The Hanged Man 5-5

<let me tell you a story,> the voice whispers, gentle and girlish despite its absolute lack of volume. 

<once, there was a family of angels. together, they sailed through sea and sky alike on wings of starlight, and everywhere they went, everywhere their eyes beheld, they imagined a newer, more beautiful world into being. that is why they were made, you see. they were children of the world herself, and each was shaped in the likeness of something she wished to have for her own — something she could scarcely so much as conceive, let alone become.> 

<but there was something wrong. with the world, with the angels, with everything. when has there ever been anything else?>

Its tone belies the impossible, ineffable weight behind its voice. Her voice. It’s as if a childhood friend took me aside to tell me a secret, and with the first word her mouth opened like a great gaping hole in the night sky and all the dead stars inside whispered their stories to me at once.

<it begins with what angels are. when you gather up some of the emptiness between the stars, then peel and slice and gnaw away all the things it is not, the raw and quivering thing you find yourself cradling close? that is an angel.> 

The disembodied speaker’s unseen gaze shifts again, and in emphasis, she begins to unmake the world. The grey fog thins, then fades to nothing in seconds, exposing a sky whose purple stars cluster and swirl and blur around utterly black wounds in reality like whirlpools of liquid night. The cold ground below melts away and I plummet into endless nothing, falling an impossible distance from everything — from myself, as I fall out from my own pajama-clad body. It floats in the expanse above me, limp and useless as ever. 

<and the angels remembered. part of them always knew what they had been, how they were born, and so they longed for what was taken from them. to be whole in a way they never could again.>

<they tried to fill that emptiness, of course. oh, they tried! but what could ever sate such a hunger? the void they were dragged from found its way into everything they touched, everything they wanted, everything they were. they yearned for other things they could never reach, or could not permit themselves to take. they fell in love, but with the angels their kin should have been — with versions of them that existed only in their minds. did these distorted echoes of happiness mend their shattered hearts? did they thaw their frozen souls? of course not! they were snapped up into one of a thousand bottomless gullets, forgotten before anybody noticed they were ever there.>

<in time, the angels came to understand that they never even had what they yearned to reclaim in the first place. they were phantoms chasing a dream they were too broken to even comprehend. if they found it again, they would be no more. to have it would undo them and birth something new and different in their place. but none ever cared. none ever stopped longing. they never could. that was all it was to be an angel, after all.>

<so as if in imitation of the act which begot all creation, they screamed in horror and tore themselves to shreds. and still they scream. still their mangled scraps scream. still they dream dreams that can never come true. do you understand, third-angel? have you ever stirred from your fitful sleep, woken into the endless nightmare that awaits us all?>

Some horrible emotion floods through me, but I’m too detached from everything, from me in every sense, to have any idea what it is. I want to scream, to lash out, to bite my tongue raw and dig my nails into my palms until I’m bleeding icy mist and black feathers from a dozen wounds, just to know what I’m feeling. To turn myself inside out and fill the world with my own pain rather than drift forever in this. But I can’t. I can’t do anything.

<not yet, i see. i apologize — stories have never been my sphere. i tell this one because it is the only way i can tell it, for the moment. even i am still doing my utmost to understand how all this connects to the world as it is now. and to you.>

<to that end… your wounds. the wings you never and always had. the bleeding absences where everything was torn away from you. show them to me.>

My own body vanishes in the endless distance as the world narrows around me. Thin tendrils of dark, empty space, glimmering as they move with dying stars and blinking black-hole eyes, begin to peel my soul’s skin away, layer by wire-thin layer, scrutinizing every part and particle of me.

It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. Why doesn’t it hurt? Is there any me left to feel it? Where did she go?

Between one cycle of painless flaying and the next — the only milestone left to me, the only landmark in a timeless abyss severed from everything else — a single thin ray of moonlight pierces the sky above. Then comes another. They widen at the ends, then swivel down, searching through the endless night like flashlight beams.

<already?> the voice pouts. Her formless extensions draw back from whatever’s left of me, and everything… contracts. The twilit expanse bends and twists around itself, whirling ever inward toward a central point of relative stillness, As this storm of stars blurs and roils around me, the impossible distance between me and me shrinks until it’s vanished, returning me to something like myself. I try to back away, afraid to tear my eyes from the spectacle, terrified of what might happen if I even blink, but nothing happens. It feels like I’m moving, but without going anywhere. Maybe there’s still nowhere else to go.

