From the #1 Kickstarter campaign of all time—#1 New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson adds to his Cosmere universe shared by Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive with a new standalone novel especially for fans of Asian pop culture. Illustrated by Aliya Chen.
There is a world. One of endless night, surrounded by an even deeper darkness. Filled with nightmares come to life, twisted shapes that slink to windows and ease open doors, sliding across floors to look down on helpless faces.
There is another world. A bright world, so bright it burns. Filled with stacked stones that call forth miracles, raised by callused hands that tremble in their work, drained with each stone lifted, settled, lifted again.
Between these worlds two souls connect. Collide. Entwine.
A bridge. A path.
A road to both worlds changing forever.
Yumi has spent her entire life in strict obedience, granting her the power to summon the spirits that bestow vital aid upon her society—but she longs for even a single day as a normal person. Painter patrols the dark streets dreaming of being a hero—a goal that has led to nothing but heartache and isolation, leaving him always on the outside looking in. In their own ways, both of them face the world alone.
Suddenly flung together, Yumi and Painter must strive to right the wrongs in both their lives, reconciling their past and present while maintaining the precarious balance of each of their worlds. If they cannot unravel the mystery of what brought them together before it’s too late, they risk forever losing not only the bond growing between them, but the very worlds they’ve always struggled to protect.
Note from Brandon:
Even for a compulsive planner like me, sometimes a story emerges like magic. Unexpected, unprompted. You build an outline in days, craft worlds during a compulsive daydream, and develop characters with a burst of imagination like the brief flash of a firework.
That was Yumi and the Nightmare Painter for me. The unanticipated story of two people who find one another.
May your dreams live as mine sometimes do.
Release date: July 11, 2023
Publisher: Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
Print pages: 461
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Yumi and the Nightmare Painter: A Cosmere Novel
THE STAR WAS particularly bright 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 his eyes on the star. He’d always found it strange, that sentry in the sky. Still, he was fond of it. Many nights it was his sole companion. Unless you counted the nightmares.
After losing his staring match, the nightmare painter strolled along the street, which was silent save for the hum of the hion lines. Ever present, those soared through the air—twin bands of pure energy, thick as a person’s wrist, about twenty feet up. Imagine them like very large versions of the filaments in the center of a light bulb—motionless, glowing, unsupported.
One line was an indecisive blue-green. You might have called it aqua—or perhaps teal. But if so, it was an electric variety. 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 cord of light, this one was perky, boisterous, blatant. It was a color you’d wear only if you wanted every eye in the room to follow you. A titch 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 to you. Yet you need this context, for—cold and warm—the hion lines were the colors of Kilahito. Needing no pole or wire to hold them aloft, they ran down every street, reflected in every window, lit every denizen. Wire-thin strings of both colors split off the main cords, running to each structure and powering modern life. They were the arteries and veins of the city.
Just as necessary to life in the city was the young man walking beneath them, although his role was quite different. 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, but of paler skin than many you’d find on Roshar. He would have been confused to hear that comparison, as he had never heard of such lands as those. In fact, his people had only recently begun to think about whether 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 buttoned 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 takes 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 hundreds of other nightmare painters. In this, he was important in the brilliantly modern way that teachers, firefighters, and nurses are important: essential workers who 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.
As a result, Painter didn’t make much—merely enough to eat and have some pocket cash. He lived in a single-room apartment provided by his employer. Each night he went out for his job. And he did so, even at this hour, without fear of mugging or attack. Kilahito was a safe city, nightmares excluded. Nothing like rampaging semisapient voids of darkness to drive down crime.
Understandably, most people stayed indoors 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. Yet during his shift, you’d say it felt like night. Painter passed hollow streets alongside overstuffed apartments. The only activity he spotted was from Rabble Way: a street you might charitably call a low-end merchant district. Naturally, the long narrow street lay near the perimeter of town. Here, the hion had been bent and curved into signs. These stuck out from shop after shop, like hands waving for attention.
Each sign—letters, pictures, and designs—was created using just two colors, aqua and magenta, the art drawn in continuous lines. Yes, Kilahito had things like light bulbs, as are common on many planets. But the hion worked with no need for machinery or replacement, so many relied on it, particularly outdoors.
Soon Painter reached the western edge. The end of hion. Kilahito was circular, and its perimeter held a final line of buildings, not quite a city wall. Warehouses mostly, without windows or residents. Outside of that was one last street, in a loop running around the city. No one used it. It lay there nonetheless, forming a kind of buffer between civilization and what lurked beyond.
What lurked beyond was the shroud: an endless, inky darkness that besieged the city, and everyone 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 this was close to where Virtuosity Splintered herself, and I suspect that had an effect.
Looking out at 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 buttoned 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 flat
features. Painter had always thought Tojin was like a painting done without proper use of perspective or foreshortening. Surely a man’s arms couldn’t be that big, his chin that square.
The two laughed once more 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 chase after them.
He was a lone hunter. A solitary wanderer. An…unescorted meanderer? Regardless, he didn’t want to work in a pair or a group, as 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. 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 Akane. Particularly as her laughter echoed two streets over. To many of his colleagues, nightmare painting was not as…solemn a job as he made it out to be.
It helped him to think otherwise. Helped him feel like less of a mistake. Especially during those times when he contemplated a life where he would spend his next six decades on this street every night, backlit by the hion. Alone.
YUMI HAD ALWAYS considered the appearance of the daystar to be encouraging. An omen of fortune. A sign that the primal hijo would be open and welcoming to her.
