Wonshik didn’t like to think of himself as a person that could speak with the dead; his headspace was simply a bridge, neutral territory for two-way conversations between the living and the deceased to occur.
It wasn’t like he could just walk up to a ghost and strike up a conversation, he would try to explain. When he closed his eyes and dipped into the three smooth, opalescent, egg-shaped stones set along his spine, let the power inside of them pour outwards, he was opening a gateway. That was the power he’d been given at birth, when the spirit-stones had been set into his back as an infant.
He didn’t remember the ceremony, of course, because he was an infant; but he noticed the way others reacted to him, particularly adults, even his own parents. When he had the courage to ask about it, his mother would smooth her hands through his orange hair with a sigh, pull him close to her fragrant chest, and whisper that he was too young to know. Not yet.
He didn’t have a tutor and his parents staunchly refused to let him join the group lessons the other children had in the meadow, so Wonshik learned what he could by eavesdropping every afternoon. He crouched beside the stone wall behind the tutor’s designated seat, just close enough hear but not be seen. In this way, he learned about the ley lines, underground riverbeds through which energy currents ran; “the flow”, the teacher called it, which powered spirit-stones from deep inside the earth.
He learned about the pah’nu’kah, the ceremony in which a newborn child received their spirit-stones from the mysterious deliverer. He listened intently, the tutor’s words spinning colorful images in his mind of a mysterious figure swathed in rags cradling colorless spirit stones in their palms before placing them between the vertebrae of the newborn child, stepping back to reveal the colors that would determine the child’s power. No one knew for sure how the colors of the stones were chosen, the tutor explained one afternoon, whether the deliverer could see into the future or could sense the latent power in each baby’s soul; but each color represented a different skill and there were more variations than one could possibly imagine.
The first time Wonshik attempted to use his stones was almost the last. When his parents finally drifted to sleep, he snuck out of the hut and down to the meadow, sitting beneath a tree with nothing but an orange glowstone to see by. He closed his eyes and focused his mind on the three stones aligned with his spine, feeling the thrum of power, the humming as the flow crept up through his back, pushed from his outstretched fingertips. The flow spread through him slowly at first, but Wonshik was too relaxed-when he tried to close off his stones and found himself unable to do so, the world shifted violently around him. He felt breathless as he struggled to his feet, his stones burning in his back, crackling with power. He opened his eyes and saw the world inverted, the colors of the world reversed, and the figure of a young girl dangling from the tree branch by a rope looped around her neck. The dead girl smiled.
He screamed, scrambling away, the glowstone clutched in his hands like it was the only thing keeping him alive. He saw faces everywhere, saw the dead in various stages of awareness, blurry figures that stumbled around and occasionally looked at him as if they were confused by his presence.
Convinced that he had died, he had run and run until his legs couldn’t carry him anymore. His screams had woken some of the villagers, and they found him lying unconscious by the riverbed in the small hours of the morning.
His parents told him what they knew after he awoke, but the damage was done. No one had ever seen stones like his before, and no one knew exactly what they did. They had been warned by a village elder that the white, opalescent spirit-stones in his back could only bring misfortune, and they had heeded her warning in the best way they knew how. Reluctantly, and after much discussion with the elders, they agreed to let Wonshik join the village children for lessons.
But the day Wonshik waited for never came. As the moons rose up the following night, the sound of a choked off scream shot through the air from the other end of the village. His father appeared in his doorway, his face grim, fingers trembling as he hissed, “Hide, Wonshik. Now.”
Into the closet he went, tucked away in the back corner, frightened and wondering why the whole village was screaming, why his stones were burning against his spine if he hadn’t tapped into their power. When the closet door was thrown open by an enormous figure wrapped in rags and tightly bound strips of metal, the red lens of its eye focusing on him, Wonshik screamed, letting go of all the pent-up power in his spirit-stones. He shot forward between the monster’s legs just as it stabbed the air where his chest had been moments before, rocketing out of the room and out of reach.
He tripped over his father’s mangled corpse near the door to the hut, watched his mother’s belly as it was sliced open by a second monster. But it didn’t react to him; nor did it acknowledge him when he screamed for his mother, his heart in his throat. Horrified, he scrambled back to his feet, seeing familiar faces all around him and knowing that it was because everyone he had ever known was dead.
He’d been found days later, half-mad with hunger and covered in blood and dirt. The man who found him, a broad-shouldered, big-bellied fellow named Hochi, did so by accident. Hochi had taken pity on him, gathering Wonshik’s tiny body in his great arms and carrying him all the way to a work house in Tusami City.
Wonshik had never forgotten Hochi, never forgotten the gleam of kindness and sadness in his eyes when he explained that the refugee house would give him food and shelter in exchange for work; wash laundry, clean houses, and you will be cared for, do you understand? Wonshik had just nodded, comforted by the weight of Hochi’s grip on his shoulder, relishing the comforting squeeze of his hand before Hochi waved goodbye and disappeared.
