My dad took me to a museum for my birthday once. Before my illness truly started to take its toll. Before I truly understood what it meant to die. Back when I still had friends. Even though it couldn’t have been more than a few years ago, it feels like such a long time has passed since then. But then, “a few years ago” could cover an entire third of my life.
The museum was dedicated to the studio behind a particular animated movie I was obsessed with back then. The movie was about a group of secondary school girls from different walks of life coming together to join an expedition headed to the Freezing Sea. Each had their own reasons for coming along, but they all shared the same determination. The main character was just a normal teenage girl a little older than I am now, but she was convinced she wasn’t living her life to the fullest, so she wanted to make the most of her youth by getting involved with something big and going on an adventure.
At this museum, there was a weird little toy they had on display. They called it a “zoetrope.” There were eight cylinders mounted on top of each other like a wedding cake, each narrower than the one below it, and perched on top of each was a series of sculptures arranged in a circle. The sculptures were all of characters from the famous movies the studio had made. Each circle was dedicated to a different character, and only that character, each sculpture of them within their circle posed slightly different than the one beside it.
The whole arrangement began to spin. Faster, faster, until it was all nothing but a blur. Then, the lights started to flicker, and something strange happened. It looked like all the sculptures, each and every one, had come to life.
It was like how pictures in a flip book showed a drawing of the same thing on each page, but in just a slightly different pose or place, so when you flipped through, it looked like the image was really moving. These weren’t just pictures, though. They were really there, right in front of me. The flickering lights made the character’s motions stick in the eye for just a moment, giving the sense they were standing in place, while each sculpture was rapidly replacing the last one, making them appear to be moving on their own. It was mesmerizing.
I remember that day vividly. I remember how warm my dad’s hand felt in mine. I remember my friends staring at the display, just as fascinated as I was. It’s one of my happiest memories.
So of course I ruin that memory by recalling it now, as the Seraph’s crimson glow above and the dim light of the lamps lining the street dance off the shapes of the junk that’s come to revolve around me. It’s all like one big zoetrope, and I’m the centerpiece.
The first and lowest layer is the traffic cones, floating only an imperceptible sliver of space off the ground. They’re followed by the construction barrels behind and above them, forming a sort of wall. Then comes the plastic chairs, and between those and the tables they were originally arranged around are a few empty flower pots of different shapes and sizes.
There I stand, in the gaps in time the Stardust Seraph has spared me between hunks of plastic zooming through the air to barrel me over, processing what exactly I’m about to resort to.
I’m planning to infect another Keeper with the corpse-rot of a Harbinger.
I killed Yurfaln by slurping the illness it was born from into my own veins. The next morning, when I realized it was still eroding me away inside, I squeezed it from my body like I was draining an abscess and soaked up the corruption that spewed out with one of my cards.
Even months later, the disgusting sensation of when I dragged my first Harbinger’s remnants to the surface of my soul still lingers in my mind. I still have its disease stored away, waiting harmlessly within its card in some corner of my soul. I had planned on using it against Aulunla when it ran rampant in its final moments, but I ended up not needing to. Now, I have practically nothing to resort to but it.
Between the curse left on Yurfaln’s dying breaths and the twisted blessing Seryana’s heart granted me, could that be enough to overcome the Seraph somehow, someway, without risking spontaneous Emergence? It’s not pushing myself. It’s not plumbing new depths of my magic. It’s just… using something I have left over.
After snaking through the latest wave of obstacles the Seraph has sent whirling my way, however, I notice something bad. The Seraph’s layered rings of assorted clutter are slowly closing in on me. With each new volley that returns to its matching ring, the objects composing its layers press closer to the center – to me, trimming away what precious little space I have to maneuver. If I don’t act on everything I’ve been thinking about soon, I might never get the chance.
In the panic that follows that realization, one of the eight plastic tables in the outermost ring shoots towards me, clamoring as it knocks aside all the other floating objects separating us. I move to give the latest giant disk as wide a berth as possible, but that’s when I stumble, one of my feet cemented firmly to the ground.
I only notice the glint of agitated air that’s spread out across the pavement beneath me like an oil slick far too late. Just like the first time the Seraph caught me with this trick of his, I jerk forward, planting my free foot onto the street and the hazy puddle of his distortion. The blur is spread out over only a thin layer across the ground, but the force behind it is far more intense than the last time he tried to weigh me down. I’m stuck like a bug caught in fly paper, and the Seraph is bringing his swatter down on me.
I don’t know if it’s a trick of my own mind as it hopelessly watches disaster draw closer with each moment, or something the Seraph is making happen, but the table coming at me seems to slow down, if only by a margin. It’s about level with my waist, and its legs are folded into its bottom just like the Seraph has done with the others. Even with my movements restrained like this, I could easily duck under the table – I’ve done it several times already. If I do that now, though, I’ll be right where the Seraph wants me.
If my hands touch the ground at any point, they’ll be glued to the street the same as my feet. I’m not exactly the picture of dexterity on my best days, and if I try just to crouch while my boots are fixed awkwardly in place, I risk losing my balance and touching the ground with even more of my body anyway. Even if I pulled it off, I’d still be left with no way to protect myself against whatever the Seraph tries to hit me with next while I’m trying to stand back up. In the first place, he could always just stop the table over my head and lower it down on me until I was forced to touch the ground and there would be nothing I could do.
So I can’t duck. It’ll all be over if I do. But if I let the table hit me, I’ll be knocked flat against the street anyway, and I can only hope the distortion or my boots have enough give that my ankles don’t shatter in the process. There’s no way out. The Seraph is trying to checkmate me here. Is that why the table seemed to slow down, because I’ve already fallen into his trap?
