Shana knew she was dreaming.
She didn’t normally, but she’d had this same dream almost every night for years. When she dropped into it, she knew exactly what was going on.
Well, not exactly.
She knew she was dreaming. And she knew the content of the dream.
As far as what it all meant, well… Shana had only the smallest of ideas.
It didn’t help that each version of the dream was longer and more complex. It had started out simple enough. But it seemed every time Shana sunk into it, she delved deeper into the dream world, discovering new things and, most commonly, raising many new questions.
It always started with Shana on top of a rocky spire. It was narrow, barely wide enough for both of her feet, but she never felt off-balance. All around her was a pale pink fog that obscured her vision. Eventually, she saw a strange golden light in the distance. Stepping off from the spire, she found she could fly, and she soared through the fog towards the golden light.
Early versions of the dream ended there, with her fading into wakefulness without ever reaching the light. But over time, new pieces were added. The most recent version, which Shana found herself in, continued along that path to getting Shana nearer to her destination.
Why was she pursuing the golden light? Shana didn’t know. It was the only thing to see, at first, but as she flew, she came across a castle. Its turreted towers rose up out of the fog, and alighting on one, Shana walked along the top of the walls. Her body felt weightless, and she could walk or run or fly with little effort at all. Into the castle’s interior she went. Paintings adorned the walls. In earlier versions of the dream, these were blank, but over time, they began to be filled with different scenes: a lake frozen in winter, silver crystals rising up from a deep chasm, strange and beautiful whales cresting ocean waves. On and on they went, never showing a scene completely recognizable to Shana. She’d never seen any of these before, and yet… they all felt familiar to her.
Out from the hall of paintings, Shana climbed wide, carpeted steps to a balcony, and stepping off of it, she flew once more.
The golden light had vanished.
That didn’t bother Shana, though. New and exciting areas and sights came to her as she flew. She soared through rocky arches, ran along a beach of silver sand, and hitched a ride on a pink cloud zipping along over an ocean that boiled, steam rising up to obscure her vision.
The cloud seemed to know where it was going, and eventually the steam vanished, and the cloud deposited Shana onto grassy turf in front of a wood of tall, thick trees. She could barely see ahead of her, but she walked in. The trees seemed to bend and shift out of her way, forming paths for her as she walked.
She began to see things in the forest. First there were shadows, flitting here and there, too brief and dark for Shana to see what they were. And then there were strands of silk thread. Sticky and strange, there was very little at first – one strand connecting two trees here, another strand climbing up through branches there – but then they became more numerous. Shana found it difficult to walk – the trees no longer moved out of her way, and the thick, sticky strands were bunching together, forming barriers Shana couldn’t pass through. She could no longer fly, and her body felt heavier and heavier as she went.
The dream normally stopped here, with Shana waking up in a sweat, feeling like hundreds of spiders had been crawling all over her.
But tonight, it continued. Shana’s trepidation grew as she was nearly crawling now, squeezing through narrower and narrower spaces. Always moving forward, never looking back, Shana continued, until she suddenly popped out through two trees into a grassy grove.
Circular and clear of all but grass, trees and silver thread formed the perimeter. They were so densely packed together that they were like natural walls. And above her, Shana saw the sky was blocked out by crisscrossing silver thread, bunched together so thick that she could see nothing else.
And yet there was light. Where it was coming from, Shana wasn’t certain, but it was silver, like it was bouncing off of the threads all around.
For a moment, all was still, and Shana was alone.
And then… people appeared.
Almost all of them were children, and they filled the space, frightened and sad. That wasn’t surprising – they were all snared in some fashion, held captive by the sticky silver strands. Some just had a few pulling at their wrists or ankles, but there were many who were tied up, bundled into the silver so tightly that only their noses could be seen, just enough for them to be able to breathe.
There were hundreds, all trapped in this strange grove.
Shana moved forward, reaching out to the nearest child, hoping to set him free. But a shadow fell over her. She looked up, but could see nothing but blackness.
Blackness… and eight circular, glowing, red eyes.
And then Shana woke up.
Sitting up in her bed, she immediately grabbed for her bookmark Talisman and pointed at the light switch on her wall. With a flash, lights came on, and Shana leapt out of bed, looking around frantically.
Oh, she realized after a moment, that’s right. I was dreaming.
