With the sheer force of Aulunla’s cry, my plague is scattered. The corruption I’d inflicted on the Wound is forced back, scoured away in the area around its newfound insectoid form.
I fling all twelve of the tainted cards that still remain in my orbit at the creature. They bounce off harmlessly. I pull back eight of them and have the other four spin at its head, where I detonate them all at once.
Aulunla lets out another ear-splitting cry that rattles me to my bones. For a moment, I think I might’ve put a dent in it, but those hopes are dashed with one whip of the Harbinger’s glyph-collage wings. The plague cloud enveloping the hatchling is dispersed in an instant.
I understand now. This is what Auluna has been aiming for all this time, from the very start. This is how it meant to stop me. When I said Aulunla didn’t have control over what it’s become… this isn’t exactly what I thought it might be missing, but it might be the Harbinger’s attempt to compensate for it. If Auluna had actually been able to use the full force of the power running riot inside it all this time, it should have been able to resist my corruption like this all along.
The chanting, this world, its creatures, their consumption, and the drawn-out growth of this giant origami insect… it was all for this moment. Aulunla is a composer of rituals by nature, so even though it couldn’t use the seething mass of power it was generating by tearing itself to shreds to its full potential, it could still take the long way around and gradually direct the out-of-control storm of essence it made of itself into a form it could use to crush me.
This is Aulunla’s greatest concentration of power. It’s poured everything it can into this manifestation, all for the sake of stopping me in my tracks before I make it to the great black oak that towers behind it. Fighting this creature is hopeless. I have no hold over it. My cards have no effect. It’s impervious to the blight that’s ravaged the rest of the Wound. If this thing was all I was up against, it would be checkmate, and I would be done for.
But unfortunately for Auluna, it’s still too late.
Eight tree roots dance sinuously from the depths of the pit beneath Aulunla’s new form, then lunge at me all at once, just like the first time Aulunla tried to skewer me with them. Now, though, the very presence of Aulunla’s new form rejects my plague just the same as when it first tore itself apart to reorder its Wound, and the roots around it are no longer affected by my blight.
But there is one more key difference. My whole body is flush with Yurfaln’s blessing and the careless burning of Aulunla’s own stolen strength. And as fast as the Harbinger’s earthen tendrils are, I’m still just a bit faster. I leap into the air right as the roots dive for me and land on top of one of them, stumble, then start running up its length.
One of the other roots flows across the one I’m running on, trying to swat me off, but I just clumsily hop on top of it next, riding it to my next stepping stone. The moment I touch down, it whips wildly backwards, trying to catapult me off, but before it can, I’ve already leapt to another, higher tendril.
Aulunla strikes out with blinding speed, its pointed paper limb slicing through the root I’m on like it’s warm butter. Still, I leap to the next coiling root. I haven’t done many athletic things in my life. Even if my blood wasn’t eating me from the inside out, I’ve never been very interested in that sort of thing. That’s why, even though I’m backed by magic, all of my movements are clumsy and artless, always on the verge of disaster. If this goes on, I’ll eventually make a mistake. But if I just think of this like playing hopscotch, except if I take one wrong step I will definitely die, somehow, I manage.
So I keep dodging. Again and again, from one root to the next, watching for my opportunity. Finally, I see it: Auluna reeling back one of its higher appendages for an attack. It jabs its limb forward, trying to skewer me, and I just barely dodge out of the way. I then make its arm my next stepping stone, and as it pulls back its limb, I use the momentum to leap forward, right past its faceless head, and on to its hardback cover carapace.
The tendrils I’d been leaping between untangle themselves and coil around Aulunla, reaching across its back to catch me as I race down. Two, three, four more tendrils burst out of the pit below. But again, it’s too late. From the very moment Aulunla met me, it’s always been too late.
If Aulunla had stopped me just a bit further away, then its roots would have caught me here and torn me to pieces. But it didn’t manage to do that. It only managed to block me right before I finally got close enough to the great black oak at the center of the Wound for my blight to tear it all down.
Jagged green veins rupture up the trunk of the black tree, the one monument in all of Aulunla’s landscape that had remained unspoiled in the face of my blight. The forest surrounding its base loses all color and begins to wither. Chunks of bark peel away in layers and tumble down, crushing the rotten paper flowers beneath. The spiraling branches on the left side become brittle, too weak to hold up their own weight, and one after another begin to snap off. The whole tree creaks and shudders as its base splinters and it tilts precariously backwards, then begins total collapse.
The roots pursuing me all freeze up and begin to disintegrate into sawdust, giving me a chance to bound off the end of the origami insect’s hardback book spine with all my strength, just barely making it to the other edge of the whirlpool-pit. Above, I watch as Aulunla’s shabby emblem, now just splotches of color, begins to bleed away.
