You look up at the number on the sign. Platform 12. You recheck your ticket. Platform 12. You frown slightly, and look around you. By day, the train station is full of noise and bustle as the trains continually arrive and depart, each train bringing with it a rush of people and activity. But it isn't day now, it is night. By night, the station is filled with silence and shadows, for from dusk to dawn no trains run from this particular station. You look again at your ticket, still wondering if it is all some sort of joke.
You had received the ticket earlier in the day. It arrived on the mail in a small white envelope with a curious rainbow colored seal. The seal seemed almost familiar to you. As though you had seen it elsewhere and forgotten about it since. Inside the envelope, you found a small card bearing your name and a message. The message read, "You are hereby invited to the Conference of Introductions." On the other side of the card was another message. "Take this card to the ticket office at your nearest train station to receive your ticket." Curious, you did just that and received another envelope. Inside this envelope, you found a ticket and a single sheet of delicate, rose scented paper. It read "You have been chosen as one of the representatives of your realm to attend the Conference of Introductions. The Conference will begin tonight. To attend, present yourself at any train station, Platform 12 - at the stroke of midnight. You will be guided from there." Although you were hesitant about the strange request, something deep within you whispered that it was a conference you shouldn't miss. Which is how you came to be standing on an empty platform just before the stroke of midnight.
Even as you think how silly this whole thing is, midnight strikes. As the twelfth chime sounds, it seems to echo unusually in the silent station. When the echo starts to grow louder, you realise it isn't an echo at all. A train is coming. It emerges from a nearby tunnel and the glaring brightness of its lights immediately renders you unable to see. As you stand there, waiting for your eyes to grow accustomed to the light, you hear the train pull to a stop in front of you. Then a softly lilting male voice reaches your ears. "Ah! There you are!" As your sight begins to return, the voice continues, "Come, we have a long journey ahead of us." You blink as the world returns to focus.
The oddly accented voice belongs to a boy of around 12 years. The dark green hooded cape he wears covers him from head to toe, making it difficult for you to make out much more about him. All you can see is dark brown hair tumbling into his large green eyes, which are twinkling with a mischief to match the tilt of his grin. Looking at him, you can tell he is excited about this journey. He laughs softly. "I believe the saying is 'All Aboard!'" You smile as you walk towards the train.
As you walk, you are struck by the train's appearance. Unlike the normally bulky engines and carriages you are used to seeing, this train is all silver sleekness. It looks like it would be perfectly at home in some science fiction movie. As your gaze follows the smooth lines, you notice something even more unusual. On the side of the carriage nearest you, a name "The Dreamer" has been painted in graceful swoops and swirls of various shades of pink. As you draw nearer, the boy goes back inside the carriage and an old man moves into the entryway. He offers you his hand and helps you up the steps. His sky blue eyes twinkle merrily as he smiles at you. "Welcome aboard. I hope you enjoy your journey." He shows you into the carriage and leaves you with a final smile.
The inside of the train is as sleek as the outside. The seats are wide and plush and covered with luxurious red velvet. They look very comfortable. Beneath your feet, red velvet covers the floor as well. It all looks and feels as though you are in the lap of luxury, but as you settle down in a seat on the opposite side of the aisle to the boy, you realise something that makes you mildly uneasy. You and the boy are the only ones in the carriage. Still, as you settle into your seat, pleased that it feels even more comfortable than it looks, you decide to put aside your worries and simply enjoy your journey.
The train begins to vibrate very gently and you become aware of a soft hum. It doesn't sound like machinery though, more like... music. You listen to it, unaware that you are gradually relaxing back into your seat. The soothing sound, although faint, seems to fill your mind and you fancy you can hear words within it. No matter how hard you try however, you can't quite make them out. As you listen, your eyes slowly close. With one less sense to concentrate on, the words seem to come more clearly into focus so you make no attempt to open them again.
Gradually, you become aware that things are not as you remember them. You open your eyes and find yourself lying on a bed of soft grass, surrounded by the sweet fragrance of wildflowers while the happy voices of songbirds chorus in the trees and bushes nearby. You slowly sit up, looking around the small forest clearing in astonishment. Beside you, your fellow traveler does the same. As you look at each other in shared shock, he suddenly grows tense. A moment later, you understand why as you also sense someone watching you. A soft thud comes from behind you and the boy blinks and relaxes. Confused, you slowly turn around.
