“I’m heading out! Bye!” Shona shouted through her house.
“Don’t slam the—”
Shona was out the door before Mom could speak the last word. As she left, she turned around, pulled the front door all the way open, then smashed it back into its frame with every bit of strength she had, smiling as it made a satisfying crash. One of those small protests she could usually get away with, and her savior already waited just outside. Mide stood by the fence, waving. Mom wouldn’t scream at her where someone else could see and, Goddess forbid, think less of the family. Shona ran down the driveway to join her, never looking back.
“One of those nights?” Mide asked. She’d bundled up heavily, pulled up her coat’s fur-lined hood and wrapped half her face in a white wool scarf.
“Meh, no more than any other. There’s just some points you gotta make whenever you can, y’know?” Shona said, and nestled into her own scarf. Neither of them were winter people, but it was nice wearing enough layers that no one recognized her on the street.
“…Maybe? I’ll take your word for it,” Mide said, and off they went. It was a sunny but colorless end-of-November day, the kind where the only feature of the season was cold, wet air — the leaves had all fallen and been cleared away, but the first snow hadn’t quite made it there.
Dreary as it was out, the small crowd around them still lent it some life. Whatever the weather, the sidewalks in New Claris were always busy. Walking is good for you and for the planet, that was the constant refrain. Shona often spent the walk to school picking people out and making up the stories of their lives in her mind. For all they shared, Mide had never gotten the appeal of the game, so she usually did it silently.
Most importantly, she kept an eye out for… yep, there went Lizard Boy! Her favorite! Lizard Boy was a quiet kid toward the younger end of middle-school age. He wore a uniform in one of the blue-and-green plaid styles shared between most Clarish schools and walked a big white and black-speckled lizard the size of a very short, long dog on a harness. At least two or three times a week, they’d spot and pass by him on this route — the lizard’s pace wasn’t particularly quick, especially today. Could lizards be out in the cold? Apparently this one could.
“Do you think he’s actually going to school like that?” Mide whispered. “How? I have so many questions.”
“What’s there to question? Obviously he just rolled on in with his buddy one day, both their heads held high, and they never let anybody tell them they were doing something weird.” They’d never asked Lizard Boy what was going on with him, and Shona never planned to. Her version was probably cooler than the truth.
The streets grew busier the further they went. Slowly, classmates’ familiar faces joined the crowd, and shortly after they were in the courtyard of Saint Riawal’s School, looking up at the huge central building. It was made up of six long segments stacked on top of each other in rows, all built into a tall hill and arranged like a giant staircase so that past the end of one roof you could see the next floor’s windows.
At one end, a curved ramp sloped down from atop the first floor roof, which you could take up onto the green roofing and its well-kept grass. Shona had been late to class on her first day at this school, when she decided it was more important to see what it was like up there. Totally worth it — it was built so that you could eventually climb the entire building from that ramp, and the view from up top was pretty cool.
Not in this weather, though. Today, they just made their way inside, stuffed their winter wear into lockers, and got ready for just another day.
“Good morniiing, Shona!”
“Wha?!” Shona yelped. A few minutes into world history, a bright, high-pitched voice called out to her, sounding like it had been spoken right into her ear.
“Hi! Shona, hi! Here I am!”
She peeked under her desk, then whirled her head around the room to find its source. A few kids glanced over at her, frowning.
“Helloooo? Can you hear me in there? If you hear me, look out the window!”
Floating on the other side of the glass was a small pink animal. It was a big fluffy ball of fur, slightly longer than it was tall, and beneath its big soulful black eyes was a shiny little black nose. One short, fuzzy flipper-paw like a baby seal’s was raised in an attempt at a wave.
Shona realized several things very quickly. First, the animal was floating in the air beside a third-floor window. Second, rather than coming from outside the window, the voice was somehow sounding out from inside her head. Third, no one else was paying it any mind. They were all just looking at her like… well, like she was freaking out in the middle of class. Finally, if the art and the plushies were to be believed, it looked exactly like Enne the Heart of the Sea.
Messengers only showed themselves to Keepers and kids who might be Keepers.
