The eye are the window to the soul. So what do you see when you look into the eyes of someone without a soul? Gazing into Way’s eyes, I couldn’t answer that question. I only saw her.
It was little worrisome when she closed her eyes, wrestling with some internal struggle that was shielded even from my meta-awareness.
It was more than a little worrisome when she brought her left hand up, wreathed in golden fire, to the level of our faces.
I watched as the fire grew hotter and brighter and wondered if I’d read things very wrong. I could have dived away, or wrestled her back into the manacles. Being a goblin at the moment, I was stronger than I’d been as a human. Instead I looked to the tiny flicker of faith I’d found and waited.
The fire in Way’s hand grew brighter still before shooting outwards in a flash. I didn’t have time to move or even flinch as the tightly focused bolt passed over my right shoulder, across the room, through the bars and through the Lake Lurker who had returned to watch us again.
The Lurker gave a pained gurgle as Way swept the bolt upwards. I didn’t see what happened as a result of that, but I didn’t have to. He wouldn’t be getting a belly full of me any time this side of never.
“Thank you.” I said as I stepped back to let her rise to feet.
She remained quiet, watching me as though I was somehow more dangerous than the Lurker.
“I know the Bramble Paths through Faerie. I think I can find the way out here.” I explained. Jenny wasn’t familiar with the paths within the Shadow Courts domain but she had a guess where the main thoroughfares were and how to navigate towards them.
“Ok.” Way said simply as she stood to join me.
Way’s bolt had burned one of the bars in two. She could have cut us out of the cell easily without the manacles shackling her power. Instead she hung back and let me work on the doors lock the way I’d worked on the manacles.
The door lock was less complicated than her manacles had been but it had a few tricky knots that would serve as alarms if anyone entered or left the cell. My arrival hadn’t triggered them for some reason though.
“How did I get here?” I asked. Jenny’s memories suggested that she’d be heading to the Silent Bazaar when part of the bramble path she was taking a shortcut through cracked and left her tumbling into darkness.
“They captured us. The Unwelcome set snares for us after they ran away. As soon as you tried to world walk they reeled you in.” Way replied.
I thought back to the two binding circles that I’d seen in the Dreamlit world while trying to flee from the nameless giant. The Unwelcome, or the Shadow Court as I knew them, wasn’t holding back if they were casting their net that wide.
“So why didn’t they leave more guards?” I asked.
“Escape is impossible. That one…”, she gestured at the remains of the Lake Lurker, “was no guard, just a spectator that wanted a bite.”
“Escape is impossible and yet we’re escaping.” I snipped the last locking thread to allow us to leave the cell without setting off the alarms.
“You are impossible.”
I honestly couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. It didn’t seem likely or in character for her, but who knew.
I stepped into the hallway. We’d been imprisoned in a special cell in the hedge maze of the Shadow Court’s central prison bulb. The hall outside the cell ran, in twists and turns, around a number of other cells. Odd branches in the path led either no where or two traps of various levels of lethality.
As I looked over the path we were on for a way out I recalled something my meta-awareness had shown me before. There were other prisoners here. I tried to think what I could do for them. Release them certainly, but could I protect or even hide a bunch of other people? Could I get them home?
“It’s gone.” Way whispered.
She was standing near the corpse of the Lake Lurker with her hands extended. It wasn’t the corpse that was bothering her though.
“What’s missing?” I asked.
I thought she was refusing to answer me, but looking at her I could see that wasn’t it. I’d seen her holding her hands like that before.
“Your scythe? You don’t have it anymore?”
She was silent.
“What happened to it?”
“You did.” she said, still looking at the Lurker’s corpse.
I almost asked what I had done, but it was clear. Her scythe had been tied to the emptiness in her. With my meta-awareness able to sense her, I was able to understand more about what she had been before too.
“Your name. I broke your connection it by giving you a name?”
“Yes.” she whispered, not looking at me.
