My vision twists in on itself, giving way to the sight of nothing at all. I’m hurtling downward through an endless, lightless black void — falling, but with no air rushing past me. My nerves prickle with the sense of being watched from afar, or just barely spotting movement in the corner of my eye, but there’s nothing to see. No sights beyond myself, no sounds or smells or temperature, only the vague sense of ‘down.’
In their place, the Harbinger’s miasma surrounds me, thick as water. Its currents rage against my body as if trying to force me back outside, but still I fall. All I can do is brace for impact and hope I’m not crushed like a falling star smashing into the earth.
Suddenly, a dim, rust-red light cuts through the haze. I notice a shape sculpted in the darkness. A glowing rectangular sign. It’s emblazoned with nine white letters which spell out a word I can’t quite make out, but which I feel is all too familiar to me. I think it’s trying to say “EMERGENCY,” but each character looks distorted, crooked, or just plain wrong, as if carelessly drawn from the memories of a mind more concerned with the sign’s appearance than its actual function.
Just as soon as I think that, I sense a surge of hostility from all around me, prickling in my very bones. It’s telling me that if I insist on staying, then I must prove that I belong, or be made to belong. In the distance, I hear the faint, faraway howl of an ambulance siren. With each passing second, it grows louder, closer. Emerging from the darkness beneath me, I see the sterile, simply-patterned tiles of a hospital floor stretching out endlessly in every direction. As the sound of the ambulance siren intensifies in my ears with each passing second, the surface rushes towards me, filling my vision.
The moment I think to curl my legs into myself, the crash rattles up my body. A dull, heavy pain lashes my soles and shoots up my legs. My knees buckle and I spill forward, slamming against a slope on my right arm. I tumble down the incline, the contrast of the stark white floor stretching out into the pitch black abyss swirling wildly in my vision. All of a sudden, the ground rights itself beneath me. My body rolls to a halt, my back flat against the chill surface, and my cane clatters to the ground just out of reach. Even my cards fall and flutter through the air, forming a scattered circle around me.
I rush to push myself upright, but my right arm screams out in pain. My eyes clench shut and hot tears spill down my cheeks. I suck in air through my teeth and force my legs to raise me. Once I’ve resolved myself to stand, the dull ache in my joints doesn’t seem as bad, easing as I wipe my tears on my sleeve. My right arm is tender with a nasty purple bruise and closing my fingers stings, but I can ignore it. I have practice ignoring the parts of me that hurt.
Slowly, I wobble to my feet and retrieve my cane. My cards pick themselves up, gathering back into a steady orbit around me. I pan my gaze over the stillness of the Wound, the white plane vanishing into endless blackness. Then, in a rush of motion so sudden it makes me flinch, the floor folds upward like the faces of a cardboard box assembling itself, walling me in. When the rearrangement ends, I’m standing in a sterile white hallway lined with doors — they had been on the ground to start with, I realize, before it bent upward and those patches of floor became the side walls. There’s a thin window in the middle of each, but I can only see fog through them. Each is marked with a different illegible word in glowing white text, which brightens as I stumble upright, and the soft ping of an elevator opening rings through the hall.
Just as the space settles, something like thick mud starts to leak from its corners and crevices. It crawls with living hues of grey and red, staining the clean white surfaces the colors of dried blood. Patches of it tear themselves open, forming dozens of messy black holes — roughly circular fanged maws.
Last night, I glimpsed this world at its edges, watched a horror that shouldn’t exist storm into my life. I’d seen its creator’s horrid handiwork just a moment ago. I thought those things might steel me for the full picture.
They didn’t. Nothing could have prepared me to see the world completely replaced by this. The scene of the Wound creating itself before my eyes stifles my breath.
Ahead, the hallway stretches on and on, ending after perhaps 40 feet in gaping black emptiness. A whole stretch of the world just isn’t finished yet, like I’ve stepped into someone else’s dream while their mind is still building it. I have no idea how much of this is under construction, for lack of a better term, what would happen if I stepped into the nothingness, or how much direct control the Harbinger has over shaping this place. Is this a dream it’s having or a stage it planned and constructed? The hollow darkness draws farther and farther away, the hall creating itself even as I stare into its depths. Do I really know anything about what I’ve gotten into?
