There’s a distinctive sound to a collapsing building. Hearing it in stereo from the inside of the building is not an experience I recommend.
I managed to take all of three steps away from the nearest wall that was falling in towards me before I saw that being in two places at once was not helping me. Merging my dream and physical selves together was instantaneous. That saved me from a pitching forward into one of the rents in the floor and impaling myself on jagged edges of the tear.
I was fully in the physical world, so when the wall that I fell against warped and exploded I was hit by purely physical shards of wood that tore into my uncovered arms. I didn’t remember losing my coat but I couldn’t remember having it after I woke up downstairs either. A little fabric and winter lining wasn’t going to save me the next floor up crushing me but it would still have been nice to have.
Throwing myself off the wall, I scrambled to think of someplace, any place, where I could find safety in the next two seconds before everything collapsed. Meta-awareness was faster than thought, giving me the answer so quickly that my feet were pushing me towards the conference room before I understood why I was headed in that direction.
Agent Haffrun had used the room for an interview with someone who could have been a supervillian. It had to be reinforced. Maybe some technomagic warding as well. Even if the entire building collapsed, that room might stay in one piece.
Two seconds might have been enough in the Dreamlit world. I could have flown there which would have cut the travel time down, but that would have meant leaving my physical self behind and nearly motionless. I might be able to survive dying in the Dreamlit world, but I wasn’t eager to see what would happen if I died in the physical world instead.
I was no more than five feet from the door to the conference room when buildings superstructure gave up it’s battle with the inexorable force that was bearing down on it. I felt the floor spasm and shatter into pieces away beneath me. I tried to fight for my balance but there was nothing to balance on.
The fall lasted less than a second but the pain from the landing was another story. Agony in my arms and left leg was all I had after the cacophony of the buildings destruction subsided. I tried to move away from the pain but I couldn’t. Weight was pressing down on me from all sides. Weight and darkness. I couldn’t tell if I was blind or only cut off from all light.
I listened, afraid that the giant might crush the building even further, but I couldn’t hear anything except for the sound of running water. Not even cries for help.
“Pen!” I dream spoke. I had no idea what he’d be able to do, but all I could think of was how badly I needed someone to rescue me. I didn’t want to die, crushed and bleeding, alone like this.
“You survived? Good. Then I will have my answer after all.” the harsh voice of the giant replied.
If my legs had been free I would have kicked myself. Instead I dream shouted again.
“He is ours now.” the giant said. From above me the sound of an enormous mass being shifted away drowned out any other real sound I could have heard.
The rubble above me was cleared enough to let in the lights from the city through a few cracks in the debris. I saw in the dim light that the four walls of the room on the first floor that I landed in were still standing. I was laying awkwardly on a pile of debris with bits of wall and masonry from the second floor covering my arms and legs. The door frame from the conference room was propped up around my head by some debris on either side which gave me a small space above my head and upper torso that wasn’t buried.
The giant was shifting through the rubble that remained on the second floor but it was only a matter of time before he brushed off the junk above me. At that point he would either see me looking like a fish in a barrel, or the rubble would fall in on me and finish the job for him.
I struggled to move again and gave up before I’d twisted more than a millimeter or so. My leg was broken and both arms were punctured. The giant didn’t need to do anything. I was as good as dead as it was.
That’s when I heard moaning from the other side of the wall I was laying against. Someone else was alive! I swung from joy at not being alone to terrified concern. Whoever was on the other side of the wall didn’t sound like they were in any better shape than I was. If the giant was present in the physical world, no one was going to be able to get in and rescue either one of us.
Even if a team of super heroes could show up and drive the giant off, the fight would take long enough that the people trapped inside could die of shock before it finished.
I couldn’t do anything about that. I was useless. In the physical world.
The dreamlit world flooded over me as I projected myself outwards, rising from the rubble on the second floor.
I cast a look back at my body. I could feel it was fading. Separated like this, I felt my body giving in to the pull of sleep. That wasn’t a good response to shock, so I fought to stay awake, pitting the weariness I felt against the pain in my limbs.
The giant loomed over the police station in the Dreamlit world, standing at least a hundred feet tall. He, or it, was made of the same night-sky-colored fire as Way’s scythe blade had been. Where a pair of eyes should have been there where swirling lights, like galaxies dying. Lines through the flames gave the sense that they made a heavy suit of armor adorned with spikes where jets of fire shot out of the giant’s form.
