Falling Ever Deeper 6-1

No one else in sight dares to step outdoors beneath the harsh dancing light, but the absence of people hiding and running for cover doesn’t make the display any less eerie. I’ve never been outside during an Embrace before — I hate the sun enough on normal days. I transform as soon as we leave the building, just because it feels like an extra layer of protection from both the sun and the duo I never expected to work with again.

“If this does turn out to be a Harbinger situation, should we make a plan ahead of time? Or, no, that’s going to depend on the Harbinger, but at least figure out what we can do together?” I ask. “Shona sort of just charged in last time.”

“…Yes.” Aisling nods slowly. “Never let Shona make your plans. Let’s wait until we’ve got everyone, though.”

“Right,” I say. Just then, yet another dumb thing I’ve done — or rather, actively chosen not to do — comes to mind. “Um. Your school doesn’t have any canes laying around, does it?” I ask.

“If they’re anywhere, they’d be in the nurse’s office. All the way down the first floor hallway on the left.”

“Alright. Thanks.” I’m not expecting much, but it’s worth a try. I dash in through the now-deserted halls, search the empty office and its supply closet, and don’t find anything useful. Just a pair of crutches. When I step back out, the sun beyond the awning is bright enough to make Aisling appear as a shadowed silhouette, like she’s standing with her back to the dawn.

“Nothing there,” I say.

“Is that going to be a problem?” Aisling asks.

“Maybe? I don’t think so. I have limb weakness issues sometimes and it’d help if those come up. I didn’t bring my own.”

Aisling bites her lip like she’s trying to hold something back, then gives up and says it anyway. “Why not?”

“Because… we just went through this, okay? I didn’t think I’d need it for anything here and I’m not very smart!”

“You have a complex that’s caused you do some very specific stupid things. That’s different,” she says.

Maybe. I really don’t see how.

“…It doesn’t matter. I can push through a health episode with magic if it comes to that.” I turn my gaze back to the ground, apologizing in my head to whichever random people whose suffering will pay for my bad legs. If they ever turn up and ask me for the autographs they’re owed, I’ll give them something special. I don’t know what yet.

“Aisling! Heyyyyy!” a familiar voice hollers soon after. Shona, already in her regalia, comes tearing into the courtyard. There’s just one thing different about her: she’s wearing a pair of shades. She surfs up the central ramp without slowing down at all, and jolts to a sudden stop just beneath the awning. I dart to one side to make way for her, while Aisling just looks up and raises a hand.

Mide, a white baseball cap perched on her head right above the armored band which crowns her brow, follows close behind, slowing to a reasonable rate and running up to join us in the shade on her own power. She probably doesn’t want to scratch up her own school.

“Wait, why is she still here?” she immediately asks, casting me a sidelong glare.

“Sheltering from the Embrace?” Shona suggests, tearing her sunglasses from her face and sweeping her arm to the side to strike the most dramatic pose she can manage on short notice. “She’s got the inside scoop on whatever we’re meeting up about and wanted to fill us in personally? Or…” She trails off, staring at me with wide, eager eyes. Then she squints and breaks her pose, dipping her head as one of the sun’s limbs trails down beneath the horizon, reflecting off the school’s glass facade and ruining our shade. “Uh, let’s talk plans inside, though!”

“Let’s.” I duck back through the doors and into the nearest hall, away from the wildly flickering shadows in the entryway. The others quickly follow, with Mide trailing slightly behind and she pockets her cap. “And… I’m coming, yes. I thought Aisling would’ve mentioned me when she called… why didn’t you?” I ask her.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d show up if I did,” Aisling directs her answer towards the newly arrived duo, shrugging broadly.

“I’d sure have asked why she was here, yeah! Aisling, do you know what–” Mide starts.

“Hey, wait a second, you don’t really need to–” Shona stammers.

“I KNOW,” Aisling raises her voice enough to cut them both off. “Yes. I know what she did. All of it, I’m fairly confident. It was pretty bad. But you got better, she’s sorry, and we’re very likely here to save my best friend’s life. Eyna is closest to the issue, so would you get over it long enough for me to explain what’s going on?” she says, returning to her usual flat, slightly-interested tone.

Mide raises her palms and takes a short step back. “…Okay, sure. Sorry. I still think we should’ve known.”

“And I’m not making this a regular thing,” I say, as soon as I see Shona opening her mouth. “There’s an emergency.”

“Fuuuck. Woulda been so cool,” Shona grumbles as she leans sideways against a wall. Like when we last parted, she sounds intensely disappointed without being surprised. “Are you really really sure? Both of you?”

“Look. Shona. Eyna, you too. Didn’t we agree on this, like, an hour ago?” Mide asks, gesturing vaguely in my direction before she turns back to Shona. “I’m doing my best to play nice here, but every time this comes up you start talking like you care more about making a big cool famous team than whether it’s safe for anyone to be on that team. Does it really not bother you at all that she almost… ate me?”

I freeze, but say nothing. What’s there to say? She’s right.

Shona winces, waving an arm as she loses her balance for a moment.“That’s… it sucked, I know, it was really bad, but that’s not really how it…”

“It was,” Mide says bluntly.

Aisling taps me on the shoulder. In her other hand, she’s wound a few new locks of her hair between her fingers.“Eyna, I wasn’t going to push you on this, but I’d rather this not fall apart before we’ve even started looking for Isobel. Would it absolutely kill you to tell these two what you told me?” she half-whispers.

“Which part of it?” I ask hesitantly. None of the things she could mean are good. None of them are things I’m here to talk about.

“You know. The part that makes you kind of make sense,” she says.

And none of them would make me feel any better if I were Mide.

“Why would that help?”

Aisling just smiles thinly. “Trust me.” She starts doing her best to comb her hair back into order with her fingers.

“…Fine. Only because I want this to work too,” I sigh. “Since I guess I’m doing this just whenever now.”

“Do it ‘cause it’s a good idea that will make things easier for you,” Aisling insists.

“Whatever. Um!” I call to the others. Mide folds her arms and says nothing. Shona glances my way, pleading with her eyes for me to say some magic words that will fix everything.

Sorry, Shona. If I had that power, the world wouldn’t be so terrible.

“There’s something I should say, since… I don’t know why, this clearly isn’t working that well and maybe it will help?” I start. “Mide, you asked after our last mess what it is I need from all this. I guess that’s considered a personal question among Keepers, so. Thanks for saying so then, Shona. But… maybe after what happened, it is kind of your business now.”

Shona smiles nervously. Mide just keeps waiting, stone-faced. My head pounds. I force myself to keep breathing normally. Is this a terrible idea? Is it going to change anything? Will it do nothing to help us here, then cause the news to spread to everyone else through these two like a disease? Ugh. It doesn’t matter. Right now, it’s the only thing I can do to maybe improve Isobel’s chances.

“I’m… really sick,” I say, forcing the words out of my dry mouth. “It’s something I was born with. The medical details aren’t important, but when I made the Promise I had maybe a year to live. At best. I don’t know if Emergence has changed that yet, or how much, since… you know. Since magic is weird. Now I’m an impossible medical mystery, too.”

“…The hospital. We got sent there because that doctor was attacked, but we found you there. You said you’d handled it already, and it was your first Harbinger… Shit,” Mide says, grimacing. “Okay, I mean… yeah, that sucks and I’m really sorry to hear it. What’s it got to do with… that, though?” She flinches at the mention of that, the memory of pain and fear she all but compared to a Harbinger’s curse when it happened. I still can’t blame her.

I take a moment to re-steady my breath and calm my trembling hands before I speak again. “I was in a hurry, alright? I still am, but… I didn’t think I had time to figure myself out or get actual training or anything like that, and I was rushing toward my goal with no idea what I was doing, and I hurt people like that. Hurt you. And it didn’t have to go how it did. There were better ways I could’ve done things so that I didn’t need to hurt you, and I’ll do those going forward. So I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

Unless I run out on the verge of death again, in which case… I don’t know. I can’t say what happens then.

There will never be enough.

“Why didn’t you say anything, you fucking dummy?” Shona blurts out, sounding very much like she’s holding back tears. She bounces off the wall and rushes toward me, gripping my shoulders as she looks into my eyes. “We’re… nothing we need from this is that urgent! I kinda got mine just by being a Keeper! I know there’s kids who have it way worse than us, so like… you could’ve had the whole monster we killed if you just told us this!”

“You just said why. I’m a dummy,” I echo. For my part, I still don’t get how she can be so nice after everything that happened. Everything I did. But… maybe Aisling was right about this. Maybe it doesn’t have to count as pity for Keepers not to want other Keepers to die. And maybe she’ll be glad to know that was as big a mistake as she thought it was.

“I told you, stop that,” Aisling snaps. “Ascribing your mistakes to some inherent failing of you as a person is not a good path toward doing better next time.

“…Does she always talk like that?” I ask Shona.

“Most of the time,” Shona nods, grinning as she wipes away faint tears. “But, uh, she’s right. Quit being a dummy. Dummy.”

Aisling only rolls her eyes and shrugs.

Mide raises a hand slowly, making a distinctly uncertain face. “I know we have something important to do, so I sorta hate to ask this, but Eyna… what exactly is the better way you could be using that power?”

“Um,” I mumble.

“We’re working that out. I have an idea that’ll take a bit of effort to implement, but it very much should work,” Aisling answers smoothly. “There’ll be consent involved,” she adds with a conspicuous glance at me.

“Right,” Mide mutters. But that’s all she says.

“So, uh. Mide, Eyna, everyone, are we good here?”

Mide frowns, taps her foot a few times — her armored boots clacking sharply on the smooth, hard flooring — then sighs and nods once.

“Mhm,” I hum simply.

Shona cheers and claps a hand on her shoulder, pumping a fist with her free arm. “Yeah! All set to get the band back together for, y’know… no pressure, no pressure, our last big encore show, that’s all!”

“There is no band!” I yelp. “And listen, my health is still not something I want to be known by, so please don’t go blasting this to the world or anything!”

“Things would go better for you if you were known by it,” Aisling presses.

“Fine, do whatever you want if you really think it’ll help! This wasn’t easy! Can we just do the thing already?”

“Sounds just great to me,” Aisling says. “Not like we’re on a time…” she starts to say something, but cuts off in mid-sentence. Her mouth keeps moving for a moment, but it seems like words simply won’t come anymore. She scowls, shakes her head out, and flattens her expression before she continues.

“Wha? What was that?” Shona pushes.

“…Something sarcastic. Which I can’t say anymore, because it would be lying,” Aisling groans, scowling.

“ANYWAY. This is potentially rather time-sensitive, so I’ll go quickly and limit it to the need-to-knows for you two. You’re of course welcome to ask about any details afterwards. I’ll answer to the best of my knowledge. So here’s what’s going on as we understand it: recently, we think just under two weeks ago, my friend Isobel encountered a Harbinger. Eyna killed that Harbinger a few days ago, and from her account…” She sighs and lowers her head, scratching the exposed part of her hair with one hand. “It seems very likely that Isobel was making a pact with it.”

“If she wasn’t a witch, she was very close to becoming one before her Harbinger died,” I add.

Mide and Shona share an uneasy look at my mention of witches. “Shit,” Shona says. “I’m, uh, sorry to hear that — for you, too, Aisling. How bad?”

“That’s what we’re here to figure out. I can’t currently say how much agency she had in their arrangement,” Aisling says.

I’m quite sure that whatever Isobel and Aulunla were doing was something they agreed on, but it wouldn’t help anyone to stop and argue that point.

“Isobel’s been missing since the night before Eyna last saw her, although I didn’t know why until a few minutes ago. Eyna looked for her after she killed the Harbinger and called her in to the Sanctuary, but there’s been no sign of her since. And since this battle was the source of that anomaly several Keepers rushed to investigate on the 23rd — including you two, I believe — there really should be, unless Isobel escaped with some kind of magical aid or otherwise dropped off the face of the planet,” Aisling continues. She pauses for a few seconds, watching Shona and Mide as if waiting for a response. They only nod and wait for her to go on.

“I asked you two here because when I heard about this from Eyna and put the pieces together that Isobel was the witch-to-be in her account, I decided to burn a question on figuring out where she is now. After that, assuming she’s… within our reach, I’ll want to get to her location as quickly as possible and get her whatever help she needs.”

“Guess that’s where I come in,” Shona says. “But this is a pretty big group to search-and-rescue for a normal person who’s been tied up with some real bad stuff, yeah? Where’s the catch?”

“Yes. My suspicion is that someone or something else investigated the same anomaly you did, got to Isobel first, and took her away somewhere.”

“Ah. And none of us caught wind of anything else sneaking around that day… right. I see why you wanted backup,” Mide says. “I will say your timing could’ve been better. Not your fault, if someone needs help and she might need it now then we’ll do what we have to, but… yeah.”

“The, uh, timing is obviously coincidental.” Aisling gestures down the hall at the doorways on the right side. all of which leak harsh, dancing white light through their cracks and windows. “I found all this out right before the Embrace hit. But it may help us, in a way. If another Harbinger did grab Isobel and store her in its Wound, it shouldn’t be on the move for at least a few more hours.”

“Not that we really should either,” I say. To my surprise, Mide nods in agreement.

“We’re Keepers. Don’t do anything blatantly stupid and we’ll be alright,” Aisling scoffs. “So. While there are other things than my best guess that could be happening here, it’s the worst case scenario and a definite possibility, so here’s my plan for it. When we’re ready, I’ll ask my power for directions to wherever Isobel is now, and Shona will… ferry us there as fast as possible. The streets should be mostly empty and this is close enough to the center of the city for comfort, so I don’t think we need to go look for a more optimal starting point or anything.”

“Sure. What then? Do we need a battle plan?” Shona asks.

“Nothing too elaborate, pending any complications the situation or the Wound introduce. I won’t be much help once I’ve used my question, but I wouldn’t be much help in a fight anyway, so I’m thinking you two take guard duty. Engage the Harbinger, if there is one, long enough for Eyna and I to find Isobel, take stock of her condition, and get her out of there. Eyna, you’ve mentioned that it takes a lot out of you to make yourself stronger or tougher, but you can do it. If she’s in any way uncooperative, do you think you could handle that?”

I look down at myself in disbelief, then raise one of my deathly pale, dangerously bony vampiric noodle arms and shrug. “…Maybe?”

Aisling grits her teeth. “Yeah. Fair enough. Do you think you could hold her in one place long enough to get a Sanctuary response team to us?” she presses.

“Maybe,” I repeat, slightly more confident on that front. “Although… it might get really unpleasant for her, if I need to do anything stronger than literally hold her down.”

Aisling’s mouth twitches into a grimace, but she quickly smooths her expression out. “If there’s no other option, do what you have to do. As long as she’ll recover.”

Mide folds her arms, though at least this time she doesn’t immediately flinch at the mention of my magic. “…Are you really okay with her using that power on a person? On your friend?”

“If the alternative is leaving an untreated witch on the run, yes,” Aisling says without inflection. “Besides, you recovered, didn’t you?”

“But I’m a…” Mide starts to snap, then trails off, bites her lip, and sighs, visibly deflating. “Nevermind.”

“And Eyna, I don’t just want to keep you away from the fighting because you three have had issues working together before, either. It should hopefully keep anything that happens with your other thing a little more contained. But do scream if you need help on that front, I suppose.”

“You’re really not making it sound like a great idea for me to come along,” I say.

“I want your Harbinger senses on hand in case there’s anything especially weird that needs figuring out here. Maybe you’d think mine would be pretty good too, but they’re really… they’re fine,” she complains.

“Hey, hold on, what other thing?” Mide interrupts.

“Oh. Right,” I groan. “The other Harbinger who’s been stalking me. I haven’t sensed her today, so I don’t know if she’ll be a problem, but… she might, yes. Her name’s Seryana. She’s about something to do with love and wanting to be hurt. Romance gone horribly horribly wrong, maybe. She’s connected herself to me, which gives her some way of following me, acting on or around me without actually being there, and maybe drawing power from it when I hurt her. I don’t know yet exactly how that works, if it would apply to other people, or if she could decide to follow one of you instead.”

Aisling nods along with my words, taking mental notes.

“I don’t think she’d do that, though? She attached to me after I pushed her out of her last victim, and she sure talks like I’m her one and only true love now,” I finish with a shudder as the image of her fetid hair in my shower forces itself to the front of my mind.

“Of course there’s more,” Mide mutters under her breath, facepalming.

“‘She’? And what do you mean she TALKS to you?” Shona finally asks.

“Oh. Right. After the last one, I can understand their language. And I don’t know, she just… looks and sounds like a she. I have no idea how common that is with Harbingers or if it means anything.”

“Unusual but by no means unheard of,” Aisling provides. “Probably the only thing it signifies is that this particular Harbinger’s self-conception leans… feminine. If it’s a Cluster A, high odds that its human ‘patient zero’ is or was female. Nothing I know suggests that they have sexes or sexual reproduction.”

“Thanks. What she said, then.”

Aisling flashes me a quick, halfhearted thumbs-up. “So. Questions so far? Alternate plans?”

Shona opens her mouth silently, nods slowly, then shoots Mide a sideways ‘you getting all this?’ look.

Mide shrugs. “I’m… y’know, I’m sure Aisling knows what she’s doing. Nothing here.”

“Should we get moving, then?” Aisling asks, to a “Woo! Yeah!” from Shona and simultaneous uncertain nods from Mide and I.

“Oh, hold on, though! Not quite yet! Just remembered something!” Shona goes fishing through a barely-visible pocket on her own dress, rummaging around in what seems like far more space than an actual garment could contain there. After a few seconds, she withdraws a white visor cap and another pair of sunglasses.

“Got you guys these, for the, uh, weather! Or, well, we got them for Aisling. We were in a hurry and couldn’t decide if you’d want glasses or a hat to put under your hat, so we asked for both and they just gave ‘em to us! Keeper privileges, yeah!” she cheers again. “We didn’t know we’d have one more. Sorry, Eyna. So… I guess you two just decide which to take between yourselves?” She shrugs and hands them off to Aisling.

“Huh,” Aisling huffs. “Thanks.”

“I want the glasses,” I say immediately.

Aisling shoots me a look of protest. “Just like that? It’s not exactly a meaningless cosmetic choice. The glasses are much better at actually shielding your eyes, especially when the sun’s coming from every possible direction,” she gripes.

“That’s why I want them. The sun and I don’t get along on nice days.”

“I mean, I’ve been managing with a visor…” Mide says. Neither of us acknowledge her, unwilling to break our staredown.

“You know what? Fine. Let’s not get held up any more over this.” Aisling tosses the glasses at me. I fumble them in both hands for a second, but do basically manage the catch. “Really I’m just happy I never have to wear glasses again. They’re super annoying,” she grumbles, not sounding the least bit happy about it.

“I’m glad this works out, then.” I take the win and put the glasses on under my hood, while Aisling fixes the visor beneath her beret.

“Y’know, if you don’t want to worry about running through the sun for quite so long, and we want strength in numbers on whatever this thing is… we could maybe call up the Seraph before we roll out!” Shona suggests, grinning madly. “All just fly wherever we needa go! It’d be a way nicer ride than my stupid thing, right?”

“That’s a bad idea,” Mide says instantly.

“Kidding, kidding,” Shona says. “Unless…?” Her smile widens as she aims a finger gun each at Aisling and I.

Aisling glances between us, poker-faced as ever.

I pull my hood down as far as I can without covering my eyes. No one else breaks the horrifying silence. “Are you… seriously asking me about this?” I mutter when no one else says anything. Was she expecting me to say something different? I already don’t want to be in a group this size, with this much star power running around.

“Shona, this sort of thing is why I went ahead and made the plan on my own,“ Aisling sighs, sharing a brief glance with Mide as she does. I guess I’m not exactly hard to read. Both of them can tell I’d drop out and go hide under the covers if there was another Keeper to deal with here.

“Yeah, yeah, didn’t think so,” Shona says, laughing off her own bizarre joke. “Don’t worry about it, Eyna, I was just fishing for the off chance you got all blushy and did want to hang out with Roland. Woulda been a super cute gap effect, y’know?”

“Gap what?” I ask. I really don’t know what else to say to that.

“You know, like on TV, when the scary gangster guy really loves candy and kittens or something! Like that!”

“I… don’t really watch TV. Sorry.”

“Sure. Anyway, don’t worry about it!” she says. And that’s it. No confused pity, no “what, how do you live like that? Do you know anything about anything but tarot and obscure medical problems?” I don’t really understand how any of this conversation happened, but… I guess it could’ve gone worse.

“In that case,” Mide adds after a moment, “you should know that thing with the finger guns is her sign for ‘I’m making a dumb joke right now.’”

Shona grins again, a bit sheepishly this time, and scratches the back of her head. “Ah, good point. It’s, uh, a thing a character I played used to do.”

“Oh,” I say blankly. Was she on TV? I imagine that’s some type of big deal, but I don’t really know. I don’t know her world any more than she knows mine.

“I’m still surprised you want any reminders of that, honestly,” Mide says.

“Magical Guardian Camellia is dead, and Screaming Hymn Shona stole these finger guns off her corpse! Anyone who wants to tell me they belong to anyone but me can fuck right off!” Shona shouts cheerfully.

“Right, well, anyway… Even if I were worried about stumbling across the boy of my dreams, he wouldn’t be like that,” I add. “I don’t believe any person can actually be the sort of blindingly bright idol the Stardust Seraph acts like. I don’t think he can possibly be real.”

“Oh, he’s very real,” Aisling says in a tone even drier than usual.

Mide’s eyes look in my direction, but seem to stare past me, fixed on a point far, far away. “Ever met someone who made you question whether you were even cut out to be a girl?”

“…W-what?” I can feel a bead of sweat trickling down my neck.

“Like, next time you looked in the mirror, you wondered why you even bothered?” She smiles lightly, but her eyes are totally vacant, as if resigned to a cruel fate.

“I, um…” I have no idea how to respond. I mean, Mide always carried herself a little rugged, but while I’m no expert, I would never say she didn’t look really good. Surely better than me, at least. I look like a decently well-dressed corpse.

“Yeah, that’s rough,” Aisling lays a reassuring hand on Mide’s shoulder. “‘I mostly just stopped trying. It’s a lot to keep up with when you have other stuff to do,” she says, rather pointedly.

“Ahahaha, yeah, Roland is a total hottie!” Shona jumps in, throwing an entire arm around Mide’s back, causing Aisling to stumble back as her place is usurped. “But don’t you worry, Mide! You’re super cute just the way you are. I mean, can’t find many gals as into swords and swingin’ ’em as you, eh? Any guy would be lucky to have you!”

“Ah, well…” Mide takes a breath as though steeling her resolve, then raises a clenched fist and cries out, “Damn right! If he can’t cleave a rubber dummy in two with one swing and doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I say ‘End Him Rightly,’ then I don’t want him anyway!”

“Yeah, that’s more like it! That’s the Mide I know and love! Bring the hype!” Shona exclaims in a frenzy.

I have no idea what’s happening anymore. I look to Aisling for guidance, a helping hand to rescue me from the stormy sea that is these two’s conversations, but I can tell from her tense shoulders and narrowed eyes that her patience is beginning to wear thin.

“Hey,” Aisling interjects, her words sharp and clear as crystal. “I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but there’s a life on the line. Can I ask that we focus on the crisis at hand?”

“Oh, yeah. Of course,” Mide instantly collects herself.

“Uh, right!” Shona replies. “Anyway. Sorry to drag us off track again, Aisling. I think we’re all good.”

“…Okay then. Let’s get started,” Aisling breathes, and the blue light in her eyes spills out, flooding the hall for an instant before it begins to draw back toward her, not in flowing ribbons of essence but beams of radiance shifting in sharp, angled turns. They leave trails in the air as they move, as if drawing or writing on the sky, and soon wreathe Aisling in a veil of tiny, interconnected geometric glyphs. Not Harbinger-sigils, at least not quite — the shapes are all wrong, and I can’t pull any meaning from them. Finally, they collapse into her and vanish in another bright flash.

When the spots in my eyes fade, Aisling stands in a knee-length azure peacoat-dress, with a collar high enough that it doesn’t quite reach her mouth. It’s fastened with six gold buttons, each etched with their own tiny glyphic designs, and flares slightly out beneath the waist. Her beret remains in place, unchanged.

It’s all understated enough that I could almost mistake it for a very well-made ordinary coat, if I hadn’t just watched it blink into being. I can only imagine she wants it that way.

“Shona, how are you with directions?” she asks.

“Uh, pretty good?”

“Great. We don’t know if this will lead us to an actual landmark. Try to follow along with these. They won’t go anywhere, I’ll still have them in my mind, but we’ll want to get moving as quickly as possible when I’m done.”

“Yep, yep. Gotcha.”

“Okay. What is the fastest path I can take from here to Isobel Freyne’s current location?” Aisling asks the world, in a voice that echoes faintly through the hall.

There’s no sudden weight in the air, no sense of building power at all. The light in Aisling’s eyes simply narrows, forming patterns of glyphs that flash and scroll over them. “Leave the school through the front courtyard, left, right, right, onto the expressway and straight into the Weald from there, through the northern forest trails to… wait, what?” she mutters as the light starts to fade. “That doesn’t make any — no, it’s the answer whatever I think of it. Think about what would make it make sense…” she scolds herself.

“Is… something wrong?” Mide asks, scrunching up her forehead as she watches Aisling’s face for an answer..

“Think while we move!” Aisling hisses, still to herself, and starts back toward the front hall. “It worked. Let’s go, everyone. She’s at Missing Lake. I’ve been there once, it’s a place tucked into one of the empty, woodsy parts of the Weald. Bit of a destination for camping or swimming, far enough away from anything else that no one randomly wanders by it. I just have no idea what anyone would be doing there during an Embrace.”

“Has your friend been there? Maybe she’s, I dunno, hiding out somewhere pretty?” Shona tries.

“No. Isobel’s… that’s one of the last places she’d choose. She hates water,” Aisling says.

I’d moved to follow Aisling when she rushed for the door, but that stirs something in me. A memory. A set of words carved into my soul, now that their author is part of me.

A lake will work best. If you don’t have a lake, a pool is probably okay. Don’t use the sea.

“Step 5 of the Harbinger’s book,” I choke out.

Aisling looks over her shoulder, but doesn’t stop moving. “What about it? It was all blacked out, wasn’t it?”

“No, no, it wasn’t in the pictures because I wasn’t thinking of that when I found it, but the copies. I said Isobel was making copies, right? In those, step 5 was back. It said…” Fear races up and down my spine and alien memories squirm like living scars through my mind as a torrent of breathless words pours out of me, then stops abruptly.

Stay under the water. Hold yourself there no matter what happens. If you breathe in, you lose. If you come up for air, you lose. If you think this might be hard for you, it’s okay to find something heavy and hold it while you dive. You can exhale if you want, but don’t rush it! This shouldn’t feel fast or frantic. It shouldn’t hurt. It may just take a bit to recognize that the lie you’ve lived with for so long really is a lie.

“Step 5 was drowning yourself until you didn’t have to breathe anymore.”

Now she stops. Wide-eyed panic spreads over her face.

“Aulunla didn’t want that for her, that’s why it was blacked out, but… I don’t know. I don’t know what she’s thinking now,” I whisper.

“I think we might’ve… missed something?” Mide says, glancing between us uneasily.

Aisling bites down hard on her lower lip and shakes off a full-body shudder. “Eyna. You’re completely certain her Harbinger is dead?”

“Yes.”

“Then it doesn’t matter. Outside the need-to-knows,” she says, leveling out her voice enough that it only wavers a little. “But we should get moving right now. Shona, hold me and I’ll give you directions if you don’t know where we’re headed. You two, follow us.”

Shona hops outside, fires her finger guns into the sky — pointedly without looking at it — and waves for us to join her. The other two follow, Mide a little more hesitantly than Aisling.

