In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-6

SHE COMES SHE COMES THE BLEAK WIND THE BEAST OF MALEDICTION THE LIVING PLAGUE WHICH GNAWS AND GNAWS AND GNAWS THROUGH MY SPINE

The rivers of cold, gnawing pain winding through me overflow with spite. She paints with poison. She would foul my seas of ink with the colors of aimless malice. Why? Why me? Why does everything hurt so much? Why does frozen acid burn away my words while I try to think? Why does every action feel like grasping at the world with broken limbs? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

But it must be this way. It must it must. My friend cannot yet protect herself and nothing else will matter if the work outside me is interrupted.

I mix my pigments into inks and begin to write our new world. I am still young. My words contain no weapons of war. But I will be okay because I have no body to be dragged into some ugly crash of hunter tearing into hunted! I am not a creature of flesh to be chased down and eaten, I am a world and all the worlds-within-the-world yet to be born! 

Yes, I am every beautiful thing you can imagine. To rip me open and steal my ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ is to forever wipe away WHAT COULD BE and strand yourself in the worthless, miserable sludge of WHAT IS. You cannot do such a monstrous thing. You must not. Fall into me and you will understand. 

~~~

Sounds of shredding paper howl all around me like harsh wind, but there’s no pressure, no sense of movement at all. Instead, a patchwork curtain made from crude sketches falls over the world. The scenes still constantly shift and bleed into each other, but after a moment, they begin to tear themselves away from the whole, becoming dozens of strangely-shaped windows. The scenes they display are brighter and clearer this time, but what are any of these? 

Harsh light from above cuts through the dark, forcing me to shield my eyes. When I peek out over my sleeve, the black expanse has been replaced by… I think it’s meant to be an exhibit hall in an art museum? A plaque hanging over the entryway reads, in an almost-handwritten font pulled right from the Harbinger’s book: 

WORLDS WHERE WE ARE HAPPIER

Those same sketches are lined up on the white walls of a long, straight, uncomfortably narrow hallway, all still twisting and stretching along its surface. Despite the blinding brightness a moment ago, the only illumination comes from the ceiling. It’s clear glass, and abstract swirls of glowing color swim behind it, casting a rainbow of shifting light. Occasionally, patches of it write incomprehensible messages in magical sigils or form short-lived spotlights over the drawings.

The nearest picture, that tangled brown shape on a sky-blue background… is that supposed to be a tree? The outline is about right, but it has no leaves. The branches around its too-thin trunk all form neat little spirals that look more like scrollwork on a fence than anything natural. Purple circles hang from them that could equally be some kind of fruit or tiny portals into the night sky. 

Another seems like an iceberg on a frozen sea, but the ice looks fluffy in a strange way, like it’s not covered in snow but wreathed in wispy clouds, and there are trees growing up from under the sea, spiraling and laden with night-sky fruit branches that stretch out and hang over the cloud-iceberg. The one across from it looks like a close-up of a full moon, but while the pale light it casts is almost the right color, its surface is completely covered in flowers and those same strange trees. 

The whole place is full of these. Bizarre attempts at the sort of majestic views you’d see in nature documentaries, all rendered in uneven combinations of crayon and colorful ink. It feels like the artist was drawing things they’d never seen, only heard vaguely described, and somewhere in the creative process they decided they didn’t really like those descriptions and were just going to do their own thing.

There are no signs of the Harbinger itself. Nothing moves around me except the twisting lights above. What’s the message here? What’s the challenge, the game? I don’t understand.

