Isobel’s six limb-shadows stand out sharply on the too-bright ground, the only shadows holding any kind of steady shape beneath the Embrace, but their fingers constantly twitch as if in pain at their barely-visible joints. Two pairs of arms each crawl along the lake’s edge in both directions, digging one finger at a time into the rocky shore with an inhuman efficiency, and tossing larger stones aside seemingly at random. The remaining two begin to elongate and slither up the hill, grasping for me with their trembling hands.
And as they grow, they carry some distant presence over the basin. Something reaching out through Isobel, or crawling out from inside her.
“Haven’t you taken enough from us? Are you here to eat me too?” Isobel spits at me. I duck beneath the hill, glaring wide-eyed between Shona and Mide.
“Hey, hey, this seems pretty fucky, right?” Shona stage-whispers with a hectic energy, shooting glances between me, Aisling, and Mide.
“Eyna. Is that the Harbinger you first found her with?” Mide asks.
I shake my head. There’s a faintly familiar sense of endless, nameless longing in the thing climbing out of Isobel’s soul, but as the weight of its attention bears down on me, I’m certain it’s not Aulunla’s. Aulunla is dead. All that’s left of it is its curse on me.
“Everyone, stay back!” Aisling calls. “We aren’t here to charge into a fight!”
The Harbinger’s awareness shifts to split between me and her. I peek back over the hill’s crest, where the shadow-limbs encroaching on us have slowed their crawl, but not quite stopped, like snakes slowly creeping up on prey. The remaining four carry right on scooping through the damp rocks.
Shona and Mide share an uneasy look, ending when Mide nods, draws her spear, raises her shield, and assumes a defensive stance at the top of the hill, squaring off with the Harbinger’s twitching arms without advancing on it. Shona summons her violin, but doesn’t yet take a playing position.
“…Okay. Isobel, we came here to help you,” Aisling continues.
Isobel barks out a bitter laugh. “Is that right? What kind of help takes a whole squad of you to offer? Including, again, the girl who just killed my friend? I don’t want any hand she’s reaching out to me.”
“This is all me,” Aisling says. “Eyna’s only part in this is that I heard what happened from her. I’m here because as soon as I heard what you’d gotten into, I burned a question figuring out where you were! They’re here because I thought you might be spirited away by some monster who was very much not your… friend!”
“Wow,” Isobel deadpans. “Maybe if you’d done that a little more, a little sooner, things wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
“That’s not what this is about and we both know it,” Aisling shoots back. “I know how much you wanted to be part of this world. Getting a few answers secondhand wouldn’t have satisfied me and I doubt it would work for you either. Not long-term. That’s why we were trying our best to figure something out for you!”
“Not trying hard enough to just ask why you were Keeper material and I wasn’t, though.” Isobel wraps her right hand around her left forearm and squeezes through her sleeve, hard enough that it looks painful even from this distance. The shadow-limbs stretching out around her tense up, curling their narrow fingers as if mirroring her white-knucked grip.
Aisling pauses, clenching and unclenching a single fist.
“Eyna, I know what Aisling just said, but… exactly how bad does this girl have it?” Mide mutters under her breath.
“I don’t know.” This new nightmare is far too distant, too detached from anything I understand to make sense of. Meeting its soul’s gaze is like looking into the night sky and knowing more than ever that something is looking back, which feels especially bizarre while the Sun is still glaring down at all of us.
“Bad,” I say simply. I’m not sure how I’d tell the difference between a witch or a vessel, but it’s clear Isobel is corrupted much more severely than she was before, and by a Harbinger I somehow doubt cares about her the way Aulunla did. The only thing I can say for her is that it still feels like there’s a person beneath all the miasma.
“We… talked about that too,” Aisling finally stammers. “We agreed about that. The blind spots-”
“I know, I know. Just giving you a hard time. I get it,” Isobel says, releasing her grip with a little shrug. The Harbinger’s encroaching shadow-arms rattle wildly in place, shaking their hands out before they continue their advance. “And because I get it, I went and figured something else out first. That’s all this is.”
“And what is this, Isobel?” Aisling pushes. “I didn’t come to say any of the things you’re probably expecting me to. I’ll listen, but I can’t do that if you won’t say anything about what’s going on.”
“Oh, come on, Ash. Did you really think I’d take up monologuing just because I met a Harbinger?” Isobel giggles as if at an old joke. “There’s no possible advantage for us in telling you anything.”
