When the Wound falls away, returning me to the storage unit and the overpowering smell of glue, the girl Aulunla wanted to make a witch is already gone.
And as soon as the heady thrill of absorbing a Harbinger fades, the burning exhaustion in my muscles and residual cold pain winding through me slam into me all at once.
My legs give out, as limp as if I’d never used them in my life. I topple to the cold ground, and the most I can do to catch myself is take the brunt of the fall with one forearm instead of my face. It’s all I can do to hold myself vaguely up on that arm and look around the room again. The pages covering the wall have been torn into stray scraps of paper, and the chopped-up books littering the floor look like they’re in the middle of disintegrating, falling apart into piles of damp wood pulp. My cane is nowhere in sight. I drown my pain in one last wave of stolen life, inwardly wincing at the knowledge that I’ll have to go take enough to replace everything I just burned soon.
I’ll worry about that later. Right now… it’s not too late to help that girl, or at least get her Sanctuary help. It can’t be — she wasn’t in the Wound, so she went somewhere. I leave the storage unit and rush back toward the city center, searching with my soul for anything I might use to follow her, any distant lingering trace of Aulunla’s corruption.
“Liadain! Are you injured?” Vyuji blinks into being, floating alongside me as I move. Her tight, uneasy expression is the furthest I’ve ever seen her move from her usual detached demeanor. “What’s happening? Where has the Harbinger… gone… ah.” She visibly calms down, crossing her arms and legs and settling back until she looks like she’s seated on an invisible chair. She keeps right on following me without actually moving herself, though.
“It’s gone. I didn’t see a way out, so I killed it. As for what happened there? I was really hoping you could tell me. Given everything else I know about Harbingers, it doesn’t make sense.”
“You saw it all firsthand. You consumed it. I’d imagine you understand it better than I do,” she says.
“I mean, I understand a little. It was trying to grow so far beyond itself that I can’t even imagine what it was planning to become, but I don’t think there was any way it could’ve worked. There wasn’t enough of it. It had to twist its own rules well past the breaking point to even try. It would’ve destroyed itself no matter what happened to me, and I didn’t think they could… give up on themselves like that.”
Vyuji hmmms to herself, moving one leg as if tapping her foot on ground that doesn’t exist. “The window where I dared to peek inside the Wound was quite brief. Even that may have been ill-advised. I can’t say exactly what happened. Not with any certainty, at least based on what little I saw and sensed — but I expect you have the right of it. The Harbinger attempted something it was not at all ready for, not grown enough for. Perhaps it hoped to accomplish something with power it could only grasp for a moment before it burned itself away, or with the backlash of that act.”
I can fill in that blank easily enough. “It did it to kill me,” I say. “Unless… it had a girl it was working with, trying to make into a witch. Could it have died and still done that?” From its last thoughts, that girl was very important to Aulunla. She was central to whatever ideas it was trying to dream into being, and it… loved her, in its way. Maybe enough to die for her if it would help, as strange as it is to think of self-sacrifice coming from a Harbinger.
Vyuji gives a tiny shake of her head. “A witch draws power from their Harbinger’s corruption. In almost all cases, a witch with no Harbinger is just a broken human.”
“Almost all?” I glance her way and raise an eyebrow.
“Magic and death are both complex things,” she shrugs.
“Um. Right.” Although I don’t know what’s complex about death except the knots people tie themselves into trying not to think of it as something horrible.
As for the girl… several blocks back into the city, there’s still no trace of her. Not that I can find, at least. Urgh. And I came so close to cleaning up my mess. The parts of it that have nothing to do with Tetha, at least. Still no plan there.
“In any case, you should know that you’ve accomplished something remarkable,” Vyuji says with a faint smile. “To not just survive something like that, but win? I’m proud of you, for whatever that’s worth to you.”
Have I? Are you really? Would you be if you knew how I got here?