Wonshik never told the other children what his spirit-stones did, and they never asked because it was exceedingly rude to pry. He never went shirtless like the other boys his age did, afraid they would ask him questions. He never spoke, but went about his work with vigor-as if scrubbing toilets and washing laundry gave him some kind of purpose. Eventually, people began assuming he couldn’t speak at all, that he had no spirit-stones--practically unheard of, despite the incredible cost of even a single stone, most people had at least one--and even that was all right with him.
He spent many nights alone on his cot in the refugee house after the massacre, learning how to control his power by reaching out with his stones while the other children slept. He struggled to understand why he had been given the power to feel the dead if he couldn’t even find his own family on the other side.
After a while, he began crossing the bridge simply to find peace from the taunting of his peers. Wonshik the freak, they breathed when he walked by. Wonshik the reject, with no teacher or friends. Wonshik the fool, with no spirit stones and therefore no talents.
He accepted the isolation, bore it as well as he could into his adolescence, never speaking a word. He dismissed the jeers and the whispers as he passed by, repressed the hurt he felt as children who were more beautiful than he, more well-spoken and less awkward, were adopted one by one. He remained as children came and went, caring as little as he could about the years that were passing. He wanted only to earn his meals and be left alone to use his stones in peace.
When Wonshik was sixteen, he thought he knew everything about his stones. He stretched out on his cot with his eyes closed, focused on finding the other side of the bridge. He watched as the world of the living faded into nothing, the color bleeding from his eyes as the world became opposite; the light became dark, blues becoming more green and although his vision was blurry he knew he had finally crossed all the way over. He flexed his toes, his fingers; felt the tingle in his stomach and the tightness behind his eyes, careful not to drain the power his three stones allowed him, but eager to test his own boundaries.
He got up from the cot and wandered outside the house, into the city street. It was mostly empty, save for a few souls wandering about. Wonshik still wasn’t sure if most of them even knew they were dead. He aimlessly kicked at blue tufts of grass, looking up at the black sky where the teal moon hung low on the horizon, a medallion cradled against the bosom of the distant hills. He sat in the courtyard beneath his favorite tree, picking thoughtfully at the glimmering flowers that grew there and minding his own business when he felt a sudden thrill down the back of his neck. Startled and scrambling to his feet, he spun around and came face-to-face with a spirit.
What are you? The spirit asked.
He’d never heard a spirit speak before. He didn’t hear it with his ears so much as it echoed in his head, the voice appearing like white-lined black letters in his mind. It was a weird feeling, uncomfortable, because it felt wrong to him.
Think of your words, and send them to me. The spirit said, their voice smooth and somehow pale with patience. Wonshik struggled for a moment, but then shrugged, lowering his eyes, unsure of how to answer the question at all. He studied the spirit for a moment instead, nervously letting his eyes travel over long limbs and slender features. They were tall, wearing white a white vest with no sleeves. From their torso and down was blurred out, like they didn’t want Wonshik to see. Black hair hung past their shoulders in thick waves that reminded Wonshik of the girls he used to play with in his village, but something very distinct and sharp about their face made Wonshik wary.
Why are you here? The spirit tried again, tilted their head down to look Wonshik in the eyes.
Wonshik frowned, a little taken aback because the face was pale but the entirety of their eyes were black, excepting one narrow white ring in the center which darted to and fro to examine Wonshik’s orange hair, the sharp slope of his nose, the youthful curve of his cheeks. He kept his eyes on the ground.
You’re alive. The spirit said, and their high, sweet voice sounded confused.
Yes. Wonshik thought the word as loudly as he could, and was surprised to find that his voice was a vibrant orange. A little startled, he shifted around awkwardly as the spirit gave what he supposed was a smile, and finally forced himself looked up into those extremely unsettling eyes.
You won’t be for long. Not if you stay here. They said, the smile dropping from their lips as their eyes darted around warily. Wonshik felt a little sick watching it, like the blackness where the spirit’s eyes were was a negative space that shouldn’t have existed. Wonshik found it extremely unsettling, but he’d also never had a lucid conversation with a spirit before. Most spirits wandered aimlessly, looking pathetic and lost; this one was intelligent.
You need to go back.
Why? He asked, perturbed.
You’re not safe here yet.
The spirit didn’t get to finish their phrase. There was something that sounded like a deep rumble, like the earth itself was heaving. The spirit’s eyes widened in panic and Wonshik’s stomach sank to his feet. He began to tremble.
With a mighty crack, the ground to Wonshik’s right ruptured, a crevice easily twice his height and deeper than he wanted to imagine forming where the earth split. For a few moments, there was silence.
