Demystifying the Tarot, Chapter 5: The Major Arcana
The Undreaming — XV
The most traditional version of this card depicts a twilight lake in a colorful ethereal landscape. A vast dark hole has opened in the water, around which the world twists and spins as if being pulled down through a drain. A single human figure swirls an arm at the water’s edge, and from the center of the darkness, the shadowed form of the Undreaming – a dark figure on a dark background, only her eyes of violet fire clearly visible – reaches out to take their hand. The Goddess’s wayward daughter, who loved the world too much to cope with all the sorrow in it, calls to those of us who stand at the brink of losing ourselves to despair.
In Tarot, we view the Undreaming not as an external force whose nightmares invade our hearts, but as a reflection of our own inner darkness. When this card appears in your readings, it carries an urgent warning which must be interpreted with courage and candor. You need to search your own inner world and consider what dark thoughts or self-destructive patterns may be pulling you down.
Harbingers are often said to be drawn into the world by our emotions and mental states. While we cannot control them, we can come to understand ourselves and overcome our pain for its own sake. Returning to the card’s image, we see that the Undreaming is entirely confined to the void, trapped within her own pain, and beyond her reach, the beauty in the world stands unchanged. The Sun will shine again tomorrow, even over the darkest places.
As always, despite its ominous connotations, It bears mentioning that no Tarot card is purely sinister. Positive aspects of the Undreaming may include becoming aware that you have a problem, the first step in seeking help, or a suggestion to take a deeper look at someone we consider to be wicked. They may simply be in pain, or perhaps the traits we most hate in others might cast a light on our own flaws, serving as a mirror to show us where we need to improve.
When inverted, we may imagine the scene flowing in the opposite direction, banishing the hungry blackness, but inversions are rarely so simple. Rather than pure inner peace, the Undreaming inverted may represent overcoming trauma or recognizing and escaping from abuse or self-sabotage. By the same token, it may indicate denial of a painful emotion, or perhaps a dark impulse or dangerous tendency you may be resisting or burying from conscious awareness.
While this is perhaps the card most feared by amateurs and querents, it almost never refers directly to Harbingers or their activity in any sense beyond lingering trauma caused by an attack. It is unethical and dangerous for a Tarot reader to predict Harbinger incidents.
Keywords: Upright: Nightmares, mental illness, regret, hopelessness and helplessness, lost causes, self-destruction
Inverted: (+)Confronting inner demons, near escapes from tragedy, positive thinking
(-)Denial, refusal to face a problem, intrusive thoughts, suppressed desires
The too-familiar sensation of my joints trying to eat themselves gnaws me awake just before sunrise. I wince and bury my face in Pearl’s side, hiding from the light. It hurts to move — it hurts anyway, moving just makes it hurt more. It’s like tiny bits of muscle and tissue inside me have frozen into shards, snapping under the pressure if I try to move at all.
Of course it’s today, too. Of course. I’ve gotten too used to being able to ignore a bad health day if I just throw enough stolen life at it. It’s only natural that everything would go wrong today, now that the well’s run dry and I have no idea how long it’ll take me to set up some less awful method of getting more.
If that’s still possible. If it was ever more than a stupid fantasy to imagine that random people would just hand me enough of themselves to keep me on my feet.
But no one burst through my window and killed me in my sleep. Yet. So I guess that’s something nice. I almost want to go back to sleep, to pause the start of the next terrible day for just a little longer, but I almost never can sleep on mornings like this and I certainly couldn’t after last night.
Instead, I force myself to sit up, wincing at every tiny adjustment, and transform — still mostly under the covers, which I’m sure would mortify everyone who thinks Keepers need weird poses and catchphrases. That’s kind of a nice thought, too. If I had magic back when I wrote that gratitude journal where I thanked my skin for keeping my organs in place and my organs for doing their best against my blood’s constant onslaught, that project might have lasted for more than a day.
So while I’m searching for any reasons not to dissolve into a puddle of pain and panic, let’s take stock of what I got from the longest, most exhausting day of my life. So far. I can’t exactly count ‘decent relationships with other Keepers’ after the last thing, but Seryana is absolutely dead. I’ve only touched the blessed curse she left me on instinct, in a moment of desperate inspiration. What can it actually do?