“I’m…Are you going to be ok without it?”
Way let her hands settle to her side as she turned to me. Her eyes were glassy with tears that weren’t able to fall yet but her lips were set in a small, brave smile.
“I don’t know.”
If anyone who’d seen the destroying angel of emptiness that she’d been could have seen the girl that was standing with me at the moment, they couldn’t possibly have recognized her.
I folded my arms and leaned back with a smile.
“You don’t know? Well I do. You’re still Way Too Powerful.”
Way’s smile turned genuine at that.
“And you’re not alone.” I added.
My timing, as ever, was dreadful. No sooner had the words left my mouth when a pair of horrors rounded the corner of the briar path that connected the cells.
They moved so fast I barely saw them. Like in the parking lot, all I caught was a quick blur of teeth and metal bright talons in a grey blur. That time Way’s beast had saved me. This time Way herself was with me and she was faster than her beast. Much faster.
A blur of grey forms met Way’s black clad, golden hair blur. The fight lasted maybe a whole second. Way settled against the wall, steadying herself with her right hand and covering an injury on her right arm with her left hand.
The Shadow Courtiers didn’t fare quite that well. Bits of grey goo were splattered over the entirety of the hallways leading away from us. Some of the goo wwas burning with golden flames, the rest would make a fascinating study for a blood splatter expert probably.
“Way!” I called out a warning that was roughly three seconds too late for a two second encounter.
“I’m ok.”, she assured me.
“Let me see your arm.”
A path of purple and green briars wasn’t an ideal first aid camp in the best of conditions and the Shadow Court weren’t exactly “neat freaks” when it came to their prisons. Mold, refuse and old stains that I didn’t want to think about littered the ground. Jenny had worked in worse though.
“Lovely. Poisoned.” I explained, tasting a drop of Way’s blood. It was kind of gross to do, but Jenny had seen wounds like this before and had a remarkably discerning palate. “It’s a slow one though and it’s fed by the lights here. If we can get you out all we’ll need is some water to clean the wound and you’ll be fine.”
Shadow Court poisons were weird. They were as much a menace to other Faeries as they were to humans. Jenny was familiar with them as a result, more than she wanted to be.
I thought again of the prisoners. Spending time to get them out would mean letting the poison advance in Way’s system, leaving them here though was intolerable. Meta-awareness was all too happy to show me what sort of agonies they’d suffer in the Shadow Court’s hands.
I tried to balance that against the task force of heroes that I knew were on the way. It was a gamble that I’d be able to save Way and myself, moreso without her at full fighting speed. With prisoners in tow we’d be slower, harder to hide and more vulnerable. If I left them here, the real heroes would be showing up to save them. Right?
Meta-awareness didn’t offer any precognition for that. There were too many paths. The heroes might save them, but time flowed oddly in Faerie. What might be an hour in the physical world could be a year in Faerie. A year for them to suffer while the task force gathered and fought their way in. That was assuming the heroes won too. There were plenty of paths where that didn’t happen.
On the other hand were the paths where the delay meant we didn’t make it out. Or where Way succumbed to the poison before we could escape. Or where she fell in battle because it had sapped away just enough of her strength.
“Can you do something for me?” I asked her.
“Burn this place. Light it all on fire.”
“We’ll burn with it.” she observed.
“That’s a risk, yep.”
“The poison in you feeds on the ambient light of this place. Your power left the Shadow Courtiers burning gold so your flames will wash out this purple light. It might be enough to starve out the poison entirely and if not it’ll at least leave you in better shape for longer.”
“Is that the way poison works?”
“Only if its this one.”
I went over to the nearest cell and began working the lock. From the outside it was much easier to manipulate. I saw how this would appear to the Shadow Court as I severed the links that held the cell shut.
Their prison would be in flames, with none of the alarms on the cells ringing to say the prisoners had escaped. That would suggest a failed assault, and all of their captives dead. Way’s flames would burn hot enough and long enough that they wouldn’t be able to look for our burned bodies before we could manage to get safely away.
