Time seemed to stop. People still moved about in Alyssa’s peripheral vision, shouting and panicking. For all she was paying attention to them, they might as well have been statues.
She had eyes for no one but the red-eyed angel. The reverse wasn’t quite true. The angel, hovering above the gouge, broke eye contact to look around the land. Her face was impassive with no real expression, but just from the way she looked around, Alyssa got the feeling of bewilderment. It was a little strange just how flat her face was. Iosefael had worn her expressions on her sleeve. The golden angel’s face shifted between smiles, frowns, and confused frustration at the drop of a hat. Tenebrael tended toward a constant joviality—somewhat like Kasita in some manner—but even she had shown plenty of surprise and shock. Usually when Alyssa did something that she wasn’t supposed to do. Like use Spectral Chains on angels or just see them in general.
With the angel no longer looking in Alyssa’s direction, she tried moving again. She made it one step before the angel’s head whipped back around to her. Alyssa froze again. A mistake. She should have kept moving, pretending like she couldn’t see the angel. The angel’s expression changed as Alyssa met her eyes. Not a significant change that might be expected from Tenebrael or Iosefael, just a slight furrowing of her brows.
Tearing her vision away, Alyssa moved. Hoping that the angel would think that Alyssa’s gaze had merely been coincidental, she tried her best to keep her eyes on the ground as she walked. Her steps weren’t steady. She needed to calm down. The way her heart was thumping was not healthy. She felt gross. Sweaty and maybe slightly nauseous. How much of that was from the angel and how much was from reshaping the landscape, Alyssa couldn’t say.
She just needed to get away, to find somewhere isolated where she could take a breath and slap her cheeks.
Chancing a glance over her shoulder, Alyssa kept her eyes low to make it seem as if she were looking only at the people or the ground.
But the skies were empty. There was no angel anymore. Feathers, yes. A lot of glistening white feathers slowly drifting down to the ground. But no winged being in the middle of it all.
Releasing a shuddering sigh of relief, Alyssa started away from the pit again. She needed to meet up with Irulon. That would give her some grounding. Maybe Irulon could explain the giant hole in the ground. Probably not. It was almost certainly that weird way magic interacted with her. But a small part of her could hope that Irulon had done something, had given her a supercharged version of Annihilator.
Then again, surely someone had died during that spell. That would mean Tenebrael would be here soon. That might even be the reason the red angel left. If Tenebrael did not know about that other angel, she definitely needed to be made aware of it. Alyssa didn’t want some angelic government destroying the world while she was on it. Or at all, for that matter. The world had a lot of problems, but they were fixable if someone with enough power and drive came to enact policies. More importantly, it had people living in it, both human and monster. If the world was destroyed, they would be as well. Tenebrael had been worried about that while Iosefael was around. Surely the same was true for this angel.
It was strange how she had gone from hoping that she hadn’t killed anyone to hoping that she had, just to talk to Tenebrael.
Sighing again, she stopped. Alyssa would not get too close. She didn’t want to go back toward it. The pit was too deep and she did not want to bump into anything or be bumped anywhere near it. Even if she didn’t seek out Tenebrael, the angel would probably show up because of the whole landscape sculpting that Alyssa had done. But, in the event that Tenebrael did not show up nearby, Alyssa did need to get closer.
Turning, her breath caught in her throat. Alyssa stumbled back with a slight squeak from her throat, landing on the ground.
An angel stood before her, feet barely not touching the ground. Feathered wings didn’t flap, yet the woman stayed in the air. Those glowing white eyes held a glimmer of mirth as she looked down upon Alyssa. Black lips twisted up into a small smile.
“Alyssa Meadows. When I said you didn’t have the heart to join the Society of the Burning Shadow, I didn’t know you possessed the capacity for such wanton destruction. You killed six people in the span of a second.”
Pinching her eyes shut, Alyssa groaned. That was not what she wanted to hear. Though maybe she could be thankful that the count wasn’t higher. Even though she hadn’t known that Annihilator was going to destroy quite so much land, she had known that she would be killing people. They were her actions and she had to own up to them.
When she opened her eyes again, she found a grey arm extended out toward her. Raising an eyebrow, she flicked her gaze to Tenebrael’s face. The angel was just smiling a pleasant smile. If the wings were removed from the situation, it would just be the hand of one person who was helping up another. For a moment, Alyssa thought to ignore the hand, to get to her feet on her own power as if it were some symbolic rejection of the angel. But… was there really a point to that? If this were a movie, the hero would have slapped the hand away. But somehow, she doubted that she would be a hero. Especially after destroying the food storage of a desert community, hostile enemies though they were.
