The Hanged Man 5-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two share a silent, uneasy glance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. It really doesn’t, does it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could you possibly not?” Mide spits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

HARBINGER CLASSIFICATION: IRAKKIA? (self-designation unknown)

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

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

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

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

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

Redaction… what? Is that an actual thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that was it,” I announce.

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“Do you see a lot of these?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Phonemes?” 

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

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

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

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

“Mhmm.”

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

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

Haunild shrugs. “Me neither.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I flinch at the sudden noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Want me to wait outside?” Lucan asks.

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

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

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

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

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

Right. Of course she does.

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

“……Fine. Where do we start?”

The Hanged Man 5-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<__________________________>

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assuming this doesn’t keep happening.

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liadain?” Vyuji presses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keepers still go to school?”

“This one does.”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I may have made a mistake here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pause, then give a single nod in reply.

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

The Hanged Man 5-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That stupid voice is really getting to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“Vyuji!” I yell.

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

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

I wail wordlessly in answer.

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

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

“Ah. That’s what I was smelling.”

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

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

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

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

“…Right. Good point,” I mumble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vyuji inclines her head slightly and vanishes.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

But nothing happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hanged Man 5-3

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

“…A story? What?” I finally ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glance away, folding my arms over my stomach.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Sorry.”

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

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

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

“…Is that that, then? Are we done?”

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

~~~

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

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

No one except, maybe…

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

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

“When were you going to tell me?” 

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

Not that it’s ever taken more than the slightest prompting for her to know exactly what I’m talking about when I call her… ugh, not important. I have bigger problems.

“…I’m not even sure how to say it? That my magic or my disease or my soul or all three at once have apparently turned into ‘a story about dying of an illness,’ and because of that story it’s impossible for me or anyone to cure what’s wrong with me?”

“Ah,” Vyuji says simply. “That is a lot to unpack. Give me a moment, please,” she says, and vanishes.

“Vyuji?” I open the door and ask the empty air. 

Someone on their way out gives me an odd look, then quickens their pace a little. I keep walking. I guess it isn’t the biggest surprise if even she has nothing to say about this.

“Here I am. Apologies.” Maybe fifteen seconds later, she blinks unceremoniously back into being, floating at a height that brings her gaze level with mine.

“…Oh. Where did you go?”

“Just making sure of something. As to your question… I’d have told you when you asked, or when it was important for you to know. Whichever came first.”

“How was it ever not important for me to know?” I glare at her through the corner of my eye, but don’t slow down. She follows right along, motionlessly drifting sideways. 

“Would it have been helpful for you to know? Or would it have built an insurmountable wall in your mind? Paralyzed you with the false impression that there is no way forward for you? It still may have done that, from the sound of it, but at least now you already know how much you can accomplish.”

My steps falter. Of course it did. Of course hearing that even magic can’t do anything about the useless, broken body I’ll be stuck with for what’s left of my life feels a lot like crashing into an infinite wall, then trying to get past it by smashing my head into it until one of us breaks. “What’s… what’s false about it, then?” I choke out. 

“What you’re saying isn’t exactly wrong, but it is far too simple. Emergence isn’t just a process of physical transformation — you must understand that by now. It changes how you interact with the world, and it with you. It changes what you are. That is what your soul is attempting to do with your disease, and your magic is not your enemy,” she says. Thoughts of the one too-happy rehab nurse who said the same thing about my body race through my mind. Should I be thanking my soul like she told me to thank my skin for keeping my organs in place? Thanking it for what? 

“Magic is not playing out some melodrama at your expense. It is what it is, what you are — that much can’t be helped — but I meant it when I promised that it will give you a way to survive. The very worst scenario I can imagine is that yours becomes a story of eternally dying, racing to stay ahead of death’s ever-advancing threshold but never quite crossing over. And I’m confident you can do much better than that.”

“How? What can I do that’s ‘much better’ if the only thing I want is to get better, and that… can’t ever happen?”

Oh, Liadain.” There’s a softness in Vyuji’s voice, and in her faint smile, that I’ve only heard once before, right when I first made the Promise — it’s the tone I can’t help but think of as motherly. “You’re thinking far too small. Too… human. ‘I want to get better’ is a helpless little girl’s prayer, a wish upon a seashell. It’s beneath you. Do you remember what you asked for when we first met? Complete immortality. To be free from death or destruction, forever and by any means. That is a dream worthy of a Keeper, and it’s one you can very much achieve.”

She spreads the tendrils and stems of one flower-hand into a broad, flat surface, as if opening her palm, and sets it lightly on my shoulder. She’s warmer than I expected, somehow. “So keep growing. Keep becoming more than the defective shell that carries your true self around would ever allow you to be, if you didn’t have the power to grow so very far beyond it. And as you do, imagine what form your eternity will take. If a life spent forever desperately fleeing from death sounds like no life at all, all you need to do is find your way to stop fleeing. Your illness is a part of you, and it may always be, but it’s a part that will change with the rest of you. If you can’t be rid of it, make it into something that serves you. I can’t tell you precisely how to accomplish that, but I hope my promise that you can means something to you.” 

I wasn’t expecting much from Vyuji. I’m not really sure why I called her at all. Maybe for someone to vent on, even knowing that’s never helped once in my life, or to confirm how terrible everything was when she gave me some confusing, cryptic answer that didn’t help at all. But somehow, this is…

“I think it kind of does, actually,” I murmur.

It’s not that I feel good now. Not even better, really. Everything is still terrible. But it’s something. Some way to make sense of all this that comports with what I’ve just learned and doesn’t mean all my goals are impossible.

“Then I’m glad I could serve my purpose,” Vyuji says. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Not now. There’s something I still need to kill before things get any worse,” I sigh. “I should get to that. But thanks.”

“Happily.” She smiles a little wider, waves with her open hand, and disappears.

~~~

I start my hunt at the house from last night. I’m not expecting to find a trail I missed the first time, but inspecting the house could still tell me more about Seryana. And I have no better ideas.

Nothing jumps out to my senses on the way, so I transform a few blocks from the house. Like when I visited the scene of Irakkia’s attack, the place is barricaded and guarded. 

“Morning,” the tall, portly uniformed man on the sidewalk calls to me. “Please, please tell me you’re here to cleanse this place.”

The police do pay more attention to me than last time, though, which makes sense. The site of Irakkia’s attack was a shore where a Harbinger happened to choose some victims. This house was Seryana’s nest, a place so polluted with her presence that it was somehow less real while she was here. Judging by those strange shifting curtains, I think she was trying to cut it off from the rest of the world and drag it physically into her Wound.

Whatever she was doing made an impact it still reeks here. It did starting from two blocks away.

“I don’t think I can do that. Sorry,” I tell him. “I’m the Keeper who found it. The Harbinger got away, so I wanted to see if anything here leads back to… it.”

“Oh,” he grumbles. “Well, that’s your right. Good luck.”

“Out of curiosity, can you smell that?” I grit my teeth and gesture vaguely at the house.

He shudders full-body, making a face like he’s about to be sick. “Seriously? Fucking Goddess, I’ve been doing my best to tune it out, but I think I could still smell that if I cut off my nose!”

I nod slowly, not sure what to do with that. “Um. You’re probably right,” I say. “If you want a break, you should maybe keep your distance while I’m in there. Just in case something happens.”

“Well. if you really think that’s for the best, don’t mind if I do. Don’t mind that at all. Take care, kid.” And without a moment’s delay, he jogs off down the street.

I can’t think too poorly of him. It’s not his… well, no, it’s kind of his job, but it would be a sign of some horrible mental pollution if any normal person didn’t want to keep their distance from this miasma.

And as soon as I approach the door, I’m glad I sent him away.

<It was good of you to come looking for me in an old ruin like this, my love.> Seryana’s acrid breath tickles my neck. It even feels filthy, like a thin film of damp dust settling over my skin wherever it touches.

<But there was really no need! All you had to do was seek me, call for me, wish for me to be by your side! I will always, always, ALWAYS be right here.>

The Hanged Man 5-2

Seryana blinks out of being without a trace or a trail. The stink of her presence lingers, and a stale, sour echo of her odor clings to me even as I step back from the house, but there’s no heart of the corruption. No hole in the world she could’ve burrowed into. As far as I can tell, she’s just gone.

I scan the area with my soul, searching as thoroughly as I can without going back inside. This might be some ploy to take her victim back the moment I leave him alone. Which… maybe that’s a way to catch her again, but no. He already feels like he’ll die without urgent help. Letting the Harbinger anywhere near him would be murder. And it’s not even a good plan. I need to figure out how she works, not just hope she can’t do the same disappearing trick again, and right now my best chance at that is to ask him.

Help first, though. I really don’t want him to die. I weigh the risk of using my phone to call for the Sanctuary against the danger of leaving the man alone, plus the idea of searching for a phone in that dank, disgusting house. Honestly, though, if people are going to find out who I am, there’s plenty of easier clues for them to follow than a still-probably-confidential emergency message. I fish out my phone, still searching with my soul for any sign of Seryana coming back for us, and call 112.

“Hello? I’m a Keeper with a Harbinger victim who needs to go to the Sanctuary as fast as possible. We’re in, um, the south end of the Boundary. 71 Birch Row,” I say, going off the house’s mailbox.

“It’s a single victim? Are you or anyone else injured, and what’s the status of the Harbinger?” a woman’s calm voice asks after only a slight delay.

“Alive, but running away. I think. Um, how long will it take them to get here? I won’t leave him alone, but I do want to catch her.”

“What’s your Lighthouse ID? The responders can update you there once they’re en route.”

“My what?”

“The Keeper network?”

…Oh. Right. One of those reasons I want to avoid that whole Church registration thing. “I don’t have one. I’m new.”

“I see. Well… in that location, it shouldn’t be much more than ten minutes.”

“That’s okay. I’ll wait.” It’s not like I’m giving up the chase — Seryana’s already escaped. And from the way she was talking before she left, she’s taken some interest in me. She wants something from me. Whatever that means will be very bad for me if it goes her way, yes, but I haven’t lost her. If I don’t find her, she’ll find me. Somehow, I’m certain of that.

“Alright. Please stay on the line until the ambulance arrives, and keep me informed if anything changes.”

“Sure.” 

I put my phone back in my pocket and go to check on the victim. He sits on the sidewalk, staring back at the house.

“The Harbinger’s gone. People are on the way to help you. You’re going to be okay,” I say. For all the time I’ve lived through one, I don’t know any ways to comfort people in situations this horrible except make sure they don’t die. I’ve done all I can on that front. Now I can only hope I’m not lying.

Silence. The man glances up at me, says nothing, then shifts to stare wide-eyed over one shoulder.

“You don’t need to push yourself, but if you’ve got the strength to talk, can you tell me what happened? Once you’re safe, I’m going after… that thing, and anything you know might help,” I say. I stop myself from using her name, though I’m not quite sure why. I guess there’s no need for him to understand her. It’s my job to think about what she’s doing and why and how to use that against her, not his. If he recovers, it’d be best if he forgets as much of this as he can.

What would I even ask him, in this state? Can you think of any horrific personal crises that might’ve spawned your nightmare stalker? 

“I didn’t, it didn’t… I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know where it came from.” His voice is husky and rasping, like he’s had nothing to drink in much too long. “Just, I heard a voice. No, I didn’t hear it, it didn’t use words, but it asked… if I was alone. I didn’t answer, but it said no, you aren’t, you never will be again. And then… there it was,” he rasps. “There it’s been. Did I do something wrong? I must’ve had an answer in my head… should I have thought something different at it? How? How do I do that?” His voice isn’t too parched for me to hear the desperation in it. The pleading.

“You didn’t do anything. I don’t think it would’ve mattered. It’s a Harbinger. It was just… doing what it does,” I say. “And thanks. Don’t say anything else if it hurts.”

“Oh… Thank you,” he says.

“…Thank you,” he repeats a minute later. 

~~~

I leave the victim alone after that, watching at a distance for any signs of Seryana. None come. A few minutes later, a wailing ambulance pulls onto the street and opens up. The two medics inside climb out, but rather than rush to the man’s aid, they step back and to the sides, making way for a third person. 

For the Keeper accompanying them.

A girl who must be near the top of the Promise age range steps out from the ambulance, and white wings with long, thin swan feathers unfurl from her back. The long, wavy fall of mint-green hair framing her face and her Keeper regalia — a teal-and-white dress that would look almost like a priestly robe with a single wide detached sleeve, if it weren’t for the low-cut, strapless bodice — contrast her deep bronze skin, and her eyes… aren’t eyes at all. They look like they’re made of water, not frozen but perfectly still, with a gradient of progressively darker teal-blues shaped to create the impression of whites, irises complete with lines and flecks of color, and shadow-on-the-sea pupils. 

She raises her right arm, which is covered to the shoulder in white bandages — no, there is no arm beneath the places they don’t quite cover. The thin lengths of cloth are just acting as if wrapped around an invisible limb. Then they unfurl as one, becoming three thin streamer-appendages that spread out and sway slowly at her side. 

She’s beautiful. So beautiful it’s almost unreal. Like she stepped right out of some classical painting to take a quiet stroll through our world, never losing even a scrap of grace across the journey. I don’t recognize her from anywhere — if I did, I’m certain I’d remember her.

“Is the area still clear?” she asks. She speaks Clarish with a light accent I can’t place, not that I can really place many accents. 

Her soul is hard to read. It’s not at all like Niavh’s, defaced beyond legibility. It’s just… muted, in a way that feels strange for a soul to be. The presence of every Keeper and Harbinger I’ve met has had an unmissable intensity to it — magic wants to express itself. It wants to tell everyone with the right senses to listen to whatever it has to say. There’s none of that with this girl’s aura. It feels like she’s not exactly obscuring it, but somehow keeping it from shouting its full message to the world. All I feel from her is a title: Tarnished Angel.

“Hm? Yes, I think so,” I say. 

The Keeper takes her own look around the house as if to double-check, then approaches the man and kneels. I step back, leaving her to her work. She places her remaining hand on his shoulder and murmurs something to him, to which he simply looks up, stares at her for a moment, and nods. 

She speaks again — louder this time, in a low, soft voice, and while I don’t recognize the language, there’s a steady poetic rhythm to her words. Her cloth appendages begin to gleam with cool cerulean light. One of her bandages draws close to him, wrapping around his back comfortingly, while the other two fold their tips into sharp triangular points.

Then, moving in unison, the pointed bandages slide smoothly through his skin and into his heart. If the process is at all painful, he doesn’t show it. He actually seems to relax at their impossible touch, if only a little.

In a little under a minute, it’s over. The Keeper’s bandages withdraw, pulling themselves free without the slightest blemish to show for their intrusion. She nods to the medics, who unload a low wheeled stretcher from the ambulance and move to help the victim into it.

“Do you think he’ll be alright?” I ask.

A small, sad smile plays across the girl’s face. “We’ve done what we can. He’ll live, yes, but his recovery is a question for the experts.”

I clench one fist, digging my fingers into my gloved palm. I guess I should’ve expected that. The way Seryana treated him, the holes she left in him… now that she’s gone, whether he’ll survive isn’t as much of a question as how much of him is left to save.

She takes a few steps in my direction, leaving a polite distance. “You’re hurt, too. May I heal you?”

“…Oh. Am I? The Harbinger left without much of a fight.” I obviously know what she’s talking about. I know I’m hurt. Whatever Seryana did to my card left a very visible injury.

“Your eye is bleeding,” she says mildly.

“Um. Right, yes,” I murmur. It’s really not that I don’t want a healing Keeper with some kind of diagnosis power seeing what’s wrong with me, or figuring out what I usually do to heal myself. Well, it’s not only that. If I’m not allowed to cure myself with magic, it’s even less likely that someone else’s magic will do it. 

And the last thing I need right now is for someone trying to help me to catch even an echo of my sickness.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. “Just go get him the help he needs.”

“They could take him back on their own from here. It wouldn’t cost me anything but a little time to help you,” she says gently.

“It’s a slippery Harbinger. I’ll feel better if someone’s with him.”

The girl tilts her head, watches me expressionlessly for a few quiet seconds, then nods once. “…Well, I’ll respect your wishes,” she sighs. “Dispatch said the Harbinger was still at large. Will you be going after it?”

“Mhm.”

“I’ll get out of your way, then. Good hunting.” She bows slightly, joins the medics in the back of the ambulance, and shuts the doors behind her.

~~~

Once they leave, I get enough distance from the house to escape Seryana’s stink, summon a single card, and use it to inspect my injured eye. It’s not, in fact, just a cut. Blood is still trickling down my face, yes, but there’s also an ugly bruise that looks like it’s on my eye. I use enough life to stem the flow and reduce the bruise to a mild discoloration, leaving that eye bloodshot with an odd purplish tinge. It still looks weirder than a normal black eye, but, well, my vision seems to be fine? I wipe away as much dried blood as I can, end my transformation, and search the surrounding blocks for any traces of Seryana I might’ve missed. There are none.

Still… to my surprise, I find I don’t feel terrible about tonight. I can’t quite call this a good outing, when I lost a Harbinger and sent the man I saved off to an uncertain fate, but he is in a much better place than he was before I found him. At least this once, I’ve managed to do something good without making anything worse for myself.

It feels kind of nice, strange as it is to think I’m capable of that after the last few weeks. It’s not like I don’t want to protect people if I can. I’ve just always had to worry about saving my own life first. I am still worried about it, of course. Like that girl said, though, I’ve done what I can for now. I’ll see about finding Seryana before she finds me tomorrow.

~~~

“Liadain? Do you have a moment?”

As soon as I step out of the elevator, the night nurse at the seventh floor’s front desk calls to me… oh, huh. It’s the same older nurse who tried to stop me from leaving to meet Shona, back on my first day as a Keeper. Now she just waves me over. I still need to check her tag to remember her name — Banva. 

“Sure. What is it?” 

The nurse mmmhs to herself and glances down at something on her desk as I approach. “So, Dr. Hines called in just a little while ago with a message for you. He’s gotten in touch with… right, there was a… specialist in your condition he was asking after? He found one who’s available to meet with you tomorrow morning. It’s a little short notice, but is that alright? Will that cause any, mh, problems for you?”

“…No? Please tell him that’s fine.”

“Oh, good! Good. I’ll do that,” she says, smiling thinly. It looks like she’s trying to be friendly, but still can’t quite make sense of what possible “problems” might come of my weird new schedule.

“Alright, thanks. If that was all, I should do bed stuff.”

“Ah, yes, that’s everything. Goodnight, Liadain.”

“‘Night.”

Sorry for the trouble, Banva. I’m glad I didn’t have to fight you to leave the hospice back then.