What is a Harbinger? What do they look like? What exactly can they do, and what can I do to them that will matter? For some reason, I think back to the safety lessons everyone sits through in primary school. The lectures and the cutesy videos accompanying them didn’t answer any of those questions. Bits of their useless advice chirp in my head:
“Harbingers feed on pain and sadness, so if you or someone you know is having a hard time, try to talk it out and find a way to make things better!”
“If you see something scary you can’t explain, run away and call for a Keeper! Only Keepers can protect the world from monsters!”
It was all a lot of weirdly cheery mottos like that, stressing the importance of Good Mental Hygiene. When I got older, I started thinking about what they hadn’t said. If you’re cornered by a Harbinger and no cute little spirit shows up to offer you the Promise, what do you do? They must have left it out because there’s only one answer to that question: pray for rescue. All the rest was probably just a way to make kids feel like there’s something they can actually do to protect themselves.
Still, those videos, Vyuji’s words, and what I’ve just seen myself are the only information I have. There are never any photos or videos of battles with Harbingers, and by now the many reasons for that are obvious to me. I know that every Harbinger is different, that only Keepers can hurt them, and not much else.
At least a few of those answers are waiting further down. I’ll need them if I plan to do this and keep doing it. I shudder at that thought, but… no, I can’t distract myself like this now.
Before I can plan my next step, a patch of muck on the floor squirms and bubbles to life, and something rises from the mire. It looks for a moment like a formless spout of living slime, featureless save for the holes where wall-mouths rose with it, but then the substance starts to slough away like thin, swampy mud, mouths and all.
The shape that remains when the sludge is mostly gone is vaguely human, but much too tall and spindly, shrouded in layers of ragged grey cloth. Torn as it is, the cloth still almost completely conceals its wearer — the holes in the fabric never quite align enough to expose the creature beneath. Near the bottom, shredded rags give way to a tangle of black insect legs, and several more are wrapped around a huge white tome the thing keeps clutched to its chest. A hood obscures most of its head, but as it leans down to regard me, a thin, flat arrowhead of an eyeless face emerges, split in half by a maw lined on the outside with black fangs that twitch like limbs.
And behind those fangs are a too-long, too-wide grinning row of shiny white human teeth, set into swollen red gums.
The thing that can only be the Harbinger speaks, and though its maw opens wider, the sound comes from everywhere at once. Its voice is the painful whining noise of a flatlined heart monitor, but that awful droning is definitely forming words. I don’t recognize them and certainly couldn’t repeat them, but somehow I know that they are words in a language, and that language means something to my magical senses. Its speech has a strange stilted meter, almost like it’s trying to perform a poem. I can just barely make out the core of what it expresses:
<Truth Is Written In Scars>
Taking in everything its screaming voice tells me at once is overwhelming, and no part of it can be disentangled from any other. It’s simultaneously a name and a proclamation that makes no sense and maybe more, layers I feel but can’t understand. It’s a lot like when I tried to read my own soul, if every part of it were something twisted and hostile and alien.
Then the piercing song stops abruptly, taking its message with it.
Something crashes into the wall behind me. I whirl around with a yelp. At the finished end of the hall, a door has slammed itself open, exposing a switchback staircase leading up. A path further into this mad world? No, that doesn’t feel right. Up is the way I just came from, so by the dream-logic magic seems to use, this is probably a passage out of the Wound.
As if in emphasis, a high-pitched chorus of whining nonsense rises from the mouths on the walls. I still don’t understand the language they’re speaking, but the message is clear: You must be lost, they say, echoing the victims outside. We don’t take your kind. Go on, get out of here before I change my mind.
For its part, the Harbinger — Yurfaln, that was its name — simply waits and watches. Its body bends in strange places when it moves, and it constantly tilts its entire upper half back and forth. Like an animal trying to get a better look at some strange new thing.
Maybe it’s a mistake to read any kind of real-world logic into what Harbingers do, but something about that…
Predatory animals are hardly the biggest danger in the wilderness, but I’ve read that if you ever run into one, the best thing to do is hold your ground and act fearless. Don’t pick a fight, but don’t back down or run away. Present yourself as a fellow hunter to be politely avoided rather than an easy meal. I’m not a beast on the prowl, but the Harbinger is, and it’s acting very much like it doesn’t want to hunt me after I jumped right into its lair.
