THE THING WITHOUT COLOR, By Aidan Doyle
The vast whiteness of the mountains marked the empire’s northern edge. If it wasn’t for the sword farm, no one would choose to live in such an isolated location. Akamiko trudged along the path towards the wooden building that served as the outpost’s barracks. It was more than twenty years since she had last visited and it didn’t look like the outpost had changed at all. Would Yamamoto remember her after all that time?
A soldier stood on duty in front of the barracks. “Who goes there?” he challenged.
“Akamiko Iro, swordwriter. I’ve come to collect the swords.” She had been sent to get the emperor’s white katana, but there was no point in sharing that with the guard.
The soldier circled around her, his gaze taking in the wooden frame on her back that held most of her swords. “How many blades are you traveling with?”
“That’s excessive, even for a swordwriter.”
“The roads are dangerous for an old woman,” Akamiko said. “I have the rainbow and the white and black.”
The guard’s gaze fixed on the red and black blades hanging at her side. “Wait here.” He turned his back and opened the barracks door. “Commander, there’s a swordwriter here.”
The swordwriters served the Mirror Emperor, but existed outside the hierarchy of the imperial court, which made them unpopular with many nobles and soldiers. When confronted with a troublesome ghost or demon though, people were more than willing to call upon a swordwriter.
Akamiko’s feet ached and her hands were numb with cold. She wanted to sit by a warm fire. The older she got, the less patience she had. She walked in a circle to keep warm. It was summer, but snow covered the ground. What must it be like in winter? She was tempted to draw her red sword and bring forth flames, but the soldier might get the wrong idea.
Eventually the Commander of the Guard stepped outside. He was a short, lean man and wore a heavy cloak decorated with an image of a northern darkwing, the bird that served as the outpost’s unofficial mascot. He glanced at the black blade hanging at her side. “May I see your permit for that?”
Black swords were farmed in the capital’s cemeteries and had the power to cut the spirit world. Even swordwriters needed a permit to carry them. Akamiko showed him the document bearing the Lady of All Color’s seal.
“Come inside,” the Commander said and strode back inside the barracks.
As soon as Akamiko stepped inside, she felt the the heat radiating from the fireplace in the far wall. Eight soldiers stood by the fire. They were an unimpressive lot – overweight and out of condition. The posting was probably miserable, but one that didn’t require much effort other than surviving the winter. There would be a shortage of fresh supplies, but the kitchen area looked well stocked with dried meats.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” the Commander said. He spoke with the accent of an educated man from the capital and had probably been an imperial palace guard. He hung his cloak on a rack and beckoned Akamiko over to a desk covered with papers. The dark claws of bureaucracy reached out to the empire’s farthest posts.
He flipped a couple of pages in a book and held it up for Akamiko to see. It was a log book of visitors to the outpost. He pointed to an entry dated twenty-six years earlier. Akamiko Iro. “Was that you?” he asked.
“Yes.” She had been worried that Yamamoto wouldn’t remember her, but she hadn’t expected the details of her earlier visit to register with the soldiers.
The Commander smiled. “We don’t get many visitors and there isn’t much reading material here,” he said. Her surprise must have been visible. “I don’t suppose you brought any books from the capital?”
He shrugged. “If the birds can survive here, so can we.” He pointed to one of the doors. “Would you like to see the darkwings?”
She was tired after the long journey, but it would be rude to refuse. “Of course.”
The Commander opened a door leading away from the kitchen area and Akamiko followed him into a storage room. A large cage containing a dozen birds took up half of the room. The northern darkwings were misnamed. They were sparrow-sized, but their feathers were a riot of colors – emerald greens, blood reds, dark purples and bright oranges. At the beginning of the world all of the animals lined up to receive their colors from The Painter. The northern darkwings were unimpressed with the drab gray their southern cousins received and so raided the vaults of Heaven, stealing all the colors they could.
The birds were undoubtedly beautiful, but were a symbol of greed. Soldiers guilty of accepting bribes were sent to this outpost and took the northern darkwing as their symbol.
The Commander launched into a lengthy explanation of how difficult it was to ensure the birds were fed properly. He was probably starved for company. A former imperial palace guard might not be popular with regular army foot soldiers.
