The way into Seryana’s Wound is clearer this time. Those wet, grasping strands of her hair lining the gaping hole in the world have mostly rotted away, leaving lesions in the walls where green embers burrow into necrotic flesh. The remaining strands of living residue are weak and withered enough that they snap away the moment they curl around me and try to grip. This time, when the tunnel opens up, I touch down on the floor with only a few clumpy strands of dry, dead hair trailing off my sleeves to show for the fall. There are no grasping limbs of twine to set me down gently, but my cane steadies me through the impact.
Seryana stands just ahead, hunched over the curio cabinet in the center of the room. She’s reached through its still-broken windows and picked out a single filthy photo.
<You’re here! You’re really, finally here…> Her voice has a wet scratchiness to it, as if she’s forcing out every sound through a terrible cough. <I’ve waited here in the dark for so long, blind to all but you. Alone save for thoughts of you, memories that only grew more bitter as you drifted ever further away from me… it isn’t true what they say about absence, you know.>
She traces one frayed finger gingerly over the photo frame… then hurls it at me with all her might. I flinch as it whizzes just past my head, crashing into the wall behind me.
<All absence does is poison everything forever. Everything I feel, everything I am, every beautiful moment we might have shared if you hadn’t ran away, it all just leaks through the holes you left when you tore yourself out of me!> she wails. A shiver wracks her body as a coil of rope, the third arm she sprouted earlier, drops off her and hits the ground with a sick wet plop.
<That’s why. That’s why no matter what, no matter how much better it may be if you’d never been there at all, I need you. Now more than ever.> She pushes off the cabinet and wobbles upright, her mask’s eyes seeming to widen as she stares at me. <So tell me. Did you come here to stay, this time? Or is this the last earthly stop before we join hands and hearts and journey somewhere new? Either way is fine! Anything is fine, as long as we become one while we do it!>
While she rambles, I take stock of my surroundings. This is the same room Shona nearly burned down, and it hasn’t changed much since then. All that remains of the original room’s walls are its four corners holding up the ceiling like pillars. Beyond that, it’s just as ruined and more — the steady, creeping rot of my magic still spreads through everything, eating away at the walls and furniture of the surrounding rooms. A window in the next room over is frosted over with black mist.
Off to the right, the jagged hole in the floor we last escaped through is still there. Seryana’s made a token effort to fence it off, with three sideways chairs arranged unevenly around its edges, but if I wanted to leave, I wouldn’t even need to step over them. There’s a gap in the fence I could easily squeeze through.
Following my gaze, Seryana glances between me and the hole. She lets out a short, sharp shriek, like the strings of a hundred instruments snapping at once, and slams a balled fist into one of her cabinet’s intact windows, embedding bits of glass between the knots of her fingers.
<NO. NO YOU DON’T. YOU CAN’T LEAVE ME AGAIN. EVER. AGAIN.>
As she cracks open frame after frame and rips apart the pictures inside, the Wound tears around us. The walls of the surrounding rooms are ripped horizontally across their middle like tissue paper as their shared floors and ceilings twist in opposite directions. The whole Wound flips on to its side in a sudden and violent rotation, flinging me, beds, stools, footrests, and woven-hair dolls into the air. The furniture plummets into the rift that’s been split in the walls, falling into a familiar void of that vague, dingy impression of light coming from somewhere else; the same dim glow I saw in the gaps between Seryana’s hair-covered windows.
I burn some of my health on reflex and thrust out a hand to grab hold of some of the filthy hair strewn across the rotting wooden floors. It tears in my grip, but gives me just enough leverage for just enough time that I can manage to control my trajectory. I roll my body along the quickly steepening slope of the floor and fall into a V-shaped crook: the base of one of the original room’s corners, now all the remains of its walls.
Seryana begins to furiously ball up the scraps of the shredded photographs into a single chaotic wad, and everything bends and deforms, the world folding over us into a new arrangement — one where the space I landed in no longer exists. I pick myself up as the notch I managed to catch myself on blurs into a newly shaped floor.
When the distortion settles, the rooms have… stretched over each other, merging into a single endless tunnel that somehow looks like more of a disaster than even the blasted, broken room we were in a moment ago. It’s cluttered with too much random furniture to traverse without stepping over or onto it. Footrests with all the stuffing torn out and replaced with matted blonde hair. A two-legged table with a huge chunk of its surface simply disappeared from the side with the legs. Beds with half-rotten chairs spliced impossibly through the middle of their frames. On one of those, the chair impales the hair-effigy lying on it in two places.
