There’s a saying that goes “friends help you move, real friends help you move bodies”. From the looks on their faces, I was pretty sure what I was asking my companions to do went just a little beyond “moving bodies” on the friendship scale.
“You want us to sail where lass?” Captain Rumbeard asked.
“The Lightning Road, it’s the fastest path to Olympus.” I answered.
“You cannot be serious.” Jessica said, staring at the quarter mile wide stream of blindingly bright lightning that was coursing ahead of us from cloud to cloud.
“There’s some slight chance we’ll survive the journey one presumes?” Patches asked.
“Anything’s possible.” I said with a cruel little smile. I didn’t have to be channeling the Faerie Queen to enjoy teasing them a little.
I probably wouldn’t have teased Nell or Adella the same way, but they were absorbed by the spectacle in their own unique ways. Adella was watching the continuous flow of lightning that I’d led us to with knowing interest. She’d slept for a millenia while the Courtier spirit had inhabited her body and used her memories. With the roles reversed, she was able to avail herself of of the former Queen’s considerable mass of experience and knowledge. In short, she knew just what she was looking at and power it led to.
Nell, on the other hand, was wide eyed with wonder. The Shadow Court had picked her for her natural gift with technology. That gift was rooted in a fundamental affinity to electricity. The Lightning Road was more a part of her than it was of me, and I was the one who summoned it here.
Captain Rumbeard knew me, or knew Molly, too well to miss that I was teasing and quickly called the crew to head for into the current.
“You’ll want to hang on for this next bit.” I told the others.
Patches helped Adella and Jessica tie down. He offered the same to Nell but she waved him away with a shake of her head.
“My Queen do you require any assistance?” he asked me.
“No. I think I’ll be ok.” I said, excitement slowly building in me. Meta-awareness told me what was going to happen but as we got close to the lightning the feeling of wild energy was too infectious to ignore. I felt a smile creep across my face as I stepped away from the mast I was supporting myself against.
Bracing my knees, I put my hands out like a surfer for balance. Nell meanwhile had moved to the prow of the ship and had cast her arms out wide. Unlike in Titanic though she didn’t need anyone supporting her as she leaned forward.
We touched the edge of the Lightning Road and the world vanished, left behind us in a blur of light. The Lightning Road roared around us as it pulled us forward. It looked like we were in a vast tunnel whose edges were a solid stream of yellow bright electricity. Throughout the tunnel lightning of brilliant blues and silvers and yellows flashed beside us and around us. The air was so full of the tang of power I thought I was going to explode just from breathing.
Even with meta-awareness warning me, I’d ever so slightly underestimated how powerful the acceleration would be when we hit the road though. Patches, Adella, Jessica and the crew were all flattened into whatever nearby supports were handy. The scary part of that was that the Star Runner’s inertial compensators were still functioning, which meant what they were feeling was only the tiniest fraction of a percent of what our actual acceleration was.
Since I wasn’t tied down, I’d thought I could use my flight ability to compensate for the acceleration. That might even have worked if it hadn’t caught me by surprise. In place of cooly surfing on the Star Runner’s deck I was barely able to grab onto the rigging as I went flying backwards.
Nell on the other hand had no difficulty maintaining her position at all. What she had trouble with was maintaining her human shape. She was floating just above the prow, lightning stream over her and parting before her. It touched her and she touched it and it wasn’t entirely clear where each left off.
“How far do we have to go?” Minnie asked, forcing the question out through gritted teeth.
“All the way. The Lightning Road begins in Olympus.” I shouted back.
I had just begun picturing what my reunion with James would be like when I saw a streak of black fire shoot past the side of the Star Runner. I knew quicker than thought who it was. Only one person was fast enough to overtake a ship that was riding the lightning.
“Hold on!” I shouted, somewhat pointlessly. Everyone was already braced as best they could be. That didn’t save them from being pitched around as the Star Runner ground to an impossible halt on the Lightning Road. Looking forward, I saw Way, as I expected.
She was in front of the ship’s prow, one hand holding back the Star Runner’s progress while she stared across its deck with vacant eyes.
Nell floated an arms length in front of Way and for a moment neither registered the others presence. I flashed forward to interpose myself between the two but I was less than halfway there before the attack came. Surprisingly it was Nell who lashed out first. The lightning she’d gathered up while riding on the prow exploded from her in shockwave larger than the front of boat.
Way was knocked back, but the Star Runner’s progress had already been halted. It was like Way had grounded us on a shoal of black fire in the stream of lightning. I saw the same black fire gather around Way as she shook off the effect of the shockwave.
“Get back!” I told Nell.
“No! I can fight!” she said.
“I know, but not this. Not her. She’s mine.” I told her not wanting either of them to get hurt.
Way apparently had other ideas though. A lance of black fire speared out towards the Star Runner, devouring the lightning road as it flew forward.
It hurt to use it, but without any better alternative, I called out the Shadow Court’s Heart and the purple flames of sorrow to meet the black flames of the Unreal.
The two powers met, clashed and held even for a moment. The illusion of the Shadow Court’s power had to draw its reality from somewhere however and the only source at hand (or at least the only source I was willing to use) was myself.
Pouring out a shield of the Shadow Court’s purple flames meant opening the gates of sorrow within me. It wasn’t just one specific memory that the flames drew on either. It tore at all of them at once. Losing my Dad years ago, losing my Mom tonight and everything in between. The worst part was that for all that pain, I knew I didn’t have nearly enough within me to sustain the purple flames for long.
