Recent entries

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Chip Groover

    Did you write the full pages of The Frugal Wizard book and then cut them off? Do you know the missing words on those pages?

    Brandon Sanderson

    I wrote to the end of a paragraph and then cut them off. So I didn't write beyond that. I knew it would be there, but I wanted the paragraph to feel as naturalistic as possible.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Questioner

    Are you ever going to write yourself as a cameo in one of your books?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Unlikely. There might be some cameo like Robert Jordan did for himself, where he wrote himself as a statue, a ter'angreal. I'm not going to pull a Clive Cussler and things like that. Stephen King did it too. I'm highly unlikely to do that. The Alcatraz referencing me was probably... Or the fact that in Wheel of Time, where I wrote my sword in, that Wilson gave me, out of Robert Jordan's collection, that was a nice little cameo-style thing. I might do something like that sometime.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Steel _inquisitor66

    Could someone go back to ancient history with a butt load of technology and become "a god" among the people of that time?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Yes. In fact, that's the basic premise. You willl eventually get to why they're being called wizards and why Cecil calls them wizards, and it's basically that. That a wizard is just a wise person who has access to information and things. So, yes, that is what people are using these dimensions for in these books, and it should horrify you a little bit. That is why I wrote some of it in a light-hearted vein, to be like "Alright this is horrifying. Let's make sure you understand that part of this is satirical."

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Evelyn Basham

    What kind of dimension would you buy?

    Brandon Sanderson

    I would secretly buy a bunch of very fantastical dimensions and then write books of history based on the things I learned from them and then publish them to great success, and... Oh wait I'm giving away my secrets.

    No, what would I actually do? Where would I actually want to go? I would most want to go to prehistoric times, if I could get such a dimension, and actually be able to go see the ancient world in a way that does not involve me stepping on a butterfly and making everyone communist. That would probably be my number one. And the second one would probably (maybe this would actually be number one, I don't know) would be, like, life of Christ era. Right? But then that raises all sort of theological implications if this sort of thing were real, so that's an interesting question.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    LewsTherinTelescope

    Cecil G. Bagsworth III is a rather specific name. Is the author of the in-world Frugal Wizard's Handbook the same one that is Alcatraz's editor?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Yes. This is the same individual.

    Cecil is a joke among myself and Dan and several others of our writing group. Cecil is also the editor of A Night of Blacker Darkness, canonically. That's one of Dan's books. And so, Cecil is an individual that I've wanted to be filling out and using, and he is an interdimensional explorer and things like that. He is the person that is being referenced, but he is-

    Karen Ahlstrom

    I suppose if Alcatraz is in a different dimension, then he wouldn't have to be necessarily...

    Brandon Sanderson

    The same Cecil?

    Karen Ahlstrom

    Well, no. The era that Alcatraz appears to be in-

    Brandon Sanderson

    Yes, it doesn't have to be in... Regardless, I'm referencing the same individual. That's an easter egg that I don't intend you to read much more into than "Brandon loves this name and there's this weird interdimensional explorer that shows in his and Dan's books," and we actually have a picture of him, a real photograph of Cecil that will be used in this books. Look forward to that; Cecil was at my wedding, in a top hat and monocle. So you will get to have a picture of Cecil, who is based off of a person that we know.

    Cecil G. Bagsworth III, and of course there is also Stet Cannister. He's a space hero that grew out of our joking at Leading Edge and our writing group. And Cecil grew out of that as well.

    Miscellaneous 2022 ()
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    Christian Hoffer

    Could you tease any potential crossover characters that are going to appear in these books? Obviously, Hoid (a character who has appeared in all of Sanderson's Cosmere novels to date) is at the center of Secret Project One.

    Brandon Sanderson

    So, Secret Project Four features a character from one of my books who has never had their own book, who is not Hoid, that readers will recognize. This has been a character who has had viewpoints, but no book.

    It's not a main character, but it is somebody who's had some viewpoints and is very related to a main character. So, that's Secret Project Four. And Secret Project One has at least one more character who has been mentioned in a book before, but who has never appeared on screen, right? Stuff like that.

    Barcelona Virtual Signing ()
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    Juan Jesus (aka Guinruneh)

    When you wrote The Way of Kings... do you know who was going to be Thaidakar?

    Brandon Sanderson

    When I started it, I had two options for myself, depending on what I decided to do with Secret History and things like that. I wasn't 100% sure that the thing that happened in Secret History, that I would be able to write, so I had a backup plan in case that didn't happen in the Cosmere. So, there is a world where Thaidakar is TenSoon imitating somebody else. If I didn't do all the stuff that happened in Secret History. But since I did have a chance to do that, and I did decide to go with that, then I went with plan A, which was the original plan.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Devlee12

    Would a big block of cheese stop a Shardblade? All I can think of is how hard it is to cut cheese with a knife no matter how sharp it is because the cheese can form a suction to the sides of the blade and make it way harder to cut. Would that be a problem for a Shardblade?

    Brandon Sanderson

    When I first designed Shardblades all the way back when, I added in my head a little bit of extra de-friction-izing to the Shardblade blade itself, and some little bit of magick-in going on to allow them to actually cut at the level I want them to. Because it's not just cheese that would do that. Cutting through stone, even if you have the sharpest thing in the earth, that stone... It doesn't work as easily as it would if you were just extra sharp. And so, Shardblades are magically good at cutting, to the point that they would cut through a block of cheese as easily as they would cut through something else. Or a wheel of cheese, a giant thing of cheese. Any editorial additions to this?

    Peter Ahlstrom

    Dalinar does, when he's using the Shardhammer to cut the latrine. He does talk about-

    Brandon Sanderson

    It does get wedged in, and you can wedge in and hang from it, but I think cutting any stone, unless you have a little bit of extra magic on it, I don't think it would work. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it actually would.

    Because I wanted Adolin to be able to hang off of it or people, when they build it like that. I particularly think when you cut a block and it actually falls, then it's gonna still put pressure on the blade. But when you slice into a rock, you're not getting rid of any of the stone with a blade. Where does that extra stone to make the hole go? Magic! That's where we're getting into magic-level sort of stuff, because I'm just not convinced that no matter how sharp you were, that you would be able to-

    Peter Ahlstrom

    Does it go to the Cognitive Realm, or the Spiritual Realm?

    Brandon Sanderson

    RAFO! Shardblades are magically good at slicing so we can actually have Shardblades that cut through stone. That's your answer. And so it would work on cheese the same way.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    CheddarCheeseCurds

    Will there ever be a cosmere cookbook, with official recipes for foods from each world, or the best Earth approximation?

    Brandon Sanderson

    We get this occasionally. I always say it's a possibility but it's not very high up on our list right now.

    Karen Ahlstrom

    Deana Whitney has actually been working on this and has a series of articles on tor.com. It's not recent, that I've heard about, but she asked me what kind of food they have on Scadrial and I gave her a list, because types of food is a thing that I have a list of, and I can just copy and paste, and there you go, Deana.

    Brandon Sanderson

    I'm going to have to make those weirder and weirder, to make it more and more difficult.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    bluenomads

    Did you use your traditional outlining process when working on the secret novels, or were they mostly discovery written?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Depends on the secret novel. Two was discovery written much more than the others were. The others were my kind of standard practice, which is: write a few chapters, then go back, construct an outline, come back. I would say Three and Four took the most intricate outlining for various reasons, different reasons in each case. One required a lot less, but it wasn't a fully discovery written book. Two was the most discovery written.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Brandon Sanderson

    So one of the things that's nice about these projects (and I did this pretty intentionally) is that they do not require as much continuity editing as our other projects.

    Karen Ahlstrom

    He says that, but there are several things that have greater implications than he might have imagined in the first place.

    Brandon Sanderson

    Well, I'm aware of those things.

    Karen Ahlstrom

    And they need a lot of documentation.

    Brandon Sanderson

    Secret Project Four has a lot of extra stuff that needs to talk about.

    Karen Ahlstrom

    I'm thinking of One. Yeah. I spent a lot of time on One.

    Brandon Sanderson

    But what I don't necessarily need as much of is the beta readers giving me detailed feedback on a character arc, relating to how the character was in a previous book.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Isaac Stewart

    Last week, we made an announcement that the first Secret Project was going to be illustrated by Howard Lyon, and this week we would like to announce who the second Secret Project is being illustrated by. And that is Steve Argyle! He did a lot of the renders for the Kickstarter for us. He did the cover for Secret Project number three, that's up there, and the cover for Secret Project number two. So, Secret Project number two, he will be illustrating

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Questioner

    What was the craziest continuity mistake that Brandon has ever made? Have there been any that made you laugh?

    Karen Ahlstrom

    Yeah. It's hard to remember specific ones. One of my favorites is when he was doing the flashbacks in one book and there was a cute little kid running around, grabbing daddy's legs and stuff, and I had to say "Brandon, this child wasn't born for another two years. You can't have him in this scene".

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Quiltyhil

    Did you hear a specific accent in your head for the main character? For instance, when you started reading I thought the main character might be from England.

    Brandon Sanderson

    I did not give him a British accent. In the book he's not from England, but that is not so relevant that, y'know, I couldn't hire someone British to read the book, but I was just trying to give him an interesting accent. I hear in my head for the others an accent, but I chose not to try it [when reading the chapters] and you should all be thankful for that.

    Secret Project #3 Reveal and Livestream ()
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    Brandon Sanderson

    So, that is the start of Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. Now the analysis.Where did this come from? Well, you can probably tell this is another Hoid story. I wanted, after I wrote Secret Project one, to try a different style of voice for Hoid. Project One has a modern fairytale vibe, like Princess Bride–and I like that. I think it turned out really well. I’m proud of it, and I’ll probably use that voice again sometime.

