Alinore Valmont. Jovday, Aries 14th, 2348 AA. 4:40 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum. (Girl’s Dorm – Yew)
“Come again?” Cyphira said.
“I don’t think I stuttered,” Pensey said, with vicious, alien sarcasm. “I am the rogue angel. The purgatorial that the CIC has a problem with. Well. I mean, this is Pensey,” Pensey—no, Averael—said, gesturing to her body. “I am inside Pensey. Err. That sounds wrong.”
“That’s because it is wrong. Release her. Now,” Lin demanded.
Averael blinked Pensey’s eyes slowly, then opened them again.
“Look. She is safe. She can hear you right now. She understands why I am doing this, and she has given me her consent. Okay?”
Cyphira winced and shook her head.
“Getting consent after the fact is still kinda fucked though. Let her talk to us.”
“Hey guys,” Pensey said, her intonation and expression unmistakable. “I… Uh. Yeah. I got possessed. But Averael’s trying to protect me from something really dangerous, and I don’t want to die? So. Yeah. I’m cool with it. I mean. It’s weird. I’m not exactly thrilled, but—” Pensey cleared her throat, or rather, Averael cut Pensey off by acting like he cleared her throat, and then said: “There you have it.”
“Like hell. Let her explain everything to us first, and we’ll decide whether to go get the CIC.”
Pensey, sunshine personified, smiled the coldest smile Lin had ever seen. After their fight, Cyphira’s psychotic bitch grin was branded into her brain forever. And Lin was convinced that her own mother could shatter granite by looking at it with enough disapproval. But the look in Pensey’s eyes seemed to punch her soul in the gut. And she wasn’t alone. Cyphira gasped.
“Try me,” Averael said.
Lin froze. Comprehension hit her like a biblical flood. Averael is an Angel. He is the eighth most dangerous known entity on the planet. I can’t even tell if this is his influence on me, or my own fear. Cyphira backed off, raised her hands, and tried to talk several times before she managed:
“Okay. Fair enough. Let’s start over. What are you protecting Pensey from?”
“I don’t know,” Averael said.
Lin couldn’t tell whether he was sincere, exasperated, or both.
“What happened in the arena?” Lin asked, though her voice was brittle.
I don’t sound nearly as confident as Cyphira. Goddamn it. Don’t be stupid Lin, but don’t snivel either. Your family has supposedly dealt with angels throughout history! It comes with the Valmont territory.
Averael explained as Pensey paced the room, tone deliberate, but also deliberately patient:
“I briefly incarnated in the stadium; hence the sigil. Can’t help it. Lika trans-planar calling card. But my true form is too… intense for most humans, so instead of risking harm, I put them all to sleep immediately after crossing over. Then I possessed Pensey.”
“Why?” Lin asked.
“She’s important,” Averael said. “And right now, there are… Certain factors in play that are threatening to derail the potential good that she can do for the universe.”
“I’m gonna be real with you, Avy,” she said, arms folded. “That story is paper thin and all kinds of suspicious. The CIC thinks you’re dangerous. Like, yes, I’m sure you could kill us dead with a thought, but you haven’t so far. Which means you have a reason for keeping us alive, or killing us is inconvenient. But why should we trust you?”
Lin shot Cyphira a glance and gestured caution. Cyphira, predictably, ignored her. But the angel didn’t seem phased in the slightest. Pensey turned from Lin to Cyphira, and explained:
“Because your friend will die, and your futures will grow grim.” Averael turned Pensey to face Lin and said: “You will never become a Keeper. And you,” she said to Cyphira. “You become something truly monstrous.”
“Care to be more specific?” Cyphira prodded.
“Humans comprehend time as they are meant to—”
“By who? Jesus?” Cyphira asked, mocking.
“I don’t know, and frankly I don’t give a fuck. There is a reason we are called Faithless, girlie,” Averael snapped, with far more menace than Pensey could ever manage. “Humans don’t work right when they think they know what is going to happen. Especially on planes with linear temporality. Your decision-making processes become… recursively bad. You second guess yourself until you invariably choose the worst possible outcome.”
“By what metric?”
“Death!” Pensey’s voice seemed to explode. Or rather, it did explode, but it came from inside Lin’s own mind. Averael had spoken psychically, and continued via a stream of incredibly articulate and vivid emanations. “Terrorism. Catastrophes and disasters. Disease and cancer. Famine and fear. Fucking fire and violence until the world bleeds long enough to soak the embers, okay? Very bad shit.”
