Shias raced to the stairs in the corner of the Citadel as Shana and the others began their efforts to reach Nocta. As he passed his sister, he reached out, and his fingers brushed against hers.
And then down he went, followed by Kathryn, Rae, and Ben.
The last time they’d been to the Citadel, Shias had found these stairs, but there hadn’t been enough time to see what lay below. All he knew was that darkness veiled however deep they might go. He held his pen Talisman in front of him, lighting up its tip so it served like a flashlight, piercing the darkness.
The stairs didn’t go as far as he thought, and soon opened up into a dimly lit basement. Shias stopped at the very bottom of the stairs, motioning the others to stay put behind him.
All was quiet.
Gradually, he scanned the area with his magical light as his eyes adjusted to the dimness.
Or so it seemed at first pass. The Citadel’s basement was a vast, open stone chamber, and it was completely empty.
In the center, however, was another staircase.
“Down again,” Shias said softly. “Stay alert.”
Far above them, the voice of Nocta rang out: “Collapse.”
Come on, Shana.
You can save her.
The next staircase was a tightly wound spiral, and it came out into complete darkness. Even Shias’ white light did little to penetrate the gloom, and he had to cast it slowly about to give him time to make out details.
He stopped as his light fell on the center of the basement’s second level.
There, seated on the floor, was a man.
He was clearly old, with gnarled wrinkles in his hands and face, and his body had wasted away to nearly skin and bones. Out from his face round eyes peered from sunken sockets, gleaming in the light of Shias’ pen.
The man was clothed in a simple black robe that was far too big for him, hanging loosely on his skeletal frame. On his right index finger, held fast by clutching his other fingers together, was a large onyx ring emblazoned with a crest: a square within a square.
For a moment, Shias wasn’t entirely certain the man was still alive. It took nearly a full minute before the man slowly, wearily raised his head and stared wide-eyed at Shias’ magical light.
“Humans…?” the man asked slowly. His voice came out weak and raspy.
“Who are you?” Shias asked. “Is there anyone else here?”
The man shook his head. “All gone, save me.” He raised a thin, bony hand and tapped his chest twice. “I was the youngest. I told them… told them I should… send for more. They never listened.”
“But who are you?” Kathryn asked.
“I no longer have a name,” the man said. “We… cast off our names. When we… brought the Great Box into being.”
At that, the man lifted his hand higher, tapping the wall behind his shoulder.
Shias’ eyes widened. It wasn’t a wall at all.
The man was sitting back against a large, black cube. Easily a dozen feet on every side, the cube was marked all over with black, jagged cracks and small, pitted craters. Faint tendrils of black mist rolled off of it, swirling around the old man’s legs and shoulders.
“T-that’s…” Rae said softly.
Shias cast about in all directions, using Divination Magic to survey the chamber.
It was small. The darkness made the space look vast and imposing, but it wasn’t much bigger than Shias’ bedroom at Greyson Manor. There were no doors, no stairs, nothing that led further into the basement.
And the old man had told the truth. He was all alone down here.
The “Great Box,” Collapse itself, looked different from anything Shias had seen with Divination Magic. The longer he gazed at it, the more insubstantial it seemed to be, changing in size and shape, its misty veil rising up and dropping down, snapping shut like a curtain and then rolling back.
And all the while, Shias felt drawn to it. The box within a box… it was like he was staring into a great, bottomless chasm, and gravity was clawing at him with stiff fingers, pulling him, inviting him down, down, down…
A hand on his arm. Shias stepped back, let go his hold on Divination Magic.
Rae was holding onto him, her grip surprisingly firm. Her nervous eyes stared at him with concern.
“Sorry,” he said softly.
The old man laughed, or something like a laugh, coming out more like a series of breathy gasps, as if he hadn’t the strength to laugh properly. But his lips spread in a gap-toothed grin. “Terrifying… isn’t it?” he asked, leaning his head back against the cube. “We thought we knew… what it was we wrought… that it was under our control… but we were fools, all.”
The man held up the hand that bore the ring. “See how I cling to this? Yet I… would cast it away forever… if I could.”
“What happened to everyone else?” Shias asked.
