Stef blinked as the world came back into focus. A roof, they were standing on a roof. She looked around – it didn’t seem to be the agency roof.
‘Is there some sort of roof magic you want to show me?’ she asked.
‘You’ll understand in a moment. Listen. What do you hear?’
‘If it’s the 1812 Overture, I’m out of here.’
‘Just listen, please.’
She straightened herself, closed her eyes, and tilted her head up.
Stef started to process through all of the sounds of night. A single, perfect note rose above it all, and when it faded, she could hear someone singing. She slowly opened her eyes as the sound of song got louder, and she was able to keep hold of it even with the distraction of being able to see.
‘Death. This is Dajulveed’s coda. She’s singing for the end of the world.’
‘It’s pretty for a dirge.’
‘I couldn’t begin to tell you what the words mean, only that it is as much a celebration as commiseration. Like any funeral, some time has to be dedicated to happy memories.’
‘But–’ She swallowed. ‘But we don’t remember anything about Dajulveed. The only reason we know about it is because it’s dying.’
‘We can still show respect, Stef.’
She leaned against the railing of the building and closed her eyes again. There was something strange about the song, about the way she was processing it. ‘Am I…’ she asked hesitantly, ‘hearing this with my ears?’
‘No,’ he answered, ‘and yes. It’s not just sound.’
The singing grew even louder. She could feel the sounds pushing and pulling on emotional triggers, dredging up old memories and emotions as though it was being played to her soul. The song continued on, then dropped away.
‘Look up,’ Ryan said gently.
She raised her head and looked to the sky. She swallowed and looked around. She expected ghosts; 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. 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.
She gave the moon a closer look. 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 red 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.
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.
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 drove her away from the railing, but a strong hand steadied her back, to stop her from falling.
Shaking, Stef 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?’ 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. Her mind spun but her eyes stayed 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 what it is. I don’t know… Is it a…?’
‘Yes,’ the agent said. ‘It’s a phoenix.’
The bird was massive. It was no professor’s pet; it was a force of nature. Its wings spread the width of the moon’s face, and from 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.
Her vision of the bird was blocked for a moment, as Ryan stooped in front of her and helped her to her feet. Stef stood, unsteadily, then grabbed the railing to stay upright.
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: a figure in a dark robe. The phoenix descended towards 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.
‘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.’
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.’
‘This is– This is too much,’ she whispered, the words tumbling out before she had a chance to consider them.
‘It’s always too much, the first time.’
Stef looked away from the fire bird to the cool, calm, and collected narc who never seemed to be bothered by anything. He’d been angry at her at the mansion – well, angry at the evil-Solstice-bad-guy version of her that had only existed in his head.
He was the perfect, stoic narc. He couldn’t be bothered by anything.
She curled her toes. ‘What’d you think the first time you saw one?’
‘I was alone,’ he said. ‘My director had been with me, but he was called away, and he insisted I stay to watch. I was…young. I understood what I was seeing, but…’ He motioned towards the immense phoenix. ‘A little fear is natural. It’s a creature that only exists to destroy. It’s easy to feel insignificant when you come face-to-face with something like that.’
‘You could have run away.’
I could run away.
‘Running away is not good agent behaviour.’
‘Is it okay recruit behaviour?’
‘There’s something else to consider: 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.’
‘There’s – there’s agents on other worlds? Alien MiBs?’
‘There are,’ he said. ‘A lot of worlds have agents.’
She looked away, at the phoenix perched on that other building. ‘I’m – I’m still kinda freaked.’
‘You have no reason to be afraid. I promise you: It won’t hurt you.’
‘Yeah, well, so long as it stays over there.’
The look on his face said everything.
‘Lol. Wut.’ She hugged her arms around herself. ‘Whywhywhy would it come over here? Is its vision based on movement? Can’t we just–’
He held up an envelope, held it aloft, and she watched as the phoenix turned its head towards 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.
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 safety.
‘Insomuch 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 moved to a closer building.
‘It’s almost here.’
‘I know.’ Ryan put a hand on the railing and vaulted over the edge.
The sound that came from Stef’s mouth was far from human. Fear and shock and panic melded into something that sounded like a mutant velociraptor being strangled. She threw herself forward, hands grabbing on to his suit, before he fell, before he–
She anchored her feet against the wall, expecting to be pulled over by his weight, and by gravity trying to suck him down, to making him nothing but a red splat and–
He was surprisingly light. It wasn’t just his jacket – she knew that, despite her eyes being squeezed shut so tight it hurt. She could feel his arm, but the crazy adrenaline rush that let people lift cars like Superman meant that–
‘Climb back over,’ she said. ‘Please.’
