It’s too dark to see inside, and the eerie green glow shifting over my tarot spread isn’t enough to illuminate anything. The air here is somehow too humid and too thin at the same time. It clings to me as I move, its damp warmth a sudden shift from the cold outside. My head swims and my lungs burn the way they sometimes do on bad health days, no matter how much swampy air I suck down. My eyes never seem to adjust to the gloom, and navigating by magic can only do so much. My soul has a sense of which way my power is flowing as the Wound gathers it up, but it’s not like I can actually see with it, and I don’t feel anything solid enough to be Yurfaln itself.
“Hey! If you want me, get out here! I’m not-” My voice quivers, instantly putting the lie to my poorly-faked confidence, and a dry cough tears through my throat. “…not done with you,” I croak.
Fluorescent yellow light from no clear source floods the ruins. The dim glow flickers like a dying lightbulb, but it’s at least enough to see by. The temple’s entrance hall is a round chamber held up by pillars just as caked in grime and corruption as the walls outside. Above is a high dome ceiling almost completely scrawled over with spiraling glyphs, though the white stone underneath does peek through in a few places.
At the far end of the room, a dirty curtain hangs over a hall leading further inside. It swings open on its own — I brace myself, expecting the world to twist around me again, but the lurch never comes. Instead, Yurfaln’s distant voice echoes through the temple: Welcome welcome! Come. Join!
Do I have any other choice? Playing along with its plans feels wrong, but there’s only one way forward. I can change this world too, yes, but I’ve already struck at the Harbinger in the only way I can think of. As far as I can tell, it didn’t care at all. It liked it.
No, that’s not quite right. I have no idea why Yurfaln would eat itself or make such a show of working my infection into its Wound, but it must be some sort of countermove. It didn’t just stand there and shrug my magic off — I definitely hurt it on some level. Bits of it were wasting away when I last saw it. It’s too much to hope that it’s still falling apart and I only need to catch it, but there has to be something I can do if I figure out what it’s doing with my power and why.
Which I can only do by seeing more of it. No matter what that ends up looking like.
So in I go.
Past the curtain, the temple narrows into a long, dingy hall that slopes steadily down. It’s barely lit, as if by a single bulb floating somewhere far behind me, and I spend the descent reaching out with my soul for any signs of movement — an ambush, Yurfaln’s presence, anything. It never comes. There’s only distant wisps of my magic flowing inward and a sound that slowly fills the air, growing louder as I walk. Not medical equipment or insect noises, but a steady murmuring like whispered giggles. The weak laughter of dying children. The air gets simultaneously heavier and thinner as I come closer to the sound’s source, weakening my own breath. It never feels bad enough that the Wound is trying to strangle me, but it weighs me down all the same. That’s fine. My body failing me is nothing new.
Finally, a new, brighter source of unsteady yellow light comes into view. The end of the passage, and… yes, this feels like the central trunk of my tarot spread, the point Yurfaln is gathering my magic toward. The Harbinger’s slimy aura is thick here, and while I can’t tell if it’s nested somewhere in the miasma, waiting to catch me right at the bottom, I’m sure this place is… important to the Wound in some way. A deeper part of Yurfaln than those outside. If the answers I’m looking for are anywhere, they’re here. I gather my feeble strength and step into the light.
What’s waiting there steals the last of my breath.
The tunnel opens into a dank sickroom the size of a school auditorium. Withering bodies in ragged cloaks are packed into too-tight rows of rickety cots. The walls are coated in dirt and dust and Yurfaln’s mud, except where the dying are absorbed in scratching it away by hand. They work in very specific patterns, drawing those strange glyphs with the white stone beneath the grime. Some of the same figures are standing, limping through the rows even as bits of them fall out of their robes and melt into the corruption coating the surfaces. The wanderers study the writing on the wall with great interest, occasionally stopping to copy bits of it into smaller versions of Yurfaln’s great white tome.
A space at the center has been sectioned off, its beds rearranged to form a rough wall around a small pool. The water in it is a vibrant swampy green, the single spot of color in the filthy grey room, and gives off fumes that look and feel exactly like my magic. Two of the creatures are swimming in it, fully clothed, and many more sit gathered around the water, laughing and chittering in voices fainter but somehow easier to hear than all the rest. All of them are falling apart, just like the rest, but rather than mud and filth they’re disintegrating into green mist and black feathers that litter the ground.