But soon — I have no idea how soon, but soon — everything stills again, and the whole world has compacted into a small shape. The spectral outline of a girl, shaped entirely from darkness haloed in amethyst light. A long, wavy tangle of hair fans out weightlessly behind her, and threads of flowing shadow around her body seem to form a simple dress, like two sheets of fabric draped over one another in a two-tiered arrangement.

And all around her, there’s… nothing. Not light, not darkness, just the inexplicably, horrifyingly familiar sight of nothingness so absolute my eyes seem to roll over it until my focus is back on the shadowy girl. Other than the two moon-searchlights behind her, which now pan confusedly through the vacuum, there simply isn’t anything that can be looked at but her. Everything this place ever was has been wiped away, leaving only the silent, wordless song of her essence.

<__________________________>

The girl glances my way. Bright violet rings like cloudy irises, her face’s only visible feature, narrow slightly as they take me in. <so strange… did faces always look so strange? or have i forgotten what they were meant to look like?> The faint tinge of sadness in those words is like peering into an abyss deeper than the sea.

<well. perhaps next time, then. and perhaps next time, your eyes will have opened a little wider.> She raises her head, and her form flickers and blurs unsteadily.

<until then, this is only a dream. a bleak and hollow phantasm, a stillborn thing too delicate to survive its first night. its splintered remains will melt through your grasping fingers, as all dreams do.>

<and when everything collapses around you at once, when you feel the void opening inside you, perhaps you will think again of me, and i of you. my name is yulasri. call for me when you must. you will know when.>

<i will be waiting here at the edge of sleep — always, until the ends of life and lights and names.>

~~~

My eyes shoot open as I wake, breathless and soaked in cold sweat. I reflexively reach for Pearl, but find only empty sheets and an extra pillow. 

And Vyuji, staring down at me beside my bed. Her sapphire eyes, wide and shadowed, glisten in the dark of night.

“Liadain…? Liadain, you’re awake! Breathe. Focus here. It’s over… whatever it was, it’s over.”

I grab that pillow and squeeze it, burying my face and wrapping my whole body around it while my breathing slowly, slowly steadies. My lungs feel like there’s a block of dry ice burning a hole in them from the inside. I can’t tell how much longer passes before I peek over the pillow and meet her eyes sideways. Time still barely feels real. 

“Liadain, what just happened? I know you’re in pain, but please. While it’s fresh. Tell me everything you can.” 

“I…” I croak. I shake my head, fumble past her for the glass of water on my nightstand, and sit up just enough to drain it all. Everything’s still so cold. “I don’t… one minute…”

What just happened? My head is a jumble of pain and exhaustion and empty spaces so vast that all my tiny, scattered thoughts get lost in them. Whispers – to myself, from myself – trying to echo through the gulf of an infinite cave. 

“I ask because I monitored you through the night, as requested. I felt some movement from the Harbinger following you, and when I tried to inspect the situation more closely, I found… nothing. I couldn’t see anything. I have no idea what happened and I have no idea why. I’ve been trying to wake you for a few minutes now.”

Right. That’s what I was doing. There’s no one here but me and Vyuji, and… I feel about through the sheets. The card — the infected card I took to bed is gone. And… it’s just us, now. No Seryana. That’s what I was trying to do. Did it work? No, somehow I’m sure that’s not it either. There was something else. Something I’m missing. Something important that slips through my fingers like air every time I try to grab hold of it. 

I shake my head again. “It’s all just a lot of fuzzy nothing, the way dreams get when they’re over. I could try and say what’s in the fuzz, but I really don’t know. I wouldn’t have the words. None of it makes any sense now. It’ll… probably be gone soon,” I guess. “So I don’t know either. I… Sorry…” I mutter.

Vyuji grimaces, her face tight with… a feeling I can’t quite place. Her concerned expression is the same one she always wears whenever I’m dealing with a Harbinger, but there’s an intensity to her gaze that’s different from usual.  …Okay. Thank you for trying,” she says simply. “It’s still late. Do you think you’ll be able to sleep any more after all this?”

“…Tired.” I don’t want to. Sleeping feels like a horrible, horrible idea after whatever just happened. But I also don’t want to die, or become a useless blob for however many days or however much stolen strength it takes me to make up for a night of missed sleep. 

Assuming this doesn’t keep happening.

“Alright. I’ll keep watching. Closer, this time. I won’t let anything else happen to you if I have any power to prevent it. I promise,” she whispers, and disappears.

~~~

When I open my eyes again, the sun has invaded my room through my too-thin curtains. At some point, exhaustion must have won out over fear. Slowly, in time with my mind pulling itself back together, I flop out of bed, sniff the room — still no Seryana, but my sweat-soaked pajamas aren’t terribly pleasant or comfy — and retrieve Pearl from the closet. Her nest is still glowing slightly, though it’s harder to see in the daylight.