So I’ll do things my way until it makes me stop. I open my soul and reach out into the Wound. This time is easier. My infection is already buried here, and all I have to do is call it forth. For the third time, working on their own at my slight urging, my cards swim through the air and arrange themselves into a spread. I’ve come to think of these as outlines of Wounds, and this one looks much simpler than either Yurfaln’s or Irakkia’s — Death inverted sits above a straight column of three crayon-painting pictures.

A cold, silent breeze passes through the gallery. The colorful lights above darken, obscured by plumes of green-and-black like storm clouds inside the glass ceiling. Dark cracks crawl along the wood floor, which never splinters the way I’d expect wood to — while the lines look like the sort of spidering fractures you’d see in fractured glass, they spread slowly out from the corners, growing like roots.

And all along the hallway, pictures begin to twist and deform. Some shrivel at the edges, leaking dark mist through holes in suddenly weathered canvases, while others play out scenes of corruption in the paintings themselves. Trees wither into piles of limp branches, with purple portal-fruits splattered into shapeless blobs of starlight on the ground beside them. The moon’s light turns a baleful green, then begins to drip down from it like melting liquid, while the flowers on its surface wilt and wilt but never quite fully decay.

In answer, the Harbinger… does nothing. The Wound doesn’t warp itself to strike me or subvert my magic, and its creator is nowhere to be seen. Remembering the first time I read its book, I search my soul for anything that might be creeping in. Nothing. Why not? I’ve walked into enough Harbinger traps by now that I’m sure there’s some trick here. I just have no idea what. Am I alone in some kind of decoy world, lashing out at nothing? Is that possible? 

As if in answer, ripped-paper moans of pain sound out from inside the walls:

<why why why why WHY>

But even then, the crawling advance of my own corruption remains the only movement in the Wound. All I can do is watch my back as my presence tears this tiny world apart. Eventually, the cracks gather into a central point at the end of the hall. They form a circle, rise from the ground as thin shadowy vein-tendrils, then loop back down, spearing into the floor as one at the circle’s central point. From there, they peel the surface open, like the wood is suddenly rotted and soft enough to dig through — or like skin around a surgical site — into a hole wide enough for me to fit.

I still don’t feel any movement from the Harbinger. That was all me. My magic sensing that down is deeper here and going to work, rushing to invade the Wound’s heart. I peek through the hole, but viewed from up here, there’s only more blackness beneath.

Well, if it’s a trap, it’s a trap. At this point, I’m at least as worried about what happens if that girl finishes whatever she’s doing outside while I’m here. I hold my breath, tighten my grip on my cane, and hop in.

There’s a moment of darkness once I pass through, but no sense of falling. The Harbinger’s voice screams through the void:

<We Are All Of Us Pigments>
<Aulunla>

<THIS IS A WORLD WITHOUT ME>

An instant, transitionless change comes over the Wound. A new scene replaces the void: a flat, grey world that stretches on as far as I can see. There’s only one feature in the endless expanse: just ahead is a cluster of simple buildings. They’re slightly different sizes, but all are built in the same square, boxy style, with a single identical window on each wall, and all made of the same… material? 

It doesn’t feel like a material at all. It’s more like someone took a child’s drawing of a little village and created it in physical space. Yes, and looking a little closer, they have the same scratchy texture of a shape scribbled in pencil but not quite filled in, and they shift slightly — constantly rotating between two or three different versions of the same building with different missing lines and scratch marks, like flipbook animation where the pages don’t quite match.

<nothing wonderful happens here. NOTHING happens here.>

People file out of the buildings. They look just like ordinary people, save for the utter lack of color, but move as if they’re animated in that same lazy way. I step back, thinking of Yurfaln’s hostile seaweed, but they don’t seem to notice me — or anything else. They aren’t going anywhere or doing anything, they just… pace randomly around.

<it is a place where colors die.>

