I was far from home. Farther than I’d ever been. Seeing the Earth hanging in a starry sky through the Shadow Court’s Hedge Gate I wanted to rush back to it as fast as my feet would carry me, but I knew I couldn’t. The winding path that led out from the gate, the path the Shadow Court had left open, offered only death to those who tried to follow them.
“How hot can you make it in here?” I asked Jessica.
“Good. Burn this place then. Don’t leave anything for them here. They’ll be able to remake everything, even their bodies, but it’ll take a long time if they only have ash to start from.” Disgust and horror at the contents of the red garden mingled with my fears over what the Shadow Court would do with the heroes that had come here. I wanted to deny that anything truly bad could happen, but everywhere I looked all I could see were pots filled with proof to the contrary.
“Should we get to the Gate first?” Heather asked.
“No. We can’t take that way.” I said.
“It is a most fatal lure.” Patches agreed.
“How do you know all this?” Jessica demanded.
“Your gift is fire. This is mine.” I told her.
“Then I definitely don’t trust you.” she replied. I couldn’t understand why until I caught the barest whiff of brimstone and my meta-awareness filled in the details. Her powers were inherited, but they weren’t due to a mutation. No, her fire was more supernatural in origin. I’d mistaken her for a human, but that was only partially true. Her mother had been something else entirely.
That was something she kept hidden away from almost everyone. If I pursued it, I suspected she wouldn’t be happy and would express that unhappiness in a very hot and painful way. That meant if I wanted her trust I had to earn it the old fashioned way. By deeds not words.
“You don’t have to, but this place needs to burn.”
“Are we to burn with it?” Patches asked.
“No. We’re going to get home safely.” I said it with force, trying to will it to be true despite the nature of the realm we were in conspiring against the very concept of safety.
“Some of us are already home.” the former Queen said. She could only have been speaking of herself but her gaze swept over Patches, Nell and Minnie as well.
I saw them look to me for confirmation of what she was suggesting. That the time they’d spent in the clutches of the Shadow Court had changed them beyond recovery. That they weren’t human anymore and could never really go home.
Without my meta-awareness I might have wondered that too. I’d read too many stories of children being “saved” from the Shadow Court and other fell faeries only to be revealed later as monsters in disguise. The common wisdom was that beyond a certain point you were unrecoverable because the faeries would have twisted all of the humanity out of you.
Jessica and Heather were still within the “safe” period, but Nell, Patches and especially Minnie had been lost to the Shadow Court for far longer than anyone would believe they could have survived. If I’d met them yesterday, or any time before I gained my meta-awareness, I would have assumed the children they’d been were long lost and all that remained were monsters biding their time to strike.
Looking at them in the red garden though I could see the truth so clearly. They were still people and they always would be. Whatever they looked like on the outside, however they were changed by their experiences among the faeries, at their core they were human and they deserved to be treated as such.
“This isn’t where you belong.” I fixed my gaze on the former Queen and fixed my thoughts on one thing. She’d been human once too.
The former Queen was a monster. She looked eerily perfect, but that was only because of the glamour she wore. Underneath it, her form was the same grey, inhuman horror as any of the Shadow Courtiers that lay “dead” in the red garden. My meta-awareness could see through her magics easily enough, but even with that it was hard for me to see her as anything other than a destroyer of children. By all rights she should have burned with the garden, but I knew that would be wrong too.
No matter what she looked like, no matter how she’d been changed by her experiences, she was still human.
She looked confused and annoyed by my claim but I could see the others kind of got what I was saying. If even the former Queen didn’t belong here, then they certainly deserved to go home too. I wasn’t sure they believe me of course, but at least they knew where I stood on the matter.
“Fine. Get back then.” Jessica said, calling up flames in both her hands. I would have had Way help her again but I could tell the poison had done too much damage. Way looked like she could barely stand anymore. If she was going to make it, we desperately needed to escape the Shadow Court’s realm soon.
Nell stepped up behind Jessica without being directed to this time and placed both her hands on Jessica’s right arm. Together they unleashed a storm of hellfire on the garden that set wide swathes of it ablaze. In response to the threat to their realm, the bodies of the Shadow Courtiers began to rise, slow and ungainly.
“The spirits have fled but duty still compels.” Patches observed. He turned to one of the nearer pots and drew a thorn as long as his arm out of the body that was pincushioned there.
