My new patron is nothing like Aulunla. It doesn’t speak in voiceless words and abstract feelings — even as it shares space in my mind, even when I call out to it and channel its power through my soul, it barely feels like it’s there at all. So when it tells me that two souls are leaving the other Wound, I just know it without knowing how.
Damn it, damn it, damn it. Why haven’t I already left and slammed the door behind me? Aisling’s clearly made up her mind about what I’m doing. Nothing I can say or do will get her to leave us alone, not while she can wave it away as a monster putting words in my mouth. She’s just been stalling for time, again, only this time I fell for it.
Now. I have to leave now. Aisling won’t come after me alone, but if whoever emerges from that disgusting hair-Harbinger’s ambush is in any shape to chase us, I won’t be able to stop them. All I can do is hope the path closes too quickly for them to follow.
NO STOP DON’T
…And there it comes. There’s still a part of me that feels the same way about stepping through these portals as I would about diving into the sea. No matter how many times I make this journey, that silent scream of primal terror just won’t shut up. I shove it back into the recesses of my mind, bite my lip, and take the step, squeezing Aulunla’s book to my chest.
As I cross the threshold between world and Wound, a single long, long stride stretches out over time and space. The ground falls away beneath my feet, followed swiftly by everything else, but rather than dropping into an endless pit, invisible strings wrap themselves around my arms and pull me endlessly upward, into the starless black behind the sky. Away from this grey, miserable earth. Away, I can only hope, from Aisling and her new murderer friend.
Ash shouldn’t have any part in this. I don’t want her to get hurt, even after what she just pulled, but… if she keeps shoving herself and everyone else she can rally into our business, I don’t know if I can promise that.
Somehow, as we rise above the world, thoughts of my old friends fall away, though the ones replacing them are just as nasty. I’ve never felt more exposed than I do during these transitions. I can’t help but feel like anything — anything I can imagine, every nightmare I’ve ever had — could be watching here, hidden out in the dark. Is this the way things were for my ancient ancestors from the time before history? Is this blind horror some distant echo of what they felt when they looked out into the endless night?
Or even then, were there people who saw more in the dark than others? Ones who spoke back to the wordless whispers in their dreams and found enough they shared to become something new together? There must have been. I can’t be the one person to ever befriend a Harbinger. I’m not that special.
So what role did my predecessors play, in the blind darkness before “known history”? Honestly, now that I think of it with all I’ve learned in mind, was it even as dark as Church dogma says? Humans are social creatures, and bonding with a Harbinger doesn’t have to change that. What did those early pact-makers want to do with all their power? What better, stranger worlds might they have imagined into being?
When Claiasya chose her favorite children and raised them up from the helpless herd, did the first Keepers build their world atop the bones of the first witches?
I can never tell how long I spend soaring through this darkness, alone with my thoughts. Eventually, though, I come to a sudden stop, floating in the void. A thin-fingered shadow-hand, barely visible against the endless black, stretches up from behind me. Another reaches down to take it, my patron welcoming a shard of itself back into its realm, and as soon as the two hands clasp, the arm above tugs on its counterpart, dragging me along with it.
I jolt further upward and the world goes marble-white, my body seeming to slither through tiny cracks in the tangle of statues that forms the ground of the Wound. It doesn’t hurt, it never has, but the sensation of everything I am twisting, losing its substance, becoming just another once-human shape lost in the endless heap… it still scares me. I’m never sure how I manage to emerge intact on the other side. I’m never sure if I will, no matter how many times it happens.
But finally, I do. When things come back into focus, I’m on my hands and knees beneath the Wound’s starless black sky — and it always feels bizarre to think of it as a sky with no stars, but what else could it be? — just managing to hold myself up as strength and solidity return to my arms. I feel around frantically for Aulunla’s book, snatching it up as soon as my fingers find it.
“Welcome, welcome home!” a familiar voice calls. Half a dozen more follow, though not as a chorus in unison. just a burst of greetings, scattered applause, and one girl’s wordless, uncertain cheer.