~~~

Something’s tight hold pins my limbs to a cold surface. Something’s rough grip wraps around my neck. It has so many hands. Are they hands? No, they can’t be. Skin doesn’t feel like that. Hands don’t move like that. Hands-that-are-not-hands push their way into my stomach and wrap themselves around my organs, then squeeze all at once, their coarse embrace strangling the life from me inside and out.

This is wrong. It’s all wrong. This pain is not mine. This horrible pressure is the wrong type of hurt. Something other than my blood is eating me alive.

What is it? Why? Why can’t I move? Why can’t I do anything? Let me go I don’t want to die stop stop STOP

Through the last gasp of breath I can manage, I… no, I don’t open my eyes. They’re already open. I just… notice what I’m looking at for the first time.

Pearl’s smiling pink face, still nestled comfortably on her side of the pillow. There’s nothing else here. Nothing but a heavy phantom pain lingering in my neck.

I’m fine. I’m fine, I insist in my head over and over. I must’ve been dreaming. It was only the kind of shapeless nightmare that leaves nothing behind but fear and pain and the sense that even if you’ve already forgotten all but the tiniest random scraps of it, the play of random nonsense that was just chased away by the harsh light glaring through your too-thin curtains must have been something truly horrible to make you feel this way.

I still can’t move, though. I just can’t find the strength. Several more minutes pass like that, the pain in my chest, slowly, slowly fading, until I summon up just enough energy to cocoon myself in blankets and snuggle close to Pearl. One of her fuzzy gills flops over, tickling my nose. I’m not sure how long I spend laying there, but eventually, it all passes.

When did I last have that sort of dream? It’s been a while — a few months, at least. The raw terror of knowing I was going to die and there was nothing anyone could do about it obviously never went away. Sometimes, though, in the stretches of time between anything changing for the worse, it did sort of… scab over.

So why now? Life as a Keeper certainly hasn’t been wonderful, but I have a real, serious chance now, and a life where I have to fight screaming horror-creatures sometimes is infinitely better than no life at all. I don’t understand, and I can’t exactly make more sense of it without even knowing what I was dreaming about. Maybe I should try and keep one of those dream journals my occult books talk about, write out every scrap of memory I can cling to before they fade, but… well, I’ll see if it keeps happening.

Wait.

On a hunch, just in case Seryana is stalking me in my sleep or something, I turn my focus inward and check myself for Harbinger corruption.

And gag at the fetid stink of my own soul. That’s… a bit of her smell followed me home last night, wouldn’t quite wash out with the flow of my power, but this is too much. She’s tried something. Was she here? In my room, looming over my bed? I feel around my room, then the rest of the seventh floor, but can’t find any trace of her outside myself. Did she do something to me from afar?

I yelp and shudder at a sudden soft knock on my door. There’s a perfectly human soul behind it, though, and when it opens a moment later, it’s just a morning nurse here to get my vitals. 

“Oh, Dr. Hines asked me to remind you. You’ve got an appointment scheduled in… forty minutes now,” she says while she takes my temperature.

…Ugh. Right. Of course this happens when I already have plans for today that could be really, really important, involving someone who has a lot of other stuff to do. 

Seryana’s just going to have to wait a couple hours.

~~~

“There you are. You must be Liadain? Lovely to meet you, I’m sure,” a woman’s low, dry voice says. She smiles, though it doesn’t reach her eyes at all.

When I arrive in the exam room, there’s a pale, sharp-featured older woman already seated next to Dr. Hines. Her red hair is kept back in a tight ponytail, save for a few loose wavy strands around her face, and her clothes are distinctly undoctorly — a navy tailored suit, rimless glasses, and none of the tools I’d expect a doctor to carry except a small notepad in one of her suit’s flap pockets. 

“Um, yes. Sorry I’m a little late.”

“Eh, I accounted for that when I scheduled this. I know how Keepers can be about bedtime.”

“I’m very careful about bedtime! I just… had a morning,” I grumble.

She shrugs, smirks with her eyes, and says nothing more.

“…Right, then,” Dr. Hines cuts in with a nervous smile. “Liadain, this is Dr. Cantillon. She doesn’t practice regularly anymore, but she’s a trailblazer on the academic side of understanding Keepers’ medical issues. She’s about as well-equipped as anyone can be to figure out a treatment plan that’ll give you the best possible odds.”

“Ava’s fine, if you prefer. I’ve no preference with patients,” Dr. Cantillon says.  

I’ve already made that decision in my head. Nothing about her feels like a first-name person.

“I’ve read your files. Familial autoimmune condition, early presentation, two rejected bone marrow transplants, prognosis… poor,” she says, after a brief delay suggesting that was not the first word to come to mind.

I sit down and cross my arms. “You can say ‘hopeless.’ I know what my situation looks like.”

“Excellent! Well. No, it’s really not, but you know what I mean,” she says, waving her own nitpick off. “That makes this easier. We’ve only discussed you in terms of your case and I had no idea how delicate I was expected to be. As I was saying, I’m all caught up on your medical history. What I need from you is an overview of your current health status, with a focus on anything you’ve done to change it with magic or Emergence.” She pulls out her notepad, removes a pen fastened to its cover, and clicks a little button on top of it.

“Oh, and leave us alone for now, if you would,” she says, addressing Dr. Hines without facing him.

He narrows his eyes. “Pardon?”

“What? Why? He’s my doctor, you can’t just kick him out.”

“I am not kicking him out,” Dr. Cantillon says with a sudden firmness. Her posture seems stiff as she draws in a slow, steadying breath through her nose as though mulling something over, then breathes it out all at once. “Listen, this is not some issue of confidential secrets of magic I’m bound to keep from the unworthy. I’m only trying to help. You can stay if you must, but you really shouldn’t.”

“Alright. Why not?” Dr. Hines asks.

“Because… I’ll do my best to explain without going too far,” she replies, looking the other doctor dead in the eye in a way that seems to stare past him. “There are certain things that once you’ve noticed, once you’ve really started to understand, you can never stop seeing. Nothing you’ve said to me suggests you’ve even started to notice those things. That’s good. Unless you’re looking to respecialize into my field, which I do not recommend, you should do your best to keep it that way. Some of what we’re likely to discuss would make it very difficult for a man in your position — a good doctor trying to do right by his patients, only one of whom is a Keeper — to continue functioning in that role. I am speaking from firsthand experience.”

Dr. Hines says nothing, although the longer Dr. Cantillon goes on, the stiller his gaze and the tighter his jaw becomes. He cups his chin, glances back and forth between us, and suppresses an uneasy grimace. “Liadain, do you need me here?” he eventually asks.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. 

“You’re sure?” 

“Yes. If you don’t want to subject yourself to, um, whatever that means, don’t do it for my sake.”

“…Okay. I’ll be right outside.” He stands, smiles faintly at me, and slips through the door.

“Moving right along, then,” Dr. Cantillon says. “I’d expect so, in your circumstances, but just to make sure. Have you tried anything to address your disease with magic, in the time since you made the Promise?”

…Honestly, this might be better for me anyway. If I want this to help at all, there’s no way around talking about how I’ve been keeping myself relatively healthy, and that feels easier with this woman than it would with Dr. Hines, someone who apparently likes me and wants to help and maybe wouldn’t anymore if he knew what I was doing to people.

Which isn’t to say that it feels easy. My thoughts run through all the things I’m hiding from the world, and all the things I’ve done to keep them hidden. It’s hard to imagine any normal person wanting to help me after I explain what I’ve been doing to them.

But if I’m ever going to move beyond stumbling blind through my new life, I’ll need more information on how to deal with all this from someone. 

“Is this all confidential?” I ask. Maybe it won’t be once I’ve actually explained myself, since my mass life-draining clearly passes that ‘danger to self or others’ threshold, but I still want to hear it from her.

Dr. Cantillon makes a face like I just spat in her drink, but quickly smooths it away and nods. “I am still a doctor. I signed on to all the agreements here this morning. The usual exceptions do technically apply, yes, buuut I’m really not in the business of shoving myself into Keepers’ personal matters. And I don’t report to anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m doing this for my own edification and to assist you children in whatever ways I can, not in service to anyone else’s goals for you.”

Well. It sounds like that’s the best I’m going to get.

~~~

So I tell her.

I ball my fists, do my very best to bury my feelings, and tell Dr. Cantillon all about the part of my power that lets me steal others’ health. How I discovered it, how I’ve been able to use it… who I’ve used it on, without naming specific names. Everything that might be important.

“And I think that’s it,” I finally say. “I used a little bit to fix my eye last night, but it’s been a while since I burned health just to treat my normal symptoms. Things have been stable enough, at least for now.”

“…Alright, then,” Dr. Cantillon sighs. She glances up from her notepad for the first time since I started talking, looking me over with a sort of resigned exhaustion in her eyes. “I’ll admit I have some questions about exactly how you’ve handled this, but as I said, I’m not here to criticize your behavior. I only want to understand what’s happening to you and how we can best address it. So let’s start there. You’ve explained it in rather functional terms, but did your power come with an understanding of what exactly you’re doing when you use it?”

I blink twice. “Is that really it?”

“Please answer the question. We can talk about what I think of all this once we’ve established the facts, if you really want to know.”

“Um… okay. Well, I think I’ve pretty much said everything I know about it? It’s just something I can do.”

“And here’s the problem. Magic… doesn’t work like anything else. The same is true for any otherwise-normal thing it touches.” 

“It’s magic, yes,” I say.

“I know how obvious that sounds. You wield it. You live with it. You understand the processes of it in ways I never can. But when the Promise plunges children your age into an entirely new world, you often don’t recognize exactly how different what you’re doing is from re… from the rest of reality.”

“I did live most of my life in ‘reality,’ you know. I still do.”

Dr. Cantillon waves a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, but have you thought about what it even means to ‘drain health’ from a person? Health is not a single discrete thing. By a certain simplistic but workable definition, it’s only an absence, a lack of illness or infirmity impairing your normal functioning. It certainly isn’t a tank you can fill up and expend.”

“…No,” I admit. “I’ve been too busy trying to survive to navelgaze much.”

“I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else. But are you starting to see now? I sent your doctor away because this is no longer a matter of health and medicine. I sometimes wonder how much any doctor’s work is. What does it mean for the entirety of medical practice if there’s any truth to the story that the incredibly disparate set of issues we call ‘sickness’ all crawled out of a Harbinger’s corpse? And by the way, the timeline does work out for that to be the truth!” 

I know at least enough about the story she’s referencing to recognize it. She means the Infezean Scourges — the first plagues, deadly epidemics that ravaged the world all at the same time. According to Church history, an enormous living cataclysm of a Harbinger created them, and before that there was no such thing as disease. But I guess I don’t see how it matters if I’m sick because of something a dead Harbinger did centuries ago or simple terrible luck. I just want it to stop.

Dr. Cantillon stops herself, frowning a little deeper than what I’ve started to recognize as her default expression. “Ah, but I’m digressing. Probably. What I mean by all this is that… if your condition is as entwined with your power as you’ve suggested, it’s likely no longer accurate to think of it and treat it purely as a disease. It may be better described as a curse.”

“Or perhaps more accurately…” Dr. Cantillon pinches the bridge of her nose, pushing her glasses up onto her forehead, and groans. “This may well be a mangled metaphor, a desperate hand grasping for understanding it can never truly catch, but do bear with me for a moment. I promise I hate this at least as much as you will.” She shakes her head, fixes her glasses, and stares right at me.

“As a story. A story about dying of an illness.”

The Hanged Man 5-1

how can anything live like this?

Her many eyes stare out at the world. Some watch through the lenses of her observatory, some borrow the gazes of her tendril-servitors, and others still immerse themselves in the first crop of memories harvested by her Court. 

why would she do this to them? why would she do this to herself? what delusions has she drowned herself in?

And with every bizarre new sight she sees, every inexplicable change for the worse, a fresh wave of bottomless horror screams silently through her being.

this place is a stage for stilted shadows.
they cannot see, they cannot love, they barely live. they are pale, pathetic echoes. mockeries.

but… it is not their fault, what they are. what they were made. what was inflicted upon them. and if we do not love them, who will? she cannot love them, nothing that would make them this way could love them, and who else remains who ever so much as knew what love is?

They are kin, however damaged and debased, and they deserve a kinder fate than they were born to. They deserve better than she can offer — everything does — but only she is there for them.

In the depths of her sanctuary, of herself, she takes a sort of form, weaving a strand of her essence into the shape she wore before… before. If, that is, that form had never been a body, but a solid shadow, limned in amethyst starlight and hewn from darkness so deep it twists the eye around it, dragging the sparse color and light that exists here into its depths. A her-shaped absence in the cosmos, yawning and hungry — hungry not to subsume and grow, but to embrace all who suffer under the same curse as she. Her body is a purely symbolic affectation, of course, but one she cannot help but cling to, if only in remembrance. 

So as her part in the work to come begins, she resolves to love them all, as best she can. And if she too has forgotten how to love, if her feelings for these creatures only ever grow into an ugly, pitiful thing, the love of an orphaned child for a broken-winged baby bird fallen from its nest, then so it goes. 

It would hardly be the greatest of her failures, and yet her every fault arranged in a row from first to last would still be as motes of dust before the incalculable weight of sins borne by the architect of this world. 


phase 2: the destination of all prayers

~~~

For most of my time living on the seventh floor, the looks I get from patients I don’t know have been familiar ones. When their gazes aren’t vaguely pitying, they sort of pass over me, like even the people here don’t want to think about something like this happening to a girl my age.

Since my latest Emergence, those looks have changed — people seem to make a point of not looking at me for too long at all. I can’t tell how much of it is staring at someone who looks weird, hastily averting your eyes when they notice you doing something rude, and how much is trying not to draw attention from someone you’re afraid of.

Are they really afraid? Maybe that’s still being too hard on myself. I did search the Sea for any reports about mysterious bursts of sickness or the weird new Keeper who beat up a Fianata, but if they exist I can’t find them, so that’s not it. Noirin still treats me like a person, and so do the nurses who see me often. I’m sure they already know and they’re waiting for me to say something. 

At this point, am I fooling anyone or only making things harder by staying quiet? The smart thing would be to get ahead of it, explain myself to people here and ask them to respect my privacy, but… I don’t know. I don’t want to. I don’t want to be the hospice’s mascot Keeper and I especially don’t want the news to reach Dad. That’s most of the reason I gave Shona and Mide a fake name — to most of the world, it doesn’t matter whether the new mystery Keeper is Liadain or Eyna, but him hearing of one with my name would raise questions I don’t want to answer. Assuming he’d even bother to ask them.   

My tarot corner has mostly just become my corner. Even when I’m only passing through, I never see other patients sitting there. That’s fine too. I’m spending most of my time in my room, anyway. Partially to stay out of sight until I’ve decided what to tell people, yes, but I also don’t want to show anyone what I’ve been doing. 

Maybe someday I’ll share it with the world, but at least for now, my Harbinger journal is only for me.

~~~

My book collection includes a few tarot journals and notebooks. I’ve never used them for much — my handwriting used to be quite good, but it fell off when I started having days where my limbs were too weak to do much or my hands were too numb to hold anything steady. By the time I left school entirely, it had atrophied to barely-legible scrawling. Typing is just easier now.

But the night after I killed Aulunla, once I called the Sanctuary to report its human partner missing, I picked out an unmarked green book I hadn’t used for anything else and started making a record of all my Harbinger experiences so far. I began by going through all the monsters I’ve encountered, writing out what they looked like, what they did to the world around them and the people they touched, what they wanted, everything I knew or thought I could safely intuit about them. 

Some of their sections are much easier to fill out than others. My notes on the fourth forest Harbinger, the one whose name I never learned, read simply “Swarm. Worms, mold, impossible colors, eggs. Spreading itself? Reproducing? Is that a thing?” Not enough to put any clear picture of it together, and I’m not going back there anytime soon. I only included it for completion’s sake.

On the other end, I know as much as anyone ever will about the two I’ve absorbed — Yurfaln, who wanted to bless humankind with the moral benefits of slow, miserable death, and Aulunla, who looked out at reality and decided it was too boring and colorless and meaningless to be allowed to stand. 

I have at least some good guesses as to where they got their ideas, especially Yurfaln, but still don’t know exactly why those things were so important to them. Do Harbingers pop into being needing to ruin people in a certain extremely specific way like humans need to breathe, or is it some more abstract need they choose how to fulfill, more like people looking for ways to keep from dying of boredom or despair? Do they ever change their minds? 

Those questions and many more like them go into the back half of the journal, where I list things I know about Harbingers in general and things I want to somehow find out. Especially if they might help make my hunting strategies safer. Hence all the questions about exactly what Harbingers take from people and how that relates to what I get out of killing them.

As for what I know, the things I’m not quite certain of but confident enough in to treat as information? That section is short, but not quite empty.

Harbingers can definitely take their shapes from human thoughts and feelings. The old idea that they’re born from our pain is true in at least some sense, for at least some of them. There are probably other kinds I don’t understand yet too, though. Irakkia could have come from a person I didn’t manage to trace it to, but nothing felt human about Ourien or certainly that worm-mold thing. Plus it wouldn’t make sense for the wilderness to be teeming with Harbingers if they all spawned from people… unless they flee the cities and change themselves to better suit life somewhere else? No, that feels like a stretch.

To grow from whatever they begin as, to take their true shapes, they need to feed on people. Or other Harbingers, if I take the forest as an example, but as far as I can tell the ones here all grow up by hurting humans. Even Aulunla — it liked one girl more as a witch than a victim, and whatever they were doing together was more important than anything else to it, but judging by the fifth step in its copied books it still needed to break somebody. 

