White. I look up at a blindingly white world. A medical monitor beeps, softly and steadily, from no source I can place. For a moment, I think I’m alone in a completely featureless place, but I’m not floating or falling — there is a surface beneath me, smooth and cold to the touch. Looking around, I’m in a small room of some sort. There are shadows in the corners, though I don’t see any light sources to cast them, a bed covered in ratty sheets next to a tall IV pole, and a round white table with simple chairs on either side.
Someone is already seated at the far side of the table. She leans over it, chin resting on folded hands, and…
And she’s me.
Pale, sallow skin. A thin face beneath a fall of feathery black hair stopping just at the shoulders. The same white ribbon I wear as a hairband, tied in the same way. Other than her eyes, which are changed from my dull grey to a shade of poisonous green so bright they nearly shine, she’s my exact double. Her dress is more antique than anything I’d be comfortable in, a formal mourning gown so black and lusterless it seems immune to light.
The doppelganger glowers up at me — that’s how it feels, anyway, but then my face could twist even the mildest expression into something sour. Her gaze moves to the seat across from her.
When Vyuji warned me about what came after the Promise, I think I imagined those ‘first steps’ as soul-shredding agony, maybe even hoped it would be that simple. It was a silly thing to hope for, she obviously could have explained ‘this is going to hurt,’ but I know pain. I’ve learned to live with pain, and I could handle a little more.
This, on the other hand, I have no idea what to do with. I assume for now that it’s not a dying dream, but that doesn’t tell me what it is. Is this how magic works, or a push to figure out how it works? I don’t feel any new senses, no power at my fingertips.
All there is to do is play along and see where this goes, then. I take the free seat, returning my double’s glare. “Alright. You know who I am, you’ve decorated with me in mind, so… who are you? What exactly are we doing here?”
She doesn’t speak. Her expression doesn’t change. She just sits up in her chair, raises a hand, and suddenly she’s holding my tarot deck. She didn’t pick it up or pull it from her sleeve. It wasn’t there, then it was. After last night, though, a trick like that barely feels worth noting. The top card of the deck faces me, displaying the Fool.
I could take that as an insult, but metaphors are the first lesson of tarot. The Fool isn’t stupidity, Death isn’t the physical end of life, the Undreaming doesn’t predict literal Harbinger attacks. Whether I’m talking to some kind of reflection of myself or something else that knows me well enough to stage this scene, she should know that too. The meaning is clear enough.
“The beginning of what?” I ask flatly.
In answer, she scatters the deck across the table, swirling it around into a giant messy heap. Expectantly, she pushes the pile over to my side.
“Right. Now I understand everything. If we can’t just talk to each other, I guess I know this way as well as any,” I sigh, putting the deck back together and setting it on my left. “The usual spread?”
She gestures permissively.
With a flourish, I draw and flip my first card. A jagged circle of twigs bound together into a dreamcatcher by a messy web of many-colored ribbons, their colors dimming into darker shades until eventually becoming pitch black on the bottom, where I find a whale and a dolphin eyeing me, their heads peaking up from the right and left corners of the illustration. Perched on the right side of the dreamcatcher is a cat, while on the left side is an owl. Entangled in the dreamcatcher’s net are various astrological symbols. Right now, the bottom half is pointed up. The Wheel of Fortune inverted. A sudden turn for the worse. Things falling apart in ways you can’t expect and certainly can’t control. “Well, I could’ve told you that,” I mutter. “Is this supposed to be–”
Without any warning or transition, the world changes.
It smells almost like a garden, but not like fresh rain and tilled soil. Dead earth baking in the summer sun. My head throbs in dull pain, and my ears feel like they’re plugged or filled with water.
I can’t move. Something warm and heavy pushes down on me, a pressure like the weight of the sea, but solid and grainy.
I can’t see. Everything is dark — no, that’s not right, my eyes are just closed. I try to open them. Immediately, they start to sting, something black and dusty filling my vision. I slam them shut, but there it stays, lodged underneath my eyelids.
I’m buried. Buried alive, or am I really dead after all? I start to scream, but dirt fills my mouth and smothers my voice. Unthinking, I flail and grasp and push against the weight of the earth, feebly trying to make space to breathe. I try to move as if swimming, but it doesn’t work at all. I try to push up with my legs without knowing which way is up or if there even is an up here. Just as I shove any dirt out of the way, more shifts and falls into its place. I really am dead. I’ll drown here, I’ll—
Light leaks through the cracks in the earth. In one place, then another, the dirt gives way as my hands claw up into the air. My head surfaces a moment later, choking and crying and coughing up soil I’ve desperately tried not to swallow. I pull myself free and collapse on the ground. Terror slowly gives way to exhaustion. And to pain, the burning in my lungs as I breathe slow, heavy breaths, the sharp aches in my fingers where my nails have cracked. Pain is good. I know pain, I can use pain. It means I’m really still here.
