The faint stench grows only slightly stronger as I follow it, but eventually, its trail does end. It’s on the outer edge of the Fields, the central urban district, centered in a single mid-sized craftsman house. I sense five mostly-healthy people inside, which… that kind of crowd could be very bad. None of them feel corrupted yet, though. I’m not sure what that says about the Harbinger’s activities or the risk of coming after it with bystanders around. All I can do is try and act faster than it.
With that in mind, I creep along the edge of the yard, approaching the house from the side, then press against the wall and transform. No reaction I can sense from the presence, so I summon a card and transfer my sight into it. When my vision is done blurring and spinning, I float it by the front windows. The lights are on, and by now it’s dark enough to see inside easily. A redheaded girl around my age is playing with her phone in one room, so there’s at least one sign that I’m not walking back into Yurfaln’s pit of nightmares. I’ll take it.
That said, I’d rather not bring my cane to introduce myself to a house full of strangers. I consider leaving it under the porch or around the garage corner, but, well… it’ll be worse if I need it and don’t have it. Hopefully they have bigger things to worry about. I banish my card, shake off a bit of lingering dizziness, then round the corner and ring the doorbell.
It takes a while for anyone to answer. Two or three voices call out to each other, but I can’t tell what they’re saying. I bang my cane on the front door for emphasis. After maybe a minute, it creaks open, and a woman in a big knitted sweater peers down at me. She takes a moment to recognize what she’s looking at, and then she just waits, dumbfounded.
“There’s a Harbinger somewhere in your house. I’m here to kill it,” I say.
The woman opens and closes her mouth several times, barely blinking, then frowns and crosses her arms. “Really? Where’s your, your badge?” she asks. “There’s, sometimes kids will dress up in those clothes to sneak in and rob your house! I’ve heard about that!”
And it’s seriously your first thought here? That’s ridiculous. To be fair, if a kid were going to dress up as a Keeper to steal someone’s stuff they might dress a lot like me, but maliciously impersonating a Keeper is instantly-ruin-your-life illegal. Maybe it’s happened a couple times in history, people do some stupid things, but there is absolutely not an epidemic of burglars in frilly outfits. Could she be covering for the Harbinger? Maybe she’s touched in some way I can’t see?
Well, I don’t have the patience to be reassuring. “Here,” I say, and flare enough that she flinches and hides her eyes. Darkness streams through the front hall behind her, smothering its overhead lights, and another voice squeals in surprise from inside. “Do you need any more proof?”
“I, no. C-come in.” She’s visibly paled when she opens the door and steps aside.
“Get your family and take them outside. Stay by the road. I’ll tell you when I’m done.”
She freezes, then nods and calls into the house: “Kids? Garvan? Come here, please come here!”
The girl in the front living room is already staring at me, quietly terrified, and she doesn’t need much prompting to yelp again, kick her shoes on, and skitter out the door. I guess I did that to myself with this entrance.
A younger girl, with hair the same shade of red as her sister’s tied into a tiny side ponytail, bounds down the stairs seconds later. She stops short of the bottom, leans nearly her whole body over the railing, and stares right at me, grinning. “Whoa! Hi, Miss Keeper! Are you here to magic Brendan so he stops being so weird?”
“Don’t pester her, Ada,” the woman sputters, trying and failing to sound stern. “She just needs to check on something. Get your coat and wait outside with Rosa.”
“Why would I need a coat? It’s super warm out, you’re all crazy!” She does a headfirst tumble over the railing that looks incredibly dangerous, but somehow touches down on her feet, then charges past me and out the door barefoot. Okay, that was odd, but so far none of them look like they’re sharing a house with a monster.
Next a tall, thin man in thick glasses peeks out from the end of the hallway. The woman whispers something to him. All I hear is the loudly hissed “Harbinger” as his eyes widen. “Oh. Yes. I, I see. Thank you for checking up on us. Brendan? Brendan, come on down!”
Brendan takes quite a bit longer to appear at the top of the staircase. What the little girl said about him just sounded like siblings annoying each other, so I wasn’t expecting him to be weird in any real way, and he doesn’t surprise me. His dark hair is a little mussy and he looks startled to see me, but there’s no Harbinger-stench on him. I wave, then step out of view.
