Sunlight is just starting to flood through the gauzy curtains when I wake up choking for air. Hot, sharp pangs burn through my chest. My head spins as I try to sit up. I’m breathing the wrong way, I know I am, but it’s a losing struggle to correct myself all the same. Even then, nothing changes. All I can do for relief is squeeze Pearl until the pangs start, very slowly, to fade. They never quite disappear.
This has never happened to me before. Was I dreaming of drowning? No. No, this is still the thing I took from Yurfaln. Its stolen pain is somehow separate from its heart, the core of its soul I’ve already claimed and… digested?
Suddenly, I’m certain there’s no point in using my call button. Medicine can’t help me. I may not even be actually feeling this. Not with my body’s senses, anyway.
What can I do, then? I took the Harbinger’s essence with magic. I should be able to get rid of it the same way. I’m not sure how yet, but Vyuji keeps saying I already know how to use my power. Time to feel about in the dark for knowledge I don’t know I have, however that works, and hope something turns up.
I take my first hesitant steps out of bed and quickly stumble, catching myself on the nightstand. I feel like I’m trying to walk on clouds, the first sign of a horrible health day. Of course my body would choose right now to fall apart.
Once I’ve fumbled for the cane at my bedside and found my footing with it, I crack the door open and pull out one of the tabs on my patient sign, the little blue one that says “Quiet, Please! Do Not Disturb!” Nurses tend to ignore that sign when they think it’s important enough, which is to say any time at all their schedule says they should, but it’s too early for morning checkups and I can’t think of any other reasons to bother me.
Here we go, then.
My room goes dark as I reach inside and transform. Emerald shadows swallow the world, only letting light back through the windows when they gather themselves up and take their solid form around me. My cards shimmer into view with another thought. I raise my free hand and direct one to float out of its orbit, bringing it to rest just above my open palm.
These cards are ritual tools first, the way my magic expresses itself to the world, but also vessels I can fill with pain and power. I’ve done it by accident with my pain from my sickness, but they shouldn’t demand that specifically. Yurfaln’s disease wouldn’t let me vent it off into nowhere when I stole it. It probably still wouldn’t without causing some horrible backlash on its way out, but…
Drawing the Harbinger’s lingering pain to the surface is easy, since it was already almost there. Magic is keeping me standing, but the feeling itself hasn’t gone anywhere. Letting it loom over everything else in my mind, I take in a shallow, wheezing gulp of air and hold it, hold it, just a little longer until… like clearing gunk from the back of my throat, I push.
Out it comes, but what I’m exhaling isn’t air at all. A thick plume of ugly mud-and-rust colors leaves me with a tiny hissing scream. The cloud twitches and thrashes randomly, like a sack with something alive inside trying to kick its way out… but whatever those colors remind me of, Yurfaln is dead. This is mine now. A moment later, the card above my hand sucks it in, immediately repainting itself in the Harbinger’s shades.
It worked. Exactly like I thought it should. Yurfaln’s essence is gone from me, but it’s also still there. Quarantined. When I unsummon my cards, it’ll wait harmlessly in some corner of my soul until I decide to take it back out. I sit back on the bed and just breathe, making sure I can now. It takes a good few minutes, but eventually my head does stop swimming.
Could I do that again? I have plenty of pain to spare. I pluck a fresh card out of my ring, pull back the billowy sleeve over my right arm, and gingerly touch a corner to my skin. It draws blood with the slightest, briefest contact, and I flinch at the strangely sharp pricking sensation, but then it’s over. Like before, the card drinks up a few drops of blood and paints itself green, leaving behind only a tiny wound like a papercut that’s already nearly closed.
…I don’t feel any different, though. My legs are just as wobbly and useless as before. Apparently my own disease is part of my power, something I can call on and inflict on others, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere or get used up. There’s that thing Vyuji said about using your magic to erase the source of your magic, I guess. Maybe there are other things I can do with these cards, other reasons I’d want to infect them with myself, but I can’t think of them right now. It’s not like I need to charge them ahead of time — the curse I’ve carried my entire life will be there in an instant whenever I call for it.
