Azazel and I stared out at the field of bodies. They were baking in the hot sun. They smelled putrid and rotten.
She wiped at tears on her face. “I did this. I killed all these people. They told me that everything I’d ever done led to nothing but death and destruction. It’s true, Jason. I deserve to die.”
“No,” I said. “You don’t. This is all some kind of trick. Try to remember. We were in the room with Kieran and Eve. We shot all the men. Agnes came to us and asked if we wanted our powers back and then–”
“We were shot!” She turned to me with wide eyes. “Oh my God, Jason. We’re dead, aren’t we?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think we’re in some kind of… well, I don’t know, near-death experience or something. I was reliving all the worst moments of my life. People kept trying to make me let go of you, and stop doing all the terrible things I’d done. They said I had to let go.”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah, that was happening to me too.”
“But I refused. And I looked for you. And I found you. So we’re not dead. We didn’t let go. We’re alive.”
“Do you think so?”
“I know so. I won’t let you die. I love you,” I said to her.
“I love you,” she said. She threw her arms around me, and I held her. She cried some more. I rubbed her back. Finally, she quieted. She tried a smile. “Maybe this is only a dream. But if it’s a dream, whose dream is it? Mine or yours?”
I hadn’t thought of that. I supposed I could be dreaming all of this. It would explain the strange time jumps, and the obsession with moments from my past. It would explain why Jude had kept popping up everywhere I’d gone. It would explain a lot of things. “Well,” I said, “if we were dreaming, that would mean that one of us was the figment of the other’s imagination, right? You wouldn’t really be you. You’d be dream version of you.”
“I know I’m real,” said Azazel.
She wasn’t crying anymore. I wanted to distract her from all that negative emotion. Maybe if I got her thinking… “Well, you’d say that,” I said. “Even if you weren’t real, my brain would make you say you are.”
“If anyone’s dreaming, it’s me. So you’re the figment.”
“No,” I said. “I’m sure I actually exist.”
She was quiet for a few minutes. Then she grinned–a real grin, not her tentative smile from before. It had a tinge of wickedness to it. “If this were your dream, wouldn’t I be more…I don’t know, naked? Or wouldn’t I have red hair?”
I laughed. Good. She was feeling better. “Oh come on. You know I don’t want you to have red hair. I think you’re beautiful just the way you are. Nakedness on the other hand…”
“Fine then. If this is your dream, prove it. Make my clothes disappear.”
Easy enough, I suppose. If I were dreaming, then I’d make the dream go my way. I concentrated. Her clothes stayed firmly in place, more’s the pity. “I don’t know if dreams really work that way. When you’re dreaming, you don’t have control over everything, you know?”
“I read about this somewhere. If we know we’re dreaming, this is a lucid dream. Which means that whoever the actual dreamer is should be able to control it. Because if you realize you’re dreaming, and you don’t wake up, then you can remake the world however you want. If you can’t make me naked, it’s not your dream.”
“So you think it’s your dream? Fine, then. You make me naked.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Who says I want you to be naked?”
I chuckled. “Oh, you love it when I’m naked.”
She shoved me playfully. “Well, maybe I already tried it. And I can’t.”
“So we’re not dreaming,” I said. “Maybe it’s true what I said. That we’re having some kind of screwed up near death experience.”
“Wait,” said Azazel. “Didn’t Agnes ask us if we wanted our powers back before we got shot?”
“So maybe this isn’t a near-death experience at all. Maybe this is something else. It’s like a weird inner journey to get our powers back.”
“Huh,” I said. “That would make sense. If we had the powers, we could heal ourselves, right? Like Kieran and Eve did. So maybe this is all part of something Agnes cooked up for us.”
“Or,” she said, “maybe we’re already dead. And this is Hell.”
I made a face. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I sat down on the ground. “So what do we do? Do we try to wake up? I mean, if this is Hell–”
She sat down next to me. “I don’t believe in Hell.”
I snickered. “Says the girl who was raised by Satanists.”
“Seriously,” she said. “Our lives have been Hell, Jason. We’ve been tortured and chased, forced at every turn to make horrible decisions, watched our families die. I lost my memory. You had your own parents try to kill you more than once. If some person is going to tell me that there’s something worse waiting for me after I die…well, I say bring it on. Because as long as we’re together, we can handle anything.”
I nodded slowly. “That’s really been the biggest issue we’ve faced recently, hasn’t it? I left you. I abandoned you.”
“I abandoned you too,” she said. “We’re not exactly sweet, innocent people, either of us. You know that, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “It’s a hard thing to know when you’ve done all the things I’ve done.”
She laughed a little. “What about all the things I’ve done?”
