The Hollow Half – Chapter 5

I was flying!

I can’t explain how that first moment felt. Elation doesn’t begin to cover it. As much as everything else that night had felt wrong, this felt right. Like I was born for this. Soaring upwards, it didn’t seem like I gained a superpower but rather remembered an ability as natural as walking or breathing.

My meta-awareness didn’t disagree either. Gliding free of gravity’s chains was what the moment had demanded. Only I was doing more than gliding. I was shooting into the sky like a rocket and it was effortless.

From far below, I saw a burst of golden light from the top of the tiny anthill that was the building I’d been on. I wasn’t the only one who could fly. The blonde girl came after me leaving a trail of brilliant light in her wake.

I wasn’t sure how high I could go, so I leveled out my flight and began fleeing towards a cloud bank that was a few miles to the south. I’d been hoping to lose her in the reduced visibility but up close the cloud was a lot more diffuse than it had appeared from a distance. If she’d been far enough away from me the cloud might have worked as cover but she was faster than I was. She’d closed the distance to where I could see her clearly, outlined in a nimbus of gold, and she was gaining on me.

I dove deeper into the cloud, hoping to hit a patch that would obscure me enough to get away with a quick change of course. It didn’t help that I was leaving a trail of multi-chromatic sparks in my wake though. I’m sure from the ground the effect was beautiful. A stream of sparkles painting a kaleidoscopic swath across the sky.

A part of me marveled at how pretty the effect was. The rest would have been delighted with something uglier and much stealthier.

Fortunately my pursuer was even more visible than I was. The golden glow around her was like a miniature sun to my shooting star. I’d put something like a half mile of distance between us with my initial escape but she’d narrowed the lead down to the length of a football field.

I pushed for more speed and the shower of sparks coming off me intensified. I wasn’t leaving a trail of scattered flecks anymore. Instead a tail of fire, silver, blue, and pink stretched back like a comet. It was hard to tell, but it felt like I’d matched her speed.

She plowed through the tail I was leaving and I began to sense something. It wasn’t an out of body experience, but I felt like I was flying along beside her.

The sparks from my comet tail rolled over her and, as she absorbed their light, my meta-awareness finally found her. It felt like I was sensing where she was by looking at her shadow.

She wasn’t a shadow though. She was an emptiness. That was the best description I could find for her but the word didn’t begin to capture what I was perceiving.

Pen had spoken of being more alien than I could imagine, my meta-awareness was showing me what that really meant. There was something within her, something fundamental to what she was, that was not, could not, be part of anything real. It was corrosive to the very concept of reality. To the concept of being.

She was an impossibility. The antithesis of form, crafted into the shape of a girl? That bothered me. It didn’t fit. My meta-awareness was telling me that she wasn’t a “someone”, or even a “something”. So why did she appear to be a girl?

A girl and her beast. Why would either of them be here? How could “unbeing” have an incarnation? Wouldn’t that be the opposite of “unbeing”?

I couldn’t find any answers to those questions, and I wasn’t managing to outrun her either. The clouds had gotten thicker at last but with the comet tail behind me there was no way she was going to lose my trail. Not unless I stumbled on a miracle.

Instead of a miracle I got lightning. Because that’s the kind of luck having super powers leads to.

The clouds crackled with power and flashed jagged teeth of eye searing light as we plowed through them. My sparks looked like they were seeding the clouds because the intensity of the storm behind me was worse than what lay ahead. If this was another power though it was definitely not a safe one.

It was pure luck, as far as I could tell, that spared me from a thunderbolt hit. My pursuer wasn’t as lucky in avoiding the lightning, but her golden aura shattered the bolts into brilliant flares without faltering in the slightest. I could sense that she wasn’t slowed by them either.

Above us, hidden by the clouds, there was something large taking shape.

I began to wonder if I was capable of surviving in space and just how far the girl would be willing to pursue me when a  less suicidal idea occurred to me.

