My living room was filled with Shadow Courtier spirits and one person shielded from them by an aura of blue light. The same blue aura that shields the hero Aegis. But the person within the aura was James.
My brother was a superhero. That hit me harder than the fact that my house had been invaded by hundreds of Shadow Courtiers. He was a superhero and I hadn’t had the first clue.
For a moment, the presence of the Shadow Courtiers didn’t enter my mind. They might as well have been socks that I’d left on the floor for as much of my attention as they commanded.
James was Aegis.
That wasn’t possible, but I could see his shield, right there on his arm. I could see the sanctuary it created around him. Looking closely I could even see the Mark of Athena on his brow. He was her Chosen One. The vessel the ancient goddess empowered to safeguard the mortals she loved so much.
My brother was a superhero!
A sleeping superhero?
At first it looked like the Shadow Courtiers had smothered him but the way he lay on the couch in the living room was all too familiar. It didn’t say “smothered by alien monsters”, it said “passed out from studying too late in front of the TV.”
I wanted to go and wake him up. I wanted to shake about a dozen answers out of him right away but the thought that I’d wind up waking up a few hundred Shadow Courtiers in the process was sufficient to convince me to tread lightly. I might be the next best thing to indestructible in the Dreamlit world but that didn’t mean I was ready to fight an army like that.
Instead, I checked out my room. Using my physical body was slow and sluggish but I was able to confirm there were no signs of the Shadow Court. Like Minnie’s labyrinth, my room was a sanctum sanctorum. A refuge. In the Dreamlit world that translated to it being very hard to invade. With the title I carried, and backed by the power I was developing, even the army of evil Faeries camped outside weren’t powerful enough to force their way in.
That’s why I hadn’t woken up possessed by one or more of them.
“What the hell are they doing here?” I wondered.
I winced. James had mentioned that Aegis had joined the heroes who assaulted the Shadow Court’s realm. I knew that the Courtiers had abandoned their bodies and traveled back with the heroes to the physical world. Clearly as Aegis, James had been shielded from them, and still was to some degree. Just as clearly though that shield didn’t protect him completely.
He wasn’t possessed, which was cause for celebration, but he was the spiritual equivalent of a plague carrier. Once the Shadow Court woke up, they would be on the hunt for new bodies. For long term use they needed children but under the current circumstances anyone would do.
Meta-awareness had told me that the Shadow Court needed time to regain their energy. Based on the sleeping horde in my house, it was right. I’d missed one important bit of information though. They needed time to regain their strength, but if an immediate opportunity (or threat) presented itself they’d react. Like in Minnie’s room.
Like with my parents.
Meta-awareness gave me that bit of information like an icicle to the abdomen. I’d left them alone with James. James and the horde of Courtier spirits that were tagging along with him.
I raced to their room in the Dreamlit world and peered over into the physical world. It was empty in both worlds and the bed in their real room was still made.
They hadn’t been protected like James was, or like I was.
I tried to picture what had happened. They’d come back from meeting with the police, if they’d even been able to get to see the police? I couldn’t tell. Worry was cramming all awareness, meta or otherwise out of my skull. One way or the other, they’d come back and then…
And then the Court had taken them. I didn’t want to think about that. I couldn’t.
Meta-awareness forced its way back in. I had to know.
The Court had been drowsing only lightly when my parents got back. The monsters had noticed their arrival. My parents on the other hand had never noticed the danger they were in. How could they? Silent, invisible spirits weren’t something they could defend themselves against.
The Shadow Court had awoken, just a few of them, but that was enough. They’d crept into my Mom’s shadow. Into James’ Dad’s reflection. My parents had screamed at last, but the Shadow Court held their voices. Once they felt the Shadow Court creeping inside them, Mom and Dad had fought, just like all the other victims of the Shadow Court, and just like all the other victims it had been to no avail.
James hadn’t suspected anything either. Mom and Dad going up to bed after a long night? Ok, in other breaking news water was still wet. The Shadow Court couldn’t control him thanks to Athena’s gifts but they didn’t have to wait long before sleep claimed him and they were free to move about.
They’d been consumed by rage and terror then at both James and me.
The Court wanted to kill James. To kill me. They craved it badly. We weren’t their usual class of prey. In their archaic eyes we both counted as adults rather than children. Even so our deaths would provoke the sense of loss they needed so desperately.