Oh well. At least I’m back to my normal level of terrible. I end the transformation in a burst of disintegrating shadows and crow feathers, pick my actual tarot deck up off the nightstand, and pull my card of the day. The Moon — insight, imagination, the world of dreams and fears. On its own, a reminder to take stock of your emotions and how they might be affecting you, or to trust your intuition and instinctive hunches for answers you’re seeking.
The way Vyuji implied this should work, my understanding of my own magic definitely feels… lacking. All the instincts she said I’d have might be there, if I really look for them, but they’re coming in scattered bits and pieces, showing up at the last possible moments when I’m pushing myself to test them. Or, more dangerously, when I was in a Wound desperately looking for a way out.
Am I doing something wrong? If I am, I don’t know what to change.
The next few days were a tense sort of quiet.
The story broke that afternoon. We already knew it was coming by the time reports started. Well, of course I did, but the charge nurse announced that morning (in very broad terms) that yes, there was recently a Harbinger in the hospital, it took a patient from our floor, and it’s dead now — believed to be completely dead, though we should speak up if we felt anything strange or just needed someone to talk to. Someone probably called Dr. Hines’ workplace to say where he’d gone, and they didn’t want the older patients stumbling on the news at random.
That only did so much to help. Once they’d heard, people were suddenly quicker to jump at shadows. When the night nurses dimmed the lights in the main room, they left them a little bit brighter than they did before. This was too close a call for most people to brush off and be happy they’re safe. Fear for your life is nothing new here, but when Harbingers are involved, there are worse things than death. Even I can’t deny that, not when I’ve met one and seen its plans for the world.
I’m not worried about Harbingers in quite the same way, but I had enough of my own problems to keep me just a bit on edge. I’d already burned through the health I took by next morning. I’m used to living like this, I have to be, but when the numbing cold crept back through me, remembering that the pain was nearly gone yesterday somehow made it all the worse. If I need to do that again, I’ll have to see if I can bank wellness somehow, ration it out to keep things bearable for a bit longer.
As expected, no one was happy with me running off twice in one day, especially since the best explanation I had was “I’m tired, can’t talk about this right now.” They gave me my space that night, but from then on I could feel more eyes on me than usual whenever I left my room. Not a constant shadowing, just enough to know that they were paying attention and they wouldn’t stand for another weird outing.
I really would have to tell at least one doctor what I was doing, then. It was that or literally fight the next aide who tried to stop me from leaving, which… it’d make the point, sure, but was a terrible idea in all sorts of ways. Dr. Hines was my first choice, but I wasn’t sure when he’d be back and I could only delay for so long. There were some ideas I wanted to test and things I wanted to study before my next outing, though, so we’d see how things look when I was done.
Until then, I tried to keep to my daily routine, more or less. Acting completely different all of a sudden would feel like a signal that something weird was going on, and I didn’t need any more of those.
My tarot corner hasn’t had many visitors lately. Maybe people are a little nervous thinking about what the future holds when they’ve just come so close to the worst-case scenario. For my part, I spend most of my time on my cnidarian drive, doing whatever Keeper research I can do on the Coral Sea. Honestly, none of it feels more useful than just asking Vyuji basic questions or experimenting with magic myself. I’m sure there is good information on the Sea, it’s just scattered across more pages than anyone could ever go through, and I’ve never become an expert at sorting through them. Maybe it’ll go better if I come up with some specific concept or field I want to know every possible thing about.
All around, things on the seventh floor feel… slow. Lethargic. The others are still doing their best to stay busy, but the conversations are softer and the crowd quietly watching the news on the communal TV is bigger. I’ve mostly avoided the reports myself, other than a quick search to make sure that I wasn’t somehow named in them. As long as they can’t trace whatever they’re imagining back to me, I don’t really care.
