“That was… does everyone have the dreams?”
“Mostly. All of my children do.”
I look down at myself. No time seems to have passed at all during my dream, but it’s followed me back into the waking world. The regalia my shadow wore there is mine. Its fabric is impossibly light and strangely, soothingly cool to the touch. Thin black gloves wrap around my hands like a second skin. I take a few hesitant steps around my bed, ending in a short hop. Nothing about the outfit’s complicated lower layers gets in the way of moving, and my steps in the heavy leather boots aren’t exactly silent, but they don’t thud against the hard floor the way I expected them to. The only sounds they make come from friction rather than impact.
I do feel different now, changed in more ways than I can easily count. Taking in everything new is dizzying, like trying to see with once-blind eyes while also learning to walk.
New senses tug at the corners of my awareness. I breathe, shut my eyes, and try to tune out everything else. The first thing I notice is the intangible force coursing through me. It feels almost like flowing blood—if I were perfectly aware of my blood’s currents—and is as much a part of me. Maybe more. It surges up from a reservoir deep within myself, resounding within me; a torrent that will never run dry, raging and alive, pumped endlessly by my soul’s heart. It prickles my nerves, aching to be released, to be expressed. If I let it loose, would I be washed away in its currents? The thought makes my teeth chatter.
I can feel other, much fainter points of essence with that sense, scattered all through the rooms around me. Scattered needles of emotion prick against my mind, piercing gently into me from every angle like pins into a pincushion. Other people? That feels right, but incomplete. I’m not looking into anyone’s souls. I can’t recognize them by how they feel, can’t really glean anything about who they are or what they’re doing.
There’s something else, though. I only start to notice it as I focus closely on one point, trying to see if anything distinguishes it from the others. My first impression is of rotting fruit, but pushing past that, I feel it for what it is — a knot of pain, coiled around and through a person. I can know it and describe it without feeling it myself. This one’s heart is slowly giving out. That one’s breath is being stolen away. The soul a few rooms down can no longer eat on their own power. Cores of inner corruption are all around me, the only way I have to tell one person from another. Their stench grows stronger the more attention I pay to them, and I pull my focus back to my room as it starts to overwhelm me.
Vyuji is still standing right there, smiling that weirdly serene smile. “…Are you just going to stay here?” I ask. Stupid, I realize after a dazed moment. Of course she’s still here. My sense of time is completely shot, but I probably haven’t been a Keeper for more than a minute.
“For as long as you need me to. At the moment, the only thing I have to do is guide you through these first steps. I know that they’re… disorienting, for most of you. Do you need anything from me right now?”
I can’t decide where to start, so I settle on an all-purpose question. “Okay, I… sure. Tell me something I need to know. Something I might not be thinking of right away.”
“Good choice. All the instincts you need come with the Promise, but you do have to know the questions to see that you have the answers to them.” She nods and raises one arm, a single petal opening as if she were counting on fingers.
“First. No Keeper experiences things in exactly the same way, so I can’t teach you much about how your perception works or how best to use it, but I can tell you one thing: that unseen sense is the strongest tool you have to find and to track Harbingers. The miasma that forms around their victims and places of power is… uniquely foul. You’ll understand as soon as you’ve felt it. It doesn’t last, but if you hurry, you may still be able to pursue the one you met earlier.”
“Which I might. Ah, but would it be a terrible idea to run right into that?” She and my dream both said I’d know everything I need to, but that isn’t the same as having actual experience. I have no idea if there’s Keeper basic training, if I need to practice and get a feel for myself before I can do anything serious and not expect to die in an instant.
“That depends on you. I’ll teach you as much as I am able, but I am not a Keeper. I can only tell you what all of you can do and what those abilities are for. The Church could find you a more suitable mentor, if you want one.”
“No. Not unless I absolutely have to. I’m not in this for fame.” The public idol thing isn’t for me. I don’t have time for it and I wouldn’t want it even if I did. I don’t want whatever support the Church or the Fianatas or whoever have to offer enough to put up with idiots barging in here and knocking on my door to ask for interviews.
