We tend to think of the big moments in life as things that have a lot of build up. Maybe that’s because admitting that everything can change in less than the blink of an eye is too hard to bear. We need to feel some level of safety in order to go about our lives.
I’d felt safe with Minnie. I had to. Her house (apart from her room) was like any other house. Her family was like any other family. When my meta-awareness screamed a warning that danger was approaching I’d been slow to react to it because danger was so out of context for the moment. I paid for that hesitation with blood.
One moment I saw the Shadow Courtier enter Minnie’s room, strolling casually in from the hallway. My first thought, before recognizing it, was to separate the Dreamlit world from the physical one so that Minnie’s father wouldn’t notice anything weird.
My next thought was the observation that I kind of needed those internal organs that the Shadow Courtier had perforated with his knife-like hand.
“JIN!”, Minnie yelled. Without meta-awareness to warn her, Minnie was lagging a little behind me and so she merely got to see the gory spectacle after it was far too late to prevent it.
The Shadow Courtier was surprised by the turn of events too though. It had acted on pure instinct and so was slow, by Shadow Court standards, as it whipped its head to see Minnie, all four feet eight of her cowering on the blood splattered bed.
Meta-awareness hammered in a truckload of information in the brief instant of confusion the Courtier displayed.
I’d mistaken the Courtier for her father because that’s who the Courtier’s spirit was possessing. It had been latched onto her father but was sleeping to until it could leech enough energy from him to act at full power. By entering her bedroom, her father had stepped into the Dreamlit world and the Shadow Courtier had found a being of like-power waiting for it. Me.
To say it found my presence disturbing was an understatement. It knew on some instinctive level that I neither prey nor pawn and that I had the power to challenge it. For the Shadow Court that was the definition of “deadly enemy”. That had woken it up in a big hurry. In between one heartbeat and the next it had seized control and reacted.
In the millisecond window available, meta-awareness wasn’t able to tell me how Minnie’s father had become possessed, just that the body underneath the glamour was his but the mind in control was not. The last tidbit of knowledge it was able to impart was that the Shadow Courtier would certainly kill Minnie next. A former pawn it couldn’t control anymore definitely made the list of “deadly enemies”.
I grabbed the arm that the Courtier had buried in my chest and wrenched the Dreamlit world apart from the physical world. It was like trying to rip a phonebook in half. Pulling with all my might in one direction was impossible. I couldn’t take just the Shadow Courtier with me, so I had to, metaphorically, open the phonebook up and tear it in half another way. I brought the Shadow Courtier over with me and Minnie as well. Everyone with glamour tumbled onto the Dreamlit side of the barrier, while Minnie’s Dad and her bedroom remained in the physical world.
That even carried my blood off her sheets.
Then I died.
Or at least appeared to. It was rather artistic I felt. My body sublimated into a gentle stream of rose petals that fluttered softly away. The Shadow Courtier was left at a complete loss. Mission accomplished, except that I wasn’t able to share what was really happening with Minnie.
There’s a myth that if you die in your dreams you’ll die in real life too. Even before I’d gotten my powers I’d known that wasn’t true. My nightmares had proven it early on. When you die in your dreams, the dream simply changes and you re-enter it later in some other guise.
The implications of the same thing being true for me even when I wasn’t technically dreaming weren’t lost on me. The Shadow Courtier had been right to strike quickly at me. And also very, very foolish.
This wasn’t the first time I’d died in the Dreamlit world, Way had “killed” me too, but this time I learned something new. I knew Minnie hated her minotaur form. What I didn’t know was how much that didn’t matter when one of her friends was in trouble. Where the Shadow Courtier’s attack had been like lightning, Minnie’s roared like rolling thunder.
She rose from her bed as the tiny human girl she was but by the time her feet hit the floor she’d cast that off. Reason was left behind as well. In the eyes of the beast that towered over the Shadow Courtier there was only blinding rage.
When she struck, her fist flew fast enough that even the Courtier’s hyper-natural speed wasn’t sufficient to avoid the blow. Her fists struck the the monster before her like a stick of dynamite detonating in the small central chamber of the labyrinth. The impact shattered the Courtier’s spirit body to a bag of pulp and imparted enough force to blast him through the nearest wall. That the wall was solid stone barely slowed him down.
Unfortunately, as a spirit body, the Shadow Courtier was able to recover from the blow. From the hole in the wall, he oozed forth and congealed upwards into a vaguely humanoid shape.
Minnie howled defiance and in her rage probably would have beat on the Courtier till no stones remained standing in the labyrinth. I would have let her too, except for the cost she would have paid. Apart from the physical toll that sort of violence would have taken on her, I wasn’t sure how well her mind would have handled the psychic cost of losing herself to her rage for that long.
I tried to think of what I could do, apart from “die” repeatedly, while I watched Minnie beat on the reforming Shadow Courtier. Her blows were unrelenting, smearing the reforming goop of the Shadow Courtier’s spirit body into the shattered remnants of the floor. Whatever level of regeneration he had, there was no way that didn’t hurt like hell.