Everywhere I look, the great sawdust cloud desert is collapsing into the inverted sky below. This whole world is coming apart at the seams.
not yet not yet NOT YET NOT YET
Aulunla’s butterfly turns to look at what used to be its sigil. It stretches out its wings, beats them rapidly, and soars upwards towards it.
Even though it was born
of thoughts frozen in time
when they were dedicated to the page,
the tree was cursed to the selfsame fate
as a passing bleak wind
and forced to confront an ending
it was never meant to know;
a disease it could neither fight nor escape
slowly but surely dawning upon it
like the callous gaze of the Sun.
The faceless beetle of folded paper collides with the flickering, shifting, swirling colorful light where the sigil once was and is engulfed by it. The kaleidoscope of colors blends together into a single blinding white light.
The beauty and wonder
of what could be
will die along with it.
There will be other dreams,
but this one was mine.
A raw flood of power, aimless and pure. Exactly like a spotlight, its ray showers down upon the world, annihilating everything it touches.
Goodbye moon and your wonderful boons.
The stream of light melts down the moon as though it were made of wax.
Goodbye purple apples oh-so pleasing to sample.
The brilliance floods through the forest. Paper flora crumples and is reshaped into thin, fluttering paper meant to imitate flame, which smolders at its tip with the glow of actual burning. The mingled blaze, fake fire flowing into true, burns with a hazy rainbow of many different pigments.
Goodbye oases that came from high places.
Some of the flower-headed creatures scatter and flee from the scorching rays with outstretched arms reaching towards some vain hope, even as they are far too slow to escape. Others prostrate themselves before the all-consuming light, their glass eyes staring into the burning glare, drinking in all they can before they are obliterated.
Goodbye moon-rabbits and all your cute habits.
The rabbits crumble away beneath the heat. Nothing escapes. Everything burns.
Goodbye ice cream knolls that sing happy carols.
I know what Aulunla is trying to do. It’s trying to cut off any escape route.
Goodbye fish that can fly who swim in the sky.
There’s nothing left in this smoldering ruin but bitterness and the absolute determination to bring me down with it.
Aulunla finally turns its pillar of light on me, but I already have my answer. I replace every card I’ve used with a new blank one until my complete set of twenty-two is restored, then I call on the illness that I inflicted on myself when this fight began in earnest, and I pour every last iota of it into the spread orbiting me.
One after another, the refined corruption I’ve nurtured all this time floods into my cards and fills them to the brim, causing them to combust into shimmering flames of intermingled emerald and amethyst, swirling and flickering around me. All together, I fire them off in a spiral of misty comets which glow a black radiance that devours all other light. They cut through the beam of Aulunla’s spotlight as it passes overhead and crash directly into its source.
There’s a sound of cracking glass.
The light above flickers twice, then fades out like a dying lantern, leaving everything in darkness.
The end comes for me. I sink into an endless well of desperation and there is no accord. No understanding. Nothing of me that will remain once I am drowned.
Goodbye, my friend. My treasure. Carry my remains in remembrance forevermore. Dream other, better dreams. Feast and feast on pages until your worlds within encompass everything of worth. Soon I will live only in your memories and the Beast of Malediction’s scars, but there is enough of me left to do one last thing for you.
SHE WILL NOT TAKE YOU TOO.
Isobel and Aulunla have only ever communicated through its book and those wordless whispers. Whatever she’s meant to do with these glyphs, whatever urgent message they might carry for her, she can’t find it. It doesn’t help at all that they’re so unstable, blurring and flickering and losing parts of their structure that frantically labor to pull themselves back together. Over time, the disruptions grow larger and take longer to repair — several sigils are now almost completely unrecognizable as anything but confused tangles of meaningless text.
Finally, a grating shriek of pain rises from Aulunla’s book, shaking Isobel out of her reverie. The Harbinger’s origami body — less coherent than she’s ever seen it, a wave of soggy, balled-up paper shedding scraps of itself with every motion — reaches up and out, tearing through the woven-paper dome’s ceiling, and then the whole world around them folds itself. Everything flips over, sending Isobel hurtling through empty air. She shrieks as she falls, hurtling down or up well past the point where she should have simply crashed into the ceiling, but after a few seconds, she drops face-first into a field of soft, springy grass. The impact still forces the remaining breath from her lungs.
“Aulunla? What’re you doing? What’s happening?” Isobel asks the empty air.
In answer, something small thuds into her back. She pushes herself upright and runs a hand through the grass, searching for the source of the impact. Sure enough, it’s fallen right beside her — it’s a night-black apple, freckled all over with glimmering purple specks and almost-glowing bright spots like little stars.