“As you like. Plenty of my children feel similarly. If you wish to keep your privacy, I won’t mention you to anyone else without your leave.”
“Thanks. If I want to go talk to someone, I’ll find them myself. Anything else?”
Another petal opens. “Yes. Second, whatever form your magic takes, you have an implement forged of it, empowered by it, a weapon fit to close the Wounds in the world. Call yours. You know how.”
And I do. I raise a hand, palm open, and will it into being, waiting to catch whatever appears.
No blade falls into my grip. Instead, a ring of bright green specks forms in orbit around me. They grow from tiny lights into tall, flat rectangles, and then the glow dims, each becoming a tarot-sized card. The exact pictures and scenes aren’t ones I recognize — honestly, they’re so abstract that it’s hard to tell what they’re meant to be at all — but the basic art style is familiar, all stark black lines and sparse splashes of color with no human figures anywhere. Their back design is strange, though: two complicated white sigils spiraling and winding together on a dark background. It looks almost like expert calligraphy, but in a script I’ve never seen from a language I’ve never heard of.
“Vyuji,” I say, my voice as measured and even as I can keep it, “please tell me how I’m supposed to fight monsters with cards.”
“I don’t know, but you do,” she answers. “It’s your magic. Your wishes gave it form, not mine.”
“I… okay. You called them implements before you called them weapons. Is it wrong to think of these as something I should just throw or hit things with?”
“Most likely. If your will would be best expressed through a simpler tool, a sword to strike or a shield to guard, that’s what you would have.”
That’s something. It can’t be that they’re just useless, can it? They don’t look at all sharp or dangerous, but that means very little with magic. Silver King Irida, the current star of the local Keeper idol scene, fights with a squad of warriors she summons out of nothing and moves with an actual shogi board. How much weirder can weaponized tarot be?
Well, what can I actually do with them? I can change, quicken, or slow the cards’ orbit with a thought, as easily as I can twitch my finger. With a little more effort, I take control of a single card from the ring and fly it around. I don’t need to touch it or throw it, nor steer it with sweeping gestures and wiggly fingers the way stories depict using magic sometimes. Once I have a handle on how it works, I pull another out from the ring, then another, and another, doing my best to move them all at once until the sheer unfamiliar stimulation of it all makes me faintly dizzy. I let them slip from my control and flutter to the floor as I sit on the bed, idly petting Pearl until my head stops spinning. A few seconds in, the fallen cards float up to rejoin the ring on their own.
“I don’t think I believe you about these,” I grumble, trying and failing not to read mockery or suppressed laughter into Vyuji’s expression. It all seems… cool, sure, but not helpful. They’re still just cards. With no new inner knowledge riding to my rescue, I think about what else I could try. I could play with these some more, see if controlling them feels less overwhelming once I’ve done it for a bit, but it doesn’t matter how well I can handle them when I still have no idea what they’re supposed to do.
On a whim, I pull my right glove off and run a card across the tip of my finger. I flinch back with a hiss when a light sting nips me. Then things turn… strange. It’s nothing more than a small paper cut, but a globlet of blood pools over the card all the same, trickling from the mouth of the tiny wound and staining it. The card drinks in the droplet like thirsty soil in the rain, and the mostly black and white image tinges itself a new color; not red, but the emerald color of my magic, slowly seeping into and replacing the white background. Its abstract art shifts as well, resolving into the familiar thin bones and stray feathers of Death.
And as I watch this happen, I start to feel that card with the same new sense that feels the inner pain and corruption of the people around me. Suddenly, I’m sure that it’s carrying something very bad, and I can’t say what that thing is or what it means. Very carefully, I return it to the orbit.
“Hey, Vyuji…” I hesitate, then force the question out before I can decide I don’t want the answer. “I probably should’ve asked sooner, but how do I tell what this actually does?” Every Keeper has a sort of sphere of influence, a form their magic takes and a range of things it can do. As for how they know what it is and how much of a say they get in shaping it, I don’t know much more than that.
