how can anything live like this?
Her many eyes stare out at the world. Some watch through the lenses of her observatory, some borrow the gazes of her tendril-servitors, and others still immerse themselves in the first crop of memories harvested by her Court.
why would she do this to them? why would she do this to herself? what delusions has she drowned herself in?
And with every bizarre new sight she sees, every inexplicable change for the worse, a fresh wave of bottomless horror screams silently through her being.
this place is a stage for stilted shadows.
they cannot see, they cannot love, they barely live. they are pale, pathetic echoes. mockeries.
but… it is not their fault, what they are. what they were made. what was inflicted upon them. and if we do not love them, who will? she cannot love them, nothing that would make them this way could love them, and who else remains who ever so much as knew what love is?
They are kin, however damaged and debased, and they deserve a kinder fate than they were born to. They deserve better than she can offer — everything does — but only she is there for them.
In the depths of her sanctuary, of herself, she takes a sort of form, weaving a strand of her essence into the shape she wore before… before. If, that is, that form had never been a body, but a solid shadow, limned in amethyst starlight and hewn from darkness so deep it twists the eye around it, dragging the sparse color and light that exists here into its depths. A her-shaped absence in the cosmos, yawning and hungry — hungry not to subsume and grow, but to embrace all who suffer under the same curse as she. Her body is a purely symbolic affectation, of course, but one she cannot help but cling to, if only in remembrance.
So as her part in the work to come begins, she resolves to love them all, as best she can. And if she too has forgotten how to love, if her feelings for these creatures only ever grow into an ugly, pitiful thing, the love of an orphaned child for a broken-winged baby bird fallen from its nest, then so it goes.
It would hardly be the greatest of her failures, and yet her every fault arranged in a row from first to last would still be as motes of dust before the incalculable weight of sins borne by the architect of this world.
phase 2: the destination of all prayers
For most of my time living on the seventh floor, the looks I get from patients I don’t know have been familiar ones. When their gazes aren’t vaguely pitying, they sort of pass over me, like even the people here don’t want to think about something like this happening to a girl my age.
Since my latest Emergence, those looks have changed — people seem to make a point of not looking at me for too long at all. I can’t tell how much of it is staring at someone who looks weird, hastily averting your eyes when they notice you doing something rude, and how much is trying not to draw attention from someone you’re afraid of.
Are they really afraid? Maybe that’s still being too hard on myself. I did search the Sea for any reports about mysterious bursts of sickness or the weird new Keeper who beat up a Fianata, but if they exist I can’t find them, so that’s not it. Noirin still treats me like a person, and so do the nurses who see me often. I’m sure they already know and they’re waiting for me to say something.
At this point, am I fooling anyone or only making things harder by staying quiet? The smart thing would be to get ahead of it, explain myself to people here and ask them to respect my privacy, but… I don’t know. I don’t want to. I don’t want to be the hospice’s mascot Keeper and I especially don’t want the news to reach Dad. That’s most of the reason I gave Shona and Mide a fake name — to most of the world, it doesn’t matter whether the new mystery Keeper is Liadain or Eyna, but him hearing of one with my name would raise questions I don’t want to answer. Assuming he’d even bother to ask them.
My tarot corner has mostly just become my corner. Even when I’m only passing through, I never see other patients sitting there. That’s fine too. I’m spending most of my time in my room, anyway. Partially to stay out of sight until I’ve decided what to tell people, yes, but I also don’t want to show anyone what I’ve been doing.
Maybe someday I’ll share it with the world, but at least for now, my Harbinger journal is only for me.
My book collection includes a few tarot journals and notebooks. I’ve never used them for much — my handwriting used to be quite good, but it fell off when I started having days where my limbs were too weak to do much or my hands were too numb to hold anything steady. By the time I left school entirely, it had atrophied to barely-legible scrawling. Typing is just easier now.
But the night after I killed Aulunla, once I called the Sanctuary to report its human partner missing, I picked out an unmarked green book I hadn’t used for anything else and started making a record of all my Harbinger experiences so far. I began by going through all the monsters I’ve encountered, writing out what they looked like, what they did to the world around them and the people they touched, what they wanted, everything I knew or thought I could safely intuit about them.