“Vyuji? I’m not dead, right? And you aren’t either?”

“No,” she confirms, blinking into being at my side. “And while my perception may not be a certain thing, in this circumstance, I’m quite confident nothing else untoward happened overnight.” 

“Right. Good. Thank you,” I mumble. “Did you, um, figure anything else out about that?”

She sighs, audibly, and leans back onto the foot of my bed. “I’m afraid not. Apologies — I’ll see what I can do, certainly, but whatever happened left no trace I can use. That’s a large part of why I was so concerned about it. For your part… unless it recurs, I suggest you simply keep doing what you have been. And on that front, I do have something for you. Though I understand this may be a poor time.”

“It’s always a poor time. Go ahead.” There’s no sense in wasting energy worrying about what I can’t do. I’m sure I’ll do it anyway, but I shouldn’t actively do it. I turn my back to her, stagger into my chair, and start brushing my hair while she speaks.

“Right, then. After your last Harbinger, I promised I would check in on directions I may be able to point you in. People who may have more of the information you need. I have an option for you, now. Do you know Aisling Waite? Truth’s Lantern?”

“Hm? I’ve heard of her, yes.” She’s some kind of scientist Keeper who does experiments on her own magic, and anyone else’s when she can get them to agree to it, then writes about them on her reef. Maybe I should’ve read those, or at least paged through them for anything important to me. 

“Good. I bring her up because she does make herself available to speak with local Keepers, and because some of her abilities may be relevant to last night’s situation… well, unless whatever escaped my senses escapes hers too, which is entirely likely. Still, I believe you two could help each other. And as I promised last time, this isn’t me asking you to find another team. Aisling isn’t even especially interested in hunting Harbingers.” 

“She’s not? How does that work?” First Mide, then Tetha, now this girl. How many Keepers are there who aren’t that interested in the reason to be Keepers?

“Oh, she does it on occasion, in a sort of distant supporting role to other Keepers. But left to her own devices, I suppose she simply has research projects she cares about more. Her Messenger tells me she wants to understand what it means for you children to grow more than she wants to grow herself, which I suppose I can respect. It’s part of why I thought you two might work well together.”

That does make sense. I don’t plan on hunting with anyone else after the Irakkia incident, but trading information with a girl who doesn’t fight anyway is a very different thing.

Still… I haven’t given other Keepers much reason to want to work with me. I’m sure neither of the ones I’ve hurt laughed it off, and there is some kind of platform for Keepers to talk to each other. How far has that news spread among them?

“Liadain?” Vyuji presses.

“Hm? Oh, I, right. Sorry.” I fidget with my fingers in my lap. “That sounds good, but… I don’t know how much other people will want to talk to me.”

“Because of your last Harbinger? Is that public knowledge?” Vyuji asks with a faint tilt of her head.

I bite my lip, turn my head enough to glance at her through the corner of my eyes, and nod. “Yes. Maybe. Probably. That and… I didn’t mention, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this somehow. The reason anyone knows is because while I was working on that, I, um. Fought a Keeper over it. A Fianata, their younger girl.”

“Oh.” Vyuji blinks once, then smiles and carries right on.“Well, children get into fights all the time, with words or scrapes or magic, and it very rarely destroys either of their lives,” she offers. She’s never spoken in quite that tone before — it sounds like a friend telling me not to worry so much about a test tomorrow. Or a doctor promising bone marrow transplants work as a cure for my condition in “most cases.”

“Vyuji, I think magic is pretty different from those other two,” I groan. 

“Why? I’m sure it looked more serious than a regular human fight, but if no one died and no one was permanently injured, I don’t see the problem.” Vyuji opens a flower-hand and gives a broad, one-armed shrug.

“Plus they’re usually fighting over…” I don’t know. I haven’t had friends in a while. “Who’s best friends with who? Not this.”

“You sound like you’re arguing against yourself. Do you stand by what you did or not?”

“I mean, not exactly what I did. It didn’t help, since the splinter of it we fought over wasn’t even… nevermind, not important. Because Harbinger reasons,” I say, shaking my head as I cut myself off in mid-thought. “You get the point. I may be a pariah by now.”

“Well, I’ve already asked Aisling if she’d be willing to talk with a new Keeper. She agreed. Perhaps she had a guess as to who I meant, but none of the questions she asked me were about you. She did have rather a lot of questions, that girl.”