As one, the creatures turn to watch me enter. Some call out in greeting, some wave, and some are too weak to do more than look. I back away, still breathless, but bump into a wet, muddy wall after only a step. The passage behind me is gone.
Well. This is what I came for, isn’t it? If I wanted to run, I’ve had chances. What difference does it make if they’re gone now?
I take my first hesitant steps out into the room, pausing to look around every few feet. But much as I expect the ragged things to swarm me like hungry zombies, they never do. If this is a trap, it’s a stranger one than that.
Right before I reach the cot barricade around the central pool, the sickening pressure of the Wound spikes, battering my soul as the foul air chokes my body. Just ahead, a spout of mud bubbles up from the floor, and when it sloughs away, the Harbinger is standing across from the water. Its hood is down, and its mouth grins wider than ever. Its lost legs and fangs have mostly grown back in, but they now have black feathers and tiny hollow shafts sticking out of them at random, uneven points, and they constantly writhe as if fighting it — three fangs have bent back and dug into its head. When I sense it this closely, its aura shares the rotten-fruit stench of seventh floor patients, but there are two distinct feelings wound together inside it: a burning ache spreading outward from its core and the cold, gnawing pain of my power winds through it, all tangling together into a single awful sensation.
The dying creatures fall silent as Yurfaln emerges, and its voice blares through the chamber. This time it speaks slowly, the way you would to a toddler who doesn’t quite understand words. The phrases are more complicated, harder to translate in that ethereal way, but they go something like: We feel so much. Burn so bright. Shine so much light! See, see!
Then it gestures with its head to one ragged thing seated alone at the edge of the circle. It’s hunched over a white book, writing on its pages at a frantic pace with an old-fashioned quill pen made from one of those black feathers. The cloth over one side of its body is pulled back to expose a human arm, which is steadily turning bright green as it rots, but it’s melting into liquid rather than dissolving into mist. A glass bottle at its side gathers the liquid up, and it uses that bottle as an inkwell for its pen.
The writer looks up at the Harbinger and beams proudly. The mandibles around its human mouth quirk up, like it’s trying to smile with them too. Yurfaln dips one of its legs into the bottle, opens its own book, and begins copying what it’s written, chirping excitedly all the while.
Once again, I find myself holding back vomit with all my strength. This is… none of it makes—
No. No, there’s one way to make sense of all this.
The Harbinger draws power from sickness. Sickness is where it began. It ate a man who was wasting away, then wandered off to curse other people with slow, miserable deaths. Pain like mine is probably its favorite food, and I went and served it the biggest meal I could. That’s why it would let me do this — no, do this to itself — and then welcome me into its world and celebrate.
It’s all I can do to remind myself that it’s still hurting. I’m certain it is, and I’ve got some kind of hook in it, but… can I do anything with that? If I push myself further, would it collapse into nothing or feast on my suffering until it burst? I have no idea if that’s how it works. More importantly, I’d probably die before it did. This place is poisonous, and my barrier isn’t enough to keep it from seeping into me. Not while I still need to breathe.
Yurfaln slams its book shut and returns to watching me with its eyeless smile. It stays like that for a long, long moment. Then it scoops a clump of feathers into its mouth, gnashing eagerly, and starts toward the far end of the room. It moves much slower than it did before, with its whole body twitching wildly and throwing off its skittering steps, but eventually it vanishes through a curtain-covered door.
Leaving me with no choice but to chase it, stand here and waste away, or try and make my own way out… and I don’t see any way of blasting open a new path with my magic.
I look over my tarot spread once more. The upside-down tree’s trunk is made up of two cards. On the lower one, Yurfaln’s muddy greys and reds are gathered around a bright pulsing circle of my emerald green. The card above it is all Yurfaln’s shades, pulsing wildly, like a clay heart beating much too fast. There’s something more left of the Harbinger and its world, something deeper still.
It could still be dying. This could still work. And it’s the only chance I have.
Ragged creatures shuffle aside, clearing a path for me to follow their creator into its heart.
On the other side of the curtain is only darkness, which swiftly expands and swallows the world.
What remains is a formless non-space like the void I fell through to enter the Wound, except I’m standing on solid ground instead of falling forever. Images float slowly past me, stone mosaics backlit by flickering yellow lights. They’re jagged, ugly things, sharp rocks all packed together rather than smooth, artistic designs, but they do form legible pictures.
