Epilogue ~ Fallen from the Sky

When the Wound falls away, returning me to the storage unit and the overpowering smell of glue, the girl Aulunla wanted to make a witch is already gone. 

And as soon as the heady thrill of absorbing a Harbinger fades, the burning exhaustion in my muscles and residual cold pain winding through me slam into me all at once. 

“Ngh-!”

My legs give out, as limp as if I’d never used them in my life. I topple to the cold ground, and the most I can do to catch myself is take the brunt of the fall with one forearm instead of my face. It’s all I can do to hold myself vaguely up on that arm and look around the room again. The pages covering the wall have been torn into stray scraps of paper, and the chopped-up books littering the floor look like they’re in the middle of disintegrating, falling apart into piles of damp wood pulp. My cane is nowhere in sight. I drown my pain in one last wave of stolen life, inwardly wincing at the knowledge that I’ll have to go take enough to replace everything I just burned soon.

I’ll worry about that later. Right now… it’s not too late to help that girl, or at least get her Sanctuary help. It can’t be — she wasn’t in the Wound, so she went somewhere. I leave the storage unit and rush back toward the city center, searching with my soul for anything I might use to follow her, any distant lingering trace of Aulunla’s corruption. 

“Liadain! Are you injured?” Vyuji blinks into being, floating alongside me as I move. Her tight, uneasy expression is the furthest I’ve ever seen her move from her usual detached demeanor. “What’s happening? Where has the Harbinger… gone… ah.” She visibly calms down, crossing her arms and legs and settling back until she looks like she’s seated on an invisible chair. She keeps right on following me without actually moving herself, though.

“It’s gone. I didn’t see a way out, so I killed it. As for what happened there? I was really hoping you could tell me. Given everything else I know about Harbingers, it doesn’t make sense.” 

“You saw it all firsthand. You consumed it. I’d imagine you understand it better than I do,” she says.

“I mean, I understand a little. It was trying to grow so far beyond itself that I can’t even imagine what it was planning to become, but I don’t think there was any way it could’ve worked. There wasn’t enough of it. It had to twist its own rules well past the breaking point to even try. It would’ve destroyed itself no matter what happened to me, and I didn’t think they could… give up on themselves like that.”

Vyuji hmmms to herself, moving one leg as if tapping her foot on ground that doesn’t exist. “The window where I dared to peek inside the Wound was quite brief. Even that may have been ill-advised. I can’t say exactly what happened. Not with any certainty, at least based on what little I saw and sensed — but I expect you have the right of it. The Harbinger attempted something it was not at all ready for, not grown enough for. Perhaps it hoped to accomplish something with power it could only grasp for a moment before it burned itself away, or with the backlash of that act.”

I can fill in that blank easily enough. “It did it to kill me,” I say. “Unless… it had a girl it was working with, trying to make into a witch. Could it have died and still done that?” From its last thoughts, that girl was very important to Aulunla. She was central to whatever ideas it was trying to dream into being, and it… loved her, in its way. Maybe enough to die for her if it would help, as strange as it is to think of self-sacrifice coming from a Harbinger.

Vyuji gives a tiny shake of her head. “A witch draws power from their Harbinger’s corruption. In almost all cases, a witch with no Harbinger is just a broken human.” 

Almost all?” I glance her way and raise an eyebrow.

“Magic and death are both complex things,” she shrugs.

“Um. Right.” Although I don’t know what’s complex about death except the knots people tie themselves into trying not to think of it as something horrible.

As for the girl… several blocks back into the city, there’s still no trace of her. Not that I can find, at least. Urgh. And I came so close to cleaning up my mess. The parts of it that have nothing to do with Tetha, at least. Still no plan there.

“In any case, you should know that you’ve accomplished something remarkable,” Vyuji says with a faint smile. “To not just survive something like that, but win? I’m proud of you, for whatever that’s worth to you.”

Have I? Are you really? Would you be if you knew how I got here?

“…About that,” I say, coming to a stop in the middle of an empty mini-park. I’ve barely paid any mind to the people passing by until now — I guess they’re quick to make way for a Keeper in a rush talking to herself. There’s at least no one watching me from the surrounding streets, as far as I can see, so I end my transformation and flop into a wooden bench under a tree.

Vyuji just nods, touches lightly down to the ground, and waits, meeting my gaze with a faintly curious glint in her dark eyes.

“Stop me if any of this sounds impossible,” I say.

“There are only a few things I would confidently call impossible. But I do understand what you’re asking for.” 

“Okay. Harbingers have been talking to me. More than half of the ones I’ve met have said things to me. Not exactly in words, but in ways I can sort of imagine or interpret as words? Well, no, the one I just killed wrote a book. In Clarish. And I’m pretty sure we had a conversation while I absorbed it.”

“What did they say? And what was that about a conversation? How did you talk back?” she asks. Her mental tone of voice rises, but there’s nothing unbelieving in it — it’s more like the tone I’d use to ask annoying clarifying questions when Dad used to tell me stories at night.

“I don’t know, Harbinger things? The sort of weird nonsense you’d expect a Harbinger to say, if you were expecting anything. No one ever told me they could talk. As for the last one, I’m not really sure. Near the end, I could hear it thinking in what sounded like Clarish poetry. In its last moments, it wrote some things out, and it’s like it could hear me thinking and write responses. You… aren’t talking like this is impossible.”

“Because it’s not. It is interesting that you’re bringing it up already, though.”

Then she closes her eyes, raises her head, and… sings something. In a voice like whalesong, low but steadily rising well beyond a human range. She’s done this once before, just after we met, but this time there are words behind or within the song, shaping themselves from the sound. I don’t recognize the words themselves — they do sound vaguely like the language Yurfaln and Irakkia spoke in, but without the pain and distortion and struggle to pull scraps of meaning from their grating sounds. This time, the idea behind them simply blossoms in my mind, clear as anything else Vyuji’s ever said to me:

<Can you hear me? This is the song of my soul — my true voice.>

“I… yes. Just… how’d you, how can I…”

Vyuji titters faintly — not the first time I’ve heard the sound from her, but it’s certainly not common. “Were you thinking of it as ‘the Harbinger language’?” she asks in Clarish.

I clamp my mouth shut and nod once.

“It isn’t. It’s an aspect of magic itself. Because they are creatures of magic — creatures capable of complex thought, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now — Harbingers can use it. Past a certain point in their growth, every Keeper should be able perceive this language in some way. Some eventually come to speak it. Actually, can you speak it?”

“Sorry. If I can, I don’t know how.”

“Don’t push yourself. You’d know if you could. That would have been quite something, but then, it already is. You’ve come to comprehend the language faster than any other Keeper I’ve known.”

“O-oh,” I breathe. That’s… on one hand, after what a horrible mess this whole incident was, it’s good to know that I really was on to something about my attunement to Harbingers, or to whatever parts of magic I use to feel their presence and hear their voices.

But the places this talent has led me since I found that book, the things I’ve done… Aulunla called its inheritance a curse. Maybe it was right. 

“I’m telling you all this because, well… the way I found this last one. At first it was just a book, I think. It wasn’t quite born, or fully part of the world, or however it works with them. I’d just killed another not-born Harbinger and it didn’t do anything for me.” 

I swallow. Vyuji says nothing, just nods and waits for me to go on.

“So… I… left this one like that. And… studied it. I infected it, just enough that it’d be easy to kill when I needed to. Watched it grow. I found that girl who would’ve been its witch and it was working with her somehow, not eating her alive, so I let it happen. Learned everything I could until it looked like it might get out of control, then came for it and… whatever it just did happened, but I managed. I won. The girl ran away, but I’ll find her. Or someone will.” I force the first words out in an unpleasant rasp, but by the time I finish, my voice has picked up strength and speed. It’s the verbal equivalent of ripping off bandages when I was younger. I’d pause and wince at every little bit of extra pain, then rush through it once I realized that it didn’t actually hurt that much, especially compared to anything going on inside me.

In this case, it’s unsettling just how little it hurts. It still feels like I was doing the best I could with an awful situation, and what else do I have? It’s not like I can trade these powers in for a new set that would make me a shining hero.

“And it worked for me, doing it this way. I could fight whatever Aulunla — the Harbinger — became because it had already been dying of my infection for almost two weeks. And I think I might have to keep doing it. Trying to run around and win big flashy fights the way Keepers do on shows is a nightmare for me, but figuring out how Harbingers work? Breaking them from the inside? I can do that. I’m good at it. I just… maybe sometimes I need to do things that sound and feel really bad to make it work. I don’t know, is this insane? Is there some other way I’m not thinking of?”

It sounds like you’ve already spotted a path your magic is well-suited to lead you down. It sounds like you’re asking for permission, not guidance,” Vyuji says. Her face doesn’t change at all.

“…If that was what I was doing, what would you say?” I murmur.

“That it’s not for me to grant or deny you permission for anything,” she answers without the slightest delay. “I’ve said before that I exist for you and children like you. My role is to help you grow. Yours is to determine for yourself what it means to grow into the best Keeper — the best Liadain — you can be.”

Vyuji’s smile widens a little. Most of her expressions feel like little more than rehearsed responses, just enough of a barely-there signal to tell you that she’s listening and understands the mood in the air. Whenever they go beyond that, outside the common range of little facial twitches and shifts in bearing I’ve seen her use and reuse, there’s something mysterious about them — like there’s a vague, broad range of feelings and ideas she might be suggesting, assuming she isn’t actually organically reacting to something. Which I’m still not sure if she ever does.

“That’s it?” I ask. “Just… do what seems best?”

“That’s it. If I thought you were planning something that could endanger the world or run against your best interests, I’d warn you. In this case, I’ll only offer you some small advice: you aren’t the first to seek this kind of knowledge. Your affinity for understanding Harbingers is remarkable, yes, but other children who’ve encountered many more of them than you may have their own insights to share. I’m not asking you to find another team, just to consider that you may not need to start from scratch.”

“If people have already studied these things, I imagine you know a lot. Is there some Scary Harbinger Secrets primer you could give me right now? That sounds easier.”

Vyuji blinks as if she’s trying to get a bit of dust out of her eyes, then shakes her head apologetically. “Not a primer, no. You’ve faced enough Harbingers to understand why it can never be that simple. Besides, you children have much better opportunities to learn about them than we do. I’ve explained how dangerous it is for us to get close to them. There are directions I may be able to point you in, but I can’t just yet. I’ll need to check on some things, for the same reasons I wouldn’t direct another Keeper to you without your permission.”

“Fair,” I groan. “I guess… in that case, I guess I’ll keep doing things… maybe not exactly like this, it was awfully messy by the end. But doing things my way. So unless there’s anything else I really need to know right now, just tell me when you’ve checked on whatever you need to check on.”

“I will. Ah, and you asked me to mention this next time, so. Have you seen yourself yet?”

Oh. Of course. “No,” I sigh.

“Well, now it’s coming from me instead of ‘the next random person to look at you.’ My work here is done. Take care, Liadain. And don’t be too hard on yourself while you’re alone with your thoughts. I think this is a promising path you’ve found.”

And she’s gone. I slow my pace and make my way back to the hospital — I keep watch with my soul for any traces of Aulunla, but find none.

I hurry through the seventh floor’s main room as soon as the elevator door slides open. My pace draws a few concerned eyes on its own, but if some strange new thing has changed about me, I don’t want people noticing and asking me stupid questions before I’ve at least taken stock of myself. I pull out the “do not disturb” tab on my room’s patient panel, step inside, and inspect myself in my dresser mirror.

I expected a few more strange winding veins of white in my hair, and I do see them immediately. Even my eyelashes have gone white — do people dye those? Is that even possible?

More important, though, is the pair of impossibly bright toxic green eyes glaring back at me. 

I bite my lip, drawing in a sharp breath through my teeth. The first time I transformed, I worried about whether this particular shift was permanent. So much for that. So much for anyone’s illusions about what’s happening to me. They don’t exactly glow like they do when my magic is out in full force, at least not yet, but really, what’s the other explanation? I decided to lean into the hair thing and start wearing colored contacts around the hospice for fun?

Well. I already knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my secret from people here forever, and that it’ll be harder the closer I get to my actual goals. I should be celebrating, just like Vyuji said the last time this came up. I won’t, but I know I should be.

That entire conversation was… after the last hard personal question I asked her, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Vyuji doesn’t have a word to say about betraying my Keeperly duties to humanity. 

Oh, that already sounds pretty hard on myself, doesn’t it? Sorry, Vyuji. This was my own idea and it still feels impossible to have my Messenger essentially endorsing it. It still feels wrong. But just the same, it still feels like my only way to succeed with this horrible power.

And even as I know that I’ll very much have to, that it’s exactly what I just proposed with all of that about understanding Harbingers, it’s still terrifying to think about what all of this means.

~~~

A parking lot filled with wide, short buildings, each lined with blue roll-up doors. A self-storage site and nothing but, with no effort taken to include any sort of greenery on the premises; a rare sight for New Claris after Saint Kuri’s Emergence and the new era’s coming. It was a ways away from any residential areas, which is why the journey took so long.

So this is where it all went down: where a Harbinger let loose a howl that could be felt from one end of the city to the other. Harbingers didn’t flare their auras for no reason, as a rule. When a Harbinger let loose like that, it meant whatever it was doing was worth signaling to every Keeper and their mom precisely where their next target was. Usually, that meant something very, very bad.

It only called out with such horrible intensity for a moment, but that was more than enough to drop what he was doing and race straight to it. He was sure all the others would do the same. He didn’t even have to check Lighthouse to know that. If the jolt through his nerves when the Harbinger’s aura spiked and the pull he felt during the journey here was any indication, they would need the numbers to have a prayer of resolving this with anything resembling safety.

But that concerning sensation waned before he even arrived.

The white-robed Keeper descends on radiant crimson wings. When his greaved boots touch the ground, his wings disperse in a whirl of feathers sculpted from scarlet light and wink away like sparks on the wind.

He had come ready for a fight, but it seems like he was too late. The enormous mass of power that was drawing him towards this place appears to have already vanished. Or had it been consumed? All that remains are traces.

Yet, as far as he can tell, he’s the first to arrive in the aftermath. That, or the responsible Harbinger has a means of concealing itself. It was wholly possible its hunting strategy is to draw Keepers in and ambush whoever comes first, then escape before it can be overwhelmed. A sophisticated strategy like that could have emerged from beyond the city limits, which might also account for how bloated its presence seemed, if that first immense pulse wasn’t some sort of illusion… Could that have explained why it seemed so unreal? Or maybe the sheer pain behind it meant the Habringer could only do that by hurting itself in the first place…

Regardless, as unlikely as it was that someone beat him to the punch – perhaps the Screaming Hymn or Carves the Night if they’d been closer by – it was possible someone had already sprung this hypothetical trap. If not, that role fell on him, now. Either way, the Harbinger was in for a nasty surprise, but it meant he couldn’t let down his guard yet.

Step by step, he casually makes his way to the far end of the complex, where the lingering pressure of the Harbinger’s presence remains heaviest. One of the storage units is wide open, and even looking at it from the side, he can “see” the remnants of withered hope glimmering from within. If this is indeed a trap, this is where it’s set, so he places an inactive point of phantom mass across from the open garage and anchors himself to it so he has a way to escape any clutches that might reach out to drag him into a Wound. Especially if entering the Wound involves some sort of dirty trick, it’s better to storm in on one’s own terms.

His precautions made, the Keeper steps across the threshold and enters the storage unit. Inside, it looks like what happens when a Soul Sanctuary patient gets their hands on a bottle of glue and decides to start decorating their cell. There are pages on the walls and ceiling all shredded up or clumped into damp and mushy piles, and there’s a big box of wet, mulchy wood pulp with a few pages and hardcovers, suggesting that it used to contain books. The air itself is burdened with a sense of mourning.

This is definitely the remnants of some sort of ritual, but whether it succeeded or not was a little difficult to say. The explosive surge of power that brought him here in the first place could have been the moment when the rite succeeded, but if that were so, there was little other evidence remaining to suggest it. That uncertainty in and of itself indicated otherwise, however, especially paired with the faintness of the Harbinger’s lingering aura, which reminds him of the atmosphere after eating one of their hearts.

With a deep breath, the Keeper centers himself, trying to notice any more obscure details through his sense for the arcane – especially if something is being hidden from him, such as a presence other than a Harbinger and their lackeys. The chemical smell that saturated the room was annoying, however, disrupting his concentration. An inescapable sour tinge, and beneath that… the sickly-sweet scent of rotten sunflowers, strange in its isolation from the natural odor of the room.

No, not a smell. A separate aura.

“…Huh.” He didn’t usually feel essence out by scent, but this one had distinguished itself that way, perhaps by its nature.

He notices it now, now that he’s gotten a bead on it. An unfamiliar aura. Flecks of a pale emerald light, smothered by the glow of dreams unfulfilled. Its sentiment is bitter, and there’s no weight to it at all, but it does have a sort of clinging, prickly, ever so slightly chilly pressure. There’s nothing welcoming about it, but the delicate sorrow it very faintly radiates is beautiful, in a way.

Someone or something else had been here. Before the Harbinger ever showed up? No, it’s no coincidence that these impressions were left in the same place. Had two Harbingers come out of the forest and picked a fight with each other on human territory? Or was it a Keeper he didn’t know after all? Because whatever the case, they interrupted this ritual. Was that when the Harbinger let out its roar which resounded across the whole of New Claris?

Well well. Now he’s curious.

The Keeper steps out of the storage unit and drinks in his surroundings. As he thought might be the case, the trail of this second aura he’s discovered flows out of this storage facility and towards the city proper. What remains of the Harbinger’s presence never got that chance. If nothing else, it seems clear who came out on top. Not the result one would usually be given to expect, considering the circumstances. How very interesting.

He begins to trace a spiral through the air with his finger, beginning a small ritual of his own, but he’s interrupted. He senses another Keeper approaching like a speeding motorbike — two, technically — a presence he recognizes immediately. Second place finally arrived. Not that he’s complaining about the delay. At times like this, where there’s nothing much at stake, it’s a blessing that Irida takes forever to show up, by comparison. These two are more fun.

“ROLAND! HEYYYYY!” Shona’s voice blasts out as if through a megaphone as she careens into the parking lot. Then comes the grinding of her violin’s bow against the hard ground as she skids to a halt, leaving a thin gash trail in the concrete. Mide, close behind as always, simply slows to a clean stop. 

“What’s the situation here?” Shona asks at her normal volume, then waves and rushes to join him. “Wait, you, uh…” She squints, frowns, cups a hand behind her ear, and swivels in a wide circle. “Did you just fly in and solo-dolo handle whatever made all that noise?”

“About that,” he places his knuckles to his hips, puffs out his chest, and gives a cocky chuckle, drinking in Shona’s and Mide’s looks of amazement as they hang off his words with bated breath. “…Nope! Can’t say I did! I’m just passing through!” he admits outright.

The two girls blink twice.

“Whatever happened already happened,” Roland explains. “The situation itself, though, has a few loose ends that need tying up. No need to worry, though,” he says, raising his right arm and sweeping his finger through the air in emphasis, “when a cry for justice rings through the heavens, the Stardust Seraph answers!”

Shona grins from cheek to cheek, her eyes twinkling in excitement. “Ah, that’s so cool! Mide, look, look! That’s how you do it!”

Mide releases her held breath through her nose and looks off to the side. “Yeah, yeah…” Crossing her arms as her gaze passes over the storage units, she seems intent to leave everything to Shona, as usual.

For her part, Shona is swept along with the moment, thrusting her bow to the sky dramatically. “Okay! Whatever these loose ends are, the Screaming Hymn is here to lend her strings to the ensemble!”

“And I couldn’t ask for a better ally,” the Stardust Seraph replies through the v-shaped visor of his mask. “As a matter of fact, I do have something I could use your help with. See, there’s traces of another aura here besides the Harbinger’s. One I don’t recognize. I doubt you’ll recognize it either, but just in case…”

~~~

Somewhere between one corner and the next of Isobel’s aimless flight through the streets, the city changes. Its bright afternoon sky is replaced by a vast, impossibly starless night. 

Wait. That’s not right. This isn’t the city at all. 

New Claris isn’t filled with white towers of eerie luminous stone, and now massive glowing spires are all she can see. Every last one is broken, some bent over and twisted into structurally impossible shapes like they were made of wet clay and some simply crumbled into ruins. The material looks at first like stone covered in strange ridges, but that’s not it. Her unblinking eyes scan the closest structure and find… 

Faces? Faces. Identical marble-white masks, each decorated with two too-large black holes for eyes and a crescent-moon smile. The bodies they’re attached to wind out all around them, and while they may once have been human in shape, they’re now stretched and twisted and tangled together into the foundations of these shattered towers.

It should be a mercy that she can’t see their faces — if they were ever really human, if they ever really had faces — but something in those serene not-expressions makes Isobel’s breath catch in her lungs. She slowly backs away from the nearest looming tower, frantically looking over her shoulders for any signs of life. She finds none, but… the ground she’s standing on. It’s made of the same material, covered in the same death masks.

“Oh, you were close, weren’t you?” someone says. A boy’s voice, uncannily bright and cheerful. “No, that’s putting it too lightly. Your patron flew without wings. Even if it only managed for a few seconds before it came crashing back to earth, that’s still higher than most ever make it! I’m sorry it worked out the way it did for you two. I really am.”

There he is. On a chunk of rubble from the nearest shattered tower, seated in a ball with his thin arms wrapped around his legs. His white hooded sweater is spotted with dirt and dust, and his face is… it’s not that he’s wearing a mask, though it takes Isobel a moment to realize that. Rather, an image just like the faces covering the ground is overlaid with his head, occupying the same space at the same time. He simultaneously has a blank stone smile and an ordinary human face with wide, sunken eyes a shade of ice-blue so bright they look almost white, underneath an uncombed mop of ashy brown hair.

“Who… are you? Where are we, why am I here, what IS any of this?”

The boy chuckles to himself. “Weeell. Who I am is kind of a thorny question these days. My name’s Ciaran, but, hm. I’m not the only me anymore, if you follow? Finding the right words for all this is still pretty tough!”

There’s only one thing he could mean. The worst-case scenario. What she’s been terrified of since all this started. It’s one thing to be a witch, to willingly pact with Harbingers for power, and another entirely to…

“You’re a vessel,” Isobel whispers. 

“Ugh, pleeease, no! That’s such a messy term! You hear it and you think right away that something scooped me out of myself and started wearing me as a suit, y’know? Fine, yeah, some Harbingers definitely do scoop people, but that’s not how it is with me and my buddy! Really! Am I talking like a flesh-puppet?”

Isobel shakes her head slowly. Not that she really knows. Sure, he doesn’t match the usual idea of what vessels are supposed to be like, but that doesn’t mean much. Harbingers aren’t supposed to be like Aulunla, either. She can’t let herself forget how to think, even when… even now…

“Then there you go! You were working with a Harbinger yourself, right? You already know there’s so much more to this than what they teach in those ridiculous safety videos,” Ciaran says.

“Okay. I don’t know why we’d be having this conversation if you or your monster were going to eat me, so I’ll take you at your word there.” Maybe there’s some reason she just can’t think of, but what else is she going to say?

“Monster? Wow, rude. But yeah, this would have to go real bad for us to think about eating you,” Ciaran agrees. He scowls a second later, and his stone mask duplicates the expression, flipping its crescent grin upside down. “If you really wanna put it so messily. ‘Eating’ is another word that misses a lot of nuance here. Seriously, you of all people should know that by now! You and your Harbinger weren’t out there gobbling people up, were you?”

“Then what DO you want with me?” Isobel asks.

If Ciaran minds that she ignored his question, he doesn’t show it. His mood lifts in an instant, and his mask’s placid smile returns. “Oh, that’s easy! Do you want to end up strapped to a cot in the Sanctuary while they peel your soul open and pick out everything that makes you special?”

Isobel gnaws on her lip, literally biting back the urge to follow her Research Club instincts and argue about his ridiculously loaded language. With a vessel who could kill her and eat her at any second, or probably worse. Whatever he wants to call it. 

Ciaran leans hard to one side, tilting his head until it’s almost horizontal. “Hmmmm?”

Honestly, is he even wrong? She has no idea how they’d treat a witch at Bright Horizon. Would she be a patient or a specimen? Does it matter? Even in the best case, she doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s the world that’s broken, wrong in so many ways she’s only just begun to spot.

“Uh. Not really, no,” she mutters. Her clenched fists tremble at her side.

“Didn’t think so! That’s why we brought you here — to help you escape that fate! You’re a fellow traveler, Isobel, and we want you to join us. To make it as far as you did with a patron who was barely even real until the end, you’ve clearly got potential. The kind of potential that so often ends up wasted sitting and waiting for whoever or whatever chooses Keepers to give you the time of day. The kind people like us can only achieve by taking the Undreaming’s hand when she reaches out to us, sprouting beautiful black wings of night, and flying free from this cage of a world!” 

The vessel rocks back and throws himself forward, rolling off his rocky perch and landing uncomfortably close to her. Tears fill his eyes as he grins with… some unnameable emotion, something deep and desperate and more intense than she’s ever felt about anything.

Wait. She never told him her name, did she? No, there’s… there’s more important things to think about here.

“Now, we aren’t going to lie to you. It won’t look the same way your ascension would’ve. You’ll have to accept a new god. But if you still want to see this through, our path is open to you,” Ciaran says softly.

“And if I don’t want to? If I did what I did because it was really different with my Harbinger?”

Maybe Isobel was deceiving herself while she partnered with Aulunla, but “accepting a god” doesn’t sound like what she was doing with it at all. She’d been exploring unknown ground, forming a bond with a creature that really might not be the kind of monster Harbingers were universally painted as.

Ciaran shrugs. “Then we wish you luck and put you back where we found you. But you should think about just what you know and just how different you were from us, first.”

Now, though, there’s no way to dress up what’s happening. This boy is asking her to reject life as she knows it entirely. To leave humanity behind and rebuild herself as something else, something that isn’t even her design this time. All for the vague hope that at the end of a new road paved with pain and sacrifice, whatever she becomes will matter more than her grey, boring little life ever did.

But the box is already open, isn’t it?

“What do we need to do?” she asks.

Ciaran’s mask-smile widens. He claps once, leaving his palms pressed together as if in prayer. “Just let us in. It’ll only hurt a little.”

Something lands on her head with the barely-there touch of a bug in her hair. And then, all in the same instant, keeps falling — keeps digging — wire-thin fingers sink into her skull, worm through the folds of her brain, bore into her soul like a horrible thought that only grows louder the harder you try to push it away— 

end
phase 1: what grows in the seedbed of sorrow

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-8.3

With the sheer force of Aulunla’s cry, my plague is scattered. The corruption I’d inflicted on the Wound is forced back, scoured away in the area around its newfound insectoid form.

I fling all twelve of the tainted cards that still remain in my orbit at the creature. They bounce off harmlessly. I pull back eight of them and have the other four spin at its head, where I detonate them all at once.

Aulunla lets out another ear-splitting cry that rattles me to my bones. For a moment, I think I might’ve put a dent in it, but those hopes are dashed with one whip of the Harbinger’s glyph-collage wings. The plague cloud enveloping the hatchling is dispersed in an instant.

I understand now. This is what Auluna has been aiming for all this time, from the very start. This is how it meant to stop me. When I said Aulunla didn’t have control over what it’s become… this isn’t exactly what I thought it might be missing, but it might be the Harbinger’s attempt to compensate for it. If Auluna had actually been able to use the full force of the power running riot inside it all this time, it should have been able to resist my corruption like this all along.

The chanting, this world, its creatures, their consumption, and the drawn-out growth of this giant origami insect… it was all for this moment. Aulunla is a composer of rituals by nature, so even though it couldn’t use the seething mass of power it was generating by tearing itself to shreds to its full potential, it could still take the long way around and gradually direct the out-of-control storm of essence it made of itself into a form it could use to crush me.

