A gangly wooden limb raises its claws skyward. It would only take one swipe for those spindly talons to shave through my eyes, carve off my face, end it all. But I’m still quicker.
A card filled with my plague cuts through the air and embeds itself into the glass eye at the center of the creature’s paper-blossom head. It’s halted in its tracks. The imaginary world mirrored in its gaze dies in an instant, shattered into a broken reflection that fades into nothing like dying candlelight. My curse shreds straight through its lanky stick figure body, shriveling its paper petals and causing the thorns that cover it to flake off like old scabs.
But I’m not finished with it yet. I could hardly ask for a better breeding ground for my contagion, after all. Right as the blossom-headed monster disintegrates, I rip the sickness that’s taken root inside it out. Ribbons of moss-colored smoke are sucked out of its crumbling, too-thin form and into another one of the tarot cards orbiting around me, tainting it.
In the time it took to kill one of these things, two more are already upon me. They’re fast. Blindingly fast. They rush at me on all fours like emaciated, gorilla-sized spiders and pounce, flinging themselves at me with no fear, no hesitation, no drives that might conflict with the purpose they were made for: to end me at any cost. But that’s okay. They’re just bringing me more of what I need.
I beckon back to me the previous card I threw practically from midair, given the first flower-headed beast’s body has already collapsed into particles of glass and sawdust around it. The card spins backwards as it flies into my fingers — and right through one of the pouncing monster’s bodies on its journey. The edge of the card carves a notch in the creature’s slender torso as it travels, but that’s all it takes.
The flower-headed creature’s body becomes rigid and sluggish as it sails towards me. It looks like it’s moving in slow motion. As I am now, it’s easy enough to simply twirl past it, stepping aside as its outstretched claw misses me by an inch. It crashes into the solidified ground behind me with a roll, and then begins twisting and twitching helplessly as my illness overtakes it.
Which leaves me face to face with the third creature, still diving in my direction. It’s even closer than the last one. In less than a second, its glass eye will ram into my head and bash my fragile skull in, smearing my brain across Aulunla’s Wound. But… somehow, I’m not too worried about it. Not anymore than I’m already feeling, really.
Of course I’m scared right now. I’m terrified as I’ve ever been in my entire life. The fear of what’s happening and what’s to come has seeped into every pore on my skin and every nerve in my flesh and right down to the marrow of my bones. It’s just… I’ve been scared from the very beginning. I’ve always been scared. And if you take all that fear and pile it up, from the mortal terror that’s been eating me from the inside out from the very moment I was diagnosed all the way to this hopeless, exhausting fight against a Harbinger gone mad, madder than I’ve ever seen a nightmare woven wholesale from its own singular brand of insanity go, this is really only a little more.
More than anything else, I just don’t want to die.
And if magic comes from our will, from our wishes, I’m not going to get killed by a broken thing that would give up on itself and burn everything it is away just for a chance to be rid of me.
The twenty-one cards floating around me scatter. My legs part wide as I abandon my cane, letting it fall into the trail of coagulated sawdust I’ve made, and throw my body to the ground. I’m quicker than I ever could’ve dreamed of being before I made the Promise. I duck and dart forward, underneath its leaping charge, and in the briefest instant where my body passes underneath the blossom-headed creature, I reach out with the tarot card I’d just called back between my fingers and graze the monster’s half-bent knee with the card’s edge, all in one smooth motion. It’s easy. After all, this creature looks practically like it’s moving in slow motion too.
The monster’s spindly body tenses up and crashes into the other flower-headed thing I’d just incapacitated, whose limbs all snap off on impact. My infection certainly seems to have taken its toll. But I don’t have any more time to waste on them, even to rip out the contamination inside them and add it to my arsenal. I don’t even have the time to bask in some vague sense of triumph, since more of these horrors are on the way — although that also means more opportunities to gather ever more of my pestilence.