“Minnie can you help him?” I asked. The magic that animated the Shadow Courtiers without their spirits left them as slow as a shambling zombie but far more difficult to destroy. Fire would do the trick, but it would take more time to render them to ash than we had.
“I think so.” the minotaur girl said. She was feeling the compulsion of duty as well, but unlike the lifeless Courtier zombies, she could choose to resist it.
“What can I do?” Heather asked. As a ghost she wasn’t in any danger from the zombies but she also wasn’t in a position to help hold them back either.
“You’re with me.” I answered. “You know how to look for weak points in the briars. Help me find ones that lead to the room below this one.”
“What’s below this room?”, she asked.
“The Heart.” the former Queen answered.
“The Hedge Gate is the Shadow Court’s connection to other worlds and other parts of Faerie, but it takes a lot of power to control. The Heart is what provides that power.”
“How does that help us?”
“The Shadow Court has the Hedge Gate locked open to Earth, but it’s lined with spells so that only they can pass through it. If we disconnect the Heart, I can try to weave us another Gate that will take us out of here safely.”
“You can weave World Gates?” the former Queen asked suspiciously. The truth was Jenny had some vague ideas of how they worked and the broad framework of how she might piece together the outlines of one. It was similar to tasking someone with making a wedding gown because they knew to start with white cloth and a pair of scissors.
“Watch and see.” I replied.
Heather slipped into the floor of the garden and we repeated the trick we had performed with carving a path through the briars to reach the garden. The Heart was defended by the best wards the Shadow Court possessed. It was the dark center of their power. Unfortunately for them they weren’t home, and in leaving they’d taken a huge amount of their power with them. That left all sorts of weaknesses in their defenses.
Heather and I ripped through the ground of the garden, detonating threads of magic at one weak point after another. After the struggle through the briars it was almost effortless.
“Can we leave yet, something weird is happening here!” Jessica called out as I carved another ten steps down for the spiraling staircase that I’d cut into the red garden’s floor.
“We’re almost there!” Heather called back.
“What do you mean weird?” I added. We were in a garden of horrors in a realm of evil faeries being attacked by zombies. I was both curious and certain I didn’t what to know what might qualify as “weird” under those circumstances.
“The fire’s starting to burn black.”, Jessica called back.
My blood turned to ice. I reached out with my meta-awareness and, predictably, didn’t notice anything amiss. Sprinting back up the stairs though I saw that Jessica was telling the truth. At the edges of the garden, the fires Jessica and Nell had been replaced with an all too familiar black flame. Something else was destroying the Shadow Court’s realm.
I turned to ask Way if she could sense their source and had to choke back a cry. She was laying collapsed against one of the pots, eyes closed and terribly still.
I ran over to her and felt my heart start beating again when she stirred at my touch.
“I’m ok.” she said without opening her eyes.
“Of course you are. Stay with me though. I might need a hand.” I told her, helping her up and putting her left arm over my shoulders to support her while she walked.
“Ok. We’re leaving. Everyone, follow me down the stairs.” I called out.
“Be with you in a minute!” Minnie called back as she smashed a trio of burning zombies. The impact of her blow knocked them off the feet and flung them a dozen paces backwards into the fires that were rapidly closing in on us.
Patches staked a zombie into one of the garden sculptures and casually dusted himself off before turning to follow us, making sure that the former Queen, Jessica and Nell were ahead of him, in that order.
“Just find us the fastest way down.” I told Heather, no longer concerned with setting off any alarms or traps. If my guess was right what was behind us was far worse than anything that Shadow Court could have left for us.
The path that I carved down to the Heart wasn’t pretty, or stable, or easy to move along, but it got us to the Heart’s chamber ahead of the black flames which was all that mattered.
The chamber was a surprisingly simple affair with a surprisingly simple defense. The nature of the Shadow Court was the pain of loss and the fear of helplessness. There was no way to set foot into the room without experiencing the raw, undeniable truth of that.
I flinched back as I breeched the final outer wall of the chamber and brushed against the power coursing through the room. I would have collapsed entirely except that Way caught me in time.
“This is bad. There’s still too much power here. I can’t work through it.” I said. A mere brush against the Heart’s power had almost incapacitated me, prolonged exposure would leave me a crippled wreck.
“I can help.” Nell offered quietly.
