Aisling detects it right before she sees it, a soundless alarm piercing through the flow of her thoughts. Her gaze whips back toward the forest’s edge just in time to watch reality explode. Liadain’s Harbinger opens itself, turning inside-out into a raw and bloody hole in the world. In an instant, it expands, swallows her whole, and contracts into itself, leaving a tangled web of hair and ribbons of exposed skin spread out around a pulsing black core. A Wound in the most literal sense.
“Ah… it’s not perfect, but it’ll have to do,” Isobel sighs, though she watches Liadain vanish with a thin, vindictive smile that makes Aisling’s stomach churn.
There’s no point in wondering what happened to her best friend, what’s come over the girl Aisling trusted more than any other to make her this way. The culprit is clear as the burning sky. The two important questions, then, are: what does Isobel’s new Harbinger want with a dead keepsake of her last one, and how much of Isobel is left in there to save?
As the distortion that swallowed Liadain settles in its place and begins to slowly contract into itself, Isobel clasps her hands together, lowers her gaze, and begins murmuring to herself as if in prayer. A white mask flickers into being over her face… no, not quite over, but not quite translucent, either. Rather, Isobel’s head and this placid-faced stone mask somehow appear to occupy the same space at the same time.
With three clean, rhythmic swipes of her blade, Mide carves through the wrists of the shadowy limbs gripping her ankles. She rips her legs away as if pulling herself out of an ivy thicket, stomps on the blunt end of the spear she’d dropped to her feet in such a way that it’s launched spinning into the air, and takes a quick hop backwards as she notices the attacking silhouettes have already reformed – and one of them is lifting itself off the ground.
A smoky, pitch black arm rises above the knight’s height and unfurls its long, branchlike fingers like blossoming flower petals. Its presence hums like a youth choir crooning in the distance. As the tips of the shadow-limb’s six fingers abruptly tense like a claw and lance out sharply, extending with terrifying speed as if to skewer her, Mide catches her spear out of the air with her shield hand just in time to array it, her sword, and her heater shield in just the right places to deflect every vector of the attack.
The diverted fingers clang off her armaments and shoot past Mide, stabbing into the ground behind her, and she cuts them away before rushing forward to chop down the risen shadow-limb. As fast as she is, the silhouette is quicker, ducking the arc of her next swing as it retreats flat against the ground. In the meantime, another shadow-limb has taken the chance to snake around her, lunging at her from behind to seize her ankles again. This time, though, she’s ready, and easily evades with some quick footwork.
With none of the shadow-limbs directly impeding her, Mide sheaths her sword, turns tail, and glides down to the patch of grass where Shona was smashed into the earth, all in one smooth motion. Three of the silhouettes slither after her at a leisurely pace, but three others retract, returning to their source.
The very same moment Mide offers Shona a hand up, the silhouettes that had pulled back to Isobel all sprout up off from the ground, becoming too-tall, too-long arms of solid shadow just the same as the one that had risen to attack Mide. Her shadow is as solid as a puddle of black ink seeping out from under her shoes.
And as they draw themselves up, stubbornly resisting the Sun’s burning light, black threads trailing away from each finger reach down into the pool of murk at their base. Each set of strings pulls a human-sized form up with them, as if reeling corpses out of a lake, but the ghoulish manikins they puppeteer are human only in their vague outline. They look to be made entirely of white stone, with expressionless masks in place of faces, and their bodies are stretched out like coils of clay. Nothing distinguishes one from the other but the tiny cracks in the stone. None move on their own power, simply lolling over and twitching as the hands holding their strings spasm in pain.
Not only was Liadain the only person present who might be able to drive out the thing inside Isobel without killing her, Aisling has no way of knowing how much immediate danger that girl has gotten herself into, now.
Danger from that Harbinger or herself? Unimportant. Nothing I can do about Liadain’s situation from out here. Focus on the things you can control first.
“Shona! You can break out of Wounds, right?” Aisling calls out.
Taking Mide’s hand, Shona stumbles dizzily to her feet, tossing aside her broken shades and brushing grass and bits of rock off her dress. After helping her friend up, Mide wastes no time turning back to the shadow limbs creeping closer behind her, passing her spear into her free hand, and chucking it into the centermost silhouette with so much force it buries itself a third of the way into the ground. The middle arm cringes like a living insect pinned in a specimen box, splitting itself down the middle as it rips itself away… and reforms itself in short order. Mide strides forth as she draws her sword again, interposing herself between the silhouettes and Shona.