“Dead on arrival,” says a flat, lifeless voice. “What a pity.”
I’m in another hospital room, but the entire floor is made of loosely-packed soil, and everything in sight is worn and dirty. The blaring lights of an overhead medical lamp, a circle of sun-bright eyes, bear down on me almost like a spotlight. My battered hands clench into fists, and I drag myself to my feet, searching for the speaker.
Nobody is here, not that I can see, but in a circle all around the room are rows and rows of auditorium seats stretching up as far as I could see, like an old-fashioned operating theater if it were built to seat hundreds. All the room’s lighting is centered on me, and looking up at them is like looking out a window at night.
“Yes, what a shame.” A different voice, sourceless or coming from every possible direction.
“Such a waste.”
It isn’t an operating suite, I see now, but a delivery room. Next to the reclining central bed is a plush chair and a small wheeled cradle covered in monitoring equipment. On each sits a framed photograph lined with black ribbon. I don’t look any closer. I don’t need to.
“The whole family with her, too. One little twist and they’re already dead, all of them. These two just don’t know it yet. Fate can be so cruel, can’t it?” The first speaker laughs drily, and—
And the scene abruptly vanishes, shifting back to the first white room. It’s different now, though, more… decrepit. A jagged fracture runs across the table, the whites are blotched with greys in places, and the sheet on the bed is now little more than a rag. Although my heart is quaking in my chest and I’m left trying to steady my panicking breath, my fingers, at least, are intact, and I don’t see any dirt – it’s just like the last scene never happened. All that remains is the echoes of my terror.
“What was that supposed to be? Why would you do that? I know all this. You obviously know all this. What’s any of it got to do with the Promise? The whole point was…” I trail off. I agreed to it, I must have known what I wanted out of it, but right now I can’t find the words. To live, yes, but that doesn’t finish the thought at all. To be rid of the weight I’d carried all my life? To not be the me who carried it? Is that what it comes down to?
“You know why. What was. Your context. What brought you here,” the double says, using my voice for the first time. Her tone is cold and even. “That’s the way we always start. The past is never past, and without it, none of this could be at all. You don’t need to thank the life you’ve led for bringing you here, you don’t need to embrace it, but you do need to know it. Curse the world all you like once you understand.”
Her eyes move, glancing down at the table, and she reaches out to trace the Wheel of Fortune with one gloved finger. “The spread tells one story, not three. It isn’t finished yet. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Is this going to keep happening?”
The girl grimaces and lowers her gaze, breaking eye contact. Tears well in the corners of her eyes, but don’t quite fall. “Why do you think we’re here?”
“Right. I guess that was a stupid question.” The room is still sealed, with not so much as a tightly-shut doorway anywhere in sight. If I was going to wake up, I’d have done it by now. Only one way out, then. I reach for the cards, but… my hand stops halfway across the table, trembling. Whatever waits at the end of this nightmare, the thought of diving back into it makes pulling another card feel like trying to willfully shove my arm into a fire.
“You do it,” I finally say, pushing the deck back to her side of the table. “It’s not my usual method, but that’s allowed, right?”
Her head shoots up to glare directly at me, though her eyes are still faintly bleary. “Wait, then. Sit alone and pray for change that will never come. Wait until the world leaves you behind. Even now, I wonder if there’s any hope for us.”
“What did you expect me to do?” I snap back. “Go off on an adventure like my life is some stupid movie about a cute little dying girl? Sure! I’ve always wanted to visit the Freezing Sea, should I have taken a trip up that way? I’d die the first time I caught a cold, probably before I managed to leave the city, but I could smile and tell myself it wasn’t worthless after all because at least I tried! Do you think that would do anything? Do you think it would have gotten me the Promise sooner?”
The double shakes her head slowly. “No. Not really. I’m you. What could I do that you couldn’t? What could I expect that you didn’t? All I’m here to do is remind you of the paths forward that weren’t there a day ago, more of them than most people ever see. You still need to walk them for that to mean anything.” The frigid sharpness of her speech fades as she speaks, softens into something quiet and sad. “I could finish the reading. There are no rules here that you didn’t make. But I won’t. This is only a dream, and soon there will only be you to take those steps.” Gently, she pushes the deck back to me.
