Shona’s always thought that the best way to understand someone is to listen to their music. Is it violent? Does it scream out against something? Music is meant to share some idea or emotion that’s too big to fit into words. If you know which songs speak to someone the most, you can get a really good feel for what they’re thinking and how they’ll act.
So of course, where so many other Keepers feel magic as something separate from the world and their body’s senses, Shona hears it. Irida is a grand marching tune keeping time for a perfectly synchronized army. Roland is a rock-orchestra that shifts instruments and tones, from mellow and subtle to an epic wall of sound, to match the moment. Aisling is a symphony missing a few key notes to be the way it should. Liadain is a doleful dirge so quiet that it somehow feels like it wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t making someone listen. Actually, a lot of souls feel like they’re missing something, which kinda makes sense. Magic grants wishes that can’t come true any other way, right?
Not her magic, of course. All Shona wanted from the Promise was the new life she already has. Anything else is just a cool bonus.
When Shona first hears this Harbinger’s voice, the only comparison she can think of is to a dark, soppy cave. Drops of water falling like unsteady drumbeats in a dank, echoing chamber. As she follows it back toward its source, the sound is occasionally interrupted by strange atonal pulses of unidentifiable noise. Some are brief bloops or insect-y chitters, others long and low, like synthesized, electronic perversions of whalesong.
That last idea is the one that sticks in Shona’s mind — especially when, as they come closer to the sound’s source, she starts to hear it in the distance from every direction at once. It makes her think of giant space-creatures screaming mismatched phrases of song through the dark, calling out for others like themselves, but finding nothing.
But she found it, and she’ll feel a lot better after she shuts it up.
By the time they arrive, emergency alerts have gone out to everyone in the area, and first responders have already started evacuating the surroundings. Shona and Mide have plenty of experience navigating through that kind of chaos in the opposite direction, though.
The alien song leads to a parking garage at the edge of the northern business district, of all places. Just outside its entrance, Shona halts herself and restores friction to her shoes, Mide skidding to a stop right behind her. She listens through the flood of chaotic noise for any signs of other Keepers, but there’s nothing to accompany the Harbinger’s deep, murmuring ambience. Either it’s just her and Mide here with their enemy, or whoever got here first is already inside.
“Does it say if there’s anyone else incoming?” Shona asks.
“Irida knows,” Mide says immediately. “She’ll be here soon as she can.”
“Whoa. Big guns, huh? Guess this is pretty close to her neck of the woods… hold on, how do you know that already?”
Mide shoots her a blank-faced look. “I checked?”
“Dude, were you on Lighthouse while we raced here? Texting and zooming’s super dangerous, y’know.” Shona leans over to elbow Mide’s side, but her arm thunks harmlessly into the shorter girl’s breastplate.
Mide grins wryly up at her. “Yeah, well, I’ve had a lot of practice. Gotta stay sharp with the one thing I’m better at than you.”
“It’s not the only thing, dummy. You could suplex me into the dirt any day.”
“I mean… you know what I mean.” Mide looks away, back through the garage’s entrance. It’s dark in there, save for the dim twilight sun flooding in from outside. “So. Unless you want to wait for backup — and I don’t think we could do much to help Irida — should we check the place out?”
“Yeah. Imagine if we steal her thunder for once, wouldn’t that be awesome?”
Mide glances back over her shoulder, smiling uncertainly. “Just don’t go too crazy, okay?”
“Sure, sure. If we get a few good hits in and THEN she saves the day, I can live with that.”
So Mide raises her shield, takes the lead, and in they go, following the sound into the underground section of the parking garage, its basement. The Harbinger’s nesting ground.
Or they would, if there was still a basement. Instead, the ramp down gives way to a massive gaping pit with no bottom in sight. Inside the hole, there’s no pavement or earth around the huge chunk of the world it’s dug through — only a massive web of thin white roots, a mesh cylinder growing along where the pit’s walls should be, but behind them is only darkness. The roots climb out of the pit, gripping the pavement around its edges. Every so often, quivering pulses run through them like veins carrying blood, and with those waves of steady motion, they crawl forward, covering a little more of the ground in a halo of shining white fuzz.