I fill a card with a roughly me-sized wisp of death-mist and float it across the room. I transfer my vision into it — both eyes this time, just to make sure I can — then will it to burst, quickly shaping its fumes into a new doppelganger. Peering out through a ragged curtain of ink-stained white hair that parts just enough for me to see, I peer into the dresser mirror at the twisted echo of myself, a little thinner, a little more see-through than the last. I raise one skeletal hand, clenching and unclenching its translucent skin. It hurts a little, the way pushing through the cold, numb pain of doing anything on a bad health day always does, but not enough to stop me from doing it.
With a bit of effort, I can make this “me” at least solid enough to walk around and touch surfaces rather than simply drift like foul air, but I can’t quite find the strength to crack the window open, and the pain of trying overlays itself with my real body’s sharp pangs in a confusing double-vision way. I try to sigh, but no sound comes out. Neither do any others I try to make — these doubles simply can’t talk, at least not in human words, and if I can speak magic, I still don’t know how. I wonder if that’s Seryana’s problem or mine. Probably mine.
Still, this could do a lot for me — I’ll need to check if I can throw doppelgangers into Wounds while my actual body hides at a safe distance, or if there’s some limit to how far they can wander from me before problems come up. Later, though. I really don’t want people to see horrifying plague-clones walking around my home in broad daylight and send someone to investigate.
Ugh. I really am an idiot. I could’ve solved so many problems before I knew they existed if I found some way to tell everyone “don’t mind the horrifying plague Keeper, she probably won’t hurt you too much” before I buggified the Stardust Seraph’s insides. Maybe it wouldn’t matter, maybe no one would accept my existence anyway, but it’s not like it could’ve made things much worse than they are now.
For now, I pull my awareness back into myself with a sickening lurch, let the double melt into mist and finally dissipate, and end my transformation, crawling back into bed with Pearl. I stay there until the light filtering through my curtains forces me to acknowledge that I’ve spent the last hour and some shivering in pain with my eyes wrenched shut, chasing sleep but never catching it. I should’ve just started a book or something, but then it’s not like I can focus on anything except how much everything hurts on mornings like this.
Finally, the Sun forces me out of my nest. As I squirm to keep it out of my eyes, I can’t help but imagine it speaking, asking me over and over if I’ve given any more thought to the idea of burning out my eyes and setting my soul on fire so that whatever’s left of me can know all that can be known. At least today, it shouldn’t be shining through every window at once. I stagger out of bed, summon my cane, and head out to find somewhere darker.
I can’t be bothered changing today, though. I’m joining the pajama cult. Sorry, Noirin.
As it turns out, no matter how hard I try to just keep things quiet, ride out the pain, and think on what options I have left, everything reminds me of yesterday. The floor’s patients and nurses are all gathered in tighter-than-usual groups, gripped by the same sort of quiet unease as after Yurfaln — only more so this time, it seems like. Of course people are going to be on edge about having two unrelated monster incidents within a few weeks. Even in a place like this, full of people you’d think of as pretty high-risk if there’s anything to those stupid videos about warding off Harbingers with good mental health, that’s weird and worrying.
But this time, now that everyone with working eyes has decided how I fit into those incidents, there doesn’t seem to be any uncertainty or unease around me.
Several strangers at once look up to wave at me as I limp to my usual table. Everyone who glances my way does it with a smile, with a knowing sort of admiration. The morning charge nurse stops by to tell me that Banva will be out for a little while longer, but she’s healing up well, and I suppress a flinch when she thanks me for getting her help so quickly. By the time I’ve settled in to search the Sea for some distraction, the pall of fear over the room seems to have mostly lifted.
I hate this. I don’t want it. I don’t deserve it. But I can’t tell them that, since if I’m somehow making things better by sitting here and brooding, the absolute least I can do is let these people imagine that I’m some reason to be relieved. For at least a little longer, I can let them dream. They don’t have much else.
So fine. I guess this is my life now. No point in pretending I can have normal, quiet days and secrets that aren’t obvious to anyone who looks at me. Pain aside, everything is on fire, and waiting around for the chance that my health will improve soonish can only hurt me more. I should be looking for some way to make things better. Just… how?
