The Hanged Man 5-7

“Great. So. During the Harbinger incident we’ve been discussing, something happened with you that Shona didn’t want to talk about. What was it?”

There’s nothing intense or intimidating about the way Aisling holds herself, other than the uncomfortable light in her eyes. She slouches, resting her elbows on the desk and her head in her hands, and taps her feet to no particular rhythm as she waits for my answer. 

None of that keeps this from feeling like an interrogation, though. Maybe my life isn’t on the line, but enough is to be terrifying. 

“Take your time,” Aisling says in the same high, flat tone she always seems to use. Judging from the meeting I just sat through, it’s clear from her voice when she’s talking about something she finds annoying. Beyond that, I have no idea how to read her.

“Okay,” I finally say. “I haven’t mentioned everything my magic does. I can… drain strength. Drain life. From people, or from Harbingers if I get enough of a hook in them.” Still I stumble around calling it “health,” as if that’s going to hide anything of substance. “It works in reverse too, although I’ve obviously only tried that with Harbingers.”

“In reverse? What does that mean?” Aisling asks.

“Um… no, sorry, I don’t think ‘reverse’ is quite the right word for what I’m talking about. It makes it sound like I fed it part of myself, which isn’t right. My first Harbinger fed on suffering and slow death – its own and everyone else’s. I killed it by stealing a disease it built itself up from, that it was using to… I guess torture itself into existence? Which hurt a lot, but it worked. No suffering and slow death meant no Harbinger.” 

Aisling stares at me, blank-faced and wide-eyed. “You killed it… by… UGH, fine! That actually makes as much sense as anything else about magic! Sometimes I fucking hate magic,” she spits, then blinks rapidly, like she’d forgotten to and is just now making up for it. “…Yeah. You were saying?”

“Right. So,” I say, then pause again. Why? I might as well just leave if I’m going to get stuck while she’s asking about the least of the horrible things I’ve done. What I did to Mide was the best decision in a bad situation, and it worked. It won’t make anyone want to fight with me, but I don’t want that in the first place. If all I do is bring pain wherever I go, it’s better I keep it to myself as much as possible.

So if this is enough for her to shun me, fine. It’d save me from talking about the hard parts. “The one time Irakkia really struck me, it wasn’t a scrape or a close call like I sort of suggested. It skewered me in the gut with a spike of scrap metal or something like that. And I didn’t have enough life to save myself, so I… took what I needed from Mide. Shona seemed to want to sort it out and keep working together after that, but Mide wasn’t having it. I thought it was a bad idea, too.”

“I see. That all tracks with what I’d gathered so far,” Aisling says. “Follow-up question: when you talk about not having enough life, where do you get the rest?”

I freeze. What’s there to say to someone who’s already figured out everything about me? Why is she wasting both our time asking, pulling teeth one by one, when she can just listen to the people I’ve hurt and get the whole terrible story?

“Was that wave of mystery-disease outbreaks over the last few weeks you stocking up?” she asks. Her expression doesn’t change at all, and her voice sounds… mildly curious, at most. “Because if-”

“And what if it was? What else am I supposed to do? Wait until the next time I’m inches from death to drain the nearest person dry?” The dam breaks. Words pour out faster than I can think about what I’m doing, even what I’m saying. “Or, or just not have any, get eaten by the next Harbinger who decides to stop playing their nightmare-logic games and stab me through the heart?” My teeth clench as I dig my nails into my palms, forcing back the hot liquid I can feel building up behind my eyes. “This is the best way! It’s the only way!” I almost-scream. The sound comes out scratchy and half-formed, the way it does whenever I raise my voice too much. It’s never carried well, and I have no practice pushing past its limits. There’s never been a point. There’s no one I could yell at to improve my situation.

Aisling leans back and raises her hands. Her eyes widen just a little, startled but not scared. “Okay. I hear you. Can I finish now? I’m almost certainly not gonna say whatever you were expecting me to.”

I bite my lip, fold my arms, and nod, looking down at the desk.

“Kay. I’m not saying ‘that’s an evil power, don’t ever use it again.’ It’s shitty that it works that way, but… Keepers get what we get, and I don’t know enough about how that works to say if your magic is some judgment on your character. I don’t believe it is. But I do think there are better, safer ways to use it,” she says in that same tone. There’s not enough sympathy or condemnation in it for me to hear either.

“Like what?”

“Taking health from volunteers in controlled conditions. Which would also be easier on your end and teach you more about how the process works.”

