The man in black led the way, always keeping one hand tightly clamped on Ben’s arms to keep them pinned behind his back. Shana was frustrated at their predicament as she followed along, but she was also keeping her eyes peeled, taking in the castle around her.
After scraping away the gold to find the blue crystal beneath, Shana felt like she was seeing the castle more clearly. The bright light all around seemed to Shana like it was manufactured in order to hide the fake nature of the gold covering up everything. When she passed close to walls, she could see now where the cracks were, where the blue crystal beneath attempted to shine through.
“The Radiant King” was what Annabelle had called him. It seemed like he had stolen the castle, rather than built it himself. He’d painted over what the castle once was and masked it further with “radiance” all around.
Shana was growing more and more suspicious of the man who, in her dream, had claimed he was trying to save the universe.
“How much farther?” Shana asked, glaring at the man in black’s back.
“Just another floor,” the man said, his icy voice unnerving Shana. “The King’s throne is at the castle’s highest point, just below the roof.”
It had seemed like these stairs led all the way to the roof, but as they climbed one more floor, Shana realized that wasn’t the case. Instead, it led to a glass dome, threaded with gold that served to intensify the light coming in from above and around. Shana covered her eyes, squinting through the gaps between her fingers.
“Void, you didn’t give our guests any eye protection,” came the warm voice of the Radiant King. “They aren’t accustomed to the Shining Palace yet. They could lose their eyesight if we don’t offer proper hospitality.”
“Apologies, my King,” Void said. Shana felt something pressed into her hand, and looking at it, she saw a pair of darkly tinted sunglasses. She put them on, and immediately her eyes felt immense relief. Finally, she could see the domed throne room clearly.
A white carpet led along the golden floor up to a stage, on which two thrones were set. On either side of the carpet were six golden pillars, spaced evenly up to the stage. Shana was surprised to see that there were quite a few people here besides Void. Standing at the foot of the stage were three individuals dressed in black, like Void was, as if that black attire was a uniform. Void joined them, bringing the number to four.
On the first step up to the stage were six people, dressed in similar uniforms to those of the men and women in black, only these six’s uniforms were white, with golden buttons and ornamentation. On the backs of their gloves were golden emblems resembling a crown encircled by ten stars.
Finally, there were the two thrones. In the one on the left sat the Radiant King, much as Shana had seen him in her dream. He was dressed all in gold, and even with her sunglasses on, his face shown with such light that she couldn’t discern any features. To his left, the second throne was suspiciously empty.
To the King’s right stood a person. Shana couldn’t tell if they were a man or a woman, though she assumed a man by the person’s height, broad shoulders, and generally bulky, powerful appearance. But given that the person was decked out from head to toe in golden armor that covered all of their skin and even their entire face, Shana couldn’t be certain.
“Welcome,” said the Radiant King, spreading his hands wide, “to the Shining Palace. Dreamer, I have searched long and hard for you.”
“Dreamer?” Kathryn asked.
“He means me,” Shana said, pursing her lips. “So? What do you want from me?”
“But I thought I already told you,” the King said. “I need your help to save the universe.”
“Say what now?” Kathryn asked, staring from the King to Shana and back and forth again.
“He says that darkness is closing in on all of creation,” Shana said, making an effort to avoid a sarcastic tone. “He can stop it, but he also needs the Dreamer’s Heart that Annabelle and the spider lady were talking about. That comes from me.”
“You’re going to take out her heart?” Kathryn asked, indignant. “That would kill her!”
“Don’t be a fool,” came the voice of the spider woman. What Shana had heard before as a disembodied voice now came from one of the four black-clothed individuals at the base of the stage. The woman – who Shana remembered the King calling Neith in the dream – could have been Void’s sister. She had pale skin, and her eyes and hair were dark as the night sky. She had a healthier complexion than Void, though, and her voice didn’t have that frightening frigidity to it. Still, her tone was not friendly, carrying a clear air of contempt. “The Dreamer’s Heart doesn’t need to be removed. In fact, that would be extremely counterproductive.”
“Neith, be kind to our guests,” the King said. “But that is correct. To separate the Dreamer’s Heart from the Dreamer herself would eliminate all of its power. That is why I need you, Dreamer.”
