The morning of the apocalypse had started off so well.
Special Agent Keith Curry of NIAD had risen, showered, and gotten as far as peeling his standard-issue hard-boiled egg before the first tremors of the looming cataclysm rocked through the city.
Keith had not always been such an austere breakfaster. Before joining NIAD, he had worked as a chef. Back in those days he’d started every Sunday morning with Hangtown Fry and a Bloody Mary. Now he preferred the simplicity of the six-minute egg. For one thing, it fit easily into his pocket, which helped to facilitate caloric intake during frequent unexpected call outs.
Like many of the non-magical residents of Washington DC, he’d initially mistaken the shock waves that formed when one of the thin membranes between the human and extra-human plane of existence ruptured for some kind of earthquake or sonic boom. Maybe it had been a bomb or gas line explosion.
But unlike most of the other non-magical humans in DC, Keith worked for NIAD—Earth’s premier supernatural intelligence and security service. Because of this the tremor gave him pause. Certainly a sulfurous smell permeated in the air, which he’d initially attributed to the indeterminate age of the egg. But now, with the eye-watering potency of the stench, he began to wonder about its origin.
Keith’s ruminations were interrupted by the sight of his live-in lover, confidante and general companion, Gunther, rushing into the kitchen from his shower, soaking wet, naked and talking on his phone.
“Yes, sir. I’ve got it,” Gunther said. “I’ll be ready in five.”
Gunther cut a compelling figure—a fine specimen of humanity, tall, dark-haired and rippling with sinewy muscle. But that was only on the outside. Gunther’s parents had both been goblin refugees working in NIAD’s San Francisco office. And so that their child would fit in better among the humans, Gunther had been transmogrified in utero to outwardly resemble a human.
But the humanity only went skin deep. Gunther not only possessed the great strength of all his fey brethren, he retained certain other goblin tastes as well, such as a palate that included appreciation for the taste of naphtha.
Keith had met Guthner through NIAD when Gunther’s strike team had been called to assist on one of Keith’s cases. Doubtless, Gunther’s his team leader, Haakon, was the voice on other end of the phone giving Gunther the specifics on some supernatural situation that would naturally preclude a good breakfast for either of them.
Normally Keith would have made some pithy comment about the lost breakfast or at least teased Gunther about insisting on showering with a phone. But Gunther’s expression showed no softness or even awareness of Keith’s bathrobe-clad presence. He disconnected, went to the hall closet pulled a heavy duffel bag and plunked it down on the kitchen table.
“What’s going on?” Keith asked.
“I’ve been deployed.” Gunther unzipped the bag to reveal several hard cases that Keith knew from previous experience (and snooping) contained Gunther’s weapons. As Keith watched, Gunther uncased his automatic mage rifle, two conventional pistols and a goblin-forged short sword.
It was the sword that worried Keith most.
“Are you leaving the Earthly realm?”
“No, I’m going about five blocks away,” Gunther said. His blue eyes flashed up at Keith. “It’s bad.
Maybe the Endtimes.”
“And you’re still naked,” Keith said. “You realize that right?”
Gunther looked down at himself, said, “Darn it,” and headed for the bedroom.
Alarm zinged through Keith’s guts but he followed Gunther up the stairs at a leisurely pace, egg in one hand, coffee cup in the other. Gunther was already half-dressed by the time Keith entered their bedroom.
He downed the egg in two bites then went around to his side of the bed and found his NIAD-issue spectacles. These lenses had been designed for humans like him, who needed to be able to see extra-human creatures and events that were invisible to the human population. As soon as he did this, he noticed a strange red light filtering in through the sheer curtain that hung over the north-facing window.
Pulling this aside, he could not help but note that the clear blue sky had been rent down the center, leaving a gaping tear like a massive claw had ripped through a canvas. Beyond this he saw what appeared to be bloody flesh punctuated with dozens of blood red eyeballs the size of ocean-going freighters. These glared down at the city with the insane twitchiness of a schizophrenic on methamphetamine.
To say he wasn’t scared would be a lie. He was quite scared—so scared it took him a couple of seconds to be able to move. But Keith was not surprised. While he hadn’t expect to see the hideous, Lovecraftian assemblage of flesh and giant eyes, it didn’t fall outside the realm of possibility in his personal reality, which, in a way was more terrifiying—but not necessarily a shock.
When he could move again he took a drink of coffee and said, “Does your deployment have anything to do with the perforation of realities revealing a nightmarish hellscape hanging in the sky?”