The first shows a crowd of colorless human-shaped outlines rendered faintly yellow by the light, shambling around in the dark. The next panels narrow in on a single man, always brightly colored and lit against the bleak background. He’s alone in a crowd of featureless, colorless people, then in a bed, thin and haggard but glowing brighter than before. Finally, he’s moved into a place as warm and vivid as him, a garden room filled with other bright people, their light shining out into the world and entirely replacing the dreary backdrop of the last pictures.
The stones are smoother on the last mosaic. It shows the man seated in the garden-world in a giant plush chair, its gold trim as ornate as a king’s throne. In front of him, a creature shrouded in rags bows down like a student sitting at the feet of a great teacher.
Is this supposed to be Yurfaln and Mr. Enfield? Did the Harbinger kill and eat the man and then build a shrine for him?
The last scene fades with that thought, and bright lights blink on, replacing the void with a new, smaller chamber. Bizarrely, the center of the Wound is much cleaner than the sickroom. Its white stone walls are mostly pristine, except in the corner where Yurfaln stands. There, black feathers litter the ground, and several of its legs have sloughed to the floor around it, along with little chunks of clay where they once attached to its body. They’re dissolving into green mist, but slowly, like they’ll disintegrate over hours rather than minutes. If I am killing it, I don’t think it’s fast enough.
Look, look! it chirps, gesturing with all the legs on one side of its body. On the far wall is a sacrificial altar straight from a horror story — a raised stone slab, tilted down toward the floor, decorated all over with twisting glyphs. A scalpel is balanced on the top edge of the slab. A round gutter set into the floor circles it, and viewed from the side, there’s a channel that flows straight into the wall behind the altar.
The wall itself features another mosaic. It begins as a drab cityscape, but the image is alive — a mixture of Yurfaln’s colors and mine spread through it like dye mingling in a glass of water, and where those twisting shades pass, things change. By the time it reaches the mosaic’s borders, the city is an extension of the Wound. Its surfaces crawl with living clay and its streets are filled with deathly ill people, all smiling serenely as they expire in the streets.
Yurfaln speaks again, in the same slow, cheerful voice it used outside. Yours! I made it. For you! Die together? it asks.
…Together? What? That’s… before, I thought it was eating the pain of dying of an illness and didn’t care if it hurt going down. If I’m understanding it at all — and maybe I’m not, but that’s all I have to go on right now — it’s not just that it doesn’t care if it hurts or if it dies, but dying is actually the point.
I remember Mr. Enfield’s last words to me, all that about things working out for the best and death spurring you on to make the most of your last days. Those are obviously lies people tell themselves to feel a bit better when there’s nothing else they can do, but I have no reason to think Harbingers understand human self-deception. Maybe Yurfaln pulled those feelings from his dying thoughts, took them completely seriously, and decided it liked the idea. I open my mouth, but whatever words I wanted to say a moment ago have fled me. What could I possibly say to something that thinks like that, if it would even understand me?
FOR YOU, Yurfaln repeats. Its voice has been shrill and painful since I first heard it, but the impatience, the anger it’s tinged with now, that’s new. It draws itself to its full height and crawls closer, towering over me between unsteady steps.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Vyuji said she could only teach me so much, and she talked like I was ready for this, but I should’ve made her tell me every possible thing she knew about the enemy. And experimented more, figured out everything I could do and thought about how best to use it. Instead I ran off to die rather than risk the Harbinger’s trail going cold.
No, no, it’s not over yet. I’m not going to die like this. I’m not going to die. Inflaming the wisps of my power inside Yurfaln wouldn’t kill it fast enough to save me, but that’s not the only thing I can do. Magic isn’t just a weapon that you swing harder and hope for the best, and all this isn’t just a meal or a source of strength to Yurfaln. It is Yurfaln. It celebrates our misery, loves it enough to make its world a temple to slow, painful death. ‘Truth Is Written In Scars.’ That’s what it named itself. Sickness is its identity.
And as much as I hate it, sickness belongs to me.
“Okay. Okay, calm down,” I half-whisper. “Die together, fine. That sounds wonderful. Let’s do it.” I sidestep toward the altar, afraid to take my eyes off Yurfaln. “B-but this isn’t quite right. It’s not what you want. Can… can I make it a little better first?”
