SHADOWS IN SAKAMURA



SHADOWS IN SAKAMURA, by Matthew Wuertz

 

The moon cast Tsukiko’s shadow as a larger figure than it should have been, both in height and girth. She walked along a simple road, wearing armor and carrying a naginata – a pole weapon fitted with a curved blade at one end. She carried the sheathed weapon with one hand, resting it against her shoulder.

The foliage to the left rustled, so Tsukiko paused. As four young men emerged onto the path, she took a defensive stance and brought the naginata level to the ground. Three of them carried clubs.

“Look what we’ve found,” one of them said.

The unarmed man pulled out a knife. “Drop your weapons, pretty thing,” he said. “We just want to have some fun.”

“Your next step should be backwards,” she said, flicking the sheath off. “Turn and go, or you will die.”

The man with the knife nodded, and they rushed toward her. Tsukiko’s shadow turned sharply, connecting with one of the young men, who suddenly stopped. “I’m holding the one on the right,” it said in a masculine voice.

Tsukiko shifted her feet and lunged, striking another. As she pulled the naginata free from his eye socket, the one on the far left struck her arm with his club.

Tsukiko dropped her weapon in pain. In front of her, the man with the knife thrust toward her face.

His movement stopped short. “What?” he asked.

Tsukiko’s shadow had repositioned itself between her and the young man. It slid backward, and the young man followed the movement like a marionette. Under the shadow’s guidance, he took a side step and swung the blade into the man who’d struck Tsukiko.

She backed up a few paces, and her shadow pulled away. Tsukiko drew her katana, though she was much less skilled with the weapon.

The two men ran off. From within the forest, one of them shouted, “May the emperor become food for dogs!”

Tsukiko sighed. “Well, those will be wasted lives, Katsu.”

Her shadow shook his head. “I didn’t want to kill all of them unless it was necessary. Perhaps those two will reflect on matters later.”

She tried to examine her arm in the moonlight, but it was too dark. “Where did he hit you?” Katsu asked.

“My wrist. I can’t tell if it’s broken.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him in time, Tsukiko.”

“You kept me alive.”

“Their shadows had an odd smell. There was something diminished about them, as though they were cast by a weaker light.”

Tsukiko nodded. “That is strange.”

 

#

 

Tsukiko walked through most of the night, but when dawn came, the sunlight cast her as the shadow and brought Katsu into his physical form. He’d become used to the cycle by now – moonlight cast him as Tsukiko’s shadow, and daylight did the opposite.

Katsu followed the road northwest, watching Tsukiko’s outline – a moving silhouette of his love. He missed her beautiful face, especially the way her eyes danced when she smiled. He saw her better when he was a shadow, but his senses were limited in that form, except toward other shadows.

They soon came to a village, beginning with a humble ryokan that perhaps offered only three or four rooms at most. A gaunt man, likely the innkeeper, stood near the road. “Good day, sir,” he said, but his countenance was troubled. “Would you like a rest from your travels? I offer reasonable rates and decent meals.”

“Look at his shadow,” Tsukiko whispered.

Katsu nodded. Tsukiko was nearly twice as dark as the innkeeper’s shadow. “How is your business?”

The man wiped his eyes. “It has turned sour. No one will stay here in Sakamura. There is a curse upon us or some foul spirit; I do not know which.”

“Perhaps I can remove such a curse,” Katsu said.

The man walked around Katsu. Then he bowed. “I did not notice your appearance, my lord. It is not often that I encounter makurai. If you can remove the foulness from this village, you may be my guest without charge.”

“I accept. Please show me to a room.”

Inn Keeper Illustration Copy

 

#

 

After drinking tea, Katsu and Tsukiko spent time in prayer. When Katsu stood, she remained in a kneeling position. He smiled at the thought of what someone might think of a shadow that doesn’t match the movements of the one who’s casting it.

In silence, he inspected his armor that was carefully laid across the floor. The wax-hardened leather had a hardness that reminded him of a turtle’s shell.

