Crimson lightning courses through Seryana, burning her rotting body to dust. Her howls of twisted delight fill the tiny Wound, a shrill chorus echoing behind Shona’s unearthly wail. Bolts strike the Harbinger from every direction, three at a time, then four, then five, and past that point they cease to be bursts of lightning and become endless torrents of raw power. Shona’s bolts tangle together and whip across the cramped room, flashing brighter than ever when they crackle against the walls and ceiling and floor. Wherever they touch, they leave behind charred black scar marks.
“STOP IT!” I scream as I pick myself up from the filthy floor, ducking away from a flickering red coil of power. I can barely hear my own thin voice over the screeches and roars of static and thunder. “Shona, stop! You’re feeding her!”
Neither Shona nor the Harbinger pay me any mind at all. Seryana drinks in Shona’s rage eagerly, cackling through her screams as her body burns away. She dies with a pained giggle and a mocking smile fixed firmly on her new stone face, the last part of her to disintegrate. Even then, the storm doesn’t stop. Lightning keeps dancing through the Wound, converging on the empty space where Seryana once stood.
“I killed her!” Shona laughs. She sounds like her voice is being played through an old speaker, blasting it into the little room with a warbling, tinny echo. “I killed her I killed her I… killed… h-her…” She chokes on the last word and trails off, muttering something unintelligible to herself. Finally, the storm contracts, drawing back into Shona. Filaments of crimson power wind along her limbs.
“Shona. Hey,” I hiss.
The lightning wrapped around Shona’s arms shakes wildly, then seems to escape her grip, jolting into the ground around her.
“I’m… I killed her…” She slowly glances my way, blinking dark tears out of the corners of her eyes. No, not entirely tears — water mixed with a thin trickle of blood leaking from her eyes trickles down her face. Still, she grins as she meets my gaze, smiling like she’s afraid to let herself show any other emotion.
“Shona, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve killed her. It’s not over. She’ll be back…!”
Shona just stares at me, silent and bleary-eyed. “What? But I just, she was… how was she here? Why? WHY?” A fresh wave of buzzing distortion slips into her voice with the last word.
“She’s a Harbinger in her Wound! Where else would she be? Listen. Whatever’s happening here, it’s really really wrong. You said you could get us out of the Wound. Can you still do that? If you can, we need to leave right now.”
One more silent second passes before the odors of festering trash and burnt hair flood the room. Shona’s forced smile twists into a rictus of terror as a single rope-arm reaches up from behind her, draping over her shoulder. Seryana’s singed and decaying form materializes from nothing at her side. She leans into Shona in a half-embrace, whispering into her ear through her pristine stone mask:
<Another underperformance today. You can’t keep wasting OUR one and only chance like this.>
“DON’T FUCKING TOUCH ME!” Shona shrieks, and the world breaks around her. Everything crackles and flickers as an explosion of uncontrolled power bursts out into the Wound. Five or six red bolts slam into Seryana, sending her crashing into the nearest wall, the wall opposite of the cabinet lying between the twin beds, with a violent thud. The other bolts scatter through the room, striking out seemingly at random and blackening bits of detritus all around us. The sheets on the bed to our right smolder with slowly growing flame. In the corner of my eye, Seryana’s cabinet sits strangely intact behind us.
The wall Seryana was blasted into collapses into a heap of thin plaster rubble. The dust falls away like a curtain to reveal another room: an almost exact replica of the one we’re all in, arranged just the same as when I first arrived. Another pair of thin beds hug opposite walls in parallel to the two beds beside us, while stools and footrests clutter the space beyond them, all of it totally intact. Pinpricks of pale light still stream in through the gaps in the curtains which cover the windows – a light I now know was shining from nowhere.
It’s all exactly as this room had been before Shona started blasting it to smithereens, but for two details: there’s no curio cabinet in this next room over, and on the right side bed lies a figure. An effigy, like a man-sized straw doll. Except it’s not straw. It’s a doll woven from Seryana’s pale, dense hair. And on that effigy’s face is a framed photo of a face, almost like what you’d see at a funeral wake. Between flickers of Shona’s red lightning, I can just barely make out that face. It’s the man I rescued from his own house – the victim Seryana was preying on when I first encountered her.
