“How would you like to return to Earth?”
Alyssa’s heart beat faster within her chest at hearing Tenebrael’s words. Earth? It had been so long. It felt like years even though it had really only been weeks. Returning was exactly what she wanted. To go home. To see her parents. And her brother. To reassure them that she was alright and not dead. She wanted nothing more than to open her mouth and shout that she would love to go.
Which was why she hesitated.
Standing in the desolate military compound with monsters roaming about and her friends frozen in a stasis field, Alyssa stared at the gentle smile on the angel’s face.
And she scowled. Her excitement at the mentions of Earth vanished with a single thought.
There had to be a catch.
Tenebrael wouldn’t just offer such a thing. In the first place, Alyssa had been brought to this crazy world to hide her from other angels. So why would she ever be allowed back? There was something fishy about all this. Tenebrael wanted something. And that something was probably not something that Alyssa wanted.
There was also the possibility that Tenebrael was yanking her chain. Just mentioning the possibility might be some psychological tactic. To what end, Alyssa wasn’t sure. Tenebrael was a jerk, but that much of a jerk? No. This had to be a genuine offer.
“Wouldn’t it be nice?” Tenebrael said, moving closer. “How long has it been since you’ve had a proper shower. Clean water with a nice hot towel waiting for you after. Maybe a chance to restock on your spent ammunition or collect some item that you think will aid you here.”
“Here,” Alyssa said flatly. “You’re offering a temporary journey then.”
“I can’t let you remain there on a permanent basis. You’ve seen Archangel Adrael’s deviant actions in the name of setting things right. If you remain for long, you’ll surely be noticed. You’ll draw the attentions of more Archangels. I doubt they would be so willing to correct you in such a direct manner, but they will be more than willing to offer Divine Inspiration to someone in the right state of mind to… be less than pleasant toward you. And there remains a distant but possible chance that a Seraphim might catch wind of you. Trust me. Neither of us wants that. So temporary, chaperoned trip only.”
There we go. That’s the catch. A temporary trip to Earth. She would probably be watched the entire time and, if she tried to contact her family and friends, Tenebrael would probably whisk her back away before she could get a single word out. But that didn’t answer the why of the trip. She didn’t stink so badly that Tenebrael wanted her to shower right away… did she?
Alyssa discretely sniffed only to find herself unable to smell anything distinct. Just a slight metallic scent in the air.
But the temporary nature of the trip was only part of the catch. Tenebrael wouldn’t just offer a vacation to Earth for a spa and manicure. Not even if Alyssa had just finished trudging through the Bog of Eternal Stench. If the angel truly felt offended by a smell, she would probably wave a hand and vanish it into thin air.
No. Tenebrael wanted something. Something that she couldn’t acquire for herself. “What is it? Just tell me and stop with all this roundabout nonsense. What do you want?”
“Must we get into all the dirty details now? You’ve been wearing that relic’s hide for a few days, only taking it off while sleeping. Wiping yourself down with a rag is no substitute for a nice long bath.”
“I’m not about to leave for a bath,” Alyssa said, scowl deepening. It did sound nice. Very nice. But… “I’m not just going to abandon Irulon and the draken in the middle of an enemy fortress. Even if this wasn’t a temporary trip, my conscience would have a lot of issues with just up and leaving.”
Tenebrael stuck a finger out, nudging Irulon with a finger. The stiff form of the princess rocked back and forth on the draken’s back. “They aren’t going anywhere. Not soon. You’ve got time for a bath and a quick trip down a dark alley.”
“Are you…” Alyssa’s fingers tightened around Adrael’s staff. She wasn’t quite sure how she had managed to use it against Adrael, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to let Tenebrael attack her. “Are you trying to get me killed?”
“Kill you? Never.” In the blink of an eye, Tenebrael had crossed the short distance between them. Her arms wrapped around Alyssa’s shoulders in a gentle embrace. “Although you’ve caused no small amount of trouble, I cannot believe I managed as long as I had without you in my existence.”