If it doesn’t want to fight, if it sees me as a threat, maybe it’s not prepared for this. Maybe, if I dare to hope a little, we’re both scared of whatever comes next. Either way, I know what I’m here to do. To my surprise, I even feel like I know how to do it. Vyuji told me I could warp the world inside a Wound, fight the Harbinger for control of its own stage. When she said so, I had no idea how I’d do something like that, but now that I’m here, it’s just something I know I can do. An instinct coming up for the first time. It’s not that the inner flow of my magic is stronger here, so what’s changed?
Doesn’t matter. No time to stand here and wonder. What I do know is that my power wants to be used. The sea in my soul is a churning storm of fear and disgust. It wants to spill out beyond me, to spread, to consume this place as fuel for itself like a wildfire. No, like a virus, I realize with a shiver that only makes it more eager.
Fine. Do it. Infect this nightmare. Rot it from the inside out.
That thought is all it takes to send my magic surging to life. Cards rise from my orbit and begin arranging themselves in front of me. It doesn’t feel like I’m directing them — magic simply translates my intent into action. Hurting and ruining something with a power like mine must be its simplest possible use, and I barely need to think about how once I’ve resolved to do it. As Vyuji promised, some part of me already knows.
Within seconds, the cards form an elaborate asymmetrical pattern that looks nothing like any real spread I’ve ever seen. It’s shaped roughly like the branches of a tree, but upside-down, joining into a trunk at the top. The unfamiliar abstract scenes on the cards have all been dyed in new colors, Yurfaln’s muddy grey-brown shades… no, all but one. At the end of one branch is the poison-green card I pricked my finger on earlier, now bright with cold emerald light. Death inverted.
Wisps of hungry shadow reach out from my card, crawling over the nearest one on the branch. As they do, the yellowed ceiling lights flicker wildly, and pained cries cut through the shrill voices screaming out from inside the walls. Scattered across Yurfaln’s carpet of corruption, mouths on the wall begin coughing up emerald fog twined with threads of inky blackness. The growing clouds of it are eerily bright, casting the hall in the sickly glow of my power, and sparkle in a way that makes me think more of icy mist than toxic gas.
There’s no mistaking what it feels like, though — if I imagine this world as a sea like the one in my own soul, a polluted, swampy expanse teeming with alien vermin, my magic is a bitter numbness spreading through the water. It begins as a film of frost on the swamp’s surface, but the cold pushes steadily further down until it touches the things crawling beneath. It seeps into them, and while it feels at first like I’m touching dozens of greasy, revolting creatures myself, they quickly freeze over and sink, carrying my power into Yurfaln’s depths with them. Spreading it. Vectors for me, just like Vyuji said.
Maybe twenty seconds into this process, the tiny mouths start melting off the floor and walls into icy green clouds, like they weren’t exhaling my mist but throwing up insides they never had until there’s nothing left of them.
It makes me want to puke myself, watching my power creep into this living nightmare in a way that makes them both so much worse, but I can’t look away. Not only would it not even help, since I sense the magic working as much as I see it, but the monster standing right in front of me could strike back at any second. I still don’t know what I’ll do when it does — I just hope the same instincts that guided me through this awful invasion will have more to offer.
Yurfaln doesn’t lash out at me or my magic, though. It just looks around at the walls, chittering and whistling to itself as it studies the spreading blight. The mist gathers into a slowly sinking bank of fog, filling more and more of the thin hall, and the Harbinger makes no effort to resist it. Once the fog has blanketed the floor around it, green tendrils start to grasp at its shredded robes, squirming through the holes in the fabric, but still Yurfaln does nothing I can see or feel to push back against me.
Until a shudder wracks Yurfaln’s body. One of its lower legs snaps off with a sound far too much like cracking bones, dissolving into mist as it falls. Its voice stutters, then rises into a wordless howling siren, a wail of some unnameable emotion. It hunches down, bends and stretches itself into a shape more centipede than human, and launches into a writhing, twitching blur of motion. I throw my free hand up — stupid, useless reflex, as if that’d stop anything — but it’s still not coming for me. Instead, it… it’s slithering up the walls, darting between infected mouths.
By the gnawing, slurping sounds it makes without ever interrupting its howl and the rough patches torn out of the muddy carpet in its passing, it’s eating them.
