I sprint aimlessly through the city, as lost as I was during my escape from the forest Harbingers’ realm. Away is the only direction that matters to me, so I race down the streets, putting all the distance I can between me and the Seraph, faster than I ever thought I could. Every stride floats almost effortlessly into the next. The last thing he did to me left me feeling… not quite weightless, not a spirit sailing through the night with no useless, broken body to hold her down and trip her over her own legs, but close.
…What exactly did he do? I haven’t looked back, but could he still be following me? Tracking me through the wisp of his power bearing me along? I don’t feel him moving, but…
Not long into my flight, a bright crimson burst illuminates the night from somewhere behind me. I glance over my shoulder, almost expecting another ambush, but find only a flash of fading light as the Seraph’s presence blinks abruptly out of being. I pause for a moment, making absolutely sure there’s no trace of him hiding among the faint auras of life in the city.
And as far as I can sense, he’s finally gone. The presence he said was the Silver General remains, but she’s heading for the scene of our brawl, not me. She’s not my problem. Unless the world has made me its new favorite chew toy, this fucking day is finally…
No. Not quite over. There was still another Harbinger attack in the hospital before I left. I called for help, no one should’ve been hurt more than they already were, but they’ve probably been on high alert since, waiting for someone to explain what was going on.
Okay. Whatever. That’s not how I wanted to give up my secret, but what does it matter anymore? Making this day a little longer is the very least of my problems, now. I don’t even know if they’ll let me stay when word of all the things I’ve done reaches them, and what am I supposed to do then? Go live with Dad and hope I don’t still have health issues the hospital could actually help with? Live on the streets, feeding myself with life stolen from anyone who walks by? Can I even do that? Run off into the forest where I belong?
Maybe it’ll count for something if they know me as the girl who killed both of the seventh floor’s recent Harbingers before they hear about how I turned the Stardust Seraph’s guts into centipedes. Even if I’m the one who brought Seryana there in the first place. Even if it’s a bad joke to think someone like me could help anyone but myself.
But I can’t stay out here forever, so I’ll just have to deal with any disasters that follow me home as they come. I fish out my phone, ask it for a route to the hospital, and start running again. Five blocks out, I stop on an empty street corner to isolate the Seraph’s enchantment and dunk it in rot until it disintegrates. I don’t think he’s following me, he should have more urgent things to deal with, but just in case he can use this to trace my path somehow, no reason to make it easy for him.
…But… if I ignore the tight pain lingering in my throat and the thick, crawling dread of knowing more clearly with every moment’s distance from fighting for my life that I’ve ruined everything again… it was kind of fun while it lasted. Much nicer than Shona’s travel spell.
And the moment it fades, my legs buckle beneath me. Numb tingling gnaws through my muscles. I summon my cane, and frantically fumble to catch myself with it, but my arms can’t manage even that much. It slips from my shaky grasp, clattering away as I land on my elbows with a new thud of pain and a tiny breathless yelp.
Of course that’s how this would go. Fine. Fine. After a moment to catch my breath, I reach inside to prop myself up with my well of health.
…Nothing changes. There’s nothing there. I somehow didn’t notice until I tried to use it, but all the life I stole, all the people I hurt… it’s almost all gone. I’m back down to the thinnest sliver of stolen essence after the Seraph burned my well… no, after I took all those unwilling sacrifices and threw them away for nothing. I did all the horrible things I’ve done just to end up back in that place where I can’t even walk somewhere without feeling like my bones will collapse and my body will disintegrate into a puddle of nothing-that-hurts.
I can’t find the strength to move, to scream, to do anything more than collapse here and cry. I wonder if I’m crying ink or black ichor or something. I scrape my face with the back of my glove, then lick it… I don’t know what I expected to be able to tell, but it doesn’t taste weird. There’s that, at least.
Finally — pushed along by the idea that even this late, someone will eventually find me like this and ask questions — I reach for my cane, gather the energy to shove my pain down, drag myself up on shivering limbs, and start the last stretch of the walk home. I dismiss my transformation after another block, leaving only my new cane, and pay no real mind to who might see me do it. I’m pretty far past the point where that matters.
