The worst thing about the way that I think is how my first reaction after feeling the surge of hope that the heroes had arrived was to immediately starts imagining all of the things that might go wrong.
In this case it didn’t take that deep an imagination. In the heart of their domain, the Shadow Court had all of their powers and allies to draw on. Unless the hero task force had brought a lot of metahumans along they could easily be overwhelmed. Worse, even if they did win, they wouldn’t necessarily be on our side.
Faerie magics are powerful and well adapted to concealing identity. From the heroes’ point of view, we were more likely to be allies of the court or even Courtiers in disguise than legitimately in need of help.
Then there was the issue of my companions. Minnie, Nell, Patches and Jessica could all go back with the heroes pretty easily in theory. In practice, a minotaur, a lightning shaper, a cat boy and a fire elemental were going to encounter some trust issues if they were found in this realm.
The ghost, oddly, would probably encounter less of that prejudice, but would be more likely to be barred from returning to the living world by her very nature. Maybe. I wasn’t really sure how that worked.
The former Faerie Queen on the other hand was exactly the kind of thing the heroes would be right to be worried about. She really was a Courtier in disguise, and she really wasn’t a nice person. Sending her back back to Earth seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. The only reason I was even considering it was that leaving her here seemed like an even worse one.
Then there was Way.
I’d named her and that had almost destroyed her. I had no idea what to do with her either, but I knew I couldn’t abandon her.
None of that was going to matter though if we couldn’t make it to the Hedge Gate.
“Come on folks, I know a shortcut.” I said and turned to the briars that walled off the path.
“Famous last words if ever there were ones.” Patches commented brightly.
Meta-awareness had suggested the spot that I chose but it was Jenny’s knowledge of spinning that helped me pick out the weave of brambles that needed to be cut away. The Shadow Court are too chaotic to have uniformly solid wards throughout their realm. Two snips on a weak branch set off a chain reaction that opened the beginnings of a new path through the briars.
“We’re leaving the path?” the former Queen asked.
“Paths are for wimps. We make our own.” Jenny answered her, using my voice.
Generally, leaving the path in Faerie is a catastrophically bad idea. Path’s represent order and safety, both of which are fleeting commodities in Faerie. In the Shadow Court’s realm though the normal rules are inverted.
There is no safety there, only easier ways for the Court to play their games. Conforming to their wishes, moving along their paths, was about as far from safety as you could get.
Through my meta-awareness I could sense them moving, en masse, all heading towards the beachhead the heroes had carved into their realm. If we stayed on the paths the Shadow Court favored we wouldn’t stand a chance at avoiding them, and if we encountered many more we wouldn’t stand a chance at getting home. So cutting holes through their walls was the best course of action. Plus, having burned down one of their prisons, I found I kind of liked destroying their stuff.
The others filed past me into newly carved path with Way coming through last before I twisted a trio of branches back together to seal the new path away from the old.
“How are you feeling?”, I asked her, noticing that I’d also sealed away from the golden light of the burning prison.
“Cold.” she admitted. The exertion of fighting the Shadow Courtier had accelerated the poison’s effect on her.
“We’ll be out of here soon.”, I promised. She nodded, but whether that because she believed what I said or just agreed that it was a nice idea, I couldn’t tell.
I slipped past the others to get to the front of group. As I passed Jessica an idea occurred to me.
“Can you make some light, this purple glow isn’t healthy.” I asked her. In response she held up her right hand and it burst into flame like a torch. A very hot torch. The brilliant light was worth the searing heat though. None of the purple shadows lingered in its presence.
I backed away and turned to open the next section of path. It was slower going moving like that, but I wasn’t the only one who could sense the necessity of it.
“They’re moving.” Minnie said. Her voice was clipped and tight. “They’re calling to me.”
“Me too.” Nell nearly whispered.
“They’re calling for all their little pets.” the former Queen chuckled.
“You. Are. Not. Their. Pets.” I insisted.
“Ah, so you would claim their vassalage?” the former Queen asked?
