There and Back Again
“Oh come now Alyssa, be reasonable. We don’t have time to sit around and argue.”
Alyssa crossed her arms, shaking her head. “No.”
The angel’s voice turned to a far less reasonable tone. Before she could get too angry, Alyssa interrupted her. “But! I have to ask: Does he actually need to die?”
Tenebrael pulled the small pistol back, frowning as she stared. “I’ve already explained quite clearly and in simple terms that yes, he does.” All hints of a good mood had vanished from Tenebrael’s words. Where they normally had an almost melodic tune to them, there was now nothing but ice. “Since you are asking, I assume that you’ve got something else to say.”
Alyssa nodded quickly, not wanting to raise more ire from the angel. Even with all she had done, all the insults she had thrown at the angel and all the complaints, she couldn’t remember Tenebrael being so… angry. Only killing the man who was supposed to kill Alyssa had stripped Tenebrael of her constant air of bemusement before. Even then, she hadn’t been angry. Worried, yes. And that only lasted until she had settled on her decision to kidnap Alyssa.
Speaking of… “Did I need to die?”
That got Tenebrael to blink. She was still frowning, but she did raise an eyebrow.
Alyssa took that as a cue to continue. “It’s quite simple. I would say that I’m surprised that you haven’t thought of it except you’ve already told me that you literally can’t consider some options. He doesn’t need to die to keep the timeline going, or whatever. Just do what you did to me. There were news reports after I got to your world that claimed I had died. You made a fake body, right? Do that now. Bring the guy back here while leaving his fake body in the alley, then send us all back to Nod.”
It was such a simple solution. The guy might not be too happy—Alyssa sure as hell hadn’t been—but it was better than being dead. Alyssa didn’t have to kill anyone innocent, which was a nice plus. The fake dead body could be found by police, thus preserving the future. A perfect plan, if she said so herself.
“Won’t work,” Tenebrael said, shaking her head. Reaching forward, she grabbed Alyssa’s hand, pressed the pistol into her palm, and closed her fingers around its grip. “Now, if you don’t mind…”
The stupid angel sure knew how to bring down her good mood. “Why not?”
“With you, I had possession of Iosefael’s book. She was the one in charge of collecting your soul, originally. The same isn’t the case here. Another Principality has authority over this death. If she shows up and finds a body with no soul, she is going to start investigating. I’ve already got problems with Iosefael and now Adrael. I can’t just go around tying up every angel that crosses my path.”
Alyssa glanced down at the pistol in her hand. It was her turn to scowl. “Can’t you?”
“No. Someday, I’ll have granted myself the autonomy and authority required to do something like that. But that day is not today. I’m sorry. I know you don’t want—”
“So this angel expects to find a soul with this body. You’re just missing a soul to give her?”
“You’ve made a valiant attempt to save this man’s life,” Tenebrael said. The ice in her voice had melted to something somber. Almost as if she were sad that things had to be this way. Alyssa honestly couldn’t tell if it were genuine or not. “I want to do away with these foolish books as much as you do. If we work together, maybe we can do it. But we won’t accomplish anything if the Astral Authority crashes down on us. There isn’t enough time to return to Nod, find a suitable soul, and return. If you had mentioned this earlier…”
“We can do it now. All you’re missing is a soul,” Alyssa said, getting a little excited. She started moving away from the angel. “I have one right here.”
Tenebrael’s eyes widened. Faster than Alyssa had seen her move before, the angel clasped her hands around Alyssa’s. Or, more specifically, the gun in Alyssa’s hand. “You fool. I’m not letting you kill yourself over this. I won’t be able to heal you if you shoot yourself in the head.”
Alyssa blinked, shook her head, and tried yanking her arm out of the angel’s grip.
It didn’t budge.
“I’m not suicidal.” Ugh. Stupid angel. “Give me my hand back and look.”
They were still in the bathroom. Neither had moved a step since Tenebrael appeared. But, in addition to dropping her armor, she had also dropped her satchel here. When, after hesitating a moment, Tenebrael let her go, Alyssa headed straight for the satchel. She set the gun on the ground, rummaging through it. Bits and bobs that she had collected went to the floor as she dug through it. Notebooks, pens, ink vials, a dagger, bullets, magazines, a protein bar that looked a lot flatter than it should have been.