My scattered cards gravitate back to me, and I return the tainted card in my hand to the ring, making it a proper set of twenty-two. I then pick myself up and just keep dashing forward and down the slope of the dune I’m on, sculpting a path out of dried-up, gaudily-colored sawdust in front of me as I go. I can faintly hear myself wheezing with each strained breath I take, but I hardly even notice that it’s happening.
There’s nothing worth focusing on but my goal. The only thing that remains beyond that is the soul-chilling sensation of my own self-inflicted inner decay mingled with my precious stock of stored-up health all being burned away in a great cold inferno within me.
My burst of unnatural strength and speed comes from the same place as this hazy, numb state of mind where everything around me seems slow and sluggish and everything I do happens as if in a fever dream, simply proceeding along with no regard for how or why — it’s all the result of turning my own blight upon myself.
Back when I made that horrible trip into the untamed forests beyond the limits of New Claris, I was faced with Esonei, the hole-faced Harbinger who played the part of a willing victim and latched itself on to that burning tree-dinosaur Harbinger, Ourien. It infected the souls of anyone who attacked it with its own pain and its conviction that it was better to let itself be torn apart than raise a hand in its own defense. At that time, when Vianzia tricked me into attacking those two, Esonei sank its tendrils into me, invaded my mind and thoughts and made it impossible for me to act on my own will.
The only way I could think to fight back was to call upon my power and seal it within myself alongside Esonei, since its influence didn’t prevent me from hurting myself and thus it along with me. In doing that, I found something else I could do with my power over illness: build it up inside me, let it fester and deepen as I myself deteriorated, and then unleash it all at once in a vast plague-tempest far greater in lethality than my usual bursts of awfulness. Something I could only do thanks to Yurfaln’s twisted blessing.
From the moment I saw everything in the Wound rushing to tear me apart from atop that sawdust dune, I already knew that what Aulunla was throwing at me was too much for me to handle on my own, given my past showings. I couldn’t have handled Irakkia without Shona and Mide, either, and this is even worse. But I also knew I had advantages in this fight that I didn’t back then. All I needed to do was use all of them. I’d already poisoned Aulunla with my illness, and more importantly, I understood my own magic better now.
Even if I tried to recreate the massive plague-wind I summoned back then so I could wipe out everything coming at me at once, it would still take time to do it. Time for my suffering to hone the scourge within. Time I don’t have before every nightmare Aulunla ever dreamed of is upon me. But I realized something. In a way, I knew it from the beginning; I just didn’t want to feel how much it hurt to use Yurfaln’s blessing to the fullest extent possible.
I used my gathered blight to force myself to the brink, the very edge of my consciousness, tightrope-walking the last sliver of my life before the endless plunge into the void. Then I took the supply of health I’d spent so much time collecting, all those nights carefully skimming off the top of innocent people so that I wouldn’t hurt them too much or get caught, and I lit it all on fire to keep myself from tumbling over the cliff.
Just burning the health I’ve gathered from others only allows me to function as if I’m not a dying little girl while it lasts. It lets me exceed what my physical abilities would normally be if I wasn’t sick, but it never goes beyond what a regular human is capable of. But this place right on the verge of collapse is what Yurfaln glorified above all else: a truth written in scars, where the sorrow of loss and your closeness to death exalts you. In this state, where everything about me can be pushed far beyond all natural limits, I can burn my vitality to manage feats only possible with magic.
The downside is that what had once been hours of my gathered health allowing me to run and jump and act like a normal person has now been reduced to mere minutes. But it’s minutes of doing what no normal person could ever dream of doing. If only I didn’t feel like street litter rolling around on a stiff breeze all the while. Too much to expect magic would give me one thing without a lethal catch, I guess.
All of my limbs feel heavy. My lungs quiver with every strained breath. I’m slick with sweat. My dress feels sticky against my skin. My entire body is enveloped in an unnatural, bone-deep chill that’s different from actual cold. The cold I’m feeling is the sort that’s born from your body ignoring the actual temperature around it and demanding you feel frozen anyway. And yet, my joints are all on fire.
