All The Light Died With You 6-7

My new patron is nothing like Aulunla. It doesn’t speak in voiceless words and abstract feelings — even as it shares space in my mind, even when I call out to it and channel its power through my soul, it barely feels like it’s there at all. So when it tells me that two souls are leaving the other Wound, I just know it without knowing how. 

Damn it, damn it, damn it. Why haven’t I already left and slammed the door behind me? Aisling’s clearly made up her mind about what I’m doing. Nothing I can say or do will get her to leave us alone, not while she can wave it away as a monster putting words in my mouth. She’s just been stalling for time, again, only this time I fell for it. 

Now. I have to leave now. Aisling won’t come after me alone, but if whoever emerges from that disgusting hair-Harbinger’s ambush is in any shape to chase us, I won’t be able to stop them. All I can do is hope the path closes too quickly for them to follow.


…And there it comes. There’s still a part of me that feels the same way about stepping through these portals as I would about diving into the sea. No matter how many times I make this journey, that silent scream of primal terror just won’t shut up. I shove it back into the recesses of my mind, bite my lip, and take the step, squeezing Aulunla’s book to my chest. 

As I cross the threshold between world and Wound, a single long, long stride stretches out over time and space. The ground falls away beneath my feet, followed swiftly by everything else, but rather than dropping into an endless pit, invisible strings wrap themselves around my arms and pull me endlessly upward, into the starless black behind the sky. Away from this grey, miserable earth. Away, I can only hope, from Aisling and her new murderer friend. 

Ash shouldn’t have any part in this. I don’t want her to get hurt, even after what she just pulled, but… if she keeps shoving herself and everyone else she can rally into our business, I don’t know if I can promise that.

Somehow, as we rise above the world, thoughts of my old friends fall away, though the ones replacing them are just as nasty. I’ve never felt more exposed than I do during these transitions. I can’t help but feel like anything — anything I can imagine, every nightmare I’ve ever had — could be watching here, hidden out in the dark. Is this the way things were for my ancient ancestors from the time before history? Is this blind horror some distant echo of what they felt when they looked out into the endless night? 

Or even then, were there people who saw more in the dark than others? Ones who spoke back to the wordless whispers in their dreams and found enough they shared to become something new together? There must have been. I can’t be the one person to ever befriend a Harbinger. I’m not that special. 

So what role did my predecessors play, in the blind darkness before “known history”? Honestly, now that I think of it with all I’ve learned in mind, was it even as dark as Church dogma says? Humans are social creatures, and bonding with a Harbinger doesn’t have to change that. What did those early pact-makers want to do with all their power? What better, stranger worlds might they have imagined into being? 

When Claiasya chose her favorite children and raised them up from the helpless herd, did the first Keepers build their world atop the bones of the first witches?

I can never tell how long I spend soaring through this darkness, alone with my thoughts. Eventually, though, I come to a sudden stop, floating in the void. A thin-fingered shadow-hand, barely visible against the endless black, stretches up from behind me. Another reaches down to take it, my patron welcoming a shard of itself back into its realm, and as soon as the two hands clasp, the arm above tugs on its counterpart, dragging me along with it

I jolt further upward and the world goes marble-white, my body seeming to slither through tiny cracks in the tangle of statues that forms the ground of the Wound. It doesn’t hurt, it never has, but the sensation of everything I am twisting, losing its substance, becoming just another once-human shape lost in the endless heap… it still scares me. I’m never sure how I manage to emerge intact on the other side. I’m never sure if I will, no matter how many times it happens.

But finally, I do. When things come back into focus, I’m on my hands and knees beneath the Wound’s starless black sky — and it always feels bizarre to think of it as a sky with no stars, but what else could it be? — just managing to hold myself up as strength and solidity return to my arms. I feel around frantically for Aulunla’s book, snatching it up as soon as my fingers find it.

“Welcome, welcome home!” a familiar voice calls. Half a dozen more follow, though not as a chorus in unison. just a burst of greetings, scattered applause, and one girl’s wordless, uncertain cheer.

“Yes, welcome back, Isobel! We knew you’d be back here safe and successful soon enough, nasty weather aside!” Ciaran greets in a softer voice, standing just above me. “A round of applause, everyone!”

At the boy’s command, the crowd erupts with the sound of clapping and cheers, all for me. The clamor reverberates through the vastness of the Wound strangely, as if echoing inside a cavern’s depths.

“But,” he hisses, raising a single finger, and everyone falls abruptly, instantly silent. “Can’t celebrate just yet. First we need to make sure of something.” Our new god’s first vessel’s bearing suddenly shifts. He hunches down, perched on folded knees, and glares right at me — no, not at me. The great solid shadow looming behind him extends one of its many spectral arms beneath me, scoops me up, and sets me gently down maybe ten feet away. Two more limbs dip their fingers into a small dark gash in the Wound where I emerged. This world’s reflection of my portal, not quite closed behind me. 

I look up from the hole, following the Harbinger’s shape with my eyes as though marveling at an endless skyscraper. It resembles nothing so much as a tower that’s also a tree, its branches a chaotic mix of jagged cathedral turrets jutting out in every direction mingled with countless spindly, stiff-jointed puppeteer’s arms, the shadows of them all blending together in ways that make it hard to see which is which. It stretches up farther than I can see, much farther — if it has features above that, some crown or pinnacle to its form, I can’t see them.

“You were watching?” I ask.

Ciaran glances over at me and smiles slightly. “Obviously. Between the Embrace and the four Keepers turning up to hunt you down, I had every reason to worry about you.”

I nod once, stand, and back away, leaving Ciaran to his work. All his focus returns to the gap, and his ethereal mask twists into the shadowy ink-blot impression of a face, with empty holes for eyes and a mouth of crisscrossed lines approximating a teeth-baring grimace. “We can’t see anymore. Too fucking bright out there. Do you think they’re coming?”

“…Don’t know. They want to, I think, but depends on how much the other Harbinger managed to do.”

Ciaran’s mask resolves back into its usual placid smile. Through the half-seen illusion of its black, empty sockets, his icy-white eyes light up. “Right, right, her, yes! However all this sorts out, you brought us quite the prospect! Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would turn out until we tried, but here we are… oh, she’d know, wouldn’t she? Let’s see if we can check in on her!” 

The towering shadow standing guard over the hole in our world sprouts a single mask from one of its countless limbs. The mask stares off blank-faced into the dark sky, murmuring to itself in that language I still can’t understand, and Ciaran leans in close, cupping his hands behind his ears to listen. The others watch on uncertainly from afar, until maybe a minute later…

“She’s pretty confident that no one’s coming after us. Not sure how much I trust her judgment yet, but given what we’ve seen from her, small and eccentric as she may be, I don’t think they’re fit to chase us down, at least for now,” Ciaran says. His mask’s eyes narrow, giving its frozen smile the appearance of a conspiratorial grin. “And you’ll be happy to hear that the plague girl looked like she was having a pretty bad time of things. I’ll tell you all about it, if you like.”

Not as happy as I’d be if I’d done it myself, but it’s something. “Maybe later,” I say. “First… first I want to know if all this did anything for us.”

“Sure. All clear, everyone!” he calls. The great shadow behind him shifts away — it moves without visible motion, the way shadows do as the Sun moves around them, crawling between its towers as it makes its way deeper into the Wound. The darkness behind Ciaran never quite detaches from him, but it stretches out and grows lower to the ground until it’s only the thin outlined suggestion of something grander, trailing away toward its source like a long shadow beneath a high Sun. 

Ciaran scampers off deeper into the scattered forest of ruined glowing spires which constitute the Wound’s primary topography. He starts off with a run, sprinting forward like a boy much younger than he is eager to enter a toy store or chase after a ball, then takes a high leap into the air. Spindly arms reach out from the depths of the shadow trailing behind him and catch him by the waist in mid-air. Six more limbs sprout from his shadow’s surface and press against the tangle of stone bodies that constitutes the ground at its side, lifting itself up.

Except for its lengthy tail, which slithers backwards towards the looming figure of the Harbinger in the opposite direction like the silhouette of an umbilical cord, Ciaran’s shadow peels itself off the face-strewn floor and begins skittering forward on its six free limbs like a spider, leaving me behind as I follow at my regular pace. The whole display is honestly kind of cute. The childlike wonder I imagine is gleaming in the first vessel’s eyes behind that transparent stone mask of his makes the hole inside me where Aulunla once was ache all the more.

Ciaran is already making the rounds through the group when I catch up, chatting happily with his followers. Today there’s nine of them, not counting Ciaran and I, all gathered in their usual spot. In the remains of one of those shattered white towers, they’ve made a circle of large rough stones, picking through the chunks of rubble until they found the ones most comfortable to sit on and entreating our Harbinger to rearrange the ones too heavy for us to carry. It almost looks like a big fire pit, only in the center, there’s just a camping stove. And the faces embedded in the rocks, even the half-intact ones, like to track us with their empty eyes whenever they have company. They follow Ciaran and his distended shadow especially closely.

A pot of water boils on the stove, and boxes are piled up beside it, filled with water jugs and whichever assorted snacks we’ve most recently hauled back from the city. Looking around the circle, lunch today is apparently instant noodles. I don’t want to make myself sick here of all places, so I dig out an energy bar that looks and sort of tastes like a very dry vanilla shortbread. It isn’t terrible. Ciaran must have had the same idea, since I watch him toss a foil wrapper to the ground just after I arrive. 

Before I can get something to wash it down with, though, a hand passes me a cup of water. A long, thin, marble-white hand, clothed in a winding shroud of shadows, beneath which it seems to stretch out far beyond the length of a human arm.

“Iiiisobel,” the first voice I heard earlier whispers. 

I turn to meet the gaze of the masked face at my shoulder. His entire body is composed of the same stone and spectral material, and if there’s still a human face behind that mask, I can’t see it. I smile weakly. 

“It missed you. Did you know how much it missed you? Could you taste the prayers it swallowed up and dedicated to your safe return? So many of its dreams rest on your shoulders, you know. It can’t be complete — we can’t be complete — while you’re away, not anymore.”

“…Nice to see you too, Mairtin,” It’s not particularly, in fact, but he’s harmless. To me, at least.

Mairtin doesn’t talk about himself much. I asked Ciaran once what was wrong with him, and he insisted that there was less wrong with Mairtin than anyone he’d ever met. People came here looking for something they couldn’t find out in the world, and Mairtin, for whatever unspoken reason… apparently, he needed to not be himself anymore. To stop feeling the way he felt all the time. He’s accepted more of our patron into himself freely than anyone else, and in so doing, he got his wish. Good for him, I guess.

As he slithers away, I catch my first clear snippet of conversation around the circle. “Do we… I mean, do we always eat here? And just… leave stuff around?” someone asks, pointing to an abandoned noodle cup. A mousy blonde girl in a well-worn big sweater dress, with frayed threads along its edges — I don’t think I recognize her, but I don’t exactly bother with every new face who shows up here.

“This is our home. A whole world for just us. So why shouldn’t we do whatever we want here?” an older girl argues.

“I mean… this is a Wound,” she says, whispering the word as if she’s afraid to say it. “Sorry, just, it still feels all weird to…”

“Would it be more appropriate if we all acted like some Claiasyan sect of delusional island mystics?” Ciaran whirls around to confront her, arms thrown wide, spitting the Goddess’s name as a curse the way he always does. “I wouldn’t accept the enlightenment those guys are chasing if they offered to pour all their wasted lifetimes of useless insight into my soul in an instant, and neither would any of you if you knew what it meant!” He points at her in exaggerated admonishment, then sweeps his hand through the air as though batting aside an annoying insect.

“To drift aimlessly through life, in harmony with the cosmos… it’s only half a step away from existential self-mummification! And that’s if I’m being charitable!” he says, offering the girl his open hand. “No, we aren’t some airy-fairy ascetic cult. We’re taking the perfectly practical steps we must to open the sky, escape this pointless world, and return to the stars.” With each word, the fingers of his offered hand close in on themselves until they’ve formed a firmly clenched fist. “Everything else is just… details.” 

The girl just stares up at him in silent panic.

Dalha — the group’s oldest member, a sharply-dressed woman in her thirties whose wavy black lob cut is no longer quite as carefully kept as when I first met her — raises an open palm and shoots Ciaran a look that makes me think of a mother scolding her son. “You do know how it sounds when you word it quite like that, don’t you?”

Ciaran grins a little wider. “And you know how Keepers talk about themselves all the time. I refuse to let them have all the fun with this.”

“…I can’t argue with that.” Dalha allows herself a small, almost reluctant smile. “Still, no need to terrorize the poor girl.”

“Ah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, Sorcha. And you’re kinda right about the way it looks. Not pretty at all,” Ciaran admits a moment later. The contorted stone faces closest to the fallen wrappers and empty noodle cups scattered around the circle shift. Long, jointless fingers crawl to the surface, wrap around the bits of trash, and drag them down into the cracks.

Sorcha watches them go with wide, unblinking eyes. “Whoa,” she breathes, the word only audible in the silence left after Ciaran’s outburst.

“Come on, don’t ‘whoa’ at just that!” Ciaran chuckles. “That was a parlor trick. Soon enough, you yourself will be able to break that second-rate world beyond this sanctuary of ours in much more impressive ways.”


“So,” Ciaran calls to me, once he’s finished checking in with the group. “Let’s talk plans! Progress!”

A spectral hand rises up and closes around me, enveloping my whole world. I resign myself. My head drowns in a black sea of weightless vertigo, thrashing toward a surface that doesn’t exist, until several seconds later, I’m dropped onto another floor, sucking in air in short, desperate breaths. 

We’ve shifted into another familiar hub of the Wound. One of the taller towers, still intact enough to have something like a top floor — it looks like there was more once, judging by the broken walls and the crumbling staircase to nowhere climbing out through one of the wide windows, but the loss of the rest of the building turned this space into a kind of atrium, lined with mostly-empty shelves.

But not completely empty. My growing collection of little black books sits near the top of one.

“Do you really have to do that every time?” I gasp. “Yes, no stairs up here, I get it, but could you not make some?”

“Probably? But then it wouldn’t be as secure, if something goes wrong. Or as special.” He gives me a hand up, and with his free arm, gestures out one of the windows at our sweeping view of the ruins. 

The Harbinger’s tower-shadow stands further in. There, in one roughly-open clearing, it’s swept away the stray bits of rubble and reached its lower arms down into the surface of the Wound. Its touch draws the stone figures which make up the ground, its puppets, out from their great heap. Slowly, they begin to untangle their limbs and crawl up from the turf, arranging themselves with perfect coordination to expand the growing foundations of a new tower, one grander in scope and scale than any of the others before it. Each body stacked upon the tower like a brick entwines itself with the body below it and begins to radiate a soft white light.

I’ve watched it work before. I’ve watched it sculpt a new tower of living stone from start to finish… or rather, I’ve watched it build and build until the construction inevitably collapses in on itself. Somehow, it can only ever make it so far. What remains of the tower we’re standing in now is one of the tallest failures, but a failure nevertheless. I wonder if the new one will be any different.

And I still can’t see up to where our Harbinger ends from here. If it ever ends. The impenetrable darkness which cloaks the sky of the Wound like a ceiling obscures it. The dim light emitted by the Harbinger’s spires isn’t strong enough to reach.

“Yeah… yeah, that makes sense,” I say. Things wouldn’t have had to go too much worse for today to end with a squad of Keepers invading our world. “Still. I’m pretty sure one of those arms could just carry me up the usual way.”

“Fiiine, fiiine. I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” Ciaran laughs. “Anyway. Can we borrow the new book for a bit? I’ll put it with the rest when I’m done, of course… oh, but first, does anything about it seem different to you?”

I hold the little black book in both hands for a while. I turn it over idly, run my fingers along its cover, and page through it, even through all the blank pages Aulunla never had a chance to fill in.

Nothing at all happens. Nothing calls out to me the way it used to. It’s just a book. 

“Not really. Unless you find something else about this one, I think our best hope for one of them being different is if someone fully succeeded in the fifth step. I didn’t feel anything like that happening while Aulunla was alive, but I’m also not sure if I would have even if it did happen. The ritual was bound to shatter most people’s prisons so we could reach in and collect their pigment for safekeeping, but the ones who understood what Aulunla was trying to say should have been able to become like me, with the power and duty of painting a new world… I don’t know if it’s possible to survive it anymore… Or how we’d find them if they did.” I sigh and pass it to Ciaran.

“We’ll do everything we can with it,” he assures me. “Worst case, it’s best that we gather all of their traces we possibly can before we try to improvise anything.” Ciaran sits against a wall and opens the book to its first page, going over and over the short opening for minutes. Tiny puppeteer’s hands emerge from his shadow, touching its surface and exploring the texture of its pages in imitation of how I handled it.

