Seryana blinks out of being without a trace or a trail. The stink of her presence lingers, and a stale, sour echo of her odor clings to me even as I step back from the house, but there’s no heart of the corruption. No hole in the world she could’ve burrowed into. As far as I can tell, she’s just gone.
I scan the area with my soul, searching as thoroughly as I can without going back inside. This might be some ploy to take her victim back the moment I leave him alone. Which… maybe that’s a way to catch her again, but no. He already feels like he’ll die without urgent help. Letting the Harbinger anywhere near him would be murder. And it’s not even a good plan. I need to figure out how she works, not just hope she can’t do the same disappearing trick again, and right now my best chance at that is to ask him.
Help first, though. I really don’t want him to die. I weigh the risk of using my phone to call for the Sanctuary against the danger of leaving the man alone, plus the idea of searching for a phone in that dank, disgusting house. Honestly, though, if people are going to find out who I am, there’s plenty of easier clues for them to follow than a still-probably-confidential emergency message. I fish out my phone, still searching with my soul for any sign of Seryana coming back for us, and call 112.
“Hello? I’m a Keeper with a Harbinger victim who needs to go to the Sanctuary as fast as possible. We’re in, um, the south end of the Boundary. 71 Birch Row,” I say, going off the house’s mailbox.
“It’s a single victim? Are you or anyone else injured, and what’s the status of the Harbinger?” a woman’s calm voice asks after only a slight delay.
“Alive, but running away. I think. Um, how long will it take them to get here? I won’t leave him alone, but I do want to catch her.”
“What’s your Lighthouse ID? The responders can update you there once they’re en route.”
“The Keeper network?”
…Oh. Right. One of those reasons I want to avoid that whole Church registration thing. “I don’t have one. I’m new.”
“I see. Well… in that location, it shouldn’t be much more than ten minutes.”
“That’s okay. I’ll wait.” It’s not like I’m giving up the chase — Seryana’s already escaped. And from the way she was talking before she left, she’s taken some interest in me. She wants something from me. Whatever that means will be very bad for me if it goes her way, yes, but I haven’t lost her. If I don’t find her, she’ll find me. Somehow, I’m certain of that.
“Alright. Please stay on the line until the ambulance arrives, and keep me informed if anything changes.”
I put my phone back in my pocket and go to check on the victim. He sits on the sidewalk, staring back at the house.
“The Harbinger’s gone. People are on the way to help you. You’re going to be okay,” I say. For all the time I’ve lived through one, I don’t know any ways to comfort people in situations this horrible except make sure they don’t die. I’ve done all I can on that front. Now I can only hope I’m not lying.
Silence. The man glances up at me, says nothing, then shifts to stare wide-eyed over one shoulder.
“You don’t need to push yourself, but if you’ve got the strength to talk, can you tell me what happened? Once you’re safe, I’m going after… that thing, and anything you know might help,” I say. I stop myself from using her name, though I’m not quite sure why. I guess there’s no need for him to understand her. It’s my job to think about what she’s doing and why and how to use that against her, not his. If he recovers, it’d be best if he forgets as much of this as he can.
What would I even ask him, in this state? Can you think of any horrific personal crises that might’ve spawned your nightmare stalker?
“I didn’t, it didn’t… I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know where it came from.” His voice is husky and rasping, like he’s had nothing to drink in much too long. “Just, I heard a voice. No, I didn’t hear it, it didn’t use words, but it asked… if I was alone. I didn’t answer, but it said no, you aren’t, you never will be again. And then… there it was,” he rasps. “There it’s been. Did I do something wrong? I must’ve had an answer in my head… should I have thought something different at it? How? How do I do that?” His voice isn’t too parched for me to hear the desperation in it. The pleading.
“You didn’t do anything. I don’t think it would’ve mattered. It’s a Harbinger. It was just… doing what it does,” I say. “And thanks. Don’t say anything else if it hurts.”
“Oh… Thank you,” he says.
“…Thank you,” he repeats a minute later.
I leave the victim alone after that, watching at a distance for any signs of Seryana. None come. A few minutes later, a wailing ambulance pulls onto the street and opens up. The two medics inside climb out, but rather than rush to the man’s aid, they step back and to the sides, making way for a third person.
For the Keeper accompanying them.
