The lectures only ever said that Harbingers were terrifying monsters and we’d know them when we saw them. That didn’t do them the least bit of justice. The thing in the halls was unforgettable and too awful to remember at the same time. Thinking about it feels like picking shards of glass out of my brain. I do my best to shove it from my mind, but every single line of thought ends with wondering where it is now and what it might be doing.
“Are you sure it’s safe here? Really really sure?” Reluctantly, I look back at the door, trying to keep the girl in the corner of my eye. Nothing is crawling through the cracks.
Her gaze circles the room. Her nostrils crinkle like she’s trying to place a smell. “No. It’s very hard to be certain of anything about Harbingers, even newborns.” She closes her eyes, opens her mouth slightly, and lets out a wordless song in a whale’s low, howling voice. The lightbulbs above take on a very faint moon-colored glow which scatters into bright flecks dancing along the walls, like sunbeams beneath the sea. After a moment, the song stops, but the tint remains.
“There,” the girl says, again speaking directly into my head. “I’ve warded this room against Wound intrusion. That and my presence are the closest things to safety I can offer you right now. Save, that is, for the power to protect yourself.”
“The power. That’s… you’re…” I know the answer, but I can’t make myself say it. I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m wrong. If she’s gotten me to hope for something just to dash it a few seconds later… I just stare at her and squeeze Pearl a little tighter.
The girl raises her arm to her chest, as if to place a palm to her heart, but there’s no hand at the end of it. Instead, the limb opens into something like an undersea flower, seven pale petals around thin blue stalks. “My name is Vyuji. I’m a Messenger of Claiasya, and your yearning has called me here.” She spreads her arms from her hips and bows her head, taking an almost prayerful position. “Your soul rejects its foundations. You stand at the boundary of the world, and with one more step, you can move beyond it. You can be a Keeper, if you but choose.”
Exactly what I thought, then. The whiplash of it all leaves me paralyzed. This is happening right now, when I was staring at pure horror certain I’d die not a minute ago – when I’m still fearing for my life. For her part, Vyuji just waits, silent and still.
“Why me? If you wanted to choose me, why only now? Can you tell me? Do you even know or is this just how it’s done?” My vision blurs as the words tear out of my throat. My nails dig into my arms.
Vyuji tilts her head curiously. “This is the first time I’ve felt your call. The only choice I made was to answer it.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything about why.” Not many Keepers talk about the mystery of what earns them their blessing, but the ones who do say their Messengers don’t even seem to understand the question. This is what they mean, then.
“Because I know you, Liadain. I knew you and loved you from the moment I felt your will. Nothing I can do will change the past, and nothing I say will apologize for the life you have led before now. All I can give you is my word that what comes next may be different. That it will be different, if you accept what is yours.”
“Don’t talk about knowing me. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve seen or haven’t about me, you waited… what, were you sitting and waiting to tell me this until I gave up? On everything? What I know, what you would know if you meant that, is that I have nothing! No life! No future! Just the years I’ve spent making my peace, and now, now you won’t even let me keep that!”
What am I doing? Has it been so long since anything good happened that I’ve forgotten how to act when it does?
I break down into choked, ugly sobs.
Vyuji’s face falls, heavy with some unplaceable emotion. “I am sorry that it couldn’t be sooner. Truly, I am. It is a monstrous thing that the world has refused you a place in it, simply for being born. I will not try to justify it, because it cannot be done.” Her gaze meets mine. What is that in her eyes? Pain? Remorse? Yet more pity? “But I can still help you carve a place for yourself.”
“Please… please go away.” I don’t care what she’s promising. I can’t bear to have her standing there staring at me anymore.
The Messenger frowns. She watches me, still unblinking, for another silent moment. “I can’t choose for you and won’t judge your decision, but are you certain?”
“Yes. No. I mean, that’s not to say no, get out of here and never come back, I just — I need to think. Alone. Do I have to decide right now?”