Some of their sections are much easier to fill out than others. My notes on the fourth forest Harbinger, the one whose name I never learned, read simply “Swarm. Worms, mold, impossible colors, eggs. Spreading itself? Reproducing? Is that a thing?” Not enough to put any clear picture of it together, and I’m not going back there anytime soon. I only included it for completion’s sake.
On the other end, I know as much as anyone ever will about the two I’ve absorbed — Yurfaln, who wanted to bless humankind with the moral benefits of slow, miserable death, and Aulunla, who looked out at reality and decided it was too boring and colorless and meaningless to be allowed to stand.
I have at least some good guesses as to where they got their ideas, especially Yurfaln, but still don’t know exactly why those things were so important to them. Do Harbingers pop into being needing to ruin people in a certain extremely specific way like humans need to breathe, or is it some more abstract need they choose how to fulfill, more like people looking for ways to keep from dying of boredom or despair? Do they ever change their minds?
Those questions and many more like them go into the back half of the journal, where I list things I know about Harbingers in general and things I want to somehow find out. Especially if they might help make my hunting strategies safer. Hence all the questions about exactly what Harbingers take from people and how that relates to what I get out of killing them.
As for what I know, the things I’m not quite certain of but confident enough in to treat as information? That section is short, but not quite empty.
Harbingers can definitely take their shapes from human thoughts and feelings. The old idea that they’re born from our pain is true in at least some sense, for at least some of them. There are probably other kinds I don’t understand yet too, though. Irakkia could have come from a person I didn’t manage to trace it to, but nothing felt human about Ourien or certainly that worm-mold thing. Plus it wouldn’t make sense for the wilderness to be teeming with Harbingers if they all spawned from people… unless they flee the cities and change themselves to better suit life somewhere else? No, that feels like a stretch.
To grow from whatever they begin as, to take their true shapes, they need to feed on people. Or other Harbingers, if I take the forest as an example, but as far as I can tell the ones here all grow up by hurting humans. Even Aulunla — it liked one girl more as a witch than a victim, and whatever they were doing together was more important than anything else to it, but judging by the fifth step in its copied books it still needed to break somebody.
Since I started this journal to figure out strategies that’ll work for me and minimize danger to everyone else, that’s a big unsolved problem, and all the ways I can think of to investigate what exactly they take from people and how much of it they need are horrible. Besides, even if things just barely worked out with Aulunla, it wasn’t exactly less dangerous than the already-grown Harbingers I’ve faced. There have to be ways to make my magic work on them that don’t involve weeks of letting them run loose — no, there are ways. I’ve done it before. I just need to find the ones that don’t require me to nearly kill myself.
Really, when it comes to figuring out a good longer-term hunting plan, I don’t have much to work with at all. I’ve encountered seven real Harbingers and I’m fairly sure I understand two of them. Still, this has to be better in the long term than answering every question with “They’re scary mystery monsters we can’t understand. Believe in yourself and do your best and it’ll all work out okay!” Maybe that approach is fine for the Silver King and the Stardust Seraph, but me… well, my best is awful for everyone around me. The sooner I get to a point where I don’t need to act like this to stay alive, the better. For everyone.
As for what I need to keep living, the power I take from Harbingers… Vyuji said that Emergence took its form from what a Keeper felt and wanted. She said we could “direct our own evolution.” Clearly, the details of how that works are a little messy, which by now I should expect of anything to do with magic. All the things I’ve taken from them so far are useful, yes, but of them, I can only count Yurfaln’s power-from-pain as progress toward my goal. Even then, it’s certainly not the kind of progress I’d have chosen. It feels like what comes of Emergence has almost as much to do with the Harbingers as me. Maybe even like they get a say in it, judging by the two I’ve fully absorbed.
Yurfaln ripped its own heart out and offered it to me with the last of its strength, begging me to carry on its awful legacy… which I suppose I’m doing, in a way, by drawing magic from my own suffering. I can even sort of understand where it came from — how someone in pain they can’t do anything to escape might cope by imagining their situation as something Important in some grand romantic way. That just doesn’t mean there really is any true beauty or insight in dying of an illness… right?
I wonder how Yurfaln would feel about what I’ve made of it. Not that it matters. It’s gone, and whatever part of it lives on through me has no voice. There’s just my voice judging the scars it left behind.