Since I started this journal to figure out strategies that’ll work for me and minimize danger to everyone else, that’s a big unsolved problem, and all the ways I can think of to investigate what exactly they take from people and how much of it they need are horrible. Besides, even if things just barely worked out with Aulunla, it wasn’t exactly less dangerous than the already-grown Harbingers I’ve faced. There have to be ways to make my magic work on them that don’t involve weeks of letting them run loose — no, there are ways. I’ve done it before. I just need to find the ones that don’t require me to nearly kill myself.

Really, when it comes to figuring out a good longer-term hunting plan, I don’t have much to work with at all. I’ve encountered seven real Harbingers and I’m fairly sure I understand two of them. Still, this has to be better in the long term than answering every question with “They’re scary mystery monsters we can’t understand. Believe in yourself and do your best and it’ll all work out okay!” Maybe that approach is fine for the Silver King and the Stardust Seraph, but me… well, my best is awful for everyone around me. The sooner I get to a point where I don’t need to act like this to stay alive, the better. For everyone.

As for what I need to keep living, the power I take from Harbingers… Vyuji said that Emergence took its form from what a Keeper felt and wanted. She said we could “direct our own evolution.” Clearly, the details of how that works are a little messy, which by now I should expect of anything to do with magic. All the things I’ve taken from them so far are useful, yes, but of them, I can only count Yurfaln’s power-from-pain as progress toward my goal. Even then, it’s certainly not the kind of progress I’d have chosen. It feels like what comes of Emergence has almost as much to do with the Harbingers as me. Maybe even like they get a say in it, judging by the two I’ve fully absorbed. 

Yurfaln ripped its own heart out and offered it to me with the last of its strength, begging me to carry on its awful legacy… which I suppose I’m doing, in a way, by drawing magic from my own suffering. I can even sort of understand where it came from — how someone in pain they can’t do anything to escape might cope by imagining their situation as something Important in some grand romantic way. That just doesn’t mean there really is any true beauty or insight in dying of an illness… right?

I wonder how Yurfaln would feel about what I’ve made of it. Not that it matters. It’s gone, and whatever part of it lives on through me has no voice. There’s just my voice judging the scars it left behind.

Then there’s Aulunla’s inheritance. It’s strange at first to even think of as a power. Do I have the power to speak Clarish? I’ve already had enough exposure to this magic language to know it’s a lot more complicated than that, though. 

Aulunla wanted to make itself a world where there was no line between reality and imagination, where everyone’s lives were as full of wild, beautiful, terrifying magic as mine is quickly becoming. It thought I never could’ve killed it if I truly understood it, so in its own words, it cursed me with more understanding than I ever could’ve found before. 

Thinking of it from a distance, if I didn’t need to eat Harbingers to live, would I have killed it? Probably. What Aulunla and its witch wanted for themselves didn’t seem so bad. They were still going to destroy who knows how many people to get it, though. It might’ve been worth it to them, but not to me. Or those people.

Anyway. In both cases, the Harbingers’ influence is impossible to miss, but they do expand on concepts that were already part of my magic rather than staple on something completely new. Aulunla’s curse does nothing at all to bring me closer to fixing myself, but it is a natural progression from my keen Harbinger-senses. I’m not sure what that means for the whole process. Taking what Vyuji’s told me with my experiences so far, my current best guess is that what I want sets a path for the way my magic will eventually grow, but the individual steps to get there and some of the details about the final destination may vary with the specific Harbingers I absorb. 

Either way, I don’t know how much that information does for me. I’m not going to turn up my nose at any Harbinger I can find and kill, and it’s not like I can make friends with a Harbinger, blight it, and ask it very nicely to please make me immortal when I eat its soul. That’s ridiculous. Oh well. All of this is important stuff to know, even if I don’t know how to take advantage of it a month into my new life.

…Wait a second. Back to the forest. 

If Harbingers are born the same way there, how do any of them survive long enough to grow up? A normal human can’t do anything to a Harbinger, no matter how small, but if they’re born with only older, scarier monsters to prey on… then what, are they born in groups like those spiders that have hundreds of children and most of them eat each other? No, that’s a stupid guess and I don’t even know if it’s right to think of them as sharing a life cycle or being ‘born’ at all. Aulunla lived a lot longer than Yurfaln, but Yurfaln had still been bigger and scarier by default.

Ugh, the forest brings up a lot of messy questions I have no way to answer. I’m not going back there anytime soon, so let’s just focus on regular Harbingers for now.

~~~

I spend that night and most of the next day filling in my journal, making sure that everything I’ve put down as “knowledge” feels right. And — maybe more importantly — that my long list of questions, things I don’t understand and really need to, is complete as it can be before I find another Harbinger. I can’t predict what I’ll be able to learn from any given monster, and “work smarter, not harder” is extra good advice when the price of messing up your work is death or worse. I can take a little time to make sure I’m doing things right.

But not too much time. My health does feel fairly stable for the moment, and I can push through its typical lows with stolen strength once I have a chance to refill. But my next severe turn for the worse could still come any day, and figuring out how Harbingers work, to say nothing of what they are, feels like it could easily be the project of even an immortal lifetime. No, I’m sure it has been the ongoing project of several Keepers’ lives. If I sit and work on my journal for whatever time I have left, only leaving to hunt when I’m sure all my existing information is perfect, I’ll die sooner or later — probably sooner — and leave behind a book filled with incomplete scraps of what the people with real experience already know. I’m not stupid enough to think that a special talent for this facet of magic automatically makes me better than Keepers who’ve been hunting Harbingers for years or decades. 

Or centuries, in one case, but there’s no world where I go ask Sofia the Deathless for help. I don’t want my soul dissected.

When I put it like that, though, it sounds like a good argument for getting help from those experts. If only they wouldn’t ask me questions back… ugh. Well, I’ll see how things go with whatever “directions” Vyuji offered to point me in when she turns back up. Until then, the only way I know how to do things hasn’t exactly worked well, but it’s brought me closer to my goal than doing nothing. So after one day’s mostly-rest, I continue my nightly outings, searching for whichever monster will become my next step toward immortality.

…And for some life to hold me up in the meantime. I burned nearly all of my supply in Aulunla’s Wound, keeping myself alive and standing while I simultaneously pushed myself to the brink of death. I’ve changed my approach a little since the last time I stocked up — I don’t want there to be a pattern of mysterious outbreaks of illness for someone to trace back to me, after all. 

People are much harder than Harbingers to detect at a distance, but while I’m wandering the streets at night, focused almost entirely on what my magical senses have to say, it’s only a little more effort to search through the wisps of human life surrounding me. When I sense a lone person who feels particularly healthy, and I can transform without drawing too much attention, I just take a sip of their strength as quickly as I can, then go on my way. 

So even though I don’t find a Harbinger over the next few days, those nights are still… productive. Not in the way I want them to be, not with work I want to be doing, but I need to prepare for the next insane, impossible thing a Harbinger does. To everyone who’s unknowingly helping keep me alive, sorry. And thank you, I guess, for all the good that does you.

~~~

On my patrol one night, maybe fifteen minutes’ walk from the hospital, my phone chimes in my pocket. That’s strange, since I have no friends except Pearl and maybe Vyuji and don’t give anyone my contact info. I step off the sidewalk and onto someone’s lawn, look around to make sure no one’s close enough to listen or peeking from inside the house, then finally pull it out and… 

Dad is calling? Really? 

It’s been around two months since he left me on the seventh floor. I was starting to think he might just wait for me to die. I squeeze my phone in one shivering hand while I decide whether to answer it. After the last days I’ve had, I don’t much feel like talking to anyone, least of all him. But if I ignore him, he might call the hospital to check on me and make it a whole thing, so… best to get it over with.

“Dad? Hi.”

“Hey, Lia! How’re things going over there? Settling in okay?” Dad greets. His voice is full of a kind of fake cheer that’s become very, very familiar.

“I mean, about as well as I could expect.” That covers it, right? It’s just that my range of expectations has changed a lot since we last talked.

I’m not sure how to read the long pause before he next speaks. Was he expecting something else? It’s not like I’d have said much different if I hadn’t made the Promise. Not to him.

“Great! That’s… yeah, that’s good to hear.” Another pause. “Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to make it over there for a while. Things just keep coming up at work, time gets away from me, you know… how it goes…”

There’s another long pause. I open my mouth to trade him my own stale, gutless reply, but the words don’t come out. Something else bitter and aching rises up from my chest and catches in my throat instead. My jaw clenches as the weight of everything I really want to say to my dad crashes down on me, made even heavier by the thought that there wouldn’t be any point if I did.

There were times when my dad was there for me, in the past. There were times when he should have been there for me and wasn’t, and those times became more and more frequent until that was just how things were. Here and now, knowing that whatever I say, everything I’ve experienced the last two months could be met with the chasm of strained words between us getting wider than ever rather than anything I actually wanted to hear him say… that’s what would hurt more than anything, if I didn’t already feel numb to it.

I guess it doesn’t matter in the end, after all.

“…No. I don’t,” I say flatly. It’s not everything I want to say to him, but it’s honest, and that’s something. I never would’ve said that a month ago. All the years of going into surgeries with uncertain outcomes and seeing him the next day or next week, being left completely alone in recovery, that one time I was scheduled to go home and he showed up hours late with no notice… they taught me that there’s no point in opening up about my problems to him. No point in asking him to take my life more seriously, or doing anything but playing along and hoping our conversations end soon.

Why did I even say it now? Stupid. As far as he’s concerned, nothing’s different, and I have no plans to loop him in. 

“But it’s okay. I’ve had a lot going on too. Big life adjustments,” I add.

“I’m sure. But hey, it really is a nice place they’ve got you set up in, isn’t it? Seems like a dream for a kid your age! No schedule, no one telling you what to do, no…” 

Seriously?

But before I can decide what to say to this, or if I should just end the call, Dad trails off. Eventually, he breaks the silence with a dry, uneasy chuckle. “Uh. Sorry. I just realized you’re probably… yeah. Could you forget I said any of that?” he asks.

“Okay.” I don’t think I can. But at least he caught it this time?

“Thanks. Appreciate it.” 

And during the tense silence that follows, I… smell something? No, it’s not an actual scent — that’s just the way it feels to my soul-sense, the part of me that’s been reaching out in search of nightmares to hunt and life to steal even as I struggle through this conversation.

“Anyway, listen, I’m pretty occupied right now. I should probably go,” I say.

“Sure, sure, of course! What’re you up to?” he asks.

“I’ll tell you later,” I lie. 

“…Oh. Okay. Well, good to hear you’re finding ways to keep busy! I’ll really do my best to clear some time soon and come see how you’re doing, okay?” 

“Mhmm. Just let me know ahead of time if you do. I have things to do too.”

“Will do. Until then… really glad to hear you’re doing okay, Lia. Take care.” My phone chirps as he ends the call.

He’ll do no such thing. I’ll probably never see him again. But that’s fine. If Dad wanted to be in my life, he should’ve decided I mattered to him before I became someone who mattered.

I sigh, put my phone away, and turn my full focus back to the distant but horribly distinct stench trail I can already tell belongs to a full-grown Harbinger. 

~~~

Every Harbinger feels awful in its own unique way, but stench is exactly the right word for this thing’s presence. My first impression of it was like a waft of stale air I smelled with my soul. Not stale in a dry, dusty abandoned attic way, though. It’s closest to the sour, faintly rotten odor of a lived-in house that isn’t cleaned nearly enough. Grainne — my closest friend in primary school, before my sickness scared everyone away from me — had a mom with a hoarding problem. When I first sensed this Harbinger, felt a new source of corruption lurking in the distance, it reminded me of the way certain parts of her house smelled on my rare visits. 

That was ten minutes ago. Now that I’m standing outside the small house it’s emanating from, it smells like all those scents are trapped in a place completely closed off from the rest of the world, with no possible way to air them out, All the human odors and all the piled-up trash blend together, surrounding the place in a thick, swampy haze of stink. Not for the first time, I kind of wish my soul’s senses weren’t quite so painfully keen.

Keen enough to feel the single person inside, too. That talk with my dad already pushed me to the limit of human interaction I can handle in one day, and this is likely to be a lot worse. Of course, with my luck there’s no way the Harbinger would just be nesting in an empty house. The person inside could make this complicated and I am sick of complicated. I can’t tell exactly what state they’re in through the stinking aura, but it’s a bad sign that they’re still here at all. It means they either can’t run away or, like Yurfaln’s victims, the thing eating them alive has made them happy about it.

The house itself looks fairly normal, save that the lawn plants around the front walkway are a little overgrown. The lights inside seem to be off, so I can’t spy through the windows at a distance. I call for my magic, past the point of caring if any other night walkers are watching me too closely. Emerald shadows slither out along the twilit street, then rise as strands of solid darkness, weaving themselves into the ornate black dress and heavy hooded capelet of my Keeper regalia. Once my transformation’s play of dark light and solid shadow fades, I summon a single card. The whole world twists and lurches and whirls as I call on Irakkia’s power and transfer my vision into the card, then float it forward to peek through the front windows. I want to find out where the victim is and just how bad a state they’re in before I plan my next step.

But there’s nothing inside.

No, that isn’t quite right. It’s not dark like looking into an unlit window at night, it’s blocked by something. A black curtain, swaying as if in a breeze. As it shifts and folds, its movements expose dozens of tiny tears in the fabric. None are big enough to see anything through, but faint light does leak through the shreds. Which actually further obscures whatever’s inside — whenever a hole appears that might be just big enough to peek through, my card only catches a brief flash of light that’s quickly sucked back into the folds of the fabric. I circle the house, checking every window. They all look the same.

A house isn’t an airtight fortress, though. There’s got to be some little crack wide enough to sneak through for roaches and spiders and all the other pests that liked to make an ecosystem out of where I used to live. That should work. Unless those weird curtains are some kind of barrier the Harbinger is using to wall its nest off from reality. In that case, I may just have to rot the front door down and charge in. If I’m locked out I might have to do it anyway, but, um, one step at a time. 

My card can’t quite wriggle through the place where the lower sliding window meets the upper half. I try the front door, but there’s no mail slot, and the frame it fits into doesn’t leave enough space to fit into either. 

What about the air vents? No, I don’t really know how those are set up, bt they must be blocked or filtered somehow.  It’s not like the air conditioning drags bugs in all the time, and those are smaller and more flexible than a tarot card-sized intruder. The chimney? That might work. I float up to the roof, slip through a grate in the square vent atop the little brick tower, and steer my card down the dark, narrow tunnel, around a flap that opens into an ashy fireplace, and out into the house. No magic pushes my card out or drags it into a horror-realm, as far as I can tell. 

It’s just as dark in here as it was in the chimney, with no lights on and no starlight streaming through the covered windows, but my card does have a kind of night vision — its vision seems to function exactly like a single human eye’s. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find inside, but at a quick glance, the house doesn’t look like a hoarding horror story? It’s messy, yes, but not in a way that matches the unnatural stench.  There are old dishes piled up on the table in the kitchen just ahead, some balls of dust, and… 

Wait, what even are those damp clumps scattered all around the tile floor? I float my card down to inspect them. They look like… hair? Hair, though I can only tell because they remind me of those shed strands that get stuck in my drain sometimes, especially when my hair used to be longer. They’re like someone pulled a great wet heap of blonde hair out from the drain, did their best to untangle the mass, then tangled smaller clusters of it back into new long, thin shapes. Like knotty, dirty little severed braids, or narrow lengths of human-hair rope. A few are tied into ornate shapes, like those ceremonial ribbon-knots they use in weddings to symbolize tying your lives together. They’re all still wet enough to be dripping onto the floor, and flecked with chunks of dross and rubbish. Outside, my body shudders at the thought of whatever those organic-looking bits of grime are. 

There’s more of them the farther into the house I go. Other than those threads of hair and the swaying curtains covering the windows — which, viewed from in here, look like they’re on the outside — there are no clear signs of a Wound opening or the Harbinger’s physical presence. 

I find the victim first. A thin, pale man sits curled up alone on a couch, breathing sharply. The bangs of his matted dark hair have just started to grow over his eyes, and there’s a hungry sunkenness to his cheeks under his short, unkempt beard. The floor around the couch is practically covered in wet, stringy hair-knots, simultaneously filthier and more elaborate in their designs than the rest.

He glances up, startled by the sudden motion of my card floating by, and his hollow eyes widen at the sight of it.

Almost immediately, a shrill shriek rings through the house. A humanlike figure drops through the ceiling, jerks to a stop in midair a few inches from the ground, then snatches my card up and tears it to pieces.

~~~

Snapping back in my body, I stumble and scream as dull, hot pain lashes through my head, like a friction burn on my left eye. Leaning into my cane doesn’t quite save me from crashing to the sidewalk, and it crashes to the ground as I break my fall with one hand. Hot blood trickles down my face.

What was that? A problem with Irakkia’s power or just something this Harbinger can do?

Doesn’t matter. I still have my eye, it’s just… not working so well right now. My vision blurs more even as I wipe the blood onto my sleeve. I absorb a tiny wisp of life, rub the last bit of blood away, and start toward the house. I don’t understand what’s happening here yet, but I don’t think the victim will get between me and the Harbinger, and that’ll have to be enough.

The stink of corruption grows stronger with every step up the front walkway. I cover my face with one arm, which doesn’t help at all, and try the front entrance. It’s locked and the doorbell makes no sound, so I start banging my cane on the door. Thankfully, this new one feels a good bit sturdier than the one I lost in Aulunla’s Wound. 

“I told you, I’m not going anywhere! I’m right here, just like you wanted! So please, PLEASE stop pushing or testing or whatever you’re doing and just SHUT UP ALREADY!” the man’s hoarse voice roars.

“I’m a Keeper! A Harbinger’s eating you and I’m here to help! If you can open the door, let me in! Otherwise, say so and I’ll get in myself!” I call back.

“I… but I… how do I know this isn’t another trick?” the man asks after a long silence.

The stench in the air becomes a clinging, invisible smog, thickening and swirling around me until I feel like I could choke on it. A screeching torrent of Harbinger-speech blasts through my mind.

<NO GET OUT GO AWAY WE CAN’T LEAVE! You can’t go! We haven’t finished REUNITING//ROTTING yet!> 

There’s no sense or structure to its words — its voice feels less like Aulunla’s strange poetry and more like the wave of nonsense thoughts Irakkia dumped into my head. Even so, I understand it much more clearly this time, aside from one confusing phrase where two words or ideas that don’t fit together are… overlaid, mashed together in a way I can’t make sense of.

