“I’m not asking all these weird linguistics questions just to ask them, you know. Sure, the world isn’t gonna explode yesterday if we don’t figure them out, but there’s still important implications,” Isobel said.
“All your questions are things I’d like to know too, and I don’t expect they’d fall under any of the conspicuous blind spots,” Aisling nodded. “But I can only learn so much on one question a day, and there’s always something that needs my attention RIGHT THIS SECOND and has to wait weeks anyway. More every day, it feels like.”
“Don’t I know it,” Isobel grumbled. For a little while, Aisling’s power had been an exciting way for their group of friends to confront the mysteries that troubled them most. Then the wider world noticed Aisling, and all their personal passions were buried in a long, long priority queue of questions sorted by the potential existential danger of leaving them unanswered.
This was the ultimate expression of Aisling’s gift, pushed to its limit: commanding truth from nothing. One single, solitary question a day, asked to the aether with the utmost extent of Aisling’s focus, guaranteed a truthful answer by the mystery behind magic itself — a stubborn mystery that hypocritically refused to give itself away. Of course, the power was full of exasperating weak points, but… when it was wielded with Aisling’s precision and intelligence, its insight was truly incredible. A miracle given shape. Aisling hated to think of it in those words, but what other words fit?
“I am sorry about that. Things were nicer when it was only the three of us and the club. It’s just hard to base your decisions on what’s nicer when anything or everything could be at stake.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I get it.” Isobel’s pet subject was philology. In those early days, she’d gotten exactly one question answered by Aisling’s magic: yes, there were human languages older than Thalassic.
As it was with most good questions, the answer immediately branched into a dozen new questions. Which languages? Were any of them still around? What were the societies that spoke them like, before the Claiasyan overculture spread around the world and carried Thalassic with it? Was there even anything we’d call a society? If not, what changed? Was there some delay between the birth of humanity and the advent of Keepers and the Covenant, and if so, why?
Questions she wouldn’t ever learn the answers to before her best friend faded entirely into the world of magic and left her alone with her questions, at this rate. Neither of them would say it in those words, but Isobel knew the Research Club was just an excuse for Aisling to spend time with her old friends, not a real part of her investigations. A bunch of kids kicking ideas around after school didn’t have anything more to offer a girl who could pluck answers to cosmic mysteries from nowhere than occasional help refining the questions she planned to ask.
“But actually, your interests may be the sort of thing where the experts know more than they publish. If you got yourself noticed by the right people and took the offer, I wouldn’t begrudge you that. Too much,” Aisling said with a sour smile.
Among the many, many roles it played, the Church spent quite a lot of its preposterous amounts of money funding research of all kinds, ran or supported most of the world’s best universities, and generally sat at the heart of global scholarship, but it wasn’t completely open with its wealth of information. Someone had apparently decided that certain fields were best kept out of the public eye. Harbinger studies, obviously, but also things like astrology, and… well, there wasn’t exactly a formal list of restricted subjects, so Isobel didn’t know that there was a secret library somewhere full of books on prehistoric humanity, but if there was, the oldest and most magical organization on the planet probably had it.
They didn’t disappear people for asking the wrong questions or anything so clumsy, though. At least not that Isobel’d ever heard of. No, her friends had long suspected, and Aisling had confirmed with her power shortly after she made the Promise, that they simply poached academics whose interests fell into the danger zones. Brought them into the fold where the real work was done, and all they had to do in exchange was agree to keep the secrets. Whatever offers they made and reasons they gave for doing things that way were apparently good enough to stifle almost all outsider work in those fields.
Maybe the people in charge really did have perfectly good reasons — everyone in the Research Club hated the idea of a scholarly in-group deciding what knowledge was fit for general consumption, but even Aisling didn’t broadcast everything she learned to the whole world. She’d learned firsthand that where some of these things were concerned, information could be literally dangerous. In the early days, Aisling once asked her power “Where does magic come from?”