Bile rises in the back of my throat. I choke it down. What? Why? Am I not hurting it? It’s lost two more legs now — does it not care? I don’t know. Do I want to know, to understand why this thing does anything it does? No, but I’ve got to—
Yurfaln’s upper body bends back, twisting to face me upside-down. Some of its fangs shimmer green, slowly dissolving into death-mist, as it chirrups something in its language. It sounds almost excited. The words aren’t as clear as before, but the same part of me feels them. Yes, okay, come! Share! it seems to be saying. Then it turns away and scuttles down the hall, crawling over and around the halls in a spiral pattern, but rather than moving away it just seems to stretch on and on and on.
Heavy curtains like theater drapes made of hospital privacy screens fall over the hallway ahead from nowhere, and the whole world starts to shift around me at a terrifying pace. It sends me careening down the hall without actually moving, and with each layer of curtains that rushes by, another spiral, another endless coil of Yurfaln creeps over the walls. Just past the point where nothing else remains, the final curtain slides open and flings me into a new world.
Blinding light stings my eyes. Cold air seeps into my skin. The ground ripples just enough to be disorienting. My eyes take a moment to adjust, and when they do… it’s not ground at all. My tarot spread still floats beside me, but the world has completely changed. I’m on a beach, standing on the ocean’s surface just off the shore. The water beneath my feet is completely solid, like glass, save for the slight rippling of tiny waves over its surface. Snowflakes dance through the air in a faint breeze — it’s a bright winter day, but with no visible sun, and the light is tinged a fluorescent yellow that makes all the fresh falling snow look dirty.
Yurfaln is nowhere in sight, but I’m not alone. Two human-sized figures stand where the sea meets the shore, dressed in the same all-concealing ragged shrouds the Harbinger wears. They’re clearly struggling to move, even to stand. They breathe so heavily that each exhalation sounds like a groan of pain, and they shiver in the cold with each wave of frigid water that laps over their legs. Nevertheless, they’re having what sounds like a happy conversation, held entirely in insectoid chirps.
All around us, the ocean’s surface is littered with strands of dark, stringy seaweed. They drift in with the tide in clumps, gathering into a great wet mass on the dunes of the beach that smells of rotten eggs. Slowly, tiny maws like the ones that grew on Yurfaln’s corruption emerge from the pile, but they aren’t the only thing — patches of it also sprout shiny black feathers.
And as they do, the things on the beach lean down, scoop up heaps of fanged, feathered seaweed with trembling hands, and raise them to their mouths.
I tear my gaze away, but that does nothing for the sounds. The eager, desperate gnashing. I don’t bother trying to cover my ears, not to spare my injured hand but because I’m already sure it wouldn’t help. I just wrench my eyes shut until the noise fades, replaced by another one. Short, quiet wails, much softer than Yurfaln’s voice, like bird calls voiced by sirens.
When I peek back at the shore, the shrouded things wave at me, as if they’d been trying to get my attention. They turn around and stagger away, chittering cheerfully all the while. A path at the far end of the beach trails up a steep hill, and the figures climb it together, leaning against each other through their halting steps until they fade from sight.
This place… it’s not at all like the unfinished hospital-hall world I first stepped into, but what is it? What was the plan in taking me here? Yurfaln’s presence feels thicker now, but I don’t see or sense the Harbinger itself anywhere. The beach itself is featureless, save for the massive pile of seaweed covering its shore, and the ocean looks like it stretches out forever, flat and clear save for the dark ribbons drifting by. I step over those when they come near me — whatever they are, I want nothing to do with them.
Once I’m satisfied that nothing in my immediate surroundings is coming to kill me, I look over my spread again. The colors on the cards are still shifting — green and black veins have spread over most of the inverted tree’s branches. Yurfaln’s clay-and-gore shades bend around my colors, oozing over them like an amoeba trying to absorb its prey. A few tendrils of poison-green have been cut off from their origin point, so they now writhe alone in the mud, but they aren’t erased or absorbed. It looks almost like they’re being carried upward, dragged slowly toward the trunk of the diagram.
What does that mean? What does any of it mean, and why does this feel less like fighting a monster than sharing a horrible dream with one? Keepers hunt and kill Harbingers, that’s all I really knew about this going in. I came here to kill Yurfaln, I’ve already taken a swing at it, and still it hasn’t shown the least interest in fighting back. I barely understand any of what it’s doing, to say nothing of why. But I’m still here to kill it, and it’s waiting somewhere further inside. There’s only one way to go.
