01 – Broken Doll

A child screamed.

Ryan swore as he tripped over the threshold to the pastel-painted nursery. A silenced shot passed by his head, missing him by inches. Some part of him made a note of it, more evidence to clear away, more collateral damage to control – the rest of him was focussed on the crying child.

The little girl, with a gun held uncomfortably close to her head.

His footing regained, Ryan brought his gun up and aimed it at the Solstice. The sweaty man gave him a smug smile, took another shot, then jammed the barrel back up to the little girl’s head. ‘Back off now, Agent.’ Teardrops made dark patches on the girl’s shirt as she struggled to get out of the Solstice’s grip.

Two shots, now. Usually more than enough to alert civilians. There were no shouts. No sounds of people running in fear. No calls to the authorities. No parents coming to rescue their child.

He held his gun steady. He had no intention of letting the Solstice escape again. He looked to the little girl, and she stopped screaming, settling for holding tight onto the china doll in her tiny hands and crying.

‘Put the child down,’ he ordered. ‘I’m willing to talk.’ A dialogue was pointless, but it would give him a few more seconds to rescue the child. A few more seconds without another death on his conscience. He retreated a few steps, to calm the man a little.

‘I don’t want to talk,’ the Solstice said, giving the little girl a rough shake. ‘I want to live.’

The Solstice had shown obvious signs of desperation – his escape route had taken him through minor blackout zones; had criss-crossed highly populated areas, public spaces; and had now entered a private residence. The foot chase had none of the usual tacit subtlety. There would be police reports. There would be witness statements.

Ryan scanned the man. The reason for the man’s panic was clear: The blackout energy in the Solstice’s body was degrading. Five minutes – give or take a few seconds – and his time was up. Five minutes, and Ryan would be able to shift the criminal straight into an Agency cell.

He didn’t have five minutes; the little girl didn’t have five minutes. ‘Put the–’

The Solstice gripped the child tighter, making it impossible to take a shot without endangering her life. A tiny struggling, screaming human shield. She was young, two or not much older. Too young to be reasoned with, too young to know to be quiet, to be calm, to stop flailing into Ryan’s line of fire.

He could take the shot. He could take the chance.

She wailed again, and his resolve wavered. He couldn’t take the shot. He couldn’t take the chance.

The image of a bruised and battered fae flashed in his mind, a young woman who had looked hardly old enough to have graduated high school: the Solstice’s first victim of the day.

They’d been just a little too late, and she’d died, but not before putting up a fight. There had been defensive wounds up and down her arms. The Solstice had taken his time with her, and the bastard had obviously enjoyed himself.

Ryan pushed the image away.

The easiest way to change the situation would have been to shift the child way from the Solstice, to teleport her into Ryan’s arms, her playpen, one of the other rooms, or – at the extreme – the agency, where there was no chance of injury. It was dangerous, too dangerous, given how close the gun was to her head.

Shifting, despite how quick and painless it was, could be detected by those with enough practice. There was a momentary tactile difference in the skin just before the shift, and that moment would be all the Solstice needed to pull the trigger.

There were still no screaming parents, no concerned visitors phoning the authorities – his HUD indicated that – nothing, just the sounds of the party outside. From an emotional standpoint, it was horrible; from a strategic standpoint, it was the best scenario he could ever hope for. The less complicated the situation, the better.

‘One last chance,’ Ryan said. ‘Put the child down.’

The Solstice started to back away to the door. Something crunched, and the man looked down, distracted by whatever he had stepped on.

In that split second, Ryan shifted the girl away from the man. She clung to Ryan’s suit as he balanced her on his hip. Enraged, the Solstice looked back up at him, then swung his gun up and took a few shots. The anger, the fear, made the shots go wild –

One bullet lodged in Ryan’s shoulder, but he pushed away the pain. It would pass soon enough.

‘You brought this on yourself.’ He adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger. The man fell, and blood began to seep into the expensive rug.

There was something warm against his side, and he looked down to comfort the little girl, knowing that a nappy change was the least of–

Half-closed, dead little blue eyes stared at him, stared past him, stared nowhere. He dismissed his gun with a thought, and he lifted her to inspect her, feeling the blood on his hand before he saw it.

