The alarm went off at seven.
The alarm went off at seven-fifteen.
The alarm went off at seven-thirty.
‘Fuckoff,’ Stef mumbled as the alarm began again. ‘Fuck offffffff.’
With an effort, she dragged herself to the bathroom, phone in hand, her fingers operating on automatic to connect to the speaker and start a playlist.
She placed the phone on the sink, stripped her clothes off and stepped into the shower. The water was warm and perfect immediately, soothing, despite her anxiety. With a sigh, she plonked her head against the tile and let the water run over her back like she was some sort of gangly, oversized duck.
Be clean. Be presentable. Make an effort.
In the real world, in her real life – because this still didn’t feel real, it was a dream that would pop like a balloon as soon as she reached for the edges – she could go for days or more without showering. It didn’t matter. There was no one around to smell her. A momentary interaction with a delivery person didn’t count. There had to always be some baseline assumption that someone ordering in food, and answering in a robe was sick, so weird smells were permissible.
In this dream, in this dream world where she wasn’t a useless hermit, there was the urge, the need, to be something more than she was. There was a reason to try, to claw her way towards being even a tiny bit better.
She dried and dressed, making sure that every line of her suit was as perfect as she could make it. That her hair was going-to-the-principal proper. That overall, she looked like someone who deserved to be hanging out with a secret agent as awesome as Ryan.
But for some reason, he’d deemed her worthy. He hadn’t thrown her out yet. He didn’t seem to mind her stupid questions.
He’d been nicer than any of her family had ever been.
Her father hadn’t been violent – at least not usually. Cold words and a cruel tone had typically done the job far more thoroughly than hitting her would have done. One time though, he’d slammed her head into the side of his car, leaving her bruised and bloody, just to punctuate the fact that he was unhappy.
Ryan was a secret agent, he carried a gun, and she had no doubt he’d killed people – but she couldn’t imagine him being cruel.
It was stupid to make comparisons, but the stark differences drew the thoughts to the fore.
She knew it wasn’t normal for parents to hate their children. For the best moments of a relationship to be a kind of strained cordiality. She knew that probably most of the people she’d gone to school with had been part of loving families. She knew, and she knew, and she knew.
And knowing, being cognisant of the extent of your own abuse, did nothing to better the situation. It was one thing to know she’d never make up the parts of herself that should have been developed as a child, it was another thing to try and make peace with it.
But swap James for Ryan… Trade an emotionally abusive parent for one that smiled when she learned something, and that Stef probably wouldn’t be a useless pile of shit.
She didn’t get to be the lucky Stef. Whatever dream world was, it was going to end soon, but until it did, she’d try to do enough to earn being worthy of being around Ryan.
After one last look in the mirror, she tucked her phone and ID into her pockets and left her room.
Using what was probably all of her allotted luck for the day, she found Ryan’s office without cheating, calling for help, or requiring a map. And with only the slightest hesitation, she knocked.
Ryan opened the door, then pulled it wide and allowed her in.
‘Sorry if I’m early,’ she said. ‘But I also didn’t want you waiting around for me.’
‘You’ve got good timing,’ Ryan said. ‘I was just about to send you a message.’ He held out his hand. ‘If you’re ready?’
She nodded and took his hand. The world lost its focus as they shifted, and when the world became clear again, they were standing on a roof.
‘It started a little while ago,’ he said. ‘But I’d wager very few people have noticed. Take a moment, listen, and tell me what you hear.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘I mean, you’re missing the mask and the cape if it’s the 1812 Overture.’
‘I promise you won’t be disappointed.’
Dutifully, she closed her eyes and listened.
Eyes still closed, she tilted her head up a little and began to process through all the sounds of the night. Her apartment wasn’t right in the middle of the city, but it was still close enough that she was used to ignoring the same level of traffic, of background sirens, of…the noise of the world.
Sound by sound, she tried to sort through everything she was hearing, looking for the unusual thing that he was surely asking her to hear.
He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Can you hear someone singing?’
As he said the words, something that had been in the background, threaded through all of the other noises, started to become clearer. A single perfect note, a perfect voice, a song so sad it felt like a punch in the chest.
She opened her eyes as the sounds of the song became louder, and she was able to keep hold of it even with the distraction of being able to see. What this was, it wasn’t reflected noise from a concert at the river stage, this wasn’t…human, that she was sure of, this was magic.