Run. The spirit breathed, their hazy fingers wrapping around Wonshik’s wrist. Please, run.
Wonshik looked from the crevice to the spirit, trying to process what was happening. He’d never known the other side of the bridge to be anything but peaceful, but his heart beat unsteadily in his chest and he swallowed thickly. He stepped closer to the crack in the earth, his eyes widened with fear as he realized that it stretched for what looked like miles, ignored the way the spirit’s fingers tightened around his wrist and tried to pull him back.
Please, please just run. They whispered, but Wonshik didn’t listen. He was focusing on the shifting under the earth’s surface, the metallic rumble that grew steadily louder until there was metal shrieking in his ears.
He turned, the spirit moving with him. He ran.
As they ran from the depths of the fissure, the monsters came; the murderers of his people, the mirror-movers who had sliced into his family’s flesh and destroyed his village. The spirit grabbed his arm, yelling something that Wonshik was too frightened to understand. They were racing, running as fast as they could, and the negative landscape blurred as Wonshik was scooped into the spirit’s transparent arms with inhuman strength, his stones crackling at the direct contact. He didn’t protest-his voice was stuck in his throat, anyhow-but he watched over their shoulder as the monsters drew closer and closer in the hundreds, the thousands.
It’s a dream, child! The spirit yelled, and Wonshik hardly registered it. You have to wake up. Wake up! Please, wake up!
Nowhere is safe, he realized, and clung to the nape of the spirit, summoning all the strength he had left in his stones to snap himself back to the other side of the bridge.
He woke screaming, his entire skull consumed by fire, choking on his own blood where he’d bitten through his lip. There were hands, faces, voices everywhere whispering and holding him down and he sobbed, his chest aching beneath the weight of something he couldn’t grasp. The line between what was real and what was dead had become too thin and he was burning, his soul too hot, searing him from the inside when it fluttered against his flesh.
There was a healer, he saw, but behind him-a tall figure with long black hair, black eyes, and a beautiful face, brows creased with worry and confusion. Wonshik’s eyes flashed with panic before two firm hands rested against his temples and he fell into a dark, lingering silence.
Who are you?
It was a voice, high and sweet--but it sounded conflicted, and Wonshik wasn’t sure why he could hear it so clearly through the pain he felt shrieking through his every breath and thought.
I am... lost. He answered.
He tried to open his eyes, but there was only the darkness, the reversed landscape on the other side of the bridge to greet him. He couldn’t see anything right away, and could barely make out the shapes of the hills and the trees that he knew stood outside the refugee house.
You don’t seem lost. The voice said, and it was more cautious this time.
Wonshik whipped his head around, trying to focus on its source, and felt his spirit stones send a thrill up his spine.
And you don’t seem like a dead thing. He retorted sourly, his eyes narrowed. He could almost see the spirit’s face, see the shape of their eyes and...was that a smirk on their face? He felt laughter ripple against his senses, washing over him in tiny waves that made his vision blur. His stones hummed against his spine.
Where are we? Wonshik asked, forcing his eyes to focus as he turned to face the tall, slender figure. They crossed their arms over their chest, peering thoughtfully down at him.
We are in-between. They answered.
Wonshik huffed. That’s not helpful. He said. He mimicked the spirit, crossing his arms over his chest stubbornly.
When you crossed the bridge, you used your stones, the spirit said, and you took me across with you. That’s not supposed to be possible. They frowned, dark eyebrows furrowed in agitated thought.
I don’t know what happened. Wonshik answered carefully, though his palms pricked with sweat.
You have never used your stones to walk before?
Wonshik shifted around, toeing at the grass beneath his feet. What’s it to you?
The spirit snorted, their laughter washing over Wonshik again in waves. His skin tightened around his bones. There was something unnatural about their laughter, something seductive and frightening. His stones ached indignantly in protest.
When you walk, you are vulnerable. You create a thread that can be pulled from either end. You were dreaming of the Jachyra, and the Jachyra became real. The spirit paused, looking directly at Wonshik. Did no one teach you?
Wonshik tried his best to not be offended by the sweet, mocking tone of the spirit’s voice. He kept his lips pressed tightly together, digging his nails into his forearms. He would die before admitting that no one wanted to teach him, that no one knew how. That he was a living curse and a burden.
The spirit gazed at him, their frightful inside-out eyes darting up and down the defiant lines of Wonshik’s body. Wonshik tried not to fidget.
I see. They said, and suddenly they were close, so close Wonshik was looking straight into their dead, black eyes and panicking because he saw nothing but an empty void. His instincts told him to draw back. His skin crawled all over his body but he stood fast, too stubborn to be the first to back down. He stared up into the spirit’s face for what felt like an eternity, gnawing the inside of his cheek to keep from turning around and bolting.