A small white rabbit looks up at you with wide innocent eyes of sparkling emerald. It hops towards you, and then continues on down a narrow path. As it passes you, a small voice says, "Follow me, the castle's this way!" As it hops away, you're almost certain you hear a bubbly giggle. The boy shrugs and scrambles to his feet. You agree with him and do the same. Perhaps if you follow the rabbit, you'll find out what's going on.
As you walk along the narrow, winding trail, following the white rabbit, you have a sudden sense of déjà vu. Shaking it off, you continue along the path until you spot daylight ahead of you. You emerge from the path and for a moment all thoughts of the white rabbit are forgotten as you gaze in amazement at the sight before you.
You are standing on top of a small hill that slopes gently down into a meadow of wildflowers. On the other side of the meadow, a second slope leads into another hill. On the top of the second hill, there is a castle. It looks like something out of a fairytale as its white stone shimmers in the sunlight while its tall turrets and graceful spires reach towards the sky. At the top of the spires, flags wave in the gentle breeze but you can't quite make out the insignia they bear. As you stand frozen in surprise, a small voice floats back to you. "Come along, they're waiting for you!" You blink and notice the rabbit hopping across the meadow towards the second hill. With a glance at your companion, you follow the white rabbit once again.
The little creature leads you up to the massive wooden door of the castle. As you warily approach, it turns around and regards you both with its twinkling eyes. It suddenly leaps into the air where it begins to turn a neat backward somersault. You instinctively step back as something very unusual happens. As it turns in mid-air, the sunlight seems to catch on its fur, making it sparkle with a rainbow of colours. Within the rainbow however, the small form seems to be changing. When the somersault it complete, it is not a mere white rabbit that lands lightly on the grass before you. Now the size of a small child, the little figure stands on two legs and looks remarkably human, despite the thick white fur that still covers it. It looks up at you and smiles.
"Oh please don't be alarmed! I mean you no harm! I was told to bring you here." Turning, the curious little creature indicates the castle. "Welcome to Castle Heart! Please, come inside and I'll explain everything."
Inside, the castle is filled with light and colour. The walls, floor and ceiling sparkle as though they are lined with crystal while the furniture seems to be made entirely of crystal and delicate silver filigree! Awed, you follow your guide along the wide hallway to an archway at the far end. As you walk, your guide begins his explanation.
"The Conference is due to begin soon, but the organiser couldn't get you there by ordinary means so the Dreamer was used. Normally it only carries dreamers to and from the land of Nod, but since Nod is only a hop, skip and jump from here, the organiser managed to get special permission for it to stop off here as well. We can get you the rest of the way, but first..." With a happy little giggle, the small creature waved his hand towards the archway and the room beyond. "You've come a long way so perhaps you'd care for some tea?"
As you enter the room, you freeze in shock, causing your companion to bump into you. He peers around you and smiles. "Oh, a dragon. Hello!"
The large white dragon standing behind the table looks up and bares its long teeth in the dragon equivalent of a smile. "Greetings. We are so pleased you could make it!" The sound of its... no, his voice, for the low velvet tones are definitely male, draws you from your shock and you slowly move forward. The dragon looks at you and a wry note enters his voice. "Oh dear, you aren't at all used to dragons are you young one?" As you shake your head, he smiles at you. "Have no fear, you will find me to be most friendly and civilised." He moves slightly and you instinctively flinch, then blink as he raises a delicate china teacup held lightly in his talons. He takes a sip and then smiles at you again. "Ah yes, there is nothing like a spot of tea to make everything right with the world."
Your white-furred guide giggles and hops up into a nearby chair before turning back to you and your companion. "Come sit down and I'll introduce you!"
Although your companion heads for the nearest chair without hesitation, you approach with considerably more caution. As you ease yourself into your chair, you instinctively look around for an escape route, should you need one. Your surprise makes you forget your fears immediately.
Where the outer hallway was all light, air and sparkle, this room is more solemn, solid and traditional. The floor, walls and furniture are all of polished wood, creating an atmosphere which you find oddly comforting, despite the presence of a dragon. As you begin to glance across the table at him, you suddenly notice the tea things neatly arranged on the table. They seem so ordinary that you are calmed even further. A slight cough draws your attention and you blink in surprise when you realise there is another in the room.
