One of the benefits to wearing heavy, padded robes is that they spread the force of giant fangs over a somewhat broader area. That’s not one of things I’d imagined when I’d dreamed up the robes I was wearing, but some surprises do turn out to be pleasant ones.
“Huh, that’s not so bad” isn’t exactly what I would have expected to be thinking while I was trapped in the jaws of an enormous beast that was engulfed in black flames but it beat almost all of the alternatives I could think of.
It took my mind a moment to catch up with the situation I was in, and to register how fast we were traveling. That’s when I realized that the beast wasn’t trying to tear me to pieces. It was carrying me away. Strange as it sounded, I was pretty sure it was trying to save me. The way it held me just tightly enough to be secure without crushing or piercing me supported that notion.
I tried to see where we were going but the surroundings were flashing past in too much of a blur. I knew we were still in the Dreamlit world’s reflection of my world, but with the way the streetlights and neon signs blurred together we might as well have been running through hyperspace.
When we stopped, we were in the graveyard behind one of the old churches at the far end of town. The purple flames that still clung to my scepter sputtered and choked out. The Shadow Court’s magics weren’t welcome on blessed ground. It wouldn’t stop them from following us, but it did make the graveyard one of the last places they would think to check. Maybe.
With surprising gentleness, the beast lowered its head to the ground and opened its mouth so that I could get to my feet.
“Thank you.” I said, more for my own benefit that anything else.
“You’re welcome.” the beast responded. The musical quality of her voice shocked me just slightly less than the fact that she talking in the first place.
“Gah! You can talk?” I leapt back on reflex.
“Yes.” she confirmed. I don’t know why a giant talking beast made of black flames struck me as unusual at this point. Old habits I guess.
“Do…do you have a name?” I asked.
“Not yet.” the beast replied.
“Do you want one?”
“Yes, but not from you. When my mistress is ready I will take a name from her.”
“Yes. You named her.”
The pieces fell into place at last. The beast was Way’s. It was the same one that had pursued me at the police station. Way hadn’t wanted to hurt me but she’d been compelled to by the Oblivion Knight’s command. The beast had reacted to that and had carried me away to safety to spare Way from the conflict that was tearing her apart.
“Will the others be pursuing us?” I asked, thinking how much faster Way had been than her beast last time.
“Yes, but they will not find you, I will lead them away.”
“I can’t ask you to do that. They’ll destroy you if they catch you.”
“You aren’t asking, my mistress is, and they won’t catch me.” she said. An instant later she was gone.
I was alone. And in a graveyard. Even within the Dreamlit world that felt creepy. Worse, I didn’t need meta-awareness to tell me I wasn’t safe here. Graveyard spookiness aside, there were too many Oblivion Courtiers to think they would all chase after Way’s beast.
Without considering what I was doing, I stepped across the barrier to the physical world. It was hard. It felt like I was pushing through a sea of tar rather than the usual thin gossamer curtain. By the time I broke through I was exhausted. Weariness tried to drag me back to the Dreamlit world and it was almost enough to distract me from the crawling shivers that were playing all over my skin. Something was very wrong and it wasn’t just that I was surrounded by graves in the dark of the night.
“Now isn’t this interesting?” a woman said. Her voice was frail and weakened as though by injury or great age. She was tall, but so gnarled and hunched over that her head was bowed lower than mine. In the light of the street lamps and neon signs, I could see that her skin was covered in liver spots and hung off her in long, loose wrinkles. I didn’t recognize her at first, but when I saw Patches (clothed this time in a t-shirt and loose jeans, but still every inch the cat boy I’d met him as) beside her I clued in to her identity. She was the former Queen.
I looked at her again. She wasn’t wearing a glamour. Gone was not only the artificial perfection of her magic visage but also the grey horror of her “true” Shadow Court form.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“I followed a foolish girl to the end of my world.” she replied with an bitterly amused wheeze.
