Living in a world with super villains can suck sometimes. Especially when it’s dark, you don’t have powers and there’s no sign of any heroes around. None of that bothered me quite as much as the conspicuous absence of my brother and the ride home he was supposed to be giving me.
He was probably running late because of his girlfriend – whoever that might be this week, Or maybe his team practice went long – that happens a lot too. Or, possibly, he’d been grabbed by a Snatcher. Technically the odds of that were extremely low, but TV and Movies never made it seem that way.
I knew it was kind of stupid to worry. It wouldn’t kill me to take a bus back home from the library. At least according to state and local crime statistics anyways.
From what I’d read, Brassport wasn’t much worse than any other major metropolitan area when it came to crime, super powered or otherwise. True, we were no Unity City, shining hub of super powered heroics, but we were at least better than villain havens like New York City or Isle Diablo.
Staring at the dark path that led from the library’s door to the sidewalk of Summers Ave, I began to regret letting the librarians lockup on time. They probably wouldn’t have if they knew it meant leaving a teenage girl alone outside, but I didn’t want to make them stay. They had homes to get to as well, and it wasn’t any safer for them than it was for me to be out after dark. Still it would have been nice to be inside, in the light.
If nothing else I could have read a book to take my mind off grim topics like the Snatchers. They were aliens who invaded back in the 50s. The war against them had been the beginning of the “Meta-Human Age”, or so chapter 28 of my history text had called it.
It had been nice to finally get to that chapter last year in World History. Sixty years ago may seem like ancient history for a lot of my classmates but it was the first chapter that felt particularly relevant or interesting. Alternatively, Ms. Grimwald may have just a terribly boring teacher where the substitute who taught that chapter at least still had a pulse.
I have a pretty active imagination, so it’s probably not so great that I’ve read as much as I have about the other beings that invaded the Earth after that, or the various human villains and monsters that have tried to eradicate, enslave or just simply “play” with us. When confronted with a dark and creepy cityscape and an overdue brother, I was able to envision a few hundred different scenarios for how horribly things could go.
He could have been eaten by Narashi Shadowdwellers, I could be converted to a human puppet-doll by Mad Janice the Two Face Harlequin, either or both of us could be burned up by the Cultists of the One True Light. Those and so many other happy thoughts kept me entertained as I waited. I didn’t really take any of them seriously, but my subconscious was still having fun, running one horrible idea after the next over my taut nerves to play out a subtle song of fear.
Of course, for as much as we may dislike fear, it is sometimes our friend.
I don’t know that I would have noticed the tell tale signs of a Shadow Court Gathering if I hadn’t been so focused on the way the darkness was moving around me. In the city, shadows shift and grow all the time. Around the library though they were growing without any lights being extinguished, and shifting without any lights moving.
That let me hone in on the fact that the world had gone wrong. What gave the Shadow Court away was the nearly inaudible singing of the children. Wordless and empty, from far away in every direction, I could hear them when I listened closely calling out for the homes that were forever lost to them.
The Shadow Court were faeries, of the Grimm’s Tales variety. Because with aliens and monsters and mad science, magic had surfaced in the world too.
The Shadow Court were serial kidnappers, they’d once been human before being captured, converted and forced to join the Court. In theory the Shadow Court only kidnapped the “Wayward Young”, meaning children who’d wandered away from home and away from the protection of their loved ones. In practice, away from home could mean “outside their front door” and “away from the protection of their loved ones” could mean two seconds out of their mother’s sight.
We learned about them in kindergarten if our parents didn’t teach us about them before that. There were tricks even a five year old could do that would put off the Shadow Court’s Initiation Rite and buy time for someone to find them. If that “someone” was a hero or a properly prepared SWAT team, the kids even had a decent chance of being rescued.
I should have breathed a sigh of relief. At fourteen, I was too old to be one of their targets. In the Shadow Court’s eyes, I was an adult already. The problem was that their presence here meant that I was right and there weren’t any heroes (or SWAT teams) around. Predator faeries that target children aren’t generally eager to stand up to super powered adults. If any of the local supers had been patrolling nearby the Shadow Court would have stayed well away.
That meant it was just them and me and whatever little kid they were hunting.
I knew what the statistics said about those circumstances too. Children, even ones who knew the right tricks, who weren’t rescued with 24 hours of being abducted by the Shadow Court didn’t make it home. Ever. Worse, the Shadow Court moved quickly. If they were on a major recruiting drive they might stay in the same city for as long as three nights. If they were after a single child though? They’d vanish off the face of the Earth the moment they got their hands on the kid.
