Ryan caught the girl before she hit the ground – a scan revealed that she was simply asleep. He could understand her exhaustion, and he knew that coming back to life was very taxing on a body, he’d had it described to him before. That, combined with the emotional stress, was obviously too much for her frail body. He lifted her and looked to the Lost’s ambassador.
The man masquerading as a captain shook his head. ‘I know you aren’t happy with this either, let her know that she’s always welcome.’
He sighed. ‘She won’t want to.’ It was sad, it was final, and it was possibly going to be fatal for her, but it was her decision and he was slowly learning that trying to change her mind wasn’t a good idea. Especially considering that she seemed to have two of them.
‘I may have started out as one myself,’ the captain said. ‘But I will never understand the Found. Part of me is envious of them, part of me pities them.’
‘The thing about being Found is,’ he said, ‘it means helping everyone else to live out the little fantasies that they rely on. Keeping everyone safe. Making the trains run on time. Being able to live in ignorant bliss. Tiny lies, tiny fantasies…’ He looked around at the world. ‘They aren’t as grand as this “Captain”, but people need them so much as the Lost need you.’
The tiny world faded, leaving only the entrance to the wardrobe and the real world beyond it. ‘Tell her anyway,’ the captains said before he disappeared.
He stepped back out into the world, brought her back out to the couch and found Jones still by the window, eyes vacant and his form stiff – he was still in the collective unconscious. He turned back to Stef, and required a light blanket over her. Her face screwed up for a moment, then she turned over, snuggling into the blanket, just like a child.
Visions of Emma danced in his head – tomorrow was the day she wanted him to hand in his resignation and consign himself to what amounted to suicide. He brushed some hair from Stef’s face and smiled – knowing that a dignified death wasn’t going to be on the cards once the angry Englishwoman found out his secret.
‘Sir, I’ve found-’ Jones begun. He turned to face the tech agent, but was met with a confused expression. ‘What’s that?’
He turned back to Stef, and saw a purple light under the blanket. He tore it off, watching the purple light pulse in her chest. He looked back to Jones, who was slowly edging away.
The light grew brighter, extending past her skin and became tangible. It poured out onto the floor, a long, shapeless mess. It flicked itself and a pattern grew over the light – scales and a mouth. A snake, it was a snake.
He didn’t even attempt to identify the species, it was more than likely another Dajulveed ghost. A scrap of life from a dead world. A scrap of life that was ruining a young woman’s life. Just a scrap of life…just what Emma thought Stef was.
The snake shook itself again and began to slither across the floor.
His gun appeared in his hand, an automatic reaction. He aimed it, though he was unconvinced that he would do more than create holes in his recruit’s carpet. The snake rose and looked at him, then struck. Fangs sank deep into his arm, pumping poison into his veins.
He grabbed for the snake, but he missed as it released its grip and slithered across the floor. Jones shifted across the room, avoiding it. He ignored the tech agent, knowing that he wasn’t going to be of any help.
The poison burned in his veins, and he could feel it creeping up his arm, making it heavy and useless. The snake struck a second time, but this time he grabbed it with his good hand, dropping the gun to the floor.
It stared at him, with an intelligence that seemed to beyond the normal things that slithered in the grass. He squeezed the snake until he heard a snap, then he allowed it to drop to the floor. The snake shuddered for a moment, like a glamour about to drop, then disappeared.
‘Jones,’ he said in a perfectly calm voice. ‘I can’t feel my left side.’
‘We have to go back, now.’
‘I’m not leaving-’
‘Do you think we have any choice but to bring her back, sir?’
He closed his eyes and said a few silent prayers to the closed ears of the gods, and the dead and dormant soul of Chaos. ‘No.’
After a moment, he shifted to the Agency – they appeared in his office, where he struggled to keep Stef upright for the moment it took him to require a couch, this time, when deposited, she gave no sign of merely being asleep.
[Jones,] he said as he slipped in communication mode, [I can’t feel anything.]
Jones shifted him to the lab, the bright lights burning his eyes before he lost consciousness.
* * * * *
Merlin looked up from his tiny notebook computer when the song began. He stared at the wall of his tiny room – one that was much smaller than a normal recruit dorm, and so at his request – and watched for any signs of the notes.
One by one, written on shimmers in the air, they came. Chords and combinations of notes that couldn’t be played by any instrument, repeated by any voice or heard by any ear. It was soul music, in the truest sense of the words. A song played – or sung – only after the point of no return had been reached, when the world began to die. A song for memory. A leagcy, heard on the world where the world’s heart landed.
The songs spoke of an intelligence, and gave credence to the theory that the mirrors were more intelligent than they were given credit for, or that they were indeed shattered parts of Chaos’ consciousness – for a being a powerful as Chaos couldn’t exist within reality, only in that place outside it that no one else was to know of.
He extracted his velvet pouch from the left pocket of his lab coat and silently rolled the bones on his bed. The brittle baby bones with the delicate runes gave up a small puff of dust as they reached the doona. Unbidden, his hand lifted and pointed. ‘That way,’ he said to the world at large. ‘Okies.’
He safely tucked the runes back in his pocket, adjusted his goggles and left his room. The path was laid out in front of him, drawn in hyper-real colours and the shimmers of the song’s notes. The elevator doors at the end of the hall slid open with nary a thought – he never even had to ask them anymore, they just knew where he wanted to go.