And right before I leave the awning’s unsteady shelter, for only a moment, I smell something putrid on the breeze, like the fumes of a rotting carcass wafting off a shallow grave. Just one step into the sun’s Embrace, however, and it’s gone without a trace.

“Did any of you… smell that just now?” I ask.

“Um, not me?” Shona says.

“If it were here, I doubt I’d notice,” Mide adds.

Aisling pauses for a moment, then silently shakes her head.

Well. Maybe that’s some kind of a good sign among all this. Seryana probably doesn’t want to be out today any more than I do. I’m not counting on it, though. I’d really be an idiot if I acted like hoping for things to go well would make it so.

Not that I could if I wanted to. Not while I can’t force the image of the girl I left to her fate floating lifeless on the water out of my mind. Or the thought of some new nightmare blooming from her corpse.

Holiday Break

Hi! I wanted to get this out ahead of right before the release day again: I have some upcoming travel stuff to deal with. I’ll still be writing whenever I can get some quiet time to myself, but I’m taking the next two Wednesdays off to focus on keeping my brain in working order while I grapple with the screaming existential terror of leaving my house, being around people, and doing my best not to end up Eyeless in Florida. The sun and I do not get along so well.

During that break, I have a bit of a present for everyone: a little while ago, I ran an AMA on the Discord, which went pretty well! I’ve decided to extend that offer here, too. Here are the questions and answers from that event. Post any additional questions you have in the comments – I’ll pick out the ones I like and add answers to them along with the next chapter.

A couple notes and ground rules for questions:
-Here’s the current list of things I’m willing to extratexually hard-confirm about the story: No time travel. No multiverses. No love triangles. No matter what.

-I will probably not spoil things that could come up in the story, unless I want to shut down some incredibly ????? line of thinking. Please don’t take this as an opportunity to throw all the crack you can think of at me, but I’ll forgive you if it’s really funny crack!

-Tangential world/character questions that don’t really affect the story proper are subject to discretion. I won’t answer anything with “can’t answer that, spoiler” because that is itself a spoiler, so if I ignore one of these, I did see it, I’ll keep you in mind if it ever does come up, and I still like you!

-Please do not ask me about statistical numbers or percentages. Those things are very scary.

As for the story itself, Nowhere Stars will continue on 1/4 — oh, wow! My first most-of-a-year doing my best to be a Real Author has been a lot to take in, but here we are. Thank you all so much for reading this strange little thing and giving it as promising a start as it’s had. ♥

The Hanged Man 5-8

Aisling watches my face for a moment, silent and still. I say nothing, choking on a lump of half-formed words in my throat, but it only takes her a few seconds to find the answer she’s waiting for. 

“Yeah. Thought so,” she says, pressing her palms to her temples. A nervous shudder runs through her body, showing on her face as a strange, sudden twitch. Like she’s flinching away from a thought. 

And just like that, I’m… no, I’m not even back where I started. Everything’s gotten so much worse. Of course it was all for nothing. Of course I’d ruined everything before we even started. How could it be any other way when the only thing I ever manage to do is make things worse for everyone except me?

This almost worked, too. It wasn’t perfect, but I was just thinking I could work with these kids. Maybe I could’ve had actual friends again. But there’s only one way anything goes for me, so naturally, they were also friends with the one person I’ve probably hurt the most.

No. I can’t blame this on some horribly unlikely coincidence. It makes perfect sense that Aulunla’s witch was someone close to magic, or someone who wanted to be closer to it. It doesn’t even matter, not really — my plan was always to let a Harbinger hurt enough people to grow into something worth eating. The witch, and anyone else who got hurt along the way, were always going to be important to someone. I knew that. I just didn’t care enough to call it off. 

Aisling sighs, eyes on the desk beneath us. “Okay. I interrupted again. Tell me exactly what happened on the day you last saw her. In as much detail as you can,” she says, utterly without inflection.

Fine. Fine. I owe her that much. “There’s… not much left to say. The Harbinger pulled me into its Wound when I found them, so I killed it. By the time I was back in the world, she’d left. Or disappeared. I looked around all over and couldn’t find her or feel her anywhere I went. I don’t… I told you, I didn’t want any people tied up with this, there just wasn’t any way I could get her out without… and then before I could do anything she was just gone and-” 

“This isn’t about you!” Aisling yells. Her eyes open wide, and I glance away to dodge the blindingly bright light flaring out of them. “I need to know where she went, what I can do to help her, if she’s alive, and whatever I think about any of that, you’re my only source on what happened to her! So if you really want to clean up after yourself, stop apologizing and help me make the question I’m about to burn on this count!”

I freeze. My eyes water, but I can’t so much as force them to blink. “I’m not… you don’t…?”

Aisling tugs hard on a fistful of her hair. “I just said I’m not looking to relitigate your reasons or lack thereof for what you did or didn’t do. I do not care right now. I care that my best friend made a pact with a Harbinger and then just fucking vanished when it died. Can we focus on that or not?” she asks. 

I glance up for a second to find her still staring at me expectantly. “Um. Yes. Sorr… yes,” I whisper, turning to look out the window. It’s strangely, almost painfully bright out there too.

“Great. In that case. You looked for her and didn’t find her… what happened next? Did you tell anyone else about this?”

“I reported her missing to the Sanctuary as soon as I was done. I just… didn’t know her name, or if she’d even look the same without her Harbinger.”

“Isobel. Her name’s Isobel Freyne,” Aisling says, grinding her teeth whenever she’s not speaking. “You said Isobel felt corrupted when you first saw her, and your Harbinger senses are apparently pretty good. Can you think of any way you’d have lost her trail if she was still around?”

“A few. I don’t know how long the fight took, but I’m sure she wasn’t in the Wound, so… if she had some way of traveling really far while I was in there. Or the Harbinger moved her somewhere else to keep her away from me, or she lost its stench when it died. But my first Harbinger’s victims still felt awful after I killed it, so I don’t think that was it. Unless witches work totally differently, which they might?” I glance Aisling’s way, not quite meeting her eyes.

“They might,” she agrees. “I don’t have any firsthand experience with witches. My understanding is that it depends on the Harbinger, like everything else with them, but unless something specific about this one could’ve removed its aura from her, you’re probably right.”

“No. I don’t think so. She was… really important to it, by the time it died. I don’t think it could’ve cut itself off from her, even if it wanted to.”

Aisling raises an eyebrow at that, but simply nods and moves on. 

“Any other relevant information? Or thoughts on where she could have gone, given what you know?”

“Um, when was she reported missing, exactly?”

“Morning of the 23rd. Her family said her bag and some money was gone, but nothing else. That certainly suggested running away over some bizarre kidnapping incident, but she hasn’t contacted any of us since. Or anyone else I know of.”

“Then no. That’s when I killed her Harbinger, so… I guess I’m the last one who saw her.”

“Far as we know,” Aisling says flatly. “Okay. That leaves… no, first, one other thing. On that day, several Keepers — most Keepers, actually — sensed something big happening. Some of them followed it back to the storage unit you mentioned, and there the trail went cold. It’s strange that something on that scale would come from a Harbinger you described as a baby, but… could that have anything to do with whatever happened to Isobel?”

“I don’t think so. It tried something big in the Wound — I don’t quite understand what. Vyuji just said it ‘attempted something it wasn’t ready for.’ But basically, it burned everything it was for enough power to try and kill me.”

Aisling pales, pulling her hair tighter. When the strands slip through her grip, a few remain tangled in her fingers. “…Everything it was,” she says. “Could everything include-”

I see where she’s going a moment before the words leave her mouth. “No. That’s not it either.” 

“How do you know?” she growls.

“Because I ate it! Everything it was, everything it thought, they’re all in here now!” I put a trembling hand to my chest. “I told you, Aulunla — the Harbinger — it loved Isobel. It wouldn’t have done that to her.”

“It was a Harbinger! Sure, I believe it felt a certain way, but when Harbingers want the best for us as they understand it, you get things like… there was one in Horizon, probably a Cluster A born from loneliness. It wanted to flay every human alive because ‘our skin was a barrier to true connection.’ A Harbinger liking you is no barrier to it killing you or worse. Sometimes it’s the reason they do it.”

“I know that! My first came from the hospital, liked the sort of lies some people tell themselves about why it’s really for the best that they’re dying horribly, and decided to share the amazing moral benefits of terminal illness with everyone! That’s not what happened here!” I insist. 

“Listen. I don’t know much about your friend,” I continue. “I’m sorry if any of this is a shock to you, but I know she really wanted magic. To be part of this world. To be able to change things. And Aulunla wanted to give her that. It changed its whole plan to place her at the center of it. Yes, it was a Harbinger, it didn’t care how many other people it had to kill to make that happen, but it wouldn’t have hurt her. It couldn’t. I think the only reason it could do whatever it did was because… it thought I’d kill her too if it didn’t.”

Why am I crying? No, why am I only crying now? 

“…No. I’d love to say you’re regurgitating ideas this Harbinger planted in Isobel’s head, but none of that’s news to me. And sure, you didn’t help her when you could have, but it’s not like I did much on that front either.” 

Her voice breaks between words. She pauses, gnawing on her lip and rubbing her eyes. “The Messengers don’t take recommendations, you know? What could I have done? And then she was gone, and I thought… no, maybe I told myself she might just want to be left alone, I should respect her privacy, but that’s different from what I thought. I just… wasn’t quite worried enough about it to defer my duty to the world full of people who want my questions for all kinds of urgent threats. But whatever my idiot friend has thrown herself into… that’s urgent, too.”

Aisling sighs, rubbing her eyes once more before she slumps onto the desk again. “So. Fine. Let’s say you know what you’re talking about and cross ‘killed by her Harbinger’ off for now. As far as I can see, that leaves… she died when her connection with the Harbinger was broken, or… some other way. No one’s found the body. She ran or teleported out of your range, and she’s laid so low that no one can find her since then. If she weren’t involved in something else, I can’t imagine that she’d have nothing to say to any of us.”

“She may just not want to admit to having done what she did. It’s… these things aren’t so easy to talk about,” I say, wiping away the dampness on my cheeks.

“Maybe. But people are looking for her, and it’s not so easy for a normal kid to just disappear indefinitely in this city. Which leaves me thinking of this last option as the most likely: someone or something else came to investigate this unusual burst of power, found her, and took her out of your range or otherwise hid her from magical detection. She’s not in the Sanctuary, I’ve checked, and all the other possibilities I can think of are terrible. Not that I have any specific suspects, but if it weren’t some kind of bad actor, she’d be in the Sanctuary by now.”

“Alright. So if you don’t want to guess wrong and waste a question, I guess you ask… where she went after this happened and where she is now?”

“Nope. That’s two questions. It’s particular about that.” Aisling peeks up over her arms with only one eye open, smiling a sour little grin. “Asking exactly where Isobel is now might not work either. Say she’s in something’s Wound. Maybe it tells us that. Maybe it even tells us its name. What can we do with that information, unless someone’s already onto that exact Harbinger enough to know its name?”

“Your power seems really annoying,” I say, hoping it sounds sympathetic.

“Yep. I suppose we have that much in common,” she grumbles, scooting her chair to the side so she can avoid the glare spilling in from the classroom’s window, which has just begun to get into her eyes. I follow suit, since it’s starting to bother me too. 

“This one should work, though: I’ll ask it for step-by-step directions to wherever Isobel is physically located right now. I actually have used my question to find someone before, one time.” At that admission, she glances to the side while pensively chewing her lip. I’d have thought that was good news, but she instead looks slightly annoyed, as though recalling a memory she’d rather forget. 

I’m not sure what to make of that, but it’s her business. She’s not on trial here. “Okay. I don’t have any better ideas, so… do we do that now?”

“My answer won’t update itself if she moves after I ask the question, so not yet.”

“Could you ask it for directions to wherever she will be when you get there?” I try.

“Nope. No magic I know of can tell the future,” she says, shrugging with a minimum of motion. “All the research I’ve done and tests I’ve ran seem to bear that old truism out.”

“…Right.” I have heard that before — I was just trying to help and didn’t think of it right away. It makes it especially strange that my cards, tools people made up to pretend they could predict the future, are such a big piece of my magic. But I guess it’s my magic, and I’ve never really thought of them that way. 

“Yeah. So unless you have a better question in mind, we shouldn’t push the button until we’ve got a group ready to run into trouble if that’s what we need to do. Ideally a group that includes someone with travel magic. You don’t have travel magic, do you?”

“I don’t. And… if you’re including me in that group, there might be… other problems.”

“If the problem is your reputation or your social anxiety, either tap out now or you’ll just have to deal with it.”

“It’s not! It’s this other thing! The Harbinger stalking me!”

“This… other thing,” Aisling repeats flatly, gawking at me as though I were a car accident she just witnessed. “Stars Beyond, how long have you been doing this again? How much trouble could you possibly have gotten into?”

“I really didn’t do anything any other Keeper wouldn’t do this time! It just happened! Um. As far as I know.”

“To be clear, my power only tells me that you believe that,” Aisling snorts. “But fine. Let’s hear it.”

“It’s a Harbinger I haven’t managed to kill yet, that’s all. She has a way of doing things remotely and I’m still trying to find where she actually is. She shows up sometimes and just… causes problems. Is really gross. And I don’t know what she’d do if I tried to fight something else while she’s still tied to me.”

“I don’t sense anything ‘tied to you’ right now,” Aisling says.

“I was getting to that, yes.” 

Aisling sighs in resignation, raises one hand, and waves in a circle for me to go on.

“Two nights ago, the Harbinger tried to do something while I was sleeping. The next day, she followed me home. I wanted to catch her in the act last night, set a trap and hurt her that way. Vyuji was helping, making sure she didn’t creep past me or out from me and start eating anyone else at my hospital. And…”

I wince, scratching at my scalp as the first formless scraps of memory start digging into my head. It feels wrong to even be thinking about this, let alone telling someone else. I skirt around the sharp, jagged edges of my own thoughts, sharing the vague outlines that feel just safe enough to look upon.

“My plan did something. She’s not there anymore, at least not right now. I don’t know what happened. It was just like… have you ever had a dream so horrible that it hurt, but when you woke up, all that was left was… the feeling of it? Just this abstract impression of something awful, clinging tightly enough to you to ruin your whole day when you don’t even know what it was anymore?”

“No,” Aisling says. “But I have asked questions that broke my mind for a while, then lost the answer by the time I put myself back together. Maybe that’s a similar experience.” She grimaces at some lost memory. I wonder if it hurts her too.

“Maybe.” I shake my head, shoving whatever happened last night as far from my thoughts as I can.

“Right, then. Right,” Aisling mutters, finally sitting back up. “And do you expect this other Harbinger to cause problems for us, too?”

I have no idea. This was just last night. I doubt she’s dead, but I can’t tell you how it actually went, how hurt she is, when she’ll be back.”

“Well,” she sighs. “Use your own judgment, I suppose. It’s impossible to prepare for everything that could cause problems, especially where magic is involved.”

“…I do want to help if I can,” I affirm. “Say whatever you want about not having done more for your friend. This was mostly my fault.”

“Yes,” Aisling agrees. “Still. I appreciate it. There’s no sense in assigning and holding blame when we could still be improving the situation. Oh, but here’s something you should know, if we’re going to work together on this. I can’t communicate anything I know to be false, and I sense spoken or written lies — a quirk of Emergence and an aspect of my power, respectively. Sorry, you understand why I didn’t tell you that until now, just… they don’t feel great. So please keep that in mind.”

“Alright…?” I do understand — if she was worried I might be the next Tara, it’d be stupid to warn me of her lie detector power before she let me tell my story. But why’s she saying this now? I haven’t lied about any of it.

“What did you say your name was?” she prompts.

Oh. She’s been addressing me without a name since we met. She can’t lie. Right.

“Um. Sorry, I… if I answer that, will you have to tell everyone else or something? 

Aisling shrugs. “Nope. Magic doesn’t care about lies of omission. I’ve had a lot of practice talking around details I don’t want to share.”

“Fine. I’m Liadain, and there are no sordid secrets connected to my name except the ones I just told you about. I mostly just don’t want my dad to know about this.” She’ll know that’s all true. If I’m telling her everything anyway, I might as well earn any trust I can.

“Fair enough,” she says with a curt nod. “Something else you should know is that I intend to ask Shona and Mide for help before I ask my question. By your own admission, neither of us are the best in a head-on battle — I want backup, not to mention enough Keepers around to make us unappealing targets to your stalker, if it gets any ideas. We’re already in touch as Keepers who go to this school, they should still be nearby, and Shona can speed us around the city. Much as I’d prefer someone who could fly or teleport.”

I stare at her silently for a long moment. Yes, I’m doing my best to fix my own mess, but that’s a terrible idea for so many reasons, like… like what? Is it bad or does it just feel bad because I don’t want to deal with them anymore? I’m sure Mide will hate me forever, but I’m not going to repeat what I did to her. I don’t need to. 

“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d like that. I’m sure Mide won’t, either. Deal with it. It’s the most expedient option. I’ll tell her the same if she objects.”

“Alright,” I murmur. “One more thing, though. I don’t know if you’ve heard this from Shona or Tetha or someone, but I’ve gone by Eyna everywhere else since I made the Promise, including while I was working with them, and I really don’t feel like explaining this to them too. Shona doesn’t strike me as good with secrets.”

“She’s not,” Aisling agrees.

“So… if you called me by my actual name while they’re around, it might be a problem. Can you use a fake name? Is that allowed?”

“Yep,” she says without delay, as if she’s already figured this exact situation out well before I brought it up. She probably has. She’s probably done every test she could think of on the boundaries of what metaphysically counts as a lie. “It’s an alias that can be reasonably understood as referring to you, same as I can call myself Truth’s Lantern.”

“Alright. Please do that, then. But I am in.”

“Great. I’ll call them now and then we can get to work.”

And then, as if on cue, the bright light pouring in through the classroom windows behind us flashes blindingly, enveloping everything around us in stark white for just an instant. It’s as though a bolt of lightning had struck right outside. Yet, no crashing boom or roaring thunder follows the flash. Instead, after five or so seconds of tense silence as Aisling and I look at each other in anxious knowing, both of our cellphones chime at the exact same moment. Just as simultaneously, we pull our phones out together to confirm what we’ve both already realized.

EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM

NEW CLARIS AUTHORITIES
CELESTIAL WARNING FOR YOUR AREA

The New Claris Weather Service has issued a warning for a meteorological event.
This warning is effective immediately and continues until the event has concluded.
Citizens are advised not to observe this event under any circumstances, no matter the precautions taken.