    But I also wanted to have access to a different kind of voice for Hoid. (Or several different voices.) Part of the reason I’m doing all this is to figure out how I want to write Dragonsteel, his origin story, which will be first person. So I wanted to test out other narrative voices that Hoid might use in telling stories. For Secret Project three, I specifically wanted one where Hoid was using more of a traditional narrative style.

    To explain it another way, I wanted him to tell a story that felt less fairytale and more dramatic. Yumi and the Nightmare Painter became that next exploration. I’m not sure it’s the voice he’ll use in Dragonsteel yet, but it’s much closer–and I love how this one worked for this specific story. It is, as I’ve said, my favorite of the four secret projects.

    The original premise for this story came from a story I read long ago. Before I hired Peter Ahlstrom to be my assistant (now he’s my Editorial Director and VP of Editorial) he worked translating Manga. Before he did this professionally, he was doing fan editing on a manga site–and one of the manga he worked on was called Hikaru No Go.

    Now, I’m not a big reader of Manga. I do try to do some dabbling in all kinds of media, so I’ve read some–but in general, I don’t consider myself well read in the manga field. But Peter was a good friend, and he was working on this, so I wanted to support him. I therefore started reading that manga–and I actually found the story to be fantastic. It’s a story about a young man who finds a possessed Go board, then an old master of the game rises as a ghost to teach him how to play.

    I wondered what it would be like to be in the mind of that ghost, trying to teach someone new to do something that he loved so much (and were an expert in.) To give a mild spoiler for the next few chapters of Yumi, Painter is now going to be seen by everybody as her. Even though he sees himself as himself (he feels his body is his own) everyone else (other than Yumi) sees him as her. Yumi, in turn, has gone incorporeal. So…to find a way out of this mess..he needs to do her job in her world. She, in turn, is going to have to learn to do his job for him in his world, as they discover once they sleep, they jump to his world and she is seen as him.

    This whole idea is that both of them are going to have to learn one another’s magic systems–and live one another’s lives–while trying to figure out what went wrong to put them in this state. I’ve seen this done before, kind of–but most stories do an actual body swap. I felt like I wanted to go another direction; Yumi and Painter aren’t experiencing one another’s bodies–just one another’s lives. (I feel the trope of “I’m in someone else’s body” has been done quite a bit in various ways before, and so I decided to try something else.)

    That is my primary inspiration for this story. You might see little echoes of Your Name as well in this, as well as other similar stories. That’s intentional. Beyond that, another inspiration is Final Fantasy X, my favorite Final Fantasy. In fact, Yumi’s named slightly after Yuna, the main character of that. One of the things I loved about that game was the idea of fantastical jobs using magic. I’ve always wanted to dive into doing a story with some kind of fantastical job, or maybe two. Something cool (yet somehow still mundane) involving the sorts of work one could only do in a fantasy world.

    Because it was originally inspired by a Manga, I decided to kind of use a little bit of Korean culture, a little bit of Japanese culture, mixed in with some other things.

    Secret Project #3 Reveal and Livestream ()
    #171 (not searchable) Copy

    Brandon Sanderson

    Yumi and the Nightmare Painter

    Chapter One

    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.

    Chapter Two

    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?”

    “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.”

    “I know.”

    “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.”

    Chapter Three

    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.

    Nightmares unformed.

    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.

    Probably.

    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.

    Chapter Four

    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.

    Thirty-seven.

    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.

    Chapter Five

    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.”

    “They did.”

    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.

    “Yes, please.”

    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.

    Chapter Six

    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…”

    “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.”

    “Thank you.

    “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.

    Chapter Seven

    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.

    Then screamed.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
    #172 Copy

    simonthekillerewok

    In the 2019 and 2020 State of the Sandersons, you talked about a Secret Standalone Cosmere Book. Is this that? Or is that something different?

    Brandon Sanderson

    That's something different.

    simonthekillerewok

    Also, in Livestream #22 in November 2020, you were looking through the cloud archive on your phone and you mentioned there was a Secret Project manuscript there. Was this the book you were referring to? Or is this also something else?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Something else. That one was Kingmaker, which I did a reading of, that didn't work. That's the one I was referencing there. Not one of these, but a different one entirely.

    And the other one is still, yet, an unannounced different one that someday I will announce. I will tell you a little bit about this thing. You'll know when it comes. It is projected at 200K-300K words. It is set in the future of the Cosmere. And it's more beastly and epic than, perhaps, a lot of my other side projects are.

    Daniel Greene Interview ()
    #173 Copy

    Daniel Greene

    Almost every other fantasy franchise I can think of that's on the scope of a Cosmere (like Forgotten Realms, Warhammer) has multiple authors contributing. The Cosmere, though, is your child; is there ever gonna be a foreseeable future where you will let someone else's pen enter that space? Or this is the Sanderson sphere?

    Brandon Sanderson

    I have said that I will let Isaac write in this. And if you don't know who Isaac is: Isaac is my longtime art director, friend, and now creative director at my company. And he has always had a writing bug; he's written six or seven novels. And he's asked if he could write a Mistborn novel; and I said yes. And if that comes out, and it's publishable quality, I've said he can publish it. Either with my name, and I work on it with him; or if he just wanted to publish Mistborn novels just as Isaac Stewart, I told him he would be allowed to do that, too, because he's been a longtime collaborator and helped me a lot with the visual development, and things like that.

    I can see a world where I let select individuals come in and kind of do their own thing. It doesn't matter as much that it has my voice if it's their story in the Cosmere, if that makes any sense. Where something more like Steelheart, I'm like, "It's continuing my series; therefore, it should try to do some of the same things that I have been doing in the main series.

    Miscellaneous 2022 ()
    #174 Copy

    El Tiempo

    Which character of the world from Skyward would do well in the Final Empire, from the world of Mistborn and viceversa?

    Brandon Sanderson

    I think that Spensa would do well in the Final Empire. She'd do well if she had one or two energy weapons. She's going to do very well in the world of Mistborn. And from that trilogy I think that TenSoon would do a really good job navigating through all the cultures and the things happening in the Cytoverse, the universe of Skyward. 

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
    #175 Copy

    Brandon Sanderson

    Generally, books form when multiple ideas stewing in the back of my brain combine in interesting ways. The most obvious idea for this one [The Frugal Wizard's Handbook for Surviving Medieval England] is my desire to do a Jason Bourne type story. I know it’s a little tropey, but there’s something about me that genuinely loves the type of story where you find out about the characters as they remember who they are.  I think it’s because I love books structured in such a way that the reader and the character feel the same things at the same times.

    There’s this beautiful sense of discovery to a book, and though it could (obviously) get old, I personally enjoy the occasional story where you get to enhance that feeling by starting with a blank slate character. (When I’d GM role-playing games, I loved to have all the characters start with no memory and the players discover and develop them as they went.)  So, I hope you’ll forgive me for using a trope that can sometimes be a little eye-rolly (amnesia). I promise I do some interesting things with it.

    The other big idea that led to this was one I’ve had for years about “time-travel tourism.” A lot of time travel stories focus on changing (or not changing) the present. I wanted to throw that worry out the window and play with the idea of “past as playground.” You can hear Dan and I discuss this concept (though I’d already written this book in secret by then) on episode 18 of our Intentionally Blank podcast: “Time Travel Disaster Tourism.” As these two ideas melded into “Time Traveling Jason Bourne,” I knew I had something that would be fun.

    The final element that connected here was me realizing—as I started working on this—the uncomfortable nature of the topic. Playing with the past meant playing with people’s lives, and there were some parts of this that I felt I needed to hang a lantern on. That’s when I decided to use interjections from the Frugal Wizard’s handbook. (I’d actually had this idea as a title with no context years before.) I figured I could highlight the inherent ridiculous—and somewhat immoral—nature of the basic premise with some satire, making it okay to laugh at the situation all while we talked about human nature. Because I think this is really something we’d do if we had the chance to travel to the past without consequences in the future. So it’s worth talking about it in narrative. That’s part of what SF/F is for—exploring the impossible now so that when some impossible things become reality, we as a society have already had a chance to investigate how we feel about the subject.

    Anyway, those three things combined into this story. While Secret Project #1 has a fairy-tale tone, I intend this one (when in the protagonist’s viewpoint) to be more action/adventure. The Frugal Wizard inserts are comedic, but the main text is not a comedy, save for the occasional sarcastic or amusing comment by the narrator.

    Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
    #176 (not searchable) Copy

    Brandon Sanderson

    The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England

    Part One: Seriously, Fish Suck

    Chapter One

    I hated fish.

    Standing in the burned-out field, surrounded by charred stalks of grain and smoldering ash, I could safely say this single fact: I hated the taste of fish. The pungent flavor, the texture of the flesh, which shreds like something rotten. The sharp jab of the needle bones, which always seem to be hiding in the meat, no matter how hard you search.

    Yup. Fish. Disgusting.

    That was, at the moment, the sum total of what I could remember about myself. No name. No background. Just…a latent hatred of fish.

    Damn. What driven that point into my brain so forcefully? Had a flounder killed my parents or something? I turned around, hand to my head, trying to make sense of the black void that had consumed my entire self-identity.

    I was in a field. Stalks of…something grew around me. Plants a few inches tall. My utter inability to distinguish the variety indicated I probably wasn’t a farmer. So why was I in a field? And a partially-burned one at that?

    The burn marks made a circle, maybe ten feet in diameter, with me in the center. Only, just nearest me, the plants hadn’t been burned. My feet stood on green stalks, smashed down into the soil. I glanced behind me, and found that the non-burned portion made a distinctive human shape. My shape. A person stencil.