“This little lady is a Keeper! How about that? She’s stopping by to see how we’re doing, that’s all. Let’s get out of her way while she makes sure everything’s good, okay?” the man says. He does a better job sounding normal, I guess. Maybe I’ve been on the seventh floor too long, but even the way he spoke was a bit strained.
“Kay,” Brendan eventually says, and the three leave together, closing the door behind them.
And now it’s just us. Where, and how, are you hiding? Next to all the other Harbingers I’ve met, this one is shockingly quiet. After Vianzia, that leaves me wondering: what’s its game? Where’s the trap? I reach out with my soul, which still feels only the faintest hints of something eerie, and start searching the house.
At a glance, there are no signs of anything suspicious. Everything is fairly well-kept. Even the basement is clean and brightly lit, with no haunted corners for monsters to hide in. The worst thing I can say is that it doesn’t look very… personalized? Looking around doesn’t say much about the people who live here.
The furniture and decorations are all sort of generically pleasant. No signs that anyone really likes a particular color or animal, no supplies for a hobby someone’s into, no nooks covered in family photos like some houses have. But plenty of people don’t hang pictures everywhere, even people without any complicated family circumstances. I’m not sure if any of this means anything. They could just be a bit boring.
That’s less true upstairs. Unfortunately. One of the girls’ rooms looks less like a place where someone lives and more like a tiny shop that deals exclusively in Stardust Seraph merchandise.
One side is nearly wallpapered with posters depicting a nauseatingly handsome blonde pretty boy flaunting a cocky grin. The teeth peeking through his lips are so bright they sting my eyes. Her backpack is dotted with little pins, and while a couple show some kind of bright red glyphic logo, most are just more pictures of his grinning face.
Figures in and out of costume stand posed on the desk. Between those is a collage of news-clipping photos and weirdly personal headlines about Roland Ysembard’s life and preferences, and under those, a combination-locked journal. Not important. I don’t want to know what sort of bleak and terrible confessions are in there and I don’t think the squirmy feeling in my stomach has anything to do with Harbingers.
Moving on. Compared to the stalker’s shrine, even compared to the non-fangirl’s rather normal room, the one room that looks like a young boy’s is a bit emptier. Not bare or lifeless, he just doesn’t have as much stuff as the others. I don’t really know what boys’ rooms are supposed to look like, so maybe that’s normal? Still, what his sister said before… I shouldn’t ignore anything someone says when a Harbinger’s involved, even if they don’t know they have a problem. There should be something ‘weird’ enough to attract a monster about or around at least one of these people.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, at least, but I’m assuming one of them is feeding it the way Yurfaln fed on Mr. Enfield. Maybe I’m wrong and a Harbinger from somewhere else randomly chose to nest in this house, or some other thing I haven’t thought of is happening. The rules aren’t at all clear.
Only one other unhelpful thing catches my attention: in an upstairs bathroom, there’s shampoo the Seraph apparently endorses. Of course there is. That smug little idol boy’s golden hair is longer and shinier and better-kept than mine and it’s not particularly close. At least he’s not on the bottle. I don’t know what I’d do if he was on the bottle.
And yes, when I pull my hood down to check, there’s a third twisting white streak in my hair.
Before too long I’ve searched the entire house, then searched it again just in case. Even the attic, where I needed to go find a stool to reach the pull-down stairs. The miasma is a tiny bit weaker up there and down in the basement. Otherwise it feels the same everywhere, with no clear source and no signs that it’s gone somewhere else. It never stops feeling uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to pinpoint, but as far as I can tell there’s nothing else here. What does that mean? Is it hiding its Wound somehow?
Or hiding somewhere else? I look out at the family. None of them felt corrupted at a glance, but I could be mistaken, or it could’ve slipped out with them. I study their souls again, closely as I can without drawing from them. In between cartwheels over the grass, the little girl shivers as if in a cold breeze at my unseen touch, but that’s just me. There’s still nothing inside any of them.
So what is actually happening here?
I open the door and wave the adults in. After a brief delay and a few words to the kids, they join me at the round kitchen table.
“Is it over?” the man asks.
“Not yet. Something happening in your home is… we’ll just say summoning a Harbinger. It’s complicated.” I don’t understand it myself and I don’t know if anyone does, but better if they don’t hear that from the girl in charge of handling the problem.
“Wait, wait, so what are we doing back inside?” he whisper-hisses, like he wants to raise his voice but he’s afraid to wake someone up.