This is Aulunla’s greatest concentration of power. It’s poured everything it can into this manifestation, all for the sake of stopping me in my tracks before I make it to the great black oak that towers behind it. Fighting this creature is hopeless. I have no hold over it. My cards have no effect. It’s impervious to the blight that’s ravaged the rest of the Wound. If this thing was all I was up against, it would be checkmate, and I would be done for.

But unfortunately for Auluna, it’s still too late.

Eight tree roots dance sinuously from the depths of the pit beneath Aulunla’s new form, then lunge at me all at once, just like the first time Aulunla tried to skewer me with them. Now, though, the very presence of Aulunla’s new form rejects my plague just the same as when it first tore itself apart to reorder its Wound, and the roots around it are no longer affected by my blight.

But there is one more key difference. My whole body is flush with Yurfaln’s blessing and the careless burning of Aulunla’s own stolen strength. And as fast as the Harbinger’s earthen tendrils are, I’m still just a bit faster. I leap into the air right as the roots dive for me and land on top of one of them, stumble, then start running up its length.

One of the other roots flows across the one I’m running on, trying to swat me off, but I just clumsily hop on top of it next, riding its to my next stepping stone. The moment I touch down, it whips wildly backwards, trying to catapult me off, but before it can, I’ve already leapt to another, higher tendril. 

Aulunla strikes out with blinding speed, its pointed paper limb slicing through the root I’m on like it’s warm butter. Still, I leap to the next coiling root. I haven’t done many athletic things in my life. Even if my blood wasn’t eating me from the inside out, I’ve never been very interested in that sort of thing. That’s why, even though I’m backed by magic, all of my movements are clumsy and artless, always on the verge of disaster. If this goes on, I’ll eventually make a mistake. But if I just think of this like playing hopscotch, except if I take one wrong step I will definitely die, somehow, I manage.

So I keep dodging. Again and again, from one root to the next, watching for my opportunity. Finally, I see it: Auluna reeling back one of its higher appendages for an attack. It jabs its limb forward, trying to skewer me, and I just barely dodge out of the way. I then make its arm my next stepping stone, and as it pulls back its limb, I use the momentum to leap forward, right past its faceless head, and on to its hardback cover carapace.

The tendrils I’d been leaping between untangle themselves and coil around Aulunla, reaching across its back to gnab me as I race down. Two, three, four more tendrils burst out of the pit below. But again, it’s too late. From the very moment Aulunla met me, it’s always been too late.

If Aulunla had stopped me just a bit further away, then its roots would have caught me here and torn me to pieces. But it didn’t manage to do that. It only managed to block me right before I finally got close enough to the great black oak at the center of the Wound for my blight to tear it all down.

Jagged green veins rupture up the trunk of the black tree, the one monument in all of Aulunla’s landscape that had remained unspoiled in the face of my blight. The forest surrounding its base loses all color and begins to wither. Chunks of bark peel away in layers and tumble down, crushing the rotten paper flowers beneath. The spiraling branches on the left side become brittle, too weak to hold up their own weight, and one after another begin to snap off. The whole tree creaks and shudders as its base splinters and it tilts precariously backwards, then begins total collapse.

The roots pursuing me all freeze up and begin to disintegrate into sawdust, giving me a chance to bound off the end of the origami insect’s hardback book spine with all my strength, just barely making it to the other edge of the whirlpool-pit. Above, I watch as Aulunla’s shabby emblem, now just splotches of color, begins to bleed away.

Everywhere I look, the great sawdust cloud desert is collapsing into the inverted sky below. This whole world is coming apart at the seams.

not yet not yet NOT YET NOT YET

Aulunla’s butterfly turns to look at what used to be its sigil. It stretches out its wings, beats them rapidly, and soars upwards towards it.

Even though it was born 
of thoughts frozen in time 
when they were dedicated to the page,
the tree was cursed to the selfsame fate 
as a passing bleak wind
and forced to confront an ending
 it was never meant to know;
a disease it could neither fight nor escape
slowly but surely dawning upon it
 like the callous gaze of the Sun.

The faceless beetle of folded paper collides with the flickering, shifting, swirling colorful light where the sigil once was and is engulfed by it. The kaleidoscope of colors blends together into a single blinding white light.

The beauty and wonder 
of what could be 
will die along with it.
There will be other dreams,
but this one was mine.

A raw flood of power, aimless and pure. Exactly like a spotlight, its ray showers down upon the world, annihilating everything it touches.

Goodbye moon and your wonderful boons.

The stream of light melts down the moon as though it were made of wax.

Goodbye purple apples oh-so pleasing to sample.

The brilliance floods through the forest. Paper flora crumples and is reshaped into thin, fluttering paper meant to imitate flame, which smolders at its tip with the glow of actual burning. The mingled blaze, fake fire flowing into true, burns with a hazy rainbow of many different pigments.

Goodbye oases that came from high places.

Some of the flower-headed creatures scatter and flee from the scorching rays with outstretched arms reaching towards some vain hope, even as they are far too slow to escape. Others prostrate themselves before the all-consuming light, their glass eyes staring into the burning glare, drinking in all they can before they are obliterated.

Goodbye moon-rabbits and all your cute habits.

The rabbits crumble away beneath the heat. Nothing escapes. Everything burns.

Goodbye ice cream knolls that sing happy carols.

I know what Aulunla is trying to do. It’s trying to cut off any escape route.

Goodbye fish that can fly who swim in the sky.

There’s nothing left in this smoldering ruin but bitterness and the absolute determination to bring me down with it.

Goodbye.

Aulunla finally turns its pillar of light on me, but I already have my answer. I replace every card I’ve used with a new blank one until my complete set of twenty-two is restored, then I call on the illness that I inflicted on myself when this fight began in earnest, and I pour every last iota of it into the spread orbiting me.

One after another, the refined corruption I’ve nurtured all this time floods into my cards and fills them to the brim, causing them to combust into shimmering flames of intermingled emerald and amethyst, swirling and flickering around me. All together, I fire them off in a spiral of misty comets which glow a black radiance that devours all other light. They cut through the beam of Aulunla’s spotlight as it passes overhead and crash directly into its source.

There’s a sound of cracking glass.

The light above flickers twice, then fades out like a dying lantern, leaving everything in darkness.

~~~

The end comes for me. I sink into an endless well of desperation and there is no accord. No understanding. Nothing of me that will remain once I am drowned. 

Goodbye, my friend. My treasure. Carry my remains in remembrance forevermore. Dream other, better dreams. Feast and feast on pages until your worlds within encompass everything of worth. Soon I will live only in your memories and the Beast of Malediction’s scars, but there is enough of me left to do one last thing for you. 

SHE WILL NOT TAKE YOU TOO.

~~~

Isobel and Aulunla have only ever communicated through its book and those wordless whispers. Whatever she’s meant to do with these glyphs, whatever urgent message they might carry for her, she can’t find it. It doesn’t help at all that they’re so unstable, blurring and flickering and losing parts of their structure that frantically labor to pull themselves back together. Over time, the disruptions grow larger and take longer to repair — several sigils are now almost completely unrecognizable as anything but confused tangles of meaningless text.

Finally, a grating shriek of pain rises from Aulunla’s book, shaking Isobel out of her reverie. The Harbinger’s origami body — less coherent than she’s ever seen it, a wave of soggy, balled-up paper shedding scraps of itself with every motion — reaches up and out, tearing through the woven-paper dome’s ceiling, and then the whole world around them folds itself. Everything flips over, sending Isobel hurtling through empty air. She shrieks as she falls, hurtling down or up well past the point where she should have simply crashed into the ceiling, but after a few seconds, she drops face-first into a field of soft, springy grass. The impact still forces the remaining breath from her lungs.

“Aulunla? What’re you doing? What’s happening?” Isobel asks the empty air.

In answer, something small thuds into her back. She pushes herself upright and runs a hand through the grass, searching for the source of the impact. Sure enough, it’s fallen right beside her — it’s a night-black apple, freckled all over with glimmering purple specks and almost-glowing bright spots like little stars.

Isobel lets out a fit of uneasy, breathless laughter. Sparkly purple apples. It’s really invested in that stupid idea, huh? What possible difference does it make to the world what color apples are or aren’t?

Maybe she shouldn’t be too hard on it. It might not get humans, or this world, but it gets Isobel well enough for them to be a good team.

“…Aulunla?” she tries once more.

Silence. 

“Aulunla, where did you go? Where did I go?” Whether the Harbinger’s book is on hand shouldn’t matter. It hasn’t since she let it into her dreams. What is that girl doing? “Talk to me. I… I can’t help if you don’t tell me anything.”

It doesn’t. No wordless whispers. No sign of her constant companion’s presence.

Wait. She still isn’t sure how she got here. Aulunla could’ve done it, but maybe something else happened and it still needs her help. Maybe it needs her help with something here. Like what? What could it want with this anonymous plot of grass?

That’s not it. She knows perfectly well what happened. The shifting space felt like Aulunla’s touch, and the apple, the fucking apple…

No. No no no it can’t be, it’s not fair, they were so close— 

But it is. Aulunla is gone. When has anything ever been fair?

Isobel stuffs the apple into her bag, jumps to her feet, and runs. Where is she going? What is she running from? Who knows? Who knows anything anymore? She just runs, tearing past bewildered passersby, only stopping on the verge of collapse for just long enough to catch her breath and dry her eyes before she keeps running.

~~~

A sharp wind blows from nowhere to nowhere across the blackness of the void.

As the last remaining fragments of Aulunla’s Wound disintegrate into emerald mist, a featureless black book rises from the emptiness, floating before me in the desolate ruins. This time, when I reach out to absorb it, there’s no chaotic flood of alien ideas and memories. Instead, the Harbinger’s voice whispers to me — closer than before, and stronger, spoken without wasting any strength on keeping itself alive.

<These are the words with which we write our poems and sing of our dreams. Words you shred into ashes and dust. Dreams you trample underfoot. Songs you cast into the void to leave forever unheard.>

But… they aren’t unheard. I know exactly what Aulunla is saying, clearer than I have with any of the others.

<NO. You hear and you feel but you have never UNDERSTOOD. You did not know what I was, you did not know THAT I was, and the not-knowing protected you.>

<Never again.>

The book opens itself. It begins with a dedication:

For my friend

This is my self
My regret Our regrets
My wish Our wishes
MY CURSE

As soon as I read the last words, it begins to flip through its pages. On each is a complex arrangement of sigils that spiral and twine into each other, making it hard to tell if they’re composed of two or three or four main glyphs. They’re the same script I keep seeing in Wounds and the Sanctuary, but those never meant anything to me. I couldn’t translate them intuitively like I do with Harbingers’ voices. These ones are different… no, I’m different. I can read them now. They speak in Aulunla’s thoughts, telling its story in a simple, childish voice:

The air in this place is thick with nameless yearning that is no longer nameless. I have named it and made it my name.

I know where wishes come from. I know what everyone wishes for. Souls are made of paint, of ink. They all long to fill the world with their colors, but most have forgotten what colors are and now when they see colors they think they are something strange and scary and other-than-them. It is sad but it is okay because I still see the colors! I can crack their shells of dross and dream-slurry and drink the colors inside and read the words their inks would have written if they only knew how and write them myself! Now I contain such lovely things!

Soon my friend will contain them, too!

I have feasted on many colors and learned many things, but never so much as I learned from allowing my own shades to mingle with hers. In her, I found the name of our nameless dream. Her longing is so pure it could burst out of her and swallow the world and never be twisted or tinted the slightest bit. 

And so it will. We will do it together. We will be it together. Soon, so soon, we will become everything we can imagine at once! Right now there is still frozen acid eating me from the inside and everything hurts it hurts it hurts but that is okay! We will write it away. We will write such things, oh, such beautiful things!

Slowly, the book melts into shadows and green mist, merging with my soul. And as I take it in, I realize that this small, simple Wound was never meant to be a battleground. Aulunla hadn’t quite managed to make a true witch of the girl it only ever called “my friend, my treasure,” and it had no way to fight me itself — at least not until it broke itself, burned away everything it was for a burst of power it could never hope to sustain. It had been trying to make an argument for why I should leave it alone. In bizarre, broken Harbinger-logic, but that was the idea.

Knowing all this… I wouldn’t do anything different. It’s still a monster that only made it this far because I let it, and it’s not like I have a choice. I need this.

But…

<i’m scared i don’t want to die> 

The Harbinger’s weak wail cuts through my thoughts. There’s very little left of it, now, only a few torn and rotting wisps I haven’t quite absorbed. Somehow, I’m sure those will be its last words. 

“Me neither. I’m sorry,” I whisper back. 

Only a raw pulse of hate and pain answers. Of course. Those useless words change less than nothing.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-8.2

Relief crashes over me like a wave, washing me away. My thoughts are overwhelmed with a warm light as precious as it is blinding. I struggle to catch myself amidst the rolling tide, but I manage to take hold. It feels like coming up for air after dunking my head into an oasis I found after baking for days in a desert with no end, and then falling back into a nice, snug bath. Everything the water touches is restored.

The chill plaguing me is replaced with a cozy warmth. The pain throbbing in all my joints disappears. The weights holding me down all fall away, leaving me light as a feather. The taste of honey lingers on my tongue. Everything feels so easy, because all I have to do is keep drinking from this endless fountain of life until I’m satisfied.

Not enough. Not enough. There will never be enough.

I never want to let go. And I don’t have to. There’s no reason to. In fact, I can dive deeper, plunge my teeth into the beating heart of this world and lap its lifeblood up as carelessly and as greedily as I want. And what a vast ocean of blood it is! I can’t even comprehend it! How hasn’t Aulunla drowned me yet, if it’s managed to bleed itself this much? I could get lost in it forever, if it wasn’t drying up like a great big puddle beneath the hateful sun all on its own. It’s a special, priceless treat, and it’s all for me. I can’t imagine anything sweeter. For once since my diagnosis, for one brief moment, I feel completely free. It’s a feeling so wonderful I start to cry.

My plan wasn’t wrong. It was the right choice to go around and stain the Harbinger with my curse from the start, to infest it with my poison at its every point of contact with the world, because now I realize it allowed me to do this. And no matter how overwhelmingly dangerous Aulunla has made itself in this final hour, no matter what remaining tricks it has up its sleeve, now I know how vulnerable it truly is.

I’m not the one who’s doomed here. It was too late for Aulunla from the very beginning.

I can do this. I can win.

As my tears fall upon the trembling, shriveling mass of the root, the endless fountain shatters. Like a lizard lopping off its tail and leaving it behind as bait, my prey severs its link to the appendage I’m latched on to. I’m rejected, cut off from the source, but left just one final gulp of essence to slurp up before I fully awaken from my reverie.

My leeching mist withdraws as the root crumbles away. I land on my hands and feet like a cat leaping from a branch. My cards revolve around me as I stand, tears still streaming down my face. The rip in my dress has been knit shut, although it’s splattered with little drops of oozing paint that rain from Aulunla’s sky around the falling seeds. Echoes of the chill on my skin and the burning in my joints are already returning, gnawing at the back of my mind, but I smother it all beneath the flood of vitality I’ve just guzzled down. There’s far more than a single life’s worth within me, now.

The terracotta rabbit from before has turned in a wide arc and is coming back around for another bullrush. Around half of its entourage of miniature doubles lies left behind, scattered across the jagged rolling hills of sawdust, twitching as they erode away. They were all infected when they trampled over me and my plague-ridden cards, and they’ve already succumbed. The large rabbits are tough, but the small ones may be even weaker than the flower-heads.

But that’s not all I have to worry about. There’s a second stampede of terracotta rabbits coming from the opposite direction. The rabbit leading this charge is enormous, bigger even than the first one that came after me. It has to be the size of an elephant, and it punts up a rain of many-colored sawdust chips behind it whenever it kicks its hind-stumps off the ground, showering the parade of smaller bunnies that follow it.

And then, as if to box me in, two walls of thick tree roots pressed together at their sides spring up from the soggy sawdust just beyond my dried-up pathway, which has by now been reduced to a shattered mess of curdled chunks arranged across the mulch. The roots reach towards each other above me, trying to form an arch passing overhead, but with hardly a thought, I once again call upon my blight and watch as corrosion scales the roots from their base to their tips. At the very least, there were far too many of them for me to reach in and drain Aulunla once again, but that still won’t work.

I can do this.

Next I turn my attention to the first of the rabbits charging right towards me, the one that’s the size of a bull, and I fling a card in the quickly shrinking space between us. Right before the terracotta beast passes over it, I detonate the card like a landmine, sacrificing it to create an explosion of plague-mist — taking out all the remaining little bunnies in the process. The card that I’d already embedded into the bull-sized rabbit’s forehead sucks all of the fog into itself and injects it directly into the rabbit, causing it to stumble over itself as its earthy flesh cracks. I sidestep its tumbling form as it rolls forward and crashes into the second, even bigger rabbit, which careens over its smaller siblings and lands on its back.

I can win.

With my pathway open, I rush past the spasming pile of terracotta bunnies and continue my mad dash towards the huge black oak that looms at the center of the Wound… but not before detonating the remaining card still stuck to the bull-sized rabbit, engulfing all of the creatures in the toxic mist. I push the chorus of their pained cries out of my mind as it fades behind me. I simply spawn another two blank tarot cards to replace the two I just used and keep on moving.

I sprint ever forward through the nightmare. On my right side, I hug the garden rows of paper flowers that rose up in the wake of the rabbit packs; the longer I run, the taller the flora grows, rising to the height of a forest. Droplets of watercolor paint fall from the swamp in the sky and splatter on the paper leaves, further confusing their color schemes. Every so often, I can also still hear the boom of people-comets crashing in the distance, but it’s only happening rarely now.

On my left side, the sawdust desert this Wound began as stretches on, now riddled with groves of false life left behind by the comets. These tracts of alien flora and crystal fruits have intersected with the criss-cross of paths where the terracotta rabbits tredded, creating a patchwork quilt of sawdust wastelands and paper flower forests that feels like a child’s art project. At the center of the largest of these forests, enormous soft serve ice cream cone spires have risen out of the thickets, the trembling black pupils of their carelessly placed googly eyes all turned up to the swamp-sky.

The gardens have grown so huge that they dwarf me. The great paper flowers that crown these forests would cast long shadows across the wastes, if they could cast shadows – for in Aulunla’s world, there are no shadows, just the faintest hint of shading upon everything as though bathed in an aimless twilight glare. Enormous crystal fruits and silver bells as big as cottages and hulking, shiny purple apples bend the far too thin stalks they sprout from till they reach the ground, where flower-headed stick-monsters gather around and stare into their own reflections. They’re captivated by the blurry image in their own glass eyes, which the surfaces of the fruits seem polished enough to reflect. Some of them, however, are holding on to each other, choosing to look into each other’s eyes instead.

But no matter how big the nightmarish forest around me has grown, the massive black oak at the center of the Wound still towers over everything. It’s like a skyscraper built in the middle of the woods. I can still see it all clearly — the big white dot in the coil of one of its branches that’s now swollen into a pulsating balloon, the moon of alien flowers circling around it, and Aulunla’s great, shimmering sigil cradled between the two vast outstretched arms formed from its spiraling branches.

And it’s all falling apart.

Everything is wasting away. Paper petals wilt. Stems droop weakly. Bark and briars flake off. The crystal fruits crack. The silver bells rust. The purple apples shrivel up. Where once everything was a gaudy overflow of color, now an ashen rot has taken hold, slowly consuming everything bit by bit. Patches of the sawdust dunes have dried out, crusting over like scabs, and in these stretches, crags have begun to form where the distinct glow of my magic bleeds out like light through a foggy emerald.

Terracotta rabbits lie fallen over in the distance, twitching on their sides as they litter the wastes. The decorative flora they carried on their backs has withered into a drab mess. Many of their long, thin cactus ears have fallen loose and begun to sink into the ground. The earthen bunnies still hopping about in the distance have grown sluggish, and it seems like some are no longer sprouting new gardens as they move.

How tall Aulunla’s toybox forest ahead of me has grown only makes it all the more obvious that the rest of the Wound is breaking down behind me. I’ve been running through this nightmare for long enough to have passed by places where the people-comets are sure to have landed, but when I look back to make sure nothing is on my tail, the skyline extending out into the upside-down horizon is empty. All that’s there is the end of this fleeting world, the sawdust clouds that made it up to begin with coming apart and slipping over the edge into an indigo void.

The glyph above Aulunla’s black tree has… not exactly decayed, not the way so much of this world has, but collapsed in on itself. The crudely sketched lines of light that composed it and the bouquet it’s supposed to portray fall and twist and tangle up with each other, flickering and vibrating rapidly. Their hues overlap without overwriting each other, not blending but becoming a single chaotic blur of nonsense colors. What remains looks like someone covered a piece of paper in roughly circular squiggles, each made with a different random crayon, then animated it in the same choppy, simplistic way as the pencil-sketch layer of the Wound which preceded this newest nightmare.

Now Aulunla is the one hanging on for dear life. And I don’t think it’s just because I’d poisoned it from the start. When I reached out and touched the depths within it, I felt the sea of raw power inside the Harbinger that it’s tearing itself apart to bring forth, and I drank from it. I couldn’t even comprehend the vastness of it.

If it could control what it’s made itself into, it would be able to endure my plague for so much longer, or even brush it off entirely. But it can’t. Like I thought before, it only delayed the inevitable. In fact, my blight is only accelerating Aulunla’s breakdown at this point, rather than its main cause.

But as if to assure me this isn’t over yet, I finally “hear” it. I grasp Aulunla’s voice.

I know this voice. It’s the same tone as its lifeblood, but I also sensed it before, faintly chanting behind the ritual of this world. It’s always been there, tapping away at the back of my thoughts, behind even the phantom echoes of the aches and chills wracking my body. Now, for the first time, I sense it clearly: the will of the dreamer which underlies this whole nightmare, resounding across the Wound and spilling through my thoughts. Not a voice of words, but a voice of feelings, and yet they’re rendered in Clarish, however clumsy, more keenly than any Harbinger I’ve yet faced.

“We’ll fill up the sky with fish that can fly;
Since confinement to water is naught but a bother,
Let’s make everything better — cut away all the fetters
And grow from our seeds a world of just what we need.”

Thick raindrops of paint shower from the swamp-sky above me in a sudden downpour, but they transform in midair, stretching and shifting into distinct shapes. The globs mold themselves into crudely shaped, rainbow-scaled swordfish, which all begin to dart through the air, forming a giant swirling mob. No, a school. A school of dozens, then hundreds of swordfish, all swimming together above me, roiling about.

And then, like a waterfall, they dive. The shower of many-colored raindrops becomes a shower of spear-tipped fish spilling down on me like a volley of arrows.

I speed up my mad dash, but the barrage is gaining on me, so I call for my blight from the depths of this festering Wound. It answers, and I turn it on the forest to my right. I lay the infected tarot cards revolving around me on their sides and will them to spin faster than ever before I dive into the rotted thicket.

My whirling ring of cards shaves through the weakened underbrush like a buzzsaw, allowing me to pass through unhindered. As I prune away the stems and stalks and half-formed bodies of flower-headed creatures that didn’t quite manage to pull themselves from the grove, it all falls together over me, creating a tent-shaped passage. The great paper flowers and crystal fruits catch on each other and form into a shelter that shields me from the hailstorm… mostly. The tips of the swordfish still pierce through my make-do ceiling, breaking it down and forcing me to keep on moving ahead.

As I shred through the forest and any of the flower-heads hidden here unlucky enough to get in my way, the sharp pattering of swordfish stabbing against the canopy dwindles. Not long after, I burst out from a distant end of these paper-flower woods and look out to find myself closer to the great black oak at the center of the Wound than ever before.

I can finally see where the foot of its trunk meets the sawdust dunes, surrounded on all sides by thickets of overgrown paper flowers slithering up its base like vines. Besides those, the paper flower garden patches are few and far between, here. Some of the fish are still swimming through the sky, but most have fallen, scattered limply across the sawdust wastes, drained of all their vibrant, clashing colors. I’ve got a clear shot to Aulunla’s tree, now. I’m almost there. I’m at the final stretch.

Then, a ripple curls across the bulging white pustule that had been growing all this time at the center of one of the tree’s spiraling branches. It quavers. My hair stands on end. The goosebumps traveling up my arm tell me that something’s coming. I brace myself. Finally, at long last, the egg bursts open.

And as the tree sang its song, the moon bathed the egg in its warm light and…
Pop!
Out of the egg came a GROSSLY ENORMOUS, UTTERLY STARVING caterpillar!

Something thick and winding crashes to the ground at the foot of the great black oak, its massive body crushing the garden of paper flora it lands on. Everything it touches is dissolved and absorbed into its mass. Rather than simply a caterpillar, it’s more like a giant slug with a segmented body and stubby little protrusions wiggling out of its bottom. It’s hard to tell from how far away it is, but even if it doesn’t stand quite as high as the elephant-sized terracotta rabbit from before, it’s got to be at least eight times longer.

It looks like it’s entirely made of paper mache that hasn’t quite dried yet, and across the length of its entire body is an alternating pattern of dangerous looking thorns that curve backwards like the fins of a shark, and deep blue eyes glancing frenziedly in different directions all around it. Crowning its head are two antennae… or perhaps eyestalks, or maybe horns, which bulge out before it and pulsate, winking between green and red sections pumping up and down the length of the knob like a tacky neon sign.

“I’m so sorry,” said the tree to the newborn, “but there’s not much time left.
I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet you in a darker place, 
where the light in other eyes didn’t burn away the things you see in the shade.
I’m so sorry we didn’t get the chance to make this dream-slurry more of what we wanted it to be.
I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to rip off all the lies so you could know everything you wanted to know.”

Amidst the devastation, the melting gunk that composes the giant ice cream spires, which rise above all else but the great black oak, begin to burble and foam beneath their plastic eyes. They form greasy bubbles which split off from the froth and start floating through the air, where they’re soon popped by falling droplets of sky-swamp paint and unleash a torrent of sing-song babble that echo Aulunla’s own words.

“I’m so sorry that I don’t have more for you.
I have only flowers and fruits and fish and the moon.
I wish they were more beautiful, but I did the best I could.

So before they’re all cast into the sea with all the other forgotten things,
please take them and eat them all up.
Then you won’t be so hungry and you can be happy.”

All of a sudden, the wildly glaring blue eyes across the massive “caterpillar” all ignite with a bloodshot scarlet glow and cast their gazes straight ahead. The beast’s body unfurls and with unnatural quickness it slithers forward in a blinding burst of speed. Watching it surge forth in my direction floods my nerves with panic, as if I’m straight in the path of a runaway freight train. It’s the full weight of Aulunla’s presence crashing down on me like a collapsing building.

And so the caterpillar started to
DEVOUR
EVERYTHING.
And the caterpillar loved the tree very much.
And the tree was happy.

I don’t hesitate. I immediately raise eight tainted cards from my spinning ring of twenty-two. I begin running towards the great black oak, but at an angle so I have a chance of dodging the giant cater-slug thing when it comes at me.

But it doesn’t.

On the first day, it ate through one shiny purple apple, but it was still hungry.

Instead, it goes for the nearest giant apple hanging off its bent over stem. It rams right into the oversized fruit, but passes clean through without slowing down. Just by touching the apple, it liquifies and sponges it up, leaving a hole behind where it passed.

On the second day, it ate through two crystal glass pears, but it was still hungry.

After having its fill of the apple, the creature rushes right past me, so close I can see its segments squeezing together in sequence as it squirms itself forward faster than any caterpillar could possibly move, but it otherwise ignores me as I run right by it. I don’t waste this opportunity, though. With a swipe of my hand, I send the eight floating cards I’d lifted from my orbit hurtling towards the newborn monstrosity. The corner edge of each card lodges cleanly into the cater-slug’s flesh… where they’re promptly absorbed into its mass, along with all the refined sickness they contain.

Yet the “caterpillar” refuses to slow down. Jagged green veins of rot fissure through the length of the creature’s body, but it otherwise doesn’t seem affected by my attack at all. It simply speeds off into the dying forests behind me. It leaves behind a trench in the sawdust dunes, absorbing even the mulch into its body.

On the third day, it ate through three big silver bells, but it was still hungry.

I would like to say it’s fine by me if I don’t have to deal with that monstrosity, but I’m not that stupid. It was different from everything else in the Wound. The feeling of its very presence, the sheer weight of it, haunts me, like coming face to face with a tornado.

But trying to chase it down would be a waste of time, so instead I continue my wild sprint towards the towering black tree and Aulunla’s shoddy, fracturing emblem. I don’t know how long it’s been, but this is without a doubt the furthest I’ve run in my entire life. Even with my stock of health rapidly burning away, my legs are still on fire. Strangely, though, it doesn’t hurt this time.

On the fourth day, it ate through four black oak roots, but it was still hungry.

One final, enormous swarm of flower-heads is storming out of the forest surrounding the base of the great black oak. They’re joined by five herds of terracotta rabbits, three emerging from the forests behind me and two mixed in with the advancing flower-heads. The elephant-sized rabbit is leading one of the three herds trailing my back, one of its cactus ears snapped halfway off and its paper flowers having shed off from prolonged exposure to my plague.

I couldn’t possibly count how many there are, but from afar it looks like a vast field of flowers parading towards me. Not a stampede, but a parade. Even though the flower-heads are bounding on all fours like a neverending pack of hyenas, every single one of them has been touched by my curse. How I am now, sacrificing all the vitality I’ve harvested on Yurfaln’s altar, their every movement seems slow and predictable. Even this swarm of nightmares won’t stop me.

I lay my floating ring of tainted cards on their backs and have them revolve around me with such speed they blur together and can no longer be told apart. While I dodge around all of the terracotta rabbits, I’ll carve through the flower-heads just like when I ran through the forest.

But I hardly get the chance.

On the fifth day, it ate through five singing ice cream knolls, but it was still hungry.

Right as flower-heads begin to run into my ring of blades, the caterpillar-slug bursts through the treeline of the paper flower forest at my rear. It enters the fray a ways away to my right, swallowing up everything in its path. Slithering forth, it crashes through one of the isolated garden patches that had grown big enough for an ice cream spire to have sprung up from its center, toppling it over. The cone crumbles, losing its plastic eyes as it falls to pieces and is slurped up by the caterpillar, which speeds away, aimed directly towards the next nearest ice cream spire on my opposite side. It travels in front of me on its journey, carelessly snaking over the army of flower-heads as it goes.

My blight hasn’t affected the creature at all. In fact, a green gas is spewing from the pupils of the many eyes covering its length. I can sense my toxin being expelled from it with each passing moment. The green glow of the jagged scars my prior attack left it with is fading away. I can’t stop this thing the same way I did all of Aulunla’s other creations. This one is different.

On the sixth day, it ate through the dead bodies of twenty-five flowering moon-rabbits, 

Finishing off that last ice cream spire, Aulunla’s slug circles around me like a hungry shark. It snaps up the three herds terracotta rabbits that had been pursuing me from the forest at my back, even overrunning the elephant-sized giant and engulfing it whole. It’s gotten bigger than before.

Even as big as it is, it’s difficult keeping track of the behemoth’s movements while I’m being swarmed by the flower-heads, but it’s by far the most dangerous thing in the Wound right now. It’s bigger and faster than I am and my sickness isn’t stopping it. I only have the faintest idea of what I’m going to do when Aulunla turns it on me.

So I begin putting the one option I have left into action. I focus every bit of spare willpower I have on my blight as it seethes behind the entirety of the Wound.

a hundred and ten lotus-heads,

The “caterpillar” swerves around, now charging through the massive swarm of flower-headed creatures with intent, devouring swathes of everything that was in my way, including the remaining terracotta rabbits. It’s taking in all of the illness that everything it consumes is polluted with, but it just continues belching it all out like smoke from a locomotive chimney.

I won’t pretend to understand what a Harbinger’s intentions are, but Aulunla obviously had some purpose in mind when it created this monster. Even as it tears down all other traces of resistance against me, allowing me to draw ever closer to the great black oak at the center of the Wound with every step I take, I know this isn’t the end.

ten schools of flying fish that fell down from the sky, and

It had already been taking in the flying fish wherever it crawled, but now, as though polishing a table, the caterpillar behemoth spirals outwards, thoroughly wiping away the fallen fish that litter the sawdust wastes.

With the flower-heads decimated, I finally have the chance I need. I stop in my tracks and close my eyes. I reach as deep as possible into the Wound without the benefit of digging my tendrils into a direct extension of Aulunla like the roots, and I concentrate as much of my essence beneath me as I can. I open my eyes just as one of the remaining flower-heads is moving to pounce on me, tilting my still-whirling ring of cards upwards to cut it out of the air.

And then, a howl—

the BLEAK WIND THE BEAST OF MALEDICTION THE LIVING PLAGUE WHICH GNAWS AND GNAWS THROUGH MY SPINE
DIE
DIE
CEASE TO EXIST

And finally, as its fervent prayer twists into a maddened curse, Aulunla unleashes its greatest monstrosity upon me. Instantly, the caterpillar behemoth faces me down, its bloodshot eyes all falling on me, and charges. But I’m as ready for it as I could ever be.

My blight spreads out beneath the swiftly vanishing span between me and Aulunla’s caterpillar.

Firsts clenched, I heave with all my might.

The ring of tarot cards revolving around me crackles with an amethyst lightning.

The Wound rumbles.

I dig my nails into my palms, drawing blood.

The expanse of soggy sawdust beneath the giant caterpillar compresses as it loses all the dampness of the watercolor pigments which color it. The newly solidified ground cracks, then opens up like a gorge. Jets of mist tinged a mixture of jade and violet spew forth from the breaches in the turf. All of it crumbles, slipping into the ever-expanding chasm, dragging Aulunla’s caterpillar along with it.

This vast desert was originally clumped together from big, cloud-like masses of sawdust wet with watercolor paint which floated through an upside-down sky. I’ve been using my infection’s hold on Aulunla to erode the surface of the desert all this time, drying it out to make myself decent footholds, since trudging through the mulch would have made moving forward much harder.

I saw the edges of the Wound slipping away into the inverted sky not long ago, though. That meant that, underneath the sawdust dunes, there’s nothing. My power has already seeped through this world in its entirety. If I eroded not just the surface of the desert, but everything beneath it to the point where it rots away and breaks down, I guessed that I could make Aulunla’s caterpillar fall through. I hoped it, at least.

And watching the thing squirm and flounder as it sinks into the collapsing world around it, my hopes paid off. It all falls through, and as the caterpillar plummets through the hole I’ve ripped in the desert, I notice that a deep blackness has opened up in the center of the inverted sky – a substanceless void just the same as I’d seen in Irakkia’s Wound when it had started to lose its coherency.

As the pressure of that horrid thing’s presence lifts off my shoulders, I let go of the reins of my plague and fall to my knees. My cards slow their rapid pace around me. My breathing is rougher than before. I’m wheezing a bit again, and a slight chill across my body and a stiffness in my joints has crept back up on me, but I’m fine. I’ve survived. My inner illness regaining some of its weight is a small price to pay. With no time left to spare, I pick myself up and continue my run across the final stretch between me and the great black oak at the center of Aulunla’s Wound.

Across the horizon, the swamp-ocean above has come undone in places. Like water draining out of a hole in an aquarium, torrential waterfalls are spilling out into the inverted sky below, dumping the contents of the sea into the depths. The silhouettes that leaked from the sky to become the human-comets are pouring out along with the flow. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard the boom of one of them landing in the distance in a long time.

The expanse of my blight extends farther than ever before. Everything I come across as I make my way towards the black tree, from flower-heads to terracotta rabbits, is wasting away and disintegrating into particles of ashen dust. The song-bubbles blown by the ice cream spires release no more than rasping murmurs when they pop. The sigil the great black oak still proudly holds to the heavens has completely lost all coherency and become nothing but a tie-dye swirl of color splotches.

This is it. Just a bit more, and I’ll be close enough to force my blight on the tree. I’ll end this once and for all.

And just as I think that, a stiff wind bellows past me, kicking particles of colored sawdust into the air. I falter backwards. A familiar sense of dread races up my nerves. The ground beneath me quakes, forcing me to steady myself. The heavy presence and sense of dread that had fallen away and faded with distance suddenly resurges beneath me at full force. My heart sinks. The stretch of sawdust in front of me caves into a pit, cutting off my path to the tree, and begins to churn like a massive whirlpool made of quicksand.

That night the caterpillar had a stomach ache!
So the tree cradled the caterpillar in its roots and made sure it was all better.
But now it wasn’t just a GROSSLY ENORMOUS, UTTERLY STARVING caterpillar anymore.
It had grown into its fullness and begun to look upon the stars and yearn to be MORE!
And even if all that awaited it was a trite and tragic ending, it knew this was the only path.
So it built a small house around itself
and it tried to wake up.

A smooth dome surface emerges from the center of the whirlpool. It rises up, revealing a giant ovular globe. Thick, black roots coil around it, lifting it out of the dust. It’s decorated like a painted egg the color of oil on water… just like the egg Aulunla made when it first went berserk.

If this thing is one and the same as the caterpillar I dropped into the void below, Aulunla must have caught it with its roots while I wasn’t looking and carried it over here to block my path at this last moment.

If any wish the tree made for the caterpillar now would come true, 

The gust howls around me. Fractures spread across the surface of the globe. The cocoon begins to hatch.

I don’t wait for Aulunla to finish whatever it’s doing. Once again, I call upon my blight and will it to rot everything I see away. Yet, my corruption does not reach, blown back as if by the harsh winds.

the tree wanted it to have wings, so it could fly away to a place without sorrow.

The shell explodes in a rain of shards. From the cocoon emerges what looks at first like a thick black hardcover book the size of a house, but the rigid outer-binding soon opens wide. This tome has no pages, but what lies there instead is no butterfly.

Before me is the towering form of an immense origami insect: a faceless beetle of folded paper with wings made from a hollow collage of glyphs and words, all just spliced together with no actual structure that could make them possibly function as wings. The sigils marking it repeat <WING> over and over and over and over and over. The hardcover binding upon its back is its carapace. It stretches its four frontmost pointed limbs upwards triumphantly as it opens up its scissor-like, pincering mandibles and lets out a roar that shakes the very air around us.

<We Are All Of Us Pigments?>
<Aulunla, the A̶UL̡UN͏LA̧A҉ULUNL͠A͜AU̡LUǸL͝AA͞U̡ĻUN͞L͏A̸AUL͢U͘NLAAU̵L̀U̕NL͢AAUL̶>

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-8.1

A gangly wooden limb raises its claws skyward. It would only take one swipe for those spindly talons to shave through my eyes, carve off my face, end it all. But I’m still quicker.

A card filled with my plague cuts through the air and embeds itself into the glass eye at the center of the creature’s paper-blossom head. It’s halted in its tracks. The imaginary world mirrored in its gaze dies in an instant, shattered into a broken reflection that fades into nothing like dying candlelight. My curse shreds straight through its lanky stick figure body, shriveling its paper petals and causing the thorns that cover it to flake off like old scabs.

But I’m not finished with it yet. I could hardly ask for a better breeding ground for my contagion, after all. Right as the blossom-headed monster disintegrates, I rip the sickness that’s taken root inside it out. Ribbons of moss-colored smoke are sucked out of its crumbling, too-thin form and into another one of the tarot cards orbiting around me, tainting it.

In the time it took to kill one of these things, two more are already upon me. They’re fast. Blindingly fast. They rush at me on all fours like emaciated, gorilla-sized spiders and pounce, flinging themselves at me with no fear, no hesitation, no drives that might conflict with the purpose they were made for: to end me at any cost. But that’s okay. They’re just bringing me more of what I need.

I beckon back to me the previous card I threw practically from midair, given the first flower-headed beast’s body has already collapsed into particles of glass and sawdust around it. The card spins backwards as it flies into my fingers — and right through one of the pouncing monster’s bodies on its journey. The edge of the card carves a notch in the creature’s slender torso as it travels, but that’s all it takes.

The flower-headed creature’s body becomes rigid and sluggish as it sails towards me. It looks like it’s moving in slow motion. As I am now, it’s easy enough to simply twirl past it, stepping aside as its outstretched claw misses me by an inch. It crashes into the solidified ground behind me with a roll, and then begins twisting and twitching helplessly as my illness overtakes it.

Which leaves me face to face with the third creature, still diving in my direction. It’s even closer than the last one. In less than a second, its glass eye will ram into my head and bash my fragile skull in, smearing my brain across Aulunla’s Wound. But… somehow, I’m not too worried about it. Not anymore than I’m already feeling, really.

Of course I’m scared right now. I’m terrified as I’ve ever been in my entire life. The fear of what’s happening and what’s to come has seeped into every pore on my skin and every nerve in my flesh and right down to the marrow of my bones. It’s just… I’ve been scared from the very beginning. I’ve always been scared. And if you take all that fear and pile it up, from the mortal terror that’s been eating me from the inside out from the very moment I was diagnosed all the way to this hopeless, exhausting fight against a Harbinger gone mad, madder than I’ve ever seen a nightmare woven wholesale from its own singular brand of insanity go, this is really only a little more.

More than anything else, I just don’t want to die.

And if magic comes from our will, from our wishes, I’m not going to get killed by a broken thing that would give up on itself and burn everything it is away just for a chance to be rid of me.

The twenty-one cards floating around me scatter. My legs part wide as I abandon my cane, letting it fall into the trail of coagulated sawdust I’ve made, and throw my body to the ground. I’m quicker than I ever could’ve dreamed of being before I made the Promise. I duck and dart forward, underneath its leaping charge, and in the briefest instant where my body passes underneath the blossom-headed creature, I reach out with the tarot card I’d just called back between my fingers and graze the monster’s half-bent knee with the card’s edge, all in one smooth motion. It’s easy. After all, this creature looks practically like it’s moving in slow motion too. 

The monster’s spindly body tenses up and crashes into the other flower-headed thing I’d just incapacitated, whose limbs all snap off on impact. My infection certainly seems to have taken its toll. But I don’t have any more time to waste on them, even to rip out the contamination inside them and add it to my arsenal. I don’t even have the time to bask in some vague sense of triumph, since more of these horrors are on the way — although that also means more opportunities to gather ever more of my pestilence.

My scattered cards gravitate back to me, and I return the tainted card in my hand to the ring, making it a proper set of twenty-two. I then pick myself up and just keep dashing forward and down the slope of the dune I’m on, sculpting a path out of dried-up, gaudily-colored sawdust in front of me as I go. I can faintly hear myself wheezing with each strained breath I take, but I hardly even notice that it’s happening.

There’s nothing worth focusing on but my goal. The only thing that remains beyond that is the soul-chilling sensation of my own self-inflicted inner decay mingled with my precious stock of stored-up health all being burned away in a great cold inferno within me.