“Yes, welcome back, Isobel! We knew you’d be back here safe and successful soon enough, nasty weather aside!” Ciaran greets in a softer voice, standing just above me. “A round of applause, everyone!”
At the boy’s command, the crowd erupts with the sound of clapping and cheers, all for me. The clamor reverberates through the vastness of the Wound strangely, as if echoing inside a cavern’s depths.
“But,” he hisses, raising a single finger, and everyone falls abruptly, instantly silent. “Can’t celebrate just yet. First we need to make sure of something.” Our new god’s first vessel’s bearing suddenly shifts. He hunches down, perched on folded knees, and glares right at me — no, not at me. The great solid shadow looming behind him extends one of its many spectral arms beneath me, scoops me up, and sets me gently down maybe ten feet away. Two more limbs dip their fingers into a small dark gash in the Wound where I emerged. This world’s reflection of my portal, not quite closed behind me.
I look up from the hole, following the Harbinger’s shape with my eyes as though marveling at an endless skyscraper. It resembles nothing so much as a tower that’s also a tree, its branches a chaotic mix of jagged cathedral turrets jutting out in every direction mingled with countless spindly, stiff-jointed puppeteer’s arms, the shadows of them all blending together in ways that make it hard to see which is which. It stretches up farther than I can see, much farther — if it has features above that, some crown or pinnacle to its form, I can’t see them.
“You were watching?” I ask.
Ciaran glances over at me and smiles slightly. “Obviously. Between the Embrace and the four Keepers turning up to hunt you down, I had every reason to worry about you.”
I nod once, stand, and back away, leaving Ciaran to his work. All his focus returns to the gap, and his ethereal mask twists into the shadowy ink-blot impression of a face, with empty holes for eyes and a mouth of crisscrossed lines approximating a teeth-baring grimace. “We can’t see anymore. Too fucking bright out there. Do you think they’re coming?”
“…Don’t know. They want to, I think, but depends on how much the other Harbinger managed to do.”
Ciaran’s mask resolves back into its usual placid smile. Through the half-seen illusion of its black, empty sockets, his icy-white eyes light up. “Right, right, her, yes! However all this sorts out, you brought us quite the prospect! Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would turn out until we tried, but here we are… oh, she’d know, wouldn’t she? Let’s see if we can check in on her!”
The towering shadow standing guard over the hole in our world sprouts a single mask from one of its countless limbs. The mask stares off blank-faced into the dark sky, murmuring to itself in that language I still can’t understand, and Ciaran leans in close, cupping his hands behind his ears to listen. The others watch on uncertainly from afar, until maybe a minute later…
“She’s pretty confident that no one’s coming after us. Not sure how much I trust her judgment yet, but given what we’ve seen from her, small and eccentric as she may be, I don’t think they’re fit to chase us down, at least for now,” Ciaran says. His mask’s eyes narrow, giving its frozen smile the appearance of a conspiratorial grin. “And you’ll be happy to hear that the plague girl looked like she was having a pretty bad time of things. I’ll tell you all about it, if you like.”
Not as happy as I’d be if I’d done it myself, but it’s something. “Maybe later,” I say. “First… first I want to know if all this did anything for us.”
“Sure. All clear, everyone!” he calls. The great shadow behind him shifts away — it moves without visible motion, the way shadows do as the Sun moves around them, crawling between its towers as it makes its way deeper into the Wound. The darkness behind Ciaran never quite detaches from him, but it stretches out and grows lower to the ground until it’s only the thin outlined suggestion of something grander, trailing away toward its source like a long shadow beneath a high Sun.
Ciaran scampers off deeper into the scattered forest of ruined glowing spires which constitute the Wound’s primary topography. He starts off with a run, sprinting forward like a boy much younger than he is eager to enter a toy store or chase after a ball, then takes a high leap into the air. Spindly arms reach out from the depths of the shadow trailing behind him and catch him by the waist in mid-air. Six more limbs sprout from his shadow’s surface and press against the tangle of stone bodies that constitutes the ground at its side, lifting itself up.
