New Claris is quietest on moonless nights, beneath the stars’ pale light, but a city is never completely empty and still. It’s never lifeless. I mean, unless it’s abandoned out in a wasteland with no plants or animals for miles or something. Which this one isn’t yet.
Stepping onto the university campus south of the hospital is a sudden sharp change from the city’s glass-and-greenery spires. The college is much older, one of those historic parts of the city that wasn’t redesigned after the war, and made up mostly of great limestone buildings designed to look somewhere between old churches and small castles. Taken with the grounds between them, all gardens and groves rather than manicured grass, they look like a loose grouping of stately homes spread around a thinly-forested woodland. Being here feels like crossing into another, older world, and the distant lights barely illuminating it lend it all a sense of unreality almost like the one that comes with using magic.
It’s easy enough to find what I’m looking for. I make my way to one of the tall buildings dotted with still-lit windows and filled with points of human life, which I can sense as faint scents of fresh rain. There, I circle around, past the front door and its porchlight that briefly lights up as I pass, and sit against the wall beneath a dark window. I take a card from my orbit, float it up a little, and narrow my focus until…
My sight spins and spins in vertical loops that make me feel the way I imagine roller coasters feel. It’s awful. When it stops, I’m looking down at myself, seeing the world from the card’s perspective.
Irakkia left me with one small prize, the power to see through my magic. Sort of. Only one card at a time, everything becomes a bit blurry at a distance, the image is flat the way seeing through one eye is, and it completely replaces my actual sight until I return to myself. Not my other senses, though. Last infusion day, I tried to escape the pain by fleeing into a card and staying there. No such luck. At least I can still control myself, it’s just pretty hard without using my eyes. And makes me a bit nauseous. Maybe this would be more useful if I hadn’t scavenged it from torn scraps, but there’s nothing for it now.
Anyway, my goal here doesn’t call for anything complicated. Starting with the window above me, I bring the card close enough to look around inside. Empty. I move to the next window up and repeat the process, skipping ones where the lights are still on, until I find a room where someone is lying in their bed. It’s too dark to see clearly, but their essence feels clean. Healthy.
So I reach out, touch their soul, and inhale, drawing a sip, a small, careful sip, from their strength. They toss under the covers as deep green mist spirals out from them and down into me. Watching from outside myself is a little strange, but warm rain and petrichor do fill my unoccupied senses, slowly fading as I draw the mote of life into a well deep inside myself. The tingling headache I woke up with remains — I don’t want to start using my stolen vigor as a simple painkiller if I can help it, so I’ve been practicing using my powers with precision. Doing my best to control it directly, let it work only when I will it to.
Once the first wisp is stored away, I move on, searching until I find the next sleeping student, and the next, and the next, taking the same measured taste of wellness from each of them. There aren’t as many in bed at this hour as I’d have thought, but there are enough. I still don’t know if normal people see their health leaving them. On other nights I’ve watched people as I drained them, and they never act like they do, but still, best if they’re sleeping. Best for us all if they can dismiss this as a simple seasonal bug, maybe a bad dream if my touch reaches that far inside.
As for the uneasy churning in my stomach, it can keep its useless opinion to itself. There’s no point in stopping to wring my hands and apologize to people who will never hear me. I didn’t make my magic work like this, but as long as it does, this is the best way. It’ll be worse if I only take when I’m dying, when I have to drink from the closest person not knowing how much I need or how much they can afford to lose or what immediate danger I’m putting them in. I easily could’ve killed Mide and I won’t let it come that close again. I won’t.
Twelve drained sleepers later, I think I’ve had enough. I’m not sure yet if there’s a limit to how much essence I can hold, but I don’t want to hit any one place too hard, and after the last few nights it feels like I’ve got plenty for now.
Other than these outings, things have been quiet. There are no new signs of monsters creeping around here. Only me.
“Every sign we can measure is still holding steady. Or slightly improved, on some days. At this point, I’ll just say that’s atypical in your situation. I won’t pretend I have any idea what’s possible,” Dr. Hines says.
Those would be the days when I’m flush with stolen life. I’m still trying not to use it unless I need it to function, especially around the times when they take my vitals, but it’s hard. To control magic reliably, I need some way of understanding and imagining what I’m doing, and this feels like telling my own traitorous blood how and when to flow. I’m not some island hermit from one of those weird ascetic cults. My body is not so well-behaved.
“Unfortunately, that may mean there’s only so much we can do for you. I don’t want to press too hard, but have you talked to anyone else yet?” he asks.