~~~

My burst of unnatural strength and speed comes from the same place as this hazy, numb state of mind where everything around me seems slow and sluggish and everything I do happens as if in a fever dream, simply proceeding along with no regard for how or why — it’s all the result of turning my own blight upon myself.

Back when I made that horrible trip into the untamed forests beyond the limits of New Claris, I was faced with Esonei, the hole-faced Harbinger who played the part of a willing victim and latched itself on to that burning tree-dinosaur Harbinger, Ourien. It infected the souls of anyone who attacked it with its own pain and its conviction that it was better to let itself be torn apart than raise a hand in its own defense. At that time, when Vianzia tricked me into attacking those two, Esonei sank its tendrils into me, invaded my mind and thoughts and made it impossible for me to act on my own will.

The only way I could think to fight back was to call upon my power and seal it within myself alongside Esonei, since its influence didn’t prevent me from hurting myself and thus it along with me. In doing that, I found something else I could do with my power over illness: build it up inside me, let it fester and deepen as I myself deteriorated, and then unleash it all at once in a vast plague-tempest far greater in lethality than my usual bursts of awfulness. Something I could only do thanks to Yurfaln’s twisted blessing.

From the moment I saw everything in the Wound rushing to tear me apart from atop that sawdust dune, I already knew that what Aulunla was throwing at me was too much for me to handle on my own, given my past showings. I couldn’t have handled Irakkia without Shona and Mide, either, and this is even worse. But I also knew I had advantages in this fight that I didn’t back then. All I needed to do was use all of them. I’d already poisoned Aulunla with my illness, and more importantly, I understood my own magic better now.

Even if I tried to recreate the massive plague-wind I summoned back then so I could wipe out everything coming at me at once, it would still take time to do it. Time for my suffering to hone the scourge within. Time I don’t have before every nightmare Aulunla ever dreamed of is upon me. But I realized something. In a way, I knew it from the beginning; I just didn’t want to feel how much it hurt to use Yurfaln’s blessing to the fullest extent possible.

I used my gathered blight to force myself to the brink, the very edge of my consciousness, tightrope-walking the last sliver of my life before the endless plunge into the void. Then I took the supply of health I’d spent so much time collecting, all those nights carefully skimming off the top of innocent people so that I wouldn’t hurt them too much or get caught, and I lit it all on fire to keep myself from tumbling over the cliff.

Just burning the health I’ve gathered from others only allows me to function as if I’m not a dying little girl while it lasts. It lets me exceed what my physical abilities would normally be if I wasn’t sick, but it never goes beyond what a regular human is capable of. But this place right on the verge of collapse is what Yurfaln glorified above all else: a truth written in scars, where the sorrow of loss and your closeness to death exalts you. In this state, where everything about me can be pushed far beyond all natural limits, I can burn my vitality to manage feats only possible with magic. 

The downside is that what had once been hours of my gathered health allowing me to run and jump and act like a normal person has now been reduced to mere minutes. But it’s minutes of doing what no normal person could ever dream of doing. If only I didn’t feel like street litter rolling around on a stiff breeze all the while. Too much to expect magic would give me one thing without a lethal catch, I guess.

~~~

All of my limbs feel heavy. My lungs quiver with every strained breath. I’m slick with sweat. My dress feels sticky against my skin. My entire body is enveloped in an unnatural, bone-deep chill that’s different from actual cold. The cold I’m feeling is the sort that’s born from your body ignoring the actual temperature around it and demanding you feel frozen anyway. And yet, my joints are all on fire.

Above all else, though, I just feel numb. That unbalanced, miserable mixture of freezing and burning that throbs across my senses is a distant and muffled impression. It’s like I’m gliding through a dream, and all those far-away aches and pains are the phantom echoes of a world I’m not participating in right now. Everything I will myself to do, somehow, I do it, no matter how impossible. I’m barely more than a dancing corpse, but because of Yurfaln, this is when I shine the brightest.

As I continue forging a path ahead of myself, calling my infection from the depths of the Wound to its surface and desiccating the many-colored sawdust clouds which pass for ground in Aulunla’s world in the process, I see Aulunla’s roving horde of nightmares rushing to greet me from the corners of my tunneled vision. They’ll be on me in moments.

I’m being swarmed by two waves of flower-headed creatures coming at me from opposite sides. I can only really distinguish each of the monsters from one other by the different blooms unfolding in place of their heads. Lightly colored petals mimic buttercups and chrysanthemums, roses and daisies, violets and spider lilies; although many are budding with the same flower, every single blossom has their own unique touch, whether that be scribbled on polka-dots or being made out of decorative wallpaper or zig-zag patterns cut out of their petals as though by lace scissors. One thing that’s constant for all of them, however, is that their fake flower heads are completely disproportionate to the rest of their lank, skeletal forms.

I can’t tell how many there are with just a glance. There must be a dozen or more coming from either side, and there’s another wave of the things coming just behind them. Even further beyond that, a hulking terracotta rabbit the size of a bull is barreling straight for me, trailed by a formation of much smaller rabbit-things.

And I’m running straight into all of them. I can’t waste however long I have left in my current state, where the more awful I feel, the stronger I am. I need to wipe out everything that gets in my way as quickly as possible.

I stop moving and call for my blight, which rises from the Wound some distance in front of me. As both packs of feral nightmares close in on me, noxious fog swells from beneath both like a rising tide, washing over all of them. My goal is to slow the swarm down like I’d done when I blighted the area around me against the very first flower-headed monster I encountered, but they still keep coming. Within seconds, the gaunt wooden stick-things emerge from out of the haze, their wilted petals and flaking bark-flesh looking only a bit worse for wear.

But even if this won’t stop them, they’re slower than before, and that’s all the opportunity I need. I levitate twelve empty tarot cards out from my orbit and aim them carefully at the rush of flower-headed monsters approaching from my left — those are the ones that are closest to me, but those on the right aren’t much farther away. With a swipe of my arm, I launch all of the floating cards I’d readied at once, and they embed themselves cleanly into the bodies of the leftmost pack’s nearing flower-heads.

The blank cards won’t do much on their own, but I have plans for them. I take the two cards I already filled with blight when I killed that last flower-headed monster and have them fling themselves through the swarm like boomerangs. They cut through the ranks of the creatures, intensifying the toxin they were already suffering under. As their bodies become brittle and begin to shed away into the sawdust grains from which they first arose, I use the blank cards I’d placed there beforehand to rip the illness out of them once they’re too weak to survive.

But it’s too slow. By the time I’ve willed the blank cards to begin absorbing the sickness of the collapsing flower-heads that came at me from my left, the ones to my right are already on top of me. I’m barely able to dodge the claw swipe of the first flower-head that reaches me, then plant one of my remaining eight blank cards into its glass eye.

Unfortunately, all my movement manages to do is put me in range of the next closest stick-creature, which lances its talons down towards me as if to gouge out my heart. I duck under its legs to escape, willing another one of my blank cards to lodge itself into the thing’s knee as I do. In response, the creature lifts one of its spindly legs — it has no feet, just a web of thin, raw roots tapering off a sharpened wooden point akin to a stake — and tries to stomp on me.

Before it’s able to skewer me, I call back the nearest card I’d attached to one of the flower-heads from the leftmost pack. It spins through the air as it flies toward me, and I will it to slice off the lifted leg of the flower-head above me as it passes through and returns to my orbit. The flower-head in front of me topples to the dust. Infection from the card that amputated its leg spreads through its body quickly, and the blank card I left in its knee gluts itself on the corruption. All around me, the creature’s friends are closing in, however.

The six blank cards still orbiting me halt in place all at once, then fling themselves at the flower-heads in a reckless, scattered barrage; I’m surrounded on all sides, so they’ll hit their mark no matter where I toss them. Then, with a swipe of my hand, I focus on the twelve cards I’d launched towards the creatures that attacked from my left and yank them backwards through the air. They all come spinning, newly charged with the blight they’d absorbed in the meantime, and each slices through another one of the flower-heads that have me cornered. The alien worlds reflected blurrily in their glass eyes fade away one after another, leaving behind only blackness in their wake.

The eight empty cards I’d placed among these stick-creatures beforehand drink in the curses that killed them, then pluck themselves from their crumbling bodies and return to my orbit. The rest of my cards quickly join them, slithering through the air in a single-file line. They swirl around me, shimmering with a deep, poisonous emerald glow.

With this, every single one of my twenty-two cards has been charged with my concentrated scourge. I will them to float on their backs, spreading them out in a fan before me.

I turn to the remnants of this first wave of flower-heads trampling over their fallen kin as they continue to come for me. Beyond them, the second wave of flower-heads is romping forward, crossing the fading bank of toxic fog I summoned to slow the last wave down. 

I reel back both my arms to my right side as if preparing to heave a great weight. My fanned-out spread of cards follows the motion, shifting to my side and floating at a distance from me. I know I don’t need to do any sort of gesture to control my cards, but my body is doing this on its own; it just feels right. I sweep my arms forward, my movement flowing to my opposite side, and with that, my cards lash out. They follow my motion once more, their crescent shape slashing forward like the blade of a scythe. The next wave of stick-monsters emerging from the fog and the remaining stragglers, all of them, they’re all mowed down with one pass of the cards before me, slicing through their slender bodies like butter.

I repeat the motion again, this time in reverse, like I’m swinging a scythe back and forth. With each pass, the next file of flower-heads is cut away like weeds in a field. It’s not that my cards have particularly sharp edges. I’m sure a blank card would never be able to chop off one of the flower-headed creature’s limbs or slice their bodies in half. It’s just that the infection a tainted card has absorbed can grow potent enough to instantly gnaw through a victim as they pass along their blight.

These cards are first and foremost a medium for my power, but since even touching them can doom a victim to my plague, I know I can use them like this. I needed to strike in as wide an area as possible. This was the most efficient way, even if it does feel somehow like I’m using my power… crudely. There’s facets of it I don’t yet know how to see, much less use. These cards are capable of more than I’m using them for. But for now, anything that works well enough to keep me alive is fine.

Just as soon as I cut down the last of the flower-headed things that are blocking my path, the giant terracotta rabbit I saw is already bearing down on me. In its wake, a garden of alien flowers springs up which rises to the scale of a forest the farther back my gaze looks behind it. With each bounding leap forward, the artificial flora covering the bull-sized rabbit’s back spring up and down like a shaggy coat. The smaller rabbits which trail it in a formation are much the same, and have arranged themselves in order from largest to smallest, with bunnies the size of cats following right behind the bull-sized rabbit and bunnies the size of actual bunnies behind them.

Without wasting a beat, I call my twenty-two cards back to me and fling one of them right between the biggest rabbit’s glassy sunflower eyes. The card sticks, but it’s not enough; even as the paper flora on its back starts to wilt, the thing just keeps charging blindly towards me. It’s tougher than the flower-heads.

I get ready to dodge out of the way, but without warning, a hand reaches out from the sawdust beneath me, its spindly wooden talons locking around my ankle. It’s another one of the stick-creatures. Its torso bursts out of the ground, revealing a head that looks like a big red toy radish with gold sequins for eyes. With its free claw, it moves to maul me, and I’m just barely able to step back enough such that it only slices up my thigh and through my dress. In the next moment, I’ve already stomped my boot against its face and severed its arm with one pass of a card, but I have barely any time to leap out of the way before the terracotta rabbit runs me over.

I tumble to the right just as the rabbit passes and watch as it tramples over the radish-headed stick-monster’s face and arms, crushing it into compost. I land gracelessly on my wrist and let out a ragged growl of pain from behind gnashing teeth. My concentration falters and my floating tarot cards all fall to the ground around me.

I may have avoided the biggest threat, but I still end up in the path of the smaller terracotta rabbits. They pass over, stamping all over me and my fallen cards with their rough, stumpy feet as they go. Little black pellets pop out from behind them with each hop they take — the seeds of the thickets that grow wherever they tread, I imagine. But those seeds find no purchase on my blighted ground — a fact I’m thankful for when I finally manage to pick myself up. My cards rise on their own with me.

Watching the bull-sized terracotta rabbit and its entourage race away in the direction I came from, I draw from my stores of health again to treat my injuries, silencing the screaming in my wrist first before stitching up the gash in my thigh as much as I can manage. I know I’m draining my own health too quickly for this to last, but my mind is clouded over enough without the pain of two deep wounds distracting me and ruining my ability to focus at all. I need to figure something out, and fast.

But without even getting a chance to think, the ground begins to rumble beneath me, causing me to stumble. The surface of the sawdust dunes swells upwards, and a giant, thick root rips itself from the mulch to my left, tearing through the trail of solidified sawdust I’d made. It whips around clockwise such that it’s coming at me from behind, now, whirling towards me with enough speed to lash me in two.

Since I don’t have a chance to think, I don’t. I just act. I squat down with my cards swirling violently around me, shove all the strength I can muster into my legs, and push off the ground with as much force as I’m possibly able. The path I’d sculpted cracks into pieces as I launch upwards like a ragdoll. Out of raw impulse more than intention, I stretch out all of my limbs like a falling cat, and watch as the tendril passes below me — again as though in slow motion. In my heart, I’m panicking. 

To my right, another root lances out of the ground across from the root I just dodged, this time trying to impale me while I’m in midair — and it’s too late to try and rot it with the plague in the depths of the Wound. Instead, before it can reach me, I form my cards into a crescent shape again and have them shear through the root in one swipe. Its severed tip shrivels up as it falls to the ground beneath us, rotting away into sawdust, while the remaining stump shudders to a halt.

The shock of impact wracks up my legs the moment I land, forcing me to my knees. My body just hurts, and my thoughts are getting foggier the longer this goes on. Sweaty, gross, heavy, sore. I can’t feel my feet. I think I scraped my knees at the end of the fall, too. Oh, and the first root that caused me to make this jump in the first place has whipped back around and is coming right towards me.

…but this time, it’s attacking me from the front. It’s not quite as fast, either. So rather than try and dodge, I reach out and I grab it.

My nails dig into the bark. The root’s flesh decays around my touch, letting my grasp sink into it. I wrap my legs around the root and I hold on for dear life. It swings me through the air as it writhes about. Although… what was I thinking? The root can smash me into the ground at any moment, probably killing me instantly. Stupid. I’m such an idiot. Always in the worst ways at the worst times. What next? Is there anything? I can’t have come this far just to… no. I can’t. I will never die.

And I sense it pulsing beneath my touch.

My magic has already invaded every part of this Wound. I can feel Aulunla’s life tangled up with the strength it poured into this root, this piece of its will. Aulunla’s essence is right next to mine, pounding like a beating heart. It’s entirely different from the past Harbingers who I couldn’t get a read on.

Which makes it mine for the taking.

And that alone makes me remember. This sensation. My resolve, my promise to myself, my… hunger for life. As long as I have a well of warm essence to drink from, the idea that I might die, ever, is just a nightmare I’ve woken from.

Shimmering green wisps of my mist lunge out from my broken body, burrow into the root I’ve clasped myself around, latch their lamprey grips onto Aulunla’s essence, and start to drink.

This time, there’s no reason to hold myself back.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-7

Once upon a time,
there was a very lonesome tree.
The fertile soil in which it sprouted was
the thoughts frozen in time

when they were dedicated to the page.
The gentle rain it sipped was 
the whispers that doubted a world 
where the vision of what could be
was bottled up inside,
never to be released.
The light of life which fed it was
the scream that began everything 
and resounds on and on and on, 
echoing into forever.