“Yes, but who would volunteer for that?”

“You seem like you’re thinking about smart ways to use your powers. That’s a good start, but it’s not the only new tool you have. I almost made the same mistake when I was new.”

For a moment, Aisling simply smiles wide without opening her mouth. Her eyes narrow in a way that makes me think of a cat preparing to pounce on its favorite toy.

“Whatever you think of this, it’s a simple fact that lots of people really like Keepers. Maybe you don’t want to be an idol. Fine. Me neither. But you can still use that to get things you do want.”

When she speaks again, there’s a strange eagerness in her voice: “Put the word out that any donors to your life bank get an autograph and a picture with you or something, and people will do that. I’m sure it’ll hurt, but they’ll come away from the experience happy to have helped one of humanity’s beloved protectors instead of panicking about their sudden-onset, possibly-Harbinger-related sickness.”

I wince. I still have no idea what it’s like for people I drain from. Mide stopped just short of comparing it to a Harbinger’s touch, but for all the ones who can’t sense magic, who’ve never had to feel anything like that before… I could just as easily be either the worst health days of their life or their first impossible nightmare.

“And that way, whatever damage you do to them is better managed because they can check in with doctors who know exactly what happened,” Aisling continues unprompted. “Those doctors can then tell you what it looks like from their perspective, how long the effects last, if any of them linger — people from the earlier cases are recovering, by the way. I followed up on that, although I obviously can’t predict any long-term impact. You’d get what you need, plus a lot more information about your abilities, and you wouldn’t cause any more incidents where the news speculates about you being a sneaky Harbinger.”

I open my mouth, but realize as I’m trying to form words that I don’t know what to say to that. I think I was still expecting, reflexively, some suggestion to hobble myself forever and just hope it works out, but this… it does make sense. It never occurred to me at all, because I’m an idiot who’s spent the last month with tunnel vision, missing everything that doesn’t help me eat as many Harbingers as possible, as quickly as possible. I barely even checked the news of what was happening to the people I’d drawn from for fear of what I’d see, especially since I’d probably have to keep doing it no matter what.

“See where I’m coming from here?” Aisling asks a few seconds into my silence.

Given what she’s said about the news on my draining sprees, and other things a girl like her could easily figure out, I wonder if she already had a good guess as to what I was doing or she just came up with this plan on the spot.

“…Yes, actually. I’d just have no idea how to arrange something like that,” I admit, squeezing my elbows a little tighter.

Aisling shrugs. “Literally just go on the Sea, verify yourself on one of the Keeper reefs, and ask. Or if you don’t want to do it yourself, find a publicist and get them to set it up. The Church sponsors some of those.” 

It’s… honestly a good idea. Ignoring the part where I’d have to present myself to a bunch of strangers as the creepy vampire Keeper, inevitably giving them a name and a face to put to the rest of my awful reputation — which, after Aisling brought up reports about the people I’ve drained, I’m more sure than ever must already be floating around out there. Still, all complications aside, I can see how this would be a better method than what I’ve been doing, whether or not I’m capable of doing it.

“Anyway, given what I’ve just laid out, what you’re saying doesn’t sound great, sure. I get why Mide doesn’t want much to do with you. But it’s hardly the worst power I’ve ever heard of,” Aisling says.

“What are the worse ones?” I ask.

Aisling glances at the ceiling, tapping her cheek with one finger. “Well. I’m fairly sure that Sofia-”

“Besides Sofia! It really doesn’t help if I’m second place to her!”

“…Yeah, fair enough. Let’s think a little more local. Do you know anything about Phantom Gunner Ardal?”

“I think I’ve heard that name before, but not really?”

“Makes sense. He died two years ago, a little after I became a Keeper. His whole thing was calling up the souls of the dead and binding them to himself. Using them in his magic, and not just as companions or familiars or components in his bigger ritual stuff. He’d…” Here, she slumps and shakes her head. “He’d turn them into bullets and shoot them at Harbingers. There’s a sentence. Fucking magic, I swear.”

Aisling groans dramatically, then leans back in her chair, tilting it on its thin legs at an unsteady angle. “So yeah. Far as I’m concerned, nothing you’ve described is worse than taking human souls, which contain everything that humans are, and burning them for power. Ardal’s thing just didn’t cause as much of a fuss because it didn’t impact currently-living people. He always claimed there was consent involved, he was just communing with the spirits of his ancestors or something, but if I ever end up as a ghost, that’s sure not how I want to spend my afterlife.”