This part always feels like waiting for news I know will be bad. Like an update on a fading relative we all know doesn’t have much longer.

Eventually, without looking away from it, he speaks again: “Actually, while we’re here, I have something for you. Mairtin brought it in late last night. It’s on the floor right under us, if you want to check it out while I work with this.”

“Oh. Thank you…? What is it?”

“A surprise! And don’t thank me, thank Mairtin! He did all the hard work… well, okay, the remodeling was a bit annoying, but really this is all him. It was even his idea!”

“Remodeling? Okay, now I’m curious. Let’s see.” Doubly so because I wasn’t sure if Mairtin still had ideas. 

I start down the wide curved staircase circling along one of the room’s walls. It’s… much, much colder than anywhere else in the Wound, like stepping into a giant walk-in freezer. I look back at Ciaran, who just smiles and motions for me to go on. 

Well, fine. This is hardly the weirdest thing I’ve done in the last couple weeks.

There’s a constant low susurrus in the room below that reminds me at first of white noise, but not quite steady enough, and not at all soothing in the same way. When I listen closer, it becomes… breathy, a choir of endless sighs too soft to be voiced. Looking over the glowing white walls, the source of the constant chill air issuing into the space, I realize that’s exactly what they are. 

The space, which once had the same wide arched windows as the atrium above, has been remade into a sealed stone chamber. Unlike the ground outside, which is a disorganized tangle of masks and limbs, the uncountable masked figures composing the new walls are all neatly arranged so that their faces stare into the room, filling it with endless little streams of icy breath.

And on one of several wide stone slabs in the center, all covered in their own faces, an older boy’s corpse is splayed out beneath a white sheet, covering all but his feet, arms, and head. His skin is blotchy and clammy, his lips almost colorless.

“Ciaran…?” I call.


“Whaaat the fuck is this?”

“What? You aren’t still squeamish about something like this, are you?”

“No, it’s not that! Just… why is it here?” 

“Yeah, I guess it does bear a little more explaining, doesn’t it?” Ciaran’s footsteps patter along the floor above, then down the stairs. He looks at the slabs, then at me, scratching the back of his head through his hood sheepishly. 

“Sorry about that. So, the idea was that if there are these books, these remnants of Aulunla still in the world… then maybe there’d also be remnants in the people who communed with those books but didn’t quite make it, right? Poor guy in there was one of the more recent suicides, recent enough that they hadn’t put him out to sea yet. So Mairtin thought if we robbed the morgue and took him back here, maybe you or we could salvage something important out of him. Seemed worth a try to me, if you’re up for it?” He gives me a casual shrug, followed by an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

“…Sure. I don’t know if that’s going to do anything, but might as well, at this point.” I stuff my hands into my sleeves, hug my arms to myself for warmth, and start looking over the corpse. I don’t treat it quite the same as I do Aulunla’s books, because it’s not a book and there are frankly just sanitary concerns there, but I do inspect it thoroughly. 

More importantly, I let myself explore how it feels to be around it. 

When I said I wasn’t squeamish about this, I meant it. It’s strange that I meant it, though. I’ve always found gross things just as gross as anyone else would. I didn’t like horror movies or seek stuff like this out to desensitize myself. Now, though? Now, this is just a body, bereft of the potential of what it could have been. It’s just meat, not even a person. A person is their soul, and his is gone. 

I guess at some point — maybe when I accepted that Aulunla might have to kill people to protect us, maybe when I kept diving deeper and ended up here after they died — the part of my mind that would’ve reflexively recoiled away from a fresh human corpse… just stopped working.

What does hurt is that it doesn’t take much time at all to realize there’s nothing here for us. Aulunla never lived in the bodies of the people who read their book. Bodies never mattered to them. They cared about words. Minds. Dreams. I used their power to change my body a little bit, but that was always just a stop-gap until I could become something more real. This guy is simply gone, and given what happened to Aulunla, he’s gone for no reason at all. And that’s sad, it’s a horrible waste, but… that’s all.

“Nothing there either. He’s just dead,” I sigh. “Urgh, and I don’t suppose you could’ve just… preserved him with magic somehow? Let’s go upstairs.”

“We aren’t a true god yet, Isobel. Even if we were, there’s no guarantee we could actually do something exactly like that. I mean, this cold is born of magic, so isn’t it the same in the end?” As we step back into the atrium, Ciaran raises an arm, pointing straight up to the black sky. “Do you think the Sun could wave its tentacles and freeze a room full of corpses in time?” He wiggles his arm in emphasis.

“Maybe? Sun-drying doesn’t work so well in this part of the world, but it’s still one of the oldest known forms of food preservation.”

Ciaran tilts his head, and his mask mirrors his puzzled frown. “Okay, fine, so maybe it could make people-raisins, if you want to count that as ‘preserved.’ Probably a lot more likely it would make some sort of hideous Eyeless zombies, but either way, I’m sure you get my point. Besides, given what we’re gathering them for, we thought it would be better to use as little magic as possible on them. Wouldn’t want to bury any important residue under our own, y’know?”

“Yeah… yeah, I get it. That’s probably for the best. I’m just complaining to complain. I didn’t exactly think to bring my winter coat when I left home.”

“Ask Dalha to put one on the shopping list?” he suggests.

“No. No, I’m sure she has more important stuff to do. It’s not like I’ll be spending a lot of time down there.”

Ciaran just shrugs agreeably and returns to leafing through the new book. “Sorry that didn’t work out. Maybe we’re all getting a little desperate about this thing, but we’ll figure something out. What should I tell Mairtin, if he asks whether he should keep it up?”

“I’m pretty sure he can find something better to do. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to let him down, if that sort of thing matters to him.”

“Sure. I’ll… oh, hmm?” He glances around the room, searching for something. His mask grins wide, strangely out of sync with his perplexed, focused expression. When nothing appears, he grabs the edge of one of the arched floor-length windows with both hands, grips its tightly, and leans all the way out of it, slowly panning around the Wound with his upper body. ”Isobel, did you hear that? Feel that?”

“No… is something wrong?”

“Not at all, not at all! Our new recruit is at the door!”

Something shrieks in the distance. A shrill, whining burst of Harbinger-words resounds through the Wound’s empty air.

And in answer, Ciaran leaps from the window. As he falls, spectral limbs sprout from his shadow on the ground and reach up to catch him. Another scales the tower and offers itself to me as a platform. I take the hint, letting it bear me back to the ground with surprising gentleness. As soon as I touch down, Ciaran gives a messy goodbye salute, and his Harbinger’s arms carry him away to greet our hideous guest.


I leave Ciaran to… whatever he wants to do with that thing… and head back toward the gathering place. I don’t quite make it there before Dalha, seated and idly swinging her legs on the broken wall of another tower, waves me down.

“Isobel,” she greets simply. “How are things looking? Any movement on your project?”

“Not sure yet. Ciaran went to deal with our visitor before he finished with the new one… uh, Mairtin brought us a corpse, though. That’s something new.”

Dalha blinks rapidly, though she maintains an impressively level expression. “Oh. Okay,” she says. “Why?”

“It was one of the suicides. I don’t know, I guess he thought there might be some leftover Aulunla in it?”

“…Was there? That doesn’t sound especially promising to me, but you and Ciaran are quite a bit better than I am with the, um, particulars of all this.“

No, Dalha. They were about minds. Souls. People, not bodies. Maybe if we could use it to somehow snatch the guy back from wherever the dead go, but we can’t,” I groan. “Honestly, I’m kind of worried Mairtin is going to scare someone away eventually, if he keeps going the way he has been. Not everyone who comes in here is quite as patient as you, or as… inoculated to that sort of thing as I was,” I say.

Dalha scoffs, shrugging the idea away. “He’ll do no such thing.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Scarier things than him happen out there all the time. Not scary in the same way, maybe, but what’s more frightening: Mairtin, or the fact that the Lotus Bed once existed? Regular old humans don’t need to lose their faces to be horrifying.”

“…Point taken.” If anyone here didn’t know about the Lotus Bed when they arrived, they do now. It’s not that Ciaran likes to talk about them, but he is quick to bring up “that disgusting, filthy, extremely Claiasyan pack of rapists” in counterpoint to the idea that our group is a cult. Perish the thought. We, of course, are just some friends with a common purpose. 

For my part, I don’t find the distinction important. I know what I’m here for. What we call our Harbinger-cult doesn’t really matter to me.

“And more importantly, no one ends up with us who doesn’t need to be with us,” Dalha adds.

“There’s that too, yeah.” I don’t know how Ciaran finds them, but everyone I’ve met here bears that out so far.

“Anything you need before the next step?” she asks.

I think again about that coat, but quickly decide it’s pointless. I don’t expect I’ll be visiting Ciaran’s freezer much more, and Summer will be coming on soon enough. “No, I don’t think so. Although… while we’re just waiting around, could I ask you something?”

Dalha looks up at the empty sky and smiles. “If we can’t speak freely here, then where?”

“Thanks. I’ve wondered about this for a while, just… you know. Had a lot to do since I met Ciaran. So.”

I scratch at my wrist as I turn the question over in my mind, wondering just how to phrase something like this.

“So, I know what I’m in this for,” I finally start. “I get the feral children, and Ciaran I can kind of guess. Something to do with all that stuff he says about cages and fireflies and caterpillars. But what about you? How does someone like you end up here? You don’t have to say anything if that’s too personal. I just… if you’re anything like Ciaran, if this is a philosophy for you, I’d like to hear about it.”

Dalha quirks a single manicured eyebrow up. “What about me? What makes you think I’m any less deep and troubled than the rest of you?”

“I just can’t see any of them lasting out in the world as long as you did. Also, that is not a troubled smile.”

“Fine, then,” Dahla says. Her eyes harden, and she glares up at the darkened horizon where our world ends. “If you must know… on the last Embrace, the Sun came down and ate everyone I ever loved. I’m smiling because I’m thinking about how once we return to the stars, I’m going to raise an army of spaceborne nightmares and snuff it out.”

“It… ate them,” I echo.

Dalha nods solemnly. “Ate them all up. My husband, my friends, my hedgehog, all gone in a terrible burning flash.”

“Is that seriously the best you could come up with? You just looked at the weather today and thought it’d make a good sob story?”

Dalha titters at that, then bows her head and raises her hands, admitting defeat. “Actually, my first idea was that rogue Keepers murdered my family. I thought it would be a funny switcheroo, considering where we are. I just figured that one might be…” She tents her hands and grits her teeth. “Well, you know.”

“So… are you going to tell me the actual answer?”

“Oh, no, it’s not that. Nothing to hide, nothing I’m desperate not to talk about — I’ve just never brought it up because my story’s not that impressive. Honestly, I’d have thought it would be obvious to you, but I suppose you’re still young. Maybe it didn’t quite have time to sink into you the way it did for me.”

“What didn’t?” I push.

“It’s simple, really.” 

Dalha’s shadow stretches and writhes into a roiling pool of oily black power at her feet. Two of our Harbinger’s arms crawl out from beneath the world, and the statues beneath us squirm to life. Coaxing them into place in imitation of the towering sculptor deeper in the Wound, she begins to shape them into a little castle, with great walls surrounding a tiny, plain house, all covered in serenely smiling masks.

“I’m here because reality is boring, Isobel. You don’t need to survive some horrible tragedy to see that. Sometimes, all it takes is enough time spent carrying around a dream you know will never come true. Watching from the outside as everything truly important happens without you, because you just aren’t special enough to be allowed in.” 

Suddenly, the spectral hands sweep in a circle, smashing the walls to rubble like a child destroying an unsatisfying sand castle.

“So I decided, if I ever found a way, I’d break in. Or, if I couldn’t manage that, to break out from this planet’s claustrophobic confines and search for somewhere better. Somewhere that wants something more from me than to keep the menial, meaningless details of the world in order for the people who actually matter. And then I found it. That’s all,” she finishes, gazing off at nothing with a faintly nostalgic smile. “Does that all follow?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it does,” I say softly. Looking back, I’m sure if I’d kept on the way I was, if I’d never met Aulunla or I’d given them to Aisling as soon as I did, after ten or twenty years of more of the same, I’d have ended up in about the same place. “Thanks for sharing.”


“I think I’d like to be alone for a bit, if that’s okay. I don’t have much to do until Ciaran’s free to plan our next move.”

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Yeah, right after we came back.”

She nods, satisfied. “Good, good. You know how to find me if you need anything else.”


I sit alone at the edge of the Wound… well, no, I don’t know if it has an edge. The stone plains seem to stretch on forever, but most of the world is flat and featureless. Our little city of broken towers only fills a tiny portion of this isolated world. Sometimes I wonder why. I wonder what it says about Ciaran’s Harbinger that so much of its realm is simply empty, and that it has to fill it by trying and failing to build new marvels by hand.

But not right now. Right now, seated on the ground, leaning against a section of shattered wall, I just want to put some distance between myself and the rest of this group. If it’s even right to think of “the rest of them,” if I’m truly part of it.

Because I’m not like them, not really. Ciaran and Dalha are good friends, people who understand me and who I understand like I haven’t had since when Aisling and I used to be on even footing. I respect what they’re trying to do. I wish them all the best with it. But even now, even while a shard of it travels with me, I’m not here for their god. 

I turn a shiny purple apple over in my hands, watching the Wound’s eerie white light play off its shimmering skin. Maybe it’s just an apple. Maybe in another week or two, all that will remain of Aulunla’s final gift is a handful of mold. 

But I’ll never let it go. If that happens, I’ll pick the seeds out from that pile of rot and plant them somewhere beautiful. I’ll fill this miserable old world with sparkly space-apple orchards, so you can live in the dreams of everyone who eats them at once. And when I bring you back, whether we find that other, better world we were searching for or we have to make it ourselves, we’ll grow forests of them there. 

And i̵f they neve̷r cơme back?

The question circles and circles through my mind, no matter how hard I try to shove it away. I have no backup plans, no flimsy rationalizations or questionable promises, nothing of enough weight to bury it under. Ciaran’s only ever said that he saw something of Aulunla left in me, and he wanted to pull that lingering ember out and stoke it back to life if there was any way we could. The books I’ve recovered, the time we spend poring over the couple dozen pages with anything written on them, that body Mairtin stole, they’re all just us gathering anything we can to improve our chances, without the slightest guarantee that what I want is even possible.

If they never come back…

I look down at my arm, tracing a path with my eyes through the pale script-scars where words once flowed along my skin in rivers. It was only for a few days, but… I was so much more. It didn’t have to be like this. We could’ve changed everything if they’d left us alone. Witches wouldn’t have to be monsters if they’d just left us alone. 

If they never come back, this world and its self-important heroes deserve everything that’s coming to them.

Falling Ever Deeper 6-6

Isobel’s cataract hole in the world stretches up and up, bending reality around its edges until it appears, in Aisling’s view, to touch the horizon itself. There, it draws back, flinching away as it reaches too close to one of the swaying tendrils of celestial flame setting the sky ablaze. 

Only a matter of perspective, she’s fairly sure — if it had gone from peering uncertainly into the world to growing tall as the sky in seconds, the ache of its corruption in the back of her head would be splitting her mind open by now. Still, manifesting this way at all beneath an Embrace is bolder than any Harbinger ought to be. Damn everything. What has that girl gotten herself into?

“Aisling!” Mide barks. “Hold still!”

What? There’s a monster pinning her down by the throat, she couldn’t move if she wanted to, and… oh, right. Aisling picks up on Mide’s intent just in time. She presses herself to the ground and freezes. A second later, a golden spear slams into the statue’s back. The weapon bounces off its target with a violent clang, not quite piercing its stone skin, but the impact of it is enough to send the puppet lurching forward. 

There’s a painful pressure on Aisling’s neck as its weight shifts. Before the thing can collapse onto her, though, she summons a last desperate gasp of adrenaline-fueled strength and shoves it to the side with all her might. The strings of shadow directing the puppet draw taut to jerk it back into place, keeping it from tumbling off her entirely, but the moment when its cold-fingered grip on her neck loosens is all she needs to squirm out from beneath it. 

Aisling gulps down a lungful of air and crawls backward along the ground, right arm frantically groping through the grass until… there. Her fingers close around the wooden grip of her revolver. Holding it tight, she scrambles to her feet.

The statue’s strings drag it upright. It twists to face her again, its upper body bending impossibly before its legs follow. Trusting all the time she’s burned practicing for this worst-case scenario to win out over her shaking arms, she brings the gun to bear and fires. Her first shot finds its mark in the puppet’s remaining arm, and just to be certain, she puts a fifth and final bullet into its left thigh. Teal light smolders through its body as two more of its limbs shatter off and melt away, leaving the puppeteer’s arm struggling to do more than hold its doll up on one leg. 