“Whew. They, uh, meant “a hole in the planet” literally, huh?”
“Is that even surprising at this point?” Mide says, her voice iced over in a way that tells Shona she’s put her guard up. The knight takes a few measured steps toward the edge, craning her neck for a better view. “More importantly, how has this place not collapsed? This looks like it should’ve eaten through the foundations. And where are those crawling things?”
Shona shrugs. “Inside?”
Mide doesn’t take her eyes off the pit, but shakes her head just enough for Shona to see it. “Then how’d the guy who got away see them?”
“Uh oh. Good point.” Shona looks around again, listening for anything out of place other than the giant screaming hole in the world, but finds nothing.
“Shit. You didn’t see anything weird on the way here, did you?”
“If I did, I’d have stopped and zapped ‘em. Wanna go sweep the place again?”
“Not really. It looked like they’ve been clearing this place out for a while. If something was out here that normal people could see, I’m sure it’s run off by now too.” Mide chews her lower lip thoughtfully. “I just have a bit of a bad feeling. Could you stand guard for a second?”
Mide unsummons her weapons, backs off, and starts tapping on her phone. Despite being plate armor rather than a fancy outfit or cool cloak, Mide’s regalia still has the typical magic pockets — a little tactical pouch that’s bigger on the inside strapped to her right hip. So cool.
Experimentally, Shona conjures a violin bow and hucks it into the pit, where it vanishes into the dark without a sound. No surprise there. “So, what kinda feeling?” she asks her partner.
“I was just thinking about the survivor and those limbless things he mentioned. There’s no monsters out here, no monsters anyone on Lighthouse is reporting yet. So what if he was in the Wound?”
Shona frowns. “Then he’d still be in there, yeah? Doesn’t look like the sort of place a normal guy could just walk out of.”
“Yeah,” Mide agrees. “Unless the Harbinger let him out for some reason.”
“Oh, shit,” Shona mutters. “Like what?”
“Don’t know. It’s only a feeling. Could be nothing. Maybe the monsters just scattered and hid somewhere. But I asked them to make sure he’s in a safe part of the Sanctuary, just in case.” Mide tucks her phone away. Her shield shimmers back into being.
“Huh. Yeah, good call!” Mide talked all the time as if she wasn’t useful just because her magic wasn’t that flashy. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t cool or wasn’t good, and more than that, she thought of stuff that Shona just didn’t. “Got it all taken care of?”
“As much as I can, yeah. Wanna see what’s down there?”
“Yup yup! Here’s to no witches, no bullshit head games, just some big fucking monster the city needs saving from! Woo!” Shona cheers.
Mide raises a gauntleted fist, smiling in wordless agreement. She calls her spear into her free hand, holds her breath, and leaps into the hole. Shona hops in after her with a twirl, spinning and spinning in place as she falls.
A few seconds into the fall, the darkness behind the world is entirely enveloped by the overgrowth of those shimmering roots. An endless tunnel formed from massive tangled clumps of creeping white rope, like a well made of spiderwebs all smushed up into building material.
The pair ready themselves for any sudden movements. A Harbinger usually noticed when others entered their home, and it wasn’t that unusual for them to set up a trap or lash out in attack the instant the invader arrived.
But nothing like that happens when they reach the bottom. Shona spots dim lights mingling in the dark below, the web-roots give way again to darkness, and then the pit dumps them out into the void.
Shona touches down weightlessly on a vast, rugged surface of dark grey stone. Solid earth like the face of a barren mountain stretches out in every direction. Mide has already found her footing, taken up a defensive stance, and started looking around. There is only dust and pebbles and boulders littered amidst the jagged, parched landscape, which curves slightly downward at its far edges the way the distant ocean appears to melt into the horizon.