Except for its lengthy tail, which slithers backwards towards the looming figure of the Harbinger in the opposite direction like the silhouette of an umbilical cord, Ciaran’s shadow peels itself off the face-strewn floor and begins skittering forward on its six free limbs like a spider, leaving me behind as I follow at my regular pace. The whole display is honestly kind of cute. The childlike wonder I imagine is gleaming in the first vessel’s eyes behind that transparent stone mask of his makes the hole inside me where Aulunla once was ache all the more.
Ciaran is already making the rounds through the group when I catch up, chatting happily with his followers. Today there’s nine of them, not counting Ciaran and I, all gathered in their usual spot. In the remains of one of those shattered white towers, they’ve made a circle of large rough stones, picking through the chunks of rubble until they found the ones most comfortable to sit on and entreating our Harbinger to rearrange the ones too heavy for us to carry. It almost looks like a big fire pit, only in the center, there’s just a camping stove. And the faces embedded in the rocks, even the half-intact ones, like to track us with their empty eyes whenever they have company. They follow Ciaran and his distended shadow especially closely.
A pot of water boils on the stove, and boxes are piled up beside it, filled with water jugs and whichever assorted snacks we’ve most recently hauled back from the city. Looking around the circle, lunch today is apparently instant noodles. I don’t want to make myself sick here of all places, so I dig out an energy bar that looks and sort of tastes like a very dry vanilla shortbread. It isn’t terrible. Ciaran must have had the same idea, since I watch him toss a foil wrapper to the ground just after I arrive.
Before I can get something to wash it down with, though, a hand passes me a cup of water. A long, thin, marble-white hand, clothed in a winding shroud of shadows, beneath which it seems to stretch out far beyond the length of a human arm.
“Iiiisobel,” the first voice I heard earlier whispers.
I turn to meet the gaze of the masked face at my shoulder. His entire body is composed of the same stone and spectral material, and if there’s still a human face behind that mask, I can’t see it. I smile weakly.
“It missed you. Did you know how much it missed you? Could you taste the prayers it swallowed up and dedicated to your safe return? So many of its dreams rest on your shoulders, you know. It can’t be complete — we can’t be complete — while you’re away, not anymore.”
“…Nice to see you too, Mairtin,” It’s not particularly, in fact, but he’s harmless. To me, at least.
Mairtin doesn’t talk about himself much. I asked Ciaran once what was wrong with him, and he insisted that there was less wrong with Mairtin than anyone he’d ever met. People came here looking for something they couldn’t find out in the world, and Mairtin, for whatever unspoken reason… apparently, he needed to not be himself anymore. To stop feeling the way he felt all the time. He’s accepted more of our patron into himself freely than anyone else, and in so doing, he got his wish. Good for him, I guess.
As he slithers away, I catch my first clear snippet of conversation around the circle. “Do we… I mean, do we always eat here? And just… leave stuff around?” someone asks, pointing to an abandoned noodle cup. A mousy blonde girl in a well-worn big sweater dress, with frayed threads along its edges — I don’t think I recognize her, but I don’t exactly bother with every new face who shows up here.
“This is our home. A whole world for just us. So why shouldn’t we do whatever we want here?” an older girl argues.
“I mean… this is a Wound,” she says, whispering the word as if she’s afraid to say it. “Sorry, just, it still feels all weird to…”
“Would it be more appropriate if we all acted like some Claiasyan sect of delusional island mystics?” Ciaran whirls around to confront her, arms thrown wide, spitting the Goddess’s name as a curse the way he always does. “I wouldn’t accept the enlightenment those guys are chasing if they offered to pour all their wasted lifetimes of useless insight into my soul in an instant, and neither would any of you if you knew what it meant!” He points at her in exaggerated admonishment, then sweeps his hand through the air as though batting aside an annoying insect.
“To drift aimlessly through life, in harmony with the cosmos… it’s only half a step away from existential self-mummification! And that’s if I’m being charitable!” he says, offering the girl his open hand. “No, we aren’t some airy-fairy ascetic cult. We’re taking the perfectly practical steps we must to open the sky, escape this pointless world, and return to the stars.” With each word, the fingers of his offered hand close in on themselves until they’ve formed a firmly clenched fist. “Everything else is just… details.”
