Shana wasn’t sure she’d heard Annabelle right.
“Why… why can’t you let us leave?” Shana asked, watching the young girl carefully.
Annabelle looked desperate. “You have something that I need,” she said. “If you would just come with me…”
“Where to?” Shias asked, stepping in front of Shana. “Where do you want to take her?”
The womanly voice that seemed to come from all directions at once let out a sigh. “This is taking far too long, Annabelle,” she said. “The King will not be pleased.”
“Please,” Annabelle urged, taking a step forward. “If I can deliver the Dreamer’s Heart to him… I can go home.”
The Dreamer’s Heart. So Shana’s dreams had been more than just a guide for her. Something about them, about the fact that Shana had them, made them more powerful than Shana knew.
“Him? You mean the Radiant King?” Shias asked. “The man who took you from your sisters?”
Annabelle nodded. “Please…” she said again.
The Radiant King didn’t sound like such a bad title. But he’d stolen Annabelle from her sisters. That was awful. And it seemed like he was behind all of the children disappearing from Grimoire…
All in search of the Dreamer’s Heart.
The thing Shana apparently possessed was what had led to all of this sadness and pain for so many families.
“Why shouldn’t I go?” Shana asked.
Shias looked at her incredulously. “Shana,” he said, seeming unable to form words. “You… come on, you can’t.”
“I have conditions,” Shana said, stepping past her brother and looking around for the source of the woman’s voice. “All of the missing children and adults must be returned to their families. If you can promise me that, I’ll go with you.”
“You have got to be joking,” the woman said. “You honestly think you have bargaining power here?”
“Please,” Shana said. “Let them go, and I’ll do whatever you ask.”
“And if I won’t let them go?” the woman asked.
Shana pursed her lips. “Then I’ll leave,” she said. “And I won’t come back until our team is able to free all of the children by ourselves.”
Condescending laughter rang throughout the grove. “Little girl, you should reconsider,” the woman said. “I have a better deal for you. Come willingly, and I’ll allow your friends to leave.”
“Shana, stop this,” Shias said softly, but Shana shook her head.
Shias was right, she thought, her heart tying itself in knots. There are powerful forces at work here, and we aren’t ready to fight. We shouldn’t have come here. We should have told mom and dad. I…
I screwed up, didn’t I? This is my fault. So…
She looked back at her brother and her friends and nodded. “I’ll do it,” she said. “Let them go, and I’ll come with you.”
“As if,” Kathryn said, glaring daggers at Shana. “You’re not taking the fall for us. Come on. What’s this lady got? We can handle it.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have said that,” the woman said, laughing. “But if that’s what you want, I can simply take all of you to meet the King.”
“Kathryn –” Shana started, but her friend gave her a look so forceful and angry that Shana could say no more.
“Bring it on!” Kathryn shouted, her ribbon batons in hand. “I won’t let you take her!”
“Let’s just get out of here,” Ben suggested, turning towards the path out of the grove.
Instantly, darkness fell over the area, so thick that Shana couldn’t see an inch in front of her. Altair and Brutus still glowed with light of their own, but while she could see them, their faint light didn’t illuminate anything else.
“Hey, the path, it’s…” Ben started, and she could hear him grunting as if he were pushing against something. “It’s gone!”
“Come along, little children,” the woman said gleefully.
“Don’t do this!” Annabelle cried out. “You don’t have to go through all of this. I can take them –”
“Silence,” the woman said. “You’ve failed. The King will deal with you.”
Scratching sounds filled the air, seeming to come from above. Shana looked up, and she felt her throat close up over a scream that she couldn’t let out.
Up above them, crawling down the silver thread, was the largest spider Shana had ever seen. Fuzzy and massive, it glowed with a dark purple, almost black, light. Its body alone was twice the size of Brutus, and its segmented legs stretched out to impossible lengths.
“Holy crap!” Kathryn exclaimed, staring up at the giant Summoned spider. “That thing’s huge!”
“Rae, get Brutus in front!” Shias called out, his voice shaky at first, then solidifying as he continued to call out orders. “Kathryn, stay out of its line of sight! Ben, look for an exit! Shana, get out of there!”
Shana felt her brother’s arms on hers, pushing her to the side, and for a moment, her feet wouldn’t move.
Spider, was the only thought in her mind, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of the gargantuan arachnid. Slowly it climbed down, first five stories above her, then four, then three… and it looked like it was coming straight for her.
“Move, Shana!” Shias insisted, pushing harder, and Shana finally was able to move. She ran, swallowing a scream as she followed Altair, who led the way towards the grove’s perimeter. Just as Ben had said, the trees had closed up, fusing into each other to form a natural wall with no gaps.
