Alyssa shoveled spoonful after spoonful of warm porridge into her mouth. After two weeks of living off nothing but stale bread and the occasional soupy stew at villages, having something with a bit more sustenance than water was almost making her drool. She could understand Yzhemal’s complaints about her attitude toward good food much better now.
Once again, Alyssa had her back to a wall, seated in a corner of the inn’s dining area underneath the second floor balcony where she could watch both entrances to the room. As it turned out, Cid and Bacco had not been leading her to an ambush. Neither had she been murdered in her sleep—though said sleep had hardly been satisfying with how she had kept one eye open all night. It was a dingy little place with tiny rooms. She had thought Yzhemal’s inn had been a bit filthy, but compared to this place, his inn was fit for kings. At least it had individual rooms. None of the villages she had stayed in on the way to Lyria had offered her any privacy. There was a larger communal room here, but Alyssa had shilled out the extra coins in the name of isolation.
As a larger man ducked through the main entrance, Alyssa slowed her eating. Bacco stood up straight and glanced around the room until he spotted her. With a nervous lick of his lips, he walked over and carefully sat in the seat on the other side of the table. The wood creaked, but held firm despite his weight.
“I take it you’re here for the cloak?” Alyssa asked as she set down the wooden spoon. “I’ll not go back on my word, but I would prefer to finish my meal first.” Her backpack was actually on the floor right next to her. There was no way that she was going to leave it in her room where anyone could wander in and loot it. At the same time, she wasn’t about to pull the cloak out in such a public room.
“Actually, Cid has some people to speak with and some arrangements to make first. Moving such a sensitive article requires preparation and care. He would prefer if you keep it for now.”
Alyssa frowned at the larger man. It might all be a bluff, but the more she heard about it, the less she wanted it. Aziz really had dropped a bomb on her. There probably hadn’t been any ill intent behind the gift. Maybe he had thought that she wouldn’t leave Teneville much. After finding out—incorrectly—that she was an arcanist, he probably had figured that it wouldn’t be an issue for her to have. Obviously that wasn’t so. “That wasn’t the agreement.” Alyssa pressed her lips together. “You were to take it off my hands last night. If I am to keep it, I expect compensation.”
“That can be arranged.” His response came quick and snappy. Was that sweat beading on his forehead? Whatever he thought she was really worked as an advantage to her. Her funds were practically gone. She only had a few of the bronze bars left. Getting a few silver pieces for this cloak would make it not a complete waste, even if it was worth several gold.
Nodding, Alyssa picked up her spoon. But Bacco just sat there and stared. It was a bit awkward being the only one eating. Especially while being stared at. “Was there something else you needed?”
“What are you planning on doing in the city?”
Alyssa quirked her head and considered telling him to mind his own business. But was there really much harm in telling him? She might be able to get some information. “I require magical knowledge. I heard there was some sort of academy here.”
“Surely you believe in it.” Alyssa started to reach for her pack. “If you need a demonstration…”
“No!” He rocked back in his seat. The wood couldn’t take it. Both of the back legs cracked and snapped, sending him to the floor in a pile of splinters.
“Bacco!” the innkeeper bellowed from behind the counter. “I’ve warned you! I’ve told you time and time again not to sit your lard-ass in my chairs!”
Bacco stood, frantically brushing wood off his clothes. “Sorry,” he called back, though his wide eyes never left Alyssa.
Who simply ate a spoonful of porridge, shrugging her shoulders. “If it calms you at all, I’m just looking for books on travel magic. Something to get me back home. You help me and I’ll be gone before you know it.”
That did seem to work. He let out a great sigh as he bent to tidy up the mess of a chair. But the moment Alyssa spoke, she started to reconsider. Her original reason for coming to Lyria was to find magic that would get her back to her world. Back to Earth. Back to her real home and her family. But Iosefael… There was an angel just waiting for her to return. One who, while not explicitly saying that she would try to kill Alyssa, had definitely not denied the notion.
Expanding her magical search to encompass defensive and offensive magic might be necessary. Would she even be able to use magic back on her Earth? Alyssa leaned back in her chair, idly stirring the remaining porridge. The library at the academy might not even have books on any angels. Tenebrael was more of a god to these people than what she commonly understood an angel to be. Researching angels might well be sacrilege.
But it sounded like something she needed to do before returning home.
Still, if she could acquire a way home, that didn’t mean that she had to use it right away. She had a whole list of things she needed to learn, apparently, but the order probably didn’t matter too much. At least so long as neither Tenebrael nor Iosefael came after her anytime soon. Alyssa hummed to herself for a moment. Maybe there was a priority order to her list. She needed to sit down and actually write out a list, but magic to defend herself against angels might be much higher on it for the time being.