So I head for the shore, stopping when the water ceases to hold me up and my boots touch wet sand. Even at its thinnest point, the seaweed is piled too wide to simply hop over. I find a stretch relatively free of strange growths and jab it with my cane. Nothing happens, so I step back, hold my breath, and do my best to leap through it with a running start. My best isn’t very good — I touch down in the middle of the mass with a sickening damp squelch and plod clumsily through the rest, more afraid of what might happen if I rush and stumble face-first into it than what it’ll do if I take too long.
I only stop to kick the sludge off my boots once I’m well onto the dry sand, but it’s strangely clingy — no, it’s clinging, moving, holding tight to me, crawling slowly upward as a single mass. My mouth goes dry as it climbs to the top of my boots. Shapeless strands reach for my legs. Cold, slimy moisture seeps through my shoes and into my thick stockings.
get it off get it off get it OFF—
My whole body shudders at its first touch, and magic seethes to the surface, rushing to my defense. With no clear thought, no conscious act of will, just raw disgust given form by some strange new instinct, power flows out into the barrier I cast before I left home, turning it from a thin layer of cold hostility into a cloak of noxious spite where only I can survive. The grasping stalks of seaweed don’t waste away to nothing or disintegrate like the infected mouths did before, but they do lose their strength, wilting and withering and falling away into dried husks at my feet. Still squirming as I stumble away, hissing something in a hoarse voice that sounds uncannily like “whyyyyyyyy?”
I turn and run up the hill, as fast as my feeble legs can carry me.
The end of the path opens into a narrow rocky valley, where the ground quickly levels out. At the far end is… it looks like it may have been an old stone temple once, before it was left to molder for centuries. Bright moss mingles with the twisting shades of Yurfaln’s corruption all along the walls, and wherever the surface isn’t overgrown, it’s defaced with swirling sigils that somehow recall the ones on the back of my tarot cards. They’re nothing like the scribbled, illegible signs that marked the Wound’s entrance — these are symbols in another language entirely, one nothing like Clarish or any other language I’m aware of. A set of three half-crumbled stone arches serve as an entryway, and beyond that is only darkness. The weak laughter of dying children echoes out through the valley.
A small group of shrouded figures is gathered near the ruins. Two I recognize by their happy chittering and constant shivering as the ones from the beach, and they turn to me and wave again as I approach, but they’re seated very near to a third. The new one is standing in front of a large canvas on a display stand — painting a picture, absorbed entirely in its work. The painting is unfinished and simple, but to my surprise, not so crude that I can’t tell what it is. It’s a ragged thing in a hospital bed, hooked up through its shroud to an uncountable forest of instruments and tubes filled with strange colors. A circle of the creatures is gathered around it, clapping and cheering.
As I come closer, the painter murmurs something to itself, wipes its brush roughly clean on its robes, and then… stabs it into one of the shivering creatures, straight through its ragged cloak. It groans or sighs as the artist pulls the brush loose, tearing away what looks like a wet lump of many-colored clay from its body, then carries right on calmly talking to its partner. The painter drops the clay onto a board attached to the front of its canvas stand and begins working it, separating it into colors. Brown. Grey. Many shades of red. And… black, glittering with specks of green. I don’t know what that means, but I hate it. I hate all of this.
The laughter in the temple grows louder. The three shrouded creatures pause as one to listen. The painter quickly returns to its work, but the freshly injured one turns to me and raises its hood, exposing the lower half of its face. It has a human head with human skin, but no features except a mouth between a set of insect mandibles. It smiles, and the expression is not the gaping grin of a monster. It’s a smile I recognize too well from the seventh floor, the soft, sad kind patients force for their families to tell them “I’ll be okay. It doesn’t hurt too much.”
I choke down another wave of nausea. For a long moment, all I can do is stare and wonder if smashing this painting would help in some way. I don’t think it would.
With its trembling free hand, the smiling thing points to the archways and nods, once. Then it lowers its head, almost bowing to me, and lets its hood hang over its head again.
The moment I look through the arches, Yurfaln’s voice blares out from somewhere in the darkness. Share. Holy! Teach me, give me, be me! it says.
“I’m going to kill you,” I rasp back. Even as the words pass my lips, they feel pathetic. Far too petty and tiny to match what’s happening in this place, whatever that even is. But they’re all I have.
As I step past them and cross into the temple, the paired creatures clap and weakly whistle goodbye.
This is getting creepy now. I like it!