Shias glared up at the Guardian of Memory, his pen Talisman in hand.
“What did you do to the others?” he asked.
“Nothing,” replied the Guardian. “But I will, in a moment, do to them what I must do to you.”
“And what’s that?” Shias asked.
“You must be searched,” the Guardian said after a long pause. “Pray that you are not found wanting.”
“Wha—” Shias started.
But he couldn’t even finish his first word.
The Garden of Memory vanished, and he stood alone in a bleak, white void.
The Guardian’s voice spoke into the void. “What do you desire? Where do your thoughts lie?”
Shias stayed silent. Listening. Thinking.
A swirl of mist appeared before him, slowly forming into a human shape. It became solid, and details slowly filled in the dark form.
The mist had become a statue of his brother.
“You desire to be like Caleb,” came the Guardian’s voice. “The great Hunter whose footsteps you wish to follow. Only…”
The statue of Caleb turned to mist and rolled away.
“You can never achieve such a standard if you hold to your current course.”
The void around Shias filled with mist, and the mist rose up and formed into different shapes – statues of buildings, of walls, of plant life, and…
It was the garden behind Greyson Manor, and Shana’s statue stood there smiling at him.
“You are held back by your sister.”
“Held back?” Shias asked.
“Do you desire nothing for yourself?” the Guardian asked.
Shias was silent, considering that question.
“Your brother, the hero,” the Guardian continued. “Your sister, the hero. And you… what are you? Following along, doing as you’re told… a shadow, with no form to call your own.”
The statues that made up Greyson Manor’s garden vanished as mist, along with Shana, and the mist swirled into new shapes, new statues, making up a grand library packed with bookshelves.
“You’ve always desired knowledge,” said the Guardian. “And you have a perfect memory, perfect recall, just like your sister. Such intellect, such a rare talent… and yet… you could be so much more. You could be the greatest of heroes, yet you spend your days as the hero’s shadow.”
“Heroes, huh?” Shias asked softly. He looked up and around at the vast, stone library. He turned in a full circle, then came to a stop.
The statue of Shana had returned.
A small smile crossed Shias’ lips. “I think you have your thinking skewed,” he said. “This talk of heroes and shadows… it’s all wrong.”
The Guardian was silent.
“I know there’s a grand spotlight shining down on Shana,” Shias continued. “And on Caleb. But the spotlight doesn’t define them. And if all you look at is the spotlight, you miss what’s really made them great.”
“Enlighten me,” said the Guardian.
“Caleb’s always had Chelsea,” Shias said. “Hunters always work in teams. And he’s often had Lorelei and Will, as well. He’s had great teachers, too. And Shana’s had Heart, and now Nocta. And she’s had Kathryn, and Rae, and Ben…”
He looked up at the bleak, endless void above.
“And me. No one’s doing all these great things alone. You’re talking like I should want the spotlight. And you’re right about me idolizing Caleb, and wanting to be more like him. But not so I can take the spotlight. Just so that I can be better, and stronger, and more useful.”
“Useful?” the Guardian asked.
Shias nodded. “The better I am, the more I can protect those who matter to me,” he said. He pulled out his pen Talisman. “I didn’t choose Guardian Magic or Divination Magic by accident. Guardian to protect… Divination to see the truth… those are my roles. To protect those most important to me. To see what others can’t see, so I can be the most informed, the most able to discern and intercept threats and dangers.”
Shias’ thoughts turned back to the Final Frontier, when Dullan had confronted Maribelle and the rest of them. He’d threatened them all, but when he’d attacked, he’d gone after Shana.
No one else had moved to stop him. No one else had been ready.
But Shias had been there, had seen it coming, had stepped in the way and deflected what would have been a killing stroke.
His thoughts turned to the Radiant Palace and Annabelle’s rescue. When they’d been beset by many foes and needed to flee, it was his training and unique magical focus that allowed him to hold back four Royal Guards and the Gold Knight long enough to allow for all to escape.
And his thoughts turned to the Hall of Many Ways, and to Void’s pursuit of their group. But Divination Magic had revealed his presence to Shias, allowing him to expose the villain, and capture him with the help of his friends.