Her own magic had left her delirious and suffering migraines that made her want to tear herself to shreds for the next few weeks, and when she recovered she didn’t have the slightest hint at an answer to show for it. All she remembered clearly enough to describe was that the response she normally would’ve received had been muffled, drowned out by the flitting sounds of a great swarm of butterflies’ wingbeats. They’d never figured out what to make of that particular detail. Aisling even spent another question on it: “Why did I hear butterflies when I asked my last question?” In answer, she received more, louder wingbeats. No migraines, though.
So yes, some knowledge really didn’t want to be freely shared. But danger or no danger, no too-curious soul in human history was ever satisfied with the mere promise that an answer to their questions exists.
Imagine that. The people in the know wanting her enough to reach out. But then, they had come a long way since they were just kids trying to figure out how stuff worked together. Back when Aisling still wore those huge thick glasses that made her look exactly like the runty, nerdy, too-proud daughter of two scientists she was, and when her determination to live up to their legacy had moved Isobel to follow the same path.
Well, Aisling had come a long way. Emergence had not just repaired her sight, but granted her vision far beyond what any human could aspire to. Isobel, on the other hand, was still just Isobel.
“…Mm, yeah, I probably would if they wanted me. Sorry,” was all she said in answer.
The conversation stalled out after that, as it always did. Once the club had finished cleaning up their lab room, Isobel said her brief goodbyes and set out alone. Not to make her way home, though. Not yet. The university library was a poor substitute for all those secret stacks in the Church’s Archives she’d never get to see, but books were books, and she had a long way to go before she’d read everything of interest there.
Oh, did they get a new book? She didn’t recognize this one — she recognized most of the Thalassic section by now — and its featureless black spine looked a little out of place. How to Be the World? What did that even mean, and what was it doing on this shelf? It was sized more like a notebook than the weighty volumes around it, and had no labels on the spine. Either some librarian had made a few different mistakes in rapid succession, or someone left their weird journal here by mistake.
In either case, it fell to Isobel to figure out where the strange little book did belong. She took it back to her usual reading window and flipped it open.
Isobel stared down at Step 5 and the cheerful little drawing beside it. She read it again and again and again, mute with horror. Memory and wild imagination twisted together into a waking nightmare of the sea, of being choked and swallowed by the endless abyss that had so terrified her ever since her first childhood brush with death.
Finally, the sound of footsteps passing by her corner dragged her out of the depths. Almost reflexively, she curled into herself and pulled the book closer to her face. She didn’t dare look away from the page with more than the corner of her eye.
But the sound passed. Only then did she close the book, heart still hammering all the while. That cover with its simple silver letters wasn’t looking back at her, but it was reaching out to her. Curious. Questioning.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered.
The book said nothing. Books don’t talk. But it didn’t need words to repeat the question.
“I can’t! There’s no way! It would kill me, do you understand that? No human could do this and live! You said… you promised…” What? What did it promise? It said it would do something that sounded good… what, on its honor as a Harbinger? What was wrong with her? How did it ever seem like a good idea to close her eyes and play along with a set of instructions pulled from a disturbed child’s manifesto on the nature of reality? What in her soul was so suddenly, impossibly broken that when she saw it in her imaginary library, she hadn’t ran screaming to the nearest Keeper?
The creature the book insistently called her “new friend” was an abstract tangle of origami limbs soaked through with rainbows of flowing ink. If it was meant to represent something… Isobel had no earthly idea what. When it appeared to her in dreams and reflections, it was constantly shifting itself into new not-shapes, experimenting with its structure in very unskilled ways. It only ever moved by folding itself new limbs, which crumpled back into the central mass after they dragged it awkwardly forward. Like a baby learning to crawl crossed with a paper amoeba.
It was all wrong, wrong in a way that could only mean one thing. She’d stopped pretending that this could be anything but a Harbinger clawing its way into the world. She shouldn’t have done any of this in the first place. She certainly shouldn’t have spent the last three nights working through the book’s steps, following along as it filled its empty pages with new bizarre games.