I don’t have the strength to go find more health, let alone to hunt. Even if I did, I don’t think I should. If the whole world turns on me and I’m left with no choice but to sustain myself the way I had been or die, I’d do it. I’m not a good enough person to die for anyone or anything, let alone the good of a lot of random people I’ll never meet. Still, I don’t want to run around hurting and terrifying those people, and even if I’m pretty sure that I have, I don’t know yet if I’ve burned all the bridges that might let me find some better way to do things.
So I glance around the room to see if anyone might hear me from here, then realize that they’d probably need to be sitting at the table or leaning right over my back to overhear me now. I shrug, scroll through my phone’s history, and call Aisling.
She answers almost immediately: “One moment, please. I’m in school.” Quick footsteps and the sound of a door slamming behind her break the silence on her end, then “Okay. There you are. How’s your Harbinger situation looking?
“Oh. I did say I’d call you back, didn’t I? Sorry. I can wait if I’m interrupting something.”
“Nope, I get a couple of these calls pretty much every school day. Teachers know how it is. I’m just glad you’re alive. Now spill!”
“Um. Right.” That would have been a legitimate question, wouldn’t it? “Sorry again I left you wondering. It was just a really terrible night. But she’s dead. One of the cases you pointed me to was her, so thank you for that.”
“Glad I could help. I’d ask you to come report on her for our files, but you sound exhausted,” she notes, no doubt noticing the change Emergence has brought to my voice. “Some other time, maybe.”
“I think that’s just how I’m going to sound from now on.” Which feels appropriate.
“Oh.” Aisling is quiet for a moment. “Any other changes?”
“None worth mentioning. And I don’t quite understand it yet, but her power seems pretty good.”
“Then considering the circumstances, I think you got off pretty easy.”
“As for the power, you know where we meet. If you’ve got a weird magic thing you’re trying to figure out, either what it is or how to use it, that’s pretty much all we do,” Aisling offers.
“Thanks. Maybe.” I pause. “That isn’t exactly why I called, though.”
“Hm. I’m still glad you’re alive. What was?”
Does she not know? It doesn’t sound like it, but she did hold things back to see what I’d say yesterday. My foot taps nervously on the floor. It hurts, but I can’t quite get it to stop.
Well, she’s already heard me out and taken my horrible history about as well as I could hope for. If she hates me now, I probably deserve it. I look around again, finding no incredibly stealthy eavesdroppers.
“I didn’t think to call you last night because… because after everything with Seryana, the Stardust Seraph showed up and attacked me because I wouldn’t give him any of my weird blood. No, that’s not fair, probably we both kind of started the fight, and we both kind of lost, and now I have no idea what-”
“Hey. Slow down. I have no idea what you’re saying and it doesn’t sound like you’re breathing,” she says flatly.
I suck down a whoosh of air too unnaturally quiet to be conspicuous.
“Okay. Now, start at the beginning. What happened?”
“I don’t know! He doesn’t make any sense! He dropped out of the sky and crucified my Harbinger, then stood back while I ate her, then declared himself in charge of making sure I wasn’t doing anything else wrong. He wanted to follow me home or steal one of my ‘feathers,’ said it just wouldn’t be safe to leave me alone without being able to track me down whenever he wanted, and he wouldn’t take ‘hey, you’re incredibly creepy, could I call Aisling or Niavh or someone and bring them in on this?’ for an answer. So I tried to leave or get to someone else, he tried to restrain me, I tried to stop him from doing that, it got really bad. I’d hurt him a lot and thought he was about to kill me when we both felt someone else coming, and then he just… stopped. He said it was Irida and I didn’t want to know how she’d handle me if I thought he was nasty, then sent me on my way. Even made me faster before he left.”
I take another long breath and silently sigh it out. “And I have no idea what happens next. He obviously isn’t dead, especially if you hadn’t heard anything about this until now. Probably flew off and got whatever emergency care he needed. But I can’t imagine he’s just going to leave this alone and I don’t know what to do now. I’ve spent all morning trying not to panic about magic police or something storming my hospice.”
On the other end, there’s the sound of something soft but heavy thunking against a wall.
“Well, then,” Aisling says tonelessly. “That’s a fucking lot. I’m afraid I can’t say what’s coming either. I don’t know Roland well enough to predict how he’ll react to something like this. I don’t exactly have examples to work off.”
