Wednesday, 08 June 2022 08:30

The Harbinger by K.A. Mielke

At dawn, three kids slay a monster.

Breathing hard, Saturn drops to zir knees. Ze clutches a black knife in one fist, and the hot, still-beating heart of the Harbinger in the other. The air crackles—Gus still holding his black metal staff high above his head, lightning bearing down on the other-dimensional being. Gus hurls bolt after bolt from dark clouds like a twelve-year-old Thor, striking the Harbinger in the same smoking spot, forcing its many-eyed face into the dirt.

Bronwyn rushes to Saturn’s side, dropping her goopy, green-stained broadsword to prop zem up. Strands of brown hair escape her ponytail, clinging to the spatters of Harbinger blood on her face. “You good?”

Ze shrugs her off. Bronwyn has severed many of the Harbinger’s arms, which squirm and flop and grasp even after dismemberment, but Gus has the right idea. Whenever it seems to be dying, the monster only transforms again, growing in power with every contortion of limbs.

When Saturn’s eyes focus, zir vision fluctuates between two separate worlds overlain. The In-Between, with its purple sky of dying stars, its moon-rock mountains, the toxic-waste reek of the world-devourer’s open wounds—and the playground in the town of Tedium, Ontario, with its rusty metal play structure and its rotting gazebo. In both worlds, a storm rages throughout the dawn, hovering above the battle. Lightning strikes around them, shattering boulders in the In-Between and severing the branches from Earth trees.

For the last six months, Saturn worked tirelessly to protect Earth from the Harbinger. But the real world exists undisturbed by the threat that would have consumed it were it not for Saturn, Gus, and Bronwyn. Hesitating with a heart in zir hand, a part of Saturn wishes that ze’d tried just a little less, if only so the planet bore a tangible mark, something to point to and say, “Look! You were all going to die, but we saved you! I saved you!”

But there’s nothing.

Despite the gaping hole in its chest, the Harbinger rises on four wobbly appendages, each ending in a knobby hand with too-long fingers and chipped, dirt-filled fingernails. It drags its bulbous body towards Saturn and its heart, gnashing row after row of misshapen teeth in its cavernous mouths.

“Uh, guys? A little help!” Gus cries as the Harbinger swats at him. He cups his hands over one another. A sphere of fire the size of a dodgeball launches from between his bloodied palms. Scalding air burns the side of Saturn’s face.

“You got the heart. What are you waiting for?” Bronwyn stands and raises her golden broadsword, pommel pulsating with power. “Stab it.”

Saturn’s fingers flex around the slick heart. Blood pools under zir many rings, fills in the swirling patterns in the cheap steel.

Saturn had hoped removing it would be enough.

The Harbinger’s heartbeat sends a strong vibration up zir arm. Its body lumbers forward and swipes at Bronwyn, fast enough to catch her off-guard and hurl her into the jutting stone of the In-Between hills.

It launches itself toward Gus, who yelps and throws up his hands, fingers forming a triangle. A ticking resounds throughout the empty space of the In-Between—the sound of time screeching to a halt, as the Harbinger falls under the young mage’s control.

“I can’t hold it forever!” Gus cries.

The Harbinger shudders, struggling through air and time and space as if underwater. Saturn gulps. Bronwyn is exhausted. Gus is losing control. There’s nothing left.

Bronwyn struggles to her feet. “Do it!

Saturn sets the heart in the dirt. Raises the dagger overhead.

There’s a symphony of clang and clatter, like a clock bursting open to scatter gears across a workshop floor. In an instant, the Harbinger is on Gus, crooked hand wrapped around the boy’s throat, lifting him off the ground to kick helplessly. Bronwyn limps to him, sword scraping the stone behind her.

Saturn plunges the blade into the heart. Razor-sharp obsidian parts the meat of it. A squirt of blood hits Saturn’s face in a final, meagre assault.

The heart flakes apart into green chips like old paint. The In-Between vanishes. The Harbinger releases Gus, its fingers disintegrating with its heart, its monstrous body crumbling in the rundown playground of the boring small town. Dust becomes mud becomes nothing at all.

The Harbinger, consumer of worlds, is consumed by the downpour.

“What the fuck was that?”

Bronwyn, charging toward zem. Her sword clatters into particles of light like fireflies. Saturn’s knife and Gus’ staff follow suit, their purpose fulfilled. All that borrowed power now returned.