I waited for the next bolt to hit the girl’s shield and provide a distraction. Then I simply stopped flying. An instant later I was falling like a stone.

I expected it to be terrifying. Instead the wild joy of flight was replaced by a calm serenity as I snuggled into gravity’s embrace once more. It probably helped that I was high enough up that it took a little bit to clear the clouds. Intellectually I knew I was falling at roughly thirty two feet per second per second, but within the cloud it felt like I was a piece of gossamer slowly drifting in the wind. It would have been wonderfully peaceful if I wasn’t still fleeing for my life.

The sense of some third presence arriving on the scene remained, and was intensifying, but the sense I had of the girl faded rapidly as the comet tail I’d left behind thinned out. Without the light of the sparks playing over her, I was blind to where she was.

Losing the comet tail was the key to my plan though. That plus the dark of the night and the storm that was raging? However good the girl was, I was hoping those would be enough to make her lose track of me.

I cleared the clouds and saw that the ground was getting closer when it occurred to me that I’d started flying reflexively. Meaning I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to “turn it back on”. Looking at the city below me, that was going to be a problem. I was over a manufacturing area. Lots of smokestacks. Unless one of those buildings was a mattress factory, made out of mattresses, I wasn’t going to have a particularly soft landing.

As it turned out though, that wasn’t my biggest problem. The girl? Yeah, she wasn’t “that good” at tracking me. She was better. The clouds blew apart with a gigantic bolt of lightning revealing the golden glow that surrounded her as she flew straight at me like a hawk.

For however good she was at tracking me, she hadn’t caught me yet though, and I didn’t get the sense that she was toying with me either. This wasn’t a game of cat and mouse. She wasn’t prolonging the chase to enjoy my suffering or anything like that. It felt like she was holding back for some other reason.

That might have been wishful thinking, or a more mundane form of intuition, but I had the sense that if she had been going all out she would have caught me before I left the police station, and certainly before I learned how to fly.

Her beast for example. It had jumped up and wrecked the stairs leading to the roof. That was five floors up. Yet it’s first few leaps had only been high enough to dismantle the fire escape below me. I hadn’t considered that at the time but the idea bothered me as I fell.

Had it been trying to herd me somewhere? Either that wasn’t the case or it had failed spectacularly when I’d taken flight. So if it wasn’t herding me, why had it been chasing me? For that matter, why had it chased me at all?

The girl had said she had to kill me because of what she was. I’d managed to outpace her beast through a combination of luck and the sheer destruction it wrought slowing it down. She’d beaten me to the top of the building in the blink of an eye though. Why bother sending the beast to chase me at all if she could catch me that easily? For that matter, with how fast she was, how had she missed me with her scythe?

Those questions were interrupted by a brightening of the golden glow a moment before it lanced out at me.

If I’d been falling helplessly I couldn’t possibly have avoided it. Flying, as it turned out, proved to be quite a natural thing for me though. I needed to move and so I did, shooting downwards at a new angle and dodging the blast before it reached me.

The blast tracked along through the sky behind me and set fire to the buildings below where it didn’t simply blow them to flinders.

They were empty. Most were abandoned to begin with. And it was night. So people would be home. Not burning to death or blown to pieces along with the buildings. I hoped.

I saw the golden aura charging up again and ramped up my speed. That was a very short term solution though. She might be holding back. She might not want to kill me. Those were “maybes”.

In the “definitely” column, I definitely couldn’t dodge forever and I definitely wasn’t tougher than a building. Worse, if I kept flying we’d be over a residential area before too long and that would definitely be bad for anyone caught below.

I needed something to hide behind. Something big and tough enough to keep me safe. Mt. Everest would have provided as much shelter as I was looking for but since it hadn’t conveniently migrated to town, I wasn’t sure what other options I had. That’s when the sense of something large approaching was replaced with the sense of something large having arrived.

