Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Hollow Half – Chapter 25

One of the benefits to wearing heavy, padded robes is that they spread the force of giant fangs over a somewhat broader area. That’s not one of things I’d imagined when I’d dreamed up the robes I was wearing, but some surprises do turn out to be pleasant ones.

“Huh, that’s not so bad” isn’t exactly what I would have expected to be thinking while I was trapped in the jaws of an enormous beast that was engulfed in black flames but it beat almost all of the alternatives I could think of.

It took my mind a moment to catch up with the situation I was in, and to register how fast we were traveling. That’s when I realized that the beast wasn’t trying to tear me to pieces. It was carrying me away. Strange as it sounded, I was pretty sure it was trying to save me. The way it held me just tightly enough to be secure without crushing or piercing me supported that notion.

I tried to see where we were going but the surroundings were flashing past in too much of a blur. I knew we were still in the Dreamlit world’s reflection of my world, but with the way the streetlights and neon signs blurred together we might as well have been running through hyperspace.

When we stopped, we were in the graveyard behind one of the old churches at the far end of town. The purple flames that still clung to my scepter sputtered and choked out. The Shadow Court’s magics weren’t welcome on blessed ground. It wouldn’t stop them from following us, but it did make the graveyard one of the last places they would think to check. Maybe.

With surprising gentleness, the beast lowered its head to the ground and opened its mouth so that I could get to my feet.

“Thank you.” I said, more for my own benefit that anything else.

“You’re welcome.” the beast responded. The musical quality of her voice shocked me just slightly less than the fact that she talking in the first place.

“Gah! You can talk?” I leapt back on reflex.

“Yes.” she confirmed. I don’t know why a giant talking beast made of black flames struck me as unusual at this point. Old habits I guess.

“Do…do you have a name?” I asked.

“Not yet.” the beast replied.

“Do you want one?”

“Yes, but not from you. When my mistress is ready I will take a name from her.”

“Your mistress?”

“Yes. You named her.”

The pieces fell into place at last. The beast was Way’s. It was the same one that had pursued me at the police station. Way hadn’t wanted to hurt me but she’d been compelled to by the Oblivion Knight’s command. The beast had reacted to that and had carried me away to safety to spare Way from the conflict that was tearing her apart.

“Will the others be pursuing us?” I asked, thinking how much faster Way had been than her beast last time.

“Yes, but they will not find you, I will lead them away.”

“I can’t ask you to do that. They’ll destroy you if they catch you.”

“You aren’t asking, my mistress is, and they won’t catch me.” she said. An instant later she was gone.

I was alone. And in a graveyard. Even within the Dreamlit world that felt creepy. Worse, I didn’t need meta-awareness to tell me I wasn’t safe here. Graveyard spookiness aside, there were too many Oblivion Courtiers to think they would all chase after Way’s beast.

Without considering what I was doing, I stepped across the barrier to the physical world. It was hard. It felt like I was pushing through a sea of tar rather than the usual thin gossamer curtain. By the time I broke through I was exhausted. Weariness tried to drag me back to the Dreamlit world and it was almost enough to distract me from the crawling shivers that were playing all over my skin. Something was very wrong and it wasn’t just that I was surrounded by graves in the dark of the night.

“Now isn’t this interesting?” a woman said. Her voice was frail and weakened as though by injury or great age. She was tall, but so gnarled and hunched over that her head was bowed lower than mine. In the light of the street lamps and neon signs, I could see that her skin was covered in liver spots and hung off her in long, loose wrinkles. I didn’t recognize her at first, but when I saw Patches (clothed this time in a t-shirt and loose jeans, but still every inch the cat boy I’d met him as) beside her I clued in to her identity. She was the former Queen.

I looked at her again. She wasn’t wearing a glamour. Gone was not only the artificial perfection of her magic visage but also the grey horror of her “true” Shadow Court form.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“I followed a foolish girl to the end of my world.” she replied with an bitterly amused wheeze.

“The Heart was an unkind lender.” Patches added.

I thought back to the final moments in the Shadow Court’s realm. Patches had carried the Queen into the Heart’s chamber and it had ripped the last vestiges of the Shadow Court’s power from her.

“What are you?” I asked her.

“Dying.” she said.

“You’re immortal though?” I knew I was wrong as soon as I asked the question. The Shadow Court couldn’t die, but she wasn’t a Courtier anymore. She’d lost all of that in our flight from their realm. First her title to me, then her power to the Heart.

“I was, but as I am I will perish before the sun rises.” She sounded almost pleasantly resigned to her fate.

“Is that true?” I asked Patches. I had to remind myself that the age I saw on her was coupled with cunning and treachery. I’d saved her from the destruction of the Shadow Court’s realm but that was no reason to think she’d be grateful to me.

“I suspect so. She has aged preternaturally fast since we return.” the catboy confirmed.

“Mortal years, the ones this body should have lived. They’re catching up with me.” the wizened crone cackled.

“What are you doing here then?” I asked. I knew a hospital wouldn’t have a hope of treating her but someone like Heartbeat might be able to pull off a miracle.

“Trying to live a little longer.” she said.

“In a graveyard?”

“It was to avoid the Court.” Patches explained.

“And to wait for you.” the crone added.

“Me? How did you know I would come here?”

“An area sheltered from the Court’s eyes? Where else would I think to look for you?” the crone replied.

“Why would you want to see me though? I’ve got things immensely more dangerous than the Shadow Court after me. Even being near me like this means you’re in danger.” I warned them.

“And you would shelter us from that danger?” the crone. Her voice was gentle but there was a keenness in her gaze that told me I was walking into a trap.

“Nobody deserves the kind of trouble that’s following me.” I told her.

“You are a kind girl. Your compassion is a credit to your humanity, and to those who have loved and nurtured you.” the crone said. I blinked. The complement seemed so out of character for her that I wondered if Patches had misplaced the former Queen and found some other old lady to take her place.

“That same kindness and compassion makes you an abomination as a Queen of the Shadow Court though.” she continued. Her gaze was fixed on me, dissecting me.

“You’re not the first person to call me an abomination tonight.” I told her.

“They did not see you as I do. They cannot have. Only one who understands what the Court is can see how poorly you wear your crown, how ill suited you are to its rule, how it is chaffing and wearing away at you.”

The crone wasn’t a Courtier anymore. She could lie freely, but I knew she wasn’t. She didn’t need too. The truth was the only weapon she needed for this battle.

“What is the Court then?” I asked. It felt like I was being spun into a web but at the same time the lure of knowing was too strong to resist.

“It is pain, it is cruelty, it is loss. It is a weapon.” she savored each word, her voice caressing them as she spoke.

“What do you mean?”

“Pain, cruelty, loss, these are all real. They are undeniable. They are true. That is the only weapon you can fight the Unreal with.”

“It wasn’t enough to save the Court’s realm.”

“The Queen chose to flee. She feared what was coming.”

“The black flames scared her that much?”

“No. You did.”

“What?” That didn’t seem vaguely possible at first, but then I thought of what I’d done to the ones in my house.

“You are the Queen Who Has Fallen. The Powerless Queen. But you aren’t powerless and you weren’t powerless then, were you?”

I thought back to the flight out of the Shadow Court’s domain. I’d literally cut my way to the heart of their realm and I’d lead a group of people there who had as much power as a team of superheroes. What would I have done if we’d had to get past the Reigning Queen? Especially after seeing the red garden?

I thought again of what I’d done at my house. I could have done that to their realm if the Oblivion Knight hadn’t beat me too it. I might easily have done that to the Queen after what I’d seen. The Reigning Queen wouldn’t care what using that kind of power would cost me. All that would have mattered was that I had the power in the first place.

The crawling feeling of wrongness hadn’t left my skin. My stomach joined the discomfort as I thought about the sort of power I had. The purple flames of the Shadow Court and the black flames of the Unreal. Using either one of them felt like I was ripping myself apart, but they were weapons I could use. Weapons I might have to use. I thought of Mom. And James. And Way and Minnie. Heck even Jessica. If it came down to it, if it was the only way to stop the Oblivion Knight and his minions, I’d use any and every power I could lay my hands on. It was that or annihilation.

“You’ve taken the title and worn it in battle. But you haven’t given yourself to it. You can’t. You’re too kind, too compassionate.”

“You have no idea what I’m like.” I told her. What scared me most wasn’t that she was right, but that she might be horribly wrong. Using the black flames, annihilating the Shadow Courtiers, had left me burned inside and numb, but thinking back on it, I’d relished it too. No restraints. No consequences. I’d only been disappointed that I couldn’t make the fire hurt them worse. When faced with loss, I’d been all too happy to wield cruelty and pain as weapons.

“Perhaps not, but is that how you truly wish to be? Do wish to become as I was?” she asked.

“I won’t be like you.” I replied. It was true, I wouldn’t be like her. If I wanted to be a monster, I’d be much worse than she ever could have been.

“This is all fascinated but I believe there’s an offer to made?” Patches cut in. He looked bored, sitting on the edge of a tombstone and filing his nails. Those focus he gave them though was unnaturally intense. Cats show fear it odd ways I guess but we all knew time was running out.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“To give you what you gave me. To balance the scales.” she replied.

“What did I give you?”


I laughed.

“Freedom? No offense, but the last thing I could ever trust you to give me is freedom.”

“Then you will slay me.”

“What? No, why would I kill you?”

“Refuse me and I die before dawn. Whether you choose to strike the final blow with your own hand or not doesn’t matter to me.”

“I can’t save you, I may not even be able to save myself. If you die of old age I don’t see how that’s my fault or what I could do about it.”

Her eyes lit up and she closed her trap around me

“You can save yourself and you can save me. All you need to do is one thing; Give me my title. Give me the Heart. Lay your burden on me and forget everything that happened here.”

“How would that…”, I trailed off. How would that help? I could see all too easily how that would help.

If I called her “Queen”, if I turned the title back to its rightful owner, she would be the one with the connection to the Shadow Court’s power. She was right that I wasn’t willing to use it, not really. She would be though. Even without any abductions, there was a lot of pain, cruelty and loss in the world. The reborn Queen would be able to command the Courtiers, maybe even the ones that had been lost to Oblivion. She’d be able to strike back at the Oblivion Knight and drive him off.

The real world was too big a target for him precisely because even forces like the Shadow Court would oppose its destruction. I didn’t have to chose between destroying myself and the annihilation of the Earth anymore. More importantly I didn’t have to try to fight something that was vastly older and more powerful than myself. Where I would have to scramble to figure things out on the fly and guess at everything I did, the reborn Queen would be able to draw on an age of experience in wielding her powers. She could win fights that I would barely even survive.

“What about my family. They took my parents!” It was selfish. In the face of global armageddon, I was more concerned about the fate of the few people who were dear to me than the billions who would die and the trillions who would never exist at all if the Oblivion Knight won.

“You could ask for a geas as part of the bargain.” Patches said.

The crone glared at him.

“Yes, the boy speaks truth. I would agree to spare them if you wished.”

“You would agree to more than that.” Patches said, a delighted look in his feline eyes, “A binding that the Shadow Court would never again hunt in Brassport and would never cause harm or distress to any who bear her favor or love. You would go as far as that.”

I leaned against a gravestone. What Patches suggested would be a huge restriction on the Shadow Court. “Never” for Faeries is exactly what it sounds like. Billions of years in the future when the sun swallowed the Earth, Brassport and my family would still be safe from them.

“Aye. I would go that far.” the crone confirmed. It meant more than power to her. It meant her life.

My heart leapt when she said that and I felt like the kid that I was. I’d been looking for someone else who would take responsibility for so long. Someone who would deal with the terrifying realities and the violence, someone who would shield me from harm.

Someone who would make things right.

I looked at the frail old woman before me. She looked back with patient eyes. She knew how much I needed what she could offer.

“I…”, my words caught in my throat. I swallowed and looked down, searching for the cause of my hesitation.

I wanted someone who would make things right. I remembered the red garden. I remembered touching the Shadow Court’s Heart. I remembered Samantha.

The Shadow Court would never make things right.

If I gave back the title, if I returned the former Queen to her rule and power, I would be a part of their evil. Relying on them to fight the Oblivion Knight meant accepting that what they did to the innocent was necessary.

“I‘m sorry. I can’t do that.” I said. What happened next, how things turned out with the Oblivion Knight, with my parents, with Way, it was my responsibility.

I had power. However much I didn’t want to accept that, however much I wouldn’t be accepted for it, I had power. I’d wanted so much for someone else to come in and make things right, to take responsibility but that desire came from the pain and fear in me.

I hadn’t been willing to accept what was real about myself because the thought was terrifying. If I had power, if I took responsibility then I could fail. It could be my fault that people like my Dad weren’t saved when they should have been.

It had taken looking at what turning my power over to the Shadow Court would mean to wake me up. Whether or not something was my fault didn’t matter. What mattered was whether or not it happened in the first place.

I knew that putting aside my insecurity was easier said than done, but somehow just seeing it for what it was made the burden a little lighter. I didn’t need someone to take care of everything. I hadn’t asked for my problems but I knew that’s what they were. My problems. And my chance to make things better.

“I see.” the crone said. I expected her to scream at me, or maybe to lunge forward with claws bared. Instead she sagged, the weight of her long years crushing her to ground as her last hope left her.

I turned away from her and looked at the rows of carefully tended headstones. This was an old church graveyard but people still cared for it. That’s what gave it the energy to ward off the Shadow Court’s magics.

I breathed out a small sigh and tried to accept that in doing what I thought was the right thing, I’d condemned the tired old lady near me to a swift and painful death. Her weakness could be a trick to play for sympathy, but I knew it wasn’t. She was a horrible creature, but weak and powerless as she was, I couldn’t hate her. Whatever she was, whatever she’d done, she’d been a person once too.

