Ryan made a wish.
He could feel the magic flowing in the mirror, static and overwhelming, so vibrant compared to the unmoving body of his recruit.
He let go of the mirror and waited for something to happen, looking around for signs of other people – of fae to avoid, Solstice to fight and other Agency staff to-
Ryan forced his thoughts away from the Agency.
Making a wish was a violation of his Duty, an act counter to his directives. If it had been a wish in service to Duty, or for some noble act, then there was the chance it could be swept under the rug. There was no such nobility he could hide behind.
Saving a recruit was not an act that bowed to the tenants of Duty. Recruits were expendable. Recruits could be replaced. Recruits existed to augment agents, to take risks so that they didn’t have to.
It had become corrupted, but recruitment as a concept was a truly wonderful thing – to bring in people with new perspectives, to give reason to show people what their world was really like.
To watch their faces light up as they flew. To see their wonder at something as simple as encountering fae. To be grateful that magic existed.
Stef’s body stayed limp in his arms.
He shook her a little, hoping to wake her.
Dead blue eyes stared at him.
It was just like it had been the first time. He’d been so close to her both times, and she’d slipped away due to his inaction. ‘Wake up,’ he said in a whisper. ‘Stef, wake up.’
She gave no response.
She was going to live, he hadn’t failed her. Couldn’t have broken a promise to protect her so soon after making it.
He looked down at her – at the sharp shard of mirror that had sunk into her chest. The wound was still open, though no more blood poured from it.
The blackout warning in his HUD turned a less angry shade of red as his connection to the system – temporarily disrupted by the outpouring of magic from the exploding mirror – began to restore itself.
She was still dead. She was still dead, and they’d be visible in moments.
It didn’t make any sense.
He had made a wish. Mirror magic was the highest order of magic he could ever hope to come across – it was, so far as anyone knew, the highest order of magic in the universe. The mirrors were, after all, all that was left of Chaos whilst he was dead.
There was nothing that could block the magic, no reason the wish couldn’t be granted.
He refused to acknowledge the possibility that he had been a second too late, that her soul had sunk out of sight before he had recovered from the explosion’s overload. Refused to consider that life was the one wish that a mirror couldn’t grant.
A life. One tiny life, it was such a simple wish.
He lifted her and held her and paced the rooftop, sending prayers into the void for her to wake up.
He rubbed her back, careful to avoid the point of mirror that had taken her life, but unable to avoid the feeling of blood that had soaked into her uniform.
It was his fault.
Eight-point-six in technical aptitude. A score high enough to indicate she had a chance at becoming Jones’ Aide. A score of a long, successful, vital career.
A career, and a life, that he’d taken away.
Ryan adjusted Stef in his arms, her head lolling against his shoulder, and kept two fingers pressed against her neck, feeling for a pulse, feeling for any signs of life.
He paced, his feet crunching on other shards of mirror, holding her, waiting for her to breathe, waiting for the wish to work. Absurdly, he was reminded of pacing the halls with Alexander, when his son had refused to burp or sleep or eat.
It had seemed so natural to keep her close. A life in amongst a massacre. A little girl who remembered him. A young woman with no family. A perfect piece for the hole he had never managed to fill.
It had been selfish.
Blood finished soaking through his sleeves and touched his skin. He grimaced, and placed her back on the roof.
No pulse. No heartbeat, well, there couldn’t be – there was no heart left to beat. No air in her lungs.
He looked around, aware for the first time since he’d seen her body of where they were, of what was going on around them.
The fighting was almost distant now – though a dozen pieces of mirror lay scattered on the roof around him, no fae were coming close in an effort to get them. It was possible they were still feeling the effects of the mirror’s explosion.
His HUD showed efforts to get his system connection back.
The little girl had needed no more than a simple bribe to come back – a doll and a hug to hold back the hungry darkness, to keep her from slipping away and becoming a ghost. The recruit in front of him was far more complicated.
Coming back after passing to Limbo took an incredible act of will, and a desire to live that was just as strong. There was also the obstacle of arguing past Death herself – Ryan was sure that she never stopped any attempts, but he knew she tried to discourage them. Becoming a ghost was almost always a fate far worse than dying.
The angry red box in his HUD warning him that he was in a blackout zone slowly faded, replaced with weak attempts at a system connection.
