Chapter 23; POV: Saise

Audrey started to cry, perfectly silent, the moment we walked into the lab. My project, my caged rip, was glowing more brightly than I remembered, eager for whatever I had planned. Seven by fourteen feet, it took up the whole space from ceiling to floor. Our reflections slid over the plastic sides, deceptively cheery when filled with twisted, teal light, and then a thousand times over across the chrome tables and cabinets lining the wall.

Three of my ghosts were scattered across the room, misty bodies shifting endlessly. They were nearly translucent, but for swirls of white wing shifting and twitching in their chest cavities. Deformed and congealed with blood, they only add to the macabre. If the angel noticed them, she didn't comment. I would have been surprised if she had. Her tears were coming very quickly.

"My queen," one woman called, voice strained with pain or longing. Maybe both, I often think emotions run together in lesser souls like hers. She took a step forward, stumbling on uneven legs. Her feet were only half formed, the tips of her fingers faded into smoky apparition.

I was almost fond of the way they called to me, imploring, desperate. It was endearing to have someone appreciate my work so completely.

Narrow and Karreth followed Audrey, Karreth with an air of cold disdain and Narrow shrieking like a creature possessed. Her teeth were bared, showing off the filed points of her canines.

"Little angel-angel is going to loose her pretty white feathers," she sang, clapping her hands.

I turned to face her on one heal. "Narrow, if you stay, I need to know that you will behave yourself."

She wasn't listening.

"Saise is a good doctor. Maybe she'll cut out your pretty tongue, hm, pretty angel? And your little skinny arms? All you'll be able to do is squirm and beg. Like a maggot." Narrow spat her epithet with such glee that it came out a hiss. Audrey's eyes were wide and expressionless, leaking lines down her bloodless cheeks. "Maybe she'll give you to me when she's done. I'll use your bones to pick my teeth."

I sighed. "Enough of that, Narrow," I said.

She didn't stop, though. Of course not. Narrow was unstable, insane. An experiment, nothing more than the ingredients I used to make her.

I grabbed her wrist, as thin as mine for all her stretched, bony strength, and pulled hard. Snap. She looked at me, wide eyed and pouting. I let her arm fall back against her body.

"I can't let you interfere," I said. Her hand looked odd, twisted so delicately from its socket. I reached out and stroked the already bruising skin with a single finger. She was almost my daughter, really.

Karreth was leaning against another table, head tilted back. He kept his eyes to the middle of the room, only slits, with his eyelashes low over his cheekbones. Drinking in the atmosphere like a tonic.

The angel stood by herself, watching shadows play across the planes of the floor. I sized her up with my eyes, and then looked at the tank. She would displace about as much as a woman of her height weighing approximately 130 pounds. A little lower than average, even with her pregnancy. She had a lanky, wiry build. If she swallowed a mouthful of rip and gained just that much more surface area, it could unbalance the experiment. My eyes narrowed.

"Karreth," I said, "sew her mouth shut."

He glanced at me, features blank with surprise.

"Why?" He asked.

I frowned. "For the purposes of the experiment. You know where the needles and string are. Please begin."

I turned to one of my files, flipping to a page of notes. Silence behind me made me stop. I took a deep breath.

"Is there a reason for your hesitance, Karreth?"

"It's because he loves her," Narrow sang from across the room. She was leaning as far forward as far as the chains at her wrists would allow, grinning again. "It's because he lovesour little angel darling. Tell me, Karreth, are you trying to preserve her pretty lips, or are you worried that seeing her face full of your stitches would-"

"Narrow," I cut her off. "Do not think that I would hesitate to silence you in much the same way. And do not think that, if Karreth would not lift his hand, I wouldn't find someone more able."

I glanced back at her. She was looking at me, which I took as a good sign. I had her attention, at least, and that was half the battle.

"Now, Karreth, if you please." I gestured around the room.

He scowled heavily. "We don't have to sew her mouth shut."

"Oh? How do you propose we keep her silent?"

"We could glue her mouth shut. We'd use the heavy paste, like you use for teeth. I mean, if she's screaming, she'll tear the stitches out anyways. And that'd be even worse. Better, we could just give her a cloth gag, keep it over her lips and nose. Two birds with one stone."

I spun away from him, leaning against my desk and hiding my face behind careful breaths. Maybe he was right. I had gotten carried away before, after all. I was an artistic soul, of the belief science and art should pass hand in hand. I swallowed hard. I didn't like my orders being questioned, but I'd play along as long the deck continued dealing to my benefit.

"Very well. But first," I turned to Audrey, "would you require a blindfold?" She hadn't looked up during the argument, but her shoulders were shaking, maybe three clenches a second.

She started and stared at me with wild eyes. "What?"

I sighed and waved a hand through the air, staving off the smell of her terror. It didn't quench the scratching need in the back of my throat like a human might, and the almost pleasant itch it provided was distracting my focus.

"It is common procedure to offer the subject of an execution a blindfold. I have applied the same policy to the subject of a possibly fatal experiment. Would you require one?"

