The child’s scream continued.
Ryan narrowed his eyes and kept his gun trained on his target and by extension, the soldier’s human shield: a screaming toddler. He tried to block out the child’s screams. Although completely warranted on her part, they did nothing but escalate the situation.
Hostages always made a dangerous situation even worse.
The Solstice fought to get his breath back, his grip tightening on the little girl. He took a moment to scan the child. It was completely human, so that laid one of his fears to rest, and gave credence to the theory that the Solstice had only taken this course of action out of desperation. It hadn’t been planned. It wasn’t an attack. It was simply a botched escape attempt.
His target brought his gun uncomfortably close to the child’s head and grinned.
‘Get the hell away from me, Agent, if you want this brat to live.’
He held his gun steady. He had no intention of letting the man escape again. But neither did he make a move toward him; there was no need to put the child in even more danger. He looked to the little girl, and she stopped screaming, settling for holding tight onto the china doll in her tiny hands and crying. Teardrops made dark patches on the fabric as she struggled to get out of the Solstice’s grip.
‘Put the child down,’ he ordered.
Unlike the Solstice, he wasn’t out of breath. Unlike the Solstice, he wasn’t desperate. Unlike the Solstice, he was in control.
The Solstice scowled at him. ‘Putting the kid down’s suicide. You leave, she lives. You stay, she dies.’
He retreated a few steps, to calm the man a little, but doing so also allowed him to block the nursery’s only viable exit. There was a small window behind the man, but it would prove a slow, and fatal, escape.
‘Not gonna let you kill me.’
The image of a bruised and battered fey woman flashed in his mind, a young woman who had looked hardly old enough to have graduated high school: the Solstice’s first victim of the day. They’d been just a little too late and she’d died, but not before putting up a fight. There had been defensive wounds up and down her arms. The Solstice had taken his time with her, fulfilling the sick and twisted goals of his organisation.
He pushed the image away. One life had been taken already, there was no way that he was going to allow a second to be stolen.
Protocol, however, demanded second chances.
‘I’m willing to talk,’ he said, keeping a sharp eye for a clear shot. Dialogue increased the chances that the little girl would survive with no lasting damage.
‘Bullshit!’ the man screamed, shaking the child. The girl choked on her sobs as she was shaken. The doll slipped from her small hands and smashed on the floor.
He fought the urge to fire. He didn’t have a clear shot, and only a clear shot would serve the situation. If he missed, then the child’s life was forfeit, and that was something he couldn’t live with. Too many innocents had already died around him. Too many lives shortened, too many…
Pushing aside painful thoughts, he took a moment to listen to the sounds from the rest of the house. There were no screaming parents, no concerned visitors phoning the authorities – he would have been notified had the local police been summoned – nothing, just the sounds of the party outside. From an emotional standpoint, it was horrible; from a strategic standpoint, it was the best scenario he could ever hope for: the less complicated the situation, the better.
Attempted negotiations were protocol, but there was no driving need to prolong the situation. ‘One last chance. Talk.’
The Solstice grimaced. ‘Never.’
‘Very well.’ He stared at the Solstice for a moment longer, giving him time to reconsider his decision to die. The soldier didn’t waver in the slightest.
‘You brought this on yourself,’ he said, held up his free hand and clicked his fingers. The impromptu human shield disappeared from the criminal’s arms and reappeared in his own. Tipping the situation to his favour was the murderer’s last chance, giving him a few more seconds to save his life.
The Solstice simply howled in anger and spent the last few bullets in his gun, one smashing a lamp, one lodging itself in his shoulder and the rest impacting various parts of the nursery. He fired one bullet and the cultist fell, hitting the floor with an unceremonious thump. A quick scan confirmed that he was dead.
Warm blood ran down his arm and he took a moment to concentrate and heal it. The bullet forced itself out of the hole and fell to the floor. His facade of skin and bone stitched itself back together. A quick thought refreshed his uniform, leaving it as pristine as when he’d left the Agency an hour ago.
