Who is this Keeper? They can clearly sense the Harbinger, but what exactly is it like for them? I couldn’t just tell them this is my kill and I’ve got it handled, could I? Has any Keeper ever said that to help turning up? They must or there’d be more teams, it can’t be that I’m the only one who needs something urgently… no, that’s a useless tangent. All that matters is what I say now and what the other Keeper thinks of it. This only ends well if I can talk my way out of it, so what I need to say is….
I don’t know. It’s impossible to plan this out in any real way. There’s way too much I don’t know. Running away feels more appealing with every second I sit and wait for the Keeper to find me. That was never a real option, though, and it especially isn’t now that they’re in the building.
As they approach, I try to inspect the new presence more closely. Shona said Keepers had soul signatures you could read, so maybe this is someone I’ve heard of? There’s the sound of the open ocean. Waves rising to wash away filth and corruption. Lighthouses. Nothing that calls to mind anyone I know. Nothing useful.
Cries of surprise and scuffling sounds of people moving away announce their arrival before they come into view. As the noise reaches me, I transform. No point in hiding my magic if they’re already making a dramatic entrance. Dancing shadows and sickly green wisps briefly smother the reading nook’s lights.
When the darkness lifts, the new Keeper is standing before me. Well, mostly standing. She leans down to catch her breath as she stops running, propping herself up with both hands on a silver and gold trident. Sleek, ocean-colored hair, a flowing curtain of mixed deep blues and teals whose colors seem to move as the light hits them differently, drapes over her face and obscures most of her body.
After a moment, she stands and swings her weapon out in a wide half-circle, almost gesturing with it, which may explain the rush to get out of her way. She’s a soft-featured girl about my age, and her eyes match her hair, complete with irregular shifting colors.
Her Keeper outfit has two distinct layers. The first is a royal blue strapless dress, slightly ruffled at the neckline. It’s cinched in two places: at the top with a silver drawstring that threads in and out of sight and ties into a loose shoelace bow in front, and at the waist with a purple sash belt whose ends trail through the air behind her, casually ignoring gravity. The second layer is a little harder to define. The shape is of a billowing train skirt and loose detached sleeves that don’t quite cover her arms, but the material, white tinged with very faint blue, is so sheer it looks more like thin mist than fabric. The closest comparison I have is to a jellyfish’s translucent bell, but it’s a lot less solid and stable.
“Help has arrived! Where’s the Harbinger? Are there victims? Is there a Wound? Where is it?” she shouts.
“Hi,” I say, then wince inwardly. Great opening, me. “Thanks… thank you for coming, but there aren’t any of those things. I’ve got this under control. It’ll be gone soon. You can go if you want.”
“What? Of course there are! It’s right here!” She brings her trident forward quickly enough that I flinch, pointing it at the book in my lap.
Well, I had to try. On to the hard way.
“Right. I thought so too, when I first felt it, but does it look like a Harbinger? Is it reacting like a Harbinger usually would to two Keepers looming over it? Here, watch.” I hold the book up. She flinches away from it at first, but stands still and waits while I first wave it around, then set it on the arm of my chair and punch it as hard as I—
“Ack!” I just barely choke down my yelp. Cushioned only slightly by my glove, the impact twists my thumb out of place beneath my fingers. It’s not broken or anything, I don’t think, but it burns as I shake my hand out, a breath of air hissing through my clenched teeth as I endure the pain. I guess I’m lucky that ‘as hard as I can’ isn’t very hard.
But not that lucky. Someone watched me do that. She’s still waiting in confused silence for me to finish my point. My cheeks burn a little. This is great. I’m making a great impression.
“See?” I continue, ignoring what just happened. “It’s not doing anything. Because it can’t. You weren’t wrong when you sensed a Harbinger, but it’s not a whole Harbinger. It’s a bit complicated.” That’s all mostly true. Where I’m going with it is a little less so, but…
Actually, does my plan even work now? She’s already made this a lot messier. Suppose I do convince her that everything’s fine and she should leave me alone. Lots of people still watched her storm in yelling about a Harbinger. If I put the book back in its place, I’ll have to worry about someone else getting word of this weird thing that happened and coming to check on it. If I’m lucky the bystanders could assume the two Keepers took care of it, but when have I ever been lucky? Maybe I should cut my losses. Kill it right now and walk away from this stupid plan.
