I jolt back as two cars screech into my way, stopping abruptly within inches of a crash. My heart slams against my chest. The only thing keeping me standing is the health I tapped by reflex a moment before. A few more feet in my direction and the cars would’ve rammed into me, too. Pulped my useless body in half and left my soul to crawl out of its broken remains, unfurl its wings, and… and do what? I don’t know. Maybe I ravage the city for enough life to sew myself back together. Maybe I become something much worse. Maybe that’s not how it works and I just die.
Footsteps clacking on the road behind me shake me from my morbid delusion. The Seraph draws closer, his visor glaring down fiercely, judgmentally. I turn around slowly, anxiously. My downcast eyes flick upwards to catch glimpses of the one who’s come to punish me for my sins, only to dart away when I find his light too blinding to bear.
“You’re not as slick as you think you are, princess.” The pressure of his aura intensifies with each step he takes, like the dawn surmounting the horizon to envelop the sky. “I can’t just let you go. Not the way things are.”
So you’ll run me over instead? That’s fine? That’s the way things should be? I glance down at nothing, squinting to shield my watering eyes from the Seraph’s radiance, shoving thoughts of my own mangled corpse into the background every time they push back into my mind.
“I have plenty of reason to drag you back to the Soul Sanctuary whether you like it or not, until we’re sure you’re not another ticking timebomb like Tara or Niavh just waiting to blow and take innocent lives. Like you almost did to Mide. Like you could have done to Tetha.”
I blink away my tears as the Seraph relentlessly piles on his condemnations. “You don’t…” I rasp, trailing off as my worthless words die in my throat. He doesn’t know me, he doesn’t know my life. He doesn’t know anything about…
“But you know what?” He leans forward and raises his arms outward as if to present everything around us to me, his wings of red light stretching along with his gesture. “I get it. It’s hard out here. It’s real hard. So I’ve tried to be considerate. I’ve given you every chance to meet me halfway, to show me you’re actually willing to cooperate and not just pretending to.”
…no, of course he does. Of course he’s treating me like some monster he needs to hunt down and lock away. That’s exactly what he’d have seen while he was following my trail for however long, smelling me out from my first victims to where we stand now. It’s certainly what Tetha saw.
But even if he knows, could someone like him, who has everything, ever actually understand?
“But fact is, I can’t trust you.” His arms fall back to his sides as he straightens his back. “You’ve already hurt people. You claim you met Niavh, yet you continued to hurt people. So what if you’re just lying to me right now so you can get away?” he shrugs questioningly. “I’m not going to let you just run off with nothing but a promise to do better. That’s not good enough. Not when, if you really wanted to, we could settle this tonight,” he points to the ground between us, then throws his arms up, “yet you’re still here deflecting like you’ve got something to hide.”
I’m tired. I’m so tired. This was already the longest day of my life before the Seraph stormed into it. I cannot possibly settle anything tonight… and of all the things I do need to take care of, the things I’m trying my worthless best to make better and do better, not one has anything to do with him. What would his hand around my throat do for anyone?
So fine. I’m a monster. He knows it. I know it. And next to all the horrible things I’ve done, both the ones I had to do and the ones I did for no good reason, not turning my life over to the first person who demands it doesn’t even make the list.
“You already know my territory. Even if you didn’t, you can smell me out well enough that you’ve had no trouble stalking me all around the city for however long!” I spit. “All I’m hiding is exactly where I live. If you’re mad that I don’t want you watching me sleep or barging in on people who have nothing to do with this… why?”
“Territory? Move to Rima if you want to fight over territory. We don’t do that here. And stalking you?” the Seraph exclaims as though it’s the most absurd thing he’s ever heard. “You hurt people like a Harbinger would, and I’m the bad guy for tracking you down and telling you what’s what? You think just ’cause everyone’s been looking the other way ’til now, the moment somebody holds you accountable, you’re the victim? Wake up, princess. If you weren’t a Keeper, you’d be a criminal, and since the moment this conversation began, you’re the one who’s been acting real guilty for someone who wants to be treated like she’s innocent.”
“Innocent?” I stifle a hoarse laugh and look back up to face him with tear-blurred eyes. “Where’s that coming from? I’ve done awful things. I’m an awful Keeper. An awful person. I know. I’m trying to fix it. I just don’t need you breathing down my neck to do that!”