<What happened to you? You used to be so cute. So innocent.> Seryana gurgles, in a second voice untouched by her constant cries of pain. She’s speaking like she might to a baby.
<The whole world’s little darling, and mine most of all… oh, why did you ever have to grow up? Why did you have to turn so sharp and gangly and wrong?>
She picks herself up and limps forward on broken legs. Her eyeless sneer is fixed right on Shona.
<And now that you have, WHY WOULD ANYONE EVER LOVE YOU AGAIN?>
Shona says nothing. Still silently crying, she narrows her eyes, grinds her teeth, and digs her nails into her palms until blood drips from them.
And screeches out the first notes of a song: a raucous, unsteady anthem of rage, sung with no words and played with no instrument but that electrified inhuman wail. A fresh crimson storm spills out from her soul, lashing out and out at everything in sight — a seething tempest that won’t be satisfied until the Wound and everything in it is reduced to ash. Bands of scarlet lightning arc directly between Shona and Seryana, forming a circuit, a jagged halo of ever-brightening radiance coruscating around them.
I dart underneath the leftmost bed for cover, thanking the Goddess or Shona or blind freakish luck that no lightning strikes me before I curl into a ball and cover my ears.
Magic running wild. Pain flooding into the world, taking its own shape and acting on its own will. Is this what Aulunla was terrified of when it looked at me, even as it grew so far out of control it nearly crushed me?
Is this what everyone else sees in me?
Thick globlets of liquefying stone drip from the puppet’s shattered mask onto Aisling’s coat. Its cold grip around her throat doesn’t weaken at all. She squirms and shoves and kicks and the thing — the stone shadow, haloed in the glare of the Embrace above them — barely acknowledges her, barely budges at her feeble impacts. It only looks into her eyes, smiling half a blank, empty-eyed smile as its face melts away, and tightens its grip just enough to make it a struggle to breathe without quite suffocating her. She goes completely limp, an animal playing dead right beneath a predator’s gaze, and turns her focus to maintaining the slow, narrow breaths she can manage through the pressure on her airways. The puppet’s fingers don’t loosen their hold, nor does its attention waver from her, but it doesn’t make anything worse.
She made the wrong call. Shona could’ve torn through these creatures. If it was right for any of them to rush to Liadain’s rescue before they knew how much force Isobel’s Harbinger could bring to bear, she should have done it herself. No, what good would she have done in there? It probably would’ve been best to face their problems one at a time. Push through the statues, restrain Isobel… somehow… then turn on Seryana as a group. The strategic calculus might feel wrong, but it would’ve been the best use of the resources she had.
And now here she is, pinned down in the dirt. She couldn’t quite bring herself to make that hard call, couldn’t give up on the hope that there had to be some way to reach her best friend. Isobel is there, she’s sure even now, just… the more she sees and hears, the less it seems like she’s at all in control. At most, she may hold enough influence over her patron’s puppets to keep the one looming over Aisling from crushing her windpipe.
Whether or not eldritch influence was involved, Isobel is clearly convinced that there’s something she and her new Harbinger absolutely need to do. From the way she talks about that goal, she seems to believe there’s no chance that their objective or its costs would be acceptable to her old best friend. Maybe she’s right. Maybe, if Isobel was really as close with a living nightmare that made people drown themselves as Liadain thinks she was, Aisling simply doesn’t understand her as well as she thought she did.
None of that changes what she’s here to do… but it does severely limit her ability to do it. Now she can’t even talk, not that that’s accomplished anything — not even goading Isobel into staying and fighting. When Aisling twists her head to the left as far as she can manage under the statue’s grip, she can still see Isobel hurrying along the coast beneath the blazing sun, her distended shadow trailing far behind her to support her marionettes. Then she turns and jogs up the hill, disappearing into the shelter of the treeline.
From the constant sharp clangs of steel against stone, Mide is still locked in battle with the other two puppets. Holding her own, hopefully, but in no position to chase after Isobel.
Just as she fades from sight, though, Isobel’s voice pricks at Aisling’s awareness. It’s only faintly audible at this distance, and only thanks to what remains of her enhanced senses, but she feels the gravity in the words all too keenly:
“This vaulted sky is not the end. We’ve climbed higher before. We’ll soar higher again.”
