In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-3

Who is this Keeper? They can clearly sense the Harbinger, but what exactly is it like for them? I couldn’t just tell them this is my kill and I’ve got it handled, could I? Has any Keeper ever said that to help turning up? They must or there’d be more teams, it can’t be that I’m the only one who needs something urgently… no, that’s a useless tangent. All that matters is what I say now and what the other Keeper thinks of it. This only ends well if I can talk my way out of it, so what I need to say is….

I don’t know. It’s impossible to plan this out in any real way. There’s way too much I don’t know. Running away feels more appealing with every second I sit and wait for the Keeper to find me. That was never a real option, though, and it especially isn’t now that they’re in the building. 

As they approach, I try to inspect the new presence more closely. Shona said Keepers had soul signatures you could read, so maybe this is someone I’ve heard of? There’s the sound of the open ocean. Waves rising to wash away filth and corruption. Lighthouses. Nothing that calls to mind anyone I know. Nothing useful.

Cries of surprise and scuffling sounds of people moving away announce their arrival before they come into view. As the noise reaches me, I transform. No point in hiding my magic if they’re already making a dramatic entrance. Dancing shadows and sickly green wisps briefly smother the reading nook’s lights. 

When the darkness lifts, the new Keeper is standing before me. Well, mostly standing. She leans down to catch her breath as she stops running, propping herself up with both hands on a silver and gold trident. Sleek, ocean-colored hair, a flowing curtain of mixed deep blues and teals whose colors seem to move as the light hits them differently, drapes over her face and obscures most of her body. 

After a moment, she stands and swings her weapon out in a wide half-circle, almost gesturing with it, which may explain the rush to get out of her way. She’s a soft-featured girl about my age, and her eyes match her hair, complete with irregular shifting colors. 

Her Keeper outfit has two distinct layers. The first is a royal blue strapless dress, slightly ruffled at the neckline. It’s cinched in two places: at the top with a silver drawstring that threads in and out of sight and ties into a loose shoelace bow in front, and at the waist with a purple sash belt whose ends trail through the air behind her, casually ignoring gravity. The second layer is a little harder to define. The shape is of a billowing train skirt and loose detached sleeves that don’t quite cover her arms, but the material, white tinged with very faint blue, is so sheer it looks more like thin mist than fabric. The closest comparison I have is to a jellyfish’s translucent bell, but it’s a lot less solid and stable.

“Help has arrived! Where’s the Harbinger? Are there victims? Is there a Wound? Where is it?” she shouts. 

“Hi,” I say, then wince inwardly. Great opening, me. “Thanks… thank you for coming, but there aren’t any of those things. I’ve got this under control. It’ll be gone soon. You can go if you want.”

“What? Of course there are! It’s right here!” She brings her trident forward quickly enough that I flinch, pointing it at the book in my lap.

Well, I had to try. On to the hard way.

“Right. I thought so too, when I first felt it, but does it look like a Harbinger? Is it reacting like a Harbinger usually would to two Keepers looming over it? Here, watch.” I hold the book up. She flinches away from it at first, but stands still and waits while I first wave it around, then set it on the arm of my chair and punch it as hard as I— 

“Ack!” I just barely choke down my yelp. Cushioned only slightly by my glove, the impact twists my thumb out of place beneath my fingers. It’s not broken or anything, I don’t think, but it burns as I shake my hand out, a breath of air hissing through my clenched teeth as I endure the pain. I guess I’m lucky that ‘as hard as I can’ isn’t very hard. 

But not that lucky. Someone watched me do that. She’s still waiting in confused silence for me to finish my point. My cheeks burn a little. This is great. I’m making a great impression.

“See?” I continue, ignoring what just happened. “It’s not doing anything. Because it can’t. You weren’t wrong when you sensed a Harbinger, but it’s not a whole Harbinger. It’s a bit complicated.” That’s all mostly true. Where I’m going with it is a little less so, but… 

Actually, does my plan even work now? She’s already made this a lot messier. Suppose I do convince her that everything’s fine and she should leave me alone. Lots of people still watched her storm in yelling about a Harbinger. If I put the book back in its place, I’ll have to worry about someone else getting word of this weird thing that happened and coming to check on it. If I’m lucky the bystanders could assume the two Keepers took care of it, but when have I ever been lucky? Maybe I should cut my losses. Kill it right now and walk away from this stupid plan.

No, I’ve already sunk so much time into this. I should at least try. Ugh.

“Let’s walk and talk for a bit, okay? This is a library and we’re making a scene.” I stand up and squeeze past her and her wavy, rolling sashes, heading for the way out with the book in hand.

The girl stares at me open-mouthed for another beat, then shakes her head, but it looks more like she’s trying to shake a bug out of her hair than disagreeing. She turns and moves as if to follow me, but stops in the middle of her first step. 

“Hey, hold on! Before we go running off anywhere, you know me and I don’t know you and I don’t think that’s very fair. So.” She folds her arms, leaving her trident to float lazily in midair, and taps a foot expectantly.

“…But I don’t know you,” I turn back to reply in genuine bafflement.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“I mean this is the first time I’ve seen you, in person or otherwise, and I can’t tell if I’d know you by name without your name,” I say, very slowly. 

From the face she makes, you’d think I told her I hated kittens or something.

“Are you sure?” she asks, her brow creasing as she glares.

What? Why would I? I guess some people tend to know Keepers on sight since they’re on the news and their images are used for endorsements and whatnot, but I stopped keeping track of that when I stopped hoping I could ever become a Keeper myself. I guess she’s kind of familiar, maybe I saw her face on the Church’s website, but does she really expect me to recognize her when she doesn’t recognize me, either?

In the pause before I reply, her lips quirk up on one side in a smirk. “Oh? It’s come to you now, hasn’t it?” she asks, her eyes softening with satisfied vindication, as if she’s taken my speechlessness for a dawning realization of who I’m dealing with.

Oh no.

She may be an idiot.

I can’t tell if that makes my job easier or harder.

“…No, I’m certain. That isn’t some judgment on you, whoever you are. I am, in fact, a shut-in who lives under a rock, so please fill me in,” I say.

Whoever I…” she repeats, her eyes widening before she clicks her tongue and blinks away her dismay. “Ffine!” she huffs, exasperated. “If you really have no idea about anything, I’m Tetha Fianata, the Sea’s Sanctuary!” Her voice makes her sound like a kids’ show Keeper about to strike a goofy pose, but she just puts her free hand to her chest, raises her chin, and… is she watching me for recognition? Hoping for it? I think she is. 

And she’s got it, if not in the way she wants. I’ve never heard of her, but Fianata again? She doesn’t look anything like Niavh, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Iona adopts all her children. She’s taken in dozens with no one else in the world over her years, and while not all or even most of them are magical, Clarish Keepers with no family or families they don’t want often end up joining hers.

Which is lovely for them, I’m sure, but they’ve got a whole district that’s pretty much their house. Why do they have to keep coming here?

“Okay. Fi… Tetha,” I say. “Nice to meet you.” I had to stop myself from stating that as ‘sure, I know the Fianatas.’ She’d probably take further offense at being lumped in with her famous family. “I’m Eyna. Ill Wind,” I add reluctantly. She can sense it anyway. “You wouldn’t know me, I’m new. Can we go now?”

“But the Harbinger—”

I don’t hear the end of whatever she’s saying, because I cut her off. “Is not a threat, and if it is we’re better off bringing it somewhere without bystanders. Come on.” I head down the stairs, not waiting on any further argument. 

Tetha does join me, but I’m not watching her as closely as I probably should. Some of the people who scattered at her approach peek around corners at us. It’s been a while since I was last… not in public, but publicly being a Keeper. I didn’t miss the attention. Maybe I’d have something useful to say, some way to defuse the situation, but there are so many of them. An audience. I try to ignore them, keeping my gaze straight on the path out of here. That doesn’t make them any less there.

Outside, I walk us back toward the university grounds, doing my best not to think about the people watching us all along the streets. At the very least, no one around is stupid enough to follow us – after all, wherever a Keeper is heading without a formal invitation is liable to be a gash in the world festering with soul-eroding nightmares, and it’s illegal to interfere with us in any case. Still, the fewer people, the better. The campus has a lot of usually-empty space, plus it’s farther from home, so it seems like my best bet.

Tetha pelts me with questions while we walk:

“Where are we going?”

“Not far. A quiet corner of the university. We’ll be there in a minute.”

“Hey, are you gonna tell me what’s going on?”

“Yes. In a minute.”

“What’s with the mask?”

That one I’m not answering. I just shoot her a look and let it hang in the air. She asks once more, then hrmphs and gives up when I ignore it again.

“What’s it mean to not be a whole Harbinger? That doesn’t make sense! It’s a Harbinger or it isn’t! And what difference does it make if it’s half a Harbinger or whatever? Why didn’t we, I don’t know, half-kill it in the library?”

“I’ll try to explain in a minute.”

I’m not trying to be annoying, although I’m sure that’s the effect. I just can’t talk and think at the same time. I’m busy running through ideas about what she might be thinking and how to sell what I’m doing. I don’t bother guessing how her Harbinger sense might work and what it might tell her — again, not enough information. All I know is that mine is apparently better than usual.

A few minutes later, I stop by one of the many groves on the edge of the campus. There are no benches or landmarks that’d draw people to this side, and while the wall of trees isn’t thick enough to completely obscure us from the more trafficked paths, it’s better than nothing. “Here. This’ll do. Have a seat if you like.” I point to the small stretch of manicured green between the stone path and the grove.

Tetha glances down at the grass, crinkles her nose, and pointedly doesn’t sit. Neither do I.

“Fair,” I say. “I’m sorry about the walk. Like I said. Bystanders.”

She’s been tense the entire way here, never putting her trident down and only briefly looking away from me, and she still is now. It’s only a small comfort that her eyes are currently trained on the book rather than meeting mine. “We could’ve talked whether or not someone was watching, but okay,” she says. “Now, what’s happening?”

I’m sure she could’ve. Anyway.

“Right,” I sigh. “So first, thank you for checking in, but this is my territory. I’m keeping watch on it and I’ve got things handled here. Umm, ‘here’ being this little stretch of the Hills. From the school to just north of the library.”

“Territory? What are you talking about? We’re all Keepers. We’re all on the same side. Why would you be mad about someone helping you fight a monster?” she asks.

I’ve already heard this exact line from Mide. Tetha talks like she doesn’t need anything from magic, like she has no idea why people make the Promise at all, and I just don’t understand how there are Keepers who can’t answer that question. Emergence isn’t even some dark secret only Keepers know about. They don’t exactly highlight the need to absorb Harbingers when they don’t have to, but it’s where the name “Keepers” comes from. Why does she do this if not for something she wanted enough to risk her life for over and over? Did she think it would be fun?

Of course I can’t just say any of that… but I don’t think I could help it if I answered right away. I take a long pause to steady myself before I speak again: “There are… things I need to change that can’t wait.” That’s the closest I’ve come to explaining my situation. I hate that this girl of all people is the first one to hear it, but it might help and I don’t know what else to do.

“Oh. I mean, that’s fine, you can have its whole heart to yourself if you really want. I still don’t get it. Couldn’t you have done that a while ago? When I showed up you were just sitting around.”

“There’s the problem. I can’t yet.”

“Why not? It’s just sitting there! Can you not hurt it?”

“I could, yes. It wouldn’t help.” 

I’m certain by now that this girl wouldn’t accept leaving the Harbinger alone for research purposes, which is probably the best possible way to put what I’m doing. Past this point, my plans for this conversation get creative with the truth, and I’m not a great liar. I have to stop myself from trembling and tensing like I’m about to run for my life.

“So,” I say. I hold the book up in both hands, keeping it close to my chest so as not to look like I’m offering it to her. It’s not leaving my hands if I can help it. “You’ve seen this. You’ve seen what I can do to it without it doing anything back. Here’s what I think is happening: it feels like a Harbinger because a Harbinger created it for some reason, but it’s not actually a Harbinger itself. Does that make sense?”

“No,” Tetha says flatly. “What’s it matter if it’s a monster or not quite a monster or half a monster or whatever it is?”

“Lots of us can make things out of magic, right?” I narrow my focus and summon a card in the air between us, then let it float to the ground. “Like so. That came from me and probably feels a lot like me, but it isn’t me. It’s the same with this book.”

“Okay. What’s your point? If it came from a monster, things will be better once it’s gone!”

“My point is that this book is a tiny piece of a real problem. A footprint a Harbinger left behind. And right now, it’s the one trace of that monster I’ve found. Destroying it probably wouldn’t hurt the creator enough to matter, and I’d lose the only way I might be able to track it down.”

“Oh. That’s, I mean… that sounds weird. Are you really really sure about it?” 

“Everything about Harbingers is weird! I’m not certain of anything, but that’s my best guess right now, and my guesses are usually pretty good.” I shrug. I’m suddenly very glad to have kept this mask in my outfit. Much as I worry about it saying “sick” or “hospital” to someone who’s paying attention, I don’t know how to lie with my face. That fake-casual gesture is the best I can do. 

“You can sense it, right? Look for yourself and you’ll see what I’m talking about,” I continue. I think I kept my trembling out of my voice. 

Tetha looks up at nothing in particular. She frowns, knits her brow, and rests her hand on her chin. After a moment she drops her trident, again leaving it to drift through the air beside her, and wraps her other hand around her elbow. She spends a long while like that before she nods. “…Alright. Give me a minute.” 

She picks her spear back up, extends her free arm, and spreads her fingers. More of the airy blue-white substance that forms part of her Keeper regalia stretches out from her, slowly reaching for the book. I hold it out, just far enough away that her aura can touch it without touching me. Tetha’s magic flows around the book, circulating. Sometimes it brushes past my fingers, leaving them feeling a tiny bit cool and damp. She gnaws nervously on her lower lip as she concentrates.

I’m counting on her sense-experience of the Harbinger telling her roughly what mine does, only less so. That’s still a wishful guess, but Tetha doesn’t seem that smart and hasn’t acted like she has any special insight on that front. This might actually work. This should work. 

“I don’t think it’s quite right, what you’re saying. There’s, uh, there’s nothing connected to this book. There’s no flow, in or out. Whatever this is, it’s the only part of itself, and I really think it’s some kind of Harbinger,” she says after studying the book for a minute or two. 

……What? 

My hands clench and unclench — I only notice I’m doing it because the motion hurts my still-sore thumb. She isn’t wrong about anything, but that’s her problem? That’s the fault she finds in my story? It isn’t even a real fault! It’s exactly what you’d expect to see if someone made a thing, put enough power into it to keep it stable, and left it lying around! You’d need to have no imagination at all to look at magic, this bizarre, complex, unreal thing nobody seems to understand more than a tiny piece of, and decide that if you can’t follow an immediately obvious trail from one thing to another with your single specific type of mystic perception, no connection exists. I’m somehow less upset about her calling me on my lie than I am about how stupid her issue is.

“Oh. Well. I, yes, I could’ve told you that. I didn’t think it was a Harbinger’s limb or it was siphoning something through it, it’s just something it made, and… and the way my magic works, I can use that. Learn about it. Find it,” I babble.

“Do you have its scent now? Where do you think it is?”

“…Working on it.”

“Okay. I kind of see what you were thinking, but this whole thing… yeah, maybe there’s some bigger Harbinger hiding out there, but the Harbinger made this for a reason, right? It’s getting something out of it, so we have to get rid of it.”

“We can’t,” I snap, louder and harsher than I wanted to.

“We can! I don’t get why you’re—”

“It’s touched someone! There’s a normal human the Harbinger behind this is connected to, maybe you can’t see it but I can, and I haven’t managed to track them down and see how bad they have it and I don’t know what’ll happen to them if they’re already a vessel!”

By the time I realize what I’m saying, what a horrible mess I’ve made for myself, it’s already said. I don’t know what else I could’ve done.

Tetha’s grip on her weapon visibly tightens. Her hands are shaking. “That… isn’t what you were saying before. You were talking like it wasn’t a big deal before,” she says.

“I don’t know you, okay? I had no idea if you were one of those types who’d charge into battle first and ask questions never.”

“Well, I’m not! I’m not dumb! I’m not gonna do something if it might hurt someone! If that’s what’s going on then we… oh, I know!” Tetha laughs nervously. She seems to relax, but only a tiny bit. “We just need to take it to the Sanctuary, right? They’ll have some place to lock it up until we know what to do.” 

We don’t need to do anything. I told you, I can handle this.” I take a slow step back, never taking my eyes off her.

“Give it to me if you don’t wanna go. I’ll take care of it and you can go do whatever else.” She strides toward me and reaches for the book.

“No!” I jump back out of her reach. My cards blink into being, positioned such that they form a whirling ring around me. A fence, if not a very sturdy one.

Tetha freezes. Her eyes widen. “What are you doing?” she asks.

“Leave me alone. I’m not… I don’t want to… I’m not any kind of problem for you, okay?”

“Don’t want to what? Fight? To, why, to protect a Harbinger? That’s what you’re s-saying!” Her voice breaks on the last word.

“Why do I have to say anything? Why am I wasting my time trying to explain how I’m handling a Harbinger in words you can understand when I could just be handling it?

“If it was handled, we wouldn’t have a problem! What were you gonna do until that whole idea led you somewhere? Keep it with you? Leave it in the library? Either way there’d be lots of people for it to do whatever evil thing it does to! Lots! There’d be vessels everywhere, if there even are any in the first place!” Tetha yells. “And I’m… I won’t let it be like that! If you won’t kill it, I will!”

“Don’t do this,” I plead. I really don’t know what happens next if she does, but I’m sure it’ll be bad. Bad for one of us right now, bad for me forever.

Without another word, Tetha raises her trident and spins it in a series of wide, sweeping circles. There’s a sudden unnatural dryness in the air. A sphere of water forms above her, tiny at first but swiftly growing. The water glows with sourceless teal-blue light, like pool lights at night, but much more vivid.

Fine. I didn’t start this. 

I hug the book to my chest, shielding it with my arms from whatever she’s trying to do. Then, without moving another muscle, I take control of a card and float it out of my orbit, off to one side —  I’ve started keeping a few infected, just in case I have some reason to separate my sickness from myself in a hurry. Tetha appears too absorbed in whatever she’s doing to notice as that venom-green card floats over the grass, just above ground level. I move it in a wide half-circle, sneaking it behind her. It helps that I don’t need to steer them by hand, the way books and shows about Keepers always paint magic as a thing you do with gestures and flashy poses.

But the moment before I can spring my surprise attack, panic flits across her face. She whirls around and jabs the trident into her sphere. When she pulls it away, a smaller ball of water follows it, tethered to its central point. Then she brings it down, not quite striking my card but touching the orb to it, and pulls away. The water remains, a protective bubble that holds the card in place. I can still distantly feel it, but it simply won’t respond when I try to activate it.

Oh well. I have more… but there’s a slight delay in pulling my focus away from the contained card, like the difference between simply moving my arm and swishing it around in a bathtub. I draw a plume of mist out from myself and shove it through the short gap between us, just as Tetha spins to face me again. A curtain of water from her sphere falls over my fog, dragging it to the ground, holding her trident out in the space between us. She looks like she doesn’t know what to do next.

But I do. As Tetha takes a few hasty steps back, I reach with my soul for the card I conjured and dropped near the end of our talk. I place it so that between one step back and the next, her foot comes to rest over it, and only then do I will it to burst.

Cold emerald fog fills the air. Tetha lets out a high-pitched yelp and whirls around as if startled by a sudden noise, but her cry is quickly cut off by a fit of dry coughs. Her legs tremble, then buckle and send her crashing to the ground. She reaches forward and tries to break the fall with her trident, but her arms no longer have the strength to prop her up on it. Rather than drift off through the air again, the trident clatters against the stone and disappears as she crumples to the ground. The light in the water above her fades as she loses her grip on it, and the sphere comes pouring down on her, splashing me in the process.

I wait there, silent and still but for a few halting steps away from her. A storm of horrible emotions I can’t name swirls through my stomach. Finally, she plants her forearms on the ground and pushes herself up just far enough to stare at me in uncomprehending fear.

“My head, it’s… wha’d you…” she rasps, clearly struggling to string the words together.

She’s alive. She’s a Keeper, she’ll get better. That’s all I need to know. I tap some of my health and run away as fast as my legs will allow. Tetha isn’t following, as far as I can tell. Still, I don’t stop until I can’t sense her anymore. 

Only then do I dismiss my magic and collapse in the shadow of the nearest building wall. What am I doing? What was I ever doing? How did I imagine for a second it wouldn’t end up like this? 

Between choked sobs and gasps for breath, I dash the book against the ground, pick it up, and smash it to the pavement over and over. The Harbinger sits through it all unprotesting, still and lifeless as ever, and after a few repetitions I’ve lost the energy to do it anymore. It doesn’t help at all. Nothing will.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-2

Demystifying the Tarot, Chapter 5: The Major Arcana

The Stars — XVII

Between the departures and dawnings of the Sun, the Stars Beyond hold court. Just as they emerge from the fading light of day, the Tarot’s Stars follow the turmoil and devastation of the Tower in the Fool’s Journey. Cast into darkness, stripped of everything they thought they knew, the traveler must look beyond their own understanding for new answers. This card reminds us that as we are all connected in some small sense to a cosmos unthinkably vaster than ourselves, we are never alone in our search for answers, but also that those answers may be very far from what we expected or wanted.

When this card appears in a reading, it often relates to major life decisions or unanswered questions that need your attention. In all cases, it signals that this is a good time to examine and adjust your path. Where it leads may be hidden from you, but even in the deepest night, there’s enough starlight to see by. In seeking answers that can only be found in the dark, though, remember how quickly knowledge without understanding becomes dangerous.

In its inverted aspect, this card usually refers to the internal influence of mysteries or revelations. It may indicate things you wish to hide from your own or others’ sight, long-held understandings that no longer serve you, or losing sight of your own goals in search of some higher, grander purpose that may never come. The Stars watch and illuminate, but do not guide. As in all Tarot interpretation, when considering any insights they offer, it’s important to avoid handing your own agency over to the cosmos. There’s no future in wishing and waiting for something else to act through you. 

Keywords: Upright: Wonder, mystery, inspiration and contemplation, clarity of vision, paradigm shifts, perilous wisdom

Inverted: (+) Secrets, self-understanding, accepting what you cannot change

(-) Fate, forces outside your control, indecision, fear of the unknown

~~~

I wake up with a dizzying headache that smears my vision into an unfocused-photo blur and makes it hard to sit up in bed, let alone do anything meaningful. I make myself sit with it for now. There have always been bad health days, and after last week I shouldn’t strain my extra wellness too much.

If I have to refill while I think through the insane idea I’m considering, it might start to weigh on me.

Once I’ve sat through the morning medical routine and noted to the nurses that I feel terrible, I flop out of bed and slowly make my way to my corner of the lounge, if only because the seats there are comfier than the one at my desk.

My tarot table has been quieter since I made the Promise, and I don’t think that’s entirely down to the fact that I’ve been out a lot more. Dementia isn’t too common on the seventh floor. Most residents still know what’s going on around them, and while they might not see straight through my poorly-kept secret, I did start taking long night walks right as I developed very Keeperlike unnatural markings. They can look at me and gather that something unusual might be happening. Maybe it would be different if everyone knew that they now had a mascot Keeper, but until they know that’s what happened, I’m probably an eerie mystery to be kept at a distance.

Noirin and the nurses still talk to me, but those do seem like the people most likely to have put the pieces together. One morning nurse even complimented my weird hair — I thanked her, mentioned dying it, and otherwise brushed it off. I actually did look up how to use those products Dr. Hines gave me the other day, but I’ve never done anything like that myself and it looked way too hard and complicated to bother with. Especially when my magic would probably just undo any steps I took to either reverse the process or hurry it along.

The rest of the people here don’t seem to know what to do with me, and until they do, it’s probably easier to leave me alone. That’s fine, though. I haven’t sat down and done a full reading for myself in a while, and I have enough pressing questions about my new place in the world that I could probably spend a few days doing nothing but working through them. Let’s start with the obvious one: tell me, cards, what I need to know about this library Harbinger. What’s going on in my head? What am I not thinking of? Holding those questions in the front of my mind, I scatter my deck across the table. 

Back in its little black box, the Six of Pentacles still sits alone and forlorn. A lot has changed since I banished it, so… fine. You can come back, but you’re on notice. Don’t test me. I slip it into the pile and start to swirl the whole mass around. Some of my books suggest fancier, more organized shuffling methods, but I like this one. My hands will never shiver too badly for it to work, and it’s kind of fun. Once I’ve herded the pile back into a deck, I separate it into three sections and spin them around a couple times to mix up whether the cards are inverted or not — the piles twirl nicely on these polished tables, which is also fun — then put them back together and flip my first card.

What was: The Stars inverted. Alright, that’s a bit on the nose, but in so many ways that it loops back and becomes hard to say just what it’s referring to. Just in the immediate past, does that mean all the ways in which I’m trapped by awful life circumstances, or things I’m hiding or bottling up or looking for answers to in the wrong places? Let’s see what’s next and come back to this.

“These don’t look like the ones you normally use,” a voice interrupts before I can flip the next card. “What’s the occasion?”

“Oh! Hi.” I look up at Noirin, who’s appeared from nowhere as usual. Or, more likely, I just wasn’t watching too closely. “I only use these for myself. The pictures don’t have as much going on as the others, so they’re harder to read if you don’t already know all the cards.” Traditional tarot decks display complicated scenes packed with old occult symbolism, and even if you don’t recognize the symbols, most show people doing something that carries the basic meaning. My personal deck’s art style is simpler and gloomier, with lots of stark black and white lines setting off small splashes of color, and no human figures on any of the cards. Animals and natural scenes replace most of the classical imagery. 

“May I have a look? I like them.”

“When I’m done, yes.”

“Of course.” She moves a little more carefully than usual as she sits next to me, squinting to inspect the first card from a distance. My deck’s Stars are a white background trailing up into a black one, on which eleven large stars shine in an irregular rainbow of dark pastel colors.

Once she’s settled, I draw the second card. What is: The Tower. My Tower is a great tree in the night, burning and collapsing after a lightning strike. Taken with the last card, it looks like the upside-down Stars are falling from the sky and smashing something beneath.

“So, what do these ones say?” Noirin tilts toward me, craning her head to look at  the cards from the right angle.

I put a finger to the Stars. “This one is the unknown. Influences you aren’t aware of or can’t control. The second one is…” I work through the common keywords in my head and hesitate, realizing how easily most of them could apply to a girl on the brink of death making the Promise. “Breakdowns. Old ideas and beliefs collapsing. Painful but needed revelations,” I eventually say. I don’t include dramatic life upheavals in the list, but that’s certainly the main one I’m thinking of.

“Oh my,” she says simply. The Tower is one of those cards that very often spooks people, but I guess it’s different when it’s not about you. In fact, it does spook me — not because it really predicts some disaster, but because there’s a few things this could point to. Of course my life has a range of Tower-worthy events to choose from. 

First, I should figure out where I’m starting the timeline for this. Is the past the Harbinger I found yesterday? No, that’s still happening, and there’s a clear story to these cards. The book is the Tower, a nightmare very likely to throw my world into chaos and madness if anything about this plan goes wrong. The things I learned in my first weeks as a Keeper are the Stars. They left me feeling trapped enough by the rules of the world that leaving a Harbinger alone to grow seemed like my only way forward — and no matter what my tarot books or the Cycles or anyone says about fate and choice, it still seems like it is. 

The Tower promises growth when all is settled, rebuilding upon the remains of something that was never secure enough to last. Does that part even exist here? Only as some vague, distant hope that I really do learn something worthwhile from all this. But the reading isn’t finished. Before I run too far down that road, what will be is…

“Huh?” I huff. The Ace of Cups inverted. Hm. You don’t fit in at all. It even looks out of place next to the others, bright and calm, a white goblet on a sky-blue background patterned in a way that could equally suggest a waterfall or fish scales. 

Noirin tilts her head expectantly.

“I’m really not sure what to do with this one,” I say. Honestly. “It’s usually about new love or romance, so… you see the issue.” Inverted, it’s actually lost or unrequited love, but I’m not opening that door for anyone’s guesses.

She shrugs. “Who’s to say? Love finds us in its own place and time. Most often when we’re least looking for it.” Her voice stays light, because she’s not an idiot. She’s having fun teasing me, not actually telling me to keep my eyes peeled for the boy of my dreams in this hospice.

…Whatever that would even mean. It’s not like I have one in my imagination I’m just desperately waiting to meet. Finding love has always just felt like one more thing in the category of “things I’ll never grow up enough for.” I guess I still won’t now, even if I do live forever. Thanks, stunted growth. Thanks, delayed puberty. I’m still not sure how to feel about that — lots of the stuff I’ve been told to expect sounded bizarre and gross, yes, but… I don’t know.

Anyway. I can safely ignore the obvious reading, so what’s left? Emotional walls, withheld or repressed feelings, emptiness. A call to look for things holding you back or pay more attention to your own inner world. If I were a blind optimist, I could read this as referring favorably to my strange Harbinger intuition.

I’m not, though. In this position, it’s probably a destination. A warning I hadn’t exactly thought but must have already known: this very likely ends with me alone in the world, holding everyone and everything at a distance.

But if it comes to that, alone and alive is still progress.

“So what are these all about, anyway?”

“Secret,” I answer. I don’t think I could make up a fake subject fast enough to be convincing.

“Ah.” She nods, smiling in a way that I hope isn’t knowing. “Well, I’m glad you’re still finding things to be interested in, whatever they are. Are you finished, then?”

I pick the three cards up, then push the rest of the deck toward her. “Go ahead.”

Noirin thanks me and starts to go through the deck one card at a time, taking long pauses to flip them over and inspect the art upright and inverted. Her sleeves stretch back a little as she does, and the little red pinpoint rash on her arms has spread. I’d try not to think about what that means, but there’s no point. I know where I live, and no miracles are coming to save these people. Not unless I can help them, and I still don’t even know if my miracle can save me.

