On my first day as a Keeper, when I killed Yurfaln and found out what absorbing it had done for me, I wasn’t happy. I could see how the way it changed my magic might be very helpful in deadly situations, yes, but I didn’t accept this role to burn a little brighter before some horrible creature or my own worthless body snuffs me out. I did it to not die.
I might have judged that power too quickly. My first Harbinger made my magic stronger on the verge of death, which means I can better use it to pull myself back from the brink. It’s probably saved my life twice now — first when Irakkia skewered me, and again when I somehow kept myself standing through my self-poisoning scheme in the forest.
That doesn’t happen with the Harbinger egg I took from the Wade house. It’s exactly as tiny and useless as it felt in the moment, and I’m no further from death for it. I think I burned a little less health recovering from that day than I would’ve otherwise.
Nothing I do is working and I have no idea what I can do about it except… keep throwing myself into disasters and hoping.
Four days later, the drought in my territory ends. Maybe.
I’ve made long evening walks part of my new routine. I missed one while I was recovering from my day in the forest, but only one. Keeping to my own plans is one of those precious few things I can control, and I’m not about to give that up so long as I have the power to push through horrible health days.
It’s also a big change that I can safely go outside at all now, one that hasn’t quite become too routine for me to appreciate. I’ve made a habit of shrouding myself in the cold mist of my immunization barrier before I leave the seventh floor for any reason. At least in this one way, magic hasn’t betrayed or disappointed me. This shield is something small and fundamental enough that I can easily create and maintain it without transforming, and it does exactly what I meant it to do. Sometimes, when I’m focusing closely on my soul’s senses, I actually feel pathogens that would’ve been life-threatening a few weeks ago freezing to death and smile a little.
The only drawback I’ve noticed so far is that the mist does make the air surrounding me a good bit chillier, and I can live with that. It might even be nice when summer comes — I’ve never liked warm-weather clothes anyway.
On tonight’s walk, I’ve just turned around at the university when the uneasy feeling of sensing a Harbinger somewhere close creeps over me. It feels different. More substantial than the last one’s barely-there aura, but not painfully overwhelming like most of the others, and hard to put any clear impression to. The presence isn’t too faint to follow and doesn’t do anything to elude me. I don’t even need to transform to follow it, and follow it I do.
Its trail leads into the massive library not far from the university. I used to go there and dig through their occult sections, before it became clear quite how bad my situation was, but I haven’t been inside since I left school. Realizing that makes me want to go dig through their occult sections and find some weird tome to devour, just because I can, but this is a little more important.
The Harbinger’s presence seems to come from somewhere above, and I follow it that way, up the winding staircase that climbs through the building’s heart. The library is arranged in layers that feel increasingly quiet and small. The bottom floors have lots of wide open space for gatherings and events. By the top, shelves and shelves of books cover most of the space, dotted here and there with chairs in little corners and reading nooks by the windows. One side hall is just a dozen rows of huge wooden study desks, lined with bookshelves at the far end. This makes things at least a bit easier for me. Not as many bystanders, and there are plenty of isolated corners to hide in if I need to do any active magic.
My search ends somewhere in the top floor’s maze of books, but the corruption’s source is not a monster or a Wound or even another formless nightmare egg. Unless I’m seriously mistaken, it’s a book. In the Languages section, of all places. Tucked between two big books on the history of the Thalassic language in a way that leaves it not exactly hidden, but hard enough to notice that I wouldn’t have spotted it without magic telling me right where it was. Did something infect a book the way others infect people? Is that a thing? I touch a finger to its spine very slowly, then pull it out when it doesn’t burn or bite me.
Nothing happens. Holding it feels vaguely unsettling, but other than that, it’s an actual physical book in the actual physical world. A little black hardcover, featureless except for the title on the front: How to Be the World, written in embossed silver text that catches the light and shimmers holographically. I’m not sure what I expected a Harbinger’s tome of horrors to look like, but this isn’t it.