A new kind of fear sparked.
As soon as the system connection was strong enough, it would seek to reconnect with everyone it had lost in the blackout, and it would find her dead, and automatic protocols would take over.
‘Wake up Stef,’ he ordered. The voice, the tone, all of it was of a perfect agent – of one going about their Duty, ordering a recruit to complete a simple task. It wasn’t the voice of an agent who had just contravened all the established protocols for a mirrorfall operation…and was considering going further against the Agency.
She still wasn’t breathing.
It was a simple order. It was a-
There was a cold breeze behind him.
‘You have the audacity to think it was a simple wish?’
He squeezed Stef’s hand for a moment, then stood and turned to face Death. She hated those who genuflected before her, but he nodded nonetheless – he needed to show respect.
She was angry with him – she had never been angry with him before. With Carol, there had been sadness, disappointment, and warnings, but this was anger. He flicked his gaze to the ground. ‘I’m sorry, my Lady, I meant no offense.’
‘How can you think this is a simple wish?’
He stole a glance back at Stef’s body. ‘My lady…why hasn’t it worked?’
The skull within her hood stared for a moment more, then her human-seeming face took over, a frown drawing her mouth tight. ‘You ask that as though you expect it to work.’
He recognised a stillness in his HUD – his clock had stopped, Death had pulled them just to the side, a moment to talk that never happened in the real world. It was a kindness – it was delaying the seconds until their system connection came back, delaying the time until-
‘I am not here for your sake, Ryan, I am here for hers.’
Ryan swallowed. ‘My Lady, the mirror-’
‘You have chanced a fate worse than death for her. It is arrogance on your part to assume that this is any different to any other mortal death.’
He drove his hands into his pockets and balled his fists for a little borrowed strength. ‘It is different, the mirror is involved.’ He gave her an imploring look. ‘I made a wish,’ he said, hating himself for how weak he sounded.
It was mortal to fight the inevitable, but this wasn’t inevitable – a mirror had been involved, and that changed everything. It had to change everything, else he was a failure.
‘Ask the question you want to ask,’ Death said, her fingers curling, as if to beckon the question from his lips.
He dredged up buried thoughts. Thoughts he hadn’t allowed himself to have since cutting his palms on the mirror and wishing her back. ‘Has she passed?’
A small eternity passed as he waited for her to answer.
He exhaled a long breath. ‘Then, is she with one of your sisters?’
He frowned in confusion. ‘Then…where is she?’
‘That’s not for me to say.’
He looked back at the body again. ‘I need to know.’
‘You’re acting out of guilt again.’
‘The mirror was there, I-’
Her voice took on a sharp edge. ‘Whether or not a piece of my father was there, you would have tried something, wouldn’t you?’
‘I don’t know.’ He looked away. ‘I- I like to think I would have-’
‘You would have. I know. I’ve seen it. You lost her in a lot of worlds tonight. Not all of them had mirror at their disposal.’ She paused. ‘You acted above your place, Ryan, you always act above your place.’
‘I did as any man would have done. You cannot blame me for that, my Lady.’
‘You’re going against your duty, angel.’
‘It’s just one life,’ he said in an attempt to rationalise the situation.
‘Every life,’ Death said, ‘is just one life. Every refugee you’ve murdered is just one life, every Solstice you’ve helped rehabilitate, every-’
‘I understand what you’re trying to say, my Lady, I do.’
‘Are you sure? You truly understand the implications?’
She stood silently for a moment. ‘If you understand, then take hold of the mirror.’
‘I already made the wish,’ he said before catching himself as his hand began to drift toward the mirror.
‘Take hold of the mirror,’ she said again, and this time he knew it wasn’t just a suggestion.
Ryan knelt and grabbed the mirror, and immediately his mind went blank – he kept all stray thoughts away, any thought or wish out of place could rob her of the chance to come back. He gripped it tighter, and he felt the jagged edges dig into his palm.
The power of the mirror was overwhelming – he could feel all the potential biting at his skin, begging to be used. Leaked memories of Dajulveed flashed in his mind – it remembered where it had come from, but it desired to become something new.
Her voice went cold. ‘Pull it out.’
One of his fears came to the fore – the fear that the mirror itself was stopping her from coming back – that if he removed it, it could then be used to repair the damage to her chest in the precious few seconds that she would live.
