Alyssa’s heart skipped a beat as she heard the garage door creak open. It was such a familiar noise. She honestly hadn’t believed that she was homesick, but being around so much nostalgia was trying. The footsteps through the laundry room were softer than she remembered. Is that a sign of depression? Or am I imagining things?
She didn’t get a chance to consider her own question.
“Mom,” Alyssa whispered to herself.
The woman who just crossed the hall into the kitchen didn’t notice. She couldn’t notice. Alyssa’s mother hung her keys on the hook right next to the doorway. With hardened eyes, she looked around, only to let out a small sigh. Despite staring right at Alyssa while looking around, she didn’t see anything.
Tenebrael hadn’t undone the invisibility—she hovered nearby, strangely silent as she watched Alyssa.
For her part, Alyssa was practically chewing her fingernails. Was it just her or did her mother look thinner than she last remembered? It wasn’t to the point of malnutrition, but she had definitely lost weight. And her hair, it had a serious case of grey color at the roots. Her mother wasn’t that old. Stress supposedly could make hair lose its color, but…
“Can’t you let me talk to her yet?”
“She needs to grab some food from the closet. If we were acting things out properly, this would be the part where your murderer is trying to decide whether he should leave your room to investigate the noise your mother made coming home. He does, but not for another minute.”
“You can arrange everything however it needs to be arranged.”
“True. However, do you really want to start a conversation only to have to stop it to shoot her double? I was planning on freezing her completely. Unless you want her to watch you murder her.”
Grimacing, Alyssa had to nod. She would rather not let her mother see what she was about to do. Would Alyssa tell her later on? It would be difficult to hide most of the things she had done on Nod. Not unless Alyssa dumped her off with Chris and Jason and proceeded to ignore her the way she was neglecting the two of them. That was something Alyssa wouldn’t be able to do, let alone wanted to do.
But the things on Earth. Murdering people who had already died once to save a few people… Her mother wouldn’t be upset with that. Surely. Having been in the military, having been deployed overseas in Afghanistan and Bosnia, she had to have seen things. The rug in the hallway had been a gift from a governor—or something equivalent—that her mother had received while training the Afghani police a few years back. He had apparently been assassinated only a few days later. Had her mother actually killed anyone? Alyssa couldn’t say. It wasn’t something they had ever talked about. But she wouldn’t have stuck with the military if she hadn’t believed that some needed to fight and some needed to be fought.
Besides, it wasn’t like Alyssa was killing people to save other people. At least not in the case of Chris and Jason and… this incident. They were people who already died. So no problem there. Probably. Really, Alyssa should worry far more over what her mother would think of her killing dozens in that Society outpost.
She would have to worry over that later. When she actually had a chance to talk with her mother.
Alyssa’s thoughts came to a crashing halt as a glass jar shattered against the floor. She had been so absorbed in herself that she hadn’t noticed the murderer rounding the corner. Her mother had noticed, but he had a pistol raised, aimed at her.
“Partially severing target’s connection to this world.”
“Here is the duplicate,” Tenebrael said, sliding the still form of Alyssa’s mother to the side and moving an identical copy into her place. “Take the pistol from him then get ready to shoot once here—” She tapped just under the right breast of the copy. “—and here.” Left side, just a bit higher than the first shot. “As soon as I put the soul in, go ahead and fire.”
That queasy sensation in Alyssa’s stomach started rising again. What if something went wrong? What if Tenebrael mixed up the bodies? She wouldn’t. That would be something she would know would piss Alyssa off permanently. If Alyssa wound up shooting her own mother because of Tenebrael’s mix-up… she didn’t even want to think about it. It would make her Tenebrael’s enemy for as long as she lived. Possibly after as well.
How would she fight against Tenebrael if she couldn’t learn angelic magic? A brief image of the Taker’s burning red eyes flashed through her mind.
Shuddering, Alyssa shook her head. It wouldn’t happen. But, just to be sure, Alyssa didn’t so much as blink as she took the pistol from the meat puppet. Her eyes remained locked on her mother. Her real mother, not the fake doll that Tenebrael had prepared.
The crystallized soul expanded out into a smoky mist. With a nod to Alyssa, Tenebrael pressed the soul into the body. Her hands hardly moved, but the mist rushed in as if the body were a vacuum. The second the last of the mist disappeared, Alyssa squeezed the trigger, forcing herself to keep her eyes open. Both shots hit right where Tenebrael had marked. The body fell backward and… writhed. It jerked and twitched. Its fingers scraped across the linoleum floor, failing to find purchase.
“She… it isn’t dead.”
“Technically speaking, this body doesn’t actually die here. Neighbors heard the gunshots and will call emergency services. This body dies about one minute after paramedics arrive. Blood loss. This one actually dies first,” she said, turning to the meat puppet. “And you’re going to kill it in a strange way.”