Bronwyn points at Gus, who sobs and coughs, hands at his own throat. He kneels in a puddle.

“You had one fucking job, Divine Thief.” Her tone is mocking, and furious. As if Saturn chose any of this magical-girl bullshit. “Gus could’ve fucking died because of you.”

Saturn bites zir tongue. A fat frog sits in zir throat. Zir eyes burn.

“Well?” Bronwyn demands in her strained, raspy voice. “What the hell were you willing to risk our lives for? The lives of the entire planet?”

Saturn swallows hard, clenching zir fists. One arm is covered in Harbinger guts up to the elbow, stiff and tacky as dried glue. “I…” Saturn takes a deep breath. It does nothing to stop zir face screwing up, the tears pouring out. “I didn’t want to go back to normal.”

Bronwyn opens her mouth, but whatever arguments wait behind her teeth die on her tongue. Her brow softens. “I know.”

She drops to the wood chips beside Gus, pulling him close. Dirt and dust from the In-Between cling to his dark brown cheeks and forehead.

It isn’t fair. They bring home the grime and scars but not the glory. Nothing to show for their struggle but PTSD and an armful of monster goop.

“My mom… is gonna be… so mad,” Gus says between sobs.

Saturn swallows the lump in zir throat and closes zir eyes. Ze holds out with zir dominant hand, the hand that can still feel the impression of the knife, and calls out to it, reaches into the universe for the weapon that had been an extension of zir arm, flowing with all the same life and obedience as zir fingers. It can’t be gone, it can’t, not when the whole point is that nothing is ever truly gone, only dispersed back into the universe, warriors and monsters and common-folk alike.

“We’d better get going.” Bronwyn forces Gus up as she stands. She drapes her jean jacket over his shoulders. “It’d be messed up if we went through all this only to catch a cold.”

“You can’t catch a cold from the rain,” Gus says. “That’s just how rich people used to blame poor people for not having proper healthcare.”

Bronwyn rolls her eyes. “Look who’s feeling better already.”

Saturn takes a deep breath, allows zir arm to fall. “We’re not going to talk about it?”

“What’s there to talk about? We fought the monster. We killed the monster. Life goes back to normal. I swear, Rings, all you do is stall.”

She holds Gus’ hand and walks away. Saturn drags zir feet, following her up the dead-end street toward home.

Gus wipes his tears. “Are we still going to hang out after this?”

“Are you kidding?” Bronwyn nudges Gus’ shoulder with a faint smirk. “I never want to see you losers again.”

Saturn walks into an empty home, Doc Martens tracking mud into the foyer. A layer of dust coats the staged photos on the wall, fake smiles coaxed from Walmart photographers, time measured by Saturn’s ever-changing hair colour. Saturn never shows zir crooked teeth. Mom’s fake smile is indistinguishable from the real one she wears in the older pictures, the childhood memories trapped in amber. The proof of a validation Saturn has stopped chasing.

Saturn lifts a note off the kitchen counter.

Lasagna in the fridge

Be home tomorrow

Love, Mom <3

Another overnight building the bar she’s always wanted but couldn’t have when Dad was around. She didn’t even notice Saturn was gone.

First, Saturn enters every room. Ze checks behind doors, flings open closets, turns on every light. Saturn finds the tinfoil-wrapped casserole dish in the fridge. Ze slams the lasagna on the dining table. Ze crumples the tinfoil into a ball, tosses it in the sink, and eats the entire cold lasagna with zir back to the corner of the room. Saturn stares at the chicken-patterned wallpaper the entire time, waiting for the wall to turn like the page of a book, for one knobby claw to reach out.

Swallowing the last of the lasagna, Saturn heads to the bathroom, shedding zir sopping wet coat, ripped band tee, and chain-heavy pants along the hallway. The sight in the bathroom mirror shouldn’t surprise zem, but it does: the grime and gunk of the In-Between, the green flakes of dried Harbinger guts trapped in zir shaggy cerulean hair.

Ze hops in the shower, never closing zir eyes despite the sting of shampoo. The last evidence of zir quest courses down the drain.

At 8:50AM, Saturn faces zir greatest fear—greater than finding the Harbinger clambering from zir closet, starved and hunting.