James was beyond their reach though. No force either of my parents could exert would breech Athena’s shield.
As for me? On some level they knew to fear me. They could have lit our house on fire to try to get to me through the wards around my sanctum. Burning things had become something of a theme for the night after all, but they chose not to. They knew that what walked out of those flames would not be something they could deal with.
It wouldn’t be me, not anymore. If they pushed me that far, I wasn’t sure what I would become, but I could feel how terrible it would be. Terrible and wondrous.
The temptation I’d felt when I was channeling the title of the Faerie Queen was still there. The raw desire to hurt those that hurt me, to take everything from those who had taken away the person who was the most precious to me. No extreme of punishment was too far go, no damnation too horrible to lay against them.
Tears that I couldn’t hold back poured down my face. They had my mother! She’d been coming to talk to me and they’d stopped her!
I slammed my hand against the wall of the Dreamlit over and over.
I knew what they were going to do with her too.
She was too old for them to mold into their own image. That was something they could only manage with children and not even all children. Instead they would use her up. Each spell, each bit of magic they cast while possessing her would be fueled by her life force. They wouldn’t spend that casually, but they wouldn’t hesitate to use it either, especially not when they had the opportunity to reach their real objective.
The Shadow Court needed many things. A new realm. New bodies. Even a new Queen, though they were unaware of that need still. In the end though there was one need that surpassed all of the others. Power. They needed raw power. It was bred into them. They had to draw in the pain of loss. Without it they would fade away.
They were immortal, they could never die, but that didn’t mean they were without end. Where death held the promise of rebirth, the end for a Shadow Courtier held no such comfort. When they ended, they were simply gone.
They’d use my Mom and James’ Dad and all the other adults they could capture to stave off that end. To gather the sort of power they required. To kidnap and destroy children.
I stopped pounding the Dreamlit wall and noticed that I’d cracked it almost the whole way through. From the other side of the wall an inky blackness seeped. I hadn’t broken only the wall, I’d been beating on the Dreamlit barrier to the Unreal.
The ethereal smoke from the Unreal was oddly familiar but it took me a few seconds to place it. The Oblivion Knight’s flames. I’d wondered what would drive someone to where the Oblivion Knight was. Looking at the empty room, I began to understand.
“I need to wake James up”, I told myself. The risk of waking up the Shadow Court didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t care what they tried to do. They couldn’t hurt James and all they could do to me was given me an excuse to “deal with them”.
I started to head back downstairs to the living room. I felt heavy robes settle on my shoulders as I walked. The Faerie Queen’s robes. I felt a warm, smooth weight in my hand. The Queen’s sceptre. I felt the heat of blazing briars on my bow.
I wasn’t consciously willing the change, but I wasn’t consciously fighting it either. Around me, the Dreamlit world and the real world began to merge. From the unlit corners of the house I heard the first stirrings of the Court.
I laughed and it didn’t sound like me at all. By the time I reached the living room, I was taller and stronger, faster and more graceful.
“Wake up.”, I said. I stood over James with my sceptre burning in one hand like an unholy torch. I couldn’t touch him. Athena’s shield kept me away as easily as it did the Shadow Court.
James made a barely coherent grumbling sound and turned away from me on the couch.
“Wake Up! They’ve got Mom and Dad!” I screamed. That penetrated whatever happy dream he was having. With a jolt, he was upright and blinking.
“Who are you?”, he demanded not recognizing me.
We weren’t in Faerie, but we were surrounded by them. Names were as dangerous here as they had been in the Shadow Court’s realm.
I didn’t care.
“I’m Jin, you idiot.” It wasn’t fair to be angry with him. I didn’t look like myself anymore, and the ‘Jin’ he knew would never have dressed the way I was.
“Shadow Court.” he spit the words out like a curse.
“She is not one of us. Just a little pretender playing dress up.” said one of Shadow Courtiers that had assembled behind me.
“How are you here? What have you done to my family?” James clenched his fists and I saw his clothes fade away, replaced by Aegis’ armor.
“You brought them! And they took Mom and Dad!” I was shaking. I didn’t want to hate him. I knew I should have been paying attention to the Courtiers, but they didn’t matter. James did. He was a hero. He was supposed to prevent things like this, but they never did. Not with my Dad. Not with my Mom. Heroes were never there when you needed them.
