Shana’s mind clambered up out of the pillowy comfort of sleep. She opened her eyes and found herself in a bright room.
She was lying in a bed. It wasn’t hers, and she quickly sat up, swinging her legs over the side and then standing up. She swayed for a moment, but shook off the last vestiges of sleep.
Okay, I like light as much as anybody, but there’s such a thing as too much.
Three of the room’s four walls were floor-to-ceiling windows, with the curtains drawn back to let in light from outside that was brighter than even the sunniest days Shana had ever experienced. The floor, ceiling, and non-window wall were all white, making the light seem that much brighter. She squinted, turning away from the windows to get some form of reprieve from the glare.
She realized she was still wearing her clothes from hiking to the grove – even her shoes were still on. With that realization came a panic.
Where are my friends?
Where’s my brother?
Shana checked her pocket once, relieved to find her bookmark Talisman there. As a Summoner, and someone incredibly close to her Summon, Shana’s Talisman was more to her than just a device for wielding magic.
It was the only way that Altair existed.
If she ever lost her Talisman… she’d lose Altair. And the thought of that was unbearable.
Comforted by the metal in her pocket, Shana slowly opened the door from her room. Peering through the opening, she didn’t see anyone in the hallway beyond, so she opened it farther, carefully creeping out into the hall.
Where do I go? It would be nice if there were signs. Or if everything didn’t look exactly the same.
Then again, this was likely the Radiant King’s palace or whatever he would call it. Bright lights, and white and gold as the primary colors gave that much away. So Shana needed to be careful – and she’d have to figure out the place’s layout on her own with nothing to help her.
They were talking about taking all of us to the King, so that means Shias and the others are here. I could have Altair scout the place out, but… he’s really easy to spot. At least I don’t glow.
So Shana looked left and right once again. She couldn’t see defining features for either direction, so it was up to intuition and instinct to guide her way.
Fae and her mother were both left-handed, and Shana found lefties super cool, so she went left. It wasn’t long before she reached another door and had to make a nerve-wracking decision.
Do I open it? Or do I keep going?
If there’s someone inside, opening the door will immediately alert them. And if the person inside is one of the King’s minions, then I’m done before I ever began. I don’t have magic to help me out. All I have is Altair.
Shana couldn’t think of any other options. If she was afraid to open every door she came to, she wouldn’t get anywhere. It was time to test her luck.
She turned the door’s handle, flung it open, and ducked back behind the wall outside, listening carefully for any reactions by people within.
“Guess I can leave, then,” came the bewildered voice of Shias. Shana felt her heart swell with relief, and she rushed into the room, tackling her brother in a hug. He gasped and yelped and flailed in shock, but the twins went tumbling back onto the bed in the center of the room, Shana giggling and Shias squirming to get free.
“I’m so glad I found you!” Shana said, hugging her brother tighter.
“That’s great and all, but… can you let me go?” Shias finally wriggled his way free, sitting up on the bed and staring at Shana, who was grinning like an idiot.
“Any idea where we are?” Shias asked.
“Probably in the Radiant King’s castle,” Shana said, sitting up.
“Seems about right,” Shias said, squinting. “It’s way too bright in here.”
“We need to find the others,” Shana said. “And then figure out how to get out of this place. The Radiant King may want to meet us, but I sure don’t want to meet him.”
“I like the sound of that,” Shias said. “Any idea where the others might be?”
“Probably in rooms like this one,” Shana said, looking around. Shias’ room was a perfect copy of her own. “If you were next door to me, then the rest might be in this same hallway.”
“Still, we’d better be careful,” Shias said. He stood, taking his pen out of his pocket. “Stay on your guard.”
Shana nodded, following her brother out of the room.
“Which way did you come from?” Shias asked.
Shana nodded to the right, so Shias turned to the left, continuing the way Shana had been going. They reached the next door, and Shias followed Shana’s example, flinging the door open and ducking behind the wall so he wasn’t seen. Inside, they heard nothing. Poking her head cautiously around the corner, Shana noticed Kathryn, still asleep on the bed in the center of the room.
“Two more,” Shias said, smiling. He stood guard outside, and Shana headed over to the bed, plopping down on it and shaking Kathryn awake.
“Come on, lazy bones,” Shana said. “This isn’t your bed. Wake up so we can go home.”
“Mmph,” Kathryn groaned, shaking her head and blinking her eyes open. “What time is it?”
“Did you forget everything already?” Shana asked, rolling her eyes. “We were kidnapped. Come on. I already found Shias, but Ben and Rae are still somewhere else in this castle.”
Kathryn jerked up into a sitting position, too quickly and suddenly, so her head smacked against Shana’s. Feeling like her brains would rattle right out of her skull, Shana fell back, biting back a yelp and rubbing her eyes to keep from crying.
“Ow,” Kathryn said, rubbing her forehead. “You have a hard skull. Sorry about that.”
“Yours is harder,” Shana said, voice breaking. Geez, that hurt! “Come on… let’s go, numbskull.”
“Rude,” Kathryn said, rolling out of bed and standing up. She looked back at Shana, and the two laughed. “You’re a dork.”