Ugh. I want to go home. Things made more sense back on Earth. And I didn’t feel like I had to fight off half the world at all times.
Sighing again, she clasped her hand onto the angel’s hand, accepting the unvoiced offer of help. In short order, she found herself on her feet. She still didn’t feel all that steady, but Tenebrael gave her something to focus on that wasn’t the giant hole in the ground. Although… Alyssa chanced a glance around, hoping that Tenebrael wouldn’t pull her disappearing act. No sign of the other angel. The skies were clear of both winged beings and feathers. People were still panicking about, likely wondering just what they were supposed to do now, whether they should flee the town or ready arms to fight off whatever unseen threat had destroyed their buildings.
Regardless of what they actually did, they were no closer to discovering Alyssa than they had been ten minutes prior. Shards of her invisibility were hovering around, keeping her out of public view. It didn’t really surprise her that Tenebrael could see through it. The other angel definitely had. A part of her wondered if Iosefael would be able to see through it. The golden-winged angel had been bound by Spectral Chains where Tenebrael had broken free instantly. But maybe Iosefael would be able to see through it just fine. The red-dressed angel could see her through it and she only had two wings.
“How many angels are there?” Alyssa asked, looking back to Tenebrael. The angel had shifted a bit while Alyssa had been glancing about. Maybe even displaying some discomfort at being ignored. Alyssa would have found herself amused had she less troubles weighing on her mind.
“Angels?” Tenebrael said with a cocked head. “You just killed several people and scratched the face of my world. And you ask about angels? That doesn’t seem like you. The Alyssa I know would be angry with herself for, honestly, no good reason at all. Then she would start blaming me for whatever she’s angry about.”
Alyssa took a deep breath, pinching her eyes shut as she held it. “I killed them for a good reason,” she eventually said. “Maybe the rest of these people will give up and go home, though I don’t know if Irulon will give them the chance.” Justifying it to herself? Maybe. But she couldn’t actually fault the justification. A million ants and the population of Lyria versus half a dozen people? It was the trolley dilemma given form. Shaking her head, Alyssa pushed the thought from her mind. “But I have to focus. I have to ask about angels. Whatever else I want to say to you, this is important. And you have the unfortunate tendency to disappear during our discussions. If we get stuck on tangents, who knows when I’ll next see you.”
The dark wings surrounding Tenebrael fluttered before shrinking down as she folded them up behind her back. Her black boots touched to the ground. It seemed like an unconscious action. More obviously conscious was the way she crossed her arms under her chest before moving one hand to her chin. “I cannot put a number to the angels in existence. Earlier, I explained some of how the angelic orders are organized? Seraphim being the top of the top? They number the least at only forty. Dominions such as I? Well…” Her dark lips quirked into a smile. “Just me. But Dominions in general? Hundreds of millions. Principalities such as Iosefael?” She shook her head. “And then there are lesser angels that number even greater. Angels are finite in number, but that number is high enough to be considered effectively endless. And that isn’t even including my fallen siblings in the figure.”
Alyssa blinked a few times before mimicking the way Tenebrael shook her head. Clearly, that was the wrong question to have asked, but also something of a worrying question. If she did get back home and found herself hounded by angels, even if she managed to get rid of Tenebrael and Iosefael, she could find herself fighting off angels for eternity and they still would have plenty more in reserve.
“Why do you bring up angels?”
“Let me rephrase: How many angels are on your world?”
“Iosefael has been visiting on occasion. Quite annoying really. She keeps asking me all these questions, acting a lot like she did a thousand years ago. It was nostalgic at first, but I am a busy being. Apart from that, there are none,” she said, ending with a smile. That smile faltered after only a few seconds, pressing into a pencil-thin line. “What do you know?” Tenebrael asked, voice much harder than it had been.
Rather than verbally respond, Alyssa pulled her phone from her pocket. She snapped a picture of Tenebrael without really thinking about it, nodding her head in satisfaction at seeing the surprised face on her phone. Maybe removing some of the mystique would knock Tenebrael down a few pegs in Irulon’s eyes.