“Shona! Hi, Shona!” the critter repeated. “Is this not a good time? If you like, I can come back a little…”
Before it could finish the sentence, she jumped up from her seat and dashed out of the classroom. Mrs. Dillon stared at her open-mouthed as she fled, and among a few surprised shouts was Mide’s voice: “Hey, are you—?” None of them stopped her. Sorry, Mide. She’d explain later.
“Oh, nope, there you go! It looks a bit crowded in there, so I’ll be waiting right outside!”
Shona raced through the halls, ignoring the stares of the few kids she passed by. At the stairs, she slid down the handrail rather than waste an extra instant walking, nearly stumbling and crashing to the ground as she landed. Then she kept running to the front hall, barely slowing down for a second, shoved the doors open, and only stopped when she saw the little pink cloud perched on a courtyard bench, still waving excitedly.
“Wow. That was quick! I’m really happy to meet you too! My name’s—”
“You’re… you’re Enne, right?” Still catching her breath, she took a seat next to him. The plushies hadn’t exaggerated his fluffy round shape at all. If anything, he was a little poofier in person.
“Yep! That’s me!” He drew up to his full height, which barely changed anything, and thumped his chest twice with one tiny flipper. “…If you already know me, it takes a bit of the fun surprise out of the next part, though. That’s too bad. I like surprises.” He sounded exactly like a kid who’d peeked at his birthday presents, mourning the lost magic of unwrapping them.
“Um… if it makes you feel better, seeing you at all already gave me quite a shock,” Shona said.
Enne tilted his head to one side, or would have if he’d really had a head. In practice, the gesture was more like a slight twist of the whole front half of his body. “A good shock?”
“Probably? I mean, uh, whatever you’re here for, it’s the most interesting day I’ve had in a long time!”
“Yay! As long as you’re having fun, I am too!” The animal, the actual fucki— umm, bleeding Messenger of Claiasya, clapped his flippers together, then raised one in a little cheer. “Anyway, just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m here to make the Promise with you and free the magic sleeping in your soul!”
Shona stared right through him, unblinking, stunned silent. Like, of course, that’s what they do, that’s the only thing he could be calling her for, she knew that, but there’s knowing it and actually knowing it for real. Hearing it right from his… not-mouth.
“…If that’s something you wanna do, of course!” he added a second later.
And Shona laughed. She laughed and laughed and laughed until it started to hurt and tears soaked her eyes and she still couldn’t help herself. Through the wet blur, she watched Enne nodding back and forth in time with her laughter, as if to the unsteady beat of some terrible improvised song. He was humming to it, too. So the little guy could make noise.
“Wait, if?” she choked out. “Like, seriously, who gets this offer and goes no thanks, I don’t really feel like it?”
“Not a whole lot of people, but we have to make sure!” Enne looked up at her expectantly.
“Of fucking course that’s something I wanna do! Let’s go!” she yelled into the courtyard. Was anyone watching? Listening? Meh, she didn’t really care.
“Wow! Okay then!” Enne chirped. “There is a biiit more to it, though. Can’t agree before you know all the stuff you’re agreeing to, right?”
Shona wasn’t stupid, and she knew Keepers about as well as you could from the outside. It wasn’t a big fun party of a life. Saving the world was hard and scary and dangerous. It sure wouldn’t be a real-life reprise of Magical Guardian Camellia.
And thank the Goddess for that. Never again. None of it ever again, that’s what he was offering. There’d be new problems, but they’d be her problems. Her choices. Her life.
“Okay, okay, slowing down,” she breathed. “Tell me whatever I have to know, please… man, I had no idea how ready I was until just now. Mide will—”
She froze, suddenly feeling like she’d crashed into a wall. What exactly would Mide do? Smile and wave while her best friend ran off to be a hero?
“Hey, is something wrong?” Enne asked with another full-body tilt of his head.
“Enne… you can tell whenever someone could be a Keeper, right?” Well, obviously. How else would he have singled her out in her third floor classroom?