“I have some questions. It’s hiding from me, and knowing exactly where it came from will help me track it down or flush it out, so please tell me what’s going on.”
“What do you mean going on? We don’t know anything about this. About magic,” the woman says.
“The magic problems start with someone here feeling something that drew a Harbinger to them. That’s what I need to know about. They feed on pain, so whatever it is won’t be good to talk about. I’m sorry.”
“…Oh.” Her hands, folded in front of her on the table, start to tighten until her fingers are losing their color.
After a silent beat, the man steps back in for her. “Listen, miss… what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. Call me Eyna.”
“Okay. Eyna. I’m Garvan Wade, and this is my— this is Matilda. Anyway, is there a monster roaming around here or not? If there is, I really don’t see how sitting around telling our life stories is going to catch it.”
“I just told you how.”
“Oh. Right. And you’re really sure that’s necessary?” he asks.
“If I had a better idea, I wouldn’t be asking. I don’t want to dig up your issues any more than you do,” I say.
“Alright. Alright,” he sighs. “So what’s, I don’t know, what sorts of problems should we be thinking about?” Then we’re not going to dance around this forever. Good.
“You seem surprised about all this, so I guess none of you have been through anything obviously bizarre or unnatural. Is that right?” I ask.
“Nothing comes to mind,” Garvan says, and glances over to Matilda.
“What?” She does a little startled jump in her seat, like she wasn’t expecting to be back in the conversation. “Oh, no, I don’t think so. The girls haven’t mentioned anything like that.”
“Then the next place to look is any serious personal issues that’ve come up recently. Anyone who’s suddenly acting strangely? Any moods or experiences you can’t explain?”
The two share an uncomfortable silent glance. “Well, you’ve… Tilly, do you want to…?” Garvan asks.
“It’s alright. I can tell her,” Matilda says softly, and returns her gaze to her folded hands. “For a while now, maybe the last two weeks, maybe a little longer, I haven’t been sleeping well at all. No, sorry, that really doesn’t cover it. I’ve had these nightmares — dreams I don’t remember, only that there are these… these people-things, with no features, like outlines, or shadows. Just… following. Watching me. Everywhere.” She’s trembling, now, and the nails of one hand dig into the knuckles of the other. “It never feels like rest when I wake up. And then… now I think I’m seeing them while I’m up, too. Just early in the morning and late at night, but… I don’t know.”
I inspect her soul again, closer this time. She’s not sick or infested with anything, but there is something worn about her. It’s like the way people I drain feel, but less so, and without any clear traces of magic pointing to something like that.
“Did you not tell anyone about this?” I ask.
“It wasn’t too long after Garvan and Brendan moved in,” she says. “It was all a lot to take in. I figured it was just, just stress, and there’s… well, some family history with this sort of thing. Am I wrong? Have I done something wrong?” She looks back up at me, pleading with her eyes, which I can now tell are just a little bit heavy, a little bit sunken.
Moved in…? Oh. I think I see. It’s a stepfamily.
But she’s right — that doesn’t sound like it should be enough to attract a Harbinger.
“I don’t think it’s you, unless there’s something much more than you’re saying,” I say, putting just a little extra emphasis on the idea.
“W-what do you mean? I’m not, there’s nothing I’m hiding! I’m trying to help!” Tears begin to well up in her eyes. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt!” She covers her mouth in a bid to hold herself back from weeping. Garvan glares at me.
Was that part too much? I don’t know, I’ve never done this before. People are hard and clearly none of us are at our best right now.
“Oh. Ah, that didn’t sound right, did it? I just meant to ask if that was all,” I say. “Strange dreams, seeing things, but no intrusive thoughts? No feelings you don’t recognize?”
“No. No, that’s really all,” she says, only slightly calming down.
“Okay. Thanks. I’m sorry I have to go here, but is anyone else having a harder time with this? How are the kids handling it?”
“Um,” she hiccups, and shakes her head.
Garvan freezes, clenching his teeth.
“If something is wrong, I really need to know before it gets worse,” I tell him.
“Right,” he sighs. “Tilly, do you want to go check on the kids?”
Matilda meets his eyes uncertainly for a moment, then nods and goes back outside without another word. I tilt my head, waiting for Garvan to say whatever he wanted to say in private. It takes him a while to gather himself.