Pain was hardly a foreign experience for the Shadow Court though. Through the fusillade of hammer blows it managed to reform a whip like arm that grasped Minnie around the neck. Against anyone else the Shadow Courtier could have pressed that advantage and either strangled or decapitated their foe. Minnie was far too durable for either of those tactics to be an option though so the Shadow Courtier had to settle for hurling her away to buy time to regain its shape and rise to its feet.
I knew what was going to happen next. With its body reassembled, the Shadow Courtier would regain its full speed. Minnie was too tough for the Courtier to skewer her the way it had me, but a thousand smaller wound would achieve the same result.
I needed to save her, and meta-awareness provided an answer. It wasn’t a good answer. It wasn’t even an answer I was sure I could live with. In the face of what lay one moment away for Minnie though neither of those was enough to hold me back.
“Hold!”, I called, appearing in a crack of lightning between the two combatants.
I was Jin, but not as the human girl I was. My casual clothes were gone, replaced by a regal gown of black cloth and silver spikes. On my brow a crown of silver thorns rested, purple flames rising from them. In my hand I held a thin scepter carved from a human bone and adorned at its head with the dead Heart of the Shadow Court’s realm. I’d poured myself into the title that the former Queen had given me and crafted the illusion of its authority around me.
“Who…who are you?”, Minnie whispered. The force of my entrance had shocked her out of her rage.
I turned to the Shadow Courtier who been caught off guard by my arrival as well. He was in human form and was tensed like a bowstring waiting to snap.
“Proclaim Me!” I commanded the Courtier, letting meta-awareness guide my words once more. I felt the mindset of the role I was playing steal over me. He was beneath me, a servant and a pawn to do with as I wished.
It was dangerous to think that way, but critical that I play the role right. There were expectations of royalty that I had to meet or he would be free to strike against me as a pretender to the throne.
The Shadow Courtier’s gaze shifted around rapidly. He could see the signs, he knew what my bearing and dress and command meant, but none of it made sense to him. I saw the source of the dissonance in my two streams of memory.
I knew that the Shadow Court was ruled by a Queen, but that was a memory from my time in the Shadow Court’s realm. In the real world, in the new history of the Court, there had never been a Queen. Only glorious, pointless anarchy. The Courtier before me had never bent his knee to any ruler, but within the essence of what he was there was the allegiance and submission to the title I carried.
The dissonance within the Courtier built to an unbearable level and he cast around, desperate for an avenue of escape. I gestured and imagined the broken walls back into solidity. Another gesture and the exits to the central chamber vanished. He wasn’t going anywhere till I was done with him.
“I do not know you.” the Courtier said at last. He covered his fear with disdain.
We really couldn’t have that though could we? I shuddered at the thought as it appeared in my mind. I was happy for his fear and I knew that wasn’t right.
I swept the scepter forward and pointed it directly at him. I needed to end this soon before I lost myself in the role entirely.
“Whose office do I hold in my hand? What title do I bear?” I felt my lips twist maliciously over the words. The questions caused the Courtier more dissonance and pain. That felt good, far too good.
I fought against the feeling, struggling to remain the normal Jin I wanted to be for my Mom, but I had to play things out to the end with the Courtier. If I retreated into “normal Jin” neither Minnie nor I would leave the room. She’d be dead and I’d be a thrall of the Shadow Court.
The Shadow Courtier flinched at my words, his face contorting as he fought to hold back the words that filled him with terror.
“Answer!” I called with royal authority. I thought of my Mother. I thought of losing her. I gave a tiny spark of that fear of loss to the Heart gem. The dead jewel awoke and began to burn, hungry for more power.
I’d thought it was only the illusion of the Heart, that I’d left the “real Heart” in my room. I was wrong. My outfit might be an illusion, the role I was playing perhaps a deception, but the Shadow Court’s dead Heart gem was all too terribly real. It had come at my unconscious bidding and was a mark of office that no one, not even I, could deny.
“You carry the Queen’s Sceptre! But…”, the Shadow Courtier trailed off, unable to reconcile what he saw before him with what his immortal memory told him to be true.
“But there was no Queen of the Shadow Court was there?” I taunted him, picking at the only resistance he could offer me.
“What title do I carry? What have I been named by a Courtier’s own lips?”
That I’d been tricked into the title didn’t matter. It was mine. It might destroy me to carry it, but by claiming the title fully as my own, I’d branded myself in a way that no member of the Shadow Court could mistake. No matter how much they might wish to.
“You were the Queen Who Has Fallen.”
“And what Queen of the Court remains to oppose me?”
“The Shadow Court has no Queen.”
“Had. The Shadow Court had no Queen.” I whispered, confident he could hear me.
“The Shadow Court needs no Queen!”
“The needs of the Court are irrelevant. All that matters is power.” I sneered. I took three long steps towards him and brought the burning scepter down towards his head. The flames within the Heart gem flared, desperate to consume the power within him.
“Bow.” I commanded, “Bow to your once and future ruler.”
Snarling, shaking and hating me to his innermost core, the Shadow Courtier dropped slowly to one knee.
“Who am I?” I demanded.
