Life surges into me through pale green tendrils. Nothing could be less like my regular infusions. A dozen showers of warm rain fall through my body in all directions, pooling into my wounds until I can hardly feel them at all. Still it flows, filling me with vigor I’ve only ever dreamed of having. The well I draw from is clear and deep, deep enough that even now…
“What’s… I… stop, stop it, stopstopstop…!”
A gasping voice breaks my focus. The well — the person, Mide — cries out through clenched teeth, crumpled to her knees in front of me. Shaky arms struggle to hold her off the ground. Otherwise, she’s unmoving, staring down at nothing in silent, wide-eyed terror.
What am I thinking? What am I doing? How much have I taken from her?
It’s harder to pull myself away this time. This was a desperate spasm, a hand thrown up to grab the edge of a cliff just before I fell to my death. The magic, born from my terror in the face of certain death, doesn’t want to let go. Something protests in the back of my mind, and its whisper sends an echo of dread shuddering through me. Not enough. Not enough. There will never be enough.
No, no, not “something.” There’s only one voice in my mind. It’s just my own voice thinking my own thoughts, and there’s no one and nothing else to blame. This is my power and no matter how wonderful it feels to revel in it, to wipe away my every trouble, to sate the hungry wounds gaping across my body, this has to stop. This has to stop now, before… before… no, before my mind can go there, I tense my entire body so hard I begin to shake and force my magic to release its grip. The mist slinks back and draws into me, carrying one last gulp of warm essence as I inhale it.
“Wha… Did, did you… what just…?” Mide stammers out in dazed fragments. Is she stable?
…If not, can I even do anything about it?
Cold pressure in my gut reminds me of my own situation. One thing at a time. I clench my teeth, dig one foot into the ground, and take a slow step forward, pushing away from the thin spike in my back. My nerves burst into flames all over again, far worse than when I was actually stabbed… but it’s only a brief flare. As I dislodge the spike, wellness surges into the wound, smothering the pain in gentle warmth. Soon all I feel there is a crawling, almost ticklish sensation that must be flesh slowly mending itself. I’m glad I can’t see it.
Mide’s sudden pallor and unsteady shivering don’t go away, but they don’t get worse, either. Her aura feels much more polluted than the last ones I took from — beneath the ozone smell of Shona’s charged power is a distinct, sickly sweet scent like rotten fruit, if an odor not nearly as strong as the seventh floor’s. There’s no time to inspect her soul closely, but at a glance her pain feels roughly how I feel on a bad day. Not the worst days.
I take and release a long, heavy breath. She’s not dead, and as for what she is… no time for that. My magic definitely won’t work in reverse. I already know that there’s no point in even trying. I can’t just unmake this mess. All I can do is finish this before it gets worse. Irakkia isn’t waiting for us.
“Listen, I, all I can do right now is go help Shona. You just… stay safe, okay? Out of the way, close enough that we don’t split up.” I lean down to help her up, wrapping one arm around her and bracing her on my shoulder as she stands.
The moment she finds her footing, she shoves me away with whatever strength she has left — still enough to send me stumbling back a few steps. Shock and fear and anger mingle on her face.
“…Fair,” I mutter. “I’m going. Remember to keep breathing, steadily as you can. It’ll help.”
Mide opens her mouth, but I can’t hear whatever she mumbles over the ambient noise. Then she just nods weakly and steps aside, leaning on her shield at a healthy distance from the wall that stabbed me. She’s slow and shaky, but still looks more mobile than me on my worse days. It’ll be bad if the Harbinger goes after her, but it has other priorities.
Elsewhere, the hunt is still on, and Shona has become its sole target. The nearest standing lighthouse is still bright enough to see by, and at the distant end of this roughly clear space, about as far away as the cars that pass by my seventh floor window, she and Irakkia dart over the trash-pile hills at dizzying speed — if the chamber weren’t so wide, they might be looping around me too quickly to track.
Still wielding her bow like a sword, Shona rockets away from the pursuing Harbinger. A stream of red sparks crackles through the air behind her, and lightning strikes from the still-growing storm above mark her passage, crashing down on the spot exactly where she was an instant ago. Twice I watch her dodge out of the Harbinger’s way by dropping over the side of a hill, gliding along on one hand and one foot like she’s skating on almost-vertical ice, then pulling herself back up over the ridge in a swift lunge, all without slowing down.
