The Hanged Man 5-8

Aisling watches my face for a moment, silent and still. I say nothing, choking on a lump of half-formed words in my throat, but it only takes her a few seconds to find the answer she’s waiting for. 

“Yeah. Thought so,” she says, pressing her palms to her temples. A nervous shudder runs through her body, showing on her face as a strange, sudden twitch. Like she’s flinching away from a thought. 

And just like that, I’m… no, I’m not even back where I started. Everything’s gotten so much worse. Of course it was all for nothing. Of course I’d ruined everything before we even started. How could it be any other way when the only thing I ever manage to do is make things worse for everyone except me?

This almost worked, too. It wasn’t perfect, but I was just thinking I could work with these kids. Maybe I could’ve had actual friends again. But there’s only one way anything goes for me, so naturally, they were also friends with the one person I’ve probably hurt the most.

No. I can’t blame this on some horribly unlikely coincidence. It makes perfect sense that Aulunla’s witch was someone close to magic, or someone who wanted to be closer to it. It doesn’t even matter, not really — my plan was always to let a Harbinger hurt enough people to grow into something worth eating. The witch, and anyone else who got hurt along the way, were always going to be important to someone. I knew that. I just didn’t care enough to call it off. 

Aisling sighs, eyes on the desk beneath us. “Okay. I interrupted again. Tell me exactly what happened on the day you last saw her. In as much detail as you can,” she says, utterly without inflection.

Fine. Fine. I owe her that much. “There’s… not much left to say. The Harbinger pulled me into its Wound when I found them, so I killed it. By the time I was back in the world, she’d left. Or disappeared. I looked around all over and couldn’t find her or feel her anywhere I went. I don’t… I told you, I didn’t want any people tied up with this, there just wasn’t any way I could get her out without… and then before I could do anything she was just gone and-” 

“This isn’t about you!” Aisling yells. Her eyes open wide, and I glance away to dodge the blindingly bright light flaring out of them. “I need to know where she went, what I can do to help her, if she’s alive, and whatever I think about any of that, you’re my only source on what happened to her! So if you really want to clean up after yourself, stop apologizing and help me make the question I’m about to burn on this count!”

I freeze. My eyes water, but I can’t so much as force them to blink. “I’m not… you don’t…?”

Aisling tugs hard on a fistful of her hair. “I just said I’m not looking to relitigate your reasons or lack thereof for what you did or didn’t do. I do not care right now. I care that my best friend made a pact with a Harbinger and then just fucking vanished when it died. Can we focus on that or not?” she asks. 

I glance up for a second to find her still staring at me expectantly. “Um. Yes. Sorr… yes,” I whisper, turning to look out the window. It’s strangely, almost painfully bright out there too.

“Great. In that case. You looked for her and didn’t find her… what happened next? Did you tell anyone else about this?”

“I reported her missing to the Sanctuary as soon as I was done. I just… didn’t know her name, or if she’d even look the same without her Harbinger.”

“Isobel. Her name’s Isobel Freyne,” Aisling says, grinding her teeth whenever she’s not speaking. “You said Isobel felt corrupted when you first saw her, and your Harbinger senses are apparently pretty good. Can you think of any way you’d have lost her trail if she was still around?”

“A few. I don’t know how long the fight took, but I’m sure she wasn’t in the Wound, so… if she had some way of traveling really far while I was in there. Or the Harbinger moved her somewhere else to keep her away from me, or she lost its stench when it died. But my first Harbinger’s victims still felt awful after I killed it, so I don’t think that was it. Unless witches work totally differently, which they might?” I glance Aisling’s way, not quite meeting her eyes.

“They might,” she agrees. “I don’t have any firsthand experience with witches. My understanding is that it depends on the Harbinger, like everything else with them, but unless something specific about this one could’ve removed its aura from her, you’re probably right.”

“No. I don’t think so. She was… really important to it, by the time it died. I don’t think it could’ve cut itself off from her, even if it wanted to.”

Aisling raises an eyebrow at that, but simply nods and moves on. 

“Any other relevant information? Or thoughts on where she could have gone, given what you know?”

“Um, when was she reported missing, exactly?”

“Morning of the 23rd. Her family said her bag and some money was gone, but nothing else. That certainly suggested running away over some bizarre kidnapping incident, but she hasn’t contacted any of us since. Or anyone else I know of.”

“Then no. That’s when I killed her Harbinger, so… I guess I’m the last one who saw her.”

“Far as we know,” Aisling says flatly. “Okay. That leaves… no, first, one other thing. On that day, several Keepers — most Keepers, actually — sensed something big happening. Some of them followed it back to the storage unit you mentioned, and there the trail went cold. It’s strange that something on that scale would come from a Harbinger you described as a baby, but… could that have anything to do with whatever happened to Isobel?”