I won’t give her the satisfaction of saying so, but she is right. Nobody ever said that Keepers had it easy. Not the Church, not the Keepers themselves, not even Vyuji, whose reason for being is to sell me on the Promise. This is a dream, and even if it can actually torture me, it can’t be much next to what’s expected of me now. The thought of it makes me sicker than usual, but when this nightmare is over and I have my magic, I still plan to go find that Harbinger as quickly as possible.
“Well, if I can’t do this…”
Quickly, like I’m handling something hot, I draw the next card and set it at the center of the table. The Nine of Swords. That’s what the frame reads, but the art isn’t anything I recognize. It shows me splayed out against a wall, surrounded but not yet pierced by nine huge hollow needles, like a butterfly waiting to be pinned. The background is in the same awful riot of mud-and-gore colors that marked the Harbinger’s presence last night, and just like then, those colors are swirling, alive.
The next shifting of the world comes before I can say or think anything clear.
I bolt upright on a hard bench, feeling like I’ve just been startled awake. Rubbing my eyes and looking around, I’m in something like a hospital waiting room, but…the walls, the floors, the counters, everything is covered in wounds, like they’re all made of skin, gaping and bleeding. Thick, pulsing veins crisscross the windows like overgrown vines. In several places, bulging eyeballs poke through the surfaces, all staring directly at me. The sounds of my own heartbeats and rushing blood play in my head as if through a megaphone.
Something wet stirs beneath me. Frantically, I roll off the bench, stumbling to the floor and to the first unmarred spot of white I can see. Thin lines tear or crack themselves open all around the room. Veins steadily grow out along the walls, but don’t crawl closer to me. Nothing is coming for me or following me — other than the steady tracking of the eyes, it feels almost like this place wasn’t really meant for me, wasn’t paying much attention to me at all. Somehow, disgust wins over panic. I curl up on the little island still made of hard tile, retching as the world twists and tears.
What is this? Why is this? The last scene… that was made of things I knew, things that had happened, just ran through the filter of nightmare logic. This thing, this cage of flesh growing around me, it’s just an awful directionless spectacle. I study it from my tiny perch, looking for as long as I can bear, but… nothing. No sudden shift comes. The room is only so large, and eventually I’ll be completely encased in its growth, but… it seems like the only thing to do with it is wait and see if it has a point.
Wait and see. Nightmare logic.
The Nine of Swords is the card of nightmares, fear, trauma. Not sickness or death, but the despair those things carry with them. In my favorite deck, its picture is a horrible mass of bone and maggots and socketless eyes still trailing nerves. All are skewered on nine swords in a neat row, and once you process the initial shock, it’s easy enough to see what you’re looking at. I think of it as a warning against becoming a prisoner in your own thoughts, even when the fear that created them is completely justified.
What am I lost in? What brought me here, kept me here?
I used to think of life as a long, long stay in a waiting room. I knew I was very sick, but there were things they could do to make me better. I still thought that the first time they took me out of school. I just had to sit through this and then I would be better. My real life hadn’t started yet, and it was taking a little longer than it did for most people, but it would. Someday.
It took me longer than it should have to realize it was hopeless. I think it was after the first transplant failed, after my few friends started to pull away and the time I spent in the hospital was simply devoted to keeping the rejected marrow from killing me outright. I can’t remember a single moment when I decided that real life was never coming, but I did. I was dying, nobody else would care when it happened, and nothing I could do would make any difference. The only thing left was to detach from my botched life, read my books, look out the window at the world I was no longer part of, and wait.
And all the while, death was coming for me. It could be the sickness, the medicine, the Harbinger, some freak accident that had nothing to do with any of it, but it had been at my shoulder all my life. It wouldn’t be much longer.
And whatever I say, whatever I do to cope with the life I was stuck with, I don’t want to die. I don’t ever want to die, if I can help it. Why else had I not climbed the fence on the roof and thrown myself off?
“Enough of this. I’m leaving.” I can’t wait anymore. For once in my life, I don’t have to stay helpless.
The world doesn’t hear my words and vanish. It doesn’t change at all. Of course not.
Taking long, careful steps over holes and tears in the floor, I make my way to the front doors. They’re already thick with flesh-vines, but not completely sealed off. Hesitantly, I push on one of them, maybe hoping the whole tangle will dissolve into smoke as soon as I challenge it. It does not. It just pulses a little faster under my hand, hot and faintly sweaty to the touch. I draw back, feebly trying to pull it with me, but it quickly slips my grip and snaps back into place. I don’t think I can pull them loose, I certainly can’t rip them, and I still don’t feel any magic at my call.