“Yep! Just like you can tell which way is up!” In emphasis, he stretched to look up at the sky, bending back as far as he could until he tumbled over onto his back with a little yap.
“So if there was another maybe-Keeper around here, you’d know it, right?” What was she doing? These were questions she already knew the answer to. She was just dragging it out.
“That’s right!” Enne confirmed, cheery as ever. He rolled over and picked himself up, not bothered at all by the way she was wasting his time.
“And I’m the only one here? No one else in the school is, uh, pinging your magic detector?”
“Let me see. I know I came here for you, and I don’t thiiink so, but…” He rolled back over, turned to face the school, and sniffed the air. “Nope! It’s just you and, ah… yep, one Keeper’s in there! She’s one of Fouhi’s kids, not mine, so I don’t know her that well. Why d’you ask?”
Shona didn’t answer. She’d already started to cry quietly.
“Oh. I think I get it. Is there someone in your life you don’t wanna leave behind?”
“…Yeah,” she said, clenching her fists in her lap. Her whole body shivered, or maybe she only just realized that it was shivering, suddenly remembering how cold it was. She’d left her winter wear inside in her rush to meet the Messenger.
“I’m sorry, Shona. That’s a tough one. Is there anything I can do to help you sort it out?”
“Um, someone can be a Keeper or they can’t, right? I guess you can’t pick someone else too just ‘cause I asked?”
The Messenger lowered his gaze. “Sorry…”
“I, yeah, I knew that. Had to try, that’s all. Just… please just let me think a little.”
“If it helps you think any better, you could always pet me!” Enne chirped, shaking like a wet dog to puff himself out. He nodded slowly. “Actually, I just think you should pet me either way.”
Well, the little guy knew what he was about. Shona reached out to run a hand through his fur… and it passed through his body as if it were nothing but warm air, the motion scattering him nearly in half like a cloud.
She drew her arm back with a start, but Enne seemed unharmed. He just let out a little sigh, eyes downcast, as he drifted back together. “…Right. I always forget about that. Thank you anyway! I hope I didn’t spook you too much! Did it help any?”
“I’m sorry.” Enne curled into himself, as much as his stout little shape could manage.
“Uh, that’s… fine, yeah. You did your best,” Shona said. “But I think I need to chew on this for a bit, kay?”
“Oh. Okay. Then I’ll leave you alone for now, but you can call for me any time you wanna talk some more, alright?”
“Bye-bye for now, then. Just remember, you don’t need to hold back or keep stuff to yourself. Anything you need, or you don’t need anything and just want some company, call and I’ll be there!” He waved once more, then vanished in an instant.
After the next period change, Shona crept inside, retrieved her coat, and made her way up the outdoor ramps and stairs, spending the rest of the school day on the top roof. The grass was cold and damp and gross, but she wanted to be alone and no one else would be up there anytime soon for just that reason.
This would be so much easier if she hated her whole life, but she didn’t. She couldn’t even wish she did, not really. It wouldn’t be fair to the girl who’d kept her sane for 14 years.
Still… life had never been what Shona wanted it to be. It probably never would. Mide knew that better than anyone else. Here was a chance not just to walk out of it, but to be a hero for doing so. To do something that really mattered and that was hers. It wasn’t even like she’d disappear. Keepers could have normal friends just like anyone else. Where was the problem?
No, she was just trying to sweep it under the rug. Her life would change, she would change, until she might as well be living in another world.
And… was there no real way she could invite Mide into that world? Enne couldn’t just pluck someone out of the crowd, but there had to be something that made Keepers into Keepers, and it wasn’t some special destiny for random chosen ones — the Cycles were clear that there was no such thing as destiny. She and Mide basically lived the same life and did the same stuff. There was just the one exception, which she had to admit was a pretty big difference, but there should still be some way to make this work, right? If there was, Shona would find it.
If not, then… well, she’d decide when she got there.
Eventually, the last bell rang, and while people filtered out through the courtyard, Shona went back inside. She made her way through the last lingering crowds and to the fifth floor science lab, where the Research Club met. She had questions for its leader.