But it wasn’t too late to stop, was it? She could still end this. Aisling wouldn’t… no, Aisling would definitely yell at her, but it wouldn’t be the end of her life. The club would have her back eventually. Probably. Maybe. She’d spend some unpleasant time in the Sanctuary, but then it would all be business as usual again.
Business as usual, trying to learn about the secrets of the universe secondhand from a Keeper who had so much more to do than indulge her stupid curiosities.
“Look. I want to do this, for some reason. I want to work with you. But I can’t do that. I don’t care how sure you are that it’ll be fine, I literally cannot. Make another way or we’re done. I’ll hand you off to someone else, and she won’t play along. She’ll dissect you, figure out how you work, and eat whatever’s left over. Got that? I’m s-serious.” Did the book understand any of this? Who knows? All she could do was hope it had some way to grasp her meaning.
Several minutes of silent glaring later, she felt it respond in that wordless way: Agreement. Patience. Returning.
“Okay,” she whispered back. “And I mean it. Don’t… don’t mess with me.”
Things changed after that night.
Isobel didn’t go back to the library right away. She skipped school and spent the day in her room, thinking in circles. Twice she tried to talk herself into turning the book over to Aisling, but she knew all the while that she wasn’t going to. The Harbinger’s twisted paper projection still appeared in her uneasy dreams, but it was simply there, watching in silence.
When she next visited it, the book had not only added a new step, but covered Step 5 in a combination of neat redacting-marker lines and pen scribbling so frantic that it looked like it should have torn through the page completely. It even left a note in the margins that recanted the step in a reproduction of Isobel’s own handwriting.
The new ritual was still strange and creepy, but something felt different about it. Its language wasn’t quite as disjointed, and there was a clearer line of logic running through it, or else it just did a better job of explaining what it was meant to do and why someone would want to do it. It helped that she’d never gotten along well with mirrors.
But more than that, through the days she spent obsessively following the book’s growth, inviting the Harbinger into her head while she slept in a cramped blanket nest in her closet, she somehow hadn’t realized just how wrong everything was. Not until she had this to compare it to. Those days weren’t exactly a fugue she’d dissociated her way through entirely, she remembered them well enough, but thinking back…
Isobel dreamed often. Most of them were nightmares, and the worst were those she experienced almost as an outside observer. Not exactly watching a movie, but riding along as a prisoner inside herself. She knew something horrible was happening, maybe even remembered it happening in other dreams before and had ideas about how to prevent it, but the dream-story was already written and it offered her no agency to change it.
Those first few days had felt like one of those dreams. Like watching herself march into a lightless cave that was really a yawning maw, waiting for the jaws to snap shut.
Like the new rituals, the book’s formless intelligence felt very different now. Gentler, clearer. It spoke in soft wordless whispers that aligned rather closely with her own ideas rather than a gale of suicidal intrusive thoughts, and listened when she spoke back. Now, whenever she felt the Harbinger communing with her, there was something she recognized at the heart of it. Something desperate she’d felt stirring in the dark corners of her own soul for years now. Yearning to find some new path, no matter how strange or scary, because the one she’d spent her life walking was blank and flat and hopeless.
Maybe the two had simply discovered by accident that they shared similar feelings. Maybe the Harbinger saw something it appreciated in Isobel. Or maybe she’d just fallen for the trap’s second, more sophisticated stage, but she really didn’t think so. Somewhere along the way, it had ceased to be a predator dragging her to her doom and become a truly bizarre sort of kindred spirit.
Once Isobel replaced the reflection she’d never liked with the Harbinger’s little paper-and-ink avatar, things changed again. It was closer to her now, no matter where she went, and the Harbinger no longer needed its book to reach her. She read Step 8 in a dream before it was written at all, and felt the Harbinger’s presence blooming into something grander as she made new books. She made a new copy for the university library and took the original home, just in case anything made that copy especially important, and scattered more through other libraries and bookstores and schools. Once enough others stumbled across it, it wrote the ninth step. The step that, in its strangely-phrased way, promised her a kind of actual power of her own. Actual magic.
And it delivered.