“I don’t think so. It tried something big in the Wound — I don’t quite understand what. Vyuji just said it ‘attempted something it wasn’t ready for.’ But basically, it burned everything it was for enough power to try and kill me.”

Aisling pales, pulling her hair tighter. When the strands slip through her grip, a few remain tangled in her fingers. “…Everything it was,” she says. “Could everything include-”

I see where she’s going a moment before the words leave her mouth. “No. That’s not it either.” 

“How do you know?” she growls.

“Because I ate it! Everything it was, everything it thought, they’re all in here now!” I put a trembling hand to my chest. “I told you, Aulunla — the Harbinger — it loved Isobel. It wouldn’t have done that to her.”

“It was a Harbinger! Sure, I believe it felt a certain way, but when Harbingers want the best for us as they understand it, you get things like… there was one in Horizon, probably a Cluster A born from loneliness. It wanted to flay every human alive because ‘our skin was a barrier to true connection.’ A Harbinger liking you is no barrier to it killing you or worse. Sometimes it’s the reason they do it.”

“I know that! My first came from the hospital, liked the sort of lies some people tell themselves about why it’s really for the best that they’re dying horribly, and decided to share the amazing moral benefits of terminal illness with everyone! That’s not what happened here!” I insist. 

“Listen. I don’t know much about your friend,” I continue. “I’m sorry if any of this is a shock to you, but I know she really wanted magic. To be part of this world. To be able to change things. And Aulunla wanted to give her that. It changed its whole plan to place her at the center of it. Yes, it was a Harbinger, it didn’t care how many other people it had to kill to make that happen, but it wouldn’t have hurt her. It couldn’t. I think the only reason it could do whatever it did was because… it thought I’d kill her too if it didn’t.”

Why am I crying? No, why am I only crying now? 

“…No. I’d love to say you’re regurgitating ideas this Harbinger planted in Isobel’s head, but none of that’s news to me. And sure, you didn’t help her when you could have, but it’s not like I did much on that front either.” 

Her voice breaks between words. She pauses, gnawing on her lip and rubbing her eyes. “The Messengers don’t take recommendations, you know? What could I have done? And then she was gone, and I thought… no, maybe I told myself she might just want to be left alone, I should respect her privacy, but that’s different from what I thought. I just… wasn’t quite worried enough about it to defer my duty to the world full of people who want my questions for all kinds of urgent threats. But whatever my idiot friend has thrown herself into… that’s urgent, too.”

Aisling sighs, rubbing her eyes once more before she slumps onto the desk again. “So. Fine. Let’s say you know what you’re talking about and cross ‘killed by her Harbinger’ off for now. As far as I can see, that leaves… she died when her connection with the Harbinger was broken, or… some other way. No one’s found the body. She ran or teleported out of your range, and she’s laid so low that no one can find her since then. If she weren’t involved in something else, I can’t imagine that she’d have nothing to say to any of us.”

“She may just not want to admit to having done what she did. It’s… these things aren’t so easy to talk about,” I say, wiping away the dampness on my cheeks.

“Maybe. But people are looking for her, and it’s not so easy for a normal kid to just disappear indefinitely in this city. Which leaves me thinking of this last option as the most likely: someone or something else came to investigate this unusual burst of power, found her, and took her out of your range or otherwise hid her from magical detection. She’s not in the Sanctuary, I’ve checked, and all the other possibilities I can think of are terrible. Not that I have any specific suspects, but if it weren’t some kind of bad actor, she’d be in the Sanctuary by now.”

“Alright. So if you don’t want to guess wrong and waste a question, I guess you ask… where she went after this happened and where she is now?”

“Nope. That’s two questions. It’s particular about that.” Aisling peeks up over her arms with only one eye open, smiling a sour little grin. “Asking exactly where Isobel is now might not work either. Say she’s in something’s Wound. Maybe it tells us that. Maybe it even tells us its name. What can we do with that information, unless someone’s already onto that exact Harbinger enough to know its name?”

“Your power seems really annoying,” I say, hoping it sounds sympathetic.

“Yep. I suppose we have that much in common,” she grumbles, scooting her chair to the side so she can avoid the glare spilling in from the classroom’s window, which has just begun to get into her eyes. I follow suit, since it’s starting to bother me too. 

“This one should work, though: I’ll ask it for step-by-step directions to wherever Isobel is physically located right now. I actually have used my question to find someone before, one time.” At that admission, she glances to the side while pensively chewing her lip. I’d have thought that was good news, but she instead looks slightly annoyed, as though recalling a memory she’d rather forget. 

I’m not sure what to make of that, but it’s her business. She’s not on trial here. “Okay. I don’t have any better ideas, so… do we do that now?”