Blood oozed from a gaping hole in her chest. Her life leaked out, staining her soft purple top, dripped onto his hand before it fell to the floor, the beginnings of a puddle starting near his feet.

His fault. Another death on his conscience. Another innocent gone.

He pulled the child close and lifted a hand to close her eyes. It was the least he could do; it was all he could do.

Blue flashed. His thoughts froze as the tiny spark of her soul floated past his eyes. He spun, nearly dropping the small body, and lunged for the spark.

The tiny blue soul slipped through his fingers, then floated higher and began to fade. He made another grab for it, concentrated, and that time, he made tenuous contact with it. Light streamed through his fingers as if he held a tiny star, the soul screaming in his mind from being held captive.

Sweat poured down his face as he fought to keep a hold of the child’s soul. It tried to escape of his grasp. He stumbled, tripping on the expensive rug as it tried to wrench free of his grasp. Ryan’s skin melted, and the soul began to burn into his flesh. It would burn a hole straight through his hand to escape, but hopefully before that he would–

A cold breeze blew from behind him.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ She sounded disappointed, as usual.

For a moment more, Ryan stared at the light streaming through his fingers, then opened his hand and let the soul float away, a balloon without a string. He curled his fingers over his burnt palm and turned to face Death.

‘What are you doing?’ she demanded again.

He looked away from her, then down at the dead child in his arms. ‘She’s too old to become a Starbright–’

‘Far too old,’ she snapped, staring at him with her skeletal face. ‘Your point?’

‘Lady, please, I–’

‘Don’t beg, Ryan.’

He held the little corpse held tighter. ‘Please.’

‘She is too young to make the choice on her own,’ Death said after a moment.

‘She’s passed on?’

The oldest of the three Ladies stared at him, expression unreadable. She turned away from him for a moment, and his heart sank. She took a step towards the nursery window, stared down at the party in the garden, then looked back at him, a human-seeming face replacing her skeletal visage.

She pulled away her hood, and silver hair spilled out over her shoulders. ‘Think about why you’re doing this, Ryan.’

‘It’s my job,’ he said.

She walked back to him. ‘This is not your job, angel,’ she said as she lifted his hand. She ran cool fingers across the burn, the pain and the injury disappearing with her touch.

‘Please,’ he said, nearly choking on the word. He looked up at her. ‘Please, my lady.’ He felt tears stinging at the backs of his eyes, but he quickly blinked them away.

‘I do wish you would consider the consequences.’

‘She’s a child; the consequence will be a life.’

‘If you want to retrieve her soul, Ryan, put her body down.’

He held the girl for a moment more, then stooped and placed the body back in her playpen, laying her on the blanket embroidered with her name: Stephanie. He looked away from her, from his failure, from the blood covering her, and his gaze fell on the broken china doll – what the Solstice had stepped on. He picked it up. It was something familiar, and hopefully it would convince her to trust him, to come back with him, to reject death.

Death took a step towards him, and everything fell away. For a moment, he saw the house in its constituent parts – each piece turned into dust, leaving nothing behind, until he was alone in the blackness. He took a breath, then let himself go, and he dropped through the darkness, through the emptiness that was Death’s realm.

There was no need to stare out into the darkness. There was nothing to see, nothing to do but imagine monsters in the darkness, so he closed his eyes and waited for the journey to end.

After a small eternity, he felt solid ground under his feet, and after a moment to collect his thoughts, he felt brave enough to look. Limbo’s eternal storm clouds swirled overhead in the grey sky – promising a storm that never came, brimming with rain that never fell, and occasionally cracking with lightning that never struck the ground and that was never followed by thunder.

The grey earth beneath his feet let up little puffs of dust as he crossed towards the tree line of the winter-dead forest and two little girls.

One of the girls was the child he was there to save; the other was the grey land’s guardian. Limbo rolled a bright red ball towards the dead child, turned to him, laughed, and then looked away. Limbo existed entirely in greyscale, her hair silver, her skin ashen, and her eyes black. Even her monk’s robe was in muted tones. Limbo, despite her age, despite her responsibility, always appeared as a child.