Vyuji finally looks away from me, a very small mercy. She puts a flower-hand to her chin and stares up at the ceiling pensively. There’s a pause just long enough that I worry I’ve ruined everything, but then…
“No. Sometimes these things are more sensitive, but in your case this is an open offer. I’ll note that you don’t even need to make the Promise to protect yourself or these people, if you don’t want to. If you call emergency services and tell them you’ve just spotted a Harbinger, someone will be here to handle it soon enough. This doesn’t appear to be an urgent crisis just yet. That said, if it is left alone, it will feed and grow until it becomes one. I have no way to predict how long that will take, so I do suggest that you make your choice quickly.”
“Fine. I don’t think it’ll take long, I’m… I’m just really tired. Will the Harbinger be back as soon as you leave?”
“I believe it will look for somewhere more secluded, but it’s not impossible. Given that, I would like to keep a distant watch on this floor. If you need time to make your choice, you have my word that unless I have to intervene to protect you from something, I’ll leave you alone until you invite me back in. Is that acceptable?”
My stomach scrunches up at the thought of that filth seeping beneath the crack of my room’s door while I sleep and rising up to spill over me. My nose and eyes and tongue burn at the memory of its scent. It’d probably burn my skin just to touch it. My throat lurches as an image forces itself into my brain against my will; that sludge swallowing me whole, dissolving my flesh away until I’m nothing but rotting bones and drain-clogging hair carried away on a current of sewage alongside Pearl’s soiled remains.
It feels like my heart is dangling right above a pit that’s been dug into my chest, and the moment Vyuji leaves, it’ll be snipped right off my aorta like grapes from a tree and plummet down into the void, taking the whole rest of the night with it in a spiral of shuddering dread as I cower beneath my covers praying the monster won’t get me before morning comes.
Wait, that’s wrong.
Grapes don’t grow on trees. They grow on vines, right?
But I could have sworn I saw a grape tree once, on a school field trip I was well enough to take. So maybe they do exist. I just… don’t really know.
And I realize how weird it is that I know more for sure about the blood vessels connected to my heart than I do about grapes.
And the way things are now, it’ll always be that way.
And I hate that more than anything.
I hate the fact that I’m almost too exhausted to be afraid at this point, because if I was going to die anyway with nothing to show for it, why should it matter if a Harbinger kills me tonight or my own worthless blood kills me next week? The truth is, I’m here on the seventh floor exactly because it’s already over for me.
I hate it.
I hate it so much that my jaw clenches shut and my nails dig into my palms hard enough to sting and, without even thinking about it, I raise one of my balled up fists, pour all the strength in my tiny body into it, and hammer it into the door I’m leaning on again and again and again while the Messenger across from me just looks on without saying a word. With just those three knocks, my pointless tantrum is already over, because that’s all it took to get me panting hard enough that it’s hard to talk. That’s really all I had in me.
“……Fine, do it,” I finally say after I’m done catching my breath. “I’d rather not have that chance on my mind. Just don’t sit right in here and watch me sleep or anything.” Part of me expects that this is one last cruel joke, that I’ll be eaten or die in bed as soon as this meeting ends. If she wants to cut off at least one of those possibilities, I’ll take it.
“Thank you. Sleep well, Liadain… ah, as well as you can in these circumstances. I hope I’ll see you soon.” She raises an arm, opens the petals at the end of it, and waves farewell once. Then she’s gone — just gone, blinked out of existence without a trace. The room brightens in the same instant, losing that strange bluish tint.
I tuck Pearl in, but don’t join her just yet. My room’s windows face east, toward the city. I prefer it to the flower fields on the other side, but not by enough that I spend much time enjoying the view. After tonight, though, I do want to look out over the world beyond the seventh floor, the world I just might still have a future in.
