If anyone was eavesdropping on us, they aren’t letting it show. By the time we get back to the funeral, two priests are lighting votive candles around the altar, and most of the small crowd has returned to their quiet conversations.

Or not-so-quiet, in the case of the pink-haired Keeper in the corner. Erika, apparently. She waves at us as we enter, then goes back to talking to Mary: “Yeah, so Shona turned up at my school one day, back when I went. Said some girls on Flow needed a Keeper to get rid of ‘the ghost in the bathroom,’ so there she was.”

Mary snickers at that. “Dumbfucks. Ghosts aren’t real.”

Erika slumps, covering her eyes with her palm, and sighs. “No. They sure aren’t.”

I’m not here to tell two girls I don’t know how real ghosts are or how terrible that is for everyone. I keep walking, not sure where I’m meant to be – I’ll feel just as out of place anywhere. When I stop, halfway down the aisle, Aisling turns around and shoots me a curious look. I gesture over the pews and tilt my head. She shrugs, gesturing to Mide and the group I imagine is her family with one thumb. Mide is the only other person I really know here, and I don’t think she hates me anymore, but… I motion for Aisling to come closer.

“Is it okay to tell her?” I whisper. “She should know. She deserves that much.”

Aisling bites her lip. “We really should verify what you think we know, first. Imagine if you tell her something like that and you’re wrong. Or there’s nothing we can do about it.”


I’m not wrong. But I’m not sure about the second part, I admit. All I really have to go on is… what? A weird tarot reading? Some part of me that thinks I could solve all my problems if I’d just eat everyone?

Because you could. You’ve already done so much with so little.

Maybe. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not eating the city to find out.

“Fine,” I say.

“Thanks.” Aisling nods once, then makes her way to the central pews, sitting behind one of the crowded ones.

Which brings me back to my first problem. I don’t really want to talk to Mide while I’m holding something like this back – sorry, Mide – so where else is safe? Do I brood in an empty corner, hoping everyone ignores me, or join Aisling in the cluster of people I least want to be part of?


Ugh. At least no one can get me alone there. And Aisling can hold Roland to his promise not to bother me. I take a seat next to her, and no one seems to pay me much mind.

Except for Tetha Fianata, who’s still staring at me like something contagious.

“Um. Hi, Tetha,” I say. “I’m sorry about…”

About what? Have you changed your mind now? What would you have done differently? my voice whispers, a sneer in its sound.

Shut up. I never wanted to hurt her. That had nothing to do with Aulunla or the people it killed. The book I fought her over didn’t even matter to it. It was just a stupid mistake.

Mhm. You’ll do better next time.

Tetha stares at me, blank-faced. “About?” she prods.

“Oh. Sorry. About… that whole thing. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just, um. Had a very stupid idea I thought was very important. You were right about it. It won’t happen again.”

“It won’t happen again? Seriously? That’s it? Why’d you put me in the hospital over a monster the first time?” she yells.

I flinch. I can barely hear her over the sound of shredding paper screaming through my skull in protest.

“Tetha,” Iona scolds, her voice gentle. “Whatever the mistake, the first time it’s made is a lesson.”

Tetha’s head darts back to glance over her shoulder. “And we’ll talk again the second time. R-right,” she stammers.

I’m not really sure what she means by that, but Iona smiles and nods. Even in those simple gestures, she moves like her body is an instrument she’s spent decades mastering, a facet of her power she controls as completely as any other, and the flecks of snow drifting around her seem to dance in time with her, emphasizing every little thing she does.

“So, uh…” Turning back to me, Tetha folds her arms and squeezes her elbows, like she can’t quite decide if she’s protecting herself or trying to look stern. “Is there gonna be a second time?”

“No! I just told you it was a stupid idea!”

“Things really would’ve gone a lot smoother if you’d told us before, though,” Roland says as he steps into the conversation.

“Told you what?” I snap.