Warning issued for: Solar Embrace

~~~

When we step out into the now-empty courtyard, the sky is burning. All the world around us is flooded with an overwhelming radiance, enveloping everything with its harsh, almost surreal white glow.

Six massive loops of white flame have emerged from the sun. As they shimmer and whirl and roil, painting spans of the sky blinding white in their wake, they begin to expand, growing unevenly in size and width, and then, one at a time, to unhinge from the sun at one end. They reach out and stretch across the sky from horizon to horizon, and there they stay, like the tentacles of a celestial octopus wrapping itself around the world. Smaller solar flares dance along their length like electrical sparks.

“Eyes to the ground,” Aisling hisses. “Keepers can still end up Eyeless.”

“Yes, I know…” I rip my stinging eyes away from the sky and shield my face with my arm. We cower in the shelter of one of the school’s awnings, where a fragile shard of darkness still persists. Other than us, not a single student remains — they’ve all either made it home already or retreated into the school building. “Ugh. It really has the worst possible timing today. You don’t have parasols on hand, do you?” 

“Nope. Sorry.”

“Uuuuuuuugh.” And until recently, I wasn’t leaving the hospital enough to even bother having one. My old one is probably still sitting in my closet back at home. “No point in waiting for it to stop at this hour, either. Unless you want to postpone?” When it gets like this, it usually doesn’t calm down until sunset. A few tiny patches of shade survive the harsh glare of the tendrils above, but they shift and shudder and vanish all too quickly beneath the sun’s twisting, coiling limbs.

“Can’t. What if Isobel’s in trouble right now and dies in the next few hours?”

Well, nothing for it. That’s simply the nature of the sun. It warms our days and wards away the night, giving us just enough to substantiate the rosier side of its tarot symbolism. But in exchange… every so often, working on some schedule only it knows, it smothers us in its embrace: something everyone knows about, but never dares speak of. 

No one wants to talk about it, anyway. After all, once we’ve taken every reasonable precaution, it’s easiest just to put out of mind the troubles we can neither control nor predict until the very moment they’re upon us. Just like how all my old friends put me out of mind. It helps us hide from how powerless we really are.

The Hanged Man 5-7

“Great. So. During the Harbinger incident we’ve been discussing, something happened with you that Shona didn’t want to talk about. What was it?”

There’s nothing intense or intimidating about the way Aisling holds herself, other than the uncomfortable light in her eyes. She slouches, resting her elbows on the desk and her head in her hands, and taps her feet to no particular rhythm as she waits for my answer. 

None of that keeps this from feeling like an interrogation, though. Maybe my life isn’t on the line, but enough is to be terrifying. 

“Take your time,” Aisling says in the same high, flat tone she always seems to use. Judging from the meeting I just sat through, it’s clear from her voice when she’s talking about something she finds annoying. Beyond that, I have no idea how to read her.

“Okay,” I finally say. “I haven’t mentioned everything my magic does. I can… drain strength. Drain life. From people, or from Harbingers if I get enough of a hook in them.” Still I stumble around calling it “health,” as if that’s going to hide anything of substance. “It works in reverse too, although I’ve obviously only tried that with Harbingers.”

“In reverse? What does that mean?” Aisling asks.

“Um… no, sorry, I don’t think ‘reverse’ is quite the right word for what I’m talking about. It makes it sound like I fed it part of myself, which isn’t right. My first Harbinger fed on suffering and slow death – its own and everyone else’s. I killed it by stealing a disease it built itself up from, that it was using to… I guess torture itself into existence? Which hurt a lot, but it worked. No suffering and slow death meant no Harbinger.” 

Aisling stares at me, blank-faced and wide-eyed. “You killed it… by… UGH, fine! That actually makes as much sense as anything else about magic! Sometimes I fucking hate magic,” she spits, then blinks rapidly, like she’d forgotten to and is just now making up for it. “…Yeah. You were saying?”

“Right. So,” I say, then pause again. Why? I might as well just leave if I’m going to get stuck while she’s asking about the least of the horrible things I’ve done. What I did to Mide was the best decision in a bad situation, and it worked. It won’t make anyone want to fight with me, but I don’t want that in the first place. If all I do is bring pain wherever I go, it’s better I keep it to myself as much as possible.

So if this is enough for her to shun me, fine. It’d save me from talking about the hard parts. “The one time Irakkia really struck me, it wasn’t a scrape or a close call like I sort of suggested. It skewered me in the gut with a spike of scrap metal or something like that. And I didn’t have enough life to save myself, so I… took what I needed from Mide. Shona seemed to want to sort it out and keep working together after that, but Mide wasn’t having it. I thought it was a bad idea, too.”

“I see. That all tracks with what I’d gathered so far,” Aisling says. “Follow-up question: when you talk about not having enough life, where do you get the rest?”

I freeze. What’s there to say to someone who’s already figured out everything about me? Why is she wasting both our time asking, pulling teeth one by one, when she can just listen to the people I’ve hurt and get the whole terrible story?

“Was that wave of mystery-disease outbreaks over the last few weeks you stocking up?” she asks. Her expression doesn’t change at all, and her voice sounds… mildly curious, at most. “Because if-”

“And what if it was? What else am I supposed to do? Wait until the next time I’m inches from death to drain the nearest person dry?” The dam breaks. Words pour out faster than I can think about what I’m doing, even what I’m saying. “Or, or just not have any, get eaten by the next Harbinger who decides to stop playing their nightmare-logic games and stab me through the heart?” My teeth clench as I dig my nails into my palms, forcing back the hot liquid I can feel building up behind my eyes. “This is the best way! It’s the only way!” I almost-scream. The sound comes out scratchy and half-formed, the way it does whenever I raise my voice too much. It’s never carried well, and I have no practice pushing past its limits. There’s never been a point. There’s no one I could yell at to improve my situation.

Aisling leans back and raises her hands. Her eyes widen just a little, startled but not scared. “Okay. I hear you. Can I finish now? I’m almost certainly not gonna say whatever you were expecting me to.”

I bite my lip, fold my arms, and nod, looking down at the desk.

“Kay. I’m not saying ‘that’s an evil power, don’t ever use it again.’ It’s shitty that it works that way, but… Keepers get what we get, and I don’t know enough about how that works to say if your magic is some judgment on your character. I don’t believe it is. But I do think there are better, safer ways to use it,” she says in that same tone. There’s not enough sympathy or condemnation in it for me to hear either.

“Like what?”

“Taking health from volunteers in controlled conditions. Which would also be easier on your end and teach you more about how the process works.”

“Yes, but who would volunteer for that?”

“You seem like you’re thinking about smart ways to use your powers. That’s a good start, but it’s not the only new tool you have. I almost made the same mistake when I was new.”

For a moment, Aisling simply smiles wide without opening her mouth. Her eyes narrow in a way that makes me think of a cat preparing to pounce on its favorite toy.

“Whatever you think of this, it’s a simple fact that lots of people really like Keepers. Maybe you don’t want to be an idol. Fine. Me neither. But you can still use that to get things you do want.”

When she speaks again, there’s a strange eagerness in her voice: “Put the word out that any donors to your life bank get an autograph and a picture with you or something, and people will do that. I’m sure it’ll hurt, but they’ll come away from the experience happy to have helped one of humanity’s beloved protectors instead of panicking about their sudden-onset, possibly-Harbinger-related sickness.”

I wince. I still have no idea what it’s like for people I drain from. Mide stopped just short of comparing it to a Harbinger’s touch, but for all the ones who can’t sense magic, who’ve never had to feel anything like that before… I could just as easily be either the worst health days of their life or their first impossible nightmare.

“And that way, whatever damage you do to them is better managed because they can check in with doctors who know exactly what happened,” Aisling continues unprompted. “Those doctors can then tell you what it looks like from their perspective, how long the effects last, if any of them linger — people from the earlier cases are recovering, by the way. I followed up on that, although I obviously can’t predict any long-term impact. You’d get what you need, plus a lot more information about your abilities, and you wouldn’t cause any more incidents where the news speculates about you being a sneaky Harbinger.”

I open my mouth, but realize as I’m trying to form words that I don’t know what to say to that. I think I was still expecting, reflexively, some suggestion to hobble myself forever and just hope it works out, but this… it does make sense. It never occurred to me at all, because I’m an idiot who’s spent the last month with tunnel vision, missing everything that doesn’t help me eat as many Harbingers as possible, as quickly as possible. I barely even checked the news of what was happening to the people I’d drawn from for fear of what I’d see, especially since I’d probably have to keep doing it no matter what.

“See where I’m coming from here?” Aisling asks a few seconds into my silence.

Given what she’s said about the news on my draining sprees, and other things a girl like her could easily figure out, I wonder if she already had a good guess as to what I was doing or she just came up with this plan on the spot.

“…Yes, actually. I’d just have no idea how to arrange something like that,” I admit, squeezing my elbows a little tighter.

Aisling shrugs. “Literally just go on the Sea, verify yourself on one of the Keeper reefs, and ask. Or if you don’t want to do it yourself, find a publicist and get them to set it up. The Church sponsors some of those.” 

It’s… honestly a good idea. Ignoring the part where I’d have to present myself to a bunch of strangers as the creepy vampire Keeper, inevitably giving them a name and a face to put to the rest of my awful reputation — which, after Aisling brought up reports about the people I’ve drained, I’m more sure than ever must already be floating around out there. Still, all complications aside, I can see how this would be a better method than what I’ve been doing, whether or not I’m capable of doing it.

“Anyway, given what I’ve just laid out, what you’re saying doesn’t sound great, sure. I get why Mide doesn’t want much to do with you. But it’s hardly the worst power I’ve ever heard of,” Aisling says.

“What are the worse ones?” I ask.

Aisling glances at the ceiling, tapping her cheek with one finger. “Well. I’m fairly sure that Sofia-”

“Besides Sofia! It really doesn’t help if I’m second place to her!”

“…Yeah, fair enough. Let’s think a little more local. Do you know anything about Phantom Gunner Ardal?”

“I think I’ve heard that name before, but not really?”

“Makes sense. He died two years ago, a little after I became a Keeper. His whole thing was calling up the souls of the dead and binding them to himself. Using them in his magic, and not just as companions or familiars or components in his bigger ritual stuff. He’d…” Here, she slumps and shakes her head. “He’d turn them into bullets and shoot them at Harbingers. There’s a sentence. Fucking magic, I swear.”

Aisling groans dramatically, then leans back in her chair, tilting it on its thin legs at an unsteady angle. “So yeah. Far as I’m concerned, nothing you’ve described is worse than taking human souls, which contain everything that humans are, and burning them for power. Ardal’s thing just didn’t cause as much of a fuss because it didn’t impact currently-living people. He always claimed there was consent involved, he was just communing with the spirits of his ancestors or something, but if I ever end up as a ghost, that’s sure not how I want to spend my afterlife.”

“There’s an afterlife? Ghosts are real?!” I yelp.

Aisling grits her teeth. “We… aren’t sure. It’s complicated.”

“Complicated how? Explain, please. I’ve looked on the Sea, in the Cycles, through however many occult books, everywhere I could think of! How has whatever happens when you die stayed this big vague mystery if we had someone right in our city who could wave his hands and summon ghosts?”

“Because we have other records of Keepers with abilities based on concepts that definitely weren’t real, or, well, at least consistent with everyday natural law, except with reference to them and their magic! Kids who summoned mythological creatures or… no, here’s a more relevant example. There’ve been Keepers who could talk to animals, or PLANTS, as if they were little people with their own little versions of humanlike intelligence and language ability. Which, to be clear as the night sky, they demonstrably aren’t. Not in any context other than the very specific exceptions those Keepers created with magic. Magic is the ultimate exception to everything we think we understand about the world.

“It is,” she finishes, slowly, through a thin-lipped scowl, “extremely annoying. But fairly localized, at least. Yeah, Saint Kuri could make friends with trees. I’m confident that doesn’t mean every logging camp is a killing field. Reality is still at least a little bit real.”

“If that’s the case, what was so bad about this Phantom Gunner doing whatever he did with magical figments that seemed like ghosts?” I ask.

Aisling nods once. “Fair question. All that was the way Ardal himself explained his power, and I’ve been assuming for the sake of this conversation that he was doing… if not precisely what he described, then something close enough to count. All I know for sure is that he was interacting with something, maybe even something inherent to the world. He couldn’t imagine up a ghost who never existed and poof them into being from nowhere. There are also other Keepers with powers based on other perceptions of death or the dead, and when he used up a ghost for his powers, those other Keepers couldn’t access that person anymore. Check Experimental Log #16 on my reef sometime, if you’re really interested.”

“But I mean,” I hesitantly pry, “wouldn’t he… run out of ancestors eventually?”

“Well, he could and did generate bullets with magic and use those. They just didn’t have the stopping power or unique effects of his special ghost bullets. And if you keep doubling back through the generations, from his parents to his parents’ parents and their parents’ parents, plus whatever extended family they had… I doubt he was in danger of running out anytime soon. I’m not even sure if they had to be his ancestors or that’s just how he preferred to do it for his own reasons,” Aisling says with a broad shrug.

I heard of this boy a few minutes ago and my head is already spinning with questions about how that even works. “That’s insane,” I mutter. “It’s insane that we’re sitting here trying to puzzle this out.”

Aisling sucks in air through her teeth, then sighs it all out in a big whoosh. “Welcome to every minute of my life, new girl. Really, though, all this is just to say that I wouldn’t take Ardal as a reliable source on how death ‘normally’ works… although I do wish I’d had more chances to study how he did what he did. For my part, I’d love to know if the spirits he summoned were the same as people who knew them in life remembered them being, or if they could answer personal questions there was no reasonable way for Ardal to know. I imagine firsthand experiments would’ve been way more useful than the question I wasted on this subject.”

“You’ve mentioned ‘questions’ like they’re a specific thing a few times now. What do you mean by that? Sorry to keep this digression going, just…” The subject’s a bit of a personal interest, I don’t say. For all the good it’ll do at this point.

“Oh. Right, yeah, I’ve published enough about my magic that I forget not everyone knows exactly what I can do. And I don’t mind the detour if you don’t. It’s always nice to find Keepers with some level of intellectual curiosity about our situation,” Aisling says. Her chair thumps suddenly back to the ground, and while the noise startles me a little, she doesn’t seem to notice.

“Once a day — resetting at exactly midnight, nothing we’ve tried to cheat the definition of “day” works — I can ask a question and have my magic stuff the answer into my mind as raw information. Questions generally get more detailed, actionable answers the smaller they are. Binary questions are by far the safest, if least useful, and some questions are either too big for me to handle or… hidden from me. Blocked, somehow. In those cases, or if the answer is that something about my question didn’t make sense, too bad. Still counts as my question for the day. The rest of my powers are also a bit weaker once I’ve asked a question, so I do my best to use it as late as possible.” 

“That last part… does sound pretty annoying, yes.” It’s not exactly nice to know that other Keepers’ powers have these weird catches and complications and things that don’t mesh at all with how they’d have designed them if they got a choice, but… okay, maybe it’s a little nice. In an awful way, the way it would be better but feel a lot worse if I were the only kid in the world born with a deadly disease.

“Yep,” Aisling not-quite-growls through a pained smile. “We spend a lot of time here looking over the questions in my priority queue, trying to optimize exactly what I’m going to ask before I do it.”

“What was the question you wasted?” 

“The question was ‘Assuming no magical interference by outside powers, excepting whichever forces are involved in the ordinary operation of souls, what happens to the souls of humans who die of ordinary, non-magical causes?’ And the answer… ‘they return to the sea.’ That’s all. What’s it mean? A particular bit of nonsense in the Cycles uses that phrase, so I guess it’s true on at least some metaphorical or… metaphysical level. Otherwise?” 

She leans forward, thudding her forehead gently on the table, then folds her arms around her head and slowly peeks over them, looking up at me with narrowed, weary eyes. “Fuck if I know.” One hand reaches up to fix her beret.

“Some of my books say reincarnation, but… that doesn’t work with anything else we know about souls. I think the authors were just making stuff up.” 

Aisling widens one eye, then tilts her head and shrugs. “Sure sounds like it.”

I don’t even know why anyone finds the idea of reincarnation comforting. Humans, the parts of us we’d define as “me” rather than “my body,” are our souls. The mind is part of the soul, and no matter how many stories fake mystics spin about their past lives, none of us remember living as lots of other people. 

If we really are reborn that way, human history should be mostly a succession of similar people with memories shared across some soul-lineage being born over and over, maybe with a few new ones to account for things like population shifts, Harbingers eating souls, or some dead people… deciding not to be reborn and going off to do whatever else ghosts do? That or souls are scrubbed clean of everything about their last lives before they return, in which case it’s no different from vanishing forever anyway.

But the idea does sort of trace back to the passage she’s referencing. I know the one: it says the dead “bloom in their fullness and return to the sea.” Others — and I’ve really only read the sections relating to birth, death, and the afterlife or lack thereof — talk about souls coming from the sea, “Claiasya’s womb.” 

If you ask the clergy what that means, most of them will tell you that it seems like the souls of the dead become one with the world or Claiasya in some abstract sense, returning to the greater weave of life as our rotting shells return to nature. They’ll also tell you that our human minds can’t actually know what it means to experience something like that, so we should all just do our best with the lives we know we’re living right now.

Which, of course, is no help to me whatsoever. At least they’re honest about how little they know — judging by how many Harbinger cults start with a witch claiming to have found the secrets of life after death, a lot of people feel the same way as me, but the Church has never made up some happy lie to try and cut down on that problem.

“Well. I hate that,” is all I say. At least it matters less to me now that I can actively work toward immortality.

“You and all my friends. Welcome to the literal club. Speaking of… what did you actually come here for?” 

“Was that all you wanted to know?” I really hope it is.

“No. But it seems rude to rope you into helping us with something unrelated, then just grill you forever before I’ve even asked what you want out of this.” 

Of course it couldn’t be that easy. And… thinking of it now, what I came to discuss and the other things she’s likely to ask about are kind of connected. If I really have any unique insight into Harbingers after a month of hands-on experience, what I did with Aulunla accounts for a lot of it. That is, unless I was planning to ask a bunch of questions wrapped in hypotheticals, saying nothing about what I knew or what I was thinking of doing with it, which seems… less helpful for both of us.

Maybe the other stuff won’t be so hard to swallow if it comes after she knows what I’ve been trying to learn and why.

I nod, look out the window, and think very carefully about my next words. They may be my best chance to make some sort of a decent impression. 

“I appreciate that, but I think it’ll be easier to tell you about my other, um, incident first. The rest will make more sense that way.” Unless there’s some other other thing I haven’t thought of yet.

“Your call.” Aisling sits about halfway back up, folds her hands, and plants her head on them again.

“Okay. So. There are some weird, complicated things about Harbingers I’m trying to puzzle out. I have no training or magical education or inside insight into them except what I’ve been through firsthand. That’s what brought me here, if you were wondering — Vyuji said I’d be better off asking other Keepers than her. She recommended you.”

“Everything about Harbingers is weird and complicated. What in particular?” she asks.

“Details about where they come from, how they grow, how fast they grow and what determines what they grow into. But really, anything that falls outside common knowledge about them and might help me hunt them alone, as reliably as possible. I touched a little on how my magic works, when I was talking about Irakkia, but it’s… it’s not really good in an actual fight, as far as I can tell. It works too slowly, and I’m only stronger or faster than any other scrawny little girl if I burn tons of life to make myself that way for a couple minutes. Things only go well for me when I either take way too long to be safe for anyone or find weird sideways methods to attack Harbingers. So I’m looking for anything about how they work, how they think, that might make the second option easier.

“…So.” Here we go. “How much do you and your friends know about, um, baby Harbingers?” 

Aisling raises an eyebrow. “Baby?” 

“Yes, I know it sounds dumb, but what else should I call them?”

“That’s not it. Just wondering what you mean by ‘baby.’ Some Harbingers are obviously bigger than others, maybe even more mature in their approach to things, but we don’t understand their stages of growth — if they even share a consistent life cycle — well enough for me to know what I should picture when you use that word.”

“The ones that are too undeveloped to act like full Harbingers.”

“Ah. Ambient magical disturbances? Cases where something feels very wrong, but not wrong enough yet to start running around eating people?”

“Mhm.”

“Right. I’ve read about those and do count them as evidence for the idea that at least some Harbingers are… native to this world, for want of a better term. No one I know has any firsthand experience with them, though.”

“I’ve found two so far,” I say. “Shona and Vyuji both think I’m just good at sensing Harbingers. And understanding them, going by the language thing.”

“Oh. Huh,” Aisling huffs. “I might have questions about them too, in that case. But they can wait. I’ll shut up until you’ve said what you want to say, clarifying questions aside.”

I’m not sure if it’ll be easier or harder to spill all this to someone who isn’t saying anything. At least it’ll be faster.

“There’s not much to say about the first, anyway. It was haunting a family’s house, feeding on a little boy’s feelings about his dead brother and stepmom, and it hadn’t grown enough to have a shape, so I killed it. Any Keeper who found it could’ve done the same. It just… it was too small to be worth anything. It was obviously the right thing to do, but it didn’t help me grow at all.

“When I found the second one, it was a book. No Wound, no monster it was attached to, just an actual physical book, sitting on a random shelf in that library by the university. Most of its pages were blank, but in the front were the first few steps in some kind of Harbinger-logic imagination ritual. It said if you did them, you’d learn how to have dreams while you were awake, then make those dreams real. I took pictures, if you want to see.”

“Any infohazards I should know about first?”

I tilt my head. “Info…?”

“Dangerous mental effects that could come of reading it. Or information that could be unsafe for anyone to have, not that I expect that to come up if it was as small as you’re saying.”

“Oh. I don’t think so. The book itself could make you want to keep reading it and thinking about it, but it didn’t carry over to these. And it’s dead now.”

“Then by all means.”

I unlock my phone, bring up my pictures of Aulunla’s pages, and pass it across the table. 

“Actually, before you keep going, just wanted to make sure of something. You read this book. Do you think that effect you mentioned has anything to do with how you handled it?” she asks.

“Hm? No, I purged its influence as soon as I noticed it. What do you mean, how I…” I bite my lip. “Do you already know all this somehow?”

“You just said the Harbinger was dead, right? You handled it somehow, unless someone else jumped in and killed it.” She shrugs, reaches for my phone, and starts peering over the first picture.

“Yes, but you were just talking about ‘how I handled it’ as if monster mind control would really explain something I did!”

“…Good catch. I may have skipped ahead a little there, but… meh. It was an important question. No regrets,” Aisling grumbles. “I’ve heard some things, yes. I’d still like to hear your side of it all.”

What things has she heard? I didn’t find anything in the news that looked like it was talking about me or Aulunla. Did Tetha warn everyone about the horrible new monster girl in private or did I leave some other obvious trail I haven’t even thought of? 

“…Fine. Moving on, then. After the last one, I thought… maybe I could let it grow a little. Maybe I could kill it as soon as it was solid enough for me to get something out of. Like I was saying about my power, I’m not very good at fighting the normal way, but this way, I thought… I’d be in the best position I ever would to kill it. I’d poison it right then, and if it became a real problem before it was grown, I’d just use my power to end it early.” I pause, fidgeting with my hands in my lap.

Aisling glances at me over my phone, but says nothing. She just keeps thumbing through my pictures.

“So I did. I spent a little over a week watching it as closely as I could. I saw a girl in the library, reading it in a corner while looking very much like she knew she shouldn’t be, and I wanted to keep an eye on her too, but I don’t think I have any way to track a person without making them really sick, and I don’t exactly know any normal ways to stalk people. That was the last time I saw her until the end. But I should try to tell the story in order. So.

“The book did grow as I was doing this. It wrote more of itself — when I first found it, it only went to step 5. I never saw anyone else using it, and it never mentioned anyone but her when I killed it, so either one girl working through its ritual was enough or it just didn’t care about the others. I don’t think that was it, since… step 8 only turned up near the end, when I’d already decided to pull the plug. That’s the one for making more books.”

Aisling skips ahead a few pictures, staying silent. When I stop again, trying to find the words for what feels like the worst part of all this, she doesn’t even look up at me. I have no way to tell what she’s thinking.

“And in the middle of this week, another Keeper stumbled across the book while I was watching it. Tetha Fianata, I’m not sure if you know her. I know the family, obviously, but I’d never heard of her. She wanted to destroy it on the spot. I still thought I could handle it, and I didn’t want someone else barging in on my hunt, so when nothing I said to try and get rid of her worked, I… fought her for it. And won pretty quickly. I just hurt her enough to take the book and run, but I mean… she was probably right.”

Aisling snorts out a single laugh.

“What? What?” I snap. 

“Sorry, sorry, it’s not you! I can see how your thought process went here, kind of. It’s just… when I heard this story, I only sort of believed it, you know? I knew Tetha was in Guiding Light for some kind of injury, and when people asked she said she’d gotten it from a fight with a Keeper over a Harbinger. I didn’t think she’d just make that up, but I kind of assumed she’d done something totally stupid to antagonize you. This isn’t quite what I had in mind.” She leans down, planting her forehead in her free hand, smiling as if at a joke bad enough that it feels wrong to laugh at.

“This is a lot and you’re just sitting there and I have no idea what else you want from me! That’s what happened!”

“Yeah, okay, I guess I’ve been letting you hang for a bit. Sorry. If it helps, I do hear Tetha’s recovering, and it’s not like she’s been shouting about you to anyone who’ll listen, which is really what I’d have expected her to do in this circumstance. My best guess is that her family asked her not to make a huge thing of it until they knew what was going on with you, but she couldn’t help but do it here and there.”

Why, though? I can’t think of any reason why they’d protect me after I hurt one of their own, and I’ve never had anything else to do with them except… oh. Niavh, my hero. My savior. My new favorite Keeper. I don’t know what I ever saw in Tara.

“Anyway.” Aisling slides my phone across the table and straightens back up. “I don’t think that was the end of the story, was it?”

“Um. No,” I sigh. “After that, I hid the book in the woods — I didn’t want to bring it home and maybe let it get to anyone new — and decided overnight that I was going to kill it. The whole thing had become more trouble than it could possibly be worth. Only by that point, that copy of the book wasn’t even the main Harbinger anymore. I think that girl I saw copied it and took the original with her before the thing with Tetha even happened, so I fought her over basically nothing.”

“Just making sure I understand the timing here: did you know about the copies when Tetha showed up? Or when you took a night to decide what to do?”

“…No. Just… didn’t think to check. I’d had a pretty terrible day. Like I said, by the time I read that step, I’d already decided to kill it. I know now that’s completely stupid.”

“Well, yes,” Aisling says flatly. Her big dumb smile thins and shifts into a bitter sideways one. “It isn’t unbelievably worse than the kind of stupid things new Keepers with no guidance do all the time, though. I should really say here… you know that you can get training, right? You’ve mentioned wanting to hunt Harbingers and having powers you don’t think are well-suited to it. You’re new, you don’t know what to do, and there’s no manual. I understand that. I’m not the girl to ask for detailed advice on combat scenarios — I’m pretty close to useless there — but they have mentors available sometimes. My parents think it’s a travesty that they don’t make new Keepers drop everything and enter the longest possible course of specialized education in how to do the job well and… as safely as possible, before they run off to hunt monsters. I see their point a little more every time something like this comes up.”

“No. I really, really don’t think I could.”

“Yeah. I thought you might say that, given the way you’ve handled contact with other people so far, but consider-”

“It’s not that!” I hiss.

“Okay. What is it, then?” Aisling flattens her expression and tents her hands, watching me expectantly.

“…I’m dying,” I blurt out after several silent seconds. “I don’t have time for that. My blood is eating me and making the Promise… I don’t know yet if it made it worse, but it didn’t save me. I’ve got maybe ten months to live unless Emergence gives me some way to fix myself.”

“Ah,” Aisling says. She grimaces, nodding slowly and gnawing on her lower lip. “Did you say that to Tetha? Or to Shona when you decided how to split Irakkia?”

“You’re the first Keeper I’ve told.”

“Okay. Why?” Aisling asks, blank-faced.

“Because I’m… my…” 

Because my medical situation is no one else’s business? It kind of is, given the things I’m doing to improve it. Because it makes no difference, people have never been there for me before and they won’t start now? I don’t know that. Whatever I think of people in general, I don’t know how to explain Tetha’s relative silence unless somebody — like Niavh — stepped in and talked her down on my behalf. 

So… Because why?

“Don’t know,” I mumble. “I just don’t want that to be me. Who I am. What I am. It’s bad enough that my magic’s all about it. I’ve called it poison, but that’s really the heart of it. Corruption. Curses. Sickness.”

“…Okay.” Aisling’s shoulders sag as she sighs out all the air in her lungs. “In that case, I assume you’ve done what you’ve done because you consider saving your life your absolute top priority?”

“Obviously. Nothing else matters if I can’t do that.” 

“Fair enough. I can hardly fault you for wanting to live. You’re, what, ten or eleven? No one your age should have to die over a freak health accident.”

“…Thirteen.”

Aisling frowns, looking me up and down again. “Oh. Sorry.” 

“Not that it should matter. No one should ever have to die,” I insist.

“I mean, yes. I’d love to abolish human mortality if I could, but, well. My magic has nothing to do with that and there always seem to be more urgent potential disasters stealing my attention,” she says simply, as if what I’ve said is too obvious to be worth noting. At any other time, I’d be happy to find someone else who gets it.

“But that aside… let me preface this by saying that I think most people who haven’t done serious work unpacking how they think and the reasons behind their choices are absolutely terrible at understanding their own motives and priorities. So don’t take this as an attack on your intelligence: it sounds to me like you’ve been acting as if protecting your privacy and separating your identity from your condition are… maybe not more important to you, but at least similarly important. To the point where you’re making one goal a lot harder for yourself in service to the other.”

………

“What?”

“Can you honestly tell me I’m wrong?”

“I… I’m not… that’s just so…”

“Dumb? Yeah. Welcome to human cognition,” she says with a dry laugh. “Please take this as an object lesson going forward.”

I bury my face in my hands and groan wordlessly. I mean, it’s not like I don’t already know I’m an idiot who’s terrible at everything, just… how? How many other ways have I been wasting my first and only chance to survive?

“Ah, I still don’t think you were quite done. Sorry to interrupt again. But take your time,” Aisling says in that same steady tone.

“…No. Not quite,” I murmur, setting my hands back in my lap. “Okay. As soon as I found out about the copies, I went to chase the Harbinger down. That girl left a trail of extra copies lying around in the city, so I destroyed those until I found her and the original. They were in a storage unit, working through some kind of ritual. Chopping up other books and gluing lines from them to the wall. I guess I should say here that I don’t know if the girl was exactly a victim. Every time I felt her, she was… obviously corrupted, yes, but not hurt. And the Harbinger loved her. By the end, it wanted more than anything to make her a witch. I remember she changed her hair between the first and last time I saw her — which of course normal people can just do, but it seemed like a weird thing to do while a monster was eating you. Do witches have some version of Emergence?”

Aisling goes strangely still. Thinking of it now, it’s the first time I’ve seen her seated and not idly tipping her chair, kicking her feet, or playing with her hair.

“When did you first see this girl again?” she asks.

“Um, a little over a week and a half ago? It was…” I count the days in my head. Life almost never lets me forget how little time I have, but living the way I do for the last few years has made it hard to track those small, simple milestones. Every day of the week is mostly the same to me. “The 17th, I think.”

“Do you recognize the girl on the left in this picture? This is just a bad hunch, but… I need to check. I need to be sure.” 

Aisling passes me her phone. It displays a group photo of the Research Club on the steps outside. Aisling is in the center of the shot, still in her school uniform and beret rather than Keeper regalia. The Yadon siblings sit just under her, Haunild holding two fingers in a circle around her eye. Lucan is to the right, one arm around Aisling’s shoulder. She leans into him, smiling awkwardly, almost as though reluctant but unable to help herself. 

And my blood freezes at the sight of the thinly-smiling, bushy-haired girl left of her. The girl I only know as Aulunla’s human friend. The witch it would have made.

The Hanged Man 5-6

Once the departing crowd has mostly thinned back out, Shona leads the way through the front hall and into an empty first floor classroom, where she pulls out some desk seats and arranges them into a wide circle. Only she sits down — Mide and I stand on either side of the circle, eyeing each other uneasily.

“Well… if it’s gotta be that way for now, that’s fine too,” Shona says with a shrug when it becomes clear that neither of us are moving. “So! It’s, uh, been a minute! How’re you doing? New life working out for you, I hope?” she asks. Mide shoots her a look that plainly says “seriously?”

“Eyna, could you tell her that there’s no chance of us ‘trying the team thing out just one more time’? Somehow I think you’ll back me up on this,” Mide says before I can answer.

I meet Shona’s eyes and shake my head. “Sorry.”

“Ehhhhh… well, I, yeah. Guess I coulda seen that one coming,” Shona says. No, that shouldn’t surprise anyone, but she still visibly deflates a little.

“Okay. Now that that’s all sorted out, what are you doing here?” Mide asks.

“I want to compare Harbinger notes with Aisling. I’d promise to leave you alone forever after that, only I might need to talk to her more in the future. But I don’t like being here either. Too crowded. I won’t be hunting in the area, if that helps.”

The two share a silent, uneasy glance.

“See, it’s because she thinks that’s our problem that I’m worried about this,” Mide says to Shona. “Look. Eyna. If a monster turns up in our school, you’re here and we’re not for some reason, and you can handle it without draining anyone or whatever it is you do, I WANT you to fight it. That’s what all this is about! Whatever’s got you in such a rush for Harbingers- ow!”

Shona elbows her pointedly, and she stops to rub her side.

“…Is your own very personal matter, I’m sure,” she continues, sounding like she’s repeating a warning to a parent who wanted to make sure she really got it. “But you hurt people while you’re running after them. If you can’t just stop doing… that thing…” She pauses, shuddering at what could only be one memory. One feeling. “Then do it far away from me and my friends. I don’t know what happens if you lose control and do that to someone who can’t jump to the front of the line for magical healing. And I don’t know what I’d do if you did it here.”

Yes, it sure would be nice if I could just stop. I take comfort in the knowledge that I won’t be “losing control” — not then, not ever. I did what I did to Mide because it was my only way to survive, but it only got that far because I wasn’t preparing properly.

…Come to think of it, Mide could probably help me learn how best to use this power, if we were on better terms. I’ve wanted to know for a while now what being drained is like for my victims. That was an extreme case and it’s probably different for normal people and Keepers, but she is the one person I could currently talk to about the experience. Seems best not to try that right now, though. Or probably ever.

“Look, with what happened… I’m stupid and new to all this. I went into it without a plan for how to use my magic the right way where I really should’ve had one. Now I do. I really didn’t mean to hurt you, it won’t happen again, and I’m sorry.” I don’t know how much any of it’ll help, but that’s all I can think to say.

“Yeah, well, you did it. It doesn’t really matter what you meant,” Mide says.

No. It really doesn’t, does it?

“…That’s fair,” I murmur back. Shona looks sad, but has nothing to say in my defense this time. Not that I’m surprised. What would there be to say?

“Glad we’re on the same page, then,” Mide says flatly. “Anyway. Whether Aisling wants to deal with you is her call. We should get going, if that was it?”

She looks back at Shona, who sighs loudly enough to fill the room. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess we should. Do you need directions, Eyna?”

I shake my head. “A girl outside already pointed me there.”

“Great.” Mide turns and heads for the door, but stops and looks over her shoulder just before she opens it. “Oh, and if someone catches up with you and tells you to turn yourself in, you should probably do what they say. Making any more of a mess won’t end well for you.”

“Uhhhh, yeah, that might be for the best,” Shona agrees, scratching the back of her head nervously. 

“…What? Hold on, you can’t just leave that there! Should I be expecting that?”

“How could you possibly not?” Mide spits.

“Well, y’know, people… you make enough noise and people start trying to find out where it came from, yeah?” Shona cuts in. “Listen, though… I’m sure you’ve already heard this somewhere, but you really aren’t the only Keeper anywhere going through stuff like you’re going through, y’know? If you asked, there’d be someone who could help you figure out how to handle it.”

“I’ve met Niavh Fianata. If I need help, I know where to go,” I say.

“Oh. Oh wow, yeah, you don’t need any dumb shit advice I can give you!” Shona laughs a bit nervously. “So, then… ‘til next time, yeah? I hope whatever you’re doing with Aisling works out. I don’t really get her, but maybe you will!”

Meanwhile, Mide has already opened the door, walked out, and looked back in impatiently. Shona shoots me with a pair of halfhearted goodbye finger guns, then runs off to join her.

Well. That’s… I guess that… wasn’t any worse than I’d have guessed it would be? Whatever that means. Still, I take a while to gather myself before I leave the room. I sit at the nearest desk, bury my head in my arms, wipe my eyes just in case, and then it’s on to what I’m actually here for.

How much does Aisling already know about me, come to think of it? It sounds like knowing is kind of her thing. I can only hope it’s a good sign that these two at least haven’t mentioned Tetha at all.

~~~

There are no more incidents on the way to the club. A few people who haven’t quite left yet still give me looks as I pass by, but in the absence of any loud public Keeper drama, I just keep moving until they’re gone. Mor’s directions are easy to follow, and soon I’m at the door labeled simply “512.” In the little rectangular window, there’s a few people scattered around seats at the long, raised desks, but from here I can’t tell what, if anything, they’re all doing. I knock twice.