“Here!” Grasping a misshapen gemstone, Alyssa got back to her feet. “Can’t you just shove this into a fake body.”
Shoving it into Tenebrael’s hands, the angel had no choice but to accept it. At first, she looked dismissive. Alyssa thought she caught her eyes rolling. It was hard to tell with the glow. But the dismissive attitude quickly vanished. She brought the crystal right up to her face, turning it over. It started floating above her fingertips, rotating in the air.
“Why—How do you have this? Did Iosefael… no, she couldn’t have.”
“Does it matter right now? You said we’re low on time. Can you use it or can’t you?”
“I… might be able to disguise it well enough.” Clenching her fist around the gem, she nodded her head. “Alright. We’ll try it your way. If the entirety of creation comes down on us, I will make sure you know it was your fault every second until our obliteration.”
“Just think of it as an experiment. We’re testing whether or not someone else introduced to your world can perceive you and how your book reacts to their presence.”
“There are safer ways to do that than muddling about with Earth.”
Alyssa could only shrug and smile. While she was glad that Tenebrael was listening to her, the smile was a nervous sort. Now that she was actually thinking about it, what if she did cause the Astral Authority to notice Tenebrael’s actions. It could be her fault that the entirety of Nod wound up destroyed.
“Grab the pistol. We’ll still need it.”
Glancing over to the mess on the floor, Alyssa hesitated, but eventually nodded. “Right.” If whatever Tenebrael had planned didn’t work… well, she might not have much choice then. If it came down to one person versus an entire planet, Alyssa couldn’t, in good conscience, not pull the trigger. Could she? Shuddering, Alyssa picked up the pistol, hoping that she wouldn’t have to find out.
Alyssa stiffened as a pair of arms and two pairs of black wings encircled her from behind. All light cut off, save for a faint white projecting on the inside of the wings. It had to be from Tenebrael’s glowing eyes. But the angel didn’t say a word. Neither did Alyssa.
She barely felt anything at all. The first thing she did feel was the air. The apartment had been a fairly average room temperature. Outdoors at night was a bit chilly, even through her thick bathrobe. As the wings parted, Alyssa saw the telltale sign of Tenebrael’s teleportation drifting to the ground around her. Each feather disappeared on contact with anything solid until all that was left was a dark alley with a flickering street lamp.
Blinking a few times to try to get her eyes back to normal after going through a sudden light change, Alyssa took a step away from Tenebrael.
And immediately regretted moving.
“Ugh. I just took a bath.” The bottoms of her calloused feet were scraping against the wet alley asphalt. “Couldn’t you have let me put on some shoes first? I’m going to cut my feet on a broken beer bottle and die of dysentery.”
“You don’t get dysentery from stepping on broken glass. And we have other things to worry about at the moment.” Tenebrael waved her hand to a large garbage bin only a few steps away. “That is our target.”
At first, Alyssa thought the angel was joking around. Then she saw it. She had thought that a large bag of trash was leaning up against the bin, but no. There was definitely a man in there. Eyes better adjusted to the darkness, she could easily make out the thick beard, dripping with water. A bit of cardboard, pinned between the man’s head and the metal garbage bin, did little to keep the pouring rain from soaking the man.
Alyssa hadn’t even realized it was raining. None of it was touching her. Glancing up, she could barely see droplets splashing against an invisible shield. The water disappeared as it ran down, making her view completely unobstructed.
Looking back down, she couldn’t help the grimace on her face. Couldn’t the poor man find a bridge or an overpass to hide under, at the very least? Some overhang that would keep him dry as he slept? How could anyone even sleep like this? As of late, Alyssa had no trouble sleeping under the stars, but during a monsoon? No way would she be able to do so. And with two people talking right in front of her? She would be awake in an instant, though Tenebrael was probably invisible. She might have done something to turn Alyssa invisible too.
Yet, despite the rain, at least, he looked almost peaceful in his slumber. His face, rugged and weathered, was at peace. If she hadn’t known that he was supposed to be shot to death, she might have thought that he was already dead.