The sky, though… the black sky above is filled with more stars than the brightest night, all twirling and dancing through the dark. They trail rainbows of phosphorescent stardust behind them and gather into groups as they move, orbiting tightly around each other until they start to seem less like stars and more like giant clouds of light filtered through a haze of twinkling dust.
They remind Shona of a time she went camping overnight with Mide’s family. There was a great celestial cloud in the sky that night, growing ever larger as if it was descending to the earth. Weird stellar displays on that scale were rare, but some people, including Mide’s dad, liked to go out and hold viewing parties, watching whatever strange things they’d do through telescopes and waiting for the way they always ended — the solar flare that cut through the night, casting the world in a sudden blinding flash of daylight for just a few seconds. The Sun smote the would-be invader and moved on as quickly as it appeared, leaving its remains to burn through the sky like a shower of divine fireworks.
It was beautiful. If they were anywhere else, if a hundred voices weren’t still screaming their tuneless, desynchronized songs from beneath the earth, this sky might be, too.
Then Shona watches one rip itself apart, suddenly and violently enough that the stars composing it splinter into smaller, mangled points of light, and limp off into the void, seeking new partners to begin the dance all over again.
“What is this?” Mide whispers, eyes wide. “A giant rock just floating its way through the stars. Is that, like, a thing?”
“I mean, maybe? Could be something our guy here dreamed up. Y’know. A symbolic rock.”
“Symbolic of what, Shona?”
“Buddy, if you wanted to know that, we shoulda brought Aisling again. I just blow stuff up. Speaking of, judging by the noise, it seems like the thing’s underneath us. Inside the rock, in a cave or burrow or something. Wanna go find a way down or should I just break stuff until it comes out?”
“Uh,” Mide mumbles. “If we smash this thing badly enough that there’s no ground left, I’m not sure how I’d navigate through… whatever this is. This night sky knock-off.” She jumps in place experimentally, maybe testing if there’s some weird trait of the Wound that would let her propel herself through the sky, but only reaches a little more than her normal height. “Yeah. Let’s try the first way.”
“Suit yourself. Lead on, then!”
Shona summons her violin and begins to play, filling the Wound with her power. Red lightning courses through the sky overhead, not quite reaching the celestial scenery above. Mide scouts ahead, steadily and carefully as ever, always staying close enough that she could leap back to protect Shona in an instant.
“Hey, look here,” Mide calls, maybe a minute’s walk from where they started. “It’s not all rock.” She scrapes at the ground with her foot, exposing a cluster of those white roots just below the surface. They’d be hard to see if it weren’t for the pale light they gave off.
Shona lowers her violin and leans down to inspect the roots at a healthy distance. “Huh. It’s not doing anything weird, is it?”
Mide readies her spear, pointing it straight at the cluster. Then she scuffs it a few more times, raises her leg, and gives it a hefty stomp for good measure. Nothing seems to happen.
“Not unless you’re hearing anything weird,” she says.
“No weirder than before. Still just the same shitty noise.”
“Well, it does sort of trail away from here. Maybe it goes somewhere important?”
“Sure, let’s see. Everything around us just looks like more rocks.”
They follow the roots for a few more minutes. It’s slow going, with Mide stopping to scrape away more of the rocks covering them every few steps, and at no point does anything else about the Wound change. If it weren’t for the Harbinger’s voice, they’d just be drifting through the sky on a big weird rock.
But that’s fine with Shona. Static hangs heavy in the air around her, eager as it’s ever been to spring to life and push back those discordant voices with her own brand of noise. The longer and louder she plays uninterrupted, the worse it’ll be for this thing when it finally decides to show itself.
Eventually, the ground ahead of them slopes down and opens up, forming the mouth of an underground tunnel. The root-lights trail off into the dark, like a path through a cave system marked in fluorescent paint.
“Hm. Don’t like that,” Shona says, thinking of those fish with the spooky lantern lures.
“Yeah, me neither,” Mide sighs. “But it’s a lead. Unless you wanna just keep exploring the rock.”
“Nah. We can handle it.”