He’s quiet for a moment, his visor simply regarding me silently. “…If you’re really remorseful, if you really want to make amends, you’re not an awful person,” he says, his voice gentler than before. “You have a hard to control power, clearly. I do too. But you can use it to accomplish extraordinary things. Like when you defeated that Harbinger on the eastern fringes of the city.”
“You know that was me and you’re still acting like you can’t just find me whenever you want?”
“Every Keeper and their mom felt it when that Harbinger flared,” he explains. His tone has lost the edge it had before. “Of course I’ve been looking into it. But I only found you just now. That’s why I’m trying to talk with you. I want your side of the story.”
“Do you? A minute ago, it was ‘I can’t trust you unless I have your home address and your blood.’ If all you wanted was my story, you could have it, it sounds like you already do, but what good would that be if you aren’t going to believe anything I say?” I push back.
“Okay, wait a sec,” he holds up a hand as if to halt me. “Your blood?”
“Yes. My blood. The feathers you knew enough to…” I bite back my words before I can finish the thought. How much does he know? He must have followed us to the lake earlier, there’s no other way he could have seen them, but if he’d actually been there to watch me bleed them out, why wouldn’t he have barged in on us right then?
“I don’t have blood anymore,” I say. “I bleed those. So you see why that’s a very weird thing to ask me for?”
“Ohhh.” His head tilts back in realization. “Weird blood, huh? Same,” he nods as though it were nothing surprising. “See, how was I supposed to know that? I just found some of them lying around Missing Lake.”
“Right. Well, now you know.” Why does he need another, in that case? Doesn’t really matter. Maybe the Embrace was bad for them, maybe they just don’t last. What does matter… “What did you want them for, anyway?”
“They’re pretty,” he says plainly.
I flinch almost as if I’ve been struck. “…Wha?” I mumble as I feel my cheeks heating up and the thrum of my heartbeat tumble between different but equally strange and uncomfortable feelings so fast it makes me dizzy. He thinks they’re pretty? A boy looked at anything about me and thought I was pretty? And that boy was the Stardust Seraph at that? Is what’s happening to me even real?
…and I narrow my slowly drying eyes, because those thoughts racing through my mind all end up in the same place, throwing themselves off a cliff into a bottomless pit. I know better than anyone that things like that don’t happen to me… although, if they were going to, I guess it makes sense for my weird nightmare blood to be the one appealing thing about me. What is he really thinking? Is this his idea of a joke? “So you got all scary because I wouldn’t give you a souvenir? Seriously? What do you actually want them for?”
“Well, they are,” he insists as he crosses his arms, “but I could also use one to find you again if necessary. Since you won’t let me walk you home, it was a good fallback option so I could just let you go. And I’d have a cute little memento in case everything turned out fine. But then you flipped out and started stomping off without even listening… You were in absolutely zero danger right then, by the way.”
“Fine. Maybe I wasn’t. But how am I supposed to know what another Keeper can or can’t do with my blood? You can already find me. Obviously. So what would you need it for if it’s not something to hold over me?” I ask, trying to brush off that weird thing about how cute my blood is. “If you had it now, would you leave me alone? Because you were just saying you needed to drag me to the Sanctuary, and I don’t see how that changes unless you can do something dangerous with it.” I don’t want to be trapped in another glorified cell when I only remembered what freedom felt like a couple months ago.
His shoulders slouch. “Just dragging you to the Soul Sanctuary and calling it a day is what I’ve been trying to avoid this whole time, if I can help it,” he says. “I can’t just find you at the drop of a hat, but if I knew where to look or had one of your feathers, it’d mean I could if I needed to, and that’d mean just seeing how things turn out would be fine. Well, not like I want your feathers now that I know it’d hurt you, but yeah, I would leave you alone if I had one.”
“…Alright,” I breathe, wrapping my arms around myself. “Let me think.”
How bad would that be? There’s so much I don’t know… how long do these feathers last once I bleed them? What could they be used for other than stalking me? How closely does the Seraph plan on watching me once he has one, and what would he do to me and my life if he decides I’ve crossed some other line?
But if that’s it, if that’s all it would take for this nightmare day to finally be over…
“If I do this, if… can you promise you’ll leave my home alone? And that neither you or any of your friends have any weird blood-magic rituals they could target me with if they get mad at me?”
