Esonei’s cluster of faces melts into the ground, and its ghostly voice grows louder. I reach out and draw my infection out from the quivering heap of its body, the way I ripped it out of Yurfaln, but it’s already too far gone. It’s dying just as quickly, screaming and weeping as shreds of its essence slough away with my magic. Soon it’s completely disintegrated, leaving only its echoes. Over and over its voice demands something from me, but I don’t understand what. The burning carnage in the clearing ahead leaves me faint and sick to my stomach and I can’t stop crying and I can’t tell where my feelings end and the new invasive thing inside me begins.
Vianzia knew this would happen. She had to know. These are her rivals, her insane balance of power I’ve stormed in and upset. I was a shield she used to get one enemy’s attention while she threw herself at the other.
What did she want to avoid so badly? What are you doing, Esonei? Through the madness pouring from its spectral mouths, I try to sort through my thoughts. Everything about the battle ahead makes me sick in a squeamish way I don’t think it did before, even if it’s hard to remember or imagine what that was like.
Trying to join the fray is worse. I turn to Vianzia’s forest, gather myself, and resolve to… no, I can’t even think it clearly before a new wailing face fills my vision and pain and disgust overwhelm me. It’s no different with Ourien — if anything that hurts more, and I throw the idea away like I’d accidentally picked up something too hot to touch. My own mind has become a screaming maze of barbed-wire barricades.
Do I run? Accept that this was for nothing? Hope I eventually end up back in the world, hope I find something I can do about the tattered ghost lodged in my soul?
No, not yet. Not letting her win just yet.
Wisps of my own magic still flow through me, cold and corrosive. Half-formed remnants of the horrible gnawing thing I’d tried to do when I had the stomach to hurt anything. Before… Esonei put itself in the way. It threw itself at me and kept me away from Ourien.
Maybe that need to be hurt is just its nature, the single instinct it lives by, but that doesn’t feel right. It lives, at least in part, inside the other Harbinger. From what it’s doing to me, it wants to… prevent the kind of mad violence Harbingers devote themselves to? No, that’d be too easy, too clean, and its infestation isn’t stopping Ourien from destroying whatever it wants. Punish is probably a better world. It shares its pain with anything that hurts it, nevermind whether that makes them act any differently.
Thinking of it that way, it was probably protecting its main host, making sure nothing else cuts its torment short.
With no real way to send Esonei a message, I think my next idea very loudly to myself. You have your own plans for Ourien? Fine. I’ll leave it completely alone. There’s a Harbinger killing it right now. I’ll help you stop her if you just…
Knives of dread and revulsion lance through my soul in answer.
Okay. The hard way it is, then.
I reach for that unshaped magic and stir up more of it, gathering it like I would to… to use it normally. My mind skates around the things I’ve done with it. Rather than repeat any of those things, I dam the flow as it rises. I let it build and build inside and I keep it there, clinging to a torrent of dreadful power.
Normally, I’m protected from my own magic — I can’t be more infected — but this time, I’m actively trying to turn parts of it on myself. My body won’t take this well, of course. I know what’s coming before I feel it. Soon, too-familiar pain pulses through one side of my head like something is drumming on it.
I lean into my cane, clenching it with both hands as my limbs start to shake… but other than what I’m doing to myself, nothing happens. No intrusive ideas or sudden blaring shrieks fill my world. A little more pain heaped on my life’s pile, that’s all. Esonei spends its existence tearing itself apart. It can’t object if I do the same. All that’s left is to wait and see if it can still live inside me like this.
Until then, what can I actually do?
It’s hard to keep standing through my own inner decay, but leaning heavily on a hollow tree as I gasp in deep, heaving breaths through clenched teeth, I do. Back where the jungle meets the ash field, Vianzia’s plants have invaded Ourien’s space. Urchin-bushes scuttle forward and gather in tight circles around its trunk-legs. They reach up with vines from the center of their leaves and slither into the tangled roots of its body, then burrow back into the ground.
Ourien burns and smashes them away as quickly as it can — some are already reduced to crushed or charred piles of leaves. Its inner light has intensified to a point where it looks like it’s burning alive from the inside out. As it moves, it sheds bits of its bark that immediately catch fire on the ground. Esonei has nothing to punish me for, but it sobs and babbles meaninglessly at the sight all the same, tangling its pain up with my nausea. Twisted little faces still swim through my vision.
Vianzia herself watches Ourien throw itself against her forces from a safe distance. In a dark grove swarming with her children, she laughs and dances while insects fill the air with a million different chirps and buzzes, like the noises bugs make on summer nights but louder and harsher and clashing in painfully grating ways rather than merging into the background hum of nature. It all leaves me with the unshakable sense that I’m about to be dissected for fun.