“I have a name,” Shana said.
“Of course,” the King said, nodding. Shana got the sense that he was smiling. “Shana. Will you help me?”
“I’d like to know what helping you means,” Shana said. “I have a lot of questions, and I’m concerned about my friends, and all of those kidnapped children in the grove.”
“There is nothing to be concerned about,” the King said. “Your friends will be safe and comfortable here.”
Shana noticed the King didn’t mention all of the tied up kids back in the forest.
“I think we’d rather go home than stay here,” Kathryn said, folding her arms across her chest.
“That would be… quite strange,” the King said. His voice conveyed puzzlement, as if he had to think carefully to find the right words. “I can understand your desire to return home. But for me to work together with Shana, she would have to stay by my side. Surely you wouldn’t want to leave her behind?”
“So what does that work involve?” Shias asked. “And what kind of danger is threatening the entire universe and everything in it?”
“The Endless Night,” the King said, his tone emphasizing the ominous air of those three words. “Eternal darkness is encroaching upon creation, blotting out the light. Ever since we Eternals took our place here in the Palace, we have helped slow its advance. But we have been unsuccessful at stopping it. In time, the Endless Night will come, and it will end all light and life forever.”
Eternals? Radiant King? Void? There were some weird names being thrown around, and it all sounded very suspicious to Shana. So all of these people called themselves Eternals – were they some kind of supernatural beings? They looked human enough to Shana, aside from the King and the armored guard at his side.
Couple that with the façade that Shana had uncovered about the entire “Shining Palace,” and her distrust only grew.
“So how is Shana the key to stopping it?” Shias asked.
“The Dreamer’s Heart is powerful,” the King said. “When Shana is awakened to her abilities as the Dreamer, she can alter reality itself, and dispel the seemingly indestructible. There is, to my knowledge, no other way to conquer the Endless Night.”
Alter reality itself? That sounded… kind of cool to Shana. And also far too vague.
“How do I go about awakening to my abilities?” Shana asked.
“Through training,” the King said. “I will take you under my wing and teach you all I know, train you in magic you haven’t even imagined.”
“So… what happens to all of the kids you’ve kidnapped?” Shana asked.
“Ah,” the King said. “Well… ‘kidnapped’ is an awfully strong word. And it wasn’t I who did it. Surely you heard Annabelle tell you all about it. They’re her friends. She’s tremendously lonely, you see.”
Well, that’s a load of bull, Shana thought, but avoided it saying it aloud. “It seemed to me more that Annabelle was being threatened,” she said. “Like you’d taken her from her home and forced her to lie about what was happening in that grove. So what’s the truth?”
The King sighed. “Annabelle, dear, your imagination seems to have run amuck again,” he said, beckoning to his left.
Out from behind the second throne came Annabelle. Compared to the uniformed servants of the King, and the King himself, she looked remarkably plain in her white dress and bare feet. As she stepped out, she kept her head bowed, not daring to look up.
“It appears you told some terrible lies to our guests,” the King said. He pointed at Shana and her friends. “Why don’t you apologize and tell them the truth?”
“Hold on a second,” Shana said, glaring as she took a step forward. “You’re gonna bully a little girl? What’s the matter with you?”
“How dare you speak to –” Neith started to say, glaring daggers at Shana, but the King interrupted her.
“Our honored guest has the right to speak her mind,” the King said. “She can learn tact and respect, in time. After all, we’ve only just met. You can’t expect a budding partnership to bloom immediately. Shana, my dear –”
“I’m not your ‘dear’,” Shana said.
“Right, of course,” the King said, clearing his throat. “Shana. I can understand how this must look. But Annabelle lost her parents long ago. She lost her sisters. She came into my care, and I have done my best for her, but…” The King sighed. “She has struggled with her new environment. She spins a great many tales of what she wishes were true, but what she really needs are friends. That’s part of why I hoped you and your friends would all stay here in the Palace. Dear Annabelle could use some friends closer to her age.”
Lost her sisters? Shana looked to Annabelle, at the girl’s crestfallen expression.
No. Annabelle had talked about Maribelle and the Last Home. She’d given Shana a specific message for her, about how Annabelle had been taken by the Radiant King.
Annabelle hadn’t lost her sisters. Her sisters thought they’d lost Annabelle.
