The floor’s charge nurse insists on all the poking and testing and measurements she can think of. They obviously won’t find anything, but I can’t really tell them that. I tried to think of any decent explanation I could use as an excuse, but every lie that popped into my head sounded shoddy.
Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, I just went out to get my hair streaked in public where I could die, thank you for noticing! Even if they were dumb enough to buy that, they’d probably end up locking me in sick little girl jail and throwing away the key. At the very least they’d keep a much closer eye on me, which is exactly what I don’t want.
Oh, I did my hair and I just couldn’t wait to show it off to the world! If only the Promise had granted me the power to summon hair care products from thin air so I could prove it.
…Maybe I could pretend to look for whatever things you use to do this to yourself and act like they’re missing? Maybe someone stole it while I was out, hmm? No, that’s ridiculous, and if they somehow took it seriously it would cause a lot of trouble for everyone else on the seventh floor.
“And you’re certain that’s all?” she asks for the third time.
“I’m not sure what you want from me. Everything else is normal as it gets. I’m feeling fine. Well, relatively. It doesn’t look like I’m dying any faster, does it?”
“…No, nothing seems to have changed,” she admits, staring down at the clipboard she’s furiously scribbling on. “It’s a real puzzle.”
“Which it doesn’t look like we’re going to solve, at least not until whatever tests you’re sending off right now come back. Dr. Hines might have better ideas?” I try.
“That might be, but he’s still out today.” They haven’t heard anything more, then. The nurse frowns, the small wrinkles on her face deepening, and looks up at me over her clipboard. “This always feels like such a strange question, but is there any chance something, ah, unusual could have happened?”
“I’m… not sure what you mean?”
“Well, you know… things do come up, sometimes. Have you felt anything you couldn’t explain lately, seen anything…” She waves a hand, like she’s reaching out for a word she can’t quite find. “Mystical?”
She doesn’t sound used to dealing with magic issues, maybe she’s never done it at all, but I already know perfectly well what she’s talking about. There’s one explanation for something like this that everyone knows. It’s incredibly unlikely to happen to any given kid who wasn’t a Keeper yesterday, but, well, this time it really is the answer.
“Liadain?” She’s still looking at me, visibly worried.
“Huh?” I must have gotten lost in my thoughts, and that’s the best I can come up with. “I mean, I spend all my time here, and nothing weird happened in the garden. Since you’ve already said this doesn’t make any medical sense, can we agree that we’ve gotten as far as we can for now with normal, sensible things? I’m really tired.”
The nurse looks up at me for a moment, narrows her eyes, then sighs and sets the clipboard down. “…Okay. Go get some rest and we’ll see how things are looking in the morning. Hopefully the doctor will be back then, too.”
“Hopefully.” Right now it’s one more thing to worry about, and I have no other way to check on him. Maybe when the news catches wind of the incident, but I’m still a bit afraid to see what they make of me.
One thing at a time. That’s a pretty distant worry, as they go, and I’ve shoved it away by the time I make it back to my room.
“Hi, Pearl. I hope you’ve been having a better time than me.” Pearl smiles up at me in quiet greeting, cozy as I left her in her nest. I force myself to change — no reason to punish this dress for the day I’ve had — then climb straight into my bed and quickly pass out.
Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep…
It’s just before sunset when my alarm goes off. It still doesn’t feel like enough, but I should do my best not to destroy my sleep schedule. I grab my personal deck from the nightstand, roll out of bed, and stagger over to my side-table chair. I’m about to pull a second card for the day when I have a better idea. Maybe.
“Vyuji, had this already happened when we last talked?” I groan into my empty room.
There’s a bit of a delay before she appears this time, but after maybe ten seconds, there she is. Suddenly, she’s perched on the windowsill, her face placid as ever. “Yes. I didn’t see it happen, but your first Emergence almost certainly came when you claimed the Harbinger. You knew it was coming, didn’t you? This is your first real progress toward your goal, however small a step it was. You should be celebrating.”
“That doesn’t mean I wanted to learn about it from the next random person to look at me!”
“Apologies. I’ll remember that in the future.”
“In the future. Right. I’ll just go ahead and ask.”