“Haakon is sending me to get Jax.” Gunther started strapping on his body armor. “He only lives a few blocks from here.”
“Who in hell is Jax?”
“He’s the most powerful warlock on Earth.” Gunther cinched the buckle of his swordbelt. “Or that’s what Haakon says, anyway.”
“And Haakon is sending you alone?” Keith didn’t like Gunther’s commander. The dark-elf alpha-bro of the NIAD DC Strike Force rubbed him the wrong way—sometimes literally in the form of abrupt, unprovoked noogies.
“Like I said, I’m closest,” Gunther shouldered into his scabbard. Then he turned, kissed Keith hard and said, “You should stay inside. Some creatures have come through the rift.”
Keith drained the last of his coffee. “I’m coming with you. Don’t even fight me on it.”
Gunther seemed like he might do just that, then he broke into a smile. “You better get dressed then.”
Outside, the streets outside were full of screaming. First the terrified shrieks of DC residents being pursued by slavering, sharp-toothed hell-hounds, then the wailing of every conceivable siren and last the desolate howls of a thousand madmen that seemed to be emanating from the rift itself. A choking stink like foul breath poured out as well.
Viewed through the treated lenses of his NIAD issue spectacles, the DC street came alive with magic. From the tangles of leprechaun graffiti scrawled across the stoops of well-kempt row houses to the squadron of Air Force witches broomsticking toward the rift, the unseen was revealed to him. One in twenty citizens who rushed down the sidewalk sported a glamor that hid their true forms.
Keith even spotted a unicorn barreling down the center of the street, nostrils flared and eyes rolling in fear of the vile gaze hanging in the sky.
Glancing up Keith’s heart skipped a beat as he saw massive tendrils of red mist beginning to curl down from the rift like the tentacles of poison anemones. They seemed to be searching the buildings, pushing into the windows.
Further screaming seemed to be the result of this ceaseless probing.
“Do we even know what that thing is?” Keith shouted above the noise. To his left he saw a movement and trained his mage pistol on it but it turned out to be a regular dog cowering by a set of trashcans. A leash hung slack from the dog’s neck. It still had what looked like the owner’s hand attached to the guiding end, but Keith saw no trace of the rest of person in sight.
“Haakon said it was a vision made flesh,” Gunther shouted as he dodged a mutilated corpse on the sidewalk. Keith picked his way more gingerly through the blood, noting the guy had two hands, which meant he hadn’t been the owner of the dog.
Not that that mattered. Groceries lay strewn around the man’s body. A dozen eggs lay, crushed and oozing yellow yolk into the sanguine rivulets that followed the sidewalk cracks down the curb and into the gutter.
“Whose vision is this? Some crazy mage?”
“Nobody knows,” Gunther replied.
“And what’s this Jax supposed to do?”
“Fix it. That’s what NIAD pays him for.” Gunther came up short at the end of a block and motioned Keith to stillness. He gripped his sword in both hands as he carefully peered around the corner.
Instantly a snarling hell-hound leapt at him. Gunther kicked the beast in the chest and brought his sword down slicing the creature in two lengthwise. Blood sprayed up in a fine mist that coated them both in rank smelling gore. A second beast lunged for Gunthers leg, but Keith dropped it with his mage pistol. He and Gunther sidled past it as it writhed on the concrete, caged by tendrils of magic.
“Jax’s place is at the end of the block.” Gunther motioned Keith to follow.
The street was deserted but as they approached a row house Keith saw another body on the sidewalk. Oddly, this person—a middle-aged woman also seemed to have been carrying groceries when mauled. Her eggs had survived, though her head and one hand seemed to have been carried off.
Gunther took the stairs two at a time and, to Keith’s shock, rang the doorbell.
“It’s open,” a voice called from inside.
As Gunther opened the door the network of silvery spells laced across the open doorway practically blinded him, forcing him to push his NIAD issue spectacles up to be able to see anything at all.
Keith followed Guther into the darkened foyer. As he stepped across the threshold the sonic assault from the sky stopped as did the vile stench. The smell of stale sneakers replaced the odor of the rift. As his eyes adjusted, Keith could see why. The floor of the foyer was strewn with shoes, jackets and other miscellaneous clothing. Farther down the hall he could see a crumpled pile of what looked like sweat pants.
Again the voice sounded—a male voice. “The kitchen is at the end of that hall. I’ll be in the living room when it’s ready.”