And leaving her lifeline with one shot in the barrel, for all the good a single bullet will do her.

But for this moment, it’s done enough. The shadows wrapped around the puppet’s remains release it, leaving the broken statue to tumble lifeless down the slope leading to the lake. Its strings contract into the hand holding them, which then presses itself to the ground and darts through the trees to rejoin Isobel’s shadow. After a glance down at Mide — still locked in a stalemate with the two surviving puppets, which seem unable to break her guard but unharmed by her attempts to slice away their strings — Aisling chases the slithering shadow back into the woods.

Isobel stands facing the Wound, hands clasped and head slightly bowed. The pool of shadows at her feet roils along the ground as a new pair of umbral arms crawls up from within it. They wrap their fingers around the tear in the world’s edges and tug it into its final shape. When they withdraw back into Isobel’s shadows, the Harbinger’s peephole has settled as an oval of blackness just big enough for a human to step through. 

And on the other side, bright shapes appear in the dark, like skyscrapers on an impossibly starless night. Tall, crooked white towers, shining with colorless inner light. Covered all over in… faces, smiling stone masks, as if they were packed together from the twisted, elongated bodies of countless statue-puppets.

“You won’t like what’ll happen if you follow us,” Isobel says without turning around. True, Aisling’s awareness of lies whispers to her. She can’t tell if the unsteady quiver in Isobel’s nearly-toneless voice means she isn’t completely confident in her threat or simply that she wouldn’t like it either. Aisling doubts the Harbinger’s puppet would’ve spared her without Isobel’s influence.

“I know,” Aisling says. It’d be suicide to run in there alone. She couldn’t even handle one of this thing’s puppets by herself.

“What’s the plan, then? Are you going to shoot me too?”

“What? No. Isobel, I’m just… if there’s anything at all you can say to suggest that I shouldn’t be terrified for your safety and ours right now, I’m begging you to do it already.”

Isobel breaks her prayerful stance, slowly raising a hand to drum her fingers along her cheek. “You four started this, didn’t you?” she finally says, glancing back over her shoulder. “We don’t have any business with Keepers. You don’t need us and we don’t need you. Go away and that’ll be that.”

“And the rest of the city? All the people it’ll inevitably snatch up and turn into fuel for whatever it’s trying to do?”

“…It’s not doing that. No one’s with us who doesn’t want to be there,” Isobel insists. True. But meaningless.

“That doesn’t tell me anything! You’re a fucking vessel now, and it’s hardly a stretch to think any Harbinger that can take a vessel and leave them at all functional can also change what people want. For all I know, it’s already done that to you. Maybe you haven’t noticed, maybe it left you thinking you were better off for it, but the way you are now… Isobel, you’ve told me what you want out of this, but what you’re doing to get it doesn’t make sense. Maybe things really were different with… the other one, but this isn’t your power, your path to be a part of this world. You’re just throwing a Harbinger’s magic around. So how can I know if anything you say or do is coming from you or it? How can you know, if you’re even aware enough to care?”

There’s a pause. Isobel glares down at the mass of shadow pooling at her feet. She lets out a long, soft sigh.

“Good speech, Ash. But maybe you just don’t understand what’s going on the way you think you do.” Her mouth curls up into a knowing smirk. “Here, let’s say it so there’s no ambiguity at all: I, Isobel, super do not care what the Harbinger riding around with me wants.”

True. Only… Aisling has no earthly idea if that makes things better or worse.

“I’m in this for myself. And my friend, if there’s anything left of them.” She takes the book held beneath her arm in one hand and runs her hand along its cover gingerly, as if petting a cat.

From somewhere behind them, a wet tearing sound rips through the air. 

Isobel jolts upright with shock, eyes wide and white. Pinpricks of phantom pressure stab into the back of Aisling’s head, signaling a Harbinger’s presence, but not Isobel’s Harbinger — Isobel simply jumps through her portal without another word. Her shadow climbs in after her, and two spectral hands pull the Wound shut as if they were drawing curtains. Only a thin slit of darkness remains, steadily fading from view entirely. Maybe a stronger Keeper could force it back open, but her stronger Keepers are… 

Wait. What does this mean for them? Something happening with the other Harbinger means something’s changed on Liadain and Shona’s front, for better or worse. She can’t evaluate their options until she knows what that is.

Aisling looks back at the crest of the hill, where Seryana’s tiny lesion in reality still floats. She spots it just in time to watch a swelling mass of raw flesh, like the inside of a teratoma, break through its tight wrapping of hair. In a second, it expands from a tightly-packed black core into a great tangle of thin strands of skin, wreathed in matted clumps of blonde hair. The Wound stirs, someone or something breaking through its borders.

“Mide? Mide, up here if you can!” Aisling scrambles up the slope to survey the basin. 

Mide is already racing her way. The two puppets she was locked in battle with, gashed all over from her blows, have fallen limp by the shore, abandoned by their controlling hands. They’ve begun to disintegrate in the Sun’s Embrace, charring and crumbling like overheated clay. Countless fragments of them flake off and blow away to nowhere on the wind.

And seconds later, the bloody abscess in reality disgorges something from its depths. As if it were again a giant mouth in the world, but with the skin around it sliced into half a dozen rough sections and turned inside-out. It’s hard to clearly see the other Keepers clearly through the hair draped around them like curtains of wet seaweed, but bright crimson sparks of Shona’s magic shine through the debris. 

As Seryana’s Wound folds back up around itself, the Harbinger’s presence fades into background awareness. It’s fleeing, too. Aisling spots Liadain in the other girl’s arms, held up in an over-the-shoulder-carry, and Shona lurches into the shelter of the trees to set her down.

Maybe they didn’t win, but they managed something close enough that they’re both still here. 

Maybe this can still work. They can still do it. 

“Okay, everyone listen!” Aisling yells. “The other Harbinger is on the run. We can still catch it, we just have to…”


No. No, none of that is happening.

From a distance, it almost looks like Shona’s sclerae have gone entirely red. That’s not it, but the truth is hardly better — instead, her eyes are bloodshot, tear-streaked, and bleeding around the edges, where little frayed strands of unwoven rope wet with her blood cling to her skin. They look to have grown from the corners of her eyes, as if she cried them out herself.

And Liadain… it’s hard to tell what state she’s in, beyond the deep burn-blisters covering her single exposed hand. That isn’t the part Aisling’s worried about, though. It’s not even that the white streaks winding through her hair are no longer streaks at all, leaving only a thin black stripe in her smoke-colored bangs.

It’s that while Seryana is definitely still alive, still fleeing at the edge of Aisling’s perception, a web of black veins — in a sinuous, asymmetrical pattern which distinctly does not map to the places where her veins should be — now runs all along Liadain’s exposed skin.


Everything hurts more than usual.

I wrench my eyes shut as we come back into the world, the light of the burning Sun somehow even brighter than before. The cooling flow of stolen health anesthetizes the unpleasant tickling sensation of my own burned flesh slowly knitting itself back together, but can’t completely block it out. 

Shona takes a few long steps — into the shade, I figure, since the sun pushing through my eyelids lets up — then heaves me back over her shoulder, plops me down, and leans me against a tree. Rough bark digging into my back sets off a fresh wave of pain. I’m not sure if I have wounds back there, exactly, just… all my nerves have been literally fried. I can’t find the energy to move yet, though, and I’m not even sure what else would be more comfortable.

A hollow, resonant voice rings through my ears. “Hey. Hey, Eyna, how’re you holding up? Do we needa rush you to a healer or something? Is that thing you can do gonna be enough for this?” Shona asks. Her voice, heavy with urgent desperation, retains the electronic echo of her power. She doesn’t sound bad, exactly, nothing like Irakkia’s sea of screaming noise, but it does make her… louder even than usual. 

“Um. It’s bad. I don’t think I’m in any state to do anything.” I did what I had to do to save our lives, but… it doesn’t change anything. I haven’t forgotten anything. “But I’m not going to die.”

“Whew. That’s, uh, I mean that’s not good and I’m still really sorry, but… yeah. ‘S better than it could be… I’m… I’m glad.”

“Shona, are you okay? What happened?” Mide’s voice calls. A rush of footsteps come to a stop somewhere close by. I force myself to open my eyes and look around, then double-check with my magical senses. Nothing nasty seems to be happening, at least not anymore. There’s only the faint traces of Harbinger-stench being scoured away by the Embrace above. The other one feels more distant than Seryana, of course, but not too far gone to detect. Aisling stands just at the edge of my field of view, eyes darting between me and Shona with an unreadable expression.

Shona angles her head away, squeezing a hand around her opposite upper arm. “Listen, I’m, it’s not that I don’t wanna talk about it, just maybe not now, so can we… wait, bwuh?” She pauses, noticing the distortion still lingering in her voice for the first time, and taps her throat with a finger. “That really shouldn’t still be… hmmmmMMMmmmm…” She lets out an experimental hum, a long note rising and falling unsteadily. That same echo copies and amplifies her sound. “Well. Uh. If I can turn that off, I’m not sure how,” she says with a nervous, sharply reverberating laugh. 

“Both of you? Oh, dear silent Goddess, absentee mother of us all,” Aisling mutters to herself. 

Shona stiffens at that. “She is not absent. There’s just… a lot going on in the world, y’know?”

“Both of them what?” Mide presses. She slowly looks down, wincing at the sight of me.

Aisling side-eyes her and raises a finger. “Please give me a moment. So, to be certain, you two did not just kill that Harbinger, did you?”

“Did our fucking best,” Shona says. Aisling looks to me for confirmation and I shake my head.

Aisling sighs, putting a hand to her forehead. “…Okay. Well. The mission’s over.”

“Huh? Why?” Shona objects. “Did we miss everything? My cool magic voice box isn’t gonna slow me down! If there’s still shit to do, I can do it!”

“It’s OVER! Whatever happened in there to cause two concurrent cases of spontaneous Emergence, it is no longer safe for either of you to use… to use any more magic than you absolutely must to survive,” Aisling finishes with a quick glance at me.

“…Oh. I, uh, wasn’t sure if that was just a thing her magic did,” Shona murmurs, sounding like she meant to speak more quietly than her new voice will allow.

“Spontaneous what?” I ask.

“Yeah. It happens… well, we aren’t certain exactly when it happens,” Aisling admits, scowling at no one in particular. “Most instances I know of involve Keepers losing control of their magic, or taking grievous injuries they wouldn’t survive without immediate and instinctive use of it. Something breaks in you, or in your body, and magic floods in to fill the hole. You don’t typically grow from it all that much, or not the way you do with Harbinger-induced Emergence, but you do…  change. In unpredictable ways, with uncertain effects. And when it happens, you absolutely do not rush into battle and keep pushing yourself.” She crouches, perched on folded knees, and buries her face in her hands with a wordless groan. “So that’s it. We’re done here. We aren’t in any more danger, both Harbingers are retreating, so we’ll figure something else out. Later.”

“You change. Okay,” I say, very slowly. “Then what, exactly, has changed in me that you’re so worried about?”

“Your veins,” Aisling says after a moment’s pause. “No, they don’t quite match where your veins would be. But that’s what it looks like. It’s like there’s lines on your hands, face… all your skin that I can see.”

I raise my left hand, tug my sleeve down with my teeth, and look over my arm. Spidering black lines run all along its length, trailing further into the bunched-up cloth around my elbow. No, not quite black – more like pale grey strands of thread, on account of my complexion. When I look closely enough, there are tiny shimmering flecks of green flowing through them, and they shift just beneath my skin as I flex my hand.

Everything suddenly feels colder. I can’t tell if it’s the magic working to heal me or… something else.

I summon a card and will it to prick my wrist, focusing on the quick sharp pain I’ve gotten so used to.

“Eyna, what are you doing?” Mide snaps. “You’re already hurt! Don’t…” She trails off and takes a halting step back, covering her mouth with one gauntleted hand.

As the water-thin, ink-black liquid trickling from my arm instantly changes form, congealing into a solid shape.

I’m bleeding feathers. Tiny black crow’s feathers, still slightly wet with the impossible ichor that formed them, fall from my pinprick wound and drift lazily down, slowing and then ceasing as the cut seals itself closed.

“That’s fucking awesome,” Shona says, drawing uncomfortably close to stare at the little pile of feathers scattered over my lap.

A hoarse, deranged giggle escapes my throat. 

It does fit, doesn’t it? This is the way it should be. The way I should be. I should be happy! I’m finally rid of the blood that’s been trying to kill me every day of my life! Whatever this is, it’d be stupid to keep calling it blood. This is my curse, my pain, my power, my constant companions all twisted together into a single thing. Maybe it’ll even change something for the better, for once — who knows? Yes, it’s just my miserable story of always and never dying coursing through the veins I may not even have anymore instead of my useless blood but I can’t deny that the story is better for me because I couldn’t kill monsters and eat them with that blood and I certainly
couldn’t suck the life
out of helpless people
people who never did anything to me except

Without this blood, I wouldn’t have had the chance to let anyone die for my mistakes.

“…It won’t have made things worse for you, I don’t think,” Aisling offers. “Different, maybe. But not worse.”

“And, uhh… Eyna, for what it’s worth, dude? I meant it! This new thing of yours is seriously the most metal shit I’ve ever seen!” Shona pumps both fists in emphasis.

Silence. Aisling and Mide shoot her looks at nearly the same time. It’s nearly the same look, too.

“Shona, what does that mean?” I ask again.

“You know what, don’t worry about it. You get it if you get it. Metal is a state of mind!” Shona says with wide eyes and a visibly strained grin.

“…Fine. Whatever. I’m… I was kind of expecting something like this sooner or later, anyway,” I say. Dr. Cantillon all but predicted it. “I should just… you shouldn’t have brought me along. Something like this happens every time. I’m sorry.”

“Maybe.” Aisling taps her foot on the ground slowly. “But I made some bad judgment calls too. We should’ve dealt with one Harbinger at a time, figured something out for Isobel, then hit Seryana all together. Sorry, Eyna, but that would’ve been the best move tactically.”

I shrug. Moving at all still feels strange, with these crawling sensations running through my body, but the pain has started to subside a little. “I could’ve handled her. My magic just… works better alone.”

“I mean, I guess it’s good we didn’t think of a name for our big stupid not-a-team,” Shona says. “This whole thing woulda been extra embarrassing then, right?” With the last word, her desperate grin wavers and her voice cracks, the sound magnified now with a sharp, tinny wail.

I can’t blame her. I can’t even find this weird front she’s trying to put up as creepy as I used to. She’s probably just… doing her very best not to fall apart, same as me.

“Aisling, what happened with Isobel?” I ask. I’m best at not falling apart when I have something important to do.

“She and her Harbinger ran for it when we sensed you two coming out. Ducked into its Wound. I think they’re gone.”

“Can I see where they went? I can’t chase them like this, just… I don’t know. Maybe there’s a trail I can catch, or something I can feel out about it. Something to keep this from being a total waste.”

Aisling looks me over skeptically. “Can you walk yet?” 

“Maybe. I could with my cane,” I mumble.

“What did we learn?” She folds her arms, smiling slightly with half of her mouth.

“That I am a living death-curse walking around in a vestigial human suit,” I say flatly. 

Aisling bites her lip, sighs through her nose, and offers me a hand up. “C’mon. The opening was over here.” 

After I spend a few halting steps leaning into Aisling, Mide loops her arm around my other shoulder. I meet her gaze and tilt my head.

“Still just trying to make this go the best I can,” she says softly.

Shona follows just behind us as I wobble through the woods, very slowly regaining something like the use of my legs.

“Here,” Aisling eventually says, pointing to an empty patch of roughly-stable shade beneath a thick canopy of trees.

I reach out with my senses, scrutinizing the lingering miasma as closely as I can. It’s hard to pull anything clear from it, especially in my current state. Maybe it’s just this Harbinger’s distance from everything, that sense of being looked down upon from a castle in the stars, but…

“Okay. I can’t find where they went or anything. I’m a lot better at feeling out what things are than where they are. But I also… don’t think it was ever even here,” I say.

“You’re sure?” Aisling asks. “Sensing exactly what’s going on with the more human vessels can get painfully complex. Or so I’ve been told.”

I nod. “It’s hard to be certain, and I don’t know what it did while I was in that Wound, but nothing here feels strong enough to have been a full Harbinger. It’s like it was acting on things without being anywhere near here, the way Seryana usually does.”

“It did seem really here when we were fighting it a minute ago,” Mide says.

“No, that makes sense,” Aisling insists. “Like I said, those were fragments of it. Familiars it made. Well within the range of what we could expect from a vessel invested with some amount of power.”