The Messenger tilts her head, studying me with what looks like genuine curiosity. “Interesting. Try turning your awareness inward. Study your soul and it will tell you what you need to know.”
“Um, sure. I think I can do that.” Where feeling the power flowing through me is as simple as willing my body to move, inspecting my own soul in detail is more than a little disorienting, like trying to project my vision out of my eyes and watch myself move around from an outside observer’s viewpoint. After a moment of confused perspective-shifting, I do start to make some sense of it — beneath the sickly-sweet odor of my own disease, somewhere deep inside the infinite well my magic surges up from, there’s… something much more than the scents of corruption all around me. Rather than a single sense-impression, it’s an image and a set of abstract thoughts and a poem in words-that-are-not-words, all at the same time, every element dizzyingly tangled up with every other.
Ill wind. Cruel and capricious fate.
Corrupted blood. Afflicted arcana.
Green veins inside a shadowy outline of my body, twisting and snaking out beyond its borders with tiny mouths like leeches.
There’s more to it than that, layers I can’t quite grasp yet, but it’s easier to see the whole picture at a distance than it is to inspect every little detail at once, and what that picture seems to be telling me is…
“…Vyuji, if I designed all this somehow, if the Keeper makes the magic, then why is mine built around the last possible thing I’d choose?” Curses, afflictions, ill-fate. Sickness, to cut to the heart of it.
“Tell me, what else should it have been?” she asks. She already knows what I’m talking about — she must have her own magic senses to study me with. She probably knew what I’d see before I even asked how to find out. “You made the Promise to survive your disease, so your soul’s power reflects that desire. All that it is comes from within you. I didn’t choose it or bestow it upon you from on high. I only opened the door.” She sighs, the second real sound I’ve heard her make. “Some of my children begin with… conflicted relationships with their magic. You’ll have to trust me when I say, speaking from quite a lot of experience, that every Keeper gets what they need. Unfortunately, our needs and wants aren’t always in perfect alignment, are they? You’ll understand someday why you are the way you are. You always do.”
That doesn’t help at all. Unless… “That doesn’t mean I can just fix myself and be done with it, does it?”
Vyuji is silent for a moment. Her face falls. Finally, she shakes her head slowly. “Think about it: can you use your magic to erase the origin of your magic? Can a snake eat itself whole? I don’t know if it’s impossible, but… I doubt it. I’m sorry, Liadain.”
Obviously. Why do I bother?
“Alright. Fine. Nothing for it, I guess. If it works and it can get me what I need, I’ll get used to it.” And if I don’t, nothing she says is going to change that. “Speaking of, is there anything else I need to know right this moment? If not, I want to go kill that Harbinger. Maybe that’ll make me feel better.”
Vyuji instantly lights up at that. “By all means. The rest can only come with time, experience, exploration… although, one more thing. Teaching Keepers through anything other than experience is difficult in part because things are different in Harbingers’ Wounds. Different in ways difficult to predict or explain.”
Right… she’s mentioned Wounds a few times now. Where Harbingers put down roots, they do something to the world around them. They open a doorway to somewhere else, or drag their victims into their minds, or start carving a pocket of existence into something more suited to their needs. To take the fight to them, a Keeper needs to enter that place. I don’t understand the details beyond that. I don’t know if anyone does.
“Different how?” I ask.
“A Wound is a space whose shape and rules are… not fully decided. Unstable. Mutable. Responsive first to the wishes of its creator, but also to the will and magic of intruding Keepers. What that looks like depends very much on the Keeper. Put simply, the Harbinger will twist the world around you into a weapon, but you will be able to twist it back. To act on the fabric of reality in ways that you could not here, make the Wound itself into… a new vector for yourself. Yes, that seems like a productive way for you to think of it,” Vyuji says.
“…Okay. Wonderful. All I’ve ever wanted to do is share the Liadain Plague with the world.”
Her eager smile becomes a smirk. “If it helps, don’t think of it as sharing or spreading. You’ll be taking your burdens and shifting them to monsters that will destroy many human lives if you don’t. Better them than you, no?”
“Thank you for that insight. I hate you.”
