Three Hours Later
Taylor growled as they entered the Agency.
It smelt wrong.
It smelt wrong, and there were bodies on the floor.
It smelt wrong, there were bodies on the floor, and there was a giant tree where a wall had once been.
He looked to Magnolia, and allowed himself a small nod as he saw her, party dress discarded for clothes more suitable for fighting, her favoured knife in her hand. She looked up to him. ‘System’s still in place, sir.’
He required two gas masks, passed one to Magnolia, then slipped another over his face. Whatever the smell was, it could be responsible for the unconsciousness.
‘Check them,’ he ordered.
She went to the body, neatly stepping around the dried vomit. ‘Ryan,’ she said. ‘Unconscious, vitals steady, not injured.’ She moved the woman from the Lost. ‘The woman, same condition.’
He walked towards the tree, and saw another body – Darren, and some of the detail came of tree became clearer. ‘Theories?’
‘I have a theory, sir,’ Magnolia said, her voice distorted by the gas mask. ‘That that’s Jones. Eight o’clock.’
He raised his head and saw Jones, bleeding and unconscious, hanging from the tree. Branches had punched into his arms, holding him in place, smaller vines doing their best to support his weight. From the pool of blood beneath him, he had been hanging for a while.
‘Cut him down.’
He turned, and followed Magnolia’s point. Some of the tree’s bark had peeled away, revealing the wood beneath, and a familiar figure portrayed in the wood grain. The reader.
‘I think Merlin’s the tree,’ she said.
He gave a grunt of agreement. ‘Cut the scholar down.’
She moved forward, and he watched the wood grain portrayal of the reader, watched the wood grain move and change, as if the boy was moving, watching Magnolia’s movements.
He stepped forward, and pointed an angry finger at the wood grain apparition. ‘Can you communicate?’
The tree gave no response.
He stabbed a finger against the wood, and it stuck. Tiny roots shot from the tree, and began to burrow into his skin.
Less than a second after he’d shouted, the edge of her knife touched his wrist. In three quick motions, she sawed through flesh and bone, and freed him from the tree’s grip. The bleeding stopped immediately, and a new hand began to grow. Confirmation of what they already knew – the system was still working. The system was still in place, but somehow had failed to protect the other members of the Agency. Failed to send up alarms when a reader turning into a tree.
He spun at the sound of the voice – Jones. The scholar looked up, and opened his eyes. He cringed at what he saw – the scholar’s eyes were gone, tiny shoots and mounds of dirt stood in their place. Jones raised his his a little, and dirt spilled down his cheeks.
‘Magnolia,’ he said as replacement fingers flexed and checked themselves against his base parameters.
Magnolia moved swiftly, cutting the branches that held the scholar in place. The branches bled, and retreated as they dragged the scholar away from the drunk of the tree, back towards Ryan and the woman.
Jones grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t hurt him, whatever you do, don’t hurt him!’
Jones shook his head, more dirt spilling down his face. ‘You have no idea what’s going on here!’
He gripped the scholar’s shoulders, holding himself back from hurting the smaller agent. ‘Explain it to me.’
The spouts in the scholar’s eye sockets withered and fell away. ‘He saved us.’
He gave a snort of derision, and Magnolia voiced his thoughts. ‘When was the last time that a demon attacked an Agency? They don’t care enough to-’
‘When was the last time,’ Jones said, cutting her off, ‘an Agency held a phoenix?’
His throat tightened. ‘Did it-’
‘No,’ the scholar said, ‘it’s safe, but he’s the reason why. I need- I need blue.’
He required an IV, and moved so Magnolia could hook hin up to it. He stood, and walked to the other unconscious forms. Darren was immobile, but Ryan was beginning to stir. He crouched, and pulled Ryan up. ‘Sir?’
He lifted his hand, and slapped the director across the face.
Ryan’s eyes opened a little.
Ryan groaned and rocked a little until he steadied him.
‘Blue,’ Ryan whispered.
‘Magnolia. Here next.’
He required another IV and moved aside as Magnolia moved in to deal with the director. He knelt beside the woman in the dress, unable to recall her name, and slapped her. She slapped him back, her body moving stiffly and awkwardly, moaning with weak effort as she assumed some sort of seated defensive position.
He slapped her again, and dodged her next reciprocal slap. ‘Open your eyes,’ he snapped.
Eyes, large and wide and far too vulnerable to attack, opened and glared at him. He appreciated the speed of unconscious-to-angry. ‘Do you need anything I can require?’
She swooned and leaned against him, holding on to his arms, despite his attempts to remove her. ‘What happened?’
He peeled her hands away. ‘You’re preventing me from finding out.’
He required a glass of water and shoved it into her hands.
‘Sir, another IV,’ Magnolia said.
He made the requirement, and Magnolia wheeled it past him, towards Darren.
‘What happened here?’ Ryan asked in a halting voice. ‘Taylor, Jones, someone-’ He turned and watched Ryan try to get to his feet, before sitting heavily on the ground again. ‘Someone tell me what happened to my damn Agency.’
‘No?’ the voice of every conscious person – bar Magnolia – came back as an echo.
He crouched in front of the scholar. ‘Is the demon going to attack again?’
‘Well, no-’ Jones started.
‘Demon?’ Ryan asked, again attempting to get to his feet.
‘Then it’s not as important,’ he said.
Jones, newly grown eyes in his face, gave him a confused look.
He ignored the scholar, turned, and helped Ryan to his feet. ‘Your office?’ he asked.
Ryan gave him a confused look, but shifted away. He waited a moment, then shifted to the director’s office.
‘What’s more important than a demon, Taylor?’ Ryan asked as he shakily retrieved a thin bottle of yellow liquid from his desk.
‘To you, Mimosa, I presume.’
Ryan’s body language changed immediately, going from the slack of someone in shock, to someone ready to fight. The director moved away from his desk, coming closer, but keeping his distance for now. ‘What about her?’
He swallowed, then went to one knee in front of Ryan. ‘Take it from my mind or you’ll doubt me.’
‘What happened to her?!’
Ryan’s hand shot forward and grabbed his hair, and dragged him up onto his feet – a rare show of his strength. ‘What. Happened. To. Her?’
‘Clarke what?!’ Ryan demanded.
‘Tried to sell her.’
‘Oh, gods.’ Ryan let go of him, his hands shaking. ‘Where is she, Taylor? Is she- Is she safe? Where’s Clarke? What-’
‘The more questions you ask, sir, the less answers you get.’ He stared past the director. ‘You’ll want to take it from my mind, just do that, and you’ll get everything.’
‘Is she safe?’
‘She’s with O’Connor.’ He knelt again, resting his hands heavily on his knee, bracing for the pain.
‘I didn’t think you trusted him.’
‘You do, so my opinion is irrelevant.’
Ryan rested a sweaty hand against his forehead. ‘I apologise for the pain.’
He made an effort to open his mind, to relax his defenses. ‘Just do it, Ryan.’