“…About that,” I say, coming to a stop in the middle of an empty mini-park. I’ve barely paid any mind to the people passing by until now — I guess they’re quick to make way for a Keeper in a rush talking to herself. There’s at least no one watching me from the surrounding streets, as far as I can see, so I end my transformation and flop into a wooden bench under a tree.
Vyuji just nods, touches lightly down to the ground, and waits, meeting my gaze with a faintly curious glint in her dark eyes.
“Stop me if any of this sounds impossible,” I say.
“There are only a few things I would confidently call impossible. But I do understand what you’re asking for.”
“Okay. Harbingers have been talking to me. More than half of the ones I’ve met have said things to me. Not exactly in words, but in ways I can sort of imagine or interpret as words? Well, no, the one I just killed wrote a book. In Clarish. And I’m pretty sure we had a conversation while I absorbed it.”
“What did they say? And what was that about a conversation? How did you talk back?” she asks. Her mental tone of voice rises, but there’s nothing unbelieving in it — it’s more like the tone I’d use to ask annoying clarifying questions when Dad used to tell me stories at night.
“I don’t know, Harbinger things? The sort of weird nonsense you’d expect a Harbinger to say, if you were expecting anything. No one ever told me they could talk. As for the last one, I’m not really sure. Near the end, I could hear it thinking in what sounded like Clarish poetry. In its last moments, it wrote some things out, and it’s like it could hear me thinking and write responses. You… aren’t talking like this is impossible.”
“Because it’s not. It is interesting that you’re bringing it up already, though.”
Then she closes her eyes, raises her head, and… sings something. In a voice like whalesong, low but steadily rising well beyond a human range. She’s done this once before, just after we met, but this time there are words behind or within the song, shaping themselves from the sound. I don’t recognize the words themselves — they do sound vaguely like the language Yurfaln and Irakkia spoke in, but without the pain and distortion and struggle to pull scraps of meaning from their grating sounds. This time, the idea behind them simply blossoms in my mind, clear as anything else Vyuji’s ever said to me:
<Can you hear me? This is the song of my soul — my true voice.>
“I… yes. Just… how’d you, how can I…”
Vyuji titters faintly — not the first time I’ve heard the sound from her, but it’s certainly not common. “Were you thinking of it as ‘the Harbinger language’?” she asks in Clarish.
I clamp my mouth shut and nod once.
“It isn’t. It’s an aspect of magic itself. Because they are creatures of magic — creatures capable of complex thought, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now — Harbingers can use it. Past a certain point in their growth, every Keeper should be able perceive this language in some way. Some eventually come to speak it. Actually, can you speak it?”
“Sorry. If I can, I don’t know how.”
“Don’t push yourself. You’d know if you could. That would have been quite something, but then, it already is. You’ve come to comprehend the language faster than any other Keeper I’ve known.”
“O-oh,” I breathe. That’s… on one hand, after what a horrible mess this whole incident was, it’s good to know that I really was on to something about my attunement to Harbingers, or to whatever parts of magic I use to feel their presence and hear their voices.
But the places this talent has led me since I found that book, the things I’ve done… Aulunla called its inheritance a curse. Maybe it was right.
“I’m telling you all this because, well… the way I found this last one. At first it was just a book, I think. It wasn’t quite born, or fully part of the world, or however it works with them. I’d just killed another not-born Harbinger and it didn’t do anything for me.”
I swallow. Vyuji says nothing, just nods and waits for me to go on.
“So… I… left this one like that. And… studied it. I infected it, just enough that it’d be easy to kill when I needed to. Watched it grow. I found that girl who would’ve been its witch and it was working with her somehow, not eating her alive, so I let it happen. Learned everything I could until it looked like it might get out of control, then came for it and… whatever it just did happened, but I managed. I won. The girl ran away, but I’ll find her. Or someone will.” I force the first words out in an unpleasant rasp, but by the time I finish, my voice has picked up strength and speed. It’s the verbal equivalent of ripping off bandages when I was younger. I’d pause and wince at every little bit of extra pain, then rush through it once I realized that it didn’t actually hurt that much, especially compared to anything going on inside me.