“Urghhh…” Shona collects herself, making sure Mide has the situation at least mostly in check before she gives Aisling her response. “..Y-yeah, when I’ve tried!” she confirms, her eyes leaping between the three silhouettes closing in on her and Mide, and the three manikins Isobel has called into being.
Then, as if fed up with her own hesitation, Shona’s wavering eyes take on a sudden anger. The violin scattered along the ground bursts into crimson light, and a new one materializes in her grip. She puts her bow to the instrument and races through a harsh threatening tune in presto, summoning a wall of red lightning bolts between her and the Harbinger’s shadow. The bolts, short-lived as they are, prove more than enough to scatter the spectral arms, which frantically retreat into the darkness beneath Isobel. With that, Shona jogs to Aisling’s side. Mide follows, side-stepping along with her shield and sword held at the ready against the limp statue-puppets.
“We can’t fight this on two fronts. Can you get in there and pull Eyna out?”
“I mean…” Shona bites her lip. “It’s not great to separate us,” she says, wagging an elbow in Mide’s direction.
“Listen. These out here are just… shadows cast by a Harbinger. Fragments of power it’s handed out. The two of us can handle these, and their creator isn’t going to manifest during an Embrace. But I can’t get into a Wound and pull someone out. Neither can Mide. You can, and you’re fast. Just do it as quick as you can. Or if she’s got things under control, you can leave her there and pop back out to help us. That work?”
Shona glances uncomfortably at Mide, who nods once.
“…’Kay. Be right back.”
Red lightning dances around Shona’s feet as she kicks off and skates up the hill, charging straight into Seryana’s Wound. Seryana’s tear in the world, which had gradually been stitching itself shut, twists and expands once more to welcome the Screaming Hymn, opening into a narrow tunnel of flesh and sinew that shuts like a mouth in the world the moment Shona passes through.
Isobel smirks, then kneels and reaches an arm deep into the darkness still pooled at her feet. The murk boils and writhes as she pulls another mask up from it, a white stone face dripping with blackness. “For your trouble, you… you creepy little freak, you,” she says, and sets the mask down beside her. “A new face for you to wear.” With those words, the mask darts away, carried up the hill by a wisp of slithering blackness detached from the central pool.
Mide thrusts her sword upright into the earth, then reaches out her newly freed hand towards her spear, whereupon the weapon bursts into embers and manifests instantly in her grip. She draws the javelin back, takes a running start, and hurls it at the stone face. The tip finds its mark, impacting the face with a harsh clatter. The mask jolts off course but quickly corrects itself, with only a chunk chipped off its left cheek to show for the strike, while the spear bounces away and disappears in a golden flare.
For her part, Aisling simply tracks the new mask as it travels, narrowing her focus around it. Her Keeper senses have never been what she wished they were, but for this they should suffice. The mask is faintly feminine in shape and design — even before the damage, it didn’t quite match the featureless ones worn by Isobel and her puppets. It’s still very much a living extension of the same demon behind them, though — training her aura sight on it leaves Aisling with the distinct impression of a great tangle of threads, with the set on one side trailing back toward Isobel and the other dangling unused. A marionette bar with strings on either side, designed as if to be used by one puppet to direct another.
Then the mask dives into Seryana’s Wound, falling out of reach of Aisling’s senses.
Seryana and Isobel’s passenger are colluding, then. It’s even possible she tipped Isobel off before they showed up — Isobel did know exactly who was there before she saw them, and while her Harbinger could simply have some other way of spying for her, the timing of Seryana’s manifestation and whatever the puppeteer just offered her both suggest an accord between them. Did they have some prior arrangement? No, from the way Liadain described her, the most likely explanation is that Seryana saw an opportunity to pull her “one and only true love” away from other Keepers and took it.
Still, Isobel’s Harbinger agreed to work with her. They could just be smart enough to communicate and accept an alliance of convenience, but offering her some tangible portion of its power seems like a step beyond that. Is there some deeper layer to its plan?
Can Harbingers be witches? Can they be vessels? No, that’s unimportant too. A theory question for later.
