Alma glanced over her shoulder, looking to the entrance of the building as if an entire unit closed in around her, but students milled around tables, buried in their books and their conversations, unaware of everything outside their immediate concerns. How she craved that oblivion.
She heard people equate death to a bomb: a tremendous display of vicious, uncompassionate power, given to and carried out by man, but unlike a bomb, death did not always have an instantaneous effect. Sometimes there was no explosion, delayed by hours or years, and like the Chernobyl incident, the fallout eclipsed the explosion with an impact spanning decades and generations, just as it would affect the parents of a son who died too young against the natural order of all things.
Never would she forget the way Rory looked that night, how he attacked her and threatened to kill her, but the pity she felt for his family weighed down on her like the hands that pressed into her shoulders when relatives had tried to comfort her in mourning.
Alma knew loss all too well.
She knew the answer but asked, "Why do they want to talk to me?"
The redheaded receptionist stared, knowing the same answer.
Illias leaned forward against the desk, attracting her full attention, and Alma saw her eyes sweep down the front of him as though her glasses doubled as an x-ray machine, patient and scrutinizing: Alma couldn't tell whether it was attraction or distaste.
"Where is the bag?" he asked.
Her posture went stiff, her hands falling to her sides, and her irises disappeared as her pupils dilated, leaving only a wispy ring of hazel – a solar eclipse at the center of her wide, unblinking eyes.
"Officer Tennant has the bag in custody. He believes Alma Caldwell was witness to the event, or may have acted as a conspirator."
"Conspirator? They think I had something to do with his death? They think I killed him?" Alma whispered even though the girl would not remember the conversation.
"Tell the officer you have Alma Caldwell," Illias said, leaning back into an upright stance. The girl made the call with automated fingers when Alma began to argue with him. "Calm down. I'll handle it."
"I hope this isn't your brilliant plan to imprison me for three months."
"We made a deal, and seeing as you know nothing about me, I keep my promises. Demons are bound by their words."
No more calmed by his words, she resigned to silence and listened to the girl behind the desk speak to the officer on the phone. Running from the police, as a suspect, was foolish, but it was her initial impulse; her last experience with the police was traumatic enough.
"You'll make the officer give my bag back?" she asked Illias.
"Unless you want to give it and try and just ask nicely."
She gave a pithy titter and leaned into the counter when a hand grabbed at her right shoulder. Later, she would be proud of the way her arm jutted up and out of the way of her attacker, a natural reaction born and bred of fear: she honestly didn't think she had much fight left in her.
Warren reared his head back to avoid her swinging hand, grabbing her wrist to stop her motions.
"Hey – it's just me!" he said, putting her arm down. "Why are you so jumpy?"
"Why are you always sneaking up on people?"
Her tone offended him, and he released her arm with a growing expression of concern. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry. I'm just glad to see that you're okay," he said, placing distance between them to ward off the cold front coming up over her shoulders.
His expression remained disconcerted, and his focus shifted to Illias in his discomfort but said nothing to him: the two eyed him with the same scrutiny a bird of prey would direct at its next meal.
"Did I interrupt something?" he asked.
Alma grabbed his arm and pulled him around the corner for privacy; she felt suddenly embarrassed that Illias would learn Warren's attraction to her, and she didn't want him to think her weak or feminine. The walls she constructed against his intentions were still feeble, but she had laid every stone herself, stones she did not have the time to rebuild.
"Who is that guy, Alma?"
"A graduate student," flew from her mouth, eying Warren for his reaction to play off its believability. She liked to consider herself a good liar, but because she had yet to come to terms with who Illias was, she found it hard to lie about who he could be, and Warren did not look convinced that Illias was a graduate student, or anything that sounded in the least bit kind.
"You know him?"
"Kind of. He's helping me with some of the Vermont stuff."
"Vermont stuff? Like what stuff?"
Alma pulled on his arm, forcing his back to Illias. "What were you talking about earlier, asking if I was okay?"
"Di and Liz were blowing up my phone all of Friday night. They said you hadn't gone back to the apartment after you left the library, and the same night, all that stuff happened here."
"I ran into another friend and went to her place. It's not that big of a deal."
"Apparently it was. The same night we were here, after you left, a student may have died. People are saying there's blood all over the carpet on the fifth floor. No one has found a body. It sounds like there was a fight, that maybe they were pushed out the window."
"But no one actually saw anything?"
Warren shook his head.