Aisling raises an eyebrow. “Us?”
Isobel’s uncanny smile only grows. “Not like I’m saying anything you guys can’t already see, or sense, or however it works for all you lucky chosen souls. But if you thought I was slipping up, you should’ve just let me keep slipping.”
“I’m not fishing for edges on you, idiot. We aren’t fighting. If we’ve got anything wrong, I want to know.”
“Aren’t we? If I say ‘thanks for checking in, but I’m fine, you can all get out of this miserable light now,’ what happens next?”
“…It depends,”Aisling says. “Which is why I’m doing my best to figure out where you’re coming from. But it really doesn’t look good, and you’re not making it easy.”
All around us, nature is unnaturally quiet, the animals who should be chirping and buzzing driven into hiding by the Embrace. Only the shuffling and splashing of rocks being pushed away and tossed into the lake breaks the silence.
Finally, Isobel lets out a long sigh. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. This isn’t help, it’s an intervention, only with armed guards waiting to lock me up if I won’t do things your way. Thanks, Ash, but I don’t need it. If I still had Aulunla, we wouldn’t need anything anymore,” she says, blinking as a flood of tears breaks suddenly through her eyelids, “but here we fucking are!”
“Isobel, you’re not…” Aisling mutters, then bites her lip and shakes her head. “No, I’m sure at least some part of this is you. My question wouldn’t have sent me here if you didn’t exist anymore. So you still know that if you won’t explain what this is, what you’re getting out of it, why it’s not what it looks like… that’s an answer too, right?”
“There you are,” Isobel says, but not in response. She abruptly turns around and takes a few strides away from Aisling, following the Harbinger’s shuddering arms down the shore to our left, where it’s flung aside a slab of mica leaning against the foot of a stump situated away from the grassy shoreline. I can’t quite make out what’s happening from this far away, but the long, inky fingers seem to have slithered into a cavity beneath the stump. After a moment, its hands draw back into her, depositing something dark and dusty at her feet.
She picks it up, wipes it on her sleeves, and hugs it close to her chest, smiling as she stands again. “Actually, nevermind what I said before. I have an idea. I can tell you guys just a little bit after all.”
“Alright…” Aisling says slowly, eyeing the object in Isobel’s arms. “What’s that?”
I already have a good idea. I can’t see the front cover from here, but it’s the shape, size, and color of a very familiar book.
Just… what is it doing here of all places?
She ignores Aisling and turns to stare at me again. “Eyna, your name was? You missed one of these. You missed a couple of the first ones I made, actually, but I think this one traveled the farthest!”
Beneath wide eyes still red and swollen with tears, Isobel is grinning.
“The woman who found it hid it here before she drowned herself.”
My blood freezes in my veins, and the world with it.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want anyone to die. Ever. But even if I can already do so much more than most people ever can, I’m still just a weak little girl in all the ways that matter. I can’t clap my hands and erase death from the world. I can’t return the dead to life. I can’t cure diseases or heal the injured. I can’t help anyone. I can barely even help myself, and that’s only by offloading my suffering onto everyone else. But above any of that, I just want to live, so I do what I have to.
Still, the absolute least I could do to stand by my own dreams is not kill anyone.
When I left Aulunla’s book in its place, I knew what my plan would involve. I knew what Harbingers had to do to grow. I imagined it would hurt, yes, it would be a terrifying nightmare experience for everyone who stumbled into it, but then they’d get better and I’d be alive. What a stupid thing to think, when I’ve walked through the Soul Sanctuary and watched people gorge themselves to death on living clay and watched Mide cart that boy with no eyes away from Irakkia’s manifestation.
No, it’s not that I was stupid. I just thought… nothing. I thought around the costs of what I was doing, the same way I do when I drain dozens of people’s health at a time, feeding my bottomless need for stolen strength without ever even looking at my victims. Without ever seeing what I’ve done to enough people that I’ve lost count — no, I never even tried to count. And if I had, I still couldn’t say how much pain I’ve caused, because I still have no idea what getting the life ripped out of their souls looks or feels like for them.
“Yeah,” Isobel says, still smiling wide. “I can only hope it hurts. I doubt it’ll hurt nearly as much as you hurt Aulunla every day of their life since the moment they met you, but it’s the best I can do for now.”
Aisling slowly backs away from her, side-stepping up the hill without taking her eyes off Isobel. Or the shadows gathered at her feet.