The statue-puppets stir, pulled half-upright by Isobel’s spectral hands. Mide plucks her sword from the soil and steps forward with her shield thrust out, placing herself firmly between Aisling and Isobel.
“Isobel, are we really going to war before we even know what you want out of this?” Aisling calls. “Fine, you don’t know the others, but are you that certain there’s no way I’d hear you out?” She doubts it’ll work — Isobel’s given every indication that what her new Harbinger wants is incompatible with anyone else’s goals — but it’s the only thing she can do. She’d need to know the puppeteer to have any way of hurting it, and it’s clearly not inclined to show itself here.
Isobel crosses her arms, sighing through the corner of her mouth. “Hey. Ash, hey. I’m not treating you like an idiot all of a sudden, am I? Do you think you could do me the same courtesy? There’s nothing to talk out here, and if there was, I wouldn’t do it while you and your squad are blatantly fishing for information.”
Mide looks over her shoulder, meeting Aisling’s widened eyes with an uneasy expression.
But despite Isobel’s words, the puppets don’t move.
Aisling blinks away the tension in her expression, forcing herself to stay calm. “I’m not trying to interrogate you about your Harbinger’s weaknesses, okay? We’re not starting a fight if you aren’t.”
“Mhm. Only stalling for time while those two deal with the other one?” Isobel’s hands clench around her arms. She taps a foot impatiently, trailing liquid shadow away from her shoe as it touches down in the dark beneath her.
“I just want to know what you’re looking for here! We could’ve helped if you didn’t cut us all off as soon as you jumped into this! Maybe we still can!”
“As if you wouldn’t have just killed Aulunla and gotten me the help I needed like anyone else!” Isobel takes a single long stride forward. Her distorted shadow dances out of the way as she stomps down, then slides easily back into place beneath her.
“I wouldn’t have. Not until you or it gave me a reason to think there was a problem,” Aisling says, doing her utmost to keep her frustration out of her low, level voice. For a moment, she simply watches Isobel’s face through her half-real mask, allowing her time to register what Aisling just said — what Isobel knows she couldn’t have lied about.
“Fine. Maybe I’m just fucking stupid. Maybe if you hadn’t picked out some problem, and all our friends stood by me when I told them I’d made a pact with a Harbinger, we’d have revolutionized our understanding of everything together. But Ash, that’s not where we are anymore! It’s dead! It’s gone and I’m doing my best to make things right and yes, there’s no point in negotiating on what I need to do to make that happen. We’re doing it. If you don’t want to fight, great! All you have to do is leave us alone. Go help your new friends out. We won’t stop you.”
“…Doing what?” Aisling presses. Make what right? Does she think she can resurrect it somehow? That might be possible, but Aisling can’t imagine a way to do it without tearing Aulunla’s remains out of Liadain and piecing them back together, and Isobel seemed happy enough to let Seryana take her. “Let’s leave the Harbinger out of it for a second. What are you, Isobel, trying to get out of this, and are you sure it’s the best way to get it?”
“You keep asking the same stupid, obvious question! I just want to MATTER! And don’t tell me there was some other way, some perfectly respectable path into this world for a normal nobody. If you believed that, you wouldn’t have made the Promise! You hated magic — you still do. You wanted nothing to do with it. So what made you a chosen hero and the rest of us your sidekicks, hm?!”
“I don’t know! I’m doing my best to find out, and I thought we were doing that together! If you came to the club with this, and it really was like you say it was, we’d have been the first to update our beliefs and you know it! We all would’ve been thrilled to learn if Aulunla was really different from every other Harbinger, so why didn’t-”
“DON’T SAY THEIR NAME AS IF YOU CARE!” Isobel snarls.
…She’s right. Aisling doesn’t care, not about Aulunla. Maybe if she’d been there, if Isobel would give her anything at all to demonstrate that she wasn’t exactly like any other witch suffering from their Harbinger’s soul-rot.
“You never gave me a chance to care,” Aisling says.
Isobel’s face, still stained with tears, twists into a scowl. With no visible signal, her puppets jerk into action, pulled forward by the fingers of the hands sheltering them from the Sun, and Mide advances to meet them.
Two statues throw themselves violently at Mide, warping and stretching at strange angles as if moving to wrap themselves entirely around her. With her shield and frantic footwork — still enhanced by echoes of Shona’s power, which turn a single step into an easy slide along the rough ground — she holds them at a distance, taking careful, probing slices at the strings that move them between flurries of twisting motion.