“And you’re a jerk,” Shana shot back, still laughing. “Watch where you swing that head of yours.”
“Will do,” Kathryn said, grinning. She and Shana left, meeting Shias in the hallway.
“Do you have to be so loud?” Shias asked in a whisper, to which Kathryn offered an innocent shrug.
They continued down the hallway, arriving at another door. Following the same opening procedure, they found Ben, and at the next door found Rae.
“This was too easy,” Shias said as the five Dawn Riders stood in Rae’s room.
“W-well we still have to find… an exit,” Rae said, eyes fixed on the doorway, clearly nervous someone would enter at any moment.
“So let’s do it,” Ben said. “I can Blink ahead when we come to difficult areas.”
“As long as you can see where you’re Blinking to,” Shias said. “And can reach it in a straight line. Without any obstacles in your path.”
“Hey, every magic has its limits,” Ben said.
“Let’s just be careful and take it slow,” Shana said, heading to the doorway and peering out into the hallway. “It’s still clear.”
“Let’s go,” Shias said. Together, the five continued along the hallway, finally reaching a turn that led them into an open atrium.
“Does it have to be so bright everywhere?” Ben asked in a whisper, holding his hand above his eyes like a visor. The ceiling, several stories above, was entirely made of glass, and let golden light pour down into the open space. The floors were tiled, and in the center of the atrium was a white tree with golden apples. Besides that tree, there was nothing else in the atrium. A dozen halls branched off from the atrium, and at either end to the right and left were two sets of stairs each, one leading up, the other leading down.
“Too many options,” Kathryn said, swaying her head as if her brain was spinning.
“Any ideas?” Shias asked.
“Let’s take a look,” Shana said. She walked to the windows on the other side of the hall, squinting against the harsh glare in an attempt to see outside.
Slowly, she began to make out the scenery. They were indeed in a castle, and it was massive. Counting rows of windows, Shana judged that there were twenty-seven floors, but three floors – the fifth, twelfth, and twentieth – were taller than the others, holding a space rather like the atrium with the tree. And the castle covered incredible horizontal space – Shana couldn’t even see where it ended from where she was looking.
“Looks like we’re on the twelfth floor,” Shana said. “But… I can’t tell where an exit would be.”
It was a strange view. Beyond the castle, there seemed to be nothing but shining light. There wasn’t a ground, or roads, or outer walls.
“It’s like… it’s floating in space,” Kathryn said, joining Shana to gaze out the window.
“S-so there’s… no escape?” Rae asked, her voice rising an octave.
“We were able to get here from outside of Grimoire,” Shias said. “So there has to be a way out, as well. Probably magic portals or something like that… a system of gateways that lead to various locations.”
“Sounds like fun,” Kathryn said, grinning. “So, where do you think they would be?”
“They’re probably scattered all over,” Ben said. “That’s what I would do if I had a castle this big. I wouldn’t want all of the entrances and exits in one place. You avoid traffic jams, and no matter where you are in the castle, there’s always at least one exit nearby if you need to leave in a hurry.”
“With a castle this large, lots of people could live here,” Shias said, nodding thoughtfully. “If all the exits were in one place, that would definitely make for congested traffic. Okay. So, where should we start?”
There was a long silence, which made Shana turned around, to notice all eyes were on her.
“Hey, wait, why me?” Shana asked.
“You’re the one with the magical dreams,” Kathryn said. “And it was your intuition that led you down the right path to find all of us.”
“Well…” Shana mulled it over, looking back outside, surveying the castle’s architecture.
It wasn’t a simple, blocky structure. Rather than rising up in straight lines, there were curved sections of the castle’s walls. Some floors were pushed in further, while others bowed out and had glass floors so that inhabitants could look straight down to the bottom of the castle, even from high up. There seemed to be a segmented approach to its structure, as well – several large buildings were connected by enclosed bridges. Some sections were all on their own, floating in space with a set of stairs leading up or down to them. Those sections were usually gardens, full of glittering water and colorful flowers.
“Why aren’t there any people?” Shana asked. The outer gardens she could see had benches and places for sitting, and were clearly spacious enough to allow for many visitors. Outer stairs seemed to be designed for heavy traffic, built wide and solid.
So why didn’t she see a single person anywhere?
“Kind of spooky, for such a bright place,” Kathryn said.
“We’ll just have to keep our wits about us,” Shias said. “Any thoughts of where to start?”
Shana looked around, saw a set of stairs that bridged to the outside, heading up and up and up… to the roof? It looked that way. Shana pointed.
“How about we start by heading to the top?” she asked. “If we don’t find anything up there, we can start working our way down floor by floor. And we can keep our eyes out for signs or anything that might help point us in the right direction.”
“It’s awfully bright outside,” Kathryn said, finally looking away from the window, tilting her head towards the floor as she rubbed her eyes. “Let’s see if we can find some sunglasses.”
“I think escape is more important than luxury,” Shias said.
“Eye safety is important, too,” Kathryn said.