The man gasped out another laugh, rapping his knuckles lightly against the Collapse cube. They gave off a dull sound that faded swiftly, as if it were swallowed up. “All dead…” the man said, nodding as if to himself. “Fed… to the Great Box… or to the Queen… or to madness.” He shook his head, a look of pain crossing his face. “We knew not what it was. And we thought… it was ours. Our great monument to the Lord… of Night.” He was silent for a long moment, taking in breaths and then letting them out. Slowly, he shook his head. “I have not… the strength. But know that I have… waited. Waited a long time… for one to come.”
His free hand, the one without a ring, slipped inside his robe, fumbling about for a moment. Slowly it returned, pulling out a thick book with uneven pages bound in worn, faded leather bindings. He placed it on the floor. With a nudge from his hand, he slid it towards Shias.
“What is it?” Shias asked.
“All you need to know,” the man said. He spoke slower, his breathing coming in long, unsteady inhales followed by heavy, weary exhales. “Read it. And find… the truth that I… never –”
Darkness rushed in, so suddenly and completely that Shias had no chance to react. He raised his pen, urged light into it…
But nothing penetrated the darkness.
He stepped back, but felt nothing. Not his leg move, not his foot hit the floor. Trying to feel around with his hands, there was nothing. All was numb, unfeeling, his perception totally gone.
He spoke, or tried to, and then tried to hum, to sigh, anything to make a sound.
But there was nothing.
Just heavy, isolating darkness.
What happened? Are you okay? Is this because of what’s happening above, or…?
Could it be…?
Shias thought he could see something in the darkness.
It was a faint outline, and it was hard to be certain, for the box was darkness, too. But it grew, until Shias was sure it was there, growing…
It was coming closer.
Closer, and closer, and closer it came, until it was covering Shias, surrounding him, swallowing him up.
Like distant, pale stars, tiny motes of light shone in the darkness. Faint, twinkling lights, they nonetheless could not be consumed by the darkness.
The box shrank back. Then, in a sudden blur, it altogether vanished.
The stars grew brighter, and more stars added to their number. They danced, wheeling around Shias, growing and growing until all was white, and bright, and beautiful.
And then they vanished, and normal light returned. Shias was back in the bottom of the Citadel’s basement, but it wasn’t filled with darkness. Behind him at the stairs were lamps that shone with pale blue light, and to his left and right, and forward on the far side of the chamber, other lamps shone, casting their glow around the chamber.
In the center was the man, his head slumped forward against his chest. His shoulders sagged. His hands lay on the floor, and in front of his right hand, now naked on the stone, was the onyx ring.
“Is he…?” Rae started.
But his attention wasn’t on the man. It was on how he was still sitting up.
He wasn’t leaning against anything anymore. For the great Collapse cube…
Was no longer here.
“Did we hallucinate?” Ben asked.
“Of course we didn’t,” Kathryn said. She walked forward until she could kneel in front of the man, a foot or two away. Slowly, she let out a sad sigh. “He really is gone.” She stood up, turning back to the group, her lips pursed in thought. “Why wasn’t he infected with Collapse? He was sitting right up against the cube, but he seemed… kind of normal.”
Shias picked up the book the man had left behind, brushing away some of the dust on its cover. “Maybe this will give us clues,” he said. He looked back up the stairs, and a small smile crossed his lips. “But I think Shana and the others did it.”
“Of course they did,” Kathryn said, grinning as she started up the stairs, now leading the group. “Come on!”
Next went Ben, and then Rae. Shias looked back, staring at the man, who was probably the very last of the people, the strange cult, that had “wrought” Collapse and brought it to the Nightmare Citadel.
He was waiting, all this time.
…trying to help us?
“Shias?” came Rae’s small voice. He turned around, saw her waiting at the first turn of the stairs.
“Let’s go,” Shias said with a nod, following after her.
Upstairs in the Nightmare Citadel, Shias was utterly taken aback. Not only was Nocta cured, but the Citadel itself was…
What had been a hollow, broken structure that was full of only crushing darkness and howling wind was now a grand castle. Its three doorways now had proper doors, and its high, arching walls bore pennants of midnight blue emblazoned with a silver owl. Stairs led up to high balconies, and the tallest point, the center of the Citadel, towered upwards into a grand loft with openings to the sky, an aerie for Nocta to fly in and out from.