At the height of her power, Saint Kuri was apparently a human-shaped construct of wood and vines and foliage, with only her soul left over from her days as a flesh-and-blood person. As I understand it, the marks of Emergence aren’t something Keepers choose or design in any conscious way, and there doesn’t seem to be a hard limit to how strange things can get if you last long enough, but they do reflect your power and personality in some way.
I don’t like what that implies for my future at all.
“…Should I be worried about, I don’t know, turning into a horrible plague-beast? I somehow can’t imagine this ends anywhere good.”
“It would be best for you to expand your imagination, then. There is no sharp distinction between you and your magic. It doesn’t have a plan it’s following or goals separate from your own — it acts as your heart of hearts believes it should. Find ways to make it serve you and suit your desires. Share with it the best of yourself, and it will repay you in kind. Likewise, if you hate it and spurn it as a curse, that is what it may well become.” Vyuji says all this with no inflection in her strange voice, unmoving, unblinking.
More and more of what I hear about magic makes me think I’m horribly, horribly unfit to handle it. “Okay. That… follows, I think. It’s part of me, it responds to the way I treat it sort of like exercising or ignoring any other part of me, only if my arms could decide I wasn’t treating them right and go do their own thing? Is that about right?”
“Perhaps they can.” She makes an actual sound for the third time since I met her, a little noise I can just barely make out as a tittering laugh.
“Um, excuse me? They definitely can’t.”
Vyuji’s brow wrinkles, making her look almost puzzled. It’s the face a person might make if a stranger walked right up to them on the street and announced that water was dry. “No, nevermind, you’re probably right,” she finally says. “There’s just an old question you brought to my mind.”
“Right, well… wait, do you feel that?” I turn my chair to look out the window. Something in the distance is prickling at my senses.
“Feel what?” She tilts her head very slightly, her usual stillness returning.
I turn my awareness outward, reaching as far as I can into the city around us. There’s someone on the streets below, moving toward the hospital. This is nothing like Yurfaln’s repulsive aura, though. It has a weight that clearly separates it from regular human souls, but no alien malice, just intense focus. A coiled spring ready to jump to life at a moment’s notice.
Not a Harbinger, then? She said I’d recognize those instantly, and I believe her after Yurfaln. A Messenger wouldn’t make any sense — suddenly, I realize Vyuji gives off no impressions at all, but that’s not important right now — so is this what Keepers feel like?
“Underneath us. Outside. Another Keeper, I think, unless there’s some other category I don’t know about.”
“Hm. They’re not one of mine, then.”
“That’s all you’ve got?”
“Apologies. I’d know more if they were.”
“What would they be doing here?” I press my face to the window and look down at the streets, but I can’t see much. No bright flashes of magic, no fancy costume I can make out from this distance.
Vyuji’s gaze shifts slightly, following my movement more than turning toward the window. She just shrugs. “I couldn’t say. My best guess… when your work was done earlier, did you get help for the Harbinger’s victims?”
“Well, yes… I don’t think I gave them anything that’d point here, though.” Even if I did, what should it matter? The Harbinger is dead, and as far as they know it started out… “…oh. Um, do you know how the Soul Sanctuary works?”
“I know enough. Why?” She tilts her head, eyes wide. I’ve seen her do that a few times now. Always to the left, always moving the exact same way and settling at precisely the same angle. It’s a bit unsettling, like she has some dictionary of expressions she pulls from whenever it seems appropriate rather than actually… expressing anything.
“Well, while they’re taking care of people, do they have… I don’t know, some way to track magic, figure out when…” My voice trails off as I realize something very stupid. “…oh. Someone probably just asked him what he was doing when it got to him, didn’t they?” I did everything right, took all the steps I could think of to keep myself out of this, but it didn’t end up mattering.
“Quite honestly, it sounds like you have a better handle on the situation than I do. I’ve got no idea who ‘he’ might be.” When I look back at her, Vyuji’s lips have quirked very slightly upward.
“My doctor was close to the scene of all this and missing today, so I asked them to check on him too.” He really was in trouble, then, but not too far gone to talk about it. Small mercies. “Anyway, I should probably go check on this before someone storms in here. If nothing too messy happens, I’ll check back in with you later about… all this, okay?” I gesture vaguely at the white strands of my hair, still visible in the corner of my eye.