Why was the King lying so much? And why didn’t he seem to do a very good job of it?
What if he wasn’t lying, though? Or what if he was only lying about some things, but telling the truth about others? What if he really did need Shana to stop the Endless Night? What if he really was trying to save the universe?
Could Shana just walk away from that?
Annabelle looked so frightened. And Shana had seen the little girl’s desperation in the grove, her hopefulness that someone would finally be able to get a message to her sisters that would hopefully set her free.
But Annabelle had also changed her mind when she learned that Shana had the Dreamer’s Heart. So what did Annabelle need the Heart for? Shana coming to the King didn’t seem to have helped Annabelle in any way.
The King might be telling the truth. The universe might be about to be swallowed by eternal darkness, and Shana might be the only person who could help him stop it.
But Shana just couldn’t ignore the frightened little girl. And she couldn’t bring herself to trust the King who hid his face with blinding light.
Shana’s mind went into overdrive. How do I save her? she wondered. How do I get out of here with Shias and the others? Do I just escape with Annabelle’s message? Shouldn’t I take her with me?
What can I do for her?
“Shana?” Shias asked softly.
Shana realized all of her friend’s eyes were on her. They were waiting for her to deal with things, trusting her to make the right call.
But what was the right call?
We can’t fight our way out of here. And we don’t even know where the exit is.
“I’ve heard some things about Annabelle’s sisters,” Shana said, playing for a partial bluff. “And I know she didn’t lose them. One of them asked me to find her.”
“Is that so?” the King asked, his tone dripping with suspicion.
Play it cool, Shana! Don’t be so obvious. “That’s right,” Shana said. “Maribelle’s been looking everywhere for her little sister. The way she told me, she thought Annabelle was the one who’d been lost.”
“Very interesting,” the King said slowly. Annabelle had lifted her eyes, watching Shana hesitantly.
I really hope I’m right about what you can do, Annabelle, Shana thought, meeting the girl’s eyes. Of course, Annabelle couldn’t see Shana’s eyes through the sunglasses, but she hoped the girl understood what Shana was trying to do.
Shana had remembered Annabelle saying “I can take them” in the grove. Neith had instead stepped in and taken the Dawn Riders to the Shining Palace, which was clearly not located anywhere ordinary. It would take magic to get here.
It would probably take the same magic to get out.
If Annabelle could get them in, then Shana was desperately hoping the girl could get them out.
“So I find it hard to trust you, King,” Shana said. “Maybe you were misinformed about Annabelle’s situation, though. I get that you’re trying to help her. But maybe she didn’t tell you everything.”
“So what would you have me do?” the King asked.
“I’d ask for two things,” Shana said, pouring sweetness into her voice, doing her best to sound respectful. “One: let the children tied up in the forest by Grimoire free. Send them back to their families. They’ve been gone for too long. And two: set Annabelle free. Let her go back to her sisters. She’s been gone for too long.”
“And if I do those things… will you and your friends stay here?” the King asked.
Shana’s heart pounded. The King wasn’t asking for only Shana – he also was including her friends in this bargain.
How do I save everyone?
“I can’t accept that much,” Shana said. “I’m grateful for your offer, but my friends and my brother deserve the choice to go home. I… I can stay. But only me.”
That was the hardest part to say. Shana was hoping she could get away, too. But… well, if the King agreed to all of these conditions, Shana could work out a plan over time to escape. And she knew if Shias got away, he’d be able to put together a plan to free her.
That’s what Shias was good at. Planning. Thinking things through.
If Shana had been good at those things, she wouldn’t have gotten everyone into this mess. It was up to her to pay the price.
“We’re –” Kathryn started to protest, but Shana elbowed her friend in the ribs, shutting her up.
“Trust me,” she said under her breath, barely moving her lips. “Please.”
“I can let your friends and brother go free,” the King said. “And… I can release the children. But Annabelle stays.”
That’s what I thought. Shana had been banking on the King being unable to let everyone go. For whatever reason, he needed Annabelle, and was forcibly holding her hostage. She guessed the King also needed the missing children as well – and Shana’s other siblings might be among them, along with Rae’s dad – for reasons Shana couldn’t guess.
