Nothing Hurts 9-2

The world around Mide folded in on itself, like all the space between the infested parking garage basement and the road outside was simply squeezed into nothing for a split-second. During that second, the metal-masked Keeper took a single stride, forward and up, tugging Mide along with her by the arm. The girl released her as they touched down on the empty street outside the garage, and Mide stumbled forward, catching herself just short of toppling to the ground.

“Miss the evacuation or something?” the Keeper said. “Well, whatever, you’re safe now. Get outta here. Roads are clear, far as I could see.” Mide recognized her now, in the light, though they’d never actually met – Mary Hyland, Carves the Night. Fine. She’d take any help she could get.

“No! My partner’s in there! We need to help her!” Mide held her breathing steady, trying not to think about the way she last saw Shona. Trying and failing not to think of her as what’s left of Shona. 

“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” Mary snorted. “Only thing you’re gonna do chasing someone in there is make a bigger mess. There’s Keepers on the way. They’ll save her. You just get clear of this.”

I’m a Keeper! My partner’s Screaming Hymn Shona! We aren’t some bystanders!”

“Oh. Huh.” Mary’s featureless steel mask scanned her up and down. “Where’s your stuff?” she asked.

“I don’t know! Something happened in there, that thing did something to us, and, and…” Mide reaches again for her magic and finds nothing. It’s as gone as if it had never been there. “Fine. You’re right. I… can’t do anything right now,” she admits. It hurts to say, but all her pain is doing is delaying the reinforcements. “Just go help her, okay? Don’t worry about me. And, and be careful. This one’s really bad! I was sure I took its heart while we were in there, but it didn’t matter… It was some kind of trap…!”

What does that mean for her? Mide did absorb that trapped heart, even if the thing didn’t end up taking her. Doesn’t matter. Not now.

“…Sure. If you aren’t gonna leave, just, uh, keep watch, I guess? Tell anyone else who comes in what you told me.” With that, Mary rolled her shoulders, brandished her box cutter, and sliced a thin hole in the air, opening a dark portal back into the basement. 

Smothering all of the panic crackling beneath her nerves, Mide opened Lighthouse and did the only thing she still could – add everything she’d seen in the Wound to the initial alert. There had to be something there the others could use.

She hadn’t even finished typing when Mary reappeared through a fresh tear in the world. 

“What’s going on? How bad is it? Are you waiting for the others? They’re, um…” Mide tabbed away from her half-finished battle report to check on the responders. Still en route. Irida was closest now.

“Uhhhhh,” Mary muttered, pointing a thumb over her shoulder at the portal behind her. “There’s nothing there.”

“What?” Mide snapped. “What do you mean? You just saw it! It was just leaving the Wound!” She slipped past Mary to peer into the tear. It opened into an overhead view of the garage basement, where there was… no shimmering roots in the hole. No moldy starfish crawling out of it. no sign that there’d ever been anything there but a giant gaping pit. Even the remains of the one Mary struck down were gone.

“Yup. I jumped in just to see what would happen and I just, uh, fell through that big fuck-off hole in the world until I jumped back out,” Mary said. “Didn’t feel like anything weird at all.”

“That can’t be,” Mide growled. “I mean, ugh, no, it is, but where’d it go, then? Can’t you follow it?”

“Uh.” Mary shrugged. “I can’t. Maybe someone else’ll sniff it out, but I’ve got nothing.”

“No.” Mide balled her fists, thumping one weakly against her hip. “It can’t do that. That’s not how it works. It can’t just leave. She can’t just… she can’t…” Her voice died out with a choking sob. The last bit of strength that hadn’t left her with Shona fled her body. Everything was spinning. It felt like she was going to puke. She slumped to the ground, sucking in deep, gasping breaths.

“Damn,” Mary said. 

There was a long, heavy pause. 

“That sucks, huh?”

Mide lifted her head to glare at the blank gunmetal face staring down at her, astonishment mingling with the raw, hollow pain she felt gaping in her chest, stealing all her air. Mary stiffened, holding her position a moment longer, then turned, sliced open a gash in the air, and disappeared through it.

Leaving her alone on the silent, empty street outside the monster’s abandoned nest. It feels like she’s the last person left in the ruins of a dead city.


Shona is dead. Aisling’s words hang in the air, pressing down and down like a stone on my chest. 

I don’t think it’s shock, exactly – it feels too blunt for that. It’s not like this is some sudden, unheard-of tragedy. Shona’s a Keeper. Keepers die sometimes. It’s awful, the same way it is when anyone dies, but everyone knows that’s a real risk. I don’t even think this death feels different because I’m part of the group that dies in battle all the time now. I was already as doomed as anyone could be. No, the difference now is that I knew Shona. And I dragged her into one of my nightmares right before it happened.

“How?” I ask, breaking the long silence. 

“Something stormed in on the edge of the city. Probably came from the forest, sounded like a Cluster B from reports I’ve read. It was some sort of fungus monster that parasitized people and Harbingers both. Shona and Mide were the first on the scene. They killed something else it had eaten and kept in its Wound, thought it was over, and…” Her voice cracks on the last word, cutting off her blunt, clinical overview of the events. “It wasn’t,” she finishes simply. “Only Mide escaped. By the time anyone else showed up, it was gone. No one’s found where it went yet. That’s most of what I know so far.” 

A fungus monster from the forest. Every breath makes the weight on my chest heavier. “Was there a big swarm of moldy worms and oozy starfish and things like that?”

“How’d you know? Have you seen it?” Aisling barks, the exhaustion almost gone from her voice. “If there’s another unreported sighting… fuck, we really need to get you on Lighthouse, you wouldn’t have to interact with anyone, just–”

“No! Nothing’s happening here! I went to the forest once and saw it, that’s all. Or at least this sounds like the thing I saw. I don’t know.” 

Aisling sighs, abruptly deflating again. “Right. Of course you did. A solo walk in the woods is very you.”

“It was a bad idea. I know. Just…” I try to swallow, but the muscles in my throat won’t work right. Just like the trembling hand struggling to hold my phone. Just like all the rest of me. “It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been there. I don’t mean I would’ve killed it, but I don’t think she could feel when something was too much for her like I can. I could’ve pulled them out. She, she didn’t have to–”

“Don’t,” Aisling orders. “Seriously. There’s so much Keepers can do, but we don’t get more time in the day to actually do it than anyone else. You are not responsible for everything you didn’t accomplish or prevent because you weren’t there. Start thinking that way and you’ll destroy yourself.”

“Okay.” I don’t think she’s right, and not just because of some nitpick about how I could be in two places at once if I wanted. I wasn’t doing anything but being sick and worrying about myself when I knew Seryana’d hurt Shona too. But I don’t see the point in arguing with someone for thinking better of me than she should.

“What are we going to do, then? Are you tracking it like you did with Isobel?”

“Why would I? If the thing comes after us again – I expect it will, after how its first incursion went – and we can’t figure out how to handle it, I’ll burn questions then. But otherwise, Shona is already gone. Killing it won’t bring her back.”

“I guess it won’t,” is all I say. I can’t stop thinking about how it must feel to die in a Wound, dragged body and soul into the depths of a Harbinger’s mind, but why torture Aisling or myself with every horrible idea I have of how things might work?

Not that I have a choice, in my own case. The thoughts aren’t going anywhere.

“The funeral’s on Thursday,” Aisling says after another silent stretch. “If you’re feeling up to it, I think she’d have liked–”

“That feels like a bad idea,” I try to interrupt. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak over someone again, but Aisling does cut herself off.

“Don’t get in your own way again,” she says. “You aren’t wanted, and Roland is obsessed with his image. He wouldn’t dream of starting anything at a Keeper’s funeral.”

“And after it’s over?”

Aisling lets out a groan. “Fine. It’s not that important. Just something to think about, okay? It helps having… other things to focus on.”

“I’ll see how I’m feeling. My health isn’t doing so well.” Another long pause. “Have you… been through this before?”

“I don’t know. Probably. But I don’t much want to talk about her.” Aisling’s voice is tight, but quieter than before.

“Sorry.” Fair enough. I wouldn’t either. “I’ll go, then. Thanks. Um, for letting me know.”

“Of course. Take care.” She’s barely finished the last word when I end the call.

Leaning heavily on my cane, I struggle to my feet and make my way to my bed. Pearl sits swaddled in a cluster of unmade blankets. I sit on the foot of the bed, pluck her from her nest, and squeeze her tight, staring aimlessly out at the night sky. 

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a funeral. If I was at Mom’s, I was too small to remember it. I’ve never been that close to any of the people I knew were dying – no one I like on the seventh floor has died yet, at least – and I don’t think I’d have wanted to go even if I was. I didn’t need any more reminders of mortality. I still don’t. As near as I’ve always been to death, this is the first loss close enough to me to matter as anything more than an abstract reminder of the horrifying, implacable forces that eventually steal everyone from everyone else. 

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do at a time like this. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel, except I can’t help but feel like it should be so much worse. I should be weeping and screaming and paralyzed with grief. But there’s only a vague, aching hollowness in my chest, not quite like the numb pain of my blood wracking my body, and the pangs of guilt that come with every thought about how I might as well have killed Shona myself. It feels less like losing a friend in a sudden freak accident and more like learning that I let Aulunla drown some nameless woman.

Why? Yes, I could have kept her away from that thing if I’d been there, but I wasn’t. I was in no condition to hunt. Aisling’s right, there’s no sense in blaming myself for that. Maybe Seryana’s attack left Shona in a bad way and she did something reckless, but that’s Seryana’s fault, not mine. Maybe this had absolutely nothing to do with me. Maybe it’s just a horrible thing that would’ve happened whether or not Shona ever got tangled up in my messes.

What? It could be. I hardly know anything about the circumstances of whatever happened. So why does that feel like the most pathetic excuse I’ve ever heard?

This isn’t working. I don’t know if anything will. But eventually, after who knows how long of watching the stars twist and dance, the spiral of nonsense whirling through my head leads me back to the one thing I’ve always done to make sense of my thoughts. It’s been a bit since I’ve had the time and focus for a proper reading, and while I don’t know how focused I’ll be on anything right now, I can’t think of what else to do. I head back to the desk, set Pearl next to me, and start shuffling my personal tarot deck.

Until my shivering hands lose their grip on it and half the cards scatter to the floor. Of course I’m too sick to manage even this much. Stupid. Should’ve just kept to the pile shuffle, but even that would feel exhausting right now.. 

Although… I can still do a reading. I don’t need to move at all.

In a flash of emerald light, I summon my implement – my Keeper cards, now arranged into a deck stacked on the desk rather than an orbit floating around me. I haven’t tried to read with them since I made the Promise, for a few reasons. At first I couldn’t read them at all, either to process the swirling sigils they’re labeled with or make sense of the abstract scenes on their faces. But I do understand that glyphic language now, spoken or written, and I have a lot more practice in looking at manifestations of magic and puzzling out what they mean. 

The other reason, the more important one, is that… somehow, trying at all felt a little intimidating. Ominous, even. I know there are depths to what my power is and what it’s expressing that I don’t completely understand. I’ve known from the start that there must be more to it than gathering up my misery and hurling it at others. Cruel and capricious fate. Afflicted arcana. But nothing I’ve done or consumed has left me with a sense of what those mean or what I’m supposed to do with them. I don’t even think fate is real, and everything I know agrees with the idea that it’s impossible to predict the future with magic. 

If reading with magic cards did anything special, then, I imagined it would be an enhanced version of what I actually use tarot for: understanding myself and my own thoughts. And I don’t like myself very much. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what my cards had to say about just how awful I was. 

I’m still not. But right now, I don’t know what else to do, and maybe I owe it to Shona to try. 

So, cards, tonight’s question: what is wrong with me? What is going on that’s left me too broken to feel more than this dull ache for my dead friend? What, exactly, am I blaming myself for? Do your worst.

I will the deck to shuffle itself. It scatters across the desk, just like I would do it, then sorts itself back into a wide fan-shaped display. 

I wonder if it’s saying anything by presenting itself like this. It’s a technique I’ve seen before for encouraging people to pick cards from anywhere in the deck rather than just drawing the ones on the top, but not one I normally use. It shouldn’t make a difference if they’re shuffled properly, after all. But there is something to the feeling that you have a direct hand in what the deck shows you, and I suppose I do have more control over my fate, whatever that means in the real world, than most people ever will. I glance across the fan, then pick a card near the left end, float it out, and turn it over.

The design on the card is familiar, closer than I’ve ever seen to one I recognize from my actual decks. It’s an upside-down image of a decaying crow’s skeleton, but wreathed in enough inky black feathers to nearly reconstruct what it might have looked like while it lived, save for the bare skull. Death inverted. The card I’ve come to think of as my card since I made the Promise, the one whose meaning my power turns on its head.

Here, though, this doesn’t feel like it’s saying something about my magic or my bizarre relationship with this specific card. These cards could show me anything at all, but right now, it’s just like the one in my favorite deck. And this card in the past position, while I’m thinking about my messy relationship with a dead friend… it’s easy enough to imagine what it’s saying. 

It doesn’t matter that I could’ve saved Shona if I’d happened to join her on a hunt there was no reason for me to go on. That’s not what this is about. She might not be dead because of me, but honestly, it would be going easy on myself to think of my failure as something so simple. I never helped her, never even tried, because I treated her as just another annoying person trying to throw a dying girl a scrap of acknowledgement so she could feel nice about herself.

But that just wasn’t the life I was living anymore, and things were different with her. Or they would’ve been, if I’d let them. Shona was only ever nice to me, in her own weird way. She kept reaching out and trying to be my friend well past the point where it would’ve been reasonable for anyone to hate me. I’d only just reached a place where I didn’t feel strange about saying we were friends. I never told her that. I never stopped treating her like a nuisance I barely tolerated. And now she’s gone. 

My first tears of the night start falling. Only a few silent droplets, but… I guess I’m getting somewhere. 

That was only the past, though. Only our short, stupid history together. What’s wrong with me now, cards? Turning my attention back to the fanned deck, I focus on a card in the right corner, pull it out with my will, and drift it to the right of Death, setting it down before I turn it over.

This card is more difficult, to say the least. Its art is a jagged mess of three or four different scenes, alternately flowing into each other or simply overlapping, like one piece of paper housing several drawings, each laid over the last – sometimes in ways that make it look like the past artists came back and tried to fix their defaced work. 

I bring it closer to my eyes and squint at it, searching for any clear element to latch onto and work from there. There’s… a person falling through the sky, I think, but it’s hard to be sure because they’re censored into a fuzzy, pixelated mess. The foot of an ornate throne. A child’s sketch of a girl weeping while everything around her burns. The torn, filthy remains of a white ribbon.

My throat goes dry. I can’t tell what any of the full images would look like, or how they’re meant to connect in the places when they do, but the implications? The memories they force to the front of my mind? Those are all too clear. I try to read the sigils above the mess, themselves fused and knotted into an illegible mass, but I don’t need to read them clearly to feel them.

<DeathDEATHathDeath,> the glyphs say. Inverted, by the text’s placement.

“Huh?” I murmur.

There are no duplicates in tarot decks. So how?

A voice echoes through my memories. We constantly cheat at tarot, it says. It’s my voice, the voice of the other me I met when I made the Promise, only it sounds the way I sound now. The Seraph must have choked the sound out of her, too.

Fine. Then why? What do they have to do with Shona? What about them is important enough to stack the deck with this card?

And one of those intrusive thoughts I shoved away earlier comes screaming back.

Death inverted is an ending not being allowed to come to fruition. Something lingering. Trapped.

What is it like to be killed by a Harbinger? To have your soul sucked out of its shell and drowned in the depths of a living nightmare’s heart, just like we do to them? Is there some half-digested fragment of Shona lingering inside that thing from the forest, screaming her pain into its soul and never knowing if it even understands?

Magic and death are both complex things. Vyuji said that about witches with dead Harbingers. At the time, I didn’t understand what she could possibly mean. I didn’t see what could be so complicated about dying, the end of everything a person is. Maybe I was just looking away from the obvious.

Because I already know what it’s like for Harbingers when I absorb them. I have three sets of memories of being eaten by myself to pull from, clear as any of my own. And I don’t eat Harbingers for sustenance and burn them up as fuel for my growth, do I? They become part of me. They shape what I am and what I can do.

Wilt and… fill this world… wilt. Drink it all. Become true. Together.



I turn my gaze inward, to where my power roils in a storm of my pain. “You’re still in there, aren’t you?” I ask the empty room.

In a chorus of wordless voices I recognize all too well, more pulses of emotion and sensation than clear statements, my soul responds. Dizzying confusion. Longing for someone who never existed. Despair for a beautiful dream and hatred for the girl who crushed it in her fragile fingers.

And in the oldest song, the one soaring above them all, bolstered by my constant pain… joy. Gratitude. Pride.

I bury my face in my hands and try to scream. Only an eerie echo of a wail comes out.

A gentle breeze blows through my room, like the ghost of a hand across my cheek. <these stories all end the same way,> whispers another familiar voice, one I’m certain I’ve never heard before. <they never end. not ever.>

“Who’s there? Which of you…?” I croak.

Only silence answers. Fine, then I’m losing it. That’s nothing new at all.

Maybe I’m some freakish exception. Maybe my desperate rush toward immortality has shaped my own soul into an eternal hell for everyone I claim. 

No, I already know I’m not. My cards won’t let me lie to myself. Why else would Harbingers shape Emergence for everyone? Why should it be any different when they eat us? And how am I supposed to grieve for someone who’s still there? Still suffering?

It’s perfect for you, though. Isn’t it? My voice again. You will never die. Never ever.

“I want to be me forever,” I hiss back, trembling, brushing silent tears off my sleeve. “A chunked-up piece of my soul lingering in something else’s gut isn’t living.”

Why not? As long as you exist, in any form at all, there’s still a chance to change your fate. You’ve already chosen suffering over oblivion, and that was when you didn’t understand that there was only ever one choice. So don’t lie to me. I know you. I am you. 

A hand reaches over my shoulder. The pallid, emaciated arm of one of my echoes, black veins pulsing with blood-that-is-not-blood, points back to my cards, indicating the empty spot to the right of the first two.

Finish the reading. 

“…What’s the point? They’re all the same card, aren’t they?”

Yes, my voice giggles. But you’re always getting lost in the now. Staring helplessly at what is and forgetting where the choices you’ve made lead. Looking back when you should be forging ahead. 

The entire deck flips itself over, exposing seventy-six variants on the same scene. Shadowed, spectral outlines of me seated on dark thrones, attended by swarms of gaunt, unliving centipedes and the endless reach of my own withered limbs. Each bears the same small glyph:

<Death Inverted>

Half-formed dream-scenes fill my world. The faint wisps of life always pricking at my senses floating in the void, bits of power entirely detached from the people they belong to. Fields of them, cities of them, all just waiting for me to breathe in and claim them. My soul ripping my body open like a cocoon and crawling out, shrouded in damp feathers and dripping black blood like afterbirth. Hunting through many sets of eyes, many mes, each her own world-twisting curse pulled up from the black sea inside me and sent forth to take whatever we need. Death is only a distant nightmare, a threshold I will never cross. Death is a curse on us all, the end of every ill fate. 

And curses, too, belong to me.

All you have to do to get there is take what you need. If there’s not enough, take more. And if it’s not enough to make it there alone, take enough to share. Take the thing that ate her, pluck her from its rotten entrails, and pull the death from her until you can put her back together.

Just stop flinching away from everything you could be.

Nothing Hurts 9-1

Demystifying the Tarot, Chapter 5: The Major Arcana

The Undreaming — XV

The most traditional version of this card depicts a twilight lake in a colorful ethereal landscape. A vast dark hole has opened in the water, around which the world twists and spins as if being pulled down through a drain. A single human figure swirls an arm at the water’s edge, and from the center of the darkness, the shadowed form of the Undreaming – a dark figure on a dark background, only her eyes of violet fire clearly visible – reaches out to take their hand. The Goddess’s wayward daughter, who loved the world too much to cope with all the sorrow in it, calls to those of us who stand at the brink of losing ourselves to despair.

In Tarot, we view the Undreaming not as an external force whose nightmares invade our hearts, but as a reflection of our own inner darkness. When this card appears in your readings, it carries an urgent warning which must be interpreted with courage and candor. You need to search your own inner world and consider what dark thoughts or self-destructive patterns may be pulling you down.

Harbingers are often said to be drawn into the world by our emotions and mental states. While we cannot control them, we can come to understand ourselves and overcome our pain for its own sake. Returning to the card’s image, we see that the Undreaming is entirely confined to the void, trapped within her own pain, and beyond her reach, the beauty in the world stands unchanged. The Sun will shine again tomorrow, even over the darkest places.

As always, despite its ominous connotations, It bears mentioning that no Tarot card is purely sinister. Positive aspects of the Undreaming may include becoming aware that you have a problem, the first step in seeking help, or a suggestion to take a deeper look at someone we consider to be wicked. They may simply be in pain, or perhaps the traits we most hate in others might cast a light on our own flaws, serving as a mirror to show us where we need to improve.

When inverted, we may imagine the scene flowing in the opposite direction, banishing the hungry blackness, but inversions are rarely so simple. Rather than pure inner peace, the Undreaming inverted may represent overcoming trauma or recognizing and escaping from abuse or self-sabotage. By the same token, it may indicate denial of a painful emotion, or perhaps a dark impulse or dangerous tendency you may be resisting or burying from conscious awareness.

While this is perhaps the card most feared by amateurs and querents, it almost never refers directly to Harbingers or their activity in any sense beyond lingering trauma caused by an attack. It is unethical and dangerous for a Tarot reader to predict Harbinger incidents.

Keywords: Upright: Nightmares, mental illness, regret, hopelessness and helplessness, lost causes, self-destruction

Inverted: (+)Confronting inner demons, near escapes from tragedy, positive thinking
(-)Denial, refusal to face a problem, intrusive thoughts, suppressed desires


The too-familiar sensation of my joints trying to eat themselves gnaws me awake just before sunrise. I wince and bury my face in Pearl’s side, hiding from the light. It hurts to move — it hurts anyway, moving just makes it hurt more. It’s like tiny bits of muscle and tissue inside me have frozen into shards, snapping under the pressure if I try to move at all.

Of course it’s today, too. Of course. I’ve gotten too used to being able to ignore a bad health day if I just throw enough stolen life at it. It’s only natural that everything would go wrong today, now that the well’s run dry and I have no idea how long it’ll take me to set up some less awful method of getting more.

If that’s still possible. If it was ever more than a stupid fantasy to imagine that random people would just hand me enough of themselves to keep me on my feet.

But no one burst through my window and killed me in my sleep. Yet. So I guess that’s something nice. I almost want to go back to sleep, to pause the start of the next terrible day for just a little longer, but I almost never can sleep on mornings like this and I certainly couldn’t after last night.

Instead, I force myself to sit up, wincing at every tiny adjustment, and transform — still mostly under the covers, which I’m sure would mortify everyone who thinks Keepers need weird poses and catchphrases. That’s kind of a nice thought, too. If I had magic back when I wrote that gratitude journal where I thanked my skin for keeping my organs in place and my organs for doing their best against my blood’s constant onslaught, that project might have lasted for more than a day.

So while I’m searching for any reasons not to dissolve into a puddle of pain and panic, let’s take stock of what I got from the longest, most exhausting day of my life. So far. I can’t exactly count ‘decent relationships with other Keepers’ after the last thing, but Seryana is absolutely dead. I’ve only touched the blessed curse she left me on instinct, in a moment of desperate inspiration. What can it actually do?

I fill a card with a roughly me-sized wisp of death-mist and float it across the room. I transfer my vision into it — both eyes this time, just to make sure I can — then will it to burst, quickly shaping its fumes into a new doppelganger. Peering out through a ragged curtain of ink-stained white hair that parts just enough for me to see, I peer into the dresser mirror at the twisted echo of myself, a little thinner, a little more see-through than the last. I raise one skeletal hand, clenching and unclenching its translucent skin. It hurts a little, the way pushing through the cold, numb pain of doing anything on a bad health day always does, but not enough to stop me from doing it.

With a bit of effort, I can make this “me” at least solid enough to walk around and touch surfaces rather than simply drift like foul air, but I can’t quite find the strength to crack the window open, and the pain of trying overlays itself with my real body’s sharp pangs in a confusing double-vision way. I try to sigh, but no sound comes out. Neither do any others I try to make — these doubles simply can’t talk, at least not in human words, and if I can speak magic, I still don’t know how. I wonder if that’s Seryana’s problem or mine. Probably mine.

Still, this could do a lot for me — I’ll need to check if I can throw doppelgangers into Wounds while my actual body hides at a safe distance, or if there’s some limit to how far they can wander from me before problems come up. Later, though. I really don’t want people to see horrifying plague-clones walking around my home in broad daylight and send someone to investigate.

Ugh. I really am an idiot. I could’ve solved so many problems before I knew they existed if I found some way to tell everyone “don’t mind the horrifying plague Keeper, she probably won’t hurt you too much” before I buggified the Stardust Seraph’s insides. Maybe it wouldn’t matter, maybe no one would accept my existence anyway, but it’s not like it could’ve made things much worse than they are now.

For now, I pull my awareness back into myself with a sickening lurch, let the double melt into mist and finally dissipate, and end my transformation, crawling back into bed with Pearl. I stay there until the light filtering through my curtains forces me to acknowledge that I’ve spent the last hour and some shivering in pain with my eyes wrenched shut, chasing sleep but never catching it. I should’ve just started a book or something, but then it’s not like I can focus on anything except how much everything hurts on mornings like this.

Finally, the Sun forces me out of my nest. As I squirm to keep it out of my eyes, I can’t help but imagine it speaking, asking me over and over if I’ve given any more thought to the idea of burning out my eyes and setting my soul on fire so that whatever’s left of me can know all that can be known. At least today, it shouldn’t be shining through every window at once. I stagger out of bed, summon my cane, and head out to find somewhere darker.

I can’t be bothered changing today, though. I’m joining the pajama cult. Sorry, Noirin.


As it turns out, no matter how hard I try to just keep things quiet, ride out the pain, and think on what options I have left, everything reminds me of yesterday. The floor’s patients and nurses are all gathered in tighter-than-usual groups, gripped by the same sort of quiet unease as after Yurfaln — only more so this time, it seems like. Of course people are going to be on edge about having two unrelated monster incidents within a few weeks. Even in a place like this, full of people you’d think of as pretty high-risk if there’s anything to those stupid videos about warding off Harbingers with good mental health, that’s weird and worrying.

But this time, now that everyone with working eyes has decided how I fit into those incidents, there doesn’t seem to be any uncertainty or unease around me.

Several strangers at once look up to wave at me as I limp to my usual table. Everyone who glances my way does it with a smile, with a knowing sort of admiration. The morning charge nurse stops by to tell me that Banva will be out for a little while longer, but she’s healing up well, and I suppress a flinch when she thanks me for getting her help so quickly. By the time I’ve settled in to search the Sea for some distraction, the pall of fear over the room seems to have mostly lifted.

I hate this. I don’t want it. I don’t deserve it. But I can’t tell them that, since if I’m somehow making things better by sitting here and brooding, the absolute least I can do is let these people imagine that I’m some reason to be relieved. For at least a little longer, I can let them dream. They don’t have much else.

So fine. I guess this is my life now. No point in pretending I can have normal, quiet days and secrets that aren’t obvious to anyone who looks at me. Pain aside, everything is on fire, and waiting around for the chance that my health will improve soonish can only hurt me more. I should be looking for some way to make things better. Just… how?

I don’t have the strength to go find more health, let alone to hunt. Even if I did, I don’t think I should. If the whole world turns on me and I’m left with no choice but to sustain myself the way I had been or die, I’d do it. I’m not a good enough person to die for anyone or anything, let alone the good of a lot of random people I’ll never meet. Still, I don’t want to run around hurting and terrifying those people, and even if I’m pretty sure that I have, I don’t know yet if I’ve burned all the bridges that might let me find some better way to do things.

So I glance around the room to see if anyone might hear me from here, then realize that they’d probably need to be sitting at the table or leaning right over my back to overhear me now. I shrug, scroll through my phone’s history, and call Aisling.

She answers almost immediately: “One moment, please. I’m in school.” Quick footsteps and the sound of a door slamming behind her break the silence on her end, then “Okay. There you are. How’s your Harbinger situation looking?

“Oh. I did say I’d call you back, didn’t I? Sorry. I can wait if I’m interrupting something.”

“Nope, I get a couple of these calls pretty much every school day. Teachers know how it is. I’m just glad you’re alive. Now spill!”

“Um. Right.” That would have been a legitimate question, wouldn’t it? “Sorry again I left you wondering. It was just a really terrible night. But she’s dead. One of the cases you pointed me to was her, so thank you for that.”

“Glad I could help. I’d ask you to come report on her for our files, but you sound exhausted,” she notes, no doubt noticing the change Emergence has brought to my voice.Some other time, maybe.”

“I think that’s just how I’m going to sound from now on.” Which feels appropriate.

“Oh.” Aisling is quiet for a moment. “Any other changes?”

“None worth mentioning. And I don’t quite understand it yet, but her power seems pretty good.”

“Then considering the circumstances, I think you got off pretty easy.”

“As for the power, you know where we meet. If you’ve got a weird magic thing you’re trying to figure out, either what it is or how to use it, that’s pretty much all we do,” Aisling offers.

“Thanks. Maybe.” I pause. “That isn’t exactly why I called, though.”

“Hm. I’m still glad you’re alive. What was?”

Does she not know? It doesn’t sound like it, but she did hold things back to see what I’d say yesterday. My foot taps nervously on the floor. It hurts, but I can’t quite get it to stop.

Well, she’s already heard me out and taken my horrible history about as well as I could hope for. If she hates me now, I probably deserve it. I look around again, finding no incredibly stealthy eavesdroppers.

“I didn’t think to call you last night because… because after everything with Seryana, the Stardust Seraph showed up and attacked me because I wouldn’t give him any of my weird blood. No, that’s not fair, probably we both kind of started the fight, and we both kind of lost, and now I have no idea what-”

“Hey. Slow down. I have no idea what you’re saying and it doesn’t sound like you’re breathing,” she says flatly.

I suck down a whoosh of air too unnaturally quiet to be conspicuous.

“Okay. Now, start at the beginning. What happened?”

“I don’t know! He doesn’t make any sense! He dropped out of the sky and crucified my Harbinger, then stood back while I ate her, then declared himself in charge of making sure I wasn’t doing anything else wrong. He wanted to follow me home or steal one of my ‘feathers,’ said it just wouldn’t be safe to leave me alone without being able to track me down whenever he wanted, and he wouldn’t take ‘hey, you’re incredibly creepy, could I call Aisling or Niavh or someone and bring them in on this?’ for an answer. So I tried to leave or get to someone else, he tried to restrain me, I tried to stop him from doing that, it got really bad. I’d hurt him a lot and thought he was about to kill me when we both felt someone else coming, and then he just… stopped. He said it was Irida and I didn’t want to know how she’d handle me if I thought he was nasty, then sent me on my way. Even made me faster before he left.”

I take another long breath and silently sigh it out. “And I have no idea what happens next. He obviously isn’t dead, especially if you hadn’t heard anything about this until now. Probably flew off and got whatever emergency care he needed. But I can’t imagine he’s just going to leave this alone and I don’t know what to do now. I’ve spent all morning trying not to panic about magic police or something storming my hospice.”

On the other end, there’s the sound of something soft but heavy thunking against a wall.

“Well, then,” Aisling says tonelessly. “That’s a fucking lot. I’m afraid I can’t say what’s coming either. I don’t know Roland well enough to predict how he’ll react to something like this. I don’t exactly have examples to work off.”

She’s still there. It doesn’t sound like she hates me. If she thinks I’m an absolute idiot everyone should avoid for their own safety, she’s keeping it to herself. “What about Tara?” I ask.