    So…I was fireproof, maybe? That would be nice. I appeared to be male, of average height and build, maybe a tad muscular? Or perhaps I was flattering myself. I wore a pair of sturdy lacing boots that were quite good at stomping down crops. My primary clothing was a long overshirt, a brown tunic on top of that, and a vibrant cloak over that. So I probably wasn’t going to get cold any time soon. Under the tunic…

    Blue jeans?

    Yeah, blue jeans. With a tunic and cloak? That was odd.

    Oh hell. Was I a cosplayer? And why could I remember that word perfectly, but not my own name?

    Right, so maybe I’d gone out into a field to take pictures for the local renaissance fair or whatever. I’d brought along pyrotechnics to make for a cooler shot of my character, and I’d accidentally blown myself up. That seemed plausible enough.

    So where was my camera? My phone? My, um, car keys?

    My pockets turned out to be empty. I hesitantly stepped away from the me-stencil, my feet crunching on crisply charred stalks of once-plants. That was…an uncomfortably round circle my explosion had created. Like, it was perfectly shaped. And some of the stalks were still smoldering; the air smelled of smoke and sulfur.

    I did a quick search around burned out circle and I didn’t find anything of note. Dirt, rocks, plants. No pile of belongings; I was beginning to doubt my photoshoot theory. Maybe I was just a weirdo who liked to dress in old-timey clothing and…um…go explode in fields?

    You know, as one does.

    In the distance, I saw a dirt road leading to a group of old-timey buildings with thatched roofs. They were far enough away that I couldn’t tell much else about them. I shook my head and let out a lengthy sigh. I had to—

    Wait. What was that on the ground?

    I rushed over and plucked a fluttering piece of paper from between two stones. How had I missed this in my search? The edge was burned, and it only had a few lines of text on it.

    The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England

    Fourth Edition

    By Cecil G. Bagsworth III

    I read the words over three times, then looked into the distance at those old-timey buildings again. The truth began to settle on me. I wasn’t a cosplayer. I was visiting some kind of theme park. Was that…more or less nerdy?

    Now that I knew what to look for, I spotted another loose piece of paper fluttering at the edge of the field, near some woods. Maybe it would have a map on it, telling me how to get out of this place—or at least list where I could find a first aid station. I’d obviously hit my head or something.

    This page was burned worse than the other one. Two chunks of the text were legible: one on the front side, one on the back.

    —can be traumatic, though don’t worry! As part of your package purchase, a suitable location will be chosen for you to recuperate upon arrival. In addition, it is suggested that you use the handy notation guide at the back of the book, where you can write pertinent information about your life.

    The transfer process can leave the mind muddied—but often, a few facts about one’s life can jog loose other details. Don’t stress the initial disorientation. It is a common side effect, and all you need to do is—

    Well, that seemed an awful place to cut off. I flipped the page over.

    —seem that the offerings of more expensive packages, sold by so called premium companies, might be more useful in helping you recuperate. Servants, a luxury manor, and medical staff. But the Frugal Wizard™ doesn’t need to be so extravagant. Indeed, such services might make things too easy! (See the study done by Bagsworth et al, page 87.)

    Though we can accommodate such requests as well, don’t fear if you can’t afford them! The Frugal Wizard™ is capable and confident on their own, and does not need coddling. With this handbook, you can navigate easily! Just read on to learn all the tips and secrets you will need for—

    All right, so maybe I’d bought some kind of travel package? One that was…really hard on the body, for some reason? I put a hand to my head, and a thought fluttered at the edge of my consciousness. I…I’d chosen this, hadn’t I? I’d chosen to…do what? For a moment, I seemed so close to answering that. Then it was gone.

    Regardless, it didn’t look like I’d arrived at a “suitable location” to recuperate. I’d woken up in the middle of a field. A burning field. The review almost wrote itself. “An ideal experience, if you happen to be a pyromaniac cow. One star.”

    Voices in the distance.

    My body moved before I registered the sounds, and in seconds I’d slipped into the forest and put my back to a tree trunk. I reached to my side by reflex for…

    Hell. Was I reaching for a gun? I was wearing nothing of the sort, but I found myself uncomfortable by how quickly—and silently—I’d dodged for cover. It didn’t necessarily mean anything nefarious, though. I mean, maybe I was just a champion player of hide and seek. Or, um, paintball hide and seek.

    I’d just been thinking about finding help, so I should have been happy to be noticed. But something made me stick there, behind that tree, my breathing slow and easy, deliberate. Whoever I was, I had experience at this sort of thing.

    I was close enough to hear when the people arrived.

    “What is it, Ealstan?” a timid man’s voice said—speaking perfect, modern English, albeit with an accent I couldn’t quite place. It sounded vaguely European. “Landswight?”

    “This was no act of wight,” a stronger male voice said. “None that I’ve seen, least.”

    “Logna’s flames, maybe?” a woman’s voice said. “Look at the outline of that figure. And there were those incantations, scattered about…”

    “It looks like someone was burned alive,” the first voice said. “Fires from heaven consuming him. That clap of thunder, on a sunny, bright day…”

    The deeper voice grunted. I stayed in place, and resisted the urge to peek. Not yet, my instincts whispered.

    “Call everyone together,” the firm voice eventually said. “We’ll put out sacrifices tonight, as if from a harvest. And Hild…that skop. Did she leave yet?”

    “Earlier today, I think,” the woman said.

    “Send a boy to chase her down and beg her return. We may need a binding. Or, worse, a loosening.”

    “She’s going to like that,” the woman said.

    Another grunt. Then footsteps on the soil, retreating. I finally peeked around the side of the tree, and picked out the three people walking back toward the distant buildings. Two men and a woman in archaic clothing. Tunics and loose, baggy trousers on the men—weren’t they supposed to wear hose under those? I could swear I’d seen that in a museum or something. Both were dyed in faded earth tones, though the taller of the two men had a yellow-orange cloak, of a color so vibrant, I had trouble believing it was period authentic.

    The woman had on a sleeveless white-brown dress over a darker one of a slightly longer fit. Other than the orange cloak, they looked the part of old-school peasants—at least, better than I did, with my jeans. So…another point in favor of this being a theme park? I mean, they’d been speaking English, after all.

    Yet, wouldn’t workers in a theme park would speak with some kind of “old-timey” British affectation? Thees and thous and m’lords and the like. Plus, why would they keep up the act when nobody was around?

    I needed more information. And as I peeked after the retreating figures, I noted some others gathering and sifting through the field, picking up something.

    Scraps of paper. From the book. It seemed that most of the pages had blown that direction.

    All right. Mission accepted.

    I needed those pages.

    Chapter Two

    Part of me wanted to stalk out and demand answers. Play the role of irate customer, make them break character.

    Yet… Something about all this… It felt like I shouldn’t do that. It felt like I should stay hidden.

    As I considered that, I realized why. A part of me was convinced that, somehow, they weren’t actors. That this was all, insanely, authentic. At least, whatever was going on here, my gut said those people were unwitting participants.

    Damn. That sounded ridiculous, didn’t it?

    Nevertheless, I felt like I was a person who trusted his gut. So I stayed put, watching covertly from the shadows as the sunlight waned and the peasants began to gather back in town. Soon after sunset, the place went dark.

    Like, really dark. Basement from a horror movie dark. Clouds had moved in, obscuring the stars—and there was apparently no moon tonight. Plus, I didn’t see a single light in the town. No electric lights, of course. But I’d expected some torches, some bonfires, for the guests.

    I patted the tree I’d been using for cover. “Thanks for the cover,” I whispered. “You’re a good tree. Tall, thick—and most importantly—wooden. Four and a half out of five stars. Would hide behind you again. Half a point off for lack of refreshments.”

    Then I paused.

    That had just kind of slipped out. But it was the second time I’d done something of the sort. So, was that a clue to who I was? I was some kind of…reviewer? Who rated, um, trees? I wouldn’t have guessed that was a job, but “imitation peasant” seemed to be one, so who knew?

    I slipped out from behind the four-and-a-half-out-of-five-tree and found that my skills as a sneak were exceptional. I moved through the rows of partially-grown plants, barely making a sound, despite the darkness. Awesome. Perhaps I was a ninja.

    And again, why the hell did I know what a ninja was, but not what I’d done for a living?

    Beyond the field, I found the road, which was fashioned of packed earth. I crouched there, looking toward the town, glad that the clouds were opening up a little starlight. It turned the village from “horror movie basement” dark to something more like “horror movie in the woods” dark. So…improvement, maybe?

    I wasn’t used to this kind of primal darkness. The shadows seemed deeper, as if strengthened by the knowledge that I couldn’t control them with the flip of the switch. I moved among the silent homes anyway, and found that there couldn’t be more than twenty buildings here. All of a triangular shape, wood and thatch. Two out of five. Probably has terrible wifi.

    I thought I heard a river somewhere in the near distance, and there was a large lump of darkness further on. Maybe a much larger building? I skirted the village, and on the other side, found the river—well, the stream. Here, I knelt and scooped up some water to drink. I figured my medical nanites would neutralize any bacteria before it gave me too much trouble.

    I froze in place, hands halfway to my mouth.

    Medical…nanites?

    Yes, tiny machines inside my body that performed basic health care functions. They weren’t cheap, but they would keep me generally healthy. They’d stop toxins, prevent disease, and break down what I ate to provide ideal nutrition and calories. And in a pinch, they could provide emergency wound-healing functions. Last time I’d been shot, I’d been back on my feet within the hour—but my nanites had been knocked completely out for a good two days.

    All that came back in a flood. Hot damn! That was a piece of the puzzle. Did I have any other augments? I couldn’t remember, but I did know I’d need more food than an average person. In specific, I needed high-calory food, or…carbon? I mean, technically anything organic would work. It’s kind of the meaning of the word. But some sources were better than others.