“You know my blind Uncle Greg?” Ben asked. “He went blind from looking into the sun too long. He never wore sunglasses until after he couldn’t see anymore.”
“That’s because no one’s supposed to look directly at the sun,” Kathryn said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh,” Ben said, rubbing his chin in thought. “Right.”
“Anyway, let’s start heading up,” Shias said, leading the way out into the atrium and towards the upward staircase.
They climbed, with Ben occasionally Blinking ahead, vanishing and reappearing with his short-range teleport to scout the path forward. What started as a golden staircase within the castle then continued to climb outside, with walls giving way to open air.
There was very little wind, and the light from all around was more intense without walls or windows to dull its glare. Shana had her eyes closed most of the time, feeling along the stair’s railing as she trod upward. Kathryn was right. They needed to find some sunglasses.
Mercifully, the outdoor climb wasn’t a long one, and Shana was able to open her aching eyes as they came back to the comparably dimmer interior. Up and up they continued to climb, with halls branching off on either side at regular intervals, showing nothing, no signs or flags, to denote what they might lead to.
How did the people who lived here – assuming there were any, as the Dawn Riders were still the only living beings in sight – get around without getting lost? This castle was a featureless maze so far, save for the tree in the atrium.
“Can we… stop?” Rae asked, catching her breath as she leaned against the wall. “It’s a… lot of stairs, and I’m just… not as in shape as the rest of you.”
“It’s okay,” Shana said, smiling sympathetically. Rae was small and slight, and had joined the Literature Club partly because of her friendship with Shana, and partly because she had zero interest in active endeavors – most of Grimoire Academy’s clubs were sports and athletic organizations, a poor fit for the diminutive Rae.
Besides, Shana could use a breather, too. She looked back down the stairs, amazed at how high they’d climbed. Looking down the stairs just six floors back to where they’d started was dizzying. High ceilings and several floors being much taller than others meant they’d really climbed closer to twenty stories if this was a normal building.
“I’ll keep scouting ahead,” Ben said, Blinking farther up the stairs and peering into hallways as he went.
“Why isn’t there anyone else here?” Kathryn asked, taking a seat on the stairs next to Rae. “This is getting spooky.”
“I can’t say I’d blame people for not wanting to live here,” Shana said, still partially squinting no matter where she looked. “Maybe the castle was built to accommodate a lot of people a long time ago, and over time it became abandoned.”
“It seems that way,” Shias said. “It’s… kind of sad.”
Shana felt that same vibe from the castle. Seeing gardens out to the sides, still full of beautiful flowers and water but with no one to visit them, seemed awfully depressing. Even with how bright and nearly blinding everything here was, there was a beauty to the place that Shana couldn’t deny.
Someone had just gone way overboard with the lighting.
Unless… that was a new addition?
Shana looked closer at her surroundings, and thought about what they’d seen so far. She knelt down on the stairs, took out her bookmark, and scraped the metal against the step above her.
The golden surface scuffed, then flaked, then chipped away. It took nearly a minute, but Shana was able to peel back a small coin-sized spot on the step. Beneath the golden sheen, the stairs were a cool blue crystal color. Even in the golden light coming from all around, the blue beneath the gold didn’t grow bright. It maintained its own tone, and was pleasant to look at.
“What do you think it means?” Shias asked, watching Shana’s reveal.
“I dunno,” Shana said, pursing her lips as she began to scrape away more of the gold, revealing more of the lovely, calming, crystal blue surface beneath.
“Why would someone cover that up with gold?” Kathryn asked, staring in awe as more of the stairs’ true color was revealed. “This is…”
They didn’t get any time to consider their new discovery, unfortunately.
“Guys!” Ben shouted frantically from above them. “Run!”
Shana looked up, staring in fear as Ben had his arms held behind his back by a pale man dressed all in black. He was tall and intimidating, and clearly strong, able to pin both of Ben’s arms with one hand, while the man’s other hand held a long black cane. His hands were gloved, and on the backs of them was a silver symbol: a six-pointed star encircled by silver rings.
But what stood out the most about the man, and frightened Shana to her core, were his eyes. Contrasting the man’s pale skin, his eyes were dark and intense, and they seemed to burn with a dark flame of focused energy and danger.
“I wouldn’t run if I were you,” the man said. His voice was like ice, making Shana shiver to her core. “The King wishes to see the five of you. I’m under orders to take you in unharmed. But if you make this difficult, I can’t promise anything.”
The man’s cruel smile sold his threat.
“Just run, guys,” Ben said, wincing in pain.
“Why can’t he Blink away?” Shana asked Shias in a hushed whisper.
“You have to be free and unobstructed to Blink,” Shias replied. “He’s being held, so he’s stuck. The man probably noticed him Blinking and knew to keep him held tight.”
Well, that sold Shana’s decision. “We’ll go with you,” she said. “Right, guys?”
This time, even Kathryn wasn’t ready to fight. She nodded sadly. “Right,” she said.
There was a despondent air to the Dawn Riders as they followed the man in black and the captive Ben. They’d thought they’d escaped, but it was an illusion of freedom.
Whether they liked it or not, they were going to meet the Radiant King.