Stef shook her head and kept her eyes from the sky, the song was enough for now – she wasn’t sure that she could handle any more surprises. The song that she wasn’t quite sound, and that seemed to play the listener as much as it did the unheard instruments.
The singing grew louder. The words of the song weren’t English – she wasn’t even sure they were language at all. She could feel the sounds pushing and pulling on emotional triggers, dredging up old memories and emotions as though it was being heard by her soul. It was the saddest thing she’d ever heard, and at the same time, a celebration of past glories and hope for those that remained.
‘Stef,’ the agent said again, ‘look up.’
She swallowed and looked up. She expected ghosts, she she expected zeppelins, there was nothing, just the moon, which she easily looked past. ‘I don’t-‘
‘Look again,’ he said.
She looked up again, there were no shapes hiding in the clouds, no ripples in the sky, nothing expect for the moon. She looked at it again, it hung heavily in the air, large and tinted, like a harvest moon. She kept staring at it, there being nothing else obvious to focus her attention on. She chanced a look at the agent, who simply nodded back at the moon. She sighed, then looked back up, trying to see whatever was really there, but saw nothing. It was just a harvest moon in a sky with a dwindling amount of cloud cover.
The tint was wrong. It wasn’t a harvest moon. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked as she turned her head to look at the moon from new angles. Slowly, but surely, the tint began to crawl away from the edges of the moon’s face, coalescing and growing darker, becoming nothing but a dark, rough oval in the centre of the bright moon.
‘We’re going to need another Surprise Fiction episode,’ she muttered, tightening her grip on the railing.
‘This can’t be recorded,’ he said as he straightened his jacket, ‘by any means other than memory. People don’t look up anymore, few will notice, fewer will pay attention, and the tiny portion that watch this and see will understand that they’ve seen something amazing, or assume that they’ve gone mad.’
‘Or just scared and join the Solstice.’
‘Or that,’ he said. ‘It’s happening.’
The bright glow of the moon dropped away, leaving only dull, muted light – enough to highlight the dark oval in its centre, but not enough to chase away the fears that lived in the shadows. The oval shook violently, and began to crack apart.
I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. This is too big, too big. I can’t handle this. I can’t handle…Take me home. She looked over at the agent as bright streams of light shot from the oval. Take me home. Take me- ‘-home.’
The agent didn’t hear her, his attention fixed firmly on the sky above.
The oval stopped shaking, went still, then exploded, bursting into flames. The explosion’s wave hit, and she raised her arms to hide her face from the heat. The force behind it drove her away from the railing, but a strong hand steadied her back to stop her from falling.
Shaking, she slowly lowered her arms – the dark oval was gone, replaced with a much larger ball of fire. A shriek pierced the night, and she wished that teleportation was one of the phenomenal cosmic powers that they gifted to recruits.
‘There’s no need to be afraid, it’s not meant for our world.’
‘What isn’t?’ she demanded. Against her better judgement, she looked back up at the great fiery ball. Two thin lines of blue flame ran across it, and two sections peeled way, spread themselves wide, shook, flapped…
‘Oh my god.’ With another explosion, the last section pulled away from the centre, a head. A proud, fiery head. With a cry, the rest of the body formed. ‘Oh my god,’ she said again, sitting down very quickly on the cold concrete roof, the impact making her shoulder twinge with pain. Her head spun but her eyes locked on the creature in the sky. She shivered, unable to handle seeing the… ‘Tell me that isn’t what I think it is. Or that it is. I don’t know… Is it a…?’
‘Yes,’ the agent said, ‘it’s a phoenix.’
The bird was massive. This was no professor’s pet, it was a force of nature. Its wings spread the width of the moon’s face, and head to tail, it was nearly as tall. It flapped its wings, and the few brave clouds that had remained were blasted away by the heat. Red and gold flames pulsed, its heartbeat echoing across the night.
One of Ryan’s fingers came into her vision, and she turned her head to see what he was pointing at. For a moment she saw nothing, then she saw it, standing on one of the rooftops was a figure in a dark robe. The phoenix descended toward the figure, managing to glide past the metal-and-glass buildings without melting them.
The figure stepped up into the air, and met the phoenix, pressing her tiny head to its massive one. ‘Death,’ Ryan said, answering her unasked question, ‘the phoenix is one of her beings, it carries out the duties she cannot. It will cleanse Dajulveed, ending everything, so that the mirror can fall.’