“Whenever you wish.” And without so much as a nod, she’s gone.
Out in the halls, I find myself a new mask. I’ve already recast my cold protective haze — this time it’s just to hide my face, for all the good it’ll do.
“Ah, Liadain? Where are you going?” The nurse at the front desk rushes over to me.
“Sorry, I think I forgot something outside. I’ll just be a minute.” I hope. I don’t have a good excuse in mind if I’m wrong.
“Now wait a minute, you really shouldn’t be moving around so much. Everyone’s already worried about you! Just tell me what you lost and someone can go get it for… Liadain? Liadain!” She stops short of grabbing me or standing in my way, but she’s still scolding me when the elevator door closes.
…I don’t like it, but if I plan to keep running off, I’ll probably have to tell at least the doctors something soon. Maybe they already know. It’s not like there’s another likely explanation for what just happened to me.
One thing at a time, though. What am I doing here? I don’t want a stranger digging around in the closest thing I’ve got to a home, where they might sense my magic and find out right away about the little dying Keeper. I don’t want them sticking around and hunting nearby, when I’m already not sure how hard it’ll be to find more monsters. If I can help it, I’d rather they not think I came from around the hospital at all, but that might be tough. There’s no time to arrange anything complicated, and this mask is a bit of a giveaway… oh well.
Sunlight still filters through the glass window-walls downstairs, but at this hour it doesn’t do much more than cast long shadows across the floor, and the softly-lit hallways are mostly empty as I make my way to a side exit. Out on the streets, things are still bright and bustling with people making their ways home. That pleasant chill from earlier has turned bitter and sharp, but I don’t mind its sting. I’ve been cut off from the ordinary world for so long that it all somehow feels new and thrilling. At least for now, I’m seeing it through the eyes of a kid looking out at her first snowstorm in awe rather than the adult who has to shovel the driveway.
We’ll see if that mood holds when this is over. The other Keeper is coming closer, still headed straight for the hospital. I’d rather not stomp right up to them on the road and have an audience, so first I’ll try to get their attention the way they got mine. The tile sidewalks are wide enough that even at their busiest, they almost never feel crammed, and I don’t need to awkwardly weave around passersby as I hurry down the street.
A block away from the hospital, I duck into a tiny city park between two tall buildings. After a moment to catch my breath, and to make sure no one else is here watching me, I turn my focus inward, reaching for the heart of my magic. Its touch is cold and bitter as ever, like the protective haze I’m cloaked in has seeped into my bones. Wisps of pale green light shimmer into view as I will my power back into the world, sucking in the sunlight around us and plunging the park into a brief unnatural night. Bright threads dance around me, shaping themselves into my regalia, but still I push more of it outward. Whatever my soul is like to other people, I want them to sense it as strongly as possible. It feels a bit like trying to form a smoke signal with nothing but my breath on a winter day, but then a Keeper with the right magic could probably make that work.
Sure enough, as the sudden darkness around me lifts, the presence stops moving. Almost a minute passes before they start again, faster now, coming almost to the hospital. I release a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding when they turn and head straight toward me. This plan hadn’t been much more than a fair guess. All that’s left to do is peer out at the sidewalk, wait, and hope this doesn’t end up being a disaster.
There they are. At the end of the street, a few hushed people are hastily stepping aside to make way for… wait, there’s two of them? I hadn’t sensed the second at all, no matter how close they came.
Before I feel anything clearer, they come dashing down the road. A girl in heavily-engraved golden armor leads the way. Blonde hair in a single long braid trails behind her, and she’s holding a long spear tipped with gold or brass and a shield that looks much too big for her at the ready. Following her is a much taller girl in red, a sleek dress with sleeves detached at the shoulder and a skirt lined with long, sharp triangle-pattern folds of black cloth. She wears a tiny blue coral formation in her dark hair like a flower, with matching bracelets on either arm. The second one looks unarmed, but both are tense, ready to fight at any moment.
Why? Does my magic feel that awful or are they worried about something else?
Hesitant, I step off the park pavilion and into their path. The two come to a sudden stop a few feet away, and the armored one takes a battle stance, her gaze quickly sweeping around us before settling on me. “Where is it?” she barks.