Averael bowed Pensey’s head in apology and continued in an audible whisper:
“I apologize. Look. Humans love to believe Good and Evil are very complicated things. Because humans are very complicated things. But Good and Evil? That one should be abundantly clear, no matter whose book you read. Anything that creates a net deficit in love, health, creativity… anything that silences, stagnates, corrupts, or corrodes objectively Good Things is fucking Evil. And yes: it really is that simple.”
Pensey snickered with contempt and crouched on the dorm’s wooden floor.
“Do you know how long I have lived? Do you know how much shit I have seen? I was God’s Ledger. I handled payroll and business expenses for the guy who used to go by ‘Lucifer.’ So believe me when I tell you I know how to spot a fucking deficit.”
Averael looked up at Cyphira and Lin, shaking her finger:
“And forgive me for saying so ladies, but if you can’t understand why my… unique outlook on ‘life’ has me running afoul of your little wizard club, you have no business joining it. Even the assholes chasing me know it’s stupid. And I try not to hold it against them. Like, I get it. Everybody needs a job. Hard to pay your bills without a job.”
Cyphira and Lin exchanged a glance. Where is he going with this? Averael read their confusion and waved away his prior statement.
“What I’m getting at is, I don’t hate Amagia. You aren’t my enemy. The guys chasing me aren’t even my enemies. But to do what I do? I have to break their rules. Because their rules … I just… my first Lord was master enough, you know?”
Cyphira and Lin exchanged a glance that was difficult for either of them to articulate, but they instantly understood each other. We’re out of our league here.
“I must admit, I didn’t expect an angel to swear quite so much,” Lin said.
“I draw it out of people,” Cyphira said, shrugging.
Lin agreed so emphatically she nodded on reflex and then felt embarrassed. Cyphira snickered. Well. At least she’s self-aware. Averael leaned back and held forth:
“Oh, swearing is fucking great. It is the absolute tits. You know why? Grand scheme of things? It does way more Good than Evil. It is almost always cathartic. It is often hilarious. It is largely benign transgression, which is a rare and beautiful thing. Sure, occasionally, you can go too far with it, but statistically? Those are very rare exceptions. Let’s see Michael say ‘shit’ to that. Oh, wait: he can’t. Fucking prick.”
“He owe you money or something?” Cyphira asked, bored. “Seems like the sort of thing that would piss off the Angel of Debt.”
“Ha-ha. First of all, shit like that is why nobody likes you. Secondly, he forcefully expatriated me with a flaming fucking sword. I wasn’t in Heaven at the time of the Fall, so they took me as a deserter. Never gave me the chance to explain myself. Just shattered my fucking halo when I went back upstairs.”
Averael waved her hand next to Pensey’s head, and an ethereal, shattered ring of light appeared around her brow. The broken fragments of the halo were stylized to resemble a laurel crown. Is that an actual angelic halo or just an illusion? Averael continued:
“Though, I will admit. I wasn’t too keen on fighting.”
Lin thought for a second, then asked wryly:
“You have some Sympathy for the Devil?”
She was quite pleased with the joke and herself. I’m usually not good at referential humor!
“Yeah, shit like that is one of many reasons why nobody likes you.”
Coming from Pensey’s mouth, the comment made Lin wilt. Averael continued:
“I never liked Luci. He is very skilled at what he does. He is a very charming individual. But talk about your net deficits.” Averael shook Pensey’s head, like he was trying to forget something truly heinous. “That said? I knew some of the other guys who were cast into Hell. I liked some of them. I know many of them regretted the rebellion. Some of them wanted to make it up. But they’re still in the pit. Torturing and being tortured.”
Averael went quiet, and Pensey stared off into space with a pensive expression.
“I’m sorry,” Cyphira said, gesturing for a time out. “This is all metaphorical, right? Like, you have to know you and your God are egregores, right?”
Averael chuckled and winked.
Cyphira’s eyes narrowed and her lip curled. Lin glared at her. Cyphira. Don’t do it. But she did.
“You are a bedtime story for tiny children and self-righteous old people.”
“Cyphira!” Lin hissed.
“Oh sweetie, I really don’t care,” Averael said to Lin, chuckling, then turned to Cyphira, dead-eyed: “But that is pretty fucking rude. That’s like saying Thai, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese people are the same.”
“I mean, they’re all human beings,” Cyphira scoffed. “If you want me to be more technical—”
“Really not necessary. In fact, I’m going to stop you right there.” Averael had Pensey pinch the air and Cyphira started choking. Before Lin could react, Averael released his grasp and resumed speaking: “We are clearly coming at this issue from very different perspectives. There is a rousing theological and philosophical discussion to be had, which would last about…” Averael checked the back of Pensey’s wrist. “Ah, yes: the entirety of your tedious existence. It’s almost like religions are the plotlines of human history.”