“I do what I can. And I’ll always love you, however you feel.”
“Now that you’ve said that, I’m going to hold you to it, and I’m going to make it as hard as possible. I won’t rest until you spend every moment away from me dreading to learn what sort of horrible, horrible mess I’m making that day.”
Vyuji blinks — the first time I’ve seen her do that — then just lowers her arm and shrugs agreeably. “Promises are sacred. We never say anything we don’t plan to uphold. All that said, if anything else you need or need to know occurs to you, call for me. It doesn’t matter when, or for what. So long as you are within my reach, I’ll be there for you, as I am for all of my children.”
“Great. That thing about watching me sleep still stands. If that’s all, then… bye.”
“Good hunting, Liadain.” Again, she disappears in an instant.
I hop off the bed with a groan, facing the window. Before I can look out at the city or think about my next step, I see something in my faint daytime reflection: two unnaturally bright green eyes staring back at me.
“Um, is that permanent?” I ask, then remember I’m talking to myself. Okay, how do you put your magic away when you’re done with it?
As soon as I form the intent to do so, the costume vanishes in a flash of shadow and pale light, replacing itself with the clothes I’d been wearing before. The power within me fades, but doesn’t completely disappear, and my sense of the unseen falls to a less intense level. In the mirror over my dresser, my eyes are the same slate-grey they’ve always been. “Okay. Whew.” Strange eyes are the sort of thing Emergence will make permanent soon enough — the very smallest sort of thing — but I’ll worry about those awkward questions when I get there.
For now, my first hunt should be more than enough trouble to keep me busy. I say goodbye to Pearl, make her a little blanket nest, and head back toward Mr. Enfield’s room.
I feel the room before I see it, even dulled as my new senses are right now. A distant, ambient unease, the way ancient humans might have felt when they looked out into the night and wondered what was looking back at them.
The door is still just a door when I get there, but that’s less comforting than it had been last night. The Harbinger’s impression is clearer, now, if far from perfectly so. It’s not a stench like I felt around the knots of corruption inside the other patients, but whatever it is… Vyuji was right. I already know that I could never mistake this for anything else.
Nobody else is in the hall. I can faintly sense a few people in their rooms or around the corners, but right now I’m alone. I hold my breath, open the door, and step halfway through when nothing horrible comes pouring out.
At first glance, nothing is lurking inside, either, but a different sort of greeting awaits me. The dread that fills the room has an almost physical weight, a pressure like walking against strong wind. I scan what I can see from the entrance, using the half-open door as a shield. Nothing unusual. Slowly, I crack it open a little wider and peek around the corner. Still nothing. Finally, I slip through, the door clicking shut behind me.
However being here makes me feel, I can’t find any sign that the Harbinger is still around. Other than the lingering aura, there’s no evidence that it was ever here at all. The room is just a room, and its ominous air has no source that I can find, no spot where it’s stronger than another. I check under the bed, throw the closet doors open, even start peeking into the drawers, searching for any bizarre patches of color or sudden spikes in the tense ambiance. No such luck, for a certain definition of ‘luck.’
Nothing is even suspiciously misplaced. Mr. Enfield’s things are still here. His family hasn’t come to take them yet, and for now, the room is probably just how he left it. Framed photos, printed reviews of his restaurant, a pair of binoculars on the nightstand. The desk has been moved to the wall across from the bed. On it sits a small TV and, a bit oddly, some sort of video game console.
Looking around for clues like a normal detective seems to be a dead end. Maybe his body would tell me more, if I’d seen it. On his way out, Dr. Hines looked disturbed in a way that went beyond yet another death in a place for the dying, and Vyuji did say Harbingers’ trails are strongest around their victims and nests. She’d thought this one was ‘newborn,’ whatever that means for a Harbinger, so it either came into being somewhere nearby and left shortly after or was just passing through when I found it. It probably has no special connection to this room, but it would to someone it had killed.