Isobel began with herself, which seemed more appropriate and worthwhile than running around making purple space-apples or whatever. She formed an image of herself in her mind to replace the one that no longer appeared in the mirrors. Then, slowly, she reimagined it. It took hours at a time of focusing in the dark, forcing herself to know that the way she used to see herself was not the way she really was, to remember how she’d always looked. That didn’t make any sense, but if she let a little hiccup like that stop her now, what would be the point of all this?
For years now, she’d maintained an uneasy truce with her hair: she left it alone and didn’t bother it, and it left her alone and didn’t bother her. Mostly. It had never kept its side of the deal reliably, but now the balance of power had shifted. So she changed it. She banished the tangles that always seemed so determined to weave themselves into a bird’s nest, smoothed them out forever. She made it a nicer color, a faint auburn instead of boring dirty brown. Next went the extra pounds she’d never managed to shed without taking too much time away from the things she actually cared about doing. The things she changed were small, simple touches, for now, but they were hers. She was hers, maybe for the first time.
While she worked, her dreams told her other new things. The Harbinger had a name beyond “the book,” which raised a brand new maze of questions she never would’ve thought of before. It called itself Aulunla. The name itself meant nothing to her. It wasn’t from any books she knew, and it didn’t phonetically resemble any language she was aware of. Some of the more infamous and impactful historical Harbingers had names they were known by, though.
Seruine, the corrupted remnant of a miracle meant to kill Sofia the Deathless for good.
Infezea, who brought disease into the world, and whose curses had lingered and mutated after its death — no, after her death, if you dug deep enough it started to look like she’d been a much more personlike entity than the sanitized public sources implied — until they became an inextricable, almost mundane part of things.
Nyuini, who’d planted its roots firmly on a nearby northern island during the chaos and confusion of the war, claiming the fishing village now called Commixture as home and all its residents as vessels — who nested there still. It kept to itself, most of the time, and no one wanted to bear the moral cost of burning it out.
Those names did share a certain phonetic quality, if not a proper linguistic structure — at least, not one that she could currently spot. Isobel had always figured they were names others gave them after the fact, perhaps drawing from some pattern that had been established after the first few times people used a nonsense sound to describe a monster. Apparently not.
Assuming, then, that the Harbingers didn’t just make up names they liked and all have similar enough taste to make for some kind of connection, did they have their own language? Languages, even? Dialects? Cultures? Where did they learn them if not from some kind of Harbinger society? Nothing Aulunla communicated to her, in words or otherwise, gave her the sense that it had been raised among other Harbingers in some secret nightmare dimension.
So, so many questions, questions she was sure would jump right to the top of Aisling’s list… but no, of course she couldn’t tell anyone about this. It was way too early to start fantasizing about what she’d do if all this really worked, if she got her own magic her own way and became the girl who could prove that benign, symbiotic relationships with Harbingers were possible.
Maybe nothing. Maybe they’d brand her a witch like any other and that would be the end of it. Maybe she and Aulunla would forever be set against the whole world.
But other worlds opened to her every time she closed her eyes. There were fairer, better ones among them. There had to be. And if not, she could make her own.
Aulunla was in a hurry to grow, and for Isobel to grow with it. It was sick. Maybe not dying, at least not yet, but very sick. Something else’s magic had infected it in the library. It couldn’t explain itself any more clearly than that, but Isobel guessed there’d been another Harbinger. A Keeper would’ve just killed it, right? Either way, there was nothing she could do about it but finish her work before the attacker came back.
But on that front, her best efforts weren’t quite good enough.
On Isobel’s eleventh day since discovering her Harbinger, she woke in the night with a screaming start, jolted awake by Aulunla’s terrified alarm cries in her dreams. Something or someone was coming to kill it, it wailed. Its copy in the library had been stolen away, taken by the source of the infection coursing through its soul, and it was certain that they meant to finish it off this time. Isobel stuffed the book into her backpack, scrambled out her first-floor window before the parents she’d been studiously avoiding could come to check on her, and raced into the dark.