‘Pull it out,’ she repeated.
He kept his grip tight, but he didn’t dare begin to slide the mirror out. ‘Why?’
‘You said you understood.’
‘What will happen if I pull it out?’
‘Are you questioning me?’ she asked, her voice the coldest he had ever heard it.
His shoulders dropped, and he relaxed his grip on the piece of mirror. ‘I just want to know, my Lady, mortals were not the only ones blessed with curiosity.’
She knelt beside him, and placed a cold hand on his face. ‘If you are very, very lucky, she will die.’
‘Shh…’ She removed her hood. ‘You had to bring the doll, didn’t you? The first time, when you went to my sister’s realm, you just had to bring the doll.’
‘-so very unfair of you, Ryan. It was a bribe, it was a trick.’
‘I needed some leverage,’ he admitted, ashamed.
‘You brought the doll, you gave it back to her. It gave her a connection to that memory, something to store memory and dream in, something outside of herself. Something private, something safe, a memory no one else could touch.’
The doll hadn’t been the only toy in Limbo. ‘Should I have brought a ball instead?’
For a moment, Death smiled, then her sad expression returned and she replaced her hood. ‘Please, Ryan, pull out the mirror, it’s the kindest thing you can do for her.’
‘But that will kill her?’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘If – yes, “if” – she wakes up, what do you think will happen? Angel you might be, but considering the consequences has never been your strong suit. Part of you once rallied an army against a king, but the past is past. In this life you’ve allowed yourself to trust too many traitors, granted too many second chances and acted out of guilt too many times.’
‘What of the other one, Ryan? You locked her away from everything, and sometimes, she knows that it was your fault. Sometimes, she can remember everything. Sometimes, she misses you, sometimes she just wishes I could take her away. I can’t, and that’s because of you.’
‘Stef isn’t Carol. It’s not the same. Nothing is the same.’ He looked at his reflection in the mirror, and tried to hold back tears. ‘Nothing.’
Death nodded. ‘I know this – none of the feelings you harbor are the same…but the mistake you make could be.’
‘I have considered the consequences, my Lady-’
‘No you haven’t,’ she snapped.
Ryan took a step back, and bowed his head. ‘No, I guess I haven’t. All I know is that I don’t want her to die. I will not let her-’
‘What you will or won’t allow means nothing, Agent, she is dead.’
He balled his hands again. ‘And I can change that. I have to change that.’
‘There were worlds where you never met her. Worlds where you never followed her into Limbo. Worlds where you shot through the wardrobe. So many of you, without her, I want so much to add you to their number. You cannot even- There is so much you are not considering.’
‘I will not kill her, I know I can save her. I will not let her go, not even for you, my Lady.’
Her voice grew sad. ‘Even if it’s the kindest choice?’
The kindest choice would have been assigning her to the tech department. The right choice would have been never bringing her to the operation. The smart choice would have been not letting her out of his sight on a night where so many died.
There was nothing kind about killing her.
A life, any life, any chance, was better than nothing.
‘If by some chance…if she does wake up, I know it will be hard. I have no misconceptions about this, I do not expect that it will be easy, or even that it would last-’
‘That’s…the problem,’ she said slowly.
‘If you do not entrust her to me this time, and you proceed as you want to, I may not get to take her at all.’
Confusion overtook him. ‘Like one of Fortitude’s souls?’
‘No, not an embargo, an ending. If she wakes, you cannot think of her as but anything but mortal. Once…that existence ends, she may just end, her soul may fade into nothing, not come to the void with me. It’s not just this life you’re gambling with, it’s also whatever comes next.’
This revelation stilled him – it was one thing for it not to work, or for it to work for a limited amount of time. To have time to make peace and say goodbye was one thing – and if he had picked up anything about his recruit in the last few days, he knew that the “goodbye” portion would probably include “require copious amount of sugar in various forms”.
Goodbye was one thing – to render her existence null, and deny her the chance to go into the void and whatever lay beyond it…he wasn’t sure that he could do that. He wasn’t strong enough to do that. He-
His answer came haltingly, but strong. ‘I’m not sure she would forgive me if I denied her the chance of life.’
Death put a hand on his shoulder. ‘If you let her go, I will try and bring her to my youngest sister’s realm so that you can say your goodbyes.’