Yurfaln just tilts its head, shifting its posture slightly. I don’t know how I’m translating its words, but the understanding doesn’t seem to work both ways.
“Better. Like this. More of this.” I push out slightly with my will, feeding a little more power into my barrier. A little more of the same pain and fear and bitterness I used to infect the Wound. I should be able to warp this place in other ways, too. Honestly, what I’m planning is a simpler way, just one that doesn’t come quite as naturally.
The Harbinger is still for a moment, save for the wild twitching of its diseased limbs. Then it trills wordless agreement. There’s a lightening of the ever-present pall of its corruption surrounding my soul — its grip on the world loosens slightly, making space for me to add my own touch to the dreamscape. Maybe I could’ve done it anyway, but I really don’t want to push my limits. Not yet.
I close my eyes and push a bit harder, trying to infuse more than raw emotion into my magic. Ideas, memories, fears more complex than the raw, primal kind. One image in particular. Cold mist drifts through the room on a faint breeze. Once it passes, I look back at the wall and inspect my work.
The altar’s been replaced by… it takes a moment to register what it’s supposed to be, and I imagined it. It’s a set of two matching altars, now, one raised slightly higher off the ground than the other. But they’re partially tilted like examination tables, and instead of cuffs or a place to fasten a bound victim’s limbs, each has a single cushioned armrest, one on the left and one on the right.
Between them is something like an oversized dialysis machine, but the body of the machine is set into the floor, carved from a single slab of white stone. Its monitoring instruments have no numbers, just sigils like the ones written on the temple walls and little smiley faces. The main assembly of tubes that would normally be in the center is replicated on each side of the device, and instead of a filter to run the blood through, the lines simply wind together in the middle into a big tangled maze of clear plastic. Each side has six lines ending in too-long, too-thick needles, more than any imaginable procedure could ever need. It’s not a medical machine, it’s a mad science nightmare contraption designed to steal all the blood from two people at once and then do something inexplicable but certainly deadly with it.
Why does it look so awful? I didn’t make it like that, did I? It must just be the clay I’m working with — I made this, but I made it of Yurfaln’s Wound. It’s still part of this world.
Anyway, I don’t care what it looks like. It’s more or less what I wanted, it’ll do what I needed to do, and Yurfaln will probably like it more this way. The statement to it should be clear — if you want to share my pain, my blood, my cursed, broken blood that’s doing its very best to eat me alive, you can have it.
Yurfaln looks the machine over, crawls in a few looping circles around and between the new sacrificial setup. I hold my breath until it giggles, cheers, and scuttles over to the taller table. Its legs grab at the tubes on its side — or its original, undamaged legs do, while the twitchy feathered ones flail and fight them — but eventually, it takes all six needles and sinks them through the holes in its shroud, letting out a sharp wail as each punctures something beneath the cloth. It sits on the table, sets its book down beside it, and opens it to a fresh page.
I approach the device in a few more small steps. I lean my cane against the altar and pick out a single needle-tipped tube. Yurfaln whistles and chirps meaninglessly as I roll back the sleeve over my injured right arm. My teeth clench so hard it hurts, which I know won’t help. I know it’ll do the opposite, a lifetime of injections and infusions and drawn blood has seen to that, but I can’t help myself.
Just a little pain. Just a little more pain. What’s that to save my life?
I’ve never done this myself before. I position the needle over one of the veins in the center of my arm, look away, and do my best to slip it in. Its cold bite is much sharper than usual, and I let out a whimper of pain, but can’t let myself stop to really feel it. No time. My soul’s image of Yurfaln sharpens — we’re connected like this, we’d have to be for whatever it was planning to work, and I sense it on some new level. It tried to make my disease, my magic, into part of itself. My power is wound all through its essence, but it’s still mine.
And it answers when I reach for it, seize it, and pull with all my might. It’s tangled up with Yurfaln’s strain of corruption, so it’s easier to rip them both free from its body together.
The Harbinger makes a confused whining sound. It twists its body into a coil, tightening its entire being around its stolen suffering, and a strange sense of phantom pressure grows in the air as I pull against it. Through that pressure, through the sharp pain in my arm and the dizzying ache of breathing in this place and the numbing weight of my own failing body, I keep pulling until I feel my power tearing loose shreds of Yurfaln’s soul and dragging them along with it.