The girl just stares up at him in silent panic.
Dalha — the group’s oldest member, a sharply-dressed woman in her thirties whose wavy black lob cut is no longer quite as carefully kept as when I first met her — raises an open palm and shoots Ciaran a look that makes me think of a mother scolding her son. “You do know how it sounds when you word it quite like that, don’t you?”
Ciaran grins a little wider. “And you know how Keepers talk about themselves all the time. I refuse to let them have all the fun with this.”
“…I can’t argue with that.” Dalha allows herself a small, almost reluctant smile. “Still, no need to terrorize the poor girl.”
“Ah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, Sorcha. And you’re kinda right about the way it looks. Not pretty at all,” Ciaran admits a moment later. The contorted stone faces closest to the fallen wrappers and empty noodle cups scattered around the circle shift. Long, jointless fingers crawl to the surface, wrap around the bits of trash, and drag them down into the cracks.
Sorcha watches them go with wide, unblinking eyes. “Whoa,” she breathes, the word only audible in the silence left after Ciaran’s outburst.
“Come on, don’t ‘whoa’ at just that!” Ciaran chuckles. “That was a parlor trick. Soon enough, you yourself will be able to break that second-rate world beyond this sanctuary of ours in much more impressive ways.”
“So,” Ciaran calls to me, once he’s finished checking in with the group. “Let’s talk plans! Progress!”
A spectral hand rises up and closes around me, enveloping my whole world. I resign myself. My head drowns in a black sea of weightless vertigo, thrashing toward a surface that doesn’t exist, until several seconds later, I’m dropped onto another floor, sucking in air in short, desperate breaths.
We’ve shifted into another familiar hub of the Wound. One of the taller towers, still intact enough to have something like a top floor — it looks like there was more once, judging by the broken walls and the crumbling staircase to nowhere climbing out through one of the wide windows, but the loss of the rest of the building turned this space into a kind of atrium, lined with mostly-empty shelves.
But not completely empty. My growing collection of little black books sits near the top of one.
“Do you really have to do that every time?” I gasp. “Yes, no stairs up here, I get it, but could you not make some?”
“Probably? But then it wouldn’t be as secure, if something goes wrong. Or as special.” He gives me a hand up, and with his free arm, gestures out one of the windows at our sweeping view of the ruins.
The Harbinger’s tower-shadow stands further in. There, in one roughly-open clearing, it’s swept away the stray bits of rubble and reached its lower arms down into the surface of the Wound. Its touch draws the stone figures which make up the ground, its puppets, out from their great heap. Slowly, they begin to untangle their limbs and crawl up from the turf, arranging themselves with perfect coordination to expand the growing foundations of a new tower, one grander in scope and scale than any of the others before it. Each body stacked upon the tower like a brick entwines itself with the body below it and begins to radiate a soft white light.
I’ve watched it work before. I’ve watched it sculpt a new tower of living stone from start to finish… or rather, I’ve watched it build and build until the construction inevitably collapses in on itself. Somehow, it can only ever make it so far. What remains of the tower we’re standing in now is one of the tallest failures, but a failure nevertheless. I wonder if the new one will be any different.
And I still can’t see up to where our Harbinger ends from here. If it ever ends. The impenetrable darkness which cloaks the sky of the Wound like a ceiling obscures it. The dim light emitted by the Harbinger’s spires isn’t strong enough to reach.
“Yeah… yeah, that makes sense,” I say. Things wouldn’t have had to go too much worse for today to end with a squad of Keepers invading our world. “Still. I’m pretty sure one of those arms could just carry me up the usual way.”
“Fiiine, fiiine. I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” Ciaran laughs. “Anyway. Can we borrow the new book for a bit? I’ll put it with the rest when I’m done, of course… oh, but first, does anything about it seem different to you?”