An incantation. An invocation. A prayer offered to a demon.
Pressure spikes in Aisling’s head as a dark pinprick hole in the world opens beyond the veil of trees. It’s clearly visible, not glimpsed through the foliage but on the other side of a trunk. A peephole cut in the fabric of reality, rendering everything that would otherwise conceal it see-through. A stain on the world itself that’s layered itself above every other object, almost like a cataract in her eye. It’s the opening to a second Wound, or the hesitant beginnings of one — not the birth of a realm the Harbinger intends to claim, but a gateway into a place where, if it closes behind Isobel, none of them could follow.
Aisling flares, screaming a silent, wordless question out into the world with all her meager power. The puppet pinning her down gives no sign that it can hear. All she can do is hope Mide can.
The halo of manifest rage coursing between Shona and Seryana begins to lose its shape as she incinerates the Harbinger’s newest body. This time, though, the storm doesn’t slow down at all. Shona’s power surges through the Wound, spilling out around us and into the new mirrored room.
Within seconds, I sense yet another Seryana coming into being, another tiny extension of her created to be destroyed. I can’t see her right away, but I know she’s there by the fetid stench of this place growing stronger. Then comes the impact of something landing on the bed above me.
A curtain of filthy shower-drain hair spills over the side of the bed, obscuring my view. Seryana leans the upper half of her body over the edge, staring right at me. Her upside-down mask, framed by the tangled shroud of her grimy mane, is as unmarred as when she first put it on.
<Oh, so much love!> she sings in her own soul’s voice, that desperate sigh I feel like hot breath and wet dust on my neck. <Love like a dagger! Love you carry like a mountain on your back! The truest love there is! If only you were capable of this kind of love, dearest, we never would have grown so distant! You never would have needed to ruin anyone but me!>
Seryana swivels upright and hurls herself off the bed at Shona, not quite reaching her before the lightning finds her again. She screams and cheers and laughs all at the same time as Shona’s crimson bolts sear her to nothing.
Why did Shona have to barge in here? Why couldn’t everyone just leave me alone and let me handle my own miserable life? This is the worst possible time to deal with this. I am the worst possible person to deal with this.
But… I’m the only one there is.
And while I hide under this bed and spiral into a chasm of my own self-pity and loathing, Seryana feasts.
And the girl feeding her has never done anything but try, in her own stupid, happy way, to help me and be my friend.
I’ve hurt people, I’ll keep hurting people, I’ve let people die, I could’ve killed her best friend, and still she keeps reaching out to me and standing up for me to her own partner, making whatever weak excuses she can come up with to the girl I nearly ate.
And if I don’t do something right now, both of us probably die.
So what do I do? What can I do? What is even happening? I press my hands over my ears, blotting out the clamor of thunder and the rumble of flimsy plaster walls collapsing as best I can — it doesn’t help with either Shona’s screech or Seryana’s endless babbling, but it’s something — and I think.
I think I have enough to make a good guess, although that’s still several steps off from knowing what I should do about it. Right before the first storm started, Shona asked me, with horror written clearly on her face, what “she” was doing here. She’s seen plenty of monsters before, so that only makes sense if she’s seeing someone she recognizes. Someone other than the Harbinger she burst in to save me from. By the way Shona’s reacting and the strange things Seryana’s been saying, my best guess is that the Harbinger is wearing some kind of illusion only Shona can see, stealing the face and voice of a person she knows.
How did she do that? Did she do that, or is she only borrowing some weird power from Isobel’s new Harbinger? What does this mean for whoever she’s mimicking?
But the details don’t matter right now. All that matters is what I can do to make her stop, and there I’m drawing a blank. I feel like I’ve got more of a hook in Seryana’s soul than I did when she dragged me in here, but I still don’t know what I’d need to do to actually kill her. Especially not while she’s gorging herself on Shona’s anger. My power works best when I’m alone in a Wound, a whole world I can infect and fester through until nothing remains. Other people are just complications I have to worry about hurting.
