‘It’s been a week,’ Ryan said to the corpse as he opened the window. The curtains billowed and the light flooded the room, illuminating his pale recruit. ‘I thought you’d be-’ he stopped himself and sighed – there was no use in talking to her. It wasn’t a coma that could be broken by traditional means, and if the beacon lit by the heart couldn’t pull her back from wherever she had gone, then neither could a few simple words. He sat in the new chair at her desk – the desk that had practically replaced his own – it was his new office, it was one place Emma was sure not to look.
Paperwork was stacked high on the ratty desk. Emma’s presence had been generating more reports than normal – copies of her reports, reports about her reports, suggested fixes, notes from Clarke, repeated requests from Taylor to kill/maim/deport her. The papers covered pieces of code written right onto the wood, or scratched in with cutlery.
A cold breeze flew in through the open window – it made no difference to him, it was simply a change he noted, but it made him feel sorry for the body – for Stef. The thin blanket covering her was still pulled up over her – she hadn’t moved, so neither had it.
He stood and walked over to the wardrobe. He pulled open the door and reached for a blanket. A small blue hand made a grab for the blanket.
His gun was in his hand before he’d had time to consider the action. He let go of the blanket and the hand retreated back into the shadowy depths of the wardrobe.
‘Come out,’ he demanded, pulling the door all the way open.
Stef stared back at him.
He whipped around to look at the bed – the corpse was still there. Still unmoving. Still dead.
The Stef in the wardrobe obviously wasn’t his recruit – she was glowing, she was blue, and she looked to be about five years old. She put a finger to her lips, shushed him and ducked back down into the shadows.
Silently apologising to the Stef on the bed, he required away the wardrobe door so that he could look at her young doppleganger. She wasn’t a ghost – that much was certain, she was at least somewhat aware of her surroundings, and ghosts were never the brilliant blue that she…that souls…
She wasn’t a ghost, but she might just be a soul.
‘Stef…’ he said slowly. ‘You can come out now.’
No response.
He backed up a step and grabbed the corpse’s leg – she was still completely real. The little doppleganger peeked out of the wardrobe and then ran from the room. He holstered the gun and followed her.
The empty living room stared back at him – no doppleganger. He concentrated and scanned the room – no heat signatures, no fae signs, nothing. He slowly walked around the couch and looked under the table, nothing.
‘You can’t find me!’ a small voice called. He stared at the wall, and scanned the body in the next room – completely inert.
A small head surfaced from the couch, saw him, then ducked back down. He put his foot on the couch and pushed it back. The little doppleganger giggled and ran into the kitchen, running through the breakfast bar as though it wasn’t even there.
‘Stef,’ he said firmly, ‘come out.’
No response.
She had to be a soul, or at least part of one – it was the same shade of blue, the same transparency, the same- Her small head moved in and out of the cupboard – it almost as though she wasn’t hiding in the cupboard itself, but something else occupying the same space.
‘I can see you,’ he said, just in case playing hide and seek was something intrinsic to communicating with her.
‘No you can’t!’ she whined. ‘I can’t see you.’
He crossed into the kitchen and opened the cupboard – she was crouched, her face hidden in a behind a box of savoury crackers.
‘Now I can see you.’
She gasped and ducked through the wall into the next cupboard. He sighed and opened the next cupboard.
‘Come out.’
This time, she didn’t react at all – as though she hadn’t heard him. He reached for her, but his hand went straight through her.
She shook her head, stood, and walked out of the cupboard, she went back into the living room and flopped to the floor in front of the bookcase. There were some dusty classic books on the bottom shelf and she grabbed for one, a translucent blue copy of it came away from the shelf, the original staying in place.
He knelt behind her and tried to pick her up again, his hands going straight through her again – there wasn’t even the light, static resistance like there was with a real soul – it was as though she wasn’t really there. He sat back, listening to her sound out the beginning of “The Wind in the Willows”.
She lay on her stomach, the large book spread out before her, ancient pages withered at the corners, crayon marks over the rich illustrations.
‘Where are you?’ he asked her. The mirror being what it was, it really was possible that she wasn’t there at all, just an echo, just a memory. Even…some sort of vision or hallucination only visible to him, as he’d used the mirror to bring her back.