“It’s nothing to do with Matilda. I just didn’t want to drag her back through all this,” he finally says. “My son… my older son died last year. Just an accident, that’s what they kept saying. Nobody’s fault.” He tenses up, scratching along his stubble and turning his gaze away from mine. Where his eyes look now, he seems to be staring off at something far, far away. “Brendan hasn’t taken it well. It still hasn’t really set in for him. I don’t think he wants it to. I don’t blame him.” He lays his palms flat on the table, spreading out his large, callused fingers. His downcast eyes observe them as they tremor ever so slightly.
“I’m sorry.” That’s all I can think to say. Spending my life surrounded by death has only ever made me worse with loss.
Garvan shakes his head. “I’m saying all this because if any of us is hurting, really hurting the way you’re worried about, it’s him. He still says every time I bring it up that Nial is just fine. He sees him all the time. Talks to him.”
My eyes widen as I lean in closer. “Why didn’t you say so sooner? That’s exactly the way I’m worried about, yes.”
“Sorry,” he mutters numbly. “It’s been going on for a lot longer than we’ve been here or Tilly’s sleeping problems. The counselor said he was just having a hard time with grief, and we shouldn’t be too tough on him if it wasn’t hurting anyone, so I didn’t think… you don’t think…”
I do. I just don’t know what it means or how it works yet.
“I need to talk to your son. It’ll be safest if I do it alone.”
Garvan seems to steady himself, and speaks with a little more force: “Miss, if my boy’s in trouble, I can’t just leave him and wait. What can I do to help?”
“He’ll need you when this is over. Until then, you can stay where it won’t get you too,” I say. He seems like a good dad. That won’t protect him from a Harbinger.
He blanches at that, then nods slightly. “…Okay.”
Brendan comes back in alone a minute later, and takes another minute to look me over cautiously from the hallway. He looks somewhere between the girls in age, he keeps his hands in the sleeves of his slightly-oversized windbreaker, and someone has made a token effort to smooth out his messy hair since I last saw him.
“Hi,” he says. He’s missing a few teeth. He waves once, letting one sleeve fall. “Is the house okay?”
I return the wave. “It looks fine to me, yes.”
“It’s not fine. It’s too big,” he says.
“Maybe, but it looks safe. No monsters I could find.” Mostly true. “I just wanted to see how you’re all doing before I go. Could we talk a little?”
Brendan takes a seat not quite across from me, watching me closely all the while. “Talk about what?”
I study his soul as he studies me. He’s still not playing host to anything, he’s not even weathered like his stepmom, but… the ambient unease in the air is a little stronger than it was when I was alone in the house. That didn’t happen with the adults. I can’t find the Harbinger just yet, but I’m on the right track. It is connected to him.
“Well, your dad was telling me about you and Nial, and I—”
“Are you from the Church? Are you here ‘cause I’m crazy?” he snaps.
“No, I don’t think that. It’s just—”
“I’m not crazy,” he says.
Ugh. Am I already doing this wrong too? I can’t just talk through a Harbinger, so what do I say to someone like this? “I’d like to meet him. If he’s still around after everything that happened, that’s really interesting for us magical types. Good-interesting, not spooky-interesting,” I try.
“Well, he is. Not right this second, but he’s around.”
“Wow. Has he told you how that happened?”
Brendan shrugs. “Why shouldn’t it? Magic stuff happens all the time. This time it happened for us. It was a… a miracle? Yeah,” he says after a bit of grasping for the word.
I’ve been through enough occult books to know that’s really not how it works. Harbingers are real. Keepers and Messengers are real. Given those, Claiasya is probably real. None of that makes tarot real, though. People dream up plenty of nonsense mystical ideas. Some point to Keeper magic to back their stories up, or they spin a legend about how their practice was etched into the world by some magical kid or another, the way dreamwards were.
The only thing even remotely like that I can think of that doesn’t descend from Keepers or Harbingers is the island ascetics, but for all the legends and bizarre claims about them, the only remarkable thing about them is that Harbingers usually leave them alone for some reason. Even then, I have no idea if that’s an actual special power born from the harsh lives they lead or it’s just the fact that they live in cloisters of a few dozen people surrounded by the sea.
As for actual hauntings, it seems like those were only ever dreams. I‘ve never heard of anyone finding a real ghost, and I’ve looked a lot. If someone out there knows what happens to dead souls, they aren’t telling. Even the Cycles just say that the dead “bloom in their fullness and return to the sea,” whatever that means.
