There’s a pressure in the air inside the Soul Sanctuary. It’s nothing harsh or really heavy, just… strange. It’s a faint phantom sensation of something like being underwater, if water only weighed a tiny bit more than air, and comes with the same muffled sound of blood flowing through my head. Shona marches right on ahead, paying it no mind at all. Mide follows after a brief glance back at me. It takes a little longer to get used to the atmosphere enough to join them.
Looking around the reception room only strengthens that feeling. The space is almost entirely colored in pale shades of blue — the white of the front desk is tinged faintly blue, and beyond that are speckled blue-grey floor tiles, a waiting room lined with plush blue chairs, walls decorated here and there with stained-glass windows backlit by soft blue light. The door at the end of the waiting room isn’t barred or gated or anything, not physically, but it’s bright like window glare to my new senses. I have a faint hunch that I might not want to touch it.
“…Yeah, if there’s any way you can swing it, just a minute to check up on them might really help us a lot!” By the time I’ve found my bearings, Shona has already approached the front desk and started pressing the older woman staffing it on the latest victims. I can’t hear her side of the conversation, but through the thick glasses that nearly obscure her eyes, she looks perfectly used to this. Groups of Keepers storming in and asking weird questions must just be a day’s work here. Eventually, they both go quiet, leaving the clacking of the receptionist’s keyboard as the only sound. While she does something on her cnidarian drive, Shona fidgets in place, rhythmically bouncing in tiny little hops on one single leg, then the other. Mide is off to the side looking at the windows, and at the moment, the lobby is eerily vacant except for us.
“Thank you so much! Yep yep, we’ll do our best, you take care too!” Shona gives the receptionist an appreciative two-finger salute before twirling around to face us. “Okay, everyone, I’ve got good news! Over here!” she calls out into the little room at her usual volume. “I mean, uh, it’s not good that any of this happened, but good news as far as us finding the… you know what, you know what I mean. The kids, ah… it sounds like they’re not corrupted in any way that’d make it bad to be around them, at least. They’ll have someone out to see us about them in just a bit.”
“Do we want to be around them?” Mide asks. “They’ve got to be having a hard time, and it’s not like we can help.”
“Um, probably not. Like we were saying, I don’t think we have to actually bother them. Just, y’know, get close enough to see what’s going on. If Eyna can get the thing’s scent, that’s all we need… no pressure, though,” Shona says. She shrugs apologetically, then strolls over to the big blue chairs and flops into one. “Oh wow, these seats are like the softest thing in the UNIVERSE! It’s wild! You gotta try them!”
Brushing aside the question of how she’s staying so upbeat in a place like this, on our way to hunt a screaming beast of nightmare, the chairs are in fact pretty comfy.
“So,” I say, a minute into the wait. Shona stops snuggling into her fluffy cushion and looks my way. Mide was already watching me with narrow eyes over tight lips, and her expression doesn’t change now. “Have you two done this much before? How does it go? Exactly how bad will it be in there?”
“Well, uh, strictly speaking, this may not quiiite be a field where we’ve got a ton of…” Shona says, trailing off into nothing mid-sentence.
“It’s our first time too. We’ve never really needed to deal with victims at all. Actually, you’ve probably come closer than we have,” Mide finishes. Shona looks over at her and frowns for a moment, then quickly shrugs it off.
“Well, the report. You called in for that family. How were they doing?” Mide asks.
“Um, I was mostly focused on the Harbinger? But it was pretty bad. Not as bad as it could be, obviously. I’m not sure what to compare it to… oh, don’t they still have that runaway from Commixture in here somewhere? Not that bad,” I say.
Uneasy silence hangs in the air as the two stare at me speechlessly.
“…For what it’s worth,” I add after a beat.
“Urgh… I don’t know if we quite needed to go there, but, uh, yeah, guess you answered your own question! There’s probably not a lot of sunshine and puppies waiting for us inside!” Shona laughs nervously.