“I don’t know how much my silence is worth, but no.” I don’t think it’d be hard for any seventh floor regulars to put the pieces together if they got the idea. At least the nurses and Noirin must have noticed my strange new schedule, and while I didn’t change in any new ways after Irakkia, my mysterious condition is advancing for all the world to see. There are two new white streaks in my hair now.
“About that, have you found any of those Keeper specialists?” I deflect.
“It may take some time. The problem with world experts is, well, the world. There is one native Clarish name in the field, but even she has a lot going on in a lot of places. That said,” Dr. Hines pauses and straightens up, steadying himself. “I expect the Church would be much quicker to respond to a Keeper personally asking for help.”
“No.” The word comes out sharper and louder than I meant it to, enough that he grimaces at the sound. It’s a different expression from the knitted brow he’d used to answer my harsher tones before I became a Keeper. He collects himself in an instant, but I shrink back, lowering my gaze to my lap. “I, sorry, just…” It can’t be easy telling a Keeper things she doesn’t want to hear. I really shouldn’t make it harder.
“Liadain, I know how you feel, I know you don’t want the attention, but please hear me out,” he says.
I nod once.
“Alright. If your, ah, new situation gives you any chance of getting better, I want you to have the best odds you can, and I’ll freely admit that we are out of our depth here. The Church has people better equipped to help you than us, and you shouldn’t reject them out of hand over a problem that may not even exist. There are plenty of Keepers who don’t want to be public figures. If you make it clear that you value your privacy, I’m certain they could make some kind of arrangements.”
Could they? Could they really? He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what they’d be dealing with. What they’d be covering for, if they didn’t just insist that I stop using that side of my power.
“I’m not saying we need to rush you to Guiding Light right now, but please think about it. Research it, find out what it involves. I’ll help you if you want. If there’s something about it you find unacceptable, then that’s that. Either way, I think it’s worth your time to find out.”
“Thank you. All I ask is that you give it a look.” Dr. Hines sighs, sounding faintly relieved. “Oh, right. One other thing for you.” He pushes across the room on his swivel chair, rifles through the cabinet below the sink for a moment, and returns holding out a plain paper shopping bag.
“Hm? What’s this?” Inside are three little bottles of hair care products I don’t recognize, a brush that looks more like a paintbrush than a hairbrush, and a box of…
“Hair bleaching kit?” I ask.
“I, well. I asked my daughter what you’d need to dye black hair white. She said you can’t exactly do that, but you can bleach it blonde and then tone it to get a shade more like… you know what, I didn’t really understand all the details. Someone on the Sea can probably explain it better if you want to know.” He grins and runs a hand back through his own short-clipped brown hair.. “I just thought… if you want to tell people you’re just playing around with dying your hair, maybe it’d make things easier if you have this on hand? Or maybe you’d just want to speed the change along, if you think it’ll be easier that way.”
While I look over the labels, Dr. Hines frowns with sudden puzzlement. “Wait. Does that work for… kids like you, actually?” he asks.
I shake my head. “I’m pretty sure if you try to interfere with anything Emergence-related, it just changes itself back.”
“Oh. Huh,” he huffs. “Well, that’s okay. It looks nice like that anyway. You don’t have to do anything with any of this, just keep it. In case it helps at all.”
“I… okay, I’ll do that. Thanks,” I say simply. My voice trembles a little on the last word, some feeling I can’t quite place creeping into it. I’m not sure how long it’s been since anyone thought of anything like this for me, however small.
“It’s the very least I could do. And I’ll let you know the moment I hear from anyone who might be able to help more. If that’s all, then… have a nice rest of your day, Liadain,” the doctor says, smiling faintly.
“Mhm. I’ll try.”
As soon as we’re finished, I lock myself in my room, turn on my laptop drive, and get to work. If you can’t slip out of something you don’t want to do, best to cross it off your list as soon as possible. I still doubt I’ll like what I find, but at least looking at how the Church does things isn’t too big a request. They won’t have some magic cure for all my problems, unless lots of what Vyuji’s told me was seriously mistaken, but they might have something. Worst case, they might know better ways to find Harbingers.
Searching for “Church Keepers” immediately turns up a bunch of current news surrounding specific Keepers, all their recent life events and public appearances. In short, things I don’t care about. Next comes stuff about the role Keepers played in the Claiasyan Covenant’s history as an organization, which also doesn’t help. There are also a few big discussion reefs about Keepers or magic in general, but they’re are all too broad for me right now.