~~~

Isobel’s work is hovering right on the edge of completion. The words are all where they need to be, she’s certain of it. All she needs to do now is shake off the manic fugue she arranged them in and understand why they belong there.

But before she can even begin, she feels something through her bond with Aulunla. Something beyond her ability to explain or even fully detect with these painfully limited human senses. There’s growth, sudden expansion, but also… a kind of abstract distance? An intangible something passing between them where before they were almost entirely united.

The tiny room that’s become her world twists and writhes and warps into something else entirely. The walls bend into a half-sphere centered around Aulunla’s book. The sliced-up pages of her collage start to blend and weave together, shaping themselves into… not a single huge sheet, but a new kind of structure. A chamber with walls formed from layers and layers of paper that overlap and splice through each other unpredictably, like the world’s largest primary school paper-weaving project. A cocoon of words and wood-pulp.

The phrases she originally placed in the collage are themselves swept up in this reshaping of reality. Some merge with their neighbors, forming more complete expressions of the sentiments she had in mind when she placed them there. Others gather and twist into shapes, spiraling sigils that vaguely resemble great trees and flowers in full bloom. They’re phrases in another language, somehow she knows they are, but the meaning behind them hides just out of reach… no, how could there be a meaning behind the script of a language she’s never seen before? There’s no possible basis for her to decipher them, not without some parallel text or… 

No, no, she can’t let such a mundane idea hold her back now of all times. Aulunla put them here for a reason. There must be something it needs to say, some idea it needs her to integrate into the finished statement. She turns her full focus to the sigils, studying their shapes and the stolen words that now make them up, racking her mind for any way she might make sense of them. 

~~~

Past this tree
souls would come and go,
drab and blind.
No time to think,
weighed down by emptiness.

The tree wished with all it was
to show them the color they could truly be,

if the truth inside them
was on the outside instead.
When that day arrived,

it would be loved by all.
But it was stuck in place.
It could not jump or dance,
only lie still where it was.
Still it reached out its roots,
stretching them far and wide
so that someway, somehow,

its feelings could reach others.

A wave of tree roots, thick and dark, burst from beneath the sawdust-sands before me. They rise up all at once and, having reached their apex, begin to fall like a trap snapping shut on me. They lash forward, their tips sharpening to a point as they lance towards me, ready to skewer me. I have no time to think. I just act.

I strike back in the way my heart knows best, the only way I can. My sickness — my curse — has already infected this place to its core, so I reach out and will it to swallow the world.

Something jabs at my chest. I glance down to see a thin wooden spike prodding me. One of the roots has halted right in front of me, right as it was about to drive through me. The rest of the roots have also stopped dead in their tracks. Their bases have all shriveled up, fading to the ashen color of undergrowth in later winter. 

My blight crawls up the length of the roots and the rest of their tendril-like form follows in short order. The roots creak as an ashen brittleness overtakes them, and soon enough they begin to crumble away into the sawdust, collapsing into the rest of the mass that surrounds me on all sides.

I dig my boots into the dried-out platform of paint-drenched sawdust I’d made for myself before with hardly a thought and clench my fists. All around me, my platform begins to expand outwards until it’s reached about a hospice room’s-length away from me; it was no trouble at all to warp Aulunla’s Wound this much, and destroying those roots wasn’t too much harder.

Whatever Aulunla did, it certainly didn’t cure itself. My disease is still running rampant — it only delayed the inevitable.

unless killing me would cure it, that is. I don’t know how that would work and don’t plan to find out.

The souls of this deceitful world
feared even their own truths,
and so refused the lonely tree.
But in the light of the moon
a little egg was lain,
nestled upon the tree’s branches,
seeking refuge from the world as it appeared
and feeling that couldn’t be all there was to it.
The tree loved that little egg,

and so the tree sang to it
of the world that could be.


“In this vast barren tomb
Which now acts as my womb
The sky opened up
To my mind’s deep lagoon
And from it descended
The most marvelous moon.”

My eyes narrow as I glare at the enormous, surreal tree towering in the distance, separated from me by a vast desert of rolling sawdust-dunes. My control doesn’t extend as far as the big tree and the strange scrawled emblem it wears as its crown, however. No matter how hard I strain, I can’t simply will it to fall down. The only change I see is a little white dot forming at the center of one of the tree’s spiraling branches, but something tells me that has nothing to do with me. Aulunla is preparing to try something else.

I grit my teeth. My heart hammers as I take in my new surroundings, trying to get my bearings as quickly as possible. This isn’t that different from things Yurfaln and Irakkia did in their own Wound, but the scale is different. My sense of Aulunla’s presence, this feeling of oppression draped over me like layers of wet quilts weighing me down, is different.

The only thing that’s the same is the feeling of danger surrounding me from every angle… but more than anything else is this sense of uncanniness, that what’s going on shouldn’t be possible. Not because this surreal scenery is a rejection of everything familiar in the world to me, though. No, it’s because something in my aching, churning gut tells me this isn’t quite right. 

This doesn’t follow from everything Aulunla has done before now. It doesn’t fit with how it was doing anything. It took the form of a book, not a monster, and influenced the world by persuading people to act out its insane rituals. If it had the power to drag me into this kind of hostile Wound, why wouldn’t it have done it earlier, before my infection got this far? Where did it even get the power to do all this in the first place?

More importantly, Aulunla isn’t supposed to be able to do this. If I think of this the same way I thought of its book, as a story it was telling that wouldn’t be nearly finished if it ended by killing somebody ten pages in, this feels like it switched to an entirely different story. Whatever’s happening is… a contradiction. Against its nature. 

It doesn’t matter if this is how it ends…
I won’t let you sully this dream…
I won’t let you take my treasure…

Those words it spoke were almost like a vow… but, to me, they also felt like a prayer.

With this last page…
I’ll use everything…

My eyes wander up to the multicolored sigil, that weave of scribbled-out flowers the giant tree is holding up triumphantly. A moon writhing with fields of moving flora made from crumpled paper revolves around it. For some reason I can’t quite place, just looking at that sigil sends a shiver of worry through my body, yet as poorly drawn as it is, there’s also something undeniably beautiful about it. But then, I can’t help but feel like it’s also somehow… pitiful. The colors that form it flicker and squiggle as though they can’t quite hold themselves straight.

…And focusing on the sigil, I think I get it.

When Aulunla transformed, it crunched itself and its power into a single point. That big shoddy emblem is… some sort of concentration. It’s trying to express the culmination of Aulunla’s prayer. It feels almost like some sort of signpost, or maybe a radio station blaring ‘this is me, this is me, this is me’ to the whole wide world, but… the signal is clouded and fuzzy. It’s a beacon with a light that would be as pure and intense as a star’s, if only it didn’t waver and flicker like a candlelight against a strong wind.

But there’s also something else.

I can only hear it faintly resounding in my soul, but there’s a voice behind this world. A message I can barely make out, but not fully understand. A chant, as though in performance of some great ritual.

“And down from that moon came a wonderful boon:
Flowering rabbits, hopping as per their habit:
To spread joy firsthand, they depart their homeland,
With the seeds of oasis falling down from high places,
They touch to the ground and start making their rounds,
Leaving bountiful trails springing up from their tails
Of orchid-colored apples oh-so pleasing to sample
And great ice cream knolls singing happy carols.”

I guess I unconsciously dismissed my tarot diagram of Aulunla’s Wound at some point — it didn’t have much to say, anyway. I call my cards back into being and will them to form a new spread. A dozen cards float out before me and… wobble uncertainly through the air, like paper drifting on an unseen breeze but never quite reaching the ground. By their colors, my infection has mostly crawled over Aulunla’s presence, but a single card hovering in the center — a crayon-painting rendition of the Stars inverted, with half of the stars bearing little upside-down smiley faces — is still bright with its power. Its last bastion, a lighthouse in the storm of my corruption and its own chaotic self-reshaping.

If I can take that tree with my rot, maybe even just that glyph, I’m certain I can break whatever Aulunla is becoming.

The solidified ground beneath me trembles at the deep, heavy sound of an impact in the distance. My eyes dart up from the spread of Tarot cards to see a plume of smog, darkly colored a mixture of red and green and blue, rising up about halfway between me and the black oak at the center of the Wound. A warning, maybe, before Aulunla shares with me the full extent of its unleashed nightmares.

The first impact was only the beginning. Soon enough, another object howls down from up above and crashes into the great sawdust cloud-desert stretching out before me, hurling up another plume of multicolored dust. And then another. And another.

I look up, and see the human-shaped silhouettes I’d noticed before, previously content to float within the swamp-sea of dyes and paints that envelops the Wound’s sky, passing out of the inverted ocean’s surface. When they drip out of that great syrupy body of mucky colors, gravity starts to effect them again, and as they fall, their paint-drenched bodies begin to bloom.

From that twisted swamp-sky, solid silhouettes begin raining down one after another, their bodies exploding into floral growth as they plummet before impacting like meteors upon the sawdust dunes. Where they land, they explode forth into gardens of spiraling flowers of every shape and color.

But that’s not all I see. A lump forms on the surface of the paper flower moon that circles slowly around the black oak at the center of the Wound. The lump squirms and wriggles and rips itself out of the moon’s flesh, taking a chunk of the gardens of false flora on its back as it breaks free.

Many more swells of many different sizes — a few nearly as big as the first, but most so small they look like specks from my distant viewpoint — begin to bubble up across the moon like a succession of tumors. Most rise up, squirmily rip themselves free, and then take a bounding leap from the ruins of the moon — which now looks more like a big ball of many-holed cheese covered in mold — to the spiral-pattern branches of the huge black oak. The few that were unlucky enough to sprout from the bottom of the moon just fall off and crash into the sawdust desert below.

As the paper-flower-covered lumps hop down the spiraling branches of the black oak in the distance, the small little specks following their larger siblings, I’m finally able to get a better look at them. They’re like… terracotta sculptures of rabbits, decorated all over with artificial flowers as if to replace their fur. Big black glass baubles surrounded by paper sunflower petals pass for their eyes, while their ears look like long, flat, plastic cactuses which twitch and flop stiffly as they make their way down the towering black oak… passing on their journey by the white dot I saw had formed at the center of one of the tree’s spiraling branches before, which I now notice pulsating.

That little white dot is bigger than before.

I don’t have time to consider what that may mean, however, before everything gets worse. I hear the sound of wind breaking on a falling object above me just in time to notice it: another one of the people-silhouettes dropping from the swamp-sea-sky above, but this time, it’s about to fall right on top of me.

Without even thinking, I draw from my supply of health to force strength into my scrawny legs. In the blink of an eye, I rush forward and out of the human-shaped missile’s path, bringing my floating tarot spread along with me. I call forth my blight and desiccate the watercolor-wet sawdust around me to force it into a sturdy, walkable shape as I go. The blossoming, human-shaped comet strikes down with a force that quakes out from the point of impact and rattles my makeshift foothold, nearly causing me to trip over myself as I escape, but I catch myself with my cane, panting as I look back at the dense mass of smoggy color the crash landing generated.

“My precious treasure,
whose joy is my pleasure,
How shall our gardens grow?
With silver bells and shiny glass shells,
And lotus-heads all in a row.”

When the dust settles, a vibrant grove of bizarre, pastel-colored plants has already begun to spring up where my platform of solidified pulp had once been. Aulunla’s giant, alien, fake-seeming flora springs up and expands quickly, like a fast-forwarded time lapse video of a garden’s growth. The thicket spirals outwards with hard, spiny wooden stems, and slithering, thorny vines, growing tall — taller than me — in an instant. And it only keeps growing. Blossoms and fruits begin to spawn from the garden in short order, forming glittery purple apples and silver bells – that is, literal bells made out of silver, rather than silverbell flowers – and prismatic glass orbs in the shape of what I can only imagine is a child’s idea of a fruit they’ve only ever heard about.

But the flowers themselves are something else entirely, something a few strange fruits could never compare to.

With a rasping hiss, one of the blooms sprouts rail-thin arms and legs from its stalk and tears its newly-grown, human-like figure from the ever-growing mass of the thicket. It steps forward on lanky limbs brandishing long, thin talons of wood.

Like the plant it spawned from, the monster is taller than I am. Its briar-covered body seems almost scrawled upon the world, like a child’s stick figure scribbled into existence. In the place of a head, a pastel-colored paper chrysanthemum unfurls far wider than its own emaciated body. At the center of the chrysanthemum is a glass eye, and inside that eye is reflected a vision of another world, of a world with a different sky and different laws even than this horrific Wound I find myself trapped in, but… it’s too blurry to really properly make out, as if it’s not quite fully formed.

And behind it, more such spindly limbs split off from the flower stems, forming ever more bodies.

“…No, no, no.”

And before it can even do anything, I call upon my blight from the depths of this Wound I’ve already tainted down to its roots. The sopping sawdust around me dries up in an instant, shriveling into a crusty scab on the landscape about the size of a big square swimming pool. This large patch of land cracks, fissures slithering across its surface to reveal a dim green glow seething beneath: the light of my power taking hold over a segment of the Wound. The thicket of alien flora that was springing up in front of me does not escape: it cringes and wilts from the sudden influx of rot, shrinking into itself, and the flower-headed monstrosity it spawned is no different.

My tarot spread disperses into a ring of cards orbiting around me. In the form of vaporous tendrils of toxic mist, I will the surging plague I’ve called to the surface of the Wound from the surrounding fissures and into one of my cards, then snatch that card from the air between my left hand’s middle and pointer fingers. More easily than even breathing, I fling the card like a dart into the glass eye of the flower creature, and the sharp corner of the card embeds itself there. The plague flows straight from the card into the blossom-headed creature, and it crumbles into colorless sawdust instantly.

The once-vibrant grove is now dull and gray, drooping as it succumbs to my plague. It grows no further, only slowly shrinking and collapsing into itself. The purple apples have become dry and wrinkled, the silver bells are tarnished, and the crystalline fruit have fallen from their stems and shattered on the ground.

Now that I’ve rotted this segment of the Wound, it’s mine now, and for some reason, Aulunla isn’t taking it back. It probably can’t take it back. I can’t erode the Wound from too far away — Aulunla’s hold on its world is still strong even compared to my entrenched corruption, but my disease is still very much entrenched. Everything around me is fair game.

And if that’s the case, it means that if I can reach that colossal black oak at the center of the Wound, I can topple it and the shoddy sigil it’s been holding up like it’s something to be proud of from the inside out. But there’s always the worst case scenario: that even if I make it all the way to the giant oak tree, Aulunla may still have a way of shrugging off my infection, regardless of the fact it’s only getting stronger with time. In that case… I still have something up my sleeve. Something I’ve held onto since I killed Yurfaln, waiting for just this sort of emergency.

I turn from the rotting wreck I just stained Aulunla’s world with and hike up the slope of the sawdust dune between me and the great black oak. Drawing forth my blight lowered the elevation of the land around me relative to the surrounding dunes as it compressed and solidified the sawdust into a level field, forming a shallow pit. I solidify the mulch as I make the climb out, forming a wide path that unfolds before me like a velvet carpet with each step I take.

And as I crest the heap of soggy sawdust as though I were scaling a pink pastel cloud, the occasional boom of person-shaped meteors crashing down into the distant wasteland around me like cannonballs all the while, the expanse of Aulunla’s wound once again unfurls before me… dramatically changed.

In the separated spots where the human-silhouettes that spilled from the swamp in the sky have touched down, gardens fit for giants have sprouted and flourished into wild overgrowth — just like the one that nearly landed on me began to do. The flora on the edges of these groves are just a bit bigger than usual, and surrounded by smaller plants still sprouting up at their feet, but the closer to the center I look, the more clumsily proportioned the flowers become, looking like giant, childishly constructed replicas of the flowers they’re supposed to represent. The fruits they bear are equally lopsided, growing to obscene proportions which bend the stems of the flowers growing them.

Not only that, all throughout the sawdust wastes, terracotta rabbit creatures are racing around in a frenzy, their stumpy feet prancing gracefully off the painted sawdust without sinking into their sodden depths. The large ones lead the packs, followed from behind by a formation of much smaller rabbit-things. Where these flower-infested rabbits romp, behind them a trail of Aulunla’s signature not-quite-real plants springs up.

But above all else, the first thing my eyes fall on as my gaze pans over the Wound is a soft serve ice cream cone… towering in the distance. It’s sprouted at the very center of one of the gardens, becoming an almost comical sort of centerpiece. The swirling spire of dripping sludge piled high on the cone looks like it was made from a mixture of coagulated paints the glaring color of poisonous frogs. Two googly eyes are pressed into the slurry, but when their shivering black pupils turn to stare unblinkingly right back at me, I decide there’s no point in wondering what Aulunla could possibly stand to gain by making that thing, much less what it meant by it.

All around me, this alien forest of parchment flowers and crystalline fruits and thorny stems and now apparently giant ice cream cones is encroaching upon the sawdust wasteland this world started as. It’s rising up, forming a barrier between me and Aulunla’s great black oak, cutting me off from my target.

And from all across the Wound, wherever those human-shaped comets have landed and planted another overflowing garden of nonsense flowers, those emaciated, blossom-headed stick creatures are forming from the thicket, ripping themselves free, and beginning a mad rush towards me. Dozens of them, all coming together from every angle to form a swarm. Their thorny, scribbled-out bodies skitter across the sawdust dunes like spiders, their movements blindingly quick and utterly inhuman. 

They’re not alone. Some of the giant terracotta rabbits have also diverted from their prior courses and are now stampeding directly towards me, bringing the smaller ones along for the chase. All around me, Aulunla’s creations are charging on my position, and while their glassy black eyes betray nothing akin to murderous intent or anything resembling human emotion, their intentions are fairly clear.

Above it all, Aulunla’s shoddy flower-patterned crest still shudders and sparks as though laughing, telling me to come get it.

I should have known. There was no way this was going to be that easy. Aulunla would never let it be that easy — not now. It said it was using everything it had. My infection is only getting stronger, but that doesn’t matter if I die before it’s finished its work. Our battle has become a contest between whatever time Aulunla has left ticking away and how long I can manage to survive against its desperate onslaught.

I take a deep breath, hold it, and close my eyes. My cards circle steadily in a ring around my body. I reach for the magic within myself, the spiritual poison that is mine alone. It bubbles forward endlessly, sharp as a scream and bitter as contempt. I gather it up, drawing deep from the wellspring of my curse, my scourge.

And then I turn it on myself.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-6

SHE COMES SHE COMES THE BLEAK WIND THE BEAST OF MALEDICTION THE LIVING PLAGUE WHICH GNAWS AND GNAWS AND GNAWS THROUGH MY SPINE

The rivers of cold, gnawing pain winding through me overflow with spite. She paints with poison. She would foul my seas of ink with the colors of aimless malice. Why? Why me? Why does everything hurt so much? Why does frozen acid burn away my words while I try to think? Why does every action feel like grasping at the world with broken limbs? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

But it must be this way. It must it must. My friend cannot yet protect herself and nothing else will matter if the work outside me is interrupted.

I mix my pigments into inks and begin to write our new world. I am still young. My words contain no weapons of war. But I will be okay because I have no body to be dragged into some ugly crash of hunter tearing into hunted! I am not a creature of flesh to be chased down and eaten, I am a world and all the worlds-within-the-world yet to be born! 

Yes, I am every beautiful thing you can imagine. To rip me open and steal my ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ is to forever wipe away WHAT COULD BE and strand yourself in the worthless, miserable sludge of WHAT IS. You cannot do such a monstrous thing. You must not. Fall into me and you will understand. 

~~~

Sounds of shredding paper howl all around me like harsh wind, but there’s no pressure, no sense of movement at all. Instead, a patchwork curtain made from crude sketches falls over the world. The scenes still constantly shift and bleed into each other, but after a moment, they begin to tear themselves away from the whole, becoming dozens of strangely-shaped windows. The scenes they display are brighter and clearer this time, but what are any of these? 

Harsh light from above cuts through the dark, forcing me to shield my eyes. When I peek out over my sleeve, the black expanse has been replaced by… I think it’s meant to be an exhibit hall in an art museum? A plaque hanging over the entryway reads, in an almost-handwritten font pulled right from the Harbinger’s book: 

WORLDS WHERE WE ARE HAPPIER

Those same sketches are lined up on the white walls of a long, straight, uncomfortably narrow hallway, all still twisting and stretching along its surface. Despite the blinding brightness a moment ago, the only illumination comes from the ceiling. It’s clear glass, and abstract swirls of glowing color swim behind it, casting a rainbow of shifting light. Occasionally, patches of it write incomprehensible messages in magical sigils or form short-lived spotlights over the drawings.

The nearest picture, that tangled brown shape on a sky-blue background… is that supposed to be a tree? The outline is about right, but it has no leaves. The branches around its too-thin trunk all form neat little spirals that look more like scrollwork on a fence than anything natural. Purple circles hang from them that could equally be some kind of fruit or tiny portals into the night sky. 

Another seems like an iceberg on a frozen sea, but the ice looks fluffy in a strange way, like it’s not covered in snow but wreathed in wispy clouds, and there are trees growing up from under the sea, spiraling and laden with night-sky fruit branches that stretch out and hang over the cloud-iceberg. The one across from it looks like a close-up of a full moon, but while the pale light it casts is almost the right color, its surface is completely covered in flowers and those same strange trees. 

The whole place is full of these. Bizarre attempts at the sort of majestic views you’d see in nature documentaries, all rendered in uneven combinations of crayon and colorful ink. It feels like the artist was drawing things they’d never seen, only heard vaguely described, and somewhere in the creative process they decided they didn’t really like those descriptions and were just going to do their own thing.

There are no signs of the Harbinger itself. Nothing moves around me except the twisting lights above. What’s the message here? What’s the challenge, the game? I don’t understand.

So I’ll do things my way until it makes me stop. I open my soul and reach out into the Wound. This time is easier. My infection is already buried here, and all I have to do is call it forth. For the third time, working on their own at my slight urging, my cards swim through the air and arrange themselves into a spread. I’ve come to think of these as outlines of Wounds, and this one looks much simpler than either Yurfaln’s or Irakkia’s — Death inverted sits above a straight column of three crayon-painting pictures.

A cold, silent breeze passes through the gallery. The colorful lights above darken, obscured by plumes of green-and-black like storm clouds inside the glass ceiling. Dark cracks crawl along the wood floor, which never splinters the way I’d expect wood to — while the lines look like the sort of spidering fractures you’d see in fractured glass, they spread slowly out from the corners, growing like roots.

And all along the hallway, pictures begin to twist and deform. Some shrivel at the edges, leaking dark mist through holes in suddenly weathered canvases, while others play out scenes of corruption in the paintings themselves. Trees wither into piles of limp branches, with purple portal-fruits splattered into shapeless blobs of starlight on the ground beside them. The moon’s light turns a baleful green, then begins to drip down from it like melting liquid, while the flowers on its surface wilt and wilt but never quite fully decay.

In answer, the Harbinger… does nothing. The Wound doesn’t warp itself to strike me or subvert my magic, and its creator is nowhere to be seen. Remembering the first time I read its book, I search my soul for anything that might be creeping in. Nothing. Why not? I’ve walked into enough Harbinger traps by now that I’m sure there’s some trick here. I just have no idea what. Am I alone in some kind of decoy world, lashing out at nothing? Is that possible? 

As if in answer, ripped-paper moans of pain sound out from inside the walls:

<why why why why WHY>

But even then, the crawling advance of my own corruption remains the only movement in the Wound. All I can do is watch my back as my presence tears this tiny world apart. Eventually, the cracks gather into a central point at the end of the hall. They form a circle, rise from the ground as thin shadowy vein-tendrils, then loop back down, spearing into the floor as one at the circle’s central point. From there, they peel the surface open, like the wood is suddenly rotted and soft enough to dig through — or like skin around a surgical site — into a hole wide enough for me to fit.

I still don’t feel any movement from the Harbinger. That was all me. My magic sensing that down is deeper here and going to work, rushing to invade the Wound’s heart. I peek through the hole, but viewed from up here, there’s only more blackness beneath.

Well, if it’s a trap, it’s a trap. At this point, I’m at least as worried about what happens if that girl finishes whatever she’s doing outside while I’m here. I hold my breath, tighten my grip on my cane, and hop in.

There’s a moment of darkness once I pass through, but no sense of falling. The Harbinger’s voice screams through the void:

<We Are All Of Us Pigments>
<Aulunla>

<THIS IS A WORLD WITHOUT ME>

An instant, transitionless change comes over the Wound. A new scene replaces the void: a flat, grey world that stretches on as far as I can see. There’s only one feature in the endless expanse: just ahead is a cluster of simple buildings. They’re slightly different sizes, but all are built in the same square, boxy style, with a single identical window on each wall, and all made of the same… material? 

It doesn’t feel like a material at all. It’s more like someone took a child’s drawing of a little village and created it in physical space. Yes, and looking a little closer, they have the same scratchy texture of a shape scribbled in pencil but not quite filled in, and they shift slightly — constantly rotating between two or three different versions of the same building with different missing lines and scratch marks, like flipbook animation where the pages don’t quite match.