A normal morning at Tedium High.

Saturn slumps in zir chair at the back of math class, tapping zir foot restlessly as the morning announcements drone over the PA. Classmates chatter about the kegstand done by Bobby O’Brien at his house party. If Saturn hadn’t saved the world, Bobby would have died upside down with a mouthful of beer, the first to see the flash of apocalypse in the sky.

“Saturn Vass, a word, please?”

Outside, the storm continues, the window opaque from the downpour. Thunder shakes the glass. Saturn goes to Mrs. Jones’ desk, where she has zir latest math quiz in front of her, zir score in a circle of red: 3/30.

“Are you aware you’re failing my course?”

Ze shrugs. Mrs. Jones gives Saturn that look reserved by impotently sympathetic adults—eyebrows creased, lips pursed, gaze over her silver glasses. Good teachers always want to help. But kids like Saturn can’t be fixed by the school board’s limited resources.

“Look,” she says, “I can offer you some extra projects to complete. I run a math club every other lunch. Just… if you can show me you care enough to salvage your grade, and your attendance, maybe we can scrape by with a pass.”

Saturn says ze’ll be there, thank you, because you have to lie when adults have their mind set on helping.

Saturn walks back to zir desk, where Bobby O’Brien now sits. With his blindingly white polo shirt, $500 Nikes, and a tidy haircut that never seems to change, he looks every bit the cherub to Saturn’s Satan-worshiping demon.

Bobby scratches out doodles in Saturn’s notebook. “Sup, Pluto? Nice skirt.”

“Thanks,” Saturn says, lifting the hem of zir flowing black skirt, showing more of zir black, spiderweb leggings. “It was on clearance.”

Because if Bobby’s going to make fun of zem for being poor and queer, ze might as well lean into it. Pretending insults are compliments makes everyone uncomfortable.

“Uh, yeah, I can tell,” he says. “It wasn’t a—”

“Can we just get this part over with?” Saturn sighs, sweeping blue hair out of zir eyes. “We both know you’re going to try insulting me with all the maturity of a sixth grader, and I’m going to say some halfway funny quip that I pull out of my ass—though, the one I think of later tonight will be way better—and nothing I say will stop you from shoving me up against my locker and threatening my life. But it doesn’t matter because you don’t have what it takes to kill, not really. I can see the innocence you guard so well behind your death glare and profanity, the mask you don’t take off until it’s time to cry in the shower. Bad Boy Bobby is a tired act. I feel bad for you, man.”

Bobby O’Brien blinks rapidly. Saturn has always been good at reading people—as a kid, ze knew when the guys playing poker at Mom’s old bar were bluffing, every time—but some ineffable power with a spooky, disembodied voice made zem the Divine Thief. A good thief is a good actor, and a good actor knows an act when ze sees one.

Bobby’s mouth hangs open for a solid half a minute before he snaps it shut. “Lunch,” he says. “I’ll show you how deadly I am.”

Which is how Saturn finds zirself hoisted up against a locker three hours later, eye blackening from more than eyeliner. Bobby mutters musty, morning-breath threats in zir face. It turns out that seeing through lies isn’t very useful against Bobby’s brute force.

Instead of struggling, Saturn holds out zir hand, closes zir eyes, and calls out again. An ethereal landline, an astral Amazon delivery, whatever metaphor gets the ancient magical knife back into zir grasp. It doesn’t come.

Maybe zir life isn’t in enough danger.

Saturn says, “Hit me again.”

“What?”

“Again,” ze growls. “Hit me!

Zir feet touch the floor.

“Jesus, dude.” Bobby’s eyes go wide. “You’ve always been weird, but holy fuck…” He lets go, hands up and fingers splayed like he’s touched something contagious. “Fuckin’ freak.”

Bobby disappears down the hall, glaring kids out of the way like a cop car.

Saturn opens zir left hand, the hand ze wasn’t using to call knives and distract bullies, revealing a set of keys. Ze wasn’t the Divine Thief for nothing.

Ze tosses Bobby’s keys in the trash.

Bronwyn flings open her door after one knock like she’s been waiting for an expensive package. “Rings. Took you long enough.”

Water crashes from the eavestrough behind Saturn. “It’s the middle of the school day.”

“A meaningless sentence if I’ve ever heard one.” She grabs an overstuffed, threadbare backpack from the floor. “Are we doing this?”