Keith crept down the hallway and peered through the doorway into a darkened, disheveled room containing an armchair, a couch and a massive television set.
The room also contained a man. Handsome as a supermodel, and clad in green boxers and a single sock, Jax sprawled across the armchair as if he were an illustration for ennui. Keith had seen a lot of illusions and disguises of this sort—most magical creatures could make themselves look good. At the risk of blinding himself again, he lowered the specs and snuck a peek through. Jax’s form shimmered with magical writing, but Keith could see that Jax’s true form was merely average.
He appeared to be around twenty-five years old and fairly greasy. His expression was torpid as he watched the television, which was tuned to some cartoon Keith didn’t recognize.
“We’ve come from NIAD,” Keith flashed his ID, which Jax didn’t turn to look at. “We need your help. There’s a rupture between the planes—”
“I know, the council of mages already called me. It was right as I was trying to order my groceries,” Jax said. “Actually I called the store twice but they never arrived.”
“I think that might be because of the monsters and whatnot.” Keith tried to keep his voice calm.
“Whose fault is that? Not mine. Some undiscovered mage kid gets a Ouija board and opens up a realm of bloodletting and sorrow and suddenly I don’t get breakfast? They told me that not having blintzes is not the end of the world.” Jax gave a snort. “But I say, maybe it is.”
Keith stood, momentarily torn between horror and homicidal rage.
Gunther stepped forward. He’d sheathed his sword and actually bowed as he spoke, “Great Warlock Jax, the creatures coming through the rift are terrorizing the city we don’t have any time to waste. Lives are being lost every second.”
“Right, I get that.” Jax finally rolled his head around to look at them. “But it’s almost ten a.m. I don’t want to miss out on brunch because of this. I am really, really hungry.”
This time Keith was not torn.
“You fucking spoiled little asshole,” he bellowed, fully invoking the volume capacity he’d acquired during his previous career as a chef. “It’s an apocalypse.”
Jax rolled his eyes. “That’s what you people always say. Then I help you but after that I’m sitting here with an empty stomach while everybody else is drinking mimosas and having a great time.”
Keith strode to the window and pulled the drapes aside.
“Look out there.” As they watched a misty red tendril drooped down and slid in the one of the widows of the house opposite. For a moment the tendril oozed and undulated then an explosion of blood and body parts shot out, littering the streets with quivering chunks of flesh. “Do you see anybody drinking a mimosa?”
“I bet somebody is,” Jax replied, unperturbed. Then something caught his eye. He leaned forward and pointed to where the middle-aged woman’s body lay. “Hey, those are my groceries. Can you go grab them for me?”
Keith’s middle fingers stiffened, prepared to fully salute Jax but Gunther stepped in and said, “Of course.”
Before Keith could tell him no, Gunther had started for the door. Keith caught up with him in the hallway.
“Me being here is not a coincidence is it?” he asked.
Gunther managed a sheepish half-smile. “Haakon had orders for you to do the brunch, but I thought if I told you that you’d get mad and argue and we’d lose time we didn’t have to waste cause the sky was full of giant bleeding eyeballs. You’re the real agent they called for. I’m only your bodyguard.”
“You know me so well,” Keith remarked. He didn’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered that he’d been the real agent dispatched to this breakfast crisis.
“I know,” Gunther said, beaming. “Anyway, I’ve got to go get the groceries.”
“You can’t go out there,” Keith said, catching him by the arm. “The mist will kill you.”
“It’s our mission,” Gunther said. “I’ll get the stuff. You go find the kitchen. All we have to do is get this guy fed and everything will be alright again.” He pulled Keith to him and kissed him—this time softly, then said, “I’ll be careful.”
Then Gunther rushed out the door. He leapt down all eight stairs on the stoop and scooped up one bag.
The red mist seemed to notice Gunther then. It shivered, contracted and began to withdraw from the building to drift toward him. Gunther snatched up the second bag and stared up, but the egg carton still sat on the sidewalk.
Keith couldn’t make blintzes without them.
Heart in his throat, Keith pelted down the stairs past Gunther. The misty tendril undulated toward him and he slid beneath it like a baseball player stealing home plate. As it passed by distorted whispers filled his ears, striking cold terror down to his bones. He had to clench his teeth together to keep from screaming. He grabbed the egg carton and crawled beneath the deadly tendril then scrambled up the stairs into the safely of Jax’s foyer.