~~~

I’m still not feeling good by sunset, but I’m stable enough to go out with only a little stolen strength, so I do. I can’t afford to take days off while I’m actively tracking a Harbinger’s growth.

I walk my nightly route at dusk. The best stretch of the day is all too short, and now that I can leave the hospital I want to make the very most of it. For just over an hour, the light is neither too intense nor too faint. The sun isn’t glaring down at everything, but you aren’t yet dependent on bright lamps or fickle starlight. You just see the world, dyed in pretty twilight colors.

These walks are usually quite peaceful, which would be nice if I didn’t need that peace to be broken to live. I’ve found that I don’t need to transform to detect magic at a distance, only to shift my focus away from my body’s senses and toward my soul’s, which means I don’t even have to deal with people stopping to stare at an unfamiliar Keeper. 

As for Keepers, there aren’t so many in New Claris that I constantly run across them, and that’s a relief. Shona and Mide haven’t been back, unsurprisingly. Sometimes I feel others at the edges of my awareness, off in the Fields, but that’s about it. I’ve gotten used to being alone in my tiny corner of the city. 

Which is why it’s concerning when, close to the university campus, I sense someone else coming up from the Weald. People are scary and hard to deal with at the best of times, but that’s not the only problem now. My situation here is dangerous. It wouldn’t take much for someone to stumble across the book while I’m away, or worse, while I’m there watching over it. In the best case, they kill it and I’m left with nothing. Worst case, they decide I’m some kind of Harbinger cultist and my life explodes.

And more than that, something about this person’s aura is deeply disturbing. It’s not painfully offensive in the same way as a Harbinger’s, but it carries an unpleasant weight, close to the way guilt or panic feel in the stomach. I wonder if that’s how I felt to Shona. 

I leave my usual route and slowly make my way toward the other Keeper. They aren’t going right by the library, at least, so hopefully they’re just passing through. If that’s all, I can leave them to it and get back to my business.

As I come closer, I try to push through the unsettling feeling and study its source more closely, remembering what Shona said about sensing a Keeper’s magical signature, but no matter how deep I dive, I can’t find anything like that. Nothing about the aura announces its source’s name or title or nature. It’s not hidden, I don’t think. It’s not a blindingly bright light, too painful to look at directly. It’s like their soul is defaced. Like whatever ideas or images it once carried have been scratched over, leaving only wordless shame and regret.

After a few minutes’ detour, I spot them. Something isn’t right, though. There’s a girl strolling alone down the sidewalk who’s definitely the Keeper, but she doesn’t look anything like one. Not a transformed one, anyway, unless her regalia is a simple burgundy cardigan over a featureless ankle-length black dress. 

I don’t know exactly how that’s supposed to work. Should I be able to sense her at all like this? Her soul’s presence certainly shouldn’t be more intense than that of any other Keeper I’ve met, but it is. I trail her at a healthy distance, trying to figure out where she’s going and if I need to worry about her. Many of the people in her path hastily cross the street or turn down other roads as she approaches. It can’t be that they sense her too, so why? Who is this?

“You don’t need to hide back there. I won’t bother you unless you want me to,” she calls into the night. She stops walking, but doesn’t turn to face me.

I freeze. She is talking to me, right? Has to be. How? She hasn’t looked back at all. Ugh, doesn’t matter, she probably did it with magic. I could just leave now, it seems like she’s just crossing my territory on her way somewhere else, but that might still be a problem if she’s doing it regularly. I really should at least figure out who she is, and if she’s dangerous, I’m in less trouble than anyone else here.

So I walk a little faster, approaching until I can see her clearly, and only then does she turn around. 

“Hey there,” she says. “I’m Niavh. Can I help you with anything?” She waves rather than approaching or offering a handshake. Her black hair is kept in a slightly long pixie cut, and her sleeves cover most of her hands, leaving only the fingers exposed. She’s taller than me, like everyone else in the world, but I think that’s just average height for a girl in the upper half of the Promise range.

“Eyna,” I say, then realize with a nervous start that I’ve seen her face very recently. “Wait. Niavh Fianata?” The Niavh Fianata with a human body count? I don’t say. I hope she can’t see it on my face. There’s the problem with walking around in normal clothes, and transforming just to go talk to her would’ve felt too much like starting a conversation by setting a knife on the table.

“I’m afraid so,” she says, smiling softly. As in her picture, her scarlet eyes are constantly wet with tears. Droplets roll down her face and fall to the sidewalk, where they shatter into tiny sparkling clouds of glass dust, then vanish like puffs of breath in winter.

“Oh, I, sorry,” I murmur. “I didn’t mean to call you out.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve gotten a lot worse,” she shrugs. 

There’s an uneasy silence until I remember that she did just ask me why I was trailing her. “Anyway, no, I don’t need anything and I didn’t want to bother you. I sensed you and wasn’t sure what I was sensing, that’s all. Especially once I saw you. Sorry if that sounds weird. I don’t really know how it’s meant to work with Keepers out of uniform.”

“Ah. Yeah.” She starts walking again and motions for me to join her, which I do after another moment’s hesitation. “When you’ve used magic long enough, it starts to settle into you. Lines like that stop being quite so clear. I’m sorry if it startled you.” I’ve never heard of that before, but it does make sense now that she’s said it. Emergence changes Keepers to make them better suited for magic, and those marks stay there forever, so why wouldn’t the power itself? 

Wait, then what’s the point of transforming at all? It can’t just be for the nice outfits, so… no, that’s a later question.

“Speaking of, I don’t think I’ve seen you around anywhere. Have you been doing this for long?” she asks.

There’s that question again… but, well, I can’t just hide in my corner and be an unknown forever, and it feels somehow less prying than when Shona asked it. Her voice is steady and calm, and she isn’t charging into my life and appointing herself my friend the way extroverts do.

“No. A couple weeks.”

She nods. “How’s it been?”

There’s that question, too. One of the few silver linings to my life is that people haven’t really tried to play the “How are you? Oh, just fine, thanks for asking!” game with me for a long time. Nothing has ever been fine and expecting me to say otherwise would be ridiculous.

But the Keeper world is such a new context that it might as well be a new life. I don’t know what passes for normal or how we’re meant to interact, so I can’t tell if this is a polite nothing or she’s asking because she actually wants the answer. And if she does, do I actually want to give it to this complete stranger?

Maybe just a little. 

“It’s a lot and I have no idea what I’m doing,” I finally say.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. Most of us get the call and jump to running a marathon with muscles we never knew existed.” She doesn’t force eye contact or push herself into my space. We just walk, not quite side by side, with me trailing slightly behind her. It’s kind of nice… apart from the unpleasant mystical weight of her presence, still hanging in the air like a bad mood. I do my best to tune it out. Comparing Niavh Fianata to my last Keeper experience, I feel a little bad about my gut reaction to meeting her, even as occasional pedestrians remind me of it by spotting her and scampering off. I don’t really know what happened with her, not enough to say what I should think of it.

Although by the same token, I don’t know who she is, and first impressions could mean anything. I shoo away shivery memories of floral-scented smoke and low, cruel laughter and dying grasshoppers.

“Is there any way I could make it easier?” she continues. “People have sprinted down this road before, and you don’t need to do everything alone if you don’t want to.”

“…I don’t want to keep you too long,” I reply as casually as I can.

“Don’t worry about that. I’m just taking a walk.”

That’s both of my original questions answered. I could just leave. But with her history, she really might know someone or something that could help me.

“I do have a question. About you. Your circumstances. If you don’t mind,” I say.

“Go ahead. It lightens a bit of the load when people can learn something from me.” Something feels different as she says that. Not a pause or a catch in her voice, and I don’t see any change in her body language. I can only guess that there was a pained twitch in her soul, and whatever it was passes in an instant.

“A lot of the hard part is… trying to use those muscles and not knowing what they’ll do to you. Or other people. Magic, it doesn’t always come out the way you want it to, right? And if something does end up that way, what do you do with it? How do you live in the world after that? Do you? I mean, of course, I guess you’ve figured something out, just… I worry about what could go wrong when the stakes are what they are, that’s all.” I babble through a uselessly vague Keeper version of wrapping my situation in I-have-this-friend hypotheticals. Ugh. This was a bad idea.

To my shock, Niavh doesn’t ask what on earth I’m talking about. She just stops walking and turns her head to face me. “A lot of people have done a lot of things wrong. For Keepers, it’s just… magic makes us more of whatever we are and gives us more of whatever we do, but that doesn’t make our wrongs infinite,” she says, rubbing the sleeve covering her left wrist with the knuckles of her right. “Sins aren’t stains that curse us for eternity. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to avoid them, or any mistakes we make aren’t our fault, but they’re not the end of your life. They don’t poison any good you do later, no matter how it feels.” 

Her smile returns, a bit more wistful than before. “Anyone can change. All it takes is to understand what you’ve done, regret it, and want to be different. No mistake you make will be the only thing that matters about you unless you let it. Does that help at all?”

Niavh sits through my silence, waiting patiently until I break it with the only things I can think to say: “Some, yes. Thank you. The rest I probably just need to get used to. New muscles and learning your own strength and all that.”

“I’m happy to be of service.” She nods and keeps on walking. I sigh with something like relief as her direct attention lifts. I’m still not any good at people.

I don’t follow this time. “I’ve got other things I should take care of. Thanks for your… your time,” I call after her.

“Alright. Take care, Eyna. If you think of anything else I could do, I’m not hard to find.” She looks over her shoulder and waves once more.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I… don’t lie? I was sure it was a lie until I said it. If I end up going to the Church, I’ll probably go to Niavh first.

But I still don’t think I will.

What she said was all fine and good. It probably would’ve been the right thing to say for most Keepers who’d slipped up and hurt someone with magic. It would’ve been right for me, if the thing with the book was my only problem — and I’m not an idiot, I know that could still turn out to be a horrible mistake. But it doesn’t help if what I’ve done and will keep doing wasn’t a mistake. I can’t turn around and stop hurting people. Magic won’t let me. Not unless Emergence gives me some other way to stretch out my lifespan.

And seeing how people reacted to her — a Keeper who, as far as I know, had one very bad day years ago and hasn’t repeated it — doesn’t make me feel good about how they’d handle me.

~~~

There’s nothing new at the library that night. The book hasn’t changed at all and my hold on it is just as strong. 

The next day, it’s added a new step, similar in its content and bizarre patchwork writing style. Strangely, the crossed-out Step 5 is still in there, neither repaired nor replaced. The new step doesn’t reference it at all.

Step 6

A mirror is a polished surface that creates reflected images. When you look in the mirror, are you happy with what you see?

I DIDN’T THINK SO. NOBODY IS. MIRRORS ARE LIARS! THEY TELL YOU THEY’RE SHOWING YOU WHO YOU ARE, BUT THE ███ reflected images IN THE MIRROR IS JUST THE SAD BROKEN WAY OTHER PEOPLE SEE YOU.

Only you can know what you really look like! Before you can see yourself, though, you need to send the ████████ reflected images away so it can’t lie about you anymore. 

Perform this step in your dark room. The time doesn’t matter, but it has to be dark. It always has to be dark. You’ll need a hand mirror big enough to see your whole ████ reflected images in. Sit down, hold the mirror up, and meet ████████ reflected images gaze. If you can’t see your eyes in the dark, OR IF YOU SEE SOMETHING OTHER THAN ████████ reflected images, YOU LOSE.

But if you’ve done the last steps right, you know that you don’t need lights to see anything important. Things you can only see in the light are mean!

Lock eyes with ████████ reflected images. Remember that you aren’t looking at yourself, only at ████████ reflected images. Hold that knowledge close. Soon, your ████ reflected images will start to change. You’ll see through the lie and start seeing faces with no eyes and eyes with no faces and other things too. Then tell the ██████ reflected images you don’t want it anymore! It’s not welcome in your life! 

Your ██████████ reflected images has known you for a long time. It will try to trick you or scare you into letting it stay. Don’t listen! It PROBABLY can’t do anything bad to you! 

Eventually, if you hold fast, the ██████████ reflected images will lose its grip on you. Without somebody to lie to, it’ll poof away into nothing like a tree falling where nobody else can hear it. Then you win! 

The page across from it displays a mirror reflecting what seems to have been a chalky stick figure, smudged away as though half-erased.

That’s a little concerning. If I take it literally, and the book has given me no reason not to, this ritual is the Harbinger’s first step out of creepy imagination games and into changing the actual world. But it’s still a long way from demanding human sacrifice or something. 

Isn’t it? Is it wrong to take this too literally? Thinking about the metaphor here, the idea comes up a lot in old mystic lore that mirrors reflect your soul. What this step means may be as important as what it is, and if that’s the case it gets a lot worse. It could read as a way to feed yourself to the Harbinger disguised as some other strange goal.

But something about that feels wrong in my gut. It’d be stupid to pretend I understand what the Harbinger is thinking as it makes these up, but I don’t have to. All the Harbingers I’ve encountered have… not exactly rules, but they all seem to have some idea they want to express, even if it makes no sense to anyone but them. Whatever this one is saying is spread out over a whole book of insane rituals that’s still mostly blank. Ending the story with this step would be too… random. Too arbitrary. It’d be like if a horror movie ended in fifteen minutes with the hero dying in a car crash on their way to the haunted house.

Although that fifth step does still feel like a pretty random inclusion. What is it for? Is it there to make some point I can’t begin to guess at or did the Harbinger have an idea and change its mind later? Whichever way, it’s only just started on this thing with mirrors and I’m confident that I’m right about its progress, so I put it back and go home.

~~~

When I go to check on it the fourth time, it’s no longer in its place. 

For a long moment, my stomach feels like two ferrets wrestling. I reach out with my soul, searching for the shard of myself I stabbed into the book, and find it very close by. Still inside, still on this floor. It takes a bit longer for my body to catch up with that knowledge, but catch up it does. This was always going to happen. This was the plan, I realize with another, quieter spike of unease. I didn’t really expect the Harbinger to grow just by waiting.

By its location, I think it’s in one of the windowside reading nooks, but it’s not alone. There’s a human soul with it. I head in its rough direction, moving through the bookshelves two rows from the walls. I don’t want to storm in before I know what’s happening. 

Soon, I’m peeking at that nook through the empty space above the books on their shelves. There, a girl in a heavy twill jacket and long, dark pleated skirt is curled up in a ball on the ledge. She’s holding the open book against her knees, and while her bushy mane of golden-brown hair obscures most of her face, she takes regular furtive glances out at the rest of the library. One foot constantly taps on the cushioned bench. It would be easy for a normal onlooker to dismiss her as a jittery kid, but to me, she looks very much like she’s doing something she shouldn’t and she knows it. 

I’m not sure what to make of that, except that if I stay here for too long she’ll probably notice me. I duck away, grab a random book off the shelves, and sit in the next nook over, pretending to read while I train my soul-senses on my neighbors. The two are tangled up like… I don’t know what it’s like. The girl is clearly corrupted, but it doesn’t feel like she has some parasitic disease or death curse. It’s a little like the sour tinge I leave when I drain someone’s health, but that isn’t quite right either. She isn’t injured or sick at all, just touched. The sensory line between her and the Harbinger is fuzzier than it should be.

Eventually, she starts to move, taking the book with her. They head back into the bookshelves, stop for a few seconds, and then mostly separate. Some small part of the Harbinger lingers with her like a bad smell that won’t wash out, but the book itself stays put. I wait a little longer for her to leave, then go get the book myself. It’s exactly where I first saw it on the shelves. 

Hm. Why didn’t she keep it? The library gates wouldn’t detect it if she just smuggled it out in her bag. I have two ideas. One: she just found it for the first time, read enough to be disturbed, and put it back, either to go get help or figuring it was some kind of bad prank. Two: she’s infected enough to influence and it wants to stay where it can reach more people. Given the way she was acting, the second one seems much more likely. Has she been here before? Also seems likely. I don’t think the book would be expanding if someone wasn’t feeding it, and she knows enough that she wanted to hide while she read it.

As for the book itself, it’s definitely grown a little. It looks the same, but its presence feels a bit more substantial… or it does until it recoils at my touch, shrinking into itself like a scared turtle. It’s a little pitiful. Satisfied that it won’t be making another attempt on my soul, I flip it open. Another page is filled in.

Step 7

Your ██████████ reflected images wasn’t a very good friend, but it’s been there your whole life. It made sure you were never alone, and losing it can be a big change. Do you get lonely without it? That’s okay! Your new friend can take its place, and they won’t lie to you or twist you or hurt you!

Just go to your room, look in an empty mirror, and ask your friend to be your new ██████████ reflected images. Tell them what you like about them and why you want them to keep you company. If you’ve done everything right so far, you’re probably already fast friends, so this step is very easy! Once you can see your friend in the glass, you both win!

WHEN PEOPLE SEE THEM IN THE MIRRORS AND ASK WHAT CHANGED, YOU CAN TEACH THEM HOW TO SEE THEMSELVES AND MAKE THEIR OWN FRIENDS TOO! YAY!

(Make sure they do the other steps first, or they’ll lose.)

The same drawn mirror as on the last page now displays the ugly little purple blob from the earlier steps, reaching out for a hug with its nubby shapeless appendages.

Okay, then. In two steps, we’ve moved from giving yourself nightmares to replacing your reflection with a Harbinger. The book isn’t eating people right away, but there is a clear progression here. I’ll need to watch how quickly the next ones escalate, if I don’t just kill it now. 

Should I kill it now? The book still doesn’t feel close to finished, and whatever it wants, it’s taking its time with its victims. 

No. Not yet. I put it back on the shelf and head home. I’ll end this if it really starts to hurt that girl, but until then, I think it can wait a little longer. I just need some magical way to keep an eye on her, track her progress through the rituals. 

Hopefully she’s the only one. There are no trails of corruption leading away from the Harbinger’s core, not even to her.

~~~

I don’t see or sense the girl the next night, and the book hasn’t changed. My watch continues. I sit nearby enough to look at its place on the shelves, and no one but me pays it any attention. This goes on for two more days. Where did she go? With the state of her soul, I doubt she just stopped. Did something happen to her? Did the Harbinger warn her about me and my usual visiting time?

On the fourth day, I find someone else before I can check on the book. A soul I’ve never felt before, but one bright with magic. 

Another Keeper.

They aren’t rushing right at the library, but they’re close enough that they’ll find the book as long as they can sense it at any reasonable range. Sure enough, a minute later they start heading straight toward me.

Okay. Okay. What am I doing? Do I give up the plan and kill it right now? I still don’t think I’d get much out of it, but that’s better than someone else killing it. Run off with it and put it back later? No, that’s stupid — all they’d need to do is run faster than me, and it’d look even worse than waiting here with it. Tell them that yes, I’ve got important research reasons to leave this Harbinger alone? These ideas are just getting worse.

Wait, are they? That last one depends very much on what I tell them.

I take the book off the shelf, find a nook in an empty corner of the library, and sit, waiting for the stranger to come find me. If I frame this the right way, explain the details I can sense and they can’t and maybe twist the truth just a tiny bit, this really might work.

Oh, who am I kidding? It’s going to be terrible, just like everything else, but it’s what I’ve got.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-1

On my first day as a Keeper, when I killed Yurfaln and found out what absorbing it had done for me, I wasn’t happy. I could see how the way it changed my magic might be very helpful in deadly situations, yes, but I didn’t accept this role to burn a little brighter before some horrible creature or my own worthless body snuffs me out. I did it to not die. 

I might have judged that power too quickly. My first Harbinger made my magic stronger on the verge of death, which means I can better use it to pull myself back from the brink. It’s probably saved my life twice now — first when Irakkia skewered me, and again when I somehow kept myself standing through my self-poisoning scheme in the forest.

That doesn’t happen with the Harbinger egg I took from the Wade house. It’s exactly as tiny and useless as it felt in the moment, and I’m no further from death for it. I think I burned a little less health recovering from that day than I would’ve otherwise. 

Nothing I do is working and I have no idea what I can do about it except… keep throwing myself into disasters and hoping.

~~~

Four days later, the drought in my territory ends. Maybe. 

I’ve made long evening walks part of my new routine. I missed one while I was recovering from my day in the forest, but only one. Keeping to my own plans is one of those precious few things I can control, and I’m not about to give that up so long as I have the power to push through horrible health days. 

It’s also a big change that I can safely go outside at all now, one that hasn’t quite become too routine for me to appreciate. I’ve made a habit of shrouding myself in the cold mist of my immunization barrier before I leave the seventh floor for any reason. At least in this one way, magic hasn’t betrayed or disappointed me. This shield is something small and fundamental enough that I can easily create and maintain it without transforming, and it does exactly what I meant it to do. Sometimes, when I’m focusing closely on my soul’s senses, I actually feel pathogens that would’ve been life-threatening a few weeks ago freezing to death and smile a little. 

The only drawback I’ve noticed so far is that the mist does make the air surrounding me a good bit chillier, and I can live with that. It might even be nice when summer comes — I’ve never liked warm-weather clothes anyway.

On tonight’s walk, I’ve just turned around at the university when the uneasy feeling of sensing a Harbinger somewhere close creeps over me. It feels different. More substantial than the last one’s barely-there aura, but not painfully overwhelming like most of the others, and hard to put any clear impression to. The presence isn’t too faint to follow and doesn’t do anything to elude me. I don’t even need to transform to follow it, and follow it I do. 

Its trail leads into the massive library not far from the university. I used to go there and dig through their occult sections, before it became clear quite how bad my situation was, but I haven’t been inside since I left school. Realizing that makes me want to go dig through their occult sections and find some weird tome to devour, just because I can, but this is a little more important.

The Harbinger’s presence seems to come from somewhere above, and I follow it that way, up the winding staircase that climbs through the building’s heart. The library is arranged in layers that feel increasingly quiet and small. The bottom floors have lots of wide open space for gatherings and events. By the top, shelves and shelves of books cover most of the space, dotted here and there with chairs in little corners and reading nooks by the windows. One side hall is just a dozen rows of huge wooden study desks, lined with bookshelves at the far end. This makes things at least a bit easier for me. Not as many bystanders, and there are plenty of isolated corners to hide in if I need to do any active magic.

My search ends somewhere in the top floor’s maze of books, but the corruption’s source is not a monster or a Wound or even another formless nightmare egg. Unless I’m seriously mistaken, it’s a book. In the Languages section, of all places. Tucked between two big books on the history of the Thalassic language in a way that leaves it not exactly hidden, but hard enough to notice that I wouldn’t have spotted it without magic telling me right where it was. Did something infect a book the way others infect people? Is that a thing? I touch a finger to its spine very slowly, then pull it out when it doesn’t burn or bite me. 

Nothing happens. Holding it feels vaguely unsettling, but other than that, it’s an actual physical book in the actual physical world. A little black hardcover, featureless except for the title on the front: How to Be the World, written in embossed silver text that catches the light and shimmers holographically. I’m not sure what I expected a Harbinger’s tome of horrors to look like, but this isn’t it.

The first page has none of the stamps or card pockets you’d expect to see in a library book. It lists no author or publisher, only the title repeated, and under that… I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A dedication? It looks almost handwritten, but the letters are still standardized enough to seem like a font.

if you are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality
if you find living boring
if you see no beauty in anything
if your dreams don’t fit inside your skin

then this book is for you! you will be happy here!!! 

Then, on the next page over:

Introduction (how to use this book the right way!)

Everyone has dreams. Do you have any you dream often? That’s because some dreams are bigger than others, so they take up more space. Those are the ones that hook into you and follow you everywhere and wrap themselves around your heart and never ever ever let go. Sometimes, the very biggest dreams become too much to carry and spill out of your soul. This could be a very good thing, but it happens so much that they’ve all bled into each other and smushed together into a big messy dream-soup. That’s like mixing all the colors together at once. It means there might as well not be any dreams at all!

Some call that soup Life!

If you’re sick of living in grey, tasteless dream-slurry, this is the one and only book that can help you! Inside these pages, you’ll learn how to take your favorite dreams and carve them into the world’s skin. Then they won’t be dreams anymore, they’ll just be, and you can live in them even while you’re awake! Soon, this book will teach you the steps to make anything you want real!

Here are some things you need to know first:

-The work will begin as soon as you’ve read and understood the next page. Read each step’s instructions carefully. If you miss something or make a mistake, you’ll lose! Oh no!

-It’s important that you perform the steps to come in order. Don’t read ahead!

-You don’t have to know what you want to be just yet! The steps will say when you need to make up your mind.

-I love you!

I don’t think it’s going to drag me into a Wound, but I don’t like it at all. Still, it means something, so… 

Wait. 

It means something

It’s not a nightmare tome swirling with Harbinger-words my magic is roughly interpreting for me. The book is obviously corrupted, but its bizarre words are written in perfectly legible Clarish — here and there,  it does switch between different fonts seemingly at random, but they’re all readable. That’s not supposed to happen. That doesn’t happen. Harbingers don’t speak human languages. How? Did someone, what, write and print this book on its behalf? Leave it here and wait for someone to stumble across it? No, that doesn’t make any sense… but neither do Harbingers. For all I know, this isn’t even really unheard of. Maybe Keepers who hear them talk just don’t want to record and share their ravings, or the Church doesn’t want people publishing Harbinger quotes. I don’t have any other Keepers I can check with.

Well, whether or not this is the first Harbinger in history to read and write Clarish, it’s the one I’m dealing with. Let’s see what else it has to say.

Step 1 

Close your eyes and pretend you’re a human standing just where you are right now. Walk around the space where you are, exploring every last nook. When you’re finished, go back to where you started and open your eyes.