    I glanced back at the town. Somewhere, a child had started crying. That should have calmed me, as it indicated something was alive back there. Unfortunately, nobody comforted the child, and the solitary wails creeped me out even further.

    I controlled my nerves, and crept up along the river until I reached a wooden bridge. After crossing this, I was finally close enough to make out more of the large shadow lump. That was a log wall—a fortification.

    It looked sturdy enough, though I’d have expected something tall and stone. Castle-like. To find a wooden one left me a tad disappointed. I withheld my review for now, though. Maybe it was period accurate.

    This had to be where I’d find the more important people in the town—like perhaps the man with the deep voice who had spoken authoritatively to the others. Indeed, though I couldn’t tell for certain, it seemed that light was coming from in there.

    I scouted around the entire outside of the fortification—it wasn’t terribly big, probably only large enough to enclose a few buildings—but unfortunately, the gate was closed. Could I, perhaps, scale the wall? I looked up at it, and though it was only ten feet high or so, I didn’t fancy my chances. Plus, there was a single tower, which also seemed to be wood, at one corner. A guard post. I’d been quiet when doing my initial inspection, but I’d never climb that wall without drawing attention.

    Therefore, I used my entire life’s experience—roughly half a day so far—to devise a plan. I found a nearby tree with a view of the gates, then hid to wait until it opened.

    (Tree report: Three out of five. Uncomfortable root network. Not for an inexperienced hider. See my other reviews of trees in the area for more options.)

    I’d thought I might need to wait until morning, and was contemplating demoting another half start from the tree, when I saw lights approaching quickly along the road. For a brief moment, my heart leaped. A car? Was the entire façade going to finally collapse? I’d be whisked away to a hospital and treated for amnesia?

    Why did the idea of going to the hospital suddenly fill me with a sense of panic?

    Well, it didn’t take long for me to determine the lights weren’t on some kind of vehicle—at least, not unless horses counted. Did they? I mean, a chariot is a vehicle—but it only moves when it’s attached to the beasts. So are the horses part of that vehicle? And arguably, a saddle is just a small, wheelless chariot, right? So…

    Anyway, the lights proved to be wobbling lanterns hung on horses—and the two beasts were travelling way faster than I thought safe to do at night. Still, it seemed like it might offer an opportunity, as the wooden gates slid open as the horses approached.

    I couldn’t tell much about the two riders beneath their hooded cloaks. They slowed their horses and trotted in through the gates. A few lights were lit further inside, illuminating two larger structures—one of stone, the other of the same slightly-ramshackle wood-and-thatch of the village. I couldn’t really call this a castle; it was more two barns with a really big fence.

    Those inside didn’t immediately move to close the gates, perhaps anticipating that the riders might leave again soon. The two did have the look of messengers. So, I took my opportunity, slinking forward through the darkness. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t doing anything dangerous, that this was just some extravagant kind of play acting.

    And yet, my worry persisted. Why was part of me so certain, against logic, that this was all real?

    Well, my sneaking skills got me in through the gate without being spotted. It was still pretty dark, and I just had this instinct for how to stick to the shadows, how to not present a profile, how to move without making noise. The fact that I kept wanting to rest my hand on the non-existent gun made me concerned about where I’d gotten these skills. They didn’t seem the type of abilities that belonged to a law-abiding citizen who spent his days reviewing trees.

    I slipped up to one of the buildings, crouching beside some barrels, taking stock of what I could see. In the center of the courtyard was a large black stone, taller than it was wide. It seemed made of obsidian, and had a jagged top. Like a small version of the Washington Monument, only with the top broken off. There was a small stable on the far side of the courtyard; view of it had been obscured by one of the buildings. Here, the two riders had dismounted and handed their horses to a groom.

    I couldn’t hear the conversation, but it caused another boy to go running for the stone building. It seemed to be of much finer construction than the others, so perhaps it was the lord’s manner? And that other big building, the wooden one, was perhaps a meeting hall?

    Curiously, set in front of the stone building was a series of dishes with lit candles at the sides. It seemed like…bowls of fruit, some saucers filled with cream, perhaps? And…

    And a single piece of paper.

    The boy soon left the manor and ran back to the two strangers, gesturing for them to follow him. The three entered the building I’d guessed was the town hall, and I thought I heard the word “refreshment” from the boy. Perhaps I should have been interested in those men, but my attention was held solely by that sheet of paper. Was it from my book? Why leave it out in front of the building like that?

    This all seemed so bizarre. Was I maybe…part of some ridiculous social experiment? A reality television game?

    I forced myself to wait a few tense minutes until, as I’d expected, a man in an orange cloak left the manor, accompanied by two soldiers—at least, they carried long, one-handed axes and round, wooden shields. No armor that I could see. They had a vaguely Viking look to them.

    “Hey, Oswald,” one of them shouted toward the wooden watch tower. “Close the gate.”

    As the lord and his two men entered the hall, a younger soldier came scrambling down from the tower. He grinned to the others and bowed a little too much to the lord. He crossed over and began to swing the gate back closed. For how big it was, it seemed kind of flimsy.

    The lord was inside and the guard’s attention was on the gate. Time to move.

    I was out and scuttling across the courtyard before I had time to think it through. My body seemed to know what to do—knew that waiting would make me miss my opportunity, but also knew that I shouldn’t sprint. That would make too much noise. Feeling exposed, I swiftly walked past the large black stone, then past the bowls and the candles, where I snatched the paper.

    Within seconds, I had crossed the courtyard and found cover beside the meeting hall. My mind was still trying to catch up to what I’d done, but my heart was thundering. I took a few long, quiet breaths to calm myself, then glanced at my paper. But there wasn’t enough light to read by.

    Right. Darkness. Horror movie. All that. Well, there was a window a little further along the meeting hall. The shutter was latched, but light seeped out. I crept up to that, then held up my paper close to the cracks.

    It was filled with printed words, matching the other pages I’d found. But this one was barely singed. It read:

    Chapter Two: Your Own Dimension

    The intricacies of dimensional travel are unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with them. We here at Frugal Wizard Inc.® have done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver to you one pristine, Earth-lite™ dimension.

    I stopped reading, the words blurring as my eyes unfocused. I remembered. Not everything, not even very much—but a tiny piece snapped into place.

    I knew where I was. This wasn’t a theme park. It wasn’t some kind of strange social experiment, nor was it a game.

    This was another dimension.

    And I owned it.

    Your Own Dimension

    The intricacies of dimensional travel are unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with them. We here at Frugal Wizard Inc.® have done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver to you one pristine Earth-lite™ dimension.

    That said, a little history never hurt anyone. Unless you end up getting stabbed by a knight! (That’s just a little inter-dimensional humor. Our dimensions are perfectly safe1.)

    Anyway, though interdimensional travel was discovered in 2084, only recently was the technology declassified and deregulated. This allows not only recreational dimensional tourism, it offers the opportunity of a lifetime! As an Interdimensional Wizard™ you are part of a bold new segment of explorers. Like the ancient homesteaders who rushed to claim the wealth of lands in the American West, you may stake your own claim on a unique dimension!

    Frugal Wizard Inc.® has obtained a band of the 305th spectrum of category two, medieval-derivative dimensions. That fancy lingo that just means our dimensions are mostly kind of similar to one another, and are two categories removed from Earth itself. Things will be familiar in there, but not too familiar! We want it to remain exciting, after all.

    We spend all our time pouring through the dimensions, selecting only the most favorable for Wizard inhabitation. Act now, before the good dimensions are all claimed, and you are left without2!

    (Footnote One.) Legal Disclaimer: This statement is made for entertainment purposes only. The interdimensional traveler takes any and all responsibility for all killings, maimings, injuries, dismemberments, and impalements that might happen to them in their respective dimensions. By signing with us, you agree to arbitration in the event of a dispute, to be adjudicated in the dimension of our choice.

    (Footnote Two) Legal disclaimer: This statement is made for entertainment purposes only. Dimensions are, technically, infinite and we cannot “run out.”

    Chapter Three

    Yes, I owned it.

    Like, I owned England. I owned this planet. I owned this entire universe. On paper, at least.

    I wasn’t sure about the specifics—my memory was still performing at a decided 0/5 level. But the page I’d recovered indicated this was new technology—or, at least, new to the general public. I didn’t have a ton of experience with this sort of thing; that might explain why it had taken me so long to remember.

    Regardless, I did remember some. People could buy dimensions. Well, technically, you bought exclusive access—managed by an unbreakable quantum passcode only you could unlock—and the legal right to do whatever you wanted in that dimension. Courts had ruled that our world’s laws couldn’t be applied to other realities. I mean, in some of these places, the laws of physics (as understood in our dimension) didn’t apply. So why would the UN General Constitution?

    I seemed to remember something about how these dimensions weren’t considered quite as “substantial” as our Earth. Whatever the reasoning, this place was mine—it was a playground the size of a planet.

    But…what did that make me? Tourist? History buff? Would-be world-emperor? What had been my motives for coming to this place? And why had I woken up in a field, rather than in some pre-prepared stronghold or…some…I don’t know…science…place?

    Well, I definitely hadn’t been an academic. But I was pretty sure that in buying this place, I wasn’t supposed to have been sent off to land in a field. Something had gone wrong.

    As I considered the implications of all this, voices from inside the gathering hall reminded me to pay better attention to my surroundings. Right. I was unarmed, abandoned, and hiding outside some rural lord’s feast hall. If I were to saunter in, explain that I technically owned all of this, and ask them all to kindly obey me… Well, I suspected they’d saunter over to me, explain that the sword they’d rammed into my gut didn’t care what I claimed, and ask me to kindly avoid bleeding on the rug.

