Fae stumbled out of the doorway and onto a stone floor. Immediately she looked up, wondering what the Nightmare Road would throw at her for the return journey…
But this wasn’t the Nightmare Road.
She couldn’t be certain, of course. But the way that Mister Midnight and Shana’s group all acted perfectly at home was the first indicator that they were already safe. The second was that there was a house, something she’d never seen on the Nightmare Road. It was more vertical than horizontal, rising several stories like a ramshackle rounded spire of wood and metal. Dim blue lights glowed within street lamps, and there was a patch of mushrooms on the near side of the house that glowed a pale blue.
“How’d you get us back so easily?” Shana asked.
“I didn’t do anything,” Midnight said, staring at the surroundings with a slight look of puzzlement on his face. “But that’s a relief. We didn’t have to weather the Nightmare Road both ways.”
“Where are we?” Mercury asked.
“Ah, sorry,” Midnight said. He gestured casually at the surroundings. “This is my domain – Midnight Bridge. It’s too cramped in the house for all of us, but we can set up some tables and chairs outside and eat. Chances are most of you are starving.”
“Definitely!” Jupiter said excitedly.
“But what do we do next?” Shana asked.
“We discuss what to do next,” Midnight said gruffly. “While we eat. Or after. Just wait here.”
“I’ll help!” Shana said, following after Midnight excitedly. She pulled out her bookmark Talisman and held it up, a hopeful look in her eyes. Light burst in the darkness, and Altair popped into being, wagging his tail and prancing around Shana’s feet. Shana’s eyes lit up and she scooped the little blue dog into her arms, grinning. “I missed you!”
“Let’s help, too!” Kathryn said, grabbing Rae by the hand and dragging her along with her.
“You don’t need to,” Midnight said, but it was half-hearted, and he didn’t stop the girls from following him into the house.
“This place is so weird,” Mercury said, gazing up and around into the gloom that surrounded Midnight Bridge. “Hard to imagine someone living here.”
I… think it’s kind of nice.
At first Fae had thought it was just gloomy, but the more she stared at her surroundings, the more she felt a sense of peace. It was dark, but the gloom didn’t get her down. It seemed more like a veil, a shifting, living mist that blanketed the place as a shield. The blue lights weren’t as dim as they had appeared once her eyes adjusted, and their color was heartening.
And Midnight Bridge was so wonderfully quiet. There was a tranquility here that lay beneath first impressions.
The door to Mister Midnight’s house opened, and out came Shana, Kathryn, Rae, and two strangers, followed by Midnight. The first stranger was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, with long raven-colored curls tumbling over one shoulder, and gleaming silver eyes. She chatted away with the others, a bright smile on her face.
The other was a woman who seemed as if she was formed from metals and precious jewels. Her coppery skin glittered. Her eyes were like diamonds inlaid with emeralds, and they shone brightly. Her hair cascaded down like compressed sapphires rolled into silvery blue strands. Whenever she smiled, she closed her eyes, and her cheeks glowed warmly.
The four girls, the woman, and Midnight were carrying tables and chairs, and started setting them up just in front of the house. Shias and Ben joined them, setting to work right away.
“We should probably help, right?” Mercury asked, pointing at the group.
“It looks crowded,” Jupiter said, hands in her pockets.
“Now, now, you two,” Neptune said, putting an arm over each of her sister’s shoulders. “Let’s go give them a hand, shall we?”
“A splendid idea,” Gerick said.
The five of them went over and joined the chatting, working group, and all of the set-up was done in minutes. Not only did they set up three round tables with thirteen chairs, but also spread dark blue table cloths over each table, and set out plates, bowls, glasses, and silverware for thirteen. Fae learned that the silver-eyed girl’s name was Ingrid, and the beautiful gem-like woman’s name was Mineria.
It was immediately apparent that Mister Midnight and Mineria were in love. They kept close to each other, their hands kept brushing against each other’s, and they often stole meaningful glances at each other when they thought no one was looking. Mineria was the prime initiator, it seemed to Fae, smiling happily as she stayed close to Midnight, but Midnight’s general grumpy attitude seemed more a façade than ever when interacting with Mineria.
It was a strange thing to see. Not because love was strange, but because their interactions, at least to Fae’s observations, seemed to have measures of both young, puppy love, and the deep, experienced commitment of a long-married couple. Yet there was also a tension, as if there was – or, no, more like there had been – something complicated and painful between them, and its echoes had not yet completely faded.