She didn’t answer him – any ability she’d had to see or sense him seemed to have faded. He stood and moved around her, leaning up against the bookcase, watching her read the book. She was so different to the corpse on the bed – even this young, her hair was longer than she had it currently, tied back with a dark ribbon, and the velvet pinafore was quite unlike anything in her wardrobe.
‘It all seemed too good to be true,’ he said, after he downloaded the text of the book. There was no harm in playing along, just in case her ability to sense his was tied to whatever train of thought it was following. ‘Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding-’
She raised her head, crinkled her nose and went back to reading. She turned the page and ran her small hand over the next page of text.
Her head jerked up and she jumped up from the book and ran for where the couch had been, ducking under it as a small child would hide beneath a table.
She peeked around the room, then scrambled back, curling her arms around her legs and shushing herself. ‘I’m going to win,’ she chanted quietly, ‘I’m going to win.’
‘Who are you playing with?’ he asked. He didn’t expect a response, but if this was the key to bringing her back, or just an aspect thrown up by the mirror, then he wasn’t going to waste it. As expected, she didn’t respond. A moment later, her head dropped and she crawled out from under the invisible table and came back to her book.
She no longer read it aloud, instead flipping to random pages and tracing over the pictures with her fingers. Every few minutes, she would look up, as though briefly sensing him, then look away.
There was a small sound, and he saw a droplet of translucent blue water on the book. ‘You can come find me now,’ she said.
‘I’m trying,’ he said, ‘I’m trying to bring you back, I don’t know how. You have to find your own way back.’
More tears stained the book. He reached for her, concentrating as hard as he had the day he’d stopped her soul from passing. This time, he felt the static, and she looked up at him, her eyes focusing as she saw him. Her mouth dropped open and she jumped back. She put up her tiny fists and frantically looked around the room.
‘Stef…it’s me…’
‘Me who?!’ she demanded, her eyes sliding past him again. ‘Ghostghostghost…’ she wailed. ‘HALP!’
‘I’m not a ghost,’ he said, giving her a reassuring smile, ‘I’m not see-through.’
‘Then what are you?’ she asked, unconvinced.
‘I’m a-’
‘My dad’ll kick your butt.’
He tried to resist a smile. ‘I highly doubt that, Stef. Is that who you were playing hide and seek with?’
‘He’s a bad seeker,’ she said with a pout. ‘Sometimes he gives up cause I’m too good.’
He held back several disparaging remarks – he’d read her file and judging from her father’s profile, and the related information, he doubted it was some sort of vision problem that kept the man from winning the game. In any case, it didn’t matter what he said, the mirrors were of Chaos, not of Time, so whatever this was, the one thing it wasn’t was a window back into the past.
‘Of course you are,’ he said. ‘Just keep your voice down and he won’t find you. He can’t hear me, no matter how loud I am.’
‘I…dun mind if he finds me. I’m…bored.’
‘You could go seek him.’
She giggled. ‘That’s not how you play.’
‘Where are you right now, Stef?’ he asked.
She gave him an incredulous look. ‘You don’t-’ Her vision lost focus again, and she looked away from him. She grabbed the blue book and took it under the invisible table, spreading it over her knees and starting to read it again.
He watched her for a moment, then she disappeared as suddenly as she’d appeared. He started to shift away, needing some space from the little ghost, but was stopped by a bony hand.
Death released his wrist as he looked at her.
‘You left the window open,’ she said.,
‘She can’t-’
‘You left the window open,’ she repeated urgently.
He ran past her, and into Stef’s bedroom. Her shirt was in tatters, and had chest had been ripped open, an empty cavity staring back at him – the heart was gone. Small, bloody paw prints crossed the blanket and up the wall to a howler sitting on the window ledge. A bulging leather pouch hung from its belt, its dark, glittering eyes victorious. It flipped its hand at him, then dropped from the window.
‘Go after it,’ the Lady said, ‘quickly.’
He stared at the window – there were a hundred different directions it could have gone in, a dozen buildings it could have crossed into, it could have gone into the sewer systems, attached itself to a vehicle- ‘I could…find another piece of mirror. We’re still finding shards, and there are-’
She shook her head. ‘You’re quite stupid, aren’t you?’