A girl who must be near the top of the Promise age range steps out from the ambulance, and white wings with long, thin swan feathers unfurl from her back. The long, wavy fall of mint-green hair framing her face and her Keeper regalia — a teal-and-white dress that would look almost like a priestly robe with a single wide detached sleeve, if it weren’t for the low-cut, strapless bodice — contrast her deep bronze skin, and her eyes… aren’t eyes at all. They look like they’re made of water, not frozen but perfectly still, with a gradient of progressively darker teal-blues shaped to create the impression of whites, irises complete with lines and flecks of color, and shadow-on-the-sea pupils.
She raises her right arm, which is covered to the shoulder in white bandages — no, there is no arm beneath the places they don’t quite cover. The thin lengths of cloth are just acting as if wrapped around an invisible limb. Then they unfurl as one, becoming three thin streamer-appendages that spread out and sway slowly at her side.
She’s beautiful. So beautiful it’s almost unreal. Like she stepped right out of some classical painting to take a quiet stroll through our world, never losing even a scrap of grace across the journey. I don’t recognize her from anywhere — if I did, I’m certain I’d remember her.
“Is the area still clear?” she asks. She speaks Clarish with a light accent I can’t place, not that I can really place many accents.
Her soul is hard to read. It’s not at all like Niavh’s, defaced beyond legibility. It’s just… muted, in a way that feels strange for a soul to be. The presence of every Keeper and Harbinger I’ve met has had an unmissable intensity to it — magic wants to express itself. It wants to tell everyone with the right senses to listen to whatever it has to say. There’s none of that with this girl’s aura. It feels like she’s not exactly obscuring it, but somehow keeping it from shouting its full message to the world. All I feel from her is a title: Tarnished Angel.
“Hm? Yes, I think so,” I say.
The Keeper takes her own look around the house as if to double-check, then approaches the man and kneels. I step back, leaving her to her work. She places her remaining hand on his shoulder and murmurs something to him, to which he simply looks up, stares at her for a moment, and nods.
She speaks again — louder this time, in a low, soft voice, and while I don’t recognize the language, there’s a steady poetic rhythm to her words. Her cloth appendages begin to gleam with cool cerulean light. One of her bandages draws close to him, wrapping around his back comfortingly, while the other two fold their tips into sharp triangular points.
Then, moving in unison, the pointed bandages slide smoothly through his skin and into his heart. If the process is at all painful, he doesn’t show it. He actually seems to relax at their impossible touch, if only a little.
In a little under a minute, it’s over. The Keeper’s bandages withdraw, pulling themselves free without the slightest blemish to show for their intrusion. She nods to the medics, who unload a low wheeled stretcher from the ambulance and move to help the victim into it.
“Do you think he’ll be alright?” I ask.
A small, sad smile plays across the girl’s face. “We’ve done what we can. He’ll live, yes, but his recovery is a question for the experts.”
I clench one fist, digging my fingers into my gloved palm. I guess I should’ve expected that. The way Seryana treated him, the holes she left in him… now that she’s gone, whether he’ll survive isn’t as much of a question as how much of him is left to save.
She takes a few steps in my direction, leaving a polite distance. “You’re hurt, too. May I heal you?”
“…Oh. Am I? The Harbinger left without much of a fight.” I obviously know what she’s talking about. I know I’m hurt. Whatever Seryana did to my card left a very visible injury.
“Your eye is bleeding,” she says mildly.
“Um. Right, yes,” I murmur. It’s really not that I don’t want a healing Keeper with some kind of diagnosis power seeing what’s wrong with me, or figuring out what I usually do to heal myself. Well, it’s not only that. If I’m not allowed to cure myself with magic, it’s even less likely that someone else’s magic will do it.
And the last thing I need right now is for someone trying to help me to catch even an echo of my sickness.
“I’ll be fine,” I say. “Just go get him the help he needs.”
“They could take him back on their own from here. It wouldn’t cost me anything but a little time to help you,” she says gently.
“It’s a slippery Harbinger. I’ll feel better if someone’s with him.”
The girl tilts her head, watches me expressionlessly for a few quiet seconds, then nods once. “…Well, I’ll respect your wishes,” she sighs. “Dispatch said the Harbinger was still at large. Will you be going after it?”
“I’ll get out of your way, then. Good hunting.” She bows slightly, joins the medics in the back of the ambulance, and shuts the doors behind her.
Once they leave, I get enough distance from the house to escape Seryana’s stink, summon a single card, and use it to inspect my injured eye. It’s not, in fact, just a cut. Blood is still trickling down my face, yes, but there’s also an ugly bruise that looks like it’s on my eye. I use enough life to stem the flow and reduce the bruise to a mild discoloration, leaving that eye bloodshot with an odd purplish tinge. It still looks weirder than a normal black eye, but, well, my vision seems to be fine? I wipe away as much dried blood as I can, end my transformation, and search the surrounding blocks for any traces of Seryana I might’ve missed. There are none.