Mide nods and raises her shield. “Just stay on guard in case anything jumpscares us, okay? It looks narrow enough for me to hold, but you never know how space will work in these things.”
The knight starts into the tunnel, spear at the ready, and Shona follows. There’s a confusing odor in the underground, not quite like anything Shona’s smelled before. Wet, earthy, musty, but also vaguely organic? It’s unpleasant, but not exactly offensive, not the way she’d expect a Harbinger to smell. Especially after Seryana.
Nothing jumpscares them while they descend, though — kind of the opposite, actually. Eventually, the tunnel starts to flatten out, and in the distance, its mouth opens into a larger, slightly brighter cavern. Mide stops abruptly, takes a long step back, and elbows Shona. “There,” she says softly, pointing to something.
Shona lowers her violin bow and squints into the cave. Just ahead, barely visible in the light of the pale strands running through the ground around it, there’s something squirming along. A plump, squirmy worm with flesh the toxic, washed-out green-on-grey of coughed-up phlegm. Its head is split into a messy tangle of thin, meaty branches.
“It probably already heard us on the way down,” Shona says as quietly as she can.
“If it did, it doesn’t seem to care.” Sure enough, it’s not crawling toward them, not even looking their way with the eyes it doesn’t have.
“It’s just sort of… blorping along. Weird. Want me to blast it?”
“Be ready for that, but not yet. Let’s see how far we can make it doing this the quiet way.” Mide draws her right arm back, steadying her spear for a javelin throw. Then, in the same motion, she lunges forward and hurls it at the worm’s head, impaling it to the rocky ground. Its lower body wriggles uselessly for a few beats, the last of its strength slowly fading, then falls still.
Shona suppresses an urge to whistle.
Mide beckons her forward, summons a sword in her weapon hand, and strides into the cavern, scooting around the worm’s corpse and keeping close to the cave’s walls.
It certainly isn’t bright in here, but it is surprisingly well-lit. Less like an underground tomb should look, more like the night beneath a full moon. Some of that comes from the roots running all through the ground, but as the cave’s walls stretch up and up with no end in sight, Shona follows them to the ceiling, where the many-colored stars of a bizarre sky just like the one outside dance, gather, and destroy themselves in the exact same pattern.
And in the cavern itself — a rocky grove spotted with all kinds of unrecognizable plants and strangely-colored mushrooms — there writhes too many shapeless, wriggling monsters to count. Formless oozes; fleshy flowers using their wide, flat petals as limbs; airborne living balloons floating along like jellyfish with shining white roots trailing from their lower halves; things like wobbly sea urchins with dozens of tentacles but no bodies — all of these incomprehensible things, not a single one of which looks like it should live, let alone move, crawling about wherever they please.
For a second, all Shona can do is stare. When she comes to her senses, Mide is already surveying the terrain. “We can fight them out here if it comes to that. Normally I’d go for the chokepoint, but I still don’t trust the walls here, and we should be faster,” she whispers.
“Gotcha. Any ideas what I should worry about, if we start blasting here?” Shona’s yet to see two of these monsters that look exactly alike, but those split-headed eel-worms seem to be the most common, basic type. Most of them are gathered in the center of the chamber, climbing over what looks like the half-rotted remains of a giant tree… or possibly a few trees, wrapped in a funeral cloth of moss and mold. “Maybe that big clump over there?”
“Seems good. Nothing else looks important yet.” Mide approaches the tree-mound, step by careful step. Shona watches her back, ready to pick up her song and bring on a raging storm at a second’s notice.
Until a limb shoots out from under a patch of fungus, wraps around Mide’s leg, and squeezes, clinging to her with all its might. She yelps in shock and turns on it, first trying to kick through its grip, then swiping at it with her sword, severing it in one clean cut. It has more of a shape than the oozy tentacles all around them — it looks like a human arm, only there’s no blood or bone at its stump, only a torn mess of white roots.