If I were much, much better at this, I might be able to somehow infect only and exactly the other Harbinger’s mask, breaking its power without putting Shona in danger, but… Shona’s already broken it over and over and nothing’s changed. I’d need to understand this much more than I do to try and damage the magic itself in a way that matters. Maybe, if it’s possible to simply burst out of a wound the way Shona said she could, I could rot us a path out the way I made a trail through the forest, but I have a feeling that her way is quick and explosive and mine would be excruciatingly slow, if it works at all.
Can I make Shona stop, then? How? Words aren’t reaching her — I don’t even know if she can hear me. I can’t try to physically hold her back or come between her and Seryana, not while she’s standing in the heart of a crimson squall of violent fury. Even huddling under a bed in this dark, damp corner of the Wound, I don’t feel safe from her storm.
What if I…
Oh, everything is terrible forever, but…
What if I did it anyway?
I don’t know Shona, not really, but I can tell she’s not like me. She never wants to hurt anyone… well, except maybe whoever’s face Seryana is wearing, right now. But she certainly doesn’t want to hurt me. If there’s anything I can do to shake her out of her deadly frenzy, that’s it. It’d just be a little more pain.
How many times have I pushed myself forward with thoughts like those since I made the Promise? How often among those times have I said those exact words to myself? How many more times will I throw myself into the fire before I can just live?
…And I know my answer. As many as it takes. I deserve this and more, anyway.
When I crawl out from under the bed, the Wound looks less like a hoarder’s dark nest and more like a condemned house in the middle of being demolished. More walls have come crashing down, exposing more almost-perfect duplicates of the cramped space we first found ourselves in, with more human effigies of woven hair laying on the beds. Of the original room, only the wall behind me is still standing. Shona still sways angrily in the rough center of the original room, wreathed in a blindingly brilliant crimson tempest that grows to fill the expanding space. Blood and tears still streaming down her face through her endless shriek, but the bleeding I saw earlier has intensified now.
And through her inflamed tear ducts, something is growing — thin, coarse strands of unwoven rope fiber, creeping out from her eye sockets like vines overgrowing an abandoned building.
The circuit between her and Seryana is broken, but only because the storm has ceased to focus on any one target. Now it simply rampages through the Wound, burning everything but that single stubborn cabinet. The Harbinger herself appears again and again at Shona’s side, reaching out for her with fraying fingers until the storm blasts her away and reduces her to cinders.
“Shona, stop it! There’s no one here but us and a Harbinger!” I try one last time, though I can barely hear my own voice over the tumult of the Wound falling apart.
Only a shrill cackle from Seryana and yet another deafening crack of thunder answers.
There’s no other option, then. I have to do this.
I breathe, slow and deep, circulating stolen life through my cursed blood. I’m about to need a lot of it. Once it’s flowed all the way through my body, I stride into the storm — all at once, before I can stop myself. As wild and random as the bolts arcing through the Wound look, enough of them pass within an inch of me that I’m certain some part of Shona is steering them. I can only hope that’s a good sign, another indication that her mind hasn’t been completely swept away in the swelling tide of her power.
Shona glances my way as I pass through the arcing tempest surrounding her, unharmed save for the painful heat in the air. A confused mix of painful emotions plays across her face as I pull my right glove off, take her hand, squeeze it, and-
Crimson light swallows my world. A train crashes into the back of my head and the impact surges through me and breaks every bone in my body at once and a thousand syringes stab into me and replace my organs with molten lava and everything—
A voice echoes in the distance, calling through an expanse a thousand miles wide. Calling… to me?
A single massive red sunspot fills my vision, leaving only a dark, blurry outline of whatever world exists behind it.
“…fuck fuck no fuck I’m sorry Eyna I’m sorry…”
Hot tears drip onto my skin. They hurt as they trickle down my cheek, the way even the slightest pressure on sunburnt skin hurts.
The blur beyond the blinding light resolves, forming… a face? A vague impression of a familiar face, just above mine. Shona’s face.
…Right. We’re still in a Wound. I did a very stupid thing. Arms wrapped around my back hold me upright. The more I come back to myself, the more everything burns. The familiar cool, soothing sensation of digesting stolen life tangles with the pain of having been cooked from the inside out.