He opened the cage door and took out one of the birds. It sat docilely in his hand and he stroked its feathers. “I have four more years before my posting ends and I can return to the capital.”
The cold must have slowed her thinking. The Commander hadn’t brought her here to talk about the birds, he’d wanted to speak to her alone. “The sword farm is important and the soldiers who guard it have our thanks.”
“You’re going to stay at the sword farmer’s house?”
“It’s best if you stay indoors as much as you can. Especially at night.”
“I appreciate the warmth of a fire as much as anyone,” Akamiko replied.
“These mountains are old and can do strange things to a person’s mind.”
“Have you seen anything?” Akamiko asked. Separating superstition from real danger was not always easy.
“There are stories about shadows that lurk in the caves.” He held up the bird. “These are our emblem, but it’s also reassuring to have so much brightness close to us. Sometimes the sky is a strange color at night.”
“What kind of color?” When you went so far north it was not unusual to see green fire in the sky at night.
“Not black, but dark, as though the color has been ripped from the sky.”
“And the shadows?”
“I have never seen them, but the stories say they were here long before us.”
“I will be careful,” Akamiko said. There were always stories about things that dwelled in the darkness, but the Commander was right. These mountains were old enough to be home to a creature born before The Painter gave the world color.
“How is Yamamoto?” Akamiko asked.
“He died last winter.”
Akamiko turned away and pretended to look closer at the darkwings. She didn’t want to cry in front of the Commander. It had been twenty-six years since she’d met the sword farmer, but she remembered his strong hands and booming laugh. Yamamoto would have been close to eighty. The news shouldn’t have taken her by surprise, but it felt like a cold darkness had settled in her stomach. So many of those she had loved had died. What was one more? “Who is the farmer now?”
She hadn’t known for sure Yamamoto had been married, but she’d guessed. She’d been sent to collect some white blades twenty-six years ago and had spent two days with the farmer. She’d seen the signs that Yamamoto lived with a woman, but had chosen to ignore them. No doubt his wife had been on a trip to gather supplies. “I should go and meet her,” Akamiko said. She thanked the Commander and left the barracks. After the fire’s warmth, it was hard to venture back out into the snow.
The sentry scowled. “Be careful on the ice. We don’t want to get blamed if you fall down a crevasse.”
She ignored him and walked towards the farmer’s cabin. The entire outpost consisted of the barracks, the cabin, the smithy and some storage sheds. Smoke spiraled lazily from the cabin’s chimney.
Did Yamamoto’s wife know about Akamiko? It would be hard to keep secrets in such confined quarters. Akamiko knocked on the door.
The door opened, revealing one of the biggest women Akamiko had ever seen. She stood well over six feet tall and her bulky fur clothes made her seem even bigger. She had short, gray hair and looked around seventy years old, a few years older than Akamiko.
“I’m Akamiko Iro. I’m a swordwriter.”
The woman nodded her head slightly. “Yamamoto.” She stepped back from the doorway.
Although Yamamoto was a common name, ever since Akamiko had met the sword farmer with the intense eyes and the easy laugh, she had thought of the name belonging to him.
Akamiko brushed the snow from her boots and stepped inside. The inside of the cabin was just as she remembered it. Shelves lined with swords, books and food. Two comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace. The bed covered with a heavy blanket made from mountain wolf fur.
Akamiko’s bed in the capital had a blanket made from mountain wolf fur too. Every time she smelled the fur, it reminded her of the farmer.
“You’ll be wanting to fetch the Emperor’s blade? Yamamoto said.
“Yes.” Most white swords were buried in the ice for a year, but one intended as a gift for a future emperor had been buried a hundred years ago.
“It’s too late to get it today,” Yamamoto replied. “We can go tomorrow.” She opened a door leading to a storeroom and moved some boxes around. “You can put your things in here. I’ll put down a futon for you.”
Akamiko unstrapped the wicker frame from her back. She needed to take extra care of the blades in the cold. Her white and black blades were the most powerful, but red was her color and her favorite weapon. The blue blade had the power over water, and might have been used to command the ice, but white was more useful in the mountains. She rarely used indigo, but it was comforting to travel with a full rainbow. She checked their conditions and then returned to the main room.