All he could do was watch them play. The girl he’d failed was happy. All her fear had disappeared. There were no more terrified screams or tears of pain; there was just the ball and her new playmate. Children adjusted so quickly. He envied them that quality.

His hands shook, and Ryan buried them in his pockets – it was a useless gesture. The sisters would know how he felt, know his thoughts, and know his decisions before he spoke them aloud. His mind was as open as a picture book with large text. Secrets were an impossibility when dealing with the Ladies. Death knew his fears, his paranoia, his guilt. It was more honesty than he preferred. Bravado didn’t work; facades of strength did nothing to keep her from seeing his lack of conviction.

The little dead girl caught the ball, bounced it, and pushed it back towards Limbo. The grey land’s guardian turned to him and laughed, the innocent sound doing a lot to make him feel a little better about the situation.

He sat on the felled log behind Limbo and watched the girls play for a moment.

The ball rolled in his direction, and he pushed it back towards the little dead girl. She barely looked at him, her attention entirely focussed on the ball. The lack of attention didn’t bother him. He was an agent. He wasn’t there to be noticed. He wasn’t there to be remembered. Today would happen, and then it would be lost in the miasma that was the foggy memories of childhood. His mistake wouldn’t impact her.

If he could take her back.

If he took her back.

‘You’re right to hesitate,’ Death said as she stood beside him, making him feel so small. She touched his arm, a rare gesture of affection. ‘You do not have the right to do this. You can’t force this choice on her.’

‘It’s my right,’ he said as he uncurled his fists within his pockets, ‘to try and save her.’

‘Is this really saving her, Ryan?’ Death stepped in front of him, blocking his view of her sister and the little girl. Death’s face was skeletal for a moment, angry, before appearing human again. ‘There is every chance,’ she said, ‘that she will become a ghost. Is that what you wish on her?’

He felt a chill as he struggled for an answer. ‘My Lady–’

‘Do you want her to become a ghost?’ she demanded.

It took every shred of self-control to keep his voice calm. ‘Of course not.’

‘Then let her pass.’

He looked away from Death and down to Stephanie again. ‘She deserves a chance,’ he said, the words coming easily as the decision fortified in his mind. ‘She has to have a chance.’

‘This isn’t even about her,’ Death said, an angry edge to her voice, her skeletal face returning and staring through him. ‘You’ve no investment in the child. You’re acting out of guilt because of–’

‘I know,’ he snapped, and shame overtook the anger. He hung his head, unable to meet Death’s gaze, and stared at his feet, taking in the detail of the fine dust covering his leather shoes. ‘I know why I’m doing this,’ he said, more quietly that time. He looked back up at her. ‘I need to save someone,’ he said weakly. ‘Even if it isn’t Carol.’

Death sighed and stared off into the dead forest of identical trees for a small eternity. ‘As is your wish,’ she said at last. ‘But she has to come willingly.’

He nodded. ‘Yes, my Lady.’

Ryan stepped over the fallen tree and walked towards the little girl. Limbo grabbed his pants leg and offered the red ball. He stooped and accepted it, thanking her with a nod. She stared at him for a moment, her black eyes reflecting his unsure expression back at him, before she smiled, climbed to her feet, and ran off into her forest.

Stephanie stared after her playmate for a moment, then began to get to her feet to follow Limbo into the seemingly never-ending forest.

‘Wait,’ he said, not wanting to chance losing her. He held up the ball, sat in the dust, then rolled it across to her. She clapped her hands and pushed it back towards him. Children’s games, a skill that had grown rusty with disuse, a skill he didn’t mind reviving, if only for a few minutes. He pushed on the ball again and reached for the doll that he’d brought with him. The doll was missing.

That time when she rolled the ball back, he let it go past his leg and hit the log behind him. He looked at the ground around him and to the log where he had sat: no doll. He looked up and followed his footprints in the dust back to the place he had entered the grey land: no doll.

‘You dropped it,’ Death said, picking the question from his mind. ‘What’s to say that you wouldn’t drop her?’ The broken doll appeared in Death’s hand, and she passed it to him.