I could hear her breathing, a damp pant as her heart labored to pump blood through every over-excited artery.

"No," she said. Her eyes slipped over to Karreth, and I saw her fists clench. "I want to be able to see."

He met her gaze, and I tilted my head to one side. I tossed the angel a length of gauze, which hit her chest and fluttered halfway to the ground before she stooped to catch it.

"Very well," I said. "If you would stand directly in front of the rip and place this over your mouth, please."

She stared at me blankly. It seemed I was fated to contend with stupidity from all angles.

"The cylinder, Audrey. The reason this room exists."

I flipped to the back of my notes. "Narrow, I want you to illusion a door on the side of the container. Do not let any of the rip pass out, only let Audrey pass in."

Narrow tilted her head to one side, blue hair sliding silky robes around her shoulders. She held out both of her hands, and the plastic around the contained shivered. Three lines cut themselves into existence and bloomed apart as easily as wax.

I wondered, with a slight smile, if Narrow realized this was the entire reason why she was alive. Her powers weren't merely the stuff of illusion. A whole reality lay in her fingertips, scrambling the lines of possibility. After all, nothing in hell was real. Not even her. Not even I.

An interesting thought. I licked my lips.

"Hold the rip back for Audrey to acclimate herself. As soon as she is fully inside, I want you to drop both illusions."

The mass of blue shivered and pushed out towards the edges of the tank, leaving an empty space at the center. Audrey looked into the tank, then glanced at me, uncertain. I nodded my head. She lifted the fabric I had offered her and tied it around her mouth clumsily. Catching her own hair, clenching her fists. Her eyes were defiantly focused on nothing.

In slow, cautious steps, Audrey stepped into the middle of the tank. Her eyes snapped open as the door behind her closed.

A roar swept up from the tank in a bright, blinding light shot in all directions. Her body stiffened until she was bowed backwards, convulsed into a ball once, twice. The color leaked from her face in the weird whiteness surrounding her. I watched in fascination as her eyes slammed shut and her feat lifted with the movement of the rip. One of her hands shot out and pressed against the side of the container, and I saw that she wasn't just surrounded by light, she was filled with it, her palm damp but glowing.

My hair lifted and swirled around my face, and I took a step away, then began counting backwards from forty, slow as the hands on a clock.

Thirty-seven, thirty-six. The room was getting warmer, heat beating down hard on my face in waves. The table behind me buzzed like a strung toning fork when I backed into it, numbing the palms of my hands.

Twenty-five, twenty-four. Halfway there. I squinted against a sudden, blindingly brilliant light. The air thrummed once, twice, so low that my bones shook and my ears popped. Eighteen, seventeen.

An answering groan came from the walls, and I was reminded of the wining barks of two rabid dogs, chained just out of reach from each other.

Dangerous. Conditions were getting dangerous.

Ten, nine, eight…

"Ash," I said, "prepare to pull to switch."

Ash flickered over to the far wall, wresting his hand on a metal lever jutting from the wall. I leaned back and shaded my face as the bright light began to sting and make my eyes spot.

Three, two-

"Now."

My back hit the wall as a tremendous whiplash swept the room. Cabinets and tables skidded backwards and topped over. I heard the shriek and clamor of metal coming in toneless beats. Not electromagnetic waves, then. Something else.

The pressure on my chest lifted, and I fell to the floor softly. The room was a mess of papers. Narrow and Karreth's eyes were both focused on me, glowing in the softened light of the rip. I tilted my head to one side, staring at the tank's contents. The angel- or whatever she had become, I wouldn't know until later- drifted like a salamander in formaldehyde.

"Narrow, let her down."

Narrow struggled a moment before obeying, the muscles in her arms trembling. I wondered what she remembered of her own time in the rip, when she had been just a human soul. Her face was bloodless beneath thick eyeliner. The rip swept back, and Audrey collapsed onto the floor. Her outline was blurry, as though I was staring at her through a heat wave. The door unraveled again, but Audrey didn't so much as twitch.

Karreth snorted, walked forward, and using more caution than I had even seen him use before, he leaned his torso into the tank and lifted her up by a single arm. She sagged in his grip, perfectly limp. He hoisted her over his shoulder with a grunt, kicked a nearby table right side up, and dropped her. She landed with a thud.

She looked damp. Her hair hung in ropes and her skin. The gag had slipped down her nose and gathered on her neck. Her eyes were closed.

I cleared my throat. "If you please."

Karreth glanced my way, then pulled pushed up the back of her shirt. "They're there," he said. "Faint, but there."

Her wings would take a few hours before they would be ready to come out of her back. "Give her a sword from the armory. I should think we'll have to wait until after the birth before her true sword returns, but until then she shouldn't be defenseless. " I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Our guests are upstairs. Karreth, you may do the honors."

0o0o0o0o0

It is not what you think! They aren't in love. Not even close. But you will see… you will see…

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Finally, I'm wicked sorry. This is about a month later than I promised, and I really have no good excuse.