I hold the little black book in both hands for a while. I turn it over idly, run my fingers along its cover, and page through it, even through all the blank pages Aulunla never had a chance to fill in.
Nothing at all happens. Nothing calls out to me the way it used to. It’s just a book.
“Not really. Unless you find something else about this one, I think our best hope for one of them being different is if someone fully succeeded in the fifth step. I didn’t feel anything like that happening while Aulunla was alive, but I’m also not sure if I would have even if it did happen. The ritual was bound to shatter most people’s prisons so we could reach in and collect their pigment for safekeeping, but the ones who understood what Aulunla was trying to say should have been able to become like me, with the power and duty of painting a new world… I don’t know if it’s possible to survive it anymore… Or how we’d find them if they did.” I sigh and pass it to Ciaran.
“We’ll do everything we can with it,” he assures me. “Worst case, it’s best that we gather all of their traces we possibly can before we try to improvise anything.” Ciaran sits against a wall and opens the book to its first page, going over and over the short opening for minutes. Tiny puppeteer’s hands emerge from his shadow, touching its surface and exploring the texture of its pages in imitation of how I handled it.
This part always feels like waiting for news I know will be bad. Like an update on a fading relative we all know doesn’t have much longer.
Eventually, without looking away from it, he speaks again: “Actually, while we’re here, I have something for you. Mairtin brought it in late last night. It’s on the floor right under us, if you want to check it out while I work with this.”
“Oh. Thank you…? What is it?”
“A surprise! And don’t thank me, thank Mairtin! He did all the hard work… well, okay, the remodeling was a bit annoying, but really this is all him. It was even his idea!”
“Remodeling? Okay, now I’m curious. Let’s see.” Doubly so because I wasn’t sure if Mairtin still had ideas.
I start down the wide curved staircase circling along one of the room’s walls. It’s… much, much colder than anywhere else in the Wound, like stepping into a giant walk-in freezer. I look back at Ciaran, who just smiles and motions for me to go on.
Well, fine. This is hardly the weirdest thing I’ve done in the last couple weeks.
There’s a constant low susurrus in the room below that reminds me at first of white noise, but not quite steady enough, and not at all soothing in the same way. When I listen closer, it becomes… breathy, a choir of endless sighs too soft to be voiced. Looking over the glowing white walls, the source of the constant chill air issuing into the space, I realize that’s exactly what they are.
The space, which once had the same wide arched windows as the atrium above, has been remade into a sealed stone chamber. Unlike the ground outside, which is a disorganized tangle of masks and limbs, the uncountable masked figures composing the new walls are all neatly arranged so that their faces stare into the room, filling it with endless little streams of icy breath.
And on one of several wide stone slabs in the center, all covered in their own faces, an older boy’s corpse is splayed out beneath a white sheet, covering all but his feet, arms, and head. His skin is blotchy and clammy, his lips almost colorless.
“Ciaran…?” I call.
“Whaaat the fuck is this?”
“What? You aren’t still squeamish about something like this, are you?”
“No, it’s not that! Just… why is it here?”
“Yeah, I guess it does bear a little more explaining, doesn’t it?” Ciaran’s footsteps patter along the floor above, then down the stairs. He looks at the slabs, then at me, scratching the back of his head through his hood sheepishly.
“Sorry about that. So, the idea was that if there are these books, these remnants of Aulunla still in the world… then maybe there’d also be remnants in the people who communed with those books but didn’t quite make it, right? Poor guy in there was one of the more recent suicides, recent enough that they hadn’t put him out to sea yet. So Mairtin thought if we robbed the morgue and took him back here, maybe you or we could salvage something important out of him. Seemed worth a try to me, if you’re up for it?” He gives me a casual shrug, followed by an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
“…Sure. I don’t know if that’s going to do anything, but might as well, at this point.” I stuff my hands into my sleeves, hug my arms to myself for warmth, and start looking over the corpse. I don’t treat it quite the same as I do Aulunla’s books, because it’s not a book and there are frankly just sanitary concerns there, but I do inspect it thoroughly.
More importantly, I let myself explore how it feels to be around it.