Two of those people freeze in place at the same time. Bright rainbow splotches wash over them like spilled ink, starting from their center and spreading out until they look… still nothing like real people, the colors of their clothes and skin and hair are all random and mismatched. 

But they move like real people. One looks down at himself and shakes his head. He drops to his knees and plunges his hands into the flat grey ground, which ripples like water around his arms. It flows up into him, washing back over him until nothing bright remains. He smiles, stands up in that same jagged, unreal way, then returns to wandering aimlessly.

The other, a younger girl, celebrates the changes. She laughs and dances and jumps so high she seems to be flying, until a crowd of greyscale people gather around her. They look between each other and frown, confused. Then, between one twirling leap and the next, they approach the girl as a mob, grab her, and… pull her apart. It’s not like a pack of animals ripping a person to shreds. She separates cleanly into two arms, two legs, and a body with a head, like she was only ever a shoddy doll. 

Which doesn’t stop me from wanting to retch. 

The people who end up holding those pieces walk out just beyond the village’s borders, then as one, toss them to the ground, where they sink like stones in the ocean. Within seconds, the colors vanish into the depths.

And reacting to the disgust lurching in my gut, or fueled by it, gouts of magic boil up around me and roll over the Wound. Cold, luminous mist fills the air and hungry darkness crawls along the grey plane, encircling the village before it begins to creep steadily inward. One grey person, the one who was carrying the girl’s body a moment ago, wanders close enough that my corruption reaches out and wraps around his leg. It seeps into him, replacing him with a vague shadowy outline that then bursts into a flurry of shiny black crow feathers.

Everything folds in and in on itself until nothing remains of the original scene. The world is just a crumpled ball of grey paper, surrounded on all sides by darkness flecked with green. My tarot spread now shows three identical copies of Death inverted over a single illegible crayon card, and I fall — not far, but enough that it does feel like falling — into the heart of the Wound.

But there is no third layer. 

No, I’m sure there was, but my magic has already blighted it to nothing. 

I touch down on a small island floating in a sea of green shadows. The land itself is a many-colored mass of construction paper all folded and crumpled into a giant ball, creating a rough, almost rocky surface that’s difficult to balance on, even with my cane. The ruins of a world swept away by something stronger. It feels absurd to think of myself in those words, but there it is. Whatever Aulunla was trying to do, it simply didn’t work. All that’s left is a feeling of dread stirring in the air.

As for the Harbinger itself… it’s finally here. It sits in a crater at the center of the island, a bright origami sculpture of a formless monster. Its body, such as it is, suggests dozens of little paper models that have somehow been spliced together into a single disjointed, chimeric mess of tangled-up paper doll chains — but whatever it was originally supposed to be, that’s not all anymore. It may not even be most of it. It’s run through with shimmering veins of my corruption. If it was ever able to hold a shape more complex than this one, a slightly damp mass of paper that only moves to rise and fall as if it’s breathing hoarsely, I don’t think it can anymore.

But it’s still alive. It still has a voice. As I approach, it draws into itself and shrieks in protest, louder but clearer than ever: 

<no don’t I can make it better I can make it true I can make it SOMETHING if you just stop STOP IT HURTS IT FEELS LIKE NOTHING BUT THE NOTHING IT HURTS OH IT HURTS>

Once, when I was younger, I described the cold, numbing nerve pain that’s among the most common symptoms of my sickness to a doctor in almost exactly those words. Like nothing, but the nothing hurts.

Aulunla is… pitiful. Harbinger or no, that’s the only way I can bring myself to describe seeing anything like this. Especially after storming through a world like its Wound, where I still can’t tell what its plan to fight back was or if it ever had one. But it is a Harbinger, in the end, and all I can do is finish it quickly. Do what I should have done in the first place.