Is going and checking on him even an option? He might still be in the hospital basement, but they obviously keep the morgue locked. I can’t just walk in and have a look, even if I want to. Unless… Keepers have a lot of room to jump into investigations and inspect crime scenes, if they have any reason to think magic and monsters might be involved. I’d have to out myself to play that card, though, or at least let the city know there’s a new kid active in or around this hospital.
The wilting field of flowers outside my window jumps to mind. I really don’t want to start studying corpses, if I can help it.
Putting that away for now, what else do I have? The Harbinger isn’t here anymore, so where did it go? If it went somewhere else in the hospital, I doubt I’d be the only one who ran into it. It would’ve found someone else and the place would be on emergency lockdown by now. Unless it’s disguising its attacks as natural deaths believable enough to fool an audience of doctors and coroners, which sounds insane even as I think it.
But is it really? Victims often lose their minds in ways that are impossible to miss, but some do just die. To pull that off, it would have to kill very quietly and understand what we were looking out for. Granted, Harbingers usually aren’t mindless rampaging monsters. They can be viciously clever, but they aren’t smart in the same way as a smart human… right? School safety lectures said a lot about what they aren’t and don’t do, but nothing about what they actually are, and the more I think about it, the less confident I feel in ruling that idea out. Who knows what’s possible or not with Harbingers?
Still, it seems at least more likely that it’s left the building.
Mr. Enfield’s windows overlook the northern half of the Hills, New Claris’ westmost district. Other than the hospital and the nearby university, most of it is a loose spread of houses. The ground at the city’s edges slopes up into the tree-covered hills that line most of our northwestern borders, and our side hasn’t been completely developed over. Several dark green veins still creep through the bright cityscape. They keep them from growing in any further, but most aren’t even kept up like proper parks. People wanted to keep at least a bit of untrimmed wilderness that’s safe to wander in.
I crack a window open as far as it will go, about six inches out. Cold air wafts over me, and the unnatural pressure grows a little stronger. I’m sure enough, now. Somewhere in the city beneath me, the Harbinger is searching for a new haunt. There are no tracks to follow, no foul-smelling trail running straight down the side of the building, but I feel like if I go outside and find its general direction, I can follow it to its new nest by its scent.
Outside. Right. I’m still not supposed to leave the hospital grounds, but I can’t really follow that rule anymore, can I? Sorry, Dr. Hines. Sorry, whoever gets stuck giving me the stern lecture about doing stupid things Against Medical Advice.
Come to think of it, do I still have to worry about that? The lethargy that always weighed me down hadn’t gone anywhere even when I transformed. That cold, stinging numbness still creeps all through my joints, and I’m still faintly feverish. It would be quite the cosmic prank, making the Promise just to be put down by someone’s flu the first time I went out.
In the end, Keepers are still more or less human kids. Some can pull off impossible athletic feats that make them seem otherwise, but only if they have the right magic for it. Mine… is very much not the right magic. I’ll never be lifting cars or jumping between rooftops, I don’t think, but…
I close the window and observe the hallway outside with my soul-sense. Once the coast seems to be clear, I head back to my room and pull out the little red tab on my patient sign that says “Please Do Not Disturb!” I want my privacy while I try to actually use this power for the first time.
If I can’t fix myself, maybe I can at least keep from catching anything new.
Cautiously, I reach for the power running through me, now more a steady stream than an endless surge. I don’t know exactly how much I can do without opening the floodgates, but if the heart of my magic is controlling sickness, what I want right now shouldn’t be too complicated. It’ll be good to figure out how far I can go in this state, in any case.
Trying to control the flow is unlike anything I’ve ever done before, but some new part of me does know how to do it, if not well. It’s like my soul is a many-colored sea where my thoughts and feelings toss about, abstract and unformed. It mirrors my frame of mind, so with some effort I can direct its currents, stir the sentiments I want to the surface, then call them forth and paint over the world in their colors. The entire act feels vaguely unreal, like having a dream while I’m wide awake.
I don’t need to say any special nonsense words, don’t need to do anything at all — that would distract from what really matters. I just silently seethe at the thought of being trapped in this cage, hiding from the outside so that the wrong breath can’t kill me, and let that idea echo and churn in my heart.