Still… to my surprise, I find I don’t feel terrible about tonight. I can’t quite call this a good outing, when I lost a Harbinger and sent the man I saved off to an uncertain fate, but he is in a much better place than he was before I found him. At least this once, I’ve managed to do something good without making anything worse for myself.
It feels kind of nice, strange as it is to think I’m capable of that after the last few weeks. It’s not like I don’t want to protect people if I can. I’ve just always had to worry about saving my own life first. I am still worried about it, of course. Like that girl said, though, I’ve done what I can for now. I’ll see about finding Seryana before she finds me tomorrow.
“Liadain? Do you have a moment?”
As soon as I step out of the elevator, the night nurse at the seventh floor’s front desk calls to me… oh, huh. It’s the same older nurse who tried to stop me from leaving to meet Shona, back on my first day as a Keeper. Now she just waves me over. I still need to check her tag to remember her name — Banva.
“Sure. What is it?”
The nurse mmmhs to herself and glances down at something on her desk as I approach. “So, Dr. Hines called in just a little while ago with a message for you. He’s gotten in touch with… right, there was a… specialist in your condition he was asking after? He found one who’s available to meet with you tomorrow morning. It’s a little short notice, but is that alright? Will that cause any, mh, problems for you?”
“…No? Please tell him that’s fine.”
“Oh, good! Good. I’ll do that,” she says, smiling thinly. It looks like she’s trying to be friendly, but still can’t quite make sense of what possible “problems” might come of my weird new schedule.
“Alright, thanks. If that was all, I should do bed stuff.”
“Ah, yes, that’s everything. Goodnight, Liadain.”
Sorry for the trouble, Banva. I’m glad I didn’t have to fight you to leave the hospice back then.
Something’s tight hold pins my limbs to a cold surface. Something’s rough grip wraps around my neck. It has so many hands. Are they hands? No, they can’t be. Skin doesn’t feel like that. Hands don’t move like that. Hands-that-are-not-hands push their way into my stomach and wrap themselves around my organs, then squeeze all at once, their coarse embrace strangling the life from me inside and out.
This is wrong. It’s all wrong. This pain is not mine. This horrible pressure is the wrong type of hurt. Something other than my blood is eating me alive.
What is it? Why? Why can’t I move? Why can’t I do anything? Let me go I don’t want to die stop stop STOP
Through the last gasp of breath I can manage, I… no, I don’t open my eyes. They’re already open. I just… notice what I’m looking at for the first time.
Pearl’s smiling pink face, still nestled comfortably on her side of the pillow. There’s nothing else here. Nothing but a heavy phantom pain lingering in my neck.
I’m fine. I’m fine, I insist in my head over and over. I must’ve been dreaming. It was only the kind of shapeless nightmare that leaves nothing behind but fear and pain and the sense that even if you’ve already forgotten all but the tiniest random scraps of it, the play of random nonsense that was just chased away by the harsh light glaring through your too-thin curtains must have been something truly horrible to make you feel this way.
I still can’t move, though. I just can’t find the strength. Several more minutes pass like that, the pain in my chest, slowly, slowly fading, until I summon up just enough energy to cocoon myself in blankets and snuggle close to Pearl. One of her fuzzy gills flops over, tickling my nose. I’m not sure how long I spend laying there, but eventually, it all passes.
When did I last have that sort of dream? It’s been a while — a few months, at least. The raw terror of knowing I was going to die and there was nothing anyone could do about it obviously never went away. Sometimes, though, in the stretches of time between anything changing for the worse, it did sort of… scab over.
So why now? Life as a Keeper certainly hasn’t been wonderful, but I have a real, serious chance now, and a life where I have to fight screaming horror-creatures sometimes is infinitely better than no life at all. I don’t understand, and I can’t exactly make more sense of it without even knowing what I was dreaming about. Maybe I should try and keep one of those dream journals my occult books talk about, write out every scrap of memory I can cling to before they fade, but… well, I’ll see if it keeps happening.
On a hunch, just in case Seryana is stalking me in my sleep or something, I turn my focus inward and check myself for Harbinger corruption.
And gag at the fetid stink of my own soul. That’s… a bit of her smell followed me home last night, wouldn’t quite wash out with the flow of my power, but this is too much. She’s tried something. Was she here? In my room, looming over my bed? I feel around my room, then the rest of the seventh floor, but can’t find any trace of her outside myself. Did she do something to me from afar?
