The dark around Beth gave way to a pale golden light. Biers was gone, vanished like he had never existed in the first place. The golden light revealed a shoreline of silver sands stretching down wave of sparkling obsidian that rolled in no more than a dozen paces from where Beth stood. Beside her, also facing out towards the darkened waves, a young woman with Asian features, regal robes, and a crown of purple fire stood, her hands clasped behind her back as she rocked on the heels of her thorn covered boots.
“Huh, Queen of the Shadow Court? I haven’t worn this title in a long time,” Jin said. “It’s oddly snug.”
“Where am I?” Beth asked. The narrative thread she had followed into Oblivion was gone. As far as she could tell everything was gone. Everything except the woman she’d come looking to find.
“You’re not,” Jin said. “This isn’t ‘nowhere’, there are plenty of ‘nowhere places’ in each world. This place isn’t like those because it’s not even a place. In any real sense you’re not here because ‘here’ doesn’t exist.”
“It’s Oblivion, isn’t it?” Beth asked. “That’s where I was trying to get to.”
“Not exactly,” Jin said. “Oblivion is a name we give to the concept of utter emptiness. This not-place is devoid of even that concept. Words get kind of twisted here. There’s nothing here, up to and including the quality of ‘nothing’.”
“But we’re here,” Beth said. “Aren’t we?”
“Are we?” Jin asked. “What you were seeking wasn’t an empty place. Biers could have escaped from an empty place. He could have returned to be a threat when you least expected it, so you went looking for something different.”
“I wanted to find somewhere that would erase him entirely,” Beth said. “That’s why I thought of Oblivion. In your story, nothing could stand against it. It disintegrated everything it touched.”
“And you were willing to embrace that and walk into it yourself as well in order to keep your world safe,” Jin said. “So what would be left of you afterwards?”
“Nothing,” Beth said. “I knew it would mean my end too. It was the best idea I could come up with though.”
Jin turned towards Beth and Beth saw galaxies spinning in the Dream Lord’s eyes.
“That sounds so horribly familiar,” Jin laughed. “We can talk ourselves into the worst ideas when nothing else is coming to mind fast enough.”
“Did it work?” Beth asked. “Is Biers dead?” After a breath she added “Am I?”
“No,” Jin said. “No, you’re not dead, neither is Biers, and it didn’t work quite as you thought it would, but your world is safe.”
“How? I thought he was going to destroy it?” Beth asked.
“He did think his plan would work, and in a small sense it might have,” Jin said. “Given that he doesn’t exist anymore and never did though, there’s no danger of him upsetting any sort of cosmic balance any more.”
“He doesn’t exist and he never did? Is that what you meant by us not being dead?” Beth asked. “We’re not dead because we’re so erased that we never lived in the first place.”
“You do remember my story!” Jin said. “And yes, that’s exactly what I mean. At this moment, in your home realm, there is no Beth Candler and there never was. No one is mourning you because no one ever knew you, because you were never born.”
“So my idea worked then,” Beth said. “Sort of.”
“Sort of,” Jin agreed.
“At least everything I left behind is ok then,” Beth said. “That kind of makes it worth it.”
“Does it?” Jin asked. “Are you ok with leaving your world short one Beth Candler?”
“Not really, but I didn’t think there was any way back from Oblivion?” Beth said.
“Oh, there’s always a way,” Jin said, as a gentle pink light rose on Beth’s other side.
A tall, blonde woman in a long black duster and black travel leathers stepped into line with Jin and Beth.
“Not out of Oblivion,” Way, the other protagonist of the Hollow Half, said. “But then we’re not really in Oblivion, so that works out.”
“I’m confused,” Beth said.
“We still exist right?” Jin asked. “I mean, we’re here, talking, observing this beach. That existence says that we’re not ‘nothing’ or ‘less than nothing’. We’re definitely ‘something’, even if what that ‘something’ is may not be exactly real.”
“That part about not being ‘exactly real’, is the important bit,” Way said. “This is as far off the page as it’s possible to get.”
“Out here, we’re not part of any story, or any world,” Jin said. “We’re not real in any sense except one.”
“We’re real to ourselves, and to each other,” Way said.
“Here, in this ‘spot-that-isn’t-a-spot’, you are making your own reality,” Jin said.
“That’s the magic that lies within you, and within everyone,” Way said.
“We create ourselves. Out of the limits of our bodies, and the boundaries of our imaginations,” Jin said
“From the people we meet and the echoes of ourselves that we leave behind,” Way said.
“We can be so many things, but where our power truly lies is in what we chose to be,” Jin said.
“And that’s the price of coming here,” Way said. “The thing that may keep you from ever going home again.”