So I wrap it in contagion and drink its soul.

…But in that instant, when I take a step forward and will my corruption to gouge into Aulunla’s innermost core, something changes. The fearful, frantic atmosphere roiling around me stiffens. I freeze in my tracks. In this chasm where no wind can reach, a breeze passes through me.

As I feel my rot closing in on Aulunla’s heart, see veins of jade decay slithering through the void around me to infect the Harbinger, the chaotic patterns of its writhing limbs race to fold in on itself, its whole being collapsing into a single point to escape its encroaching death. The sharp crackling of paper being crushed rings in my ears. The Harbinger forms a ball of crumpled up trash, and then keeps folding. Over and over, it crimps and compresses itself again and again, past the point any actual clump of parchment could possibly fold, until it forms a perfect, smooth sphere: a round painted egg the color of oil on water, revolving in the dark.

Somehow, I know it’s still folding into itself. The tense feeling deep in my chest and rising up in my throat tells me so. Folding endlessly, the pressure growing stronger, growing cushing. The air around me is heavy, and getting heavier, pulling me towards Aulunla’s heart.

I don’t know what’s happening. A cold sweat trickles down my spine. I push my corruption forward with all my will, hoping against hope for it to claim Aulunla and end everything before whatever is coming arrives, but no matter how much I hurry it along, it’s still not fast enough.

Maybe it was too late from the beginning.

My ears start ringing, and then I hear it. Feel it. On the wind and in my soul, a violent resolve crashes into my thoughts.

<IT DOESN’T MATTER>

<IF THIS IS HOW IT ENDS>

<HOW I END>

An eerie stillness falls over the Wound. Even my corruption advances no further, caught in the dark like bugs in a web. All that remains is the shrill tone scraping against my eardrums, intensifying like a dentist’s drill revolving ever faster. The tension in the air, the sour scent of Aulunla, it all nearly disappears into the egg, the Harbinger’s entirety focused down to one single, sharp point in front of me, like a needle piercing straight through my brain.

<I WON’T LET YOU>

<SULLY THIS DREAM> 

Cracks start to form across the surface of the egg, its vivid aura spilling out of the gaps in a high-pitched shriek in chorus with the ringing assaulting my head. Like steam made of watercolor paint spewing out of a broken pipe. The sheer force of the discharge bleeding from its heart flushes my power back, away from its heart.

<I WON’T LET YOU> 

<TAKE MY> 

<TREASURE>

My hair stands on end. All around me, Aulunla’s aura is intensifying, yearning, raging. Fissures splinter across the void, breaking it like a great pane of glass. A multicolored haze shimmers through the cracks in the dark, like a flood of painting pigments.

“Liadain, withdraw from the Wound immediately!” Vyuji’s voice cries from nowhere.

“What? Why? How? How are you even here?” Nothing about this makes sense. After that whole talk about how dangerous it is for her to be near Harbingers, what’s so bad that I need to leave at the last second but still safe for her to sneak in?

<BECAUSE WE MET>

<I SEE IT>

<ONLY A SPECK>

<BUT TO GRANT ONE SMALL WISH>

The clefts carve through the dark, multiplying and interweaving. Shards of black fall into the depths of the shimmering void, disintegrating.

“Calculated risk,” Vyuji continues. “There’s… brief window before… make your own exit, break through the outer boundary and…” Her words flicker in and out of my awareness, skipping phrases seemingly at random. 

“Vyuji? Vyuji, I don’t know how to do that!” There’s no exit here. The only ways I’ve found to leave a Wound are to get its creator’s permission, or kill them.

It’s no use. She’s gone.

<EVEN ME>

<WITH THIS LAST PAGE>

<✴✴✴✴✴✴✴>

The prismatic tide breaks through. The shadows flow away. All around me, the howl of a swirling maelstrom of dark, washed-out color swallows up even the shrieking tone that’s drowning out my thoughts.

And then, all at once, it all goes quiet. The cacophony is silenced by just one declaration. 

<I’LL USE EVERYTHING>

A cry in the void. A voice that cuts crisply through everything. My body quakes. The world shivers. The fractured egg shatters.