“I’ve gotten exactly what I’ve wanted,” Shias said softly, smiling. “I’ve protected her three times, at least. And I get to keep being there when she needs me most.” He twirled his pen once and placed it back in his pocket. “I guess what I’m saying is, heroes aren’t about glory or spotlights. And there’s no shame in serving and protecting. Or if there is…” He laughed, softly, and shook his head. “If there is, then I don’t mind it one bit.” He turned around, looking through a gap in the bookshelves and out into the void. “I’m not here – and my friends aren’t here – to steal secrets, or to damage the memories contained in this Garden. We’re here because we need the truth about one specific person. And I’m here…” Shias paused, nodding once. “I’m here because it’s exactly where I’m meant to be.”
Ben could only stare in stunned silence as the Garden vanished around him, leaving him alone in a bleak, white void.
“Uh…” he started blankly, blinking many times in quick succession. “Wait, wait, wait, hold on a second!” He finally gathered his wits, spinning around in a circle, looking for…
But there was nothing here.
“Hold on a second, I said,” he said, but half-heartedly. Fear was swiftly taking hold. “What… the heck is this…?”
“You will be searched,” came the soft, flowing baritone voice of the Guardian. “Pray that you are not found wanting.”
“Wanting of what?” Ben asked. “Come on, all I want is to not be in this creepy place all alone.”
“All you want?” asked the Guardian.
“All…” Ben started, trailing off.
Wait, he’s being serious.
He’s searching my mind, or something? So he’ll see…
“Hey, wait, hold on a second!” Ben cried out, waving his hands frantically. “Can you just… you don’t need to look inside my head, okay? Just ask what you want to know, I’ll be honest!”
“Your fear leaves me with no confidence in your claim to honesty,” said the Guardian.
Ben felt it, then, a penetrating probe diving into his mind and…
“Wait, hold on —” he started, but then his mouth clamped shut.
All around him, mist started swirling in the void. That white mist turned into grey stone, forming statues as if out of clay, and when they took form…
They showed the street in front of Ben’s house.
“You don’t belong here,” came the Guardian’s voice. “You’re the weakest link in a team that would have no weak links without you. Why did you even come in the first place?”
“F-for Shana,” Ben said, barely able to get the words out.
“For who?” the Guardian asked.
“She asked all of us for help,” Ben said. “And she’s so earnest and stuff, how could anyone —”
“Do not lie to me.” The Guardian’s voice was soft, and yet there was a firmness to his statement that shut Ben up right away.
What do you want from me?
I don’t… I mean…
You can see what’s inside of me, so why ask me? You already know, right?
“Why did you even come on this quest?” the Guardian asked. “Why come when you knew you were the weakest link?”
Do you have to keep rubbing that in?
You already know.
You already know, so…
“It’s not like I had a choice,” Ben said meekly, shrugging his shoulders.
“No choice?” asked the Guardian.
The mists swirled, the street and Ben’s house vanishing, reforming into…
Grimoire Academy. The Literature Club’s club room.
“Literature,” the Guardian said. “And yet your interests lie elsewhere. You didn’t even want to join.”
“Shias was joining,” Ben said. “I just followed him.”
“And you stayed. But not for him.”
I haven’t told anyone about this…
The mists started adding to the scene, and Ben immediately turned away. “No, come on,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re a total stranger, you think I’m gonna talk to you about what I haven’t told anyone else about?”
“Fear is a close friend of yours,” the Guardian said.
Yeah, I get it. I almost failed us all on the Nightmare Road, and I’ve always been chickening out of stuff and complaining and worrying. Everyone jokes about how I’m the most likely to screw things up.
I know all that.
Afraid of talking about…?
“Why do you shy away?” asked the Guardian.
Because there’s no way that she’d ever…
“Why did you come on this quest?” asked the Guardian.
Ben raised his head, looking at the statue that had formed in front of him.
I have to face this, right?
Is it really so bad?
I know how I feel, and I…
I don’t want to just…
“Because I can be better,” Ben said softly. “Because… I don’t want to stay the same.”
“The same?” asked the Guardian.
I can’t hold back anything, can I?
And, I mean…
It’s not so bad to say this stuff, right?
It’s the truth.
“I’ve always been weak,” he said. “Soft, a worrywart, spineless, cowardly, whatever you wanna call it. Just like how I joined the Literature Club, I really didn’t want to – I really didn’t want to – I like books and reading and all, but to spend a whole portion of my day multiple times a week for years talking about them? Come on. But… Shias was doing it, and Shana asked me, too, and I just… went with it. And then I…”
He stared at the statue in front of him.