‘Death,’ he said. ‘The mirrorfall has several stages, this is the last, this is the coda for the dying world.’
‘It’s pretty for a dirge.’
‘I couldn’t begin to tell you what the words mean, only that it is as much a celebration as commiseration. Like any funeral, some time has to be dedicated to happy memories.’
‘What happens now?’
‘Now, now is something few people get to experience. It can be frightening, but I promise that you’re safe. I’d never put you in danger.’
She met his gaze. ‘I trust you, Ryan.’
Ryan took her hand, squeezed it, and smiled. ‘There are many doors in the world,’ he said. ‘Some are accessible all the time, like the fairy stairs I showed you, others take you into the spaces held by the major Courts.’ He lifted his spare hand, fingers spread wide, then bent his fingers forward and slowly dragged them through the air. ‘There are oubliettes that can be opened only when you intend on locking something away forever.’ His fingers seemed to drag on the air itself, as though it were heavier and thicker than what she was seeing. ‘And there are some doors that are only opened at special times.’
Silver light spilled around and through his fingers as he brought his hand down to waist height, and a door handle formed in his loose grip, the silver light drawing a doorframe in the air.
He twisted the handle of the barely-there door and pushed it open, revealing-
There was darkness inside, and she felt herself grip his hand tighter – it looked like death, like her dreams of drowning, like somewhere she didn’t want to go again.
‘It’s all right,’ he said, and as he spoke, she saw that it wasn’t just an endless void.
Unlike her memory, her dream, her mishmash of the two, there was colour within the space. The rainbow on a path of oil slowly giving form to a world.
And above, she saw as they stepped through the door, was a full moon, heavy and bright like a harvest moon. It looked so close, seemingly low enough to touch, far larger in the sky than she’d ever seen, far larger than it ever could be in reality.
Whatever this place was, it wasn’t reality.
Oil slick rainbows turned to clouds, turned to wispy, dream-like trees and plants. It was beautiful, but there was nothing about it that invited play – this wasn’t the dead world of Limbo that Ryan had described, but-
‘It feels like a graveyard,’ she said, giving form to her thoughts.
‘That’s a good word to use,’ Ryan said as he led her deeper into the space. ‘When it needs a name, it’s called the “garden beneath the moon”, there are some fae words for it, but the Lady simply calls it her garden, so I follow her lead.’
The singing, each wordless verse enough to break the heart of a statue, was louder here, without standing to the forefront. It was as much a part of the place as the mist-covered ground and the warm moonlight. A part of the experience, whatever this experience was to be.
They stopped by a tree that had dangling crystal flowers, and a movement within one of the crystals caught her eye. She let go of Ryan’s hand and moved towards the tree – seeing a multitude of her movements reflected back in the facets. Her steps were mirrored – but there was the occasional facet whose movement didn’t match.
She grabbed a branch that was level with her shoulder, and stared into the flower at the end of it – it was one of the ones that had been out-of-sync – in it, her reflection blinked, but her eyes had been open the entire time.
‘Uhhhh,’ she said, looking towards Ryan. ‘I don’t- I know this isn’t the place for stupid questions, but my reflection isn’t working properly.’
‘The answer is simple,’ Ryan said, ‘that’s not your reflection.’
She pointed, but her reflection was scratching her head, talking to a reflected Ryan. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I know better to argue when I don’t know what’s going on-’ She considered the words, unsure if they were true. ‘Well, right now I’m not arguing. So, explain, please?’
‘Death touches all realities, not just this one. And sometimes we are allowed glimpses of those other places. There are other ways, too,’ he said as he led her away from the tree, towards a grassy hill that gave an impressive view of the moon. ‘The Solstice like to lace explosives with Time energy, as it’s something that can nullify System influence. If they set off multiple bombs at the same time, sometimes that’s enough to bend the barrier enough so that you may end up seeing a shadow of yourself. I have seen other versions of myself, some find it novel, I just…worry and hope that I am not the only one that survived that day.’
They found a space on the steep hill – many people were by themselves, though there were some clusters of people.
Down the hill and to their left sat two people, wearing uniforms that seemed strangely familiar, but the vests they wore were red, not blue.
She pointed to them. ‘Are they from, like, the evil version of the Agency?’
Ryan gave her a wry smile. ‘That would, I suppose, depend on your view of America.’
‘Colour coded by location?’ she asked.
