The Solar Embrace bears down on Missing Lake like a rainshower of light, heavy curtains of white radiance spilling over the breadth of the clearing. The shoreline is vacant, only clefts in the disturbed soil and small, quickly dispersing piles of dust visible as signs a struggle had taken place. Hidden beneath that, however, is a wealth of clues imperceptible to a human’s natural senses alone.
Amidst the heavenly glare, a lone figure emerges from the treeline. Somehow, the uncanny brilliance of the scenery befits him, as though the world is a mural he’s been painted into as its centerpiece. He strolls casually down the incline towards the shore, his long hair flowing behind him like threads of gold glimmering in the light. Scanning over the basin, he drinks everything in with an eager smile.
Two Harbingers. One whose lingering presence is sticky and foul like the leavings of a slug’s trail. The other is distant, yearning, unfinished, but catches in the eye like a speck you just can’t rub out. It’s easy to place where each had ripped into the world to open up passage to their Wounds, but both are long gone by now.
Just as interesting are the echoes of Screaming Hymn and Big Sis.
Out in the clearing where the grasses are trampled and deep gashes have been rent and gouged into the earth, Shona’s presence is somewhat clear, but only somewhat, and nothing looks like it’s been charred or set on fire. All evidence points to Mide, then – not that she was all that noticeable on her own. But why was the sullen knight without the full impact of her chipper ward blaring in her wake? Probably had something to do with two Harbingers showing up at once… and in the middle of an Embrace at that. It didn’t ring as an unthinkable scenario by any means, but something unusual certainly must have happened.
And the other presence obviously couldn’t have been Big Sis, so that left someone using a weapon she’d blessed. It was easy to narrow down a suspect given who was most likely to be working with Shona and Mide, though. Sure enough, with enough pointed concentration, he could detect the slightest trace of Truth’s Lantern.
Were they okay? Nobody had flared in distress, but then, it’s not like anyone would have sensed it if they had already been drawn into one of the Wounds. A quick check of Lighthouse confirms Aisling hasn’t posted an incident report yet. He’ll send her and Shona a message in a bit to make sure they’re alright, but his gut feeling is that they are, if only because of the Embrace. Before that, there’s one last curiosity catching Roland’s attention.
A familiar aura is mingled with the rest. Not particularly fierce, but not as subtle as Aisling’s, either. A pretty, chilly, weepy little presence, like a cute little sister who keeps scraping her knee. It’s sprinkled around in small, concentrated points across the basin, and fading in the scorching rays of the Sun nearly as quickly as the ashen remains of whatever one of the Harbingers had tossed into the world.
Roland lets the “tug” of the nearest of those motes guide him to it. He looks down to find a black feather caught in the grass, singed at the edges by the Sun’s oppressive light. Extending a hand, he tacks a point of phantom mass to his palm and anchors it to the feather, causing the small black plume to flit off the ground and into his grasp. Holding it up to his face, his grin widens. He can use this.
“Hah,” he chuckles to the empty clearing. Shona and Mide were holding out on him. Now who should he ask about what happened here first? Aisling would give more concise info, but Shona is more likely to blab… Well, it doesn’t matter too much.
Not long now. He and Ill Wind would be meeting very soon.
Roland pockets the black feather and places his hand above his brow like a salute as he turns his ruby-red eyes directly to the Sun. Its blinding glare burnt others away like dry kindling, but he sees it differently. A great burning eye with a thousand-thousand lobes looking down on them all, its pupil, a long tear into utter blackness like a cat’s or a snake’s, carved down its center and through every concentric layer. Tendrils of white and scarlet lightning crackle across its breadth, the sheer vastness of which the Stardust Seraph doesn’t so much as consider.
“Whaddya think, big guy?” Roland welcomes the Sun’s opinion. It doesn’t deign to reply. Maybe… did the pupil contract, just a sliver of an inch? Nah, he’s kidding himself.
Idly, he wonders if he’s the only one who sees things this way. Perhaps not. He’s only ever seen one other person stare straight into the Sun as brazenly as he could and come out completely unscathed, but he has seen it happen. With Irida, of course.
As we ride toward the city proper in the back of an ambulance, Shona chatters noisily about nothing with wide eyes. Mide does her best to play along. Aisling furiously types notes into a page on her phone.
And I, surrounded by the closest thing I’ve found to friends since I checked into the seventh floor, think about loneliness.
I haven’t always been alone. I haven’t always wanted to be alone. It took me longer than most people to find my first friend, given all the time I spent in and out of hospitals, but I did find her. Well, no, Grainne did most of the work of finding me, but still. We met at my reading spot among the wild cherry trees behind our school, on a day when I was spending much more time flicking pale white blossoms out of my hair than reading, and she decided we should be friends once I explained that no, I wasn’t out there because I particularly liked the trees. (“They make those big horrible messes every Summer, so I hate them. Cherries don’t even taste that good!” she’d said.)
