The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“Katana” by Keiko Weible, Yujin Gakuen Elementary School
Second Place, Elementary Level, 2022
By Keiko Weible
Yujin Gakuen Elementary School
A hundred years into the future, in a mountain forest on the planet Nevadu, a pacifist planet where some humans went because the Earth was no longer habitable, an elderly man taught a young girl how to wield the last human weapon, the Katana, a Japanese sword that, once mastered, could prove deadly.
It was spring, and the scent of flowers floated through the air, along with the songs of Screens (bird-like creatures).
The sun was high in the sky. It seemed like the perfect day to run through the fields and gather flowers, but for Nala, the day was anything but peaceful.
Nala lived with her master, Teshigo, in a small hut in a forest of the Dragon Mountains. Every day she trained and trained, from dawn till dusk. It was a tiring life but a rewarding one. From the training, she had extremely fast reflexes. Teshigo often said she could kill someone if they just so much as sneezed behind her. This made Nala laugh.
One night at dinner Teshigo seemed distracted. “Master, is something wrong?” Nala asked.
Teshigo looked up. “There is something troubling me,” he admitted.
“What is it?” Nala asked again.
“Your training is complete,” Teshigo said. “You need to leave this place, but I have something to give you first.”
Teshigo stood up and beckoned for Nala to follow. She followed him into the room just outside the door to the garden that Nala was not allowed to enter. Teshigo put his thumb to the lock and there was a faint click as the door opened.
Nala’s jaw dropped. Behind the door was a candlelit room and in the middle on a pedestal sat the last katana.
Teshigo sat down on the katana’s right and said, “Come.”
Nala sat down across from him.
“I think it’s time I give you what my master gave me,” Teshigo said. “You know what it is.” He said it more like a statement than a question.
Nala opened her mouth, then closed it, then opened it again.
Teshigo laughed. “Surprised?” he asked.
“Yes,” Nala replied.
“Now, I must warn you,” Teshigo began. “This means you are no longer an apprentice. You will have to leave with this katana.”
“Whenever you’re ready, you can take it. Swear by the blood of your ancestors that you will keep it in the name of all things good.”
“I swear by the blood of my ancestors that I will keep the last katana in the name of all things good.”
Nala felt a warmth spread up her arm and then through her body. It felt really good, like the warmth of the hut after being outside on a cold day.
Teshigo’s voice cut through her thoughts. “Get some rest. Your going to need it for the journey ahead of you.”
She had forgotten that she was leaving in the morning. That erased all the warmth from the contact. She got up and went to her room.
In the middle of the night a reverberating crash echoed through the hut. Nala woke with a jolt and hit her head on the cabinet by her bed. “Ow!” she muttered.
Teshigo ran into the room, soot covering his face. “Run!” he yelled. “Take the katana with you”
“Master . . .”
Nala grabbed the katana and fastened it around her waist, then grabbed a lantern and fled the hut. She ran through the pitch-black forest, the lantern swinging wildly. She looked back at the hut, which was rapidly getting smaller.
“I’ll come back for you, Master,” she said. “I’ll find you again.”
She tripped on a root and fell downhill into a hollow half way up a tree, and then her world went black.
When she came to, she was sitting upside down in a hole in a tree that had probably been the home of several raccoons and a chipmunk. Sunlight filtered through the evergreen canopy above her. The faint sound of water was the only sound aside from the Screens.
She got out of the tree and made her way toward the place where the hut had been. When she got there, there was nothing but ash, and in the middle of the ash-filled clearing stood a huge cairn.
“No,” she whispered. “Master.”
This was Teshigo’s final resting place. It was evident because there was a large stone with Teshigo’s name inscribed on it.
Nala cried so hard she started hiccoughing. At last she got up. “Master, I will rebuild this place and I will avenge your death. I will pass the katana on.”
Nala got up and set to work, first brushing through the ashes to see if anything was left in the ruins. She found the copper kettle that she had boiled water for tea in during cold winters, still in one piece. She also found her antler hair brush, which she had used ever since she could remember.
The next morning Nala began cutting down a very old tree. She asked if she could use the tree’s wood. The tree didn’t answer. She sliced the tree in one stroke and it came crashing down. “Thank you for your wood. I will use it well.” She worked until the tree became wooden boards. The extra wood would last for fires through the winter and into the rough weather of spring. She went to the hollow in the tree where she had woken up, and with nothing but moss to sleep on and keep her warm, she drifted off to sleep.
The nightmares were awful. Nala could see herself fleeing as Teshigo protected the hut. Then a shadowy figure came out of the fire. The figure was small, smaller than her and that was saying something considering she was only twelve. The small figure raised its hand and—
Nala woke with a jolt, hitting her head on wood. “OW!!” Nala yelped. “How many times will I hit my head in a week?!” She flipped out of the hole and landed without a sound on the forest floor.
By midday she had the foundation of a new temple built and was working on the frame. The structure of the place would be a little different. The cairn would be a memorial to Teshigo. The rest of the temple would be around that spot. Lunch consisted of wild fruit and some leaves from a nearby Gen tree. The leaves of the Gen tree are edible but tasteless. It wasn’t a great meal, but at least it was a meal.
Day and night went by until it was autumn. Finally, after months the temple was complete with floors made of woven rushes. The first part of her vow was complete, now to complete the second part.
