Shias had figured it out.
The unknown Royal Guard, the teen with the large book that served as his Talisman, was using Support Magic.
It’s really that simple, huh?
Shias had expected some kind of trap, some slow-burn magical plot that was building to something huge. But instead, he was just using Support Magic to boost the capabilities of his allies. He occasionally turned to different pages, and was usually reading quite intently, but that never seemed to matter much to the type of magic he used. Right now, he was giving Platina and Titan a bit of a boost to their physical ability, and…
That’s all there is to it.
He’s a new addition to their ranks, all of a sudden for this battle. And he’s a Royal Guard. After what we’ve seen from the others, you’d think he’d be incredibly powerful, but he’s so…
Well, that means I don’t have to worry about him like the others. I’ll keep an eye on him, but there’s nothing else to it.
Shias was the center of the battle, standing still and keeping his eyes on everything. His mind was his weapon, not his body, as he carefully called gleaming shields into existence when and where needed. He blocked an arcing blade strike Platina intended for Chelsea. Deflected a crushing hammer swing Titan aimed at Kathryn. Forced a concussive blast of energy back at one of the unknown Enforcers, knocking him unconscious with his own attack.
His shields couldn’t directly block the overwhelming power of Athena, the Gold Knight, but he was still able, with proper positioning and timing, to deflect her sword strikes a few degrees to the left or right. That was enough of a difference for Galahad to properly evade and counterattack, finding the sparest openings and capitalizing on them. His sword couldn’t pierce the Gold Knight’s armor, but he didn’t need to. There was a careful pattern that he and Artemis were following, coordinating their strikes against different plates of the Gold Knight’s armor in order. Once they’d completed that pattern…
The Gold Knight’s armor would vanish, and her Contract would be broken.
Athena would be saved.
It was slow going, but they had the chance they never had in their first attempt. They could challenge the Gold Knight alone, rather than contending with the Royal Guards and Enforcers. And they had assistance. Shias wasn’t the only one backing them up. Kathryn had pulled Galahad out of the path of the Gold Knight’s sword more than once, and Caleb had bought the trio of Hestia, Artemis, and Galahad time with a series of Bounce Discs that knocked the Gold Knight ever so briefly off-balance.
Chase, Void, and Neith were out of the fight. Unconscious, they were also bound by Caleb’s glowing chains, their Talismans removed so that they were disarmed.
The only truly worrisome fight here was Mister Midnight versus Nyx. Their duel was a frightening marvel to behold, writhing darkness thrashing with rage, brief flashes of blue marking the uses of Time Magic by Midnight. Every now and then Shias caught a glimpse of Midnight’s face or the childish Nyx inside the roiling form of her Summon, but most of the time it was a frantic, intense melee that he couldn’t begin to make sense of. There was no way he could support Midnight with his Guardian Magic, because he had too much trouble differentiating between the attacks of Midnight and the attacks of Nyx.
But Midnight didn’t seem to want any help. When Caleb had rushed to help him, he’d shouted “Stay out of this, kid!” and kept on fighting. Likewise, the Royal Guard who used Support Magic didn’t send any of it Nyx’s way. Those two were fighting their own battle, and whoever won would be decided between them with no outside influence.
As foolish as that seems to me, I don’t really have room to argue. I barely know anything about those two. If there’s some old grudge between them…
Maybe it’s best they resolve it between themselves.
Currently, Caleb was teamed up with Chelsea, their pair combining with Kathryn and Rae with Brutus to fight back Platina, Titan, and the remaining unknown Enforcer. Shias blocked another arcing slash of Platina’s morphing metal weapon and Caleb pumped a fist, shouting, “Yeah, Shias!” It put a small smile on Shias’ face, and Caleb’s team rallied, pushing Platina and Titan out into an adjoining corridor. The unknown Enforcer got in too close and took a punch from Brutus which laid him out, unconscious on the gleaming marble floor.
We’re doing so well.
No, we kind of expected to do okay. Had a scare there with Caleb getting hit by Chase’s lightning, but he’s recovered well — unsteady on his feet, but he doesn’t have to fight alone anymore.
Shias’ gaze turned to the stairs leading up to the throne room.