At this hour, most of New Claris is lit only by the moon and stars. The night lighting is sparse and carefully targeted — I think that’s true almost everywhere by now, but our city was rebuilt with the specific goal of being kind to the planet more recently than most. A few scattered rooms in skyscrapers are still bright, a few homes still active. The main roads are outlined in thin trails of ecoluminance, narrow lights cast over rows of reflective trees and shrubs, and the sidewalks and back streets blink with smaller motion-sensing lanterns.
I can’t clearly see anyone from here, but I can trace their steps by the lights that brighten their paths and vanish as they move on. As I watch them go on their ways, I think about the people who still belong to that world. Mostly I think of the Keepers patrolling the city, and what it would mean to be one of them.
I’ve dreamed that dream now and then. Of course I have. Everyone spent their youth hoping at least a little for the day they’d meet a Messenger, but while other kids were sketching what they wanted their costumes to look like, I did my research. I learned how rare it was for that day to come. Only a very few children would be chosen, and there was no way to plan or practice to be a Keeper, since nobody knew what the Messengers were looking for.
Whatever the conditions, I doubted I’d ever meet them. I wasn’t a hero or an innocent or the greatest person in any sense. More important than any of the facts and patterns, I knew how painful hope could be when you mistook it for something else, so I learned not to hope. I buried my dreams, quietly hated the world that wouldn’t let me have even the smallest of them. I lived with the promise that so long as I expected nothing, nothing could disappoint me.
I guess I was very wrong. Life has always looked for ways to upend my plans.
Oh, Vyuji promised the world in return for the bitter peace she stole, but it isn’t that easy. Keepers never visibly age another day after they make the Promise, but the ways they change beyond that are… not predictable. Some can make themselves enormously stronger and tougher than any ordinary person, but they can’t stay like that forever, not unless that’s where their Emergence takes them. You need more power than the Promise offers on its own to really, fully rewrite yourself with magic, and that power can only be taken from Harbingers.
Thinking about those nightmares and the heroes who hunt them, I wonder if the Harbinger that nearly killed me is out in the night, stalking someone else or looking for a new home.
Right. The Harbinger.
I pull the curtains closed and crack my door open, peeking out into the hallway. No signs of the thing I’d seen waiting for me outside. Slowly, I creep along the wall and glance past the corner at the door to Mr. Enfield’s old room. At least for the moment, it’s just a door, and I sigh with relief at the sight of it. Satisfied, or as satisfied as I can be, I find one of the currently-empty public rooms with a phone installed. The police can’t do anything to a Harbinger, but they’ll pass it on to someone who can.
As I pick up the phone, though, Vyuji’s last words come back to mind. I’m too dead to think, I don’t really know what I want to do, but I haven’t decided not to make the Promise. If I do, calling for help right now would cause some problems. There’d be someone else chasing the only lead I have, hunting in my backyard where they might run into the new Keeper and trace me to the hospital, altogether making my life a lot more complicated.
There’s also the matter of Keepers patrolling certain sections of the city they’ve claimed or been assigned to, but frankly I just… don’t want to deal with other people, if I can at all help it.
When I think of it like that, it sounds really ungrateful to the chosen children who’ve probably kept me safe from any number of disasters I never learned about, but it is what it is.
I’ll call tomorrow morning if I decide to turn Vyuji down, but right now I really am too tired for all this. I stalk back to my room, fall into the bed, and do my best to sleep through my whirling thoughts.
I wake, as I usually do, to the sun glaring down at me through gauzy sky-blue curtains. Shortly after I moved in here, I asked if they’d replace them with blackout shades. They would not. Something about sunlight being good for you in all sorts of ways, as if that was going to save me.
I roll over and gather as much quilt as I can around my head without suffocating myself. I can never actually get back to sleep when this happens, but I try anyway. Eventually, someone knocks on my door, then cracks it open when I don’t answer. One of the nurses, here to take my vitals after yesterday’s infusion. I drag myself out of my nest, keeping my protests to myself for the moment.
“Is Dr. Hines around yet?” I ask as she pokes a thermometer into my ear.