Alyssa went utterly still, hardly even breathing with the angel’s chest pressed against hers. Several seconds went by before she realized what was going on. A hug. It was a hug. And it was weirding her out. Not just the physical contact, which she wasn’t really used to in general, but that strange warmth that angels exuded. Normally, it was hardly worth mentioning. Right now? With Tenebrael fully pressed up against her?
Maybe it wasn’t the angel’s glory. It might just be embarrassment forcing her into blushing.
“Speaking of that trouble you’ve caused…” Tenebrael said softly before Alyssa could ask more about her eyes. “There’s just one itsy bitsy little problem. Really a tiny thing. But something I need a small bit of help with.”
“Uh huh.” Alyssa, still a little stunned from the sudden hug, wasn’t sure what else to say.
“You remember that guy you weren’t supposed to kill? The one who was to stab you?”
“Well, do you remember what I said immediately after you killed him?”
Alyssa blinked. That had been a fairly hectic night. Lots had happened. Meeting an angel and being sent to some weird world among them. On a line-by-line basis, she couldn’t remember anything specific. So she shook her head.
“Originally, before you mucked things up, he was supposed to live for a few months before killing himself by hanging. Now, I’ve been dashing back and forth between here and Earth, puppeting him about, making his body interact with the important people he was supposed to interact with. But, in a few hours’ time, he runs across someone in a dark alley while fleeing from your law enforcement officers. That someone might get… a little hurt. And die. And I don’t think I can—”
“Oh come now, Alyssa. Be reasonable.”
“You want me to go kill some random innocent person?” Alyssa said, pulling away from Tenebrael. Without a broken leg, she had all the maneuverability needed to put distance between herself and the angel. “Absolutely not. I can’t even believe that you would suggest that.”
“How many people have you killed today? What’s one more?”
“These people,” Alyssa said, waving the staff around, “were planning to use mind controlled ants to commit genocide. You’re asking me to… what? Kill some poor homeless man in an alley because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? I can’t even—”
“Aren’t you creating selfish, arbitrary justifications for your own conscience?” Tenebrael took a step closer, smile still just as gentle as could be. “This murder was in self defense. This murder was because the person was bad. This murder was because he was planning something that you didn’t like. At the end of the day, someone is dead. Several someones in today’s case.”
Alyssa hesitated. It was different. Self defense was justifiable. In… mortal courts. For an angel… What did Tenebrael expect her to do? Just lie down and let the likes of the Taker send her to an early grave?
“All mortals do the same, so don’t feel bad, Alyssa.”
“And angels are different?” Alyssa shot back.
“Of course! An angel would nev… er…” Trailing off, Tenebrael glanced to the side, to where Irulon was still frozen in the stasis of Fractal Lock. After staring for a moment, she started laughing. “Amazing! Awe-inspiring. What a terrific and horrid occurrence. An angel harming a mortal?”
“So why not go do it yourself if it is so important.” The words tasted like ash on her tongue, but that didn’t stop her from saying them. “Clearly you can harm humans. Or you can lie, whichever one. Both, probably.”
“I… I can’t. I don’t know how.”
“What do you mean? You tried to get me to point my gun at Cid way back when. You have watched plenty of people kill other people. You clearly know—”
“I can’t.” The smile disappeared, replaced with a grinding of her teeth. Clenching her fists, Tenebrael looked away. “The moment I try to consider an action that would directly lead to me harming a mortal, it’s like… every thought I have turns to static. I don’t want to harm most humans, but there have been times where I just shut down completely until an event passes, unable to do anything but carry out my duties. I don’t have a choice.”
The angel blinked twice. A tremor in her wings ran from the tips to her spine. Her smile slowly returned, though it wasn’t quite as happy as it had been when she had hugged Alyssa.