“What does that mean for Isobel?” I ask.

“It could be that her arrangement with this thing is more complicated than it simply possessing her, which would line up with some things she said before she left.” Aisling pauses, eyes to the ground, gnawing on her lower lip. “Or maybe whatever her new Harbinger’s doing is… bigger than just her. I’m not sure yet. I’ll look into it. If I still need help with wherever it goes, and all of you still want to give it, well, you all know where to find me. Eyna, there’s contact info on my reef. Whether or not you get involved with anything like this again, I may have follow-up questions about your experiences with Isobel, so I’d very much appreciate if you got in touch.”

“…Okay,” I mutter. “Is that everything we can do here?” 

“Probably,” Aisling sighs.

“Hey, so like, all the mess aside, this kind of works out for us, doesn’t it?” Shona interjects. 

“…Does it?” I ask. Mide, clearly just as confused, looks my way and nods.

“Well, yeah! You did that thing with Mide a while back, and now I almost blew you up, so like… we’re cool now, right? We’re even.”

Mide does a double-take at that. “How do those things relate at all? More importantly, you did what? Shona… why are you like this? Why are all of you but me like this?”

Aisling folds her arms and exhales conspicuously.

“Not you, Aisling. You’re, uh, you’re fine, far as I know.” 

Aisling answers with a self-satisfied little smirk.

Shona shrugs, smiling in a way I think is meant to look sheepish. “Uh, like I said. Tell you later. Anyway, you all get my point, right? Or like… I don’t know. The SPIRIT of my point.”

“I really, really don’t,” I say. “But I’m fine if she’s fine. For all it matters.”

“For all it matters,” Mide agrees softly. “As long as we’re all on the same page about the team thing now.”

“Fiiine. No big awesome team,” Shona grumbles, sounding like a radio host exaggerating their letdown at an awkward phone-in through old speakers.

“So. Anyway. If there’s nothing else, then since our method of transportation is currently not usable, I’m going to call us a ride. Emergency transport,” Aisling says. “Eyna, Shona, you should both take the longest breaks you reasonably can from any active use of your power. Spend time with people you care about. Do things you like, as long as those things have nothing to do with magic.”

I don’t have anything else to keep us here over. To my surprise, I’ve got very mixed feelings about that. It’s not that I want to spend any more time out in the Sun with these three, stewing in our failure, but the prospect of going home like this feels terrible.

Nothing for it, though. Aisling was right about my ill-conceived plans to protect my privacy, anyway. I was already planning to tell at least Noirin about all this soon.

It still would’ve been nice if I got to choose that for myself.

Falling Ever Deeper 6-5

Crimson lightning courses through Seryana, burning her rotting body to dust. Her howls of twisted delight fill the tiny Wound, a shrill chorus echoing behind Shona’s unearthly wail. Bolts strike the Harbinger from every direction, three at a time, then four, then five, and past that point they cease to be bursts of lightning and become endless torrents of raw power. Shona’s bolts tangle together and whip across the cramped room, flashing brighter than ever when they crackle against the walls and ceiling and floor. Wherever they touch, they leave behind charred black scar marks.

“STOP IT!” I scream as I pick myself up from the filthy floor, ducking away from a flickering red coil of power. I can barely hear my own thin voice over the screeches and roars of static and thunder. “Shona, stop! You’re feeding her!” 

Neither Shona nor the Harbinger pay me any mind at all. Seryana drinks in Shona’s rage eagerly, cackling through her screams as her body burns away. She dies with a pained giggle and a mocking smile fixed firmly on her new stone face, the last part of her to disintegrate. Even then, the storm doesn’t stop. Lightning keeps dancing through the Wound, converging on the empty space where Seryana once stood.

“I killed her!” Shona laughs. She sounds like her voice is being played through an old speaker, blasting it into the little room with a warbling, tinny echo. “I killed her I killed her I… killed… h-her…” She chokes on the last word and trails off, muttering something unintelligible to herself. Finally, the storm contracts, drawing back into Shona. Filaments of crimson power wind along her limbs.

“Shona. Hey,” I hiss.

The lightning wrapped around Shona’s arms shakes wildly, then seems to escape her grip, jolting into the ground around her. 

“I’m… I killed her…” She slowly glances my way, blinking dark tears out of the corners of her eyes. No, not entirely tears — water mixed with a thin trickle of blood leaking from her eyes trickles down her face. Still, she grins as she meets my gaze, smiling like she’s afraid to let herself show any other emotion.

“Shona, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve killed her. It’s not over. She’ll be back…!”

Shona just stares at me, silent and bleary-eyed. “What? But I just, she was… how was she here? Why? WHY?” A fresh wave of buzzing distortion slips into her voice with the last word.

“She’s a Harbinger in her Wound! Where else would she be? Listen. Whatever’s happening here, it’s really really wrong. You said you could get us out of the Wound. Can you still do that? If you can, we need to leave right now.” 

One more silent second passes before the odors of festering trash and burnt hair flood the room. Shona’s forced smile twists into a rictus of terror as a single rope-arm reaches up from behind her, draping over her shoulder. Seryana’s singed and decaying form materializes from nothing at her side. She leans into Shona in a half-embrace, whispering into her ear through her pristine stone mask:

<Another underperformance today. You can’t keep wasting OUR one and only chance like this.>

“DON’T FUCKING TOUCH ME!” Shona shrieks, and the world breaks around her. Everything crackles and flickers as an explosion of uncontrolled power bursts out into the Wound. Five or six red bolts slam into Seryana, sending her crashing into the nearest wall, the wall opposite of the cabinet lying between the twin beds, with a violent thud. The other bolts scatter through the room, striking out seemingly at random and blackening bits of detritus all around us. The sheets on the bed to our right smolder with slowly growing flame. In the corner of my eye, Seryana’s cabinet sits strangely intact behind us.

The wall Seryana was blasted into collapses into a heap of thin plaster rubble. The dust falls away like a curtain to reveal another room: an almost exact replica of the one we’re all in, arranged just the same as when I first arrived. Another pair of thin beds hug opposite walls in parallel to the two beds beside us, while stools and footrests clutter the space beyond them, all of it totally intact. Pinpricks of pale light still stream in through the gaps in the curtains which cover the windows – a light I now know was shining from nowhere.

It’s all exactly as this room had been before Shona started blasting it to smithereens, but for two details: there’s no curio cabinet in this next room over, and on the right side bed lies a figure. An effigy, like a man-sized straw doll. Except it’s not straw. It’s a doll woven from Seryana’s pale, dense hair. And on that effigy’s face is a framed photo of a face, almost like what you’d see at a funeral wake. Between flickers of Shona’s red lightning, I can just barely make out that face. It’s the man I rescued from his own house – the victim Seryana was preying on when I first encountered her.

<What happened to you? You used to be so cute. So innocent.> Seryana gurgles, in a second voice untouched by her constant cries of pain. She’s speaking like she might to a baby. 

<The whole world’s little darling, and mine most of all… oh, why did you ever have to grow up? Why did you have to turn so sharp and gangly and wrong?> 

She picks herself up and limps forward on broken legs. Her eyeless sneer is fixed right on Shona.

<And now that you have, WHY WOULD ANYONE EVER LOVE YOU AGAIN?> 

Shona says nothing. Still silently crying, she narrows her eyes, grinds her teeth, and digs her nails into her palms until blood drips from them. 

And screeches out the first notes of a song: a raucous, unsteady anthem of rage, sung with no words and played with no instrument but that electrified inhuman wail. A fresh crimson storm spills out from her soul, lashing out and out at everything in sight — a seething tempest that won’t be satisfied until the Wound and everything in it is reduced to ash. Bands of scarlet lightning arc directly between Shona and Seryana, forming a circuit, a jagged halo of ever-brightening radiance coruscating around them. 

I dart underneath the leftmost bed for cover, thanking the Goddess or Shona or blind freakish luck that no lightning strikes me before I curl into a ball and cover my ears.

Magic running wild. Pain flooding into the world, taking its own shape and acting on its own will. Is this what Aulunla was terrified of when it looked at me, even as it grew so far out of control it nearly crushed me? 

Is this what everyone else sees in me? 


Thick globlets of liquefying stone drip from the puppet’s shattered mask onto Aisling’s coat. Its cold grip around her throat doesn’t weaken at all. She squirms and shoves and kicks and the thing — the stone shadow, haloed in the glare of the Embrace above them — barely acknowledges her, barely budges at her feeble impacts. It only looks into her eyes, smiling half a blank, empty-eyed smile as its face melts away, and tightens its grip just enough to make it a struggle to breathe without quite suffocating her. She goes completely limp, an animal playing dead right beneath a predator’s gaze, and turns her focus to maintaining the slow, narrow breaths she can manage through the pressure on her airways. The puppet’s fingers don’t loosen their hold, nor does its attention waver from her, but it doesn’t make anything worse. 

She made the wrong call. Shona could’ve torn through these creatures. If it was right for any of them to rush to Liadain’s rescue before they knew how much force Isobel’s Harbinger could bring to bear, she should have done it herself. No, what good would she have done in there? It probably would’ve been best to face their problems one at a time. Push through the statues, restrain Isobel… somehow… then turn on Seryana as a group. The strategic calculus might feel wrong, but it would’ve been the best use of the resources she had.

And now here she is, pinned down in the dirt. She couldn’t quite bring herself to make that hard call, couldn’t give up on the hope that there had to be some way to reach her best friend. Isobel is there, she’s sure even now, just… the more she sees and hears, the less it seems like she’s at all in control. At most, she may hold enough influence over her patron’s puppets to keep the one looming over Aisling from crushing her windpipe.


Whether or not eldritch influence was involved, Isobel is clearly convinced that there’s something she and her new Harbinger absolutely need to do. From the way she talks about that goal, she seems to believe there’s no chance that their objective or its costs would be acceptable to her old best friend. Maybe she’s right. Maybe, if Isobel was really as close with a living nightmare that made people drown themselves as Liadain thinks she was, Aisling simply doesn’t understand her as well as she thought she did.

None of that changes what she’s here to do… but it does severely limit her ability to do it. Now she can’t even talk, not that that’s accomplished anything — not even goading Isobel into staying and fighting. When Aisling twists her head to the left as far as she can manage under the statue’s grip, she can still see Isobel hurrying along the coast beneath the blazing sun, her distended shadow trailing far behind her to support her marionettes. Then she turns and jogs up the hill, disappearing into the shelter of the treeline. 

From the constant sharp clangs of steel against stone, Mide is still locked in battle with the other two puppets. Holding her own, hopefully, but in no position to chase after Isobel.

Just as she fades from sight, though, Isobel’s voice pricks at Aisling’s awareness. It’s only faintly audible at this distance, and only thanks to what remains of her enhanced senses, but she feels the gravity in the words all too keenly:

“This vaulted sky is not the end. We’ve climbed higher before. We’ll soar higher again.” 

An incantation. An invocation. A prayer offered to a demon.

Pressure spikes in Aisling’s head as a dark pinprick hole in the world opens beyond the veil of trees. It’s clearly visible, not glimpsed through the foliage but on the other side of a trunk. A peephole cut in the fabric of reality, rendering everything that would otherwise conceal it see-through. A stain on the world itself that’s layered itself above every other object, almost like a cataract in her eye. It’s the opening to a second Wound, or the hesitant beginnings of one — not the birth of a realm the Harbinger intends to claim, but a gateway into a place where, if it closes behind Isobel, none of them could follow. 

Aisling flares, screaming a silent, wordless question out into the world with all her meager power. The puppet pinning her down gives no sign that it can hear. All she can do is hope Mide can.


The halo of manifest rage coursing between Shona and Seryana begins to lose its shape as she incinerates the Harbinger’s newest body. This time, though, the storm doesn’t slow down at all. Shona’s power surges through the Wound, spilling out around us and into the new mirrored room. 

Within seconds, I sense yet another Seryana coming into being, another tiny extension of her created to be destroyed. I can’t see her right away, but I know she’s there by the fetid stench of this place growing stronger. Then comes the impact of something landing on the bed above me. 

A curtain of filthy shower-drain hair spills over the side of the bed, obscuring my view. Seryana leans the upper half of her body over the edge, staring right at me. Her upside-down mask, framed by the tangled shroud of her grimy mane, is as unmarred as when she first put it on.

<Oh, so much love!> she sings in her own soul’s voice, that desperate sigh I feel like hot breath and wet dust on my neck. <Love like a dagger! Love you carry like a mountain on your back! The truest love there is! If only you were capable of this kind of love, dearest, we never would have grown so distant! You never would have needed to ruin anyone but me!>

Seryana swivels upright and hurls herself off the bed at Shona, not quite reaching her before the lightning finds her again. She screams and cheers and laughs all at the same time as Shona’s crimson bolts sear her to nothing.

Why did Shona have to barge in here? Why couldn’t everyone just leave me alone and let me handle my own miserable life? This is the worst possible time to deal with this. I am the worst possible person to deal with this.

But… I’m the only one there is. 

And while I hide under this bed and spiral into a chasm of my own self-pity and loathing, Seryana feasts. 

And the girl feeding her has never done anything but try, in her own stupid, happy way, to help me and be my friend.

I’ve hurt people, I’ll keep hurting people, I’ve let people die, I could’ve killed her best friend, and still she keeps reaching out to me and standing up for me to her own partner, making whatever weak excuses she can come up with to the girl I nearly ate.

And if I don’t do something right now, both of us probably die.

So what do I do? What can I do? What is even happening? I press my hands over my ears, blotting out the clamor of thunder and the rumble of flimsy plaster walls collapsing as best I can — it doesn’t help with either Shona’s screech or Seryana’s endless babbling, but it’s something — and I think. 

I think I have enough to make a good guess, although that’s still several steps off from knowing what I should do about it. Right before the first storm started, Shona asked me, with horror written clearly on her face, what “she” was doing here. She’s seen plenty of monsters before, so that only makes sense if she’s seeing someone she recognizes. Someone other than the Harbinger she burst in to save me from. By the way Shona’s reacting and the strange things Seryana’s been saying, my best guess is that the Harbinger is wearing some kind of illusion only Shona can see, stealing the face and voice of a person she knows. 

How did she do that? Did she do that, or is she only borrowing some weird power from Isobel’s new Harbinger? What does this mean for whoever she’s mimicking? 

But the details don’t matter right now. All that matters is what I can do to make her stop, and there I’m drawing a blank. I feel like I’ve got more of a hook in Seryana’s soul than I did when she dragged me in here, but I still don’t know what I’d need to do to actually kill her. Especially not while she’s gorging herself on Shona’s anger. My power works best when I’m alone in a Wound, a whole world I can infect and fester through until nothing remains. Other people are just complications I have to worry about hurting. 

If I were much, much better at this, I might be able to somehow infect only and exactly the other Harbinger’s mask, breaking its power without putting Shona in danger, but… Shona’s already broken it over and over and nothing’s changed. I’d need to understand this much more than I do to try and damage the magic itself in a way that matters. Maybe, if it’s possible to simply burst out of a wound the way Shona said she could, I could rot us a path out the way I made a trail through the forest, but I have a feeling that her way is quick and explosive and mine would be excruciatingly slow, if it works at all.

Can I make Shona stop, then? How? Words aren’t reaching her — I don’t even know if she can hear me. I can’t try to physically hold her back or come between her and Seryana, not while she’s standing in the heart of a crimson squall of violent fury. Even huddling under a bed in this dark, damp corner of the Wound, I don’t feel safe from her storm.

What if I… 

Oh, everything is terrible forever, but… 

What if I did it anyway? 

I don’t know Shona, not really, but I can tell she’s not like me. She never wants to hurt anyone… well, except maybe whoever’s face Seryana is wearing, right now. But she certainly doesn’t want to hurt me. If there’s anything I can do to shake her out of her deadly frenzy, that’s it. It’d just be a little more pain. 

How many times have I pushed myself forward with thoughts like those since I made the Promise? How often among those times have I said those exact words to myself? How many more times will I throw myself into the fire before I can just live?

…And I know my answer. As many as it takes. I deserve this and more, anyway.

When I crawl out from under the bed, the Wound looks less like a hoarder’s dark nest and more like a condemned house in the middle of being demolished. More walls have come crashing down, exposing more almost-perfect duplicates of the cramped space we first found ourselves in, with more human effigies of woven hair laying on the beds. Of the original room, only the wall behind me is still standing. Shona still sways angrily in the rough center of the original room, wreathed in a blindingly brilliant crimson tempest that grows to fill the expanding space. Blood and tears still streaming down her face through her endless shriek, but the bleeding I saw earlier has intensified now.

