Touching Tenebrael caught the demonic angel’s attention. Her pure white eyes met Alyssa’s. “My my, Alyssa Meadows! What are you doing here?”
Alyssa didn’t answer. Not here. The angel didn’t stop time and she didn’t want to look insane in front of the captain of the guard if at all possible. Just grabbing hold of Tenebrael was bad enough. To anyone else, it might look like she was cupping her hand, but Alyssa could feel the radiance underneath her fingertips as she tightened her hold.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Captain Oxart. And I’m sorry for intruding on your hospital. Let’s leave them in peace, Kasita.”
While Alyssa had been speaking, Tenebrael had been eating. She wouldn’t have felt very guilty about dragging the angel away even had she not, but Tenebrael was less likely to complain now. In fact, she didn’t say a single word, merely content to allow herself to be pulled past Oxart and out of the hospital.
Alyssa paused, but she didn’t turn even when Oxart walked up inside Tenebrael. Of course, the captain didn’t notice. She kept her hands to herself, but leaned in close. “Could your people have saved that man?”
“Today? I doubt it. A week ago? As I said, my profession was lumber hauling. But I’d like to think he would have had a chance.” Alyssa waited, but the captain didn’t say anything else. “If you would like to speak more, I am staying with Tzheitza. Just ask her if Alyssa is around. Though again, I was not a medical professional. I don’t know how much help I could truly be.”
When Oxart didn’t say anything more, Alyssa started moving. She half expected to be stopped again. But she wasn’t. Oxart turned back to the hospital and disappeared inside.
Hand still around Tenebrael’s wrist and with Kasita at her side, Alyssa headed directly away from the barracks. She tried to look unrushed, like she wasn’t fleeing from the hospital, to anyone who might have been watching her. At the same time, she wanted to get to privacy as soon as possible before Tenebrael stopped humoring her antics.
Something that happened far sooner than Alyssa had expected. She did make it a distance away from the barracks, but Tenebrael stopped moving right in the middle of a street. Alyssa had been about to head down between two homes. But Tenebrael didn’t budge.
“Taking me down a dark alley? Not sure I’m comfortable with that, Alyssa. Bad things happen in alleys. Haven’t you learned that yet?”
The street Tenebrael had stopped in wasn’t extremely busy. It wasn’t a market street. There weren’t any shops at all. The buildings were all residential. Probably homes of the guards that didn’t live in the barracks. Several people were out on the street. One man sat on a chair just outside his front door, plucking at the strings of some kind of harp-lute-hybrid instrument. A woman hung up garments on a clothesline a little further down. A small group loitered not far away, talking quietly. Not everyone looked like they were soldiers, but at least half of the people on the street had the right build. And some of them were looking down at Alyssa and Kasita, probably wondering why they had stopped right in the middle of the road.
“Can you please stop time? Or just take us someplace where we won’t be overheard?” With Kasita here, Alyssa would at least not be talking to herself. People might think it strange that she stopped in the middle of the road to talk to someone who wasn’t doing all that much talking back. If they actually heard what Alyssa wanted to say, things could get far more dicey.
Irulon’s little Alternate Visage spell would have been handy right about now.
“Us? You mean the two of us? Or are you including this relic?”
Alyssa frowned as she glanced at Kasita. Relic? It didn’t matter. “She knows who I’m talking to. Take that as you will.”
The black feathers behind Tenebrael’s back ruffled. “You told her who I am?”
“Was I not supposed to? Maybe you could have stopped by and mentioned that instead of disappearing completely for a week. I tried to contact you, you know? I tried the Message spell. I tried calling out to you. I tried—” Alyssa clamped her mouth shut, pinching her eyes closed. “I tried praying to you. And just admitting that tastes like ash in my mouth.”
“I try not to answer too many prayers. It breeds dependency. Besides, I believe I told you, if you—”
“—ever want to chat, just shoot someone?” Alyssa scoffed. “Are you planning on rescuing me from the palace dungeons every time I want to tell you something?”
“Don’t get caught. Or pick targets that won’t get you locked up.”
Alyssa ground her teeth together. “I tried that. Didn’t take. Apparently they have magic here that makes my bullets bounce back and hit me.”