So had the Courtiers in my house, but I hadn’t spared them. I shook my head. I wasn’t going to beat myself up over that. The situations were different and I was different in the aftermath of that fight too. It wouldn’t happen again, and I was already going to pay for what I’d done by having to deal with the Oblivion Courtiers the Oblivion Knight has raised from their ashes.

That thought struck a spark in my mind though. The Oblivion Knight had raised his new troops from their ashes. But the Shadow Court doesn’t leave ashes. When they’re destroyed they’re just gone. It’s the humans they once were that held the promise of rebirth.

That wasn’t going to help me against the new Courtiers. Oblivion had claimed them and that was a one way trip as far as I could see. I couldn’t make any use of the human aspect of the Oblivion Courtiers, but the crone who sat before me was another story.

“I can’t offer you the title back, but I can offer you a chance to live, if you wish it.” I said, turning back to her. Patches cocked his head to the side, curiosity roused by my unexpected words.

“And what would I have to give you?” the crone rasped.

“Your name.” I told her quietly.

“I have no name. I had only the title you now bear.”

“There is one name that’s still yours, but you haven’t used it in a thousand years.”

”No. Not that name. That’s not who I am.” the crone coughed and the effort shook her entire body.

“I know. It’s the name of the human who gave herself to you to escape the torment your spirit inflicted. In tiny stages you made her your own until there was almost nothing left and almost no corner of her you didn’t control. She’s still there though, locked away within you. She’s slept and dreamed the nightmare of your existence across uncounted seasons.” I was letting meta-awareness fill me in as I spoke though I knew the broad strokes of what I was saying already.

“You would reverse the tables then? I would sleep and dream of her life?”

“If she wishes. Either of you can end this here. Either way her spirit won’t be enslaved to you any further.”

“I would cease to be me.”

“You would change. Just like all mortals do.”

“But I am an immortal!”

“As was she while you ruled her. Accept this, accept her rule, and you’d both be mortal. You’d have no more control over her than she has had over you but you would share her life, the parts she chose to give you, in your dreams. If that seems unbearable, then let it end here. There’ll be no pain for either of you.” I told her.

The crone looked at me for a long silent moment. Her face was still and expressionless, except for her eyes which were gazing off into eternity. At last she looked up into my eyes and gave me a simple nod.

“Adella.” she said, before breaking eye contact. She was afraid. Afraid in the way only someone who has not changed in over a thousands years can be afraid.

I took her hands.

“Adella, remember yourself.” I said softly as I joined the Dreamlit and real worlds together once more.

“Come back.” I whispered, calling her to wakefulness across the centuries she had slumbered.

The Dreamlit world settled around me was like the gentle caress of warmth from a cozy fire on an icy day. It felt oh so very right after the “wrongness” that had been crawling over my skin since I stepped into the real graveyard. That’s when I worked out what I’d done.

I hadn’t reintegrated with my physical body when I’d entered the real world. My body wasn’t on Earth any longer. James had carried it away to Olympus. I’d forced my Dreamlit body to be real for a time! My Dreamlit body that I could change into anything I dreamed of. That couldn’t really die. I might be human still, but I wasn’t sure I was technically “mortal” anymore.

There wasn’t the gut churning shock I expected at discovering that. I was what I was and I was beginning to accept that. Any problems that caused me, I’d face when they came up. Till then I had more immediate concerns.

“Who am I?” Adella asked.

“You’re the only one who can say.” I told her holding up an empty mirror. “Imagine yourself as you were, as you want to be. Imagine and remember.”

It took time. Precious time, but it couldn’t be rushed. Slowly the image of a Spanish woman in her mid-twenties began to appear in empty mirror. She was older than the child Adella must have been when she was captured, but even though she’d slept the centuries away, some part of Adella had aged and slowly grown.

I’d been worried when I healed myself in the Dreamlit world that the any major changes would change my history beyond recognition. The change Adella was working on herself was less like a butterfly flapping its wings and more like an asteroid impact on her history. Her life had been stolen from her and in its place she was unconsciously weaving a whole new one for herself.

Patches and I watched as the mirror filled with her image, some pieces appearing out of nowhere, others coming slowly into focus, shifting and changing to fit as they did. While Adella crafted her new life, I plotted and planned as well, putting my own imagination to work.

It was almost an hour later when the image of Adella in the mirror was complete. It was a miracle that the Oblivion Courtiers hadn’t found us, a miracle and probably some very hard work by Way’s beast.

“It’s me.” Adella said, raising a withered old hand towards the supple young one in the mirror.

“If you want her to be.” I told her. “You can embrace her and make that life your own. “

“What will cost me?”

“You’ll have to give up what you are now. Everything you do, will be on you. There won’t be a Shadow Court spirit in charge. You’ll have to decide how to live your own life.”

She nodded.

“I’m ready.” and with that she stepped forward into the mirror. The image of the young woman stepped out of the mirror while the reflection of the old crone faded away leaving only emptiness behind.

I started to ask Adella how she felt but I was cut off by a gust of wind and the sizzle of nearby lightning. Bracing myself against the wind, I watched as a familiar sky galleon aero-braked into position above us.

“Ahoy the land! Be there a lass by the name of Molly among you?”, Captain Rumbeard of the Star Runner hollered down, his voice lilting in the slippery song of his native language.

“Aye Captain! Permission to come aboard!” I hollered back as I shifted into being a Sky Pirate once more.

I’d run long enough. There was a battle coming and it was high time I got ready for it.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 24

I sat in the wreckage of my home, grateful that it wasn’t also the wreckage of my life. I was myself, but after losing my parents, destroying my house and burning in the flames of the unreal, I wasn’t sure I knew what that meant anymore.

The black flames hadn’t hurt me physically, my skin wasn’t singed, my hair was fine, but inside I felt nothing but emptiness.

“We have a lot to talk about.” James said.

“I know.” I replied. There were so many answers I wanted, so much I had to tell him but none of it seemed to matter.

“First thing: Are you ok?” James asked.

I tried to answer that and came up short a few times before settling on “I don’t need any medical attention.”

“Good.” He was eyeing me critically though. He wasn’t sure what he believed anymore, but he had a few scraps of faith he could afford to give me.

“So you’re Aegis?” I asked. I was afraid to let silence settle in. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to start talking again if it did.

“How did you know?”

“The costume. Kind of a giveaway there.”

“Before that. You knew when you woke me up.”

“Yeah.” I tried to picture how I could start explaining what had happened tonight and I came up blank.

“Ok.”, he said, letting my non-answer slide, ”What about Mom and Dad. What…what happened to them?”

“The Shadow Court took them. Possessed them.”


“I don’t know. Below the Earth.” I almost couldn’t say the words. It felt like the more I said, the more I was accepting it.

“That’s not possible. The Shadow Court’s dead. We saw them.”

“It was a trick. They were scared. They abandoned their bodies and hid in your shadows.”

“My shadows?”

“Yours and the other heroes.”

“They can’t do that!”

“Yes they can. They just haven’t had to for a long time.”

“How do you know that? What are you?” James was being torn apart by denial and terror at what he’d unwittingly unleashed.

“I don’t know.”, I admitted. I fought to keep the tears out of my eyes but it was a losing battle. A long silent moment dragged on before I looked up. James lifted his head too and smiled at me strangely.

“Oh god, I know how that feels.”

It was my turn to be confused.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I wasn’t always Aegis.” he replied.

“When…” I started to ask him, but he cut me off.

“We should probably compare notes on that later. If Mom and Dad are in trouble, we need to help them.”

“How?” I asked. From the Dreamlit world I could see through the Shadow Court’s glamours, but I didn’t know where to look for them. Meta-awareness might have been able to tell me, but it felt numb, deaf and blind. Probably due to channeling the black fire, I guessed.

“I don’t know. We need to think of something though.”

“What about Athena?”

“She was the one who put me on the Shadow Court’s trail in the first place. That’s why I was late tonight. I’m sorry.”

I nodded in acceptance of the apology, refusing to speculate on how things might have gone differently. Feeling empty seemed better than dealing with regrets on that scale.

“So if she had you hunting them, then she wasn’t sure where they were before they escaped from their lair right?”


“We won’t be able to track them then. If the Shadow Court could hide from her sight before, I’m sure they’re hidden from it now.”

“I don’t understand though. Why would they do this? Mom and Dad? They don’t take adults. They take kids. It’s always kids.”

“A lot’s changed tonight.” I said. I didn’t want to be cryptic. I wanted to tell him everything. I wanted him to know everything that I did and then tell me it was all ok and he’d be able to handle everything. That wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, but I wanted it anyways.

“It was at the library wasn’t it?” James asked with a strange catch in his voice.


“That’s when you got the call right?”

“The call?”

“That’s when you changed, when you got whatever that shape changing, death fire power thing you can do.”

Something about his description hit a weird nerve in me and I actually laughed.

“Shape Changing Death Fire Power? You make it sounds like I’m the drummer for a metal band or something.”

James smiled back, without laughing.

“Yeah, maybe. It’d be easier than having another metahuman in the house.” his grin was wry but I could see a lot more pain hiding behind it than there should have been. Meta-awareness was still shot but I knew him. It took a moment of knocking my gray cells together to catch a glimpse of things from his perspective.

“It’s not your fault.” I assured him.

“Yeah.” there was zero conviction in his agreement, so I grabbed his arm.

“No. Seriously. What’s happening with me? It started way before the library. Remember in the morning when I was totally zoning out?”


“I was already ‘waking up’ at that point.”

“Waking up?”

“I don’t know how else to describe it. You said it was a “call” for you right? Because Athena chose you? No one chose me. I kind of “chose” myself.”

“You just decided to develop superpowers and you did?”

“No. More like, I was in the right place at the right time and made a choice that put me in the position to ‘wake up’ in a way I hadn’t before. Most of what I can do? It’s just applying my imagination to things.”

“Imagination? How do you shoot black fire with your imagination?”

“In the real world, I can’t. Here though? I guess I just need to be pushed far enough.”

“What do you mean ‘here’?”

“Ah, right. Sorry, this still looks like home. That’s the other thing I can do. There’s another world, it’s dangerous to know about, but well, here you are. It’s called the ‘Dreamlit world’.”

“So you can create portals?”

“No…or actually yes, but this isn’t a parallel Earth. It’s not actually even “real”. Think of it like a dream. I can push the real world and the dreamlit world together. So we’re sort of partially real now and partially just a dream. When I let them go, well, you’ll see what really happened to our house then.”

“So you can make your imagination real?”

“Not exactly. What happens in the Dreamlit world doesn’t map precisely to what happens in the real world.”

“What about the Shadow Court then? What really happened to them?”

“In the real world? The ones that were here, the ones that I burned, they never existed in the first place. We can remember them because we were partially outside the real world when they were annihilated.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That black fire? It doesn’t just burn you. It erases you from history. Past, present, and future. You’re more than gone, you never were and never will be. I…I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have used it.”


“If you hadn’t stopped me, I wouldn’t have stopped it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t burning them because I wanted to, I was burning them because I couldn’t stop myself. After they were gone, I would have been the only one left holding any of their power. I didn’t want you to see that.” I fell silent. I felt ashamed of what I’d been thinking then. I was glad James had stopped me when he did.

“You’re an idiot.”

“What?” I drew back, stung by the anger in his words.

“Don’t ever think like that. Ever.”


“I don’t care how bad it is. You come to us. To me. To Dad. To Mom. You don’t leave us like that.”

“I don’t…”

“No. Don’t. I’m not losing someone like that. Not ever again.”

His rage and pain wasn’t directed at me, but I felt the force of them anyways. I knew that James and his Dad had stepped in to fill the hole in my family from when my Dad had died. I’d never thought that Mom and I were filling a hole in his family too.

“I won’t.” I promised. My new family wouldn’t have remembered me if the black fire had consumed me. They wouldn’t have been able to grieve, but the hole would still have been there, the absence of me.

I felt less empty inside thinking about that.

“We should go. Even if you got all of the Shadow Court that were here, it sounds like there are still others left right?” James said.

“Yeah, all of them in fact. They all came through with you guys. I think you had the fewest because of your shield.”

“I can’t believe they were able to do that at all.”

“They’re millenia old. They don’t have to tangle with things tougher than themselves very often because they’re scary good at hiding. Secret hidey holes? Those are like catnip to them. It’s not your fault. If anything its probably mine.”


“If I’d let them take Samantha, none of this would have happened.”


“There was a little girl at the library. I…I didn’t tell you everything about what happened there.”

“So let me get this straight: you just started developing your powers today and the first thing you did was take on a mob of boogeymen to save a girl you’d never met before?”


“It’s gotta be something in Dad’s cooking.” James shook his head in disbelief.

“What do you mean.”

“That’s what I did too. That’s why Athena chose me.”

“I don’t suppose you had a little guy in white show up to give you a cryptic starters guide speech?”

“Owl. Couldn’t speak. Just hooted when I was headed in the right direction.”

“Nice. I’m starting to think I should write a book.”

“Later, first we get you somewhere safe.”

“Where do you have in mind?”


“Is that allowed?”

“Don’t really care, but in this case I’m pretty sure its cool.”

I turned the idea over in my head. Olympus, not the mountain in Greece, but the celestial realm. Home of the ultra-powerful spirits humanity knew as the Greek and Roman gods. I’d be safe from the Shadow Court there. James would be able to recruit some serious help and there was a decent chance the Goddess of Wisdom and Battle Strategy, aka his patron, could put together a plan to get our parents back.

“That sounds perfect. We should get my body though. I kind of lose track of it when I’m on a different plane.”

“Uh, what?” James asked.