While he rotated the helmet in his hands, Tsukiko screamed. She stretched between him and the window. “Help me, Katsu!”

Katsu picked up his naginata and cast a brilliant flash of light toward the window. But he hadn’t looked away and became blinded for the moment. As his eyes cleared, he found Tsukiko back to her original form, still attached to his feet.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Something took part of me. I… Katsu, I’m weak.”

He looked out the window but found nothing there. Heedlessly, he slid the door open and hurried into the courtyard.

“Is there something you need, my lord?” the innkeeper asked.

“Did you see anyone come by here? Did you see anything unusual?”

“I saw someone running along the road, heading into Sakamura.”

“What did he look like?”

“I don’t know. Just a person running. I didn’t look closely.”

Katsu noticed that the innkeeper’s shadow matched the intensity of Tsukiko. “Thank you.”

While Katsu redressed, he asked Tsukiko how she was doing. Her voice was faint. “I can’t see anything, Katsu. I don’t think I can even move much.”

“Then rest,” he said.

 

#

 

Sakamura was a group of houses and shops on a hill with a dirt road threading through them like an eel. The afternoon sun shared the sky with a few clouds, giving momentary relief from its brightness.

Katsu could feel himself carrying Tsukiko along. It wasn’t a physical weight, but she wasn’t moving of her own volition as she usually did. Her movements perfectly matched his, and every step was taxing on him in an inexplicable way. She’d lost her independence.

He distracted himself from the strain by watching the shadows of everyone he encountered, and they all had the same dimness. He wondered if they noticed; judging by their dour faces, they certainly felt the loss.

A peddler offering fresh fruit caught Katsu’s attention as he was passing by the stand. “How is business?” Katsu asked.

“It has seen better days,” the man answered. He seemed near Katsu’s age, but his build was much slighter. He dabbed his forehead with a cloth.

“Why do you say that?”

“We had an illness that afflicted our children a few months back. It was pretty bad. Nine died. I knew them all, of course; most people did. We’re a close community, praise the emperor.

“After that, people just weren’t the same. It’s like we’re still mourning those young lives. While I’m saddened for that loss, I feel a heaviness on my heart that goes beyond the tragedy. At least, I think it does. I don’t know if I can rightly explain exactly what I feel.”

His face softened into a weak smile. “I am burdening you, my lord. Allow me to honor you with this choice melon.”

“You needn’t lavish gifts upon me.”

“Oh, but my spirits are lifted simply by your presence. If you will not take it now, I will send it to the ryokan.”

“There is a ryokan nearby?”

“Surely it is you who stays there. If not you, then another makurai, and that seems unlikely. I haven’t seen one in months.”

“You are correct.” Sakamura was a close community, he thought. “You may send the melon to the ryokan. Thank you.”

As the afternoon wore on, it became increasingly difficult to survey people. The dark shadows of the buildings overtook anyone who walked too close to them. Katsu clenched his fists and growled.

“What is it, my love?” Tsukiko asked.

“I need to see every shadow,” he said. “Whoever did this wouldn’t have drained their own.”

“Perhaps this is the work of some other phenomena. I don’t know what drew part of me away. Why do you suspect a person?”

“There are spells that can be performed under the strength of many shadows, even partial ones. I have never attempted such magic, but it isn’t uncommon knowledge.”

“There aren’t any makurai here, but perhaps there are others who are magic-born. You should ask.”

Katsu nodded. He inquired of the next man he met and was given directions to a healer’s house.

Katsu followed the winding road up the hill. He passed two young men who stood to the side. They whispered between themselves and took turns peering at Katsu. “I think I just saw the youths from our encounter last evening,” Katsu muttered.

“Did they see you?”

“Yes, and they didn’t look pleased.”

“But they don’t know you were involved last night.”

“No, but they know there was a makurai, so they’ll likely want revenge against any of us.”

Katsu tensed as he slowed his pace, expecting to be called out or even attacked directly. But he turned the corner without incident and continued on his path.

The healer’s house stood halfway up the road before the next curve. It seemed quaint and still, like a snow-covered tree in winter. There was a narrow alley next to it that led uphill, threading between houses before reconnecting with the road.

