Yumi and the Nightmare Painter
The star was particularly bright that night when the nightmare painter started his rounds.
The star. Singular. No, not a sun. Just one star. A bullet hole in the midnight sky, bleeding pale light.
The nightmare painter lingered outside his apartment building, locking gaze with the star. It had always felt friendly to him. Many nights, it was his only companion. Unless you counted the nightmares.
After losing his staring match, he turned down the street, which was silent save for the faint hum of the hion lines. Ever-present, they flowed through the air—twin bands of pure energy, thick as a person’s wrist, about twenty feet above the street.
One line was an indecisive blue-green. You might have called it aqua, but if so, it was an electric variety. Or teal, perhaps. Turquoise’s pale cousin, who stayed in listening to music and never got enough sun.
The other was a vibrant fuchsia. If you could ascribe a personality to a simple line of light, this was perky, boisterous, blatant. It was a color you only wore if you wanted every eye in the room to judge you. A tich too purple for hot pink, it was—at the very least—a comfortably lukewarm pink.
The residents of the city of Kilahito might have found my explanation unnecessary. Why put such effort into describing something everyone knows? It would be like describing the sun would be to you. Yet, you need this context for—cold and warm—the hion lines were the colors of the city. Needing no pole or wire to hold them aloft, they ran down every street, reflecting in every window, lighting every denizen. Wire-thin strings of each color split off to each structure, powering modern life. They were the arteries and veins of Kilahito.
And just as necessary, albeit in a different way, was the young man walking beneath them. He’d originally been named Nikaro by his parents—but by tradition, many nightmare painters went by their title to anyone but their fellows. Few internalized it as he had. So we shall call him as he called himself. Simply, Painter.
You’d probably say Painter looked Veden. Similar features, same black hair, paler skin than your average Alethi. He’d have been confused to hear that comparison, as he’d never heard of such lands as those. In fact, his people had only just begun to think about whether or not their planet was alone in the cosmere. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Painter. He was a young man, still a year from his twenties, as you’d count the years. His people used different numbers, but for ease, let’s call him nineteen. Lanky, dressed in an untucked buttoning grey-blue shirt and a knee-length coat, he was the type who wore his hair long enough to brush his shoulders because he thought it took less effort. In reality, it took far more, but only if you do it right. He also thought it looked more impressive. But, again, only if you do it right. Which he didn’t.
You might have thought him young to bear the burden of protecting an entire city. But you see, he did it along with the hundreds of other nightmare painters. In this, he was important in the brilliantly modern way that teachers, firefighters, and nurses are important. Essential jobs that earn fancy days of appreciation on the calendar, words of praise in every politician’s mouth, and murmurs of thanks from people at restaurants. Indeed, discussions of the intense value of these professions crowd out other, more mundane conversations. Like ones regarding salary increases.
Painter didn’t make much as a result; just enough to eat and have some pocket cash. He lived in a single-room apartment provided by his work. Each night, he went out to his task. And he dis so, even at this hour, without fear of mugging or attack. Kilahito was a safe city, nightmares excluded. Nothing like rampaging, semi-sentient voids of darkness to drive down crime.
Understandably, most people stayed inside at night.
Night. Well, we’ll call it that. The time when people slept. They didn’t have the same view of these things that you do, as his people lived in persistent darkness. Still, during his shift, you’d say it felt like night. Painter passed through hollow streets alongside overstuffed apartments. The only activity he spotted was from Rabble Way: a street you might charitably call a “low end merchant quarter.” The long, narrow street lay near the perimeter of town, naturally. Along it, the hion connections had been bent and curved into signs. These hung out from shop after shop, like hands waving for attention.
Each sign—letters, pictures, and designs—was created using only two colors: aqua and magenta. Art drawn in two, continuous lines. Yes, they had another source of light. Light bulbs, as common on many planets. Kilahito often used them indoors. But the hion just worked, no need for machinery or replacement, so many relied on it, particularly outdoors.
Soon, Painter reached the edge of the city. The end of hion. One final street wrapped Kilahito, and beyond that was the shroud. An endless, inky darkness that that besieged the city, and every one on the planet.
It smothered the city like a dome, driven back by the hion—which could also be used to make passages and corridors between cities. Only the light of the star shone through the shroud. To this day, I’m not a hundred percent certain why. But we are close to where Virtuosity splintered herself, and I suspect that has had an effect.
At the perimeter of the city, just in front of the shroud,, Painter folded his arms, confident. This was his realm. Here, he was the lone hunter. The solitary wanderer. The man who prowled the endless dark, unafraid of—
Laughter tinkled in the air to his right.
He sighed, glancing to where two other nightmare painters strolled the perimeter. Akane wore a bright green skirt and buttoning white blouse, and carried the long brush of a nightmare painter like a baton. Tojin loped beside her, a young man with bulging arms and a flat features. Painter had always thought Tojin looked incomplete, as if the Shards had taken an unfinished person and rounded up.
They laughed again at something Akane said. Then they saw him standing there.
“Nikaro?” Akane called. “You on the same schedule as us again?”
“Yeah,” Painter said. “It’s, um, on the chart… I think?” Had he actually filled it out this time?
“Great!” she replied. “See you later. Maybe?”
“Uh, yeah,” Painter said.
Akane walked off, heels striking stone, paintbrush in hand, canvas under her arm. Tojin gave Painter a little shrug, then followed, his own supplies in his large painter’s bag. Painter lingered as he watched them go, and fought down the urge to go chasing after.
He was a lone hunter. A solitary wanderer. An….unescorted meanderer? Regardless, he didn’t want to work in a pair or a group, like a lot of the others did.
It would be nice if someone would ask him. So he could show Akane and Tojin that he had friends too. He would reject any such offer with stoic firmness, of course. Because he worked by himself. He was a single saunterer. A…
Painter sighed. It was difficult to maintain a properly brooding air after an encounter with the Akane. Particularly as her laughter echoed two streets over. Being a nightmare painter might not have been as…solemn a job as he made it out to be.
It helped him to think that it was. Made it feel like less of a mistake. Particularly during those times when he went to bed, and regretted the decisions that had forced him into a life where he’d spend the next six decades on this street every night, backlit by the hion. Alone.
Yumi had always considered the appearance of the day star to be encouraging. An omen of fortune. A sign that the primal hijo would be open and welcoming to her. In fact, the day star seemed extra bright today—glowing a soft blue on the eastern horizon as the sun rose in the west.
A powerful sign, if you believed in such things. There’s an old joke that notes lost items tend to be in the last place one looks. By converse, omens tend to appear in the first place people look for them.
Yumi did believe in signs. She had to—as though she rarely spent time thinking about them these days, an omen had been the single most important event in her life. The one that had appeared right after her birth. The one that had marked her as Chosen by the spirits.
She settled herself on the warm floor of her wagon as her attendants, Chaeyung and Hwanji, entered. The bowed in ritual postures, then fed her with maipon sticks and spoons—a meal of rice and a stew that had been left on the ground to cook.
Yumi sat and swallowed, never so crass as to try to feed herself. This was a ritual, and she was an expert in those. Though, she couldn’t help feeling distracted. Today was nineteen days past her nineteenth birthday.
A day for decisions. A day for action.
A day to, maybe, ask for what she wanted?
It was a hundred days until the big festival in Torio City, the grand capital, seat of the queen. The yearly revel of the country’s greatest art, plays, and projects. She had never gone. Perhaps…this time…
First, she had duties. Once her attendants finished feeding her, she rose. They opened the door for her, then hopped down out of the private wagon. Yumi took a deep breath, then followed, stepping into sunlight and down into her clogs.
Immediately, her two attendants leaped to hold up enormous fronds to obscure her from view. Naturally, people in the village had gathered to see her. The Chosen. The yoki-hijo. The girl of commanding primal spirits. (Not the most pithy of titles, but it works better in their language.)
This land—Torio—couldn’t have been more different from where Painter lived. Not a single glowing line—cold or warm—streaked the sky. No apartment buildings. No pavement. Oh, but they had sunlight. A dominant red-orange sun, the color of baked clay. Bigger and closer than your sun, it had distinct spots of varied color on it—like a boiling breakfast stew, churning and undulating in the sky.
This crimson sun painted the landscape…well, just ordinary colors. That’s how the brain works. Once you’d been there a few hours, you wouldn’t notice the light was a shade redder. But when you first arrive, it looks striking. Like the result of a bloody massacre which everyone is too numb to acknowledge. It also provides dynamic descriptions for poets telling stories, so there’s that.
Hidden behind her fronds, Yumi walked on clogged feet through the village to the local cold spring. Once at the spring, her attendants slipped her out of her nightgown—a yoki-hijo did not dress or undress herself—and let her walk down into the slightly cool water, shivering at its shocking kiss. A short time later, Chaeyung and Hwanji followed with a floating plate holding crystalline soaps. They rubbed her with the first, then she washed. Once with the second, then she washed. Twice with the third. Three times with the fourth. Five times with the fifth. Eight times with the sixth. Thirteen times with the seventh.