And through her inflamed tear ducts, something is growing — thin, coarse strands of unwoven rope fiber, creeping out from her eye sockets like vines overgrowing an abandoned building.

The circuit between her and Seryana is broken, but only because the storm has ceased to focus on any one target. Now it simply rampages through the Wound, burning everything but that single stubborn cabinet. The Harbinger herself appears again and again at Shona’s side, reaching out for her with fraying fingers until the storm blasts her away and reduces her to cinders.

“Shona, stop it! There’s no one here but us and a Harbinger!” I try one last time, though I can barely hear my own voice over the tumult of the Wound falling apart. 

Only a shrill cackle from Seryana and yet another deafening crack of thunder answers.

There’s no other option, then. I have to do this.

I breathe, slow and deep, circulating stolen life through my cursed blood. I’m about to need a lot of it. Once it’s flowed all the way through my body, I stride into the storm — all at once, before I can stop myself. As wild and random as the bolts arcing through the Wound look, enough of them pass within an inch of me that I’m certain some part of Shona is steering them. I can only hope that’s a good sign, another indication that her mind hasn’t been completely swept away in the swelling tide of her power.

Shona glances my way as I pass through the arcing tempest surrounding her, unharmed save for the painful heat in the air. A confused mix of painful emotions plays across her face as I pull my right glove off, take her hand, squeeze it, and-

Crimson light swallows my world. A train crashes into the back of my head and the impact surges through me and breaks every bone in my body at once and a thousand syringes stab into me and replace my organs with molten lava and everything—



A voice echoes in the distance, calling through an expanse a thousand miles wide. Calling… to me?

A single massive red sunspot fills my vision, leaving only a dark, blurry outline of whatever world exists behind it. 

“…fuck fuck no fuck I’m sorry Eyna I’m sorry…”

Hot tears drip onto my skin. They hurt as they trickle down my cheek, the way even the slightest pressure on sunburnt skin hurts. 

The blur beyond the blinding light resolves, forming… a face? A vague impression of a familiar face, just above mine. Shona’s face.

…Right. We’re still in a Wound. I did a very stupid thing. Arms wrapped around my back hold me upright. The more I come back to myself, the more everything burns. The familiar cool, soothing sensation of digesting stolen life tangles with the pain of having been cooked from the inside out.

The Harbinger. Where’s the Harbinger? That thought comes roaring through my mind. My eyes dart wildly around the room, looking for Seryana, and I find her.

Looming on a bed, the masked clump of noose-limbed hair glares at us from afar, unmoving. No, not unmoving. She’s trembling. Quivering violently. She lets out a long, sad wail, too thin and shrill to belong to any living human, and black muck wells up in the eyes of the mask she wears, streaming down to spill off its chin and dirty her form even more. She begins to flail her woven-rope arms, beating them into the charred bedsheets beneath her, and her whine devolves into a tantrum of beastlike snarling too strange and incohesive to compare to a natural animal.

<You, you, you–you, youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou, how dare you, how dare you, HOW DARE YOU>

Seryana whips her appendages to the floor, coiling them around one of her woven-hair effigies that had fallen during her struggle with Shona. She raises it above her head and then smashes it down against the bed frame, sending glass shards flying everywhere as the picture affixed to its “face” shatters. Then she does it again. In a frenzy, she raises the doll back up just to bring it down, bashing it against the bed frame again and again and again.


“What the… what the entire fuck?” Shona chokes out, eyes wide as she watches the Harbinger tear its own prop to shreds. Good question. I understand Seryana’s language, yes, but I still have no idea what she’s trying to say beyond the unbearably slimy way the words feel.

When she’s finally done, Seryana flings what remains of the effigy aside and begins pulsing across her figure as though heaving down gulps of air. Then, a haggard noise rasps from her shuddering body, sharpening into hoarse giggles that rattle through the air. Her masked face snaps back to look at Shona, then lunges across the room… but stops just short of tackling her, hanging over her like a dusty veil spun from shed hair.

<Oh, look what you’ve done now!> Seryana growls into Shona’s ear, and I hear her voice all too clearly through the hazy film between me and everything else. <Everything going wrong, everything crashing down around you… it’s because you thieves came too near to her. It’s not safe. Not for you, not for her, not for anyone. Stay away from her.>

Shona flinches and freezes in place, glancing at the Harbinger through the corners of her eyes. “Wha..? You were just…”

“Ignore her,” I rasp. My throat aches the way it does when I’ve tried to talk too loudly or for too long. “This isn’t real. Whatever you think you’re seeing, it’s just…” A phrase drifts through my blurry thoughts, and I latch onto it. “It’s just her obnoxious cheaty shit.” That’s how she described Irakkia’s world-twisting powers to Aisling’s club. Maybe it means something in her vocabulary that she’ll recognize through… this. “Save all this for whoever deserves it.”

“…So she’s not… I didn’t… I didn’t kill her,” Shona murmurs tonelessly, like whatever that means to her hasn’t quite registered.

“And you’re… fuck, I mean, fuck, I’m sorry, are you… no, I mean, of course you’re hurt, what a stupid fucking thing to ask! How…. how can I help? What do I do?”

“Just get us out of here.”

“Right. Right, uh, yeah, just… this is gonna be noisy. Sorry.” Shona sets my limp body down on the damp, filthy floor. She stands, plays a bar of music I only hear as an aural blur of harsh, sharp noise. Thunder cracks through the music and the whole world rumbles as if in an earthquake. A great chunk of the floor near my legs falls away into nothingness. I can’t muster enough strength to move, but before I can fall helplessly through the world, Shona scoops me up, hoists me over her shoulder, and jumps in for us both.

<And you, dearestyou and I are one, till death do us part,> Seryana whispers as we sink through the void. <We both know that. Your heart may wander anywhere it likes, but it can never leave. I can never leave.

Those last words come without a cloying squeal, without even the slightest syrupy tinge. Seryana spits them like a curse, like an inescapable truth she resents more than anything.

Then her presence fades into the distance, and we crash to the ground beneath the light of the Embrace, brighter and more painful than ever.

Falling Ever Deeper 6-4

Aisling detects it right before she sees it, a soundless alarm piercing through the flow of her thoughts. Her gaze whips back toward the forest’s edge just in time to watch reality explode. Liadain’s Harbinger opens itself, turning inside-out into a raw and bloody hole in the world. In an instant, it expands, swallows her whole, and contracts into itself, leaving a tangled web of hair and ribbons of exposed skin spread out around a pulsing black core. A Wound in the most literal sense.

“Ah… it’s not perfect, but it’ll have to do,” Isobel sighs, though she watches Liadain vanish with a thin, vindictive smile that makes Aisling’s stomach churn.

There’s no point in wondering what happened to her best friend, what’s come over the girl Aisling trusted more than any other to make her this way. The culprit is clear as the burning sky. The two important questions, then, are: what does Isobel’s new Harbinger want with a dead keepsake of her last one, and how much of Isobel is left in there to save?

As the distortion that swallowed Liadain settles in its place and begins to slowly contract into itself, Isobel clasps her hands together, lowers her gaze, and begins murmuring to herself as if in prayer. A white mask flickers into being over her face… no, not quite over, but not quite translucent, either. Rather, Isobel’s head and this placid-faced stone mask somehow appear to occupy the same space at the same time. 

With three clean, rhythmic swipes of her blade, Mide carves through the wrists of the shadowy limbs gripping her ankles. She rips her legs away as if pulling herself out of an ivy thicket, stomps on the blunt end of the spear she’d dropped to her feet in such a way that it’s launched spinning into the air, and takes a quick hop backwards as she notices the attacking silhouettes have already reformed – and one of them is lifting itself off the ground.

A smoky, pitch black arm rises above the knight’s height and unfurls its long, branchlike fingers like blossoming flower petals. Its presence hums like a youth choir crooning in the distance. As the tips of the shadow-limb’s six fingers abruptly tense like a claw and lance out sharply, extending with terrifying speed as if to skewer her, Mide catches her spear out of the air with her shield hand just in time to array it, her sword, and her heater shield in just the right places to deflect every vector of the attack.

The diverted fingers clang off her armaments and shoot past Mide, stabbing into the ground behind her, and she cuts them away before rushing forward to chop down the risen shadow-limb. As fast as she is, the silhouette is quicker, ducking the arc of her next swing as it retreats flat against the ground. In the meantime, another shadow-limb has taken the chance to snake around her, lunging at her from behind to seize her ankles again. This time, though, she’s ready, and easily evades with some quick footwork.

With none of the shadow-limbs directly impeding her, Mide sheaths her sword, turns tail, and glides down to the patch of grass where Shona was smashed into the earth, all in one smooth motion. Three of the silhouettes slither after her at a leisurely pace, but three others retract, returning to their source.

The very same moment Mide offers Shona a hand up, the silhouettes that had pulled back to Isobel all sprout up off from the ground, becoming too-tall, too-long arms of solid shadow just the same as the one that had risen to attack Mide. Her shadow is as solid as a puddle of black ink seeping out from under her shoes.

And as they draw themselves up, stubbornly resisting the Sun’s burning light, black threads trailing away from each finger reach down into the pool of murk at their base. Each set of strings pulls a human-sized form up with them, as if reeling corpses out of a lake, but the ghoulish manikins they puppeteer are human only in their vague outline. They look to be made entirely of white stone, with expressionless masks in place of faces, and their bodies are stretched out like coils of clay. Nothing distinguishes one from the other but the tiny cracks in the stone. None move on their own power, simply lolling over and twitching as the hands holding their strings spasm in pain.

Not only was Liadain the only person present who might be able to drive out the thing inside Isobel without killing her, Aisling has no way of knowing how much immediate danger that girl has gotten herself into, now. 

Danger from that Harbinger or herself? Unimportant. Nothing I can do about Liadain’s situation from out here. Focus on the things you can control first. 

“Shona! You can break out of Wounds, right?” Aisling calls out.

Taking Mide’s hand, Shona stumbles dizzily to her feet, tossing aside her broken shades and brushing grass and bits of rock off her dress. After helping her friend up, Mide wastes no time turning back to the shadow limbs creeping closer behind her, passing her spear into her free hand, and chucking it into the centermost silhouette with so much force it buries itself a third of the way into the ground. The middle arm cringes like a living insect pinned in a specimen box, splitting itself down the middle as it rips itself away… and reforms itself in short order. Mide strides forth as she draws her sword again, interposing herself between the  silhouettes and Shona.

“Urghhh…” Shona collects herself, making sure Mide has the situation at least mostly in check before she gives Aisling her response. “..Y-yeah, when I’ve tried!” she confirms, her eyes leaping between the three silhouettes closing in on her and Mide, and the three manikins Isobel has called into being. 

Then, as if fed up with her own hesitation, Shona’s wavering eyes take on a sudden anger. The violin scattered along the ground bursts into crimson light, and a new one materializes in her grip. She puts her bow to the instrument and races through a harsh threatening tune in presto, summoning a wall of red lightning bolts between her and the Harbinger’s shadow. The bolts, short-lived as they are, prove more than enough to scatter the spectral arms, which frantically retreat into the darkness beneath Isobel. With that, Shona jogs to Aisling’s side. Mide follows, side-stepping along with her shield and sword held at the ready against the limp statue-puppets.

“We can’t fight this on two fronts. Can you get in there and pull Eyna out?” 

“I mean…” Shona bites her lip. “It’s not great to separate us,” she says, wagging an elbow in Mide’s direction.

“Listen. These out here are just… shadows cast by a Harbinger. Fragments of power it’s handed out. The two of us can handle these, and their creator isn’t going to manifest during an Embrace. But I can’t get into a Wound and pull someone out. Neither can Mide. You can, and you’re fast. Just do it as quick as you can. Or if she’s got things under control, you can leave her there and pop back out to help us. That work?”

Shona glances uncomfortably at Mide, who nods once. 

“…’Kay. Be right back.”

Red lightning dances around Shona’s feet as she kicks off and skates up the hill, charging straight into Seryana’s Wound. Seryana’s tear in the world, which had gradually been stitching itself shut, twists and expands once more to welcome the Screaming Hymn, opening into a narrow tunnel of flesh and sinew that shuts like a mouth in the world the moment Shona passes through.

Isobel smirks, then kneels and reaches an arm deep into the darkness still pooled at her feet. The murk boils and writhes as she pulls another mask up from it, a white stone face dripping with blackness. “For your trouble, you… you creepy little freak, you,” she says, and sets the mask down beside her. “A new face for you to wear.” With those words, the mask darts away, carried up the hill by a wisp of slithering blackness detached from the central pool. 

Mide thrusts her sword upright into the earth, then reaches out her newly freed hand towards her spear, whereupon the weapon bursts into embers and manifests instantly in her grip. She draws the javelin back, takes a running start, and hurls it at the stone face. The tip finds its mark, impacting the face with a harsh clatter. The mask jolts off course but quickly corrects itself, with only a chunk chipped off its left cheek to show for the strike, while the spear bounces away and disappears in a golden flare.

For her part, Aisling simply tracks the new mask as it travels, narrowing her focus around it. Her Keeper senses have never been what she wished they were, but for this they should suffice. The mask is faintly feminine in shape and design — even before the damage, it didn’t quite match the featureless ones worn by Isobel and her puppets. It’s still very much a living extension of the same demon behind them, though — training her aura sight on it leaves Aisling with the distinct impression of a great tangle of threads, with the set on one side trailing back toward Isobel and the other dangling unused. A marionette bar with strings on either side, designed as if to be used by one puppet to direct another.

Then the mask dives into Seryana’s Wound, falling out of reach of Aisling’s senses. 

Seryana and Isobel’s passenger are colluding, then. It’s even possible she tipped Isobel off before they showed up — Isobel did know exactly who was there before she saw them, and while her Harbinger could simply have some other way of spying for her, the timing of Seryana’s manifestation and whatever the puppeteer just offered her both suggest an accord between them. Did they have some prior arrangement? No, from the way Liadain described her, the most likely explanation is that Seryana saw an opportunity to pull her “one and only true love” away from other Keepers and took it.

Still, Isobel’s Harbinger agreed to work with her. They could just be smart enough to communicate and accept an alliance of convenience, but offering her some tangible portion of its power seems like a step beyond that. Is there some deeper layer to its plan?

Can Harbingers be witches? Can they be vessels? No, that’s unimportant too. A theory question for later. 

The statue-puppets stir, pulled half-upright by Isobel’s spectral hands. Mide plucks her sword from the soil and steps forward with her shield thrust out, placing herself firmly between Aisling and Isobel.

“Isobel, are we really going to war before we even know what you want out of this?” Aisling calls. “Fine, you don’t know the others, but are you that certain there’s no way I’d hear you out?” She doubts it’ll work — Isobel’s given every indication that what her new Harbinger wants is incompatible with anyone else’s goals  — but it’s the only thing she can do. She’d need to know the puppeteer to have any way of hurting it, and it’s clearly not inclined to show itself here.

Isobel crosses her arms, sighing through the corner of her mouth. “Hey. Ash, hey. I’m not treating you like an idiot all of a sudden, am I? Do you think you could do me the same courtesy? There’s nothing to talk out here, and if there was, I wouldn’t do it while you and your squad are blatantly fishing for information.”

Mide looks over her shoulder, meeting Aisling’s widened eyes with an uneasy expression. 

But despite Isobel’s words, the puppets don’t move.

Aisling blinks away the tension in her expression, forcing herself to stay calm. “I’m not trying to interrogate you about your Harbinger’s weaknesses, okay? We’re not starting a fight if you aren’t.” 

“Mhm. Only stalling for time while those two deal with the other one?” Isobel’s hands clench around her arms. She taps a foot impatiently, trailing liquid shadow away from her shoe as it touches down in the dark beneath her. 

“I just want to know what you’re looking for here! We could’ve helped if you didn’t cut us all off as soon as you jumped into this! Maybe we still can!”

“As if you wouldn’t have just killed Aulunla and gotten me the help I needed like anyone else!” Isobel takes a single long stride forward. Her distorted shadow dances out of the way as she stomps down, then slides easily back into place beneath her.

“I wouldn’t have. Not until you or it gave me a reason to think there was a problem,” Aisling says, doing her utmost to keep her frustration out of her low, level voice. For a moment, she simply watches Isobel’s face through her half-real mask, allowing her time to register what Aisling just said — what Isobel knows she couldn’t have lied about.

“Fine. Maybe I’m just fucking stupid. Maybe if you hadn’t picked out some problem, and all our friends stood by me when I told them I’d made a pact with a Harbinger, we’d have revolutionized our understanding of everything together. But Ash, that’s not where we are anymore! It’s dead! It’s gone and I’m doing my best to make things right and yes, there’s no point in negotiating on what I need to do to make that happen. We’re doing it. If you don’t want to fight, great! All you have to do is leave us alone. Go help your new friends out. We won’t stop you.”