“Of course,” he agrees outright, a spark of enthusiasm in his voice. “I don’t plan on showing it off to anybody else anyway.”
“Showing it off… fine, nevermind. Can you swear that?”
“I swear it.”
Only there’s no weight behind those words, no subtle shifting in the air. Is he playing dumb? Did he think I wouldn’t be able to feel the difference? I’m certainly not good enough with people to tell, but… benefit of the doubt. Just for now.
“The way you did it before, please,” I say, keeping my voice as level as I can. “The binding way. If you want assurances, fine. That’s fair. I think it’s also fair if I want to make sure I’m not baring my throat by giving them.”
“Oh.” His response is flat. After a brief pause, he lets out a long sigh as he strokes the back of his hood. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s not that simple.”
“Why not?” I ask, shifting a hand to the cane at my side.
“Like, I just casually did that before, but that’s because it was a simple and clean situation that got sorted out then and there. I don’t know exactly how things are going to play out from here, so making a binding pledge just like that could be really dangerous. You can’t take them lightly.”
I suck down a long, slow breath through my mask. “…Fine,” I say. “Committing to something complicated for the rest of forever is a big deal. I can see that. We can make it more specific, then. How’s this? Tonight, I’ll give you my blood. Tomorrow morning or as soon as she’s available, I’ll talk to Niavh about all this. What’s been going on with me, what just went on with you, what I’m thinking about how to stop being so terrible.” Maybe she hates me after what I did to her sister. I don’t know. If she does, at least she’d have the right to judge me. “And I’ll tell her if you ask, she should feel free to share anything about that conversation she thinks is important and say so if she thinks I’m still a problem. If she doesn’t, you destroy the feathers. If she does… do whatever you want, I guess.”
“I can agree to all that, but that doesn’t need me to seal a binding pledge,” he argues. “There’s so many conditions to consider, like what if Niavh never gets back? And… I just don’t feel comfortable making an oath like this. I did it before out of courtesy, but it’s just not a good idea here. Not unless we, say, go to the Soul Sanctuary and have Scolai draft out a contract for us or something.”
“Right, then…” I sigh harshly, clench both hands tightly around my cane, and push myself upright. “Things are complicated. Magic is complicated. I understand that. Which is why I don’t feel comfortable giving up something that could end up being out there as a weight over my head forever. So rather than leaning on magic, why don’t you just… call Niavh right now and confirm everything yourself?”
“…She’s not available. No one can contact her right now,” he says.
“Why?” I press.
He strokes the chin of his mask for a moment. “I guess this was part of the press releases, so it’s not exactly private. She’s undergoing an evaluation at Alelsia. You know, as part of her rehabilitation.”
“And she doesn’t have her phone on her?” The frustration is raw in my voice.
“You can see why it didn’t add up when you mentioned her before…” he trails off.
Just my luck. I can’t even reach the one person who offered to help me who might truly understand what I’m going through in the moment I need her the most. My mind races through alternatives as I grind the bottom of my cane into the pavement.
What about the one Keeper I did explain my problems to? Does she count for anything?
It’d feel bad to drag Aisling into this. She has nothing to do with my mistakes. This isn’t her problem, I’m not her responsibility, and I really don’t want to give anyone a reason to think otherwise if this blows up into some awful public spectacle.
But if I do bring her up, I can prove that I was already talking to someone about my horrible power and how to use it better. There’s a real chance that makes my case enough for him to back off a little. Even if it doesn’t, what’s the worst-case scenario for her? I’m certain us having talked without her immediately calling the Church on me wouldn’t make her somehow culpable for my actions, and I don’t think she’d care if the Seraph’s fans hear the story from him and decide they hate her.
…The only thing is, Aisling knows where I live. If the Seraph can’t get from me that the only place I can possibly live is a hospital, could he get it from her instead? Maybe she’s not so happy with me after I messed everything up when we went to find Isobel. Maybe she won’t risk herself for my sake by refusing if someone from the Church demands she tells them everything she knows about me.
No. I can’t think that way. I trusted her enough to tell her. She’s helped me even more than Niavh has in the first place. Even if she thinks everything I’ve done is stupid, she was still willing to trust and accept me. The least I can do is return the favor.