So we did. We read some of the same books, she and her other friends taught me to play Champions, and I showed her what little I knew of tarot at the time. And at that age, while we were sharing something like the same life, that was enough. Maybe there were never the seeds of some lifelong bond there, but it was still my first time connecting with someone beyond my family or the rare kid near my age in the hospital.
And now she’s gone. It’s not like she ever told me “sorry, Liadain, you’re just too depressing to be around.” But her visits got rarer, and our conversations started being about less and less as she moved on into a stage of life I’d never make it to. Eventually, she just stopped checking in, and I never bothered to reach out and ask her why. I already knew, and making her say it would only hurt us both.
Eventually, everybody leaves me. They always have, they always will.
Is that still true, in this new life full of new people, or do I just… want it to be? It’s easier to push everyone away before they can do the same to me, or before I accidentally eat them or they find out that I’m even worse than they thought I was or some other awful thing I can’t even think of yet happens.
But I can’t say anymore if it’s the best thing I can do. Things are different now. I’m a different person now. People aren’t going to treat a Keeper the same way as a nobody with a few months to live. And yes, if Dad or Grainne or anyone else who’d already decided I’m not worth the trouble changes their mind now, I’ll probably ignore them, but this is different. I’m not going to get stuck up on some stupid question like whether these girls only want anything to do with me because I can break reality with my mind when I wouldn’t know who any of them were if they couldn’t.
So why does letting them come so close still feel so much like letting someone point a knife at my heart?
“Eyna? Eyna, hey, you listening? You alive? Eeeeynaaa!”
“Mmh?” I mumble.
“Yeah, I was just asking if you needed anything before they dropped you off at the ho… at home. Uh, that is where you’re staying for now, right?”
“…Yes. And, um, I can heal myself, I’ll be fine there, so… I don’t know. Not really. Unless you have a sweater big enough to hide all this under.” I pinch a thin strand of smoke-white hair between my fingers and tug, not quite pulling it out.
“But why? It’s so cool! Everyone’s gonna love…” Shona trails off, seeming to recognize that she’s saying something dumb. “Uh, right. EVERYONE is maybe an important word there for you, huh? Yeah, well, anyway… I don’t have one ON me, but we could probably figure that out! Wanna go shopping?”
I point out the back windows. Despite their dark tint, shafts of painfully bright light leak into the car. “How?”
“Same way we got those glasses on the way here, duh! There’s people sheltering in stores. If four Keepers come by while they’re there, that’s nothing to worry about! It’ll probably make their day, if anything!”
Mide squints out the window. “We still don’t want to be wandering around in that light.” I nod in emphasis.
“Only a little shopping, then! First, closest place we can find! And I mean, which do you want LESS, Eyna: a little more sun or to show everyone your awesome metal blood-thing?”
Ugh. She has a point.
“The emergency responders ferrying us around might have other things to do, too,” Aisling notes, not looking up from her phone or slowing her pace at all.
Shona scowls, looking around the cabin until she spots the big red PUSH TO TALK button on the intercom in the back, and reaches past Mide to push it. “Hey guys, big thanks again for the lift! So listen, is there any way we could make a real quick stop? One of us needs to pick something up on the way home.”
“…Probably? Where?” the driver’s voice crackles back.
“Uh, one second on that! Thanks!” Shona folds her arms and grins, smug and self-satisfied as I’ve ever seen anyone. “See? Super easy. No trouble at all. Just let us… just let Eyna have this, kay? Right, Eyna?”
“…Alright. Fine. We can do that,” I say. I think I might still prefer to just go home and run to my room, but… I don’t know. Shona clearly needs something she can label a win in her mind. “One other thing though. Um. How are you with… things that need to be kept kind of quiet?”
“I love secrets!” Shona tries to whisper, but her new voice doesn’t seem to have that option. It comes out like a stage-whisper on a show played through speakers turned up too high.
“Terrible. Whatever you’re thinking, don’t tell her,” Mide says at the same time.
“Traitor.” Shona gives her a playful shove, but pointedly doesn’t argue with the warning.
“It’s really not that big a deal, just… Eyna’s not my name. It’s not even a name I prefer. I’m Liadain. It’s nothing I wanted to hide from you — like I told Aisling earlier, I just didn’t want my dad to hear about a Keeper with my name and get ideas. So. Sorry.”
Mide shrugs. “Why are you apologizing for that? It’s your business, I think. Only thing it changes is that everyone will know in a few weeks, now.”
“No they WON’T!” Shona protests. I flinch at her volume. Aisling glares over her phone, but quickly shakes it off and gets back to work.
“Uh. Yeah, sorry about that, still getting used to… yeah,” Shona mutters. “But I’m… I’m really seriously not gonna spill something like that if it’s important to you, you know?”
“…Thanks. Don’t worry about it so much? I wouldn’t have said anything if this was some huge problem that could ruin my life. I want Dad to leave me alone, that’s all.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not important! Look, Ey— Liadain, you’re right, that’s a cooler name. I get you there. If it matters to you, I’m gonna make sure I don’t fuck it up for you. Parents sure were a fucking mistake, huh?”