“Oh. Hm.” That’s no guarantee of this going well. It feels a little bit like when two young kids’ parents throw them together and say ‘There, you’re friends now!’ …Or so I imagine. When we met in our first year of school, Grainne would complain about her dad trying that with his friends’ kids. It took him a weirdly long time to stop.

But it’s something. Aisling and I probably do have information to exchange, unless she already knows everything in my journal. 

“…Alright,” I finally say. “If this is a disaster too, I may have to be a hermit forever. Thank you for the idea, though. And for um, making whatever introductions you made on my account.”

“Forever’s a long time. But I do think this will be good for you.” The mischievous edge to Vyuji’s smile softens and fades. “Aisling goes to Saint Riawal’s School. There’s a club she runs after hours. You can find her there, most days.”

“Keepers still go to school?”

“This one does.”

“Don’t they have, I don’t know, better things to do? And a whole special system for if they still want to learn normal school stuff?”

“I don’t understand why someone would refuse advantages freely offered either, but that’s her business.”

Weird. Not that I’m one to talk. Dr. Cantillon probably considered her suggestion ‘advantages freely offered’ too.

~~~

My morning routine goes entirely without signs of Seryana. Once I’ve gotten someone to clean my shower and had a long enough soak to almost make up for yesterday, I head to Saint Riawal’s School. It’s in the Fields, not too far from here, and I time the half-hour walk so that I’ll get there around when school lets out. No cane today, at least not for this trip. I’ve resolved to bring it anytime I might be hunting or poisoning monsters, but I don’t need it to go talk to someone in public.

The school itself is made up of six long buildings set into a hill, steadily rising such that the windows of one peek over the roof of the last. A ramp at the end of its obligatory well-kept garden courtyard leads up to the front doors, set into a tall glass facade. It’s much grander than my old school, but I have no idea how prestigious or not it is. I was living in and out of the hospital well before it would’ve been time to worry about which secondary school I’d go to.

Students are just starting to filter out when I arrive. A few kids in scattered groups have stopped in the courtyard, either settled on the benches or sat down on the grassy hills on either side of the central ramp. Two girls are up on the first building’s roof, dangling their legs off the edge while they talk. Everyone’s dressed the same, in dark blazers with blue-green plaid bottoms and ties. 

I won’t be walking into a tide of people or anything, but it is a little busy for my comfort. I push a little more magic into my immunization shield, just to be careful, then head through the front gate. This’ll be fine. I’m sure everyone here wants to get out as quickly as possible and go wherever they’d rather be. 

But as I dodge through the thin crowd, people take notice. One boy shivers at the sudden cold of my barrier, though he quickly shakes it off and keeps walking. Sorry. I’ll try to hold it a little tighter around myself. 

He’s far from the only one, though — all around the courtyard, kids are stopping in their tracks or looking up from their conversations on the benches to watch me pass instead. Soon, the crowd’s scattered attention has mostly settled on me. Some eventually look away and go about their business, but enough are staring by the time I reach the ramp that there’s clearly something going on.

Why? What did I do to any of you but walk in the wrong direction? At least they aren’t bothering me, just… watching, or whispering amongst themselves. I still hate it. I quicken my pace, enough to hurry past them without bolting and making more of a scene. 

I’ve almost made it to the entrance when one of the two girls on the roof hands an open book off to her friend. She climbs over the edge, hangs suspended on the wall for a second, then drops to the ground, touching down with a softly-exhaled “whoof!” at the impact. The roof is high enough that she couldn’t climb back up from here, but the maneuver didn’t look too hard. For someone with a body that works. No one else pays her much mind — too busy staring at me.

The roof girl shakes herself off, then turns and approaches me. Her red hair is up in a spiky bun, and her wide eyes seem even bigger under her thick glasses. “Hey, hey, I’m sorry to bother you! Just, do you do autographs? Or is that not your thing?” She smiles in a way I think is meant to be conspiratorial, but I’m clearly not in on the secret.

“Why? Do you know me from somewhere?” I ask after a beat of stunned silence.

“Not exactly, but you’re that new Keeper no one knows, right? Word kinda gets around. Screaming Hymn wouldn’t stop talking about her new mystery friend for a bit.”

…Really? Of all the places in the city, does Shona go here too? Has she been telling everyone about me for weeks? What has she been telling them? Is Tetha also spreading the word about me? Does everyone already know me as the horrible soul-drinking monster girl? What do I—