But there’s something different about this distortion from the last one the Seraph used to weigh me down. There’s no uncomfortable sensation of my toes being scrunched against the footbed of my boots.
Right. The blur seems stretched flat over the street like a plastic film. Maybe lessening how much space the distortion covered is why it’s so intense compared to last time, and allowed the Seraph to unfold it under me more quickly? Whatever the case, I can still move my feet just fine. It’s only my boots that are fixed in place at the soles.
And my boots are just a part of my regalia, something I can conjure or dismiss as I please.
Right as the spinning table is about to slam into my stomach, I lunge forward in the very same instant I will my boots to disappear. In the next moment, my face smacks the slightly dusty white surface and I feel myself begin to revolve.
I made it. I’m splayed out across the table now, however precariously. Hanging on for dear life, I raise my eyes and force down the nausea that comes with watching the world swirl past me in a blur. Flooding my limbs with yet another injection of stolen life, I pull myself to my knees and try to get my bearings. No matter where my eyes land as the table spins and spins, there’s only one direction where the wall of the Seraph’s rubbish-zoetrope seems to be getting closer.
But my escape hasn’t gone unnoticed. I feel the table begin to tilt to one side as if to spill me off, causing the shaky platform I’ve made of it to become more unstable than ever before. Right as the table is about to flip completely on its side and send me tumbling to the pavement, I time my jump and leap off its surface into the Seraph’s rings of junk, using the height the table gives me to bound over the ring’s first hurdle, the traffic cones. As I pass over them, the cones all shoot straight upwards as one to try and catch me.
“Gah, damn!” the Seraph yells out from behind as the first ring misses its mark. I touch a foot down on top of one of the construction barrels on the next layer over and immediately jump forward again, but the moving drum is no steady foothold. My “immediate jump” is more like a planned toppling off its side, sending me hurtling toward the concrete below.
I’ve fallen hard and fast like this before. The first time was in Yurfaln’s Wound, the second was in Aulunla’s. Both times, I landed on my wrist at a bad angle, spraining it. Not this time. As if by reflex, I instead try and twist in the air like a cat so that I land on my feet, resummoning my boots in the process.
Without Yurfaln’s power guiding me, it’s not a perfect landing, but I still manage to catch myself upright before stumbling forward and rolling into the fall. The moment my soles touch the asphalt again, I disregard the throbbing jolt that shoots up my legs to nest in my knees and just keep rushing forward, sucking in deep, ragged breaths my dwindling supply of health just can’t seem to suppress.
Behind me, the clatter of every plastic chair in the entire third layer slamming down at once resounds, too late to catch me. In front of me, the seven tables remaining in the outermost ring, all rolling through the air on their sides like a procession of wheels, begin to descend in tandem, but I slip through their line just before they manage to entrap me.
Beyond lies a blissfully vacant street. I dash into it with a desperate burst of speed. With each footfall, I summon tarot card after tarot card, all uncorrupted by my sickness. I let the intangible anchor point of gravity the Seraph has been using to disarm me drag each of them in. One after another, the cards slip away, darting backwards and through the gaps between the jumble of debris I just escaped to join the rest of the cards I’ve conjured…
—Until one finally doesn’t.
It’s hard for me to judge exactly how far I’ve managed to get away from the Seraph and the intangible point that’s stealing my cards, but I’ve run at least as far as when he tried to pull his invisibility stunt on me. At this distance, however, my cards are no longer being torn from my grasp.
After all, when he caught up to me after vacuuming up my plague-mists, why did he bring the point my cards are drawn to along with him? I’d think it would be safest for him to direct the cards as far away from himself as possible, so that whenever I try to snipe at him from the ground, my attacks fly wildly off-course.
But what if that was as far as he could reasonably place the point away from me? Could there be a range limit? That’s what I thought, or at least dared to hope might be the case. I can feel the point my cards have been magnetized to and it hasn’t changed in intensity since it appeared, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t strengthen it if he wants. Maybe he just doesn’t feel the need?
No matter how lethal some of his attacks have seemed, he’s still been toying with me this whole time, trying to cow me into giving in. As infuriating as it is to admit it, the fact he thinks this is hopeless for me might be the only reason I have any chance of winning at all. But that’s exactly why I’m going to take every inch of leeway his smug attitude has gotten me and shove it straight down his throat.
That’s when I feel a sharp tug on the latest card I’ve spawned between my fingers. It’s immediately torn from my grip and flits back in the Seraph’s direction, as though snagged in the winds of a hurricane. I turn back to see the card swallowed up by the Seraph’s ring of junk, now having risen up like a wave – a great wall of debris floating through the streetway, gradually advancing towards me.
Though his body is obscured, the red light of the Keeper himself shines forth beyond. It’s obvious he’s brought the anchor point snatching up all my cards with him. Or points, I should say, given he made a second one to split apart my blank and blighted cards.
I run in the opposite direction, putting enough distance between me and the first anchor point that I can call my cards again without fear of having them ripped out of my grasp. I need them to be free at first. My plan is a gamble, and it’ll take everything I’ve gained up until now to do it. Even then, I’m not sure it’ll work, but I at least have to try.
Suddenly, the familiar sensation of cold lightning whips up my spine. One of the Seraph’s points anchored to the objects he’s levitating is darting towards me at frightening speed. I sidestep as I continue to run, and a traffic cone flies straight past me and down the length of the street like a javelin, missing me by inches.