I yelp and shudder at a sudden soft knock on my door. There’s a perfectly human soul behind it, though, and when it opens a moment later, it’s just a morning nurse here to get my vitals.
“Oh, Dr. Hines asked me to remind you. You’ve got an appointment scheduled in… forty minutes now,” she says while she takes my temperature.
…Ugh. Right. Of course this happens when I already have plans for today that could be really, really important, involving someone who has a lot of other stuff to do.
Seryana’s just going to have to wait a couple hours.
“There you are. You must be Liadain? Lovely to meet you, I’m sure,” a woman’s low, dry voice says. She smiles, though it doesn’t reach her eyes at all.
When I arrive in the exam room, there’s a pale, sharp-featured older woman already seated next to Dr. Hines. Her red hair is kept back in a tight ponytail, save for a few loose wavy strands around her face, and her clothes are distinctly undoctorly — a navy tailored suit, rimless glasses, and none of the tools I’d expect a doctor to carry except a small notepad in one of her suit’s flap pockets.
“Um, yes. Sorry I’m a little late.”
“Eh, I accounted for that when I scheduled this. I know how Keepers can be about bedtime.”
“I’m very careful about bedtime! I just… had a morning,” I grumble.
She shrugs, smirks with her eyes, and says nothing more.
“…Right, then,” Dr. Hines cuts in with a nervous smile. “Liadain, this is Dr. Cantillon. She doesn’t practice regularly anymore, but she’s a trailblazer on the academic side of understanding Keepers’ medical issues. She’s about as well-equipped as anyone can be to figure out a treatment plan that’ll give you the best possible odds.”
“Ava’s fine, if you prefer. I’ve no preference with patients,” Dr. Cantillon says.
I’ve already made that decision in my head. Nothing about her feels like a first-name person.
“I’ve read your files. Familial autoimmune condition, early presentation, two rejected bone marrow transplants, prognosis… poor,” she says, after a brief delay suggesting that was not the first word to come to mind.
I sit down and cross my arms. “You can say ‘hopeless.’ I know what my situation looks like.”
“Excellent! Well. No, it’s really not, but you know what I mean,” she says, waving her own nitpick off. “That makes this easier. We’ve only discussed you in terms of your case and I had no idea how delicate I was expected to be. As I was saying, I’m all caught up on your medical history. What I need from you is an overview of your current health status, with a focus on anything you’ve done to change it with magic or Emergence.” She pulls out her notepad, removes a pen fastened to its cover, and clicks a little button on top of it.
“Oh, and leave us alone for now, if you would,” she says, addressing Dr. Hines without facing him.
He narrows his eyes. “Pardon?”
“What? Why? He’s my doctor, you can’t just kick him out.”
“I am not kicking him out,” Dr. Cantillon says with a sudden firmness. Her posture seems stiff as she draws in a slow, steadying breath through her nose as though mulling something over, then breathes it out all at once. “Listen, this is not some issue of confidential secrets of magic I’m bound to keep from the unworthy. I’m only trying to help. You can stay if you must, but you really shouldn’t.”
“Alright. Why not?” Dr. Hines asks.
“Because… I’ll do my best to explain without going too far,” she replies, looking the other doctor dead in the eye in a way that seems to stare past him. “There are certain things that once you’ve noticed, once you’ve really started to understand, you can never stop seeing. Nothing you’ve said to me suggests you’ve even started to notice those things. That’s good. Unless you’re looking to respecialize into my field, which I do not recommend, you should do your best to keep it that way. Some of what we’re likely to discuss would make it very difficult for a man in your position — a good doctor trying to do right by his patients, only one of whom is a Keeper — to continue functioning in that role. I am speaking from firsthand experience.”
Dr. Hines says nothing, although the longer Dr. Cantillon goes on, the stiller his gaze and the tighter his jaw becomes. He cups his chin, glances back and forth between us, and suppresses an uneasy grimace. “Liadain, do you need me here?” he eventually asks.
“I’ll be fine,” I say.
“Yes. If you don’t want to subject yourself to, um, whatever that means, don’t do it for my sake.”
“…Okay. I’ll be right outside.” He stands, smiles faintly at me, and slips through the door.
“Moving right along, then,” Dr. Cantillon says. “I’d expect so, in your circumstances, but just to make sure. Have you tried anything to address your disease with magic, in the time since you made the Promise?”