Altair, who always slept with Shana, was standing on her bed, staring at her with a quizzical expression, head tilted to one side. Shana smiled, sitting next to Altair and wrapping the blue Summon dog into a hug.
“You may not be a real dog, but you sure are comforting like one,” Shana said, savoring Altair’s warm softness. “It was just a dream. It was just…”
But if it was just a dream, why did that last section seem so important?
“I think I’m onto something,” Shana said, pulling out her phone and starting up a song: “Hope Rides On” by Falling Stars. Listening for about a minute, she came to the lyrics she had thought of:
Shining in the moonlight / Seated below a sky of silk thread
Consciousness comes undone / Your heart wavers in a nest full of dread
Don’t let go just yet
Hope rides on the dawn
Light is coming soon
To set you free
“A sky of silk thread…” Shana murmured, pausing the song and staring at her phone in thought. “A nest full of dread…” She looked to Altair, who licked her cheek once. “I don’t know why my dream is connected to a song, but… I think we’re onto something here, Altair.”
That place was filled with kids. I think I recognized some of the faces from posters for missing persons. Could this be… the key?
“Altair, I’m not crazy, am I?” Shana asked, rubbing her dog’s ears as she stared into his eyes. “My dream is trying to tell me something. I don’t know why Falling Stars have a song that’s talking about the same thing, but hey, stranger things have happened, right? If we’re going to rescue those kids… we need to find that grove. And face whatever that scary shadow was.”
Shana didn’t sleep again that night. It was two in the morning, but it didn’t matter. Her mind was working in overdrive as she Conjured books and maps from her magical library. She was onto something, and she knew it.
All day at school, she was itching with anticipation. Shias had been able to tell that something was up, but Shana had told him to wait until after school, when the twins would be meeting with Rae, Kathryn, and Ben to train for their mission.
Shana needed the entire team to hear this. And if she started by talking to Shias about it, she thought she might not be able to stop talking about it.
That, or her twin brother would crash her party with logic and reason and stuff.
Why did he have to be like that?
So, she waited.
As soon as the last bell rang, Shana was the first out of her classroom, racing through the halls at a very fast walking speed (after being shouted at by Mr. Gregson to “stop running!”), and arriving outside from the lowest entrance. She stood on the sidewalk, staring up the hill of Grimoire Academy as she waited for her brother and friends.
“You’re in a hurry,” Kathryn said. Her blonde curls bounced in a way that matched her cheerful demeanor as she joined Shana. “Excited to start training?”
“I have a plan,” Shana said excitedly. “I can’t tell you yet, because I want to tell everyone at once. But I think I have a big clue about the missing children.”
Kathryn smiled. “Awesome!” she said, high-fiving Shana. “I could barely sleep last night because of this, honestly. I want to save those kids – and Rae’s dad, if we can.”
Shias, Rae, and Ben came together, and the group took the fastest route possible to the Greyson manor. Inside, Shias led the way to the training area that he and Caleb used all the time, on the second floor in the west wing. Shana looked around it in surprise.
“This is perfect!” she said, summoning Altair to join them. “There’s so much space!”
The Greyson manor wasn’t at all small – Shana still got lost in her own house sometimes. The training room took advantage of the sizable home, taking up less than a quarter of the west wing, and yet it was probably around half the size of Grimoire Academy’s soccer field. A rectangular space, Shana knew it was fifty yards on the longest side thanks to handy-dandy distance notes on the wall, and it had very high ceilings, probably extending up into the third floor.
Organized around the training room were padded dummies of various sizes, shapes, and styles, weight benches and exercise equipment, protective gear – like masks for fencing and padded sparring gloves and shoes – and a number of ropes, weighted sleds, and agility equipment. Tall windows let in tons of natural light, and had that shimmer to them that told Shana they were magi-glass – glass used to distort images to the outside world so that onlookers couldn’t see what was actually happening within.
“You’ve really never been in here?” Shias asked, using Manipulation Magic as he waved his pen Talisman in the air, drawing dummies into various positions around the room.
“Come on, it’s a big house,” Shana said. “Besides, I’ve never been interested in training until now.”
“Fair point,” Shias said. “So what did you want to tell us?”
Shana, almost breathless with excitement, explained her dream, its connection to the song, and what she had found on maps and documents – namely, that there was a hiking trail northwest of Grimoire that had been closed off since before they were born, citing “safety hazards.”
