For a select few, these questions aren’t hypothetical. They’re an offer.
We wager everything in the Contracts: our morals, our humanity, our very lives.
But the Harbingers are true to their word. Our pay transcends cash and coin.
Let me tell you about the day I accepted the offer that changed my life.
The day I signed The Contract.
This story starts with me cuffed to a chair in a police interrogation room.
I was all alone. No doubt the detective was hoping I’d psyche myself into confessing or trying something stupid like slipping my cuffs. I adjusted my chair, twisted my body, and flipped off the camera.
The door opened, and a strange man stepped inside. He didn’t look like a cop. Between the combover, the sunset aviators, and the retro, orange button-down shirt, he looked more like a sleazy Hollywood producer from the 70s.
This guy’s outfit looked tackier every time I saw him.
He slumped into the chair across from mine and flashed a grin that sent a shiver down my spine.
“My my, Lucy Kate. What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“You,” I said, “You’re that freak that kept trying to talk to me at the bar.”
“And you wouldn’t hear me out.”
“Damn straight. I got the fuck out of there.”
“Yes, and I was your Uber driver. And even after that incredible coincidence, you still wouldn’t listen.”
“And then at the riot. . .”
“That one I understand. You looked busy.”
“Now you’re here.”
“Now I’m here. And you are a captive audience.”
“So you’re a cop. Of course. That explains the creepy stalker vibes. Tell me, why do you pigs find chicks like me so irresistible? You jealous?”
The interrogation room’s door swung open again, and in walked the detective carrying a fresh cup of coffee. He spotted the man sitting across from me, jumped, and drew his gun.
“How the fu-- Freeze!”
The man in orange smiled. “Wonderful idea.”
He snapped, and the detective froze.
When I say “froze,” I don’t just mean he held still. He didn’t breathe, he didn’t tremble. His mug stopped mid-air, leaving a ribbon of black coffee just hanging there. It was like someone hit reality’s pause button.
“That’s better,” sighed the man in orange.
I took an unsteady breath just to make sure I still could. “Wha-- what the fuck are you?”
“Not a cop. Hopefully that’s clear enough at this point.” He pointed a finger-gun at the room’s camera, made like he was pulling the trigger, and the camera’s circuits popped and sizzled. “I am a harbinger.”
“A harbinger,” I repeated, too freaked to say much else.
“They call me ‘The Talent.’ That’s what I’m good at: finding those rare few with true talent, true ambition. And you, Lucy Kate, are one of those people.”
“Me? I’m just some freak who got arrested at a riot.”
“A riot that you started. Don’t sell yourself short.” He sat up and looked into my eyes. “Why'd you do it?”
"I guess I go a little crazy on full moons."
"The real reason."
I swallowed. “Because I’m pissed. Because there’s people starving in the streets below empty, luxury condos. Because when a cop murders someone, they get a paid vacation. I start riots because I would rather die than live in a world like this.”
“Yes! That’s the fire I’m looking for. You fight a system you hate, despite the fact you’re doomed to fail. It’s inspiring.”
“Doomed to fail?”
The Talent shrugged. “You know the story by now. People riot. People die. Nothing ever changes. At the end of the day, no normal human-- not even one like you-- has the power really change anything. That’s why I’m here.”
“You’re here to rub it in my face, wizard?”
“No! I’m here to offer you a job, remember? But it’s more than a job, really. It’s a shot at greatness, an opportunity to truly make a difference. All you have to do is complete some tasks, and I’ll awaken the incredible powers you have locked inside.”
“So that’s the offer? Do some jobs and you’ll give me superpowers? What’s the catch?”
“No catch!” he laughed. “I don’t rely on trickery. The jobs can be quite dangerous, of course, but you’re used to that, aren’t you?”
“That’s what I’m saying! So,” he said, extending his hand, “shake on it?”
I slipped my handcuffs and took The Talent's hand.
What happened next. . . Look, I’m not a poet, but I’ll try to explain it.
What happened next. . . Look, I’m not a poet, but I’ll try to explain it.
It was like I was a drop of rain, and I landed in the ocean. The lines separating me from everything else disappeared. I saw it all: past, present, and future. Every choice, every accident, was like a door leading to a different universe, and I had already gone through all of them a thousand times. You understand what I’m saying?
Shit, I give up. I told you I wasn’t any good at words.
I woke up in a nearby alleyway. I was me again. The Talent was gone, and the only sign he’d ever been there was a new tattoo on the palm of my right hand:
Room 231 of the Starlight Motel 7:00 PM
Take Bradley on flight UA 1294 and ensure he survives
My first Contract.