When I said I wasn’t squeamish about this, I meant it. It’s strange that I meant it, though. I’ve always found gross things just as gross as anyone else would. I didn’t like horror movies or seek stuff like this out to desensitize myself. Now, though? Now, this is just a body, bereft of the potential of what it could have been. It’s just meat, not even a person. A person is their soul, and his is gone.
I guess at some point — maybe when I accepted that Aulunla might have to kill people to protect us, maybe when I kept diving deeper and ended up here after they died — the part of my mind that would’ve reflexively recoiled away from a fresh human corpse… just stopped working.
What does hurt is that it doesn’t take much time at all to realize there’s nothing here for us. Aulunla never lived in the bodies of the people who read their book. Bodies never mattered to them. They cared about words. Minds. Dreams. I used their power to change my body a little bit, but that was always just a stop-gap until I could become something more real. This guy is simply gone, and given what happened to Aulunla, he’s gone for no reason at all. And that’s sad, it’s a horrible waste, but… that’s all.
“Nothing there either. He’s just dead,” I sigh. “Urgh, and I don’t suppose you could’ve just… preserved him with magic somehow? Let’s go upstairs.”
“We aren’t a true god yet, Isobel. Even if we were, there’s no guarantee we could actually do something exactly like that. I mean, this cold is born of magic, so isn’t it the same in the end?” As we step back into the atrium, Ciaran raises an arm, pointing straight up to the black sky. “Do you think the Sun could wave its tentacles and freeze a room full of corpses in time?” He wiggles his arm in emphasis.
“Maybe? Sun-drying doesn’t work so well in this part of the world, but it’s still one of the oldest known forms of food preservation.”
Ciaran tilts his head. His mask mirrors his puzzled frown. “Okay, fine, so maybe it could make people-raisins, if you want to count that as ‘preserved.’ Probably a lot more likely it would make some sort of hideous Eyeless zombies, but either way, I’m sure you get my point. Besides, given what we’re gathering them for, we thought it would be better to use as little magic as possible on them. Wouldn’t want to bury any important residue under our own, y’know?”
“Yeah… yeah, I get it. That’s probably for the best. I’m just complaining to complain. I didn’t exactly think to bring my winter coat when I left home.”
“Ask Dalha to put one on the shopping list?” he suggests.
“No. No, I’m sure she has more important stuff to do. It’s not like I’ll be spending a lot of time down there.”
Ciaran just shrugs agreeably and returns to leafing through the new book. “Sorry that didn’t work out. Maybe we’re all getting a little desperate about this thing, but we’ll figure something out. What should I tell Mairtin, if he asks whether he should keep it up?”
“I’m pretty sure he can find something better to do. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to let him down, if that sort of thing matters to him.”
“Sure. I’ll… oh, hmm?” He glances around the room, searching for something. His mask grins wide, strangely out of sync with his perplexed, focused expression. When nothing appears, he grabs the edge of one of the arched floor-length windows with both hands, grips its tightly, and leans all the way out of it, slowly panning around the Wound with his upper body. ”Isobel, did you hear that? Feel that?”
“No… is something wrong?”
“Not at all, not at all! Our new recruit is at the door!”
Something shrieks in the distance. A shrill, whining burst of Harbinger-words resounds through the Wound’s empty air.
And in answer, Ciaran leaps from the window. As he falls, spectral limbs sprout from his shadow on the ground and reach up to catch him. Another scales the tower and offers itself to me as a platform. I take the hint, letting it bear me back to the ground with surprising gentleness. As soon as I touch down, Ciaran gives a messy goodbye salute, and his Harbinger’s arms carry him away to greet our hideous guest.
I leave Ciaran to… whatever he wants to do with that thing… and head back toward the gathering place. I don’t quite make it there before Dalha, seated and idly swinging her legs on the broken wall of another tower, waves me down.
“Isobel,” she greets simply. “How are things looking? Any movement on your project?”
“Not sure yet. Ciaran went to deal with our visitor before he finished with the new one… uh, Mairtin brought us a corpse, though. That’s something new.”
