“Well! It’s very very interesting that you should happen to call right this moment, becaaaaaause…” Shona says, then trails off into silence. “…as luck would have it, I’ve recently…” A longer pause. “Yes! Yes in fact I do! There’s a threat we were just on our way to investigate! It’s a little out of the way, but if you want to make this our first team venture, we can meet you at the scene whenever you’re ready!”
“That is very not what I said. We can see how it goes, your words. Did you just now start searching for a problem to throw us at?”
“Eyna, there’s a monster out there RIGHT NOW that could strike again at any moment! The people need our protection and there’s not a second to waste on questions that won’t help them!”
“…Right.” That’s a yes, then. I only asked because I wanted to know how she found one so quickly, so I’m not sure what the act is about. “Anyway, I’m ready now. What’s going on?”
“Oh, right this second?” She sounds a bit surprised.
“Like I said.”
“Yep, yep, of course. Okay, so, did you hear anything about… last week, the couple on a picnic in Kuri Park? They had those identical breakdowns at the exact same time. Some kind of corruption on them, but no one was sure exactly what happened or what did it.”
“I must’ve missed that.” Last week I wasn’t a Keeper, and I hadn’t thought to dig through old news for suspicious incidents that might already be over.
“Well, it was a thing, and it happened again about two hours ago. This time it was a group of three kids from our school, all found in just the same state as the first two. I think we can safely say now that it’s a Harbinger’s work, and it’s escalating.”
Five victims. Yurfaln had reached four, maybe closer to three and a half considering how well Dr. Hines managed. What does that say about the size of this monster? What’ll be left if we split it three ways? Is that even a thing we can do?
It’s probably pointless to think of it that way. There’s no reason to expect that a Harbinger’s growth will follow some sensible schedule. I won’t know anything about this new nightmare until I can sense it myself.
“Sounds like it, yes. Where was this? If it just happened, we might still be able to catch its trail,” I say.
“Uh, looks like the Shoals. They were hanging out on the coast. Right around…” She lists off an address across the street from the scene.
“Alright. Unless you have a better place to start in mind, I’ll meet you there… soon.” I’m not sure exactly where it is, but getting there might be a bit of trouble. The sea is to the east, on the opposite side of the city from the hospital.
“Nope, that’s just fine with me, we’ll be there in a blink! And remember, the prize is still up for grabs!”
“Wait. Before you go, about that,” I say.
“Have you already got an idea? Save it, it’ll be cooler if—”
“No. About the prize. The actual prize. If this works, if we take something down together, what are we doing with the Harbinger’s heart?”
“Ooooooohhhhh. Oh. Okay, so, hm, you’re, hmhmhmhmhm… how’s this? We’ve been giving all of ours to Mide, so this time around, I’ll sit out completely. We split it fifty-fifty, you and her.”
“Is that actually possible?” I ask. Vyuji’s never brought it up, and I didn’t think I’d need to know.
“Course! We’ve never done it before, but Enne says you can, so I’m sure we can figure it out! All good with you?”
“…Sure. That works.” It’ll have to do for now.
“Great! See you soon!”
There’s a little beep as she hangs up. Idly, I hope neither of those girls can fly or teleport or something.
As for me and my useless legs, I see a few ways of doing this. I didn’t bring my cane just to wander around my territory, since that side of my health has felt fairly stable with my stolen strength propping it up. Maybe I should go get it, but I’m managing well enough today, and I especially don’t want to use it if I’m about to meet up with two other Keepers. They’d notice. They’d ask the sorts of prying questions other kids have always asked me. I’ll manage.
Anyway, if I walk, trusting my magic to hold me up for… just under two miles, checking my phone, I might be okay. I could also take a bus to the closest stop and hope there’s somewhere private enough to transform again in that part of the city. Do I have any money? Right, doesn’t matter, the buses are free. It’s been a while since I needed to get anywhere.
