I’ve read that fire is one of the most painful ways to die. Every nerve screams and keeps screaming as you burn. As I wrapped my arms around Way and pulled her close I expected to be hit with an agony on par with grasping the Shadow Court’s empowered Heart gem. Instead I felt only her.
The black fires around her pulled back away from me and quietly sputtered out. Way wouldn’t let them touch me. I felt it when she shattered the compulsion the Oblivion Knight had laid on her. He’d never truly possessed the power to dictate what she did. At least not when she chose to believe in the “Way” she wanted to be. Believing in the Way that she saw herself as was the hardest thing in the world though.
Wordlessly she threw her arms around me and collapsed into quiet sobs.
The Star Runner began drifting forward but we stood still, alone at the far front of ship.
“It’ll be ok.” I told her.
“I don’t know what I am.” she said over my shoulder.
“Me either.” I said.
“I don’t know where to go.”
I broke the embrace and put my hands on her shoulders. All the confusion, all the conflict in her, it was all so painfully familiar.
“Maybe we can find out together?” I dream spoke to her, sharing my feelings with her as much as my words.
“Yeah, I thought since we’ve changed a lot in the last day, that we’re both kind of just starting out. So, if you’d want to, you could stay with here and we could figure things out as we go.”
“I’d like that.” Way dream spoke back to me. A small, hopeful smile grew on her lips and touched the corners of her eyes.
“Is it safe up here now?” Minnie asked from the top of the stairs that lead up to the Star Runner’s forecastle.
I turned to face her.
“Yeah. We’re ok.” I said.
“Good, cause it looks like the ship’s not. The Captain just ran downstairs and it didn’t sound like he was happy.”
“What did he say?”
“I’m pretty sure it was one long string of swears, but he might have been making some of them up.”
“That could mean anything from his breakfast is late to the ship’s about to explode. Let’s go see.”
“With the day we’ve been having I’ll tell the others to prep for an exploding ship.” Minnie said.
Way and I dropped down into the hold to find the Captain laughing great big belly laughs.
“Um, sir, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing much lass. Just a slight case of unstable levitation spheres.”
That wasn’t good news. The levitation spheres were the heart of the Star Runner’s engines. Instability tended to be followed by the kind of pyrotechnics that you could only enjoy if the ship in question was an enemy vessel.
“How unstable?” I asked.
“Well we can’t engage the primary or secondary shields.”
“If we can beat the Oblivion Courtiers to Olympus we may not need them.” I suggested.
“And we can’t disengage the forward impellers.” he added. Which meant that we couldn’t stop or even slow down.
“That could cause some problems.” I admitted.
“Oh but you haven’t heard the best part, tell her MacReady.” Rumbeard said.
“The cannons, they’re overloading and if we shut them down they’ll explode.” the Chief Electromancer said with a pained look on his face.
“So we’re flying towards a divine dominion, firing all guns and accelerating to an uncontrollable ramming speed?” I asked.
“And the best part? We’re flying our conquest flags and there’s too much lightning on the topsail to take them down!” Rumbeard’s smile was both insane and slightly infectious.
“I can help.” Way offered.
“And who would you be lass? And where do you keep finding new crewmates Molly?” Rumbeard asked.
“She found us Captain. She’s the one who stopped the ship.”
Rumbeard cast a disbelieving eye at her.
“She’s stronger than she looks. A lot stronger.” I told him.
“That’ll take care of our problem with crashing but I expect we’ll get a poor welcome with our guns blazing away as they are.”
“Leave those to me!” I told him.
“No offense Molly, but the cannons are a mite delicate at the moment. Any fooling with them might set one off and if one goes they’re all going to blow.” MacReady explained.
“That’s why I’m going to have you fix them.” I said.
“Can’t be done. Not without draining all of them in a good ship dock.” he said.
“Hold that thought.” I told him and turned to Way, “Might as well get the ship under control, if you need a hand just call for me ok?”
“Be careful.” she said, holding my arm for emphasis.
“I will.” I promised before she turned and flew back above decks. A moment later I felt the ship slowing gradually to a steady speed.
“Ok Chief, take my hand. I’ll show you the workshop I have in mind for the Electrocannons.” I told him.
MacReady glanced to Captain Rumbeard, who nodded in agreement.
The Lightning Road was a “real” plane, but it wasn’t physical in the sense the world I came from was. That made it easier to step across the Dreamlit barrier with MacReady. I could have merged the two realms but with the levitation spheres being unstable I wasn’t entirely sure what affects that might have. If we blew up a cannon in the Dreamlit world the ship could get by without it. If we blew up the levitation spheres our ship would be less a sky galleon and more a big wooden block plummeting out of the celestial realms to land the gods wouldn’t even know where.
MacReady noticed the change immediately.
“What in the Tempest’s Belly have you done there Molly?” he asked.
“Brought you to my ‘workshop’. You know the Electrocannons better than anyone else on the ship. You can picture the spells that make them work in your head right?”
“Sure enough, but how does that help here.”