Irakkia is never far behind, almost throwing itself at her with every movement. Some of her jolts delay it for a moment, but more often than not it simply contorts itself out of the way and keeps moving. Sometimes it skitters like a spider, sometimes it bends itself into an upright wheel shape, with its limbs serving as spokes as it cycles forward, and sometimes it simply winds itself up and launches itself through the air in the span of an instant. Its voice spews a constant warbling torrent of unreadable nonsense sounds all the while.
I already know I can’t join that chase. The hills look too tall, steep, and tightly-packed to climb without magical help, and I’m not suddenly superhuman — much better than usual, but that’s only saying so much. Instead I head for the far end of the upward-slanting ground between the hills, where a thin mountain-path wall leads back toward the castle, planning to cut them off as they circle around.
My body feels lighter and stronger than I’ve ever dared to imagine. My legs have stopped shaking, and I can run, really run, easy as anything. Air itself is kinder to me. it’s no struggle at all to breathe, and I’m not so much as winded by the time I reach my destination. Not yet, anyway. Never enough, that hungry echo inside me repeats.
But it doesn’t have to be. Just enough to manage right this moment. What’s my plan here? I still have no idea how to break Irakkia. Until then, if I’m going to do anything useful, I’ll have to bring the fight to me. Soon, Shona rounds the near corner and heads toward me, bringing the Harbinger with her.
“Down here!” I yell, and pull the glove off my right hand.
Shona throws herself off the wall, again without slowing down a bit. She skates along the rough slanted ground, leading Irakkia out in a wide arc away from the castle trail, then makes a sudden sharp turn toward me. Six thin bolts of lightning strike behind her. The Harbinger darts away as they strike, then snaps back like a rubber band the instant the light fades and continues its charge. It’s still fast approaching when she reaches me, but her short-lived fence held it back for just long enough that it isn’t immediately upon us.
“Stay close and hold your breath,” I say. I prick my ring finger on a card in my spread, picking the one that feels right on raw instinct. Ribbons of noxious green essence twirl out from the diagram and form a circle around us. In the instant before they take their final shape, I push outward with my mind as hard as I can.
A bank of cold emerald fog riddled through with inky black veins floods into the Wound, leaving a thin column of clean air in the center, and then the blackness in the cloud slithers down into the trash-pile floor like roots searching for water. The white noise in the air dims, the way snowy nights seem to swallow all the sound in the world, as my mist begins to spread and seep from the ground.
Irakkia screeches and slams three of its front limbs into the ground, skidding along with a horrible metal-on-metal grinding sound until it comes to a halt, stopping just short of charging through the mist. Its neck stretches left, then right. When it sees that the cloud goes all the way around, its glass head settles, fixing its glare on us. I angle my gaze away, breaking eye contact. Just in case.
“Okay,” I sigh. I wasn’t certain this would work. “Don’t move.”
“Mide! Where’s Mide?” Shona hollers into my ear.
Mide is where I left her, still propped up on her shield and watching us closely. I can’t read her expression from here, but I point her out. “…Over there. Hurt. Stable. She’ll be safe for now, it’s clearly you it wants. Speaking of, that thing with the lighthouse. This should buy us some time, so quick… can you do it again?”
Shona frowns, glances over at Mide, then… “Oh, can I!” she says. “Got anything to say about it, big buddy?” she growls at the Harbinger. Her attitude instantly shifts from concern for her partner to what I can only imagine as bloodlust as she bares her teeth, summons her violin, and begins to play.
The Harbinger wails in protest. It balances on one long limb and stretches up, studying the cloud from above. While it’s standing in place, I gather up a plume of fog from the surrounding cloud with my will and shove it at the Harbinger, who scurries out of the way with a harsh whistle. Worth a try. It skitters back and forth around us, searching for any gaps or thin spots, and its voice rises to a panicked siren shriek as it fails to find one, like it’s trying to drown the song out. It’s not working. I’m sure it’ll find a way through eventually, but Shona’s power is already rising to a familiar peak. My teeth chatter. Tiny shocks prickle across and through my skin, feeling like they’re dancing over my bones.
Then Irakkia circles back around, placing itself between us and Mide, and spreads itself out like a giant knotted-up kite, still spinning sideways on its limbs in midair, shredding space like a blender. What is it doing?
Before I can tell, the ground beneath our feet vanishes, plunging us into a dark, narrow hole.