“Yes. The Mother and the Father. Like so many others for the Grand Feast.”
The Shadow Court took turns, a different Courtier saying each words.
“Like we shall take the Sister.” they continued. And then one of them touched me. A light finger, brushing gently down my cheek.
Black fire burst from my sceptre. The flames of the unreal wreathed my head. When I spoke my voice was unrecognizable as human, much less as my own.
“No.” I felt like I whispered it, but the word resounded off the walls and shook the foundations of the house.
The Shadow Court froze, every one of them, except for the Courtier that had touched me. That one tried to scramble away, blurring into inhuman speed. It wasn’t fast enough.
I buried the burning end of my scepter in his chest and watched as he turned to ash. In two seconds he was consumed and the next second he was gone, erased from all of history. I could remember his screams but they weren’t enough.
The black flames lit my robe and caught in my hair and along my bare skin. I didn’t burn though, I transformed. Black armor and eyes like galaxies in an empty sky.
With a sweep of my hand, I cast the flames outwards. The Shadow Courtiers burned by the score. Our house didn’t do so well either, but what did it matter? Without my family it wasn’t a home anymore, it was just a box of wood. Wood the Shadow Court had touched, as rotten as they were.
The Courtiers tried to fight me. I’d given them my name. The ones who were the most adept at glamour casting, who counted themselves among the High Magicians of the Court, sang rhyming chants of binding to hold me and strip me of both power and life. They couldn’t have made a worse mistake.
Names are dangerous things. To know something’s name is to hold the power to command its attention. There are some entities that should never be invoked though. Entities that you never, ever want the attention of.
I was one them.
As each Courtier spoke, they gained my attention. The breath they uttered my name with became black fire on their lips. The flames ignited them from within and they burned away without even being able to choke out a cry for mercy.
I saw James standing in the flames. His costume covered him head-to-toe so all I could see was his body language. He was horrified. The Shadow Court burned and vanished around him and all he could see was the out of control monster was that bent on destroying everything.
“Go.” I whispered and again the house shook with the thunder of my word. I didn’t want him to be a part of this. I hated him for not saving my Mom, but I loved him too. Athena’s shield held back the flames, but my word reached him.
I saw him reach skyward for Zeus’s Lightning. The bolt would carry him to Athena’s reflecting pool in the celestial realm of Olympus. The Shadow Court was too distracted being destroyed at my hands to follow him there and even if they could they were tiny things compared to the might of even a single goddess, much less a pantheon of them.
James would be able to regroup there. He could consult Athena’s wisdom. He could gather allies. He wouldn’t have to see what I was going to become.
Through my rage, a bubble of happiness rose at the thought that James wouldn’t know what I’d done. Once my rage burned out, the black fire would consume what was left and I’d be no more either. There’d be no pain for anyone I left behind. They wouldn’t even know I’d ever been there.
“Go.” I dream spoke to him. I turned away both unable to watch him leave and intent on finishing the last of the Shadow Court off. Or the last of the ones that had invaded my home. Someone else would have to take care of the rest.
The Shadow Court was streaming out of the confines of the house at supersonic speeds. They thought that put them beyond my reach. Unfortunately for them, my meta-awareness could track them all too easily. I was so focused, they were the only thing I could see in fact.
Clenching my fist on the scepter of darkness, I raised it overhead and called down bolts of the unmaking fire from the sky. Wherever the Courtiers ran, the bolts sought them out. I destroyed cars and trees, burned holes through houses and knocked out power for three blocks around us.
In the sky above, I saw a vast rift start to form. The emptiness of the Unreal waited beyond it, ready to swallow whatever I chose to throw into it. I could toss Brassport, the entire city, in there if I wanted. The Shadow Court hadn’t had time to move far beyond its borders with their limited energy. I could rid the world from a plague that was millenia old for the cost of one small city.
Strong arms wrapped me into a deep hug.
“Jin?” James asked, still disbelieving what some part of him knew to be true.
I struggled against the hug for a moment. It was too alien a thing to what I’d become. Or was on the verge of becoming. I didn’t know anymore.
It didn’t matter.
I felt the black flames sputter out. I felt the briars on my head and the scepter in my hand vanish into the ether. I felt my robes disappear and my normal clothes return. I slumped into myself and I was shorter and slower, weaker and clumsier.
I was me, or whatever was left of me.