KNIGHT OF LIGHT
When you come to, the first thing you notice is the stench. You’re lying on something soft and bulky that smells like rot. Everything’s wet and cold, and your outfit is soaked through. And then there’s the pain. It’s so far away that you don’t feel it at first, muffled under the nauseating smell and the freezing cold, but when you do realise it’s there it blooms out to fill your entire body. Your arms, your stomach, the crown of your skull. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to move. God, is there a part of you that doesn’t hurt?
Forcing your eyes open takes superhuman effort, and you’ve used all of that up today. Ha. Black spots dance in the corners of your vision, in stark relief against the neon blues and purples flooding the alley, lighting up the haze and smog of the night sky.
...Oh, okay. So you’re in an alley. It must have just stopped raining, because everything's covered in droplets of water. You… really don’t know why you’re here or how you got here. Your last memories before this are of practising ballet in the attic, waiting for your brother to wake up.
When Jude appears in front of you, his form wobbling into view like a degaussed monitor, it all starts to make sense. Well, not exactly; you still have no idea what you’re doing in this alley. But your brother never leaves the house, so if you can see him now, goofy black jumpsuit and all, it can only mean one thing. Under the smooth white dome of his helmet, behind the black mask, his green eyes are full of fear, and they burn with an unnatural light that’s almost painful to look at, so vibrant that you swear you can see it shining off windows and drain pipes.
“Oh no,” he says. His voice is small and broken and he sounds so exhausted, like the tired, scared thirteen-year-old he tries desperately not to be. “Joey. Joey. Oh God, I was worried. What did they do to you?”
“You look so stupid,” you reply. You don’t say Jude’s name out loud because even in the confused state you’re currently in, you’re well aware that anybody could be listening. But even so, you can’t find it in you to be as worried as he is. Your head hurts and everything feels so fuzzy and distant, and even though you know you should be freaking out about how you can’t remember how you got here, it all seems so inconsequential.
“Shut up, Joey,” he says, but there’s no malice in it. In fact, the way his voice wavers is like a knife in your chest. “You’re injured. Severely, I think. I never thought that… What happened when you left the sewers? What did they do to you?”
“I don’t… I don’t know what happened or who did what, I can’t remember anything. Why can I see you?”
Jude comes closer and stretches over to look at you, his fingers phasing through your armguards as his illusory form leans on you for support. “Something bad's happened to you,” he says. “Does your head hurt?”
“Yeah,” you say. When you reach a hand up to your head, Jude leans backwards to get out of your way, even though he’s not really there. Your Crown - nothing fancy, just a flower crown of red, pink and white roses - is still firmly on your head, but your hair is matted and damp, and when your fingers press against your scalp it sends an agonising blast across your skull like you struck yourself with a hammer.
“Careful, careful,” Jude says as he watches you wince, “That looks painful.”
“You have no idea. Am I going to die?”
“No, of course not,” Jude says far too quickly. “You’ll be fine. We just need to get you some help. Can you stand?”
Your feet are dangling over the pile of whatever you’re lying on. You tilt your head to take a look and… wow, nice. Bags of trash. The perfect place to take a power nap. Well you guess that explains the smell. You push your feet against the floor and you’re rewarded with waves of pain so intense that you have to grit your teeth to hold in a whimper.
“Come on, Joey,” Jude says, “You can do it. I can’t get to you. You’ve got to save yourself tonight. We’re all counting on you.”
Taking care not to stick an arm through your brother, you flail about to find something to hold on to. The ladder of a fire escape dangles overhead, slick with rain. You grab hold of it and drag yourself upright. It’s like lifting a two ton weight, and every atom of your body screams in agony as your legs threaten to give out from beneath you, but eventually you’re standing upright atop the trash bags, taking deep breaths while you wait for the spinning to stop and the black shadows creeping around in the corners of your vision to fade.
Times like this, you really wish you had a healing factor.
Jude’s still staring at you, wide-eyed with terror behind his black mask. The small strip of his face is pale with fright and tense with worry, barely visible under his helmet, between it and the black jumpsuit inlaid with filaments of green computer wire. “You’re doing so great, sis,” he says. “You’re nearly there. You’re so close.”
“So close to what?” you snap. You’ve never heard your little brother sound as caring or as terrified as this, even when he normally gets a bad vision, and it’s starting to freak you out. Some distant part of your brain wonders if it's messed up that you care less about the state you’re in and more about how badly Jude is reacting to it. In an effort to prove to him that you’re okay, you step off the pile of trash and, ow, every step reverberates through your body like it’s going to shatter you into tiny bits, but eventually you reach the floor and you’re not swaying too much.
“You’re doing great,” Jude says, and you can tell he's deliberately not answering your question. “Between your Crown and the adrenaline, you're going to be fine. Well, not fine, but good enough. Reckon you can get up there? You nearly made it all the way after your run-in with the Kindness.”
As Jude speaks, he points behind you, up the fire escape, but you don’t turn to look. Things are beginning to click into place, like the corner pieces of a huge jigsaw. You recognise the Kindness. The name sparks some huge recollection that you don’t quite have enough clues for. “That… sounds familiar,” you tell him, “What’s the Kindness? Why’s it so important?”
“We don’t have time for questions yet,” Jude says, “You’re not out of the woods yet, Knight of Light. We can still see each other. I’ve got Langly looking for the Ariborn. Your job right now is to save Joey Claire.
Again, a flash of recall. You see the burgundy Ariborn sign in your head, and it means… something.
“I think you’ve got a concussion, maybe?” he continues, “Something serious, anyway. Like I said, your Crown’s supporting you but you’re in no shape to fight villains. You need healing. That’s why we’re here.”
You look around yourself and sort of recognise the alley you’re in. The open dumpster behind you, the pile of trash in front of you and the fire escape ladder above that… Did you take them all out for some height to catch the ladder? Why didn’t you just wheel the dumpster over? At least the bags were a softer fall, you suppose.
And then it clicks. You remember where that ladder leads and have to suppress a shudder. “No,” you tell Jude, “I’m not getting help from the Poisoner of all people!”
“Please, Joey,” Jude says with a sigh, “Do we have to have this fight now? You nearly went there on your own earlier. He’s on our side now. We can trust him.”
“No, we can’t! Obviously I wasn’t thinking right earlier, but now that I am there’s no way I’m getting help from him! He’s awful and I can’t stand him!”
“Don’t be like this. Look, I don’t trust him either, not really, but do you think I’d tell you to do this if there was any other choice? You were out cold for ten whole minutes. How many doctors are there in this city who are going to help us? I can’t risk you going somewhere else and being caught by the Kindness’ minions, or worse.”
You cross your arms and glare at Jude. He glares right back at you. "Don’t make me ring Roxy and tell her you’ve gone missing," he says.
“Fine,” you eventually spit out. You know you were always going to cave eventually, so what’s the point in dragging this out? You’re all the two of you have in this world, really. Just this once, you can let him win.
You climb back onto the trash bags, reach over to the fire escape and pull yourself up. You feel dizzy and lightheaded for a second, so you to cling to the ladder for a second until things get back to normal.
“Joey, take it slowly.”
“I’m okay,” you reply, and pull yourself up to the next rung.