She found it hard to believe he or any other student using the library at the time didn't see or hear anything: breaking glass and her screams – she assumed – would have drawn plenty of attention.
"I don't know. The police have been here all weekend asking questions. You didn't see anything? It must have happened just as you were leaving. Are you sure you're okay?"
Her patience wore thin for people worrying about her. She realized that in the company of Illias, she never had to deal with being coddled: she was just a job to him, and she found herself craving that kind of animosity, so much so that she wanted Warren to go away. Over his shoulder, she saw the policeman approach the front desk and Illias turn to face him.
Even from her distance, she noticed the abrupt rigid posture of the officer.
"Why is he talking to the police?" Warren asked after noticing her distraction from their conversation, as she watched Illias lead the officer outside. "Are you sure everything's okay?"
"You really didn't see anything?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "You promise you're okay?"
"Yes, Warren, stop acting so concerned! I don't need a babysitter."
"All right, all right, fine . . ." he said in a softer voice making her realize she was close to yelling. "And I'm not acting. I am concerned."
"Sorry . . ."
Illias walked back into the library with her bag in his hand, and she stared at him as he approached her, forcing Warren to turn around and face him as he handed her back bag to her.
"Did he get that from the police? Why did they have your bag? You said you saw nothing, right?" Warren persisted, and Alma struggled for answers, for any excuse, but none came.
Illias said, "Go away."
Without another word or hesitation, Warren walked past them and out of the library. How easy it was for Illias to control others, to control Warren – a person she thought stronger and more resilient against influence, like her, as if her abilities – ones she did not understand or control – could be projected unto others.
It reminded her of the weakness of mankind, how impressionable and alone, even amongst angels and demons, living on a floating rock amid the vastness of forever. Her mortality stared her in the face in the form of Illias, capable of creating her fate; it was clear that without the capability of controlling her, he could kill her with the ease a child would an ant. To her, death was never something concrete and tangible. It was an idea, and while she knew a man killed her mother, her death was not the gun, or a bullet, or a person: it was an effect, the result of something, which disappeared as sudden as it happened.
She felt inconsequential in his presence, trivial and alone, when all this time she thought she suffered the worst of her lonesomeness, but as in life, there was always something worse to endure.
"He makes you uncomfortable," Illias said.
"He doesn't make me uncomfortable. I just don't feel like answering a barrage of questions right now."
"Then that makes two times I've spared you from police questioning."
"What does that mean?"
"The police showed up at your apartment Saturday evening. I intercepted them before they got to your door."
"Did you kill them?" blurted from her mouth.
"How highly you think of me."
"Well, what were you doing at my apartment, anyway?"
"Your privacy was invaded the moment Ser found you. There's no reason to be upset at me."
"I'm not up-"
Alma took a deep breath.
She was upset.
She was angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed. She felt many things, none of which were conducive to her current situation, and in a moment of clarity, she saw a version of herself with which she was not familiar, especially the version that raged at the people who cared and helped: her roommates, Warren, and – despite all her arguments – Illias.
Her short fuse burned toward an explosion, one she feared the outcome.
A group of students walked past them toward the exit, and she debated whether or not she should run after them, join them and be away from Illias, to seek solace in the normality of their lives and conversations. Demons this, apocalypse that made up the entirety of her present small talk. The pang of enviousness seared over her skin, branding her with the inability to find common ground with anyone, especially in light of recent events.
"You're being haunted," Illias said, his eyes moving down her face as if the signs were visible. "Souls are transient, allowing them unhindered access between planes and realms. They gravitate toward humans with unsettled spirits: anger attracts rage – those ones cause loud noises, and sadness draws in loneliness and abrupt temperament changes. They leech off the living, feeding off your energy to feel human again, and like stray cats, the more you feed them, the longer they stay around."
All Alma could think about was that stupid story her mother told.
Illias said, "Ghosts fear demons. Staying with me would only benefit you."
Hunted by demons, haunted by ghosts, and hindered by her past – the smaller list would be of the things not afflicting Alma. Dismissing Illias and blaming him for her choices was easier than recognizing her own shortcomings, and she only had so much in her arsenal of divergence, so many tricks and devices she could use to defer attention away from her ignorance, but sooner rather than later she feared it would be made painfully evident that she was in the wrong.
She looked out the front doors to the group that had passed them, the inkling to join them still raw, but she knew any semblance of a normal life passed her up years ago. If this was her life – on the run from her past and the supernatural – then she needed to learn to own it; she decided to take matters into her own hands, after all, and she had to live with her choices, the good and the bad.