Finally, colors start to flow out through Yurfaln’s tubes. The assembly fills up with an insane, ever-shifting muddy soup of ink-blacks and reds and greys and shimmering greens that never truly meld together. Yurfaln’s whine rises to a panicked howl as the chaotic mix of our magic floats there, waiting for its new purpose.
For this to work, I have to give it one. Magic wants to express itself. It wants to be used. I can’t just wish it away, which leaves two places it can go. This surprised the Harbinger, but if I give it a chance, it could still find a way to fight back.
I look at the rusty scraps of filth mixed through the green of my miasma and shiver. Yurfaln may have stolen the other disease, but by now it’s steeped in its essence, repulsive to my senses on a level that goes far beyond the sickly-sweet stenches of death I felt earlier. It feels like looking down on a plate of food and seeing something still living, still perfectly awake, glaring up at me with eyes full of intelligent malice. Something that knows what’s coming, but needs me to understand in its last moments that it hates me and wants me to suffer.
Tensing my entire body, I will the mass back into myself. The corruption, mine and Yurfaln’s both, rushes through the machine and sinks into my veins.
As one, my nerves explode. My legs buckle. I collapse to my knees, screaming and screaming and screaming until I’m sure I’m clawing out my own throat. Yurfaln’s earsplitting wails drown out my own, and the tearing muscles in my neck are the only way I know that I’m still making sound. Sharp, gnawing agony rushes through me, and the stolen affliction burns in my chest. I feel like I’m drowning on dry land, like my body has forgotten what to do with air.
But through my tears, I can see Yurfaln shriveling, shrinking underneath its robes. Dozens of little legs stretch out from beneath the cloth as it stands and staggers forward, grasping for me, but its body gives out in mid-motion, crashing to a heap on the ground. Its hood falls away as it looks up at me with its eyeless face, twitching and shivering and grimacing in impossible pain with both of its mouths, and its clay flesh rapidly starts to dry and crack. It doesn’t fall away and spread filth through the room, it doesn’t dissolve into green mist, it simply crumbles to dust.
Yurfaln lowers its head. Its voice gives out, fading to a faint, quivering cry. Its remaining legs rise once more, then plunge as one into its chest. With only a low, dry croak of pain, it rips something out of itself — a pulsing orb of blackness, with thin lines of rust-red light running through it like veins. The Harbinger’s heart. The trophy I’m here for. My first step toward saving myself.
And it’s holding it up with the last of its strength.
…Offering it to me?
Wilt. Wilt and… fill this world… wilt. Drink it all. Become true. Together, it rasps with its final breath. Pleading, not for mercy but for…
I pull the needle loose from my arm and snatch the heart, and the last of Yurfaln’s body disintegrates into scraps of shredded cloth and a cloud of dead grey dust. Its core is warm and slick to the touch, sending a revolted shudder through me, but I cling to it all the same, somehow afraid that it might vanish like a dream in the harsh morning sun if I let go.
I squeeze the heart to my chest and reach out with my power to swallow it, biting my tongue to shove the awful feeling of the act down, but… after the first nauseating sip, something starts to change. That air of malice I’ve felt since I first started tracking the Harbinger slowly fades. Absorbing the essence beneath it doesn’t translate to any physical sense, the way reading magic often seems to — this is a deeper feeling, more abstract, something new and wonderful. Like the heady haze of finishing a book good enough that you forgot everything else while you read it, didn’t even realize you were reading, but free from the part where you have to snap out of it and find yourself back in your hospital bed. It’s just how the world is now.
While I drink its creator dry, the Wound collapses around me, ruined walls and many-armed effigies and sandy beaches all crumbling into the void, everything twisting and shrinking until the dark light in my hands is the only thing left in sight. That light expands to fill my vision as it seeps into me, a dark field spotted with distant stars painting over the Wounds. Formless ideas and images flash through the dark.
Now I understand. Soon, everything Yurfaln was will be mine, and I know the truth of it in some soul-deep sense. I don’t know where it came from or how it came into being, but beginning from the moment it invaded our world and stole its first life, I understand what it was trying to do. It saw us on the seventh floor, suffering, slowly dying, snatching any bits of life and meaning we could from our unlivable situations, and it decided that was so wonderful it would share the experience with everyone it could. In its world, to be destroyed by your own misery was to be enlightened.