“Which is why it needs to be you. Take solace in knowing that not a single soul has been judged before the Throne since… a long, long time ago. Which is another great reason why you shouldn’t feel bad about carrying out my little task. All you need to do is come up with a flimsy justification that will let you sleep at night.” The angel paused a moment, reaching back behind her to pull out another little black book. This one, instead of having a black bookmark, had a thin golden ribbon stuck between the pages. “Would it help if I offered excerpts from his history?” she said, opening the book. Not to the bookmarked page, but several pages prior to it. “He was a soldier in your government’s army. Noble of him, ah, but he stole and sold essential radio parts on the black market before eventually deserting, leaving three of his comrades to die in—”
“Stop. Just stop!” Alyssa shouted. “Why do you even need to kill him anyway? The books automatically update themselves. We learned that from your experiment with Irulon. Just ignore him and no one will know.”
“That is true… here. But look at this.” Tenebrael turned the book around and flipped forward to the golden bookmark.
Alyssa just shook her head, shoving it away from her. “I can’t read that.”
The light in Tenebrael’s eyes died momentarily as she blinked. “Right. Sorry. Well, the other day when I gave you the time of Irulon’s death, I was watching the book intently. At first, there were no changes. But as you started acting, killing monsters and those people and even contacting various people, the book started altering. Events changed until everything in the book aligned with the outcome. Even flipping back a few pages shows no sign that Irulon was ever supposed to die. You changed the book of this world.
“This book, Iosefael’s book, is different. Back to the page of that night, it still says that she is to collect and process your soul at the time you were supposed to die. It still says that the man I’ve been controlling like a puppet is alive. Nothing has changed.”
Alyssa sat down. Right in the dirt. It didn’t matter where. Even with her leg healed and the pain gone, she still felt exhausted. Talking with Tenebrael, talking about all this death, wasn’t helping. So she sat cross-legged and just sighed. The staff was too long to hold onto properly while sitting on the ground and she wasn’t about to let go of it in Tenebrael’s presence, so she had to rest it across her lap. After one more sigh, she looked up to the angel.
Tenebrael had moved as well, floating in the air as if lounging on an invisible fainting couch.
“What does that mean? Your book, the book that records events here, changes. But Earth’s book doesn’t?”
“Earth is mildly unique in that it was the first world that the Throne enacted its plan upon. Every other world, those granted to us Dominions, is generally designed in likeness to Earth. Each is different, but you might find common events occurring in the histories of them that mirror Earth’s history.”
Frowning, Alyssa glanced toward the frozen form of the draken.
“Indeed. Earth had its own Age of Legends. Dinosaur fossils are a remnant of the most ancient parts of it, but much of the various mythologies and religions stem from legends as well. That is why you have likely heard of many of the relics—the monsters—here.”
“Humans never interacted with living dinosaurs,” Alyssa said, wondering if she had been more correct in likening the draken to movie dinosaurs than she had originally thought. “And I’m pretty sure the same goes for harpies and gorgon as well, if they were ever real on Earth.”
“True. Which leaves us with a puzzle. Without going through you, I would never have been able to save Irulon that night. I… can’t heal her myself,” Tenebrael said, glancing to the side. “Not unless I am ordered to. Maybe I could have tried knocking down a building, but it would have turned out the same in the end. You, however, I can tell information to that will change the book. You, I can heal without hesitation. You can change the book all on your own without a word from me.
“And yet, your continued survival hasn’t changed Iosefael’s book in the slightest.”
“That’s nice and all,” Alyssa said after several seconds of silence, “but this is all the circumstances. None of it is the why or the how. Unless this is a long and roundabout way of saying that you don’t know.”
“Yes. We need more information. When I brought you here, you had no agency. I brought you here without regard toward your own will. All your actions that have changed my book were under your agency. I believe that is the primary difference. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, we cannot use this as an opportunity to test whether or not you taking agency will result in alterations within Earth’s book. Here, there are no angels aside from myself… and Adrael, apparently. Earth is flooded with Principalities and other minor angels who will notice should something not go according to plan.”