There are people all around me. People in buildings, people bustling through the city, people on the sidewalk stepping aside and staring at me as I pass. So many points of life in easy reach that my soul-sense starts to blur them all together into one hazy mass. They feel like cool mist on a burning summer day, and any tiny pangs of ill-health among them are lost in the background like the smell of tea in a room full of coffee. I could probably spread the drain out, take the tiniest possible slivers of strength from a hundred people, then run wherever I need to go with no trouble.
No, I can’t really justify that. Not yet. I don’t know what I’m heading into. We may not find the Harbinger at all in the first place we look. Plus I still don’t know what taking health feels like for the people I take from, or how it looks to normal people. It could be an unexplained outbreak of mild sickness or it could be a very ugly public spectacle.
I’ll just have to take a little longer. And try not to think too hard about the last time, about what it was like to be doing well. I dismiss my magic in a quiet corner, and as my mystic senses dim, it gets a little easier to shove those thoughts to the back of my mind.
The trip takes a little more than half an hour, most of it spent waiting for a bus at the nearest stop, then another short jaunt to the address Shona gave me. The directions weren’t much more complicated than ‘find a direction and go east until you hit the water.’
I haven’t been to this part of the city in years, but the Shoals have the exact same wide, bright streets and spacious sidewalks lined with greenery as most of New Claris. During the rebuilding, they did their best to make sure that you can always see more sky than structure when you look up — well, maybe not in the Peaks, nothing to be done about that — and the paths occasionally wind and twist into each other, but only enough to keep the city from being a perfect grid of identical roads. They didn’t want it too orderly. Honestly, it’s a nice walk in a nice place, even with all the people. As long as I ignore where I’m heading.
There’s no actual landmark to look for when I reach the place, but sure enough, a small part of the neat line where the city gives way to the shore is surrounded by blue wooden barricades. They wall off the scenes of Harbinger attacks as a matter of course, at least until Keepers have a chance to declare the area clean. Two men in police uniforms are keeping an eye on the wall at a healthy distance, and then…
Past the barriers, the rocky ground slopes downward, and a few thin stretches of land jut out into the water. It’s still light out, but the blue of the sky has just started to deepen, casting a shadow over the sea. Two slightly darkened figures are already on the outcrops, inspecting the scene of the attack: a tall girl in red and a gold-armored knight. Maybe they were nearby, but since I’m pretty sure Shona found out about this a few seconds before I did, it’s more likely that one of them has some cool way to zip around with magic after all. Good for them, I guess.
I step out, round a corner, and transform again. Before I got on the bus, I took off my mask — out of Keeper mode, when no one had any special reason to pay attention to me, I figured it would be a more memorable feature than my actual face — and interestingly, I don’t need to put it back on. It’s just there, appearing from the solid shadows with the rest of my attire. Once I started thinking of it as part of the outfit, I guess it became one. If it’s that simple, I’ll have to think if there’s anything else I want to change… but later.
Right now, I should go see how those two are doing before I change my mind about this horrible idea. One of the policemen shoots me an expressionless glance as I cross between the barricades, then goes back to talking with his partner. “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” is more of a polite warning for Keepers.
But as I reach the coast, the eerie sense of being watched by someone else — something else — creeps over me. Inhuman eyes bore into my back, into my everything, like I’m in a dark place surrounded on all sides by observers I can sense, but not see. It’s a very different feeling from the last time, but I immediately know it for the stench of a Harbinger’s presence.
“Oh, Eyna, there you are!” Shona shouts from out on the water, pulling me back to reality. She’s literally on the water — standing on the ocean’s surface, shifting slightly with the waves. Just as I spot her, she kicks into the sea and glides across it like she’s skating on a frozen lake. Mide just waves from the far end of an outcrop, and by the time she’s started making her way back to the shore, Shona is climbing the rocky slope in leaping strides, almost jumping from one smooth stone to the next.
“Hope it wasn’t too annoying getting here. We’ve been looking around for a bit now. I’d have offered to pick you up, but, uh, my thing takes some getting used to,” Shona says as she climbs.