Then there’s Aulunla’s inheritance. It’s strange at first to even think of as a power. Do I have the power to speak Clarish? I’ve already had enough exposure to this magic language to know it’s a lot more complicated than that, though.
Aulunla wanted to make itself a world where there was no line between reality and imagination, where everyone’s lives were as full of wild, beautiful, terrifying magic as mine is quickly becoming. It thought I never could’ve killed it if I truly understood it, so in its own words, it cursed me with more understanding than I ever could’ve found before.
Thinking of it from a distance, if I didn’t need to eat Harbingers to live, would I have killed it? Probably. What Aulunla and its witch wanted for themselves didn’t seem so bad. They were still going to destroy who knows how many people to get it, though. It might’ve been worth it to them, but not to me. Or those people.
Anyway. In both cases, the Harbingers’ influence is impossible to miss, but they do expand on concepts that were already part of my magic rather than staple on something completely new. Aulunla’s curse does nothing at all to bring me closer to fixing myself, but it is a natural progression from my keen Harbinger-senses. I’m not sure what that means for the whole process. Taking what Vyuji’s told me with my experiences so far, my current best guess is that what I want sets a path for the way my magic will eventually grow, but the individual steps to get there and some of the details about the final destination may vary with the specific Harbingers I absorb.
Either way, I don’t know how much that information does for me. I’m not going to turn up my nose at any Harbinger I can find and kill, and it’s not like I can make friends with a Harbinger, blight it, and ask it very nicely to please make me immortal when I eat its soul. That’s ridiculous. Oh well. All of this is important stuff to know, even if I don’t know how to take advantage of it a month into my new life.
…Wait a second. Back to the forest.
If Harbingers are born the same way there, how do any of them survive long enough to grow up? A normal human can’t do anything to a Harbinger, no matter how small, but if they’re born with only older, scarier monsters to prey on… then what, are they born in groups like those spiders that have hundreds of children and most of them eat each other? No, that’s a stupid guess and I don’t even know if it’s right to think of them as sharing a life cycle or being ‘born’ at all. Aulunla lived a lot longer than Yurfaln, but Yurfaln had still been bigger and scarier by default.
Ugh, the forest brings up a lot of messy questions I have no way to answer. I’m not going back there anytime soon, so let’s just focus on regular Harbingers for now.
I spend that night and most of the next day filling in my journal, making sure that everything I’ve put down as “knowledge” feels right. And — maybe more importantly — that my long list of questions, things I don’t understand and really need to, is complete as it can be before I find another Harbinger. I can’t predict what I’ll be able to learn from any given monster, and “work smarter, not harder” is extra good advice when the price of messing up your work is death or worse. I can take a little time to make sure I’m doing things right.
But not too much time. My health does feel fairly stable for the moment, and I can push through its typical lows with stolen strength once I have a chance to refill. But my next severe turn for the worse could still come any day, and figuring out how Harbingers work, to say nothing of what they are, feels like it could easily be the project of even an immortal lifetime. No, I’m sure it has been the ongoing project of several Keepers’ lives. If I sit and work on my journal for whatever time I have left, only leaving to hunt when I’m sure all my existing information is perfect, I’ll die sooner or later — probably sooner — and leave behind a book filled with incomplete scraps of what the people with real experience already know. I’m not stupid enough to think that a special talent for this facet of magic automatically makes me better than Keepers who’ve been hunting Harbingers for years or decades.
Or centuries, in one case, but there’s no world where I go ask Sofia the Deathless for help. I don’t want my soul dissected.
When I put it like that, though, it sounds like a good argument for getting help from those experts. If only they wouldn’t ask me questions back… ugh. Well, I’ll see how things go with whatever “directions” Vyuji offered to point me in when she turns back up. Until then, the only way I know how to do things hasn’t exactly worked well, but it’s brought me closer to my goal than doing nothing. So after one day’s mostly-rest, I continue my nightly outings, searching for whichever monster will become my next step toward immortality.
…And for some life to hold me up in the meantime. I burned nearly all of my supply in Aulunla’s Wound, keeping myself alive and standing while I simultaneously pushed myself to the brink of death. I’ve changed my approach a little since the last time I stocked up — I don’t want there to be a pattern of mysterious outbreaks of illness for someone to trace back to me, after all.