    Could I do something to impress them with my fantastical futuristic knowledge? Uh… Did I have any of that? I wracked my brain, but it seemed my “futuristic knowledge” equated to a handful of movie quotes. I also knew that computers, some day, would exist. They involved circuits. And, uh, processors.

    I had medical nanites, but that would be difficult show off in an impressive, “Hey, look, I’m a God” sort of way. My most consistent “superpower” was the ability to get coughed on a lot, but not get sick. I could heal once from a larger wound, but that would leave me exposed in case someone decided to see if I could replicate the feat. None of that felt like a good peasant-quelling mechanism.

    Maybe I could get bitten by a snake or something, and not die? Where did…one find a snake, anyway?

    I had to find the rest of the book. Maybe it would include some kind of help line I could… Send a carrier pigeon to?

    I made my way carefully around the back of the building, approaching a closed window closer to where the voices were speaking.

    “…I would certainly not wish to offend the earl,” a deep voice was saying. I recognized it from earlier—mister orange cloak, the local lord. “But this is most unusual. We have a skop in town. Perhaps she could—”

    Another voice said something, quieter. It sounded threatening, but I wasn’t close enough to hear.

    “Now?” Orange-cloak said. “You want to visit the site…now?”

    The other spoke, and I wished I’d been close enough to make it out. But footsteps followed, and they left the building. Great. I’d spent so long trying to decide how to prove I had superpowers that I’d missed the entire conversation.

    I snuck around the side of the building, hoping to catch something relevant as they left. Indeed, as they stood in the courtyard—waiting for the gate to open—the lord turned to the cloaked newcomers.

    “If this man you’re seeking is nearby,” the lord said. “We shall find him. But I must warn you…it looked very much like he had been struck down by act of god or ancient king.”

    The messengers didn’t reply. Together, they strode out the front gates, and the lord—seeming distinctly annoyed—followed with wide strides, shaking his head.

    Wait.

    They were looking for me?

    They were looking for me.

    Relief surged through me. Something had gone wrong during the transfer to this dimension, so the people who maintained this all had obviously sent rescuers. It seemed I was wrong—I wasn’t the only one who could get to this dimension. Maybe I’d left them with the key and permission to come help.

    I stood up from behind the boxes I’d been using as cover, the raised my hand, preparing to call to them. But then, I heard a sound from behind me.

    I reached for my non-existent gun yet again as I spun and found two people just behind me, in crouching postures. They’d been creeping up through the shadows behind the hall. As soon as I turned, the person in the back—a twenty-something woman—pointed at me with a panicked expression.

    A younger man in front of her carried a knife, which he immediately swung—and which I easily blocked, by instinct, with my forearm.

    And…hey, it didn’t hurt.

    Why on Earth didn’t that hurt?

    The young man had hit hard with a blade, and I’d just stood there, taking it like an utter champion. I hadn’t been harmed, not even a nick. I did have other augments, didn’t I? Platings under my skin? I was a fighter! I could…

    Could I…

    I heard…shouts. In my memory.

    Flashes of light. From a time before.

    I felt pain, shame.

    The man backed up, then swung again. This time, I was slower to block with my forearm. Doing so, fighting again, I felt a deep, nearly uncontrollable panic.

    I… I’d fallen… I’d…

    The man blade connected with my exposed wrist, and his eyes widened as his knife didn’t cut me. He backed up a step. I mimicked him, stepping back. Feeling overwhelmed by the fragments of memories.

    Those flashing lights. Those angry voices, hating me. I…

    I…I blinked and glanced to the side, where the woman had found a wooden board somewhere. She swung it, and I didn’t respond this time. I was too unnerved. But theoretically, my platings would protect me from—

    The board connected with my face, and felt a flash of agony before my nanites cut out my pain receptors. I briefly saw stars, but at least I was unconscious by the time I hit the ground, so the terrible memories stopped assaulting me.

    FAQ: Have I Time Traveled?

    Most Interdimensional Wizards™ are surprised to discover that they have not, in fact, traveled back in time. This might seem counter-intuitive, as you’re probably living in your own castle at the moment, commanding legions of peasants while you engage in a Wizard Better than True Life Experience™ such as inventing electricity, writing Shakespeare’s plays, or attempting to speedrun the conquest of France.

    Yes, your surroundings might seem medieval, but Your Personal Dimension™ has seen roughly the same number of centuries as the true world has. The year is going to be the same one you left from—only, our specially cultivated band of dimensions have moved slower through technological and social development. Therefore, you get a semi-accurate experience in Medieval England, but you haven’t time traveled.

    Sidebar: A helpful method of visualizing this is to think of Nebraska. Nebraska is a landlocked state in the center of the United States of America. Because of its general lack of importance—and its distance from trendy population centers—it generally lags between the coasts a few years in fashion, music, and distribution of collectible card games.

    You might feel like you’ve time traveled when visiting Nebraska, but careful scientific experiments using synchronized timepieces has proven no time dilation is in effect. (See Luddow, Sing, and Coffman, “Nebraska really is just like that” in Journal of Relativistic Studies, June, 2072.)

    As Nebraska is a few years behind everyone else, your Personal Dimension™ is behind the true world by half a millennium or so. You have, essentially, just purchased your very own, unique Super-Nebraska™.

    Chapter Four

    When I woke up, the young woman and man were standing on the ceiling.

    Or…wait, I was upside down. Yeah, that made more sense.

    My head throbbed from the plank-to-face contact, and my hands and legs had been bound tightly. Was…I tied to the wall? Yeah, it looked like they’d hung me from the ceiling beam, then tied my hands behind me, perhaps using part of the window or shutter to wrap the rope around.

    Who ties someone upside down to the wall? I mean, it was an innovative interrogation technique, and so I gave it a point for originality, but…wouldn’t a chair be more effective? It was an old sand-by for a reason. (Three out of five. Watch more spy movies and report back.)

    As soon as I opened my eyes, the woman stepped forward. She had blonde hair in tight curls that barely reached to her collar, and a dress that was deep black—over the top of a white one that was a little longer through the cuffs and hem. It had some nice maroon embroidery on the neck, but the white ropes wrapping her waist had a frayed look, as if to give it an intentional, hand-made air.

    She stepped close to me, narrowing her eyes.

    Right then. How to get out of this? The shame and fear I’d felt before had faded completely, replaced with embarrassment at how I’d frozen. I obviously had physical augments, but I’d just stood there and let a woman plank me in the face? Unprofessional.

    “You’ve made a terrible mistake,” I told her.

    She didn’t respond, instead cocking her head.

    “I’m a very powerful being,” I told her. “And you have just angered me.”

    The youth from before hid behind her, peeking out at me. He seemed unremarkable—a shorter fellow with similar blonde curls and a slight build. Upon closer inspection, he looked younger than I’d assumed. Perhaps just fifteen or sixteen.

    “Sefawynn,” he hissed, “I don’t think the inversion is doing anything. He still has his powers!”

    “Has he eaten you yet, Wyrm?”

    “I don’t imagine so.”

    “Then the inversion is working,” she said.

    “It’s not working,” I said to them. “I’m gathering my powers as we speak. Release me now, or I’ll bring fire and destruction upon your house.”

    The woman narrowed her eyes further, then raised both hands, fingers up and thumbs out toward one another. Then she spoke.

    “I know my kin / and kiss their palms

    I love them well / and live their light-words”

    As she finished, both of them leaned closer, as if to see the effect on me.

    “Uh…” I said. “That was nice.”

    The youth squeezed the woman’s arm. “Try a stronger boast.”

    She nodded, and made the same sign with her hands, stepping closer and speaking again.

    “I banished the beast / of bastion hill

    “I am the skop / who sings strongest.”

    I frowned, and both of them shied back further.

    “Not even a flinch,” the youth whispered. “That’s bad, isn’t it, Sefawynn?”

    “I don’t know,” she said, folding her arms. “I’ve never loosed an aelv before.” She tapped her index finger against her arm. “Fetch the little father, but do it quietly, so the visitors don’t hear you.”

    The boy nodded, then paused, as if worried.

    “I’ll be fine,” the woman said without looking at him. “The inversion has rendered him helpless.”

    “But he said—”

    “Once again, Wyrm,” she said. “Have you been eaten?”

    Again, he looked down, as if he needed to check.

    “If the aelv’s power weren’t bound,” she said, “we wouldn’t be standing here. We’d either be controlled by him, or we’d be puddles of human-juice, mashed to the floor. Go fetch the little father. I’ll be fine.”

    The youth bobbed a nod, then hurried out the door. I revised my assessment of his age even further. He seemed to act younger than I’d pegged him, so perhaps he was just big for his age.

    “Could you at least,” I said to the woman, “put me right-side up? I’m starting to feel light-headed.”

    She didn’t respond, instead standing with arms folded, studying me.

    “So…” I said. “You keep calling me an…eelev? I’m not rightly aware of what that is. Maybe you could fill a guy in?”

    No response.

    “That younger fellow is your brother?” I asked. “And the lord of this place…he’s your father, right? So you’re the lord’s daughter?”

    Yeah, she wasn’t saying anything.

    “You saw the youth try to hit me,” I said. “And you saw his weapon bounce off of my arm. I’m warning you. I’m a powerful person, and I’m growing upset. We can still work this out, though.”

    And… Her eyes were like steel, her face completely expressionless. Zero out of five. Would rather have a conversation with a corpse. At least it wouldn’t be glaring at me the entire time. Would probably listen better too.