His hands shook as he stood, trying to gasp in a calming breath.
Gunther slammed the door, breathing hard, then started to pull Keith into an embrace.
Keith held up a warning hand. “Don’t crush the eggs. They’re all that stands between us and Armageddon.”
As he heard the sound of Jax laughing at whatever cartoon he was watching Keith’s resolve solidified. NIAD needed some blintzes made and Keith was the best man for it. He might not be great with a sword, but right now what the agency needed was a whisk and a guy with the expertise to make breakfast for the laziest motherfucker on Earth.
He pushed past Gunther and made it to the cramped, galley style kitchen. Though dark and poorly equipped, Keith found the items he needed—a bowl, a nonstick skillet and a fork that would have to do for a whisk. As Keith cracked the eggs and measured the milk, Guther stood in the doorway watching uneasily.
Through the small kitchen window, Keith watched a tendril of red mist waving back and forth like the tail of an angry cat. He wondered how long Jax’s magic could hold out before an entire—what had he called it—realm of bloodletting and sorrow—managed to break through the defensive barrier.
Keith set the batter aside, turned on the oven to preheat and went to make the cheese filling. The plastic container of ricotta cheese was smeared with blood and had two puncture marks on one side that looked like they’d been made by fangs.
Normally, Keith would have shied away from serving anything that had clearly been impaled on the canines of a ravening hell-hound but he decided that, on the whole, a little extra-planar dog spit could not possibly hurt the most powerful warlock on Earth.
With the slightly pinkish filling made Keith stood back, crossed his arms and waited.
“Is something wrong?” Gunther asked from the doorway.
“That’s a loaded question,” Keith replied.
“You stopped cooking.” Gunther’s face crumpled into a confused scowl.
“No I haven’t. The batter just needs to rest for thirty minutes,” Keith said. Through the tiny window outside, Keith watched the building behind them collapse. Though he heard no sound, he felt the ground rumble as the falling structure impacted the ground.
“Can’t you just hurry it up?” Gunther whispered—really more of a hiss.
“The crepes won’t set up if I don’t let the batter rest.”
“Are you kidding me?” Gunther cast a wild glance out the window.
“No joke.” Keith was about to explain about how resting the batter helped to develop the gluten in the flour, but Gunther’s phone rang. While Gunther whispered down the phone about mimosas and hell-hounds Keith turned his attention back to the window.
Now that the building behind them was gone he could see that most of the city was now engulfed in flames, which seemed odd, considering that he could still hear the sound of cartoons floating from the living room. Was Jax watching a recording? If so, why had he kept the commercials?
More than that the preheating light on the stove was on, which he felt it shouldn’t be, given their circumstances. As Gunther continued his intense conversation, Keith studied the edge of Jax’s property. It seemed he could see a distortion there like a ripple in an old glass window.
He walked back down the hall to the front door and found he could see the same distortion in the front of the building. He also noted that the asphalt outside had crumbled away to reveal a chasm that seemed to be bubbling a glowing, amoeba-like slime. The slime contained still more eyeballs.
He returned to the kitchen and said, “I think we’re in some kind of alternate reality bubble.”
Gunther shot him a look comprised equally of outrage and confusion. He placed his hand over the receiver and said, “What?”
“We’re in a different space or something. The lights still work.” Keith flipped them on and off. “I think that dickhole Jax has put us into some kind of protective bubble until he gets his breakfast made.”
“So I think we can wait the half an hour to get it done right.”
“I sincerely hope that you are right,” Gunther said. “Because I just heard Haakon die.” Gunther’s hand shook a little.
Keith reached out to squeeze Gunther’s fingers. “It’s okay baby. I’m going to make it right again. Or rather I’m going to make that big dumb asshole in the living room breakfast and then he’s going to make it right again.”
They stood in silence for the next, agonizing ten minutes watching as the world outside, the very sky was devoured. Keith fought to be calm. There were only nine minutes left to go, then he could make the food. All the while his thoughts raced and roiled with agitation against the magical beings of the world.
“How fucking unjust is it that the fate of everyone in the world should be decided this way? By one really short-sighted guy?” Keith whispered.
“Sometimes life’s just not fair like that,” Gunther responded. “Once this is all over we’ll file a complaint.”
“Against who? Life?” Keith demanded. “And what if it doesn’t work? How can this be made right?”
“Let’s just finish our mission here,” Guther said. “And then we’ll see what happens.”