“Are you sure?” I caught a glimpse of what aiding me would cost her and could tell it wouldn’t be pretty. Neither would burning in the black flames though.
She nodded silently and took my free arm in her hands.
“Wait here, unless you see the black flames come down the stairs.” I told the others.
“What do we do then?” Jessica asked.
“Choose the manner of horrible death we prefer.” Patches suggested.
I didn’t have a better alternative to offer, so I just shrugged and turned with Nell to enter the Heart’s chamber.
The overwhelming feeling of loss and helplessness ripped my breath away as we stepped over the threshold of the chamber but I was able to stay on my feet. I’d expected Nell to cry out or collapse in my place but she only grasped my arm slightly tighter as we moved into the room.
The Heart rested above what looked at first to be a burned out tree stump. I would have said that it was a dark purple jewel, except that is pulsed with life and there was a sheen of wetness that suggested a far more organic nature.
As we walked closer, I saw that what I had taken to be a tree stump was a sculpture of a woman. It was so gnarled and bent that her resemblance to humanity was only barely visible. Her empty, twisting arms reached upwards, towards the Heart but forever falling short of it.
From the base of the sculpture, thick roots lead off into the walls, carrying the Hearts power out to the rest of the realm. The root leading to the Hedge Gate was easy enough to guess, it was one of the thickest ones.
“Now where’s my white cloth and scissors.” I muttered as I looked around for some material to begin weaving the new gate from.
There wasn’t any. The room was empty except for the Heart. I’d lead everyone to their doom. Nell’s strength couldn’t hold out much longer and then the Heart would blast our minds apart. My companions would be consumed by the black flames, except maybe for Way who would either die from the poison or drift alone for eternity.
Nell gripped my arm tighter and the Heart’s influence subsided. She was crying freely now, but she was still by my side. We weren’t lost yet.
If the only thing in the room was the Heart and I needed something to build a new gate out of then I knew what I had to do.
“This is going to really hurt.” I warned Nell and glanced from her to the Heart. She nodded her agreement so I got to work.
Scratching threads off of the Heart made my head swim. Even with Nell pressing her whole body against mine and lending me all of her strength I could only stand to touch the Heart for a few seconds at a time.
I thought it was the pain and the disorientation that made it seem like the sculpture under the Heart was bending and shifting towards us. As I scraped away more threads though the sculpture began to move more quickly.
I stepped back, pulling Nell with me, just in time to see the sculpture unfurl and stand on it’s misshapen legs. There was nothing human in the sculpture. There never had been. It was a tribute to humanity though, a monument to the first mother driven mad by the loss of her young.
I stared up at the living statue as it drew a blade of thorns out of its chest. Driven by the Heart’s power, the thornblade was singularly deadly here. Its touch held the agony that fed the Shadow Court and the statue would be able strike as fast as they could once it was fully awake.
Defending against that sort of assault, while the Heart leeched away at our strength, would be all but impossible. I wasn’t that fast at the best of times and while Nell’s power was able to shield me from the Heart’s influence on my mind, I knew she wouldn’t be able to ward off something as solid as the thornblade.
I backed away from the statue, trying to find a chink in it’s form, someway that Jenny’s quick fingers could unweave it. I wasn’t sure I could find the center of its power though. I wasn’t a mother. I’d never lost a child. There was something intensely private and at the same time undeniable about the pain that drove the statue.
I flinched as the statue drew back the thornblade to deliver its single fatal blow. The blow never landed though. Before it could, a bolt of golden light speared through the room. It blasted a hole through the statue and disintegrated its blade. Way stood in the entrance I’d carved into the room with Minnie supporting her and Jessica’s fire driving back the Heart’s light. As the statue toppled over I found the chink I was looking for.
I wasn’t a mother and I’d never lost a child but I knew what it was like to lose someone I loved.
I thought of my Dad. I’d lost him during the last invasion. The heroes hadn’t been able to save him. That hurt worse than anything else I’d ever known, but looking back on it, I wouldn’t give up a bit of knowing him. Not even stacked against all the pain his loss. Not one single second.
The pain of losing someone doesn’t make the love we feel for them any less precious.
I thought of Mom, and James, and even James’ Dad. I had people who loved me. I might lose them, but I would never regret knowing them. They’d helped me more than I could ever say. What words might not be able to convey, actions might though.
We were getting home.