I sat in the wreckage of my home, grateful that it wasn’t also the wreckage of my life. I was myself, but after losing my parents, destroying my house and burning in the flames of the unreal, I wasn’t sure I knew what that meant anymore.
The black flames hadn’t hurt me physically, my skin wasn’t singed, my hair was fine, but inside I felt nothing but emptiness.
“We have a lot to talk about.” James said.
“I know.” I replied. There were so many answers I wanted, so much I had to tell him but none of it seemed to matter.
“First thing: Are you ok?” James asked.
I tried to answer that and came up short a few times before settling on “I don’t need any medical attention.”
“Good.” He was eyeing me critically though. He wasn’t sure what he believed anymore, but he had a few scraps of faith he could afford to give me.
“So you’re Aegis?” I asked. I was afraid to let silence settle in. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to start talking again if it did.
“How did you know?”
“The costume. Kind of a giveaway there.”
“Before that. You knew when you woke me up.”
“Yeah.” I tried to picture how I could start explaining what had happened tonight and I came up blank.
“Ok.”, he said, letting my non-answer slide, ”What about Mom and Dad. What…what happened to them?”
“The Shadow Court took them. Possessed them.”
“I don’t know. Below the Earth.” I almost couldn’t say the words. It felt like the more I said, the more I was accepting it.
“That’s not possible. The Shadow Court’s dead. We saw them.”
“It was a trick. They were scared. They abandoned their bodies and hid in your shadows.”
“Yours and the other heroes.”
“They can’t do that!”
“Yes they can. They just haven’t had to for a long time.”
“How do you know that? What are you?” James was being torn apart by denial and terror at what he’d unwittingly unleashed.
“I don’t know.”, I admitted. I fought to keep the tears out of my eyes but it was a losing battle. A long silent moment dragged on before I looked up. James lifted his head too and smiled at me strangely.
“Oh god, I know how that feels.”
It was my turn to be confused.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I wasn’t always Aegis.” he replied.
“When…” I started to ask him, but he cut me off.
“We should probably compare notes on that later. If Mom and Dad are in trouble, we need to help them.”
“How?” I asked. From the Dreamlit world I could see through the Shadow Court’s glamours, but I didn’t know where to look for them. Meta-awareness might have been able to tell me, but it felt numb, deaf and blind. Probably due to channeling the black fire, I guessed.
“I don’t know. We need to think of something though.”
“What about Athena?”
“She was the one who put me on the Shadow Court’s trail in the first place. That’s why I was late tonight. I’m sorry.”
I nodded in acceptance of the apology, refusing to speculate on how things might have gone differently. Feeling empty seemed better than dealing with regrets on that scale.
“So if she had you hunting them, then she wasn’t sure where they were before they escaped from their lair right?”
“We won’t be able to track them then. If the Shadow Court could hide from her sight before, I’m sure they’re hidden from it now.”
“I don’t understand though. Why would they do this? Mom and Dad? They don’t take adults. They take kids. It’s always kids.”
“A lot’s changed tonight.” I said. I didn’t want to be cryptic. I wanted to tell him everything. I wanted him to know everything that I did and then tell me it was all ok and he’d be able to handle everything. That wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, but I wanted it anyways.
“It was at the library wasn’t it?” James asked with a strange catch in his voice.
“That’s when you got the call right?”
“That’s when you changed, when you got whatever that shape changing, death fire power thing you can do.”
Something about his description hit a weird nerve in me and I actually laughed.
“Shape Changing Death Fire Power? You make it sounds like I’m the drummer for a metal band or something.”
James smiled back, without laughing.
“Yeah, maybe. It’d be easier than having another metahuman in the house.” his grin was wry but I could see a lot more pain hiding behind it than there should have been. Meta-awareness was still shot but I knew him. It took a moment of knocking my gray cells together to catch a glimpse of things from his perspective.
“It’s not your fault.” I assured him.
“Yeah.” there was zero conviction in his agreement, so I grabbed his arm.
“No. Seriously. What’s happening with me? It started way before the library. Remember in the morning when I was totally zoning out?”
“I was already ‘waking up’ at that point.”
“I don’t know how else to describe it. You said it was a “call” for you right? Because Athena chose you? No one chose me. I kind of “chose” myself.”
“You just decided to develop superpowers and you did?”
“No. More like, I was in the right place at the right time and made a choice that put me in the position to ‘wake up’ in a way I hadn’t before. Most of what I can do? It’s just applying my imagination to things.”
“Imagination? How do you shoot black fire with your imagination?”
“In the real world, I can’t. Here though? I guess I just need to be pushed far enough.”
“What do you mean ‘here’?”
“Ah, right. Sorry, this still looks like home. That’s the other thing I can do. There’s another world, it’s dangerous to know about, but well, here you are. It’s called the ‘Dreamlit world’.”
“So you can create portals?”
