Dorothy only had click her heels together to get home. Piloting a World Gate proved to be just a little more challenging than that.
“No more escapes. This ends.”, the armored figure commanded. He didn’t move like Way did. Apparently ultra speed was a gift she’d been specially designed for. That meant, when he charged me, he was moving slowly enough that I got to see him bounce off the pink radiance that was blasting out of World Gate in the Dreamlit world. The fading power of the Shadow Court’s Realm Heart hadn’t been enough to hold him back but apparently the light of an active World Gate could manage it.
If I had the time I’m sure that would have given me some great ideas to use against him. Unfortunately, he knew not to give me even a spare instant to work with. Instead of hammering on the the protective field around the World Gate, he raised his arms up and called on the black flames.
In the Heart’s chamber the flames roared with added ferocity. The Heart struggled to hold them back, radiating sheer agony that dropped everyone in the room to their knees. We couldn’t survive even a second in that environment, but fortunately we didn’t have to.
Faerie World Gates are designed to move things between physical worlds (like the one I came from) and faerie realms like the Shadow Court’s world. When the heroes from Agent Haffrun’s task force had assaulted the Shadow Court’s realm they’d forced open the existing Hedge Gate since that was the weakest spot in the realm for transdimensional travel. What I was doing was a variation of that, except instead of finding a weak spot in the realm, I was making one. Given the state of the Shadow Court’s realm that wasn’t as hard as it sounded.
In one sense, what I did next was as simple as passing the World Gate from one hand (Jin’s) to another (Jenny’s). It felt very similar to refocusing my vision down to a single world. The effect on the Shadow Court’s realm was far from simple though.
Passing the Dreamlit World Gate into the reality of the Shadow Court’s realm shattered what was left of the barrier between the real and the unreal there. The two realms merged, driven together by the rent in the barrier that I’d made and the surging power of the gate that the Heart was pumping energy into.
The black flames from both worlds joined and swept over everything. We would have vanished into nothingness the instant they did except for our united desire to escape and the gate’s power to make that happen.
Against the gate’s power and purpose stood the armored figure. For a single, unmoving moment, he bent his will against the gate’s power and held it in place.
“You will not impede us abomination.” he whispered, malice seething from the omnipresent flames that carried his will.
I was too beat up, too far past my limits to laugh at the notion of a world destroyer calling me an abomination, but some part of my barely functioning brain filed that away for later consideration.
“Looks like I already have.” Jenny shot back. Irritating the omnicidal maniac probably wasn’t the best move I could have made, but it felt good in a kind of stupid way.
Frustration lent the armored figure greater intensity and I watched as the pink aura the gate was blasting out shrank under his assault. We were frozen in time, so if his power was enough to overcome the Heart and the Gate together we would be gone before the others had a chance to notice it. That meant I had to do something, anything, to break the deadlock in our favor.
I studied the armored figure in the stillness of that moment. My meta-awareness didn’t see him at all, but regular observation gave me some clues as to what he was.
The armor, though filled with emptiness, spoke of him being a warrior. His explanations for why he was bent on absolute destruction painted him as a champion for annihilation. From his actions it was as though the oblivion he sought needed an active force to promote its existence.
I considered the paradox that I’d seen in Way. The form of emptiness. A being of unbeing. Logically he was an impossibility, but on some level his existence made a kind of sense.
Beyond the Dreamlit world, was the impossible and the unreal. The Dreamlit world was a barrier between the two, but it wasn’t perfect. If someone from one of the real worlds had managed to find their way beyond the Dreamlit world into the depths of the Unreal that lay beyond it, I could imagine them becoming “unreal” themselves.
I tried to imagine what would push someone to the point of utterly destroying themselves and then beyond that to where their hatred superseded their own destruction and returned to the real worlds carrying that corrosive unreality with them. Whatever it was and however motivated they were, I couldn’t imagine that there were many people who would be able to do make that journey. If anything, it was probably something that would only happen once. If Oblivion’s Knight wielded as much power as I’d seen then only one champion would be ever be needed.
“I’m going to take Pen back from you.” I told the Oblivion Knight. “I’m going to take him back, and I’m going to cast you back beyond the Dreamlit world.”
I made the statements without any idea how I would make those words become true. The Oblivion Knight was someone I could barely flee from, much less fight, but that didn’t matter, I knew I needed to make both pronouncements real.
“I will never leave this reality. Not until its last building block has been cast down into the void and a new world can be crafted.” the Oblivion Knight declared. That was it. We’d drawn our battle lines.