‘Stop it,’ she whispered. ‘We’re the good guys, right? Aren’t we supposed to…? Can’t we…? I dunno, do something?’
He smiled. ‘I thought you had no interest in saving the world.’
‘I don’t, I’m just trying to understand what’s going on.’
‘There’s nothing to save, Stef, this is the funeral, and the phoenix is the pyre’s torch.’ He reached a hand down to her. ‘You’re safe here, it can’t hurt you.’ She stood, but shied away from the railing, not wanting to be any closer than necessary. The phoenix wheeled up into the air, shrank in size a little, then perched onto the building that Death had come from. ‘It’s always the same,’ he said, ‘no matter the world, the same ceremonies are observed. Sometimes, worlds bring it on themselves, others are just victims…in either case, there are always innocents, and every life is always lost, so we have to respect the dead, just as we hope that someone will respect us.’
‘I can’t handle this,’ she whispered, the words tumbling out before she had a chance to consider them.
‘It’s always too much the first time.’
‘Like you’d know.’
‘I know the reactions of those around me. And…consider it from my perspective, agents are always the last beings to die on a world – except for those that take their own lives. They have to stand, watch and wait, with the knowledge that they failed, that everyone they care about is dead, or so far away that they may as well be.’
He pulled an envelope from his pocket, then stepped up onto the railing. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ she cried as she rushed forward, grabbing for his jacket. ‘You’re gonna-‘ He looked down and smiled. ‘You’re…not gonna fall are you? Stupid narc.’ He held the envelope aloft and the phoenix turned its head toward them.
No, no, no, don’t bring that thing over here. Keep it away from me. I’ve been dead, it’s gonna burn me. Oh god, I don’t want to burn. Please don’t-
Then run, if that’s what you want.
What if this is a hallucination?
Then run away, if that’s what you believe.
Why aren’t you telling me what to do? You’re supposed to help me!
You aren’t going to be happy with anything I have to say, you want to decide this on your own.
No, I don’t, tell me what to do!
Make a choice.
‘So it’s a messenger service too?’ she asked, planting her feet so that she didn’t run for the fire ladder.
‘In as much as it can be. It burns the letters, rendering the ashreaders the only ones who ever read the words, but it carries the intent.’
‘What’s in the letter?’
He shrugged. ‘It may as well be a prayer. Prayers don’t get answered, things happen, or don’t – the gods are utterly indifferent, hence why agents exist in the first place. But…sometimes you just have to say the words. It’s going through the motions, but if the words make you feel better, or make someone else feel better, then they’ve served their purpose.’
The phoenix flew toward one of the other groups of mourners, accepting another letter. ‘Is it going to burn me?’
The agent turned back to look at her. ‘What?’
‘I can reconcile the fact that I might be imagining all of this, that it’s nothing but dream and shadow brought around by the fact that I’ve finally gone more insane than I can handle. But…if that isn’t the case, and all of this is real, then I’ve died, and I don’t think I’ve reconciled that yet. I’ve had two strangers look at me and tell me that I’ve died, ok one was a monster, and one probably had some experience with the matter, but they knew, and I didn’t.’
‘You were not supposed to remember. You were so young, I never dreamed that you would remember anything, let alone as much as you did. I could have wiped your memory, but I didn’t think it was necessary. I’m sorry, I should have.’
‘No!’ Wow, Spyder, unexpected. ‘If this is real, then it’s amazing. I mean, all I ever wanted to do was find Narnia so that I could escape. This…well, it’s not as good, but as the king said to the Shetland pony, it’s good enough.’
The phoenix moved toward the next building, one mighty flap of its wings propelling it most of the distance. In one quick movement, he crouched and grabbed her by the back of the shirt, then he lifted her up onto the railing, keeping a hand on her shoulder. She clutched his jacket, her feet slipping on the thin, round pipe that served as the railing. ‘Oh god, don’t let me fall. Shoot me if you want, but dun let me go splat!’
Ryan moved toward it, letting her go. She shrieked, images of both of them plummeting to their respective deaths dancing in her mind. She clenched her feet in her shoes, trying to buy more purchase on the pipe…pipe she was no longer standing on.
Her grip on his jacket slipped a little as he moved out toward the phoenix, away from the building, away from anything to stand on. With both hands, she grasped the end of his jacket, and tugged it a few times, and he tuned back to look at her. ‘If I look down, will I fall?’
‘The world is not made of such flimsy magic.’