Of course he wouldn’t just leave me alone to do whatever I pleased…
One, two, then three more points launch out from Seraph’s wall of improvised ammunition, and I run in a jagged zigzag to evade the plastic junk they carry with them, pushing myself to go faster, harder to make up for the ground I’m losing by curving my path. Two more cones shoot by, vague blurs in the night, followed shortly by one of the chairs. This last round the Seraph fires off is different, however; after the chair passes me by, it halts some distance away from me, hanging in the air on its back as if someone had pushed it over and it decided it would rather float there than hit the ground.
With no more warning than that, the chair lunges, sweeping towards me with its legs poised to rake me backwards like a claw. I’m ready for it, though, and narrowly manage to slither past its course.
My head swims. I must have run almost a block since the Seraph first started chasing me, maybe more. But his anchor point feels a bit farther away to my senses than when I was outside its range. It’s now or never. I summon fourteen of my eighteen remaining blighted cards while I keep on running.
I shut my left eye, giving its sight to one of them – the Hanged Man. Its image is of a vaguely human figure suspended in the sky, staring down in horror at an endless expanse of bizarre nonsense shapes.
The darkness occluding half my vision is flooded once more with the dim illumination of the streets as Irakkia’s power divides my perspective between two different views. Before I can get disoriented, I beckon the Hanged Man to float right in front of my closed eye, letting me see almost normally for the moment, then stack the remaining thirteen blighted cards behind its back.
I come to a stop and nearly keel over. My body is slick with sweat and my lungs are screaming for more air than my puny gasps seem able to provide. I’m so tired. I just want to be home. But because the Stardust Seraph decided to be a bastard tonight, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to keep going. And because he’s put me through this, I don’t care what I have to do – or what I have to put him through – to end it.
I turn around and duck as another cone shoots my way, barely missing me. Its square-shaped base catches on my hood and pulls it back as it goes. My hair flutters in the whoosh of air that follows its wake. Ahead of me, the Seraph’s advancing wall of junk looks just as if he’d unraveled the ring he’d trapped me inside and started pushing it forward.
There’s a high-rise to my left; I part the Hanged Man from my eyelid and send the fourteen card pile it leads to scale up its side. The Hanged Man’s viewpoint is pressed nearly up against the building’s windows when I will the cards to climb, showing me a glimpse of each floor’s office space with every story it passes.
Once they get high enough, they should be outside the range of the Seraph’s gravity. He’ll almost certainly still be able to sense them coming, gorged on my plague as they are, but that’s fine. It’s best if he does. But it’ll all be for nothing if the cards end up back in his anchor point’s range before I want them to, so I give the Seraph a reason to stop in his tracks. I turn to face him.
This entire confrontation, I’ve just been running away over and over again, trying to put distance between us. It was right of me to. I’m not meant to fight face-to-face. I’ve realized that obvious truth by now. It’s not in my nature to be physical, or to attack head on. My body, my illness, my life all reject it at every moment. I hate it. I hate the throbbing aches wracking through my body with every step I take. I hate how the cold night air needles against my raw throat. I hate the disgusting way my regalia feels sticking to my skin from all the sweat. I hate the inexplicable taste of blood in my mouth on my rough, dry tongue. I hate the sound of my own heart drumming relentlessly in my ears.
I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. If I get out of this alive, I’m never going to let myself fight like this ever again.
But right now, with my back against the wall, there’s no other option.
And despite everything else, it is my nature to push myself too hard.
So taking one deep, final breath, I charge.
The Seraph’s wall of junk halts in place. The tips of the traffic cones on the frontmost layer all point at me like a phalanx lowering their spears. One of them launches directly at me; I weave to the side to dodge. Then another comes, and another, and I dodge and I weave and I stumble over my own feet, but no matter what I just keep running forward.
In the meantime, the Hanged Man reaches the roof of the building. It’s a strange, awkward experience looking at two entirely different places at once: the sight in front of me, and the sight of the Hanged Man floating above. Sacrificing half my vision to do it doesn’t help. But I can feel how far my cards are away from me, and with Irakkia’s power showing me their surroundings, I can direct them with precision from a distance. I will the Hanged Man and the cards it leads to move over the Stardust Seraph’s position and then devote the rest of my concentration to surviving the Seraph’s next assault.
Just in time, too, as the Seraph catapults half of his gathered construction barrels at me all at once in a scattershot barrage. Rather than try to vault over one of the drums roll-bouncing close to the ground, I shield my face and try to ram past one of the higher-flying ones. I’m instantly knocked off my feet. Even with all my stolen strength, even with a hollow object like that barrel, my body is just too small, too light to ever take on something that big headfirst. But ignoring the throb in my arms from the impact, I bet on the slightness of my body and lean into the collision.
I roll backwards and catch myself, returning to my feet in one rough motion, then immediately keep rushing forward. My elbows sting after scraping against the street during the act, and I can see black feathers peeking out from tears in my sleeves, but I don’t have the stored health to spare on soothing them right now. I’ve been burning my supply at an exhausting rate that’s only gotten faster the longer this has gone on.
I’m close now. I can feel the fringes of Roland’s intense aura bearing down on me again. Just a bit further. I need to position myself so he’s sandwiched between me and the anchor point where he’s drawing all my blank cards, like I did the last time I attacked him.
There’s a pause in the movement of the anchor points the Seraph is using to direct the plastic objects, but only for a moment before I sense his next ploy. He’s calling back the construction barrels he just volleyed at me. I look over my shoulder to see the drums being arranged in two rows, one stacked atop the other, forming a wall that then immediately begins rushing towards me. It’s the same trick as when he sent that chair while I was running away, then called it back to try to drag me in with it.