The Starlight Motel struck me as the sort of place you ended up after a night of bad decisions. Not even that twilight sky--no sun or moon in sight, casting everything in shades of violet-- not even it could turn this parking-lot motel into somewhere that felt safe.
I climbed the steps to the second floor and knocked on the door labled 231. No answer. The windows were black.
“You’re looking for Bradley,” came a voice from behind. It belonged to a pale teenager wearing a pleather duster and watches on both wrists.
“Are you here on Contract?” they asked.
“You could say that.”
“Then we are working together. I am Five.”
“You look a little older than that.”
“That is my name. I am seventeen years old. I think.”
“Uh huh. Look, kid, I don’t really need a sidekick.”
Five stared at me. “You must be new. We will need all the help we can get.”
“You’ve done this before?”
“So you have. . . powers.”
“Okay. I’ll work with you," I said. "My name's Lucy. Don't get in my way.”
“Same to you.”
The click-clacking of cowboy boots echoed up the stairwell. The man attached had one arm, a revolver on each hip, and a mustache that would put Yosemite Sam to shame. His sheriff’s star winked at me.
“Great," I muttered. "Another cop.”
Five nodded. “Bo.”
As the man approached, his face cracked into a smile. “Five! Here to pick up a new timepiece?”
“No. We are on Contract.”
“We’ve gotta work on your sense of humor, Five.” He turned to me and held out his hand. “Looks like we've got ourselves a team. The name’s Bo Perkins. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Fuck off, pig.”
Bo’s smile disappeared. “I don’t like that attitude. Not one bit.”
Five stiffened. “She is new.”
“Ah. Well, little miss sunshine, as long as we’re bein’ candid with each other, I don’t think I like you either. You look like a good-fer-nothin' punk. Now I’m sure I could uncover enough dirt to put you away for a long time, but, unless you signed a very different contract than I did, I think we ought to put aside our differences and work together.”
“Fine," I said. "All we gotta do is give some dude a ride on an airplane.”
Bo scoffed. “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be an absolute cakewalk. Now listen, I’ve been a detective for twenty years. I know Five’s got their own set of tricks. What are you good at?”
"Well. . ."
I chewed on Bo's question. “What am I good at? Causing trouble.”
“Big surprise. Well, the plane leaves in two hours. Let’s give ‘er a knock and get this show on the road.”
Five shook their head. “Already knocked. No answer. And the door is locked.”
“Well shit,” sighed Bo. “Suppose I could go talk to the manager--”
I set down my backpack and pulled out my crowbar.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing, miss?”
I slid the crowbar between the door and its frame and gave a tug. The crackling of wood echoed down the hall, and the door fell off its hinges.
“So much for subtlety,” Bo grumbled, pushing past me into the room. “Bradley? You here, Bradley? Bra-- AGH!”
A massive creature crashed into the cop, pinning him to the ground. A maw of slavering, razor-sharp fangs opened above him, ready to go for the kill. I raised my crowbar to brain the thing, but Five caught my wrist and flipped on the lights.
“It appears that Bradley is a dog.”
“WOOF! WOOF!” stated Bradley before licking Bo’s face with a steak-sized tongue.
Bo struggled under Bradley's weight, fending off his kisses. “A dog? Thing’s a gat-dammed bear!”
“Caucasian mountain dog,” said Five, guiding the beast off of Bo. “It smells like he has been eating roadkill.”
I tried not to laugh. "Looks like you've got your hands full, Five. Come on, Bo. Let's search the apartment."
Player: "I want to investigate the apartment"
GM:"Roll + , Difficulty -"
“You feel a pulse under all that fur, Five?”
Five pushed their hand into Bradley's fur.
There was a moment of silence. Bradley’s tongue slid over his razor fangs in a breathless mimicry of panting.
I shook my head. “Wild. I mean, I’ve seen the videos of werewolves and ghosts and shit on YouTube, but none of the vampire ones are confirmed.”
“Look at this,” said Five, pointing their phone’s camera at Bradley. “He doesn’t appear on film. Even so, I am sure if we live-streamed in public--”
Bo held up his hand. “Absolutely not. Goin’ viral is the last thing we need. We’ve got a flight to catch, and as far as the US Government is concerned, this thing’s a WMD. Lucy, grab the leash; you’re our handler.”
“Me? Five seems better with dogs.”
“Yeah, but Five couldn’t talk their way into a timeshare presentation. No offense, Five.”
Five shrugged. “They are often scams.”
“But sneaking contraband should be second nature to a punk like you,” he said, offering me the leash. “Unless you’re yellow.”
