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.

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