Maps of the area pointed to the existence of the thread-filled grove Shana had seen in her dream. Nothing else seemed to fit the size and shape of the grove or the density of the woods around it.
“So?” Shana asked, looking at her teammates.
“Seems plausible,” Shias said, stunning Shana.
“You’re seriously not going to argue with me?” Shana asked, gawking wide-eyed at Shias. “Even about dreams and songs and stuff?”
“There’s established precedent for magical dreams,” Shias said, flustering under Shana’s intense gaze. “It’s not unlikely.”
“So, so, so!” Shana continued, overjoyed at her brother being on board. “So, I also thought up an awesome team name!”
“Ooh, what is it?” Kathryn asked, matching Shana’s excitement. “I want a team name!”
“The Dawn Riders!” Shana exclaimed, pointing skyward triumphantly. “Like in the song: ‘hope rides on the dawn.’ Since we’re the ones going after the kids, I thought it was fitting.”
“So… totally… awesome!” Kathryn cheered, and she and Shana high-fived.
“I like it,” Ben said with a lopsided grin.
“I d-don’t mind,” Rae said meekly.
“Do we really need a team name?” Shias asked with a groan.
“Hey!” Shana snapped, pointing a finger in Shias’ face. “It raises team morale. And it’s fun. Don’t rain on my fun!”
“Fair enough,” Shias said, staring almost cross-eyed at Shana’s finger.
“Good,” Shana said. “So? You’re the team tactician and training leader. Tell us what we’re doing, coach!”
“Yeah, coach!” Kathryn said.
“Come on, coach, what’s the scoop?” Ben asked.
Shias, withering under the scrutiny focused his way, pretended he was clearing his throat. “Okay, so… first, we need to see what everyone can do,” he said. “From there, we can decide on roles and strategies.”
“I have a dog!” Shana said, gesturing to Altair, who barked and spun in a circle, wagging his tail excitedly. “Also, I have a magical library, so I can store books and stuff that we need.” She proved this by Conjuring a book on magical theory from her library.
“So that’s where you put all the books you don’t actually read,” Shias said.
“Rude!” Shana countered, putting her book back in the library. “So? Who’s next?”
“Ben!” Kathryn called out, pointing at the gangly teen. “Show Shias your Blinking skills!”
“Why don’t you go first?” Ben asked, shifting his feet nervously.
“Because you’re totally awesome, that’s why!” Kathryn said. “So? Come on, show him!”
“Okay…” Ben turned, facing the farthest dummy, about twenty yards away. “I’m going to Blink to that dummy, then that one, then that one, then that one, then back.” He pointed to each of the dummies as he spoke about them. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, adjusting the watch on his wrist. He opened his eyes, his watch flashed with white light, and then Ben… vanished.
Shana could barely follow the boy. He appeared at the first dummy, then vanished and appeared at the next, and so on. He hit all of his five stops, returning to his starting position, in two seconds.
“You’re really accurate, too,” Shias said, nodding appraisingly at Ben. “We’ll have to find a bigger space for you to show your range, but wow. I’m impressed.”
“Thanks,” Ben said, scratching the back of his neck and looking away. “I practice a lot.”
“I j-just want to get it o-over with,” Rae said, raising her hand. “So I’ll go next. I have a, um… I have a Summon.” The small, mousy girl pulled from her pocket a charm of her favorite GFA character: Reginald Feline Meowmont the Third. She and Shana had similar tastes. The charm flashed with white light, and from a red portal in the air came a red-furred Summon that instantly dwarfed everyone else in the room.
Shana gaped. Rae, small and nervous and shy, had a Summon that was big, burly, and showed tons of confidence and attitude on its face. Built like a gorilla, Rae’s Summon had massive arms and shoulders coupled with small legs – its strength was in its upper body. Its facial features and fingers and toes gave away that it wasn’t exactly styled after a gorilla – those were more human-like in their style (the toes in particular – this Summon would not be hanging from branches by its feet).
“Wait, that’s yours?” Shias said, asking the question on everyone’s mind.
“I wanted to conquer my fears and nerves,” Rae said, as her Summon lifted her up to sit on its shoulder. “This is Brutus. He specializes in Confrontation Magic, so he’s a close-range fighter. He’s my, um… he’s my bodyguard.”
“No kidding,” Ben said, staring wide-eyed at the massive beast. “No one’s going to hurt you if they have to go through him.”
“Summons grow over time,” Shias said, back to his analytical attitude as he looked over Brutus. “How long have you had him?”