I manage not to fall over myself again before I reach the hospital, but I still need to clean things up there. And hope Seryana didn’t hurt anyone else. In the circular driveway out front, an ambulance and police car are parked in front of the entrance with their lights blaring. I sigh, steady myself, and approach the paramedic standing watch at a healthy distance from the front doors.
“Excuse me! There’s a potential emergency here that hasn’t been cleared yet. We’ll have to ask you to leave until… oh.” He looks me over and cuts himself off. “Are you the Keeper we called to sweep this place?”
I tense up for a second before I realize they wouldn’t send paramedics to answer a call about a dangerous rogue Keeper. “No, but you can cancel it anyway. I’m the one who pushed the alarm. The Harbinger’s dead.”
The medic draws a little closer and crouches to around my level. “I’m sorry, miss, could you speak up a little?”
“Hm? Okay. I said…” Paying more attention to myself, I only hear a faint ghost of the sound I meant to make. “I said I’m…” My voice has never carried well, but I am speaking up, or at least doing what I’ve always done to make it louder. It’s just… not working. Did the Seraph hurt my throat more than I thought? No, that’s absurd. I live in a ward full of people whose sicknesses leave their voice weak and hoarse. They don’t sound anything like the distant, creepy almost-whispers coming from me now, no matter how hard I try to raise my voice.
Emergence that isn’t part of the normal growth process, isn’t especially likely to empower you, and may not align with what you’d actually want for yourself.
It makes sense, at least. I can’t say it’s some horrifying freakish mutation. What’s the point of being heard if no one listens to me anyway? I laugh to myself at that, though I can hardly hear it over even the dim ambient noise of the city, and brush away a few new tears.
“Is something wrong…?” the medic asks through an uneasy grimace.
“No, sorry, I just… Emergence. Wasn’t expecting it. Sorry,” I say. “Can you hear me alright like this?”
“Okay. I live here. The hospice ward on the top floor. A Harbinger I was hunting stalked me home — sort of, but… but how she worked isn’t really important here — and attacked a nurse I know. Um, that woman, do you know how she’s doing?”
“The Sanctuary’s keeping her overnight, but her vitals were stable when we found her.”
“Good. Alright,” I sigh. There’s something that could be worse. If I’d actually gotten someone who’s never been anything but kind to me killed… doesn’t matter. I didn’t. I don’t need to think about if. “Anyway. The Harbinger did it to get my attention. To provoke me. So I led her out, went somewhere empty, and killed her there. She’s gone now, and she didn’t hurt anyone else here. I think if she did, she’d have made sure I knew it.”
“…I see.” From his expression, I really don’t think he does, but that’s fine. I can’t be bothered explaining to a normal person how Harbingers talk to me. Or how well I seem to understand them. “That’s all good to know. While we have you here, could I ask you to search the vicinity and confirm that? Not to question your judgment — it’s just procedure for incidents like this.”
“No traces of her inside. If she had any other victims, they’re somewhere else.”
The medic glances back at the hospital, then shoots me an odd look. I think he was expecting me to actually go in and search for Harbinger traces.
“My senses are pretty good,” I say flatly.
“Well… alright, then. If you’re certain, we’ll go give the all-clear. Thank you for your service.”
I blink. What are you thanking me for? I didn’t do it for you. I’ve never done anything for anyone but me.
I don’t say that, of course. I just watch him on his way back to his van, then head inside.
It’s normal for the hospital to be quiet at night, but not for it to be deserted. Every desk and station that’s supposed to be staffed at all hours is left unattended. The long hallways I’d normally see someone cleaning are empty. I probably should’ve expected this. At the scene of a Harbinger attack with no Keeper around to explain what’s going on, it makes perfect sense to evacuate everyone who can safely leave, even if that’s obviously more complicated than most places in a hospital.
I wonder how the seventh floor’s doing. I wonder how all the patients with nowhere else to go, no one to take them there, or no way to leave without causing a health crisis have managed while I was away. I guess I’ll see soon enough. I make my way through the silent halls to the elevator, glaring at my reflection in the glass wall as it rises. My last wisp of black hair has gone white… right, thinking on it now, the Seraph did say something about that. Did he actually care? Would anything have changed if I’d told him “I’m at risk of spontaneous Emergence, can we reschedule our fight for a week from today?” rather than just kept fighting as hard as I could?
