By Dakota McNally
Several years have passed since Koharu’s return to Kokai.
Since the sword Hikamaru-No-Kobushi met its end, taking the dark spirits with it, Nashi has dedicated their life to defeating and restoring the remaining corrupted residents of Kokai with the help of their apprentice, Mirai, and with the divine protection of Koharu. Yet, the memories of a life before Kokai’s downfall have failed to return to Nashi. The lingering corruption of Hikamaru-No-Kobushi have prevented a full recovery, their memories sealed away without any apparent cure. And one’s past isn’t always escapable, as Nashi would soon find out.
One fall day, on the eve of winter’s arrival, Nashi finds themselves at a village to restock their supplies. Their apprentice, a boisterous youth named Mirai, brags without humility to the villages about Nashi’s accomplishments, deeming them the Savior of Kokai in hope of gaining the favor of the villagers. But when Nashi is offered a large feast by the village chief to celebrate their worthy accomplishments, Nashi politely turns down the offer.
“You should preserve your stock for the long winter ahead,” Nashi tells them. “I will survive fine, thanks to the Blessings of Koharu, but your hard work to outlast winter’s harshness should not be in vain for my few accomplishments.”
The village chief insists on their offer, but Nashi refuses again. Instead of a feast, the villagers offer them a charm. “This charm is an ancient one, passed down in our village for generations,” the village elder claims. “It shall purify the body and ward off evil spirits.”
Upon receiving the charm, Nashi’s body begins to feel lighter, as if the weight of many boulders has been lifted from their fatigued body. The fog that plagued their mind begins to clear, and Nashi begins see clearly visions of the past. Nashi recognizes their village and their former family in these visions, that they had two wise parents and a strong, dutiful sister.
“I remember!” Nashi exclaims. “I remember the snowfall, its graceful fall wiping the earth clean. I can hear echoes from long ago, bouncing like toads off the northernmost peaks of Kokai. It is as if history is whispering its secrets into my soul.”
“Master, you should seek out these voices.” Mirai says, tugging the sleeve of his master energetically. “I am sure the answers you seek lie in those northernmost peaks.”
Nashi places a gentle, but firm hand on their apprentice, requesting them to collect firewood for the night. They deliberate a journey to the northernmost mountains, known for impassable blizzards and crags as tall and tough as spears, in hope of seeking answers. Nashi kneels beneath a shedding sakura tree and prays for Koharu.
“Oh Koharu-o-kami, Deity of Kokai, who has returned to us and graced the earth with Her blessings. Daughter of the Lost Deities of Old, Keeper of Balance between the realms of Hikakai and Yamkai. Hear my plea and offer me guidance in exchange for a lifetime of servitude.” Divine light shines from the heavens above, illuminating the sky with another sun. The mortal form of Koharu, connected in heart and soul with the Earth, appears before humble Nashi. Her kimono’s intricate designs shift with the passing of time, garnished with the harvested fruits of fall. Deer and rabbit prance across the orange and yellow folds of the silk, which moved gently with the autumn breeze.
Nashi kowtows before the divine goddess, honoring her kindness and generosity.
“You may stand, old friend. You have paid your respects, both to me and to this world.” Koharu speaks. “You may speak freely before my mortal form.”
“I seek your divine protection in my journey to the northernmost peaks of Kokai, so I may fulfill my role as a dutiful child. I wish to be at my sister’s side, taking care of my parents in their old age.” Koharu, however, seems hesitant.
“Your journey may bring more hurt than solace, noble human,” Koharu speaks, her voice gentle. “I recognize and respect a dutiful child’s desire to aid their parents in their old age, but time has long passed since your return to mortality. The great lands of Kokai have changed.”
“Can you handle this journey, without falling back into wayward corruption?”
But Nashi persists, in hopes to prove himself before Koharu. “I must know,” Nashi insists. “It is my duty, but it is also my solace to know.”