“No…or actually yes, but this isn’t a parallel Earth. It’s not actually even “real”. Think of it like a dream. I can push the real world and the dreamlit world together. So we’re sort of partially real now and partially just a dream. When I let them go, well, you’ll see what really happened to our house then.”
“So you can make your imagination real?”
“Not exactly. What happens in the Dreamlit world doesn’t map precisely to what happens in the real world.”
“What about the Shadow Court then? What really happened to them?”
“In the real world? The ones that were here, the ones that I burned, they never existed in the first place. We can remember them because we were partially outside the real world when they were annihilated.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That black fire? It doesn’t just burn you. It erases you from history. Past, present, and future. You’re more than gone, you never were and never will be. I…I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have used it.”
“If you hadn’t stopped me, I wouldn’t have stopped it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t burning them because I wanted to, I was burning them because I couldn’t stop myself. After they were gone, I would have been the only one left holding any of their power. I didn’t want you to see that.” I fell silent. I felt ashamed of what I’d been thinking then. I was glad James had stopped me when he did.
“You’re an idiot.”
“What?” I drew back, stung by the anger in his words.
“Don’t ever think like that. Ever.”
“I don’t care how bad it is. You come to us. To me. To Dad. To Mom. You don’t leave us like that.”
“No. Don’t. I’m not losing someone like that. Not ever again.”
His rage and pain wasn’t directed at me, but I felt the force of them anyways. I knew that James and his Dad had stepped in to fill the hole in my family from when my Dad had died. I’d never thought that Mom and I were filling a hole in his family too.
“I won’t.” I promised. My new family wouldn’t have remembered me if the black fire had consumed me. They wouldn’t have been able to grieve, but the hole would still have been there, the absence of me.
I felt less empty inside thinking about that.
“We should go. Even if you got all of the Shadow Court that were here, it sounds like there are still others left right?” James said.
“Yeah, all of them in fact. They all came through with you guys. I think you had the fewest because of your shield.”
“I can’t believe they were able to do that at all.”
“They’re millenia old. They don’t have to tangle with things tougher than themselves very often because they’re scary good at hiding. Secret hidey holes? Those are like catnip to them. It’s not your fault. If anything its probably mine.”
“If I’d let them take Samantha, none of this would have happened.”
“There was a little girl at the library. I…I didn’t tell you everything about what happened there.”
“So let me get this straight: you just started developing your powers today and the first thing you did was take on a mob of boogeymen to save a girl you’d never met before?”
“It’s gotta be something in Dad’s cooking.” James shook his head in disbelief.
“What do you mean.”
“That’s what I did too. That’s why Athena chose me.”
“I don’t suppose you had a little guy in white show up to give you a cryptic starters guide speech?”
“Owl. Couldn’t speak. Just hooted when I was headed in the right direction.”
“Nice. I’m starting to think I should write a book.”
“Later, first we get you somewhere safe.”
“Where do you have in mind?”
“Is that allowed?”
“Don’t really care, but in this case I’m pretty sure its cool.”
I turned the idea over in my head. Olympus, not the mountain in Greece, but the celestial realm. Home of the ultra-powerful spirits humanity knew as the Greek and Roman gods. I’d be safe from the Shadow Court there. James would be able to recruit some serious help and there was a decent chance the Goddess of Wisdom and Battle Strategy, aka his patron, could put together a plan to get our parents back.
“That sounds perfect. We should get my body though. I kind of lose track of it when I’m on a different plane.”
“Uh, what?” James asked.
“Easier to show you.” I said. I led the way up to my room. My fiery rampage had left the stairs wrecked but talking with James had helped me pull myself back together well enough that I was able to conjure supports and new steps as needed.
“So, one thing, my bedroom looks a little weird. It’s a side effect of some stuff that happened, but, just don’t freak out ok?” I said. Explaining the whole “by the way, I’m also a Faerie Queen now” thing was more than I wanted to get into.
I stepped into my room and felt naked terror run through me. We weren’t alone. Swifter than words or thought, I transformed again, black robes exploding around me in a flare of purple fire.
All throughout the palatial room beyond my door, in precise formation, knelt figures engulfed in black fire. Figures that resembled the Shadow Courtiers I’d seen earlier. The Oblivion Knight sat on a throne of silent flames, behind and above them, an orb of black fire held lazily in his hand. At his right side stood a Shadow Courtier that was taller than the rest.
Her features were lost to black fire that had consumed her but her bearing was unmistakable. We stood before the Queen of the Shadow Court. Not the former Queen who I had rescued, this was the reigning Queen. The one who carried the true power of the Shadow Court. The Oblivion Knight has burned her up. That was why the Shadow Court didn’t remember having a Queen anymore. She’d been erased from their history. In here place stood the Oblivion Queen.
“You join us at last.” the Oblivion Knight said. His voice was different. Less cosmic. More real. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I was certain it wasn’t good.
“Who is that, Jin?” James asked.