Inside, nine students, mostly older ones, were busy rearranging the classroom. They pushed four black desks into the center of the room, forming a single large table. A reedy boy almost as tall as Shona was fiddling with the class projector. The screen across from it was covered in text, neat bullet-point lists sorted into four columns under big bold headings:
CLUSTER B HARBINGERS
PRE-THALASSIC PHILOLOGY (low-priority, sorry Isobel)
Wow. That sounded like a lot, but none of it was what she came for. That would be the girl at the teacher’s desk cnidarian drive, rapidly shrinking or removing entries on the lists and adding new ones.
Most Keepers kept unpredictable schedules, and there were special education programs for them, but a few decided not to use those for whatever reason. Truth’s Lantern, Aisling Waite, was technically one of two Keepers who went to Shona’s school, but only she showed up enough to count.
The tradition was that Keepers in public schools wore whatever they wanted, as long as it wasn’t the uniform. “So that everyone knows who to find in a crisis” was the official line, but everyone knew who they were. When she made the Promise, Aisling had just put on a simple blue beret and started wearing cycling pants under her uniform skirt, occasionally skipping the skirt altogether. It didn’t make any sense. If it was some sort of statement, if she really wanted to turn down one of the perks offered to the heroes who kept the world spinning, wouldn’t it be easier to just not change anything?
Aisling looked a bit young for secondary school and impossibly young for a senior, but that’s just how it went with Keepers. She’d made the Promise at 13, if Shona remembered right, and skipped at least one grade before that. A few stray curls of dirty-blonde hair stuck out from under her hat, she wore no makeup, and her sharp eyes glistened with soft, sky-blue light, but the rings under them made it look like she had never even heard of sleep.
“Um, Aisling? Hi. I’m Shona. Sorry to interrupt, just…”
“Do you need something? We’re about to get started.” Her eyes didn’t move from the drive monitor, except to glance briefly down at a notebook by the keyboard, and her typing didn’t slow at all.
“Yeah, could you spare a minute? There’s something important I wanted to ask about.”
“Ask away,” Aisling said.
“Uh… important and private. Sorry.”
Aisling’s expression tightened. She thumped her notebook against the table and looked to the boy at the projector, who nodded. “Okay. Follow me, the teacher’s office here is empty.” She stood to leave, and the boy took her place after a quick look at the notebook.
“Oh, right. You’re that child actress girl,“ Aisling noted when her eyes finally met Shona’s own.
Shona winced. “Can we, like, not talk about that?”
“Fair enough. My parents never let me watch your show anyway. What’s your question?” Aisling asked as soon as the office door had finished closing behind them.
“Well, you do more digging into how all of this works than anyone else I know…” She’d read a bit of Aisling’s writing on her magical experiments, although her approach had always felt deeply wrong to Shona. Magic was the soul’s poetry, a sacred miracle that couldn’t be bottled up and studied in a lab, and shouldn’t a Keeper know that better than anyone else? Best not to argue that point right now, though.
Aisling hopped up and sat on the desk, motioning with one hand for her to go on.
“So, do you have any idea how the Messengers actually pick Keepers? Like, are there any kind of patterns at all?” Shona asked.
“Yeah, I’ve been working on that one for a good long while now. If you find out, please, I sure would love to know!” Aisling snorted out a bitter laugh, then looked at Shona’s face and winced. “Ugh… listen, maybe that sounded callous and I’m sorry, but to the best of our knowledge, there’s no way to game that particular system. You’re only hurting yourself by spending your life worrying about whether they will or won’t come for you. Maybe hurting others in the long run too, if you get bad enough.” Her voice was high and flat, but not quite toneless. It sounded more like she was dictating notes on something she found a little interesting than having a conversation.
“It’s not like that! It’s… they already did come for me. I met Enne this morning and I’m just trying to figure some stuff out before I decide.”
“Ah. That’s, hah, fitting, I guess.” Aisling visibly relaxed, and she started to swing her legs idly. “Good on you for showing restraint, too. Genuinely. Too many of us get the offer and jump into it without a second — or first — thought.”