“The Heart was an unkind lender.” Patches added.
I thought back to the final moments in the Shadow Court’s realm. Patches had carried the Queen into the Heart’s chamber and it had ripped the last vestiges of the Shadow Court’s power from her.
“What are you?” I asked her.
“Dying.” she said.
“You’re immortal though?” I knew I was wrong as soon as I asked the question. The Shadow Court couldn’t die, but she wasn’t a Courtier anymore. She’d lost all of that in our flight from their realm. First her title to me, then her power to the Heart.
“I was, but as I am I will perish before the sun rises.” She sounded almost pleasantly resigned to her fate.
“Is that true?” I asked Patches. I had to remind myself that the age I saw on her was coupled with cunning and treachery. I’d saved her from the destruction of the Shadow Court’s realm but that was no reason to think she’d be grateful to me.
“I suspect so. She has aged preternaturally fast since we return.” the catboy confirmed.
“Mortal years, the ones this body should have lived. They’re catching up with me.” the wizened crone cackled.
“What are you doing here then?” I asked. I knew a hospital wouldn’t have a hope of treating her but someone like Heartbeat might be able to pull off a miracle.
“Trying to live a little longer.” she said.
“In a graveyard?”
“It was to avoid the Court.” Patches explained.
“And to wait for you.” the crone added.
“Me? How did you know I would come here?”
“An area sheltered from the Court’s eyes? Where else would I think to look for you?” the crone replied.
“Why would you want to see me though? I’ve got things immensely more dangerous than the Shadow Court after me. Even being near me like this means you’re in danger.” I warned them.
“And you would shelter us from that danger?” the crone. Her voice was gentle but there was a keenness in her gaze that told me I was walking into a trap.
“Nobody deserves the kind of trouble that’s following me.” I told her.
“You are a kind girl. Your compassion is a credit to your humanity, and to those who have loved and nurtured you.” the crone said. I blinked. The complement seemed so out of character for her that I wondered if Patches had misplaced the former Queen and found some other old lady to take her place.
“That same kindness and compassion makes you an abomination as a Queen of the Shadow Court though.” she continued. Her gaze was fixed on me, dissecting me.
“You’re not the first person to call me an abomination tonight.” I told her.
“They did not see you as I do. They cannot have. Only one who understands what the Court is can see how poorly you wear your crown, how ill suited you are to its rule, how it is chaffing and wearing away at you.”
The crone wasn’t a Courtier anymore. She could lie freely, but I knew she wasn’t. She didn’t need too. The truth was the only weapon she needed for this battle.
“What is the Court then?” I asked. It felt like I was being spun into a web but at the same time the lure of knowing was too strong to resist.
“It is pain, it is cruelty, it is loss. It is a weapon.” she savored each word, her voice caressing them as she spoke.
“What do you mean?”
“Pain, cruelty, loss, these are all real. They are undeniable. They are true. That is the only weapon you can fight the Unreal with.”
“It wasn’t enough to save the Court’s realm.”
“The Queen chose to flee. She feared what was coming.”
“The black flames scared her that much?”
“No. You did.”
“What?” That didn’t seem vaguely possible at first, but then I thought of what I’d done to the ones in my house.
“You are the Queen Who Has Fallen. The Powerless Queen. But you aren’t powerless and you weren’t powerless then, were you?”
I thought back to the flight out of the Shadow Court’s domain. I’d literally cut my way to the heart of their realm and I’d lead a group of people there who had as much power as a team of superheroes. What would I have done if we’d had to get past the Reigning Queen? Especially after seeing the red garden?
I thought again of what I’d done at my house. I could have done that to their realm if the Oblivion Knight hadn’t beat me too it. I might easily have done that to the Queen after what I’d seen. The Reigning Queen wouldn’t care what using that kind of power would cost me. All that would have mattered was that I had the power in the first place.