I wince at the noise. At least ‘it’ probably isn’t me, but… “What are you talking about?”
“What? Whatever you were flaring for!” the tall girl says. Her voice is lower, but still tinged with nervous energy. For a few very long seconds, I’m not sure what to say to that.
“…No, it’s not like that, there isn’t anything happening. I just wanted to talk.”
The armored girl casts a sideways glance at her companion. The girl in red just stares down at me, confused, not quite scowling. “Then why on earth did you… ah, wait! I’m sure I don’t recognize you, so…” In an instant she lights up, her entire attitude reversing. “You’re new too, aren’t you? Has nobody told you this? That trick is the standard Keeper way to say ‘hey, please help me!’ Don’t worry about it, now you know, it’s just that you were really… loud, I guess is the word I’d use! It actually hurt a little! I was worried we were running into something really horrible.”
…Oh. Any of us can probably do what I just did. New Claris is full of Keepers, and if one of them runs into something they can’t handle, this really would work well as an instant signal fire. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s fine, we’re over it! Right?” she replies, looking expectantly to the shorter armored girl.
“Oh, uh, yeah… I don’t see why not,” the other girl concurs, loosening her stance and the tenseness in her shoulders as she lowers her shield.
“See? There it goes, right under the bridge! Whoosh!” the taller girl says, charging on ahead, and steps forward to offer a handshake. Those coral bracelets aren’t actually attached to anything, they’re too loose to fit around her arms — they just float there, moving with her. The glow in her eyes matches her outfit exactly, and… something about her is oddly familiar. I don’t think I’ve seen either of them in any of the Keeper news, not that I ever followed it too closely, but I’m not sure what else it could be.
“Screaming Hymn Shona, at your service! You’re, ah… Ill Wind, is it? Cool! What’s your name?”
“What?” I hiss. “Why would — where did you even get that?” I recognize those words, but they were just a feeling I had about my power when I studied it. I didn’t share them with anyone. I didn’t even say them. The only way I can see that coming out is if, what, Vyuji somehow read my mind and told a bunch of strangers who aren’t even her kids?
“Um…” Shona says, blinking rapidly. “Right, you’re new. They, uh, they come with the magic. They’re a sort of signature, part of what you feel when you sense a Keeper. Try it, you can see mine the same way.”
“No, I mean, I believe you, it’s just… urgh. That’s really terrible.” What’s worse is that even as I argue the point in my head, the title somehow feels true. It’s not wrong. I recognize it like my own face in the mirror and I hate it.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I like it! It’s… very distinctive, you know? Got a vibe we’re mostly missing in this city. Plus my strong, silent friend here hasn’t even found her name yet.”
“What do you mean she hasn’t found it?” How is that possible if any Keeper can just look at another and decide what they’re apparently supposed to be called? Bleh. I hate magic. I hate myself.
The other girl sighs, twirling her spear above her head as she returns it to a sheath on her back. “Hey, when did I become silent?” she huffs. “My NAME is Mide. I just haven’t gotten into this whole thing with the goofy titles.”
“They are not goofy! They’re the coolest!” Shona shouts back.
“Think whatever you like about them. If I had one, I’m sure it’d be as goofy as this ridiculous armor,” Mide says, looking down at herself with a grimace.
“What? Nooo! Your armor’s great!” Shona insists. “How many Keepers do you think look like that? It’s so you, it’s awesome!”
“It’s a gaudy mess. No mind paid to the weapons I’m using with it or what fighting Harbingers is actually like. All form, no function, and the form isn’t even that good!” Mide groans.
I mean, it is awfully shiny for my tastes, but I always thought Keeper regalia basically came from the Keepers themselves. Can you really be saddled with an outfit you hate the way I was with magic I hate?
Shona hrmphs and crosses her arms. “Well… you can always just take your sour grapes home if that’s how you want to be!”
“You know I can’t.” Mide returns the gesture, her shield dissolving into gold light in the process. “I don’t want to imagine the sort of trouble you’d dive into alone.”
This doesn’t seem like any of the worst-case scenarios I imagined, but whatever it is, it’s rapidly getting away from me. “Um…” I try.