…Honestly, this might be better for me anyway. If I want this to help at all, there’s no way around talking about how I’ve been keeping myself relatively healthy, and that feels easier with this woman than it would with Dr. Hines, someone who apparently likes me and wants to help and maybe wouldn’t anymore if he knew what I was doing to people.
Which isn’t to say that it feels easy. My thoughts run through all the things I’m hiding from the world, and all the things I’ve done to keep them hidden. It’s hard to imagine any normal person wanting to help me after I explain what I’ve been doing to them.
But if I’m ever going to move beyond stumbling blind through my new life, I’ll need more information on how to deal with all this from someone.
“Is this all confidential?” I ask. Maybe it won’t be once I’ve actually explained myself, since my mass life-draining clearly passes that ‘danger to self or others’ threshold, but I still want to hear it from her.
Dr. Cantillon makes a face like I just spat in her drink, but quickly smooths it away and nods. “I am still a doctor. I signed on to all the agreements here this morning. The usual exceptions do technically apply, yes, buuut I’m really not in the business of shoving myself into Keepers’ personal matters. And I don’t report to anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m doing this for my own edification and to assist you children in whatever ways I can, not in service to anyone else’s goals for you.”
Well. It sounds like that’s the best I’m going to get.
So I tell her.
I ball my fists, do my very best to bury my feelings, and tell Dr. Cantillon all about the part of my power that lets me steal others’ health. How I discovered it, how I’ve been able to use it… who I’ve used it on, without naming specific names. Everything that might be important.
“And I think that’s it,” I finally say. “I used a little bit to fix my eye last night, but it’s been a while since I burned health just to treat my normal symptoms. Things have been stable enough, at least for now.”
“…Alright, then,” Dr. Cantillon sighs. She glances up from her notepad for the first time since I started talking, looking me over with a sort of resigned exhaustion in her eyes. “I’ll admit I have some questions about exactly how you’ve handled this, but as I said, I’m not here to criticize your behavior. I only want to understand what’s happening to you and how we can best address it. So let’s start there. You’ve explained it in rather functional terms, but did your power come with an understanding of what exactly you’re doing when you use it?”
I blink twice. “Is that really it?”
“Please answer the question. We can talk about what I think of all this once we’ve established the facts, if you really want to know.”
“Um… okay. Well, I think I’ve pretty much said everything I know about it? It’s just something I can do.”
“And here’s the problem. Magic… doesn’t work like anything else. The same is true for any otherwise-normal thing it touches.”
“It’s magic, yes,” I say.
“I know how obvious that sounds. You wield it. You live with it. You understand the processes of it in ways I never can. But when the Promise plunges children your age into an entirely new world, you often don’t recognize exactly how different what you’re doing is from re… from the rest of reality.”
“I did live most of my life in ‘reality,’ you know. I still do.”
Dr. Cantillon waves a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, but have you thought about what it even means to ‘drain health’ from a person? Health is not a single discrete thing. By a certain simplistic but workable definition, it’s only an absence, a lack of illness or infirmity impairing your normal functioning. It certainly isn’t a tank you can fill up and expend.”
“…No,” I admit. “I’ve been too busy trying to survive to navelgaze much.”
“I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else. But are you starting to see now? I sent your doctor away because this is no longer a matter of health and medicine. I sometimes wonder how much any doctor’s work is. What does it mean for the entirety of medical practice if there’s any truth to the story that the incredibly disparate set of issues we call ‘sickness’ all crawled out of a Harbinger’s corpse? And by the way, the timeline does work out for that to be the truth!”
I know at least enough about the story she’s referencing to recognize it. She means the Infezean Scourges — the first plagues, deadly epidemics that ravaged the world all at the same time. According to Church history, an enormous living cataclysm of a Harbinger created them, and before that there was no such thing as disease. But I guess I don’t see how it matters if I’m sick because of something a dead Harbinger did centuries ago or simple terrible luck. I just want it to stop.
Dr. Cantillon stops herself, frowning a little deeper than what I’ve started to recognize as her default expression. “Ah, but I’m digressing. Probably. What I mean by all this is that… if your condition is as entwined with your power as you’ve suggested, it’s likely no longer accurate to think of it and treat it purely as a disease. It may be better described as a curse.”
“Or perhaps more accurately…” Dr. Cantillon pinches the bridge of her nose, pushing her glasses up onto her forehead, and groans. “This may well be a mangled metaphor, a desperate hand grasping for understanding it can never truly catch, but do bear with me for a moment. I promise I hate this at least as much as you will.” She shakes her head, fixes her glasses, and stares right at me.
“As a story. A story about dying of an illness.”