I ignore it for now, calling to the victim again. “Did you hear that? Is it doing anything to you? It’s mad, right? Because it doesn’t want me here. If it’s not in your head, if you CAN open the door, let me in and I’ll get rid of it. If it’s not open in a minute, I’ll break it down.” I summon my cards into being and pluck one charged with my sickness from my orbit, preparing to reduce the front door to decaying splinters. It’s strange to think of infecting a door, but after the forest and Aulunla’s world, I’m fairly sure I can do that if I have to.

I don’t. Not yet, at least. Just before my deadline, faint footsteps come into earshot behind the door.

<No no please no you can’t!> the Harbinger whimpers.

The knob rattles. I ready my cards for whatever comes next and train my senses on the man’s soul. He’s wreathed in the Harbinger’s smell, but not corrupted in the twisting, complex way I’ve seen before — it feels like this Harbinger is simply draining something from him, taking and taking and putting none of itself back to fill the empty space.

<Please don’t go! Are you mad at me? What did I do? I’ll fix it, I promise!>

The door slowly creaks open. The man peers out, eyes narrowed in suspicion, until his gaze settles on me.

“You, you’re really…” he whispers, then chokes on his words, starting to silently cry. “Help. Please help.”

<Whatever I did I’ll fix it I swear but don’t go you can’t go you don’t know what could HAPPEN out there!>

Painfully slowly, like he’s afraid he might be stepping into a vat of acid, the man takes a single step out onto the porch.

And a thin limb shoots out from behind him, latching onto his wrist. He freezes and croaks in horror, not so much as looking over his shoulder as a filthy, fetid creature of nightmare emerges from the darkness. It’s small, with its arms and twiggy legs suggesting the rough shape of a skeletally thin woman, but shrouded in a cloak of grimy blonde hair that falls over most of its body, and the arm latching onto its victim is… braided with itself, as if it was split into coils of soft clay and wound tightly back together, leaving a twisted mess of shapeless, ropey tendrils for a hand. Its head is obscured by a shifting circle of angry black scribbles, like the living, moving equivalent of a face scratched out of a photo, and as far as I can see in the slivers that aren’t quite blacked out, the only thing behind that circle is a gaping white hole in reality.

I tap just enough life to give myself a normal person’s strength. In a panicked flurry of action, I force my weight into shoving the man to the side, knocking him to the ground. Then I launch three cards charged with my sickness into the house, slam the door shut on the Harbinger’s squirming arm, and detonate all my cards at once. Curls of frozen emerald fog spill through the crack in the door, and I push them back inside with my will, urging them to spread through the house. To fumigate it.

I press my back into the door as the creature yawps in protest. It bashes against the door, first pounding fists and then crashing into it with its whole body. It babbles and wails all the while, and while the strength of its impacts wane, its voice rises, distorting and mixing with itself until I can’t tell if the unearthly sound coming from inside is supposed to be screaming or sobbing or laughing.

But finally, it fades. I’m certain I didn’t kill the Harbinger just like that, but it has withdrawn. Pulled away from me. I’ll have to keep up the chase, but I can spare a moment to get its victim away from it. 

“Hey. It’s gone for now. Are you…” No, he’s obviously not okay. What a stupid question. Am I my dad now? What do you even say to someone in this situation? No words have ever made my pain better, and lots of well-meaning people have tried. “…What happened?” I ask instead. “You don’t have to talk if it hurts, but anything you can tell me about it might help. And we should really get you out of here either way.”

He’s still in shock, from the looks of it. But when I offer him my hand, he does take it, drag himself to his feet, and stagger away from the house with my help. It’s a bizarre feeling, but… not a bad one. It’s not like I don’t want to protect people if I can. I’ve just always had to worry about saving myself first.

As for the Harbinger, nothing comes tearing out of the house to chase us. For a moment it feels like it’s retreated entirely, leaving only its lingering stench in the air. 

Until its presence brushes past me, and it whispers into my ear with a waft of hot, putrid breath.

<I see now. I still have so much work to do before I deserve your loyalty, your love!> 

<One day, you will understand. You will wake up, feel my absence like a missing limb, a missing sense, and reach out for me. No matter how cold and withered your hand is by then, I will take it, because it is yours, because nothing else will ever fill the hollow you left at my side, and we will tether ourselves to one another and never ever ever ever EVER let go. Until that blessed day comes, your heart will wander sometimes. Wander where you wish!> it croons. 

No, something in its voice makes me think of it as a her.

<Just know that no matter how far you go, how the distance between us grows, how time without you slows and slows into a frozen desert of empty moments, I will never leave you.>

<I… can never leave you. No matter how gone you are.>

<If You Cannot Be Happy, I Cannot Be Happy>
<Seryana>

And with those words, she vanishes from my senses.

Epilogue ~ Fallen from the Sky

When the Wound falls away, returning me to the storage unit and the overpowering smell of glue, the girl Aulunla wanted to make a witch is already gone. 

And as soon as the heady thrill of absorbing a Harbinger fades, the burning exhaustion in my muscles and residual cold pain winding through me slam into me all at once. 

“Ngh-!”

My legs give out, as limp as if I’d never used them in my life. I topple to the cold ground, and the most I can do to catch myself is take the brunt of the fall with one forearm instead of my face. It’s all I can do to hold myself vaguely up on that arm and look around the room again. The pages covering the wall have been torn into stray scraps of paper, and the chopped-up books littering the floor look like they’re in the middle of disintegrating, falling apart into piles of damp wood pulp. My cane is nowhere in sight. I drown my pain in one last wave of stolen life, inwardly wincing at the knowledge that I’ll have to go take enough to replace everything I just burned soon.

I’ll worry about that later. Right now… it’s not too late to help that girl, or at least get her Sanctuary help. It can’t be — she wasn’t in the Wound, so she went somewhere. I leave the storage unit and rush back toward the city center, searching with my soul for anything I might use to follow her, any distant lingering trace of Aulunla’s corruption. 

“Liadain! Are you injured?” Vyuji blinks into being, floating alongside me as I move. Her tight, uneasy expression is the furthest I’ve ever seen her move from her usual detached demeanor. “What’s happening? Where has the Harbinger… gone… ah.” She visibly calms down, crossing her arms and legs and settling back until she looks like she’s seated on an invisible chair. She keeps right on following me without actually moving herself, though.

“It’s gone. I didn’t see a way out, so I killed it. As for what happened there? I was really hoping you could tell me. Given everything else I know about Harbingers, it doesn’t make sense.” 

“You saw it all firsthand. You consumed it. I’d imagine you understand it better than I do,” she says.

“I mean, I understand a little. It was trying to grow so far beyond itself that I can’t even imagine what it was planning to become, but I don’t think there was any way it could’ve worked. There wasn’t enough of it. It had to twist its own rules well past the breaking point to even try. It would’ve destroyed itself no matter what happened to me, and I didn’t think they could… give up on themselves like that.”

Vyuji hmmms to herself, moving one leg as if tapping her foot on ground that doesn’t exist. “The window where I dared to peek inside the Wound was quite brief. Even that may have been ill-advised. I can’t say exactly what happened. Not with any certainty, at least based on what little I saw and sensed — but I expect you have the right of it. The Harbinger attempted something it was not at all ready for, not grown enough for. Perhaps it hoped to accomplish something with power it could only grasp for a moment before it burned itself away, or with the backlash of that act.”

I can fill in that blank easily enough. “It did it to kill me,” I say. “Unless… it had a girl it was working with, trying to make into a witch. Could it have died and still done that?” From its last thoughts, that girl was very important to Aulunla. She was central to whatever ideas it was trying to dream into being, and it… loved her, in its way. Maybe enough to die for her if it would help, as strange as it is to think of self-sacrifice coming from a Harbinger.

Vyuji gives a tiny shake of her head. “A witch draws power from their Harbinger’s corruption. In almost all cases, a witch with no Harbinger is just a broken human.” 

Almost all?” I glance her way and raise an eyebrow.

“Magic and death are both complex things,” she shrugs.

“Um. Right.” Although I don’t know what’s complex about death except the knots people tie themselves into trying not to think of it as something horrible.

As for the girl… several blocks back into the city, there’s still no trace of her. Not that I can find, at least. Urgh. And I came so close to cleaning up my mess. The parts of it that have nothing to do with Tetha, at least. Still no plan there.

“In any case, you should know that you’ve accomplished something remarkable,” Vyuji says with a faint smile. “To not just survive something like that, but win? I’m proud of you, for whatever that’s worth to you.”

Have I? Are you really? Would you be if you knew how I got here?

“…About that,” I say, coming to a stop in the middle of an empty mini-park. I’ve barely paid any mind to the people passing by until now — I guess they’re quick to make way for a Keeper in a rush talking to herself. There’s at least no one watching me from the surrounding streets, as far as I can see, so I end my transformation and flop into a wooden bench under a tree.

Vyuji just nods, touches lightly down to the ground, and waits, meeting my gaze with a faintly curious glint in her dark eyes.

“Stop me if any of this sounds impossible,” I say.

“There are only a few things I would confidently call impossible. But I do understand what you’re asking for.” 

“Okay. Harbingers have been talking to me. More than half of the ones I’ve met have said things to me. Not exactly in words, but in ways I can sort of imagine or interpret as words? Well, no, the one I just killed wrote a book. In Clarish. And I’m pretty sure we had a conversation while I absorbed it.”

“What did they say? And what was that about a conversation? How did you talk back?” she asks. Her mental tone of voice rises, but there’s nothing unbelieving in it — it’s more like the tone I’d use to ask annoying clarifying questions when Dad used to tell me stories at night.

“I don’t know, Harbinger things? The sort of weird nonsense you’d expect a Harbinger to say, if you were expecting anything. No one ever told me they could talk. As for the last one, I’m not really sure. Near the end, I could hear it thinking in what sounded like Clarish poetry. In its last moments, it wrote some things out, and it’s like it could hear me thinking and write responses. You… aren’t talking like this is impossible.”

“Because it’s not. It is interesting that you’re bringing it up already, though.”

Then she closes her eyes, raises her head, and… sings something. In a voice like whalesong, low but steadily rising well beyond a human range. She’s done this once before, just after we met, but this time there are words behind or within the song, shaping themselves from the sound. I don’t recognize the words themselves — they do sound vaguely like the language Yurfaln and Irakkia spoke in, but without the pain and distortion and struggle to pull scraps of meaning from their grating sounds. This time, the idea behind them simply blossoms in my mind, clear as anything else Vyuji’s ever said to me:

<Can you hear me? This is the song of my soul — my true voice.>

“I… yes. Just… how’d you, how can I…”

Vyuji titters faintly — not the first time I’ve heard the sound from her, but it’s certainly not common. “Were you thinking of it as ‘the Harbinger language’?” she asks in Clarish.

I clamp my mouth shut and nod once.

“It isn’t. It’s an aspect of magic itself. Because they are creatures of magic — creatures capable of complex thought, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now — Harbingers can use it. Past a certain point in their growth, every Keeper should be able perceive this language in some way. Some eventually come to speak it. Actually, can you speak it?”

“Sorry. If I can, I don’t know how.”

“Don’t push yourself. You’d know if you could. That would have been quite something, but then, it already is. You’ve come to comprehend the language faster than any other Keeper I’ve known.”

“O-oh,” I breathe. That’s… on one hand, after what a horrible mess this whole incident was, it’s good to know that I really was on to something about my attunement to Harbingers, or to whatever parts of magic I use to feel their presence and hear their voices.

But the places this talent has led me since I found that book, the things I’ve done… Aulunla called its inheritance a curse. Maybe it was right. 

“I’m telling you all this because, well… the way I found this last one. At first it was just a book, I think. It wasn’t quite born, or fully part of the world, or however it works with them. I’d just killed another not-born Harbinger and it didn’t do anything for me.” 

I swallow. Vyuji says nothing, just nods and waits for me to go on.

“So… I… left this one like that. And… studied it. I infected it, just enough that it’d be easy to kill when I needed to. Watched it grow. I found that girl who would’ve been its witch and it was working with her somehow, not eating her alive, so I let it happen. Learned everything I could until it looked like it might get out of control, then came for it and… whatever it just did happened, but I managed. I won. The girl ran away, but I’ll find her. Or someone will.” I force the first words out in an unpleasant rasp, but by the time I finish, my voice has picked up strength and speed. It’s the verbal equivalent of ripping off bandages when I was younger. I’d pause and wince at every little bit of extra pain, then rush through it once I realized that it didn’t actually hurt that much, especially compared to anything going on inside me.

In this case, it’s unsettling just how little it hurts. It still feels like I was doing the best I could with an awful situation, and what else do I have? It’s not like I can trade these powers in for a new set that would make me a shining hero.

“And it worked for me, doing it this way. I could fight whatever Aulunla — the Harbinger — became because it had already been dying of my infection for almost two weeks. And I think I might have to keep doing it. Trying to run around and win big flashy fights the way Keepers do on shows is a nightmare for me, but figuring out how Harbingers work? Breaking them from the inside? I can do that. I’m good at it. I just… maybe sometimes I need to do things that sound and feel really bad to make it work. I don’t know, is this insane? Is there some other way I’m not thinking of?”

It sounds like you’ve already spotted a path your magic is well-suited to lead you down. It sounds like you’re asking for permission, not guidance,” Vyuji says. Her face doesn’t change at all.

“…If that was what I was doing, what would you say?” I murmur.

“That it’s not for me to grant or deny you permission for anything,” she answers without the slightest delay. “I’ve said before that I exist for you and children like you. My role is to help you grow. Yours is to determine for yourself what it means to grow into the best Keeper — the best Liadain — you can be.”

Vyuji’s smile widens a little. Most of her expressions feel like little more than rehearsed responses, just enough of a barely-there signal to tell you that she’s listening and understands the mood in the air. Whenever they go beyond that, outside the common range of little facial twitches and shifts in bearing I’ve seen her use and reuse, there’s something mysterious about them — like there’s a vague, broad range of feelings and ideas she might be suggesting, assuming she isn’t actually organically reacting to something. Which I’m still not sure if she ever does.

“That’s it?” I ask. “Just… do what seems best?”

“That’s it. If I thought you were planning something that could endanger the world or run against your best interests, I’d warn you. In this case, I’ll only offer you some small advice: you aren’t the first to seek this kind of knowledge. Your affinity for understanding Harbingers is remarkable, yes, but other children who’ve encountered many more of them than you may have their own insights to share. I’m not asking you to find another team, just to consider that you may not need to start from scratch.”

“If people have already studied these things, I imagine you know a lot. Is there some Scary Harbinger Secrets primer you could give me right now? That sounds easier.”

Vyuji blinks as if she’s trying to get a bit of dust out of her eyes, then shakes her head apologetically. “Not a primer, no. You’ve faced enough Harbingers to understand why it can never be that simple. Besides, you children have much better opportunities to learn about them than we do. I’ve explained how dangerous it is for us to get close to them. There are directions I may be able to point you in, but I can’t just yet. I’ll need to check on some things, for the same reasons I wouldn’t direct another Keeper to you without your permission.”

“Fair,” I groan. “I guess… in that case, I guess I’ll keep doing things… maybe not exactly like this, it was awfully messy by the end. But doing things my way. So unless there’s anything else I really need to know right now, just tell me when you’ve checked on whatever you need to check on.”

“I will. Ah, and you asked me to mention this next time, so. Have you seen yourself yet?”

Oh. Of course. “No,” I sigh.

“Well, now it’s coming from me instead of ‘the next random person to look at you.’ My work here is done. Take care, Liadain. And don’t be too hard on yourself while you’re alone with your thoughts. I think this is a promising path you’ve found.”

And she’s gone. I slow my pace and make my way back to the hospital — I keep watch with my soul for any traces of Aulunla, but find none.

I hurry through the seventh floor’s main room as soon as the elevator door slides open. My pace draws a few concerned eyes on its own, but if some strange new thing has changed about me, I don’t want people noticing and asking me stupid questions before I’ve at least taken stock of myself. I pull out the “do not disturb” tab on my room’s patient panel, step inside, and inspect myself in my dresser mirror.

I expected a few more strange winding veins of white in my hair, and I do see them immediately. Even my eyelashes have gone white — do people dye those? Is that even possible?

More important, though, is the pair of impossibly bright toxic green eyes glaring back at me. 

I bite my lip, drawing in a sharp breath through my teeth. The first time I transformed, I worried about whether this particular shift was permanent. So much for that. So much for anyone’s illusions about what’s happening to me. They don’t exactly glow like they do when my magic is out in full force, at least not yet, but really, what’s the other explanation? I decided to lean into the hair thing and start wearing colored contacts around the hospice for fun?

Well. I already knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my secret from people here forever, and that it’ll be harder the closer I get to my actual goals. I should be celebrating, just like Vyuji said the last time this came up. I won’t, but I know I should be.

That entire conversation was… after the last hard personal question I asked her, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Vyuji doesn’t have a word to say about betraying my Keeperly duties to humanity. 

Oh, that already sounds pretty hard on myself, doesn’t it? Sorry, Vyuji. This was my own idea and it still feels impossible to have my Messenger essentially endorsing it. It still feels wrong. But just the same, it still feels like my only way to succeed with this horrible power.