Grasping the gate tighter, I focused on home. The Heart’s power was balanced perfectly against the Oblivion Knight’s, so I lent the gate what little strength I had left.
Former Faerie Queen, changelings, demon spawn, the Heart of Power, whatever Way was and whatever I’d become, we were all joined to the gate when it folded in on itself and vanished out of the Shadow Court’s realm. An instant later the realm ceased to be. Or more precisely it ceased to ever have been. As the flames consumed the last of the realm I experienced a new bifurcation, not of vision this time but of memory.
New information poured into my mind. The Shadow Court had never had a realm. They didn’t hide in the far reaches of Faerie. They were predators native to my world and always had been. When they captured someone, they dragged them down into the depths of earth. The lucky ones were simply driven mad, turned into monsters and released back on the surface to cause havoc. The less fortunate ones were crafted into gardens for the Shadow Court’s delight.
I knew this had always been the case, but I also knew that it hadn’t. My mind warred with itself trying to reconcile those two understandings until my meta-awareness kicked in and gave me a perspective to work from.
I’d always thought of time as a river, flowing from the past to the future. Instead, my meta-awareness suggested the model of a cut gem. No past, no future, just the present. A present which held the record of the past and the possibilities of the future. Change the present, put a different cut into the gem, and you changed the past and the future as well.
For anyone who was a part of the real world, the change was imperceptible. The present was different, but so was the past, which meant from their point of view things had always been that way.
In my case, I was part of the real world, but I was outside it as well. That was how I could hold two conflicting memories of the past. I knew both my own past and the past of the world I was a part of.
Remembering two different pasts was weird and I knew the “cut gem” metaphor was incomplete, but it helped me grasp what was happening well enough that I decided to live with it until a better metaphor came along.
Also I had more immediate problems to deal with.
“Where are we?” Minnie asked.
We were falling through a sky full of stars, no sun and no Earth visible anywhere. It was beautiful, seductively so. An endless peaceful night that we could sleep in for all eternity, drifting forever outwards to the stars.
“We’re out of the Shadow Court’s realm and on our way home.” I told her.
“Who are you? And what happened to Blue?” Jessica asked.
I looked at myself and noticed that when we’d reintegrated, I’d defaulted to Jin rather than Jenny Nine Stitches. I could feel Jenny the same way as I could feel Molly, but outside of their worlds, both seemed to be slumbering in me. That felt fair. I’d been Jenny pretty deeply throughout my time in the Shadow Court’s realm. I liked being her, but I liked being Jin too and the Dreamlit world was Jin’s domain.
“I’m her. I look different in different places.” It was true, but not the answer Jessica wanted to hear.
“Whatever. How are we getting home. I’m lost.” Minnie growled. Meta-awareness filled me in again. The Shadow Court had made her into a minotaur. Minotaurs don’t get lost. Ever.
I looked at the Gate that joined us together. It should have transported us back to the physical world, but instead were were drifting out past the far edge of the Dreamlit world. Had I botched the activation? Did the Heart not have enough power to get all of us back?
The glyphs were right. The radiant glow that sheltered us said that the gate had enough power left. I came up blank for what else could be responsible until I looked around the gate at my companions.
I’d declared we were going home. Each of us was holding the gate. So each of us was trying to get to our own homes.
“We need to let go.” I told the others “The gate’s trying to send us to our homes, but it can’t go to all the different places at once.”
“Right, so we let go and spin off into space never to be seen again.” Jessica protested.
“No, we’re already heading in the right direction, the gate’s just anchoring us here. We don’t need it any longer.”
“Then you let go first.” Jessica demanded. I shrugged and was about to do it when meta-awareness showed me what the result would be.
“I can’t. I brought the gate here, when I let go it’ll head back to where the Shadow Court’s realm was but that’s been swallowed by those black flames.”
“NO! We can’t go back there!” Way exclaimed, rousing instantly at the mention of the black flames. Before I could stop her, before anyone could stop her, she summoned her golden fire and sent it coursing through the threads of the World Gate.
The last thing I saw in that starry expanse was all of us being blown apart by the explosion of the World Gate and streaking outwards like individual shooting stars.
Darkness claimed me, but only for what felt like the briefest moment. The pain that followed certainly wasn’t mild, but after being exposed to the Shadow Court’s Heart of Power I had a new scale to measure things like that against.
I opened my eyes to see the scattered illumination from halogen lights shining in through a hole in the floor above me. I was back in my physical body in the police station and I was trapped. Over my head, the roof was ablaze with fire.
I’d returned just in time to be burned alive.