The first page has none of the stamps or card pockets you’d expect to see in a library book. It lists no author or publisher, only the title repeated, and under that… I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A dedication? It looks almost handwritten, but the letters are still standardized enough to seem like a font.
if you are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality
if you find living boring
if you see no beauty in anything
if your dreams don’t fit inside your skin
then this book is for you! you will be happy here!!!
Then, on the next page over:
Introduction (how to use this book the right way!)
Everyone has dreams. Do you have any you dream often? That’s because some dreams are bigger than others, so they take up more space. Those are the ones that hook into you and follow you everywhere and wrap themselves around your heart and never ever ever let go. Sometimes, the very biggest dreams become too much to carry and spill out of your soul. This could be a very good thing, but it happens so much that they’ve all bled into each other and smushed together into a big messy dream-soup. That’s like mixing all the colors together at once. It means there might as well not be any dreams at all!
Some call that soup Life!
If you’re sick of living in grey, tasteless dream-slurry, this is the one and only book that can help you! Inside these pages, you’ll learn how to take your favorite dreams and carve them into the world’s skin. Then they won’t be dreams anymore, they’ll just be, and you can live in them even while you’re awake! Soon, this book will teach you the steps to make anything you want real!
Here are some things you need to know first:
-The work will begin as soon as you’ve read and understood the next page. Read each step’s instructions carefully. If you miss something or make a mistake, you’ll lose! Oh no!
-It’s important that you perform the steps to come in order. Don’t read ahead!
-You don’t have to know what you want to be just yet! The steps will say when you need to make up your mind.
-I love you!
I don’t think it’s going to drag me into a Wound, but I don’t like it at all. Still, it means something, so…
It means something.
It’s not a nightmare tome swirling with Harbinger-words my magic is roughly interpreting for me. The book is obviously corrupted, but its bizarre words are written in perfectly legible Clarish — here and there, it does switch between different fonts seemingly at random, but they’re all readable. That’s not supposed to happen. That doesn’t happen. Harbingers don’t speak human languages. How? Did someone, what, write and print this book on its behalf? Leave it here and wait for someone to stumble across it? No, that doesn’t make any sense… but neither do Harbingers. For all I know, this isn’t even really unheard of. Maybe Keepers who hear them talk just don’t want to record and share their ravings, or the Church doesn’t want people publishing Harbinger quotes. I don’t have any other Keepers I can check with.
Well, whether or not this is the first Harbinger in history to read and write Clarish, it’s the one I’m dealing with. Let’s see what else it has to say.
Close your eyes and pretend you’re a human standing just where you are right now. Walk around the space where you are, exploring every last nook. When you’re finished, go back to where you started and open your eyes.
Who did you see around you?
If the world was empty, you don’t lose, but this book is not for you. Please put this book back where you found it.
(Remember to return books to their proper place!)
If you met any strangers or inhuman creatures, you win! Pick your favorite!
You will need their help soon.
On the opposite page is a pastel drawing of a girl sitting in this exact spot. Colorful little monsters peek out from behind the shelves. A one-eyed purple blob with thick blue tentacles trailing down from it, a thing like a green sheet-ghost if it were draped over a tree stump instead of a person… in another context, they might be cute in kind of an ugly way.
Anyway, I’m not doing that. I turn the page, and if the book is hiding things or punishing me for breaking the rules, I can’t tell. Each page is printed a little differently, with different fonts in different sizes. Even the exact color and texture of the paper varies. They all follow a similar format, though. Instructions for a stage of this bizarre ritual on one side, a cheery little picture of the act on the other.
This step can only be performed at night, indoors, in complete darkness. It’s best if you pick a room that NEVER sees ███████ natural light. If you don’t have your own sleep cave, you can make one yourself by ███████ COVERING your windows, but they’ll have to be COVERED forever. We’re going to make this room into a special night garden where you can plant and water your dreams and sing to them to make them grow taller! If the Sun sees inside before they’re done growing, you lose.