As plans went it sounded excellent. So it was doomed to fail. I still liked it though.
In all there were six other cells that held captives. I worked through them as quickly as I could while Way began setting the prison ablaze, starting with branching paths farthest away from us.
The first cell held a minotaur. She wasn’t manacled. Instead there was a circlet of faerie gold locked around her head. Jenny recognized it as a binding spell to hold the girl’s mind imprisoned. My meta-awareness recognized it as having an additional property. It was changing the girl. She hadn’t been a minotaur when she arrived.
She was one of the children the Shadow Court had kidnapped. They’d needed a guardian and Minnie had amused them. Minnie the Minotaur. That had been all it had taken to provoke their cruel fancy.
I gently lifted the circlet off her head and caught her as she collapsed into my arms. She was much larger than me, but Jenny was pretty strong.
“The labyrinth? Where am I?” she asked. After the night I’d had I could more than empathize with the confusion that was written on her face.
“You’re with people who will help you.”, I told her calmly. The prison was going to burn down around us in a few minutes but she needed at least a moment or two to adjust.
“The labyrinth you have been trapped in was a magical lie, but it has affected you. We’re not safe here, so I can’t answer your questions yet. I will when we’re out here though so please, come with me.”
“Who are you?” she asked, still bewildered.
It was the most dangerous question she could have asked. I’d read that names have power. My recent experience with Way had shown me I didn’t know the half of it.
“A new friend.” I said, knowing I could commit at least to that being true, “The fire will reach here soon though, we have to move.”
That got her attention and without further prompting she rose and followed me out of the cell. I fiddled with the circlet that she’d been forced to wear. Part of me wanted to have Way melt the hateful thing down to scrap. Another part, Jin oddly enough, told me to hang onto it. The image of crushing a Shadow Courtiers head to fit within it was bloodily appealing. I was really starting to hate them.
The briar path was lit by a mix of purple and golden light. At the far end of the path, Way was casting arcs of fire into the cluster of empty cells that made up the cul de sac where one of the branches ended.
“How are you feeling?” I called to Way.
“The light is helping.” she called back.
“Good, I’ll try to make this as quick as I can. Minnie could you help her? The purple torches need to be put out.”
“Oh, uh, sure.” Minnie said and headed down towards where Way was working.
Having figured out the lock for Minnie’s cell, the next one proved even faster to disarm.
The occupant of the second cell was asleep and naked aside from a thick covering of red fur. Patches was like Minnie, another child captured by the Shadow Court, except he’d been captured long ago. He was as much cat as he was boy from what my meta-awareness could discern. Even his original name was lost.
“Patches, you need to get up.” I said, nudging his shoulder.
He yawned and looked at me with curious amber eyes.
He’d been sent to the cell for the crime of being too nice. He’d wanted to play with a mouse that was given to him rather than tear it to pieces. The mouse was in the next cell over and I knew already that she was grateful for his kindness even if the Shadow Court wasn’t.
Patches looked me up and down, stretched and then lazily rose without speaking. I wasn’t sure if he could anymore or if he had simply learned not to. Either way he looked content to follow me so I continued on.
The third cell held the mouse. She was still human in form, but her spirit had begun to change. Not through magic alone either. The Shadow Court were gifted psychologists in their own way. They knew all sorts of techniques to break spirits, minds and hearts. That Nell, the girl in the cell, had any courage left at all was almost unbelievable.
When I opened the cell the girl was sitting with her back to the door. She turned to face me and I saw electricity crackle off her. Her eyes were what caught my attention though. The iris and the pupils were gone, replaced by a pattern of circuits with tiny pulses of blue light racing through them.
“Nell, we’re here to help!” I said quickly. If she wanted to she could have thrown the electricity she was leaking. As a lightning bolt it would have been on the weak side. As a heart attack inducer though it would have worked just fine.