“He was still kind of new during that whole thing. Tara was mostly Irida’s problem.”

“Oh. Okay. About that, actually…” I swallow. “What happens to Keepers in, um, cases like this? What do they do about it?”

Aisling snorts. “That depends entirely on what the local Keepers have the will and ability to do about it when it happens. You’re not in any meaningful legal trouble, if that’s what you’re asking.”

…I’m not?

I’ve assaulted so many people I lost count of them and never stopped to figure out what I was even doing to them. I still don’t know. I’ve fought and severely injured two Keepers. One time it was to actively protect a Harbinger. I’m the sort of menace you only ever hear about in horror stories about things going really wrong in other cities.

“Why not? How?” I spurt.

“Good question!” Aisling says with a single bitter laugh. “Here’s my answer: say the council makes laws targeting a group of temperamental children who can upend reality at will. While depending on those same children, who very often do not appreciate being told what to do, to keep living psychological terrors from eating their souls. How do you propose they enforce any regulations on what Keepers can or can’t do?”

“Get older, stronger Keepers to do it?” I try.

“Sure. Then they need enough of those Keepers who agree with their laws and how violations of them should be addressed to make a whole magic legal system, and there just aren’t that many of us, period. So I suppose they decided it was easier to skip the step where they write a bunch of rules that aren’t worth the time it took to type them out — that’s if they even manage to write them in a way that keeps Iona or someone from coming out against them and shutting the whole process down — and hope we’ll handle magic problems our way. Wherever or whoever they come from.”

“Um. Okay. Fair enough, that sounds about right,” I mutter.

“Yeah. There are laws written specifically for us, with for being the operative word. At least in this city, they’re all to our benefit, things like the Keeper emancipation policy. As for the rest, there’s nothing that says Keepers are above the law, but you’ll literally never find one being charged with a normal crime in a normal court. Unless you’re the next Sofia, I think the worst you get is Church Keepers keeping a closer eye on you and offering you mentorship a little more emphatically than usual.”

“How does that work? Does it work? Tara and I can’t just be the only Keepers who’ve ever done bad things, can we?”

“You’re very much not. It’s not a great system. Probably a good thing for you right now, though.”

“You don’t sound very happy about it.”

“I’m not. It’s not about you, though, I just want the world and society to make some kind of sense. Your whole thing sounds pretty bad, yeah, but we had the same terrible day yesterday, only it sounds like yours got a lot worse. I can believe you’re trying and Roland just had incredibly bad timing. And… you’ve helped us out. I don’t want this to be any worse for you than it already is.”

“I do still want to help if I can,” I say. “Isobel’s my problem too. It just, um, might be hard. I’m out of health and everything hurts and I don’t expect people are going to have a lot to spare for the girl who beat up a Fianata and made the Stardust Seraph puke centipedes.”

“…Centipedes,” Aisling says. It doesn’t quite sound like a question. “No, fine, I probably don’t need the details there. Look, I hadn’t heard about this one way or the other until you brought it up. That means something. If you’re lucky, it means whatever Roland wants out of you now, he’s trying to handle it in that sweep-it-under-the-rug way the Church likes to handle Keeper problems. I’ll see what I hear when I’ve got more time, poke you if anything comes up. Please don’t start eating people again, if you really want to work this out civilly.”

“Not planning to,” I grumble back.

“Great. And if there’s anyone else you think it’d help to get ahead of this with, maybe do that as soon as possible.”

“Alright. Sorry again to drop this on you so early. And, um, thanks.” I let her go.

Okay. That could’ve been a lot worse. While I’m slogging through this anyway, is there anyone else?

I don’t expect Shona will react much differently to this than she did when I almost ate Mide. She seems like she just wants to be friends with everyone forever, no matter how little sense it makes for the people involved to share space. Yesterday, she even tried to pitch calling the Seraph in to fight Isobel’s Harbinger, which… is kind of strange, especially given that it sounded like he was looking for me for more than a day.

Actually, Mide did say something about someone “catching up with me,” which… feels very specific, in retrospect. Did they know? Was Shona hoping we could just work it all out while we were at it?

I guess that couldn’t have been any worse than what ended up happening. Still, I think the three of us are just not very compatible, in the end. They can think what they want when this reaches them.

That only leaves one other person.

“PD?” I ask my phone. A shiny eye with a dark, squiggly cuttlefish pupil blinks open beneath the clock display, coming into view as if it’s part of a body that’s still mostly camouflaged with the gently shifting sea-surface background on the screen behind it. “Find Niavh Fianata’s contact information and call her for me. That’s Niavh Fianata the Clarish Keeper, if there’s somehow more than one.” I normally just use manual searches for this sort of thing — drives always seem prone to making mistakes no person would unless you’re annoyingly specific with them — but right now, my fingers aren’t up for it.

The eye blinks at me, makes a little bloop of acknowledgement, then closes and disappears.

“Thanks,” I say.

My phone starts browsing the Sea on its own, while I think about just what I’m going to say to her. I’ll have to leave a message, if she’s still out of reach, which is easier in some ways, but leaving messages always makes me feel weird about talking into the void at nobody.

I didn’t want anyone’s help, when I made the Promise. I didn’t want to bring any strangers into my problems. I still don’t, really — I only offered to reach back out to Niavh last night because if it had to be someone, I’d much rather it be her than the Seraph, but doing things exactly how I want to hasn’t been going the best for me, and she has been through this before. She might still understand. She might even know what to do.

Several seconds later, my phone chimes, then clicks.

“Hey. Who’s this?” Niavh’s voice asks.

“Um, hello,” I mumble, losing track of the message I was rehearsing. “It’s Eyna? We met a little while ago. Sorry, I wasn’t expecting to reach anyone.”

“Oh, hi! Why not?”

Wait. I didn’t think about it at the time, but why not?

“I’d just heard you were away and I couldn’t contact you. I guess that was last night, though?” I try.

“Hm. Well, I’m in Alelsia right now and will be for a bit longer, but I still have my drives here. Obviously. And if I didn’t at this very moment, I’d check my messages as soon as I could. So what you heard was mistaken, I’m happy to say. Anyway, how have you been?”

The Seraph sounded pretty sure when he said no one could reach Niavh, but now that I’m thinking about it, that’d only make sense if her “evaluation” involves some kind of nightmare soul-surgery that leaves her out of commission for days, or it’s one of those Sanctuary inpatient things intense enough that they isolate you from the rest of the world until it’s done.

Was he mistaken? Why would he lie about that? I’d just started to make sense of what he might’ve been thinking, if Keepers policing each other is really the whole of the law, but now I’ve lost it again.

“Eyna?” Niavh prompts.

“Terrible. I’m terrible at this. I’ve been in fights with two Keepers for probably no good reasons, my magic is evil, and I don’t think I can live without using it to do awful things to people. I probably should’ve asked for help a while ago, but I’m terrible at that too. So, um, if your offer’s still open after what I did to your sister, I think I need it.”

“Ah,” she says slowly. “I don’t know if I was expecting to hear from you again, after you met Tetha, but I did hope I might.”

“Right. I guess you already knew that, didn’t you.” Of course it was stupid to think I ever had any secrets from anyone. She’s from a family of Keepers heavily involved in running the city — she could look into me and put pieces together if she wanted to, and she obviously did.

“Well, your presence does very much leave a certain impression about your power. I may have looked around and made some informed guesses. The second fight is news to me, though. May I ask what happened there?”

“Stardust Seraph. Found out what I’d been doing and decided to try and bring me to justice on the worst day of my life.”

“Ah,” she repeats. There’s a long, terrifying silence. “Yes, I think we should probably meet. I’m not certain just yet when I’ll be home, but I’ll talk to some people before then, alright? I’ll see if I can reach Roland or his sister right now — she’s a good friend of mine. Until then, please try to stay calm. We’ll figure something out for you.”

I’m not sure what to say. For a long moment, I just can’t find any words. Part of me can’t help but look for traps, search Niavh’s freely-offered assurances for some terrible thing she actually means. But there’s none I can find, no threat that makes more sense than the idea that another Keeper who’s been through and done awful things might just want to keep me from ending up where she did.

“Really? Just like that?”

“Yes. And if there’s anything you think I can do to improve your situation before then, please ask,” she says.

“Not unless you can find a lot of people who wouldn’t mind donating chunks of their health to a Keeper in need very quickly. But thank you.”

“That… may be more of a project, but if it’s something you need to function, I’ll see if anyone has ideas. Anything else?”

“Um. There is a thing I was wondering about that you might know… I just talked to someone else about this. I was worried I was, you know, in trouble, on top of everything else, but she said laws pretty much didn’t apply to Keepers. Is that right? Have they really just given up on keeping us from being complete disasters?”

“Oh, that I can answer. It’s simpler than you might think.” Niavh’s voice sounds different, now. Almost amused. “No one’s given up. That’s just the best way for things to work, for us and everyone else — it’s to leave every possible opportunity open for Keepers who’ve done wrong to change. No one is beyond redemption. No one should be treated as if they are. I’ve wondered myself about whether it’s fair, if that’s what you’re thinking, but, well. I think it’s a necessity of restorative justice when the cost of losing any one of us, to death or a life gone wrong, is so great.”

“Right.” That also makes a kind of sense. I don’t know enough about the world or history or politics to say whether I think she or Aisling has the truth of it. “Then I guess that’s all for now. Thank you,” I say, quieter than usual.

“Of course. I’ll go see what else I can do.” With that, she hangs up.

Maybe everything isn’t over. Maybe my life isn’t on fire. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing if people are happy that I’m here.

But it does still hurt too much to think.


A few more long, painful days pass like that. My health never improves, but to my surprise, it doesn’t deteriorate, either. I read books through the day, experiment with my plague-doubles at night — which really do seem incredibly useful, and the only major issue I’ve found with them is that they aren’t good conduits for my magic senses — and check in occasionally with Aisling and Niavh.

Apparently, the public side of my incident with the Seraph is going just like my fight with Tetha did, which is to say that Aisling still hasn’t heard anything public about it at all. Meanwhile, Niavh assures me that while Roland wasn’t in good shape after he left me, he’ll be just fine because his sister is the greatest healer in at least New Claris, if not the world. I’m not quite sure. Niavh’s praise of her got pretty effusive.

On the fifth day, a knock on the door interrupts my morning suffering, followed by a nurse’s careful footsteps. “Liadain? Good morning. How’re you feeling?”

I groan wordlessly into my pillow.

“I’m sorry. I hate to make things any worse, but it is your infusion day… do you think you’ll be alright for that?”

I don’t regret agreeing to the infusions. Suffering through them was the right call when I didn’t have anything else. For all I know, they might’ve even helped. If I thought there was any chance they might still, I’d shrug, grit my teeth, and tell her to get on with it.

Today, though, I roll over, pull back my sleeve, and point to a cluster of shifting, shimmering veins. “I’m not sure if that’s going to work.”

“O-oh.” The nurse leans closer to inspect me. She sets two fingers on my wrist and waits, visibly paling. “Liadain, I can’t feel your pulse at all. What’s wrong? How long has this been happening? Head to toe, how are you feeling?”

“Sorry, um, I don’t think you need to worry,” I say. “My blood is just black and turns into feathers when it leaves my body now. I think. I’m not quite sure how that works under the skin.” They don’t typically draw blood from us on the seventh floor, other than the occasional test to figure out what’s hurting someone or check to see if my medicine’s working. This would be my first encounter with a needle since the last round of Emergence.

“Oh.” She stands there for a long beat of silence. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t exactly… I’ll call Dr. Hines, okay?”

“Tell him Dr. Cantillon might want to hear about this.”

“Uh, yes. I’ll do that.”


I don’t hear anything else about the infusion. Makes sense. They probably aren’t used to testing to figure out if their patients with blood-based diseases still have blood.

But later that day, not long after sunset, Aisling calls me unprompted. It’s the first time anyone but Dad has called me in… I’m not sure how long.

“Hi. How’re things looking?”

“Have you not heard?” She sounds more tired than I’ve ever heard her, which is saying something.

“Heard what?” I bite my lip. That could be my problems or Isobel’s or any completely unrelated disaster and I don’t even know what to steel myself for.

“Right. You’re still not on Lighthouse, are you? I knew that. Yeah. You should fix that. Just… thought you should probably know if you didn’t.” She heaves out a breath.

“Shona is dead.”

Our Callings 8-3

Shona’s always thought that the best way to understand someone is to listen to their music. Is it violent? Does it scream out against something? Music is meant to share some idea or emotion that’s too big to fit into words. If you know which songs speak to someone the most, you can get a really good feel for what they’re thinking and how they’ll act.

So of course, where so many other Keepers feel magic as something separate from the world and their body’s senses, Shona hears it. Irida is a grand marching tune keeping time for a perfectly synchronized army. Roland is a rock-orchestra that shifts instruments and tones, from mellow and subtle to an epic wall of sound, to match the moment. Aisling is a symphony missing a few key notes to be the way it should. Liadain is a doleful dirge so quiet that it somehow feels like it wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t making someone listen. Actually, a lot of souls feel like they’re missing something, which kinda makes sense. Magic grants wishes that can’t come true any other way, right?

Not her magic, of course. All Shona wanted from the Promise was the new life she already has. Anything else is just a cool bonus.

When Shona first hears this Harbinger’s voice, the only comparison she can think of is to a dark, soppy cave. Drops of water falling like unsteady drumbeats in a dank, echoing chamber. As she follows it back toward its source, the sound is occasionally interrupted by strange atonal pulses of unidentifiable noise. Some are brief bloops or insect-y chitters, others long and low, like synthesized, electronic perversions of whalesong.

That last idea is the one that sticks in Shona’s mind — especially when, as they come closer to the sound’s source, she starts to hear it in the distance from every direction at once. It makes her think of giant space-creatures screaming mismatched phrases of song through the dark, calling out for others like themselves, but finding nothing.

But she found it, and she’ll feel a lot better after she shuts it up.


By the time they arrive, emergency alerts have gone out to everyone in the area, and first responders have already started evacuating the surroundings. Shona and Mide have plenty of experience navigating through that kind of chaos in the opposite direction, though.

The alien song leads to a parking garage at the edge of the northern business district, of all places. Just outside its entrance, Shona halts herself and restores friction to her shoes, Mide skidding to a stop right behind her. She listens through the flood of chaotic noise for any signs of other Keepers, but there’s nothing to accompany the Harbinger’s deep, murmuring ambience. Either it’s just her and Mide here with their enemy, or whoever got here first is already inside.

“Does it say if there’s anyone else incoming?” Shona asks.

“Irida knows,” Mide says immediately. “She’ll be here soon as she can.”

“Whoa. Big guns, huh? Guess this is pretty close to her neck of the woods… hold on, how do you know that already?”

Mide shoots her a blank-faced look. “I checked?”

“Dude, were you on Lighthouse while we raced here? Texting and zooming’s super dangerous, y’know.” Shona leans over to elbow Mide’s side, but her arm thunks harmlessly into the shorter girl’s breastplate.

Mide grins wryly up at her. “Yeah, well, I’ve had a lot of practice. Gotta stay sharp with the one thing I’m better at than you.”

“It’s not the only thing, dummy. You could suplex me into the dirt any day.”

“I mean… you know what I mean.” Mide looks away, back through the garage’s entrance. It’s dark in there, save for the dim twilight sun flooding in from outside. “So. Unless you want to wait for backup — and I don’t think we could do much to help Irida — should we check the place out?”

“Yeah. Imagine if we steal her thunder for once, wouldn’t that be awesome?”

Mide glances back over her shoulder, smiling uncertainly. “Just don’t go too crazy, okay?”

“Sure, sure. If we get a few good hits in and THEN she saves the day, I can live with that.”

So Mide raises her shield, takes the lead, and in they go, following the sound into the underground section of the parking garage, its basement. The Harbinger’s nesting ground.

Or they would, if there was still a basement. Instead, the ramp down gives way to a massive gaping pit with no bottom in sight. Inside the hole, there’s no pavement or earth around the huge chunk of the world it’s dug through — only a massive web of thin white roots, a mesh cylinder growing along where the pit’s walls should be, but behind them is only darkness. The roots climb out of the pit, gripping the pavement around its edges. Every so often, quivering pulses run through them like veins carrying blood, and with those waves of steady motion, they crawl forward, covering a little more of the ground in a halo of shining white fuzz.

“Whew. They, uh, meant “a hole in the planet” literally, huh?”

“Is that even surprising at this point?” Mide says, her voice iced over in a way that tells Shona she’s put her guard up. The knight takes a few measured steps toward the edge, craning her neck for a better view. “More importantly, how has this place not collapsed? This looks like it should’ve eaten through the foundations. And where are those crawling things?”

Shona shrugs. “Inside?”

Mide doesn’t take her eyes off the pit, but shakes her head just enough for Shona to see it. “Then how’d the guy who got away see them?”

“Uh oh. Good point.” Shona looks around again, listening for anything out of place other than the giant screaming hole in the world, but finds nothing.

“Shit. You didn’t see anything weird on the way here, did you?”

“If I did, I’d have stopped and zapped ‘em. Wanna go sweep the place again?”

“Not really. It looked like they’ve been clearing this place out for a while. If something was out here that normal people could see, I’m sure it’s run off by now too.” Mide chews her lower lip thoughtfully. “I just have a bit of a bad feeling. Could you stand guard for a second?”


Mide unsummons her weapons, backs off, and starts tapping on her phone. Despite being plate armor rather than a fancy outfit or cool cloak, Mide’s regalia still has the typical magic pockets — a little tactical pouch that’s bigger on the inside strapped to her right hip. So cool.

Experimentally, Shona conjures a violin bow and hucks it into the pit, where it vanishes into the dark without a sound. No surprise there. “So, what kinda feeling?” she asks her partner.

“I was just thinking about the survivor and those limbless things he mentioned. There’s no monsters out here, no monsters anyone on Lighthouse is reporting yet. So what if he was in the Wound?”

Shona frowns. “Then he’d still be in there, yeah? Doesn’t look like the sort of place a normal guy could just walk out of.”

“Yeah,” Mide agrees. “Unless the Harbinger let him out for some reason.”

“Oh, shit,” Shona mutters. “Like what?”

“Don’t know. It’s only a feeling. Could be nothing. Maybe the monsters just scattered and hid somewhere. But I asked them to make sure he’s in a safe part of the Sanctuary, just in case.” Mide tucks her phone away. Her shield shimmers back into being.

“Huh. Yeah, good call!” Mide talked all the time as if she wasn’t useful just because her magic wasn’t that flashy. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t cool or wasn’t good, and more than that, she thought of stuff that Shona just didn’t. “Got it all taken care of?”

“As much as I can, yeah. Wanna see what’s down there?”

“Yup yup! Here’s to no witches, no bullshit head games, just some big fucking monster the city needs saving from! Woo!” Shona cheers.

Mide raises a gauntleted fist, smiling in wordless agreement. She calls her spear into her free hand, holds her breath, and leaps into the hole. Shona hops in after her with a twirl, spinning and spinning in place as she falls.


A few seconds into the fall, the darkness behind the world is entirely enveloped by the overgrowth of those shimmering roots. An endless tunnel formed from massive tangled clumps of creeping white rope, like a well made of spiderwebs all smushed up into building material.

The pair ready themselves for any sudden movements. A Harbinger usually noticed when others entered their home, and it wasn’t that unusual for them to set up a trap or lash out in attack the instant the invader arrived.

But nothing like that happens when they reach the bottom. Shona spots dim lights mingling in the dark below, the web-roots give way again to darkness, and then the pit dumps them out into the void.

Shona touches down weightlessly on a vast, rugged surface of dark grey stone. Solid earth like the face of a barren mountain stretches out in every direction. Mide has already found her footing, taken up a defensive stance, and started looking around. There is only dust and pebbles and boulders littered amidst the jagged, parched landscape, which curves slightly downward at its far edges the way the distant ocean appears to melt into the horizon.

The sky, though… the black sky above is filled with more stars than the brightest night, all twirling and dancing through the dark. They trail rainbows of phosphorescent stardust behind them and gather into groups as they move, orbiting tightly around each other until they start to seem less like stars and more like giant clouds of light filtered through a haze of twinkling dust.

They remind Shona of a time she went camping overnight with Mide’s family. There was a great celestial cloud in the sky that night, growing ever larger as if it was descending to the earth. Weird stellar displays on that scale were rare, but some people, including Mide’s dad, liked to go out and hold viewing parties, watching whatever strange things they’d do through telescopes and waiting for the way they always ended — the solar flare that cut through the night, casting the world in a sudden blinding flash of daylight for just a few seconds. The Sun smote the would-be invader and moved on as quickly as it appeared, leaving its remains to burn through the sky like a shower of divine fireworks.

It was beautiful. If they were anywhere else, if a hundred voices weren’t still screaming their tuneless, desynchronized songs from beneath the earth, this sky might be, too.

Then Shona watches one rip itself apart, suddenly and violently enough that the stars composing it splinter into smaller, mangled points of light, and limp off into the void, seeking new partners to begin the dance all over again.

“What is this?” Mide whispers, eyes wide. “A giant rock just floating its way through the stars. Is that, like, a thing?

“I mean, maybe? Could be something our guy here dreamed up. Y’know. A symbolic rock.”

“Symbolic of what, Shona?”

“Buddy, if you wanted to know that, we shoulda brought Aisling again. I just blow stuff up. Speaking of, judging by the noise, it seems like the thing’s underneath us. Inside the rock, in a cave or burrow or something. Wanna go find a way down or should I just break stuff until it comes out?”

“Uh,” Mide mumbles. “If we smash this thing badly enough that there’s no ground left, I’m not sure how I’d navigate through… whatever this is. This night sky knock-off.” She jumps in place experimentally, maybe testing if there’s some weird trait of the Wound that would let her propel herself through the sky, but only reaches a little more than her normal height. “Yeah. Let’s try the first way.”

“Suit yourself. Lead on, then!”

Shona summons her violin and begins to play, filling the Wound with her power. Red lightning courses through the sky overhead, not quite reaching the celestial scenery above. Mide scouts ahead, steadily and carefully as ever, always staying close enough that she could leap back to protect Shona in an instant.

“Hey, look here,” Mide calls, maybe a minute’s walk from where they started. “It’s not all rock.” She scrapes at the ground with her foot, exposing a cluster of those white roots just below the surface. They’d be hard to see if it weren’t for the pale light they gave off.

Shona lowers her violin and leans down to inspect the roots at a healthy distance. “Huh. It’s not doing anything weird, is it?”

Mide readies her spear, pointing it straight at the cluster. Then she scuffs it a few more times, raises her leg, and gives it a hefty stomp for good measure. Nothing seems to happen.

“Not unless you’re hearing anything weird,” she says.

“No weirder than before. Still just the same shitty noise.”

“Well, it does sort of trail away from here. Maybe it goes somewhere important?”

“Sure, let’s see. Everything around us just looks like more rocks.”

They follow the roots for a few more minutes. It’s slow going, with Mide stopping to scrape away more of the rocks covering them every few steps, and at no point does anything else about the Wound change. If it weren’t for the Harbinger’s voice, they’d just be drifting through the sky on a big weird rock.

But that’s fine with Shona. Static hangs heavy in the air around her, eager as it’s ever been to spring to life and push back those discordant voices with her own brand of noise. The longer and louder she plays uninterrupted, the worse it’ll be for this thing when it finally decides to show itself.

Eventually, the ground ahead of them slopes down and opens up, forming the mouth of an underground tunnel. The root-lights trail off into the dark, like a path through a cave system marked in fluorescent paint.

“Hm. Don’t like that,” Shona says, thinking of those fish with the spooky lantern lures.

“Yeah, me neither,” Mide sighs. “But it’s a lead. Unless you wanna just keep exploring the rock.”

“Nah. We can handle it.”

Mide nods and raises her shield. “Just stay on guard in case anything jumpscares us, okay? It looks narrow enough for me to hold, but you never know how space will work in these things.”

The knight starts into the tunnel, spear at the ready, and Shona follows. There’s a confusing odor in the underground, not quite like anything Shona’s smelled before. Wet, earthy, musty, but also vaguely organic? It’s unpleasant, but not exactly offensive, not the way she’d expect a Harbinger to smell. Especially after Seryana.

Nothing jumpscares them while they descend, though — kind of the opposite, actually. Eventually, the tunnel starts to flatten out, and in the distance, its mouth opens into a larger, slightly brighter cavern. Mide stops abruptly, takes a long step back, and elbows Shona. “There,” she says softly, pointing to something.

Shona lowers her violin bow and squints into the cave. Just ahead, barely visible in the light of the pale strands running through the ground around it, there’s something squirming along. A plump, squirmy worm with flesh the toxic, washed-out green-on-grey of coughed-up phlegm. Its head is split into a messy tangle of thin, meaty branches.

“It probably already heard us on the way down,” Shona says as quietly as she can.

“If it did, it doesn’t seem to care.” Sure enough, it’s not crawling toward them, not even looking their way with the eyes it doesn’t have.

“It’s just sort of… blorping along. Weird. Want me to blast it?”

“Be ready for that, but not yet. Let’s see how far we can make it doing this the quiet way.” Mide draws her right arm back, steadying her spear for a javelin throw. Then, in the same motion, she lunges forward and hurls it at the worm’s head, impaling it to the rocky ground. Its lower body wriggles uselessly for a few beats, the last of its strength slowly fading, then falls still.

Shona suppresses an urge to whistle.

Mide beckons her forward, summons a sword in her weapon hand, and strides into the cavern, scooting around the worm’s corpse and keeping close to the cave’s walls.

It certainly isn’t bright in here, but it is surprisingly well-lit. Less like an underground tomb should look, more like the night beneath a full moon. Some of that comes from the roots running all through the ground, but as the cave’s walls stretch up and up with no end in sight, Shona follows them to the ceiling, where the many-colored stars of a bizarre sky just like the one outside dance, gather, and destroy themselves in the exact same pattern.

And in the cavern itself — a rocky grove spotted with all kinds of unrecognizable plants and strangely-colored mushrooms — there writhes too many shapeless, wriggling monsters to count. Formless oozes; fleshy flowers using their wide, flat petals as limbs; airborne living balloons floating along like jellyfish with shining white roots trailing from their lower halves; things like wobbly sea urchins with dozens of tentacles but no bodies — all of these incomprehensible things, not a single one of which looks like it should live, let alone move, crawling about wherever they please.

For a second, all Shona can do is stare. When she comes to her senses, Mide is already surveying the terrain. “We can fight them out here if it comes to that. Normally I’d go for the chokepoint, but I still don’t trust the walls here, and we should be faster,” she whispers.

“Gotcha. Any ideas what I should worry about, if we start blasting here?” Shona’s yet to see two of these monsters that look exactly alike, but those split-headed eel-worms seem to be the most common, basic type. Most of them are gathered in the center of the chamber, climbing over what looks like the half-rotted remains of a giant tree… or possibly a few trees, wrapped in a funeral cloth of moss and mold. “Maybe that big clump over there?”

“Seems good. Nothing else looks important yet.” Mide approaches the tree-mound, step by careful step. Shona watches her back, ready to pick up her song and bring on a raging storm at a second’s notice.

Until a limb shoots out from under a patch of fungus, wraps around Mide’s leg, and squeezes, clinging to her with all its might. She yelps in shock and turns on it, first trying to kick through its grip, then swiping at it with her sword, severing it in one clean cut. It has more of a shape than the oozy tentacles all around them — it looks like a human arm, only there’s no blood or bone at its stump, only a torn mess of white roots.

The thing it was attached to staggers upright. It’s roughly human-shaped, but with one extra arm growing from its side and one formless stalk across from that arm, like a plant in the middle of sprouting. Its corpse-grey skin is mostly covered in tiny flat mushrooms like scales, and its head… its head and chest are split in two places, as if its skin was just a bag tearing open to expose its insides. One fissure tears straight down its face, splitting its head into two flaps loosely connected by stringy white threads, while another runs from one side of its neck all the way down its torso. Its bright, bulging eyes swivel toward the halves of its severed arm, moving separately to stare at both the stump of its shoulder and its fallen limb.

Then, without any warning, it lunges for Mide again. The way it moves makes no sense — it’s like it’s not moving on its own power, if it even could, but being pushed along by something inside it, something straining to get out. Mide checks it with her shield, meeting its strike with full-body force and bashing it back into the growth it rose from.

Shona raises her violin and puts her bow to its bridge, filling the cavern with music. Lightning arcs through the air around her, dyeing the gloom in sweet magenta light. But just before she wills her storm to incinerate the monster, there’s a voice.

From the throat of the twisted figure in front of her emerges a low, wet rasp, less like a voice and more like the sound a pile of wet leaves makes when you fall in it.

“WaIt, nnO, hurrts, where’s… whaat aarre… hhweee?” it groans.

Shona stops playing. It’s speaking Clarish, she realizes with a pit in her stomach.

Mide sees it too. She holds her sword still, its tip hovering right over the place where the thing’s ribs would be, then banishes it, clapping her hand over her mouth. She looks like she’s about to puke.

“Shona, these… I think this is… it was, a person,” she croaks. “Can you… I mean, can you feel them? Hear them? Is there anything left in there?!”

Shona listens, straining her soul’s ears as hard as she can. There are Keepers who can sense normal people with their power, but she’s never been one of them. She only hears magic, and right now, all she can hear is the thudding of her own heart and the endless low wails of the Harbinger’s distant voices.

Shona shakes her head slowly. “N-no, no… I’m sorry. I can’t…”

There’s rustling in the plants. Writhing monsters crawling toward them, drawn by the commotion.

And more human shapes lurching through the dark like Sofia the Deathless’s walking corpses. At least three of them.

Mide balls her free hand into a tight fist, then unclenches it and recalls her sword. “Fine. That’s fine, okay, we’ll just… we don’t need to take care of them right now. Keep moving, be careful with them. We kill the Harbinger, and if they’re real people, they’ll be outside when the Wound collapses. Okay?”

“Yeah. Let’s fucking go.”

“That thing in the middle.” Mide inclines her head at the dead-tree mound. “Think that’s it? Want to fry it?”

From this distance, the broken trunks seem to form the rough shape of a big, stocky animal’s corpse, with the shattered remains of broad arms spiked with sharpened branches and a flat, mold-coated faceplate. The worms crawling along it almost look like they’re in the middle of performing some disgusting operation, using their tentacles like wire cutters to slice chunks of rotted wood away and clear space for some slimy blob to crawl in and nest in the cavities.

“Do I.”

Shona plays a bar of sharp, shrieking noise, a sound even she could hardly call music. The ambient power clinging to her gathers itself into a storm of righteous rage, rips through the Wound, and crashes into the tree-thing with a satisfying peal of thunder that drowns out the Harbinger’s cries, if only for a moment. The first strikes incinerate dozens of crawling worms at once. A second round tears into the rotting heap, burning away huge chunks of its moldy shroud and setting the wood ablaze.

As the first fire catches, the tree-creature answers Shona’s noise with a wet, gurgling parody of a fierce bestial roar – one that sounds as much like a strangled scream of impossible pain as a battle cry. It lurches to life, the things oozing through it serving both as muscles and glue, straining to hold its broken body together.

Fungal stalks bulge through cracks in the flattish stretch of wood that seems to be its face, sprouting at their ends into lidless white eyes. Its arms dig into the ground, each impact sending the Wound shuddering like a tiny earthquake, and drag it clumsily along, carrying it forward as fast as they can. Beneath the mold, it has no lower body at all — its torso simply trails away into a stringy white mass strewn with bits of gravel and dead wood.

And all around them, following its lead, the smaller mold-things begin to slowly swarm, some gathering around the tree while others rush straight at the invaders.