She looked down, and saw that she was no longer standing on the railing, rather floating a little above it. ‘Are you doing this?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘we haven’t been able to fly for a long time.’ He turned and pulled her hands from his jacket, holding one of her tiny, trembling hands. ‘You’re not going to fall.’ She nodded, but kept an iron grip on his hand – if this short madness ended, he’d at least be able to shift her to safety.
Another worry popped into her mind as she tried to come to terms with the fact that she was, in fact, flying. She kicked her feet and rose a little, looking down at him. ‘Don’t tell the Captain, ok?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
She felt colour rush to her face. ‘Captain Hook was my imaginary friend when I was a kid, he woul dhave made me walk the plank if he caught me flying like Peter.’
He gave her the confused look again, then smiled.
She slowly let go of his hand, and tried to dredge up her memories of ballet, then pulled a few rusty movements – which were a lot easier now that gravity was on her side, and she didn’t have an angry woman threatening her with a riding crop.
Slowly, and terrified that she was pushing her luck, she pushed on the air beneath her feet and rose away from him. With a giddy giggle, she pushed her arms forward – intent on pulling the supposedly simply maneuverer of flipping in a circle.
Unfortunately, she only made it halfway.
Knees hanging on an invisible monkey bar, she looked down at the street from the wrong way up. Hair fell past her face, as did the front of the four-sizes-too-large shirt. Holding the shirt with one hand, intent on at least keeping her modesty, even if she couldn’t save face, she tried to swing herself back up.
A labored grunt as she tried to grab the air caught the agent’s attention. ‘How,’ he asked, turning his head to look down a her, ‘did you manage that?’
‘I’m special?’ she squeaked. ‘halp plz. Help me, please.’
He grabbed her free hand and pulled her upright, her body traveling easily through the air, then let her go when she regained what constituted balance.
All thoughts disappeared as the phoenix approached.
She fought the urge to throw her hands up and Superman it away from the bird, or to jump back down to the rooftop and take the ladder away from this flying-burny-birdy madness.
Shut up. Give in. This is magic.
The phoenix reached them and Ryan moved forward. He reached the envelope toward the phoenix. Immediately, it burst into flames, the ashes disappearing before they had a chance to flutter of into the wind. He ran a along the phoenix’s breast, his fingertips slipping into the fire. He jerked his hand, pulling away a piece of flame, then lifted it and shook it until the fire disappeared. It was a feather, a gold and jeweled feather. With a flick of his wrist, he signed his name in the air, a thin trail of fire burning his name into the night.
It looked to her, its eyes the brightest flames she’d ever seen, and she felt like an ant. ‘It’s not going to hurt you,’ he said, ‘now, hurry, others are waiting.’
‘No, it’s ok, I’m ok, it can go somewhere else.’
‘Ok then, give me your quill…’
‘You know I can’t,’ he said as he slipped it into his pocket.
No I didn’t. She stepped forward, and stared up at the wall of flame that was the phoenix. Beneath the rippling fire, she could see its heart, each beating pounding into her as easily as the song had. She closed her eyes and reached one hand forward, preparing herself for third-degree burns.
All mental preparation made, she reached a hand up to the phoenix, expecting pain, expecting heat, expecting it to realise that she had been among the dead, and to send her back there as a gasp of ashes.
She only felt soft plumage.
Running her hand upward, all she felt was soft, warm, feathers. She released her other hand’s grip on the agents coat, smoothing the ruffled feathers back down. She opened her eyes and looked up at the bird, her hands no longer shaking, her urge to run quelled and only a strange sense of peace. The peace of a graveyard.
The voice was loud, and old…and definitely wasn’t one of hers. She thought of the world that she knew nothing about, save for a few ghostly images, and a man that was now a monster. A man that had done everything to escape his fate, and to find the woman he loved. A sappy, Disney story, but one that he’d sacrificed so much for.
I hope the Beast finds his Belle.
Her fingers touched on something hard, and she pulled on it, a piece of the fire coming loose. As Ryan had done, she shook it, extinguishing the flame, leaving only the golden feather behind, a smattering of opals set into the metal. She lifted the quill and felt it catch on the air, then signed her name, the letters of her name burning brightly before being whisked away by the breeze.
The phoenix shrieked, the flew toward the next building.
‘Most recruits have to wait years to see a phoenix,’ he said as he moved back toward the railing. Turning, he sat on it, letting his legs dangle free, kept slightly buoyant by whatever was allowing them to fly.