The blockade of gathered debris the Seraph has erected in front of me isn’t without gaps, but it’s already begun to lurch forward to wrap around me in a ring once again. It’s just like him to cut off every route of escape.
But the Hanged Man is already in position, hauling on its back a stockpile of thirteen more tainted cards, looming above the Seraph the same way he’s loomed above me from the start. I turn the Hanged Man’s face to look at my enemy and find the visor of his mask already looking back. He unravels his folded arms and gives my cards a friendly wave. His audacity is unreal.
I’m going to make him pay for it.
The half-deck of blighted cards scatters above the Seraph, moving to angles that put him between them and the second anchor point – the one he used to separate my blank cards from those instilled with my scourge. It’s situated on the street directly below the first point, poised to drag all my blighted cards to the ground. That means the only way my blighted cards can reach the Seraph is by attacking from above.
At my command, four of those cards slip into that second anchor point’s range, raining down on the Seraph. I detonate them one after another – one below and behind him to his left, one above and behind him to his right, one below and before him to his left, and the last above and before him to his right. The emerald clouds expand outwards in every direction until their vapors merge, enshrouding the Seraph from every angle.
Simply detonating my cards doesn’t push me nearly enough to threaten spontaneous Emergence, either; they were already created with my magic some time ago, and that’s where most of the effort was spent.
In the brief moment the Seraph is distracted, I dive through a gap in his oncoming wave of debris, slipping between a cluster of rubbery traffic cones and coming out the other end. I hear the stacked wall of construction barrels that was chasing me join the pile with a crash.
The blaring sensation of my enemy’s presence falls over me. Looking up, I watch as one side of the giant veil of plague-mist implodes in on itself, tearing a massive rift in its surface. There the Seraph floats, twirling his pointer finger as he beckons the same sort of pinprick hole-in-the-world he used to clear out my fog last time.
He cranes his neck to look at me with wings outstretched, but seems to hesitate, calling out to me instead. “Wait, your hair…!”
I don’t hear him. I just act. I call down another one of the ten remaining cards I arranged above him, drawing it into his second anchor point’s range from an angle that’s sure to pass directly through his current position.
Noticing my attack, the Seraph lets out a harsh sigh as he dismisses the black dot and rushes directly at me, his mask drawing close as if to make me flinch. I was already prepared for him to do that, though. Before I get the chance to conjure one of the four blighted cards I still have in store so I can detonate it right in his face at point blank range, however, the Seraph has already bounded backwards and away from me. But I do it anyway; I spawn in another tainted card and unleash the incarnated disease inside before it can be dragged away, if only to put another obstacle between him and me.
Just the same, I trigger the card I beckoned from above to detonate as he passes below it, but he’s too quick for it to catch him. A shocking chill down my back warns me of one of his attacks, and I skip backwards just in time to dodge another plastic chair lashing out from his wall of road-junk, its shape darting out from the depths of the murk and fading back into it as it passes.
Evading yet another of the Seraph’s salvos of plastic, I call down my blighted cards from overhead in sequence. As they explode in turn, I watch from both my own free eye and the eye I’ve given to the Hanged Man as the Seraph streaks through the air like a ribbon of red light, avoiding the resulting masses of infectious smog. I plan each of my cards’ courses and detonations so that they’re both a threat to my enemy and cut off as much of the space he has to maneuver as possible. He’s had his fun forcing me to dance: now it’s my turn to overwhelm him.
The street is becoming engulfed in my fog, obscuring the light of the streetlamps, the Seraph’s wings, and the great quilt of stars above. But my enemy and I don’t need light to see. The senses of our souls pierce through the choking mist and darkness, telling us where the other is, and more importantly, where we’re attacking from.
As staggering as the Seraph’s aura is, almost an assault on my awareness entirely on its own, right now I can see its bare fury for the disadvantage it is. I know exactly where he is and can direct my overhead cards accordingly. Even lacking clear sight of my surroundings, the vague impression his anchor points provide is enough warning to dodge them whenever he sends them at me.
All the same, I’m little better. Despite not being able to see me, he can certainly sense me well enough to direct his attacks through the pall of my plague-mists. The lack of visibility doesn’t seem to be doing his aim any favors, though. Small blessings.
Four more cards and four more clouds of condensed blight crowding his airspace is enough for the Seraph to decide he’s fed up with my tactics. He soars upwards, above the murk now flooding the streets and beyond the pull of his second anchor point, the one attuned to my blighted cards; it’s the first time he’s dared to leave its safety.
I immediately will the five cards I still have above to home in on him, the Hanged Man leading the charge. My cards burn green in the night sky, painting emerald streams in their wake as they pursue the Seraph’s spiraling trail of red, almost matching his speed.
Outside the area controlled by the second anchor point, my cards are free to move however I will them, especially with the viewpoint that Irakkia’s power grants me. The Seraph tries to break my fix on him with swift and jagged maneuvers, but my cards splinter off from each other and pursue him from different angles, flying to cut him off at where he will be while the Hanged Man remains hot on his tail. He’s as slippery as ever, though, and I only have so many cards to work with, so he always seems to find an avenue of escape.
After a steep climb skyward, the Seraph suddenly dives down into a glide right above the edge of his second anchor point’s range, my cards right on his heels. At a glance, his movement seems inefficient, allowing my cards to close in on him, but I already have an idea of what he’s up to. I’ve been expecting it all this time. So I command my cards to break off their pursuit and ascend even before I sense his second anchor point leap up from its position on the street and swiftly shoot straight upwards, the span of its range moving with it.