“With more time, I could make the fundamental metaphysics slightly clearer, but for now—for now—please settle for this: I am speaking my truth the best I can. When I refer to my ‘life,’ I am translating my experiences in the ways that are easiest for you to understand me. And that doesn’t mean I’m talking down to you, okay? Hell, I respect the spunk. But I want to be clear…”
“While I’m sure you are the very best aspiring fascists Arroyo has to offer, I don’t fit in the wizard-cop textbook. I am the scariest, most powerful entity either of you will ever likely meet. The difference between a God and an Angel,” Averael chuckled before he continued, his laugh discordantly guttural in Pensey’s throat: “Well. The power margins really vary from Angel to Angel and God to God. And I’m not exactly a chump.”
A white, pearlescent mask formed over Pensey’s face, obscuring it nearly completely. The mask was smooth and monolithic, save for two vertical slits, and one horizontal slit that intersected with her eyes, which were suddenly lost to shadows. Behind the mask, a mane of black feathers sprouted in place of hair. The shattered halo also reappeared, and the dorm room steadily dimmed, until the three of them stood in a black void.
Pensey’s clothes melted into layered robes of black and white, and her breasts shrank beneath them as the rest of her body grew into a towering, androgynous figure. Finally, eight, colossal pairs of wings erupted from Averael’s back, alternating between black and white. Amidst the feathers, there were countless glistening eyes with irises the color of gems and precious metals.
Averael’s power washed over both Cyphira and Lin. They couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t look at his form longer than a second, as Averael’s halo suddenly started glowing with… Not light. Not ethereal energy, either. It’s more fundamental than that. Something as enormous as a sunset. Lin suddenly understood what Master Bronte meant by ‘a great brilliance.’
Then they were back in the bedroom, dizzied to the brink of passing out. Pensey’s body was back to normal. Or rather, it had never been anything but normal, as if Lin’s own senses had gaslit her. Averael spoke through Pensey again:
“That’s my ‘mask.’ It is an incarnation I adopt to avoid melting human minds. And it has only a fraction of my total power. It’s why our kind usually starts addressing humans with ‘be not afraid.’ But I’m not that kind of angel. You should be afraid. At least afraid enough to show me some goddamn respect.”
Cyphira abandoned her posturing and Lin nodded. There was a long quiet as the girls caught their breath. Cyphira finally spoke up:
“So. If you know Pensey is in imminent danger, you can kind of predict the future?”
“For our purposes, ‘kind of,’ is a great way to put it, yeah.”
“Did you see this coming? Us remembering what happened?” Cyphira asked.
Averael pursed Pensey’s lips and furrowed her brow.
“Not exactly. I watched you all for a few days from the periphery of the Veil. I knew the student body would be full of surprises, but it’s impossible to accurately gauge the volatility of teenagers. Y’all are like incredibly dense bundles of chaotic potential. Even I can’t parse you completely. But I did consider some possible scenarios where we worked together.”
“Really?” Lin asked.
“I thought about confessing my identity when I first went to fetch you—Carroll really did ask Pensey to drag you to the assembly, I just crossed over and possessed her before she left. I decided against it because the potential failure points of having a fledgling team outweighed the potential benefits. No offense. You are still aspirants, after all, and my pursuers are the Amagium’s apex predators.”
“So what was your plan?” Cyphira asked.
“The hope was that somebody would discover the stadium full of unconscious bodies, and the resulting scandal would force the Masters to shut down campus for a month or two. That alone would alter the potential outcomes enough to improve her odds considerably, and I’d stick around until things seemed safe.”
That makes sense.
“But I underestimated how much the CIC wants me. Apparently, their play is to pretend this never happened. They aren’t even going to mention this supposedly evil angel wandering around campus. They’ll continue to investigate under the pretense of providing extra security in light of the terrorist threat until they catch me, or become convinced that I moved on.”
“So… what’s the new plan?” Lin asked.
“First of all, welcome to the team. I can’t exactly stitch your memories again because subsequent memory spells are less likely to take—your brain gets this odd sort of metaphysical scar tissue—but yeah. The plan’s pretty simple,” Averael said. “Notify me immediately, if anything seems amiss. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, stay out of my way. If you impede me… Well. Don’t fucking impede me.”
“What’s so important about Pensey Hayes?” Cyphira asked.
Lin bristled, though objectively she knew it was a reasonable question. Especially since Cyphira barely knew Pensey.
“You aren’t gonna like my answer,” Averael sighed. “You aren’t gonna like it twice over.”