“They are no one’s vassals. They own themselves.” I shot back.
“So you would free us all then?”
“No. Not you.” I told the former Queen.
“You’re her bitch.” Patches added in.
I’d back talked the former Queen because I was mindful of the requirements of the role I was playing over her. I hadn’t lost the sense of how deadly she was though. Even with that awareness keenly in mind, I was still surprised by how quickly she turned on Patches. There was no movement. One moment he was smiling behind her, the next he was dangling from her raised hand, his feet at least two feet off the ground and his throat caught tight in her grasp.
“As am I.” he squeaked out through the chokehold she held on him.
I had no idea why he would name himself my vassal, but the mere fact that he could had saved his life. The only response to an insult the former Queen could make was swift and deadly but it wasn’t her place to destroy a toy her liege might desire and so her wrath was held in check. She would never forgive him of course, but then she would never forgive any of us for seeing her in her current state.
“Let him go.” I instructed her calmly. Behind the former Queen I saw Way watching us carefully. I wasn’t sure how she would react if the former Queen tried to turn on me, but I knew it would be over quickly one way or the other.
I turned away and heard the former Queen drop Patches to the ground unceremoniously. With no audience to play for, or at least not one she cared about, she had no need for any further theatrics.
Finding weak spots in the briar became more difficult the closer we got to the Hedge Gate’s room. With the twists and turns we were forced to take it took all of Jenny’s experience and all of my meta-awareness to guide the path in the right direction. Even with that I had to fight to keep my vision focused on what I was doing, otherwise I would catch flashes and glimpses of the Dreamlit world and the unreal horrors that mirrored the Shadow Court’s realm.
Way had said earlier than I could be impossible. Pen had mentioned something similar too. As I hurried ever faster to unweave the briars and forge us a path through I began to question if that wasn’t literally true.
The Shadow Court was on their most alert, most aggressive, footing but even so they couldn’t sense that we were penetrating the heart of their domain. They couldn’t conceive of someone making it to the Hedge Gate through all of their wards without them knowing of it. They knew their realm. They knew that doing so would be impossible. Looking back at our progress, at the traps and tricks that I was disarming in seconds, I had to wonder if they weren’t correct.
Jenny had never worked at the fever pitch that I was working at, on spells of the complexity that confronted me. My meta-awareness was amazing, but it had been misleading before. It didn’t make sense that I was guessing so much of what I was doing, or leaning so heavily on knowledge that I was at best only partially in touch with, and somehow not making the kind of mistakes that would seal us in the briars forever. There had to be something else at work.
I knew whatever it was it would be important but the need to escape drove me on.
If only Pen were here, I thought. I suspected whatever was happening to me was the kind of thing he’d be very reticent to talk about but it would still be comforting to know he had my back. Thinking of him did help me focus though. For as unbelievable as it was given that I was trapped on an alien world and pursued by a race of homicidal inhuman monsters, I had bigger things to worry about.
The nameless giant might think I was erased or whatever, but he had Pen and Pen held the key to the extinction of life on Earth. So however much it sucked, while the nameless giant might be willing to leave me alone, I couldn’t afford to extend him the same courtesy.
“Where are you taking us?”, Jessica demanded when the next section of path curved away at a ninety degree angle from the direction we’d been traveling.
“She’s taking us to the Hedge Gate. And past all the guards.”, Patches replied.
“What the hell is taking so long then? Why do we keep going the wrong way?”, Jessica’s fire got brighter and hotter.
“Sorry, I’m picking the most direct weak points, but the wards around the heart are very strong.” I said.
“Why don’t we just burn our way through then?”, Jessica approached with both hands aflame.
“We can’t. That will trigger the defenses they have set up.”
“They’ll flood the briars. If they were in a good mood they’d use water. Given the day they’re having though they’d probably use nerve poison.”
“They can do that?” Jessica asked, backing away from the briars.
“They can do worse.” Nell said. We turned to look at her but she shrunk back away from the conversation.
“I could check ahead if that would help?” our friendly ghost offered.