Mide, meanwhile, maintains a completely flat, stiff expression.
“Right. Stupid question,” I mumble. Why did I go there? There has to be some less extreme point on the scale I could’ve thought of. Maybe I only deal in worst-case scenarios.
Well, anyway, I started a conversation. I have now officially done my part to make friends and work together. If this doesn’t work out, it’s no longer on my shoulders. Good job, Liadain.
A few more minutes pass, mostly silent but filled here and there by Shona humming little songs. Honestly, this whole cheery front she’s very insistently maintaining is a little creepy. It feels like nothing but flat-out denial of what it is we’re doing could keep someone that peppy in a place like this. But then, what do I know about being happy?
“Shona Tiernan? The doctor says you’re clear to see those patients.”
Eventually, the waiting room door slides open, making an oddly sharp noise like a sword being drawn. A tired-looking man in blue nursing scrubs steps out with three clipboards stacked in one arm and nods in polite greeting. His gaze hovers on me for a little longer than the others, and even when it moves away, he’s watching me from the corner of his eye. Trying to figure out if I’m anyone he knows? “Before that, it looks like none of you have visited before, so if you could all just read these over and sign on the line at the end…”
“…What’s all this?” I ask. Is Keeper paperwork really a thing?
“Ground rules. Once you’ve agreed to follow them, the protections here will accept you as a guest.”
“Accept us? Are you saying this medical release form is the key to some sort of magic lock?”
“It is,” he confirms flatly.
Mide immediately turns to the last page, signs, and hands her clipboard back.
“Ooh, is this an Arbiter thing?” Shona asks. “Or does the Sanctuary have kids from abroad who handle this stuff?” She runs her hand over the paper, flips through the pages fast enough that she couldn’t have picked up more than a few words from each one, and signs at the end.
The nurse shrugs. “Can’t comment on the details.”
“And it’s not like I can really go bug him about it… oh well,” Shona sighs. She sets her copy on the arm of her chair, leaving him to pick it back up.
For my part, I’m a little hesitant to put my name to a magically binding agreement without knowing what I’m agreeing to, so I take my time looking through it. It’s made up of huge blocks of small print, with some words I don’t know and others I don’t understand in context. Before long, my vision is blurring and my head is spinning, but I do manage to pick out a few key phrases:
INGRESS CONTRACT — BRIGHT HORIZON SOUL SANCTUARY (VISITATION VERSION)
This contract establishes a binding agreement between the active defenses of Bright Horizon Soul Sanctuary and an approved visitor, hereafter the Sanctuary and the Guest…
…the Guest agrees to avoid all physical, social, or mystical interaction with patients, except where expressly permitted by a staff member with at least Layer 3 security privileges…
…inform the nearest Sanctuary staff member of any suspected breach or contamination…
…allows the Guest to invoke the Sanctuary’s protection and cross Sanctuary thresholds unimpeded, with the following exceptions…
…willful violation of these conditions by the Guest shall be penalized by immediate exclusion…
…unless voided by free and voluntary agreement between the Guest and a Keeper with at least Layer 7 security privileges, all of the above clauses shall remain in effect for as long as there are lights in the night sky.
Not that I’m an expert, but that last bit doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the lawyer-speak at all. Why wouldn’t you just say forever? Because Keepers are weird, I guess.
In any case, I don’t see anything about giving away my soul or my right to breathe. Shona would’ve used my fake name if she named me at all while she was checking in, but it seems like a bad idea to sign a mystic contract as my dead grandmother. Instead, I make a complicated twirly line like the ones my doctors sign prescriptions with, but a little messier. If someone were to squint real hard and know exactly what they were looking for, they could read the little squiggle as L. Shiel. Probably. I’m sure it just cares about the symbolism of signing or something like that.