Who did you see around you? 

If the world was empty, you don’t lose, but this book is not for you. Please put this book back where you found it.

(Remember to return books to their proper place!)

If you met any strangers or inhuman creatures, you win! Pick your favorite!

You will need their help soon.

On the opposite page is a pastel drawing of a girl sitting in this exact spot. Colorful little monsters peek out from behind the shelves. A one-eyed purple blob with thick blue tentacles trailing down from it, a thing like a green sheet-ghost if it were draped over a tree stump instead of a person… in another context, they might be cute in kind of an ugly way.

Anyway, I’m not doing that. I turn the page, and if the book is hiding things or punishing me for breaking the rules, I can’t tell. Each page is printed a little differently, with different fonts in different sizes. Even the exact color and texture of the paper varies. They all follow a similar format, though. Instructions for a stage of this bizarre ritual on one side, a cheery little picture of the act on the other. 

Step 2

This step can only be performed at night, indoors, in complete darkness. It’s best if you pick a room that NEVER sees ███████ natural light. If you don’t have your own sleep cave, you can make one yourself by ███████ COVERING your windows, but they’ll have to be COVERED forever. We’re going to make this room into a special night garden where you can plant and water your dreams and sing to them to make them grow taller! If the Sun sees inside before they’re done growing, you lose.

The Sun is mean!

Once you’ve chosen a place, make sure no pests will invade your garden until you’re finished. If one does, you lose. Sit alone with your back to a corner, so that you could see the whole room at once if it were lit. If the room is dark enough, you shouldn’t see anything at all. To make sure, try to move your hand in front of your face. If you only see a blur, a sort of black-on-black shifting that follows the motion, that’s okay! It’s not real. It’s only your brain trying to make up for the fact that it can’t see as well as your soul.

But just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it’s not real. If you try, you can see the whole room the way you think you see your hand, paint a whole world with different shades of pitch darkness. What’s different about them? What separates the black carpet from the black chairs? Nothing. Everything. They’re all just memories, like everything else, but we can tell all the other ones apart, so why not these? Once you see them, remember the room a different way than it was before. It doesn’t even have to be a room at all! Maybe your room was always really a black field of black flowers under a starless night sky. What’s important is that you take all those shades of not-color and make them into something new, full of all the things that inspire you most.

Once you’re happy with your room, think about your favorite friend from Step 1. Invite them to come and sit with you. You can say it out loud or with your soul but they’ll hear either way. If you’ve done everything right, you should be able to see them just like you did before, colors and all. Welcome them! Show them around!

As soon as you’re done, you win!

You should go to bed as quickly as you can when you’re finished. It might help to sleep in your dark space tonight. Remember what the dream side of it is like, and write down any interesting dreams you have about it!

If you can’t remake the room, or your new friend doesn’t come to you no matter how much you call, you lose.

If something else comes, I’m sorry. I can’t help you.

I can’t tell what the picture here is supposed to be. Rather than shapes I can make anything of, it just has textures that are slightly raised on the page, like someone tried to draw in black crayon on black paper.

Step 3

There’s no step here. I just wanted to tell you that the world we’re making together is beautiful. 

The illustration is a simple page-sized heart.

Step 4

You’ve probably had lots of dreams you don’t like, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important! Before you can become the world, you’ll need to gather up everything you want to not-become and put it somewhere else. 

Perform this step in your room from Step 2. If you haven’t slept in there before, you’ll need to now.

As you’re getting ready for bed, think about the dreams you like the least. What about them makes you uncomfortable? Do you think they could hurt you? Maybe they can, but they probably just take you to places where you don’t want to go. If you CUT away all the confusing dream symbols and push through to their heart, the things that scare you the most, what are those things? If you don’t have words for them yet, that’s okay. Just let them all swim around and fill that fuzzy place between waking and sleeping and then dive on in!

If you’ve done everything right, you’ll be in your room, but it won’t be yours anymore. All those things should have followed you here and twisted it around themselves. Don’t run. Don’t look away. If you do, you lose. You need to understand everything that happens here. I don’t know what that’ll look like for you, but you’ll have to do it alone. It wouldn’t count if your new friend helped, so they’ll wait in the room outside, watching over your garden while you work.

It might take you more than one night to sort through all the horrible things squirming through your dream-room. The days in between those nights probably won’t be very good days, so don’t take too long, but eventually, everything will be back the way it’s supposed to be, and in one brilliant moment you’ll know everything is going to be okay. Then you win!

The things you faced during this step aren’t gone, but they’re yours now. Someday, you’ll use the ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ you gathered here as ink to write your new world.

The picture is of the girl and the purple blob from the first step. They’re standing over a big black soup cauldron full of strangely-shaped eyes and thin insects’ legs and other things I couldn’t hope to identify and don’t want to. One long grey arm that twists all along its length like a snake looks like it’s trying to climb out, but the girl is pushing it back down with a big wooden spatula.

That last part… why do I know that word? Do I know it? I can’t read it, can’t see it as anything but a swirling blur swimming around the page, I’m not even sure if it is a word, but it still feels familiar. I’ve heard it before, that’s it. There was a Harbinger-speech word or phrase Irakkia used that felt the same way this bit of text feels, left the same uncomfortable gap in my understanding. 

Reading this book feels like peeking at something you’re not supposed to see, but there’s two different feelings twisting together within the one — at the same time, it’s both an exciting secret people are hiding from you and an awful spectacle you’ve stumbled onto, something you don’t even want to see but can’t quite rip your eyes away from. Like sneaking a look at a birthday present, but when you open the wrapping there’s just a half-decayed animal corpse underneath.

Step 5

Beneath the chapter heading, all the print on this page is crossed out in black permanent marker, and the drawing across from it has been angrily scratched out. A note in the margins over it reads: 

SKIP THIS STEP! This step should never be performed ever ever ever! If you perform it, you will lose! 

This time it looks very much like real writing, neat but slightly shaky.

Everything suddenly feels colder.

It takes longer than it should’ve to notice that the chill isn’t just some abstract eerie feeling in the air. Something is pushing into my protective aura, the magic I use to replace the immune system I don’t have. The mist howls silently and seeps into my bones, demanding my attention — my help. 

But what about the book? What happens if I leave it alone? Is it like locking eyes with a predator, where it’ll pounce on me the moment I falter? What’s next, and what is any of this? Morbid curiosity leashes me to it like a chain, like… like something’s reached up from the earth, grabbed my leg, and won’t let go until it drags me under. Something more than my own fear.

Pulling myself away from the book is the same sort of mental struggle as trying to force myself to fall backwards onto a hard floor, but I do. I wrench my eyes shut and turn my focus inward, following the flow of magic as it seeps out from my soul. At the boundary that forms my shield, little barbed tendrils of the book-Harbinger are worming their way through. I push more power into the barrier until the Harbinger’s coils start to rot, and seconds later I feel it snap loose, retreating into itself.

I release a loud whoosh of breath. Confident that I can hold off the book’s touch, I turn to the next step, but there isn’t one. Beyond that is only blank pages. Is that really all? Are you hiding now that you know I’m stronger than you? No, the first five steps are still there. If this has something to do with that rule about reading ahead, it’d be strange to let me skip four steps before it locked me out.

Maybe it’s really not finished. What does that mean? The book could be a monster’s version of my cards, a tiny extension of something larger, but it doesn’t feel that way. There’s no soul-trail leading to a greater source, no sense of anything flowing into or out of it. It’s just much smaller than any of the full-fledged Harbingers I’ve fought. Not quite a shapeless, unborn thing, but not finished taking its form. I could transform and kill it right now with only slightly more trouble than the last one.

And only slightly more to show for it, but no point in seething too much about things I can’t change.

…Unless.

The book-Harbinger seems to be stuck in the early stages of that act. What does it need to finish writing itself? Time? Pain, madness, souls? Does it always take a death or something close enough to count? I don’t know what the unborn wisp was waiting for, but this one’s goal is fairly clear: it wants someone to find it and carry out these creepy dream rituals. 

What happens then? Maybe if it had a little more time, enough to take its shape but not enough to go on a rampage, it’d be more— 

Wait. Am I seriously thinking this? Is it still… no, I check again and I’ve definitely purged the corruption. This is all me. My life has reached a point where not having a Harbinger crawling through my mind somehow feels like the worse outcome. I can’t burn this idea away with magic. It just sits there, challenging me to dismiss it out of hand the way a good, sane person would. 

Or… follow it through to the end. A minute later, the thought hasn’t gone away and I’m still not killing the book. I guess I need to know what it is I’m actually thinking before I can reject it, and all I’ve got right now is a flash of madness I mistook for a Harbinger attack. 

Fine. Where did this come from? I’m obviously worried about my disease outpacing my magic, so that’s making a mess of my head. Vyuji promised that Emergence would give me some way to save myself, but I don’t know how far off that is or how much time I have. Further, my last attempts at hunting have been disasters. What went wrong with those? What could I change?

Finding Harbingers that I can kill and that are worth anything more than a good deed to my name seems increasingly like gambling my life on horrible odds. My reach just isn’t that wide. I’m not good at fighting. I don’t know if I ever will be. Other Keepers track monsters and charge into battle with whatever they find because they can. They have the strength or magical knack to make it work. I’m sure the direct approach is fine for the Stardust Seraph, who got both and also can fly, or the Silver King, who never needs to worry about working with others because she’s her own whole team.

Me? I can survive a lot if I’ve stolen enough life ahead of time, and my magic-plague will… probably kill things it infects, eventually, assuming there’s nothing they can do to stop it. That’s all I’ve got. It might be good if there were some practical way to sicken a Harbinger, break out of its Wound, and run away for a couple days, making sure it doesn’t go on a horrible rampage and I’m there to claim it when it finally dies. There is no such way, as far as I can tell.

But I do have at least one thing: some special attunement to Harbingers. Every Keeper can sense them, some better than others, but when I do I see into them. I feel some part of what they are. They’ve spoken to me, not exactly with words but in ways I can understand on some level. I always thought that was impossible, and not just because I was a normal person who’d never looked into it. Shona mentioned that my Harbinger impressions seemed unusually strong, and she’s been doing this at least a little longer than me.

Maybe I’ve been approaching this the wrong way.

If I take that connection and use it to study Harbingers, learn how they and their bizarre life cycle work, I can figure out what they need to come into the world and how much of it they need. And if I catch them in their early stages, I can infect them, let that seed of decay take root, and inflame it the moment they get too dangerous to leave alone. 

Of course, I doubt it’ll just grow on its own. It’ll have to do something to someone. That sounds bad and feels worse, but… I’m already hurting people to survive. It’s no worse than my next best idea, the one about tagging monsters and running off. Probably better. A full-grown Harbinger would do much more damage. 

It wouldn’t just make my life easier, either. Anything I learn this way is knowledge about the world’s most dangerous mystery that everyone can use.

…I’m really entertaining this, aren’t I? What’s wrong with me? It even feels like it makes sense. Like it’s actually the best thing I can do with this horrible power.

The Harbinger is still tiny. I don’t have to commit to one move or the other just yet, and there are things I want to research if the information exists anywhere. 

For now, I’ll just make sure I’m ready to kill it if I need to. I take a photo of the book’s first step, stopping to make sure that my phone is not suddenly haunted and the image actually shows up in my pictures. It does, so I repeat until I’ve recorded all the filled pages. I’d like to write out little summaries just in case it still has some control over direct copies, but I don’t have any paper. Later. 

Next step… can I do this without transforming? Apparently not. The range of things that count as small enough to do at any time seems to grow the more magic changes me, but my cards still won’t come. This’ll be a little awkward, then. I stuff the book into my bag, take it into the bathroom, and call my power up as soon as the one other girl leaves. Then, working quickly as I can, I summon a card, infuse it with a tiny wisp of pain, and press it to the book’s blank back page like a branding iron.

The thing in the book’s aura boils and writhes in protest. Absurdly, I imagine trying to hold a slippery, foul-smelling fish tight until it breathes its last. The Harbinger stops short of thrashing until it’s burnt itself completely out, though. Eventually, its presence goes silent and still, like it’s playing dead for lack of any other defense. My card sinks into the page until only its back design remains, a dark rectangle run through with spiraling white glyphs. It looks like it could’ve been printed there in the first place. 

Nothing has changed about the book or the Harbinger itself, but now a tiny caustic piece of me winds through its being. Now that I’ve got my own hooks into it, I can end this whenever I want. If something goes wrong, it’ll only take another little push to correct my mistake.

A lot of things about this might not work. Maybe someone’s already tried it, or the experts already know the things I’m trying to learn and the answers aren’t good, or I’ll get home and realize that I’ve been completely delirious… what else is new?

Well, let’s find out. I dismiss my magic, put the book back right where I found it, and make my way back to the hospital.

Where We Come From 3-4

The faint stench grows only slightly stronger as I follow it, but eventually, its trail does end. It’s on the outer edge of the Fields, the central urban district, centered in a single mid-sized craftsman house. I sense five mostly-healthy people inside, which… that kind of crowd could be very bad. None of them feel corrupted yet, though. I’m not sure what that says about the Harbinger’s activities or the risk of coming after it with bystanders around. All I can do is try and act faster than it.

With that in mind, I creep along the edge of the yard, approaching the house from the side, then press against the wall and transform. No reaction I can sense from the presence, so I summon a card and transfer my sight into it. When my vision is done blurring and spinning, I float it by the front windows. The lights are on, and by now it’s dark enough to see inside easily. A redheaded girl around my age is playing with her phone in one room, so there’s at least one sign that I’m not walking back into Yurfaln’s pit of nightmares. I’ll take it.

That said, I’d rather not bring my cane to introduce myself to a house full of strangers. I consider leaving it under the porch or around the garage corner, but, well… it’ll be worse if I need it and don’t have it. Hopefully they have bigger things to worry about. I banish my card, shake off a bit of lingering dizziness, then round the corner and ring the doorbell.

It takes a while for anyone to answer. Two or three voices call out to each other, but I can’t tell what they’re saying. I bang my cane on the front door for emphasis. After maybe a minute, it creaks open, and a woman in a big knitted sweater peers down at me. She takes a moment to recognize what she’s looking at, and then she just waits, dumbfounded.

“There’s a Harbinger somewhere in your house. I’m here to kill it,” I say.

The woman opens and closes her mouth several times, barely blinking, then frowns and crosses her arms. “Really? Where’s your, your badge?” she asks. “There’s, sometimes kids will dress up in those clothes to sneak in and rob your house! I’ve heard about that!”

And it’s seriously your first thought here? That’s ridiculous. To be fair, if a kid were going to dress up as a Keeper to steal someone’s stuff they might dress a lot like me, but maliciously impersonating a Keeper is instantly-ruin-your-life illegal. Maybe it’s happened a couple times in history, people do some stupid things, but there is absolutely not an epidemic of burglars in frilly outfits. Could she be covering for the Harbinger? Maybe she’s touched in some way I can’t see?

Well, I don’t have the patience to be reassuring. “Here,” I say, and flare enough that she flinches and hides her eyes. Darkness streams through the front hall behind her, smothering its overhead lights, and another voice squeals in surprise from inside. “Do you need any more proof?”

“I, no. C-come in.” She’s visibly paled when she opens the door and steps aside.

“Get your family and take them outside. Stay by the road. I’ll tell you when I’m done.”

She freezes, then nods and calls into the house: “Kids? Garvan? Come here, please come here!”

The girl in the front living room is already staring at me, quietly terrified, and she doesn’t need much prompting to yelp again, kick her shoes on, and skitter out the door. I guess I did that to myself with this entrance.

A younger girl, with hair the same shade of red as her sister’s tied into a tiny side ponytail, bounds down the stairs seconds later. She stops short of the bottom, leans nearly her whole body over the railing, and stares right at me, grinning. “Whoa! Hi, Miss Keeper! Are you here to magic Brendan so he stops being so weird?”

“Don’t pester her, Ada,” the woman sputters, trying and failing to sound stern. “She just needs to check on something. Get your coat and wait outside with Rosa.”

“Why would I need a coat? It’s super warm out, you’re all crazy!” She does a headfirst tumble over the railing that looks incredibly dangerous, but somehow touches down on her feet, then charges past me and out the door barefoot. Okay, that was odd, but so far none of them look like they’re sharing a house with a monster.

Next a tall, thin man in thick glasses peeks out from the end of the hallway. The woman whispers something to him. All I hear is the loudly hissed “Harbinger” as his eyes widen. “Oh. Yes. I, I see. Thank you for checking up on us. Brendan? Brendan, come on down!”

Brendan takes quite a bit longer to appear at the top of the staircase. What the little girl said about him just sounded like siblings annoying each other, so I wasn’t expecting him to be weird in any real way, and he doesn’t surprise me. His dark hair is a little mussy and he looks startled to see me, but there’s no Harbinger-stench on him. I wave, then step out of view.

“This little lady is a Keeper! How about that? She’s stopping by to see how we’re doing, that’s all. Let’s get out of her way while she makes sure everything’s good, okay?” the man says. He does a better job sounding normal, I guess. Maybe I’ve been on the seventh floor too long, but even the way he spoke was a bit strained.

“Kay,” Brendan eventually says, and the three leave together, closing the door behind them.

And now it’s just us. Where, and how, are you hiding? Next to all the other Harbingers I’ve met, this one is shockingly quiet. After Vianzia, that leaves me wondering: what’s its game? Where’s the trap? I reach out with my soul, which still feels only the faintest hints of something eerie, and start searching the house.

At a glance, there are no signs of anything suspicious. Everything is fairly well-kept. Even the basement is clean and brightly lit, with no haunted corners for monsters to hide in. The worst thing I can say is that it doesn’t look very… personalized? Looking around doesn’t say much about the people who live here.

The furniture and decorations are all sort of generically pleasant. No signs that anyone really likes a particular color or animal, no supplies for a hobby someone’s into, no nooks covered in family photos like some houses have. But plenty of people don’t hang pictures everywhere, even people without any complicated family circumstances. I’m not sure if any of this means anything. They could just be a bit boring.

That’s less true upstairs. Unfortunately. One of the girls’ rooms looks less like a place where someone lives and more like a tiny shop that deals exclusively in Stardust Seraph merchandise.

One side is nearly wallpapered with posters depicting a nauseatingly handsome blonde pretty boy flaunting a cocky grin. The teeth peeking through his lips are so bright they sting my eyes. Her backpack is dotted with little pins, and while a couple show some kind of bright red glyphic logo, most are just more pictures of his grinning face.

Figures in and out of costume stand posed on the desk. Between those is a collage of news-clipping photos and weirdly personal headlines about Roland Ysembard’s life and preferences, and under those, a combination-locked journal. Not important. I don’t want to know what sort of bleak and terrible confessions are in there and I don’t think the squirmy feeling in my stomach has anything to do with Harbingers.

Moving on. Compared to the stalker’s shrine, even compared to the non-fangirl’s rather normal room, the one room that looks like a young boy’s is a bit emptier. Not bare or lifeless, he just doesn’t have as much stuff as the others. I don’t really know what boys’ rooms are supposed to look like, so maybe that’s normal? Still, what his sister said before… I shouldn’t ignore anything someone says when a Harbinger’s involved, even if they don’t know they have a problem. There should be something ‘weird’ enough to attract a monster about or around at least one of these people.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, at least, but I’m assuming one of them is feeding it the way Yurfaln fed on Mr. Enfield. Maybe I’m wrong and a Harbinger from somewhere else randomly chose to nest in this house, or some other thing I haven’t thought of is happening. The rules aren’t at all clear.

Only one other unhelpful thing catches my attention: in an upstairs bathroom, there’s shampoo the Seraph apparently endorses. Of course there is. That smug little idol boy’s golden hair is longer and shinier and better-kept than mine and it’s not particularly close. At least he’s not on the bottle. I don’t know what I’d do if he was on the bottle.

And yes, when I pull my hood down to check, there’s a third twisting white streak in my hair.

~~~

Before too long I’ve searched the entire house, then searched it again just in case. Even the attic, where I needed to go find a stool to reach the pull-down stairs. The miasma is a tiny bit weaker up there and down in the basement. Otherwise it feels the same everywhere, with no clear source and no signs that it’s gone somewhere else. It never stops feeling uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to pinpoint, but as far as I can tell there’s nothing else here. What does that mean? Is it hiding its Wound somehow? 

Or hiding somewhere else? I look out at the family. None of them felt corrupted at a glance, but I could be mistaken, or it could’ve slipped out with them. I study their souls again, closely as I can without drawing from them. In between cartwheels over the grass, the little girl shivers as if in a cold breeze at my unseen touch, but that’s just me. There’s still nothing inside any of them. 

So what is actually happening here?

I open the door and wave the adults in. After a brief delay and a few words to the kids, they join me at the round kitchen table.

“Is it over?” the man asks.

“Not yet. Something happening in your home is… we’ll just say summoning a Harbinger. It’s complicated.” I don’t understand it myself and I don’t know if anyone does, but better if they don’t hear that from the girl in charge of handling the problem. 

“Wait, wait, so what are we doing back inside?” he whisper-hisses, like he wants to raise his voice but he’s afraid to wake someone up.

“I have some questions. It’s hiding from me, and knowing exactly where it came from will help me track it down or flush it out, so please tell me what’s going on.” 

“What do you mean going on? We don’t know anything about this. About magic,” the woman says.

“The magic problems start with someone here feeling something that drew a Harbinger to them. That’s what I need to know about. They feed on pain, so whatever it is won’t be good to talk about. I’m sorry.”

“…Oh.” Her hands, folded in front of her on the table, start to tighten until her fingers are losing their color.

After a silent beat, the man steps back in for her. “Listen, miss… what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t. Call me Eyna.”

“Okay. Eyna. I’m Garvan Wade, and this is my— this is Matilda. Anyway, is there a monster roaming around here or not? If there is, I really don’t see how sitting around telling our life stories is going to catch it.”

“I just told you how.” 

“Oh. Right. And you’re really sure that’s necessary?” he asks.

“If I had a better idea, I wouldn’t be asking. I don’t want to dig up your issues any more than you do,” I say. 

“Alright. Alright,” he sighs. “So what’s, I don’t know, what sorts of problems should we be thinking about?” Then we’re not going to dance around this forever. Good.

“You seem surprised about all this, so I guess none of you have been through anything obviously bizarre or unnatural. Is that right?” I ask.

“Nothing comes to mind,” Garvan says, and glances over to Matilda.

“What?” She does a little startled jump in her seat, like she wasn’t expecting to be back in the conversation. “Oh, no, I don’t think so. The girls haven’t mentioned anything like that.”

“Then the next place to look is any serious personal issues that’ve come up recently. Anyone who’s suddenly acting strangely? Any moods or experiences you can’t explain?”

The two share an uncomfortable silent glance. “Well, you’ve… Tilly, do you want to…?” Garvan asks.

“It’s alright. I can tell her,” Matilda says softly, and returns her gaze to her folded hands. “For a while now, maybe the last two weeks, maybe a little longer, I haven’t been sleeping well at all. No, sorry, that really doesn’t cover it. I’ve had these nightmares — dreams I don’t remember, only that there are these… these people-things, with no features, like outlines, or shadows. Just… following. Watching me. Everywhere.” She’s trembling, now, and the nails of one hand dig into the knuckles of the other. “It never feels like rest when I wake up. And then… now I think I’m seeing them while I’m up, too. Just early in the morning and late at night, but… I don’t know.”

I inspect her soul again, closer this time. She’s not sick or infested with anything, but there is something worn about her. It’s like the way people I drain feel, but less so, and without any clear traces of magic pointing to something like that.

“Did you not tell anyone about this?” I ask.

“It wasn’t too long after Garvan and Brendan moved in,” she says. “It was all a lot to take in. I figured it was just, just stress, and there’s… well, some family history with this sort of thing. Am I wrong? Have I done something wrong?” She looks back up at me, pleading with her eyes, which I can now tell are just a little bit heavy, a little bit sunken.

Moved in…? Oh. I think I see. It’s a stepfamily.

But she’s right — that doesn’t sound like it should be enough to attract a Harbinger. 

“I don’t think it’s you, unless there’s something much more than you’re saying,” I say, putting just a little extra emphasis on the idea. 

“W-what do you mean? I’m not, there’s nothing I’m hiding! I’m trying to help!” Tears begin to well up in her eyes. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt!” She covers her mouth in a bid to hold herself back from weeping. Garvan glares at me. 

Was that part too much? I don’t know, I’ve never done this before. People are hard and clearly none of us are at our best right now.

“Oh. Ah, that didn’t sound right, did it? I just meant to ask if that was all,” I say. “Strange dreams, seeing things, but no intrusive thoughts? No feelings you don’t recognize?” 

“No. No, that’s really all,” she says, only slightly calming down.

“Okay. Thanks. I’m sorry I have to go here, but is anyone else having a harder time with this? How are the kids handling it?”

“Um,” she hiccups, and shakes her head.

Garvan freezes, clenching his teeth.

“If something is wrong, I really need to know before it gets worse,” I tell him.

“Right,” he sighs. “Tilly, do you want to go check on the kids?”

Matilda meets his eyes uncertainly for a moment, then nods and goes back outside without another word. I tilt my head, waiting for Garvan to say whatever he wanted to say in private. It takes him a while to gather himself.

“It’s nothing to do with Matilda. I just didn’t want to drag her back through all this,” he finally says. “My son… my older son died last year. Just an accident, that’s what they kept saying. Nobody’s fault.” He tenses up, scratching along his stubble and turning his gaze away from mine. Where his eyes look now, he seems to be staring off at something far, far away. “Brendan hasn’t taken it well. It still hasn’t really set in for him. I don’t think he wants it to. I don’t blame him.” He lays his palms flat on the table, spreading out his large, callused fingers. His downcast eyes observe them as they tremor ever so slightly.

“I’m sorry.” That’s all I can think to say. Spending my life surrounded by death has only ever made me worse with loss.

Garvan shakes his head. “I’m saying all this because if any of us is hurting, really hurting the way you’re worried about, it’s him. He still says every time I bring it up that Nial is just fine. He sees him all the time. Talks to him.”

My eyes widen as I lean in closer. “Why didn’t you say so sooner? That’s exactly the way I’m worried about, yes.”

“Sorry,” he mutters numbly. “It’s been going on for a lot longer than we’ve been here or Tilly’s sleeping problems. The counselor said he was just having a hard time with grief, and we shouldn’t be too tough on him if it wasn’t hurting anyone, so I didn’t think… you don’t think…”

I do. I just don’t know what it means or how it works yet.

“I need to talk to your son. It’ll be safest if I do it alone.”

Garvan seems to steady himself, and speaks with a little more force: “Miss, if my boy’s in trouble, I can’t just leave him and wait. What can I do to help?” 

“He’ll need you when this is over. Until then, you can stay where it won’t get you too,” I say. He seems like a good dad. That won’t protect him from a Harbinger.

He blanches at that, then nods slightly. “…Okay.” 

~~~

Brendan comes back in alone a minute later, and takes another minute to look me over cautiously from the hallway. He looks somewhere between the girls in age, he keeps his hands in the sleeves of his slightly-oversized windbreaker, and someone has made a token effort to smooth out his messy hair since I last saw him.

“Hi,” he says. He’s missing a few teeth. He waves once, letting one sleeve fall. “Is the house okay?”

I return the wave. “It looks fine to me, yes.”

“It’s not fine. It’s too big,” he says.

“Maybe, but it looks safe. No monsters I could find.” Mostly true. “I just wanted to see how you’re all doing before I go. Could we talk a little?”

Brendan takes a seat not quite across from me, watching me closely all the while. “Talk about what?”