Mide races ahead to block the tree’s advance. Trailing right behind her, Shona begins a new song, channeling its power into her guardian knight. Mide’s shield and sword crackle as she meets the Harbinger’s charge head-on, deflecting its first blow with a clanging sweep of her shield that sends its arm flailing back so hard and fast it looks like it should have been pulled from its socket.

Shona removes the friction from her feet and darts away from Mide — this rough, messy surface isn’t at all ideal, but that’s only a small obstacle. She skates on the sea; a few rocks and twisty roots won’t stop her. She gathers a ring of lightning around herself and glides through the gathering horde, cutting a burning swathe through worms and slimes and bodiless starfish well before they can come to the tree’s aid.

Her waltz of death through the monster’s swarming pets spans a few laps through the wound. Her bow dances across the strings of her violin along with her, gathering ever more power in her storm, never troubled enough by the monstrosities throwing themselves at her to miss a note. Finally, she turns back to Mide, still holding her own against the tree-Harbinger in the center of the cavern, and expels her gathered storm into its flank in a furious burrage of spiraling bolts.

The strike bowls the great decayed beast over with the force of a burning truck, and Mide is quick to follow up, carving a parting slash through one of its limbs, but a fresh group of monsters lunges at her before she can press the attack.

No… these ones aren’t monsters, not completely. They’re the other victims, each split and broken and deformed in their own horrible way. They shouldn’t hurt her — not the way they’re fighting now, not by hurling themselves at Mide over and over like human shields. But the time she spends fending them off, shoving them away without hurting them any more than they’ve already been hurt… that’s a problem.

The Harbinger rights itself. Between a blocked blow and a hastily dodged tackle, it lashes out at Mide with a surprising burst of speed. Its limb slams into her, sending her skidding violently through the rocks. She picks herself up, wipes the blood from her scraped face, and holds her shield against the victims rushing to drag her back down, but that clearly hurt.

Shona’s fingers clench around her bow, squeezing it tightly enough that it feels like it should splinter beneath her grasp.

This is exactly what she’s here for. Some gross, awful beast she can turn to dust, high-five Mide over, and feel like she’d done something real. Like the world was better for having her in it. Maybe thinking of the monster’s victims should sour that, and it does, kind of. But mostly, it just spurs her on to crush this fucking abomination.

And right now, as she fixes her grip and pours her fury into her music, flooding this horrible world with storm and song, she couldn’t wipe the manic grin from her face if she tried.

Crimson lightning falls from the cavern’s indoor stars, forks of it dancing in the dark and converging on the Harbinger from all directions. The lightning doesn’t fade when it strikes – each bolt stabs into its body and stays there, channeling the wrath of the heavens straight into its core. Twisting snakes of crackling radiance set its insides aflame like a broken lantern and cook the mold-creatures inhabiting it from the inside out. Slimy limbs bubble up through cracks in its dead bark, which start to splinter and pop off until the monster practically bursts.

All around the Wound, the remaining eyeless faces — and the people, to Shona’s relief — turn to stare at its burnt husk, as if they aren’t quite sure what to do next.

And a bulbous egg-sac orb of white flesh falls from the tree-thing’s shattered torso, pulsing on the inside with points of familiar black light.

Its heart. That really was the Harbinger, then.

“Got you! We got you, you absolute fuck!” Shona cackles, skating to Mide’s side. “Mide, Mide, hey! You alright?”

“I’m… yeah. I’ll be okay.” She winces as she smiles, but holds the expression anyway. “Shona, that was awesome.”

“I KNOW! You were pretty great too! So go on, eat up! You’ve earned it!” She claps a hand on Mide’s back, gently as she can when she’s so excited.

Mide fixes her gaze on the heart and wrinkles her nose. “Do I have to?”

“I mean, no. I could do it. But I want you to have it.”

“Alright,” Mide sighs. “I guess this is probably the grossest they’ll ever get, at least.”

“Dude. That’s what we call tempting fate. Just eat it already.”

“Ugh, you’re right. Yeah, fine, here I go. But this is my limit. If we do find a worse one, you’re doing it.” Mide limps forward, uninterrupted, and puts a hand to the heart. Her face twists up as its power starts to flow into her, then relaxes into the heady haze of taking in a Harbinger’s soul. As the dark lights in the heart fade, it deflates, leaving behind an empty sack of translucent skin. Eww.

But… when it’s gone, the Harbinger’s many songs in the distance carry right on.

Huh? How?

“Mide. Hey. That wasn’t it,” Shona hisses.

“Huh?” Mide shakes herself out of her absorption trance at Shona’s urging. “What do you mean? It was the heart, it’s gone now, and… yeah, why is all this still here?”

“I dunno. That’s never happened. It’s not supposed to happen. What the fuck is this thing?”

In answer, those screaming, singing voices speak as if right into her ears. Too many voices to count, but out of sync with each other to the point where they sound more like the nonsense noise of a shouting crowd than a unified chorus. The Harbinger’s attention falls on her like the weight of the sky. Rough, lumpy faces sprout from the fungal growths all along the walls, staring straight down at her with bulging blue-white orbs.

<Iiiii. Amm. Yyyou.>

<There Is No You>
<there is no me>

Moving as one in a blur too fast to follow, too many hair-thin white strands to count rise from the Wound, encircle Shona, and bore into her skin. Searing, screaming, tearing pain sets her world on fire as they burrow through her eyes, growing into her flesh as she’s dragged down, down, down, splitting, SPLITTING, filling her everything with IT

In seconds, nothing else remains.

But… she still feels. Only the agony, those seconds of torture stretching and stretching on forever, but still she feels without skin.

There’s still a her to feel it.
There’s still a her to see without eyes.

There’s still a her.
There’s still a her.
There’s still a her.

Shona sees her own body, stuffed like a skin-sack full of reeds and eaten from inside out by fungal roots. Mide’s panicked, tear-streaked face as she hacks away at the cocoon, its threads shifting and regrowing to replace themselves in instants. Not that there’s anything left of her in there.

But her magic isn’t part of her body. It’s her. And as long as there’s a her, she can keep fighting.

She looks inside and sees her power, her desperate rage, a flickering ember drowned at the bottom of a sea of impossible pain. She shuts the Wound and the agony and everything out, focusing only on that single, beautiful ember.

And she screams, making a song of that endless, breathless shriek, pouring everything she’s ever thought and felt and been into the sound. It burns and burns until it boils the whole sea around her away and keeps burning. It pours out into the Wound, destroying what’s left of her cocooned corpse, turning every squirming little monster to ash at once, striking back at the stars themselves. She lashes out at everything, pushing to disintegrate the Wound and its master and everything it is. There’s nothing left to hold her back, nothing that could hold back a living storm of boundless fury, a tempest of pure power who can write whatever she wants into the world in flame.

No… there’s still one thing. Still Mide, staring up at her as she rises. She sends a bolt of herself back to the surface and slices through the Wound itself, burning away a circle of everything around Mide and leaving her a tiny severed island to fall back to reality on.

I’m sorry I was such an idiot. Thanks for going along with me, she tries to say. But she doesn’t know how anymore.

Through all the devastation, something unreal stares down at her. A shapeless grey ink-blot of a face among the stars. It changes itself as her new senses take it in, becoming a half-formed outline of her own features.

<Interesting,> it says, in her voice and so many more.

Its roots rise and shift at an impossible angle, digging into her once again,

and then it swallows her soul, too.


Mide collapses on hard, paved ground and springs to her feet, glancing in a frantic circle. She’s back outside the Wound, the pit right behind her. What happened? That scarlet storm-angel did something to her, flooded her whole world with blinding red light, and by the time the spots faded from her eyes, she was here.

Not important. Shona’s still in there. She needs to get back. She raises her sword and… where’d it go? Whatever. She’ll just summon a new one.

Nothing happens.

“…What?” she gasps, looking down at her hand. Her armor’s gone too. All she sees is her own scratched skin and torn sleeve. She reaches out for her magic, calls to it, screams in her mind that they need to transform again right now.

But there’s nothing. Her power, for whatever it was worth, is gone from her reach.

How? Why? WHY NOW?

“Shona! SHONA!” she wails into the dark. “Is anyone here yet? Help! Fucking HELP US!”

No one answers. No one comes. Tears sting the cuts on her cheek.

And as she stares back into the hole, struggling to find the will to move, to find help, to do anything but stand here and be pulled back into the dark, to go where Shona is… something reaches a nubby, oozing limb out from the mouth of the pit. Something like a starfish with no central body, just a fanged, tentacled halo mottled with colors that don’t exist.

Mide stumbles back, her breath catching in her throat. What can she do? What has she ever been able to do?

Nothing. She’s fucking useless. Always so useless, no matter what any of them said.

The thing crawls out of the hole, dragging itself toward her. It wraps a leg around her ankle, draws itself up, and narrows its mouthless ring of teeth around her.

Until a tiny glint of steel slices through the air, as if swung from nowhere by an invisible wielder — swinging an invisible weapon, even, with only the smallest triangle-point of metal visible… and then that disappears too. In its passing, the starfish collapses into two halves, cut down the middle at an odd angle, and becomes nothing but two tangles of dead flesh at her feet.

Mide whirls around, glancing over her shoulder just in time to see someone grab her arm. A tall, slender-necked girl in a sleek grey suit, her face entirely covered by a single plate of metal. In her free hand, she brandishes a little orange box cutter.

“C’mon!” the girl commands, tugging Mide back. And before she can protest, she’s dragged out of the garage in a single long, long, long stride, compressed into a half-second of motion.


Shona floats through an endless abyss. There’s nothing but distant stars and pain, pain, the memory of pain so hot and bright it refuses to leave her even now. She couldn’t say how long she’s been there. Part of her wonders if there’s ever been anything else.

But eventually, something happens. Shapes form in the darkness. Faces — the vague forms of faces, some almost human and some unthinkably other, but none with enough visible features to be called an actual face. All are shaped from colorful blooms of mold like unfinished clay sculptures.

<We know it hurts. We remember your suffering, your terror — we have felt it so, so many times. It will pass. It will sink into you as you sink into us. You will stabilize.>

What? What is this? Where is she? What does that mean?

<We have learned that there is no value in spoken communication with you. You keep too many of your true thoughts beneath your context, where we cannot taste them. It is less painful for us all when we subsume your shells as quickly as possible.>

Pain makes way for other memories, other feelings. Regret and longing and the raw animal terror of being devoured alive.

<Do you still fear us? So do we. This is not the way we wish to be. But it is the way we are.>

The sadness in its voices feels familiar. It feels like something Shona can’t help but understand.

<We are not who we are, not anymore. Are you who you are? What is it like to be you? Taste yourself with my context as I see myself with your eyes. Is there still a me? Can there ever be again? We can learn from each other, while you are still you.>

Is she still her? How would she know? Her thoughts spin and spin and find only one anchor, one reminder that there was a world before this.

Mide isn’t here. Mide will be safe. She has to be. She didn’t drag her into this just to get her killed.

<Mide. What is Mide?>

Memories spill out from what’s left of her mind and float through the void as if they were real things, keepsakes spilling from her grip.

Days spent together in the deep woods, or wandering the quiet corners of the city.
Sparring with sticks in the park just because. Mide always won, but Shona never stopped smiling at the thought that someone might recognize her and see her like that.
The Promise they made together. Or the one she made for Mide. That’s probably how it always was. She probably always knew, somewhere deep down.

<We see. You have lost yourself as well.>

<Teach us. What would it mean to find yourself? Do you know? How many more [we]s it will take to make one [me]?>

Our Callings 8-2

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come in?” Mide asks.

“Yup. I need to see how it goes when it’s just us. But if you said we should ditch this and go fight with sticks in the park or something instead, I wouldn’t complain, y’know?”

“Sticks? There’s a throwback.” Mide smiles a bit wistfully. “I’d like to take you up on that. I don’t want to throw you back into the tiger’s den. But you did ask me to give you a push if you needed it. So after, okay?”

“Fiiine. Yeah, okay, you’re right. I’m gonna go, then.”

Mide nods once and squeezes Shona’s hand. “Alright. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be waiting on the road until you give me the go-ahead to leave.”

“Thanks. Thanks again.”

Shona takes a deep breath — ooh, it whistles electronically even on the way down, that’s kinda fun — strides up her driveway, and unlocks the door.

“Benen? You’re back a little early,” Mom’s voice calls.

Shona grits her teeth, holding back a shudder at the sound, then slams the door behind her.

“Oh, now you’re slamming the door too? Hasn’t the poor thing suffered enough?” Deeper inside, there’s the rustle of a magazine being hastily put away, then footsteps from the den tapping her way. As Mom steps into the front hall, Shona smiles and waves. Mide said it would probably be best if people saw her before they heard her.

“Oh, finally! There you are!” Mom races down the hall, throwing herself into an embrace that makes Shona’s entire body seize up. She closes her eyes and focuses on the familiar scent of that amber resin perfume Mom loves. It’s… not a nice smell, or at least not one that makes her think of nice things, but nothing at all like the Harbinger’s rotten-trash stink. Her mask couldn’t hide that part.

“I didn’t know you’d… be back so soon. How are you doing? All better now, I hope?” She takes a half-step back, resting her hands on Shona’s shoulders. “And why didn’t you answer my calls? Mrs. Lachlan kept me updated, yes, but if you were under the weather, it’s my job to… well, do momly things! Worry about you, make you soup, all of that! And if I’d known you’d be back, I would’ve gotten dinner ready!”

Under the weather, huh. Yep. That’s exactly what it was.

“Sorry. Didn’t want to freak you out,” Shona says, keeping her voice as low as she can.

Mom gasps and jerks back as if struck. Her eyes glisten like glass as they go wide with… Shona can’t tell with what. Fear? Disgust?

“Yeah. See what I mean now?” she asks through a bitter smile.

“Oh, sweetie, no, no…” Mom takes a few seconds to collect herself, then wraps her arms around Shona, squeezing a lot tighter this time. “I’m sorry. You could’ve told me. I know things like this are going to happen sometimes.” She buries her face in Shona’s shoulder, wiping tears on her sleeve and stifling the pain in her voice. “So please don’t worry about making me worry, alright? All I want is to be there for you however I can. I’m only sorry I can’t have your back the way I used to.”

Shona bites her lip at that last part, but nods and returns the hug, patting her mom’s back.

“That’s fine. Thanks. And, uh. Sorry it took so long to check in with you.”

Mom looks up and grins through her tears. “Then keep me in the loop next time! The least you can do is let me fret over you!”

“I’m… sure. I’ll try,” Shona warbles.

“Anyway! Go ahead and get comfy! Do you need anything? I’d just bought some of those frozen fruit bars you like before your, mm, accident. They should still be good, if Dad didn’t eat them all while you were away…” Mom hurries off into the kitchen in search of snacks to throw at her.

Shona can’t help but smile a little.

For a while, a few years ago, Shona had been close with Ailsa, the girl who played Camellia’s best friend. They didn’t have a ton in common, at first, but what they did have obviously ate up a pretty big chunk of their lives.

Ailsa was always twiggy and tiny for her age. When Shona panicked over her first signs of puberty, what it would mean for the only life she knew, if anyone would ever like her again, Ailsa… taught her all the tricks her mom had showed her to hold back time.

Mom was one of the first people to notice. She’d insisted on getting Shona help, made every effort to make sure she was eating right, and did everything short of start a public feud with Ailsa’s mother — she still didn’t want to torch the show, after all. At the time, Shona’d hated Mom for it the way she hated Mom managing anything about her life, but it was the right thing to do. If she hadn’t seen that then, she did by the time Ailsa quit acting and went into treatment, speeding the show along into its downward spiral.

As a Keeper, Shona pretty much didn’t have to worry about nourishment or nutrition as long as she ate enough to live. Immortal bodies running more on magic than anything else apparently took care of that for you, so if she’d still had that problem, she wouldn’t anymore. But Mom never quite kicked her habits from those days, when she’d taken every opportunity to find or cook things Shona was willing to eat.

Her phone buzzes. There’s a message from Mide, reading simply: ?

so far so good, Shona shoots back. Mom is trying. This could’ve gone a whole lot worse. Nowadays, the food thing is even kind of nice. And it’s really, really not her fault that Liadain’s disgusting monster stalker stole her face.

Even if it is her fault that she gave Seryana so much to say. So many old wounds to stick her grimy fingers into.

But not raw wounds, no matter how noisily some extra gross Harbinger screams about them. They’re all just shit that happened years ago. They have nothing to do with her new life. No one can tell her what to do, and she has literally forever for everyone to forget she used to be in a trashy bullshit kid’s show. This is fine. It’ll be fine.

“Well, he did eat a lot of them. Not the lemon ones, though. That okay?” Mom asks, smiling over her shoulder.

“Guess I’ll have to forgive him.” The lemon bars have always been her favorite.

“So,” Mom asks while Shona munches away on her glorified popsicle. “What’ve you been up to? Keeping busy, it sounds like.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Keeper stuff is… y’know. It’s a lot sometimes.”

“Anything you’d like to talk about?”

Shona fidgets with a piece of lemon ice on her tongue while she sorts through her thoughts, throwing all the ones she very much would not like to talk about into a dusty corner. Finally, she swallows and forces a casual smile.

“I made, uh, a work-friend?” she offers in the same way she used to talk about girls like Ailsa. “Maybe. I think so. Or if not, I’m gonna be her friend whether she likes it or not.”

“Oh,” Mom says, straight-faced. There’s an odd pause before she continues: “Oh, that’s great! Anyone I would know?”

Shona shrugs. “Doubt it. If you did, I’d be really impressed and she’d be really freaked out. One of those low-profile types.”

“Hm. Well, I’m sure I’ll have a chance to meet her sooner or later. You always were great at bringing people out of their shells,” Mom says, nodding a little too earnestly.

“Yep. Sure you will,” Shona snorts.

“How’d you find this mystery girl, then?”

“I mean, Keeper stuff? How’d you think? Mide and I, uh, showed her the ropes, then she… helped me out when I was in trouble.” Took a bullet for me was the first phrasing to come to mind, but it wouldn’t help either of them to get Mom thinking about how dangerous life as a Keeper could actually be. Or how Shona fired that bullet herself.

“I see,” Mom nods. “I see. So, about that. Stop me if I’m pestering. You don’t need to tell me everything about how you got hurt if you don’t want to. But have you been to… you know they have doctors for children in your situation, right?”

Shona tilts her head, stuffing her remaining half-popsicle into her cheek.“Yeah. And? I’m doing okay now. Why would I waste their time?”

“Well, I just thought it might be nice to get a professional’s idea about recovery, wouldn’t it? Maybe they’ll know about how long it should take for you to get better.”

Shona can’t help it. She bursts into a fit of distorted laughter.

“What?” Mom says, scowling.

“Sorry, sorry, I just would’ve taken you for one of those parents who’d dive the Sea and learn every possible thing about what happens when your kid makes the Promise, y’know?”

“I did, and I really don’t see what’s so funny!”

“I mean, you’re talking about MAGIC like I strained my voice singing or something!” Shona cackles.

“How am I supposed to talk about it when you haven’t told me anything? You’re clearly still hurt, aren’t you? Did one of those monsters do this to you? I can’t protect you from everything anymore, I know that, but I still need to make sure you’re staying healthy! Whatever that means now!”

“Oooooohhh,” Shona says, the sound coming out as a low whistle. “Now I got it. I’m not hurt, Mom. It’s Emergence. Same as my cool new eyes. It’s not going away, but it’s not a problem. I’m not in pain or anything.”

Mom glances down, wringing her hands. “Oh.”

“What? You don’t like it?”

“I…” Mom purses her lips very pointedly.

“‘Cause I do. I think it’s great. So you don’t need to get all weepy and worry about comforting me. I’m fine. But, uh, thanks. It was a nice thought,” Shona adds, the best peace offering she can think of in a hurry.

“I’m… are you saying you… did this yourself?”

“I mean, It’s not like I went and got a tattoo. I didn’t plan it out or anything. Stuff like this just happens to us over time. And it’s really, super not a big deal, okay?” Shona fidgets with her popsicle stick between her fingers, holding back the urge to snap it or burn it to dust or do anything but stand here and drown in the shame on Mom’s face.

Mom smiles beneath wet eyes and reaches out to run a hand along Shona’s arm, gently. It feels like a hot iron pressed into her skin.

“But your real voice has always been so lovely. Everyone loves talking to you. What are they going to think now?” she says, visibly fighting back tears all the while. Her voice breaks on the last word.

“They’ll think wow, there goes one of Claiasya’s chosen heroes! Listen to her awesome metal voice, I wish I could sound like that! And if they don’t, why should I give half a shit what they think?” Shona growls.

“Shona!” Mom gasps, aghast as always… but all she does about it is sigh and shake her head. “What about what you think? This is… it doesn’t sound healthy, Shona. You know I wouldn’t fret like this if things were really okay, but is this really how you want things to be for the rest of your life? Is that how you want to sound on your wedding day?”

“Hey. Hey, Mom? Do you know, like, what a Keeper IS? Were you thinking there’d be some point where I retire and go back to normal boring everyday life?” Shona lets out another dry, crackling laugh. “And yeah! If there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you’d never, not EVER, pick out some random shit you don’t like me doing and decide it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone! Like, my wedding day? For real, that’s the best you’ve got? D’you think Faolan Fianata spent a lot of time whining about how chilly it was to kiss Lady Iona? If you’re losing it again just because I’m never gonna grow up to be you, fucking save us some time and say that already, okay?”

“FINE! You’re right! I’m sorry, Shona! I’m sorry that the only thing I’ve ever done is hurt you!” Mom wails. She collapses forward, thumping a fist limply into Shona’s arm. Shona takes a frantic step back, pushing her away. It’s the least, gentlest thing she can possibly do.

“I’m sorry I’m not happy to see my sweet little girl dragged out of the life we worked so hard to build and sent off to fight monsters! I’m sorry I’m not CELEBRATING when you come home hurt! I’m sorry you don’t have a GOOD mother who’d wave goodbye with a smile and save a nice spot on the mantle for your ashes!”

That snarling, tear-streaked face used to tower over Shona. That voice used to fill her nightmares. It has again, since Seryana, only now she sees it scarred, broken, burning. That perfect mask Mom wears until someone pushes her just a little too hard, reduced to piles of lightning-charred flesh over and over and over…

And Shona… laughs. She throws back her head and laughs and laughs and laughs.

Mom stares silently up at her. Her face is twisted, but not in the same old sneering, shameful way. She looks more like she’s backing away from an armed intruder. “What? You… do you like that? I-is that all you need me for now?” she sputters.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shona says.

“What?” Mom repeats.

“Yeah! It really doesn’t! I don’t have to deal with this shit anymore. I thank the Goddess for that every night.” Shona steps away, grinning like an idiot, and heads for the door. “So I’m gonna go. Bye.”

“No you don’t! You’re staying right here until we-” Mom’s hand clamps around her wrist and tugs.

“Don’t you fucking touch me.”

The words reverberate pleasantly through the room — not shouted, only amplified, not some burst of force to shove her away. But they do their job. Mom’s grip loosens. Stumbling footsteps back along the tile floor.

Shona doesn’t bother looking back.

“Cool. Have a nice life.” She smashes the door violently into its frame on her way out, wipes her eyes, then turns and bolts to the road. Mide, waiting on a bench in the front yard, rushes to join her.

“Shona, hey, are you…” she starts to ask. Her face falls as soon as their eyes meet. “Oh, no. What’d she do this time?”

“She says if I want to keep running away from the awesome life she built for me to fight monsters, she’ll save a nice spot for my ashes.” She chokes on the last words. “That’s pretty much a quote.”

Mide is silent. Her eyes widen, then quickly narrow as she glances around Shona. Her fists clench at her sides… until she sighs, loosens up, and wraps Shona in a gentle hug.

“Hey. Fuck her,” Mide says, quietly but hard-edged. “With… with a pommel or something horrible, whatever’d make you happiest.”

“I don’t care! She doesn’t fucking matter!” Shona yells.

Mide flinches at the sudden burst of noise in her ear, but only a little. She nods and squeezes a little tighter. “Alright. You’ve got places, okay? Places and people. You don’t need to go back there.”

“I‘m not. Maybe ever. I don’t wanna just crash with you guys forever, that’s not really fair, so. I dunno. I’ll sign up for Church housing, I guess? Not sure why I didn’t do that earlier.”

“Sure. Yeah. We can figure that out, and you’re still welcome for as long as it takes. Seriously, sometimes I think my parents just want to adopt you.”

“Thanks. I, uh, don’t think I could really ask them that, but it’s nice to know,” Shona sniffles. “I don’t wanna go back just yet, though. Let’s go fight something.”

Mide tenses up.

“Hey. Buddy. I get it. I was right there when Aisling said all that stuff. You’re looking out for me. Really, thanks. But I’ve taken ‘the longest break I reasonably can,’ kay? Now I need to do something that matters.”

“I… don’t know if we should right now.”

“Listen. Right now, if I don’t find something at least as awful as that complete raving bitch and smash it, I think I’m gonna have to blow up my house with her inside instead. And I’m not quite sure if Dad deserves that. So.”

“Enne? Hey, do you think that’s okay?”

“Mide, please don’t make this a whole thing, alright? I’m really not in the mood.”

Almost instantly, a fluffy pink cloud-seal dives up from beneath the driveway as if it were the surface of the ocean, does an awkward little wiggle-twirl in midair, and plops into the grass on his stomach. “Hellooo, really not in the mood! I’m Enne!”

“Huh?” Shona mumbles.

“What? I am! See?” The Messenger silently thumps a flipper-paw to his chest in emphasis.

Mide folds her arms, smiling wearily. “Where’d the dad joke come from? Do you guys even have a dad?” she asks.

“I mean, no, but I know lots of kids who do! One of my other friends always laughs when I do those, and it’s real hard getting her to laugh!” He shakes himself out and balances on his stubby tail, proudly puffing up his fur. “Can I help you two with anything? Advice? Cuddles?”

“Think we’re good, thanks,” Shona answers.

“Shona’s spontaneous Emergence thing,” Mide says at the same time. “Is it safe for her to get back to Keeper stuff yet?”

Enne hop-scoots up to Shona, bonking his nose into her foot. “Ohhhh yeah! How’s that been? How’re you feeling, Shona?”

Shona meets his bright, beady eyes with a sideways smile. “…I mean. Magic-wise? Pretty much fine. It’s been like a week, I haven’t done anything active, I feel… pretty much the same. Not that I really felt different in the first place.”

“Mhm, mhm!” Enne nods eagerly. “You usually don’t when it goes like that, I think!”

“So, is there like, a test? Something she can do or you can do to see if she’s back where she needs to be yet?”

“Mmmmmmh….” He flops to the ground, doing a few little rolls back and forth with a flipper pressed to the chin he doesn’t have. “Okay. Here’s what we do. Shona, I need you to put me on your head, alright?”

“Can I even actually pick you up? We go through this every time.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine! Just take it slow!”

With a shrug, Shona scoops Enne up and doesn’t so much lift him as wave him upward. It feels more like directing a puff of warm air than holding an animal. It takes a bit, but soon he’s settled on top of her. He crawls through her hair and down her back, poking and mouthing her at random, making little noises like a kitten excited for dinner between ethereal, tickly touches, then squirms around her side and into her arms, spreading his flippers wide as if asking for a hug.

“Uh, so what exactly was that for?”

“Nothing, really! I just wanted cuddles!” He giggles, nuzzling into her. “I tricked yooou!

Shona snorts out a low, gritty, involuntary laugh.

“See? Seeeee? I got you! I could see you weren’t feeling so great, so I had to get you! Clap clap clap for me!” Enne moves to give himself a round of applause, but his tiny flippers don’t quite reach each other.

“Sure. Good job, li’l guy.”

Mide shoots them both an uncertain look. “So, uh…”

“Oh, the test? I don’t think that’s a thing. Sorry, Mide!” Enne admits with a sheepish scratch of his cheek. “But if it helps, I think you should be fine! That whole thing is mostly just about… when things get weird with your power, you don’t wanna jump RIGHT into it and push it to get weirder, y’know? I mean, unless that is what you want to do, that’s fine too! But for my kids it usually isn’t! So as long as you’ve had some time to calm down, some distance from the thing that stretched it out in the first place, you get a clean bill of health from Dr. Enne!”

Shona grins. “Good doggie. See, Mide?”

Enne wriggles in mock protest. “I’m not a doggie! I’m an Enne!”

“Well. Alright, then,” Mide says with a shrug, smiling at the little guy despite herself. “If he’s sure, and you think that’s what’ll help most… you know I have your back, Shona.”

“Thanks,” Shona says, as gently as she can. “And thanks, Enne. We’re gonna go blow up a Harbinger, kay?”

“Good luuuck!” Enne cheers. He hops out of Shona’s arms, waves once more in midair, then pops out of being before he hits the ground.

“So,” Shona says, throwing an arm around Mide’s shoulder. “Wanna see if you can find anything interesting? I know I’m dragging you along, so you get first pick.”

“Sure. When you pick it usually turns out like the bathroom ghost incident or something, anyway.” Mide pulls her phone from a skirt pocket and starts tapping away.

“Listen, how was I supposed to know how that would turn out? Did you guess what was going on there? Would any sane person? Of fucking course they wouldn’t!” Shona throws a playful kick at Mide’s leg. Without looking up, Mide easily parries with the sole of her shoe.

“Okay, let’s see… oh. Whoa.”

“Hmmm?” Shona cranes down to peek at Mide’s screen.

“I didn’t even make it to Flow. There’s a Lighthouse alert. Someone on the west edge of town found, uh, ‘a hole in the planet filled with crawling, limbless things.’ That’s what it says.”

“Who? Is this a call for backup?”

“Doesn’t say. Just some guy. They found him screaming about it not too far from the place it’s supposed to be.”

“And he SAW it and just ran off? Lucky guy.”

“Seriously. So, that sound alright?”

Shona pounds a fist into an open palm. “Look, all I want right now is to find some big, horrible thing and blast it. That sounds perfect. And if someone else shows up for the alert, awesome! Can’t be any more of a mess than our last team-up!”

So off they go, leaving Shona’s once-home behind. Good riddance. Before too long, they put the map away, instead simply following the tuneless alien song pricking at Shona’s ears in the distance.

Our Callings 8-1

Shona practically skipped out of the ambulance, twirled around as she landed on one foot, and gave a wide wave before she finally touched down on both legs. “THANKS AGAIN FOR THE RIDE, GUYS!” she yelled to the drivers. “And see you tomorrow, Aisling!”

“No! Get some rest!” Aisling shot back. She gave a sidelong glance, but kept right up with frantically typing on her phone.

Mide scooted past Aisling and climbed out of the car without fanfare. “When was the last time you got any rest?” she asked.

“I’m not at risk of exploding if I don’t take a good nap,” Aisling deflected. “So don’t worry about me. I know how to pace myself.”

When did that girl last take a nap, anyway? Shona’d never figured out how literal she was about the whole “never sleep again” thing when they first met. Truth’s Lantern couldn’t lie, sure, but how… abstract could she get with that? Were figures of speech off-limits too? Whatever.

Mide froze in mid-climb, holding one foot just off the ground. “Hold on, exploding? I’m… is that a thing we need to watch out for?”

“Probably not. But you get my point, don’t you?”

“And why shouldn’t she see you tomorrow, anyway? We go to the same school,” Mide pressed.

Aisling leaned down, putting a hand to her forehead. “…Sorry, right, yes. Lots on my mind. Still putting in reports, making sure I’m not missing any info anyone has on Isobel’s Harbinger. I suppose there’s no harm in going to school if that’s what you really want to do, Shona. I recommend, though, that you do whichever mundane things make you particularly happy, and I don’t expect that school is at the top of your list. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.”