But in the same moment, another cold jolt crackles up my spine. A construction barrel flies out from the depths of the fog. I sense it coming, but I stand there and let it slam into me. The impact sends my small body skidding across the street, but I don’t care. The Seraph wants to distract me, disrupt my concentration on what’s really important, but I won’t let him. My focus remains completely trained on directing my cards beyond the range of his gravity. I don’t need this frail little shell to do that.
The Seraph is trying to capture my remaining cards using himself as bait, goading me to waste them in a futile chase. But the fact he can move any of his anchor points however he wants isn’t news to me. In fact, I expected him to do it earlier, but instead he risked himself on a ruse like this.
After all, it’s what I’ve been waiting for.
While my cards in the air continue to ascend and spread out along the edge of his gravity, the Seraph lets himself fall down through a gap in the plague-mist pervading the streets, back into the range covered by the second anchor point. It now once again overlaps with the first, where a deck of my blank cards remains floating uselessly. His leg rests across the knee of his other, and his arms are casually folded behind his hooded head as he plunges into safety.
He seems vulnerable.
I pick my tattered body off the street and rush up beneath him.
Is now the time? Should I use it early?
No. Not yet. He’ll have more than enough time to sense it and dodge out of the way, and then I’ll have tipped my hand. The fact he has room to taunt me right now means he’s still in control. Stick to the plan.
I summon one of the last three blighted cards I still have stored, flinging it up at the Seraph. The spot where all my blighted cards will rush to has changed, but the Seraph has still carefully positioned himself to be level with the anchor point and a distance away from its center. My card almost immediately goes off course with no chance of hitting him, so I detonate it below him, stealing away just a little more space before my next move – the one that will decide everything.
Because at the same time, I’ve called down all five of the cards in the Hanged Man’s retinue remaining above, each entering the range of the anchor point one at a time, with the ones entering from higher above going first.
The first of these cards comes at him directly from above. Like the attack I made from below just now, it’s doomed to be dragged into the anchor point the Seraph has attuned to my cards and go wildly off-course, so I simply detonate it, sandwiching my enemy in the middle of these two clouds.
In tandem with the plague-mist on all sides from my numerous prior detonations, he’s completely surrounded by my scourge now. Unfortunately, even as more of my cards race into the enclosed space my ever-present fog has trapped the Seraph within, I already know he has an answer at the ready.
“Like I said before, this doesn’t work!” he declares with every bit of bravado he’s had since this struggle began. Like silent bursts of crimson lightning, six flashes flicker against the poisonous clouds above me where the Seraph hides, prefacing his inevitable escape. All around me, my plague-mist is rapidly sucked towards my enemy’s location.
He’s purging the area of the fog in the same way he’s done it before. Every moment, the prevailing mist grows thinner. All of my effort to lower this shroud will be canceled out seconds from now. What’s more, I sense the next two cards I sent the Seraph’s way being halted in place before they reach their target. I detonate them anyway.
The Hanged Man’s retinue has only two cards remaining, including its leader. Both of them have already entered the range of the Seraph’s anchor point and are racing towards him, the Hanged Man having taken the leap first. The two cards pass through the veil of smog into a gap the Seraph has carved into the mist for himself, a bubble amidst the gloom that grows larger with each second.
He floats there at the center, surrounded by six miniscule holes in space which inhale funnels of the plague-mist closing in on him from every direction. Four of the black dots are arrayed in a square-shaped formation with him at the center, while the other two are placed above and below him, sheltering him completely.
He revolves his right arm in a spiral with his index finger extended, pointing to the sky; a gesture that seems necessary for him to maintain the black dots. By contrast, his left arm was already midway through the motion of flinging one of his feathers at the Hanged Man the very moment it entered the bubble.
My final card enters the Seraph’s shelter amidst the noxious tempest upside down. It’s the last thing the Hanged Man sees: the Hermit inverted; a girl in filthy rags falling from the twin peaks of an upside-down mountain, grasping desperately for a formless point of light just out of her reach.
I shift the perception of my left eye to the Hermit in the instant before the Hanged Man is skewered by the Seraph’s feather of light, avoiding the sharp pain of my left eye being stabbed that would likely follow. My split vision twists and swims in nauseating, nonsensical loops as my perception jumps between the cards.
The Hermit’s first sight is the Hanged Man stuck in place, anchored to the spot where it was hit; this must have been the fate of the two cards that entered this bubble before now. I detonate the Hanged Man, but its expanding burst of plague-mist is immediately torn between the two nearest black dots and stifled without any hope of reaching the Seraph.
Past the Hanged Man’s dying wisps, the Hermit rushes forth, still drawn on the pull of the Seraph’s own anchor point.
The Seraph sends another scarlet feather to meet it.
I detonate it first, causing the Seraph’s feather to pass harmlessly through the fog.
But my left eye’s vision remains amid the vapors.
The Seraph evades backwards as the Hermit’s plague-mist expands, forced ever nearer to the murky limits of his shelter; even now, he continues the swirling motion of his right arm.
Instead, the Hermit’s plague-mist abruptly compresses into itself, almost as if sucked back into the card it sprung from to begin with.
The compacted vapors sculpt themselves into an upside-down human shape.
My shape, but just a little twisted.
The other me wears a lusterless, pitch black mourning dress. Her feathery white hair cascades down her form in a long, shaggy mane damp with a liquid like greenish-black ink. Her pale flesh is as translucent as a jellyfish’s, showing off the silhouette of her bones. She only has one eye – my left one – but it glows a poison-green brighter even than my own.