“What? Who’s knocking? Just come in!” a boy’s voice calls. 

Okay, then. I take a deep breath and do that.

Light pours into the science lab through a window that spans the entire wall opposite the door, looking out over the school’s front courtyard and a small slice of the city beyond. The room is quite well-appointed, with all manner of scales and tubes and tongs and microscopes and other instruments I don’t recognize stored neatly on shelves lining the room or in cabinet space underneath the desks. 

None of those are in use, though — the four uniformed students inside seem mostly focused on a projector screen at the far end of the room. At the top of the screen, a big bold heading reads:

HARBINGER CLASSIFICATION: IRAKKIA? (self-designation unknown)

Well. That’s interesting. I didn’t expect to find people who weren’t even involved discussing the second Harbinger I ever fought, especially not on the very day I happened to come by.

Beneath, the screen separates into four columns, labeled Cluster A, Cluster B, Other, and NOS. The A and B columns are filled with small bullet-pointed lines of text. The other two contain a single line each. Other’s says “-No known plausible candidates.” NOS’s reads “Ask Lucan if you’re wondering why we still waste space on this category. Seriously, Lucan, why?”

When I enter, a boy and a girl seated next to each other at the desk closest to me are in the middle of an animated argument about… something? Classifying Harbingers, I guess. I have no idea what that means in practice. It sounds impossible, but what do I know?

“I’m just saying, the thing with the weird sky is a textbook B trait and that’s the best match we have so far,” the boy says.

“Colm, there is no… no, there WOULD be a textbook, if it wasn’t locked up somewhere in the Archives with Redaction Agency spooks sitting on it! But until we can go beat ‘em up and take it, which, uh, I think we’re a ways off from that being on the table, we’re writing the textbook!” the girl yells, definitely louder than she needs to. The two look similar, with the same dark hair and freckles, though the girl is much shorter and their brown-green and green-brown eyes don’t quite match.

Redaction… what? Is that an actual thing?

The boy — Colm? — groans and gives her a pointed look. It’s probably not a thing.

“Anyway!” she continues after they stare each other down for a bit. “Until the textbook is liberated or written, pretending we’ll actually be able to solve a case like this one to any degree of certainty is…” The girl trails off as she turns to look at me and realizes I don’t fit in at all. “…Hm? Who’s… hi!” she finishes, turning my way.

Most of the others follow her lead at the sudden halt in the conversation. Not that I expected much better — a Keeper’s circle of friends are probably more likely than anyone to see me for what I am immediately. The last to notice me is a blonde girl in a blue beret, seated at the teacher’s desk and absorbed in something she’s doing on a desktop drive. Eventually, she peeks up over the top of the monitor and narrows her eyes. Judging by the blue, almost painfully bright light shining from her irises, that must be Aisling.

She thumps a book on the desk, breaking the uneasy silence, then stands. A tall older boy with neat brown hair, narrow grey eyes that look slightly less tired than Aisling’s, and thin-rimmed glasses you can barely see quickly moves to take her place at the desk, like this is a signal and a routine they go through pretty regularly.

“We’ll just be a minute. Carry on talking if you like, I’m sure I can get the gist when I’m back,” Aisling says, then meets my eyes and gestures with her head to the door. I step back outside, and she emerges a second later.

“Hi, Vyuji’s new girl. You aren’t here with an emergency question, are you?” Aisling asks as the door swings shut behind her. Up close, her curly hair looks like it hasn’t been brushed quite as much as it should, and if I ignore the piercing light in her eyes, they’re as exhausted as any I’ve ever seen. There’s a faint tinge of unpleasant heaviness in her soul, but she doesn’t quite feel sick… well, maybe a tiny bit. Just in that way anyone can become unhealthy by not sleeping enough. 

She didn’t bother to introduce herself. I honestly can’t blame her. Anyone who comes looking for her here must know who she is, me included. Similarly, I don’t need to ask how she knew who I was — even just based on things I’m certain she knows, it’s not much of a puzzle. Vyuji met with her at some recent point and here’s a weird new Keeper. It’s annoying that my attempts to keep myself quiet have been so worthless, but… anyway.

“I don’t… think so? I’m not exactly sure what you mean by ‘emergency’ and I am trying to figure some things out, but Vyuji just said we’d have notes to compare,” I say. 

Aisling bites her lower lip, but after a moment, she releases it and nods. “Good, because there’s a line for questions. Unless you had a really good emergency. Can your thing wait until our meeting’s finished? About an hour at most?”

“That’s fine.” I don’t want to give another Keeper any more reasons to hate me than she might already have, and if I weren’t here, I’d just be in my room working on my journal until dusk. 

“Great. You’re welcome if you want to sit in.” And simple as that, she heads back inside. I shrug and follow her.

Back in the lab, the two kids at the desk closest have resumed their argument, and there’s a new bullet-point under the original note in the NOS column. It says “Just because we haven’t found the commonalities yet doesn’t mean they don’t exist ( ̄ヘ ̄)”

Aisling scowls and hurries to the teacher’s desk. “Yep. True. Very true. Lucan, if you or anyone else think you’ve found enough connections to merit a new cluster, you’re of course welcome to propose it. Until then, stop trying to turn the non-category category into a home for your half-baked red-string conspiracy board hypotheticals!” she fumes. She sounds like she’s talking as much to herself as to the boy.

Lucan scoots back to his original seat, grinning and clearly satisfied with himself, but says nothing more on the matter. As soon as she sits back down, Aisling highlights and deletes his note.

“Anyway. We have a guest who doesn’t want to drag me off on some urgent mission, so that’s nice,” Aisling announces. 

“It is, it is! Welcome to the Research Club, a home for everyone who wants to know everything they are hiding from us!” the little freckled girl says, with no further indication as to who they might be. She puts a hand to her chest as she continues: “I am Haunild Yadon, the youngest investigative reporter in Clarish history! Pleased to make your acquaintance!”

“…Colm Yadon. Nice to meetcha. I’m mainly here to keep this one at least partially chained to reality,” the boy next to her says. “For example, what she means by that is that she wrote a few of the pages on Aisling’s reef.”

“IMPORTANT pages! It’s an important reef! Is it only a real investigation if a news organization posts it on their reef after the Redaction Agency takes a scalpel to it?” she objects.

“No, but that’s usually when we call it reporting,” the older boy says mildly. “And hey. I’m Lucan, if you haven’t caught that from Ash complaining about my visionary spirit.”

“Um, hi, everyone. I’m Eyna.” I don’t know enough about reporting to comment on that, so I just wave and take a seat in the back corner. 

The club members glance at each other, then back to me. Except for Aisling, who’s still looking over something on her screen.

“Don’t mind me. Just… do whatever you’ve been doing,” I say. I suddenly wish I’d brought a book to hide in. 

“Hold on a second,” Colm says. “During our debrief with her, Shona mentioned an Eyna joining her usual duo. Was that you?” 

What? I’m… ugh, I’m so stupid. Why did I keep using the same name after nearly eating one Keeper and fighting another to protect a Harbinger? 

“Wasn’t going to say anything if they didn’t catch it. Sorry,” Aisling says tonelessly, without looking over the monitor. 

Why did I give them a name at all? Wouldn’t they have just finished whatever they were doing before if I said nothing and brushed them off? Why am I so horrible at this? I just want to crack my skull open against a wall, let my soul leak out onto the floor, and replace all the broken parts of it with ones that can actually think.

“…Yes,” I say. Against every instinct I have, in a voice barely over a whisper.

“We’re discussing the Harbinger the three of you killed right now. Can you give a better description of its vulnerability to perception than ‘when we made a circle and looked at the Wound real close, all that obnoxious cheaty shit it was doing stopped working’?” Lucan asks without missing a beat.

“That would help,” Aisling says, leaning over to peek sideways around the monitor.

Wait, that’s it? That’s the big question they have for me? “Um, probably?”

Haunild grins and pumps both her fists. “Oh, now we’re in business again! Tell us! Tell us eeeverything Screaming Hymn wasn’t paying attention to!”

“I… okay. Sure,” I say. It sounds like a lot of talking to strangers, but at this point, I’ll take any chance that this meeting might not start and end horribly.

~~~

I have the room’s full attention as I share my perspective on the hunt for Irakkia to the best of my ability, with only a couple small exclusions around what I did to Mide. There, I just say that we both got hurt and only I was fit to keep going. Given what this group seems to be like, I’m expecting to be interrupted all the way through by an exhausting torrent of questions, but apparently the rule is that those only start once I’m finished telling my story. 

They do have questions, though. Oh, do they ever. Most of the first ones are just asking for clarifications on things I didn’t describe the best the first time through. Irakkia’s Wound was full of things I struggled to understand myself, much less explain to a group that didn’t see any of it. Plus it just feels wrong having an audience for stuff I’m saying.

“Backing up from the Wound a little. Do you remember what that victim in the Sanctuary wrote?” Lucan eventually asks, once they’re satisfied with all the little details.

“Is there a place I can type it out or put it on that display? I think that’ll be easier.” And it’d be a bizarre thing to recite. 

Aisling opens a text box, places it over the NOS column on the projected screen, and waves me to her seat. I type the poem out from memory:

a long long long time ago, someone fell through the sky
and built a castle floating in the clouds
this castle has no doors and no windows
no light shines inside it
none
not ever
not a single star or lamp or candle

if you or i were stuck in a place like that, where nothing comes in and nothing goes out,
we’d starve
or suffocate
or lose ourselves and never find us again
but the children who live in the castle are happy there!

those children spend lots of happy days crawling around in the dark
they need no light, for there is nothing their eyes can see
they touch each other with hands that have never felt anything
they’ve fo—

“And that was it,” I announce.

Aisling takes her spot back as soon as I’m done… oh well. This would’ve been easier with a monitor between me and everyone else.

As I cross the room on the way back to my corner, Haunild pulls her hands into her sleeves and wraps her arms around herself. “Mrrh. Chilly. Is, uh, is that you?”

“Oh, yes. Sorry,” I say. I really will work on that, but I can’t work on it right now.

“Any chance you can… turn it off?” she asks with a nervous smile.

“No.”

“Right. Emergence,” she grumbles, then turns away to read the poem with the rest of the club. I don’t correct her.

“This is… one of the weirder ones we’ve seen, yeah,” Lucan says, first to comment on the writing. 

“Do you see a lot of these?” I ask.

“Not exactly like this, but we do try to record and consider anything Harbinger victims say about their attackers. Sometimes it helps,” he answers. “Any guesses as to what that missing last line might’ve been? They’ve… found, forgotten… meh, there’s no way to say where it could’ve gone past that.”

“I don’t even think it was the last line. There was just a big blotch of smeared ink and wet paper at the bottom,” I say.

“Well, complete statement or no, that stuff about the sky-castle does sound kind of B. Did you catch its self-designation — er, its title? Shona didn’t, but she mentioned you were better with that sort of Harbinger thing,” Colm asks.

“It was… ‘The World Is Not The World.’ That’s most of it, at least. Maybe this’ll make more sense to one of you than it did to me, but there was some sort of distinction in its mind between ‘the world’ and ‘THE WORLD.’ I couldn’t say what it actually meant by that.” I think about whether to expand, then decide there’s no point in holding this particular card too close when I’m here to trade Harbinger information. “I didn’t understand their language yet. Not all the way.”

That gets a few more looks around the group, which I can’t tell how to read. Then… “And you do now?” Aisling asks.

“Yes. I can’t speak it, but I can hear it and read it,” I say.

Haunild plants her head on her desk and lets out a muffled wordless groan. 

“Um? Did I say something wrong?” I ask.

“No, it’s not, you didn’t do anything, just… we have a member who’s really into languages. She hasn’t been around and she’d be real mad if she knew she was missing this. I’d call her and yell at her to get over here already, but… well,” she trails off.

At nearly the same time, Aisling and Lucan glance her way uneasily. “She’s missing. We’ve been looking for her for a few days,” Aisling clarifies.

“Oh. I’m… sorry to hear it,” I mutter. 

Obviously, not every missing person was taken by a Harbinger. You hear a lot about those cases when they happen, of course, but I’m not even sure if most of them were. Sometimes, kids just run away or get lost and turn up later. 

But that doesn’t keep the worst possible outcome from looming large in everyone’s minds.

“S’okay. We’ll find her. And maybe this is better for you, Eyna. She woulda buried you in questions about… I dunno. Phonemes or whatever it is she’s into,” Haunild continues after a moment.

“…Phonemes?” 

“Yeah. You know, like…” Haunild waves a hand in aimless circles. “Language… sound stuff.”

“It’s a linguistics term,” Lucan clarifies after a silent moment. “It’s how they define a unit of… wait, first, do you care?”

Oh, good. I was afraid they were getting into some magic vocabulary no one told me about. “Only if it’ll make me better at speaking Harbinger,” I say.

“Which you described as mainly an abstract mental experience, right? You hear sounds or read sigils and just ‘know’ that they carry some meaning?” Aisling asks.

“Mhmm.”

“Isobel’d be mad about that too,” she sighs. “It probably wouldn’t help, then. Maybe if you come back to it later, once you’ve got more of a… grounding in that language. Someone learning their first words in a normal human language wouldn’t get much out of studying, say, why the letter P makes the sounds it does, and in this case there seem to be a few more obstacles to understanding whatever structure and rules this magic language must have.”

“Then I can’t say I really care, no,” I admit.

Haunild shrugs. “Me neither.” 

“That aside, other Keepers can still see those glyphs. There are at least a few transcriptions on the Sea — not so many photos, for obvious reasons, but those should still work. If we collected a few of those, could you translate them?” Lucan asks.

I don’t know if that’s how it works, but I don’t know that it’s not. “Maybe…?”

Aisling thumps her notebook on the desk again. “Good thought, but not the agenda for today. Any more questions about the Harbinger?”

“No, but I think I’ve changed my position. Much as I’d love to have been right in the first place, and that thing about ‘the world’ does still sound like a Cluster B concept, the idea of a B’s victim writing poetry about it doesn’t really square with how they do things,” Colm says.

“No major astrological incidents since the winter eclipse, either. Not that that’s a sure thing, but it is evidence against,” Lucan says.

“Well, no more incidents that they told us about,” Haunild adds in an accusing tone. Again, I’m not sure who she’s accusing of what.

“None that any of my sources told me about, either,” Aisling says.

“Huh,” Haunild mumbles. “Not even the…” She pauses, flicking her eyes my way. “…um, on the Sea?”

Aisling shakes her head. “I still haven’t been able to reach her since the last time I mentioned her. Besides, the sky was never one of her big areas of interest.” She chews her lip quietly for a moment before she continues: 

“Anyway. That was a lot of good new data about this case, but I don’t think it brings us much closer to answering the original question. We still don’t know anything about this Harbinger’s source incident, if it had one. Maybe something about that would make sense of the discrepancies that kept us from calling it an A in the first place, but we have no way of investigating that as of now. It goes without saying that especially in the case of a dead Harbinger, the earlier victims are off-limits until they’re released from the Sanctuary with spotless bills of spiritual health. And until any prospective ‘interview requests’ are approved by their treatment teams,” she finishes.

“That was one time! And they kicked me out in the lobby anyway!” Haunild complains.

“You knew better then and you double know now!” Aisling scolds the other girl, who looks down poutingly like a sad puppy. “Moving on, all in favor of labeling Irakkia NOS until further notice?” she stands, vaults over the teacher’s desk, and sits on its near edge, idly swinging her legs as she comes to rest. She looks in my general direction, not quite making eye contact, and nods. “Feel free to vote if you like, although I don’t think it’ll swing anything.”

“What exactly are we voting on? I mean, you’re clearly trying to sort Harbingers by some sort of system, but I don’t know what the options are,” I say.

“Oh. Didn’t think of that. Usually people come here having read my work.” She pauses, twirling a short lock of her hair tightly around one finger, then calls out “Lucan, could you take this one? We’re almost done here and I don’t want to do the long version.”

“Sure. Your version does get really long sometimes.” Lucan shrugs and turns to me. “That alright with you?”

“Mhm. I don’t want to hold you up too much.” And I’d rather ask any deeper questions while I have Aisling alone.

“Cool. The short version is that we believe it’s a mistake to treat ‘Harbingers’ as a single class of being. We call them by the same name and react to them the same way, but the more you research them, the more you see that they’re really, really not the same. It’s an oversimplification, potentially a very dangerous one.”

I nod once. That sounds right so far. Yurfaln was nothing like Irakkia, and neither of them had anything in common with that unnamed thing in the forest.

“So we record all the ones we learn about. We look for patterns between them, ways in which certain Harbingers really are like others, and do our best to sort them into categories with common traits and origins. Clusters, because we don’t expect them to be as organized as, say, animal families, not anytime soon.”

“Isn’t it also dangerous to think up a box and expect them to fit into it?” I ask.

“Look, to protect yourself from something, you need to understand it, and we can never understand these things if we just leave them as a big scary squiggle in our model of the world forever!” Lucan snaps. 

I flinch at the sudden noise.

“Uh, sorry,” he adjusts his tone. “Just… yeah, we’ve only gotten so far. We don’t advise using this system in its current form to try and predict anything about an active Harbinger.”

“Right. That makes sense, yes. I’ll let you finish.”

“Thanks. So Cluster A is, uh, I guess you could call them traditional Harbingers. Ones that basically line up with the way holy texts and safety lectures describe Harbingers. They seem to be based on some person or group’s negative emotions, and they usually feed on or spread whatever experience ‘created’ them. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question that comes with using that word here, but you get the idea. If you know anything about Harbingers, you know about these.

“Cluster Bs are weirder, but in a pretty distinct way that’s easy enough to understand. They don’t come from people, they don’t care about people as anything except things to inflict themselves on, and whatever they do care about, it makes no sense to any of us. Their feeding patterns are destructive enough that victims very rarely recover, or else they just drag people into themselves and never let them out, and they’re more likely to crawl out of their Wounds and attempt full incursions when they get big enough. We think they come from… somewhere else. Some other nightmare realm.” 

“Or fallen stars. B Harbingers do seem to be more common around strange astrological events,” Colm adds. 

“…That’s a hypothesis, yeah,” Lucan continues. “Anyway, ‘Other’ is for workshopping potential new categories, things we have ideas about but aren’t sure of yet. None of those are relevant here. And NOS — not otherwise specified — well. That gets back to what you were saying about our boxes. Currently, it’s for Harbingers too weird to fit in anywhere else, or ones that blend enough common traits of the other clusters that we don’t know what to do with them. I think there might be an actual category somewhere in that in-between space, but until we find more examples of Harbingers that fit into it, even I’ll admit that it is kind of a ‘half-baked red-string conspiracy board hypothetical.’”

Aisling glances up from the monitor and smiles at him. There’s a faintly predatory cast to her gleaming eyes.

“Yep, go ahead and store that one in your memory palace, Ash. Take it out and replay it whenever you’re feeling down. I don’t mind. You’re welcome,” Lucan says without ever looking her way. “Eyna, I think that pretty much covers the basics. NOS is where we’re thinking of putting this one. All in favor?” he repeats.

Four hands immediately raise. After a moment, I join them. I’m hardly an expert in whatever their system is, but ‘too weird’ seems like a perfectly good way to describe Irakkia.

“There we go, then. I’ll handle its entry on the master list when I get home,” Aisling says. “Meeting adjourned!”

Despite her strangely official-sounding announcement, the club members do chat and mill about for a little longer. They mostly leave me alone, just looking my way now and then, but after a minute Lucan does break away from a conversation and approach me. “Hey, no pressure, but do you think you’ll come by here again anytime soon? We don’t mean to tie you down and pump you for every bit of info we can. Just wondering if I should look around for magic sigils anyone’s tried to copy.”

“Maybe,” I say. Just like with Niavh a couple weeks ago, I’m a little surprised to find that I don’t think I’m lying. So far, this has gone… about as well as I could expect, for spending time with a bunch of people I don’t know? I’m not eager to come to this school regularly and keep running into Mide, but really it depends on how I manage with Aisling when the others are gone.

“That’s fair. I know you guys tend to keep pretty weird schedules. I’m sure Ash’ll keep me posted either way,” he says.

“Speaking of, not to rush you all out the door, but I did promise her we could talk business in private after this,” Aisling tells the room. 

“Oh! Okay! We can take off, then,” Haunild says. “Byeee!” She hops out of her seat, grabs Colm’s arm, and tries to drag him along, but clearly doesn’t have the strength. He snrks a bit before he stands, shakes her off, and they both head for the door.

“Want me to wait outside?” Lucan asks.

“Only if you’ve got something else to do. Otherwise I’ll catch up with you tonight,” Aisling says.

“Sounds good. See you when I see you, Eyna.” Lucan waves and follows the other two out.

Whew. This was far from the longest or most painful delay I’ve ever dealt with, but it’s only made me a little less nervous about whatever comes next. 

Once we have the room to ourselves, Aisling jumps down from her perch, grabs a chair, and drags it along the floor, swinging into position on the other side of my desk, right across from me. She takes a seat and leans forward, then looks right at me. I glance down, avoiding both the blinding glare of her eyes and staring right at another person.

 “Alright. Sorry about the delay, and I really do appreciate the help — it’s been a bit since we managed to get more than one witness to a Harbinger in here. But before we go any further, there’s some stories I think I need to hear your side of. I do kind of have to keep track of local goings-on, you know.”

Right. Of course she does.

Well… at some point, I’m going to have to find out what people know about me. What they’re saying about me. What they’d do with me, if it’s really gone that far.

“……Fine. Where do we start?”

The Hanged Man 5-5

<let me tell you a story,> the voice whispers, gentle and girlish despite its absolute lack of volume. 

<once, there was a family of angels. together, they sailed through sea and sky alike on wings of starlight, and everywhere they went, everywhere their eyes beheld, they imagined a newer, more beautiful world into being. that is why they were made, you see. they were children of the world herself, and each was shaped in the likeness of something she wished to have for her own — something she could scarcely so much as conceive, let alone become.> 

<but there was something wrong. with the world, with the angels, with everything. when has there ever been anything else?>

Its tone belies the impossible, ineffable weight behind its voice. Her voice. It’s as if a childhood friend took me aside to tell me a secret, and with the first word her mouth opened like a great gaping hole in the night sky and all the dead stars inside whispered their stories to me at once.

<it begins with what angels are. when you gather up some of the emptiness between the stars, then peel and slice and gnaw away all the things it is not, the raw and quivering thing you find yourself cradling close? that is an angel.> 

The disembodied speaker’s unseen gaze shifts again, and in emphasis, she begins to unmake the world. The grey fog thins, then fades to nothing in seconds, exposing a sky whose purple stars cluster and swirl and blur around utterly black wounds in reality like whirlpools of liquid night. The cold ground below melts away and I plummet into endless nothing, falling an impossible distance from everything — from myself, as I fall out from my own pajama-clad body. It floats in the expanse above me, limp and useless as ever. 

<and the angels remembered. part of them always knew what they had been, how they were born, and so they longed for what was taken from them. to be whole in a way they never could again.>

<they tried to fill that emptiness, of course. oh, they tried! but what could ever sate such a hunger? the void they were dragged from found its way into everything they touched, everything they wanted, everything they were. they yearned for other things they could never reach, or could not permit themselves to take. they fell in love, but with the angels their kin should have been — with versions of them that existed only in their minds. did these distorted echoes of happiness mend their shattered hearts? did they thaw their frozen souls? of course not! they were snapped up into one of a thousand bottomless gullets, forgotten before anybody noticed they were ever there.>

<in time, the angels came to understand that they never even had what they yearned to reclaim in the first place. they were phantoms chasing a dream they were too broken to comprehend. if they found it again, they would be no more. to have it would undo them and birth something new and different in their place. but none ever cared. none ever stopped longing. they never could. that was all it was to be an angel, after all.>

<so as if in imitation of the act which begot all creation, they screamed in horror and tore themselves to shreds. and still they scream. still their mangled scraps scream. still they dream dreams that can never come true. do you understand, third-angel? have you ever stirred from your fitful sleep, woken into the endless nightmare that awaits us all?>

Some horrible emotion floods through me, but I’m too detached from everything, from me in every sense, to have any idea what it is. I want to scream, to lash out, to bite my tongue raw and dig my nails into my palms until I’m bleeding icy mist and black feathers from a dozen wounds, just to know what I’m feeling. To turn myself inside out and fill the world with my own pain rather than drift forever in this. But I can’t. I can’t do anything.

<not yet, i see. i apologize — stories have never been my sphere. i tell this one because it is the only way i can tell it, for the moment. even i am still doing my utmost to understand how all this connects to the world as it is now. and to you.>

<to that end… your wounds. the wings you never and always had. the bleeding absences where everything was torn away from you. show them to me.>

My own body vanishes in the endless distance as the world narrows around me. Thin tendrils of dark, empty space, glimmering as they move with dying stars and blinking black-hole eyes, begin to peel my soul’s skin away, layer by wire-thin layer, scrutinizing every part and particle of me.

It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. Why doesn’t it hurt? Is there any me left to feel it? Where did she go?

Between one cycle of painless flaying and the next — the only milestone left to me, the only landmark in a timeless abyss severed from everything else — a single thin ray of moonlight pierces the sky above. Then comes another. They widen at the ends, then swivel down, searching through the endless night like flashlight beams.

<already?> the voice pouts. Her formless extensions draw back from whatever’s left of me, and everything… contracts. The twilit expanse bends and twists around itself, whirling ever inward toward a central point of relative stillness, As this storm of stars blurs and roils around me, the impossible distance between me and me shrinks until it’s vanished, returning me to something like myself. I try to back away, afraid to tear my eyes from the spectacle, terrified of what might happen if I even blink, but nothing happens. It feels like I’m moving, but without going anywhere. Maybe there’s still nowhere else to go.

But soon — I have no idea how soon, but soon — everything stills again, and the whole world has compacted into a small shape. The spectral outline of a girl, shaped entirely from darkness haloed in amethyst light. A long, wavy tangle of hair fans out weightlessly behind her, and threads of flowing shadow around her body seem to form a simple dress, like two sheets of fabric draped over one another in a two-tiered arrangement.

And all around her, there’s… nothing. Not light, not darkness, just the inexplicably, horrifyingly familiar sight of nothingness so absolute my eyes seem to roll over it until my focus is back on the shadowy girl. Other than the two moon-searchlights behind her, which now pan confusedly through the vacuum, there simply isn’t anything that can be looked at but her. Everything this place ever was has been wiped away, leaving only the silent, wordless song of her essence.

<__________________________>

The girl glances my way. Bright violet rings like cloudy irises, her face’s only visible feature, narrow slightly as they take me in. <so strange… did faces always look so strange? or have i forgotten what they were meant to look like?> The faint tinge of sadness in those words is like peering into an abyss deeper than the sea.

<well. perhaps next time, then. and perhaps next time, your eyes will have opened a little wider.> She raises her head, and her form flickers and blurs unsteadily.

<until then, this is only a dream. a bleak and hollow phantasm, a stillborn thing too delicate to survive its first night. its splintered remains will melt through your grasping fingers, as all dreams do.>

<and when everything collapses around you at once, when you feel the void opening inside you, perhaps you will think again of me, and i of you. my name is yulasri. call for me when you must. you will know when.>

<i will be waiting here at the edge of sleep — always, until the ends of life and lights and names.>

~~~

My eyes shoot open as I wake, breathless and soaked in cold sweat. I reflexively reach for Pearl, but find only empty sheets and an extra pillow. 

And Vyuji, staring down at me beside my bed. Her sapphire eyes, wide and shadowed, glisten in the dark of night.

“Liadain…? Liadain, you’re awake! Breathe. Focus here. It’s over… whatever it was, it’s over.”