I study his soul as he studies me. He’s still not playing host to anything, he’s not even weathered like his stepmom, but… the ambient unease in the air is a little stronger than it was when I was alone in the house. That didn’t happen with the adults. I can’t find the Harbinger just yet, but I’m on the right track. It is connected to him.

“Well, your dad was telling me about you and Nial, and I—”

“Are you from the Church? Are you here ‘cause I’m crazy?” he snaps.

“No, I don’t think that. It’s just—”

“I’m not crazy,” he says.

Ugh. Am I already doing this wrong too? I can’t just talk through a Harbinger, so what do I say to someone like this? “I’d like to meet him. If he’s still around after everything that happened, that’s really interesting for us magical types. Good-interesting, not spooky-interesting,” I try.

“Well, he is. Not right this second, but he’s around.”

“Wow. Has he told you how that happened?”

Brendan shrugs. “Why shouldn’t it? Magic stuff happens all the time. This time it happened for us. It was a… a miracle? Yeah,” he says after a bit of grasping for the word.

I’ve been through enough occult books to know that’s really not how it works. Harbingers are real. Keepers and Messengers are real. Given those, Claiasya is probably real. None of that makes tarot real, though. People dream up plenty of nonsense mystical ideas. Some point to Keeper magic to back their stories up, or they spin a legend about how their practice was etched into the world by some magical kid or another, the way dreamwards were.

The only thing even remotely like that I can think of that doesn’t descend from Keepers or Harbingers is the island ascetics, but for all the legends and bizarre claims about them, the only remarkable thing about them is that Harbingers usually leave them alone for some reason. Even then, I have no idea if that’s an actual special power born from the harsh lives they lead or it’s just the fact that they live in cloisters of a few dozen people surrounded by the sea.

As for actual hauntings, it seems like those were only ever dreams. I‘ve never heard of anyone finding a real ghost, and I’ve looked a lot. If someone out there knows what happens to dead souls, they aren’t telling. Even the Cycles just say that the dead “bloom in their fullness and return to the sea,” whatever that means.

Anyway, this won’t be the case that discovers ghosts. There’s definitely a Harbinger here with us, and it’s getting stronger the more he talks about his brother. I’m sure it’s not inside him, now — good. That would make this complicated.

“Brendan,” I say, very slowly, “I need you to do your best to stay calm through what comes next, okay?”

“I am calm! I just don’t know why everyone thinks we have some kinda problem.”

“It’s a problem because that isn’t your brother. It’s a Harbinger wearing his face, and I need you to help me find it before it hurts you and your family very badly.”

“Huh? No. You’re wrong.” Brendan clenches his fists tight enough that I hear his nails dragging along his skin. “Aren’t Keepers supposed to help people? No one here needs your help, so go away and leave us alone if you’re gonna be like that. We’re fine,” he growls. Corruption rises in the air, prickling at my skin.

“Can I meet him? If I’m wrong, if he’s really just this nice little ghost, I’ll leave you two be. I’ll even tell your dad he has nothing to worry about. You three can all go have fun together to celebrate.”

“No! You’re lying! You just wanna kill him again ‘cause you’re scared of him! I won’t let you! I won’t!” he screams.

And there you are. The air over the table twists around itself like water spinning in a sink drain, and at the center of the distortion, a dancing wisp of black light emerges. It reeks of nightmares, and I know in an instant that it’s the source of this place’s foul aura, but… is that all it is? Is this a trick? No, there are no signs at all of anything beyond this. I think this is just a Harbinger’s exposed heart, one that hasn’t yet made itself a body and burrowed into a Wound.

No, maybe it’s more like an egg waiting to hatch, using this house full of pain as an incubator.

Brendan points somewhere to my right. “See? See, he’s fine! Tell her, Nial!” he chokes out between bursts of high, nervous laughter.

My breath catches in my throat. The person he’s pointing to is not Nial. It’s a woman in a long blue-grey shirt dress, taller than either of us but still rather small and slight. Feathery black hair falls loosely down to her waist. Stone-grey eyes look down on me with an old statue’s absolute lack of an expression.

And she’s my mother.

Of course, I only recognize her from old family photo albums. My grandparents used to say all the time how much I reminded them of her. They stopped when they learned I was dying, not because anything about the resemblance changed. Seeing Ciara Shiel like this, as a full breathing person rather than a square in a book, it really is uncanny. Her features don’t have the same narrow, mean cast as mine, but otherwise, she could easily be a version of me who liked wearing colors and wasn’t destined for early death or eternal childhood.

But… beyond that first brief shock, all the sight stirs in me is a vague, hollow wistfulness. It’s sad, yes. Having a mom seems like it would’ve been nice, and I wonder how things might have been different if she were here, if her death hadn’t destroyed Dad. But how can I mourn someone I never met? I can barely even bring myself to resent the personal attack. The Harbinger is acting on some reflex, doing the one thing it knows how to do, and it didn’t work.

So I kill it.

Simple as that. I reach out to touch its darklight heart and expel a tiny wisp of death, just enough to engulf it without putting Brendan in danger. It’s over as quickly as snuffing a candle flame. I was bracing myself for some kind of ghoulish display, a last desperate attempt to scare me off, but the illusion vanishes without so much as a flicker or a whispered plea. In the same soul-breath, I draw the Harbinger’s remains into myself. When its last traces are gone…

I feel a little better. That’s all. Not quite better enough to cancel out my forest misadventure. Smothering this monster in its crib was slightly harder and slightly more helpful than taking my morning medicine.

In other words, this nightmare of a day was completely useless. I sweep my arm across the table, sending a few placemats fluttering to the ground, and stand, pushing off against the surface with one hand and my cane with the other.

“Wait, Nial? Nial, where’d you go? Nial! Why? What’d you do to him?” Brendan shrieks. His eyes are wide with some emotion I can’t name, and he grabs the hem of my dress as I stand to leave. I prod my cane gently into his chest and he collapses back into his chair, sobbing.

Garvan and Matilda are already at the front door looking when I open it. Drawn by the noise, I guess. They stare at me, silently questioning.

“It’s over. Go take care of your son, Mr. Wade. He’s not cursed, just… not doing well.”

And without another word between us, I leave. There’s nothing left for me here but the fearful looks of the family I saved by throwing their quiet life into chaos.

Where We Come From 3-3

Esonei’s cluster of faces melts into the ground, and its ghostly voice grows louder. I reach out and draw my infection out from the quivering heap of its body, the way I ripped it out of Yurfaln, but it’s already too far gone. It’s dying just as quickly, screaming and weeping as shreds of its essence slough away with my magic. Soon it’s completely disintegrated, leaving only its echoes. Over and over its voice demands something from me, but I don’t understand what. The burning carnage in the clearing ahead leaves me faint and sick to my stomach and I can’t stop crying and I can’t tell where my feelings end and the new invasive thing inside me begins.

Vianzia knew this would happen. She had to know. These are her rivals, her insane balance of power I’ve stormed in and upset. I was a shield she used to get one enemy’s attention while she threw herself at the other. 

What did she want to avoid so badly? What are you doing, Esonei? Through the madness pouring from its spectral mouths, I try to sort through my thoughts. Everything about the battle ahead makes me sick in a squeamish way I don’t think it did before, even if it’s hard to remember or imagine what that was like. 

Trying to join the fray is worse. I turn to Vianzia’s forest, gather myself, and resolve to… no, I can’t even think it clearly before a new wailing face fills my vision and pain and disgust overwhelm me. It’s no different with Ourien — if anything that hurts more, and I throw the idea away like I’d accidentally picked up something too hot to touch. My own mind has become a screaming maze of barbed-wire barricades. 

Do I run? Accept that this was for nothing? Hope I eventually end up back in the world, hope I find something I can do about the tattered ghost lodged in my soul? 

No, not yet. Not letting her win just yet.

Wisps of my own magic still flow through me, cold and corrosive. Half-formed remnants of the horrible gnawing thing I’d tried to do when I had the stomach to hurt anything. Before… Esonei put itself in the way. It threw itself at me and kept me away from Ourien. 

Maybe that need to be hurt is just its nature, the single instinct it lives by, but that doesn’t feel right.  It lives, at least in part, inside the other Harbinger. From what it’s doing to me, it wants to… prevent the kind of mad violence Harbingers devote themselves to? No, that’d be too easy, too clean, and its infestation isn’t stopping Ourien from destroying whatever it wants. Punish is probably a better world. It shares its pain with anything that hurts it, nevermind whether that makes them act any differently.

Thinking of it that way, it was probably protecting its main host, making sure nothing else cuts its torment short.

With no real way to send Esonei a message, I think my next idea very loudly to myself. You have your own plans for Ourien? Fine. I’ll leave it completely alone. There’s a Harbinger killing it right now. I’ll help you stop her if you just…

Knives of dread and revulsion lance through my soul in answer. 

Okay. The hard way it is, then.

I reach for that unshaped magic and stir up more of it, gathering it like I would to… to use it normally. My mind skates around the things I’ve done with it. Rather than repeat any of those things, I dam the flow as it rises. I let it build and build inside and I keep it there, clinging to a torrent of dreadful power. 

Normally, I’m protected from my own magic — I can’t be more infected — but this time, I’m actively trying to turn parts of it on myself. My body won’t take this well, of course. I know what’s coming before I feel it. Soon, too-familiar pain pulses through one side of my head like something is drumming on it. 

I lean into my cane, clenching it with both hands as my limbs start to shake… but other than what I’m doing to myself, nothing happens. No intrusive ideas or sudden blaring shrieks fill my world. A little more pain heaped on my life’s pile, that’s all. Esonei spends its existence tearing itself apart. It can’t object if I do the same. All that’s left is to wait and see if it can still live inside me like this. 

Until then, what can I actually do

It’s hard to keep standing through my own inner decay, but leaning heavily on a hollow tree as I gasp in deep, heaving breaths through clenched teeth, I do. Back where the jungle meets the ash field, Vianzia’s plants have invaded Ourien’s space Urchin-bushes scuttle forward and gather in tight circles around its trunk-legs. They reach up with vines from the center of their leaves and slither into the tangled roots of its body, then burrow back into the ground. 

Ourien burns and smashes them away as quickly as it can — some are already reduced to crushed or charred piles of leaves. Its inner light has intensified to a point where it looks like it’s burning alive from the inside out. As it moves, it sheds bits of its bark that immediately catch fire on the ground. Esonei has nothing to punish me for, but it sobs and babbles meaninglessly at the sight all the same, tangling its pain up with my nausea. Twisted little faces still swim through my vision.

Vianzia herself watches Ourien throw itself against her forces from a safe distance. In a dark grove swarming with her children, she laughs and dances while insects fill the air with a million different chirps and buzzes, like the noises bugs make on summer nights but louder and harsher and clashing in painfully grating ways rather than merging into the background hum of nature. It all leaves me with the unshakable sense that I’m about to be dissected for fun. 

As the urchin-bushes continue their advance, she raises one saber and points it straight at Ourien. At her signal, a parade of smaller insects dances out from the forest and advance into the ash-field, each carrying a single little black seed in its mandibles. Most are crushed beneath Ourien’s sweeping root-tendrils or burned to nothing, but a few crawl onto its back. Those survivors drop the seeds into the crevices between roots, where they swiftly grow and unfurl into fanged flytrap mouths. Vianzia giggles and cheers at the sight, then begins to stir her sword through the air like a conductor’s baton. As one, the carnivorous blossoms start to sing a cold, gentle lullaby, perfectly performed but utterly without feeling.

Until Ourien roars over the melody and burns and crushes them all to nothing, frantically and without the slightest regard for how much it hurts itself.

Her malice is much more careful and deliberate than it feels, I see now — she’s not doing anything to harm Ourien directly, only provoking it and giving it ways to hurt itself. Avoiding Esonei’s attention even while it’s busy worming into me. She’s been plotting this long enough to study her enemies, see that they have some bizarre relationship, and breed little monsters just for them. Ourien might be bigger, but she’s the most dangerous of them by far. Her plan is going perfectly and I have no idea what to do about it. 

There… may be nothing I can do. I’m already struggling to poison myself just enough and keep track of which thoughts are mine. Everything hurts. Every thought still reminds me of maimed grasshoppers starving to death. The pounding in my nerves makes flushing Esonei out feel like trying to crush a bug in my hair by smashing my skull. I can’t just push through it all and win anyway, even if I had the stomach to hurt her. If there’s any way to turn this around, it starts with Esonei. If you’ll let me help you, let me think my own way, we might— 

With no sound and no sudden rumbling of the earth, the ground collapses in chunks at the far end of the clearing. A round bus-sized sinkhole opens beneath it… No, that’s not right. A sinkhole would make an earthy burrow with walls of soil, but where the ashen ground collapses, there’s nothing. It looks like it would look if the planet was just a thin shell wrapped around a bottomless void.

Until hair-thin white roots that shine like snow on a bright day start to climb out of the blackness, crawling up as if over the surface of a wall that doesn’t exist. A new presence spills into the world with them, smelling of something unnameable.

Four Harbingers. I’m surrounded by four Harbingers. That worm Vianzia killed was a tiny part of something else, and that something must have sensed all the blood in the air. 

Esonei’s constant mutters take on an especially nervous tinge. Ourien lets out a ground-shaking growl. Its inner fire rises until it looks less like a reptile burning with inner light and more like a firestorm with legs, and at the same time, the lighted hollows in the gnarled lantern-trees start to burn from the inside, spitting dozens of little bonfires out through their holes. 

I push myself away from my suddenly-blazing tree and try to prop myself up with my cane, but that’s too much for my traitor limbs to manage. Instead I fall flat on my stomach, where the layer of ash that blunts the impact also gets in my eyes and sets me coughing painfully when I breathe. The sudden heat is sickeningly heavy all on its own. It takes a flood of stolen essence to pick myself up and a constant flow to stay conscious after that.

And as the fire rises and begins to engulf the woods in a burning canopy, things crawl up from the blackness seething in that hole to nothing. Split-headed worms like the last one. Creatures that are just flat circles of ropey tentacles around spiny central mouths, like nightmare starfish. Shapeless oozing things that look like they shouldn’t have any way to move, but there they go crawling along anyway, coating themselves in ash as they roll. No two of them are quite the same, and while their colors and textures make me think of glowing mold, many come in shades I’ve never seen or imagined before, colors I don’t think I have words for. 

Two groups march off in different directions, each carrying a bulbous off-white orb that quivers as it moves. Eggs made of flesh. Rather than join the battle themselves, the rest of them just spread out through the clearing and search for bits and scraps of the warring Harbingers. A tide of them invades with no regard for their own lives, no mind paid to anything but their single goal. Globs of Esonei scream in protest as worm-things scoop them up and carry them toward the sinkhole. Ourien is especially quick to burn those ones, glob and all, but before long the things are pouring out through the hole faster than it can kill them. 

It feels like my heart has shriveled up in my chest and my veins have tightened all across my body and I want to just lay down and cry. This is too much. This is all way too much. Maybe I could fight one of them, given time to figure them out, but I can’t do this. I really, really shouldn’t have come here.

Vianzia makes a toneless buzzing hmmm noise as the newest disaster unfolds, then skips away from her border with Ourien. Straight toward me, stopping just where her side of the forest ends. She tilts her head, looks me over, then shrugs and chirrups something cheerful-sounding. The spiny bone-bushes continue to hold their line, but most of the swarm swivels to join her. The dark trees fill with tiny little eyes that hum and cheer amongst themselves. They’re all staring down at me.

She draws closer, humming and whirling and flourishing her blades as she walks, and her flower-things quickly move to follow her into the burning forest. I try to swallow, but it catches in my throat. I still can’t fight her like this. She’ll slaughter me as easily as torturing a grasshopper to death.

Unless.

By now, my power has eaten into Esonei’s splinters. Its noises have faded into whispered croaks and a dull nausea that barely registers in my current state. Red almost-faces sense my intent and gather in the corners of my eyes, but they’re just faint airy wisps now. Just a frightened audience, not completely gone but not strong enough to stop me. So I reach for the toxic magic I’ve infused myself with, tighten my grip on it, and let even more of it flow freely into me. I pour everything I have in this moment into the act, drawing from the storm in my soul of pain and terror and above all my raw, simple wish to live. Emotions basic enough for anything with a mind to understand.

It’s not just that there’s more of it, I realize now — the magic I’ve gathered and turned on my own broken body has been concentrating, seething through me, festering into something vastly more horrible than I could’ve made by simply calling up every bit of noxious strength I could hold and releasing it all at once. Some of it is Yurfaln’s stolen essence, too, rewarding me for my self-injury by pushing my power to nightmarish new heights.

I let the magic seethe and grow until I’m certain the slightest bit more would burst loose on its own will, popping me like a balloon with it. Only then do I stop the flow, breathe in heavily, and scream the air back out with all the strength I have left: 

“STAY AWAY FROM ME OR WE ALL DIE!”

Vianzia’s reaction is unreadable through her mask, but she freezes, and her swarm pauses with her in unnatural unison. The clamor of insects’ voices dies out in an instant.

“I’m leaving! You can do whatever you want to…” A harsh cough rips through my throat, but if that weakens the threat, Vianzia doesn’t show it. “…to each other, but I’m finished! If any of you try to eat me, if you get in my way at all, I’ll make sure I take every one of you with me!” In emphasis, I loosen my grip on the power coursing through me, stopping just shy of setting it free, and push out with my will as hard as I can. 

When we met, Shona said the way I flared was especially loud and painful. I’m counting on that. Maybe they don’t understand my words, but I can still communicate the way poisonous animals do with their colors. This is just a sliver of what you’re in for if you push me, I want to tell them.

I let my warning hang in the air for what feels like a very long time. Stillness falls over the forest. The only movement comes from the scavengers, which continue their work without a second’s pause. Not my problem. Power burns inside me, but even in this raging heat it burns the way sudden bitter cold burns, like touching freezing metal to my skin. All I can do is hold it and suffer and wait.

Finally, first to break the silence, Vianzia… laughs. 

It isn’t the scornful, mocking laughter from before, the sounds she’s made while taunting Ourien or enjoying others’ misery. It sounds like she’s cackling uncontrollably at a joke that caught her by surprise. She stabs her swords into the ground, dances like a child so overcome with delight that she can’t contain it, and laughs and laughs and laughs.

Once she’s gotten it all out, she yells something into the clearing. Ourien roars back in raw animal rage, and Esonei wails along with it as if to add something to a statement. Its voice comes from outside, wherever its being is centered. The Esonei inside me just rasps out weak dying gurgles that almost make me think of it as a wounded little animal again. Almost. 

Burning roots snake along the ground, moving to surround the urchin insects. Vianzia speaks again in a softer tone — deliberately shushed, like she’s trying not to wake someone up. It’s somehow no harder to hear, not that it makes any more sense.

The roots stop in place. After another still pause, Ourien grunts, turns, and charges howling toward the sinkhole. The bone shrubs back out of its territory. Vianzia raises an arm and twirl-points into her jungle. There, flowering plants and even a few trees uproot themselves and relocate, creating a straight line of clear space away from the battleground.

We haven’t exactly arranged an orderly truce. While Ourien seems to have devoted itself to crushing scavengers, the trees don’t stop burning, and Esonei’s corroded presence doesn’t leave me. I’m not sure if it could, but it’ll be gone soon. This is the best I’ll get.

Without turning my back to Vianzia, I inch past her and onto her path. Insects scuttle away from me, gathering into crowded lines like they’re watching a parade from either side. The Harbinger herself does nothing but chuckle and wave goodbye. 

So I turn, constantly looking back over my shoulder, and start to limp out of the forest. If my hunch is right, any direction away from the Harbingers’ territories should lead back to reality. I’ll worry about the exact way out once they’re gone.

But there is one last problem, gnawing at me from the inside. Magic wants to be used. It doesn’t want to be an idle threat, no matter how effective that threat was. Maybe I could swallow all this pain back down if I really tried, but it could easily object. Take its frustration out on me.

So once the Harbingers’ presences are far enough behind me, and the trees ahead start to look like the same forest I first stepped into, I turn and release every last shred of my pooled corruption into Vianzia’s twilight jungle. A silent hurricane of plague-wind rips through the trees. The gale tears leaves and branches and insects alike along with it, carrying them for just a moment — just the fraction of a second it takes for the magic to infect them and wither them to nothing, at which point they disintegrate into shimmering emerald wisps of fog and join the storm. Death winds through the forest, eating its way toward the realm’s creator. My way of thanking her for her hospitality. On some level I think it’s better if all of the monsters walk away from this mess licking their wounds, too weak to eat their rivals and grow into something even worse. Mostly, though, I just want to hurt her back.

I can only hope, though. I’m not waiting around to see how she responds. Free from the deathly weight of my own magic, I tap my stolen strength, push a much smaller breath of decay forward to clear the underbrush, and run away as fast as I can. Nothing seems to follow.

~~~

Sure enough, barely a minute after Vianzia leaves my soul’s sight-range, the treeline breaks, and I’m back in the wilting flower field. I even left in the right direction, assuming that directions had any meaning in those Woundlike spheres of horror. I try to stop moving, but it must’ve been too sudden — my upper body jolts forward, and only my cane narrowly keeps me from tumbling onto my face again. When I sit down a second later it’s only a half-step removed from collapsing. I’m sweating and coughing and feeling disgusting enough that I wonder if I’m still somehow poisoned…… no, all gone. Esonei too. I guess this escape was the farthest and longest and fastest I’ve ever moved all at once. Moved on my own, anyway. Remembering Shona’s method still makes me dizzy. 

I wipe the ashes off my face with one sleeve, dismiss my magic, and sit beneath a shady tree until the soreness in my legs fades. Which takes a while. It’s late afternoon by now. My phone says this insane outing took a little under an hour, and I spend another half hour doing nothing but breathing with my eyes closed before I feel ready to do anything else. Goodbye, flowers. Goodbye, Vianzia. I hope we never see each other again.

That Harbinger… when I met her, when we managed to talk to each other on some level, there was a very short while where I wondered if we might have some sort of understanding. I knew the idea was too dangerous to consider, reminded myself constantly that I couldn’t trust her with anything. 

But If I’d really been paying attention, I could’ve noticed what she was doing. Her opening moves were designed to look like she was throwing herself into battle ahead of me, but only put her insects in any serious danger. She just waited in her woods to see who came out on the bottom. Did I actually hold her at a distance or only say I would, blinded by the hope that something might work out with someone else for once? Maybe I’m grasping for someone else who knows what it’s like, living with power that forces you to hurt people to survive. 

But the only other examples I have are gleefully murderous soul-eating nightmares. As with so many other things, I don’t like what that says about my future.

“Vyuji?” I don’t spot anyone among the flowers at a glance, but I also don’t care who sees me talking to myself right now.

“Liadain. I’m glad to see you intact,” her voice says after a short delay. She appears seated next to me, curled up with her arms around her legs. “How did it go?”

“Urgh. I’ll tell you later if you really need to know. I just had a question about something else. You… does it ever happen that something about a Keeper is… wrong or dangerous or harmful to people?”

“Well, have you ever heard any stories like that? On the Sea, or the news?”

“No, but they wouldn’t… oh.” It took a lot of searching to find anything about the man Mary Hyland may or may not have killed. A suspicious lot of searching, given how interested people are in Keepers and anything unusual going on with them. “Point taken. I think.”

Vyuji gives me a sidelong smile, then quickly looks back out at the dying flowers.

“I am your Messenger, Liadain. Yours. My duty is to you and children like you, and in that role I guide and advise and do not judge. Such things are uncommon, but not so uncommon that the idea surprises me. To my mind, we each do what we must, and so long as a Keeper’s magic doesn’t endanger the world itself, any troubling aspects of it are exactly as much a problem as that Keeper feels they are. Does that answer your question?”

By now, I’m sure she somehow knows what I’m talking about. So whatever I am, it’s not so bad that the people in charge would declare me a monster. That doesn’t help the way it feels, but maybe it’s the best I can get without going to the Church and asking them to put me in touch with their secret awful vampire Keepers.

“Not in quite the way I was thinking. It’s something, though. Thank you.” 

“I’m glad I could help. If that was all, rest well.” I nod, wave her off, and she’s gone. Time to make my way home and hope this hasn’t taken too huge a toll on me.

~~~

That was my plan, anyway. But not far from the hospital, I catch the scent of something new, a sense so faint it’s barely there at all. If I weren’t still so on edge, I doubt I’d have noticed it. It’s too distant or too small to have any clear feeling to it, but the crawling unease it carries is unmistakable. There’s a Harbinger somewhere very close by. A lone one this time.

I take stock of my lingering aches. I’m tired, I don’t want to do anything more, but at least for now my condition seems stable.

Fine. Let’s see what you’re doing over there. Maybe today won’t be a complete waste.

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Where We Come From 3-2

A dirt path winds through the field west of the hospital, where the spring flowers are well into withering and dying. The sickly-sweet smell of wilt is much milder than the way my senses interpret ill people, but right now, it feels like it’s everywhere. 

Maybe it’s not the best omen for this adventure, but omens aren’t real. They’re flowers that happen to cover the quickest path to and from the forest, that’s all. They can’t hurt me.

…For all the good that does. I don’t need omens to know the unclaimed lands are teeming with things that can very much hurt me. 

But that’s my life now, isn’t it? Weighing a world of nightmares against something that will kill me if I stop throwing myself at them.

It’s the kind of bright, breezy day most people would call nice, which means that the sun, that asshole, is glaring down at me as I walk and there are other people here. For obvious reasons, no trail leads directly through the field and into the forest, so I’m stuck making my way past them. Off to one side, a couple is taking pictures of dead plants, even picking a few and tucking them between the pages of a book. Bizarre, but whatever makes them happy, and it keeps them too busy to watch where I’m going. 

At the far end of the field, I trample through the thinnest row of greenery I can find, using my cane as a hiking pole. Beneath the first trees, a layer of underbrush crowds the ground as far in as I can see. Of course this wouldn’t be like the well-kept urban woodlands dotting New Claris, but I didn’t know what would be different or how quickly it’d get in my way. It’s tall, but looks thin enough to push through with only some trouble… until the forest starts grasping for me as I pass, with plants that look like bare thorny branches clinging to my sleeves and pricking at my arms like hands rising from the earth to drag me under.

I can’t tolerate it for long. After a glance back to confirm that nobody is watching, I call my magic into being. Sourceless emerald light dances through a sudden darkness, which seems to fall and lift in the very same instant. It occurs to me that the comfortable jeans I was wearing might’ve been more suited for stomping through the brush than my Keeper outfit, but that’s fine. I’m done stomping. 

Stirring up the cold bitterness in my soul, I create a thin curl of killing mist and let it sink to the ground. Where it touches, shrubs and twiggy growths start to wither as if from age. As they bend and shrivel, flashes of green light pop into leak out from inside the plants’ remains and quickly fade. Like they’d only ever been shells housing wisps of corruption that are now eating their way free. 

Soon, I’ve created a trail, a grey scar lined with decaying plant-remnants. A shudder wracks my body, but I swallow my disgust and push the mist forward with my mind, slowly stretching my path further into the forest. If I need to run away, my scar should lead the way out. Every so often, I look back to make sure it’s still there. 

I have no idea what comes next. The unprotected lands beyond our cities form a gaping hole in my knowledge, exactly like the one that was only recently filled by my first encounters with Harbingers. Both are dangerous mysteries normal people put out of mind and hope they’ll never have to worry about. This one is easier to avoid — maybe airship travel between cities is a little scary, but mostly you just don’t do the exact stupid thing I’m doing right now — so there’s even less said about it. 

Should I watch for the trees to gnarl into strange shapes? For the canopy to thicken until it blocks out the sun and I’m stumbling through a lightless cave of greenery? For the world to abruptly end, replaced with some horror show I can’t yet imagine? Or if Harbingers are just roaming openly through the woods, maybe nothing will change at all before they strike? Vyuji implied they might not bother with Wounds out here, where they had nothing to hide.

