This is totally surreal.
Shana stood inside the Nightmare Citadel with Nocta to her right and Heart to her left. She shouldn’t have been so surprised, she knew that – Nightmares were part of dreams, after all – but she’d never seen Heart anywhere outside of the gold-and-pink Dreamworld, so standing here with her felt like she was meeting Heart in the real, physical world.
The three of them weren’t alone, though. That had been the plan, but Nocta had so soon been reunited with Mister Midnight that she wasn’t keen on letting him out of her sight. Chelsea’s owl had also instantly bonded with Nocta, and the two seemed inseparable. So Nocta, the great black owl that towered high over Shana and the others, had Chelsea’s little owl Summon perched on her shoulder, and the two regularly nuzzled their cheeks against each other.
“I think I know part of where this meeting’s going,” said Midnight, who was seated cross-legged on the floor, his back against Nocta’s feathery wing. He tilted his head back to look up at his Summon. “You have to stay here, don’t you?”
Nocta bowed her head slightly, closing her eyes. “Though I did not take on this role willingly, it has become a part of me,” she said. “I am the Nightmare Queen, and I desire to remain so until I or someone else becomes aware of a truly worthy successor. I do not take this post lightly, Lancelot. And so I will do my utmost here, and ensure that the power of Nightmares rests in the proper hands.”
Midnight murmured something, resting his head against Nocta’s feathers and closing his eyes.
“It is good to have your soul restored,” Heart said, looking up at Nocta. “Truly, you and I need each other. It has been trying times with you in the thrall of Collapse.”
“You need each other?” Shana asked.
“Nightmares are a part of dreams,” Nocta said, her lavender eyes gleaming. “A solemn duty of the Nightmare Queen is to allow people to face the fears they hold deep within, fears they often aren’t consciously aware of, in an environment that captures the essence of reality without reality’s dangers. But there is also a greater duty, a connection between me and you, Dreamer.”
“The Nightmare Queen exists to test the Dreamer,” Heart said. “To help you to grow, to overcome your weaknesses and limitations and become all you’re meant to be.”
“The Dream Forge’s test was part of that,” Nocta said. “And it should not have been so dangerous for you and the Princesses. Collapse had ruined my mind, so my powers ran rampant.”
“But even so…” Shana said, staring at her feet. “You… as scary and dangerous as that was… it did help me grow.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Nocta said.
“But now that Nightmares have been restored to their proper place,” Heart said, “we must move forward with the most pressing challenge.” She looked away, her expression tinged with sadness. “Shana… there is a great responsibility before you.”
“Responsibility?” Shana asked.
“Don’t mince words,” Midnight said, his eyes still closed. “Just tell her.”
“So you’ve already guessed,” Nocta said. Midnight nodded. “Very well. Shana, you have seen the Radiant King many times. He has even appeared in your dreams, and in the Dreamworld. This is no accident. Confronting him, revealing the truth of his nature, and bringing his ambitions to an end… that is your responsibility as the Dreamer.”
“The Radiant King…” Shana said softly. She looked at Heart, who wouldn’t meet anyone’s gaze.
“Are there things you can’t tell me?” Shana asked.
“Undoubtedly,” Midnight said with a sigh. “All too often that’s how things are.”
“I wish it were not so,” Nocta said. “But know that we will guide you to the best of our abilities. And we can give you direction for where your journey begins.”
“You must travel to the Garden of Memory,” Heart said. Her voice was heavy, and when her golden eyes met Shana’s, she looked on the verge of tears.
“A Core Location,” Midnight said, letting out a low whistle. “Not an easy journey.” He opened his eyes. “The Goodnight Express can take you partway, though.”
“Or she could go through Eventide Archive,” Nocta said.
“Lady Miora doesn’t like me much, though,” Midnight said, closing his eyes with a sigh.
“She’d probably like Shana,” Nocta said, a hint of amusement in her voice. “And Shana could use her knowledge, don’t you think?”
Another sigh. “Yeah,” Midnight said. “She won’t care that I was the one who sent you. You’re too likable for that, kid.”
Shana smiled a little. “Thanks.”
“Here I thought you were starting to make more friends in my absence,” Nocta said chidingly. “But it seems old grudges hold fast.”