And beneath those is a flood of theological writings I couldn’t possibly make sense of in any reasonable timeframe. It’s not exactly that I don’t care what whichever high priests down in Alelsia have to say about the fancy details of religion. Some of the links here seem to be to theories about interesting questions, things like why Keepers have to be children and why the Goddess needs their help — our help — to keep the world spinning. Granted, some are also just weird navelgazing about things like “universal familiality,” whatever that means. Skimming the page doesn’t really explain it at all.
Eventually, I give up on those listings and narrow my search to “Clarish Keeper Church support,” which stems the tide a bit. From there, I stumble my way to the New Claris Keepers’ Chancel, the branch of the local Church that deals directly with Keepers’ needs and interests. Their reef looks like an ad for a fancy private school, with a similar mission statement up top:
The Chancel exists to help our children discover the beauty of their own souls and bloom into the best Keepers they can be, carrying Claiasya’s gifts wherever they are most needed. We have served the community of New Claris nearly since the city’s inception, and maintain a proud history of…
That’s nice. I skim past it and start looking for the actual details. Even on this single page, there’s a lot going on, but Frequently Asked Questions and Register Now! seem like good places to start.
Within half an hour, I think I’ve sorted through the key points: the Church sets its official Keepers up with any mentors or professionals they need, including health specialists and magical healers. Anyone who wants can transfer into the Keeper school system, where teachers work around your schedule and tailor lessons to your precise level. I don’t see specific amounts, but it says they’ll pay you a stipend just for existing as a Keeper “in good standing.”
On the other hand, while it doesn’t look like they’d force me to be a celebrity or drag me onto talk shows, they connect you with other local Keepers through some kind of private platform, and expect you to be available there. “For emergency communications,” it says, but I don’t much like the thought of sharing public spaces with others. I’m not a complete unknown anymore, and what other Keepers know is pretty bad. What happens the first time Mide notices me there? “Hey, there’s that girl who nearly ate me alive!”
There’s no section where they talk about what to do if some aspect of your magic is dangerous and horrible, either. Not that I’m surprised. Maybe I’m not the only Keeper with something scary going on and the rest just hide theirs well, but either way the Church wouldn’t bring up the idea on their sales pitch reef.
Another page leads to a listing of active local Keepers, with a scrolling gallery of fancy photos displayed above. Pictures of Keepers out and about on their own, among fans, posing with each other. The first and most prominent image, setting the mood for the entire collection, is of a trio of masked Keeper boys striking a dramatic group pose, their legs spread and arms thrust at exaggerated angles.
Taking top billing in the center stands the Church’s golden boy, Stardust Seraph Roland, hooded in a studded white mantle trimmed with his signature crimson color. His getup kind of reminds me of the traditional robes worn by Claiasyan clerics in pre-Covenant times, the kind you only ever see in movies, but the frock is more like a flowing coat, and beneath that there’s a slim layer of metallic plating armoring sections of his figure. The red glow behind the sharp, angular visor of his mask is in stark contrast to anything I’d consider priestly, but it fits the outfit itself perfectly well. Honestly, I would almost say he looked cool, but the ridiculous stance he’s taking is practically too embarrassing to look at.
What even is a seraph, anyway? Whatever. Enough of that.
Following that, there’s a vivid snapshot of Silver King Irida, dressed in old military finery accented such that it practically looks regal. It’s simultaneously a general’s uniform and the regalia of a warrior-monarch whose throne is the battlefield. She’s seated at the forefront of her army — a dozen tall shades dressed in a range of archaic soldiers’ uniforms, each with a different spiraling glyph on the cloth shrouds covering their faces. I spot Shona and Mide in another, a crowded group photo under a blossoming tree, and…
…and is that Iona Fianata with them? It is. The patron protector of New Claris isn’t even in the center of the shot, not that she stands out any less for it. Willowy and dark-haired, she’s far enough toward the top of the Promise age range that she does look oldest among them, if not nearly her actual ninety-some years, and wears the signs of her Emergence as open badges of honor. Skin tinged a faint milky blue-white that somehow makes her look like a mystical ice princess rather than a frozen corpse. Eyes like cloudy glass spheres bright with frozen inner fire. And it’s snowing, a gentle flurry against a backdrop of spring flowers. Only she’s dressed for it, with the hood of the royal blue Kinsale cloak she most often wears raised.
She makes it easier to believe that maybe, if I live, I won’t be a horrible plague-beast in a few years.
Anyway, crossing off the celebrities who take every chance to tell their stories, how much of these kids’ lives are on display? Going through the list, I don’t find a single sign that Tara Mullane ever existed, which is about what I expected. Outside her insane groupies and me with my Champions deck, no one much wants to remember her… although honestly, it wasn’t always just the deck.