Shana’s who we’re all worried about. Down here, we’re a team. We have each other, we have support and assistance.
She’s all alone.
“She’s a little girl who just wants to go home.”
Those words left Shana frozen, unable to reply to Leon. Here, alone in Dreamworld, what could she say? She was exposed.
I never wanted power. I never wanted all the pain and hardship of the kind of journeys and adventures I love to read.
I never wanted to end up here, being the only one who can defeat the big bad villain, the only one who can stand up to his incredible power.
I never wanted to fight all alone.
And after all it’s taken to get this far…
I just want…
“She’s more than you’ll ever be able to see, Leon,” said Heart, stepping ahead of Shana and glaring at the former Dreamer, the self-proclaimed Radiant King. “You blinded yourself long ago with your ‘radiance,’ and now you still can’t see the truth.” Her fierce glare turned to sadness. “I lied to you, Leon. I had the best of intentions, I wanted to foster your heroic spirit, but I never should have lied to you about the Light and the Darkness, about your purpose in all of this. I am so sorry. But you’ve carried that lie too far, you’ve held it too close. It needs to end, now, Leon.”
“End?” Leon asked, cocking his head to the side. Radiance still hid his face, but his confusion was apparent. “What must end is this division of you, Heart. All of my failures to this point have been because my power is incomplete. The Great Dream cannot die, Heart, or all will be consumed by darkness.”
“It’s a dream, Shana,” Heart said softly, laying a hand on Shana’s shoulder. “A dream.”
Shana’s doubts and fears dimmed in the presence of curiosity. What did Heart mean? She extended her senses through Dreamworld, taking hold of the impossibilities that were oh so possible in this magical realm.
There’s something… not quite right.
Shana stared at Leon. There was a strange sensation in Dreamworld, something she’d never felt before. It was like a knot in smooth fabric, one that tugged on all the rest, warping what should have been flawlessly beautiful.
That knot was tangled up around Leon.
It’s coming from him. He is the knot.
What does it mean…? “It’s a dream.”
It’s a tight knot because he’s holding tightly to… the dream?
Holding tightly to his dream.
“You can’t see the truth anymore,” Shana said softly. “You’re still dreaming, dreaming a lie, and you won’t see the truth until…”
Until he wakes up.
“What nonsense are you spouting?” Leon asked. Such harsh words sounded strange coming from his warm voice. “The role of the Dreamer is to dream. A false Dreamer would never see that.”
Shut out his petty insults. How do I wake him up?
He has to see the truth, he has to realize it’s a dream, but how?
What does he need to see?
I showed him the horrible things he did, and it had no effect on him. What will?
“They were your friends,” Shana said.
“Pardon?” Leon asked.
“Athena,” Shana said. “Artemis, Platina, Titan, Nyx, Galahad, Ignis, Hestia, Octavian, Desmé. Those aren’t their real names, but if you don’t remember them…” And Shana spoke their names again, their real names, from before they became Eternals, before they became fool’s gods and abandoned their old names, their old selves, as if they could abandon their humanity.
“They were your friends,” she continued. “And they followed you willingly into your monstrous actions. But you stopped valuing them as people, stopped viewing them as equals in your Great Dream. You wrote up Contracts for all of them, and it was only through Platina that you decided not to try and get them to sign them, but you were ready to ensure their loyalty through force, rather than friendship. But they’ve loved you, even through all of that. Even Hestia and the others who left you, they’ve continued to love you, turning from you because they love you, because you’ve so terribly lost your way. They believe in the Great Dream, in defeating the Darkness, in upholding the Light. And they see the truth — that your way is not the right way.”
“You speak of the pettiest sort of love,” Leon said, shaking his head. “Love for people? Love for friends? What is that when there are greater ideals to aspire to? To taint one’s love with people is a disgrace. Love for the Light. That is all there can be, the only pure love that can exist. Any other love is a sickness.”
“Your love for the Light is what’s tainted,” Shana said. “Love doesn’t lead to killing and kidnapping, to manipulation and deception, to lording over others and forcing them to do your will.” She shook her head. “But you lost that, too, didn’t you? You knew, once. You tried to destroy those memories, but they’re still there. And they won’t ever disappear.” She stretched out her hand, and the magenta clouds of Dreamworld swirled and formed into different shapes, bringing to life one of Leon’s memories.