I snatched the leash from his hand. “I took this job for a chance to change the world. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
"Roll Dexterity + Ledgerdemain, Difficulty -"
Bradley and I boarded first with the elderly and uniformed military personnel. I gave him the window seat, took the aisle for myself, and saved the middle seat for Five.
Bo slumped into the aisle seat across from mine. “Well color me impressed, Lucy. We made it on board without getting arrested. Now we just have to survive the flight. And the other passengers.”
“What about ‘em?”
“You didn’t notice?” he whispered ”Looks like we’re heading to Hawaii with a band of monster hunters.”
“You’re fucking kidding.”
“Keep your cool. Chances are they’re nothing but charlatans and scam artists. ‘Course I can’t say the same for the pair of air marshals in row 35.”
Five squeezed past me to their seat and started petting Bradley. “The dog looks different. Longer fangs. Pointed ears. Red eyes.”
“He’s getting hungry,” I said. “When he snapped at that dog, he looked like a full-on demon.”
The Flight attendants finished their presentation. The plane lurched into motion.
“Maybe he will eat my roast beef sandwich,” Five said, rummaging through their bag. Bradley sniffed the sandwich once, coughed, and started licking at the arteries in Five’s wrists.
The plane shot down the runway with a mighty rumble, and we were away. It was about now I started to panic.
“Fuck this. We’re not dog trainers. We aren’t priests. Why the fuck did he choose us for this job?”
Bo scoffed. “This aint Ocean’s 11, sweety.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
“He means they did not pick us for our specific talents. These jobs are more like,” Five paused, “like an escape room. Except all the puzzles are impossible. If you want to win, you have to cheat.”
“He wants blood,” I said, pulling Five’s wrists away from Bradley. “Human blood.”
“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” muttered Bo. “Unless, of course, we do something drastic.”
I leaned close to Bo. “What are you saying? We feed him a person?”
“Seems like things are heading that way, one way or another,” he said, nodding towards the demonic dog currently trying to lick its way through the skin on Five’s neck.
“I’m gunna be fucking sick. There has to be another way.”
“I’m listenin’ for bright ideas, sugarplum, but I ain’t hearin’ any.”
I wracked my brain. “We’re so stupid. We could have gotten donor blood on our way to the airport, or at least some syringes. Instead we’ve got jack shit.”
“I have syringes,” said Five.
“I’m type-1 diabetic.”
“Five, I could kiss you.”
“Please do not.”
“Give me one of those syringes. Bo, hand me that water bottle. I’m going to the bathroom.”
You ever try to draw blood from yourself? It isn’t easy, especially with turbulence.
I emerged from the bathroom with new blood stains on my jeans carrying a 12 oz water bottle full of what I hoped looked like wine. The line of people waiting in the aisle gave odd looks as I squeezed by.
“One bloody mary for our buddy,” I said, handing the plastic bottle to Five. “Why’s Bradley under that blanket?”
Bradley lifted his head to greet me, and I nearly had a heart attack. A pair of glowing red eyes peered over an upturned, batlike nose. Strands of saliva swung from the tips of needle-sharp fangs that no longer fit behind his lips.
“He’s getting worse,” said Five.
"Jesus," I said, and Bradley growled. "Good thinking keeping him out of sight of those wannabe Van-Helsings."
Five uncapped the bottle for Bradley, who proceeded to swallow the meal, bottle and all, with a single chomp. Five was lucky to keep their hand.
As the dog set to work lapping up any excess splatter, his demonic features receded. Soon, he was back to the big, clumsy teddy bear we’d met in the motel. We breathed a sigh of relief.
“Gotta hand it to you, kid,” whispered Bo. “That was some good thinking.”
“Thanks,” I said, reaching out to pet our still giant, but otherwise normal, dog.
Bradley gave my leg a sniff, recognized the scent of a good meal, bared his fangs, and lunged.
In an instant, Bradley the monster returned. His fangs sank into my calf like a dozen steak knives. I remember making a noise, not a scream, something more primal. I twisted and kicked. My heel connected with Bradley’s eye, but he didn’t let go.
Bo Perkins snapped his body like he was throwing a punch with his missing arm. A blue shimmer slammed Bradley against the wall beneath the window. Undeterred, Bradley bared his jaws and prepared to lunge again.
Five leaped onto his back, and they both disappeared. A lone watch clattered to the ground, the only sign they’d ever been there.
“What the hell!?” cried a passenger in the row behind us. He was standing up, gawking at us with a look of utter shock.
Bo scrambled over, threw the airline blanket over my injured leg, and tied a tourniquet around my thigh. His single hand worked in tandem with an invisible one.
“They went 25 seconds into the future,” he whispered urgently. “It’s one of Five’s Gifts. You best not be around when we catch up to them. Go!”