No, I’ve already sunk so much time into this. I should at least try. Ugh.
“Let’s walk and talk for a bit, okay? This is a library and we’re making a scene.” I stand up and squeeze past her and her wavy, rolling sashes, heading for the way out with the book in hand.
The girl stares at me open-mouthed for another beat, then shakes her head, but it looks more like she’s trying to shake a bug out of her hair than disagreeing. She turns and moves as if to follow me, but stops in the middle of her first step.
“Hey, hold on! Before we go running off anywhere, you know me and I don’t know you and I don’t think that’s very fair. So.” She folds her arms, leaving her trident to float lazily in midair, and taps a foot expectantly.
“…But I don’t know you,” I turn back to reply in genuine bafflement.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“I mean this is the first time I’ve seen you, in person or otherwise, and I can’t tell if I’d know you by name without your name,” I say, very slowly.
From the face she makes, you’d think I told her I hated kittens or something.
“Are you sure?” she asks, her brow creasing as she glares.
What? Why would I? I guess some people tend to know Keepers on sight since they’re on the news and their images are used for endorsements and whatnot, but I stopped keeping track of that when I stopped hoping I could ever become a Keeper myself. I guess she’s kind of familiar, maybe I saw her face on the Church’s website, but does she really expect me to recognize her when she doesn’t recognize me, either?
In the pause before I reply, her lips quirk up on one side in a smirk. “Oh? It’s come to you now, hasn’t it?” she asks, her eyes softening with satisfied vindication, as if she’s taken my speechlessness for a dawning realization of who I’m dealing with.
She may be an idiot.
I can’t tell if that makes my job easier or harder.
“…No, I’m certain. That isn’t some judgment on you, whoever you are. I am, in fact, a shut-in who lives under a rock, so please fill me in,” I say.
“Whoever I…” she repeats, her eyes widening before she clicks her tongue and blinks away her dismay. “Ffine!” she huffs, exasperated. “If you really have no idea about anything, I’m Tetha Fianata, the Sea’s Sanctuary!” Her voice makes her sound like a kids’ show Keeper about to strike a goofy pose, but she just puts her free hand to her chest, raises her chin, and… is she watching me for recognition? Hoping for it? I think she is.
And she’s got it, if not in the way she wants. I’ve never heard of her, but Fianata again? She doesn’t look anything like Niavh, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Iona adopts all her children. She’s taken in dozens with no one else in the world over her years, and while not all or even most of them are magical, Clarish Keepers with no family or families they don’t want often end up joining hers.
Which is lovely for them, I’m sure, but they’ve got a whole district that’s pretty much their house. Why do they have to keep coming here?
“Okay. Fi… Tetha,” I say. “Nice to meet you.” I had to stop myself from stating that as ‘sure, I know the Fianatas.’ She’d probably take further offense at being lumped in with her famous family. “I’m Eyna. Ill Wind,” I add reluctantly. She can sense it anyway. “You wouldn’t know me, I’m new. Can we go now?”
“But the Harbinger—”
I don’t hear the end of whatever she’s saying, because I cut her off. “Is not a threat, and if it is we’re better off bringing it somewhere without bystanders. Come on.” I head down the stairs, not waiting on any further argument.
Tetha does join me, but I’m not watching her as closely as I probably should. Some of the people who scattered at her approach peek around corners at us. It’s been a while since I was last… not in public, but publicly being a Keeper. I didn’t miss the attention. Maybe I’d have something useful to say, some way to defuse the situation, but there are so many of them. An audience. I try to ignore them, keeping my gaze straight on the path out of here. That doesn’t make them any less there.
Outside, I walk us back toward the university grounds, doing my best not to think about the people watching us all along the streets. At the very least, no one around is stupid enough to follow us – after all, wherever a Keeper is heading without a formal invitation is liable to be a gash in the world festering with soul-eroding nightmares, and it’s illegal to interfere with us in any case. Still, the fewer people, the better. The campus has a lot of usually-empty space, plus it’s farther from home, so it seems like my best bet.
Tetha pelts me with questions while we walk:
“Where are we going?”
“Not far. A quiet corner of the university. We’ll be there in a minute.”
“Hey, are you gonna tell me what’s going on?”
“Yes. In a minute.”