Right. How many times had we had this conversation? I looked around at the bodies on the ground, sizzling under the hot sun. I’d made the choice not to die, not to let go. So part of me must want to keep fighting for my miserable existence. “Nice set of options we have here. Hell. Fighting to get our powers back. Weird dream.”
“Let’s go with option number two,” said Azazel. “Because at least that one has a light at the end of the tunnel.”
I sucked in a breath. “But having those powers did things to us, and they weren’t good things. We were losing our humanity. If we had those powers, we’d be worse than Kieran and Eve. You always wanted to get rid of yours.”
“I know I did,” she said. “But ever since you burst in here and kissed me like that, I’ve been feeling…different. Stronger. There’s less chatter and confusion.”
“It’s because we’re together,” I said.
“Yeah. We’re always stronger together. I wish we could remember that.”
“There you are,” said another voice, this one behind us.
We both whirled around. Agnes was standing behind us. “I’m sorry it took me so long to find you. I hadn’t figured on both of you getting shot like that right then. It spun you someplace else, out of my control.”
“So you did bring us here?” I said.
“Yes,” said Agnes. “This is where you’ll get your powers back. But you were both shot, and you nearly died.”
“Then it was a near-death experience?” asked Azazel.
“This is the place people get absorbed into after they die,” said Agnes. “In your visions, Jason, Ms. Campbell was hinting at it. The Spiritus Mundi. The world spirit.”
“The what?” I said.
“It’s complicated,” said Agnes. “I promise to explain everything. I’m just glad I found you. You two are very strong. The agents of Light you encountered tried to drag you away, but you fought them off well. I just came from Nancy. You’re both in stable condition. You’re unconscious, of course, but you’re not dead. Whatever you did to save yourselves, it worked.”
“Thanks for your help,” Azazel muttered.
“I’m very sorry,” said Agnes. “I want to help you.”
“Yeah, about that,” I said. “Since when are you on our side, anyway? You told Kieran where our camp was. You deliberately sabotaged the Resistance. You got people killed.”
Agnes shrugged. “Who cares about a few people? You’ve got to smash a few flies if you want to build a new world, you know?”
“No,” said Azazel. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. But it does remind me of all those weird fly dreams I was having in Columbus. Dreams which you factored pretty heavily in, now that I think about it. You told me to kill Jason and kill myself. I’m not exactly sure you’re trustworthy.”
Agnes laughed. “Oh, that wasn’t me. That was the real Agnes. I’ve just been taking her form to talk to you.”
Nothing this lady was saying was making me feel any better. “You’re not the real Agnes?”
“This isn’t important,” said Agnes. “What’s important is getting your powers back. You’ve got to go into the woods. There’s one final step you’ve got to take.”
“I don’t think so,” said Azazel. “I thought you said you’d explain things.”
“We haven’t got a lot of time,” said Agnes. “You’re stable now, but I have no way of knowing if your condition could take a turn for the worse. Certainly, I could explain things later.”
I shook my head at Agnes.
Agnes sighed. “Fine. But if we’re going to talk, let’s get a little more comfortable.” She lifted a hand and snapped. Immediately, everything around us blinked out of sight. Instead, we were inside a comfortable living room. There were black leather couches against the walls. There was a black coffee table in the center of the room. A vase filled with black roses sat on top of it. The floor was a black shag carpet. She’d snapped her fingers and taken us to goth heaven. Weird. Agnes waved a hand at the couches. “Sit down.”
When we didn’t move, Agnes snapped her fingers again. Azazel and I found ourselves across the room, sitting on one of the leather couches.
“Hey!” I said.
Agnes sat down on a couch opposite us. “You’ve been hopping around in time and talking to dead people and being transported across the room is what freaks you out?”
She had a point. I settled back on the couch, getting comfortable. “You were saying that you weren’t the real Agnes?”
Agnes nodded. “Agnes is dead. She’s been dead ever since she appeared in a dream to Kieran, and Kieran used his powers to blow her up.”
“What?” said Azazel, making a face. “When was this?”
Agnes considered. “Years ago. Right after he stole your powers, in fact. Once she was dead, I’ve been using her form to communicate with the two of you–you and Kieran, that is. For some reason, no matter what I say in this form, the two of you both trust Agnes. You have a very strong association of Agnes with goodness. This is kind of funny, considering that before she died, she was trying really hard to kill you and Jason.”
Azazel shook her head. “I don’t believe that. The Agnes I saw in Columbus wasn’t the real Agnes. She’d never try to kill me.”
Agnes shrugged. “She wanted to kill you because you were being swallowed by the Darkness. She foresaw the destruction you were going to cause. She thought the only way to keep it from happening was to kill you.”
Azazel chewed on her lip. “I did kind of go crazy after that.”
Agnes clapped her hands together. “I know . And it was wonderful.”