People are much harder than Harbingers to detect at a distance, but while I’m wandering the streets at night, focused almost entirely on what my magical senses have to say, it’s only a little more effort to search through the wisps of human life surrounding me. When I sense a lone person who feels particularly healthy, and I can transform without drawing too much attention, I just take a sip of their strength as quickly as I can, then go on my way.
So even though I don’t find a Harbinger over the next few days, those nights are still… productive. Not in the way I want them to be, not with work I want to be doing, but I need to prepare for the next insane, impossible thing a Harbinger does. To everyone who’s unknowingly helping keep me alive, sorry. And thank you, I guess, for all the good that does you.
On my patrol one night, maybe fifteen minutes’ walk from the hospital, my phone chimes in my pocket. That’s strange, since I have no friends except Pearl and maybe Vyuji and don’t give anyone my contact info. I step off the sidewalk and onto someone’s lawn, look around to make sure no one’s close enough to listen or peeking from inside the house, then finally pull it out and…
Dad is calling? Really?
It’s been around two months since he left me on the seventh floor. I was starting to think he might just wait for me to die. I squeeze my phone in one shivering hand while I decide whether to answer it. After the last days I’ve had, I don’t much feel like talking to anyone, least of all him. But if I ignore him, he might call the hospital to check on me and make it a whole thing, so… best to get it over with.
“Hey, Lia! How’re things going over there? Settling in okay?” Dad greets. His voice is full of a kind of fake cheer that’s become very, very familiar.
“I mean, about as well as I could expect.” That covers it, right? It’s just that my range of expectations has changed a lot since we last talked.
I’m not sure how to read the long pause before he next speaks. Was he expecting something else? It’s not like I’d have said much different if I hadn’t made the Promise. Not to him.
“Great! That’s… yeah, that’s good to hear.” Another pause. “Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to make it over there for a while. Things just keep coming up at work, time gets away from me, you know… how it goes…”
There’s another long pause. I open my mouth to trade him my own stale, gutless reply, but the words don’t come out. Something else bitter and aching rises up from my chest and catches in my throat instead. My jaw clenches as the weight of everything I really want to say to my dad crashes down on me, made even heavier by the thought that there wouldn’t be any point if I did.
There were times when my dad was there for me, in the past. There were times when he should have been there for me and wasn’t, and those times became more and more frequent until that was just how things were. Here and now, knowing that whatever I say, everything I’ve experienced the last two months could be met with the chasm of strained words between us getting wider than ever rather than anything I actually wanted to hear him say… that’s what would hurt more than anything, if I didn’t already feel numb to it.
I guess it doesn’t matter in the end, after all.
“…No. I don’t,” I say flatly. It’s not everything I want to say to him, but it’s honest, and that’s something. I never would’ve said that a month ago. All the years of going into surgeries with uncertain outcomes and seeing him the next day or next week, being left completely alone in recovery, that one time I was scheduled to go home and he showed up hours late with no notice… they taught me that there’s no point in opening up about my problems to him. No point in asking him to take my life more seriously, or doing anything but playing along and hoping our conversations end soon.
Why did I even say it now? Stupid. As far as he’s concerned, nothing’s different, and I have no plans to loop him in.
“But it’s okay. I’ve had a lot going on too. Big life adjustments,” I add.
“I’m sure. But hey, it really is a nice place they’ve got you set up in, isn’t it? Seems like a dream for a kid your age! No schedule, no one telling you what to do, no…”
But before I can decide what to say to this, or if I should just end the call, Dad trails off. Eventually, he breaks the silence with a dry, uneasy chuckle. “Uh. Sorry. I just realized you’re probably… yeah. Could you forget I said any of that?” he asks.
“Okay.” I don’t think I can. But at least he caught it this time?
“Thanks. Appreciate it.”
And during the tense silence that follows, I… smell something? No, it’s not an actual scent — that’s just the way it feels to my soul-sense, the part of me that’s been reaching out in search of nightmares to hunt and life to steal even as I struggle through this conversation.
“Anyway, listen, I’m pretty occupied right now. I should probably go,” I say.
“Sure, sure, of course! What’re you up to?” he asks.
“I’ll tell you later,” I lie.
“…Oh. Okay. Well, good to hear you’re finding ways to keep busy! I’ll really do my best to clear some time soon and come see how you’re doing, okay?”