She sat beside him, hands resting on the cool metal. Cool metal that began to slip and change. She looked down as the railing lost its rounded shape, grew flat, wider and softer, morphing into a seat. A front row seat to the end of a world.
She stared at the quill in her hands. ‘Is this going to crumble into ashes as well?’
He looked down at his own quill – where hers was set with opals, pieces of garnet glinted in his. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it will likely outlast me.’
She held hers aloft, the light of the phoenix catching on the gold. ‘So what do I do with it?’
‘Secret it away, you may need it for trade one day. Keep it as a reminder of a dead world. Write words on the air for an ashreader. Do what you wish with it.’
She twirled it, the opals catching the renewed light of the moon. ‘I don’t think I’ll need a reminder of today.’ She settled herself into the chair, drawing he knees up, and stared at him. ‘And never apologise again for not wiping my memory. My life was so simple a week ago, but I couldn’t go back to it. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.’
The phoenix wheeled into the sky, moving off toward the next group of mourners, small pieces of flame breaking off and dwindling into nothingness.
‘Thank you,’ the agent said quietly. She looked over to him, confused. ‘In the store, before everything happened…Wanting to be remembered is no evil. You aren’t the only child I’ve rescued. I’ve pulled some from hostage situations, others from collapsing buildings that regular emergency crews couldn’t get to, halfbreed children literally from the hands of Solstice on the borders of their territory. I have saved dozens, if not more.’
‘You should get a medal.’
‘It’s part of the job. It is the job. This is what we do. This is why you wear the uniform, even if makes you a target. That wasn’t my point. It didn’t have a profound effect on any of them. I am sorry for whatever negative consequences it has brought around, but I do not apologise for being remembered.’
She smiled, and stared at the phoenix over her knees, cool breeze chasing away the bird’s warmth.
Ryan smiled as his recruit began to snore. It wasn’t surprising in the least – she shouldn’t have out of the infirmary, let alone having the extra pressure and stress of a phoenix added to her day’s experiences. Sleep relaxed her posture, and she fell forward, nearly tumbling from the building. He caught her by the back of the shirt and pulled her toward him, one thought extending the seat, the other shifting her around so that she was lying down, head leaning against his side – which had to be more comfortable than sleeping sitting up.
Another thought shifted his jacket from his back, and over her like a blanket.
‘There were eight dozen worlds, ‘ Death said, ‘where you pulled the trigger on her.’
He looked up at her, only the bottom half of her human-seeming face visible beneath her cowl. ‘I don’t care what other versions of me did. I didn’t here, and that’s the important thing.’
‘You said you weren’t going to be responsible for her. You were telling the truth at the time.’
‘This was never my intent,’ he said, ‘it just seemed to happen. She remembered me, she wasn’t supposed to remember me. It…changed everything. I am an agent. This is what I am, this is my life. We save people, we rescue people, and then they’re gone, back to their own lives. To see her again, to actually see the effect of one of my actions, to know that she grew up, and has lived a life, I am so glad I did not let her go.’
His recruit moved, turning over to face the back of the impromptu seat, wrapping his jacket around herself.
He looked up to watch the phoenix shoot toward the sky, the night seeming to catch on fire. ‘None.’ When he looked back, Death was gone. He sat for a moment more, keeping a hand on his jacket, lest she unintentionally commit suicide again.
After the smell of ash faded from the air, he concentrated and shifted them back to her room – he’d articulated the shift so that she landed in her bed. Another thought transposed his recruit and her quilt – he left his jacket in her clutches though, not wanting its absence to disturb her.
Not seeing the need to shift back to his office, he simply walked out of the room, quietly closing the door behind himself.
Across the hall and to the left, another recruit was leaving their room – O’Connors. The ex-Solstice had a towel wrapped around his neck and a bottle of water in one hand – obviously heading for the gym.
‘Checking on the newbie, sir?’
‘Not quite,’ he answered honestly.
This brought a look of confusion to the boy’s face, which was quickly dismissed. ‘Still need me to keep an eye on her, or are we putting her upstairs?’
‘No, she’s staying with us.’
O’Connors took a step toward the room. ‘Then I might get her to come run laps, or run a scenario. I trust you, sir, but she needs a lot of work.’
‘Not tonight,’ he said, raising a hand to halt the boy’s movement. ‘She’s asleep.’
‘Sorry, should have figured that. If I’m excused.’
‘Of course,’ he said with a nod.