Blood dripped onto his hand, and it became suddenly and terribly apparent that the child wasn’t moving. The gun immediately faded from his hand, and he lifted her with both hands. One of the wild shots had caught her in the chest, piercing the inaccurately depicted purple dinosaur on her shirt.
All thoughts froze as the tiny spark of her soul floated past his eyes. The soul hung hesitantly in the air for a moment, then began to fade from the world.
His eyes flicked to the child for the briefest of seconds. Then his hand shot out to grab the soul. Blue light streamed through his fingers, like he was holding a tiny star, and he could feel the soul trying to fade away, trying to be the second life claimed on his watch today. Effort creased his forehead as the soul tried to disappear. The blue light shuddered and struggled, distressed at being held on a level of reality where it didn’t belong.
He stumbled as the soul tried to pull away, but he held onto it, determined not to let the child pass without a fight.
There was a cold breeze behind him.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
He held onto the soul for a moment longer.Then released it without fear. Free of his grip, it spun in the air for a moment, then faded from existence.He’d done what he’d needed to do, he’d garnered her attention. He held the tiny body close. Then turned to face Death.
All he could see of her face was the grinning smile of a skeleton, but her mood was the furthest thing from cheerful.
‘What are you doing?’ she demanded again.
He looked at the child in his arms. ‘She’s too old to become a Starbright…’ he began to explain.
‘Far too old,’ she snapped. ‘Your point?’
‘Lady, please, I beg of you…’
The morning sun caught the blade of her unseen scythe for a moment, and he hesitated, taking a step back from her, back toward the playpen. She wasn’t a being to be trifled with, and he was once again stepping beyond his bounds.
She snorted. ‘She’s too young to make the choice on her own.’
‘So she’s passed?’ he asked, afraid of the answer.
The oldest of the three Ladies stood silent for a long moment, each passing second making him more afraid that he’d already failed.
‘Not beyond my knowing,’ she said at last.
Removing her cowl with bony hands, disappointment was obvious on her face. She stared at him with eyes that had seen the stars form, and shook her head at him.
‘One day,’ she said, ‘you are going to have to live with the consequences of your actions.’
Almost unconsciously, he rubbed the blood on the back of his hand onto his pant’s leg.
‘It might not be today,’ she continued, ‘but one day, you will, and there will be no second chance to save you, no backstop, no chance or recourse to put things right.’
He looked to her, and she gave him the barest of nods. He stooped and placed the body in the playpen and felt terrible for abandoning her, but at the same time he knew that he’d literally be back in no time at all; no matter how much time you spent in Death’s realm, no time passed in the real world.
As an afterthought, he grabbed for the broken porcelain doll, then stood and bowed to Death. He began to fade away, thinking only of the cold void that was her realm. After a moment, he felt a gentle tug, and the unfortunately familiar sensation of sinking through Death’s realm.
The utter nothingness around him and the nearness of the void tugged on what he had that resembled a soul, made him feel unsettled all the way to the core of his being. For mortals it was different. If they were scared, that would take over and they would feel like they were drowning. If they’d been calm, they likened it to coming home. The fear could fade, or the fear could take over and since it was the tiniest percentage of mortals that returned successfully from the Lady’s realm, there were very few who spent their time dwelling on, or philosophising about, the feeling.
It was a natural place for mortals to be. All of them passed through it at least once. Even Fortitude’s immortals had to pass through the darkness once, though their embargo circumvented the possibility of them becoming a ghost.
It was not a natural place for agents. Mortals died and passed on. Agents didn’t. Uselessly closing his eyes against the dark, he prayed to gods that weren’t listening that it would be over soon.
An instant, or an eternity, later, he felt solid ground under his feet, and he felt brave enough to look. As suspected, he was in Limbo. The eternal storm clouds swirled overhead in the gray sky. The gray earth beneath his feet let up little puffs of dust as he crossed toward the tree line of the winter-dead forest and two little girls.