‘I would be–’ he began. Careful. He would be so much more careful with a child than with a doll. The doll wasn’t important. The doll wasn’t a small, precious life that needed protecting. The doll wasn’t a tiny step towards redemption.

He noticed that the girl was watching him, staring at the doll in his hand through the wispy brown hair over her tiny blue eyes. He couldn’t leave her behind. ‘I will be a lot more careful with her,’ he said as he offered the doll down to its small owner. ‘I will.’

The child’s eyes grew even wider, then filled with tears, her tiny pink mouth opening to let forth yet another wail. He looked back to Death, wondering what he’d–

His gaze fell on the doll in his hand. He’d grabbed it without thinking, without repairing it. He shoved the broken, bloody mess into his jacket, out of the little girl’s sight.

He wasn’t in the world, so he couldn’t require the doll fixed; but within Limbo, just as within an oubliette, simple wishes and needs were heard and fulfilled. He concentrated and felt the doll’s head run into liquid and then re-form. The cloth rippled as the clothes were replaced. With a smile, he pulled the renewed doll from his jacket and held it up to the girl.

The scream stopped, and the tears disappeared. She rubbed her dirty face with a sleeve, then half-stood, resting one hand on his leg and grabbing with the other for her doll. He lowered it to her reaching hand, and she dropped back to the ground, her tiny, pudgy arms wrapped tightly around the red-headed doll. She buried her face in the doll’s curly hair, her hands curling into the fabric of the doll’s dress.

He let himself take comfort in making her happy for a moment, then rose and looked at Death, whose face was skeletal again. ‘May I take her home now?’

‘She has not said yes yet, Ryan. She has to make the choice.’

He opened his mouth to protest, a dozen arguments forming in his mind, each fighting to be the first stated. A child so young had no way to understand the choice she was being asked to make, nor any way to articulate the answer. It was unfair. He’d failed after all; there was no way to–

There was a tug on his jacket. He looked down and saw the girl. She smiled up at him, then hugged his right leg, mumbling something that was probably a thank you into the fabric of his pants.

Death put a hand on his shoulder and smiled down at him. ‘She wants to go with you. That’s a “yes”, Ryan.’

He knelt and picked up the little girl and her doll. ‘Time to go home, Stephanie.’

[table id=15 /]

02 - The Best of Stories, The Worst of Stories

  30 comments for “01 – Broken Doll

  1. Stormy
    March 17, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    I’m trying to make Ryan a little more stressed than normal in this chapter – we have to remember, this is less than a fortnight after Carol went crazy and killed people (and Taylor :P).

    And just for my own amusement…(Running Totals)
    Stef Dead Count: 1

    • Shade
      April 1, 2012 at 7:59 am

      That number’s gonna go crazy in MS.

      • Stormy
        April 4, 2012 at 7:54 pm

        …include a different count for agent-y deaths, rather than death-deaths.

    • What a Fine Comic Maker!
      November 15, 2018 at 8:50 am

      Wait, I’m starting out. Who is Carol and why is she killing people? Is this the first story or is there another?

      • Stormy
        November 15, 2018 at 9:17 am

        Mirrorfall is the first story in the series, but some of the people commenting had read an earlier version, so they were seeing certain bits of foreshadowing in a new light. 🙂

        We’ve actually relaunched over on https://ashandblue.com/ – with both a text and podcast version available (and our discord server for chatting), I hope to see you there!

  2. meeks
    March 17, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    Stef’s eyes are blue? For some reason I always thought they were brown…

    • Stormy
      March 18, 2012 at 12:46 am

      …come across as a brown-eyed kind of person, if that makes sense, the Plain Jane with brown hair and brown eyes, but I had the irrational fear that people would think I was trying to copy the Tiffany Aching style of “plain heroine”. Or something.

      Plus, blue eyes means she matches Ryan. 😀

      • meeks
        March 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

        Matching daddy is good. 🙂 I’ll have to go back and fix the banner pic at some point…

        • Stormy
          March 21, 2012 at 3:25 am

          …I do rather like the banner pic as it is, there’s no need to go back and fix it.