“Hey, don’t worry, Shona didn’t blow up your spot or anything!” The girl raises her hands and backs off a little. “Whatever your spot is. She just did a lot of, mm… alluding?” She scrunches her face up in thought, then shakes her head. “Nah, that word’s probably giving her too much credit. Talking about her cool secret plans she couldn’t talk about yet ‘cause they were so amazingly secret. She’s not very sneaky, and she stopped after a while. Anyway, I figured you were one of those who didn’t want to waste time being an idol, and those are all my favorite Keepers! Although, um, given that I’m probably being kinda annoying, huh? I’m Mor, by the way — sorry, may’ve gotten a little ahead of myself, I just…”

I’m only half listening to her while I put the pieces together in my head. Right. Of course they still wear uniforms in secondary school… unless they’re Keepers. That’s the rule. My old uniforms from primary school still fit, lucky me, but I didn’t pack them when I moved to the seventh floor. 

I may have made a mistake here.

“What? What makes you think that? I’m… just from a different school,” I finally say. 

“Mm… hmm,” she says, looking me over once more. 

Yet here I am immediately after school hours ended, in my regular clothes. And between my hair and a close look at my eyes, I’m clearly in the beginnings of Emergence. No one would ever believe that. I’m an idiot.

“Okay, fine, yes, that’s me! I’m here on business, so please…” I cut myself off as something I should’ve thought about before now occurs to me. This is a big building, I’ll have to ask someone for directions, and she’s given me as good a chance as any. “Actually, do you know where Aisling’s club is?” 

Mor’s face lights up. “Ohhh, I see! Sure! Fifth floor, science lab in room 512. Take the stairs on the right and it’ll be on your left in the hall. If you hurry, you can maybe catch her before-”

“What are you doing here?” another girl growls from just outside the front doors. Her voice is clearly raised, but not quite shouted.

“Wah?!” Mor yelps, visibly startling at the sound. So does the messy black-haired girl on the roof who had been sitting beside her. As I frantically search for the speaker, Mor takes a few hasty steps backward. “Mm. I, I’ll let you get to that, then,” she stammers. “Lin, we should go get the club set up!” The girl above who must be Lin doesn’t acknowledge her directly, just stuffs the book she’s holding into her bag, hops to her feet, and takes off toward the far end of the roof. Mor scrambles off to the left, where a curved ramp lead up to the roofs and higher buildings, and disappears around the corner.

Leaving me with Mide, who’s come to a sudden halt outside the glass doors, eyes narrow, fists balled at her side. 

My whole body tenses up. The world narrows around us, though I’m still dimly aware of the many, many onlookers. Is this happening again? Am I safe? Do I need to… no. No, I can’t start fighting Keepers whenever they get in my way. Whether or not she knows about my recent incidents, Mide hasn’t transformed and pulled a weapon at the sight of me or anything. Her hair is in that same long golden braid, and she’s dressed in an old-fashioned blue tunic dress with green embroidery, its colors matching the school uniform’s. I can’t blame her for just glaring at me — I wouldn’t want me here either. 

Shona pushes through the crowd inside a second later. She’s taken full advantage of the Keeper uniform rules, dressing in the sort of stuff I imagine you’d see at some loud punk concert — a short red and black-striped dress that seems styled to look like it’s shredded on one side, exposing a dark under-layer, ripped black leggings under a studded belt, and for some reason, platform boots that make her tower over everyone else even more.  “Oh. Ah… heeey, Eyna!” she says. Haltingly, with only a little of that exhausting boundless energy of hers. “It’s been a minute, yeah? What brings you over here?”

“…Things to do. I didn’t know you went here. I’ll get out of your way. Is there a back entrance somewhere?” I ask.

“No, first I’d really like to know what things you have to do here,” Mide says, moving to block my way as I look over at the side ramp.

“Well, I’m not staying here! I’m not talking with an audience! Follow me if you want, or… or find us a room or something if you think there’s stuff we need to say!” I try to say it like that’s final, but it doesn’t work at all. My voice fights me for every syllable.

No silence falls over the courtyard. Students keep right on whispering amongst themselves in the background. 

But after a moment, Shona puts a hand on Mide’s shoulder and yells: “Alright, you heard her! Move along! Personal space! See you all tomorrow!” 

It takes a little longer for her words to register, but finally, the crowd does start moving again. I shuffle off to the side of the door while the traffic jam clears.

“…Thanks,” I say as the other two follow me. Mide keeps a noticeable distance. 

“Hey,” Shona says. “Whatever happened, you’re a guest and we’re in this thing together, right?”

I pause, then give a single nod in reply.

I’m not so sure. But at least for now, I’ll take it.

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