I lead him over to Dreamlit reflection of one of the cannons.
“Try imagining how this one should look, inside and out, materials and spell-paths.” I told him.
He frowned at me but then gave it a try. The change in the Dreamlit reflection of the cannon was immediate. Even I could tell that it was in much better shape. I brought us and the refurbished cannon back to the real world of the Lightning Road. It took effort but after a minute or so when we’d pushed back through the barrier, the Star Runner had a fully repaired cannon.
“Why do I remember that the cannon we just fixed never failed?” MacReady asked, confused by the bifurcation of history.
“It’s part of the magic. If we do this right, none of the cannons will have ever failed.” I told him.
“Always said having a witch on board was good luck!”, MacReady nodded and gave me his hand again.
I pulled us over to the Dreamlit world again.
“Let’s take care of all the rest this time. Instead of imagining them in perfect working order though, try imagining them as broken down with the easiest thing to repair that seems plausible after a levitation sphere failure like we’ve got.”
“Why do that?” MacReady asked.
“If we try to fix everything I don’t know how history will have to adjust to accomodate that. Small changes, especially plausible ones reduce the risk that we step back to find that the Star Runner’s exploded and we’re surrounded by perfectly working cannons as we fall to our dooms.”
“Broken cannons it is then!” he agreed.
It was a little harder bringing changes for all of the cannons back over to the real world, but not by much. The effort left me winded but pleased. The ship was in much better shape, though with only one working cannon to defend it.
It was almost simultaneous with noticing that things were in better shape that I also noticed that our speed was rapidly increasing.
“What’s happening? Are you ok?” I dream spoke to Way.
“The Oblivion Courtiers have found us. They’re trying to get ahead of us.” Way dream spoke back.
“I’ll be right there.”
“Get the cannons fixed up – trouble’s calling already.” I told MacReady.
Knowing how fast the Shadow Courtiers were, I didn’t expect I had any time to lose with the Oblivion Court so I flew up onto the Star Runner’s deck.
“They’re coming.” Adella warned as I appeared above decks.
“We need to stop them.” I replied
“Nell, you’re with me. Minnie, stay and guard Patches and Jin.” Jessica said. She morphed back to her abyssal form as she turned and headed to the stern of the ship.
Her plan made sense, except for one bit. I didn’t need a guard.
“If any of the Courtier’s land…” I started to say but Patches cut me off.
“They shall be dealt with my Queen.”
“They’re fast, faster than the Shadow Court was maybe.” I warned him.
“Between us that will not be a concern.” he replied, hefting a cutlass and a flame blaster.
“I need to get the shields back on line.” I said.
“Go. We’ll keep the crew safe.” Minnie said.
“Thanks.” I said. I believed her, even knowing the odds they faced, I believed her.
I headed back to MacReady and cast a dream thought to Way.
“Can you pull the ship any faster?” I asked.
“Not without damaging it.” she dream spoke back. The prospect of fighting the Oblivion Courtiers didn’t bother her. Even before she’d shattered her father’s geas, she hadn’t liked them.
“If you can buy us any time that might help a lot.” I told her, sharing as well the idea I had of repairing the shields to hold off the Courtiers.
“It’s dangerous but you should make the shields stronger than this reality allows. The Courtiers won’t be held back by the normal defenses.” Way advised me.
I thought back to our first encounter and the role the Star Runner had played. It’s shields had been useful not sufficient and she’d been holding back as much as she could.
“Thanks, I’ll do what I can.” I told her.
I found MacReady directing his minions on the repairs of the Electrocannons.
“We need to get the shields back on line.” I said as I flew up to stop beside him.
“Tell me something I don’t know you witchy lass.”
“Can your team get the cannons up and running?”
“That worthless bunch of slackers? Aye, they’ll have the guns up and singing pretty in a couple minutes or there’ll be the lash for the lot of them!” MacReady bellowed. I’d never heard of him actually lashing one of his team, but he loved to say that he would.
“Good let’s get to work on the shields then.”
“I got it handled lass.” he said. It was deeply weird watching him pull himself across the barrier to the Dreamlit world. I sensed it as much with meta-awareness as anything else.
“What? But how?” I sputtered as I stepped over to join him.
“Once you showed me the trick of it, it all just sort of made sense.” he shrugged.
I could make other dreamwalkers. That was probably a bad thing but in the grand scale of bad things I had to deal with it ranked right around noticing I had an overdue library book.
“Be careful with it. Like I said, it’s hard to predict exactly what will turn out to be real. Oh, and you need to make the shields strong. Try about a hundred times their actual capacity. The things after us are that powerful at least. I’ll head back up to buy you some more time to manage that. ”
“I’ll be glad to have it.” MacReady said, looking undismayed.
Captain Rumbeard on the other hand looked downright grumpy when I found him on the decks. He and a dozen crew members were gathered around Jessica and Nell in an impromptu firing team. With the cannons offline still the crew was making due with acid firing dragon rifles.