“Eh. I would’ve turned you down anyway. Have to keep up with my… you know. Image…?” My incognito loner thing. I almost said that outright, but it sounded ridiculous in my head. It still sounds a bit ridiculous.
At the top of the slope, Shona tenses and makes one last long jump back onto solid ground, landing a bit too close for comfort. “That’s the spirit! Can’t you just feel our Keeper scene getting cooler for every minute people have no idea who you are? Uh. Sorry, right, still sounds pretty stupid.”
Is this some ironic joke? Am I being bullied? I still have no idea how to tell. But more importantly… “How can you be so cheery in a place like this?”
“How d’you mean?” Shona frowns, looking more puzzled than anything else. “Oh. I guess something pretty scary did happen here, huh? I mean, I hope they’ll all be okay, but that’s why they have us, right? Just gotta make sure it doesn’t keep happening. Getting all serious won’t catch the monster any faster.”
“No, whatever, not that, it’s just… it’s a bad place. You feel it too, right?” It’s not really painful, I can tune it mostly-out and focus on other things when I need to, but it feels impossible to be at ease here.
Shona cups a hand around her ear and slowly turns in a half-circle. As she does, Mide ambles up the slope, casting a puzzled look between us.
After a few seconds of intense focus, Shona shakes her head. “Um, it is a bit creepy, sure. I did notice earlier, I could tell a Harbinger was here, but that’s all. You didn’t pick up anything more, did you, Mide?”
“Have I ever?” Mide asks tonelessly.
“Right,” Shona sighs. “Well, we figured the trail had gone cold by the time we got here. Were we wrong?”
Reluctantly, I close my eyes and turn my full attention to the miasma. Compared to last time, there’s very little weight to it — it doesn’t react, doesn’t push back the way Yurfaln’s presence did. It’s thinner, somehow less directed, but all the same the impression it carries is much clearer than the last Harbinger’s raw hostility. Watched isn’t the right word for the way it feels, on second thought. ‘Watched’ is a stranger staring at you through your window, and this is something much more. Inspected, that’s closer. Studied by unblinking eyes that stare right into my soul and judge me unworthy of existing.
“Maybe. It still feels awful, but it’s weird, space-wise? Not a real solid trail, just fog all over the place. If I had to guess it went that way, but not sure if I could actually follow it. Probably not.” On instinct, I point somewhere to the northwest.
The two glance back at each other skeptically. “I guess we’re stuck there, then,” Mide says. “Did you still want to look around in the water? I don’t think there’s much to see.”
“It definitely didn’t go there,” I say. “But do we have anything else to work with?”
“Of course it didn’t. Claiasya protects the sea. I, uh, hrmmh.” Shona growls out a faintly frustrated noise. “Maybe we could just head that way and see what we see?”
“Most of the city is that way from here,” Mide says, frowning. “Other than that, there’s maybe…” Her expression deepens into a pained grimace. “The kids it attacked. I don’t know how they’re doing, I don’t want to make it any harder for them, but maybe we don’t need to. Maybe its traces are still there.”
“That might be better, yes,” I say. Not that I really know, but Yurfaln’s aura had been all tangled up with its victims. If I’d needed to, I think I could have tracked it from that couple. “Whatever step two is, could we get away from here while we sort it out?”
“Oh. Uh, sure. Is it really that bad?” Shona asks.
“Can you really not tell?”
“Nope, not a bit more than usual. Interesting! You’re probably just more keyed into this sort of thing than either of us. Everyone’s senses work differently, right? Like, they say the Stardust Seraph can sniff out a Harbinger from miles away!”
Of course he can. “That must be pretty nice. I guess even among us, some kids get all the luck.”
Mide rolls her eyes. “It sure seems that way, doesn’t it? Take it with a great big pile of salt. No actual living person could ever be as great as this one thinks Roland or Irida are.”