Oh well. No need to tell Bacco that. He was worried enough as it was. About what, exactly, Alyssa still didn’t know. She couldn’t exactly ask without revealing her ignorance and possibly ruining everything. No. Best to keep him afraid for now. She wasn’t as sure that Cid was quite so afraid, but so long as she got help from one of them, it didn’t matter much. Hopefully the cloak, even with a few silver taken out for her, would keep him happy enough to leave her alone.
Alyssa picked up her spoon, but hesitated as a twisting knot formed in her stomach. A black feather rested just on top of her porridge. She dropped her spoon and grabbed her shotgun from where it leaned against her backpack, flicking the safety off as she scanned the room.
Bacco was still brushing himself off. The innkeeper stood behind the counter, glaring at him as someone else stepped up to make an order or request lodgings. A pair of shady types were seated in a different corner of the room, hunched over their table. A man with bandages wrapped around his head and covering one of his eyes ate from a similar bowl of porridge. A burly woman was half in the front door.
They all had one thing in common.
None of them were moving. They were frozen. Even splinters shaken from Bacco’s pants were floating in the air, still and ignoring gravity. The two at the table had their mouths open as if they were in the middle of conversation, but their lips and tongues were locked in place. The woman at the door had one of her feet up in the air. She should be toppling forward, or at least following through with her step, but she wasn’t.
Moving around the table, Alyssa paused in front of Bacco. She reached out and poked a finger right into his shoulder. It didn’t give at all. She might as well be poking a marble statue. He didn’t even give off any heat, though he wasn’t exactly cold to the touch either. Trying the same thing on one of the hovering splinters, Alyssa found that she could pluck one out of the air and move it around. Letting it go, it fell for a few inches before slowing to a standstill without hitting anything.
Alyssa jumped at the sound of her own name. She whipped around, nestling the butt of her shotgun in her shoulder as she aimed up.
There she was. That monochrome angel sat on the narrow wooden railing of the balcony, one leg crossed over the other. She had her chin resting on her curled knuckles as she stared down at Alyssa with those luminescent white eyes. Her black wings were spread out behind her, looking far larger than they had back in her room as they filled up almost all the available space of the balcony.
“Tenebrael,” Alyssa said through grit teeth.
“Wha,” Tenebrael said, mock flinching back. “So hostile! You really should be thanking me, you know? You were supposed to have died that night. If it hadn’t been for me messing things up, you would have. Now look at you! You’re living and doing well. How are you liking my world?”
“Could use more toilets. Proper toilets. And plumbing. And food. Modern conveniences.” Alyssa let out a small sigh as she lowered her gun. She doubted it would help against an angel. Tenebrael had apparently stopped time just to have this little conversation. What could a shotgun do to that?
“Yes, yes.” Tenebrael waved a dismissive hand. “Spoiled city girl has to rough it out a bit. Of course, I ensured you would have all your modern amenities back at your house. Which you’re quite far from.”
“Here to drag me back?”
“No! Not at all. You’re out here, messing things up in my world just like I did to your life. Or your death, as the case was.” She reached behind her and pulled out a familiar little book, though this one had a black ribbon placeholder rather than the golden one Alyssa had seen before. “This holds a record of everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen in my world. But it is wrong. Two people are alive who should have died and one person has died when he shouldn’t have. And that’s just death-related matters. There are all kinds of minor nuances that are not flowing as they should. Do you know when the first discrepancy occurred?”
“Probably shortly after I… after you brought me here.” Alyssa pressed her lips together. Was she about to be whisked off somewhere without people? Where she couldn’t ‘mess’ things up? “Am I supposed to apologize? Because I won’t.”
The angel let out a melodic burst of laughter. “No. Not at all. Do you know how long I’ve been trying to make this book wrong? It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how hard I try to avert the ending, my actions or inactions always lead to it coming true. But you, in just a few short days, you have already sent it off the rails, so to speak. Unfortunately, it was not without cost. Earth is… Well, I think I’m getting things back in order. It definitely isn’t easy.”
Alyssa was fairly certain that she was missing some context, but… “If you want the book messed up, why are you trying to get things back in order?”
“This planet,” Tenebrael said, sweeping her arms around, “is mine. Earth is not. I can cloak most of my actions here. Earth? Not so much. I’d rather not bring the Concord of Angels down on me. This world would likely be destroyed, me along with it.”