When it feels like there’s no more room for my bitterness, I push it outward, and my power follows. It seeps up from its inner source and settles into a thin, hazy mist wrapped around me, still carrying the cold resentment I used to create it. That’s not to say that the emotion has gone anywhere. It’s strong as ever, just like ‘blowing off steam’ by shouting and hitting things only keeps you angry for longer.
But as it dwindles, the magic stays, and I know that I’ve succeeded. This fog will swallow any ordinary infections before they can reach me, and I’m fairly sure I can hold it there as long as I want. I just have to remember to do it, keep it up with a tiny mental effort.
How many things was I banned from doing after my first transplant? Going anywhere public and crowded, ever. Petting animals. Walking in the woods. Eating raw fish and raw honey, or picking apples and eating them on the spot. All things that are suddenly open to me again. For the first time in years, in this one tiny way, I’ve won.
…I still need to get out of the hospital, though.
Probably shouldn’t overthink it. Much as I want to avoid any suspicious attention I can, nurses aren’t patrolling the seventh floor for escapees. Nobody is actually locked in here. Given my age, they’re expected to find me and drag me back if I run off, but I’ve never done anything like this before. They shouldn’t be on high alert. Best to act like I’m not up to anything unusual.
Back in my room, the walking cane I have for bad days sits on the wall by my bed. I don’t like to use it — it feels like admitting that I belong here and I always will — but it’s better than sitting in bed all day or tripping over my feet and breaking something, and if I’m going off to risk my life hunting a monster, I’d really rather have it on hand. I layer on a warm cardigan that does nothing for the chill mist surrounding me, wave to Noirin as I pass the art room, and take a seat in the lounge near the elevator hallway rather than my usual corner. The first time a visiting family calls the elevator, I quietly join them. There’s a box of white face masks for visitors on the front desk, since plenty of us need to be careful about catching anything, and I stuff one into my pocket on the way out. I shouldn’t need it anymore, but if anyone notices me missing later, I’ll tell them I just went to go sit in the hospital garden. They’ll hassle me less if I can at least say I took the precautions.
It’s a short jaunt from the first floor to the northern exit. That direction is my best lead — Mr. Enfield’s window faced north, and the Harbinger left in a way that didn’t send it rushing through the entire hospital. It might be wrong to think of it moving through space in some way I can follow, but that’s all I’ve got.
Apparently, its trail does follow some kind of path. Before long, I catch the miasma’s scent again. Not noticeably stronger than it had been upstairs, but it’s definitely there, pushing against me from somewhere to the north.
So I leave the grounds for the first time in nearly a month, following wherever this trail leads. I’ve barely even stepped off the seventh floor since I checked in, and walking under the open sky might feel strange on its own if this last day hadn’t been so much stranger. It’s a clear, dry spring day, still cold enough that the air feels slightly sharp as I breathe. It’s nice, though. Just chilly enough to be comfortable under a couple light layers has always been my favorite sort of weather. Now that I can safely leave my room, I have a while to enjoy it before summer ruins everything — if my magic keeps pollen away, spring may even become pretty nice!
That thought is enough to distract me from what I’m out here to do, for about a minute. There’ll be plenty of time to appreciate the weather after.
Despite the chilly air, the sun is bright and strong, and I’m glad for the greenery that covers the city. Massive and modern as it is, New Claris is split almost evenly between construction and carefully-tended plants, and the trees leaning over the sidewalks form a thick enough canopy that I can mostly hide underneath it. The stretches of forest still snaking over the western borders mean that sometimes the road takes sudden long, winding turns, circling around the trees. The Harbinger’s path seems to cut straight through the forest, though at no point does it become a physical trail. There’s no path of broken branches and trampled foliage leading the way.
But I’m not here to play in the woods. I can’t forget that, not with the unnatural pressure mounting as I walk. I almost want to do it anyway just to spite my sickness, but that can wait. I follow the looping sidewalks rather than trace the Harbinger’s steps exactly, and the sensation strengthens so long as I move in its general direction. So does the fatigue, the dull ache in my legs, though I don’t think I’ve gone that far at all. It isn’t my worst health day, but that’s a very low standard to beat.