As always, Fae found the same thoughts about love and romance filling her mind. In the end, it all boiled down to something very simple:
Love is scary.
Complicated, confusing, frightening, and oh so easily twisted. It was something Fae found no interest in, and she worried for those she saw falling into or already fallen in the wild, complex grip of love.
They sat and ate, mostly in silence. Hunger had been a distant, faded memory when facing the terrifying Nightmare Queen, but now that adrenaline had subsided, everyone who had embarked on the journey to and from the Nightmare Citadel was fully at the mercy of their growling stomachs. Despite the food being completely foreign to Fae, she ate it up without hesitation.
The glowing blue mushrooms grown beside Midnight’s house were a major part of each dish. After being cooked, the luminescence of the mushrooms faded, but they still had a blue color to them that was, in Fae’s mind, strange for food. And she’d never enjoyed mushrooms.
Yet these were sweet, like some kind of berry, and were nothing at all like the mushrooms Fae so detested. She had them in a sandwich with meat and cheese, and cooked into a soup – also with meat and cheese. Both dishes were delicious. She suspected that the blue drink served to everyone was some kind of juice made from the mushrooms, but she gulped it down happily.
Why don’t they grow mushrooms like this back on Earth?
With their – lunch? Dinner? Fae had no idea what time it was, so she couldn’t give their meal a proper name – finished, Ingrid and Mineria were the ones who primarily stepped in to clean, but Shana and Kathryn happily joined to help. It wasn’t long before everyone was helping clean, except for Midnight, who sat cross-legged atop a stack of boxes nearly twice as tall as Fae, his eyes narrowed in thought.
“I was wondering when he’d get to that,” Mineria said, watching Midnight with Fae. Her voice was beautiful and strange, metallic in a musical way, full-bodied, warm, and bright. “That’s his favorite place to contemplate when he has things to contemplate.”
“I’m sure he has a lot to think about now,” Fae said. She didn’t know him much at all, but she’d gathered enough at the Nightmare Citadel. Somehow Nocta – the Nightmare Queen, the great and terrifying owl – was Midnight’s Summon. Worse still, she was infected with Collapse.
How long had the two been separated? How heartbreaking must it be for Midnight to see his Summon in such a broken state, after so long of not even being able to see her?
“Take care of him, won’t you?” Mineria asked. She smiled, closing her eyes as her cheeks glowed softly with warmth. “I’m sure you’ll all be going back there soon enough. He’ll need all the friends he can get.”
“I’ll… do my best,” Fae said.
“We all will!” Mercury said cheerily, coming up behind Fae and tossing her arms over her shoulders in a casual hug. “Don’t you worry – we’ve got Mister Midnight well looked after.”
Easier said than done. How in the world can we save Nocta? Her Summoner couldn’t reach her, and the candlestick bell did nothing. What else can we do?
“She’s right!” came the voice of Shana. She came around, stopping in front of Fae and smiling up at her. “We’re gonna save Nocta together. With all of us here combining our thoughts and ideas, I’m sure we can figure something out.”
“Do you have any ideas of your own?” Shias asked.
Shana nodded. “In my vision in the Dream Forge, Nocta told me I needed to find the people who could help save her. I thought I’d done that just by finding Mister Midnight, and now Fae, but I’m thinking… maybe we’re missing someone.”
“The Fates told us something similar,” Neptune said. Her calm, composed demeanor was an anchor for Fae in the midst of her troubled thoughts over what could possibly be done next. “They said we wouldn’t be able to save her on our first visit, but to not lose hope. We’d find answers there, and we can use those to get closer to the truth.”
“So now’s the time to pool our knowledge,” Midnight said, staring down at the crowd gathered below his box tower. “We split into two groups at the Citadel, and I’m sure each of us found different clues that can guide us. We’ll start with my group.”
“There’s a passageway leading down,” Shias said. “While Fae’s group was outside, we went back into the Citadel, just briefly. It seemed empty at first, but it isn’t. There are stairs in the corner that lead down. All around them they were marked with a symbol, like a box within a box. Unlike a lot of the old, faded markings, those looked much newer.”
“The symbol for Collapse,” Fae said. “We saw the same thing on the outside of the Citadel.”
“And we know that Collapse was most likely taken to the Nightmare Citadel,” Neptune said. “It’s likely stored beneath the Citadel, wherever those stairs lead. If we can destroy it, that would free Nocta from its grip.”
