by Esther Davis
Amid the raging battle, the book—not the carnage—captivated my mind.
For years, I’d trained in the ancient art of incantations. I’d conquered armies with a conjured tiger fighting at my side. Father entrusted the enchantment of the Imperial Guard’s armor to my care. Yet never had I created an item so powerful as this book.
It terrified me.
That morning, I’d slid the paper doors shut around me, boxing myself in with our family shrine. Heart pounding, mind racing, I fell to me knees on the bamboo matting. The weaved mat dug into my bare shins.
I spoke not, for fear Father would hear my words. If my ancestors truly cared, they’d read the pleas through my tears.
Help me, my heart begged. This sacrifice…I can’t. Show me another way.
I knelt in silence, already knowing my answer. I must finish what I’d started.
I must defeat the Shadows.
The Kawamoto fortress—a hastily fortified wall of stones at the valley mouth—exploded. Quarried boulders large as ten cows smashed into the surrounding farmland and mountainside. The Shadow infantry marched through the rubble.
Beside me, Father shouted a war cry. Gongs echoed through the valley.
Our army rushed onto the battlefield.
With night hiding the sun’s rays, the Shadows had free reign. Their riders swooped into the valley atop bat-like dragons. Wyrms burrowed below, shaking the earth.
I spurred my mount onward, outstripping the cavalry. Tucked in a satchel beneath my armor, the book thumped against my back. The reminder put a lump in my throat.
If we could defeat the Shadows before sunrise, I needn’t make the awful sacrifice. My family could survive.
The earth in front of me trembled. A wyrm—beaked heard and spiny serpent body—burst upward through the dirt, a Shadow riding upon its back.
Raising my staff, I shouted an incantation. A wave of violet light rushed the wyrm, searing its underbelly’s thick flesh. The wyrm flailed. The Shadow tightened its grip on the wyrm’s spiny back.
I needed back up.
I muttered a summoning spell. The words came without thought, ingrained into my soul by years of discipline. Fur blazing like the dragons’ flames, Taiyo—my tiger—appeared beside me.
Needing no command, Taiyo launched himself toward the wyrm. Flaming claws dug into the wyrm’s hide. I followed atop my steed, staff held aloft, shooting bursts of light at the creature.
The wyrm struggled, thrashed—all to no avail. With a final blast from my staff it toppled. Down, down, down… crashing with the strength of a felled ginkgo tree.
The shadowy rider jumped from the felled beast, a black outline against the night. Taiyo met the rider in midair. The tiger roared, slashing the rider’s throat. The Shadow disintegrated.
I pitied slain mortals, even enemies. But never the Shadows. They spread nothing but terror and heartache across the Middle Lands and sought to destroy Father’s kingdom.
The Shadows continued their attack, surging into the valley like an inky tsunami. I’d never understood the sheer mass of their army until now. Millions of creatures of pure darkness who feared nothing save the sun, all congregated to attack one castle. They wouldn’t flee until the first morning beams.
The battle must finish before then.
I remembered happier days, days before the Shadows rose in power. If my uncle knew what troubles laid in store, perhaps he would have cared less about petty matters.
“Pity you never had sons,” Uncle sneered as we passed him in the castle gardens.
Father wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me in close. Even at such a young age, I caught the protective edge in his voice. “I’m happy with my daughters.”
Uncle scoffed. “Your actions speak otherwise. Teaching girls magic and swordplay? As if it could make them men! You’ve made our empire the laughingstock of the land.”
I stuck out my tongue, certain Father would scold me later. He never did.
As we strode away through the castle grounds, Father leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Your uncle’s just sore that he’s too ugly to catch a wife.”
Father’s warriors battled like tigers. They faced the dragons’ flames fearlessly, and swarmed the wyrms like packs of wild dogs. The cavalry stampeded through the ocean of Shadows. The footman kept the dark tides of the Shadow’s army at bay.
Despite their stout hearts, our army couldn’t win. Not before dawn. I knew that. Yet I stalled, clinging to the hope that Father’s forces would somehow prevail against the Shadows.
I galloped to a group of archers shooting down a dragon and cast protective spells around their flanks. An arrow found its mark. The dragon shrieked as it fell from the sky.