But its highest ideal was only ever a dying man’s comforting delusion. I’ve carried more weight than Yurfaln for a longer life, even added its pain to my own, and at the end of all this I’m more sure of that than ever. That’s how I broke it and its world. Its dream. Did it understand that? How did it feel, spending its last moments being rejected by someone like me? Was it hoping I’d carry on some legacy for it?
It doesn’t matter. It’s gone, and all I want to take from its failure is the strength to survive.
When the world comes back into view, there’s no sense of moving from one place to another. It’s like the Wound was only ever a stage set placed in front of the living room. I’m still shaking all over, but there are no other sounds, no movement that I can make out through my blurred vision. Dimly, I see that I’m in front of the fireplace, right where the hole in the ground once was. Now there’s only a plush white rug, spotted with dirt where my hands are clawing into it. I lean back into a seated position and curl into myself, crying tears of relief as pain starts to give way to crushing fatigue.
Eventually, I start to move again. I turn myself around, fumble for my cane with my one good hand, and stand on shaky legs. Yurfaln’s two victims lay unconscious in their seats, alive and breathing, but tossing fitfully like they’re trying to force themselves awake from within a nightmare. They probably are.
The only thing I can do for them now is call in the specialists. What’s the procedure for things like this? If there’s a special number for Keepers to report magical hazards, no one’s told me yet. 112 will do, hopefully. I limp through the house, dimly surprised that I’m not bleeding all over the place, until I find a cordless phone on a little side table.
“Hello? I just killed a Harbinger. Two of its victims are still alive.” My voice comes out dry and scratchy, and using it is a little like coughing up sand. “It should be safe here and they look stable, but they’re going to need Sanctuary help.”
The line is quiet for a second. “Understood. Where are you?”
Well, that was easy. I’m glad the police know how this goes, because I definitely don’t. I have no idea where we are, though. I navigated by Yurfaln’s scent on the way here. “In the Hills. Ummm…” I limp outside as fast as my battered body can carry me. It’s easy enough to find a street sign and the little number by the door. “12 Cope Street.”
“Okay. I have some officers on the way now, and we’ll send for someone from Bright Horizon. That may take a little longer. You said the victims weren’t in critical condition?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Something else occurs to me, though. On his way out last night, Dr. Hines hadn’t looked at all well, and he was missing this morning. He may have just been shaken, but he was very close to Yurfaln’s origin point. A Harbinger’s curse can begin as a subtle seed of dormant corruption, then burst into something horrible once it takes root.
“Ah, there’s someone else I think you should check on, too.” …Wait. What am I going to say about how I know him? I’m already dreading the thought of the news running wild with a Mystery Keeper Incident. I have to do something for him, and I can’t very well go check on him myself, but anything I give out could narrow the suspects down. “I think the name was… Ralph Hines? That sounds right. I don’t know where he lives or what he might be doing, just that he had some contact with it.”
I cringe. They’ll definitely swallow that. Never in my life heard of the man, a Harbinger just name-dropped him, that’s it!
Actually, why am I even panicking about this? 112 calls have to be confidential. Right?
“One moment, please.” There’s another pause, several seconds longer than the first. “There are two men with that name in our records. Is there anything else you can tell me about him?”
“Sorry. Try whichever one lives closest to this address first. It didn’t cover much ground before I caught it.” He is local. I think. I hope I didn’t just make that up.
“…Alright. We’ll do that.”
“Thank you. I’ll be going, then.” I hang up before they can object, leaving the phone on a patio table. Waiting around to give a statement would bring all kinds of attention I don’t want.
On that note, was this entire thing noisy? Was I still screaming when I dropped back into the world? I don’t think so. I hope I don’t have an audience now. There’s no one right there on the street, at least, but I can’t see through the windows across the way.
Taking whatever extra privacy I can get, I rifle through a concealed pocket on my Keeper dress — of course it has pockets, what good would any fancy outfit be if it didn’t? Just like I instinctively knew they were there, I know these pockets will connect to the ones on my actual clothes. Sure enough, the mask I’d taken earlier is inside. Once I put it on, I hobble away from the burrow-house and down the street. At the first road that ends in undeveloped woods, I duck into the trees and fall down in the dirt, leaning back on an old trunk.
“Hey, Vyuji, I’m safe now. Please get over here.”
A few seconds pass before the Messenger pops into being, seated on her knees across from me. She looks over in the house’s direction, then nods. “Congratulations, Liadain. I’m glad to see you… as well as can be expected after your first hunt. How are you feeling, now that it’s over?”