“I made my choice?” Beth asked. “I gave everything up to come here and get rid of Biers and now there’s nothing left to choose?”
Jin and Way shared a kindly smile that wrinkled the corners of their eyes.
“Far from it,” Way said. “If anything it’s the opposite problem.”
At Beth’s deepening puzzlement, Jin gestured to the surf that was rolling onto the shore.
“This is a nice beach,” she said. “But don’t you think it could use some stars?”
“Sure, that would be nice?” Beth said, not following Jin’s train of thought.
“Picture them then,” Jin said. “Imagine a constellation hanging just over the horizon.”
Beth blanked on the pattern of any of the constellations she knew for a moment before remembering Orion’s belt. It was a line of three stars. Nothing simpler than that.
As the image of them formed in her mind, three stars blazed to life in the sky above the horizon that had been lost in darkness a moment earlier.
“How?” she asked, imagining another constellation, the Big Dipper, and seeing it flare to life as well.
“We create ourselves, and we create the worlds we live in,” Jin said.
“We call those worlds ‘real’ when we’re not alone in creating them,” Way said.
“And when you have a sextillion living beings all creating a world together, it can get a little difficult to see where our efforts begin and theirs end,” Jin said. “Out here though? Where it’s just us? Here it’s impossible not to see what we’re really capable of.”
“So, I’m like you two?” Beth asked.
“Everyone is like us,” Way said.
“But you can shape reality! I could never do that before,” Beth said. “Even in the Unread, all I could do was suggest how the narrative might play out.”
“That’s because you saw your world as real and didn’t want to let it go,” Jin said. “When we can change the world to suit our whim, the the part of it that’s real, the part that comes from how it connects us to each other is weakened, or lost entirely.”
“Which is the price for coming out here,” Way said. “Your eyes are open to that now and you have to make a choice.”
“To go back to your world, to have it be fully real again, means you have to walk away from the power to dream it into being whatever you want.”
“Or you can keep that power and make whatever worlds you desire,” Way said. “You never need to live again in a world with injustice, or cruelty, or a lack of puppies cuddling you in the morning.”
“That’s why Biers will no longer be a threat,” Jin said. “He’s bubbled up in his own realities where everything is a reflection of himself and how he wants the world to be.”
“That sounds kind of nice for him?” Beth asked.
“He dreamed of being a tyrant god,” Jin said. “Now the only person he’s tyrannizing is himself. Billions of reflections of himself, all bowing and scraping to his will.”
“I don’t think I want that,” Beth said. “But can I just say ‘no’ and walk away from this?”
“Not exactly,” Jin said.
“This isn’t about what you say, so much as what you actually choose to do,” Way said.
“Biers’ answer isn’t an entirely wrong one,” Jin said. “The points he raised about the flaws in your world, the suffering and the injustice there, those are real too. To return to your world means that you accept them as well as the good things, like your parents.”
“Can you do that?” Way asked.
Beth stopped to consider that. Her world wasn’t kind, it wasn’t fair, and it didn’t come with any guarantees of a happy ending. Walking away from the power she held here would mean accepting that. Would mean embracing a world that was too often cruel, and painful, and full of despair.
It meant accepting that, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t work to to change it.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll always need my imaginary worlds, the places I read about, and the ones I dream of, but keeping them doesn’t mean I can’t face my real world too.”
“Your dream worlds can’t give you permanent refuge though,” Jin said. “Eventually you’ll always wake up from them, or reach the final chapter.”
“I know,” Beth said. “But they don’t need to be permanent, or never-ending. You said a ‘real world’ is one that connects us to each other? Then the stories I believe in are real too, even when they’re not.”
Jin and Way smiled, each nodding to encourage Beth to continue.
“A good story connects you to something the author felt, or experienced, or imagined,” Beth said. “They don’t replace the world, they augment it. My world is more real for the stories that I’ve read and been swept up in, not less.”
“And all this?” Jin asked, her eyes human once more and sparkling with delight. “Which book is this a part of?”
“This…” Beth stumbled for a moment before the answer rose within her like the morning sun, bright and warm and undeniably true. “This is my story! It’s not Oblivion, its the Unwritten pages within me!”
“Yes,” Jin and Way said in unison.
“It’s been wonderful to meet you Beth,” Way said.
“And remember, if you ever need us, we’ll always be here,” Jin said.
“In these pages and hidden in the margins of many others,” Way said.
“But for now, I think someone’s looking for you,” Jin said and gestured behind Beth.
Beth didn’t need to turn to see who it was. She knew her parents were waiting for her. Her parents, Lagressa, Starshine, and everyone she’d ever known.
“Thank you,” she said and turned as the darkness around her faded, along with the pink and golden lights, to leave her back in the sunshine under the tree where her traveling had all begun.