Shona frowned. “Are you saying they shouldn’t do it?”
“I’m saying it’s good practice to weigh your options and understand your reasons for anything you do. So. What do you want to know?” Aisling asked.
“Right. I…” Shona breathed in and held it. However you sliced it, what she wanted sounded stupid or ungrateful or insane. Just gotta force it out. “Enne said my best friend couldn’t make the Promise and I don’t want to just walk out of her life, so I’m trying to figure out why me and not her. Do you know anything at all about what makes someone Keeper material? Is there any way we can change that for her?”
Aisling stiffened for a fraction of a second, holding one leg in midair, then kept on swinging and shook her head. “I don’t think there is, and I don’t know why they want you or me or anyone else. Stars Beyond, I’m not certain if they know.”
“Hold on. That’s what they do! They choose Keepers! How would they do anything without knowing what they’re looking for?”
“Did you ask Enne why he wanted you?”
“…No,” Shona admitted.
“Then this is the easiest way to show you what I mean. You’ve already met a Messenger, so their whole thing won’t be too much of a surprise, right?”
Shona nodded slowly.
“Good. Fouhi, may I borrow you for a bit?”
“Yes this is Fouhi hello and hello and hello how may I enlighten you?” A new voice spoke directly into her thoughts, this one as frantic and breathless as Enne had been bright and cheery. Something shimmered into being on the desk — a long, thin lizard, covered in blue sea-glass scales that stretched and shifted as it moved. It had a head like the sort of cute snake people call puppy-faced, and its eyes were endlessly faceted gems with thin dark slits in the middle. Its gaze swept the room in a full circle, then settled on Aisling. Shona recognized the Abyssal Archivist, of course, but her first time seeing a Messenger actually blink into the world out of nothing was still a bit of a shock.
“This girl is a prospect. Please tell her how you and yours choose new Keepers,” Aisling said.
“Mu,” Fouhi immediately answered. After a beat, they glanced at Shona and added “Hello prospect it is lovely to meet you!”
But… she didn’t understand. What did cows have to do with any of this?
“Wonderful. Now explain what you mean by that in terms a reasonably intelligent human teenager with no background in philosophy can understand,” Aisling deadpanned.
“Certuitously! Human instructors have a phrase they like. They say that there are no bad questions only bad answers. Their intent is sound and many children have excellent questions they may otherwise be afraid to ask but the statement is COMPLETELY WRONG! There are COUNTLESS bad questions! Perhaps just as many as good ones! Poorly formed questions! Questions too specific to be educational or answerable! Insincere questions which are not truly questions but attempts to provoke or mislead rephrased to end with question marks! Questions that…”
On the Messenger went. And on, and on, and on. Aisling cast a sidelong glance at Shona. She was making a face that plainly said “You see what I have to put up with?”
“…Questions which are best left unanswered for the querent’s own sake! Finally and most critically for our purposes are questions which actually cannot produce the answers you seek! A question is a skyward flare, a torch lit to burn away the murk of ignorance… unless, of course, it is THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY!” The lizard’s body lit up with a strange inner glow, which shone through its glass scales and covered the room in a hundred tiny patches of prismatic color.
Shona felt a little dizzy.
“Fouhi, that thing with the light show doesn’t actually tell anyone anything. Get to the point or I’ll do it for you,” Aisling sighed.
“Ah. Yes yes yes yes yes. You see, there are questions which miss the true nature of a problem in favor of an imagined version of that problem. To answer such a question is A USELESS DIVERSION! Even if it provided some information, it would distract from the real search, the questions that might yet lead to the true answer! Instead, your answer lies in the roots of that false question, the misconception which first led you astray! To understand that your question is not WRONG, but a dead-end misstep on the way to being right or wrong… THAT is true insight! THAT is mmmMU! Do you understand now, prospect?”
Shona definitely didn’t. She stared blankly at the Messenger, trying to think of a respectful way to say so.
“Thanks, Fouhi, that’ll do,” Aisling said.
“But I don’t think she understands!”
“If she missed anything, I’ll handle it.”