And even as I know that I’ll very much have to, that it’s exactly what I just proposed with all of that about understanding Harbingers, it’s still terrifying to think about what all of this means.

~~~

A parking lot filled with wide, short buildings, each lined with blue roll-up doors. A self-storage site and nothing but, with no effort taken to include any sort of greenery on the premises; a rare sight for New Claris after Saint Kuri’s Emergence and the new era’s coming. It was a ways away from any residential areas, which is why the journey took so long.

So this is where it all went down: where a Harbinger let loose a howl that could be felt from one end of the city to the other. Harbingers didn’t flare their auras for no reason, as a rule. When a Harbinger let loose like that, it meant whatever it was doing was worth signaling to every Keeper and their mom precisely where their next target was. Usually, that meant something very, very bad.

It only called out with such horrible intensity for a moment, but that was more than enough to drop what he was doing and race straight to it. He was sure all the others would do the same. He didn’t even have to check Lighthouse to know that. If the jolt through his nerves when the Harbinger’s aura spiked and the pull he felt during the journey here was any indication, they would need the numbers to have a prayer of resolving this with anything resembling safety.

But that concerning sensation waned before he even arrived.

The white-robed Keeper descends on radiant crimson wings. When his greaved boots touch the ground, his wings disperse in a whirl of feathers sculpted from scarlet light and wink away like sparks on the wind.

He had come ready for a fight, but it seems like he was too late. The enormous mass of power that was drawing him towards this place appears to have already vanished. Or had it been consumed? All that remains are traces.

Yet, as far as he can tell, he’s the first to arrive in the aftermath. That, or the responsible Harbinger has a means of concealing itself. It’s wholly possible that its hunting strategy is to draw Keepers in and ambush whoever comes first, then escape before it can be overwhelmed. A sophisticated strategy like that could have emerged from beyond the city limits, which might also account for how bloated its presence seemed, if that first immense pulse wasn’t some sort of illusion… Could that explain why it seemed so unreal? Or maybe the sheer pain behind it meant the Habringer could only do that by hurting itself in the first place…

Regardless, as unlikely as it is that someone beat him to the punch — perhaps the Screaming Hymn or Carves the Night if they’d been closer by — it is possible that someone had already sprung this hypothetical trap. If not, the role falls on him, now. Either way, the Harbinger is in for a nasty surprise, but it does mean he can’t let his guard down yet.

Step by step, he casually makes his way to the far end of the complex, where the lingering pressure of the Harbinger’s presence remains heaviest. One of the storage units is wide open, and even looking at it from the side, he can “see” the remnants of withered hope glimmering from within. If this is indeed a trap, this is where it’s set, so he places an inactive point of phantom mass across from the open garage and anchors himself to it so he has a way to escape any clutches that might reach out to drag him into a Wound. Especially if entering the Wound involves some sort of dirty trick, it’s better to storm in on one’s own terms.

His precautions made, the Keeper steps across the threshold and enters the storage unit. Inside, it looks like what happens when a Soul Sanctuary patient gets their hands on a bottle of glue and decides to start decorating their cell. There are pages on the walls and ceiling all shredded up or clumped into damp and mushy piles, and there’s a big box of wet, mulchy wood pulp with a few pages and hardcovers, suggesting that it used to contain books. The air itself is burdened with a sense of mourning.

This is definitely the remnants of some sort of ritual, but it’s a little difficult to say whether it succeeded or not. The explosive surge of power that brought him here in the first place could have been the moment when the rite succeeded, but if that were so, there was little other evidence remaining to suggest it. That uncertainty in and of itself indicates otherwise, however, especially paired with the faintness of the Harbinger’s lingering aura, which reminds him of the atmosphere after eating one of their hearts.

With a deep breath, the Keeper centers himself, trying to notice any more obscure details through his sense for the arcane — especially if something is being hidden from him, such as a presence other than a Harbinger and their lackeys. The chemical smell that saturates the room is annoying, however, disrupting his concentration. An inescapable sour tinge, and beneath that… the sickly-sweet scent of rotten sunflowers, strange in its isolation from the natural odor of the room.

No, not a smell. A separate aura.

“…Huh.” He doesn’t usually feel essence out by scent, but this one had distinguished itself that way, perhaps by its nature.

He notices it now, now that he’s gotten a bead on it. An unfamiliar aura. Flecks of a pale emerald light, smothered by the glow of dreams unfulfilled. Its sentiment is bitter, and there’s no weight to it at all, but it does have a sort of clinging, prickly, ever so slightly chilly pressure. There’s nothing welcoming about it, but the delicate sorrow it very faintly radiates is beautiful, in a way.

Someone or something else had been here. Before the Harbinger ever showed up? No, it’s no coincidence that these impressions were left in the same place. Did two Harbingers come out of the forest and pick a fight with each other on human territory? Or was it a Keeper he didn’t know after all? Because whatever the case, they interrupted this ritual. Was that when the Harbinger let out its roar which resounded across the whole of New Claris?

Well well. Now he’s curious.

The Keeper steps out of the storage unit and drinks in his surroundings. As he thought might be the case, the trail of this second aura he’s discovered flows out of this storage facility and towards the city proper. What remains of the Harbinger’s presence never got that chance. If nothing else, it seems clear who came out on top. Not the result one would usually be given to expect, considering the circumstances. How very interesting.

He begins to trace a spiral through the air with his finger, beginning a small ritual of his own, but he’s interrupted. He senses another Keeper approaching like a speeding motorbike — two, technically — a presence he recognizes immediately. Second place has finally arrived. Not that he’s complaining about the delay. At times like this, where there’s nothing much at stake, it’s a blessing that Irida takes forever to show up, by comparison. These two are more fun.

“ROLAND! HEYYYYY!” Shona’s voice blasts out as if through a megaphone as she careens into the parking lot. Then comes the grinding of her violin’s bow against the hard ground as she skids to a halt, leaving a thin gash trail in the concrete. Mide, close behind as always, simply slows to a clean stop. 

“What’s the situation here?” Shona asks at her normal volume, then waves and rushes to join him. “Wait, you, uh…” She squints, frowns, cups a hand behind her ear, and swivels in a wide circle. “Did you just fly in and solo-dolo handle whatever made all that noise?”

“About that,” he places his knuckles to his hips, puffs out his chest, and gives a cocky chuckle, drinking in Shona’s and Mide’s looks of amazement as they hang off his words with bated breath. “…Nope! Can’t say I did! I’m just passing through!” he admits outright.

The two girls blink twice.

“Whatever happened already happened,” Roland explains. “The situation itself, though, has a few loose ends that need tying up. No need to worry, though,” he says, raising his right arm and sweeping his finger through the air in emphasis, “when a cry for justice rings through the heavens, the Stardust Seraph answers!”

Shona grins from cheek to cheek, her eyes twinkling in excitement. “Ah, that’s so cool! Mide, look, look! That’s how you do it!”

Mide releases her held breath through her nose and looks off to the side. “Yeah, yeah…” Crossing her arms as her gaze passes over the storage units, she seems intent to leave everything to Shona, as usual.

For her part, Shona is swept along with the moment, thrusting her bow to the sky dramatically. “Okay! Whatever these loose ends are, the Screaming Hymn is here to lend her strings to the ensemble!”

“And I couldn’t ask for a better ally,” the Stardust Seraph replies through the v-shaped visor of his mask. “As a matter of fact, I do have something I could use your help with. See, there’s traces of another aura here besides the Harbinger’s. One I don’t recognize. I doubt you’ll recognize it either, but just in case…”

~~~

Somewhere between one corner and the next of Isobel’s aimless flight through the streets, the city changes. Its bright afternoon sky is replaced by a vast, impossibly starless night. 

Wait. That’s not right. This isn’t the city at all. 

New Claris isn’t filled with white towers of eerie luminous stone, and now massive glowing spires are all she can see. Every last one is broken, some bent over and twisted into structurally impossible shapes like they were made of wet clay and some simply crumbled into ruins. The material looks at first like stone covered in strange ridges, but that’s not it. Her unblinking eyes scan the closest structure and find… 

Faces? Faces. Identical marble-white masks, each decorated with two too-large black holes for eyes and a crescent-moon smile. The bodies they’re attached to wind out all around them, and while they may once have been human in shape, they’re now stretched and twisted and tangled together into the foundations of these shattered towers.

It should be a mercy that she can’t see their faces — if they were ever really human, if they ever really had faces — but something in those serene not-expressions makes Isobel’s breath catch in her lungs. She slowly backs away from the nearest looming tower, frantically looking over her shoulders for any signs of life. She finds none, but… the ground she’s standing on. It’s made of the same material, covered in the same death masks.

“Oh, you were close, weren’t you?” someone says. A boy’s voice, uncannily bright and cheerful. “No, that’s putting it too lightly. Your patron flew without wings. Even if it only managed for a few seconds before it came crashing back to earth, that’s still higher than most ever make it! I’m sorry it worked out the way it did for you two. I really am.”

There he is. On a chunk of rubble from the nearest shattered tower, seated in a ball with his thin arms wrapped around his legs. His white hooded sweater is spotted with dirt and dust, and his face is… it’s not that he’s wearing a mask, though it takes Isobel a moment to realize that. Rather, an image just like the faces covering the ground is overlaid with his head, occupying the same space at the same time. He simultaneously has a blank stone smile and an ordinary human face with wide, sunken eyes a shade of ice-blue so bright they look almost white, underneath an uncombed mop of ashy brown hair.

“Who… are you? Where are we, why am I here, what IS any of this?”

The boy chuckles to himself. “Weeell. Who I am is kind of a thorny question these days. My name’s Ciaran, but, hm. I’m not the only me anymore, if you follow? Finding the right words for all this is still pretty tough!”

There’s only one thing he could mean. The worst-case scenario. What she’s been terrified of since all this started. It’s one thing to be a witch, to willingly pact with Harbingers for power, and another entirely to…

“You’re a vessel,” Isobel whispers. 

“Ugh, pleeease, no! That’s such a messy term! You hear it and you think right away that something scooped me out of myself and started wearing me as a suit, y’know? Fine, yeah, some Harbingers definitely do scoop people, but that’s not how it is with me and my buddy! Really! Am I talking like a flesh-puppet?”

Isobel shakes her head slowly. Not that she really knows. Sure, he doesn’t match the usual idea of what vessels are supposed to be like, but that doesn’t mean much. Harbingers aren’t supposed to be like Aulunla, either. She can’t let herself forget how to think, even when… even now…

“Then there you go! You were working with a Harbinger yourself, right? You already know there’s so much more to this than what they teach in those ridiculous safety videos,” Ciaran says.

“Okay. I don’t know why we’d be having this conversation if you or your monster were going to eat me, so I’ll take you at your word there.” Maybe there’s some reason she just can’t think of, but what else is she going to say?

“Monster? Wow, rude. But yeah, this would have to go real bad for us to think about eating you,” Ciaran agrees. He scowls a second later, and his stone mask duplicates the expression, flipping its crescent grin upside down. “If you really wanna put it so messily. ‘Eating’ is another word that misses a lot of nuance here. Seriously, you of all people should know that by now! You and your Harbinger weren’t out there gobbling people up, were you?”

“Then what DO you want with me?” Isobel asks.

If Ciaran minds that she ignored his question, he doesn’t show it. His mood lifts in an instant, and his mask’s placid smile returns. “Oh, that’s easy! Do you want to end up strapped to a cot in the Sanctuary while they peel your soul open and pick out everything that makes you special?”

Isobel gnaws on her lip, literally biting back the urge to follow her Research Club instincts and argue about his ridiculously loaded language. With a vessel who could kill her and eat her at any second, or probably worse. Whatever he wants to call it. 

Ciaran leans hard to one side, tilting his head until it’s almost horizontal. “Hmmmm?”

Honestly, is he even wrong? She has no idea how they’d treat a witch at Bright Horizon. Would she be a patient or a specimen? Does it matter? Even in the best case, she doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s the world that’s broken, wrong in so many ways she’s only just begun to spot.

“Uh. Not really, no,” she mutters. Her clenched fists tremble at her side.

“Didn’t think so! That’s why we brought you here — to help you escape that fate! You’re a fellow traveler, Isobel, and we want you to join us. To make it as far as you did with a patron who was barely even real until the end, you’ve clearly got potential. The kind of potential that so often ends up wasted sitting and waiting for whoever or whatever chooses Keepers to give you the time of day. The kind people like us can only achieve by taking the Undreaming’s hand when she reaches out to us, sprouting beautiful black wings of night, and flying free from this cage of a world!” 

The vessel rocks back and throws himself forward, rolling off his rocky perch and landing uncomfortably close to her. Tears fill his eyes as he grins with… some unnameable emotion, something deep and desperate and more intense than she’s ever felt about anything.

Wait. She never told him her name, did she? No, there’s… there’s more important things to think about here.

“Now, we aren’t going to lie to you. It won’t look the same way your ascension would’ve. You’ll have to accept a new god. But if you still want to see this through, our path is open to you,” Ciaran says softly.

“And if I don’t want to? If I did what I did because it was really different with my Harbinger?”

Maybe Isobel was deceiving herself while she partnered with Aulunla, but “accepting a god” doesn’t sound like what she was doing with it at all. She’d been exploring unknown ground, forming a bond with a creature that really might not be the kind of monster Harbingers were universally painted as.

Ciaran shrugs. “Then we wish you luck and put you back where we found you. But you should think about just what you know and just how different you were from us, first.”

Now, though, there’s no way to dress up what’s happening. This boy is asking her to reject life as she knows it entirely. To leave humanity behind and rebuild herself as something else, something that isn’t even her design this time. All for the vague hope that at the end of a new road paved with pain and sacrifice, whatever she becomes will matter more than her grey, boring little life ever did.

But the box is already open, isn’t it?

“What do we need to do?” she asks.

Ciaran’s mask-smile widens. He claps once, leaving his palms pressed together as if in prayer. “Just let us in. It’ll only hurt a little.”

Something lands on her head with the barely-there touch of a bug in her hair. And then, all in the same instant, keeps falling — keeps digging — wire-thin fingers sink into her skull, worm through the folds of her brain, bore into her soul like a horrible thought that only grows louder the harder you try to push it away— 

end
phase 1: what grows in the seedbed of sorrow

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-8.3

With the sheer force of Aulunla’s cry, my plague is scattered. The corruption I’d inflicted on the Wound is forced back, scoured away in the area around its newfound insectoid form.

I fling all twelve of the tainted cards that still remain in my orbit at the creature. They bounce off harmlessly. I pull back eight of them and have the other four spin at its head, where I detonate them all at once.

Aulunla lets out another ear-splitting cry that rattles me to my bones. For a moment, I think I might’ve put a dent in it, but those hopes are dashed with one whip of the Harbinger’s glyph-collage wings. The plague cloud enveloping the hatchling is dispersed in an instant.

I understand now. This is what Auluna has been aiming for all this time, from the very start. This is how it meant to stop me. When I said Aulunla didn’t have control over what it’s become… this isn’t exactly what I thought it might be missing, but it might be the Harbinger’s attempt to compensate for it. If Auluna had actually been able to use the full force of the power running riot inside it all this time, it should have been able to resist my corruption like this all along.

The chanting, this world, its creatures, their consumption, and the drawn-out growth of this giant origami insect… it was all for this moment. Aulunla is a composer of rituals by nature, so even though it couldn’t use the seething mass of power it was generating by tearing itself to shreds to its full potential, it could still take the long way around and gradually direct the out-of-control storm of essence it made of itself into a form it could use to crush me.

This is Aulunla’s greatest concentration of power. It’s poured everything it can into this manifestation, all for the sake of stopping me in my tracks before I make it to the great black oak that towers behind it. Fighting this creature is hopeless. I have no hold over it. My cards have no effect. It’s impervious to the blight that’s ravaged the rest of the Wound. If this thing was all I was up against, it would be checkmate, and I would be done for.

But unfortunately for Auluna, it’s still too late.

Eight tree roots dance sinuously from the depths of the pit beneath Aulunla’s new form, then lunge at me all at once, just like the first time Aulunla tried to skewer me with them. Now, though, the very presence of Aulunla’s new form rejects my plague just the same as when it first tore itself apart to reorder its Wound, and the roots around it are no longer affected by my blight.

But there is one more key difference. My whole body is flush with Yurfaln’s blessing and the careless burning of Aulunla’s own stolen strength. And as fast as the Harbinger’s earthen tendrils are, I’m still just a bit faster. I leap into the air right as the roots dive for me and land on top of one of them, stumble, then start running up its length.

One of the other roots flows across the one I’m running on, trying to swat me off, but I just clumsily hop on top of it next, riding it to my next stepping stone. The moment I touch down, it whips wildly backwards, trying to catapult me off, but before it can, I’ve already leapt to another, higher tendril. 

Aulunla strikes out with blinding speed, its pointed paper limb slicing through the root I’m on like it’s warm butter. Still, I leap to the next coiling root. I haven’t done many athletic things in my life. Even if my blood wasn’t eating me from the inside out, I’ve never been very interested in that sort of thing. That’s why, even though I’m backed by magic, all of my movements are clumsy and artless, always on the verge of disaster. If this goes on, I’ll eventually make a mistake. But if I just think of this like playing hopscotch, except if I take one wrong step I will definitely die, somehow, I manage.

So I keep dodging. Again and again, from one root to the next, watching for my opportunity. Finally, I see it: Auluna reeling back one of its higher appendages for an attack. It jabs its limb forward, trying to skewer me, and I just barely dodge out of the way. I then make its arm my next stepping stone, and as it pulls back its limb, I use the momentum to leap forward, right past its faceless head, and on to its hardback cover carapace.

The tendrils I’d been leaping between untangle themselves and coil around Aulunla, reaching across its back to catch me as I race down. Two, three, four more tendrils burst out of the pit below. But again, it’s too late. From the very moment Aulunla met me, it’s always been too late.

If Aulunla had stopped me just a bit further away, then its roots would have caught me here and torn me to pieces. But it didn’t manage to do that. It only managed to block me right before I finally got close enough to the great black oak at the center of the Wound for my blight to tear it all down.

Jagged green veins rupture up the trunk of the black tree, the one monument in all of Aulunla’s landscape that had remained unspoiled in the face of my blight. The forest surrounding its base loses all color and begins to wither. Chunks of bark peel away in layers and tumble down, crushing the rotten paper flowers beneath. The spiraling branches on the left side become brittle, too weak to hold up their own weight, and one after another begin to snap off. The whole tree creaks and shudders as its base splinters and it tilts precariously backwards, then begins total collapse.

The roots pursuing me all freeze up and begin to disintegrate into sawdust, giving me a chance to bound off the end of the origami insect’s hardback book spine with all my strength, just barely making it to the other edge of the whirlpool-pit. Above, I watch as Aulunla’s shabby emblem, now just splotches of color, begins to bleed away.

Everywhere I look, the great sawdust cloud desert is collapsing into the inverted sky below. This whole world is coming apart at the seams.

not yet not yet NOT YET NOT YET

Aulunla’s butterfly turns to look at what used to be its sigil. It stretches out its wings, beats them rapidly, and soars upwards towards it.