“Easier to show you.” I said. I led the way up to my room. My fiery rampage had left the stairs wrecked but talking with James had helped me pull myself back together well enough that I was able to conjure supports and new steps as needed.

“So, one thing, my bedroom looks a little weird. It’s a side effect of some stuff that happened, but, just don’t freak out ok?” I said. Explaining the whole “by the way, I’m also a Faerie Queen now” thing was more than I wanted to get into.

I stepped into my room and felt naked terror run through me. We weren’t alone. Swifter than words or thought, I transformed again, black robes exploding around me in a flare of purple fire.

All throughout the palatial room beyond my door, in precise formation, knelt figures engulfed in black fire. Figures that resembled the Shadow Courtiers I’d seen earlier. The Oblivion Knight sat on a throne of silent flames, behind and above them, an orb of black fire held lazily in his hand. At his right side stood a Shadow Courtier that was taller than the rest.

Her features were lost to black fire that had consumed her but her bearing was unmistakable. We stood before the Queen of the Shadow Court. Not the former Queen who I had rescued, this was the reigning Queen. The one who carried the true power of the Shadow Court. The Oblivion Knight has burned her up. That was why the Shadow Court didn’t remember having a Queen anymore. She’d been erased from their history. In here place stood the Oblivion Queen.

“You join us at last.” the Oblivion Knight said. His voice was different. Less cosmic. More real. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I was certain it wasn’t good.

“Who is that, Jin?” James asked.

“That’s the Oblivion Knight. He’s here to destroy the world.”

We were dead. Aegis’ shield was powerful but it did have its limits. Even giving myself over to the rage that had destroyed the Shadow Court the first time wouldn’t save us. The black fire wouldn’t harm them anymore. It’s what they had become.

“I am here to offer you again a place at my side. To end this.”

“End what?” James, or rather Aegis asked. In between us and the Oblivion Courtiers, the blue radiance of Athena’s shield flickered to life.

“Everything.” the Oblivion Knight answered. There was a tone of amusement in his voice. It was creepy, but also puzzling. Meta-awareness gave me short bursts of insight, but nothing that fit together to form a coherent picture.

“Have you forgotten what I told you?” I asked him.

“Empty words and empty threats.”

“I won’t join you.” I told him. It seemed like a futile gesture. He’d picked this spot to prove a point. He had the power to break through any barrier I could put up. Olympus would be only a temporary refuge and while I cowered there, my world would burn.

“Then perhaps you will join her instead?”, the Oblivion Knight said. A sweep of his hands parted the Oblivion Courtiers from his side, revealing the girl who stood at his left hand.

Way rose to her feet, silent with unfocused eyes.

“You seem to have some fondness for my little doll.” the Oblivion Knight observed. “You know her strength too. Join me or perish at her hands, the choice is yours.”

“Aegis, get out of here.” I told my brother quickly.

“No way in hell.” he answered back through clenched teeth.

“Wasn’t a suggestion.” I dream spoke to him.

I didn’t wait for an answer or a response from anyone before I split the Dreamlit World apart from the physical world. On the real side of the barrier, James and my physical body, on the other all of the baddies, Way and my Dreamlit self.

“I’m not going to join you and I’m not going to fight her.” I told the Oblivion Knight. In the physical world, I felt James lift me up. A second later there was a tingle of electric charge in the air and then my body was gone, whisked away by Zeus’s Lightning. Separated across the dimensions again, I couldn’t feel my physical body any more than I could when I’d been in the Shadow Court’s realm. At least this time it wasn’t trapped in a burning building though.

“An unfortunate choice. Destroy her.” the Oblivion Knight waved Way forward with a flick of his hand.

Her steps were slow and halting. At first I thought the Oblivion Knight had broken her but then I saw the pauses for what they were. Way was fighting the command.

I looked into her eyes.

“Run! Please!”, she dream spoke to me. She was lost in a tumult of confusion but some part of her knew she didn’t want to obey the command she’s received.

“I can’t.” I dream spoke back to her. I was surrounded by Oblivion Courtiers. They were only immobile because there was no need for them to move. If I ran they would catch me and if they didn’t the Oblivion Queen’s Guard would.

They were the other major heroes from the Task Force. Professor Platinum, Invertix, the Red Shadow, and Constellation. They stood beside the Oblivion Queen as her personal guard. Even if I could weave some trick with my title as Queen to usurp control of the Oblivion Court, even if I could talk Way into not fighting me, I would still have to deal with them.

I couldn’t win this fight. I’d promised James I wouldn’t give up again though, so no matter what it cost, I had to try.

The purple flames of the Shadow Court wouldn’t be enough against the Oblivion Courtiers but I summoned them forth anyways and sent them coursing down my scepter. Way flashed forward, striking with her black scythe as I did. Scythe and scepter locked, bringing us face to face. In her eyes I saw panic and fear.

“I won’t hurt you!” I promised her. Except she wasn’t worried about me hurting her. She was terrified of what she might do to me. Or how she might let down the Oblivion Knight. Or both. My meta-awareness had recovered enough to whisper that much to me. There was a geas, a compulsion laid on her, but that alone wasn’t enough to control her will. There was something beneath it, something she clung to willingly that was threatening to rip her in two.

And yet still she resisted the order to fight me. I didn’t understand it and I knew she didn’t either, but we didn’t need to. Neither of us could finish this fight.

As though bending to that thought, the black flames on her scythe and the purple Shadow Court flames on my scepter recoiled away from each other. They weren’t responding to us though. They couldn’t touch one another. I thought back to the Shadow Court’s realm and the way the Heart of the Realm had held off the black flames. It was a refuge but it wasn’t going to save me. I couldn’t call up anywhere near as much power as the Heart of the Realm had and even that hadn’t been enough to hold off the Oblivion Knight.

I struggled desperately to think of some other path I could take, some trick that would save me or at least buy me time. I was walking in the Dreamlit world so I had lot of options, but unfortunately so did my adversaries. I couldn’t be killed, but the black fire didn’t kill, it unmade. I wasn’t sure what that would mean but I suspected I wouldn’t be able to recover from it as easily as a regular dream death.

I could see that Way was struggling the same as I was. Her eyes were darting in every direction, until they landed on something behind me and flared open. I saw clarity there and the briefest moment of relief.

Then I felt the fangs of a monstrous beast bite into me.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 23

My living room was filled with Shadow Courtier spirits and one person shielded from them by an aura of blue light. The same blue aura that shields the hero Aegis. But the person within the aura was James.

My brother was a superhero. That hit me harder than the fact that my house had been invaded by hundreds of Shadow Courtiers. He was a superhero and I hadn’t had the first clue.

For a moment, the presence of the Shadow Courtiers didn’t enter my mind. They might as well have been socks that I’d left on the floor for as much of my attention as they commanded.

James was Aegis.

That wasn’t possible, but I could see his shield, right there on his arm. I could see the sanctuary it created around him. Looking closely I could even see the Mark of Athena on his brow. He was her Chosen One. The vessel the ancient goddess empowered to safeguard the mortals she loved so much.

My brother was a superhero!

A sleeping superhero?

At first it looked like the Shadow Courtiers had smothered him but the way he lay on the couch in the living room was all too familiar. It didn’t say “smothered by alien monsters”, it said “passed out from studying too late in front of the TV.”

I wanted to go and wake him up. I wanted to shake about a dozen answers out of him right away but the thought that I’d wind up waking up a few hundred Shadow Courtiers in the process was sufficient to convince me to tread lightly. I might be the next best thing to indestructible in the Dreamlit world but that didn’t mean I was ready to fight an army like that.

Instead, I checked out my room. Using my physical body was slow and sluggish but I was able to confirm there were no signs of the Shadow Court. Like Minnie’s labyrinth, my room was a sanctum sanctorum. A refuge. In the Dreamlit world that translated to it being very hard to invade. With the title I carried, and backed by the power I was developing, even the army of evil Faeries camped outside weren’t powerful enough to force their way in.

That’s why I hadn’t woken up possessed by one or more of them.

“What the hell are they doing here?” I wondered.

Following Aegis.

I winced. James had mentioned that Aegis had joined the heroes who assaulted the Shadow Court’s realm. I knew that the Courtiers had abandoned their bodies and traveled back with the heroes to the physical world. Clearly as Aegis, James had been shielded from them, and still was to some degree. Just as clearly though that shield didn’t protect him completely.

He wasn’t possessed, which was cause for celebration, but he was the spiritual equivalent of a plague carrier. Once the Shadow Court woke up, they would be on the hunt for new bodies. For long term use they needed children but under the current circumstances anyone would do.

Meta-awareness had told me that the Shadow Court needed time to regain their energy. Based on the sleeping horde in my house, it was right. I’d missed one important bit of information though. They needed time to regain their strength, but if an immediate opportunity (or threat) presented itself they’d react. Like in Minnie’s room.

Like with my parents.

Meta-awareness gave me that bit of information like an icicle to the abdomen. I’d left them alone with James. James and the horde of Courtier spirits that were tagging along with him.

I raced to their room in the Dreamlit world and peered over into the physical world. It was empty in both worlds and the bed in their real room was still made.

They hadn’t been protected like James was, or like I was.

I tried to picture what had happened. They’d come back from meeting with the police, if they’d even been able to get to see the police? I couldn’t tell. Worry was cramming all awareness, meta or otherwise out of my skull. One way or the other, they’d come back and then…

And then the Court had taken them. I didn’t want to think about that. I couldn’t.

Meta-awareness forced its way back in. I had to know.

The Court had been drowsing only lightly when my parents got back. The monsters had noticed their arrival. My parents on the other hand had never noticed the danger they were in. How could they? Silent, invisible spirits weren’t something they could defend themselves against.

The Shadow Court had awoken, just a few of them, but that was enough. They’d crept into my Mom’s shadow. Into James’ Dad’s reflection. My parents had screamed at last, but the Shadow Court held their voices. Once they felt the Shadow Court creeping inside them, Mom and Dad had fought, just like all the other victims of the Shadow Court, and just like all the other victims it had been to no avail.

James hadn’t suspected anything either. Mom and Dad going up to bed after a long night? Ok, in other breaking news water was still wet. The Shadow Court couldn’t control him thanks to Athena’s gifts but they didn’t have to wait long before sleep claimed him and they were free to move about.

They’d been consumed by rage and terror then at both James and me.

The Court wanted to kill James. To kill me. They craved it badly. We weren’t their usual class of prey. In their archaic eyes we both counted as adults rather than children. Even so our deaths would provoke the sense of loss they needed so desperately.

James was beyond their reach though. No force either of my parents could exert would breech Athena’s shield.

As for me? On some level they knew to fear me. They could have lit our house on fire to try to get to me through the wards around my sanctum. Burning things had become something of a theme for the night after all, but they chose not to. They knew that what walked out of those flames would not be something they could deal with.

It wouldn’t be me, not anymore. If they pushed me that far, I wasn’t sure what I would become, but I could feel how terrible it would be. Terrible and wondrous.

The temptation I’d felt when I was channeling the title of the Faerie Queen was still there. The raw desire to hurt those that hurt me, to take everything from those who had taken away the person who was the most precious to me. No extreme of punishment was too far go, no damnation too horrible to lay against them.

Tears that I couldn’t hold back poured down my face. They had my mother! She’d been coming to talk to me and they’d stopped her!

I slammed my hand against the wall of the Dreamlit over and over.

I knew what they were going to do with her too.

She was too old for them to mold into their own image. That was something they could only manage with children and not even all children. Instead they would use her up. Each spell, each bit of magic they cast while possessing her would be fueled by her life force. They wouldn’t spend that casually, but they wouldn’t hesitate to use it either, especially not when they had the opportunity to reach their real objective.

The Shadow Court needed many things. A new realm. New bodies. Even a new Queen, though they were unaware of that need still. In the end though there was one need that surpassed all of the others. Power. They needed raw power. It was bred into them. They had to draw in the pain of loss. Without it they would fade away.

They were immortal, they could never die, but that didn’t mean they were without end. Where death held the promise of rebirth, the end for a Shadow Courtier held no such comfort. When they ended, they were simply gone.

They’d use my Mom and James’ Dad and all the other adults they could capture to stave off that end. To gather the sort of power they required. To kidnap and destroy children.

I stopped pounding the Dreamlit wall and noticed that I’d cracked it almost the whole way through. From the other side of the wall an inky blackness seeped. I hadn’t broken only the wall, I’d been beating on the Dreamlit barrier to the Unreal.

The ethereal smoke from the Unreal was oddly familiar but it took me a few seconds to place it. The Oblivion Knight’s flames. I’d wondered what would drive someone to where the Oblivion Knight was. Looking at the empty room, I began to understand.

“I need to wake James up”, I told myself. The risk of waking up the Shadow Court didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t care what they tried to do. They couldn’t hurt James and all they could do to me was given me an excuse to “deal with them”.

I started to head back downstairs to the living room. I felt heavy robes settle on my shoulders as I walked. The Faerie Queen’s robes. I felt a warm, smooth weight in my hand. The Queen’s sceptre. I felt the heat of blazing briars on my bow.

I wasn’t consciously willing the change, but I wasn’t consciously fighting it either. Around me, the Dreamlit world and the real world began to merge. From the unlit corners of the house I heard the first stirrings of the Court.

I laughed and it didn’t sound like me at all. By the time I reached the living room, I was taller and stronger, faster and more graceful.

“Wake up.”, I said. I stood over James with my sceptre burning in one hand like an unholy torch. I couldn’t touch him. Athena’s shield kept me away as easily as it did the Shadow Court.

James made a barely coherent grumbling sound and turned away from me on the couch.

“Wake Up! They’ve got Mom and Dad!” I screamed. That penetrated whatever happy dream he was having. With a jolt, he was upright and blinking.