Pulling in my horse’s reins, I took a moment to scan the battlefield for Father. I’d lost sight of him in the initial charge. I found him amid a swarm of Shadows.
Though the Shadows mimicked human form—and once may have been human themselves—the similarities quickly ended. Tall, black, spiked, and armed with spears and cimeters. Demons.
Creatures of evil, nothing more.
The Shadow’s held their distance, wary, hesitant. Of all the warriors and magicians across the Middle Lands, they feared this man—my teacher, my Father—the most.
Father stood beside his crippled horse, staff and sword poised. He’d lost his helmet somewhere amid the fray, his bun knocked loose, leaving his black hair to hang about his shoulders. His armor had been torn from his right arm. Blood stained his bare skin. Yet he stood as kingly as ever.
I watched the shadowy monsters stand a moment longer, studying this man whom they feared. Then they attacked.
Father shouted, conjuring up a blazing shield across his staff. His sword danced through the enemy, slicing them in twain.
“To the aid of your emporer!” I shouted. Taiyo, needing no further command, sped past my galloping steed. Nearby battalions turned to join the charge.
The blazing tiger arrived first, plowing through the flickering Shadows. The enemy surged, aware of new attacks on its flanks. The Shadows twisted and quivered—some fused, growing into larger, troll-shaped beings. Others split into dark, withering snakes.
I galloped at the enemy. Waves of violet light pulsed from my staff. The shadowy monsters vaporized before the powerful light. But the Shadows countered too quickly. One evaded my blow, slipped beneath my horse, and attacked its legs.
My horse let out a cry and tumbled into an ocean of Shadows.
“Yuki, look!” Erika, my younger sister, stood atop a rock next to the coy pond in the castle gardens, wielding a staff as tall as her 11-year-old frame.
“No magic without a grown up around, remember?”
Ignoring me, Erika slapped her staff to the water’s surface. The pond shimmered and glowed yellow.
Erika glowered before lifting her staff from the pond. The shallow water became clear again, but a few of the coy fish kept a slightly yellow glow. “But you’re not a grown up, either. How come you can practice magic?”
“Because I’m seventeen.”
“That’s not a grown up!” Erika dropped to crouch on her heels, pouting.
Mother strode into garden, still dressed in her formal black and red kimono from meeting with the Imperial Counsel. Uncle complained when Father added his empress to the war counsel. Father responded by promoting kitchen maids to counsel positions, too.
“What’s the matter, Erika?” Mother asked.
“Yuki hates me and won’t let me practice magic.”
Mother smiled. “I’m here now. Go ahead and practice.”
“Ha!” Erika stuck her tongue out at me. She leapt from her rock and began running laps around the coy pond, slapping boulders and turning them sunshine-yellow as she went.
With Erika distracted, Mother beckoned for me. She spoke in a hushed voice. “We lost another city to the Shadows. They left no survivors.”
My breath caught in my throat. “Which one?”
Her eyes told me before her lips moved. “Kamikawa.” The city Uncle was defending.
The words hit me like a physical blow. I struggled to speak. “If Father would just let me on the battlefield again—”
Mother shook her head. “He has a more important task for you.” She reached into the fabric folds of her obi belt to remove a book—black and leather-bond.
I turned the book over in my hands. Somehow, I knew this book’s weight went beyond the physical realm.
“The Shadows are coming to the valley. All of them. With this book, your father intends to destroy them here before they claim any more lives. He needs your help.”
The ground rushed towards me, as did the swarm of Shadows. I shouted, sending a flare of violet in all directions. The nearing Shadows evaporated just as my horse toppled, crushing my leg beneath its armored flank.
I screamed before registering the full magnitude of the pain. Tears welled up in my eyes. I could hardly see, hardly think, let alone fight.
The Shadows would be on top of me within moments.
“Yuki!” Father’s voice, screaming over the clanking weapons and armor.
He needed me.
I couldn’t stay here. I couldn’t die. Not now.
Dark figures flew forward, aiming for the kill. My fingers fumbled, trying to regain a grasp on my dropped staff. But my fingers were too shaky, coated with too much sweat and blood.