          >_> And they both kinda match Curt (he’s the odd one out with brown eyes).

  3. Carradee
    March 17, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    On the dying thing. 🙂

    Put the child down,’ he ordered.
    ‘I’m willing to talk,’ Ryan said.

    The way that’s structured, it sounds like the Solstice says that order.

    • Stormy
      March 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

      …without all the death!

  4. Anonymous
    March 18, 2012 at 12:43 am

    ‘As is your wish,’ she said
    should be “you” not “your”

    one hand on his leg and grasping with the other for her foll.
    should be “reaching” and “doll”

  5. Anonymous
    March 18, 2012 at 3:29 am

    There are a few typos, but other than that, and what Carradee pointed out I didn’t have any problems with it. I read it on my Kindle because I could, and I can’t wait to buy the book.


    • Stormy
      March 21, 2012 at 3:27 am

      I made myself a couple of Kindle files (I was getting used to Mobipocket), and it just seems so much realer somehow…

  6. the leaking pen
    March 18, 2012 at 5:15 am

    missing him by inches and hit the hallway wall somewhere behind him.

    Feels like a tense screw up. It’s not, really, but if feels like it. I would think,

    missing him by inches, only to hit .. Or, missed him by inches and hit. Since you have the and in there, past tense is correct for missed, since it was a past part of the action. flows better.

    usual tacit subtly , i THINK that should be subtlety, subtly is doing things WITH subtlety ,

    hift the child way away (im going to get this one, noting it here to remind myself.

    the less complicated situation, the better. less complicated THE situation? might flow better

    fear sent the shots go wild , sent the shots wild, Or, made the shots go wild. Sent and go together seems weird.

    and hopefully it convince her to trust him ,it would (Again, that one’s obvious, ill getit.

    I was more honesty than he preferred, It was more honesty

    Limbo, a creature of grey scale, her hair silver, her skin ashen and her eyes black let her blend in with her land,

    Did you mean to repeat that line so soon? you just described her a paragraph ago. I’m thinking that you wrote that line two different ways and forgot to take one out? Of course, you might be repeating for emphasis, in which case, I’ll shut up! lol

    other for her foll.her doll

    Overall, it feels like you’ve tightened it up a lot, I’d have to reread and see, but I think you cut some of the introspection while dealing with the soltice short. It’s a quicker read, gets to the point, and is a quick intro to the world. They say avoid prologues, but this is a good one, especially for a kindle/print edition. Well done.

    • Stormy
      March 19, 2012 at 7:33 pm

      Did you mean to repeat that line so soon? you just described her a paragraph ago. I’m thinking that you wrote that line two different ways and forgot to take one out?
      …my mistake, this is what happens when you stitch together three versions of a scene…

      They say avoid prologues, but this is a good one, especially for a kindle/print edition. Well done.
      Yeah, the other rewrite I did…I got bored reading it when doing the Kindle test and figured that was a bad sign. >_>

  7. basscatsmith
    March 31, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    The entire section with the doll in Limbo feels awkward. First there is no doll as he dropped it then it is in his hand and then he is explaining how he put it in his jacket. Feels like a section that was a joining of multiple versions then not ironed out.

  8. Anonymous
    May 27, 2012 at 1:09 am

    why stop to say something before taking the shot?

    You needn’t give time for the solstice to return fire – give him a silenced MAC-10 or micro-uzi – something with very fast automatic which is difficult to squeeze bursts shorter than a couple rounds off. And fires from an open bolt. Ryan could count the rounds in his bursts, and know there could only be a few rounds left, or maybe he’s out and bluffing? But no – when he puts the barrel against Stef’s head, Ryan would be able to make out the bolt, still racked back from the last round – and know that if he’d been out, it would have been left forward.