“I mean… terrible, but eating the thing helped, I think? I don’t feel like I could die at any moment anymore. Even if the only reason I got off this easy was because Harbingers are too mad to play for keeps. It… I don’t know how this works, why they are what they are or how much they control their power, but it was just broken on some basic level. If I didn’t get to it first, its own magic would have eaten it alive sooner or later.”
“Interesting. You shouldn’t rely on it happening again, though. I wouldn’t want you learning the wrong lessons so soon.”
“Ugh. Of course not. Thanks, for the warning, I guess. So, umm… I’m not immortal yet, am I? How do I know how far along this whole nightmare got me?” I ask.
“That’s for you to find out. How do you feel? Not your injuries, not that body, you. The heart of you. What has changed inside you?”
I turn my sight inward. The Harbinger’s mass is still there, but the feeling of it as something separate from me is slowly fading. All that remains is a faint change in the way my soul expresses itself to my senses, a new or slightly altered note to the confusing impression. Some trace of the power Yurfaln drew from its own decay. I can turn my wounds into fuel, now, use them to make my magic stronger — the closer to death’s door, the better.
Which is… okay, that feels horrible, and I don’t want to rely on it if I can at all help it, but if what I just went through is a typical Harbinger experience, it might be incredibly useful. My first thought was that enough horrible bodily harm to matter would just kill a girl like me, but things don’t seem to be so simple with Harbingers. I could’ve been on the brink of death at any point in there.
“Okay,” I sigh. “I found it and what I found seems good, but is that everything? Is there normally more to it, some harder-to-find thing below the surface?”
“Possible, but not terribly common. Don’t expect an instant revolution — your growth is just beginning,” Vyuji says.
“I’ve got a few months to live. Maybe a year,” I hiss. “How much of this am I possibly supposed to do? Do I have to kill a Harbinger what, every week? Every day?”
“Ah.” She sits there, still as ever, for several very long seconds. “I see your concern… but you don’t, not necessarily. There are considerations. As I’ve said, Emergence is a process, not a single distant threshold to be crossed. There will be more and greater changes than this, and those will offer you ways to extend your life until you are satisfied. Until then, you only need to hunt enough to stay a few steps ahead of death.
“To continue, when we met last night, I said that this Harbinger was most likely a newborn. You’ve seen more of it than I have. Would you agree?”
I think on Yurfaln’s last moments, and the thoughts it wanted to share with me before that. Mr. Enfield seemed to be its first contact with humans. If it was older than a day or two, it spent its time before last night doing nothing worth noting. “If they start killing as soon as they turn up? Yes.”
“They usually do,” she says.
I don’t like where this is going.
Vyuji looks away from me and gestures widely out at the city. “Harbingers grow as they feed. In becoming more than they are, they have more to leave behind when they fall, and so their remnants grow with them. You can do this again and again, or you can find more dangerous quarries. That’s your choice to make, but I do expect one would reach your goal quicker than the other.”
That newborn — that defective runt of a newborn, if I took her at her word — had been an unholy terror. It took everything I had and then some to barely survive it, and I’m no healthier or closer to immortality than I was this morning.
“Vyuji, about how many Keepers actually last long enough to get what they want?”
“It’s dangerous work. Some do. Some don’t. I’m happy to tell you that my children have better odds than most.”
“Well thank the fucking Goddess for you.”
“Indeed.” She smiles faintly. There’s not a trace of irony in her voice.
All I can do is push back the urge to cry. I’ve used up my tears for a while. “Great. Leave me alone, then.”
“As you like.” Vyuji inclines her head and vanishes.
Home, safety, life, all of them suddenly feel very far away.
I’m so tired. Can I even make it back to the hospital like this? My right arm is still useless, and there’s an unpleasant numbness in my limbs, an early sign of my sickness flaring up. I still feel echoes of Yurfaln’s disease, leaving me constantly dizzy and breathless.
Just on the edge of my awareness, I can faintly feel points of life, normal people going about their days. Sensing them isn’t new, but something is different. In the hospital, healthy souls didn’t feel like much of anything. Now they share a scent of their own. Maybe I just didn’t notice it before, or the slow deaths all around me drowned it out. It’s nothing like those stenches. It doesn’t tell me anything about them except that they’re well, but it is… soothing, a balmy wind on my wounds. Like fresh rain. I draw a little closer to the neighborhood and the gentle sensation, finding a tree I can hide behind and peek around.