Something rustles in the bushes. I startle and ready a card, training my magical senses on the disturbance, where… a hedgehog peeks through the leaves at me. It grunts out a sound like a loud, angry sniffle as it meets my eyes, then scurries away. Whatever’s waiting further in, it’s left room for that little guy. 

Do Harbingers care about animals? I’m not sure. I think I remember a PSA saying to “pick up your children and pets” when you need to flee quickly, but that seems to me like something you would do anyway.

Several more minutes pass, and the forest remains just a forest. And then, something shifts in the atmosphere. In the sounds of the woods, I think at first, but that isn’t right. It’s a sudden quiet, yes, but only in my magical senses. If I hadn’t noticed it was missing, I might never have recognized it at all. There’s normally a faint undertone beneath anything I sense, like hearing your own blood flow when you cover your ears. And now it’s gone. 

Was it gone in the Wounds? I think it was, but I really don’t know. The moment I found myself in Yurfaln’s and Irakkia’s worlds, I was entirely focused on fighting for my life. If any of this spiritual background noise was there, I wasn’t listening for it.

Just as I realize this, the light changes. It’s still bright out, but the colors are all wrong. Without any dimming or lengthening of shadows, everything takes on the tint of early dawn light. When I look up, about a third of the sky has torn. The sun ripples wildly as if in heat haze until the distortion spreads over it. Day is a layer of wallpaper ripped away to expose a bright yellow-orange sky, complete with a loose flap of blue dangling off the hole like scraped skin. The tear in the sky looks closer than it could possibly be, more like a low cloud cover than the distant stars of true night.

A low, rumbling sound rips through the trees. The distant call of some great beast, but one whose voice is a wildfire, formed from roaring flames and hot gale winds and trees tumbling to the ground as they burn.

In answer, a peal of hysterical laughter rises over the roar. The voice is silvery, low but distinctly feminine, and trailed by echoes that buzz like the beating of tiny wings. It almost sounds like a person… or at least its cadence has the trappings of what a person might sound like.

I freeze, then glance, very slowly, over my shoulder. The scar that marked my straight path into the forest is gone, leaving only a grey circle right where I’m standing, and in both corners of my eyes, the trees behind me are quickly… not becoming something else, but twisting. Their bright new leaves slowly disintegrate, not crumbling into powder but burning away in invisible fires that leave no sign they were ever there, only bare winter branches. Gaping holes sprout over their trunks, so many that it looks like there shouldn’t be any tree left at all beneath them, and each flickers with red-orange inner light like candlelit windows.

What begins as a gradual change, trees warping into this new form one by one, swiftly picks up its pace until the forest has become an expanse of hollowed lantern-trees as far as I can see. The underbrush vanishes, replaced with a layer of ash that blankets the ground like snow. The sky is now fully dyed in a blurry mix of oranges, the colors of sunrise over a desert, but the sun is nowhere in sight, replaced by many dancing points of blazing white fire.

All the while, the distant noises continue. I can’t tell what the humanlike voice is saying, but it answers every explosion and crack of breaking wood with rhythmic bursts of Harbinger-speech. Shouting back at it, like trying to frighten an avalanche away.

I can’t see anything but sourceless light in the hollows, nor sense any active magic from them. There’s only the faintest ambient traces of a Harbinger, which only tells me that they probably won’t kill me. What are they? Is this a Wound? Have I moved or did part of the world itself just bend itself around me and snap its jaws shut? How? My mind swims with questions I have no way to answer. All I know is that somewhere far away, in a direction my senses can only interpret as “further, deeper,” a presence looms. Hateful. Menacing. Claiming its territory.

Which I suppose is why I’m here. This may not be a good plan, but it’s the only one I have. 

My breath catches at a flash of motion in the branches above me. Something small and bright darts between the branches, followed by many, many more somethings. I shudder and gather a plume of death-mist around my feet, but still they skitter down from the trees and burrow up from the ground, surrounding me. Creatures in all shapes and colors, like insects made from flowers and leaves, with the balance of plant and animal a little different between each of them. I’ve never been good with bugs, and their soul-sparks all reek of a Harbinger’s touch, but I have to admit, there’s something eerily beautiful about them. Like orchid mantises, lovely if you don’t think about all the butterflies they’ve gutted.

But these ones aren’t gutting anything. They aren’t even advancing. They gather into a half-circle, countless little eyes staring up at me, and there they stay. I hold my ground, searching with my soul for anything that might be using them as a distraction, but don’t lash out just yet. 

Still keeping a healthy distance, they arrange themselves into a complex sigil, like a piece of expertly embellished calligraphy with each line written by insects of a single color. It’s the same script as those that appear in Wounds, but it still means nothing to me. When Yurfaln or Irakkia were screaming into my head, I could pull some meaning from their souls, the magic carrying their nonsense words. I can’t read this in the same way. There are tiny wisps of power spread through them, like diffuse, sourceless light that sets some of the insects shimmering much brighter than others as it shifts and catches them, but the symbol is too far removed from the Harbinger itself to really contain its intent.

“I don’t understand,” I say, not sure what to expect. These don’t feel like minions of whatever twisted the forest, so who am I talking to? Why is it talking and why should I listen to what can only be a Harbinger?

The swarm is still for several more seconds before it skitters into a new formation. This time, they separate by colors into three circles: one blue and green, one orange and yellow, one red and black. I didn’t think flowers could be the lusterless ink-black shade of that last group’s darkest members. 

Then the yellow group and the red group charge into each other full-force like soldiers going to war, and they aren’t acting. All along the lines where the hordes meet, bugs tear each other apart with barbed vine tails and scything petal-claws. The blue insects also join the battle, but they do so slowly and carefully. They stay back, keeping their borders with the others small, and defend their territory rather than rushing to their deaths. A few from this last group step out and look up at me expectantly.

“Okay, you’re saying there’s two of you here, and the other one is… doing something? Attacking you?” I address the watchful flower-bugs. Stupid. Harbingers won’t understand Clarish or Thalassic any more than I understand their language. Probably less.

They gesture to the frenzied mobs. I watch them slaughter each other from the corner of my eye, keeping the grisly scene out of sight as much as possible. One green flower-thing that buzzes like a cicada as it moves steps forward and draws a diagonal line in the ash, slanted so it crosses between me and the third group and ends as close to the battle as the bug dares to go. It could equally be marking its territory like a child in a sandbox or suggesting a way to go.

Before I left, Vyuji said Harbingers out here were usually warring with each other. I’ve apparently stumbled into one of those wars, so is it offering a truce? Leading the way to an enemy, saying we should leave each other alone and… not exactly team up, but hit it in our own ways at the same time?

“Vyuji…?” I try. I don’t know how to respond to this, but she might. She could at least warn me if I’m better off ignoring anything a Harbinger says and trusting my own blind guesswork.

No response. Of course. 

In that case, all I can do is work from what I know and what I can sort-of-reasonably assume.

This Harbinger is smart and stable enough to identify me as an unpredictable new force in its environment, have the idea to aim me at its rival, and communicate in a way I think I understand. That makes it more dangerous than the other, not less — I have no reason to believe it’s another Yurfaln, reaching out because it thinks I’ll be its partner. Anything it shares with me is at best a move that serves its goals in some way and at worst a lie set to bait a deathtrap. Still, as long as I remember that it’ll stab me in the back if it gets the chance and I’ll do the same to it, it seems better than nothing. Better than storming in and fighting both at once. 

How do I actually agree, though? I can’t project thoughts without words the way Irakkia did. After a moment’s thought, I point to the line in the ash, trace my finger along it toward the warring groups, then raise a hand and release a tiny wisp of fog in the same general direction.

The battle comes to an instant stop. Completely abandoning the fights to the death they were locked in moments ago, they buzz excitedly amongst themselves, then shift into a new formation, no longer separated by color: a full ring of them gathers around a single great mass, and the ones in the center begin to dance, frenzied and aggressive in their movements but mostly without violence. Between steps, some of the dancers display their petals and wings like birds showing off their plumage. Others bow low to them and skitter away from the dance, joining the circle, and within a minute, only two remain. 

The circled insects wave their limbs in little cheers as the apparent winners draw close to one another, press their heads together, then set off in opposite directions and begin to rip the still-cheering spectators apart. Bile rises in my throat, but I can’t bring myself to look away. Not while the Harbinger-aura around the insects is growing much stronger and the world is twisting in a new way. 

All around the shredded corpses, blue-green grass sprouts up through the ashes, swallowing the grey carpet impossibly quickly. A row of plants grows in seconds, forming a fence between me and the insects’ graveyard, and each sprouts a slightly different slender-fanged maw or cluster of sticky dew-tipped tendrils or cavernous bulb-mouth. Beyond that carnivorous wall, greenery stretches further and further out into the deep woods until it’s transformed about half of the forest I can see into another region entirely. 

This new Harbinger-forest looks like a stylized painting of a forest at night, the kind where deep darkness is represented by tinting the light in shades of blue and purple, and it’s absolutely crawling with life. Insects swarm through the trees. Plants sprout from nothing in seconds, then lean down and lay rows of tiny pearlescent eggs from their blossoms. The grass itself is expanding — its blades constantly bend down, dig into the earth, and sprout again a few inches away, so the ground’s texture is more like a woven basket than a wild meadow — and show no signs of ever stopping. 

Slowly, grass threads itself over the sharp line where the ashen hollow-tree woods instantly transition into the insects’ forest, creeping into its territory. Early dawn and unearthly night clash as the grass grows, carrying the violet darklight of its realm of origin with it. The sky is divided the same way, a jagged border split between burning sunrise and twilight spotted with countless tiny green stars that dance through the sky like fireflies, constantly crashing into each other, growing larger and brighter and more vibrant, then bursting into clusters of new stars.

Only when this new world has taken full shape does its creator emerge. Announcing the Harbinger’s coming, a heavy floral smell floods the air like incense, complete with thick, choking smoke. Hands reach through the grass and push upward, like a corpse rising from its grave, and at first, that’s exactly what the emerging figure looks like. 

A ghoul, withered and clammy, humanlike but unnaturally tall and slender in its proportions, with a long fall of perfectly kept blue-black hair draped over its — her? — face. Plates of chitin shimmer into being around her body and create a form-fitting exoskeleton styled like ceremonial armor, beetle-black but reflective in a way that sends shifting plumes of iridescent oil-slick colors dancing along it as the light changes. Blades of blue grass stretch and knit themselves into clothlike coverings around her limbs, the organic weave climbing up her shoulders before spilling down the rest of her body. A pair of moth wings unfurl from her lower back, shining in a prismatic array of blue and green gem-tones, then stretch down and wrap around her legs, forming the hindwings into a long skirt and the forewings into coattails held just above the ground. Soon her corpse-skin is entirely covered by this garb, and again, I can’t deny that it’s beautiful in its own unsettling way.

A mask of the same black material covers her face when she rises to meet my gaze, leaving only holes for two bright green compound eyes, like the eyes of a dragonfly set into human sockets. Finally, two long, thin black sabers appear in each of her hands, both slightly curved, spiny as the leg of a mantis on one side, and decorated at the hilt with a trail of dusk-colored tassels. She bows with a twirling flourish, and her motion is impossibly fluid in a way that reminds me of Vyuji, but what she’s doing couldn’t be more different: where my Messenger is mechanically efficient and precise, this Harbinger moves like everything she does is a step in an elaborate dance she’s planned out in full long ago, all carefully calculated to express some great secret meaning I can’t fathom. Only a tiny shard of her message reaches me, carried in a trilling voice between steps of her performance: 

<There Can Still Be Something Beautiful>
<Vianzia>

The distant crackling voice roars as if in protest, which Vianzia ignores. She beckons me over to her side of the forest. After another look at the fanged flytraps between us, which have parted only slightly in the middle, I raise my free hand and mime pushing a person away. Vianzia tilts her head and giggles softly, but doesn’t press the issue. She gestures again in the direction that apparently leads to the other Harbinger, then sets off. I follow, keeping a close watch on her side of the forest with both my eyes and my soul.

But behind us, one more thing pricks at my mind, something that’s not her and not the other monster. It isn’t very strong or harsh, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever smelled. Wet skin? Yeast dough? Musty air? None of those are right — they’re all just ideas it vaguely calls to mind. The real scent isn’t a combination of anything I know, it’s something else entirely. I look back, searching for its source. 

Still partially submerged in the ground is a green worm the size of an eel, but splitting at one end into a tangled cluster of wire-thin branches, like a simple diagram of neurons in a kids’ medical book. Its strands rummage through a pile of insect bits and torn petals, gathering parts up into a toothless mouth.

“What is that?” I ask, and point it out. 

The moment Vianzia spots the thing, she spits out a string of words that sounds like a poem composed entirely of curses, heavy with utter disgust, then plunges one blade straight into the ground. From the dense foliage of Vianzia’s side of the forest, four black vines with thin barbed ends slither out like serpents, quickly encircling the worm. Then they rear up, lash out, spear into it in unison, and start to spin in opposing directions, twisting and shredding until all that’s left of it is a scattering of still-twitching remains, like it was put through a blender. Which still isn’t enough for her. A new small group of plant-bugs rushes down from among Vianzia’s trees to carry the thing’s scraps away, leaving no trace of it. 

All of this takes maybe three seconds. 

Vianzia hums to herself, sounding satisfied. She says something to me in a murmuring melody of incomprehensible trills, then returns to strolling through the forest like nothing ever interrupted us. I stare in mute shock for a moment longer before I follow her. Three of them. There are at least three of them. This forest is a warzone and I’m marching into the middle of it. 

The path we take follows the unnatural border between Vianzia’s forest and the other one’s ashen realm. She chatters musically to herself all the way, and never looks back to see what I’m doing. Probably because the parade of insects trailing behind us are keeping watch for her. 

It’s hard to say how far we travel like that. Does distance mean anything when the local monsters are constantly rearranging reality? I haven’t had any idea where I am or which way the city is since my trail vanished, and all I have to mark our progress is the feeling of growing closer to the burning voice. Everything has been narrowed down to either “toward” or “away” from the two Harbingers. If I need to escape, the best I can do is focus on them and run in the opposite direction. Like lighthouse navigation, if lighthouses ate people.

Eventually, Vianzia hisses something and raises an arm in a stop signal. I take cover behind a gnarled tree and reach out with my magic, gathering all the information I can. The wildfire presence is just ahead, but it’s not alone. It’s all tangled up with something else. The third aura is hard enough to sense clearly that I can’t tell if it’s the same as that scavenging worm. It’s somehow scattered, with no heart or central point to inspect. All I can gather from it is a vague sense of inner weight that reminds me, inexplicably, of realizing that I could’ve drained Mide to death. Past this point, I need to see to know what I’m dealing with. Slowly, squeezing the twisted tree with both hands, I peek out from my hiding spot.

Beyond the treeline is a field reduced completely to cinders and dust, and there, beneath a burning desert-dawn sky, is a house-sized nightmare of blackened wood and twisted roots. Its shape recalls a giant reptile, like a dinosaur or a dragon out of a storybook, armored in craggy bark plates. Light leaks through the crags at shifting points all over its body. It has nothing like a head or face, only a flattish stretch of wood at its front end. There, a single rotten-looking hollow glows with firelight brighter and harsher than those in its twisted trees. 

Branches rise from its back like quills, and thick roots stretch out from it in all directions. Those roots are growing and burning at the same time, flaming at the tips while they slither outward, and its constant cries send hot wind blasting through the air and ash storms swirling up from the ground.

<Stillness Is Sanctuary>
<Ourien>

Ourien doesn’t appear to take any notice of me. Its focus is entirely elsewhere, and it only takes a moment to see why: all through the clearing, things are stirring beneath the ash. Formless red-and-black ooze bubbles up from the ground like oil, wailing and gurgling. Every patch is trying to shape itself into something as it emerges, but they never make it far, because Ourien’s roots stab into them and set them on fire almost as quickly as they appear.

And there are things crawling through the holes in its body. Thin red wisps with tiny faces upon which three black splotches form the uneven shapes of two eyes and a mouth. They aren’t extensions of Ourien. They definitely aren’t Vianzia. The third one is… infesting it. My stomach lurches.

Three groups. Vianzia told me exactly what was happening. I hadn’t known what to make of those two swarms of insects locked in a mad battle to the death, only that it was something to do with Harbinger territories and battlegrounds. Is that her plan? Use my arrival to break a deadlock and pick them both off? No, it’d be dangerous to let myself believe her goals are aligned or even compatible with mine.

Thinking over our next steps, I glance back at her slice of the forest. The point where Vianzia’s teeming jungle meets the clearing is lined with insect-plants unlike the others, sharing none of their eerie beauty. Clusters of huge bone-colored thorns that jut out in all directions from no visible central stem, they resemble sea urchins with wide, thick spines more than anything else. Each is maybe a foot shorter than me. As the burning roots draw closer, some lift themselves up and reposition to meet them, moving on six tiny legs that emerge from just beneath the center of their spines.

Vianzia spins to meet my gaze with perfect timing, like she knew without seeing exactly when I looked at her. I break eye contact and return to the clearing, where Ourien slaughters an endless tide of ooze-creatures. Teamwork ended horribly for me when I could talk to my allies and none of them wanted to eat me. This is worse in so many ways I don’t know where to start. We can’t plan, can’t communicate in any real way, so what’s the first step? Whoever takes it exposes herself for an immediate backstab. Her trap can’t be something as simple as “go get them, I’ll cover you,” since there’s no way I’d jump right in and she certainly won’t either, so what can I do?

The Harbinger breaks my concentration with a few trilled words, then answers my unspoken question. Her spiky bush-things rise and scuttle a few feet into the clearing, advancing in near-perfect unison, then replant themselves. Blue grass that suddenly looks very sharp, gleaming at its edges like tiny knives, weaves itself forward in their wake.

Vianzia throws her arms wide and starts to spin, taking what could’ve been the simple motion of making herself dizzy for fun and performing it with grace enough to turn the act into a spontaneous bladed ballet. As she twirls, perfumed smoke overpowers my senses, crowding out the other auras. She’s flaring, I realize, just like I do. Vianzia doesn’t go to battle with a monster’s hunting call, with hunger or bloodlust. The emotions her power carries, the heart of her… 

When I was much younger, before I was too constantly sick to go to school, I once stumbled onto two boys killing a grasshopper. Rather, one slowly killed it while the other goaded him on in that horrible way boys do, bragging about his collection of pet bugs whose legs he ripped off to keep them from escaping. I ran straight off that playground at the sight, ran until I couldn’t anymore. I didn’t want to be around a dying thing, but more than that, those boys terrified me. If they’d do something like that just because they could, what was stopping them from tearing my limbs off and carrying me around in a box? It took a week to convince me that other children weren’t going to murder me for fun.

Vianzia projects the easy malice of a child torturing an insect just to see what will happen, not knowing or caring what she’s doing to another living thing. Being so close to her makes me feel like that grasshopper. Or maybe, in this context, like the boy being pushed to kill it.

But her display does draw Ourien’s attention. It howls, pushing back against the vicious pressure of her soul with its own scorching rage. Roots twist to grow in her direction, and it stomps toward her forest in long, slow strides that shake the earth with each step. The air itself starts to burn — tongues of flame burst into being from nothing, alternately falling and fading or drifting on the wind like leaves. I wipe my face on one sleeve, knowing the clinging sweat will be back seconds later.

Vianzia ends her dance to buzzing cheers from an audience of insects. She comes to a stop facing me, chirps something, and skips away to meet Ourien’s advance. Her creations are quick to follow in a chittering storm of wings and blossoms. As one, the spiky bush-things explode, bursting into a thicket of brambles — like razor wire, but made of vines and thorny bone spurs, and clearly still alive, actively twining together and digging into the ground.

What is she planning? It can’t be that she’s just not concerned about anything I might do to betray her, can it?

Well… whatever her angle is, she’ll be ready for a fight. I really am better off attacking the ones that haven’t been watching me. Ourien is already tied down with two other enemies, so… here we go. Slowly,  I gather my magic in my heart. With a little time to prepare, I can flood the whole clearing with death. Hopefully, all three of them will— 

A voice shrieks right into my ear. A mass of black-and-red falls from no clear source and fills my vision, like a waterfall behind my eyes. Patterns of red in the darkness form outlines faintly like the crude faces crawling through Ourien’s body. Impossible to tell where it is in space, if it even is anywhere. My heart hammers painfully and I taste terror in the back of my throat, bitter and salty. It’s too much, too fast, I don’t trust myself to shape magic the right way, so I do the one thing I can and unleash a raw burst of death-mist.

The thing draws away from my fog in a sudden lurching movement. To my eyes, it looks like it jumps out from inside my head, but it wasn’t quite quick enough. Tiny seeds of my power lodge inside it, waiting to grow into disease and death.

Seen from a distance, it’s a living ooze like the ones leaking up through the clearing. Much larger, but still flowing and shapeless, at first. Its red parts slide along its surface, gather into clumps, and mold themselves into round wax masks, all depicting anguished faces made of three distorted holes just like the ones crawling through Ourien. It lets out a thousand shrill, tiny cries, screams of soul-deep agony that combine into a dissonant melody. In a chorus sung by the screams of rabbits as they die of fright, it speaks:

<Please Stop You’re Hurting Me>
<Esonei> 

Then, without tensing or rearing back or showing any sign of preparing to move, it throws itself at me. I step to the side and dash to take cover behind a tree, but it falls short — it wouldn’t have reached me anyway. It just dives into the fog like it’s trying to smother a fire with its body, and there it stays. Almost like that’s what it was aiming to do.

What it said before, was that its name? If it was, the idea behind it doesn’t fit. It’s not like any of the others, those twisted declarations about the way things are. Is there any way it’s actually talking? How would it, why did I… why am I crying? 

Esonei squirms and squeals in obvious pain. Its masks start to melt.

This feels more like killing an ugly little animal just because it disgusted me than battling a horror. It’s pathetic. So pitiful it’s painful. Wordless impressions crawl through my thoughts of the poor thing. Shredding. Burning. Sins heavy enough to crush a soul. So many lives and all of them end with Its splintered jaws snapping shut around cindered remains. It knows not what It does It must know It must be made to feel to UNDERSTAND 

I grab my head, clenching locks of my hair between my fingers, and scream. Just to focus on something concrete while I block out all the thoughts that aren’t mine.

…Where did that stop being me? Nightmares jamming themselves into my thoughts is becoming a familiar feeling, a thing I can recognize from experience. I hate it, hate all of this, hate what I’m doing to myself, mutilated in Its image to show It the horror in what It has done— stop it. Stop it. Get OUT. 

I pull back my right sleeve, grab a card, and draw its sharp edge sideways over my arm. Bloodletting for my soul, the simplest, easiest way my power seems to work. Through the biting pain I do my best to gather this corruption and force it out of myself, but it’s not so concrete a thing as my sickness or Yurfaln’s remains. It isn’t a disease, it’s only an infection in some abstract way, and worst of all it isn’t a single thing — it’s already as scattered as its source, tangled and wound through me in ways I can’t make sense of. Even as I try to purge it, spectral red faces flit in and out of the corners of my eyes. Their circular mouths are locked open in silent screams.

Vianzia laughs as if at some cruel private joke.

Where We Come From 3-1

New Claris is quietest on moonless nights, beneath the stars’ pale light, but a city is never completely empty and still. It’s never lifeless. I mean, unless it’s abandoned out in a wasteland with no plants or animals for miles or something. Which this one isn’t yet. 

Anyway. 

Stepping onto the university campus south of the hospital is a sudden sharp change from the city’s glass-and-greenery spires. The college is much older, one of those historic parts of the city that wasn’t redesigned after the war, and made up mostly of great limestone buildings designed to look somewhere between old churches and small castles. Taken with the grounds between them, all gardens and groves rather than manicured grass, they look like a loose grouping of stately homes spread around a thinly-forested woodland. Being here feels like crossing into another, older world, and the distant lights barely illuminating it lend it all a sense of unreality almost like the one that comes with using magic.

It’s easy enough to find what I’m looking for. I make my way to one of the tall buildings dotted with still-lit windows and filled with points of human life, which I can sense as faint scents of fresh rain. There, I circle around, past the front door and its porchlight that briefly lights up as I pass, and sit against the wall beneath a dark window. I take a card from my orbit, float it up a little, and narrow my focus until… 

My sight spins and spins in vertical loops that make me feel the way I imagine roller coasters feel. It’s awful. When it stops, I’m looking down at myself, seeing the world from the card’s perspective. 

Irakkia left me with one small prize, the power to see through my magic. Sort of. Only one card at a time, everything becomes a bit blurry at a distance, the image is flat the way seeing through one eye is, and it completely replaces my actual sight until I return to myself. Not my other senses, though. Last infusion day, I tried to escape the pain by fleeing into a card and staying there. No such luck. At least I can still control myself, it’s just pretty hard without using my eyes. And makes me a bit nauseous. Maybe this would be more useful if I hadn’t scavenged it from torn scraps, but there’s nothing for it now.

Anyway, my goal here doesn’t call for anything complicated. Starting with the window above me, I bring the card close enough to look around inside. Empty. I move to the next window up and repeat the process, skipping ones where the lights are still on, until I find a room where someone is lying in their bed. It’s too dark to see clearly, but their essence feels clean. Healthy.

So I reach out, touch their soul, and inhale, drawing a sip, a small, careful sip, from their strength. They toss under the covers as deep green mist spirals out from them and down into me. Watching from outside myself is a little strange, but warm rain and petrichor do fill my unoccupied senses, slowly fading as I draw the mote of life into a well deep inside myself. The tingling headache I woke up with remains — I don’t want to start using my stolen vigor as a simple painkiller if I can help it, so I’ve been practicing using my powers with precision. Doing my best to control it directly, let it work only when I will it to. 

Once the first wisp is stored away, I move on, searching until I find the next sleeping student, and the next, and the next, taking the same measured taste of wellness from each of them. There aren’t as many in bed at this hour as I’d have thought, but there are enough. I still don’t know if normal people see their health leaving them. On other nights I’ve watched people as I drained them, and they never act like they do, but still, best if they’re sleeping. Best for us all if they can dismiss this as a simple seasonal bug, maybe a bad dream if my touch reaches that far inside.

As for the uneasy churning in my stomach, it can keep its useless opinion to itself. There’s no point in stopping to wring my hands and apologize to people who will never hear me. I didn’t make my magic work like this, but as long as it does, this is the best way. It’ll be worse if I only take when I’m dying, when I have to drink from the closest person not knowing how much I need or how much they can afford to lose or what immediate danger I’m putting them in. I easily could’ve killed Mide and I won’t let it come that close again. I won’t.

Twelve drained sleepers later, I think I’ve had enough. I’m not sure yet if there’s a limit to how much essence I can hold, but I don’t want to hit any one place too hard, and after the last few nights it feels like I’ve got plenty for now. 