“Who are you?” she asked, as confused as Minnie had been.
“A new friend.” Patches answered. I’d been wrong, he hadn’t been sleeping and he had much better ears than I’d guessed at first.
“I’m getting you all out of here.” I told her and helped her up as her electrical aura died away.
I couldn’t place why she would have electricity coursing through her veins until meta-awareness slapped me with the idea. Words. The Shadow Court and faeries in general were drawn to words. So Nell was their mouse, as in rodent pet, but she was also being formed into a mouse, as in computer controlling peripheral. Despite the medieval trappings, the Shadow Court did understand the modern world.
I was thinking how much more dangerous they were than I’d ever imagined when I opened the next cell and found a Shadow Courtier waiting inside for me.
“Why isn’t this charming.” she said.
The shadow courtier was wearing a glamour. To my eyes she appeared as a tall woman of mathematically perfect proportions. Her skin was a rich shade of tan that suggested lustrous warmth but even from across the small cell I could feel it radiating an icy chill.
I knew her form, and the simple black dress she wore, were all magical artifice. I didn’t need meta-awareness to tell me that what really stood before me was the another of the grey horrors that Way had destroyed minutes ago.
“Charming’s a prince. I’m not him.” I replied, playing on the words as quickly as I could. I didn’t have a plan, but stalling for time made for a good reflex as it turned out.
“Indeed not. So what might you be then?” the Shadow Courtier said. She tried to walk over to me and came up short. The glamour had covered the manacles, but I could see she was chained to the wall like Way and I had been. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not an ambush. Another prisoner.
“Can’t you tell?” I asked. It was a challenge. Even chained, the Shadow Courtier could be insanely dangerous, unless I could bind her in words.
“Not a goblin, I see. Something more.”. She was enjoying the game and confident she would win it. In her vision, she was walking out here inside of two minutes, or ten if she decided to play with me a bit first. After all, how hard could it be to outwit an escaped slave, which I clearly appeared to be?
I smiled back at her. Even with Jenny’s strength and talents I was no match for a Shadow Courtier physically. I didn’t need to be dangerous physically though. Not in this game. For this I just needed words and my meta-awareness gave me a deadly edge there.
“Are you sure? What if I’m something less?” I baited her.
“If you were something lesser, we wouldn’t be speaking would we?” That was the key I needed. She couldn’t bear being wrong. Once she made a claim, she couldn’t rescind it.
“No we wouldn’t Your Majesty.”
I hadn’t expected meta-awareness to give me that bit of info but I could tell there was some truth to it beyond the Shadow Courtiers own delusions.
“Ah, you recognize me.”
“I recognize the Queen Who Was, the Queen Who Has Fallen, but not her authority, unless you would rule the realm bounded by the walls of this cell.” I said, dodging a trap she’d laid for me. Recognizing her authority, in this context, would have given her authority over me.
“And if I would?”
A chill went through me. She was far more desperate than I’d guessed. To even hint at that suggested a willingness to abandon all of the dreams of royalty that propped up her ego in a play to escape this place. For a creature like her, that was a lot to be give up, pretty much everything she had in fact.
“Then we would contest for your realm.” I told her, letting the flow of meta-awareness guide my words.
“And by what right would you lay your claim to my realm and person?”
The Shadow Court only acknowledged one “right” for rulership; the right of power. That path was lined with innumerable perils though.
“You would have me claim both your realm and yourself?” I asked.
“Do you think you could you claim the one without the other?”
“Yes.” I said, staring directly into her eyes. My word left open either possibility. She could have cast the game wholly onto control of her cell and perhaps even won her freedom from it, trapping me there in her place. That wasn’t in her though. In or out of the cell, there was no escape for her.
The Queen Who Has Fallen was allowed to exist for only one reason; to prove the power held by the Queen Who Reigned. I had insulted the rest of the Shadow Court beyond forbearance. They had to hunt me from here onwards. That was exactly how it would be for the Fallen Queen if she left her cell. The only difference is that the Fallen Queen knew exactly what depths of malice the rest of the Shadow Court would sink to in devising punishments for her.