Above all else, though, I just feel numb. That unbalanced, miserable mixture of freezing and burning that throbs across my senses is a distant and muffled impression. It’s like I’m gliding through a dream, and all those far-away aches and pains are the phantom echoes of a world I’m not participating in right now. Everything I will myself to do, somehow, I do it, no matter how impossible. I’m barely more than a dancing corpse, but because of Yurfaln, this is when I shine the brightest.
As I continue forging a path ahead of myself, calling my infection from the depths of the Wound to its surface and desiccating the many-colored sawdust clouds which pass for ground in Aulunla’s world in the process, I see Aulunla’s roving horde of nightmares rushing to greet me from the corners of my tunneled vision. They’ll be on me in moments.
I’m being swarmed by two waves of flower-headed creatures coming at me from opposite sides. I can only really distinguish each of the monsters from one other by the different blooms unfolding in place of their heads. Lightly colored petals mimic buttercups and chrysanthemums, roses and daisies, violets and spider lilies; although many are budding with the same flower, every single blossom has their own unique touch, whether that be scribbled on polka-dots or being made out of decorative wallpaper or zig-zag patterns cut out of their petals as though by lace scissors. One thing that’s constant for all of them, however, is that their fake flower heads are completely disproportionate to the rest of their lank, skeletal forms.
I can’t tell how many there are with just a glance. There must be a dozen or more coming from either side, and there’s another wave of the things coming just behind them. Even further beyond that, a hulking terracotta rabbit the size of a bull is barreling straight for me, trailed by a formation of much smaller rabbit-things.
And I’m running straight into all of them. I can’t waste however long I have left in my current state, where the more awful I feel, the stronger I am. I need to wipe out everything that gets in my way as quickly as possible.
I stop moving and call for my blight, which rises from the Wound some distance in front of me. As both packs of feral nightmares close in on me, noxious fog swells from beneath both like a rising tide, washing over all of them. My goal is to slow the swarm down like I’d done when I blighted the area around me against the very first flower-headed monster I encountered, but they still keep coming. Within seconds, the gaunt wooden stick-things emerge from out of the haze, their wilted petals and flaking bark-flesh looking only a bit worse for wear.
But even if this won’t stop them, they’re slower than before, and that’s all the opportunity I need. I levitate twelve empty tarot cards out from my orbit and aim them carefully at the rush of flower-headed monsters approaching from my left — those are the ones that are closest to me, but those on the right aren’t much farther away. With a swipe of my arm, I launch all of the floating cards I’d readied at once, and they embed themselves cleanly into the bodies of the leftmost pack’s nearing flower-heads.
The blank cards won’t do much on their own, but I have plans for them. I take the two cards I already filled with blight when I killed that last flower-headed monster and have them fling themselves through the swarm like boomerangs. They cut through the ranks of the creatures, intensifying the toxin they were already suffering under. As their bodies become brittle and begin to shed away into the sawdust grains from which they first arose, I use the blank cards I’d placed there beforehand to rip the illness out of them once they’re too weak to survive.
But it’s too slow. By the time I’ve willed the blank cards to begin absorbing the sickness of the collapsing flower-heads that came at me from my left, the ones to my right are already on top of me. I’m barely able to dodge the claw swipe of the first flower-head that reaches me, then plant one of my remaining eight blank cards into its glass eye.
Unfortunately, all my movement manages to do is put me in range of the next closest stick-creature, which lances its talons down towards me as if to gouge out my heart. I duck under its legs to escape, willing another one of my blank cards to lodge itself into the thing’s knee as I do. In response, the creature lifts one of its spindly legs — it has no feet, just a web of thin, raw roots tapering off a sharpened wooden point akin to a stake — and tries to stomp on me.
Before it’s able to skewer me, I call back the nearest card I’d attached to one of the flower-heads from the leftmost pack. It spins through the air as it flies toward me, and I will it to slice off the lifted leg of the flower-head above me as it passes through and returns to my orbit. The flower-head in front of me topples to the dust. Infection from the card that amputated its leg spreads through its body quickly, and the blank card I left in its knee gluts itself on the corruption. All around me, the creature’s friends are closing in, however.