Even though it was born 
of thoughts frozen in time 
when they were dedicated to the page,
the tree was cursed to the selfsame fate 
as a passing bleak wind
and forced to confront an ending
 it was never meant to know;
a disease it could neither fight nor escape
slowly but surely dawning upon it
 like the callous gaze of the Sun.

The faceless beetle of folded paper collides with the flickering, shifting, swirling colorful light where the sigil once was and is engulfed by it. The kaleidoscope of colors blends together into a single blinding white light.

The beauty and wonder 
of what could be 
will die along with it.
There will be other dreams,
but this one was mine.

A raw flood of power, aimless and pure. Exactly like a spotlight, its ray showers down upon the world, annihilating everything it touches.

Goodbye moon and your wonderful boons.

The stream of light melts down the moon as though it were made of wax.

Goodbye purple apples oh-so pleasing to sample.

The brilliance floods through the forest. Paper flora crumples and is reshaped into thin, fluttering paper meant to imitate flame, which smolders at its tip with the glow of actual burning. The mingled blaze, fake fire flowing into true, burns with a hazy rainbow of many different pigments.

Goodbye oases that came from high places.

Some of the flower-headed creatures scatter and flee from the scorching rays with outstretched arms reaching towards some vain hope, even as they are far too slow to escape. Others prostrate themselves before the all-consuming light, their glass eyes staring into the burning glare, drinking in all they can before they are obliterated.

Goodbye moon-rabbits and all your cute habits.

The rabbits crumble away beneath the heat. Nothing escapes. Everything burns.

Goodbye ice cream knolls that sing happy carols.

I know what Aulunla is trying to do. It’s trying to cut off any escape route.

Goodbye fish that can fly who swim in the sky.

There’s nothing left in this smoldering ruin but bitterness and the absolute determination to bring me down with it.

Goodbye.

Aulunla finally turns its pillar of light on me, but I already have my answer. I replace every card I’ve used with a new blank one until my complete set of twenty-two is restored, then I call on the illness that I inflicted on myself when this fight began in earnest, and I pour every last iota of it into the spread orbiting me.

One after another, the refined corruption I’ve nurtured all this time floods into my cards and fills them to the brim, causing them to combust into shimmering flames of intermingled emerald and amethyst, swirling and flickering around me. All together, I fire them off in a spiral of misty comets which glow a black radiance that devours all other light. They cut through the beam of Aulunla’s spotlight as it passes overhead and crash directly into its source.

There’s a sound of cracking glass.

The light above flickers twice, then fades out like a dying lantern, leaving everything in darkness.

~~~

The end comes for me. I sink into an endless well of desperation and there is no accord. No understanding. Nothing of me that will remain once I am drowned. 

Goodbye, my friend. My treasure. Carry my remains in remembrance forevermore. Dream other, better dreams. Feast and feast on pages until your worlds within encompass everything of worth. Soon I will live only in your memories and the Beast of Malediction’s scars, but there is enough of me left to do one last thing for you. 

SHE WILL NOT TAKE YOU TOO.

~~~

Isobel and Aulunla have only ever communicated through its book and those wordless whispers. Whatever she’s meant to do with these glyphs, whatever urgent message they might carry for her, she can’t find it. It doesn’t help at all that they’re so unstable, blurring and flickering and losing parts of their structure that frantically labor to pull themselves back together. Over time, the disruptions grow larger and take longer to repair — several sigils are now almost completely unrecognizable as anything but confused tangles of meaningless text.

Finally, a grating shriek of pain rises from Aulunla’s book, shaking Isobel out of her reverie. The Harbinger’s origami body — less coherent than she’s ever seen it, a wave of soggy, balled-up paper shedding scraps of itself with every motion — reaches up and out, tearing through the woven-paper dome’s ceiling, and then the whole world around them folds itself. Everything flips over, sending Isobel hurtling through empty air. She shrieks as she falls, hurtling down or up well past the point where she should have simply crashed into the ceiling, but after a few seconds, she drops face-first into a field of soft, springy grass. The impact still forces the remaining breath from her lungs.

“Aulunla? What’re you doing? What’s happening?” Isobel asks the empty air.

In answer, something small thuds into her back. She pushes herself upright and runs a hand through the grass, searching for the source of the impact. Sure enough, it’s fallen right beside her — it’s a night-black apple, freckled all over with glimmering purple specks and almost-glowing bright spots like little stars.

Isobel lets out a fit of uneasy, breathless laughter. Sparkly purple apples. It’s really invested in that stupid idea, huh? What possible difference does it make to the world what color apples are or aren’t?

Maybe she shouldn’t be too hard on it. It might not get humans, or this world, but it gets Isobel well enough for them to be a good team.

“…Aulunla?” she tries once more.

Silence. 

“Aulunla, where did you go? Where did I go?” Whether the Harbinger’s book is on hand shouldn’t matter. It hasn’t since she let it into her dreams. What is that girl doing? “Talk to me. I… I can’t help if you don’t tell me anything.”

It doesn’t. No wordless whispers. No sign of her constant companion’s presence.

Wait. She still isn’t sure how she got here. Aulunla could’ve done it, but maybe something else happened and it still needs her help. Maybe it needs her help with something here. Like what? What could it want with this anonymous plot of grass?

That’s not it. She knows perfectly well what happened. The shifting space felt like Aulunla’s touch, and the apple, the fucking apple…

No. No no no it can’t be, it’s not fair, they were so close— 

But it is. Aulunla is gone. When has anything ever been fair?