There were heroes that could track them, wizards that could follow them into the Faerylands and even occasionally manage to retrieve the stolen children. The odds there were pretty low though. Sometimes the Shadow Court hid too well, other times one or more of the children who were “saved” turned out to be changelings or something worse. And sometimes it came down to simple math. Saving one child from evil faeries vs. saving a dozen from an evil super villain, or an alien press gang.
In the face of that, I knew what I was supposed to do. I’d been to the classes in school, I’d read the police reports and seen the videos so I knew the drill: Stay put unless there was a clear and safe path of retreat. Stay out of sight. If a registered hero or law enforcement official showed up, follow their directives and stay out of their way to the best of my ability.
A prepared SWAT team could deal with the Shadow Court. A regular Police Officer could call in backup. As a normal person, the best thing I could do would be to call 911 if I could manage it without attracting attention. The worst thing I could do would be to try to help.
Against superhuman or supernatural threats, people like me just didn’t stand a chance. Heck, I was a non-athletic teenage girl, I didn’t stand a chance against most purely mundane threats. A guy with a baseball bat was out of my league. Or even forget the baseball bat. Movies aside, being of Asian descent did not grant me any magical martial arts skills. To be honest even a fist fight against most other teenage girls would probably leave me in pretty bad shape.
So I clutched the railing that held back the bushes from the top of the short wall I was leaning against, closed my eyes and kept quiet as the voices of the lost children moved closer.
They would pass me by. Somehow I knew that. They would leave me behind as they chased down their prey, leave me to answer the questions that would follow. The police, stern and weary from having arrived too late one more time. The grieving mother, if there was one. The news reporters hungry to reassure people and terrify them at the same time.
I would be the one who knew when and where but not why, who’d been there, who might remember something important if only they could ask the right question.
It was a weird sensation. I could feel the future in a way. Not like precognition, but more like I’d seen this movie before, or rather, I’d read the script and now that we were shooting it I knew how the scenes were lined up to play out. It didn’t feel like I knew what was going to happen as much as I could sense what was supposed to happen. The scenes weren’t shot yet though, so there was still time to change things, to pick a different set of lines to follow.
Even the thought of changing things made me shiver. Following the script was safe, nothing terrible would happen to me directly if I stuck to my lines and acted my part. Helpless witness to horrible crime. Not pleasant but I wouldn’t be in danger.
Going off script and ad-libbing my lines though? That would throw all my safety away and would probably cut my future very short indeed. If I spoke up the things that weren’t noticing me…would. All I had to do to stay safe was stay quiet.
Stay quiet and listen to a little girl cry as the Shadow Court hunted her down.
I don’t know how I knew they were after a little girl. Maybe it was all just part of my imagination. Except I could see her. I knew where I was, sitting in front of the library, crouched behind a bush, holding onto a rusty bar in the fence to keep myself steady. That all felt real enough, but somehow so did the sense of knowing where she was.
Behind the library. Running from her father’s apartment to her mother’s. It was a clear night but there was mist and fog rising around her. The Shadow Court was drawing close. I knew she would stumble. I knew in a few minutes I’d see them take her. I’d scream, but muffle it with my coat sleeve. They would hear me but move on, dragging the girl with them over her pleading and tears.
I had to stay where I was. I knew I couldn’t help her. If I went to her there would just be two victims tonight.
“But I want to try.” I whispered, fear and anger and regret trying to turn the whisper into a scream.
The rusty bar I was holding onto snapped and I almost jumped. I hadn’t noticed how it had rusted all the way through on the bottom and my weight, puny though it was, had been enough to crack it loose on its rusted top end too.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
I could get back on script pretty easily. Just put the bar down in dirt on the far side of the fence. No noise. I would stay unnoticed and safe.
Except that I couldn’t. I knew getting involved was wrong in every conceivable way. I was putting myself in danger. I was making it harder for anyone who would come after us. I was probably even making it worse for Samantha.
Somehow I knew the girl’s name was Samantha. And somehow I knew that breaking into a run towards the back of the library was the right thing to do. I was running into darkness, pretty much literally thanks to the lack of street lights, but I’d left my fear of it back at the fence.