“That you thought you needed to do the stuff you were doing to live,” he replies plainly. “As reasons go, that’s a pretty good one.”

“Where’d you…” I start, but quickly trail off. Niavh, probably. Right. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter. I’ve already heard from almost everyone I’ve met how terrible I was at keeping secrets. There are more eyes on our conversation now, but of them, only Tetha looks at all surprised.

“Roland. We talked about exactly this,” Aisling warns.

Roland raises his hands, palms open. “And I meant what I said. I just wanted Eyna to know I’m okay if she is. I think we’re about even.”

“It’s fine, Aisling,” I say. “Yes. I’m over it. And you’re right, my health stuff was a stupid thing to hide and my life would be a lot easier if I hadn’t.” Maybe if he hadn’t been so creepy about it, but… it doesn’t really matter, unless Roland’s scheming something I just can’t be bothered to puzzle out. Knowing what I know now, it feels ridiculous that I was ever worried about some stupid thing like what people would think of my deadly disease they could all look at anyway.

“Oh, and that’s not my name. I’m Liadain. There was really nothing sinister about it, I’m just tired of keeping track of who I use which name with. Don’t tell my dad.”

“Well, Liadain, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” The smile on his perfectly sculpted face reaches his bright red eyes, sincere as can be. It’s too warm and bright and radiant to possibly be real. I still can’t help but read smug satisfaction into it. After all, he didn’t believe me from the start. I’m not sure. I don’t really care.

Tetha’s eyes dart back and forth between us. Her mouth twitches back into a nervous smile, which she looks like she’s straining to hold.

“It’s almost charming, isn’t it, Nilamai?” Iona says with a sidelong glance at the swan-winged Keeper. “New Keepers always think their first mistakes will herald the end of the world, and they’ve all been wrong so far. You must remember the cleanup we used to do for Alva, Goddess keep her,” Iona says.

“Goddess keep her,” Nilamai echoes with a wistful smile. Her wings droop as she speaks, settling around her like a feathered capelet.

“Adamant Titan Alva? What about her?” I ask. “Everyone liked her.” She made the Promise at 11, bent earth and steel to her will, carried around a giant hammer twice her size. People thought it was cute. She died last Summer.

“Enough to tolerate the collateral damage, yes. She did make such a mess of everywhere she fought. Inside Wounds or out, it never seemed to matter. ‘Sorry, guess that’s just how it works,’ she’d say.” Iona chuckles a bit wearily. “But that’s not what we remember her for. It was only a small inconvenience.”

“Yes, once we started evacuating a five-block radius around Wounds she entered,” Irida says. She’s smiling as if at an old joke, but really doesn’t sound like she’s reminiscing.

I can’t help but think of what Roland said about her.

“Yes,” Iona agrees. “Some Keepers require accommodations. Sometimes there are bumps before we learn how best to work with them.”

Aisling kicks my shoe in emphasis.

“Point taken,” I say. “But I’m not really here to make this about me. I’ll figure my stuff out with Niavh. On my time.”

“Good, good. I’m sure she’s grateful for your trust,” Iona says. “How did you know Shona, in that case?”

“I… long story. I don’t really want to talk about it right now.”

Iona gives a single slow nod. “As you like,” she says, and turns back to the rest of the Keepers.

And that seems to be that. Following her lead, the others return to talking quietly about their memories of Shona. I don’t get the sense that any of them were especially close with her, and I don’t join in at all. Even if I weren’t holding back the most important thing I have to say, it’s not like I’ve got much to offer. I almost ate Shona’s best friend. She got me a funny sweater. It seemed like we might be starting to get along. And then she died. Good story.

Not that I think there’s such a thing as a good story for a funeral. No matter when someone dies, there’ll always be some wonderful thing they could’ve done or been part of, if their time hadn’t been stolen from them. There’ll always be stories about them that end with a sudden, senseless ‘and then they died.’This tale has been unlawfully obtained from Royal Road. If you discover it on Amazon, kindly report it.