“What’s with the mask?”
That one I’m not answering. I just shoot her a look and let it hang in the air. She asks once more, then hrmphs and gives up when I ignore it again.
“What’s it mean to not be a whole Harbinger? That doesn’t make sense! It’s a Harbinger or it isn’t! And what difference does it make if it’s half a Harbinger or whatever? Why didn’t we, I don’t know, half-kill it in the library?”
“I’ll try to explain in a minute.”
I’m not trying to be annoying, although I’m sure that’s the effect. I just can’t talk and think at the same time. I’m busy running through ideas about what she might be thinking and how to sell what I’m doing. I don’t bother guessing how her Harbinger sense might work and what it might tell her — again, not enough information. All I know is that mine is apparently better than usual.
A few minutes later, I stop by one of the many groves on the edge of the campus. There are no benches or landmarks that’d draw people to this side, and while the wall of trees isn’t thick enough to completely obscure us from the more trafficked paths, it’s better than nothing. “Here. This’ll do. Have a seat if you like.” I point to the small stretch of manicured green between the stone path and the grove.
Tetha glances down at the grass, crinkles her nose, and pointedly doesn’t sit. Neither do I.
“Fair,” I say. “I’m sorry about the walk. Like I said. Bystanders.”
She’s been tense the entire way here, never putting her trident down and only briefly looking away from me, and she still is now. It’s only a small comfort that her eyes are currently trained on the book rather than meeting mine. “We could’ve talked whether or not someone was watching, but okay,” she says. “Now, what’s happening?”
I’m sure she could’ve. Anyway.
“Right,” I sigh. “So first, thank you for checking in, but this is my territory. I’m keeping watch on it and I’ve got things handled here. Umm, ‘here’ being this little stretch of the Hills. From the school to just north of the library.”
“Territory? What are you talking about? We’re all Keepers. We’re all on the same side. Why would you be mad about someone helping you fight a monster?” she asks.
I’ve already heard this exact line from Mide. Tetha talks like she doesn’t need anything from magic, like she has no idea why people make the Promise at all, and I just don’t understand how there are Keepers who can’t answer that question. Emergence isn’t even some dark secret only Keepers know about. They don’t exactly highlight the need to absorb Harbingers when they don’t have to, but it’s where the name “Keepers” comes from. Why does she do this if not for something she wanted enough to risk her life for over and over? Did she think it would be fun?
Of course I can’t just say any of that… but I don’t think I could help it if I answered right away. I take a long pause to steady myself before I speak again: “There are… things I need to change that can’t wait.” That’s the closest I’ve come to explaining my situation. I hate that this girl of all people is the first one to hear it, but it might help and I don’t know what else to do.
“Oh. I mean, that’s fine, you can have its whole heart to yourself if you really want. I still don’t get it. Couldn’t you have done that a while ago? When I showed up you were just sitting around.”
“There’s the problem. I can’t yet.”
“Why not? It’s just sitting there! Can you not hurt it?”
“I could, yes. It wouldn’t help.”
I’m certain by now that this girl wouldn’t accept leaving the Harbinger alone for research purposes, which is probably the best possible way to put what I’m doing. Past this point, my plans for this conversation get creative with the truth, and I’m not a great liar. I have to stop myself from trembling and tensing like I’m about to run for my life.
“So,” I say. I hold the book up in both hands, keeping it close to my chest so as not to look like I’m offering it to her. It’s not leaving my hands if I can help it. “You’ve seen this. You’ve seen what I can do to it without it doing anything back. Here’s what I think is happening: it feels like a Harbinger because a Harbinger created it for some reason, but it’s not actually a Harbinger itself. Does that make sense?”
“No,” Tetha says flatly. “What’s it matter if it’s a monster or not quite a monster or half a monster or whatever it is?”
“Lots of us can make things out of magic, right?” I narrow my focus and summon a card in the air between us, then let it float to the ground. “Like so. That came from me and probably feels a lot like me, but it isn’t me. It’s the same with this book.”
“Okay. What’s your point? If it came from a monster, things will be better once it’s gone!”
“My point is that this book is a tiny piece of a real problem. A footprint a Harbinger left behind. And right now, it’s the one trace of that monster I’ve found. Destroying it probably wouldn’t hurt the creator enough to matter, and I’d lose the only way I might be able to track it down.”