“There’s an afterlife? Ghosts are real?!” I yelp.

Aisling grits her teeth. “We… aren’t sure. It’s complicated.”

“Complicated how? Explain, please. I’ve looked on the Sea, in the Cycles, through however many occult books, everywhere I could think of! How has whatever happens when you die stayed this big vague mystery if we had someone right in our city who could wave his hands and summon ghosts?”

“Because we have other records of Keepers with abilities based on concepts that definitely weren’t real, or, well, at least consistent with everyday natural law, except with reference to them and their magic! Kids who summoned mythological creatures or… no, here’s a more relevant example. There’ve been Keepers who could talk to animals, or PLANTS, as if they were little people with their own little versions of humanlike intelligence and language ability. Which, to be clear as the night sky, they demonstrably aren’t. Not in any context other than the very specific exceptions those Keepers created with magic. Magic is the ultimate exception to everything we think we understand about the world.

“It is,” she finishes, slowly, through a thin-lipped scowl, “extremely annoying. But fairly localized, at least. Yeah, Saint Kuri could make friends with trees. I’m confident that doesn’t mean every logging camp is a killing field. Reality is still at least a little bit real.”

“If that’s the case, what was so bad about this Phantom Gunner doing whatever he did with magical figments that seemed like ghosts?” I ask.

Aisling nods once. “Fair question. All that was the way Ardal himself explained his power, and I’ve been assuming for the sake of this conversation that he was doing… if not precisely what he described, then something close enough to count. All I know for sure is that he was interacting with something, maybe even something inherent to the world. He couldn’t imagine up a ghost who never existed and poof them into being from nowhere. There are also other Keepers with powers based on other perceptions of death or the dead, and when he used up a ghost for his powers, those other Keepers couldn’t access that person anymore. Check Experimental Log #16 on my reef sometime, if you’re really interested.”

“But I mean,” I hesitantly pry, “wouldn’t he… run out of ancestors eventually?”

“Well, he could and did generate bullets with magic and use those. They just didn’t have the stopping power or unique effects of his special ghost bullets. And if you keep doubling back through the generations, from his parents to his parents’ parents and their parents’ parents, plus whatever extended family they had… I doubt he was in danger of running out anytime soon. I’m not even sure if they had to be his ancestors or that’s just how he preferred to do it for his own reasons,” Aisling says with a broad shrug.

I heard of this boy a few minutes ago and my head is already spinning with questions about how that even works. “That’s insane,” I mutter. “It’s insane that we’re sitting here trying to puzzle this out.”

Aisling sucks in air through her teeth, then sighs it all out in a big whoosh. “Welcome to every minute of my life, new girl. Really, though, all this is just to say that I wouldn’t take Ardal as a reliable source on how death ‘normally’ works… although I do wish I’d had more chances to study how he did what he did. For my part, I’d love to know if the spirits he summoned were the same as people who knew them in life remembered them being, or if they could answer personal questions there was no reasonable way for Ardal to know. I imagine firsthand experiments would’ve been way more useful than the question I wasted on this subject.”

“You’ve mentioned ‘questions’ like they’re a specific thing a few times now. What do you mean by that? Sorry to keep this digression going, just…” The subject’s a bit of a personal interest, I don’t say. For all the good it’ll do at this point.

“Oh. Right, yeah, I’ve published enough about my magic that I forget not everyone knows exactly what I can do. And I don’t mind the detour if you don’t. It’s always nice to find Keepers with some level of intellectual curiosity about our situation,” Aisling says. Her chair thumps suddenly back to the ground, and while the noise startles me a little, she doesn’t seem to notice.

“Once a day — resetting at exactly midnight, nothing we’ve tried to cheat the definition of “day” works — I can ask a question and have my magic stuff the answer into my mind as raw information. Questions generally get more detailed, actionable answers the smaller they are. Binary questions are by far the safest, if least useful, and some questions are either too big for me to handle or… hidden from me. Blocked, somehow. In those cases, or if the answer is that something about my question didn’t make sense, too bad. Still counts as my question for the day. The rest of my powers are also a bit weaker once I’ve asked a question, so I do my best to use it as late as possible.” 

“That last part… does sound pretty annoying, yes.” It’s not exactly nice to know that other Keepers’ powers have these weird catches and complications and things that don’t mesh at all with how they’d have designed them if they got a choice, but… okay, maybe it’s a little nice. In an awful way, the way it would be better but feel a lot worse if I were the only kid in the world born with a deadly disease.