“No grudges,” Midnight said. “I just rub most people the wrong way.”
“Undoubtedly,” Nocta replied, though there was more than a hint of amusement in her voice.
“Lady Miora will do right by you,” Heart said to Shana. “She is likely the one most capable of getting you to the Garden of Memory – and explaining its mysteries – safely. And if things should become too frightening or difficult, you can call upon us.”
“Both of you?” Shana asked, looking from Heart to Nocta.
“The Dreamworld and Nightmares are connected, as you have well seen,” Nocta said. “Now that I and the Citadel are restored, finding your way to me is far less difficult than before.” She nuzzled against Chelsea’s owl and then looked down at Midnight. “Now, I believe my Summoner and I have much to talk about. It has been far too long, for the both of us.”
Shana nodded, understanding. She turned to go, and Heart walked with her out of the Citadel.
“Before I go back to the Dreamworld,” Heart said, “I want you to know, I… I wish I could say more.” She took Shana’s hand in hers, and Shana felt her heart lift at the warm touch. “What you will soon discover… what you will face… it… is very painful for me.”
“It’s all right,” Shana said. “I’ll do my best, and I know it’ll all work out for good in the end.” She smiled at Heart, and then stepped forward, wrapping her in a gentle embrace. For a moment, Heart stood rigid, but then slowly relaxed in Shana’s arms and hugged her back. “I’m so grateful for you, Heart. And I know you’re always doing right by me. So I’m not afraid, no matter what’s waiting for me.”
Heart laughed softly. “Thank you, Shana,” she said.
And then she was gone.
Shana stood on the cliff outside of the Nightmare Citadel, looking out at the vast landscape beyond and below. She held Altair in her arms, and he tilted his little head up, nosing against her chin.
“We’re going to be all right,” Shana said, cuddling Altair tighter. “We’ll succeed. For Heart’s sake.”
Chelsea looked up as her owl came down to alight gently on her shoulders. “Took you long enough,” she said. “I thought you might be abandoning me for Nocta.” Her Summon hooted in response, ruffling his feathers a bit. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. I still need you, you know.”
“You guys need each other,” said Adelaide. The little girl was sitting next to Chelsea on the bridge, waiting for Mister Midnight and Nocta to finish their solo conversation inside the Citadel. “Plus, you’d look funny if you didn’t always have an owl behind your head.”
“Gee, thanks,” Chelsea said.
“Hey,” Adelaide said, kicking her feet in the air. “Do you think Mister Midnight’s gonna do what he promised?”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Chelsea asked.
“Because he just got reunited with his Summon after, like, a billion years,” Adelaide said. “Kinda seems like he wants to stay.”
“I don’t think so.” Chelsea looked to her right, across the long bridge towards the door that they’d arrived from. “He has people back at his home who need him, too. And I think he needs them.”
“They need each other,” Adelaide said, giggling.
“What’s so funny?”
The little girl leaned in, bumping her shoulder against Chelsea’s arm playfully. “You look funny with an owl on your shoulders.”
“You just said I’d look funny without him,” Chelsea said.
“So… you’re just funny-looking?” Adelaide asked.
“You’re lucky you’re sitting on the edge of a bridge,” Chelsea said, holding out a threatening finger. “Or I’d tickle you to death.”
Adelaide laughed with delight, hopping up to stand atop the bridge and racing back towards the Citadel. Chelsea watched her go, but didn’t follow.
“That kid,” she said softly, shaking her head.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to be done yet!” came Adelaide’s voice. Chelsea looked over and saw that Midnight was already leaving the Citadel, rounding up everyone.
“I wasn’t aware there was a timer,” Midnight said. He looked at Fae and her group of the Star sisters and Gerick. “You five need to head back to the Plains of the Fallen, right? Nocta can expedite it for you.”
“Really?” Fae asked. She looked around, her gaze landing on her sister. “So I guess…”
“It’s goodbye,” Shana said. “But not forever. Just for a little while again.”
Fae nodded. The two sisters embraced, and then Fae and her group went inside to Nocta.
“The rest of you are with me,” Midnight said. “We’re heading back to Midnight Bridge. And from there, I have a promise to keep.” He looked to Chelsea, who nodded back at him.
