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.

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