“…Doing what?” Aisling presses. Make what right? Does she think she can resurrect it somehow? That might be possible, but Aisling can’t imagine a way to do it without tearing Aulunla’s remains out of Liadain and piecing them back together, and Isobel seemed happy enough to let Seryana take her. “Let’s leave the Harbinger out of it for a second. What are you, Isobel, trying to get out of this, and are you sure it’s the best way to get it?”

“You keep asking the same stupid, obvious question! I just want to MATTER! And don’t tell me there was some other way, some perfectly respectable path into this world for a normal nobody. If you believed that, you wouldn’t have made the Promise! You hated magic — you still do. You wanted nothing to do with it. So what made you a chosen hero and the rest of us your sidekicks, hm?!”

“I don’t know! I’m doing my best to find out, and I thought we were doing that together! If you came to the club with this, and it really was like you say it was, we’d have been the first to update our beliefs and you know it! We all would’ve been thrilled to learn if Aulunla was really different from every other Harbinger, so why didn’t-”


…She’s right. Aisling doesn’t care, not about Aulunla. Maybe if she’d been there, if Isobel would give her anything at all to demonstrate that she wasn’t exactly like any other witch suffering from their Harbinger’s soul-rot.

“You never gave me a chance to care,” Aisling says.

Isobel’s face, still stained with tears, twists into a scowl. With no visible signal, her puppets jerk into action, pulled forward by the fingers of the hands sheltering them from the Sun, and Mide advances to meet them. 

Two statues throw themselves violently at Mide, warping and stretching at strange angles as if moving to wrap themselves entirely around her. With her shield and frantic footwork — still enhanced by echoes of Shona’s power, which turn a single step into an easy slide along the rough ground — she holds them at a distance, taking careful, probing slices at the strings that move them between flurries of twisting motion.

Isobel turns and stomps off down the shoreline, her shadow stretching out behind her to hold its place. Aisling rushes after her, but the third hand drags its puppet into her way. It doesn’t restrain her, it doesn’t even try, it simply… stands there, staring at her with its placid smile and empty eye-sockets, blocking her path to Isobel however she moves.

And that’s all it would need to do, if Aisling had only her own power to rely on. 

But if Isobel honestly thought that was the case, she was selling Truth’s Lantern short, despite her claims to the contrary.

Reaching gently inside the rightmost pocket of her peacoat-dress, Aisling pulls out a revolver, switching off its safety as she does. In a single swift, slick motion, she parts her legs in a firing stance, levels the gun in the center of the manikin’s face with both hands, and pulls the trigger.

The muzzle flashes with an eerie teal light. The puppet crumples as a magic-infused bullet exits out the back of its head in a burst of that same strange blue-green radiance, which discolors even the glaring white of the Embrace around it. Without hesitating, Aisling fires again into her enemy’s chest, causing its gangly body to twirl as it’s flung backwards. She fires a third time, blasting off its right arm, which sails off wildly through the air and into Missing Lake.

Aisling lowers the barrel as the manikin collapses, the shadowy arm that held the puppet aloft sagging to the ground along with it. The fissures spreading across the figure’s stone skin where Aisling hit home glow faintly teal… then slowly but surely melt into a liquid state almost like magma. But there isn’t even close to enough heat to render stone molten. Rather, the puppet’s flesh is “festering” in a way that shouldn’t be possible for inorganic matter. 

This is far better than any unenhanced gun could ever hope to accomplish, but the bullets would have done even more damage, reduced the whole demented muppet right to slag, if they were freshly imbued. It’s bad practice to go as long as Aisling has without getting the enchantment restored, but she rarely uses it anyway, and she loathes feeling indebted to the Church or its Keepers. Still, she’s not about to pass up her prerogatives, and in this case, she’s glad to have the weapon on hand.

Isobel is still visible down the coast, her figure shrinking into the distance, her strides long as she begins to hurry her escape. Aisling has to move now. She can’t let her friend – her best friend, her sister in every way that matters – get sucked any deeper into whatever pit this puppet-thing crawled out of.

But just as she stomps over that puppet-thing and lifts her sole off it to break into a run, something snags hold of her boot, sending her toppling to the grass — and her gun hurtling out of her grip.

The thought of pumping another bullet into the marionette the moment she saw the three prior shots hadn’t completely annihilated the thing had crossed Aisling’s mind, of course, but she only has so much ammo, and this gun is her only lifeline. Yet, seeing the puppet and the shadowy arm that controls it shudder back to life, she wishes more than anything that she’d taken that precaution. If she hadn’t already used her question for the day, it would have been obvious to her the enemy was still active. But she had, and her focus had been entirely on Isobel.

Aisling frantically rolls over, kicking at the creature’s concrete grip on her, but it’s futile. It drags her back, pulls her under it, and straddles her. With its single remaining arm, it curls its rough fingers around her throat, though not quite viciously enough to crush it. Pinned down, Aisling can only gnash her teeth and glare up at the statue’s grinning, shattered face as the leftmost half of it begins to ooze off.

If only she weren’t so weak. She’s seen so much, learned so much, but all that knowledge has done for Isobel is drive her into the arms of a nightmare.


<This is nice, isn’t it? A warm hand on your skin. A tether holding you firmly in a moment when things made sense.> 

Countless filthy tangles of blonde hair-rope wrap around me, like a hundred suffocatingly tight hugs at once. Warm, damp fingers trace formless patterns over my face as I’m passed from embrace to painful, clinging embrace, bearing me down into the Wound.

<Just a moment, just one — that is all we need! Who cares about tomorrow? What good has the future ever done for us?>

The rank, sour air makes me want to puke, but I can’t. I can’t do anything but fall, lost in the horrible sensations of the world being peeled away, becoming something else. 

<Shroud the world in terror. Shrink it to a room where only you and I matter. That’s what you’ve always done for me, dearest… so won’t you let me return your gift at last?>

The tunnel opens, setting me down gently on the ground. My legs give out and my gut churns and ice courses through my veins and my throat burns with dozens of tiny scratches as I hunch over and vomit up… 

A mixture of noxious green fog and damp black feathers. 

I stare into the cloud as it seeps along the floor. It feels right, I realize. Truer than the more familiar pain of spitting up stomach acid. This is what I am now, inside and out. My own living curse. No point in thinking of myself as a person with human needs and frailties and feelings. 

People are supposed to break when they kill other people, aren’t they?

Slowly, I stagger upright and search for Seryana through the pall of clinging, stinking miasma all around me. Her Wound is… all I can see is a single cramped room, dark save for where pinpricks of light filter through the black curtains over the undersized windows. Each sheet of fabric is covered in tiny holes that shift and spin slowly, orbiting each other in pairs like tiny stars.

The room, a little square space with off-yellow walls, is packed with a bizarre range of furniture — two thin beds against the walls in opposite corners, stools and footrests scattered randomly about, and in the center, an overturned curio cabinet. Knots of wet hair are strewn all over every surface. The cabinet’s glass compartments are lit from the inside, though they do nothing to illuminate the room around them. Where the little windows aren’t completely covered in refuse, they look to be filled with framed photos with all the faces scratched out.

<I know. You never liked keeping these around, did you? But I can’t help myself. They were ours. Our relics from a time when things were happier,> Seryana whispers. Her voice comes from everywhere at once, with no sign of her actual form in sight.

So I open my soul and fill the room with infectious mist, flooding the Wound with my own corruption. For good measure, I tap a bit of life, walk up to the curio cabinet, and start bashing its windows in with the heel of my boot.

That gets her attention. The Harbinger scrawls herself into existence at my side. Her limbs are already starting to unravel, but all she does is set a disintegrating hand on my shoulder. Beneath the grey coils her body is woven from are thin strands of raw red, the color of exposed flesh.

<I understand! I do!> Seryana giggles and wails in two voices. <You are a nightmare come to life. You ruin everything you touch… but that’s okay! Destroy me!>

The Harbinger reforms the moment she’s finished wasting away, born again already falling apart and gurgling excitedly about it. She reaches to interlace her fingers with mine, holding my hand in a painfully tight grip when I try to snatch it away, but then she loses her strength, wastes away, and dies. She throws herself at me and hugs me tight, shrouding my face in her matted hair, and then she dies. Her voice warbles through obnoxious, tuneless songs as her disintegrating fingers run along my cheek above my mask, trailing dust and grime over my skin, and then she dies.

<Tear me to pieces as many times as you like! I’ll put us back together, always. Give me everything you have and I will make sure tomorrow never has to come for us. What more could we ask for?> Seryana begs. Her black-scrawl face twists into a small, desperate smile.

But all the while, my sickness seeps and seeps into the world. The holes in the curtains slowly grow, the light beyond them flickering a pale sickly green. The beds fall to ruin, their mattresses collapsing through the middle as the slats supporting them decay. Only the damaged cabinet’s contents hold steady against my corruption.

If this is all she has, Seryana shouldn’t have brought me here. She’s not like Esonei, an infection of its own that could punish me for hurting it. She can survive my plague, yes, but her manifestations aren’t growing, aren’t changing. Maybe she’s getting something from her constant deaths at my hand, but I don’t think it’s what she needs.

What she really wants is my pain, my love or hate or any feeling at all that might bind us together into an endless cord of mutual misery, and the only thing I can bring myself to feel about Seryana is the cold, creeping dread that maybe this is where I belong, a murderer imprisoned in a monster. 

But I wouldn’t be here if ever I let what I should do slow me down.

So hurt me if you’re going to, but pain gives me power, too. Hold me here as long as you can, but it won’t be forever. Stop me or I’ll rot away this whole world around us, and then the world outside too. Someone stop me, because I don’t think I can do it myself. 

A crack of thunder roars out, somewhere in the distance far above us. Another comes a few seconds later, much closer than the first.

“EYNAAAA!” Shona’s voice screams. A jolt of crimson lightning crashes through the ceiling, tearing chunks of it away, followed immediately by a deafening burst of thunder. On instinct, I pull my fog away from the jagged hole, gathering it around myself.

<All these intruders smashing their way into places I made just for us… how? Why does this keep happening? Do you really hate me that much?> Seryana whines, drawing back onto the bed in the furthest corner.

“FLARE IF YOU CAN HEAR ME! I’M… oh. Hey. Here I am.” A few seconds later, Shona drops through the broken ceiling, landing easily on her feet, and suddenly lowers her unnatural volume when she spots me right beside her. I can barely hear her through the ringing in my ears.

“Wow,” Shona huffs. “This… oh, ew, this is an extra shitty little place, isn’t it?” She shakes a grungy hair-knot off her shoe like a bit of trash on the sidewalk.

“What are you doing here?” I murmur. “I dragged Seryana into this. She’s mine to-”

“Oh, fuck that with a rake!” Shona snaps. She smashes her bow against the cabinet in emphasis, summoning a new one before the wood splinters have even landed.

“What? What does that mean? 

“It means we’re in this together! Deal with it!”

I can’t deal with it. I don’t have that power. I’m a disaster for everyone I’m around and it’ll really, really be best if she just lets me be my own problem. 

“You look a lot like you’re being a dummy again,” Shona pushes, folding her bow hand on her hip. “Listen. Aisling said I could just let you handle this if you had it under control, but honestly I think that’s pretty dumb! There’s four of us and one of your Harbinger. Let’s just… one thing at a time, okay? You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna get through this. I can get us outta here, I’m pretty sure, so-”

<What is this? You too?> Seryana wails suddenly, stirring from her corner to glower up at an unbroken section of the ceiling. <This is our home! Our sanctuary! LEAVE US BE ALREADY!> 

A dark patch forms above her, seeping over the surface like a water stain. Within moments, it goes completely black, becoming a blotch of liquid shadow. Something lowers through the ceiling, a small object wrapped in strings of solid darkness — a white stone mask, its chipped face pulled back into a faint sneer.

And there it waits, hanging still. It feels like… something else, the limb of a presence too high and cold and distant for me to read.

Shona shoots me a sidelong glance, then points silently at the mask and mouths ‘Huh?’ I shrug.

For Seryana’s part, once the mask settles in its place, she seems bizarrely captivated by the new intrusion. She twists around the hanging mask to examine it from all angles, tapping it gingerly with her fraying fingers. For the second time, she reminds me of a cat not sure how to react to a strange new toy.

Shona, meanwhile, has no interest in waiting to find out where this goes. She readies her violin and starts to play, filling the little room with sharp, cacophonous notes and static buzzing through the air.

<Oh. Oh, yes, now I see. This is… how beautiful!> she sighs. She takes it in her hands, yanks it free from the shadow-strings, and places it over her scribbled face. The strands of solid darkness still dripping from it reach around the back of her head and knot themselves in place.

“You wanted to leave? Let’s leave,” I hiss to Shona. I don’t like this. Everything feels just as terrible, but… before she and this new Harbinger-limb showed up, I understood what was going on. Even when I couldn’t handle other Harbingers, I could see what they were, what they were trying to do. Now I’m lost as I’ve ever been — I can barely begin to guess at what’s happening and why Seryana isn’t reacting as violently to it as she does to everything else but me.

Shona’s song cuts off abruptly.

“Eyna,” she whispers weakly, eyes frozen wide open. “Eyna, what the fuck is she doing here?”

I scan the room, but there’s no one else around. Just Seryana, staring our way through her new mask. “What? It’s her Wound,” I say.

Seryana surges forward, crossing the room in a single space-defying twist of her whole body. She wraps both hands around Shona’s head, glaring up at her with her mask’s empty eyes. <It’s time. You start. Living the life YOU//WE//I want more than anything. Dancing with your body. RIPPING OUT YOUR DREAMS AND THREADING THEM THROUGH MINE.>

Shona’s eyes go wider than ever before. Her bow and violin slip through her fingers as she brings her palms to her ears. She opens her mouth, gawkingly at first, but soon a faint stream of hollow air, like a gasp turned inside out, begins to escape from the depths of her throat. Then, all at once, she closes her eyes and lets out an impossible, inhuman shriek. A harsh, discordant violin wail played with her own voice.

I back away in a panicked rush, tripping over the legs of a sideways stool, as sparks arc all around her, crackling through the Wound. An indoor lightning storm rages through the tiny room, and it feels like a miracle that none of the bolts dancing over every surface strike me before they converge on Seryana.

Falling Ever Deeper 6-3

Isobel’s six limb-shadows stand out sharply on the too-bright ground, the only shadows holding any kind of steady shape beneath the Embrace, but their fingers constantly twitch as if in pain at their barely-visible joints. Two pairs of arms each crawl along the lake’s edge in both directions, digging one finger at a time into the rocky shore with an inhuman efficiency, and tossing larger stones aside seemingly at random. The remaining two begin to elongate and slither up the hill, grasping for me with their trembling hands.

And as they grow, they carry some distant presence over the basin. Something reaching out through Isobel, or crawling out from inside her.

“Haven’t you taken enough from us? Are you here to eat me too?” Isobel spits at me. I duck beneath the hill, glaring wide-eyed between Shona and Mide.

“Hey, hey, this seems pretty fucky, right?” Shona stage-whispers with a hectic energy, shooting glances between me, Aisling, and Mide.

“Eyna. Is that the Harbinger you first found her with?” Mide asks. 

I shake my head. There’s a faintly familiar sense of endless, nameless longing in the thing climbing out of Isobel’s soul, but as the weight of its attention bears down on me, I’m certain it’s not Aulunla’s. Aulunla is dead. All that’s left of it is its curse on me.

“Everyone, stay back!” Aisling calls. “We aren’t here to charge into a fight!”

The Harbinger’s awareness shifts to split between me and her. I peek back over the hill’s crest, where the shadow-limbs encroaching on us have slowed their crawl, but not quite stopped, like snakes slowly creeping up on prey. The remaining four carry right on scooping through the damp rocks. 

Shona and Mide share an uneasy look, ending when Mide nods, draws her spear, raises her shield, and assumes a defensive stance at the top of the hill, squaring off with the Harbinger’s twitching arms without advancing on it. Shona summons her violin, but doesn’t yet take a playing position.

“…Okay. Isobel, we came here to help you,” Aisling continues.

Isobel barks out a bitter laugh. “Is that right? What kind of help takes a whole squad of you to offer? Including, again, the girl who just killed my friend? I don’t want any hand she’s reaching out to me.”

“This is all me,” Aisling says. “Eyna’s only part in this is that I heard what happened from her. I’m here because as soon as I heard what you’d gotten into, I burned a question figuring out where you were! They’re here because I thought you might be spirited away by some monster who was very much not your… friend!”