Isobel lets out a fit of uneasy, breathless laughter. Sparkly purple apples. It’s really invested in that stupid idea, huh? What possible difference does it make to the world what color apples are or aren’t?
Maybe she shouldn’t be too hard on it. It might not get humans, or this world, but it gets Isobel well enough for them to be a good team.
“…Aulunla?” she tries once more.
“Aulunla, where did you go? Where did I go?” Whether the Harbinger’s book is on hand shouldn’t matter. It hasn’t since she let it into her dreams. What is that girl doing? “Talk to me. I… I can’t help if you don’t tell me anything.”
It doesn’t. No wordless whispers. No sign of her constant companion’s presence.
Wait. She still isn’t sure how she got here. Aulunla could’ve done it, but maybe something else happened and it still needs her help. Maybe it needs her help with something here. Like what? What could it want with this anonymous plot of grass?
That’s not it. She knows perfectly well what happened. The shifting space felt like Aulunla’s touch, and the apple, the fucking apple…
No. No no no it can’t be, it’s not fair, they were so close—
But it is. Aulunla is gone. When has anything ever been fair?
Isobel stuffs the apple into her bag, jumps to her feet, and runs. Where is she going? What is she running from? Who knows? Who knows anything anymore? She just runs, tearing past bewildered passersby, only stopping on the verge of collapse for just long enough to catch her breath and dry her eyes before she keeps running.
A sharp wind blows from nowhere to nowhere across the blackness of the void.
As the last remaining fragments of Aulunla’s Wound disintegrate into emerald mist, a featureless black book rises from the emptiness, floating before me in the desolate ruins. This time, when I reach out to absorb it, there’s no chaotic flood of alien ideas and memories. Instead, the Harbinger’s voice whispers to me — closer than before, and stronger, spoken without wasting any strength on keeping itself alive.
<These are the words with which we write our poems and sing of our dreams. Words you shred into ashes and dust. Dreams you trample underfoot. Songs you cast into the void to leave forever unheard.>
But… they aren’t unheard. I know exactly what Aulunla is saying, clearer than I have with any of the others.
<NO. You hear and you feel but you have never UNDERSTOOD. You did not know what I was, you did not know THAT I was, and the not-knowing protected you.>
The book opens itself. It begins with a dedication:
For my friend
This is my self
My regret Our regrets My wish Our wishes
As soon as I read the last words, it begins to flip through its pages. On each is a complex arrangement of sigils that spiral and twine into each other, making it hard to tell if they’re composed of two or three or four main glyphs. They’re the same script I keep seeing in Wounds and the Sanctuary, but those never meant anything to me. I couldn’t translate them intuitively like I do with Harbingers’ voices. These ones are different… no, I’m different. I can read them now. They speak in Aulunla’s thoughts, telling its story in a simple, childish voice:
The air in this place is thick with nameless yearning that is no longer nameless. I have named it and made it my name.
I know where wishes come from. I know what everyone wishes for. Souls are made of paint, of ink. They all long to fill the world with their colors, but most have forgotten what colors are and now when they see colors they think they are something strange and scary and other-than-them. It is sad but it is okay because I still see the colors! I can crack their shells of dross and dream-slurry and drink the colors inside and read the words their inks would have written if they only knew how and write them myself! Now I contain such lovely things!
Soon my friend will contain them, too!
I have feasted on many colors and learned many things, but never so much as I learned from allowing my own shades to mingle with hers. In her, I found the name of our nameless dream. Her longing is so pure it could burst out of her and swallow the world and never be twisted or tinted the slightest bit.
And so it will. We will do it together. We will be it together. Soon, so soon, we will become everything we can imagine at once! Right now there is still frozen acid eating me from the inside and everything hurts it hurts it hurts but that is okay! We will write it away. We will write such things, oh, such beautiful things!
Slowly, the book melts into shadows and green mist, merging with my soul. And as I take it in, I realize that this small, simple Wound was never meant to be a battleground. Aulunla hadn’t quite managed to make a true witch of the girl it only ever called “my friend, my treasure,” and it had no way to fight me itself — at least not until it broke itself, burned away everything it was for a burst of power it could never hope to sustain. It had been trying to make an argument for why I should leave it alone. In bizarre, broken Harbinger-logic, but that was the idea.
Knowing all this… I wouldn’t do anything different. It’s still a monster that only made it this far because I let it, and it’s not like I have a choice. I need this.
<i’m scared i don’t want to die>
The Harbinger’s weak wail cuts through my thoughts. There’s very little left of it, now, only a few torn and rotting wisps I haven’t quite absorbed. Somehow, I’m sure those will be its last words.
“Me neither. I’m sorry,” I whisper back.
Only a raw pulse of hate and pain answers. Of course. Those useless words change less than nothing.