Even in chains, Way looked as beautiful as ever.
“I’m not who you think I am.” I told her. It seemed like a fair guess that she’d mistaken me for someone else. The last time she’d seen me, I hadn’t been a squat, blue skinned goblin with crochet hook fingers.
“I know exactly who you are. Namer.” Way replied. She did not sound pleased to see me.
“You recognize me? Like this?” I asked, amazed. Jenny Nine Stitches body wasn’t an illusion. I really was her, at least according to my meta-sense. There shouldn’t have been any details or clues that would connect the two of us.
“I will always know who you are.”, she said.
Way glared at me silently. She wasn’t in the mood for playing twenty questions it looked like. That seemed fair since I hadn’t answered hers.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened before.” I told her.
“Why did you speak to me. Why didn’t you keep running?”
“I didn’t want to fight you.”
“Why would I?”
“Do you know what I am?”
“No.” I admitted, my awareness caught something in her question though and I added “Do you?”
Again, she only glared at me in response.
She was angry, but it was the sort of anger that came from fear. Her fear of me was a tiny thing compared to whatever fear actually drove her. I was here though which made me an easy target.
Was it good that she was chained, I wondered? Would she be trying to blast me to pieces with her golden bolts or chop me up with her scythe if she was free?
“Why did you want me to run?” I asked, trying to confirm what my intuition had told me during our aerial race.
Silence, but this time she looked away. Meta-awareness told me I was right. She had been holding back. She’d been trying to spare me and she’d suffered for it. I couldn’t tell how exactly, but she lost something when she’d gained a name.
I blinked in belated surprise. I could sense her! I remembered the end of the chase, just before she’d exploded with power, I’d been able to sense her then too but after I burned up I’d lost her. Naming her, even as unintentionally as I had, had given her more than a name. She had a presence, a reality, that she lacked before.
“What happened to you?” I breathed, quietly stunned at the enormity of change that such a simple action had precipitated.
“You named me.” she replied, as though that explained everything.
“How? By saying you’re way too powerful? It can’t be that easy or someone would have named you ages ago.” I protested.
“People don’t speak to me.” she said. Her voice was flat, but the anger was still there and this time I got a glimpse of what was behind it.
Kids are afraid of the dark because they know Death lurks in it. Way was what Death was afraid of. In that one instant, I glimpsed what she had been. Where death marks the end of a life, the emptiness in Way held its revocation.
I thought of the Shadow Courtier that Way’s beast had torn apart. Way’s purpose wasn’t to destroy monsters or heroes. Destruction wasn’t enough. In her hands what was once real became nothing. Not real, not even a dream.
I felt my anger stir as my meta-awareness filled in a detail I’d missed. That was what the nameless giant had tried to do to me! The black flame wasn’t meant to burn me. The nameless giant wanted me more than dead. That should have scared the hell out of me. Jin probably would have been terrified, but Jenny Nine Stitches was cut from a meaner cloth.
And anyways he’d failed. I spat on the floor at the thought of him.
“What am I then?” I demanded. Way didn’t deserve my anger, except she had set her beast on me, and chased me, and burned me to death.
“I don’t know.” she admitted quietly. Her fear was there, echoing my own.
I flipped between Jenny and Jin. Two different people, two different lives. It wasn’t a question of which was real. They both were, and they were both me. There was more to me than could be summed up in a single truth. Just like Way.
I saw in the purple torchlight, not the destroying angel, but the girl that she also was. An idea was there, meta-awareness and intuition were trying to pound it into my head, but I had to hear it from her.
“So we’re two of a kind then?” I asked.
She looked back at me silently. She didn’t need to answer that question.
“Do you want to go back to what you were?” I continued.
“Yes! I’m broken like this!” she lied.
“Will you destroy me if you have the chance?” I asked.
A look of confusion passed over Way’s face and she looked away again.
“Probably.”, she nearly whispered the word. Was it a confession? A regret? It didn’t matter, either way, that was a lie too.
I paused for a moment and wondered how sure I could be of the idea I was putting together. I knew she was lying thanks to my meta-awareness, but that same meta-awareness hadn’t even registered her existence earlier. I could be deluding myself but if so I was doing a damn good job of it.
I smiled at her and tried to stand up. I wasn’t able to get fully to my feet due the chains that bound me to the floor. They were woven from strands of spider silk, so light I hadn’t noticed them at first. When they went taut though I felt the strength they held me with. The silk was stronger than steel and there were Winter enchantments on them which would leech away any strength used to break them. Jenny was familiar with them, though she’d never stitched one herself.
I heard someone coming outside the cell and sat back down before a creature with grey, bulbous skin and milky eyes slithered forward to peer in through the bars of the cell. It was hunched over but still at least twice as tall as I was. He was a Lake Lurker, Jenny knew, not part of the Shadow Court but one of their allies.
“What’s this? A bit of flotsam get caught in the tangle trap? What are you doing here Blue?” the Lake Lurker asked. Its voice was wet and sloppy, as though each syllable had to force its way past a mouthful of thick goo.