Yamamoto was by the bench, adding strips of dried meat to a pot.
Akamiko warmed her hands by the fire. She checked to make sure Yamamoto had her back to her, and then reached out a hand and felt the soft fur of the blanket on Yamamoto’s bed. Her hand did not go cold. There was no trace of the farmer’s ghost. “I was sorry to hear of your husband’s death,” she said. “He was a good man.”
Yamamoto shrugged. “He was better than some.” She returned her attention to the pot.
It was hard to tell whether she was genuinely unmoved by her husband’s death or if she didn’t want to share her feelings with a stranger. “Is there news from the capital you’d like to hear?”
“I manage fine up here.”
Akamiko wasn’t going to press Yamamoto if she didn’t feel like talking. Yamamoto served a meal of rice and meat and they ate in silence.
After they finished, Yamamoto cleared away the bowls.
“The Commander said the sky was a strange color at night. Have you seen anything?” Akamiko asked.
“I stay inside at night. It’s warmer.”
“And the shadows in the caves?”
“I’ve buried dozens of blades in the ice. I’ve never seen anything.”
“Good night,” Akamiko said.
“I’m a patient woman,” Yamamoto announced. “If someone wronged me, I could wait a long time to get my revenge.”
Akamiko stared in Yamamoto in surprise. She knew!
The best way to deal with a problem was to stab it in the heart. “What did he say?” she said.
Yamamoto loomed over Akamiko, meeting her stare without blinking. She clenched her huge hands and Akamiko readied herself to leap from her chair.
“Good night,” Yamamoto said. She turned her back and retired to her futon.
Akamiko went into the storeroom and shut the door. It was only a small space, but at least there was enough room for her to lie down. It would be hard to defend against Yamamoto’s strength in such a confined space.
She didn’t dare go to sleep and leaned against the wall, her red sword resting on her knees. If Yamamoto planned to kill her tonight, why would she warn her? Much better to wait until they were out on the ice and explain Akamiko’s death as an accident. It was going to be a long night.
Akamiko stayed awake all night, but Yamamoto didn’t try anything. In her younger days Akamiko had spent nights chasing demons or waiting for ghosts to appear, but her eyelids felt heavier than a mountain and she had to pinch herself to stay awake.
In the morning, the Commander and two other soldiers accompanied Yamamoto and Akamiko to the ice caves. Akamiko would have preferred to go without the soldiers, but the Commander insisted. Maybe the soldiers would make Yamamoto think twice if she had plans for arranging an accident.
They left the outpost and followed a trail up to a glacier. The air was so cold that it hurt when Akamiko breathed and the wind felt like a frozen whip striking her face. She had got used to being the oldest and toughest woman around, but Yamamoto was something else. The big woman appeared sure footed on the ice and showed no sign of tiring. Even with the iron spikes attached to her boots, Akamiko struggled to keep her balance
“Do you want me to carry you, Grandma?” one of the soldiers asked.
The Commander glared at the soldier and he went silent, saving Akamiko the trouble of cutting him.
The sentry had been right about one thing though. If you didn’t watch where you walked, you could easily disappear down a deep hole.
They reached the entrance to a tunnel carved into the side of the glacier. It was high enough for even Yamamoto to walk without crouching.
Yamamoto lit her oil lantern and led the way inside. The two soldiers followed next, then Akamiko and the Commander. The soldiers were tall enough that they blocked most of the lantern light. Akamiko had brought her red and white blades. She drew her red sword and brought forth flames, illuminating the icy walls.
“Put that out!” Yamamoto hissed. “Do you want to melt the ice?”
Akamiko extinguished the flames. The ice looked like it would take a long time to melt, but she had to defer to Yamamoto’s experience. She moved slowly forward in the shadowy light. It was cold, but at least they were sheltered from the wind.
They followed the twisting tunnel until they reached a hollow space almost as big as Yamamoto’s cabin. The lantern’s light reflected in the cave’s solid ice walls and floors, making it hard to distinguish reality from illusion. Dozens of swords were embedded in the ground, ice growing on their blades, making them look like stalagmites.