“Okay, then how about… Aisling Waite, Truth’s Lantern. I’ll call her instead. She’ll vouch for me.”
“You mean, like, using her power?” he asks, doubt creeping into his tone.
“No. We know each other. I talked to her earlier today about my plans. She can confirm everything I’ve told you about what I want to do.”
“Right, I suppose she was also at Missing Lake…” He crosses his arms. “Why didn’t you just say this before?” He sounds annoyed. That makes two of us.
“I just… I didn’t want to drag her down into my mess!” It hurts to say it out loud. “Is that good enough for you?”
The Seraph flexes his glowing wings silently, seemingly in thought. “…No. Just because she trusts you, doesn’t mean I should,” he finally concludes.
“—What?” My fingers tighten around the top of my cane like it’s the Seraph’s throat – or my own. “Why?! I get you can’t trust me, but why not Aisling? She literally can’t lie, and she knows if anyone lies to her. Everything she says is guaranteed trustworthy by magic itself!”
“Her ability is incredible, but flawed in all sorts of ways. There’s ways to fool it. And as smart as Truth’s Lantern is, that doesn’t mean she’s the best judge of character around, or that her judgment is completely unclouded,” he contends. “I mean, you only actually thought about this last night, didn’t you?” he tilts his head again. Casually, cutely. Like a bird examining a curiosity in its nest. “Old habits die hard, and you just now decided to quit this one. I’d feel safer with some actual insurance in place.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “I won’t just slip and accidentally steal someone’s health again. We’re talking about people’s lives, not biting my nails.”
“And that stopped you before?” he says like a knife slid between my ribs. “You mean you didn’t just slip and accidentally steal Mide’s health after all?”
“I did that in a Wound, with a pillar of garbage speared through my stomach! I’d be dead if I hadn’t. That’s not at all the same as thinking I’m going to accidentally eat someone on the way home,” I snap.
“Then show me how strong your resolve to change is.” He offers me an outstretched hand. “Prove to me you’re committed.”
I shrink away from his gesture, feeling ever more cornered against the vehicles he used to block my way. “I’ve already tried, but it’s apparently not good enough! You said you wanted to help me, but compared to everybody else, how I feel doesn’t matter to you at all.”
“It’d be different if you actually wanted my help,” he says, calmer than ever. “But the people of New Claris need it. When it comes to magic, they don’t have a voice unless a Keeper gives them theirs. They’re more vulnerable than anyone, so shouldn’t we prioritize their safety?”
“…You’re right,” I say slowly. “About one thing. I don’t want your help. I don’t see how you can call what you’re doing right now helping.” He’s just shoving everything I’m trying to do and everyone who’s actually helping out of the way because they aren’t good enough for him, and at this point, I’m too tired to care what’s good enough for him. “And since you can obviously find me well enough to follow me around and see exactly what I’ve been through today, I really don’t think it’s a problem for you if I go sleep off the longest day of my life.”
A click of his tongue echoes huskily behind his mask. “Like I said before, I can’t just hunt you down like that, and I can’t leave things as is without some insurance. You know, all the people you’ve used your magic on up ’til now weren’t exactly comfortable with it either, princess. I’m giving you plenty of leeway as it is.”
“I know they weren’t,” I hiss. “But the only thing I can do about it is do better. Proving myself to your standards right this second won’t change anything for them. So I’m going home. I’ll reach out to Niavh when I can. I don’t need some deal for that to be the right thing.”
“That’s not the only thing you can do and you know it… Hey,” he calls out. “Where do you think you’re going?”
I’ve already filled my legs with a little health, turned around, and leapt up onto the hood of one of the cars the Seraph used to block my way. “Away. Don’t follow me. I’m done talking in circles.” I hop off the other side of his makeshift blockade and start marching back to the seventh floor. If he doesn’t get the hint and keeps tailing me… I’ll figure something out. Maybe I’ll call Aisling for help after all.
And that’s when a shimmering blur like a mirage spreads out across the street beneath me, forming a puddle of agitated air. When it passes over my boots, their color seems to smear through the air. I can barely tear their soles from the ground. My footfalls become heavy, and I stumble slightly at the sudden resistance to every stride I take. It reminds me of Seryana’s grip hanging off my body, weighing me down.
