The life of a Sky Pirate is one of bold adventure and derring do. Plunder factors in there too, we’re not saints after all. That said, we do look out for our own.
While Adella had been crafting her new life I’d put out a call for my crewmates. Dream speaking across great distances was tricky, but the city didn’t exactly qualify as a “great distance” in this case and Molly knew the Captain pretty well.
The Star Runner looked worse for the wear, but the crew had done an excellent job restoring it after the damage Way had inflicted on it. The decks were patched with pilfered lumber, the sails patched with what looked to be stolen designer jeans and somehow they’d even managed to purloin a set of replacement levitation spheres.
I almost asked about that last one, but something told me I was better off not knowing.
The rope ladder landed beside me at the same time as I felt a furry hand on my shoulder.
“Allow me.” Patches said and hoisted himself onto the ladder.
“You don’t have to do this.” I told him and turned to face Adella, including her in that sentiment.
“You just got your lives back. You don’t have to risk them like this.” I added, looking from one to the other of them.
“Exactly!” Patches’ eyes sparkled and a grin spread across his face. Before I could argue any further for their safety, Patches was up the ladder with the speed and grace granted by his feline nature.
I turned to Adella and found her hoisting herself up the ladder as well.
“[A thousand years and many misdeeds, repayment begins tonight]” Adella said in Spanish. I didn’t speak Spanish, except, apparently, in the Dreamlit world.
I shook my head to clear away that surprise and gave Molly the reigns. Sky pirating was her domain. The catboy and the penitent had a head start but no land crawler could out climb a true air rider. It was a matter of Molly’s professional pride that got me to the sky galleon before Adella. Admittedly swinging off the ladder and free climbing up the netting that overhung the ship’s side wasn’t the safest of paths but it wasn’t like Molly hadn’t done it dozens of time before either.
“M’lady.” Patches said as Adella reached the top, offering her his hand in support as she climbed over the railing. As I hopped over the edge of ship to the side of the ladder, he assayed a small bow and added, “My Queen.”
Captain Rumbeard chortled when he heard that.
“[Stole a crown did you lass?]”, he asked.
“[And the crown jewel.]” I told him.
“[We ’d best be off then. Nothing makes a royal crankier than losing their favorite hat.]” Captain Rumbeard laughed.
“[Except maybe the losing the part the hat sits on.]” I replied.
“[And just how big a kettle of fish have you kicked over little witch?]” Rumbeard asked warily.
“[Just a tiny one, no bigger than Atlas’ bathtub.]” On Earth we would call that a kettle of fish the size of the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed like an apt metaphor and Captain Rumbeard certainly understood what I meant.
“[Stars remember us. Molly dear, you know we only have so much sail we can put up. How far, exactly, will we need to fly to be free of this disaster?]”
“[How far will the Fimbulwinter reach?]” I asked him, referring to the storm that would cover the world in ice at the end of days.
“[The Fimbulwinter’s just a myth.]” Rumbeard replied.
“[True enough but what’s coming is just as bad and all too real.]”, I told him.
“[That ’s impossible.]”
“[Patches , tell the good Captain what you’ve seen please?]” As I made the request it occurred to me that Patches probably had no idea what we’d been saying since we were speaking in a tongue that had no relation to any language on Earth.
“[I was a prisoner until Queen freed me. In her wake the prison burned but there are no ashes left.]” Patches said in fluent Low Cloudling.
“[And why is that.]” Rumbeard asked.
“[The enemy that follows the Queen burned the world we were imprisoned in. It’s no more, not even a memory.]”
“[How …]” Rumbeard started to ask.
“[Our enemy’s power is the same as that.]”, I said, pointing upwards to the rift into the Unreal that I’d torn in the sky when I struck down the fleeing Shadow Courtiers. “[Try to sight in on it. See if Gunny the Farseer can perceive what that is. For all her clairvoyance, she won’t be able to and that’s the smallest part of the power that’s after us.]”
Rumbeard observed the rift silently for a moment, a variety of expressions playing across his face.
“[Well , that explains my last fortune reading then.]” he finally said with a sigh.
“[What happened?]” I asked.
“[The cards exploded.]”
I looked at him surprise. Fortune telling, even in the Star Runner’s world was far from perfectly accurate but a reaction like that was pretty unambiguous.
“[I didn’t call you here to die Captain. We’ll get the Star Runner out of this.]” I promised him.
“[You ’re forgetting who we are girl.]”, he said with a twinkle in his eye, his good humor returning before my eyes, “[This crew’s the dirtiest, rottenest bunch of scalawags ever to sail the Sea of Stars. We don’t run from fights, we finished them!]”