“That’s the Oblivion Knight. He’s here to destroy the world.”
We were dead. Aegis’ shield was powerful but it did have its limits. Even giving myself over to the rage that had destroyed the Shadow Court the first time wouldn’t save us. The black fire wouldn’t harm them anymore. It’s what they had become.
“I am here to offer you again a place at my side. To end this.”
“End what?” James, or rather Aegis asked. In between us and the Oblivion Courtiers, the blue radiance of Athena’s shield flickered to life.
“Everything.” the Oblivion Knight answered. There was a tone of amusement in his voice. It was creepy, but also puzzling. Meta-awareness gave me short bursts of insight, but nothing that fit together to form a coherent picture.
“Have you forgotten what I told you?” I asked him.
“Empty words and empty threats.”
“I won’t join you.” I told him. It seemed like a futile gesture. He’d picked this spot to prove a point. He had the power to break through any barrier I could put up. Olympus would be only a temporary refuge and while I cowered there, my world would burn.
“Then perhaps you will join her instead?”, the Oblivion Knight said. A sweep of his hands parted the Oblivion Courtiers from his side, revealing the girl who stood at his left hand.
Way rose to her feet, silent with unfocused eyes.
“You seem to have some fondness for my little doll.” the Oblivion Knight observed. “You know her strength too. Join me or perish at her hands, the choice is yours.”
“Aegis, get out of here.” I told my brother quickly.
“No way in hell.” he answered back through clenched teeth.
“Wasn’t a suggestion.” I dream spoke to him.
I didn’t wait for an answer or a response from anyone before I split the Dreamlit World apart from the physical world. On the real side of the barrier, James and my physical body, on the other all of the baddies, Way and my Dreamlit self.
“I’m not going to join you and I’m not going to fight her.” I told the Oblivion Knight. In the physical world, I felt James lift me up. A second later there was a tingle of electric charge in the air and then my body was gone, whisked away by Zeus’s Lightning. Separated across the dimensions again, I couldn’t feel my physical body any more than I could when I’d been in the Shadow Court’s realm. At least this time it wasn’t trapped in a burning building though.
“An unfortunate choice. Destroy her.” the Oblivion Knight waved Way forward with a flick of his hand.
Her steps were slow and halting. At first I thought the Oblivion Knight had broken her but then I saw the pauses for what they were. Way was fighting the command.
I looked into her eyes.
“Run! Please!”, she dream spoke to me. She was lost in a tumult of confusion but some part of her knew she didn’t want to obey the command she’s received.
“I can’t.” I dream spoke back to her. I was surrounded by Oblivion Courtiers. They were only immobile because there was no need for them to move. If I ran they would catch me and if they didn’t the Oblivion Queen’s Guard would.
They were the other major heroes from the Task Force. Professor Platinum, Invertix, the Red Shadow, and Constellation. They stood beside the Oblivion Queen as her personal guard. Even if I could weave some trick with my title as Queen to usurp control of the Oblivion Court, even if I could talk Way into not fighting me, I would still have to deal with them.
I couldn’t win this fight. I’d promised James I wouldn’t give up again though, so no matter what it cost, I had to try.
The purple flames of the Shadow Court wouldn’t be enough against the Oblivion Courtiers but I summoned them forth anyways and sent them coursing down my scepter. Way flashed forward, striking with her black scythe as I did. Scythe and scepter locked, bringing us face to face. In her eyes I saw panic and fear.
“I won’t hurt you!” I promised her. Except she wasn’t worried about me hurting her. She was terrified of what she might do to me. Or how she might let down the Oblivion Knight. Or both. My meta-awareness had recovered enough to whisper that much to me. There was a geas, a compulsion laid on her, but that alone wasn’t enough to control her will. There was something beneath it, something she clung to willingly that was threatening to rip her in two.
And yet still she resisted the order to fight me. I didn’t understand it and I knew she didn’t either, but we didn’t need to. Neither of us could finish this fight.
As though bending to that thought, the black flames on her scythe and the purple Shadow Court flames on my scepter recoiled away from each other. They weren’t responding to us though. They couldn’t touch one another. I thought back to the Shadow Court’s realm and the way the Heart of the Realm had held off the black flames. It was a refuge but it wasn’t going to save me. I couldn’t call up anywhere near as much power as the Heart of the Realm had and even that hadn’t been enough to hold off the Oblivion Knight.
I struggled desperately to think of some other path I could take, some trick that would save me or at least buy me time. I was walking in the Dreamlit world so I had lot of options, but unfortunately so did my adversaries. I couldn’t be killed, but the black fire didn’t kill, it unmade. I wasn’t sure what that would mean but I suspected I wouldn’t be able to recover from it as easily as a regular dream death.
I could see that Way was struggling the same as I was. Her eyes were darting in every direction, until they landed on something behind me and flared open. I saw clarity there and the briefest moment of relief.
Then I felt the fangs of a monstrous beast bite into me.