Isobel’s cataract hole in the world stretches up and up, bending reality around its edges until it appears, in Aisling’s view, to touch the horizon itself. There, it draws back, flinching away as it reaches too close to one of the swaying tendrils of celestial flame setting the sky ablaze.
Only a matter of perspective, she’s fairly sure — if it had gone from peering uncertainly into the world to growing tall as the sky in seconds, the ache of its corruption in the back of her head would be splitting her mind open by now. Still, manifesting this way at all beneath an Embrace is bolder than any Harbinger ought to be. Damn everything. What has that girl gotten herself into?
“Aisling!” Mide barks. “Hold still!”
What? There’s a monster pinning her down by the throat, she couldn’t move if she wanted to, and… oh, right. Aisling picks up on Mide’s intent just in time. She presses herself to the ground and freezes. A second later, a golden spear slams into the statue’s back. The weapon bounces off its target with a violent clang, not quite piercing its stone skin, but the impact of it is enough to send the puppet lurching forward.
There’s a painful pressure on Aisling’s neck as its weight shifts. Before the thing can collapse onto her, though, she summons a last desperate gasp of adrenaline-fueled strength and shoves it to the side with all her might. The strings of shadow directing the puppet draw taut to jerk it back into place, keeping it from tumbling off her entirely, but the moment when its cold-fingered grip on her neck loosens is all she needs to squirm out from beneath it.
Aisling gulps down a lungful of air and crawls backward along the ground, right arm frantically groping through the grass until… there. Her fingers close around the wooden grip of her revolver. Holding it tight, she scrambles to her feet.
The statue’s strings drag it upright. It twists to face her again, its upper body bending impossibly before its legs follow. Trusting all the time she’s burned practicing for this worst-case scenario to win out over her shaking arms, she brings the gun to bear and fires. Her first shot finds its mark in the puppet’s remaining arm, and just to be certain, she puts a fifth and final bullet into its left thigh. Teal light smolders through its body as two more of its limbs shatter off and melt away, leaving the puppeteer’s arm struggling to do more than hold its doll up on one leg.
And leaving her lifeline with one shot in the barrel, for all the good a single bullet will do her.
But for this moment, it’s done enough. The shadows wrapped around the puppet’s remains release it, leaving the broken statue to tumble lifeless down the slope leading to the lake. Its strings contract into the hand holding them, which then presses itself to the ground and darts through the trees to rejoin Isobel’s shadow. After a glance down at Mide — still locked in a stalemate with the two surviving puppets, which seem unable to break her guard but unharmed by her attempts to slice away their strings — Aisling chases the slithering shadow back into the woods.
Isobel stands facing the Wound, hands clasped and head slightly bowed. The pool of shadows at her feet roils along the ground as a new pair of umbral arms crawls up from within it. They wrap their fingers around the tear in the world’s edges and tug it into its final shape. When they withdraw back into Isobel’s shadows, the Harbinger’s peephole has settled as an oval of blackness just big enough for a human to step through.
And on the other side, bright shapes appear in the dark, like skyscrapers on an impossibly starless night. Tall, crooked white towers, shining with colorless inner light. Covered all over in… faces, smiling stone masks, as if they were packed together from the twisted, elongated bodies of countless statue-puppets.
“You won’t like what’ll happen if you follow us,” Isobel says without turning around. True, Aisling’s awareness of lies whispers to her. She can’t tell if the unsteady quiver in Isobel’s nearly-toneless voice means she isn’t completely confident in her threat or simply that she wouldn’t like it either. Aisling doubts the Harbinger’s puppet would’ve spared her without Isobel’s influence.
“I know,” Aisling says. It’d be suicide to run in there alone. She couldn’t even handle one of this thing’s puppets by herself.
“What’s the plan, then? Are you going to shoot me too?”
“What? No. Isobel, I’m just… if there’s anything at all you can say to suggest that I shouldn’t be terrified for your safety and ours right now, I’m begging you to do it already.”
Isobel breaks her prayerful stance, slowly raising a hand to drum her fingers along her cheek. “You four started this, didn’t you?” she finally says, glancing back over her shoulder. “We don’t have any business with Keepers. You don’t need us and we don’t need you. Go away and that’ll be that.”
“And the rest of the city? All the people it’ll inevitably snatch up and turn into fuel for whatever it’s trying to do?”