“Yeah, I know, you’re out here because you didn’t wanna have to hear about all my amazing adventures secondhand! Lucky you’re a Keeper too, so you don’t have to act like this is all some dumb idea I dragged you into! We’re actual heroes chosen by the Goddess and from the way you talk sometimes you’d think this was just a repeat of the shogi thing!” Shona yells.
“Shona, bringing up the shogi thing will never be a good way to make your point. Never ever. Maybe just don’t,” Mide says flatly.
Shona shudders and groans like she’s just remembered something horribly embarrassing. “…Look. No one can possibly remember what all those little symbols on the pieces mean. Wasn’t my fault,” she grumbles a moment later.
“I did, somehow! Shogi people do! Irida obviously does, and if you were that set on impressing her, learning how to play the game before the tournament probably would’ve been a good start!”
“UMM,” I repeat, and stomp on the sidewalk for emphasis. I’m not going to start shouting at them. These two are already way too noisy.
“Huh?” Shona whirls to face me, a bit startled. “Right, right, sorry. We do have a third now.”
Does she think this is a group? Is she already planning some adventure to drag me away on? Rather than ask, I point toward the pavilion. “Let’s head over here, alright? It’s quiet, we can sit.” More importantly, we still have a crowd staring at the three Keepers in the street. Shona looks back at Mide, who shrugs, and the two follow me into the tiny park.
“Oh, oh, who’d you make your Promise with? Enne’s ours,” Shona chirps as they find a seat. I settle in an empty bench across from them.
“Eh? Vyuji, why?”
Shona scratches the back of her head. “No reason, I just thought it would be fun to collect friends from all…” She freezes in mid-thought. “Wait, for real?”
“Yes? That’s a bizarre question.” I’d never seen Vyuji before last night, just heard her name in passing once or twice, but a Messenger is a Messenger, right? They all do exactly the same thing. Why would I make that up?
“Well, it’s just that there’s not many of you, y’know? You’re the only local one I’ve heard of since… well, since Iona, and that was a pretty long time ago! Even the Cycles don’t mention the Moon Gardener as much as her siblings, so, uh… so people maaay go a little crazy filling in the blanks here and there. Er, sorry, I don’t mean to speak too ill of your Messenger! That’s all just talk that goes around. I’m sure it’s different if you know her personally!”
I shrug. “Not really. She’s unbearable. Speak as ill as you like, I don’t mind.”
“U-uh,” Shona mutters, eyes suddenly wide. “Oh.”
…Did I say something?
Before I can figure it out, Mide steps in. “Hey, didn’t you have something you actually wanted to talk to us about?”
“Oh, right right right, I may have gone off on a few different garden paths there. Sorry!” Shona says, bouncing back in an instant.
Finally. Thank you, Mide. Your partner is impossible. “Were you here about the Harbinger incident in the Hills today?”
Mide nods. “We are, actually. I guess you’re the one who placed the call?”
“Yes. I figured they might send someone to check on its trail, but I’ve already done that. It’s gone. Completely gone. And…” What next? How do the rest of them split the prizes? Are there rules of conduct for these things? Whatever. If this isn’t my territory, I don’t know what is. “And I live around here. I want to take care of it myself. Please tell whoever asked you to check that I’ll call for help if I need it.”
“Huh?” Mide says.
Shona, on the other hand, just points two finger guns at me and grins. “Ooh, cool! I always thought our Keeper scene didn’t feel quite complete without one of you incognito loner types!”
Is she mocking me? I actually have no idea. Mide turns to stare at her, apparently shocked as I am that someone would just say something that embarrassing. She then looks to me with a knit brow, and it’s hard to tell whether she’s trying to evaluate me herself or sharing with me her bafflement out of sympathy, so I give her a dubious shrug in return.
Shona herself is glancing between us with a gawking smile, still keeping her finger guns trained on me. Eventually, Mide turns back to Shona as though questioning her soundness of mind, then back to me once more, and finally again back to Shona, who meets her gaze, their expressions unwavering… until they both burst into a shared fit of high-pitched laughter at the exact same time.
…Whatever the joke, I guess I missed it. It must’ve been a really good one too, given how long they go on giggling between themselves.