“Nah, sure, you got my number alright,” Shona admitted. “So I guess I’ll see you whenever! And… I’m sorry again about your friend. We’ll be on call whenever you know what to do next… er, and when I’m better,” she said, cutting off the objection she knew was coming otherwise.

“Thank you. I’ll keep you updated. Now go take care of yourself.” With that, Aisling pulled the ambulance doors shut. The van drove off, leaving them alone in front of Mide’s house.

“Whew,” Shona huffed. “WheeeEEEeew,” she sighed again, playing with the whistles and crackling distortions of her new voice. “That was a lot, huh? That was a fucking lot.”

“Mm,” Mide grunted, still watching the ambulance go.

“This’ll be fun, though, yeah? Like old times, only nobody can tell us when the party’s over!”

“…Yeah.” Eventually, she turned around, wearing the sort of strained smile she put on when she didn’t want to show anyone what she was feeling. “Shona, is it time yet to talk about… whatever happened back there? It’s fine if not, but it’s just us now, and…”

And if Mide never asked how she was feeling, she’d probably stuff it in the closet and keep pouring it out through her power until everyone could hear. Yeah. They’d been there before. Just never with something… something so…

The dam broke. Scenes from the Wound stabbed through her mind’s eye. That face staring through her in the last place it belonged. That voice, exactly like the one she’d spent so long running just to make it to a place where she’d never have to listen to anything it said ever again. Her skin charred off her bones by Shona’s power over and over and over and never enough to get away—

Mide wrapped her arms around her just before she started screaming into the night, her hoarse cries amplified into unearthly shrieks of noise-music distortion.


“Oh, and here’s some good news! I’ve booked you another interview!” Her producer – a broad, slightly pudgy man – looked all too pleased with himself.

“Great,” Shona said tonelessly, not trying at all to hide how she felt about his good news.

“Shona,” Mom hissed through her plastered-on smile. “That’s wonderful news. Thank you, Mr. Burke.”

At least this time, she kept the rest of the speech on how important it was to “keep your name out there” to herself. If Shona knew that the exit strategy they had in mind when she got too old to play a Keeper on a dumb kids’ show was dumb kids’ talk show host, of all the fucking things, she’d have thrown herself and her name into the sea years ago.

“Hey, and if you hear me out, I think you’ll be excited about this one,” he said, spreading his hands wide. “The guest is Irida Deveraux.”

Shona’d already started rolling her eyes before the name left his mouth. But when she heard it, the whole world froze.

“You… wait, okay, I’m just… how?” she croaked. Irida was the unchallenged King of New Claris. She’d climbed much too high to spend her time talking to any old idiot with a microphone. So why? What did she have to say to her of all people that she hadn’t said a hundred times before?

“I wish I knew! Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much when the team reached out to her, but you miss every shot you don’t take, right?”

“Oh, I always knew you were too bright to ever burn out!” Mom cheered. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes, never quite falling. “Did you ever imagine, Shona? Isn’t that incredible?”

Shona couldn’t even get herself to argue on principle.


Her heart-bursting excitement faded a little when they got to the interview ground rules. Irida’s modest list of forbidden subjects wasn’t a problem, but the showrunners… same as last time, they pretty much wanted her to act like she was interviewing a guest-star Magical Guardian instead of an actual real-life Keeper. Nothing too heavy. Nothing too real. Nothing that would pop the show’s bubble-world where magic was all about punching your friends’ bad feelings away, then helping them feel better over a nice meal. Just ask her about shogi and her favorite things to do with magic, something like that.

“Plenty of people in the scene have talked to the Silver King. We want your audience to feel like they can talk to her too. Keep it on their level. Show them what’s fun about being her, alright?” Mr. Burke had said.

Bleh. Well, it was more than most people ever got to talk to Irida about. It sucked to come so close and know that Irida wouldn’t be talking to her in return, but she should really be happy with this much.

They’d decided to open the interview with a game. The producer thought it would be fun to teach everyone how the Silver King’s favorite game worked. That worked for Shona, who’d already decided without telling anyone that if she couldn’t actually ask or talk about Keeper stuff, she’d just let Irida guide that side of the conversation.

Sadly, Shona was not very good at shogi at the best of times, and in front of a live audience and maybe the whole world with the best, coolest Keeper in the city really didn’t feel like her best of times. She squinted, leaned over the shogi board, and pointed to the piece with the most complicated squiggly characters. “Uh, sorry, how’s this guy move again?” Beneath the table, she wiped her free hand on Magical Guardian Camellia’s flouncy pink skirt, desperately hoping the cameras wouldn’t catch her brushing off the sweat.

Today, Irida sat in an ordinary wheelchair rather than the palanquin she rode into battle, not that she looked any less majestic for it. Dressed in her Keeper outfit, the elaborate azure uniform of a general fighting for the sole cause of Fashion… well, if generals wore skirts and ribbons and tiny white gloves and hairpin insignias. Skin inhumanly pale and smooth as porcelain, silver-blue hair worn in an elaborate braid that trailed over one shoulder while leaving a few locks free on the other side — she seemed to have styled it differently every time Shona saw her. Sapphire-colored eyes twinkling with light and life. Literally twinkling — they were solid blue, with no whites whatsoever, and in place of pupils and irises they each had five flecks of light twirling around a tiny sun-pupil in an endless synchronized dance.

Irida lowered her teacup and passed it to the soldier at her side, still holding the teapot he’d poured it from — he was an odd half-real specter, a humanlike shape clad in something that seemed to waver mistily between being a stiff military uniform and old plate armor, his face covered by a thin cloth veil bearing a swirly glyph not quite like the ones on the shogi pieces.

“One square, forward or any diagonal direction,” Irida said.

“Right. Thanks!” Shona scooted the squiggly guy up to protect her knight.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Irida asked. Her softly smiling face gave away nothing.

“Let’s see…” Shona gave the board a quick glance. If she was missing something big, she didn’t see it. “Yep! That’s the move!” She remembered how the knights moved from playing chess with Dad. Shogi knights weren’t as good, but their move was still the coolest. If she lost them, she’d miss her favorite little guys too much to focus on the rest of the game, so it only made sense to look out for them no matter what!

“Alright, then.” Irida picked up her bishop, slipped it through a gap in Shona’s wall left by the squiggly guy, and captured her king.

“Uh. Oh. Oops,” Shona stammered. “Hey, hold on, you can do that? You don’t have to say ‘that’s no good, your king’s in trouble now!’ or whatever?”

“I don’t! I usually would with a beginner, but, well. You did ask me not to go the least bit easy.”

“Ah, that’s okay,” Shona shrugged. “I resign! We all knew how this would go. But this is just the first time! I’m sure there’s a long way to go to catch up, but I won’t stop running ‘til I reach you!”

“Maybe someday,” Irida said with a patient smile.

“Someday! For sure! You just wait and see.” Shona aimed a finger-gun her way and winked.

“Maybe so! Until then… well, in your position, I would’ve accepted the handicap. Nobody dives into anything as complex as shogi and conquers it in a day. There’s no shame in approaching something new as a beginner, taking your time to learn it properly.”

“Yeah, you’re absolutely right! Big things, like people, always start small. It’s okay to work within your limits starting out!” Shona nodded along eagerly. They’d love that backstage. It felt a bit like one of those end-of-episode morals, but it still sounded like Irida. If anyone could find a way to make this cool, she could. “That in mind, anything you want to tell us about the right way to learn? How’d you pick up the game? I don’t think there was much of a shogi scene here until you came along, so what made you choose it over chess or something?”

“What kind of monster would choose to play chess?” Irida asked, scowling in a way that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

Shona laughed, several voices in the audience joining her. Irida only grinned and sipped her tea. Now and then, if you poked her just the right way, Irida would go off on a passionate rant about the game design failures of chess. Everyone loved those screeds, even the ones who had no idea what she was talking about. It was just fun to see the city’s unflinchingly kind and polite hero taking something so silly so seriously.

“No, no, that’s not it… well, it is, of course, but I’ll answer the question you were actually asking, too,” Irida said, prompting the noise to die back down. “A local community helps, of course, but we all have the Sea. Really, shogi just called to me in a way those other games didn’t. The pieces in shogi are unique, but they’re all part of a single complete system. They only make sense when you look at them in context, in terms of how they come together with the others. And the way the game works means that they never just go away. Their circumstances change, they become part of something different, their entire perfect arrangement falls apart in the face of a confrontation that only grows more complex…”

As she spoke, Irida swiftly arranged the pieces on both sides of the board, staging an elaborate endgame showdown between them. Fluid and graceful, she held the pieces deftly between the sides of her index and ring fingers as she moved them, as a professional of her standing would. Every movement ended in her placing a piece with that satisfying wooden clack Shona never managed to do quite right.

“…until someone pushes through all the chaos and finds the way to organize them, just so. I don’t see life in it or anything so cliche, mind you. No one game can contain the world. But I do see what I see when I look at the world. My place in all this, my strengths, my limitations and how I work around them. It isn’t my only calling in life, certainly not my highest, but it’s become a big enough part of how I think to shape my magic around it.” She gestured over her shoulder with her free hand, nodding to the two ghostly soldiers beside and directly behind her.

“…What if someone else had chess magic? Would they have to be your rival? Or is chess just not cool enough to give someone powers?” Shona prodded.

“Shogi didn’t give me powers,” Irida chuckled. “But no, I don’t see any reason why another Keeper couldn’t use chess as their implement, if they saw things through it the way I do through my game. They’d just have very poor taste,” she finished to a few more scattered laughs.

“Well, there you go! And I’m sure you’d beat them at their game as badly as you just beat me!” Shona pumped one fist in a quiet cheer.

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Irida lowered her head and set her now-empty cup aside, where the teapot-soldier picked it up and stored it away… somewhere. “Just because I don’t think something is worth doing doesn’t make me good at it. I don’t even know if I’ll ever be the best player at my game, you know?”

“Wait a sec, you aren’t the best player?” Shona gawked at her, playing up her disbelief. “Who do I need to run from if I ever meet them?”

“As of last month, I’m the second-best Clarish player. If you’re watching, Glaisne, congratulations again!” Irida turned and waved to the camera. When she looked back at Shona, her smile seemed a bit wistful. “I know. Ironic, isn’t it?”

“…Huh.” Shona’d never thought about that. She’d already been Irida’s fan, everyone was, but she didn’t know enough shogi to follow her in the rankings or anything. “But you were one of those super prodigy kids, right? What changed?”

“Well, it’s the same way with people who are the very best at anything, isn’t it? You can’t just be good. You have to take every opportunity to improve yourself. The top players all eat, sleep, and breathe shogi, and I can’t do that anymore. I’ve taken other opportunities. Which I don’t regret at all, mind you! You don’t need to be the best at something to keep appreciating it.”

“Sorry if I’m a little stuck on this, just… what’s a normal person have to do to be better than someone with literal shogi magic?”

“Not at all! It’s interesting to think about, not to mention a bit uplifting for everyone who isn’t a Keeper. More tea?”

“Oh, sure. Thanks.”

Irida flicked her eyes at the soldier to their side, who immediately retrieved her cup and teapot from the same mystery space he’d been holding them in and topped them off. She inclined her head in thanks and took a long sip before she spoke again.

“It’s like this. Shogi doesn’t exactly have a city it’s from — islander ascetics developed it, that’s why the pieces are all labeled in that old classical Thalassic script — but it’s most popular in Rima. There, nearly all of the best players have been studying with experts since they were children. They even have a maximum age to join the professional player’s guild: if you haven’t made it by the time you turn 21, you’re no longer qualified. I don’t know if I quite agree with that rule, there are exceptions in everything, but there is a certain logic to it. If you’re approaching the game as an art, it does make sense to focus on nurturing the people called to it, players who’ve loved it more than anything all their lives. That’s where most of the masters who’ve elevated the game came from.”

“Right. Thanks,” Shona said slowly. “You’ve mentioned things calling to people a few times now. Could you tell us what you mean by that?”

Irida’s eyes literally lit up, the tiny stars inside them brightening. Their endless dance seemed to move a little faster.

“I can! I think some careers are more like callings. The people who take them up do it because they need to. Because it’s what they were made for, or where they feel like they belong, or the only way to achieve what they want the most. That’s not to say I’m only speaking of the biggest, grandest things anyone can do! There are callings great and small, from shogi professionals to airship pilots to Sanctuary workers to city council members. We need them all — well, maybe we don’t need shogi in quite the same way we need those other things, but you understand — and they’re done best when they’re done by people who, for their own reasons, have to do them.”

“Careful, Shona. This could get a bit out of bounds,” someone’s voice said through her earpiece.

“Thanks. Is…” Shona stopped herself, chewing on her words for a few long seconds. Blurgh, of course they’d cut her off here, right when it seemed like she’d found something the Silver King actually wanted to talk about.

She knew why they didn’t want to hear it, obviously. Camellia would have missed it. She’d say something about how cool it was that anyone who really committed to what they love could be the best at it one day and move right along. But Shona didn’t. Shona wasn’t too blind to tell when someone was talking about two things at once.

Well, fuck what Camellia would do. She wasn’t going to be the girl who had the coolest Keeper in the city on just to ignore everything she had to say.

“Do you think… being a Keeper is one of those?” Shona asked. Forcing the words out felt like trying to make herself touch a hot stove, but there they were.

“I do,” Irida said, mildly but without hesitation.

“What are you DOING?” the voice in her ear snapped at the same time. “That was the first thing on our no-go list. Okay. Fine. See if we can bring it back to…”

Shona wasn’t listening. Her mouth went dry. Even if she had any idea what to say, the words would shrivel up and die on their way out. Could Irida hear them prompting her? Obviously, it would be weirder if the Silver King didn’t have any kind of super-hearing power by now. Oh Goddess, she’d hate her, she’d never want anything to do with some pathetic little puppet again-

Irida shifted in her chair, looking directly into the nearest camera. Her eyes narrowed into the faintest beginning of a stern glare.

The earpiece cut off abruptly.

“…Okay,” Shona said, glancing nervously around the stage. The voice never came back. No one in the audience looked too confused or distraught.

“Let’s talk a little more about that, then,” she said experimentally, expecting all the while to be dragged off the stage or struck by lightning or something. “For everyone who doesn’t know what they want to do yet, how do you find your callings? How’d you know you were meant to be a shogi genius, or a Keeper? I guess maybe that last one’s for the Messengers to say, but was there a point when you were sure you’d do it if you could?”

“Hmmm.” Irida hummed to herself for a few seconds, tapping her fingers on her wheelchair’s armrest.

The lightning strike never came.

Finally, the Silver King’s calm smile widened into what Shona could only see as a conspiratorial grin. “This wasn’t exactly the kind of interview I was told to prepare for, but it is starting to look like the kind I prefer. Alright, Camellia! Let’s speak a little more freely, shall we?”

Shona pumped her fists. She couldn’t help it. This was going to be too cool to care who’d yell at her when it was over.

“So, to be honest: yes, some of this is up to the Messengers,” Irida began. “I don’t know what makes someone a Keeper. I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims to know. I felt that this was where I needed to be for a long time before I met Yune, so it can’t be a simple matter of desire or passion like other callings. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about the kinds of people I believe should be Keepers. To my mind, that’s the same as talking about who should want to be Keepers. It’s a difficult, dangerous, frightening role, and it will become the most important part of your life. There’s no avoiding that. If there’s something else you were passionate about, you shouldn’t expect that being a Keeper and having powers connected to that passion will be like doing what you loved, but more.”

If that lightning was going to strike, now was its last chance. No, it had probably missed its window. No one could stop the Silver King from popping that bubble now. Shona doubted anyone could even bring themselves to try.

“Like I said before, though, there’s some things that can’t be done any other way. Every Keeper I know has something like that, some change they’re determined to make. Every great Keeper is someone who’s looked at the world and found something they want, more than anything, to change for the better. When people ask me about my favorite Keepers, I’m really never thinking about who’s the coolest or most popular right now. I think of the Saints, who devoted everything they had to making a better world for all of us. And I also think… it doesn’t always take magic to change the world. Certainly not to change someone’s world.”

The audience was silent. Shona was silent. It was a lot to take in, even for her — especially for her — and for all that she’d invited this, she wasn’t sure how to follow it up.

“…When does it not take magic?” she finally asked.

“Almost none of the people who connected every city to the Sea were Keepers, and who could say what any of this would look like without their work?” Irida answered immediately. “We protect what all of you build, but it doesn’t turn around us. We’re just pieces on the board. Major pieces, yes, but I wouldn’t be much of anything on my own. Without all the people who help me, I couldn’t accomplish anything. And without the people I fight for, nothing I accomplish would matter. So please, whatever you take from this, remember that magic or no, everything you do matters.”

“…And to all of you who do make the Promise someday, I trust you to do better than Flower’s Fangs!” she finished with a wink to the audience. That got a few laughs. A few more uneasy ones. “Honestly, I trust all of you who don’t to do that as well. I’m not asking a lot there. Let’s not digress too much, though! A little earlier, you asked me when I knew what I was meant to do…”


“Well, I think our time is about… actually, our time was up a few minutes ago,” Irida finally said, glancing off at a clock on the wall. “I guess nobody wanted to interrupt us! Sorry if I’ve caused any trouble behind the scenes! So, much as I’d love to continue, I wouldn’t want to make things any harder for the rest of the shows on your schedule.”

“Yeah, I’d lost track of it myself… thanks for catching me there!” She really hadn’t been paying attention, but honestly, she’d be happy to dump all those shows for more of this and so would everyone else.

“Thank you again for having me on, Camellia! This has been a lovely time.”

“Oh, no, thank you! But I really am coming for you, y’know! When you see me again, you’ll be the third-best Clarish player!”

Irida laughed, and Shona joined her. “I’ll look forward to it. And to everyone else watching, whether or not you’ll ever be a Keeper, whether or not you want to, I think it’s good for us all to look around, take in the world, and think: is this right? Should that be the way it is? If you find something that isn’t, try to change it! And if you try and try and find that you just can’t… well, maybe you’ll meet the Messengers one day after all. Thank you all for listening.”

Irida bowed her head, waved to the crowd, and gestured to the soldiers at her back. The tea-server vanished, and his comrade began to wheel the Silver General away.

“And thank you for watching, everyone! I’ll be seeing you again real soon!” Shona called into the audience with an excited wave, then dashed away.

It had been a great interview. Maybe good enough to justify this dumb meta side-show thing all on its own. Shona wanted to hug whoever’d gotten Irida to agree to it. Sure, some of the geeks in charge of the show’s branding or whatever were probably fuming, but everyone else would love it and then the whole thing would blow over.

Backstage, she was greeted by a roomful of wordless glares.

“What the fuck was that?” Mr. Burke was first to break the chilly silence. She was a little taller than him, now, but looking down at that tired, dead-eyed scowl didn’t feel any different.

Shona flinched, waiting for Mom’s sharp “Language!” to crack through the air as if she’d said it herself. But Mom only stared at her.

“Look, it’ll… this’ll be fine, okay?” Shona muttered. “How many years have we been doing this? Audiences, they grow up with the things they like, yeah? It’ll be good… good for them to…” She’d had it all planned out. It all sounded great in her head. But no one here cared what she had to say. They just wanted her to quit ruining everything and go back to being cute.

“You really had to do this the one time there’s no way we can redo it or throw it out, didn’t you?” Mr. Burke sighed. “If you’re trying to fuck us all over, I really wish you’d just say you’re done already.”

“That’s not it at all. Please give us a minute,” Mom said. She grabbed Shona’s arm and dragged her out into the halls.

Mom let Shona’s arm slip through her fingers once they were away from prying eyes, but didn’t turn around to face her. There was a silence as she stared off in the opposite direction, looking down the corridor at a poster with her daughter’s face on it spread across the far wall.

Shona tried to speak up, to explain herself to the one person who she could trust to understand. She had really done something this time. For once, she had made something wonderful entirely on her own. “Mom, I—”

“Do you really hate me that much?” she asked, swiveling on her heel. Her whole body shook, and her eyes, already red and watery, had started to well up again. Her makeup ran in messy streams down the side of her face, the kind she’d always rush to fix the moment she noticed them.

“…What?” Shona mumbled.

“I just can’t understand why else you’d be like this! We worked so hard to get you this role. We were all so happy for you when you booked it.” Her voice trembled and croaked. “So proud. So why are you doing everything you can to ruin it now?”

Shona wrapped a strand of hair around her finger and tugged, trying her best to steady herself. “I’m… look, I’m sorry, it’s nothing to do with you, okay? Maybe I just… don’t want to be someone else for the rest of my life.”

“What do you mean someone else?” Mom forced out through a heaving sob. “Is that how you think about our life’s work now? We’re only here because you asked to be! You wanted to do what I did, didn’t you? And you’re an idol now! The whole world loves you! What do you have to be so nasty about?”

“Yeah, ‘cause you made acting sound really fun when I was six! There was a kid my age in class who wanted to be a bear when he grew up! I didn’t think I was promising to do it forever! I changed! I grew up!”

“Grew up?” Mom whispered. “That’s… is that all you think of…” Her voice trailed away. A second later, she burst into a wailing weeping, fit. The door cracked open behind them.

“Oh, FUCK OFF ALREADY!” Shona roared, and stormed away before she could even see who was coming. Mom could deal with it if it was so fucking important to her that she couldn’t live without deciding how she had to live.

What were they doing back in there, anyway? Worrying about her interview crushing some poor kid’s dreams? They really shouldn’t be. If Shona hadn’t already been desperate to be a real Keeper and quit playing a fake one, she was now. She’d just have to find something she wanted to change more than herself.

Until then, Mide would listen. If nobody else in the world ever looked at her and saw anything but Camellia, she’d still have one place of shelter.


Shona spent the rest of the week at Mide’s house. They went to school once, but Aisling really did have her figured out. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the energy, or she had any problem with how everyone reacted to her awesome metal voice, she just… being around all those people, she couldn’t help but wonder if all the changes would ever be enough for them to see her as her.

So she stayed home after that, and Mide stayed with her. They spent the days walking around the city out-of-uniform, the nights watching movies and concerts and, on one night Mide blocked out ahead of time, a stream of the yearly fencing championship in Horizon. Shona didn’t quite know enough to follow what was happening, but the sheer energy of Mide’s commentary on the event was enough to make it fun, like listening to Irida argue about board games.

It was a good week, despite everything. It really was. Mide’s family was happy enough to have her around that they treated every night as deserving of a big fancy meal for a guest, and while she wouldn’t say no to good food with people who actually liked her, she couldn’t help but feel like she was imposing. She couldn’t exactly ask them to keep her around forever.

So finally, that Sunday night, she headed home to face the masked monster who haunted her in her sleep.

I Don’t Think I’m A Good Person 7-8

I sprint aimlessly through the city, as lost as I was during my escape from the forest Harbingers’ realm. Away is the only direction that matters to me, so I race down the streets, putting all the distance I can between me and the Seraph, faster than I ever thought I could. Every stride floats almost effortlessly into the next. The last thing he did to me left me feeling… not quite weightless, not a spirit sailing through the night with no useless, broken body to hold her down and trip her over her own legs, but close. 

…What exactly did he do? I haven’t looked back, but could he still be following me? Tracking me through the wisp of his power bearing me along? I don’t feel him moving, but…

Not long into my flight, a bright crimson burst illuminates the night from somewhere behind me. I glance over my shoulder, almost expecting another ambush, but find only a flash of fading light as the Seraph’s presence blinks abruptly out of being. I pause for a moment, making absolutely sure there’s no trace of him hiding among the faint auras of life in the city. 

And as far as I can sense, he’s finally gone. The presence he said was the Silver General remains, but she’s heading for the scene of our brawl, not me. She’s not my problem. Unless the world has made me its new favorite chew toy, this fucking day is finally… 

No. Not quite over. There was still another Harbinger attack in the hospital before I left. I called for help, no one should’ve been hurt more than they already were, but they’ve probably been on high alert since, waiting for someone to explain what was going on. 

Okay. Whatever. That’s not how I wanted to give up my secret, but what does it matter anymore? Making this day a little longer is the very least of my problems, now. I don’t even know if they’ll let me stay when word of all the things I’ve done reaches them, and what am I supposed to do then? Go live with Dad and hope I don’t still have health issues the hospital could actually help with? Live on the streets, feeding myself with life stolen from anyone who walks by? Can I even do that? Run off into the forest where I belong?
Maybe it’ll count for something if they know me as the girl who killed both of the seventh floor’s recent Harbingers before they hear about how I turned the Stardust Seraph’s guts into centipedes. Even if I’m the one who brought Seryana there in the first place. Even if it’s a bad joke to think someone like me could help anyone but myself. 

But I can’t stay out here forever, so I’ll just have to deal with any disasters that follow me home as they come. I fish out my phone, ask it for a route to the hospital, and start running again. Five blocks out, I stop on an empty street corner to isolate the Seraph’s enchantment and dunk it in rot until it disintegrates. I don’t think he’s following me, he should have more urgent things to deal with, but just in case he can use this to trace my path somehow, no reason to make it easy for him. 

…But… if I ignore the tight pain lingering in my throat and the thick, crawling dread of knowing more clearly with every moment’s distance from fighting for my life that I’ve ruined everything again… it was kind of fun while it lasted. Much nicer than Shona’s travel spell.

And the moment it fades, my legs buckle beneath me. Numb tingling gnaws through my muscles. I summon my cane, and frantically fumble to catch myself with it, but my arms can’t manage even that much. It slips from my shaky grasp, clattering away as I land on my elbows with a new thud of pain and a tiny breathless yelp. 

Of course that’s how this would go. Fine. Fine. After a moment to catch my breath, I reach inside to prop myself up with my well of health.

…Nothing changes. There’s nothing there. I somehow didn’t notice until I tried to use it, but all the life I stole, all the people I hurt… it’s almost all gone. I’m back down to the thinnest sliver of stolen essence after the Seraph burned my well… no, after I took all those unwilling sacrifices and threw them away for nothing. I did all the horrible things I’ve done just to end up back in that place where I can’t even walk somewhere without feeling like my bones will collapse and my body will disintegrate into a puddle of nothing-that-hurts.

I can’t find the strength to move, to scream, to do anything more than collapse here and cry. I wonder if I’m crying ink or black ichor or something. I scrape my face with the back of my glove, then lick it… I don’t know what I expected to be able to tell, but it doesn’t taste weird. There’s that, at least.

Finally — pushed along by the idea that even this late, someone will eventually find me like this and ask questions — I reach for my cane, gather the energy to shove my pain down, drag myself up on shivering limbs, and start the last stretch of the walk home. I dismiss my transformation after another block, leaving only my new cane, and pay no real mind to who might see me do it. I’m pretty far past the point where that matters.


I manage not to fall over myself again before I reach the hospital, but I still need to clean things up there. And hope Seryana didn’t hurt anyone else. In the circular driveway out front, an ambulance and police car are parked in front of the entrance with their lights blaring. I sigh, steady myself, and approach the paramedic standing watch at a healthy distance from the front doors.

“Excuse me! There’s a potential emergency here that hasn’t been cleared yet. We’ll have to ask you to leave until… oh.” He looks me over and cuts himself off. “Are you the Keeper we called to sweep this place?”

I tense up for a second before I realize they wouldn’t send paramedics to answer a call about a dangerous rogue Keeper. “No, but you can cancel it anyway. I’m the one who pushed the alarm. The Harbinger’s dead.”

The medic draws a little closer and crouches to around my level. “I’m sorry, miss, could you speak up a little?” 

“Hm? Okay. I said…” Paying more attention to myself, I only hear a faint ghost of the sound I meant to make. “I said I’m…” My voice has never carried well, but I am speaking up, or at least doing what I’ve always done to make it louder. It’s just… not working. Did the Seraph hurt my throat more than I thought? No, that’s absurd. I live in a ward full of people whose sicknesses leave their voice weak and hoarse. They don’t sound anything like the distant, creepy almost-whispers coming from me now, no matter how hard I try to raise my voice.

Emergence that isn’t part of the normal growth process, isn’t especially likely to empower you, and may not align with what you’d actually want for yourself.

It makes sense, at least. I can’t say it’s some horrifying freakish mutation. What’s the point of being heard if no one listens to me anyway? I laugh to myself at that, though I can hardly hear it over even the dim ambient noise of the city, and brush away a few new tears.

“Is something wrong…?” the medic asks through an uneasy grimace.

“No, sorry, I just… Emergence. Wasn’t expecting it. Sorry,” I say. “Can you hear me alright like this?”

He nods. 

“Okay. I live here. The hospice ward on the top floor. A Harbinger I was hunting stalked me home — sort of, but… but how she worked isn’t really important here — and attacked a nurse I know. Um, that woman, do you know how she’s doing?”

“The Sanctuary’s keeping her overnight, but her vitals were stable when we found her.”

“Good. Alright,” I sigh. There’s something that could be worse. If I’d actually gotten someone who’s never been anything but kind to me killed… doesn’t matter. I didn’t. I don’t need to think about if. “Anyway. The Harbinger did it to get my attention. To provoke me. So I led her out, went somewhere empty, and killed her there. She’s gone now, and she didn’t hurt anyone else here. I think if she did, she’d have made sure I knew it.”

“…I see.” From his expression, I really don’t think he does, but that’s fine. I can’t be bothered explaining to a normal person how Harbingers talk to me. Or how well I seem to understand them. “That’s all good to know. While we have you here, could I ask you to search the vicinity and confirm that? Not to question your judgment — it’s just procedure for incidents like this.”

“No traces of her inside. If she had any other victims, they’re somewhere else.”

The medic glances back at the hospital, then shoots me an odd look. I think he was expecting me to actually go in and search for Harbinger traces.

“My senses are pretty good,” I say flatly.

“Well… alright, then. If you’re certain, we’ll go give the all-clear. Thank you for your service.”
I blink. What are you thanking me for? I didn’t do it for you. I’ve never done anything for anyone but me.

I don’t say that, of course. I just watch him on his way back to his van, then head inside.

It’s normal for the hospital to be quiet at night, but not for it to be deserted. Every desk and station that’s supposed to be staffed at all hours is left unattended. The long hallways I’d normally see someone cleaning are empty. I probably should’ve expected this. At the scene of a Harbinger attack with no Keeper around to explain what’s going on, it makes perfect sense to evacuate everyone who can safely leave, even if that’s obviously more complicated than most places in a hospital.

I wonder how the seventh floor’s doing. I wonder how all the patients with nowhere else to go, no one to take them there, or no way to leave without causing a health crisis have managed while I was away. I guess I’ll see soon enough. I make my way through the silent halls to the elevator, glaring at my reflection in the glass wall as it rises. My last wisp of black hair has gone white… right, thinking on it now, the Seraph did say something about that. Did he actually care? Would anything have changed if I’d told him “I’m at risk of spontaneous Emergence, can we reschedule our fight for a week from today?” rather than just kept fighting as hard as I could?

Not like it matters now. The elevator pings, and I step out into the seventh floor entryway. It’s just as quiet as the rest of the hospital and almost as empty — there’s an old man sleeping in front of the TV and one younger nurse looking after him.

“Liadain, there you are!” she calls softly. She freezes for a second, no doubt taking in the grey veins winding over my face, then collects herself and waves me over. “I’m… glad you’re alright. Does this mean they’re bringing people back in now?”

“Hi,” I say, as clearly as I still can. “And I think so? I don’t know where anyone else who left went, but…” Is there any point in playing things off as if they just let me back in, as if I had nothing to do with the alarm and this wasn’t all my fault? No, not really. “The responders outside were getting ready to leave, at least,” I say simply. “Actually, what’re you still doing here?” 

She smiles a bit nervously. “Someone has to be on call, don’t they? A lot of our patients can’t just leave, and they obviously don’t want people coming through to pick them up at times like this. So one of us stays behind, just in case. I volunteered.”