“My answer won’t update itself if she moves after I ask the question, so not yet.”

“Could you ask it for directions to wherever she will be when you get there?” I try.

“Nope. No magic I know of can tell the future,” she says, shrugging with a minimum of motion. “All the research I’ve done and tests I’ve ran seem to bear that old truism out.”

“…Right.” I have heard that before — I was just trying to help and didn’t think of it right away. It makes it especially strange that my cards, tools people made up to pretend they could predict the future, are such a big piece of my magic. But I guess it’s my magic, and I’ve never really thought of them that way. 

“Yeah. So unless you have a better question in mind, we shouldn’t push the button until we’ve got a group ready to run into trouble if that’s what we need to do. Ideally a group that includes someone with travel magic. You don’t have travel magic, do you?”

“I don’t. And… if you’re including me in that group, there might be… other problems.”

“If the problem is your reputation or your social anxiety, either tap out now or you’ll just have to deal with it.”

“It’s not! It’s this other thing! The Harbinger stalking me!”

“This… other thing,” Aisling repeats flatly, gawking at me as though I were a car accident she just witnessed. “Stars Beyond, how long have you been doing this again? How much trouble could you possibly have gotten into?”

“I really didn’t do anything any other Keeper wouldn’t do this time! It just happened! Um. As far as I know.”

“To be clear, my power only tells me that you believe that,” Aisling snorts. “But fine. Let’s hear it.”

“It’s a Harbinger I haven’t managed to kill yet, that’s all. She has a way of doing things remotely and I’m still trying to find where she actually is. She shows up sometimes and just… causes problems. Is really gross. And I don’t know what she’d do if I tried to fight something else while she’s still tied to me.”

“I don’t sense anything ‘tied to you’ right now,” Aisling says.

“I was getting to that, yes.” 

Aisling sighs in resignation, raises one hand, and waves in a circle for me to go on.

“Two nights ago, the Harbinger tried to do something while I was sleeping. The next day, she followed me home. I wanted to catch her in the act last night, set a trap and hurt her that way. Vyuji was helping, making sure she didn’t creep past me or out from me and start eating anyone else at my hospital. And…”

I wince, scratching at my scalp as the first formless scraps of memory start digging into my head. It feels wrong to even be thinking about this, let alone telling someone else. I skirt around the sharp, jagged edges of my own thoughts, sharing the vague outlines that feel just safe enough to look upon.

“My plan did something. She’s not there anymore, at least not right now. I don’t know what happened. It was just like… have you ever had a dream so horrible that it hurt, but when you woke up, all that was left was… the feeling of it? Just this abstract impression of something awful, clinging tightly enough to you to ruin your whole day when you don’t even know what it was anymore?”

“No,” Aisling says. “But I have asked questions that broke my mind for a while, then lost the answer by the time I put myself back together. Maybe that’s a similar experience.” She grimaces at some lost memory. I wonder if it hurts her too.

“Maybe.” I shake my head, shoving whatever happened last night as far from my thoughts as I can.

“Right, then. Right,” Aisling mutters, finally sitting back up. “And do you expect this other Harbinger to cause problems for us, too?”

I have no idea. This was just last night. I doubt she’s dead, but I can’t tell you how it actually went, how hurt she is, when she’ll be back.”

“Well,” she sighs. “Use your own judgment, I suppose. It’s impossible to prepare for everything that could cause problems, especially where magic is involved.”

“…I do want to help if I can,” I affirm. “Say whatever you want about not having done more for your friend. This was mostly my fault.”

“Yes,” Aisling agrees. “Still. I appreciate it. There’s no sense in assigning and holding blame when we could still be improving the situation. Oh, but here’s something you should know, if we’re going to work together on this. I can’t communicate anything I know to be false, and I sense spoken or written lies — a quirk of Emergence and an aspect of my power, respectively. Sorry, you understand why I didn’t tell you that until now, just… they don’t feel great. So please keep that in mind.”

“Alright…?” I do understand — if she was worried I might be the next Tara, it’d be stupid to warn me of her lie detector power before she let me tell my story. But why’s she saying this now? I haven’t lied about any of it.

“What did you say your name was?” she prompts.

Oh. She’s been addressing me without a name since we met. She can’t lie. Right.

“Um. Sorry, I… if I answer that, will you have to tell everyone else or something? 

Aisling shrugs. “Nope. Magic doesn’t care about lies of omission. I’ve had a lot of practice talking around details I don’t want to share.”

“Fine. I’m Liadain, and there are no sordid secrets connected to my name except the ones I just told you about. I mostly just don’t want my dad to know about this.” She’ll know that’s all true. If I’m telling her everything anyway, I might as well earn any trust I can.