Seryana hunted by attaching herself to anchors and tormenting them through disposable effigies of herself. The power her heart granted me was to use instances of my magic as a channel, allowing me to act through them. This plague-self effigy is an expression of that.
My second self floats there upside-down, hovering as though buoyed by the wind. After all, I, my second self, am as mist or disease on the breeze. I, my second self, drift before the Seraph and summon one of the last two tainted cards I have in store, casting it at once at my enemy, who still floats between me and the anchor point he’s used to snatch them away time after time. I detonate it.
The Seraph throws his arms in front of his visor and folds his wings around himself as he rapidly descends. The black dots arranged throughout the bubble shift to follow, the entire central square formation diving alongside him to encircle the black dot that was previously at the bottom; these four outer dots begin to spin around this central dot, and together they all sink down, clearing away the plague-mist below as though drilling straight through it.
He was stopping my cards with his feathers the moment they entered the mist-bubble so that his little holes in the world could lap them up before the fog they created could box him in any further. Without those black dots dissipating the incoming plague-clouds as they come, there’s not enough room in here for him to easily dodge a blighted card going off at such close range, so his best bet was to make more as quickly as possible.
That bet pays off, leaving a wedge of newly-cleared space below the latest detonation for him to hide in. I can sense his obnoxious aura as it draws closer to my first self, still on the ground beneath. It won’t be long now.
In the next second, the Seraph calls down the black dot that was above the other five to descend into the latest cloud, siphoning it away.
At the same time, my second self lunges through the remaining murk. Once she gets close, I’ll have her conjure my very last blighted card and detonate it so close he’ll have no chance of escaping.
The Seraph’s left wing detaches from his back and comes apart into a tight whirl of glowing red feathers. They bundle and compress together in an instant to form a spear of crimson light. He thrusts his palm out in the direction of my doppelganger and the spear shoots forward, cutting through the mists and impaling her straight through the stomach.
I feel a phantom echo of my double’s pain, but while the agonizing sensation of my intestines being skewered and my spine being severed forces me to falter, it’s different from when Seryana destroyed the card I was seeing through a couple days ago. This pain lasts only for a moment before I cut the connection to my second self and sweep the pain out of my way. In the same moment, the Seraph’s black dots break through the veil of smog up above, revealing his shining figure once more.
I summon the Three of Swords: three thin blades like long, straight fangs, stabbed through a heart of mottled grey-brown clay and wrapped in blood-red tubes. The card I quarantined Yurfaln’s disease within when this all began, when I first fought a Harbinger two months ago. There’s no pull on it. Like I thought, the Seraph’s gravity isn’t affecting this card because its aura isn’t precisely the same as mine.
My effigy’s form collapses around the Seraph’s spear like a picture made of smoke. The Seraph clenches his outstretched palm into a fist, and the spear compresses into a shining orb that quickly shrinks into nothing; in its place is another pinprick hole in the world, which immediately sucks up my plague-self’s remains before vanishing itself.
The Seraph must have felt my doppelganger coming. But because his attention has focused entirely on countering me based on the motions of my magic this whole time, he notices the Three of Swords just a second too late.
I’ve only fought one other Keeper before, but I was able to catch her off guard, even though it seemed like she could still sense my attacks coming. In the end, this is the same way I beat her: I had to misdirect and conceal my real attack from the other Keeper to finally catch them off-guard.
The Seraph is an entirely different beast from Tetha, though. Trying the same thing over and over again would never work against him. Even trying a single new trick on him at once wasn’t liable to touch him. Even if he’s toying with me, it’s like he told me before: he’s still watching out. He’s still ready for anything I throw at him. I would need to surprise him at least twice to actually catch him unawares. Even that might not work, given the incredible talent he’s supposed to have.
So I prepared three surprises.
Without delaying a single moment, I fling the Three of Swords at the Seraph with every bit of force my thin arm can muster.
In the same moment, the Seraph turns in the air to face my direction, his remaining wing outstretched. With one great flap, his right wing unleashes a hailstorm of feathers. The Three of Swords sails past them as they rain down on me quicker than my eyes can follow.
The feathers pierce through the fabric of my dress and drag me back, forcing me to the ground and pinning me there. They surround me like flowers in a meadow. The air around them shimmers with a familiar tightness that makes my entire body heavy, restraining me from any movement. He’s caught me and there’s no escape.
My panicked gaze turns upwards. I see the Seraph floating above, the Three of Swords embedded in his armor. The corner of the card is lodged into his chestpiece. In the milliseconds which make up this seemingly endless moment, I watch him tilt his head down to regard it as if in slow motion.
Before I even trigger it to detonate, entirely on its own, as if by its own will, the Three of Swords bursts like a tumorous growth.
A smog-like mass so thick it looks like a floating globule of deep grey sludge spills forth into the world. The viscous essence presses itself to the Seraph’s armor in an embrace, seeping into every crevice until it’s completely soaked up.
A ripple pulses through the air, causing everything to go still. The smell of living death radiates outward.
“What, what is… gaugh, ghk, aaaugh!“
His aura recoils. All of his black spots collapse into nothing. The anchor points holding up the wall of objects he collected off the road all vanish at once, causing the rubbish that made it up to collapse to the street in a heap. The feathers of light pinning me to the street all pop into sparkling particles which wink out in an instant. The Seraph’s remaining scarlet wing explodes and scatters into a bevy of sparks just the same.