The only way out is through, then. After another glance, I spot a hole in the web that seems… not like a clean exit, but enough of a gap that someone my size could squeeze through it with only emotional trouble. I shudder at the thought, but take a long, heavy breath, hold it, and crawl in, desperately hoping that the vines won’t close around me or drag me back in. It’s like pushing through a path blocked by warm, sticky, stretchy branches, and as disgusting as it sounds, but the barrier makes no active moves to hold me back.
Finally, I tumble headfirst through the gap, barely thinking to look at whatever waits on the other side, and roll out onto the weathered white-and-grey floor of the first room, just beside the table. No trace of the flesh-cage remains. To an observer, I must have dropped out of open air. My doppelganger still sits at the central table, watching impassively.
I don’t resent this process any less, but I’m starting to see its point, and the shape of my still-unfinished reading.
“Okay.” I take my seat again. “I won’t waste time asking who dreamed that up. I guess I did, and I don’t need to add self-hatred to my list of problems. Let’s… let’s just finish this, alright? Still whenever I’m ready?”
She blinks, looking almost surprised, but nods. “Go right ahead.”
I grit my teeth, close my eyes, and draw the last card. What will be.
A bull’s eyeless corpse pierced by a forest of blades. The Ten of Swords, the direct and natural end of the last card’s events. Failure. Ruin. Disaster. Being shattered by a power entirely beyond your control, with only the fact that things couldn’t get any worse for comfort.
Nothing changes. No new vision swallows me up. This time, the dream just left me alone with my thoughts. Those thoughts are bad enough.
“…That’s it? That’s where this is going? That’s why we went through all this?” My voice breaks. “What am I supposed to take from that? Even the Promise can’t offer someone like me a life? Is that the message? Was this all just one last laugh at my expense before I get myself killed?”
“It was, yes. A day ago, that was the end we were hurtling toward.” The dream-double narrows her eyes and smiles for the first time, a wide, triumphant grin. “You’re forgetting something, though. That was then. The future, our future, has changed. And we constantly cheat at tarot. Repeat a reading we don’t like here, exile a card there…”
She puts a finger to the table, and the venomous light in her eyes flares. The card starts to glow in that same color, brightening until nothing of it is visible through the light. Slowly, the color fades, and when it does, the card is a different one entirely. A black and white image of a crow’s skeleton, the skull facing me. Death inverted.
“See?” She nods, satisfied.
“This one isn’t a challenge or a lesson, is it?” I whisper. “Not for us. It’s a promise.” Traditionally, Death reversed means being trapped in or haunted by the past, resisting a necessary change, fighting something that can’t be avoided or that you need to accept to move forward. In another context, it might have been just as terrible an end to this reading, a statement that I really should just heed the world’s wisdom and make peace with my doom.
Death is endings and beginnings, though, and right now, I read it as an awakening after a long, long winter. Rejection of the end, and with it, rebirth.
“Oh, it’s still a sort of lesson,” the double says. “Start thinking with power. If you can’t accept your fate, then make another.”
There’s something a bit ghastly in her features as she says that.
The scene shifts again. Now we both stand on an invisible surface in a pale grey void, infinite and empty.
“But you’re right. And with that, we’ve done all we can here,” she continues. “It’s almost time we moved on.”
“Are you sure? For all this… I still don’t feel any different. I don’t know any more than I did when we started about how I’m different or what I can do.”
“You will. There’s just one more thing.”
She starts to lose her definition, somehow, like a figure in a picture drawn with no outlines. In the next instant, she becomes a silhouette, a solid shadow ran through with veins and serpentine spirals of sickly green radiance. The color separates itself from her, slithering outward into a halo of baleful light that clings tightly to the shadow’s edges.
The aura begins to gather itself into shapes, now around rather than within her, then slowly darkens and solidifies into an outfit too elaborate and impractical to be mistaken for anything but a Keeper’s regalia. A black bell-skirted dress, adorned at the bottom and sleeves with ruffled white lace. Tall flat-heeled boots. At the top, a heavy hooded capelet with a deep green bow placed over the chest, the only color anywhere on the ensemble. Finally, the shadow’s eyes appear from the gloom as she resolves back into my body.
I stare, silent, until she strides forward and hugs me tightly. As I stiffen at the contact, she dissolves again into shadow and green light, this time melding into me rather than taking a new shape, and the world around me rapidly fades.
“I guess all I have left to say is… live. Because you’ve never asked for much and you deserve better. Because when the world has given you nothing, it’s not wrong to take what you need from it. Because you can.”
…And I’m back in my room, just where I started.
“Welcome back, Liadain. My children always do have a certain… flair to them,” Vyuji says. She hasn’t moved an inch. “I’m glad to see you’ve kept that tradition up.”