    In instead turned my attention to my augments. I was fairly certain I had some sort of improvement on my forearms, in fact, as I’d thought earlier, it was called…

    Plating. That’s it. I had a micro-filament mesh under my skin, backed up by structural nanites and bone reinforcements. Basically, it would take an industrial strength laser or some kind of military-grade weapon to cut through my flesh—at least, as long as my nanites continued to function. Another augmented person could punch me senseless, with enough time, but I’d be invulnerable to a bunch of medieval peasants.

    As I thought of it, by instinct, I brought up a display that hung in my vision, visible only to me. It listed my platings, and their status. Looking at that…I had platings from the tips of my fingers all the way up to my elbows. It also worked for force-redistribution and gave me some strength advantages, mostly in gripping ability.

    It was an extremely expensive augment. As I recalled—which, granted, wasn’t saying much at the moment—it wasn’t uncommon to start plating a few body parts, then move on to others. Most people would go for the head and the chest first. That made the most sense.

    However, my throbbing skull and nose indicated I hadn’t done that. I frowned at the menu, which listed that I did have skull platings and chest platings—but those were listed as non-functional. What the hell? Why not?

    I had the vague impression that I hadn’t paid for the augments. I worked for a living, and didn’t have that kind of money. I’d apparently even bought a budget dimension, rather than going with one of the premium services. So maybe…whoever had purchased my augments hadn’t finished installing my head and chest platings? But why were the ones on the arms functional?

    My memory provided no answers, so I tried to wiggle enough to untie myself or something. Unfortunately, the knots were good, and my enhanced grip strength wouldn’t help if I couldn’t reach the ropes. None of the muscles in my chest seemed to be augmented, as a little exploratory flexing didn’t lead to me ripping free or anything. I probably looked silly, though.

    Eventually, the door slid open, and the oil lamps on the small room’s table fluttered as two figures entered. One was the youth from earlier—Wyrm, she’d called him? The other was Orange Cloak. Muscular, and a good six-foot-four, this fellow towered over the woman. His beard was streaked with grey, as was his hair, and he looked to be in his mid-forties. But man, he looked like he could have gotten into a boxing match with a boulder, and won.

    Weren’t people in the past were all supposed to be much shorter than modern people or something? And the colors of the oranges and yellows on his clothing were much brighter than I’d have thought they could make in these olden days.

    “I’ll be frank, Little Father,” said the young woman—what had her name been? “I have no idea what to do with this one.”

    “What is he?” the lord asked, eyes narrowing as he studied my jeans—now fully on display, with the bottom of my tunic flopping down to the tie about my waist.

    “Not a landswight,” she said, “since obviously we can all see him fully. But look. He’s clean shaven as any woman, with shorn hair, feminine hands—”

    “Hey!” I said.

    “—and not a particularly muscular build—”

    “I’ll have you know I’m considered quite athletic among my people.”

    “—plus pale skin and delicate features through the face,” she finished. “Also note the perfect teeth and pristine nails. Though I’ve never seen an aelv, I know the lore, Little Father. This man matches the descriptions perfectly.”

    “Not a god, then,” the lord said, relaxing.

    “Plenty dangerous,” the woman said. “Perhaps more so. A god would want something natural of us. An aelv…”

    “He took one of the offerings, little father,” the youth said. “The incantation. He didn’t care for the food or drink.”

    “Written word,” the lord said, stepping closer to me. “Did you bring it to our realm, aelv, or did its arrival draw you? What can we do to appease and loose you?”

    “Cut me free,” I said in my most intimidating voice, “and apologize for the treatment I’ve suffered.”

    The lord smiled—and I’d been prepared for a mouth full of dingy and rotting teeth. Looked like I’d been wrong about that guess as well, as he seemed to have all of his teeth—and while they weren’t pristine white, they weren’t rotting either. They weren’t exactly straight, but for a guy living in a time before—I assumed—dentists, his smile wasn’t half bad. (Two and a half out of five. Won’t break the camera.)

    “Cut you free?” the lord said. “You think I’ve never heard a ballad before, aelv?”

    “It was worth a try,” I said. “Very well. I shall require a berry that has never seen the sun, two stones polished by a frog, and one leaf of nightshade—in return I shall leave your quaint village with a blessing and return to my people.”

    The lord glanced at the woman, who shrugged.

    “I’ll…see what can be done,” the lord told me.

    “Or,” I said, “you could tell those two men looking for me that I’m here? Then you could turn me over to them…?”

    “Ha!” the lord said. “Again, you think I’ve not heard any ballads? Besides, though I suspect you have the power of glamor when not inverted, you don’t have it now. You aren’t red-haired, nor do you have the features of a foreigner, like the man they claim to be hunting—so they wouldn’t want you.”

    Wait.

    The men weren’t looking for me?

    The lord turned back to the woman—I still thought she might be his daughter. Both she and the boy were dressed better than the others in this town, after all. But why did she call him “little” father?

    “I need to attend the earl’s messengers before they find my absence strange,” the man said to her. “Something is odd about them, about this entire day. Will you stay here, or join me?”

    “I’ll stay,” she said. “Take my brother; send him to me with word if anything truly unusual happens with the messengers.”

    Orange-cloak nodded to her and left, the younger man trailing after. The entire structure shook as he shut the door with force, and—though I was getting light-headed—I found his interaction with the woman curious. She wasn’t bowing or scraping nearly as much as I might have assumed. Barely a m’lord mentioned.

    It seemed I really just should throw away everything I thought I’d known about the past.

    The woman was still watching me. Great. Was this going to be another “conversation” with a wall?

    “Look,” I said, “can we—”

    “Let’s cut the lies, stranger,” she interrupted. “I know what you really are.”

    Chapter Five

    She did?

    “You…do?” I said.

    “This is a good village,” she said, “with a strong and diligent thegn. Yet, they don’t have much. Why upon the seas would you pick here to run your scam?”

    Scam?

    “Oil with a stencil to create the burned out figure,” she continued, “which I’ll admit, is more ingenious a creation than I’ve seen in the past. Scattered pages of text is nothing new, though I’m shocked you were brazen enough to take one from an offering. That had me considering for a while. But the demands you just made of the thegn? Ridiculous.”

    Ah… She thought I was a grifter, come to pretend to be a creature of mythology in order to bilk the locals. Actually…that was a good guess. It matched events well, and…I mean, I was a grifter, in a way. It was an apt description of a dimensional tourist.

    “Next time,” she added, “flinch at my boasts. I find it incredible that you could put so much preparation into your scam, but do so little research. You made yourself up to look exactly like an aelv—even shaved your beard—but you couldn’t do a little play acting? How can you be so incompetent yet capable at the same time?”

    Play along, my instincts said. You can ride this.

    “The hit to my head,” I said to her. “Did you have to swing so hard? When I woke up, I barely remembered what I’d had for breakfast, let alone what my plan was.”

    She grunted, arms still folded, golden curls wobbling as she shook her head at me. “You can’t be alone. Those messengers are with you? They have your accent.”

    “Yeah,” I said. “They’d have told your father how to get rid of my haunting. Then I’d have appeared to him in the night, give him a scare, to encourage him along.”

    “Why do you think Ealstan is my father?” she asked.

    “You called him…”

    “Little father? Thegn? Lord of the local lands?” her frown deepened. “How could you make such a mistake as that? It’s like you don’t know words, yet you speak them. My brother and I are not from this town—we were only passing through, then brought back as they needed a skop.”

    “Oh,” I said. “Um…hit to the head…”

    She sighed. “But why Stenford? Wellbury is just down the road, and they’ve twice the resources to pay you.”

    “I’m known there,” I said. “Look, we’re not greedy—we didn’t need much. Just a little to get us on our way. We wanted your lord to get all frightened because he’d seen an eelev, then pay us to leave.” I gave an upside down shrug. “My friends aren’t going to be happy I got caught, by the way.”

    She sighed again, rubbing her forehead with thumb and forefinger, eyes closed. “Why do they have your description wrong?”

    “I was supposed to put on a wig,” I said. “To look more exotic. But look, we’ve got an easy out. You give me another boast or two in front of the lord. I’ll act however you tell me. Then you can hand me off to my friends, and we won’t demand anything of him. Everybody walks away happy.”

    “Huh,” she said.

    “What?”

    “That’s not an unreasonable ask,” she said. “You know to cut your losses.”

    “Of course I do,” I said. “I promise you, I just wanted to grift a little. A warm meal. We weren’t going to scam anyone hard—we’re off for bigger winnings elsewhere, and just were running low on supplies.”

    She nodded, as if she expected something similar.

    And damn. I… Well, I was actually kind of good at this. Uncomfortably good. Sneaking. Combat augments. Practiced at grifting…. I was building quite the unflattering picture of who I’d been.

    But if I had been some kind of thief, why did my stomach immediately turn at the idea? Why did my very instinct resist it so strongly? Surely, if that was me, it would feel right to acknowledge it.

    Instead, a piece of me was screaming. No, it said. That’s no you. That’s not who you are.

    “Look,” I said to her. “What was your name again?”

    “Sefawynn,” she said.

    “Right. Sefawynn, you’re obviously not the type who wants to see a guy get hanged because he’s trying to get something to eat. Let’s just do this the easy way. I’ll even let you know how I did the arm trick, if you want.”

    “I suspect you’ll find this ridiculous,” she said, finally opening her eyes, but turning her head away from me. “But I’m not like you. I want to help these people.”

    I trusted my gut, which said not to reply to that. She’d say more, and anything I could say would reveal my ignorance.

    “I know your type,” she said. “Far too well. I know you’ll take whatever you can get. That you’ll turn on me in a second. But don’t try it, all right? I understand you better than you think I do.”

    “Sure, all right,” I said. “I’ll play this straight, Sefawynn. Promise. Do we have a deal? After this, I’ll stay far away from this village and anyone in it—you have my word.”

    “For what that’s worth.”

