Shana’s flight turned into a dive, because that was the best way she knew to gain as much speed as possible. More than that, the creature above her was so gigantic, it blotted out the dark curtain of sky above. It was the sky now. There was no way around it that she could see.
And as she heard those constant wingbeats…
“Can anyone see what it is?” she asked over the rushing wind and panic in her heart. “Is it an owl?”
“Definitely not an owl,” Kathryn replied, her voice surprisingly calm.
“It looks like a condor,” Shias said, also calm.
Bless both your hearts for staying steady in a time like this.
“What the heck’s a condor?” Ben asked, his voice rising in pitch as they plummeted.
“You’ve never heard of a condor?” Kathryn asked.
“I’m pretty sure you guys made that word up!” Ben said.
“It’s a bird,” Shias said.
“Obviously!” Ben shouted back.
“It’s a big ugly bird,” Kathryn added. “Looks kind of like a vulture.”
“Then why didn’t you just say vulture?” Ben asked.
“Don’t complain so much, you’ll distract our pilot,” Kathryn said.
“How is everyone so freaking calm? We’re gonna die!” Ben shrieked and yelped and flailed around, testing the limits of Shias and Midnight’s hold on him.
“Because if we’re not calm, then we are going to die,” Midnight said sternly. “Pull yourself together, Benjamin. Your friends are counting on you.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Besides, if you fall, then I’m going with you, and I’d rather not have my failure be your fault.”
“Yeah, you tell him!” Kathryn cheered. She looked over to Rae and smiled. “You okay? We’ll get out of this just fine, you know? Shana’s got this under control.”
“I’m… f-f-f-f-fine…” Rae said weakly, sounding like she was going to be sick.
Shana couldn’t blame her. The sudden dive had made her stomach do flips, and the more speed she poured on, the more she felt like her body wasn’t meant for this kind of intense velocity.
And all the time, above and behind her, the thunderous wingbeats continued.
It’s a condor. Which means it’s a scavenger, so why is it chasing after live prey?
What else do I know about condors? Shias and I read a book about them when we were little… because there was a condor Boss monster in a video game we were playing…
It’s a good thing Shias and I have perfect memory. I wouldn’t be able to remember this stuff under such stress otherwise.
It also helps that – for the moment – there aren’t any obstacles in front of us. I can just keep diving without much thought.
Okay. Condors. Their talons are kind of blunt, because they aren’t meant to be used as weapons. The main thing about them, really, is they have a gigantic wingspan.
No wonder it can block out the sky.
Why does it keep flapping its wings, though? If it’s chasing, it could just dive, and condors usually glide and soar rather than flap a lot. Why is it…?
“It isn’t actually chasing us,” Shias said, just barely able to be heard above the rush of wind and the blast of wingbeats. “It’s like…”
Shana nodded. “Like it’s blocking us off,” she said.
“You mean we’re not actually supposed to dive?” Kathryn asked.
Shana shook her head.
I should have thought of that sooner.
We’re trying to get to the Nightmare Citadel. And all the while, we’ve primarily been climbing, rather than descending.
The Nightmare Citadel is above us. After all, climbing is a lot harder than falling or diving.
Now that I can fly freely, it would be too easy for us to get there. So a giant bird is blocking our path.
“Get ready, I’m going to go back up,” Shana said.
“Up?!?” Ben shrieked.
“We’ve gotta face the danger, not run from it!” Kathryn said, sounding excited at the prospect.
“W-we aren’t w-w-w-weighing you down, a-a-are we?” Rae asked.
Shana shook her head. “You guys are weightless to me, don’t worry,” she said. Slowly, she started to level off, not wanting to make any sudden movements if she could help it. She wasn’t a ship or a saddled beast of burden – all her friends had to cling to were her sweaty hands and loose clothes. She needed to help them stay in flight with her at all costs.
Shias slipped his hand up, gripping her forearm rather than her hand itself, and Shana gripped his in return.
That’s a much more solid hold.
She did the same with Kathryn, and felt her confidence buoy.
As she started to ascend, she suddenly lurched to the side, causing most of her passengers to scream or yelp – or, in Rae’s case, to make a sick, throaty sound of displeasure.
“Now we start having obstacles,” Kathryn said. “Makes it pretty obvious which way we’re supposed to go.”
Shana found herself facing not just a great climb towards the shadowy, gigantic condor, but also a veritable minefield of floating rocky islands, spinning boulders, rotating stone slabs, and other debris that made her ascent much more challenging than her dive.
“Everyone, pull in closer!” Shias called out. “Shana, bring your arms in more, too.”
Right. Be as small as we can to get through all of this easier.
Shana brought her arms towards her chest, clinging tight to her brother and Kathryn.
“Be mindful of your right side,” Shias said steadily.
Right. Two on my left, three on my right, and the three on the right are larger than the two on the left.