Isobel stuffs the apple into her bag, jumps to her feet, and runs. Where is she going? What is she running from? Who knows? Who knows anything anymore? She just runs, tearing past bewildered passersby, only stopping on the verge of collapse for just long enough to catch her breath and dry her eyes before she keeps running.

~~~

A sharp wind blows from nowhere to nowhere across the blackness of the void.

As the last remaining fragments of Aulunla’s Wound disintegrate into emerald mist, a featureless black book rises from the emptiness, floating before me in the desolate ruins. This time, when I reach out to absorb it, there’s no chaotic flood of alien ideas and memories. Instead, the Harbinger’s voice whispers to me — closer than before, and stronger, spoken without wasting any strength on keeping itself alive.

<These are the words with which we write our poems and sing of our dreams. Words you shred into ashes and dust. Dreams you trample underfoot. Songs you cast into the void to leave forever unheard.>

But… they aren’t unheard. I know exactly what Aulunla is saying, clearer than I have with any of the others.

<NO. You hear and you feel but you have never UNDERSTOOD. You did not know what I was, you did not know THAT I was, and the not-knowing protected you.>

<Never again.>

The book opens itself. It begins with a dedication:

For my friend

This is my self
My regret Our regrets
My wish Our wishes
MY CURSE

As soon as I read the last words, it begins to flip through its pages. On each is a complex arrangement of sigils that spiral and twine into each other, making it hard to tell if they’re composed of two or three or four main glyphs. They’re the same script I keep seeing in Wounds and the Sanctuary, but those never meant anything to me. I couldn’t translate them intuitively like I do with Harbingers’ voices. These ones are different… no, I’m different. I can read them now. They speak in Aulunla’s thoughts, telling its story in a simple, childish voice:

The air in this place is thick with nameless yearning that is no longer nameless. I have named it and made it my name.

I know where wishes come from. I know what everyone wishes for. Souls are made of paint, of ink. They all long to fill the world with their colors, but most have forgotten what colors are and now when they see colors they think they are something strange and scary and other-than-them. It is sad but it is okay because I still see the colors! I can crack their shells of dross and dream-slurry and drink the colors inside and read the words their inks would have written if they only knew how and write them myself! Now I contain such lovely things!

Soon my friend will contain them, too!

I have feasted on many colors and learned many things, but never so much as I learned from allowing my own shades to mingle with hers. In her, I found the name of our nameless dream. Her longing is so pure it could burst out of her and swallow the world and never be twisted or tinted the slightest bit. 

And so it will. We will do it together. We will be it together. Soon, so soon, we will become everything we can imagine at once! Right now there is still frozen acid eating me from the inside and everything hurts it hurts it hurts but that is okay! We will write it away. We will write such things, oh, such beautiful things!

Slowly, the book melts into shadows and green mist, merging with my soul. And as I take it in, I realize that this small, simple Wound was never meant to be a battleground. Aulunla hadn’t quite managed to make a true witch of the girl it only ever called “my friend, my treasure,” and it had no way to fight me itself — at least not until it broke itself, burned away everything it was for a burst of power it could never hope to sustain. It had been trying to make an argument for why I should leave it alone. In bizarre, broken Harbinger-logic, but that was the idea.

Knowing all this… I wouldn’t do anything different. It’s still a monster that only made it this far because I let it, and it’s not like I have a choice. I need this.

But…

<i’m scared i don’t want to die> 

The Harbinger’s weak wail cuts through my thoughts. There’s very little left of it, now, only a few torn and rotting wisps I haven’t quite absorbed. Somehow, I’m sure those will be its last words. 

“Me neither. I’m sorry,” I whisper back. 

Only a raw pulse of hate and pain answers. Of course. Those useless words change less than nothing.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-8.2

Relief crashes over me like a wave, washing me away. My thoughts are overwhelmed with a warm light as precious as it is blinding. I struggle to catch myself amidst the rolling tide, but I manage to take hold. It feels like coming up for air after dunking my head into an oasis I found after baking for days in a desert with no end, and then falling back into a nice, snug bath. Everything the water touches is restored.

The chill plaguing me is replaced with a cozy warmth. The pain throbbing in all my joints disappears. The weights holding me down all fall away, leaving me light as a feather. The taste of honey lingers on my tongue. Everything feels so easy, because all I have to do is keep drinking from this endless fountain of life until I’m satisfied.

Not enough. Not enough. There will never be enough.

I never want to let go. And I don’t have to. There’s no reason to. In fact, I can dive deeper, plunge my teeth into the beating heart of this world and lap its lifeblood up as carelessly and as greedily as I want. And what a vast ocean of blood it is! I can’t even comprehend it! How hasn’t Aulunla drowned me yet, if it’s managed to bleed itself this much? I could get lost in it forever, if it wasn’t drying up like a great big puddle beneath the hateful sun all on its own. It’s a special, priceless treat, and it’s all for me. I can’t imagine anything sweeter. For once since my diagnosis, for one brief moment, I feel completely free. It’s a feeling so wonderful I start to cry.

My plan wasn’t wrong. It was the right choice to go around and stain the Harbinger with my curse from the start, to infest it with my poison at its every point of contact with the world, because now, I realize, it allowed me to do this. And no matter how overwhelmingly dangerous Aulunla has made itself in this final hour, no matter what remaining tricks it has up its sleeve, now I know how vulnerable it truly is.

I’m not the one who’s doomed here. It was too late for Aulunla from the very beginning.

I can do this. I can win.

As my tears fall upon the trembling, shriveling mass of the root, the endless fountain shatters. Like a lizard lopping off its tail and leaving it behind as bait, my prey severs its link to the appendage I’m latched on to. I’m rejected, cut off from the source, but left just one final gulp of essence to slurp up before I fully awaken from my reverie.

My leeching mist withdraws as the root crumbles away. I land on my hands and feet like a cat leaping from a branch. My cards revolve around me as I stand, tears still streaming down my face. The rip in my dress has been knit shut, although it’s splattered with little drops of oozing paint that rain from Aulunla’s sky around the falling seeds. Echoes of the chill on my skin and the burning in my joints are already returning, gnawing at the back of my mind, but I smother it all beneath the flood of vitality I’ve just guzzled down. There’s far more than a single life’s worth within me, now.

The terracotta rabbit from before has turned in a wide arc and is coming back around for another bullrush. Around half of its entourage of miniature doubles lies left behind, scattered across the jagged rolling hills of sawdust, twitching as they erode away. They were all infected when they trampled over me and my plague-ridden cards, and they’ve already succumbed. The large rabbits are tough, but the small ones may be even weaker than the flower-heads.

But that’s not all I have to worry about. There’s a second stampede of terracotta rabbits coming from the opposite direction. The rabbit leading this charge is enormous, bigger even than the first one that came after me. It has to be the size of an elephant, and it punts up a rain of many-colored sawdust chips behind it whenever it kicks its hind-stumps off the ground, showering the parade of smaller bunnies that follow it.

And then, as if to box me in, two walls of thick tree roots pressed together at their sides spring up from the soggy sawdust just beyond my dried-up pathway, which has by now been reduced to a shattered mess of curdled chunks arranged across the mulch. The roots reach towards each other above me, trying to form an arch passing overhead, but with hardly a thought, I once again call upon my blight and watch as corrosion scales the roots from their base to their tips. At the very least, there were far too many of them for me to reach in and drain Aulunla once again, but that still won’t work.

I can do this.

Next I turn my attention to the first of the rabbits charging right towards me, the one that’s the size of a bull, and I fling a card in the quickly shrinking space between us. Right before the terracotta beast passes over it, I detonate the card like a landmine, sacrificing it to create an explosion of plague-mist — taking out all the remaining little bunnies in the process. The card that I’d already embedded into the bull-sized rabbit’s forehead sucks all of the fog into itself and injects it directly into the rabbit, causing it to stumble over itself as its earthy flesh cracks. I sidestep its tumbling form as it rolls forward and crashes into the second, even bigger rabbit, which careens over its smaller siblings and lands on its back.

I can win.

With my pathway open, I rush past the spasming pile of terracotta bunnies and continue my mad dash towards the huge black oak that looms at the center of the Wound… but not before detonating the remaining card still stuck to the bull-sized rabbit, engulfing all of the creatures in the toxic mist. I push the chorus of their pained cries out of my mind as it fades behind me. I simply spawn another two blank tarot cards to replace the two I just used and keep on moving.

I sprint ever forward through the nightmare. On my right side, I hug the garden rows of paper flowers that rose up in the wake of the rabbit packs; the longer I run, the taller the flora grows, rising to the height of a forest. Droplets of watercolor paint fall from the swamp in the sky and splatter on the paper leaves, further confusing their color schemes. Every so often, I can also still hear the boom of people-comets crashing in the distance, but it’s only happening rarely now.

On my left side, the sawdust desert this Wound began as stretches on, now riddled with groves of false life left behind by the comets. These tracts of alien flora and crystal fruits have intersected with the criss-cross of paths where the terracotta rabbits tredded, creating a patchwork quilt of sawdust wastelands and paper flower forests that feels like a child’s art project. At the center of the largest of these forests, enormous soft serve ice cream cone spires have risen out of the thickets, the trembling black pupils of their carelessly placed googly eyes all turned up to the swamp-sky.

The gardens have grown so huge that they dwarf me. The great paper flowers that crown these forests would cast long shadows across the wastes, if they could cast shadows – for in Aulunla’s world, there are no shadows, just the faintest hint of shading upon everything as though bathed in an aimless twilight glare. Enormous crystal fruits and silver bells as big as cottages and hulking, shiny purple apples bend the far too thin stalks they sprout from till they reach the ground, where flower-headed stick-monsters gather around and stare into their own reflections. They’re captivated by the blurry image in their own glass eyes, which the surfaces of the fruits seem polished enough to reflect. Some of them, however, are holding on to each other, choosing to look into each other’s eyes instead.

But no matter how big the nightmarish forest around me has grown, the massive black oak at the center of the Wound still towers over everything. It’s like a skyscraper built in the middle of the woods. I can still see it all clearly — the big white dot in the coil of one of its branches that’s now swollen into a pulsating balloon, the moon of alien flowers circling around it, and Aulunla’s great, shimmering sigil cradled between the two vast outstretched arms formed from its spiraling branches.

And it’s all falling apart.

Everything is wasting away. Paper petals wilt. Stems droop weakly. Bark and briars flake off. The crystal fruits crack. The silver bells rust. The purple apples shrivel up. Where once everything was a gaudy overflow of color, now an ashen rot has taken hold, slowly consuming everything bit by bit. Patches of the sawdust dunes have dried out, crusting over like scabs, and in these stretches, crags have begun to form where the distinct glow of my magic bleeds out like light through a foggy emerald.

Terracotta rabbits lie fallen over in the distance, twitching on their sides as they litter the wastes. The decorative flora they carried on their backs has withered into a drab mess. Many of their long, thin cactus ears have fallen loose and begun to sink into the ground. The earthen bunnies still hopping about in the distance have grown sluggish, and it seems like some are no longer sprouting new gardens as they move.

How tall Aulunla’s toybox forest ahead of me has grown only makes it all the more obvious that the rest of the Wound is breaking down behind me. I’ve been running through this nightmare for long enough to have passed by places where the people-comets are sure to have landed, but when I look back to make sure nothing is on my tail, the skyline extending out into the upside-down horizon is empty. All that’s there is the end of this fleeting world, the sawdust clouds that made it up to begin with coming apart and slipping over the edge into an indigo void.

The glyph above Aulunla’s black tree has… not exactly decayed, not the way so much of this world has, but collapsed in on itself. The crudely sketched lines of light that composed it and the bouquet it’s supposed to portray fall and twist and tangle up with each other, flickering and vibrating rapidly. Their hues overlap without overwriting each other, not blending but becoming a single chaotic blur of nonsense colors. What remains looks like someone covered a piece of paper in roughly circular squiggles, each made with a different random crayon, then animated it in the same choppy, simplistic way as the pencil-sketch layer of the Wound which preceded this newest nightmare.

Now Aulunla is the one hanging on for dear life. And I don’t think it’s just because I’d poisoned it from the start. When I reached out and touched the depths within it, I felt the sea of raw power inside the Harbinger that it’s tearing itself apart to bring forth, and I drank from it. I couldn’t even comprehend the vastness of it.

If it could control what it’s made itself into, it would be able to endure my plague for so much longer, or even brush it off entirely. But it can’t. Like I thought before, it only delayed the inevitable. In fact, my blight is only accelerating Aulunla’s breakdown at this point, rather than its main cause.

But as if to assure me this isn’t over yet, I finally “hear” it. I grasp Aulunla’s voice.

I know this voice. It’s the same tone as its lifeblood, but I also sensed it before, faintly chanting behind the ritual of this world. It’s always been there, tapping away at the back of my thoughts, behind even the phantom echoes of the aches and chills wracking my body. Now, for the first time, I sense it clearly: the will of the dreamer which underlies this whole nightmare, resounding across the Wound and spilling through my thoughts. Not a voice of words, but a voice of feelings, and yet they’re rendered in Clarish, however clumsy, more keenly than any Harbinger I’ve yet faced.

“We’ll fill up the sky with fish that can fly;
Since confinement to water is naught but a bother,
Let’s make everything better — cut away all the fetters
And grow from our seeds a world of just what we need.”

Thick raindrops of paint shower from the swamp-sky above me in a sudden downpour, but they transform in midair, stretching and shifting into distinct shapes. The globs mold themselves into crudely shaped, rainbow-scaled swordfish, which all begin to dart through the air, forming a giant swirling mob. No, a school. A school of dozens, then hundreds of swordfish, all swimming together above me, roiling about.

And then, like a waterfall, they dive. The shower of many-colored raindrops becomes a shower of spear-tipped fish spilling down on me like a volley of arrows.

I speed up my mad dash, but the barrage is gaining on me, so I call for my blight from the depths of this festering Wound. It answers, and I turn it on the forest to my right. I lay the infected tarot cards revolving around me on their sides and will them to spin faster than ever before I dive into the rotted thicket.

My whirling ring of cards shaves through the weakened underbrush like a buzzsaw, allowing me to pass through unhindered. As I prune away the stems and stalks and half-formed bodies of flower-headed creatures that didn’t quite manage to pull themselves from the grove, it all falls together over me, creating a tent-shaped passage. The great paper flowers and crystal fruits catch on each other and form into a shelter that shields me from the hailstorm… mostly. The tips of the swordfish still pierce through my make-do ceiling, breaking it down and forcing me to keep on moving ahead.

As I shred through the forest and any of the flower-heads hidden here unlucky enough to get in my way, the sharp pattering of swordfish stabbing against the canopy dwindles. Not long after, I burst out from a distant end of these paper-flower woods and look out to find myself closer to the great black oak at the center of the Wound than ever before.

I can finally see where the foot of its trunk meets the sawdust dunes, surrounded on all sides by thickets of overgrown paper flowers slithering up its base like vines. Besides those, the paper flower garden patches are few and far between, here. Some of the fish are still swimming through the sky, but most have fallen, scattered limply across the sawdust wastes, drained of all their vibrant, clashing colors. I’ve got a clear shot to Aulunla’s tree, now. I’m almost there. I’m at the final stretch.

Then, a ripple curls across the bulging white pustule that’s been growing all this time at the center of one of the tree’s spiraling branches. It quavers. My hair stands on end. The goosebumps traveling up my arm tell me that something’s coming. I brace myself. Finally, at long last, the egg bursts open.

And as the tree sang its song, the moon bathed the egg in its warm light and…
Pop!
Out of the egg came a GROSSLY ENORMOUS, UTTERLY STARVING caterpillar!

Something thick and winding crashes to the ground at the foot of the great black oak, its massive body crushing the garden of paper flora it lands on. Everything it touches is dissolved and absorbed into its mass. Rather than simply a caterpillar, it’s more like a giant slug with a segmented body and stubby little protrusions wiggling out of its bottom. It’s hard to tell from how far away it is, but even if it doesn’t stand quite as high as the elephant-sized terracotta rabbit from before, it’s got to be at least eight times longer.

It looks like it’s entirely made of paper mache that hasn’t quite dried yet, and across the length of its entire body is an alternating pattern of dangerous looking thorns that curve backwards like the fins of a shark, and deep blue eyes glancing frenziedly in different directions all around it. Crowning its head are two antennae… or perhaps eyestalks, or maybe horns, which bulge out before it and pulsate, winking between green and red sections pumping up and down the length of the knob like a tacky neon sign.

“I’m so sorry,” said the tree to the newborn, “but there’s not much time left.
I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet you in a darker place, 
where the light in other eyes didn’t burn away the things you see in the shade.
I’m so sorry we didn’t get the chance to make this dream-slurry more of what we wanted it to be.
I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to rip off all the lies so you could know everything you wanted to know.”

Amidst the devastation, the melting gunk that composes the giant ice cream spires, which rise above all else but the great black oak, begin to burble and foam beneath their plastic eyes. They form greasy bubbles which split off from the froth and start floating through the air, where they’re soon popped by falling droplets of sky-swamp paint and unleash a torrent of sing-song babble that echo Aulunla’s own words.

“I’m so sorry that I don’t have more for you.
I have only flowers and fruits and fish and the moon.
I wish they were more beautiful, but I did the best I could.

So before they’re all cast into the sea with all the other forgotten things,
please take them and eat them all up.
Then you won’t be so hungry and you can be happy.”

All of a sudden, the wildly glaring blue eyes across the massive “caterpillar” all ignite with a bloodshot scarlet glow and cast their gazes straight ahead. The beast’s body unfurls and with unnatural quickness it slithers forward in a blinding burst of speed. Watching it surge forth in my direction floods my nerves with panic, as if I’m straight in the path of a runaway freight train. It’s the full weight of Aulunla’s presence crashing down on me like a collapsing building.

And so the caterpillar started to
DEVOUR
EVERYTHING.
And the caterpillar loved the tree very much.
And the tree was happy.

I don’t hesitate. I immediately raise eight tainted cards from my spinning ring of twenty-two. I begin running towards the great black oak, but at an angle so I have a chance of dodging the giant cater-slug thing when it comes at me.

But it doesn’t.

On the first day, it ate through one shiny purple apple, but it was still hungry.

Instead, it goes for the nearest giant apple hanging off its bent over stem. It rams right into the oversized fruit, but passes clean through without slowing down. Just by touching the apple, it liquifies and sponges it up, leaving a hole behind where it passed.

On the second day, it ate through two crystal glass pears, but it was still hungry.

After having its fill of the apple, the creature rushes right past me, so close I can see its segments squeezing together in sequence as it squirms itself forward faster than any caterpillar could possibly move, but it otherwise ignores me as I run right by it. I don’t waste this opportunity, though. With a swipe of my hand, I send the eight floating cards I lifted from my orbit hurtling towards the newborn monstrosity. The corner edge of each card lodges cleanly into the cater-slug’s flesh… where they’re promptly absorbed into its mass, along with all the refined sickness they contain.

Yet the “caterpillar” refuses to slow down. Jagged green veins of rot fissure through the length of the creature’s body, but it otherwise doesn’t seem affected by my attack at all. It simply speeds off into the dying forests behind me. It leaves behind a trench in the sawdust dunes, absorbing even the mulch into its body.

On the third day, it ate through three big silver bells, but it was still hungry.

I would like to say it’s fine by me if I don’t have to deal with that monstrosity, but I’m not that stupid. It was different from everything else in the Wound. The feeling of its very presence, the sheer weight of it, haunts me, like coming face to face with a tornado.

But trying to chase it down would be a waste of time, so instead I continue my wild sprint towards the towering black tree and Aulunla’s shoddy, fracturing emblem. I don’t know how long it’s been, but this is without a doubt the furthest I’ve run in my entire life. Even with my stock of health rapidly burning away, my legs are still on fire. Strangely, though, it doesn’t hurt this time.

On the fourth day, it ate through four black oak roots, but it was still hungry.

One final, enormous swarm of flower-heads is storming out of the forest surrounding the base of the great black oak. They’re joined by five herds of terracotta rabbits, three emerging from the forests behind me and two mixed in with the advancing flower-heads. The elephant-sized rabbit is leading one of the three herds trailing my back, one of its cactus ears snapped halfway off and its paper flowers having shed off from prolonged exposure to my plague.

I couldn’t possibly count how many there are, but from afar it looks like a vast field of flowers parading towards me. Not a stampede, but a parade. Even though the flower-heads are bounding on all fours like a neverending pack of hyenas, every single one of them has been touched by my curse. How I am now, sacrificing all the vitality I’ve harvested on Yurfaln’s altar, their every movement seems slow and predictable. Even this swarm of nightmares won’t stop me.

I lay my floating ring of tainted cards on their backs and have them revolve around me with such speed they blur together and can no longer be told apart. While I dodge around all of the terracotta rabbits, I’ll carve through the flower-heads just like when I ran through the forest.

But I hardly get the chance.

On the fifth day, it ate through five singing ice cream knolls, but it was still hungry.

Right as flower-heads begin to run into my ring of blades, the caterpillar-slug bursts through the treeline of the paper flower forest at my rear. It enters the fray a ways away to my right, swallowing up everything in its path. Slithering forth, it crashes through one of the isolated garden patches that had grown big enough for an ice cream spire to have sprung up from its center, toppling it over. The cone crumbles, losing its plastic eyes as it falls to pieces and is slurped up by the caterpillar, which speeds away, aimed directly towards the next nearest ice cream spire on my opposite side. It travels in front of me on its journey, carelessly snaking over the army of flower-heads as it goes.

My blight hasn’t affected the creature at all. In fact, a green gas is spewing from the pupils of the many eyes covering its length. I can sense my toxin being expelled from it with each passing moment. The green glow of the jagged scars my prior attack left it with is fading away. I can’t stop this thing the same way I did all of Aulunla’s other creations. This one is different.

On the sixth day, it ate through the dead bodies of twenty-five flowering moon-rabbits, 

Finishing off that last ice cream spire, Aulunla’s slug circles around me like a hungry shark. It snaps up the three herds terracotta rabbits that had been pursuing me from the forest at my back, even overrunning the elephant-sized giant and engulfing it whole. It’s gotten bigger than before.

Even as big as it is, it’s difficult keeping track of the behemoth’s movements while I’m being swarmed by the flower-heads, but it’s by far the most dangerous thing in the Wound right now. It’s bigger and faster than I am and my sickness isn’t stopping it. I only have the faintest idea of what I’m going to do when Aulunla turns it on me.

So I begin putting the one option I have left into action. I focus every bit of spare willpower I have on my blight as it seethes behind the entirety of the Wound.

a hundred and ten lotus-heads,

The “caterpillar” swerves around, now charging through the massive swarm of flower-headed creatures with intent, devouring swathes of everything that was in my way, including the remaining terracotta rabbits. It’s taking in all of the illness that everything it consumes is polluted with, but it just continues belching it all out like smoke from a locomotive chimney.

I won’t pretend to understand what a Harbinger’s intentions are, but Aulunla obviously had some purpose in mind when it created this monster. Even as it tears down all other traces of resistance against me, allowing me to draw ever closer to the great black oak at the center of the Wound with every step I take, I know this isn’t the end.

ten schools of flying fish that fell down from the sky, and

It had already been taking in the flying fish wherever it crawled, but now, as though polishing a table, the caterpillar behemoth spirals outwards, thoroughly wiping away the fallen fish that litter the sawdust wastes.

With the flower-heads decimated, I finally have the chance I need. I stop in my tracks and close my eyes. I reach as deep as possible into the Wound without the benefit of digging my tendrils into a direct extension of Aulunla like the roots, and I concentrate as much of my essence beneath me as I can. I open my eyes just as one of the remaining flower-heads is moving to pounce on me, tilting my still-whirling ring of cards upwards to cut it out of the air.

And then, a howl—

the BLEAK WIND THE BEAST OF MALEDICTION THE LIVING PLAGUE WHICH GNAWS AND GNAWS THROUGH MY SPINE
DIE
DIE
CEASE TO EXIST

And finally, as its fervent prayer twists into a maddened curse, Aulunla unleashes its greatest monstrosity upon me. Instantly, the caterpillar behemoth faces me down, its bloodshot eyes all falling on me, and charges. But I’m as ready for it as I could ever be.

My blight spreads out beneath the swiftly vanishing span between me and Aulunla’s caterpillar.

Fists clenched, I heave with all my might.

The ring of tarot cards revolving around me crackles with an amethyst lightning.

The Wound rumbles.

I dig my nails into my palms, drawing blood.

The expanse of soggy sawdust beneath the giant caterpillar compresses as it loses all the dampness of the watercolor pigments which color it. The newly solidified ground cracks, then opens up like a gorge. Jets of mist tinged a mixture of jade and violet spew forth from the breaches in the turf. All of it crumbles, slipping into the ever-expanding chasm, dragging Aulunla’s caterpillar along with it.

This vast desert was originally clumped together from big, cloud-like masses of sawdust wet with watercolor paint which floated through an upside-down sky. I’ve been using my infection’s hold on Aulunla to erode the surface of the desert all this time, drying it out to make myself decent footholds, since trudging through the mulch would have made moving forward much harder.

I saw the edges of the Wound slipping away into the inverted sky not long ago, though. That meant that, underneath the sawdust dunes, there’s nothing. My power has already seeped through this world in its entirety. If I eroded not just the surface of the desert, but everything beneath it to the point where it rots away and breaks down, I guessed that I could make Aulunla’s caterpillar fall through. I hoped it, at least.

And watching the thing squirm and flounder as it sinks into the collapsing world around it, my hopes paid off. It all falls through, and as the caterpillar plummets through the hole I’ve ripped in the desert, I notice that a deep blackness has opened up in the center of the inverted sky – a substanceless void just the same as I’d seen in Irakkia’s Wound when it had started to lose its coherency.

As the pressure of that horrid thing’s presence lifts off my shoulders, I let go of the reins of my plague and fall to my knees. My cards slow their rapid pace around me. My breathing is rougher than before. I’m wheezing a bit again, and a slight chill across my body and a stiffness in my joints has crept back up on me, but I’m fine. I’ve survived. My inner illness regaining some of its weight is a small price to pay. With no time left to spare, I pick myself up and continue my run across the final stretch between me and the great black oak at the center of Aulunla’s Wound.

Across the horizon, the swamp-ocean above has come undone in places. Like water draining out of a hole in an aquarium, torrential waterfalls are spilling out into the inverted sky below, dumping the contents of the sea into the depths. The silhouettes that leaked from the sky to become the human-comets are pouring out along with the flow. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard the boom of one of them landing in the distance in a long time.

The expanse of my blight extends farther than ever before. Everything I come across as I make my way towards the black tree, from flower-heads to terracotta rabbits, is wasting away and disintegrating into particles of ashen dust. The song-bubbles blown by the ice cream spires release no more than rasping murmurs when they pop. The sigil the great black oak still proudly holds to the heavens has completely lost all coherency and become nothing but a tie-dye swirl of color splotches.

This is it. Just a bit more, and I’ll be close enough to force my blight on the tree. I’ll end this once and for all.

And just as I think that, a stiff wind bellows past me, kicking particles of colored sawdust into the air. I falter backwards. A familiar sense of dread races up my nerves. The ground beneath me quakes, forcing me to steady myself. The heavy presence and sense of dread that had fallen away and faded with distance suddenly resurges beneath me at full force. My heart sinks. The stretch of sawdust in front of me caves into a pit, cutting off my path to the tree, and begins to churn like a massive whirlpool made of quicksand.

That night the caterpillar had a stomach ache!
So the tree cradled the caterpillar in its roots and made sure it was all better.
But now it wasn’t just a GROSSLY ENORMOUS, UTTERLY STARVING caterpillar anymore.
It had grown into its fullness and begun to look upon the stars and yearn to be MORE!
And even if all that awaited it was a trite and tragic ending, it knew this was the only path.
So it built a small house around itself
and it tried to wake up.

A smooth dome surface emerges from the center of the whirlpool. It rises up, revealing a giant ovular globe. Thick, black roots coil around it, lifting it out of the dust. It’s decorated like a painted egg the color of oil on water… just like the egg Aulunla made when it first went berserk.

If this thing is one and the same as the caterpillar I dropped into the void below, Aulunla must have caught it with its roots while I wasn’t looking and carried it over here to block my path at this last moment.

If any wish the tree made for the caterpillar now would come true, 

The gust howls around me. Fractures spread across the surface of the globe. The cocoon begins to hatch.

I don’t wait for Aulunla to finish whatever it’s doing. Once again, I call upon my blight and will it to rot everything I see away. Yet, my corruption does not reach, blown back as if by the harsh winds.

the tree wanted it to have wings, so it could fly away to a place without sorrow.

The shell explodes in a rain of shards. From the cocoon emerges what looks at first like a thick black hardcover book the size of a house, but the rigid outer-binding soon opens wide. This tome has no pages, but what lies there instead is no butterfly.

Before me is the towering form of an immense origami insect: a faceless beetle of folded paper with wings made from a hollow collage of glyphs and words, all just spliced together with no actual structure that could make them possibly function as wings. The sigils marking it repeat <WING> over and over and over and over and over. The hardcover binding upon its back is its carapace. It stretches its four frontmost pointed limbs upwards triumphantly as it opens up its scissor-like, pincering mandibles and lets out a roar that shakes the very air around us.

<We Are All Of Us Pigments?>
<Aulunla, the A̶UL̡UN͏LA̧A҉ULUNL͠A͜AU̡LUǸL͝AA͞U̡ĻUN͞L͏A̸AUL͢U͘NLAAU̵L̀U̕NL͢AAUL̶>

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-8.1

A gangly wooden limb raises its claws skyward. It would only take one swipe for those spindly talons to shave through my eyes, carve off my face, end it all. But I’m still quicker.

A card filled with my plague cuts through the air and embeds itself into the glass eye at the center of the creature’s paper-blossom head. It’s halted in its tracks. The imaginary world mirrored in its gaze dies in an instant, shattered into a broken reflection that fades into nothing like dying candlelight. My curse shreds straight through its lanky stick figure body, shriveling its paper petals and causing the thorns that cover it to flake off like old scabs.

But I’m not finished with it yet. I could hardly ask for a better breeding ground for my contagion, after all. Right as the blossom-headed monster disintegrates, I rip the sickness that’s taken root inside it out. Ribbons of moss-colored smoke are sucked out of its crumbling, too-thin form and into another one of the tarot cards orbiting around me, tainting it.

In the time it took to kill one of these things, two more are already upon me. They’re fast. Blindingly fast. They rush at me on all fours like emaciated, gorilla-sized spiders and pounce, flinging themselves at me with no fear, no hesitation, no drives that might conflict with the purpose they were made for: to end me at any cost. But that’s okay. They’re just bringing me more of what I need.

I beckon back to me the previous card I threw practically from midair, given the first flower-headed beast’s body has already collapsed into particles of glass and sawdust around it. The card spins backwards as it flies into my fingers — and right through one of the pouncing monster’s bodies on its journey. The edge of the card carves a notch in the creature’s slender torso as it travels, but that’s all it takes.

The flower-headed creature’s body becomes rigid and sluggish as it sails towards me. It looks like it’s moving in slow motion. As I am now, it’s easy enough to simply twirl past it, stepping aside as its outstretched claw misses me by an inch. It crashes into the solidified ground behind me with a roll, and then begins twisting and twitching helplessly as my illness overtakes it.

Which leaves me face to face with the third creature, still diving in my direction. It’s even closer than the last one. In less than a second, its glass eye will ram into my head and bash my fragile skull in, smearing my brain across Aulunla’s Wound. But… somehow, I’m not too worried about it. Not anymore than I’m already feeling, really.

Of course I’m scared right now. I’m terrified as I’ve ever been in my entire life. The fear of what’s happening and what’s to come has seeped into every pore on my skin and every nerve in my flesh and right down to the marrow of my bones. It’s just… I’ve been scared from the very beginning. I’ve always been scared. And if you take all that fear and pile it up, from the mortal terror that’s been eating me from the inside out from the very moment I was diagnosed all the way to this hopeless, exhausting fight against a Harbinger gone mad, madder than I’ve ever seen a nightmare woven wholesale from its own singular brand of insanity go, this is really only a little more.

More than anything else, I just don’t want to die.

And if magic comes from our will, from our wishes, I’m not going to get killed by a broken thing that would give up on itself and burn everything it is away just for a chance to be rid of me.

The twenty-one cards floating around me scatter. My legs part wide as I abandon my cane, letting it fall into the trail of coagulated sawdust I’ve made, and throw my body to the ground. I’m quicker than I ever could’ve dreamed of being before I made the Promise. I duck and dart forward, underneath its leaping charge, and in the briefest instant where my body passes underneath the blossom-headed creature, I reach out with the tarot card I just called back between my fingers and graze the monster’s half-bent knee with the card’s edge, all in one smooth motion. It’s easy. After all, this creature looks practically like it’s moving in slow motion too. 

The monster’s spindly body tenses up and crashes into the other flower-headed thing I just incapacitated, whose limbs all snap off on impact. My infection certainly seems to have taken its toll. But I don’t have any more time to waste on them, even to rip out the contamination inside them and add it to my arsenal. I don’t even have the time to bask in some vague sense of triumph, since more of these horrors are on the way — although that also means more opportunities to gather ever more of my pestilence.

My scattered cards gravitate back to me, and I return the tainted card in my hand to the ring, making it a proper set of twenty-two. I then pick myself up and just keep dashing forward and down the slope of the dune I’m on, sculpting a path out of dried-up, gaudily-colored sawdust in front of me as I go. I can faintly hear myself wheezing with each strained breath I take, but I hardly even notice that it’s happening.

There’s nothing worth focusing on but my goal. The only thing that remains beyond that is the soul-chilling sensation of my own self-inflicted inner decay mingled with my precious stock of stored-up health all being burned away in a great cold inferno within me.

