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 slightlyout 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?”
“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.