“Who are you?”, he demanded not recognizing me.

We weren’t in Faerie, but we were surrounded by them. Names were as dangerous here as they had been in the Shadow Court’s realm.

I didn’t care.

“I’m Jin, you idiot.” It wasn’t fair to be angry with him. I didn’t look like myself anymore, and the ‘Jin’ he knew would never have dressed the way I was.

“Shadow Court.” he spit the words out like a curse.

“She is not one of us. Just a little pretender playing dress up.” said one of Shadow Courtiers that had assembled behind me.

“How are you here? What have you done to my family?” James clenched his fists and I saw his clothes fade away, replaced by Aegis’ armor.

“You brought them! And they took Mom and Dad!” I was shaking. I didn’t want to hate him. I knew I should have been paying attention to the Courtiers, but they didn’t matter. James did. He was a hero. He was supposed to prevent things like this, but they never did. Not with my Dad. Not with my Mom. Heroes were never there when you needed them.

“Yes. The Mother and the Father. Like so many others for the Grand Feast.”

The Shadow Court took turns, a different Courtier saying each words.

“Like we shall take the Sister.” they continued. And then one of them touched me. A light finger, brushing gently down my cheek.

Black fire burst from my sceptre. The flames of the unreal wreathed my head. When I spoke my voice was unrecognizable as human, much less as my own.

“No.” I felt like I whispered it, but the word resounded off the walls and shook the foundations of the house.

The Shadow Court froze, every one of them, except for the Courtier that had touched me. That one tried to scramble away, blurring into inhuman speed. It wasn’t fast enough.

I buried the burning end of my scepter in his chest and watched as he turned to ash. In two seconds he was consumed and the next second he was gone, erased from all of history. I could remember his screams but they weren’t enough.

The black flames lit my robe and caught in my hair and along my bare skin. I didn’t burn though, I transformed. Black armor and eyes like galaxies in an empty sky.

With a sweep of my hand, I cast the flames outwards. The Shadow Courtiers burned by the score. Our house didn’t do so well either, but what did it matter? Without my family it wasn’t a home anymore, it was just a box of wood. Wood the Shadow Court had touched, as rotten as they were.

The Courtiers tried to fight me. I’d given them my name. The ones who were the most adept at glamour casting, who counted themselves among the High Magicians of the Court, sang rhyming chants of binding to hold me and strip me of both power and life. They couldn’t have made a worse mistake.

Names are dangerous things. To know something’s name is to hold the power to command its attention. There are some entities that should never be invoked though. Entities that you never, ever want the attention of.

I was one them.

As each Courtier spoke, they gained my attention. The breath they uttered my name with became black fire on their lips. The flames ignited them from within and they burned away without even being able to choke out a cry for mercy.

I saw James standing in the flames. His costume covered him head-to-toe so all I could see was his body language. He was horrified. The Shadow Court burned and vanished around him and all he could see was the out of control monster was that bent on destroying everything.

“Go.” I whispered and again the house shook with the thunder of my word. I didn’t want him to be a part of this. I hated him for not saving my Mom, but I loved him too. Athena’s shield held back the flames, but my word reached him.

I saw him reach skyward for Zeus’s Lightning. The bolt would carry him to Athena’s reflecting pool in the celestial realm of Olympus. The Shadow Court was too distracted being destroyed at my hands to follow him there and even if they could they were tiny things compared to the might of even a single goddess, much less a pantheon of them.

James would be able to regroup there. He could consult Athena’s wisdom. He could gather allies. He wouldn’t have to see what I was going to become.

Through my rage, a bubble of happiness rose at the thought that James wouldn’t know what I’d done. Once my rage burned out, the black fire would consume what was left and I’d be no more either. There’d be no pain for anyone I left behind. They wouldn’t even know I’d ever been there.

“Go.” I dream spoke to him. I turned away both unable to watch him leave and intent on finishing the last of the Shadow Court off. Or the last of the ones that had invaded my home. Someone else would have to take care of the rest.

The Shadow Court was streaming out of the confines of the house at supersonic speeds. They thought that put them beyond my reach. Unfortunately for them, my meta-awareness could track them all too easily. I was so focused, they were the only thing I could see in fact.

Clenching my fist on the scepter of darkness, I raised it overhead and called down bolts of the unmaking fire from the sky. Wherever the Courtiers ran, the bolts sought them out. I destroyed cars and trees, burned holes through houses and knocked out power for three blocks around us.

In the sky above, I saw a vast rift start to form. The emptiness of the Unreal waited beyond it, ready to swallow whatever I chose to throw into it. I could toss Brassport, the entire city, in there if I wanted. The Shadow Court hadn’t had time to move far beyond its borders with their limited energy. I could rid the world from a plague that was millenia old for the cost of one small city.

Strong arms wrapped me into a deep hug.

“Jin?” James asked, still disbelieving what some part of him knew to be true.

I struggled against the hug for a moment. It was too alien a thing to what I’d become. Or was on the verge of becoming. I didn’t know anymore.

It didn’t matter.

I felt the black flames sputter out. I felt the briars on my head and the scepter in my hand vanish into the ether. I felt my robes disappear and my normal clothes return. I slumped into myself and I was shorter and slower, weaker and clumsier.

I was me, or whatever was left of me.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 22

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.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 21

Minnie’s labyrinth echoed with the growls of terrible beasts. The rough stonework was splashed with stains that suggested tremendous violence lurked around every corner. Though it was winter, the chill that hung in the air felt anything but natural. Crossing over the threshold and stepping into the labyrinth proper, only one thought came to mind.

“Looks friendlier than my bedroom.”

I wouldn’t find Minnie herself in the labyrinth of course. She wasn’t a dream walker the way I was. Somewhere in there though, I’d find the spot that corresponded to her actual bedroom and we’d be able to have a chat.

Assuming she was home.

And in her room.

It wasn’t the greatest plan admittedly, but I needed to talk to her pretty badly and it was the only place I knew I’d eventually find her.

There’s a trick to navigating mazes. Several tricks actually. As a reflection of Minnie’s persona, her Dreamlit labyrinth made some of those strategies impossible. Following one of the walls consistently to find your way through a maze only worked when the maze didn’t morph around you for example. Trails of breadcrumbs were similarly useless. I held a ball of string that I’d imagined into existence but it wasn’t going to help in that regards either.

I paused before letting myself lose sight of the labyrinth’s entrance. With my physical body, I could see my bedroom in the physical world. To an outside observer I was simply staring off aimlessly into space. If I needed to, I knew I could instantly reintegrate and “wake up”. Like, if Mom came back and wanted to talk to me.

If I ventured into the labyrinth, if my fickle and untrustworthy meta-awareness wasn’t enough to lead me through it, I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do. Worst case I could imagine my body being stuck “daydreaming” like I was in some kind of mental breakdown state, while my Dreamlit self spent an eternity trapped in the maze.

If I didn’t speak to Minnie though, she could spoil everything. She could blow my whole “secret identity” before it even got going. That made it worth the risk, so into the labyrinth I went.

Psychics have described deep mind readings as entering a labyrinth of the other person’s psyche. It’s weird and dangerous and enlightening. Wandering into the labyrinth in Minnie’s room was all those things, except I wasn’t in her mind.

The Dreamlit labyrinth was, in it’s own way, as solid and deadly as one in the real world would have been. Possibly more so. Where a real world labyrinth could have been stocked with perils they would have been constrained by reality’s limits. Real fire jets need fuel to burn. Real scythe blades will rust over time. In the Dreamlit world however dangers persisted as long as the underlying reality cast a dangerous reflection.

My meta-awareness went into overdrive as I ventured into the labyrinth to deal with those dangers. Around the first corner I noticed splatters of dark brown that radiated out from a central line in the hall. That drew my attention to the slit in the ceiling farther down the corridor where the pendulum blade lay in wait.

It was exhilarating to feel the great gleaming blade whoosh past me as I passed down the hallway hugging the wall. Almost exhilarating enough to make me miss the pressure plates for the acid sprayers that were hidden around the next corner. Meta-awareness brought the sour smell of the acid up as an alarm though and I managed to step carefully past that trap too.

I moved forward and the sound of claws scratching on the rock above gave me warning to duck into a small alcove. I waited there as a sightless lizard the size of a pony dragged itself along the ceiling and around a corner.

As I dodged traps and hide from the lesser beasts that patrolled the corridors of the labyrinth, I came to understand what its presence meant. The labyrinth wasn’t in Minnie’s bedroom because the room was dangerous. It was there because she was dangerous and her bedroom was her sanctum. It was a reflection of her.

The Shadow Court had captured her years ago from what my meta-awareness could tell. As it guided me past more pits and pendulums, blow darts and flame traps, it filled in the details of what her story was and had been.

For Minnie, the time before her capture was fuzzy. The shift in the real world’s history had blurred her memories. What remained was that she’d been captured young and had spent years in captivity. She was my age now, physically, but it was hard to tell how old she really was since time flowed oddly in faerie worlds.

She’d been one of the children that they hadn’t been able to organize a rescue for in time. One day she was there, the next she was gone. It was only well after the fact that the police had worked out that she’d been taken by the Shadow Court and at that point she’d been gone too long for a rescue operation to be mounted.

She’d been held in the Shadow Court’s realm but, fortunately, they hadn’t interacted with her much. On the first day she’d arrived, they’d fitted her with the golden circlet I’d taken off her. From there she’d been left wandering in a labyrinth not unlike the one I was traversing.

The Shadow Court had wanted a fierce, powerful beast to act as a guard. One with human-level cunning but the kind of savagery needed to survive in their realm. In a way that was a mercy for Minnie. The Shadow Court couldn’t afford to “play with” the children that they needed in some way. The Court’s games were much too destructive on their “toys” to risk that.

Instead of having to endure the Shadow Court, Minnie had to endure the kind of loneliness usually reserved for prisoners condemned to solitary confinement. Only her confinement hadn’t been completely solitary. The circlet had called forth monsters from her psyche. She’d been hounded by the monsters of her Id so she’d learned to build her mind into a reflection of the labyrinth she was trapped in.

By hiding in her inner labyrinth, she was able to escape the Id monsters, but she also cut herself off from the outside world. When her mind withdrew into her inner labyrinth, her monsters were left in control of her slowly changing body. Eventually she would have disappeared into her inner labyrinth completely, leaving behind a beastial body and a beastial mind to guide it.

She was close to that when I found her, which was why the Shadow Court had moved her into the prison cell. Easier to feed her there. Easier to watch the progress of the change.

She was close but the transformation wasn’t complete. She wasn’t lost to the world, but she had changed in ways that left her mental scars visible for even the least observant. The Minnie who had been, the child I had never known, had been bright and gleeful. The new Minnie, the one I had “known” for a few months, was deeply introspective, but with a vicious temper when provoked.

She’d been suspended several times already and was at risk of either expulsion or repeating her freshman year due to the classes she missed. In a way none of that was her fault. She hadn’t broken a classmate’s nose who was making cracks about her height. She hadn’t sent a freshman boy to the emergency room for stitches when he tried to grab her butt. She’d been in the Shadow Court’s realm but thanks to the black fires that place had never existed. As far as our world was concerned, the Shadow Court’s realm had never been real, so history had to adjust.

I wondered why her history hadn’t switched to simply being imprisoned in one of the “new” subterranean Shadow Court realms. It was a closer fit and would have meant fewer alterations. Except that no one escaped the Shadow Court’s realms and I’d freed her and the others. So, apparently, these changes were the path of least resistance between those two fixed points in reality.

I explored my “new” memories of Minnie as I navigated closer to the center of the labyrinth.

My history had changed more significantly than I’d noticed at first. I hadn’t had many friends before. My friends from middle school had scattered to different high schools and I’d lost touch with most of them. There were a couple of girls that I hung out with a few times, but apart from having some classes together our lives didn’t parallel each others that much. I tended to bury myself in books a lot too, so I wasn’t all that aware when people were doing things.

That was the way it had been. In the new history, I had Minnie as a friend. And Nell. And Patches. And even Jessica?

I did a double take as that memory surfaced. Jessica had clearly not been my biggest fan. How had we wound up as friends in this new history? My thoughts were interrupted by the vista that lay around the next corner.

I’d reached the center of the maze and Minnie was waiting for me.

“What the hell am I?” she asked.

The room at the center of the maze was a direct reflection of Minnie’s bedroom in the physical world. Apart from being painted light pink rather than light yellow, it looked pretty similar to mine; more books and fewer stuffed animals, but otherwise the same general assortment of stuff.

Minnie sat curled up on her bed, her knees held tight to her chest. In the Dreamlit world I saw her as the minotaur-girl I’d first encountered. Probably seven feet tall or more and heavily muscled. In the real world though she was tiny. Four feet eight or so? “Mini Minnie”. That had been the name the girl in gym class had taunted her with.

In both worlds she had the same lost look in her eyes, and in both worlds she was looking directly at me.

“Minnie?” I asked. Her eyes met mine and I saw recognition there.

“Jin? What…”, she trailed off. I didn’t know how she was able to see me, or recognize me. I was still wearing Jenny’s blue goblin form, but apparently that wasn’t much of a disguise from someone who’d seen me in both forms before.

“Yeah, you called right?” I asked.

In response she lunged out of her bed and tried to grab me by the collar. Her Dreamlit minotaur form was insubstantial though and passed right through me. She wasn’t a dream walker so she didn’t have more than the wisp of a presence in the Dreamlit world.

In the physical world, she hit the floor of her room and then leaped back up to swing a fist at me. Her punch failed to connect as well though which left her sprawled back on her bed.

“A ghost. She’s a ghost. Now I’m, haunted too.”, she half cried, half giggled.