As swiftly as the spirit had come, it was gone, another ripple of laughter making Wonshik’s limbs tremble. He didn’t repress the shudder this time.
You had no teacher. But you are young, and can still learn to wield your stones. They said, their voice high and sweet like the breeze that used to run up the river in his village. His heart was beginning to hurt. His stones felt too warm and his palms too cold; clammy against the crook of his elbows. He wrapped his fists in his shirt and shivered.
What did you mean, I took you across with me? Wonshik asked in an attempt to control the conversation.
Exactly what it sounds like, human child. The spirit chuckled softly. Wonshik braced himself against the blurred laughter, shuddering as it soaked into his skin.
The spirit leaned down again, their faces a few inches apart to study his face. Wonshik’s heart thudded loudly against his ribcage, his stones stirring anxiously in response to their proximity.
You brought me back to the world of the living. That’s not supposed to be possible, but you managed to make it so. The spirit inhaled deeply, like it was smelling Wonshik, and he felt his shaking knees threaten to buckle underneath him.
You have a gift. I will help you to use it. But now, human child, it is time.
Wonshik felt the world become unsteady beneath his feet, uncrossing his arms to steady himself as he began to fall; but the motion happened slowly, as if he were moving frame-by frame, and he watched with horrible fascination as the spirit’s face became more defined the longer he fell. The black leaked from the corners of their eyes in tiny specks that shimmered away into nothing, the long black curls shortening to curl under their jaw. They looked... human.
Time for what? Was all Wonshik could manage to ask. He was still falling when the spirit hovered over him, one hand pressed against his chest, the other cupping his chin.
To wake up. They whispered directly into his ear, and the sound was so frighteningly real, so very human, that Wonshik cried out in fear.
When he felt his palm connect with the ground, his stomach gave a mighty heave; time slammed forward, rattling him deep into his very bones as everything suddenly became real again, seconds ticking by as he felt pulled from the darkness towards some kind of surface. His eyes, he realized, he was trying to open his eyes-
Sitting upright, his lungs and spirit-stones shrieked in agony as he drew unsteady breaths and looked around the bedroom. He was alone, at least physically-but the tingle from the three white opalescent stones in his spine spoke otherwise.
He knew, then, what the spirit had meant when they said Wonshik had brought them with him across the bridge. He buried his face in his hands, overwhelmed and frightened and far too unsure of what he had done.
He sank back against the stiff pillows, his hands still covering his face to hide his watering eyes. It had been years since he had cried. He wasn’t eager to break that record. He pulled his pillow closer, curled on his side with his knees pressed into the wall, hummed quietly to soothe himself into sleep. He was halfway down when there was a weight at the foot of his bed, the rustle of blankets warning him as someone sat down at his feet. Wonshik’s voice stopped in his throat, but he was too exhausted to open his eyes, too scared to face reality just yet.
A high, dulcet voice carried the melody where Wonshik had left it, his heart speeding up very slightly. He knew that voice, recognized its smooth cadence. Hearing it through his ears instead of his mind was a new experience, but he found it more calming this way.
His stones tingled along his spine as soft hands smoothed over his bare arms, pulled the sheets up around his shoulders, traced a line over the spirit-stones in his back even though they were covered by his shirt. His stones crackled weakly, but both Wonshik and the figure on his bed knew he was too drained to pose any real threat.
Wonshik somehow knew that if he opened his eyes, he would see the face of the spirit-or at least, the spirit as they wanted to appear. The image of the spirit’s shortened hair, sharper face, human eyes as he fell from the other side back into reality flashed behind his eyelids along with a feeling that Wonshik could only describe as yellow-an affirmation. That was the face, the human face. His mind was fizzling out, his thoughts breaking off mid-way and confusing what was real with what wasn’t, soothed deeper beneath the surface by that sweet singing voice. So he could still connect with the spirit, then. His mind filled with yellow again. He pictured yellow in his own sleepy brain, sending back the same positive feeling.
He didn’t resist when the body on the bed moved to lie down beside him. He shifted over to the wall without a word, accepting what he perceived as the inevitable; maybe he was even a little grateful, he realized, as an arm snaked around his waist and pulled his back closer against a flat, hard chest. They never stopped singing, though, and their lips brushed the outside of Wonshik’s ear as they finally settled against the pillows. Wonshik’s stomach fluttered as he nuzzled into the warm body that cocooned him, wondering if the spirit had a name, now that they were more of a person.
“Leo,” they said abruptly. It took Wonshik a few heartbeats to realized that the spirit--Leo, he corrected himself--had just read his mind directly and answered out loud. “My name is Leo.”
Wonshik was too tired to respond, so he made a passive noise, filling his mind with the color of sunshine to let Leo know that he understood. He drifted to sleep with Leo’s honeyed voice in his ear and fingers carding delicately through his hair.