Yamamoto held up the lantern, illuminating a sword stalactite growing from the ceiling. “My husband’s grandfather forged that blade and planted it in the ice one hundred years ago. It’s a great honor that it will be given to the Mirror Emperor himself.”
If the soldiers resented the swordwriters for being responsible for their posting, Akamiko resented the waste of giving such a weapon to the Emperor. It was her duty as a citizen to serve the Mirror Emperor, but he would never use the blade in combat.
Yamamoto handed the lantern to a soldier and raised a couple of ice axes. She slammed the axes into the side of the glacier and started climbing up the wall, embedding the axes and plucking them out again with seeming ease. What damage could those axes do to someone’s head?
Yamamoto got within reach of the katana embedded in the stalactite and swung her axe.
“Wait!” Akamiko called out, but it was too late.
The axe slammed into the top of the stalactite. Yamamoto might know about the ice but she obviously didn’t know enough about ancient weapons to take more care.
The katana dropped from the ceiling and hit the icy ground blade first.
The glacier trembled, shaken by the power released by a sword waking from a hundred year sleep.
A terrifying sound like a hundred bones splitting apart echoed through the chamber. Cracks spread across the floor.
Akamiko grasped hold of a stalagmite. A fissure opened beneath the feet of the soldier who had called Akamiko grandma. He screamed and disappeared from view.
The Commander and the other soldier leaped back from the edge of the fissure. Yamamoto remained hanging from the wall, one of her axes embedded in the ice.
When the shaking stopped, Yamamoto clumped her way back to the ground.
Akamiko edged her way over to the fissure and looked down. Her breath caught in her throat. Something was wrong with the hole. It wasn’t so much that it was dark, it was almost as though the darkness sucked in any color that reached it.
Yamamoto held her lantern over the edge of the fissure. The darkness retreated from the lantern’s light, but the bottom of the hole was not visible. There was no sign of the soldier.
Akamiko had never seen anything like the hole’s lack of color. While there was still a chance of saving the man’s life, she had to try. “Should we use ropes?”
Yamamoto shook her head. “He’s gone.”
The other soldier looked to the Commander, but he turned away. “There’s nothing we can do.”
The white katana had sunk into the ice up to its hilt. If there had been anything sleeping in the darkness below the ice, the sword’s power could have awakened it.
Yamamoto pulled the katana from the ice and handed it to Akamiko.
It had an unadorned wooden handle and a steel blade that looked as though it was made from ice. Even though it had been embedded for a hundred years, the handle felt warm. Akamiko had handled some magnificent blades in her time, but this one’s beauty was hard to resist. A swordwriter should wield it instead of letting it sit in the imperial treasury.
“We should leave.” Yamamoto marched towards the tunnel.
Akamiko took a final look in the darkness. The lack of color made her skin crawl. Reluctantly, she followed Yamamoto and the others out of the chamber.
Akamiko leaned against the store room’s wall, the Emperor’s katana on her lap. She had to stay awake till morning. Then she could make her way down the mountain path and back towards the capital. The more she thought about it, the more she was convinced something was wrong with the hole. If an ancient creature had been sleeping in the ice she needed to warn the Lady of All Colors and the other swordwriters.
A thump on the cabin’s front door startled Akamiko.
“Yamamoto,” a man’s voice called out.
Akamiko opened the store room’s door. The light from the fire let her see Yamamoto pick up a wooden cudgel.
“What is it?” Yamamoto shouted.
“You have to come out and see this,” the voice said.
A knot formed in Akamiko’s belly. What did the soldiers want?
“Why?” Yamamoto demanded.
“The stars have gone out.”
“That would be the clouds, you fool,” Yamamoto retorted.
“It’s not the clouds. There’s a darkness in the sky. You have to see it.”
Yamamoto sighed and unlatched the door.
“Don’t go outside,” Akamiko whispered.
Yamamoto turned to look at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t go outside!” Akamiko repeated.
“Hurry up! You have to see it,” the voice urged.
“I need my sleep,” Yamamoto said. She started to slide the latch back, but the door burst open, knocking her backwards. Three of the darkwing soldiers charged into the cabin, swords drawn.
Yamamoto reacted with astonishing speed for someone her size. She brought the cudgel around and smashed the closest soldier in the head, dropping him to the ground.