And then they drowned beneath the earth, to linger alone for the rest of time.


Eventually, one of the priests, his robes and mantle noticeably more ornate than the others, takes a stand at a podium. The soft, wordless music in the background trails off, which the others take as their cue to quiet down and let him speak.

I don’t know what I was expecting him to say, but when the service itself starts, all I can think of is how wrong it feels. I don’t have any other funerals to compare it to, not that I’ve actually been to, but it just seems so… normal. He talks a bit about the Promise, about Shona’s heroism, the hope she brought to the world, how grateful we all were to have had her, but there’s so little about what it even is to be a Keeper. Not the horror, not the terrible beauty, nothing at all of what it meant for us or her. Nothing someone who’s really experienced magic could take the smallest bit of comfort in.

It barely even feels real. None of this does. That’s what they always say when someone dies before they’re “supposed to,” but I never understood it until now.

It doesn’t, does it? Because it isn’t.

Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it pathetic? How everyone’s talking about her like she’s gone?

I ignore her. I ignore everyone and everything in the room, withdrawing into my own bizarre, useless thoughts. They still feel like a more comfortable place to be than here.

Until another voice shakes me out of myself.

“Sacrifice?” someone spits. A woman with coiffed red hair and a tear-streaked face has stood up, gripping the pew in front of her with white knuckles.

The head priest blinks rapidly, but quickly composes himself and gestures for her to join him at the altar. “Mrs. Tiernan, this service is as much for you as anyone. Please, feel free to–”


“Onora, please…” The man beside her reaches out to take her hand. She immediately smacks his away.

“The ultimate sacrifice? That’s what you call it when you force children to die for everyone else? Do you think it’ll become something different if you bury it beneath enough of this Old Clarish military-honors garbage?!” she screams. Still sobbing, choking on the last word through her tears.

Tetha sputters out an incoherent sound. A second later, a great, awful tearing rings through the chamber. Behind us, Mary Hyland has brandished a box cutter and carved open a thin, dark hole in space. I turn just in time to see her rush through it.

“Mary, hold on, we’re–” Erika starts to say, but she’s already gone. “Hey, fuck you too. We can make our own choices,” she calls, then turns and slips into the portal moments before it closes.

In their passing, the rest of the room is eerily still. I can’t read the faces in front of me, all trained on Shona’s mom, but Tetha is visibly quivering, and Nilamai’s wings have curled around her in an almost protective gesture. Roland’s silky hair covers part of his face from this angle, looks like he’s keeping it as perfectly together as ever, hands clenched in his lap. Irida’s no different, silently drumming her fingers on her wheelchair’s armrest.

Finally, Mide barks out a dry, miserable laugh.

“What? Mide, what? Is there something you’d like to say?” Mrs. Tiernan asks, her voice so tight I feel like I can hear it snapping in two.

“I guess you’d rather blame anyone else than think about why Shona thought she had to do this, huh?” Mide stands and pushes past her parents, stopping just short of shoving herself into Mrs. Tiernan’s face. “This complete raving bitch is the reason she’s dead!”

Mrs. Tiernan flinches back as if struck. Mide presses in on her, shoving Shona’s dad aside when he tries to come between them.“Yeah. I bet you weren’t even thinking of that, were you? How the last time she saw you, you were so fucking awful to her that she went looking for a fight to blow off steam instead of cooking you alive. Like she should’ve done.”

“You,” Mrs. Tiernan seethes. “You… you said, you promised… when you dragged Shona into this, you promised. You said whatever happened, you’d keep her safe.”

Aisling clenches her teeth. She clenches her teeth so hard it feels like I can hear it.

The spectre at my side looks like she’s holding back hysterical laughter.

Just tell them already, she hisses. Tell them they’re mourning someone who’s still alive!

“Shut up already,” I snarl under my breath.

Still suffering!

Aisling puts a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, this isn’t…” she mutters, trailing off into a whisper. “Are you okay? You don’t feel okay.”