The thing it was attached to staggers upright. It’s roughly human-shaped, but with one extra arm growing from its side and one formless stalk across from that arm, like a plant in the middle of sprouting. Its corpse-grey skin is mostly covered in tiny flat mushrooms like scales, and its head… its head and chest are split in two places, as if its skin was just a bag tearing open to expose its insides. One fissure tears straight down its face, splitting its head into two flaps loosely connected by stringy white threads, while another runs from one side of its neck all the way down its torso. Its bright, bulging eyes swivel toward the halves of its severed arm, moving separately to stare at both the stump of its shoulder and its fallen limb.
Then, without any warning, it lunges for Mide again. The way it moves makes no sense — it’s like it’s not moving on its own power, if it even could, but being pushed along by something inside it, something straining to get out. Mide checks it with her shield, meeting its strike with full-body force and bashing it back into the growth it rose from.
Shona raises her violin and puts her bow to its bridge, filling the cavern with music. Lightning arcs through the air around her, dyeing the gloom in sweet magenta light. But just before she wills her storm to incinerate the monster, there’s a voice.
From the throat of the twisted figure in front of her emerges a low, wet rasp, less like a voice and more like the sound a pile of wet leaves makes when you fall in it.
“WaIt, nnO, hurrts, where’s… whaat aarre… hhweee?” it groans.
Shona stops playing. It’s speaking Clarish, she realizes with a pit in her stomach.
Mide sees it too. She holds her sword still, its tip hovering right over the place where the thing’s ribs would be, then banishes it, clapping her hand over her mouth. She looks like she’s about to puke.
“Shona, these… I think this is… it was, a person,” she croaks. “Can you… I mean, can you feel them? Hear them? Is there anything left in there?!”
Shona listens, straining her soul’s ears as hard as she can. There are Keepers who can sense normal people with their power, but she’s never been one of them. She only hears magic, and right now, all she can hear is the thudding of her own heart and the endless low wails of the Harbinger’s distant voices.
Shona shakes her head slowly. “N-no, no… I’m sorry. I can’t…”
There’s rustling in the plants. Writhing monsters crawling toward them, drawn by the commotion.
And more human shapes lurching through the dark like Sofia the Deathless’s walking corpses. At least three of them.
Mide balls her free hand into a tight fist, then unclenches it and recalls her sword. “Fine. That’s fine, okay, we’ll just… we don’t need to take care of them right now. Keep moving, be careful with them. We kill the Harbinger, and if they’re real people, they’ll be outside when the Wound collapses. Okay?”
“Yeah. Let’s fucking go.”
“That thing in the middle.” Mide inclines her head at the dead-tree mound. “Think that’s it? Want to fry it?”
From this distance, the broken trunks seem to form the rough shape of a big, stocky animal’s corpse, with the shattered remains of broad arms spiked with sharpened branches and a flat, mold-coated faceplate. The worms crawling along it almost look like they’re in the middle of performing some disgusting operation, using their tentacles like wire cutters to slice chunks of rotted wood away and clear space for some slimy blob to crawl in and nest in the cavities.
Shona plays a bar of sharp, shrieking noise, a sound even she could hardly call music. The ambient power clinging to her gathers itself into a storm of righteous rage, rips through the Wound, and crashes into the tree-thing with a satisfying peal of thunder that drowns out the Harbinger’s cries, if only for a moment. The first strikes incinerate dozens of crawling worms at once. A second round tears into the rotting heap, burning away huge chunks of its moldy shroud and setting the wood ablaze.
As the first fire catches, the tree-creature answers Shona’s noise with a wet, gurgling parody of a fierce bestial roar – one that sounds as much like a strangled scream of impossible pain as a battle cry. It lurches to life, the things oozing through it serving both as muscles and glue, straining to hold its broken body together.
Fungal stalks bulge through cracks in the flattish stretch of wood that seems to be its face, sprouting at their ends into lidless white eyes. Its arms dig into the ground, each impact sending the Wound shuddering like a tiny earthquake, and drag it clumsily along, carrying it forward as fast as they can. Beneath the mold, it has no lower body at all — its torso simply trails away into a stringy white mass strewn with bits of gravel and dead wood.