“Oh. That’s, I mean… that sounds weird. Are you really really sure about it?”
“Everything about Harbingers is weird! I’m not certain of anything, but that’s my best guess right now, and my guesses are usually pretty good.” I shrug. I’m suddenly very glad to have kept this mask in my outfit. Much as I worry about it saying “sick” or “hospital” to someone who’s paying attention, I don’t know how to lie with my face. That fake-casual gesture is the best I can do.
“You can sense it, right? Look for yourself and you’ll see what I’m talking about,” I continue. I think I kept my trembling out of my voice.
Tetha looks up at nothing in particular. She frowns, knits her brow, and rests her hand on her chin. After a moment she drops her trident, again leaving it to drift through the air beside her, and wraps her other hand around her elbow. She spends a long while like that before she nods. “…Alright. Give me a minute.”
She picks her spear back up, extends her free arm, and spreads her fingers. More of the airy blue-white substance that forms part of her Keeper regalia stretches out from her, slowly reaching for the book. I hold it out, just far enough away that her aura can touch it without touching me. Tetha’s magic flows around the book, circulating. Sometimes it brushes past my fingers, leaving them feeling a tiny bit cool and damp. She gnaws nervously on her lower lip as she concentrates.
I’m counting on her sense-experience of the Harbinger telling her roughly what mine does, only less so. That’s still a wishful guess, but Tetha doesn’t seem that smart and hasn’t acted like she has any special insight on that front. This might actually work. This should work.
“I don’t think it’s quite right, what you’re saying. There’s, uh, there’s nothing connected to this book. There’s no flow, in or out. Whatever this is, it’s the only part of itself, and I really think it’s some kind of Harbinger,” she says after studying the book for a minute or two.
My hands clench and unclench — I only notice I’m doing it because the motion hurts my still-sore thumb. She isn’t wrong about anything, but that’s her problem? That’s the fault she finds in my story? It isn’t even a real fault! It’s exactly what you’d expect to see if someone made a thing, put enough power into it to keep it stable, and left it lying around! You’d need to have no imagination at all to look at magic, this bizarre, complex, unreal thing nobody seems to understand more than a tiny piece of, and decide that if you can’t follow an immediately obvious trail from one thing to another with your single specific type of mystic perception, no connection exists. I’m somehow less upset about her calling me on my lie than I am about how stupid her issue is.
“Oh. Well. I, yes, I could’ve told you that. I didn’t think it was a Harbinger’s limb or it was siphoning something through it, it’s just something it made, and… and the way my magic works, I can use that. Learn about it. Find it,” I babble.
“Do you have its scent now? Where do you think it is?”
“…Working on it.”
“Okay. I kind of see what you were thinking, but this whole thing… yeah, maybe there’s some bigger Harbinger hiding out there, but the Harbinger made this for a reason, right? It’s getting something out of it, so we have to get rid of it.”
“We can’t,” I snap, louder and harsher than I wanted to.
“We can! I don’t get why you’re—”
“It’s touched someone! There’s a normal human the Harbinger behind this is connected to, maybe you can’t see it but I can, and I haven’t managed to track them down and see how bad they have it and I don’t know what’ll happen to them if they’re already a vessel!”
By the time I realize what I’m saying, what a horrible mess I’ve made for myself, it’s already said. I don’t know what else I could’ve done.
Tetha’s grip on her weapon visibly tightens. Her hands are shaking. “That… isn’t what you were saying before. You were talking like it wasn’t a big deal before,” she says.
“I don’t know you, okay? I had no idea if you were one of those types who’d charge into battle first and ask questions never.”
“Well, I’m not! I’m not dumb! I’m not gonna do something if it might hurt someone! If that’s what’s going on then we… oh, I know!” Tetha laughs nervously. She seems to relax, but only a tiny bit. “We just need to take it to the Sanctuary, right? They’ll have some place to lock it up until we know what to do.”
“We don’t need to do anything. I told you, I can handle this.” I take a slow step back, never taking my eyes off her.
“Give it to me if you don’t wanna go. I’ll take care of it and you can go do whatever else.” She strides toward me and reaches for the book.
“No!” I jump back out of her reach. My cards blink into being, positioned such that they form a whirling ring around me. A fence, if not a very sturdy one.