“[And what sort of scalawags do you count as allies?]” Patches asked.
“[Allies ? Anyone who’ll swing a cutlass or run out a gun can be a friend of this ship.]” Rumbeard said, clapping Patches on the back, before leaving to put the crew in a pre-battle alert state.
“I was thinking of our absent friends.” Patches said, turning to face me.
“I was thinking of them too. Minnie was already attacked tonight. A Courtier possessed her father.” I said.
“The Court will move to collect their former vassals and whatever precious ones they can find nearby.”, Adella said in perfect English.
“Why?” I asked.
“They’re desperate for power. In their current state the Court is prey for the rest of the Nightmare Fey.” she replied.
“Not just the other Nightmare Fey.” I said and told them about the Oblivion Knight and the Court he was constructing.
“The Shadow Queen’s call is not easily resisted, even when only a little of her remains” Patches observed when I finished describing the legion of black fire courtiers the Oblivion Knight had at his disposal and the Oblivion Queen who stood at his side.
“All the more reason we need to get to them.” I said. “
“[Rescues cost extra!]”, Rumbeard called back. “[What’s the heading?]”
With my meta-awareness I didn’t even need to look around to get my bearings.
“[A deuce of leagues six degrees forward off the port spar.]” I rattled off, meta-awareness and Molly’s knowledge of the ship blending together seemlessly.
With a buzzing whir, the lift engines spun to life and drove the Star Runner into a broad turn. It wasn’t as fast as I could travel on my own, but the advantage of the ship’s shields and guns wasn’t something I wanted to cast off lightly. I called out course corrections as we flew but as we drew closer it was all too easy to see which house was Minnies. It was the one with the flashing police lights in front it.
“[I ’ll be back in a minute, if I’m not…]”, I started to tell Captain Rumbeard.
“[Then we’ll want another minute. No running.]” he interrupted.
“[Thanks.]” I said and dove off the side of the Star Runner.
The wind whistling past me felt amazing, but my heart was in my throat with worry over what might have happened to Minnie. I landed on the ground outside the circle of lights from the police cars I could see in the real world. With an effort of will, I pushed my way through the barrier again, changing to Jin’s form as I did so.
Walking my dream self around in the real world wasn’t pleasant. I felt like either it or I was going to tear apart if I moved wrong, but I didn’t have time to thread my way through Minnie’s labyrinth in the Dreamlit world again.
I approached the front of her house and paused, wondering if I’d have any trouble with the two police cars that were there. Fortunately neither cop was outside and I caught sight of Minnie pacing back and forth in her room on the second floor.
Flying in the real world felt a little different than flying in the Dreamlit world. I had more sense of my own mass which left me feeling clumsier. Since I only needed to get to Minnie’s window though it wasn’t much of a problem.
“Minnie!”, I said, tapping lightly on her window. I didn’t want to alert the rest of the house since there were a whole lot of questions the police were sure to have and no where near enough time for me to answer them.
Minnie heard the tapping and jumped back, eyes wide for a second.
“It’s me! Jin! What happened? I thought we took care of the Shadow Courtier who was here?”
Minnie opened the window quietly and waved me in.
“My mother, and sister. They took them.”, she said.
My stomach fell.
“Oh no. There was more than the one?”
“There must have been.”
“I should have stayed!”
“No. They were gone already. As soon as you left I called out to my mother for help and she wasn’t there. My father woke up on his own and called the cops. I told him I’d seen a Shadow Courtier so they took it seriously.”
“Can you come with me?” I asked.
“A rescue. We’ve got to get back the people who’ve been taken.”
“What you mean?”
“They took my Mom and Dad too.”
“They lost a lot when they abandoned their realm.”
“How can we fight them? Even as a monster…”
“You’re not a monster!” I interrupted her.
“Fine, even in my bigger, badder body they’re too tough for me.”
I debated for all of second on what I said next before deciding two things; I trusted her and she needed to know.
“James is Aegis.” I said.
“Aegis? As in the superhero Aegis?”
“Ok, that’s insane, but, wait, how did they take your parents if Aegis was guarding them?”
“He was one of the heroes that assaulted their realm. They came back hiding in his shadow. He didn’t know, but he does now.”
“So he’s going to rescue them?”
“He’s gathering allies now. I’ve got a ship that can take us to him. I don’t know if you’re safe here. Patches said the Shadow Court was still calling to him.”
“They are. I can fight it off though. It’s like having a nagging toddler babbling in your ear.”
“You might be ok then. If they could have taken you by force, they would have when they took your Mom.” I went towards the window.
“Where are you going?” Minnie asked.
“To the others. The Court’s probably after them too.”