<This is a place just for us. The ONLY place for us. Besides, isn’t it better this way?> she laughs, throwing her arms wide. <They were all the same anyway! A blind child’s stupid little mistakes! There is only you, my love. There was only ever you.>
“…Why?” I ask. I’d guess she reacted to me looking at the hole Shona had blown through the floor, but I just got here. I came in on my own. I’m not going to run away when neither of us had done anything.
Seryana says nothing, only twirling and laughing like she’s playing in the snow. <Before, when I called you an anchor? I meant it! But that wasn’t how I meant it! We need anchors, don’t we? We need a way to hold ourselves in place in this world that never stops spinning and spinning around us!>
There’s so many of those hair-dolls, scattered through the opened Wound. Maybe a dozen in sight from here, counting the one whose photo-face she smashed during her tantrum right before Shona and I left this place. How long has she been doing this? How many “one and only true loves” had she been through before I found her?
<Darling? Daaarling? I’ve been working so hard to build a home for us. Don’t you want to share it with me already? We can break it in however you like. Hit me, touch me, anything you need! All I ask in return is for you to keep being my anchor. Forever.>
And if this is how she acts when something doesn’t go to plan… how did she even last this long?
<I WISH YOU’D BE A LITTLE MORE GRATEFUL INSTEAD OF SITTING THERE LIKE A USELESS PIECE OF TRASH,> Seryana snarls. Her body melts, then bubbles back up from the floor right in front of me. Scrawled tears and black gunk ooze through her mask. She clutches my cheek in one ragged hand before I can dart away, squeezing painfully, and as she meets my gaze again, the same dark gunk creeps over the corners of my eyes, as if it’s leaking out from my own skull—
A hand slams into my cheek with enough force to knock me over. My wrist twists as I try and fail to break my fall, crumpling to the ground like a discarded doll. Sometimes that feels like all I am, on days like this, but it’s okay. It’s just how it is. Sometimes he just gets upset. If this is what he needs, I can handle it.
Those same rough hands pull me up by my hair, screaming into my face. I can live with the pain, for him. The words, those are the worst part, and worse than ever today. They feel like knives tearing tiny bits of my soul away, sliver by sliver.
Flecks of spittle pour out of him with every word, his voice a storm of rage and pain spoken in a distorted blur of noise, like I’m hearing them underwater. It still sounds familiar, though. It sounds like… my father’s? The outline of the man holding me up matches the one who left me on the seventh floor, but everything is so wet and blurry, and his face… it’s scratched out of reality, hidden behind a scribbly black veil.
Finally, he drops me again. I collapse uselessly to my knees as he backs away. He stares down at what’s left of me. Time falls away from us, but when he finally speaks again, it’s… different. Quieter. He apologizes. He tells me he’s no good. He says he shouldn’t be here anymore. He storms off upstairs without another word.
I don’t want that, though. He’s a complicated person, yes, but that’s just how he is. I still love him. All of him. And if he didn’t have me, how much worse would it be? For him, for me, for everyone? And he’s… all I have.
So I go to him. To hold him, to tell him so, to pull the misery out of him so we can carry it together. No one person can carry all the weight inside them, after all.
And I find him
his empty shell, hanging from the ceiling
blood on his fingers, clawmarks on his neck, scratching, scratching
and everything I am leaks out like blood through the wounds he left me with.
Only… through it all, beneath the weight of the end of everything, another voice whispers. My voice. None of this matches, she says. None of it makes sense. The events, the feelings behind them, none of them fit the version of Dad in my mind. That version is… he’s hardly really there. He’s barely ever given me this much attention at all. And in the times he did, the only reason it hurt was because I knew I would have to ration out that little mote of love for who knows how long until the next.
Why him? Why is he here?
Because he’s just the closest thing she can find when she looks into me. Because this pain is not mine. This life is not mine. None of it matters to me. There’s no reason for me to drown in it, no reason to feel it at all.
So I vomit it up like I have so much pollution before.
I return to the Wound, to myself, on my knees over a fresh puddle of dark ichor, wreathed in cold mist like breaths on a winter day. Seryana stands over me, her face buried in her hands, weeping in rough, choked sobs.
<I’m sorry I’m sorry I don’t want you to hurt but I’ve missed you so much and now I don’t know what to do, how to make you remember, I just don’t know how to be anymore…>
And in her tears, her desperation as she throws every horrible thing she can think of at me, I see the answer to my own question.
It makes sense how she did what she did. The same way it’s taken me so long to get this far. She hid, slowly gnawing away on one person at a time until they couldn’t take it anymore — and who could? I doubt I could live through an endless torrent of this, if I didn’t already know she was dying.