“Well, if you’re certain…” Fouhi huffed, and vanished with a sharp pop. Shona wasn’t sure how you huffed without making a sound, but that was definitely what just happened.
Aisling looked up at the ceiling, tugged on a handful of her hair, and groaned theatrically. “As you might’ve noticed, that insane tangent was not very helpful. I could’ve explained it in just a few words: Mu, that’s M-U, is shorthand for ‘your question can’t be answered because it’s based on incorrect assumptions.’ It’s the right answer to a question like ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ I only let Fouhi finish to make a point: they didn’t say anything about what the answer or the right question are. Not the slightest hint. They aren’t like that all the time, we have plenty of conversations that more or less make sense, but there’s something about this specific question that Messengers just don’t seem able to process. I don’t know why. All I’m sure of is that when Fouhi said it was the wrong question to ask how they choose Keepers, they weren’t lying. They at least believe it’s true.”
“Messengers don’t lie! They can’t!” Shona snapped. Everyone knew that. How was it even a question?
“I sense spoken lies whether I try to or not. It costs me nothing to be certain. But my research agrees with you so far, yes,” Aisling said simply.
“Uh, sure. I’m still stuck right where I started, though. Is there anything else?”
“Sorry, but I don’t think we’re going to solve that riddle in this office. Maybe take it up with Enne, but I expect you’ll get something similar. Was that all you had?” She shrugged, raising her open palms.
“Great… thanks anyway,” Shona said. “Before I go, what do you think is the answer? Or the… right question?”
“Anything I threw out would be useless, maybe even harmful. My current best guess is just that, a guess. It could be wrong. It’s probably wrong. Your ideas might start somewhere completely different, but not if they’re jumping off from mine. I haven’t figured it out, so my direction could just be a dead end.”
But Shona had no answers, no ideas about answers, and apparently no questions. She wasn’t starting anywhere. Something was missing.
Or she was being nudged away from it.
“Well, I don’t know anything about all this, so where do I look? How do I learn? How did you learn?”
Aisling chewed on her lower lip for a few long seconds. Then she sighed and dropped her head, looking intently down at her legs. “How committed to this are you?” she asked.
“Um, pretty? If there’s no way to help her, I don’t really know what I’ll do. About the Promise.”
“Pretty, huh…?” she trailed off for a moment. “…Fine. I really hope this isn’t a mistake,” Aisling said, and raised her head to stare straight at Shona. The light in her eyes was bright enough to leave sunspots. “Trying to force the Promise on people isn’t help. Every reputable magical scholar considers it a dead idea. It’s been tried, it’s never worked, and it has a death toll. Quite a high one.”
“…What?” Shona swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.
“Ever heard of the Lotus Bed? It was a cult based in Rima, active during the war. Not a Harbinger cult, though. They believed dreams of a better world were the heart of magic, and the most beautiful dreams could only be born from the deepest misery. So, believing all the while that they were doing the right thing and helping save humanity, they did their best to…” She paused. Something ugly flit across Aisling’s face, and through her eyes, casting a strange shadow over their light. “…to nurture their own childrens’ dreams for the future. You don’t want to look into the details, unless I’ve seriously misjudged you.”
“That’s… I’m not…”
“I mean, obviously. I’m not accusing you of anything. Don’t be silly. I just thought you should know how it goes whenever someone thinks they’ve solved the mystery and starts trying to mass-produce Keepers.”
“…Okay,” Shona croaked.
“I’m sorry,” Aisling said, her voice suddenly softer. “I just had to make sure you understood.”
“But… but my life, there’s nothing that insane, nothing that even comes close, so why me? Why was I chosen?”
“Me neither. I loved my life before Fouhi stormed in and decided it was important that I never sleep again.” Aisling’s mouth quirked up into a bitter half-smile. “I certainly didn’t say those people were right about anything. If it were that simple, do you think it would still be a mystery?”
They talked a little longer, just about the details of Shona’s situation, but the conversation effectively ended once Aisling was satisfied that she wasn’t going to drag Mide into some kind of torture cult. She did sound a little gentler than she had at the start when she said goodbye and went back to her club’s work.