    I shrugged again. “It’s either that, or you try to convince the Little Father I’m a liar—then I do my best scary eelef imitation, and we see who wins. But in that scenario, someone also has to lose.”

    “Aelv,” she said. “Ae-lv. At least say it right.”

    “Aylev,” I tried.

    “Closer.” She walked up to me, slipping a knife from her pocket. Hey, a pocket in her dress. Funny to find someone living in the Middle Ages who had one of those, when Jen had always complained that her dresses didn’t have any.

    Wait. Who was Jen?

    Sefawynn cut my hands free, and I thought I saw her posture tense. She was preparing for a fight, just in case. I brought my hands out very slowly in front of me, then rubbed my wrists in a non-threatening way.

    “Thanks,” I said in the most reassuring way I could.

    “Brace yourself,” she said, then untied the rope holding my feet.

    I used my hands to do just that, then performed an instinctive tuck and roll, coming up on my feet, which I kicked free of the ropes. See that, I thought. Athletic. Not feminine. But I kept my actions otherwise calm and non-threatening. I didn’t bolt for the door. My best bet at getting free was to have her turn me in to those messengers.

    Except, they hadn’t described me. But she’d said our accents were similar? Hell, I really needed more information.

    “Don’t suppose,” is said, “you have the rest of my ‘incantations’ stashed around here? Those were kind of hard to get ahold of.”

    “You shouldn’t be playing with written word from other lands,” she said. “You’ll attract the attention of the gods.”

    “I’ll risk it.”

    She shook her head at my apparent foolishness. “I’ll get them for you—honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Burning them would draw Logna’s ire for certain, but merely having them will draw Woden’s. So just take them. And carry the wyrd away with you and your foolish aers.”

    Aers? Did that mean ears? Whole lot of gibberish there, but I nodded to her in thanks. The papers still seemed my best bet at learning about this place. I was practically a baby here, for all I knew about the Middle Ages. Jen would laugh at me for…

    Oh.

    Jen…

    Jen was dead.

    Chapter Six

    It was strange to feel that sudden sense of loss, that sudden pain, for Jen. A person whose face I couldn’t remember. But it was there, a knot inside of me—no, like a scream inside of me, suddenly audible, now that the door had been opened.

    I missed her terribly. This was raw pain. Like a bruise before it went blue. I’d lost her. Somehow, I’d lost her. It felt it fresh, as if it had just happened again.

    I stumbled, putting one hand to the nearby wooden pillar. I put the other to my head. Jen. Hot damn…this had been her dream. This place, this was what I had left of her. She’d have been aghast by how many assumptions I’d made about this people.

    Isn’t it incredible, her voice drifted into my mind, to think? Generations upon generations—thousands upon thousands of years—worth of people have lived, but they’re all the same as us. Teleport someone from Ancient Egypt to the modern era, and they’d be indistinguishable. Same passions. Same cleverness. Same biases, if about different things.

    You’ll see. Someday, when we can afford it, you’ll see…

    I held my head. I didn’t remember much more than that at the moment. Just some words, a…voice, so beautiful. And the pain. Too personal to joke about. Too real to belong to me, the man whose life was a lie, or a joke, alternatingly.

    Sefawynn stepped closer, watching me with suspicion. Yeah, this looked like a classic weakness-feint, and she likely worried I’d make a play for the knife. Instead, I forced out a wan smile.

    “Sorry,” I said. “Hanging upside down did not help this headache. Again, did you have to swing so hard?”

    She rolled her eyes.

    “Did you roll just your eyes at me?” I demanded.

    “Oh, look,” she said, doing it again. “Cobwebs near the ceiling.”

    “You’re lucky,” I told her, “that you caught me surprised. I can be very dangerous in a fight.”

    “Careful,” she said. “The spiders in the eaves look for empty, unused spots to build their webs. Keep talking, and they’ll investigate the vacuous spot between your ears. Aelv.” She gave me a flat stare.

    “Just saying,” I told her, folding my arms. “What next?”

    “We’ll go out and tell the lord I managed to use your ancient name to bind you. If he asks, tell him the craeft has forced you to do my bidding, and I am banishing you.”

    “Crayft,” I said. “Got it.

    “Craeft,” she said.

    “Crayft.”

    “Your accent…” she said with a shake of her head. “You’re Waelish, aren’t you?”

    “Welsh?” I said, figuring that one out. “Uh, yeah. Totally. And this place is…”

    “Weswara,” she said. “Home of the Weswarans? You can’t actually think I’ll believe you don’t know that.”

    Uh… Weswara? My British history wasn’t the greatest, granted, but…shouldn’t I have heard of that place?

    “Well, come along then,” she said. “We’d best go talk to Lord Ealstan before your friends end up saying something that ruins our plan.”

    I followed behind as she took one of the lamps, blew out the others, and we finally left the room. Turned out, we’d been in some kind of side chamber of the great hall, pretty close to where I’d been dropped. I guess that made sense.

    We rounded the building to the main courtyard, which was empty for the moment—though the candles still illuminated the bowls in front of the lord’s manor, one full of berries, the other brimming with what appeared to be milk. I had to guess this was some kind of folk superstition. A way to appease these “landswights” I’d heard people mention.

    “So,” I said, “you’re a poet. Who performs boasts and ballads? A…skop? Is that the term?”

    “No need to act so amazed,” she said, eyes forward as we walked up to the front of the manor, where the young guard from before stood at the door with axe and shield.

    “Uh, hey,” he said to her. “Um… I’ll just see… If you can go in?”

    She nodded as he went in to check for us. I glanced over my shoulder, a little extra wary. Face-board me once, shame on you. Face-board me twice, and…

    Wait.

    The milk and berries were gone. The candles were still there, as were the dishes. Their contents—which had been there just moments ago—were gone.

    Sefawynn noticed that I’d suddenly gone tense, because she spun, hand going to her dress pocket. “What?” she hissed.

    “The berries and milk,” I said, pointing. “They’re vanished.”

    “Yes,” she said. “The wights have been staying near you. If you’re nice, I’ll try a loosing for you. I think one of them may be upset about the page you stole.”

    “It was mine!”

    “Not after it was offered to them, it wasn’t,” she said. “I did warn you about inscriptions…”

    All right, that was uncanny. I was sure I’d seen those dishes full. So how had the contents vanished? I scanned the courtyard, and though it seemed empty, those shadows could hide plenty. As I’d proven. By, uh, getting caught.

    This has to be some kind of sham, I thought.

    I wasn’t given much time to think about it, as the guard returned. He seemed a good-natured fellow, and eagerly held the door open for us. He even bowed to her as she entered. Poets were given a lot of respect here, it seemed. Miss Bushman, my middle school English teacher, would have been proud.

    Hey, that was another bit remembered! It seemed to be coming back, if slowly. Grinning, I followed Sefawynn into a small entryway at the front of the manor. It held a pair of oil lamps on the walls and a bright orange-and-red rug on the floor. Sefawynn walked forward with her hand sheltering the flame on the lip of her lamp, which was one of those old-school ones—the kind that looked kind of like a gravy boat.

    She turned left and led me through the entryway into a larger room beyond—a big open one, with a firebox in the center and a cauldron above it. It had a high ceiling—didn’t seem the structures here had second floors—and the walls were decorated with shields and spears.

    Near the fire, Lord Ealstan and a tall woman—I assumed his wife—were speaking with the two messengers. They were facing him, but I could see them from the side, in profile.

    It was actually the first time I’d seen their faces, and as soon as I did, I stopped in place. I knew them. That one on the left—the tall brute whose chin and forehead were trying to outdo one another—was Ulric Stromfin.

    A man who absolutely, one hundred precent, no question about it wanted me dead.

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    Brandon Sanderson

    Here's the one [Year of Sanderson swag item] that I want (and I pitched this to them): I wanted to have a nice writing notebook. Probably in the Sanderfan one. A nice writing notebook. But we want to view this swag... Like, I've seen a lot of cheap swag in my days. Because I've gone to a lot of book fairs where people have, like, "You can print your stencil on this thing that someone else made." And I don't wanna be doing that; I don't wanna be having it just be like, "Here is this random object that we have poorly stenciled our symbol on. Look at the cool swag you got!" I used this as an example to my team to say, "This is the sort of thing we should be doing."

    So it's going to be a writing notebook, probably with the Cosmere symbol or something like that on it, but it will have, interspersed through it, lines and ideas from my writing notebook, of ideas I haven't written (including some I have that's inspired these stories), and things like that. So you will be able to look through and get a writing prompt directly from me, from my actual writing notebook, of all the ideas I keep that I haven't written stories on. It should be a high-quality notebook, with our symbol on it, so you have a nice Cosmere notebook. But it has that little extra something that means we went the extra mile. We built something for you. I used that to explain, "This is the sort of thing I want to see us doing."

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    asmodeus

    If the oceans on this planet are all made of dust and sand, will we eventually find out how human-like life got there (without assuming whether earth-like life or dust oceans got here first, or that either came from somewhere else)?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Yes, I can answer this eventually. I probably won't answer it in the book. But as we talk more about the aethers and their core world and some of these things, I can answer some of this. Good question; actually, excellent question.

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    Quilty Hill

    It sounds like this [Tress and the Emerald Sea] is going to be a bit more romantic than some of your other novels. Were the main characters based off you and your wife? And if so, which one is she?

    Brandon Sanderson

    My wife definitely has some Tress-like attributes, and I definitely have some Charlie-like attributes. I would say that is not me doing a one to one parallel, but Emily is rather pragmatic, and she is a very good thinker, and also a person who doesn't like to impose. And I would say I got that directly from her. Emily's one of those people who will feel guilty, if she had a wound, that the paramedics had to bother with her. And then there's the guy who does not know when to stop talking and likes telling stories that perhaps, sometimes, go on at length.