The other two soldiers swung at her, but she retreated across the room. They snarled, sounding more like beasts than men. Their eyes looked as though they had been filled with a thin, colorless liquid.
It was entirely improper for Akamiko to even think about wielding a blade intended for The Mirror Emperor but the white katana felt so right in her hand. She lunged across the room and slashed the closest soldier’s throat.
The man dropped to the ground and lay still.
The remaining soldier turned to face Akamiko. Yamamoto leaped forward and smashed the soldier in the head. She was terrifyingly effective with the club.
Akamiko slammed the front door shut.
“What’s going on?” Yamamoto demanded.
“I think there was a demon in the ice,” Akamiko said. It was probably something other than a demon, but that was the quickest and easiest way to explain it. “It took control of the men.”
Yamamoto prodded one of the soldiers with her foot. “Seems dead enough.”
“Come and enjoy the darkness,” the Commander’s voice came from outside. “If you lay down your weapons, I’ll spare your lives.”
“I’m too old to fall for that trick,” Akamiko said.
Inhuman laughter echoed from outside. “Old! I was old before the stars were born. You are not old, Akamiko Iro.”
Akamiko didn’t feel any younger. “May I know your name?”
“I am older than names,” came the reply.
“If you petition Heaven, maybe one day you will be granted color,” Akamiko replied.
The thing in the Commander’s body hissed with anger. “I don’t need your color. I will give you one last chance to leave.”
Yamamoto hefted her club. “We can take them.”
Akamiko shook her head. “It took control of the soldiers. We don’t want the same thing to happen to us. We should wait for morning.”
The smell of smoke came from under the door and the air grew hot.
The creature was going to burn them out.
“My cabin!” Yamamoto bellowed.
Akamiko dashed to the store room, grabbed the frame that held her swords and strapped it onto her back. She switched the Emperor’s blade to her left hand and took her red sword in her right. “Try not to look at the sky,” she warned. “Head for the barracks.”
She brought forth flames from her red blade, flung open the cabin door and stepped out into the snow. The side of Yamamoto’s cabin was on fire, filling the air with smoke. The Commander and remaining soldiers stood in front of the cabin.
Akamiko charged across the snow and struck at the closest soldier with the white katana. He raised his weapon to parry her strike, but it shattered into tiny pieces when the katana struck it. Akamiko cut his throat and turned to face her next opponent. The Commander and another soldier attacked her from the front, while another circled around behind her.
Yamamoto’s cudgel came crushing down on the soldier to Akamiko’s rear. Akamiko focused on the soldiers in front of her, careful not to raise her gaze above eye level. She caught the soldier’s blow with the katana, breaking his weapon. She could get used to wielding imperial blades.
The Commander flung himself at Akamiko, barely giving her time to raise her red sword. It caught the Commander in the chest, but he let out a bestial howl and kept moving forward, wrapping his hands around her throat.
She leaned back and then head butted the Commander in the face. He staggered backwards, the blade stuck in his gut. The other soldier lunged at her, but she cut him down with the Emperor’s katana.
She grasped the red blade’s hilt and wrenched it out. The Commander fell to the ground.
Yamamoto had killed the other soldiers but she had a cut across her stomach. A wound like that would be painful, but Yamamoto waved her away. “Look after yourself.”
They ran across the snow towards the barracks. Akamiko disliked many traditions, but the outpost keeping darkwings might serve some use after all. The birds had more colors than any other animal. Maybe she could use that against the thing without color.
She hurried inside the barracks, flung open the door to the aviary and stopped short in dismay.
The birds were all dead, their broken corpses lying in the aviary. The thing must have commanded the soldiers to kill the birds. Which meant it was afraid of them. Akamiko had to find another darkwing.
She unstrapped her wooden frame, placed it on the floor and removed the black sword. The birds had been slain in a brutal manner, so one of their ghosts might be present. It was cruel to trap a ghost, but worse would happen if the thing wasn’t stopped.
She raised the black sword aloft, closed her eyes, and summoned its power to cut the spirit world. When she opened her eyes, the blade was wreathed in ethereal flames.