“Minnie, I’m sorry, I’m not a ghost. This was just the only way I could see you tonight.” I explained.

“What the hell are you then?”, she turned eyes filled with tears and rage to me.

“I’m…” I stopped. What could I say? That I was as human as she was? Given her minotaur side, that didn’t strike me as being particularly comforting for her.

“I’m your friend.” I said, only understanding as I said it how much I wanted that to be true. With the new memories came a deeper understanding of who she was. I’d been lucky to meet her in the Shadow Court’s prison, but I’d been luckier that the new world hadn’t scattered us to the wind.

Underneath the pain and the rage and the scars, Minnie was an amazing girl. We’d bonded in school not because I’d seen how much she’d needed a friend but because she’d seen how much I needed one. I’d been feeling lost and empty in the new school, missing something important, and Minnie had been the one to start talking to me.

Mistrust and insecurity was the legacy of her time with the Shadow Court and it had translated into the present as problems that she could find no cause for. Despite that, she’d been the one to reach out to me for no more reason than that she saw that she was needed.

“My friend? My friend’s not a little blue monster. She’s not a ghost. She’s just a normal girl. She’s just Jin.”

Her world rolled over me and I heard them echoing in my Mom’s voice. It hadn’t occurred to me to be worried about Minnie feeling the same way.

Quietly, I merged the Dreamlit world and the physical world. As I did I let Jenny’s form melt away to Jin’s. I wasn’t going to lose Minnie either and I knew what was said next needed to be real in every sense of the word.

“I’ve never been ‘just Jin’.”, I told her, “But a lot of this…”, I spun and changed to Jenny again and then Molly, “…is new.”

“You’re a faerie, aren’t you?”, she said, her expression shifting from anger to confusion to wariness.

“No. Not a faerie, although I did get tricked into being a Faerie Queen.”


“Yeah, I thought I could outsmart one, and she stuck me with her title so she wouldn’t get in trouble for breaking out of jail.”

“So, wait, I remember that! That wasn’t just a weird dream?”


“So, I’m not going crazy? I really am a minotaur?”

“You’re really you.”

“And I’m a monster. I can see it. When I look in the mirror. Sometimes I can see what I really look like.”

“You’re not a monster.”

“How do you know? Do you know the kind of things I want to do? Do you know what the voices I hear sound like? I’m either crazy or those memories are real and I shouldn’t be here.”

She wasn’t giving me much context for what she was saying, so I turned to my meta-awareness to sort it out.

“The voices that you hear? Those are the whispers of the Shadow Court. The rage you feel? The way you want to lash out and destroy things? With what you’ve been through you’d be crazy not to feel that way.” I told her.


“No.”, I cut her off, “There’s no ‘but’. You’re not a monster. You have power and a lot to work through, but you’re a fantastic person. And you’re my friend.”

“I don’t want it. The power I mean. I remember the place that burned. I remember what they did to me. I don’t want anything to do with them.”

“I’m the last person in the world who will tell you that you have to use your powers, but there is something you should know about them. They’re yours. The Shadow Court didn’t give you your strength or toughness or any of that. They stole you because they saw what you were going to grow up to be. What you could do.” I explained.

“I don’t care.”

“That’s ok. You can be as normal as you want to be. You’re not going to change under the light of the full moon or anything like that.”

“So what about the mirrors? Someone’s going to see what I really look like.”

“It’s not that easy. You can see yourself because you can see through your own glamours.”

“My what?”

As much as she frightened by what she was and what she could do, Minnie was still eager to understand it, to know who and what she was. I flashed back to talking with Pen. Was this what it had been like for him when he was answering my questions? If so I appreciated the difficulty he’d been under a little more.

Minnie was listening to me, which meant on some level she trusted what I was saying. I didn’t want to overwhelm her and I didn’t want to mislead her. Finding the balance between those was harder than it sounded, even with meta-awareness to help guide the way.

“Your spells basically. One of the things you can do is manipulate ‘glamour’. It’s the stuff that faeries make their magics from. You do it on an unconscious level but its something you could learn greater control over.”

“Is that why I look human now?” she asked.

“Yes, but don’t think that you’re a minotaur hiding under an illusion or anything. The truth is you’re both, each form is ‘really’ you. You just use glamour to change from one to the other.”

“So that’s how you change what you look like too?”

“Not exactly. My powers are weirder than that. I’m kind of still figuring them out.”

“How do you know all this?” Minniie asked.

“That was the first ‘gift’ I got. Remember what I told Jessica? She’s got fire, you’ve got physical power? I’ve got the cheat sheet for how things work. Only I’m missing like half the pages.”

“So you could be wrong about me then?”

“Maybe. I can make mistakes like anyone else.” I admitted. I didn’t want to, but I felt like had to stick with the truth to keep my meta-awareness on track.

“Right.” she said. She’d curled back up on herself. If I was wrong about her, if she really was a monster, all the wishful thinking in the world wasn’t going to do anything to prevent a horrible tragedy from occurring.

I couldn’t see the future. I couldn’t tell her that everything would definitely be ok and even if I could, I don’t think she could have believed me. Not after what she’d been through.

The only way I could see to convince her was to take the long, hard road of being there with her as her wounds healed and she adjusted to the new life she had. It wasn’t quick, or certain, but that was life.

“You wanted to ask me something.” she said, looking at me with fatigue and wariness.

“What do you mean?” I asked, perplexed by the non-sequitur.

“You wanted something from me right? That’s why you did this, came to see me this way.”

“Oh yeah. Well not something. I just wanted to ask you to keep my secret.” It sounded so stupid when I said it that way.

“Or else what?”

“Or else? Or else my Mom…”, I couldn’t say it outloud, I couldn’t make even the possibility of losing her that real, “Or else I’ll get really hurt. Seriously. It would be really bad.”

“I guess we’re even then. We’ve both got secrets that can’t get out right? We’ve both got family to protect.”

“Right.” I agreed.

That’s when the Shadow Courtier walked into Minnie’s bedroom.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 20

Sometimes people can be what lifts us up. Other times they can be what drags us down. The times to watch for are when both of those happen at once. Those are the times that can tear us apart.

“Want me to tell her you’re not feeling well if she calls back?” James asked, seeing my ambivalence at the news of Minnie’s call.

I didn’t know.

If Minnie called back, it would be because she was desperate. I could almost see how the journey back to the physical world had gone for her and the others. One moment they were adrift in interplanar space, the next they were back “home”, but not to a home they’d ever known. New memories of a life where they’d never been abducted by the Shadow Court would have fought with the memories of what they’d suffered at the Shadow Court’s hands. I had my meta-awareness to help me sort it out. They would have been left thinking they were going crazy. I knew the feeling.

James interrupted my thoughts with a racking cough from out of nowhere. When I looked over he’d clutched onto the doorframe for support but was recovering quickly.

“Wait, how are you doing?”, I asked. He hadn’t been coughing earlier. He hardly ever got sick in fact.

“I’m fine.”, he said, clearing his throat forcefully. “Just sucked in a bit of dust or something. I’ll go load up on vitamin C though. Can’t miss the meet this weekend.”

In addition to football, James was on the Track and Field team, which was probably why he managed to stay so healthy. He was always watching what he ate and getting enough sleep and exercise. I loved him, but I hated him as brothers and sisters do too since he was a hard act to follow. Jerk even got better grades than me.

“If Mom and Dad need to talk to us when they get back let me know ok?” I asked before he left. I needed to make things right with them, needed that down to the marrow of my bones, but I didn’t know how I could manage it.

“Sure. With all that’s going on, they probably won’t get back till pretty late, so they’ll probably want to talk tomorrow.” he said.

That was the worst of both worlds in some ways. To have that conversation looming over me, while having plenty of time to worry about it. I was going to stew in anxiety all evening and get nothing even remotely resembling a wink of sleep.

I flopped over onto my back after James left and tried to think about something else. Anything else.

Food was unappealing, but I knew I should eat something. Maybe later. Maybe when Mom got back? It occurred to me, far too late to do any good, that I’d once again refused food in exactly the same way an evil faerie trying to dodge the Laws of Hospitality would. I was so brilliant. That wasn’t a healthy train of thought though so I looked for something else.

School? I might have had a test coming up, but I honestly couldn’t remember anymore. Even assuming I did, I couldn’t find enough functioning grey cells to care about it. I’d always tried to get good grades. Mom valued education and had always made time to help me with my homework when I needed it, so it was important to me too.

I pictured her not being there to help me with a math problem, the way Dad wasn’t there anymore. That brought me back to the edge of screaming.

I had to tell her. I had to show her. To make her believe.

I could see her face if I did though. I could see that careful, brittle, calm expression finally shattering and revealing the horror she felt underneath. She’d know I wasn’t daughter. That I was something different.

She couldn’t know what I was. Ever. I couldn’t let her see that. I didn’t want to lie to her, but I didn’t want to lose her a whole lot more.

Pen had said I couldn’t give up the powers that I had. I could chose not to use them though. If that’s what it took to keep her, I could pretend that I was the same girl I’d been before I’d left in the morning.

I flipped over onto my stomach.

And when the weirdness comes? What will you do then? I asked myself.

When Minnie came over tomorrow to see how I was doing? When she said things in front of my Mom about what we’d seen together?

I could talk to Minnie. She wouldn’t blow my secrets open if she knew. None of them would.

Even the former Queen?

I could deal with her. I’d been unwilling to bring the police in the burning station over to the Dreamlit world for fear of what it might do to them. I couldn’t have that fear with the former Queen. If she was a danger still, I would have to deal with her.

Deal with her.

The thought shocked me. I was thinking in euphemisms. I meant kill her.

I flipped onto my back again.

Could I really kill her? Did I even want to think that way? Did I have a choice? I wanted her to be redeemable, but did she want to be redeemed? She’d been a monster. She’d hurt and destroyed people. Children. Helpless children. Did she even deserve a chance at redemption?

I flipped over again.

What about the others? What if they wouldn’t play along with me? Would I “deal with them” too?

Even asking the question sickened me.

One more flip, onto my back, and I was staring at the ceiling.

No, I wouldn’t “deal with” them. And I wouldn’t “deal with” the former Queen either. Not like that.

I glanced over at my phone.

So what was I going to do about Minnie then?

Talk to her. I had to. Whatever my Mom might think, I couldn’t abandon someone who needed me that much. I couldn’t become someone my Mom would be ashamed of in order to win her approval.

A thought occurred to me. I remembered James mentioning Aegis.

Aegis had only operated in Brassport for a few years but he already had developed a good reputation. He’d saved Heartbeat from an early mishap when a group of metahuman terrorists had turned out to actually be a group of bloodless robots. They been sent to cause mayhem as part of a pointlessly convoluted real estate scheme but they’d almost succeeded in taking out our cities fledgling super heroines on one of her first solo outtings.

Since then he’d showed up a number of times, defending people from harm and saving the day when the official heroes were tied up elsewhere. There were reports that he worked with the police sometimes and that he’d actively busted up a few groups before they had a chance to enact any of their plans.

Despite all that, no one knew who he was, apart from “a solidly build, reasonably tall guy”, and even that could have been a trick with the way his (or even her I suppose) superpowers worked.

I turned that thought around in my head.

I couldn’t be a hero. Even if Agent Haffrun checked out, Mom wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t be able to live with the fear of what might happen to me or what I might become. Even if I got certified by the FBMA as fully trained and safe to be around, seeing me would mean acknowledging the violence and danger in the world. I’d become a symbol, rather than a girl, or a daughter.

If I became a Mask though nothing would have to change. I could hide who I was, but still be me inside. That idea was terribly attractive. With the way my powers worked it would be all too easy to pull off. I could have my family and my friends. I could help Way and deal with the Oblivion Knight. It would mean leading two different lives but, as I’d seen with Jenny and Molly, I was already leading a lot more than that.

I breathed in and out in slow repetitions. It felt wrong, but I didn’t have any other answers. I couldn’t lose my Mom and I couldn’t hide from what I knew, or what I could do. Becoming a Mask meant living a lie, but the truth looked like it would destroy me.

“So what do I tell Mom?” I wondered to myself. The answer was simple, even if I didn’t like it. For her I was Jin, so I’d tell her the truth as it applied to Jin. I’d left the police station before the fire. I’d never been in any danger. Whoever was responsible wasn’t targeting a normal girl like me.

If she didn’t believe me then whatever security measures she wanted to take were fine. I’d sleep on a bed of iron nails if that’s what it took. For her, I’d be as normal as I’d ever been.

“And Minnie?”

I’d go visit her, but not as Jin. She really knew me as Jenny anyways so it made more sense to go as a goblin, though I suppose she had the same new memories that I did of meeting on the first day of high school and hanging out together with the other “misfits”. That’s why she my phone number. I had hers too, but I talking to her in the real world about the kind of stuff we had to discuss seemed terrifying. I just knew someone would overhear us if we did that. Fortunately I had another option available.

I projected myself out to the Dreamlit world as Jenny and was stunned for a long moment. My house was a castle! Or at least my room belonged in one.

My room in the real world was a plain little space with yellow painted walls and shelves filled with all the stuffed animals, books, dolls, toys and various clutter that I’d accumulated over the years.

In the Dreamlit world on the other hand, my room was enormous and decorated in the kind of rusted iron plating and open rock facings that would have looked appropriate for a sword and sorcery villain’s lair.

My Dreamlit bed was lusciously outfitted with red silks and white lace. That was the only color I could see in the room. Everything else was black and foreboding. The default accessory for the walls and ceiling seemed to be “spikes” with an occasional accent of “chains” to keep it properly dungeon-esque.

I blinked trying to understand how this could possibly be the nearest reflection of the comfy little space I called my room. Meta-awareness directed my attention down to my left hand where a burnt out gem the size of a large marble lay.

The Heart of the Shadow Court’s realm.

I’d brought it with me.

Because I was one of their Queens.

I screamed, only in the Dreamlit world fortunately, and flung it away from me. Dead or not, the artifact was unbelievably dangerous.

On the plus side, I knew why my room looked so strange. For Jin it didn’t fit at all, but for a Queen of the Shadow Court it felt, if anything, a little too drab. Some part of me knew that to be a proper Shadow Court bedroom it needed more red. Liquid, warm red. Preferably with plenty of screaming.

My Mom was right to be scared of me.

I jumped out of my window and took to the skies. In the open air it was easier to gain some perspective. I carried the Queen’s title, but I’d never been a member of the Shadow Court. If anything I’d been an instrument of their destruction. I’d feared them, but with what I learned I could do I knew they had every reason to fear me as well. If they didn’t…if they didn’t I’d be more than willing to “deal with” them.

I tucked that thought away though and focused on finding Minnie. There were a lot of options for dealing with the Shadow Court and some time before they regained enough strength to be a threat. Minnie needed me immediately.

From my new memories I found where her home was. On the outside it looked like mine; a normal small family home on a quiet side street. Given what was inside mine, I wasn’t surprised when I looked in the window to Minnie’s bedroom to see that it looked just a bit out of place too.

Her bedroom was the entrance to a labyrinth. From within it came the roaring of great beasts.

Of course. Nothing could be simple after all.

It would have been a lot easier to just pick up the phone and call her, but I couldn’t do that. It was the labyrinth or nothing.

I knocked on the window and it swung open invitingly. Minnie hadn’t consciously opened it but she did want to talk to me so the Dreamlit world reflected that. That made me wonder what the labyrinth meant.

If only Pen were here.

Stealing from mythology, I imagined a ball of yarn in my hands and felt its soft weight squish under my fingers. Suitably armed I entered the labyrinth.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 19

Breaking down in tears in front of your parents can give them the idea that something may possibly have gone wrong with your day. Something that, maybe, they need to look into. I love my parents, but the thought of them trying to unravel what had happened to me left me chilled.

Meta-awareness was all too happy to show me how that might play out. The easiest path would be the one where they didn’t believe me. That would hurt, and the lack of trust would drive a wedge between us but it would keep them safe. The alternative? Where they became fully involved? That was horrifying. Rationally, I could handle the concept of paying for my own mistakes. Putting either of them in a situation where they had to deal with things like the Shadow Court, or the Oblivion Knight though? That was simply unthinkable.

So I didn’t weep with relief when I made it home. As much as I wanted to, I managed to avoid it. Yesterday I couldn’t have.  Yesterday, I would tried to hold back the tears and they would have exploded out in wracking sobs anyways. I paused, just inside the threshold, trying to figure out what the difference was, why I was more in control then it seemed like I should be. James caught up to me at the same time that the answer did.

Molly. And Jenny. And so many others.

I’d dreamed of being older and wiser, of being stronger and more experienced. Just as Molly and Jenny had become real for me, so too had their nature’s blended with Jin’s. I had their maturity, their experience, their strength to draw on. I wasn’t who I’d been anymore, I was becoming who I imagined myself to be. Some part of me wondered if that wasn’t true for everyone, all the time though.

“Where have you been? You’re late for dinner!”, my Mom scolded us, looking up from the technical papers that were scattered in front of her.

“We ummm…”, I couldn’t decide where to begin. I couldn’t tell her the truth, and even the most reasonable lies wouldn’t make sense.

“We were at the police station.”, James said. I winced. That wasn’t the foot I’d wanted to start the conversation on. On the other hand it was better than stunned silence, so James was going above and beyond the call there, given that we’d agreed I’d be the one to speak to Mom.

“We’re not in trouble or anything.”, he assured her quickly, “They just had some questions for us because we saw something we thought was villian related.”

Mom’s expression went from annoyed at us for being late, to concerned, to straight up afraid. “Villain-related” hit a sensitive nerve for both of us.

“What do you mean? What did you see?”, she asked addressing James with the first question and me with the second.

“The Shadow Court. They were trying to abduct someone.” I said. There was no point hiding that part.

Mom went as still as a frozen pond and as silent as a ghost. Or more silent than a ghost. Heather had been fairly communicative after all. After a long moment, she finally spoke.

“What happened.”

“I was at the library. I saw the signs, so I hid. When James got there, we called the police and they sent a team over, and then there was a lady at the police station who questioned us.” I said, covering the points it seemed safest to talk about.

“You were at the police station?” James’ Dad asked. He’d come downstairs and only picked up the tail end of what I was saying.

“Yeah, it’s ok though, they let us go before the fire.” James said. I winced again. That was definitely not the way for the conversation to go. My Mom’s eyes were burrowing into mine.

“They let you go? What did you do?” James father asked. He wasn’t mad, just concerned.

“It was me, they wanted to question me because I saw some stuff at the library. Villain stuff.” I said. I felt awkward and exposed. The more I tried to hide things, the sharper Mom’s expression got.

“Was anybody hurt?”

“No. Or, yes. I mean, no one was hurt at the library but when the police station got attacked some people got hurt there.” I said, fumbling still.

“How bad was it?” James’ Dad, my Dad now, was concerned. He could see something was messed up in me. Everyone could.

“There was a fire. Some of them died.” I said. Admitting that hurt. It revealed just how serious things had been. I felt the echo of losing my Dad. Other people had lost their loved ones tonight too. I looked at my Mom and saw the same pain reflected in her eyes.

Unwelcome meta-awareness showed me things I didn’t want to see. She’d lost her first husband, my father, to violence that had sprung from nowhere. She loved James’ Dad but she’d never stopped loving my father either, or aching from his loss. This moment was bringing all that back to her. The pain that had never really left was rising like a screaming maelstrom in her, fueled by the thought of the deaths that had occurred. She was looking at me and feeling certain that she was going to lose me too.

She held herself still to keep from coming apart inside. She wanted to scream at me, she wanted to comfort me, to hold me close and to run away from it all. Anything to escape that pain.

I’d been scared up till now, but I’d also been able to do something, to fight back against what was going on. For my Mom there was no fighting back. Life had taken things from her before and here it was poised to take from her again, and there was nothing she could have done then or now that would change that.

I was supposed to have been safe, but I hadn’t been. I wasn’t telling her everything, and she knew it. Why would I try to hide something, she had to wonder, if everything was ok with me?

I walked over to her. I wasn’t planning or thinking, I was just acting, reaching out to make her see that she hadn’t lost me. That I was still here. I went to hug her and she very gently held me away at arm’s length.

“What did the police say about the Shadow Court? Why was there a fire?” she asked. Her voice was calm, but I could see how she cracked when she said those words. They were little fractures, little sharp shards of personality. She couldn’t let me close, not while she was like this.

“Someone attacked the police station. They demolished it.” I said trying to be brave and strong for her sake. Neither Molly, Jenny, nor Jin really had the strength for that.

“Do you know who it was?” she asked, her calm lending an unnatural air to her words. I saw the cracks in her split wide open. Her fear for me, became fear of me with one thought that rose to her mind. We’d mentioned the Shadow Court. The evil faeries that left behind changelings. One thought, at just the wrong time, cut her to the core. It was a simple question; “What if I wasn’t her daughter”.

Her daughter wouldn’t know who it was. Her daughter was just a normal girl. Her daughter stayed away from anything to do with superheroes. Her daughter knew, better than anyone, how dangerous the world could really be. Her daughter wouldn’t have been involved in something like that. Her daughter…

I couldn’t read her mind. I didn’t know what she was thinking as she turned to look me straight in the eyes, quietly waiting for my answer. I froze. What could I possibly tell her? The truth? Exceptional claims required exceptional proof and nothing that I’d seen was real, not anymore. If I lied though, how could she not see it? And when she did how could she ever believe me again.

“The news people thought it could be the Shadow Court, but the cops don’t think so. Someone shot at the place while we were checking in and then came back with some explosives or something. That’s not the way the Shadow Court works.”, James said, and then added, “At least that’s what the cop who gave me a ride said.”

“I heard one of the news guys say that the Shadow Court was gone.” I blurted out, finding a “truth” that was safe enough to share.

“They got away?” James’ Dad asked. Mom was still watching me silently. She’d noticed my hesitation in answering her question. She was looking for the “seam” in my disguise, something that could confirm that I wasn’t what I was pretending to be. That I wasn’t her daughter.

“No, they said they’re dead. The tip we gave…they were able to find a good trail.” I couldn’t say anymore. She didn’t believe me. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t see it and I couldn’t lie to her.

“They called together a Rapid Response Task Force. Professor Platinum, Invertrix, Red Shadow, Aegis and a bunch of others.” James explained, naming the high powered heroes that had been called in. Heroes and, strangely, a Mask. Aegis wasn’t an official hero, but apparently for something like a raid on the Shadow Court’s home realm, the FBMA would take anyone who had a good track record and was willing to take the risks involved.

“I thought you couldn’t kill the Shadow Court? Isn’t that why they’ve never been stopped?” James’ Dad asked. He believed us, but even he could tell there were parts of the story that he wasn’t getting.

“That’s what I thought too.” James lied. Partially. He knew something he wasn’t saying. Something big was hiding there. Something I needed to know. I didn’t care though. I couldn’t. Not with my Mom slipping away from me.

“Maybe the newsguy was wrong?” I suggested, wriggling to find the right words, to say whatever it would take to bring her back. I’d stepped back, giving her space and distance to quiet her fears. She had to see that I was still me.

But was I?

If she looked at me who would she really see? Jin? Molly? Jenny? A stranger?

Her daughter was a normal girl. Whatever I was, I wasn’t normal anymore. Her daughter stayed away from superheroes. I hadn’t. Several times, I hadn’t. I’d had choices where I could have turned away from what I was becoming, but I hadn’t. Her daughter wouldn’t have gotten involved. But I was.

For the moment, I wasn’t thinking about who Agent Haffrun really was. I wasn’t thinking about where the Shadow Court really was. Or what had happened to the heroes. Or the Oblivion Knight. I wasn’t even thinking of how I was going to find Way again, but I knew I would find her.

All those things? None of them were going to go away, and even if they could, I wasn’t going to let them. Agent Haffrun knew about me, I had to find out the truth about her. The Shadow Court was more dangerous now than they ever had been, and the heroes who’d fought them were in greater peril than they could imagine. No one but me knew about that. No one but me could do anything about it.

And then there was the Oblivion Knight. I had no idea what I could do about him. I couldn’t imagine a way even the best of the world’s heroes could stop him. He had Pen though, which meant he had one of the keys to ending the world, so it didn’t matter whether I could stop him or not. It was try or accept annihilation.

And Way. The thought of her all alone, or, worse, trapped again, caught me like a sword through the chest. I didn’t want that. That couldn’t be her fate.

“I need to work on my homework, if that’s ok.” I said. I couldn’t stay, couldn’t bear any more questions, any more lies of silence. I started moving away.

“Don’t you want to have dinner?” James’ Dad asked.

“No. They fed me at the police station.” Another lie, sort of. I’d had donuts. Those counted.

I fled upstairs before any more questions could come out. James could answer them. He wouldn’t be lying. Maybe he could make Mom see that everything was ok. I knew that wasn’t true, meta-awareness made it impossible for me not to see that, but it was all I had so I clung to it.

I closed the door to my room, but didn’t lock it. I imagined them walking in and wanted to hide, but the thought of my Mom trying to come to me and turning away because the door was locked was unbearable too.

“Maybe I should have stayed in the police station.” I whispered. I wasn’t serious. I definitely didn’t want to go back there or have to face the fire like that again, except for maybe the part of me that did.

It was easy to imagine giving up. The fire would have hurt, but that would have been an outside hurt. I could have projected myself away from it, maybe. The pain I’d seen in my mother though? The pain I felt seeing her start to turn away from me? That felt like it was never going to go away. Like I couldn’t let it go away or I’d lose what little chance I still had with her.

I lay on my bed, pretending to read a random chapter from my History book, for I-don’t-know-how-long before I heard one of our cars startup and drive away. No one usually went out that late on a weeknight. I’d almost worked up my courage to go downstairs and see what had happened when James knocked on my door.

“Come in!” I called out after quickly drying my eyes.

“Hey, you ok?” he asked.

“No.” I told him. No lies. I didn’t have the strength to carry even one more.

“Pretty scary with stuff at the police station?”, he guessed.

“Yeah.” I wanted to say ‘and with Mom’, but it felt like if I said that outloud it would make it impossible to forget later and I’d never get her back.

“I don’t blame you. But you’re safe here, you know?”, he wanted to say more too, to convince me that his words were true, but the secrets between us were in the way.

“Yep.” I agreed, nodding. I really did feel safer with him around. His Dad was only sorta my Dad. I’d call him ‘Dad’ sometimes because we were close and he clearly loved my Mom and took great care of her. In some ways though he was still ‘James’ Dad’.

James on the other hand was my big brother, regardless of what DNA said. We fought like brother and sister, and we trusted each other like brother and sister. If anyone was going to save me from the rift I felt separating me from my Mom, he’d be one I’d believe could do it.

“Where’d they go?” I asked, guessing that if James was here, our parents had gone out together.

“They’re going to talk to the police too. Mom wanted to find out what sort things they needed to do to keep our names out of the paper. And what extra security measures they should take.” he said.

She wanted to know what the chance was that I was going to turn on them, and what she was supposed to do if I did. That wasn’t the worst case that I’d been fearing, but it still made me feel sick. She hadn’t run away though. I took comfort in that. There was time for her to see that I was still me. If I could just act normal for a while.

