THE GRAY WORLD • by Brian Dolton

“The world is gray.”
As epitaphs went, it was the briefest Yi Qin had read. Her fingers brushed over the rough, beautiful calligraphy of the scroll. The letters had been drawn in blood. She could feel the echo of Liu Song’s power.

She looked back at the body of her fellow conjuror. He sat propped against the wall, his head lolling down onto his chest. His sleeves had been rolled back and, with precise care, he had opened long cuts down the inside of each forearm.

Why, she wondered, had he called her to his remote mountain home, only to kill himself hours before she arrived?

Well; there was a simple way to find out. She just had to ask him.

There was no one else in the small, plain house. No one had lit the lantern that rested on a table beside the body, to guide Liu Song’s spirit to the Silent Mountain. His spirit would be lost on the borderland. She had until nightfall–an hour, yet–to commend his soul to the care of Wu Feng Kai Fan; Watcher Over Those Who Are Gone But Not Forgotten. Time enough.

She reached into her sleeve, and pressed her thumb against the dart that was sheathed there. The momentary blossoming of pain was familiar. She rubbed the blood onto her fingertips and set to her own calligraphy; drawing the necessary symbol on the reverse of the scroll.

The Fourth Unspoken Word; The Word That Binds And Releases Spirits.

“I am here, Liu Song,” she said. “I would know why you called for me, yet did not wait.”
“If I had waited,” a voice answered, “you would have tried to stop me. But if I had not called you, no-one would have lit a lantern for me.”

“And is that all you require of me? To light the lantern, and send you to the Silent Mountain?”

“Only this,” he said. She could see him, now, superimposed over his own corpse. The effect was disturbing; as if the body was somehow being reinhabited.

“You knew I would do this. But you knew, too, I would ask you why. Tell me, Liu Song; what was the emptiness in the world, that made you flee from it?”

“You have it in your hands,” he said.

“The world is gray,” she quoted back to him. “It is not gray, Liu Song. The world is full of colour, and beauty, and terror. It is full of joy, and sadness. I walk the world and see all of these things.”

“You see them,” he agreed. His ghost stood up, the spirit rising above the flesh. Involuntarily, Yi Qin took a pace backwards. “But do you feel them?”

She frowned.

“These things exist, whether I feel them or not.”

“They exist without us, certainly. But do we exist without them? I am an old man; I was a conjuror in the Emperor’s service for twenty years. I saw many things in that time, and I lost many things. Too many.”

“So you came here,” she said. “A mountain home in Guang Lo province. Artists flock to capture the beauty of this place.”

“They have never truly succeeded. And as they failed, so I failed. There is no power in beauty that can move me; not any more. The spring blossom on the trees is merely splashes of incidental colour. The thunder of the waterfalls is but a distracting noise. The scent of the air is just a smell. Perhaps on the Silent Mountain, I will recover my taste for beauty; for I can find none in the World of Breath.”

“There is beauty here,” she said.

“There is,” he agreed. “The beauty has not gone. It is my capacity to perceive it that has been lost. We are conjurors, Yi Qin; apart from the world. We see wonders beyond the understanding of any fisherman, any merchant. But all things fade.”

“Only if we permit it,” she said.

“And that is precisely what we do. We stand apart from the world. We do not wed. We do not even have friends; only others of our kind, as detached as ourselves. When did you last laugh, Yi Qin? When did you last weep?”

“I weep,” she told him. “From time to time.”

“And laugh? When did you last laugh?”

She did not answer that.

“It will happen,” he said. “It happens to all of us, if we live long enough. I should have died in battle, facing some great demon. It should not have come to this.”

“No,” Yi Qin said. “It should not. If you wanted laughter and tears, Liu Song, you should have immersed yourself in the world. You should have bought a house in a great city, and surrounded yourself with those who have not lost the capacity for feeling.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “If you think this is wise, then perhaps you should do this.”

“Perhaps,” she echoed.

There was silence, for a time.

“Send me onwards,” he said. “And pray for me.”

She said nothing. She stepped forwards, squeezing more blood from her unwilling thumb. A drop of it was enough; the First Unspoken Word, The Word That Releases Angry Flames.

The lantern that Liu Song had prepared caught light. Yi Qin knelt, and bowed her head to the floor.

“Goddess, hear me,” she said. “I send this spirit to your care. I ask that you soothe him, for he is weary, and in need of rest and succour. Let him wander among your courts and gardens; and let him find there what he has lost, here in the World of Breath.”

She rose. Liu Song’s spirit was gone; only his corpse remained, an uninhabited man. Yi Qin turned, and walked out of the building.

In front of her, over the canopy of the forest and the jagged mountains beyond, the sun was setting, turning the sky from pale blue to brilliant orange.

The world was not gray.

Not yet.

Brian Dolton‘s fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Flashing Swords, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, among others. He has been writing for many years, and will continue until they pry the keyboard from his cold, dead hands. (P.S. If any of you know who the “they” in question are, he’d love to hear from you, so he can make suitable preparations.)

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