“Wow,” Isobel deadpans. “Maybe if you’d done that a little more, a little sooner, things wouldn’t have gotten this far.”

“That’s not what this is about and we both know it,” Aisling shoots back. “I know how much you wanted to be part of this world. Getting a few answers secondhand wouldn’t have satisfied me and I doubt it would work for you either. Not long-term. That’s why we were trying our best to figure something out for you!”

“Not trying hard enough to just ask why you were Keeper material and I wasn’t, though.” Isobel wraps her right hand around her left forearm and squeezes through her sleeve, hard enough that it looks painful even from this distance. The shadow-limbs stretching out around her tense up, curling their narrow fingers as if mirroring her white-knucked grip.

Aisling pauses, clenching and unclenching a single fist. 

“Eyna, I know what Aisling just said, but… exactly how bad does this girl have it?” Mide mutters under her breath.

“I don’t know.” This new nightmare is far too distant, too detached from anything I understand to make sense of. Meeting its soul’s gaze is like looking into the night sky and knowing more than ever that something is looking back, which feels especially bizarre while the Sun is still glaring down at all of us. 

“Bad,” I say simply. I’m not sure how I’d tell the difference between a witch or a vessel, but it’s clear Isobel is corrupted much more severely than she was before, and by a Harbinger I somehow doubt cares about her the way Aulunla did. The only thing I can say for her is that it still feels like there’s a person beneath all the miasma.

“We… talked about that too,” Aisling finally stammers. “We agreed about that. The blind spots-”

“I know, I know. Just giving you a hard time. I get it,” Isobel says, releasing her grip with a little shrug. The Harbinger’s encroaching shadow-arms rattle wildly in place, shaking their hands out before they continue their advance. “And because I get it, I went and figured something else out first. That’s all this is.”

“And what is this, Isobel?” Aisling pushes. “I didn’t come to say any of the things you’re probably expecting me to. I’ll listen, but I can’t do that if you won’t say anything about what’s going on.”

“Oh, come on, Ash. Did you really think I’d take up monologuing just because I met a Harbinger?” Isobel giggles as if at an old joke. “There’s no possible advantage for us in telling you anything.” 

Aisling raises an eyebrow. “Us?”

Isobel’s uncanny smile only grows. “Not like I’m saying anything you guys can’t already see, or sense, or however it works for all you lucky chosen souls. But if you thought I was slipping up, you should’ve just let me keep slipping.”

“I’m not fishing for edges on you, idiot. We aren’t fighting. If we’ve got anything wrong, I want to know.”

“Aren’t we? If I say ‘thanks for checking in, but I’m fine, you can all get out of this miserable light now,’ what happens next?”

“…It depends,”Aisling says. “Which is why I’m doing my best to figure out where you’re coming from. But it really doesn’t look good, and you’re not making it easy.”

All around us, nature is unnaturally quiet, the animals who should be chirping and buzzing driven into hiding by the Embrace. Only the shuffling and splashing of rocks being pushed away and tossed into the lake breaks the silence.

Finally, Isobel lets out a long sigh. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. This isn’t help, it’s an intervention, only with armed guards waiting to lock me up if I won’t do things your way. Thanks, Ash, but I don’t need it. If I still had Aulunla, we wouldn’t need anything anymore,” she says, blinking as a flood of tears breaks suddenly through her eyelids,but here we fucking are!” 

“Isobel, you’re not…” Aisling mutters, then bites her lip and shakes her head. “No, I’m sure at least some part of this is you. My question wouldn’t have sent me here if you didn’t exist anymore. So you still know that if you won’t explain what this is, what you’re getting out of it, why it’s not what it looks like… that’s an answer too, right?”

There you are,” Isobel says, but not in response. She abruptly turns around and takes a few strides away from Aisling, following the Harbinger’s shuddering arms down the shore to our left, where it’s flung aside a slab of mica leaning against the foot of a stump situated away from the grassy shoreline. I can’t quite make out what’s happening from this far away, but the long, inky fingers seem to have slithered into a cavity beneath the stump. After a moment, its hands draw back into her, depositing something dark and dusty at her feet. 

She picks it up, wipes it on her sleeves, and hugs it close to her chest, smiling as she stands again. “Actually, nevermind what I said before. I have an idea. I can tell you guys just a little bit after all.”

“Alright…” Aisling says slowly, eyeing the object in Isobel’s arms. “What’s that?”

I already have a good idea. I can’t see the front cover from here, but it’s the shape, size, and color of a very familiar book.

Just… what is it doing here of all places?

She ignores Aisling and turns to stare at me again. “Eyna, your name was? You missed one of these. You missed a couple of the first ones I made, actually, but I think this one traveled the farthest!” 

Beneath wide eyes still red and swollen with tears, Isobel is grinning.

“The woman who found it hid it here before she drowned herself.”

My blood freezes in my veins, and the world with it.

I don’t want to die. I don’t want anyone to die. Ever. But even if I can already do so much more than most people ever can, I’m still just a weak little girl in all the ways that matter. I can’t clap my hands and erase death from the world. I can’t return the dead to life. I can’t cure diseases or heal the injured. I can’t help anyone. I can barely even help myself, and that’s only by offloading my suffering onto everyone else. But above any of that, I just want to live, so I do what I have to.

Still, the absolute least I could do to stand by my own dreams is not kill anyone. 

When I left Aulunla’s book in its place, I knew what my plan would involve. I knew what Harbingers had to do to grow. I imagined it would hurt, yes, it would be a terrifying nightmare experience for everyone who stumbled into it, but then they’d get better and I’d be alive. What a stupid thing to think, when I’ve walked through the Soul Sanctuary and watched people gorge themselves to death on living clay and watched Mide cart that boy with no eyes away from Irakkia’s manifestation.

No, it’s not that I was stupid. I just thought… nothing. I thought around the costs of what I was doing, the same way I do when I drain dozens of people’s health at a time, feeding my bottomless need for stolen strength without ever even looking at my victims. Without ever seeing what I’ve done to enough people that I’ve lost count — no, I never even tried to count. And if I had, I still couldn’t say how much pain I’ve caused, because I still have no idea what getting the life ripped out of their souls looks or feels like for them.

“Yeah,” Isobel says, still smiling wide. “I can only hope it hurts. I doubt it’ll hurt nearly as much as you hurt Aulunla every day of their life since the moment they met you, but it’s the best I can do for now.”

Aisling slowly backs away from her, side-stepping up the hill without taking her eyes off Isobel. Or the shadows gathered at her feet.

Does it hurt? How much? Keeping that distance from my own actions, maintaining that willful ignorance… I think it’s worked. It’s the only thing keeping me standing right now. 

I know death all too well. I know that there was a person with her own life and dreams and friends and family and Aulunla ate her soul. But somehow, that’s not enough to make it feel… real. I never knew her and now I never will. I can’t imagine how the world changes without her — even less than I could when people I saw once or twice in the hospital disappeared forever, and those only ever hit me as reminders of my own fate.

Isn’t that disgusting? I shouldn’t be okay. I shouldn’t. No, it’s not that I’m okay, butit’s wrong that this hasn’t broken me into a thousand pieces. If I could do it over, I would do it differently. Of course I would. But if I had to do it again, just the same as before, I could. And I know I can live with that, because I would never let it all be for nothing. What does that say about me, about who I really am?

That I’m exactly the monster my magic keeps telling me I am.

“Eyna? Eyna, hey, uh… whatever happened, it’s really not your fault. We can’t save everyone, you know?” Shona says through a nervous smile, and sets her free hand on my shoulder. It feels like an arrow spearing directly from where she’s touched me into my heart. Instantly, reflexively, I smack it off.

Aisling’s head shoots our way. I can’t see her face anymore. My vision blurs. My eyes sting. My head swims and my chest tightens enough to squeeze the breath from my lungs and through it all, magic rushes through my veins, like it’s trying to replace the blood that’s been killing me for as long as I’ve lived.

Isobel’s Harbinger says something in many soft voices, but not to me — a susurrus just out of earshot.

And a long, ropey limb tied into a noose slithers into being from nowhere, coils around Shona’s leg, and tugs, tightening its grip over her ankle. She yelps in shock as it rears up, dragging her upside-down into the air, and cracks itself like a whip with her at the end, slamming her into the grass halfway down the hill.

As the rope releases Shona, slinking back toward its unseen source, another presence slams into me in a nauseating wave, wrapping around me like a tackle-hug from a ghost that still smells of rotting garbage.

<Oh, my dearest,> Seryana whispers. <If only I’d found you sooner. There was no need for us to hurt anyone but each other.>

“Shut up,” I hiss, my eyes frantically scanning over Shona’s splayed out figure, searching for any sign she’s okay. She sucks through her teeth, then lets out a long, aching groan. I want to rush over to help her, but something is holding me in place.

<Whatever did you think you were doing out here? This atrocious, loathsome light doesn’t suit you at all, and it’s so crowded here. So many others… you shouldn’t be near all these others. It’s unsafe. You know that, don’t you? And that’s to say nothing of your own safety! There are such dangerous people in the world, after all. People with bad intentions. People with hearts full of pain and hate and violence. People who could do such terrible things to you that I doubt the thought of what they could be has ever even crossed your beautiful little mind! I don’t know what I’d do if you met some unspeakable fate out here!> she carries on. Her form twists into being right in front of me, and she traces a frayed, filmy hand along my cheek.

“Shut up.” I push her away with all my feeble strength. She only laughs, swaying back with her whole upper body, doodling a beaming face with the scratchy black scrawls over her head. I take a few feeble steps away.

Shona slowly pushes herself off the ground, staggering half-upright. “FUCK! Mide! Aisling! Hey, behind us! There’s a THING!”

Mide has already started racing down the hill toward Shona. As she does, though, Isobel’s shadow-arms lash back out, converging on her in unison. She skids to a sudden halt just fast enough that when the hands rise from the ground and grasp at her legs, they only hold her in place rather than send her tripping over herself. She drops her spear, draws her sword, and begins slicing at the solid, twisting shadows as they rise around her.

<Can’t you see, dearest? We’re only safe together. And this world is only safe from you while you’re alone with me.>

“Shut up shut up shut up SHUT UP!” 

Cold, corrosive power spills out through my skin in rolling waves. I gather up my fog and pour it into Seryana, shoving it into her body with all my will.

<Ahahahahaha! There you are at last! Hurt me! Destroy me! Give me everything you’ve ever felt! Bury me in your memories, however hateful they may be! THERE IS NOTHING ELSE WE NEED.>

Rather than melt into nothing as she has so many times now, Seryana’s body… unravels, peeling itself apart from its noose-ravel limbs into countless strands. Filaments of filthy hair and raw, sinewy red flesh unfurl and unfurl, reducing Seryana’s shape to nothing in instants, but still they spread, wrapping around me and reweaving themselves into the shape of a world.

Falling Ever Deeper 6-2

“Eyna, hey, you didn’t happen to like… poof yourself an actual weapon since last time we worked together, did you?” Shona asks with a sheepish grin.

Beneath the all-encompassing shroud of the Sun’s blinding light, strange in its excitement, the shadows have retreated to the loneliest corners of the world and drawn into themselves. Yet, rather than fade against the intensity of the glare, they’ve grown deeper, darkening in sharp contrast to the pearly radiance engulfing everything else. Between one shrunken patch of inky shade dancing around the trees and the next, I glance Shona’s way and tilt my head. “…No?” 

“Oh. Well, y’know, that’s alright! Riding along with Mide wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Aisling shoots me a sympathetic look. “You too? My condolences. Not that I’m convinced it would be much better if we did have weapons. Mide’s probably just really used to it.” 

“Hey! It’s a fun ride! You nerds don’t all have to be like that!” Shona fumes.

I have nothing to say to that. I’m the last person in the city who should be insulting anyone for how their magic works, but there’s no way Shona doesn’t know how miserable sliding around like the city’s made of ice is for us nerds. 

“…It’s okay. It can even be a little fun once you get used to it. Really used to it,” Mide adds matter-of-factly.

Shona whirls around, folding her arms as she glares down at Mide. “You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it. Harumph.” She puffs out one of her cheeks.

“Oh, is that right?” Mide glances off to the side expressionlessly, doing her best to look innocent as she dodges her friend’s accusatory gaze. “Hey, if you needed my help pitching your deathtrap transit service, you could’ve just asked.” With that, she claps her hands together in feigned excitement and looks back to me and Aisling. “Like I was saying, it’s the best thing since wrought iron!”

“Augh, traitor! How could you do this to me after everything we’ve been through? All the bones we’ve broken together?”

Mide’s cheery expression fades into a weak smile of long-suffering resignation. “For the record, what she means is ‘Mide broke one bone’.”

Shona huffs theatrically, arms folded and nose upturned to the sky. “I can’t believe this. Here I thought we were friends.”

“The clock’s been ticking since I asked my question. Can we do this potentially time-sensitive thing or not?” Aisling presses.

“Right, right! Just getting everything sorted for your next trip on the Shona Express, best deathtrap transit service in all New Claris! I know we’re on the clock,” Shona replies with a skip in her step. “Anyway, I’ve gotten better at, mm, fine-tuning this since last time, so it should be a smoother ride! A bit smoother. Uh, weather aside,” she says, adjusting her sunglasses and wincing when it doesn’t seem to help much.

“That’s a relief. As I was saying, if you’re leading the way, you should carry me. I think I’m the only one who knows where we’re going,” Aisling says.

No one challenges her on that. I just look uncertainly at Mide.

“…Sure. I can take Eyna,” she says after a brief delay, her face betraying none of how she feels about that.

“Cool, cool! Let’s get to it, then!” As we step onto the sidewalk, Shona summons her violin, straightens her back as she readies the instrument on her shoulder, and begins to play. Far from a serene and graceful piece to match her posture, the pattern of long, sharp sliding notes form an intense and menacing song. Crimson sparks crackle through the air around her, their color unchanged by the glaring light above. I tense up, steeling myself for the shock I know is coming. It doesn’t help at all. I yelp and shudder when it bites through me a few seconds later, and even that slight motion is enough to send my feet skidding along the ground. 

Aisling flinches and scowls. Mide merely winces for a split-second before she reaches out and grabs my arm, and Shona’s only sign of discomfort comes when she drops her violin — which clatters to the ground before bursting into a shower of red light — and tries to smooth out a few rogue strands of static hair as they rise. It doesn’t work.

“Alright, girls! Let’s make our… I mean, our nameless, themeless, totally-not-a-team’s definitely last show a great one!” Shona cheers.

“Yep,” Aisling says tonelessly, but for a hint of anxious urgency that’s been slowly creeping into her voice since the very moment she learned Isobel and I crossed paths.

I keep quiet. Now that there’s nothing for me to do but wait and see just how bad things are, I’m back to running through the worst-case scenarios in my head. I’m not sure what it says about me or the world that I can’t quite decide if it would be worse to find Isobel dead or charge into the Wound of a Harbinger born from her soul.

Some part of me thinks any kind of life at all must still be better than death, but… no, that’s insane. Yurfaln wasn’t anything like Mr. Enfield. I didn’t eat him when I killed it — I’m sure I didn’t. Harbingers aren’t the people they came from any more than those horrible parasitic wasps are the caterpillars they crawl out of. No, they are, it’s more complicated than that, they take a lot more from those people than food, just…

Ugh. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Both outcomes are awful and I should be thinking about how to keep it from coming to that, but… there’s nothing I can do except hope. Not now. I could’ve killed Aulunla when I first found it, but I didn’t, so here we are.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” Shona sighs wistfully, looking over the expressions of the gathered Keepers. “Maybe we’ll feel better after all this is over.”  She skates off into the streets with Aisling in tow. Mide is quick to follow, dragging me along with her.


True to Shona’s word, this trip does feel slightly smoother than the last. She whistles constantly as we move, and the magic around us answers her song. Low notes function like a brake, returning tiny bits of friction to our shoes, while high ones speed us along. It probably helps that the city is almost entirely deserted by now, save for a few cars abandoned in the streets. I’m not thinking much anymore about how we’re getting around or even where we’re going, anyway. 

Only about the Sun. Its featureless face staring down at us. Its blazing limbs wrapped around the world. And its beams reflecting off of Mide’s armor, lending her less of a radiant glow than you’d expect, but enough for the light to bounce into my eyes.

“Um, you’re kind of glowing in my face,” I say as we slide down one of the central highways.

“Oh… sorry,” Mide calls back, only a little louder than usual — Shona’s power keeps the breeze I’d expect to be whipping in my ears at this speed away. “…Nothing I can really do about it. This armor is just terrible. Looks straight out of some dumb cartoon, right?”

—What? Is this some sort of trap? 