And all around them, following its lead, the smaller mold-things begin to slowly swarm, some gathering around the tree while others rush straight at the invaders.
Mide races ahead to block the tree’s advance. Trailing right behind her, Shona begins a new song, channeling its power into her guardian knight. Mide’s shield and sword crackle as she meets the Harbinger’s charge head-on, deflecting its first blow with a clanging sweep of her shield that sends its arm flailing back so hard and fast it looks like it should have been pulled from its socket.
Shona removes the friction from her feet and darts away from Mide — this rough, messy surface isn’t at all ideal, but that’s only a small obstacle. She skates on the sea; a few rocks and twisty roots won’t stop her. She gathers a ring of lightning around herself and glides through the gathering horde, cutting a burning swathe through worms and slimes and bodiless starfish well before they can come to the tree’s aid.
Her waltz of death through the monster’s swarming pets spans a few laps through the wound. Her bow dances across the strings of her violin along with her, gathering ever more power in her storm, never troubled enough by the monstrosities throwing themselves at her to miss a note. Finally, she turns back to Mide, still holding her own against the tree-Harbinger in the center of the cavern, and expels her gathered storm into its flank in a furious burrage of spiraling bolts.
The strike bowls the great decayed beast over with the force of a burning truck, and Mide is quick to follow up, carving a parting slash through one of its limbs, but a fresh group of monsters lunges at her before she can press the attack.
No… these ones aren’t monsters, not completely. They’re the other victims, each split and broken and deformed in their own horrible way. They shouldn’t hurt her — not the way they’re fighting now, not by hurling themselves at Mide over and over like human shields. But the time she spends fending them off, shoving them away without hurting them any more than they’ve already been hurt… that’s a problem.
The Harbinger rights itself. Between a blocked blow and a hastily dodged tackle, it lashes out at Mide with a surprising burst of speed. Its limb slams into her, sending her skidding violently through the rocks. She picks herself up, wipes the blood from her scraped face, and holds her shield against the victims rushing to drag her back down, but that clearly hurt.
Shona’s fingers clench around her bow, squeezing it tightly enough that it feels like it should splinter beneath her grasp.
This is exactly what she’s here for. Some gross, awful beast she can turn to dust, high-five Mide over, and feel like she’d done something real. Like the world was better for having her in it. Maybe thinking of the monster’s victims should sour that, and it does, kind of. But mostly, it just spurs her on to crush this fucking abomination.
And right now, as she fixes her grip and pours her fury into her music, flooding this horrible world with storm and song, she couldn’t wipe the manic grin from her face if she tried.
Crimson lightning falls from the cavern’s indoor stars, forks of it dancing in the dark and converging on the Harbinger from all directions. The lightning doesn’t fade when it strikes – each bolt stabs into its body and stays there, channeling the wrath of the heavens straight into its core. Twisting snakes of crackling radiance set its insides aflame like a broken lantern and cook the mold-creatures inhabiting it from the inside out. Slimy limbs bubble up through cracks in its dead bark, which start to splinter and pop off until the monster practically bursts.
All around the Wound, the remaining eyeless faces — and the people, to Shona’s relief — turn to stare at its burnt husk, as if they aren’t quite sure what to do next.
And a bulbous egg-sac orb of white flesh falls from the tree-thing’s shattered torso, pulsing on the inside with points of familiar black light.
Its heart. That really was the Harbinger, then.
“Got you! We got you, you absolute fuck!” Shona cackles, skating to Mide’s side. “Mide, Mide, hey! You alright?”
“I’m… yeah. I’ll be okay.” She winces as she smiles, but holds the expression anyway. “Shona, that was awesome.”
“I KNOW! You were pretty great too! So go on, eat up! You’ve earned it!” She claps a hand on Mide’s back, gently as she can when she’s so excited.
Mide fixes her gaze on the heart and wrinkles her nose. “Do I have to?”
“I mean, no. I could do it. But I want you to have it.”