“Please,” Shana said. “Maribelle misses her so desperately. Can’t you allow her to go free?” As Shana pleaded, she kept her shielded eyes on Annabelle, desperately hoping the little girl had the insight – and the courage – to understand what Shana was asking her between the lines.
“My King,” said one of the servants in the white uniforms, a tall and lean woman with harsh features that reminded Shana of her kindergarten teacher who’d been a little too gung-ho about disciplining students. Her hair was a silvery white, but her face showed few signs of age. “I do think this has gone on long enough.”
“Not to worry, Platina,” the King said. “It’s understandable that Shana would try to help everyone she perceives to be in trouble. She has the mind of a hero. I admire that.”
“Annabelle,” Shana said, addressing the girl directly. “Maribelle misses you desperately. I hope you know that. And… I want to get you home to her. As fast as I can.”
Annabelle’s eyes flashed with recognition, for a brief moment, and then she looked away. “My King, may I speak?” she asked.
“Certainly, dear one,” the King said. “What is the matter?”
“I… I just want… to hug Shana,” Annabelle said shyly.
The white uniformed woman to Platina’s right was clearly enamored with Annabelle, wearing an expression on her face of hopeful desperation. “Oh, can she?” she asked, her voice rising an octave in the space of three words.
“Contain yourself, Hestia,” Platina scolded, and the younger woman sighed mournfully and stared at the floor.
“Annabelle,” the King said. “I trust you. Go ahead, dear one.”
Annabelle began to walk down the stage and along the carpet to Shana. Shana felt her heart pounding in her chest with anxiety as Annabelle grew ever closer.
Would this actually work? It seemed too simple a plan to work.
Did Annabelle actually understand, or was she really just coming over for a hug?
I mean, I wouldn’t mind hugging her, Shana thought. She’s so cute! And looks so sad. She could use more hugs. I just… I hope she has more than just a hug in mind.
Mercifully, Annabelle arrived at Shana without anyone stopping her. Shana knelt down, so she was at eye level with the red-headed girl.
“You really meant it about my big sister?” Annabelle asked, staring at Shana with wide-eyed hopefulness.
“I did,” Shana said, smiling. She opened her arms, and Annabelle came to her, clinging to her in an embrace.
“You remember my message, right?” the little girl whispered in Shana’s ear.
Shana nodded. She nuzzled her head towards Annabelle’s shoulder, until her mouth was hidden by the girl’s hair. “Can you get us out of here?” she whispered.
“You,” Annabelle said. “And your brother and friends. But… I can’t go with you.”
Shana’s heart faltered. “Will you… will you be all right?” she asked.
“As long as you come back for me,” Annabelle replied. “Not just Maribelle. You have to come, too.”
Shana blinked as sudden wetness stung her eyes. She nodded. “I will,” she said. “I’ll find Maribelle, and come back for you with her. As fast as I can.”
Annabelle hugged Shana tighter. “Count to five, slowly, in your head,” she said. “When you feel something pull at your back, give in to it.”
Shana nodded, immediately starting the count.
“Poor girl,” came the adoring tones of Hestia. “She so desperately needed a friend.”
Shana was at two, and then one. Suddenly, she felt a pull at her back. Annabelle let her go, and Shana almost kept holding on. She was terrified for the girl. But…
This is the only way, isn’t it?
I’ll come back. I promise.
Shana let go, as panic started to break out on the stage. The King shouted a command, but it was lost to Shana’s ears as a rush of wind wrapped around her and pulled her back.
“Let it take you!” Shana called out to Shias and her friends. They, too, flew backwards through the air with her, as the rush of wind grew louder and stronger, blocking out all other noises.
“I’ll come back for you!” Shana called out desperately, pulling off her sunglasses and staring through the intense brightness at Annabelle, who was being apprehended by Void. The girl looked up, and her eyes met Shana’s. She smiled a small smile, and offered a tiny nod, and then Shana was swallowed up by a sparkling black void.
Rushing through a starry tunnel, Shana could barely keep her consciousness as pressure clamped down on her from all sides. So she shut her eyes tight, focusing on the most important things.
Locksmith. Enchanted Dominion. Maribelle. The Last Home. The Final Frontier. The Westward Plains.
I’ll come back for you, Annabelle. I promise.