As the urchin-bushes continue their advance, she raises one saber and points it straight at Ourien. At her signal, a parade of smaller insects dances out from the forest and advance into the ash-field, each carrying a single little black seed in its mandibles. Most are crushed beneath Ourien’s sweeping root-tendrils or burned to nothing, but a few crawl onto its back. Those survivors drop the seeds into the crevices between roots, where they swiftly grow and unfurl into fanged flytrap mouths. Vianzia giggles and cheers at the sight, then begins to stir her sword through the air like a conductor’s baton. As one, the carnivorous blossoms start to sing a cold, gentle lullaby, perfectly performed but utterly without feeling.
Until Ourien roars over the melody and burns and crushes them all to nothing, frantically and without the slightest regard for how much it hurts itself.
Her malice is much more careful and deliberate than it feels, I see now — she’s not doing anything to harm Ourien directly, only provoking it and giving it ways to hurt itself. Avoiding Esonei’s attention even while it’s busy worming into me. She’s been plotting this long enough to study her enemies, see that they have some bizarre relationship, and breed little monsters just for them. Ourien might be bigger, but she’s the most dangerous of them by far. Her plan is going perfectly and I have no idea what to do about it.
There… may be nothing I can do. I’m already struggling to poison myself just enough and keep track of which thoughts are mine. Everything hurts. Every thought still reminds me of maimed grasshoppers starving to death. The pounding in my nerves makes flushing Esonei out feel like trying to crush a bug in my hair by smashing my skull. I can’t just push through it all and win anyway, even if I had the stomach to hurt her. If there’s any way to turn this around, it starts with Esonei. If you’ll let me help you, let me think my own way, we might—
With no sound and no sudden rumbling of the earth, the ground collapses in chunks at the far end of the clearing. A round bus-sized sinkhole opens beneath it… No, that’s not right. A sinkhole would make an earthy burrow with walls of soil, but where the ashen ground collapses, there’s nothing. It looks like it would look if the planet was just a thin shell wrapped around a bottomless void.
Until hair-thin white roots that shine like snow on a bright day start to climb out of the blackness, crawling up as if over the surface of a wall that doesn’t exist. A new presence spills into the world with them, smelling of something unnameable.
Four Harbingers. I’m surrounded by four Harbingers. That worm Vianzia killed was a tiny part of something else, and that something must have sensed all the blood in the air.
Esonei’s constant mutters take on an especially nervous tinge. Ourien lets out a ground-shaking growl. Its inner fire rises until it looks less like a reptile burning with inner light and more like a firestorm with legs, and at the same time, the lighted hollows in the gnarled lantern-trees start to burn from the inside, spitting dozens of little bonfires out through their holes.
I push myself away from my suddenly-blazing tree and try to prop myself up with my cane, but that’s too much for my traitor limbs to manage. Instead I fall flat on my stomach, where the layer of ash that blunts the impact also gets in my eyes and sets me coughing painfully when I breathe. The sudden heat is sickeningly heavy all on its own. It takes a flood of stolen essence to pick myself up and a constant flow to stay conscious after that.
And as the fire rises and begins to engulf the woods in a burning canopy, things crawl up from the blackness seething in that hole to nothing. Split-headed worms like the last one. Creatures that are just flat circles of ropey tentacles around spiny central mouths, like nightmare starfish. Shapeless oozing things that look like they shouldn’t have any way to move, but there they go crawling along anyway, coating themselves in ash as they roll. No two of them are quite the same, and while their colors and textures make me think of glowing mold, many come in shades I’ve never seen or imagined before, colors I don’t think I have words for.
Two groups march off in different directions, each carrying a bulbous off-white orb that quivers as it moves. Eggs made of flesh. Rather than join the battle themselves, the rest of them just spread out through the clearing and search for bits and scraps of the warring Harbingers. A tide of them invades with no regard for their own lives, no mind paid to anything but their single goal. Globs of Esonei scream in protest as worm-things scoop them up and carry them toward the sinkhole. Ourien is especially quick to burn those ones, glob and all, but before long, the things are pouring out through the hole faster than it can kill them.
It feels like my heart has shriveled up in my chest and my veins have tightened all across my body and I want to just lay down and cry. This is too much. This is all way too much. Maybe I could fight one of them, given time to figure them out, but I can’t do this. I really, really shouldn’t have come here.
Vianzia makes a toneless buzzing hmmm noise as the newest disaster unfolds, then skips away from her border with Ourien. Straight toward me, stopping just where her side of the forest ends. She tilts her head, looks me over, then shrugs and chirrups something cheerful-sounding. The spiny bone-bushes continue to hold their line, but most of the swarm swivels to join her. The dark trees fill with tiny little eyes that hum and cheer amongst themselves. They’re all staring down at me.