    So he stumbles, Ryan shifts Stef, aims and and puts one between the soltices’ eyes just as he panics and trys for a spray across Ryan without taking the time to aim. (this kind of quick unaimed fire is pretty much the purpose and the hazard of such small, rapid firing guns. The burst is difficult to control, but just holding the trigger while swinging one’s arm across the target is all that’s needed.) So his gun fires twice before falling silent – after-market magazine was a 32 round after all, and he hadn’t reloaded (something Ryan wouldn’t have been sure of). Maybe Ryan’s relieved he wasn’t cut in half with a full magazine burst – which such a gun could just about do, even silenced and firing subsonic rounds – one of which wasn’t going fast enough to go through Stef.

    and then… etc etc.

    take it or leave it, it is your story after all 🙂

  9. MacDitch
    August 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    So work got seriously in the way of my life and I effectively dropped off the planet for a while… On the plus side, now that I’m back there is a whole new version of the story to read. 🙂

    The actual point of this post? Do you (Stormy) want me to do anything about spelling/grammar/etc as I read everything from the start? Mostly asking because several things I noticed in this chapter have been picked up by others but not fixed, in the online version at least.

    • Stormy
      August 30, 2012 at 2:32 am

      Yus, whole new Mirrorfall (which is sososo much better than the old version, if I’m allowed to say that), and the weird new Mirrorheart…which is a completely unknown thing from one chapter to the next. 😀

      And nope on the errors here, the ones pointed out, I’ve picked up and fixed on the master copy, which has then been sent to the editor in preparation for the ebook release. 😀

      • the leaking pen
        August 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm

        I still also like the old one. they both have their plusses.

        • Stormy
          August 31, 2012 at 2:45 am

          …I can’t really see where the plusses are, the old one was confused and a bit meandering, with sub-plots that didn’t go anywhere.

          For MH & MS though, because the rewrites will be so different, there will definitely be plusses to both versions.

          And OUB…we won’t talk about OUB. I love that book, but wow, does it need a make-over. -_-

      • MacDitch
        August 30, 2012 at 7:42 am

        …. and not worry about it then.

        Where would you like me to start picking things up?

        • Stormy
          August 31, 2012 at 2:46 am

          …with MH. 🙂

          And just for yourself, did you finish reading OUB? I finally did finish it. -_-

        • MacDitch
          September 5, 2012 at 9:02 am

          …I did. Everyone died right. No, wait. That was the start. Or was it half-way through. You really should stop killing everyone!! 😀

          Seriously though, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The wierdest thing is coming back here and realising just how far everyone had developed.

  10. AvidFan
    May 4, 2015 at 1:15 am

    There I was, thinking I’d found a new web serial to read…
    Clicked the “start here” link and started reading, seemed interesting.
    Then made the mistake of reading the top comment…

    So is this even the start? Or is this a continuation? If so, WHY DOES START HERE LINK TO THIS!?
    Also, it sounds like her dying is not going to be a rare occurrence…. So that's interesting I guess. Takes away from the surprise for new readers, but it's still interesting I guess…


    Side-note (side-notes seem to be a regular occurrence in my comments): These comments are from 2012? Yikes. I can't believe it's already 2015!

    • Stormy
      May 4, 2015 at 7:53 am

      Hiiiii newbie!

      Yes, this is the start, but it’s a rewrite, so there’s an existing fanbase of people who were eager to compare this new version, with the previous version that they had read.

      And Stef dies a couple of times – it’s more fair to say it’s a meme than anything else.
      Harry Potter: The Boy who Lived!
      Katniss Everdeen: The Girl on Fire!
      Stef Mimosa: Dead Quite a Lot!

      It’s 2015 – we just have to wait for Doc and Marty to show up!

      • AvidFan
        May 7, 2015 at 2:28 am

        Thanks for the reply! Its nice to know that this is a rewrite, I’ve always found rewrites to mean the author loves what they’re doing (and that there are less contradictions where one character was introduced as X, but was then refered to as Y for the rest 😉 ) Just want to say that I probably won’t reach the end quite so soon… Some other things came up, so I’ll have less time to read… But I will reach the end sometime! Or my name ain’t AvidFan!

        I can’t believe Back to the Future came out so long ago… Good memories…
        … NO HOVERBOARDS YET!? :'(

  11. CJ Willis
    April 22, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    Can’t get chapter 43 of book 4

    • Stormy
      April 25, 2016 at 10:15 am

      I presume you found your way. 🙂 I think I was doing some site updates at the time you were trying to find the new chapter.

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