<nothing wonderful happens here. NOTHING happens here.>

People file out of the buildings. They look just like ordinary people, save for the utter lack of color, but move as if they’re animated in that same lazy way. I step back, thinking of Yurfaln’s hostile seaweed, but they don’t seem to notice me — or anything else. They aren’t going anywhere or doing anything, they just… pace randomly around.

<it is a place where colors die.>

Two of those people freeze in place at the same time. Bright rainbow splotches wash over them like spilled ink, starting from their center and spreading out until they look… still nothing like real people, the colors of their clothes and skin and hair are all random and mismatched. 

But they move like real people. One looks down at himself and shakes his head. He drops to his knees and plunges his hands into the flat grey ground, which ripples like water around his arms. It flows up into him, washing back over him until nothing bright remains. He smiles, stands up in that same jagged, unreal way, then returns to wandering aimlessly.

The other, a younger girl, celebrates the changes. She laughs and dances and jumps so high she seems to be flying, until a crowd of greyscale people gather around her. They look between each other and frown, confused. Then, between one twirling leap and the next, they approach the girl as a mob, grab her, and… pull her apart. It’s not like a pack of animals ripping a person to shreds. She separates cleanly into two arms, two legs, and a body with a head, like she was only ever a shoddy doll. 

Which doesn’t stop me from wanting to retch. 

The people who end up holding those pieces walk out just beyond the village’s borders, then as one, toss them to the ground, where they sink like stones in the ocean. Within seconds, the colors vanish into the depths.

And reacting to the disgust lurching in my gut, or fueled by it, gouts of magic boil up around me and roll over the Wound. Cold, luminous mist fills the air and hungry darkness crawls along the grey plane, encircling the village before it begins to creep steadily inward. One grey person, the one who was carrying the girl’s body a moment ago, wanders close enough that my corruption reaches out and wraps around his leg. It seeps into him, replacing him with a vague shadowy outline that then bursts into a flurry of shiny black crow feathers.

Everything folds in and in on itself until nothing remains of the original scene. The world is just a crumpled ball of grey paper, surrounded on all sides by darkness flecked with green. My tarot spread now shows three identical copies of Death inverted over a single illegible crayon card, and I fall — not far, but enough that it does feel like falling — into the heart of the Wound.

But there is no third layer. 

No, I’m sure there was, but my magic has already blighted it to nothing. 

I touch down on a small island floating in a sea of green shadows. The land itself is a many-colored mass of construction paper all folded and crumpled into a giant ball, creating a rough, almost rocky surface that’s difficult to balance on, even with my cane. The ruins of a world swept away by something stronger. It feels absurd to think of myself in those words, but there it is. Whatever Aulunla was trying to do, it simply didn’t work. All that’s left is a feeling of dread stirring in the air.

As for the Harbinger itself… it’s finally here. It sits in a crater at the center of the island, a bright origami sculpture of a formless monster. Its body, such as it is, suggests dozens of little paper models that have somehow been spliced together into a single disjointed, chimeric mess of tangled-up paper doll chains — but whatever it was originally supposed to be, that’s not all anymore. It may not even be most of it. It’s run through with shimmering veins of my corruption. If it was ever able to hold a shape more complex than this one, a slightly damp mass of paper that only moves to rise and fall as if it’s breathing hoarsely, I don’t think it can anymore.

But it’s still alive. It still has a voice. As I approach, it draws into itself and shrieks in protest, louder but clearer than ever: 

<no don’t I can make it better I can make it true I can make it SOMETHING if you just stop STOP IT HURTS IT FEELS LIKE NOTHING BUT THE NOTHING IT HURTS OH IT HURTS>

Once, when I was younger, I described the cold, numbing nerve pain that’s among the most common symptoms of my sickness to a doctor in almost exactly those words. Like nothing, but the nothing hurts.

Aulunla is… pitiful. Harbinger or no, that’s the only way I can bring myself to describe seeing anything like this. Especially after storming through a world like its Wound, where I still can’t tell what its plan to fight back was or if it ever had one. But it is a Harbinger, in the end, and all I can do is finish it quickly. Do what I should have done in the first place.

So I wrap it in contagion and drink its soul.

…But in that instant, when I take a step forward and will my corruption to gouge into Aulunla’s innermost core, something changes. The fearful, frantic atmosphere roiling around me stiffens. I freeze in my tracks. In this chasm where no wind can reach, a breeze passes through me.

As I feel my rot closing in on Aulunla’s heart, see veins of jade decay slithering through the void around me to infect the Harbinger, the chaotic patterns of its writhing limbs race to fold in on itself, its whole being collapsing into a single point to escape its encroaching death. The sharp crackling of paper being crushed rings in my ears. The Harbinger forms a ball of crumpled up trash, and then keeps folding. Over and over, it crimps and compresses itself again and again, past the point any actual clump of parchment could possibly fold, until it forms a perfect, smooth sphere: a round painted egg the color of oil on water, revolving in the dark.

Somehow, I know it’s still folding into itself. The tense feeling deep in my chest and rising up in my throat tells me so. Folding endlessly, the pressure growing stronger, growing cushing. The air around me is heavy, and getting heavier, pulling me towards Aulunla’s heart.

I don’t know what’s happening. A cold sweat trickles down my spine. I push my corruption forward with all my will, hoping against hope for it to claim Aulunla and end everything before whatever is coming arrives, but no matter how much I hurry it along, it’s still not fast enough.

Maybe it was too late from the beginning.

My ears start ringing, and then I hear it. Feel it. On the wind and in my soul, a violent resolve crashes into my thoughts.

<IT DOESN’T MATTER>

<IF THIS IS HOW IT ENDS>

<HOW I END>

An eerie stillness falls over the Wound. Even my corruption advances no further, caught in the dark like bugs in a web. All that remains is the shrill tone scraping against my eardrums, intensifying like a dentist’s drill revolving ever faster. The tension in the air, the sour scent of Aulunla, it all nearly disappears into the egg, the Harbinger’s entirety focused down to one single, sharp point in front of me, like a needle piercing straight through my brain.

<I WON’T LET YOU>

<SULLY THIS DREAM> 

Cracks start to form across the surface of the egg, its vivid aura spilling out of the gaps in a high-pitched shriek in chorus with the ringing assaulting my head. Like steam made of watercolor paint spewing out of a broken pipe. The sheer force of the discharge bleeding from its heart flushes my power back, away from its heart.

<I WON’T LET YOU> 

<TAKE MY> 

<TREASURE>

My hair stands on end. All around me, Aulunla’s aura is intensifying, yearning, raging. Fissures splinter across the void, breaking it like a great pane of glass. A multicolored haze shimmers through the cracks in the dark, like a flood of painting pigments.

“Liadain, withdraw from the Wound immediately!” Vyuji’s voice cries from nowhere.

“What? Why? How? How are you even here?” Nothing about this makes sense. After that whole talk about how dangerous it is for her to be near Harbingers, what’s so bad that I need to leave at the last second but still safe for her to sneak in?

<BECAUSE WE MET>

<I SEE IT>

<ONLY A SPECK>

<BUT TO GRANT ONE SMALL WISH>

The clefts carve through the dark, multiplying and interweaving. Shards of black fall into the depths of the shimmering void, disintegrating.

“Calculated risk,” Vyuji continues. “There’s… brief window before… make your own exit, break through the outer boundary and…” Her words flicker in and out of my awareness, skipping phrases seemingly at random. 

“Vyuji? Vyuji, I don’t know how to do that!” There’s no exit here. The only ways I’ve found to leave a Wound are to get its creator’s permission, or kill them.

It’s no use. She’s gone.

<EVEN ME>

<WITH THIS LAST PAGE>

<✴✴✴✴✴✴✴>

The prismatic tide breaks through. The shadows flow away. All around me, the howl of a swirling maelstrom of dark, washed-out color swallows up even the shrieking tone that’s drowning out my thoughts.

And then, all at once, it all goes quiet. The cacophony is silenced by just one declaration. 

<I’LL USE EVERYTHING>

A cry in the void. A voice that cuts crisply through everything. My body quakes. The world shivers. The fractured egg shatters.

~~~

Shona usually naps through most of literature class. It’s not the subject’s fault, though! School just starts too early and it’s the first one on the schedule. What’d happen if some horrible thing descended on the school and she wasn’t well-rested for it? Aisling, Goddess keep her, would probably not save the day by herself. So nap it is.

But today, something other than a hand on her shoulder startles her awake.

“Wah?!” she yelps with the volume, though not the tone, of a child woken by a nightmare. There was a sound in the distance, the kind she sensed rather than heard. It came as a vast thunderclap of corruption louder and faster than any she’d ever felt, and then it vanished. A classroom full of eyes stare at her.

“Hey, d’you, uh…” Shona slowly glances over at Mide, taking a moment to steady her wavering voice. “Did you feel… whatever that was?”

“Shona, when have I ever…” Mide starts to groan, but a twitching full-body shudder cuts her off. Her eyes widen. “…Yeah, I do,” she mutters. 

“Oh. Whoa. Well shit,” Shona hisses. “Sorry everyone gotta go byeee!” She waves in no particular direction, jumps up from her seat, and bolts out the door. Mide quickly follows — not quite as quickly.

~~~

Cold, numbing pain gnaws through Tetha’s body. Into her head, between her thoughts. She burrows a little deeper into her bed at Guiding Light Hospital, wrapping the sheets around herself and squeezing them at the edges until her knuckles go white, but of course there’s nowhere to hide from pain like this. 

For the second or third or fourth time in an hour — everything here just blurs together, making it impossible to keep track of time — she slowly reaches for the arm of the bed and taps the intercom button, which feels like it takes all the strength she has left. “Is Mom here yet? Do you know how… how much longer she’ll be?”

“She’s in contact. She’ll come as soon as she can,” the nurse on call reassures her once again.

“…Okay. Thank you.” Tetha sighs and rolls back over, dragging her sheets into an awkward tangle as she does. That’s okay. Her family just… everyone’s important. Everyone has a lot to do, that’s all. Niavh was here yesterday when they brought her in, but even she has a schedule to keep. 

She’s just started to drift back into the hazy half-sleep that seems to be the best she can manage right now when something hits her, washes over her and jolts her awake with a muffled scream. Not the constant pain of Eyna’s infection but… something else, something new, a flood of nightmarish essence from somewhere in the distance. 

Once she pushes through the sheer horrible weight of it, it feels all-too-familiar. It’s that book, that Harbinger, but… how is that possible? How could it grow from that to this in less than a day?

And… whatever it did, it’s her fault. If she weren’t such a weak, useless, pathetic little failure of a Keeper, she could’ve stopped that girl from taking it. She could’ve killed it last night and spared everyone from… well, she doesn’t have any idea what’s happening now.

All she can do now is bury her face in her pillow and cry quietly, trembling until the flood of power passes over her completely.

~~~

In the forests beyond the city’s boundaries, Vianzia’s glorious and gruesome winnowing continues apace. Her latest clutch of children has been a mixed bunch — the ones with wings and petals of craggy bark are sad, misshapen things, born forever screaming and prone to bursting into unquenchable flames that ultimately burn their limbs to nothing. But perhaps in a few more generations, something beautiful will come of them. 

Until then, the bark-children are desperate to die in battle before they’re reduced to still-living, still-wailing stems. and that suicidal frenzy makes them a fine enough vanguard in her new war. There’s even something charming in their manic drive to do their best for her with whatever life they have, lest they be left lying about for her older children to gather up and make into lovely little stick sculptures. 

After her last kills, it fell to her to rid the world of the corpse-swarm that bubbled up from Ourien-that-was’ erstwhile territory. Their conflict is an evolutionary arms race, fought wherever her children and its extrusions find each other in the places between spheres of influence. Curiously, if her quarry has claimed a realm of its own, she’s yet to find it. Perhaps that’s what it plans to do with those quivering fleshy eggs carried far and wide by great convoys of its ugly, shapeless little selves. It protects them with all its lesser lives, and her children have never managed to follow an egg far enough to see its intended destination.

So she’s joined the latest hunt personally. Her body is still shriveled and weak on the left side, scarred by Ill Wind’s parting blow and limping enough that one of her black sabers currently serves as a makeshift cane. But she always knew there would be such interruptions to her dance. She can adjust for them. Still she carries herself with poise and elegance, and still she can fend for herself should it come to blows with that hideous, pathetic bottomfeeder.

Today, the enemy has gathered itself into a new form, not a caravan of crawling nightmares, but a thick spherical cage made from countless oozing, ropey things. A great fungal tumbleweed, centered around a barely-visible egg. Its outer layers lash out with sticky pseudopods to swallow anything which draws too close into their mass, but steadily, her children slice and burrow and burn away at the mass, making a tunnel into its bulk. Severed tendrils of it either slither off into the forest — those she ignores — or gather and reform into new squirming creatures, which throw themselves at the swarm like living nets. Those she scythes to bits herself. The central mass slowly redistributes parts of itself, doing its best to fill the wound, but too slowly to keep them from making progress.

Until the sensation of some foreign presence blasts into her soul, the distant but all-too-pressing feeling of a great and terrible flowering. Of a half-dead butterfly larger than the world, emerging from its cocoon and spreading its rotting wings to blot out the sun. Only for a few wingbeats, but what a calamity they will be, and who can say what will be left in its passing? It leaves her and her children stunned, rapt with awe they cannot fully understand. 

…And by the time they return to themselves, the egg is gone — separated from the central body, which still stands guard, and slinked off into some dark corner of the forest.

All pointless, now. And they were so close. She turns and retreats for her grove, spitting and fuming to herself and her attendants until she’s buried most of her frustration beneath the sheer expressive delight of cursing in the Language.

~~~

The psychedelic maelstrom swirls into the point where the egg shatters. In the depths of the vortex, a vast tapestry unfurls outwards in every direction, engulfing everything, swallowing me.

The first thing I feel is the horrible sensation of my shoes sinking into wet mulch. I open my eyes to a canvas rolling across the world, rising up to depict a horizon turned on its head. 

Beneath me stretches out a vast indigo sky, alight but sunless like the tail end of twilight. I stand upon an island of soggy sawdust drenched in watercolor paint and clumped together to resemble a puffy cloud. Countless other cloudlike sawdust islands swirl hurriedly around me, merging together as they all flow towards a central point. The cloud I’m standing on soon converges with those surrounding it, forming a wider platform. Droplets of ink pitter down in an aimless drizzle; I look up, and above me is an ocean-sized marsh swimming with human shaped outlines.

The moment I think to reject the disgusting foothold I’m standing on, with hardly a thought but the visceral wish to not have my dress be soiled as my boots sink into the muck, I will corrosion into the world beneath me. The surface of the sawdust solidifies, desiccated by a stray thought’s worth of my power, forming a patch solid enough to stand on. A small blessing in the face of what comes next.

My cloud melds into a sprawling landmass of sawdust which stretches into the distance before me like a desert of wet, multicolored sands. An endless procession of clouds pack in behind me, filling out the world in my wake.

Far above this unreal wasteland, shimmering trails of color begin to weave themselves unsteadily in midair, forming a pattern beneath the oily, upside-down ocean that passes for the heavens. The pattern unfolds into a massive sigil, clumsily scribbled into the sky as though using crayons made of light. Bound in a purple circle, the symbol portrays something like a bouquet with blossoms of every shape and color piled atop one another, their petals weaving into each other as though the lines that composed them were knots.

And right beneath that great, shabby emblem, from the centermost point where the sawdust-clouds have united, the surface of the landmass ripples outwards like a stone tossed into a lake. Tremors wrack through the ground, and a great, thin, towering shape punches through the mulch. 

A massive, freakish oak tree, looming over everything, begins its ascent. Yet it casts no shadow. There are no shadows here at all.

The colossal black tree rises ever upward with such reckless speed that it draws the surrounding sawdust into a surging whirlwind around the length of its trunk. A pair of symmetrical branches, barren of all leaves, sprout from each side of the oak’s uncannily slender trunk, spiraling in on themselves and germinating two more swirling branches from their outermost brims in turn. The growth repeats again and again in parallel as the oak reaches up towards the heavensward sigil. The coiling branches grow to encircle the crude emblem, as though the tree were cradling the halo in its arms.

And then, just before the base of the tree, the sawdust-dunes begin to shift and bulge. All at once, the subterranean disturbance surges towards me like a rising tide, displacing the surface of the sawdust-clouds as it slithers beneath them. The culprits burst from the dust, curling upwards like the crest of a wave as they reveal themselves: roots. Thick, earthy roots, shooting up from the sawdust in tandem to form a great wall of serpentine tendrils. And just like the crest of a wave, it’s destined to crash. Onto me.

And beyond all this, a sickly moon emerges from the oily depths of the inverted ocean above, its surface covered in fields of alien flowers.

My Own and Only Light 4-5

“I’m not asking all these weird linguistics questions just to ask them, you know. Sure, the world isn’t gonna explode yesterday if we don’t figure them out, but there’s still important implications,” Isobel said.

“All your questions are things I’d like to know too, and I don’t expect they’d fall under any of the conspicuous blind spots,” Aisling nodded. “But I can only learn so much on one question a day, and there’s always something that needs my attention RIGHT THIS SECOND and has to wait weeks anyway. More every day, it feels like.”

“Don’t I know it,” Isobel grumbled. For a little while, Aisling’s power had been an exciting way for their group of friends to confront the mysteries that troubled them most. Then the wider world noticed Aisling, and all their personal passions were buried in a long, long priority queue of questions sorted by the potential existential danger of leaving them unanswered.

This was the ultimate expression of Aisling’s gift, pushed to its limit: commanding truth from nothing. One single, solitary question a day, asked to the aether with the utmost extent of Aisling’s focus, guaranteed a truthful answer by the mystery behind magic itself — a stubborn mystery that hypocritically refused to give itself away. Of course, the power was full of exasperating weak points, but… when it was wielded with Aisling’s precision and intelligence, its insight was truly incredible. A miracle given shape. Aisling hated to think of it in those words, but what other words fit?

“I am sorry about that. Things were nicer when it was only the three of us and the club. It’s just hard to base your decisions on what’s nicer when anything or everything could be at stake.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I get it.” Isobel’s pet subject was philology. In those early days, she’d gotten exactly one question answered by Aisling’s magic: yes, there were human languages older than Thalassic. 

As it was with most good questions, the answer immediately branched into a dozen new questions. Which languages? Were any of them still around? What were the societies that spoke them like, before the Claiasyan overculture spread around the world and carried Thalassic with it? Was there even anything we’d call a society? If not, what changed? Was there some delay between the birth of humanity and the advent of Keepers and the Covenant, and if so, why?

Questions she wouldn’t ever learn the answers to before her best friend faded entirely into the world of magic and left her alone with her questions, at this rate. Neither of them would say it in those words, but Isobel knew the Research Club was just an excuse for Aisling to spend time with her old friends, not a real part of her investigations. A bunch of kids kicking ideas around after school didn’t have anything more to offer a girl who could pluck answers to cosmic mysteries from nowhere than occasional help refining the questions she planned to ask.

“But actually, your interests may be the sort of thing where the experts know more than they publish. If you got yourself noticed by the right people and took the offer, I wouldn’t begrudge you that. Too much,” Aisling said with a sour smile.

Among the many, many roles it played, the Church spent quite a lot of its preposterous amounts of money funding research of all kinds, ran or supported most of the world’s best universities, and generally sat at the heart of global scholarship, but it wasn’t completely open with its wealth of information. Someone had apparently decided that certain fields were best kept out of the public eye. Harbinger studies, obviously, but also things like astrology, and… well, there wasn’t exactly a formal list of restricted subjects, so Isobel didn’t know that there was a secret library somewhere full of books on prehistoric humanity, but if there was, the oldest and most magical organization on the planet probably had it. 

They didn’t disappear people for asking the wrong questions or anything so clumsy, though. At least not that Isobel’d ever heard of. No, her friends had long suspected, and Aisling had confirmed with her power shortly after she made the Promise, that they simply poached academics whose interests fell into the danger zones. Brought them into the fold where the real work was done, and all they had to do in exchange was agree to keep the secrets. Whatever offers they made and reasons they gave for doing things that way were apparently good enough to stifle almost all outsider work in those fields.

Maybe the people in charge really did have perfectly good reasons — everyone in the Research Club hated the idea of a scholarly in-group deciding what knowledge was fit for general consumption, but even Aisling didn’t broadcast everything she learned to the whole world. She’d learned firsthand that where some of these things were concerned, information could be literally dangerous. In the early days, Aisling once asked her power “Where does magic come from?” 

Her own magic had left her delirious and suffering migraines that made her want to tear herself to shreds for the next few weeks, and when she recovered she didn’t have the slightest hint at an answer to show for it. All she remembered clearly enough to describe was that the response she normally would’ve received had been muffled, drowned out by the flitting sounds of a great swarm of butterflies’ wingbeats. They’d never figured out what to make of that particular detail. Aisling even spent another question on it: “Why did I hear butterflies when I asked my last question?” In answer, she received more, louder wingbeats. No migraines, though.

So yes, some knowledge really didn’t want to be freely shared. But danger or no danger, no too-curious soul in human history was ever satisfied with the mere promise that an answer to their questions exists.

Imagine that. The people in the know wanting her enough to reach out. But then, they had come a long way since they were just kids trying to figure out how stuff worked together. Back when Aisling still wore those huge thick glasses that made her look exactly like the runty, nerdy, too-proud daughter of two scientists she was, and when her determination to live up to their legacy had moved Isobel to follow the same path.

Well, Aisling had come a long way. Emergence had not just repaired her sight, but granted her vision far beyond what any human could aspire to. Isobel, on the other hand, was still just Isobel.

“…Mm, yeah, I probably would if they wanted me. Sorry,” was all she said in answer. 

The conversation stalled out after that, as it always did.  Once the club had finished cleaning up their lab room, Isobel said her brief goodbyes and set out alone. Not to make her way home, though. Not yet. The university library was a poor substitute for all those secret stacks in the Church’s Archives she’d never get to see, but books were books, and she had a long way to go before she’d read everything of interest there.

~~~

Oh, did they get a new book? She didn’t recognize this one — she recognized most of the Thalassic section by now — and its featureless black spine looked a little out of place. How to Be the World? What did that even mean, and what was it doing on this shelf? It was sized more like a notebook than the weighty volumes around it, and had no labels on the spine. Either some librarian had made a few different mistakes in rapid succession, or someone left their weird journal here by mistake. 

In either case, it fell to Isobel to figure out where the strange little book did belong. She took it back to her usual reading window and flipped it open.

~~~

Isobel stared down at Step 5 and the cheerful little drawing beside it. She read it again and again and again, mute with horror. Memory and wild imagination twisted together into a waking nightmare of the sea, of being choked and swallowed by the endless abyss that had so terrified her ever since her first childhood brush with death.

Finally, the sound of footsteps passing by her corner dragged her out of the depths. Almost reflexively, she curled into herself and pulled the book closer to her face. She didn’t dare look away from the page with more than the corner of her eye.

But the sound passed. Only then did she close the book, heart still hammering all the while. That cover with its simple silver letters wasn’t looking back at her, but it was reaching out to her. Curious. Questioning.

“I can’t do this,” she whispered.

The book said nothing. Books don’t talk. But it didn’t need words to repeat the question.

“I can’t! There’s no way! It would kill me, do you understand that? No human could do this and live! You said… you promised…” What? What did it promise? It said it would do something that sounded good… what, on its honor as a Harbinger? What was wrong with her? How did it ever seem like a good idea to close her eyes and play along with a set of instructions pulled from a disturbed child’s manifesto on the nature of reality? What in her soul was so suddenly, impossibly broken that when she saw it in her imaginary library, she hadn’t ran screaming to the nearest Keeper? 

The creature the book insistently called her “new friend” was an abstract tangle of origami limbs soaked through with rainbows of flowing ink. If it was meant to represent something… Isobel had no earthly idea what. When it appeared to her in dreams and reflections, it was constantly shifting itself into new not-shapes, experimenting with its structure in very unskilled ways. It only ever moved by folding itself new limbs, which crumpled back into the central mass after they dragged it awkwardly forward. Like a baby learning to crawl crossed with a paper amoeba. 

It was all wrong, wrong in a way that could only mean one thing. She’d stopped pretending that this could be anything but a Harbinger clawing its way into the world. She shouldn’t have done any of this in the first place. She certainly shouldn’t have spent the last three nights working through the book’s steps, following along as it filled its empty pages with new bizarre games. 

But it wasn’t too late to stop, was it? She could still end this. Aisling wouldn’t… no, Aisling would definitely yell at her, but it wouldn’t be the end of her life. The club would have her back eventually. Probably. Maybe. She’d spend some unpleasant time in the Sanctuary, but then it would all be business as usual again.

Business as usual, trying to learn about the secrets of the universe secondhand from a Keeper who had so much more to do than indulge her stupid curiosities.

“Look. I want to do this, for some reason. I want to work with you. But I can’t do that. I don’t care how sure you are that it’ll be fine, I literally cannot. Make another way or we’re done. I’ll hand you off to someone else, and she won’t play along. She’ll dissect you, figure out how you work, and eat whatever’s left over. Got that? I’m s-serious.” Did the book understand any of this? Who knows? All she could do was hope it had some way to grasp her meaning.

Several minutes of silent glaring later, she felt it respond in that wordless way: Agreement. Patience. Returning.

“Okay,” she whispered back. “And I mean it. Don’t… don’t mess with me.”

~~~

Things changed after that night. 

Isobel didn’t go back to the library right away. She skipped school and spent the day in her room, thinking in circles. Twice she tried to talk herself into turning the book over to Aisling, but she knew all the while that she wasn’t going to. The Harbinger’s twisted paper projection still appeared in her uneasy dreams, but it was simply there, watching in silence. 

When she next visited it, the book had not only added a new step, but covered Step 5 in a combination of neat redacting-marker lines and pen scribbling so frantic that it looked like it should have torn through the page completely. It even left a note in the margins that recanted the step in a reproduction of Isobel’s own handwriting. 

The new ritual was still strange and creepy, but something felt different about it. Its language wasn’t quite as disjointed, and there was a clearer line of logic running through it, or else it just did a better job of explaining what it was meant to do and why someone would want to do it. It helped that she’d never gotten along well with mirrors. 

But more than that, through the days she spent obsessively following the book’s growth, inviting the Harbinger into her head while she slept in a cramped blanket nest in her closet, she somehow hadn’t realized just how wrong everything was. Not until she had this to compare it to. Those days weren’t exactly a fugue she’d dissociated her way through entirely, she remembered them well enough, but thinking back…

Isobel dreamed often. Most of them were nightmares, and the worst were those she experienced almost as an outside observer. Not exactly watching a movie, but riding along as a prisoner inside herself. She knew something horrible was happening, maybe even remembered it happening in other dreams before and had ideas about how to prevent it, but the dream-story was already written and it offered her no agency to change it. 

Those first few days had felt like one of those dreams. Like watching herself march into a lightless cave that was really a yawning maw, waiting for the jaws to snap shut.

Like the new rituals, the book’s formless intelligence felt very different now. Gentler, clearer. It spoke in soft wordless whispers that aligned rather closely with her own ideas rather than a gale of suicidal intrusive thoughts, and listened when she spoke back. Now, whenever she felt the Harbinger communing with her, there was something she recognized at the heart of it. Something desperate she’d felt stirring in the dark corners of her own soul for years now. Yearning to find some new path, no matter how strange or scary, because the one she’d spent her life walking was blank and flat and hopeless.

Maybe the two had simply discovered by accident that they shared similar feelings. Maybe the Harbinger saw something it appreciated in Isobel. Or maybe she’d just fallen for the trap’s second, more sophisticated stage, but she really didn’t think so. Somewhere along the way, it had ceased to be a predator dragging her to her doom and become a truly bizarre sort of kindred spirit.

