Fire.
Darkness.
Falling.
Nothing.
His skin was seared. His body in constant pain. His mind filled with thoughts of his dead lover. Pain. So much pain.
Hell. It had to be Hell.
Rationality slipped away as another tidal wave of pain hit, finally taking his consciousness with it.
He woke up.
The ground was hot beneath his body, but nothing like the fire, nothing like the-
The sky was on fire. It was red, a sunset red, but the only clouds in the sky were scraps of burning flame, never smoking, never ashing, staying lit on their own.
He sat up, shook his head then pushed himself off the ground. Bayonets and broken beer bottles littered the ground, a city lay on the horizon, but he couldn’t match the skyline to any that he knew, if it was even real at all, or just another of Hell’s illusions.
There was a street ahead, lined by burned-out cars. He turned, and saw a battlefield – empty of its fighters, littered with barbed wire, machine gun nests and swords stuck in the mud. Information clashed, time periods clashed – it wasn’t any one battlefield, it was an amalgam.
Given the choices, the street was the better choice – far less weapons there that could be used against him, better cover, better-
There was a flash of white hair.
He sprinted towards the cars – all burnt, rusted wrecks, but all with pristine windows and mirrors – and saw the reflection again. He spun, trying to see where she really was, but there was nothing, nothing but the reflection in the car window. He stopped and stared – it wasn’t a reflection, it was a project – it was reflecting things, people, places that weren’t anywhere near his hell-scape.
Magnolia.
Alive.
No – it wasn’t, it was a projection from before they’d been rescued, she was still with the Magpies, still captured, still being hurt.
He punched the car window, and felt the pain immediately. Blood flowed from his knuckles, but he ignored it – a little more red in the environment would be barely noticeable, and if it attracted the denizens of Hell, and brought about oblivion all the quicker, then all the better.
‘I thought you might be thirsty.’
He spun, pulling his gun from its holder, taking aim as soon as he could focus on the the owner of the voice.
‘Do you think that gun can really do anything to me?’
He stared at the man…who for all intents, appeared to be a young Korean agent, albeit one with far-from-regulation streaks of red in his hair. The young man tugged on his suit jacket and grinned. ‘I thought I’d dress appropriately, hope you don’t mind.’
A dozen questions formed, as the urge to be cast into oblivion, just so that-
‘I’m going to tell you three things, Taylor,’ the young man said, ‘and I need you to listen. One, you aren’t dead. Two, you aren’t in Hell. Three, Magnolia’s still alive.’
‘Where is she?!’ he roared, grabbing and shaking the other “agent” before he even realised that he’d moved.
The young man was out of his grip in a second. ‘We need to have a long conversation, but first, do you mind if I dispense with the apocalypse?’
‘What?’
The young man held his hands out, then…ripped reality like it was a sheet of paper. A thin tear ripped across the land in both directions, and he slowly crumpled the illusion of reality like a large sheet of paper, which grew smaller and smaller, until he simply threw it over his shoulder and into a nearby bin.
What had been a battlefield and a street of abandoned cars under a red sky had become a large apartment – stark black and white, barely any colour anywhere.
‘Follow,’ the young man said. The kitchen was large enough to prepare food for one of Grigori’s agencies. ‘I have almost everything you could want to drink, what’s your poison?’
‘Where’s Magnolia?’
The young man retrieved a large carafe of water and a plain-looking bottle of wine. ‘It’s French, not fae,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘Thought it was appropriate.’
‘How?’
‘Where do you think you are, Agent? And don’t say dead, or in hell, because I’ve already told you that isn’t the case.’
‘France doesn’t make any sense.’
The young man poured a tall glass of water. ‘Drink.’
‘Who-?’
His host grinned. ‘So glad you finally got around to asking me that. Would you care to take a guess?’
He shook his head.
The young man poured himself a glass of wine and gave a casual shrug. ‘I’m Wrath.’
He immediately went to his hands and knees, his face barely an inch above the floor.
‘Get up, please. Or be more active down there, you’ve got a purty mouth…’
‘Your…kind doesn’t talk to mine,’ he said. ‘I-’
Wrath grabbed his collar and dragged him up, then pushed him onto a couch – the kitchen had disappeared, replaced by an equally-oversized living room. A tech-department-sized television hung from the wall across from them, lamps sat in each corner and black and white photographs sat in groups of seven on each of the four walls.
‘You over it yet?’ Wrath asked, downing the glass of wine.
‘My-’
Wrath’s glass of wine turned into a can of beer. ‘You start with that “my lord” shit and I will bitch slap you, and it will hurt.’
‘Then how should I address you?’ he asked, careful not to look the Sin in the eyes.
‘By my name, like you would anyone else.’
‘But…sir,’ he said, ‘you aren’t-’
‘Do you think I’d be talking to you if you weren’t worthy?’
‘I’m not, I’m an agent.’
‘And I am sick to bowing to peer pressure,’ Wrath said, ‘the reason we don’t ever take your kind under our metaphorical wings is just ages old peer pressure. You are artificial beings, we deemed you unworthy of our time, and we never bothered to re-examine that point of view.’
‘Still, I’m-’
‘If I am going to be ridiculed by my family,’ Wrath said, ‘I think you’re as good a place to start as any. Are you going to argue with me?’
‘No, sir, I’m not.’
‘Are you going to stop with the “sir” thing any time soon?’
He shook his head.
‘Then I’ll take it as a term of endearment,’ Wrath said, and poured another glass of water for him. ‘Keep drinking, you need to bring down your fever.’
‘What fever?’
‘Do you want to know why you’re here, Agent?’
‘Am I here?’