‘I don’t-’
‘Where do you think she is?’ Death demanded of him. ‘Where did you really think she was?’
He turned back to look at the body. ‘She’s-’
‘Everything that is, was or could be your recruit is in that piece of mirror. Everything. If you don’t get it back, you don’t get her back.’
He shifted through the wall, looking for the howler as he neatly fell three stories to the ground. He landed in a crouch, slightly cracking the concrete and saw it on the building across from him. They small fae held onto its pouch, the top of the heart just visible. It licked some blood from it before attaching it back to its belt.
He fired, but it dodged. The howlers weren’t very bright, but they were very agile – possessing a dexterity that put humans to shame. Physically, it was rather simian – elongated, thin limbs and a fine covering of black fur, behaviorally, it was typically fae – falling pray to the trickster streak that ran through all of them, they thrived in cities, stealing items of value, selling them for profit, keeping them for themselves, or just throwing them away when they got bored. They were all grey-listed, and all treated with caution.
As he shot at it again, it darted back from the edge of the building. He shifted up and chased it, he was fast, but it was faster, and every time he shifted to catch up, it would simply change direction, or dive off the side of the building, scrambling along window ledges and tiny hand-holds that its paws were able to grab hold of.
He shifted to the street level and continued to chase it, following the shadow. He fired again – hoping to scare it, or make it feel threatened enough to challenge him. It took a flying leap from the building, across to the next, he shifted up to intercept it, but pushed him off, raking sharp claws across his face. Landing on the ground, he had a car swerve to miss him, the driver swearing at him.
Civilians were going to be a problem – the streets they were in now were fairly deserted, their occupants asleep or at work, but if it headed towards the centre of the Valley, then there were going to be problems. Sightings, photos, video, questions being asked, articles in the paper – and he’d be able to do less to silence them than normal. This wasn’t sanctioned mission, or even something he could report, there was going to be no media blackout, no cover story, no clean up crew to check for evidence. He was on his own, and it made him feel weak – he was used to having backup, used to the Agency’s power working for him.
He forced the mundane consequences from his mind – if he didn’t catch the howler, he’d just have another recruit body to bury, another notch – so to speak – and another reason for his other recruits to fear him.
The howler took a sharp left turn and he followed – it was heading for traffic, for civilians, for one of the busiest parts of the city.
He stopped running and shifted ahead of it, across the main street and onto the roof a hotel across. He watched it emerge from the maze of buildings, running on all fours across one more building, then leaping down onto the pavement. It looked around for him, then ran out into the traffic.
No one swerved to miss it – to do so would have been dangerous, but it was possible that they were just oblivious. It was one of the reasons the fey flocked there – most people were unwilling to see what was right in front of their eyes, and it afforded them a kind of security. It wasn’t Amsterdam, where they were passively accepted, or one of the older cities, where people expected a little strangeness in their everyday lives.
It leaped onto a bonnet of a passing car – this one did screech to a halt, making the truck behind it hit it – glass popped out of the windows and the airbag inflated. A quick scan revealed that both drivers were fine – a quick thought anonymously sent a summons to the emergency services.
It finished crossing the nine busy lanes of traffic, and looked rather pleased with itself. It scampered along the ground, but was stopped by a display in an adult store window. It leaped up onto the window and began to thump itself against the glass, emitting the howl it was named for.
Fortunately, the civilians on the ground were more interested in the smoking vehicles to notice a mad and excited fae.
He stilled himself and shifted right behind the howler. Grabbing it, he squeezed it to his chest, feeling it struggle and squirm, it bit one hand and scratched at his other, but he ignored the pain. He wrapped one arm around its middle, releasing the other and reaching for the leather pouch – killing it was secondary, retrieving the heart was all that mattered.
It twisted in his grip, turning to face him. It brought its face up to his and howled, up close, the sound was unbearable, loud enough to make even his eardrums burst. He held on to the creature as it screamed, groping blindly for the pouch.
It giggled and he felt liquid all seep all over him. Urine. He tried to fling it off as the acidic waste burned through his vest and shirt and began to eat into his skin. He tried to push the howler away as it continued to urinate on him, his body screaming in pain. It gripped tight to him, but squirmed every time he grabbed for the pouch.