You might think that extreme. If so, have you perhaps never heard of religion?
Yumi’s particular flavor of devotion, fortunately, did have some practical accommodations. The later soaps were only such in the broadest definition—you would consider them perfumed creams, with a deliberately moisturizing component.
(I find them particularly nice on the feet, though I’ll probably need them for more parts of my body once I arrive in the Torish version of hell for abusing their ritual components for bunion relief.)
Yumi’s final rinse involved ducking beneath the water for a count of a hundred and forty-four. Underneath, her dark hair flowed around her, writhing in the current of her motion as if alive. The forced washing got her hair extremely clean—which was important, as her religious calling forbade her from ever cutting it, so it reached all the way down to her waist.
Though it wasn’t required of the ritual, Yumi liked to look up through the shimmering warm water and see if she could find the sun. Fire and water. Liquid and light.
She burst out of the water at the exact count of one forty four and gasped. That was supposed to get easier, she’d been told. She was supposed to rise, serene, renewed and reborn. Instead, she was forced to break decorum today by coughing a little.
(Yes she saw coughing as “breaking decorum.” Don’t even ask about how she regarded calling a someone by their first name.)
Ritual bathing done, it was time for the ritual dressing, also done by her attendants. The traditional sash just under the bust, then the larger white wrap across the chest. Loose undergarment leggings. Then the tobok, in two layers of thick colorful cloth, with a wide bell skirt. Bright magenta, for the ritual day of the week.
She slipped on her clogs again. Then somehow stepped in them, natural and fluid. (I consider myself a reasonably adroit person, but Torish clogs—they call them getuk—always felt like bricks tied to my feet. They aren’t necessarily hard to balance in—they’re only six inches tall—but they grant most outsiders the graceful poise of a drunk chull.)
With all of that, she was finally ready…for her next ritual. In this case, she needed to pray at the village shrine to seek the blessings of the spirits. So, she again let her attendants block sight with their fronds, then walked out around to the village flower garden.
Here, vibrant blue blossoms—cup-like, to catch the rain—floated on thermals. They hovered around two feet off the ground. In Toria, plants never dared touch the ground, lest the heat wither them away. Each flower had wide leaves at the sides, catching the air—like lilies, with fine, dangling roots that absorbed nutrients from the air.
Yumi’s passing caused them to swirl and bump against one another. The shrine was a small structure, wood, mostly open to the air but with a latticed dome. Remarkably, it also floated gracefully a few feet off the ground—this time, by way of a lifting spirit underneath. It took the shape of two statues with grotesque features, facing one another. One vaguely male, one vaguely female, separate parts—thought they’d come from the same spirit. One crouched on the ground, while one clung to the bottom of the shrine.
Yumi approached among the flowers, the soft thermals causing her skirt to ripple. Thick cloth didn’t rise enough to be embarrassing; just enough to give shape and flare to the bell of her costume. She again took off her clogs as she reached the shrine, then she stepping up onto the cool wood. It barely wobbled, held firm by the strength of the spirit.
She knelt, then began the first of the thirteen ritual prayers. Now, if you think this description of her preparations took a while, that’s intentional. It might help you understand—in the slightest way—what it was to live Yumi’s life. Because this wasn’t a special day, in terms of her duties. This was normal. Ritual eating. Ritual bathing. Ritual dressing. Ritual prayers. And more.
Yumi was one of the Chosen, picked at birth by omen, granted the ability to influence the hijo, the spirits. It was an enormous honor among her people. And they never let her forget it.
The prayers, and following meditations, took around an hour. When she finished, she looked out toward the rising sun—slots in the shrine’s wooden canopy decorating her in alternating lines of light and shadow. She felt…lucky. Yes, she was certain that was the proper emotion. She was blessed to hold this station, one of the very fortunate few.
Duties done for the moment, she relaxed—though she thought she probably shouldn’t have—and contemplated the world the spirits provided. The warm sun, of vibrant red-orange, shining through brilliant clouds yellow, crimson, violet. A field of hovering flowers, trembling as tiny lizards leaped from one to the other. The stone underneath, warm and vibrant, the source of all life, heat, and growth.
She was a part of this. A vital one.
Surely this was wonderful.
Surely this was all that she should ever need.
Surely, she couldn’t want more. Even if…even if today was lucky. Even if… Perhaps, for once, she could ask?
The festival, she thought. One day to visit, wearing the clothing of an ordinary person. One day to be normal.
Rustling cloth and the sound of wooden shoes on stone caused Yumi to turn. Only one person would dare approach her during her meditation: Liyun, a tall woman in a severe black tobok with a white bow. Liyun, her kihomaban, a word that meant—in their language—something between a guardian and a sponsor. We’ll use the term warden for simplicity.
Liyun stopped a few steps from the shrine, hands behind her back. Ostensibly, she waited upon Yumi’s pleasure, a servant to the girl of commanding primal spirits. (Trust me, the term grows on you.) And yet, there was a certain demanding air to even the way Liyun stood.
Perhaps it was the fashionable shoes—clogs with thick wood beneath the toes, but long heels behind, with a sleek feel. Perhaps it was the way she wore her hair, cut short in the back, longer in the front—evoking the shape of a blade at each side of her head. This wasn’t a woman whose time you could waste, somehow, even when she wasn’t waiting for you.
Yumi quickly rose. “Is it time, Warden-nimi?” she said, with enormous respect.
Yumi and Painter’s languages shared a common root, and in both, there was a certain affection I find it hard to express in your tongue. They could conjugate sentences, or add modifiers to words, to indicate praise or derision. No curses or swears existed among them, interestingly. They would simply change a word to its lowest form instead. I’ll do my best to indicate for you this nuance by adding the word Highly or Lowly in certain key locations.
“The time has not quite arrived, Chosen,” Liyun said. “We should wait for the steamwell’s eruption.”
Of course. The air was renewed at the steamwell’s eruption, so better to wait a few minutes, if it was near. But that meant they had time. A few, precious moments with no scheduled work or ceremony.
“Warden-nimi,” Yumi said, gathering her courage. “The Festival of Reveals. It is near.”
“A hundred days, yes.”
“And it is a thirteenth year,” Yumi said. “The hijo will be unusually active. We will not…petition them that day, I assume?”
“I suppose we won’t, Chosen,” Liyun said, checking the little calendar—in form of a small book—she kept in her pouch. She flipped a few pages.
“And we’ll be…near Torio City? We’ve been traveling in the region.”
“And… I…” Yumi bit her lip.
“Ah…” Liyun said. “You would like to spend the festival day in prayer of thanks to the spirits for granting you such an elevated station.”
Just say it, a part of her whispered. Just say no. That’s not what you want. Tell her.
Liyun snapped her book closed, watching Yumi. “Surely,” she said, “that is what you want. You wouldn’t actively desire to do something that would embarrass your station. To imply you regret your place. Would you, Chosen?”
“Never,” Yumi whispered.
“You were honored,” Liyun said, “of all the children born that year to be given this calling, these powers. One of only fourteen currently living.”
“You are special.”
She would have preferred to be less special—but she felt guilty the moment she thought it. Why would she second guess the spirits?
“I understand,” Yumi said, steeling herself. “Let’s not wait for the steamwell. Please, lead me to the arena. I am eager to start my duties and call the spirits.”
The most terrifying thing about nightmares is how they transform.
I’m talking about regular nightmares now, not the kind that get painted. Terror dreams—they change. They evolve. It’s bad enough to encounter something frightening in the waking world, but at least those mortal horrors have shape, substance. That which has shape can be understood. That which has a mass can be destroyed.
Nightmares are a fluid terror. Once you get the briefest handle on one, it will change. It fill the nooks of the soul like spilled water filling cracks in the floor. Nightmares are a seeping chill, created by the mind to punish itself. In this, a nightmare is the very definition of masochism. Most of us are modest enough to keep that sort of thing tucked away, hidden.
And on Painter’s world, those dark bits were strikingly prone to coming alive.
He stood at the edge of the city—bathed from behind in radioactive teal and electric magenta—and looked out at darkness. Stiff, like a reflective surface, it shifted and flowed. Like molten tar.
The shroud. The blackness beyond.
There were trains that traveled the hion lines to other, distant cities. His parents lived in one, less than a day’s travel away from the larger metropolis of Kilahito, where he’d come to take work. So he knew other cities existed, that this one wasn’t alone. Yet, it was difficult not to feel isolated while looking into that endless blackness.
It stayed away from the hion lines. Mostly.