The moment I consider that might be an odd, dangerous assumption to make and start asking myself why I think that, I realize I can sense that intention behind the contract. The feelings invested in the words on these pages are, for the most part, those of total practicality, pristine and thorough… but they’re not completely impersonal, either. Not exactly. There’s a sense of solemn concern underlying it all, and beyond that, there’s not the slightest hint of malice. I can tell there isn’t a single thing in this document that could be considered deception, let alone an outright lie. As surely as I could sense the magic warding the door at the end of the waiting room, I just know.
“Here you go. Um, sorry that took a minute.” Signing it doesn’t feel very magical, in any case. There’s no sudden change in the atmosphere or feeling of anything new coming over me, but Shona and especially Mide are looking at me a little impatiently by the time I’m done.
The nurse doesn’t seem surprised or bothered as he picks my clipboard up and looks it over — I guess I can’t be the only one who actually wants to read this thing. “It’s no trouble. Looks like everything is in order, so if you’ll follow me…”
As soon as we’re all through, the door slides shut behind us with the same sharp noise. We’re in… it looks like a glass tunnel, a half-circle with windows for walls and only soft, featureless blue all around on the other side. That feeling of weightless water pressure is stronger here, and it’s getting stronger still as we head through the tunnel, but I’ve adjusted to it by now. A little more of the same sensation doesn’t change much.
Here and there, sigils write themselves on the glass in silver light. They’re hard to read against the blue background, but look very much like the ones in Yurfaln’s Wound. For a moment it feels strange to see that same script here, but it tracks with what I’ve read. These sorts of symbols seem to work themselves unconsciously into most large-scale or long-lasting magic, acting almost like an artist’s signature. If they actually mean anything, no one has told me what, although I haven’t done any sort of deep research on the subject.
At the end of the tunnel is a little square room, empty save for a two-panel mirror set directly into the far wall in a way that makes it look like the doors of an elevator. Rather than a button panel to the side, though, there’s only a smooth ceramic plate. The nurse traces an elaborate pattern onto the plate with one finger, then puts his palm to it and pushes. Nothing seems to have changed, but he looks back over his shoulder and nods. “Follow my lead. Just so you know going in, the first time can be, uh, a bit of a trip.”
And without another word of explanation, he turns back and walks straight through the mirror.
It doesn’t ripple like water, doesn’t move at all, but just for a second, our reflections are replaced by a swirling kaleidoscope of countless slightly different scenes in the glass, windows into different places all reflecting endlessly off each other like a vast, shifting hall of mirrors. Before I can look any closer, the images vanish, leaving just the three of us.
“Whoa,” Shona breathes. “Pretty cool, huh?”
I just nod. Of course I’ve always known that the world is full of wonders and miracles, but knowing something at a distance and diving right into it are completely different. This is my life now, and neither the expiration date looming over me or the horrors I’ll need to hunt over and over for a chance at living are enough to completely strip the simple awe from it.
I just hope zapping around with magic doesn’t make me as sick as most travel does.
“Well, someone has to go first,” Mide says, and nominates herself, strolling straight through the wall. Again, it explodes into a display of overlapping images.
“Hey, hold on! This isn’t like the other things, you don’t need to-” Shona reaches out a bit too late to stop her, then rushes through before the image has settled.
Well, then. I take a deep breath, hold it, and step into the panel.
I was somehow expecting a sudden lurch or feeling of being launched from a cannon, but it never comes — just the opposite. Going through is kind of like passing through a curtain over a doorway, but as soon as I cross into the mirror, it feels like I’ve frozen in mid-stride. On the other side I’m standing in that same kaleidoscopic burst of sights, but less stable, like on top of everything else I’m seeing it through crossed eyes. Looking at anything ahead makes me dizzy, but closing my eyes somehow feels like a bad idea.