Finally, the timer on Keith’s phone pinged and he made six crepes, assembled them into blintzes and baked them an additional ten minutes while the filling set. After this, he transferred them onto a warmed plate and went to deliver them to Jax, who had fallen into a light doze.
It took all Keith’s self control not to break the plate over the man’s head. He nudged the most powerful warlock in the world in the shoulder instead.
Jax’s eyes fluttered open. “Oh wow, that smells great. Thank you.” He took the plate and dug in.
With each bite Jax took, Keith could see the light from the window growing less red. He glanced back to Gunther who moved forward to the front window and pulled the curtain aside. Keith went to join him. As they watched, the eyeball-filled slime had begun to reverse—not withdraw, but actually reverse. The collapsed street sprang back up from the depths and reassembled itself. The neighbor who had been blown apart came back together.
The hounds that had attacked the grocery delivery woman at the door arrived, put her savaged body back together, and retreated down the street.
Jax was reversing time.
He showed no sign of strain or even interest in anything but his breakfast. Yet clearly he had the godlike ability to make the world’s clock run backward.
Keith’s mind boggled at this insane notion—but it could be nothing but true. As Jax finished the last bite the rupture in the sky healed itself and the morning stood as pure and blue and true as Keith remembered it being before hell descended upon him.
Jax held out his clean plate and Keith took it without a word. Then the most powerful warlock on Earth spoke.
“You’ll be wanting to find Emily Parker of Wilmington, Delaware,” Jax said, resettling himself in his chair. “She’s sixteen years old today and will surreptitiously open up one of her birthday presents in about half an hour. Somebody needs to take that Ouija board away from her and get her into mage training cause otherwise that girl is going to do some damage, am I right?”
Gunther was on his phone before Keith could even finish saying, “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“No problem,” Jax said. Then, more thoughtfully, “You know it’s always the ambitious ones who fuck everything up.”
“This Parker kid—she’s probably been listening to some extra-planar spirit whose been telling her about how she’s the Chosen One who can bring peace to the planet or claim rightful dominion over the Earth or some such shit. When you’ve got power like that they start on you young—trying to convince you to create a rift between the planes for them.” Jax paused to open a small wooden box in front of him. It became clear to Keith after a couple of seconds that this was where he kept his weed. As he packed the bowl of a small glass pipe, he continued his rumination, “I was really lucky to have my Grandma.”
“She started raising me after my Dad got himself and Mom turned inside out while trying to claim dominion over the Earth.”
“That’s terrible,” Keith said. “Your parent’s death, I mean.”
“Well, it was the Eighties so megalomania was really popular. Or at least that’s what Grandma said. She sat me down and told me about all the men in my line who had had these big ideas who just ended up getting themselves killed because they couldn’t be happy with a normal life.” Jax paused to take a long drag off his pipe. He then silently offered it to Keith, who demurred.
“I’m still technically on the clock right now,” Keith explained.
Jax nodded, shrugged then let out the smoke in a long plume and said, “What was I talking about?”
“Being happy with a normal life?” Keith supplied.
“Oh, right. Now if I want to try and become god-king of the planet I just go play a video game or something like a normal person,” Jax said. “Anyway, the time distortion is stable now so you and your partner should be able to re-enter your natural time-stream without too much of a problem.”
“But so how does that work? If the girl is stopped we never come here in the first place.” Keith said.
Jax chuckled, “It’ll be all right. There are all kinds of little cul-de-sacs in the time-stream when you leave my house you’ll just return to where you were half an hour before the shit started happening. If you remember coming here at all it will seem as if it were a dream.”
“More like a nightmare,” Keith muttered.
“Whichever,” Jax replied, with great equanimity.
From across the room Gunther said, “I’ve finished filing our verbal report. They’re given us permission to withdraw.”
Standing alone in the kitchen of his Georgetown townhouse, Special Agent Keith Curry pondered his breakfast. He held in his hand a carton of eggs, which he had been about to choose a victim to hard-boil as was his habit.
But suddenly—he didn’t know if it was gratitude toward the unexpected beauty of the morning or just a Sunday whim, but the perfunctory breakfast seem inadequate.
He walked into the bathroom, where Gunther, his live-in lover and all-around sweetheart, stood in the shower, humming some goblin song as he soaped.
“I’m going to run to the store and get stuff to make blintzes,” he said.
“That sounds great,” Gunther replied. “I was just thinking that with our schedules, we’d been missing out on brunch recently.”