The crawling feeling of wrongness hadn’t left my skin. My stomach joined the discomfort as I thought about the sort of power I had. The purple flames of the Shadow Court and the black flames of the Unreal. Using either one of them felt like I was ripping myself apart, but they were weapons I could use. Weapons I might have to use. I thought of Mom. And James. And Way and Minnie. Heck even Jessica. If it came down to it, if it was the only way to stop the Oblivion Knight and his minions, I’d use any and every power I could lay my hands on. It was that or annihilation.
“You’ve taken the title and worn it in battle. But you haven’t given yourself to it. You can’t. You’re too kind, too compassionate.”
“You have no idea what I’m like.” I told her. What scared me most wasn’t that she was right, but that she might be horribly wrong. Using the black flames, annihilating the Shadow Courtiers, had left me burned inside and numb, but thinking back on it, I’d relished it too. No restraints. No consequences. I’d only been disappointed that I couldn’t make the fire hurt them worse. When faced with loss, I’d been all too happy to wield cruelty and pain as weapons.
“Perhaps not, but is that how you truly wish to be? Do wish to become as I was?” she asked.
“I won’t be like you.” I replied. It was true, I wouldn’t be like her. If I wanted to be a monster, I’d be much worse than she ever could have been.
“This is all fascinated but I believe there’s an offer to made?” Patches cut in. He looked bored, sitting on the edge of a tombstone and filing his nails. Those focus he gave them though was unnaturally intense. Cats show fear it odd ways I guess but we all knew time was running out.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“To give you what you gave me. To balance the scales.” she replied.
“What did I give you?”
“Freedom? No offense, but the last thing I could ever trust you to give me is freedom.”
“Then you will slay me.”
“What? No, why would I kill you?”
“Refuse me and I die before dawn. Whether you choose to strike the final blow with your own hand or not doesn’t matter to me.”
“I can’t save you, I may not even be able to save myself. If you die of old age I don’t see how that’s my fault or what I could do about it.”
Her eyes lit up and she closed her trap around me
“You can save yourself and you can save me. All you need to do is one thing; Give me my title. Give me the Heart. Lay your burden on me and forget everything that happened here.”
“How would that…”, I trailed off. How would that help? I could see all too easily how that would help.
If I called her “Queen”, if I turned the title back to its rightful owner, she would be the one with the connection to the Shadow Court’s power. She was right that I wasn’t willing to use it, not really. She would be though. Even without any abductions, there was a lot of pain, cruelty and loss in the world. The reborn Queen would be able to command the Courtiers, maybe even the ones that had been lost to Oblivion. She’d be able to strike back at the Oblivion Knight and drive him off.
The real world was too big a target for him precisely because even forces like the Shadow Court would oppose its destruction. I didn’t have to chose between destroying myself and the annihilation of the Earth anymore. More importantly I didn’t have to try to fight something that was vastly older and more powerful than myself. Where I would have to scramble to figure things out on the fly and guess at everything I did, the reborn Queen would be able to draw on an age of experience in wielding her powers. She could win fights that I would barely even survive.
“What about my family. They took my parents!” It was selfish. In the face of global armageddon, I was more concerned about the fate of the few people who were dear to me than the billions who would die and the trillions who would never exist at all if the Oblivion Knight won.
“You could ask for a geas as part of the bargain.” Patches said.
The crone glared at him.
“Yes, the boy speaks truth. I would agree to spare them if you wished.”
“You would agree to more than that.” Patches said, a delighted look in his feline eyes, “A binding that the Shadow Court would never again hunt in Brassport and would never cause harm or distress to any who bear her favor or love. You would go as far as that.”
I leaned against a gravestone. What Patches suggested would be a huge restriction on the Shadow Court. “Never” for Faeries is exactly what it sounds like. Billions of years in the future when the sun swallowed the Earth, Brassport and my family would still be safe from them.
“Aye. I would go that far.” the crone confirmed. It meant more than power to her. It meant her life.