They began their final preparations in a mad rush. Aulunla destroyed the stolen shard of itself, then wrote its instructions in full into every remaining book at once. And with Isobel’s uneasy approval, it uncensored the fifth step.
Of course she was glad Aulunla had changed its plans to include her more fully, but she’d started to understand what it was probably thinking with its original design. This world was… Isobel didn’t know if fake was the right term, but since she started using her power, she’d come to see the ordinary world she’d always known as a wall around the things that really mattered. Humans had weighted shackles fastened to their ankles that kept them from the true realms of the soul, of magic, and for some reason only Keepers ever got them removed.
Well, Keepers and people who found other ways to pry the chains off. Witches, for want of a less loaded term.
So if something about Harbingers or maybe about magic itself made it so that this was the only way, so anyone who didn’t win whichever mysterious lottery made you a Keeper could only buy freedom with pain, then better some of them made it out of the prison of the real. That didn’t make her some evil cultist hoarding truth and power for herself. It would be best if the other readers connected with Aulunla well enough to truly join them on their journey, but so far none of them had. How sad for them. She just hoped the rushed harvest didn’t hurt any of them beyond recovery, and that their unknowing gifts weren’t in vain — that it was all enough to protect her and Aulunla from their hunter.
As for Isobel’s part of the work to come, Aulunla wrote in the book’s newest step that she already knew what to do, and she did. All she needed was a secluded place to finish the ritual, paper, and books. Lots of books. If this world wouldn’t let her be, she’d write one that would.
It was a Keeper who finally came for them after all, a tiny girl in a masked, cowled black-and-white outfit. Her regalia obscured most of her features, save for her venom-green eyes and the white streaks winding through her black hair, and altogether made her look more like a plague doctor from the days of the Infezean Scourges than a magical idol-hero, a champion of Claiasya. Her actions still didn’t make sense coming from a Keeper, but Isobel didn’t really care. She couldn’t spare any focus, not at this stage.
“I’m busy, I’m not hurt, and I don’t need your help. Go find someone who does,” Isobel spat.
The girl gave no answer, but the cold light in her eyes flared. A dry, tearing shriek poured out from Aulunla’s book, flooding the little room with words for walls. In a wild flash of color and motion, the diorama growing from it opened into a jagged mass of disconnected pictures and dragged the Keeper into itself.
As it drew back, leaving only empty air, a still-open door, and a lingering sense of the Harbinger’s panic in the back of her mind, Isobel sighed. Her shoulders slumped a little. Everything would’ve been fine if they’d just been left to do things their way. No one had to die. Aulunla hadn’t been killing people, she didn’t think. But if the girl wouldn’t take no for an answer, that only left one way out of this.
Well, that’s too bad. I warned her.
Isobel shoved the thought aside, pulled the door down, and returned to her work. Her partner could handle the intrusion, and meanwhile she was almost finished. Almost, but something in the words still wasn’t quite right. Some hazy quality was missing, or maybe some old anchor was taking up too much space?
She scanned the collage with impossible speed, taking it in less like a book she was reading and more like a part of her body she was mentally taking stock of, crossed out a few lines and words, and… no, this whole passage near the lightbulb didn’t belong at all. What was she even thinking when she put it there? She ripped it off the wall, leaving a patch of rubber cement flecked with clinging scraps of paper, and went digging through her books in search of a replacement.
Ugh, no, none of those were right either. The hard way, then.
Isobel pushed back her left sleeve and stared into the river of words slowly flowing along her arm, searching until… yes, finally, there it was! She pinched the skin around the phrase she wanted, then began to peel it back. She grit her teeth and whimpered through the sharp stinging as she pulled the now-still sentence loose. But it only hurt for a second. When the passage tore away, it looked more like a neat strip of fine vellum than anything else, and there was no wound left behind in its place. Just a white spot on her otherwise-unharmed flesh, and more words quickly flowed in to fill the gap. She was already more than simple skin, and soon she would be so, so much more still. She just needed to finish her work before… no, it didn’t matter before what. She’d make it. They were so close.