In this case, it’s unsettling just how little it hurts. It still feels like I was doing the best I could with an awful situation, and what else do I have? It’s not like I can trade these powers in for a new set that would make me a shining hero.
“And it worked for me, doing it this way. I could fight whatever Aulunla — the Harbinger — became because it had already been dying of my infection for almost two weeks. And I think I might have to keep doing it. Trying to run around and win big flashy fights the way Keepers do on shows is a nightmare for me, but figuring out how Harbingers work? Breaking them from the inside? I can do that. I’m good at it. I just… maybe sometimes I need to do things that sound and feel really bad to make it work. I don’t know, is this insane? Is there some other way I’m not thinking of?”
“It sounds like you’ve already spotted a path your magic is well-suited to lead you down. It sounds like you’re asking for permission, not guidance,” Vyuji says. Her face doesn’t change at all.
“…If that was what I was doing, what would you say?” I murmur.
“That it’s not for me to grant or deny you permission for anything,” she answers without the slightest delay. “I’ve said before that I exist for you and children like you. My role is to help you grow. Yours is to determine for yourself what it means to grow into the best Keeper — the best Liadain — you can be.”
Vyuji’s smile widens a little. Most of her expressions feel like little more than rehearsed responses, just enough of a barely-there signal to tell you that she’s listening and understands the mood in the air. Whenever they go beyond that, outside the common range of little facial twitches and shifts in bearing I’ve seen her use and reuse, there’s something mysterious about them — like there’s a vague, broad range of feelings and ideas she might be suggesting, assuming she isn’t actually organically reacting to something. Which I’m still not sure if she ever does.
“That’s it?” I ask. “Just… do what seems best?”
“That’s it. If I thought you were planning something that could endanger the world or run against your best interests, I’d warn you. In this case, I’ll only offer you some small advice: you aren’t the first to seek this kind of knowledge. Your affinity for understanding Harbingers is remarkable, yes, but other children who’ve encountered many more of them than you may have their own insights to share. I’m not asking you to find another team, just to consider that you may not need to start from scratch.”
“If people have already studied these things, I imagine you know a lot. Is there some Scary Harbinger Secrets primer you could give me right now? That sounds easier.”
Vyuji blinks as if she’s trying to get a bit of dust out of her eyes, then shakes her head apologetically. “Not a primer, no. You’ve faced enough Harbingers to understand why it can never be that simple. Besides, you children have much better opportunities to learn about them than we do. I’ve explained how dangerous it is for us to get close to them. There are directions I may be able to point you in, but I can’t just yet. I’ll need to check on some things, for the same reasons I wouldn’t direct another Keeper to you without your permission.”
“Fair,” I groan. “I guess… in that case, I guess I’ll keep doing things… maybe not exactly like this, it was awfully messy by the end. But doing things my way. So unless there’s anything else I really need to know right now, just tell me when you’ve checked on whatever you need to check on.”
“I will. Ah, and you asked me to mention this next time, so. Have you seen yourself yet?”
Oh. Of course. “No,” I sigh.
“Well, now it’s coming from me instead of ‘the next random person to look at you.’ My work here is done. Take care, Liadain. And don’t be too hard on yourself while you’re alone with your thoughts. I think this is a promising path you’ve found.”
And she’s gone. I slow my pace and make my way back to the hospital — I keep watch with my soul for any traces of Aulunla, but find none.
I hurry through the seventh floor’s main room as soon as the elevator door slides open. My pace draws a few concerned eyes on its own, but if some strange new thing has changed about me, I don’t want people noticing and asking me stupid questions before I’ve at least taken stock of myself. I pull out the “do not disturb” tab on my room’s patient panel, step inside, and inspect myself in my dresser mirror.
I expected a few more strange winding veins of white in my hair, and I do see them immediately. Even my eyelashes have gone white — do people dye those? Is that even possible?