“I’m coming with you then.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes I do. They have my Mother! They’re not getting my friends too!” Minnie huffed and for a moment her “not-quite-five-foot-tall” frame had more force than her minotaur form.
“What about your Dad?” I asked.
“He’ll be safer if I’m not here.”
I wanted to argue with her, but that was probably true. Taking him with us, while possible, was certainly not going to improve his prospects for staying safe.
“Take my hand then.” I told her, offering my left hand to her, palm up.
As I levitated us both out of the window, she turned to me.
“Wait, you can fly too? What can’t you do?”
“I don’t know.” I told her and pulled both of back across the Dreamlit barrier. It was harder pulling her over with me than it had been to push my Dreamlit self into the real world, but I managed it. As I did a side “benefit” occurred to me. Her father wouldn’t have to worry about her. As far as the real world was concerned, she didn’t exist anymore. I couldn’t guess how history would shift around to accommodate her return but I hoped that if we made it back soon enough no one would notice.
“Welcome aboard.” Patches said with a bow to Minnie as we landed on the Star Runner.
“[Captain, we need to be a league to the starboard, three degrees port off the prow, in best time.]” I called up to Rumbeard, giving him the location of Nell’s house.
The Star Runner got us there is record time, which left me little time to explain things to Minnie. Even so, we were too late.
“Wait here for a second.” I told my friends. It took barely that to figure out something was wrong though. Nell’s house was empty. Looking in the Dreamlit world I noticed that her room was still heavily warded. Where my room was a castle and Minnie’s was a labyrinth, Nell’s was an impenetrable black cube of technology.
“She’s still free.” I told the others when I got back to the Star Runner.
“How do you know?” Minnie asked.
“Her room’s still her own. There’s no Shadow Court power in it. If they caught her they wouldn’t leave a her with a bolt hole that would keep them out. They must have caught her out of the room and she managed to escape some other way.”
“And her parents?” Patches asked.
“Not there.” I said.
“Taken?” Adella guessed.
I gave Rumbeard the directions for Jessica’s. She was the furthest away but I didn’t think that would save her from the Court’s predations. There were too many of them, they moved too fast and they’d had too much time. As we sailed through the night sky, the image of another empty house, another missing friend, filled my mind. With it came anger and visions of the black fire. I pushed them away knowing that the more I indulged in that kind of imagining the more likely it was that I’d give in to temptation and lash out with it in a time of crisis.
What we found when we arrived at Jessica’s house wasn’t in anyway an empty building, but it definitely qualified as a “time of crisis”.
In the Dreamlit world, Jessica’s house was surrounded with a soft glow that shimmered in every color. It looked heavenly. The fires that rages around it on the other hand had a decidedly “abyssal” appearance. Shapes and faces writhed up out of the flames struggling to grasp the Shadow Court spirits that buzzed around the house like bodiless wraiths.
At the center of the flames, just outside the front door, a winged creature of smoke and nightmare stood. It’s back was to the house and from its mouth a torrent of white hot flames poured forth.
“Stay here!” I told the others.
Patches and Adella nodded. Minnie had other ideas.
“Like hell!”, she said as she jumped over the edge of the ship. We were at least two hundred feet in the air. Minnie couldn’t fly. That wasn’t a problem for her, but the sidewalk she landed on protested by shattering into a thousand pieces under the weight of her minotaur form.
I winged my way down to join her before the fight was joined. On the way, meta-awareness tipped me off to who the fire demon was and what she was fighting. The Shadow Court had found Jessica, except Jessica’s “fight or flight” response ran more towards “fight or incinerate”.
“We’ve got to help her!”, I told Minnie as I landed beside her, indicating the fire demon. Neither of us had ever seen Jessica let loose before. She’d held back in the Shadow Court realm to keep from frying us given the tight quarters we’d been fighting in. I knew she was still holding back for fear of what would happen her neighborhood and that was giving the Courtiers enough room to avoid her attacks. Fortunately I had the answer for that.
“She’s doing fine. It’s Nell that needs us!” Minnie said, looking for a path through the flames. Behind Jessica’s demon form but outside the safety of the house, Nell stood surrounded by a dome of electricity. It made a decent second line of defense against the Courtier spirits but it wouldn’t keep them out if the Courtiers attacked en masse. I couldn’t tell why she wasn’t taking advantage of the shield around the house until I saw her direct a stream of electricity to Jessica. Rather than damage Jessica, the electricity seemed to heal the wounds she’d sustained.
I merged the local Dreamlit world and the real one and considered conjuring a path through the flames to the house for us. That raised the immediate problem that it would also open a path for the Courtier spirits. They could fly over the towering walls of fire but when they did so the flames would lash out in long whips that forced them back.