I struggled to my feet. More passengers craned their necks and covered their mouths in shock. I shot Bo a frantic glance.
“I’ll deal with it. You go!”
The time-twister presses a button on one of her wrist watches, and, in a flash of orange light, disappears. She has skipped 9 seconds forward in time. To her, the travel is instantaneous, but everyone else must wait until she reappears.
Exert your Mind and spend an Action to activate. You must actively and obviously use a clock or watch to activate this Effect.
You phase out of reality for 4 Rounds. During this time, you cannot perceive or affect the outside world or take any Actions. You cannot move. Nothing can interact with you in any way.
When you phase out, you may bring up to 1 additional target in arm's reach with you.
I used the seat backs like crutches, jostling another dozen passengers from their sleep, grimacing at each agonizing step. Hot blood pooled in my shoe.
A dozen rows back, an arm reached out and caught my wrist. It was one of the air marshals.
“What happened up there, miss? Are you okay?”
“I-- it--” I stammered.
“I stepped on the dog’s tail, and he bit me. Just surprised him. All’s good now.”
The air marshal and I looked back up the aisle. There was no commotion. The man who’d seen everything was seated, maybe sleeping.
“Okay,” he said, letting go. “You should let the flight attendants know if you need first aid.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
I didn’t talk to anyone. Hell, I don't know if I drew a single breath until the bathroom door was locked behind me. My body was shaking uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there, waiting. My leg didn’t hurt anymore, but it had gone numb, and that was even worse.
Thirty minutes later, there was a knock at the door.
“It’s Bo. Open up.”
I cracked open the door. Bo pressed his way in and closed it behind him. There was hardly enough room for one person inside, let alone two.
“How’s the leg, champ?”
“I’ll live. What’s going on out there?”
He sighed. “Situation’s under control. For now. Bradley’s getting hungry again, startin’ to get the whole,” he gestured at his face. “We need your help.”
“I can’t. He’s tasted me. He’ll attack on sight.”
“I know, I know. That’s how come Five and I can’t give our own blood. Listen, the syringe idea was a good one, I’ll give ya that, but it’s time for plan B.”
He winced. “Listen, I can do, well, what needs to be done. But to make it look like a suicide, I’ll need that blade you snuck past the TSA. Yeah, I noticed. What do you say?”
“No fuckin’ way,” I said, resisting the urge to spit in his face.
“Don’t let your idealism blind you. Way I see it, we got two options. One: we wait, let this monster lose control, kill a few people, and get taken out by the air marshals, if we’re lucky. Two: we take one life, relax until we land in Hawaii, and get paid.”
“You forgot option three: kill the monster.”
Bo’s face turned red. “Kill it!? We don’t even know if we can!” he snorted. “We brought this creature on board. It’s our responsibility to see it through. Are you gunna throw this opportunity away? You gunna rip up The Contract?”
My heart pounded in my throat. “What did Five say?”
“They’re on board.”
Bo held out his hand. “Give me the blade, Lucy. We’ll all get home safe, and we’ll all get paid.”
I pulled the pocket knife and turned it over in my hand. The blade caught my reflection.
“I feel sick.”
I handed it over.
Bo relaxed. “Trust me kid, you don’t wanna think too much about it.”
He opened the door and paused. “You made the right choice.”
I probably shouldn’t have, but I watched him walk away. He slipped into a bathroom up the aisle and kept the door open. A few minutes later, a woman walked in. Don’t know how she didn’t see him.
She closed the door.
There was one loud bang, something hitting the door.
People looked up, then went back to reading their books.
I threw up.
Later, I heard the other passengers discover the body. An anguished scream, a hushed murmuring. I didn’t open the bathroom door until we touched down in Hawaii, and by the time I did, Five, Bo, and Bradley were gone.
It’s only now, looking back on it, that I realize Bo lied to me. If I hadn’t given him that knife, he would have fed Bradley a different in-flight meal.
I can’t blame him. There’s no sense keeping a dead-weight Contractor around. Liabilities end up in the graveyard.
Illuminated Earth is a version of the modern world where the advent of smartphones and the internet confirmed the existence of the supernatural instead of disproving it.
The spectre of magic and otherworldly phenomena looms large in the zeitgeist despite their extreme rarity. As a result, modern society has twisted into a superstitious and paranoid reflection of itself.
Yet, some witch hunts do have merit. It's an open secret that billionaires and Senators employ paranormal advisors and bodyguards. Charlatans become pop culture icons, and each revelation inspires a new cult.
The world is changing. The secret societies that pull humanity's strings are scrambling to adapt.
Now's a good time to move up.