“I mean, sure, there you’d THINK they couldn’t, but you’d be super wrong!” Shona insists. “You’re just—” Before she can say anything else, retreading what must be some well-worn argument, Shona glances back at me and clamps her mouth shut, a little visibly embarrassed.
Mide grins, stifling a giggle. “The greatest, biggest pile of salt ever. She’s got it really bad for those two, ‘specially—”
“ANYWAY!” Shona yelps. “Eyna, go get some air and we’ll catch up with you in a second! Just gonna tell those guys we think it’s safe here, yep!” Shona indicates the two policemen with her head, then spins around and runs toward them.
“Wait,” I call after her.
“Yeah?” She twirls on one leg in mid-step, coming to a perfect stop facing me.
“Tell them not to take the walls down. The Harbinger isn’t here, but I’m not certain it’s safe yet.” If the aura weren’t so still, I’d worry that its source was here with us right now, or spying on us at a distance through its lingering presence. It doesn’t feel like that’s happening, but it’s possible and I’ve only done this once before. I don’t want to let it hurt someone else based on a week-old Keeper’s best guess.
“Oh. Sure, will do.” Shona shrugs and takes off running again.
I start down the shore’s sidewalk, wandering nowhere in particular until the Harbinger’s atmosphere is distant enough to ignore.
Mide walks just behind me, leaving Shona to handle the reporting alone. “Are you sure you’re alright?” she asks. “I know it never feels good being in a place like this, but…”
“Probably. You heard her, I guess I just have, um, a sensitive nose for horror.”
She still looks concerned, but she nods. We’re quiet until Shona comes rushing back, not the least bit winded for having sprinted both ways.
“Good news!” Shona shouts. Immediately after she frowns and crosses her arms, reconsidering something. “Well, ah, that’s to say… I think it’s good news as far as finding the monster. I asked if they knew what was going on with those kids, the victims, and they do! Someone from Bright Horizon just picked them up. We should be fine to check on them as long as this isn’t a lockdown situation, which, mm, I didn’t think it was? How ‘bout you, Eyna?”
Just to be sure, I stretch my senses back out toward the scene of the attack. As soon as I feel the Harbinger’s gaze on me, I pull away. Nothing follows or clings to me, as far as I can tell. “…No, me neither. How far to the Sanctuary?”
“Just a little ways south from here,” Shona says. There’s a harsh buzzing in the air as her body starts to spark with tiny jolts of red light. “We’ll only be a second if—”
Mide clears her throat pointedly.
“Oh, come on, I’m sure she can figure it out! It’s not crowded here at all, it’ll be easy!”
“Remember how long it took me to get used to that? How long it took you? Do you want to break both her legs before we even find the Harbinger?”
“……if we all take a niiice brisk walk through the woods,” Shona sighs. Her sparks slow and shrink, then fade, taking the low ambient noise with them. I make a note to stay far away from whatever method of zipping around with magic she has.
Nearly all of New Claris is full of plants, with rows of trees and mini-parks and tiny gardens all threaded through bright modern structures like green veins. The southmost district, the Weald, could apparently never decide if it wanted to be a city or a park, so they did their best to let it be both.
Sparse streets wind through carefully tended woodlands, running alongside and occasionally tangling up with paved walking trails. Sometimes the roads stretch up into overpasses above the paths, sometimes the walkways rise into little bridges over the streets. Actual buildings are uncommon, scattered far enough through the woods that they can all feel like solitary homes in the wilderness. There’s a zoo somewhere down here, a lot of Church holdings and schools, some rich people’s houses, the Fianata estate. Bright Horizon Soul Sanctuary, where most Clarish survivors of Harbinger incidents spend at least some time, sits right on the city’s southern border.
“So,” Shona says after a long stretch of silence, “how about that prize? I mean, not that I’m in any way saying we have to make this a big official thing, but imagine if that was at all what we were doing. Just. You know. If.”