“…It’s not doing that. No one’s with us who doesn’t want to be there,” Isobel insists. True. But meaningless.
“That doesn’t tell me anything! You’re a fucking vessel now, and it’s hardly a stretch to think any Harbinger that can take a vessel and leave them at all functional can also change what people want. For all I know, it’s already done that to you. Maybe you haven’t noticed, maybe it left you thinking you were better off for it, but the way you are now… Isobel, you’ve told me what you want out of this, but what you’re doing to get it doesn’t make sense. Maybe things really were different with… the other one, but this isn’t your power, your path to be a part of this world. You’re just throwing a Harbinger’s magic around. So how can I know if anything you say or do is coming from you or it? How can you know, if you’re even aware enough to care?”
There’s a pause. Isobel glares down at the mass of shadow pooling at her feet. She lets out a long, soft sigh.
“Good speech, Ash. But maybe you just don’t understand what’s going on the way you think you do.” Her mouth curls up into a knowing smirk. “Here, let’s say it so there’s no ambiguity at all: I, Isobel, super do not care what the Harbinger riding around with me wants.”
True. Only… Aisling has no earthly idea if that makes things better or worse.
“I’m in this for myself. And my friend, if there’s anything left of them.” She takes the book held beneath her arm in one hand and runs her hand along its cover gingerly, as if petting a cat.
From somewhere behind them, a wet tearing sound rips through the air.
Isobel jolts upright with shock, eyes wide and white. Pinpricks of phantom pressure stab into the back of Aisling’s head, signaling a Harbinger’s presence, but not Isobel’s Harbinger — Isobel simply jumps through her portal without another word. Her shadow climbs in after her, and two spectral hands pull the Wound shut as if they were drawing curtains. Only a thin slit of darkness remains, steadily fading from view entirely. Maybe a stronger Keeper could force it back open, but her stronger Keepers are…
Wait. What does this mean for them? Something happening with the other Harbinger means something’s changed on Liadain and Shona’s front, for better or worse. She can’t evaluate their options until she knows what that is.
Aisling looks back at the crest of the hill, where Seryana’s tiny lesion in reality still floats. She spots it just in time to watch a swelling mass of raw flesh, like the inside of a teratoma, break through its tight wrapping of hair. In a second, it expands from a tightly-packed black core into a great tangle of thin strands of skin, wreathed in matted clumps of blonde hair. The Wound stirs, someone or something breaking through its borders.
“Mide? Mide, up here if you can!” Aisling scrambles up the slope to survey the basin.
Mide is already racing her way. The two puppets she was locked in battle with, gashed all over from her blows, have fallen limp by the shore, abandoned by their controlling hands. They’ve begun to disintegrate in the Sun’s Embrace, charring and crumbling like overheated clay. Countless fragments of them flake off and blow away to nowhere on the wind.
And seconds later, the bloody abscess in reality disgorges something from its depths. As if it were again a giant mouth in the world, but with the skin around it sliced into half a dozen rough sections and turned inside-out. It’s hard to see the other Keepers clearly through the hair draped around them like curtains of wet seaweed, but bright crimson sparks of Shona’s magic shine through the debris.
As Seryana’s Wound folds back up around itself, the Harbinger’s presence fades into background awareness. It’s fleeing, too. Aisling spots Liadain in the other girl’s arms, held up in an over-the-shoulder-carry, and Shona lurches into the shelter of the trees to set her down.
Maybe they didn’t win, but they managed something close enough that they’re both still here.
Maybe this can still work. They can still do it.
“Okay, everyone listen!” Aisling yells. “The other Harbinger is on the run. We can still catch it, we just have to…”
No. No, none of that is happening.
From a distance, it almost looks like Shona’s sclerae have gone entirely red. That’s not it, but the truth is hardly better — instead, her eyes are bloodshot, tear-streaked, and bleeding around the edges, where little frayed strands of unwoven rope wet with her blood cling to her skin. They look to have grown from the corners of her eyes, as if she cried them out herself.
And Liadain… it’s hard to tell what state she’s in, beyond the deep burn-blisters covering her single exposed hand. That isn’t the part Aisling’s worried about, though. It’s not even that the white streaks winding through her hair are no longer streaks at all, leaving only a thin black stripe in her smoke-colored bangs.