We have more visitors than usual, though, some staying around to keep residents company for pretty long stretches. Noirin has one today — her grandson Oscar, a weedy kid around my age with messy brown hair and thin-rimmed glasses. He’s visited a few times since I’ve been here, always by himself. They’re circling the main room together, watering the plants on the windowsills, and stop to greet me when they reach my table.
Oscar speaks first. “Morning, Lia. ‘S been a minute, how’re you holding up?”
“My name is Liadain,” I correct. Only Dad and the volunteer helpers who think of me as That Cute Little Dying Girl call me Lia. “And, ah, no worse than usual.” That’s true if you stretch it a bit.
“Right, sorry.” Oscar’s eyes flick to the side. I wonder if Noirin told him in advance not to say anything stupid about my hair. “Hey, do you still do those… the fortune-telling, with the cards?” he asks, filling the quiet just before it can turn too awkward. “Grandma mentioned it and I was wondering about something.”
“Not for you. They only ever predict horror and misery for normal people and I’d hate to accidentally curse someone.” Noirin shoots me a skeptical glance at that, one eyebrow raised, but carries on tending to a row of mint plants.
“Uh, yup, whatever you say. Playing Champions is safe though, right?” he asks.
“I hope so, since otherwise I already poisoned you last time. Sorry. Come by when you’re done if you want to play, I’ll go find my stuff.” Champions of the Goddess, the Church-sponsored Keeper card game, was a big thing when I was in school. I imagine it still is, but my old cards were gathering dust until Oscar mentioned playing a couple weeks ago. It’s been nice taking them out again. One of my rare strengths is that I’m kind of good at this game.
I already have my cards splayed out on the table when Oscar returns a few minutes later. “You’re still playing this deck? I regret asking already,” he says with a dramatic groan. “Just… think about how happy you could make some freak on the Sea if you sold it off.”
“But then I’d have to actually talk to those people! Yuck! Don’t lump me in with them. I like how she plays, that’s all.”
My prized deck stars Tara Mullane, the Flower’s Fangs. After the media panic surrounding her really took off last year, they stopped printing her cards and tournament-banned them. Bringing her up at all is still considered rather icky, and I think the main reason I get away with playing her is because no one wants to refuse a dying girl her small joys in life. These cards are collectibles now, worth a lot of money to the right sort of insane groupies, but what would I even do with money?
“What, this no-fun-allowed control pile? That’s actually worse! I’d be happy to lose every time if I could just play any of my damn cards on the way down!” Oscar fumes.
“Listen, Oscar, that’s just the way this game works. There’s only so much fun you can squeeze out of one match. When we start, we’re sharing it equally, and then you win by taking away all the other side’s fun. Hate the game, not me.”
“Sounds like a pretty terrible way to have fun with your friends when you put it like that.”
“I guess so. Do you still want to play?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do,” he sighs.
For all his whining, I do lose in the end. I drag it out as long as possible, but Oscar plays the Silver King and her cards are all way too good. When you’re that popular, you get to be overpowered.
I wonder for a second what my cards would be like. Then I remember how much I’d hate being famous and brush the thought away.
“Enjoy it while you can. I’ll crack this puzzle yet, no matter how rigged. Another round?”
“Mmm, with the way you play I might be trapped here forever, but sure. One more, then I should probably… huh. Hey, Grandma.” At some point, Noirin had taken a seat to the side. She waves once as we look up from our cards.
“Oh, you’re here!” I’m not sure how I didn’t notice her. Sure, I was trying pretty hard to win, but she does seem to have the lightest feet of anyone I’ve ever known. “You don’t play this stupid game, do you?”
“Not at all,” Noirin laughs. “I’ve got no idea what’s happening. I just like watching people’s faces while they play games. They tell quite the stories.”
That’s… really kind of embarrassing? My cheeks burn a little, and Oscar seems to feel the same way. He freezes for a second, then looks down and gathers his cards, completely flattening out his expression as we start the next game.
“Well now you’ve stopped making them! You kids aren’t any fun.”