“Wait. I wasn’t ready! You didn’t even get my good side.”
While Tenebrael jumped into a pose with her wings unfurled to their fullest, Alyssa switched to the clearest picture of the red-dressed angel. She held out the phone without a word. Watching Tenebrael shift from a cheesy grin to wide-eyed confusion to a dangerous glower was unpleasant. Alyssa’s stomach was already tied into the tightest knot possible from everything that had happened in the last few minutes, but the way Tenebrael’s white eyes started leaking little white flames from their corners made her shudder.
Alyssa licked her dry lips. “Just last night, right up on top of that church’s cross. She cast that spell, destroying one of those rock pillars out in the desert and scaring off a few of my… friends in the process.” Alyssa waved a hand toward the destruction left behind by Annihilator. “And she appeared again just now, disappearing only seconds before you showed up. Someone you know?”
“Technically of a lesser rank than Principalities, Archangels have more effective Authority in practice. When things don’t go according to the plan, Archangels are the first sent in to get things back on track. They are supposed to work with the Dominion overseer. That she hasn’t contacted me is… telling.”
Alyssa couldn’t help but scoff. “The fact that she is associating with the Society of Expunge Tenebrael should tell you more than enough.”
Tenebrael didn’t respond. Not right away. Her eyes were still locked onto the phone. Aside from the glowing eyes and the little white flames, it was almost disturbing just how much Irulon looked like Tenebrael when the phone was showing something of interest.
“Indeed,” Tenebrael finally said after a short eternity. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll see to it that you are suitably rewarded.”
“I don’t want—”
“We’ll talk soon. Please don’t try to interact with the Archangel. At least not yet. If anything does happen, you can speak with me immediately using your phone. I’m in the contacts list.” As soon as she finished speaking, Tenebrael disappeared with a subdued flourish of feathers, making Alyssa wonder just how much of the molting was for show.
The angel was gone. Simple as that. Once again, Alyssa found herself standing alone—relatively, as there still were people about. None were looking in her direction. Most were gathered around the pit, looking like they were thinking about finding a way down there. Alyssa didn’t know what they hoped to find, but it wasn’t her problem anymore. The talk with Tenebrael, though it had worried the angel, had done wonders for Alyssa. She felt far calmer, far more steady. Her thoughts weren’t clogged up with worry over what she had done half as much as they had been before.
Realizing the change was jarring enough to make her wonder if Tenebrael had done something. Calmed her. Healed her mind, or something. But that probably wasn’t the case. Unless Tenebrael had been lying about valuing Alyssa’s agency, she wouldn’t have touched her thoughts for fear of ruining her reaper.
Shuddering, Alyssa considered Tenebrael’s parting words. She checked her phone. There. Contacts. Down at the bottom. <3 Tene <3. How long had that been there? Alyssa hadn’t so much as opened her contacts list since getting the phone back. Calling people on Earth hadn’t worked when she had first tried it back at her home, she doubted that had changed. But if Tenebrael had been in there since she got her phone back… What an annoying person.
She had half a mind to hand the phone over to Irulon and see if the princess could speak with the angel, but ended up shaking her head. There were more pressing matters to worry about. With Tenebrael’s departure, Alyssa had nothing to do but meet up with Irulon and try to figure out what exactly they were supposed to do now. That giant gouge had not been a part of any plan.
After casting one last glance about the sky for any sign of the red-dressed angel, Alyssa started toward the church. She did stop to snap one good picture of the gouge. Less because she wanted the memories preserved and more just in case Irulon somehow missed what had happened.
Alyssa moved with purpose. The church was just around a few buildings—the little town wasn’t large at all, even some of the small villages between Teneville and Lyria had been larger. Now that she was actually walking instead of panicking, she made it to the front entrance in less than a minute. The doors, which had been closed last time she had seen them, were now wide open.
If there had been even the slightest doubt that this town was an outpost for the Society of the Burning Shadow, it was gone now. Six people stood out in front of the doors, three on either side, all wearing familiar hooded cloaks, though in a variety of styles. The four standing in the very front had swords or pikes, mixed between them. The two in the back had decks of cards in their hands. The same loose decks held together by a single metal ring that Alyssa had stolen again and again from defeated Society members. The ones with the physical weapons had lithe cloaks that hugged their bodies. The cloak part didn’t obstruct their legs either, more like hooded jackets, really. Those with spell cards had longer cloaks of a fancier style, similar to what Morgan had been wearing in the palace.