The Harbinger. Where’s the Harbinger? That thought comes roaring through my mind. My eyes dart wildly around the room, looking for Seryana, and I find her.
Looming on a bed, the masked clump of noose-limbed hair glares at us from afar, unmoving. No, not unmoving. She’s trembling. Quivering violently. She lets out a long, sad wail, too thin and shrill to belong to any living human, and black muck wells up in the eyes of the mask she wears, streaming down to spill off its chin and dirty her form even more. She begins to flail her woven-rope arms, beating them into the charred bedsheets beneath her, and her whine devolves into a tantrum of beastlike snarling too strange and incohesive to compare to a natural animal.
<You, you, you–you, youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou, how dare you, how dare you, HOW DARE YOU>
Seryana whips her appendages to the floor, coiling them around one of her woven-hair effigies that had fallen during her struggle with Shona. She raises it above her head and then smashes it down against the bed frame, sending glass shards flying everywhere as the picture affixed to its “face” shatters. Then she does it again. In a frenzy, she raises the doll back up just to bring it down, bashing it against the bed frame again and again and again.
<SHUT UP. SHUT UP. WORTHLESS. GARBAGE. WORTHLESS. CAN’T DO. ANYTHING. RIGHT. NOTHING. BUT. A PAIR. OF HOLES. JUST SHUT UP SHUT UP STOP TALKING I’M DONE WITH YoU JuST dIE.>
“What the… what the entire fuck?” Shona chokes out, eyes wide as she watches the Harbinger tear its own prop to shreds. Good question. I understand Seryana’s language, yes, but I still have no idea what she’s trying to say beyond the unbearably slimy way the words feel.
When she’s finally done, Seryana flings what remains of the effigy aside and begins pulsing across her figure as though heaving down gulps of air. Then, a haggard noise rasps from her shuddering body, sharpening into hoarse giggles that rattle through the air. Her masked face snaps back to look at Shona, then lunges across the room… but stops just short of tackling her, hanging over her like a dusty veil spun from shed hair.
<Oh, look what you’ve done now!> Seryana growls into Shona’s ear, and I hear her voice all too clearly through the hazy film between me and everything else. <Everything going wrong, everything crashing down around you… it’s because you thieves came too near to her. It’s not safe. Not for you, not for her, not for anyone. Stay away from her.>
Shona flinches and freezes in place, glancing at the Harbinger through the corners of her eyes. “Wha..? You were just…”
“Ignore her,” I rasp. My throat aches the way it does when I’ve tried to talk too loudly or for too long. “This isn’t real. Whatever you think you’re seeing, it’s just…” A phrase drifts through my blurry thoughts, and I latch onto it. “It’s just her obnoxious cheaty shit.” That’s how she described Irakkia’s world-twisting powers to Aisling’s club. Maybe it means something in her vocabulary that she’ll recognize through… this. “Save all this for whoever deserves it.”
“…So she’s not… I didn’t… I didn’t kill her,” Shona murmurs tonelessly, like whatever that means to her hasn’t quite registered.
“And you’re… fuck, I mean, fuck, I’m sorry, are you… no, I mean, of course you’re hurt, what a stupid fucking thing to ask! How…. how can I help? What do I do?”
“Just get us out of here.”
“Right. Right, uh, yeah, just… this is gonna be noisy. Sorry.” Shona sets my limp body down on the damp, filthy floor. She stands, plays a bar of music I only hear as an aural blur of harsh, sharp noise. Thunder cracks through the music and the whole world rumbles as if in an earthquake. A great chunk of the floor near my legs falls away into nothingness. I can’t muster enough strength to move, but before I can fall helplessly through the world, Shona scoops me up, hoists me over her shoulder, and jumps in for us both.
<And you, dearest… you and I are one, till death do us part,> Seryana whispers as we sink through the void. <We both know that. Your heart may wander anywhere it likes, but it can never leave. I can never leave.>
Those last words come without a cloying squeal, without even the slightest syrupy tinge. Seryana spits them like a curse, like an inescapable truth she resents more than anything.
Then her presence fades into the distance, and we crash to the ground beneath the light of the Embrace, brighter and more painful than ever.