For a while, Tara was my favorite Keeper — I never followed the scene that closely, but everyone has had at least one favorite Keeper. She snubbed the idol nonsense, did what made her happy, kept the company she wanted to keep and no more. She was the kind of Keeper I wanted to be if I ever got the offer.
That was before all the horrible things came out. If you believe the stories, and past a certain point you’d have to throw out a lot of stories to keep thinking well of her, Tara started turning her magic on anyone who bothered her or caught her in a bad mood. Even on other Keepers. Then, not long after it got really bad, she vanished off the face of the planet.
I don’t know what happened to her. I’m not sure if anyone does. Maybe something made her snap, maybe magic brought out something ugly in her, maybe she’d just always been that way and had the power to act on it now. Thinking about it, I wonder if there was something more going on — my magic needs me to hurt people, and I can’t be the only one in history. Probably.
On the other hand, the Silver King of all people will not speak a word of Tara to this day. The perfectly cool and composed star of the Clarish Keeper scene has taken cameras from interviewers who pressed questions about her and smashed them. If whatever happened between them was just a version of what I did to Mide, it may have been so much worse I can’t even imagine what it looked like.
Oh, but Niavh Fianata is still on the list. Her photo shows an older girl in a simple burgundy sweater, with black hair kept in a slightly long pixie cut and wide, wet, rust-red eyes that are visibly crying. Is that an Emergence thing? Why else would they take her picture like that? I don’t know her as well as I do Tara, but from what I understand there was an incident a few years ago. She lost control of her power in some way, and people died. Details beyond that are hard to find, but she’s kept her distance from the public ever since. They’re still scared of her.
But she’s apparently still a Fianata. The Keeper family hasn’t disowned her or anything, and the Church at least still seems to think of her as a person. Given how scarce information on her incident is, I can only imagine they’re actively keeping it quiet. I suppose Keepers are rare and important enough that they want to leave plenty of room for ones who make mistakes to turn around, which… well, that’s some kind of a good sign for me.
Any other odd ones out? Yes, here’s someone I don’t recognize. Mary Hyland. Keeper title Carves the Night. There’s a picture of her in her distinctly understated regalia, a sleek grey suit and smooth mask of steel-grey metal that covers her entire face.
Searching for her name leads back to her Chancel profile, then further to a few scattered sources where she’s mentioned in passing among up-and-coming new Keepers. They don’t say much about her circumstances, but there is one line about her having “turned over a new leaf,” with no further mention of what that means. Other than those, Mary has no personal reef or fan clubs I can find. I’m about to give up when I scroll past a professional page for a random woman from Horizon also named Mary Hyland.
Right beneath that, though, her name is highlighted in the preview text for a link titled Violence and death at Ashcreek Home for Children. It leads to somebody’s blog, headlined Dispelling Disinformation: Your Source For Keepers’ Untold Stories and made up entirely of white text on a stark grey background. The page itself points to an article about a story last year where an unnamed child from this Ashcreek Home, a local orphanage, was rushed to a hospital after an apparent violent incident, and then to the obituary of Cass Redmond, an employee who died the same day. It just says that he “passed away unexpectedly.”
There’s currently no conclusive contradictory evidence, the blog’s author admits, but then notes that the first official mention of Mary Hyland as a Keeper is dated only a day later, and that “a trusted source” stated she’d lived nearly her whole life in this orphanage. More to come as it surfaces.
I don’t like snooping on this girl just to find out how easy it was. I also don’t like how easy it was. Whether or not there’s any truth to what this person is not-so-subtly suggesting, there’s clearly some part of the rumor mill that runs wild with anything they can scrounge up about less-than-pristine Keepers.
In the end, I’m not at all sold on this idea, but I’m not ready to completely rule it out either. If there’s any chance they could help me survive… well, I don’t need to commit to anything yet. There are other things I want to figure out. I turn the drive off, pick up my personal tarot deck, and idly shuffle it as I call into my room: “Vyuji, I have some questions.”
“I have answers. So many answers.” The Messenger blinks into being on my windowsill, her favorite perch. Silver moonlight shines out from just behind her, and she somehow resists all other light, so she appears as a girl-shaped shadow with her features just barely visible, like she’s standing with her back to the sun at dawn. The effect only lasts a second before the overhead lights illuminate her properly.
“Nice show. I guess even you can’t help yourself sometimes.” She normally isn’t much for fanfare.
“Magic wants to express itself. Why shouldn’t I indulge now and again?” she asks.
“You… expression usually doesn’t seem like your thing.”