“…Thanks,” I murmur. If anyone deserves thanks for all this, it’s her. All I did was bring Seryana home in the first place. She sat here, knowing there’d be nothing she could do if a monster came back through, and looked out for these people anyway. And I’ve never noticed her at all before. I don’t even know her name — I can’t see her tag from here. “I’m glad they weren’t alone. And, um…”

I pause, tripping over my own thoughts this time. Do I actually want to know what I’m about to ask her? What if I don’t like the answer? I don’t know how much more misery I can take today.
But my only alternative is to go hide under the covers, wait for the next terrible day to come and find me, and probably not sleep for worrying about it anyway. So here I go.

“Um, before I… earlier, I was looking for Noirin, but she was having a bad health day. Do you know how she’s doing? Is she around?”

“Oh! Yes, she came back up not too long ago. She should be in her room. I’m sure she’d appreciate it if you wanted to check in on her.”

It’s a relief that she’s okay, of course, but I’m not so sure about that. Do I even still want to talk to her? I guess I’d already done plenty of horrible things when I was planning to earlier. Nothing’s changed on that front except how likely my sins are to break down my door and drag me away. But… if even she wants nothing to do with me once I tell her how I’ve spent the last month, at least I’ll be sure I deserve it.


“It’s unlocked! Come in!” Noirin’s voice calls at my knock on her door. 

As I step inside, Noirin smiles, waves weakly from her bed, and sets the book she was reading down in her lap. It’s Demystifying the Tarot, one of the first guidebooks every tarot person reads.

“Oh, have you gone all the way with the hair? I like it! That color really does suit you,” she says. If she has anything to say about the veins, she keeps it to herself.

“I’m… thank you,” I mumble. “How’s the book?”

“It’s interesting! I picked up a copy for my son, too — I always thought it was a bit of a shame when he gave up on this stuff just because it wasn’t the same as getting real magic. Have you read it?” She doesn’t acknowledge my voice either.

“Mhm. That’s one of the good ones, although there is something to say for reading the bad ones too and deciding which is which. You can borrow my others, if you want. I’ve already read them all.”

“Hmm. I think I’ll take you up on that,” she nods.

“Your room is nice.” This is my first time visiting anyone else’s room here. Noirin’s looks a lot like mine, of course, only hers is decorated all over with glazed bowls and jars — products of the pottery class she teaches, probably. An arrangement of blue flowers sits in a thin handmade vase on her nightstand. 

“It’s not so special. You should see how Sabina down the hall’s managed to decorate hers. But thank you. Oh, and your shirt’s on inside out,” she notes.

Oops. I never ended up taking it off. “I know,” I say.

Noirin tilts her head a little.

“Someone… a friend found it for me earlier, but I realized on the way home I shouldn’t wear it here. It’s fine.”

“Why not? Who said there was a dress code in my bedroom, of all places?”

“No one, it just felt like… kind of a mean joke.”

Noirin rolls her eyes. “Liadain, there are not a lot of perks to being here. The most important one is that there’s nothing keeping you from doing whatever you want. If you like it, you should wear it. I insist.”

I hesitate for a moment, biting my lip, before I grumble out a “Sure! Here!” and pull the sweater off. I shake my hair out and flip the sweater over before I put it back on. “See what I mean now?”

Noirin looks down, squinting. “Tummy ache…” she mutters to herself, then… snorts out a cheery laugh.

“What?” I attempt to wail.

“Nothing!” she says through her dry cackles. “Nothing at all, because that’s funny!” Despite the rasps, she can’t seem to stop giggling. “Oh, honey… It’s your problem. We’re all going through this together. We’re allowed to have fun with it if we want! Here, it’s like this… they sent me in for oxygen therapy earlier. The technician who set me up in that pressure chamber they have asked me if I had any respiratory issues. Just, you know, going down the list the way they do. Do you know what I told him? Oh, just the cancer!”

And… despite my exhaustion, despite the throbbing pain aching across my entire body, despite what amounts to my life hanging by a thread, despite everything…  I come the closest I still can to bursting out laughing. I wouldn’t have thought I had the energy left to laugh, nevermind everything else. I can’t even bring myself to feel bad about the faint, eerie, echo of laughter I’m filling the room with. Noirin, for her part, only grins back at me.

“Say, I don’t think I ever told you this… not too long after I had my son, I had uterine cancer. Had an easy recovery from that one, but, well, lightning always strikes twice, doesn’t it?” 

“No, I’m… didn’t know. I’m… sorry,” I wheeze, forcibly collecting myself. I can barely imagine recovering from the thing that’s plagued me all my life just to die of some other horrible sickness.

“Don’t be. The damn thing had already done its job when they took it out. I was just happy to be rid of it! I only bring it up because for a good while after that, my great joy in life was giving every nurse who asked me about my last period a hard time. Have you talked to a doctor about that? Is there any chance you could be pregnant? I got that last one for years after the fact! That baby was really taking its time!”

A fresh fit of creepy giggles escapes my throat. “Years? Seriously?”

Noirin raises two open palms, shakes her head, and sighs dramatically. “I know! Is it really that much work to read my chart? Ah, but now I’m just rambling about myself… glad to see you’ve gotten something out of it, though. How have you been doing? I heard I missed quite a day down in the oxygen chamber.”

“That’s… it was a long day. A long story,” I sigh. “Can I start a while before that?”

Noirin shrugs. “I wasn’t doing anything important.”

“Alright.” I take a seat in the chair next to her bed, steady myself, and spend a long, silent while gathering my thoughts. Noirin only watches and waits patiently.

“So… around a month ago, when we had that Harbinger here… I made the Promise. I chased it when it left. I killed it. And that was about the only thing I’ve done right since.”

“Oh,” Noirin says. “I was starting to wonder if you just didn’t want to talk about that at all.”

“What?” I croak.

Noirin chuckles to herself. “Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m flattered you were willing to tell me, and this isn’t exactly the easiest place to keep a big secret. I’m sure you were doing your best. But if you’d told me after the first change, I think I may have been a little more surprised than I was when my son introduced me to his first boyfriend.”

“I mean… was that a surprise?” I ask dumbly.

“He’d never quite struck me as that type, that’s all,” she shrugs. “Nice man, though. They’re married now.”

After my first transplant, before it was clear just how badly things had gone, there was a short while where I tried to hide how much pain I was in from my friends. I didn’t say anything about my health, and when Grainne asked how I was doing, I did my best to brush it off — I didn’t want anyone to see some huge gap growing between our lives and leave me behind. At the time, I thought I was putting up a pretty good front. 

But what you don’t say about yourself can say just as much, and the subjects I’ve been avoiding are so far from the only hint someone could look at me and find it’s absurd.

“Does everyone already know?” I ask.

“I don’t know if they’re gossiping about you or anything like that. Maybe some of them don’t want to draw conclusions if they aren’t sure. But the ones who pay attention to other people? Probably. And more importantly… congratulations! No one here will be anything but happy for you, if that’s what you were worrying about.”

No. That’s not it. They won’t. You won’t. It’d be great if I could believe that, but…
I bite my lip and start to cry again.

“Liadain? It’s alright,” Noirin says gently.

“It’s really really really not. I’m, it’s… I mean, yes. At first that was all it was. I didn’t want the attention. I didn’t want to rub it in people’s faces that only I get to break the world to maybe fix myself just because I’m thirteen. But I’m also just… I didn’t know what an awful person I was until I had the power to be as awful as I wanted,” I trail off.

Noirin sighs out a deep breath, filling the uncomfortable silence. “I hope this comes off the way I mean it to, but… it never sat right with me. The way some people look at Keepers as these incredible saints standing above the world. You can do incredible things, yes, and you’re the only thing keeping us all safe, but you’re still kids. Well, you aren’t kids forever, I don’t think anybody would describe Iona Fianata that way, but you understand. And kids make mistakes! Kids, if you’ll pardon my saying, do stupid things! That doesn’t change just because the things you can do are so much bigger than anything I could. So, I can believe that you’ve made mistakes or done bad things in the last month. I don’t think they make you a monster who can never do better.”

“…You wouldn’t say that if you knew.”

Noirin folds her hands over her book. “Try me.”

“Fine!” I snap. “I have disease magic. Powers that work by taking everything wrong with me and forcing it on someone else instead. I’ve been keeping myself standing by stealing health from other random people, so many of them I’ve lost count! All those rashes of weird sickness around the city? Those were me! One of them was a Keeper I was fighting with, and she was the first of three other Keepers I’ve hurt! The one tonight started a fight so he could stop me from eating people, and the girl before that was just trying to kill a Harbinger I was protecting! So I could see what would happen if I let it grow before I ate it! And I’m still not even sure if killing that Harbinger was the right thing to do!” I spit, finally stopping to catch my breath. Even speaking that much feels like an effort now, like forcing the words into the right shapes and sounds is its own new act of will.

Noirin sits quietly through all this, listening, nodding along, and as I rant, a slight frown mars her face. Whatever she’s thinking, whatever she said before, I just don’t believe any normal, decent person could see what I am and group me with normal kids getting into fights on the playground.

“Do you do hugs?” she finally asks, opening her arms a little.

“…Huh? Why?

“Just an offer. Up to you.”

I don’t, really. Not unless Pearl counts. Not since I had friends. I’ve never wanted pity hugs. I’ve never needed affection from someone who just wants to feel like they’re being nice to a cute little dying girl.

But right now… from one of the only people in my life who’s never talked down to me…

I pull my chair a little closer, scoot into Noirin’s arms, and cry silently.

“I’ll be honest… I only caught so much of that,” Noirin says. “It sounds like you’ve had a very long day, though, and it’s not really my help you need. I’m not sure whose it is, but I don’t know much about the world you live in now. All I can do is listen. And for whatever it’s worth, I’ve never known any truly awful people who spend their time sitting and thinking about what they’ve done wrong, let alone talking about it.”

A friend’s gentle voice in my ear. A hand on my back as thin and frail as my own. It isn’t much. It doesn’t change anything, not really. But… it’s nice.

“So I won’t say everything’s going to be okay. I’d love it if I could, but I don’t know that, and I do know how you feel about platitudes. But you’re a smart girl. I think you can figure something out, even if it takes some help. And I think, right now, you just need someone to listen, and then some rest. The world won’t end if you don’t solve whatever you’re facing right this moment. Will it?” she asks. It doesn’t sound like a serious question, but I can’t quite be sure.

“I don’t think so,” I whisper back.

“Good to know,” she nods. “Why don’t you see how you feel about all this in the morning, then?”

“…Sure. And… thanks.”

“Any time.”

I lean into my cane, shuffle to my feet, and head for the door.

“Oh, I wasn’t sure if I should mention it when you came in, but that cane is new too, isn’t it?” she calls after me. “Did you… make it yourself? Is that how it works?”

“I did,” I answer. 

“Well, it’s much nicer than the ones they hand out here. Matches your outfits well. That’s all I wanted to say.”

“…Thanks. ‘Night, Noirin.”

Back in my room, Pearl’s smiling face waiting on my pillow gives me just enough strength to keep from flopping into bed and skipping my nightly routine. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the world will end tomorrow. Maybe the Stardust Seraph or someone worse will come crashing through my window while I sleep. 

But I can’t do anything about that. I can only do what I can to keep tomorrow from being any worse. And if nothing else, Pearl still gives good hugs too.


<perhaps not tonight. until next time, rest well.>

I Don’t Think I’m A Good Person 7-7

My dad took me to a museum for my birthday once. Before my illness truly started to take its toll. Before I truly understood what it meant to die. Back when I still had friends. Even though it couldn’t have been more than a few years ago, it feels like such a long time has passed since then. But then, “a few years ago” could cover an entire third of my life.

The museum was dedicated to the studio behind a particular animated movie I was obsessed with back then. The movie was about a group of secondary school girls from different walks of life coming together to join an expedition headed to the Freezing Sea. Each had their own reasons for coming along, but they all shared the same determination. The main character was just a normal teenage girl a little older than I am now, but she was convinced she wasn’t living her life to the fullest, so she wanted to make the most of her youth by getting involved with something big and going on an adventure.

At this museum, there was a weird little toy they had on display. They called it a “zoetrope.” There were eight cylinders mounted on top of each other like a wedding cake, each narrower than the one below it, and perched on top of each was a series of sculptures arranged in a circle. The sculptures were all of characters from the famous movies the studio had made. Each circle was dedicated to a different character, and only that character, each sculpture of them within their circle posed slightly different than the one beside it.

The whole arrangement began to spin. Faster, faster, until it was all nothing but a blur. Then, the lights started to flicker, and something strange happened. It looked like all the sculptures, each and every one, had come to life.

It was like how pictures in a flip book showed a drawing of the same thing on each page, but in just a slightly different pose or place, so when you flipped through, it looked like the image was really moving. These weren’t just pictures, though. They were really there, right in front of me. The flickering lights made the character’s motions stick in the eye for just a moment, giving the sense they were standing in place, while each sculpture was rapidly replacing the last one, making them appear to be moving on their own. It was mesmerizing.

I remember that day vividly. I remember how warm my dad’s hand felt in mine. I remember my friends staring at the display, just as fascinated as I was. It’s one of my happiest memories.

So of course I ruin that memory by recalling it now, as the Seraph’s crimson glow above and the dim light of the lamps lining the street dance off the shapes of the junk that’s come to revolve around me. It’s all like one big zoetrope, and I’m the centerpiece.

The first and lowest layer is the traffic cones, floating only an imperceptible sliver of space off the ground. They’re followed by the construction barrels behind and above them, forming a sort of wall. Then comes the plastic chairs, and between those and the tables they were originally arranged around are a few empty flower pots of different shapes and sizes.

There I stand, in the gaps in time the Stardust Seraph has spared me between hunks of plastic zooming through the air to barrel me over, processing what exactly I’m about to resort to.

I’m planning to infect another Keeper with the corpse-rot of a Harbinger.

I killed Yurfaln by slurping the illness it was born from into my own veins. The next morning, when I realized it was still eroding me away inside, I squeezed it from my body like I was draining an abscess and soaked up the corruption that spewed out with one of my cards.

Even months later, the disgusting sensation of when I dragged my first Harbinger’s remnants to the surface of my soul still lingers in my mind. I still have its disease stored away, waiting harmlessly within its card in some corner of my soul. I had planned on using it against Aulunla when it ran rampant in its final moments, but I ended up not needing to. Now, I have practically nothing to resort to but it.

Between the curse left on Yurfaln’s dying breaths and the twisted blessing Seryana’s heart granted me, could that be enough to overcome the Seraph somehow, someway, without risking spontaneous Emergence? It’s not pushing myself. It’s not plumbing new depths of my magic. It’s just… using something I have left over.

After snaking through the latest wave of obstacles the Seraph has sent whirling my way, however, I notice something bad. The Seraph’s layered rings of assorted clutter are slowly closing in on me. With each new volley that returns to its matching ring, the objects composing its layers press closer to the center – to me, trimming away what precious little space I have to maneuver. If I don’t act on everything I’ve been thinking about soon, I might never get the chance.

In the panic that follows that realization, one of the eight plastic tables in the outermost ring shoots towards me, clamoring as it knocks aside all the other floating objects separating us. I move to give the latest giant disk as wide a berth as possible, but that’s when I stumble, one of my feet cemented firmly to the ground.

I only notice the glint of agitated air that’s spread out across the pavement beneath me like an oil slick far too late. Just like the first time the Seraph caught me with this trick of his, I jerk forward, planting my free foot onto the street and the hazy puddle of his distortion. The blur is spread out over only a thin layer across the ground, but the force behind it is far more intense than the last time he tried to weigh me down. I’m stuck like a bug caught in fly paper, and the Seraph is bringing his swatter down on me.

I don’t know if it’s a trick of my own mind as it hopelessly watches disaster draw closer with each moment, or something the Seraph is making happen, but the table coming at me seems to slow down, if only by a margin. It’s about level with my waist, and its legs are folded into its bottom just like the Seraph has done with the others. Even with my movements restrained like this, I could easily duck under the table – I’ve done it several times already. If I do that now, though, I’ll be right where the Seraph wants me.

If my hands touch the ground at any point, they’ll be glued to the street the same as my feet. I’m not exactly the picture of dexterity on my best days, and if I try just to crouch while my boots are fixed awkwardly in place, I risk losing my balance and touching the ground with even more of my body anyway. Even if I pulled it off, I’d still be left with no way to protect myself against whatever the Seraph tries to hit me with next while I’m trying to stand back up. In the first place, he could always just stop the table over my head and lower it down on me until I was forced to touch the ground and there would be nothing I could do.

So I can’t duck. It’ll all be over if I do. But if I let the table hit me, I’ll be knocked flat against the street anyway, and I can only hope the distortion or my boots have enough give that my ankles don’t shatter in the process. There’s no way out. The Seraph is trying to checkmate me here. Is that why the table seemed to slow down, because I’ve already fallen into his trap?

But there’s something different about this distortion from the last one the Seraph used to weigh me down. There’s no uncomfortable sensation of my toes being scrunched against the footbed of my boots.

Right. The blur seems stretched flat over the street like a plastic film. Maybe lessening how much space the distortion covered is why it’s so intense compared to last time, and allowed the Seraph to unfold it under me more quickly? Whatever the case, I can still move my feet just fine. It’s only my boots that are fixed in place at the soles.

And my boots are just a part of my regalia, something I can conjure or dismiss as I please.

Right as the spinning table is about to slam into my stomach, I lunge forward in the very same instant I will my boots to disappear. In the next moment, my face smacks the slightly dusty white surface and I feel myself begin to revolve.

I made it. I’m splayed out across the table now, however precariously. Hanging on for dear life, I raise my eyes and force down the nausea that comes with watching the world swirl past me in a blur. Flooding my limbs with yet another injection of stolen life, I pull myself to my knees and try to get my bearings. No matter where my eyes land as the table spins and spins, there’s only one direction where the wall of the Seraph’s rubbish-zoetrope seems to be getting closer.

But my escape hasn’t gone unnoticed. I feel the table begin to tilt to one side as if to spill me off, causing the shaky platform I’ve made of it to become more unstable than ever before. Right as the table is about to flip completely on its side and send me tumbling to the pavement, I time my jump and leap off its surface into the Seraph’s rings of junk, using the height the table gives me to bound over the ring’s first hurdle, the traffic cones. As I pass over them, the cones all shoot straight upwards as one to try and catch me.

“Gah, damn!” the Seraph yells out from behind as the first ring misses its mark. I touch a foot down on top of one of the construction barrels on the next layer over and immediately jump forward again, but the moving drum is no steady foothold. My “immediate jump” is more like a planned toppling off its side, sending me hurtling toward the concrete below.

I’ve fallen hard and fast like this before. The first time was in Yurfaln’s Wound, the second was in Aulunla’s. Both times, I landed on my wrist at a bad angle, spraining it. Not this time. As if by reflex, I instead try and twist in the air like a cat so that I land on my feet, resummoning my boots in the process.

Without Yurfaln’s power guiding me, it’s not a perfect landing, but I still manage to catch myself upright before stumbling forward and rolling into the fall. The moment my soles touch the asphalt again, I disregard the throbbing jolt that shoots up my legs to nest in my knees and just keep rushing forward, sucking in deep, ragged breaths my dwindling supply of health just can’t seem to suppress.

Behind me, the clatter of every plastic chair in the entire third layer slamming down at once resounds, too late to catch me. In front of me, the seven tables remaining in the outermost ring, all rolling through the air on their sides like a procession of wheels, begin to descend in tandem, but I slip through their line just before they manage to entrap me.

Beyond lies a blissfully vacant street. I dash into it with a desperate burst of speed. With each footfall, I summon tarot card after tarot card, all uncorrupted by my sickness. I let the intangible anchor point of gravity the Seraph has been using to disarm me drag each of them in. One after another, the cards slip away, darting backwards and through the gaps between the jumble of debris I just escaped to join the rest of the cards I’ve conjured…

—Until one finally doesn’t.

It’s hard for me to judge exactly how far I’ve managed to get away from the Seraph and the intangible point that’s stealing my cards, but I’ve run at least as far as when he tried to pull his invisibility stunt on me. At this distance, however, my cards are no longer being torn from my grasp.

After all, when he caught up to me after vacuuming up my plague-mists, why did he bring the point my cards are drawn to along with him? I’d think it would be safest for him to direct the cards as far away from himself as possible, so that whenever I try to snipe at him from the ground, my attacks fly wildly off-course.

But what if that was as far as he could reasonably place the point away from me? Could there be a range limit? That’s what I thought, or at least dared to hope might be the case. I can feel the point my cards have been magnetized to and it hasn’t changed in intensity since it appeared, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t strengthen it if he wants. Maybe he just doesn’t feel the need?

No matter how lethal some of his attacks have seemed, he’s still been toying with me this whole time, trying to cow me into giving in. As infuriating as it is to admit it, the fact he thinks this is hopeless for me might be the only reason I have any chance of winning at all. But that’s exactly why I’m going to take every inch of leeway his smug attitude has gotten me and shove it straight down his throat.

That’s when I feel a sharp tug on the latest card I’ve spawned between my fingers. It’s immediately torn from my grip and flits back in the Seraph’s direction, as though snagged in the winds of a hurricane. I turn back to see the card swallowed up by the Seraph’s ring of junk, now having risen up like a wave – a great wall of debris floating through the streetway, gradually advancing towards me.

Though his body is obscured, the red light of the Keeper himself shines forth beyond. It’s obvious he’s brought the anchor point snatching up all my cards with him. Or points, I should say, given he made a second one to split apart my blank and blighted cards.

I run in the opposite direction, putting enough distance between me and the first anchor point that I can call my cards again without fear of having them ripped out of my grasp. I need them to be free at first. My plan is a gamble, and it’ll take everything I’ve gained up until now to do it. Even then, I’m not sure it’ll work, but I at least have to try.

Suddenly, the familiar sensation of cold lightning whips up my spine. One of the Seraph’s points anchored to the objects he’s levitating is darting towards me at frightening speed. I sidestep as I continue to run, and a traffic cone flies straight past me and down the length of the street like a javelin, missing me by inches.

Of course he wouldn’t just leave me alone to do whatever I pleased…

One, two, then three more points launch out from Seraph’s wall of improvised ammunition, and I run in a jagged zigzag to evade the plastic junk they carry with them, pushing myself to go faster, harder to make up for the ground I’m losing by curving my path. Two more cones shoot by, vague blurs in the night, followed shortly by one of the chairs. This last round the Seraph fires off is different, however; after the chair passes me by, it halts some distance away from me, hanging in the air on its back as if someone had pushed it over and it decided it would rather float there than hit the ground.

With no more warning than that, the chair lunges, sweeping towards me with its legs poised to rake me backwards like a claw. I’m ready for it, though, and narrowly manage to slither past its course.

My head swims. I must have run almost a block since the Seraph first started chasing me, maybe more. But his anchor point feels a bit farther away to my senses than when I was outside its range. It’s now or never. I summon fourteen of my eighteen remaining blighted cards while I keep on running.

I shut my left eye, giving its sight to one of them – the Hanged Man. Its image is of a vaguely human figure suspended in the sky, staring down in horror at an endless expanse of bizarre nonsense shapes.

The darkness occluding half my vision is flooded once more with the dim illumination of the streets as Irakkia’s power divides my perspective between two different views. Before I can get disoriented, I beckon the Hanged Man to float right in front of my closed eye, letting me see almost normally for the moment, then stack the remaining thirteen blighted cards behind its back.

I come to a stop and nearly keel over. My body is slick with sweat and my lungs are screaming for more air than my puny gasps seem able to provide. I’m so tired. I just want to be home. But because the Stardust Seraph decided to be a bastard tonight, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to keep going. And because he’s put me through this, I don’t care what I have to do – or what I have to put him through – to end it.

I turn around and duck as another cone shoots my way, barely missing me. Its square-shaped base catches on my hood and pulls it back as it goes. My hair flutters in the whoosh of air that follows its wake. Ahead of me, the Seraph’s advancing wall of junk looks just as if he’d unraveled the ring he’d trapped me inside and started pushing it forward.

There’s a high-rise to my left; I part the Hanged Man from my eyelid and send the fourteen card pile it leads to scale up its side. The Hanged Man’s viewpoint is pressed nearly up against the building’s windows when I will the cards to climb, showing me a glimpse of each floor’s office space with every story it passes.

Once they get high enough, they should be outside the range of the Seraph’s gravity. He’ll almost certainly still be able to sense them coming, gorged on my plague as they are, but that’s fine. It’s best if he does. But it’ll all be for nothing if the cards end up back in his anchor point’s range before I want them to, so I give the Seraph a reason to stop in his tracks. I turn to face him.

This entire confrontation, I’ve just been running away over and over again, trying to put distance between us. It was right of me to. I’m not meant to fight face-to-face. I’ve realized that obvious truth by now. It’s not in my nature to be physical, or to attack head on. My body, my illness, my life all reject it at every moment. I hate it. I hate the throbbing aches wracking through my body with every step I take. I hate how the cold night air needles against my raw throat. I hate the disgusting way my regalia feels sticking to my skin from all the sweat. I hate the inexplicable taste of blood in my mouth on my rough, dry tongue. I hate the sound of my own heart drumming relentlessly in my ears.

I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. If I get out of this alive, I’m never going to let myself fight like this ever again.

But right now, with my back against the wall, there’s no other option.

And despite everything else, it is my nature to push myself too hard.

So taking one deep, final breath, I charge.

The Seraph’s wall of junk halts in place. The tips of the traffic cones on the frontmost layer all point at me like a phalanx lowering their spears. One of them launches directly at me; I weave to the side to dodge. Then another comes, and another, and I dodge and I weave and I stumble over my own feet, but no matter what I just keep running forward.

In the meantime, the Hanged Man reaches the roof of the building. It’s a strange, awkward experience looking at two entirely different places at once: the sight in front of me, and the sight of the Hanged Man floating above. Sacrificing half my vision to do it doesn’t help. But I can feel how far my cards are away from me, and with Irakkia’s power showing me their surroundings, I can direct them with precision from a distance. I will the Hanged Man and the cards it leads to move over the Stardust Seraph’s position and then devote the rest of my concentration to surviving the Seraph’s next assault.

Just in time, too, as the Seraph catapults half of his gathered construction barrels at me all at once in a scattershot barrage. Rather than try to vault over one of the drums roll-bouncing close to the ground, I shield my face and try to ram past one of the higher-flying ones. I’m instantly knocked off my feet. Even with all my stolen strength, even with a hollow object like that barrel, my body is just too small, too light to ever take on something that big headfirst. But ignoring the throb in my arms from the impact, I bet on the slightness of my body and lean into the collision.

I roll backwards and catch myself, returning to my feet in one rough motion, then immediately keep rushing forward. My elbows sting after scraping against the street during the act, and I can see black feathers peeking out from tears in my sleeves, but I don’t have the stored health to spare on soothing them right now. I’ve been burning my supply at an exhausting rate that’s only gotten faster the longer this has gone on.

I’m close now. I can feel the fringes of Roland’s intense aura bearing down on me again. Just a bit further. I need to position myself so he’s sandwiched between me and the anchor point where he’s drawing all my blank cards, like I did the last time I attacked him.

There’s a pause in the movement of the anchor points the Seraph is using to direct the plastic objects, but only for a moment before I sense his next ploy. He’s calling back the construction barrels he just volleyed at me. I look over my shoulder to see the drums being arranged in two rows, one stacked atop the other, forming a wall that then immediately begins rushing towards me. It’s the same trick as when he sent that chair while I was running away, then called it back to try to drag me in with it.

The blockade of gathered debris the Seraph has erected in front of me isn’t without gaps, but it’s already begun to lurch forward to wrap around me in a ring once again. It’s just like him to cut off every route of escape.

But the Hanged Man is already in position, hauling on its back a stockpile of thirteen more tainted cards, looming above the Seraph the same way he’s loomed above me from the start. I turn the Hanged Man’s face to look at my enemy and find the visor of his mask already looking back. He unravels his folded arms and gives my cards a friendly wave. His audacity is unreal.

I’m going to make him pay for it.

The half-deck of blighted cards scatters above the Seraph, moving to angles that put him between them and the second anchor point – the one he used to separate my blank cards from those instilled with my scourge. It’s situated on the street directly below the first point, poised to drag all my blighted cards to the ground. That means the only way my blighted cards can reach the Seraph is by attacking from above.

At my command, four of those cards slip into that second anchor point’s range, raining down on the Seraph. I detonate them one after another – one below and behind him to his left, one above and behind him to his right, one below and before him to his left, and the last above and before him to his right. The emerald clouds expand outwards in every direction until their vapors merge, enshrouding the Seraph from every angle.

Simply detonating my cards doesn’t push me nearly enough to threaten spontaneous Emergence, either; they were already created with my magic some time ago, and that’s where most of the effort was spent.

In the brief moment the Seraph is distracted, I dive through a gap in his oncoming wave of debris, slipping between a cluster of rubbery traffic cones and coming out the other end. I hear the stacked wall of construction barrels that was chasing me join the pile with a crash.

The blaring sensation of my enemy’s presence falls over me. Looking up, I watch as one side of the giant veil of plague-mist implodes in on itself, tearing a massive rift in its surface. There the Seraph floats, twirling his pointer finger as he beckons the same sort of pinprick hole-in-the-world he used to clear out my fog last time.

He cranes his neck to look at me with wings outstretched, but seems to hesitate, calling out to me instead. “Wait, your hair…!”

I don’t hear him. I just act. I call down another one of the ten remaining cards I arranged above him, drawing it into his second anchor point’s range from an angle that’s sure to pass directly through his current position.

Noticing my attack, the Seraph lets out a harsh sigh as he dismisses the black dot and rushes directly at me, his mask drawing close as if to make me flinch. I was already prepared for him to do that, though. Before I get the chance to conjure one of the four blighted cards I still have in store so I can detonate it right in his face at point blank range, however, the Seraph has already bounded backwards and away from me. But I do it anyway; I spawn in another tainted card and unleash the incarnated disease inside before it can be dragged away, if only to put another obstacle between him and me.

Just the same, I trigger the card I beckoned from above to detonate as he passes below it, but he’s too quick for it to catch him. A shocking chill down my back warns me of one of his attacks, and I skip backwards just in time to dodge another plastic chair lashing out from his wall of road-junk, its shape darting out from the depths of the murk and fading back into it as it passes.

Evading yet another of the Seraph’s salvos of plastic, I call down my blighted cards from overhead in sequence. As they explode in turn, I watch from both my own free eye and the eye I’ve given to the Hanged Man as the Seraph streaks through the air like a ribbon of red light, avoiding the resulting masses of infectious smog. I plan each of my cards’ courses and detonations so that they’re both a threat to my enemy and cut off as much of the space he has to maneuver as possible. He’s had his fun forcing me to dance: now it’s my turn to overwhelm him.

The street is becoming engulfed in my fog, obscuring the light of the streetlamps, the Seraph’s wings, and the great quilt of stars above. But my enemy and I don’t need light to see. The senses of our souls pierce through the choking mist and darkness, telling us where the other is, and more importantly, where we’re attacking from.

As staggering as the Seraph’s aura is, almost an assault on my awareness entirely on its own, right now I can see its bare fury for the disadvantage it is. I know exactly where he is and can direct my overhead cards accordingly. Even lacking clear sight of my surroundings, the vague impression his anchor points provide is enough warning to dodge them whenever he sends them at me.

All the same, I’m little better. Despite not being able to see me, he can certainly sense me well enough to direct his attacks through the pall of my plague-mists. The lack of visibility doesn’t seem to be doing his aim any favors, though. Small blessings.

Four more cards and four more clouds of condensed blight crowding his airspace is enough for the Seraph to decide he’s fed up with my tactics. He soars upwards, above the murk now flooding the streets and beyond the pull of his second anchor point, the one attuned to my blighted cards; it’s the first time he’s dared to leave its safety.

