Yumi | Chapter Three
It’s terrifying how nightmares transform.
I’m talking about ordinary 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 mass can be destroyed.
Nightmares are a fluid terror. Once you get the briefest handle on one, it will change. Filling nooks in 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.
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 stared out at the churning darkness. It had substance; it shifted and flowed similar to molten tar.
The shroud. The blackness beyond.
Trains traveled the hion lines to places like the small town where his family still lived, a couple of hours away. He knew other places existed. Yet it was difficult not to feel isolated while looking into that endless blackness.
It stayed away from the hion lines. Mostly.
He turned and walked the street outside the city for a short time. To his right, those outer buildings rose as a shield wall, with narrow alleyways between. As I said before, it wasn’t a true fortification. Walls didn’t stop nightmares; a wall would merely prevent people from stepping out onto the perimeter.
In Painter’s experience, no one came out here but his kind. The ordinary people stayed indoors; even one street farther inward felt infinitely safer. The people lived as he once had, trying hard not to think about what was out there. Seething. Churning. Watching.
These days, it was his job to confront it.
He didn’t spot anything at first—no signs of particularly brave nightmares encroaching upon the city. Those could be subtle, however. So Painter continued. His assigned beat was a small wedge that began several blocks inward of the perimeter, but the outside portion was the widest—and the most likely place for signs of nightmares to appear.
As he did his rounds, he continued to imagine that he was some lone warrior. Instead of, essentially, an exterminator who had gone to art school.
To his right he passed the capstone paintings. He wasn’t certain where the local painters had come up with the idea, but these days—during dull moments on patrol—they tended to do practice work on the outer buildings of the city. The walls facing the shroud didn’t have windows. So they made for large inviting canvases.
Not strictly part of the job, each was a certain personal statement. He passed Akane’s painting, depicting an expansive flower. Black paint on the whitewashed wall. His own spot was two buildings over. Just a blank white wall, though if you looked closely you could see the failed project beneath peeking through. He decided to whitewash it again. But not tonight, because he caught signs of a nightmare at last.
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, unlike the ink or tar it otherwise appeared to be. But Painter had trained well.
Something had emerged from the shroud here and started into the city. He retrieved his brush, a tool as long as a sword, from his large painter’s bag. He felt better with it in hand. He shifted his bag to his back, feeling the weight of the canvases and ink jar inside. Then he struck inward—passing the whitewashed wall that obscured his latest failure.
He’d tried four times. This last one had gotten further than most of his attempts. A painting of the star, which he’d started after hearing the news of an upcoming voyage intended to travel the darkness of the sky. A trip to the star itself, for which scientists planned to use a special vessel and a pair of hion lines launched an incredible distance.
In this, Painter had learned something interesting. Contrary to what everyone had once assumed, the star wasn’t merely a spot of light in the sky. Telescopes revealed it was a planet. Occupied, according to their best guess, by 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? At least a month.
On the corner of the wall near the painting, he picked out steaming blackness. The nightmare had passed this way and brushed the stone, leaving residue that evaporated slowly, shedding black tendrils into the night. He’d expected it to take this path; they almost always took the most direct way into the city. It was good to confirm it nonetheless.
Painter crept inward, reentering the realm of the twin hion lights. Laughter echoed from somewhere 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 black wisps on a planter up ahead. The shrub grew toward the hion lines and their nourishing light. So as Painter moved down the empty roadway, he walked between plants that looked as if they were reaching arms up in silent salute.
The next sign came near an alley. An actual footprint, black, steaming dark vapors. 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 being a slinking, flowing black thing, it probably had feet now. Even in that form they rarely left footprints, so he was fortunate to have found one.
He moved onto a darker street, where the hion lines were fine and thin overhead. In this shadowy place, he remembered his first nights working alone. Despite extensive training, despite mentorship with three different painters, he’d felt exposed and raw—like a fresh scrape exposed to the air, his emotions and fear close to the surface.
These days, fear was layered well beneath calluses of experience. Still, he gripped his shoulder bag tightly in one hand and held his brush out 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.
Farther along the narrow alley, by a bare wall, he found the nightmare: a thing of ink and shadow some seven feet tall. It had fashioned two long arms that bent too many times, the elongated palms pressed against the wall, fingers spread. Its head had sunk through the stone to peek into the room beyond.
The tall ones always unnerved him, particularly when they had long fingers. He felt he’d seen figures like that in his own fragmented dreams—figments of terrors buried within. His feet scraped the stones, and the thing heard and withdrew its head, wisps of formless blackness rising from it like ash from a smoldering fire.
No face though. They never had faces—not unless something was going very wrong. Instead they usually displayed a deeper blackness on the front of the head. One that dripped dark liquid. Like tears, or wax near a flame.
Painter immediately raised his mental protections, thinking calm thoughts. This was the first and most important training. The nightmares, like many predators that fed on minds, could sense thoughts and emotions. They searched for the most powerful, raw ones to feed upon. A placid mind was of little interest.
The thing turned and put its head through the wall again. This building had no windows, which was foolish. Nightmares could ignore walls. In removing windows, the occupants trapped themselves more fully in the boxes of their homes, feeding their claustrophobia—and making the jobs of the painters more difficult.
Painter moved carefully, slowly, taking a canvas—a good three-foot by three-foot piece of thick cloth on a frame—from his shoulder bag. He set it on the ground in front of him. His jar of ink followed—black and runny. Nightmare painters always worked in black on white, no colors, as you wanted something that mimicked the look of a nightmare. The ink blend was designed to give excellent gradations in the grey and black. Not that Painter bothered with that much nuance these days.
He dipped the brush in the ink and knelt above his canvas, then paused, gazing at the nightmare. The blackness continued to steam off it, and 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 to renew, lest they evaporate away.
Judging by its appearance, this one was fairly new. It probably couldn’t hurt him.
And here was the crux of why painters were so important, yet so disposable. Their job was essential, but not urgent. As long as a nightmare was discovered within 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. That was part of his training—very pragmatic. Once his breathing calmed, he tried to consider what the nightmare looked like, what its shape could have been. Supposedly if you picked something that the entity already resembled, then painted that, you would have more power over it. He had trouble with this. Or rather, during the last few months it had felt like more trouble than it was worth.
So today he 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 long line. You let the brush linger a moment so that when you raised it, the blot the brush left formed the end knob of the bamboo segment. You could create each 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. As usual such deliberate thought drew the thing’s attention. It hesitated, then pulled its head out from the wall and turned in his direction, its 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 in upon itself as he painted a pot at the bottom.
The painting 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 lifted his brush, leaving a perfect bamboo painting on his canvas, mimicked by the thing in the alley, leaves brushing the walls. Then, with a sound very much like a sigh, the nightmare dispersed. He’d deliberately transformed it into a harmless shape—and now, trapped as it was, it couldn’t flee to the shroud to regain strength. Instead, like water trapped on a hot plate, it just . . . evaporated.
Soon Painter was alone in the alley. He packed up his things, sliding the canvas back into the large bag, alongside three unused ones. Then he returned to his patrol.