By Keely Walsh
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 north was laid a century ago, to signify that it was the road to the capital, where the governor once guided the actions of the denizens of Kokai. They do not remember the years that it took to lay the stones, nor how their parents and grandparents may have worked to build this monument of love to their land so that their children might easily travel to the capital city.
None of those children remain. Now, only spirits of the night walk the land of Kokai. They are numerous, tall or short, lithe or clumsy, slow-witted or cunning, unsettling and grotesque in shades of purple and green, partially-exposed bone and muscle. They stalk the deserted towns, scuttling through the shadows of ruined buildings and exposed beams that jut from the ground like their own bones. Some curl into balls in corners and dissipate into mist. Most wander aimlessly or 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 investigates a withered husk lying in a roadside ditch. A wild, matted mane crowns their head, falling across their shoulders. They stop and look up at the flat, grey sky, then continue on, scrambling up the dusty cobblestones.
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 maned one goes to investigate, the fence collapsing beneath them as they climb 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 maned beast picks it up and sees their reflection—yellow eyes in a misshapen face, long, curving teeth, a distorted jaw—and yelps in horror. The mirror drops from their clawed hands into the dirt, and they scramble to pick up the shining disk.
The yelp attracts the attention of the shield-bearer. It crushes the fence as it lumbers into the garden, grumbling. A few three-eyed creatures follow it. The maned one looks up into the shield-bearer’s face, watches its beady eyes focus on the mirror, a disk of bright, shining grey. Those eyes grow large, slowly, and it shifts its door-shield, reaching for the mirror. Quickly, the smaller one gathers its prize under itself. The shield-bearer swings its door forward, knocking the maned one to the ground. They keep the shining side of the mirror pressed to their belly, and the shield-bearer, so deceived, stares at them for a long moment before lumbering away towards the capital. When it is safely gone, the maned beast follows, still clutching the mirror.
There is a corpse on the road, dry and dusty. The elegant robes it wore in life are stiff and brown with dried blood. Black ash, the remains of many dark creatures, sits in fluffy drifts around the body.
It is not the fine robes nor the piles of black ash that draw the maned beast’s attention, though. A fine white mask covers the corpse’s face, and it draws their attention the same way the mirror did. When the maned beast stops and curiously pries at the mask, they are surprised to find that it comes away in their claws. They glance at the sunken, stiff face beneath it, then stare at the mask.
It is heavy and featureless, but for a pair of horns that from the forehead. One horn is broken, the tip laying in the dust not far away. The mask reminds the beast of the mirror in its weight and shine, and they like the way that the ribbons trail in the dust. They look again at the gaping face of the corpse, frozen in a rictus of anger. The lips have receded from the teeth, which stand out white against the brown face. It makes the maned beast think of their own ferocious face, and they shudder in revulsion.
The creature raises the mask to their face and fumbles with the ribbon, which eventually sticks in their mane. They glance at themselves in the mirror, and what they see there is strange and alien–but this flat, calm face is better than what was there before.
The masked one continues down the road, after the others.
The long-rotted remains of fruit lie desiccated in the road, amid packets of powders, broken, empty vials, and other sundries that spill from an overturned cart. The beast with the mask pauses to paw at the remains of the peddler’s riches, their nose wrinkling as dust puffs into the air. There are dull coins scattered in the dirt, but as the beast swipes at the items, they reveal a strand of vibrantly red beads, like blood in the dust.
The beast snorts and sits back in surprise. The color stirs a memory deep inside them, too alien to be recognized as a memory. Nothing they have seen in a long time has been so bright, and they want to keep it. With both hands hand, they pick up the garland and string it across the mask’s ribbon where it meets the dirty mane. The beads hang down beside their face, drip from beneath the mask, and that pleases the beast immensely. They grin beneath the mask, wide and toothy.
The red beads also attract the attention of the shield-bearer. It snorts and narrows its eyes as the masked one jogs past it, and they snarl in return, beads swaying. They both stop on the dry cobbles. The shield-bearer advances, growling. The masked one 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, a sluggish indignation rises in the masked one’s chest. The mask makes them feel powerful, protected, and they scrape a claw over the stones. The shield-bearer is twice their size, and 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 it rears up, roaring, and bangs its shield on the ground with a massive thud. The masked one shudders and backs away, showing their throat in submission. The shield-bearer lifts its door and swings ponderously at them–the door connects, tossing the masked beast into the dust a few feet away with a cry of pain. The larger one grumbles and turns away, its authority assured.
The maned creature remains in the dust for a while, watching the shield-bearer’s back, inscrutable behind their 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. Their muscles feel pulled taut, and they swivel their 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 their mind as they watch the shape of the shield-bearer against the grey sky. They leap, digging their 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, beads and all.
The courtyard is deserted, the clamor from outside the walls muted, the call stronger than ever. The masked one bolts for the doors that stand ajar, heavy timber with massive, pitted metal hinges. Inside the hall it is dark and still, the furniture in disarray. The call drags them up the grand staircase, and there it is.
The masked beast takes three steps forward and grasps the hilt of the keen silver blade. Like a shock, the call vanishes. They stagger, then fall to their knees, fingers still locked around the sword. It slides off its stand to the floor with a clatter, leaving a gouge in the wooden table.
The beast can’t take their eyes off of it. It is the brightest thing in the room. They couldn’t let go of the hilt even if they wanted to.
They sit there for a long time. They notice how heavy and still the air is, how it requires effort to breathe. They remember the road and the shield-bearer, and think of yellow eyes peering out of a shaggy mane. They shiver in disgust. The bright metal of the sword stirs a feeling of sadness in their heart, a yearning for something lost. They glance around at the dim, vaulted ceiling, the silent hall.
What is here? they think. They search for the word. They knew it once. There are some things here, but the important parts are missing. So how many things are left? What is here?
Nothing. The word bursts from memory like light reflecting from a blade. They remember the word “nashi”: none, nothing.
I am here, though. 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, and I will be the one to fix it.
Nashi steps outside, sword clenched in their fist like a lifeline in a dark sea. The other is beyond the outer gate, and as Nashi watches, the wooden gate shakes. Something roars on the other side. Their hand goes to the red beads that hang down from the side of the mask. They have 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’s wrong, they think. This is what must be fixed.
Memories of terror and bruises well up in their chest, and as the shield-bearer advances, Nashi grits their teeth. The shield-bearer may be twice their size, but it is half as fast.
Nashi screams a war cry and charges at the beast. 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 swings, once, twice. The bright blade bites into the dark flesh, leaving a blinding white gash. The shield-bearer staggers, and Nashi places both hands on the hilt and drives the sword into the beast’s chest.
The beast screams a gurgling, choking sound, and Nashi’s momentum is barely arrested before the creature 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
Beyond the choking 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 and 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.