Alyssa couldn’t tear her eyes away from the… body. Her mother. It had her mother’s face. The contorted, twisting… it was clearly trying to scream, but it wasn’t succeeding. All it managed was a wet noise, like someone with a particularly bad cough. It just kept—
Tenebrael moved, blocking Alyssa’s sight of the body. Yet Alyssa still couldn’t turn her head. With the angel in the way, all Alyssa could see was the cleavage slit in the black dress. Tenebrael’s warm fingers touched Alyssa’s chin, pointing her gaze upward. “Don’t focus on that.” Those warm fingers gently turned Alyssa’s head to the side. “That is your mother. The thing on the ground doesn’t matter. Ignore it. Now hold it together, Alyssa. We’re almost done here.”
The angel’s arm dropped down to Alyssa’s shoulder. With the lightest touch, she turned Alyssa around and started guiding her to the hallway and, from there, toward Alyssa’s room.
A makeshift noose had been set up in the doorway. Fishing wire looped around the light fixture. It didn’t look like it would hold a grown man, but it had to work or they wouldn’t be here. Being on the run had emaciated the man compared to how Alyssa remembered him looking the night all this began. That probably helped.
The meat puppet floated up off the ground, resting its neck right on the line of fishing wire. But it didn’t actually put weight on it.
“Iosefael knows that you escaped your death, but she doesn’t know that this man has. So we need to put a soul in him.” Tenebrael held up another soul gem. This time, she held it out for Alyssa. “I don’t think I can, so it is up to you. I’ll let the body drop. You put the soul into the body.”
Alyssa stared at it before flicking her eyes to Tenebrael. “What—” she coughed. Her throat had dried out again. Swallowing what little saliva she had, Alyssa tried again. “What was your plan if I hadn’t come up with putting souls in corpses?”
“I thought I would openly steal her book again, locking her up in the process. It is what I did the night we first met, which is why I found you instead of her. I could have pretended to take his soul. But I don’t know that she would let me steal it again and not run crying to the Astral Authority. Besides, doing so is far more disruptive. This way is better. Less chance of our misdeeds being discovered.”
Taking the gem, Alyssa just stared. “I don’t know how.”
“Oh come now Alyssa. Where is your drive? You crystallized souls using pure willpower after seeing it happen only once. Now just do the opposite and shove it into the body!”
Rubbing her thumb over the smooth facets of the crystal, Alyssa closed her eyes. How had the soul felt when she had first touched one? She could barely remember. And it wasn’t just because her thoughts were preoccupied with her mother. When she had been crystallizing souls at the outpost, she had been in a rush. Panicked, even. It had been a war zone.
“We are on a time limit.”
Alyssa glared as she opened her eyes. “Why didn’t we practice this?”
“You do well under pressure. If you don’t get it in the next minute or two, I do have a backup plan. But do try.”
“Didn’t you say that my eyes glowing was the whole reason I was able to manipulate souls into their crystal forms last time?”
“The eyes glowing is a side effect, but that is a theory only. Still, in the interest of making progress…” Tenebrael clapped her hands together. When she pulled them apart, her unique black light formed strands. It looked like she used yarn to make a cat’s cradle. “This should be similar to the miracle Adrael performed.”
Alyssa reached out and touched one of the strands. Her fingers closed around it. As soon as she pulled, she felt it. Just like with Adrael’s net. Warmth spread up her arm, filling her body. Compared to being connected to Tenebrael, it was just a tiny match against a roaring bonfire, but it was similar enough. She couldn’t see her own eyes at the moment—every bit of furniture in her room was gone, including the mirror that usually hung on the wall above where her bed normally sat. Still, it was the same feeling in her body. Her eyes probably were glowing.
Looking back to the gem in her hands, Alyssa tried pulling it apart. Willing it apart.
As soon as she imagined it returning to the misty form, it expanded outward. It barely took any effort at all.
“This certainly lends credence to my theory.”
“What do I do now?” Alyssa asked, staring at the soul. She wasn’t in any state to discuss whatever theories Tenebrael had. There would be time for that later. She just needed to get through tonight.
“Now wait until I release the body. Then just push the soul inside. You’ve watched me do it a few times, haven’t you? Copy that. Don’t worry. The soul wants to be in a living body. It will end up doing most of the work.”
“My dad doesn’t… come home to find this, does he?”
“Didn’t I just say? Neighbors called the police. They get here first. Get ready.”
As soon as Tenebrael spoke, the body lowered slightly. The fishing line bit into the neck. Yet the body didn’t struggle.
Not until Alyssa pushed. The mist rushed into the body. And it started…
Whatever it started doing, Alyssa didn’t get a chance to see much of it. Thankfully. Tenebrael’s wings wrapped around her, obscuring her view of anything but black feathers.
When the wings parted, Alyssa found herself in a bathroom. A modern home bathroom with a little potted flower sitting atop the toilet tank, two electronic toothbrushes on little chargers, and a comb just lying on the counter. In the mirror, Alyssa’s eyes weren’t glowing. But she had only tugged on a small bit of Tenebrael’s magic. Not several of those huge nets like she had the first time. So it wasn’t too surprising. Still, this place wasn’t her bathroom, or any that Alyssa recognized.
Looking out the window told her exactly where she was.