Between Jessica, Nell and the rifles, half mile long tongues of fire, lightning and acid leapt out at the Oblivion Courtiers that were gaining on the ship. Despite the impressive reach of the attacks though, the Courtiers were able to avoid taking any hits. They were simply too fast to be tagged that way.
I considered trying to haul them over to the Dreamlit world. I’d have a lot more options for dealing with them there, but even if I left the ship that plan wouldn’t work out too well. The Shadow Courtiers had been real. They couldn’t dream walk. The Oblivion Courtiers definitely could by virtue of the fact that they were in one of the real worlds at all. Even if I could manage to drag them across the Dreamlit world’s barrier they’d simply step back over again, possibly damaging the barrier in the process.
I couldn’t use dream walking directly against them, but it occurred to me that I could still cheat a little bit.
“This will help you target them better I said.” as I touched Jessica, Nell and each gunner and twisted a little bit of the Dreamlit world into view in front of them. In the small Dreamlit window in front of them I placed targeting reticles that showed where their shots would land and the Courtiers likely positions when the shot reached them.
The next round of blasts proved startlingly more accurate but even with that the Oblivion Courtiers managed to avoid them. What we needed was a way to stick them in place, or at least slow them down some. For some reason the myth of Arachne came to mind followed by a really horrible idea. Meta-awareness showed me it would work though and I was in the mood for being horrible to the Courtiers.
“Buy me ten seconds!” I asked Jessica and Nell before stepping around the Dreamlit barrier again.
My horrible idea was a simple one. I wasn’t actually Jin at the moment. I was my Dreamlit self. In theory that meant I could be whoever, or even whatever I wanted to be. Closing my eyes I put together the image of a real monster. Eight limbs to deal with several Courtiers at once, a hundred eyes to track them no matter where they went, reflexes and speed that they couldn’t beat and webs, lots and lots of web shooters.
Real spiders produce their silk from their abdomen. That was exactly the kind of gross I wasn’t interested in recreating, so I gave each of my monster’s limbs web spinners and added two more on each side her mouth. I gave her a carapace that was light but sturdy. Heavy armor would have warded off blows better, but avoiding the black oblivion fire was far better than trying to resist it. Lastly I gave her a cute pink bow on top of her head. Because I wanted the Oblivion Courtiers to be beaten by a scary spider monster with a cute pink bow. It just seemed right somehow.
With the image of her firmly in my mind, I became my spider monster. Glory of the Hidden Corners. Her history began to unfold as I dreamed her into partial reality. She’d eaten a radioactive mosquito that was full of human blood and had gained the proportionate intelligence and size of a human. Apparently she could also fly, thanks to the mosquito, even though I hadn’t planned on her having wings too. That was a little weird, but then I was a giant radioactive spider monster so, relatively speaking, not all that surprising.
As I settled into her form my thoughts took on a very alien cast. Hunter-thoughts. I was still smart but much more focused. Also less squeamish.
I stepped back into the real world. The nearest crewman screamed. He wasn’t prey. My prey was those aggravating black fire bugs that had closed most of the distance to the ship.
“Shoot after I do.” I told Jin’s friends and Molly’s crewmates. I raised my four front limbs and blasted out six streams of webbing at the two nearest Courtiers.
The webbing splattered on them and started to burn but not so quickly that their flight wasn’t impeded. Fire and lightning caught them and blasted both of their bodies into fading sparks. They would reform. Not in time to stop us. It still bothered me though. Prey should stay dead when you kill it.
I webbed three more but two managed to slip past.
“Way! They’re getting on board!” I dream spoke.
“We’ll have to fight them.” she answered.
“Right. Oh and I’ve changed, don’t squish me ok?”
I felt her smile back at me in her dream speech.
“I will always know you.” she assured me.
We didn’t have time for further chatting. Of the two dozen Courtiers that pursued us over half had caught up already.
I looked at Captain Rumbeard and the crew. Any misgivings they had were gone. A spider monster wasn’t a big deal to them if it was on their side. Molly had the best crew. Jessica and Nell didn’t care either. Jin had awesome friends.
We fought. I webbed. They shot. A half dozen Courtiers went down.
On the deck Adella, Patches and Minnie fought. Patches and Minnie weren’t as fast as the Courtier. Adella was. She trapped them. Patches and Minnie finished them.
They weren’t fast enough. Jessica, Nell and I weren’t fast enough. The Courtiers began to swarm the decks. Then the ship slowed down. Then Way showed up.
She still had to hold back. The Oblivion Courtiers didn’t. That didn’t save them. Way wasn’t using the black fire. She couldn’t anymore. She didn’t need it though.
Golden light speared through the Courtiers, blasting two of them apart instantly. It was enough to turn the tide. One by one we started driving the Courtiers off the ship. Until the levitation spheres exploded.
It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t MacReady’s fault. It was the hundred Oblivion Courtiers that were ahead of us. The one’s that had been sent to chase James down after I escaped from my room. I couldn’t sense them, but I could sense Way. I could sense her recognition of them and puzzle out what it meant.
We were cut off from Olympus and we were falling fast. The Star Runner was dead.