A woman in a pink kimono appeared in the doorway. “My lord, I am honored by your arrival.”

“Are you the village’s healer?”

She stepped into the street, far enough that her shadow should have appeared on the ground, yet there was nothing. “Yes. My name is Miho.”

“I am Katsu. May we speak inside?”

Her hands came together, squeezing. “Oh, well, yes.”

She led him inside but made no motion for him to sit. Instead, she stood very close to the door, preventing Katsu from moving more than a step inside without asking for her to move.

“You were magic-born, correct?”

“Yes,” she said. “But my powers are in such small measures compared to someone of your rank.”

“Have you noticed the waning shadows?”

“Yes, and I fear that has affected people. As you can see, mine is completely missing. I try to avoid appearances so that no one notices. It’s like a blemish.”

Katsu scanned the room, noticing a mat and a short table. There were two urns on the short table – simple, austere vessels that likely aided her magic in some way. He wasn’t accustomed to healing magic and knew little of its techniques.

“When did things begin happening?”

“Recently,” she said. “I’m afraid I don’t know the exact day. When I noticed my shadow was missing, I started watching people, noticing that everyone’s were decreased.”

“Perhaps it happened all at once,” he suggested, but she made no response. “Have there been any makurai here recently? Or any other magic-born?”

“Oh, I think there may have been one – a makurai like yourself. Do you think he was the cause of this?”

“Possibly. Can you tell me anything about him?”

“I’m sorry, my lord, but I didn’t see him closely.”

“Mamma?” Katsu looked past the woman, waiting for a small child to come into the room.

“Please excuse me, my lord. I must attend to my children.”

“If you recall anything else about the makurai, please find me at the ryokan.”

“I will. Farewell.”

 

#

 

Outside, Katsu wandered up the road. “I can’t tell if she’s lying or guessing about that makurai,” he said.

“Perhaps when moonlight comes, I can return to speak with her.”

“You are more discerning, especially with body language.”

“Katsu, I’m very weary. I’ve let you move me forward, but it’s still exhausting. Is there a place we can rest until evening?”

He stopped. “Yes. I saw an izakaya earlier. I hope they have good sake.”

“Since when do you care about quality?”

As Katsu turned to go back, he almost ran into a boy. “Are you a makurai?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Can I see your sword?”

“It would be improper to draw a weapon here.”

The boy pointed to the naginata. “Is that heavy?”

“Not for me.” Katsu was about to sidle past the boy when he noticed the boy’s shadow was whole. “How old are you?”

“Eight.”

“I heard there was an illness here.”

“Yes. I was sick for a while. I think my friend Arata is still sick. Some kids died. Mama said they’re with Onarukami and others who died a long time ago, like my grandfather.”

“Yes, they are.” Katsu laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Stay to the right path and obey Onarukami, your parents, and the emperor. You were chosen to remain here, so you must make the most of it.”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, my lord.” He bowed so far over he almost fell.

After the boy ran off, Tsukiko whispered, “I thought you weren’t fond of children.”

“That one is an exception.” He started walking down the empty road. “And about exceptions, his shadow was complete.”

After a moment, she said, “I think it’s related to the illness in some way. Perhaps children who survived have immunity from the phenomena.”

“An interesting premise. I wish there were other children to observe. Still, I need to get to the izakaya and allow you to rest.”

“And allow yourself to drink some sake?”

“And that.”

 

#

 

Katsu sat on a stool at the end of the empty row. A slit curtain hung behind him to allow some privacy from the street, though it stopped three feet from the ground. Not that he cared much. He’d been in better izakayas, but he’d also been in several much worse. As long as there was sake, he was willing to be more forgiving of the atmosphere.

The owner declined to speak with the makurai about anything of interest, stopping each attempt at conversation with a meek, “I don’t care.”

Darkness had set in, but there were lit candles to give a cozy glow to the izakaya. Another man pulled aside the curtain and sat down. “Good evening, Hotaka,” said the owner.