She could see just over the top of the fence, right into the window of her room. The blinds were up. Or perhaps they had been torn out along with everything else in the room—she hadn’t been paying all that much attention to the window while inside. The body was out of sight, barely. But as she watched, a twitching hand waved into and back out of view.
Alyssa turned away, finding the frozen form of her mother sitting in the bathtub. “Why are we here?” she said, not taking her eyes off her mother. She didn’t want to risk looking out the window and seeing something… Having killed a number of people, she had no idea why she found everything so… disturbing. Maybe it was the idea that some poor guy—who she hoped was a murderer back on Nod—had died only to wake up in an foreign body hanging from a rope. How long did it take to fall unconscious from asphyxiation?
And the other body. Her mother’s double. It wasn’t going to die for… ten minutes, at least. For how long would the person inside it be there, dying a second time.
All she could do was hope that they really deserved it.
“One moment,” the angel said, holding up a finger without taking her eyes off the window. “We need to make sure that Iosefael takes the souls.”
“All the other angels did. Why would she be any different?”
“Iosefael loves humans. A true, pure love. If anyone is going to be meticulous about souls, it would be her.”
“She wanted me dead. Probably still wants me dead.”
“Not something she can help. It is the duty of Principalities to deliver the souls of the departed to the Throne. You missing your departure weighs on her, but I think I’ve convinced her to let it rest. Finding out that other people haven’t died on schedule will… probably not be a good thing.”
“If she’s going to check the souls, maybe you should go distract her. Make up some excuse about how I wanted to know what happened to my murderer, or whatever.”
“I’d rather she not know either of us were here, if at all possible.” Tenebrael held up her whole hand. “Quiet. She just arrived.”
Despite the risk of seeing something she really didn’t care to see, Alyssa turned to the window. Golden-white feathers were drifting about the room. Right in view of the window, a familiar angel wearing gold armor stood by with a forlorn expression on her face. It was out of view, but her wings clearly brushed across the corpse. That familiar white mist curled around her feathers, drawing up into her cupped palms.
Her skin never touched the crystal as it formed. It hovered in the air. She certainly stared at it for a lot longer than either of the other angels.
It happened in slow motion. The tranquil sorrow on Iosefael’s face shifted to confusion. Raised eyebrows. Narrowed eyes. Lips pursed in thought. The crystal turned over in her hands, facets reflecting what little light they could as they moved around and around.
“She’s going to figure it out,” Alyssa said.
Tenebrael was already gone. Feathers were drifting to the ground both in the bathroom and in Alyssa’s room.
Iosefael turned, but it was too late. Tenebrael had her hand extended, magic circle already exploding out from her fingertip. Both of them were speaking, but Alyssa couldn’t hear what from the neighbor’s house.
A sword flashed into Iosefael’s hand as she kept the soul crystal close to her chest. Before she could move, iron manacles snapped around her wrists. Chains lashing into the corners of the room pulled taut, spreading her arms as far apart as they would go.
Tenebrael, hands now clasped behind her back, started talking. Iosefael interrupted her with what looked like a shout. The argument went on and on, but it didn’t look like it would escalate. Or rather, Iosefael couldn’t do anything with those restraints binding her.
Sighing, Alyssa looked down to the bathtub. She didn’t want to take her eyes off the angels just in case something happened. At the same time, her mother was right there.
Her mother. Face frozen in a look of surprise. Hands outstretched like they would help defend against a gun. Alyssa rested her hand on her mother’s shoulder.
Those stupid angels need to hurry up. Could Tenebrael even detain Iosefael for long? Collecting souls was a job that didn’t seem like it would give much break time. It was a depressing thought, but people were always dying. Their souls were rotting in their corpses while these two butted heads.
Or so she thought, but her real reason for wanting them to hurry was far more selfish.
Do I even need them? Her mother was right here. Tenebrael had locked her in place, but that was just a miracle. She had torn apart tons of those with her bare hands.
Alyssa’s hand tightened on her mother’s shoulder.
Her mother gasped. The stiffness that kept her half-propped up in the tub vanished, leaving her falling a few inches. Even with the sudden shock that had to come with finding herself on her back and looking up at an unfamiliar ceiling, she still reacted faster than Alyssa could handle.
Two hands gripped Alyssa’s arm. The world spun. With a grunt, Alyssa’s face hit the tile floor as a weight pressed against her back. She hadn’t even seen her mother move and she still wound up pinned down. Just trying to figure out how her mother got out of the tub was boggling Alyssa’s mind.
But she wasn’t panicking. If this had been the Taker, Morgan, or even Octavia, Alyssa would have been thrashing and trying every spell in her deck even though she didn’t have it on her. But it wasn’t any of them. It wasn’t an enemy.
Alyssa waited, allowing her mother a minute to catch her breath—she was breathing heavily. Eventually, the pressure on her back lessened. Slowly at first. But eventually, Alyssa managed to flip over onto her back.
She stared up into her mother’s wide brown eyes. And she tried to smile. Although the corners of her mouth twitched upward, she wasn’t quite sure that she managed with the rest of her face.
“Hi. Mom. It’s me.”