Super-strength had to give out sooner or later, else everyone would be wearing spandex and capes.
He ruffled her hair.
She started to shake.
Climb back over. Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t die.
She slowly forced her eyes open and saw his feet standing on air. ‘Why – why aren’t you falling?’
‘You aren’t either,’ he said, and she looked down to see that she was having a disagreement with gravity.
She shrieked, let him go, and grabbed for the railing. Stef hurriedly wiped away tears and tried to calm her pounding heart. It wasn’t what it seemed. He wasn’t going to fall. He wasn’t going to die. He wasn’t going to be nothing but a red splat that was–
She sucked air in through her nose. People falling off buildings was an abstract. It was something you saw on TV or in a movie. She pushed a breath out, feeling her lungs burn as she tried to empty every alveoli. It wasn’t something she’d seen. It wasn’t. It was nothing but second-hand panic. Like experiencing a nuclear blast or an invasion of giant insects.
‘Please don’t do that again.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’
‘You jumped off a building. What did you expect?!’
He slowly reached down and pulled her hands from the railing, then helped her float higher. ‘You’re safe.’
Please don’t let me fall. Please don’t let me fall.
‘Are you doing this?’ she asked, trying to swallow emotions. ‘Is this some sort of “require: flight” thing you haven’t told me about?’
‘No, we can only do this when there’s a phoenix around.’
‘If I look down, will I fall?’
‘The world is not made of such flimsy magic.’
Stef swallowed again and let go of one of his hands, feeling the complete nothingness under her feet, the wind currents pushing and pulling on her shoes and clothes. ‘I’m really not gonna fall?’
‘No, you’re not.’
She let go of his other hand, took a deep breath, and let herself hang in the air, unsupported by anything but the magic of a giant phoenix who could use her as a skinny marshmallow with a sneeze.
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 so she could look down at Ryan. ‘Don’t tell the captain, okay?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
She felt colour rush to her face. ‘Captain Hook was my imaginary friend when I was a kid. He would have made me walk the plank if he caught me flying like Peter.’
Ryan gave her the confused look again, then smiled.
Stef tried to dredge up her memories of ballet, then slowly pulled a few rusty movements – which were a lot easier than she remembered, 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 simple manoeuvre 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, and she tried to right herself. She swung her arms, but she only succeeded in swinging like a pendulum.
Oh, my god, I’m flying.
She let herself hang, her arms dropping down over her head towards the street below. She could feel the pull of gravity against her hands, of physics fighting magic and losing.
I’m really flying.
There was a tap on her shoe, and she looked up to see Ryan knocking on her foot.
‘How,’ he asked, turning his head to look down at her, ‘did you manage that?’
‘I did this on purpose.’ She stuck her tongue out.
‘In that case–’
‘No, no, no. Help plz,’ she said, swinging her arms up. ‘Help plz.’
He grabbed her free hand and pulled her upright, her body travelling easily through the air, then let her go when she regained what constituted balance.
All thoughts disappeared as the phoenix approached.
Stef 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.
The phoenix reached them, and Ryan moved forwards. He reached the envelope towards the phoenix. Immediately, it burst into flames, the ashes disappearing before they had a chance to flutter of into the wind.
Ryan ran a hand along the phoenix’s chest, 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 jewelled feather. With a flick of his wrist, Ryan signed his name in the air, a thin trail of fire burning his name into the night.
The phoenix 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 okay – I’m okay – it can go somewhere else.’
‘Okay, then. Give me your quill.’
‘I can’t. You need your own.’
Stef stepped forwards 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 or instant disintegration.
All mental preparation made, she reached a hand up to the phoenix, expecting pain, expecting heat, expecting–
She only felt soft plumage.
Running her hand upward, all she felt was soft, warm, feathers.
It didn’t feel like a volcano, it didn’t feel like a fire that burnt down a forest. It was the warmth of sitting in the sun, of the delight in reading on a balcony in winter, waiting for the coolness to burn away as the sun rose.
She smoothed 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 left behind.
The voice was loud, and old…and definitely hadn’t come from her head. 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 found his Belle.
Stef touched 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, then flew towards the next building.
‘Most recruits have to wait years to see a phoenix, if they see one at all,’ Ryan said as he moved back to the railing. He turned and 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. Stef looked down as the railing lost its rounded shape – as it 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 – whereas 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 a 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 her 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 towards the next group of mourners, small pieces of flame breaking off and dwindling into nothingness.
‘What next?’ he asked.
She pulled her knees to her chest and rested her chin for a moment. ‘We’ve done fire,’ she said. ‘Can we do ice next?’
She smiled. ‘Ice cream would be acceptable.’
[table id=15 /]