It’s that while Seryana is definitely still alive, still fleeing at the edge of Aisling’s perception, a web of black veins — in a sinuous, asymmetrical pattern which distinctly does not map to the places where her veins should be — now runs all along Liadain’s exposed skin.
Everything hurts more than usual.
I wrench my eyes shut as we come back into the world, the light of the burning Sun somehow even brighter than before. The cooling flow of stolen health anesthetizes the unpleasant tickling sensation of my own burned flesh slowly knitting itself back together, but can’t completely block it out.
Shona takes a few long steps — into the shade, I figure, since the sun pushing through my eyelids lets up — then heaves me back over her shoulder, plops me down, and leans me against a tree. Rough bark digging into my back sets off a fresh wave of pain. I’m not sure if I have wounds back there, exactly, just… all my nerves have been literally fried. I can’t find the energy to move yet, though, and I’m not even sure what else would be more comfortable.
A hollow, resonant voice rings through my ears. “Hey. Hey, Eyna, how’re you holding up? Do we needa rush you to a healer or something? Is that thing you can do gonna be enough for this?” Shona asks. Her voice, heavy with urgent desperation, retains the electronic echo of her power. She doesn’t sound bad, exactly, nothing like Irakkia’s sea of screaming noise, but it does make her… louder even than usual.
“Um. It’s bad. I don’t think I’m in any state to do anything.” I did what I had to do to save our lives, but… it doesn’t change anything. I haven’t forgotten anything. “But I’m not going to die.”
“Whew. That’s, uh, I mean that’s not good and I’m still really sorry, but… yeah. ‘S better than it could be… I’m… I’m glad.”
“Shona, are you okay? What happened?” Mide’s voice calls. A rush of footsteps come to a stop somewhere close by. I force myself to open my eyes and look around, then double-check with my magical senses. Nothing nasty seems to be happening, at least not anymore. There’s only the faint traces of Harbinger-stench being scoured away by the Embrace above. The other one feels more distant than Seryana, of course, but not too far gone to detect. Aisling stands just at the edge of my field of view, eyes darting between me and Shona with an unreadable expression.
Shona angles her head away, squeezing a hand around her opposite upper arm. “Listen, I’m, it’s not that I don’t wanna talk about it, just maybe not now, so can we… wait, bwuh?” She pauses, noticing the distortion still lingering in her voice for the first time, and taps her throat with a finger. “That really shouldn’t still be… hmmmmMMMmmmm…” She lets out an experimental hum, a long note rising and falling unsteadily. That same echo copies and amplifies her sound. “Well. Uh. If I can turn that off, I’m not sure how,” she says with a nervous, sharply reverberating laugh.
“Both of you? Oh, dear silent Goddess, absentee mother of us all,” Aisling mutters to herself.
Shona stiffens at that. “She is not absent. There’s just… a lot going on in the world, y’know?”
“Both of them what?” Mide presses. She slowly looks down, wincing at the sight of me.
Aisling side-eyes her and raises a finger. “Please give me a moment. So, to be certain, you two did not just kill that Harbinger, did you?”
“Did our fucking best,” Shona says. Aisling looks to me for confirmation and I shake my head.
Aisling sighs, putting a hand to her forehead. “…Okay. Well. The mission’s over.”
“Huh? Why?” Shona objects. “Did we miss everything? My cool magic voice box isn’t gonna slow me down! If there’s still shit to do, I can do it!”
“It’s OVER! Whatever happened in there to cause two concurrent cases of spontaneous Emergence, it is no longer safe for either of you to use… to use any more magic than you absolutely must to survive,” Aisling finishes with a quick glance at me.
“…Oh. I, uh, wasn’t sure if that was just a thing her magic did,” Shona murmurs, sounding like she meant to speak more quietly than her new voice will allow.
“Spontaneous what?” I ask.
“Yeah. It happens… well, we aren’t certain exactly when it happens,” Aisling admits, scowling at no one in particular. “Most instances I know of involve Keepers losing control of their magic, or taking grievous injuries they wouldn’t survive without immediate and instinctive use of it. Something breaks in you, or in your body, and magic floods in to fill the hole. You don’t typically grow from it all that much, or not the way you do with Harbinger-induced Emergence, but you do… change. In unpredictable ways, with uncertain effects. And when it happens, you absolutely do not rush into battle and keep pushing yourself.” She crouches, perched on folded knees, and buries her face in her hands with a wordless groan. “So that’s it. We’re done here. We aren’t in any more danger, both Harbingers are retreating, so we’ll figure something else out. Later.”