I considered throwing the bar away. It was rusty iron, and faeries didn’t like iron in any form. I wasn’t running to fight them, just to grab Samantha and get out of there. Iron bar or no, my chances of even scratching one of the Shadow Court were nonexistent. Despite that they would react very poorly to the threat the iron represented.
Without the bar they would kill me. With it they would get creative in making me suffer.
I held onto it anyways. It might not do anything to actually keep me safe, but since I was defying all common sense, defying the Shadow Court too didn’t seem like a bad idea.
The back of the library opened onto a park around an artificial pond that had been drained for the winter. A couple of the lights on the walkway around the pond were still intact and glowing feebly through the mist that had risen up.
A night this chilly had no business being this misty. I would have shivered again but I left the good sense to do that back at the fence too.
On one of the benches on the near side of the pond, I saw a figured sitting with her back to me. It wasn’t Samantha. The strange clairvoyance that had gripped my mind told me that, though it couldn’t tell me who she was.
A girl my age? Or at least roughly my size. Beyond that she was almost a void. Even seeing her was difficult with the way the black of her coat and hood mixed with the shadows that were dancing around the drained pond.
What wasn’t difficult was seeing that she was in danger. Bodies were appearing from the mist. Or maybe “of the mist” since that’s what they seemed to made from. None were shaped like a human, though that was the central template which they were mostly deviating from.
These was the Shadow Court’s hunting drones, they were the first wave, sent in so no faeries had to get their hands dirty touching the mortal world directly. The drones were vulnerable to iron, the way all faery magic is, but destroying them would do no harm to their creators. That wasn’t anything I’d studied, I just knew it somehow.
It crossed my mind that if I’d become clairvoyant like that, I might have actually developed super powers. For a moment, I felt a spark of hope. Maybe I would survive this. Then I noticed that the mistmen were outpacing me to the girl who sat on the bench. They’d reach her before I could. They’d reach the drained pond before I could too.
This girl and Samantha would both be taken or killed before my eyes, rather than just in my imagination.
I had the rusty bar still. I could throw it. Maybe knock one of mistmen out. One out of how many? A dozen? Two dozen? I knew, in the same way I knew Samantha was out there, that it wouldn’t be enough. I needed another way to stop them, or at least get their attention.
“There’s no such thing as faeries!” I screamed. The world froze silent except for the clear tone of a large bell. The mistmen hesitated, like they’d been slapped, and then began rolling towards me like a wave. I’d wanted to get the attention of the Shadow Court. I definitely had it.
The girl who was sitting on the bench turned to look at me, pulling back her hood.
She was the kind of gorgeous that even in my best dreams I could never imagine being. Long blonde hair, blemishless pale skin and dark eyes that looked like you could fall into them and never reach the bottom.
Her expression was puzzling and puzzled though. A small frown creased her lips as she saw the mistmen and me. There wasn’t any fear or surprise in her. She wasn’t happy or angry or anything beyond slightly confused.
“Run! I’ll take care of them!” I called out to her as I changed my course. I’d been running to get to Samantha as quickly as possible. That would have taken me right past the girl on the bench. With the mistmen flowing towards me, I swung around one of the dark lightposts and veered ninety degrees to the right, racing counterclockwise around the path that ringed the pond.
I risked a glance behind me as I ran. The mistmen were gaining quickly. They could have caught me already but the Shadow Court was amused. They wanted to play a bit. Or that’s what I knew the script would be saying.
I caught a glimpse of the beautiful girl, who still wasn’t part of the script. She’d risen to her feet. She wasn’t running though. Instead she was staring at me, her head cocked to one side. Her left hand rested at shoulder level on something that was shaped roughly like a dog, if dogs grew to the size of Mini Coopers.
I hadn’t seen enough in the glimpse to know exactly what it was, and my clairvoyance wasn’t saying anything about either the girl or whatever the creature was. I knew it wasn’t any sort of normal animal because even the bare glimpse I’d gotten of it was enough to know it wasn’t any part of this world. It was out of place, just “wrong” for lack of a better term, in a way even the Shadow Court wasn’t. That’s why the screaming that I heard a moment later didn’t come as a surprise.
It wasn’t the scream of a girl, child or teenager. It wasn’t a human scream at all. It was the scream of a mistman being devoured. Even with iron, the metal that was pure anathema to faeries, I couldn’t have hurt the Shadow Court by disrupting their mistmen. The black thing that had been at the beautiful girl’s side though? That could apparently.
