. “Three…” he said slowly, drooling like a cartoon character. “Three… three… three…”
“Three what?” Kathryn asked, waving her hand in a circular motion for him to finish his thought.
“Three pounds of candy?” Ben finally asked, eyes wide as saucers.
Shana grinned. “That’s right,” she said. “Three pounds of your own choosing at the best candy shop in the whole world. But!” She held up a finger, fixing him with a serious stare. “Every complaint loses you one ounce.”
She’d never thought anyone could climb stairs so fast. Suddenly, Ben was at her side, hand snapping up in a rigid salute, eyes filled with determination. “You can count on me, ma’am!”
“Dork,” Kathryn said, poking Ben in the ribs. He flinched, covering his sides protectively.
“Does that go for me, too?” Rae asked, gazing up at Shana hopefully.
“Of course,” Shana said with a smile.
“For you, I’ll throw in an extra three pounds,” Kathryn said, flashing at thumbs-up. “You’ll be set on candy for a year.”
Rae managed a weak smile, and her pace quickened slightly. “That sounds wonderful,” she said dreamily. At the top of the stairs, she let go of Shias’ shoulder, standing with her own strength.
“If you’re finished bribing each other,” Midnight said, nodding to the bridge.
“Aw, come on, you know you want candy, too,” Kathryn said, sidling up to Midnight, a sly grin on her face. “We’ll treat you, too, if you’re a little more friendly.”
Midnight stared back at her blankly for several seconds. Then he looked forward again. “Children,” he muttered with a sigh.
“I’m gonna take that as a yes,” Kathryn said, looking back at Shana and gesturing for her to lead the way.
“You didn’t even ask him a question,” Ben said.
“Was that a complaint I heard, Benjamin?” Shana asked, mimicking Kathryn’s tone when she chided Ben.
“No, ma’am!” Ben said, snapping a hasty salute.
Kathryn burst out laughing. “Oh, this journey just got way more fun,” she said. She held out a hand, and Shana clapped a high-five against it.
Stay confident and brave. Don’t be afraid.
Caleb, I think I understand even more why you smile and laugh so much.
It really is the best defense against fear.
They went across the bridge in single-file, Midnight leading the way, with Shana, then Kathryn, then Ben, then Rae, then Shias. It was a raggedy rope bridge, and it swayed and creaked under their every movement. Shana found herself smiling a little when she felt a slight tug on the back of her shirt.
It’s okay, Kathryn. Lots of people are afraid of heights.
They made it across the bridge, gathering on a new platform and taking a look out at their next destination.
There wasn’t one.
“It can’t just stop here,” Ben said, stepping to the edge of the rocky island, peering into the darkness. “Isn’t that cheating?”
“It just means we haven’t yet discerned how to proceed,” Midnight said, gazing out at the gloom with an unreadable expression.
“Any ideas?” Kathryn asked, sidling up to the Time Mage. “You’re the most knowledgeable of us all, right?”
“I’ve never been here,” Midnight said. “And I think if our path is at an end, it’s up to the Dreamer to find out how to change that.”
Shana stepped to the edge of the island.
What do I do?
The first thought that came to her mind was to fly. It was the one thing she’d almost been able to do in the Dream Forge test, and it was the one thing Heart had specifically told her was possible in the Nightmares.
But even if I could…
Where would I fly to?
Also, could I actually carry everyone?
Maybe I could transfer my flight powers to them somehow?
But that just comes back to not having any idea of where to fly to.
“If anyone sees anything, even the vaguest idea of a landmark, say so,” Shias said, joining his sister at the edge. “And if anyone’s afraid, even in the slightest, do your best to stop. If you need to talk about it, then do. We need everyone to be as brave as possible at all times.”
“To be honest…” Rae said, looking back along the bridge they’d crossed. “For… well, for a long time now… I’ve felt like we’re being followed. But every time I look, there’s no one and nothing.”
“Have you had any nightmares like that before?” Shana asked.
Rae stared at her feet, shuffling back and forth nervously for a moment. She nodded hesitantly. “L-lots of times,” she said softly.
“Well how about this?” Kathryn asked. She came up behind Rae and wrapped her arms around the mousy girl’s shoulders, hugging her tight. “I’ll just stay as close to you as possible, and then no one can get you.”
Rae giggled softly, leaning into Kathryn’s hug. “I don’t think we’d be able to walk very well like this.”
Kathryn laughed. “Probably not. But it’s nice and cozy, right?” Rae nodded in reply.
Shana put her hands on her hips, staring out into the darkness.
Something should happen, right?
Should I be looking for some kind of faint trail, like in the Dream Forge’s test?
Or do we…
She leaned forward a little, looking down into the vast emptiness.
Just jump? Take a leap of faith?
Somehow, I don’t think that’s a good idea.
