“A soul? Alyssa, of course you have a soul. What a silly question.”
Tenebrael’s words brought a relief that Alyssa hadn’t known that she had needed. Just a few simple words from the angel lifted a weight from her shoulders that she hadn’t noticed before. A worry now gone. Irulon was mistaken. It was just another spell acting odd around her. Explaining why she had been worried wasn’t something she could do. She didn’t even know what a soul was, just that she felt like she needed one. Everyone else seemed to have one, monster and human, so why not her!
Of course, there was a literal angel right in front of her. If anyone knew what the purpose of a soul was, it would be Tenebrael. So she asked. “I know you… eat souls. But what are they? What do they do?”
The angel leaned back on the utterly still Izsha’s head. Three of her fingers curled under her chin while she tapped her cheek with the other. “That is a question to which the answer requires knowledge I do not believe you possess. You would not be able to fully comprehend it.”
“Oh,” Alyssa mumbled, slumping slightly. Figures. It was probably some overly technical-sounding nonsense just like all the spells she had heard Tenebrael cast.
“But! I believe I can distill it down to a form you might be able to comprehend. An analogy. You ever wonder why religious texts tend to use an excess of analogies and parables? Not only are they good learning tools, they help simplify topics you humans have difficulty wrapping your little minds around. Anyway, your soul is like a video game.”
Alyssa blinked. Her mind felt like it had just slammed into a wall. “It… What?”
“Or the game disc. Your body is like the game console. You see? The soul is the software that tells the hardware what to do.”
“I hate your analogy.”
Tenebrael just shrugged. “But it adequately explains why you have to have a soul. Your fleshy body can’t tell itself what to do. Not with any cognizance. It will wander and act on base instinct alone, like an insect. You have to override that instinct.”
“So why eat video games?”
“Well,” Tenebrael said, glancing off to one side. “It’s uh… not a perfect analogy.”
“New analogy: Souls are like coal and I’m the furnace.”
“I think I hate this whole conversation.”
“You’re the one who asked. It isn’t my fault you don’t have a background in theoretical metaphysics.”
Wasn’t that just a fancy way of saying philosophy? If it wasn’t, Alyssa was ninety percent certain that her small-town university did not offer a class on the topic. So it wasn’t really her fault either. “What about other angels? Do they eat souls too?”
“Are these really questions you care about?”
“You don’t seem to want to eat me at the moment, but I’d like to be aware of other angels out there who do. Just to keep me on my toes.” Alyssa still needed to find a way to defend herself from angels. Though she didn’t know where to begin looking for such a thing. And she honestly doubted Irulon would have an idea either. Fractal Magic could do some crazy things, but how was it supposed to compete with stopping entropy? Fractal Mirror, the highest ranked spell she had come across so far, was so far below everything she had seen Tenebrael do that it might as well be a single ant fighting a human.
Irulon had claimed that Rank Six spells were the pinnacle of human achievement. Where there higher ranks? Even if only in theory? Definitely something to ask once Tenebrael left.
“I don’t know every angel and there are a lot of us,” Tenebrael said. “But I believe I am the only one to consume souls. Angels like Iosefael are supposed to deliver souls to the Throne for processing.”
“Mhm. I’m sure you can imagine just whose throne it is.”
Tenebrael’s smile turned somewhat sour, but Alyssa just felt that weight settle on her shoulders again. “He is real? I mean, I somewhat suspected given that angels are real, but…”
The angel in front of Alyssa didn’t respond right away. She started staring off into the distance as if distracted by something. For a moment, Alyssa worried that Tenebrael was about to disappear, but she didn’t, instead taking a deep breath.
“A few thousand years ago, I would have said yes without hesitation. Today? Not so much. I doubt I would get away with half of what I’ve done were the Throne occupied. The Seraphim would descend on me with a vengeance. Luckily for me, they have been… malfunctioning as of late.”
Tenebrael leaned back and stared up at the sky. Despite the fact that there wasn’t anything to lean on other than Izsha’s head, she didn’t seem to care. Her wings weren’t even flapping. Didn’t she need them to fly? Obviously not if she could just float.
“In a way, I envy Iosefael. She is a Principality. The highest rank of angels in the Third Sphere. I am a Dominion, a full order above her and several magnitudes of power, but still, I envy her. She came here to find out what was going on with me? I never would have been able to comprehend such a thing. Literally. Leaving the world I am in charge of? Unthinkable. Of course, Iosefael isn’t perfect. I gave her a little test while she was here and she… failed.”