He turned to the right and walked along the perimeter for a short time, passing the outer buildings of the city—built in a line, like a shield wall, with narrow alleyways between. But it was made of buildings, and wasn’t an actual wall. Walls didn’t stop nightmares, so a solid fortification would merely prevent people from stepping out onto the perimeter.
In Painter’s experience, nobody came out here but his kind. The regular people stayed inside; even just one street inward felt infinitely more safe to them. They lived as he had, in his youth. Trying so very hard not to think about what was out there. Seething. Churning. Watching.
Now it was his job to confront it.
He didn’t see anything at first—no signs of particularly brave nightmares, encroaching upon the city. The signs could be subtle, however. So he kept walking on the perimeter. His assigned beat was a small wedge of the city moving inward several blocks, but the outside portion was the widest—and most likely to show a sign of a nightmare.
As he walked the road outside the city, he continued to imagine that he was some lone warrior, doing his rounds. Instead of, essentially, a pest exterminator who had gone to art school.
On his right, in toward the city, he began passing the capstone paintings. He wasn’t certain where the local painters had gotten the idea, but these days—during dull moments on patrol—the painters tended to do some practice work on the outer buildings of the city. The walls facing the shroud, naturally, didn’t have windows. So they made for large, inviting canvases.
Not strictly part of the job—these paintings couldn’t be turned in as proof of work done—each was a certain personal statement. He passed Akane’s painting, depicting an expansive flower. Black paint on the whitewashed wall.
His own was two buildings over. Just a blank white wall, though if you looked closely, you could see the failed project beneath, peeking through. He’d need to whitewash it again, to make sure that wasn’t visible. But not tonight, because finally, he caught signs of a nightmare. He stepped closer to the shroud, but didn’t touch it, of course.
Yes…the black surface here was disturbed. Like paint that had been touched when near to drying, it was…upset, rippling. It was difficult to make out, as the shroud didn’t reflect light, like the ink or tar it otherwise appeared to be. But Painter had trained well.
Something had left the darkness here and started into the city. He got his brush from his large painter’s bag, a tool as long as a sword. He always felt better with it in hand. Then he shifted his bag to his back, feeling the weight of canvases and ink jar inside. Then, he struck inward—passing the whitewashed wall that hadn’t quite covered up his old painting.
He’d tried four times so far. This last one had gotten further than most of his attempts—a painting of the star. He’d started it once he’d heard the news of an upcoming voyage, intended to travel the darkness of the sky. A trip to the star itself, taken by scientists, using a special vessel and a hion line launched to a place incredibly distant.
Because contrary to what everyone had assumed, the star wasn’t just a spot of light in the sky. Telescopes had revealed that it was a planet. Occupied, according to their best guess, by some other people. A place whose light, somehow, cut through the shroud.
The news of the impending trip had briefly inspired him. But he’d lost that spark, and the painting had languished. How long had it been since he’d covered it over? A month, at least.
On the corner of the wall near the painting, he picked out steaming blackness. The nightmare had passed this way, and had brushed the stones here, leaving residue. It evaporated slowly, shedding black tendrils into the night. He’d expected it to take this path, of course; they almost always took the most direct way into the city. But it was good to confirm.
Painter crept back inward, reentering the realm of hion light and its twin colors. Laughter echoed from somewhere down to his right, but the nightmare probably hadn’t gone that direction. The pleasure district was where people went to do anything other than sleep.
There, he thought, picking out some black wisps on a planter up ahead. The shrub grew toward the hion lines, the planet’s source of raw, nourishing light. So as Painter moved down the empty roadway, he walked through plants in boxes that looked as if they were reaching arms up in silent salute.
The next sign came near an alleyway. On the ground this time—an actual footprint. The nightmare had begun evolving, picking up on human thoughts, changing from formless blackness to something with a shape. Only a vague one, at first, but instead of a slinking, flowing black thing, it probably had feet now. They rarely left footprints even with this kind of shape, though, so he was fortunate to have found one.
He moved onto a darker street, where the hion lines were fine and thin as they flowed overhead. In this shadowy place, he remembered his first nights doing this alone. Despite extensive training, despite mentorship with three different painters, he’d felt exposed and raw trying it on his own. Like a fresh scrape, exposed to the air. His emotions, his fear, close to the surface.
That fear was layered well beneath callouses of experience now. Still, he gripped his shoulder bag tightly in one hand and held his brush out like a sword as he crept along. There, on the wall, was a handprint—with too-long fingers, and what looked like claws. Yes, it was taking a form. Its prey must be close.
Further down the tight alley, pressed between two buildings like hands pushing to trap him, he found it. Near a bare wall, a thing of ink and shadow, some seven feet tall. It had formed two long arms that bent too many times, the elongated fingers pressed against either side of the stone wall—and its head had sank through the stone to look into the room inside.
The tall ones always unnerved him, particularly when they had long fingers. He felt like he’d seen such things in his own, fragmented dreams—figments of terrors buried deep inside that only surfaced when he saw one like this. His feet scraped the stones, and the thing heard, withdrawing its head, wisps of formless blackness rising from it. As if it were ash from a fire, still smoldering.
No face, though. They never had faces—at least, not unless something was going wrong. Instead, these just displayed a deeper blackness on the front of the head. One that dripped dark liquid, like tears—as if the head were wax that had been melted from being too close to the fire.
Painter immediately put on his protections, thinking calm thoughts. This was the first and most important training. The nightmares, like many predators that fed on minds, could sense emotions and thoughts. They searched for the most powerful, raw ones to feed upon. So in this case, a placid mind was not of much interest.
The thing turned and looked back through the wall. This building had no windows, which was foolish. In removing them, the occupants trapped themselves more fully in the boxes of their homes. Nightmares, though, paid little attention to walls. This one had stretched through the stone. All people did by giving up windows was feed their claustrophobia, and perhaps make the jobs of painters more difficult.
Painter moved carefully, slowly, taking a canvas—a good three feet by three feet piece of thick cloth in a frame—from his shoulder bag. He sat it on the ground in front of him. His jar of paint followed—black, and runny, like ink. A blend designed to give excellent gradations in the grey and black. For nuance. Not that Painter himself bothered much these days.
He dipped the brush in the ink and knelt above his canvas, then hesitated, looking at the nightmare. The blackness continued to steam off of it, but its shape was still fairly indistinct. This was probably only its first or second trip into the city. It took a good dozen trips before a nightmare had enough substance to be dangerous—and they had to return to the shroud each time between to renew, lest they evaporate away.
So, by the looks of it, this one was fairly new. It probably couldn’t hurt him.
And here was the crux of why painters were so important, yet so disposable, all at once. Their job was essential, but not urgent. As long as a nightmare was discovered and dealt with in its first ten or so trips into the city, it could be neutralized. That almost always happened.
Painter was good at controlling his fear with thoughts like these. Another part of his training—very pragmatic. Painter tried to consider what it looked like, what its shape could have been. Supposedly, if you picked something that sparked your imagination, you’d have more power over the entity. But he had trouble with this. Rather, during the last few months, it had seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
So today, he just settled on the shape of a small bamboo thicket and began painting. The thing had spindly arms, after all. Those were kind of like bamboo.
He’d practiced a great number of bamboo stalks. In fact, you could say that Painter had a certain scientific precision in the way he drew each segment—a little sideways flourish at the start, followed by a single long line. Then you let the brush linger a moment so that when you pulled it back, the blot you left formed the end knob of the segment. You could create each efficiently in a single stroke.
It was efficient, and these days, that seemed most important to him. As he painted, he fixed the shape in his mind—a central, powerful image. And as usual, he drew the thing’s attention with such deliberate thought. It hesitated, then pulled its head back out through the wall, turning toward him, face dripping its own ink.
It moved toward him, walking on its arms, but those had grown more round. With knobbed segments.
Painter continued. Stroke. Flourish. Leaves made with quick flips of the brush, blacker than the main body of the bamboo. Similar protrusions appeared on the arms of the thing as it drew closer. It also shrank upon itself as he painted a pot at the bottom. As always, the image captured the thing. Diverted it. So that, by the time it reached him, the transformation was fully in effect.
He never lost himself in the painting these days. After all, he told himself, he had a job to do. And he did that job well. As he finished, the thing even adopted some of the sounds of bamboo—the soft rattle of stalks beating against one another, to accompany the omnipresent buzz of the hion lines above.
He sat back, leaving a perfect bamboo painting on his canvas, mimicked by the thing in the alleyway, leaves rustling softly and brushing the sides of the walls. Then, with a sound very much like a sigh, it dispursed—trapped as it was, it couldn’t flee back to the outskirts of the city and rejoin the shroud to regain strength. Instead, like water trapped on a hot plate, it just…evaporated.
Soon, Painter was alone in the alleyway. He packed up his things, sliding the canvas back in the large bag with three other unused ones. Then went back on patrol.