She draws closer, humming and whirling and flourishing her blades as she walks, and her flower-things quickly move to follow her into the burning forest. I try to swallow, but it catches in my throat. I still can’t fight her like this. She’ll slaughter me as easily as torturing a grasshopper to death.
By now, my power has eaten into Esonei’s splinters. Its noises have faded into whispered croaks and a dull nausea that barely registers in my current state. Red almost-faces sense my intent and gather in the corners of my eyes, but they’re just faint airy wisps now. Just a frightened audience, not completely gone but not strong enough to stop me. So I reach for the toxic magic I’ve infused myself with, tighten my grip on it, and let even more of it flow freely into me. I pour everything I have in this moment into the act, drawing from the storm in my soul of pain and terror and above all my raw, simple wish to live. Emotions basic enough for anything with a mind to understand.
It’s not just that there’s more of it, I realize now — the magic I’ve gathered and turned on my own broken body has been concentrating, seething through me, festering into something vastly more horrible than I could’ve made by simply calling up every bit of noxious strength I could hold and releasing it all at once. Some of it is Yurfaln’s stolen essence, too, rewarding me for my self-injury by pushing my power to nightmarish new heights.
I let the magic seethe and grow until I’m certain the slightest bit more would burst loose on its own will, popping me like a balloon with it. Only then do I stop the flow, breathe in heavily, and scream the air back out with all the strength I have left:
“STAY AWAY FROM ME OR WE ALL DIE!”
Vianzia’s reaction is unreadable through her mask, but she freezes, and her swarm pauses with her in unnatural unison. The clamor of insects’ voices dies out in an instant.
“I’m leaving! You can do whatever you want to…” A harsh cough rips through my throat, but if that weakens the threat, Vianzia doesn’t show it. “…to each other, but I’m finished! If any of you try to eat me, if you get in my way at all, I’ll make sure I take every one of you with me!” In emphasis, I loosen my grip on the power coursing through me, stopping just shy of setting it free, and push out with my will as hard as I can.
When we met, Shona said the way I flared was especially loud and painful. I’m counting on that. Maybe they don’t understand my words, but I can still communicate the way poisonous animals do with their colors. This is just a sliver of what you’re in for if you push me, I want to tell them.
I let my warning hang in the air for what feels like a very long time. Stillness falls over the forest. The only movement comes from the scavengers, which continue their work without a second’s pause. Not my problem. Power burns inside me, but even in this raging heat it burns the way sudden bitter cold burns, like touching freezing metal to my skin. All I can do is hold it and suffer and wait.
Finally, first to break the silence, Vianzia… laughs.
It isn’t the scornful, mocking laughter from before, the sounds she’s made while taunting Ourien or enjoying others’ misery. It sounds like she’s cackling uncontrollably at a joke that caught her by surprise. She stabs her swords into the ground, dances like a child so overcome with delight that she can’t contain it, and laughs and laughs and laughs.
Once she’s gotten it all out, she yells something into the clearing. Ourien roars back in raw animal rage, and Esonei wails along with it as if to add something to a statement. Its voice comes from outside, wherever its being is centered. The Esonei inside me just rasps out weak dying gurgles that almost make me think of it as a wounded little animal again. Almost.
Burning roots snake along the ground, moving to surround the urchin insects. Vianzia speaks again in a softer tone — deliberately shushed, like she’s trying not to wake someone up. It’s somehow no harder to hear, not that it makes any more sense.
The roots stop in place. After another still pause, Ourien grunts, turns, and charges howling toward the sinkhole. The bone shrubs back out of its territory. Vianzia raises an arm and twirl-points into her jungle. There, flowering plants and even a few trees uproot themselves and relocate, creating a straight line of clear space away from the battleground.
We haven’t exactly arranged an orderly truce. While Ourien seems to have devoted itself to crushing scavengers, the trees don’t stop burning, and Esonei’s corroded presence doesn’t leave me. I’m not sure if it could, but it’ll be gone soon. This is the best I’ll get.
Without turning my back to Vianzia, I inch past her and onto her path. Insects scuttle away from me, gathering into crowded lines like they’re watching a parade from either side. The Harbinger herself does nothing but chuckle and wave goodbye.
So I turn, constantly looking back over my shoulder, and start to limp out of the forest. If my hunch is right, any direction away from the Harbingers’ territories should lead back to reality. I’ll worry about the exact way out once they’re gone.
But there is one last problem, gnawing at me from the inside. Magic wants to be used. It doesn’t want to be an idle threat, no matter how effective that threat was. Maybe I could swallow all this pain back down if I really tried, but it could easily object. Take its frustration out on me.