More important, though, is the pair of impossibly bright toxic green eyes glaring back at me.
I bite my lip, drawing in a sharp breath through my teeth. The first time I transformed, I worried about whether this particular shift was permanent. So much for that. So much for anyone’s illusions about what’s happening to me. They don’t exactly glow like they do when my magic is out in full force, at least not yet, but really, what’s the other explanation? I decided to lean into the hair thing and start wearing colored contacts around the hospice for fun?
Well. I already knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my secret from people here forever, and that it’ll be harder the closer I get to my actual goals. I should be celebrating, just like Vyuji said the last time this came up. I won’t, but I know I should be.
That entire conversation was… after the last hard personal question I asked her, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Vyuji doesn’t have a word to say about betraying my Keeperly duties to humanity.
Oh, that already sounds pretty hard on myself, doesn’t it? Sorry, Vyuji. This was my own idea and it still feels impossible to have my Messenger essentially endorsing it. It still feels wrong. But just the same, it still feels like my only way to succeed with this horrible power.
And even as I know that I’ll very much have to, that it’s exactly what I just proposed with all of that about understanding Harbingers, it’s still terrifying to think about what all of this means.
A parking lot filled with wide, short buildings, each lined with blue roll-up doors. A self-storage site and nothing but, with no effort taken to include any sort of greenery on the premises; a rare sight for New Claris after Saint Kuri’s Emergence and the new era’s coming. It was a ways away from any residential areas, which is why the journey took so long.
So this is where it all went down: where a Harbinger let loose a howl that could be felt from one end of the city to the other. Harbingers didn’t flare their auras for no reason, as a rule. When a Harbinger let loose like that, it meant whatever it was doing was worth signaling to every Keeper and their mom precisely where their next target was. Usually, that meant something very, very bad.
It only called out with such horrible intensity for a moment, but that was more than enough to drop what he was doing and race straight to it. He was sure all the others would do the same. He didn’t even have to check Lighthouse to know that. If the jolt through his nerves when the Harbinger’s aura spiked and the pull he felt during the journey here was any indication, they would need the numbers to have a prayer of resolving this with anything resembling safety.
But that concerning sensation waned before he even arrived.
The white-robed Keeper descends on radiant crimson wings. When his greaved boots touch the ground, his wings disperse in a whirl of feathers sculpted from scarlet light and wink away like sparks on the wind.
He had come ready for a fight, but it seems like he was too late. The enormous mass of power that was drawing him towards this place appears to have already vanished. Or had it been consumed? All that remains are traces.
Yet, as far as he can tell, he’s the first to arrive in the aftermath. That, or the responsible Harbinger has a means of concealing itself. It’s wholly possible that its hunting strategy is to draw Keepers in and ambush whoever comes first, then escape before it can be overwhelmed. A sophisticated strategy like that could have emerged from beyond the city limits, which might also account for how bloated its presence seemed, if that first immense pulse wasn’t some sort of illusion… Could that explain why it seemed so unreal? Or maybe the sheer pain behind it meant the Habringer could only do that by hurting itself in the first place…
Regardless, as unlikely as it is that someone beat him to the punch — perhaps the Screaming Hymn or Carves the Night if they’d been closer by — it is possible that someone had already sprung this hypothetical trap. If not, the role falls on him, now. Either way, the Harbinger is in for a nasty surprise, but it does mean he can’t let his guard down yet.
Step by step, he casually makes his way to the far end of the complex, where the lingering pressure of the Harbinger’s presence remains heaviest. One of the storage units is wide open, and even looking at it from the side, he can “see” the remnants of withered hope glimmering from within. If this is indeed a trap, this is where it’s set, so he places an inactive point of phantom mass across from the open garage and anchors himself to it so he has a way to escape any clutches that might reach out to drag him into a Wound. Especially if entering the Wound involves some sort of dirty trick, it’s better to storm in on one’s own terms.