“I met her,” he continued.
He managed a small smile. Even though the smile on the statue in front of him was a pale shadow of the real thing, it was still so contagious.
“Who?” asked the Guardian.
Seriously? I’m staring right at her.
“Kathryn,” Ben said. “And she…” He shook his head, chuckling. “She was so hard on me, gave me the worst time in the world. She saw all my flaws so fast and wouldn’t stop picking at them, tearing them apart. She didn’t let me hide. Shias, he… he’s such a great guy. But he’s kind of a pain, sometimes. He makes things too easy. Because he doesn’t ask you to change, he doesn’t point out what’s wrong with you. He just steps right in and covers for you. He’ll carry everyone on his shoulders and never complain about it. But…” He sighed. “That just makes it way too easy to coast through life, as long as you’re next to him. Shias never, as long as we’ve been friends, he’s never pointed out a single thing wrong with me. He’s never complained, never told me to shape up, never blamed anyone for anything unless he was blaming himself. And that’s exactly what I didn’t realize I didn’t need.”
The Guardian was silent. But Ben couldn’t be silent, not now that all of these thoughts were pouring out of him for the first time.
“Kathryn was the total opposite of that. She went after me, all the time, over every little thing. It was annoying, and frightening, and embarrassing, because she’d do it in public too, in the middle of club sessions, around all our friends, just needle me about this and that. But…” Ben smiled. “She never pushed me away. She always picked me apart, but she also always greeted me with a smile, always sat next to me, started walking to and from school with me… she’s what I always needed. Because she…” He shook his head, turning away from the statue. It felt so wrong to look at a pale imitation of Kathryn. “She makes me better. And she makes me want to be better. She pushes and pushes and pushes, but she never gives up on me, even when it’s the five thousandth time saying ‘honestly, Benjamin!’ I don’t know why she believes in me. But her voice, even when she’s totally tearing me apart, it’s the best sound in the world. I…”
The statues all around swept away, leaving Ben in just the empty white void. He chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his neck.
“I know I’m the weakest link. But I also know I’ve gotten at least a little bit better. And I’m here because… because I know the most amazing girl in the universe believes in me. And that makes me want to be who she believes I can be.” He tapped out a brief rhythm on his waist with his hands, then looked up, smiling confidently. “Fear’s not a close friend. He’s a terrible enemy I can’t seem to shake. I’m so scared of so much, and all of this has been so hard for me, but… I think that’s the right sign. I take it as proof that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
“Pray that I’m not found wanting?” Kathryn asked to the empty white void. “Wanting of what? If you’re worried I’m gonna mess with the memories you’re guarding, don’t worry about that. I just want to help my friends.”
“That’s all you want?” the Guardian asked, his disembodied voice coming from all sides. “Despite all you could want, considering your life?”
A pale mist swirled through the air, and soon coalesced into statues, stone imitations of Kathryn’s home, with stone imitations of her parents sitting outside. It was a small house. From where she stood, Kathryn could see the first-floor window with the broken lock that she often used to break into her own home when she forgot her key.
The mists also formed, on either side, massive, towering Manors of prominent mage families.
“Seriously?” Kathryn asked, hands on her hips. “Playing the economic angle? So my family doesn’t have a lot of money. So what? We get by. What more do we need? And I’ll be just fine when it’s time for me to live on my own, thank you very much. I don’t need a fancy mansion.”
The houses rolled away into mist, reforming into new images, once again comparing. In the center was the Literature Club room. To the left was the dance studio where Kathryn had taken private lessons as a kid, and to the right the gym where she’d learned – and now taught part-time – gymnastics.
“You abandoned your passions for the sake of a friend,” said the Guardian.
Kathryn snorted. “Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “I stuck by my girl. What else would I do? If you’d seen the way her eyes lit up when she said she wanted to start a Literature Club, you would’ve joined, too. Besides, I didn’t abandon anything. I fell in love with something brand new.” She grinned. “And if you want to know, Shana and I both have been using the club for research! We’re gonna hit it big with our own stories someday. So we’ve gotta study all our favorites! Maybe writing, maybe some other medium, but we see the power really good stories have on people, the power they have on us. We want to help inspire and uplift others, too.”
