With his blank sketchpad before him he gazed at her, his look a mixture of contempt and curiosity. She sighed slowly as her smiled eased away from her face leaving only an empty expression, just what he had demanded. Taking a deep breath, he let his pencil begin where it may as he felt himself fall slowly into the depthless pools of her eyes.

He followed the thread of her life, coming face to face with a wispy image of her smiling. He had expected this, what he hadn't expected was that the image was so transparent. Happiness, at least for people like her, was supposed to be this deep and meaningful ocean that suffocated anyone who came within ten feet of them. To find a layer so thin that a single slip of the tongue could shatter it was unnerving. The image smiled knowingly at him before letting him come closer to the edge where a gentle sea could be seen below.

"Don't go down there, it isn't safe." The image whispered.

He shrugged ignoring the warning; it was just some attempt to slow him down as he was trying to uncover how shallow she really was. Casting one last look to the gentle waves lapping, he let his shoe touch the surface. Nothing, no ripples, no turbulent retribution making him regret his action. Only the gentle lull of the waves as they called for him to come join them. Believing all was as safe as it seemed, he plunged his whole body into the placid sea. He surfaced; gazing at the image before him, he was startled to see her eyes wide with fear. As he was about to scoff at her for being worried, a tendril of darkness laced its way up his leg to settle around his knee.

"Help." He cried.

The image thrust her arm forward and he could barely grasp it. The waves around him roared thunderously and he couldn't make out what she was screaming from above. Suddenly a voice, her voice, broke through in his head calming his nerves slightly.

"Be brave. Don't stop until you reach the center, no matter how hard it is, keep going. You can't return the way you came. Reach the center, you will be safe there."

The voice slipped away as he was pulled under. He hovered there, surrounded by darkness in a sea he had identified as a gentle sort of sadness. It was one that accepted the cruelty of man to another in a resigned way. Pictures of toppled buildings, bleeding men and women, children wrapped in bandages, and a world covered in the ashes of a dying fire. All around him were the crying faces of strangers and the lost eyes of the battered animals that wandered helplessly on the deserted streets. Shaking his head, he swam deeper and deeper into the sea following the thread of darkness.

As he dove deeper, icy waters overtook him. Looking around he saw the colors had changed from blank to a dull gray and the feelings pressing at him had changed. Burning rage attacked him first, and then a cold anger stabbed him in the back. He could hear screams of frustration resound all around him. He saw clips of people gazing coolly at one another, each dismissing the other after a brutal verbal fight. Words stung his heart as he curled in on himself, such cruel things being said that his gut twisted in nausea. From the corner of his eyes he saw the thread of black again and clung to it as if it could save him.

Further on, despair claimed him for its own selfish desires. He felt as if drowning would be easier than this void of burdened thoughts. The memories of dying loved ones surged over him, leaving him completely bereft because of people he had never met. Visions of overcast days and volatile storms soothed then beat upon his broken heart as they masked his echoing cries. His hands were shaking so much so that he found it hard to think straight. He breathed in relief as the tendril found him one last time, dragging him harshly through the overwhelming sense of utter futility.

Plummeting, he slammed into a hard surface that felt much like ice but was warm to the touch. More out of stubborn pride than curiosity he beat upon it, he would do anything if it meant not returning to the oblivion that had already ensnared him. The rocky material was light and hollow, but as he hit it with his fist it was surprisingly resistant. He could feel emotions, hardened by existence, pulsing in the rock and realized this was the wall everyone put up in defense. It would be easy to break but once cracked a certain way it would never be allowed to happen again. In desperation he found himself clutching his pencil, but it had changed to a deadly weapon. In a swell of energy he struck, breaking through the defense a hole large enough for him to fall through.

With a deep breath he let himself pitch forward into the mist that opened its arms eagerly for his arrival. It was no ordinary fog, it clung and shifted in its darker than dark yet somehow light form. It was both repulsive and alluring in the way it called straight to his soul. He wandered aimlessly, shrouded and fading, he could feel his own existence seeping away to strengthen whatever it was. A single word pierced his thoughts, over and over again, until he pulled together the effort to recognize it.

'Loneliness'

An invisible dam broke through and he was encircled by visions of endless days spent alone in a gloomy house. From dawn to dusk not a soul stirred to accompany the person that he was. Shadows, he felt were other emotions, drifted like denizens that had been shackled to purgatory. This was the source all of tragedy a soul could take, and it slept deep within waiting for a chance to strike. Agony warred within him as he watched couples gaze lovingly into each other's eyes as they strolled past. He struggled with his own shattered heart, it felt as if he was being ripped in two. And as he fell, no hands reached out to help him back to his feet. In all truths, he was completely and indefinably alone, and no one was there to hear his screams.