Then it came—the Shadow. I felt its bone-deep chill before its dark fingers so much as brushed me.
The Shadow hissed, vanished.
Pulsing heat replaced the Shadow’s chill. Taiyo, crouching above my head, roared.
My fingers finally closed around my staff. With Taiyo guarding me, I gritted my teeth and wedged my staff under my unconscious horse. Fighting through the fog clouding my mind, I recited an incantation. Slowly, so painfully slowly, I raised the horse’s body from off my leg.
“Yuki!” Just as I pulled myself from beneath the horse, Father knelt beside me. He took one look at my leg and swore.
He ripped a flask from his side and yanked out the cork with his teeth. Water poured over my mangled leg. My whole body tensed. I couldn’t hold in the sobs.
As Father’s chanting mixed with the battle’s ringing, childhood memories filled my mind. Then, he had healed scraped knees. Now, his powerful words reformed shattered bones, healed bruised muscles, and sealed up severed arteries. I felt his words running through my leg, like warm oils massaged into my skin. The pain subsided. My nervous pulse calmed.
For a moment, I let myself forget—forget the battle, the carnage, the book.
And the final goodbye.
Father offered a hand. I let him pull me onto my feet. I tested my leg a moment before deciding I could trust it with my weight.
My father’s words jerked me back into reality. “The sun is coming, Yuki. It’s time.”
“I won’t!” I threw the leather-bond book at Father’s feet. The cover flew open and the book’s pages crumpled beneath its own weight on the throne room’s bamboo mat.
Father remained kneeling, hands resting on his lap. He met my glare with calm eyes. “No one else can.”
I channeled my frustration through each panted breath. Fists clenched at my side. I never expected becoming the empire’s greatest enchanter to feel like a curse.
“Yuki, we need you.”
“But I don’t want to lose you.” I knew Father. He’d never abandon his soldiers, not in the heat of battle. He’d die alongside them.
Father leaned forward to retrieve the book. He smoothed the pages, one by one. His eyes skimmed the calligraphy lining each page, the enchantments that would seal his fate.
Finished, he placed the book on the floor. “Yuki, I love you. It tears my heart to ask this of you. But if we don’t stop the Shadows tonight, their reign of terror shall never end. They’ve already taken my brother. I won’t lose any more family to them.”
Love—a word never spoken, especially by a man of such high rank. It reined in my anger like a firm hand to a frightened horse.
I’d always known my Father as kind, noble, loving. But somehow, the tabooed word brought something more.
I wanted my Father’s courage then. Not his valor in battle or boldness among the court. I wanted the courage to speak the true feelings of my heart.
The words wouldn’t come. I didn’t have that kind of courage.
But I would use what courage I did possess to honor my father.
“I’ll do it.”
With Taiyo warding off any approaching Shadows, Father helped me limp to the foot of the mountain. Cavalry, much sparser than it had been at dusk, galloped past us to attack a horde of Shadows. A plummeting dragon shrieked, an arrow buried in its heart.
Neither of us spoke. We both knew what I must do—find my mother and sister atop the mountain ridge, then enact the spell.
Clear of the battlefield, Taiyo stooped for me to mount him. Even after Father’s healing, I still felt shaky from falling off my horse. Father helped steady me as I climbed onto Taiyo’s back. His glowing fur felt uncomfortably hot against my bare palms.
Father squeezed my shoulder. “Good luck.”
Then Father left, running back to the battlefield.
Taiyo sprang forward, dodging through boulders and scaling vertical cliffs. I dug my hands into the thick, hot fur around his neck. My trembling legs clasped his flanks best they could.
As Taiyo crested the summit, Mother and Erika came into view, stepping from behind a boulder. Mother had a sword on her belt. Erika held her staff across her chest.
“Where’s Father?” Erika asked.
I thought someone had already told her.
I couldn’t find the strength to reply.
In the east, I could make out the colors of morning light developing on the horizon. Before long the light would find its way into the valley. The Shadows would flee.
I must trap them before then.
I unstrapped my upper armor and let it clang to the stone beneath me. Swinging the satchel forward, I pulled out the black book.
I needed all my energy for this, I turned to Taiyo and dismissed him with a quickly muttered spell. He faded from our physical world.