Shona’s music screeches to a halt.
A murmured “Ah–” is the only thing I manage to push out of my lungs.
I slam down hard on my side and start tumbling. The hole winds constantly back and forth, sending me skidding down one rough wall and slamming into another, then another, reaching for grips, footholds, anything as I fall. They don’t exist. The surfaces are jagged enough to bite wherever I touch them and no more.
But before the Wound can drop me into another endless loop, I crash onto solid ground. This chamber is dark, but lit just enough by a single gigantic screen embedded in the scrapheap walls that I can see my vision spinning. I would’ve thought a winding tunnel would be safer and less painful than a straight drop down, and I would’ve been wrong.
Red light shines from above. Shona slides around the shaft’s last turn and into the room, touching down easily on her feet. She looks like she made it through that shockingly well, with only a few visible scrapes. Until I spot her left hand, scratched to a pulp and covered in blood.
“You okay?” she asks, and offers me her good hand.
“No. But let’s go.” I take it and let her pull me up. It’s awful how familiar the sensation of sharp bits of trash raking over me is becoming, but through my new vigor and the rush of fighting for my life, I’m distantly aware of the scrapes more than I feel them.
“I sure feel that. Y’know, this…” Shona growls, and flings her arms out in a wide circle, gesturing to the Wound. Blood trickles down from her injured hand. “This LITERAL MOUNTAIN OF BURNING GARBAGE WORLD has been ruining everything since we got here! It’s honestly pissing me off way more than the monster!”
“It is awful… it’s all just in the way, though. Walls it’s throwing up. We’re stuck here, and we still need to kill the thing.”
“And how do we get there? Think it’s gonna hold still anytime soon? I’ll tell you how, we burn the whole place down first! See how it likes us when it’s out of hidey-holes and caves to dump us into!” In emphasis, she raises her bow and looses an explosive burst of lightning into the ceiling tunnel. Thunder crashes through the tiny hollow like a blow to my head. Its echo rattles around and around in my ears, which I rush to cover as tiny chunks of concrete and clouds of dust fall over me.
A warning would’ve helped.
Listening with my soul, I still hear Irakkia’s cries, but all the actual physical sounds are replaced by the shrill phantom buzz of thunder smashing through my ears… so I feel the rumbling of the walls above us starting to cave in rather than hear it. Shona grimaces, then shrugs it off and says something I can’t hear. I cup my ear and shake my head, at which point she drops her bow, grabs my arm roughly with her good hand, and charges down the nearest apparent passage carved into the side of the shaft. Even with my new strength, I’m slowing her down. Another jolt of static bites into me, and we go gliding through the tunnels at terrifying speed.
And the Harbinger follows, screeching its distant siren wail all the while — I sense it without seeing it, because I can hardly see anything but Shona and an impossible blur of motion around us.
Tiny red sparks spill from Shona’s back as she darts forward, creating a shower of faint flickering lights to augment the occasional wall-screen. Their unsteady glow isn’t nearly enough to see by, but that doesn’t stop Shona hurtling through the dark. Neither do the sharp bends in the path seem to slow her down at all. She completely ignores the idea of momentum as she moves, turning at her full speed the instant she shifts her facing — but she does narrowly avoid slamming me into the wall around one tight corner.
I can’t possibly measure how far we travel through that cramped maze, but eventually dim, distant light shining through one fork leads us… yes, outside. Sort of. It takes a bit to be sure, since we’re surrounded by walls on all sides, but when I look straight up it’s definitely the dark sky rather than a cavern ceiling. As soon as we’re clear of the tunnels, Shona brings us to an instant stop. I expect to crash into her, and it feels strange when it doesn’t happen.
She immediately whirls around, steps to my side, and resummons her bow, loosing a crimson blast into the tunnel we just came from. At least this time I manage to cover my ears. It even helps a little, and the debris it blows loose fall somewhere in the tunnels, distant enough to get lost in the background noise. My ears are starting to work again, using a bit of my stolen life to repair themselves faster.
Looking around, we’re in a wide, deep inground pit, about as deep as a small skyscraper is tall. Its shape is a loose, uneven spiral, with parts of the walls barely curving at all and others jutting out far enough to form thin ledges — even a few like incomplete, detached pieces of a spiral ramp, all made of trash pounded roughly flat. A lighthouse’s pale rays beam into the pit at an angle, only directly shining on the upper third of the walls.