And so they left, with surprisingly little fanfare. Chelsea had a conversation of emotions and impressions with her Summon, asking him if he wanted to stay with Nocta. But the response she got was heartening, and easy to translate:
Of course not. My place is with you, forever.
I’d like to visit sometimes.
Through the door they went, and they didn’t need to brave the Nightmare Road at all. They stepped directly out onto Midnight Bridge, around the bench that sat behind Midnight’s house, looking out into the gloomy distance.
“I should deal with these five first,” Midnight said, indicating Shana and her group. “It’s a quick trip from here to Eventide Archive. Then I’ll be ready to go find that wayward student of mine.”
Chelsea’s heart leapt within her.
But a moment later, it skipped several beats.
The door to Midnight’s house flew open and Ingrid raced out, stopping just outside. She yelled frantically to Midnight, and for a moment Chelsea couldn’t believe her words.
“Caleb’s here! Caleb’s here!”
Midnight was already running, and Shana and Shias with him.
“Come on!” Adelaide said, tugging on Chelsea’s hand.
“R-right,” Chelsea said softly, following after Adelaide.
Why is it so hard to breathe?
Inside, Ingrid was explaining things as she led them upstairs.
“He just showed up in the guest bedroom while you were away! I don’t know how, he didn’t say anything, he just fell fast asleep, and we can’t get him to wake up. We kind of stopped trying though, since he seems like he’s sleeping peacefully, but it’s so strange, I don’t know how he got here!”
They stepped into the small guest room, crowding around the bed. Mineria sat in a chair beside the bed, watching over the one asleep under the covers.
There was Caleb, sleeping peacefully. Chelsea knew, instantly, without having to ask any questions or even go near him:
He’s alive, he’s safe, he’s okay, he’s okay, he’s alive, he’s alive!
There was a dull thud, and everything seemed taller for some reason. It took Chelsea several moments to realize she’d fallen to her knees.
“Hey, hey,” Adelaide said, shaking her. “What are you freaking out for? He’s okay!”
“Yeah…” Chelsea said softly. Tears started to fill her eyes, and they wouldn’t stop, overflowing down her cheeks. “Yeah, he is.” She nodded, smiling and then laughing, staring every second at Caleb’s sleeping form.
For a long time, things moved in a blur. Shana sat by Caleb, holding his hand and watching over him with a smile. Shias stood by her side, his focused stare never leaving his older brother. Ingrid came in and out, offering food and drinks to people, and then everyone seemed to be moving in and out, the room shifting between being shockingly vacant and outrageously crowded with every second.
It seemed forever before Chelsea was able to sit where Mineria had, and Adelaide with her, to watch over Caleb’s sleeping form in peace. Midnight, Shana, and Shias had all had their turns checking in on Caleb and were now downstairs, along with Mineria, Ingrid, Kathryn, Rae, and Ben.
“It’s just us,” Adelaide said. The girl was sitting on Chelsea’s lap, though Chelsea couldn’t remember them coming to that arrangement. Still, she didn’t mind too much.
“He looks kinda funny,” Adelaide added, giggling.
“Do you just think everyone looks funny?” Chelsea asked.
“I’ve never seen him without his glasses,” Adelaide said. She pointed to Caleb’s glasses, folded up on the bedside table.
Fair enough. I haven’t seen him without glasses since…
It’s been that long, huh?
“Plus, look at him,” Adelaide said, giggling. “He’s got that little smile, and he’s drooling a little.”
“What is it with Greysons and drooling in their sleep?” Chelsea asked, unable to suppress a laugh.
And Caleb was smiling. It was a small smile, the kind of smile Chelsea rarely saw on his face. He was often so exuberant, so expressive and happy. But the smile he had on his sleeping face was sort of…
And the longer she looked, she started to notice other things. There was a bit of a wetness at the corners of his eyes, and faint, barely visible tracks partway down one cheek.
Chelsea found her heart grow heavy.
What did you have to go through?
“Hey, what’s that?” Adelaide asked. She hopped up from Chelsea’s lap and tugged at the blanket. One of Caleb’s hands was just underneath the edge of it, and when she pulled the blanket back, that hand was revealed to be clutching tightly to something.