Isobel turns and stomps off down the shoreline, her shadow stretching out behind her to hold its place. Aisling rushes after her, but the third hand drags its puppet into her way. It doesn’t restrain her, it doesn’t even try, it simply… stands there, staring at her with its placid smile and empty eye-sockets, blocking her path to Isobel however she moves.
And that’s all it would need to do, if Aisling had only her own power to rely on.
But if Isobel honestly thought that was the case, she was selling Truth’s Lantern short, despite her claims to the contrary.
Reaching gently inside the rightmost pocket of her peacoat-dress, Aisling pulls out a revolver, switching off its safety as she does. In a single swift, slick motion, she parts her legs in a firing stance, levels the gun in the center of the manikin’s face with both hands, and pulls the trigger.
The muzzle flashes with an eerie teal light. The puppet crumples as a magic-infused bullet exits out the back of its head in a burst of that same strange blue-green radiance, which discolors even the glaring white of the Embrace around it. Without hesitating, Aisling fires again into her enemy’s chest, causing its gangly body to twirl as it’s flung backwards. She fires a third time, blasting off its right arm, which sails off wildly through the air and into Missing Lake.
Aisling lowers the barrel as the manikin collapses, the shadowy arm that held the puppet aloft sagging to the ground along with it. The fissures spreading across the figure’s stone skin where Aisling hit home glow faintly teal… then slowly but surely melt into a liquid state almost like magma. But there isn’t even close to enough heat to render stone molten. Rather, the puppet’s flesh is “festering” in a way that shouldn’t be possible for inorganic matter.
This is far better than any unenhanced gun could ever hope to accomplish, but the bullets would have done even more damage, reduced the whole demented muppet right to slag, if they were freshly imbued. It’s bad practice to go as long as Aisling has without getting the enchantment restored, but she rarely uses it anyway, and she loathes feeling indebted to the Church or its Keepers. Still, she’s not about to pass up her prerogatives, and in this case, she’s glad to have the weapon on hand.
Isobel is still visible down the coast, her figure shrinking into the distance, her strides long as she begins to hurry her escape. Aisling has to move now. She can’t let her friend – her best friend, her sister in every way that matters – get sucked any deeper into whatever pit this puppet-thing crawled out of.
But just as she stomps over that puppet-thing and lifts her sole off it to break into a run, something snags hold of her boot, sending her toppling to the grass — and her gun hurtling out of her grip.
The thought of pumping another bullet into the marionette the moment she saw the three prior shots hadn’t completely annihilated the thing had crossed Aisling’s mind, of course, but she only has so much ammo, and this gun is her only lifeline. Yet, seeing the puppet and the shadowy arm that controls it shudder back to life, she wishes more than anything that she’d taken that precaution. If she hadn’t already used her question for the day, it would have been obvious to her the enemy was still active. But she had, and her focus had been entirely on Isobel.
Aisling frantically rolls over, kicking at the creature’s concrete grip on her, but it’s futile. It drags her back, pulls her under it, and straddles her. With its single remaining arm, it curls its rough fingers around her throat, though not quite viciously enough to crush it. Pinned down, Aisling can only gnash her teeth and glare up at the statue’s grinning, shattered face as the leftmost half of it begins to ooze off.
If only she weren’t so weak. She’s seen so much, learned so much, but all that knowledge has done for Isobel is drive her into the arms of a nightmare.
<This is nice, isn’t it? A warm hand on your skin. A tether holding you firmly in a moment when things made sense.>
Countless filthy tangles of blonde hair-rope wrap around me, like a hundred suffocatingly tight hugs at once. Warm, damp fingers trace formless patterns over my face as I’m passed from embrace to painful, clinging embrace, bearing me down into the Wound.
<Just a moment, just one — that is all we need! Who cares about tomorrow? What good has the future ever done for us?>
The rank, sour air makes me want to puke, but I can’t. I can’t do anything but fall, lost in the horrible sensations of the world being peeled away, becoming something else.
<Shroud the world in terror. Shrink it to a room where only you and I matter. That’s what you’ve always done for me, dearest… so won’t you let me return your gift at last?>
The tunnel opens, setting me down gently on the ground. My legs give out and my gut churns and ice courses through my veins and my throat burns with dozens of tiny scratches as I hunch over and vomit up…
A mixture of noxious green fog and damp black feathers.