"Stray cats . . . speaking of, what's with your front yard?" she asked.
"They ward off other demons."
"Don't they affect you too?"
"I would rather put up with cats than unwelcome visitors, no matter what side they fight for."
"Then why bother helping them by looking for us?"
"Because hell on earth is better than the one underground. I like things the way they are without battling an entire realm of atrocities," he said, turning around to leave the building.
Alma hurried to catch up with him, asking, "So how did you find me, or the other people Ser is tracking?"
"Your smell, individual to each person as fingerprints, and once a demon finds you, their sulfuric stench follows you everywhere you go," he said, angling his head down into the shadow of his hood to avoid the direct sunlight, and she felt herself lean into him, to smell the offending odor, but even when he carried her and bandaged her, she could not remember any scent stand out, least of all sulfur.
Then she had to wonder what her scent entailed.
"But it's your blood – your taste – that provides us all your information, more than it would under a microscope, granting us everything we would need to coax the soul from its body, including the memories and thoughts you keep secret. If that possessor had bitten you, it would have been impossible to protect you, so you can understand my insistence."
"Ghost, demons . . . friends disguised as demons – who else do I need to be wary of, God?"
"You should be wary of anything that powerful. The more power something has, the less human it becomes."
"Can't he do something about any of this? If he's responsible for everything we know and breathe, then he should be able to stop Ser," she said, her voice rising as they passed into the parking lot in front of the library.
"He is not responsible of everything. He has no right to be," Illias scoffed.
His answer stumped her into stillness, stopping her mid-step.
"But I thought- . . . God created everything – seven days, Adam and Eve, in the beginning sort of thing, didn't he? The Bible says-"
Illias turned around to face her and said, "The Bible was written by men, and it is a bedtime story. God is just a being, one willed into existence. The universe has been here long before he, those men, or you and I have existed because it is a force, the all-knowing and all-powerful force man should fear – not God."
"Okay, fine . . ." she widened her eyes, noting the way he spat the name.
He turned around, walking ahead of her, only to yell back, "Are you coming?"
She hurried to catch up to him. "Look, I appreciate you getting my bag, but I'm staying at my apartment."
"Appreciate," he repeated. "Do you know why sunrise is most potent against demons? Because light gives birth and demons only deal in death. Every second I spent in daylight weakens this human body, preventing me from protecting you or the others in case something should happen. Appreciate doesn't begin to cover it."
"Then why bother with me at all?" she asked, stepping between him and the truck.
"Because Ser wants you dead, because of the sixth realm, and because I have no control over you and your thoughtless impulses. You have your bag and your deal: I am forced to compromise here and I would appreciate it if you did the same."
"You just couldn't understand why-"
"You endure your studies to prove your mother's death wasn't your fault, to prove that people kill involuntarily, that coincidence is real, and that you are not to blame. I do understand, but turning this into a vigilante quest will not bring her back, and this martyrdom for death you possess will only get you killed. I don't need your blood to figure you out, and you don't need me spelling it out for you to make you realize it."
It was her secret, one she didn't realize was one until it was stripped from her. How did Illias, in the span of two days, know more about her than anyone else in her life? Either no one knew or had the guts to say to her face, but she felt naked standing there before him, removed of all that which made her a mystery.
"Whatever is going on inside your head is your own, but this is bigger than you, and you need to understand that. All of this would be a waste of space if it was only us," he said.
Her hand darted up and grabbed his jacket, pulling him closer.
"Wh-what did you say? Where did you hear that? Why did you say that just now?"
"Answer the question!"
He stepped back at the volume of her voice.
"I won't tell you twice," he said, and she released the fabric. "You're not alone in this universe – that's your answer, so stop acting like you are. I expect you to keep your word and not do anything drastic. Don't be a hero."
Alma fitted her bag over her shoulder and stared up at his face with a scowl. "Is that advice coming from a villain, or a failed hero? Who is it that you hate more, exactly: me, or yourself?"
Sorry for the month-long delay, guys. Work has been atrocious, and I have had absolutely no motivation to write. I only did a quick proof read because I'm not much in "writer mode" headspace, caught three stupid mistakes, so if you catch any others, let me know. Thank you all for reading, and please review!
Moon: I will definitely keep an eye on that. I did go back over that last chapter and noticed there instances that could be edited. Thanks for the critique, I honestly appreciate it. Happy reading!