One of the girls was the child he was here to save, the other was the gray land’s guardian. Limbo rolled a bright red ball toward the dead child, turned to him, laughed, and then looked away. Limbo was a being that existed entirely in greyscale, her hair silver, her skin ashen and her eyes black. Even her monk’s robe was in muted tones. Limbo, despite her age, despite her responsibility, always appeared as a child.
All he could do was watch them play. The girl he’d failed was happy. All of her fear had disappeared. There were no more terrified screams or tears of pain, there was just the ball and her new playmate. Children adjusted so quickly. It was a quality he was envious of.
He drove his hands into his pockets and for the briefest of moments, doubted his right to take action. Unfortunately, all thoughts, no matter how brief, were known to the Ladies. The minds of all beings mortal, god and agent were as open as books, books with large text and helpful diagrams no less.
‘You’re right to hesitate,’ Death said as she appeared beside him.
She touched his arm, a rare gesture of affection. ‘You do not have the right to do this. It’s not your prerogative to force this choice on her.’
‘It’s my right,’ he said as he curled his hands into fists within his pockets, ‘to try and save her.’
‘There’s every chance she will become a ghost, is that what you wish on her? Is that the consequence you wish on her? Your mistake, your inaction, contributed to her death, yes, but what you’re chancing is worse than death. Is that what you want?’
It took every shred of self-control to keep his voice calm. ‘Of course not.’
‘Then let her pass.’
He looked up at the girl again. In this place, the bullet wound didn’t exist. No wounds existed in Limbo. It was a place of choice, the choice to live or the choice to die. If you lived then the wound would be healed. If you died then you would be beyond caring about the wound.
‘She deserves a chance,’ he said, the words coming easily as the decision fortified in his mind. ‘She has to have a chance.’
‘As is your wish,’ she said. ‘She has to come willingly.’
He nodded, and walked toward the girls. Wilfully or not, they ignored him, content to roll the ball back and forth between themselves. After a few minutes, the ball rolled away and hit his foot. He crouched to pick up the ball. Limbo stared at him for a moment, then blinked her black eyes, stood and joined her sister, leaving him with the girl.
The child clapped her hands and waited for him to roll the ball back. When he didn’t, she scooted away a little, leaving small trails in the dust. He put the red ball down and went to hand her the doll. He stared at his hands and realised that they’d been empty since he’d arrived in the small, gray world.
‘You dropped it,’ Death said as a bony hand passed him the doll. ‘Do you still wonder why I doubt your capacity to see this child home safely?’
‘I would be—’ he began, then noticed that the girl was watching him, staring at the doll in his hand through the wispy brown hair over her eyes. He turned from Death, stood and walked over to the girl, knelt and offered the doll to her.
The child’s eyes grew even wider, then filled with tears, her tiny pink mouth opening to let forth yet another wail. He looked back to Death, wondering what he’d…
His eyes fell on the doll in his hand. The porcelain doll, its head caved in on one side, a hand missing, was covered in blood. He immediately pulled it back, and it disappeared into his long jacket.
He wasn’t in the world, so he couldn’t require the doll fixed, but within Limbo, just as within an oubliette, simple wishes and needs were heard and fulfilled. He concentrated, felt the doll’s head run then re-form. The cloth rippled as the clothes were replaced. With a smile, he pulled the renewed doll from his jacket and held it up to the girl.
The tears stopped. She rubbed her face with a sleeve, then took a step forward and snatched the doll from his hands. She dropped back to the ground, burying her face in the doll’s red hair, her tiny hands curling into the fabric, making sure for herself that the doll was whole again.
He rose and looked to Death. ‘May I take her back now?’
‘She… has not said yes yet. She has to make the choice.’
He opened his mouth to protest. A child this young couldn’t understand the choice she was being asked to make, nor articulate the answer. Words caught in his throat when he felt a pull on his leg. Remembering where he was, he quelled his first instinct, which was to kick the attacker away, and looked down. The girl was hugging his leg. She mumbled thanks into his pant’s leg, the doll hanging limp in the crook of her arm.
‘Now she has,’ Death said with a smile.
He knelt and picked up the little girl and her doll.
‘Time to go home Stephanie.’