“Yep,” Aisling not-quite-growls through a pained smile. “We spend a lot of time here looking over the questions in my priority queue, trying to optimize exactly what I’m going to ask before I do it.”

“What was the question you wasted?” 

“The question was ‘Assuming no magical interference by outside powers, excepting whichever forces are involved in the ordinary operation of souls, what happens to the souls of humans who die of ordinary, non-magical causes?’ And the answer… ‘they return to the sea.’ That’s all. What’s it mean? A particular bit of nonsense in the Cycles uses that phrase, so I guess it’s true on at least some metaphorical or… metaphysical level. Otherwise?” 

She leans forward, thudding her forehead gently on the table, then folds her arms around her head and slowly peeks over them, looking up at me with narrowed, weary eyes. “Fuck if I know.” One hand reaches up to fix her beret.

“Some of my books say reincarnation, but… that doesn’t work with anything else we know about souls. I think the authors were just making stuff up.” 

Aisling widens one eye, then tilts her head and shrugs. “Sure sounds like it.”

I don’t even know why anyone finds the idea of reincarnation comforting. Humans, the parts of us we’d define as “me” rather than “my body,” are our souls. The mind is part of the soul, and no matter how many stories fake mystics spin about their past lives, none of us remember living as lots of other people. 

If we really are reborn that way, human history should be mostly a succession of similar people with memories shared across some soul-lineage being born over and over, maybe with a few new ones to account for things like population shifts, Harbingers eating souls, or some dead people… deciding not to be reborn and going off to do whatever else ghosts do? That or souls are scrubbed clean of everything about their last lives before they return, in which case it’s no different from vanishing forever anyway.

But the idea does sort of trace back to the passage she’s referencing. I know the one: it says the dead “bloom in their fullness and return to the sea.” Others — and I’ve really only read the sections relating to birth, death, and the afterlife or lack thereof — talk about souls coming from the sea, “Claiasya’s womb.” 

If you ask the clergy what that means, most of them will tell you that it seems like the souls of the dead become one with the world or Claiasya in some abstract sense, returning to the greater weave of life as our rotting shells return to nature. They’ll also tell you that our human minds can’t actually know what it means to experience something like that, so we should all just do our best with the lives we know we’re living right now.

Which, of course, is no help to me whatsoever. At least they’re honest about how little they know — judging by how many Harbinger cults start with a witch claiming to have found the secrets of life after death, a lot of people feel the same way as me, but the Church has never made up some happy lie to try and cut down on that problem.

“Well. I hate that,” is all I say. At least it matters less to me now that I can actively work toward immortality.

“You and all my friends. Welcome to the literal club. Speaking of… what did you actually come here for?” 

“Was that all you wanted to know?” I really hope it is.

“No. But it seems rude to rope you into helping us with something unrelated, then just grill you forever before I’ve even asked what you want out of this.” 

Of course it couldn’t be that easy. And… thinking of it now, what I came to discuss and the other things she’s likely to ask about are kind of connected. If I really have any unique insight into Harbingers after a month of hands-on experience, what I did with Aulunla accounts for a lot of it. That is, unless I was planning to ask a bunch of questions wrapped in hypotheticals, saying nothing about what I knew or what I was thinking of doing with it, which seems… less helpful for both of us.

Maybe the other stuff won’t be so hard to swallow if it comes after she knows what I’ve been trying to learn and why.

I nod, look out the window, and think very carefully about my next words. They may be my best chance to make some sort of a decent impression. 

“I appreciate that, but I think it’ll be easier to tell you about my other, um, incident first. The rest will make more sense that way.” Unless there’s some other other thing I haven’t thought of yet.

“Your call.” Aisling sits about halfway back up, folds her hands, and plants her head on them again.

“Okay. So. There are some weird, complicated things about Harbingers I’m trying to puzzle out. I have no training or magical education or inside insight into them except what I’ve been through firsthand. That’s what brought me here, if you were wondering — Vyuji said I’d be better off asking other Keepers than her. She recommended you.”

“Everything about Harbingers is weird and complicated. What in particular?” she asks.