“And!” Kathryn added, cutting off the Guardian before he could get more than a single syllable out. “In case you want to know more, I’m really glad I’m here. I’m glad I’m with Shana, and Rae, and Shias, and Ben. I’ve been able to see Rae start coming out of her shell, and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. And Ben’s really been shaping up, finally.” She smirked. “I knew he’d get there eventually.” She shrugged. “Anyway, in case you can’t tell, I know exactly what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to freak me out, trying to get me to be worried or scared or whatever else. But you know by now that it won’t work.”
“Why are you here?” the Guardian asked.
“Why am I here?” Kathryn asked. She spread out her hands as if it were obvious. “Where else would I rather be?”
“W-why am I here?” Rae asked, echoing the Guardian’s question. “I don’t…”
She stopped herself, taking a deep breath.
You don’t have to tense up like this anymore. It’s scary, and it’s strange, but you’re not really alone.
You have Brutus. And Shana, Shias, Kathryn, Ben, they’re all out there somewhere. Remember what you’re here for. Remember the Nightmare Road, and all those other things.
Don’t be afraid. Not now, not ever.
What’s fear ever done for you?
“What do you mean?” Rae finally asked, her voice still wavering slightly.
“Why come on this quest?” the Guardian asked. “Why remain after seeing all the trouble it’s brought you?”
“Trouble?” Rae asked. She looked up at Brutus, who looked down at her with his big, kind eyes.
The void filled with mist, and that mist formed a rapid series of dark shapes, never holding true to one thing for long. But Rae saw them all – the giant spider Summon in the grove, Ben’s capture at the Radiant Palace, the startling journey across the Westward Plains, Dullan’s attempt on Shana’s life, the grueling training at the Share House, the battle to save Annabelle where Brutus had been tossed around like a rag doll, the fight inside the Hall of Many Ways where she and the others had kept Void from pursuing Shana, the Nightmare Road, the Nightmare Citadel, the ominous presence of Collapse beneath the Citadel…
She saw it all. But not, she thought, like the Guardian intended her to see it.
I’ve really changed, haven’t I?
She saw herself in the mists, could trace a trajectory from one Rae to the Rae that was watching all of this unfold.
At the start of it all, she’d hid behind others. She’d tried at things, but failed.
But at the end of it all…
She’d made it through the Nightmare Road, all the way, without ever seeing or hearing the slightest hint of her fears assailing her. And beneath the Citadel, when Shias had seemed to be pulled magnetically towards Collapse…
She’d been the one to take his arm. She’d held him firm, kept him from being overcome by that evil weapon.
“I started all of this because of Shana,” Rae said. “And because I wanted to find my father. He was one of the missing people – so many of them were kids, but there were a few adults, and he was one of them. And we weren’t the ones to save him, but we were able to get important information back to the others, and Marcus saved him along with all the other missing people, but —” She shook her head. “That’s not the point, anyway, um…” She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I started all of this for those reasons. But now… now I’m here because I know how important it’s been for me.” She smiled as she felt Brutus’ warmth in her hand. “I didn’t think I could do anything, really. I just sort of followed after Shana and Kathryn, because they shine so brightly, after Shias because he’s so constant and dependable, but I never really thought I could live up to them. But now… now, I’m not really worried about that. I see that I can be more than I ever imagined. And so, that’s why… I think this is where I’m meant to be.”
Shana spoke the words in a small voice. She sat on the ground in this white, endless void, holding Altair close to her chest.
How long have I been here?
Where is everyone else?
The Guardian said I was going to be searched, but…
There’s been nothing. Nothing, for so long.
She tilted her head down, and Altair licked her nose.
“Nothing ever gets you down, huh?” she asked, eyeing her blue pup. He stared back at her, his eyes always seeming so full of joy.
“I want to go home,” she said softly.
Not alone, though. I want Caleb, and Delilah, and Shias, and Fae. Everyone has to be there.
I’m sick of only getting them for little bits. Each time I’ve been with Fae, it’s been too short, too fast, and then she’s gone again. I got to go back to Grimoire, to even train with Caleb and his team, and then…
Then we had to leave again. And I got to see Caleb at Midnight Bridge, but for such a short time, and then we left.
I brought her onto the team. She was a part of this, she was our wonderful sixth teammate.
And then she was stolen away by fear. I could have saved her. I’m the stupid Dreamer! And that was the Nightmare Road! I was able to do so much, but…
I couldn’t do anything for her. For my little sister.