And peeking out from one of those platforms, Irakkia glares down at us. I tap Shona and silently point it out.
My ears have recovered enough to hear the words when she yells up at it: “Hey, how the fuck did you get out here?” She brandishes her bow, aiming for its perch.
“Careful with that! Blow this place up and it’ll cave in on us,” I hiss. “Maybe we don’t die, but at best we’re stuck back in… the maze?” When I tilt my head to indicate the passage we came from, it’s completely gone. “Probably we die.”
Shona scowls and folds her arms, dropping the bow with a dramatic groan. “Fine, fine! Let’s get outta here and THEN blow everything up.”
“Like this,” she says, and claps my shoulder again. There’s a now-familiar snap of static, but something is different about this one. Buzzing heat runs through me and settles in my limbs, lingering there as an uncomfortable pins-and-needles feeling. Then she sprints straight at the nearest wall and hops onto it, clinging there in a position like she’s climbing a ladder. “Just do what I do. It’ll be easy.” She looks back over her shoulder and motions with one hand for me to join her. “Ever gone mountain climbing before?”
Huh? Why would she even ask? I’m too floored by the question to answer.
“Just kidding! Me neither! Whew, if I only could’ve seen your whole face just now!” Shona cackles. She turns and starts to scamper up the wall, giggling and mumbling a cheery little song to herself as she climbs. The tone behind her words is strained.
…Nothing for it. I take a deep breath, latch myself to the wall, and follow her path as closely and quickly as I can. There’s a slight tug of resistance whenever I pull a hand or foot loose, and a brief static sting every time I reattach myself to the surface. It’s exhausting, heaving my own weight up over and over without pausing even a second for a break. My joints are on fire. I feel myself tapping my stolen strength to press on, and even then I take frequent breaks to glance around in search of Irakkia.
Shona, on the other hand, darts up and up like it’s nothing, stopping only to look down and wait impatiently for me to catch up. Her torn-up hand barely seems to slow her down — she just treats it like she might treat walking with a slight limp, timing her climb such that it spends as little time as possible supporting her weight.
Things get rougher as we climb. The spiraling walls tighten, forcing us to twist and adjust ourselves with them. Irregular ridges and slanted platforms cut off any straight paths up. Finally, we come to a point where a single ledge stretches out all along the walls and covers almost the entire shaft, like we’re in a manhole looking up at a slightly-displaced cover. The one sliver of open space is directly across from us. I’m certain this wasn’t there before. When I first looked, I could definitely see straight up to the light outside.
This doesn’t stall Shona at all, though. She moves one hand at a time onto the ledge’s underside, then swings her legs up, tethers her feet to its surface, and goes scuttling along upside-down like it’s no big change. Sorry, Shona, I’m not doing that. I just start to edge horizontally around the shaft, slowed down by my awkward sideways crawls over the ridges that rise from the walls like waves on a sea of wreckage.
Shona makes it to the gap well before me, of course. She grabs the edge and hangs there for a moment, fidgeting, idly swinging in place over the pit below. I’m a little more than halfway around when she hoists herself up, apparently tired of waiting.
<ꌦꄲ꒤ꋪꇙꏂ꒒ꊰ IS A MASK A VEIL A BLINDFOLD WRAPPED AROUND THE ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ HEART OF ALL THINGS TEAR IT LOOSE AND TELL ME WHAT YOU
Irakkia’s warning siren blares. Visions flood my mind of the shadowy outline of a person being unwrapped entirely into a long strip of cloth, like a mummy with nothing underneath. No, not quite nothing — the inside of the cloth is lined with unblinking bloodshot eyes, their irises black and spotted with tiny static stars.
Shona shrieks in terror until her voice is muffled, then silenced.
Every muscle in my body seizes up. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. When the paralysis passes, I do the only thing I can — quicken my pace over the sharp spiral curves in the wall. My heart thuds wildly, but not in the rapid, rhythmic pulse of overexertion — it’s harder rather than faster, each pulse like a tiny impact in my chest, aggravated by the constant bites of electricity in my limbs.
That inner pressure only gets stronger when I reach the platform’s edge, where a dense fence of thin, outward-facing spikes now lines the ridge on all sides. I peek through a gap in the concrete, Irakkia has unfurled into a shape like an octopus wrapping itself around its prey. Its glass head swivels to stare at me, but beyond that, it doesn’t move. Not worried about me or just more interested in her? Beneath its noise, Shona’s voice is still faintly audible from here, whimpering wordlessly.