“Everyone, be quiet!” Kathryn shouted. “Except for the twins. They’ll get us through this.” She grinned. “Pilot and navigator, it’s up to you guys.”
Shana nodded, tilting to the right at Shias’ instruction to avoid a wide stone slab and slip between two large, jagged boulders. Wind rushed around as she slid through smaller gaps, then broke off as she emerged into open space again. With each of the condor’s wingbeats, she could feel a bit of resistance, and the higher she climbed, the more she felt it.
Trying to fight us back. So the exit must be…
Please don’t be past the condor.
But is there anywhere else it would be?
Shana bobbed and weaved, doing her best to make slow turns and tilts rather than sudden, sharp movements, for the sake of her passengers.
But the higher she climbed, the more difficult that became, and the more she heard the others – Ben, especially – cry out or yelp or scream at her sudden movements and how tightly she squeezed her way through narrow openings that were becoming harder and harder to find. The air was thick with debris and obstructions now, and growing thicker every moment.
But the condor was growing larger, which meant they were getting closer.
“Watch that slab’s rotation,” Shias said calmly. “Time it right, and you’ll have a nice wide opening.”
Shana glared ahead with determination, fighting not to blink against the wind as she watched the slab’s steady rotation.
“Got it?” Shias asked.
Shana nodded. Slowly, in her head, she counted. And she heard Shias whispering a count next to her ear.
Three… two… one…
Shana put on a burst of speed to counter a powerful wingbeat from her avian opponent, and just slipped through before the slab came swinging around.
Before her now stretched a curtain of smaller boulders crunching together, bouncing off of each other. With every impact, they sent tiny shards of shrapnel hurtling down towards Shana.
“Right, then left.”
Shana nodded, ducking her head just briefly against a spray of shrapnel, then looking up again.
Right, spinning slightly around a rocky obstruction.
Left, taking a deep breath and leaning more towards her left side to give the boys on the right a chance, she slipped through a narrow gap, heart skipping a beat at the booming crash behind her as the boulders slammed together.
A new rocky island came at her, and she didn’t have quite enough time to evade.
“Knees up, bounce off it,” Shias said.
Shana brought her knees in, then kicked out, her feet touching solid ground for the first time in what felt like ages. She took one, two, three steps, then kicked off and flew once more.
The condor now filled the entire sky, and details of its shadowy form could be made out: sharp, darker lines where its feathers bristled. Bumpy, boulder-like protrusions along its mottled neck and face. A single eye, tilting towards them, glaring with purple light, with predatory intensity.
At the end of its face, a curved beak opened for the first time. Shana wished she could cover her ears at the sudden blast of sound, the vicious cry of challenge.
With that cry, the sky filled with more and more obstacles, until Shana couldn’t see the condor at all.
“Straight through the middle,” Shias urged as Shana reflexively turned away. “As fast as you can, between those two cubes.
I’m so glad I trust you.
Because I would never try that without you telling me to.
The two cube-shaped boulders were the size of mansions, and they were constantly crushing up against each other, with each new slam crunching smaller boulders into gravel that sprayed down towards Shana.
She didn’t see it. Whatever Shias saw, whatever opening he believed was there, she couldn’t see.
“As fast as you can, don’t slow down for anything,” Shias said, voice steady but insistent.
A new blast of wind from the condor’s wings threatened Shana’s speed.
But her speed wasn’t reliant on an engine or some kind of power source, and it didn’t need to be so easily affected by outside forces.
Shana’s speed, she realized, came from her heart.
It’s a dream world. If I can fly in this nightmare space…
I can fly as fast and as strong as I want.
All I have to do is be confident. Be brave.
Kathryn, Rae, and Ben all let out different cries of shock and disbelief as Shana rocketed upward, two times, then three times, then four times as fast as she’d been going before. Gravelly shrapnel parted before her, spinning out into open space.
The cube-shaped boulders left the barest of openings, and Shana soared straight through.
On the other side was only the condor.
Its purple eye glared at Shana, and Shana glared back.
“Get out of our way,” she said, softly but defiantly.
The condor crowed, flapped its wings twice…
Light – merciful, beautiful light – poured down from the sky.
Shana flew towards it as fast as she could.
Suddenly, all went white and endless around her. Everywhere she looked – even at her own body, or where her friends should be holding onto her – was just white light.
In that bright space, a voice, small and steady, spoke.
“You have done well. But the hardest part begins now.
“Are you ready?”
Shana didn’t hesitate.
The light slowly faded, and she found herself standing on solid ground. Around her were Shias, Kathryn, Rae, Ben, and Mister Midnight.
The six of them stood on a black, rocky ledge. Before them was a ragged, broken stairway climbing a mountainside towards what Shana had seen in the Dream Forge.
The haunted, lonely castle.
The Nightmare Citadel.