    You guys will love this. I went, I should write up a little FAQ, to post on Monday or Tuesday. I sit down and write some frequently asked questions and things I'm getting, and I sent it to my team yesterday and it was 7000 words long. And I'm like, Oh, it got so long while I was writing it that what I need to do is write a short version and a long version, so they can post the short version so people can get actual reasonably short answers to the question and then they can link the long version if people want to read me going off forever on tangents, so let's just say there's definitely some me in Charlie.

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    thegatorgirl00

    Hoid has a line, "a jawline so straight it makes other men question if they are," when describing a character. Is that simply Hoid getting into character and being comfortable acknowledging another man's attractiveness? Or is it an indicator that his sexuality might not be entirely straight?

    Brandon Sanderson

    I considered it more of the first. And also a really good line that Hoid liked. But you may read it how you desire. I don't get to decide, right? I will write the stories, and then you guys get to decide how you feel that they... we'll just go with that. I did not intend more than kind of some subtle jibes, a good quote, and Hoid kind of indicating some things about society, perhaps.

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    Warbreaking

    You said that Hoid is telling the story to someone else, so which world is he on while telling it?

    Brandon Sanderson

    That's a RAFO. It's a good question, but we'll see if you can figure it out. I'm not gonna guarantee that it is... Robert Jordan would use the phrase "It is intuitively obvious to the casual observer." I will not guarantee that this will be intuitively obvious to the casual observer. It may be something that you can't figure out, I'm gonna have to decide exactly how much I want to say. There should be contextual clues that will at least give you solid theories.

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    AdelRD

    How Cosmere-relevant would you say this story is?

    Brandon Sanderson

    Depends on what you want. There are some characters that will show up that are relevant to the Cosmere. The aethers are very relevant, but these are an offshoot of the aethers. Knowing what's happening with Hoid is relevant, and things like that.

    It is one of the less Cosmere-relevant. This planet is a backwater. This is not considered really important. The machinations of Shards are not hugely relevant to this planet. This is a story about these people, and you will see cool things and learn more about the Cosmere, but the goal of this one is to tell a story about these people.

    I hope that you will still find it very cool and enjoy the Cosmere references and things. But it is not a keystone of the Cosmere; it is meant to be something you can read completely indifferent to the Cosmere.

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    Travis Gafford

    Given that you wrote these concurrently with other novels that don't have the same tone, was it ever jarring switching between the novels?

    Brandon Sanderson

    No, because I would usually be writing only little bits of these at night after I have gotten everything else I want done. I worried that I would be. But the brain space these took was much smaller than the brain space of other things, mostly because of how long and complicated the other things were and how these were kind of lighter, particularly Secret Projects One and Two.

    You'll see, as I do more of these, they get more complex and more Cosmere-involved. Three and Four are far more Cosmere-involved than One (and then, obviously, Two is not). And the tone of Three and Four are both different; you can find a kind of gradual shift. So, when you get Secret Project Two, you'll be like, "Oh, this is a little bit fun and a little lighthearted in a very different way from Tress, but it has some of the same things." And then you'll get to Three, and you'll be like, "Oh, this is stepping more toward this." And then you'll get to Four, and you'll be like, "Four just reads like we're back to kind of a more Brandon Sanderson tone for my epic fantasies," if that makes sense.

    As I've said, I think that Three is my favorite, but I anticipate Four being most readers' favorite. Just because it's more like things that I've done. And I just wrote the book I wanted to write. But Four is the one that is also the most relevant to the Cosmere, to the point that it's a good book to have read if you're going to be following the Cosmere. The others are whimsical, fun takes; even Three is like, "This is a self-contained story on a world in the Cosmere." Whereas Four, I think you'll be like, "Oh, this is what we're doing. All right." So wait for that one. There's some slight spoiler reveals for you.

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    Laser Wolf 214

    When did the idea come for putting this novel in Hoid's voice in order to give it a more Goldman-esque feel? Was it a fairly easy decision? Or was it later on in the process?

    Brandon Sanderson

    It was an easy decision at the start, though I will say the seed is that I've been looking for ways to expand upon Hoid's voice. When I write Dragonsteel, which will be in his voice, it will not be like this, the tone will be very different. But I've wanted for a while to tell kind of a longer Hoid story. People often ask me, "Hey, can we get a full Wandersail told by Hoid of all of their adventures and what not?" This is a think that I knew people were interested in, and I was really interested in doing it, as well. I wanted to do something different with my prose in this book, in specific. I just felt that there was a place I could do a little leveling up in my prose, and using Hoid's voice as kind of an excuse to do that felt very good.

    And The Princess Bride book is just delightful, right? If you haven't read Goldman's book, it's very good. To be honest, another person who has prose like this is J.K Rowling. The early Harry Potter books, in particular, have this same whimsical, fairy tale feel. And then, of course, you all know that my favorite author is Terry Pratchett, and he obviously had... He had a different voice from this, it's less of the fairy tale whimsy. It's just pure Pratchett; it's hard to describe. But I've always wanted to be able to practice something a little more edging toward that. So, watching The Princess Bride again and thinking "No, that's what I want to do; I want to do a voice like that. And I have the perfect person to be giving that voice."

    If you go to my reading that I did at the most recent book launch, you'll hear me trying (and failing, in my opinion) to get Hoid's voice right. Kingmaker is an experiment in trying to see what I can do with Hoid's voice and how to do it correctly. And I actually started that after I finished Tress, because I wanted to find a voice for Hoid that I could edge a little away from the fairy tale. I want to use the fairy tale voice. I believe that someday I might write another one from this same voice. But I also wanted to have a voice for Hoid... He can tell different genres, right? He can tell different kinds of stories; they're all not gonna feel the same, and you see this in the books, right? The way he tells Wandersail is different from the way he tells The Dog and the Dragon. Those are two different kinds of stories. So, I tried writing Kingmaker, and I did not like how the voice went in that one. So I backed off on that, and I instead wrote Secret Project Two, which is a non-Cosmere one, just to kind of shake myself out of where I had been and do something very different. (Obviously not told by Hoid; it's not in the Cosmere.) You can see a kind of failed start in there, which is kind of fun. And there are some things I like about that piece that I read from Kingmaker that I like a lot.

    Isaac Stewart

    That's interesting to me, because of course, when you get to Dragonsteel and he's telling his own story, he's not going to tell it like a fairy tale. It's going to be something entirely different.

    Brandon Sanderson

    It's going to have a more Kingkiller-esque fell to it. I want to practice a bunch of different ways that Hoid could tell stories.

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    The Fife

    How many planets are in the system of Lumar, and could you give us the name of the system?

    Brandon Sanderson

    RAFO and no. We need this to go into the star chart, and Isaac to determine what the system looks like, and we need to place it according to my thoughts on how it relates to the aether system. These are not things we can canonize yet. Glad that you're asking these questions, you will get canon answers eventually. But this is a RAFO in a "We are still making sure to figure this out."

    Isaac Stewart

    Lot of moving pieces there. Every time there's a new planet or new system, it has to fit canonically within everything else.

    Brandon Sanderson

    And I just threw three of them at Isaac.

    Isaac Stewart

    We'll get it figured out.

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    LewsTherinTelescope

    The proper name for the sea seems to be the Verdant Sea. The title is Tress of the Emerald Sea. Is "Emerald" just being used as an adjective about the color? Or is it a regional thing, where some places call it Verdant and some places call it Emerald, or what?

    Brandon Sanderson

    It's a little more the latter. Verdant is more the scientific name, because it's the Verdant aether. But you will see, for instance, seas sometimes called "The Midnight Sea" or "The Sea of Night,"  which are two different things. You will also see some things like that. Emerald Sea made a better title, so I went ahead and let them use both terms for all of the seas. Some of them, there's not as much of a use of two terms.

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    Letters Words

    Will we learn which Shard is associated with Tress's world, if any, and/or the name of her world at some point in the novel?

    Brandon Sanderson

    You will not hear the name of her world somewhere in the novel. (You heard it on this stream.) It's possible, actually, that I'll add it in now that we've got a name for it. It's possible, in that case.

    Which Shard is associated? Well, I'll leave that to you to theorize, so that one is a RAFO, I'm afraid.

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    Insane Pupil

    The opening paragraphs of the book are wonderful because Tress is described by her personality traits before the narrator then makes a jab at how women are often described by men. What was your motivation behind this introduction?

    Brandon Sanderson

    It was me reading blog posts and writings of women who disliked the way they are often looked at and described, and saying "that gets filed away for later use, and I will try to do better." So I did file it away for later use, and then when I first went to start describing Tress, I accessed that part of my brain where I'd filed that away.

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    SapphireBombay

    The cups that Charlie sends to Tress. Should we be reading into the descriptions of those cups and thinking about where they may have come from? Is it safe to assume they have come from elsewhere in the cosmere?

    Brandon Sanderson

    It is safe to assume they have come from the planet. And though there are things to read in about them, they are related only to this book, the only one that has real cosmereological significance is the Iriali cup. So, don't be trying too hard on these to be like, "This means this!" They are for this book's narrative.

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    Pundromeda

    Are all twelve moons orbiting the planet's equator? Or are they spread out across the planet, perhaps arranged like the vertices of a d20?

    Brandon Sanderson

    I imagine it more like the vertices of the d20. Good question. Now, I will put the asterisk on this that we just got our work back from our scientists, who are trying to figure out how to make this even possible for me. So I haven't put that into the book yet; I haven't even read what they came up with yet, because I'm just digging in to revising this one. They could have something to say about this. But I have imagined it like the vertices of a d20. (Or a d12, since it's twelve.)