As I climb further up and over the spikes, I hunt for ideas, cutting all the ones I find off as useless in the same instant they come to me. I’m not betting again on the hope that it might rather not kill us, so I can’t approach in any way that doesn’t leave Irakkia plenty of time to finish its helpless prey off. Can’t fight it head-on, can’t use my fog without risk of infecting Shona…
Just as I clear the spikes and drop down onto the ledge, still not knowing what to do, there’s a sound of… it’s the high grinding whine of a trash compactor at work, but my body reacts to it with a pained shiver like I get when someone bites their silverware as they eat.
Tearing my eyes from the Harbinger, I glance to one side. I’m now flanked by a huge rectangular pillar of garbage jutting out from the wall behind me. Silver film-grain dots and lines dance all over its surface. It’s not moving, but I still hear that sound.
My stomach drops.
I dash toward the Harbinger, the only way I can go. Immediately, a terrible car-crash roar fills the air and shakes the entire ridge, knocking me to my knees. I look over my shoulder, where an identical pillar has extended from the wall on my other side and smashed into the first one. I just narrowly avoided getting smeared between them.
Irakkia surges forward, launching itself at me in a violent storm of colors. I pull at my magic on a panicked reflex, but it’s upon me in the same moment. Knife-clawed hands, four or five or six of them, rush to unwrap me like a present. Bright, sharp pain rakes over my skin, numbed only slightly by the chill of death-mist pouring out through my wounds. I feel my sickness taking root in the Harbinger, but it pushes on anyway, tearing at me with a hateful howl. Distantly shocked that I’m still aware at all, I wrench my eyes shut and reach through the fog with my power, searching for the Harbinger’s strength, heart, health, I can’t tell, does it have health, can I—
A wave of burning-hot air rushes over me. Thunder cracks through Irakkia’s screeching. I crane my head up — which feels like an effort, like all my energy is leaking out through the long, shallow gashes all over my body — and crack one eye open. The Harbinger is sparking with red light, convulsing like it’s having a seizure. Then it coils into itself, the motion a little slower and messier than earlier, and bounds up through the shaft, touching down on a much higher ledge. A fragment of my power moves with it, slowly eating away at it.
At the center of the ledge stands Shona, playing her violin — trying to, anyway. The music is rougher and harsher than ever, and I don’t think it’s just because of her injured hand. She doesn’t look much more hurt than she was, but her wide, wild eyes are severely bloodshot.
“And keep your stupid fucking little claws out of my head,” Shona snarls. “C’mon. Let’s end this already!” She smashes her violin against the ground, letting it disappear after it splits in half with an awful twang, and sprints to the wall, continuing her climb.
I don’t join her just yet. I need a moment to bury my pain in stolen health. Warmth floods through me, knitting my wounds shut. Even my dress mends itself, filling tears in the cloth with pale green light that leaves it good as new. But as my magic works, I realize that again, something doesn’t make sense here: why not just make a circle? Or form a dome around me and flatten it into the floor with me still inside? Irakkia was going for the kill, and there’s nothing I could’ve done to escape if it just surrounded me with walls and crushed me in the center.
Twisting a maze around me. Bending the ground beneath us. Stabbing me in the back. I’ve never actually seen the Wound change… no, that isn’t quite right. I saw it start to do something while it fought the others on the wall outside, creating some disturbance to strike at them from behind, only for it to fizzle into nothing. It looked a lot like the distortions around the pillars that nearly smashed me.
I glance back at those pillars. The point where they crashed together is a little off-center. One stopped moving, but the other carried right on.
Broken perspectives, seeing but not seeing, seeing things that aren’t there.
Because I watched it happen, it didn’t happen.
“It can’t change the world where we can see it!” I yell. “Watch the walls! Watch our blind spots!”
I tense up, waiting a beat for the Wound to crush me or skewer me and prove me wrong. It never comes. In fact, when I look up at Shona, I immediately spot a flickering silver patch on the wall, which vanishes.
“Kay!” Shona says simply, and keeps climbing, pausing to sweep her gaze around the pit every few feet. I stay put and watch her. Bits of twisting space constantly bloom just out of sight and disappear the instant I focus on them. Irakkia’s shrill voice yowls and seethes from above. Before long, Shona clears the top of the pit and waves to me. She summons her violin and starts to play again, creating a halo of lightning circling just around her, but keeps looking down at me.