“Do you regret trying to save him now, after seeing what he looks like?”
“No.” He was pitiful. Tenebrael had said that he had once been in the military. Alyssa’s mother had been in the military as well. Had things been different, she could have wound up in his place. Of course, he stole and deserted. Her mother hadn’t. Alyssa wouldn’t be surprised to find that he had spent a while in prison, military or regular. It had clearly taken its toll on him. She couldn’t even begin to guess his age. Late fifties, maybe? He could just as easily be in his early thirties. “I feel sorry for him.”
“Oh? How many people at street corners holding up cardboard signs have you driven past on your way to work. How many have you stopped for? Have you ever handed out a dime to any of them? What makes this one so special that you’ve got to go out of your way to save him?”
Tearing her eyes from the trash bag and the human inside, Alyssa glared at the angel. She… didn’t want to answer that question. It brought up disconcerting feelings. “I’m not a good person, alright? I think all the… deaths… all the murders I’ve committed speak to that. But I’m not a psychopath. If you put someone in front of me like this, of course I’m going to feel sorry for them. I might have driven past a hundred homeless people in my life, always trying to avoid eye contact. That doesn’t mean my first instinct is to shoot them.”
Tenebrael didn’t say anything aside from a soft hum.
“Maybe Nod will be good for him. He clearly isn’t getting what he needs here.”
“If you haven’t changed your mind about killing him, I suppose we’ll find out.”
Alyssa almost shouted at the angel, but Tenebrael didn’t even look her way before she raised a hand.
“Partially severing target’s connection to this world.”
A rather familiar set of symbols rose up around Tenebrael’s outstretched hand. It wasn’t quite Fractal Lock, but there were definitely a few similarities. A few subtle movements around the man vanished as the miracle took effect. His breathing, which Alyssa had barely noticed before, stilled, as did the slight movement behind his closed eyelids. The water running from his form changed the way it flowed. His beard remained as stiff as stone, no longer pushed about by the currents. The ripples in the bag around his body stopped their minor fluctuations with his body’s movement and the weight of the rain.
“Matter generation,” Tenebrael said, pointing slightly to one side. “Water, carbon, ammonia, lime, phosphorous, salt…” she trailed off, sounding almost hesitant before finally finishing, “and the rest.”
“And the rest? That doesn’t sound very exact.”
“It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to hold a soul long enough for an angel to collect it, then remain in one piece until it is buried underground. Now stop distracting me.” The glow in the angel’s eyes cut off as she closed them. At the same time, the blackish white light around her fingernails brightened. “Weaving,” she said, simply.
In front of Alyssa’s eyes, a body started to form. The process started with a yellowish goop that quickly wound up surrounded by a white plaster, forming the shape of bones. She recognized the hips, femurs, spine, ribs, and skull. Soon enough, Alyssa was standing before something out of a high school science class’ closet.
Red started wrapping around the white bones next. Seeing the muscle and the organs in the torso had her feeling a little queasy, but what really made her turn away was the eyeballs. Dark brown eyes with no skin around them almost made her throw up. The noise didn’t help much either. The whole process produced one long, uninterrupted squelch. From then on, she couldn’t watch.
Turning to the alley’s entrance, Alyssa grimaced a little at the feeling under her feet as she walked a few steps away. The rain still didn’t fall on her, but whatever shield was around her didn’t stop the ground from being soaked.
The street outside the alley was more or less deserted. There were a lot of boarded up windows and faded shop signs. Never having been to Chicago, she couldn’t say where in the city she was, but it clearly wasn’t a well kept area. Sirens droned on in the distance. Remembering Tenebrael’s words about her would-be killer leading a manhunt, she wondered if they were for him. Then again, this was Chicago. There probably wasn’t a single time of the night without sirens.
Just about ready to turn back to see if Tenebrael had finished, Alyssa hesitated at seeing a shadow rushing toward the alley.
Lightning struck a building. For a single instant, she saw the face of the man from all those nights ago. A face that still haunted her dreams on occasion. The exact face that haunted her varied between three forms, the blank eyes of the dead body, the murderous rage of a man bent on killing her, and that of a father who had lost his son.
