Binding the physical world to an ethereal world of nightmare faerie magic is the kind of thing that they’d probably insist I avoid doing if I decided to join the FBMA. So, in a way, it was good that I was entirely untrained at the task before me.
“What are you doing?” Nell asked.
“Getting the pieces for the World Gate together.”
“It’s helping”, she said. I could see the tears had stopped and she was standing up straighter.
In destroying the statue that served as the guardian of the Shadow Court’s Heart of Power, Way had weakened the Heart itself. Then I had started ripping it apart for material to work with and that had weakened it further. So, in comparison to how it had appeared previously, the room was looking almost cheerful. I might even have been able to work in it for a full ten seconds if Nell stopped supporting me.
“Here’s where it gets difficult again.” I told her. As far as I knew most of the difficulty would be on me for the next phase, but I had no idea what Nell’s limits where or how much backlash she would receive if I got blasted by the forces Jenny would be knitting together.
“The flames are getting closer.” Heather called out from the doorway. I looked at the collection of threads that I’d cut from the Heart of Power. It wasn’t enough. I needed a hundred times the material to work with and a thousand times the knowledge. I didn’t have either though, so I picked up two of the threads and got to knitting.
As I brought the threads together my vision broke apart. The Dreamlit world’s reflection of the Shadow Court’s realm had been horrifying the first time I saw it. Glimpsing it from within the Heart chamber was terrifying in a different way. The eldritch terrorscape that I’d seen earlier was simply gone. What little remained was the space around us, the edges of which were shrinking inwards as the black flames devoured them.
The Shadow Court hadn’t abandoned their bodies and taken over the heroes out of malice. Malice was a side benefit. They’d been fleeing for their existence.
Beyond the edge of the flames I heard a vast roaring. Something knew they’d escaped. Something that sounded a lot like the nameless giant.
“Got to work faster.” I told myself in the Dreamlit world.
I looked at the outline of threads that Jenny’s fingers were spinning together. In the Dreamlit world I saw the shape of the final gate like a ghostly outline overlaying the work that Jenny was doing. Pieces of the outline filled in as I focused and tried to imagine what each of the glyphs and whirls might mean. Meta-awareness helped, providing insight into the importance of each element that I studied. Rather than letting me complete the task faster though, the added knowledge only made it clear how far off the mark I was.
Jenny could spin a glyph in about a minute, working at a breakneck pace and trusting to meta-awareness to guide the way. That would cover about an inch of a doorway that needed to be at least ten feet high and eight feet wide. We had five minutes on the outside before the last scrap of the Shadow Court’s realm burned up.
“We’re not going to make it.” I admitted to myself.
“No. You won’t.”
Something stepped out of the fire at the edge of the world. A suit of empty armor, burning with the black flames that surrounded it. It had the same dying galaxies for eyes that the nameless giant had and it spoke in the same voice.
“What do you want here?” I asked, hoping to stop it with words since I didn’t think anything else I could do would work.
The armored figure stopped at the edge of the flames. It traced a hand through the air revealing a shield that was resisting the advance of the black fire.
“Then why are you here?” I demanded.
“You misunderstand. Our desire is for nothing.”
“That’s why you’re burning this place up?”
“It is an atrocity.”
It was true. If ever a place deserved to be lost to the black flames it was the Shadow Court’s realm. I’d wanted to burn it myself and had set Jessica and Nell to do just that. Something about the black flames made the way they were destroying this place seem wrong though.
“Ok. But you tried to burn up the police station too.” I protested
“Again you misunderstand. It is all atrocity.”
“What? Everything? Why? What’s so bad about the real world?”
“This world is as real as the physical realm we last met in.”
“It’s a faerie land founded on the principal of pain and loss. That’s not what the real world is like.”
“It is corrupt. In no atom of its essence can the touch of a benevolent creator be found. It is an aberration of chaos, a fundamentally flawed conception that can only end in suffering. It is exactly the same as your world and all other worlds in this reality.” The armored figure’s voice was low and intense. It echoed from every flame that surrounded the dying remnant of the Shadow Court’s realm.
Standing inside the influence of the Shadow Court’s Heart of Power it was difficult to argue with him. Nell’s support made the pain the Heart broadcast bearable but even so it colored my thinking. I knew I wasn’t going to give up on getting back home but forming complex counter arguments for a philosophical debate was more than I had the brain power left for.
“So you’re going to destroy everything that is then?” I asked.
“Only from the void can a new reality be crafted.”
I wanted to tell the figure he was insane. Trying to destroy everything, ever, was so over the top it practically defined “megalomaniacal super villain”. Usually that type of threat wasn’t much to worry about from what I’d read. Villains that went that insane didn’t tend to retain enough coherence to tie their own shoes much less pose an actual danger to the world.
This one had annihilated 99% of a realm that had stymied the most powerful heroes on Earth for decades though. And I was the only one who was around to stand against him.
I wanted to run.
Pen was way more knowledgeable than I was about the Dreamlit world and everything that was going on and he hadn’t lasted more than a minute against this guy. Way was vastly more powerful than I could hope to be and she’d been cast out as useless to him. I knew the Shadow Court’s Heart was still influencing me, but I couldn’t see how I was supposed to stop a universe destroyer.
“Is everything ok?” Nell asked.
In the Shadow Court’s realm, I was crying my eyes out. As Jenny, I wanted to live too.
“No.” I admitted. Nell was trying harder than anyone else and I hated telling her the truth, but I couldn’t lie to her either. She deserved better than that. All of them did.