She’s still there. It doesn’t sound like she hates me. If she thinks I’m an absolute idiot everyone should avoid for their own safety, she’s keeping it to herself. “What about Tara?” I ask.
“He was still kind of new during that whole thing. Tara was mostly Irida’s problem.”
“Oh. Okay. About that, actually…” I swallow. “What happens to Keepers in, um, cases like this? What do they do about it?”
Aisling snorts. “That depends entirely on what the local Keepers have the will and ability to do about it when it happens. You’re not in any meaningful legal trouble, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I’ve assaulted so many people I lost count of them and never stopped to figure out what I was even doing to them. I still don’t know. I’ve fought and severely injured two Keepers. One time it was to actively protect a Harbinger. I’m the sort of menace you only ever hear about in horror stories about things going really wrong in other cities.
“Why not? How?” I spurt.
“Good question!” Aisling says with a single bitter laugh. “Here’s my answer: say the council makes laws targeting a group of temperamental children who can upend reality at will. While depending on those same children, who very often do not appreciate being told what to do, to keep living psychological terrors from eating their souls. How do you propose they enforce any regulations on what Keepers can or can’t do?”
“Get older, stronger Keepers to do it?” I try.
“Sure. Then they need enough of those Keepers who agree with their laws and how violations of them should be addressed to make a whole magic legal system, and there just aren’t that many of us, period. So I suppose they decided it was easier to skip the step where they write a bunch of rules that aren’t worth the time it took to type them out — that’s if they even manage to write them in a way that keeps Iona or someone from coming out against them and shutting the whole process down — and hope we’ll handle magic problems our way. Wherever or whoever they come from.”
“Um. Okay. Fair enough, that sounds about right,” I mutter.
“Yeah. There are laws written specifically for us, with for being the operative word. At least in this city, they’re all to our benefit, things like the Keeper emancipation policy. As for the rest, there’s nothing that says Keepers are above the law, but you’ll literally never find one being charged with a normal crime in a normal court. Unless you’re the next Sofia, I think the worst you get is Church Keepers keeping a closer eye on you and offering you mentorship a little more emphatically than usual.”
“How does that work? Does it work? Tara and I can’t just be the only Keepers who’ve ever done bad things, can we?”
“You’re very much not. It’s not a great system. Probably a good thing for you right now, though.”
“You don’t sound very happy about it.”
“I’m not. It’s not about you, though, I just want the world and society to make some kind of sense. Your whole thing sounds pretty bad, yeah, but we had the same terrible day yesterday, only it sounds like yours got a lot worse. I can believe you’re trying and Roland just had incredibly bad timing. And… you’ve helped us out. I don’t want this to be any worse for you than it already is.”
“I do still want to help if I can,” I say. “Isobel’s my problem too. It just, um, might be hard. I’m out of health and everything hurts and I don’t expect people are going to have a lot to spare for the girl who beat up a Fianata and made the Stardust Seraph puke centipedes.”
“…Centipedes,” Aisling says. It doesn’t quite sound like a question. “No, fine, I probably don’t need the details there. Look, I hadn’t heard about this one way or the other until you brought it up. That means something. If you’re lucky, it means whatever Roland wants out of you now, he’s trying to handle it in that sweep-it-under-the-rug way the Church likes to handle Keeper problems. I’ll see what I hear when I’ve got more time, poke you if anything comes up. Please don’t start eating people again, if you really want to work this out civilly.”
“Not planning to,” I grumble back.
“Great. And if there’s anyone else you think it’d help to get ahead of this with, maybe do that as soon as possible.”
“Alright. Sorry again to drop this on you so early. And, um, thanks.” I let her go.
Okay. That could’ve been a lot worse. While I’m slogging through this anyway, is there anyone else?
I don’t expect Shona will react much differently to this than she did when I almost ate Mide. She seems like she just wants to be friends with everyone forever, no matter how little sense it makes for the people involved to share space. Yesterday, she even tried to pitch calling the Seraph in to fight Isobel’s Harbinger, which… is kind of strange, especially given that it sounded like he was looking for me for more than a day.
Actually, Mide did say something about someone “catching up with me,” which… feels very specific, in retrospect. Did they know? Was Shona hoping we could just work it all out while we were at it?