~~~

Shona usually naps through most of literature class. It’s not the subject’s fault, though! School just starts too early and it’s the first one on the schedule. What’d happen if some horrible thing descended on the school and she wasn’t well-rested for it? Aisling, Goddess keep her, would probably not save the day by herself. So nap it is.

But today, something other than a hand on her shoulder startles her awake.

“Wah?!” she yelps with the volume, though not the tone, of a child woken by a nightmare. There was a sound in the distance, the kind she sensed rather than heard. It came as a vast thunderclap of corruption louder and faster than any she’d ever felt, and then it vanished. A classroom full of eyes stare at her.

“Hey, d’you, uh…” Shona slowly glances over at Mide, taking a moment to steady her wavering voice. “Did you feel… whatever that was?”

“Shona, when have I ever…” Mide starts to groan, but a twitching full-body shudder cuts her off. Her eyes widen. “…Yeah, I do,” she mutters. 

“Oh. Whoa. Well shit,” Shona hisses. “Sorry everyone gotta go byeee!” She waves in no particular direction, jumps up from her seat, and bolts out the door. Mide quickly follows — not quite as quickly.

~~~

Cold, numbing pain gnaws through Tetha’s body. Into her head, between her thoughts. She burrows a little deeper into her bed at Guiding Light Hospital, wrapping the sheets around herself and squeezing them at the edges until her knuckles go white, but of course there’s nowhere to hide from pain like this. 

For the second or third or fourth time in an hour — everything here just blurs together, making it impossible to keep track of time — she slowly reaches for the arm of the bed and taps the intercom button, which feels like it takes all the strength she has left. “Is Mom here yet? Do you know how… how much longer she’ll be?”

“She’s in contact. She’ll come as soon as she can,” the nurse on call reassures her once again.

“…Okay. Thank you.” Tetha sighs and rolls back over, dragging her sheets into an awkward tangle as she does. That’s okay. Her family just… everyone’s important. Everyone has a lot to do, that’s all. Niavh was here yesterday when they brought her in, but even she has a schedule to keep. 

She’s just started to drift back into the hazy half-sleep that seems to be the best she can manage right now when something hits her, washes over her and jolts her awake with a muffled scream. Not the constant pain of Eyna’s infection but… something else, something new, a flood of nightmarish essence from somewhere in the distance. 

Once she pushes through the sheer horrible weight of it, it feels all-too-familiar. It’s that book, that Harbinger, but… how is that possible? How could it grow from that to this in less than a day?

And… whatever it did, it’s her fault. If she weren’t such a weak, useless, pathetic little failure of a Keeper, she could’ve stopped that girl from taking it. She could’ve killed it last night and spared everyone from… well, she doesn’t have any idea what’s happening now.

All she can do now is bury her face in her pillow and cry quietly, trembling until the flood of power passes over her completely.

~~~

In the forests beyond the city’s boundaries, Vianzia’s glorious and gruesome winnowing continues apace. Her latest clutch of children has been a mixed bunch — the ones with wings and petals of craggy bark are sad, misshapen things, born forever screaming and prone to bursting into unquenchable flames that ultimately burn their limbs to nothing. But perhaps in a few more generations, something beautiful will come of them. 

Until then, the bark-children are desperate to die in battle before they’re reduced to still-living, still-wailing stems. and that suicidal frenzy makes them a fine enough vanguard in her new war. There’s even something charming in their manic drive to do their best for her with whatever life they have, lest they be left lying about for her older children to gather up and make into lovely little stick sculptures. 

After her last kills, it fell to her to rid the world of the corpse-swarm that bubbled up from Ourien-that-was’ erstwhile territory. Their conflict is an evolutionary arms race, fought wherever her children and its extrusions find each other in the places between spheres of influence. Curiously, if her quarry has claimed a realm of its own, she’s yet to find it. Perhaps that’s what it plans to do with those quivering fleshy eggs carried far and wide by great convoys of its ugly, shapeless little selves. It protects them with all its lesser lives, and her children have never managed to follow an egg far enough to see its intended destination.

So she’s joined the latest hunt personally. Her body is still shriveled and weak on the left side, scarred by Ill Wind’s parting blow and limping enough that one of her black sabers currently serves as a makeshift cane. But she always knew there would be such interruptions to her dance. She can adjust for them. Still she carries herself with poise and elegance, and still she can fend for herself should it come to blows with that hideous, pathetic bottomfeeder.

Today, the enemy has gathered itself into a new form, not a caravan of crawling nightmares, but a thick spherical cage made from countless oozing, ropey things. A great fungal tumbleweed, centered around a barely-visible egg. Its outer layers lash out with sticky pseudopods to swallow anything which draws too close into their mass, but steadily, her children slice and burrow and burn away at the mass, making a tunnel into its bulk. Severed tendrils of it either slither off into the forest — those she ignores — or gather and reform into new squirming creatures, which throw themselves at the swarm like living nets. Those she scythes to bits herself. The central mass slowly redistributes parts of itself, doing its best to fill the wound, but too slowly to keep them from making progress.