“Where would I even start?” I ask. “It’s not like we have some obvious theme to work with. I don’t know what you two are about at all. The most I can say about this group is that there’s three of us.”
“You could’ve looked us up. We haven’t been at this for long either, but we do have a bit of a profile!” she says.
“That’s true,” I admit. “But I didn’t.”
“Meh, I guess that’s for the best. Now I can fill you in myself, see if that gets any inspiration going. Plus I get to keep the priiize!”
Suddenly, Shona runs ahead of us… wait, no, that isn’t right. She’s skating, gliding along the path just like she did on the sea’s surface earlier. At a distant corner where the trail curves sharply, she comes to a halt with a quick series of showy figure-skater twirls. Those red sparks start up again, forming a storm of light around her that crackles and builds until it’s almost too bright to look straight at. When it fades, she’s holding… it looks like a violin, but not quite. Around the thin neck, there’s just a single length of coral the same shade of blue as her bracelets, wound into an S shape that forms the rough hollow outline of a violin. She takes a playing position, reaches up with a long bow in her other hand, and draws it across the strings, producing a horrible buzzing wail that sets me shivering all over and makes my spine feel like teeth chattering in the cold.
“Those were the first notes of the Screaming Hymn! I make music, and that makes magic — spreads it all over the place like static in the air. It builds up and up and up. I won’t let it get quite that far out here, buuuut…” She looks up and raises her bow to the sky… then freezes, biting her lip, and takes a few sidesteps into the center of the path where there’s no foliage overhead. “Yeah, there we go!”
The buzzing in my bones fades. A jagged bolt of red lightning arcs through her and up into the sky, immediately followed by a deafening explosion. Reflexively, I yelp and cover my ears through my hood. Someone else screams in the distance.
“Uh, sorry, sorry, nothing to worry about! Just Keepers over here doing Keeper stuff!” Shona yells back at them. “Yeah, guess I should’ve said something, but y’know… showmanship! Anyway, there you go! I spin up a big awesome storm, point it where I want it to go, and blast monsters with it!”
“Does it do anything else?” I ask once my ears stop ringing. I wouldn’t have pressed the question if she’d told me this a week ago. It lines up perfectly with the way kids’ shows about Keepers present fighting with magic, all colorful laser battles against scary-but-not-too-scary monsters. Shona sounds like she’d be right at home in a colorful laser battle.
That’s not at all how my first actual Harbinger encounter went, though — things in Yurfaln’s Wound were a lot more abstract and complicated than those shows implied. At the time, I figured that was because they were dumb kids’ shows, not instructions for future Keepers, but maybe my magic is just weird and wants to be used in weird ways.
“Well, sure. I can charge it into other things too. Change how they work, make them faster, stronger. Usually her,” Shona finishes. She points to Mide with the bow, then throws it over her shoulder and hurls the instrument straight into the trees. Both dissolve into showers of tiny sparks, vanishing before they land. “Mide, wanna cover your side of things?”
“Well…” As we catch up to Shona and start down the path again, Mide raises her left arm. In a flash of light, that giant shield appears in her grip, followed shortly by her spear. “I can do this, and I’m pretty good with these. Our Promise came with a sense for how to use them, and how to fight in a group and protect people.”
“Sounds nice. Mine didn’t.” I nod and wait a beat for her to go on.
“I’m done. That’s all,” she sighs after a moment. “All I’ve found, anyway, and I think you’re just supposed to know what you can do, right?”
Wait, really? Sure, these girls seem pretty earnest, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re holding something back. Not that I can judge too harshly if they are.
“I mean, yeah, but what you can do does change sometimes, y’know?” Shona says. “Magic grows with you. Sometimes new stuff about it emerges as you Emerge. We’ll find the rest sooner or later.”
“Sometimes,” Mide echoes, obviously unconvinced.
We walk a while longer in silence, which would be fine if these two would stop glancing uncomfortably between me and each other.
“What about you, new girl?” Mide finally asks.