“You change. Okay,” I say, very slowly. “Then what, exactly, has changed in me that you’re so worried about?”
“Your veins,” Aisling says after a moment’s pause. “No, they don’t quite match where your veins would be. But that’s what it looks like. It’s like there’s lines on your hands, face… all your skin that I can see.”
I raise my left hand, tug my sleeve down with my teeth, and look over my arm. Spidering black lines run all along its length, trailing further into the bunched-up cloth around my elbow. No, not quite black – more like pale grey strands of thread, on account of my complexion. When I look closely enough, there are tiny shimmering flecks of green flowing through them, and they shift just beneath my skin as I flex my hand.
Everything suddenly feels colder. I can’t tell if it’s the magic working to heal me or… something else.
I summon a card and will it to prick my wrist, focusing on the quick sharp pain I’ve gotten so used to.
“Eyna, what are you doing?” Mide snaps. “You’re already hurt! Don’t…” She trails off and takes a halting step back, covering her mouth with one gauntleted hand.
As the water-thin, ink-black liquid trickling from my arm instantly changes form, congealing into a solid shape.
I’m bleeding feathers. Tiny black crow’s feathers, still slightly wet with the impossible ichor that formed them, fall from my pinprick wound and drift lazily down, slowing and then ceasing as the cut seals itself closed.
“That’s fucking awesome,” Shona says, drawing uncomfortably close to stare at the little pile of feathers scattered over my lap.
A hoarse, deranged giggle escapes my throat.
It does fit, doesn’t it? This is the way it should be. The way I should be. I should be happy! I’m finally rid of the blood that’s been trying to kill me every day of my life! Whatever this is, it’d be stupid to keep calling it blood. This is my curse, my pain, my power, my constant companions all twisted together into a single thing. Maybe it’ll even change something for the better, for once — who knows? Yes, it’s just my miserable story of always and never dying coursing through the veins I may not even have anymore instead of my useless blood but I can’t deny that the story is better for me because I couldn’t kill monsters and eat them with that blood and I certainly
couldn’t suck the life
out of helpless people
people who never did anything to me except
except BE BORN LUCKIER THAN I WAS.
Without this blood, I wouldn’t have had the chance to let anyone die for my mistakes.
“…It won’t have made things worse for you, I don’t think,” Aisling offers. “Different, maybe. But not worse.”
“And, uhh… Eyna, for what it’s worth, dude? I meant it! This new thing of yours is seriously the most metal shit I’ve ever seen!” Shona pumps both fists in emphasis.
Silence. Aisling and Mide shoot her looks at nearly the same time. It’s nearly the same look, too.
“Shona, what does that mean?” I ask again.
“You know what, don’t worry about it. You get it if you get it. Metal is a state of mind!” Shona says with wide eyes and a visibly strained grin.
“…Fine. Whatever. I’m… I was kind of expecting something like this sooner or later, anyway,” I say. Dr. Cantillon all but predicted it. “I should just… you shouldn’t have brought me along. Something like this happens every time. I’m sorry.”
“Maybe.” Aisling taps her foot on the ground slowly. “But I made some bad judgment calls too. We should’ve dealt with one Harbinger at a time, figured something out for Isobel, then hit Seryana all together. Sorry, Eyna, but that would’ve been the best move tactically.”
I shrug. Moving at all still feels strange, with these crawling sensations running through my body, but the pain has started to subside a little. “I could’ve handled her. My magic just… works better alone.”
“I mean, I guess it’s good we didn’t think of a name for our big stupid not-a-team,” Shona says. “This whole thing woulda been extra embarrassing then, right?” With the last word, her desperate grin wavers and her voice cracks, the sound magnified now with a sharp, tinny wail.
I can’t blame her. I can’t even find this weird front she’s trying to put up as creepy as I used to. She’s probably just… doing her very best not to fall apart, same as me.
“Aisling, what happened with Isobel?” I ask. I’m best at not falling apart when I have something important to do.
“She and her Harbinger ran for it when we sensed you two coming out. Ducked into its Wound. I think they’re gone.”