Other than these outings, things have been quiet. There are no new signs of monsters creeping around here. Only me.

~~~

“Every sign we can measure is still holding steady. Or slightly improved, on some days. At this point, I’ll just say that’s atypical in your situation. I won’t pretend I have any idea what’s possible,” Dr. Hines says. 

Those would be the days when I’m flush with stolen life. I’m still trying not to use it unless I need it to function, especially around the times when they take my vitals, but it’s hard. To control magic reliably, I need some way of understanding and imagining what I’m doing, and this feels like telling my own traitorous blood how and when to flow. I’m not some island hermit from one of those weird ascetic cults. My body is not so well-behaved.

“Unfortunately, that may mean there’s only so much we can do for you. I don’t want to press too hard, but have you talked to anyone else yet?” he asks.

“I don’t know how much my silence is worth, but no.” I don’t think it’d be hard for any seventh floor regulars to put the pieces together if they got the idea. At least the nurses and Noirin must have noticed my strange new schedule, and while I didn’t change in any new ways after Irakkia, my mysterious condition is advancing for all the world to see. There are two new white streaks in my hair now.

“About that, have you found any of those Keeper specialists?” I deflect.

“It may take some time. The problem with world experts is, well, the world. There is one native Clarish name in the field, but even she has a lot going on in a lot of places. That said,” Dr. Hines pauses and straightens up, steadying himself. “I expect the Church would be much quicker to respond to a Keeper personally asking for help.”

“No.” The word comes out sharper and louder than I meant it to, enough that he grimaces at the sound. It’s a different expression from the knitted brow he’d used to answer my harsher tones before I became a Keeper. He collects himself in an instant, but I shrink back, lowering my gaze to my lap. “I, sorry, just…” It can’t be easy telling a Keeper things she doesn’t want to hear. I really shouldn’t make it harder.

“Liadain, I know how you feel, I know you don’t want the attention, but please hear me out,” he says.

I nod once.

“Alright. If your, ah, new situation gives you any chance of getting better, I want you to have the best odds you can, and I’ll freely admit that we are out of our depth here. The Church has people better equipped to help you than us, and you shouldn’t reject them out of hand over a problem that may not even exist. There are plenty of Keepers who don’t want to be public figures. If you make it clear that you value your privacy, I’m certain they could make some kind of arrangements.”

Could they? Could they really? He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what they’d be dealing with. What they’d be covering for, if they didn’t just insist that I stop using that side of my power.

“I’m not saying we need to rush you to Guiding Light right now, but please think about it. Research it, find out what it involves. I’ll help you if you want. If there’s something about it you find unacceptable, then that’s that. Either way, I think it’s worth your time to find out.”

“…Fine.”

“Thank you. All I ask is that you give it a look.” Dr. Hines sighs, sounding faintly relieved. “Oh, right. One other thing for you.” He pushes across the room on his swivel chair, rifles through the cabinet below the sink for a moment, and returns holding out a plain paper shopping bag.

“Hm? What’s this?” Inside are three little bottles of hair care products I don’t recognize, a brush that looks more like a paintbrush than a hairbrush, and a box of… 

“Hair bleaching kit?” I ask.

“I, well. I asked my daughter what you’d need to dye black hair white. She said you can’t exactly do that, but you can bleach it blonde and then tone it to get a shade more like… you know what, I didn’t really understand all the details. Someone on the Sea can probably explain it better if you want to know.” He grins and runs a hand back through his own short-clipped brown hair.. “I just thought… if you want to tell people you’re just playing around with dying your hair, maybe it’d make things easier if you have this on hand? Or maybe you’d just want to speed the change along, if you think it’ll be easier that way.”

While I look over the labels, Dr. Hines frowns with sudden puzzlement. “Wait. Does that work for… kids like you, actually?” he asks.

I shake my head. “I’m pretty sure if you try to interfere with anything Emergence-related, it just changes itself back.”

“Oh. Huh,” he huffs. “Well, that’s okay. It looks nice like that anyway. You don’t have to do anything with any of this, just keep it. In case it helps at all.”

“I… okay, I’ll do that. Thanks,” I say simply. My voice trembles a little on the last word, some feeling I can’t quite place creeping into it. I’m not sure how long it’s been since anyone thought of anything like this for me, however small.

“It’s the very least I could do. And I’ll let you know the moment I hear from anyone who might be able to help more. If that’s all, then… have a nice rest of your day, Liadain,” the doctor says, smiling faintly.

“Mhm. I’ll try.”

~~~

As soon as we’re finished, I lock myself in my room, turn on my laptop drive, and get to work. If you can’t slip out of something you don’t want to do, best to cross it off your list as soon as possible. I still doubt I’ll like what I find, but at least looking at how the Church does things isn’t too big a request. They won’t have some magic cure for all my problems, unless lots of what Vyuji’s told me was seriously mistaken, but they might have something. Worst case, they might know better ways to find Harbingers.

Searching for “Church Keepers” immediately turns up a bunch of current news surrounding specific Keepers, all their recent life events and public appearances. In short, things I don’t care about. Next comes stuff about the role Keepers played in the Claiasyan Covenant’s history as an organization, which also doesn’t help. There are also a few big discussion reefs about Keepers or magic in general, but they’re are all too broad for me right now. 

And beneath those is a flood of theological writings I couldn’t possibly make sense of in any reasonable timeframe. It’s not exactly that I don’t care what whichever high priests down in Alelsia have to say about the fancy details of religion. Some of the links here seem to be to theories about interesting questions, things like why Keepers have to be children and why the Goddess needs their help — our help — to keep the world spinning. Granted, some are also just weird navelgazing about things like “universal familiality,” whatever that means. Skimming the page doesn’t really explain it at all.

Eventually, I give up on those listings and narrow my search to “Clarish Keeper Church support,” which stems the tide a bit. From there, I stumble my way to the New Claris Keepers’ Chancel, the branch of the local Church that deals directly with Keepers’ needs and interests. Their reef looks like an ad for a fancy private school, with a similar mission statement up top:

The Chancel exists to help our children discover the beauty of their own souls and bloom into the best Keepers they can be, carrying Claiasya’s gifts wherever they are most needed. We have served the community of New Claris nearly since the city’s inception, and maintain a proud history of…

That’s nice. I skim past it and start looking for the actual details. Even on this single page, there’s a lot going on, but Frequently Asked Questions and Register Now! seem like good places to start. 

Within half an hour, I think I’ve sorted through the key points: the Church sets its official Keepers up with any mentors or professionals they need, including health specialists and magical healers. Anyone who wants can transfer into the Keeper school system, where teachers work around your schedule and tailor lessons to your precise level. I don’t see specific amounts, but it says they’ll pay you a stipend just for existing as a Keeper “in good standing.”

On the other hand, while it doesn’t look like they’d force me to be a celebrity or drag me onto talk shows, they connect you with other local Keepers through some kind of private platform, and expect you to be available there. “For emergency communications,” it says, but I don’t much like the thought of sharing public spaces with others. I’m not a complete unknown anymore, and what other Keepers know is pretty bad. What happens the first time Mide notices me there? “Hey, there’s that girl who nearly ate me alive!” 

There’s no section where they talk about what to do if some aspect of your magic is dangerous and horrible, either. Not that I’m surprised. Maybe I’m not the only Keeper with something scary going on and the rest just hide theirs well, but either way the Church wouldn’t bring up the idea on their sales pitch reef.

Another page leads to a listing of active local Keepers, with a scrolling gallery of fancy photos displayed above. Pictures of Keepers out and about on their own, among fans, posing with each other. The first and most prominent image, setting the mood for the entire collection, is of a trio of masked Keeper boys striking a dramatic group pose, their legs spread and arms thrust at exaggerated angles.

Taking top billing in the center stands the Church’s golden boy, Stardust Seraph Roland, hooded in a studded white mantle trimmed with his signature crimson color. His getup kind of reminds me of the traditional robes worn by Claiasyan clerics in pre-Covenant times, the kind you only ever see in movies, but the frock is more like a flowing coat, and beneath that there’s a slim layer of metallic plating armoring sections of his figure. The red glow behind the sharp, angular visor of his mask is in stark contrast to anything I’d consider priestly, but it fits the outfit itself perfectly well. Honestly, I would almost say he looked cool, but the ridiculous stance he’s taking is practically too embarrassing to look at.

What even is a seraph, anyway? Whatever. Enough of that.

Following that, there’s a vivid snapshot of Silver King Irida, dressed in old military finery accented such that it practically looks regal. It’s simultaneously a general’s uniform and the regalia of a warrior-monarch whose throne is the battlefield. She’s standing at the forefront of her army — a dozen tall shades dressed in a range of archaic soldiers’ uniforms, each with a different spiraling glyph on the cloth shrouds covering their faces. I spot Shona and Mide in another, a crowded group photo under a blossoming tree, and… 

…and is that Iona Fianata with them? It is. The patron protector of New Claris isn’t even in the center of the shot, not that she stands out any less for it. Willowy and dark-haired, she’s far enough toward the top of the Promise age range that she does look oldest among them, if not nearly her actual ninety-some years, and wears the signs of her Emergence as open badges of honor. Skin tinged a faint milky blue-white that somehow makes her look like a mystical ice princess rather than a frozen corpse. Eyes like cloudy glass spheres bright with frozen inner fire. And it’s snowing, a gentle flurry against a backdrop of spring flowers. Only she’s dressed for it, with the hood of the royal blue Kinsale cloak she most often wears raised.

She makes it easier to believe that maybe, if I live, I won’t be a horrible plague-beast in a few years.

Anyway, crossing off the celebrities who take every chance to tell their stories, how much of these kids’ lives are on display? Going through the list, I don’t find a single sign that Tara Mullane ever existed, which is about what I expected. Outside her insane groupies and me with my Champions deck, no one much wants to remember her… although honestly, it wasn’t always just the deck. 

For a while, Tara was my favorite Keeper — I never followed the scene that closely, but everyone has had at least one favorite Keeper. She snubbed the idol nonsense, did what made her happy, kept the company she wanted to keep and no more. She was the kind of Keeper I wanted to be if I ever got the offer.

That was before all the horrible things came out. If you believe the stories, and past a certain point you’d have to throw out a lot of stories to keep thinking well of her, Tara started turning her magic on anyone who bothered her or caught her in a bad mood. Even on other Keepers. Then, not long after it got really bad, she vanished off the face of the planet. 

I don’t know what happened to her. I’m not sure if anyone does. Maybe something made her snap, maybe magic brought out something ugly in her, maybe she’d just always been that way and had the power to act on it now. Thinking about it, I wonder if there was something more going on — my magic needs me to hurt people, and I can’t be the only one in history. Probably. 

On the other hand, the Silver King of all people will not speak a word of Tara to this day. The perfectly cool and composed star of the Clarish Keeper scene has taken cameras from interviewers who pressed questions about her and smashed them. If whatever happened between them was just a version of what I did to Mide, it may have been so much worse I can’t even imagine what it looked like.

Oh, but Niavh Fianata is still on the list. Her photo shows an older girl in a simple burgundy sweater, with black hair kept in a slightly long pixie cut and wide, wet, rust-red eyes that are visibly crying. Is that an Emergence thing? Why else would they take her picture like that? I don’t know her as well as I do Tara, but from what I understand there was an incident a few years ago. She lost control of her power in some way, and people died. Details beyond that are hard to find, but she’s kept her distance from the public ever since. They’re still scared of her. 

But she’s apparently still a Fianata. The Keeper family hasn’t disowned her or anything, and the Church at least still seems to think of her as a person. Given how scarce information on her incident is, I can only imagine they’re actively keeping it quiet. I suppose Keepers are rare and important enough that they want to leave plenty of room for ones who make mistakes to turn around, which… well, that’s some kind of a good sign for me.

Any other odd ones out? Yes, here’s someone I don’t recognize. Mary Hyland. Keeper title Carves the Night. There’s a picture of her in her distinctly understated regalia, a sleek grey suit and smooth mask of steel-grey metal that covers her entire face.

Searching for her name leads back to her Chancel profile, then further to a few scattered sources where she’s mentioned in passing among up-and-coming new Keepers. They don’t say much about her circumstances, but there is one line about her having “turned over a new leaf,” with no further mention of what that means. Other than those, Mary has no personal reef or fan clubs I can find. I’m about to give up when I scroll past a professional page for a random woman from Horizon also named Mary Hyland. 

Right beneath that, though, her name is highlighted in the preview text for a link titled Violence and death at Ashcreek Home for Children. It leads to somebody’s blog, headlined Dispelling Disinformation: Your Source For Keepers’ Untold Stories and made up entirely of white text on a stark grey background. The page itself points to an article about a story last year where an unnamed child from this Ashcreek Home, a local orphanage, was rushed to a hospital after an apparent violent incident, and then to the obituary of Cass Redmond, an employee who died the same day. It just says that he “passed away unexpectedly.”

There’s currently no conclusive contradictory evidence, the blog’s author admits, but then notes that the first official mention of Mary Hyland as a Keeper is dated only a day later, and that “a trusted source” stated she’d lived nearly her whole life in this orphanage. More to come as it surfaces.

I don’t like snooping on this girl just to find out how easy it was. I also don’t like how easy it was. Whether or not there’s any truth to what this person is not-so-subtly suggesting, there’s clearly some part of the rumor mill that runs wild with anything they can scrounge up about less-than-pristine Keepers.

In the end, I’m not at all sold on this idea, but I’m not ready to completely rule it out either. If there’s any chance they could help me survive… well, I don’t need to commit to anything yet. There are other things I want to figure out. I turn the drive off, pick up my personal tarot deck, and idly shuffle it as I call into my room: “Vyuji, I have some questions.”

“I have answers. So many answers.” The Messenger blinks into being on my windowsill, her favorite perch. Silver moonlight shines out from just behind her, and she somehow resists all other light, so she appears as a girl-shaped shadow with her features just barely visible, like she’s standing with her back to the sun at dawn. The effect only lasts a second before the overhead lights illuminate her properly. 

“Nice show. I guess even you can’t help yourself sometimes.” She normally isn’t much for fanfare.

“Magic wants to express itself. Why shouldn’t I indulge now and again?” she asks. 

“You… expression usually doesn’t seem like your thing.” 

“I’m doing as humans do. Friends always see new sides of each other over time. We’re getting to know each other better, that’s all. Besides, it’s been a week since you last called. Excuse me if I’m happy to see you.”

Is she, now? She does a good job of hiding it. Proving my point, she doesn’t move or express anything, and her face is frozen in a barely-there ghost of a smile. 

I didn’t call her to quibble about whether we’re friends, though. “Right. Now that we’ve had our touching reunion, what can you tell me about… splitting Harbingers after a group of Keepers kills one?”

That gets a reaction from her — a single enthusiastic clap of one folded not-hand into the open flower-petals of the other, making a sharp, wet sound like a dolphin thumping the water with its tail. “Oh my. You’ve been keeping busy, haven’t you?”

“You say that like you don’t already know.”

“Even if I did, I’d prefer to hear about it from you. I do what I can to respect my childrens’ privacy.”

“Fine. Those two girls from the day I made my Promise wanted to team up. I went along with it, it was awful, and at the end of it all, when we tried to divide the thing we killed in half, it was a mess. Lots of it was just gone. Is there some special technique? Did one of us do something wrong? Enne told them you could share a Harbinger just fine, but it didn’t feel that way at all.”

Vyuji’s eyes narrow. “Those do sound like the words he would have used, yes. I’m certain he forgot to mention the complications. He’s never been one for fine details, my brother.”

“The complications,” I say.

“Yes. A Harbinger’s heart is not a simple meal to be disposed of however you please. Until its last remnants are purified, it is a living thing with a will. It can be split, but not cleanly separated into even shares, and the parts are often less than the whole. Sometimes quite a bit less.”

My grip on my cards trembles and slips, scattering the deck all across the floor. A curse comes bubbling up from my throat and I bite my lip, swallowing it quickly enough that only a small harsh squeak makes it out. I’m not even sure what I was going to say, but it wouldn’t have helped. This is only natural. Why shouldn’t it work that way? Why would the world ever pass up a chance to make my life harder?

“Okay,” I breathe. “Okay. I’m not doing that again, but please warn me if there’s anything else I really need to know before it comes up.”

She smiles that curious sourceless smile of hers. “Ask next time you aren’t certain about something. I’d have told you. How has your hunting gone otherwise?”

“There’s another thing I wanted to ask about. It hasn’t. I’ve been looking every night and just not catching anything’s scent. I don’t want to push further out and bump into other Keepers, I’ve been through that, but what about outside the city? Not the farmlands, they’re covered, but the forests?”

“Hm,” Vyuji says, turning to look out the window. “I don’t make a habit of exploring the unclaimed lands, so I can’t tell you just what you’ll find, but things are quite different there, and not in a pleasant way.”

“But there are Harbingers,” I press. They constantly warn kids about wandering in the wilderness, out where Keepers can’t protect them.

“There are Harbingers everywhere, but not the same Harbingers. They are adapted for different conditions. Most often for endless open conflict with one another. I’d expect them to be more dangerous in some ways, but less… complicated in others.”

Right. In cities, the monsters have to deal with Keepers. We’re a united-ish enemy who’ll swarm them if they get too brazen, so unless they’re living disasters too big to care, successful ones hide. They ambush. They find confusing sideways methods of interacting with the world. If they don’t need to do that, of course they’ll work completely different ways.

But honestly, simple sounds good after Irakkia.

“So just to confirm, this isn’t a completely awful idea that’ll get me killed in a blink?”

“It’s not safe. They’re Harbingers. But I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, no. Sometimes other Keepers brave the risk to use the outskirts as a training ground, although they don’t often go alone. Ah, although…” She flattens her expression and turns, staring straight at me. “Do stay clear of the shores closest to Commixture. You’re not ready.”

“Vyuji, I hope you don’t think I’m an actual idiot. Out where they tell kids not to play and back, that’s all I’m planning, and it’s already pushing my luck healthwise.”

“If I did, I’d have said nothing. Some unwise children might take that as a challenge.” She cracks another small smile. “But you won’t. You aren’t concerned with proving yourself. You know what matters to you and you’ll seek it in the most practical, effective way available. That’s one of my favorite things about you.”

“Thank you, I think? I’ll try this out, soon, then. As for asking you about stuff, you’ve said you can’t follow me into Wounds. Does that include whatever’s out there? If I need help, will you answer?”

“I don’t know. The line between our world and the others is not always so clear. Apologies.”

“…Alright. Thanks anyway.”

And with that vote of confidence from my dear friend, I start planning to leave New Claris for the first time.

Duet 2-7

“I’m heading out! Bye!” Shona shouted through her house. 

“Don’t slam the—” 

Shona was out the door before Mom could speak the last word. As she left, she turned around, pulled the front door all the way open, then smashed it back into its frame with every bit of strength she had, smiling as it made a satisfying crash. One of those small protests she could usually get away with, and her savior already waited just outside. Mide stood by the fence, waving. Mom wouldn’t scream at her where someone else could see and, Goddess forbid, think less of the family. Shona ran down the driveway to join her, never looking back.

“One of those nights?” Mide asked. She’d bundled up heavily, pulled up her coat’s fur-lined hood and wrapped half her face in a white wool scarf. 

“Meh, no more than any other. There’s just some points you gotta make whenever you can, y’know?” Shona said, and nestled into her own scarf. Neither of them were winter people, but it was nice wearing enough layers that no one recognized her on the street.

“…Maybe? I’ll take your word for it,” Mide said, and off they went. It was a sunny but colorless end-of-November day, the kind where the only feature of the season was cold, wet air — the leaves had all fallen and been cleared away, but the first snow hadn’t quite made it there. 

Dreary as it was out, the small crowd around them still lent it some life. Whatever the weather, the sidewalks in New Claris were always busy. Walking is good for you and for the planet, that was the constant refrain. Shona often spent the walk to school picking people out and making up the stories of their lives in her mind. For all they shared, Mide had never gotten the appeal of the game, so she usually did it silently. 

Most importantly, she kept an eye out for… yep, there went Lizard Boy! Her favorite! Lizard Boy was a quiet kid toward the younger end of middle-school age. He wore a uniform in one of the blue-and-green plaid styles shared between most Clarish schools and walked a big white and black-speckled lizard the size of a very short, long dog on a harness. At least two or three times a week, they’d spot and pass by him on this route — the lizard’s pace wasn’t particularly quick, especially today. Could lizards be out in the cold? Apparently this one could.

“Do you think he’s actually going to school like that?” Mide whispered. “How? I have so many questions.”

“What’s there to question? Obviously he just rolled on in with his buddy one day, both their heads held high, and they never let anybody tell them they were doing something weird.” They’d never asked Lizard Boy what was going on with him, and Shona never planned to. Her version was probably cooler than the truth.

The streets grew busier the further they went. Slowly, classmates’ familiar faces joined the crowd, and shortly after they were in the courtyard of Saint Riawal’s School, looking up at the huge central building. It was made up of six long segments stacked on top of each other in rows, all built into a tall hill and arranged like a giant staircase so that past the end of one roof you could see the next floor’s windows.

At one end, a curved ramp sloped down from atop the first floor roof, which you could take up onto the green roofing and its well-kept grass. Shona had been late to class on her first day at this school, when she decided it was more important to see what it was like up there. Totally worth it — it was built so that you could eventually climb the entire building from that ramp, and the view from up top was pretty cool. 

Not in this weather, though. Today, they just made their way inside, stuffed their winter wear into lockers, and got ready for just another day.

~~~

“Good morniiing, Shona!

“Wha?!” Shona yelped. A few minutes into world history, a bright, high-pitched voice called out to her, sounding like it had been spoken right into her ear.

“Hi! Shona, hi! Here I am!”

She peeked under her desk, then whirled her head around the room to find its source. A few kids glanced over at her, frowning.

“Helloooo? Can you hear me in there? If you hear me, look out the window!”

Floating on the other side of the glass was a small pink animal. It was a big fluffy ball of fur, slightly longer than it was tall, and beneath its big soulful black eyes was a shiny little black nose. One short, fuzzy flipper-paw like a baby seal’s was raised in an attempt at a wave.

Shona realized several things very quickly. First, the animal was floating in the air beside a third-floor window. Second, rather than coming from outside the window, the voice was somehow sounding out from inside her head. Third, no one else was paying it any mind. They were all just looking at her like… well, like she was freaking out in the middle of class. Finally, if the art and the plushies were to be believed, it looked exactly like Enne the Heart of the Sea.

Messengers only showed themselves to Keepers and kids who might be Keepers.

“Shona! Hi, Shona!” the critter repeated. “Is this not a good time? If you like, I can come back a little…”

Before it could finish the sentence, she jumped up from her seat and dashed out of the classroom. Mrs. Dillon stared at her open-mouthed as she fled, and among a few surprised shouts was Mide’s voice: “Hey, are you—?” None of them stopped her. Sorry, Mide. She’d explain later. 

“Oh, nope, there you go! It looks a bit crowded in there, so I’ll be waiting right outside!”

Shona raced through the halls, ignoring the stares of the few kids she passed by. At the stairs, she slid down the handrail rather than waste an extra instant walking, nearly stumbling and crashing to the ground as she landed. Then she kept running to the front hall, barely slowing down for a second, shoved the doors open, and only stopped when she saw the little pink cloud perched on a courtyard bench, still waving excitedly.

“Wow. That was quick! I’m really happy to meet you too! My name’s—”

“You’re… you’re Enne, right?” Still catching her breath, she took a seat next to him. The plushies hadn’t exaggerated his fluffy round shape at all. If anything, he was a little poofier in person.

“Yep! That’s me!” He drew up to his full height, which barely changed anything, and thumped his chest twice with one tiny flipper. “…If you already know me, it takes a bit of the fun surprise out of the next part, though. That’s too bad. I like surprises.” He sounded exactly like a kid who’d peeked at his birthday presents, mourning the lost magic of unwrapping them.

“Um… if it makes you feel better, seeing you at all already gave me quite a shock,” Shona said.

Enne tilted his head to one side, or would have if he’d really had a head. In practice, the gesture was more like a slight twist of the whole front half of his body. “A good shock?”

“Probably? I mean, uh, whatever you’re here for, it’s the most interesting day I’ve had in a long time!”

“Yay! As long as you’re having fun, I am too!” The animal, the actual fucki— umm, bleeding Messenger of Claiasya, clapped his flippers together, then raised one in a little cheer. “Anyway, just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m here to make the Promise with you and free the magic sleeping in your soul!”

Shona stared right through him, unblinking, stunned silent. Like, of course, that’s what they do, that’s the only thing he could be calling her for, she knew that, but there’s knowing it and actually knowing it for real. Hearing it right from his… not-mouth.

“…If that’s something you wanna do, of course!” he added a second later.

And Shona laughed. She laughed and laughed and laughed until it started to hurt and tears soaked her eyes and she still couldn’t help herself. Through the wet blur, she watched Enne nodding back and forth in time with her laughter, as if to the unsteady beat of some terrible improvised song. He was humming to it, too. So the little guy could make noise.

“Wait, if?” she choked out. “Like, seriously, who gets this offer and goes no thanks, I don’t really feel like it?”

“Not a whole lot of people, but we have to make sure!” Enne looked up at her expectantly.

Of fucking course that’s something I wanna do! Let’s go!” she yelled into the courtyard. Was anyone watching? Listening? Meh, she didn’t really care.

“Wow! Okay then!” Enne chirped. “There is a biiit more to it, though. Can’t agree before you know all the stuff you’re agreeing to, right?”

Shona wasn’t stupid, and she knew Keepers about as well as you could from the outside. It wasn’t a big fun party of a life. Saving the world was hard and scary and dangerous. It sure wouldn’t be a real-life reprise of Magical Guardian Camellia. 

And thank the Goddess for that. Never again. None of it ever again, that’s what he was offering. There’d be new problems, but they’d be her problems. Her choices. Her life.

“Okay, okay, slowing down,” she breathed. “Tell me whatever I have to know, please… man, I had no idea how ready I was until just now. Mide will—” 

She froze, suddenly feeling like she’d crashed into a wall. What exactly would Mide do? Smile and wave while her best friend ran off to be a hero?

“Hey, is something wrong?” Enne asked with another full-body tilt of his head.

“Enne… you can tell whenever someone could be a Keeper, right?” Well, obviously. How else would he have singled her out in her third floor classroom?

“Yep! Just like you can tell which way is up!” In emphasis, he stretched to look up at the sky, bending back as far as he could until he tumbled over onto his back with a little yap.

“So if there was another maybe-Keeper around here, you’d know it, right?” What was she doing? These were questions she already knew the answer to. She was just dragging it out.

“That’s right!” Enne confirmed, cheery as ever. He rolled over and picked himself up, not bothered at all by the way she was wasting his time. 

“And I’m the only one here? No one else in the school is, uh, pinging your magic detector?”

“Let me see. I know I came here for you, and I don’t thiiink so, but…” He rolled back over, turned to face the school, and sniffed the air. “Nope! It’s just you and, ah… yep, one Keeper’s in there! She’s one of Fouhi’s kids, not mine, so I don’t know her that well. Why d’you ask?”

Shona didn’t answer. She’d already started to cry quietly.

“Oh. I think I get it. Is there someone in your life you don’t wanna leave behind?”

“…Yeah,” she said, clenching her fists in her lap. Her whole body shivered, or maybe she only just realized that it was shivering, suddenly remembering how cold it was. She’d left her winter wear inside in her rush to meet the Messenger.

“I’m sorry, Shona. That’s a tough one. Is there anything I can do to help you sort it out?”

“Um, someone can be a Keeper or they can’t, right? I guess you can’t pick someone else too just ‘cause I asked?”

The Messenger lowered his gaze. “Sorry…”

“I, yeah, I knew that. Had to try, that’s all. Just… please just let me think a little.”

“If it helps you think any better, you could always pet me!” Enne chirped, shaking like a wet dog to puff himself out. He nodded slowly. “Actually, I just think you should pet me either way.”

Well, the little guy knew what he was about. Shona reached out to run a hand through his fur… and it passed through his body as if it were nothing but warm air, the motion scattering him nearly in half like a cloud. 

She drew her arm back with a start, but Enne seemed unharmed. He just let out a little sigh, eyes downcast, as he drifted back together. “…Right. I always forget about that. Thank you anyway! I hope I didn’t spook you too much! Did it help any?”

“Not really?”

“I’m sorry.” Enne curled into himself, as much as his stout little shape could manage.

“Uh, that’s… fine, yeah. You did your best,” Shona said. “But I think I need to chew on this for a bit, kay?”

“Oh. Okay. Then I’ll leave you alone for now, but you can call for me any time you wanna talk some more, alright?”

Shona nodded.

“Bye-bye for now, then. Just remember, you don’t need to hold back or keep stuff to yourself. Anything you need, or you don’t need anything and just want some company, call and I’ll be there!” He waved once more, then vanished in an instant.