It howled again and he stopped fighting it. It leaped off him, bouncing off the shop window, then running down the street. He watched it go, blood pouring from his ears and melting flesh exposed through destroyed clothes, it bounded down Brunswick street, towards more traffic and even more civilians. He leaned his head against the shop window and let himself fade away to heal.
He found himself in the familiar, smoky in-between place that Agents went to heal. His body tore itself away from the ash in his core, spun around the space as he watched, at once separate from himself, and spinning as the particles of potential. He reformed, though the sting of the acid remained, even if it was only psychosomatic. A bell tolled and he found himself back on the street corner.
It hadn’t gotten far – it was a hundred metres or so down the street, sitting on the fence that looked down to the train tracks. It had popped the heart out of the bag again, licking away the blood and occasionally stopping to stare at its reflection when it had cleared a spot.
He required a cage around it, and it fell to the ground, screaming and trying to squeeze through the cage. He shifted down the street and grabbed it, watching the howler squirm. ‘I’ll let you live,’ he said, ‘just give me the mirror.’
‘Feck off,’ the howler growled as it practically poured itself out through the bars. It shook itself off as he tried to stand on it it, then ran off. He tossed the cage to the side, hitting a parked car, and followed the fae.
It bounced on its tail for a moment, and propelled itself up onto the roof of a store as he followed beneath, pushing through a crowd waiting at the bus stop. As he pushed past one man, he was grabbed. ‘Watch where you’re goin’ mate!’
He shook himself free of the man’s grip, his gun materialising in his hand. He aimed it at the man’s forehead and let him fear for a moment. This time when he tried to pass, he met with no resistance. He heard a few mobile phones dialing, undoubtedly for the police – but he knew as soon as his description was given, they’d drop it.
Stopping on the corner, he looked for the howler, it was on the roof above him, laughing and swaying. It dove out into the air and landed on the bonnet of a sports car. He watched it for a moment, then quickly shifted the driver from the car before requiring away the car’s engine. The expensive machine skidded, its inertia carrying it for a few dozen metres before it rolled onto its side. It was a wreck. The howler, however, emerged unharmed.
It scrambled up the side of the nearest building and disappeared. He shifted to the roof, following it on foot, afraid of losing it – howlers had a tendency to slip away when they became bored with a situation. It couldn’t fade as quickly as most fae – they had very little magic, but it was quick enough that he wouldn’t be able to stop it if he lost sight of it for more than few moments.
He leaped over rooftops – it was something he’d done a hundred times before, but something he could never get used to, he always wondered what the people inside must think, and what strange theories they came up with to explain the noises.
Across one building, a flying leap to the next, over the top of a dozen or so parked cars – the howler showed no signs of slowing – they never did. They were almost made of energy – no chase after a howler had ever ended because it had tired, because it had given up, yes, because it had become bored, yes, but never because it had tired.
The howler flew off the edge of the building – staying aloft for longer than its gangly body should have allowed, and landed on the roof of a passing bus. He followed suit, leaping onto the roof of the bus following it. He could hear the screams of the commuters inside as he paced along the top of the bus, and the honk of the driver as he leaped onto the bus in front of him.
Leather pouch in hand, the howler looked back and grinned – it wasn’t tired of the chase, nor did it have any intention of giving up. It scrambled over the front of the bus, and underneath, where he could not follow.
He ran to the front of the bus and crouched, balling a fist, he punched through the roof above the driver. The driver inside screamed and the bus swerved into the other lane. His ID materialised in his hand as he reached it into the bus. ‘Please stop,’ he said, his voice calm and measured despite how he felt.
The bus jerked to a stop and he rolled off the top, landing heavily on the ground. The driver jumped from the bus, the heavy metal cash box in his hand like a weapon. ‘What the-’ The driver’s question was halted as he stared down the barrel of a standard-issue Agency pistol.
‘Evacuate your bus,’ he said, stepping back and keeping an eye out for any mover the howler made to escape. ‘Quickly.’
The driver dropped the cash box and began to shout at the passengers. The dozen or so passengers scattered as they saw his gun, all except for one. A young man with a fae glint in his eyes, dyed black hair and “fashionable” clothes glared at him. ‘Godsdamn angel, yanno some people actually have to work for a living.’