“I don’t have a plan.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“Or a ride.”

Bronwyn jingles her keys. “Ralph’s plates are forged, too. He won’t call the cops. Even if he wants to, I know way too much about his side business.”

She always calls her dad by his name, and never refers to this house as her home. Saturn can see Ralph behind her, feet kicked up in his La-Z-Boy with a beer in the cup holder and twenty or so cans on the carpet. Passed out and snoring as his daughter plots her escape within earshot.

“And I haven’t been able to—I mean, I’ve tried summoning it, but I…”

A high-pitched ringing burrows deep in Saturn’s ears, followed by the clatter of a hundred swords against a hundred shields. Bronwyn’s hand glows white hot and Saturn shuts zir eyes against the glare. When ze opens them, Bronwyn is holding the golden hilt of her broadsword, pommel and cross-guard and blade embedded with glittering gemstones. The Divine Cleaver.

Saturn remembers to breathe. “We’re doing this.”

“You couldn’t have brought an umbrella?” Bronwyn shouts over the relentless downpour, cradling Gus’ black Shih Tzu puppy, D’Artagnan, in one arm. “I don’t know how you expect us to survive on our own when we can’t even prepare for rain.”

“We were just at your house,” Saturn says.

“Dude, I don’t own an umbrella.”

“Shit. Me neither.”

Bronwyn grumbles, holding her jacket closed with her free hand.

It’s 3:20PM and the streets of Tedium are flooded. Nearly every adult Saturn passed today griped about how the weather forecast hadn’t warned them of a thunderstorm and flash flood. But this wasn’t the first surprise storm in the last six months.

Saturn and Bronwyn wait under a towering oak tree outside Gus’ trailer in Elysian Estates, a mobile home park on the outskirts of Tedium. When D’Artagnan saw them coming, he clawed through the trailer’s window screen.

A faded yellow school bus pulls up along the main road. Wearing a lime-green poncho, Gus stumbles down the stairs, through the tree line, and into the park. Breaking into a huge smile, he runs with his arms opens and squishes an ecstatically yapping D’Artagnan between the three of them.

Gus squeezes tight, then quickly lets go. He backs up and folds his arms, staring at his sneakers. “I-I know it’s sappy, but I missed you guys. It was like, after all the weirdness of the In-Between, real life wasn’t so real anymore…”

“That’s why we’re here,” Saturn says. “We’re not going back to real life.”

“What do you mean?” His brow furrows. “The Harbinger is dead, isn’t it?”

“As far as we know,” Saturn says.

“And the Weapons of the Trinity are gone. I know, I’ve tried.”

“Oh yeah?” Bronwyn says. Leaning against the tree, she holds out her hand. A burst of light, and the Divine Cleaver is there. A flash, and it’s gone again. Despite knowing already, it still makes Saturn’s heart race.

“How?” Gus breathes.

Bronwyn shrugs. “I tried when I got to Ralph’s. Worked right away.”

“I have a theory about that,” Saturn says. “But we just came to say goodbye—”

“No!” Gus bursts out. “No, you can’t just show me that and leave! I’m coming with you.”

“Like hell, kid,” Bronwyn says.

“Bronwyn and I, we don’t have anything here,” Saturn says. “You have your mom and D’Artagnan. You’re smart enough to get a full-ride to university and do whatever you want. You can have the life you deserve.”

“You can’t choose what’s best for me!” Gus says. “When we met, you guys treated me like a baby, and it almost got us killed! I’m not a little kid. You need me. I am the Divine Mage, dammit!” Gus huffs, his scrawny limbs trembling. “I love my mom. And I know she loves me, too. But love isn’t everything. My mom never wanted to be stuck in a mobile home. She spends all her money on my tutors and soccer and therapy. I think… I think my mom deserves to live her own life. And I deserve to choose what I want just as much as you do. If there’s a way to call the weapons back—well, then maybe there’s more we can do. More we need to do. If only we—”

“Commit,” Saturn finishes.

Saturn’s instinct is to argue, to tell Gus that sacrifice is what parents sign on for when they stick around—but that makes his point no less true. Besides, Saturn isn’t one to talk. Ze knows Mom loves zem, but Gus is right. Love alone isn’t enough.