I guess that couldn’t have been any worse than what ended up happening. Still, I think the three of us are just not very compatible, in the end. They can think what they want when this reaches them.
That only leaves one other person.
“PD?” I ask my phone. A shiny eye with a dark, squiggly cuttlefish pupil blinks open beneath the clock display, coming into view as if it’s part of a body that’s still mostly camouflaged with the gently shifting sea-surface background on the screen behind it. “Find Niavh Fianata’s contact information and call her for me. That’s Niavh Fianata the Clarish Keeper, if there’s somehow more than one.” I normally just use manual searches for this sort of thing — drives always seem prone to making mistakes no person would unless you’re annoyingly specific with them — but right now, my fingers aren’t up for it.
The eye blinks at me, makes a little bloop of acknowledgement, then closes and disappears.
“Thanks,” I say.
My phone starts browsing the Sea on its own, while I think about just what I’m going to say to her. I’ll have to leave a message, if she’s still out of reach, which is easier in some ways, but leaving messages always makes me feel weird about talking into the void at nobody.
I didn’t want anyone’s help, when I made the Promise. I didn’t want to bring any strangers into my problems. I still don’t, really — I only offered to reach back out to Niavh last night because if it had to be someone, I’d much rather it be her than the Seraph, but doing things exactly how I want to hasn’t been going the best for me, and she has been through this before. She might still understand. She might even know what to do.
Several seconds later, my phone chimes, then clicks.
“Hey. Who’s this?” Niavh’s voice asks.
“Um, hello,” I mumble, losing track of the message I was rehearsing. “It’s Eyna? We met a little while ago. Sorry, I wasn’t expecting to reach anyone.”
“Oh, hi! Why not?”
Wait. I didn’t think about it at the time, but why not?
“I’d just heard you were away and I couldn’t contact you. I guess that was last night, though?” I try.
“Hm. Well, I’m in Alelsia right now and will be for a bit longer, but I still have my drives here. Obviously. And if I didn’t at this very moment, I’d check my messages as soon as I could. So what you heard was mistaken, I’m happy to say. Anyway, how have you been?”
The Seraph sounded pretty sure when he said no one could reach Niavh, but now that I’m thinking about it, that’d only make sense if her “evaluation” involves some kind of nightmare soul-surgery that leaves her out of commission for days, or it’s one of those Sanctuary inpatient things intense enough that they isolate you from the rest of the world until it’s done.
Was he mistaken? Why would he lie about that? I’d just started to make sense of what he might’ve been thinking, if Keepers policing each other is really the whole of the law, but now I’ve lost it again.
“Eyna?” Niavh prompts.
“Terrible. I’m terrible at this. I’ve been in fights with two Keepers for probably no good reasons, my magic is evil, and I don’t think I can live without using it to do awful things to people. I probably should’ve asked for help a while ago, but I’m terrible at that too. So, um, if your offer’s still open after what I did to your sister, I think I need it.”
“Ah,” she says slowly. “I don’t know if I was expecting to hear from you again, after you met Tetha, but I did hope I might.”
“Right. I guess you already knew that, didn’t you.” Of course it was stupid to think I ever had any secrets from anyone. She’s from a family of Keepers heavily involved in running the city — she could look into me and put pieces together if she wanted to, and she obviously did.
“Well, your presence does very much leave a certain impression about your power. I may have looked around and made some informed guesses. The second fight is news to me, though. May I ask what happened there?”
“Stardust Seraph. Found out what I’d been doing and decided to try and bring me to justice on the worst day of my life.”
“Ah,” she repeats. There’s a long, terrifying silence. “Yes, I think we should probably meet. I’m not certain just yet when I’ll be home, but I’ll talk to some people before then, alright? I’ll see if I can reach Roland or his sister right now — she’s a good friend of mine. Until then, please try to stay calm. We’ll figure something out for you.”
I’m not sure what to say. For a long moment, I just can’t find any words. Part of me can’t help but look for traps, search Niavh’s freely-offered assurances for some terrible thing she actually means. But there’s none I can find, no threat that makes more sense than the idea that another Keeper who’s been through and done awful things might just want to keep me from ending up where she did.
“Really? Just like that?”
“Yes. And if there’s anything you think I can do to improve your situation before then, please ask,” she says.