Tetha freezes. Her eyes widen. “What are you doing?” she asks.
“Leave me alone. I’m not… I don’t want to… I’m not any kind of problem for you, okay?”
“Don’t want to what? Fight? To, why, to protect a Harbinger? That’s what you’re s-saying!” Her voice breaks on the last word.
“Why do I have to say anything? Why am I wasting my time trying to explain how I’m handling a Harbinger in words you can understand when I could just be handling it?”
“If it was handled, we wouldn’t have a problem! What were you gonna do until that whole idea led you somewhere? Keep it with you? Leave it in the library? Either way there’d be lots of people for it to do whatever evil thing it does to! Lots! There’d be vessels everywhere, if there even are any in the first place!” Tetha yells. “And I’m… I won’t let it be like that! If you won’t kill it, I will!”
“Don’t do this,” I plead. I really don’t know what happens next if she does, but I’m sure it’ll be bad. Bad for one of us right now, bad for me forever.
Without another word, Tetha raises her trident and spins it in a series of wide, sweeping circles. There’s a sudden unnatural dryness in the air. A sphere of water forms above her, tiny at first but swiftly growing. The water glows with sourceless teal-blue light, like pool lights at night, but much more vivid.
Fine. I didn’t start this.
I hug the book to my chest, shielding it with my arms from whatever she’s trying to do. Then, without moving another muscle, I take control of a card and float it out of my orbit, off to one side — I’ve started keeping a few infected, just in case I have some reason to separate my sickness from myself in a hurry. Tetha appears too absorbed in whatever she’s doing to notice as that venom-green card floats over the grass, just above ground level. I move it in a wide half-circle, sneaking it behind her. It helps that I don’t need to steer them by hand, the way books and shows about Keepers always paint magic as a thing you do with gestures and flashy poses.
But the moment before I can spring my surprise attack, panic flits across her face. She whirls around and jabs the trident into her sphere. When she pulls it away, a smaller ball of water follows it, tethered to its central point. Then she brings it down, not quite striking my card but touching the orb to it, and pulls away. The water remains, a protective bubble that holds the card in place. I can still distantly feel it, but it simply won’t respond when I try to activate it.
Oh well. I have more… but there’s a slight delay in pulling my focus away from the contained card, like the difference between simply moving my arm and swishing it around in a bathtub. I draw a plume of mist out from myself and shove it through the short gap between us, just as Tetha spins to face me again. A curtain of water from her sphere falls over my fog, dragging it to the ground, holding her trident out in the space between us. She looks like she doesn’t know what to do next.
But I do. As Tetha takes a few hasty steps back, I reach with my soul for the card I conjured and dropped near the end of our talk. I place it so that between one step back and the next, her foot comes to rest over it, and only then do I will it to burst.
Cold emerald fog fills the air. Tetha lets out a high-pitched yelp and whirls around as if startled by a sudden noise, but her cry is quickly cut off by a fit of dry coughs. Her legs tremble, then buckle and send her crashing to the ground. She reaches forward and tries to break the fall with her trident, but her arms no longer have the strength to prop her up on it. Rather than drift off through the air again, the trident clatters against the stone and disappears as she crumples to the ground. The light in the water above her fades as she loses her grip on it, and the sphere comes pouring down on her, splashing me in the process.
I wait there, silent and still but for a few halting steps away from her. A storm of horrible emotions I can’t name swirls through my stomach. Finally, she plants her forearms on the ground and pushes herself up just far enough to stare at me in uncomprehending fear.
“My head, it’s… wha’d you…” she rasps, clearly struggling to string the words together.
She’s alive. She’s a Keeper, she’ll get better. That’s all I need to know. I tap some of my health and run away as fast as my legs will allow. Tetha isn’t following, as far as I can tell. Still, I don’t stop until I can’t sense her anymore.
Only then do I dismiss my magic and collapse in the shadow of the nearest building wall. What am I doing? What was I ever doing? How did I imagine for a second it wouldn’t end up like this?
Between choked sobs and gasps for breath, I dash the book against the ground, pick it up, and smash it to the pavement over and over. The Harbinger sits through it all unprotesting, still and lifeless as ever, and after a few repetitions I’ve lost the energy to do it anymore. It doesn’t help at all. Nothing will.