“Details about where they come from, how they grow, how fast they grow and what determines what they grow into. But really, anything that falls outside common knowledge about them and might help me hunt them alone, as reliably as possible. I touched a little on how my magic works, when I was talking about Irakkia, but it’s… it’s not really good in an actual fight, as far as I can tell. It works too slowly, and I’m only stronger or faster than any other scrawny little girl if I burn tons of life to make myself that way for a couple minutes. Things only go well for me when I either take way too long to be safe for anyone or find weird sideways methods to attack Harbingers. So I’m looking for anything about how they work, how they think, that might make the second option easier.

“…So.” Here we go. “How much do you and your friends know about, um, baby Harbingers?” 

Aisling raises an eyebrow. “Baby?” 

“Yes, I know it sounds dumb, but what else should I call them?”

“That’s not it. Just wondering what you mean by ‘baby.’ Some Harbingers are obviously bigger than others, maybe even more mature in their approach to things, but we don’t understand their stages of growth — if they even share a consistent life cycle — well enough for me to know what I should picture when you use that word.”

“The ones that are too undeveloped to act like full Harbingers.”

“Ah. Ambient magical disturbances? Cases where something feels very wrong, but not wrong enough yet to start running around eating people?”


“Right. I’ve read about those and do count them as evidence for the idea that at least some Harbingers are… native to this world, for want of a better term. No one I know has any firsthand experience with them, though.”

“I’ve found two so far,” I say. “Shona and Vyuji both think I’m just good at sensing Harbingers. And understanding them, going by the language thing.”

“Oh. Huh,” Aisling huffs. “I might have questions about them too, in that case. But they can wait. I’ll shut up until you’ve said what you want to say, clarifying questions aside.”

I’m not sure if it’ll be easier or harder to spill all this to someone who isn’t saying anything. At least it’ll be faster.

“There’s not much to say about the first, anyway. It was haunting a family’s house, feeding on a little boy’s feelings about his dead brother and stepmom, and it hadn’t grown enough to have a shape, so I killed it. Any Keeper who found it could’ve done the same. It just… it was too small to be worth anything. It was obviously the right thing to do, but it didn’t help me grow at all.

“When I found the second one, it was a book. No Wound, no monster it was attached to, just an actual physical book, sitting on a random shelf in that library by the university. Most of its pages were blank, but in the front were the first few steps in some kind of Harbinger-logic imagination ritual. It said if you did them, you’d learn how to have dreams while you were awake, then make those dreams real. I took pictures, if you want to see.”

“Any infohazards I should know about first?”

I tilt my head. “Info…?”

“Dangerous mental effects that could come of reading it. Or information that could be unsafe for anyone to have, not that I expect that to come up if it was as small as you’re saying.”

“Oh. I don’t think so. The book itself could make you want to keep reading it and thinking about it, but it didn’t carry over to these. And it’s dead now.”

“Then by all means.”

I unlock my phone, bring up my pictures of Aulunla’s pages, and pass it across the table. 

“Actually, before you keep going, just wanted to make sure of something. You read this book. Do you think that effect you mentioned has anything to do with how you handled it?” she asks.

“Hm? No, I purged its influence as soon as I noticed it. What do you mean, how I…” I bite my lip. “Do you already know all this somehow?”

“You just said the Harbinger was dead, right? You handled it somehow, unless someone else jumped in and killed it.” She shrugs, reaches for my phone, and starts peering over the first picture.

“Yes, but you were just talking about ‘how I handled it’ as if monster mind control would really explain something I did!”

“…Good catch. I may have skipped ahead a little there, but… meh. It was an important question. No regrets,” Aisling grumbles. “I’ve heard some things, yes. I’d still like to hear your side of it all.”

What things has she heard? I didn’t find anything in the news that looked like it was talking about me or Aulunla. Did Tetha warn everyone about the horrible new monster girl in private or did I leave some other obvious trail I haven’t even thought of? 

“…Fine. Moving on, then. After the last one, I thought… maybe I could let it grow a little. Maybe I could kill it as soon as it was solid enough for me to get something out of. Like I was saying about my power, I’m not very good at fighting the normal way, but this way, I thought… I’d be in the best position I ever would to kill it. I’d poison it right then, and if it became a real problem before it was grown, I’d just use my power to end it early.” I pause, fidgeting with my hands in my lap.

Aisling glances at me over my phone, but says nothing. She just keeps thumbing through my pictures.

“So I did. I spent a little over a week watching it as closely as I could. I saw a girl in the library, reading it in a corner while looking very much like she knew she shouldn’t be, and I wanted to keep an eye on her too, but I don’t think I have any way to track a person without making them really sick, and I don’t exactly know any normal ways to stalk people. That was the last time I saw her until the end. But I should try to tell the story in order. So.