Dalha blinks rapidly, though she maintains an impressively level expression. “Oh. Okay,” she says. “Why?”
“It was one of the suicides. I don’t know, I guess he thought there might be some leftover Aulunla in it?”
“Was there? That doesn’t sound especially promising to me, but you and Ciaran are quite a bit better than I am with the, ah, particulars of all this.“
“No, Dalha. Aulunla cared about minds. Souls. People, not bodies. Maybe if we could use it to somehow snatch the guy back from wherever the dead go, but we can’t,” I groan. “Honestly, I’m kind of worried Mairtin is going to scare someone away eventually, if he keeps going the way he has been. Not everyone who comes in here is quite as patient as you, or as… inoculated to that sort of thing as I was,” I say.
Dalha scoffs, shrugging the idea away. “He’ll do no such thing.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Scarier things than him happen out there all the time. Not scary in the same way, maybe, but what’s more frightening: Mairtin, or the fact that the Lotus Bed once existed? Regular old humans don’t need to lose their faces to be horrifying.”
“Point taken.” If anyone here didn’t know about the Lotus Bed when they arrived, they do now. It’s not that Ciaran likes to talk about them, but he is quick to bring up “that disgusting, filthy, extremely Claiasyan pack of rapists” in counterpoint to the idea that our group is a cult. Perish the thought. We, of course, are just some friends with a common purpose.
For my part, I don’t find the distinction important. I know what I’m here for. What we call our Harbinger-cult doesn’t really matter to me.
“And more importantly, no one ends up with us who doesn’t need to be with us,” Dalha adds.
“There’s that too, yeah.” I don’t know how Ciaran finds them, but everyone I’ve met here bears that out so far.
“Anything you need before the next step?” she asks.
I think again about that coat, but quickly decide it’s pointless. I don’t expect I’ll be visiting Ciaran’s freezer much more, and Summer will be coming on soon enough. “No, I don’t think so. Although… while we’re just waiting around, could I ask you something?”
Dalha looks up at the empty sky and smiles. “If we can’t speak freely here, then where?”
“Thanks. I’ve wondered about this for a while, just… you know. Had a lot to do since I met Ciaran. So.”
I scratch at my wrist as I turn the question over in my mind, wondering just how to phrase something like this.
“So, I know what I’m in this for,” I finally start. “I get the feral children, and Ciaran I can kind of guess. Something to do with all that stuff he says about cages and fireflies and caterpillars. But what about you? How does someone like you end up here? You don’t have to say anything if that’s too personal. I just… if you’re anything like Ciaran, if this is a philosophy for you, I’d like to hear about it.”
Dalha quirks a single manicured eyebrow up. “What about me? What makes you think I’m any less deep and troubled than the rest of you?”
“I just can’t see any of them lasting out in the world as long as you did. Also, that is not a troubled smile.”
“Fine, then,” Dahla says. Her eyes harden, and she glares up at the darkened horizon where our world ends. “If you must know… on the last Embrace, the Sun came down and ate everyone I ever loved. I’m smiling because I’m thinking about how once we return to the sky, I’m going to raise an army of starborne nightmares and snuff it out.”
“It… ate them,” I echo.
Dalha nods solemnly. “Ate them all up. My husband, my friends, my hedgehog, all gone in a terrible burning flash.”
“Is that seriously the best you could come up with? You just looked at the weather today and thought it’d make a good sob story?”
Dalha titters at that, then bows her head and raises her hands, admitting defeat. “Actually, my first idea was that rogue Keepers murdered my family. I thought it would be a funny switcheroo, considering where we are. I just figured that one might be…” She tents her hands and grits her teeth. “Well, you know.”
“So, are you going to tell me the actual answer?”
“Oh, no, it’s not that. Nothing to hide, nothing I’m desperate not to talk about — I’ve just never brought it up because my story’s not that impressive. Honestly, I’d have thought it would be obvious to you, but I suppose you’re still young. Maybe it didn’t quite have time to sink into you the way it did for me.”