“Can I see where they went? I can’t chase them like this, just… I don’t know. Maybe there’s a trail I can catch, or something I can feel out about it. Something to keep this from being a total waste.”
Aisling looks me over skeptically. “Can you walk yet?”
“Maybe. I could with my cane,” I mumble.
“What did we learn?” She folds her arms, smiling slightly with half of her mouth.
“That I am a living death-curse walking around in a vestigial human suit,” I say flatly.
Aisling bites her lip, sighs through her nose, and offers me a hand up. “C’mon. The opening was over here.”
After I spend a few halting steps leaning into Aisling, Mide loops her arm around my other shoulder. I meet her gaze and tilt my head.
“Still just trying to make this go the best I can,” she says softly.
Shona follows just behind us as I wobble through the woods, very slowly regaining something like the use of my legs.
“Here,” Aisling eventually says, pointing to an empty patch of roughly-stable shade beneath a thick canopy of trees.
I reach out with my senses, scrutinizing the lingering miasma as closely as I can. It’s hard to pull anything clear from it, especially in my current state. Maybe it’s just this Harbinger’s distance from everything, that sense of being looked down upon from a castle in the stars, but…
“Okay. I can’t find where they went or anything. I’m a lot better at feeling out what things are than where they are. But I also… don’t think it was ever even here,” I say.
“You’re sure?” Aisling asks. “Sensing exactly what’s going on with the more human vessels can get painfully complex. Or so I’ve been told.”
I nod. “It’s hard to be certain, and I don’t know what it did while I was in that Wound, but nothing here feels strong enough to have been a full Harbinger. It’s like it was acting on things without being anywhere near here, the way Seryana usually does.”
“It did seem really here when we were fighting it a minute ago,” Mide says.
“No, that makes sense,” Aisling insists. “Like I said, those were fragments of it. Familiars it made. Well within the range of what we could expect from a vessel invested with some amount of power.”
“What does that mean for Isobel?” I ask.
“It could be that her arrangement with this thing is more complicated than it simply possessing her, which would line up with some things she said before she left.” Aisling pauses, eyes to the ground, gnawing on her lower lip. “Or maybe whatever her new Harbinger’s doing is… bigger than just her. I’m not sure yet. I’ll look into it. If I still need help with wherever it goes, and all of you still want to give it, well, you all know where to find me. Eyna, there’s contact info on my reef. Whether or not you get involved with anything like this again, I may have follow-up questions about your experiences with Isobel, so I’d very much appreciate if you got in touch.”
“…Okay,” I mutter. “Is that everything we can do here?”
“Probably,” Aisling sighs.
“Hey, so like, all the mess aside, this kind of works out for us, doesn’t it?” Shona interjects.
“…Does it?” I ask. Mide, clearly just as confused, looks my way and nods.
“Well, yeah! You did that thing with Mide a while back, and now I almost blew you up, so like… we’re cool now, right? We’re even.”
Mide does a double-take at that. “How do those things relate at all? More importantly, you did what? Shona… why are you like this? Why are all of you but me like this?”
Aisling folds her arms and exhales conspicuously.
“Not you, Aisling. You’re, uh, you’re fine, far as I know.”
Aisling answers with a self-satisfied little smirk.
Shona shrugs, smiling in a way I think is meant to look sheepish. “Uh, like I said. Tell you later. Anyway, you all get my point, right? Or like… I don’t know. The SPIRIT of my point.”
“I really, really don’t,” I say. “But I’m fine if she’s fine. For all it matters.”
“For all it matters,” Mide agrees softly. “As long as we’re all on the same page about the team thing now.”
“Fiiine. No big awesome team,” Shona grumbles.
“So. Anyway. If there’s nothing else, then since our method of transportation is currently not usable, I’m going to call us a ride. Emergency transport,” Aisling says. “Eyna, Shona, you should both take the longest breaks you reasonably can from any active use of your power. Spend time with people you care about. Do things you like, as long as those things have nothing to do with magic.”
I don’t have anything else to keep us here over. To my surprise, I’ve got very mixed feelings about that. It’s not that I want to spend any more time out in the Sun with these three, stewing in our failure, but the prospect of going home like this feels terrible.
Nothing for it, though. Aisling was right about my ill-conceived plans to protect my privacy, anyway. I was already planning to tell at least Noirin about all this soon.
It still would’ve been nice if I got to choose that for myself.