The angel shrugged, looking bored. Although her eyes were essentially all one color, glowing white, it was still plainly obvious when she rolled them. She clapped her free hand right on Alyssa’s wounded shoulder, eliciting a wince. “Alyssa Meadows. You aren’t going to be a very effective reaper if you don’t broaden your methods of inflicting death.”
Opening her mouth to shout at the stupid angel didn’t last long. Alyssa clamped her jaw shut hard enough to rattle her teeth, wincing in a grimace as Tenebrael gave her shoulder a light squeeze. For a moment, she just stared into those glowing eyes, not trusting any words to come out of her mouth at a reasonable volume. To the side, Kasita shifted, staring at the spot where Tenebrael was. But Alyssa didn’t focus on the mimic. Even with her hand around Tenebrael’s wrist, she worried that the angel would disappear the moment she slipped out of sight.
Which meant that she should focus on other matters first. Taking in a calming breath, Alyssa said, “Can you please return my phone? Preferably with the upgrades I requested when we met last week?”
Tenebrael removed her hand from Alyssa’s shoulder and reached behind her back. The moment her fingers burrowed into the tufts of feathers, Kasita jerked. The mimic’s head twitched like she was having a seizure of her own. It only lasted a second, but the violence of her twitch made it all the more notable. Not that Tenebrael appeared to notice. Her fingers came back holding the glossy glass surface of Alyssa’s phone.
“It cannot be destroyed through normal means, both mundane and magical. Calling to it will draw it to your hand should you lose it. Its functions will work anywhere, not just in proximity to your home. And, to keep it from being useless in a day, it will maintain its charge for the next two hundred ninety-two billion, two hundred seventy-seven million, twenty-six thousand, five hundred ninety-six years. Give or take.”
“That… sounds like an awfully arbitrary number.”
“Should my plan succeed, I’ll make it last longer. Should my plan fail, I doubt it will matter much longer than that.”
“Uh huh. Well, I can’t say that I was planning on using it for even a hundred years, so I think that is more than enough.” Unable to reach forward with her broken arm, Alyssa had to release Tenebrael’s wrist. She did. And she snapped her hand up as fast as she could to snatch the phone.
But Tenebrael was faster. She pulled the phone back without moving the rest of her, waving it back and forth with a smile on her face. “I will only give you this phone if you do one little, tiny, itty-bitty favor for me.”
“A deal with the devil,” Alyssa said, pressing her lips into a thin line.
“Please. No need to be so melodramatic. I don’t know why you hate me so, it’s really upsetting. And after all I’ve done for you. Saving your life the least among my many graces.”
Alyssa just scoffed at the angel’s pouting face.
“Besides, my elder brother would have offered it up for free with a smile on his face. You would have accepted it with an equally large smile, completely unaware about the absurdly complex chain of events accepting it would have set into motion that, in the slight chance that his plan succeeds, would probably lead to your utter ruination. Or everyone else’s.” Her face turned serious for a brief moment. “If you don’t trust anything else I’ve said, trust this: Don’t make deals with demons. It won’t turn out well for you or for anyone around you.”
“He’s real too then? I guess I’m not surprised. Then the plague?”
“His doing. Because this world is technically still in the Age of Legends, he has more power here than what you might be familiar with. Like me, he has rules he has to follow. Unlike me, he has had the entirety of existence to discover loopholes and workarounds. Like I said, don’t trifle with demons.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Well, it seemed as if Tzheitza was right. Humans hated demons. Monsters hated demons too, according to Kasita. And even Tenebrael didn’t like them. Any one of them on their own and Alyssa would have taken their advice with a grain of salt. Especially the latter of the three. But all of them agreeing meant that demons were bad news.
And the devil himself was real. Alyssa didn’t know what to think about that at all. It wasn’t surprising, not after having encountered Tenebrael and Iosefael, but confirmation was almost a little unnerving. Except… Tzheitza had called the leader of the demons, one of the original Monster Lords, Her. Just how did that figure into the story?
Alyssa opened her mouth to ask, but hesitated. Tenebrael still held her phone between two fingers, letting it swing lightly in the air. The longer she got distracted, the more likely some cruel twist of the universe would keep that phone out of her hands. Either someone would walk up wondering why twins were loitering around and Tenebrael would slip away during the distraction or maybe some other angel would appear to attack Tenebrael, sending her off on another city-destroying romp.