For just a moment, Alyssa had felt a moment of hope. If she could bring Tenebrael to the attention of this concord, perhaps they could get her out of here. But that hope snuffed out as Tenebrael continued talking. Destroying the world was a high price to pay. ‘Messed up’ or not, people lived here. Lots of people. Besides that, Iosefael wanted her dead. Who was to say that the other angels would be any different.
Alyssa blinked. Was that a problem? Would it become a problem? “You, uh, don’t happen to know any angels by the name of Iosefael, do you?”
“Principality Iosefael?” Tenebrael tipped her ear to her shoulder. “How do you know her?”
“She showed up shortly after the festival, tried to take me home, failed several times, then started complaining about the state of this world.”
Tenebrael slipped off the balcony railing, gliding gracefully through the air until she reached the ground, landing lightly on her feet. Her wings folded up behind her, somehow forcing a full room’s wingspan into a person-sized space. “She appeared here?” the demon angel asked as she walked closer to Alyssa.
Alyssa couldn’t help but clutch her shotgun a little tighter even knowing that it wouldn’t help at all. The way Tenebrael’s glowing white eyes searched her over sent shivers all down her arms. “My home, actually.”
Humming a serious yet still somehow musical tune, Tenebrael rubbed at her chin. “Iose and I are old friends, but she panics easily. Maybe I should go talk to her before she does anything foolish.” She nodded to herself. “Yes. You keep doing what you’re doing. I need to find Iosefael and keep putting Earth back into its proper state. Don’t die now! You’re my new experiment. We’ll see how the book adapts to you, if it can recover at all!” Tenebrael spun on her heel.
“Wait!” Alyssa reached out to grab her shoulder, but ended up with a fistful of black feathers as Tenebrael exploded in a flurry.
Great. Just great. Truthfully, she hadn’t known what she wanted Tenebrael to wait for. More discussion? Maybe a little more information about her world or angels? Either way, it didn’t matter now. The angel was gone and Alyssa had no way of calling her back. She just stared at the empty space in front of her as hundreds more feathers fell around the room. They disappeared one by one as they touched something. The ones in her hand stayed behind, however. Would they be useful? She knew it was possible to create magical artifacts and that said artifacts needed parts of monsters or other magical entities, but Aziz’s book hadn’t gone too deep into the details. It was more focused on why he couldn’t cast a simple light spell.
A high pitched squeal interrupted her musings. Bacco stumbled backward, knocking over the table and her mostly eaten bowl of porridge with it. All the while, his wide eyes never left her.
“Bacco!” the innkeeper shouted again. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing, naturally this time rather than supernaturally, and stared.
This time, he didn’t even shout an apology back. He clutched at his chest, breathing in and out with great heaves. Alyssa hoped he wasn’t having a heart attack. From his position, it looked like she had teleported right behind him. It would technically be Tenebrael’s fault, but she would still feel a little guilty. Luckily, he seemed to be getting his breathing under control. He closed his eyes, breathed deep through his nose, held it a moment, then let it out through his mouth.
“Are you alright?”
He rapidly nodded his head without saying a word. Alyssa gave him another moment or two before holding out her hand.
Seeing that he was calming down, Alyssa actually felt like laughing a little. He was twice her size. At least! Probably more. And he had gotten so scared. Though, thinking about it a moment more, she probably would have been the same had their positions been reversed. And knowing what a gun was would only make the situation worse, though Bacco didn’t know.
Still, she couldn’t laugh. She still had an act to maintain in front of him.
“Do you see anything here?”
Opening his eyes, he looked over Alyssa’s face for a moment before flicking his gaze to her hand. “Bunch of feathers?” he said.
“Huh. Interesting.” So Tenebrael was invisible and her feathers vanished when they interacted with something, but the ones she had touched could be seen. If she touched Tenebrael and time wasn’t stopped, would people be able to see the angel? Maybe something to test.
For the time being, she walked around the toppled table, ignoring the spilled food, and carefully placed the feathers into one of the side pockets of her backpack. With a suppressed groan, she hefted up the pack and strapped herself in. Really, she needed to find a place where she could store her gear and not be worried about it being stolen. Maybe magic could turn it invisible or something. Or weightless, that would be nice. For now though, it was early morning and she had a full day to explore the city.
She paused to stare at the remnants of her porridge. She had eaten most of it and wasn’t too hungry anymore, but it was still a waste. “You’re going to pay me back for that meal, right?”
“Of course,” he said instantly.
“Good. But now, I might take you up on that tour.”