Eventually, the wooded road opens into a neighborhood of upscale houses. The way from the hospital has been mostly quiet, but this place is alive, cheerfully going about its business with no mind paid to the horrible ambiance only I can feel. Not nearly as hectic as the central districts, but cars and bikes come and go, and I pass a few people on foot as I make my way further in. One slows his steps, maybe trying to decide if he recognizes me or what I’m doing here, but in the end he just keeps walking.
As the source draws closer, the impressions behind it become more clear. It isn’t actually pressure, I realize now. It’s a distinct feeling of intrusion, like standing in a crowd full of people who are all pointedly ignoring me, backs turned, refusing to so much as admit that I exist. Where the shroud of power I’d wrapped around myself was my bitterness given magical weight, the Harbinger’s scent makes me feel like I’ve fallen into another world, one where I don’t belong and am not welcome.
Finally, the stench leads me to the hills at the edge of the neighborhood. I’m standing in front of some sort of earth house, built into the side of a large hill such that all I can see of it is a bright white oval facade with a glass door and several wide windows. It’s tall enough that there are two second-floor windows just over the main entrance.
And the Harbinger is somewhere inside. I’m certain of that. I just hope no one is home.
I look back at the street. No one else is around, so I transform in that same show of pale light and dancing darkness I saw from the outside in my dream. It comes a little easier this time, and while I still don’t feel good, there is a certain lightness that comes with the power, lifting the weight of pain and exhaustion so that I can keep moving in spite of it. With another simple thought, I call my cards into being, noting that one is still tinged green, and start toward the house. The front door is unlocked when I try it, so…
…Oh. Oh no.
As soon as the door slides open, I hear voices somewhere near, and the monster’s presence spikes wildly. It looks dark inside, despite the wide windows all along the front walls. I swallow, my throat dry.
Through the gloom in the front hall, I can faintly see hardwood floors beneath smooth white ceramic walls. The voices are coming from just ahead, where the hall opens into a wide, brightly-lit living room. The Harbinger’s colors are nowhere in sight, but I can see two people from behind, a man and a woman seated in front of a fireplace. They don’t seem to notice me. I don’t know what I expected, weeping or pained moans or mad laughter, but they’re having a slow, quiet conversation, too quiet for me to make out from here.
I duck around a corner, heart pounding wildly. What do I do here? The Harbinger is inside. Its weight still bears down on me. Since these people haven’t fled screaming, I have every reason to think they’ve suffered its curse, which makes them either bystanders in terrible danger, victims dying right this moment, or… enemies who will fight to protect it.
I went into this knowing that it would be a trial by fire, my first time in anything like a battle and first time using most of my power. I can hurt the Harbinger as much as I want, but do I have any way to handle a regular person that won’t kill them or worse?
That’s only the worst-case scenario. I can still do this. I have to. I want to live and this thing’s heart holds the only medicine that can save me. I’ll find a way.
As I think on my approach, a face jumps into view from nowhere, cold and still and white as a marble statue. I clamp a hand over my mouth, smothering a shocked yelp, before I see it in full — it’s Vyuji’s face looking up at me, framed by her hair-tendrils and oversized hood.
“Oh, it’s just you,” I sigh. “Was that entrance really necessary?”
“I’m afraid so. Apologies,” she says. Her mental voice comes through in a hushed stage-whisper, and her flat expression does nothing to sell her remorse. “There’s one more thing I have to say before you go any further. When you left, I told you I would come whenever you called, so long as you were within my reach. This is as far as my reach goes. The Wound’s mouth is very near, and I can’t follow you through it. Once you cross into a Harbinger’s world, you’ll be lost to me until you emerge. Past that point, you’re on your own.”
“Then you’ll be there for me whenever I need you, except when I’m in the worst possible place? Typical,” I whisper back.