The local steamwell erupted right as Yumi was passing—at a safe distance—on the way to the Place of Ritual.
A glorious jet of water ascended from the hole in the center of the village. A furious, superheated cascade which reached forty feet at its highest—a gift from the spirits deep below. That was a decent height for this region.
The homes were built a good distance back, of course. In a ring around the steamwell. Like oh so many things in life, you wanted to be close—but not too close. Steamwells were life in this land. So long as you didn’t fraternize.
The water—the part that didn’t escape as steam—rained down on large bronze trays, set up in six concentric rings around the geyser. Elevated from the ground to keep them cool, the metal funneled the water down the slope toward the nearby homes. There were some sixty of those in the town—with room to grow, judging by how much water the steamwell released.
You needed that water to thrive in the land. Rain was rare, and rivers…well, one can imagine what the superheated ground did to prospective rivers. Water wasn’t rare in Yumi’s land, but it was concentrated, centralized, elevated. The air nearest the Steamwells was humid, nourishing migratory plants and other lively entities. You often found clouds above the steamwells, offering shade and occasional rainfall.
Further out from the city, though, were the searing barrens. Wastelands where the ground was too hot even for plants; the stone here could set clogs afire and kill travelers who lingered. In Torio, you traveled only at night, and only upon hovering wagons—pulled by flying devices created by the spirits. Needless to say, most people stayed home.
The loud pelting of drops against metal basins drowned out the murmurs of the watching crowds. For now Yumi could be seen—bathing finished, prayers proffered—and her attendants followed with fronds lowered, the ritual sign that the gathered townspeople could gawk at her.
She kept her eyes lowered, and she walked with a practiced step—a yoki-hijo must glide, as if a spirit herself. She was glad for the sound of the steamwell, for though she didn’t mind the whispers and murmurs of awe, they did sometimes…overwhelm.
She quickly reminded herself that the people’s awe wasn’t for her, but her calling. She needed to remember that, needed to banish pride and remain reserved. She most certainly needed to avoid anything embarrassing—like smiling. Out of reverence for her station.
The station, in return, didn’t notice. As is the case with many things that people revere.
She passed homes, most of which were in two tiers: one section built against the ground to benefit from the warmth and heat. Another built on stilts, with air underneath to keep it cooler. Imagine two large planter boxes built against one another, one elevated four feet, the other resting on the ground. Most all of them had a tree or two chained to them. Stocky, only about eight feet from tips of branches to bottom of their wide, webbed roots. Of course, these hovered about two feet in the air, riding the thermals.
Lighter plants hovered high in the sky, throwing down variegated shadows. During the daytime, you only found low plants in places like gardens, where the ground was cooler. That, and where humans worked to keep them nearby, so they didn’t float away, or get floated away. Torio is the only land I’ve ever heard of with tree rustlers.
At the far side of the town was the kimomakkin, or—as we’ll use it in this story—the Place of Ritual. A village usually had only one, lest the spirits get jealous of one another. A few flowers floated nearby, and when Yumi entered, her passing caused them to eddy and spin in behind her. They immediately shot up high into the sky. The place of ritual was a section of extra hot stone, though not nearly on the level of the outlands. You’d have found it as hot as walking on sand in the summertime—hot enough to be dangerous, but not in most cases deadly.
Here, heat was sacred. The village people gathered outside, their clogs scraping stone, parents lifting children. Three local spirit scribes settled on tall stools to sing songs that, best I can tell, the spirits don’t even notice. I approve of the job nonetheless. Anything to gainfully employ more musicians. It’s not that we’re unable to do anything else; it’s more that if you don’t find something productive for us to do, we’ll generally start asking ourselves questions like, “Hey, why aren’t they worshipping me?”
Everyone waited at the perimeter of the Place of Ritual, including Liyun. The songs started, a rhythmic chanting accompanying simple percussion of wooden sticks on wooden pans. A flute in the background, all of it growing more audible as the steamwell finished relieving itself and stumbled back off to sleep.
Inside the Place of Ritual was just Yumi.
The spirits deep underground.
And a whole lot of rocks.
The villagers spent months gathering them, setting them out through the city, then deliberating over which ones had the best shapes. You may think your local pastimes are boring, and the things your parents always forced you to do mind-numbing, but at least you didn’t spend your days excited by the prospect of ranking rock shapes.
Yumi put on a pair of knee pads, then knelt in the center of the rocks, spreading her skirts—which rippled and rose in the thermals. Normally, you did not want your skin to brush the ground. Here, there was something almost intimate about kneeling. Spirits gathered in places warm. Or, rather, warmth was a sign they were near.
They were unseen as of yet. You had to draw them forth—but they wouldn’t come to the beck of just anyone. You needed someone like Yumi. You needed a girl who could call to the spirits.
There were many ways that worked, but they shared a common theme: creativity. Most self-aware invested beings—be they called fay, seon, or spirit—respond to this fundamental aspect of human nature in one way or another.
Something from nothing. Creation.
Beauty from raw materials. Art.
Order from chaos. Organization.
Or in this case, all three at once. Each yoki-hijo trained in an ancient and powerful art. A kind of deliberate, wonderous artistry, requiring the full synergy of body and mind. Geological reorganization on the micro-scale, involving gravitational equilibrium.
In other words, they stacked rocks.
Yumi selected one with an interesting shape and carefully balanced it on end, then removed her hands and left it standing—oblong, looking like it should fall. The crowd gasped, though nothing arcane or mystical was on display. This was a result of instinct and practice. She place a second stone on the first, then then two on top at once—balancing them against one another in a way that looked impossible. The two incongruous stones—one leaning out to the right, the other precariously resting on its left tip—stayed steady as she pulled her hands away.
There was a deliberate reverence to the way Yumi moved, positioning rocks, then seeming to cradle them for a moment—stilling them, like a mother with a sleeping child. Then she’d pull her hands away, and leave the rocks as if a breath away from collapse. It wasn’t magic. But it was certainly magical.
The crowd ate it up. If you think their fascination to be odd, well…I’m not going to disagree. It is a little strange. Not just the balancing, but the way her people treated the performances—and creations—of the yoki-hijo as the greatest possible triumphs of artistry.
But then again, there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about any kind of art. That’s not me complaining or making light. It’s one of the most wonderful aspects to art—the fact that people decide what is beautiful. We don’t get to decide what is food and what is not. (Yes, exceptions exist. Don’t be pedantic. When you pass those marbles, we’re all going to laugh at you.) But we absolutely get to decide what counts as art.
If Yumi’s people wanted to declare that arranging rocks surpassed painting or sculpture as an artistic creation…well, I personally found it fascinating.
And the spirits agreed.
Today, Yumi created a spiral, using the artist’s sequence of progress as a kind of loose structure. You might know it by a different name. One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four. Then back down. The piles of twenty or thirty rocks should have been the most impressive—and indeed, the fact that she could stack them so well is incredible. But she found ways to make the stacks of five or three delight just as much. Incongruous mixes of tiny rocks, with enormous ones balanced on top. Shingled patterns of stones, oblong ones hanging out precariously to the sides. Stones as long as her forearm balanced on their tiniest tips.
From the mathematical descriptions, and the use of the artist’s sequence, you might have assumed the process to be methodical. Calculating. And yet, somehow, it felt more a feat of organic improvisation than it did one of engineering prowess. Yumi swayed as she stacked, moving to the beats of the drums. She’d close her eyes, swimming her head from side to side as she felt the stones grind beneath her fingers. Judged their weights, the way they tipped.
Yumi didn’t want to just accomplish the task. She didn’t want to just perform for the whispering, excitable audience. She wanted to be worthy. She wanted to sense the spirits, and know what they wanted of her.
They deserved so much better than her. They deserved someone who did more than Yumi’s best. Someone who didn’t secretly yearn for freedom. Someone who didn’t—deep down—reject the incredible gift she’d been given.
Over the course of several hours, the sculpture grew into a brilliant spiral of stacks. Yumi outlasted the drumming women, who fell off after about two hours. She continued as people took children home for naps, or slipped away to eat, and even long enough that Liyun had to duck away to use the facilities, then hastily return.
Those watching could appreciate the sculpture, of course. But the best place to view it was from above. Or below. Imagine a great swirl made up of stacked stones, evoking the feeling of blowing wind, spiraling, yet made entirely from rock. Order from chaos. Beauty from raw materials. Something from nothing. The spirits noticed.
In record numbers, they noticed.
As Yumi continued through scraped fingers and aching muscles, they began to float up from the stones beneath. Teardrop shaped, radiant like the sun—a swirling orange and blue—and the size of a person’s head. They’d rise up and settle next to Yumi, watching her progress, transfixed. They didn’t have eyes—they were little more than blobs—but they could watch. Sense, at least.