The former Queen had been right. I made a terrible Shadow Queen. I could have turned to Nell, to Jessica or to Minnie. With the Heart’s power I could have ripped their sorrow from them and left them with fresh wounds where memories and time had healed the old hurts to dull scars. That would have given me plenty of power to fight Way. I just couldn’t though. I couldn’t hurt them like that.
The immediate pain alone was inconceivable to inflict on them, but worse than that was the picture meta-awareness painted. The new wounds wouldn’t heal, the emotions would fester, rot and finally die, leaving them numb and uncaring.
I knew I ran the same risk myself and all I had to trust in was the added perspective that my meta-awareness gave me. That and the fact that it was my choice. Unlike the Shadow Court’s usual source for power, I wasn’t a victim. This wasn’t beyond my control.
Unfortunately that wasn’t enough. For all my good intentions, I still had limits and Way didn’t. She redoubled the force of the black flames and my shield buckled and shattered inwards.
The pressure of the shield shattering hurled me back into the deck. Minnie started to rise before I could but I motioned her to stay back. I’d summoned the Shadow Queen’s robes and accessories instinctively when I called the Heart gem, so the Star Runner’s deck had two black clad girls on it as I got to my feet. Way had landed gently at the front of the ship and stood no more than ten feet away from me, her black scythe held ready in her hands.
“Run.” she said, looking blankly past me.
I could still sense her with meta-awareness. She was still real, despite the black fire that played over her scythe and ran up her arms.
In the flickering purple light the sputtered from the Heart gem, I saw the pain in her. She was fighting the Knight’s compulsion. Fighting her love for him and being torn by the rift between who she was, a girl who wanted most of all to cherish and protect the innocent, and who the Oblivion Knight wanted her to be, a destroyer who lived to punish the world that had failed him.
“I can’t.” I told her. It was as true as it had been when we faced each other in my ruined sanctum. Even if we could escape the Lightning Road, the other Oblivion Courtiers would catch us by following her trail.
“You have to.”, she whispered, her voice catching on the words. The black fire on her arms and scythe flared and began to wind around the rest of her body. I knew if it touched me I would vanish the same as the Courtiers I destroyed.
The Shadow Queen’s voice in me spoke. It whispered that the only way to save my Mom and all of the others who’d been taken was to use the pain I saw in Way. Tear it out of her with the Heart gem and turn it against her. She’d overcome my power but she couldn’t overcome her own.
Meta-awareness showed me how it would work. From Way’s sacrifice I would have a near endless supply of power. I wouldn’t have to be terrible to anyone else. The Oblivion Knight wouldn’t be able to stand against that power backed by the power of Olympus when I reunited with James.
I’d be able to sweep the Oblivion Queen aside, and take command off all the Courtiers. I could drown them in the sea or imprison them for all time. The world would be safe from an evil that had plagued it since the dawn of humanity. Between James and I, we be able to push the Oblivion Knight out and seal the rift that had let him into the real world.
All it would take was the sacrifice of one girl.
“No.” I whispered. I let go of Queen’s scepter. The Heart gem tumbled away from me and shattered on the deck. I let the Queen’s robes melt away to my normal clothes. And I stepped forward.
“Stay away!” Way cried out.
I couldn’t though. I couldn’t turn away from her. She was burning with the black flames. They weren’t consuming her body but I could see they were destroying her spirit. I remembering vividly how that felt. Though the flames caused her no pain, she was in agony. She never wanted to be a destroyer. She never wanted to hurt anyone.
I took another step and I saw past the flames, saw past her unfocused stare. She had been real before I’d named her. She’d loved her father so much that even after he’d plunged into utter self destruction there’d been something left to pull himself back with.
In his rage and pain he’d lost sight of who he was and who she was. He didn’t know and couldn’t care anymore that the daughter he’d lost had never left him.
She couldn’t leave him, anymore than I could leave my mother.
Looking into her eyes was like looking into a mirror. I saw the same rift in her that I’d torn in myself. I’d denied it, hiding the pain under the idea of hiding myself behind a mask, but that just made the lie easier to swallow. It ate away at me the same as Way’s duty ate away at who she really was.
The same love was there too and the same unreasoning fear of love’s loss.
I took one more step and saw the black fire completely cover Way. Her beautiful eyes were covered over by the swirl of hungry galaxies. Any closer and I would burn.
We couldn’t stay as we were. I couldn’t see how I could change though. Giving up myself seemed so much easier than giving up my Mom’s love. It had seen me through so much. She’d been the rock I’d clung to and she still was.
I looked at Way though and saw the parallels between us. I saw her devotion to her father. I imagined her giving herself up. Imagined her becoming the soulless destroyer, the tool that he desired her to be.
It was wrong. Not just because of what she would be, but because of what she would lose.
She was a girl who loved so strongly that she’d been able to turn back the end of her world. She couldn’t see how amazing that was, couldn’t see that it was her and not her power that was precious beyond measure.
I wasn’t like her. I couldn’t love as deeply as she could. I was just me, but in seeing her I saw how maybe that was worth more than I thought. Way couldn’t see how worthy the girl that she wanted to be was, maybe I was missing the same thing.
I thought of James. He’d seen me covered in black fire like Way was, hurting like Way was, and he’d known what to do.
I stepped forward into the flames around Way knowing they would burn me and wrapped my arms around her pulling her into a tight and caring hug.