Koharu, able to sense Nashi unwavering curiosity and resolve, finally agrees to accompany them personally to their village, giving Nashi her blessing. “But I must warn you, noble Nashi, that winter will be upon us soon. My physical presence in Kokai will begin to diminish upon reaching the longest night of the year.”
“Upon the sun’s setting on that fateful day, I must return to the heavens above to restore my strength while Kokai hibernates. From there on, the journey will be yours alone.”
Agreeing to Koharu’s conditions, Nashi begins their long and treacherous journey across the great expanse of Kokai. As they travel across many continents, lands wrought with fissures, and over great seas inhabited with wrathful sea monsters, more and more visions return to Nashi. They begin to remember making rice with their father, and hunting for hares with their mother. Passing through an oasis in a sand-drowned land, Nashi reminisces playing with their sister in the bamboo forests that covered the mountainside. They used a watermelon as a ball and were scolded by their parents for bruising the poor fruit.
During their travels, Nashi’s party begins hearing a recurring tale from the storytellers traveling the northern lands of Kokai, one about a village in the mountains plagued by a malicious spirit. “This spirit is cunning. Nobody has ever seen it. And it never fails to lead villagers to their deaths every winter,” a traveling storyteller proclaims. “Beware if you ever cross the northernmost peaks of Kokai, weary travelers.”
Undeterred by the legends, however, the party presses on. After sixty long days and sixty bone-chilling nights of travel, through relentless blizzards, snow drifts, and frozen cliff sides, the three reach the base of a snow-capped mountain within the northernmost peaks. And as Koharu had warned, her body has grown considerably weaker. Her skin has grown deathly pale, her kimono now resembling that of one fit for burial. Upon arriving to the snowcapped village, the ever boisterous Mirai attempts to brag about the accomplishments of his master once more. But Nashi’s name is only met with disdain by the villagers, who have been warned of the one who once bore that notorious name.
Nashi the Thief.
“But you certainly cannot be the one who bears that thief’s name,” the village chief says, studying Nashi’s appearance. “Eighty long years it has been since my father exiled Nashi from this village.”
“Nashi the Thief nearly starved this entire village,” a town elder proclaimed, stepping up. “Nashi hoarded the village’s harvest to themselves by raiding the larder nightly. They concealed their stash within their quarters, no one the wiser.”
“But that cannot be,” Mirai says, shaking his head. “My master is no thief. Nashi is the Savior of Kokai, the one who tamed darkness and light and saved this world from ruin. They are far too humble and generous.” Mirai ran up to Koharu, who lingered toward the back of the group. “Hear the testimony of my master’s deeds from Koharu-no-kami. She cannot breathe a lie.”
“Blasphemy! This woman is clearly plagued with illness!” A villager cried out. “How dare you dishonor Koharu-no-kami!”
Nashi places a stern hand on Mirai before he can act any more foolishly. They step forward, and bow deeply to the village chief. “Good chief, I mean you no disrespect. I am indeed Nashi the Thief, who was exiled from this village eighty years ago.” Nashi declared. “I succumbed to corruption upon my exile, but have granted new life so I may right my wrongs. I realize owe this village more than I can offer for the crimes I committed, so please heed my selfish wish and allow me to atone.”
Nashi finished, continuing their bow. A frosty wind rattled the village rooftops as the chief deliberated “…very well. Then I have a task that your vile cunning will certainly be able to fulfill.” The village chief spoke harshly. “You will slay the horrible spirit who haunts these mountains and claims the lives of our villagers. If you exercise this spirit, seal the beast inside this talisman as proof.”
“If you fail, do not bother returning.” The village chief leaves the bowing Nashi. The other villagers scatter, each keeping a suspicious eye on Nashi the Thief. Koharu, in her weariness, approaches Nashi. Her pale skin is like snow, her white kimono dominated by the powdery whiteness.