Spirits of this sort find human creations to be fascinating. And here, because of what she’d done—because of who she was—they knew this sculpture was a gift. As the day grew dark, and the plants began to drift down from the upper layers of the sky, Yumi finally started to weaken. By now, her fingers were bloodied—the callouses scraped away by repetitive movement. Her arms had moved from sore, to numb, to somehow both sore and numb.
It was time for the next step. She couldn’t afford a childish mistake like she’d suffered in her early years: that of working so hard that she collapsed unconscious before binding the spirits. This wasn’t simply about creating the sculpture or providing a pious display. There was a measure of practicality attached to this day’s art, like a rider in a contract.
Feeling too tired to stand, Yumi turned from her creation—which contained hundreds of stones, the plies at the side of the yard depleted. Then she blinked, counting the spirits who surrounded her, each in its glory—in this case, looking a little like an series of overly large ice cream scoops that had tumbled from the cone.
She’d summoned thirty-seven.
Most yoki-hijo were lucky to get six. Her previous record had been twenty.
Yumi wiped the sweat from her brow, then counted again through blurry eyes. She was tired. So (lowly) tired.
“Send forth,” she said, voice croaking, “the first supplicant.”
The crowd agitated with excitement, and people went running to fetch friends or family members who had fallen off during the hours of sculpting. A strict order of needs was kept in the town, adjudicated by methods Yumi didn’t know. Supplicants were arranged, with the lucky five or six at the top all but guaranteed a slot.
Those lower down would usually have to wait another year or more for another yoki-hijo to grant their needs. As spirits usually remained bound for five to ten years—with their effectiveness waning in the latter part of that—there was always a grand need for the efforts of the yoki-hijo. Today, for example, there were twenty-three names on the list, even though they’d only expected a half dozen spirits to arrive.
As one might imagine, there had been a fervor among the members of the town council to fill out the rest of the names. Yumi was unaware of this. She simply positioned herself at the front of the arena, kneeling, head bowed—and trying her best not to collapse sideways to the stone.
Liyun allowed the first supplicant in, a man with a head that sat a little too far forward on his neck, like a picture that had been cut in half, then sloppily taped back together. “Blessed bringer of spirits,” he said, wringing his cap in his hands, “we need light for my home. It has been six years, and we have been without.”
Six years? Without a light at nights? Suddenly, Yumi felt even more selfish for her attempt to escape her duties earlier. “I am sorry,” she whispered back, “for failing you and your family these many years.”
“You didn’t—” The man cut himself off. It wasn’t proper to contradict a yoki-hijo. Even to try to compliment them.
Yumi turned to the first of the spirits, who inched up beside her, curious. “Light,” she said. “Please. In exchange for this gift of mine, will you give us light?” At the same time, she projected the proper idea. Of a flaming sun becoming a small glowing orb, capable of being carried in the palm of your hand.
“Light,” the spirit said to her. “Yes.”
The man waited anxiously as the spirit shivered, then divided in half—one side glowing brightly, with a friendly orange color, the other becoming a dull blue sphere. So dark, it could be mistaken for black, particularly at dusk.
Yumi handed the man the two balls, each fitting in the palm of one hand. He bowed and retreated. The next requested a repelling pair, like was used in the garden veranda, to lift her small dairy into the air—and keep it cooler and let her make butter. Yumi complied, speaking to the next spirit in line, coaxing the spirit to split into the shape of two squat statues with grimacing features.
Each supplicant in turn got their request fulfilled. It had been years since Yumi had accidentally confused or frightened off a spirit—though these people didn’t know it, and so each waited in worried anticipation, fearing that their request would be one where the spirit turned away.
It didn’t happen, though each request took longer to fulfill, longer to persuade, as the spirits grew more detached from her performance. And each request took a little…something from Yumi. Something that recovered over time, but in the moment, left her feeling empty. Like a jar of jelly tea, being emptied scoop by scoop.
Some wanted light. A few wanted repelling devices. The majority requested flyers—hovering devices about two feet across. These could be used to help care for crops during the daytime, when they soared high and out of the reach of the farmers—and needed to be watched by the village’s great crows instead. There were some threats the crows could not manage, and being able to interact with them at height was a huge benefit, so a good fleet of flyers was a necessity for most settlements.
One could make basically anything out of a spirit, provided it was willing and you could formulate the request properly. To Torish people, using a spirit for light was as natural—and as common—as candles or lanterns might be among others. You might consider wasteful of the great cosmic power afforded them, but theirs was a harsh land where the ground itself could literally boil water. You’ll just have to forgive them for making use of the resources they had.
Getting through all thirty seven spirits was nearly as grueling as the art itself—and by the end, Yumi continued in a daze. Barely seeing, barely hearing. Mumbling ceremonial phrases by rote and projecting to the spirits with more primal need than crisp images. But eventually, the last supplicant bowed and hurried away with his new spirit saw. Yumi found herself alone before her creation, surrounded by cooling air and floating lilies that were drifting down to her level as the thermals cooled.
Done. She was…done?
Each bound spirit had reinforced her sculpture, the stones of which would now resist tipping as if they’d been glued in place. As the bond weakened, and the stones eventually started to drop over the years, the powers of the spirits would respond in kind. But in general, the more spirits you bound in a session, the longer all of them would last. What she’d done that day was unprecedented.
Liyun approached to congratulate her on the work so well done. She found, however, not a magnificent master of spirits—but an exhausted nineteen year old girl, collapsed unconscious, her hair fanning around her on the stone and her ceremonial silks trembling in the breeze.
The nightmares had originally come from the sky.
Painter had heard the stories. Everyone had. They weren’t quite histories, mind you. They were fragments of stories that were likely exaggerations. They were taught in school regardless. Like a man with diarrhea in a sandpaper factory, sometimes all available options are less than ideal.
I watched it rain the blood of a dying god, one account read. I crawled through tar that took the faces of the people I had loved. It took them. And their blood became black ink.
Those are the words of a poet who, after the event, didn’t speak or even write for thirty years.
Grandfather spoke of the nightmares, another woman had written years later. He doesn’t know why he was spared. He stares at nothing when he speaks of those days spent crawling in the darkness, that terror from the sky, until he found another voice. They met and huddled, weeping together, clinging to one another—though they had never met before that day, they were suddenly brothers. Because they were real.
And then, this one, which I find most unnerving of them all: It will take me. It creeps under the barrier. It knows I am here. That one was found painted on the wall of a cave, roughly a hundred years later. No bones were ever located.
Yes, the records are sparse, fragmentary, and feverish. You’ll need to forgive the people who left them; they were busy surviving an all-out societal collapse. By Painter’s time, it had been seventeen centuries—and so far as they were concerned, the blackness of the shroud was normal.
But they’d only survived because of the hion: the lights that drove back the shroud. The energy by which a new society could be forged—or, in the parlance of the locals, painted anew. But this new world required dealing with the nightmares, one way or another.
“Another bamboo?” Sukishi said, sliding the top canvas from Painter’s bag.
“Bamboo works,” Painter said. “Why change if it works?”
“It’s lazy,” Sukishi replied.
Painter shrugged. His shift finished, it was time to turn in his paintings at the foreman’s office. The small room was lit by a small hanging chandelier. If you touch opposite lines of hion to either side of a piece of metal, you can make it heat up. From there, you were just a little sideways skip away from the incandescent bulb. As I said, not everything in the city was teal or magenta—though with hion outside, there generally wasn’t any need for street lights.
Sukishi marked a tally by Painter in the ledger. There wasn’t a strict quota—everyone knew that encountering nightmares was random, and there were more than enough painters. On average, you’d find one nightmare a night—but sometimes, you went days without even seeing one.
They still kept track. Go too long without a painting to turn in and questions would be asked. Now, the more lazy among you might notice a hole in this system. In theory, the rigorous training required to become a painter was supposed to weed out the sort of person who would just paint random things without actually encountering any nightmares. But there was a reason Sukishi hesitated and narrowed his eyes at painter after looking at the second canvas, and revealing a second bamboo painting.
“Bamboo works,” Painter repeated.
“You need to look at the shape of the nightmare,” Sukishi said. “You need to match your drawing to that, changing the natural form of the nightmare into something innocent, non-threatening. You should only be drawing bamboo if the things look like bamboo.”
Sukishi glared at him, and the old man had an impressive glare. Some facial expressions, like miso, required aging to hit their potency.
Painter feigned indifference, taking his wages for the day and stepping back out onto the street. He slung his bag over his shoulder—with his tools and remaining canvases—and went searching for some dinner.
The Noodle Pupil was the sort of corner restaurant where you could make noise. A place where you weren’t afraid to slurp as you sucked down your dinner, where your table’s laughter wasn’t embarrassing because it mixed like paint with that coming from the next table over. Though less busy on the “night” shift than during the “day,” it was still somehow loud, even when it was quiet.