‘If you know what I am,’ he replied, his eyes glued to the shadows surrounding the bus, ‘you should have run further than the others.’
‘Why’d it have to be my bus?’ the young man whined. ‘It’s the only one I can take to work!’
He took his eyes away from the shadows for a moment. ‘Do you have any idea how insignificant your life is compared to what I’m trying to do?’
‘I have uni fees to pay!’
He snarled. ‘It’s money you’re worried about?’
‘Yeah man, what else would it be?’
‘I apologise,’ he said, copying his dead recruit’s sarcastic tone. Require: gold bar.
‘Compensation!’ the boy yelled, ‘that’s more like it.’
He flung the gold bar at the young man, knocking him to the ground. He turned back to the bus, required away his weapon and grabbed the bottom left corner of the vehicle. Putting all of his strength into it, he flipped the bus onto its side.
The howler was gone.
‘Hey Agent Arsehole, the monkey-ninja went that way,’ the young man said, wheezing as he sat up.
He followed direction the boy was looking in, and saw the howler crawl underneath a car headed for the bridge. He shifted ahead of the car, keeping an eye on the howler as the car got closer and closer to the bridge.
As the car drove onto the Story Bridge, the howler climbed from under the car and leaped onto the nearest support beam. He shifted to near the howler.
‘A trade,’ he called over the wind and the traffic. ‘Whatever you want, just give me the mirror.’
The howler made a chattering noise and grabbed its leather pouch. ‘Not a mirror,’ it squeaked. ‘It’s a heart.’
‘Immunity,’ he offered, unsure that he’d be able to carry through on the deal. ‘Blind Agency eyes to everything that you do for a year.’
The howler stroked the pouch. ‘Already have what I need.’
‘I need it more,’ he said, not caring whether or not the creature heard him. He stood, unable to keep his balance on the thin beam without a second though, the wind pulling at his jacket. ‘Changelings at least leave something when they steal a child,’ he said, ‘you’ve stolen a life, what did you leave?!’
The creature pulled on the pouch. ‘Changelings leave trouble. Howlers take it away.’
‘Give. It. Back.’
The howler put the pouch back on its belt and shook its head. ‘Angels should fly. You could catch us when you could fly.’
‘We don’t need our wings anymore. The question is, can you fly?’ This left a confused look on the howler’s face – the opening he needed.
He shifted across to the howler and – with a force that would have impressed Taylor – kicked it free of the support beam. The creature scrambled to catch hold of something, but he shifted again, caught it by the scruff of the neck and threw it free of the bridge.
He landed in front of a large truck, rolled out of its way, jumped up, then over the safety fence and up onto the edge of the bridge. The howler was still falling, trying to glide, to stay aloft, anything to prevent itself from hitting the water. He watched its position as it tumbled, jumped a little further along the bridge, then launched himself free of it.
Catching the howler in midair, he kept a tight grip on it as they hit the water – the impact did nothing to him, but it dazed the creature for a moment. He reached for the pouch, but it fought back, biting and scratching him again.
‘You should have taken the offer,’ he said as he grabbed it by the neck and held it under the surface of the river.
His legs worked automatically to keep him afloat as the creature struggled in his grip. He wrapped his other hand around its furry throat as it continued to struggle. The water churned in front of him as the creature tried desperately to get to the surface, to take a breath.
After five solid minutes, it stopped struggling.
He lifted it from the water, the water-soaked body a lot heavier than the lithe form betrayed. He pulled it onto its back and tore its belt off – the leather pouch was gone. He let go of the body and took a deep breath, more out of habit than any real need, and submerged himself. He shrugged off his jacket and dove deeper into the murky depths of the Brisbane River.
He moved straight down – there was very little chance that a current would have taken the bag in another direction, and began to scan for it – heat signatures were of little use, but it helped him discern the basic shapes. The decrepit shopping trolley he ignored, the fish bones he ignored, but there were too many small rocks the same approximate shape as the leather pouch for him to find it quickly.
Shapes moved in the water around him – trashmaids. They’d sensed something new in their river. Two swam up beside him, their flesh the colour of the dead bodies they’d evolved from, tendrils of algae crawled up their arms and hung from their fingers. They were strange creatures – not quite real, and not quite alive, perfectly harmless – they didn’t know of, or acknowledge the surface world, content to trawl the bottom of the river for whatever they needed. The one to his left, example – a female, judging by the slime-covered bulges on her chest – had crude goggles fashioned from broken beer bottles. The one to his right had plastic bags tied around its arms – and judging from the algae growths on the plastic, they had been there for a long time.