A part of me, a frighteningly large part of me, wanted him to resist. If he broke form, if he addressed me improperly I would be free to do as I wished with him. The Heart gem was ravenous. Just a little breech in decorum and I could let it slurp down his power and his immortal spirit as well. It would be delicious.
“My Queen.” he responded, head bowed in proper supplication.
I hated him. How dare he submit so easily? That was treasonous to the Shadow Court all by itself wasn’t it? I could destroy him for that couldn’t I? Of course I could.
All that mattered was power.
The scepter drifted towards his head before I clamped my hand steady. I wasn’t an Evil Queen, this was just a trick. If I tricked myself I’d lose everything.
The purple fire from the Heart gem had other ideas. It cast its light on my hidden desires. Did I really mind losing everything? What did I have that didn’t bring me pain? My Mom? I was going to lose her anyways. Better to cut the cord on my own. All kids need to grow up at some point right?
As the Queen of the Court, I would be free. I would take what I wanted and destroy any that stood against me. All the horror in the world? Everything that I tried so hard to hide from? I’d be able to embrace it, drink it, wield it like a weapon.
And what would I lose? What would I miss from the pathetic, powerless, pointless life that I’d had as Jin? Casting all that away would take no more than a flick of my wrist. Destroy this one creature that I held dominion over and I would claim the Court’s true power, not the weak illusion I wielded in its place.
I heard laughter and only knew it was my own from the way it shook my chest.
One small step. One tiny act of destruction, of a monster that had no right to live anyways. If I wanted to flee from all the confusion and sorrow I’d felt, all the pain and fear, the path was one small step away.
Behind me I heard Minnie whisper a single frightened word.
It hit me like a hammer. That’s what I would lose. I would lose me. I wouldn’t be Jin anymore, I would only be the Shadow Queen.
I staggered for a moment, caught between the hunger for power and the escape it offered and the fear of losing the life that I had.
“Why would I want to be Jin?” I asked myself.
Because my life wasn’t pathetic, it was enviable. I had choices. My destiny was my own in a way that a Faerie Queen’s never could be.
My life wasn’t powerless either. I could change things, even without the powers I’d gained, I could make a difference for people. Maybe not a lot of people, but maybe enough.
Most of all though, my life wasn’t pointless. It was mine. It was all I had. Casting it aside to hide under a monster’s skin wouldn’t make me stronger. It would make me small. I’d be nothing more than one tiny part of what I could possibly be and no matter how many I ruled, I’d be alone.
The purple flame in the Heart gem began to sputter as I grasped back onto my own heart, my own center.
“Begone!” I commanded, channeling the last of the Faerie Queen illusion that I had left in me and gesturing one of the exits from the labyrinth open. I wove the path from it out to the physical world. I couldn’t afford to drop the act while the Courtier was still here, but maintaining it any longer wasn’t an option either.
Without looking up the Courtier vanished, a trail of mist marking his passage out of the labyrinth. Once I was sure he was gone, I collapsed to my knees and let the path to the physical world vanish. I was shaking so badly I couldn’t stand.
“Jin? Is that you?”, Minnie asked, rushing to my side. She’d transformed back to her human form.
“Careful. It’s me, but I’m not fully me right now.” I shuddered.
“What are you?”
“This disguise, it’s tough to pull off. Dangerous too. I need to make sure my head is clear.” I told her.
“What happened to you?”
“I played a trick on him. And you too. Sorry. There wasn’t time to explain.”
“Are you ok?”
“I will be. Let me send you back. The Courtier, he had your Dad. You need to check on him. I think he’s ok but he’s probably confused. I’ll call you later.” I said and with another wave of my hand swooshed Minnie back to the other side of the Dreamlit barrier.
I was lucky, her Dad had fallen when I separated the worlds and stunned himself. Minnie was able to disappear and reappear without history needing to change to accommodate that. I collapsed onto my butt on the floor of the labyrinth. Casting off the Queen’s role had taken more out of me than I’d expected.
Once I was sure I was back to myself, I let go and “woke up” in my bedroom in the real world. Opening bleary eyes, I looked at the clock beside my bed and discovered that it was past 2:00am. The struggle against the Shadow Courtier had taken only a couple minutes but trip through the labyrinth had taken a while.
2:00am was late though. Mom and Dad should have been home by then and whatever they found, they would have wanted to talk to me again. Something wasn’t right.
I looked out my window and saw that both cars were in the driveway. So they’d come back. None of the rest of the lights in the house looked like they were on though.
Which meant what? They’d come back and then gone quietly to sleep? That was weird. And out of character for them.
Part of me wanted to leave my room and see what was up but another part of my wanted to crawl under the covers and hide. I think the part that wanted to hide knew what was coming. To be on the safe side, I decided to do both. I crawled under my covers in the real world while projecting my Dreamlit self out once again.
In the Dreamlit world, my room was still the Faerie Queen’s boudoir and as such it stood secure and empty. As I stepped outside it through and looked down into the living room, I saw a tableau more horrific than even the Court’s red garden.
Minnie’s house had been invaded by a single Courtier. There were hundreds in mine.
At the center of them lay James, a shield on the arm across his chest and a dome of scintillating blue light around him.