Something up north is calling.
The creatures of the dark do not know which direction is north. They do not know that the well-cobbled road they tread upon was laid a century ago, to signify that this is the road to the capital, where the Champions of Koharu once guarded the governor of the land and provided spiritual guidance. They do not remember the years that it took to lay the stones, nor how their parents and grandparents worked to build this monument of love to their own land, so that their children might easily walk to the capital city.
None of those children remain. Now, only spirits of the night walk the land of Koharu.
They are numerous, tall and short, lithe and clumsy, slow-witted or full of dumb, animal cunning. They are unsettling and grotesque in shades of purple and black, exposed bone and muscle. They stalk the deserted towns, scuttling through the shadows of ruined buildings, exposed beams jutting from the ground like their own bones. Some curl into balls in corners and dissipate into mist. Most scrap over the shining trash of civilization.
Something is calling them north. They know not what, but they heed the call in the fashion of migrating birds, trudging through the leafless forests or meandering down the dusty, cobbled road to the capital. One, a massive, lumbering brute, carries a door torn from its hinges like a shield. Ragged beasts trail along in its wake, keeping a wary distance, but not straying. One creature investigates a withered husk lying in a roadside ditch. Tall horns jut from the beast’s mane, and it looks as if it may have once walked on two legs. It stops and looks at the flat, grey sky, then continues on, scrambling up the dusty cobblestones.
One pauses to scratch a long ear with a clawed back foot. A house sits by the side of the road, a ramshackle fence marking out a withered and dead garden. Something in the garden gleams, and the horned one goes to investigate, the fence collapsing beneath it as it climbs into the yard.
A small mirror lies in the dead soil, facing the sky. The owners of the house may have placed it there to scare away birds, but the birds are gone. The horned beast picks it up and sees its reflection—yellow eyes in a misshapen face, long, curving teeth, a distorted jaw—and yelps in horror. The mirror drops from its clawed hands into the dirt, and it scrambles to pick it up again.
The yelp attracts the attention of the shield-bearer. It crushes the stick fence as it lumbers into the garden, grumbling. A few three-eyed creatures follow it. The horned one looks up into the shield-bearer’s face, watches its beady eyes focus on the mirror, a disk of bright, shining grey. The big one’s eyes grow large, slowly, and it shifts its door-shield, reaching for the mirror. Quickly, the smaller one gathers the mirror under itself. The shield-bearer swings its door forward, shoving the horned one to the ground in a puff of dust. Laying there, it keeps the reflective part pressed to its belly, and the shield-bearer, so deceived, stares at the still body for a long moment before lumbering away, towards the capital.
When it is safely gone, the horned beast follows, still clutching the mirror. When it sees its reflection, it hisses.
Long-rotted remains of fruit lay desiccated in the road, amid packets of powders, broken, empty vials, and other trash, spilling from an overturned cart. The beast with horns pauses to paw at the remains of the peddler’s riches, its nose wrinkling as dust puffs into the air. There are dull coins scattered in the dirt. As the beast swipes at them, it reveals a dusty, shining mask, hidden under a sheaf of paper and emblazoned with a golden crescent.
The beast snorts and sits back in surprise. The color stirs a memory deep inside it, too alien to be recognized as a memory. Nothing it has seen in a long time has been so bright. It wants to keep it.
With a mangled hand, it picks up the mask and places it over its gnarled face. The ribbons snag in its mane, and the mask stays. This pleases the beast immensely, and it grins, wide and toothy.
The dusty mask with the shining crescent also attracts the attention of the shield-bearer. It snorts and narrows its eyes as the horned one jogs past it, and it snarls in return, beads swaying.
They have both stopped on the dry cobbles. The shield-bearer advances, growling. The little beast eases backwards, scraping claws on the rocks. They can both feel how close they are to the thing in the north, feel how its song itches at their skin like a rasping brush in the stone-still air. It has put every wraith and loping beast on edge.
For the first time, the masked one thinks, if sluggishly. A slow indignation rises in its chest. The mask makes it feel powerful, protected, and it scrapes a claw over the stones. The shield-bearer is twice its size. It advances again, bringing its shield to bear, seeing only red.
The masked one is seconds away from leaping for the shield-bearer’s throat when the behemoth roars and bangs its shield on the ground with a massive thud. The masked one shudders and backs away, showing its throat in submission. The shield-bearer lifts its ponderous shield and pushes the masked one to the ground, where it falls with a puff of dust. It grumbles and turns away, the threat to its authority neutralized.