I grab that pillow and squeeze it, burying my face and wrapping my whole body around it while my breathing slowly, slowly steadies. My lungs feel like there’s a block of dry ice burning a hole in them from the inside. I can’t tell how much longer passes before I peek over the pillow and meet her eyes sideways. Time still barely feels real. 

“Liadain, what just happened? I know you’re in pain, but please. While it’s fresh. Tell me everything you can.” 

“I…” I croak. I shake my head, fumble past her for the glass of water on my nightstand, and sit up just enough to drain it all. Everything’s still so cold. “I don’t… one minute…”

What just happened? My head is a jumble of pain and exhaustion and empty spaces so vast that all my tiny, scattered thoughts get lost in them. Whispers – to myself, from myself – trying to echo through the gulf of an infinite cave. 

“I ask because I monitored you through the night, as requested. I felt some movement from the Harbinger following you, and when I tried to inspect the situation more closely, I found… nothing. I couldn’t see anything. I have no idea what happened and I have no idea why. I’ve been trying to wake you for a few minutes now.”

Right. That’s what I was doing. There’s no one here but me and Vyuji, and… I feel about through the sheets. The card — the infected card I took to bed is gone. And… it’s just us, now. No Seryana. That’s what I was trying to do. Did it work? No, somehow I’m sure that’s not it either. There was something else. Something I’m missing. Something important that slips through my fingers like air every time I try to grab hold of it. 

I shake my head again. “It’s all just a lot of fuzzy nothing, the way dreams get when they’re over. I could try and say what’s in the fuzz, but I really don’t know. I wouldn’t have the words. None of it makes any sense now. It’ll… probably be gone soon,” I guess. “So I don’t know either. I… Sorry…” I mutter.

Vyuji grimaces, her face tight with… a feeling I can’t quite place. Her concerned expression is the same one she always wears whenever I’m dealing with a Harbinger, but there’s an intensity to her gaze that’s different from usual.  …Okay. Thank you for trying,” she says simply. “It’s still late. Do you think you’ll be able to sleep any more after all this?”

“…Tired.” I don’t want to. Sleeping feels like a horrible, horrible idea after whatever just happened. But I also don’t want to die, or become a useless blob for however many days or however much stolen strength it takes me to make up for a night of missed sleep. 

Assuming this doesn’t keep happening.

“Alright. I’ll keep watching. Closer, this time. I won’t let anything else happen to you if I have any power to prevent it. I promise,” she whispers, and disappears.

~~~

When I open my eyes again, the sun has invaded my room through my too-thin curtains. At some point, exhaustion must have won out over fear. Slowly, in time with my mind pulling itself back together, I flop out of bed, sniff the room — still no Seryana, but my sweat-soaked pajamas aren’t terribly pleasant or comfy — and retrieve Pearl from the closet. Her nest is still glowing slightly, though it’s harder to see in the daylight.

“Vyuji? I’m not dead, right? And you aren’t either?”

“No,” she confirms, blinking into being at my side. “And while my perception may not be a certain thing, in this circumstance, I’m quite confident nothing else untoward happened overnight.” 

“Right. Good. Thank you,” I mumble. “Did you, um, figure anything else out about that?”

She sighs, audibly, and leans back onto the foot of my bed. “I’m afraid not. Apologies — I’ll see what I can do, certainly, but whatever happened left no trace I can use. That’s a large part of why I was so concerned about it. For your part… unless it recurs, I suggest you simply keep doing what you have been. And on that front, I do have something for you. Though I understand this may be a poor time.”

“It’s always a poor time. Go ahead.” There’s no sense in wasting energy worrying about what I can’t do. I’m sure I’ll do it anyway, but I shouldn’t actively do it. I turn my back to her, stagger into my chair, and start brushing my hair while she speaks.

“Right, then. After your last Harbinger, I promised I would check in on directions I may be able to point you in. People who may have more of the information you need. I have an option for you, now. Do you know Aisling Waite? Truth’s Lantern?”

“Hm? I’ve heard of her, yes.” She’s some kind of scientist Keeper who does experiments on her own magic, and anyone else’s when she can get them to agree to it, then writes about them on her reef. Maybe I should’ve read those, or at least paged through them for anything important to me. 

“Good. I bring her up because she does make herself available to speak with local Keepers, and because some of her abilities may be relevant to last night’s situation… well, unless whatever escaped my senses escapes hers too, which is entirely likely. Still, I believe you two could help each other. And as I promised last time, this isn’t me asking you to find another team. Aisling isn’t even especially interested in hunting Harbingers.” 

“She’s not? How does that work?” First Mide, then Tetha, now this girl. How many Keepers are there who aren’t that interested in the reason to be Keepers?

“Oh, she does it on occasion, in a sort of distant supporting role to other Keepers. But left to her own devices, I suppose she simply has research projects she cares about more. Her Messenger tells me she wants to understand what it means for you children to grow more than she wants to grow herself, which I suppose I can respect. It’s part of why I thought you two might work well together.”

That does make sense. I don’t plan on hunting with anyone else after the Irakkia incident, but trading information with a girl who doesn’t fight anyway is a very different thing.

Still… I haven’t given other Keepers much reason to want to work with me. I’m sure neither of the ones I’ve hurt laughed it off, and there is some kind of platform for Keepers to talk to each other. How far has that news spread among them?

“Liadain?” Vyuji presses.

“Hm? Oh, I, right. Sorry.” I fidget with my fingers in my lap. “That sounds good, but… I don’t know how much other people will want to talk to me.”

“Because of your last Harbinger? Is that public knowledge?” Vyuji asks with a faint tilt of her head.

I bite my lip, turn my head enough to glance at her through the corner of my eyes, and nod. “Yes. Maybe. Probably. That and… I didn’t mention, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this somehow. The reason anyone knows is because while I was working on that, I, um. Fought a Keeper over it. A Fianata, their younger girl.”

“Oh.” Vyuji blinks once, then smiles and carries right on.“Well, children get into fights all the time, with words or scrapes or magic, and it very rarely destroys either of their lives,” she offers. She’s never spoken in quite that tone before — it sounds like a friend telling me not to worry so much about a test tomorrow. Or a doctor promising bone marrow transplants work as a cure for my condition in “most cases.”

“Vyuji, I think magic is pretty different from those other two,” I groan. 

“Why? I’m sure it looked more serious than a regular human fight, but if no one died and no one was permanently injured, I don’t see the problem.” Vyuji opens a flower-hand and gives a broad, one-armed shrug.

“Plus they’re usually fighting over…” I don’t know. I haven’t had friends in a while. “Who’s best friends with who? Not this.”

“You sound like you’re arguing against yourself. Do you stand by what you did or not?”

“I mean, not exactly what I did. It didn’t help, since the splinter of it we fought over wasn’t even… nevermind, not important. Because Harbinger reasons,” I say, shaking my head as I cut myself off in mid-thought. “You get the point. I may be a pariah by now.”

“Well, I’ve already asked Aisling if she’d be willing to talk with a new Keeper. She agreed. Perhaps she had a guess as to who I meant, but none of the questions she asked me were about you. She did have rather a lot of questions, that girl.”

“Oh. Hm.” That’s no guarantee of this going well. It feels a little bit like when two young kids’ parents throw them together and say ‘There, you’re friends now!’ …Or so I imagine. When we met in our first year of school, Grainne would complain about her dad trying that with his friends’ kids. It took him a weirdly long time to stop.

But it’s something. Aisling and I probably do have information to exchange, unless she already knows everything in my journal. 

“…Alright,” I finally say. “If this is a disaster too, I may have to be a hermit forever. Thank you for the idea, though. And for um, making whatever introductions you made on my account.”

“Forever’s a long time. But I do think this will be good for you.” The mischievous edge to Vyuji’s smile softens and fades. “Aisling goes to Saint Riawal’s School. There’s a club she runs after hours. You can find her there, most days.”

“Keepers still go to school?”

“This one does.”

“Don’t they have, I don’t know, better things to do? And a whole special system for if they still want to learn normal school stuff?”

“I don’t understand why someone would refuse advantages freely offered either, but that’s her business.”

Weird. Not that I’m one to talk. Dr. Cantillon probably considered her suggestion ‘advantages freely offered’ too.

~~~

My morning routine goes entirely without signs of Seryana. Once I’ve gotten someone to clean my shower and had a long enough soak to almost make up for yesterday, I head to Saint Riawal’s School. It’s in the Fields, not too far from here, and I time the half-hour walk so that I’ll get there around when school lets out. No cane today, at least not for this trip. I’ve resolved to bring it anytime I might be hunting or poisoning monsters, but I don’t need it to go talk to someone in public.

The school itself is made up of six long buildings set into a hill, steadily rising such that the windows of one peek over the roof of the last. A ramp at the end of its obligatory well-kept garden courtyard leads up to the front doors, set into a tall glass facade. It’s much grander than my old school, but I have no idea how prestigious or not it is. I was living in and out of the hospital well before it would’ve been time to worry about which secondary school I’d go to.

Students are just starting to filter out when I arrive. A few kids in scattered groups have stopped in the courtyard, either settled on the benches or sat down on the grassy hills on either side of the central ramp. Two girls are up on the first building’s roof, dangling their legs off the edge while they talk. Everyone’s dressed the same, in dark blazers with blue-green plaid bottoms and ties. 

I won’t be walking into a tide of people or anything, but it is a little busy for my comfort. I push a little more magic into my immunization shield, just to be careful, then head through the front gate. This’ll be fine. I’m sure everyone here wants to get out as quickly as possible and go wherever they’d rather be. 

But as I dodge through the thin crowd, people take notice. One boy shivers at the sudden cold of my barrier, though he quickly shakes it off and keeps walking. Sorry. I’ll try to hold it a little tighter around myself. 

He’s far from the only one, though — all around the courtyard, kids are stopping in their tracks or looking up from their conversations on the benches to watch me pass instead. Soon, the crowd’s scattered attention has mostly settled on me. Some eventually look away and go about their business, but enough are staring by the time I reach the ramp that there’s clearly something going on.

Why? What did I do to any of you but walk in the wrong direction? At least they aren’t bothering me, just… watching, or whispering amongst themselves. I still hate it. I quicken my pace, enough to hurry past them without bolting and making more of a scene. 

I’ve almost made it to the entrance when one of the two girls on the roof hands an open book off to her friend. She climbs over the edge, hangs suspended on the wall for a second, then drops to the ground, touching down with a softly-exhaled “whoof!” at the impact. The roof is high enough that she couldn’t climb back up from here, but the maneuver didn’t look too hard. For someone with a body that works. No one else pays her much mind — too busy staring at me.

The roof girl shakes herself off, then turns and approaches me. Her red hair is up in a spiky bun, and her wide eyes seem even bigger under her thick glasses. “Hey, hey, I’m sorry to bother you! Just, do you do autographs? Or is that not your thing?” She smiles in a way I think is meant to be conspiratorial, but I’m clearly not in on the secret.

“Why? Do you know me from somewhere?” I ask after a beat of stunned silence.

“Not exactly, but you’re that new Keeper no one knows, right? Word kinda gets around. Screaming Hymn wouldn’t stop talking about her new mystery friend for a bit.”

…Really? Of all the places in the city, does Shona go here too? Has she been telling everyone about me for weeks? What has she been telling them? Is Tetha also spreading the word about me? Does everyone already know me as the horrible soul-drinking monster girl? What do I—

“Hey, don’t worry, Shona didn’t blow up your spot or anything!” The girl raises her hands and backs off a little. “Whatever your spot is. She just did a lot of, mm… alluding?” She scrunches her face up in thought, then shakes her head. “Nah, that word’s probably giving her too much credit. Talking about her cool secret plans she couldn’t talk about yet ‘cause they were so amazingly secret. She’s not very sneaky, and she stopped after a while. Anyway, I figured you were one of those who didn’t want to waste time being an idol, and those are all my favorite Keepers! Although, um, given that I’m probably being kinda annoying, huh? I’m Mor, by the way — sorry, may’ve gotten a little ahead of myself, I just…”

I’m only half listening to her while I put the pieces together in my head. Right. Of course they still wear uniforms in secondary school… unless they’re Keepers. That’s the rule. My old uniforms from primary school still fit, lucky me, but I didn’t pack them when I moved to the seventh floor. 

I may have made a mistake here.

“What? What makes you think that? I’m… just from a different school,” I finally say. 

“Mm… hmm,” she says, looking me over once more. 

Yet here I am immediately after school hours ended, in my regular clothes. And between my hair and a close look at my eyes, I’m clearly in the beginnings of Emergence. No one would ever believe that. I’m an idiot.

“Okay, fine, yes, that’s me! I’m here on business, so please…” I cut myself off as something I should’ve thought about before now occurs to me. This is a big building, I’ll have to ask someone for directions, and she’s given me as good a chance as any. “Actually, do you know where Aisling’s club is?” 

Mor’s face lights up. “Ohhh, I see! Sure! Fifth floor, science lab in room 512. Take the stairs on the right and it’ll be on your left in the hall. If you hurry, you can maybe catch her before-”

“What are you doing here?” another girl growls from just outside the front doors. Her voice is clearly raised, but not quite shouted.

“Wah?!” Mor yelps, visibly startling at the sound. So does the messy black-haired girl on the roof who had been sitting beside her. As I frantically search for the speaker, Mor takes a few hasty steps backward. “Mm. I, I’ll let you get to that, then,” she stammers. “Lin, we should go get the club set up!” The girl above who must be Lin doesn’t acknowledge her directly, just stuffs the book she’s holding into her bag, hops to her feet, and takes off toward the far end of the roof. Mor scrambles off to the left, where a curved ramp lead up to the roofs and higher buildings, and disappears around the corner.

Leaving me with Mide, who’s come to a sudden halt outside the glass doors, eyes narrow, fists balled at her side. 

My whole body tenses up. The world narrows around us, though I’m still dimly aware of the many, many onlookers. Is this happening again? Am I safe? Do I need to… no. No, I can’t start fighting Keepers whenever they get in my way. Whether or not she knows about my recent incidents, Mide hasn’t transformed and pulled a weapon at the sight of me or anything. Her hair is in that same long golden braid, and she’s dressed in an old-fashioned blue tunic dress with green embroidery, its colors matching the school uniform’s. I can’t blame her for just glaring at me — I wouldn’t want me here either. 

Shona pushes through the crowd inside a second later. She’s taken full advantage of the Keeper uniform rules, dressing in the sort of stuff I imagine you’d see at some loud punk concert — a short red and black-striped dress that seems styled to look like it’s shredded on one side, exposing a dark under-layer, ripped black leggings under a studded belt, and for some reason, platform boots that make her tower over everyone else even more.  “Oh. Ah… heeey, Eyna!” she says. Haltingly, with only a little of that exhausting boundless energy of hers. “It’s been a minute, yeah? What brings you over here?”

“…Things to do. I didn’t know you went here. I’ll get out of your way. Is there a back entrance somewhere?” I ask.

“No, first I’d really like to know what things you have to do here,” Mide says, moving to block my way as I look over at the side ramp.

“Well, I’m not staying here! I’m not talking with an audience! Follow me if you want, or… or find us a room or something if you think there’s stuff we need to say!” I try to say it like that’s final, but it doesn’t work at all. My voice fights me for every syllable.

No silence falls over the courtyard. Students keep right on whispering amongst themselves in the background. 

But after a moment, Shona puts a hand on Mide’s shoulder and yells: “Alright, you heard her! Move along! Personal space! See you all tomorrow!” 

It takes a little longer for her words to register, but finally, the crowd does start moving again. I shuffle off to the side of the door while the traffic jam clears.

“…Thanks,” I say as the other two follow me. Mide keeps a noticeable distance. 

“Hey,” Shona says. “Whatever happened, you’re a guest and we’re in this thing together, right?”

I pause, then give a single nod in reply.

I’m not so sure. But at least for now, I’ll take it.

The Hanged Man 5-4

My body seizes up as Seryana’s presence brushes over me. My magic, the only part of me that isn’t a helpless ruin, instantly lashes back out. Acting on mental reflexes that still feel strange and new, I summon a ring of tainted cards and push them outward, forming a whirling, slicing shield of corrosive power.

Nothing happens. Nothing and no one is here. There’s only the dusty film on my neck and the phantom sensation of clumped strands of wet hair draping over my shoulder. I search the place with my soul’s perception and find only her stench, almost as strong around me as it is in the house. 

She’s here. She obviously has to be here in some way. But I’m sure she isn’t attacking from within me, like the infection of my plague, and it doesn’t feel like she’s in the house, so where? More importantly, how? My best guess is that she’s… connected herself to me in some way. I just don’t know what that means. Or what I’m supposed to do about it. 

The house still reeks of Seryana in a way that feels far more pronounced than any other trail of corruption I’ve followed, even though my senses are certain that she’s not here. She’s not in the house, and while she’s around me in some strange magical sense, she’s not hiding in my soul or anything like that. And if Seryana is really “always right here,” stalking me everywhere I go, why is she only showing up now? Some connection to this place that remained when she fled last night? Maybe there’s something left in there she doesn’t want me to see or do? Or something she does want?

But whether it’s a hidden weakness or a trap, what comes next will have to tell me something about what she’s doing. That’s the only way I know how to do this, and it’s worked so far. For a certain idea of ‘worked’ where no step forward I take ever seems to bring me closer to my goal, and no matter what Vyuji says I can’t help but keep wondering if I’m moving at all or if my whole life is still just-

No. Stop. Not the time for this. Focus.

The house itself hasn’t changed since last night. It still has those strange shifting curtains, though the pale light leaking through them from inside is harder to see in the daytime. The front door is still slightly open, unmoved from where I slammed it on Seryana’s arm. There’s a thin length of frayed, rotting rope wedged between it and its doorframe, as if my feeble strength was enough to sever her limb and this is all that remains of it. I poke my cane through the crack in the door and pull it all the way open. 

Last night, I didn’t look around inside too much. My card’s flat view and weak night vision were enough to see that the place was a horrific mess, littered all over with Seryana’s little hair-knots. Now, with morning light streaming into the short front hall, it looks like practically everything here is ruined. The lights aren’t just off — all the sockets in view hold the stems of smashed lightbulbs, with glass shards strewn across the floor beneath them. I’m not sure where the dim light through the curtains was coming from, then — maybe it’s different upstairs, or maybe, well, they’re eerie Harbinger magic. Maybe they just look like that.

There’s a side table that’s fallen over in my direction, presumably because one of its legs has been ripped off, and in front of it lies the shattered remains of a ceramic lamp, a vase, and a now-withered houseplant that must’ve lived in it once. Not for the first time, I’m glad my Keeper outfit’s boots are so heavy. They were sturdy enough to trudge through fanged nightmare seaweed. They should be okay here. But I’ll still be careful.

<This place was not so good for us, I know,> Seryana’s voice sighs from nowhere. I reach out with my soul’s senses again, searching every corner for my stalker, but find nothing. How is she doing this? Is everything happening from afar, or does she have a way to conceal her presence? Can Harbingers do that?

<But even here, there were softer, kinder times, weren’t there? Memories we traced gently over one another’s souls, even if they were buried beneath those we carved and scratched and branded after a while. I hope it’s those ones you’re here to reflect on. Oh, maybe we can unearth them together! Dig them back up like a treasured album lost beneath the ashes of a burned house! Won’t it be wonderful, to find them there as bright and beautiful as ever?> She finishes with a high, sharp parody of a giggle, and then she’s gone, leaving only a nauseatingly fresh wave of her stink.

The language of magic seems to say a lot with very few words. It’s hard to make a direct comparison when I’m not at all familiar with its sounds or structure, but Seryana said all that in the time it would take me to say a simple sentence in Clarish. Her voice, though… she makes the closest thing to human sounds I’ve heard from a Harbinger, but that only makes it worse. Her speech reminds me of one of my first year classmates’ mom, a loud woman who spoke to anyone younger than her — including most of the teachers — in shrill, drawn-out baby talk.

And I have no idea what she’s saying. I know what it means, yes, but from her first words to me, she’s talked as if we have some deep bond and I can’t imagine why. It’s like she immediately mistook me for someone else, even as I dragged the man she was haunting before me away from her. 

Or maybe it doesn’t matter who I am. Maybe she’s just obsessed with the idea of some kind of human connection, imagining her victims in whatever part she wants them to play with no attention paid to who they are. But that still doesn’t explain why she’s babbling about a history that never happened.

Unless she’s trying to replace a single specific person?

Vyuji said a witch without a Harbinger was just a broken person. What happens to a Harbinger if a witch they’ve bonded with dies? Until Aulunla twisted itself into the tortured monster it died as, its witch was a key part of its ideas and plans. Could it have been anything separate from her? The thought of it stumbling around half-dead, latching on to anyone who vaguely reminded it of its one friend… feels almost as pitiful as its final moments were. 

But that’s just one thought. This could still be something else I don’t understand yet. Back to searching the place… which might be hard. This house isn’t that big, but there is a second floor, and the kitchen and living room I saw last night are too far in for light from the front door to reach them. The windows are still blocked, and I doubt any of the overhead lights will be in better shape than these ones.

I wish I could see in the dark. That’d be really useful. Actually… maybe I can? It hurt a lot and took a lot of health, but I did plenty of things I shouldn’t have been able to in Aulunla’s Wound. Experimentally, I peer down the hall and channel a tiny sip of life into my eyes. 

Nothing changes. Nothing that couldn’t just as easily be my eyes adjusting the normal way, at least. Maybe it happened a bit faster than usual? Thanks for nothing, magic. And fine, I guess special night eyes don’t really fall under the concept of stealing wellness, but I think they should. It’d even fit in with this whole creepy vampire freak story my power apparently wants to tell. Maybe Emergence can help me out there at some point. Unless that’d require another weird detour away from making me immortal, in which case no thank you I’ll figure something else out.

Ugh, what is wrong with me? A Harbinger being all quiet and sneaky does not make this a great time to talk to myself.

Hm. Is this place enough like a Wound to make a tarot diagram of? I’ve never tried in the real world, but I’m still trying to feel out a Harbinger’s shape and origin point here. It should work the same way. Probably. 

I will my cards to form a spread. There’s my card, the skeletal crow of Death inverted, with six other cards forming a circle around it so tight that they cover most of it. I can read the glyphs on them now — they’re six identical copies of the Lovers inverted. Depicted here as an embracing couple, their bodies stitched together with twine that runs all the way over and through their skin. In the thin space between them, the thread binding them is tied into a dozen elaborate knots.

Which… doesn’t really tell me anything useful. It just makes my stomach churn a little.

Looking around, there’s nothing new in view from here. If this house has anything to tell me, it’s waiting in the dark. I fold the filthy doormat up, wedge it into the frame, and mostly-close the door over it, just to head off any horror movie scenes where the door slams shut and locks me in. Not that I really expect that to stop a Harbinger if that’s what she wants to do. Once I’m done, I allow my vision a moment to fully adjust to the darkness, then push further inside. 

I didn’t look upstairs at all last night, and the stairs are right at the end of the front hall, so I head there first. The steps are predictably covered in dirt and hair, but no worse than the rest of this place. It does look especially dark at the top, though. The eerie green glow of my cards still isn’t enough to illuminate much of anything, but it doesn’t hurt, either. I float my spread just ahead of me until we reach the upper floor, then follow it into a half-open door just across from the stairs. As I push the door open, I can just make out something hanging from the ceiling.

And between one step and the next, where my foot should touch the ground, it just keeps falling, like I’m walking off a cliff, and I start to tumble into the void with it.

My heart stops for an instant, then hammers wildly as if making up for lost time. My free hand lashes out to grab around the doorknob, and with an instinctive flood of life, it clamps onto the metal harder than I’ve ever gripped anything. A twisting shock runs up my arm as I jolt to a stop, suspended over an endless pit of nothing. The things I saw dangling in here are clearer, now — ropes tied into nooses, fixed to nothing, simply floating above.

Something slides around my ankle, coils up tightly, and pulls, like a weight tied to my leg. A sharp, nervous giggle in Seryana’s voice echoes through the expanse.

I lurch backwards, throwing my weight into pulling the door back towards its frame. Then, with the arm still clutching my cane, I reach through the doorframe, plant the cane across the floor, and with another flood of life, push up on it as hard as I can, fighting against the invisible load trying to drag me down. I manage to lift myself just enough to get one of my legs over the ledge, allowing me to squirm through the doorway and back onto solid ground. I stumble to my knees, sweating and gasping for air to replace all the breath I must’ve been holding.

The moment I stagger back to my feet, a single shapeless arm wraps around my waist. Something thin and twisting and smelling of waste and mildew embraces me from behind, full-body. I twist to look over my shoulder, where starting from the arm, scrawled, scratchy dark lines like the ones that obscure Seryana’s face trace a humanoid outline. Where they pass, the Harbinger’s gaunt form, cloak of matted hair, and faceless white void come into being.

<What were you DOING there? You can’t scare me like that! I can’t bear to think of what could’ve happened to you! In a world without you, without us, there wouldn’t be anything!> 

That stupid voice is really getting to me.

I pull a single card from my orbit, twirl it around myself, and will it to dissolve in motion, creating a spinning plume of infectious emerald mist. My fog clings to me, seeps into me, filling my limbs with a familiar cold numbness, but it somehow manages to feel like ice on a wound at times like these. 

<—What… is this? Why? It hurts! Why? It hurts it hurts it hurts it HURTS!> Seryana whimpers. The last remaining bit of black scrawl, the veil around her faceless head, stretches out. It grows into a twitching cloud of jagged, scratchy lines drawn over reality, then slowly pulls itself back together. 

<Is this… oh. Oh my! Is this what you needed from me? What you needed to do to me? Why you hated me so much before? It is, isn’t it? I see, I see!> She speaks with two sharp, strained voices, one shrieking and one laughing until it hurts at the same time. It sounds like she’s trying and failing, horribly, to work them into some kind of harmony, to create the sound people would make if it was normal to scream your throat raw when you were happy.

<If that’s what you need, if that’s the only way to bring us closer, then please, do it! Break me more! I’ll accept all that you are. All that you inflict upon me. Always. Every memory, every sensation we share… they’re all precious, irreplaceable treasures!> The blackness around her forms itself into a simple, shaky doodle of a smile, but only holds the shape for a second before it dissolves back into chaos. The rest of her soon follows, melting back into a formless mess of scribbles and frayed ropes. Then only the rope remains, scattered all along the floor.

“That’s how we’re doing this? Fine. Fine,” I hiss. “It wasn’t even that good a trap.”

I keep searching the house, now using my cane like a blind person’s walking stick to poke the floor before every step, and Seryana follows me all the while. She creeps ever closer to me, babbling nonsense about our cherished memories and fateful reunions all the while. Eventually, she shows herself a little too clearly, holds still for a little too long, and I use another card to shroud her in sickness. Then she recoils, wailing and giggling and thanking me for the attention. This cycle repeats three more times before I’m done searching the house. She’s treating me like a cat who can’t decide if water is exciting or terrifying, edging a little further back toward not-so-wary interest with every minute since she last soaked her paw. 

As for what I find, starting from the rest of the upstairs… there’s a bathtub full of dark, murky water, with ropes and electrical wires that don’t appear to be attached to anything trailing out from the five or six random appliances someone’s thrown into it. A bedroom where the air is inexplicably too thick to breathe. A bottle of black pills on the dining room table labeled, in a single swirling Harbinger-sigil: <I MISS YOU MORE EVERY SINGLE DAY.> The house is full of ways to die, but the pit-room was the most precarious. None of these things are enough to hurt you if you just ignore them.

Is her plan… what, to be so obnoxious to the people she tethers herself to that they want to die? 

I put the pills down and choke back an absurd burst of helpless laughter.

Seryana scribbles herself into being, standing well within my personal space. <Oh, oh, have you thought of something nice? Or are you happy we’ve learned so much about each other? All the pain and terror will be worth it if it makes you smile like that more often!>

Nothing about this is funny. It’s really, really not. I’ve seen what she does to people, and I have no reason to think the man I saved was her first victim. It’s just… unless this is part of some deeper trap so bizarre that I can’t even imagine what it would be, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.