“The book did grow as I was doing this. It wrote more of itself — when I first found it, it only went to step 5. I never saw anyone else using it, and it never mentioned anyone but her when I killed it, so either one girl working through its ritual was enough or it just didn’t care about the others. I don’t think that was it, since… step 8 only turned up near the end, when I’d already decided to pull the plug. That’s the one for making more books.”

Aisling skips ahead a few pictures, staying silent. When I stop again, trying to find the words for what feels like the worst part of all this, she doesn’t even look up at me. I have no way to tell what she’s thinking.

“And in the middle of this week, another Keeper stumbled across the book while I was watching it. Tetha Fianata, I’m not sure if you know her. I know the family, obviously, but I’d never heard of her. She wanted to destroy it on the spot. I still thought I could handle it, and I didn’t want someone else barging in on my hunt, so when nothing I said to try and get rid of her worked, I… fought her for it. And won pretty quickly. I just hurt her enough to take the book and run, but I mean… she was probably right.”

Aisling snorts out a single laugh.

“What? What?” I snap. 

“Sorry, sorry, it’s not you! I can see how your thought process went here, kind of. It’s just… when I heard this story, I only sort of believed it, you know? I knew Tetha was in Guiding Light for some kind of injury, and when people asked she said she’d gotten it from a fight with a Keeper over a Harbinger. I didn’t think she’d just make that up, but I kind of assumed she’d done something totally stupid to antagonize you. This isn’t quite what I had in mind.” She leans down, planting her forehead in her free hand, smiling as if at a joke bad enough that it feels wrong to laugh at.

“This is a lot and you’re just sitting there and I have no idea what else you want from me! That’s what happened!”

“Yeah, okay, I guess I’ve been letting you hang for a bit. Sorry. If it helps, I do hear Tetha’s recovering, and it’s not like she’s been shouting about you to anyone who’ll listen, which is really what I’d have expected her to do in this circumstance. My best guess is that her family asked her not to make a huge thing of it until they knew what was going on with you, but she couldn’t help but do it here and there.”

Why, though? I can’t think of any reason why they’d protect me after I hurt one of their own, and I’ve never had anything else to do with them except… oh. Niavh, my hero. My savior. My new favorite Keeper. I don’t know what I ever saw in Tara.

“Anyway.” Aisling slides my phone across the table and straightens back up. “I don’t think that was the end of the story, was it?”

“Um. No,” I sigh. “After that, I hid the book in the woods — I didn’t want to bring it home and maybe let it get to anyone new — and decided overnight that I was going to kill it. The whole thing had become more trouble than it could possibly be worth. Only by that point, that copy of the book wasn’t even the main Harbinger anymore. I think that girl I saw copied it and took the original with her before the thing with Tetha even happened, so I fought her over basically nothing.”

“Just making sure I understand the timing here: did you know about the copies when Tetha showed up? Or when you took a night to decide what to do?”

“…No. Just… didn’t think to check. I’d had a pretty terrible day. Like I said, by the time I read that step, I’d already decided to kill it. I know now that’s completely stupid.”

“Well, yes,” Aisling says flatly. Her big dumb smile thins and shifts into a bitter sideways one. “It isn’t unbelievably worse than the kind of stupid things new Keepers with no guidance do all the time, though. I should really say here… you know that you can get training, right? You’ve mentioned wanting to hunt Harbingers and having powers you don’t think are well-suited to it. You’re new, you don’t know what to do, and there’s no manual. I understand that. I’m not the girl to ask for detailed advice on combat scenarios — I’m pretty close to useless there — but they have mentors available sometimes. My parents think it’s a travesty that they don’t make new Keepers drop everything and enter the longest possible course of specialized education in how to do the job well and… as safely as possible, before they run off to hunt monsters. I see their point a little more every time something like this comes up.”

“No. I really, really don’t think I could.”

“Yeah. I thought you might say that, given the way you’ve handled contact with other people so far, but consider-”

“It’s not that!” I hiss.

“Okay. What is it, then?” Aisling flattens her expression and tents her hands, watching me expectantly.

“…I’m dying,” I blurt out after several silent seconds. “I don’t have time for that. My blood is eating me and making the Promise… I don’t know yet if it made it worse, but it didn’t save me. I’ve got maybe ten months to live unless Emergence gives me some way to fix myself.”