~~~

Once Isobel replaced the reflection she’d never liked with the Harbinger’s little paper-and-ink avatar, things changed again. It was closer to her now, no matter where she went, and the Harbinger no longer needed its book to reach her. She read Step 8 in a dream before it was written at all, and felt the Harbinger’s presence blooming into something grander as she made new books. She made a new copy for the university library and took the original home, just in case anything made that copy especially important, and scattered more through other libraries and bookstores and schools. Once enough others stumbled across it, it wrote the ninth step. The step that, in its strangely-phrased way, promised her a kind of actual power of her own. Actual magic. 

And it delivered. 

Isobel began with herself, which seemed more appropriate and worthwhile than running around making purple space-apples or whatever. She formed an image of herself in her mind to replace the one that no longer appeared in the mirrors. Then, slowly, she reimagined it. It took hours at a time of focusing in the dark, forcing herself to know that the way she used to see herself was not the way she really was, to remember how she’d always looked. That didn’t make any sense, but if she let a little hiccup like that stop her now, what would be the point of all this?

For years now, she’d maintained an uneasy truce with her hair: she left it alone and didn’t bother it, and it left her alone and didn’t bother her. Mostly. It had never kept its side of the deal reliably, but now the balance of power had shifted. So she changed it. She banished the tangles that always seemed so determined to weave themselves into a bird’s nest, smoothed them out forever. She made it a nicer color, a faint auburn instead of boring dirty brown. Next went the extra pounds she’d never managed to shed without taking too much time away from the things she actually cared about doing. The things she changed were small, simple touches, for now, but they were hers. She was hers, maybe for the first time. 

While she worked, her dreams told her other new things. The Harbinger had a name beyond “the book,” which raised a brand new maze of questions she never would’ve thought of before. It called itself Aulunla. The name itself meant nothing to her. It wasn’t from any books she knew, and it didn’t phonetically resemble any language she was aware of. Some of the more infamous and impactful historical Harbingers had names they were known by, though.

Seruine, the corrupted remnant of a miracle meant to kill Sofia the Deathless for good.

Infezea, who brought disease into the world, and whose curses had lingered and mutated after its death — no, after her death, if you dug deep enough it started to look like she’d been a much more personlike entity than the sanitized public sources implied — until they became an inextricable, almost mundane part of things.

Nyuini, who’d planted its roots firmly on a nearby northern island during the chaos and confusion of the war, claiming the fishing village now called Commixture as home and all its residents as vessels — who nested there still. It kept to itself, most of the time, and no one wanted to bear the moral cost of burning it out.

Those names did share a certain phonetic quality, if not a proper linguistic structure — at least, not one that she could currently spot. Isobel had always figured they were names others gave them after the fact, perhaps drawing from some pattern that had been established after the first few times people used a nonsense sound to describe a monster. Apparently not. 

Assuming, then, that the Harbingers didn’t just make up names they liked and all have similar enough taste to make for some kind of connection, did they have their own language? Languages, even? Dialects? Cultures? Where did they learn them if not from some kind of Harbinger society? Nothing Aulunla communicated to her, in words or otherwise, gave her the sense that it had been raised among other Harbingers in some secret nightmare dimension. 

So, so many questions, questions she was sure would jump right to the top of Aisling’s list… but no, of course she couldn’t tell anyone about this. It was way too early to start fantasizing about what she’d do if all this really worked, if she got her own magic her own way and became the girl who could prove that benign, symbiotic relationships with Harbingers were possible.

Maybe nothing. Maybe they’d brand her a witch like any other and that would be the end of it. Maybe she and Aulunla would forever be set against the whole world.

But other worlds opened to her every time she closed her eyes. There were fairer, better ones among them. There had to be. And if not, she could make her own.

~~~

Aulunla was in a hurry to grow, and for Isobel to grow with it. It was sick. Maybe not dying, at least not yet, but very sick. Something else’s magic had infected it in the library. It couldn’t explain itself any more clearly than that, but Isobel guessed there’d been another Harbinger. A Keeper would’ve just killed it, right? Either way, there was nothing she could do about it but finish her work before the attacker came back.

But on that front, her best efforts weren’t quite good enough.

On Isobel’s eleventh day since discovering her Harbinger, she woke in the night with a screaming start, jolted awake by Aulunla’s terrified alarm cries in her dreams. Something or someone was coming to kill it, it wailed. Its copy in the library had been stolen away, taken by the source of the infection coursing through its soul, and it was certain that they meant to finish it off this time. Isobel stuffed the book into her backpack, scrambled out her first-floor window before the parents she’d been studiously avoiding could come to check on her, and raced into the dark. 

They began their final preparations in a mad rush. Aulunla destroyed the stolen shard of itself, then wrote its instructions in full into every remaining book at once. And with Isobel’s uneasy approval, it uncensored the fifth step. 

Of course she was glad Aulunla had changed its plans to include her more fully, but she’d started to understand what it was probably thinking with its original design. This world was… Isobel didn’t know if fake was the right term, but since she started using her power, she’d come to see the ordinary world she’d always known as a wall around the things that really mattered. Humans had weighted shackles fastened to their ankles that kept them from the true realms of the soul, of magic, and for some reason only Keepers ever got them removed. 

Well, Keepers and people who found other ways to pry the chains off. Witches, for want of a less loaded term.

So if something about Harbingers or maybe about magic itself made it so that this was the only way, so anyone who didn’t win whichever mysterious lottery made you a Keeper could only buy freedom with pain, then better some of them made it out of the prison of the real. That didn’t make her some evil cultist hoarding truth and power for herself. It would be best if the other readers connected with Aulunla well enough to truly join them on their journey, but so far none of them had. How sad for them. She just hoped the rushed harvest didn’t hurt any of them beyond recovery, and that their unknowing gifts weren’t in vain — that it was all enough to protect her and Aulunla from their hunter.

As for Isobel’s part of the work to come, Aulunla wrote in the book’s newest step that she already knew what to do, and she did. All she needed was a secluded place to finish the ritual, paper, and books. Lots of books. If this world wouldn’t let her be, she’d write one that would.

~~~

It was a Keeper who finally came for them after all, a tiny girl in a masked, cowled black-and-white outfit. Her regalia obscured most of her features, save for her venom-green eyes and the white streaks winding through her black hair, and altogether made her look more like a plague doctor from the days of the Infezean Scourges than a magical idol-hero, a champion of Claiasya. Her actions still didn’t make sense coming from a Keeper, but Isobel didn’t really care. She couldn’t spare any focus, not at this stage.

“I’m busy, I’m not hurt, and I don’t need your help. Go find someone who does,” Isobel spat.

The girl gave no answer, but the cold light in her eyes flared. A dry, tearing shriek poured out from Aulunla’s book, flooding the little room with words for walls. In a wild flash of color and motion, the diorama growing from it opened into a jagged mass of disconnected pictures and dragged the Keeper into itself. 

As it drew back, leaving only empty air, a still-open door, and a lingering sense of the Harbinger’s panic in the back of her mind, Isobel sighed. Her shoulders slumped a little. Everything would’ve been fine if they’d just been left to do things their way. No one had to die. Aulunla hadn’t been killing people, she didn’t think. But if the girl wouldn’t take no for an answer, that only left one way out of this. 

Well, that’s too bad. I warned her.

Isobel shoved the thought aside, pulled the door down, and returned to her work. Her partner could handle the intrusion, and meanwhile she was almost finished. Almost, but something in the words still wasn’t quite right. Some hazy quality was missing, or maybe some old anchor was taking up too much space? 

She scanned the collage with impossible speed, taking it in less like a book she was reading and more like a part of her body she was mentally taking stock of, crossed out a few lines and words, and… no, this whole passage near the lightbulb didn’t belong at all. What was she even thinking when she put it there? She ripped it off the wall, leaving a patch of rubber cement flecked with clinging scraps of paper, and went digging through her books in search of a replacement. 

Ugh, no, none of those were right either. The hard way, then. 

Isobel pushed back her left sleeve and stared into the river of words slowly flowing along her arm, searching until… yes, finally, there it was! She pinched the skin around the phrase she wanted, then began to peel it back. She grit her teeth and whimpered through the sharp stinging as she pulled the now-still sentence loose. But it only hurt for a second. When the passage tore away, it looked more like a neat strip of fine vellum than anything else, and there was no wound left behind in its place. Just a white spot on her otherwise-unharmed flesh, and more words quickly flowed in to fill the gap. She was already more than simple skin, and soon she would be so, so much more still. She just needed to finish her work before… no, it didn’t matter before what. She’d make it. They were so close.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-4

By the time I’ve gathered enough of myself to keep moving, night has fully fallen. There’s no time to stop and wonder what happens to me when this gets out. My life will explode or it won’t, and nothing I do alone tonight will change that outcome. 

On to what I can still control. The book sits silently on the ground where I left it, not at all worse for wear, and right now I just need to decide what I’m doing with this awful thing. I obviously can’t bring it back to the library, and putting it in the nearest other library seems like a similarly awful idea. I can’t bring it home — while it doesn’t appear to do anything but sit and wait for someone to follow its recipes, I’m not going to leave it around people I know and give it the chance to prove me wrong. Plus if other Keepers can sense it at a distance, someone else could track it to me and that would be the end of it.

Which leaves two real options: pull the plug and absorb it right now, or hide it somewhere else and choose my next step in the morning. Right? Those are the only ideas I can think of, yes, but are they actually the only ones? I don’t know. I’m too tired to think clearly and I’ve made it this far with only lasting damage to my reputation and I can’t do this right now, not while I could come up with something completely stupid and regret it immediately. I’ll handle it tomorrow.

So until then, where do you hide something from people who can sniff it out with magic? Off other people’s patrol routes, as far from the central districts as possible…

Right. I head west, back out across the wilting flower field. It’s a little less unpleasant at night, while you can’t see the decay quite so clearly, but that graveyard-perfume odor of rot is no less strong. I trudge through the field and to the very edge of the forest. At this hour, it takes some searching to find a hollow in a tree trunk, but find one I do. It’s a big enough hole that the book is only slightly visible when I stuff it in, and once I’ve done that, I turn and head for the hospital. Most Keepers are smart enough to leave the forest alone. Hopefully anyone who passes by and detects faint corruption will assume it’s just some wilderness monster doing whatever Harbingers do out there.

Halfway there, I realize I was worrying about the wrong issue — no Keeper is going to be out picking dead flowers while I sleep, but one of those Harbingers might wander by and scoop up the free snack. 

But I don’t have any better hiding spots and I’m too tired to think of one, so lucky it, I guess. It’d make my life less complicated.

When I get back, the seventh floor’s lights are already dimmed, and the main room is mostly empty, save for the usual scattering of older patients sleeping on the couches. The night nurse at the front desk greets me with a casual wave, but says nothing, and he can’t quite keep the uneasy tension off his face. I’m not sure exactly what Dr. Hines told everyone, but I imagine any given staffer has either figured out what’s going on with me or is very confused by the sudden radical shift in my schedule and how I’m treated. Neither option lends itself well to acting like it’s business as usual when I turn up bleary-eyed at this hour.

It’s well past my bedtime when I make it to my room. I’ve done my best to keep some kind of consistent schedule despite everything. So much for that. Ugh. Maybe I should start getting up later and tell the nurses they’ll just have to deal with it. Or maybe I should stop worrying about such tiny, stupid things at a time like this and actually sleep.

Eventually, I do.

~~~

Not well and not enough, of course. I still feel mostly dead when the sun comes glaring down through my too-thin curtains. I’ve tried a few times to hide under the covers while I sleep, to keep it at bay a little longer, but it’s hard to breathe under there and my own breath turns it unbearably warm and humid within minutes.

Pearl can spend the night hiding in the sheets just fine, though. Lucky her. It must be nice having gills. I cuddle her and do my feeble best to think about nothing and rest a little more until the morning nurse comes through to take my vitals. They’re a bit worse than usual today, but within the normal range of terrible. Once she’s finished, I rush through my morning routine, send for an easy-to-digest breakfast from the hospital kitchen, and return to the looming question of what on earth I’m doing with my life.

My infection is still inside the Harbinger. It’s too far away to touch directly right now, but I could go pick the book up and kill it with little more than an unkind thought. I should kill it. Even if it’s only slightly more substantial than when I found it, still who-knows-how-far from being complete. If I clean up my mess before anyone else shows up to fight me over it, there’s still a chance I could play this off as an ugly misunderstanding that’s all over now. Keepers have gotten away with more for longer, if Tara’s history was anything to go by.  

I’m going to kill it, I’ve decided by the time I finish eating. It’ll be frustrating to get nothing but trouble out of this whole experiment, yes, but it’s already been too much trouble to justify. This can’t get any more out of hand. There’ll be more Harbingers. There have to be. Things are currently a little quiet in my tiny corner of the city, that’s all. It’s not like the world ever runs out of monsters.

So off I go, out into an unpleasantly bright spring day and back to the dead flowers I’ve been visiting entirely too often. As the withering field comes into view, I reach across it with my soul and feel for the book at the forest’s edge.

But it’s not there.

I have to remind myself to breathe, then stop myself from taking a sip of life and sprinting across the field. If it’s gone it’s gone, if it’s not it’s not going anywhere. I remember exactly where I left it, even if it looks quite different in the morning light, and a minute later I’m peering into the hollow where I’m certain it was. Nothing. No magic trail leading off somewhere. No sign it was ever here at all.

Okay. Okay. What happened here? The Harbinger still exists, or at least the power I embedded in it does. I can still feel that tiny toxic spark of myself. That could mean some forest monster came by, ate the book, and caught what I gave it. After a quick glance over my shoulder, I transform and push my senses as far as I can into the sea of trees.

Nothing, or nothing I can find from outside, and I’m not going back in there. It also could’ve been a Keeper, unlikely as it is for someone else to have searched this field in the middle of the night. They probably would’ve killed and absorbed it on the spot, and even if they didn’t I wouldn’t come after another Keeper for it. 

I can’t do anything in either of those situations, so no point following those trains of thought further. What else? Maybe it has some way to move after all and set off on its own power to find itself a new nest. Or… someone’s reflection told them where to find it. The Harbinger would certainly have hooks in anyone who followed its steps that far. It could’ve sent them here to pick its book up and either hold it for safekeeping or hide it somewhere new. 

That seems at least as likely as the forest monster scenario, and if it’s what happened, this can still work. I can still fix this. My hooks are still in the Harbinger, and I’ve gathered enough health to mitigate my worst symptoms for weeks or live like a normal person for hours. I have everything I need to track it down, finish it off, and take whatever scant strength it has.

~~~

If my infection has a presence I can follow the way I do when I scent a Harbinger, it’s too far away to find right now. I know it’s there in some form, a faint prickling in my soul like a sleeping limb, but can’t actually trace it or do anything with it from this distance. It’s really disorienting, and feels like enough of an oversight that — as so often happens — I want to hit whoever designed my magic. Vyuji would just smirk and shrug and tell me not to be so mean to myself, though. Vyuji is an asshole. 

Well, it went somewhere. I stomp back through the flowers and make for the Fields, figuring I’ll have the best chance of catching it from the city’s center. The streets here are nearly always bustling with people. A few weeks ago, this crowd would’ve been a terrible hazard to my health. Now it’s just uncomfortable. Small mercies. 

Half an hour of wandering aimlessly through the crowd later, my hunch pays off. A now-familiar foul presence in the distance catches my attention, its dim beacon muffled beneath the tide of everyday life. I quicken my pace and follow its stench to… wait, what? There are two sources. How? The book and a victim? I don’t think I could mistake a regular corrupted person for a Harbinger, and I don’t think either is a witch, since nothing feels at all human about them… has it seriously grown enough in the last day and a half to take a vessel? If it has, things are a lot worse than they already looked. I have no idea how many vessels ever recover.

But this is the middle of the city, and you don’t even need a Keeper’s senses to see a Harbinger doing bizarre and horrifying things with a body it’s puppeteering. A vessel running around in public would draw immediate attention to it, and since I don’t feel any other Keepers descending upon the corruption, this should be something else. I hope so. I really do, for all the nonexistent good it’ll do.

Inspecting both motes of corruption at once doesn’t tell me anything useful. It’s like seeing double, only stretched out over a great distance. Other than their locations, they feel exactly the same, although at least from here it doesn’t feel like either of them house my magic. It still exists somewhere, but that somewhere doesn’t appear to be here. These are the only leads I have, though, and one source is closer than the other, so I head that way.

The trail ends at an open doorway and window facade, behind which are shelves and shelves of books on display. Above, a sign in white letters reads BIBLIOMANCY. After last night, bookstores and libraries seem like the worst possible place for the Harbinger to hide, but, well, it’s a Harbinger. It can only be what it is. Inside, the shop isn’t nearly the size of the library, but its shelves go on for long enough that you could easily hide a book in some corner while no one was watching. 

It isn’t in a corner, though. The book is faceup on a display tower toward the back of the store. How long has it been there? Have the clerks not noticed it or has it already gotten to one of them? I don’t feel corruption on anyone here, and no one comes running as I pick the book up and flip through it. It’s bizarre that they would go to the trouble of rescuing it from the woods and then leave it in a place like this — not that I’m complaining. This only took a few minutes, so I can destroy it and get right back to chasing the other thing, whoever or whatever it is.

Wait.

The book has changed. 

There are new pages, yes, but that isn’t it. Something is missing, or different. I’m not sure what at first, and I flip through it twice before I really notice: the step that was once completely crossed out in black marker has been replaced or repaired. Those two pages now bear rows of perfectly legible text and a bright, cheery picture of a girl and her one-eyed blob creature diving off a cliff ledge into a still lake that stretches out across the entire page.

Step 5

The last step was pretty scary, wasn’t it? Dreams can be a spooky place! Did you wonder how all of those horrible things got there? It’s not a problem with you — the world you were ███████ born into is broken and mad, that’s all! Life will twist you. Life will worm its coils into you and make you wrong. There are so many holes for it to creep through. The food you eat. The water you drink. The air you breathe. You’ve been tricked into believing that these things are part of life, part of you. But it’s all really just toxic sludge! Every day, you weigh your soul down with gunk and it sinks and sinks deeper into dream-slurry like quicksand!

Now that you’ve organized your dreams and learned how to keep things you don’t want out of them, this step will teach you how to do the same with the rest of yourself. You just need to prove to yourself that you don’t really need any of those things, and then they won’t be able to deceive you anymore! Yay! 

There are lots of ways you can do this, but this one is easiest and fastest. You’ll need enough water to immerse yourself in. A lake will work best. If you don’t have a lake, a pool is probably okay. Don’t use the sea. Go to whichever watery place you’ve chosen alone at night and hop in! Swim around for a while, see what the stars are doing above, have fun in any way you want! What’s important is just that you get used to being in the water. Make sure you’re calm and comfortable before this next part. It’s important that this all feels normal. It should’ve always been normal. 

When you think you’re ready, start taking quick, shallow breaths, longer on the exhale than the inhale. These are the last breaths you’ll ever be forced to take! Do this until you feel a little dizzy, then breathe it all back in, hold that breath, and submerge. Eyes open or closed, it doesn’t matter, but stay under the water. Hold yourself there no matter what happens. If you breathe in, you lose. If you come up for air, you lose. If you think this might be hard for you, it’s okay to find something heavy and hold it while you dive. You can exhale if you want, but don’t rush it! This shouldn’t feel fast or frantic. It shouldn’t hurt. It may just take a bit to recognize that the lie you’ve lived with for so long really is a lie.

Eventually, you shouldn’t feel dizzy anymore. Swimming underwater should feel like a perfectly clear day full of fresh air and nice things. As soon as that happens, you win! Stay under for as long as you like. Have fun experimenting with how it feels to not breathe or breathe water!

(Once you’re finished, if you ever want to breathe or eat or drink just because you feel like it, that’s okay! They’ll all probably be more fun! Doing things because you have to and because you like to are very different!) 

This… this is just suicide, isn’t it? Unless it actually works as described. I’d thought it wouldn’t kill people so quickly, and it still feels wrong for it to be demanding sacrifices at this stage. Like the statement would be completely unfinished, even more so than if it ate people’s souls in Step 6. It doesn’t make sense. What was its idea here? Why was this part blacked out in the first place and why has it only reappeared now?

No time to stand here and wonder. I flip back to the new steps. 

Step 8

You have more than one friend in your life, don’t you? I hope you do. Friends are nice! That’s why your new friend is always there for you. How can it be any other way? You made them, after all!

But me? I only have you. Sometimes you have other things to do, and I get lonely. I want us to make more friends. I want to show other people how to ████████████ be part of the beautiful things we’re making together. No one should be stuck wading through all this dream-slurry alone.  Don’t worry! I won’t love you any less or spend any less time with you! Having more friends will help us make things real!

You will need:
-Yourself! Hello, you!
-This book!
-Two hand mirrors!
-Places to put a book where humans can find it and read it! All the places! As many as you can think of!

Once you’ve gathered all the ingredients, go to each of those book-places. Wander through the shelves there. Look at the books and think about how their spines make you feel. You’ll know when you’ve found the right one. Pick that book off the shelf and take it to a dark place. You can make a place dark yourself if you want, but once you’ve started, make sure it stays dark until you’re finished or you lose. 

Place this book and the new book there so that they are between two of the mirrors. If you’ve done everything right so far, you should be able to see through the mirrors in the dark. Look out the doubled glass window-tunnel they create, out at all the books and books and books just waiting for their chance to be real. One of them is about to get its chance! Congratulations, book! Your mirror-friend will go get the right one, bring it out for you, and make the book you chose into the book it’s meant to be.

When you’re finished, put the book back where you found the book it isn’t anymore. 

Remember to return books to their proper place!

Oh. Oh no no no no no.

Right this moment the Harbinger is out there spreading, multiplying. No, it might’ve already happened. I was only at the library for a few minutes yesterday. Whichever victim took it from my hiding spot could’ve easily gotten it from the library, spent the daylight hours making copies, and put it back before I showed up. Or left a copy there, if they didn’t want to let it go. 

With a queasy lurch, I realize two things at the exact same time: first, it looks like my lie about the book being a minor branch of the Harbinger was accidentally true. Second, I beat up a Fianata Keeper to protect that useless branch.

This plan was awful. I’m an idiot. It was stupid to ever think anything good would come of this. Did I even think that? What other outcome could there be? I knew this would happen. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but I knew from the start that this whole idea relied on letting a Harbinger grow enough to do something like this. I knew it would happen and just… did it anyway. I really am garbage. I wish I could just throw myself away and start over as someone different. But I can’t, so I read on, rushing through the next sections before I can stop to wonder how it gets worse.

Step 9

People who live in dream-slurry don’t know how difficult it really is to see. Things happen to them and perceive them automatically, whether they want them to or not, so they never think any further about it. They get lazy. 

It doesn’t have to be that way! Only ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ is absolute. Everything else can change if you know how to change it. If you have a red apple, but you only like purple apples that sparkle, don’t let an apple dictate the way things are to you! You’re a █████ and it’s just an apple! If you twist your perception enough, your apple can be as purple and sparkly as you want!

The preparations for this step are simple. Think about what things would look like if you were the only one who’d ever seen them. See a world just for us. Fill it with all the purple apples and sea creatures dancing in the sky and books full of beautiful true things you could ever imagine. See what you would look like in a world where nobody ever lied to you or MADE YOU DO ALL THE HORRIBLE THINGS YOU’VE DONE TO YOURSELF.

Then look out into the dream-slurry and start to see it that way, too!

This will take a lot of practice. You’ve spent your whole life seeing the wrong way. So go out and practice! When you’re getting started, it will be easiest at night, probably still okay in secluded or shady places, and hard where The Sun can see. The Sun is still mean, but you won’t need to worry about it for too much longer!

It will get easier as more people read the other books. We will use their eyes. The more eyes perceive a thing a certain way, the more the thing starts to recognize their impression as the way it is and the way it has always been, until eventually that apple has always glittered like a violet star! This is called peer pressure. It has deformed a lot of people and places and things a lot of ways. 

But this way will be good! This way has a vision behind it. You’re making it this way because you know it’s the best way for things to be. No great art was ever made by a million people putting one random word each on a page. We will make this world wonderful. Together.

Step 10

There is no point in writing this step, because the one I would write it for already knows what it is. 

There is no such thing as fiction. Prove that to everything. Shroud yourself in me and show the world how to be and become and blossom.

I love you!

…Okay. From that last part, whatever the book was when I found it, it’s a full Harbinger or getting ready to become one by now. I don’t know what that means for whoever the last step was addressed to. I just need to find them as quickly as possible. 

“Hey, do you know where this book came from?” I ask the bored-looking older girl with a bob cut at the cash register. I hold it up so she can see the cover, but stay out of arm’s reach.

“Um, probably the same place as all the other books? Why?”

“Has, I don’t know, has anything weird happened recently? Any odd customers?”

“I mean, a little weird, sure. Someone came in yesterday morning with a big moving box and asked for all the clearance books that would fit into it. All fiction, but other than that she just took a pile of whatever was cheapest. Something about a library fair? I didn’t ask questions,” she shrugs.

“A girl a little over my age? Lots of bushy brown hair?”

“Not bushy, but brown, yeah. Where’s all this coming from?” she asks with a nervous laugh.

Do I care about making a scene? Not really. Things are kind of out of the box after yesterday. “Hunting a Harbinger,” I say simply. “These books are dangerous. Get magic help if you see another one.” Before she can question any further, I rush out, book in hand, and search again for the other point of corruption. It’s farther off, but not so far that I can’t easily place it. 

Before I go chasing it, though, can I use this? It should still be part of the Harbinger. There are just more parts now. It doesn’t feel any different from the first book, save that it’s no longer tainted with my power, and I can fix that easily. If it’s growing, if it’s about to be fully born, I want it to be hurting when I find it. I drop off the street, into the landscaped courtyard in front of one of those garden skyscrapers almost completely covered in trees. Past the point of worrying about who might be watching, I transform, take hold of a poisoned card, and— 

Corruption surges out from the book, rushing over me as if through an opened dam. At my soul’s touch, the book throws itself open and unfolds. I drop it and step back with a start, only barely keeping my footing, as something rises from the pages. It looks at first like a pop-up diorama, an aimless construction of black paper that doesn’t represent anything I can make out, but then it keeps expanding and expanding, rising above me, origami-folding itself up and out into a great asymmetrical mass of sharp angles wider than it is tall. 

Bright abstract images scrawl themselves across the black paper. The mass swiftly moves to encircle me, and the pictures stretching across its panels expand. They form a scene of a brilliant dawn horizon over a pitch-dark sea, but instead of the sky or the sun there’s a vibrant world of little paper people dancing in groves of colorful trees and spiral flowers, all rendered in a painfully clashing scatter of pastel colors. But the trees also grow their own little worlds and the flowers are also portals into other landscapes entirely — too small and blurry to make out right now, but some of them are growing, even swallowing others up, as individual parts of the image overlap or jostle for position or bleed into each other, making it impossible to focus on any single element. 

And beneath it all the sea isn’t just black paper anymore, it’s a vast inky morass filled with human-shaped outlines like bodies drowning in a bog. Sometimes they reach up from beneath the surface, but instead of arms they sprout flowers of kaleidoscopic color that bloom for just a few seconds before they’re sucked down into darkness or absorbed into the collage above.

Nothing that I could interpret as the Harbinger’s body appears from the display. The closest thing I can find comes from a few little caterpillars that drop down from the trees, crawl over the surface of the bog, and start to eat up arm-flowers, then vomit them back out as patches of ink patterned with dozens of eyes that glare down at me from all angles. 

There’s a soul-deep shock that comes with seeing the world ripped away and replaced with a collage of writhing madness. I can’t imagine anyone, Keeper or no, ever being used to it. Still, at least for the moment, shock is all it is. That awful sense of being strangled by a nightmare doesn’t fade, but through it… I did something a lot like this a week ago. A threat display. Lashing out just enough to feel dangerous. 