It was late spring by the time the weather had calmed (although the late season storms were very bad.) Nala had noticed that there were tracks leading away from Teshigo’s cairn. Even though it had been months since the old hut had burnt down, the nearest town was a year’s walk away, and, if the attackers had any sense, they would have waited out the harsh Nevaduen winter in the cave about halfway up the Dragon mountains that had belonged to a Janaterio wasp, a truly enormous insect that was now extinct.
Since no one knew the forest the way she did, Nala felt confident that she could catch up to whoever had killed Teshigo. Also the storms on Nevadu generally lasted longer higher in the mountains, whereas the temple was closer to the lush meadows on the plain.
Four days later, Nala was nearing the cave. It was the middle of the night and she saw a glow and heard voices from inside the cave. She peered around the corner and saw a group of three people inside. There was a girl who seemed angry and was talking very loudly, and two boys, one older and the other younger. The younger one was clearly the leader despite being small. This, Nala realized, was the figure she had seen in her recurring nightmare.
Nala then surveyed the area around her and saw a Hypnos tree, which, despite its name didn’t put you to sleep, but it had thorns that could put a bear to sleep if the thorn’s sleeping poison was injected into said bear. The other thing was that the effect was only temporary (unless you had too much). Also the twigs were hollow so if you took a straight twig and put a thorn in it, it became a very useful blowgun.
After using tongs to grab some thorns and selecting a twig, Nala grabbed a rock, snuck to the back of the cave and threw the stone against the wall so it made a reverberating thunk that got the attention of the older girl.
When the girl was in range, Nala slid a thorn into the twig and blew. The girl slumped over and began snoring. This set off the chain reaction she had hoped for. The older boy came over to inspect what had happened. “Random guy, meet blowgun,” Nala thought as she loaded a thorn in the twig a second time and blew. The boy fell to the ground.
Nala stepped over both bodies and walked down the tunnel. In the main cave the younger boy was sitting with his back to her. “You’re the apprentice,” the boy said. He looked about ten years old, but he acted older.
“Who wants to know.”
“You’re here to avenge Teshigo.”
“Yes. Care to tell me why you killed him?”
“I’ll tell you when you surrender.”
With that the boy snapped his fingers and a ring of fire surrounded the two of them. Nala drew the katana. The boy stood and summoned a sword of fire to his hand. “You’re a hybrid!” Nala said.
“What did you expect?”
He charged. Fire shot from his hand. Nala deflected it back at him. It hit him in the chest but didn’t do anything. She backflipped over the wall of flame. He followed. Nala flew out of the cave, jumping over logs and streams. The boy followed, flames spinning from his hand.
“Come on,” Nala thought.
On the side of the mountain there was a hole made by another Janatirio wasp that ended at the bottom of the mountain right next to the temple. There was also a stream right by it feeding through a hole in the neighboring Gen tree. There it was. Nala jumped and spun in the air. As she predicted the boy sent a bolt of fire at her. She deflected the fire into the stream and a cloud of steam obscured her and the hole.
The fall seemed endless. For the first twelve seconds, the blackness was all Nala could see, then a sliver of light. “Oh boy.” Nala thought and sure enough the light widened and she flew out of the exit hole and nearly crashed into the temple.
A few moments later fire spewed out of the hole. Nala deflected the fire and jumped to the stone ledge above the tunnel. The boy slid out. Nala jumped off the ledge and tackled the boy to the ground. She jumped up and before the boy could react, pushed him into the side of the outcropping of rock that the tunnel came out of. Nala pointed the katana at the boy’s chest. She looked in his eyes and saw fear and pain so close to hers.
“What am I doing?” she thought. Slowly she lowered the weapon and stepped back. “Let’s go to the temple. Then tell me your name and why you’re here.”
“My name is Tatsu. I’m a hybrid boy from Vanor, but I came here after my parents died.”
“How did they die? And isn’t Vanor the opposite of Nevadu?”
“An accident involving Teshigo, and yes. As I was saying, when I found out that Teshigo and his apprentice were here, I came to avenge my family. My father was a weredragon and my mother was a human, so that’s why I can call on fire. I lived in the village by the river on the other side of the mountains and helped restore and defend it when bandits came.”
“What did my master do?”
“He had warned and helped the people in my village, but didn’t warn my parents because of a fight when they were younger.”
“You weren’t with your parents?”
“I was with my grandma.”
“Why did you build the cairn?”
“I respect the teaching and thought it would make more sense to give him a proper resting place.”
“Where will you go after this?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to go back to my village.”
“You could stay here. I do need to pass the katana on to someone at some point and if you won’t kill me, I could teach you.”
“I’d like that.”
“Okay, then, you can stay.”
Four years later . . .
Clang, clang, boom, crunch. Tatsu lay on his back, trying to breathe normally again. Across the yard he saw Nala scrambling back to her feet. Four years earlier, he had burned down the old hut and Nala had nearly killed him. Since then he had, with her help, learned how to use the katana.
“Come on, lazybones,” Nala said while prodding him with her foot. He rolled onto his stomach, got up, and went to grab his training sword that had landed by the old Gen tree.
“You know,” he said, “I miss the day when you tried to kill me.”
“To be fair, you killed Teshigo.”
Nala’s face fell.
“Hey,” Tatsu said as he put his hand on her shoulder. “Teshigo would be proud.”
“You think so?”
“Yup. You fulfilled your promise. Now all you need to worry about is the future.”