She waved the blade inside the cage, searching for any trace of a ghost. How many times had she set foot in abandoned temples and ruined palaces, hoping they weren’t haunted? And now she needed a ghost.
The blade caught against something! She couldn’t see anything, but the air felt thicker in the center of the cage. A ghost!
She focused the sword’s power, drawing any nearby spirits towards the blade. Black sparks of energy appeared on the top of the blade. She had bound a spirit. It was only a single darkwing ghost, but with luck it would be enough to thwart the thing.
Yamamoto had found some bandages and was applying them to her stomach.
Akamiko marched towards the front door. “If I become possessed you’ll need to kill me.”
“I can manage that,” Yamamoto grunted.
Akamiko stepped outside. She held the black sword aloft and raised her gaze to the sky. The pale darkness made Akamiko’s stomach churn. She hurled the weapon into the sky.
The black blade transformed into a ghostly darkwing. The bird spread its wings and changed into a rainbow, flooding the sky with colors.
The strange taint disappeared and the stars came out.
Akamiko breathed a sigh of relief. She had broken the thing’s power. Losing her black sword was a small price to pay, but it wasn’t over yet.
She went back inside and picked up the red and white swords. The Emperor’s blade had lain in the ice near the thing, but it didn’t appear tainted.
“I’m going to the glacier,” she announced. The thing wasn’t dead yet. She couldn’t leave it lurking in the glacier.
“I know the glacier better than anyone,” Yamamoto said. “I’m coming with you.”
They set off across the snow. Even though Yamamoto was wounded, Akamiko struggled to match her pace.
A cold wind tore into Akamiko as she hurried along the path, chilling her to the bone. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to sit by a fire with a cup of hot sake in her hand. A dozen times she thought about turning back, retreating for the warmth of the barracks, but Akamiko Iro did not leave tasks unfinished. The thing couldn’t be allowed to spread its poison again.
The snow seemed never ending, but they finally they reached the glacier. Akamiko took a deep breath. It was time to end the thing’s threat.
Yamamoto led the way through the tunnel and into the sword chamber. The hole in the floor seemed bigger.
“I can give you a sword without color,” a voice sounded in her head. “None would be able to stand against you. Even the Lady of All Colors would bow down before you.”
The thing might know Akamiko’s name, but it didn’t know her at all. She didn’t want the Lady of All Colors to kneel before anyone, least of all herself. She stepped over to the hole. The strange taint still lurked in the darkness. She raised the white katana. Some of the nobles at court would have been horrified at the idea of an old woman using a weapon intended for The Mirror Emperor, and even more shocked at the idea she was contemplating destroying it. Akamiko had never cared much for the nobles. Removing the thing’s threat was more important than letting such a powerful weapon sit unused on a mantelpiece in the imperial palace.
“I can bring you riches beyond your dreams,” the voice in her head promised.
All she wanted was to go somewhere warm. The quickest way to do that would be to rid the world of the thing without color. She threw the white katana into the hole.
Light exploded from the hole, forcing Akamiko to shield her eyes. The voice in her head screamed and then fell silent.
“Is it gone?” Yamamoto whispered.
Akamiko waited for her eyes to adjust to the shadows and peered into the hole. It looked like any normal darkness. “Yes.”
She caught a blur of movement out of the corner of her eye and flung herself to the ground.
Yamamoto’s cudgel whistled over her head and slammed into the ice.
Akamiko scrambled away from the hole and Yamamoto.
Yamamoto smiled. “That ought to be enough to remind you not to take things that don’t belong to you.” She turned her back on Akamiko and stalked out of the cave. “Find your own damned way home,” she called, taking the light with her.
Akamiko struggled to her feet and readied herself in case Yamamoto returned. She waited, but the cave remained silent.
She brought forth flames from her red sword and used the light to navigate her way out of the tunnel.
The stars shone in the sky above. The air was cold, but felt pure and fresh. She set off along the trail leading back to the outpost. It was going to be a long trek back to civilization, but that would give her time to work out the best way to explain why the Emperor wasn’t going to get a one hundred year old sword for his birthday.
Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. His short stories have been published in places such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Strange Constellations and Fireside. He has been shortlisted for the Aurealis and XYZZY awards. He has visited more than 90 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea.