The word fell heavy in the air, filling the Nightmare Citadel with a dark, threatening pressure.
Fae stumbled backwards, gaping up at Nocta, the Nightmare Queen. The interior of the Citadel was massive, and yet this single black owl filled the vast emptiness, looming over everyone. Her wings spread wide like a dark, tattered cape, and her brow lanced downward in a vicious, predatory glare.
Nocta’s lavender eyes were not those of a vicious predator. They held a weary, anguished fragility, and sorrow.
Total hopelessness. What Collapse preys on, and what it magnifies.
She’s not a foe.
She’s broken and hurting and needs our help.
But Fae’s thoughts grew wild and tangled with fear as Nocta beat her wings once more, blasting all in the Citadel with powerful wind.
“Fae!” came the voice of Shana, shrill and hollow in the darkness. Fae looked to her sister, who was scrambling despite the wind to rush towards her. Shias followed close behind her, holding up his Pen Talisman, but there was no sign of his magic.
“What are we supposed to do?” asked Mercury. She stood with one of her guitar picks in hand, but that hand was shaking, and she stared at it with shock and fear. “Our magic… just like the Nightmare Road…”
Fae’s eyes widened, and she looked back at Nocta.
We can’t use our magic?
How can we do anything, then?
“Fae!” Shana cried again, crashing into Fae with a tackling hug. “I can’t believe you’re here, too!”
“Y-yeah,” Fae said shakily. The warmth and comfort of her sister’s presence offered a tiny, flickering light in the crushing darkness.
“Nocta!” a man cried out, and all eyes turned to him. In the midst of the wind, the fury, the darkness, the pressure, he stood tall, his long coat snapping out behind him like the cape of a hero. His eyes were set in a fierce, focused gaze. He stretched out his hand. “I’m back, Nocta. I’ve come for you. You don’t have to give into Collapse.”
“Lance…” Nocta said slowly, her voice ragged and raspy, “…lot…”
A grim smile formed on the man’s face. “That’s right,” he said. “I’ve come for you, after all this time. I’m sorry it took so long.”
Nocta’s face contorted into an expression of pain. A fierce struggle was waged within her, and Fae and Shana, arms around each other, watched with bated breath.
But Fae didn’t hold out much hope.
We read about this. About what Collapse does. We read so much.
Whoever that man is… whatever their history together is…
It’s not enough. She needs –
Fae suddenly pushed Shana away, muttering a hasty apology as she shoved her hand into her bag.
She pulled out the candlestick bell, the bearer of Child’s Innocence, the Intangible that holds within it innocent, pure, powerful hope.
She raised it high, and rang it once.
The bell rang, but…
What is this…?
The beautiful, bright, transformative chime that Fae had heard each previous time she’d rung the bell was gone. In its place was a dull, hollow sound, a weak note that fell as soon as it was struck, crushed by the dark pressure in this place, unable to resonate and echo out into the Citadel.
Unable to share its hope with the one who needed it most.
“What do we do now?” Jupiter asked, staring in horror at the failed bell.
Fae rang it again.
Once again, a dull note emerged and fell.
Hope was swallowed away by the great darkness.
“We can’t give up!” Mercury cried out.
“That’s right!” Shana said. “We only just got here, after all. It would be ridiculous to quit so soon!”
But Fae said nothing. For she remembered what the Fates had said, their advice and warnings about this quest.
“Do not be alarmed if you cannot overcome her. Facing her once, if you are resourceful and observant, will give you the clues you need to return properly prepared to pass her.”
Fae gritted her teeth, feeling the crushing weight of failure.
We can’t win. Not this time.
All we can do…
What we have to do…
Is be observant. Gather clues. We need knowledge, before we…
“Nocta!” the man called out, drawing ever nearer to the great owl.
Nocta’s inner conflict seemed to come to a sudden stop. For a moment, all was still and silent. The wind vanished, and all held their breath, watching with hope – or dread – for what would happen.
Then Nocta’s eyes flashed. The wind returned, and she beat her wings furiously, adding to its rushing, destructive roar. And then her voice rose in the wind, uttering that crushing, hopeless word.
The man who’d been reaching out to her was knocked back, dropping to his knees. His face fell, eyes closed, hands clenched into fists.
Suddenly, Fae found a new fear arise within her. And in the face of that fear, and the powerful gusts, she raised her voice.
“Don’t give into despair!” she cried out. “There is a way to save her! We need to learn all we can before we leave!”
“Leave?” Shana asked, staring at Fae indignantly. Fae saw past her that the man was also staring at Fae with a similar stunned expression, something akin to betrayal. “We can’t just leave! We have to save her!”
“And we will!” Fae said. “But we might not have all we need yet!”
“What?” Shana asked.
“That’s right,” Neptune said, her calm voice somehow projecting into the wind to reach all ears. “The Fates cautioned us that we might not be able to save her on our first visit.”
The man’s expression of betrayal shifted then, probably at the mention of the Fates. There was a break in the wind, and he stood. “Everyone, together!” he called out. “Don’t get separated for anything! Stay with me and follow my lead!”
Fae, the Star sisters, Gerick, Shana, and Shias rushed to the man, while Fae noticed that Shana and Shias had brought others with them. Three friends – she recognized them as the twins’ friends but couldn’t recall their names – were also here, rushing towards the man from where their group had entered.
“But what are we supposed to do?” Shana asked. “She’s your Summon, Mister Midnight. Don’t you have any ideas?”
Mister Midnight’s eyes flashed. “I only had one,” he said in a haunted voice, “and it failed. Now we just watch, learn, and get out safely.” He stood tall despite the bitterness in his tone, and when a new blast of wind came, he spread out his arms and stood in front of everyone, as if to protect them from the worst of it.
“I don’t know what we can learn like this,” Shias said, calm and poised as always. “We need to at least try to explore the place. There have to be more clues.”
“Gerick Irsotz, right?” Midnight asked, looking at Gerick. Gerick stared back at him in surprise, nodding. “You’re in charge of those who came with you, and I’m in charge of those who came with me. We’re going outside, but if we get separated, don’t ever lose track of your group. Understood?” Gerick nodded again. The wind paused again, and Midnight pointed to the door from which Fae’s group had entered. “Let’s go! Everyone out!”
They ran, escaping out into the bleak, shattered landscape around the Citadel just as Nocta spoke her single word once more, blasting away with wind and fury.
“My group, to the left!” Midnight called out, already moving that way. “Gerick, go right! Make a full lap around the Citadel, quick as you can, and find out all you can.”
“Right!” Gerick replied, starting in his direction. The Star sisters followed, and Fae moved to follow them, but…
Shana was holding her hand.
She stopped, looking back at her sister.
“We’re getting out of here together,” Shana said, her eyes glistening with the onset of tears. “No matter what. Okay?”
Fae nodded, giving Shana’s hand a gentle squeeze. Shana squeezed back, more firmly, and then let go.
The sisters, so briefly reunited, ran in opposite directions.
“There are markings all over the outer walls,” Neptune said, her eyes scanning the Citadel’s perimeter. “Carvings. But they’re so worn and faded, it’s hard to learn much.”
“There,” Gerick said, pointed at the corner they had almost reached. “It’s a chronology of the Nightmare Queens. Nocta wasn’t the first. Her carving is in the other direction, just past the doorway.”
They turned the corner, and Jupiter gasped, pointing. “That’s something!” she said.
Halfway up the towering wall was an image all four girls knew too well. A box within a box, the inner box darker than the outer, creating the impression of a bottomless pit.
The symbol for Collapse.
“What’s that?” Mercury asked, rushing ahead. She came to a sudden stop, and no one insisted she rush past.
A long stretch of the Citadel’s outer wall was torn with jagged claw marks. Those claw marks weren’t random, though, but were formed into rough, anguished lettering, covering a section of wall dozens of feet high:
ALONE. ALONE. ALONE. ABANDONED. LONELY. ISOLATION. CAPTURED. STOLEN. KIDNAPPED. CAPTIVE. ALONE. SEPARATED. SEPARATION. SOLITUDE. ALONE. DARK. SO DARK. ALONE. HELP. ESCAPE. ESCAPE. FEAR. PAIN. DARK. SO DARK. ALONE. AL—
The words came to a sudden stop, and around the next corner, the wall was gouged out with deep, massive letters, spelling one word:
“Don’t forget any of those words,” Gerick said, now rushing ahead again.
All came to a stop once more, however.
A bell tolled in the night.
It had to be massive, its resonance shaking the ground, the very air, making Fae feel like her bones were vibrating within her, and she clutched her head against the deep, painful, endless note.
A cry rose up, and the bell faded away. There was a sound like thunder, and a dark shadow stretched out around Fae and her companions.
She looked up.
Nocta had taken flight.
The great owl was even greater and more imposing in the bleak sky, her wings able to stretch to their full span. Her voice spoke her one word, and though all of her body language was menacing and predatory…
Her eyes were the same. Fragile. Pained. Desperate.
Fae couldn’t finish her thought. Nocta cried out, flapped her wings, and a powerful gust knocked all five to their knees. Fae looked up, squinting against the vicious wind.
Her eyes widened.
Nocta was diving for them.
“Run!” Fae screamed. But her feet refused to move, rooted as she was by fear. All she could do was watch.
Suddenly, a bolt of white light slashed across the sky. Nocta shrieked, pulling back.
A hand grabbed Fae’s arm, pulling her to her feet. Fae turned and saw it was Shana, a wild look in her eyes. But seeing that Fae was okay, she smiled.
“Let’s go!” Midnight called out, standing at the far side of the Citadel. “This is the best we’re gonna get!”
Gerick, Fae, and the Star sisters followed, along with Shana, Shias, and their friends. They raced across a bridge, towards a rocky platform on the far side of a dark, bottomless chasm.
“That was totally awesome, Shana!” said Shana’s blonde friend, grinning. “Count on the Dreamer to do some awesome magical stuff!”
“It was all I could do,” Shana said breathlessly. “I’m just glad it was enough.”
The Dreamer? Shana used magic?
Now wasn’t the time to ask questions, but Fae kept that knowledge in mind. For she remembered every part of her journey, all the clues she’d gathered, and her thoughts went to the mirror in her bag.
To think Shana was the Dreamer all along…
On the far side, Midnight was ushering everyone through a door. He and Fae ended up being the last through, and both of them, before they left the Citadel behind, took one long look back at Nocta.
The Nightmare Queen, the great owl, was perched atop the Citadel’s highest tower, and stared at them with eyes that gleamed against her dark form.
I hope we learned enough. But more than that, I just hope…
I hope you know…
We’ll save you.
Fae turned with a heavy heart, passing through the door in retreat.