“Ah,” Aisling says. She grimaces, nodding slowly and gnawing on her lower lip. “Did you say that to Tetha? Or to Shona when you decided how to split Irakkia?”

“You’re the first Keeper I’ve told.”

“Okay. Why?” Aisling asks, blank-faced.

“Because I’m… my…” 

Because my medical situation is no one else’s business? It kind of is, given the things I’m doing to improve it. Because it makes no difference, people have never been there for me before and they won’t start now? I don’t know that. Whatever I think of people in general, I don’t know how to explain Tetha’s relative silence unless somebody — like Niavh — stepped in and talked her down on my behalf. 

So… Because why?

“Don’t know,” I mumble. “I just don’t want that to be me. Who I am. What I am. It’s bad enough that my magic’s all about it. I’ve called it poison, but that’s really the heart of it. Corruption. Curses. Sickness.”

“…Okay.” Aisling’s shoulders sag as she sighs out all the air in her lungs. “In that case, I assume you’ve done what you’ve done because you consider saving your life your absolute top priority?”

“Obviously. Nothing else matters if I can’t do that.” 

“Fair enough. I can hardly fault you for wanting to live. You’re, what, ten or eleven? No one your age should have to die over a freak health accident.”


Aisling frowns, looking me up and down again. “Oh. Sorry.” 

“Not that it should matter. No one should ever have to die,” I insist.

“I mean, yes. I’d love to abolish human mortality if I could, but, well. My magic has nothing to do with that and there always seem to be more urgent potential disasters stealing my attention,” she says simply, as if what I’ve said is too obvious to be worth noting. At any other time, I’d be happy to find someone else who gets it.

“But that aside… let me preface this by saying that I think most people who haven’t done serious work unpacking how they think and the reasons behind their choices are absolutely terrible at understanding their own motives and priorities. So don’t take this as an attack on your intelligence: it sounds to me like you’ve been acting as if protecting your privacy and separating your identity from your condition are… maybe not more important to you, but at least similarly important. To the point where you’re making one goal a lot harder for yourself in service to the other.”



“Can you honestly tell me I’m wrong?”

“I… I’m not… that’s just so…”

“Dumb? Yeah. Welcome to human cognition,” she says with a dry laugh. “Please take this as an object lesson going forward.”

I bury my face in my hands and groan wordlessly. I mean, it’s not like I don’t already know I’m an idiot who’s terrible at everything, just… how? How many other ways have I been wasting my first and only chance to survive?

“Ah, I still don’t think you were quite done. Sorry to interrupt again. But take your time,” Aisling says in that same steady tone.

“…No. Not quite,” I murmur, setting my hands back in my lap. “Okay. As soon as I found out about the copies, I went to chase the Harbinger down. That girl left a trail of extra copies lying around in the city, so I destroyed those until I found her and the original. They were in a storage unit, working through some kind of ritual. Chopping up other books and gluing lines from them to the wall. I guess I should say here that I don’t know if the girl was exactly a victim. Every time I felt her, she was… obviously corrupted, yes, but not hurt. And the Harbinger loved her. By the end, it wanted more than anything to make her a witch. I remember she changed her hair between the first and last time I saw her — which of course normal people can just do, but it seemed like a weird thing to do while a monster was eating you. Do witches have some version of Emergence?”

Aisling goes strangely still. Thinking of it now, it’s the first time I’ve seen her seated and not idly tipping her chair, kicking her feet, or playing with her hair.

“When did you first see this girl again?” she asks.

“Um, a little over a week and a half ago? It was…” I count the days in my head. Life almost never lets me forget how little time I have, but living the way I do for the last few years has made it hard to track those small, simple milestones. Every day of the week is mostly the same to me. “The 17th, I think.”

“Do you recognize the girl on the left in this picture? This is just a bad hunch, but… I need to check. I need to be sure.” 

Aisling passes me her phone. It displays a group photo of the Research Club on the steps outside. Aisling is in the center of the shot, still in her school uniform and beret rather than Keeper regalia. The Yadon siblings sit just under her, Haunild holding two fingers in a circle around her eye. Lucan is to the right, one arm around Aisling’s shoulder. She leans into him, smiling awkwardly, almost as though reluctant but unable to help herself. 

And my blood freezes at the sight of the thinly-smiling, bushy-haired girl left of her. The girl I only know as Aulunla’s human friend. The witch it would have made.

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