“I don’t want to risk that,” Midnight said, startling everyone. “We need to reach her first, one way or another. Make sure there’s still hope for her, at the very least. With her in such close proximity to the Intangible, it makes me worry that she might be too closely attached to it. Unless we can free her from the disease, we don’t destroy the source.”
“We found clues outside,” Mercury said, raising her hand. Surprising Fae with how good her memory was, she recited the writing on the outer walls of the Citadel, word for word.
“She’s so lonely…” Shana said sadly.
“That’s no surprise,” Midnight said. “Shana, you said we need more people, right? That means we’ll need to talk to others. I think I know who might be able to help.”
“Who?” Shana asked.
Midnight hopped down from his box tower and strode towards his house. “We’re going to the Library of Solitude,” he said.
“We get to see Annabelle?” Shana asked, rushing after him, Altair at her heels.
“And the other Princesses,” Midnight said. “They may have helpful clues for us.”
“Meanwhile, we’re totally lost,” Mercury said with a chuckle. “Guess we’ll just follow along and learn as we go, huh?”
“I’ll explain,” Shias said. He walked with them, talking to them about the Library of Solitude, and the great trial Shana had gone through there to free it from living darkness, and the Princesses – Isabelle, Annabelle, Maribelle, and Sarabelle – as well as the topic of Daylight Bastions and their role in the universe, while dropping a surprising revelation onto the girls.
“Midnight Bridge is a Daylight Bastion?” Jupiter asked. “But it’s so gloomy.”
“I don’t think so,” Fae said softly. They were now inside the house, descending beneath it by a long spiral staircase. As if on cue, the walls suddenly vanished around them, and all paused to gaze in awe at their surroundings.
Beneath Mister Midnight’s house was a vast crystal cavern. Massive gemstones, many as big as houses, shone with blue, purple, black, and silver light. Several pools of clear water on the ground level revealed underwater crystals with light that burst brilliantly in a million directions.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and followed a path up to a wide stage-like area, on which rested a silver-framed mirror – Shias called it a Light Catcher – and behind it was a black stone pedestal shaped like an hourglass. The top of it had a depression, in which was a small amount of silvery liquid.
“This is the communication system of the Bastions,” Midnight explained. “Hikarescence. With this, we can check in on other Bastions and speak to the people there.” He stretched out his hand, stopping with his palm downward an inch away from the liquid. A ripple pulsed through the Hikarescence, and the silvery color changed to the image of a bright, airy room.
“It looks totally different!” Shana said, gazing with wonder into the Hikarescence. “But this is Annabelle’s bedroom. It’s so bright now.” She smiled widely, her eyes brimming with tears.
“See if she’s there,” Midnight said.
“Annabelle?” Shana called. “Are you home?”
A face appeared in the liquidy image, that of a child with bright blue eyes framed by a mass of apple-red curls. She blinked twice, and then smiled widely.
“Shana!” she said. “I’m so glad to see you!”
“I’m so glad to see how things look there!” Shana said. “Light’s coming back to the Library.”
Annabelle nodded. “It is,” she said. “Everything’s going so well. But if you’re talking to me like this, you must be in a Daylight Bastion.”
“I’m at Midnight Bridge,” Shana said. “With a whole bunch of friends. And we were hoping we could talk to you and your sisters. We need your help.”
“Then why don’t you come visit?” Annabelle asked. “It’ll be easier to talk to everyone in person, and travel between Daylight Bastions is easy.”
Shana looked up at Midnight hopefully. “Can we?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Midnight said. He looked to Ingrid and Mineria. “You two stay here and hold down the fort. We won’t be gone long.”
“Roger that!” Ingrid said, snapping a salute, then giggling.
“We’ll look forward to your return,” Mineria said.
Midnight nodded, turning away without a word. “Come on, then. Let’s go visit the Princesses.”
“You okay?” Mercury asked Fae as they followed along.
“I feel like I’ve been caught up in a whirlwind,” Fae said. “This is all going so fast, and everyone else knows so much more of what they’re doing than we do.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Mercury said, grinning.
It’s weird being around so many people. Even weirder that we’re all working towards the same goal, with no arguments or divisions.
She watched Shana, who led the group with Midnight, stepping with a happy energy, bouncing as she went towards their next destination.
She goes with the flow so easily.
Well, she is visiting someone important to her. And she isn’t out of the loop like my group.
But even if she was, she wouldn’t act much different. That’s how Shana is.
Fae couldn’t help but feel isolated. She was surrounded by people, and even reunited with her sister. All were working with her towards the same goal.
Why do I feel more alone than I did with just the triplets?