It’s been four days when Dr. Hines comes back, which is good news for a couple of reasons. They must have found him before it got really bad, since that’s no time at all as far as treating Harbinger victims goes. More selfishly, any longer and I might’ve had to pick someone else to talk to.
“I’ve gone over the results of your screenings from Monday. All negative, it looks like your vitals have been stable ever since, and I’m afraid I’m not sure where to go from there.” We’re alone in the seventh floor exam room. True to the general aesthetic, it looks much more like a simple walk-in doctor’s office than part of a hospital.
“If anything like this were going to happen, it should’ve happened during the last transplant conditioning regimen. There are some autoimmune disorders that can cause premature whitening, but yours isn’t one of them. Even if it were, well, hair that’s already grown doesn’t just dye itself… ah, but you must’ve heard that a few times by now.”
“I sure have. But if nothing has actually changed healthwise, I’ll manage.”
The doctor smiles, very slightly, and scribbles something on a notepad. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but he looks about the same as always. Maybe his face is a little thinner, but he doesn’t seem too haggard. The balance of grey and black in his hair hasn’t changed at all. “Well, you seem to be in good enough spirits. We’ll keep an eye on your condition, but if it’s not upsetting you too much, we may just have to write this one off as a mystery.”
Maybe I should be a little more worried about going grey at thirteen, but… making my magic work for me. I’m doing my best not to get mad. I don’t like being angry. Anger is a pointless emotion that only ever makes things harder. “Alright. I’m fine with that. I do have another question, though.”
“What’s that?” he asks.
“Please tell me exactly how medical confidentiality works.” I’ve been in and out of this hospital enough that I basically know the rules, but if I’m going to spill this particular secret, I want to be certain there are no weird exceptions that might cause problems for me. I’ve already missed one obvious hole in my plans to keep a low profile, not that I could’ve done much differently there.
“When are you allowed to tell people things about your patients without asking them? Do you ever have to?”
Dr. Hines looks a bit confused, but he does outline the common exceptions. If other doctors urgently need to know something to treat a patient. If something about a secret is dangerous to the patient or someone else, like if they have a very contagious disease. If you’re talking about treating a minor with their parents.
That last one sounds bad. “What if they don’t want their family to know?”
“Ah, well, if a patient is old enough to understand medical decisions, we try to respect their wishes. As long as that doesn’t run against their best interests.” His voice lowers. “Liadain, is something the matter?”
Way too vague for my liking, but fine. That’s the best I’m going to get, I can’t really use a specific example without giving myself away, and whether or not it’s strictly allowed to tell him, I can make a strong case for leaving Dad out of this. Keepers are supposed to get all sorts of special exceptions anyway.
I guess I just have to force it out before I lose my nerve. “Sort of. So, I already… I know what happened. I made the Promise on Monday. This is the first sign of my Emergence.”
Dr. Hines opens his mouth to speak, but no words come out. “I see,” he finally croaks. “Are you sure that—”
I flare a bit of my magic, just enough for it to dim the lights and recolor my eyes, and the doctor draws back suddenly. Wide eyes stare straight at me, frozen in place.
“Um, sorry. I just didn’t want this to be about whether I’m delusional.” I let the aura fade.
“No, no, I… suppose some things just need to be seen. I was more worried about whether you came too close to it.” From his face, mentioning the Harbinger — maybe thinking of it at all — is a painful act of will. Remembering my first meeting with Yurfaln, I can’t blame him. “Wait,” he whispers. “On Monday. Were you…?”
I nod. He already knows enough that it’s the obvious answer.
He slowly sighs out the gathering tension. “In that case, I expect I may owe you quite a lot.”
What do you say to that? I probably wouldn’t have brought it up. Saving a life was still a strange feeling and I didn’t want to come off as somehow holding it over him. In the end I just raise a hand, palm out, and shake my head. There’s a long silence in the air.
“So, why tell me this?” he finally asks.