Not like it matters now. The elevator pings, and I step out into the seventh floor entryway. It’s just as quiet as the rest of the hospital and almost as empty — there’s an old man sleeping in front of the TV and one younger nurse looking after him.
“Liadain, there you are!” she calls softly. She freezes for a second, no doubt taking in the grey veins winding over my face, then collects herself and waves me over. “I’m… glad you’re alright. Does this mean they’re bringing people back in now?”
“Hi,” I say, as clearly as I still can. “And I think so? I don’t know where anyone else who left went, but…” Is there any point in playing things off as if they just let me back in, as if I had nothing to do with the alarm and this wasn’t all my fault? No, not really. “The responders outside were getting ready to leave, at least,” I say simply. “Actually, what’re you still doing here?”
She smiles a bit nervously. “Someone has to be on call, don’t they? A lot of our patients can’t just leave, and they obviously don’t want people coming through to pick them up at times like this. So one of us stays behind, just in case. I volunteered.”
“…Thanks,” I murmur. If anyone deserves thanks for all this, it’s her. All I did was bring Seryana home in the first place. She sat here, knowing there’d be nothing she could do if a monster came back through, and looked out for these people anyway. And I’ve never noticed her at all before. I don’t even know her name — I can’t see her tag from here. “I’m glad they weren’t alone. And, um…”
I pause, tripping over my own thoughts this time. Do I actually want to know what I’m about to ask her? What if I don’t like the answer? I don’t know how much more misery I can take today.
But my only alternative is to go hide under the covers, wait for the next terrible day to come and find me, and probably not sleep for worrying about it anyway. So here I go.
“Um, before I… earlier, I was looking for Noirin, but she was having a bad health day. Do you know how she’s doing? Is she around?”
“Oh! Yes, she came back up not too long ago. She should be in her room. I’m sure she’d appreciate it if you wanted to check in on her.”
It’s a relief that she’s okay, of course, but I’m not so sure about that. Do I even still want to talk to her? I guess I’d already done plenty of horrible things when I was planning to earlier. Nothing’s changed on that front except how likely my sins are to break down my door and drag me away. But… if even she wants nothing to do with me once I tell her how I’ve spent the last month, at least I’ll be sure I deserve it.
“It’s unlocked! Come in!” Noirin’s voice calls at my knock on her door.
As I step inside, Noirin smiles, waves weakly from her bed, and sets the book she was reading down in her lap. It’s Demystifying the Tarot, one of the first guidebooks every tarot person reads.
“Oh, have you gone all the way with the hair? I like it! That color really does suit you,” she says. If she has anything to say about the veins, she keeps it to herself.
“I’m… thank you,” I mumble. “How’s the book?”
“It’s interesting! I picked up a copy for my son, too — I always thought it was a bit of a shame when he gave up on this stuff just because it wasn’t the same as getting real magic. Have you read it?” She doesn’t acknowledge my voice either.
“Mhm. That’s one of the good ones, although there is something to say for reading the bad ones too and deciding which is which. You can borrow my others, if you want. I’ve already read them all.”
“Hmm. I think I’ll take you up on that,” she nods.
“Your room is nice.” This is my first time visiting anyone else’s room here. Noirin’s looks a lot like mine, of course, only hers is decorated all over with glazed bowls and jars — products of the pottery class she teaches, probably. An arrangement of blue flowers sits in a thin handmade vase on her nightstand.
“It’s not so special. You should see how Sabina down the hall’s managed to decorate hers. But thank you. Oh, and your shirt’s on inside out,” she notes.
Oops. I never ended up taking it off. “I know,” I say.
Noirin tilts her head a little.
“Someone… a friend found it for me earlier, but I realized on the way home I shouldn’t wear it here. It’s fine.”
“Why not? Who said there was a dress code in my bedroom, of all places?”
“No one, it just felt like… kind of a mean joke.”
Noirin rolls her eyes. “Liadain, there are not a lot of perks to being here. The most important one is that there’s nothing keeping you from doing whatever you want. If you like it, you should wear it. I insist.”