“It would be very, very bad if any Harbinger’s curse touched a Messenger. Bad for us, for you, for the world. There’s nothing I can do about that, but you deserved to know before it came up.”
That… makes sense, sure, but it doesn’t make my situation any better. “Any actually helpful final words?”
“I shouldn’t stay for long, and I can’t tell what it will be like from outside. Just…”
A noise from further inside interrupts us: the soft, wet sounds of something crawling through a swamp, just like I heard outside Mr. Enfield’s door last night. Vyuji grimaces and shakes her head. “Just be careful,” she says, and vanishes.
Well, that doesn’t change much, in the end. I expected to do this alone, actively turned down help and mentorship. If I want this to work, I’ll just have to make it work.
So into the monster’s den I go. I don’t charge in, announce myself, and proclaim the day saved — I just walk into the living room before I can lose the resolve to do it. I’ll figure out what comes next once I know how bad it is.
Inside, the conversation has paused for a moment. In its place is another sound, a faint cracking or crunching. As that noise stops, the woman leans back and sighs. “Disgusting,” she says, her voice weak and muffled.
“It really is,” the man agrees in a hoarse mutter. “Unbearable. Exactly what we needed.”
My footsteps are surprisingly light, but not so light that he can’t hear them. As I approach, the man looks over his shoulder at me. He’s dark-haired, perhaps in his thirties, but… he looks like he hasn’t eaten in weeks, as close to death as anyone on the seventh floor. His features are drawn, his eyes red, and his mouth is rimmed with grey dirt, dried and dusty. Both of them reek to my soul’s senses, the rotten-fruit stench that seems to represent diseased people mingling with the Harbinger’s overpowering aura.
“Ah, I didn’t realize we had a visitor!” The man greets me with more energy than he can handle in his state, doubling over coughing as soon as he pushes the words out. Each wheeze expels a tiny puff of dust. “A Keeper, too? What an honor. There’s nothing for you to worry about here, though.”
“I… What happened to you?” I ask weakly.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that. We’re just fine. We’ll be better than ever soon. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?” He tries to grin, the expression thin and weak beneath those dull eyes, and I’m struck by the sense that he’s looking through rather than at me.
What has it done to them? What are they doing now?
I clench my teeth and circle around the couch. There’s something in the man’s lap. A lump of clay, slightly wet. Several large chunks of it have been carved off by what look like teeth marks. On a coffee table in front of them is a massive shapeless pile of the same clay. It moves as if alive, squirming aimlessly about and… giggling to itself, laughing like a child at play. There are no mouths, no features, nothing at all that could be making the sound.
“We aren’t being rude, are we, miss?” the woman rasps. She’s in the same awful state, struggling to speak between bites of her own mound of clay. “We’d have offered you some, but…” She looks me up and down, and in those hollow eyes is… not a normal person’s pity for the tragic little dying girl, the expression I’ve seen on a hundred different people. Almost the opposite. She’s smiling, but I’m somehow sure that it’s envy on her face. “Well, I don’t think you need anything it can offer. You’re already almost perfect! So… why don’t—” She gags on something, making a sound like she’s gotten water in her windpipe. The choking fit hasn’t quite faded when she starts talking again. “Why don’t you just run along?”
…Are they saying I’m too sick for a Harbinger to eat? How much of it is in them? Can it express itself through its victims or is this all just insane babble? It doesn’t really matter. Fists clenched, I start to search the rest of the room. Have to kill the thing before I can do anything for these two.
There it is. On the floor before the fireplace is a wide, dark hole in the world. Hot air seeps out from it like breath, and floating in the blackness are bright sigils very much like the ones on the back of my cards. The floor around it swims with the Harbinger’s colors and textures, and more of that living clay is slowly pulling itself out from the chaos and crawling toward the greater mass on the table.
This is a Wound, then. A tear in the world, a place where a monster has clashed with reality to produce something uniquely horrible, where even my own power will take on strange new shapes I won’t know how to use until I try.
And I know what I have to do here — what I’ll have to keep doing, if I want to live. Before the victims say anything else, before I can talk myself out of it, I take a running start and leap into the hole.