“Altair, recon!” Shana said softly. Her voice shook and she could barely muster a whisper, but Altair understood, racing along the perimeter, looking for an escape.
Shana knew she should look behind her. She knew her friends were going to try fighting the largest Summon she’d ever imagined.
But she couldn’t.
Spiders… she’d seen Weavers outside of Grim Night’s with Fae. Then, she’d been frozen with terror. If there was one thing she simply couldn’t handle, it was spiders.
Why spiders? Why couldn’t the horrible monsters of the world be anything else? Shana wondered, shutting her eyes and leaning against the wall, hoping she could just pass right through it like a ghost, vanishing from the grove and leaving all danger behind.
But she couldn’t. Of course she couldn’t. There wasn’t even a form of magic for passing through solid objects.
Finally, slowly, Shana turned around. Sounds of combat were reaching her ears, and she had to know how her team was faring.
Not well, it turned out. Shias held his pen aloft, and it gleamed brilliantly with white magical light, but all it managed to do was illuminate his body – it couldn’t pierce the gloom.
Magical darkness, then. Which meant that Shias could see through it, even if he couldn’t illuminate it for the entire team – Divination Magic was one of Shias’ specialties. So it made sense that he was the one calling out orders, keeping track of the team and organizing their desperate battle.
Brutus roared defiantly at the giant spider, but even pummeling it with his fists did nothing. The arachnid swept one of its legs at Rae’s Summon, and it hit with enough force that it very nearly toppled Brutus in one strike. A flash of white light as the leg hit Brutus showed that Shias was using his Guardian Magic to help defend Brutus, but even that wasn’t enough to keep the powerful Summon in the fight for long.
Kathryn was clearly in motion, dancing around the spider – Shana couldn’t see her, but she could see her ribbons flash into and out of the spider’s light. Lashing against its body, tugging at its legs, wrapping over its eyes… every attempt Kathryn made at attacking the Summon seemed to have no effect at all.
And why would it? The spider was a monster, so gigantic Shana couldn’t even see its entire body at all times in this small grove.
What could five untrained high schoolers do against something so powerful?
“I said I’ll go!” Shana cried out desperately. “Take me! Leave them, please! I’m begging you!”
“Too late for that,” the woman said. “You should have kept your friends under control. Now… well, I’m just going to have to take all of you.”
“No!” Shana screamed, but it changed nothing. The spider Summon assailed her allies with its legs, poured webbing from its bulging abdomen, and showed no signs of any pain no matter what the Dawn Riders threw at it.
The look she saw on Shias’ face said everything for her. He was determined, focused, and not thinking for a second about backing down. And looking at the rest of her allies as they came into and out of the light, she knew they were as determined to succeed as Shias. Even Rae, shy and small and uncertain, despite cowering underneath Brutus’ struggling form, had a look that said “I’m not leaving.” Her eyes gleamed with desperate focus.
Why? Shana wondered feebly, falling to her knees as she watched the lopsided fight continue. This doesn’t have to continue. Give up. Run. Save yourselves. Stop fighting for me.
I did this to all of you. It’s my fault. Don’t take the fall for me.
And then Shana saw the most terrifying and heartbreaking thing – Altair, her tiny little dog Summon, completely and utterly dwarfed by the massive spider, leapt up from the ground and started running across the spider’s back, barking and biting and clawing as he went.
“Altair,” Shana said softly, struggling to find her voice. “Don’t… please… not you…”
But Altair continued, barking and fighting with courageous intensity, showing no signs of fear in his hopeless fight.
“Altair!” Shana shouted, running forward, tripping over a tree root, and then rising again, racing forward to do whatever she could to help her dog.
Shias dampened the force of yet another blow against Brutus, but it wasn’t enough. Rae’s strong, courageous Summon crumpled, toppling to his side and crashing to the forest floor. Rae cried out, reaching for him, but webbing wrapped around her, tied her tight, and she dropped, unable to move.
“Altair, help get Rae free!” Shana called out, and Altair replied with a bark, leaping off of the spider’s back and landing lightly on the grass. He raced to Rae, and started to tear at her bonds with his claws, but webbing swiftly caught up the little dog, too, and he struggled and writhed within his own bonds, unsuccessful at escaping.
“Let him go!” Shana cried out, pulling at the webbing with her hands, but the silver threads wouldn’t budge. She pulled out her bookmark, held it up, and sent Altair back into the magical void to free him.