I hesitate for a moment, biting my lip, before I grumble out a “Sure! Here!” and pull the sweater off. I shake my hair out and flip the sweater over before I put it back on. “See what I mean now?”
Noirin looks down, squinting. “Tummy ache…” she mutters to herself, then… snorts out a cheery laugh.
“What?” I attempt to wail.
“Nothing!” she says through her dry cackles. “Nothing at all, because that’s funny!” Despite the rasps, she can’t seem to stop giggling. “Oh, honey… It’s your problem. We’re all going through this together. We’re allowed to have fun with it if we want! Here, it’s like this… they sent me in for oxygen therapy earlier. The technician who set me up in that pressure chamber they have asked me if I had any respiratory issues. Just, you know, going down the list the way they do. Do you know what I told him? Oh, just the cancer!”
And… despite my exhaustion, despite the throbbing pain aching across my entire body, despite what amounts to my life hanging by a thread, despite everything… I come the closest I still can to bursting out laughing. I wouldn’t have thought I had the energy left to laugh, nevermind everything else. I can’t even bring myself to feel bad about the faint, eerie, echo of laughter I’m filling the room with. Noirin, for her part, only grins back at me.
“Say, I don’t think I ever told you this… not too long after I had my son, I had uterine cancer. Had an easy recovery from that one, but, well, lightning always strikes twice, doesn’t it?”
“No, I’m… didn’t know. I’m… sorry,” I wheeze, forcibly collecting myself. I can barely imagine recovering from the thing that’s plagued me all my life just to die of some other horrible sickness.
“Don’t be. The damn thing had already done its job when they took it out. I was just happy to be rid of it! I only bring it up because for a good while after that, my great joy in life was giving every nurse who asked me about my last period a hard time. Have you talked to a doctor about that? Is there any chance you could be pregnant? I got that last one for years after the fact! That baby was really taking its time!”
A fresh fit of creepy giggles escapes my throat. “Years? Seriously?”
Noirin raises two open palms, shakes her head, and sighs dramatically. “I know! Is it really that much work to read my chart? Ah, but now I’m just rambling about myself… glad to see you’ve gotten something out of it, though. How have you been doing? I heard I missed quite a day down in the oxygen chamber.”
“That’s… it was a long day. A long story,” I sigh. “Can I start a while before that?”
Noirin shrugs. “I wasn’t doing anything important.”
“Alright.” I take a seat in the chair next to her bed, steady myself, and spend a long, silent while gathering my thoughts. Noirin only watches and waits patiently.
“So… around a month ago, when we had that Harbinger here… I made the Promise. I chased it when it left. I killed it. And that was about the only thing I’ve done right since.”
“Oh,” Noirin says. “I was starting to wonder if you just didn’t want to talk about that at all.”
“What?” I croak.
Noirin chuckles to herself. “Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m flattered you were willing to tell me, and this isn’t exactly the easiest place to keep a big secret. I’m sure you were doing your best. But if you’d told me after the first change, I think I may have been a little more surprised than I was when my son introduced me to his first boyfriend.”
“I mean… was that a surprise?” I ask dumbly.
“He’d never quite struck me as that type, that’s all,” she shrugs. “Nice man, though. They’re married now.”
After my first transplant, before it was clear just how badly things had gone, there was a short while where I tried to hide how much pain I was in from my friends. I didn’t say anything about my health, and when Grainne asked how I was doing, I did my best to brush it off — I didn’t want anyone to see some huge gap growing between our lives and leave me behind. At the time, I thought I was putting up a pretty good front.
But what you don’t say about yourself can say just as much, and the subjects I’ve been avoiding are so far from the only hint someone could look at me and find it’s absurd.
“Does everyone already know?” I ask.
“I don’t know if they’re gossiping about you or anything like that. Maybe some of them don’t want to draw conclusions if they aren’t sure. But the ones who pay attention to other people? Probably. And more importantly… congratulations! No one here will be anything but happy for you, if that’s what you were worrying about.”
No. That’s not it. They won’t. You won’t. It’d be great if I could believe that, but…
I bite my lip and start to cry again.
“Liadain? It’s alright,” Noirin says gently.