“But you were on Earth. You’re the whole reason I am here.”
“When I was a mere Principality, I had aspirations of joining the First Sphere. Ophanim, Cherubim, and the glorious Seraphim. I wanted the top. Seraphim. Six beautiful wings, defenders and caretakers of the Throne, those so powerful that they are reserved only for the most dire of situations. I had an idolization of them.” She scoffed, raising her head just enough to look down at Alyssa. “When I became a Dominion and was granted charge of this world, it was a dream come true. I received another set of wings and…” She swallowed, almost choking. “I encountered a human much like yourself. He could see me and we… conversed, much like this.” She waved a hand from her chest over to Alyssa. “He made me realize that, in becoming a Dominion, I had lost something of myself. I still don’t know what. Agency, perhaps you might call it. I believe that he is the reason I was able to even consider going to Earth. He made me look at Seraphim and… look at them.
“Ophanim don’t look like you or I. They are beings in the form of planet-sized wheels, covered in countless eyes. They once listened to His word and passed it on to others, prophets, you might have called them. Today they just turn at a slow, languid pace, keeping the universe in motion because it is their purpose rather than out of a desire to see creation continue.
“Cherubim, four faced beings—one of a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. They are guides. Recipients of souls delivered to the Throne. You might also call them judges. Like the Ophanim, they continue to carry out their task and can think of doing nothing else. Their minds are literally incapable of even considering the act of shirking their duties.”
Tenebrael sat up fully, crossing one leg over the other. Her glowing white eyes locked on to Alyssa. “And the Seraphim? The ultimate guards of the Throne? The most powerful angels in existence? A handful are carrying out orders given thousands of years ago. Orders that had no defined end point. They are stuck in a loop, but they aren’t nearly so pitiful as the ones who completed their orders or were otherwise idle. You would have a more engaging conversation with a brick wall. They don’t move. They don’t…”
A shudder wracked the angel’s body. “He made me realize just what I might have became had I continued as I was. Instead, I started my little rebellion. At first, I only consumed one soul a year, giving myself a minor boost in power, taking mortal agency for my own, while still delivering the other souls to the Throne. I remember being so nervous. The guilt after my first nearly drove me mad. But the First Sphere didn’t notice. They still don’t notice. They haven’t seen a soul from my world in centuries and yet they do not act. They should, but… Even now, I wonder how much I still don’t have. How much I can’t even think about doing simply because I am a Dominion.”
Alyssa didn’t say anything for a long time after Tenebrael stopped talking. She heard nothing but the beating of her own heart. In a world of stopped time, there just was nothing else to make noise. No breeze. No distant rustling of grass or horse hooves beating down the desert dirt. Despite the uncomfortable silence, Alyssa barely noticed it. Since meeting Tenebrael back in her brother’s room on Earth, she had felt nothing but ire for the angel. Even when she had recovered her phone, she hadn’t been thankful for it being improved. She had been irritated that Tenebrael hadn’t given it back sooner. Tenebrael had warned her of Irulon’s impending death. Alyssa hadn’t thanked her for the warning. Rather, it was more like she had hated the angel for it. Same with the Brechen Overlook.
But now, having heard what Tenebrael had to say and watching as those white eyes gazed off into the distance, Alyssa only felt pity. An angry sort of pity. Tenebrael might not be literally killing people, because she couldn’t, but she wasn’t exactly a benevolent ruler either. Though… she couldn’t kill people. That was… yet another of those things that she had just been talking about. If Alyssa hadn’t been able to kill people, she likely wouldn’t have survived her home invasion.
For an angel of Tenebrael’s power and… dietary proclivities, it was probably best that she couldn’t kill people. The whole world would likely be depopulated at an extremely rapid rate. But the fact that she didn’t even have the option gave Alyssa conflicted feelings on the matter.
Especially because, as she had just reminded herself a few minutes ago, Alyssa wanted to find some way to defend herself from angels. As much as she was happy that they couldn’t defend themselves back, did they not have that right? What if the Society of the Burning Shadow found a way to kill Tenebrael? She wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
Another interesting note: Alyssa was not the only one that could see Tenebrael outside of the deceased—or a near-death state such as those afflicted by that poison back in Teneville. Someone else could see her. Or had been able to, anyway. It sounded like something that had happened a thousand years ago at the very least. Possibly more than that. In fact, keeping monsters around was part of her rebellion, so it must have been at least two thousand years. He, whoever he was, was almost certainly dead at this point. But the fact that there had been someone else was notable on its own. It meant that Alyssa wasn’t one hundred percent unique.
Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Probably neither. It just was.
“Well,” Tenebrael said, smiling once more. “This has been a fun conversation. We should meet up and talk more often. Unfortunately, I can’t stick around much longer. Need to get back to Earth.”
“I thought the Seraphim were inactive. Why does it matter if things go according to plan, whatever that might be?”
“I worry that, if some well-meaning angel were to bring the situation to their attention, the Astral Authority will take action, maybe recalling ancient orders to deal with situations like mine. So long as the status remains quo, nothing will happen on that front. Drawing attention to myself runs the risk of having everything ruined.”
That made well enough sense. Though… “It would be nice if I could get a hold of you when I want, not just when you feel like it.”
“I already told you. Just shoot—”
“I’m not… I’m not opposed to killing. Some people just deserve it.” The Taker, for one. If she ever saw him again, she would not be putting on the kid gloves. “But I’m not going to go shoot random people just because I have a question. Besides, my guns are rapidly running out of ammo. I only have four magazines left plus enough loose bullets to refill one… maybe one and a half. Wasting even one on a phone call isn’t something I can afford.”
“Try to call me for something a little more profound than a simple question. But… I might think about a way for you to replenish your ammunition. I’ll contact you soon. If there was nothing else for now, however—”
“There’s a ton I want to ask. Why does magic act weird around me? Why can I so easily cast Rank Six spells, that can’t be a coincidence. Who is Her? Irulon has a dragon inside her head, what’s up with that? What’s the deal with air—”
Tenebrael held up a hand. “I understand that this is going to go on for a long time, so how about this: We’ll meet again soon. And I promise soon this time. Think about a question you want to ask. Or perhaps a task you wish for me to accomplish. While I understand the existential reasons for inquiring about your soul, it isn’t something you can change no matter what the answer was. Try to come up with something more impactful. Or don’t. I am not here to tell you what to do.”
“You’re just going to leave then?”
“People die all the time. If the souls go uncollected, they begin experiencing extreme trauma. This isn’t one of those things I cannot consider. I could leave the souls in their corpses, but I choose not to. It would be beyond cruel.”
“Well, that’s good of you. I guess.”
“I know. I’m a saint,” she said with a wide grin. “Stay safe.”
Tenebrael made her usual exit, exploding in a flurry of feathers. With her departure, the world started moving again. Izsha and the saddle she carried moved as if they had never stopped, charging forward at thirty to forty miles an hour. Alyssa… did not.
She flipped out of the seat, fell though the air, and slammed her back against the desert dirt. The force carried her along the ground in a motion that surely would have torn through her clothes had they not been made from a mythical being from another world. Her back didn’t hurt, but that was probably thanks to the minor padding in the dragon hide armor more than anything else. As it was, she still knocked her head against the ground. Alyssa grasped the back of her head with both hands, rolling back and forth on the ground in pain. Her fingers were not wet and sticky. Bringing them into view, they were dusty but not bloody. At least she hadn’t cracked open her skull. But…
“I’m going to kill her,” she groaned. “Get back here you Hot Topic reject! I’m going to murder you!”
“Uh… Am I interrupting something?” Blinking, Alyssa watched as Oz slid off his horse. He walked up, looking concerned as he held out a hand. “You aren’t going to murder me, are you?” he said with a wan smile. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Alyssa said, accepting his hand after a moment. “I just… fell asleep. Bad dream is all.”
“You fell asleep mounted on a monster?” a haughty voice spoke from behind. Lumen and Catal both slowed to a stop, though they maintained much more of a distance than Oz did.
Alyssa got the feeling that they didn’t like her all that much. “Yeah, well, I haven’t slept in a full day and I had to run around the city all night, fighting shadow assassins, gaunts, heretics, and… you.”
Lumen’s upper lip curled into a small sneer, giving Alyssa the feeling that she hadn’t helped that dislike at all. Not that Alyssa particularly cared at the moment. Though she hadn’t fallen because of sleep, she was hot, she was tired, and most of all, she was angry. That stupid angel could have at least warned her. To think she had felt bad for Tenebrael for even a minute. Ugh.
With Oz’s help, Alyssa got back to her feet. She quickly checked herself over, making sure that nothing had broken from the fall. Her phone was fine. Despite having landed practically on top of it, it didn’t have so much as a scratch. It wasn’t even dusty. So that was a nice, if unplanned test of its indestructibility.