“I want to try something,” Shana said. She looked to Shias, who nodded back at her. She held out her hand, and he took it in his. “Let’s both be as brave as we can, okay? And I think… I think I might be able to do something really cool.”
Thankfully, no one said anything as Shana closed her eyes. There was nothing here to break her concentration, nothing here to weaken her resolve.
In fact, surrounded by close friends who had been laughing and joking and getting along so well only strengthened her.
At a sudden gasp from Kathryn, Shana opened her eyes.
I did it!
It’s not much.
But I did it!
She was hovering a few inches off of the ground. And Shias, holding her hand, was doing the same.
“You can totally fly,” Kathryn murmured in awe.
“It’s the first time I’ve done it in this kind of place,” Shana said. “And the first I’ve transferred it to others.”
“We should test if it’s actually transferred,” Shias said. He let go of Shana’s hand, and immediately thumped back down to the ground. He pursed his lips in thought. “So we likely need to have at least slight physical contact with you for it to work.”
“Let me try, let me try!” Kathryn said, rushing over excitedly. As soon as her finger brushed against Shana’s, she started hovering with her, gasping in delight as she did. She took a closer hold of Shana’s hand as she started to fall, and that kept her aloft. She grinned, eyes sparkling with glee.
“But where do we go?” Midnight asked, gazing into the darkness.
“I was thinking, as long as we can fly, that gives us more ways to search for new paths,” Shana said. “I think if we just stand here, we won’t learn anything. Nothing’s going to change.”
Midnight was silent for a moment, then nodded slightly. “You might be right.”
“So we all need to hold onto you at the same time?” Ben asked, staring up at Shana.
“What, afraid of cooties?” Kathryn asked, sticking out her tongue. “You’re not in grade school anymore.”
“No, it’s just…” Ben started, faltering. He looked away, then shrugged. “Shana’s pretty small, you know? And there’s a lot of us.”
“Maybe it works even just touching her clothes?” Shias asked. He reached up, taking hold of Shana’s belt, and immediately started hovering. “That widens our options.”
“Yeah, but still…” Ben said, shoving his hands in his pockets, staring at his feet, bobbing back and forth with an awkward expression.
“Oh, don’t be shy!” Kathryn said.
“Yeah, it’ll be fine!” Shana said, smiling. “Fun, even. Or hey, you know…” She looked at Shias, who nodded. Her brother reached out, pinching the edge of Ben’s hood. Suddenly Ben was flailing around, because he was hovering with the rest of them.
“Way cool!” Kathryn exclaimed, grinning. “This makes everything easy!”
“So how well can you fly?” Midnight asked. “Are we just hovering around, or can you really take us places?”
“I can take us anywhere,” Shana said, smiling widely. Her confidence was sky-high, and all fear had left her heart. The only negative thought she had, and only for a moment…
Delilah, I wish you could fly with us.
Maybe Heart will let me take you into the Dreamworld. Then we can fly all over the place without worrying about any dangers.
That’ll be even more fun than this.
“Rae, you can hold onto me!” Kathryn said, holding out her hand. Rae took it, gasping in shock as she started floating with the rest of them. Kathryn looked over Rae to Midnight. “All that’s left is you, captain.”
“I’m not a captain,” Midnight said, grasping Ben’s wrist and beginning to hover. “Might as well keep this one from flailing about.”
“Everyone ready?” Shana asked, gazing into the gloomy expanse as if it was a boundless, bright sky full of possibilities. She received a chorus of affirmations. “Everyone brave?” Another round of agreements. She grinned. “All right – here we go!”
She willed herself forward, and soon they were soaring, with no ground beneath their feet anymore. There was a ragged yelp of shock from Ben, but at Kathryn’s merest mention of the prize at Inglebard’s that awaited him, his composure returned. Kathryn was laughing. Rae was smiling. Shias was looking all around, wonder mixed with analytical observation. Even Midnight had a small smirk on his face.
This was amazing. It was wondrous. Despite the gloom, despite the darkness, despite what this place was, this was –
“What was that?” Ben shrieked.
Shana looked up, and her heart caught in her throat.
A gigantic dark form was swooping down at her and her friends. She didn’t spare a second to look longer, to try and make out what it was.
She fixed her eyes forward, and put on speed.
“Hold on, everyone!”
She was lucky that the two holding directly onto her were the most dependable. Kathryn kept hold of Rae as the small girl screamed and nearly slipped free. Shias took a whole fistful of Ben’s hooded jacket and the shirt underneath, and Midnight’s calm urging helped Ben to grasp onto Shias’ arm for greater support.
Shana put all the speed she possibly could into her flight, as wingbeats like thunder echoed overhead.
She’d only just learned to fly in the Nightmares.
Now she would need to fly faster than she ever had before.
The chase was on.