“I’m doing as humans do. Friends always see new sides of each other over time. We’re getting to know each other better, that’s all. Besides, it’s been a week since you last called. Excuse me if I’m happy to see you.”
Is she, now? She does a good job of hiding it. Proving my point, she doesn’t move or express anything, and her face is frozen in a barely-there ghost of a smile.
I didn’t call her to quibble about whether we’re friends, though. “Right. Now that we’ve had our touching reunion, what can you tell me about… splitting Harbingers after a group of Keepers kills one?”
That gets a reaction from her — a single enthusiastic clap of one folded not-hand into the open flower-petals of the other, making a sharp, wet sound like a dolphin thumping the water with its tail. “Oh my. You’ve been keeping busy, haven’t you?”
“You say that like you don’t already know.”
“Even if I did, I’d prefer to hear about it from you. I do what I can to respect my childrens’ privacy.”
“Fine. Those two girls from the day I made my Promise wanted to team up. I went along with it, it was awful, and at the end of it all, when we tried to divide the thing we killed in half, it was a mess. Lots of it was just gone. Is there some special technique? Did one of us do something wrong? Enne told them you could share a Harbinger just fine, but it didn’t feel that way at all.”
Vyuji’s eyes narrow. “Those do sound like the words he would have used, yes. I’m certain he forgot to mention the complications. He’s never been one for fine details, my brother.”
“The complications,” I say.
“Yes. A Harbinger’s heart is not a simple meal to be disposed of however you please. Until its last remnants are purified, it is a living thing with a will. It can be split, but not cleanly separated into even shares, and the parts are often less than the whole. Sometimes quite a bit less.”
My grip on my cards trembles and slips, scattering the deck all across the floor. A curse comes bubbling up from my throat and I bite my lip, swallowing it quickly enough that only a small harsh squeak makes it out. I’m not even sure what I was going to say, but it wouldn’t have helped. This is only natural. Why shouldn’t it work that way? Why would the world ever pass up a chance to make my life harder?
“Okay,” I breathe. “Okay. I’m not doing that again, but please warn me if there’s anything else I really need to know before it comes up.”
She smiles that curious sourceless smile of hers. “Ask next time you aren’t certain about something. I’d have told you. How has your hunting gone otherwise?”
“There’s another thing I wanted to ask about. It hasn’t. I’ve been looking every night and just not catching anything’s scent. I don’t want to push further out and bump into other Keepers, I’ve been through that, but what about outside the city? Not the farmlands, they’re covered, but the forests?”
“Hm,” Vyuji says, turning to look out the window. “I don’t make a habit of exploring the unclaimed lands, so I can’t tell you just what you’ll find, but things are quite different there, and not in a pleasant way.”
“But there are Harbingers,” I press. They constantly warn kids about wandering in the wilderness, out where Keepers can’t protect them.
“There are Harbingers everywhere, but not the same Harbingers. They are adapted for different conditions. Most often for endless open conflict with one another. I’d expect them to be more dangerous in some ways, but less… complicated in others.”
Right. In cities, the monsters have to deal with Keepers. We’re a united-ish enemy who’ll swarm them if they get too brazen, so unless they’re living disasters too big to care, successful ones hide. They ambush. They find confusing sideways methods of interacting with the world. If they don’t need to do that, of course they’ll work completely different ways.
But honestly, simple sounds good after Irakkia.
“So just to confirm, this isn’t a completely awful idea that’ll get me killed in a blink?”
“It’s not safe. They’re Harbingers. But I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, no. Sometimes other Keepers brave the risk to use the outskirts as a training ground, although they don’t often go alone. Ah, although…” She flattens her expression and turns, staring straight at me. “Do stay clear of the shores closest to Commixture. You’re not ready.”
“Vyuji, I hope you don’t think I’m an actual idiot. Out where they tell kids not to play and back, that’s all I’m planning, and it’s already pushing my luck healthwise.”
“If I did, I’d have said nothing. Some unwise children might take that as a challenge.” She cracks another small smile. “But you won’t. You aren’t concerned with proving yourself. You know what matters to you and you’ll seek it in the most practical, effective way available. That’s one of my favorite things about you.”
“Thank you, I think? I’ll try this out, soon, then. As for asking you about stuff, you’ve said you can’t follow me into Wounds. Does that include whatever’s out there? If I need help, will you answer?”
“I don’t know. The line between our world and the others is not always so clear. Apologies.”
“…Alright. Thanks anyway.”
And with that vote of confidence from my dear friend, I start planning to leave New Claris for the first time.