“I figured,” Cyphira said. “But I want to hear it anyway.”
Lin hung her head. So much for respecting the borderline god-level egregore. Averael spoke:
“I don’t know Pensey’s future. Like I said, teenagers are fucking nightmares because you’re basically sentient knots of hormones. Some of you run away from home, literally join the circus on a whim, and then double down because you are just old enough to think you can make informed decisions, which makes you truly stupid.”
Well. He gives as good as he gets, I suppose.
“The other problem is that if I did know, and I do have… inklings… I couldn’t tell you without putting you all at risk. Even if I blacked out Pensey. Secondhand prophecies still put the subject and listener at risk. It is dangerous for everybody involved.”
After a brief pause, Cyphira’s expression and voice became irate:
“Wait, then why did you begin this conversation by telling us our futures if Pensey dies?”
Pensey donned Averael’s foreign grin and wiggled a finger.
“Insurance, for one. Can’t have either of you trying to score fascist brownie points by turning me in. And knowing the stakes has a funny way of providing people with the right motivation.”
“Fucking unbelievable,” Cyphira said.
“Relax, girlie. I don’t have access to my full power on this plane, but I bet I have more juice than that entire team of CIC bastards. Typically, we like to work behind the scenes, right? Demons whispering temptations in one ear, angels encouraging us to be our better selves in the other… But the problem is, I can’t predict the precise nature of this threat. So I have to be with her ‘til the storm clears.”
Lin thought about the Chirothecam, or rather, Pensey’s anxiety about the Chirothecam. She cleared almost as many pocket dimensions as I did on the first day. But she’s still deathly insecure about her ability to perform. Lin spoke up:
“Let Pen participate in the Chirothecam. Her decision-making, not yours.”
“That would kind of defeat the point, Princess,” Averael said.
“You want to protect Pensey, right? Preserve this… great potential she has to offer the world? If you ace this test for her, she will use it as an excuse to doubt herself. Forever. I know her better than you do; I don’t care how long you’ve been watching, or how many times you’ve flipped through her memories.”
Averael stared at her for a long moment.
“I will consider it,” Averael said, with straining patience. “The Chirothecam is the most likely situation where she dies, though. This is the first time the Amagium has tried something like this, ever. The whole, ‘waking dream’ thing is a really clever idea, but I doubt they’ve got the kinks ironed out as crisply as they think.”
Lin stared at Averael, exasperated.
“You are unfathomably powerful. Your reflexes must be… Trying to perceive them would drive us insane. You can hide in Pensey’s mind, watching what she does and take control only when situations warrant it.”
“I said I would consider it, Valmont. Do not push your luck.”
Lin bowed her head and raised her hands in acquiescence.
“She wants me to tell you she’s grateful, by the way. It’s kind of cloying and gross.” Averael rolled his eyes. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he finally shrugged and said: “I suppose I can let her out when the coast is mostly clear. C’mon out, sweetheart.”
Pensey’s expression softened immediately and relief flooded her body. She gestured and emanated emphatic thanks to Lin.
“You could probably keep communicating with us psychically, too,” Lin pointed out.
Averael’s voice appeared in their heads, though it still sounded very similar to Pensey’s speaking voice:
“Loud’n clear,” Cyphira said. “Though you sound just like Hayes. Kind of confusing.”
Pensey opened her mouth to reply, but Averael cut her off psychically:
“It’s a lensing effect. I am still possessing her, and in certain respects, her body is protecting you from my true form. I could make a big show of psychically intonating my voice to sound like whatever you want, but that is a surprisingly enormous pain in the ass, so I’m not gonna do it.” Then Averael reassumed control of Pensey, and said, audibly: “But if that’s too confusing, we can go back to sock puppetry.”
Lin’s temper flared, but she tamped it down and literally swallowed the objection in her throat. She emanated apologies and gestured placation, hoping to earn Pensey her body back. Sure enough, the foreign expression receded from her face, though she did look dizzy.
“This will work fine. You can’t read our minds, can you?”
Averael psychically projected a humorous tone of voice:
“I have a lot of experience and very sharp eyes, so your tells are pretty clear. But neither I, nor any other angel, is capable of reading minds. Well. There are probably a couple. The Angel of Minds, or Language, or something. Yeah, I think we had a mind guy. But no, if you want me to know what’s going on in your heads, you have to say it out loud. ‘Kay?”
Cyphira, Lin, and Pensey all nodded.
“Oh!” Pensey said aloud, herself again: “Avy, you should tell them about the other potential threats. You know, besides the Chirothecam.”