Alyssa narrowed her eyes. Back to this topic again. “Argue all you want, I am not going to go kill some random guy.”
“But if the Seraphim find out, it won’t be good for either of us.”
“You told me that the Seraphim were vegetables. What were your exact words? I’d have a more engaging conversation with a wall?”
“I also told you that angels could not harm mortals.” She glanced over and stared at Irulon then to the staff resting in Alyssa’s lap. “I don’t know how that happened. I cannot even offer a theory. But, after all this unpleasant business is dealt with, I plan on tracking down Adrael and getting my answers.” Shifting her positing from the floating lounge to standing straight, Tenebrael looked down at Alyssa. “Shall we get going? It is a bit early, but I did promise a bath and ammunition.”
Gritting her teeth, Alyssa gripped the staff. She didn’t want to attack Tenebrael. Strange as it was, Tenebrael wound up being more of an ally than the enemy Alyssa had initially viewed her as. Annoying, yes, but at least she wasn’t hostile. Since she wanted to ruin whatever plan there was, she and maybe Iosefael were the only two angels who didn’t want Alyssa dead.
But this? She might have become a killer. Some might even call her a murderer. But she was not going to kill someone for happening across someone who was already dead. Although… maybe he could die.
“I have a few questions, first. Several, in fact. First: Why do Iosefael and Adrael think your world is messed up when you literally cannot change what is written in that little book of yours? Doesn’t that mean that keeping monsters around, making yourself into some kind of deity, and even winding up with a whole village named after you was all preordained within the book? And secondly: If you can’t take any actions that would result in the book producing errors, how could you tell me that Irulon was going to die? For that matter, how am I here? I clearly wasn’t in the plan yet you were able to bring me here.”
“The last one is easiest to answer. We were on Earth. I don’t believe that I am beholden to Iosefael’s book the way I am to mine, so I was able to take you. As for the previous question—and this might be related to how I was able to bring you to Nod—my book doesn’t predict you. You have no entries in the entire thing. Not even now. So, even though it did change what was written down, the book didn’t say that I couldn’t tell you. It didn’t think that speaking to you would change Irulon’s fate and allowed it.”
“Mhm. And the rest?”
“I’m… less certain about. I can only assume that the way it is today is the way my world was always intended to be, though my fellow angels clearly disagree.”
“And what about Adrael? Was the Society of the Burning Shadow according to the book? Because from what I’ve seen, it looks like she created it.”
“I would say that it must have originally included everything that she has done, except for the little problem of her harming a mortal. With that in mind, we have to assume that she might be more like you than like a proper angel. I’d have to know exactly what she has done here and what she plans here and compare current events to the book. I haven’t noticed anything changing that didn’t involve you, but I also haven’t read ahead in… a very long time. After realizing the futility of it all, I decided that not knowing was better.”
“Perhaps it is time you start.”
Taking a deep breath, Alyssa planted the staff’s end into the ground. It didn’t weigh much, especially given the gold it was apparently made out of, but holding it out was still a strain after a while. Having the ground take off some of that strain was more than welcome.
“One last thing.” Alyssa looked over to Irulon and to the draken. “I’m not just going to leave them out here for several hours. They might be decently protected within Fractal Lock, but all it would take is for someone to happen by and use Desecrate Spells. We already know that the Society of the Burning Shadow called for reinforcements.”
Pulling out the book with the black ribbon again, Tenebrael flipped through it, running a finger down each page before moving on to the next. Snapping the book shut, she flicked her glowing eyes back to Alyssa. “Nothing should happen to them within the few hours we’ll be gone.”
“We just discussed this! Your books either change or are outright wrong!” Alyssa sighed, shaking her head. “And if Adrael comes back, they could be in even more danger. She could manipulate someone into hurting them or just do it herself.”