I stare into the cloud as it seeps along the floor. It feels right, I realize. Truer than the more familiar pain of spitting up stomach acid. This is what I am now, inside and out. My own living curse. No point in thinking of myself as a person with human needs and frailties and feelings.
People are supposed to break when they kill other people, aren’t they?
Slowly, I stagger upright and search for Seryana through the pall of clinging, stinking miasma all around me. Her Wound is… all I can see is a single cramped room, dark save for where pinpricks of light filter through the black curtains over the undersized windows. Each sheet of fabric is covered in tiny holes that shift and spin slowly, orbiting each other in pairs like tiny stars.
The room, a little square space with off-yellow walls, is packed with a bizarre range of furniture — two thin beds against the walls in opposite corners, stools and footrests scattered randomly about, and in the center, an overturned curio cabinet. Knots of wet hair are strewn all over every surface. The cabinet’s glass compartments are lit from the inside, though they do nothing to illuminate the room around them. Where the little windows aren’t completely covered in refuse, they look to be filled with framed photos with all the faces scratched out.
<I know. You never liked keeping these around, did you? But I can’t help myself. They were ours. Our relics from a time when things were happier,> Seryana whispers. Her voice comes from everywhere at once, with no sign of her actual form in sight.
So I open my soul and fill the room with infectious mist, flooding the Wound with my own corruption. For good measure, I tap a bit of life, walk up to the curio cabinet, and start bashing its windows in with the heel of my boot.
That gets her attention. The Harbinger scrawls herself into existence at my side. Her limbs are already starting to unravel, but all she does is set a disintegrating hand on my shoulder. Beneath the grey coils her body is woven from are thin strands of raw red, the color of exposed flesh.
<I understand! I do!> Seryana giggles and wails in two voices. <You are a nightmare come to life. You ruin everything you touch… but that’s okay! Destroy me!>
The Harbinger reforms the moment she’s finished wasting away, born again already falling apart and gurgling excitedly about it. She reaches to interlace her fingers with mine, holding my hand in a painfully tight grip when I try to snatch it away, but then she loses her strength, wastes away, and dies. She throws herself at me and hugs me tight, shrouding my face in her matted hair, and then she dies. Her voice warbles through obnoxious, tuneless songs as her disintegrating fingers run along my cheek above my mask, trailing dust and grime over my skin, and then she dies.
<Tear me to pieces as many times as you like! I’ll put us back together, always. Give me everything you have and I will make sure tomorrow never has to come for us. What more could we ask for?> Seryana begs. Her black-scrawl face twists into a small, desperate smile.
But all the while, my sickness seeps and seeps into the world. The holes in the curtains slowly grow, the light beyond them flickering a pale sickly green. The beds fall to ruin, their mattresses collapsing through the middle as the slats supporting them decay. Only the damaged cabinet’s contents hold steady against my corruption.
If this is all she has, Seryana shouldn’t have brought me here. She’s not like Esonei, an infection of its own that could punish me for hurting it. She can survive my plague, yes, but her manifestations aren’t growing, aren’t changing. Maybe she’s getting something from her constant deaths at my hand, but I don’t think it’s what she needs.
What she really wants is my pain, my love or hate or any feeling at all that might bind us together into an endless cord of mutual misery, and the only thing I can bring myself to feel about Seryana is the cold, creeping dread that maybe this is where I belong, a murderer imprisoned in a monster.
But I wouldn’t be here if ever I let what I should do slow me down.
So hurt me if you’re going to, but pain gives me power, too. Hold me here as long as you can, but it won’t be forever. Stop me or I’ll rot away this whole world around us, and then the world outside too. Someone stop me, because I don’t think I can do it myself.
A crack of thunder roars out, somewhere in the distance far above us. Another comes a few seconds later, much closer than the first.
“EYNAAAA!” Shona’s voice screams. A jolt of crimson lightning crashes through the ceiling, tearing chunks of it away, followed immediately by a deafening burst of thunder. On instinct, I pull my fog away from the jagged hole, gathering it around myself.
<All these intruders smashing their way into places I made just for us… how? Why does this keep happening? Do you really hate me that much?> Seryana whines, drawing back onto the bed in the furthest corner.