Suddenly, the world rearranges itself. The images settle, replacing all the shifting scenes with a single window, and that window expands to fill my vision until it overlaps with the room, forming a passage for me to step through the wall into. I start moving again, just like I’d never stopped, and take my first steps into another small room. The trip was a little disorienting, and that sense of water pressure is even stronger on this side, but physically the transition was just walking through an open door with a strange pause in the middle.
Just ahead, Shona is in the middle of yelling something at Mide. “…not going to war, we’re in a hospital! Like, kind of a weird hospital, but still!”
“Well, it didn’t matter one bit and we’re all here now, right?” Mide says calmly. By her posture, she seems pretty used to these kinds of arguments.
The nurse, standing at a healthy distance from the two, clears his throat as I come through. “Yes, well, whenever you three are ready, we can—”
“Right right right. Sorry!” Shona interrupts. “Yeah, let’s go ahead and do that thing!”
Looking around, we’re in a thin hall that forks two ways just ahead. There’s a triage desk set between the two diverging hallways, the kind completely walled off by heavy glass windows, and another nurse is seated at a cnidarian drive on the other side. She looks up from the monitor, nods at our guide, and quickly types something in. To the left, a wide windowless door slides open with a faint buzz. There are no visible handles or locks on it, and it looks thick and heavy enough to be in a bank vault instead of a hospital.
“So,” our nurse says. “Most of this ought to be common-sense, but I have to make sure you all know anyway. The ward we’re heading into is a low-security admissions unit. Patients inside are confirmed non-infectious, awaiting a more complete diagnosis and placement. There shouldn’t be anyone else in the halls right now, but if any patients are being transported, step aside and keep to yourself until they’re gone. Stay close to me, don’t touch anything without asking, and do NOT use magic on anyone or anything inside.”
“Um, I’ll have to inspect these patients with magic to do what we’re here to do. Is that alright?” I ask. I don’t know if this is how it works for everyone, but the way my soul feels things is more like having a new sense that blurs together with the old ones in confusing ways than actively casting something. You can shift your attention to focus on one sense over another, but rules or no rules, I don’t think I could decide not to feel a Harbinger’s traces any more than I could decide not to smell fish in a fish market.
“Should be. You’re not using magic on them. You’ll need to ask the doctor to be sure, though. Rooms are usually insulated against that sort of thing. Otherwise, just… look, don’t touch. If an emergency serious enough that you might need to defend yourselves comes up, we’ll say so.”
Shona and Mide turn to look at each other at the exact same time, frowning. “Is, um, is that common enough we should be worried?” Mide asks.
There’s a pause just long enough to be telling before he answers “Probably not in this ward.”
“Cool! It’ll be fine!” Shona says. Mostly to herself, from the sound of it.
Well, here we go. The vault door closes itself as soon as we’re all through.
Something is wrong with the overhead lights on the other side. Mide and I pause to look up at almost the same time, but the other two don’t seem to care. It looks like there’s an invisible layer of water between us and the lights, scattering the bulbs into tiny shifting spotlights… actually, this is almost how my room looked when Vyuji was protecting it last week, only without the dark blue tint her barrier cast over everything.
The way here splits in three, with slightly curved halls on either side and a straight corridor ahead. It’s long enough that I can just barely see the far wall, and lined on both sides with more curving passages.
Our guide heads five halls down the central path, then makes a left. Here, the walls on either side regularly open into indented side areas. They’re all set up the same way, with a single window covering most of the wall, a small desk placed for someone to sit and look through the window, and a featureless door just like the one we took to get in here on one side. Bizarrely, the atmosphere makes me imagine them as exhibits in an aquarium, but they’re all the same display: a little room with a sink counter and some cups, a soft chair, and a portable hospital bed. A bed with thick restraining belts hanging on its frame.
Most of the rooms are empty, and from its layout it feels like the ward has more of these rooms than they could ever need. Quite a lot more. Sure, you can never be too prepared, but I don’t know how much of New Claris would be left after something awful enough to fill this place to capacity.