“Your story’s, hahh… it’s probably pretty terrible too, huh?” I wheeze.

She tilts her head, uncomprehending. This would be so much easier if I could talk back to Harbingers. Get them talking the way so many of them seem eager to do, steer their ramblings toward what I need to know.

But I can’t. So instead, I launch three more cards at her, burying them in her hair, and detonate them as one.

And while she chokes on my shroud of corruption, delighted as ever, I make my way to the front door — still wedged open — and leave.

This isn’t working. There’s not enough of Seryana here to really hurt her. It’s difficult to actually tell how much my infection is really taking hold, but even with how promising her first reaction was, she doesn’t seem that bothered yet. Thinking of how Yurfaln rebuilt its Wound to include my infection, she might even be getting something out of this.

<Darling? Where are you going? We’ve only just started digging!> Seryana’s voice complains. I expected as much. She might have more power over that house than she does over any random place, but she’s obviously not trapped there.

I duck under the police barricade along the sidewalk, ignoring her. “You should probably go,” I call to the man on guard. “This is a bad place. Leave up the barriers, come back when you have someone to cleanse it.” 

He doesn’t need any more convincing. I start back toward the hospital.

<I don’t understand. Why are you acting like this? What did I do wrong?>

If Seryana’s so happy when I’m trying to kill her, maybe I can buy some time to think if I just… disengage.

<Why? We were doing so well and I don’t understand and I can’t make it right if you won’t explain anything!>

I just keep walking, not offering her so much as a “leave me alone.”

<I’ll be there for you as soon as you’re ready to share more of yourself with me. I’ll be there in your heart, filling the cold, gnawing absence in it as thoughts of you fill mine. I’ll always be there,> she whines, then falls… mostly quiet.

That isn’t to say she leaves me alone. She just… changes her approach. Her stench still follows me everywhere. She’s ever at my side, a noxious invisible presence breathing into my ear, murmuring wordlessly or humming warbling, unpleasant little tunes. Worse, while she doesn’t appear again, she remains solid enough to touch me, which she does. At every opportunity. Her coarse, twisting hands touch my shoulder, trailing down to brush along my back. Her hands wrap around my waist or legs and pull from behind, like that formless weight in the pit room. 

A few blocks from the hospital, rough fingers trace along my stomach, squirming and wiggling like… is she trying to tickle me? Is that what that is? It feels like trying to scratch an itch with sandpaper. It’s nauseating. I hate it. It takes every bit of my willpower not to just flood the daytime city sidewalk with death and hope it sticks this time. That, and the knowledge that it wouldn’t help at all.

~~~

So, doing my entirely inadequate best to tune Seryana’s advances out, I end my transformation and head back up to the seventh floor.

“Oh, good… good afternoon, Liadain,” the front desk nurse greets me. She speaks softly, but her face is scrunched up in disgust. “Are you… okay? Did you, um, step in anything? Or get… sprayed by some animal?”

<Who’s this? You don’t need to pay her any mind. We don’t need anyone but each other,> Seryana babbles into my ear as I stare silently ahead.

…Right. Urgh. I already knew normal people can smell her. Why am I even here? Is this horrifically dangerous for everyone else?

Well, it’s not like I have any other options. I can’t exactly spend the night in a park and kick off some panicked search for me when I don’t turn up. Besides, judging by my nightmares, it seems like she was already here last night. She’s not here to infest this place, she’s following me. 

I just need to keep her attention for now. Even if that’s the very last thing I want to do.

“Um, sorry, yes, I think that was it,” I tell the nurse. “I’m fine, though. l’ll go… clean it up. Take a shower.” Without giving her another chance to respond, I rush to my room, flip the Do Not Disturb tab out, and shut myself in.

~~~

I call room service and order a big meal to cover for the breakfast I rushed through. Grilled salmon and brown rice — honestly, much as I resent this place for all the time I’ve spent trapped here, the food has always been pretty good. I can’t force myself to slow down enough to appreciate it on a day like this, though. I actually shovel this meal down faster, mostly because if Seryana touches my food, I don’t think I could eat anything ever again.

Once that’s done, I spend the rest of the day alone… well. Not nearly alone enough. She continues the routine from our walk home, whispering random nonsense and touching me just often enough that I can’t predict when the next invasion will come. She moves my things, too, randomly misplacing my pens and knocking over my cane.

During the brief stretches where I can get anything done, I add a tentative section on Seryana to my journal. Most of it is just thoughts on what to do about her. One idea in particular stands out. It may be very stupid, but that seems to be the way of it with Harbingers frustratingly often. 

She clearly has a way of channeling herself through her victims. Some trick that lets her act on, through, or around people while her heart nests safely somewhere else. I’m not even certain she was there when I first found her. 

So if she can blink in and out of being whenever she wants, and she’s doing something in here while I sleep… maybe I can set my own trap. 

Later, as twilight passes by and leaves me in here with my very uninvited guest instead of taking my usual patrol walk, I think I really should take that shower. I’ve had my most exhausting, disgusting day in quite a while. It starts well enough — we have our own bathrooms here, and on most days when I don’t have anything urgent to do, I like to sit down under the faucet and just inhale the steam for a while. It helps me breathe a little easier by the time I’m done.

I’ve just closed my eyes and started to settle in when I realize what a mistake this was. When a sickly wet plop sounds out, and my eyes shoot open to find a great shed clump of someone else’s thick, grimy hair on the shower floor.

Seryana sighs happily, her voice coming from right behind my ear.

No. No no no no I can’t anymore. I rake my nails along my right arm hard enough to draw blood, but no blood comes out. Only icy emerald mist, pouring out and out directly from my body until it fills the shower stall, turning the water painfully cold, and starts to spill out into the rest of the room. I wrench my eyes shut as Seryana giggles in agony, then slowly melts away, no doubt overjoyed that she’s finally gotten something out of me. By the time I dare to look again, all that remains is a film of wet dust where her hairball once was.

…At least… if I’m desperately searching for anything at all worthwhile to come of this, which it seems like I am for some reason, at least it’ll keep her focused on me. At least I only have to worry for my own safety.

~~~

Once I’ve… not exactly recovered from that repulsive trespass, but gotten over it enough to keep moving, and finished the rest of my bedtime preparations, I summon a single corrupted card. That’s harder to do without transforming — there’s a resistance that isn’t normally there, a thick barrier between simply imagining something and the act of forcing it into reality that goes away when I unleash my magic fully. Thick, but permeable. I’ve done it before, back when I was first experimenting with Irakkia’s power, and it’s gotten a little easier since.

I set Pearl on the desk across the room, just in case. It doesn’t look very comfy there, so I get an extra sheet from the linen closet and make her a nest… but no, that’s not good enough either.  Will this be a safe enough spot if something goes wrong? Or, thinking of it now, what if I spring the trap and my infection leaks out through the cracks under the door? Or through the walls? I don’t think it can do that, but I’m not certain.

A moment later, as I’m pacing nervously around the room, the nest rustles. A thin, invisible finger strokes the fur on Pearl’s back the wrong way. I race to the desk, snatch her up, and swaddle her fully in thin sheets.

“If you touch her again I will fucking kill—” I start to growl, but trail off when I realize that I have no idea what to say. There’s no threat that works. Kill her? I’m already doing my best, and I haven’t figured out how to make it stick yet. Kill myself, and remove her anchor? It seems very much like that’s what she wants.

“Vyuji!” I yell.

My Messenger materializes in her favorite spot on the windowsill, and Seryana’s presence melts out of being. Not actually retreating or severing her connection to me, I’m sure — it’s the same way she’s faded into the background for short stretches before. She’s probably just startled by this other magical intruder.

“Liadain. How is your hunt going?” Vyuji asks.

I wail wordlessly in answer.

Vyuji nods sagely. “I see. Is there any way I can advise or assist you with… mmh.” She pauses, looking around and crinkling her nostrils. “With that?” 

“I hope so! The Harbinger’s… she’s really really really gross and horrible, and she has some connection to me she’s using to do things without being here. And without letting me follow her back to wherever she really is.”

“Ah. That’s what I was smelling.”

“Yes. That’s the one. She’s been making this whole day miserable, but I think she did something here last night, while I was sleeping. In my dreams. So I’m trying to catch her that way, or at least hurt her in a way that counts.” I hold up the tainted card between my fingers. “I’m not sure if I can use this in my sleep, but it’s the best idea I have so far.”

“It could work. What do you need from me?”

“Um…” My eyes flick across the room, and I realize that I just summoned an agent of the Goddess to protect my stuffed animal. “When I use these cards, they make horrible death-clouds. They spread. I can steer them, but that might be hard while I’m sleeping, and I don’t want to… mess anything up. Hurt anyone but the Harbinger. So I was wondering if you could make one of those barriers you made when we first met, but just around me and my bed?”

Vyuji gives no sign that she picked up my original worry. Not that I was exactly lying about any of that. She just thinks for a moment, then nods once. “I could, but if you want to catch the Harbinger in an act she performed overnight, a ward may be counterproductive.”

“…Right. Good point,” I mumble.

“However, I could keep watch and alert you under certain conditions — say, if the Harbinger manifests physically, if she attempts anything elsewhere in the hospital, if any power you use spreads beyond this room, or if it feels like your soul is seriously endangered. It may be difficult to wake you in that last case, but that is your risk to take. This would, however, require me to ‘sit right in here and watch you sleep,’ which you asked me not to do when we met. Not literally, physically in here, and not watching with human senses, but you understand my meaning.”

“Um, yes, that’s fine. Only until this is over, though.”

“Of course. Is there anything else I can do?” she asks. “With the usual stipulations regarding my inability to directly face a Harbinger.”

There’s still… oh, I don’t have any better ideas, so you know what? I did summon an agent of the Goddess to protect my stuffed animal. I have that power. “I see your point about guarding me or the whole room, but… could you just protect Pearl? Her and those blankets?” I point over at the nest on my desk. “The Harbinger’s touched my stuff, and… I don’t want her to.”

Vyuji looks across the room, tilts her head, then… smiles, warm and wide. It’s another one of those rare faces on her that looks like it might actually be expressing something. “Oh, you children are so cute,” she says.

Pearl is cute,” I insist. “Can you do it?”

“Certainly.” Vyuji sings a low, short burst of whalesong, wrapping Pearl and her makeshift bed in a thin halo of light, colored like the moon on the sea at night. “If that’s all, I suppose I’ll wish you good luck rather than goodnight.”

“I think that’s everything. Um, thank you again,” I say.

Vyuji inclines her head slightly and vanishes.

I move Pearl’s still-glowing nest to the top shelf of my clothes closet. “Sorry,” I whisper. It’s probably not necessary. Axolotls like dark, tight spaces. It still feels… lonely, though. The last time I slept without her was while I was recovering from my second transplant. But she’ll be safe there, so that’s what matters. And if my plan goes anything like I want it to, that’ll hardly be the most uncomfortable thing about tonight.

Finally, I climb into bed, squeezing a card filled with my corrosive power to my chest under the covers. 

~~~

I don’t often have dreams coherent enough to remember. Or if I do, I forget them after waking enough to get out of bed anyway. Most of the time, I just wake with a few disjointed images and abstract, usually-unpleasant lingering emotions and impressions swimming around in my head.

So when I find myself looking up into a desolate abyss of grey fog, pinned to a cold surface by hands of coarse twine interlacing their fingers with mine, it’s strange that it feels so horribly familiar

<I knew I’d find you here. I knew you’d be thinking of me. Sometimes… things go wrong, I know. We push each other away, or we draw close and find parts of ourselves grating against one another until our skin is bloody and raw.> Seryana trills. Her voice is like glass shards scraping against each other in my head. The outline of her shape looms over me, drawn over the dreamscape in a living storm of harsh black lines.

<But here in our dreams, in our truest hearts, there are no barriers between us. We can understand every flaw, every misstep, every way in which we accidentally rip each other to shreds, and in understanding, we can forgive! We will be one, forever and always!>

Shards of half-recalled memory stab into my mind, scars and echoes of what happens next. Of being strangled from the inside, drowning in the stink of rotten refuse all the while. 

This time, though, I’m just aware enough of what’s happening to remember what I’m doing here. This time, I’m prepared. I call to my magic — it isn’t in some other place, with this shroud of endless fog between us. It’s always there, inseparably wound up with every part of my being. It’s me, and it shouldn’t take anything more than my desire to spring my trap.

But nothing happens.

It’s not just that my power doesn’t answer — nothing happens. The world pauses. The shifting of scratchy black marks over Seryana’s spectral echo is the only motion anywhere. After a moment, she pulls herself free from the stillness, jumping up and pulling frantically away from me. Her eyeless gaze swivels in all directions, like a cornered animal searching for any way out at all, only the trap she’s caught in is this whole world.

<Who’s… how… what, what what what what whatwhatwhatwhatwhat do you think you’re doing? This place exists for my dearest and I! For our sake alone! You have no right to->

There’s an intangible shifting, not of movement or weight but of attention. Of invisible eyes prickling on my back, a gaze I only just became aware of, turning away for the briefest moment. Seryana raises her head and shrieks, wailing out some unnameable emotion in a glass-on-glass cacophony—

And then she vanishes, utterly without ceremony. Stench and all. Her voice cuts off as if she was never even here. It’s hard to even think of what she was saying, like it was all just something that happened in a distant, fuzzy memory.

<what a noisy child,> a whisper-faint voice speaks, though speaking feels like far too strong a word for this sound. It’s too light for reality, spoken so softly that nothing should be able to hear it, but carried into my soul on a breeze like the chill wind between the stars. <this is not her sphere. she will not return here, nor to you — for this night, at least.>

<so let us sweep her delusions away and look upon what should be here.>

The Hanged Man 5-3

Dr. Cantillon sits in silence, watching me for… for what? Is there some reaction to that she’s expecting?

“…A story? What?” I finally ask.

“Yes. A story. I said it was more accurate, not that it was a useful explanatory metaphor.”

“Explain it, then! What is that even supposed to mean? Are you saying, what, we’re all characters stuck in someone’s book about how awful magic is?”

I read a book with a twist like that once. It was terrible.

“Pfhah. Don’t be ridiculous.” Dr. Cantillon snorts out a single hollow laugh. “Although I suppose we are a long way off from being able to say precisely what counts as ‘ridiculous,’ where magic is involved, and it’s not the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard. If it were true, I’d have some choice words for our author… but I’m digressing again. No, that’s not what I mean. It’s simply the way I phrase my understanding — my very limited understanding — of how all this seems to work in practice, not a statement on the structure of the universe.”

“I mean, okay. I’ve seen enough of magic to get that a lot of it works on a sort of dream logic. I assume you’re talking about something like that and calling it story logic instead. But I’ve had magic for a month, so I don’t see what that has to do with the disease that’s been trying to kill me every day of my life.”

“And in that month, you’ve started treating your immune disorder by stealing others’… health, whatever that means here,” the doctor says in a voice with no particular feeling behind it. “You’re clearly no longer facing the same type of problem.”

I glance away, folding my arms over my stomach.

“Relax. I’m not here to chastise you. I’m still frustrated with the sheer insane abstraction of it, that’s all. The idea of ‘health’ as a single thing you can suck out of one person and place into another does not sit well with the way we practice medicine.” She scratches something into her notepad at what looks like it would be a frantic pace for anyone else, but seems to just be how she writes.

That doesn’t make me feel better at all, but I bite my lip and nod. “Okay. I’m listening. Please explain.”

“Gladly. So. As I understand it, a Keeper’s magic has two central components. The first is largely self-explanatory: it’s the shape of your power. What it is. The parts of the world you can change and control.”

“Right. My Messenger talked a bit about this.”

“If they talked about the second aspect, I’d be very interested in what they had to say.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if things were that easy? If we understood it well enough to know what we should call it? I’ve heard some older Keepers refer to it as a theme, a term which I frankly will not use because I find its implications odious, but I’ve yet to come up with a better one myself. Vector, maybe? But that doesn’t quite cover it… well, anyway. I’ll keep this as simple as possible, and please understand that I am not talking down to you. This is the only way I know to explain it.” She sets her notepad on the counter and folds her hands in her lap, squeezing them tightly enough that it looks like it should hurt.  I catch a glimpse of the page she’s been writing on, and it’s… is that even Clarish? I think those are letters, at least, but they’re written in such an exaggerated parody of a doctor’s shorthand scrawl that I can’t see how they could be legible to anyone.

“It is… what your magic is about. What it’s saying about you, or the world. The story it’s telling, to return to my original phrasing. This part is far more difficult to pin down, but it’s at least as important to the forms a Keeper’s power actually takes. Especially to the limits of what they can do. Is this starting to follow, now? Does it make any more sense of your experiences so far?”

On my first day, Vyuji called my disease the origin of my magic. She compared the idea of fixing it with my power to a snake eating itself whole.

“Then… my magic is sickness and is about… also sickness? That’s the story?” The words feel like puking up sand. What she’s saying makes sense, it feels true, but that’s… it’s hard to breathe all of a sudden. It’s not who I am. It can’t be what I am. It can’t.

“It’s uncomplicated, if nothing else. Our best efforts to treat you failed, so magic… changed your condition into something it could treat. It gave you a way to take your own transfusions from the world — ones that don’t last so much longer or do so much more to fix you, from the way you’ve described it, but are helping, at least so far.” Dr. Cantillon says, and exhales through gritted teeth. 

“I should note, this is all just my current best guess. To my knowledge, while most Keepers can see the shape of others’ magic in their souls, there’s no way to quantify this part with unnatural senses. It can only ever be reasoned out by the Keeper and those who know them, guessed at by observing their life and magic. And since I doubt you’d want this, I’m not saying that simply to comfort you. Or to offer false hope that your power will turn out to be based on something completely different. But there may be nuances to it we don’t yet understand. Or something more complex that’s currently showing itself in connection with illness for obvious reasons.”

“Something like what? Fine, it’s a magic mystery no one can actually know, but can I change it somehow? You… I don’t know, you mentioned Keepers who knew about these things? Could one of them help?

Dr. Cantillon raises one hand, closes her eyes, and shrugs apologetically. “I’m afraid that’s mostly up to them. I certainly don’t have the power to summon any Keepers. I would love to get Iona’s thoughts on this matter, for instance, but it seems her schedule is always a bit too tight to fit me in. And if she were inclined to share her lifetime of knowledge with the scientific community, I expect she’d have found a way to do it by now. But then, perhaps most Keepers are more apt to make time for one of their own than for probing questions from someone like me,” she says with another flat, lifeless smile.

I’m not going to go knock on the Fianata estate’s door, but the girl whose help I refused yesterday looms large in my thoughts. Would she have known about any of this? Would it matter? I have no idea who she is or what she can do, just… a lot of reasons to think she couldn’t wave her hands and save my life. Not because of any problem with her, but because it sounds like no one can.

“If I weren’t a Keeper, and my sickness wasn’t… inextricably wrapped up with my soul or whatever it is now, would this be a problem? Could someone else have fixed me?”

“That is… a complex question,” Dr. Cantillon says, very slowly.

“I’m not going to explode on you or anything. Promise. I just… want to know.”

“Right, right. Can’t be too careful, sometimes.” She purses her lips, nods, and reaches for her notepad. “Well, it is a legitimately difficult question. Saying anything about magic with certainty tends to be. In a case like yours, though… there are Keepers with healing powers, yes? Do you know any stories of one walking into a mundane hospital and curing a hundred incurable conditions in a day’s work?”

“No. I don’t think that’s ever happened.” And I’ve checked, obviously.

“To my knowledge, it hasn’t. Oh, there’ve been grander miraculous contributions, like Saint Nistla’s creation of vaccines, but short of Emergence and the consequences thereof, magical healing has never played a reliable part in conventional medicine, even as a last resort. Why do you think that is?”

I used to wonder about that myself. But since it couldn’t be that no Keeper had ever wanted to eradicate, say, cancer or inborn diseases, I figured it was just one more way in which the world wasn’t what anyone wanted it to be.

Now, of course, I know the likely reasons all too well. I have to worry about my own life first, but if I could, I’d save everyone on the seventh floor. If I could, I’d make it so no one would have to die ever again, and everyone who’s ever written self-satisfied junk about how death is natural and nice and Gives Life Meaning could see how they felt when they weren’t forced to accept it.

But I can’t do any of that. I’ll probably never be able to. All I can do is take and take to buy myself and only myself a little more time and there will never be enough. It will never be enough.

“They’re busy doing Keeper things, or they’re focused on something no one else can do like treating Harbinger corruption, or… they can’t. Their magic doesn’t work that way,” I answer immediately.

“All correct, in different cases and to different degrees, but that last one is the main obstacle. For some reason, something about whatever mysterious factors make someone a Keeper and shape their power, there simply haven’t been any who could do such things on a large enough scale to matter. There’s always some cost, catch, or complication preventing magical healers from eradicating illness in one crowded hospital, let alone their city. Not unlike the way your healing works, although your limitations do seem… unusually severe. 

“In almost every case where a Keeper has healed someone beyond our ability to help, they were going above and beyond for someone personally important to them. It almost always ends up being a complex, arduous task in ways you wouldn’t expect it to be for children who can knit mortal wounds shut with a touch,”  she sighs. 

“It’s… ugh, I know full well how this sounds, but it’s as if some aspect of magic doesn’t want to make it too easy for us. These sorts of arbitrary, ridiculous restrictions are what I’m thinking of when I refer to your disease as a ‘story,’ incidentally. I could be wrong, of course. Maybe diseases are just difficult because Infezea made them that way, and it’s still laughing at us from beyond the grave.”

Dr. Cantillon smiles — a thin, bitter expression, but real in a way the one she greeted me with absolutely wasn’t. 

Something about it makes a pit open up in my stomach.

“Anyway, I’m explaining all this as context for the answer to your question. As to that, here’s my best guess. It would have been difficult. There may have been complications. But yes, very likely there would have been some Keeper, somewhere, with some ability to cure you or mitigate your symptoms. Whether they would have is another question, and since the answer to that question is ‘probably not,’ I really wouldn’t advise wasting too much thought on what could have been.”

I know that. I’m not stupid. No miracle was ever going to save me until I made one for myself. That may not be a sure thing, but I’m still in a better situation than I ever was before.

So why does everything feel so pointless? Why am I crying? 

“I’m ah, certain none of this has been what you wanted to hear. I do apologize for that,” Dr. Cantillon says, with a note of unease in her voice very different from the sharp, forever-frustrated tone she uses most of the time. “But we should discuss potential next steps.”

“Like what? It doesn’t… nothing you’ve said makes it sound like there’s anything I can do. Anything but keep hunting and hope Emergence does something for me. Unless that’s part of the story too.”

“It would be best for you to be evaluated by a team of experts, somewhere that’s equipped to handle your unique issues. Some of the uncertainties about your power are dangerous, to you and everyone else. I can’t condone you continuing as you have been without investigating the short and long-term symptoms of being… drained. I don’t think any of the local hospitals are up to it, but there are places in Alelsia where-”

“In Alelsia?” I snap. “You want to send me to live under the sea with a bunch of priests for… for how long? Until they decide it’s safe for me to exist?”

“What good would priests do us?” she snorts. “Alelsia is the heart of magical scholarship, not just the seat of the Church. It’s where you’ll find specialty hospitals catering to children in situations like yours — not all of them, but certainly the best ones.”

“How likely do you think it is that they’ll have someone who can fix this?”

“That depends on what you’re expecting when you say ‘fix this.’ Given what we’ve been discussing, I doubt they’ll be able to cure it outright,” she admits without hesitation.

“I figured. It’d be too easy if they could, after all. My curse-story-disease wouldn’t like it.”

“It’s not that simple. They may still be able to assist you, and the potential complications surrounding your ability are…” She pauses in mid-sentence, looks me over, and groans, almost seeming to deflate for a moment. “Oh, you’re not going to do it, are you?” she asks, quickly fixing her posture.

“No. Sorry.”

“Afraid of scrutiny from the authorities, or insistence that you stop using that facet of your power altogether?”

I say nothing, which is probably just as good as an answer.

“Well, that’s honestly about what I expected. I’ve made similar recommendations to other Keepers, none of whom have ever taken them.” She gives a slight shake of her head, scrawls something in her notebook, then closes it and tucks it back into her pocket. “For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re making a mistake, both for yourself and for any other current or future Keepers struggling with something similar. And while I’ve never had a case exactly like yours, I’ve never heard of a Keeper being condemned solely for the way their magic works. I would be shocked if they couldn’t make some accommodation… but I have no way of forcing you to accept my advice. And I wouldn’t use it if I did. There’s more than enough insanity in my life without shoving myself into Keepers’ personal drama.”

“…Is that that, then? Are we done?”

“I suppose so. Until anything changes, or I come up with anything else that may be of interest to you. If I gave up on you children whenever you didn’t listen to me, I’d have no patients… heh,” she chortles to herself. I have no idea why.

~~~

Our appointment goes on a little longer — just enough for Dr. Cantillon to call Dr. Hines back in and tell him to keep doing what he’s doing until further notice. I’m barely listening. I don’t have much more to say, to them or anyone. 

So as soon as we’re finished, I grab my cane and leave. I just want to do something that matters. Something that helps, even if it will never ever be enough. I want to murder Seryana and eat her soul. Maybe it’ll feel like killing Yurfaln felt again. Maybe, even if it’s only for a few beautiful moments, the pain will stop. No one can help me make that happen. No one can help me with anything.

No one except, maybe…

“Vyuji,” I hiss, right as the elevator opens on the ground floor. A day ago, I would’ve been worried about who might see me talking to myself and what conclusions they’d draw about me. Right now, it seems like an absolute waste of thought. I really can’t be bothered.

“Yes, Liadain?” And she’s already there, waiting for me just outside the nearest exit.

“When were you going to tell me?” 

“I’m not watching over you and what you’re learning at all times, you know. I thought you’d prefer it that way. Tell you what?” she asks.

Not that it’s ever taken more than the slightest prompting for her to know exactly what I’m talking about when I call her… ugh, not important. I have bigger problems.

“…I’m not even sure how to say it? That my magic or my disease or my soul or all three at once have apparently turned into ‘a story about dying of an illness,’ and because of that story it’s impossible for me or anyone to cure what’s wrong with me?”

“Ah,” Vyuji says simply. “That is a lot to unpack. Give me a moment, please,” she says, and vanishes.

“Vyuji?” I open the door and ask the empty air. 

Someone on their way out gives me an odd look, then quickens their pace a little. I keep walking. I guess it isn’t the biggest surprise if even she has nothing to say about this.

“Here I am. Apologies.” Maybe fifteen seconds later, she blinks unceremoniously back into being, floating at a height that brings her gaze level with mine.

“…Oh. Where did you go?”

“Just making sure of something. As to your question… I’d have told you when you asked, or when it was important for you to know. Whichever came first.”

“How was it ever not important for me to know?” I glare at her through the corner of my eye, but don’t slow down. She follows right along, motionlessly drifting sideways. 

“Would it have been helpful for you to know? Or would it have built an insurmountable wall in your mind? Paralyzed you with the false impression that there is no way forward for you? It still may have done that, from the sound of it, but at least now you already know how much you can accomplish.”

My steps falter. Of course it did. Of course hearing that even magic can’t do anything about the useless, broken body I’ll be stuck with for what’s left of my life feels a lot like crashing into an infinite wall, then trying to get past it by smashing my head into it until one of us breaks. “What’s… what’s false about it, then?” I choke out. 

“What you’re saying isn’t exactly wrong, but it is far too simple. Emergence isn’t just a process of physical transformation — you must understand that by now. It changes how you interact with the world, and it with you. It changes what you are. That is what your soul is attempting to do with your disease, and your magic is not your enemy,” she says. Thoughts of the one too-happy rehab nurse who said the same thing about my body race through my mind. Should I be thanking my soul like she told me to thank my skin for keeping my organs in place? Thanking it for what? 

“Magic is not playing out some melodrama at your expense. It is what it is, what you are — that much can’t be helped — but I meant it when I promised that it will give you a way to survive. The very worst scenario I can imagine is that yours becomes a story of eternally dying, racing to stay ahead of death’s ever-advancing threshold but never quite crossing over. And I’m confident you can do much better than that.”

“How? What can I do that’s ‘much better’ if the only thing I want is to get better, and that… can’t ever happen?”

Oh, Liadain.” There’s a softness in Vyuji’s voice, and in her faint smile, that I’ve only heard once before, right when I first made the Promise — it’s the tone I can’t help but think of as motherly. “You’re thinking far too small. Too… human. ‘I want to get better’ is a helpless little girl’s prayer, a wish upon a seashell. It’s beneath you. Do you remember what you asked for when we first met? Complete immortality. To be free from death or destruction, forever and by any means. That is a dream worthy of a Keeper, and it’s one you can very much achieve.”

She spreads the tendrils and stems of one flower-hand into a broad, flat surface, as if opening her palm, and sets it lightly on my shoulder. She’s warmer than I expected, somehow. “So keep growing. Keep becoming more than the defective shell that carries your true self around would ever allow you to be, if you didn’t have the power to grow so very far beyond it. And as you do, imagine what form your eternity will take. If a life spent forever desperately fleeing from death sounds like no life at all, all you need to do is find your way to stop fleeing. Your illness is a part of you, and it may always be, but it’s a part that will change with the rest of you. If you can’t be rid of it, make it into something that serves you. I can’t tell you precisely how to accomplish that, but I hope my promise that you can means something to you.” 

I wasn’t expecting much from Vyuji. I’m not really sure why I called her at all. Maybe for someone to vent on, even knowing that’s never helped once in my life, or to confirm how terrible everything was when she gave me some confusing, cryptic answer that didn’t help at all. But somehow, this is…

“I think it kind of does, actually,” I murmur.

It’s not that I feel good now. Not even better, really. Everything is still terrible. But it’s something. Some way to make sense of all this that comports with what I’ve just learned and doesn’t mean all my goals are impossible.

“Then I’m glad I could serve my purpose,” Vyuji says. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Not now. There’s something I still need to kill before things get any worse,” I sigh. “I should get to that. But thanks.”

“Happily.” She smiles a little wider, waves with her open hand, and disappears.