I surge upright as I watch the chaos unfold.
The Seraph floats there with his arms curled around himself, shivering, vibrating. With a fearful yell, his body is suddenly flung through the air, shifting wildly from one direction to the next. First he’s yanked to the side, then flipped upwards through a thin puff of lingering plague-mist, until finally his path spirals completely out of control and he plummets like a comet torn from the heavens.
With a sound like a hammer shattering against a boulder, he slams into the ground in the blink of an eye, as fast as I’ve ever seen him move, as if he was shot out of a cannon directly into the street.
The Seraph is splayed out across the pavement. He lies there motionless, like a dead bird. The tinted glass of his vizor is broken on one side.
Is he…? No. No no no he can’t be I couldn’t have. He’s a Keeper, he’s so much stronger than me and his soul is still there, he’s just…
…His fingers twitch.
Suddenly, his aura crashes back over me at full force, then fades, then howls outward again, flickering in and out like a dying lightbulb burning itself out. A powerful gust howls out from his fallen form, blasting through my hair and chasing away my emerald fog.
His voice rasps out, causing the air to tremble. A new fear coils around my heart like a vice. I race to stand before he does.
The Seraph picks himself up with his left arm alone. His right hangs limply at his side as he rises. There’s a pearly white bone sticking jaggedly out from the torn sleeve of his regalia. Little floating beads of red spill out from the wound, reflecting the light of the streetlamps in their oily, pearlescent luster.
The shattered limb quivers. The floating red droplets race through the air to return to the Seraph’s body. I hear him snarling with pain, followed by the sick cracking sound of the exposed bone snapping back into its proper place. His right arm remains slack and powerless.
He sucks in harsh, agonized breaths as he swipes away his hood and tears off his headgear. A long curtain of hair spills out in a flutter of silken strands, glimmering gold in the dim street lights as the helmet that contained it clatters to the road.
I’ve seen his face before, in advertisements and on the Church’s reef, but never like this. Standing here is like a moment frozen in time. I can’t look away. Past long eyelashes, a single red eye, as deep and brilliant as a ruby, glares out from behind his locks. Its utter loathing pierces me to my core, but its beauty draws me in, forcing me to drink in every detail as though I’m in a trance. I want to run, but my legs won’t move.
He’s bleeding from his forehead, a red mass oozing from his brow and clinging there as though suspended in space. His skin looks pale, ashen, and although it might be only a trick of what little light surrounds us, with each moment his complexion seems to grow greyer.
“You… what did, you… grrgh… aurgh!”
He grips his stomach with his good hand and bends over with his mouth wrenched open as if to scream, but no sound follows. Only a stream of clay mingled with seaweed and crawling with overgrown centipedes.
The many-legged vermin spill across the ground in a wild, writhing swarm, scattering in every direction. Behind each and every one of their monstrous fangs is a too-long, too-wide grin of shiny white human teeth.
The Seraph’s heave ends with a gagging wail of disgust and horror. He spits frantically, and as he does, his whimpers transform into a laugh I can’t comprehend.
“Heheh… heheheh… hahahahah!”
He looks up again. I can see the traces of a strained smile hinted at behind his hair. Past grey tears murky with dust, his gaze stabs through my skull like a shard of glass.
The glass vibrates a message into my brain, telling me to run.
But there’s nowhere to go.
Whether the Seraph’s laughter is born from his own feelings or those Yurfaln’s sickness imposed on him, I can’t begin to know.
His sludgy tears drip off his chin in thick wads. They dry in midair as they fall. When they hit the street, they sprout little insect legs and start scuttling around aimlessly, beeping shrilly as they rot into dirt and crumple away.
“I’ll kill you…”
It seems so obvious now.
You were in absolutely zero danger right then, by the way.
I never miss my mark. That’s just how it is.
Hah. Made you flinch.
Even when he couldn’t see me through my plague-fog, his feathers didn’t directly hit me.
Throughout this entire fight, the Stardust Seraph never once tried to kill me.
Because until this moment, I didn’t understand what it would feel like if he had really wanted to.
A memory flashes through my mind. The scene of two boys standing over a grasshopper with each and every one of its legs torn off, until it was nothing more than a sad little pellet that could do nothing but wait to die.
“I’ll kill you! You’re going to die alone…!”
The Seraph’s will envelops everything. The world around me deforms into a mess of bleary shapes. My knees hit the ground immediately. The ridges and bumps of the street dig past my stockings and into my skin. My shoulders slump. Heavy. There’s something heavy on every part of my body. Everything in my body is heavy too.
And then the heaviness vanishes, flickers out as the Seraph’s power briefly wanes. A moment of relief, as the Seraph lurches back… and then I’m crushed again, harder than ever. I can feel the blood in my veins racing to the tips of my fingers and the place where my legs touch the pavement. The beating of my heart strains against the weight.
Can’t breathe. The air in my lungs is heavy. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.
The blur vanishes.
I suck in a desperate gasp of air, only to have it slammed out of me an instant later.
A traffic cone rams into my stomach, sending me backwards. I land on a plastic table with its legs folded in that’s been slid behind me without my noticing. It lifts into the air with incredible speed, carrying me with it, before all the force hoisting it upwards abruptly vanishes. The table begins to plummet. I fall as well.
From my vantage in the sky, I see the Seraph holding his golden locks back as he pukes another river of clay and seaweed and happy little centipedes.
I blink, and he’s gone. In the next instant, I’m torn from the sky by my neck. Before I can process what’s going on, I’m slammed against a window that’s several stories off the ground. The building is the very same highrise I willed the Hanged Man to climb before.