Wrath smiled. ‘Don’t asked complicated questions. You’re still there, if that’s what you’re asking, they don’t think you’ve escaped, but you’re also here, so drink up. And you’re here because you’re dying.’
He placed the glass down. ‘I thought I was dead.’
‘No, those were fever dreams, that’s how much your body is deteriorating. You were mixing dream and thought and nightmare, and it produced something as horrible as a glitch. On the other hand, feel proud, you’re technically the first agent to have a dream in decades.’ The Sin sighed. ‘Some agents don’t survive withdrawal, and you’re one of them.’
‘No.’
‘What, just that? No. You think your words can change reality?’
‘They have,’ he struggled, ‘I told Magnolia she was a recruit, and that made her a recruit. I-’
‘This is…more complicated than that.’
‘I can’t die.’
‘We both know that isn’t true,’ Wrath said as he poured himself another glass of wine. ‘What you’re saying is you don’t want to die.’
‘I’m stronger than-’
‘This has nothing to do with strength,’ the Sin said, ‘this is beyond your control.’
‘Nothing is-’
‘Taylor…’ Wrath said.
‘Yes sir.’
‘You’ve been in a coma for a week,’ Wrath said, ‘Mags has given up hope, Clarke did attempt negotiation, which Magpie only allowed so that he didn’t try and drag the Kings in on a technical issue. There was no rescue attempt, but hold on to that part of the dream, system bombs, brilliant idea, you’re quite clever when you want to be. The situation is as bad as it’s ever going to be, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.’
‘What do I have to do?’
‘That’s the wrong question, Taylor. You’re supposed to ask what I can do for you. Come on, ask.’
‘What can you do for me, sir?’
‘Because you’re an agent, not as much as I would like. Normally, a warrior like you, I would imbue him with the strength to rise, go on a rampage and slaughter all those who have wronged him.’
‘But I’m an agent,’ he said flatly.
‘And as such, you belong to the gods. They don’t like their toys being played with, which is another reason we’ve kept away from your kind…no one wants to deal with a bunch of whiny children.’
He was on his feet in a second, ready to defend the gods, ready to-
‘Sit your ass down, Taylor.’
‘Yes sir,’ he said, and immediately sat.
‘I understand what you are, I understand they made you, and as such, it’s your duty to protect their reputation, but outside of your kind, most people don’t give two shits about them. They are beings who have reached such a state of optimisation that living is unnecessary. They do the equivalent of sitting around high all day because doing anything else is unthinkable to them. Demons? Now they’re the smart ones, they got out before they stuck in that post-optimised nirvana. They are trying to devolve themselves back down to something approaching a mortal state, which is why there are so many bad seeds, because not all of the experiments work very well.’
‘The demons are-’
‘You know that every word you’re about to say is bullshit, so don’t even bother, ok?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Doesn’t it tire you to toe the party line all the time? Especially when you know that it isn’t true? You are mandated to say that the gods are responsible for all life, aren’t you?’
He gave a slight nod.
‘Depending on the Lady’s mood, Life alternates between furious and amused by this. I am pleased when it amuses her, because…well, no, I’ll tell you about that some other time. I did get her to do me a favour, however, grab the remote.’
He leaned forward and lifted the remote from the solid block of glass the constituted the coffee table, then handed the slim device over to Wrath.
Wrath propped his feet up on the coffee table, and gave him a smile. ‘Get comfortable.’ The Sin lifted the remote and clicked on the television. ‘All I can do for you is give you the strength to wake up, to break you out of this fever, take away the pain and assure that you can open your eyes. It’s so little compared to what I can normally do, but in this case, it’s going to have to be enough.’
‘I just-’
‘That being said, I asked Life what would happen if I was able to do that, and she showed me some things, which I’m going to show you. All of these futures are possible, it just depends on what you want, what you’ll do to achieve it, but there are also factors that are out of your control, none of them are guaranteed, just possible.’
Click.
The television flashed, and he saw a…throne room. Magnolia sat as queen, dozens of her brethren at her side, ready to follow her beck and call. He watched himself step into frame, Prince-Consort of the Magpie court, free from the Agency, there only to-
He looked away from the screen.
‘Sorry,’ Wrath said, ‘it’s a bit much isn’t it, just relax, watch the images, but let the information come to you as well, it’s sort of like dreaming, in that you can just know things, not that you remember dreaming, I know, but relax, and it’ll be ok.
Click.
An office in the Agency – new, different, not one he recognised. Two desks. A door slammed, and the nameplate on the door declared that he was director.
‘What happened to-’
‘I don’t have the context for any of these,’ Wrath said, ‘I only see what you see.’
Click.
Grigori grinned back at him and escorted him to a new office, which looked for the most part, like his usual office, then through to the new private gym where Magnolia was placing all of the weapons into their new armoury.
Click.
A small wedding on a beach.
Click.
Magnolia fell onto his dead body, then turned to face their attacker, before a blow broke open her skull.
Click.
A kiss as the sky tore itself as the the world died.
Click.
He saw himself kneeling behind a small child, brushing her hair as Magnolia tidied up the weapons rack.
Click.
A successful test of a system bomb.
Click.
A magpie force swarming the agency, blood and feathers filling the air.
Click.
‘Stop,’ he said quietly, ‘please, sir.’
The television went dark. ‘Did you see anything that appealed to you, Taylor?’
‘What appeals to me,’ he said, ‘is rescuing Magnolia.’
‘Then let’s get you right on that, shall we?’ Wrath reached across and touched his forehead, and he felt the remains of his fever disappear. ‘I’ll see you again, one way or another.’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Now wake up.’
He felt reality spin and warp, watched Wrath and his apartment disappear, and found himself in darkness.
He took a breath, and opened his eyes.