When she finished her meal, she’d vanish, find a new anchor, and repeat the cycle somewhere completely different, doing it all through disposable effigies of herself meant to be broken and destroyed over and over. In exchange for rendering Seryana practically untouchable in a direct confrontation, the effigies couldn’t actually do anything impressive on their own, couldn’t even move away from the anchor, but… they didn’t take much investment. Seryana could eat up her anchor’s aggression without a care in the world, certain she was getting more than she lost. Her effigies had probably even been swallowing up my plague, only to be amputated before the infection could be transferred to Seryana’s whole – at least enough for it to stick.
For a normal human, or even Shona blindly blasting Seryana’s sock-puppets away, there was nothing at all they could do. In truth, though, she probably wasn’t any stronger than Irakkia or Esonei were, given how similar their tricks were; maybe weaker, even. I was probably just the first Keeper to smell her out and get her attention, and I spent days coming at her the wrong way. Playing the game she set me up to play. That was her gimmick all along.
But here, where the real Seryana lives… she overextended this afternoon when she first dragged me into her heart, allowing my infection into her sanctum. Now she’s done it again, and I can already see her world falling apart with no new effort from me.
I can’t pretend to understand why she would expose herself like that in the first place, but maybe it’s simply the common sense of a demon who feeds on hurting others until they hurt her back as hard as possible. To Seryana, that’s what love is, and for her, love is everything.
<Ohh, I know! I know what would be fun!> Suddenly, she straightens up, beaming through her oozing tears, and sweeps a rotting hand over the chamber. <You see all of these worthless monuments to people who never even tried to care the way you do? I’ve been making a new one, a better one! Just for you! A place to store all of our most beautiful memories! We won’t have to dig for them at all!>
A new curio cabinet falls abruptly through the ceiling, crashing to the floor a few feet away from us. It rattles unsteadily as it touches down, until Seryana runs to it and hugs it, holding it desperately in place.
<Come! Come see!> she gurgles.
…You know what? Fine. It can’t be any worse than that blood-blending machine Yurfaln made for me. Strangely enough, I actually feel nearly as calm as that sentiment sounds. I’m still on edge, of course, still ready for any last surprises Seryana throws at me, but… now that I’ve begun to unravel her, I feel more confident than against any Harbinger I’ve ever faced. As the Wound continues to crack and peel around me, deep inside, I know this is already over.
My rot is already closing in on her heart, so I can tell: whatever special something let Aulunla pour everything it was and could ever be into one last frenzied struggle… Seryana just doesn’t have.
This cabinet Seryana is so eager to show me looks brighter and cleaner than the others, at a glance, but that’s just because there’s no thick film of old hair caked around it. Only rings of wet locks of hair decorated with little black feathers around each window.
And the framed pictures inside are all of me.
Me rescuing Seryana’s last victim, rotting her to nothing in the process. Me in his house, dangling from the edge of a room that no longer existed. Me in the shower with Seryana draping herself around me from behind, me at Missing Lake screaming while she needled me about the woman I left to die, me in her Wound jumping into Shona’s lightning.
She opens a window near the bottom and pulls out the photo inside, sighing happily as she stares at it. Through the fraying thumb of her rope-hand, she traces over it, I can make it out: this one is of me holding Banva on the floor.
<Remember this? Remember when I choked the life from that disgusting thief just like you did to yourself? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just… I had to. You understand, don’t you? Don’t you? I couldn’t let anyone take you away AGAIN.>
She giggles at her words, and while there’s a faint undercurrent of nervous energy to the sound… it’s enough to make me want to take that picture and smash it over her head. To smash all of them before I waste her away to nothing.
But Banva’s alive. She’s lived through a nightmare and it’s all my fault, but she did live. She’ll recover. Because, from the start, Seryana really was that weak, and could only lash out against the people around me so much. It wouldn’t change anything to give Seryana what she clearly wants.
And if that’s the best she has left, we’re finished here.
“I don’t care,” I say, laughing to myself.
<…What?> Seryana says. She freezes, photo frame still in hand, her voice drained of its sickly-sweet affect.
“I don’t care what else you have to show me. There’s nothing I even need to do here anymore, and I don’t think you can make me stay.” She’s already dying. All I have to do is let her.
Experimentally, I sink a burst of death into the filthy floor beside us. My power gnaws through the layer of grime and into the surface beneath, a hundred years of rot eating into the wooden boards in a span of seconds. Soon, there’s a yawning black pit in the ground, big enough for me to slip through and still steadily expanding.