Ze looks to Bronwyn.

“Daylight’s wasting and I’m fucking soaked. I’ll bring the truck around.” Bronwyn sets D’Artagnan under the tree and walks toward visitor parking. The dog barks as if to call her back.

Gus rolls up his sleeves. “Well? Let’s get magic back.”

Saturn nods, holding out zir hand. Ze feels the ghostly memory of magic between zir fingers, the warmth emanating from zir palm. Somewhere out there, ze knows the Divine Dagger waits on the other end of an incessantly ringing telephone. It only needs to pick up.

“I don’t want this,” Saturn says aloud. “You hear me? I don’t want normal. I devote myself to being the Divine Thief. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Fine by me!”

“Yeah!” Gus joins in. “We’re the Divine Trinity, damn you! Give us our powers back!”

A crack of thunder roars directly overhead, shaking the world. Gus roars back at the sky. Saturn grins, eyes closed, and joins in.

The air fills with heavy, tingling static, tickling Saturn’s skin. Heat crackles around zem until Saturn is certain ze’re about to be struck by lightning—but still ze curse at the heavens, demanding what ze’re owed, promising devotion.

Then, the chime of bells.

The surge of power.

The call answered.

Light flashes behind Saturn’s eyes. Something solid fits into zir palm. Zir fingers close around a leather hilt. Relief spreads its wings inside Saturn’s chest. Saturn opens zir eyes.

The black glass of the dagger glows as if in greeting, violet veins pulsing with energy. Across from zem, Gus grips his black metal staff, the Divine Sceptre, taller than he is and topped with a glowing ball of pure sunlight. He steps into a wide stance and raises the staff into the air.

With a flash, a streak of lightning crashes into the staff. The aftershock lifts Saturn off zir feet and tosses zem back into a tree, knocking the wind from zir lungs. Saturn backs up against the rough trunk and catches zir breath, a big ask as offshoots of electricity feel out around Gus like the inside of a plasma ball. The boy is a striking figure, mythical in his display of power. Six months later, Saturn is still not used to his command of the elements.

The lightning vanishes. The rain trickles to a stop.

Bronwyn pulls up in her rusty green pickup. “Damn, you little lightning rod, you put on quite the show.”

Gus lowers his staff, then, smiling self-consciously. The electricity dissipates.

Saturn blows air from puffed cheeks. “How fast can you pack a bag?”

“Be right back!” Gus says, running inside.

Saturn climbs into the passenger seat. Bronwyn raises an eyebrow at zem.

“You ready?” she asks. “Any secret flames you wanna confess your love to before we go?”

“It was my idea first.”

“Sure. But like, really ready.”

“I said my goodbyes.”

Back home, there’s a letter on the kitchen table that reads:

Mom,

Sorry I didn’t have time to make a new lasagna, but it’d probably go bad in an empty home anyway. I love you. I’ll miss you.

Be back someday.

Love,

Saturn

Up ahead, the clouds part, the first ray of sunlight a javelin piercing the dark. Gus hops inside the car with a backpack hanging on his front and the Divine Sceptre still clutched like an old teddy bear. D’Artagnan hops in after him, wet as a mop. “Ready!”

Bronwyn pulls out of the trailer park, out of Tedium, and onto the highway.

“Are we going to be okay, you think?” Gus asks.

Saturn lets zir eyes drift, the world outside first doubling, then changing. The In-Between is so much more than a final battleground. Ghosts wander the side of the road. Clouds of energy crackle in the distance. Particles of pure life drift from trees growing from the middle of inter-dimensional stone.

So much uncertainty lies ahead, but of this one thing ze is sure: “We’re going to be better than okay. We’re going to be great.”

Bronwyn snorts, but she doesn’t argue.

As night falls, the truck speeds down the highway, the sky on fire with the brindled colours of sunset—the final few blazing moments of ordinary life before Saturn escapes, at last, to whatever extraordinary awaits.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: K.A. Mielke (he/they) lives in Guelph, Ontario with his partner, their four children, and entirely too many furry, feathered, and fishy animals. He writes about queer heroes, murderous monsters, and childhood trauma. He is dependent on coffee to function, worries that ghosts can hear his thoughts, and is the co-author of the young adult novel, Victory Lap. He can be found retweeting smarter people than him on Twitter.com, @KAMielke.