So once the Harbingers’ presences are far enough behind me, and the trees ahead start to look like the same forest I first stepped into, I turn and release every last shred of my pooled corruption into Vianzia’s twilight jungle. A silent hurricane of plague-wind rips through the trees. The gale tears leaves and branches and insects alike along with it, carrying them for just a moment — just the fraction of a second it takes for the magic to infect them and wither them to nothing, at which point they disintegrate into shimmering emerald wisps of fog and join the storm. Death winds through the forest, eating its way toward the realm’s creator. My way of thanking her for her hospitality. On some level I think it’s better if all of the monsters walk away from this mess licking their wounds, too weak to eat their rivals and grow into something even worse. Mostly, though, I just want to hurt her back.
I can only hope, though. I’m not waiting around to see how she responds. Free from the deathly weight of my own magic, I tap my stolen strength, push a much smaller breath of decay forward to clear the underbrush, and run away as fast as I can. Nothing seems to follow.
Sure enough, barely a minute after Vianzia leaves my soul’s sight-range, the treeline breaks, and I’m back in the wilting flower field. I even left in the right direction, assuming that directions had any meaning in those Woundlike spheres of horror. I try to stop moving, but it must’ve been too sudden — my upper body jolts forward, and only my cane narrowly keeps me from tumbling onto my face again. When I sit down a second later, it’s only a half-step removed from collapsing. I’m sweating and coughing and feeling disgusting enough that I wonder if I’m still somehow poisoned…… no, all gone. Esonei too. I guess this escape was the farthest and longest and fastest I’ve ever moved all at once. Moved on my own, anyway. Remembering Shona’s method still makes me dizzy.
I wipe the ashes off my face with one sleeve, dismiss my magic, and sit beneath a shady tree until the soreness in my legs fades. Which takes a while. It’s late afternoon by now. My phone says this insane outing took a little under an hour, and I spend another half hour doing nothing but breathing with my eyes closed before I feel ready to do anything else. Goodbye, flowers. Goodbye, Vianzia. I hope we never see each other again.
That Harbinger… when I met her, when we managed to talk to each other on some level, there was a very short while where I wondered if we might have some sort of understanding. I knew the idea was too dangerous to consider, reminded myself constantly that I couldn’t trust her with anything.
But if I’d really been paying attention, I could’ve noticed what she was doing. Her opening moves were designed to look like she was throwing herself into battle ahead of me, but only put her insects in any serious danger. She just waited in her woods to see who came out on the bottom. Did I actually hold her at a distance or only say I would, blinded by the hope that something might work out with someone else for once? Maybe I’m grasping for someone else who knows what it’s like, living with power that forces you to hurt people to survive.
But the only other examples I have are gleefully murderous soul-eating nightmares. As with so many other things, I don’t like what that says about my future.
“Vyuji?” I don’t spot anyone among the flowers at a glance, but I also don’t care who sees me talking to myself right now.
“Liadain. I’m glad to see you intact,” her voice says after a short delay. She appears seated next to me, curled up with her arms around her legs. “How did it go?”
“Urgh. I’ll tell you later if you really need to know. I just had a question about something else. You… does it ever happen that something about a Keeper is… wrong or dangerous or harmful to people?”
“Well, have you ever heard any stories like that? On the Sea, or the news?”
“No, but they wouldn’t… oh.” It took a lot of searching to find anything about the man Mary Hyland may or may not have killed. A suspicious lot of searching, given how interested people are in Keepers and anything unusual going on with them. “Point taken. I think.”
Vyuji gives me a sidelong smile, then quickly looks back out at the dying flowers.
“I am your Messenger, Liadain. Yours. My duty is to you and children like you, and in that role I guide and advise and do not judge. Such things are uncommon, but not so uncommon that the idea surprises me. To my mind, we each do what we must, and so long as a Keeper’s magic doesn’t endanger the world itself, any troubling aspects of it are exactly as much a problem as that Keeper feels they are. Does that answer your question?”
By now, I’m sure she somehow knows what I’m talking about. So whatever I am, it’s not so bad that the people in charge would declare me a monster. That doesn’t help the way it feels, but maybe it’s the best I can get without going to the Church and asking them to put me in touch with their secret awful vampire Keepers.
“Not in quite the way I was thinking. It’s something, though. Thank you.”
“I’m glad I could help. If that was all, rest well.” I nod, wave her off, and she’s gone. Time to make my way home and hope this hasn’t taken too huge a toll on me.
That was my plan, anyway. But not far from the hospital, I catch the scent of something new, a sense so faint it’s barely there at all. If I weren’t still so on edge, I doubt I’d have noticed it. It’s too distant or too small to have any clear feeling to it, but the crawling unease it carries is unmistakable. There’s a Harbinger somewhere very close by. A lone one this time.
I take stock of my lingering aches. I’m tired, I don’t want to do anything more, but at least for now my condition seems stable.
Fine. Let’s see what you’re doing over there. Maybe today won’t be a complete waste.