“So,” I said, “if you’re not Agnes, then who are you?”
“I’m part of something large–the Darkness. We’ve had lots of names,” said Agnes. “It’s probably easier if you keep calling me Agnes.”
“But what do you want with us? Why do you want us to get our powers back?” Azazel asked.
“Your Ms. Campbell told you that you were in the Spiritus Mundi, right?” said Agnes. “That’s Yeats’ name for this place, but it’s as good a name as any. This is the spirit of the world. Of all of humanity. Everything that humanity tries to give up ends up here. And there are certain things that we–the Darkness, that is–have absorbed over the ages. Things like fear and hate and anger and confusion. All the things that made your powers. All the things that your powers caused.” She smiled, a faraway look in her eyes. “You were simply the most amazing thing that had ever happened to us. And we wanted you two together. You were always stronger together. There was always so much… pain .”
I shot Azazel a look. Was she buying this?
She raised an eyebrow at me.
Agnes kept talking, oblivious to our nonverbal communication. “But then, Azazel lost her powers, and you two weren’t pumping out nearly the kind of destruction and darkness you had before. We thought it would be a good idea to help Cameron get your powers. He seemed so promising. So very, very determined to hurt people. But that all went wrong, and Kieran and Eve turned the world into Candy Land. Now everyone’s happy all the time. This is really boring. So we decided we’d get you to take the powers back. The only problem was that you were dead set against it. And it wouldn’t work if you didn’t choose to take your powers back–of your own accord. We knew if we put Chance in danger, Jason would want to protect him. Now, you’re here, and you’re almost there. There are just a few more things you have to do to get your powers back.”
I sat still, trying to absorb what she’d said. “You’re saying you’re some evil force who’s been manipulating our lives for years?”
“Evil’s such a limiting word, don’t you think?” said Agnes.
“You were on our side when we were using our powers to hurt people,” Azazel said, trying to work it out. “Then you were on Cameron’s side, since he wanted to hurt people. But that didn’t work, and now you’re on our side again?”
“That about sums it up,” said Agnes.
“But you want us to hurt people again,” I said.
Agnes grinned. “Oh, yes. Yes, we definitely do want that.”
“You know, we don’t actually like causing pain, don’t you?” said Azazel.
Agnes smirked. “Don’t you?”
“No,” I said. “We don’t.”
“So,” said Azazel, “if we get our powers back, what happens? We turn into crazy psychos again? We set the world on fire?”
“That’s the plan,” said Agnes.
Azazel and I locked gazes. This was an incredibly bad idea, wasn’t it? We couldn’t do this. We’d lose ourselves again. “No,” I said. “I swore never to hurt people again.”
“You just killed a bunch of men when you were trying to get free of Kieran and Eve,” said Agnes.
“But that was only because I was trying to save Chance,” I said.
Agnes sat back on the couch, folding her arms as if to say, Well, there you go.
I swallowed. I got the feeling we were being painted into a corner here. “If we get our powers back,” I said, “we’ll be able to save Chance.”
“Of course,” said Agnes, smiling.
“And if we don’t,” I said, “we’ll probably die of gunshot wounds and Kieran and Eve will continue ruling the world.”
Agnes inclined her head.
I sighed. Why did it always seem as though my life was filled with nothing but no-win situations?
Azazel laid her hand on my arm. “I think we’re going to have to do it.”
“But is it worth the risk?” I asked.
“I care about Chance too,” she said. “You know that. We can’t let Kieran and Eve get to him. God knows how bad they’ll screw him up.”
“But how bad will we screw him up if we have our powers?” I asked.
Azazel didn’t say anything.
“You were born of Darkness,” whispered Agnes. “So take us and breathe us and become us.”
And as she spoke, I felt stronger, somehow. As if the words were flowing into me, giving me sustenance. I turned my hand over and squeezed Azazel’s hand. “I guess we don’t have a choice.”
“Do we ever have a choice?” she muttered. To Agnes, “So what do we have to do to get our powers back?”
Agnes snapped her fingers again. We were back outside once more, in the same place we’d been before. The bodies on the ground were gone, however. To our left was a long stretch of forest. The trees were densely packed together. The trunks were shadowed by the overhanging branches. I couldn’t see anything inside the woods but darkness. It looked ominous, like something out of a fairy tale, the kind of place the hero would be warned about. The kind of place that wasn’t safe to go into. Agnes gestured towards the woods. “A test,” she said. “Go into the woods, and when you come out, you will be transformed.”
Well, that sounded great. “Maybe we shouldn’t.”
“We have to,” said Azazel.
“One at a time,” said Agnes. “Azazel first.”
I watched her disappear into the woods. And then I followed her. When I passed the tree line, the branches swallowed me. I felt as though I was falling.
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.