“Before you became the Radiant King,” Shana said as the memory formed, “before you met Jormungand, before the horrific methods to create Eternals, before your physical sickness drove you to desperation, before all the ways that you lost your way… remember who you were? Remember the ideals you put down in writing with your dearest friends?”
The scene was of Leon as a teen in Grimoire’s public library, in the loft which he so favored. He was seated around a low table with his friends, the ones who would become Athena, Artemis, Platina, Galahad, and Titan. He was writing in a leather-bound notebook. At the top of the page was written:
“Charter and Mission Statement: Soldiers of the Light”
“To love our neighbors, friends, and families as ourselves,” Leon said as he wrote, “for love is the core of the Light, the great virtue that binds us and instructs us in doing good.”
“And in doing good,” Athena said with a smile, “we keep the darkness at bay.”
“To preserve and cherish life at all costs,” Leon said, “for life is most precious in this world, and all lives can be touched by the Light.”
“No one’s ever lost to the Darkness as long as they still draw breath,” Galahad said.
“Youthful sentiment,” Leon — the Leon of the present, with his face shielded by radiance — said. “Time and reality brought clarity to that boy’s idealism.”
“You spoke too soon,” Shana said.
For the next point young Leon wrote and spoke aloud just then: “Let no one look down on us because of our youth, for no matter the age we can set an example for all others in our speech, in our conduct, in our love.” He sat back for a moment, smiling. “That one’s my favorite.”
“Where did you get all of these, anyway?” Platina asked, her voice so much softer and kinder than the vicious rage of the Royal Guard’s captain she was in the present.
“She’s late to the party,” Artemis said.
“Heart showed me,” Leon said. “In Dreamworld, there’s this beautiful, marvelous library. And the most prized book there is where I learned all of these values, all of these truths. The Chronicle of the Light… it’s the guide for all that we’re working towards.”
“You were so good,” Shana said. “You were absolutely on the right track, on the right path, following the right ideals. It isn’t reality or time that changed things. It was desperation.”
She juxtaposed the current memory against the one of Leon’s first meeting with Jormungand, juxtaposed the smiling teen Leon with the ragged, exhausted adult Leon.
“There were so many who believed in what you believed in,” Shana said. “So many who would gladly carry on what you started. You didn’t have to fear for what would happen when you were gone. You didn’t have to fear time or sickness. But you were scared, and that stole your resolve and your values.” She bowed her head, for the tragedy of Leon’s story had weighed on her ever since seeing it in full at the Garden of Memory. “In the end, you put self-preservation above everything else.”
Which isn’t at all different from what I want to do. Well, there’s plenty of difference in methods, but in goals…
I don’t want to suffer through this. I don’t want to be the one struggling alone.
He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to lose his life to sickness when he still had so much to live for.
“I wasn’t giving into fear,” present-day Leon said. “I was doing what was necessary. Conviction, Shana, that’s what you lack.”
“Conviction isn’t stubbornly charging forward no matter what for your own goals,” Shana said. “It’s fully understanding what you’re fighting for, and how to fight for it. Sometimes conviction means letting go, recognizing that what seems like a loss isn’t one at all, because it’ll lead to a proper victory in time. Sometimes it means recognizing that you’re not the one to finish the fight. But starting it is something beautiful and amazing, and you devalued that with everything you did as time went on! You lost sight of your conviction, you abandoned conviction in what you started and how you started it, in The Chronicle of Light and all the truth and good that it taught you.”
The memories slowly faded away, and Shana tugged on the knot, just slightly, yearning to understand it.
And she saw, she felt, the sad truth of it all.
“You were so strong, and so fiercely zealous,” she said. “All that strength, all that goodness… and then you gave into the Darkness.”
“What?” Leon asked, his voice sharp. “The Darkness? What fresh new lie is this?”
“You’ve blinded yourself with radiance,” Shana said, “so you can’t even see that. You lost yourself to the Darkness inside of you. And with all your strength, all your zeal… when you fell into Darkness, you smashed a crater in the universe. Destroying Sunset Square and the Crystal Palace… kidnapping Sarabelle and Annabelle… turning your own longest, closest friend into your mindless slave… and you can’t even see it. You can’t see the Darkness because of all the light you’ve made for yourself, your radiance.”