My shadow on the road in front of me lengthens as it’s slowly haloed by a deepening crimson light. I force my neck to turn, glancing behind me to see the Seraph has risen into the air, his wings of sculpted radiance unfurled. With a wave of his hand, the two car barricade parts and the vehicles return to where they were parked before, lifting off the ground in the process just enough to avoid their tires skidding against the pavement.
“We’re still not done here, princess.”
I gulp through gritted teeth. A few minutes ago, he seemed fine with me going on my way, but he stopped me then, too. Was he trying to mislead me back then? Why is he so persistent? My knuckles go white from the strain of my grip on my cane. I want to take it and thwack him over the head with it.
I try to think of something, anything I could say to make him understand, but the words won’t come. Every idea just crashes against the feeling that I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to keep talking. I don’t want to be looked at by judging eyes. I don’t want to be confined again. I don’t want to keep burning my retinas on the glare of his wings. I just want this to be over. I just want to go home.
I know it’s my own fault. I earned this suspicion, this contempt. I knew this could happen. I knew all my mistakes could catch up to me one day. I expected them to, even. But the part of me that’s so scared of everything it causes me to corner myself again and again just won’t let me turn around and give him a feather.
And as much as fear strums against my nerves, another emotion has been heating up inside me every second this conversation has gone on. A scorching feeling that, even when I have something I can actually aim it towards other than myself and my farce of a life, always ends up burning me to cinders in the process. I hate this feeling, but that just makes it even stronger.
“I’m done here,” I say, concentrating that feeling between the tips of my fingers as I conceal them close to my chest. I test my legs against the force of the glassy haze holding me to the street. The blur only reaches a little above my ankles, and the space it covers is not much bigger than a puddle left behind after a light rain.
“If you’re gonna act like you’re free to do whatever you want, then I’ll do the same,” he shoots back.
I don’t bother to find out exactly what he means. I just act. I swivel on my hips and fling the tarot card in my hand at the Seraph behind me.
“Whoa!” he shouts as he turns aside in midair to dodge my surprise attack. In the moment he’s caught off guard, I flood my frail legs with life and force them above the shimmering air that was weighing me down with a leap. Like I thought, the moment I’m outside the area of that mirage, my movement returns to normal. When my feet touch down on the street beyond, I make a break for it, dashing away as fast as my strides will carry me.
“Aw, come on, princess,” he calls out in lament. “Why we gotta do this the hard way?”
Maybe I’m just making everything worse for myself like usual, but if the only options he’s giving me are bad ones, what’s even the difference? If I just give in, I’ll have no choice but to go along with whatever he wants. He’s bigger than me in every way; at the end of the day, he’s the one with the final word. If I escape, there’s at least a chance things will go my way. If he catches me, he’ll just do whatever he planned to do from the start, so I might as well try.
All I need to do, then, is figure out how to get away from someone who can fly, and who seems to be unbelievably faster than I am. Which sounds like a terrible plan, but what else can I do? I’ll just need to hide somehow. If he wasn’t lying about having trouble finding me without one of my blood-feathers, then maybe he won’t be able to sense me if I dismiss my regalia.
And then what?
…Sorry, Aisling. I may have to drag you into this after all. She should still be awake? She might still be waiting for me to call her back with an update on the Seryana situation, and she doesn’t look like she sleeps all that much anyway. Maybe if I can meet up with another Keeper, the Seraph will stand down for now.
With that in mind, I shift my attention back to my pursuer. I feel him getting farther away with every step I take, but his presence remains, looming at my back, though not nearly so oppressively as when we were face to face. I turn around to see what he’s up to, and I find… a vacant street, stretching past the rubble Seryana was born from.
I look ahead to make sure the Seraph hasn’t zipped in front of me like the last time I tried to get away from him. Since I started running, I’ve been planning to double back and wind down the side streets when he does it again… but he’s not moved to cut me off, either. In fact, the red glow of his wings is no longer flooding the streets with its radiance from anywhere. Still, just to be sure, I look up.
Nothing but tall buildings and the night sky.
I skid to a halt and look back behind myself a second time. The Stardust Seraph has disappeared into thin air. But I can still sense traces of him lingering in the background like the distant hum of traffic beyond my seventh floor window. I don’t know where he’s gone, but I don’t let my guard down. It’s never that easy.