Painter hovered around the place like a mote of dust in the light, looking for a place to land. The younger painters from his class congregated here with the sort of frequency that earned them their own unspoken booths or tables. A double-line of hion outlined the broad picture window in the front, glowing, made it look like a futuristic screen. Those same lines rose like vines above the window, spelling out the name in teal and magenta, with a giant bowl of noodles on top.
(Technically, I was a part owner in that noodle shop. What? Renowned, interdimensional storytellers can’t invest in a little real estate now and then?)
Painter stood outside, absorbing the laughter, like a tree soaking up the light of hion. Eventually, he lowered his head and ducked inside, looping his large shoulder bag on one of the prongs of the coat rack without looking. Fifteen other painters occupied the place, congregated around three tables. Akane’s table was in the back, where she was adjusting her hair. Tojin knelt low beside the table, solemnly adjudicating a noodle-eating contest between two other young men.
Painter sat down at the bar. He was, after all, a solitary defense against the miasma outside the city. A lone warrior. He preferred eating alone, obviously. He wouldn’t even have stopped in, save for his tragic mortality. Even solemn, edgy warriors against darkness needed noodles now and then.
The restaurant’s keeper flitted over behind the bar, then folded her arms and kind of hunched over as she stood, mimicking his pose. Finally, he looked up.
“Hey, Design,” he said. “Um…can I have the usual?”
“Your usual is so usual!” she said. “Don’t you want to know a secret? I’ll wrap it up and put it in your noodles if you order something new. But I’ll also tell you, because the paper will get soggy if it’s in the noodles too long, and you won’t be able to read it anyway.”
“Uh…” Painter said. “The usual. Please?”
“Politeness,” she said, pointing at him, “accepted.”
She…did not do a good job acting human. I take no blame, as she repeatedly refused my counsel on the matter. At least her disguise was holding up. People did wonder why the strange noodle-shop woman had long, white hair, despite appearing to be in her young twenties. She wore tight dresses, and many of the painters had crushes on her. She insisted, you see, that I make her disguise particularly striking.
Or, well, I should say it in her words. “Make me pretty so they’ll be extra disturbed if my face ever unravels. And give me voluptuous curves, because they remind me of a graphed cosign. And also because boobs look fun.”
It wasn’t an actual body—everyone kind of learned their lesson on that—but rather a complicated wireframe Lightweaving with force projections attached directly to her cognitive element as it manifested in the physical realm. But as I was getting pretty good at the technical side of all this, you can pretend it functioned the same as flesh and blood.
With Painter there, I could see what was happening—so I’ll admit to some pride regarding way Painter’s eyes followed Design as she walked over to begin preparing his meal. Granted, he did overdo it—his eyes lingered on her the entire time she worked. But don’t judge him too harshly. He was nineteen, and I’m a uniquely talented artist.
Design soon returned with his bowl of noodles, which she set into a circular nook carved into the wood. The hion lines—one connected to either end of bar—ran heat through the element at the bottom of the bowl, to keep the broth warm on chill Kilahito nights.
From behind, laughter and chanting heated up as the noodle-competition progressed. Painter, in turn, broke his maipon sticks apart and ate slowly, in a dignified way, befitting one of his imaginary station.
“Design,” he said, trying not to slurp too loud. “Is…what I’m doing important?”
“Of course it is,” she said, lounging down across the bar from him. “If you all didn’t eat the noodles, I think I’d run out of places to store them.”
“No,” he said, waving to his bag, still hanging from one arm of the restaurant’s curiously-shaped coat rack. “I mean being a nightmare painter. It’s an important job, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” Design said. “Obviously. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a place with no nightmare painters. Then the people got eaten. It’s a short story.”
“I mean, I know it’s important in general,” Painter said. “But…is what I’m doing important?”
Design leaned forward across the bar, and he met her eyes. Which was difficult for him, considering her current posture. That said, some of you may have heard of her kind. I suggest, if you have the option, that you avoid trying to meet a Cryptic’s gaze. Their features—when undisguised—bend space and time, and have been known to lead to acute bouts of madness in those who try to make sense of them. Then again, who hasn’t wanted to flip off linear continuity now and then, eh?
“I see what you’re saying,” she told him.
“You do?” he asked.
“Yes. Noodles seven percent off tonight. In respect for the service of your brave painting services.”
It…wasn’t what he’d been talking about. But he nodded in thanks anyway. Because he was a young person working a vitally important, relatively low-paying job. Seven precent was seven percent.
Design, it should be noted, only gave discounts in prime number increments. Because, and I quote, “I have standards.” Still not sure what she meant.
She turned to see to another customer, so Painter continued slurping down the long noodles in warm, savory broth. The dish was quite good. Best in the city, according to some people, which isn’t that surprising. If there’s one thing you can count on a cryptic to do, it’s follow a list of instructions with exacting precision. Design had little vials of seasoning she added to the broth, each one counted to the exact number of grains of salt.
Halfway through the meal, he looked to the side as Akane stepped up to the bar to get some drinks. He looked away. She was gone a moment later, carrying cans of something festive to the others.
He ate the rest of the noodles in silence. Finally, Design noticed he was almost done. “Rice?” she asked.
She added a scoop soak up the rest of the broth, and he ate it down.
“You could go talk to them,” Design said softly, wiping at the counter with a rag.
“I tried that in school. It didn’t go well.”
“People grow up. It’s one of the things that makes them different from rocks. You should—”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m a loner, Design. You think I care what others think of me?”
She cocked her head, squinting with one eye. “Is that a trick question? Because you obviously—”
“How much?” he said. “With the discount?”
She sighed. “Six.”
“Six? A bowl normally costs two hundred kon.”
“Ninety-seven percent off,” she said. “Because you need it, Painter. You sure about this? I could go talk to them, tell them that you’re lonely. Why don’t I go do it right now?”
He laid a ten kon coin on the counter with a quick bow of thanks. Then, before she could push him further to do something that was probably good for him, he grabbed his bag from among the others hanging on the rack. He’d always found the statue coatrack a strange addition to the restaurant. But it was a quirky place. So, why not have a coat rack in the shape of a man with hawkish features and a sly smile?
Unfortunately, I had been quite aware of my surroundings when my ailment first struck. I had screamed inside when Design—thinking me too creepy otherwise—had spray painted me copper. Then, ever practical, she’d added a crown and several large bandoliers with poles on them for holding more bags or coats.
(As I said, I said I owned the restaurant. Part, at least. She ransacked my pockets for the money to build the place. I didn’t run it, though. You can’t do that when you’ve been frozen in time.
For your information, I have it on good authority that I made an excellent coat rack. I prefer not to think of it as an undignified disposal of my person, but rather me pulling off an incredible disguise.)
Painter stepped outside, heart thumping. A faint mist in the air gave the street a reflective sheen—an empty passage, lights hanging above, and then seeming to coat the ground below.
He breathed in, and out, and in again. And there, having fled from Design’s offers, he found it harder to maintain the fabrication. He wasn’t a loner. He wasn’t some proud knight, fighting the darkness for honor. He wasn’t important, interesting, or even personable. He was just one of likely thousands of unremarkable boys without the courage to do anything notable—and worse, without the skill to go underappreciated.
It was an unfair assessment of himself. But he thought it anyway, and found it difficult to stomach. Difficult enough that he wanted to retreat back toward his easy lies of self-imposed solitude and noble sacrifice. Unfortunately, another part was beginning to find those attitudes silly. Cringeworthy. With a sigh, he started off toward his apartment, his large painter’s bag across his shoulder and resting against his back.
At the first intersection, though, he spotted a tell-tail sign: whisps of darkness curling off the stone at the corner. A nightmare had passed this way recently.
That wasn’t too surprising. They were still in the poorer section of town, near the perimeter. Nightmares passed this way with some regularity. Another painter would find this one, eventually. He was off shift. Hands in pockets, absorbed by his personal discontent, he walked on past the corner. If he hurried home, he could still catch the opening of his favorite drama that would be broadcast through the hion viewer.
A light rain blew through the city, playing soft percussion on the street, making the reflected lines of light dance to the beat. Those dark wisps began to fade from the corner of stone. The trail going cold.
Two minutes later, Painter returned, stepping through a puddle and muttering to himself that the first part of the drama was always a recap anyway.
Yumi awoke on the floor of her wagon, a blanket over her. The chill air of night had won its daily battle, driving back the deep heat of the stones beneath. She had been bathed, dressed in her formal sleeping gown, and placed here. Surrounded by flower petals in a circle, along with a ring of seeds for luck. Starlight cut around her in a square, reaching in through the window to gawk.