“Ah, I’m… yeah, I’m sorry, when I put it like that it probably sounds really stupid, huh?” Shona says as she starts to catch her breath, wiping tears from her eyes on her sleeve. “Just, you know, too many Keeper stories in my diet growing up, I guess! Too many to shake now that I’m doing the actual damn thing!”
“…Anyway, I understand what you’re saying,” Mide finally goes on, “but doesn’t it feel kind of weird to divide things up quite that strictly? People need us to protect them, so if someone’s in trouble, isn’t the most important thing that whoever’s in the best position to help does it?”
“Schools usually have their own Keepers watching over them, right? Everyone leaves them to it. The Silver King seems to have the Peaks entirely covered most of the time. Then there’s the airship Keepers off in their own little world…” although I guess that’s mostly just a question of who can fly. “All I’m saying is that I can take care of my own yard. I don’t think that’s weird, no.”
“I… guess that’s true,” she says, not looking at all convinced. How did this girl end up as a Keeper? I shouldn’t need to say what I’m thinking, not when there was obviously something she made the Promise for.
Shona jumps back in before I can say anything else. “Sure, sure, I get it. I don’t think there’s any kind of, like, formal arrangement where they sit and map these things out, but I’ll pass that along.”
“I won’t go telling the world all about the new girl, either. I get the sense that’d be bad for this whole… image of yours. And favor for a favor, here’s something I’d like you to think about.” Her smile widens. “You fought your first Harbinger all by yourself. I bet it was pretty tough, right?”
Oh no. No no no no no. “I see where you’re going and I don’t think…”
“We could have a name and everything! It’d be so cool!” She hops to her feet and kneels in front of my bench, staring straight at me. I draw back a little, very pointedly saying nothing. Behind her, Mide just shakes her head and watches.
Shona waits a beat, then keeps right on going. “There aren’t any proper teams active in New Claris! The two of us are the closest thing, so we’d be the first! The first! Think about that!”
I’m already thinking about it, and I’ve already decided it’s an awful idea. I’m terrible with strangers, I don’t know these girls, and actual Keeper teams are complicated even in the best circumstances. Keepers tend to be… intense, in one way or another, and active ones all have something they want to change badly enough to go out and repeatedly risk their lives for. Who gets to keep the monsters you hunt as a group? Is it even possible to split a Harbinger down the middle and half-absorb it? I don’t see how I could’ve torn off a chunk of Yurfaln and shared it with someone else even if I’d wanted to. Which I really, really didn’t.
Eventually, Shona sighs, breaking eye contact. “Well, it makes sense for one of you types to be kinda shy, huh?” I’m not sure how long she was waiting on me — she’s so noisy that I must have pulled into myself a little. “Listen, just… give it some thought, okay? Hey, and you know, we can try it out before we make it a whole big thing if that’s better. The next time one of us finds something, we can fight it together, see how it goes. If you want, that is. How can we reach you?”
“Come by around here and do what I just did to get your attention, if you really need to.”
“That’s a little messy. What if someone else thinks it’s a false alarm? I’m sure you won’t give me your contact info, but here, why don’t I just… shit, I don’t have anything to write with, do you? No you don’t, who carries actual paper around?” She rattles off a phone number, then repeats it. “Just remember it, I guess. You can use it or not. And really think about it! There’ll be a prize for whoever comes up with the best name!”
“I’ll do that,” I lie. “Anyway, I’ve said all I wanted to say, if you’re done.”
“Sure, yeah, we’ll get out of your hair,” Shona shrugs. “Stay safe, uh, new girl… wait, I never did get your actual name!”
She sure didn’t. I’d been kind of hoping she forgot. “Oh, I’m… Eyna,” I say. My late grandma’s name. I don’t think I have the brainpower on hand to make up some complicated fake identity, but I’ll still take the steps I can.
“Right, right right right! Well then, Eyna, we’ll be seeing you soon! I hope!”
“Goodnight,” Mide adds. She mouths ‘sorry’ as Shona starts back toward the road, then stands and follows her away.
As soon as they round the corner, I lean over and sprawl out on my bench with a groan. It’s terribly uncomfortable, but I’m too tired to do anything else. I’ve forgotten how I ever used to handle people.
All of this probably took long enough that they’ve noticed back on the seventh floor, but they’ll just have to live with my silence for another night. Maybe I’ll figure it out in the morning.