The female swam a little ahead, rising slightly before dropping to the river floor and lifting something from the within the rocks.
The pouch.
He gave a shout, expelling most of his air as the female trashmaid went to open it, she looked up, her beer-bottle goggles obscuring her expression, but she proffered the pouch anyway. He grabbed it, held it close and pushed off from the river bottom, propelling himself to the surface. He took a deep breath, coughed up the water from his lungs and took another.
His grip was immovable on the pouch – but he was careful not to touch the heart inside, not even through the leather, just in case he made a wish, or a thought that could be interpreted as a wish. If the howler hadn’t already.
A lifesaving ring was thrown to his right, he turned his head and saw a slow-moving dredging boat. He tossed the ring back, nodded, and shifted away.
The first thing he saw was Death, she’d pulled his chair away from the desk and brought it over beside the bed. She sat patiently, not comforting the corpse, nor whispering to it, just sitting as the guardian she was.
Stef was worse for the wear though, her skin – no longer just the pale of a hacker who wasn’t quite sure what the sun looked like – was the gray of a real corpse, her eyes had sunken a little, and her body had slumped, her limps rubbery and limp.
Carefully undoing the pouch, he removed the heart – being careful to keep his mind absolutely blank. There was no time for thoughts of what he could do with the mirror, of the other wishes he cold grant, or what he could do for-
He dropped the heart to the bed before he could think her name.
The dirty, bloody, wet heart stared back at him as he let the pouch fall to the floor.
‘You always have the choice,’ Death said. ‘No one would think less of you.’
‘No one else knows,’ he said, crouching to look at the heart, dirty river water dripping onto the carpet. ‘So no one could think less of me.’
‘If it’s my opinion-’
‘No, my Lady, it’s not. It’s mine.’
‘Carol’s in an oubliette, she’s banished, not dead.’
‘For all intents and purposes, she’s dead,’ he said, feeling the familiar lump growing in his throat, and the oh-so-familiar weight in his chest. ‘She’ll never be able to come back home, I’ll never be able to-’ He sighed. ‘It’s the mortal wish to have everything, it’s a failing.’ He reached for the heart and cleaned it off with the corner of the blanket. ‘The howler kept touching it, I don’t know if-’
‘She’s still in there,’ the Lady assured him. ‘Your effort wasn’t in vain.’
He held up the heart, stood and took a step towards the head of the bed. He required her into a new pyjama top, ridding her of the ripped and bloody one. He unbuttoned the first few buttons and exposed the empty cavity in her chest, keeping his mind clear, he pressed the heart into the depths of her chest and stood back.
Nothing happened.
The wound didn’t change, none of the arteries made a move to attach, the heart didn’t shake and settle into position. He looked back to Death. ‘Why-?’
‘You’ve lived for more than a century, haven’t you learned patience yet?’
‘I’m sorry, my Lady.’
An alien light shone on the heart, traveling along the scratches that the howler had made and removing them as it went – the dried remains of the blood that he’d been unable to clean off were removed, and slowly, it became pristine again.
It moved a little, and embedded itself deeply in the cavity. It let out a melodic sound – like a finger running around the top of a wine glass. It beat three times, each shaking her body and she was still trembling when it stopped. He moved forward to grab her, but Death held out a hand to stop him.
‘It’s just making sure she’s all there, she was alive the first time it entered her, so it knew her extent, it had to check that nothing had changed.’
‘She’s rotting,’ he choked.
‘If she wakes,’ Death said, ‘she’ll be fine. Life in a body does it good, or so my sister says.’
Stef stopped trembling and her head slid from the pillows. ‘How much longer?’ he asked as he righted her and buttoned the shirt back up.
‘You would not make a very good human,’ she said, a smile forming on her human-seeming face. ‘They have to wait nine months for a new life.’