I wanted to glance backwards again to see what was happening but instead I changed my course and jumped over the edge of the pond into the drained basin. It was a short drop at the ponds edge, less than a foot. I landed lightly, not even noticing the fall and sprinted towards the center of pond, where Samantha was getting back to her feet.
Whatever distraction I’d provided, the black dog-thing had far surpassed me in capturing the attention of the Shadow Court. The faeries were in full retreat from what I could tell. It made sense. If the Shadow Court were the brave or crazy sort of immortals, they wouldn’t focus on children would they? And monsters used to helpless prey wouldn’t see any point in tangling with something that could actually hurt them.
Even with that though there were still a lot of mistmen around. They were fleeing the beautiful girl’s pet, follow the lead of their Shadow Court masters, but they could still grab Samantha on their way out.
Maybe thinking the same thing, the ones that had been pursuing me began to swiftly overtake me. I felt a little sick at that, seeing proof of how easily they could have caught me if they’d wanted to. They weren’t focused on me anymore though and that was a mistake.
I couldn’t let them beat me to Samantha, I still had the iron bar, and as it turned out destroying them was no more difficult than swiping the bar through smoke if they weren’t paying attention to avoiding the blows.
The first two burst like glass windows as I swung the bar from the fence through them. Samantha was on her feet and saw me at last as a third mistman jumped on my back. I froze. I don’t mean I stopped running, I mean the mistman sucked all of heat out of me and it felt like I turned to ice.
They say freezing to death is one of the less painful ways to go. Apparently they were lying when they said that. I felt like I was shattering with every step I took. I couldn’t scream in pain, couldn’t even breathe thanks to my lungs turning into a solid mass of ice. My legs and feet lost the ability to bend before my forward momentum slowed down and I tumbled face first into the ground.
That probably saved me. The mistman went flying off my back allowing heat and life to return. Another mistman screamed as the black beast tore it apart behind me and the terror of the sound push me back to my feet.
“Samantha, we’ve gotta get out of here!” I shouted as I crossed the remaining distance to her. Seeing what was behind me, she didn’t need to be told twice. I reached out to take her hand as I caught up to her and she latched onto mine in exchange.
Despite racing at her fastest sprint, Samantha still wasn’t able to keep up with me. I’m not athletic but the difference in our ages was enough to set us pretty far apart. Since leaving her behind wasn’t an option, I threw the iron bar behind us and scooped her up into my arms. The mistmen were too fast and too many to fight, but it we could make it to Samantha’s mother’s apartment, we’d be beyond their reach. Heck, if we could stay out of their hands for another minute or two the black beast thing might take care of the problem for us.
My clairvoyance held out as we ran. I could see the mistmen fading out as they crossed the boundary of the park. The Shadow Court had abandoned the hunt entirely and was drawing their magic out of the mistmen as fast as they could before it was consumed by the black beast.
By the time we reached Samantha’s building the curtain had fallen on the play. The Shadow Court was gone and the mistmen were gone, both still pursued by what I could only guess was the beautiful girl’s monster.
I put Samantha down so that she could ring the buzzer to get in and saw that she was shaking with silent tears rolling down her face like a river.
“It’s ok. We got away.” I told her.
Her only answer came in the form of more tears and choked sobs. I tried to stand up to ring the buzzer for her but she threw her arms around my neck and clung on for dear life.
“We’re ok.” I said, holding her gently and letting her cry her fears out onto my jacket. I couldn’t blame her one bit for being freaked out and on some level I had to wonder why I wasn’t in just as bad shape emotionally. Sure, I’d read about things like the Shadow Court, but coming that close to a fate worse than death was a whole lot more intense than anything I’d been prepared for. That we’d survived at all was a miracle.
Looking back on what should have been very immediate memories, It all felt distant somehow though. Like it had happened to someone else. Even the pain from the mistman attacking me and the fall didn’t feel like something I’d actually experienced. It was the flipside of the clairvoyance that I’d been feeling. I’d known things like I was reading a script when it was happening and maybe as a result my memories felt like I was remembering a script rather than the real events.
“I’m going to be ok.” Samantha finally said as her tears subsided and she let go of me.
“You will.” I promised her, enough clairvoyance lingering that I could sense she would be.
“You should go in and see your Mom though.” I nodded towards the buzzer for her Mother’s apartment.
“Could you reach it for me?” she asked. I smiled, stood up and rang the bell for a couple of seconds until someone put their hand on my shoulder.
“Jin!? What the hell? Wake up!”