‘My Lady, I thought you did not bargain.’
A small smile graced her lips. ‘You are a special case, Ryan.’ She gave a soft sigh. ‘I’m having the same conversation with you in a hundred different realities. The same words, the same look in your eyes, the same indecision shaking your hands.’
He looked at his hands for a moment, then slid them into the pockets of his jacket again – it would make no difference to her, but it allowed him a little more false bravado to hide behind.
‘Pull out the mirror, let her go. Please.’
‘What…what am I deciding in those other worlds?’ Teasing him with other knowledge of other worlds was something she had always done, ever since the first time he had tried to contravene the laws of life and death.
She had thought it a way to help him make an informed decision, and it was – though it made him hate many of his multiverse selves. The ones who made the rash decisions, the ones who acted without thought, or the ones who acted wrongly.
‘Perhaps, Ryan, you should view your curiosity as a curse, rather than a blessing.’ She turned away from him, and as she did he saw the glint of a scythe – she rarely carried it, but it was never far from her side, just like his gun. The accoutrements of their duties.
‘People’s weapons define them,’ she said as she picked his thought out of the miasma. She walked over to Stef and brushed some hair back from her face. ‘If you bring her back, she may decide to fight with her mind, rather than the gun you gave her.’
‘That’s up to her. Jones would be happy to have her.’
‘Would she?’ She tapped Stef’s nose. ‘Instead of contemplating the weight of your weapon, contemplate what it is in your recruit’s chest.’ She stared at him with gray eyes and waited for the thought to hit him. ‘It’s not only a way to bring her back from this…suspension, it’s a piece of mirror. I credit you with being smart enough to realise that you will not be able to keep it a secret…however, what if you cannot keep the secret from those who would weaponise it?’
‘We can only try.’
‘Thirty-seven of your other selves have pulled the mirror from the body and let her go. Eighteen are seriously considering it. Twelve have decided against it and asked me to accept that decision. Five wish to let her go and use the mirror to retrieve Carol.’
He forced his thoughts away from Carol.
There hadn’t been a mirrorfall since he had been forced to lock her away, no chance at- Carol was alive, for whatever little quality of life she had, she was still alive. If he tried to save her, then a hacker with a strange smell would disappear forever, missed by no one and remembered only by a few items left behind.
He couldn’t think about Carol.
He couldn’t think about seeing her.
He couldn’t think about what had to happen.
‘And the others?’
‘Twenty-seven are indecisive, one is blaming her – telling her that she brought it on herself, that she deserves to die, that mistakes in the field aren’t to be rewarded with second chances, he’s going to-’
‘Please,’ he said, ‘stop. I don’t want to know.’ He looked down at his hands, wondering how monstrous he could be in some of those worlds.
A skeletal face grinned at him. ‘As you wish. Just remember, no matter what your decision, the outcome you desire may not eventuate. The mirrors are…chaotic, as is everything they do.’
He looked at his inert recruit again, and he just wished she would sit up and say something that he barely understood, or an out of context sentence, continuing a conversation she had started in her head.
‘I’m not going to let her go,’ he said, finally content with the decision. He stood and looked up at Death. ‘For better or worse, I have to give her this chance.’
‘Just so you know, angel, in the end, it was never your decision.’ She pressed a finger to his lips as the question formed in his mind, he deflated – knowing better than to ask for information that wasn’t his to know. ‘Now do it.’
‘But, if it didn’t work the last time-’
She smiled, leaned down and kissed him on the cheek with her cold lips. ‘Trust me.’
He stood and bent over his recruit, wrapping both of his hands around the piece of mirror, careful not to move it too much, and cause further damage to her heart. Closing his eyes, he stilled his mind and wished for her to come back.
Death’s hand touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes, he felt the mirror shudder in his hands and he released it. Backing away from the body, he watched as it shook – making his inert recruit’s body twitch. He reached for it, but a quiet warning from Death stopped him.
Small pieces of moonlight hit the mirror and broke off, shattering into sparkles on the roof. All of the small sounds were sucked away until the only thing he could hear was the heart beating in his chest. It rose up a little and he panicked – not knowing what would happen if it left her chest.
‘Trust it,’ Death said, her voice strong despite the sound vacuum.