The man seated beside the dragon has a bushy black beard and muscular arms almost as thick as a sturdy tree's trunk. He also has the brightest blue eyes you've ever seen. They twinkle like small jewels as he smiles and nods at you. You can't help but smile tentatively back.
Your white-furred guide grins. "That's Forger. He's a Metalsmith. He's the one that makes the chains that hold reality and fantasy together. He makes enchanted swords and magic mirrors too."
A furry hand then waves in the direction of the dragon, drawing your gaze. As you look up, and up, you realise that he isn't as large as you always thought dragons to be. He stands about eight feet tall, nine including the gracefully curved horns on top of his head, but his body looks to be a lot longer since the tip of his tail is raised off the ground about twelve feet behind him. Before your fears regain their hold on you though, you notice his eyes. The twin orbs of deep sapphire blue hold a mixture of kindness and wisdom. Somehow, you know that he will not hurt you and your fears vanish without a trace. With a start, you realise your guide is talking again. "That's Mirarne, he's a Time Dragon. They can open portals through time and space. Because they can see the Timestream, they also help to keep it flowing where it should."
Mirarne smiles. "Well, we try at least." As your guide starts pouring tea into your cup, the white dragon clears his throat and looks pointedly at the smaller creature. He sighs when the only response is a puzzled look. "Have you introduced yourself yet?" At your guide's startled blink, Mirarne's rumbling laughter echoes through the room. "You always forget to do that, my friend! Please, allow me!"
The dragon waves his teacup. "Your guide is Fluffkin, leader of the Fluffbunnies." Seeing your confusion, he elaborates. "The Fluffbunnies are one of the most magical of all creatures. According to legend, they are born of tears and moonlight, wishes and dreams. Although many have seen them, few remember them for they come only when needed and leave the moment they are forgotten. It is usually children who see them, for most adults can't quite believe in them. Their magic is drawn from the strongest of all sources, belief, and if they are believed in strongly enough, they can do the most amazing things. But there are very few who have seen them as they truly are for they can appear as anything that can be dreamed of and so are rarely seen in their true form."
For a short time after Mirarne finishes speaking, there is silence while you and your fellow traveler drink your tea. A light pattering of footsteps approaching the archway via the hall finally breaks the silence. You and your companion turn around and you sense him growing suddenly tense. You glance over at him and discover his eyes are focused intently on the newcomer, but that isn't surprising considering her appearance.
The girl is small and slight and looks to be around twelve years of age. Her eyes are a pale silvery-grey while her blonde hair, so pale it seems almost white, falls past her shoulders in a flyaway cascade of tousled curls. Dressed in a pale pink tunic with matching ankle boots and white tights shot through with sparkling threads of silver, she looks as delicate as a flower, or a faerie. Perhaps that is why you are not more startled by her ears curving gracefully up into points or the large white and silver butterfly wings which flutter behind her.
As she steps lightly towards you, you notice she wears a brooch pinned to her tunic, a small circular mirror with a delicate, light blue rose etched in the center. Then her soft voice catches your attention.
"Greetings. I am Locken, Mistress of Castle Heart. I hope you have enjoyed your visit here. We were supposed to escort you to the Conference of Introductions, however I fear it has been postponed for the time being. It seems the others who were to attend are currently dealing with emergencies on their own worlds." You begin to reply, only to find yourself caught in her silvery-grey gaze. Unable to bring yourself to look away, you watch in amazement as her eyes begin to sparkle until you seem to be looking into two small crystals. Her voice seems to come to you from a great distance. "Until the conference comes to pass, I shall have to veil your memories of your visit here. It is not yet time for much of what you have learned here to become known. You shall remember..." her voice begins to fade, "but you shall remember as though it were a dream. Or perhaps a story." Everything goes black.
You blink and wonder why you are standing at your window at midnight. You can't remember getting up, but you do vaguely remember a dream, or maybe a story, you can't quite recall.
On another world...
"Tracker, wake up. We have to go. Finnister is almost close enough to sense us." The girl's voice woke Tracker out of a deep sleep. As his bright green eyes opened, he brushed back a wayward lock of dark brown hair, pushing his hood off in the process and revealing his pointed ears. He blinked up at his friend and starmate Elfwatch. In the silver light of the moon, her dark hair seemed much lighter, almost white. For a moment he thought she was someone else. Someone else? Then he remembered.
"I had the strangest dream."
On to the next story