Shona’d learned a lot, met two Messengers in one day, and still had no idea what to do. She just checked her phone, left five messages from Mide on read, and made her way home.
“And that’s what I’m dealing with. I really don’t think she’ll agree if she can’t bring her friend along, so… can we make that happen somehow?”
“That’s what you called us for? Why ask when you already know the answer?”
“Well, I dunno. Maybe the other one’s actually meant for one of you!”
“The girl believes her reason to reject you is more important than what we offer. The offer is the offer, so you can either persuade her otherwise or accept that it isn’t meant to be. Not all prospects are. It is just that simple. You should be well aware of this already…”
“Heeey! Don’t talk to me like I’m some kind of idiot! I just really really like this girl and I wanna help her! What’s so wrong with that? Does anyone have any advice that ISN’T all the stuff I already know?”
“Enne, I’m sorry, but that is the reality of the matter! Her tone does not change the truth of her words!”
“Stop telling me why I can’t and start telling me how I can! Anyone else? Please?”
“Mm. There are other tethers than ours. Other bonds between souls. Methods, perhaps, to widen one fracture into another. There may, and we must stress may, be a way to grant your prospect’s wish.”
“Really, Yune? How’s that? Tell me, tell me! Tell me and you’ll be my favorite sister forever and always!”
“I recuse myself from this foolishness. Yune, you should not share whatever scheme you’re imagining. Supposing it does somehow work, all you will do is destroy a child who does not belong in this world.”
“Khiihihihihihi… perhaps you’d best take her advice. Hers is the shadow which draws all ours in! Hers are the hands which commit all our sins! She knows aaallllll about that, our Great Destroyer does!”
“Just remember that I warned you. Goodbye.”
“Fine! Good riddance! Who needs… oh, she’s gone. She’s just mad ‘cause she’s too much of a big grumpy meanie to be anyone’s favorite! So, what’s the secret? Hmm? Hmmm?”
“Hmh. Before we share this, we must stress that you will not like it. No, you certainly will not.”
“Oh, but an Enne may only ever be an Enne. It doesn’t matter what any of us say, he WILL do it. He must — yes, he must! Can’t you all see? He has already made his choice!”
“Ummm, yeah, what she said! I think. Sorry, Scelka, I’m usually not too sure what it is you’re saying.”
“Then all is as it should be! I am a labyrinth made not of walls, but of thoughts!”
“Right. Sounds neat. Anyway… Yune?”
“Ah. Very well. Very well indeed. Then this is what we would do…”
Shona cranes her neck upward, searching for the platform where Irakkia made its Wound. The tower closed after everything that happened with the Harbinger. It still hasn’t reopened yet… actually, if everything was normal, would it even be open at this hour?
Well, whatever. Right now, all it means is that she’ll have the place all to herself. Grinning wildly, paying no mind to anyone who might be watching, she takes a stretch, looks up at the tower’s perfectly smooth, vertical wall, and jumps straight at it, touching both hands and feet to the glass. There’s a quick sting as her magic binds her to the surface with a touch. The static bites are a little worse than usual on her left hand, still tender and heavily bandaged, but she’ll manage. One hand reaches up and pulls, then the other, and she begins to climb the tower with the speed and casual ease of a lizard.
Some of the brighter stars reflect in the dark glass as Shona scurries up and up and up, dancing in the corners of her eyes. Here and there, she stops, releasing one hand from the wall and swinging outward to survey the city. She looks over the many blinking lights below, feels the chilly spring wind rushing by and the inner heat pumped by her pounding heart. She listens to the voice that still shrieks in terror and twists her gut into knots in these situations, listens just long enough to note its warnings of mortal danger and then cheerfully ignore them like she ignores Mom’s demands to stop slamming the door.
Will she ever get used to this? Will scaling the city’s peaks be as ordinary as walking someday? The idea is almost disappointing, but magic is an endless frontier. There will always be some wonderful new thing waiting for her to find it. Always.