The Sun is mean!
Once you’ve chosen a place, make sure no pests will invade your garden until you’re finished. If one does, you lose. Sit alone with your back to a corner, so that you could see the whole room at once if it were lit. If the room is dark enough, you shouldn’t see anything at all. To make sure, try to move your hand in front of your face. If you only see a blur, a sort of black-on-black shifting that follows the motion, that’s okay! It’s not real. It’s only your brain trying to make up for the fact that it can’t see as well as your soul.
But just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it’s not real. If you try, you can see the whole room the way you think you see your hand, paint a whole world with different shades of pitch darkness. What’s different about them? What separates the black carpet from the black chairs? Nothing. Everything. They’re all just memories, like everything else, but we can tell all the other ones apart, so why not these? Once you see them, remember the room a different way than it was before. It doesn’t even have to be a room at all! Maybe your room was always really a black field of black flowers under a starless night sky. What’s important is that you take all those shades of not-color and make them into something new, full of all the things that inspire you most.
Once you’re happy with your room, think about your favorite friend from Step 1. Invite them to come and sit with you. You can say it out loud or with your soul but they’ll hear either way. If you’ve done everything right, you should be able to see them just like you did before, colors and all. Welcome them! Show them around!
As soon as you’re done, you win!
You should go to bed as quickly as you can when you’re finished. It might help to sleep in your dark space tonight. Remember what the dream side of it is like, and write down any interesting dreams you have about it!
If you can’t remake the room, or your new friend doesn’t come to you no matter how much you call, you lose.
If something else comes, I’m sorry. I can’t help you.
I can’t tell what the picture here is supposed to be. Rather than shapes I can make anything of, it just has textures that are slightly raised on the page, like someone tried to draw in black crayon on black paper.
There’s no step here. I just wanted to tell you that the world we’re making together is beautiful.
The illustration is a simple page-sized heart.
You’ve probably had lots of dreams you don’t like, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important! Before you can become the world, you’ll need to gather up everything you want to not-become and put it somewhere else.
Perform this step in your room from Step 2. If you haven’t slept in there before, you’ll need to now.
As you’re getting ready for bed, think about the dreams you like the least. What about them makes you uncomfortable? Do you think they could hurt you? Maybe they can, but they probably just take you to places where you don’t want to go. If you CUT away all the confusing dream symbols and push through to their heart, the things that scare you the most, what are those things? If you don’t have words for them yet, that’s okay. Just let them all swim around and fill that fuzzy place between waking and sleeping and then dive on in!
If you’ve done everything right, you’ll be in your room, but it won’t be yours anymore. All those things should have followed you here and twisted it around themselves. Don’t run. Don’t look away. If you do, you lose. You need to understand everything that happens here. I don’t know what that’ll look like for you, but you’ll have to do it alone. It wouldn’t count if your new friend helped, so they’ll wait in the room outside, watching over your garden while you work.
It might take you more than one night to sort through all the horrible things squirming through your dream-room. The days in between those nights probably won’t be very good days, so don’t take too long, but eventually, everything will be back the way it’s supposed to be, and in one brilliant moment you’ll know everything is going to be okay. Then you win!
The things you faced during this step aren’t gone, but they’re yours now. Someday, you’ll use the ✴✴✴✴✴✴✴ you gathered here as ink to write your new world.
The picture is of the girl and the purple blob from the first step. They’re standing over a big black soup cauldron full of strangely-shaped eyes and thin insects’ legs and other things I couldn’t hope to identify and don’t want to. One long grey arm that twists all along its length like a snake looks like it’s trying to climb out, but the girl is pushing it back down with a big wooden spatula.
That last part… why do I know that word? Do I know it? I can’t read it, can’t see it as anything but a swirling blur swimming around the page, I’m not even sure if it is a word, but it still feels familiar. I’ve heard it before, that’s it. There was a Harbinger-speech word or phrase Irakkia used that felt the same way this bit of text feels, left the same uncomfortable gap in my understanding.