I laughed. Had I ever been normal?

“What’s funny?” James asked.

“I’m weird.” I said, terrified that I’d never be able to pass as normal enough to win Mom’s trust again.

“Yes you are, but you’re pretty cool too.” he said, punching me on the arm clumsily, “Of course, if you tell anyone I said so, I will deny everything.”

“Of course.” I smiled, a real smile that bubbled through the anxiety.

“Anyways, I just came to tell you, there’s some food left if you’re still hungry.”

“Thanks. I might grab a bite.” I said. My stomach felt like hell, but part of that was that I’d eaten almost nothing since breakfast.

“Oh and Minnie called.” James said as he turned to leave my room.

“Minnie?” I asked, blanking on who that might be.

“Yeah, your friend from school? She said she needed to talk to you.”

And I remembered Minnie. The friend I hadn’t had before tonight. In my new memories of the world as it was after our return, I saw the minotaur girl who didn’t look like a minotaur anymore. The changeling.

I stared at my phone. I couldn’t talk to a changeling. I couldn’t even be near a changeling or I’d lose my Mom in an instant. But if I denied Minnie, if I rejected her for being a changeling, it would destroy her. Her whole life had changed. She needed me.

But I couldn’t be there for her.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 18

We all have our own secrets, the little details of our inner lives that no one else can see. Exposing those can be terrifying. Often it takes planning and courage and picking just the right audience. Or you can wander up to the first random superhero you see and blurt out something cryptic. Cause that’s sure to work great.

“What?” Heartbeat asked, more shocked at my offer to help than I would have expected.

“I’m sorry, I’m new to this, but I can see things. I know exactly where everyone who’s trapped is and I can see the paths to get to them. It’s part of the powers I got tonight.” I explained. I had a hard time believing I was saying those things, and, from the looks on their faces, Heartbeat and Fire Chief Stackhaus were having trouble believing it too. Maybe if I had a costume or a mask I would have been more believable?

“Look, I appreciate the offer, but even if you have powers, you’re untrained and unlicensed so you could be more dangerous to us than the fire.” Stackhaus said.

“There are thirteen people still in the building, plus three dead. If you don’t let me help you’re not going to get any of them out of their alive. If Heartbeat and I work together we can save all of them before the building collapses in twenty minutes.” I told him.

“You’re a precog?” Heartbeat asked.

“No. I can just see things. Twenty minutes is a guess, but it’s based on the building having a layer of Durasteel sheeting that the technomagic wards were embossed onto inside the inner walls.” I said, allowing meta-awareness to fill in the details as I spoke.

“Your father work for the police? Is that how you know about the building?” Stackhaus asked looking more skeptical.

“No!” I ground my teeth in frustration. I understood why Stackhaus was being an obstruction. He saw me as a crazy star struck teenager who was hungry to do “something cool” with a famous heroine like Heartbeat. He resented her, a little, for getting the kind of good publicity that the media often doesn’t bother with for firefighters. He’d worked for thirty years through some really bad situations but people just expected it of him because that’s what firefighters do.

Where his resentment of Heartbeat was mild though, his resentment of me was much sharper. I was an unknown and unknowns at a fire scene cost lives. It was as simple as that. He didn’t trust me and what he didn’t trust he assumed would get him killed. That attitude was why he’d survived thirty years of bad situations.

So I had to show him what I could do.

“Chief, you don’t have to take my word for this. There someone…Officer Dan Khale…who’s trapped in the room adjacent to the main entryway. Your crews have to clear the entryway anyways and Heartbeat can easily extract him. He’s not badly hurt, just knocked out and buried under some ceiling tiles.”

“Dan’s in there?” Stackhaus stammered. Dan had been the best man at his second wedding.

“I don’t care if J… if she’s untrained. We can’t let a dozen cops burn up. I’m going in there.” Heartbeat said and turned to leave.

Heartbeat was a biomancer. Most people thought of that as meaning a blood controller. Kind of an icky power, but Heartbeat knew ways to use it that made it seem almost pleasant. When she fought someone for instance, they just went peacefully to sleep with a smile on their face and were easily roused later. No brutal fisticuffs or shattered bodies.

The other application of her power that she tended to show off was the way it allowed her to command her own body to greater physical capabilities than it should have possessed.

Super strength, super dexterity and super quickness weren’t uncommon abilities by any stretch of the imagination but Heartbeat’s variety had such a natural fluidity that it was hard not to be impressed with her sheer grace.

She didn’t stroll or run into the building therefore, she glided. A single long leap, like her body was as light as a feather, carried her through the shattered remains of the bulletproof door that had been cracked earlier.

Her costume was a white leotard with red armored sections on the torso, arms, and legs. That helped her stand out against the flames for a moment but after that I lost sight of her in the thick smoke that was billowing out the door.

“She should have waited for you to hose down that section. She’s going to get a lungful of smoke.” I said.

Stackhaus just glared at me silently, torn between hoping that I was legitimate and worried that I wasn’t and he was going to lose the city’s only official super heroine because of it.

“Do you have oxygen? She’ll need it when she gets out and Officer Khale will too.” I asked.

That was something he had no problem believing. He turned to collect the oxygen tanks from the paramedic wagon we were standing near leaving me alone for a moment. I sagged slightly in relief. I didn’t have the full trust of either Stackhaus or Heartbeat yet, but there were so many worse ways things could have gone.

“She was right!”, Heartbeat yelled as she emerged from the building carrying Officer Khale. She choked and coughed a few times, but her power was already counteracting the effect of the smoke inhalation she’d suffered.

Stackhaus had oxygen waiting for both Heartbeat and Officer Khale by the time she touched down near us. Heartbeat laid the unconscious police officer down on a waiting stretcher and let Stackhaus check him out while she used the oxygen he’d collected to speed the purging of her lungs.

“Where are the others?” Heartbeat asked as she got her breath fully back.

“All on the ground floor.”, I said, “If we’re going to get them in time, we’ll need to go in together though. I can’t describe the places one by one fast enough.”

“Are you fireproof?” Heartbeat asked.

“No and I’ll need to take some breathing gear too.” I said.

“No time for that, I’ve got you covered.” she laid a hand on my lips and I felt my body change under her touch. It wasn’t painful but it was really freaky to be shapeshifted like that. She’d adapted both our lungs to handle toxic gases and had morphed my skin into a heat resistant shell. Maintaining the shapeshift took energy and concentration that she had in only limited quantities which was why she hadn’t bothered doing it for herself on her first trip in. It was easier for her to heal up afterwards than prevent injuries in most cases.

“This is still my scene. I’m not authorizing you two to go in there alone.” Stackhaus said as he hefted his gear and checked his breathing apparatus. Technically, he did outrank Heartbeat in the present circumstances and she was required to follow his orders. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing for him to put to the test though.

“We’re going to lose people if we wait.” she said.

“We’re not waiting. I’m going in with you. We don’t work this sort of situation without a partner, and taking a rookie with you doesn’t count as having a viable backup.” Stackhaus explained. His gear was in place so he started marching into the building without waiting for us.

With the way the fire and smoke was pouring out of the building I wasn’t opposed to having someone who knew what they were doing along. Meta-awareness told me a lot of things but I’d already seen how it didn’t always fill in all the blanks I needed to know about.

“We’ll cover more ground if we split up.” Heartbeat suggested as we entered the lobby of the police station. The fire was mostly on the upper floor which meant the ground floor was still survivable. That didn’t mean it was pleasant though. The heat from the flames above had turned the first floor into an oven. There was a steady breeze that was fanning the flames above us to greater heights and making the firefighting efforts more difficult. On the positive side though it was also carrying off a decent portion of the dangerous gases that the fire was producing.

“We can’t afford to be separated. Stick together. You and I can take them out two at a time if the victims are close enough to each other.” Stackhaus directed Heartbeat. He wasn’t wrong to count me out of that equation. Heartbeat could haul a grown man (or two) due to her superhuman strength. I didn’t have that particular advantage.

I considered trying to pull the trapped police out through the Dreamlit world but, with effort that I’d had to exert to carry myself across the barrier, I knew that  was more than I could manage. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to carry myself across a second time without tearing open a rift between the physical world and the Dreamlit one. Trying to carry someone else over was just too dangerous till I had a chance to rest.

“There’s two in the interrogation room over there, third door on the right.” I said, gesturing down the smoke filled hall to our left. It was the same hallway I’d fled down in the Dreamlit world to escape Way’s beast. Without my meta-awareness I wouldn’t have recognized it. The fire and smoke made it look like something out of a movie.

Chief Stackhaus let Heartbeat take the lead. Even with the shapeshifting she’d given me and his protective gear she was still the most resilient of the three of us.

“Be careful of the door. The frame is cracked. We need to brace it or the roof will come down  when we open it.” I said.

“There’s a floor joist just above your head Heartbeat. See if its loose.” Stackhaus instructed. He still mistrusted me on principal but in practice as long as I was getting results and people were being rescued he’d be able to work with me.

I watched in both the real world and the Dreamlit world as Heartbeat buttressed the door frame. In the real world it was a simple construction task of arranging some additional supports. In the Dreamlit world, the doorframe was transformed.

The broken frame had been leering at us like a gargoyle ready to snap its mouth shut the moment we opened the door. As Heartbeat worked on it though it changed and became a solid, armored arch with knights reaching up the sides to keep us from harm.

The iconography should have been soothing but the knight imagery brought a question to my mind that made my blood run cold.

Where was the Oblivion Knight?

He’d been the one who destroyed this place in his giant form. He’d only stopped because I’d lured him away. As far as I could see, he was more than capable of coming back to finish the job. But he hadn’t. Was it because he’d changed his mind or because he couldn’t come back though?

I was pretty sure the Oblivion Knight wasn’t the kind of guy who would have a change of heart. From what I knew of him, he was the sort to have his picture beside both “monomanical” and  “megalomanical” in the dictionary. If he’d changed his mind it was because he’d changed his plans, which meant he had a new and more horrible scheme than erasing his enemies with black fire.

The other possibility, that he couldn’t come back, seemed even less likely. Unless he’d been changed in some fundamental way when he destroyed the Shadow Court’s realm? I could imagine that, but I couldn’t guess how likely it was to be true.

I needed Way. She might be able to at least make a guess what he was up to.

“I found them!”, Heartbeat yelled. I was so lost in thought that I thought Heartbeat was referring to Way and my other companions from the Shadow Court’s realm. Then I saw that she was moving a section of ceiling that had fallen and was sheltering the two downed police officers we’d been searching for. That snapped me back to the present.

While Heartbeat and Chief Stackhaus carried the fallen officers out of the building, I projected myself into the Dreamlit world again. I copied over the shapeshift that Heartbeat had given my physical body (mostly so I could see what it looked like) and noticed that she’d done me another favor as well; I looked nothing like myself thanks to the modifications she’d made. Heartbeat and Chief Stackhaus would know what I really looked like but anyone else would think I was some kind of humanoid lizard.

The fire was enough scary motivation that I was able to zombie shuffle after the two of them in the physical world as we worked our way out of the building. In the Dreamlit world I followed up on what meta-awareness was telling me and searched out the remaining victims.

That’s how I noticed the fire getting closer to the fuel tanks for the buildings backup generators.

“We’ve got trouble.” I told Heartbeat and the Fire Chief as I reintegrated. “The wall around the room for the backup generator split and the fire suppression system cracked with it. The coolant drained into the basement.”

Stackhaus understood what that meant immediately.

“Has the fire entered the fuel room yet?”

“No” I answered.

“What’s the temperature in there?”

“I don’t know exactly. About as hot as the room we found these two in.” I said, indicating the police officers they were transferring to stretchers.

“Let me go solo” Heartbeat suggested “I can move a lot faster. I can get them all out in time.”

“Did you see that the door frame was weak?” Stackhaus asked her.

“No, but I could have braced it when it started to fall.”

“Would have been too late. The whole roof would have come down. You don’t take shortcuts, not like that anyways.”, he explained and then tapped his helmet to activate the comm unit there for secure band broadcast, “I need team 2 and team 3 on the south side of the building now. The generator’s heating up, keep it cool boys. Team 4, you’re with me now, lock in environmental gear, we have some people to get out of there.”

And just like that the fire teams moved into action. With eleven people left to rescue and four rescuers to get them out we beat the twenty minute deadline easily. Standing in a burning building, directing traffic should have been either terrifying or exciting but instead I just felt calm. I wasn’t safe but I had people who I could depend on and who were depending on me.

Afterwards, actually as soon as we had the last person out of the building, Heartbeat took my arm and turned to Chief Stackhaus.

“I need to get her debriefed, can you guys handle the rest here?” she asked Stackhaus.

“Assuming she’s right and there’s no one else in there, yeah.” he replied.

“Good. I’ll have someone call tomorrow in case there’s any paperwork you need me to fill out.” Heartbeat said and then rose into the air, carrying me with her. She wasn’t lifting me by the arm, though she kept her grip on me. She was floating me by directly manipulating the blood in my body. Again, kinda creepy but in practice it felt very gentle.

We settled down on a rooftop a few blocks away and I raised an eyebrow. This was not exactly an official FBMA debriefing room.

“Thank you for back there!” she said and she released the shapeshifting effect she’d placed on me.

“You and the Chief did all the real work.” I replied, thinking of how little I could have managed there on my own.

“Pfff, he never would have let me in there without you.”

“He was worried about you.”

“Yeah, cause I’m still young. So I’ve got to be a sidekick, no matter how good I am with my powers.”

“It was helpful having him there though right?”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyways that wasn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”


“You’re a new superhero you said right? I mean you said you just got your clairvoyance or whatever it is.”

“Yeah.” I admitted.

