It was hard to reconcile the word against the violent man, but he was scared.
At least, the expression had looked like fear before he’d grabbed her neck and forced her down onto her knees. He forced her down further so that she was looking at the dusty ground.
‘Kneel. Supplicate. Now.’
‘To you?’ Stef started to ask, before he pressed a foot on her back.
‘Shut up,’ he snapped. ‘Look once, if you have to, but don’t let them catch you.’ He knelt beside her, his forehead touching the dirt. ‘Look if you have to,’ he whispered, ‘then do as I’m doing.’
Stef pushed on her hands and lifted her head a little more, trying to see the source of his concern.
All around them, and as far as she could see, people were going to their knees, curling themselves as low to the ground as they could, praying, rocking, crying.
Rhys shot a hand out and grabbed her wrist. She looked to him – he met her gaze, then looked away. She followed his line of sight and saw angels.
As tall and beautiful and…ethereal as a classic painting. Light, shiny silver armour over light, billowing, silken clothes. Swords that glinted with a hint of flame on their hips.
And they all had ginormous wings coming out of their backs.
There were four of them – all men; two black and two white, all with golden eyes.
They can probably shoot lasers from them.
Rhys’ grip tightened on her wrist and she looked away, planting her forehead in the silt, wondering how far down the apparent “ground” went and if she could dig a way away from the angels.
The angels felt…wrong.
The entire mood of the collective unconscious had changed. Usually there was a distinct air of boredom and silence – it was as much an in-between nothingness as Limbo itself was.
Someone off to her left started to cry.
The angels made no sound as they moved, except for a slight rustle of their wings.
She closed her eyes, pressed her head further into the ground, and began to silently count in binary. If the badass-apparent was genuflecting, then it was the safest thing to do.
At the count of eighty-seven, a man started screaming somewhere off to her left.
The one who was crying?
It was an awful, desperate thing. The screams of a dying man, and one who was going out hard.
She started to shake but made every effort not to make a noise.
After forever the screaming stopped.
Is it over? Please let it be over.
Just stay still until it is.
There was the rustle of wings, then she felt wind rushing over her – hopefully the angels flying away.
She started counting again.
When she reached one-hundred-and-fifty, Rhys moved beside her, then stood. ‘You can get up,’ he said, ‘but don’t speak.’
She stood and quietly brushed the dust from her clothes. Rhys glared at her and she fell in line behind him as he moved towards the former source of the scream.
I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see it.
An agent – at least it was a fair guess that he was an agent judging by what was left of his suit – hung from a tree, his wrists bound to a thick limb above his head.
The ground beneath him was mud of blood and silt, a sick, dirty red and brown mess.
Chunks were missing from his arms and chest – one leg was missing entirely.
Rhys helped a man and a women cut the agent down, laying him on the ground away from the mud patch.
‘Is-’ Stef started.
Rhys pulled away from the agent, stalked over to her and grabbed her arm. ‘Don’t speak. Watch. Observe. Learn something so that you aren’t useless.’
The agent – the apparently dead agent – started to scream.
The woman immediately shoved a scrap of bloody suit into his mouth, muffling the sound, whilst the man cradled the agent’s head in his lap.
Rhys, meanwhile, stood guard, his hands at his side, no doubt hovering over a weapon or six.
After a little while, the man’s flesh started to regrow, the screams turning to sobs.
Rhys grunted and she followed him back to the rock formation that acted as his lair.
Stef sat on the rocks, out of stabbing range, and held up her hand like she was in class. Rhys produced an apple from his pocket and cut off a small slice with one of his many knives.
‘You have food?’ she asked as she dropped her hand, salivating at the sight of the apple.
‘A tip, girl, for when you grow up and die as an agent. If you get recycled, you get to keep whatever’s in your pockets, or whatever is in your standard uniform.’ He waved the apple. ‘That’s why you have a gun, after all.’
‘You could have-’
‘Shared?’ he asked, raising an eyebrow. ‘I’m one of the few people in here that have food, and I don’t like you enough to share.’
She hesitated for a moment. ‘You told me what to do with the-’
‘You look after those from your city, that doesn’t mean I like you.’
She took her eyes away from the apple. ‘Why an apple? It’s a bit-‘ she looked up at the circling angels, reminded of vultures. ‘A bit biblical, isn’t it?’
‘I once had a whore half-convinced that I was Lucifer.’ He pointed the knife to the sky. ‘I hate those bastards, but I appreciate the depth of fear that comes along with the trappings.’ He cut another slice of perfect, green apple.
‘I wouldn’t disbelieve that,’ she said, ‘except I know Ryan, so I know there’s some parts of you that aren’t one hundred percent solid prick.’
Rhys looked at her as he cut a wedge of apple. ‘For the amount of lewd language you use deliberately, you seem to be fundamentally unaware of some of the things you say.’
‘Huh?’ She blushed. ‘Oh. Right.’
He stood, walked the few paces to her, then crouched in front of her, holding out the remaining half of the apple. ‘You know if I give you this, there’ll be a price.’
‘What do you want?’
‘You’re an opportunity I’ve never had, girl. You’re someone who’s going back, and someone who wants something from me. I want you to track down my son, and when you’re recycled again, you’ll tell me about him.’
She watched a bead of juice fall from the underside of the apple. ‘And that’s it?’
‘Offer going once.’
She tried to grab the apple from his hand, but he caught her wrist. ‘You didn’t agree yet.’
‘It’ll be pretty easy to do,’ she said. ‘Yeah, I agree.’
He gripped her wrist tightly, turned her hand palm up, and gently placed the half-apple there. ‘Then we have an accord.’
I think I should be freaked out.
So give him the apple back.
Stef bit into the apple and was embarrassed by the sound she made. The last thing she’d had to eat was the burger Curt had bought her and that had been…a geological age ago.
She pressed the bite of apple to the top of her mouth and slowly sucked the juice out of it, then scrapped the flesh from the skin and ran it around and around her mouth, then chewed on the skin, pulling every bit of flavour from it, before she allowed herself to swallow.
Without further ado, she devoured the rest of it, stopping only to spit the seeds into her hand.
When there was nothing but the core remaining, she looked up at him. He could react badly to the question, but she needed to ask anyway. ‘Rhys-?’
‘Fourteen times,’ he said, before she even had a chance to ask. His voice was hoarse, thick with emotion. ‘And you lose something every time they do it.’ He was silent for a long moment, then looked towards her. ‘Do you know what a story thief is, girl?’
She shook her head.
‘The thieves are a kind of creature, that at least in my day, we classed as different to the fae-’
She closed her eyes, desperately trying to remember the word Ryan had use. ‘Folly?’ she said, unsure. ‘A- A folly?’
He gave a small, appreciative nod. ‘Yes. That. These follies get you to recite a memory, one of your stories, then they take it from you, take it into themselves. Your memory becomes a part of them, and they become a little more real, they subsist on scraps of other people’s lives.’ He looked up. ‘And the angels here do the same thing.’
His smile was utterly joyless. ‘Because no one wants to die.’ He looked up again. ‘Their fingers don’t go through their palms when they make a fist!’ he spat. ‘But still, time fades everything in here, and they think they are entitled to live because they are the oldest.’ He sighed. ‘And we have no choice but to supplicate, fear and survive them. So be glad, girl, that you’re getting out of here. Live as long as you can, because this is the hell you’re coming back to.’