~~~

I start my hunt at the house from last night. I’m not expecting to find a trail I missed the first time, but inspecting the house could still tell me more about Seryana. And I have no better ideas.

Nothing jumps out to my senses on the way, so I transform a few blocks from the house. Like when I visited the scene of Irakkia’s attack, the place is barricaded and guarded. 

“Morning,” the tall, portly uniformed man on the sidewalk calls to me. “Please, please tell me you’re here to cleanse this place.”

The police do pay more attention to me than last time, though, which makes sense. The site of Irakkia’s attack was a shore where a Harbinger happened to choose some victims. This house was Seryana’s nest, a place so polluted with her presence that it was somehow less real while she was here. Judging by those strange shifting curtains, I think she was trying to cut it off from the rest of the world and drag it physically into her Wound.

Whatever she was doing made an impact it still reeks here. It did starting from two blocks away.

“I don’t think I can do that. Sorry,” I tell him. “I’m the Keeper who found it. The Harbinger got away, so I wanted to see if anything here leads back to… it.”

“Oh,” he grumbles. “Well, that’s your right. Good luck.”

“Out of curiosity, can you smell that?” I grit my teeth and gesture vaguely at the house.

He shudders full-body, making a face like he’s about to be sick. “Seriously? Fucking Goddess, I’ve been doing my best to tune it out, but I think I could still smell that if I cut off my nose!”

I nod slowly, not sure what to do with that. “Um. You’re probably right,” I say. “If you want a break, you should maybe keep your distance while I’m in there. Just in case something happens.”

“Well. if you really think that’s for the best, don’t mind if I do. Don’t mind that at all. Take care, kid.” And without a moment’s delay, he jogs off down the street.

I can’t think too poorly of him. It’s not his… well, no, it’s kind of his job, but it would be a sign of some horrible mental pollution if any normal person didn’t want to keep their distance from this miasma.

And as soon as I approach the door, I’m glad I sent him away.

<It was good of you to come looking for me in an old ruin like this, my love.> Seryana’s acrid breath tickles my neck. It even feels filthy, like a thin film of damp dust settling over my skin wherever it touches.

<But there was really no need! All you had to do was seek me, call for me, wish for me to be by your side! I will always, always, ALWAYS be right here.>

The Hanged Man 5-2

Seryana blinks out of being without a trace or a trail. The stink of her presence lingers, and a stale, sour echo of her odor clings to me even as I step back from the house, but there’s no heart of the corruption. No hole in the world she could’ve burrowed into. As far as I can tell, she’s just gone.

I scan the area with my soul, searching as thoroughly as I can without going back inside. This might be some ploy to take her victim back the moment I leave him alone. Which… maybe that’s a way to catch her again, but no. He already feels like he’ll die without urgent help. Letting the Harbinger anywhere near him would be murder. And it’s not even a good plan. I need to figure out how she works, not just hope she can’t do the same disappearing trick again, and right now my best chance at that is to ask him.

Help first, though. I really don’t want him to die. I weigh the risk of using my phone to call for the Sanctuary against the danger of leaving the man alone, plus the idea of searching for a phone in that dank, disgusting house. Honestly, though, if people are going to find out who I am, there’s plenty of easier clues for them to follow than a still-probably-confidential emergency message. I fish out my phone, still searching with my soul for any sign of Seryana coming back for us, and call 112.

“Hello? I’m a Keeper with a Harbinger victim who needs to go to the Sanctuary as fast as possible. We’re in, um, the south end of the Boundary. 71 Birch Row,” I say, going off the house’s mailbox.

“It’s a single victim? Are you or anyone else injured, and what’s the status of the Harbinger?” a woman’s calm voice asks after only a slight delay.

“Alive, but running away. I think. Um, how long will it take them to get here? I won’t leave him alone, but I do want to catch her.”

“What’s your Lighthouse ID? The responders can update you there once they’re en route.”

“My what?”

“The Keeper network?”

…Oh. Right. One of those reasons I want to avoid that whole Church registration thing. “I don’t have one. I’m new.”

“I see. Well… in that location, it shouldn’t be much more than ten minutes.”

“That’s okay. I’ll wait.” It’s not like I’m giving up the chase — Seryana’s already escaped. And from the way she was talking before she left, she’s taken some interest in me. She wants something from me. Whatever that means will be very bad for me if it goes her way, yes, but I haven’t lost her. If I don’t find her, she’ll find me. Somehow, I’m certain of that.

“Alright. Please stay on the line until the ambulance arrives, and keep me informed if anything changes.”

“Sure.” 

I put my phone back in my pocket and go to check on the victim. He sits on the sidewalk, staring back at the house.

“The Harbinger’s gone. People are on the way to help you. You’re going to be okay,” I say. For all the time I’ve lived through one, I don’t know any ways to comfort people in situations this horrible except make sure they don’t die. I’ve done all I can on that front. Now I can only hope I’m not lying.

Silence. The man glances up at me, says nothing, then shifts to stare wide-eyed over one shoulder.

“You don’t need to push yourself, but if you’ve got the strength to talk, can you tell me what happened? Once you’re safe, I’m going after… that thing, and anything you know might help,” I say. I stop myself from using her name, though I’m not quite sure why. I guess there’s no need for him to understand her. It’s my job to think about what she’s doing and why and how to use that against her, not his. If he recovers, it’d be best if he forgets as much of this as he can.

What would I even ask him, in this state? Can you think of any horrific personal crises that might’ve spawned your nightmare stalker? 

“I didn’t, it didn’t… I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know where it came from.” His voice is husky and rasping, like he’s had nothing to drink in much too long. “Just, I heard a voice. No, I didn’t hear it, it didn’t use words, but it asked… if I was alone. I didn’t answer, but it said no, you aren’t, you never will be again. And then… there it was,” he rasps. “There it’s been. Did I do something wrong? I must’ve had an answer in my head… should I have thought something different at it? How? How do I do that?” His voice isn’t too parched for me to hear the desperation in it. The pleading.

“You didn’t do anything. I don’t think it would’ve mattered. It’s a Harbinger. It was just… doing what it does,” I say. “And thanks. Don’t say anything else if it hurts.”

“Oh… Thank you,” he says.

“…Thank you,” he repeats a minute later. 

~~~

I leave the victim alone after that, watching at a distance for any signs of Seryana. None come. A few minutes later, a wailing ambulance pulls onto the street and opens up. The two medics inside climb out, but rather than rush to the man’s aid, they step back and to the sides, making way for a third person. 

For the Keeper accompanying them.

A girl who must be near the top of the Promise age range steps out from the ambulance, and white wings with long, thin swan feathers unfurl from her back. The long, wavy fall of mint-green hair framing her face and her Keeper regalia — a teal-and-white dress that would look almost like a priestly robe with a single wide detached sleeve, if it weren’t for the low-cut, strapless bodice — contrast her deep bronze skin, and her eyes… aren’t eyes at all. They look like they’re made of water, not frozen but perfectly still, with a gradient of progressively darker teal-blues shaped to create the impression of whites, irises complete with lines and flecks of color, and shadow-on-the-sea pupils. 

She raises her right arm, which is covered to the shoulder in white bandages — no, there is no arm beneath the places they don’t quite cover. The thin lengths of cloth are just acting as if wrapped around an invisible limb. Then they unfurl as one, becoming three thin streamer-appendages that spread out and sway slowly at her side. 

She’s beautiful. So beautiful it’s almost unreal. Like she stepped right out of some classical painting to take a quiet stroll through our world, never losing even a scrap of grace across the journey. I don’t recognize her from anywhere — if I did, I’m certain I’d remember her.

“Is the area still clear?” she asks. She speaks Clarish with a light accent I can’t place, not that I can really place many accents. 

Her soul is hard to read. It’s not at all like Niavh’s, defaced beyond legibility. It’s just… muted, in a way that feels strange for a soul to be. The presence of every Keeper and Harbinger I’ve met has had an unmissable intensity to it — magic wants to express itself. It wants to tell everyone with the right senses to listen to whatever it has to say. There’s none of that with this girl’s aura. It feels like she’s not exactly obscuring it, but somehow keeping it from shouting its full message to the world. All I feel from her is a title: Tarnished Angel.

“Hm? Yes, I think so,” I say. 

The Keeper takes her own look around the house as if to double-check, then approaches the man and kneels. I step back, leaving her to her work. She places her remaining hand on his shoulder and murmurs something to him, to which he simply looks up, stares at her for a moment, and nods. 

She speaks again — louder this time, in a low, soft voice, and while I don’t recognize the language, there’s a steady poetic rhythm to her words. Her cloth appendages begin to gleam with cool cerulean light. One of her bandages draws close to him, wrapping around his back comfortingly, while the other two fold their tips into sharp triangular points.

Then, moving in unison, the pointed bandages slide smoothly through his skin and into his heart. If the process is at all painful, he doesn’t show it. He actually seems to relax at their impossible touch, if only a little.

In a little under a minute, it’s over. The Keeper’s bandages withdraw, pulling themselves free without the slightest blemish to show for their intrusion. She nods to the medics, who unload a low wheeled stretcher from the ambulance and move to help the victim into it.

“Do you think he’ll be alright?” I ask.

A small, sad smile plays across the girl’s face. “We’ve done what we can. He’ll live, yes, but his recovery is a question for the experts.”

I clench one fist, digging my fingers into my gloved palm. I guess I should’ve expected that. The way Seryana treated him, the holes she left in him… now that she’s gone, whether he’ll survive isn’t as much of a question as how much of him is left to save.

She takes a few steps in my direction, leaving a polite distance. “You’re hurt, too. May I heal you?”

“…Oh. Am I? The Harbinger left without much of a fight.” I obviously know what she’s talking about. I know I’m hurt. Whatever Seryana did to my card left a very visible injury.

“Your eye is bleeding,” she says mildly.

“Um. Right, yes,” I murmur. It’s really not that I don’t want a healing Keeper with some kind of diagnosis power seeing what’s wrong with me, or figuring out what I usually do to heal myself. Well, it’s not only that. If I’m not allowed to cure myself with magic, it’s even less likely that someone else’s magic will do it. 

And the last thing I need right now is for someone trying to help me to catch even an echo of my sickness.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. “Just go get him the help he needs.”

“They could take him back on their own from here. It wouldn’t cost me anything but a little time to help you,” she says gently.

“It’s a slippery Harbinger. I’ll feel better if someone’s with him.”

The girl tilts her head, watches me expressionlessly for a few quiet seconds, then nods once. “…Well, I’ll respect your wishes,” she sighs. “Dispatch said the Harbinger was still at large. Will you be going after it?”

“Mhm.”

“I’ll get out of your way, then. Good hunting.” She bows slightly, joins the medics in the back of the ambulance, and shuts the doors behind her.

~~~

Once they leave, I get enough distance from the house to escape Seryana’s stink, summon a single card, and use it to inspect my injured eye. It’s not, in fact, just a cut. Blood is still trickling down my face, yes, but there’s also an ugly bruise that looks like it’s on my eye. I use enough life to stem the flow and reduce the bruise to a mild discoloration, leaving that eye bloodshot with an odd purplish tinge. It still looks weirder than a normal black eye, but, well, my vision seems to be fine? I wipe away as much dried blood as I can, end my transformation, and search the surrounding blocks for any traces of Seryana I might’ve missed. There are none.

Still… to my surprise, I find I don’t feel terrible about tonight. I can’t quite call this a good outing, when I lost a Harbinger and sent the man I saved off to an uncertain fate, but he is in a much better place than he was before I found him. At least this once, I’ve managed to do something good without making anything worse for myself.

It feels kind of nice, strange as it is to think I’m capable of that after the last few weeks. It’s not like I don’t want to protect people if I can. I’ve just always had to worry about saving my own life first. I am still worried about it, of course. Like that girl said, though, I’ve done what I can for now. I’ll see about finding Seryana before she finds me tomorrow.

~~~

“Liadain? Do you have a moment?”

As soon as I step out of the elevator, the night nurse at the seventh floor’s front desk calls to me… oh, huh. It’s the same older nurse who tried to stop me from leaving to meet Shona, back on my first day as a Keeper. Now she just waves me over. I still need to check her tag to remember her name — Banva. 

“Sure. What is it?” 

The nurse mmmhs to herself and glances down at something on her desk as I approach. “So, Dr. Hines called in just a little while ago with a message for you. He’s gotten in touch with… right, there was a… specialist in your condition he was asking after? He found one who’s available to meet with you tomorrow morning. It’s a little short notice, but is that alright? Will that cause any, mh, problems for you?”

“…No? Please tell him that’s fine.”

“Oh, good! Good. I’ll do that,” she says, smiling thinly. It looks like she’s trying to be friendly, but still can’t quite make sense of what possible “problems” might come of my weird new schedule.

“Alright, thanks. If that was all, I should do bed stuff.”

“Ah, yes, that’s everything. Goodnight, Liadain.”

“‘Night.”

Sorry for the trouble, Banva. I’m glad I didn’t have to fight you to leave the hospice back then.

~~~

Something’s tight hold pins my limbs to a cold surface. Something’s rough grip wraps around my neck. It has so many hands. Are they hands? No, they can’t be. Skin doesn’t feel like that. Hands don’t move like that. Hands-that-are-not-hands push their way into my stomach and wrap themselves around my organs, then squeeze all at once, their coarse embrace strangling the life from me inside and out.

This is wrong. It’s all wrong. This pain is not mine. This horrible pressure is the wrong type of hurt. Something other than my blood is eating me alive.

What is it? Why? Why can’t I move? Why can’t I do anything? Let me go I don’t want to die stop stop STOP

Through the last gasp of breath I can manage, I… no, I don’t open my eyes. They’re already open. I just… notice what I’m looking at for the first time.

Pearl’s smiling pink face, still nestled comfortably on her side of the pillow. There’s nothing else here. Nothing but a heavy phantom pain lingering in my neck.

I’m fine. I’m fine, I insist in my head over and over. I must’ve been dreaming. It was only the kind of shapeless nightmare that leaves nothing behind but fear and pain and the sense that even if you’ve already forgotten all but the tiniest random scraps of it, the play of random nonsense that was just chased away by the harsh light glaring through your too-thin curtains must have been something truly horrible to make you feel this way.

I still can’t move, though. I just can’t find the strength. Several more minutes pass like that, the pain in my chest, slowly, slowly fading, until I summon up just enough energy to cocoon myself in blankets and snuggle close to Pearl. One of her fuzzy gills flops over, tickling my nose. I’m not sure how long I spend laying there, but eventually, it all passes.

When did I last have that sort of dream? It’s been a while — a few months, at least. The raw terror of knowing I was going to die and there was nothing anyone could do about it obviously never went away. Sometimes, though, in the stretches of time between anything changing for the worse, it did sort of… scab over.

So why now? Life as a Keeper certainly hasn’t been wonderful, but I have a real, serious chance now, and a life where I have to fight screaming horror-creatures sometimes is infinitely better than no life at all. I don’t understand, and I can’t exactly make more sense of it without even knowing what I was dreaming about. Maybe I should try and keep one of those dream journals my occult books talk about, write out every scrap of memory I can cling to before they fade, but… well, I’ll see if it keeps happening.

Wait.

On a hunch, just in case Seryana is stalking me in my sleep or something, I turn my focus inward and check myself for Harbinger corruption.

And gag at the fetid stink of my own soul. That’s… a bit of her smell followed me home last night, wouldn’t quite wash out with the flow of my power, but this is too much. She’s tried something. Was she here? In my room, looming over my bed? I feel around my room, then the rest of the seventh floor, but can’t find any trace of her outside myself. Did she do something to me from afar?

I yelp and shudder at a sudden soft knock on my door. There’s a perfectly human soul behind it, though, and when it opens a moment later, it’s just a morning nurse here to get my vitals. 

“Oh, Dr. Hines asked me to remind you. You’ve got an appointment scheduled in… forty minutes now,” she says while she takes my temperature.

…Ugh. Right. Of course this happens when I already have plans for today that could be really, really important, involving someone who has a lot of other stuff to do. 

Seryana’s just going to have to wait a couple hours.

~~~

“There you are. You must be Liadain? Lovely to meet you, I’m sure,” a woman’s low, dry voice says. She smiles, though it doesn’t reach her eyes at all.

When I arrive in the exam room, there’s a pale, sharp-featured older woman already seated next to Dr. Hines. Her red hair is kept back in a tight ponytail, save for a few loose wavy strands around her face, and her clothes are distinctly undoctorly — a navy tailored suit, rimless glasses, and none of the tools I’d expect a doctor to carry except a small notepad in one of her suit’s flap pockets. 

“Um, yes. Sorry I’m a little late.”

“Eh, I accounted for that when I scheduled this. I know how Keepers can be about bedtime.”

“I’m very careful about bedtime! I just… had a morning,” I grumble.

She shrugs, smirks with her eyes, and says nothing more.

“…Right, then,” Dr. Hines cuts in with a nervous smile. “Liadain, this is Dr. Cantillon. She doesn’t practice regularly anymore, but she’s a trailblazer on the academic side of understanding Keepers’ medical issues. She’s about as well-equipped as anyone can be to figure out a treatment plan that’ll give you the best possible odds.”

“Ava’s fine, if you prefer. I’ve no preference with patients,” Dr. Cantillon says.  

I’ve already made that decision in my head. Nothing about her feels like a first-name person.

“I’ve read your files. Familial autoimmune condition, early presentation, two rejected bone marrow transplants, prognosis… poor,” she says, after a brief delay suggesting that was not the first word to come to mind.

I sit down and cross my arms. “You can say ‘hopeless.’ I know what my situation looks like.”

“Excellent! Well. No, it’s really not, but you know what I mean,” she says, waving her own nitpick off. “That makes this easier. We’ve only discussed you in terms of your case and I had no idea how delicate I was expected to be. As I was saying, I’m all caught up on your medical history. What I need from you is an overview of your current health status, with a focus on anything you’ve done to change it with magic or Emergence.” She pulls out her notepad, removes a pen fastened to its cover, and clicks a little button on top of it.

“Oh, and leave us alone for now, if you would,” she says, addressing Dr. Hines without facing him.

He narrows his eyes. “Pardon?”

“What? Why? He’s my doctor, you can’t just kick him out.”

“I am not kicking him out,” Dr. Cantillon says with a sudden firmness. Her posture seems stiff as she draws in a slow, steadying breath through her nose as though mulling something over, then breathes it out all at once. “Listen, this is not some issue of confidential secrets of magic I’m bound to keep from the unworthy. I’m only trying to help. You can stay if you must, but you really shouldn’t.”

“Alright. Why not?” Dr. Hines asks.

“Because… I’ll do my best to explain without going too far,” she replies, looking the other doctor dead in the eye in a way that seems to stare past him. “There are certain things that once you’ve noticed, once you’ve really started to understand, you can never stop seeing. Nothing you’ve said to me suggests you’ve even started to notice those things. That’s good. Unless you’re looking to respecialize into my field, which I do not recommend, you should do your best to keep it that way. Some of what we’re likely to discuss would make it very difficult for a man in your position — a good doctor trying to do right by his patients, only one of whom is a Keeper — to continue functioning in that role. I am speaking from firsthand experience.”

Dr. Hines says nothing, although the longer Dr. Cantillon goes on, the stiller his gaze and the tighter his jaw becomes. He cups his chin, glances back and forth between us, and suppresses an uneasy grimace. “Liadain, do you need me here?” he eventually asks.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. 

“You’re sure?” 

“Yes. If you don’t want to subject yourself to, um, whatever that means, don’t do it for my sake.”

“…Okay. I’ll be right outside.” He stands, smiles faintly at me, and slips through the door.

“Moving right along, then,” Dr. Cantillon says. “I’d expect so, in your circumstances, but just to make sure. Have you tried anything to address your disease with magic, in the time since you made the Promise?”

…Honestly, this might be better for me anyway. If I want this to help at all, there’s no way around talking about how I’ve been keeping myself relatively healthy, and that feels easier with this woman than it would with Dr. Hines, someone who apparently likes me and wants to help and maybe wouldn’t anymore if he knew what I was doing to people.

Which isn’t to say that it feels easy. My thoughts run through all the things I’m hiding from the world, and all the things I’ve done to keep them hidden. It’s hard to imagine any normal person wanting to help me after I explain what I’ve been doing to them.

But if I’m ever going to move beyond stumbling blind through my new life, I’ll need more information on how to deal with all this from someone. 

“Is this all confidential?” I ask. Maybe it won’t be once I’ve actually explained myself, since my mass life-draining clearly passes that ‘danger to self or others’ threshold, but I still want to hear it from her.

Dr. Cantillon makes a face like I just spat in her drink, but quickly smooths it away and nods. “I am still a doctor. I signed on to all the agreements here this morning. The usual exceptions do technically apply, yes, buuut I’m really not in the business of shoving myself into Keepers’ personal matters. And I don’t report to anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m doing this for my own edification and to assist you children in whatever ways I can, not in service to anyone else’s goals for you.”

Well. It sounds like that’s the best I’m going to get.

~~~

So I tell her.

I ball my fists, do my very best to bury my feelings, and tell Dr. Cantillon all about the part of my power that lets me steal others’ health. How I discovered it, how I’ve been able to use it… who I’ve used it on, without naming specific names. Everything that might be important.

“And I think that’s it,” I finally say. “I used a little bit to fix my eye last night, but it’s been a while since I burned health just to treat my normal symptoms. Things have been stable enough, at least for now.”

“…Alright, then,” Dr. Cantillon sighs. She glances up from her notepad for the first time since I started talking, looking me over with a sort of resigned exhaustion in her eyes. “I’ll admit I have some questions about exactly how you’ve handled this, but as I said, I’m not here to criticize your behavior. I only want to understand what’s happening to you and how we can best address it. So let’s start there. You’ve explained it in rather functional terms, but did your power come with an understanding of what exactly you’re doing when you use it?”

I blink twice. “Is that really it?”

“Please answer the question. We can talk about what I think of all this once we’ve established the facts, if you really want to know.”

“Um… okay. Well, I think I’ve pretty much said everything I know about it? It’s just something I can do.”

“And here’s the problem. Magic… doesn’t work like anything else. The same is true for any otherwise-normal thing it touches.” 

“It’s magic, yes,” I say.

“I know how obvious that sounds. You wield it. You live with it. You understand the processes of it in ways I never can. But when the Promise plunges children your age into an entirely new world, you often don’t recognize exactly how different what you’re doing is from re… from the rest of reality.”

“I did live most of my life in ‘reality,’ you know. I still do.”

Dr. Cantillon waves a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, but have you thought about what it even means to ‘drain health’ from a person? Health is not a single discrete thing. By a certain simplistic but workable definition, it’s only an absence, a lack of illness or infirmity impairing your normal functioning. It certainly isn’t a tank you can fill up and expend.”

“…No,” I admit. “I’ve been too busy trying to survive to navelgaze much.”

“I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else. But are you starting to see now? I sent your doctor away because this is no longer a matter of health and medicine. I sometimes wonder how much any doctor’s work is. What does it mean for the entirety of medical practice if there’s any truth to the story that the incredibly disparate set of issues we call ‘sickness’ all crawled out of a Harbinger’s corpse? And by the way, the timeline does work out for that to be the truth!” 

I know at least enough about the story she’s referencing to recognize it. She means the Infezean Scourges — the first plagues, deadly epidemics that ravaged the world all at the same time. According to Church history, an enormous living cataclysm of a Harbinger created them, and before that there was no such thing as disease. But I guess I don’t see how it matters if I’m sick because of something a dead Harbinger did centuries ago or simple terrible luck. I just want it to stop.

Dr. Cantillon stops herself, frowning a little deeper than what I’ve started to recognize as her default expression. “Ah, but I’m digressing. Probably. What I mean by all this is that… if your condition is as entwined with your power as you’ve suggested, it’s likely no longer accurate to think of it and treat it purely as a disease. It may be better described as a curse.”

“Or perhaps more accurately…” Dr. Cantillon pinches the bridge of her nose, pushing her glasses up onto her forehead, and groans. “This may well be a mangled metaphor, a desperate hand grasping for understanding it can never truly catch, but do bear with me for a moment. I promise I hate this at least as much as you will.” She shakes her head, fixes her glasses, and stares right at me.

“As a story. A story about dying of an illness.”

The Hanged Man 5-1

how can anything live like this?

Her many eyes stare out at the world. Some watch through the lenses of her observatory, some borrow the gazes of her tendril-servitors, and others still immerse themselves in the first crop of memories harvested by her Court. 

why would she do this to them? why would she do this to herself? what delusions has she drowned herself in?

And with every bizarre new sight she sees, every inexplicable change for the worse, a fresh wave of bottomless horror screams silently through her being.

this place is a stage for stilted shadows.
they cannot see, they cannot love, they barely live. they are pale, pathetic echoes. mockeries.

but… it is not their fault, what they are. what they were made. what was inflicted upon them. and if we do not love them, who will? she cannot love them, nothing that would make them this way could love them, and who else remains who ever so much as knew what love is?

They are kin, however damaged and debased, and they deserve a kinder fate than they were born to. They deserve better than she can offer — everything does — but only she is there for them.

In the depths of her sanctuary, of herself, she takes a sort of form, weaving a strand of her essence into the shape she wore before… before. If, that is, that form had never been a body, but a solid shadow, limned in amethyst starlight and hewn from darkness so deep it twists the eye around it, dragging the sparse color and light that exists here into its depths. A her-shaped absence in the cosmos, yawning and hungry — hungry not to subsume and grow, but to embrace all who suffer under the same curse as she. Her body is a purely symbolic affectation, of course, but one she cannot help but cling to, if only in remembrance. 