Setting the thick tome atop a nearby stump, I fanned through the freshly inked pages. Erika peered over my shoulder. I forgot. My sister had never seen the book.
Calligraphy bordered each page—my doing. But the pictures were new. The book’s enchantment drew them.
Slain soldiers from the valley below stared blankly out of the paper. Roaring dragons hovered mid-dive, their flames setting ruined homes alight. A wyrm crashing through the palace grounds tossed trees aside and sent its tail smashing through our coy pond.
The Shadows—their expressionless faces—their haunting eyes—seeming to watch me through the pages.
And Father, his sword raised, his face set in stone. Determined until the end.
The last page fell flat. Completely blank, awaiting my signature.
“What happens when you sign?” Erika asked. Even an eleven-year-old enchantress knew of the Mark—a secret word, derived from one’s name, that would seal the spell.
“They will leave this world and become no more than a story.” The valley, the Shadows, Father—all trapped within paper and ink. Forever.
The first morning beam hit my bare arm. The time had come.
The sun’s warmth had never felt so cold.
I dipped my finger in the dirt, muttering an incantation under my breath. The dirt liquefied at my touch, transforming to red ink.
I hesitated, wanting to pull back. But I had promised Father.
Touching my stained fingers to the paper, I traced out the characters of my enchanting mark, the one Father gave me years ago. Yuukimotteiru. Having courage. At the final stroke, the red ink dried black.
Erika gasped, then turned her head into Mother’s side to sob.
The roaring of battle faded first. Next, the smell of smoke. I didn’t dare look until I knew the valley had vanished completely.
Beside me sat an empty desert valley, nothing more than sand and rock for miles on end.
My spell succeeded. Even the age-proven castle had vanished into its prison of paper and ink.
My body trembled, but I couldn’t find the tears to cry. The spell had drained my last drop of energy. I hardly had enough strength to whisper. “He saved us. And now he’s gone, no more than a story.”
Mother knelt, wrapping her arms around me. I felt her trembling too, but her voice held strong. “Even the noblest of men must return to the dust. But stories last an eternity.”
We sat there, the three of us huddled together, staring over the empty valley as the sun rose behind us. Footsteps must have approached from behind, but I never heard them.
“Ayaka! Erika! Yuki!” My mother and sister jolted beside me, but I was the first one to my feet. I knew that voice.
Father stood behind us on the mountain’s eastern slope, with fifty or so soldiers gathered behind him.
Erika rushed past me and flung her arms around Father’s waist. Other’s would have blushed, but Father pulled Erika in closer and cried into her hair.
“How dare you!” Mother shouted. “I thought you dead! Why didn’t you tell me you would escape?”
Father looked up, face wet, arms still wrapped tightly around Erika. “Because I didn’t think I would make it.”
Then Father looked at me with those kind eyes I never thought I’d see again. “Yuki, the book.”
I panicked a moment, thinking I’d lost it, but then remembered it still laid on the stump behind me.
He took the book and tucked in beneath his armor. “We lost many brave souls tonight,” Father said, turning to his soldiers. “Each of their names shall be recorded, and we will pass them down through history as the heroes who overcame The Darkness. With courage, we slew the Shadows.”
The men, though so exhausted they looked ready to faint, raised their weapons and cheered.
“If we hurry, we can reach the eastern caverns before nightfall. You will see your wives and children tonight.”
Father let one of the archers lead the hike down the mountainside while he trailed behind, Erika hoisted on his shoulders, Mother and me walking on either side. He put an arm around me and pulled me to his side. We spoke no words. We didn’t need them.
With my first book publishing shortly, I’ve had the old adage “The pen in mightier than the sword” on my mind. This story was also heavily influenced by my experience in Japan. I wouldn’t consider it a accurate historical representation (though ancient Japan would be more exciting with giant enemy crabs and the like). However, it does include many distinct parts of Japanese culture.
As always, thanks for reading! (Especially such a long story!) If you liked this story, check out my book, A Dog, 3 Cats, and a Dragon, publishing next week. You can also subscribe above (or below for you mobile users) and follow me on Twitter / Facebook / Instagram.