Reading this book feels like peeking at something you’re not supposed to see, but there’s two different feelings twisting together within the one — at the same time, it’s both an exciting secret people are hiding from you and an awful spectacle you’ve stumbled onto, something you don’t even want to see but can’t quite rip your eyes away from. Like sneaking a look at a birthday present, but when you open the wrapping there’s just a half-decayed animal corpse underneath.
Beneath the chapter heading, all the print on this page is crossed out in black permanent marker, and the drawing across from it has been angrily scratched out. A note in the margins over it reads:
SKIP THIS STEP! This step should never be performed ever ever ever! If you perform it, you will lose!
This time it looks very much like real writing, neat but slightly shaky.
Everything suddenly feels colder.
It takes longer than it should’ve to notice that the chill isn’t just some abstract eerie feeling in the air. Something is pushing into my protective aura, the magic I use to replace the immune system I don’t have. The mist howls silently and seeps into my bones, demanding my attention — my help.
But what about the book? What happens if I leave it alone? Is it like locking eyes with a predator, where it’ll pounce on me the moment I falter? What’s next, and what is any of this? Morbid curiosity leashes me to it like a chain, like… like something’s reached up from the earth, grabbed my leg, and won’t let go until it drags me under. Something more than my own fear.
Pulling myself away from the book is the same sort of mental struggle as trying to force myself to fall backwards onto a hard floor, but I do. I wrench my eyes shut and turn my focus inward, following the flow of magic as it seeps out from my soul. At the boundary that forms my shield, little barbed tendrils of the book-Harbinger are worming their way through. I push more power into the barrier until the Harbinger’s coils start to rot, and seconds later I feel it snap loose, retreating into itself.
I release a loud whoosh of breath. Confident that I can hold off the book’s touch, I turn to the next step, but there isn’t one. Beyond that is only blank pages. Is that really all? Are you hiding now that you know I’m stronger than you? No, the first five steps are still there. If this has something to do with that rule about reading ahead, it’d be strange to let me skip four steps before it locked me out.
Maybe it’s really not finished. What does that mean? The book could be a monster’s version of my cards, a tiny extension of something larger, but it doesn’t feel that way. There’s no soul-trail leading to a greater source, no sense of anything flowing into or out of it. It’s just much smaller than any of the full-fledged Harbingers I’ve fought. Not quite a shapeless, unborn thing, but not finished taking its form. I could transform and kill it right now with only slightly more trouble than the last one.
And only slightly more to show for it, but no point in seething too much about things I can’t change.
The book-Harbinger seems to be stuck in the early stages of that act. What does it need to finish writing itself? Time? Pain, madness, souls? Does it always take a death or something close enough to count? I don’t know what the unborn wisp was waiting for, but this one’s goal is fairly clear: it wants someone to find it and carry out these creepy dream rituals.
What happens then? Maybe if it had a little more time, enough to take its shape but not enough to go on a rampage, it’d be more—
Wait. Am I seriously thinking this? Is it still… no, I check again and I’ve definitely purged the corruption. This is all me. My life has reached a point where not having a Harbinger crawling through my mind somehow feels like the worse outcome. I can’t burn this idea away with magic. It just sits there, challenging me to dismiss it out of hand the way a good, sane person would.
Or… follow it through to the end. A minute later, the thought hasn’t gone away and I’m still not killing the book. I guess I need to know what it is I’m actually thinking before I can reject it, and all I’ve got right now is a flash of madness I mistook for a Harbinger attack.
Fine. Where did this come from? I’m obviously worried about my disease outpacing my magic, so that’s making a mess of my head. Vyuji promised that Emergence would give me some way to save myself, but I don’t know how far off that is or how much time I have. Further, my last attempts at hunting have been disasters. What went wrong with those? What could I change?
