I die on a Thursday. At least I think it’s still Thursday. All I know is a whole lot of nothingness becomes a whole lot of pain, and I’m choking on mouthfuls of ash. My head aches, my eyes stream, and I can’t remember how it happened.
I’ve died before, of course. I used to keep track, save the front page of the newspaper on the day it happened. Then I ran out of space on my walls, and every death started to feel the same. MI6 offered to pull me from fieldwork, let me figure it out. But I’m not a hellhound or a selkie or a werewolf. No, a phoenix is defined by her deaths, and letting me die in the line of duty was better than letting me get my fix in other ways. Or at least that’s what my psych evaluation said.
So I’ve died before. Gruesomely, quickly, and oh-so-slowly. And I remember them all. I remember every broken bone, every last gasp of air, every moment of silent darkness. And I remember the burning of revival, the way it stings and aches and feels like fire in my stomach. But I don’t remember this death.
I’m in my flat. It takes me a moment to recognize the carpet I’m lying on. There’s ashy vomit cooling beside me, two mugs teetering on the edge of my coffee table, and case files piled on the settee. Everything smells faintly of lilacs. Home. Apparently undisturbed and unmolested.
Not a violent death, then. I would have at least broken some furniture if there’d been a struggle.
Carefully, I sit up. Everything spins, and I spit more ash from my teeth. My arm hurts more than the rest of me, a deep throbbing agony. With good reason, it seems, because there are words carved into it.
At first I can’t make sense of it, the bloodied letters gouged into the smooth underside of my forearm. Then I recognise the words, and my stomach heaves.
A sealing spell. Someone carved a sealing spell into me. And it’s not healing. It should be healing. Should be healed.
My phone is in my pocket. I pull it out. Still Thursday, but barely. I’ve lost hours. Mouth dry, eyes stinging, I try to pull up the AmbMag app. It blinks at me, scanning the levels of ambient magic before beeping out a reading. Dramatically decreased, another magical blackout. Hell of a time for me to be shaking off a death.
Preternaturals rely on ambient magic. We need it to draw on, need it to fuel our more human-adjacent capabilities. The blackouts make us less spectacular, less miraculous. More vulnerable. Big problem, when most of us make a living by being various degrees of bulletproof.
MI6 gave me the blackout case months ago, and I’d been working on it last night. It’s the last thing I can remember.
AmbMag beeps another negative reading. There’s no ambient magic around me anymore. Cursing, I dial the only number I know by heart. It goes to voicemail.
“Bex, it’s me,” I rasp, voice rough and broken. “Call me back, please. Emergency.”
It rings almost as soon as I hang up, and I let myself lie back on the floor before I answer.
“What happened?” Bex asks. She sounds hesitant. There’s wind rushing past the microphone, distorting her vowels. “Edwina Weatherford. I’m going to need you to answer me.”
“Full name. Ouch,” I say, eyes closed, cheek against the carpet.
“Eds,” she tries again.
“I died. Come over?”
“Christ,” she breathes, relieved. “That’s not an emergency. What happened?”
“I can’t remember,” I say. “I’ve got a sealing spell on my arm, there’s an ambient blackout, and I’m not healing.” I swallow, eyes stinging, chest aching. “Bex, I can’t remember.”
“Shit.” There’s the sound of traffic down the line. “Be there in ten, Eds. Try not to choke on your vomit.”
“No promises,” I say, but the line’s already dead.
Bex has a key to my place, which is good because I lose consciousness again. One minute I’m alone, the next there’s a key turning in the lock and a familiar wash of perfume. I turn on my side, just enough to watch as she walks through my door.
Beatrice Chapman is a knockout most days of the week but even more so when she’s dolled up. I watch as she toes off expensive heels, silky pink dress brushing against her thighs. Her hair’s a mess, but her makeup’s flawless, and she stares at me like she can’t quite believe what she’s seeing.
She’s also a hellhound. Brilliant preternaturals, hellhounds. Hardier than vampires, more reliable than werewolves. Shame they always reek of sulphur, but Bex hides it with her classy Parisian perfumes. I like to bring her back a bottle whenever I’m sent abroad. Always makes her smile. I’d do anything to make her smile.
Hellhounds aren’t field agents. They could be, with their enhanced senses and incredible capacity for heroics. Only problem is that their loyalty can’t be bought. If a hellhound meets someone they feel deserves their allegiance in a more specific fashion than Queen and country, it can go bad stunningly fast. I’ve seen the reports of carefully orchestrated missions deteriorating into chaos when a hellhound’s loyalty to the Crown transfers to an individual. They can’t control it — sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening. One tragic flaw in an otherwise perfect preternatural agent. Luckily, hellhounds have other skills.
Bex, my favourite hound, looks like a classy broad from an old movie, speaks with a posh accent, and writes all of MI6’s programs for them. Handiest coder this side of MIT.