~~~

After the next period change, Shona crept inside, retrieved her coat, and made her way up the outdoor ramps and stairs, spending the rest of the school day on the top roof. The grass was cold and damp and gross, but she wanted to be alone and no one else would be up there anytime soon for just that reason.

This would be so much easier if she hated her whole life, but she didn’t. She couldn’t even wish she did, not really. It wouldn’t be fair to the girl who’d kept her sane for 14 years.

Still…  life had never been what Shona wanted it to be. It probably never would. Mide knew that better than anyone else. Here was a chance not just to walk out of it, but to be a hero for doing so. To do something that really mattered and that was hers. It wasn’t even like she’d disappear. Keepers could have normal friends just like anyone else. Where was the problem?

No, she was just trying to sweep it under the rug. Her life would change, she would change, until she might as well be living in another world.

And… was there no real way she could invite Mide into that world? Enne couldn’t just pluck someone out of the crowd, but there had to be something that made Keepers into Keepers, and it wasn’t some special destiny for random chosen ones — the Cycles were clear that there was no such thing as destiny. She and Mide basically lived the same life and did the same stuff. There was just the one exception, which she had to admit was a pretty big difference, but there should still be some way to make this work, right? If there was, Shona would find it. 

If not, then… well, she’d decide when she got there.

Eventually, the last bell rang, and while people filtered out through the courtyard, Shona went back inside. She made her way through the last lingering crowds and to the fifth floor science lab, where the Research Club met. She had questions for its leader.

Inside, nine students, mostly older ones, were busy rearranging the classroom. They pushed four black desks into the center of the room, forming a single large table. A reedy boy almost as tall as Shona was fiddling with the class projector. The screen across from it was covered in text, neat bullet-point lists sorted into four columns under big bold headings:

CLUSTER B HARBINGERS
DREAMWARD MECHANICS
SOUL-BRAIN INTERACTIONS
PRE-THALASSIC PHILOLOGY (low-priority, sorry Isobel)

Wow. That sounded like a lot, but none of it was what she came for. That would be the girl at the teacher’s desk cnidarian drive, rapidly shrinking or removing entries on the lists and adding new ones.

Most Keepers kept unpredictable schedules, and there were special education programs for them, but a few decided not to use those for whatever reason. Truth’s Lantern, Aisling Waite, was technically one of two Keepers who went to Shona’s school, but only she showed up enough to count.

The tradition was that Keepers in public schools wore whatever they wanted, as long as it wasn’t the uniform. “So that everyone knows who to find in a crisis” was the official line, but everyone knew who they were. When she made the Promise, Aisling had just put on a simple blue beret and started wearing cycling pants under her uniform skirt, occasionally skipping the skirt altogether. It didn’t make any sense. If it was some sort of statement, if she really wanted to turn down one of the perks offered to the heroes who kept the world spinning, wouldn’t it be easier to just not change anything?

Aisling looked a bit young for secondary school and impossibly young for a senior, but that’s just how it went with Keepers. She’d made the Promise at 13, if Shona remembered right, and skipped at least one grade before that. A few stray curls of dirty-blonde hair stuck out from under her hat, she wore no makeup, and her sharp eyes glistened with soft, sky-blue light, but the rings under them made it look like she had never even heard of sleep. 

“Um, Aisling? Hi. I’m Shona. Sorry to interrupt, just…”

“Do you need something? We’re about to get started.” Her eyes didn’t move from the drive monitor, except to glance briefly down at a notebook by the keyboard, and her typing didn’t slow at all.

“Yeah, could you spare a minute? There’s something important I wanted to ask about.”

“Ask away,” Aisling said.

“Uh… important and private. Sorry.”

Aisling’s expression tightened. She thumped her notebook against the table and looked to the boy at the projector, who nodded. “Okay. Follow me, the teacher’s office here is empty.” She stood to leave, and the boy took her place after a quick look at the notebook.

“Oh, right. You’re that child actress girl,“ Aisling noted when her eyes finally met Shona’s own.

Shona winced. “Can we, like, not talk about that?” 

“Fair enough. My parents never let me watch your show anyway. What’s your question?” Aisling asked as soon as the office door had finished closing behind them. 

“Well, you do more digging into how all of this works than anyone else I know…” She’d read a bit of Aisling’s writing on her magical experiments, although her approach had always felt deeply wrong to Shona. Magic was the soul’s poetry, a sacred miracle that couldn’t be bottled up and studied in a lab, and shouldn’t a Keeper know that better than anyone else? Best not to argue that point right now, though.

Aisling hopped up and sat on the desk, motioning with one hand for her to go on.

“So, do you have any idea how the Messengers actually pick Keepers? Like, are there any kind of patterns at all?” Shona asked.

“Yeah, I’ve been working on that one for a good long while now. If you find out, please, I sure would love to know!” Aisling snorted out a bitter laugh, then looked at Shona’s face and winced. “Ugh… listen, maybe that sounded callous and I’m sorry, but to the best of our knowledge, there’s no way to game that particular system. You’re only hurting yourself by spending your life worrying about whether they will or won’t come for you. Maybe hurting others in the long run too, if you get bad enough.” Her voice was high and flat, but not quite toneless. It sounded more like she was dictating notes on something she found a little interesting than having a conversation.

“It’s not like that! It’s… they already did come for me. I met Enne this morning and I’m just trying to figure some stuff out before I decide.”

“Ah. That’s, hah, fitting, I guess.” Aisling visibly relaxed, and she started to swing her legs idly. “Good on you for showing restraint, too. Genuinely. Too many of us get the offer and jump into it without a second — or first — thought.”

Shona frowned. “Are you saying they shouldn’t do it?”

“I’m saying it’s good practice to weigh your options and understand your reasons for anything you do. So. What do you want to know?” Aisling asked.

“Right. I…” Shona breathed in and held it. However you sliced it, what she wanted sounded stupid or ungrateful or insane. Just gotta force it out. “Enne said my best friend couldn’t make the Promise and I don’t want to just walk out of her life, so I’m trying to figure out why me and not her. Do you know anything at all about what makes someone Keeper material? Is there any way we can change that for her?”

Aisling stiffened for a fraction of a second, holding one leg in midair, then kept on swinging and shook her head. “I don’t think there is, and I don’t know why they want you or me or anyone else. Stars Beyond, I’m not certain if they know.”

Wait, huh?

“Hold on. That’s what they do! They choose Keepers! How would they do anything without knowing what they’re looking for?”

“Did you ask Enne why he wanted you?”

“…No,” Shona admitted.

“Then this is the easiest way to show you what I mean. You’ve already met a Messenger, so their whole thing won’t be too much of a surprise, right?”

Shona nodded slowly.

“Good. Fouhi, may I borrow you for a bit?”

“Yes this is Fouhi hello and hello and hello how may I enlighten you?” A new voice spoke directly into her thoughts, this one as frantic and breathless as Enne had been bright and cheery. Something shimmered into being on the desk — a long, thin lizard, covered in blue sea-glass scales that stretched and shifted as it moved. It had a head like the sort of cute snake people call puppy-faced, and its eyes were endlessly faceted gems with thin dark slits in the middle. Its gaze swept the room in a full circle, then settled on Aisling. Shona recognized the Abyssal Archivist, of course, but her first time seeing a Messenger actually blink into the world out of nothing was still a bit of a shock.

“This girl is a prospect. Please tell her how you and yours choose new Keepers,” Aisling said.

“Mu,” Fouhi immediately answered. After a beat, they glanced at Shona and added “Hello prospect it is lovely to meet you!

But… she didn’t understand. What did cows have to do with any of this?

“Wonderful. Now explain what you mean by that in terms a reasonably intelligent human teenager with no background in philosophy can understand,” Aisling deadpanned.

“Certuitously! Human instructors have a phrase they like. They say that there are no bad questions only bad answers. Their intent is sound and many children have excellent questions they may otherwise be afraid to ask but the statement is COMPLETELY WRONG! There are COUNTLESS bad questions! Perhaps just as many as good ones! Poorly formed questions! Questions too specific to be educational or answerable! Insincere questions which are not truly questions but attempts to provoke or mislead rephrased to end with question marks! Questions that…”

On the Messenger went. And on, and on, and on. Aisling cast a sidelong glance at Shona. She was making a face that plainly said “You see what I have to put up with?”

“…Questions which are best left unanswered for the querent’s own sake! Finally and most critically for our purposes are questions which actually cannot produce the answers you seek! A question is a skyward flare, a torch lit to burn away the murk of ignorance… unless, of course, it is THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY!” The lizard’s body lit up with a strange inner glow, which shone through its glass scales and covered the room in a hundred tiny patches of prismatic color. 

Shona felt a little dizzy.

“Fouhi, that thing with the light show doesn’t actually tell anyone anything. Get to the point or I’ll do it for you,” Aisling sighed.

“Ah. Yes yes yes yes yes. You see, there are questions which miss the true nature of a problem in favor of an imagined version of that problem. To answer such a question is A USELESS DIVERSION! Even if it provided some information, it would distract from the real search, the questions that might yet lead to the true answer! Instead, your answer lies in the roots of that false question, the misconception which first led you astray! To understand that your question is not WRONG, but a dead-end misstep on the way to being right or wrong… THAT is true insight! THAT is mmmMU! Do you understand now, prospect?”

Shona definitely didn’t. She stared blankly at the Messenger, trying to think of a respectful way to say so.

“Thanks, Fouhi, that’ll do,” Aisling said. 

“But I don’t think she understands!”

“If she missed anything, I’ll handle it.”

“Well, if you’re certain…” Fouhi huffed, and vanished with a sharp pop. Shona wasn’t sure how you huffed without making a sound, but that was definitely what just happened.

Aisling looked up at the ceiling, tugged on a handful of her hair, and groaned theatrically. “As you might’ve noticed, that insane tangent was not very helpful. I could’ve explained it in just a few words: Mu, that’s M-U, is shorthand for ‘your question can’t be answered because it’s based on incorrect assumptions.’ It’s the right answer to a question like ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ I only let Fouhi finish to make a point: they didn’t say anything about what the answer or the right question are. Not the slightest hint. They aren’t like that all the time, we have plenty of conversations that more or less make sense, but there’s something about this specific question that Messengers just don’t seem able to process. I don’t know why. All I’m sure of is that when Fouhi said it was the wrong question to ask how they choose Keepers, they weren’t lying. They at least believe it’s true.”

“Messengers don’t lie! They can’t!” Shona snapped. Everyone knew that. How was it even a question?

“I sense spoken lies whether I try to or not. It costs me nothing to be certain. But my research agrees with you so far, yes,” Aisling said simply.

“Uh, sure. I’m still stuck right where I started, though. Is there anything else?”

“Sorry, but I don’t think we’re going to solve that riddle in this office. Maybe take it up with Enne, but I expect you’ll get something similar. Was that all you had?” She shrugged, raising her open palms.

“Great… thanks anyway,” Shona said. “Before I go, what do you think is the answer? Or the… right question?”

“Anything I threw out would be useless, maybe even harmful. My current best guess is just that, a guess. It could be wrong. It’s probably wrong. Your ideas might start somewhere completely different, but not if they’re jumping off from mine. I haven’t figured it out, so my direction could just be a dead end.”

But Shona had no answers, no ideas about answers, and apparently no questions. She wasn’t starting anywhere. Something was missing.

Or she was being nudged away from it.

“Well, I don’t know anything about all this, so where do I look? How do I learn? How did you learn?”

Aisling chewed on her lower lip for a few long seconds. Then she sighed and dropped her head, looking intently down at her legs. “How committed to this are you?” she asked.

“Um, pretty? If there’s no way to help her, I don’t really know what I’ll do. About the Promise.”

“Pretty, huh…?” she trailed off for a moment. “…Fine. I really hope this isn’t a mistake,” Aisling said, and raised her head to stare straight at Shona. The light in her eyes was bright enough to leave sunspots. “Trying to force the Promise on people isn’t help.  Every reputable magical scholar considers it a dead idea. It’s been tried, it’s never worked, and it has a death toll. Quite a high one.”

“…What?” Shona swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.

“Ever heard of the Lotus Bed? It was a cult based in Rima, active during the war. Not a Harbinger cult, though. They believed dreams of a better world were the heart of magic, and the most beautiful dreams could only be born from the deepest misery. So, believing all the while that they were doing the right thing and helping save humanity, they did their best to…” She paused. Something ugly flit across Aisling’s face, and through her eyes, casting a strange shadow over their light. “…to nurture their own childrens’ dreams for the future. You don’t want to look into the details, unless I’ve seriously misjudged you.”

“That’s… I’m not…” 

“I mean, obviously. I’m not accusing you of anything. Don’t be silly. I just thought you should know how it goes whenever someone thinks they’ve solved the mystery and starts trying to mass-produce Keepers.” 

“…Okay,” Shona croaked.

“I’m sorry,” Aisling said, her voice suddenly softer. “I just had to make sure you understood.”

“But… but my life, there’s nothing that insane, nothing that even comes close, so why me? Why was I chosen?”

“Me neither. I loved my life before Fouhi stormed in and decided it was important that I never sleep again.” Aisling’s mouth quirked up into a bitter half-smile. “I certainly didn’t say those people were right about anything. If it were that simple, do you think it would still be a mystery?”

They talked a little longer, just about the details of Shona’s situation, but the conversation effectively ended once Aisling was satisfied that she wasn’t going to drag Mide into some kind of torture cult. She did sound a little gentler than she had at the start when she said goodbye and went back to her club’s work.

Shona’d learned a lot, met two Messengers in one day, and still had no idea what to do. She just checked her phone, left five messages from Mide on read, and made her way home.

~~~

“And that’s what I’m dealing with. I really don’t think she’ll agree if she can’t bring her friend along, so… can we make that happen somehow?”

“That’s what you called us for? Why ask when you already know the answer?”

“Well, I dunno. Maybe the other one’s actually meant for one of you!”

“The girl believes her reason to reject you is more important than what we offer. The offer is the offer, so you can either persuade her otherwise or accept that it isn’t meant to be. Not all prospects are. It is just that simple. You should be well aware of this already…”

“Heeey! Don’t talk to me like I’m some kind of idiot! I just really really like this girl and I wanna help her! What’s so wrong with that? Does anyone have any advice that ISN’T all the stuff I already know?”

“Enne, I’m sorry, but that is the reality of the matter! Her tone does not change the truth of her words!”

“Stop telling me why I can’t and start telling me how I can! Anyone else? Please?”

“Mm. There are other tethers than ours. Other bonds between souls. Methods, perhaps, to widen one fracture into another. There may, and we must stress may, be a way to grant your prospect’s wish.”

“Really, Yune? How’s that? Tell me, tell me! Tell me and you’ll be my favorite sister forever and always!”

“I recuse myself from this foolishness. Yune, you should not share whatever scheme you’re imagining. Supposing it does somehow work, all you will do is destroy a child who does not belong in this world.”

“Khiihihihihihi… perhaps you’d best take her advice. Hers is the shadow which draws all ours in! Hers are the hands which commit all our sins! She knows aaallllll about that, our Great Destroyer does!”

……… 

“Just remember that I warned you. Goodbye.”

“Fine! Good riddance! Who needs… oh, she’s gone. She’s just mad ‘cause she’s too much of a big grumpy meanie to be anyone’s favorite! So, what’s the secret? Hmm? Hmmm?”

“Hmh. Before we share this, we must stress that you will not like it. No, you certainly will not.”

“Oh, but an Enne may only ever be an Enne. It doesn’t matter what any of us say, he WILL do it. He must — yes, he must! Can’t you all see? He has already made his choice!”

“Ummm, yeah, what she said! I think. Sorry, Scelka, I’m usually not too sure what it is you’re saying.”

“Then all is as it should be! I am a labyrinth made not of walls, but of thoughts!”

“Right. Sounds neat. Anyway… Yune?”

“Ah. Very well. Very well indeed. Then this is what we would do…”

~~~

Shona cranes her neck upward, searching for the platform where Irakkia made its Wound. The tower closed after everything that happened with the Harbinger. It still hasn’t reopened yet… actually, if everything was normal, would it even be open at this hour? 

Well, whatever. Right now, all it means is that she’ll have the place all to herself. Grinning wildly, paying no mind to anyone who might be watching, she takes a stretch, looks up at the tower’s perfectly smooth, vertical wall, and jumps straight at it, touching both hands and feet to the glass. There’s a quick sting as her magic binds her to the surface with a touch. The static bites are a little worse than usual on her left hand, still tender and heavily bandaged, but she’ll manage. One hand reaches up and pulls, then the other, and she begins to climb the tower with the speed and casual ease of a lizard.

Some of the brighter stars reflect in the dark glass as Shona scurries up and up and up, dancing in the corners of her eyes. Here and there, she stops, releasing one hand from the wall and swinging outward to survey the city. She looks over the many blinking lights below, feels the chilly spring wind rushing by and the inner heat pumped by her pounding heart. She listens to the voice that still shrieks in terror and twists her gut into knots in these situations, listens just long enough to note its warnings of mortal danger and then cheerfully ignore them like she ignores Mom’s demands to stop slamming the door. 

Will she ever get used to this? Will scaling the city’s peaks be as ordinary as walking someday? The idea is almost disappointing, but magic is an endless frontier. There will always be some wonderful new thing waiting for her to find it. Always.

After maybe a fifteen-minute climb — which could’ve been much faster, if she weren’t taking her time to savor the sights and sensations and feelings — the deck comes into reach. Shona approaches it from directly underneath. It would be easier to scoot around the side of the wall and climb over it, but not as fun. She latches herself to the deck, hanging over New Claris as if on a massive jungle gym, then swings her legs up and tethers them to the surface. Her view of the city flips over and blood rushes to her head as she climbs along the ceiling. Seen from below, the glass window set into the platform’s center looks like nothing at all, a section left unfinished just for people to fall through, but for her it’s as solid a grip as all the rest. 

In another moment she’s at the platform’s edge, then pulling herself up the tall glass barriers around it.  Finally, she swings over the wall and breaks her connection to its surface, touching down gracefully on the floor. 

As she catches her breath, Shona leans on the barrier’s railing, gazing out at the city. It wouldn’t feel all that special if she’d just taken the elevator. Anyone could walk out here and see what she’s seeing now. Still, the image tangles up in her thoughts with the insane thing she just did to get here, taking on a bit of that same heady thrill. The deck and its view even feel like a different place in the middle of the night — it’s almost easy to imagine it as somewhere else entirely, untouched by her memories of static kaleidoscopes and the world twisting in on itself. And of the things in its eyes, the painful sights behind—

Nope, fuck off, we’re not going there, nope nope nope. She slaps her cheek and shakes those thoughts away.

Anyway, there are other buildings, even a couple taller ones in the Peaks. She can climb any one she wants to… well, uh, maybe not the Fianata Tower, but that’s not really the point. Why else did she choose this place, if not for the memories? Music always helps sort her thoughts out, and she has lots of thoughts about the things that happened here.

