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?”
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?”
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.
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.”