“You look like shit, Bex,” I tell her, cheeky, coughing a bit on her name.
She crouches down beside me and smooths my hair out of my face. She’s still frowning, and there’s dried blood under her nails.
I grab her hand. “What happened?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” she says, gentling me into a sitting position. I breathe in, memorising the faint scent of London night, of gin and vermouth and something floral.
“You smell nice,” I say.
She huffs out a laugh, oddly brittle, and tucks my hair behind my ears. “Let me get you some water.” She vanishes into my kitchen and returns with a full glass. I drink greedily, spilling a mouthful down my front. I don’t care; neither does Bex.
Quietly, she pulls her phone out and opens AmbMag. I watch over her shoulder as it produces a series of quick readings, more in-depth than my own. MI6 used her code for the app, and she frowns as she flicks through a few extra data points.
“Ambient magic blackout,” she confirms with a soft sigh, crossing her legs and resting the phone on her exposed thigh. “That’s why you’re not healing. There’s no magic for you to draw on. Bloody lucky you revived at all, Eds.”
“Don’t feel that lucky,” I mutter, sliding sideways until I can rest my head in her lap. She lets me, carefully shifting her phone to her other knee, fingers running through my hair. I close my eyes and lift my arm up. “Look at this.”
“A preternatural seal,” Bex says. I can hear the frown in her voice.
“Only a handful of people know how to seal a phoenix,” I tell her quietly. “Other than me, I mean.”
She doesn’t say anything, just keeps rubbing her fingertips over the base of my skull. I swallow sharply, trying to breathe in her scent, trying to ignore the aching in my throat.
“You can’t remember dying,” she prompts eventually, fingers still moving. “Is there anything you do recall?”
“This evening. Or afternoon,” I start. “I was looking through the ambient magic files, looking for a pattern….”
“You think it’s case related?”
“Can’t see how it isn’t,” I say, careful not to let all the words leak out between my teeth, careful of the revelation that has started to prick in the back of my mind. “No signs of a struggle…. I would have struggled. Unless it was someone I know. Someone who knew how to draw the seal.”
“What’re you thinking?” Bex asks, still rubbing her fingers through my hair.
“I think.” I swallow against the lump in my throat, eyes squeezed shut. There’s moisture on my cheeks, and I wonder if I’m ruining Bex’s dress. “I think… there’s a reasonable chance… I did it.”
Bex tenses, entire body stiffening, but her hands never stop their ministrations. “You did it?”
“I think I carved a seal into my arm because I hoped it would make me stay dead,” I say, fast and sharp, as if I can make it sting less that way. My throat works, my eyes burn, and I don’t quite keep the sob to myself. “Bex, I don’t know…. I—”
I’m crying properly, silently, eyes leaking and nose running. I try to turn my head into the skin of her thighs, the silk of her dress, but she keeps running her fingernails along my skull, dull and comfortable, hands steady despite my shaking shoulders.
“They cleared you for duty,” she says, finally. I hear her swallow. “I read the report, Eds. They cleared you.”
“I walked into traffic,” I admit. “When I was on desk duty, I walked into traffic. I need the death, need the revival….” I laugh, bitter and a little desperate. “Dying for my country is better than dying because I can’t feel anything without it.”
“The seal’s on your right arm,” Bex says, short and sharp, as if she doesn’t want me to keep talking. Can’t say I blame her.
“So?” I ask.
“You can’t even write your name with your left hand, Eds,” she tells me. “You sure as shit didn’t carve a bloody seal into yourself with it.”
She’s right. I sit up sharply, my forehead narrowly avoiding Bex’s chin. It’s a little too fast, and my head still spins, but I scramble awkwardly to my feet and brace against the arms of the settee.
“I wasn’t alone,” I breathe out, looking wildly around my flat. “I wasn’t fucking alone.”
“You weren’t,” Bex confirms softly, still cross-legged on the floor. “Think it through, Eds. What happened?”
“Working on the case,” I repeat, reaching uncertain hands towards the pile of case files. The first one is creased and worn, older than the others, with a wine stain near one of the corners. Inside, there’s a list of known ambient blackouts and the times they occurred. Weeks ago, I’d written how long it took the magic to return in red ink beside the locations.
I flip open the file. The paper smells faintly of lilacs, and I remember Bex nursing a glass of wine as we pored over it, days and nights spent bouncing theories off one another.
Two mugs on my coffee table. Lilac perfume on my carpet. Blood under her fingernails.
“You,” I say, soft and slow, not quite prepared to look at Bex sitting on my floor. She doesn’t move, but I do, scrambling towards the gun hidden in my coffee table.
It won’t stop a hellhound. Although, without ambient magic to draw from, a bullet might slow her down a little. Enough for…. Enough for what? For me to shoot her in the head until the clip runs out?