The six blank cards still orbiting me halt in place all at once, then fling themselves at the flower-heads in a reckless, scattered barrage; I’m surrounded on all sides, so they’ll hit their mark no matter where I toss them. Then, with a swipe of my hand, I focus on the twelve cards I’d launched towards the creatures that attacked from my left and yank them backwards through the air. They all come spinning, newly charged with the blight they’d absorbed in the meantime, and each slices through another one of the flower-heads that have me cornered. The alien worlds reflected blurrily in their glass eyes fade away one after another, leaving behind only blackness in their wake.
The eight empty cards I’d placed among these stick-creatures beforehand drink in the curses that killed them, then pluck themselves from their crumbling bodies and return to my orbit. The rest of my cards quickly join them, slithering through the air in a single-file line. They swirl around me, shimmering with a deep, poisonous emerald glow.
With this, every single one of my twenty-two cards has been charged with my concentrated scourge. I will them to float on their backs, spreading them out in a fan before me.
I turn to the remnants of this first wave of flower-heads trampling over their fallen kin as they continue to come for me. Beyond them, the second wave of flower-heads is romping forward, crossing the fading bank of toxic fog I summoned to slow the last wave down.
I reel back both my arms to my right side as if preparing to heave a great weight. My fanned-out spread of cards follows the motion, shifting to my side and floating at a distance from me. I know I don’t need to do any sort of gesture to control my cards, but my body is doing this on its own; it just feels right. I sweep my arms forward, my movement flowing to my opposite side, and with that, my cards lash out. They follow my motion once more, their crescent shape slashing forward like the blade of a scythe. The next wave of stick-monsters emerging from the fog and the remaining stragglers, all of them, they’re all mowed down with one pass of the cards before me, slicing through their slender bodies like butter.
I repeat the motion again, this time in reverse, like I’m swinging a scythe back and forth. With each pass, the next file of flower-heads is cut away like weeds in a field. It’s not that my cards have particularly sharp edges. I’m sure a blank card would never be able to chop off one of the flower-headed creature’s limbs or slice their bodies in half. It’s just that the infection a tainted card has absorbed can grow potent enough to instantly gnaw through a victim as they pass along their blight.
These cards are first and foremost a medium for my power, but since even touching them can doom a victim to my plague, I know I can use them like this. I needed to strike in as wide an area as possible. This was the most efficient way, even if it does feel somehow like I’m using my power… crudely. There’s facets of it I don’t yet know how to see, much less use. These cards are capable of more than I’m using them for. But for now, anything that works well enough to keep me alive is fine.
Just as soon as I cut down the last of the flower-headed things that are blocking my path, the giant terracotta rabbit I saw is already bearing down on me. In its wake, a garden of alien flowers springs up which rises to the scale of a forest the farther back my gaze looks behind it. With each bounding leap forward, the artificial flora covering the bull-sized rabbit’s back spring up and down like a shaggy coat. The smaller rabbits which trail it in a formation are much the same, and have arranged themselves in order from largest to smallest, with bunnies the size of cats following right behind the bull-sized rabbit and bunnies the size of actual bunnies behind them.
Without wasting a beat, I call my twenty-two cards back to me and fling one of them right between the biggest rabbit’s glassy sunflower eyes. The card sticks, but it’s not enough; even as the paper flora on its back starts to wilt, the thing just keeps charging blindly towards me. It’s tougher than the flower-heads.
I get ready to dodge out of the way, but without warning, a hand reaches out from the sawdust beneath me, its spindly wooden talons locking around my ankle. It’s another one of the stick-creatures. Its torso bursts out of the ground, revealing a head that looks like a big red toy radish with gold sequins for eyes. With its free claw, it moves to maul me, and I’m just barely able to step back enough such that it only slices up my thigh and through my dress. In the next moment, I’ve already stomped my boot against its face and severed its arm with one pass of a card, but I have barely any time to leap out of the way before the terracotta rabbit runs me over.
