Azazel sat down on the floor of the stone room. “That’s what they want, Jason. That’s what this test—what all of these tests—are all about. They want us to decide to die. And maybe we should.”
“No,” I said. “No, I should die, but not you. None of this has been your fault. I got you into this mess. That’s what all of this has been about. Back at the cabin? You were right. We weren’t supposed to ever be together.”
She laughed, but there wasn’t any humor in it. “If we had never gotten together, Jason, my life would be… Everything important that’s ever happened to me has been because of you. And everything good, really good, has been because of you.”
“And everything really bad as well.”
“It doesn’t matter.” She stood up. “Maybe we should die, but I want to fight instead.”
“Two minutes ago, you were calling me a monster.”
She opened her mouth to speak and closed it. She started towards the doorway. “They’re the monsters. They gave me children and took them away. All in the span of what? Half an hour? Anyone who’s that cruel can’t be good, even if they do call themselves the Light.” She stepped through the doorway, leaving me alone.
I had no choice but to follow her.
I entered a rustic room, the wooden floors covered in rugs. The smell of burning sage pricked my nostrils. Ahead of me sat Agnes on a couch. In front of her, on a table, lay a spread of tarot cards. Azazel was standing a few feet ahead of me. She was twisting her hands together. “This is a dream I had back in Rome,” she told me without turning around. “Or a vision or something. The first time I saw Agnes. She showed me this tarot card reading.”
“I’m the real Agnes,” said Agnes from the couch. “Not that thing you’ve been seeing that’s taking my shape.”
“Sure,” said Azazel. “Just like those were my real children, and just like Jason and I really got married. I’m sure everything is really real here.”
Agnes pointed to two straight-back wooden chairs along the wall. “Pull up a chair you two. I have things to show you.”
Azazel shrugged at me. “I don’t think we have much choice.”
We did as we were told.
Agnes smiled at us. It wasn’t like the smiles she’d given us earlier, when she’d been in the black room. This was a reassuring smile, a friendly smile. It promised that she was on our side, that she sympathized. But after what we’d been through already, I didn’t know if I believed that. “Did you ever tell Jason about the Tarot card reading?”
“Sort of, I think,” said Azazel. “Right after that vision we ended up in some kind of shoot out. There was never a lot of time for us to talk back then.”
“How much do you remember about it?” she asked.
“Enough, I guess,” said Azazel.
I was peering at the cards with interest. I had no idea what they meant. I’d never paid much attention to this kind of stuff. “You didn’t tell me anything about this. What does it all mean?”
“When I spoke to you before, back in Italy,” said Agnes, “I gave you my best guess at interpreting all of it. But I think you’ll see that it has so much more depth than you could possibly imagine. Can I show you?”
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Azazel.
Agnes tapped the card in the very center. “The World,” she said. “The situation at hand. One life cycle ending and another beginning. When the lights went out in America, I immediately thought of this reading. And the next card? The Tower?” She pointed at it. Its illustration was of a tall tower cracking and falling apart. People were falling out of it. “The world was being destroyed so that something new could take it over. The two of you. Your powers.” She looked up at both of us earnestly. “Do you see what I’m saying?”
“When did you do this reading?” I asked.
“When your mother and father came to me,” said Agnes. “I did this reading to determine whether or not I should help them bring you into the world. It seems I misinterpreted. I shouldn’t have.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, you’re not the only person who wishes I’d never been born. Join the club, lady.”
Agnes looked sad. “I’m sorry if it hurts you, Jason, but the things that the two of you have done are inexcusable. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t wish I’d done what I could to stop it when I had the chance. Now that I have you both here, I have to do what I can to keep you from making it any worse.”
“What does it matter?” said Azazel. “Kieran and Eve have our powers now. They’re us for all intents and purposes, right?”
“Oh, no,” said Agnes. “Kieran and Eve have brought harmony to the world. They’ve decreased the amount of Darkness.”
“They kill people for fun,” I said. “How can that be good?”
“They kill very few,” said Agnes. “Compared to how many people used to be killed on a daily basis, things have improved. But if the two of you go back and use the power of Darkness to destroy Kieran and Eve, you will wreak such havoc on the world. There will be so much pain.” She shook her head.
“They have my son,” I said. “I have to fight them.”
“If you valued your son so highly,” said Agnes, “wouldn’t you have resisted stabbing him in that bed?”
I bowed my head. Part of me thought she was right.
Agnes pointed at another card. It was a picture of a man hanging upside down. “The Hanged Man is the card of sacrifice,” she said. “I wasn’t clear what that sacrifice was when I spoke to you originally, Azazel. But now I know that you must sacrifice your lives. It’s the only way to stop the evil you will unleash on the world.