Shana buried her face in Altair’s warm, fuzzy softness.
“I want to go home…” she said, nuzzling his neck.
I’m so tired. And I feel so…
“I don’t get it,” she said, her voice muffled by Altair’s body. “I’ve always been with people. I’ve been with Shias and the others almost the whole time. And then I was with Maribelle and Annabelle, and…
“I’ve never been alone. Not really. So why am I so…?”
I miss everyone so much.
And I’m just so… so…
Sick of all this. I saved Annabelle. I lit the Dream Forge. I saved Nocta.
When does it ever end? It’s all been so… so…
So hard, so painful, so frightening, so exhausting.
I’m worn out.
“I’m so tired…”
And I just…
Where does it end? Why can’t I just…
Why can’t I be with my friends and my siblings, but at home? Doing homework together, reading, playing games, going to the movies…
Why does it have to be like this? Why am I the Dreamer? Why is so much on me?
Why do the others stick with me through all this junk?
“I never asked for this.”
I haven’t even had a chance to breathe. My chest feels tight. Every new place we go, every new complication that comes up…
It makes me feel so heavy.
“But I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, right?”
Even though I want to be anywhere else. This is where I’m supposed to be…
Her thoughts turned to the last day she’d spent in Grimoire. She’d gone to the garden behind Greyson Manor, to the spot where Fae had planted a tree, to that stone marker that she’d made as a child with her big sister.
“Go with joy wherever life takes you.”
I loved that quote. And I used it to give me strength to come back to the Dominion this time.
How can I be joyful about this?
Kathryn keeps smiling. Shias is as steady as ever. Rae and Ben are both getting so much stronger and more confident.
Where’s my joy?
She thought back to the Nightmare Road, to that moment when she’d really learned to fly, and had risen up with her whole team, soaring to their escape.
That was exhilarating. I was so excited, so, so…
So where’d it all go?
Why can’t I…
“Why can’t I feel that now?”
“Go with joy wherever life takes you.”
“Not as easy as it sounds, huh?” Shias said that. Right before we left again.
It really isn’t. It’s so not easy.
And Shias, he…
“Whatever happens, I’m with you. If it’s really scary and dangerous, or if it’s really easy and fun, I’ll stay with you.”
Where are you now?
Shana pulled her head back just enough so that she could kiss Altair on the cheek. He licked her face in response, and she managed a tiny, weak little laugh.
“You’re with me all the time,” Shana said. “Especially now that I learned how to keep you with me in the Nightmare worlds. So why…”
Why do I feel so alone?
She buried her face back in Altair’s fur, desperately fighting against the tightness of her heart, against the wetness in her eyes.
Don’t cry. If you cry, it’s never gonna stop, not how you are now.
And crying doesn’t make any of this junk better. I’m sick of crying. I’m sick of all of this.
“It’s okay to cry.”
Shana looked up. That voice…
“Shias?” she asked.
“ ‘When you’re troubled about something, tell me!’ That’s what you always said to me, remember?”
“Kathryn?” Shana asked.
“I’m sorry you’ve been feeling so alone. I wish I’d noticed…”
“Come on, Ben, say something.”
“Yeah, um… hey, you know, we’re all with you all the way. So don’t, you know, be too sad.”
“Great freaking job, Benjamin.”
“I did my best!”
Shana turned around, still sitting on the ground, and there they were. Shias. Kathryn. Rae, with Brutus. Ben.
“You guys…” she said softly, staring at her friends. “You… but how…?”
“How?” Kathryn asked, grinning. “We’re your friends. We’ll always find you.” She glared up at the sky. “No matter what some stupid Guardian guy wants to say about it.”
“But I…” Shana started, wiping at her face with her sleeve.
“Oh, just cry already,” Kathryn said, coming over and sitting next to Shana. She wrapped her up in a hug, their cheeks touching. Kathryn’s face was so warm. “I’ll cry with you. We’ve had a lot worth crying about lately, huh?”
Shana nodded. “Uh-huh,” she said. And then the tears started, and she couldn’t stop them. And she didn’t try. Kathryn’s embrace steadied her through the tears, and then came the steady hand of Shias, both of Rae’s small hands, and the shaky, jittery hand of Ben.
She leaned into her brother and her friends as she cried. And in time she found her voice again.
“I love you guys.”