“What is this favor?” If there was time for questions after she got her phone back, she could ask about Her, the First City, and whatever else came to mind. For now, she had a goal and she needed to not get distracted until she had that goal in hand.
“It’s an experiment of sorts. We know your autonomous actions defy the predictions of my book. We know that you asking me questions and then acting on the knowledge mildly alters the predictions. Now, I want to know if ordering you to do something contrary to the book will succeed or whether the book has taken into account me ordering you around.”
“I’m not going to go shoot some random person who isn’t even dying.”
“Yes, I am well aware of your disinclinations. I am not here to torment you, regardless of your feelings on me—You know, I’ve done nothing but help you. I don’t know why—”
Alyssa could not help the scoff. “You mean aside from giving the thief divine inspiration to kill me?”
“That was before we got to know each other, you can hardly hold that against me.”
“I can and I do. But please, I want my phone back so try to keep focused.”
Tenebrael’s eyes flicked over to the phone. A black fingernail ran across the smooth glass, bringing it to life. An image appeared on the front screen of someone. A familiar someone. She had darker skin, straight black hair, violet eyes, and a tattoo around one of them matching the markings around Tenebrael’s eyes.
“I believe you are acquainted with the princess of this city, Irulon.”
“I am absolutely not killing her. I don’t think I could even if I wanted to.” Although it had been a while, those attempts on Irulon’s life during Fractal Mirror were still burned into Alyssa’s mind.
Tenebrael’s black fingernail swiped across the phone’s surface again. Irulon’s face stayed where it was, but a clock appeared over top.
Not a clock. The numbers were counting down.
Alyssa’s eyes widened, feeling a wave of nausea as her stomach dropped out from under her. “What… is this? Is it what I think it is?”
In response, Tenebrael reached behind her again and pulled out her book. Once again, Kasita shuddered, but Alyssa’s eyes were locked on the little black notebook. Tenebrael flipped it open and held it out for Alyssa to see. The words were the nonsense runes that adorned money and spell cards. Nothing Alyssa could understand.
“In twelve and a half-ish hours, I am to collect Irulon’s soul and deliver it to the Throne for processing. Obviously, I am not delivering anything to the Throne regardless of the outcome here. More relevant to you: Save her life. Or try to, anyway.”
Alyssa didn’t know what to say. It was true. It had to be. There would be no point in telling her to protect the life of someone who wasn’t going to die. Of all the people in this world, Alyssa doubted that anyone was more qualified to tell when people were going to die than Tenebrael. But the more she thought about it, the more she found her blood boiling. “What were you going to do if I hadn’t come to find you? Were you going to show up later tonight? Why didn’t you tell me last week!”
The angel just shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care if this particular mortal survives or perishes. Her impending death is merely a convenient happenstance for this test. Of course, failing this test is not conclusive. Even if you try your best, accidents can still happen. But if you succeed…”
With ground teeth, Alyssa snatched her phone from the angel’s fingers. Tenebrael let her grab it this time. She looked down, just staring at the timer counting the seconds to Irulon’s death. “How? Where? Why? Tell me everything.”
“Let me think… No.”
“What do you mean by that? Do you want me to save her or not?”
“We already know that you asking me for information can be used to alter established events. This experiment is to determine whether me telling you information allows you to take actions needed, or if the book has already considered my actions beforehand, as it usually does, and has taken them into account in its predictions. All you need to know is that this is a preventable death, not something like an aneurysm rupturing in her brain.” Tenebrael smiled and took a step back before Alyssa could even process what she had said. “Good luck! I suppose we’ll speak again in twelve hours.”
Feathers exploded outward, rushing over Alyssa. She flinched back, covering her face to keep them from getting in her eyes. Though it didn’t matter. None of the feathers even hit her hand. When the last of the feathers disappeared, Tenebrael was nowhere to be seen. Only Kasita was left, standing just to the side of where the angel had been. Her face was twisted into a grimace of pain, looking like she had just slammed her toe into the corner of a coffee table.
Alyssa almost started sprinting off, intending to tell Kasita what had happened as she moved, but hesitated. During the conversation with Tenebrael, Kasita had been almost unnaturally silent. She hadn’t giggled, she hadn’t said a word, she had barely moved. The only movements she had made were more like seizures than intentional or subconscious shifting of her weight. “Are you alright?”