The face that flashed in the lightning was none of those. It looked alive, but Alyssa couldn’t detect a trace of emotion on the body’s face. Rather, it reminded Alyssa quite a lot of those toys that Irulon had made. Which, she supposed, might be closer to the truth than not. Whatever had become of him, Alyssa found herself detached. She had thought that she might feel something. Fear or anger, maybe regret. Without Tenebrael in the equation, him deciding to rob her house had started everything.
But she just looked at his lanky walk with dispassion. More interesting were the sirens. They sounded like they were getting louder.
It must be almost time. Alyssa could already see what was supposed to happen. Her killer would panic at seeing police, run down the alley. The victim might notice and try to stop him… or maybe just get in the way. The pistol currently in her hands could belong to either of them at this point, but it was clear who would wind up with its bullets embedded in their chest.
Flashing red and blue lights lit up the sides of the buildings. The lights were quickly followed by a pair of patrol cars. As soon as he saw them, he started sprinting straight toward Alyssa. Despite herself, she did feel her pulse jump at that. Just a little. Still, she ducked back into the alley, not wanting to be seen. She was fairly certain that nobody could see her even though she didn’t have shards of fractal magic swirling about, but just in case Tenebrael had forgotten, she didn’t take the chance.
“Are you done yet? The police are here.” They really were cutting it close.
It looked like Tenebrael was almost done. When Alyssa had turned away, the body looked like something from a horror movie. Now it looked like the twin of the man in stasis. Except… it wasn’t quite. Although she had likened him to a corpse earlier, the man in stasis was definitely alive. This thing was not. It slumped against the trash bin where the victim had been, eyes half-open with a vacant stare. This thing was a true corpse. A man whose soul had left… or rather, it had never possessed a soul in the first place.
Tenebrael had the soul crystal out, keeping it floating between her and the body. It was coming unraveled, turning from a lump of a gemstone into a smoky mist.
“When I put this soul into the body, I need you to shoot it twice. Once in the stomach and once in the left chest area. You need to be up close to leave muzzle burns on his body. So get over here.”
“Right.” Alyssa pulled out the pistol and moved right up next to Tenebrael. Holding the pistol in both hands, she checked it over, found the safety, and flicked it off.
Her would-be killer rounded the corner at the same time. Despite running like the devil was at his heels, his face still showed no expression whatsoever. Creepy, Alyssa thought with a frown. Even worse than the body in front of her because it was actually moving.
With the slight distraction of the walking corpse, Alyssa wasn’t as on the ball as she should have been. Tenebrael shoved the mist forward as if it were a solid object.
The body took a breath. Its eyes, formerly dead and vacant, lit up with life. There was a brief instant of confusion present on the bearded face.
Then it started screaming. A howl of pure despair. One that would give a shadow assassin nightmares. The eyes widened as it started clawing at its face. Fingernails dug into its skin, staining the falling rain red.
Sucking in a breath, Alyssa aimed the pistol at his stomach and pulled the trigger. What should have been a loud noise in the narrow alley was a mere pop. Despite having a hole in his chest, the man did not stop screaming. Has he even taken a breath? Gritting her teeth, Alyssa aimed upward, right where his heart should be, and fired.
Alyssa blinked. The screams were gone. The body was gone. The alley was gone. All she could see were Tenebrael’s wings, which slowly parted to reveal… a rooftop? Black feathers drifted to the flat surface around her where she stood next to a frozen man. The real one. The one in stasis. Blinking her eyes a few times, she found Tenebrael standing at the roof’s edge, looking down.
“Wh-What the hell was that?”
“Quiet,” Tenebrael said. “We are hidden, but an angel might spot us if they look hard enough.”
Clamping her mouth shut, Alyssa slowly walked toward the edge. Her legs were shaking far more than they should be. Heights always got to her, but… those screams. She shuddered, feeling like she might throw up. But she had to see. Near the edge, she dropped to her knees, not caring at all that she was staining the fluffy robe with grime.
Two police cars had parked around the alley. Their occupants were out of the vehicles, walking around. Alyssa couldn’t see any sign of the killer, but he had probably run right past Alyssa while she had been shooting the corpse. And the corpse was there. She could see it clear as day, one arm stretching out toward the alley’s entrance as it lay face down.