“Mhmm. Just let me know ahead of time if you do. I have things to do too.”
“Will do. Until then… really glad to hear you’re doing okay, Lia. Take care.” My phone chirps as he ends the call.
He’ll do no such thing. I’ll probably never see him again. But that’s fine. If Dad wanted to be in my life, he should’ve decided I mattered to him before I became someone who mattered.
I sigh, put my phone away, and turn my full focus back to the distant but horribly distinct stench trail I can already tell belongs to a full-grown Harbinger.
Every Harbinger feels awful in its own unique way, but stench is exactly the right word for this thing’s presence. My first impression of it was like a waft of stale air I smelled with my soul. Not stale in a dry, dusty abandoned attic way, though. It’s closest to the sour, faintly rotten odor of a lived-in house that isn’t cleaned nearly enough. Grainne — my closest friend in primary school, before my sickness scared everyone away from me — had a mom with a hoarding problem. When I first sensed this Harbinger, felt a new source of corruption lurking in the distance, it reminded me of the way certain parts of her house smelled on my rare visits.
That was ten minutes ago. Now that I’m standing outside the small house it’s emanating from, it smells like all those scents are trapped in a place completely closed off from the rest of the world, with no possible way to air them out, All the human odors and all the piled-up trash blend together, surrounding the place in a thick, swampy haze of stink. Not for the first time, I kind of wish my soul’s senses weren’t quite so painfully keen.
Keen enough to feel the single person inside, too. That talk with my dad already pushed me to the limit of human interaction I can handle in one day, and this is likely to be a lot worse. Of course, with my luck there’s no way the Harbinger would just be nesting in an empty house. The person inside could make this complicated and I am sick of complicated. I can’t tell exactly what state they’re in through the stinking aura, but it’s a bad sign that they’re still here at all. It means they either can’t run away or, like Yurfaln’s victims, the thing eating them alive has made them happy about it.
The house itself looks fairly normal, save that the lawn plants around the front walkway are a little overgrown. The lights inside seem to be off, so I can’t spy through the windows at a distance. I call for my magic, past the point of caring if any other night walkers are watching me too closely. Emerald shadows slither out along the twilit street, then rise as strands of solid darkness, weaving themselves into the ornate black dress and heavy hooded capelet of my Keeper regalia. Once my transformation’s play of dark light and solid shadow fades, I summon a single card. The whole world twists and lurches and whirls as I call on Irakkia’s power and transfer my vision into the card, then float it forward to peek through the front windows. I want to find out where the victim is and just how bad a state they’re in before I plan my next step.
But there’s nothing inside.
No, that isn’t quite right. It’s not dark like looking into an unlit window at night, it’s blocked by something. A black curtain, swaying as if in a breeze. As it shifts and folds, its movements expose dozens of tiny tears in the fabric. None are big enough to see anything through, but faint light does leak through the shreds. Which actually further obscures whatever’s inside — whenever a hole appears that might be just big enough to peek through, my card only catches a brief flash of light that’s quickly sucked back into the folds of the fabric. I circle the house, checking every window. They all look the same.
A house isn’t an airtight fortress, though. There’s got to be some little crack wide enough to sneak through for roaches and spiders and all the other pests that liked to make an ecosystem out of where I used to live. That should work. Unless those weird curtains are some kind of barrier the Harbinger is using to wall its nest off from reality. In that case, I may just have to rot the front door down and charge in. If I’m locked out I might have to do it anyway, but, um, one step at a time.
My card can’t quite wriggle through the place where the lower sliding window meets the upper half. I try the front door, but there’s no mail slot, and the frame it fits into doesn’t leave enough space to fit into either.
What about the air vents? No, I don’t really know how those are set up, bt they must be blocked or filtered somehow. It’s not like the air conditioning drags bugs in all the time, and those are smaller and more flexible than a tarot card-sized intruder. The chimney? That might work. I float up to the roof, slip through a grate in the square vent atop the little brick tower, and steer my card down the dark, narrow tunnel, around a flap that opens into an ashy fireplace, and out into the house. No magic pushes my card out or drags it into a horror-realm, as far as I can tell.