The ragged edges of the mirror rippled and became smooth, it slowly turned in her chest and he tried not to think of the further damage it was doing. A sharp point rose out of it, and then it slowly melted down into her chest.
The world seemed to breathe again. Ryan forced himself to look at his recruit – aside from the mirror no longer being visible, there was no apparent change – her skin was just as pale, her body still without movement or breath.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘you wait. Think of this as a beacon being lit, she may find her way back, she may not. Remember, it’s not a simple wish.’
‘Yes, my Lady.’
He stared at the mirror in her chest – through a hole that would hopefully repair itself once she awoke. After a moment, he scanned it – his vision blurring for a moment before it allowed him to see below the surface. The mirror had taken on a new shape – one that surprised him, one he had not expected.
It was a heart.
Not a normal human heart – an efficient, if not altogether attractive organ, but rather the romanticised version of one. The kind that adorned Valentine’s cards, the kind that children drew.
It was nestled deep in her chest – the bloody and ragged remnants of her old one were gone, either destroyed by the process, or absorbed into the mirror.
‘And what now, Ryan?’
A tired smile crossed his face. ‘I am putting off the inevitable, my Lady, can’t you tell?’
‘You’re not fated, Ryan, you are making each of these decisions yourself. You can stop at any time.’
He buried his face in his hands and felt the cut on his head for the first time since heading up the stairs. ‘It’s not a decision that I want to make, it’s a lack of choice. I can’t- No Agency safe house, and not the Agency itself-’ He looked away. ‘There would be an overwhelming consensus to destroy her.’
‘You carry the key everywhere you go, it was obvious that you would use it one day.’
‘Because I thought I’d be strong enough to use it one day. I’m not yet, I’m truly not. I know I- I know I won’t let her out, but I don’t know if I’ll still know that when I see her.’
‘I appreciate that you are not arrogant enough to think you could invoke another.’
‘I have no intention of locking her away forever. It’s just…transitory, until I have more time to consider the consequences.’
Death put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. ‘If you-’
‘You don’t need to say it, my Lady. I will not keep her in there.’
‘And right now, Ryan, you are hoping that you aren’t lying to me.’
‘I will not disappoint you.’
She stared at him, and he watched as her eyes turned to stars as she faded from view.
The clock in his HUD started again, the tenuous connection showing that they were seconds away from being visible to the system.
He lifted Stef, held her with one hand, then headed back to the stairs leading down into the building.
He opened his jacket, and pulled an old key from an inside pocket.
The key was older than the universe, though it appeared to be no older than he was – old, ornate and made of cold iron. It had taken more will than he had known he had possessed to invoke the oubliette; and caused more grief than should have been allowed to exist to close the door on Carol.
Oubliettes followed their keys – he could open it from wherever he was.
He raised the key to his lips and kissed it, then held it forward, waiting to feel it catch on the air. 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 and the door appeared. The door, unlike its ethereal lock, had the appearance of old wood, giving it an ancient feel.
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 than it was the inside of a bubble.
The oubliette was a rounded room, with walls of opaque crystal. Rainbow colours shone through the crystal, and left the impression that one was inside a Christmas bauble. 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.
Tears wet his cheeks as he saw her.
Twenty years ago, he’d kissed her and forced her into the one place he could hide her. The one place where she didn’t have to die; where she didn’t have to pay for crimes she couldn’t have possibly wanted to commit.
She had been raving, mad, covered in blood.
Now, she was at peace. He took a step, unwilling to wake her, unwilling to look her in the face.
Oubliettes 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.
He closed his eyes and thought of a bed – one appeared: simple, small and unadorned, nothing compared to the fairy-tale-like bed Carol had conjured for herself. He laid Stef down, careful with her head, took one more scan of her body, then looked away.
He took a step towards Carol and held his arms out. Clear protrusions came from both walls, and a separator wall formed between the two people he had failed the worst.
‘I’ll be back,’ he promised them both, then turned back for the door.
The oubliette shifted behind him, taking them far away as his feet hit stairs. He walked upward, then the door closed behind him. He reached for the key, laying his forehead against the illusion of the old wooden door. ‘I’ll be back. I will.’
He pulled the key from the lock and the oubliette disappeared from sight. He placed the key carefully back in his pocket, refreshed his uniform, then tried to clear his mind, to become an agent again.
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