One set of doors was open to the world, and Shias stepped outside.
It wasn’t, necessarily, a cheerful place. It would be strange for a place built on Nightmares to be so.
But it wasn’t a lifeless place, either.
The Citadel stood atop the highest summit of what was a constant, rising mountain. But looking down from the summit, Shias saw that the grey stone was no longer empty and marked with signs of battle and desolation. Dark grass grew, and tall trees swayed in a strong wind. Water rushed, and Shias saw a waterfall pouring down into a dark lake that fed out into a river winding through a distant gorge.
So this is what it’s supposed to be.
“Shias!” Shana cried out, tackling her brother from behind in a hug before he could turn around. She laughed, unable to contain her relief and excitement at having succeeded. “We did it! Nocta’s okay, and safe, and happy, and back with her Summoner, and everything’s good, it’s so good, it’s great!”
“I knew you could do it,” Shias said.
“So?” Shana asked, pulling away and studying Shias’ face. “What happened with you guys?”
Shias held up a leather-bound book. “I’m not entirely sure yet. But we got this, which might have a lot of answers for us. We found Collapse, but…”
“That vicious weapon fled,” Nocta said. She peered at the book in Shias’ hands from inside the Citadel. “Without me in its thrall, it knew it could not long survive in this place.”
“It has a mind of its own?” Shana asked. “But… didn’t it need to be brought here by people? How could it escape?”
“It uses people,” Nocta said, “and Summons, and Locations, and anything it can. But it needs no one and no thing. Now that it has fled on its own, its power will be, for a time, diminished. Many who were infected with Collapse will be cured. But not all. And if it is given time to recover, that foul weapon will spread its dark madness across the Dominion once more.”
“So we have to find it,” Shana said, sighing. “And we hoped we could destroy it here…”
“Not you, Dreamer,” Nocta said. “You and I, and Dreamer’s Heart, must speak. You have your own task ahead of you. The task to eliminate Collapse has already fallen upon someone else.”
“Someone else?” Shana asked.
“I think…” Fae said, stepping forward, “she means me.”
“Indeed,” Nocta said.
Fae pulled out a sketchbook from her bag and held it up. On its cover was drawn the box-within-a-box symbol of Collapse. “I have a bunch of drawings that were inspired by magic, like… something called out to me. Several of them were linked to Collapse, and it’s because of those that I learned about what Collapse is, and how it ended up here, and why I even got here in the first place. So… I think it’s up to me to destroy it.”
“Up to us, you mean,” said Mercury, grinning.
“And now it’s weakened,” Fae said. “So this is really the best chance we’ll ever have.”
“But…” Shana said in a small voice, “I want to go with you.”
Fae looked back at her sister with a faint smile. “It’s weaker and easier for us to destroy because of you,” she said. “So… you’ve already helped me. So much.”
“And you will likely help each other again,” Nocta said. “And I am truly grateful for all that you have all done for my sake. Yet now that your task has succeeded… many partings may be in order.”
“So soon…” Shana said softly, staring at her feet. She looked up, staring at Fae, her hands balled into fists. She stepped forward, but hesitated.
Fae sighed and held out her arms. “Come on,” she said.
Shana beamed, racing forward and wrapping her older sister in a tight embrace. She frowned slightly, squeezing a little tighter. “You’ve lost weight,” she said, her voice muffled against Fae’s shoulder.
“I’ve had a lot going on,” Fae said. “Lots of walking and running, and not a ton of great opportunities to eat.”
“Well… do something about that,” Shana said. “You need to take care of yourself, okay? And, and… don’t get into too much danger. And if you need anything, you can always find me, and… and…”
“I know,” Fae said. “Same to you, okay? Be careful.”
Shana nodded. “I will. And I’ve got Shias. He’s protected me from… so much.”
“You have good friends,” Fae said. “I’m glad.”
“So do you,” Shana said.
Fae laughed softly. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Do I… have to let you go?”
Fae laughed again. “Eventually,” she said.
“Then…” Shana said, holding her sister just a little tighter. “Not just yet.”