“Look, the card in the hopes position is the Hanged Man.” Agnes touched it. “You need to die.”
Azazel said, “I thought you said that card referred to a shift or transition to a new level of life.”
“In some cases,” said Agnes. “In this case, it means literal death.”
I pointed at the last card. It was a picture of a naked man and woman standing underneath an angel. “What about this one?”
“That’s the final outcome of the situation,” said Agnes. “Love. Love will return to earth if you are dead.”
“Last time you said that was the Lovers card,” said Azazel. “You said it was me and Jason. That we were the lovers.”
“I was wrong,” said Agnes. She reached under the table and brought out two handguns. “It can be quick. You both shoot yourselves. And then it’s over. You know what you are capable of.”
“What if it was just me?” I asked. “Would that be enough?”
“Jason, no,” said Azazel.
“When we first got here, everyone was trying to kill me. And people have been telling you to kill me since this all got started. Maybe that’s all it means. Maybe that’s the sacrifice. You sacrifice me.”
“I won’t kill him,” said Azazel.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “I wouldn’t make you—”
“You don’t die.” Azazel was firm. She picked up one of the guns on the table, aimed it at Agnes, and pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit Agnes square between the eyes. Her head was forced back into the couch. A small trickle of blood made its way down her nose.
I gaped at Azazel.
“What?” she said. “I’m not killing you. You’re not dying.”
The room went white again. We found ourselves at the end of another stone room, standing right outside yet another doorway. I heaved a huge sigh and leaned up against the stone wall, resting my head on it. It felt cold and rough. “You should have shot me.”
Azazel didn’t look at me. “I don’t care about should anymore. I feel like fighting these bastards, so we’re fighting them.”
“I thought I was the bastard,” I said in a low voice.
“I know I said that after you shot the fake children,” said Azazel, “but they were manipulating me to do that. You were right. They weren’t real. And you don’t have to feel guilty about doing what you did. We just have to shoot everything we can until we can get out of this place and back to the real world. You got it?”
I didn’t say anything.
She was next to me in a second. She forced my face down so that I was looking into her face. Her expression was determined. “We’re fighting. You got it?”
“Sure,” I said. But I wished I could assign blame to the test makers instead of myself so easily. Maybe it was easier for Azazel. She hadn’t killed any of her own children. I hadn’t either, not really, but it sure as heck had felt real enough.
“Let’s go,” Azazel said, taking my hand and tugging me in the direction of the next doorway.
Part of me wanted to resist, because I thought if we talked this out, we could figure out the right thing to do. But we had talked a lot of things to death. Maybe moving forward was the best thing to do. I let her pull me after her. We stepped through the doorway, and I braced myself for the familiar blindingly brilliant light to wash everything out.
When my vision cleared, I was standing next to Azazel, holding her hand, but I was also looking at Azazel. She was sitting several feet away from us on a red paisley couch. We were inside an ornately decorated room. The rugs were Persian. The art on the walls looked like original Van Goghs. The Azazel on the couch looked older. She had the same scar that my present Azazel had, but there were a few strands of gray in her hair, and there were lines around her eyes. She was toying with a gun, an angry look on her face.
“That’s me,” said the Azazel beside me. “Hello, me!”
The Azazel on the couch didn’t look up from her gun.
“I don’t think she can hear us,” I said.
My Azazel stomped her feet as loud as she could. The older Azazel didn’t blink. “Guess not,” said my Azazel.
A door on the far side of the room opened, and an older me walked in. I had gray in my hair too, and my hairline was receding a little bit. My upper arms looked bigger, though. I guessed I’d been working out in the future.
“This is our future,” said Azazel beside me, voicing my thoughts.
“It’s a test,” I said. “It’s not real.”
“No,” she agreed. “It’s not.”
Old me ran his hands through his thinning hair. “I got your note. Are we in grade school or something?” His tone was scornful. He didn’t walk further into the room or get closer to old Azazel.
Old Azazel didn’t look up from her gun. “I didn’t know how else to get you to come talk to me. You’re awfully busy these days.”
“I am busy,” he said. “So, tell me what’s so important that I needed to take time out of my schedule of ruling the world to come listen to you.”
She laughed bitterly. “I found the cabin. The dead girls. I thought you promised me—”
“You are acting like we’re kids. Don’t try and pull me into that guilt crap again. I’m Jason Wodden. I rule the world. I can do whatever I like.”
“They couldn’t have been older than fifteen,” she said. “And God only knows what you did to them.”
He smiled, and it was terrible. “They enjoyed it. You know they throw themselves at me.”