People mistake immortality for a blessing. For the Fallen Queen, it would be a nightmare beyond human comprehension were she to become prey to her former vassals.
“And what quality would you name that could wrest the title of Queen from my lips?” she asked.
“Mercy.” I answered.
She laughed a cruel, biting gale devoid of mirth or joy.
“Mercy? There is none in me and none that I may claim.”
“Breath and tell me what approaches.”, I said.
The Fallen Queen looked at me puzzled for an instant. I’d caught her off guard and we both knew it.
“Flame? Fire approaches? Here?”
“Never have these thorns burned before!”
“At my command they do now.”, I assured her. Privately I was surprised too. Meta-awareness confirmed her claim. These thorn bushes were warded against every sort of flame and fire spirit. Every sort except Way it seemed.
“The briars will burn, your realm will burn and so will the Queen Who Was.” I said.
“You offer the mercy of ashes then?” the Fallen Queen smiled, pleased at the cruelty she saw in my words.
“No, I offer you power.”
“What power could one such as you give me?”
“The power to choose. You can cling to your title, your prestige and accept the peace the flames will offer. Or you can lay down the burden of your royalty and come with me.” Meta-awareness drove the words. I’d been looking for whatever I could offer her that would convince her to come with us while at the same time chaining her into doing us no harm. Meta-awareness delivered, it found the lure she couldn’t resist taking, but in offering it I made a huge mistake.
“Very well. Only one may rule. I shall do as you bid. My Queen.” she said, savoring each syllable as she spoke them. I felt her words close on me like a vice.
She had accepted my offer, she had sworn herself to me and in doing so, she had passed her title to me. I’d been so sure I was winning. Damn tricky faerie. Damn stupid me.
The Fallen Queen would leave this cell after all it turned out. The problem was I had become the bearer of that title. The moment I stepped outside the cell’s boundaries, I would be carrying the mantle of the Fallen Queen onto forbidden ground. I would have all of the hatred of the Shadow Court with none of the perks of royal power and the former Queen would be free of any obligation to her former Court. She was my problem instead of theirs.
Fine then, I thought, let’s play the game that way. I smiled sharply at the former Queen and sliced off her manacles with a practiced flick of my fingers. I then turned and walked out of the cell without showing any concern.
She thought she’d trapped and damned me. In the Shadow Court’s eyes I was already far beyond damned though so I’d lost nothing in practice and in return I’d gained a vassal.
I had a brief vision of commanding a horde of monsters, each more terrible than the last.
“Gotta catch ‘em all.” I murmured as I strode over to the next cell.
Along the briar path, I could see that Way was getting close to where she and Minnie could rejoin us. On the other side of her, the briars were engulfed in golden flame. Minnie was working to one side of Way, ripping out the last of the purple torches that had lined the walls of the path.
“Who’s this?”, Nell asked, pointing at the former Queen as she emerged from her cell for the first time in what might have been centuries.
“My Queen.” Patches said with a slight bow. I thought he was referring to the Shadow Courtier, but he was facing me.
“I am the Queen’s servant.”, the former Queen stated, her words weaving a shield around her. Even if the Shadow Court reclaimed her, they would do no more than play with her. They’d probably even be delighted with her.
That was a problem for another time though so I put it out of my mind and focused on opening the next cell before the fire caught us.
I was halfway through unlocking the cell door when a ghost walked right through it.
“I’m sorry.”, she said, “I didn’t know when it would be safe to come out. Is it ok if I come with you?”
I was speechless for a moment. I hadn’t been expecting a ghost, but with the night I was having, sure, why not?
I checked with my meta-awareness. She wasn’t native to here, and she hadn’t died here. What the Shadow Court wanted with her was also unclear.
“Umm, why were you in there?” I asked.