Does it hurt? How much? Keeping that distance from my own actions, maintaining that willful ignorance… I think it’s worked. It’s the only thing keeping me standing right now.
I know death all too well. I know that there was a person with her own life and dreams and friends and family and Aulunla ate her soul. But somehow, that’s not enough to make it feel… real. I never knew her and now I never will. I can’t imagine how the world changes without her — even less than I could when people I saw once or twice in the hospital disappeared forever, and those only ever hit me as reminders of my own fate.
Isn’t that disgusting? I shouldn’t be okay. I shouldn’t. No, it’s not that I’m okay, but it’s wrong that this hasn’t broken me into a thousand pieces. If I could do it over, I would do it differently. Of course I would. But if I had to do it again, just the same as before, I could. And I know I can live with that, because I would never let it all be for nothing. What does that say about me, about who I really am?
That I’m exactly the monster my magic keeps telling me I am.
“Eyna? Eyna, hey, uh… whatever happened, it’s really not your fault. We can’t save everyone, you know?” Shona says through a nervous smile, and sets her free hand on my shoulder. It feels like an arrow spearing directly from where she’s touched me into my heart. Instantly, reflexively, I smack it off.
Aisling’s head shoots our way. I can’t see her face anymore. My vision blurs. My eyes sting. My head swims and my chest tightens enough to squeeze the breath from my lungs and through it all, magic rushes through my veins, like it’s trying to replace the blood that’s been killing me for as long as I’ve lived.
Isobel’s Harbinger says something in many soft voices, but not to me — a susurrus just out of earshot.
And a long, ropey limb tied into a noose slithers into being from nowhere, coils around Shona’s leg, and tugs, tightening its grip over her ankle. She yelps in shock as it rears up, dragging her upside-down into the air, and cracks itself like a whip with her at the end, slamming her into the grass halfway down the hill.
As the rope releases Shona, slinking back toward its unseen source, another presence slams into me in a nauseating wave, wrapping around me like a tackle-hug from a ghost that still smells of rotting garbage.
<Oh, my dearest,> Seryana whispers. <If only I’d found you sooner. There was no need for us to hurt anyone but each other.>
“Shut up,” I hiss, my eyes frantically scanning over Shona’s splayed out figure, searching for any sign she’s okay. She sucks through her teeth, then lets out a long, aching groan. I want to rush over to help her, but something is holding me in place.
<Whatever did you think you were doing out here? This atrocious, loathsome light doesn’t suit you at all, and it’s so crowded here. So many others… you shouldn’t be near all these others. It’s unsafe. You know that, don’t you? And that’s to say nothing of your own safety! There are such dangerous people in the world, after all. People with bad intentions. People with hearts full of pain and hate and violence. People who could do such terrible things to you that I doubt the thought of what they could be has ever even crossed your beautiful little mind! I don’t know what I’d do if you met some unspeakable fate out here!> she carries on. Her form twists into being right in front of me, and she traces a frayed, filmy hand along my cheek.
“Shut up.” I push her away with all my feeble strength. She only laughs, swaying back with her whole upper body, doodling a beaming face with the scratchy black scrawls over her head. I take a few feeble steps away.
Shona slowly pushes herself off the ground, staggering half-upright. “FUCK! Mide! Aisling! Hey, behind us! There’s a THING!”
Mide has already started racing down the hill toward Shona. As she does, though, Isobel’s shadow-arms lash back out, converging on her in unison. She skids to a sudden halt just fast enough that when the hands rise from the ground and grasp at her legs, they only hold her in place rather than send her tripping over herself. She drops her spear, draws her sword, and begins slicing at the solid, twisting shadows as they rise around her.
<Can’t you see, dearest? We’re only safe together. And this world is only safe from you while you’re alone with me.>
“Shut up shut up shut up SHUT UP!”
Cold, corrosive power spills out through my skin in rolling waves. I gather up my fog and pour it into Seryana, shoving it into her body with all my will.
<Ahahahahaha! There you are at last! Hurt me! Destroy me! Give me everything you’ve ever felt! Bury me in your memories, however hateful they may be! THERE IS NOTHING ELSE WE NEED.>
Rather than melt into nothing as she has so many times now, Seryana’s body… unravels, peeling itself apart from its noose-ravel limbs into countless strands. Filaments of filthy hair and raw, sinewy red flesh unfurl and unfurl, reducing Seryana’s shape to nothing in instants, but still they spread, wrapping around me and reweaving themselves into the shape of a world.