Kasita didn’t answer right away. Her eyes weren’t focused on Alyssa, but rather the empty spot where Tenebrael had stood only a few moments before. “Mimics don’t see things the way I understand other races do. While in a form with eyes, I can see. At least, I think I can. But that isn’t how I usually perceive the world around me. We have an innate sense of everything around us. People, teacups, dirt. I could stand on a beach and tell you how many grains of sand there are. But… Tenebrael, if it truly was her, is different. It’s more like… there’s a shadow there. Like… you can determine that something exists without seeing it because you can see the shadow it casts… except nothing casts a shadow to my normal senses. It’s a very unnerving sensation.”
“You were fine the night of the attack.”
“It was unnerving then too. But something happened this time that didn’t happen back then.” Her eyes flicked down to the phone in Alyssa’s hand. “That thing. I don’t know what it is, but it is incredibly complex. Its walls are thin enough that I can get a vague glimpse of its insides. Many, many tiny little pieces all put together, clearly designed to do something. I can’t tell what. Even with all its complexity on the interior and its unknown function, it’s nothing I can’t wrap my head around. The way it appeared… I don’t know that I could describe it as painful, but things don’t just appear out of nothing. Even the other day, when you followed me into those dungeons, I could feel you shifting around outside before you appeared in the cell room. It’s hard to describe, but I could tell you were going to appear just before you appeared because I knew where you were… if that makes any kind of sense at all.”
Not really, Alyssa thought, but didn’t interrupt. The way Kasita spoke was not her usual talking voice. It was almost like she was in some sort of daze, describing her experience without really experiencing it. She didn’t carry any conviction or emotion in her words.
“I don’t know how that thing exists. One moment, there was nothing there but the shadow of Tenebrael. Then it appeared, but it was a shadow like her until you grabbed it. Once it became a shadow, it wasn’t too strange. Almost like you in the dungeons. Then she did it again, appearing a book, I think it was, out of her shadows.”
“It was a book. A little black notebook that apparently tells the future.” Alyssa pressed her lips together and reached out, resting her hand on Kasita’s shoulder in some attempt to comfort her. She winced in preparation, expecting the burns on her hand to at least itch, but she didn’t feel anything at all. Actually looking at her hand, there wasn’t a sign of the burns. Glancing down at her shoulder, she didn’t feel much there either, though it was covered by her shirt. As a test, she tried stretching out her broken arm for the first time in two days.
Everything felt completely normal.
“What a bitch,” she whispered under her breath.
“Ufu~ Something wrong?”
Alyssa blinked. Right. Kasita. “Sorry. Not you. I just realized that Tenebrael healed me.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“If it were anyone else, maybe. But that stupid angel… Ugh. If she had meant it as a kind gesture, maybe. But I doubt that. She wants me grateful to her. She probably didn’t even think of me while healing me, just what it would mean for her.” Alyssa shook her head, trying not to grind her teeth together. It was a habit she needed to break. There weren’t proper dentists here in this world. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get moving.”
Kasita’s eyes widened before stepping back, out of Alyssa’s reach. “Oh. Of course we do.” A smile replaced an… expression on her face. “Your determination is what I like about you.”
Alyssa didn’t move. She stayed right where she was, staring at the mimic. “Kasita,” she said, voice softer. “I’m sorry. It isn’t that I don’t want to talk about what just happened with you. I’ll explain everything, my conversation with Tenebrael, what this does,” she said, gesturing to the phone. “But that little black book that predicts the future I mentioned? It predicted Irulon’s death. I have roughly twelve hours to stop whatever is going to happen to her.”
“It’s almost dark. Are you sure you want to be out? Tzheitza will yell at you for rushing off without thinking again.”
“Twelve hours. If I wait until daybreak, there will be hardly any time left. It’s going to take almost an hour just to get to the Observatorium from here.” With it almost dark, would Irulon still be there? If not, the palace wasn’t far. But would she be allowed in? Probably not. Especially not if she were ranting and raving about how the princess was in danger. “And I’m not not thinking. We’re just on a time limit. We can talk while we move… if you want to come, that is. I completely understand if you don’t. Last time I dragged you into something, you wound up all messed up.”
“I may not like humans in general, but I pay back my dues. Especially to the those who help me.”
“Irulon will surely be appreciative. I am. Let’s go and I’ll tell you what Tenebrael said as we move.”