“Not unless you can find a lot of people who wouldn’t mind donating chunks of their health to a Keeper in need very quickly. But thank you.”
“That… may be more of a project, but if it’s something you need to function, I’ll see if anyone has ideas. Anything else?”
“Um. There is a thing I was wondering about that you might know… I just talked to someone else about this. I was worried I was, you know, in trouble, on top of everything else, but she said laws pretty much didn’t apply to Keepers. Is that right? Have they really just given up on keeping us from being complete disasters?”
“Oh, that I can answer. It’s simpler than you might think.” Niavh’s voice sounds different, now. Almost amused. “No one’s given up. That’s just the best way for things to work, for us and everyone else — it’s to leave every possible opportunity open for Keepers who’ve done wrong to change. No one is beyond redemption. No one should be treated as if they are. I’ve wondered myself about whether it’s fair, if that’s what you’re thinking, but, well. I think it’s a necessity of restorative justice when the cost of losing any one of us, to death or a life gone wrong, is so great.”
“Right.” That also makes a kind of sense. I don’t know enough about the world or history or politics to say whether I think she or Aisling has the truth of it. “Then I guess that’s all for now. Thank you,” I say, quieter than usual.
“Of course. I’ll go see what else I can do.” With that, she hangs up.
Maybe everything isn’t over. Maybe my life isn’t on fire. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing if people are happy that I’m here.
But it does still hurt too much to think.
A few more long, painful days pass like that. My health never improves, but to my surprise, it doesn’t deteriorate, either. I read books through the day, experiment with my plague-doubles at night — which really do seem incredibly useful, and the only major issue I’ve found with them is that they aren’t good conduits for my magic senses — and check in occasionally with Aisling and Niavh.
Apparently, the public side of my incident with the Seraph is going just like my fight with Tetha did, which is to say that Aisling still hasn’t heard anything public about it at all. Meanwhile, Niavh assures me that while Roland wasn’t in good shape after he left me, he’ll be just fine because his sister is the greatest healer in at least New Claris, if not the world. I’m not quite sure. Niavh’s praise of her got pretty effusive.
On the fifth day, a knock on the door interrupts my morning suffering, followed by a nurse’s careful footsteps. “Liadain? Good morning. How’re you feeling?”
I groan wordlessly into my pillow.
“I’m sorry. I hate to make things any worse, but it is your infusion day… do you think you’ll be alright for that?”
I don’t regret agreeing to the infusions. Suffering through them was the right call when I didn’t have anything else. For all I know, they might’ve even helped. If I thought there was any chance they might still, I’d shrug, grit my teeth, and tell her to get on with it.
Today, though, I roll over, pull back my sleeve, and point to a cluster of shifting, shimmering veins. “I’m not sure if that’s going to work.”
“O-oh.” The nurse leans closer to inspect me. She sets two fingers on my wrist and waits, visibly paling. “Liadain, I can’t feel your pulse at all. What’s wrong? How long has this been happening? Head to toe, how are you feeling?”
“Sorry, um, I don’t think you need to worry,” I say. “My blood is just black and turns into feathers when it leaves my body now. I think. I’m not quite sure how that works under the skin.” They don’t typically draw blood from us on the seventh floor, other than the occasional test to figure out what’s hurting someone or check to see if my medicine’s working. This would be my first encounter with a needle since the last round of Emergence.
“Oh.” She stands there for a long beat of silence. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t exactly… I’ll call Dr. Hines, okay?”
“Tell him Dr. Cantillon might want to hear about this.”
“Uh, yes. I’ll do that.”
I don’t hear anything else about the infusion. Makes sense. They probably aren’t used to testing to figure out if their patients with blood-based diseases still have blood.
But later that day, not long after sunset, Aisling calls me unprompted. It’s the first time anyone but Dad has called me in… I’m not sure how long.
“Hi. How’re things looking?”
“Have you not heard?” She sounds more tired than I’ve ever heard her, which is saying something.
“Heard what?” I bite my lip. That could be my problems or Isobel’s or any completely unrelated disaster and I don’t even know what to steel myself for.
“Right. You’re still not on Lighthouse, are you? I knew that. Yeah. You should fix that. Just… thought you should probably know if you didn’t.” She heaves out a breath.
“Shona is dead.”