“It’s really really really not. I’m, it’s… I mean, yes. At first that was all it was. I didn’t want the attention. I didn’t want to rub it in people’s faces that only I get to break the world to maybe fix myself just because I’m thirteen. But I’m also just… I didn’t know what an awful person I was until I had the power to be as awful as I wanted,” I trail off.
Noirin sighs out a deep breath, filling the uncomfortable silence. “I hope this comes off the way I mean it to, but… it never sat right with me. The way some people look at Keepers as these incredible saints standing above the world. You can do incredible things, yes, and you’re the only thing keeping us all safe, but you’re still kids. Well, you aren’t kids forever, I don’t think anybody would describe Iona Fianata that way, but you understand. And kids make mistakes! Kids, if you’ll pardon my saying, do stupid things! That doesn’t change just because the things you can do are so much bigger than anything I could. So, I can believe that you’ve made mistakes or done bad things in the last month. I don’t think they make you a monster who can never do better.”
“…You wouldn’t say that if you knew.”
Noirin folds her hands over her book. “Try me.”
“Fine!” I snap. “I have disease magic. Powers that work by taking everything wrong with me and forcing it on someone else instead. I’ve been keeping myself standing by stealing health from other random people, so many of them I’ve lost count! All those rashes of weird sickness around the city? Those were me! One of them was a Keeper I was fighting with, and she was the first of three other Keepers I’ve hurt! The one tonight started a fight so he could stop me from eating people, and the girl before that was just trying to kill a Harbinger I was protecting! So I could see what would happen if I let it grow before I ate it! And I’m still not even sure if killing that Harbinger was the right thing to do!” I spit, finally stopping to catch my breath. Even speaking that much feels like an effort now, like forcing the words into the right shapes and sounds is its own new act of will.
Noirin sits quietly through all this, listening, nodding along, and as I rant, a slight frown mars her face. Whatever she’s thinking, whatever she said before, I just don’t believe any normal, decent person could see what I am and group me with normal kids getting into fights on the playground.
“Do you do hugs?” she finally asks, opening her arms a little.
“Just an offer. Up to you.”
I don’t, really. Not unless Pearl counts. Not since I had friends. I’ve never wanted pity hugs. I’ve never needed affection from someone who just wants to feel like they’re being nice to a cute little dying girl.
But right now… from one of the only people in my life who’s never talked down to me…
I pull my chair a little closer, scoot into Noirin’s arms, and cry silently.
“I’ll be honest… I only caught so much of that,” Noirin says. “It sounds like you’ve had a very long day, though, and it’s not really my help you need. I’m not sure whose it is, but I don’t know much about the world you live in now. All I can do is listen. And for whatever it’s worth, I’ve never known any truly awful people who spend their time sitting and thinking about what they’ve done wrong, let alone talking about it.”
A friend’s gentle voice in my ear. A hand on my back as thin and frail as my own. It isn’t much. It doesn’t change anything, not really. But… it’s nice.
“So I won’t say everything’s going to be okay. I’d love it if I could, but I don’t know that, and I do know how you feel about platitudes. But you’re a smart girl. I think you can figure something out, even if it takes some help. And I think, right now, you just need someone to listen, and then some rest. The world won’t end if you don’t solve whatever you’re facing right this moment. Will it?” she asks. It doesn’t sound like a serious question, but I can’t quite be sure.
“I don’t think so,” I whisper back.
“Good to know,” she nods. “Why don’t you see how you feel about all this in the morning, then?”
“…Sure. And… thanks.”
I lean into my cane, shuffle to my feet, and head for the door.
“Oh, I wasn’t sure if I should mention it when you came in, but that cane is new too, isn’t it?” she calls after me. “Did you… make it yourself? Is that how it works?”
“I did,” I answer.
“Well, it’s much nicer than the ones they hand out here. Matches your outfits well. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“…Thanks. ‘Night, Noirin.”
Back in my room, Pearl’s smiling face waiting on my pillow gives me just enough strength to keep from flopping into bed and skipping my nightly routine. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the world will end tomorrow. Maybe the Stardust Seraph or someone worse will come crashing through my window while I sleep.
But I can’t do anything about that. I can only do what I can to keep tomorrow from being any worse. And if nothing else, Pearl still gives good hugs too.
<perhaps not tonight. until next time, rest well.>