“Walking the Bramble Path to the market. What of it?” Jenny answered. The Bramble Paths were the roads that led from one Faerie realm to another. Jenny’d fallen afoul of the Shadow Court’s trap while she was traveling in-between the faerie worlds.
“Picked the wrong night.” the Lake Lurker made a noise that passed for a laugh among its kind.
“You’ll let me go if you know what’s good for you, fishsticks!” Lake Lurker’s, for as disgusting as they looked to me, were a delicacy among some of the more degenerate fairies. Jenny was spoiling for a fight, and Jin had no idea how to handle a Lake Lurker so Jenny got to call the shots.
“You’re a rich one you are. Guess you’ll make fair bait too.” the Lurker said intending to be enigmatic. Meta-awareness had already shown me the score though.
Way was here as bait for the nameless giant. The Shadow Court hadn’t been intending to capture me, that was just a lucky (or unlucky from my point of view) fluke. Still, since I had enough similarities to Way and the giant to be captured by the trap meant for them, the Shadow Court would be happy to use me an additional lure.
“Come in here and say that to my face.” Jenny taunted him.
“I don’t need to say nothing to bait. Just got to watch you squirm when they string you up.” the Lurker’s smile revealed a set of irregular serrated teeth.
I sniffed and turned up my nose at him. Being Jenny was kind of cool. I knew I would feel that way right up until his teeth tore into my flesh and I started screaming.
I shook my head at that burst of meta-awareness. That part of the script needed to change.
“Squirming like a worm on a hook and they’re going to have you on so many hooks Blue.”
I looked back at him but stayed silent. I wasn’t going to be able to lure him into entering the trap with us so there wasn’t any need to goad him into staying around.
I glanced over at Way and found she was studying me. I couldn’t tell what she saw in me though. Did she see Jenny? Or Jin? Or someone else?
I smiled at her. She frowned back, confused.
“So many hooks.” the Lurker taunted again. I continued to ignore him. Sure he was dangerous. If this had been Jenny’s story, she would have wound up stuffing his belly if she wasn’t careful. That wasn’t the way it was going to play out though. I didn’t need meta-awareness to know that. I just needed to look inside for a tiny bit of faith and across the room for Way.
Seeing that I wasn’t rising to the bait, so to speak, the Lurker grew bored and turned away. He shambled down the hallway to check on the other prisoners the Shadow Court had collected. When he was far enough away I turned back to Way.
“I’m getting out of here.” I told her as I unraveled the manacles. It was Jenny’s special talent. She wasn’t a spellcaster but she could fix or break almost any kind of woven spell with her crochet fingers. The Shadow Court’s trap wasn’t meant for a goblin like Jenny, so undoing the silk manacles took only three twists and a snip.
Way shied back as I walked towards her, so I stopped first where the silk chains were lashed to the floor and began undoing them from there.
“What are you doing?” she asked warily.
“I don’t want to leave you here either.” I said.
“You bound with me a name. What else are you going to do to me?”
“Nothing. I just don’t want you to be trapped here.”
“I’ll hurt you.” she warned. There was truth to that. She would. Of her own volition or not, with malicious intention or not, if I set her free she would hurt me. What she didn’t see was that not setting her free would hurt me too. I’d had to live with abandoning someone to the nonexistent mercies of the Shadow Court. I hadn’t been able to do that with Samantha when I thought didn’t have the power to rescue her and I couldn’t do that with Way when I knew that I did.
“Will you?” I asked as the last of the threads came loose from the floor.
Way raised her still manacled hands and gestured to the cord I held that had anchored them to the floor.
“You’ll hold me leashed for your safety.”
I took her left hand in my right and set to work on her manacles. It was trickier removing them from her and took much longer than three twists and a snip. Way sat quiet and motionless as I worked on them, not even breathing until the first manacle dropped away.
“I will hurt you!” she warned me again.
“Is that what you want?” I asked as I took her other hand and began working on the other manacle.
She was silent again, watching me work. I was almost done when she put her free hand over mine to stop me from undoing the last manacle..
“No.” she said, shaking her head.
I smiled back and took my hands away, severing the manacle’s last thread as I did.
“No bindings. No compulsions.” I said.
I saw golden fire begin to gather in her hands and her eyes harden.
If she burned me up again, I thought, I’d just wake up in my body.
My body that was trapped in a collapsing building.
My body that I couldn’t sense at all anymore.
A flash of panic swept through me. I couldn’t sense my body anymore! Was I dead? Had I fled to Jenny because there wasn’t any Jin left to be? My meta-sense couldn’t tell me. I couldn’t sense anything about the physical world at all.
Strangely that was comforting. Maybe because I couldn’t normally sense the physical world while I was dreaming, the thought of being cut off from it wasn’t as terrifying as it could be. I knew this wasn’t a dream, or the Dreamlit world, so it seemed even more reasonable that my dual perception wouldn’t quite be able to span the distance.
Whatever was happening with my physical body though, I was pretty sure that if I burned up here it wouldn’t be good.
I looked into Way’s eyes for any sign of warmth and felt the heat radiating from the flames in her hands begin to rise.