A huge sailing ship burst from the clouds above, air braking with it’s sails unfurled. Fire in a dozen shades of pale and brilliant green outlined the edges of the ship like neon stripping. From the decks the more common sort of orange red fire was visible and smoke was billowing from blasted areas in the ship’s hull.

It didn’t look like the sturdiest bucket of wood and iron and canvas to sail the Sea of Stars, but I knew she had it where it counted.

A shock passed through me. How did I know that? I knew because I was remembering the dream I’d had before waking. This was the ship I’d been on!

I changed course to put the ship between myself and the next golden blast, hoping I could make it in time. The ship’s descent was slowing as the crew frantically fought the fires and adjusted the sails. That left me with farther to go to reach the safety of it’s far side and I’d just managed to get there when the ship’s intricate shields of light and force flared around it.

They’d unintentionally intercepted the golden bolt the girl had thrown and I heard the crew reacting to the attack with surprise and alarm. They were speaking a flowing slippery language I’d never heard before, but that I could understand perfectly.

“<Where in the Seven Slipstreams are we? And why is someone still shooting my ship full of holes!?>” Captain Rumbeard demanded. I knew him from the year of service I’d put in under the black pirate flag of the Star Runner. He’d taken me in when I’d been set adrift on a steam coracle for being a witch, abandoned by Her Majesty’s Finest for the crime of their own superstition and ignorance. We’d sailed the skyways and plundered the finest ships. His crew had believed I was a witch too, but they hadn’t been afraid of that. They had taken me as a good luck charm.

I knew all of that the moment I heard his voice. I’d even experienced some it, inasmuch as a dream can be an experience. The rest though? The year of service as a pirate? My time before that in the Royal Sky Navy? Those were things I “knew” I’d done even though none of it was real. It was as though for a moment I was another person and her whole life was a real as mine.

I almost wasn’t even conscious of gliding down onto the deck and calling out to the crew.

“<That’d be my fault Captain!>” the words came out in the same language the crew was babbling as naturally as if it had been my native tongue.

“<Molly? Is that you girl?>”, Rumbeard bellowed, “<Thought you were blown to the devil’s deeps.>”

He regarded me with as much wonder and fascination as I felt for him. I knew he was asking himself the same thing I was: “Can this person be real?”

“<Not yet Captain. Devil’s not quick enough to catch me!>” I spoke the words, but it was my other life, Molly’s life, that was running the show.

As punctuation, or perhaps a counter-argument, more golden blasts slammed into the ship and its shield flared and dimmed dangerously. On the upper deck a crewman was thrown out of his seat when his station erupted in a blaze of magical fire.

“<Where’ve ya brought us lass? Ain’t never seen skies like these nor a shore like the one below.>” Rumbeard asked. I had no idea how to answer that question, and fortunately didn’t have to try before a distraction appeared.

“<Captain, we can’t many take more shots like those. Permission to return fire?>”, MacReady, the ship’s Chief Electromancer, asked.

“<Granted. Unlock all cannons and fire smartly! Run up the rotors and raise personal shields!”

As the crew scrambled to bring the ship to a full battle posture, attention turned away from me. Part of me, Molly I guess, wanted to climb to the highest crow’s nest and start calling out firing vectors as was my role during a fight. Her role during a fight.

I pushed “Molly’s” thoughts back. I wasn’t a sky pirate. I wasn’t even a superhero. The burning buildings below me showed what I had to look forward to if I started losing perspective.

Another golden blast slammed into the outer shields and they collapsed completely. As Molly, I knew they’d take about a minute to regenerate. Until then we only had the ship’s internal shields and our personal shields to rely on. Or rather the rest of the crew had personal shields to rely on. I was fresh out of magitech gadgets.

Molly knew where the spares were stored below decks so I followed her instincts and dove down one of the open hatches. The thunder of the Electrocannons discharging nearly flattened me as the first volley flew.

