Once upon a time and an age ago, there lived two great friends, Owaku-sabe and Otara-sabu. They ate together, they sang together and they trained together. They were, you see, members of the Emperor’s Guard and had the special duty of guarding his son, Akime.
Now, most of the people in the land had dark hair, almond eyes and skin the colour of old partchment. They were a handsome folk, but Akime stood out among them because his hair was blond, his eyes blue, and his skin was the colour of fresh cream. Some thought his appearance was strange, but the two men found him to be of great character and spirit.
In those days, a man was expected to be skill at the arts, at sport and at letters and Akime was already skilled in all three. In addition, he had a curious mind and a gentle heart and so all those at court wished him well and even the peasants looked forward to his reign as Emperor. All, that is, except foul Kusato. She was a witch of the Black Jade who made her home in a cave high in the mountains. She hated joy and hissed and spat on kindness.
So fierce was her jealousy of Akime that she used her witchcraft to go into his dreams where she gave him strange nightmares and visions that made him cry in the night. This left him dull and disinterested by day and he grew worse with each passing night. It was dark magic, but no one could find its cause.
Owaku-sabe and Otara-sabu were greatly vexed by this and very worried, but what could they do? Their finest lullabies could not soothe him and how could they use their swords against an enemy that had no form?
After months full of long nights and great anguish, finally they found a way they might help their young charge from suffering so. An elderly witch of the White Jade came to court. She said her name was White Fox and she had been sent by the yama themselves to break the curse that had fallen on Akime. She had a powerful magic, but needed sturdy warrior to complete it.
When they were at last able to find an empty council room in which they could speak with no fear of being overheard, she explained the spell.“I can send you into the World of Dreams. When you arrive there, you will be void and without form, but you are strong of will and, with my power added to yours, should be able to take a shape that will serve you there. Then, you must find your heart-line. You both love the prince, and love him more than all things, so it should lead you straight to him. Once there, you will need to defeat the witch that haunts him.”
The two men bowed in assent to White Fox’s wisdom and two days later, on the night of the new moon, the three gathered in a nearby orchard. The two men drank a special tea White Fox brewed while she chanted and sang prayers to many spirits to open the doors to the World of Dreams and ease the two men into its embrace. They soon disappeared and awoke in the World of Dreams.
The air reeked of rot. The sky was a gaudy orange, the trees were so yellow that they hurt to look at, and the stars sang strange songs as they darted through the sky like comets. Otaku-sabe and Otara-sabu realized they were without form yet and concentrated mightily. It worked, though not as expected. Otaku-sabe was now a great orange tiger while Otara-sabu was a regal white tiger.
Now that they had forms – unexpected though they were – the World of Dreams made more sense to them. It was still not like the waking world, but the colour no longer offended the eye and the song of the stars had become musical. Their wits now about them, the two warriors set out to find the heart-line. It was obvious, a great, lavender-coloured path lead out of the dream they were in, with only the smallest of branches leading off in other directions.
They followed it, using their new-found sense of smell and their acute hearing to keep alert for danger, and soon they found themselves in Akime’s mind. It was a forest, and the men knew that each tree was a dream. Almost all of the trees had been pierced by the fangs of some beast and the trees shook and shuddered even though there was no wind. They hunted for the beast through the forest for hours and finally found it.
It was shaped like a man and yet like a beast, a spider or perhaps a scorpion or serpent, a creature of shadow that flowed and oozed through Akime’s dreamspace.
"I am Kotaku," the thing said through a mouth full of jet black fangs. "I am the Ruiner of Hope and the Destroyer of Faith. I am the Eater of Souls and the Ravener of Courage. Your prince has made a fine meal but tonight he dies."
The two men leapt as one and struck the creature mightily, but it flowed around them, taking new and stranger forms with each attack, such the two soon found that their strength was fading.
When the two were nearly exhausted, the shadow thing struck Otaku-sabe a powerful blow and the orange tiger fell as though dead. Before Otara-sabu could even react to his friend’s terrible injury, the forest began to glow with a brilliant purple flame that surrounded his friend who was already rising to his feet. Otara-sabu realized what had happened – that heart-line meant that not only did they love the prince, but the prince loved them in return. Singing of his love for his master, Otara-sabu rallied and leapt once again at the shadow thing. Otaku-sabe rose and fought as well, and this time the shadow thing could not flow around them. Every time it tried, the purple flame rose up and burned away another piece of shadow. Soon, the last scraps of shadow vanished.
Almost immediately, the trees began to heal of their wounds and the two tigers were glad, romping and playing in the dream forest.
The prince awoke to find White Fox sitting by his bedside. He was startled because his two bodyguards never allowed anyone into his bedchamber at night, for fear it would make the terrors even worse, but her manner was gentle and kind and he soon calmed.“Why are you here, old woman?” he asked.
“Did you dream?” she asked.
Akime frowned. As a prince, he was not accustomed to a peasant not answering his questions, but reasoned that if his bodyguards trusted her, he should trust her as well.
“I did. I dreamed of tigers that fought a monster made of shadow. It was a good dream.”
“Prince, those tigers were your bodyguards. I had hoped that their love for you would be enough, but it was not. They needed some of your spirit as well. The help you gave them has bound their spirits to you. They will never again leave the World of Dreams.”
The prince tried not to cry.
“Will . . . will I see them again?”
White Fox smiled.
“Yes, every night, in your dreams. And when you fade into the next life, they will survive in dreams. Maybe someday they will find another prince to protect.”
“I would like that,” the prince said. He yawned.
“You need sleep, young prince,” White Fox said, helping him lie back down and bringing a blanket up under his chin.
“I do,” he said, closing his eyes. He opened an eye. “Will you watch me? Until dawn? I have bad dreams, every night.”
“I will watch, young prince,” she said, gently stroking his back. The prince closed his eyes and fell asleep almost immediately. She thought of Kotaku's body, which would now lie abandoned in her cave in the mountains. It would take some time, but eventually her spirit would return. The prince would be long gone, but Kotaku would just turn her destructive hatred on someone else. She should leave now - there were rituals that could keep Kotaku from returning for some time, but she would have to start them soon.
Just then, the prince sighed and yawned in his sleep, content at last. White Fox smiled and leaned back in her chair.
“I will watch,” she said quietly. “I will watch.”