“I had the idea when I was nine,” Rae said. “Back then, he was a little bit shorter than I was.”
“So he’s had plenty of time to grow big and strong,” Kathryn said, grinning as she approached Brutus and held up a fist. “What’s up, buddy?”
Brutus grinned back at her, lightly tapping his fist to hers. “Whoa, he’s so gentle,” Kathryn said, staring at her undamaged fist in shock. “Lots of control.”
“That’s the main thing we worked on,” Rae said. “He, um… he was pretty destructive at first. B-but he’s gotten over it.”
“That’s so cool, Rae!” Shana said, smiling. “We’ve got a powerhouse on our side!”
“T-thanks…” Rae said meekly, leaning into Brutus’ large head to take refuge in his thick fur.
“Well, I was going to say to save the best for last,” Kathryn said, pouting. “But it looks like I’ve been upstaged.” Her pout faded to a smile. “Nice work, Rae.”
“You’re still last, though,” Shana said, nudging her friend. “Come on, show me what you can do. I’m so curious!”
“O-kay!” Kathryn said, raising her hand in the air. The ring on her index finger flashed with light, and she Conjured two batons.
At least, they looked like batons at first. With a flourish, Kathryn revealed that the batons were actually dancing sticks with ribbons flowing out of them on both ends. The ribbons were purple and silver, about a foot in length, and as Kathryn twirled the sticks, they seemed to change length and shape, moving in ways that defied the laws of physics, creating beautiful patterns in the air, shimmering with light.
“Manipulation Magic?” Shias asked, watching Kathryn’s sticks carefully.
“Yep,” she said with a nod.
Manipulation Magic was a form of Magic that Shana didn’t completely understand. Some mages, like Shias, used it in minimalistic ways to move around heavy objects without touching them. But specialists in Manipulation Magic seemed to focus on a specific type of substance or material – in Kathryn’s case, ribbons. Why that was the case, Shana didn’t quite understand, but maybe it was like Caleb’s Mobility Magic – he manifested that magic as discs and springboards, but others manifested it entirely differently.
So Shias was probably a total rookie at Manipulation Magic, using it sparingly for mundane purposes. But Kathryn specialized in it, meaning that it manifested in specific ways that Kathryn had to decide on – but also made her Manipulation Magic much more potent than Shias’.
Whatever it was exactly, Shana couldn’t deny how beautiful Kathryn’s movements were. She started to dance, twirling and waving the sticks in specific patterns. For a while, Shana was just caught up in the beauty and grace of her friend’s movements. But then she noticed… her movements were calculated, but she moved with such a flowing grace that it wasn’t obvious at first. At all times, her ribbons were moving in ways to protect her, rarely leaving her open.
“So…” Shias started, watching Kathryn with “the look” that showed his mind was working overtime. “Are you focused on defense, or can you fight? What exactly –” He was suddenly silenced as a ribbon shot out from Kathryn’s right hand stick, stretching twenty feet in less than a second, wrapping around Shias’ head and covering his mouth.
Kathryn stood still, watching Shias struggle with a smug smirk. “Oh, I can fight,” she said. With a flick of her wrist, Shias was released and the ribbon returned to its normal length. “I need practice against actual dummies and enemies and such, but I have a lot of the theory down. I combine Manipulation and Mobility Magic to stay on the move and do what others won’t expect.”
“And you look pretty while you’re at it,” Ben muttered. No one else seemed to hear him, judging from the lack of reactions around the room, but Shana could barely contain her giggles.
“Well, I already have a lot of ideas,” Shias said, rubbing his face where he’d been wrapped up. “Let’s start putting them into practice. I’ll say this – we have a pretty cool team. And our chances of success are a lot higher than I anticipated.”
“Told ya we were awesome,” Shana said, grinning. “And I have some ideas for myself of what to practice and work on.”
“Oh yeah?” Shias asked.
“I want to be our Support,” Shana said, looking down at Altair, who wagged his tail happily. “I don’t know a lot of Support Magic, but after I woke up from my dream last night and found what I think is the dread nest, I spent the rest of the early morning reading up on Support and Healing Magic. I think it’s exactly what Altair and I would be great at. And it’s the one area where we’re missing someone, right?”
Shias smiled, and his eyes seemed to shine with pride, making Shana’s cheeks grow hot. “You’re exactly right,” he said. “If you can work on that, and we put together some strategies for our team, well… things are looking up already.”