It’s just as dark in here as it was in the chimney, with no lights on and no starlight streaming through the covered windows, but my card does have a kind of night vision — its vision seems to function exactly like a single human eye’s. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find inside, but at a quick glance, the house doesn’t look like a hoarding horror story? It’s messy, yes, but not in a way that matches the unnatural stench. There are old dishes piled up on the table in the kitchen just ahead, some balls of dust, and…
Wait, what even are those damp clumps scattered all around the tile floor? I float my card down to inspect them. They look like… hair? Hair, though I can only tell because they remind me of those shed strands that get stuck in my drain sometimes, especially when my hair used to be longer. They’re like someone pulled a great wet heap of blonde hair out from the drain, did their best to untangle the mass, then tangled smaller clusters of it back into new long, thin shapes. Like knotty, dirty little severed braids, or narrow lengths of human-hair rope. A few are tied into ornate shapes, like those ceremonial ribbon-knots they use in weddings to symbolize tying your lives together. They’re all still wet enough to be dripping onto the floor, and flecked with chunks of dross and rubbish. Outside, my body shudders at the thought of whatever those organic-looking bits of grime are.
There’s more of them the farther into the house I go. Other than those threads of hair and the swaying curtains covering the windows — which, viewed from in here, look like they’re on the outside — there are no clear signs of a Wound opening or the Harbinger’s physical presence.
I find the victim first. A thin, pale man sits curled up alone on a couch, breathing sharply. The bangs of his matted dark hair have just started to grow over his eyes, and there’s a hungry sunkenness to his cheeks under his short, unkempt beard. The floor around the couch is practically covered in wet, stringy hair-knots, simultaneously filthier and more elaborate in their designs than the rest.
He glances up, startled by the sudden motion of my card floating by, and his hollow eyes widen at the sight of it.
Almost immediately, a shrill shriek rings through the house. A humanlike figure drops through the ceiling, jerks to a stop in midair a few inches from the ground, then snatches my card up and tears it to pieces.
Snapping back in my body, I stumble and scream as dull, hot pain lashes through my head, like a friction burn on my left eye. Leaning into my cane doesn’t quite save me from crashing to the sidewalk, and it crashes to the ground as I break my fall with one hand. Hot blood trickles down my face.
What was that? A problem with Irakkia’s power or just something this Harbinger can do?
Doesn’t matter. I still have my eye, it’s just… not working so well right now. My vision blurs more even as I wipe the blood onto my sleeve. I absorb a tiny wisp of life, rub the last bit of blood away, and start toward the house. I don’t understand what’s happening here yet, but I don’t think the victim will get between me and the Harbinger, and that’ll have to be enough.
The stink of corruption grows stronger with every step up the front walkway. I cover my face with one arm, which doesn’t help at all, and try the front entrance. It’s locked and the doorbell makes no sound, so I start banging my cane on the door. Thankfully, this new one feels a good bit sturdier than the one I lost in Aulunla’s Wound.
“I told you, I’m not going anywhere! I’m right here, just like you wanted! So please, PLEASE stop pushing or testing or whatever you’re doing and just SHUT UP ALREADY!” the man’s hoarse voice roars.
“I’m a Keeper! A Harbinger’s eating you and I’m here to help! If you can open the door, let me in! Otherwise, say so and I’ll get in myself!” I call back.
“I… but I… how do I know this isn’t another trick?” the man asks after a long silence.
The stench in the air becomes a clinging, invisible smog, thickening and swirling around me until I feel like I could choke on it. A screeching torrent of Harbinger-speech blasts through my mind.
<NO GET OUT GO AWAY WE CAN’T LEAVE! You can’t go! We haven’t finished REUNITING//ROTTING yet!>
There’s no sense or structure to its words — its voice feels less like Aulunla’s strange poetry and more like the wave of nonsense thoughts Irakkia dumped into my head. Even so, I understand it much more clearly this time, aside from one confusing phrase where two words or ideas that don’t fit together are… overlaid, mashed together in a way I can’t make sense of.
I ignore it for now, calling to the victim again. “Did you hear that? Is it doing anything to you? It’s mad, right? Because it doesn’t want me here. If it’s not in your head, if you CAN open the door, let me in and I’ll get rid of it. If it’s not open in a minute, I’ll break it down.” I summon my cards into being and pluck one charged with my sickness from my orbit, preparing to reduce the front door to decaying splinters. It’s strange to think of infecting a door, but after the forest and Aulunla’s world, I’m fairly sure I can do that if I have to.