“We’re out of time here Blue!” Jessica called from the alcove they were huddled in at the bottom of the stairs. The passage leading up, just behind Patches, was gone, or rather engulfed in the black flames. They were going to be forced into the room and the Heart was still strong enough to rip their minds to pieces.
Way was down, slumped into Minnie’s arms. Jessica and Heather were looking like the Heart was already getting to them and even the former Queen had a look on her face that I could only read as trepidation. There was no choice left. They had to enter the Heart’s chamber.
“Can you help them?” I asked Nell.
“Yes. Now I can.” she said and tried to pull me towards the others. With the weakening of the Heart’s power she could afford to protect more than just one of us at a time.
“I’m staying here. The gate’s not ready yet.” I told her.
“You can’t. I can’t protect you if we’re not together.”
“I know. It’s ok.” I wasn’t planning to throw my sanity away. I figured I could escape to the Dreamlit world if the pain grew too intense. That was a bit of overestimation on my part.
I knew roughly how bad the pain would be when Nell let go. My meta-awareness was all too happy to give me that warning. What it failed to mention was the effect that would have on Jenny’s body.
Jenny was tougher than Jin, but she had her limits too. I felt my crochet hooked fingers spasm and curl inwards as the pain hit. I nodded for Nell to go to the others as the pain continued to build. She was halfway across the small room when the tremors started.
The glyph that I was working on weaving together ripped apart. I had to draw my hands away from the partial outline of the gate that I’d woven before I destroyed anymore of it. I couldn’t continue on the glyphs and I knew in a few moments I wouldn’t even be able to stand. Then I’d barely be able to writhe. Then I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Then, one way or another, by pain or by flame, I simply wouldn’t be at all anymore.
But I had a few moments.
As Jin in the Dreamlit world, I reach out and put my arms around Jenny. I’d hoped that by sharing the pain with both of my selves I’d lessen the effect on Jenny’s body. The good news was that worked. The bad news was that as Jin I had even less resistance to the pain than I did as Jenny.
“I will face the dark flames.” I heard the former Queen state as Nell tried to draw her into the room.
“No.” I croaked out. I needed to get her home too or the others wouldn’t believe they could be accepted. The idea was a little crazy I admit but, in my defense, I was on thin ice in the sanity department as it was so clinging to a few crazy ideas was somewhat inevitable.
“You would command me still? What is there left of you to pretend to royalty?” the Queen demanded as the flames began to lick away the the glamour she was wearing.
“While there is breath in this body, I remain who I am.” Jenny said, rising to her feet defiantly.
Without a word, Patches reached down, hoisted the former Queen in his arms and carried her across the threshold into the Heart’s chamber. She could easily have stopped him, or killed him for the affront, but apparently my words had gotten through to her.
As she entered the room, I saw what she had been afraid of. The moment she crossed the threshold, her skin burst aflame with the purple fire that we’d seen throughout the Shadow Courts realm. Rather than rising upwards however the flames were drawn towards the center of the room. They fragmented into sparks and were caught in a kind of whirlwind that drew them right into the Heart.
Meta-awareness filled me in immediately. Despite being deposed, the former Queen was still a vessel for the Shadow Court’s power. The Heart was desperate to resist the black flames and was calling back all its power. That was another reason the Shadow Court hadn’t stayed to fight for their domain.
The added power sustained the Heart for only an instant. For all her frightful speed and strength, the former Queen carried only the smallest measure of the Court’s power. The encroaching flames were pushed back a few feet and then surged forward as the Heart exhausted the extra force it had gained.
“We’re all going to die here.” Jessica mumbled in numb denial as we watched the flames enter the Heart’s chamber at last.
“There wasn’t enough time to make the gate.” Heather said. She looked crestfallen and it occurred to me to wonder what would happen to her. Could the flames affect a ghost? Would she burn here too, or would she be left floating alone in the void?
I slammed my hand against the floor and screamed in the Dreamlit world.
“Give yourself to the flames. Join with us. Become nothing and be the architect of everything in the pure world to follow.” the armored figure commanded.
“Why?” I asked struggling to buy even another second for us.
“Because this imperfect world must end.”
“No. You misunderstand me. Why are you asking?”
I forced myself to my feet in the Dreamlit world.
“Why would you ask when you’re going to destroy me either way?” I asked the armored figure who had gone strangely still. Even the flames weren’t flickering.
“Why have me give up? Unless there was some chance, some way that we could escape and you wanted to make sure I don’t notice it.”
My gaze fell on the Dreamlit world’s version of the World Gate. In my meta-awareness fueled imagination, it was complete. A perfect template of the gate that Jenny had been frantically working to build.
Jenny couldn’t weave anymore. Her tremors were too intense. There was one thing she could do though.
“Everyone! Touch the gate! We’re leaving!” I said to my companions. There was no argument, they all grabbed onto the few thin threads that made up the physical version of the World Gate. Jenny then stepped forward and with shaking hands grabbed hold of the Heart directly.
In the Dreamlit world, Jin held onto Jenny tightly with one hand and with the other grabbed hold of the Dreamlit World Gate.
The power of the Heart surged into Jenny and then into Jin. Feeling the pain in stereo almost obliterated my consciousness, but my gamble paid off before that could happen. From Jin, all of the pain and power from the Heart flowed into the Dreamlit World Gate which exploded with a brilliant pink light.
There was a howl of incoherent rage from everywhere around the remnants of the world. The armored figure smashed the shield that held back the flames like it was made of paper thin ice and began to charge the World Gate.
He was too late though. I had control of the gate, and I knew where I wanted to send us.