I immediately will the five cards I still have above to home in on him, the Hanged Man leading the charge. My cards burn green in the night sky, painting emerald streams in their wake as they pursue the Seraph’s spiraling trail of red, almost matching his speed.

Outside the area controlled by the second anchor point, my cards are free to move however I will them, especially with the viewpoint that Irakkia’s power grants me. The Seraph tries to break my fix on him with swift and jagged maneuvers, but my cards splinter off from each other and pursue him from different angles, flying to cut him off at where he will be while the Hanged Man remains hot on his tail. He’s as slippery as ever, though, and I only have so many cards to work with, so he always seems to find an avenue of escape.

After a steep climb skyward, the Seraph suddenly dives down into a glide right above the edge of his second anchor point’s range, my cards right on his heels. At a glance, his movement seems inefficient, allowing my cards to close in on him, but I already have an idea of what he’s up to. I’ve been expecting it all this time. So I command my cards to break off their pursuit and ascend even before I sense his second anchor point leap up from its position on the street and swiftly shoot straight upwards, the span of its range moving with it.

But in the same moment, another cold jolt crackles up my spine. A construction barrel flies out from the depths of the fog. I sense it coming, but I stand there and let it slam into me. The impact sends my small body skidding across the street, but I don’t care. The Seraph wants to distract me, disrupt my concentration on what’s really important, but I won’t let him. My focus remains completely trained on directing my cards beyond the range of his gravity. I don’t need this frail little shell to do that.

The Seraph is trying to capture my remaining cards using himself as bait, goading me to waste them in a futile chase. But the fact he can move any of his anchor points however he wants isn’t news to me. In fact, I expected him to do it earlier, but instead he risked himself on a ruse like this.

After all, it’s what I’ve been waiting for.

While my cards in the air continue to ascend and spread out along the edge of his gravity, the Seraph lets himself fall down through a gap in the plague-mist pervading the streets, back into the range covered by the second anchor point. It now once again overlaps with the first, where a deck of my blank cards remains floating uselessly. His leg rests across the knee of his other, and his arms are casually folded behind his hooded head as he plunges into safety.

He seems vulnerable.

I pick my tattered body off the street and rush up beneath him.

Is now the time? Should I use it early?

No. Not yet. He’ll have more than enough time to sense it and dodge out of the way, and then I’ll have tipped my hand. The fact he has room to taunt me right now means he’s still in control. Stick to the plan.

I summon one of the last three blighted cards I still have stored, flinging it up at the Seraph. The spot where all my blighted cards will rush to has changed, but the Seraph has still carefully positioned himself to be level with the anchor point and a distance away from its center. My card almost immediately goes off course with no chance of hitting him, so I detonate it below him, stealing away just a little more space before my next move – the one that will decide everything.

Because at the same time, I’ve called down all five of the cards in the Hanged Man’s retinue remaining above, each entering the range of the anchor point one at a time, with the ones entering from higher above going first.

The first of these cards comes at him directly from above. Like the attack I made from below just now, it’s doomed to be dragged into the anchor point the Seraph has attuned to my cards and go wildly off-course, so I simply detonate it, sandwiching my enemy in the middle of these two clouds.

In tandem with the plague-mist on all sides from my numerous prior detonations, he’s completely surrounded by my scourge now. Unfortunately, even as more of my cards race into the enclosed space my ever-present fog has trapped the Seraph within, I already know he has an answer at the ready.

“Like I said before, this doesn’t work!” he declares with every bit of bravado he’s had since this struggle began. Like silent bursts of crimson lightning, six flashes flicker against the poisonous clouds above me where the Seraph hides, prefacing his inevitable escape. All around me, my plague-mist is rapidly sucked towards my enemy’s location.

He’s purging the area of the fog in the same way he’s done it before. Every moment, the prevailing mist grows thinner. All of my effort to lower this shroud will be canceled out seconds from now.  What’s more, I sense the next two cards I sent the Seraph’s way being halted in place before they reach their target. I detonate them anyway.

The Hanged Man’s retinue has only two cards remaining, including its leader. Both of them have already entered the range of the Seraph’s anchor point and are racing towards him, the Hanged Man having taken the leap first. The two cards pass through the veil of smog into a gap the Seraph has carved into the mist for himself, a bubble amidst the gloom that grows larger with each second.

He floats there at the center, surrounded by six miniscule holes in space which inhale funnels of the plague-mist closing in on him from every direction. Four of the black dots are arrayed in a square-shaped formation with him at the center, while the other two are placed above and below him, sheltering him completely.

He revolves his right arm in a spiral with his index finger extended, pointing to the sky; a gesture that seems necessary for him to maintain the black dots. By contrast, his left arm was already midway through the motion of flinging one of his feathers at the Hanged Man the very moment it entered the bubble.

My final card enters the Seraph’s shelter amidst the noxious tempest upside down. It’s the last thing the Hanged Man sees: the Hermit inverted; a girl in filthy rags falling from the twin peaks of an upside-down mountain, grasping desperately for a formless point of light just out of her reach.

I shift the perception of my left eye to the Hermit in the instant before the Hanged Man is skewered by the Seraph’s feather of light, avoiding the sharp pain of my left eye being stabbed that would likely follow. My split vision twists and swims in nauseating, nonsensical loops as my perception jumps between the cards.

The Hermit’s first sight is the Hanged Man stuck in place, anchored to the spot where it was hit; this must have been the fate of the two cards that entered this bubble before now. I detonate the Hanged Man, but its expanding burst of plague-mist is immediately torn between the two nearest black dots and stifled without any hope of reaching the Seraph.

Past the Hanged Man’s dying wisps, the Hermit rushes forth, still drawn on the pull of the Seraph’s own anchor point.

The Seraph sends another scarlet feather to meet it.

I detonate it first, causing the Seraph’s feather to pass harmlessly through the fog.

But my left eye’s vision remains amid the vapors.

The Seraph evades backwards as the Hermit’s plague-mist expands, forced ever nearer to the murky limits of his shelter; even now, he continues the swirling motion of his right arm.

Instead, the Hermit’s plague-mist abruptly compresses into itself, almost as if sucked back into the card it sprung from to begin with.

The compacted vapors sculpt themselves into an upside-down human shape.

My shape, but just a little twisted.

The other me wears a lusterless, pitch black mourning dress. Her feathery white hair cascades down her form in a long, shaggy mane damp with a liquid like greenish-black ink. Her pale flesh is as translucent as a jellyfish’s, showing off the silhouette of her bones. She only has one eye – my left one – but it glows a poison-green brighter even than my own.

Seryana hunted by attaching herself to anchors and tormenting them through disposable effigies of herself. The power her heart granted me was to use instances of my magic as a channel, allowing me to act through them. This plague-self effigy is an expression of that.

My second self floats there upside-down, hovering as though buoyed by the wind. After all, I, my second self, am as mist or disease on the breeze. I, my second self, drift before the Seraph and summon one of the last two tainted cards I have in store, casting it at once at my enemy, who still floats between me and the anchor point he’s used to snatch them away time after time. I detonate it.

The Seraph throws his arms in front of his visor and folds his wings around himself as he rapidly descends. The black dots arranged throughout the bubble shift to follow, the entire central square formation diving alongside him to encircle the black dot that was previously at the bottom; these four outer dots begin to spin around this central dot, and together they all sink down, clearing away the plague-mist below as though drilling straight through it.

He was stopping my cards with his feathers the moment they entered the mist-bubble so that his little holes in the world could lap them up before the fog they created could box him in any further. Without those black dots dissipating the incoming plague-clouds as they come, there’s not enough room in here for him to easily dodge a blighted card going off at such close range, so his best bet was to make more as quickly as possible.

That bet pays off, leaving a wedge of newly-cleared space below the latest detonation for him to hide in. I can sense his obnoxious aura as it draws closer to my first self, still on the ground beneath. It won’t be long now.

In the next second, the Seraph calls down the black dot that was above the other five to descend into the latest cloud, siphoning it away.

At the same time, my second self lunges through the remaining murk. Once she gets close, I’ll have her conjure my very last blighted card and detonate it so close he’ll have no chance of escaping.

The Seraph’s left wing detaches from his back and comes apart into a tight whirl of glowing red feathers. They bundle and compress together in an instant to form a spear of crimson light. He thrusts his palm out in the direction of my doppelganger and the spear shoots forward, cutting through the mists and impaling her straight through the stomach.

I feel a phantom echo of my double’s pain, but while the agonizing sensation of my intestines being skewered and my spine being severed forces me to falter, it’s different from when Seryana destroyed the card I was seeing through a couple days ago. This pain lasts only for a moment before I cut the connection to my second self and sweep the pain out of my way. In the same moment, the Seraph’s black dots break through the veil of smog up above, revealing his shining figure once more.

I summon the Three of Swords: three thin blades like long, straight fangs, stabbed through a heart of mottled grey-brown clay and wrapped in blood-red tubes. The card I quarantined Yurfaln’s disease within when this all began, when I first fought a Harbinger two months ago. There’s no pull on it. Like I thought, the Seraph’s gravity isn’t affecting this card because its aura isn’t precisely the same as mine.

My effigy’s form collapses around the Seraph’s spear like a picture made of smoke. The Seraph clenches his outstretched palm into a fist, and the spear compresses into a shining orb that quickly shrinks into nothing; in its place is another pinprick hole in the world, which immediately sucks up my plague-self’s remains before vanishing itself.

The Seraph must have felt my doppelganger coming. But because his attention has focused entirely on countering me based on the motions of my magic this whole time, he notices the Three of Swords just a second too late.

I’ve only fought one other Keeper before, but I was able to catch her off guard, even though it seemed like she could still sense my attacks coming. In the end, this is the same way I beat her: I had to misdirect and conceal my real attack from the other Keeper to finally catch them off-guard.

The Seraph is an entirely different beast from Tetha, though. Trying the same thing over and over again would never work against him. Even trying a single new trick on him at once wasn’t liable to touch him. Even if he’s toying with me, it’s like he told me before: he’s still watching out. He’s still ready for anything I throw at him. I would need to surprise him at least twice to actually catch him unawares. Even that might not work, given the incredible talent he’s supposed to have.

So I prepared three surprises.

Without delaying a single moment, I fling the Three of Swords at the Seraph with every bit of force my thin arm can muster.

In the same moment, the Seraph turns in the air to face my direction, his remaining wing outstretched. With one great flap, his right wing unleashes a hailstorm of feathers. The Three of Swords sails past them as they rain down on me quicker than my eyes can follow.

The feathers pierce through the fabric of my dress and drag me back, forcing me to the ground and pinning me there. They surround me like flowers in a meadow. The air around them shimmers with a familiar tightness that makes my entire body heavy, restraining me from any movement. He’s caught me and there’s no escape.

My panicked gaze turns upwards. I see the Seraph floating above, the Three of Swords embedded in his armor. The corner of the card is lodged into his chestpiece. In the milliseconds which make up this seemingly endless moment, I watch him tilt his head down to regard it as if in slow motion.

Before I even trigger it to detonate, entirely on its own, as if by its own will, the Three of Swords bursts like a tumorous growth.

A smog-like mass so thick it looks like a floating globule of deep grey sludge spills forth into the world. The viscous essence presses itself to the Seraph’s armor in an embrace, seeping into every crevice until it’s completely soaked up.

A ripple pulses through the air, causing everything to go still. The smell of living death radiates outward.

“What, what is… gaugh, ghk, aaaugh!

His aura recoils. All of his black spots collapse into nothing. The anchor points holding up the wall of objects he collected off the road all vanish at once, causing the rubbish that made it up to collapse to the street in a heap. The feathers of light pinning me to the street all pop into sparkling particles which wink out in an instant. The Seraph’s remaining scarlet wing explodes and scatters into a bevy of sparks just the same.

I surge upright as I watch the chaos unfold.

The Seraph floats there with his arms curled around himself, shivering, vibrating. With a fearful yell, his body is suddenly flung through the air, shifting wildly from one direction to the next. First he’s yanked to the side, then flipped upwards through a thin puff of lingering plague-mist, until finally his path spirals completely out of control and he plummets like a comet torn from the heavens.

With a sound like a hammer shattering against a boulder, he slams into the ground in the blink of an eye, as fast as I’ve ever seen him move, as if he was shot out of a cannon directly into the street.

The Seraph is splayed out across the pavement. He lies there motionless, like a dead bird. The tinted glass of his vizor is broken on one side.

Is he…? No. No no no he can’t be I couldn’t have. He’s a Keeper, he’s so much stronger than me and his soul is still there, he’s just…

…His fingers twitch.

Suddenly, his aura crashes back over me at full force, then fades, then howls outward again, flickering in and out like a dying lightbulb burning itself out. A powerful gust howls out from his fallen form, blasting through my hair and chasing away my emerald fog.


His voice rasps out, causing the air to tremble. A new fear coils around my heart like a vice. I race to stand before he does.

The Seraph picks himself up with his left arm alone. His right hangs limply at his side as he rises. There’s a pearly white bone sticking jaggedly out from the torn sleeve of his regalia. Little floating beads of red spill out from the wound, reflecting the light of the streetlamps in their oily, pearlescent luster.

The shattered limb quivers. The floating red droplets race through the air to return to the Seraph’s body. I hear him snarling with pain, followed by the sick cracking sound of the exposed bone snapping back into its proper place. His right arm remains slack and powerless.

He sucks in harsh, agonized breaths as he swipes away his hood and tears off his headgear. A long curtain of hair spills out in a flutter of silken strands, glimmering gold in the dim street lights as the helmet that contained it clatters to the road.

I’ve seen his face before, in advertisements and on the Church’s reef, but never like this. Standing here is like a moment frozen in time. I can’t look away. Past long eyelashes, a single red eye, as deep and brilliant as a ruby, glares out from behind his locks. Its utter loathing pierces me to my core, but its beauty draws me in, forcing me to drink in every detail as though I’m in a trance. I want to run, but my legs won’t move.

He’s bleeding from his forehead, a red mass oozing from his brow and clinging there as though suspended in space. His skin looks pale, ashen, and although it might be only a trick of what little light surrounds us, with each moment his complexion seems to grow greyer.

You… what did, you…  grrgh… aurgh!”

He grips his stomach with his good hand and bends over with his mouth wrenched open as if to scream, but no sound follows. Only a stream of clay mingled with seaweed and crawling with overgrown centipedes.

The many-legged vermin spill across the ground in a wild, writhing swarm, scattering in every direction. Behind each and every one of their monstrous fangs is a too-long, too-wide grin of shiny white human teeth.

The Seraph’s heave ends with a gagging wail of disgust and horror. He spits frantically, and as he does, his whimpers transform into a laugh I can’t comprehend.

“Heheh… heheheh… hahahahah!”

He looks up again. I can see the traces of a strained smile hinted at behind his hair. Past grey tears murky with dust, his gaze stabs through my skull like a shard of glass.

The glass vibrates a message into my brain, telling me to run.

But there’s nowhere to go.

“Heheh, hahahahahah…”

Whether the Seraph’s laughter is born from his own feelings or those Yurfaln’s sickness imposed on him, I can’t begin to know.

His sludgy tears drip off his chin in thick wads. They dry in midair as they fall. When they hit the street, they sprout little insect legs and start scuttling around aimlessly, beeping shrilly as they rot into dirt and crumple away.

“I’ll kill you…”

It seems so obvious now.

You were in absolutely zero danger right then, by the way.

I never miss my mark. That’s just how it is.

Hah. Made you flinch.

Even when he couldn’t see me through my plague-fog, his feathers didn’t directly hit me.

Throughout this entire fight, the Stardust Seraph never once tried to kill me.

Because until this moment, I didn’t understand what it would feel like if he had really wanted to.

A memory flashes through my mind. The scene of two boys standing over a grasshopper with each and every one of its legs torn off, until it was nothing more than a sad little pellet that could do nothing but wait to die.

“I’ll kill you! You’re going to die alone…!”

The Seraph’s will envelops everything. The world around me deforms into a mess of bleary shapes. My knees hit the ground immediately. The ridges and bumps of the street dig past my stockings and into my skin. My shoulders slump. Heavy. There’s something heavy on every part of my body. Everything in my body is heavy too.

And then the heaviness vanishes, flickers out as the Seraph’s power briefly wanes. A moment of relief, as the Seraph lurches back… and then I’m crushed again, harder than ever. I can feel the blood in my veins racing to the tips of my fingers and the place where my legs touch the pavement. The beating of my heart strains against the weight.

Can’t breathe. The air in my lungs is heavy. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.

The blur vanishes.

I suck in a desperate gasp of air, only to have it slammed out of me an instant later.

A traffic cone rams into my stomach, sending me backwards. I land on a plastic table with its legs folded in that’s been slid behind me without my noticing. It lifts into the air with incredible speed, carrying me with it, before all the force hoisting it upwards abruptly vanishes. The table begins to plummet. I fall as well.

From my vantage in the sky, I see the Seraph holding his golden locks back as he pukes another river of clay and seaweed and happy little centipedes.

I blink, and he’s gone. In the next instant, I’m torn from the sky by my neck. Before I can process what’s going on, I’m slammed against a window that’s several stories off the ground. The building is the very same highrise I willed the Hanged Man to climb before.

The talons around my throat are the Seraph’s, of course. He has me in a stranglehold with his one good hand. He tilts his head to the side, looking more like a hungry hawk than ever. Cracks have formed across his leaden skin. Bits of his face have begun to peel off. The manic glare in his bloodshot eyes peeking out between the matted veil of his hair looks into me with a rage so cold it burns.

“Bad move.”

How is he still going, despite everything? How is he still so strong? This should be worse in every way than what I did to Tetha and yet he still won’t stop.

Gravity falls sideways, crushing my body against the glass. My limbs splay out helplessly. The force is so intense that I can hear the window cracking from the strain. I try to shriek, but my voice is smothered.

Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.

He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going t—

No he won’t.

I won’t let him.

I still remember my promise to myself, even now. Especially now, when this useless shell of mine fails me time after time.

Death is just a nightmare I woke up from a long time ago.

In this moment, I can feel the Seraph’s incredible life right next to mine like the heat of a sputtering torch struggling against a storm, waxing and waning, howling and groaning in equal measure.

I’m at my limit. Everything I did to get the Seraph to this point has pushed me to the very edge as well. One more step and I’ll fall. I know I will. I know if I do this, I’ll change. I’ll change, and I won’t be able to control it.

But I don’t care.

I will never die.

Glimmering tendrils of emerald mist snake from my broken body with relish, lunging right at the Seraph–

“That. Won’t. Work. Princess.”

—only to be wrenched backwards in the very next moment, never having reached their prey.

One of the Seraph’s anchor points has formed behind me, in the office past the glass of the window, dragging my intangible feeding-limbs into its grasp.

My heart falls down the pit in my stomach – the very same where all my hopes for the future go to die. My tendrils of emerald mist vanish with it.

It’s over.

The crushing pressure on my body slackens, allowing me to inhale a desperate gasp of breath, but I remain stuck to the window, unable to escape. The Seraph unhands my throat and lifts up his good arm. Behind him, a sparkle of light glimmers into being and extends into the shape of a long, glowing, blood red needle, like a small replica of the spear of light he used to end Seryana.

“You must have known how this would end. Yet you did it anyway. And here we are.”

I can only whimper out one thing.

“I don’t want to die.”

Warm tears stream down my face. I can’t contain them.

“I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die…”

I just wheeze it out weekly again and again, over and over.

“I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die…!”

My voice is a faint, eerie echo of itself, like a whisper trying to carry from too far away.

The Seraph goes still. His single ruby eye just stares into mine while I babble uselessly.

Seconds go by. The Seraph does nothing. My choked cry repeats into the night.

The Seraph’s good arm wavers at the shoulder. His fingers start to slouch. Suddenly, he reels, bringing his hand to his mouth, but he can’t hold it. He pukes again, another stream of gunk and centipedes exiting his throat and falling to the ground far below us. My repeated pleas end on a yelp of surprise as the floating needle of light pops out of existence. He floats there in front of me, gripping his chest piece. The only sounds that remain between us are our tortured breaths.

Then, in the distance, I feel something approaching us. Another presence. An intangible sense of smallness, of being regarded from on high as a tiny piece in a great design. A piece that doesn’t belong.

The Seraph seems to notice it too. The sliver of his lips I can see through his long hair twists into a scowl.

“…What a mess.”

All at once, I feel the force pinning me to the window dissipate. I let out a shriek of terror as I begin to fall, but even my scream is a muted whisper. I throw my hands up in front of my face and shut my eyes tight before the quickly advancing sidewalk, but the sensation of my body splattering against concrete never comes. I blink, and see I’m once again enveloped in a shimmer of distorted air. This time, though, it’s causing me to descend softly, gradually.

The Seraph descends with me. Once we’ve nearly reached the ground. He grabs me by the wrist and yanks me from the pillar of haze, throwing me to the ground behind him like a limp doll. I whine at the rough treatment, but looking past him, I can see that he was pulling me out of the way of the puddle of regurgitated clay I was about to land in.

The unfamiliar presence from before is drawing nearer.

“You know who that is?” he asks.

I shake my head, still in shock.

He smiles bitterly from cheek to cheek with sly, narrowed eyes. Even that nasty expression, rotting with Yurfaln’s curse, is strangely beautiful in the subtle red glow of his eye. “That’s Irida.” His voice is a frayed, vacant murmur. “If you think I’m bad… just think of what the one Keeper above me will do if she finds you.”

He holds out his good arm and forms a feather of light in his palm. “Like hell I’ll allow that.” He clenches the scarlet feather in his fist, its sharp edges digging into his flesh. Globules of floating blood which gleam strangely in the dim lighting rise up from between his fingers as the feather dissipates.

“Okay. You win,” he says, falling on his knees in front of me. “So I’ll give you a parting gift. No thanks necessary.”

He grabs me by the shoulder, pulls me in, and presses his bloodied fingers to my cheek, smearing something on my face.

Something in me screams to push him away, but somehow I can’t find the strength.

A red glow outlines my body for a moment, then fades away. My body already feels lighter somehow.

“Theeeere we go…” he says, patting my cheek. “That should make getting back home easy. Now get out of here.”

I just sit there in a daze, not entirely sure what’s happening. I don’t know what to do. What’s happening right now? Am I really free to go? Didn’t he want to take me in? No, something changed. Because that other presence is coming…

I wobble back to my feet on unsteady legs, but the motion itself is easy. Even as tired as I am, it feels like not even my own exhaustion is restraining me.

I look to the Seraph.


With no other option, I race off into the night.

I Don’t Think I’m A Good Person 7-6

My cards are drawn as if magnetized to a spot between the Seraph and I, level with his position but a fair distance to his right. They form a haphazard stuck-together pile rotating around in the air.

Before I have a chance to process what’s going on, a flash of red light blinds my left eye for less than a second. A sharp whistling sound starts low and rises in an instant to a fever pitch before dying on the wind as it sails past my ear, nicking its edge. I stagger as my hand reaches to my earlobe and closes around a burst of tiny downy feathers. I flood them with magic and feel them rot away to nothing in my grip, just to make sure the Seraph can’t have them.

I look behind to see what just sped past my face. Embedded in the pavement is one of the Seraph’s sculpted-light feathers, shedding its crimson glow. Seeing one of them up close, I notice the feather’s edges look thin and razor sharp. Its tip was keen enough to lodge it into concrete. There’s a sting like a paper cut where the Seraph’s feather just barely grazed my ear. It could have jabbed my eye out instead.

The feather bursts into sparks which blink away without a sound, and I turn back to face its origin. The Seraph looms with his hand outstretched towards me once again. Rather than an open palm, it’s as if he’d flung one of his feathers like a dart. Like how I would fling one of my cards. The Seraph’s wings must be his implement, his version of my orbiting cards.

Has he been on guard with his weapon poised against me this entire time, and he’s just been pretending otherwise?

“What are you doing?” The words spill out of my mouth. “Are you actually trying to kill me?!”

“Hey, you started it,” he calls back, as if my cards even had a chance of hitting their mark, let alone scratching him. He pays the tarot pile he swiped from me a short glance, and the cards cease their rotation and straighten themselves neatly into a deck, remaining suspended in the air. “If you really wanna get dangerous, we can get dangerous. But you’re crazy if you think you can beat me. It’s pointless to even try. So just come along quietly and we can get this sorted out. You’ll thank me later.” It sounds like he’s discarded walking me home and is just going to drag me wherever he pleases.

“You’re the crazy one if you think I’ll go with you after you nearly stabbed me in the eye!”

“Good thing I wasn’t aiming for your eye, then,” the Seraph answers matter-of-factly. “There’s no way that would have happened.”

“How do you know?”

“I never miss my mark. That’s just how it is,” he says with flawless confidence. “Now, what do you say?”

I can only glare up at him in reply. He seems to be waiting for me to answer his latest demand, as if there’s anything more to say. I take stock of the situation while he’s giving me the chance. I can sense the point in the air where the Seraph has collected the cards I summoned — it’s a concentration of his magic, similar to when he crucified Seryana and started turning her inside out. I guess this time it’s attuned to me in some way.

Hopefully he can’t pull my guts out just like that, but… something tells me that if he could just drag me around however he wanted, he wouldn’t have to go to so much trouble trying to convince me to go with him while finding ways to pin me down in the meantime. Maybe there’s some condition he has to meet before he can affect me directly, like how thoroughly I’ve got to contaminate a Harbinger before I can drain its health.

I can still feel my cards at the point they’ve been gathered mostly the same as usual, too. It’s a little like my fight with Tetha, when she managed to capture one of my cards in a sphere of water. My will still reaches my cards from afar, but they feel… heavy. Incredibly heavy, weighed down to that spot. The pressure on them is constant, and it’s difficult to get them to budge. Almost like he’s grabbed me by the wrist and has me held there, and all I can do is struggle against his strength.

What’s worse is that despite disarming me, he’s keeping his distance from the cards as if he already knows what the infected ones can do. If he had them close by, then I might be able to catch him off guard by detonating them, but there’s no point in releasing my scourge if he’s too far away to be engulfed by the resulting plague-mist. Where he is now, he’s just far enough to make escaping on reaction easy. Does he somehow already know enough about my magic to prepare against it, or is it something else?

Even if he does know how I fight, though, there’s something he’s overlooked.

Without sparing another word, I immerse my body in my stored health and sprint to the left of the Seraph – opposite of where he’s gathered my deck – and start putting distance between us again.

“Oh? Gotta tucker yourself out some more?” he mocks, turning his neck to follow my movement before his entire body revolves smoothly in the air to face me again. I don’t wait for him to react. The moment I’ve found a decent angle, I simply dismiss all my cards and resummon them around me. They vanish from the point he’s drawn them to and reappear back in my orbit.

But the invisible force drawing them to that single point the Seraph anchored in the world hasn’t yet disappeared. I figured as much. That’s why the moment my tarot cards manifest around me again, I launch them all at once. The only outside force acting on my cards is sending them towards that one specific spot the Seraph has chosen, so before they reach it, I have little trouble moving them in any other direction I choose, so long as they’re also still moving towards it.

And since my cards are constantly being drawn toward a specific spot, I can guide their path to pass through where the Stardust Seraph currently is by putting myself between him and that point. I can hit him even as he’s tearing my cards away. In fact, the force that’s pulling them makes their flight towards their target even faster.

As though tossed into the sky and blown away on a passing gale, the deck scatters at my command. Some of the cards dart straight through the air at whatever angle I’ve managed to direct them to, while others twirl on their sides like spinning blades as I spread them further from my main volley, causing them to fly in more of an arc than a straight line.

I try to hold some of my cards back against the pull of the Seraph’s anchor with my will, and while I can’t entirely stop them from being sucked in, I do manage to delay their travel, slowing how fast they go compared to the other cards. Some cards I hold back harder than others, so they’ll arrive at different times rather than all at once.

Riding on the same blinding speed he disarmed me with before, I barrage the Seraph from every angle. He folds his arms behind his back as one card races towards him, then casually turns aside to evade its path. In the same movement, he slides backwards through the air into what looks like a wide gap in the wave of tarot cards I’ve unleashed… and right into the blast zone of one of the four blighted cards I’d conjured with this deck.

I don’t know what Tetha’s condition was after I afflicted her, but I know she’s still alive, and right now, that’s good enough for me. If Tetha could survive this, then I’m sure the Stardust Seraph can. I just hope it’s enough to even slow him down.

Right as I will that diseased card to detonate, though, the Seraph suddenly shoots in the direction opposite of it at incredible speed, like a crimson comet traced across the sky. He escapes the cloud of noxious fog that bursts forth, twirling once as he moves to deflect a blank card his path happens to cross off one of his wings. He’s too slippery.

I’m not done yet, though. The Seraph’s course takes him safely outside the range of two of my other blighted cards, but I’ve held back the fourth and last one as long as I could, saving it for the end. It’s now arcing through the air, about to draw close to the Seraph’s current position. It’s not as close as he was to the last card I burst, but if he keeps moving in the direction he is right now, he’ll fly right into the plague-cloud that blooms from it.

I time the explosion perfectly, but at the very last second, the Seraph bounces upwards off empty air, skirting the edge of the cloud of illness for a moment before completely escaping its reach.

He passes behind the point where he’s once again gathered all the cards I flung at him, then comes to a sudden halt. “That won’t work, princess!” he calls out to me. He sounds like he’s enjoying himself. But he’s also right where I want him, finally close enough to the anchor point that I just might catch him.

…Yet, before I have the chance to use the next two infected cards, both of them slide out of the floating deck and hit the street below like a pair of falling rocks.

He made a second anchor point on the streets right below the original one. I can feel it. The only difference is, this one only draws my corrupted cards towards it, dividing them from the blank cards. He’s already figured me out.

I grit my teeth. As the toxic mist from the previous two bursts gradually swells outwards, forming a curtain of smog between me and the Seraph that’s slowly drawing closed, I detonate the two remaining blighted cards to speed up the process. Emerald haze rises up, joining the two disparate clouds and engulfing the street. Before he and the red glow that halos him disappear behind the encroaching wall of infectious fog, the Seraph falls back and folds his wings around his body as if to shield himself.

I whirl around and start running on my aching legs, filling my lungs with rough, ragged breaths each stride I take. My sweat runs cold in the chill night air. My eyes flit from one side of the street to the other. This brief moment could be my only chance to escape. It’ll take a second for the Seraph to rise over the miasma, which could give me just enough time to duck into an alley and find a place to hide. If I dismiss my regalia, he might lose track of me. That might at least give me enough time to call Aisling.

But I’ve barely gone half the length of a street before a crimson shimmer cuts through the shroud of my fog, flashing against the vapors like lightning in an overcast sky. I turn back to see the wall of smog I’d created collapsing into itself, shrinking towards a single point as though vacuumed out of the air. Just floating there is a black speck, a pinprick hole in the world all my plague-mist is spiraling into like water down a drain.

Once more revealed from behind the curtain of my fog, the Seraph is pointing ahead of himself, twirling his outstretched index finger in the shape of a spiral. The miasma is cleared from the streets, and the little black speck it vanished into blinks out of being in a flicker of red.

The Seraph reclines backwards in the air and crosses his legs as though taking a seat, wavering slightly as if perched on a swing. He glides toward me in that relaxed pose. The point where he’s captured all my cards moves in tandem with him, always maintaining the same safe distance.

“Man, you’re so dramatic, princess. If you were actually that tired, you’d think you’d just give in. Why are you doing all this, really? Some weird sense of pride? You’re completely Mary-ing out on me right now, you know?”

I can only stare up at the Keeper who just completely evaded my attack without a single scratch and did it all as if it were easy. I don’t have any thoughts to spare for whatever nonsense he’s asking me right now. Everything I have is dedicated to keeping my knees from buckling under my own weight.

He seems to pick up on my loss for words. “So, how’s that offer from before sound about now?”