He nodded. ‘Every continent has its own feature colour.’
The volume’s of Death’s song rose over the next few wordless verses and then dropped away, leaving the garden filled with echoing breezes and the murmurs of conversation.
The texture of the light started to change, giving the world the same strang quality as the strange, vibrant light before a storm.
‘Look,’ Ryan whispered, and she looked at him, then followed his gaze towards the moon.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked.
All of the moon’s light seemed to be crawling away from its edges. The deeper colour that marked it as something like a harvest moon receded first, leaving almost a gradient, ombre pattern to the too-close moon.
The light pooled in the centre, coalescing into a rough, swirling oval, a pulsing ball of light and darkness, like some sort of celestial lava.
When all the light had been drained from the moon, the oval seemed to crystalise, using the last drops of moonlight to coat itself in a thin, shining glaze.
Ryan squeezed her hand. ‘I promise,’ he said, quiet, as to not disturb the hush that had fallen over the hill, ‘that you are in no danger.’
The oval- No. Oval wasn’t the right word. It was-
Egg. It’s an egg.
The egg cracked, light forcefully spilling into the starless sky, then it exploded, twin arcs of fire curling in the air as-
She gripped Ryan’s hand and shuffled closer so that she could hide behind his arm.
The arcs of fire rippled and spread, and a head lifted, proud, beautiful and made of fire.
The phoenix opened its mouth, and let out a bird-of-prey tseer scream, before opening and closing its beak a few times. It flapped its wings, and the heat rolled in waves over the hill.
She hugged her arms around Ryan’s arm. ‘I’m scared,’ she whispered. ‘It’s beautiful, but I’m scared. It’s so-’
Gorgeous. Incomprehensible. Amazing. It was a force of nature, and she was an ant. Its wings spread the width of the moon’s face, and head to tail, it was nearly as tall.
Red and gold flames pulsed in time with its audible heartbeat.
This was a moment she’d remember until her dying day. Even if the inevitable came and she failed so badly that the Agency had to wipe her memory for her sake and the sake of others, she’d remember this. Every fire would burn colder in comparison to the creature in the sky. Every flame would make her think of living wings, of magic beyond anything she could have ever imagined.
The phoenix slowly descended – either its size changing or it had never been really as large as the moon-
Or that moon is a tiny illusion.
When it settled on the ground, on a flat patch of soft grass at the bottom of the hill, it was still massive. It was probably as tall as a double-decker bus, but it was a manageable amount of huge – it was a dragon, rather than a kaiju.
‘Okay,’ she said, finally finding her words again, ‘explain.’
‘The phoenix is one of Death’s creatures,’ he said. ‘And the duty of the red phoenix is to cleanse a dying world. It will turn everything to ash, burn everything away so that the mirror can fall.’
‘We’re the good guys, right? Aren’t we supposed to– Can’t we– I dunno, do something?’
He smiled. ‘I thought you had no interest in saving the world.’
‘I don’t. I’m just trying to understand what’s going on.’
‘There’s nothing to save, Stef. This is the funeral, and the phoenix is the pyre’s torch.’
‘It’s always the same,’ he said. ‘No matter the world, the same ceremonies are observed. Sometimes, worlds bring it on themselves. Others are just victims… In either case, there are always innocents, and every life is always lost. We have to respect the dead, just as we hope that someone will do the same for us.’
‘I couldn’t forget this.’
‘The parade of ghosts is the sister to the coda, the last, strongest memories of a world and its people. One last chance to be remembered, one last impression on the world. All we are, are the memories we leave behind.’ In the sky behind and above the phoenix, wisps of smoke took the shape of people. ‘And these are the last ghosts. The last ones are usually children. They have such…big emotions. The smallest things can make the biggest impacts. A first step, or a new toy, one last joy writ large for the universe to remember.’
She felt tears on her cheeks. ‘This is– This is too much,’ she whispered, the words tumbling out before she had a chance to consider them.
‘It’s always too much, the first time.’ He lightly rested his head against hers for a moment. ‘I was younger than you the first time I saw a phoenix. A few years old, a newborn. I was with my director. He was…everything to me. My father, my brother, my friend. I trusted him implicitly, and I was scared. Maybe for the first time. It was so far beyond anything I had experienced, so, in this case, I can understand what you’re feeling.’ He motioned towards the immense phoenix. ‘A little fear is natural. It’s a creature that only exists to destroy. It’s easy to feel insignificant when you come face-to-face with something like that.’