"Reach...center...safe..."

Her voice came back to him, a tiny wisp of memory. Gulping in air, he regained his feet and stumbled forward and into the arms of another image. This one was different; he could feel that subtlety in her as he could sense the pressure of misery drift away from him. A smile, sad and tired, graced her lips, as she held out a hand for him to take. Grateful, he clung to her as she led him beyond the mist into a world so completely different it startled him into speechlessness.

The first thing he noticed was the sky. It was a rose hue with silver and gold overlapping as a star made of pure white filled the sky. His eyes swept hungrily over the land itself as mountains gracefully flowed into a valley of eternal green. A forest of emerald held a unicorn as it stood protectively over tiny fairies and pixies as they danced in a ring of mushrooms. A jester juggled globes of cold flames as both little children and adults alike clapped and cheered and laughed. The valley rolled to meet a shore of golden sands and a cerulean blue sea that stretched on forever and always. He gasped as he spotted a dragon dozing with a young knight leaning sleepily against him. A maiden so wondrous in her beauty began to sing to a group of satyrs when a rumble caused everyone to gaze to a volcano in the background.

"Observe the barriers."

The image nodded back to the mists that were rapidly encroaching the paradise. He stepped back in panic until a thunderous explosion captured his attention. A phoenix erupted from the volcano with all the ferocity of a cornered beast. Its fiery wings arced, driving back the loneliness so it could harm no being. Letting out a shaky breath, he returned his sights upon the overflowing land. That was when he stared at the emerging castle made of crystal as it hovered in the sky with a heart wrapped in wings flew steadily above it.

"What is this place?"

"Come and see."

He followed the image as she led him to the shore where two angels waited, infinite patience smoothed their faces and lit their eyes. One angel, a male, held out his arms for the image who gladly let herself be scooped up as they flew towards the castle. The other angel, a female, smiled shyly at him as she gingerly lifted him into her arms with ease to follow the others. The closer the castle came into view the more spectacular it was for him to witness. As sharp as a crystal's edge there was fluidity to the towers that shouldn't have been there but awed him into a comfortable silence anyway.

In the entrance he saw a red carpet rolled out before him and five men in guard attire. Each had a face that reflected a different personality: one flushed in humor, one looked as if he was trying to contemplate the world, another brooding at the edge of the crowd, a fourth clearly a lady's man, and the last a generally nice guy everyone wanted to know. They led him with all the solemnity of a devout believer in a temple or church. The image motioned for him to follow close on their heels as they wound their way up a spiraling staircase.

The room where they stopped was crystal but the walls themselves reflected a myriad of colors even a rainbow couldn't compare to. In the middle lay a glass case, when he peered in he came face to face with her, as she lay frozen in time. He glanced back sharply at the guards who only shook their heads. The image walked forward with a slight shadow passing in her eyes.

'What is this?"

"This is the true self, one who knows laughter unbound, one who has the purity to drive away the bad things┘the nightmares. She has created us all and each night she draws us close and protects us even as she waits to be released from her own self-imprisonment. She is the one who will lead you home."

He turned to look at all the joyous faces around him, everything from this tender world had gathered in the safety of the castle near to their creator. He felt his broken heart mend with the simplest emotions creeping up to settle within him. He could feel it take its hold and he felt no qualms, for who could deny hope its rightful place. In that moment, he understood that this place was her hope, her happiness, but also her innocence sealed away where no one could harm it.

'Go, young one, let her take you home."

It was not one voice this time, but a chorus of angelic voices that encouraged him to step towards the glass case once more. An opening directly above the case let in a shaft of light that encased him protectively and lifted him beyond the layers that had left their marks. And, as he fell out of her consciousness, he replayed his body's actions that had taken place while he had been sifting through the layers of a hidden soul. He watched, out of body, as his hands sketched all that she revealed and masked. He could sense her thin sheen of cheerfulness in the expression on her face, her sadness in the slight down turn of her lips, her anger found in the way she had her hands clutched in fists, her despair slumped her shoulders, the loneliness gazed out through her eyes, and, where he least expected it, her elation at being alive radiated from her in such a way that one had to do a double take to notice it and when one finally did, it spread to them as inescapable as a tidal wave to the shore. In a single sketch, done in pencil, he had touched briefly on the indefinite seams that bound together the way a tapestry would. It was a sketch of a girl, a stranger, and a mystery soon gone but never forgotten that we all truly are. And this is the story of the artist who was given the chance to see beyond the faГade to touch upon the very hearts of those whose names he never knew.