On the walls of the elevator, slipping and sliding yellow arrows pointed down, and down the the elevator went. He patted the door as it slid open on the field floor, and said his silent thank you.
The doors of the dorm rooms pulsed in his vision, revealing just for a second if they were empty or not. Two recruits lay naked in one room, so he required up the air-conditioner for them, only slightly confused as to why they’d stay in a room so hot and stuffy that it made them take off their clothes.
The song led him on, down past the gym where one of the field recruits, Mean, was drowning his head with the use of a water bottle. ‘Whatcha doing down here, squirt?’ Mean asked him as he froze in front of the gym’s double doors.
He lifted his hand and gave the most honest answer he could. ‘Walking this way.’
‘Who you down here to see?’
‘None of your beeswax, Mean,’ he said before sticking his hands into his deep pockets.
‘Curt,’ Mean said, denying his real name. ‘Stop calling me mean, squirt.’
He simply shrugged and walked past the gym, getting closer to the source of the song. The notes were clearer now, lasting almost a second in the air. They were as close as his breath, but just a second away in reality, so he had no chance of touching them.
The office of the man he’d failed to recruit as a paladin loomed in front of him. It pulsed in his mind, revealing no waking occupants. He saw a soft spot in the door and walked up to it. A hand grabbed his lab coat as he tried to walk through.
‘You can…do what now?’ Mean asked him. ‘Since when the BLEEPINGBLEEPWORD can you do that?’
He stared up at Mean, the older recruit dripping with water, despite the towel around his neck, and shrugged. ‘Do what? I’m just-’
‘It’s not normal to be able to walk through walls, squirt.’ He pulled on his lab coat and Mean came through the door with him. ‘Oh hey, come on, you can’t be in an agent’s office without their-’ Mean stopped talking as his eyes fell onto the source of the song. ‘I don’t even want to know what’s going on here.’
He smiled and walked over to the source of the song and the couch it was lying on. He grabbed her legs and straightened her out, her face jumping into his mind. ‘Squishy?’ he asked of the sleeping source. ‘Hi Squishy.’
‘Is she dead?’ Mean asked him as he walked over. ‘Ryan’s keeping dead girls in his-’
‘Sleeping,’ he said – she’d be pulsing an entirely different colour if she was dead. She wasn’t the same Squishy as the one who’d gone missing, she’d changed colour a little, but she wasn’t a dead Squishy.
He smiled – this close to the source, the song was overpowering, and it made his soul hurt in a good way. ‘Now I get to hear the end,’ he mumbled as he climbed up onto the couch, resting his head on his Squishy’s chest, to better listen to the mirror’s song.
Mean walked over. ‘I didn’t think agents did the whole booty call thing.’ He stamped his combat boots then came over. ‘Hey wait…Oh what the BLEEPINGBLEEPWORD hell is this? Is that newbie?’
He shrugged, pushing the tiny in-built pillow around a little so that his head was comfortable. ‘It’s Squishy.’
‘They don’t look all that squishy.’
He ignored Mean, required his goggles dark, and snuggled closer to the Squishy. There was the sound of a door slamming, then the song took over his mind and helped him to sleep.
* * * * *
Stef woke up, visions of a crystal city still dancing on the edge of dreams. When she opened her eyes, two things became very apparent: one, she wasn’t in her apartment, the recycled air smell of the Agency gave that away, and second: she wasn’t alone. Her heart, unable to stop and start like it should, stayed obstinately still, a small grace, as it gave her a few seconds to assess her situation.
There was someone on top of her, or at least on her chest, though she could feel their body lying beside hers. Their head was right over her chest, and one hand laid on her left breast.
She was still fully clothed – she could even feel her sneakers, and the remaining melted snow in them. There were no wounds that she could feel, nor any after-effects of sedatives.
Assessment done, she still panicked and threw the invader off.
There was a small cry as he hit the carpet. With no weapons present, she held up her small, shaking fists, though doubted that they’d be able to do any damage unless the attacker was-
‘Merlin?’ she said, her eyes adjusting to the low light.
The small figured whimpered and nodded. He slid his goggles off and pouted at her. ‘I was just getting to the good bit.’
‘The good…’ she struggled. ‘What the hell were you doing?’
The small recruit shrugged, innocence shining in his eyes. ‘Listening to the song.’
‘What song?’ she said, her head whipping around, looking for a television or radio – anything that could help her make sense of his actions.
He pointed at her chest. ‘The song of the looking glass. This one has a pretty song.’
She looked down at herself, her eyes catching glimpse of the scars on her chest through the neck of the too-loose shirt, then collapsed back against the couch. ‘This thing speaks? What else does it do?’
He walked to the end of the couch, then sat. ‘You can’t hear it?’ he asked, the surprise and confusion obvious in his voice. ‘It’s not even in me and I can hear it.’
She looked away from him, closed her eyes and listened as hard as she could – all she could hear was her own breathing, slowly returning to normal. ‘Nothing,’ she said the possible future wizard. ‘I don’t hear anything.’
‘Aw, Squishy, I’m so sorry. You should-’
The door handle rattled, and she didn’t have time to react as he slid through the back of the couch.
Taylor walked into the office, stared at her for a moment, then drew his gun.