While their target was invisible to my meta-awareness, I could sense the crews reaction to the shots. No one seemed happy or comforted and all of the casters were scrambling to recharge the ThunderCaps for another volley.

The girl must have evaded the first wave I reasoned. The crew’s reaction to something that could shrug off cannon fire was not to continue firing blindly. They were many things but stupid was not one of them.

I grabbed a shield pin from the armory and hurtled back topside in time to witness the next round of electrocannon fire. Having missed with a blanket attack, the Star Runner’s crew had adopted a strategy of continuous firing, each cannon blast hemming the distant golden target in so that the next one missed by less and less.

It looked like that strategy was going to work if they could keep up the bombardment long enough, but watching the swiftly darting gold aura in the distance I saw we didn’t have anywhere near long enough.

The electrobolts that missed the girl were being captured in circular bands of force she was casting as she flew. I didn’t need my meta-awareness to guess what was going to happen next.

“Incoming Fire! Max Shields!” I shouted above the din a moment before the dozen circles of force the girl had constructed released their stored electrobolts back at us. I was blown off the deck by the shockwave that rocked the ship. The crew, having had their shields engaged, fared better until a wave of golden blasts shot through the ship’s hull and set the sails ablaze.

I watched, floating in mid-air, as the Star Runner pitched nose down and began spiraling towards the city below. As “Molly” I wanted to scream, but as Jin all I could think was that I couldn’t possibly fight this girl. On the other hand if I didn’t do something she was going to annihilate the Star Runner, her crew and maybe move on to the rest of Brassport from there until she got me.

I launched myself skyward. If she wanted me, then I could at least lead her away from anyone else. I’d been able to dodge her before, I thought, maybe if I could keep it up I could buy enough time for someone who knew what they were doing would to show up.

The Star Runner took a few more blasts before the girl noticed me fleeing and flew off after me. I could sense that the ship was in terrible shape. The crew was mostly ok though and were fighting to get control of it. They weren’t going to succeed. It was going to crash into, of all things, a mattress factory. Thanks to their efforts the crash would leave the ship largely intact. My awareness didn’t extend much beyond that except to tell me that the ship would be repairable and that the crew was likely to go to ground while they looked for the parts to get it flightworthy again.

I had more immediate concerns however. I’d put enough distance between us that the girl hadn’t resumed her barrage of golden bolts yet. That wasn’t likely to remain the case for long though.

“What do you want!?” I yelled back to her, in “dream speech” as Pen had called it.

“I don’t.” came the answer. Or non-answer.

“Who are you?” I tried.

“I’m not.” she replied. The words conveyed no meaning, they “sounded” (for lack of a better way to describe it) flat, but they felt like a dam holding back a vast longing.

“C’mon!”, I screamed in frustration, “You are Way Too Powerful! You don’t need to be all cryptic. I can’t hurt you! Just talk to me! Tell me why you’re doing this! There’s people who can…”

I was going to say “help you” but my voice and even my thoughts trailed off in surprise.

I could sense her. She was there. Filling my awareness.

Way. Her name was “Way”. I’d named her?

I saw her struggling in the air, no longer moving forward. She was holding her left hand to her head, like her skull was threatening to burst. My awareness of her was much spottier than it had been with the pirates, but I could tell this was no headache she was fighting against. Again, I found myself starting to move towards her and again it was a bad idea.

The crimson light that flared from within her confirmed that. A moment later a countless array of golden blasts filled the sky. I turned to flee, knowing that any one of those bolts could burn me to ash.

I was too late and too slow and too distracted. I’d barely turned around when the first bolt caught me. The personal shield I’d grabbed from the Star Runner held it off, but the next two bolts that caught me overloaded it instantly.

I tried to scream. This wasn’t supposed to be my life. I wasn’t anyone special. I wasn’t supposed to have to deal with anything like this. I wasn’t supposed to die this way.

And then, after I burned, after the blackness took me, I woke up.

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