“Hm? Oh, I think he’s out today. Did you need anything?”
“No, I just had a weird question. It can wait, don’t worry about it.” I don’t think the Promise on its own would cure me, but I don’t know that it definitely wouldn’t, and it still might help in some way. Oh well. I haven’t decided how to broach it yet, anyway… is treating Keeper-specific issues even something normal doctors do? I have no idea. There’s probably never been a Keeper with exactly what I have, so even the experts might not know where to start.
She’s finished before too long. I sit in bed a little longer after she leaves. Why did I even want to know? If the cold comfort of misery is a scab over my wounds, it’s just picking at it to entertain an idea like that at all, isn’t it?
I lay Pearl on the pillow and push myself out of bed, into my morning routine. After I dress, take my small mountain of pills, and brush a forest of tangles out of my hair, I pull my first card of the day from my tarot deck, a simple single-card reading. The Six of Pentacles from my personal deck is still in exile, where it will remain until I no longer hate it. It may be a while.
The Sun. The dawn on a dark night. Joy. Optimism. Enlightenment, if you like, or an omen of a recovery to come.
For all I used to look down on other kids’ childish hopes, I did try to sketch my costume once, a long time ago. I’m no artist, so it didn’t end up looking like anything at all, but I tried.
I break down again, this time in wild, uncontrollable laughter. Maybe someone outside is hearing and thinking I’ve lost my mind, but I don’t really care. It starts to let up just as it gets painful, but then another thought strikes me — I hate the sun. None of the meanings in the tarot books are things I see in it, and there’s no real reason for me to take it as a good omen. Rather than spoil my mood, that only brings forth a renewed burst of cackling.
Once the ache in my sides fades, I wipe my eyes on my sleeve, stand, and speak to the window:
“I didn’t dream you, did I, Vyuji? If you’re still there, I’m ready to talk.”
“I’m happy to confirm that you did not.” Just as I hear the words, the Messenger appears next to me with no warning or fanfare. “How are you faring today, Liadain?”
“You don’t really look like a Messenger, do you?” I ask. I vaguely recognized Vyuji’s name when she first gave it, so I must have picked it up somewhere, but I’ve never heard her mentioned directly. Stores are full of Messenger merchandise, cuddly toys and mascot charms said to be made in their images. Enne, the most popular of the six, is apparently some kind of fluffy pink cloud-animal. Art by Keepers or sourced from their descriptions shows him as a round tuft of wispy fur with big dark puppy-eyes, two front seal flippers but no back limbs, and no visible mouth under his shiny black nose. There are never any little stuffed fish-girls on the shelves next to him.
Vyuji looks down at herself wryly. “Would you prefer it if I did?”
Honestly, something about her does feel more genuine than speaking to the Goddess through a stuffed animal. “…No, I guess not.”
“I didn’t think so. Otherwise, you’d have met one of my siblings. We are what our children need us to be.”
“Does everyone you come calling for see a different Vyuji?” And if they do, what does her… well, her say about me?
“My children need me to be sincere.”
“…Right. Anyway, I’m better, I think. More or less. I’m… sorry I-”
“Don’t apologize to me. Ever.” She waves an arm dismissively. “I came here for you. I exist for you, and for children like you. You needed to say something to me, so you did. I hope it helped you organize your thoughts, but either way, you’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
“Uh, if you say so, sure. I’ll remember that. I might have something you’ll like better, anyway.” I take a heavy, steadying breath. “The Promise. If, and that’s if I wanted to make it, how does that work?”
“There is a way to these things, but it’s quite simple. Once a potential Keeper understands the conditions of the Promise, all they need to do is accept them of their own free will.” There’s a sudden warmth to her mental voice. It’s subdued, but definitely sounds something like happiness.
“Those terms are also simple. On Claiasya’s behalf, I pledge to foster your growth as a Keeper and guide you through your new life with whatever knowledge I can offer. You pledge to embrace and nurture the magic sleeping in your soul. Should you accept it, you are free to do with it what you will.”