Finding Harbingers that I can kill and that are worth anything more than a good deed to my name seems increasingly like gambling my life on horrible odds. My reach just isn’t that wide. I’m not good at fighting. I don’t know if I ever will be. Other Keepers track monsters and charge into battle with whatever they find because they can. They have the strength or magical knack to make it work. I’m sure the direct approach is fine for the Stardust Seraph, who got both and also can fly, or the Silver King, who never needs to worry about working with others because she’s her own whole team.
Me? I can survive a lot if I’ve stolen enough life ahead of time, and my magic-plague will… probably kill things it infects, eventually, assuming there’s nothing they can do to stop it. That’s all I’ve got. It might be good if there were some practical way to sicken a Harbinger, break out of its Wound, and run away for a couple days, making sure it doesn’t go on a horrible rampage and I’m there to claim it when it finally dies. There is no such way, as far as I can tell.
But I do have at least one thing: some special attunement to Harbingers. Every Keeper can sense them, some better than others, but when I do I see into them. I feel some part of what they are. They’ve spoken to me, not exactly with words but in ways I can understand on some level. I always thought that was impossible, and not just because I was a normal person who’d never looked into it. Shona mentioned that my Harbinger impressions seemed unusually strong, and she’s been doing this at least a little longer than me.
Maybe I’ve been approaching this the wrong way.
If I take that connection and use it to study Harbingers, learn how they and their bizarre life cycle work, I can figure out what they need to come into the world and how much of it they need. And if I catch them in their early stages, I can infect them, let that seed of decay take root, and inflame it the moment they get too dangerous to leave alone.
Of course, I doubt it’ll just grow on its own. It’ll have to do something to someone. That sounds bad and feels worse, but… I’m already hurting people to survive. It’s no worse than my next best idea, the one about tagging monsters and running off. Probably better. A full-grown Harbinger would do much more damage.
It wouldn’t just make my life easier, either. Anything I learn this way is knowledge about the world’s most dangerous mystery that everyone can use.
…I’m really entertaining this, aren’t I? What’s wrong with me? It even feels like it makes sense. Like it’s actually the best thing I can do with this horrible power.
The Harbinger is still tiny. I don’t have to commit to one move or the other just yet, and there are things I want to research if the information exists anywhere.
For now, I’ll just make sure I’m ready to kill it if I need to. I take a photo of the book’s first step, stopping to make sure that my phone is not suddenly haunted and the image actually shows up in my pictures. It does, so I repeat until I’ve recorded all the filled pages. I’d like to write out little summaries just in case it still has some control over direct copies, but I don’t have any paper. Later.
Next step… can I do this without transforming? Apparently not. The range of things that count as small enough to do at any time seems to grow the more magic changes me, but my cards still won’t come. This’ll be a little awkward, then. I stuff the book into my bag, take it into the bathroom, and call my power up as soon as the one other girl leaves. Then, working quickly as I can, I summon a card, infuse it with a tiny wisp of pain, and press it to the book’s blank back page like a branding iron.
The thing in the book’s aura boils and writhes in protest. Absurdly, I imagine trying to hold a slippery, foul-smelling fish tight until it breathes its last. The Harbinger stops short of thrashing until it’s burnt itself completely out, though. Eventually, its presence goes silent and still, like it’s playing dead for lack of any other defense. My card sinks into the page until only its back design remains, a dark rectangle run through with spiraling white glyphs. It looks like it could’ve been printed there in the first place.
Nothing has changed about the book or the Harbinger itself, but now a tiny caustic piece of me winds through its being. Now that I’ve got my own hooks into it, I can end this whenever I want. If something goes wrong, it’ll only take another little push to correct my mistake.
A lot of things about this might not work. Maybe someone’s already tried it, or the experts already know the things I’m trying to learn and the answers aren’t good, or I’ll get home and realize that I’ve been completely delirious… what else is new?
Well, let’s find out. I dismiss my magic, put the book back right where I found it, and make my way back to the hospital.