“All redheads, of course,” she said. “That’s your favorite flavor.”
“Is this really all you wanted?” He yawned and covered his mouth with a fist.
“You treat them like meat. You consume them.”
He sighed. “Is it because I was fucking other girls or because I killed them, Azazel? Because let’s not forget that you’ve indulged in both activities without me.”
She turned around on the couch, fixing him with her glare. “We promised we’d stop.”
He strode around the couch and settled on an armchair that faced her. “I remember that promise. And I remember that all that time, you were screwing that guard. What was his name?”
“This doesn’t compare, Jason.”
“Can’t remember his name. I do remember finding him dead in our bed, though, considering it was super messy. How many times did you shoot him again?”
She looked back at her gun. “His name was Luke. And he was age appropriate.”
“So it’s about the age, is it?” he asked. He smiled his terrible smile again. “You’ve never screwed anyone too young for you, have you? Oh wait.”
She stood up. “Don’t.”
“Of course you have.” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “You were fucking my own son.”
Beside me, my Azazel gasped.
I squeezed her hand. “It’s not real,” I whispered.
Old me was still talking. “That was really gross and disturbed, wasn’t it? After all, you changed his diapers when he was a baby. But once he got old enough, you were fine with taking him to bed.”
Old Azazel shook. Her fingers were tightening on her gun. “I was lonely . You were never around. You started this mess. You always had to have girls. Lots of girls. I should have known that once you had a taste of a group of women, I’d never be enough for you.”
“I forgot,” he said with an exaggerated nod. “You cheating on me with my own son was my fault. Like everything’s my fault.”
“It’s your fault all those girls are dead,” she spat out. “You used them.”
“We kill people all the time,” he said. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”
“You’re a sick excuse for a human being,” she said.
“Right back at you, babe,” he sneered.
“I don’t know how I ever loved you. I should have killed you when I had the chance.”
“Too bad we’re stuck with each other now.”
Old Azazel whipped up her gun lightning fast. The sound of the gunshot echoed through the room.
Old me swore, clutching his leg. She’d put a bullet in his kneecap. “You fucking bitch,” he muttered. He fumbled at his waist, coming up with his own gun from beneath his shirt. He fired back.
Old Azazel fell back on the couch. She cried out. Her shoulder was bloody.
My Azazel squeezed my hand again, making a whimpering noise. I was pretty shocked too.
Old me was shaking out his leg. It was healing, I realized. He must have my powers of invincibility. “Doesn’t this game ever get old for you?”
Old Azazel was rolling her shoulder. It was healing too! They were like Kieran and Eve, sharing the invincibility power. They could shoot each other as much as they wanted. The thought of it made me sick.
Old me took another shot at old Azazel. It hit her in the stomach. She screamed. “You asshole. You’re an abomination. You’re a monster.”
“Shut up!” yelled old me. He shot her again, this time in the chest.
She screamed again.
I started forward. “Stop it.” I knew they couldn’t hear me, but I couldn’t handle watching myself hurt her like that. I would never hurt her.
My Azazel tugged me back. “They can’t hear you.”
Old Azazel was recovering on the couch. There was a nasty red stain from where she’d been lying. She was grinning like a wild woman, and her teeth were stained red. “I knew it when you killed Hallam. I knew I never should have let you live!” She raised her gun.
Hallam? Seriously? Could this get worse?
Old Azazel unloaded into old me, pumping four bullets into him. Two exploded in his face, two in his gut. He fell in a heap on the floor, gurgling.
Old Azazel stepped over to his body, pointing her gun at him.
Before she could shoot at him again, he aimed his gun and got off another couple shots.
One burst through old Azazel’s face, and bits of her brain spewed out the back of her head. Her body crumpled to the ground as well. From where my Azazel and I stood, we could see her lifeless eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.
For several agonizing minutes, neither of them moved.
“Oh God,” said my Azazel. “We killed each other.”
Then old me twitched. He shoved himself to his feet a minute later. He was covered in blood, but his face looked healed for the most part. He stumbled past old Azazel. Spasms were racking her body.
She pushed herself into a sitting position. The back of her head was matted with blood. She reached back and touched it. “I already washed my hair today, you asshole.”
Old me kicked her as he walked by. “Shut up, cunt.” He staggered to the door and threw it open. “I really enjoyed our little chat. We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
“Fuck you!” she yelled as he slammed the door. She sat on the floor for several more moments, tears welling up in her eyes. She studied the blood on her fingers from where she’d touched the back of her head. Then, tiredly, she pulled herself to her feet and left the room as well.
It was quiet and still. The air smelled of discharged guns and blood.
Both of us were too stunned to speak.
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.