“Good evening.” The newcomer looked like he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. Glancing at Katsu, he nodded. “My lord.”

Katsu greeted the man. “I’m visiting your town, and I’ve heard about the recent illness. I’m grieved over your loss.”

“That was difficult,” Hotaka said. “It’s still difficult. I haven’t felt this sad for so long in ages. I knew those kids.” The owner set a masu of sake before the man. Hotaka picked up the small, wooden box and took a sip. He began naming children and their parents. “Oh, and Miho’s boys, Arata and Kenji.”

“Miho the healer?”

“Yes. There was no ceremony for them. I suspect it was too heartbreaking for her, so she likely hired someone to bury them privately.”

He’d heard Arata’s name earlier – a friend of the boy he’d met. “Are you sure the boys died?”

“I wish it weren’t so. I know they died because children play. I would have seen them with their kite or running about. Miho shuts herself away much of the time and won’t allow anyone inside anymore.”

“Did I just hear my name?” Miho sat down next to Katsu. She held a small urn in one hand.

“Good evening, Miho,” Hotaka said.

She nodded. “Tea, please,” she said to the owner. She touched the edge of Katsu’s masu. “The sake is good, isn’t it, my lord?”

He shrugged. “Hotaka hasn’t seen your children for some time and feared the worst for them. I was about to tell him that I heard them myself when I visited.”

“Yes, it’s true. They’re home.”

Katsu sipped his sake, watching her eyes. He didn’t see any changes in them. He wondered if her eyes would shift with a falsehood. If only Tsukiko could observe her.

“Then they recovered from the illness?” Hotaka asked.

“Almost completely.”

“Almost?” Katsu asked.

“Yes. I just lack a few items, one of which I think you can help with, my lord.”

“I don’t understand,” Katsu said, but as he spoke the words, he felt lightheaded, as though he’d drank much more than he had.

She glanced at his masu and smiled. Then she left the counter.

Katsu fumbled for his naginata. He knocked it over and struggled to pick it up. As soon as he stood up, he felt a sudden chill, but not from a breeze. It was more like the sensation of removing a shirt.

Katsu held his hand near one of the candles. It didn’t cast a shadow onto the counter.

“Tsukiko!” He pushed the curtain aside and rushed into the street.

Miho ran down the road, carrying the urn in one hand and a staff in the other. Then she darted down an alley.

He started after her, feeling his body shaking from whatever she’d drugged him with.

“Leaving so soon, my lord?” The young men from the previous evening walked into the road. One of them carried a katana, and the other carried a knife.

In the distance, someone played a meditative song with a bamboo flute. It seemed alien and inappropriate.

Katsu leveled his naginata. He shook it lethargically until the sheath fell to the ground. “Flee now,” he said, his voice slurring the words.

“You don’t look well, my lord,” the one with the katana said.

He looked at the young men and realized he couldn’t trust his reactions well enough for a fight. So he turned and ran. Though unable to fight, he could still run – much faster than the young men.

Katsu followed a curving road toward the healer’s house while the two young men followed. He called to the shadows as he ran, and they converged upon the road, adding to the darkness.

The healer’s house was dark and quiet. Katsu rushed to the front door and pushed it open. Farther down the road, he heard the young men approaching.

Inside the house, Katsu charged down the hallway and into a bedroom. Miho knelt at the foot of a bed, speaking an incantation, but he didn’t recognize the words.

Candles surrounded the bed, and it was occupied by two sleeping boys. Two dark shadows played together above them, laughing. “Mama, are you finished?” one of them asked.

The shadows neared the edge of the bed, but their features were well-formed, retaining real shapes. They were also able to exist without being projected onto something, instead being able to appear in the open air. It was if they were actual boys in a darkened room.

Porcelain urns sat upon each corner of the bed. Wisps of darkness swirled about their lids.

Katsu felt dizzy. Was he really seeing all of this? Was he still awake?

Miho stood up. “You shouldn’t be here,” she said.