“I think I can get through but its going to attract some attention.” I told Minnie.
“Go for it.” she replied, smacking her fist into her open palm.
With a wave of my hand I imagined a path under the ground into existence. Without prompting, Minnie moved to stand guard over it. As she did the path began to warp and twist. Minnie wasn’t a Dreamwalker but creating labyrinths was a natural ability for her. If she wanted to protect something it would be very hard for anyone else to get to it.
I raced down the short path underneath the flames as it quickly became a much longer one. In their spirit form, the Courtier’s were still blindingly fast, but limited as well. Crossing thresholds was difficult for them, especially ones that were actively guarded by someone who was aware of them. Their ability to slip into someone’s shadow was similarly constrained since in this merged realm, their spirit forms were plainly visible.
I exited the pathway five feet from Jessica’s left side. She whirled on me as I appeared and for a moment I expected to be bathed in a gout of white hot flame. Instead Jessica smiled a huge “demony” smile.
“You’re here too? How many did you bring with you?”, she asked.
“I’ve got Patches and Minnie.” I said.
“Yeah, whatever. How many Courtiers?”
“None. I got away from them.” Technically that was true. That I’d managed it by annihilating them wasn’t something I felt comfortable sharing with the power-drunk maniac just then.
“Fine. Go help Nell then. I can’t keep all these things off her.”
“We have to leave.” I told Jessica.
“Not until these things burn.” her tone left no room for discussion so I turned and went to Nell.
“Your shield’s defensive right?” I asked her.
“Yes.” she answered, opening a space in it for me to join her inside.
I waved my hand to say no to that.
“Can you move it?” I asked.
“I need you to shield Jessica and I.”
“But she won’t be able to fight then.” Nell warned me.
“I’ve got that covered.” I assured her.
Nell nodded and walked over to me slowly, maintaining the lightning dome as she moved. Together we advanced so that the dome engulfed Jessica too.
“Get away from me! You’re spoiling my shots!”, Jessica complained.
“Just give me second. And watch the sky, you’re gonna like this.” I told her.
I didn’t wait for her response.
“[I need a full bombardment with the Thunder Cannons, my position, Captain!]”, I dream spoke to Captain Rumbeard.
“What? I don’t see anything?” Jessica said, peering up through the bars of Nell’s protective shield.
It was a dark night and, from directly underneath, the Star Runner wasn’t easy to spot. The green witchlight that adorned it’s rigging came into view the moment Jessica spoke though as the ship pitched into a sideways turns. Then the sky exploded with light.
The Star Runner’s Thunder Cannons are meant to disable enemy ships. Potentially several enemy ships all at once. Their effect on the Shadow Courtiers was similar to the effect of a stick of dynamite on a barrel of fish. The crew knew their business and placed the shots more or less everywhere except right on us. Nell’s shield then blocked out most of the indirect damage and noise that splashed over onto us. Even with all that though the three of us were thrown onto our butts on the lawn.
Before the Shadow Court could reform and mount a counter offensive, I grabbed Jessica’s hand (like grabbing a glowing coal) and Nell’s hand (like grabbing a live wire) and pulled them with me to the Dreamlit side of the barrier as I separated the two worlds. Minnie was there as well since I’d already pulled her over.
Back in the real world we left behind a flaming yard and several puzzled Courtiers. History adjusted in our wake and left them with the belief that their prey had resisted and been burned to ash by the fires.
“What in the mother-loving-hell was that?”, Jessica asked, still blinking her eyes to clear away the after images of the lightning. She’d returned to the teenage girl I remembered from the Shadow Court’s realm.
“Thunder Cannons. Want to see them?”, I asked, knowing that rather than pretty clothes or jewelry, Jessica found loud, explosive things irresistable. The Star Runner had descended low enough to drop the boarding ladder down to us. Jessica didn’t need anymore urging than that.
“They took my family.” Nell said soberly as she began climbing too. I floated up near them as Minnie joined us and began climbing behind Nell.
“Mine too. And Minnie’s Mom. Jess, how about you?” I asked.
“Dad’s away on business, so I’m fine.” she said.
“Who next shall join our ensemble?” Patches asked as we clambered onto the Star Runner’s decks.
“Next we go for the big guns.” I said and cast out with meta-awareness, searching for the path to take us where I wanted to go.
“The Army?” Jessica guessed.
“Or perhaps a call to Unity City for a battalion of heroes?” Patches suggested.
“Nope. We’re going to see my brother and his patron.”
“And who would that be?” Patches asked.
“Athena, goddess of Wisdom and Battle.”
If the Oblivion Knight wanted to bring in allies then two could play that game.