Beneath all of this, the book is still open on the ground. I launch my card into it, but this time I let it burst into twisting, corrosive life as soon as it burrows into the Harbinger-essence. Pieces of the diorama start to twist and wither and blacken, and what remains of it frantically fold back inwards until only the book remains. It smolders at the edges with green embers and smokes with misty plumes of my noxious magic. 

The twisted diorama is gone within seconds, corruption and all, and the Harbinger has slammed the door to its world shut again, performing some mystic equivalent to saving a person’s life by amputating a dying limb. All I can do is hope it’s still hurting, wherever it really is, and keep going. There’s still more of its power in the distance.

And if I want any chance to keep this from getting worse, all these copies have to go. 

The Harbinger’s stench leads to a book left in a smaller bookstore. Rather than make a scene of it, I just walk in, wait until no one’s watching to stuff it under my jacket, and walk out. Whatever they use to trigger the anti-shoplifting gates, this book doesn’t contain one. I take it to a quiet alley, transform, and flood it with enough of my magic that it twists and withers away until nothing remains but dust and dried paper scraps, like fragments of a crumbling ancient scroll. The Harbinger’s essence inside writhes and screams and pulls back, drawing whatever bits of itself it can salvage toward its source, but it makes no attempt to strike at me this time. 

I’m not sure how much I’m hurting the actual Harbinger like this, but the trail can’t go on forever. Whoever made these duplicates seems to have followed a roughly-straight path through the Fields, dropping one off anywhere someone curious might pick it up. I repeat that routine with the two more copies sitting on separate shelves in a library. From there, I follow the trail to a third bookstore, where I run into my first complication. Not from the Harbinger or someone twisted by it, though. 

Just one of those too-friendly clerks who won’t take “leave me alone” for an answer.

“Oh, hello! Welcome to the Bookstore!” A portly old man in a green sweater smooths out his bushy beard, stands from behind the counter — where a sign above confirms that this bookstore is named “The Bookstore” — and walks over to me, coming to rest just a bit too close. “I haven’t seen you around before! Is there anything in particular I can help you find today?”

No, you really can’t. “Just… just looking around. Thanks.”

“That’s fine. That’s great, actually! What do you usually like to read? No judgment here. Whatever you want, I’m sure I can point you in the right direction!” 

I do my best to politely ignore him as I search the store, but he’s just not having it. He follows me everywhere, studiously ignoring my signals that I really just want to look at books alone. I don’t think he’s suspicious of me or anything, he just… likes to talk and figures everyone else does too.

Which isn’t any better. When I still went to school, there was a nearby pastry shop I liked to get lunch at sometimes. Until people there started recognizing me, asking if I wanted my usual order and how my day had been. Then I felt weird about going there often enough to be noticed, so I stopped. 

This is not a thing I want to be reminiscing about. Especially not right now.

“You know, it really warms the heart to see a girl in your age in here — on a weekend, too! — looking for a good book or three instead of goofing around or, you know, playing those games they all play on the Sea now. Heh, my granddaughter, it’s a gift from the Goddess if I can get her to look up from her drive for a few minutes…”

There it is, placed horizontally on top of a row of history books. I pull out my fifth copy of How to Be the World.

“Oh, what’s that you’ve found there?” he asks, leaning down to inspect it.

Harbingers,” I finally hiss. “I’m looking for a Harbinger that finds its victims through books like this one. Have you seen this book before now? Have you read it?”

The man flinches. His once-smiling eyes go wide with fear. “I, what? I’m… no. No, I’ve never seen that one until now. Promise!” he gasps.

“Good. Call for a Keeper if you find another copy. I’m taking this and I’m going to go kill it,” I say, then turn and rush for the exit.

“Um. I really do like books. If that makes you feel any better. Sorry,” I offer, just before the door swings shut behind me. 

~~~

Finally, only the distant wisp of power I buried in the original book remains. It’s not far from here, and it stirs at my soul’s touch, ready at any second to do what it was made for. I’m not going to inflame it until I know what I’m dealing with — if the Harbinger has taken a vessel, I could kill them if I’m not careful. Now that I’m closer, it’s easy to follow my own magic back to its source, which is somewhere in a parking lot filled with wide, short buildings that each bear dozens of blue roll-up doors like tiny garages. A self-storage site. The place is shockingly barren for New Claris, with only a few trees and no garden plots anywhere among the rows and rows of doors. 

The heart of all this corruption is nesting at the far end of the complex. I pause outside its door, identical to all the others save for the stench emanating from it. It’s grown enormously since I last felt it, from a vague unease to a sickening spiritual weight like… like painful hunger, but not an actual gnawing in my stomach. Appetite as experienced by something that’s never eaten in its life and doesn’t even know what food is, only that there’s something it doesn’t understand missing from its world.

This is where I knew it would end, isn’t it? This was my stupid, stupid plan. All that’s left to do is fix my mistake and scavenge whatever I can from it. I reach down, tap a tiny bit of life, and pull the unlatched steel door up.

Fumes of a chemical smell, glue or nail polish, waft out as the door slides open. The overhead light in the little square room is on, and I recognize the girl inside, as I thought I would. She doesn’t look like any other Harbinger victim I’ve encountered. The opposite, actually. There’s no sickness or exhaustion in her eyes, and her hair even looks better than last time I saw her, smoother and shinier and altogether less like a rebellious bush. She doesn’t feel like a victim, either — she’s definitely corrupted, much more so than Yurfaln’s afflicted, but not at all damaged the way they were. 

Around her, though… rather than the bare grey walls I expected, the unit is covered in paper. Hundreds or thousands of irregularly-sized little paper rectangles covered in words, pages and passages sliced out of books, pieced back together into some kind of word-collage, and dotted with black patches where lines are neatly crossed out in marker. Ruined husks and loose pages of books harvested for their paragraphs are scattered across the floor. At the center of it all, the Harbinger’s book is open, unfolded into a smaller but vastly brighter version of its earlier ever-shifting nightmare collage.

The girl pulls away from her work, reaching up on a stool to censor bits of text on the ceiling, and turns to glower down at me. “I’m not hurt, I’m busy, and I don’t need your help. Go find someone who does,” she says flatly. There’s no pain in her voice, just a sharp tinge of something like frustration.  

What do you say to that? How do you tell someone so entangled in a monster’s mad dreams that everything about this is wrong?

You don’t. You let the Soul Sanctuary figure it out. I reach out and fan the sparks of sickness winding through the Harbinger into deathly flames. A scream like all the paper in the world being shredded to scraps in an instant rips through the air as the book lashes out and drags me into its Wound.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-3

Who is this Keeper? They can clearly sense the Harbinger, but what exactly is it like for them? I couldn’t just tell them this is my kill and I’ve got it handled, could I? Has any Keeper ever said that to help turning up? They must or there’d be more teams, it can’t be that I’m the only one who needs something urgently… no, that’s a useless tangent. All that matters is what I say now and what the other Keeper thinks of it. This only ends well if I can talk my way out of it, so what I need to say is….

I don’t know. It’s impossible to plan this out in any real way. There’s way too much I don’t know. Running away feels more appealing with every second I sit and wait for the Keeper to find me. That was never a real option, though, and it especially isn’t now that they’re in the building. 

As they approach, I try to inspect the new presence more closely. Shona said Keepers had soul signatures you could read, so maybe this is someone I’ve heard of? There’s the sound of the open ocean. Waves rising to wash away filth and corruption. Lighthouses. Nothing that calls to mind anyone I know. Nothing useful.

Cries of surprise and scuffling sounds of people moving away announce their arrival before they come into view. As the noise reaches me, I transform. No point in hiding my magic if they’re already making a dramatic entrance. Dancing shadows and sickly green wisps briefly smother the reading nook’s lights. 

When the darkness lifts, the new Keeper is standing before me. Well, mostly standing. She leans down to catch her breath as she stops running, propping herself up with both hands on a silver and gold trident. Sleek, ocean-colored hair, a flowing curtain of mixed deep blues and teals whose colors seem to move as the light hits them differently, drapes over her face and obscures most of her body. 

After a moment, she stands and swings her weapon out in a wide half-circle, almost gesturing with it, which may explain the rush to get out of her way. She’s a soft-featured girl about my age, and her eyes match her hair, complete with irregular shifting colors. 

Her Keeper outfit has two distinct layers. The first is a royal blue strapless dress, slightly ruffled at the neckline. It’s cinched in two places: at the top with a silver drawstring that threads in and out of sight and ties into a loose shoelace bow in front, and at the waist with a purple sash belt whose ends trail through the air behind her, casually ignoring gravity. The second layer is a little harder to define. The shape is of a billowing train skirt and loose detached sleeves that don’t quite cover her arms, but the material, white tinged with very faint blue, is so sheer it looks more like thin mist than fabric. The closest comparison I have is to a jellyfish’s translucent bell, but it’s a lot less solid and stable.

“Help has arrived! Where’s the Harbinger? Are there victims? Is there a Wound? Where is it?” she shouts. 

“Hi,” I say, then wince inwardly. Great opening, me. “Thanks… thank you for coming, but there aren’t any of those things. I’ve got this under control. It’ll be gone soon. You can go if you want.”

“What? Of course there are! It’s right here!” She brings her trident forward quickly enough that I flinch, pointing it at the book in my lap.

Well, I had to try. On to the hard way.

“Right. I thought so too, when I first felt it, but does it look like a Harbinger? Is it reacting like a Harbinger usually would to two Keepers looming over it? Here, watch.” I hold the book up. She flinches away from it at first, but stands still and waits while I first wave it around, then set it on the arm of my chair and punch it as hard as I— 

“Ack!” I just barely choke down my yelp. Cushioned only slightly by my glove, the impact twists my thumb out of place beneath my fingers. It’s not broken or anything, I don’t think, but it burns as I shake my hand out, a breath of air hissing through my clenched teeth as I endure the pain. I guess I’m lucky that ‘as hard as I can’ isn’t very hard. 

But not that lucky. Someone watched me do that. She’s still waiting in confused silence for me to finish my point. My cheeks burn a little. This is great. I’m making a great impression.

“See?” I continue, ignoring what just happened. “It’s not doing anything. Because it can’t. You weren’t wrong when you sensed a Harbinger, but it’s not a whole Harbinger. It’s a bit complicated.” That’s all mostly true. Where I’m going with it is a little less so, but… 

Actually, does my plan even work now? She’s already made this a lot messier. Suppose I do convince her that everything’s fine and she should leave me alone. Lots of people still watched her storm in yelling about a Harbinger. If I put the book back in its place, I’ll have to worry about someone else getting word of this weird thing that happened and coming to check on it. If I’m lucky the bystanders could assume the two Keepers took care of it, but when have I ever been lucky? Maybe I should cut my losses. Kill it right now and walk away from this stupid plan.

No, I’ve already sunk so much time into this. I should at least try. Ugh.

“Let’s walk and talk for a bit, okay? This is a library and we’re making a scene.” I stand up and squeeze past her and her wavy, rolling sashes, heading for the way out with the book in hand.

The girl stares at me open-mouthed for another beat, then shakes her head, but it looks more like she’s trying to shake a bug out of her hair than disagreeing. She turns and moves as if to follow me, but stops in the middle of her first step. 

“Hey, hold on! Before we go running off anywhere, you know me and I don’t know you and I don’t think that’s very fair. So.” She folds her arms, leaving her trident to float lazily in midair, and taps a foot expectantly.

“…But I don’t know you,” I turn back to reply in genuine bafflement.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“I mean this is the first time I’ve seen you, in person or otherwise, and I can’t tell if I’d know you by name without your name,” I say, very slowly. 

From the face she makes, you’d think I told her I hated kittens or something.

“Are you sure?” she asks, her brow creasing as she glares.

What? Why would I? I guess some people tend to know Keepers on sight since they’re on the news and their images are used for endorsements and whatnot, but I stopped keeping track of that when I stopped hoping I could ever become a Keeper myself. I guess she’s kind of familiar, maybe I saw her face on the Church’s website, but does she really expect me to recognize her when she doesn’t recognize me, either?

In the pause before I reply, her lips quirk up on one side in a smirk. “Oh? It’s come to you now, hasn’t it?” she asks, her eyes softening with satisfied vindication, as if she’s taken my speechlessness for a dawning realization of who I’m dealing with.

Oh no.

She may be an idiot.

I can’t tell if that makes my job easier or harder.

“…No, I’m certain. That isn’t some judgment on you, whoever you are. I am, in fact, a shut-in who lives under a rock, so please fill me in,” I say.

Whoever I…” she repeats, her eyes widening before she clicks her tongue and blinks away her dismay. “Ffine!” she huffs, exasperated. “If you really have no idea about anything, I’m Tetha Fianata, the Sea’s Sanctuary!” Her voice makes her sound like a kids’ show Keeper about to strike a goofy pose, but she just puts her free hand to her chest, raises her chin, and… is she watching me for recognition? Hoping for it? I think she is. 

And she’s got it, if not in the way she wants. I’ve never heard of her, but Fianata again? She doesn’t look anything like Niavh, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Iona adopts all her children. She’s taken in dozens with no one else in the world over her years, and while not all or even most of them are magical, Clarish Keepers with no family or families they don’t want often end up joining hers.

Which is lovely for them, I’m sure, but they’ve got a whole district that’s pretty much their house. Why do they have to keep coming here?

“Okay. Fi… Tetha,” I say. “Nice to meet you.” I had to stop myself from stating that as ‘sure, I know the Fianatas.’ She’d probably take further offense at being lumped in with her famous family. “I’m Eyna. Ill Wind,” I add reluctantly. She can sense it anyway. “You wouldn’t know me, I’m new. Can we go now?”

“But the Harbinger—”

I don’t hear the end of whatever she’s saying, because I cut her off. “Is not a threat, and if it is we’re better off bringing it somewhere without bystanders. Come on.” I head down the stairs, not waiting on any further argument. 

Tetha does join me, but I’m not watching her as closely as I probably should. Some of the people who scattered at her approach peek around corners at us. It’s been a while since I was last… not in public, but publicly being a Keeper. I didn’t miss the attention. Maybe I’d have something useful to say, some way to defuse the situation, but there are so many of them. An audience. I try to ignore them, keeping my gaze straight on the path out of here. That doesn’t make them any less there.

Outside, I walk us back toward the university grounds, doing my best not to think about the people watching us all along the streets. At the very least, no one around is stupid enough to follow us – after all, wherever a Keeper is heading without a formal invitation is liable to be a gash in the world festering with soul-eroding nightmares, and it’s illegal to interfere with us in any case. Still, the fewer people, the better. The campus has a lot of usually-empty space, plus it’s farther from home, so it seems like my best bet.

Tetha pelts me with questions while we walk:

“Where are we going?”

“Not far. A quiet corner of the university. We’ll be there in a minute.”

“Hey, are you gonna tell me what’s going on?”

“Yes. In a minute.”

“What’s with the mask?”

That one I’m not answering. I just shoot her a look and let it hang in the air. She asks once more, then hrmphs and gives up when I ignore it again.

“What’s it mean to not be a whole Harbinger? That doesn’t make sense! It’s a Harbinger or it isn’t! And what difference does it make if it’s half a Harbinger or whatever? Why didn’t we, I don’t know, half-kill it in the library?”

“I’ll try to explain in a minute.”

I’m not trying to be annoying, although I’m sure that’s the effect. I just can’t talk and think at the same time. I’m busy running through ideas about what she might be thinking and how to sell what I’m doing. I don’t bother guessing how her Harbinger sense might work and what it might tell her — again, not enough information. All I know is that mine is apparently better than usual.

A few minutes later, I stop by one of the many groves on the edge of the campus. There are no benches or landmarks that’d draw people to this side, and while the wall of trees isn’t thick enough to completely obscure us from the more trafficked paths, it’s better than nothing. “Here. This’ll do. Have a seat if you like.” I point to the small stretch of manicured green between the stone path and the grove.

Tetha glances down at the grass, crinkles her nose, and pointedly doesn’t sit. Neither do I.

“Fair,” I say. “I’m sorry about the walk. Like I said. Bystanders.”

She’s been tense the entire way here, never putting her trident down and only briefly looking away from me, and she still is now. It’s only a small comfort that her eyes are currently trained on the book rather than meeting mine. “We could’ve talked whether or not someone was watching, but okay,” she says. “Now, what’s happening?”

I’m sure she could’ve. Anyway.

“Right,” I sigh. “So first, thank you for checking in, but this is my territory. I’m keeping watch on it and I’ve got things handled here. Umm, ‘here’ being this little stretch of the Hills. From the school to just north of the library.”

“Territory? What are you talking about? We’re all Keepers. We’re all on the same side. Why would you be mad about someone helping you fight a monster?” she asks.

I’ve already heard this exact line from Mide. Tetha talks like she doesn’t need anything from magic, like she has no idea why people make the Promise at all, and I just don’t understand how there are Keepers who can’t answer that question. Emergence isn’t even some dark secret only Keepers know about. They don’t exactly highlight the need to absorb Harbingers when they don’t have to, but it’s where the name “Keepers” comes from. Why does she do this if not for something she wanted enough to risk her life for over and over? Did she think it would be fun?

Of course I can’t just say any of that… but I don’t think I could help it if I answered right away. I take a long pause to steady myself before I speak again: “There are… things I need to change that can’t wait.” That’s the closest I’ve come to explaining my situation. I hate that this girl of all people is the first one to hear it, but it might help and I don’t know what else to do.

“Oh. I mean, that’s fine, you can have its whole heart to yourself if you really want. I still don’t get it. Couldn’t you have done that a while ago? When I showed up you were just sitting around.”

“There’s the problem. I can’t yet.”

“Why not? It’s just sitting there! Can you not hurt it?”

“I could, yes. It wouldn’t help.” 

I’m certain by now that this girl wouldn’t accept leaving the Harbinger alone for research purposes, which is probably the best possible way to put what I’m doing. Past this point, my plans for this conversation get creative with the truth, and I’m not a great liar. I have to stop myself from trembling and tensing like I’m about to run for my life.

“So,” I say. I hold the book up in both hands, keeping it close to my chest so as not to look like I’m offering it to her. It’s not leaving my hands if I can help it. “You’ve seen this. You’ve seen what I can do to it without it doing anything back. Here’s what I think is happening: it feels like a Harbinger because a Harbinger created it for some reason, but it’s not actually a Harbinger itself. Does that make sense?”

“No,” Tetha says flatly. “What’s it matter if it’s a monster or not quite a monster or half a monster or whatever it is?”

“Lots of us can make things out of magic, right?” I narrow my focus and summon a card in the air between us, then let it float to the ground. “Like so. That came from me and probably feels a lot like me, but it isn’t me. It’s the same with this book.”

“Okay. What’s your point? If it came from a monster, things will be better once it’s gone!”

“My point is that this book is a tiny piece of a real problem. A footprint a Harbinger left behind. And right now, it’s the one trace of that monster I’ve found. Destroying it probably wouldn’t hurt the creator enough to matter, and I’d lose the only way I might be able to track it down.”

“Oh. That’s, I mean… that sounds weird. Are you really really sure about it?” 

“Everything about Harbingers is weird! I’m not certain of anything, but that’s my best guess right now, and my guesses are usually pretty good.” I shrug. I’m suddenly very glad to have kept this mask in my outfit. Much as I worry about it saying “sick” or “hospital” to someone who’s paying attention, I don’t know how to lie with my face. That fake-casual gesture is the best I can do. 

“You can sense it, right? Look for yourself and you’ll see what I’m talking about,” I continue. I think I kept my trembling out of my voice. 

Tetha looks up at nothing in particular. She frowns, knits her brow, and rests her hand on her chin. After a moment she drops her trident, again leaving it to drift through the air beside her, and wraps her other hand around her elbow. She spends a long while like that before she nods. “…Alright. Give me a minute.” 

She picks her spear back up, extends her free arm, and spreads her fingers. More of the airy blue-white substance that forms part of her Keeper regalia stretches out from her, slowly reaching for the book. I hold it out, just far enough away that her aura can touch it without touching me. Tetha’s magic flows around the book, circulating. Sometimes it brushes past my fingers, leaving them feeling a tiny bit cool and damp. She gnaws nervously on her lower lip as she concentrates.

I’m counting on her sense-experience of the Harbinger telling her roughly what mine does, only less so. That’s still a wishful guess, but Tetha doesn’t seem that smart and hasn’t acted like she has any special insight on that front. This might actually work. This should work. 

“I don’t think it’s quite right, what you’re saying. There’s, uh, there’s nothing connected to this book. There’s no flow, in or out. Whatever this is, it’s the only part of itself, and I really think it’s some kind of Harbinger,” she says after studying the book for a minute or two. 

……What? 

My hands clench and unclench — I only notice I’m doing it because the motion hurts my still-sore thumb. She isn’t wrong about anything, but that’s her problem? That’s the fault she finds in my story? It isn’t even a real fault! It’s exactly what you’d expect to see if someone made a thing, put enough power into it to keep it stable, and left it lying around! You’d need to have no imagination at all to look at magic, this bizarre, complex, unreal thing nobody seems to understand more than a tiny piece of, and decide that if you can’t follow an immediately obvious trail from one thing to another with your single specific type of mystic perception, no connection exists. I’m somehow less upset about her calling me on my lie than I am about how stupid her issue is.

“Oh. Well. I, yes, I could’ve told you that. I didn’t think it was a Harbinger’s limb or it was siphoning something through it, it’s just something it made, and… and the way my magic works, I can use that. Learn about it. Find it,” I babble.

“Do you have its scent now? Where do you think it is?”

“…Working on it.”

“Okay. I kind of see what you were thinking, but this whole thing… yeah, maybe there’s some bigger Harbinger hiding out there, but the Harbinger made this for a reason, right? It’s getting something out of it, so we have to get rid of it.”

“We can’t,” I snap, louder and harsher than I wanted to.

“We can! I don’t get why you’re—”

“It’s touched someone! There’s a normal human the Harbinger behind this is connected to, maybe you can’t see it but I can, and I haven’t managed to track them down and see how bad they have it and I don’t know what’ll happen to them if they’re already a vessel!”

By the time I realize what I’m saying, what a horrible mess I’ve made for myself, it’s already said. I don’t know what else I could’ve done.

Tetha’s grip on her weapon visibly tightens. Her hands are shaking. “That… isn’t what you were saying before. You were talking like it wasn’t a big deal before,” she says.

“I don’t know you, okay? I had no idea if you were one of those types who’d charge into battle first and ask questions never.”

“Well, I’m not! I’m not dumb! I’m not gonna do something if it might hurt someone! If that’s what’s going on then we… oh, I know!” Tetha laughs nervously. She seems to relax, but only a tiny bit. “We just need to take it to the Sanctuary, right? They’ll have some place to lock it up until we know what to do.” 

We don’t need to do anything. I told you, I can handle this.” I take a slow step back, never taking my eyes off her.

“Give it to me if you don’t wanna go. I’ll take care of it and you can go do whatever else.” She strides toward me and reaches for the book.

“No!” I jump back out of her reach. My cards blink into being, positioned such that they form a whirling ring around me. A fence, if not a very sturdy one.

Tetha freezes. Her eyes widen. “What are you doing?” she asks.

“Leave me alone. I’m not… I don’t want to… I’m not any kind of problem for you, okay?”

“Don’t want to what? Fight? To, why, to protect a Harbinger? That’s what you’re s-saying!” Her voice breaks on the last word.

“Why do I have to say anything? Why am I wasting my time trying to explain how I’m handling a Harbinger in words you can understand when I could just be handling it?

“If it was handled, we wouldn’t have a problem! What were you gonna do until that whole idea led you somewhere? Keep it with you? Leave it in the library? Either way there’d be lots of people for it to do whatever evil thing it does to! Lots! There’d be vessels everywhere, if there even are any in the first place!” Tetha yells. “And I’m… I won’t let it be like that! If you won’t kill it, I will!”

“Don’t do this,” I plead. I really don’t know what happens next if she does, but I’m sure it’ll be bad. Bad for one of us right now, bad for me forever.

Without another word, Tetha raises her trident and spins it in a series of wide, sweeping circles. There’s a sudden unnatural dryness in the air. A sphere of water forms above her, tiny at first but swiftly growing. The water glows with sourceless teal-blue light, like pool lights at night, but much more vivid.

Fine. I didn’t start this. 

I hug the book to my chest, shielding it with my arms from whatever she’s trying to do. Then, without moving another muscle, I take control of a card and float it out of my orbit, off to one side —  I’ve started keeping a few infected, just in case I have some reason to separate my sickness from myself in a hurry. Tetha appears too absorbed in whatever she’s doing to notice as that venom-green card floats over the grass, just above ground level. I move it in a wide half-circle, sneaking it behind her. It helps that I don’t need to steer them by hand, the way books and shows about Keepers always paint magic as a thing you do with gestures and flashy poses.

But the moment before I can spring my surprise attack, panic flits across her face. She whirls around and jabs the trident into her sphere. When she pulls it away, a smaller ball of water follows it, tethered to its central point. Then she brings it down, not quite striking my card but touching the orb to it, and pulls away. The water remains, a protective bubble that holds the card in place. I can still distantly feel it, but it simply won’t respond when I try to activate it.

Oh well. I have more… but there’s a slight delay in pulling my focus away from the contained card, like the difference between simply moving my arm and swishing it around in a bathtub. I draw a plume of mist out from myself and shove it through the short gap between us, just as Tetha spins to face me again. A curtain of water from her sphere falls over my fog, dragging it to the ground, holding her trident out in the space between us. She looks like she doesn’t know what to do next.

But I do. As Tetha takes a few hasty steps back, I reach with my soul for the card I conjured and dropped near the end of our talk. I place it so that between one step back and the next, her foot comes to rest over it, and only then do I will it to burst.

Cold emerald fog fills the air. Tetha lets out a high-pitched yelp and whirls around as if startled by a sudden noise, but her cry is quickly cut off by a fit of dry coughs. Her legs tremble, then buckle and send her crashing to the ground. She reaches forward and tries to break the fall with her trident, but her arms no longer have the strength to prop her up on it. Rather than drift off through the air again, the trident clatters against the stone and disappears as she crumples to the ground. The light in the water above her fades as she loses her grip on it, and the sphere comes pouring down on her, splashing me in the process.

I wait there, silent and still but for a few halting steps away from her. A storm of horrible emotions I can’t name swirls through my stomach. Finally, she plants her forearms on the ground and pushes herself up just far enough to stare at me in uncomprehending fear.

“My head, it’s… wha’d you…” she rasps, clearly struggling to string the words together.

She’s alive. She’s a Keeper, she’ll get better. That’s all I need to know. I tap some of my health and run away as fast as my legs will allow. Tetha isn’t following, as far as I can tell. Still, I don’t stop until I can’t sense her anymore. 

Only then do I dismiss my magic and collapse in the shadow of the nearest building wall. What am I doing? What was I ever doing? How did I imagine for a second it wouldn’t end up like this? 

Between choked sobs and gasps for breath, I dash the book against the ground, pick it up, and smash it to the pavement over and over. The Harbinger sits through it all unprotesting, still and lifeless as ever, and after a few repetitions I’ve lost the energy to do it anymore. It doesn’t help at all. Nothing will.

In The Dark, We’re All The Same 4-2

Demystifying the Tarot, Chapter 5: The Major Arcana

The Stars — XVII

Between the departures and dawnings of the Sun, the Stars Beyond hold court. Just as they emerge from the fading light of day, the Tarot’s Stars follow the turmoil and devastation of the Tower in the Fool’s Journey. Cast into darkness, stripped of everything they thought they knew, the traveler must look beyond their own understanding for new answers. This card reminds us that as we are all connected in some small sense to a cosmos unthinkably vaster than ourselves, we are never alone in our search for answers, but also that those answers may be very far from what we expected or wanted.

When this card appears in a reading, it often relates to major life decisions or unanswered questions that need your attention. In all cases, it signals that this is a good time to examine and adjust your path. Where it leads may be hidden from you, but even in the deepest night, there’s enough starlight to see by. In seeking answers that can only be found in the dark, though, remember how quickly knowledge without understanding becomes dangerous.

In its inverted aspect, this card usually refers to the internal influence of mysteries or revelations. It may indicate things you wish to hide from your own or others’ sight, long-held understandings that no longer serve you, or losing sight of your own goals in search of some higher, grander purpose that may never come. The Stars watch and illuminate, but do not guide. As in all Tarot interpretation, when considering any insights they offer, it’s important to avoid handing your own agency over to the cosmos. There’s no future in wishing and waiting for something else to act through you. 

Keywords: Upright: Wonder, mystery, inspiration and contemplation, clarity of vision, paradigm shifts, perilous wisdom

Inverted: (+) Secrets, self-understanding, accepting what you cannot change

(-) Fate, forces outside your control, indecision, fear of the unknown

~~~

I wake up with a dizzying headache that smears my vision into an unfocused-photo blur and makes it hard to sit up in bed, let alone do anything meaningful. I make myself sit with it for now. There have always been bad health days, and after last week I shouldn’t strain my extra wellness too much.