“I thought that was the last place anyone would look for me while I figured out what to do.”
That made as much sense as any other answer I could imagine her coming up with.
“Silly question but are you evil, malicious or intent on hurting us in any way?”, I asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Meta-awareness didn’t say she was lying so I shrugged my shoulders and went with it.
“Probably best to tag along with us then. Nice to meet you!”
“Thank you! Oh, and you’ll want to get the girl from the last cell too. They just brought her in yesterday.”
“Were you spying on us?” Patches asked with a purr in his voice. Turning to the ghost I noticed her shocked expression and discovered something new. I hadn’t known ghosts could blush.
I turned to work on the lock for the last cell and had it open just as Way and Minnie joined the growing ensemble. The lock was the same as all the others, the Shadow Court not being big on creativity outside of torture techniques it seemed, so I was able to disarm it in seconds. Once it was safely disposed of I opened the cell to find a smoking hot girl waiting inside.
I don’t mean she was beautiful, I mean there was literally smoke rising from her glowing red skin. The other odd bit about her was that she looked like she was a little older than me, which meant the Shadow Court hadn’t kidnapped her as one of their usual prey.
“Let me out of here or I will burn this place to ground you bastards.” she screamed at me.
“We’ve already set it on fire, and we’re here to get you out.” I told her and moved in to undo her manacles.
She was human still. The fire that raged within her was none of the Shadow Court’s doing.
“Don’t touch me!” she demanded, fire, again literally, burning in her eyes.
“I need to get those manacles off you.”
“Give me the key.” she growled.
“I don’t have one.” I said and wiggled my finger tips in front of me to show what I was going to do.
“What the hell are you?”
“A new friend.” Patches called out from behind me in the doorway helpfully.
“Also a Queen of Faerie.” he added a moment later. The former Queen burst out laughing.
I barely had time to dodge the gout of fire that the girl breathed out at me.
“Ok this is ridiculous. Stop trying to hurt me. I’m here to help.” I said.
“A Faerie Queen? You think I don’t know who you are? Goddamn Shadow Court. I will burn all of you.”
I started to protest that I wasn’t part of the Shadow Court but then checked myself. Denying the title I’d “won” from the former Queen could have unfortunate ramification in terms of my ability to command her. The last thing I needed was to unleash yet another monster on the world.
On the other hand, being fried by someone I was trying to help wasn’t appealing either.
I checked with meta-awareness to see if she could survive the coming flames that we’d set. It would be kind of cowardly to leave her behind but it could save a lot of people from a trip to the burn ward if the girl’s temper was as bad as it was looking to be.
Of course things couldn’t be that simple. The girl was certainly fireproof. So were the Briars though. Way’s flame wouldn’t have any more trouble roasting the girl than it did igniting the briars. Leaving her behind was a death sentence.
“Right. How about a deal then? Faeries love making deals don’t they. Here’s what I’ve got for you. I need a fire elemental to burn up a bunch of my enemies in the Court. Come with me and help protect the people here and in return I’ll lead you back to the physical world. No strings, no tricks.”
“There’s always a trick.” she said warily.
“True. The trick in this case is we’ve just set fire to their prison, every Courtier wants me worse than dead and getting out of here is in no way guaranteed.”
“That’s a terrible deal.” she complained, but I could see her rage had subsided to a more manageable level.
“What’s scarier in faerie; being offered a terrible deal or one that seems perfectly fair and balanced?” I asked.
She paused to consider that for a moment.
“Fine. Get me out of these things. But don’t touch me. Seriously, I will burn you.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time tonight.” I muttered.
“What?” she asked.
“Just whining. Here, can you stand ok?” I asked, having the manacles unlocked before she even noticed I’d begun working on them.
“Umm, yeah.” she said. She didn’t offer her name, but meta-awareness told me it was “Jessica”. The extent of how powerful of a talent I possessed wasn’t lost on me. Knowing the name of people or things in Faerie was a close cousin to having total dominion over them. On the hand, I’d just gotten spanked at a game of words vs. the Queen of Failure, so somehow it wasn’t too hard to keep my ego in check.
