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 /]