I focus on his aura amidst the chorus of everything around it. It pulses through me as though alive. I think back to Seryana’s death, the way he appeared from nowhere when I first saw him.
“I know you’re there!” I call into the night. “Go away already!”
“Wow, your senses really are good, huh?” his disembodied voice casually replies. Above and before me, the air contorts in the shape of a silhouette. As if it were painted on to the world, the scenery of the streetway I see peels away to reveal the form of the Seraph float there, now wingless. He’s taken a lounging posture in the air, laying on his side while propping his head up with his hand. “Well, I should have expected. This usually only works when they don’t know I’m around.”
I’ve never been sure if my magical senses are only unusually good at sniffing out Harbingers. I’m still not. But for a trick like that, at least, they’re enough. My soul sees so much more than my eyes.
“Was hoping you’d think I didn’t have the guts to fight another Keeper and gave up after a little show of force. But in a way, I’m glad you hold me to a higher standard,” he says, flipping over in mid-air as he corrects his hovering posture. “I didn’t come here wanting to be your enemy, you know, but you’re not really giving me much of a choice.”
“Then just leave me alone!” I cry out, my voice trembling from the strain of everything I’ve gone through today.
He lets out a sigh of frustration. “I can’t just let you leave when you might be a threat to public safety.” He says, sweeping a flattened hand from his chest outwards. With just that gesture, feathers of red light blink into being all around him and quickly spiral back into the shape of his wings. “Which, by the way, is looking even more likely now that you just went and attacked me. I can’t afford to give you the benefit of the doubt. Not when someone else might be the one who pays the price.”
I glower up at the Seraph, fling another empty card at him, and move to bolt down the nearest alley. Before I even get there, however, a roll-off dumpster lined up against one of the buildings that make up its sides skids out to cram the entire pathway. I keep running forward, preparing to try and vault over the latest obstacle the Seraph has put in my way, but before I can, the dumpster’s top flings open and stands at attention, becoming too tall for me to reasonably clear with a natural jump. Not unless I feel like getting mixed in with all the other garbage.
“Where are you gonna go, anyway?” he questions. “You can’t get rid of me. Anyone who sees us will understand the situation if I just explain who you are. This would’ve been so much easier if you just let me walk you home like we’re pals. We can still do that, you know. I can be discreet.”
“Yeah, you’ve really shown off your talent for that, you…” My thoughts race in circles as I do my best to catch the horrible feelings racing through me and put them to words. “You dick! You… walnut!”
…Where did that come from? Whatever. I’m too exasperated to even be embarrassed.
He floats there silently, bobbing up and down as though suspended by wires, seeming at a loss for words. This moment of grace ends all too soon. “…You know, I can’t even get mad when it’s your voice squeaking it out.” I really, really want to take my cane and thwack him over the head with it.
“Look, we can make this a fight if you really want,” he continues, “or I can just forget you lashing out those last two times, escort you home, and we’ll call it even. Last chance.”
He’s right. I could just let him walk me home. He’s a well known and trusted Keeper. His reputation is one of the best in the entire city. Just going by that alone, there’s no reason to distrust him. But he’s an asshole, so I do anyway.
I summon my tarot spread to answer his proposal. In an instant, a procession of twenty-two cards emerges from behind me and spirals around my body until it meets its end at my back, forming a ring.
The Stardust Seraph reacts immediately, putting distance between us. When he moves, he’s abruptly dragged backwards as though by an invisible rope around his waist.
Unlike the last two cards I’ve called out, four of this volley are already poisoned, drawn from the pool of cards I’ve infected preemptively in case I happen to get into trouble. Although I’ve been storing a full deck of cards filled with my plague on hand just so they’re ready to go when I need them to be, I didn’t want to have to use them on one of the biggest Keepers in the city if I could help it. If we really are going to fight, though, then I can’t hold back.
Yet Aisling’s words from earlier in the day still echo through my mind.
“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.”
A pit forms in my stomach where all my hopes for the future go to die.
“Well, you asked for it,” the Seraph says. “Sure, we can play a little bit.”
All at once, every card in my orbit is torn from its place, ripped right out from around me.
“I wanted to see what you could do anyway. This is as good a chance as any.”