I take the hint and start my own ascent, following her route as closely as I can remember it. Climbing takes most of my strength and attention, but I do catch several more distortions in the corners of my eyes. As I enter the last stretch, where the lighthouse’s rays shine on the walls, two claps of thunder ravage my ears. Shona shouts something I can’t hear over the ringing. At last, I clamber out of the pit and back onto solid ground, winded and gasping for breath even through my boosted vitality. We’re outside again, in another wide junkyard strewn with trash. From the look of it, we’re somehow higher on the mountain than we were when Irakkia first dropped us into the tunnels. At one end, a barred gatehouse leads somewhere into the central castle.
“Whoof,” Shona huffs. “Well, I think we’re all good! HEY, MIDE! I KNOW YOU’RE THERE! COME ON OUT, WE’RE GONNA KILL THIS FUCKING THING!” She twirls a hand and dismisses her thin lightning barrier, then leans down to help me up.
Slowly, Mide peeks around a wall in the corner. That was fast — these two can probably sense each other well enough that she’s been on her way for a while. She doesn’t look better, but she doesn’t look worse either, and crosses the chamber at an ordinary, slightly hurried pace, panting and putting her hands to her knees when she reaches us.
“You two… where did you go? What happened?” she asks, her voice still weak and raspy.
“Eh, nevermind that, we’re all just fine now!” Shona says with a slight uncertain delay, like she’s mostly trying to convince herself. “All set to take out the monster, too. We’ve just gotta… eh, Eyna, tell her what you told me. I’m gonna start ripping this thing apart!” She waves a hand dismissively, recreates her violin, and sets to playing a new song. More than angry, this one sounds violent. Like it could actually walk up to me and thrash me to a pulp.
“Right, yes. Ira—the Harbinger—has some problem with sight. Er, with being seen. It can twist its Wound all sorts of ways, but it can’t do anything within our line of sight,” I say.
“…Okay.” Mide nods slightly. She has a hard time meeting my eyes. I guess I can’t blame her.
Anyway, I don’t push it. I just turn and stand with my back to Shona, then gesture left, pointing Mide to a spot where she forms the third corner of a triangle. “So if we stay like this… yeah, close together, backs to each other, it shouldn’t be able to do anything to us. It’s hurt, it won’t win if it just charges in. Shona, the lighthouses. Are you still okay to take them out?”
“Pshh, please, way ahead of you! That first one was just the opening act! It’s gonna get so much better!” she answers.
Here we go, then.
The air takes on a dry, prickling weight as Shona plays. The whole world rumbles, and the clouds above gather and swirl into a hurricane of fury. Irakkia frantically whirs and wails in the distance. Tiny holes in the world rip themselves into being all around the courtyard, and close in the same instant, so many of them coming so quickly that it looks at times like I’m watching a grainy old film of the world rather than seeing it with my eyes. Tiny bright dots and squiggly silver lines fill my vision. Many… most of them are in plain sight, placed where there’s no way we could miss them — Irakkia is just throwing out everything it can to see what sticks, now, and none of it does.
Maybe ten seconds into the song, the Harbinger crawls out from inside the castle and perches on the gatehouse, staring straight at us. My head swims as its mind crashes into mine once more. There’s no vision this time, no message, just a raw torrent of its madness. Its absolute refusal to trust its own senses.
But I’ve already walked these paths with it, and its focus is now split between three of us, punishing its overreach with failure on all fronts. I quickly glance back at the others. Mide looks a little shaken, but Shona… all it did was give her more rage to work with.
“No, not again, fuck off fuck off fuck OFF!” Shona screams, and unleashes her own storm of power. I plug my ears as six lightning strikes spear down from above, forking and forking into the outline of a giant tree, then converge as one on the second lighthouse. This time, the explosions don’t just topple the tower, but blast out and tear away huge chunks of the castle all around it. Falling wreckage crushes more structures until barely anything is left, even before the lantern plunges beneath the sea and it all disintegrates into a carpet of bright dust.
Irakkia cries out once more, but not in pain or battle-rage. Its tone is lower, less forceful. Again, I can’t help but read emotion into its voice, and it sounds exhausted.