“Really? Keepers just take all this power and use it for… whatever?”
“Anything you want. A Keeper’s magic is theirs and it is them. All we do is open the door, and all we ask is that you use what comes surging through.”
“Right then. In that case, tell me about Emergence.”
“Ah. Of course.” Vyuji smiles, very slightly.
Keepers stop aging from the moment they make the Promise, but they don’t stop changing. The religious types say magic “shapes a Keeper’s vessel to best express the inner truths of their soul,” and whether or not that’s really what happens, it does mark its users. It starts small, maybe your hair recolors itself or your eyes start glowing with power, but can get very strange if you last long enough. Frozen Sun Iona Fianata, the city’s eldest Keeper and founding hero, has ice-sculpture eyes and a bubble of endless winter following her wherever she goes.
I don’t really care about any of that. What matters happens beneath the surface.
“A Keeper’s role in the world is to protect it from Harbingers. Nothing obligates them to do that, but most find their own reasons. Seeking Emergence is often among them. A fallen Harbinger is not completely destroyed — something remains of its heart, and it is not good for such a thing to linger and float freely in the world. A Keeper can claim that essence, purify it within themselves and fold its power into their own.
“Emergence is the soul’s maturation, the process through which a Keeper grows with their power. Like all magic, its wielder’s emotions and wishes give it shape. When it’s handled properly, a Keeper can direct their own evolution. Rewrite themselves to better suit their needs.”
“So… if I want, say, perfect health or complete immortality, eating enough Harbingers will give it to me?”
“I can’t predict exactly what your path might look like, but if that is your dearest desire, then your magic will create a way for you to sustain yourself forever,” she says without hesitation.
I glance over her shoulder at the pill bottles covering my nightstand. Whatever I said going into this, it’s honestly a little hard not to throw myself right into the deal. “…Okay. Great. About how many Harbingers does this take?”
Vyuji gives a tiny shake of her head. She barely moves as she speaks, not the slightest gesture or twitch or visible breath, so any motion at all stands out. “Magic is not so neat and predictable. Harbingers come in all sizes, and the metamorphosis is a path you walk rather than a single boundary you eventually cross. Every step will bring you closer, but there is no reliable way to say how long the road to your goal will be. Apologies.
“Ah, and sometimes a Keeper desires something… too wide to be accomplished purely through Emergence. In those cases, there are special arrangements we can make. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s important that you know the option exists.”
“Will I need to use it for what I want?” I’ve heard of something like this. I don’t know how it works or anything, but miracles that change the whole world are rare enough that the Church calendar uses them to mark eras. The current year is Kuri 74.
“No,” Vyuji says simply.
“Then I won’t worry about it for now. What else?”
“That’s all. Those are the conditions in full of the Promise between Claiasya and her children. You, Liadain Shiel, are now a party to it. Ah, this isn’t part of the terms, but one last thing…” Her silent speech lowers, darkens. I brace myself for whatever catch is coming.
“A Keeper’s first steps are always… difficult. They’re different for everyone, so I’m afraid there’s no way to tell you how to prepare yourself, but I, at least, believe you deserve to know before it happens. If you choose for it to happen, of course.
“Knowing all you know, do you accept this Promise?”
I grimace. Of course nothing could ever be easy, but it didn’t change anything, in the end. Thinking about it, there was probably never any chance I’d turn her down.
Maybe that’s part of whatever makes a Keeper.
Vyuji’s expression softens into something very warm — almost maternal, or so I imagine. “Then welcome to the world, Liadain.”
It isn’t pain that shoots through me as she speaks my name. It isn’t a feeling at all, or maybe I just don’t have the senses to process it, but I know it’s there. I have just enough time to be disoriented before it shatters me, bursts from within like a bird cracking its shell or a star being born or like there’s never been any other ‘me’ holding it in at all—