~~~

My burst of unnatural strength and speed comes from the same place as this hazy, numb state of mind where everything around me seems slow and sluggish and everything I do happens as if in a fever dream, simply proceeding along with no regard for how or why — it’s all the result of turning my own blight upon myself.

Back when I made that horrible trip into the untamed forests beyond the limits of New Claris, I was faced with Esonei, the hole-faced Harbinger who played the part of a willing victim and latched itself on to that burning tree-dinosaur Harbinger, Ourien. It infected the souls of anyone who attacked it with its own pain and its conviction that it was better to let itself be torn apart than raise a hand in its own defense. At that time, when Vianzia tricked me into attacking those two, Esonei sank its tendrils into me, invaded my mind and thoughts and made it impossible for me to act on my own will.

The only way I could think to fight back was to call upon my power and seal it within myself alongside Esonei, since its influence didn’t prevent me from hurting myself and thus it along with me. In doing that, I found something else I could do with my power over illness: build it up inside me, let it fester and deepen as I myself deteriorated, and then unleash it all at once in a vast plague-tempest far greater in lethality than my usual bursts of awfulness. Something I could only do thanks to Yurfaln’s twisted blessing.

From the moment I saw everything in the Wound rushing to tear me apart from atop that sawdust dune, I already knew that what Aulunla was throwing at me was too much for me to handle on my own, given my past showings. I couldn’t have handled Irakkia without Shona and Mide, either, and this is even worse. But I also knew I had advantages in this fight that I didn’t back then. All I needed to do was use all of them. I’d already poisoned Aulunla with my illness, and more importantly, I understood my own magic better now.

Even if I tried to recreate the massive plague-wind I summoned back then so I could wipe out everything coming at me at once, it would still take time to do it. Time for my suffering to hone the scourge within. Time I don’t have before every nightmare Aulunla ever dreamed of is upon me. But I realized something. In a way, I knew it from the beginning; I just didn’t want to feel how much it hurt to use Yurfaln’s blessing to the fullest extent possible.

I used my gathered blight to force myself to the brink, the very edge of my consciousness, tightrope-walking the last sliver of my life before the endless plunge into the void. Then I took the supply of health I’d spent so much time collecting, all those nights carefully skimming off the top of innocent people so that I wouldn’t hurt them too much or get caught, and I lit it all on fire to keep myself from tumbling over the cliff.

Just burning the health I’ve gathered from others only allows me to function as if I’m not a dying little girl while it lasts. It lets me exceed what my physical abilities would normally be if I wasn’t sick, but it never goes beyond what a regular human is capable of. But this place right on the verge of collapse is what Yurfaln glorified above all else: a truth written in scars, where the sorrow of loss and your closeness to death exalts you. In this state, where everything about me can be pushed far beyond all natural limits, I can burn my vitality to manage feats only possible with magic. 

The downside is that what had once been hours of my gathered health allowing me to run and jump and act like a normal person has now been reduced to mere minutes. But it’s minutes of doing what no normal person could ever dream of doing. If only I didn’t feel like street litter rolling around on a stiff breeze all the while. Too much to expect magic would give me one thing without a lethal catch, I guess.

~~~

All of my limbs feel heavy. My lungs quiver with every strained breath. I’m slick with sweat. My dress feels sticky against my skin. My entire body is enveloped in an unnatural, bone-deep chill that’s different from actual cold. The cold I’m feeling is the sort that’s born from your body ignoring the actual temperature around it and demanding you feel frozen anyway. And yet, my joints are all on fire.

Above all else, though, I just feel numb. That unbalanced, miserable mixture of freezing and burning that throbs across my senses is a distant and muffled impression. It’s like I’m gliding through a dream, and all those far-away aches and pains are the phantom echoes of a world I’m not participating in right now. Everything I will myself to do, somehow, I do it, no matter how impossible. I’m barely more than a dancing corpse, but because of Yurfaln, this is when I shine the brightest.

As I continue forging a path ahead of myself, calling my infection from the depths of the Wound to its surface and desiccating the many-colored sawdust clouds which pass for ground in Aulunla’s world in the process, I see Aulunla’s roving horde of nightmares rushing to greet me from the corners of my tunneled vision. They’ll be on me in moments.

I’m being swarmed by two waves of flower-headed creatures coming at me from opposite sides. I can only really distinguish each of the monsters from one another by the different blooms unfolding in place of their heads. Lightly colored petals mimic buttercups and chrysanthemums, roses and daisies, violets and spider lilies; although many are budding with the same flower, every single blossom has their own unique touch, whether that be scribbled on polka-dots or being made out of decorative wallpaper or zig-zag patterns cut out of their petals as though by lace scissors. One thing that’s constant for all of them, however, is that their fake flower heads are completely disproportionate to the rest of their lank, skeletal forms.

I can’t tell how many there are with just a glance. There must be a dozen or more coming from either side, and there’s another wave of the things coming just behind them. Even further beyond that, a hulking terracotta rabbit the size of a bull is barreling straight for me, trailed by a formation of much smaller rabbit-things.

And I’m running straight into all of them. I can’t waste however long I have left in my current state, where the more awful I feel, the stronger I am. I need to wipe out everything that gets in my way as quickly as possible.

I stop moving and call for my blight, which rises from the Wound some distance in front of me. As both packs of feral nightmares close in on me, noxious fog swells from beneath both like a rising tide, washing over all of them. My goal is to slow the swarm down like I did when I blighted the area around me against the very first flower-headed monster I encountered, but they still keep coming. Within seconds, the gaunt wooden stick-things emerge from out of the haze, their wilted petals and flaking bark-flesh looking only a bit worse for wear.

But even if this won’t stop them, they’re slower than before, and that’s all the opportunity I need. I levitate twelve empty tarot cards out from my orbit and aim them carefully at the rush of flower-headed monsters approaching from my left — those are the ones that are closest to me, but those on the right aren’t much farther away. With a swipe of my arm, I launch all of the floating cards I’ve readied at once, and they embed themselves cleanly into the bodies of the leftmost pack’s nearing flower-heads.

The blank cards won’t do much on their own, but I have plans for them. I take the two cards I already filled with blight when I killed that last flower-headed monster and have them fling themselves through the swarm like boomerangs. They cut through the ranks of the creatures, intensifying the toxin they were already suffering under. As their bodies become brittle and begin to shed away into the sawdust grains from which they first arose, I use the blank cards I placed there beforehand to rip the illness out of them once they’re too weak to survive.

But it’s too slow. By the time I’ve willed the blank cards to begin absorbing the sickness of the collapsing flower-heads that came at me from my left, the ones to my right are already on top of me. I’m barely able to dodge the claw swipe of the first flower-head that reaches me, then plant one of my remaining eight blank cards into its glass eye.

Unfortunately, all my movement manages to do is put me in range of the next closest stick-creature, which lances its talons down towards me as if to gouge out my heart. I duck under its legs to escape, willing another one of my blank cards to lodge itself into the thing’s knee as I do. In response, the creature lifts one of its spindly legs — it has no feet, just a web of thin, raw roots tapering off a sharpened wooden point akin to a stake — and tries to stomp on me.

Before it’s able to skewer me, I call back the nearest card I’d attached to one of the flower-heads from the leftmost pack. It spins through the air as it flies toward me, and I will it to slice off the lifted leg of the flower-head above me as it passes through and returns to my orbit. The flower-head in front of me topples to the dust. Infection from the card that amputated its leg spreads through its body quickly, and the blank card I left in its knee gluts itself on the corruption. All around me, the creature’s friends are closing in, however.

The six blank cards still orbiting me halt in place all at once, then fling themselves at the flower-heads in a reckless, scattered barrage; I’m surrounded on all sides, so they’ll hit their mark no matter where I toss them. Then, with a swipe of my hand, I focus on the twelve cards I launched towards the creatures that attacked from my left and yank them backwards through the air. They all come spinning, newly charged with the blight they’ve absorbed in the meantime, and each slices through another one of the flower-heads that have me cornered. The alien worlds reflected blurrily in their glass eyes fade away one after another, leaving behind only blackness in their wake.

The eight empty cards I placed among these stick-creatures beforehand drink in the curses that killed them, then pluck themselves from their crumbling bodies and return to my orbit. The rest of my cards quickly join them, slithering through the air in a single-file line. They swirl around me, shimmering with a deep, poisonous emerald glow.

With this, every single one of my twenty-two cards has been charged with my concentrated scourge. I will them to float on their backs, spreading them out in a fan before me.

I turn to the remnants of this first wave of flower-heads trampling over their fallen kin as they continue to come for me. Beyond them, the second wave of flower-heads is romping forward, crossing the fading bank of toxic fog I summoned to slow the last wave down. 

I reel back both my arms to my right side as if preparing to heave a great weight. My fanned-out spread of cards follows the motion, shifting to my side and floating at a distance from me. I know I don’t need to do any sort of gesture to control my cards, but my body is doing this on its own; it just feels right. I sweep my arms forward, my movement flowing to my opposite side, and with that, my cards lash out. They follow my motion once more, their crescent shape slashing forward like the blade of a scythe. The next wave of stick-monsters emerging from the fog and the remaining stragglers, all of them, they’re all mowed down with one pass of the cards before me, slicing through their slender bodies like butter.

I repeat the motion again, this time in reverse, like I’m swinging a scythe back and forth. With each pass, the next file of flower-heads is cut away like weeds in a field. It’s not that my cards have particularly sharp edges. I’m sure a blank card would never be able to chop off one of the flower-headed creature’s limbs or slice their bodies in half. It’s just that the infection a tainted card has absorbed can grow potent enough to instantly gnaw through a victim as they pass along their blight.

These cards are first and foremost a medium for my power, but since even touching them can doom a victim to my plague, I know I can use them like this. I needed to strike in as wide an area as possible. This was the most efficient way, even if it does feel somehow like I’m using my power… crudely. There’s facets of it I don’t yet know how to see, much less use. These cards are capable of more than I’m using them for. But for now, anything that works well enough to keep me alive is fine.

Just as soon as I cut down the last of the flower-headed things that are blocking my path, the giant terracotta rabbit I saw is already bearing down on me. In its wake, a garden of alien flowers springs up which rises to the scale of a forest the farther back my gaze looks behind it. With each bounding leap forward, the artificial flora covering the bull-sized rabbit’s back spring up and down like a shaggy coat. The smaller rabbits which trail it in a formation are much the same, and have arranged themselves in order from largest to smallest, with bunnies the size of cats following right behind the bull-sized rabbit and bunnies the size of actual bunnies behind them.

Without wasting a beat, I call my twenty-two cards back to me and fling one of them right between the biggest rabbit’s glassy sunflower eyes. The card sticks, but it’s not enough; even as the paper flora on its back starts to wilt, the thing just keeps charging blindly towards me. It’s tougher than the flower-heads.

I get ready to dodge out of the way, but without warning, a hand reaches out from the sawdust beneath me, its spindly wooden talons locking around my ankle. It’s another one of the stick-creatures. Its torso bursts out of the ground, revealing a head that looks like a big red toy radish with gold sequins for eyes. With its free claw, it moves to maul me, and I’m just barely able to step back enough such that it only slices up my thigh and through my dress. In the next moment, I’ve already stomped my boot against its face and severed its arm with one pass of a card, but I have barely any time to leap out of the way before the terracotta rabbit runs me over.

I tumble to the right just as the rabbit passes and watch as it tramples over the radish-headed stick-monster’s face and arms, crushing it into compost. I land gracelessly on my wrist and let out a ragged growl of pain from behind gnashing teeth. My concentration falters and my floating tarot cards all fall to the ground around me.

I may have avoided the biggest threat, but I still end up in the path of the smaller terracotta rabbits. They pass over, stamping all over me and my fallen cards with their rough, stumpy feet as they go. Little black pellets pop out from behind them with each hop they take — the seeds of the thickets that grow wherever they tread, I imagine. But those seeds find no purchase on my blighted ground — a fact I’m thankful for when I finally manage to pick myself up. My cards rise on their own with me.

Watching the bull-sized terracotta rabbit and its entourage race away in the direction I came from, I draw from my stores of health again to treat my injuries, silencing the screaming in my wrist first before stitching up the gash in my thigh as much as I can manage. I know I’m draining my own health too quickly for this to last, but my mind is clouded over enough without the pain of two deep wounds distracting me and ruining my ability to focus at all. I need to figure something out, and fast.

But without even getting a chance to think, the ground begins to rumble beneath me, causing me to stumble. The surface of the sawdust dunes swells upwards, and a giant, thick root rips itself from the mulch to my left, tearing through the trail of solidified sawdust I’d made. It whips around clockwise such that it’s coming at me from behind, now, whirling towards me with enough speed to lash me in two.

Since I don’t have a chance to think, I don’t. I just act. I squat down with my cards swirling violently around me, shove all the strength I can muster into my legs, and push off the ground with as much force as I’m possibly able. The path I sculpted cracks into pieces as I launch upwards like a ragdoll. Out of raw impulse more than intention, I stretch out all of my limbs like a falling cat, and watch as the tendril passes below me — again as though in slow motion. In my heart, I’m panicking. 

To my right, another root lances out of the ground across from the root I just dodged, this time trying to impale me while I’m in midair — and it’s too late to try and rot it with the plague in the depths of the Wound. Instead, before it can reach me, I form my cards into a crescent shape again and have them shear through the root in one swipe. Its severed tip shrivels up as it falls to the ground beneath us, rotting away into sawdust, while the remaining stump shudders to a halt.

The shock of impact wracks up my legs the moment I land, forcing me to my knees. My body just hurts, and my thoughts are getting foggier the longer this goes on. Sweaty, gross, heavy, sore. I can’t feel my feet. I think I scraped my knees at the end of the fall, too. Oh, and the first root that caused me to make this jump in the first place has whipped back around and is coming right towards me.

…but this time, it’s attacking me from the front. It’s not quite as fast, either. So rather than try and dodge, I reach out and I grab it.

My nails dig into the bark. The root’s flesh decays around my touch, letting my grasp sink into it. I wrap my legs around the root and I hold on for dear life. It swings me through the air as it writhes about. Although… what was I thinking? The root can smash me into the ground at any moment, probably killing me instantly. Stupid. I’m such an idiot. Always in the worst ways at the worst times. What next? Is there anything? I can’t have come this far just to… no. I can’t. I will never die.

And I sense it pulsing beneath my touch.

My magic has already invaded every part of this Wound. I can feel Aulunla’s life tangled up with the strength it poured into this root, this piece of its will. Aulunla’s essence is right next to mine, pounding like a beating heart. It’s entirely different from the past Harbingers who I couldn’t get a read on.

Which makes it mine for the taking.

And that alone makes me remember. This sensation. My resolve, my promise to myself, my… hunger for life. As long as I have a well of warm essence to drink from, the idea that I might die, ever, is just a nightmare I’ve woken from.

Shimmering green wisps of my mist lunge out from my broken body, burrow into the root I’ve clasped myself around, latch their lamprey grips onto Aulunla’s essence, and start to drink.

This time, there’s no reason to hold myself back.