<none of this is right>
<none of this is real>
<none of this IS>
The constant screeches of electrical interference fade. Even the ever-present static shhhhh is quieter.
“…Did we win?” Mide asks.
Then the static screen in the sky turns back on, but only a small part of it — only in a small circle above the last lighthouse, with the rest remaining completely dark… and slowly becoming engulfed by Shona’s rumbling clouds. Without looking away from us, Irakkia skitters backwards, climbing onto what remains of the castle and rushing toward the lighthouse. The static above resolves into an actual image, what looks like a bright blue patch of the actual sky.
Is it running away? Can it do that? I can’t stop it, and if this was all for nothing—
“NO YOU DON’T,” Shona declares. She doesn’t shout it. The words just carry themselves over all the music and noise, out into the entire Wound. Almost immediately, another forest of lightning lashes out into the Wound from the roiling clouds that have begun to dominate the sky, straight into the last slice of the castle.
The destruction that follows is an avalanche. An earthquake breaks out beneath our feet as the entire world breaks. Mide and I yelp in shock, and I look around for any stable bit of wall to hold onto, finding none before the junkyard goes sliding down the mountain like a sled. Shona just kneels, tethers her hands and feet to the ground, and laughs and laughs and laughs all the way down. I follow her lead and crouch, doing my best to press myself into the platform, and somehow it works enough that I’m not launched into the sea.
Finally, our crumbling platform slides into the water with an enormous splash. Somehow, it floats, an island of trash drifting out to sea. Another piece of falling wreckage crashes into the water just after us, stirring up a wave that drenches us all. Seemingly at random, pieces of rubble all around us start to disintegrate into plumes of static, all of it fading away like dust on the wind.
Further up, Irakkia leaps between twisting spires, doing anything it can to gain height. Then, as it goes to jump from one tower to the next, its destination collapses into nothing, and the Harbinger falls, joining the ruins of its castle in their landslide. Still it runs, jumping and scrambling up the avalanche until a foothold just beneath it abruptly bursts into a cloud of static snow, and it gets swept away in the collapse, plummeting down the slope. Its limbs lash out for anything to pull itself up by, finding nothing.
When Irakkia touches the water’s surface, another burst of distortion rips through the world, faster and stronger than the interference that had burst from the sinking lanterns. Everything in sight rips itself apart and then reassembles itself in an instant, like someone grabbed the film in a movie theater and started shredding it by hand, only to have the act itself rewound back to the beginning and then repeated over and over.
When I can see clearly again, Irakkia is thrashing in the sea like a drowning animal. Its veils have soaked through, dulling their wild colors, and its storm of dizzying motion has faltered — the cloth is floating limply on the water, bulging in places like shapeless things are trying to surface underneath them.
Why would it fill its Wound with water if it couldn’t swim?
“Really? That’s it? THAT’S the way you’re gonna die?” Shona laughs. “Hey, suit yourself!” She starts to play again, and her music is frenzied, now. It’s stopped being even a painfully loud song and blurred into wild, shapeless noise, like making an art form of screaming. The sky is completely overcast and shimmering with the flashes of Shona’s storm. In time with the song, lightning strikes the water again and again, lashing into the Harbinger and everything else until the sea is boiling and Irakkia is no longer splashing and grasping for land, just twitching in random useless spasms.
At last, all at once, Irakkia’s entire body breaks into a shower of tiny bright particles. Only its core remains, an orb of shifting patterns like a black and white kaleidoscope floating above the water. It looks at first like it’s approaching Shona, but what it’s actually doing is bending the world, steadily shrinking the distance between her and it… until she raises a hand and pushes into the air, releasing a few red sparks with a buzzing jolt. Then it just hovers there, still.
Soon, all that remains of the Wound are the crimson typhoon above and a few scattered pieces of wreckage floating like islands. Dots of static fall like snow in a blizzard, resting on the sea’s surface as they touch down. The sea itself is beginning to dry up, replaced by nothing but a gradually shrinking emptiness as the nightmare collapses on itself.
“Good show, good show! Real exciting first outing here!” Shona chirps. “Well, Eyna, deal’s a deal! Wanna do the honors, girls?” She steps away and gives us firm celebratory pats on the back. I shudder as her touch leaves a damp, slightly sticky spot between my shoulders.
“Okay, so how do we do this?” I ask.