The talons around my throat are the Seraph’s, of course. He has me in a stranglehold with his one good hand. He tilts his head to the side, looking more like a hungry hawk than ever. Cracks have formed across his leaden skin. Bits of his face have begun to peel off. The manic glare in his bloodshot eyes peeking out between the matted veil of his hair looks into me with a rage so cold it burns.
How is he still going, despite everything? How is he still so strong? This should be worse in every way than what I did to Tetha and yet he still won’t stop.
Gravity falls sideways, crushing my body against the glass. My limbs splay out helplessly. The force is so intense that I can hear the window cracking from the strain. I try to shriek, but my voice is smothered.
Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.
He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going t—
No he won’t.
I won’t let him.
I still remember my promise to myself, even now. Especially now, when this useless shell of mine fails me time after time.
Death is just a nightmare I woke up from a long time ago.
In this moment, I can feel the Seraph’s incredible life right next to mine like the heat of a sputtering torch struggling against a storm, waxing and waning, howling and groaning in equal measure.
I’m at my limit. Everything I did to get the Seraph to this point has pushed me to the very edge as well. One more step and I’ll fall. I know I will. I know if I do this, I’ll change. I’ll change, and I won’t be able to control it.
But I don’t care.
I will never die.
Glimmering tendrils of emerald mist snake from my broken body with relish, lunging right at the Seraph–
“That. Won’t. Work. Princess.”
—only to be wrenched backwards in the very next moment, never having reached their prey.
One of the Seraph’s anchor points has formed behind me, in the office past the glass of the window, dragging my intangible feeding-limbs into its grasp.
My heart falls down the pit in my stomach – the very same where all my hopes for the future go to die. My tendrils of emerald mist vanish with it.
The crushing pressure on my body slackens, allowing me to inhale a desperate gasp of breath, but I remain stuck to the window, unable to escape. The Seraph unhands my throat and lifts up his good arm. Behind him, a sparkle of light glimmers into being and extends into the shape of a long, glowing, blood red needle, like a small replica of the spear of light he used to end Seryana.
“You must have known how this would end. Yet you did it anyway. And here we are.”
I can only whimper out one thing.
“I don’t want to die.”
Warm tears stream down my face. I can’t contain them.
“I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die…”
I just wheeze it out weekly again and again, over and over.
“I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die…!”
My voice is a faint, eerie echo of itself, like a whisper trying to carry from too far away.
The Seraph goes still. His single ruby eye just stares into mine while I babble uselessly.
Seconds go by. The Seraph does nothing. My choked cry repeats into the night.
The Seraph’s good arm wavers at the shoulder. His fingers start to slouch. Suddenly, he reels, bringing his hand to his mouth, but he can’t hold it. He pukes again, another stream of gunk and centipedes exiting his throat and falling to the ground far below us. My repeated pleas end on a yelp of surprise as the floating needle of light pops out of existence. He floats there in front of me, gripping his chest piece. The only sounds that remain between us are our tortured breaths.
Then, in the distance, I feel something approaching us. Another presence. An intangible sense of smallness, of being regarded from on high as a tiny piece in a great design. A piece that doesn’t belong.
The Seraph seems to notice it too. The sliver of his lips I can see through his long hair twists into a scowl.
“…What a mess.”
All at once, I feel the force pinning me to the window dissipate. I let out a shriek of terror as I begin to fall, but even my scream is a muted whisper. I throw my hands up in front of my face and shut my eyes tight before the quickly advancing sidewalk, but the sensation of my body splattering against concrete never comes. I blink, and see I’m once again enveloped in a shimmer of distorted air. This time, though, it’s causing me to descend softly, gradually.
The Seraph descends with me. Once we’ve nearly reached the ground. He grabs me by the wrist and yanks me from the pillar of haze, throwing me to the ground behind him like a limp doll. I whine at the rough treatment, but looking past him, I can see that he was pulling me out of the way of the puddle of regurgitated clay I was about to land in.
The unfamiliar presence from before is drawing nearer.
“You know who that is?” he asks.
I shake my head, still in shock.
He smiles bitterly from cheek to cheek with sly, narrowed eyes. Even that nasty expression, rotting with Yurfaln’s curse, is strangely beautiful in the subtle red glow of his eye. “That’s Irida.” His voice is a frayed, vacant murmur. “If you think I’m bad… just think of what the one Keeper above me will do if she finds you.”
He holds out his good arm and forms a feather of light in his palm. “Like hell I’ll allow that.” He clenches the scarlet feather in his fist, its sharp edges digging into his flesh. Globules of floating blood which gleam strangely in the dim lighting rise up from between his fingers as the feather dissipates.
“Okay. You win,” he says, falling on his knees in front of me. “So I’ll give you a parting gift. No thanks necessary.”
He grabs me by the shoulder, pulls me in, and presses his bloodied fingers to my cheek, smearing something on my face.
Something in me screams to push him away, but somehow I can’t find the strength.
A red glow outlines my body for a moment, then fades away. My body already feels lighter somehow.
“Theeeere we go…” he says, patting my cheek. “That should make getting back home easy. Now get out of here.”
I just sit there in a daze, not entirely sure what’s happening. I don’t know what to do. What’s happening right now? Am I really free to go? Didn’t he want to take me in? No, something changed. Because that other presence is coming…
I wobble back to my feet on unsteady legs, but the motion itself is easy. Even as tired as I am, it feels like not even my own exhaustion is restraining me.
I look to the Seraph.
With no other option, I race off into the night.