Although her face didn’t change much, the tips of her wings twitched. “I… don’t deny the possibility. But I don’t know that I can do much for them. They aren’t going to die soon as far as I can tell and that’s all the book cares about.”
“You don’t have to. Let me do it. Teach me a spell. Magic. Or is it miracles?” Alyssa shook her head. To her, there was no distinction. Both were supernatural effects. “There has to be something that we can do together. Let’s drop them into a pocket dimension. Or make them utterly impervious to harm from any source, angel or mortal. Or… anything.” Alyssa almost said to simply free them from their stasis. With that gone, they could at least run away. But… could they run away if Adrael came back? Alyssa wasn’t so sure. “Or… Or why don’t we take them to Earth with us?”
“They’re in stasis, so they’re not going to do anything. And if they aren’t supposed to have their stasis removed for several hours, then they wouldn’t interact with anything here. Which means that it doesn’t matter if they’re here or not here, so you should be able to do that yourself.”
“What are you planning, Alyssa Meadows?” Tenebrael asked with narrowed eyes.
“Nothing. I promise. I am just trying to keep them safe. I swear I won’t try to remove their stasis while we’re on Earth if you bring them with us.”
Alyssa wanted to learn magic and miracles. It was the key to getting home and getting rid of her feathery menaces. But she wanted Irulon and Izsha’s safety more than that.
It was somewhat upsetting how much the princess needed rescuing. A Rank Six arcanist, the pinnacle of humanity’s magic casters, shouldn’t be so vulnerable. Though, perhaps nothing was invulnerable when an angel was concerned.
The gaunt, Irulon had less of an excuse for. Sure, the species might resist magic, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t have used Loophole or even just Fractal Locked herself before being stabbed.
Initially, Alyssa had been focused on offensive spells and weapons. From her mundane pistols all the way up to Fireballs and Spectral Axes, she felt like that base was covered. Sure, it might not be the most expansive array of equipment, but it worked. Together with Irulon and the draken, she had depopulated a small village. Not a village. A military compound, she reminded herself. Yet, on the opposite end of the spectrum, she had nothing much at all.
It might be time to look into more defensive tools to add to her repertoire. Irulon had a few, mostly Fractal nonsense. Fractal Lock certainly worked. But it wasn’t very practical for most cases. Having a nice shield that she could hold up so that the Taker couldn’t fling throwing knives at her would change everything. And Irulon might need some too, if she wasn’t just being overly complicated or overly stingy.
But that would be a topic to broach when the princess got back to normal.
For now… Earth.
“Are you going to do it? Bring them with us?”
“I think I can. The fact that I can think about it at all is telling.”
“Good,” Alyssa said, turning away for a moment. She looked over the bodies and the destruction, mildly wondering if that hellhound had found any more. Had she done the right thing here? Killing all these people? Even if all her and Irulon’s assumptions about their intentions for the ant hive had been false, they were still holding monsters—people against their will. They had used that smoke to control fairies and manipulate them into warring against Lyria.
Did that justify killing them? Or was she making excuses like Tenebrael had said she was?
At least they wouldn’t be hurting anyone innocent now.
An innocent person on Earth, however, was another matter entirely. Alyssa was not going to kill him just because a book told her that he was supposed to die.
But going to Earth was worth letting Tenebrael think that she was.
Before turning back to the angel, Alyssa called her phone to her hand. She quickly turned on the video recorder, faced the camera upward, and kept it behind her back as she turned. Angels were not omniscient. That was a fact that she had to keep in mind.
Tenebrael’s gentle smile greeted her.
Alyssa felt her stomach clench. Did she know? No. She couldn’t. There was no way that Tenebrael would let her record the spell that transferred them between worlds. If Tenebrael knew, she would put a stop to it. Maybe even by taking the phone away entirely. That would be the worst scenario. But until such time, Alyssa tried to match the angel’s smile.
“Shall we go?”