“Are you sure?” I asked. I didn’t have any meta-awareness sense of what her capabilities were.
“No problem! I just need to know what to look for.” she replied.
“I’m not sure I can describe it.”
“That’s not problem. Just gimme a sec, and don’t freak out ok?” she said before she stepped into me.
For a split second we were joined together and we could see glimpses of each other’s whole lives (and afterlife as it turned out). Her name was Heather. She was excellent at math. She was going to skip a grade and enter high school a year early but she’d been killed in a bus accident when she was twelve. She’d worked out how to possess people in order to save her best friend from the Shadow Court. Being a ghost wasn’t as bad she’d been afraid it would be. Almost inviting even. Before I had a chance to “freak out” or even understand what was happening we were blown apart and both landed on the ground stunned.
“What…what are you?”, Heather asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to pull my head together yet again.
“You’re not really a goblin.”
“Of course not. She’s the Queen.” Patches cut in.
“What did she do to you?”, Jessica asked Heather. Apparently a ghost looked more trustworthy than a goblin. Objectively I could kind of see her point, but it was still a bit irritating.
“We don’t have time for this now. Did you get what you needed?” I asked Heather.
“I think so.”
“Good. See if you can find a breakthrough spot into the Hedge Gate’s garden then. Maybe if we work from both ends we can get there faster.”
“Right!” she agreed and stepped into the briars.
I’d only unraveled another ten feet before Heather returned.
“We’ve got a problem. They’re dead!” she said.
“Who? The heroes?” I asked, feeling my stomach sink.
“Heroes?” Jessica asked.
“No. The Shadow Court! Hundreds of them!”
“What do you mean heroes?”, Jessica demanded.
“Superheroes, agents of the FBMA, there was a task force being put together. That bell we heard a few minutes ago was them arriving. Except, I don’t think they could have killed that many Shadow Courtiers that quickly. Something’s not right here.”
“Cut a path through this way and you’ll be able to see. It’s only another twenty feet I think.” Heather said, stepping partially into the briars and indicating the weak point I should focus on.
Twenty feet later, the briars gave way at last to a vast open area that was bathed in red light rather than purple for a change. Where plants should have stood though there were pots filled with things that I could only hope had never been human.
Jenny saved me from vomiting. She had never seen anything like it either, but she was tougher than Jin by a country mile. Instead of focusing on anything in the garden of the Shadow Court’s delights, she watched my companions.
Minnie, Jessica and Heather looked as horrified as I felt. Nell looked horrified too, but not surprised. She’d spent time here already. She already carried this horror with her.
Patches didn’t show any horror at the garden, but he wasn’t looking at it either, whereas the former Queen simply looked bored.
Way had her eyes closed, but it wasn’t because of the garden. The poison was sapping away too much of her strength, too quickly, since we were so close to the center of the Shadow Court’s power.
That galvanized me to face the garden and the Shadow Court. If there was any relief from the tableau of the red garden, it was that those responsible for it were scattered all over it.
Laying across every patch of floor, drapped over every wall and surface, were the bodies of the Shadow Court. At first glance it looked like cosmic justice had caught up with them all in one terrible instant but I could tell something was wrong with that assessment.
The bodies were still and lifeless but none of the ones I could see showed any sign of trauma.
I thought of Way’s battles with the Shadow Courtier’s we’d encountered. I thought of the black flames the nameless giant had wielded against me. I thought of the Shadow Courtier dissolving when the former Queen had slammed it into the briar thorns.
If the heroes of Agent Haffrun’s task force had done this, they would have needed to possess more power than Way, the nameless giant or the former Queen. That or there was a much more chilling possibility.
They hadn’t beaten the Shadow Court at all.
“When the Shadow Court travels to Earth do they take their bodies with them?” I asked.
“Only if there are no Earthly bodies available for them to ride along in.” Patches replied.
I looked at the Hedge Gate. It was still open, and beyond it I could see a pathway leading off to a blue and white planet hanging in a starry sky.