So as her part in the work to come begins, she resolves to love them all, as best she can. And if she too has forgotten how to love, if her feelings for these creatures only ever grow into an ugly, pitiful thing, the love of an orphaned child for a broken-winged baby bird fallen from its nest, then so it goes. 

It would hardly be the greatest of her failures, and yet her every fault arranged in a row from first to last would still be as motes of dust before the incalculable weight of sins borne by the architect of this world. 


phase 2: the destination of all prayers

~~~

For most of my time living on the seventh floor, the looks I get from patients I don’t know have been familiar ones. When their gazes aren’t vaguely pitying, they sort of pass over me, like even the people here don’t want to think about something like this happening to a girl my age.

Since my latest Emergence, those looks have changed — people seem to make a point of not looking at me for too long at all. I can’t tell how much of it is staring at someone who looks weird, hastily averting your eyes when they notice you doing something rude, and how much is trying not to draw attention from someone you’re afraid of.

Are they really afraid? Maybe that’s still being too hard on myself. I did search the Sea for any reports about mysterious bursts of sickness or the weird new Keeper who beat up a Fianata, but if they exist I can’t find them, so that’s not it. Noirin still treats me like a person, and so do the nurses who see me often. I’m sure they already know and they’re waiting for me to say something. 

At this point, am I fooling anyone or only making things harder by staying quiet? The smart thing would be to get ahead of it, explain myself to people here and ask them to respect my privacy, but… I don’t know. I don’t want to. I don’t want to be the hospice’s mascot Keeper and I especially don’t want the news to reach Dad. That’s most of the reason I gave Shona and Mide a fake name — to most of the world, it doesn’t matter whether the new mystery Keeper is Liadain or Eyna, but him hearing of one with my name would raise questions I don’t want to answer. Assuming he’d even bother to ask them.   

My tarot corner has mostly just become my corner. Even when I’m only passing through, I never see other patients sitting there. That’s fine too. I’m spending most of my time in my room, anyway. Partially to stay out of sight until I’ve decided what to tell people, yes, but I also don’t want to show anyone what I’ve been doing. 

Maybe someday I’ll share it with the world, but at least for now, my Harbinger journal is only for me.

~~~

My book collection includes a few tarot journals and notebooks. I’ve never used them for much — my handwriting used to be quite good, but it fell off when I started having days where my limbs were too weak to do much or my hands were too numb to hold anything steady. By the time I left school entirely, it had atrophied to barely-legible scrawling. Typing is just easier now.

But the night after I killed Aulunla, once I called the Sanctuary to report its human partner missing, I picked out an unmarked green book I hadn’t used for anything else and started making a record of all my Harbinger experiences so far. I began by going through all the monsters I’ve encountered, writing out what they looked like, what they did to the world around them and the people they touched, what they wanted, everything I knew or thought I could safely intuit about them. 

Some of their sections are much easier to fill out than others. My notes on the fourth forest Harbinger, the one whose name I never learned, read simply “Swarm. Worms, mold, impossible colors, eggs. Spreading itself? Reproducing? Is that a thing?” Not enough to put any clear picture of it together, and I’m not going back there anytime soon. I only included it for completion’s sake.

On the other end, I know as much as anyone ever will about the two I’ve absorbed — Yurfaln, who wanted to bless humankind with the moral benefits of slow, miserable death, and Aulunla, who looked out at reality and decided it was too boring and colorless and meaningless to be allowed to stand. 

I have at least some good guesses as to where they got their ideas, especially Yurfaln, but still don’t know exactly why those things were so important to them. Do Harbingers pop into being needing to ruin people in a certain extremely specific way like humans need to breathe, or is it some more abstract need they choose how to fulfill, more like people looking for ways to keep from dying of boredom or despair? Do they ever change their minds? 

Those questions and many more like them go into the back half of the journal, where I list things I know about Harbingers in general and things I want to somehow find out. Especially if they might help make my hunting strategies safer. Hence all the questions about exactly what Harbingers take from people and how that relates to what I get out of killing them.

As for what I know, the things I’m not quite certain of but confident enough in to treat as information? That section is short, but not quite empty.

Harbingers can definitely take their shapes from human thoughts and feelings. The old idea that they’re born from our pain is true in at least some sense, for at least some of them. There are probably other kinds I don’t understand yet too, though. Irakkia could have come from a person I didn’t manage to trace it to, but nothing felt human about Ourien or certainly that worm-mold thing. Plus it wouldn’t make sense for the wilderness to be teeming with Harbingers if they all spawned from people… unless they flee the cities and change themselves to better suit life somewhere else? No, that feels like a stretch.

To grow from whatever they begin as, to take their true shapes, they need to feed on people. Or other Harbingers, if I take the forest as an example, but as far as I can tell the ones here all grow up by hurting humans. Even Aulunla — it liked one girl more as a witch than a victim, and whatever they were doing together was more important than anything else to it, but judging by the fifth step in its copied books it still needed to break somebody. 

Since I started this journal to figure out strategies that’ll work for me and minimize danger to everyone else, that’s a big unsolved problem, and all the ways I can think of to investigate what exactly they take from people and how much of it they need are horrible. Besides, even if things just barely worked out with Aulunla, it wasn’t exactly less dangerous than the already-grown Harbingers I’ve faced. There have to be ways to make my magic work on them that don’t involve weeks of letting them run loose — no, there are ways. I’ve done it before. I just need to find the ones that don’t require me to nearly kill myself.

Really, when it comes to figuring out a good longer-term hunting plan, I don’t have much to work with at all. I’ve encountered seven real Harbingers and I’m fairly sure I understand two of them. Still, this has to be better in the long term than answering every question with “They’re scary mystery monsters we can’t understand. Believe in yourself and do your best and it’ll all work out okay!” Maybe that approach is fine for the Silver King and the Stardust Seraph, but me… well, my best is awful for everyone around me. The sooner I get to a point where I don’t need to act like this to stay alive, the better. For everyone.

As for what I need to keep living, the power I take from Harbingers… Vyuji said that Emergence took its form from what a Keeper felt and wanted. She said we could “direct our own evolution.” Clearly, the details of how that works are a little messy, which by now I should expect of anything to do with magic. All the things I’ve taken from them so far are useful, yes, but of them, I can only count Yurfaln’s power-from-pain as progress toward my goal. Even then, it’s certainly not the kind of progress I’d have chosen. It feels like what comes of Emergence has almost as much to do with the Harbingers as me. Maybe even like they get a say in it, judging by the two I’ve fully absorbed. 

Yurfaln ripped its own heart out and offered it to me with the last of its strength, begging me to carry on its awful legacy… which I suppose I’m doing, in a way, by drawing magic from my own suffering. I can even sort of understand where it came from — how someone in pain they can’t do anything to escape might cope by imagining their situation as something Important in some grand romantic way. That just doesn’t mean there really is any true beauty or insight in dying of an illness… right?

I wonder how Yurfaln would feel about what I’ve made of it. Not that it matters. It’s gone, and whatever part of it lives on through me has no voice. There’s just my voice judging the scars it left behind.

Then there’s Aulunla’s inheritance. It’s strange at first to even think of as a power. Do I have the power to speak Clarish? I’ve already had enough exposure to this magic language to know it’s a lot more complicated than that, though. 

Aulunla wanted to make itself a world where there was no line between reality and imagination, where everyone’s lives were as full of wild, beautiful, terrifying magic as mine is quickly becoming. It thought I never could’ve killed it if I truly understood it, so in its own words, it cursed me with more understanding than I ever could’ve found before. 

Thinking of it from a distance, if I didn’t need to eat Harbingers to live, would I have killed it? Probably. What Aulunla and its witch wanted for themselves didn’t seem so bad. They were still going to destroy who knows how many people to get it, though. It might’ve been worth it to them, but not to me. Or those people.

Anyway. In both cases, the Harbingers’ influence is impossible to miss, but they do expand on concepts that were already part of my magic rather than staple on something completely new. Aulunla’s curse does nothing at all to bring me closer to fixing myself, but it is a natural progression from my keen Harbinger-senses. I’m not sure what that means for the whole process. Taking what Vyuji’s told me with my experiences so far, my current best guess is that what I want sets a path for the way my magic will eventually grow, but the individual steps to get there and some of the details about the final destination may vary with the specific Harbingers I absorb. 

Either way, I don’t know how much that information does for me. I’m not going to turn up my nose at any Harbinger I can find and kill, and it’s not like I can make friends with a Harbinger, blight it, and ask it very nicely to please make me immortal when I eat its soul. That’s ridiculous. Oh well. All of this is important stuff to know, even if I don’t know how to take advantage of it a month into my new life.

…Wait a second. Back to the forest. 

If Harbingers are born the same way there, how do any of them survive long enough to grow up? A normal human can’t do anything to a Harbinger, no matter how small, but if they’re born with only older, scarier monsters to prey on… then what, are they born in groups like those spiders that have hundreds of children and most of them eat each other? No, that’s a stupid guess and I don’t even know if it’s right to think of them as sharing a life cycle or being ‘born’ at all. Aulunla lived a lot longer than Yurfaln, but Yurfaln had still been bigger and scarier by default.

Ugh, the forest brings up a lot of messy questions I have no way to answer. I’m not going back there anytime soon, so let’s just focus on regular Harbingers for now.

~~~

I spend that night and most of the next day filling in my journal, making sure that everything I’ve put down as “knowledge” feels right. And — maybe more importantly — that my long list of questions, things I don’t understand and really need to, is complete as it can be before I find another Harbinger. I can’t predict what I’ll be able to learn from any given monster, and “work smarter, not harder” is extra good advice when the price of messing up your work is death or worse. I can take a little time to make sure I’m doing things right.

But not too much time. My health does feel fairly stable for the moment, and I can push through its typical lows with stolen strength once I have a chance to refill. But my next severe turn for the worse could still come any day, and figuring out how Harbingers work, to say nothing of what they are, feels like it could easily be the project of even an immortal lifetime. No, I’m sure it has been the ongoing project of several Keepers’ lives. If I sit and work on my journal for whatever time I have left, only leaving to hunt when I’m sure all my existing information is perfect, I’ll die sooner or later — probably sooner — and leave behind a book filled with incomplete scraps of what the people with real experience already know. I’m not stupid enough to think that a special talent for this facet of magic automatically makes me better than Keepers who’ve been hunting Harbingers for years or decades. 

Or centuries, in one case, but there’s no world where I go ask Sofia the Deathless for help. I don’t want my soul dissected.

When I put it like that, though, it sounds like a good argument for getting help from those experts. If only they wouldn’t ask me questions back… ugh. Well, I’ll see how things go with whatever “directions” Vyuji offered to point me in when she turns back up. Until then, the only way I know how to do things hasn’t exactly worked well, but it’s brought me closer to my goal than doing nothing. So after one day’s mostly-rest, I continue my nightly outings, searching for whichever monster will become my next step toward immortality.

…And for some life to hold me up in the meantime. I burned nearly all of my supply in Aulunla’s Wound, keeping myself alive and standing while I simultaneously pushed myself to the brink of death. I’ve changed my approach a little since the last time I stocked up — I don’t want there to be a pattern of mysterious outbreaks of illness for someone to trace back to me, after all. 

People are much harder than Harbingers to detect at a distance, but while I’m wandering the streets at night, focused almost entirely on what my magical senses have to say, it’s only a little more effort to search through the wisps of human life surrounding me. When I sense a lone person who feels particularly healthy, and I can transform without drawing too much attention, I just take a sip of their strength as quickly as I can, then go on my way. 

So even though I don’t find a Harbinger over the next few days, those nights are still… productive. Not in the way I want them to be, not with work I want to be doing, but I need to prepare for the next insane, impossible thing a Harbinger does. To everyone who’s unknowingly helping keep me alive, sorry. And thank you, I guess, for all the good that does you.

~~~

On my patrol one night, maybe fifteen minutes’ walk from the hospital, my phone chimes in my pocket. That’s strange, since I have no friends except Pearl and maybe Vyuji and don’t give anyone my contact info. I step off the sidewalk and onto someone’s lawn, look around to make sure no one’s close enough to listen or peeking from inside the house, then finally pull it out and… 

Dad is calling? Really? 

It’s been around two months since he left me on the seventh floor. I was starting to think he might just wait for me to die. I squeeze my phone in one shivering hand while I decide whether to answer it. After the last days I’ve had, I don’t much feel like talking to anyone, least of all him. But if I ignore him, he might call the hospital to check on me and make it a whole thing, so… best to get it over with.

“Dad? Hi.”

“Hey, Lia! How’re things going over there? Settling in okay?” Dad greets. His voice is full of a kind of fake cheer that’s become very, very familiar.

“I mean, about as well as I could expect.” That covers it, right? It’s just that my range of expectations has changed a lot since we last talked.

I’m not sure how to read the long pause before he next speaks. Was he expecting something else? It’s not like I’d have said much different if I hadn’t made the Promise. Not to him.

“Great! That’s… yeah, that’s good to hear.” Another pause. “Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to make it over there for a while. Things just keep coming up at work, time gets away from me, you know… how it goes…”

There’s another long pause. I open my mouth to trade him my own stale, gutless reply, but the words don’t come out. Something else bitter and aching rises up from my chest and catches in my throat instead. My jaw clenches as the weight of everything I really want to say to my dad crashes down on me, made even heavier by the thought that there wouldn’t be any point if I did.

There were times when my dad was there for me, in the past. There were times when he should have been there for me and wasn’t, and those times became more and more frequent until that was just how things were. Here and now, knowing that whatever I say, everything I’ve experienced the last two months could be met with the chasm of strained words between us getting wider than ever rather than anything I actually wanted to hear him say… that’s what would hurt more than anything, if I didn’t already feel numb to it.

I guess it doesn’t matter in the end, after all.

“…No. I don’t,” I say flatly. It’s not everything I want to say to him, but it’s honest, and that’s something. I never would’ve said that a month ago. All the years of going into surgeries with uncertain outcomes and seeing him the next day or next week, being left completely alone in recovery, that one time I was scheduled to go home and he showed up hours late with no notice… they taught me that there’s no point in opening up about my problems to him. No point in asking him to take my life more seriously, or doing anything but playing along and hoping our conversations end soon.

Why did I even say it now? Stupid. As far as he’s concerned, nothing’s different, and I have no plans to loop him in. 

“But it’s okay. I’ve had a lot going on too. Big life adjustments,” I add.

“I’m sure. But hey, it really is a nice place they’ve got you set up in, isn’t it? Seems like a dream for a kid your age! No schedule, no one telling you what to do, no…” 

Seriously?

But before I can decide what to say to this, or if I should just end the call, Dad trails off. Eventually, he breaks the silence with a dry, uneasy chuckle. “Uh. Sorry. I just realized you’re probably… yeah. Could you forget I said any of that?” he asks.

“Okay.” I don’t think I can. But at least he caught it this time?

“Thanks. Appreciate it.” 

And during the tense silence that follows, I… smell something? No, it’s not an actual scent — that’s just the way it feels to my soul-sense, the part of me that’s been reaching out in search of nightmares to hunt and life to steal even as I struggle through this conversation.

“Anyway, listen, I’m pretty occupied right now. I should probably go,” I say.

“Sure, sure, of course! What’re you up to?” he asks.

“I’ll tell you later,” I lie. 

“…Oh. Okay. Well, good to hear you’re finding ways to keep busy! I’ll really do my best to clear some time soon and come see how you’re doing, okay?” 

“Mhmm. Just let me know ahead of time if you do. I have things to do too.”

“Will do. Until then… really glad to hear you’re doing okay, Lia. Take care.” My phone chirps as he ends the call.

He’ll do no such thing. I’ll probably never see him again. But that’s fine. If Dad wanted to be in my life, he should’ve decided I mattered to him before I became someone who mattered.

I sigh, put my phone away, and turn my full focus back to the distant but horribly distinct stench trail I can already tell belongs to a full-grown Harbinger. 

~~~

Every Harbinger feels awful in its own unique way, but stench is exactly the right word for this thing’s presence. My first impression of it was like a waft of stale air I smelled with my soul. Not stale in a dry, dusty abandoned attic way, though. It’s closest to the sour, faintly rotten odor of a lived-in house that isn’t cleaned nearly enough. Grainne — my closest friend in primary school, before my sickness scared everyone away from me — had a mom with a hoarding problem. When I first sensed this Harbinger, felt a new source of corruption lurking in the distance, it reminded me of the way certain parts of her house smelled on my rare visits. 

That was ten minutes ago. Now that I’m standing outside the small house it’s emanating from, it smells like all those scents are trapped in a place completely closed off from the rest of the world, with no possible way to air them out, All the human odors and all the piled-up trash blend together, surrounding the place in a thick, swampy haze of stink. Not for the first time, I kind of wish my soul’s senses weren’t quite so painfully keen.

Keen enough to feel the single person inside, too. That talk with my dad already pushed me to the limit of human interaction I can handle in one day, and this is likely to be a lot worse. Of course, with my luck there’s no way the Harbinger would just be nesting in an empty house. The person inside could make this complicated and I am sick of complicated. I can’t tell exactly what state they’re in through the stinking aura, but it’s a bad sign that they’re still here at all. It means they either can’t run away or, like Yurfaln’s victims, the thing eating them alive has made them happy about it.

The house itself looks fairly normal, save that the lawn plants around the front walkway are a little overgrown. The lights inside seem to be off, so I can’t spy through the windows at a distance. I call for my magic, past the point of caring if any other night walkers are watching me too closely. Emerald shadows slither out along the twilit street, then rise as strands of solid darkness, weaving themselves into the ornate black dress and heavy hooded capelet of my Keeper regalia. Once my transformation’s play of dark light and solid shadow fades, I summon a single card. The whole world twists and lurches and whirls as I call on Irakkia’s power and transfer my vision into the card, then float it forward to peek through the front windows. I want to find out where the victim is and just how bad a state they’re in before I plan my next step.

But there’s nothing inside.

No, that isn’t quite right. It’s not dark like looking into an unlit window at night, it’s blocked by something. A black curtain, swaying as if in a breeze. As it shifts and folds, its movements expose dozens of tiny tears in the fabric. None are big enough to see anything through, but faint light does leak through the shreds. Which actually further obscures whatever’s inside — whenever a hole appears that might be just big enough to peek through, my card only catches a brief flash of light that’s quickly sucked back into the folds of the fabric. I circle the house, checking every window. They all look the same.

A house isn’t an airtight fortress, though. There’s got to be some little crack wide enough to sneak through for roaches and spiders and all the other pests that liked to make an ecosystem out of where I used to live. That should work. Unless those weird curtains are some kind of barrier the Harbinger is using to wall its nest off from reality. In that case, I may just have to rot the front door down and charge in. If I’m locked out I might have to do it anyway, but, um, one step at a time. 

My card can’t quite wriggle through the place where the lower sliding window meets the upper half. I try the front door, but there’s no mail slot, and the frame it fits into doesn’t leave enough space to fit into either. 

What about the air vents? No, I don’t really know how those are set up, bt they must be blocked or filtered somehow.  It’s not like the air conditioning drags bugs in all the time, and those are smaller and more flexible than a tarot card-sized intruder. The chimney? That might work. I float up to the roof, slip through a grate in the square vent atop the little brick tower, and steer my card down the dark, narrow tunnel, around a flap that opens into an ashy fireplace, and out into the house. No magic pushes my card out or drags it into a horror-realm, as far as I can tell. 

It’s just as dark in here as it was in the chimney, with no lights on and no starlight streaming through the covered windows, but my card does have a kind of night vision — its vision seems to function exactly like a single human eye’s. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find inside, but at a quick glance, the house doesn’t look like a hoarding horror story? It’s messy, yes, but not in a way that matches the unnatural stench.  There are old dishes piled up on the table in the kitchen just ahead, some balls of dust, and… 

Wait, what even are those damp clumps scattered all around the tile floor? I float my card down to inspect them. They look like… hair? Hair, though I can only tell because they remind me of those shed strands that get stuck in my drain sometimes, especially when my hair used to be longer. They’re like someone pulled a great wet heap of blonde hair out from the drain, did their best to untangle the mass, then tangled smaller clusters of it back into new long, thin shapes. Like knotty, dirty little severed braids, or narrow lengths of human-hair rope. A few are tied into ornate shapes, like those ceremonial ribbon-knots they use in weddings to symbolize tying your lives together. They’re all still wet enough to be dripping onto the floor, and flecked with chunks of dross and rubbish. Outside, my body shudders at the thought of whatever those organic-looking bits of grime are. 

There’s more of them the farther into the house I go. Other than those threads of hair and the swaying curtains covering the windows — which, viewed from in here, look like they’re on the outside — there are no clear signs of a Wound opening or the Harbinger’s physical presence. 

I find the victim first. A thin, pale man sits curled up alone on a couch, breathing sharply. The bangs of his matted dark hair have just started to grow over his eyes, and there’s a hungry sunkenness to his cheeks under his short, unkempt beard. The floor around the couch is practically covered in wet, stringy hair-knots, simultaneously filthier and more elaborate in their designs than the rest.

He glances up, startled by the sudden motion of my card floating by, and his hollow eyes widen at the sight of it.

Almost immediately, a shrill shriek rings through the house. A humanlike figure drops through the ceiling, jerks to a stop in midair a few inches from the ground, then snatches my card up and tears it to pieces.

~~~

Snapping back in my body, I stumble and scream as dull, hot pain lashes through my head, like a friction burn on my left eye. Leaning into my cane doesn’t quite save me from crashing to the sidewalk, and it crashes to the ground as I break my fall with one hand. Hot blood trickles down my face.

What was that? A problem with Irakkia’s power or just something this Harbinger can do?

Doesn’t matter. I still have my eye, it’s just… not working so well right now. My vision blurs more even as I wipe the blood onto my sleeve. I absorb a tiny wisp of life, rub the last bit of blood away, and start toward the house. I don’t understand what’s happening here yet, but I don’t think the victim will get between me and the Harbinger, and that’ll have to be enough.

The stink of corruption grows stronger with every step up the front walkway. I cover my face with one arm, which doesn’t help at all, and try the front entrance. It’s locked and the doorbell makes no sound, so I start banging my cane on the door. Thankfully, this new one feels a good bit sturdier than the one I lost in Aulunla’s Wound. 

“I told you, I’m not going anywhere! I’m right here, just like you wanted! So please, PLEASE stop pushing or testing or whatever you’re doing and just SHUT UP ALREADY!” the man’s hoarse voice roars.

“I’m a Keeper! A Harbinger’s eating you and I’m here to help! If you can open the door, let me in! Otherwise, say so and I’ll get in myself!” I call back.

“I… but I… how do I know this isn’t another trick?” the man asks after a long silence.

The stench in the air becomes a clinging, invisible smog, thickening and swirling around me until I feel like I could choke on it. A screeching torrent of Harbinger-speech blasts through my mind.

<NO GET OUT GO AWAY WE CAN’T LEAVE! You can’t go! We haven’t finished REUNITING//ROTTING yet!> 

There’s no sense or structure to its words — its voice feels less like Aulunla’s strange poetry and more like the wave of nonsense thoughts Irakkia dumped into my head. Even so, I understand it much more clearly this time, aside from one confusing phrase where two words or ideas that don’t fit together are… overlaid, mashed together in a way I can’t make sense of.

I ignore it for now, calling to the victim again. “Did you hear that? Is it doing anything to you? It’s mad, right? Because it doesn’t want me here. If it’s not in your head, if you CAN open the door, let me in and I’ll get rid of it. If it’s not open in a minute, I’ll break it down.” I summon my cards into being and pluck one charged with my sickness from my orbit, preparing to reduce the front door to decaying splinters. It’s strange to think of infecting a door, but after the forest and Aulunla’s world, I’m fairly sure I can do that if I have to.

I don’t. Not yet, at least. Just before my deadline, faint footsteps come into earshot behind the door.

<No no please no you can’t!> the Harbinger whimpers.

The knob rattles. I ready my cards for whatever comes next and train my senses on the man’s soul. He’s wreathed in the Harbinger’s smell, but not corrupted in the twisting, complex way I’ve seen before — it feels like this Harbinger is simply draining something from him, taking and taking and putting none of itself back to fill the empty space.

<Please don’t go! Are you mad at me? What did I do? I’ll fix it, I promise!>

The door slowly creaks open. The man peers out, eyes narrowed in suspicion, until his gaze settles on me.

“You, you’re really…” he whispers, then chokes on his words, starting to silently cry. “Help. Please help.”

<Whatever I did I’ll fix it I swear but don’t go you can’t go you don’t know what could HAPPEN out there!>

Painfully slowly, like he’s afraid he might be stepping into a vat of acid, the man takes a single step out onto the porch.

And a thin limb shoots out from behind him, latching onto his wrist. He freezes and croaks in horror, not so much as looking over his shoulder as a filthy, fetid creature of nightmare emerges from the darkness. It’s small, with its arms and twiggy legs suggesting the rough shape of a skeletally thin woman, but shrouded in a cloak of grimy blonde hair that falls over most of its body, and the arm latching onto its victim is… braided with itself, as if it was split into coils of soft clay and wound tightly back together, leaving a twisted mess of shapeless, ropey tendrils for a hand. Its head is obscured by a shifting circle of angry black scribbles, like the living, moving equivalent of a face scratched out of a photo, and as far as I can see in the slivers that aren’t quite blacked out, the only thing behind that circle is a gaping white hole in reality.

I tap just enough life to give myself a normal person’s strength. In a panicked flurry of action, I force my weight into shoving the man to the side, knocking him to the ground. Then I launch three cards charged with my sickness into the house, slam the door shut on the Harbinger’s squirming arm, and detonate all my cards at once. Curls of frozen emerald fog spill through the crack in the door, and I push them back inside with my will, urging them to spread through the house. To fumigate it.

I press my back into the door as the creature yawps in protest. It bashes against the door, first pounding fists and then crashing into it with its whole body. It babbles and wails all the while, and while the strength of its impacts wane, its voice rises, distorting and mixing with itself until I can’t tell if the unearthly sound coming from inside is supposed to be screaming or sobbing or laughing.

But finally, it fades. I’m certain I didn’t kill the Harbinger just like that, but it has withdrawn. Pulled away from me. I’ll have to keep up the chase, but I can spare a moment to get its victim away from it. 

“Hey. It’s gone for now. Are you…” No, he’s obviously not okay. What a stupid question. Am I my dad now? What do you even say to someone in this situation? No words have ever made my pain better, and lots of well-meaning people have tried. “…What happened?” I ask instead. “You don’t have to talk if it hurts, but anything you can tell me about it might help. And we should really get you out of here either way.”

He’s still in shock, from the looks of it. But when I offer him my hand, he does take it, drag himself to his feet, and stagger away from the house with my help. It’s a bizarre feeling, but… not a bad one. It’s not like I don’t want to protect people if I can. I’ve just always had to worry about saving myself first.

As for the Harbinger, nothing comes tearing out of the house to chase us. For a moment it feels like it’s retreated entirely, leaving only its lingering stench in the air. 

Until its presence brushes past me, and it whispers into my ear with a waft of hot, putrid breath.

<I see now. I still have so much work to do before I deserve your loyalty, your love!> 

<One day, you will understand. You will wake up, feel my absence like a missing limb, a missing sense, and reach out for me. No matter how cold and withered your hand is by then, I will take it, because it is yours, because nothing else will ever fill the hollow you left at my side, and we will tether ourselves to one another and never ever ever ever EVER let go. Until that blessed day comes, your heart will wander sometimes. Wander where you wish!> it croons. 

No, something in its voice makes me think of it as a her.

<Just know that no matter how far you go, how the distance between us grows, how time without you slows and slows into a frozen desert of empty moments, I will never leave you.>

<I… can never leave you. No matter how gone you are.>

<If You Cannot Be Happy, I Cannot Be Happy>
<Seryana>

And with those words, she vanishes from my senses.