It was a pocket watch. But it wasn’t Caleb’s silver Talisman. This watch was blue, with a pearly white chain. And on its surface was embossed a single letter T.
“I don’t know,” Chelsea said, staring.
“Hurry and wake up,” Adelaide said, pursing her lips as she gazed at Caleb. “I wanna ask you like a million things.”
Yeah, Caleb. Hurry and wake up.
You’ve kept us waiting and worrying for way too long.
“It’s kinda weird leaving everyone else, isn’t it?” Jupiter asked.
Fae nodded, not saying anything. She, Mercury, Jupiter, Neptune, and Gerick stood before a door at the base of the great peak on which the Nightmare Citadel stood.
“Quieter,” Mercury said.
“But we did what we came to do,” Neptune said. “And we know where to go next.”
Fae nodded again.
“Collapse has escaped,” Nocta had told them. “But there is only one place it could have gone. It will attempt to trace a trail to its master, but if you are quick, you can intercept it. Seek its place of origin. If it is not there when you arrive, there will be clear clues pointing the way to where it went next. You can pursue it, and you can destroy it.”
“But how come she knows how to get there?” Mercury asked. “What’s with these special beings knowing stuff that only Cartographers are supposed to be able to know?”
“It’s not only Cartographers who can find their way around the Dominion,” Neptune said. “Just mostly. And it’s much easier to find and speak with them than to try and talk to the Nightmare Queen.”
“Still,” Mercury said, a hand on her hip, “I didn’t expect the Nightmare Queen to be like this. She was… good. I guess nightmares are… not as bad as they seem? Or something?”
“Either way, I’m glad she was only scary for a little bit,” Jupiter said. “Though I kinda feel like we didn’t really do anything.”
“It’s the Fae show,” Mercury said with a grin, putting a hand on Fae’s shoulder. “We’re just the backup singers.”
I’m not much of a singer.
Fae smiled, just a little.
“Shall we depart?” Gerick asked, opening the door.
“We shall!” Mercury said. “Let’s go chase down Collapse and finish it off!”
“Yeah,” Fae said with a nod. “Let’s go.”
She passed through the door first.
That’s how she knew something wasn’t right. She tried to turn to tell the others to get back, and to go back through the door herself, but…
She couldn’t move.
The sky around her wasn’t the darkness of the Nightmare Road, nor the dull grey of the Plains of the Fallen.
It was a swirling kaleidoscope, constantly shifting with harsh, fuzzy interchanges, like static intercutting on a TV. The light hurt her eyes, but she couldn’t close them. Flashes of light, then bursts of harsh static, then a swirl of color…
A low rumble filled the air.
Fae could move, and she turned in a wide circle. The door was gone, but Gerick and the Star sisters were with her. They all stood upon a wide, rocky precipice suspended in a void of blue mist. There were no paths off of the precipice or down from it.
There was nowhere at all to go.
The low rumble continued, seeming to come from all directions.
“There’s something out there!” Jupiter shrieked, pointing.
Fae stared. And kept on staring, more and more as she realized the enormity of what lay within the mists. There was a great, dark shape, moving back and forth, up and down, spiraling around their entire platform.
It filled the sky. There was no descriptor for the size of whatever dark thing was out there, spiraling around their tiny platform, rumbling in the air.
But as Fae listened, she thought the rumbling sounded a little bit like…
“What strange beings have been knocking on my door?”
The voice that asked the question defied description. It was low and powerful, yet had a light, airy cheer to it. It resonated from all directions, yet spoke directly to them. It was angry, yet amused. Commanding, yet playful.
“We –” Jupiter started, but Fae and Neptune both clamped their hands over her mouth.
They’d both figured it out at the same time.
“Ah…” the voice said, followed by a rumbling roll of laughter. “So very perceptive of you. But you should know…”
The mists parted, and a great swell of the dark shape that surrounded them came forward into startling clarity. A massive face…
No. Not even an entire face. The creature that spiraled around their precipice was far too large for them to even be able to see its entire face from this close. Instead, Fae gazed upon a veritable wall of glittering, beautiful scales, and set within them, bigger than mansions upon mansions…
An eye. A great, massive eye, shimmering with blue light, gazed upon the girls and Gerick.
The voice continued.
“…No one outwits a Dragon.”