My heart leapt when she said that and I felt like the kid that I was. I’d been looking for someone else who would take responsibility for so long. Someone who would deal with the terrifying realities and the violence, someone who would shield me from harm.
Someone who would make things right.
I looked at the frail old woman before me. She looked back with patient eyes. She knew how much I needed what she could offer.
“I…”, my words caught in my throat. I swallowed and looked down, searching for the cause of my hesitation.
I wanted someone who would make things right. I remembered the red garden. I remembered touching the Shadow Court’s Heart. I remembered Samantha.
The Shadow Court would never make things right.
If I gave back the title, if I returned the former Queen to her rule and power, I would be a part of their evil. Relying on them to fight the Oblivion Knight meant accepting that what they did to the innocent was necessary.
“I‘m sorry. I can’t do that.” I said. What happened next, how things turned out with the Oblivion Knight, with my parents, with Way, it was my responsibility.
I had power. However much I didn’t want to accept that, however much I wouldn’t be accepted for it, I had power. I’d wanted so much for someone else to come in and make things right, to take responsibility but that desire came from the pain and fear in me.
I hadn’t been willing to accept what was real about myself because the thought was terrifying. If I had power, if I took responsibility then I could fail. It could be my fault that people like my Dad weren’t saved when they should have been.
It had taken looking at what turning my power over to the Shadow Court would mean to wake me up. Whether or not something was my fault didn’t matter. What mattered was whether or not it happened in the first place.
I knew that putting aside my insecurity was easier said than done, but somehow just seeing it for what it was made the burden a little lighter. I didn’t need someone to take care of everything. I hadn’t asked for my problems but I knew that’s what they were. My problems. And my chance to make things better.
“I see.” the crone said. I expected her to scream at me, or maybe to lunge forward with claws bared. Instead she sagged, the weight of her long years crushing her to ground as her last hope left her.
I turned away from her and looked at the rows of carefully tended headstones. This was an old church graveyard but people still cared for it. That’s what gave it the energy to ward off the Shadow Court’s magics.
I breathed out a small sigh and tried to accept that in doing what I thought was the right thing, I’d condemned the tired old lady near me to a swift and painful death. Her weakness could be a trick to play for sympathy, but I knew it wasn’t. She was a horrible creature, but weak and powerless as she was, I couldn’t hate her. Whatever she was, whatever she’d done, she’d been a person once too.
So had the Courtiers in my house, but I hadn’t spared them. I shook my head. I wasn’t going to beat myself up over that. The situations were different and I was different in the aftermath of that fight too. It wouldn’t happen again, and I was already going to pay for what I’d done by having to deal with the Oblivion Courtiers the Oblivion Knight has raised from their ashes.
That thought struck a spark in my mind though. The Oblivion Knight had raised his new troops from their ashes. But the Shadow Court doesn’t leave ashes. When they’re destroyed they’re just gone. It’s the humans they once were that held the promise of rebirth.
That wasn’t going to help me against the new Courtiers. Oblivion had claimed them and that was a one way trip as far as I could see. I couldn’t make any use of the human aspect of the Oblivion Courtiers, but the crone who sat before me was another story.
“I can’t offer you the title back, but I can offer you a chance to live, if you wish it.” I said, turning back to her. Patches cocked his head to the side, curiosity roused by my unexpected words.
“And what would I have to give you?” the crone rasped.
“Your name.” I told her quietly.
“I have no name. I had only the title you now bear.”
“There is one name that’s still yours, but you haven’t used it in a thousand years.”
”No. Not that name. That’s not who I am.” the crone coughed and the effort shook her entire body.
“I know. It’s the name of the human who gave herself to you to escape the torment your spirit inflicted. In tiny stages you made her your own until there was almost nothing left and almost no corner of her you didn’t control. She’s still there though, locked away within you. She’s slept and dreamed the nightmare of your existence across uncounted seasons.” I was letting meta-awareness fill me in as I spoke though I knew the broad strokes of what I was saying already.