“Troubled Nashi, I fear that my presence will disappear come nightfall. The longest night approaches fast, and this body is no longer strong enough to travel” Koharu pulls a whittling knife out of her robes. “But do not be easily deceived. Not everything is always as its seems.”
“Take this. You’ll understand how to use it when the time is right.” She pushes the knife towards Nashi.
“I am most honored and am in your debt, benevolent Koharu-no-kami.” Nashi bows, accepting Koharu’s gift. “Young Mirai, I trust you to be a good retainer until my return.”
“You can place your faith in me, Master.” Mirai bows respectfully as Nashi sets off into the bamboo forest alone.
Nashi, with only a blade at their side, wanders into the thick, bamboo forest. Searching the craggy mountainside, Nashi seeks out the wretched spirit who has claimed so many of the villager’s lives. Upon their searching, however, Nashi discovers a woman robed in white in the forest, her fair skin as radiant as the moon, her hair as black as a raven. She kneels at a rock, weeping with clutched hands, burying her face. The woman looked as if praying for relief.
“Are you ok?” Nashi approaches her slowly, kneeling down. The woman is comforted by Nashi’s kind eyes and stops crying, her sorrowful face hidden beneath her hair.
“My name is Yukiko, kind traveler. My parents have been spirited away in the night, and I have spent many hours looking for them. But…” the woman nearly weeps again.
“Please, allow me to help you.” Nashi offers her a hand, which she hesitantly takes. Yukiko’s hands felt like frost upon metal as she struggled to her feet.
“You are too kind,” the woman says, bowing respectfully. “Thank you.”
Yukiko and Nashi pace through the thickening bamboo forest, searching through the thick brush until they happen upon a clearing. A cave, riddled with icicle like razor sharp teeth, sits like a beast on the other side. Nashi decides to enter the cave’s eerie maw, carefully drawing their sword. Within the beast’s stomach, Nashi discovered the screams motionless bodies, trapped forever within crystal-like ice.
“Have you found them yet?” Yukiko’s voice echoes, a sour bitterness resonating from her. Nashi cautiously approached the frozen bodies of an older couple, a man and woman. Images of visions long past fueled Nashi’s panic.
“They passed away in this cave. A blizzard snuffed out their lives, forced to bare false burdens.” The woman peeled her raven hair back, revealing the soft, tearful face of Nashi’s sister. Her delicate lips were painted red, her cheeks flushed from the cold. “But you have finally returned when I thought you dead.” Yukiko wept in relief. “I thought I had lost you too.”
“Sister.” Nashi shook their head, bewildered. “What happened to you?”
Yukiko tells them her tragic tale. The village chief, the father of the current chief, would steal from the larder little by little during the winter months many years ago. He was greedy, but clever, only stealing as much as a rodent would every night, but this would slowly and surely starve the village. But Nashi knew better than to believe the chief’s deception, so they planned with a couple villagers to catch the chief in the act, but when they peeked into his window, the chief was fast asleep. The next day, the chief gathered a search party and raided Nashi’s home, discovering that a portion of the larder has been moved to Nashi’s room.
The villagers arrested Nashi and their family for stealing the rations. Nobody spoke on their behalf, leaving Nashi and their whole family to be exiled from the village, thrown at the mercy of nature’s wrath. Their family found shelter in this very cave, but blizzards prevented the family from leaving. Nashi, in an act of recklessness, decided to search for game in the forest, only to disappear without a trace. Their frail parents passed into the next world later that night. Before Yukiko starved to death, she placed a curse on the village as revenge for their foolishness, to lose one of their loved ones to the harsh winter snow every year after.
“Please, help me, Nashi. Our parents never deserved to die,” Nashi’s sister pulls a knife as sharp as glass out of her robes. But Nashi shook their head.
“Before I give you an answer, dear sister, I must honor our parent’s death the proper way so they can pass on to the next world in peace. I only ask for half a day before we can speak again,” Nashi says.