Sore, still somehow exhausted despite her hours of sleep, Yumi huddled in her blankets. The stone floor was comfortably warm. They lowered the wagon at nights, to touch the ground and draw forth its heat. You always wanted a home to touch the stones in some way for warmth at night—or for cooking in the day. People on other worlds don’t know what they’re missing; there’s a unique comfort to being able to lay down, drape a blanket over yourself, and bake in the floor’s own radiance. It was almost like the planet itself was feeding you life and strength.
Yumi huddled there for some time, trying to recover. She knew she should have felt pride at her accomplishment, and virtually any other person would have.
But she just…felt tired. And guilty because of her lack of proper emotions.
And more tired, because guilt of that sort is exceptionally difficult to carry. Heavier than the rocks she’d moved earlier.
Then ashamed. Because guilt has a great number of friends, and keeps their addresses handy for quick summons.
Heat seeped up around Yumi, but didn’t seem to be able to enter her. It cooked her, but she remained raw in the middle. She stayed there until the door opened. You might have heard clogged footsteps approaching first, but Yumi didn’t notice.
The figure in the doorway—in the deep of night, it was little more than a drop of ink on black paper—waited. Until finally Yumi looked up, realizing she’d been crying. The tears hit the floor and didn’t immediately evaporate.
“How did I do today, Liyun?” Yumi finally asked.
“You did your duty,” Liyun replied, voice soft, yet rasping. Like ripping paper.
“I…have never heard of a yoki-hijo summoning thirty-seven spirits in one day before,” Yumi said, hopeful. It wasn’t her warden’s job to compliment her. But…it would feel good…to hear the words nonetheless.
“Yes,” Liyun said. “It will make people question. Were you always capable of this? Were you holding back in other cities, refusing to bless them as you did this one?”
“I’m certain it is wisdom in you, Chosen,” Liyun said. “To do as you did. I am certain it is not you working too hard, so that the next town in line gets a much smaller blessing, and therefore thinks themselves less worthy also.”
Yumi felt sick at the very thought. Her arms dangled at her sides, because moving them was painful. “I will work hard tomorrow.”
“I am sure you will.” Liyun paused. “I would hate to think that I trained a yoki-hijo who did not know how to properly pace herself. I would also hate to think that I was such a poor teacher that my student thought it wise to pretend to be unable of reaching her full potential, in order to have an easier time of her job.”
Yumi shrank down further, wincing at the throbs of pain from muscles in her arms and back. It seemed that even in great success, she did not do enough.
“Neither is true, fortunately.”
“I will tell Gongsha Town,” Liyun said. “They can look forward to a visit from a strong yoki-hijo tomorrow.”
“May I offer a reminder, Chosen?”
Yumi glanced up, and kneeling where she was, the perspective made Liyun seemed to be ten feet tall. A silhouette against the night, like a cutout with blank space in the middle.
“Yes,” Yumi said, “please.”
“You must remember,” Liyun said, “that you are a resource to the land. Like the water of the steamwell. Like the plants, the sunlight, and the spirits themselves. If you do not take care of yourself, you will squander the great position and opportunity you have been given.”
“Thank you,” Yumi whispered.
“Sleep now, if it pleases you. Chosen.”
It takes real talent to use an honorific as an insult. I’ll give Liyun that much; it’s professional courtesy, from one hideous bastard to another.
Liyun shut the door with a click, and Yumi looked down, continuing to kneel. But she didn’t go back to sleep. She felt too much. Not just pain, not even just shame. Other, rebellious things. Numbness. Frustration. Even…anger.
She hauled herself to her feet, walking across lukewarm stone floor of the wagon to the window. But from here, she could see the rice bushes, which had lowered from the sky as the thermals cooled. A starlit collection of hundreds of individual plants, spinning and drifting lazily near the stone, their gas pockets slowly reinflating—one under each of the four broad leaves, with a cluster of seeds growing on top. It wasn’t actually rice, as you’d call it on Scadrial. The local word was mingo. But it boiled up close to the same—except for the deep blue-purple color—so we’ll use the more familiar word.
As Yumi watched, a burst of rice bushes jetted into the air, some dozen plants catching a rogue night thermal. Then they drifted lazily back down, where small creatures scurried underneath—looking for something to nibble on, and avoiding serpents. Both prey and hunter slept in trees during the heat. If they were fortunate, or unfortunate depending on the perspective, they picked different trees.
A gust across the field made it shiver and sway to the side, but night farmers moved along, waving large fans to keep the crops contained. Somewhere distant in the town, a giant crow cawed. (They aren’t as big as everyone says; I’ve never seen one the size of a full grown man. More like the size of a seven or eight year old.) A village corvider soon hushed the animal with soothing words and a treat.
Yumi wished she had someone to comfort her. Instead, she rested aching arms on the windowsill and stared out at the placid crops, turning lazily, occasionally jetting into the air. A tree leashed to the side of the building shivered in the breeze, its branches casting lines of shadow across Yumi’s face.
She could maybe just…crawl out of the window, and start walking. No night farmer would stop a yoki-hijo. She should have felt ashamed at the thought, but she was full up with shame at the moment. A cup filled to the top can’t hold anything more. It just spills out the sides, then boils on the floor.
She wouldn’t leave, but that night, she wished she could. Wished she could escape the prison of her ceremonial nightgown. She wasn’t even allowed to sleep as a normal person. She had to be reminded by her very undergarments what she was. Chosen at birth. Blessed at birth. Imprisoned at birth.
I… A voice said in her mind. I understand…
Yumi started, spinning around. Then she felt it, from deep below. A… A spirit. Her soul vibrated with its presence, a powerful one.
Bound… It said. You are bound…
Spirits understood her thoughts. That was part of her blessing. But they very, very rarely responded. She’d only heard of it happening in stories.
I am blessed, she thought toward it, bowing her head, suddenly feeling extremely foolish. How had she let her fatigue drive her to such insane thoughts? She’d anger the spirits. Suddenly, she had a terrible premonition. The spirits refusing to come at her performances. Villages going without light, without food, because of her. How could she reject such a—
No… The spirit thought. You are trapped. And we…we are trapped…like you…
Yumi frowned, stepping back to the window. Something was different about this voice. This spirit. It seemed…so very tired. And it was distant? Barely able to reach her? She looked up to the sparkling sky—and the bright daystar, stronger than them all. Was…the spirit…talking to her from there?
You work so hard, the spirit said. Can we give you something? A gift?
Yumi’s breath caught.
She’d read that story.
Most cultures have something similar. Some are terrible, but this wasn’t one of those places. Here, the boons of spirits were always associated with wonderous adventure.
She didn’t want adventure, though. She hesitated. Teetered, like a stone unbalanced. Then, in what was the most difficult moment of her life, she lowered her eyes.
You have already blessed me, she said. With the greatest gift a mortal can have. I accept my burden. It is for the best of my people. Forgive my idle thoughts earlier.
Very well… the distant spirit said. Then…could you give…us a boon?
Yumi looked up. That…never happened in the stories.
How? she asked.
We are bound. Trapped.
She glanced toward the corner of the room, where a spirit light—the spheres touching to turn the light off for sleep—lay on a counter. It was identical to those she’d made earlier today. One light sphere, one dark. Trapped?
No, the spirit thought. That is not our prison… We…have a more terrible…existence. Can you free us? Will you…try? There is one who can help.
Spirits in trouble? She didn’t know what she could do, but it was her duty to see them cared for. Her life was to serve. She was the yoki-hijo. The Girl of Commanding Primal Spirits.
Yes, she said, bowing her head again. Tell me what you need, and I will do whatever I can.
Please, it said. Free. Us.
All went black.
Painter wound through the next set of streets, tracking the nightmare as the rain tapped him on the head. The trail was difficult to follow; the dark whisps seemed to vanish in the haze of the rain. He had to backtrack twice as the streets grew more narrow, more winding, around through the huddled tenements of the city’s outer ring.
Deep in here, the hion lines overhead were as thin as twine, barely giving him enough light to see by. It got so bad that, eventually, he decided that he’d likely lost the trail. He turned to return home, passing a slit of a window he’d neglected to glance through just earlier.
He checked it this time, and found the nightmare inside, crouched at the head of a bed.
The room was lit by a faint line of teal hion tracing the ceiling, making shadows of the room’s meager furniture and frameless mattress, which held three figures. Parents that the nightmare had ignored. And a child, who made for more…tender prey.
The little boy was, perhaps, four. He huddled on his side, eyes squeezed shut, holding to a worn pillow that had eyes sewn on it—a poorer family’s approximation of a stuffed toy. The use indicated it was loved anyway.
The nightmare was tall enough that it had to bend over, or its head would have hit the ceiling. A sinuous, boneless neck. A body with a lupine features, legs that bent the wrong way, a face with a snout. With a sense of dread, Painter realized why this one had been so difficult to track. Virtually no smoke rose from its body. Most telling, it had eyes. Bone white, like drawn in chalk, but deep. Like holes going deep down into the skull.