I tumble to the right just as the rabbit passes and watch as it tramples over the radish-headed stick-monster’s face and arms, crushing it into compost. I land gracelessly on my wrist and let out a ragged growl of pain from behind gnashing teeth. My concentration falters and my floating tarot cards all fall to the ground around me.
I may have avoided the biggest threat, but I still end up in the path of the smaller terracotta rabbits. They pass over, stamping all over me and my fallen cards with their rough, stumpy feet as they go. Little black pellets pop out from behind them with each hop they take — the seeds of the thickets that grow wherever they tread, I imagine. But those seeds find no purchase on my blighted ground — a fact I’m thankful for when I finally manage to pick myself up. My cards rise on their own with me.
Watching the bull-sized terracotta rabbit and its entourage race away in the direction I came from, I draw from my stores of health again to treat my injuries, silencing the screaming in my wrist first before stitching up the gash in my thigh as much as I can manage. I know I’m draining my own health too quickly for this to last, but my mind is clouded over enough without the pain of two deep wounds distracting me and ruining my ability to focus at all. I need to figure something out, and fast.
But without even getting a chance to think, the ground begins to rumble beneath me, causing me to stumble. The surface of the sawdust dunes swells upwards, and a giant, thick root rips itself from the mulch to my left, tearing through the trail of solidified sawdust I’d made. It whips around clockwise such that it’s coming at me from behind, now, whirling towards me with enough speed to lash me in two.
Since I don’t have a chance to think, I don’t. I just act. I squat down with my cards swirling violently around me, shove all the strength I can muster into my legs, and push off the ground with as much force as I’m possibly able. The path I’d sculpted cracks into pieces as I launch upwards like a ragdoll. Out of raw impulse more than intention, I stretch out all of my limbs like a falling cat, and watch as the tendril passes below me — again as though in slow motion. In my heart, I’m panicking.
To my right, another root lances out of the ground across from the root I just dodged, this time trying to impale me while I’m in midair — and it’s too late to try and rot it with the plague in the depths of the Wound. Instead, before it can reach me, I form my cards into a crescent shape again and have them shear through the root in one swipe. Its severed tip shrivels up as it falls to the ground beneath us, rotting away into sawdust, while the remaining stump shudders to a halt.
The shock of impact wracks up my legs the moment I land, forcing me to my knees. My body just hurts, and my thoughts are getting foggier the longer this goes on. Sweaty, gross, heavy, sore. I can’t feel my feet. I think I scraped my knees at the end of the fall, too. Oh, and the first root that caused me to make this jump in the first place has whipped back around and is coming right towards me.
…but this time, it’s attacking me from the front. It’s not quite as fast, either. So rather than try and dodge, I reach out and I grab it.
My nails dig into the bark. The root’s flesh decays around my touch, letting my grasp sink into it. I wrap my legs around the root and I hold on for dear life. It swings me through the air as it writhes about. Although… what was I thinking? The root can smash me into the ground at any moment, probably killing me instantly. Stupid. I’m such an idiot. Always in the worst ways at the worst times. What next? Is there anything? I can’t have come this far just to… no. I can’t. I will never die.
And I sense it pulsing beneath my touch.
My magic has already invaded every part of this Wound. I can feel Aulunla’s life tangled up with the strength it poured into this root, this piece of its will. Aulunla’s essence is right next to mine, pounding like a beating heart. It’s entirely different from the past Harbingers who I couldn’t get a read on.
Which makes it mine for the taking.
And that alone makes me remember. This sensation. My resolve, my promise to myself, my… hunger for life. As long as I have a well of warm essence to drink from, the idea that I might die, ever, is just a nightmare I’ve woken from.
Shimmering green wisps of my mist lunge out from my broken body, burrow into the root I’ve clasped myself around, latch their lamprey grips onto Aulunla’s essence, and start to drink.
This time, there’s no reason to hold myself back.