Not long before she dropped out of my life, Grainne told me I’d hate secondary school anyway. She said all the girls there did this thing where they asked pointless questions with some obvious answer, stuff about how bad some color or skirt looked on them, then told everyone about how nasty and mean you were if you actually agreed with them. That was not what I wanted to hear, when my alternative to going to secondary school was dying, but it did sound awful.

Well, if that’s what this is, I can’t be bothered navigating it. Nothing I say to Mide will give her a better reason to hate me than that time I almost ate her.

“…Yes?” I say. “Um, sorry if that’s mean, I don’t want to insult your regalia, but… yes. It’s a weird color for armor to be.”

“Ugh, please! Insult it all you like. For once in my life, let me complain about it to someone who won’t gaslight me about how cool it is,” Mide gripes.

“I can hear you, y’know! I’m right up here! AND IT IS COOL!” Shona shouts over her shoulder.

“Eyes on the road! Get back to steering Shona’s Deathtrap Express!” Mide scolds her. Shona grumbles wordlessly, but does do that.

“Complain if you want. I don’t mind,” I offer. Anything to distract me from racing around in broad daylight during an Embrace.

“Where to even start? I just hate it, really. It’s the least me it could possibly be. Did you know that it’s impossible to make gold into functional arms or armor?”

“I don’t know anything about weapons,” I say.

“Well, it is. You can decorate equipment with gold, with plating or inlay, but there’s literally no point in making anything out of solid gold. It’s way too heavy and way too soft compared to any reasonable metal to forge with.”

Is your stuff made of solid gold?” That sounds absurd, but I of all people shouldn’t be surprised if someone else’s magic has some bizarre feature they hate.

“No, it’s all very much usable. That’s not the point.”

“Is it just not your color?” All functional issues aside, I’d be pretty upset if my Keeper dress was carrot orange. “You could maybe change it, if you tried. I added this mask to my outfit not long after I started.”

Mide sighs audibly. “What, is it supposed to answer to how I want it to be? I’ve heard that before, but I don’t want it to look like this, I never did, and that’s never changed it. And I mean, I know. I get that it’s not made of gold, it’s made of magic, but… it matters to me, okay? Historic weapons and armed martial arts are, like, my thing, you know? I used to be on the fencing team before I became a Keeper. Went to competitions and everything. Still would if I wasn’t so busy. Well, maybe…” She trails off for a moment. 

“Anyway,” she continues, “if this magic is mine, if it’s me the way every other Keeper says, and all it’s given me is weapons and armor and extra skill with using them, I don’t think it’s such a big ask for them to appeal to me, you know? They’d appeal to me if they were functional. And no, gold isn’t even my color,” she groans.

“That… does sound annoying,” I say. 

The conversation stalls out as we wind around a street corner, then up the ramp to an overpass heading south — which we slide up without slowing down at all.

“…It’s probably a lot worse for you, isn’t it?” Mide muses faintly, once the road ahead straightens back out. Her voice is light, yet still carries on the breeze rushing past us.

“What?” That drags my attention away from the painful light above. 

“You know. Getting saddled with a power like yours, I mean,” she continues, after I let the silence hang for a moment. “You can’t have asked for it to be that way.”

“It’s pretty miserable,” I agree. “I didn’t want anything about my magic to be what it is. Vyuji keeps saying it’ll make sense eventually, I’ll find some way to make it what I want to be. I don’t really believe her.”

Or maybe I do. I’m never quite sure. I hate all of this. I hate what I have to do for the slightest chance at living. But if it’s really the only way the world could have given me to survive, then… I don’t know. I’ll probably hate it less than being dead.

“…So, um…” Mide hesitates, her gaze turned away from me. “Well… I guess… I guess I’m sorry. For coming down on you the way I did, for as long as I have,” Mide mutters. “But, I mean, what else could I have done? How could I have known what you were dealing with? You wouldn’t tell us anything, and Shona kept saying it would be the rudest thing ever if I asked, even after… you did what you did. It… really hurt. Almost like I was gonna die. Of course I thought we should keep our distance. I still kind of do,” she says. There’s a faint little shudder in her arm. 

I bite my lip for a few long seconds, staring at the back of Mide’s head from beneath my hood. I’m suddenly glad to be at the back of our little convoy. Talking about this at all still makes me want to hide, to run away and never see or think of her or Shona again, but… it’s not like what she’s saying is wrong, or even really bad, and it’s coming from the last person I’d have expected to show me any sympathy. No, that’s probably Tetha. 

And the thought that I’ve hurt other people even more makes Mide’s point even better than anything she could have said.

“You’re not wrong. And I’ve done a pretty terrible job making my case to the world. I understand, I think,” I say slowly.

“And I’m not gonna help Shona pester you to join our team or anything. That’s still a bad idea, at least until you’ve sorted whatever it is you have to do out. But I’m pretty sure you don’t even want that, so… let’s just make sure this time goes better.” She finally turns back to look me in the eye, the shudder in her arm completely stilled. “Sound good?”

“…Mm,” I agree. 

Things go quiet again after that. I don’t have too much time to process any of it, though. Too many other things weighing on my mind.

This is still my first time being out during an Embrace — I’ve always spent them hiding in the darkest place I could find. It’s… it’s not that it’s uncomfortable in the same way as a regular too-bright day. It absolutely is, but I could pull my hood over my eyes and live with just the blinding radiance slicing through the sky. The temperature hasn’t even changed much.

No, the worst part is how impossibly, inexplicably alluring the sights above have become.

Whenever I look to the other three Keepers, between still-too-sharp turns around street corners, they don’t seem especially shaken. I suppose they have better things to focus on — Shona and Mide are busy steering, while Aisling barks directions. Only I’m just dragged along for the ride, with nothing to do but wait and try not to look too far up.

I’ve heard the same things as everyone else about how important it is to never observe an Embrace directly, for any length or by any means. Photographs are safe, though they tend to come out abnormal. Telescopes, mirrors, and live recordings are not. I never got why those warnings would need to be repeated so much, unless it was one of those stupid things normal kids dared each other to do. Looking at the Sun on normal days is bad enough.

I guess you have to experience it yourself to really understand. When I first stepped outside, right after the Embrace began, I just… had to see it. Just enough that I had to see what was happening for myself, the way you want to get a better look at any strange movement in the corners of your eyes. I had to know what was happening, see it as more than its harsh radiance flooding the world, and the burning pain of its light in my eyes somehow wasn’t quite enough for me to flinch and pull away until Aisling reminded me.

Even having just felt that pain, holding the worst that could happen fresh in my mind, the Sun still calls to me, drawing my gaze along the radiant trails of its six shapeless, spiraling arms. And the longer we race through the streets beneath its light, the louder its call grows. The more I start to feel like it’s… speaking to me. Offering to share some great secret with me, if I would only throw myself into the sky.

Have you ever wondered why you are?

What is the sun? What is the world? Why is everything the twisted, nightmarish way it is? Why do Harbingers exist? Why do parasitic wasps lay their eggs in caterpillars so their spawn can eat them from the inside out? Why do plagues wipe out entire cities by making everyone rot to death? Why do little girls die from untreatable illnesses that snatch away everything that makes them smile bit by bit? How do we all just live with it? 

Drown yourself in my light, the Sun’s imperative call whispers wordlessly, and I will show you everything. The eyes you offer up to me will forevermore see as I see. 

But I don’t want that. I don’t care. I don’t, I insist to myself over and over. I just want to live — as myself, forever — and unless whatever it has to say about why life is so terrible would help me make that happen, it’s no use to me. And it wouldn’t. I already know the price it’s asking.

Halfway to our destination, it even reminds me of that itself. 

Soon after we enter the Weald, where the many trees shading the thin streets still don’t do much to keep the light at bay, Shona lets out a long, low whistle, bringing all of us to a surprisingly easy stop.

“Something the matter?” Mide calls, releasing my hand the moment she can do so without sending me flying. Fine with me.

“Yeah, uh, over there, a little ways into the woods…” Shona points. “Is she alright? Should we do something about it?”

I don’t see what she’s talking about at first, but as I tighten my hood, take a few steps closer, and peer through the trees… someone’s there. A woman, I think, standing tall in a bright patch between the leaves. 

Staring up into the sky. She’s facing away from us right now, but I know what I’d see if she turned around.

“No,” Aisling says. She clenches her teeth, crosses her arms over her chest, and sighs. “Keep moving. There’s nothing we can do.”

“…Yeah. I guess I know. Just… I know,” Shona says, shoulders sagging.

There’s at least a few of them every time this happens. People caught out too far from shelter when the sky bursts into flame or simply swept up in the Embrace’s pull before they can rush to safety. I’m not sure if it’s always right to call the Eyeless casualties, but… no, it probably is. 

Some stare into the sky until they waste away. Some are dragged indoors by rescuers or emerge from their burning reverie when night falls, but those will spend the rest of their lives in the Sanctuary. It’s as if when the sun takes their eyes, it takes their soul, devouring whoever they were as completely as any Harbinger. 

The Eyeless wait and hope to throw themselves into the next Embrace, and meanwhile they spend their time murmuring contentedly about the Icon of Perfection’s blessing of senselessness, or the Rightful King of All Stars’ boundless glory… whatever that means. I only recall a few vague passages in the Cycles about other gods who hold the sky aloft around Claiasya’s cradle, great and fearful beings with no stake in our tiny human lives. Maybe I’d know more if my religious phase had lasted longer, or had focused on different things.

I’m not even sure if the Eyeless are the least fortunate of the Sun’s victims. If the horror stories they tell children to keep us as far from Embraces as possible are to be believed, a few simply burn to nothing where they stand. The embers flickering in their empty, cindered eye sockets rise and swallow them whole.

“Sorry,” Mide mumbles as she turns her back to the woman. I follow, and that’s that. Aisling’s right. There’s nothing we can do.

I can’t help but imagine those empty eyes as we leave her behind, though. I’ve seen plenty of things that are just as bad by now, but something about what happens to the Eyeless feels uniquely awful. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that there’s nothing anyone can do about the Embrace or just the way something so high above us, so distant, can ruin us if we simply glance at it for a few seconds too long. And why? For what? Does it mean anything to the Sun when someone loses themselves in its glare? Does it even notice? It’s the Sun. At least Harbingers seem to need something from their victims. 

Not that the distinction matters much to those people. The dead aren’t there to feel anything about whatever destroyed them, and as far as we can tell, the Eyeless are as gone as any corpse.


“Stop here,” Aisling calls out, once we’ve wound off the streets and down the paved forest trails for a few more minutes. We’ve come to a part of the Weald where the terrain dips and swells with gently rolling hills. Shona jolts to a sudden halt, sending Aisling spinning around her for a few circles before momentum begins to treat them normally again, while Mide brakes with her spear in the thick grass just off the path.

“Uh, is this it?” Shona asks. “Just looks like more trees to me.”

Aisling shakes her head once, then points down the left fork in the trail ahead. “No, but it’s close. We should be more careful on the approach, in case there’s any risk of charging into a Wound. Eyna, keep watch for anything that feels strange. You two, stay a bit ahead and shout if anything looks off. Or sounds off, if you’re Shona.”

Shona grins and puffs herself up at that, but narrows her eyes shortly after. “Wait, why are we in front? I still don’t know where we’re going.”

“Same reason as always,” Mide says. “Because if we’re heading into trouble, you want the girl in the tacky armor who knows how to actually fight taking the brunt of it.” 

“Oh yeah,” Shona says blandly. “Seriously though, shut up! Your armor’s awesome!”

“Let’s argue that point some more later. Or, you know, not.” Mide adjusts her visor, further shields her eyes with one arm — which continues to reflect the Embrace’s light in all directions — and starts toward the path on the left. 


“Almost there,” Aisling calls out, a few minutes further down the path. Just ahead, the trail slopes smoothly upward, climbing a hill too tall to see over. “It’s just over the crest here. Eyna, are you getting anything?”

“Not yet.” 

“Anyone else?” Aisling tries.

“Nope,” Shona says. 

Mide silently shakes her head, then moves to peek over the top of the hill. She glances over whatever she sees for a few seconds, then steps back and waves Aisling up. “There’s no monsters I can see, just a girl. Not in the lake, but by the shore. Is she your friend?”

Aisling rushes to join Mide, peers off where she’s pointing, then lets out a long, slow sigh. “…Yes. That’s her,” she says, an anxious strain underlying the relief in her voice. “Alright… alright,” she half-whispers. “First off. Eyna? How’s she look to you? Can you sense her from here?”

I follow Aisling and Mide to the top of the hill, staying low to the ground after their example. So far, I haven’t felt anything out of place… well, other than the obvious, the ominous air of walking beneath the Sun’s shroud of light.

Over the hill, the ground soon slopes back down, and the woods open onto the grassy shore of a broad lake basin, stretching out in either direction to curve around a stout, steep mountain on the far side. 

It’s immediately apparent how Missing Lake got its name. The water is clear enough that beneath the shimmering waves on its surface, it barely looks like anything is there at all — you can see right through it to the rocky bed below. At least, you can between the places where the light of the Solar Embrace reflects off it in long, rippling stretches of harsh glare. A few dozen feet ahead, grass gives way to rocky coast.

And far down that coast, but clearly visible in the distance, an auburn-haired girl in a green jacket and long hiking skirt rifles through the rocks, searching for something along the line just before the water meets the shore.

Isobel, the girl in Aisling’s photo. Aulunla’s witch.

The weight that’s been in my chest since we set out starts to lift. Whatever this girl is doing out here in the middle of an Embrace, whatever’s happened to her since I last saw her, at the very least she’s alive no, I can’t relax just yet. 

I reach out with my soul’s senses, but… those are the same senses the Sun whispers to me through, and I don’t know how to focus them directionally. I’ve always just opened them and taken in everything in my general area, with one complicated exception for the way Irakkia interacted with the idea of space. I don’t plan to find out what would happen if the sky stole my full attention. I pull back into myself until I can just detect Isobel’s soul, her lingering corruption and her health — which still feels untouched.

“I can’t get the full details from here. The Embrace is making it hard. But… she feels about the way she did last time. Corrupted without being damaged, if that makes sense.”

“Corrupted by the same Harbinger?” Aisling asks.

“Not sure. I… don’t think so. Wouldn’t make sense. But I don’t know how long a Harbinger’s stench can linger.”

“Okay,” she murmurs. “I’m… going to see if whatever’s going on is the kind of thing we can talk out. You three, wait here. Stay down. Be ready to intervene if anything fucky happens. I’ve got to try this, but I don’t want to take chances.”

“Gotcha,” Shona stage-whispers back. Mide and I just nod. 

With that, Aisling stands, takes a long, deep, breath, and strides onto the shore. The rest of us press ourselves to the ground, wait, and watch. 

“…Isobel?” she calls hesitantly.

“Hey, Ash,” Isobel answers immediately, without once looking up from the rocky riverside. Her shadow, hiding close to her body the way all shadows do beneath the Embrace, grows along the ground, splitting in six directions. Within seconds, it’s ceased to be a human silhouette at all, twisting into the shapes of emaciated hands, each tipped with six too-long, wire-thin fingers. 

Isobel stands as her many shadows unfurl, turning as she does to glare straight up at me. 

 “Of all people, did you really have to bring Aulunla’s murderer along?”

Falling Ever Deeper 6-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing there,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe. I really don’t see how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was,” Mide says bluntly.

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

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

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

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

“Why would that help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will never be enough.

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

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

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

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

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

Aisling only rolls her eyes and shrugs.

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

“Um,” I mumble.

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

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

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

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

“Mhm,” I hum simply.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wha? What was that?” Shona pushes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aisling nods along with my words, taking mental notes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. What she said, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh,” Aisling huffs. “Thanks.”

“I want the glasses,” I say immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aisling glances between us, poker-faced as ever.

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

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

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

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

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

“I… don’t really watch TV. Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, pretty good?”

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

“Yep, yep. Gotcha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Um, not me?” Shona says.

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

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

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

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

Holiday Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hanged Man 5-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?” she growls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was getting to that, yes.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not,” Aisling agrees.

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

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

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

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

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



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

Warning issued for: Solar Embrace


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

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

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

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

“Nope. Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

The Hanged Man 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

“Yes, but who would volunteer for that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are the worse ones?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was the question you wasted?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aisling raises an eyebrow. “Baby?” 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any infohazards I should know about first?”

I tilt my head. “Info…?”

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

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

“Then by all means.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aisling snorts out a single laugh.

“What? What?” I snap. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not that!” I hiss.

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

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

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

“You’re the first Keeper I’ve told.”

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

“Because I’m… my…” 

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

So… Because why?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



“Can you honestly tell me I’m wrong?”

“I… I’m not… that’s just so…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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