“I’m sorry, Avy?” Cyphira repeated, totally disgusted.
“You called him that first,” Pensey pointed out reproachfully.
“Yeah, I was intentionally trying to be a disrespectful bitch. Are you seriously giving the thing that is holding your body hostage a pet name?”
Pensey gave a faint embarrassed smile, shrugged, and touched the tips of her index fingers together. Lin was also surprised—nicknaming her captor wouldn’t be high on her list of priorities in Pensey’s situation—but she actually loved that Pensey could befriend people under virtually any circumstance. Using virtually any definition of ‘people,’ no less.
“Jesus Christ,” Cyphira groaned. “Hey Avy, is it possible that Pensey Hayes is a literal saint? Cause I feel like that would explain a hell of a lot.”
“No, it wouldn’t, and no, she isn’t,” Averael said, surprisingly sharply. “My kind tend to steer clear of the true believers, and there aren’t that many of them left. Listen, I really don’t want to get into it right now. You all need sleep. And I need… a fucking break from teenagers.”
Irritation splashed across Cyphira’s face and she pulled her symphone out of her pocket.
“Why the hell hasn’t Hace called yet? I swear to…Oh shit! It got set to silent. He’s called me like twenty times!”
Lin exchanged a quick glance with Pensey, and they both had to stifle a giggle. I’m bad with people and worse with romance, but they are both so stupidly into each other that you can see it from outer space. It would be cute if… well, it is cute, but it be cuter if they weren’t both assholes.
Cyphira dialed Hace in a flash.
“Do not stage some idiot rescue operation! We’re fine. Yes, I’m sure. No. Listen. Listen to me. Pensey’s the angel.”
Averael hijacked Pensey’s body and turned to face Cyphira so quickly Lin was worried her neck would snap.
“Hello! I’m sorry! What the fuck. You just… told him about me? Is that the level of discretion we’re bringing to this little team?”
“His memories have been undone too!” Cyphira said.
Averael snatched the phone out of Cyphira’s hands—quite a feat given the girl’s freakish reflexes—and spoke into the receiver gruffly:
“She’ll call you back. Sit tight.”
Then Pensey flipped the phone shut and threw it on her bunk. Averael addressed the room psychically.
“New rule. We don’t just… casually induct folks into this little circle of trust, ‘kay? Not without my explicit permission. And do not undo anybody else’s memory stitches. Teenage boys are the dumbest creatures to walk the earth. Especially when they are thinking with their dicks. And that one doesn’t think with much else. I can tell.”
You know? I think I like Averael.
Cyphira’s temper flared again and she scoffed.
“Hace outscores me and Valmont all the—”
“Sure. Yes, Cyphira. That’s what I’m talking about here,” Averael said. There was a firm but gentle exasperation behind the words that made Pensey seem a decade older. “Look. I’m sure he is all kinds of smart and clever when it comes to fascist school, but when it comes to you? That boy is an idiot. Worse yet, he’s a passionate idiot, which may just be the riskiest flavor humans come in.”
“Well, he knows now. What the hell do you want me to do about it?”
“I want you to… no. I need you to do better than him. Don’t think with your heart on this one. Make better decisions. Show more caution. Take this seriously.”
“Didn’t you say you had enough juice to take on almost anything? All we have to do is keep our eyes open and mouths shut, right?” Cyphira asked.
Averael bowed Pensey’s head.
“There are two other… variable clusters, that pose significant threats to Pensey’s life aside from the Chirothecam. One is a terrorist attack, as you might have guessed. But the third is the real problem. Because I am not sure what it is, exactly. Which means it is either… beyond my scope, or it is so chaotic and hard to follow that I can’t separate the noise from the signal.”
A stillness settled over the room. This is crazy. I am working with a rogue angel, contra the CIC, to save my best friend’s life. If it was anybody else, even Vetha, Lin would turn Averael in at her first opportunity. But he’s right. She is special. The world does need her.
“It would be extremely bad if a proctor wrote up the three of us for breaking curfew together. Every red flag in the book would go off, and while I can hide my presence well enough from the CIC when they aren’t paying attention… If they take a closer look? We have very serious problems.”
Cyphira sighed heavily, and held up her phone.
“What do you want me to say? He’s already calling me back.”
Averael surrendered control back to Pensey, and spoke psychically again.
“Tell him everything. Glem too, since Hace undoubtedly just told him. But try to approach the situation with some delicacy. Treat him like nitroglycerin, Cyphira. It really won’t take much to set him off. And if he isn’t down with our plan… I need you to tell me. Immediately. Else I might need to do something drastic.”