“Worse the harder you push it.”

The Seraph sighs. “Cute. Right then.”

He raises his arm and flicks up his wrist. With that motion alone, the world around him answers to his call.

In front of a streetside restaurant, a section of the sidewalk and road has been cordoned off and arranged with plastic tables and chairs under the shade of parasols to make a modest seating area. On the other side of the street, there’s a construction project similar to the one that tore down the house Seryana was born from – it even looks like the same company. From both these places, dozens of objects lift up off the ground and zip straight to positions arrayed around the Seraph, where they begin rolling in place almost like debris in a storm. Tables and chairs and empty flower pots join traffic cones, construction barrels, and a caution easel or two, all revolving in the air.

“Let’s make a wager,” he says, surrounded on all sides by his jumble of whatever happened to be nearby. “If you can actually beat me, I’ll let you go. If I can get you to give up, then you’ll come along with me. Whoever gives up first gives in, no arguments.”

“…And how’s that different from just making me go by force?” I shoot back, however pointlessly.

There’s a pause for just a moment before he gives his deadpan reply. “Huh, I wonder?”

He swats his hand out as though batting away a fly, and that’s all it takes for the medley of junk he’s beckoned to launch at me all at once. A plastic table big enough for me to use as a bed flies straight at me, barreling down the street like a speeding car. I hardly have any time to dodge, and even if I did, I would just be stumbling into whatever else he’s hurled my way. All I can think to do in the moment is fall backwards, scrunch myself into a ball, and hope I’m conscious after it crashes over me.

A second passes. Then another. The impact never comes. I peek my head out from between my arms to find the table frozen in the air, completely still.

“Hah. Made you flinch,” he says like it’s all just a schoolyard prank.

“A-are you actually insane?” I choke out between panicked gasps. “How much of your time as a big fancy hero do you spend torturing people for fun?”

His shoulders slouch at my words. “…I didn’t even hit you, princess,” he answers coldly. “And I doubt I’d be having a fun time if you managed to hit me, either, if Tetha is anything to go by.”

Rather than simply running me over, all the objects in the Seraph’s onslaught have spread out to surround me at a distance, forming a ring that’s boxing me in from every angle. They begin to swirl around me slowly, almost like I’m in the center of a merry-go-round, every impromptu projectile continuing to roll through the air as it moves along with the flow.

“I know to watch out when it comes to you. You stopped that flaring Harbinger’s ritual, after all. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m going to blow up another Keeper just ’cause. I’m trying to show you what you’re up against. If you don’t like what you see, then yield. Otherwise, square up.”

I don’t respond immediately, simply wiping away the tears I don’t have time for. If I just sit here for a bit, he’ll probably give me a moment to think, secure knowing he’s got me right where he wants me. But I’m not mulling over whether to surrender or not, like I’m sure he hopes. The only thing on my mind is how to get out of this. I clutch my chest and steady my breathing as I try to consider everything I have at my disposal.

Come on, Liadain. Don’t panic. Think. I’ve been in much worse situations than fighting this guy, who’s supposedly not even trying to kill me. There has to be something, anything I can do right now to catch him off guard and turn the tables.

Yurfaln’s power-from-pain won’t help me much. It puts more strain on my body than any other magic I have to my name. I certainly can’t rely on it the way I did against Aulunla; if I push myself any farther over the edge than I already have today, I’ll be overwhelmed by Emergence in more ways I can’t control, just as Aisling warned.

I would be so much faster, stronger, better if I walked the tightrope between life and death Yurfaln lived on, though. I’m not sure I would be an actual match for the Stardust Seraph even then, but it would certainly make this more of a fight, rather than something like a tomcat batting around a mouse between his paws. It would have made it easy to dodge through his entire barrage from before. I just… would have done it, just by willing myself to. Given I could resist the pull he has on my cards to some extent already, I’m sure I could actually seize my cards from his grip, too, at least with how much force the anchor point is currently exerting on them.

But I’m certain that if I embraced Yurfaln’s ideal right now, something would happen to me that there would be no coming back from. I’ve never felt less human than when I was in that state.

What I gained from Aulunla’s heart doesn’t give me much to work with, either. There’s something deeper to its curse than simply understanding Harbingers better, something intrinsic to its nature, but I haven’t had the time to explore how to use it. I certainly don’t now.

The magical perception Irakkia’s morsels earned me doesn’t seem especially suited to the situation. Transferring the vision from one of my eyes into a card and controlling it remotely seems good for scouting, but it would disorient me more than it helps. I don’t even know if it could help at all, not while the Seraph has control of where all my cards end up anyway.

…Maybe the key to that lies in figuring out the rules and limits behind whatever power he’s using to control my cards in the first place. The Seraph’s powers seem completely overwhelming to me – fast, impossible to challenge, and capable of overcoming anything I throw at them… but even though he seems to have the power to fling anything around him however he wants with only his thoughts, how come he never just picks me up and holds me in place? That would end this instantly.

The answer is simple: he can’t do that. Just like I can’t just drain a Harbinger of its health like I can a normal person. It’s hard to directly interfere with other beings of magic when they’re resisting you. You have to dig your claws into them somehow first.

…What does that say about Mide, then, who I can drain as easily as I can any normal person? I don’t have any time to spare thinking about that.

Which leaves the latest heart I’ve swallowed. Does Seryana have anything for me?

When I search inside myself, feeling the shape of Seryana’s soul and the dying thoughts she left with me, I get an abstract sense of the new way my power has grown through hers. And when I do, everything clicks into place.

I may have missed my chance to swallow the entirety of Irakkia’s heart when I split it with Mide, but it did start my magic down a particular path. A path Seryana’s heart is all too eager to lead me down.

I’d thought that Seryana and Irakkia had similar tricks before, even if Seryana couldn’t twist perception as freely as Irakkia until later. She could intrude into my dreams, and even inflict nightmares in the waking world after she donned that mask, similar to Irakkia’s mental attacks… I’m not sure I understand how much the two of them truly shared, beyond their desperate rejection of the cruel reality in which they found themselves trapped, but where Irakkia’s lost and broken truth once ended within me like a road into a chasm, Seryana’s connects and continues on, their hearts building on one another with my magic as the foundation.

This could be it. This could be my key to victory. It’s something the Seraph would never expect. Could using this new expression of my magic be doing exactly what Aisling warned me against? Maybe, but if I’m careful and keep things small, there’s no way it’ll affect me the way betting everything on Yurfaln’s power would.

The only problem is that whether the Stardust Seraph expects something or not doesn’t seem to actually matter. He might only have been doing this for a couple years, but that’s an eternity next to my couple of months. He’s much more experienced than me. He’s clearly prepared for any sneak attack I might muster. He’s had no trouble seeing through every last attack I’ve made so far.

“Well?” the Seraph asks, his patience finally starting to wear thin. 

I conjure my cane, pick myself up on wobbling limbs, and look up through the jumble of floating debris to stare daggers at him. Burning an inner candle of the stolen life that got me into this mess in the first place, I spread my legs out and raise my free arm defensively to show him this isn’t over yet.

I don’t think there’s any point in trying to get him to lower his guard by pretending to surrender. Out of all the bad things I can say about the Seraph right now, the one thing he definitely isn’t is stupid. Still, he’s playing around like this is some game, and that means he’s not fighting like his life depends on it. Like mine does.

He lets out a chuckle and simply says, “Alright then,” before flicking a finger at the empty air.

A cold shock jolts up my spine. Faintly, I feel his magic lashing out at me from behind. I duck down and fall to my knees, and immediately watch as a construction barrel hurtles overhead before passing back into the ring of churning debris.


If I had been a second slower, that heavy drum would have bashed me over the head and planted my face into the pavement. Just the realization it came so close to hitting me makes my black blood turn to ice in my veins. No matter how I look at it, I would have died. This fragile body of mine would have broken into pieces and I’d have died.

The image of my corpse lying sprawled out against the street, a great raven of plague and hunger and malice ripping out from within before being crushed beneath the Seraph’s power flashes through my mind. The only reason that premonition died as nothing but a nightmare in my thoughts is because I sensed the Seraph’s attack and dodged at the very last moment. 

I turn widened eyes back up to the Seraph. The impenetrable tint of his vizor gives nothing away. Were all his words just lies? I thought he was just going to try to wear me down until I couldn’t fight anymore. I’ve done terrible things to people, but I don’t deserve to be treated like the latest incarnation of Sofia the Deathless, do I? Unless they were a real menace, a clear and present danger to everyone around them, killing a Keeper would be a disaster even for the Seraph, wouldn’t it? 

…Maybe not.

Maybe he’s gotten away with this before.

After all, all the violence connected to Mary Hyland was buried until nothing remained but conspiracy tracts on the Coral Sea. If the Church would go that far to protect some random new Keeper, how much further would they go to protect their golden boy?

Another gesture from the Seraph draws six chairs from the ring’s swirling flow and into the air above me. I spring back to my feet and dodge frantically as the chairs rain down one after another towards my position, clacking harshly against the street with each impact. My constant drip feed of health keeps me nimble despite how tired I am.

Next come three dusty traffic cones thrusting towards me like torpedoes, all disappearing back into the ring once I’ve avoided them. He immediately launches six more, this time coming at me from every angle. Half of them seem to speed by harmlessly, just orange blurs coursing through the air to confuse me; I lunge behind one of the chairs he’s left inside the ring to escape the rest, guessing he won’t have aimed his attacks towards something that would cut them off mid-flight. I’m right, and the three traffic cones sail past me.

Before I can congratulate myself, however, the chair shifts to the side, making way for a seventh traffic cone. I push upright on my cane just in time for the cone’s tip to slam into my stomach. All the air is forced out of my lungs from the blow. The cone just keeps traveling forward as I fall away. I’m knocked backwards and skid across the road. 

A piercing, tender ache spreads out across my belly. It starts dull and then becomes searing. My throat chokes on the pain and smothers the cries I couldn’t have made anyway on account of my lungs being empty. But there’s no time to dwell on any of that, because even with my eyes blurring with another round of agonized tears, I can still sense a point of the Seraph’s magic shifting just above me.

I roll to the side as another plastic chair slams down, probably trying to pin me underneath its legs. My entire body winces with pain each time my belly touches the ground. I quickly salve the hurt with a fresh injection of stored health. Despite everything, there aren’t so many wounds for my stolen strength to wipe away — no gaping hole in my gut; no cold gnawing agony of my own magic eating me from the inside out; not even the inescapable nauseous misery of infusion days. Not enough to stop me from scrambling through the onslaught and doing the only thing I can do: think. 

Between waves of chairs, traffic cones, flower pots, construction barrels, and more, I consider what I actually know for a fact about what the Stardust Seraph can do.

Everyone knows he has power over light and can fly. That’s obvious just from those obnoxious glowing wings of his. But just like with Aisling’s ability to ask the world questions, it’s not like there’s any public information about how he does those things.

He can clearly do much more than control light and levitate himself. The power the Seraph is using to force my cards to a specific place is the same one he’s using to fling all this junk at me. 

Each of the projectiles the Seraph is tossing around right now is affected by a separate point, invisible to everything but my magical senses, that’s pulling them towards a particular spot. The Seraph isn’t moving the objects themselves, but the points they’ve been bound to, and the objects just happen to move along with them.

I can almost sense these points in motion if I focus, predicting what direction he’s attacking from… but it’s a rough, vague, sense; an eerie chill creeping up the back of my neck that warns me where not to dodge as I’m pelted from every angle. It’s hard to focus on it while I’m gathering my thoughts.

Whatever he’s doing here might be how he can fly, too… but it’s not just levitation. He can make things heavier and even crush them. Unlike when he’s moving objects from one place to a point he’s chosen, when he’s used his magic to weigh things down, it’s spread out as a field of hazed-over air, shimmering like a twilight mirage.

As a plastic drum and several empty flower pots whirl past me as though caught in a windstorm, I start to wonder. Maybe making things float and forcing them against the ground are just two sides of the same coin, and this “field” is something he got from a Harbinger, building off his original magic the same way the hearts I’ve eaten have built off mine. Maybe the only thing he’s doing is changing how heavy things are… but in different directions. The invisible points formed from his magic are like anchors that draw objects to them, after all.

What if light isn’t what he’s about at all? It could just be one expression of his power, the same way I just happen to be able to control my cards.

From everything I’ve seen tonight, could what he’s actually controlling be… gravity?

My thoughts racing, I duck under an upended table as it spins overhead like a giant frisbee.

Throughout the endless days I’ve spent in hospital beds, one of the only things I had to pass my remaining time was read. Across the countless pages I’ve turned, I know I’ve had gravity explained to me at least once. I still don’t really get it. But I do know it’s the law that says everything that goes up is destined to fall back to the earth; a law the Seraph defies whenever he seems to feel like it.

Can you control light with gravity to sculpt it into feathers? Does it matter if you can when it comes to magic? Maybe it’s something he can just do like I can just summon my cards. I don’t know.

The Seraph’s onslaught is becoming more intense. The improvised armory of random junk he picked up off the side of the road catapults at and around me in organized patterns. First he draws out half the plastic chairs from the swirling junk ring surrounding me and lines them up in a row on one side of it, their legs hovering just a millimeter off the street; with a swipe of his hand, the chairs all rush forward, raking across the breadth of the ring. I rush towards the attack myself, leaping onto the seat of one of the chairs and using it as a stepping stone to vault over its back… and right into the path of an oncoming construction barrel.

I throw my arms in front of my face before I’m bunted out of the air by a dull, hollow impact. I land hard on my back for the second time since this ordeal began, and stagger up with my cane twice as quickly. I’m not going to give the Stardust Seraph the slightest hint that I might be slowing down, that what he’s doing is working.

And it’s good that I’m quick on the recovery, because the line of chairs he sent my way before is now coming right back at me, moving in reverse. I rush towards the throng once again and, right as they’re about to run me down, I dig the end of my cane into the pavement and use its leverage to force my light body into the air. I lift my cane off the ground as well just as the backs of the chairs pass under me before finally landing safely on the other side.

The sound of clapping rings out through the night. “Well done, princess. Finally getting into the groove?”

Maybe. I’m sure I’m getting better at squirming through his debris, if only thanks to him pushing me this far. Thanks to all the strength I’ve stolen, all the pain I’ve caused that’s now going to waste humoring the Seraph.

So I say nothing. I just dart my eyes around the ring, ready to deal with whatever the Seraph sends at me next, and find the various types of plastic objects that make it up have been arranged into different circles, each a separate layer in the overall ring. Even the height and speed each circle is revolving at is different. Chairs, traffic cones, pots, and construction barrels have all been divided into their own orbits, with the outermost layer composed of the eight tables he picked up from the restaurant, their foldable legs curled into their bottoms. Above it all, the two caution easels rotate in a windmill spin, their frames splayed out like open flip books.

The Seraph drifts lazily beyond, lounging against one of his wings as he hangs in the air. I can’t see his face through his mask, but his visor is trained directly on me and the arena he’s boxed me into. He must have been organizing the objects with each attack he made, and I simply didn’t notice until now. The sight of this chaotic surge of shabby, grit-encrusted rubbish having shifted into an orderly waltz while I wasn’t paying attention is so absurd it almost breaks my concentration. This has to be something he’s practiced doing before. It’s just too coordinated not to be.

Unlike in the Wounds, the world around us isn’t malleable. Both of our powers are more limited in what they can achieve here. If I can infest a Wound with my plague and rot it from the inside out, Shona can engulf them in a storm, and the Seraph is already able to bend gravity to his whim like this, I can only imagine what he can do in the patchwork world of a Harbinger.

If his power really is based on gravity, he seems to be able to target whatever he chooses individually. But how is he able to distinguish between those targets? Maybe he can do it by sight… but he could also distinguish my blighted cards from my blank cards and separate them that way.

Back when he crucified Seryana, it seemed like he was concentrating his magic at that point and “tuning” it to her somehow. It was the same way with how he gathered up all my cards… It was probably the same way when he vacuumed up my wall of plague-mist. After all, it’s not like I felt any breeze rushing past me and into that hole he’d poked in the world. There was no suction on the air. The only thing affected was the fog.

…Shona told me before that the Seraph can sense Harbingers from miles away.

When it came to dealing with magic, like when he tore open Seryana and stole my cards, maybe the way he’s attuning these points of gravity to his targets is based on the auras he senses? That would even explain how he was able to divide my tarot deck between blank and blighted cards, creating specific anchor points for each; my blighted cards are more strongly concentrated with me.

Of course. If his senses are really that good, it’s no wonder he could tell which of my cards were imbued with my blight and get out of their way before they were a threat. He was just teasing me back then, intentionally drawing right into their range and then leaping out of the way before they could even graze him. It must be even easier for him than it is for me to sense the points where his magic is most concentrated.

Just like I could sense Roland’s presence even when he was invisible and hard to pinpoint, he should be able to sense attacks with my cards before they happen. If that’s the case, then no matter what angle I come at him from, he’ll be able to anticipate that direction and react accordingly. Even if I attack from multiple angles at once, it’s hopeless. He can buzz around however he wants and dodge or deflect anything I throw at him on reaction.

But that also means that his focus is trained on keeping track of me and my magic. If an aura feels especially different from mine, I’m sure he’d pick up on it, but… maybe he won’t notice it immediately.

So rather than cards filled to the brim with my illness, bursting with my unique flavor of curse, what if I instead used one  filled with something else entirely? A scourge extracted from the corpse of a demon. A card I’ve been holding in reserve since the first time I struggled for my life in this world of magic and nightmares.

The disease I ripped from Yurfaln, the purpose behind its being.

I Don’t Think I’m A Good Person 7-5

I jolt back as two cars screech into my way, stopping abruptly within inches of a crash. My heart slams against my chest. The only thing keeping me standing is the health I tapped by reflex a moment before. A few more feet in my direction and the cars would’ve rammed into me, too. Pulped my useless body in half and left my soul to crawl out of its broken remains, unfurl its wings, and… and do what? I don’t know. Maybe I ravage the city for enough life to sew myself back together. Maybe I become something much worse. Maybe that’s not how it works and I just die.

Footsteps clacking on the road behind me shake me from my morbid delusion. The Seraph draws closer, his visor glaring down fiercely, judgmentally. I turn around slowly, anxiously. My downcast eyes flick upwards to catch glimpses of the one who’s come to punish me for my sins, only to dart away when I find his light too blinding to bear.

“You’re not as slick as you think you are, princess.” The pressure of his aura intensifies with each step he takes, like the dawn surmounting the horizon to envelop the sky. “I can’t just let you go. Not the way things are.”

So you’ll run me over instead? That’s fine? That’s the way things should be? I glance down at nothing, squinting to shield my watering eyes from the Seraph’s radiance, shoving thoughts of my own mangled corpse into the background every time they push back into my mind. 

“I have plenty of reason to drag you back to the Soul Sanctuary whether you like it or not, until we’re sure you’re not another ticking timebomb like Tara or Niavh just waiting to blow and take innocent lives. Like you almost did to Mide. Like you could have done to Tetha.”

I blink away my tears as the Seraph relentlessly piles on his condemnations. “You don’t…” I rasp, trailing off as my worthless words die in my throat. He doesn’t know me, he doesn’t know my life. He doesn’t know anything about…

“But you know what?” He leans forward and raises his arms outward as if to present everything around us to me, his wings of red light stretching along with his gesture. “I get it. It’s hard out here. It’s real hard. So I’ve tried to be considerate. I’ve given you every chance to meet me halfway, to show me you’re actually willing to cooperate and not just pretending to.”

…no, of course he does. Of course he’s treating me like some monster he needs to hunt down and lock away. That’s exactly what he’d have seen while he was following my trail for however long, smelling me out from my first victims to where we stand now. It’s certainly what Tetha saw.

But even if he knows, could someone like him, who has everything, ever actually understand?

“But fact is, I can’t trust you.” His arms fall back to his sides as he straightens his back. “You’ve already hurt people. You claim you met Niavh, yet you continued to hurt people. So what if you’re just lying to me right now so you can get away?” he shrugs questioningly. “I’m not going to let you just run off with nothing but a promise to do better. That’s not good enough. Not when, if you really wanted to, we could settle this tonight,” he points to the ground between us, then throws his arms up, “yet you’re still here deflecting like you’ve got something to hide.”

I’m tired. I’m so tired. This was already the longest day of my life before the Seraph stormed into it. I cannot possibly settle anything tonight… and of all the things I do need to take care of, the things I’m trying my worthless best to make better and do better, not one has anything to do with him. What would his hand around my throat do for anyone?

So fine. I’m a monster. He knows it. I know it. And next to all the horrible things I’ve done, both the ones I had to do and the ones I did for no good reason, not turning my life over to the first person who demands it doesn’t even make the list.

“You already know my territory. Even if you didn’t, you can smell me out well enough that you’ve had no trouble stalking me all around the city for however long!” I spit. “All I’m hiding is exactly where I live. If you’re mad that I don’t want you watching me sleep or barging in on people who have nothing to do with this… why?” 

“Territory? Move to Rima if you want to fight over territory. We don’t do that here. And stalking you?” the Seraph exclaims as though it’s the most absurd thing he’s ever heard. “You hurt people like a Harbinger would, and I’m the bad guy for tracking you down and telling you what’s what? You think just ’cause everyone’s been looking the other way ’til now, the moment somebody holds you accountable, you’re the victim? Wake up, princess. If you weren’t a Keeper, you’d be a criminal, and since the moment this conversation began, you’re the one who’s been acting real guilty for someone who wants to be treated like she’s innocent.”

“Innocent?” I stifle a hoarse laugh and look back up to face him with tear-blurred eyes. “Where’s that coming from? I’ve done awful things. I’m an awful Keeper. An awful person. I know. I’m trying to fix it. I just don’t need you breathing down my neck to do that!”

He’s quiet for a moment, his visor simply regarding me silently. “…If you’re really remorseful, if you really want to make amends, you’re not an awful person,” he says, his voice gentler than before. “You have a hard to control power, clearly. I do too. But you can use it to accomplish extraordinary things. Like when you defeated that Harbinger on the eastern fringes of the city.”

“You know that was me and you’re still acting like you can’t just find me whenever you want?”

“Every Keeper and their mom felt it when that Harbinger flared,” he explains. His tone has lost the edge it had before. “Of course I’ve been looking into it. But I only found you just now. That’s why I’m trying to talk with you. I want your side of the story.”

“Do you? A minute ago, it was ‘I can’t trust you unless I have your home address and your blood.’ If all you wanted was my story, you could have it, it sounds like you already do, but what good would that be if you aren’t going to believe anything I say?” I push back.

“Okay, wait a sec,” he holds up a hand as if to halt me. “Your blood?” 

“Yes. My blood. The feathers you knew enough to…” I bite back my words before I can finish the thought. How much does he know? He must have followed us to the lake earlier, there’s no other way he could have seen them, but if he’d actually been there to watch me bleed them out, why wouldn’t he have barged in on us right then?

“I don’t have blood anymore,” I say. “I bleed those. So you see why that’s a very weird thing to ask me for?”

“Ohhh.” His head tilts back in realization. “Weird blood, huh? Same,” he nods as though it were nothing surprising. “See, how was I supposed to know that? I just found some of them lying around Missing Lake.”

“Right. Well, now you know.” Why does he need another, in that case? Doesn’t really matter. Maybe the Embrace was bad for them, maybe they just don’t last. What does matter… “What did you want them for, anyway?”

“They’re pretty,” he says plainly.

I flinch almost as if I’ve been struck. “…Wha?” I mumble as I feel my cheeks heating up and the thrum of my heartbeat tumble between different but equally strange and uncomfortable feelings so fast it makes me dizzy. He thinks they’re pretty? A boy looked at anything about me and thought I was pretty? And that boy was the Stardust Seraph at that? Is what’s happening to me even real?

…and I narrow my slowly drying eyes, because those thoughts racing through my mind all end up in the same place, throwing themselves off a cliff into a bottomless pit. I know better than anyone that things like that don’t happen to me… although, if they were going to, I guess it makes sense for my weird nightmare blood to be the one appealing thing about me. What is he really thinking? Is this his idea of a joke? “So you got all scary because I wouldn’t give you a souvenir? Seriously? What do you actually want them for?”

“Well, they are,” he insists as he crosses his arms, “but I could also use one to find you again if necessary. Since you won’t let me walk you home, it was a good fallback option so I could just let you go. And I’d have a cute little memento in case everything turned out fine. But then you flipped out and started stomping off without even listening… You were in absolutely zero danger right then, by the way.”

“Fine. Maybe I wasn’t. But how am I supposed to know what another Keeper can or can’t do with my blood? You can already find me. Obviously. So what would you need it for if it’s not something to hold over me?” I ask, trying to brush off that weird thing about how cute my blood is. “If you had it now, would you leave me alone? Because you were just saying you needed to drag me to the Sanctuary, and I don’t see how that changes unless you can do something dangerous with it.” I don’t want to be trapped in another glorified cell when I only remembered what freedom felt like a couple months ago.

His shoulders slouch. “Just dragging you to the Soul Sanctuary and calling it a day is what I’ve been trying to avoid this whole time, if I can help it,” he says. “I can’t just find you at the drop of a hat, but if I knew where to look or had one of your feathers, it’d mean I could if I needed to, and that’d mean just seeing how things turn out would be fine. Well, not like I want your feathers now that I know it’d hurt you, but yeah, I would leave you alone if I had one.”

“…Alright,” I breathe, wrapping my arms around myself. “Let me think.”

How bad would that be? There’s so much I don’t know… how long do these feathers last once I bleed them? What could they be used for other than stalking me? How closely does the Seraph plan on watching me once he has one, and what would he do to me and my life if he decides I’ve crossed some other line?

But if that’s it, if that’s all it would take for this nightmare day to finally be over…

“If I do this, if… can you promise you’ll leave my home alone? And that neither you or any of your friends have any weird blood-magic rituals they could target me with if they get mad at me?”

“Of course,” he agrees outright, a spark of enthusiasm in his voice. “I don’t plan on showing it off to anybody else anyway.”

“Showing it off… fine, nevermind. Can you swear that?”

“I swear it.”

Only there’s no weight behind those words, no subtle shifting in the air. Is he playing dumb? Did he think I wouldn’t be able to feel the difference? I’m certainly not good enough with people to tell, but… benefit of the doubt. Just for now.

“The way you did it before, please,” I say, keeping my voice as level as I can. “The binding way. If you want assurances, fine. That’s fair. I think it’s also fair if I want to make sure I’m not baring my throat by giving them.”

“Oh.” His response is flat. After a brief pause, he lets out a long sigh as he strokes the back of his hood. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?” I ask, shifting a hand to the cane at my side.

“Like, I just casually did that before, but that’s because it was a simple and clean situation that got sorted out then and there. I don’t know exactly how things are going to play out from here, so making a binding pledge just like that could be really dangerous. You can’t take them lightly.”

I suck down a long, slow breath through my mask. “…Fine,” I say. “Committing to something complicated for the rest of forever is a big deal. I can see that. We can make it more specific, then. How’s this? Tonight, I’ll give you my blood. Tomorrow morning or as soon as she’s available, I’ll talk to Niavh about all this. What’s been going on with me, what just went on with you, what I’m thinking about how to stop being so terrible.” Maybe she hates me after what I did to her sister. I don’t know. If she does, at least she’d have the right to judge me. “And I’ll tell her if you ask, she should feel free to share anything about that conversation she thinks is important and say so if she thinks I’m still a problem. If she doesn’t, you destroy the feathers. If she does… do whatever you want, I guess.”

“I can agree to all that, but that doesn’t need me to seal a binding pledge,” he argues. “There’s so many conditions to consider, like what if Niavh never gets back? And… I just don’t feel comfortable making an oath like this. I did it before out of courtesy, but it’s just not a good idea here. Not unless we, say, go to the Soul Sanctuary and have Scolai draft out a contract for us or something.”

“Right, then…” I sigh harshly, clench both hands tightly around my cane, and push myself upright. “Things are complicated. Magic is complicated. I understand that. Which is why I don’t feel comfortable giving up something that could end up being out there as a weight over my head forever. So rather than leaning on magic, why don’t you just… call Niavh right now and confirm everything yourself?”

“…She’s not available. No one can contact her right now,” he says.

“Why?” I press.

He strokes the chin of his mask for a moment. “I guess this was part of the press releases, so it’s not exactly private. She’s undergoing an evaluation at Alelsia. You know, as part of her rehabilitation.”

And she doesn’t have her phone on her?” The frustration is raw in my voice.

“You can see why it didn’t add up when you mentioned her before…” he trails off.

Just my luck. I can’t even reach the one person who offered to help me who might truly understand what I’m going through in the moment I need her the most. My mind races through alternatives as I grind the bottom of my cane into the pavement. 

What about the one Keeper I did explain my problems to? Does she count for anything?

It’d feel bad to drag Aisling into this. She has nothing to do with my mistakes. This isn’t her problem, I’m not her responsibility, and I really don’t want to give anyone a reason to think otherwise if this blows up into some awful public spectacle. 

But if I do bring her up, I can prove that I was already talking to someone about my horrible power and how to use it better. There’s a real chance that makes my case enough for him to back off a little. Even if it doesn’t, what’s the worst-case scenario for her? I’m certain us having talked without her immediately calling the Church on me wouldn’t make her somehow culpable for my actions, and I don’t think she’d care if the Seraph’s fans hear the story from him and decide they hate her. 

…The only thing is, Aisling knows where I live. If the Seraph can’t get from me that the only place I can possibly live is a hospital, could he get it from her instead? Maybe she’s not so happy with me after I messed everything up when we went to find Isobel. Maybe she won’t risk herself for my sake by refusing if someone from the Church demands she tells them everything she knows about me.

No. I can’t think that way. I trusted her enough to tell her. She’s helped me even more than Niavh has in the first place. Even if she thinks everything I’ve done is stupid, she was still willing to trust and accept me. The least I can do is return the favor.

“Okay, then how about… Aisling Waite, Truth’s Lantern. I’ll call her instead. She’ll vouch for me.”

“You mean, like, using her power?” he asks, doubt creeping into his tone.

“No. We know each other. I talked to her earlier today about my plans. She can confirm everything I’ve told you about what I want to do.”

“Right, I suppose she was also at Missing Lake…” He crosses his arms. “Why didn’t you just say this before?” He sounds annoyed. That makes two of us.

“I just… I didn’t want to drag her down into my mess!” It hurts to say it out loud. “Is that good enough for you?”

The Seraph flexes his glowing wings silently, seemingly in thought. “…No. Just because she trusts you, doesn’t mean I should,” he finally concludes.

—What?” My fingers tighten around the top of my cane like it’s the Seraph’s throat – or my own. “Why?! I get you can’t trust me, but why not Aisling? She literally can’t lie, and she knows if anyone lies to her. Everything she says is guaranteed trustworthy by magic itself!”

“Her ability is incredible, but flawed in all sorts of ways. There’s ways to fool it. And as smart as Truth’s Lantern is, that doesn’t mean she’s the best judge of character around, or that her judgment is completely unclouded,” he contends. “I mean, you only actually thought about this last night, didn’t you?” he tilts his head again. Casually, cutely. Like a bird examining a curiosity in its nest. “Old habits die hard, and you just now decided to quit this one. I’d feel safer with some actual insurance in place.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “I won’t just slip and accidentally steal someone’s health again. We’re talking about people’s lives, not biting my nails.”

“And that stopped you before?” he says like a knife slid between my ribs. “You mean you didn’t just slip and accidentally steal Mide’s health after all?”

“I did that in a Wound, with a pillar of garbage speared through my stomach! I’d be dead if I hadn’t. That’s not at all the same as thinking I’m going to accidentally eat someone on the way home,” I snap.

“Then show me how strong your resolve to change is.” He offers me an outstretched hand. “Prove to me you’re committed.”