Nashi leaves the cave, placing some distance between them and their sister. They cut down a bamboo stalk with their blade until it is of appropriate length. Then, Nashi pulls out the whittling knife and begins fashioning a shakuhachi, a bamboo flute favored by Koharu-no-kami. Half a day passes, the sun sailing the skies to the other side as the longest night approaches before Nashi finishes their work. Content with their work, they begin to play the flute, walking back towards the cave.
Reaching the icy maw once more, Nashi’s sister peacefully listens to the sound of Nashi’s shakuhachi, filling the air with the nostalgic air of summer’s warmth. Then, from the forest, a figure walks out of the bamboo stalks. Nashi’s mother, dawning her hunting robes and carrying a sphere, appeared from the forest. Nashi teared up at
the incredible sight of their deceased mother, their sister meeting her with disbelief.
“Dear mother…” Nashi’s sister spoke in a whisper.
No more words needed to be spoken as Nashi’s mother embraced their sister. Flames of many brilliant colors licked Nashi’s sister, melting her frozen heart and spirit in her mother’s arms. Her mother shapeshifted, and in an instant, Nashi’s father replaced her.
“Father…” Nashi’s sister wept. Her father held her tenderly as the flames burnt away Yukiko’s frosty kimono, replacing her robes with one that radiated a brilliant red. The flames spread throughout the cave, melting the bitter ice to free the trapped spirits of the frozen villagers.
Nashi stopped playing their shakuhachi, and the being resembling their father shapeshifted once more. Taking the form of a Kitsune, a shapeshifting familiar, the foxlike creature began to shrink. The Kitsune, as small as a wisp, flew into Nashi’s shakuhachi to take residence inside the instrument.
Yukiko rose from the ground, and approached Nashi. Nashi embraced her, finally reunited with their sister.
“Thank you. For freeing my vengeful spirit, and for giving me a second life.” Yukiko says gratefully. Nashi and Yukiko agree to give their parents proper burial rights outside the village. Without any bodies to bury, Nashi and Yukiko made two graves near a cliff side overlooking the mountain range in the snow. Before the sun could set, however, the divine spirit of Koharu-no-kami appeared before them, in her full glory.
“Take these heavenly seeds and plant them before your parent’s grave,” she instructed. Nashi and Yukiko dug a hole in the snow-covered dirt and planted the seeds. Then, with the last bit of Koharu’s divine strength, she melted the snow before the graves, where two tall trees sprouted from the earth, bearing ripe fruit in the midst of winter. Nashi and Yukiko take a fruit from each tree and places them in front of the graves as an offering in their parent’s honor.
Returning to the village, Nashi bore no proof of having slayed the malicious spirit. Yukiko’s untimely return, however, moved one of the eldest villagers, a woman who at one time was Yukiko’s best friend. Overjoyed and guilt-ridden by her return, she admitted the wrongdoings of the village chief’s father, ashamed to have not spoken up until now. Several other villagers chorused her statement, who all apologized to Nashi and Yukiko. The village chief, unaware of his father’s malicious actions, apologized with great fervor for his harshness, declaring that he will find a way to atone for every bite of stolen food his father fed him.
Nashi then presented the ripe fruit to the chief, telling the villagers of two trees that bear fruit unusually early in the wintertime, so that the remote village may never go without food during this season. The tree, however, only offers a single fruit a day for any one person, so that no villager can hoard its offerings. All Nashi asked for in return was for two fruits to be set aside every winter in honor of their parent’s grave. Nashi reassures that the spirit has been tamed, as well, but warns the village to always walk in pairs whenever exploring beyond the village in the wintertime.
Departing from the grateful village with their sister and apprentice, the three travelers reach a crossroads at the base of the mountains. Yukiko declares that she wants to see the world, so that she may atone for what revenge had done to her. Nashi offers Yukiko their shakuhachi, containing the pipe fox, to protect her on her journey, and some money to buy herself a proper sword. Parting ways, Nashi and their apprentice say their farewells to Yukiko, setting off south to seek warmer lands.