Shona strolls to the center of the platform, standing right on the wide glass window-hole, and takes an easy, familiar stance. Red light sparks and crackles through the air, forming her violin and bow in her grip. She looks up at the stars that joined her on her climb, the only audience she’ll have tonight, and plays, letting her heart provide the notes.

~~~

“I’m heading out! Bye!” Shona shouts through her house.

“Don’t…” 

Shona turns to where Mom sits at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading some gossip rag. She meets her gaze and grins a phony stage grin so wide it hurts a little bit.

Mom doesn’t say anything. She just breaks eye contact and sighs, burying her nose in her magazine. That’s Shona’s cue to stroll outside, slamming the door on her way out with what may be a bit of magically-charged strength. She’s honestly not sure how much of it she can tap without transforming. 

For the first time in several days, Mide is waiting by the fence. This’ll be a good day.

“Hey there, stranger! Glad to see you braving the light of day again! Feeling okay yet?” Shona asks.

“Ah, ish?” Mide says. “There’s still some nausea, but… I don’t know. I’m managing and the healer didn’t think it was contagious.”

“That’s good! That’s good,” Shona repeats, nodding. “Maybe…”

“You’re not seriously still thinking about how that girl’s doing?”

“Look, I’m not saying what she did was fine and you shouldn’t be mad about it, but at least some of the whole mess is on me! She clearly wasn’t good with people, there’s super real reasons why teams don’t happen much, and I did kiiinda steamroll her…”

“Shona, please just forget about that creepy freak already,” Mide groans. “There’s groups that don’t get along and there’s taking a bite out of your friends. It’s really, really not your fault.”

“Not blaming myself. Just, y’know, wondering if I could’ve done stuff better somehow.”

“That’s the same thing.”

“Is not.”

“Well, whatever it is, stop worrying about it.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll do my best.” Her best wasn’t very much. She hadn’t seen or heard of Ill Wind Eyna since they parted last week — no one had, as far as she knew — and she couldn’t help but wonder about her here and there. Sometimes. Constantly.

“Hey, Mide?” 

“Mm?”

“I’ve never done anything like that to you, have I?”

For a moment, Mide just keeps walking. And walking. And walking. Finally, she smiles and shakes her head. “Of course not. Sure, maybe this isn’t quite where I saw my life going, but… well, we chose what we chose, and we all doodled those outfits when we were little. We’re living everyone’s dream, aren’t we? I wouldn’t have things any other way.”

What we chose.

Shona still wonders about that sometimes. 

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Other Horizons 2-6

Life surges into me through pale green tendrils. Nothing could be less like my regular infusions. A dozen showers of warm rain fall through my body in all directions, pooling into my wounds until I can hardly feel them at all. Still it flows, filling me with vigor I’ve only ever dreamed of having. The well I draw from is clear and deep, deep enough that even now…

“What’s… I… stop, stop it, stopstopstop…!”

A gasping voice breaks my focus. The well — the person, Mide — cries out through clenched teeth, crumpled to her knees in front of me. Shaky arms struggle to hold her off the ground. Otherwise, she’s unmoving, staring down at nothing in silent, wide-eyed terror.

What am I thinking? What am I doing? How much have I taken from her?

It’s harder to pull myself away this time. This was a desperate spasm, a hand thrown up to grab the edge of a cliff just before I fell to my death. The magic, born from my terror in the face of certain death, doesn’t want to let go. Something protests in the back of my mind, and its whisper sends an echo of dread shuddering through me. Not enough. Not enough. There will never be enough.

No, no, not “something.” There’s only one voice in my mind. It’s just my own voice thinking my own thoughts, and there’s no one and nothing else to blame. This is my power and no matter how wonderful it feels to revel in it, to wipe away my every trouble, to sate the hungry wounds gaping across my body, this has to stop. This has to stop now, before… before… no, before my mind can go there, I tense my entire body so hard I begin to shake and force my magic to release its grip. The mist slinks back and draws into me, carrying one last gulp of warm essence as I inhale it.

“Wha… Did, did you… what just…?” Mide stammers out in dazed fragments. Is she stable?

…If not, can I even do anything about it?

Cold pressure in my gut reminds me of my own situation. One thing at a time. I clench my teeth, dig one foot into the ground, and take a slow step forward, pushing away from the thin spike in my back. My nerves burst into flames all over again, far worse than when I was actually stabbed… but it’s only a brief flare. As I dislodge the spike, wellness surges into the wound, smothering the pain in gentle warmth. Soon all I feel there is a crawling, almost ticklish sensation that must be flesh slowly mending itself. I’m glad I can’t see it.

Mide’s sudden pallor and unsteady shivering don’t go away, but they don’t get worse, either. Her aura feels much more polluted than the last ones I took from — beneath the ozone smell of Shona’s charged power is a distinct, sickly sweet scent like rotten fruit, if an odor not nearly as strong as the seventh floor’s. There’s no time to inspect her soul closely, but at a glance her pain feels roughly how I feel on a bad day. Not the worst days.

I take and release a long, heavy breath. She’s not dead, and as for what she is… no time for that. My magic definitely won’t work in reverse. I already know that there’s no point in even trying. I can’t just unmake this mess. All I can do is finish this before it gets worse. Irakkia isn’t waiting for us.

“Listen, I, all I can do right now is go help Shona. You just… stay safe, okay? Out of the way, close enough that we don’t split up.” I lean down to help her up, wrapping one arm around her and bracing her on my shoulder as she stands.

The moment she finds her footing, she shoves me away with whatever strength she has left — still enough to send me stumbling back a few steps. Shock and fear and anger mingle on her face.

“…Fair,” I mutter. “I’m going. Remember to keep breathing, steadily as you can. It’ll help.”

Mide opens her mouth, but I can’t hear whatever she mumbles over the ambient noise. Then she just nods weakly and steps aside, leaning on her shield at a healthy distance from the wall that stabbed me. She’s slow and shaky, but still looks more mobile than me on my worse days. It’ll be bad if the Harbinger goes after her, but it has other priorities.

Elsewhere, the hunt is still on, and Shona has become its sole target. The nearest standing lighthouse is still bright enough to see by, and at the distant end of this roughly clear space, about as far away as the cars that pass by my seventh floor window, she and Irakkia dart over the trash-pile hills at dizzying speed — if the chamber weren’t so wide, they might be looping around me too quickly to track.

Still wielding her bow like a sword, Shona rockets away from the pursuing Harbinger. A stream of red sparks crackles through the air behind her, and lightning strikes from the still-growing storm above mark her passage, crashing down on the spot exactly where she was an instant ago. Twice I watch her dodge out of the Harbinger’s way by dropping over the side of a hill, gliding along on one hand and one foot like she’s skating on almost-vertical ice, then pulling herself back up over the ridge in a swift lunge, all without slowing down.

Irakkia is never far behind, almost throwing itself at her with every movement. Some of her jolts delay it for a moment, but more often than not it simply contorts itself out of the way and keeps moving. Sometimes it skitters like a spider, sometimes it bends itself into an upright wheel shape, with its limbs serving as spokes as it cycles forward, and sometimes it simply winds itself up and launches itself through the air in the span of an instant. Its voice spews a constant warbling torrent of unreadable nonsense sounds all the while.

I already know I can’t join that chase. The hills look too tall, steep, and tightly-packed to climb without magical help, and I’m not suddenly superhuman — much better than usual, but that’s only saying so much. Instead I head for the far end of the upward-slanting ground between the hills, where a thin mountain-path wall leads back toward the castle, planning to cut them off as they circle around.

My body feels lighter and stronger than I’ve ever dared to imagine. My legs have stopped shaking, and I can run, really run, easy as anything. Air itself is kinder to me. it’s no struggle at all to breathe, and I’m not so much as winded by the time I reach my destination. Not yet, anyway. Never enough, that hungry echo inside me repeats.

But it doesn’t have to be. Just enough to manage right this moment. What’s my plan here? I still have no idea how to break Irakkia. Until then, if I’m going to do anything useful, I’ll have to bring the fight to me. Soon, Shona rounds the near corner and heads toward me, bringing the Harbinger with her.

“Down here!” I yell, and pull the glove off my right hand.

Shona throws herself off the wall, again without slowing down a bit. She skates along the rough slanted ground, leading Irakkia out in a wide arc away from the castle trail, then makes a sudden sharp turn toward me. Six thin bolts of lightning strike behind her. The Harbinger darts away as they strike, then snaps back like a rubber band the instant the light fades and continues its charge. It’s still fast approaching when she reaches me, but her short-lived fence held it back for just long enough that it isn’t immediately upon us.

“Stay close and hold your breath,” I say. I prick my ring finger on a card in my spread, picking the one that feels right on raw instinct. Ribbons of noxious green essence twirl out from the diagram and form a circle around us. In the instant before they take their final shape, I push outward with my mind as hard as I can.

A bank of cold emerald fog riddled through with inky black veins floods into the Wound, leaving a thin column of clean air in the center, and then the blackness in the cloud slithers down into the trash-pile floor like roots searching for water. The white noise in the air dims, the way snowy nights seem to swallow all the sound in the world, as my mist begins to spread and seep from the ground.

Irakkia screeches and slams three of its front limbs into the ground, skidding along with a horrible metal-on-metal grinding sound until it comes to a halt, stopping just short of charging through the mist. Its neck stretches left, then right. When it sees that the cloud goes all the way around, its glass head settles, fixing its glare on us. I angle my gaze away, breaking eye contact. Just in case.

“Okay,” I sigh. I wasn’t certain this would work. “Don’t move.”

“Mide! Where’s Mide?” Shona hollers into my ear.

Mide is where I left her, still propped up on her shield and watching us closely. I can’t read her expression from here, but I point her out. “…Over there. Hurt. Stable. She’ll be safe for now, it’s clearly you it wants. Speaking of, that thing with the lighthouse. This should buy us some time, so quick… can you do it again?”

Shona frowns, glances over at Mide, then… “Oh, can I!” she says. “Got anything to say about it, big buddy?” she growls at the Harbinger. Her attitude instantly shifts from concern for her partner to what I can only imagine as bloodlust as she bares her teeth, summons her violin, and begins to play.

The Harbinger wails in protest. It balances on one long limb and stretches up, studying the cloud from above. While it’s standing in place, I gather up a plume of fog from the surrounding cloud with my will and shove it at the Harbinger, who scurries out of the way with a harsh whistle. Worth a try. It skitters back and forth around us, searching for any gaps or thin spots, and its voice rises to a panicked siren shriek as it fails to find one, like it’s trying to drown the song out. It’s not working. I’m sure it’ll find a way through eventually, but Shona’s power is already rising to a familiar peak. My teeth chatter. Tiny shocks prickle across and through my skin, feeling like they’re dancing over my bones.

Then Irakkia circles back around, placing itself between us and Mide, and spreads itself out like a giant knotted-up kite, still spinning sideways on its limbs in midair, shredding space like a blender. What is it doing?

Before I can tell, the ground beneath our feet vanishes, plunging us into a dark, narrow hole.

Shona’s music screeches to a halt.

A murmured “Ah–” is the only thing I manage to push out of my lungs.

I slam down hard on my side and start tumbling. The hole winds constantly back and forth, sending me skidding down one rough wall and slamming into another, then another, reaching for grips, footholds, anything as I fall. They don’t exist. The surfaces are jagged enough to bite wherever I touch them and no more.

But before the Wound can drop me into another endless loop, I crash onto solid ground. This chamber is dark, but lit just enough by a single gigantic screen embedded in the scrapheap walls that I can see my vision spinning. I would’ve thought a winding tunnel would be safer and less painful than a straight drop down, and I would’ve been wrong.

Red light shines from above. Shona slides around the shaft’s last turn and into the room, touching down easily on her feet. She looks like she made it through that shockingly well, with only a few visible scrapes. Until I spot her left hand, scratched to a pulp and covered in blood.

“You okay?” she asks, and offers me her good hand.

“No. But let’s go.” I take it and let her pull me up. It’s awful how familiar the sensation of sharp bits of trash raking over me is becoming, but through my new vigor and the rush of fighting for my life, I’m distantly aware of the scrapes more than I feel them.

“I sure feel that. Y’know, this…” Shona growls, and flings her arms out in a wide circle, gesturing to the Wound. Blood trickles down from her injured hand. “This LITERAL MOUNTAIN OF BURNING GARBAGE WORLD has been ruining everything since we got here! It’s honestly pissing me off way more than the monster!”

“It is awful… it’s all just in the way, though. Walls it’s throwing up. We’re stuck here, and we still need to kill the thing.”

“And how do we get there? Think it’s gonna hold still anytime soon? I’ll tell you how, we burn the whole place down first! See how it likes us when it’s out of hidey-holes and caves to dump us into!” In emphasis, she raises her bow and looses an explosive burst of lightning into the ceiling tunnel. Thunder crashes through the tiny hollow like a blow to my head. Its echo rattles around and around in my ears, which I rush to cover as tiny chunks of concrete and clouds of dust fall over me.

A warning would’ve helped.

Listening with my soul, I still hear Irakkia’s cries, but all the actual physical sounds are replaced by the shrill phantom buzz of thunder smashing through my ears… so I feel the rumbling of the walls above us starting to cave in rather than hear it. Shona grimaces, then shrugs it off and says something I can’t hear. I cup my ear and shake my head, at which point she drops her bow, grabs my arm roughly with her good hand, and charges down the nearest apparent passage carved into the side of the shaft. Even with my new strength, I’m slowing her down. Another jolt of static bites into me, and we go gliding through the tunnels at terrifying speed.

And the Harbinger follows, screeching its distant siren wail all the while — I sense it without seeing it, because I can hardly see anything but Shona and an impossible blur of motion around us.

Tiny red sparks spill from Shona’s back as she darts forward, creating a shower of faint flickering lights to augment the occasional wall-screen. Their unsteady glow isn’t nearly enough to see by, but that doesn’t stop Shona hurtling through the dark. Neither do the sharp bends in the path seem to slow her down at all. She completely ignores the idea of momentum as she moves, turning at her full speed the instant she shifts her facing — but she does narrowly avoid slamming me into the wall around one tight corner.

I can’t possibly measure how far we travel through that cramped maze, but eventually dim, distant light shining through one fork leads us… yes, outside. Sort of. It takes a bit to be sure, since we’re surrounded by walls on all sides, but when I look straight up it’s definitely the dark sky rather than a cavern ceiling. As soon as we’re clear of the tunnels, Shona brings us to an instant stop. I expect to crash into her, and it feels strange when it doesn’t happen.

She immediately whirls around, steps to my side, and resummons her bow, loosing a crimson blast into the tunnel we just came from. At least this time I manage to cover my ears. It even helps a little, and the debris it blows loose fall somewhere in the tunnels, distant enough to get lost in the background noise. My ears are starting to work again, using a bit of my stolen life to repair themselves faster.

Looking around, we’re in a wide, deep inground pit, about as deep as a small skyscraper is tall. Its shape is a loose, uneven spiral, with parts of the walls barely curving at all and others jutting out far enough to form thin ledges — even a few like incomplete, detached pieces of a spiral ramp, all made of trash pounded roughly flat. A lighthouse’s pale rays beam into the pit at an angle, only directly shining on the upper third of the walls.

And peeking out from one of those platforms, Irakkia glares down at us. I tap Shona and silently point it out.

My ears have recovered enough to hear the words when she yells up at it: “Hey, how the fuck did you get out here?” She brandishes her bow, aiming for its perch.

“Careful with that! Blow this place up and it’ll cave in on us,” I hiss. “Maybe we don’t die, but at best we’re stuck back in… the maze?” When I tilt my head to indicate the passage we came from, it’s completely gone. “Probably we die.”

Shona scowls and folds her arms, dropping the bow with a dramatic groan. “Fine, fine! Let’s get outta here and THEN blow everything up.”

“Alright. How?”

“Like this,” she says, and claps my shoulder again. There’s a now-familiar snap of static, but something is different about this one. Buzzing heat runs through me and settles in my limbs, lingering there as an uncomfortable pins-and-needles feeling. Then she sprints straight at the nearest wall and hops onto it, clinging there in a position like she’s climbing a ladder. “Just do what I do. It’ll be easy.” She looks back over her shoulder and motions with one hand for me to join her. “Ever gone mountain climbing before?”

Huh? Why would she even ask? I’m too floored by the question to answer.

“Just kidding! Me neither! Whew, if I only could’ve seen your whole face just now!” Shona cackles. She turns and starts to scamper up the wall, giggling and mumbling a cheery little song to herself as she climbs. The tone behind her words is strained.

…Nothing for it. I take a deep breath, latch myself to the wall, and follow her path as closely and quickly as I can. There’s a slight tug of resistance whenever I pull a hand or foot loose, and a brief static sting every time I reattach myself to the surface. It’s exhausting, heaving my own weight up over and over without pausing even a second for a break. My joints are on fire. I feel myself tapping my stolen strength to press on, and even then I take frequent breaks to glance around in search of Irakkia.

Shona, on the other hand, darts up and up like it’s nothing, stopping only to look down and wait impatiently for me to catch up. Her torn-up hand barely seems to slow her down — she just treats it like she might treat walking with a slight limp, timing her climb such that it spends as little time as possible supporting her weight.

Things get rougher as we climb. The spiraling walls tighten, forcing us to twist and adjust ourselves with them. Irregular ridges and slanted platforms cut off any straight paths up. Finally, we come to a point where a single ledge stretches out all along the walls and covers almost the entire shaft, like we’re in a manhole looking up at a slightly-displaced cover. The one sliver of open space is directly across from us. I’m certain this wasn’t there before. When I first looked, I could definitely see straight up to the light outside.

This doesn’t stall Shona at all, though. She moves one hand at a time onto the ledge’s underside, then swings her legs up, tethers her feet to its surface, and goes scuttling along upside-down like it’s no big change. Sorry, Shona, I’m not doing that. I just start to edge horizontally around the shaft, slowed down by my awkward sideways crawls over the ridges that rise from the walls like waves on a sea of wreckage.

Shona makes it to the gap well before me, of course. She grabs the edge and hangs there for a moment, fidgeting, idly swinging in place over the pit below. I’m a little more than halfway around when she hoists herself up, apparently tired of waiting.

<ꌦꄲ꒤ꋪꇙꏂ꒒ꊰ IS A MASK A VEIL A BLINDFOLD WRAPPED AROUND THE ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ HEART OF ALL THINGS TEAR IT LOOSE AND TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE>

Irakkia’s warning siren blares. Visions flood my mind of the shadowy outline of a person being unwrapped entirely into a long strip of cloth, like a mummy with nothing underneath. No, not quite nothing — the inside of the cloth is lined with unblinking bloodshot eyes, their irises black and spotted with tiny static stars.

Shona shrieks in terror until her voice is muffled, then silenced.

Every muscle in my body seizes up. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. When the paralysis passes, I do the only thing I can — quicken my pace over the sharp spiral curves in the wall. My heart thuds wildly, but not in the rapid, rhythmic pulse of overexertion — it’s harder rather than faster, each pulse like a tiny impact in my chest, aggravated by the constant bites of electricity in my limbs.

That inner pressure only gets stronger when I reach the platform’s edge, where a dense fence of thin, outward-facing spikes now lines the ridge on all sides. I peek through a gap in the concrete, Irakkia has unfurled into a shape like an octopus wrapping itself around its prey. Its glass head swivels to stare at me, but beyond that, it doesn’t move. Not worried about me or just more interested in her? Beneath its noise, Shona’s voice is still faintly audible from here, whimpering wordlessly.

As I climb further up and over the spikes, I hunt for ideas, cutting all the ones I find off as useless in the same instant they come to me. I’m not betting again on the hope that it might rather not kill us, so I can’t approach in any way that doesn’t leave Irakkia plenty of time to finish its helpless prey off. Can’t fight it head-on, can’t use my fog without risk of infecting Shona…

Just as I clear the spikes and drop down onto the ledge, still not knowing what to do, there’s a sound of… it’s the high grinding whine of a trash compactor at work, but my body reacts to it with a pained shiver like I get when someone bites their silverware as they eat.

Tearing my eyes from the Harbinger, I glance to one side. I’m now flanked by a huge rectangular pillar of garbage jutting out from the wall behind me. Silver film-grain dots and lines dance all over its surface. It’s not moving, but I still hear that sound.

My stomach drops.

I dash toward the Harbinger, the only way I can go. Immediately, a terrible car-crash roar fills the air and shakes the entire ridge, knocking me to my knees. I look over my shoulder, where an identical pillar had extended from the wall on my other side and smashed into the first one. I just narrowly avoided getting smeared between them.

Irakkia surges forward, launching itself at me in a violent storm of colors. I pull at my magic on a panicked reflex, but it’s upon me in the same moment. Knife-clawed hands, four or five or six of them, rush to unwrap me like a present. Bright, sharp pain rakes over my skin, numbed only slightly by the chill of death-mist pouring out through my wounds. I feel my sickness taking root in the Harbinger, but it pushes on anyway, tearing at me with a hateful howl. Distantly shocked that I’m still aware at all, I wrench my eyes shut and reach through the fog with my power, searching for the Harbinger’s strength, heart, health, I can’t tell, does it have health, can I—

A wave of burning-hot air rushes over me. Thunder cracks through Irakkia’s screeching. I crane my head up — which feels like an effort, like all my energy is leaking out through the long, shallow gashes all over my body — and crack one eye open. The Harbinger is sparking with red light, convulsing like it’s having a seizure. Then it coils into itself, the motion a little slower and messier than earlier, and bounds up through the shaft, touching down on a much higher ledge. A fragment of my power moves with it, slowly eating away at it.

At the center of the ledge stands Shona, playing her violin — trying to, anyway. The music is rougher and harsher than ever, and I don’t think it’s just because of her injured hand. She doesn’t look much more hurt than she was, but her wide, wild eyes are severely bloodshot.

“And keep your stupid fucking little claws out of my head,” Shona snarls. “C’mon. Let’s end this already!” She smashes her violin against the ground, letting it disappear after it splits in half with an awful twang, and sprints to the wall, continuing her climb.

I don’t join her just yet. I need a moment to bury my pain in stolen health. Warmth floods through me, knitting my wounds shut. Even my dress mends itself, filling tears in the cloth with pale green light that leaves it good as new. But as my magic works, I realize that again, something doesn’t make sense here: why not just make a circle? Or form a dome around me and flatten it into the floor with me still inside? Irakkia was going for the kill, and there’s nothing I could’ve done to escape if it just surrounded me with walls and crushed me in the center.

Twisting a maze around me. Bending the ground beneath us. Stabbing me in the back. I’ve never actually seen the Wound change… no, that isn’t quite right. I saw it start to do something while it fought the others on the wall outside, creating some disturbance to strike at them from behind, only for it to fizzle into nothing. It looked a lot like the distortions around the pillars that nearly smashed me.

I glance back at those pillars. The point where they crashed together is a little off-center. One stopped moving, but the other carried right on.

Broken perspectives, seeing but not seeing, seeing things that aren’t there.

Because I watched it happen, it didn’t happen.

“It can’t change the world where we can see it!” I yell. “Watch the walls! Watch our blind spots!”

I tense up, waiting a beat for the Wound to crush me or skewer me and prove me wrong. It never comes. In fact, when I look up at Shona, I immediately spot a flickering silver patch on the wall, which vanishes.

“Kay!” Shona says simply, and keeps climbing, pausing to sweep her gaze around the pit every few feet. I stay put and watch her. Bits of twisting space constantly bloom just out of sight and disappear the instant I focus on them. Irakkia’s shrill voice yowls and seethes from above. Before long, Shona clears the top of the pit and waves to me. She summons her violin and starts to play again, creating a halo of lightning circling just around her, but keeps looking down at me.

I take the hint and start my own ascent, following her route as closely as I can remember it. Climbing takes most of my strength and attention, but I do catch several more distortions in the corners of my eyes. As I enter the last stretch, where the lighthouse’s rays shine on the walls, two claps of thunder ravage my ears. Shona shouts something I can’t hear over the ringing. At last, I clamber out of the pit and back onto solid ground, winded and gasping for breath even through my boosted vitality. We’re outside again, in another wide junkyard strewn with trash. From the look of it, we’re somehow higher on the mountain than we were when Irakkia first dropped us into the tunnels. At one end, a barred gatehouse leads somewhere into the central castle.

“Whoof,” Shona huffs. “Well, I think we’re all good! HEY, MIDE! I KNOW YOU’RE THERE! COME ON OUT, WE’RE GONNA KILL THIS FUCKING THING!” She twirls a hand and dismisses her thin lightning barrier, then leans down to help me up.

Slowly, Mide peeks around a wall in the corner. That was fast — these two can probably sense each other well enough that she’s been on her way for a while. She doesn’t look better, but she doesn’t look worse either, and crosses the chamber at an ordinary, slightly hurried pace, panting and putting her hands to her knees when she reaches us.

“You two… where did you go? What happened?” she asks, her voice still weak and raspy.

“Eh, nevermind that, we’re all just fine now!” Shona says with a slight uncertain delay, like she’s mostly trying to convince herself. “All set to take out the monster, too. We’ve just gotta… eh, Eyna, tell her what you told me. I’m gonna start ripping this thing apart!” She waves a hand dismissively, recreates her violin, and sets to playing a new song. More than angry, this one sounds violent. Like it could actually walk up to me and thrash me to a pulp.

“Right, yes. Ira—the Harbinger—has some problem with sight. Er, with being seen. It can twist its Wound all sorts of ways, but it can’t do anything within our line of sight,” I say.

“…Okay.” Mide nods slightly. She has a hard time meeting my eyes. I guess I can’t blame her.

Anyway, I don’t push it. I just turn and stand with my back to Shona, then gesture left, pointing Mide to a spot where she forms the third corner of a triangle. “So if we stay like this… yeah, close together, backs to each other, it shouldn’t be able to do anything to us. It’s hurt, it won’t win if it just charges in. Shona, the lighthouses. Are you still okay to take them out?”

“Pshh, please, way ahead of you! That first one was just the opening act! It’s gonna get so much better!” she answers.

Here we go, then.

The air takes on a dry, prickling weight as Shona plays. The whole world rumbles, and the clouds above gather and swirl into a hurricane of fury. Irakkia frantically whirs and wails in the distance. Tiny holes in the world rip themselves into being all around the courtyard, and close in the same instant, so many of them coming so quickly that it looks at times like I’m watching a grainy old film of the world rather than seeing it with my eyes. Tiny bright dots and squiggly silver lines fill my vision. Many… most of them are in plain sight, placed where there’s no way we could miss them — Irakkia is just throwing out everything it can to see what sticks, now, and none of it does.

Maybe ten seconds into the song, the Harbinger crawls out from inside the castle and perches on the gatehouse, staring straight at us. My head swims as its mind crashes into mine once more. There’s no vision this time, no message, just a raw torrent of its madness. Its absolute refusal to trust its own senses.

But I’ve already walked these paths with it, and its focus is now split between three of us, punishing its overreach with failure on all fronts. I quickly glance back at the others. Mide looks a little shaken, but Shona… all it did was give her more rage to work with.

“No, not again, fuck off fuck off fuck OFF!” Shona screams, and unleashes her own storm of power. I plug my ears as six lightning strikes spear down from above, forking and forking into the outline of a giant tree, then converge as one on the second lighthouse. This time, the explosions don’t just topple the tower, but blast out and tear away huge chunks of the castle all around it. Falling wreckage crushes more structures until barely anything is left, even before the lantern plunges beneath the sea and it all disintegrates into a carpet of bright dust.

Irakkia cries out once more, but not in pain or battle-rage. Its tone is lower, less forceful. Again, I can’t help but read emotion into its voice, and it sounds exhausted.

<none of this is right>

<none of this is real>

<none of this IS>

The constant screeches of electrical interference fade. Even the ever-present static shhhhh is quieter.

“…Did we win?” Mide asks.

Then the static screen in the sky turns back on, but only a small part of it — only in a small circle above the last lighthouse, with the rest remaining completely dark… and slowly becoming engulfed by Shona’s rumbling clouds. Without looking away from us, Irakkia skitters backwards, climbing onto what remains of the castle and rushing toward the lighthouse. The static above resolves into an actual image, what looks like a bright blue patch of the actual sky.

Is it running away? Can it do that? I can’t stop it, and if this was all for nothing—

“NO YOU DON’T,” Shona declares. She doesn’t shout it. The words just carry themselves over all the music and noise, out into the entire Wound. Almost immediately, another forest of lightning lashes out into the Wound from the roiling clouds that have begun to dominate the sky, straight into the last slice of the castle.

The destruction that follows is an avalanche. An earthquake breaks out beneath our feet as the entire world breaks. Mide and I yelp in shock, and I look around for any stable bit of wall to hold onto, finding none before the junkyard goes sliding down the mountain like a sled. Shona just kneels, tethers her hands and feet to the ground, and laughs and laughs and laughs all the way down. I follow her lead and crouch, doing my best to press myself into the platform, and somehow it works enough that I’m not launched into the sea.

Finally, our crumbling platform slides into the water with an enormous splash. Somehow, it floats, an island of trash drifting out to sea. Another piece of falling wreckage crashes into the water just after us, stirring up a wave that drenches us all. Seemingly at random, pieces of rubble all around us start to disintegrate into plumes of static, all of it fading away like dust on the wind.

Further up, Irakkia leaps between twisting spires, doing anything it can to gain height. Then, as it goes to jump from one tower to the next, its destination collapses into nothing, and the Harbinger falls, joining the ruins of its castle in their landslide. Still it runs, jumping and scrambling up the avalanche until a foothold just beneath it abruptly bursts into a cloud of static snow, and it gets swept away in the collapse, plummeting down the slope. Its limbs lash out for anything to pull itself up by, finding nothing.

When Irakkia touches the water’s surface, another burst of distortion rips through the world, faster and stronger than the interference that had burst from the sinking lanterns. Everything in sight rips itself apart and then reassembles itself in an instant, like someone grabbed the film in a movie theater and started shredding it by hand, only to have the act itself rewound back to the beginning and then repeated over and over.

When I can see clearly again, Irakkia is thrashing in the sea like a drowning animal. Its veils have soaked through, dulling their wild colors, and its storm of dizzying motion has faltered — the cloth is floating limply on the water, bulging in places like shapeless things are trying to surface underneath them.

Why would it fill its Wound with water if it couldn’t swim?

“Really? That’s it? THAT’S the way you’re gonna die?” Shona laughs. “Hey, suit yourself!” She starts to play again, and her music is frenzied, now. It’s stopped being even a painfully loud song and blurred into wild, shapeless noise, like making an art form of screaming. The sky is completely overcast and shimmering with the flashes of Shona’s storm. In time with the song, lightning strikes the water again and again, lashing into the Harbinger and everything else until the sea is boiling and Irakkia is no longer splashing and grasping for land, just twitching in random useless spasms.

At last, all at once, Irakkia’s entire body breaks into a shower of tiny bright particles. Only its core remains, an orb of shifting patterns like a black and white kaleidoscope floating above the water. It looks at first like it’s approaching Shona, but what it’s actually doing is bending the world, steadily shrinking the distance between her and it… until she raises a hand and pushes into the air, releasing a few red sparks with a buzzing jolt. Then it just hovers there, still.

Soon, all that remains of the Wound are the crimson typhoon above and a few scattered pieces of wreckage floating like islands. Dots of static fall like snow in a blizzard, resting on the sea’s surface as they touch down. The sea itself is beginning to dry up, replaced by nothing but a gradually shrinking emptiness as the nightmare collapses on itself.

“Good show, good show! Real exciting first outing here!” Shona chirps. “Well, Eyna, deal’s a deal! Wanna do the honors, girls?” She steps away and gives us firm celebratory pats on the back. I shudder as her touch leaves a damp, slightly sticky spot between my shoulders.

“Okay, so how do we do this?” I ask.

Mide glances at me from the corner of her eye, then shrugs weakly. If their Messenger didn’t explain that part, I guess we just do it at the same time? I reach out for the heart with my will. Mide does the same. As it was with Yurfaln, the lingering eyes-on-my-back pressure of Irakkia’s miasma steadily burns away, and we reach beneath it as one, grasping for… for…

Something is wrong. When I absorbed Yurfaln, there was a strange but satisfying moment of understanding. I felt its last feelings, heard its last words. I knew it, as much as I could know a Harbinger. As Irakkia’s Wound breaks down, I feel that same flash of insight starting to take shape…

…and then we’re back on the observation deck, and it’s all gone, slipping from my grasp in an instant. It feels like jolting awake in the middle of an interesting dream, realizing I’ll never know how it ends and I probably won’t remember it at all in a minute.

We tore the Harbinger into messy, uneven chunks, like sharing a book by shredding all its pages into unreadable scraps and dividing those up, and while I think I claimed the bigger share, I’m certain much of it is just… gone.

Mide seems to shake off the confusion of it all faster than me. When I come to my senses, she’s taken Shona’s hand and put her other palm to the ground. Shona shivers and clenches her teeth as bolts of red light arc through Mide and into the deck. What are they doing? Something to do with that way Shona seemed to get high on her power?

The portal above the deck has vanished, but it’s still the scene of a disaster. Irakkia’s victims don’t look or sound any better for its death, save that the frizzy-haired girl by the wall has passed out. We’ve done what we can. Maybe more, if that kid comes out any better for our trouble.

“Whew, that was kind of a lot,” Shona eventually breathes. “Thanks. You alright?”

Mide nods. “We should call for the Sanctuary,” she says in a weak, strained voice.

~~~

So we leave the victims to the people who might be able to help them. I let Shona do the talking with the first responders while they clean and bandage her hand. I don’t know what happened to the boy, and I have more pressing things to worry about.

It’s solidly twilight, now, the blues of the sky giving way to a blur of soft, diffuse colors. When it’s all over, I start to head toward the hospital, not sure what else to do or say, and the others follow. Shona tries a few times to start up cheery team spirit conversations about how great we were, which all fizzle and die.

A few blocks from the tower, Mide breaks the uneasy quiet. “Eyna, what did you do to me in there?”

I freeze. “I—”

“Do? What? What are you talking about?” Shona asks.

“I don’t know. What am I talking about, Eyna?” Mide says, glaring straight at me. Her voice has regained some of its strength. “In the Wound, she, she got hurt. Bad. I went to protect her and she… drained me somehow, I don’t know what or what for. It felt awful. It felt like, like a…”

Like a Harbinger’s bite, she doesn’t say. Dread and guilt settle into a suffocating weight in my chest.

Shona turns to me, pale and wide-eyed. “Is that true? That’s… you didn’t say anything like…”

What was I going to say? What magic words could I use to make what I do anything but monstrous? Sorry, my mistake! Next time I’ll load up on normal people’s health in advance!

“That you were going to, what, stab your team for power?” Mide finishes.

“Do you think I like it? Do you think… you think I designed my magic this way? I just wanted more than anything to eat people?” Words tear out faster than I can really think them. “You’re a Keeper too, you know that’s not how — I’m not — look, I just took enough that I wouldn’t die! It’s disgusting and I hate it but it’s all I’ve got and I have to do this and I just don’t want to die, okay?”

“Yeah, we’re Keepers, and Keepers don’t do shit like that! What do you mean you have to? What is it you need so badly, anyway?” Mide asks.

My throat locks up. I take an unsteady step back, then another.

“Mide, you can’t just ask that!” Shona snaps. I blink — I can’t imagine why she’d stand up for me on anything. Mide stares at her open-mouthed. She probably feels the same way.

“I should go,” I say. “I… don’t think this’ll work.”

“Hey, hold on! Whatever happened, we can sort it out! Just, just wait a second, okay? We can’t understand if you don’t say anything!” Shona says. She’s still following me, still acting like we’re friends, just having a little fight before we make up the next morning.

“Just leave me alone!”

I flare. Shona flinches away from the deepening shadows around me, then lowers her gaze, nods, and turns to rejoin Mide.

It’s almost worse than if they both hated me.

Once I’m sure they’re gone, I brush the tears from my eyes and find a dark corner to dismiss my magic in. I’m done with teamwork. This group was awful.

No, I’m sure those two do just fine together. I’m the only problem.