He’d crushed the upper floor of the police station and left most of the first floor intact. I couldn’t tell how much of that was intentional and how much was due to the extra warding on the holding cells of the first floor of the police station in the real world. In either case it left me some hope that there were other survivors in the ruin of the building.
“What do you want?” I yelled at the giant in dream speak. I tried to match the coldness that I’d heard in Pen’s voice but I didn’t come close.
“You damaged a tool of mine. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” the giant replied.
With a jerk he extended his right hand and ropes of black fire shot out towards me. I’d been too slow to escape the building. That was in the physical world. The dreamlit world played by different rules.
I was in the air before the fire had crossed half the distance between us. The flames disintegrated the spot I’d been standing on when they struck. In the physical world, I saw red-orange flames spring up on the destroyed second floor. Shock was no longer the most likely cause of death I’d have to look forward to.
“So you’re saying your tool is broken? I hear a lot of old guys have that problem.” I was scared enough to be angry and rude, and the joke just came to me at the right moment. I’d blame my meta-awareness for it but that bit of insanity was pretty much all me.
“No.” he said, clearly not willing to be taken in by banter. The rest of his response came in the form of more of that death fire or whatever it was.
I shot straight upwards to get away from it. This time the fire didn’t shoot straight through the point I’d been standing. It curved to follow me upwards instead. I pushed myself for greater speed to escape the pursuing flames and left an explosion of sparks behind.
Wings of flame unfurled from the giant back and he rose into the air to follow me with the force of a Saturn rocket leaving the launch pad.
The survivors in the building would stay safe from him for as long as I could keep him busy so I turned and fled like I had from Way, looking for any cloud cover I could use to hide my escape (because that worked so very well the first time).
What I found was a wall of force.
I hadn’t been able to see before hitting it but afterwards it was brilliantly visible, lit by the glow from a circle on the ground inscribed with mystic symbols. The circle was huge with walls that reached upwards as far my eyes could see. Another circle lay beyond it, invisible to everything except my meta-awareness. He’d created a trap to take no chances with, it circled not only the police station but everything within a half mile of it as well.
Running away horizontally wasn’t an option so I took the only direction that was. Straight up.
The stars above me burned dazzling bright in the Dreamlit world. They weren’t the same stars from the physical world, but they inspired the same sense of awe. In both planes of existence whole other worlds lay beyond the dark of the sky, here though I felt like I could reach them if I really tried.
That’s when the sheet of black flames blazed to life above me. They cut off the light of stars and forced me to check my flight speed.
“No escape.” the giant’s voice called out behind me.
My meta-awareness told me that the flames weren’t there, but I knew I couldn’t trust it in this case. It couldn’t see the giant either, at least not distinctly. There was a general sense of “wrongness” though, similar to what I’d felt from Way’s beast.
I spun away from the giant’s path of ascent, looking for a building I could hide behind. If I couldn’t get him completely away from the police station, I could at least keep him distracted to buy time for the survivors to be dug out.
The area around the police station wasn’t as deserted as the old manufacturing center in the South End though so nothing jumped out at me as a safe spot for cover. I could probably lose the giant by flying among the tenement buildings around the police station but there was nothing to say he wouldn’t knock those down too looking for me.
I considered trying to bluff him, but given how quickly he’d seen through Pen’s attempt at that I couldn’t picture anything I could come up with that would yield any better results.
I had to looped upwards and twist painfully to get out of the way of his next blast. I managed to avoid getting burned, or disintegrated but I knew it was just a matter of time. I had to dodge every attack he threw at me. He only need to hit once.
I thought of avoiding Way’s attacks, and then of Way herself. Was she the “tool”, the giant was speaking of? Had my naming her “broken” her somehow?
Both of those seemed likely. There was clearly some relationship between Way and the Giant. That both of them used the same sort of fire and assaulted me without provocation was too unlikely to be a coincidence.
Pen had been trying to keep information from me, but if there was a standing “burn you to ash” welcome wagon for new dream travelers I’m pretty certain he would have mentioned it.
The commonalities between the giant and Way hit a snag in my mind as I dodged more black fire by a smaller margin than ever.