Maybe it isn’t just for our city? There have to be Soul Sanctuaries everywhere. They could be connected somehow, linked up by the same sort of magic they use to get around inside.
We do pass some people, though. Shona strolls right along, keeping her gaze fixed on the back of the nurse’s head, and Mide lowers her eyes when we pass the first occupied room. I can’t help but look. Most of the people inside just seem… quiet, in the worst way. More vacant than tired, staring off at nothing. One is looking right at the window with bloodshot eyes, though none seem to actually watch us go by. Three patients are strapped tightly to their beds, and two of those have mouthguards poking out between their lips.
Then there are the others.
The tear stains under one weeping man’s eyes are dark as ink.
A woman scratches idly at a patch of skin that really shouldn’t be that shade of grey.
A girl’s face is somehow cracked all along one side of her head, like dry ground or broken porcelain, and, and there’s a tiny hole in it that looks black and hollow—
My vision blurs. I stumble over, choking back the urge to gag.
“Uh, hey, Eyna? You okay back there?” Shona asks. She pointedly doesn’t turn around.
Why? Why is this any different from what I’ve already seen? I don’t know. I just know it shouldn’t be. None of it should happen and that doesn’t make it the slightest bit less real.
“Oh, yes, that’ll… sorry,” the nurse says. “I’d’ve warned you if I realized we were passing her.”
“Let’s just go,” I croak. Is he used to this? What else does he see here? No. Dangerous. Not going to wonder right now. I’ll just force myself to stare at the floor the rest of the way. Mide had it right.
After another minute’s walk, the nurse stops and gestures ahead. “…Alright, it’s these three patients. Don’t worry, they’re all safe to look at. Dr. Crain? The Keepers are here for you.”
I’m a little hesitant anyway, but he isn’t wrong. A boy and two girls in blue and green plaid school uniforms, each in a separate room. Two are sleeping or unconscious in their beds. One girl sits scrunched up on her chair, covering her eyes with her hands. A man at the desk in front of her, sharp-featured and young for a doctor, looks us over with the same quiet ease everyone here seems to share around Keepers.
“We aren’t bothering them like this, are we?” Mide asks.
The doctor shakes his head slightly. “One-way glass. How can I help you three?”
“Just some quick little stuff and we’ll be out of your hair,” Shona says. “Trying to catch a monster before it can do this again, and—”
“Ah. You need to sense them?” Dr. Crain nods and returns to his paperwork.
Shona looks a little surprised. “Oh, yep, that’s exactly it! Could we?”
“All of them are clear for it. I can take the wards down for a moment whenever you’re ready,” he says.
“Do you know anything about it? Have they said anything since they came in?” I ask.
“None of them are speaking, no, but they did find something she was writing on the scene. Have a look if you want. It’s not any kind of mental hazard, but… here, just see for yourself.” He pulls a little black notebook out, sets it on the desk already open to a page in the middle, and returns to his paperwork.
The book’s pages are damp in one corner. Where the ink hasn’t bled away, one sheet is covered in jagged, frenzied handwriting. It looks like a sleep journal kept by someone whose dreams are full of incredible stories, but their memories of them dissolve within a few seconds of waking, so all that remains by the time they’re frantically writing things out are a few jumbled scraps of scenes. I pick it up, squinting to read the scratches, and the other two crowd over my shoulders to read along. At first glance it seems illegible, but there are a few clear blocks of writing scattered across the page:
a long long long time ago, someone fell through the sky
and built a castle floating in the clouds
this castle has no doors and no windows
no light shines inside it
not a single star or lamp or candle
if you or i were stuck in a place like that, where nothing comes in and nothing goes out, we’d starve
or lose ourselves and never find us again
but the children who live in the castle are happy there!
those children spend lots of happy days crawling around in the dark
they need no light, for there is nothing their eyes can see
they touch each other with hands that have never felt anything
Past that point, the paper is damp, and the ink has smudged away into a big wet puddle.