“How dare you accuse me of —” Leon started.
Shana tugged on the knot a little harder, and Leon’s voice cut off. He stood there, stunned, as the world transformed around them.
There it is.
There’s the break in the veil. And with one more tug…
I can pull it down completely.
Dreamworld morphed into a bleak, nightmarish landscape scoured with darkness, burning with growling black flames. There were pockets of light, beacons rising up into the sky, but though they blazed brightly, they were small, and few, and far between.
“What…?” Leon asked. The radiance slowly fell away from his face, revealing the adult face of Leon from the memories. But he was exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes, eyes that stared in shock at the blackened landscape. “What is this…?”
“It’s what you became,” Shana said, her heart heavy at the sight of Leon’s face. Even as she spoke, one of the beacons of golden light was swallowed up by the blackened earth, vanishing into the night. “It’s the state of your soul after all this time.”
“But… it can’t…” Leon started, shaking his head. He backed away, but there was nowhere to go.
“This doesn’t have to be how it ends, though,” Heart said. “Leon… wake up. Let go of the selfishness, the greed, the rage that has built up over so long. Let it go, and wake up.”
“But I don’t…” Leon said, shaking his head.
“Wake up,” Shana said. “You lost your way. But the Darkness doesn’t have to win. Let it go, trust in the Light… and wake up.”
“Trust…” Leon said softly, bowing his head. “I… see. This is what… trusting in my own strength wrought.” He let out a heavy, ragged sigh, then looked up at Heart. The rumbling flames of the black landscape went silent. All was strangely still. “I tore you in two. I tried to… possess you. And so many others. I tried…” He sighed, shoulders sagging with exhaustion. “ ‘To hear the bells and chorus afar’…”
“ ‘Call “Dreamer, awake!” ’ ” Heart said, reciting with Leon, “ ‘and my soul flies free, to the City of Light, beyond the stars.’ ”
“Be whole again, Heart,” Leon said. “And… forgive me.”
“Awaken, Leon,” Heart said, smiling even as her eyes glistened with tears. “Awaken, and be at peace.”
The shell of Heart at Leon’s side vanished, and Heart herself pulsed once with magenta light. The bleak landscape suddenly fell away, and all was bright and beautiful. This wasn’t Dreamworld anymore, it was… Shana wasn’t sure where or what it was.
“Thank you…” Leon said, his voice fading as his body grew translucent, dissolving into golden stars, “…Dreamer…”
And then he was gone, a trail of stars drifting up into the gleaming sky.
A moment later, Shana was back in the throne room of the Radiant Palace. The painfully bright, golden sky suddenly dimmed, and its color changed from gaudy gold to a shimmering, crystalline blue. The radiance of the palace itself dissolved, the façade placed over the walls, floors, and ceilings of the Crystal Palace vanishing to reveal the cool blue crystal of the Palace’s original form.
The Radiant King was no more.
“Shana…” Heart said, her voice and form lingering in the physical world a moment longer before vanishing into Dreamworld.
For a long time, Shana didn’t move. She felt so heavy, so done, so…
When she finally moved, her first act was to sluggishly raise her bookmark Talisman and Summon Altair, who jumped into her arms. She held him close, savoring his warmth. Her heart was heavy, but she fought back tears.
I won’t cry.
Slowly, she made her way out of the throne room, down the stairs to the audience chamber below. The fight that had raged here was over now, and there were scattered conversations, some of the defeated Radiance crying in rage or grief or disbelief, asking what was happening.
But Shana blocked it out. She just kept walking, towards the far hall, knowing her way out of the Palace.
Before she reached the hall, she was stopped. Caleb, Chelsea, Addie, Shias. The four of them were standing in front of her, looking at her with mingled pride and worry.
“You did it,” Caleb said. Shana nodded. Altair licked her chin.
“What’s wrong?” Shias asked.
Shana hesitated. After a moment of wrestling with tears, she forced them back. In a voice that betrayed all the exhaustion she felt, she simply said:
“I want to go home.”