“FLARE IF YOU CAN HEAR ME! I’M… oh. Hey. Here I am.” A few seconds later, Shona drops through the broken ceiling, landing easily on her feet, and suddenly lowers her unnatural volume when she spots me right beside her. I can barely hear her through the ringing in my ears.
“Wow,” Shona huffs. “This… oh, ew, this is an extra shitty little place, isn’t it?” She shakes a grungy hair-knot off her shoe like a bit of trash on the sidewalk.
“What are you doing here?” I murmur. “I dragged Seryana into this. She’s mine to-”
“Oh, fuck that with a rake!” Shona snaps. She smashes her bow against the cabinet in emphasis, summoning a new one before the wood splinters have even landed.
“What? What does that mean?”
“It means we’re in this together! Deal with it!”
I can’t deal with it. I don’t have that power. I’m a disaster for everyone I’m around and it’ll really, really be best if she just lets me be my own problem.
“You look a lot like you’re being a dummy again,” Shona pushes, folding her bow hand on her hip. “Listen. Aisling said I could just let you handle this if you had it under control, but honestly I think that’s pretty dumb! There’s four of us and one of your Harbinger. Let’s just… one thing at a time, okay? You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna get through this. I can get us outta here, I’m pretty sure, so-”
<What is this? You too?> Seryana wails suddenly, stirring from her corner to glower up at an unbroken section of the ceiling. <This is our home! Our sanctuary! LEAVE US BE ALREADY!>
A dark patch forms above her, seeping over the surface like a water stain. Within moments, it goes completely black, becoming a blotch of liquid shadow. Something lowers through the ceiling, a small object wrapped in strings of solid darkness — a white stone mask, its chipped face pulled back into a faint sneer.
And there it waits, hanging still. It feels like… something else, the limb of a presence too high and cold and distant for me to read.
Shona shoots me a sidelong glance, then points silently at the mask and mouths ‘Huh?’ I shrug.
For Seryana’s part, once the mask settles in its place, she seems bizarrely captivated by the new intrusion. She twists around the hanging mask to examine it from all angles, tapping it gingerly with her fraying fingers. For the second time, she reminds me of a cat not sure how to react to a strange new toy.
Shona, meanwhile, has no interest in waiting to find out where this goes. She readies her violin and starts to play, filling the little room with sharp, cacophonous notes and static buzzing through the air.
<Oh. Oh, yes, now I see. This is… how beautiful!> she sighs. She takes it in her hands, yanks it free from the shadow-strings, and places it over her scribbled face. The strands of solid darkness still dripping from it reach around the back of her head and knot themselves in place.
“You wanted to leave? Let’s leave,” I hiss to Shona. I don’t like this. Everything feels just as terrible, but… before she and this new Harbinger-limb showed up, I understood what was going on. Even when I couldn’t handle other Harbingers, I could see what they were, what they were trying to do. Now I’m lost as I’ve ever been — I can barely begin to guess at what’s happening and why Seryana isn’t reacting as violently to it as she does to everything else but me.
Shona’s song cuts off abruptly.
“Eyna,” she whispers weakly, eyes frozen wide open. “Eyna, what the fuck is she doing here?”
I scan the room, but there’s no one else around. Just Seryana, staring our way through her new mask. “What? It’s her Wound,” I say.
Seryana surges forward, crossing the room in a single space-defying twist of her whole body. She wraps both hands around Shona’s head, glaring up at her with her mask’s empty eyes. <It’s time. You start. Living the life YOU//WE//I want more than anything. Dancing with your body. RIPPING OUT YOUR DREAMS AND THREADING THEM THROUGH MINE.>
Shona’s eyes go wider than ever before. Her bow and violin slip through her fingers as she brings her palms to her ears. She opens her mouth, gawkingly at first, but soon a faint stream of hollow air, like a gasp turned inside out, begins to escape from the depths of her throat. Then, all at once, she closes her eyes and lets out an impossible, inhuman shriek. A harsh, discordant violin wail played with her own voice.
I back away in a panicked rush, tripping over the legs of a sideways stool, as sparks arc all around her, crackling through the Wound. An indoor lightning storm rages through the tiny room, and it feels like a miracle that none of the bolts dancing over every surface strike me before they converge on Seryana.