Anyway, this won’t be the case that discovers ghosts. There’s definitely a Harbinger here with us, and it’s getting stronger the more he talks about his brother. I’m sure it’s not inside him, now — good. That would make this complicated.
“Brendan,” I say, very slowly, “I need you to do your best to stay calm through what comes next, okay?”
“I am calm! I just don’t know why everyone thinks we have some kinda problem.”
“It’s a problem because that isn’t your brother. It’s a Harbinger wearing his face, and I need you to help me find it before it hurts you and your family very badly.”
“Huh? No. You’re wrong.” Brendan clenches his fists tight enough that I hear his nails dragging along his skin. “Aren’t Keepers supposed to help people? No one here needs your help, so go away and leave us alone if you’re gonna be like that. We’re fine,” he growls. Corruption rises in the air, prickling at my skin.
“Can I meet him? If I’m wrong, if he’s really just this nice little ghost, I’ll leave you two be. I’ll even tell your dad he has nothing to worry about. You three can all go have fun together to celebrate.”
“No! You’re lying! You just wanna kill him again ‘cause you’re scared of him! I won’t let you! I won’t!” he screams.
And there you are. The air over the table twists around itself like water spinning in a sink drain, and at the center of the distortion, a dancing wisp of black light emerges. It reeks of nightmares, and I know in an instant that it’s the source of this place’s foul aura, but… is that all it is? Is this a trick? No, there are no signs at all of anything beyond this. I think this is just a Harbinger’s exposed heart, one that hasn’t yet made itself a body and burrowed into a Wound.
No, maybe it’s more like an egg waiting to hatch, using this house full of pain as an incubator.
Brendan points somewhere to my right. “See? See, he’s fine! Tell her, Nial!” he chokes out between bursts of high, nervous laughter.
My breath catches in my throat. The person he’s pointing to is not Nial. It’s a woman in a long blue-grey shirt dress, taller than either of us but still rather small and slight. Feathery black hair falls loosely down to her waist. Stone-grey eyes look down on me with an old statue’s absolute lack of an expression.
And she’s my mother.
Of course, I only recognize her from old family photo albums. My grandparents used to say all the time how much I reminded them of her. They stopped when they learned I was dying, not because anything about the resemblance changed. Seeing Ciara Shiel like this, as a full breathing person rather than a square in a book, it really is uncanny. Her features don’t have the same narrow, mean cast as mine, but otherwise, she could easily be a version of me who liked wearing colors and wasn’t destined for early death or eternal childhood.
But… beyond that first brief shock, all the sight stirs in me is a vague, hollow wistfulness. It’s sad, yes. Having a mom seems like it would’ve been nice, and I wonder how things might have been different if she were here, if her death hadn’t destroyed Dad. But how can I mourn someone I never met? I can barely even bring myself to resent the personal attack. The Harbinger is acting on some reflex, doing the one thing it knows how to do, and it didn’t work.
So I kill it.
Simple as that. I reach out to touch its darklight heart and expel a tiny wisp of death, just enough to engulf it without putting Brendan in danger. It’s over as quickly as snuffing a candle flame. I was bracing myself for some kind of ghoulish display, a last desperate attempt to scare me off, but the illusion vanishes without so much as a flicker or a whispered plea. In the same soul-breath, I draw the Harbinger’s remains into myself. When its last traces are gone…
I feel a little better. That’s all. Not quite better enough to cancel out my forest misadventure. Smothering this monster in its crib was slightly harder and slightly more helpful than taking my morning medicine.
In other words, this nightmare of a day was completely useless. I sweep my arm across the table, sending a few placemats fluttering to the ground, and stand, pushing off against the surface with one hand and my cane with the other.
“Wait, Nial? Nial, where’d you go? Nial! Why? What’d you do to him?” Brendan shrieks. His eyes are wide with some emotion I can’t name, and he grabs the hem of my dress as I stand to leave. I prod my cane gently into his chest and he collapses back into his chair, sobbing.
Garvan and Matilda are already at the front door looking when I open it. Drawn by the noise, I guess. They stare at me, silently questioning.
“It’s over. Go take care of your son, Mr. Wade. He’s not cursed, just… not doing well.”
And without another word between us, I leave. There’s nothing left for me here but the fearful looks of the family I saved by throwing their quiet life into chaos.