“Good. We definitely need to get moving then.”
“Yes.” Way agreed, moving to stand beside me.
“Ok. We need one more burn. Our passage is on the far side of that wall. We don’t want the briars just on fire though, we need them ashed before the rest of the flames reach us. Can you handle that?” I asked.
Even with the golden light of her flames holding back the poison, I could tell Way’s wound was sapping her strength.
“Burn this place down? Just try to stop me!”, Jessica added.
“Everyone else, stand back and let them work then.” I ordered. I wasn’t a natural leader, but with a group this size I could see that trying to put things to a vote was not going to work.
The outer shell of the prison was a noticeably harder challenge than the interior briar walls. Neither Way nor Jessica could afford to unleash their full power in the cramped quarters that remained but I could tell they would manage with at least two or three seconds to spare before the flames overwhelmed us.
That was until fire lizards showed up.
Dragons are interesting creatures from what I’ve read. They come in as many varieties as there are people to imagine them. The abominations that came leaping through the flaming briars bore as little resemblance to anything a human had dreamed up as the Shadow Court bore to the humans they’d once been.
“Minnie!” I called, but she was already reacting.
The two creatures reared back on legs that divided into a dozen spike-tipped pincers as Minnie charged them. She’d crossed her arms in front of her, so they took the brunt of the burning poison the fire lizard spat out. Before the corrosive spittle could do any damage she flung it off and crashed into the beasts, bearing them both to the ground.
Under other circumstances I would have wagered on Minnie taking both of the monsters out before they had the chance to do any serious damage to her. The fire we’d set wasn’t our friend though and with the fire lizards added heat it’s progress along the briar path had accelerated.
Where Minnie and the fire lizards fell was covered in flame and smoke an instant later.
Lacking any common sense whatsoever, I plunged into the conflagration with only the barest hint of a plan in mind. I blamed Jenny for that since I’m pretty certain Jin had far more self preservation instinct than that.
“Your cell!” I screamed to Minnie through the smoke, scrambling to the first door I’d opened.
I wasn’t sure that my intention was clear enough until a moment later when I felt a whoosh of air as a large mass sailed past me. I couldn’t see what it was through the smoke but from the sound of it crashing into the far wall of the cell it was clearly hefty. A second later another whoosh of air and crash within the cell suggested that Minnie had understood exactly what I meant to do.
With both fire lizards secured inside, I slammed the cell door shut and blindly fiddled with the lock. Fortunately they were designed to secure things easily so resetting it didn’t take too long even blinded as I was. Just long enough for me to catch a lungful of smoke and grow too dizzy to walk.
As epitaphs went, “she wasn’t smart enough to stay out of largest, obvious fires” wasn’t exactly the one I was hoping for.
“She’s here!” I heard a ghostly voice call out as my knees buckled.
I blinked and for a second saw double. On one side of my vision there was the burning prison in the Shadow Court’s pocket of fairyland. On the other I saw something out of an eldritch horror’s nightmares.
The Dreamlit world!
Pen had said it bordered everything that was real within the context of my world. The Shadow Court was certainly real and so their realm had a shadow in the Dreamlit world. A grotesque and terrifying shadow, as befitted the nightmares that they were, but somehow still a comforting thing to discover. It was a nightmare, but it was my kind of nightmare.
My vision snapped back into singular focus as we exited the smoke. Minnie had pulled me into the small bit of the Briar path that remained free of fire. She looked noticeably worse for her encounter with the fire lizard, red welts already forming on her hands and face from where they’d struck her. For some reason though she was smiling at me.
“We’re not going to make it through the Briar wall in time.” I coughed out.
“Perhaps if two were to become three?” Patches suggested.