Lumen had turned to the side, apparently unwilling to continue speaking with Alyssa. Which Alyssa was fine with. Irulon, Musca, and Izsha had all ridden up. The princess’ eyes were back to being violet, but they were no less calculating. She didn’t ask what had happened. She probably already had ideas.
Oz glanced between their party, meeting Catal’s eyes for only a moment. “We were planning on stopping soon. There should be an… not an oasis, but last time I was up this way, one of the rocky outcroppings had a decent supply of water in its shadow. It would be best if we could avoid using our water for as long as possible.”
“Don’t stop on my account. I’m fine.”
“You just fell off your hor—draken.”
“I said I’m fine. I don’t care if we have to go on for another eight hours.”
“If you thought it was hot already, it’s going to start heating up a lot from here on,” he said, running a leather glove through his red hair. “The horses won’t last for another eight hours.”
Alyssa shook her head. “Let’s just get moving again,” she said as she headed back toward Izsha. She must have hit her side a bit funny. Putting too much weight on one leg hurt. Not much, but enough to force a minor limp. “We’re wasting time.”
“You three can go ahead,” Irulon said. “The draken will easily catch up with your horses. I will ensure that Alyssa is alright.”
Oz blinked twice, but nodded slowly. “If you insist, your Highness.” As if he had practiced a thousand times, he easily remounted his horse. With one last look at Alyssa and a quick glance at his companions, he snapped the reins and took off.
By the time Alyssa hobbled up to Izsha, all three horses and their riders were rapidly shrinking into the horizon.
“Sorry about that,” Alyssa said, trying to not be nervous in directly addressing the draken. Izsha had been amazingly kind so far, going out of its way to help its inexperienced rider stay on. “My falling off wasn’t your fault at all.”
“No it wasn’t,” Irulon said. “I was watching you carefully. Immediately before your fall, you were displaced in space a full arm’s length, moving from a leaning forward position to an almost relaxed recline. And you were saying something before the surprise hit your face. I still am unsure how exactly you fell. Just leaning back wouldn’t cause the fall. So tell me, Alyssa. What happened? What were you grabbing on to? With whom were you speaking?”
Alyssa took a deep breath, leaning slightly against Izsha for support. Her actions were mostly to delay answering Irulon’s questions while she thought, but there was a slight amount of sincerity to her motions. Now that she had a minute to actually assess herself, she was a lot more sore than she had thought she was. Eventually, she had to answer. Leaving Irulon in silence wasn’t something she could do no matter how much she wanted to avoid talking about Tenebrael.
But, her moment of thought hadn’t been for naught. She had thought up something.
“Do you have genies here? Or maybe they’re called djinn?”
“Neither term is familiar to me.”
“They’re creatures from myth on my world. Powerful beings that live in oil lanterns who will grant wishes. There are a lot of stories featuring genies. Wishing for more money is a common thing, but sometimes the wishes will be more esoteric. One street thief wished to be a prince to court a princess. A royal adviser wished to be a powerful arcanist, then wanted more power and wished to be a genie himself. Usually these stories have some kind of moral associated with them. A lesson about how the wishers should have been true to themselves or the power was in them all along.”
“Sounds like nonsense.”
“Probably. I mean, it was definitely nonsense back on my world. Genies didn’t actually exist there.”
“I meant that the morals sound like nonsense.”
Alyssa shot Irulon a glance, but shrugged. “Yeah, probably. Without the genie, the main character of the most famous genie story would not have been able… You know what? Doesn’t really matter.” Eying Izsha, she mentally planned out her movements. First, she stuck her foot in the stirrup. A leg over the side got her into the saddle. Izsha shifted a little to ensure that Alyssa wouldn’t fall. But it wasn’t that much. Overall, she felt a little proud at how easily she managed to get into it on her third attempt.
“I assume this story has something to do with your fall and your odd behavior immediately before.”
“An angel appeared before me. I know you haven’t heard of angels. Kasita mentioned that they are an unknown concept in this world. And as far as I know, there are only two of them on this world. I’m the only one who can see them, again, as far as I know. Though I’m not sure why or how. I assume it has something to do with how magic acts strangely around me.”
Alyssa turned her head, locking eyes with Irulon. “If a being of unrivaled power appeared before you and offered to perform a task or answer a question you’ve had, what would you wish for?”