Note: Read this guide front to back without skipping. The narrative covers the events of one play session and contains critical information.
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 at a riot. It wasn’t much: an outraged mob, a few dozen squad cars, police lights flashing off the tear gas and smoke. Hard to believe a little domestic action was enough to get my blood pumping back then.
That is, until a rubber bullet caught me in the stomach. Next thing I know, I’m getting cuffed and shoved into the back seat of a squad car. A pair of cops climbed in up front and hit the road with me in tow.
We were halfway to the station when she spoke to me. Her voice came over the police radio, but it sounded like she was whispering in my ear.
“Hate to interrupt your ride, Lucy, but you and I should chat.”
The cops glanced at each other. “Uh. . . Dispatch, can you confirm that new destination for Squad 530?”
“See you soon.”
The driver shrugged to his deputy and took an exit. I was as confused as them, but I knew a distraction when I saw one. I pulled a bobby pin from the back of my belt and started working my handcuffs.
The cop drove us into an underground parking lot and turned to his deputy. “You see the contact?”
“I’m right here,” came that whisper again. Only this time she was actually there, sitting right beside me. She looked like she was from another world, all made-up in gold, headphones on, hair drifting in the air like she was underwater.
“Thanks for driving,” she said to the cops, “but Lucy and I have a gig to discuss.”
The officers scrambled out of the car and drew their guns on us.
“Get out of the vehicle!” cried the driver.
The deputy shouted into his radio: “Requesting immediate backup for a possible 10-300!”
I want to say I was cool, but the truth is, I was as freaked out as the cops. You don't hear a lot of encounter stories with happy endings.
“What a racket,” she muttered. “I can see why you want to get rid of them. Now about that job. . .”
“Job?” I managed.
“One night’s work. It’s dangerous, but if you succeed, I’ll put you on the path to greatness.”
The twang of my pin releasing my handcuffs snapped me back to earth.
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m already great.”
I slammed my back into the door, tumbled onto the tarmac, and made a break for it.
I got five frantic steps before the deputy tackled me to the ground. He jammed his gun under my chin. I gasped my last breath and waited for the shot, but it never came.
Cracking one eye, I found the cop above me frozen mid-sneer. His partner was frozen too, still pointing his gun at the car. Someone had hit the pause button on time itself.
“Who-- what are you?”
“Some call us Harbingers. We make the offer: succeed, and we’ll awaken the Powers that lie dormant within you.”
"Thanks for the save," I said, squirming free of the cop’s frozen arms. “So that’s the offer? Do one job and you’ll give me superpowers? Dangerous or not, that’s a pretty good deal.”
“There will be more opportunities to prove yourself. Accept, and you will be imbued so that others like me can find you. It will change the way you learn. You will advance quicker than you thought possible after completing a job. However, if you stop you will stagnate.”
“So,” she said, extending her hand, “what do you say?”
I pulled my American Spirits from the frozen deputy’s pocket. My hands were shaking so bad I could barely hold the lighter. “Fuck. So what’s the catch? I agree and I’m locked in? You gunna spirit me away to some government facility where they keep me in a cage between jobs?”
“The Contract doesn’t rely on trickery. Outside of the Jobs, you are free to pursue your own goals. You can quit at any time, but once you’re out, you’re out for good.”
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 the garage. I was me again. The cops and the Harbinger were gone. Only sign she’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 she 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 was back. 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. There was a blue shimmer, and Bradley flew backwards, slamming into the wall beneath the window. Undeterred, he opened his jaws and prepared to lunge again.
Five leaped onto his back, and they both disappeared. A lone wrist 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, looking over the seat at me with a look of utter shock.
Bo scrambled over, threw the blanket over my injured leg, and started tying a tourniquet, his single hand working 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 were craning their necks and covering their mouths in shock. I shot Bo a frantic glance.
“I’ll deal with it. You go!”
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.