The giant was using anti-fire or whatever black fire should be called. Way had used that on her scythe but when she was blasting at me her beams had been brilliant gold. I doubted that was a personal affectation, but I had no idea yet what it could mean.
“What I need is some super lasers of my own.” I mumbled to myself. If it was possible to wish things like that into existence in the Dreamlit world though I clearly didn’t know how yet.
The next blast of fire came in so fast and was twisting so wildly that I had to risk cutting past the top floor of an apartment building to escape it. The flames exploded on the side of the apartment, dissolving the wall away as they consumed everything, including themselves.
In the physical world, my awareness told me the wall shattered inwards covering an infant’s room with broken glass and sheetrock. The family was out at the movies. The infant was with her grandmother. I had gotten very lucky.
I soared higher, giving the giant a clearer shot at me, but avoiding the chance that a missed shot would damage any of the buildings inside the mystic circle.
“Tell me why you’re doing this!” I demanded. I was still afraid, but anger was holding that at bay.
“You have no idea who I am.” I said, my voice doing a better impression of Pen’s absolute zero tone. It was true too. He hadn’t said my name. In fact he’d claimed he hadn’t known how I’d named Way.
“You have no idea what I’m capable of.” I stopped flying and stared him down. That was true too, though it was more accurate to say neither of us knew what I was capable of. Even Pen had seemed surprised by some of it.
“That doesn’t matter.”
“You’re wrong. Give me back Pen and leave here. We didn’t ask for any of this.” I cast my meta-awareness outwards. I had power, almost certainly more than I knew of yet. All I needed was to find something useful in it. Someway to smite this jerk.
My awareness touched on the police station. My physical self had fallen asleep for a few minutes while I was dodging the flame blasts in the Dreamlit world. I roused myself as best as I could and opened my eyes. Flames had covered the top of the police station and were starting to work their way down the walls of the room I was in. I didn’t have much time one way or the other. Nor did the rest of the survivors.
Outside the circle rescue teams were mobilizing. My awareness lit on one of the fire crews. They would arrive well after my room was engulfed in flame.
I cursed. If the giant wasn’t here I could help save people. With my awareness I’d be able to direct the rescuers right where to go to get everyone who was still alive out.
There wasn’t any way I’d be able to get past him though and no way, I guessed, that he’d relent on his assault.
“You don’t matter.” he said.
“If that were true, then why would you go to all this trouble?” I asked, gesturing to the circle of power that surrounded us.
His answer was a column of black flame that struck down on me from above.
I couldn’t dodge it, not by flying.
I tried to shift my dream self over to the physical world and escape the flames by avoiding their reality entirely. That didn’t work quite as planned.
The pain of the flames was intense but brief. One instant I was floating in sky of the dreamlit world and the next I felt blinding, soul-severing agony. I shoved myself away from the sensation as hard as I could and felt my world turn inside out. On the plus side, the pain vanished as quickly as it had struck.
I blinked and found myself in a cell made of dripping red thorns and dark brambles. There was light in the cell from a gnarled torch that burned with cold purple glow. The cell was spacious, probably as large as one of my classroom, though most of it was lost in shadows.
I looked down at my arms and body, surprised that I still had them after the flame hit me.
My skin was blue and my hands ended in fingers shaped like crochet hooks. My name was Jenny Nine Stitches and I was a Spinner for the Free Fairies of the Lost Oaks.
I shook my head. I was Jin Smith still, but I remembered. I’d dreamed about being Jenny Nine Stitches several times after I’d gotten a book of Fairytales from my Mom.
Somehow she was real. Like Molly.
She was real, she was me and we were captured.
By the Shadow Court.
My meta-awareness hadn’t gone away. I was still Jin after all.
They’d been waiting. I was the least of their worries, but I was at the center of an event that was destroying the foundation of who they were. They couldn’t let go of me regardless of how much they might want to.
The second circle had been theirs. They’d laid a trap around the trap.
Not for me though. Meta-awareness was pulling in details for me as fast as it could.
They’d been trying to trap the nameless giant. To save themselves from it. Because they’d already caught something bearing the giant’s power.
My meta-awareness found one more important piece of information. I wasn’t alone in the cell.
“Why did you do this to me.” Way asked, her eyes focused solely on mine.