Until the sensation of some foreign presence blasts into her soul, the distant but all-too-pressing feeling of a great and terrible flowering. Of a half-dead butterfly larger than the world, emerging from its cocoon and spreading its rotting wings to blot out the sun. Only for a few wingbeats, but what a calamity they will be, and who can say what will be left in its passing? It leaves her and her children stunned, rapt with awe they cannot fully understand. 

…And by the time they return to themselves, the egg is gone — separated from the central body, which still stands guard, and slinked off into some dark corner of the forest.

All pointless, now. And they were so close. She turns and retreats for her grove, spitting and fuming to herself and her attendants until she’s buried most of her frustration beneath the sheer expressive delight of cursing in the Language.

~~~

The psychedelic maelstrom swirls into the point where the egg shatters. In the depths of the vortex, a vast tapestry unfurls outwards in every direction, engulfing everything, swallowing me.

The first thing I feel is the horrible sensation of my shoes sinking into wet mulch. I open my eyes to a canvas rolling across the world, rising up to depict a horizon turned on its head. 

Beneath me stretches out a vast indigo sky, alight but sunless like the tail end of twilight. I stand upon an island of soggy sawdust drenched in watercolor paint and clumped together to resemble a puffy cloud. Countless other cloudlike sawdust islands swirl hurriedly around me, merging together as they all flow towards a central point. The cloud I’m standing on soon converges with those surrounding it, forming a wider platform. Droplets of ink pitter down in an aimless drizzle; I look up, and above me is an ocean-sized marsh swimming with human shaped outlines.

The moment I think to reject the disgusting foothold I’m standing on, with hardly a thought but the visceral wish to not have my dress be soiled as my boots sink into the muck, I will corrosion into the world beneath me. The surface of the sawdust solidifies, desiccated by a stray thought’s worth of my power, forming a patch solid enough to stand on. A small blessing in the face of what comes next.

My cloud melds into a sprawling landmass of sawdust which stretches into the distance before me like a desert of wet, multicolored sands. An endless procession of clouds pack in behind me, filling out the world in my wake.

Far above this unreal wasteland, shimmering trails of color begin to weave themselves unsteadily in midair, forming a pattern beneath the oily, upside-down ocean that passes for the heavens. The pattern unfolds into a massive sigil, clumsily scribbled into the sky as though using crayons made of light. Bound in a purple circle, the symbol portrays something like a bouquet with blossoms of every shape and color piled atop one another, their petals weaving into each other as though the lines that composed them were knots.

And right beneath that great, shabby emblem, from the centermost point where the sawdust-clouds have united, the surface of the landmass ripples outwards like a stone tossed into a lake. Tremors wrack through the ground, and a great, thin, towering shape punches through the mulch. 

A massive, freakish oak tree, looming over everything, begins its ascent. Yet it casts no shadow. There are no shadows here at all.

The colossal black tree rises ever upward with such reckless speed that it draws the surrounding sawdust into a surging whirlwind around the length of its trunk. A pair of symmetrical branches, barren of all leaves, sprout from each side of the oak’s uncannily slender trunk, spiraling in on themselves and germinating two more swirling branches from their outermost brims in turn. The growth repeats again and again in parallel as the oak reaches up towards the heavensward sigil. The coiling branches grow to encircle the crude emblem, as though the tree were cradling the halo in its arms.

And then, just before the base of the tree, the sawdust-dunes begin to shift and bulge. All at once, the subterranean disturbance surges towards me like a rising tide, displacing the surface of the sawdust-clouds as it slithers beneath them. The culprits burst from the dust, curling upwards like the crest of a wave as they reveal themselves: roots. Thick, earthy roots, shooting up from the sawdust in tandem to form a great wall of serpentine tendrils. And just like the crest of a wave, it’s destined to crash. Onto me.

And beyond all this, a sickly moon emerges from the oily depths of the inverted ocean above, its surface covered in fields of alien flowers.

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