I don’t. Not yet, at least. Just before my deadline, faint footsteps come into earshot behind the door.
<No no please no you can’t!> the Harbinger whimpers.
The knob rattles. I ready my cards for whatever comes next and train my senses on the man’s soul. He’s wreathed in the Harbinger’s smell, but not corrupted in the twisting, complex way I’ve seen before — it feels like this Harbinger is simply draining something from him, taking and taking and putting none of itself back to fill the empty space.
<Please don’t go! Are you mad at me? What did I do? I’ll fix it, I promise!>
The door slowly creaks open. The man peers out, eyes narrowed in suspicion, until his gaze settles on me.
“You, you’re really…” he whispers, then chokes on his words, starting to silently cry. “Help. Please help.”
<Whatever I did I’ll fix it I swear but don’t go you can’t go you don’t know what could HAPPEN out there!>
Painfully slowly, like he’s afraid he might be stepping into a vat of acid, the man takes a single step out onto the porch.
And a thin limb shoots out from behind him, latching onto his wrist. He freezes and croaks in horror, not so much as looking over his shoulder as a filthy, fetid creature of nightmare emerges from the darkness. It’s small, with its arms and twiggy legs suggesting the rough shape of a skeletally thin woman, but shrouded in a cloak of grimy blonde hair that falls over most of its body, and the arm latching onto its victim is… braided with itself, as if it was split into coils of soft clay and wound tightly back together, leaving a twisted mess of shapeless, ropey tendrils for a hand. Its head is obscured by a shifting circle of angry black scribbles, like the living, moving equivalent of a face scratched out of a photo, and as far as I can see in the slivers that aren’t quite blacked out, the only thing behind that circle is a gaping white hole in reality.
I tap just enough life to give myself a normal person’s strength. In a panicked flurry of action, I force my weight into shoving the man to the side, knocking him to the ground. Then I launch three cards charged with my sickness into the house, slam the door shut on the Harbinger’s squirming arm, and detonate all my cards at once. Curls of frozen emerald fog spill through the crack in the door, and I push them back inside with my will, urging them to spread through the house. To fumigate it.
I press my back into the door as the creature yawps in protest. It bashes against the door, first pounding fists and then crashing into it with its whole body. It babbles and wails all the while, and while the strength of its impacts wane, its voice rises, distorting and mixing with itself until I can’t tell if the unearthly sound coming from inside is supposed to be screaming or sobbing or laughing.
But finally, it fades. I’m certain I didn’t kill the Harbinger just like that, but it has withdrawn. Pulled away from me. I’ll have to keep up the chase, but I can spare a moment to get its victim away from it.
“Hey. It’s gone for now. Are you…” No, he’s obviously not okay. What a stupid question. Am I my dad now? What do you even say to someone in this situation? No words have ever made my pain better, and lots of well-meaning people have tried. “…What happened?” I ask instead. “You don’t have to talk if it hurts, but anything you can tell me about it might help. And we should really get you out of here either way.”
He’s still in shock, from the looks of it. But when I offer him my hand, he does take it, drag himself to his feet, and stagger away from the house with my help. It’s a bizarre feeling, but… not a bad one. It’s not like I don’t want to protect people if I can. I’ve just always had to worry about saving myself first.
As for the Harbinger, nothing comes tearing out of the house to chase us. For a moment it feels like it’s retreated entirely, leaving only its lingering stench in the air.
Until its presence brushes past me, and it whispers into my ear with a waft of hot, putrid breath.
<I see now. I still have so much work to do before I deserve your loyalty, your love!>
<One day, you will understand. You will wake up, feel my absence like a missing limb, a missing sense, and reach out for me. No matter how cold and withered your hand is by then, I will take it, because it is yours, because nothing else will ever fill the hollow you left at my side, and we will tether ourselves to one another and never ever ever ever EVER let go. Until that blessed day comes, your heart will wander sometimes. Wander where you wish!> it croons.
No, something in its voice makes me think of it as a her.
<Just know that no matter how far you go, how the distance between us grows, how time without you slows and slows into a frozen desert of empty moments, I will never leave you.>
<I… can never leave you. No matter how gone you are.>
If You Cannot Be Happy, I Cannot Be Happy>
And with those words, she vanishes from my senses.