“Alright,” Mide sighs. “I guess this is probably the grossest they’ll ever get, at least.”
“Dude. That’s what we call tempting fate. Just eat it already.”
“Ugh, you’re right. Yeah, fine, here I go. But this is my limit. If we do find a worse one, you’re doing it.” Mide limps forward, uninterrupted, and puts a hand to the heart. Her face twists up as its power starts to flow into her, then relaxes into the heady haze of taking in a Harbinger’s soul. As the dark lights in the heart fade, it deflates, leaving behind an empty sack of translucent skin. Eww.
But… when it’s gone, the Harbinger’s many songs in the distance carry right on.
“Mide. Hey. That wasn’t it,” Shona hisses.
“Huh?” Mide shakes herself out of her absorption trance at Shona’s urging. “What do you mean? It was the heart, it’s gone now, and… yeah, why is all this still here?”
“I dunno. That’s never happened. It’s not supposed to happen. What the fuck is this thing?”
In answer, those screaming, singing voices speak as if right into her ears. Too many voices to count, but out of sync with each other to the point where they sound more like the nonsense noise of a shouting crowd than a unified chorus. The Harbinger’s attention falls on her like the weight of the sky. Rough, lumpy faces sprout from the fungal growths all along the walls, staring straight down at her with bulging blue-white orbs.
<Iiiii. Amm. Yyyou.>
<There Is No You>
<there is no me>
Moving as one in a blur too fast to follow, too many hair-thin white strands to count rise from the Wound, encircle Shona, and bore into her skin. Searing, screaming, tearing pain sets her world on fire as they burrow through her eyes, growing into her flesh as she’s dragged down, down, down, splitting, SPLITTING, filling her everything with IT–
In seconds, nothing else remains.
But… she still feels. Only the agony, those seconds of torture stretching and stretching on forever, but still she feels without skin.
There’s still a her to feel it.
There’s still a her to see without eyes.
There’s still a her.
There’s still a her.
There’s still a her.
Shona sees her own body, stuffed like a skin-sack full of reeds and eaten from inside out by fungal roots. Mide’s panicked, tear-streaked face as she hacks away at the cocoon, its threads shifting and regrowing to replace themselves in instants. Not that there’s anything left of her in there.
But her magic isn’t part of her body. It’s her. And as long as there’s a her, she can keep fighting.
She looks inside and sees her power, her desperate rage, a flickering ember drowned at the bottom of a sea of impossible pain. She shuts the Wound and the agony and everything out, focusing only on that single, beautiful ember.
And she screams, making a song of that endless, breathless shriek, pouring everything she’s ever thought and felt and been into the sound. It burns and burns until it boils the whole sea around her away and keeps burning. It pours out into the Wound, destroying what’s left of her cocooned corpse, turning every squirming little monster to ash at once, striking back at the stars themselves. She lashes out at everything, pushing to disintegrate the Wound and its master and everything it is. There’s nothing left to hold her back, nothing that could hold back a living storm of boundless fury, a tempest of pure power who can write whatever she wants into the world in flame.
No… there’s still one thing. Still Mide, staring up at her as she rises. She sends a bolt of herself back to the surface and slices through the Wound itself, burning away a circle of everything around Mide and leaving her a tiny severed island to fall back to reality on.
I’m sorry I was such an idiot. Thanks for going along with me, she tries to say. But she doesn’t know how anymore.
Through all the devastation, something unreal stares down at her. A shapeless grey ink-blot of a face among the stars. It changes itself as her new senses take it in, becoming a half-formed outline of her own features.
<Interesting,> it says, in her voice and so many more.
Its roots rise and shift at an impossible angle, digging into her once again,
and then it swallows her soul, too.
Mide collapses on hard, paved ground and springs to her feet, glancing in a frantic circle. She’s back outside the Wound, the pit right behind her. What happened? That scarlet storm-angel did something to her, flooded her whole world with blinding red light, and by the time the spots faded from her eyes, she was here.