“You would reverse the tables then? I would sleep and dream of her life?”
“If she wishes. Either of you can end this here. Either way her spirit won’t be enslaved to you any further.”
“I would cease to be me.”
“You would change. Just like all mortals do.”
“But I am an immortal!”
“As was she while you ruled her. Accept this, accept her rule, and you’d both be mortal. You’d have no more control over her than she has had over you but you would share her life, the parts she chose to give you, in your dreams. If that seems unbearable, then let it end here. There’ll be no pain for either of you.” I told her.
The crone looked at me for a long silent moment. Her face was still and expressionless, except for her eyes which were gazing off into eternity. At last she looked up into my eyes and gave me a simple nod.
“Adella.” she said, before breaking eye contact. She was afraid. Afraid in the way only someone who has not changed in over a thousands years can be afraid.
I took her hands.
“Adella, remember yourself.” I said softly as I joined the Dreamlit and real worlds together once more.
“Come back.” I whispered, calling her to wakefulness across the centuries she had slumbered.
The Dreamlit world settled around me was like the gentle caress of warmth from a cozy fire on an icy day. It felt oh so very right after the “wrongness” that had been crawling over my skin since I stepped into the real graveyard. That’s when I worked out what I’d done.
I hadn’t reintegrated with my physical body when I’d entered the real world. My body wasn’t on Earth any longer. James had carried it away to Olympus. I’d forced my Dreamlit body to be real for a time! My Dreamlit body that I could change into anything I dreamed of. That couldn’t really die. I might be human still, but I wasn’t sure I was technically “mortal” anymore.
There wasn’t the gut churning shock I expected at discovering that. I was what I was and I was beginning to accept that. Any problems that caused me, I’d face when they came up. Till then I had more immediate concerns.
“Who am I?” Adella asked.
“You’re the only one who can say.” I told her holding up an empty mirror. “Imagine yourself as you were, as you want to be. Imagine and remember.”
It took time. Precious time, but it couldn’t be rushed. Slowly the image of a Spanish woman in her mid-twenties began to appear in empty mirror. She was older than the child Adella must have been when she was captured, but even though she’d slept the centuries away, some part of Adella had aged and slowly grown.
I’d been worried when I healed myself in the Dreamlit world that the any major changes would change my history beyond recognition. The change Adella was working on herself was less like a butterfly flapping its wings and more like an asteroid impact on her history. Her life had been stolen from her and in its place she was unconsciously weaving a whole new one for herself.
Patches and I watched as the mirror filled with her image, some pieces appearing out of nowhere, others coming slowly into focus, shifting and changing to fit as they did. While Adella crafted her new life, I plotted and planned as well, putting my own imagination to work.
It was almost an hour later when the image of Adella in the mirror was complete. It was a miracle that the Oblivion Courtiers hadn’t found us, a miracle and probably some very hard work by Way’s beast.
“It’s me.” Adella said, raising a withered old hand towards the supple young one in the mirror.
“If you want her to be.” I told her. “You can embrace her and make that life your own. “
“What will cost me?”
“You’ll have to give up what you are now. Everything you do, will be on you. There won’t be a Shadow Court spirit in charge. You’ll have to decide how to live your own life.”
“I’m ready.” and with that she stepped forward into the mirror. The image of the young woman stepped out of the mirror while the reflection of the old crone faded away leaving only emptiness behind.
I started to ask Adella how she felt but I was cut off by a gust of wind and the sizzle of nearby lightning. Bracing myself against the wind, I watched as a familiar sky galleon aero-braked into position above us.
“Ahoy the land! Be there a lass by the name of Molly among you?”, Captain Rumbeard of the Star Runner hollered down, his voice lilting in the slippery song of his native language.
“Aye Captain! Permission to come aboard!” I hollered back as I shifted into being a Sky Pirate once more.
I’d run long enough. There was a battle coming and it was high time I got ready for it.