His precautions made, the Keeper steps across the threshold and enters the storage unit. Inside, it looks like what happens when a Soul Sanctuary patient gets their hands on a bottle of glue and decides to start decorating their cell. There are pages on the walls and ceiling all shredded up or clumped into damp and mushy piles, and there’s a big box of wet, mulchy wood pulp with a few pages and hardcovers, suggesting that it used to contain books. The air itself is burdened with a sense of mourning.
This is definitely the remnants of some sort of ritual, but it’s a little difficult to say whether it succeeded or not. The explosive surge of power that brought him here in the first place could have been the moment when the rite succeeded, but if that were so, there was little other evidence remaining to suggest it. That uncertainty in and of itself indicates otherwise, however, especially paired with the faintness of the Harbinger’s lingering aura, which reminds him of the atmosphere after eating one of their hearts.
With a deep breath, the Keeper centers himself, trying to notice any more obscure details through his sense for the arcane — especially if something is being hidden from him, such as a presence other than a Harbinger and their lackeys. The chemical smell that saturates the room is annoying, however, disrupting his concentration. An inescapable sour tinge, and beneath that… the sickly-sweet scent of rotten sunflowers, strange in its isolation from the natural odor of the room.
No, not a smell. A separate aura.
“…Huh.” He doesn’t usually feel essence out by scent, but this one had distinguished itself that way, perhaps by its nature.
He notices it now, now that he’s gotten a bead on it. An unfamiliar aura. Flecks of a pale emerald light, smothered by the glow of dreams unfulfilled. Its sentiment is bitter, and there’s no weight to it at all, but it does have a sort of clinging, prickly, ever so slightly chilly pressure. There’s nothing welcoming about it, but the delicate sorrow it very faintly radiates is beautiful, in a way.
Someone or something else had been here. Before the Harbinger ever showed up? No, it’s no coincidence that these impressions were left in the same place. Did two Harbingers come out of the forest and pick a fight with each other on human territory? Or was it a Keeper he didn’t know after all? Because whatever the case, they interrupted this ritual. Was that when the Harbinger let out its roar which resounded across the whole of New Claris?
Well well. Now he’s curious.
The Keeper steps out of the storage unit and drinks in his surroundings. As he thought might be the case, the trail of this second aura he’s discovered flows out of this storage facility and towards the city proper. What remains of the Harbinger’s presence never got that chance. If nothing else, it seems clear who came out on top. Not the result one would usually be given to expect, considering the circumstances. How very interesting.
He begins to trace a spiral through the air with his finger, beginning a small ritual of his own, but he’s interrupted. He senses another Keeper approaching like a speeding motorbike — two, technically — a presence he recognizes immediately. Second place has finally arrived. Not that he’s complaining about the delay. At times like this, where there’s nothing much at stake, it’s a blessing that Irida takes forever to show up, by comparison. These two are more fun.
“ROLAND! HEYYYYY!” Shona’s voice blasts out as if through a megaphone as she careens into the parking lot. Then comes the grinding of her violin’s bow against the hard ground as she skids to a halt, leaving a thin gash trail in the concrete. Mide, close behind as always, simply slows to a clean stop.
“What’s the situation here?” Shona asks at her normal volume, then waves and rushes to join him. “Wait, you, uh…” She squints, frowns, cups a hand behind her ear, and swivels in a wide circle. “Did you just fly in and solo-dolo handle whatever made all that noise?”
“About that,” he places his knuckles to his hips, puffs out his chest, and gives a cocky chuckle, drinking in Shona’s and Mide’s looks of amazement as they hang off his words with bated breath. “…Nope! Can’t say I did! I’m just passing through!” he admits outright.
The two girls blink twice.
“Whatever happened already happened,” Roland explains. “The situation itself, though, has a few loose ends that need tying up. No need to worry, though,” he says, raising his right arm and sweeping his finger through the air in emphasis, “when a cry for justice rings through the heavens, the Stardust Seraph answers!”