Tell them you could save her if they stopped crying and fighting and gave you everything they have!

“Shut up!”

“Liadain. Hey. Listen to me. I really don’t think you should be here,” Aisling insists. “This is not your fault, not your problem to solve, we’ll figure it out later, just… come on.”

How could it not be? I’m the only one who knows what these people are talking about. How pointless everything they’re saying is. How could I just leave and let them tear each other apart over nothing?

“See? Just like I said! And I wouldn’t have had to protect her if you hadn’t made her so miserable that she’d rather fight monsters forever than live with you! I shouldn’t have had to!” Mide howls, her voice breaking.

“No! You shouldn’t have! Because you are a CHILD!” Mrs. Tiernan shrieks back. She flings an arm out, sweeping it over the gathered Keepers and pointing an accusing finger at the priest. “And what about YOU? What do you have to say for yourself? You STEAL CHILDREN! She was just a girl, still just my baby, and you sent her off to fight to the death in this war that never ends! Why her? Why any of them? Why? WHY?”

Suddenly, the room feels even colder. I shiver, but it does nothing to shake off the sensation of ice crystals forming in my veins.

From the crowd of Keepers, Iona Fianata stands.

Mrs. Tiernan looks past Mide, turning to meet Iona’s ice-sculpture gaze. Her mouth hangs open in wordless terror as Iona approaches her. Other than her soft, even footsteps, the chamber is silent. Even my shadow can only stare up at her, dumbstruck.

How many Keepers has Iona watched die? How many friends, how many memories, how many dreams, how many lives is this woman dismissing as a bunch of stupid kids tricked into serving as child soldiers?

Iona comes to a stop right across from Mrs. Tiernan, held apart only by the distance of the coral pew between them, regarding her with softly burning eyes.

“You’re right,” she says quietly. “Beyond a doubt. Of course you are.”

…She is?

“W-what?” Mrs. Tiernan asks, stumbling over the word.

“A ‘fallen hero.’ A sacrifice. A casualty. Those all mean the same thing, don’t they? Someone we loved, taken from us in a way no one should be. Someone we could have saved if we’d only worked harder or taught them better. Someone all of us failed.”

Iona brushes a few half-frozen tears from her cheek, scattering a dusting of fresh show into the air.

“I can’t turn back time. I can’t do more for your daughter than I did. I can’t do anything to ease your pain or redress your loss. All I can say is that you’re right – there is no justice or honor or glory in it. Only a call for us all to do better, which I should have heeded sooner. And for what little it is worth, I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Tiernan stares back at Iona in silence, quivering and squeezing her arms.

And breaks down weeping. She almost falls forward, thumping her fist on Iona’s shoulder with no impact, and cries and cries and cries while the mother of our city embraces her. Her husband stands beside her, rubbing her back. Even Mide has given her her space, retreating to cry quietly with her family.

“I am so sorry,” Iona repeats. “I know. Please trust me when I say that I know. No matter how much time we have, it’s never enough. Never enough to say everything we want to say, do everything we want to do… but it should be. I hope beyond hope that one day, it will be.”

She already knows. She must. Even if Iona doesn’t have access to all the scary magical secrets, which I doubt, she can’t have lived almost a century as a Keeper and never seen the signs. I’m not that special.

So what is she doing about it? Could she help figure all this out? Or, more likely, is there anything I could do to help her?


Things do calm down after that. Mr. Tiernan wrote and read the family’s eulogy for Shona, which is probably for the best. Aisling, Irida, and Roland all have kind words for her – Mide doesn’t seem up to speaking in public, which I can’t at all blame her for. When the service ends, the head priest leads the small crowd out to the rocky seaside behind the Chancel.

The sea’s a beautiful graveyard, if that’s what it really is. If there are any graveyards, anywhere.