“All right, then gather around,” Shana said, pulling Kathryn close and sticking her hand out, palm facing down. Kathryn picked up on what she was doing immediately, and placed her hand on top of Shana’s.
“Oh, do we have to?” Ben asked, only to be lashed and pulled forward by one of Kathryn’s ribbons.
“Yes, we do,” Kathryn said sweetly. Ben sighed, placing his hand on top of hers. Shias followed suit, and then Rae, lowered to the ground by Brutus, placed her hand on the top of the pile.
“All right, here we go,” Shana said, looking around to the rest of her team, smiling. “Dawn Riders, on three. One, two, three!”
“Dawn Riders!” went up the cry. Kathryn and Shana were the most enthusiastic, so the boys and Rae would need some work, but Shana expected that. And with that, their first training session began.
The first day of training had gone well, and Shana and Kathryn were sitting together on the edge of the training room’s loft, their feet dangling over the edge. Shias and Ben were still at it, while Rae was passed out on the cushions behind the two girls.
“She really pushed herself,” Shana said, looking back at Rae. She was breathing heavily, on the verge of snoring, a peaceful look on her face. “But I’m impressed. I didn’t think she had that much fight in her.”
“That Brutus sure is something,” Kathryn said. She passed Shana an energy bar, and then took a bite out of her own. “Summoners are so cool.” Altair was laying between the two girls, and Kathryn scratched him behind the ears.
“You’re pretty cool yourself,” Shana said. “What made you decide to use ribbons, anyway? I’m not saying you shouldn’t – it’s super neat – but I never would have thought of ribbons as weapons.”
“Well, I like dancing,” Kathryn said. “And I’ve seen several shows where the dancers used sticks like those with ribbons. But also… gosh, this is kind of embarrassing.”
“Oh, come on,” Shana said, laughing. “It can’t be all that bad.”
“I just… it’s kind of childish.”
“You’ve been in my bedroom. You’ve seen all the GFA stuff. Don’t complain to me about looking childish.”
Kathryn sighed. “Fair point. You know the show Princess Starlight?”
“Of course I do!” Shana said excitedly. “That’s the one about magical girls, right? They have these special pendants and they transform into Star Princesses to battle evil with magic! I love that show!”
“Well, you know Princess Platinum’s style…” Kathryn said.
“Oh, yeah!” Shana smiled as she reminisced. “She fights while dancing. Just like you!”
“Yeah, that’s where I really got the idea,” Kathryn said. She was blushing slightly, but she smiled. “I know I’m not training to be a Hunter, and I don’t really want to be one, but it’s fun to fantasize about fighting evil like the Hunters do against the Hollows. It’s kind of like they’re real-life superheroes and magical girls, you know?”
“Caleb’s said that,” Shana said. “He always talked about himself and the other Hunters like they’re superheroes, and how it’s the coolest thing ever.”
“And now the superheroes need saving,” Kathryn said, chuckling. “And it’s up to us amateurs.” She kicked her legs, staring down at her feet. “I’m glad you wanted me along for this, Shana. I used to wonder why a Greyson wanted to be friends with me. My parents are so ingrained in the family traditions, that me having a friend from one of the biggest magical families in Grimoire still kind of seems totally crazy.”
“It’s not crazy,” Shana said, nudging her friend. “What’s crazy is the old style of class divides, where the rich families only interact with other rich families, and the poor families are left to be ignored. It’s not right. And I’m proud that my family isn’t part of that.”
Kathryn smiled, nudging Shana back. “Me too.”
“You really can stop on a dime!” Shias said below, whistling in amazement. They’d set up actual dimes around the training floor, and Ben had just done a circuit of Blinks from one to the next, making ten perfectly precise stops.
“I hope Ben’s starting to realize how cool he is,” Kathryn said, watching the boys. “He always looks at other mages and types of magic and thinks everyone’s way more amazing than he is. But teleporting like that isn’t simple or boring. Shias will find all kinds of cool uses for it.”
“He sure will,” Shana said. Thinking on what they’d done on their first day, and looking at the boys still going at it, she couldn’t stop smiling. Things were coming together. She had a plan, and she had a team to see it through.
Caleb, Delilah, I promise I’ll find you, she thought, determination welling up within her. And we’ll save all of the missing children while we’re at it. I promise.