“Shana!” Shias shouted, and before Shana knew it, she was wrapped up in webs as well. She wondered why Rae was silent in her captivity, and soon she understood.
The webbing wasn’t just constricting her. She felt her eyelids grow heavy. The sounds of the world around her faded, swallowed up by emptiness. Her mind fuzzy, her body warm and relaxed, slowly she drifted away.
Shana immediately knew she was asleep. Because as the grove vanished from her mind, she passed into what she knew to be a dream.
This wasn’t like her recurring dream, though. There wasn’t the fluffy pink mist swirling in the void.
At first, there was nothing but darkness.
And then, she saw a light. It was faint, but grew steadily. Soon, Shana was standing within the light. A golden bubble, it shielded Shana from the darkness writhing outside of its barrier.
“What is this?” Shana asked aloud. She stood on a flat platform within the bubble, and she walked to its edge, reaching out to touch the barrier.
“Don’t,” came a voice that startled Shana. She whipped around, coming face to face with a man. He stood in the center of the bubble, dressed in golden clothes with a golden cape wrapped around his shoulders.
His face was concealed, shining with bright light.
“Who…” Shana started to ask.
“I am the Radiant King,” the man said. His voice was warm and pleasant, drawing Shana in. “It seems you’ve finally allowed me to enter your dream.”
Shana shook her head. “I didn’t allow anything,” she said. She felt her senses sharpen, and stared at the King suspiciously. “Annabelle said you took her from her siblings. You’re the one the spider lady works for. What are you doing here?”
“I am trying to help you,” the King said. For some reason, Shana knew he was smiling, even though she couldn’t see his face. He pointed to the bubble’s edge and the darkness beyond. “I am trying to protect everyone. What you see is the true state of the universe. The light is shrinking. Darkness closes in on it with every passing moment. I have fought back against the darkness, but I cannot save the universe alone.”
“So why are you in my dream?” Shana asked. “Why did you…” Her hands balled into fists, and she glared at the shining man. “We were attacked by a giant spider! My Summon was attacked! My friends were hurt! And the woman who did it works for you!”
“Peace, young one,” the King said, his voice ever calm and reassuring. “Neith only worked with what she was given, doing her best to contain you with as little violence as possible. That’s the reason I sent her there to watch over the children – Neith refuses to kill. You and your friends were in no danger.”
“It sure felt like we were,” Shana said. “And she laughed at us. She was condescending and rude and disrespectful. She attacked us, when she could have let us leave, or only taken me.”
The King sighed. “I apologize for her behavior,” he said. “She enjoys her work, sometimes too much. But, Shana, I allowed it because I’m desperate. Because I’m running out of time. All of creation is running out of time. And I… I can only save everyone if I have your help.”
Shana blinked, stunned by the shining man’s words. “You… what now?” she asked, dumbfounded. “What are you talking about? What do you need me for?”
“You have the Dreamer’s Heart,” the King said. “I…” There was a violent tearing sound, and the bubble was punctured to the King’s side. He turned in a flash, raising his hand as darkness surged inward. From the King’s hand came brilliant golden beams of light, blasting against the darkness. There was a brief struggle, and then the King’s light won out, pushing the darkness back until it was forced outside of the bubble, and the puncture was sealed.
“As I said,” the King continued, his voice weary for a moment before he composed himself. “Time is running short. Shana… I will be meeting with you and your friends in person very soon. But since you allowed me into your dream, I wanted to take the opportunity to display to you the danger the universe is in, in a way I couldn’t outside of dreams. I hope you will understand.”
Before Shana could respond, the King vanished. Then the bubble, and the darkness, vanished with him. Shana floated briefly in a white void, alone with her thoughts as she began to drift back into a dreamless sleep.
Shias would tell me to be careful, Shana thought. But he doesn’t need to. Not this time.
Maybe what the King said is true. But I didn’t allow him into my dream, no matter what he says. And the way he’s going about getting us…
His servant hurt Rae. She hurt Altair. She probably hurt Ben, and Shias, and Kathryn, too. And she uses a giant spider. Spiders are always evil.
And so many kids are still being held hostage. The King wants to save everyone? Yeah, right.
When we wake up, I’m getting back home as fast as I can. If the King’s serious about saving everyone, then he won’t mind me doing what I set out to do in the beginning.
Until I save all of those kids – until I find Rae’s dad – until I find Caleb, Delilah, and Fae – the King can take his hopes and dreams and shove them where the sun doesn’t shine.
Sorry, mom. I know I shouldn’t be so crass.
But you can blame dad. I learned that one from him.