After maybe a fifteen-minute climb — which could’ve been much faster, if she weren’t taking her time to savor the sights and sensations and feelings — the deck comes into reach. Shona approaches it from directly underneath. It would be easier to scoot around the side of the wall and climb over it, but not as fun. She latches herself to the deck, hanging over New Claris as if on a massive jungle gym, then swings her legs up and tethers them to the surface. Her view of the city flips over and blood rushes to her head as she climbs along the ceiling. Seen from below, the glass window set into the platform’s center looks like nothing at all, a section left unfinished just for people to fall through, but for her it’s as solid a grip as all the rest.
In another moment she’s at the platform’s edge, then pulling herself up the tall glass barriers around it. Finally, she swings over the wall and breaks her connection to its surface, touching down gracefully on the floor.
As she catches her breath, Shona leans on the barrier’s railing, gazing out at the city. It wouldn’t feel all that special if she’d just taken the elevator. Anyone could walk out here and see what she’s seeing now. Still, the image tangles up in her thoughts with the insane thing she just did to get here, taking on a bit of that same heady thrill. The deck and its view even feel like a different place in the middle of the night — it’s almost easy to imagine it as somewhere else entirely, untouched by her memories of static kaleidoscopes and the world twisting in on itself. And of the things in its eyes, the painful sights behind—
Nope, fuck off, we’re not going there, nope nope nope. She slaps her cheek and shakes those thoughts away.
Anyway, there are other buildings, even a couple taller ones in the Peaks. She can climb any one she wants to… well, uh, maybe not the Fianata Tower, but that’s not really the point. Why else did she choose this place, if not for the memories? Music always helps sort her thoughts out, and she has lots of thoughts about the things that happened here.
Shona strolls to the center of the platform, standing right on the wide glass window-hole, and takes an easy, familiar stance. Red light sparks and crackles through the air, forming her violin and bow in her grip. She looks up at the stars that joined her on her climb, the only audience she’ll have tonight, and plays, letting her heart provide the notes.
“I’m heading out! Bye!” Shona shouts through her house.
Shona turns to where Mom sits at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading some gossip rag. She meets her gaze and grins a phony stage grin so wide it hurts a little bit.
Mom doesn’t say anything. She just breaks eye contact and sighs, burying her nose in her magazine. That’s Shona’s cue to stroll outside, slamming the door on her way out with what may be a bit of magically-charged strength. She’s honestly not sure how much of it she can tap without transforming.
For the first time in several days, Mide is waiting by the fence. This’ll be a good day.
“Hey there, stranger! Glad to see you braving the light of day again! Feeling okay yet?” Shona asks.
“Ah, ish?” Mide says. “There’s still some nausea, but… I don’t know. I’m managing and the healer didn’t think it was contagious.”
“That’s good! That’s good,” Shona repeats, nodding. “Maybe…”
“You’re not seriously still thinking about how that girl’s doing?”
“Look, I’m not saying what she did was fine and you shouldn’t be mad about it, but at least some of the whole mess is on me! She clearly wasn’t good with people, there’s super real reasons why teams don’t happen much, and I did kiiinda steamroll her…”
“Shona, please just forget about that creepy freak already,” Mide groans. “There’s groups that don’t get along and there’s taking a bite out of your friends. It’s really, really not your fault.”
“Not blaming myself. Just, y’know, wondering if I could’ve done stuff better somehow.”
“That’s the same thing.”
“Well, whatever it is, stop worrying about it.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll do my best.” Her best wasn’t very much. She hadn’t seen or heard of Ill Wind Eyna since they parted last week — no one had, as far as she knew — and she couldn’t help but wonder about her here and there. Sometimes. Constantly.
“I’ve never done anything like that to you, have I?”
For a moment, Mide just keeps walking. And walking. And walking. Finally, she smiles and shakes her head. “Of course not. Sure, maybe this isn’t quite where I saw my life going, but… well, we chose what we chose, and we all doodled those outfits when we were little. We’re living everyone’s dream, aren’t we? I wouldn’t have things any other way.”
What we chose.
Shona still wonders about that sometimes.