Shona is first to break our silence. “Uh, okay, what the fuck am I reading?”
“No idea,” I say. “But……”
“But?” Mide presses.
Oh. I must’ve left that hanging for longer than I realized. I was turning the writing around and around in my head, trying to scrape it for any actual meaning.
“Nothing yet,” I finally say. “But maybe try to keep it in mind. If you write this off as nonsense, you might miss something important later.”
Mide looks over the page again. After a moment she side-eyes me, her forehead scrunched up in confusion. “Are you sure?” she asks flatly.
“You might, that’s all I said. It’s helped me before.”
“Yep yep, I’ll do that,” Shona says. She clearly doesn’t believe me either.
“I’m serious! Just try, okay?” I snap back. However bizarre this… poetry(?) feels right now, Yurfaln’s victims gave me clues I could use. I didn’t understand exactly what they meant until I saw the whole picture, but that doesn’t mean they were useless noise. On the other hand, I think Yurfaln wanted me to understand it, by the end. This thing may not be so easy to read.
What could I pull from this, then? It’s hard to say. At this point, I’m not even sure who the speaker is meant to be. Did this girl write out her own scattered thoughts about something she experienced or did the Harbinger somehow put the words in her mouth, so to speak? Either way, what are the big ideas to keep in mind? Falling from one place to another. A place where nothing should be able to live, but someone or something does anyway. Darkness. Senses failing. Hallucinations, maybe?
“Anyway. Doctor? I think we’re ready.” I set the book back on his desk.
“Of course.” Without looking up from his papers, Dr. Crain touches a finger to the desk and starts tracing an elaborate pattern on its surface. At a closer look, there’s a ceramic panel like the one the nurse used earlier set into it. After a moment, he puts his palm to it, and…
Immediately, that sense of being observed is all over me, overpowering the Sanctuary’s water-pressure ambience. It’s stronger here. The source itself is probably much farther away, but these kids are closer to it in some mystical sense than the place where it happened to attack them. The miasma still isn’t active, not the way an actual soul is, but the feelings it carries are clearer. It’s just as foul as Yurfaln’s, in a completely different way. Dizzying, like spinning and spinning until you puke, or the sick feeling you get when you try to read in a car.
“I… that’s enough. Please turn it back on.” A moment later, the fog is gone without a trace. I lean against the wall and suck in a few deep breaths.
“Did you find anything we can work with?” Mide asks.
“I’m not sure yet. Can’t feel anything through these walls. But if it’s still out there, if we come anywhere near it, I think I’ll know.”
As we make our way out of the Weald, then through the upscale neighborhoods just above it, the balance of trees and construction slowly tilts back in the city’s favor. The sun is well into setting, and a few faint stars are blinking into view in the now wide-open sky.
Now that I’m leading the search by default, I decide to take us on a long path roughly heading toward the hospital — or, well, close enough. I’m not leading them back to my doorstep. I’m exhausted, having probably walked more tonight than I have since I checked into the seventh floor, but we’ve already come this far, and the other two are lively as ever. I’ll figure out a next step if I don’t catch the Harbinger’s trail on the way.
But I do.
“Wait.” I pause. “There’s something… not here, but close.” A block out from the central district, eyes start prickling, very faintly, on the back of my neck. I know it well enough now to focus on it from a distance, and I stretch my senses out, trying to feel its movements. That’s definitely it. At the end of the trail, I touch the Harbinger, feeling its living essence for the first time—
and it looks back. Touches back. A hundred invisible gazes bore into every part of my body as it traces my perception to its source, and then… somewhere in the distance, it bursts into a sudden blur of motion. Not toward us, but not running away… up? Yes. Climbing somewhere. Pushing down the sudden stabbing pain behind my eyes, I raise my head, doing my best to follow its path.
At the top of one of the city’s great glass towers, where a huge observation deck juts out, a Wound tears itself into being.