“What didn’t?” I push.
“It’s simple, really.”
Dalha’s shadow stretches and writhes into a roiling pool of oily black power at her feet. Two of our Harbinger’s arms crawl out from beneath the world, and the statues beneath us squirm to life. Coaxing them into place in imitation of the towering sculptor deeper in the Wound, she begins to shape them into a little castle, with great walls surrounding a tiny, plain house, all covered in serenely smiling masks.
“I’m here because reality is boring, Isobel. You don’t need to survive some horrible tragedy to see that. Sometimes, all it takes is enough time spent carrying around a dream you know will never come true. Watching from the outside as everything truly important happens without you, because you just aren’t special enough to be allowed in.”
Suddenly, the spectral hands sweep in a circle, smashing the walls to rubble like a child destroying an unsatisfying sand castle.
“So I decided, if I ever found a way, I’d break in. Or, if I couldn’t manage that, to break out from this planet’s claustrophobic confines and search for somewhere better. Somewhere that wants something more from me than to keep the menial, meaningless details of the world in order for the people who actually matter. And then I found it. That’s all,” she finishes, gazing off at nothing with a faintly nostalgic smile. “Does that all follow?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does,” I say softly. Looking back, I’m sure if I’d kept on the way I was, if I’d never met Aulunla or I’d given them to Aisling as soon as I did, after ten or twenty years of more of the same, I’d have ended up in about the same place. “Thanks for sharing.”
“I think I’d like to be alone for a bit, if that’s okay. I don’t have much to do until Ciaran’s free to plan our next move.”
“Have you eaten yet?”
“Yeah, right after we came back.”
She nods, satisfied. “Good, good. You know how to find me if you need anything else.”
I sit alone at the edge of the Wound… well, no, I don’t know if it has an edge. The stone plains seem to stretch on forever, but most of the world is flat and featureless. Our little city of broken towers only fills a tiny portion of this isolated world. Sometimes I wonder why. I wonder what it says about Ciaran’s Harbinger that so much of its realm is simply empty, and that it has to fill it by trying and failing to build new marvels by hand.
But not right now. Right now, seated on the ground, leaning against a section of shattered wall, I just want to put some distance between myself and the rest of this group. If it’s even right to think of “the rest of them,” if I’m truly part of it.
Because I’m not like them, not really. Ciaran and Dalha are good friends, people who understand me and who I understand like I haven’t had since when Aisling and I used to be on even footing. I respect what they’re trying to do. I wish them all the best with it. But even now, even while a shard of it travels with me, I’m not here for their god.
I turn a shiny purple apple over in my hands, watching the Wound’s eerie white light play off its shimmering skin. Maybe it’s just an apple. Maybe in another week or two, all that will remain of Aulunla’s final gift is a handful of mold.
But I’ll never let it go. If that happens, I’ll pick the seeds out from that pile of rot and plant them somewhere beautiful. I’ll fill this miserable old world with sparkly star-apple orchards, so you can live in the dreams of everyone who eats them at once. And when I bring you back, whether we find that other, better world we were searching for or we have to make it ourselves, we’ll grow forests of them there.
And i̵f they neve̷r cơme back?
The question circles and circles through my mind, no matter how hard I try to shove it away. I have no backup plans, no flimsy rationalizations or questionable promises, nothing of enough weight to bury it under. Ciaran’s only ever said that he saw something of Aulunla left in me, and he wanted to pull that lingering ember out and stoke it back to life if there was any way we could. The books I’ve recovered, the time we spend poring over the couple dozen pages with anything written on them, that body Mairtin stole, they’re all just us gathering anything we can to improve our chances, without the slightest guarantee that what I want is even possible.
If they never come back…
I look down at my arm, tracing a path with my eyes through the pale script-scars where words once flowed along my skin in rivers. It was only for a few days, but… I was so much more. It didn’t have to be like this. We could’ve changed everything if they’d left us alone. Witches wouldn’t have to be monsters if they’d just left us alone.
If they never come back, this world and its self-important heroes deserve everything that’s coming to them.