Someone stood between all six guards. An older woman, though not ancient-old. Just older than Alyssa, Irulon, or Oz. Someone around Oxart’s age, mid-late thirties. The only reason her age was notable was that most other people around were younger. Late teens to early twenties. Having seen a lot of the Lyrian military, the majority of people meant to fight in this world tended toward the younger side of things. Decorous, Oxart, and those in other leadership positions were older, but leader was something of an oxymoron with how they stayed far from the front lines.
The same was true on Earth, of course, but she hadn’t actually been fighting too. Her mother had been in the military, so Alyssa had a few stories of overseas conflict. It still hadn’t been her. Everything was far more real here. At least from her perspective.
With a sardonic scoff, Alyssa couldn’t help but wonder, now that she actually had something in common with her mother, if she wouldn’t ever get the chance to talk about it.
Alyssa steered clear of the woman. Something about the way she looked made the hairs on the back of Alyssa’s neck stand on end. It was the way her milky eyes had a slight glow to them. If the glow wasn’t there, Alyssa would have thought her to be blind, but the way she turned her head about clearly indicated vision. More than once, she had slowed the turning of her head right on Alyssa. If she did see or sense anything, she didn’t act on it. With a hand gesture to her guards, they started moving away from the church. Like most of the rest of the town, they were headed toward Alyssa’s little accident.
For half a moment, Alyssa thought to kill the woman. She was clearly in a position of power. Cut off the head of the snake and its body dies, and all that. That woman might even be the Liadri the other two had mentioned. Alyssa could kill her. She had spells and her pistols. Not another Annihilator, but using that again without knowing exactly where her friends were was not an option even if she had three dozen of them. Still, there had to be some magic in those eyes to make them glow. A simple Desecrate Spells followed by a quick pistol shot would work without a doubt. But she would have to drop her own invisibility spell or else get injured herself. And then there would be six angry bodyguards.
Some fire spells might be able to take care of them, those fire axes or simple Fireballs. But then she would have an angry town to deal with.
Best to wait. Irulon might want to simply leave. Plan B had been intended to poke the hive, but Alyssa was pretty sure that she had done much more than poke.
So Alyssa did nothing more than watch her leave. The woman kept glancing about, even over her shoulder, but nothing came of it.
Around the side of the church, it didn’t take long to find the meeting spot Irulon had specified. It had a little seclusion. No one was around—probably because literally the entire town was staring at a hole in the ground—but even if someone had been nearby, the bush gave enough cover to hide between it and the church building.
“Irulon?” Alyssa whispered. No response. After checking again that no one was round, she tried a little louder. “Irulon?”
Alyssa spun on her heel, heart rate ramping up momentarily. It didn’t last long. Shards of glass vanished from existence. Wearing her dragon hide armor, Irulon appeared out of thin air. Her eyes, violet at the moment, flicked about. They mostly looked toward Alyssa, but missed by just a small hair. With a breath, Alyssa willed away her own Empty Mirror. As soon as the thought of ending it crossed her mind, Irulon’s eyes focused.
“Note for the future: Let us have you avoid highly ranked destructive spells unless we want something utterly obliterated. I expected something nonstandard, but this exceeds all my analysis. Even as a Rank Six arcanist, I would be hard pressed to do quite that much without significant preparation beforehand. And not with Annihilator, it would require a specialized wide-area destructive spell.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“No matter. It is advantageous to us for now. The church is void of people for the moment. Kasita messaged me just a moment ago, letting me know that she is using the opportunity to sneak about under the floor, apparently, there are several monsters being held captive.”
How easily she glossed over the giant hole in the ground. Alyssa could only shake her head. “Are we done here? They have no food and no transportation. And are probably scared out of their minds.”
“Kasita intends to look for information on plans and any other similar outposts after investigating the basement. If there are any, we need to disable them as well. Otherwise, I have taken care of the stables and have set up a… surprise for when we leave.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“You’ll find out,” Irulon said with a smile. “With that out of the way, I would like to ask about your use of Annihilator until Kasita arrives.”
Alyssa nodded, though she wasn’t all that excited to talk about it. It would give her a chance to mention Tenebrael and some things that the angel had said. Her fingers traced the edges of her phone through her pocket. And maybe show Irulon exactly what the being she worshiped looks like.