“Right. I needed help with a few things. First, I still live here. From now on I’ll probably be going out a lot. Doing Keeper things. The nurses don’t like me running off, and I guess from their perspective I’ve just lost my mind and started doing dangerous things for no reason. Please tell them… I don’t know what you tell them. Just make a floor memo saying not to bother me when I go on weird long walks. I don’t want to cause any scenes.”
“Yes, I think I see the issue. I’ll take care of it, but, well… as far as keeping it hidden from everyone here, consider your circumstances. There are really two things that could’ve caused this: either something medically impossible happened out of the blue to a severely ill patient, but we’ve all decided to ignore it and trust that it had nothing to do with our very recent Harbinger incident, or you’re a Keeper changing the way everyone knows Keepers do. I can’t stop people from drawing conclusions, so you may want to think about how to tell them on your own terms.”
“…Eventually,” he adds quietly. My face must be speaking for me.
“Um, eventually. Thanks.” I hate it, but he’s probably right. I can keep a low public profile, but my living situation just isn’t the best for me to do this beneath anyone’s notice. “This second one is a stretch, I can’t imagine the overlap of Keepers and terminal illness is a big field of study, but… do you have any idea how that works, what all this might mean for me healthwise? Or know someone who might?”
“Keeper medical issues are a specialty area, I’m afraid. Most of the experts are Church scholars.” He shakes his head apologetically. “They may have someone we could call in or refer you to, though. Would you like me to look into that?”
“Please do. It couldn’t hurt.”
We talk for a bit about the details of that search. I’d rather he check with me before he actually tells some potential specialist anything, but “I might know a Keeper” is probably necessary. I’m allowed to sign a medical release myself because Keepers in New Claris are automatically emancipated as soon as they make the Promise, which is the first I’ve heard of that. It’s kind of nice to know, not that Dad actually wants any say in my life.
“If that’s all… well, thank you again, Liadain. And, ah, congratulations…? Try to stay safe. Whatever else has changed, your health is still fragile.”
“I know. I’ll do my best.”
I give Dr. Hines a while to get the message out, however he decided to word it, and then it’s time to go. The sun is getting a bit low in the sky, but hasn’t started to set. It probably won’t for a few more hours. Today, the nurse at the front desk only watches with confused concern as I leave.
Hunting strategies are complicated, that’s the sum of what I’ve learned from reading about them. I really just stumbled across my first Harbinger, and I’m still not sure I have a good plan for when ‘find a horrible scent and chase it’ doesn’t work out. New Claris has a lot of Keepers — if the stuff on the Sea about other cities is true, it’s apparently downright crowded for our actual size — but it doesn’t seem like I’ll have much competition if I stake a claim around the hospital. The university just south of here might also be up for grabs.
Past that isn’t so clear. The urban centers are naturally pretty covered, the farmlands outside have specific kids looking after them on shifts, and there’s not much point in thinking about the Peaks. The Silver King somehow manages to do all of the magical celebrity stuff and keep an eye on the entire district at the same time, only breaking long enough to sleep… probably. I think Keepers still need to sleep. The Stardust Seraph lives somewhere to the south, but you see him all over the place, so pushing a bit farther that way might work. Apparently he runs around and jumps in to help with every problem he can, then refuses any share of the prize in exchange for… selfies with other Keepers to post on the Sea, which is a ridiculous fable if I’ve ever heard one.
Anyway, no point in getting too complicated until I see what I can find. I transform in the same secluded parklet as last time and head off into the city, stretching my senses out as far as I can.
But nothing’s turning up today. I make it across the university campus and back, taking a different long, looping route on the return trip, and all I encounter are people staring at me as I pass. Magic or no, it’s a lot more walking than I’m used to. I’m already kind of tired.
What’s the next move that doesn’t step on any toes? Unfortunately, there’s only one I can think of. With a heavy, heavy heart, I turn off my phone’s caller ID and type in a number I managed to remember after all.
“Hello? Shona? Yes, it’s me. Yes, I’m actually calling. Do you two have your eyes on anything?”