If I have to refill while I think through the insane idea I’m considering, it might start to weigh on me.

Once I’ve sat through the morning medical routine and noted to the nurses that I feel terrible, I flop out of bed and slowly make my way to my corner of the lounge, if only because the seats there are comfier than the one at my desk.

My tarot table has been quieter since I made the Promise, and I don’t think that’s entirely down to the fact that I’ve been out a lot more. Dementia isn’t too common on the seventh floor. Most residents still know what’s going on around them, and while they might not see straight through my poorly-kept secret, I did start taking long night walks right as I developed very Keeperlike unnatural markings. They can look at me and gather that something unusual might be happening. Maybe it would be different if everyone knew that they now had a mascot Keeper, but until they know that’s what happened, I’m probably an eerie mystery to be kept at a distance.

Noirin and the nurses still talk to me, but those do seem like the people most likely to have put the pieces together. One morning nurse even complimented my weird hair — I thanked her, mentioned dying it, and otherwise brushed it off. I actually did look up how to use those products Dr. Hines gave me the other day, but I’ve never done anything like that myself and it looked way too hard and complicated to bother with. Especially when my magic would probably just undo any steps I took to either reverse the process or hurry it along.

The rest of the people here don’t seem to know what to do with me, and until they do, it’s probably easier to leave me alone. That’s fine, though. I haven’t sat down and done a full reading for myself in a while, and I have enough pressing questions about my new place in the world that I could probably spend a few days doing nothing but working through them. Let’s start with the obvious one: tell me, cards, what I need to know about this library Harbinger. What’s going on in my head? What am I not thinking of? Holding those questions in the front of my mind, I scatter my deck across the table. 

Back in its little black box, the Six of Pentacles still sits alone and forlorn. A lot has changed since I banished it, so… fine. You can come back, but you’re on notice. Don’t test me. I slip it into the pile and start to swirl the whole mass around. Some of my books suggest fancier, more organized shuffling methods, but I like this one. My hands will never shiver too badly for it to work, and it’s kind of fun. Once I’ve herded the pile back into a deck, I separate it into three sections and spin them around a couple times to mix up whether the cards are inverted or not — the piles twirl nicely on these polished tables, which is also fun — then put them back together and flip my first card.

What was: The Stars inverted. Alright, that’s a bit on the nose, but in so many ways that it loops back and becomes hard to say just what it’s referring to. Just in the immediate past, does that mean all the ways in which I’m trapped by awful life circumstances, or things I’m hiding or bottling up or looking for answers to in the wrong places? Let’s see what’s next and come back to this.

“These don’t look like the ones you normally use,” a voice interrupts before I can flip the next card. “What’s the occasion?”

“Oh! Hi.” I look up at Noirin, who’s appeared from nowhere as usual. Or, more likely, I just wasn’t watching too closely. “I only use these for myself. The pictures don’t have as much going on as the others, so they’re harder to read if you don’t already know all the cards.” Traditional tarot decks display complicated scenes packed with old occult symbolism, and even if you don’t recognize the symbols, most show people doing something that carries the basic meaning. My personal deck’s art style is simpler and gloomier, with lots of stark black and white lines setting off small splashes of color, and no human figures on any of the cards. Animals and natural scenes replace most of the classical imagery. 

“May I have a look? I like them.”

“When I’m done, yes.”

“Of course.” She moves a little more carefully than usual as she sits next to me, squinting to inspect the first card from a distance. My deck’s Stars are a white background trailing up into a black one, on which eleven large stars shine in an irregular rainbow of dark pastel colors.

Once she’s settled, I draw the second card. What is: The Tower. My Tower is a great tree in the night, burning and collapsing after a lightning strike. Taken with the last card, it looks like the upside-down Stars are falling from the sky and smashing something beneath.

“So, what do these ones say?” Noirin tilts toward me, craning her head to look at  the cards from the right angle.

I put a finger to the Stars. “This one is the unknown. Influences you aren’t aware of or can’t control. The second one is…” I work through the common keywords in my head and hesitate, realizing how easily most of them could apply to a girl on the brink of death making the Promise. “Breakdowns. Old ideas and beliefs collapsing. Painful but needed revelations,” I eventually say. I don’t include dramatic life upheavals in the list, but that’s certainly the main one I’m thinking of.

“Oh my,” she says simply. The Tower is one of those cards that very often spooks people, but I guess it’s different when it’s not about you. In fact, it does spook me — not because it really predicts some disaster, but because there’s a few things this could point to. Of course my life has a range of Tower-worthy events to choose from. 

First, I should figure out where I’m starting the timeline for this. Is the past the Harbinger I found yesterday? No, that’s still happening, and there’s a clear story to these cards. The book is the Tower, a nightmare very likely to throw my world into chaos and madness if anything about this plan goes wrong. The things I learned in my first weeks as a Keeper are the Stars. They left me feeling trapped enough by the rules of the world that leaving a Harbinger alone to grow seemed like my only way forward — and no matter what my tarot books or the Cycles or anyone says about fate and choice, it still seems like it is. 

The Tower promises growth when all is settled, rebuilding upon the remains of something that was never secure enough to last. Does that part even exist here? Only as some vague, distant hope that I really do learn something worthwhile from all this. But the reading isn’t finished. Before I run too far down that road, what will be is…

“Huh?” I huff. The Ace of Cups inverted. Hm. You don’t fit in at all. It even looks out of place next to the others, bright and calm, a white goblet on a sky-blue background patterned in a way that could equally suggest a waterfall or fish scales. 

Noirin tilts her head expectantly.

“I’m really not sure what to do with this one,” I say. Honestly. “It’s usually about new love or romance, so… you see the issue.” Inverted, it’s actually lost or unrequited love, but I’m not opening that door for anyone’s guesses.

She shrugs. “Who’s to say? Love finds us in its own place and time. Most often when we’re least looking for it.” Her voice stays light, because she’s not an idiot. She’s having fun teasing me, not actually telling me to keep my eyes peeled for the boy of my dreams in this hospice.

…Whatever that would even mean. It’s not like I have one in my imagination I’m just desperately waiting to meet. Finding love has always just felt like one more thing in the category of “things I’ll never grow up enough for.” I guess I still won’t now, even if I do live forever. Thanks, stunted growth. Thanks, delayed puberty. I’m still not sure how to feel about that — lots of the stuff I’ve been told to expect sounded bizarre and gross, yes, but… I don’t know.

Anyway. I can safely ignore the obvious reading, so what’s left? Emotional walls, withheld or repressed feelings, emptiness. A call to look for things holding you back or pay more attention to your own inner world. If I were a blind optimist, I could read this as referring favorably to my strange Harbinger intuition.

I’m not, though. In this position, it’s probably a destination. A warning I hadn’t exactly thought but must have already known: this very likely ends with me alone in the world, holding everyone and everything at a distance.

But if it comes to that, alone and alive is still progress.

“So what are these all about, anyway?”

“Secret,” I answer. I don’t think I could make up a fake subject fast enough to be convincing.

“Ah.” She nods, smiling in a way that I hope isn’t knowing. “Well, I’m glad you’re still finding things to be interested in, whatever they are. Are you finished, then?”

I pick the three cards up, then push the rest of the deck toward her. “Go ahead.”

Noirin thanks me and starts to go through the deck one card at a time, taking long pauses to flip them over and inspect the art upright and inverted. Her sleeves stretch back a little as she does, and the little red pinpoint rash on her arms has spread. I’d try not to think about what that means, but there’s no point. I know where I live, and no miracles are coming to save these people. Not unless I can help them, and I still don’t even know if my miracle can save me.

~~~

I’m still not feeling good by sunset, but I’m stable enough to go out with only a little stolen strength, so I do. I can’t afford to take days off while I’m actively tracking a Harbinger’s growth.

I walk my nightly route at dusk. The best stretch of the day is all too short, and now that I can leave the hospital I want to make the very most of it. For just over an hour, the light is neither too intense nor too faint. The sun isn’t glaring down at everything, but you aren’t yet dependent on bright lamps or fickle starlight. You just see the world, dyed in pretty twilight colors.

These walks are usually quite peaceful, which would be nice if I didn’t need that peace to be broken to live. I’ve found that I don’t need to transform to detect magic at a distance, only to shift my focus away from my body’s senses and toward my soul’s, which means I don’t even have to deal with people stopping to stare at an unfamiliar Keeper. 

As for Keepers, there aren’t so many in New Claris that I constantly run across them, and that’s a relief. Shona and Mide haven’t been back, unsurprisingly. Sometimes I feel others at the edges of my awareness, off in the Fields, but that’s about it. I’ve gotten used to being alone in my tiny corner of the city. 

Which is why it’s concerning when, close to the university campus, I sense someone else coming up from the Weald. People are scary and hard to deal with at the best of times, but that’s not the only problem now. My situation here is dangerous. It wouldn’t take much for someone to stumble across the book while I’m away, or worse, while I’m there watching over it. In the best case, they kill it and I’m left with nothing. Worst case, they decide I’m some kind of Harbinger cultist and my life explodes.

And more than that, something about this person’s aura is deeply disturbing. It’s not painfully offensive in the same way as a Harbinger’s, but it carries an unpleasant weight, close to the way guilt or panic feel in the stomach. I wonder if that’s how I felt to Shona. 

I leave my usual route and slowly make my way toward the other Keeper. They aren’t going right by the library, at least, so hopefully they’re just passing through. If that’s all, I can leave them to it and get back to my business.

As I come closer, I try to push through the unsettling feeling and study its source more closely, remembering what Shona said about sensing a Keeper’s magical signature, but no matter how deep I dive, I can’t find anything like that. Nothing about the aura announces its source’s name or title or nature. It’s not hidden, I don’t think. It’s not a blindingly bright light, too painful to look at directly. It’s like their soul is defaced. Like whatever ideas or images it once carried have been scratched over, leaving only wordless shame and regret.

After a few minutes’ detour, I spot them. Something isn’t right, though. There’s a girl strolling alone down the sidewalk who’s definitely the Keeper, but she doesn’t look anything like one. Not a transformed one, anyway, unless her regalia is a simple burgundy cardigan over a featureless ankle-length black dress. 

I don’t know exactly how that’s supposed to work. Should I be able to sense her at all like this? Her soul’s presence certainly shouldn’t be more intense than that of any other Keeper I’ve met, but it is. I trail her at a healthy distance, trying to figure out where she’s going and if I need to worry about her. Many of the people in her path hastily cross the street or turn down other roads as she approaches. It can’t be that they sense her too, so why? Who is this?

“You don’t need to hide back there. I won’t bother you unless you want me to,” she calls into the night. She stops walking, but doesn’t turn to face me.

I freeze. She is talking to me, right? Has to be. How? She hasn’t looked back at all. Ugh, doesn’t matter, she probably did it with magic. I could just leave now, it seems like she’s just crossing my territory on her way somewhere else, but that might still be a problem if she’s doing it regularly. I really should at least figure out who she is, and if she’s dangerous, I’m in less trouble than anyone else here.

So I walk a little faster, approaching until I can see her clearly, and only then does she turn around. 

“Hey there,” she says. “I’m Niavh. Can I help you with anything?” She waves rather than approaching or offering a handshake. Her black hair is kept in a slightly long pixie cut, and her sleeves cover most of her hands, leaving only the fingers exposed. She’s taller than me, like everyone else in the world, but I think that’s just average height for a girl in the upper half of the Promise range.

“Eyna,” I say, then realize with a nervous start that I’ve seen her face very recently. “Wait. Niavh Fianata?” The Niavh Fianata with a human body count? I don’t say. I hope she can’t see it on my face. There’s the problem with walking around in normal clothes, and transforming just to go talk to her would’ve felt too much like starting a conversation by setting a knife on the table.

“I’m afraid so,” she says, smiling softly. As in her picture, her scarlet eyes are constantly wet with tears. Droplets roll down her face and fall to the sidewalk, where they shatter into tiny sparkling clouds of glass dust, then vanish like puffs of breath in winter.

“Oh, I, sorry,” I murmur. “I didn’t mean to call you out.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve gotten a lot worse,” she shrugs. 

There’s an uneasy silence until I remember that she did just ask me why I was trailing her. “Anyway, no, I don’t need anything and I didn’t want to bother you. I sensed you and wasn’t sure what I was sensing, that’s all. Especially once I saw you. Sorry if that sounds weird. I don’t really know how it’s meant to work with Keepers out of uniform.”

“Ah. Yeah.” She starts walking again and motions for me to join her, which I do after another moment’s hesitation. “When you’ve used magic long enough, it starts to settle into you. Lines like that stop being quite so clear. I’m sorry if it startled you.” I’ve never heard of that before, but it does make sense now that she’s said it. Emergence changes Keepers to make them better suited for magic, and those marks stay there forever, so why wouldn’t the power itself? 

Wait, then what’s the point of transforming at all? It can’t just be for the nice outfits, so… no, that’s a later question.

“Speaking of, I don’t think I’ve seen you around anywhere. Have you been doing this for long?” she asks.

There’s that question again… but, well, I can’t just hide in my corner and be an unknown forever, and it feels somehow less prying than when Shona asked it. Her voice is steady and calm, and she isn’t charging into my life and appointing herself my friend the way extroverts do.

“No. A couple weeks.”

She nods. “How’s it been?”

There’s that question, too. One of the few silver linings to my life is that people haven’t really tried to play the “How are you? Oh, just fine, thanks for asking!” game with me for a long time. Nothing has ever been fine and expecting me to say otherwise would be ridiculous.

But the Keeper world is such a new context that it might as well be a new life. I don’t know what passes for normal or how we’re meant to interact, so I can’t tell if this is a polite nothing or she’s asking because she actually wants the answer. And if she does, do I actually want to give it to this complete stranger?

Maybe just a little. 

“It’s a lot and I have no idea what I’m doing,” I finally say.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. Most of us get the call and jump to running a marathon with muscles we never knew existed.” She doesn’t force eye contact or push herself into my space. We just walk, not quite side by side, with me trailing slightly behind her. It’s kind of nice… apart from the unpleasant mystical weight of her presence, still hanging in the air like a bad mood. I do my best to tune it out. Comparing Niavh Fianata to my last Keeper experience, I feel a little bad about my gut reaction to meeting her, even as occasional pedestrians remind me of it by spotting her and scampering off. I don’t really know what happened with her, not enough to say what I should think of it.

Although by the same token, I don’t know who she is, and first impressions could mean anything. I shoo away shivery memories of floral-scented smoke and low, cruel laughter and dying grasshoppers.

“Is there any way I could make it easier?” she continues. “People have sprinted down this road before, and you don’t need to do everything alone if you don’t want to.”

“…I don’t want to keep you too long,” I reply as casually as I can.

“Don’t worry about that. I’m just taking a walk.”

That’s both of my original questions answered. I could just leave. But with her history, she really might know someone or something that could help me.

“I do have a question. About you. Your circumstances. If you don’t mind,” I say.

“Go ahead. It lightens a bit of the load when people can learn something from me.” Something feels different as she says that. Not a pause or a catch in her voice, and I don’t see any change in her body language. I can only guess that there was a pained twitch in her soul, and whatever it was passes in an instant.

“A lot of the hard part is… trying to use those muscles and not knowing what they’ll do to you. Or other people. Magic, it doesn’t always come out the way you want it to, right? And if something does end up that way, what do you do with it? How do you live in the world after that? Do you? I mean, of course, I guess you’ve figured something out, just… I worry about what could go wrong when the stakes are what they are, that’s all.” I babble through a uselessly vague Keeper version of wrapping my situation in I-have-this-friend hypotheticals. Ugh. This was a bad idea.

To my shock, Niavh doesn’t ask what on earth I’m talking about. She just stops walking and turns her head to face me. “A lot of people have done a lot of things wrong. For Keepers, it’s just… magic makes us more of whatever we are and gives us more of whatever we do, but that doesn’t make our wrongs infinite,” she says, rubbing the sleeve covering her left wrist with the knuckles of her right. “Sins aren’t stains that curse us for eternity. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to avoid them, or any mistakes we make aren’t our fault, but they’re not the end of your life. They don’t poison any good you do later, no matter how it feels.” 

Her smile returns, a bit more wistful than before. “Anyone can change. All it takes is to understand what you’ve done, regret it, and want to be different. No mistake you make will be the only thing that matters about you unless you let it. Does that help at all?”

Niavh sits through my silence, waiting patiently until I break it with the only things I can think to say: “Some, yes. Thank you. The rest I probably just need to get used to. New muscles and learning your own strength and all that.”

“I’m happy to be of service.” She nods and keeps on walking. I sigh with something like relief as her direct attention lifts. I’m still not any good at people.

I don’t follow this time. “I’ve got other things I should take care of. Thanks for your… your time,” I call after her.

“Alright. Take care, Eyna. If you think of anything else I could do, I’m not hard to find.” She looks over her shoulder and waves once more.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I… don’t lie? I was sure it was a lie until I said it. If I end up going to the Church, I’ll probably go to Niavh first.

But I still don’t think I will.

What she said was all fine and good. It probably would’ve been the right thing to say for most Keepers who’d slipped up and hurt someone with magic. It would’ve been right for me, if the thing with the book was my only problem — and I’m not an idiot, I know that could still turn out to be a horrible mistake. But it doesn’t help if what I’ve done and will keep doing wasn’t a mistake. I can’t turn around and stop hurting people. Magic won’t let me. Not unless Emergence gives me some other way to stretch out my lifespan.

And seeing how people reacted to her — a Keeper who, as far as I know, had one very bad day years ago and hasn’t repeated it — doesn’t make me feel good about how they’d handle me.

~~~

There’s nothing new at the library that night. The book hasn’t changed at all and my hold on it is just as strong. 

The next day, it’s added a new step, similar in its content and bizarre patchwork writing style. Strangely, the crossed-out Step 5 is still in there, neither repaired nor replaced. The new step doesn’t reference it at all.

Step 6

A mirror is a polished surface that creates reflected images. When you look in the mirror, are you happy with what you see?

I DIDN’T THINK SO. NOBODY IS. MIRRORS ARE LIARS! THEY TELL YOU THEY’RE SHOWING YOU WHO YOU ARE, BUT THE ███ reflected images IN THE MIRROR IS JUST THE SAD BROKEN WAY OTHER PEOPLE SEE YOU.

Only you can know what you really look like! Before you can see yourself, though, you need to send the ████████ reflected images away so it can’t lie about you anymore. 

Perform this step in your dark room. The time doesn’t matter, but it has to be dark. It always has to be dark. You’ll need a hand mirror big enough to see your whole ████ reflected images in. Sit down, hold the mirror up, and meet ████████ reflected images gaze. If you can’t see your eyes in the dark, OR IF YOU SEE SOMETHING OTHER THAN ████████ reflected images, YOU LOSE.

But if you’ve done the last steps right, you know that you don’t need lights to see anything important. Things you can only see in the light are mean!

Lock eyes with ████████ reflected images. Remember that you aren’t looking at yourself, only at ████████ reflected images. Hold that knowledge close. Soon, your ████ reflected images will start to change. You’ll see through the lie and start seeing faces with no eyes and eyes with no faces and other things too. Then tell the ██████ reflected images you don’t want it anymore! It’s not welcome in your life! 

Your ██████████ reflected images has known you for a long time. It will try to trick you or scare you into letting it stay. Don’t listen! It PROBABLY can’t do anything bad to you! 

Eventually, if you hold fast, the ██████████ reflected images will lose its grip on you. Without somebody to lie to, it’ll poof away into nothing like a tree falling where nobody else can hear it. Then you win! 

The page across from it displays a mirror reflecting what seems to have been a chalky stick figure, smudged away as though half-erased.

That’s a little concerning. If I take it literally, and the book has given me no reason not to, this ritual is the Harbinger’s first step out of creepy imagination games and into changing the actual world. But it’s still a long way from demanding human sacrifice or something. 

Isn’t it? Is it wrong to take this too literally? Thinking about the metaphor here, the idea comes up a lot in old mystic lore that mirrors reflect your soul. What this step means may be as important as what it is, and if that’s the case it gets a lot worse. It could read as a way to feed yourself to the Harbinger disguised as some other strange goal.

But something about that feels wrong in my gut. It’d be stupid to pretend I understand what the Harbinger is thinking as it makes these up, but I don’t have to. All the Harbingers I’ve encountered have… not exactly rules, but they all seem to have some idea they want to express, even if it makes no sense to anyone but them. Whatever this one is saying is spread out over a whole book of insane rituals that’s still mostly blank. Ending the story with this step would be too… random. Too arbitrary. It’d be like if a horror movie ended in fifteen minutes with the hero dying in a car crash on their way to the haunted house.

Although that fifth step does still feel like a pretty random inclusion. What is it for? Is it there to make some point I can’t begin to guess at or did the Harbinger have an idea and change its mind later? Whichever way, it’s only just started on this thing with mirrors and I’m confident that I’m right about its progress, so I put it back and go home.

~~~

When I go to check on it the fourth time, it’s no longer in its place. 

For a long moment, my stomach feels like two ferrets wrestling. I reach out with my soul, searching for the shard of myself I stabbed into the book, and find it very close by. Still inside, still on this floor. It takes a bit longer for my body to catch up with that knowledge, but catch up it does. This was always going to happen. This was the plan, I realize with another, quieter spike of unease. I didn’t really expect the Harbinger to grow just by waiting.

By its location, I think it’s in one of the windowside reading nooks, but it’s not alone. There’s a human soul with it. I head in its rough direction, moving through the bookshelves two rows from the walls. I don’t want to storm in before I know what’s happening. 

Soon, I’m peeking at that nook through the empty space above the books on their shelves. There, a girl in a heavy twill jacket and long, dark pleated skirt is curled up in a ball on the ledge. She’s holding the open book against her knees, and while her bushy mane of golden-brown hair obscures most of her face, she takes regular furtive glances out at the rest of the library. One foot constantly taps on the cushioned bench. It would be easy for a normal onlooker to dismiss her as a jittery kid, but to me, she looks very much like she’s doing something she shouldn’t and she knows it. 

I’m not sure what to make of that, except that if I stay here for too long she’ll probably notice me. I duck away, grab a random book off the shelves, and sit in the next nook over, pretending to read while I train my soul-senses on my neighbors. The two are tangled up like… I don’t know what it’s like. The girl is clearly corrupted, but it doesn’t feel like she has some parasitic disease or death curse. It’s a little like the sour tinge I leave when I drain someone’s health, but that isn’t quite right either. She isn’t injured or sick at all, just touched. The sensory line between her and the Harbinger is fuzzier than it should be.

Eventually, she starts to move, taking the book with her. They head back into the bookshelves, stop for a few seconds, and then mostly separate. Some small part of the Harbinger lingers with her like a bad smell that won’t wash out, but the book itself stays put. I wait a little longer for her to leave, then go get the book myself. It’s exactly where I first saw it on the shelves. 

Hm. Why didn’t she keep it? The library gates wouldn’t detect it if she just smuggled it out in her bag. I have two ideas. One: she just found it for the first time, read enough to be disturbed, and put it back, either to go get help or figuring it was some kind of bad prank. Two: she’s infected enough to influence and it wants to stay where it can reach more people. Given the way she was acting, the second one seems much more likely. Has she been here before? Also seems likely. I don’t think the book would be expanding if someone wasn’t feeding it, and she knows enough that she wanted to hide while she read it.

As for the book itself, it’s definitely grown a little. It looks the same, but its presence feels a bit more substantial… or it does until it recoils at my touch, shrinking into itself like a scared turtle. It’s a little pitiful. Satisfied that it won’t be making another attempt on my soul, I flip it open. Another page is filled in.

Step 7

Your ██████████ reflected images wasn’t a very good friend, but it’s been there your whole life. It made sure you were never alone, and losing it can be a big change. Do you get lonely without it? That’s okay! Your new friend can take its place, and they won’t lie to you or twist you or hurt you!

Just go to your room, look in an empty mirror, and ask your friend to be your new ██████████ reflected images. Tell them what you like about them and why you want them to keep you company. If you’ve done everything right so far, you’re probably already fast friends, so this step is very easy! Once you can see your friend in the glass, you both win!

WHEN PEOPLE SEE THEM IN THE MIRRORS AND ASK WHAT CHANGED, YOU CAN TEACH THEM HOW TO SEE THEMSELVES AND MAKE THEIR OWN FRIENDS TOO! YAY!

(Make sure they do the other steps first, or they’ll lose.)

The same drawn mirror as on the last page now displays the ugly little purple blob from the earlier steps, reaching out for a hug with its nubby shapeless appendages.

Okay, then. In two steps, we’ve moved from giving yourself nightmares to replacing your reflection with a Harbinger. The book isn’t eating people right away, but there is a clear progression here. I’ll need to watch how quickly the next ones escalate, if I don’t just kill it now. 

Should I kill it now? The book still doesn’t feel close to finished, and whatever it wants, it’s taking its time with its victims. 

No. Not yet. I put it back on the shelf and head home. I’ll end this if it really starts to hurt that girl, but until then, I think it can wait a little longer. I just need some magical way to keep an eye on her, track her progress through the rituals. 

Hopefully she’s the only one. There are no trails of corruption leading away from the Harbinger’s core, not even to her.

~~~

I don’t see or sense the girl the next night, and the book hasn’t changed. My watch continues. I sit nearby enough to look at its place on the shelves, and no one but me pays it any attention. This goes on for two more days. Where did she go? With the state of her soul, I doubt she just stopped. Did something happen to her? Did the Harbinger warn her about me and my usual visiting time?

On the fourth day, I find someone else before I can check on the book. A soul I’ve never felt before, but one bright with magic. 

Another Keeper.

They aren’t rushing right at the library, but they’re close enough that they’ll find the book as long as they can sense it at any reasonable range. Sure enough, a minute later they start heading straight toward me.

Okay. Okay. What am I doing? Do I give up the plan and kill it right now? I still don’t think I’d get much out of it, but that’s better than someone else killing it. Run off with it and put it back later? No, that’s stupid — all they’d need to do is run faster than me, and it’d look even worse than waiting here with it. Tell them that yes, I’ve got important research reasons to leave this Harbinger alone? These ideas are just getting worse.

Wait, are they? That last one depends very much on what I tell them.

I take the book off the shelf, find a nook in an empty corner of the library, and sit, waiting for the stranger to come find me. If I frame this the right way, explain the details I can sense and they can’t and maybe twist the truth just a tiny bit, this really might work.

Oh, who am I kidding? It’s going to be terrible, just like everything else, but it’s what I’ve got.