She surged at him, driving a knife toward his chest. It glanced off his cuirass, and he cursed the drug for its lethargic effects. Without any finesse, Katsu grabbed her and threw her to the ground, nearly toppling over with her.

“Help me!” she cried. “I’m being attacked!”

He tried shouting Tsukiko’s name, but his tongue wouldn’t function at all. Even so, she called to him from one of the urns, “Katsu, let us out!”

It took him three tries to smash the urn. “He must be in there!” he heard one of the young men say from outside.

Tsukiko’s shadow returned to Katsu. Much of the rest of his body was numb, but he could feel her presence.

“Katsu, what’s wrong?”

He stumbled over to the window, feeling for the shutters. “There he is!” someone called from the doorway.

Katsu threw open the shutters, and the cool moonlight washed over his features, dissolving him into shadow while Tsukiko became a physical presence.

 

#

 

Tsukiko took a long breath. “I’m alive,” she said to herself.

The two young men stood by the bed. “Hey, it’s her,” the one with the katana said. “You stopped my knife attack, so let’s see what you can do against this.” He took cautious steps toward her.

She leveled her naginata, but her wrist pained her so much that she dropped it. As he advanced, she stepped back until she was against the wall.

She drew her katana, wishing she’d practiced more with the blade. Her thoughts drifted to her last fight with it – one that nearly killed her.

He slashed from her right, and she blocked. But she didn’t move against him. He grinned, possibly realizing her trepidation.

She took a quick breath and bent her back knee, preparing for his next attack. She blocked his thrust and countered with a lethal strike to his neck.

The second young man took a half-step toward her. She wasn’t sure she could win again, not without her naginata.

A thin shadow stretched between Tsukiko and him, and the young man stopped in place. Katsu muttered something incomprehensible.

“This is the second time my shadow caught you,” she said evenly, concealing her relief. “How many times will it take before you respect makurai?”

“Please don’t kill me, my lady. I’m sixteen and foolish. I fell in with the wrong friends recently. I’ve just been so upset, and I don’t even know why.”

Tsukiko nodded. “You may go. Katsu?” Katsu withdrew from the young man, who ran from the room.

Miho stood up, folding her arms. “Forgive me for capturing you, my lady. But I can keep my children alive like this. Certainly you must understand. There are two of you, yet one is always in shadow.”

“Your spell has come at the cost of the people of Sakamura.” She pointed her katana toward the door. “Look what it’s doing to them.”

“I had to borrow them. My shadow wasn’t enough.”

A crash stole their attention. A second urn lay in pieces. “What?” Miho asked. A dark vapor seeped out of the room.

Katsu curved toward a third urn. As soon as he touched its shadow, it sailed across the room, smashing as it hit the ground. Another mist floated away, through the door.

“No! Make him stop, my lady!”

“Katsu, give her a moment.”

Miho walked over to the last urn and clutched it in her arms. Then she knelt on the bed. The two forms above had some definition to them, but they were regular shadows otherwise.

“Arata and Kenji, I’ve hurt people to keep you here. I just didn’t want to lose you yet. I love you both so much.”

“We love you, too, Mama!”

Miho looked at Tsukiko and wept. “I don’t think I can do it. No, I know I can’t.”

Miho set the urn on the bed. “You must break it, my lady.”

Miho took a long breath and wiped her eyes. “Goodbye, Arata. I love you. Goodbye, Kenji. I love you. I will see you both again someday.”

Tsukiko took the urn and broke it. The remaining half-shadows flowed away, seeking restoration. The pall over Sakamura would finally be lifted.

Two wisps of shadow above the bed moved toward the window. “Goodbye, Mama,” said one. “Bye bye, Mama,” said the other.

Tsukiko set aside her katana and knelt next to the healer. She embraced the woman, letting her cry. They remained there for a long time.

 

_______________________________________________________

Matthew Wuertz develops software in addition to developing fiction. His stories have also appeared in other magazines, including Ares Magazine and Abyss & Apex. Matthew lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, daughter, and two sons. To learn more about Matthew, please visit his website: www.matthewwuertz.com.


banner ad


Comments are closed.