Oh. Um. Of course they’re not going to let me get away with that. I probably should’ve thought ahead of time about some way to describe what I do other than ‘I’m the dying Keeper who does sickness magic’.
“I, hm. It’s weird. I control… ill-fate, maybe? Curses, corruption. I can take those things and inflame them or move them around. I don’t really have a flashy demonstration, but here.” I raise a hand, palm up, and summon the card holding Yurfaln’s remnants, its muddy colors still writhing and churning. Mide flinches, and Shona makes a face like I’m offering her a pile of roadkill.
I take the hint and put the card away. “Sorry. That’s what it is. I made it out of my first Harbinger’s… leftovers. I know it’s disgusting, but the idea is that at some point it’ll be disgusting for some other horrible creature.” What I just said isn’t all of my magic, of course, but it’s close enough that it’s not fake. I can’t think of a way to start on the life-draining aspect that doesn’t make me sound like a monster.
“That is,” Shona says, very slowly, “maybe the most Vyuji thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Um, sure. I’m not going to press her on what that means. “How did you find this Harbinger so quickly, anyway?” I ask, hastily changing the subject.
“Wha?” Shona looks confused for a second, but then she shakes it off and grins a bit wider than usual. “Yeah, fine, you caught me. I did do that, huh? There’s easier ways to keep watch than actually wandering around looking for monsters. The police answer calls a lot more than they walk past a crime right as it’s happening, you know? The Silver King’s scouts make the hard way easy, but, well, we can’t all be as cool as her! If you don’t have any tricks like that, you’re probably better off just taking tips on Flow. People ask their favorite Keepers to go check out weird things all the time!”
“On what?” I ask.
“Ha ha. Yeah, I get it, you do strike me as one of those ‘too cool for that useless nightmare reef’ types, but at least for this one thing it really does help!”
“Listen, I literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Some Coral Sea thing?”
Shona stops in mid-stride and spins around, leaning down to level with my eyes and stare right at me. It’s a long way down. “Oh,” she says after several long, uncomfortable seconds. “Shit, wow, you, uh, you really… How?”
What? Is it really that weird? Sure, I vaguely know that there are parts of the Sea where people post real stuff about their real lives, and in context, that’s probably what she means. I’ve never once touched it. What life did I have to share? “Always seemed like more trouble than it’s worth? Besides, I’ll never be anyone’s favorite anything.”
“…you might be surprised if you just…” Shona mumbles, quieter than I’ve ever heard her. She sounds like she still can’t believe she’s actually having this conversation.
Come to think of it, I do know for a fact that Tara was some people’s favorite Keeper. That’s different, though. I wouldn’t want her fans even if I could have them.
Why draw that line? I don’t want any fans.
“Er, to be fair, no method’s perfect,” Mide cuts in. “We have our misses, and some of them are just worried about nothing. Ask her about the bathroom ghost if you want a laugh sometime.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking abooout!” Shona chirps, suddenly cheerful as ever.
I don’t think I’ll press her on that, either.
The walk goes on, although I have to stop and catch my breath a couple times to keep up with these two. Here and there, Shona brings up some idle chatter, but it doesn’t go anywhere and quietly fizzles out.
“Here we are,” Mide eventually says, pointing ahead. The path opens into a wide circular courtyard, and beyond that, Bright Horizon comes into view. The Soul Sanctuary is a smoothly curved circle of spotless ceramic white, with not the least bit of visible wear or dirt. Its strangest feature is that it’s got none of the clear crystal walls common to buildings here, especially to Church holdings. In fact, I don’t see any windows at all, no openings anywhere except the wide front doors.
Its location this far out in the woods probably offers its residents some much-needed peace and privacy. Just as important, though, it means anything that leaks out will be further away from new victims.
“Sure enough,” Shona says. “Let’s see what there is to see, yeah? I’m, uh, I’m not too sure what’s next if this doesn’t work out!” She laughs, a bit nervously.
So in we go.