All at once, a few things start making sense to me. What Shona saw that I couldn’t back in Seryana’s Wound. What the Harbinger was talking about, in that voice and those words that didn’t sound at all like her usual ramblings. Why Shona reacted the way she did, and why she seems so desperate now for any other note to end the day on.
“Probably,” I say.
“Claiasya should just come up and lay people-eggs on the shore every few years.” Shona grins and nods, as if she’s just solved some hard problem with that plan.
“That does sound more convenient,” I lie.
Aisling glances up, one eyebrow twitching. I’m sure she’s already come up with ten gaping holes in this idea. But I’m equally sure she’s a lot better at reading rooms than I am, so it’s no surprise when she bites her lip and gets back to her work.
So Shona searches up a place where some of the stores are still open, reads the address into the intercom, and a few minutes later, we disembark in the middle of an Embrace to go look for oversized sweaters in a mostly-abandoned mall. This is what my life has become. Aisling stays in the ambulance, still working on whatever she’s writing.
I’m not at all used to buying clothes in person. I’m not sure if I can remember the last time I did, actually. I know the brands I like on the Sea and the sizes they come in, and that’s been enough for a long time. I don’t really know how to just… browse, and nothing I see here feels as me as my usual clothes. Not that it should matter at all. I’m just here for something to throw over my bizarre veins while I walk through the seventh floor common room, and there are two first responders outside wasting their time while I durdle through the aisles,
“Hey, hey, how about this one?” A few minutes into the second place we visit, Shona offers me an oversized black hoodie. It reads, printed in bold white text, Tummy Ache Survivor. Between the words, a little crying cartoon stomach clutches its… stomach? Its midsection.
“…Really?” I ask.
“Yeah, you really didn’t think this one through,” Mide says.
Shona, undeterred, holds it up to her shoulders and does a lazy little wiggle-dance.
“Come on, you know that’s funny! If you hate it so much, why are you smiling? Huh?”
“Because my body is a traitor and I can’t wait until it’s all replaced with inky nightmare ichor. I can’t wait.”
Shona blinks. Mide stares at me with a confounded expression. Even the clerk watching us looks like he has some serious questions for me, but thinks better of asking them.
Finally, Shona… laughs. She squeezes her sides and clutches the sweater to her stomach and laughs and laughs and laughs, never seeming to run out of breaths, her electronic echo blasting her cackles through the whole store and out into the concourse.
I don’t know what she’s laughing at. I’m not… I didn’t think I was joking. I’m still not sure how I’m so okay with all this, but I am. I really don’t care what becomes of the body I’m stuck in, as long as I’m immortal at the end of it.
“See? See, that right there, that was a great bit, right? Sometimes you just gotta stare down the horrible shit in your life and laugh!” Shona drapes the sweater over her arm and, in emphasis, shoots me with a single finger gun.
Mide buries her face in her hands and lets out a muffled wail. “What am I doing here?” she asks.
“You know what? Fine. We’ve already spent way too long here, so that one’s fine,” I sigh. “Give it to me and let’s go.”
“Perfect. Amazing. The best.” Shona pumps a fist and starts toward the register. “Here, let me get it. My treat. I hope every time you wear it, you think of what an awesome time we had today and forget the part where I blew you up.”
“I don’t think I can do that. But thanks, I guess.”
The ambulance drops me off first. It still feels strange, having other people come so near to this part of my world, but that secret’s already out anyway.
“Get in touch when you can. I’ll keep you updated on the situation, and I might have important stuff for you before then.” Aisling waves goodbye with one hand while she types with the other.
“And we’ll… see you when we see you, I guess. Sorry this didn’t go better,” Mide says with a halfhearted smile.
Shona rubs the back of her head sheepishly. “Yeah. Sorry again about the, uh, that whole thing on my end. Punch that grimy little shit in the face for me, if she’s still following you around.”
“But do it LATER,” Aisling insists. “Tomorrow at the earliest. If there’s an emergency… well, contact me if you can, use your own judgment if not. You’ve survived enough mistakes to start learning from them, I should hope.”
“…Right,” I mumble. “I should rest, then. Bye, everyone.”
“Mide, hey, before we get moving again… can I stay at your place for a while?” Shona asks. That’s the last thing I hear before Aisling pulls the cabin doors shut. I raise my hood, pull the strings tight, and start into the hospital, hurrying through the lobby and into the elevator. Staff at the desks should just see me hurrying out of the Embrace.
But right as the elevator lurches into motion, I look down at myself and wince.
Wait. What was I thinking? Why did I go along with this? Fine, maybe I can watch myself bleed ink and tiny feathers, tell myself that every step away from being human is a step further from dying as a helpless little girl, and somehow manage to smile about it, but I live in a hospice. Surrounded by people who are very likely not going to survive their tummy aches. I don’t know, maybe it’s different when it’s a horrible joke coming from one of us, but… no, I can’t wear this here. Fuck.
So what now? I’m not going to just show off everything that’s happened to me. I guess I can’t hide anymore, really, but… not now. Not yet. I tug the sweater off, flip it inside out, and tuck stray strands of hair into my hood until the seventh floor bell chimes.