“Fair enough,” she says with a curt nod. “Something else you should know is that I intend to ask Shona and Mide for help before I ask my question. By your own admission, neither of us are the best in a head-on battle — I want backup, not to mention enough Keepers around to make us unappealing targets to your stalker, if it gets any ideas. We’re already in touch as Keepers who go to this school, they should still be nearby, and Shona can speed us around the city. Much as I’d prefer someone who could fly or teleport.”

I stare at her silently for a long moment. Yes, I’m doing my best to fix my own mess, but that’s a terrible idea for so many reasons, like… like what? Is it bad or does it just feel bad because I don’t want to deal with them anymore? I’m sure Mide will hate me forever, but I’m not going to repeat what I did to her. I don’t need to. 

“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d like that. I’m sure Mide won’t, either. Deal with it. It’s the most expedient option. I’ll tell her the same if she objects.”

“Alright,” I murmur. “One more thing, though. I don’t know if you’ve heard this from Shona or Tetha or someone, but I’ve gone by Eyna everywhere else since I made the Promise, including while I was working with them, and I really don’t feel like explaining this to them too. Shona doesn’t strike me as good with secrets.”

“She’s not,” Aisling agrees.

“So… if you called me by my actual name while they’re around, it might be a problem. Can you use a fake name? Is that allowed?”

“Yep,” she says without delay, as if she’s already figured this exact situation out well before I brought it up. She probably has. She’s probably done every test she could think of on the boundaries of what metaphysically counts as a lie. “It’s an alias that can be reasonably understood as referring to you, same as I can call myself Truth’s Lantern.”

“Alright. Please do that, then. But I am in.”

“Great. I’ll call them now and then we can get to work.”

And then, as if on cue, the bright light pouring in through the classroom windows behind us flashes blindingly, enveloping everything around us in stark white for just an instant. It’s as though a bolt of lightning had struck right outside. Yet, no crashing boom or roaring thunder follows the flash. Instead, after five or so seconds of tense silence as Aisling and I look at each other in anxious knowing, both of our cellphones chime at the exact same moment. Just as simultaneously, we pull our phones out together to confirm what we’ve both already realized.

EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM

NEW CLARIS AUTHORITIES
CELESTIAL WARNING FOR YOUR AREA

The New Claris Weather Service has issued a warning for a meteorological event.
This warning is effective immediately and continues until the event has concluded.
Citizens are advised not to observe this event under any circumstances, no matter the precautions taken.

Warning issued for: Solar Embrace

~~~

When we step out into the now-empty courtyard, the sky is burning. All the world around us is flooded with an overwhelming radiance, enveloping everything with its harsh, almost surreal white glow.

Six massive loops of white flame have emerged from the sun. As they shimmer and whirl and roil, painting spans of the sky blinding white in their wake, they begin to expand, growing unevenly in size and width, and then, one at a time, to unhinge from the sun at one end. They reach out and stretch across the sky from horizon to horizon, and there they stay, like the tentacles of a celestial octopus wrapping itself around the world. Smaller solar flares dance along their length like electrical sparks.

“Eyes to the ground,” Aisling hisses. “Keepers can still end up Eyeless.”

“Yes, I know…” I rip my stinging eyes away from the sky and shield my face with my arm. We cower in the shelter of one of the school’s awnings, where a fragile shard of darkness still persists. Other than us, not a single student remains — they’ve all either made it home already or retreated into the school building. “Ugh. It really has the worst possible timing today. You don’t have parasols on hand, do you?” 

“Nope. Sorry.”

“Uuuuuuuugh.” And until recently, I wasn’t leaving the hospital enough to even bother having one. My old one is probably still sitting in my closet back at home. “No point in waiting for it to stop at this hour, either. Unless you want to postpone?” When it gets like this, it usually doesn’t calm down until sunset. A few tiny patches of shade survive the harsh glare of the tendrils above, but they shift and shudder and vanish all too quickly beneath the sun’s twisting, coiling limbs.

“Can’t. What if Isobel’s in trouble right now and dies in the next few hours?”

Well, nothing for it. That’s simply the nature of the sun. It warms our days and wards away the night, giving us just enough to substantiate the rosier side of its tarot symbolism. But in exchange… every so often, working on some schedule only it knows, it smothers us in its embrace: something everyone knows about, but never dares speak of. 

No one wants to talk about it, anyway. After all, once we’ve taken every reasonable precaution, it’s easiest just to put out of mind the troubles we can neither control nor predict until the very moment they’re upon us. Just like how all my old friends put me out of mind. It helps us hide from how powerless we really are.

Author’s note: I’m currently on holiday break. See here for details. The story will continue on 1/4.

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