I looked at him, trying to guess what he meant. He was looking past me though. At Nell. Who was looking at me for permission? I kicked myself mentally. I hadn’t asked the mousey girl to help so she thought she wasn’t welcome to. More proof that I definitely wasn’t a natural leader.
“Absolutely. Nell, can you help them?”, I asked and moved aside to open a path to where Way and Jessica were working on carving through the briar wall.
I’d expected her to start throwing lightning bolts to complement the streams of fire that Way and Jessica were pouring forth. Instead she approached them both and very tentatively touched each of them on their backs. Way and Jessica’s fire streams didn’t grow hotter or larger in response to the touch. If anything they became smaller and more focused.
Where they had been carving through the wall with the equivalent of two flame throwers, with Nell’s assistance they punched straight through it with laser beams.
It took less than a minute for them to complete the task and we all piled out into the adjoining pathway a full twenty seconds before the fire engulfed the last of the prison’s briar path.
The Shadow Court’s domain had been grown to their liking. That mean the walls of the path around the prison were riddled with poisonous needles. The floor bent and twisted at all sorts of odd angles too. Perfect for hurting anyone who walked on it and didn’t possess inhuman grace. Which meant half the people in our group, myself included.
We’d been “lucky” inside the prison. It had been less “artistic” and more given over to form and security, which Jenny knew was only due to the geometries required for the binding spells it held. The less secure prison bulbs, of which I realized there were dozens, were quite a bit more horrifying.
I took stock of our position and saw that the path we had escaped to wrapped around the perimeter of the prison and led to an artery into the Shadow Court’s “play rooms”.
We were fortunate in one sense. We were near the heart of their realm, inside the dead bough of a failed World Tree. That meant we weren’t all that far from a Hedge Gate, one of the natural portals that joined together the shifting domains of the Fey. That also meant we were near a center of the Court’s power so the chance of avoiding them was minimal.
“This way.” I said and began leading the others down the path running counter clockwise around the burning prison. In the distance I could hear ululations of mad joy. The Court had discovered that their prison was ablaze. I’d expect rage would follow but that wasn’t the way their alien minds worked. Something was being destroyed. They couldn’t help but be delighted. The same way sharks are delighted when blood is spilled in the water.
“What’s that?” Nell asked. She’d never heard the Court laughing before.
“We need to go. Be careful but move as fast as you can.” I said.
“Running isn’t going to save us.” the former Queen sing-songed. I threw a glare at her but kept moving. There wasn’t time to argue and we both knew it.
We made it to the first branch of the path that would take us beyond the prison bulb and into the greater gardens of the Shadow Court before the first Courtiers caught up to us.
One moment we were walking along, the next Way was several dozen yards down the path, bits of flaming Courtier raining down around her. The former Queen had also intercepted one of the Courtiers and was locked in a silent and nearly frozen struggle with it. They were evenly matched and it was clear the struggle would only end with the death of one or the other.
Before any of the rest of could think to move, Patches stepped up behind the alien Courtier, broke off a poisoned thorn the length of his hand from a nearby section of bramble and rammed it through the Courtier’s left eye. The monster twitched and spasmed for a second before the former Queen used its weakness to slam it into the wall of thorns, impaling it a hundred times over.
A shiver of delight rippled down the Queen’s entire body as the alien Courtier sagged against the wall and began to dissolve. Patches meanwhile regarded the scene with unfeigned disinterest. He turned to look at me as though wondering why we had stopped at all.
“Damn.” I struggled to collect myself, images of what would have happened if there had been three Courtiers rather than two dancing in my head. I was leading us deeper into their lair. We had nowhere else to go but even so it seemed like an insane course of action.
From somewhere deep in the heart of the Shadow Court’s realm, a single pure bell tone rang out. It wasn’t ear splittingly loud but I could feel it reach through the entirety of their domain. Something had crossed their Hedge Gate. Something uninvited that didn’t carry the taint of their horror. My heart leapt into my throat, hope surging within me.
The heroes had arrived!