‘You could have run away.’
I could run away.
‘Running away is not good agent behaviour.’
‘Is it okay recruit behaviour?’
‘There’s something else to consider: Agents are always the last beings to die on a world – except for those that take their own lives. They have to stand, watch, and wait, with the knowledge that they failed, that everyone they care about is dead or so far away that they may as well be.’
‘There’s– There’s agents on other worlds? Alien MiBs?’
‘There are,’ he said. ‘A lot of worlds have agents.’
A lone, dark-skinned woman approached the phoenix, its fire reflecting on her silver dress. As she got close, the huge bird bowed its head and accepted the woman’s hands to its face. She stood, hands buried in feathers of fire, on a head as large as a car.
After a moment, she retreated, a flaming feather in her hand.
With this, some sort of spell broke. Slowly, people on the hill began to stand and make their way down toward the phoenix.
‘I won’t make you go,’ Ryan said, ‘but I am going to pay my respects.’ He stood and offered his hand to her. ‘It will sound like I am trying to bias the situation, but it may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’
‘That is kind of a dirty trick,’ she said without any real malice. She looked from agent to phoenix and back again, then took his hand, and followed him down the hill.
‘Your director was your dad?’ she asked as they joined the long line.
‘Because of how we’re created,’ he said, his voice low as to not disturb the funereal atmosphere. ‘Most agents don’t have biological family. Some do, those that started life as human or fae and were later augmented into being full agents.’
Humans can become agents?
A million questions swirled, but this wasn’t the time for any of them. Carefully, she filed away the thoughts for later, when it would be more appropriate to bounce around and wonder how one got code in their blood.
‘Family, structure, it’s healthy.’ He went quiet for a long moment. ‘We’re not encouraged to know a lot about the history of our kind, to know the details of the herald types before agents. However, as there was a long crossover period between the first agents being generated and the last Duskers being taken out of service, that’s one aspect of our history that’s common knowledge.’
She filed away more questions, not wanting to interrupt him.
‘Duskers operated as solo entities, and no one has a good word to say about them. Even now, those agents who were templated from Duskers, or otherwise share their traits, are tarred with the same brush as their predecessors.’
‘A reputation following someone more than a hundred years should speak for itself. The Agency operates differently. Agents are expected – encouraged – to form themselves into family units. Directors and those with a great deal of seniority taking on parental roles, agents more similar in age being like siblings. Thus, Reynolds was a father to myself and Taylor.’
‘And Reynolds is on, what, vacation?’
‘Secondment,’ Ryan said. ‘His mission has kept him away for a long time. One day, I hope I can introduce you.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘For bringing me here. Showing me this.’
He put a hand on her head and lightly ruffled her hair. ‘I think it’s something- I think Reynolds would consider it carrying on a tradition. And as for learning one new thing a day, I’m not sure there’s anything more impressive that you could ever experience.’
They lapsed into silence as they drew closer to the phoenix.
Each person ahead of them took a minute or so with the great bird, standing in silent contemplation with it, nuzzling it as the first woman had done, or simply stroking its feathers. Each person, without fail, left holding a feather, red and gold flames shining on their faces.
One of the Americans paused by Ryan, gave him a polite nod, and left, his feather tucked into the pocket of his red vest.
‘What colour does Antarctica get?’ she asked, as the second American passed by.
‘The one individual we have there favours a rainbow aesthetic,’ Ryan said. ‘But I believe that officially, they should feather silver, as Central does.’
A set of new mothers presented a newborn child to the phoenix.
It’s gonna eat it.
Don’t be an idiot.
Infants are tender and mild…
The phoenix lowered its head and looked at the baby, then brought its wings around and encircled the small family. When the wings parted, the baby lay under a blanket made of red feathers.
‘That’s a hell of a baptism,’ she muttered.
After three more groups, they made to the front of the queue. Ryan walked forward, and she allowed him his space.
He bowed his head for a moment, then stroked the phoenix’s chest like a loving bird owner. Like an old man pampering a parakeet, rather than a collection of nanites and vaguely worried looks touching something so close to a god that it made no difference.
Ryan pulled a feather from the living fire, signed his name on the air, leaving a brief golden impression of flawless handwriting, then stepped to the side, and motioned her forward.