‘It’s not going to-’
‘Trust her to find her way way,’ she said as she shushed him, ‘you need to trust her. After all, her life is in your hands, that’s a lot of trust she’s putting in you.’ She put a hand on his back. ‘She’s fine now, as fine as she was before you left the window open. You, on the other hand…’
He looked down at himself – his uniform was still sopping wet and a mess, the water had stained it, and there was mud caught in his vest. He required himself dry and into a new uniform, then renewed his outer layer a few more times until he felt clean. Another thought cleaned and dried the floor, the smell lingered, but he closed the window anyway – he wasn’t going to chance another howler.
‘I can’t protect her when I’m not here,’ he said. ‘I can’t stop everything from getting in.’
‘Take her somewhere safer then,’ Death said.
‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I can’t. No Agency safe house, and not the Agency itself-’ He looked away. ‘I’m already being scrutinized, I can’t- There would be an overwhelming consensus to destroy her.’ He shook his head. ‘I killed the howler, hopefully its brethren won’t try.’
‘You should go visit her.’
He didn’t have to ask who she meant. ‘I can’t, I don’t trust myself. She can’t get out of there unless I allow it, but…I don’t know that I won’t pull her out, bring her back into the world. In the oubliette, she’s trapped, but she’s safe…and we’re safe.’
‘So why do you carry the key with you everywhere you go?’
‘Because one day I’ll be strong enough to use it.’
She ran her hand over his recruit’s forehead. ‘Look at what you’ve done, you’re strong enough now.’
‘Are you planning on arguing with me?’
‘No my Lady.’
‘Then go,’ she said with a kind smile.
He bowed to her, took one last look at Stef, then shifted away. He appeared in the park that had brought him so much joy, and so much sorrow – it was the first time he’d stepped foot into it in ten years, and even then, it had been part of a mission.
It was a secluded area, a small patch of grass bordered by trees. Trees that had provided enough cover for Carol to convince him to do several things he had sworn never to do outside. They’d made love here, they’d made plans, they’d dreamed of a world free from trouble.
She’d come there when she was running from him – she’d been shifting from safe place to safe place, locations thrown up by her memory into her mad mind. He’d finally caught her there, and stopped her from running. He’d held onto her as she attacked him with the knife she’d used to kill Taylor, told her he’d loved her and banished her.
It was on the official records that she was dead, and very few people knew differently.
He pulled the oubliette key from a pocket on the inside of his vest and held it up. There was a magnetic pull on the key as he felt around for the lock. The key shook in his hand and connected with something, he twisted it and the lock appeared – it was merely a trick of the light, like the sun’s reflection on water. They key burned his fingers as it tried to ascertain whether or not he was the same person who had locked it in the first place. Satisfied, the metal cooled in his hand the door appeared. The door, unlike its ethereal lock, had the appearance of old wood, giving it an ancient feel – which was only right – no one really knew how old the oubliettes were, it was possible that they predated the current version of existence, and merely changed their external looks to fit in with the world into which they were summoned.
Pulling on the handle, the door opened and fell down towards him, creating a set of stairs. He quickly ascended them and stepped into the oubliette. Once inside, the orientation of the world changed so that the door was high above him, out of anyone’s reach.
Inside, it was less like it was its prison namesake then it was the inside of a bubble. It was an round room, the walls of which were a different colour of the rainbow each time you looked at them. The floor was white, broken every now and then with a patch of colour. There was a bed along one wall, a canopy bed which held a sleeping woman. There was a table which held various pieces of meals and drinks.
The oubliette provided that which you needed, and that which you wanted – everything but a way out. It was the trade-off, which was why some demons, and even some gods, would exile themselves in them.
Carol lay asleep, like a fairy tale princess waiting to be woken. She was as beautiful as she had been before…before everything had gone wrong and her mind had been lost to the insanity that came from being-
She moaned and rolled over – her soft blonde hair falling over her eyes. He leaned over and kissed her – afraid of waking her, but unable to stop himself all the same. She roused, opened her eyes, smiled, then fell asleep again. He stepped back, the lump in his throat nearly choking his this time, and stood still as tears ran down his face.
There was so much he wanted to say to her, so much he wanted to apologise for, but he knew she wouldn’t be able to understand most of it, even if she recognised him. That was what he feared the most, for her to look at him without knowing who he was, to not remember everything they had shared.
‘I love you,’ he whispered, then shifted away.