One of the police officers ran up to it and flipped it over. He leaned down, putting an ear to the man’s mouth as he pressed a finger onto the throat. After a moment, and after shouting something to one of the other officers, he tore open the garbage bag, pressed something up against the two wounds—it was a little hard to see what from the angle, a bandage, perhaps—and started performing chest compressions. CPR? Did CPR help bullet wounds? Maybe if the heart hadn’t been hit, but Alyssa was pretty sure she had gotten it based purely off how much blood was visible despite the rain in the alley.
It wouldn’t matter anyway. He wouldn’t survive. Already, white feathers were filling the alley. Alyssa’s stomach clenched at seeing them, fearing that Adrael was going to appear. But she didn’t. In the middle of the alley, a shorter angel popped into being. One with wild and unruly blond hair, like she had just woken up after tossing and turning all night. Not the golden color that Iosefael sported, but an almost regular blond. If that wasn’t enough of a difference, the pink ombré down at the ends proved that this wasn’t an angel Alyssa had seen before. Her wings were smaller than Iosefael’s as well. Not to mention, she was wearing a… pink tracksuit? But only the jacket.
Shaking her head, Alyssa watched as the white wings brushed against the corpse. The soul crystallized. Properly, this time. It was no longer a cancerous lump, but a smooth gemstone that wouldn’t look out of place on a piece of jewelry. Throughout the entire process, the angel looked half-asleep. Eyes half-lidded, she actually yawned before grasping the soul and shoving it into her wings.
In the next instant, the alley was empty save for the police, the corpse, and a few fluttering feathers.
“Excellent,” Tenebrael said. “Congratulations. Your plan worked. There are still two more bodies to be had, but they won’t be for another few days. I assume you wish to do the same thing to them? Save them? As there will be some time, I can collect the souls myself from the dying in Nod, but I will need help killing them after we create false bodies.”
Alyssa didn’t respond right away. Her arms were shaking. Her legs were shaking. It took a bit of willpower to tear her eyes from the alley. When she finally did, she didn’t look at Tenebrael. Her eyes moved to the man she had saved. Had it been worth it? Almost certainly. The only reason it wasn’t an absolute certainty was because of a man who had already been dead.
She didn’t know whose soul that had been. One of the ones she had collected. A member of the Society of the Burning Shadow. Probably one that she had killed, but maybe one that Izsha had bit. It didn’t really matter, did it? He was dead.
Those screams though. She had seen and heard a decent amount of things during her time in Tenebrael’s world that would have a horror writer salivating. Yet, somehow, she didn’t think that she would be sleeping tonight. Even the gaunt and the noises it made as it ate that person weren’t so bad.
Had it been because he had died? Was death truly so horrible? Perhaps it had been Alyssa’s fault for turning his soul into that lump instead of a proper gem. Or maybe it was from being brought back to life. Perhaps it was life itself that was so horrible. Unless it had been because he had been brought back into a body that wasn’t his own. That option made a decent amount of sense. Tenebrael had said that leaving souls in dead bodies caused pain and anguish. A body that wasn’t his probably wasn’t a pleasant thing to wake up to.
Whatever the case, Alyssa just shook her head. He was dead now. His soul had been taken by a proper angel at that. Ironically enough, thanks to Tenebrael, he might be the only member of the Society of the Burning Shadow that she wouldn’t end up consuming—depending on where those taken by Iosefael and Adrael ended up. This one, at least, was guaranteed to stay out of her hands. He would go… to the Throne. Whatever that was.
It took another moment, and some shuffling to get well away from the edge of the building, but Alyssa got back to her feet. She looked Tenebrael in the eyes and nodded her head. “We should save them. Unless they’re criminals and murderers, I’m not going to shoot innocent people just because your plan says that they need to die. And, if I could make a request: The souls of the bodies that I do need to kill should all be murderers from your world.”
“If that will help your conscience,” Tenebrael said with a dismissive sigh.
“It will,” Alyssa said. Her stomach still felt like it had been tied into a knot. “But for now, can we just go back to the apartment? I need a drink.”