The little one remains in the dust for a while, watching the shield-bearer’s back, inscrutable behind its mask.
The capital city is in shambles. Dust has accumulated in the cracks of the homes and shops, and many buildings lie in ruins. One building sits above them all, its gilded spires reflecting the flat grey of the sky. The streets crawl with dark beasts, which cry and hiss in agitation. They can feel the call, very close, but cannot pinpoint the source. The masked one shudders, hair standing on end. Its muscles feel pulled taut, and it swivels its ears, trying to pinpoint the source of a call that is not quite sound. The dark creatures cluster around the gate to the palace, but cannot get in.
The shield-bearer is there, groaning. It bangs its shield against the palace wall. The masked one watches. An idea grows, dim, in its mind, as it watches the shape of the shield-bearer against the grey sky. It backs up, then leaps, digging claws into the shield-bearer’s tough hide. The massive beast roars, but before it can turn back, the masked one has clambered up its side, leaped from its back to the top of the wall and then over it, ribbons and all.
The courtyard is deserted, the clamor from outside the walls muted, the call stronger than hunger, stronger than teeth. The masked one bolts for the grand doors that hang ajar, heavy timber with massive, pitted metal hinges. Inside the palace is dark and still, in disarray. The masked one gallops up the grand staircase, and there it is.
The call drags it forward. The masked beast takes three loping steps and grasps the handle of the keen silver sword.
Like a shock, the call vanishes, leaving the beast off-kilter. It staggers, then falls to its knees. Clenched tight in the beast’s fist, the sword slides off its stand to the floor with a clatter, leaving a gouge in the wooden table.
Nothing. The word bursts from memory like light reflecting from a blade. It remembers the word nashi, nothing. None.
The beast can’t take its eyes off of it. It is the brightest thing in the room. It couldn’t have let go of the hilt, even if it wanted to.
It sits there for a long time. It notices how heavy and still the air is, how it requires effort to breathe. It remembers the road and the shield-bearer, and thinks of yellow eyes peering out of a shaggy mane. It shivers in disgust. The bright metal of the sword stirs sadness in its heart, a yearning for something lost. It glances around at the dim, vaulted ceiling, the silent hall.
What is here?, it thinks. It searches for the word. It knew it once. There are some things here, but the important parts are missing. So how many things are left? What is here?
I am here, though, it thinks. So what am I then?
I am Nashi, too.
Something went wrong here, Nashi thinks. Something must be fixed.
The sword is in their hand. Something must be fixed, they think, and I will be the one to fix it.
The hall is too dark. They can’t see. Nashi steps outside, sword clenched in their fist like a lifeline in a dark sea. The others are beyond the outer gate, and as Nashi watches, the wooden gate shakes. Something roars on the other side. The hand not on their sword goes to the crescent at the crown of their mask, a benediction. Nashi has only a second to wonder why before the gates splinter and fall to the ground with a crash and a cloud of dust.
From the dust emerges the shield-bearer, eyes narrow and dull. The sight of it turns Nashi’s stomach, makes their skin crawl. Their eyes narrow behind the mask.
This is what is wrong. This is what must be fixed.
Memories of intimidation and terror well up in their chest, and as the shield-bearer advances, Nashi grits their teeth. The shield-bearer is twice their size, but it is half as fast.
They scream a war cry and charge at the brute. The shield-bearer halts, then roars and lifts its ponderous door, preparing to swipe Nashi aside like dust. Nashi darts behind the wall of timber and the sword swings, once, twice. The bright blade bites into the dark flesh, leaving a blinding white gash behind it. The shield-bearer staggers, and Nashi places both hands on the hilt and drives it into the beast’s chest.
It screams, a gargling, choking sound like hissing gravel, and Nashi’s momentum is barely arrested before the body dissolves into streaming black ash. It falls around Nashi in the lifeless air, collecting on their mask and hands. The sword remains clean.
Nashi curls a lip beneath the mask, then speaks. It feels as right as day, and the words come as naturally as breathing.
“When the dark is pushed
Back beyond the shadows,”
Nashi looks up at the hordes beyond the gate.
"Then life will return.”
The streets are choked with dark creatures, but they remain still, watching Nashi, dumb. Nashi’s grip tightens on the hilt of the sword in conviction. One of the beasts steps forward, a growl in its throat. An answering growl rises in Nashi’s.
Let them come.