My hands keep shaking, and I’m still crying. I can’t make myself stop.
“You carved a seal into my arm,” I accuse.
“Y-you…. Did you kill me?”
My stomach rolls.
“Ask me why,” Bex demands, still sitting on my floor, staring at me with a soft, desperate expression. “Eds, please. You need to ask me why.”
“Does it fucking matter?” I scream, shoulders shaking, gun too heavy in my hand.
“Ask. Me. Why.”
I can’t look at her, but I can’t shoot her, either. “Why?”
“Oh, thank god,” Bex breathes out, soft and reverent, mouth trembling and eyes overbright. I’m staring, taking in her expression and the way her hands shake in her lap, unable to look away even though the sight of her makes my throat ache.
I know everything about her. She’s nursed my wounds, stood guard over my body, and cooked me breakfast more times than I can count. I know the password to her phone and the way she tucks her hair behind her ears when she’s concentrating. She’s always been with me, as constant and sure as my resurrections, the most important person in my life. I know her.
Or maybe I just thought I did.
“H-how could you?” I ask softly, voice cracking in the middle. The gun wavers in my hand. “Bex, how could you?”
“Because you asked me to.” She doesn’t look away, eyes on mine. “You figured it out last night. You’re brilliant, Eds, you know? And you figured out the ambient blackouts, the whole case. Then you asked me to come over, and I thought…. But you taught me the seal.” She swallows, eyes glittery. “And then you asked me to kill you.”
“Then why didn’t you just tell me?” I snarl.
“Because,” Bex says, soft and earnest. “You asked me not to.”
“Yeah?” I say. “Since when do you do everything I ask?”
“Since about a month after we met, asshole,” she says, eyebrows knitting together. “You…. Did you not know?”
“Apparently there’s a lot I don’t fucking know!”
“Apparently,” Bex agrees softly. “Think it through, Eds. What is it you say about hounds? An unpredictable yet unwavering loyalty?”
“You didn’t,” I say, horrified, gun dropping to my side. “You didn’t.”
“I can’t help it,” she argues. “I swore allegiance to the Crown, and that was good. But then there was you and it just…. That’s just it, I suppose.”
“They’ll burn you for this,” I whisper, collapsing to my knees in front of her, gun abandoned on the coffee table. “You’ll be disavowed.”
“Currently not my biggest problem,” she says, shaking her head. “Read the file, Eds.”
Gingerly, I collect the discarded file, glancing again at the list of blackout dates, the locations, the extra marks in red. There are more additions than I remember, this time in Bex’s precise handwriting.
“I know what these are,” I say softly, carefully tracing my fingers over each one. “These…. These are my deaths.”
“And resurrections,” Bex confirms. “You figured it out last night, Eds. Each blackout corresponds to a resurrection.”
I feel sick. It must show on my face, because Bex plucks the file from my hand and wraps her arms around my neck. I try to push her off, but she refuses to be moved.
“People died,” I manage. “My resurrections…. I drained the magic. People couldn’t fucking heal themselves without it. They didn’t have their powers…. Oh my god.”
“I know,” she soothes.
“Kill me,” I demand. “I need ambient magic to revive, and it’s already all gone. There’s still a seal on my arm. Kill me, and I’ll stay dead. No more resurrections, no more blackouts.”
“I-I could make you,” I say, hating myself for it, hating the way Bex tenses against me. I claw at the silk of her dress, try to keep her with me. “Don’t make me make you, please.”
“You were gone for hours,” she says softly, uncurling my fingers from her clothes. “Hours. I kept telling myself you’d come back, that you always come back. Eds, you always come back. But then I realised maybe you weren’t, that the seal was working, that you were really gone. And… I was going to jump off a bridge.”
It hurts to swallow, hurts to breathe, and I grope for Bex’s hand.
“Then you called. Don’t make me get up on any more bridges,” she whispers.
“I won’t,” I promise weakly.
“Besides,” Bex adds. “I did some digging while I was waiting.”
“And?” I prompt, keeping our fingers laced together.
“You found the blackouts associated with your own resurrections, and they’re definitely the biggest. They last the longest, too, although I think the violence of the death might prolong each blackout.”
Bex shrugs. “They’re the biggest, Eds, but they’re not the only ones.”
“So, I don’t think you’re the only phoenix. There are others, but they use less ambient magic when they revive. There’s no overdraft, no blackout.”
“They can control it,” I breathe out. “Take what they need without draining everything.”
Bex nods. “And, if they can control it….”
“So can I.”
“Of course, we’ll have to find them,” she starts, but I’m not listening. Instead I’m staring at the tear stains on her dress, the curve of her mouth, the way she crosses her legs.
“I’m in love with you,” I blurt out. “I think.”
“I know,” Bex says. “You told me last night.”
She squeezes my hand, smiling. “Go shower. We have a lot to do.”