Shona grins from cheek to cheek, her eyes twinkling in excitement. “Ah, that’s so cool! Mide, look, look! That’s how you do it!”
Mide releases her held breath through her nose and looks off to the side. “Yeah, yeah…” Crossing her arms as her gaze passes over the storage units, she seems intent to leave everything to Shona, as usual.
For her part, Shona is swept along with the moment, thrusting her bow to the sky dramatically. “Okay! Whatever these loose ends are, the Screaming Hymn is here to lend her strings to the ensemble!”
“And I couldn’t ask for a better ally,” the Stardust Seraph replies through the v-shaped visor of his mask. “As a matter of fact, I do have something I could use your help with. See, there’s traces of another aura here besides the Harbinger’s. One I don’t recognize. I doubt you’ll recognize it either, but just in case…”
Somewhere between one corner and the next of Isobel’s aimless flight through the streets, the city changes. Its bright afternoon sky is replaced by a vast, impossibly starless night.
Wait. That’s not right. This isn’t the city at all.
New Claris isn’t filled with white towers of eerie luminous stone, and now massive glowing spires are all she can see. Every last one is broken, some bent over and twisted into structurally impossible shapes like they were made of wet clay and some simply crumbled into ruins. The material looks at first like stone covered in strange ridges, but that’s not it. Her unblinking eyes scan the closest structure and find…
Faces? Faces. Identical marble-white masks, each decorated with two too-large black holes for eyes and a crescent-moon smile. The bodies they’re attached to wind out all around them, and while they may once have been human in shape, they’re now stretched and twisted and tangled together into the foundations of these shattered towers.
It should be a mercy that she can’t see their faces — if they were ever really human, if they ever really had faces — but something in those serene not-expressions makes Isobel’s breath catch in her lungs. She slowly backs away from the nearest looming tower, frantically looking over her shoulders for any signs of life. She finds none, but… the ground she’s standing on. It’s made of the same material, covered in the same death masks.
“Oh, you were close, weren’t you?” someone says. A boy’s voice, uncannily bright and cheerful. “No, that’s putting it too lightly. Your patron flew without wings. Even if it only managed for a few seconds before it came crashing back to earth, that’s still higher than most ever make it! I’m sorry it worked out the way it did for you two. I really am.”
There he is. On a chunk of rubble from the nearest shattered tower, seated in a ball with his thin arms wrapped around his legs. His white hooded sweater is spotted with dirt and dust, and his face is… it’s not that he’s wearing a mask, though it takes Isobel a moment to realize that. Rather, an image just like the faces covering the ground is overlaid with his head, occupying the same space at the same time. He simultaneously has a blank stone smile and an ordinary human face with wide, sunken eyes a shade of ice-blue so bright they look almost white, underneath an uncombed mop of ashy brown hair.
“Who… are you? Where are we, why am I here, what IS any of this?”
The boy chuckles to himself. “Weeell. Who I am is kind of a thorny question these days. My name’s Ciaran, but, hm. I’m not the only me anymore, if you follow? Finding the right words for all this is still pretty tough!”
There’s only one thing he could mean. The worst-case scenario. What she’s been terrified of since all this started. It’s one thing to be a witch, to willingly pact with Harbingers for power, and another entirely to…
“You’re a vessel,” Isobel whispers.
“Ugh, pleeease, no! That’s such a messy term! You hear it and you think right away that something scooped me out of myself and started wearing me as a suit, y’know? Fine, yeah, some Harbingers definitely do scoop people, but that’s not how it is with me and my buddy! Really! Am I talking like a flesh-puppet?”
Isobel shakes her head slowly. Not that she really knows. Sure, he doesn’t match the usual idea of what vessels are supposed to be like, but that doesn’t mean much. Harbingers aren’t supposed to be like Aulunla, either. She can’t let herself forget how to think, even when… even now…
“Then there you go! You were working with a Harbinger yourself, right? You already know there’s so much more to this than what they teach in those ridiculous safety videos,” Ciaran says.