Mide glances at me from the corner of her eye, then shrugs weakly. If their Messenger didn’t explain that part, I guess we just do it at the same time? I reach out for the heart with my will. Mide does the same. As it was with Yurfaln, the lingering eyes-on-my-back pressure of Irakkia’s miasma steadily burns away, and we reach beneath it as one, grasping for… for…
Something is wrong. When I absorbed Yurfaln, there was a strange but satisfying moment of understanding. I felt its last feelings, heard its last words. I knew it, as much as I could know a Harbinger. As Irakkia’s Wound breaks down, I feel that same flash of insight starting to take shape…
…and then we’re back on the observation deck, and it’s all gone, slipping from my grasp in an instant. It feels like jolting awake in the middle of an interesting dream, realizing I’ll never know how it ends and I probably won’t remember it at all in a minute.
We tore the Harbinger into messy, uneven chunks, like sharing a book by shredding all its pages into unreadable scraps and dividing those up, and while I think I claimed the bigger share, I’m certain much of it is just… gone.
Mide seems to shake off the confusion of it all faster than me. When I come to my senses, she’s taken Shona’s hand and put her other palm to the ground. Shona shivers and clenches her teeth as bolts of red light arc through Mide and into the deck. What are they doing? Something to do with that way Shona seemed to get high on her power?
The portal above the deck has vanished, but it’s still the scene of a disaster. Irakkia’s victims don’t look or sound any better for its death, save that the frizzy-haired girl by the wall has passed out. We’ve done what we can. Maybe more, if that kid comes out any better for our trouble.
“Whew, that was kind of a lot,” Shona eventually breathes. “Thanks. You alright?”
Mide nods. “We should call for the Sanctuary,” she says in a weak, strained voice.
So we leave the victims to the people who might be able to help them. I let Shona do the talking with the first responders while they clean and bandage her hand. I don’t know what happened to the boy, and I have more pressing things to worry about.
It’s solidly twilight, now, the blues of the sky giving way to a blur of soft, diffuse colors. When it’s all over, I start to head toward the hospital, not sure what else to do or say, and the others follow. Shona tries a few times to start up cheery team spirit conversations about how great we were, which all fizzle and die.
A few blocks from the tower, Mide breaks the uneasy quiet. “Eyna, what did you do to me in there?”
I freeze. “I—”
“Do? What? What are you talking about?” Shona asks.
“I don’t know. What am I talking about, Eyna?” Mide says, glaring straight at me. Her voice has regained some of its strength. “In the Wound, she, she got hurt. Bad. I went to protect her and she… drained me somehow, I don’t know what or what for. It felt awful. It felt like, like a…”
Like a Harbinger’s bite, she doesn’t say. Dread and guilt settle into a suffocating weight in my chest.
Shona turns to me, pale and wide-eyed. “Is that true? That’s… you didn’t say anything like…”
What was I going to say? What magic words could I use to make what I do anything but monstrous? Sorry, my mistake! Next time I’ll load up on normal people’s health in advance!
“That you were going to, what, stab your team for power?” Mide finishes.
“Do you think I like it? Do you think… you think I designed my magic this way? I just wanted more than anything to eat people?” Words tear out faster than I can really think them. “You’re a Keeper too, you know that’s not how — I’m not — look, I just took enough that I wouldn’t die! It’s disgusting and I hate it but it’s all I’ve got and I have to do this and I just don’t want to die, okay?”
“Yeah, we’re Keepers, and Keepers don’t do shit like that! What do you mean you have to? What is it you need so badly, anyway?” Mide asks.
My throat locks up. I take an unsteady step back, then another.
“Mide, you can’t just ask that!” Shona snaps. I blink — I can’t imagine why she’d stand up for me on anything. Mide stares at her open-mouthed. She probably feels the same way.
“I should go,” I say. “I… don’t think this’ll work.”
“Hey, hold on! Whatever happened, we can sort it out! Just, just wait a second, okay? We can’t understand if you don’t say anything!” Shona says. She’s still following me, still acting like we’re friends, just having a little fight before we make up the next morning.
“Just leave me alone!”
I flare. Shona flinches away from the deepening shadows around me, then lowers her gaze, nods, and turns to rejoin Mide.
It’s almost worse than if they both hated me.
Once I’m sure they’re gone, I brush the tears from my eyes and find a dark corner to dismiss my magic in. I’m done with teamwork. This group was awful.
No, I’m sure those two do just fine together. I’m the only problem.