“Ok. In theory then I’m supposed to bring you into my handler at the Bureau. But that’s if you want to go.”

“And if I don’t?” I asked.

“Then you’re free to go. I’m supposed to drop you off wherever you like (within reason, no trips to Hawai). And you don’t have to answer any questions, my handler’s really insistent that we not drive anyone away. ‘Super heroes are such shy types’.” she said finishing in a voice that sounded exactly like Agent Haffrun. Super mimickry by way of manipulating her own voice box. She really did have a lot of clever tricks worked out.

“Sounds like your handler is fairly easy going.” I offered.

“Yeah, she’s pretty cool. I think her idea is the Bureau offers such a nice package that there’s no reason to go for the strong arm approach like they did in the past.”

“That makes sense. I…I might need time to think it over though.”

“That’s fine. There’s a special number I can give you and I can get in touch with you later too if you like. To answer anymore questions.”

“I think I’d like to do that.” I said remembering that I still had one giant, unanswered question to resolve about Agent Haffrun. The whole “was she really an alien” thing.

“That’s ok.” Heartbeat said. She sounded happy with my decision but she looked a little disappointed. “Would you…could I ask you a question though?”

“I guess, sure.”

“You said your power is that you know things? How does that work? What kind of things do you know?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like I’m reading a script of what’s happening and getting the stage directions and stuff. The actors can ad lib or do whatever they want but as long as things go the way they’re supposed to I have this extra awareness of what’s going on.”

“Wow! And you just got that tonight? How?”

I was worried about telling her that Pen gave me that power but then I remembered his protesting that it hadn’t been him.

“I don’t know. I’m still working on that too. For having a power that let’s me know things, I’m still really in the dark.” I said. Heartbeat smiled at the inherent irony of the statement.

“Ok. I shouldn’t push too much. So, where should I drop you off?”

I thought about asking her to take me home, and then kicked myself before the words got out. She’d seen what I looked like but that didn’t mean she had any idea who I was. No point giving up that part of my secret identity if I didn’t have to. Also James was still heading back to pick me up. He’d freak if he found the building collapsed and me nowhere around.

“I need to wait for someone at the parking lot, I guess where all the people are gathered? Could you put me down somewhere they wouldn’t see me and I can walk over there?”

“No problem.” she said and floated me down to the ground.

“Here’s a card with my number. Give me a call ok.”, she said before flying away. She was headed back to Agent Haffrun to report in. They had a lot to talk about with all that had happened tonight but I knew I’d be topic number one up for discussion.

Alone once again, I walked the short distance to the tiny crowd that was gathering around the burning police station. James wasn’t there yet, which was a relief, so I spent the time just watching what was going on like everyone else.

The news crews had arrived, what few that hadn’t been covering the fires in the abandoned buildings in the South End. The others would be arriving soon as well, a police station was more interesting than an old factory, but until then it was the second string teams that got the spotlight and the less enviable job of reporting on a situation where they had almost no solid information.

I almost wanted to step forward and fill them in on what had really been happening but thankfully my subconscious didn’t make that decision for me.

As it became clear that whatever had attacked the police station wasn’t continuing to destroy anything, the size of the crowd began to swell. Desperate for news, the reporters began to work out plausible sounding theories to talk about since the facts weren’t instantly forthcoming.

Someone reported on the hero task force that had been organized after a tip came in about a Shadow Court abduction. Another reporter ran with that and presumed that this must be a pre-emptive strike to ward off the task force. When a third reporter learned that the hero task force was reporting success on their objective already, the story changed to the police station being burned as a retaliatory strike. Then someone leaked a report that the Shadow Court had all been killed in the raid and no one knew what to make of things.

By the time James finally showed up, I’d spent far too much time listening to far too many different wild theories. I’d been involved in a lot of what had happened, I had my meta-awareness feeding me incredible amounts of information and I still couldn’t keep the crazy ideas they were coming up with straight.

“Jin! What happened! You’re alright! You’re alright right?” James had been pushing his way through the crowds for about five minutes calling my name before we noticed each other. He was out of breath, and, as I’d expected, nearly freaking out.

“Yeah, you know, I used to think I was crazy, but I’m starting to wonder if there’s anyone who’s not.” I said, watching one of the junior newsmen trying to connect the attack on the police station to the work of residual aliens. I mean, sure he was actually right that there’d been an alien in the building a half hour before it was destroyed but I was pretty sure Agent Haffrun hadn’t had anything to do with it and she certainly hadn’t done it to strike a blow against the Neighborhood Techno-Watch program that was under consideration for funding in Congress.

“What?”, James asked, happy to find me safe, but annoyed that he’d been afraid for nothing.

“Sorry, just been listening to the news guys too long. Umm, yeah, I’m fine. I was out here waiting for you when the fire started.” I wasn’t exactly lying, not as far as the physical world was concerned anymore. I still felt bad not telling him the “real” truth, but not so much that I wanted to even begin explaining what had happened.

“Damn. You have no idea. I heard there was a fire at the police station and…”

“And you figured I’d gone on a pyromaniac spree?” I laughed. It felt good to have him around. It felt good to laugh too since the alternative was to break down in tears at how afraid I’d been that I’d never see my family again.

“Yeah, exactly.” he said. My laughter was infectious and let him relax too. When he found me he could see that nothing was wrong, hearing me laugh helped him believe it.

We drove home and were getting out of the car when it finally occurred to me to ask what had taken him so long. My chat with Pen had taken a lot longer in real world time than I’d thought, so it hadn’t occurred to me just how much time it had taken him to get the car.

“Oh, uh, I was talking with the cops for a bit, and they had to finish checking out the car.” he replied just a little too smoothly. He’d been practicing that answer.

Meta-awareness told me that the car had been ready when they got there. James had driven in after the Court was gone so there hadn’t been much to check for. I wanted to press him on the issue but I couldn’t imagine how without revealing a lot more about my own secrets than I wanted to.

Burying away both my own secrets and my desire to know what James’ were, I opened our front door and stepped inside. I felt exhaustion hit me as I did, followed by a profound sense of relief.

I’d made it.

I was home.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 17

The strangest part of being buried under a building that was burning down around me was watching the bright orange and yellows of the flames and feeling tears of joy welling up in my eyes.

The visit to the Shadow Court’s realm had taken a lot out of me and I hadn’t had much to begin with. The simple flicker of real flames, even ones that weren’t all that far away from burning me alive was comforting in a way I couldn’t easily explain. Maybe it was just that I was home.

I’d been determined to make it back but some part of me hadn’t believed I could. No one ever did. Minnie hadn’t and she was way stronger than me. Patches hadn’t and he was much cooler. Even Way hadn’t managed to escape them on her own and she was immensely more powerful than I was.

Thinking about them, I felt loneliness stab through my heart. Which was crazy. I was about to burn to death. If I didn’t bleed out first. Plus I’d only known them for, what, an hour? At most?

Maybe it was repressed pain and fear, maybe I’d just lost my marbles, but I missed them. Even Jessica.

“At least I’ll get to see Heather soon.” I giggled to myself. Cause she was a ghost. And I was about to be char broiled. It seemed funny at the time.

I wasn’t sure how ghosts worked but I was willing to bet that Heather was exceptional. If most people left behind ghosts when they died there wouldn’t be a building with four walls and a roof that wouldn’t be “haunted”.

Being a ghost seemed like a bum deal too. No more chocolate. No more warm baths on cold days. No more birthday cake. No more birthdays.

“I like being alive.” I told myself and started crying. I was definitely losing it. I couldn’t move and I didn’t want to die, but this was the real world and I really couldn’t do anything about it.

I tried to scream but my lungs were full of dust and smoke and I could barely choke out a whispered “Help”. No one could hear me. No one was coming to save me.

I felt the heat of the fire drawing nearer as bits of flaming debris dropped from the destroyed roof and kindled new blazes in the wreckage that lay on top of me.

“I got the others back.” I told myself, trying to imagine that was sufficient. I’d done some good, maybe that was all I needed from this life?

“No. That’s not enough.”

Sometimes we have to accept our fates. Sometimes nothing can change what’s to come. Facing those moments with grace and dignity takes more courage than I can imagine. The mistake is believing that acceptance is always the answer. Somethings we have to change. Somethings we need to fight. No matter how impossible it seems.

“You’re impossible”, I heard the echo of Way’s gentle voice and it opened my eyes.

“I am…I am!”, I tried to shout it out but my lungs had other ideas. That didn’t matter though. I had an idea.

Pen had said that the barrier between the Dreamlit world and the physical world was no more real than the Dreamlit world itself. I hadn’t understood what he’d meant at the time, but the flight from the Shadow Court’s realm had given me the clue I needed.

It hadn’t been the Shadow Court, or Samantha, or Way who’d merged the Dreamlit world with the physical world when the Court had first appeared. It had been me!

Looking back on the frenzied run, I remembered falling hard on my face and then getting up like it was nothing. I’d run across the park and all the way to Samantha’s house carrying someone at least half my weight. I’d even been frozen to the core by a mistman. Yet, I hadn’t felt any lingering pain from the fall, I’d never run out of breath and I hadn’t died of hypothermia.

The implications of that gave me a moment of vertigo. The implications of what I was thinking to try next were even scarier though.

Almost shyly, I projected myself into the Dreamlit world again. The building was even more ruined there than it was in physical world, but there were no fire. The black flames that had scoured the building’s top floor had simply annihilated whatever they hit.

“This will be easier with a little muscle.” I commented, again to myself. I was feeling a little better but, given what I was contemplating, obviously nowhere near sane yet.

I had so many options, but most of them felt distant, so I chose to be Jenny Nine Stitches instead of Jin for the task ahead. Jenny was only real in her own worlds, but here nothing was completely real so, since she was a part of me, I could be her as easily as I could be Jin.

Goblin strength wasn’t superhuman enough for me to lift up a building, but it certainly helped in clearing away debris. With my vision split in two and meta-awareness warning me of weak spots in the rubble, I was able to clear a path to the spot in the Dreamlit world that matched where I was lying in the physical world.

“Thanks Jenny.” I said with my physical body. It felt like thanking my right hand for a job well done when I was brushing my teeth, but I needed that kind of silliness. As Jenny, I bowed in the Dreamlit world to my physical self, acknowledging of the thanks.

I hesitated for a moment, changing back to Jin in the process. If I was wrong, I wouldn’t get a second chance to fix things. This was an all or nothing plan.

Tentatively, I reached out and touched my Dreamlit hands to my physical ones. In the physical world they were crushed under the fallen building. In the Dreamlit world the patch was clear though. Closing my eyes, I lifted my physical self’s hands up and, with every ounce of strength I had, pulled myself fully across the barrier into Dreamlit World.

I wasn’t real any longer. My physical body remembered it’s reality, my leg was still broken and my arms still crushed, but as far as the real world was concerned, there had never been a Jin, and certainly never been a girl trapped in the rubble of building where I was.

As easily as I’d changed from Jin to Jenny, I touched my leg and my arms and guided them back to full health. Smoke filled lungs and soot smeared eyes, scratches and punctures, all of those disappeared as I imagine my body being the way it had been when I’d walked into the police station.

It was tempting to “improve” on things, but my meta-awareness made it clear how dangerous that was. The more I changed in myself, the more the real world would have to change to accommodate me back into it. I was taking a terrible risk as it was, but under the circumstances it was definitely preferable to being burned alive.

Together with myself, Dreamlit Jin and physical Jin picked a path out of wreckage of the police station. In the Dreamlit world the streets around the destroyed building were deserted. Peeking back into the physical world though showed that a crowd of rescue workers had shown up.

I picked a spot out of sight and stepped back into the physical world.

Coming back into the real world was easier than leaving it had been. My physical body was attuned to the real world. Returning to it gave me the impression of stepping back into the vacuum my absence had created.

As I crossed the barrier back into the physical world, I felt my memories bifurcate again. I hadn’t been in the police station when it collapsed. I’d gone out to parking lot to wait for James after the interview with Agent Haffrun. I’d seen the building collapse from the outside rather than the inside in this new reality, which was why my body was nice and whole rather than badly mauled and under a ton of rubble.

“I have the perfect disguise.” I whispered to myself, astounded at the unexpected side benefit.

I could leave here and there’d be no evidence that I had any powers at all. I could go back home and be safe. Every crazy thing I’d encountered? I could leave it all behind me!

I was starting to walk away when I saw the superheroine Heartbeat touch down across the street from me. My first thought was that I’d been caught and she was going to take me away but then I saw her walking over to the fire crews. I almost cheered out loud. The professionals had arrived! Someone else would take care of everything!


Except I knew that wasn’t true.

I didn’t want to see what my meta-awareness was showing me, but I knew I couldn’t deny it. There were other people still trapped in the building. I’d been there. I knew how close the fire was to reaching them. The firefighters would get it under control, but not before more of the building fell. Not before more poisonous gases were released.

“How many are left in there?” Heartbeat asked the Fire Chief who was directing the ladder truck crews.

“We don’t know. We can’t get in there yet.” he answered. They’d know in the morning. When they counted the bodies.

“What can I do to help?” Heartbeat asked. I could hear the urgency in her voice. She had an amazing array of powers, being helpless in spite of them sucked.

“Nothing yet. We don’t know where it’s safe to go in or what’s safe to move.” the Fire Chief answered and then added “Miss I’m going to have to ask you to get back”.

He was speaking to me.

I’d been walking up to them without being consciously aware of it, but I knew why. I wanted to go home. I wanted to pretend none of this happened, that all of the scary, painful, and deadly things had happened to someone else. All I had to do was walk away and I could hide from them and be safe but I’d already made my decision.

“I can tell you.” I said. “I can tell you where the people inside are and how to get to them.”

The Hollow Half – Chapter 16

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.