“Okay. I don’t know why we’d be having this conversation if you or your monster were going to eat me, so I’ll take you at your word there.” Maybe there’s some reason she just can’t think of, but what else is she going to say?
“Monster? Wow, rude. But yeah, this would have to go real bad for us to think about eating you,” Ciaran agrees. He scowls a second later, and his stone mask duplicates the expression, flipping its crescent grin upside down. “If you really wanna put it so messily. ‘Eating’ is another word that misses a lot of nuance here. Seriously, you of all people should know that by now! You and your Harbinger weren’t out there gobbling people up, were you?”
“Then what DO you want with me?” Isobel asks.
If Ciaran minds that she ignored his question, he doesn’t show it. His mood lifts in an instant, and his mask’s placid smile returns. “Oh, that’s easy! Do you want to end up strapped to a cot in the Sanctuary while they peel your soul open and pick out everything that makes you special?”
Isobel gnaws on her lip, literally biting back the urge to follow her Research Club instincts and argue about his ridiculously loaded language. With a vessel who could kill her and eat her at any second, or probably worse. Whatever he wants to call it.
Ciaran leans hard to one side, tilting his head until it’s almost horizontal. “Hmmmm?”
Honestly, is he even wrong? She has no idea how they’d treat a witch at Bright Horizon. Would she be a patient or a specimen? Does it matter? Even in the best case, she doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s the world that’s broken, wrong in so many ways she’s only just begun to spot.
“Uh. Not really, no,” she mutters. Her clenched fists tremble at her side.
“Didn’t think so! That’s why we brought you here — to help you escape that fate! You’re a fellow traveler, Isobel, and we want you to join us. To make it as far as you did with a patron who was barely even real until the end, you’ve clearly got potential. The kind of potential that so often ends up wasted sitting and waiting for whoever or whatever chooses Keepers to give you the time of day. The kind people like us can only achieve by taking the Undreaming’s hand when she reaches out to us, sprouting beautiful black wings of night, and flying free from this cage of a world!”
The vessel rocks back and throws himself forward, rolling off his rocky perch and landing uncomfortably close to her. Tears fill his eyes as he grins with… some unnameable emotion, something deep and desperate and more intense than she’s ever felt about anything.
Wait. She never told him her name, did she? No, there’s… there’s more important things to think about here.
“Now, we aren’t going to lie to you. It won’t look the same way your ascension would’ve. You’ll have to accept a new god. But if you still want to see this through, our path is open to you,” Ciaran says softly.
“And if I don’t want to? If I did what I did because it was really different with my Harbinger?”
Maybe Isobel was deceiving herself while she partnered with Aulunla, but “accepting a god” doesn’t sound like what she was doing with it at all. She’d been exploring unknown ground, forming a bond with a creature that really might not be the kind of monster Harbingers were universally painted as.
Ciaran shrugs. “Then we wish you luck and put you back where we found you. But you should think about just what you know and just how different you were from us, first.”
Now, though, there’s no way to dress up what’s happening. This boy is asking her to reject life as she knows it entirely. To leave humanity behind and rebuild herself as something else, something that isn’t even her design this time. All for the vague hope that at the end of a new road paved with pain and sacrifice, whatever she becomes will matter more than her grey, boring little life ever did.
But the box is already open, isn’t it?
“What do we need to do?” she asks.
Ciaran’s mask-smile widens. He claps once, leaving his palms pressed together as if in prayer. “Just let us in. It’ll only hurt a little.”
Something lands on her head with the barely-there touch of a bug in her hair. And then, all in the same instant, keeps falling — keeps digging — wire-thin fingers sink into her skull, worm through the folds of her brain, bore into her soul like a horrible thought that only grows louder the harder you try to push it away—
phase 1: what grows in the seedbed of sorrow