The Sun hasn’t quite set, but it has dipped low in the sky, so here on the eastern shore, the shadows are long and the colors of sunset are just starting to creep over the horizon. Ahead, a long, narrow pier stretches out from the coast, with a white motorboat fastened to its far end. After a brief, quiet discussion between the priests, Shona’s family, and Mide’s, the priests lead Shona’s parents and Mide’s to the boat. The junior priestess unties it from the dock, then takes the helm and sets off, slowly, into the Sun-dyed horizon. They don’t travel too far out, though – only enough to make for a safe distance from the shore. Once the boat comes to the stop, the head priest stands on its back platform, facing us, and recites, loud enough for us to hear clearly:

“Silent watcher beneath the waves, Vessel of all earthly pains, we entreat you to carry your sister safely home. Guide her to her place of honored repose in her…”

There’s an odd pause, but when I look around, it doesn’t seem like most people think much of it. I only catch a few reactions – Iona is smiling to herself, like she’s caught some very dry joke, while Roland and Irida glance her way with neutral expressions.

“In Claiasya’s gardens,” the priest finishes. He steps aside, beckoning Mide and Shona’s family to the back of the boat. They step forward, Shona’s mother in the center holding the urn, and slowly lower it into the sea together. It looks like an awkward job for three people, like her father and Mide are only moving to keep their hands on it.

But eventually, they let it go, leaving it to bob along the water’s surface. They step away, Shona’s father leading her mother along as she bursts back into tears, and the boat speeds to the pier, moving notably quicker than it did on the way out.

Almost immediately after the priestess finishes tying the boat to its dock, a low, doleful sound rings through the air… no, not through the air at all. It’s like the cry of a whale echoing inside my head.

In unison, the priests bow deeply to the sea. Shona’s parents startle at the sound, huddling a little closer. Mide simply stands tall, fists balled at her side, and watches.

A shadow slithers beneath the water, taller and wider than a skyscraper. Its entire shape ripples at its edges like cloth in the wind.

The ocean ripples and rises and crashes into the rocks as something enormous surges up from its depths. But before it reaches the surface, it slows dramatically, leaving the sea almost as still as it was before it arrived.

And when it does finally breach, its movements are slow and gentle as a thing of its size could be. It looks at first like a great undersea flower, or something clothed in them – a column of pale white petals, each bearing patterns of blue bioluminescence that shine like star-clouds in the dark water. Then, all as one, they contract into themselves, becoming something more like tentacles and offering us a clearer view of the beautiful creature hiding behind them.

Nha, the Silent Vessel. The Messenger who never speaks, but shows himself to everyone.

Beneath his countless fronds, he has the soft, round body of a sea slug, skin shiny and pearlescent and almost translucent, patterned just beneath the surface with its own lights and abstract shapes. Around his wide, dark whale’s eyes – orbs much bigger than me that still look tiny and beady on his face – is a thick cluster of fronds like the tentacles of a cuttlefish, which seem placed to hide his mouth shyly. Slowly, the petals on his back fan back out as if to feel the soft, cold breeze, or simply to show off the starlit displays dotted all across them. He glances over the shore, taking us in, his eyes lingering a bit longer on the group at the dock’s end.

Then, his gaze settles on Shona’s urn, displaced far to one side by the waves of his arrival. Carefully, gently as can be, he reaches for it with his front tendrils, takes it, and cradles it, building it a little nest in his many-limbed grip.

Holding it tightly, he turns away from us, dives back into the deep, and swims off toward the horizon. Any trace that he was ever here is gone within seconds, when the last waves hit the rocks.

Nha wanders the sea, peeking up from its depths to shock the occasional sailing crew, but he’s seen most often on days like these. When we offer a dead Keeper’s remains to the ocean, he appears without fail to receive them. Whatever it means to return to the sea, it’s much more literal for us.

Except… it’s not, is it? Shona isn’t in that urn. Nothing we’d even think of as part of her is. They didn’t recover her body from getting eaten by a Harbinger.

So why?

What about that little vessel is important enough for him to collect it and every other like it?