This barely dripped darkness from its face. It was almost fully stable. No longer formless. No longer aimless.
No longer harmless.
This thing must have been incredibly crafty to have escaped notice this long. It took ten feedings for a nightmare to coalesce to this level. Only a few more, and it would be fully solid. Painter stepped backward, trembling. It already had substance. Things like this could…could slaughter hundreds. Things like this had destroyed entire towns in the past, most recently one known as Futinoro, destroyed only thirty years back—the most recent such tragedy.
This was above his pay grade. Quite literally. There was an entire specialized division of painters tasked with stopping stable nightmares. They traveled the land, going to towns where one was spotted.
The sound of a small sniffle broke through Painter’s panic. He ripped his eyes from the nightmare to look back at the bed, to where the child—trembling—had squeezed his eyes closed even tighter.
The child was awake.
At this stage, the nightmare could feed on direct terror just as easily as did the formless fear of a dream. It ran clawed fingers across the child’s cheek, leaving streaks of blood from slicked skin—the gesture was almost tender. And why shouldn’t it be? The child had given the thing shape and substance, ripped directly out of his deepest fears.
Now, the story thus far might have given you an unflattering picture of Painter. And yes, much of that picture is probably justified. Many of his problems in life were his own fault—and rather than try to fix them, he alternated between comfortable self-delusion and pointless self-pity.
But you should also know that right then—before the nightmare saw him—he could have easily slipped away into the night. He could have reported this to the foreman, who would have sent for the dreamwatch. Most painters would have done just that.
Instead, he reached for his painting supplies.
Too much noise. Too much noise! He thought as he slapped his bag down on the pavement and scrambled for a canvas. Lessons he didn’t realized he’d internalized returned to him: he couldn’t wake the people in the room. If the parents started screaming, the stable nightmare would attack and people would die.
Calm. Calm. Don’t feed it.
His training barely held as he, trembling, spilled out canvas, brush, and paints. He looked up.
And found the thing at the window, long neck stretching out through toward him, knife-fingers scraping the wall inside the room. Two white eye-holes seemed to want to suck him into them, pull him through to some other eternity. Before this day, he’d never seen a nightmare with anything resembling a face, this one smiled with bone-white, lupine teeth.
Painter’s fingers slipped on the ink jar, and it hit the ground before him with a clink, spraying ink on the ground. He struggled to keep his calm as he fumbled for it, then frantically dipped his brush right into the spilled ink.
The nightmare stretched forward…but then caught. It wasn’t used to having so much substance, and had trouble pulling itself through the wall. The claws were particularly difficult. The delay, though brief, probably saved Painter’s life as he managed to get his umbrella out and opened to shelter his canvas, then started painting.
He started with bamboo, of course. A…a blob at the bottom, then…then the straight line upward with a swipe. Just the briefest linger then to make the next knob… Like clockwork. He’d done this a hundred times.
He looked to the nightmare, which slowly slid one hand out through the wall—leaving gouges in the stone. Its smile deepened. Painter, in his current state, was most certainly not invisible to it. And bamboo was not going to be enough this time.
Painter tossed aside his canvas and pulled the last one from his bag. Nails ground stone as the thing pulled its second hand through the wall. Rainwater actually connected with its head, running down the sides of its grinning face. Crystal tears to accompany the midnight ones.
Painter began painting.
There’s a certain insanity that defines artists. The willful ability to ignore what exists. Millenia of evolution have produced in us not just the ability to recognize and register light, but to define colors, shapes, objects. I don’t think we often acknowledge how amazing it is we can tell what something is simply by letting some photons bounce off us.
An artist can’t see this. An artist has to be able to look at a rock and say, “That’s not stone. That’s a head. At least, it will be, once I pound on it with this hammer for a while.”
Painter couldn’t just see a nightmare. He had to see what it could be, what it might have been, if it hasn’t been produced by terror. And in that moment, he saw the child’s mother. Though he’d barely glimpsed her face in the bedroom next to her son, he recreated her.
Turn something terrible into something normal. Something loved. Even with a few brief strokes, he evoked the shape of her face. Stark eyebrows. Thin lips, faint brushes of ink. The curve of cheeks.
For the briefest moment, something returned to him. Something he’d lost in the monotony of a hundred paintings of bamboo. Something beautiful. Or, if you were a nearly stabilized nightmare, something terrible.
It fled. An event so incongruous that Painter slipped in his next brush stroke. He looked up, and barely caught sight of the thing running down the alleyway, away from him. It could have attacked, but it wasn’t quite stable yet. And so, it chose to flee, rather than risk letting him bind it into a passive, harmless shape.
He breathed out, and let the paintbrush slip from his fingers. He was relieved, on one hand. Worried on the other. If it could escape like that…it was dangerous. Extremely dangerous. He had basically no idea how to deal with something like that—and doubted his skill would have been enough to defeat it. Only the most skilled painters could actually bring down a stable nightmare, and he’d learned—painfully—that wasn’t him.
But fortunately, he didn’t have to do anything more; he’d done enough to frighten it away. Now, he could go and tell his superiors about the experience, and they’d send for the dreamwatch. They could hunt it before it finished its last two feedings, and the city would be safe.
He left the canvas on the ground beside the umbrella and stepped up to the wall, wrapping arms around himself to try to get some warmth to run through him again. Inside the room, the child had opened eyes and was staring at him. Painter smiled and nodded.
The kid immediately started screaming. That was more violent a reaction than Painter had been expecting, but it had the desired result: a pair of terrified parents comforting the boy, followed by a hesitant father in shorts hesitantly opening the tiny window.
He regarded the supplies on the ground—paintings slowly losing their ink to the rain—and the wet young man standing in the alleyway.
“…Painter?” he asked. “Was it…”
“A nightmare,” Painter said, feeling numb. “A strong one, feeding off of your son’s dreams.”
The man backed away from the window, eyes wide. He searched the room, as if to find something hiding in the corners.
“I frightened it away,” Painter said. “But…this was a strong one. Do you have family in another city?”
“My parents,” the man said. “In Fuhima.”
“Go there,” Painter said, speaking words he’d been taught to say in such a situation. “Nightmares can’t track a person that far—your son will be safe until we can deal with the horror. There is a fund available to help you during this time. Once I register what happened, you’ll be able to access it.”
The man looked back at the child, huddled in his mother’s arms, weeping. Then the man looked back at Painter—who knew what would come next. Demands, asking why he’d let the thing escape. Why he hadn’t been strong enough, good enough, practiced enough to actually capture the thing.
Instead, the man dropped to his knees, bowing his head. “Thank you,” he whispered. He looked back up at Painter, tears in his eyes. “Thank you.
Huh. Painter blinked, stammered a second. Then found his words. “Think nothing of it, citizen,” he said. “Just a man doing his job.” Then, with as much decorum he could manage in the rain—and with hands that were still trembling from the stress—he gathered up his things.
By the time he finished, the family was already packing their meager possessions. You’d forgive Painter for walking a little swiftly, often checking over his shoulder, as he wound back through the narrows of the outer ring. He had the feeling of one who had just been in a crash between two vehicles, or who had nearly been crushed by a falling piece of stone dropped from a construction site. A part of him couldn’t believe he was still alive.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped back out onto a larger road, and saw other people moving through the street. People up for the morning shift, heading to jobs. The star was low in the sky, just barely visible over the horizon, down hanging right at the end of the street.
He looked toward the foreman’s offices. But he suddenly, Painter found himself unnaturally tired. His feet like clay, mushy, his head like a boulder. He teetered. He needed…sleep.
The nightmare would not return to the city tonight. It would run to the shroud, regenerate, then slink in the following…night. He could tell foreman…in the morning…
He sluggishly, mind a haze, turned toward his apartment. It was near, fortunately. He barely registered arriving, climbing the stairs, and walking to his apartment. It took him four tries to get the key in, but as he stumbled into his room, he paused.
Dared he sleep? The family…needed his report…for the funds…
What was happening to him? Why did he suddenly feel like he’d been sucked of strength? He stumbled to the balcony, looking out, at the star. Then, he heard something odd. A rushing sound? Like…water?
He looked up.
Something came from the sky and hit him hard.
All went black.
Painter blinked. He was hot. Uncomfortably hot, and something was shining in his face. A garish light, like from the front of a hion-line bus. He blinked his eyes open, and was immediately blinded by the terrible, overpowering light.
What was (lowly) going on? He’d hit his head, perhaps? He forced his eyes open against the light and pulled himself—with effort—to his feet. He was wearing…bright cloth? Yes, a silken kind of nightgown, made of bright red and blue cloth.
Beside him lay a young woman. You’d recognize her as Yumi.
She opened her eyes.