My first sense of it wasn’t quite complete. It’s more like water in a desert. An oasis through the eyes of someone who’s never seen water in their life. As long as I sit here and fill my world with this sensation, things don’t seem so bad. I’ll stay like this for just a little longer, just a little taste…
Some part of me instinctively reaches out and… inhales? Three thin plumes of shimmering green fog, the color of new leaves, spiral out through the walls of the houses across the road and sink into me. A warm, gentle current rolls through my body, softening my many aches and allowing clean air back into my lungs. I’m still a bit tired, the pain in my arm and the cold, stinging numbness remain, but in an instant I feel much better.
Only after I stretch experimentally, feeling the wear in my muscles fade even as I move, do I realize what I’ve just done. My stomach churns as I jolt myself away from the warm auras.
After a moment to calm my sharp, shallow breaths, I turn my awareness back toward the souls I’ve drawn from. It was like I’d covered my eyes at the scene of some awful accident, then slowly cracked open a peephole between two fingers when I couldn’t help but look. What I see is… not nearly as bad as I expected. Their souls are a little less clean, like they’ve taken on a faintly sour note, but they haven’t caught anything horrible from me. My magic tells me that to them, the effect is a vague, sourceless malaise, close to the feeling of having slept very poorly.
None of them are terribly hurt, but did they feel my touch as something cold and invasive? Could a normal person have seen the wisp of essence I stole from them leaving their body? That would’ve given them quite a scare, I’m sure, but it’s the worst case I can imagine. I wait for a minute. Nobody starts screaming or rushing outside.
Just what have I done, in the balance? Those three people are probably going to have a few bad days. In exchange, I put down a monster that was nesting a few blocks away from them. Neither they nor any of their friends are going to waste away in their homes, celebrating their own miserable deaths all the while. Thanks to the health I took from them, I can keep hunting as soon as I rest up. New Claris will be better and safer for my work. Maybe that isn’t exactly why I’m doing it, but what difference does that make?
…Ignoring the faint guilty twinges in my chest, I can probably still live with myself. Sorry, everyone. I’m certain you’d rather it be me than Yurfaln.
I close my eyes and scan my body as the breaths of stolen life settle. By the time the last has done its work, the sharp pain in my arm is nearly gone. All that remains is a stiff sprain in my right wrist. That’s fine. I’m not going to trouble someone else just for my off hand. Hesitantly, I dismiss my transformation, hoping this strength will hold without my magic propping me up. I don’t exactly feel great, but it still might be my best health day since before the second transplant.
So I step out from my hiding spot and head back toward the hospital. I might have appreciated the sudden lightness in my steps, but it’s too tied up with the memory of where my new vigor came from, the moment when I was terrified I had killed someone. My magical senses are still jumping at shadows, and I have to stop myself from tensing whenever some new presence appears. All of them are humans bearing no horrible corruption, and I can easily just look at them and see an ordinary person doing ordinary things, but that isn’t enough to completely calm the sense of unease or unreality lingering in my heart.
Things are quiet all through the walk back, and I do my feeble best to give my racing mind a rest. The air is still pleasantly crisp in the sidewalk trees’ shade, and there are no Harbinger traces I can feel. Some mad part of me almost wants to find another target, knowing how far I still have to go, but there’s no chance I’d survive doing that again today.
For now, I just really need a nap. As the hospital comes into view, I take a moment to quiet my soul-sense as completely as I can. I don’t want a tower full of other sick people weighing on me.
“Lia! What happened? Are you hurt?” Almost as soon as I step out of the elevator on the seventh floor, an aide rushes over to me, her face creased with concern that doesn’t seem at all called for. It’s still midday — I haven’t even been gone for that long.
“…I’m fine? I just went for a walk in the garden. I know, I know, medical advice and all that, but I’m not hurt. I wore the mask and everything. What made you think there’s a problem?”
Um. Maybe that last bit was a little too defensive.
“I see, it’s just… your hair…”
“What about it? It was mostly behaving this morning.”
“…Oh.” Her frown deepens.
“Seriously, what is it?” I push past her and into the nearest bathroom, inspecting myself in the mirror.
Just to the left of my bangs, a thin tress has bleached itself a completely colorless white.