The phoenix looked down at her, its eyes the brightest flames she’d ever seen. As she stepped closer, the flames became dark, living rubies, staring at her with a mind beyond comprehension.
She had expected to feel like an ant, like nothing, a stick of kindling before a forest fire.
Instead, she felt peace.
This wasn’t a monster. It might have been the size of a dragon, but it didn’t feel destructive. It didn’t feel dangerous. It was a creature with a grim task, but that didn’t make it evil.
And if it was of Death, that made sense. The way he spoke of her was with reverence. He acknowledged her role in the universe, without judging her for the connotations people had placed upon her role.
The grim reaper didn’t murder, and neither did this creature.
Beneath the rippling fire in front of her, she could see the phoenix’s heart, each beating pounding into her as easily as the song had. She closed her eyes and reached one hand forward, preparing herself for third-degree burns or instant disintegration.
All mental preparation made, she reached a hand up to the phoenix, expecting pain, expecting heat, expecting–
She only felt soft plumage.
Running her hand upward, all she felt was soft, warm, feathers.
It didn’t feel like a volcano, it didn’t feel like a fire that burnt down a forest. It was the warmth of sitting in the sun, of the delight in reading on a balcony in winter, waiting for the coolness to burn away as the sun rose.
She smoothed the ruffled feathers back down.
She thought of the world that she knew nothing about, save for the scant few ghostly images in the sky around her.
‘I hope it was painless,’ she whispered, thinking of the dying on the dying world.
She touched something hard, and she pulled on it, a piece of the fire coming loose. She shook the feather, and as Ryan had done, signed her name on the air.
Four letters of golden sparkles stayed for a moment, then blew away, leaving a faint taste of ash in her mouth.
The flame on the feather dulled as she walked towards Ryan, leaving behind a delicate, gold version of itself with a smattering of opals set into the metal. A quill to write the most intricate of thoughts.
‘Can I have a look at yours?’ she asked. He nodded and held it up. As she suspected, red garnet chunks shone in his phoenix feather. ‘And your birthday is January, right?’ Surety fled a little. ‘I- They’re our birthstones, but-’ She looked back at the phoenix as they climbed the hill. ‘Why would it align with a bit of nonsense like that? It’s not even a worldwide thing. It’s just-’
‘The way I’ve described Death to you,’ Ryan said, gently cutting in. ‘As someone who appears as a human woman with silver hair. That isn’t how she appears to everyone. Every culture has their own death traditions and expectations.’
‘So if you expect Charon…’
He nodded. ‘So other aspects are also shaped by our beliefs and traditions. You saw fae here. Some will have different birthstones, others will have precious or rare wood in place of the gold, some will have a sacred word rather than a jewel.’
‘What do I do with it?’ she asked. ‘Or does it disappear by morning like the stories about fairy gold?’
‘It’s not made of flimsy magic, unless you take special pains to destroy it, it will last until the end of the world.’
They stopped at the top of the hill, and he began to trace his fingers through the air again, looking for the magic door that would allow them to leave to the garden.
‘Um!’ she said quickly.
He dropped his hand to his side and smiled. ‘Would you like to take us home?’
‘Unless it’s like, something you can only do if you’re already magic.’
‘It’s far easier to leave than it is to enter,’ he said. He lifted her left hand and held it with both of his. ‘Reach into the air, through the air, think of home, think of a door, seek permission to leave, to be excused, and turn the handle when you feel it.’
He released her hand, and she took a step forward, ready to- This was more than requiring, which was already magic enough on its own. Still, the procedural, almost standardised nature of it was different to this.
She threw her hand into the air, fingers spread like she was Sailor Moon starting her transformation sequence. She spun in a circle, imagined sparkles in the air around her, then reached forward and…into the air.
The moment she started feeling for it, the air seemed thicker, the consistency of fog, of viscous static resistance. She began to feel gaps and paths as she slowly lowered her hand, and her hand fell into an invisible groove, and then the feeling of a metal door handle touched her palm.
As Ryan had instructed, she thought of home.
She gripped it, and opened her eyes, seeing silver light tracing the shape of a door in front of her.
Ryan squeezed her shoulder. ‘I’m proud of you.’
They stepped back through into the real world, and Ryan closed the door behind them. ‘What would you like to do next?’ he asked.
‘We’ve done fire,’ she said. ‘Can we do ice next?’
She smiled. ‘Ice cream would be acceptable.’