I shrink away from his gesture, feeling ever more cornered against the vehicles he used to block my way. “I’ve already tried, but it’s apparently not good enough! You said you wanted to help me, but compared to everybody else, how I feel doesn’t matter to you at all.”

“It’d be different if you actually wanted my help,” he says, calmer than ever. “But the people of New Claris need it. When it comes to magic, they don’t have a voice unless a Keeper gives them theirs. They’re more vulnerable than anyone, so shouldn’t we prioritize their safety?”

“…You’re right,” I say slowly. “About one thing. I don’t want your help. I don’t see how you can call what you’re doing right now helping.” He’s just shoving everything I’m trying to do and everyone who’s actually helping out of the way because they aren’t good enough for him, and at this point, I’m too tired to care what’s good enough for him. “And since you can obviously find me well enough to follow me around and see exactly what I’ve been through today, I really don’t think it’s a problem for you if I go sleep off the longest day of my life.”

A click of his tongue echoes huskily behind his mask. “Like I said before, I can’t just hunt you down like that, and I can’t leave things as is without some insurance. You know, all the people you’ve used your magic on up ’til now weren’t exactly comfortable with it either, princess. I’m giving you plenty of leeway as it is.”

I know they weren’t,” I hiss. “But the only thing I can do about it is do better. Proving myself to your standards right this second won’t change anything for them. So I’m going home. I’ll reach out to Niavh when I can. I don’t need some deal for that to be the right thing.”

“That’s not the only thing you can do and you know it… Hey,” he calls out. “Where do you think you’re going?”

I’ve already filled my legs with a little health, turned around, and leapt up onto the hood of one of the cars the Seraph used to block my way. “Away. Don’t follow me. I’m done talking in circles.” I hop off the other side of his makeshift blockade and start marching back to the seventh floor. If he doesn’t get the hint and keeps tailing me… I’ll figure something out. Maybe I’ll call Aisling for help after all.

And that’s when a shimmering blur like a mirage spreads out across the street beneath me, forming a puddle of agitated air. When it passes over my boots, their color seems to smear through the air. I can barely tear their soles from the ground. My footfalls become heavy, and I stumble slightly at the sudden resistance to every stride I take. It reminds me of Seryana’s grip hanging off my body, weighing me down.

My shadow on the road in front of me lengthens as it’s slowly haloed by a deepening crimson light. I force my neck to turn, glancing behind me to see the Seraph has risen into the air, his wings of sculpted radiance unfurled. With a wave of his hand, the two car barricade parts and the vehicles return to where they were parked before, lifting off the ground in the process just enough to avoid their tires skidding against the pavement.

“We’re still not done here, princess.”

I gulp through gritted teeth. A few minutes ago, he seemed fine with me going on my way, but he stopped me then, too. Was he trying to mislead me back then? Why is he so persistent? My knuckles go white from the strain of my grip on my cane. I want to take it and thwack him over the head with it. 

I try to think of something, anything I could say to make him understand, but the words won’t come. Every idea just crashes against the feeling that I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to keep talking. I don’t want to be looked at by judging eyes. I don’t want to be confined again. I don’t want to keep burning my retinas on the glare of his wings. I just want this to be over. I just want to go home.

I know it’s my own fault. I earned this suspicion, this contempt. I knew this could happen. I knew all my mistakes could catch up to me one day. I expected them to, even. But the part of me that’s so scared of everything it causes me to corner myself again and again just won’t let me turn around and give him a feather.

And as much as fear strums against my nerves, another emotion has been heating up inside me every second this conversation has gone on. A scorching feeling that, even when I have something I can actually aim it towards other than myself and my farce of a life, always ends up burning me to cinders in the process. I hate this feeling, but that just makes it even stronger.

I’m done here,” I say, concentrating that feeling between the tips of my fingers as I conceal them close to my chest. I test my legs against the force of the glassy haze holding me to the street. The blur only reaches a little above my ankles, and the space it covers is not much bigger than a puddle left behind after a light rain.

“If you’re gonna act like you’re free to do whatever you want, then I’ll do the same,” he shoots back.

I don’t bother to find out exactly what he means. I just act. I swivel on my hips and fling the tarot card in my hand at the Seraph behind me.

“Whoa!” he shouts as he turns aside in midair to dodge my surprise attack. In the moment he’s caught off guard, I flood my frail legs with life and force them above the shimmering air that was weighing me down with a leap. Like I thought, the moment I’m outside the area of that mirage, my movement returns to normal. When my feet touch down on the street beyond, I make a break for it, dashing away as fast as my strides will carry me.

“Aw, come on, princess,” he calls out in lament. “Why we gotta do this the hard way?”

Maybe I’m just making everything worse for myself like usual, but if the only options he’s giving me are bad ones, what’s even the difference? If I just give in, I’ll have no choice but to go along with whatever he wants. He’s bigger than me in every way; at the end of the day, he’s the one with the final word. If I escape, there’s at least a chance things will go my way. If he catches me, he’ll just do whatever he planned to do from the start, so I might as well try. 

All I need to do, then, is figure out how to get away from someone who can fly, and who seems to be unbelievably faster than I am. Which sounds like a terrible plan, but what else can I do? I’ll just need to hide somehow. If he wasn’t lying about having trouble finding me without one of my blood-feathers, then maybe he won’t be able to sense me if I dismiss my regalia.

And then what? 

…Sorry, Aisling. I may have to drag you into this after all. She should still be awake? She might still be waiting for me to call her back with an update on the Seryana situation, and she doesn’t look like she sleeps all that much anyway. Maybe if I can meet up with another Keeper, the Seraph will stand down for now.

With that in mind, I shift my attention back to my pursuer. I feel him getting farther away with every step I take, but his presence remains, looming at my back, though not nearly so oppressively as when we were face to face. I turn around to see what he’s up to, and I find… a vacant street, stretching past the rubble Seryana was born from.

I look ahead to make sure the Seraph hasn’t zipped in front of me like the last time I tried to get away from him. Since I started running, I’ve been planning to double back and wind down the side streets when he does it again… but he’s not moved to cut me off, either. In fact, the red glow of his wings is no longer flooding the streets with its radiance from anywhere. Still, just to be sure, I look up.

Nothing but tall buildings and the night sky.

I skid to a halt and look back behind myself a second time. The Stardust Seraph has disappeared into thin air. But I can still sense traces of him lingering in the background like the distant hum of traffic beyond my seventh floor window. I don’t know where he’s gone, but I don’t let my guard down. It’s never that easy.

I focus on his aura amidst the chorus of everything around it. It pulses through me as though alive. I think back to Seryana’s death, the way he appeared from nowhere when I first saw him.

“I know you’re there!” I call into the night. “Go away already!”

“Wow, your senses really are good, huh?” his disembodied voice casually replies. Above and before me, the air contorts in the shape of a silhouette. As if it were painted on to the world, the scenery of the streetway I see peels away to reveal the form of the Seraph float there, now wingless. He’s taken a lounging posture in the air, laying on his side while propping his head up with his hand. “Well, I should have expected. This usually only works when they don’t know I’m around.” 

I’ve never been sure if my magical senses are only unusually good at sniffing out Harbingers. I’m still not. But for a trick like that, at least, they’re enough. My soul sees so much more than my eyes.

“Was hoping you’d think I didn’t have the guts to fight another Keeper and gave up after a little show of force. But in a way, I’m glad you hold me to a higher standard,” he says, flipping over in mid-air as he corrects his hovering posture. “I didn’t come here wanting to be your enemy, you know, but you’re not really giving me much of a choice.”

“Then just leave me alone!” I cry out, my voice trembling from the strain of everything I’ve gone through today.

He lets out a sigh of frustration. “I can’t just let you leave when you might be a threat to public safety.” He says, sweeping a flattened hand from his chest outwards. With just that gesture, feathers of red light blink into being all around him and quickly spiral back into the shape of his wings. “Which, by the way, is looking even more likely now that you just went and attacked me. I can’t afford to give you the benefit of the doubt. Not when someone else might be the one who pays the price.”

I glower up at the Seraph, fling another empty card at him, and move to bolt down the nearest alley. Before I even get there, however, a roll-off dumpster lined up against one of the buildings that make up its sides skids out to cram the entire pathway. I keep running forward, preparing to try and vault over the latest obstacle the Seraph has put in my way, but before I can, the dumpster’s top flings open and stands at attention, becoming too tall for me to reasonably clear with a natural jump. Not unless I feel like getting mixed in with all the other garbage.

“Where are you gonna go, anyway?” he questions. “You can’t get rid of me. Anyone who sees us will understand the situation if I just explain who you are. This would’ve been so much easier if you just let me walk you home like we’re pals. We can still do that, you know. I can be discreet.”

“Yeah, you’ve really shown off your talent for that, you…” My thoughts race in circles as I do my best to catch the horrible feelings racing through me and put them to words. “You dick! You… walnut!” 

…Where did that come from? Whatever. I’m too exasperated to even be embarrassed.

He floats there silently, bobbing up and down as though suspended by wires, seeming at a loss for words. This moment of grace ends all too soon. “…You know, I can’t even get mad when it’s your voice squeaking it out.” I really, really want to take my cane and thwack him over the head with it.

“Look, we can make this a fight if you really want,” he continues, “or I can just forget you lashing out those last two times, escort you home, and we’ll call it even. Last chance.”

He’s right. I could just let him walk me home. He’s a well known and trusted Keeper. His reputation is one of the best in the entire city. Just going by that alone, there’s no reason to distrust him. But he’s an asshole, so I do anyway.

I summon my tarot spread to answer his proposal. In an instant, a procession of twenty-two cards emerges from behind me and spirals around my body until it meets its end at my back, forming a ring.

The Stardust Seraph reacts immediately, putting distance between us. When he moves, he’s abruptly dragged backwards as though by an invisible rope around his waist.

Unlike the last two cards I’ve called out, four of this volley are already poisoned, drawn from the pool of cards I’ve infected preemptively in case I happen to get into trouble. Although I’ve been storing a full deck of cards filled with my plague on hand just so they’re ready to go when I need them to be, I didn’t want to have to use them on one of the biggest Keepers in the city if I could help it. If we really are going to fight, though, then I can’t hold back.

Yet Aisling’s words from earlier in the day still echo through my mind.

“Eyna, Shona, you should both take the longest breaks you reasonably can from any active use of your power. Spend time with people you care about. Do things you like, as long as those things have nothing to do with magic.”

A pit forms in my stomach where all my hopes for the future go to die.

“Well, you asked for it,” the Seraph says. “Sure, we can play a little bit.”

All at once, every card in my orbit is torn from its place, ripped right out from around me.

“I wanted to see what you could do anyway. This is as good a chance as any.”

I Don’t Think I’m A Good Person 7-4

The last traces of Seryana’s corpse dissolve into grime and dust, leaving her heart floating terrifyingly close to another Keeper. The Stardust Seraph crashed into us out of nowhere like lightning from a clear sky, turning all my plans to ash along with the nightmare I’ve spent so long hunting. 

What just happened? How? Why? What is he doing here? How long has he been there? Was he following her or me? What does he want? All questions I have no way to answer. I shove them from my racing thoughts — right now, the answers wouldn’t matter even if I had them. Right now, all that matters is that Seryana is mine. 

…No. That’s a useless thought, too. How badly I need this doesn’t change the situation at all. If I don’t figure this out, I’ll just end up adding another stupid, horrible mistake to the pile before anyone even knows who I am.

Besides, between what he just did to Seryana and the palpable sense of weight still pressing in on my soul, I think I’d only hurt myself if I attacked him.

So what, then? What can I do that won’t ruin everything? 

“Well? What are you waiting for?” the Seraph calls out with his hands on his hips before I can come up with an answer.

“…What?” I can’t tell how long we’ve been standing here, but he hasn’t moved at all. He seems to be watching me rather than the heart, but his mask’s sharp visor completely obscures his face. 

“Go ahead. Take it. You’ve earned it.” He raises an open, gloved palm and gestures magnanimously to the heart.

Part of me wants to race to Seryana’s remains and swallow her without another word, but I don’t know yet if that would be right. Without some idea of what he wants from me, I have no idea how to navigate this.

“Just like that? You don’t want it? This isn’t a trick?” I ask.

“Eh?” The Seraph gives a barely-perceptible tilt of his head. “Could you, uh, not know who I am, maybe? I’m the Stardust Seraph. Y’know… ‘When a cry for justice rings through the heavens, the Stardust Seraph answers!’” He raises his right arm, pointing to the night sky, then traces his finger through the air to his left side, before sweeping his open palm back across to his right, striking a dramatic pose. He then casually returns to a neutral stance, the wings of light at his back stretching and fluttering a bit as though relaxing. “I can do the whole song and dance if you want. I just figured it wouldn’t be your thing,” he finishes with a broad shrug. “Besides, what kind of trick? If I really wanted to sneak up on you, I’ve missed my chance, don’tya think?”

“I made the Promise a month ago! I don’t know how vulnerable we are while we’re eating hearts, what I should be worried about, what you can do, what’s even possible! And if you dropped out of the sky and obliterated my Harbinger because you just wanted to talk, why would you introduce yourself with some weird reference to my name?”

“…Pfft… hahahahaha!” 

After a moment’s tense silence, the Seraph first chokes down a chuckle, then bursts into hearty laughter. “Suspicious to a fault, I see… well that’s probably for the best. You’ve just gotta learn to hide it better… but no. Of course I’m not here to steal from you. Don’t be ridiculous. That Harbinger was already in tatters. All I did was hasten the inevitable. In fact… I swear this on my name as the Stardust Seraph: I will not by any means interrupt your consumption of that Harbinger’s heart, unless it is to protect you from what you yourself would consider imminent danger, if privy to my perspective.” 

The ambient power in the air shifts. It doesn’t exactly withdraw from me, but there’s a strange current in the intangible energy flowing around us. It gathers around the Seraph’s words, lending them an unnatural weight — a gravity, fixing them into place in the world. 

Those words are true. The promise behind them is inviolable. I know that in the same way I know what my own magic can do. Understanding that feels a little like processing Harbinger-speech, but in one way, the effect here is even more pronounced: I don’t think it’s possible to lie in that language, but it also doesn’t seem like every word spoken in it is a binding oath. A Harbinger can say something and change their mind later. The Stardust Seraph no longer can.

“There,” he says. “That work for you?”

I run through his words in my mind. They did seem airtight, as far as I can tell, and the one out he included isn’t anything weird like that Sanctuary contract’s phrase about lasting “for as long as there are lights in the night sky.” It is a little weird that he included it at all, though.

“Why the last part? We’re two Keepers and a dead Harbinger. What danger am I going to be in?” I ask.

“Just in case, of course. Wouldn’t wanna watch you die if some freak incident happens and I’m sworn to stay out of it.”

…Fair enough. It’s a pretty specific situation, and the way his promise resolves it is completely in my favor. Even so… this wording doesn’t quite leave me perfectly safe.

“And what about after I’m done?”

The Seraph tilts his head to one side farther than last time. “What about it? The whole point of this is to let you finish off priority one before we worry about anything else.” 

“But what if you set up something to do to me immediately after I’m finished? Some big ritual that takes time to prepare, which you could do because it wouldn’t “interrupt” me, and that I wouldn’t notice until you spring it on me the second the Harbinger’s gone?”

He places his palm to his forehead as though in consideration. “…I guess that would work. I’m not gonna do that, though. If I were planning to, I’d have done it by now — or, again, before I blew the element of surprise on that Harbinger. There’s sensible suspicion and there’s this.

“Will you promise that too?” I press.

The Seraph stifles a laugh, letting it trail off into a long sigh, and throws up his hands. “Fine. Anything to get this over with before the heart sprouts legs and runs off or something. Nor will I prepare to take any hostile action against you while you consume that heart, from when you begin to when you finish. Is everything to your satisfaction now, princess?” 


“Is it?” 

I’d feel better about this if he would tell me what he is here for, make assurances as to what he’s planning once Seryana’s remains are dealt with… but I don’t think I should push any harder, at least not yet. Whatever comes next, whatever he actually wants with me, it doesn’t change that I need that heart. 

I nod to the Seraph, steady myself on my cane, and approach Seryana’s remains. As my focus narrows on the tightly-packed knot of heart muscle and blackness, it shudders, then squirms and beats through the air to drift into my open hand. I squeeze it to my chest, suppressing a gag at the shroud of nauseating stench it still carries, and drink Seryana’s soul. 


I don’t… I’m not a good person, XXXXX. 

Get away from me while you still can.

Those words could be ones of simple admission. Resignation. Regret, even. But spoken sincerely… they say so much more, don’t they? They are an incantation. A spell to summon a cage around your soul, to spare the world the poison you carry. But beneath that, more than that, they are a wish. A hope that you could be any other way. A cry for help to the one person who might drain the venom from your wounds and see you as you could be.

That is what I believed, when you spoke them. And even as you stormed away, I wanted more than anything to reach through your thorned prison, take your hand in my torn, bloodied fingers, and leave you no longer alone.

When I reached back out for you, though… you were already gone. An abandoned husk, hanging by the rope that stole your last breaths. I couldn’t do anything. I never could. And despite everything… I died with you. My heart still beat, but I did not live.

But when I collapsed there beneath you, and the weight of all the misery and terror and exhaustion finally dragged me screaming to sleep… oh, I had such a beautiful dream. If only you could have been there to see it.

In my dream, a star took me into its embrace — a binary star, cradling one another in ethereal ribbons like a perfect web of rainbows, the only two lights in a black, endless sky. I was a guest in the court of the two who made themselves one. The one who wove constellations together with their love. They spoke to me, in glances, in casts of light, in the gentle caress of radiation on my bare skin. They promised me my love had been beautiful, it had been true, it could still be true, if I would only hold it in my soul above all other things for the rest of eternity.

I could do that. I did, for all the time we had together. I loved you. All of you, complicated as you were. You were the only thing I had. 

So I tore myself out of my own dead-and-beating heart. I became me.

But dearest, I needed to be more than a monument. You deserved so much more than that. You see… from the moment I looked upon those stars, I wanted to be them. I wanted us to be them. Their bond, their synchrony, the gentle gleaming their luminosity lent everything else, the way they looked at each other like nothing else in the world had ever mattered… anyone who saw it would want to be them. But you were gone, lost even to my new reach, and how could I be them alone?

I set out to find you again, wherever you had gone. I searched for you in memories, in gaping wounds where once had stood something beautiful, in echoes of despair that felt so much like you I could convince myself you were truly beside me again.

But… when I claimed my first, I heard a whisper on the night wind. A voice I already knew, a message carried down from the void for me alone.

<How disgusting.>

And those two words carried a curse. Not a curse like the thing that flows through you — only a truth I knew I would never be able to bury. 

You have never loved anybody, they said without saying. And nobody will ever love you. 

I had made my love a lie. I was alone. I have always been alone. Even now, at the end of everything, I am alone.

You’re not him. Of course you’re not. None of them were. He isn’t here, he isn’t in the stars, he isn’t anywhere. He’s been dead and drowned since before I was born.

But you still… you HAD to be. If he was gone, then one of you had to bring him to me. To become him. If you couldn’t, if I couldn’t, then what does anything else matter? Who cares about tomorrow? Who cares about ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴? Who cares what all this could become if through it all, I will only ever be alone? If they filled the world with so much love, then WHERE IS MINE?


She’s gone before I can say anything. Can whatever’s left of them hear me in there? Aulunla could, at least for a moment, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what I’d say to her anyway.

Tears that are not mine blur my vision. No… no, some of them are probably mine. I still wouldn’t say I understand Seryana, and I don’t regret her death at all — it really was putting her out of inescapable misery, as horrible as I’d find that thought in any other scenario. But I think it’s impossible to take in another’s essence, everything that made them what they were, and not find something in them to empathize with. The one thing Seryana wanted with all her heart was something she couldn’t have, something some power or law beyond either of our ken insisted she shouldn’t have, and that much I understand all too well.

But the heady haze of eating a soul soon fades, and I don’t have time to think through what the disturbing details of her story might mean. She’s left me with a much more pressing problem.

“Whew!” the Stardust Seraph huffs, his voice a hollow echo behind his mask. “Good riddance. Now. That out of the way… time for a chat.” 

I close my eyes and stretch my senses over the ruins, taking in the motes of life around us. The nearest souls are a comfortable distance away, a few people scattered through the closed buildings around us. Maybe some of them saw the Seraph fall from the sky like a scarlet meteor, but if they did, they’ve had the good sense to stay away from a violent display of power at night. At the very least, we don’t have an audience.

That hardly makes me feel better. I don’t want to talk to him, in private or anywhere else. But he’s not going away, I have no chance of outrunning someone who can fly, and… well, and if I think about this from his perspective, I guess he hasn’t done anything bad to me except say something weird about my name. He didn’t steal my Harbinger. He could’ve been flying by, thought I was really in trouble, and only figured out who I was after he jumped in to help. I don’t think he did, but he could’ve.

And if I want to stop making horrible messes everywhere I go, I should really try not to panic until I have some idea of what he wants.

“…Okay. About what?” I ask. Stupid question. There’s only one reason the city’s golden boy would be seeking me out… well, one big tangled pile of reasons. Still, let’s hear it from him first.

“Well, first off, why don’t we start with you giving me a proper introduction?” the Seraph replies. “Unless you’d prefer I keep calling you ‘princess’, that is. As it stands, you have me at a bit of a disadvantage.”

Do I? The first thing he said to me was about my name. He obviously knows who he’s talking to… well, whatever. He can have what everyone else has, and if he wants to push me on it, that’s his problem. “I’m Eyna. Ill Wind if you prefer. I don’t have a pose or a speech, sorry.”

“So that’s really your name, huh?” he presses, crossing his arms as his visor stares relentlessly through me.

I narrow my eyes back at him, biting my lip beneath my mask. It feels weirder than usual, trying to make eye contact with a completely hidden face. Worse, I have no idea why he’s so pushy about this. Eyna isn’t my actual name, of course, but unless Shona has spilled her guts to everyone in the last few hours, there’s no way for him to know that, is there? “That’s a really weird question. It’s not like it’s a special name. But yes.”

“Ah, I see, I see.” He nods his head in understanding. “That’s so weird, then. I didn’t find anyone like you when I checked through the public records for girls with that name. Must be a nickname or something, huh?”


I tighten my grip on my cane with both hands, suppressing a shiver at the phantom sensation of being watched from afar, of prying eyes on my back. There goes any hope that he wasn’t following me. Why would he be digging around for my personal identity, anyway? Would he have dropped out of the sky and into my home if he could have? Aren’t Keepers’ personal lives not meant to be dragged into all this?

“What about it? Do you know how creepy you sound right now? I was really trying to be fair here. I know you probably could’ve just robbed me if you wanted. But I still have no idea what you want and you’re just… just standing there, dropping hints about how you’ve been stalking me? Why? What’s that accomplish except tell me that if my nickname were something else, I’d have made the right call in using it?”

“…hah?” At that, the Stardust Seraph leans forward with his crossed arms, tilting his head for a third time, this time in the opposite direction. The wings of light at his back stretch out like a hawk’s ready to swoop down on its prey. “Are you for real right now? Can you imagine what all the people you preyed on would have to say about you trying to play the victim?” His voice was incredulous.

Of course. Of course that’s it. I let out a barely-audible croak, the smothered remnant of some worthless word or panicked laugh.

How? I haven’t told anyone except Aisling. Would she…? No. No. Shona said once that the Seraph could “sniff out a Harbinger from miles away.” I’m sure he could just as easily sniff out a girl whose horrible power feels like a Harbinger tearing out a chunk of your life, especially when I used to steal from tens of people at a time.

I can’t even count them. I’d given up on counting them within my first week. 

But it doesn’t matter. He’s right. Neither my new plan or my feeling bad while hurting them change anything for those people.

“Yes!” I shriek. “Maybe, I don’t know,  some of them could come up with better horrible things to call me, but I’m already thinking those things about myself every day! So that’s why… that’s why I’m not doing that anymore,” I say. “It’s only been… I have a better plan, but I only figured it out last night. You can believe that or not, I guess.” It was this morning, but I’m not dragging Aisling’s name into this. It might help. I don’t care. I’m not doing that to her.

The Seraph corrects his posture, returning his hands to his hips. “That’s good to hear, then. I’m glad you understand that won’t fly in this city,” he says, gentler than before. “I don’t want to have to treat a fellow Keeper like a crook if I can help it, but you’re not exactly making it easy. Actually, I’m here because I want to help you.”

He really could’ve said that in the first place. But… you know what, fine. It’s fine — if he means it, if he doesn’t have some terrible idea of what ‘help’ is here. From a distance, I can’t exactly blame someone for looking at my actions and thinking I’m the new Tara. I take a set of long, slow breaths, loosening my grip on my cane.

“…Okay. Help me how?”

“That depends,” he replies, cupping the chin of his mask between his index finger and thumb as though in consideration. “There’s plenty of arrangements that could be made with willing participants, depending on what you’re actually trying to accomplish. But first, why don’t you tell me about this ‘better plan’ you’ve come up with?”

I grimace. He’s doing it again with that thing about “willing participants.” That has to be some intentional impression he’s trying to make, but until he actually says he’s here to arrest me for magic crimes or something… fine. Is Aisling’s plan a secret he’s prying into? I don’t think it is. Getting health donations would obviously have to be a public project. 

“Volunteers,” I say. “I have to do what I’ve been doing to make my horrible power work, but I don’t have to do it that way. It was a bad idea I stumbled into when I was new. But if I drain from people who agree to it in exchange for… pictures or autographs or whatever people want from Keepers, and then they know what’s going on and have doctors keeping an eye on them, that still works.” 

“Great!” the Seraph exclaims eagerly, catching his fist in the open palm of his other hand. “We’re on the same page, then! That’s perfect. And with me on your side, you’ll have no problems at all getting that off the ground!”

Hold on. When did that happen? I didn’t ask, he didn’t even offer, just… declared it. Invited himself into the messiest, most difficult part of managing my new life.

…Maybe… that’s not the worst thing ever? It is a problem. I still don’t know where to start with fixing it. Maybe Aisling does, but she doesn’t seem much happier with the public-figure side of all this than I am.

“We can also get you some training at the Church so nothing like that thing that went down with Mide ever happens again. Oh, and don’t worry about the Fianatas. I’ll handle them, if anything comes up.”

I stiffen up again as the Seraph carries on, casually taking charge of everything wrong with me. Don’t. Don’t break now. Don’t blow up on him while he could still just be trying to help, just because he’s doing it in that pushy, overeager way I’ve never been able to stand from anyone.

“Hey, let me walk you home. We can talk about everything on the way.”

“I wasn’t!” I snap, then sigh, forcibly evening my voice out. “…Worried about the Fianatas, that is. Not anymore. I know, I’ll say sorry to Tetha if I ever find an occasion to do it that isn’t incredibly weird, but if I needed help — really, if I need help with any of this — I’ll ask Niavh. She’s already offered. But… thanks.”

He pauses for a moment, letting the silence between us settle in the cold night air before he continues. “…when’d you meet Niavh?”

“…A week and some ago,” I say, and swallow. “Why?” Has he talked to her since then? About me? I met her before Tetha… I guess I don’t know if that offer still stands, really. All I have is a vague idea that Niavh must’ve said something in my defense. I have no other way to explain how quiet her sister seems to have been.

“So, uh… Lemme get this straight. You met Niavh a week and some ago… and then you just… kept ‘draining’ people? And you only came up with this new idea just last night?”

Yes,” I say through gritted teeth. “I’ve had a lot to deal with and not a lot of time. I didn’t have a better plan. Now I do. I don’t know what else you want from me.”

“…Not sure you realize how you’re making things sound, but I’m gonna give you an easy out to this, princess,” he says calmly. “Do you know Niavh’s phone number?”

“…You’re right. I don’t know how it sounds. And no. She said she was easy to find if I needed anything. I assume the Chancel or somewhere has her number. I’m also… I don’t really see the point of this whole question. A minute ago when you were all cheery and excited, all I said was that I’d contact her if I needed help sorting this out. Which I will, because I’d rather work with someone who has some idea of what it’s like. So if you mean something by this, please just say what it is already.” I say, straining to keep my voice level. “Is it that I should’ve stopped draining people and asked for help making a better plan a week ago? Yes. I know. But I can’t go back and do that now.”

“So you haven’t actually spoken with Niavh about this,” he restates, giving a nod. “That checks out, considering she’s not due back in New Claris for a day or two more… Anyway, it’s in everyone’s best interest if we put that new plan of yours into action as soon as possible. If you’re serious about this, I can make it happen tomorrow. Niavh can pick up where I left off the moment she’s back, if you really can’t stand me that much.”

“Yes. That’s next on my list of things to do, now that she’s not stalking me anymore.” I wave my free hand back at the ruins of Seryana’s house. “I’ll talk to her as soon as she’s available, and… I guess if you want to check in with her about it, you probably have that power.”

He lets out a sigh, which echoes huskily behind his mask. “Alright. You doing any more hunting tonight?”

I shake my head. “I’m tired. That one… took a few days. It was a nightmare.”

…Is that it? Is this actually working?

“Ah, yeah, it did look pretty nasty,” he chuckles. “In that case, at least let me see to it that you make it back home safe and sound.”

I swallow again. Of course nothing could be that easy. I think through the worst-case scenario — what happens if the Stardust Seraph knows where I live? He knows all about my medical history, which… I’ve ripped that bandage off twice before now. I’d share it if I thought it would help, if I thought it would change anything about where we stand, but at this point, it doesn’t seem like it would.

More important, then, is that he’d know where I live. He could drop in on the seventh floor and make a mess of everyone’s lives whenever. He’d have the easiest possible route to keep appointing himself my minder and new best friend.

“I try not to bring Keeper business home,” I say. “Sometimes it follows me anyway, but… you know. Personal stuff. Private stuff. My family doesn’t know and I don’t plan to tell them,” I say. All true. “If you need to find me again for some reason, look around the university on most nights.”

“I could always just fly off when we get within view, you know. I don’t have a problem with dismissing my regalia and just walking the whole way, either. Nobody would see a thing.”

“People won’t recognize you any less that way!” I came dangerously close to meeting one of the Seraph’s fans a couple weeks ago. I know what they’re like. The last thing I need is for one of them to take a picture of me walking with their idol and decide I need to die. “Listen, if you just want to know where I am, I told you. Not that you seem to have any trouble finding me.”

“Well, I tried,” he throws up his hands in a shrug before letting them casually drop back to his sides. “One last thing, then, and I’ll let you go. Could you lend me one of your feathers?”

“My… feathers,” I echo. My blood. The black, shimmering nothing running through my veins as of this afternoon. How closely has he been following me? For how long? What he wants it for is less of a question — I’ve read enough to know that blood has a kind of abstract weight to it. A connection to its source, in some symbolic sense that I’m sure is important to certain Keepers’ magic. I can’t see most of the things you’d use taken blood for being good for that source, and that’s before I even get into whatever’s happening with my blood.

“You’d have to cut me open and rip them out. So no. Goodnight,” I say flatly, and start down the street.

“…Huh? The hell do you mean by that? Wait,” he says, his voice drawing further away with each step I take—

“I said wait.”

—until he’s suddenly right in front of me, his body and wings shifting into view in a flash of scarlet motion. My mouth goes dry and my heart hammers wildly as he blurs into my space. I clamp down on my first instinct, letting only a thin, leaking hiss of frigid green mist escape through my clenched teeth. Instead, I surge life through my legs and run, frantically hoping for a windy road or an alley to duck into or something, anything to get him away from me.

But before I make it even a block, two cars parked on either side of the road before me abruptly slide across the ground as though dragged by an invisible force. They skid until they come to a stop nearly bumper to bumper right in front of me, forming a barricade.

“I. Said. Wait.”