The daystar seemed extra bright today—glowing a soft blue on the western horizon as the sun rose in the east. A powerful sign, if you believed in such things. (An old joke notes that lost items tend to be in the last place one looks. Conversely, omens tend to appear in the first place people look for them.)
Yumi did believe in signs. She had to; an omen had been the single most important event in her life. At her birth, a falling star had marked the sky—indicating that she had been chosen by the spirits. She’d been taken from her parents and raised to accomplish a holy and important duty.
She settled down on the warm floor of her wagon as her attendants, Chaeyung and Hwanji, entered. They 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 today she couldn’t help feeling distracted. It 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 reveal of the country’s greatest art, plays, and projects. She had never gone. Perhaps…this time…
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 out into sunlight and down into her clogs.
Immediately her two attendants leaped to hold up enormous fans, obscuring 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—the kingdom of Torio—couldn’t have been more different from where Painter lived. Not one 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 scarlet sun painted the landscape…well, perfectly 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 arrived, it would look striking. Like the scene of a bloody massacre everyone is too numb to acknowledge.
Hidden behind her fans, Yumi walked on her clogs 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 once with the first, then she rinsed. Once with the second, then she rinsed. 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 by the broadest definition—you would consider them perfumed creams, with a deliberately moisturizing component. (I find them especially nice on the feet, though I’ll probably need them for my whole 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 compulsory washing made her hair extremely clean—which was important, as her religious calling forbade her from ever cutting it, so it reached all the way to her waist.
Though it wasn’t required of the ritual, Yumi liked to gaze upward through the shimmering 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 was supposed to rise serenely, 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 how she regarded something truly onerous, like being late for a ritual.)
Ritual bathing done, it was time for the ritual dressing, also carried out by her attendants. The traditional sash 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, her ritual wear for that day of the week.
She slipped her clogs on again and somehow walked in them, natural and fluid. (I consider myself a reasonably adroit person, but Torish clogs—they call them getuk—feel 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 at last 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 all view of her with their fans, then walked out and around to the village flower garden.
Here, vibrant blue blossoms—cuplike, to catch the rain—floated on thermals. They hovered around two feet in the air. In Torio, plants rarely dared touch the ground, lest the heat of the stone wither them away. Each flower was maybe two inches across, with wide leaves catching the thermals—like lilies with fine dangling roots that absorbed water from the air. Yumi’s passing caused them to
swirl and bump against one another.
The shrine was a small structure, wood, mostly open at the sides but with a latticed dome. Remarkably, it also floated gracefully a few feet off the ground—this time by way of a single lifting spirit underneath that took the physical shape of two statues, each with grotesque features, facing one another. One vaguely male crouched on the ground; one vaguely female clung to the bottom of the building. Though divided once made physical, they were still part of the same spirit.
Yumi approached among the flowers, the soft thermals causing her skirt to ripple. Thick cloth didn’t rise enough to be embarrassing—merely enough to give shape and flare to the bell of her outfit. She removed her clogs once more as she reached the shrine, 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 my description of her preparations took a while, that’s intentional. It might help you understand—in the slightest way—Yumi’s life. Because this wasn’t a special day, in terms of her duties. This was typical. Ritual eating. Ritual bathing. Ritual dressing. Ritual prayers. And more. Yumi was one of the Chosen, picked at birth, 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 up toward the 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.
The world the spirits provided was wonderful. The sun of vivid red-orange shining through brilliant clouds of yellow, scarlet, violet. A field of hovering flowers, trembling as tiny lizards leaped from one to another. 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. I could 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 meditation: Liyun, a tall woman in a severe black tobok with a white bow. Liyun, her kihomaban—a word that meant something between a guardian and a sponsor. We’ll use the term “warden” for simplicity.
Liyun halted 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.) Yet there was a certain demanding air even to the way Liyun stood.
Perhaps it was the fashionable shoes: clogs with thick wood beneath her toes, but sleek
heels behind. Perhaps it was the way she wore her hair: cut short in the rear, 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 including when she wasn’t waiting for you.
Yumi quickly rose. “Is it time, Warden-nimi?” she said, with enormous respect.
Yumi’s and Painter’s languages shared a common root, and in both there was a certain affectation I find hard to express in your tongue. They could conjugate sentences, or add modifiers to words, to indicate praise or derision. Interestingly, no curses or swears existed among them. They would simply change a word to its lowest form instead. I’ll do my best to indicate this nuance by adding the words “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 then; better to wait if it was near. But that meant they had time. A few precious moments with no scheduled work or ceremony.
“Warden-nimi,” Yumi said (highly), 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 the form of a small book—that she kept in her pouch. She flipped a few pages.
“We’ll be…near Torio City? We’ve been traveling in the region.”
“And…I…” Yumi bit her lip.
“Ah…” Liyun said. “You would like to spend the festival day in prayer of thanks to the spirits for granting you such an elevated station.”
Just say it, a part of her whispered. Just say no. That’s not what you want. Tell her.
Liyun snapped her book closed, watching Yumi. “Surely,” she said, “that is what you want. You wouldn’t actively desire to do something that would embarrass your station. To imply you regret your place. Would you, Chosen?”
“Never,” Yumi whispered.
“You were honored, of all the children born that year,” Liyun said, “to be
given this calling, these powers. One of only fourteen currently living.”
“You are special.”
She would have preferred to be less special—but she felt guilty the moment she thought it.
“I understand,” Yumi said, steeling herself. “Let us not wait for the steamwell. Please, lead me to the place of ritual. I am eager to begin my duties and call the spirits.”
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. ...
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