<No no no stop that what are you DOING?> Seryana seethes. Just another tantrum. <Where else do you think there is for us to go? Don’t you realize how much I love you? Do you want me to kill myself that badly?> She throws the photo away and grabs my shoulders, staring at me through her mask with eyes caked in dark ooze, but… that’s all. I’ve seen what she can do now, what she wanted so badly to shove into my mind. It’s only a little harder to keep her out than it is to shield myself from everyday diseases.
Because for everything broken and horrible about me, all the damage I’ve done, I’m nothing like her. I don’t have to exist the way she does, circling around in a prison of my own pain, and I’ve already done everything I need to here. I’m done with her, and very soon, whatever’s left of her will help me along my own way.
Seryana scratches frantically at her own arms, moving as if to peel herself open the way she did when she opened her Wound. <Fine! If you hate me so much, I’ll do it! I WILL TEAR MYSELF APART SO YOU CAN NEVER HURT ME AGAIN.>
“Do it. I’ll wait.”
And I hop through my hole, dropping back into the void between Wound and world.
I step out into the night. A cool breeze passes by, rushing through my newly whitened hair. Behind me, Seryana slaps the earth with her too-long arms of woven blonde hair, gibbering out a chain of shrill curses that stopped making any sense some time ago. I ignore her.
Instead, I take note of my surroundings. We’re still in front of that demolished house with the overgrown lawn Aisling’s information led me to, but looking at it now, it’s in a bit of a strange place for it to be. This isn’t exactly a residential area, but more of a city block, with businesses closed at this hour surrounding the torn down house on all sides. On the opposite side of the street, there’s a wall of high-rise buildings lined up next to each other; they’re far from skyscrapers, but they’re more than tall enough to cast a long shadow over the remnants of what was once someone’s home.
The place where Seryana was born might have been a holdover from pre-war Claris that just hadn’t been removed yet. That’s probably why it was torn down so quickly. My walk to get here might have taken longer than I thought, because everything around us is surprisingly vacant, but that’s for the best when a Keeper is facing down a Harbinger in its death throes. Everything is bundled in an air of stillness and silence – all except for Seryana, wailing into the void.
And that’s when a cold sweat trickles down my spine.
The atmosphere becomes heavy, as if I’ve suddenly been thrust to the bottom of the sea. There’s a pressure so intense that it sends tremors through my body. My stomach drops. The hairs on my neck rise. My heart quakes in my chest.
And it’s not because of a Harbinger.
<I’ll kill you, I’llkillyou, HOW DARE YOU, I’LL KI—>
Even Seryana’s voice deadens in the air as I turn back from the demolished house to face her. She’s raised one of her braided arms as if to lash out and strike me, but in the moment that new presence crashes over us like a tidal wave dragging us into its depths, she hesitates for just an instant, as if overwhelmed by panic too quickly for her to comprehend.
There’s no time for either of us to react.
A flash of scarlet. A shaft made of red light cuts through the air above Seryana. Its glare against the windows of the high-rise building behind her looks almost like a timelapse of the twilight sun falling beneath the horizon.
The spear touches down, skewering straight through Seryana – not piercing through her other end and into the ground, but instead seeming to imbed itself deep within her.
The Harbinger’s shriek of agony rings out through the night, raking against my eardrums.
The spear of light sheds its crimson glow, dispelling the shadows which pool at the foot of the tower blocks. I expect Seryana’s form to crumble away and reappear elsewhere, but she doesn’t. She simply writhes and flails in place like an insect that’s been pinned alive. For some reason, she can’t escape.
Up above, a floating figure appears out of thin air and gradually descends from on high. As if emerging from nowhere, his body seems to come into tangible focus bit by bit the nearer he draws to the spear’s light, starting from his grieved boots and quickly working up to the sharp, angular visor of his mask, until I can see him in his entirety.
Hooded in a studded white mantle trimmed with red, a thin layer of metallic plating armoring his torso and limbs. His almost priestlike coat flutters gently as he hovers downward.
“Well now. Fancy meeting you out here, Ill Wind.”
It’s none other than the Stardust Seraph in the flesh, addressing me directly.
Points of light appear all around him and begin to swiftly swirl through the air, swarming in a formation like two tornadoes sprouting from his back. Those cinder-spark motes mold themselves into the shape of feathers, and as they spiral around in twin vortexes, they begin to arrange themselves into a pattern and stick together, soon creating two great wings formed entirely from crimson light, spreading brilliantly at the Seraph’s sides. They shine off the windows of the building behind him, haloing him in their radiance.