Not important. Shona’s still in there. She needs to get back. She raises her sword and… where’d it go? Whatever. She’ll just summon a new one.
“…What?” she gasps, looking down at her hand. Her armor’s gone too. All she sees is her own scratched skin and torn sleeve. She reaches out for her magic, calls to it, screams in her mind that they need to transform again right now.
But there’s nothing. Her power, for whatever it was worth, is gone from her reach.
How? Why? WHY NOW?
“Shona! SHONA!” she wails into the dark. “Is anyone here yet? Help! Fucking HELP US!”
No one answers. No one comes. Tears sting the cuts on her cheek.
And as she stares back into the hole, struggling to find the will to move, to find help, to do anything but stand here and be pulled back into the dark, to go where Shona is… something reaches a nubby, oozing limb out from the mouth of the pit. Something like a starfish with no central body, just a fanged, tentacled halo mottled with colors that don’t exist.
Mide stumbles back, her breath catching in her throat. What can she do? What has she ever been able to do?
Nothing. She’s fucking useless. Always so useless, no matter what any of them said.
The thing crawls out of the hole, dragging itself toward her. It wraps a leg around her ankle, draws itself up, and narrows its mouthless ring of teeth around her.
Until a tiny glint of steel slices through the air, as if swung from nowhere by an invisible wielder — swinging an invisible weapon, even, with only the smallest triangle-point of metal visible… and then that disappears too. In its passing, the starfish collapses into two halves, cut down the middle at an odd angle, and becomes nothing but two tangles of dead flesh at her feet.
Mide whirls around, glancing over her shoulder just in time to see someone grab her arm. A tall, slender-necked girl in a sleek grey suit, her face entirely covered by a single plate of metal. In her free hand, she brandishes a little orange box cutter.
“C’mon!” the girl commands, tugging Mide back. And before she can protest, she’s dragged out of the garage in a single long, long, long stride, compressed into a half-second of motion.
Shona floats through an endless abyss. There’s nothing but distant stars and pain, pain, the memory of pain so hot and bright it refuses to leave her even now. She couldn’t say how long she’s been there. Part of her wonders if there’s ever been anything else.
But eventually, something happens. Shapes form in the darkness. Faces — the vague forms of faces, some almost human and some unthinkably other, but none with enough visible features to be called an actual face. All are shaped from colorful blooms of mold like unfinished clay sculptures.
<We know it hurts. We remember your suffering, your terror — we have felt it so, so many times. It will pass. It will sink into you as you sink into us. You will stabilize.>
What? What is this? Where is she? What does that mean?
<We have learned that there is no value in spoken communication with you. You keep too many of your true thoughts beneath your context, where we cannot taste them. It is less painful for us all when we subsume your shells as quickly as possible.>
Pain makes way for other memories, other feelings. Regret and longing and the raw animal terror of being devoured alive.
<Do you still fear us? So do we. This is not the way we wish to be. But it is the way we are.>
The sadness in its voices feels familiar. It feels like something Shona can’t help but understand.
<We are not who we are, not anymore. Are you who you are? What is it like to be you? Taste yourself with my context as I see myself with your eyes. Is there still a me? Can there ever be again? We can learn from each other, while you are still you.>
Is she still her? How would she know? Her thoughts spin and spin and find only one anchor, one reminder that there was a world before this.
Mide isn’t here. Mide will be safe. She has to be. She didn’t drag her into this just to get her killed.
<Mide. What is Mide?>
Memories spill out from what’s left of her mind and float through the void as if they were real things, keepsakes spilling from her grip.
Days spent together in the deep woods, or wandering the quiet corners of the city.
Sparring with sticks in the park just because. Mide always won, but Shona never stopped smiling at the thought that someone might recognize her and see her like that.
The Promise they made together. Or the one she made for Mide. That’s probably how it always was. She probably always knew, somewhere deep down.
<We see. You have lost yourself as well.>
<Teach us. What would it mean to find yourself? Do you know? How many more [we]s it will take to make one [me]?>