Given the sheer force of his aura, at first I thought he was flaring, but now I realize this oppressive sensation is concentrated entirely on the spot. There’s nothing about his presence that resounds beyond the immediate area, it’s just blaring down on me and Seryana without a care. When a giant walks, their footfalls shake the earth by default.
“See, I sensed something nasty tugging on my feathers, so I came to investigate,” he says, his mask tilting from me to Seryana.
As if on cue, the Harbinger howls, glaring up at him with all her fury.
For a moment, he freezes, hanging in mid-air. I almost move to intervene, but then I hear the echo of his tongue clicking in his mask.
“So that’s your deal, huh? Bad move, though. The only thing shoving a dead person in my face is going to do…”
A gleam kindles a third of the way down the length of the spear Seryana is impaled upon. Its glow diffuses in opposite directions, intersecting horizontally through the red lance to form a crucifix of light. I’m not entirely sure what’s happening just by looking, but the Seraph is concentrating his magic at that point and matching it to Seryana somehow, similar to how he first pinned her in place.
“…is piss me off.”
A pathetic choking gasp escapes from Seryana’s body, then a strangled snarl, followed by a screech of pure agony as she’s forcibly pried open. It’s just like every time she tried to swallow me into her Wound, but this time, she never stops opening.
Flesh begins to regurgitate out of the hole that is Seryana like a frog heaving out its entire gut. Everything within is being forced outside. Black ooze gushes from the eyeholes of her mask.
Just like every time before now, this Seryana was just another effigy… but every effigy I’ve encountered was connected to the same source, the same heart. The Seraph’s spear has punctured through the effigy and all the way into her Wound, so now she can’t just cast off the effigy like a lizard discarding its tail and escape.
Pieces of rotten furniture – chair legs, torn pillows, and shredded bed frames – all begin to spew out from inside Seryana as she’s ripped asunder and folded inside out. They spill all around her flailing, gurgling body in a heap of gradually accumulating debris, until at long last, she coughs up one final, lone intact object:
A curio cabinet, of course.
It’s launched through the air and lands with a clatter in the middle of the street between the Seraph and me. Our eyes follow its trajectory, drawn to it the moment we see it.
A collection of photos is strewn about inside, but all the faces are scribbled out. There’s only one photo with a frame, and it has two people in, a man and a woman standing on a pier before a beautiful sunset, holding each other close.
The woman’s face has a wide, strained smile scribbled on in a way that looks just like Seryana’s own.
The man’s face is cut out of the photo entirely.
<please, please please please please no no no no no no no no>
I don’t know if it’s been the same cabinet I’ve always seen whenever I entered Seryana’s Wound, since the form and contents have been slightly different each time, but it doesn’t matter. Both the Seraph and I know what this is just by looking.
And as Seryana whimpers pleadingly, stretching out one desperately grasping arm of braided hair towards the curio cabinet, the Seraph holds one hand up, spreading out his fingers, and then slowly lowers it, inch by inch. As he does, the curio cabinet begins to rattle against the street. Not a second later, cracks rive across its glass windows, first in long, singular streaks, then in an all-encompassing web of fractures.
<NONONONO PLEASE PLEASE WAIT PLEASE WAIT DON’T NO NOT THAT PLEASE NOT THAT>
The cabinet seems to blur as if enveloped in a heat haze, and then fluidly flattens against the ground as though made of rubber. The distortion disappears, and all at once, the cabinet collapses in on itself as if it were being crushed beneath an invisible hydraulic press. Wood splinters against the ground down to mulch. Glass crumbles from the sheer force until it’s nothing but dust. The particles are pressed through the photos, which practically liquify from the strain. And it all happens in an instant. With the slightest of motions, the cabinet is utterly destroyed.
Seryana’s arm freezes in the air, then goes limp along with the rest of her mangled form. Her mask cracks down the middle, then falls to the ground and shatters into chunks of stone. Where Seryana’s scribbled-on face once was, there’s nothing that remains.
The crucifix of red light dissipates with a sharp, hollow pop, and Seryana’s carcass topples to the cold street. Her entire body and the rubble wreathing it is soon enveloped in grey and crumbles away in clumps of ash. Only one thing rises from the dust as it fades from our reality and into nothingness: an orb of musculature like two hearts packed together into a rough sphere, glowing with sourceless black light.
The Stardust Seraph touches down on the pavement across the street. Seryana’s heart floats between us, considerably closer to him than me.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Eyna. If that’s even your name.”