“It’s time, Anna.”
I open my eyes and smirk at my father who’s standing in front of me.
“It’s the final match; how are you feeling?”
“I’m feeling great!”
I’ve always dreamt of this moment. Taking home the first place in the World Kendo Championships. I won the Woman’s Individual yesterday. And today, I’m here to claim the world title against Sho Akiyama, the champion for Men’s Individual.
Like my father when he was younger, I was invited to compete in the tournament after winning the European Kendo Championship. My family and I were thrilled when I received the news that I’m going to Tokyo just nine months ago.
“Let’s see, how would Polya put it… Ah! ‘This is the final level; don’t you dare die here.’ Hah, but on a serious note, I’m so very proud of you. I remember only coming in second when it was my chance.”
“But I’ll always remember how I got here, so thank you, Hiraga-dad-sensei.”
“Ha! Well? What are you waiting for? Go win that medal and make your old man prouder!”
I begin to walk towards the competition area marked on the sprung floor of the gymnasium. The cheers of the audience echo as the preparations between Sho and I are announced.
The match will begin shortly, and it will be an interesting one. Sho not only won the last championship but the one before. He is said to be the best Kendoka, and playing against him today is already a great honour. He was three years older than me when he won his first championship at the age of nineteen. I remember watching his matches when I was younger, but because of this, I know his playstyle. Hopefully, this could help me.
I take a deep breath and walk into the competition area with my white tag. After bowing towards Sho, I walk towards the starting line, draw my Shinai and sit in Sonkyo.
― I’ve got this.
The match begins shortly afterwards. Sho and I let out a shout and we clash our Shinais in the centre. We stare at each other through our helmets anticipating each other’s next move.
― Sho is so much taller up close. I am already quite tall, but he still towers over me.
We dance around the battlefield until I step back and swing my Shinai.
* * *
I strike at Sho’s helmet and bounce back, holding my Shinai up while keeping my posture in check. Soon the referees all hold up the white flag, giving me a point.
― We’re tied now… Whoever scores next, wins.
Still catching my breath, I make my way back to the starting line and wait for further instructions.
Even though I feel like I am usually faster and stronger than the opponent I’ve faced. Sho was an even match. Despite his size, his movements are swift and rapid, which combines with each of his heavy strikes, makes it hard to block, parry or dodge.
When the referees clear us to resume, we again charge at each other. Soon, we reach overtime after passing the five minutes we have. Every moment for the final point is extremely intense; attacks are constantly thrown at each other while we try to defend against them.
Suddenly, Sho’s movement changes as he steps his left foot back while sliding his right.
― I know this…
Sho launches his signature move as he begins the storm of heavy-lightning-fast attacks. In the moment of which time seems to have slowed down, I close my eyes and imagine his next moves, thinking of a counterattack. When I open my eyes, I follow my plan as I envisioned.
I step back, dodging his initial strike. When he swiftly continues his combo, I move to block each strike smoothly. While guarding against his attack, I find an opening that allows me to thrust my Shinai to Sho’s throat and Tsuki. The match finally ends when the referees raise the white flag, giving me the final point to win.
The gymnasium is soon filled with cheers and whistles as Sho and I return to the starting line, sit in Sonkyo, and sheath our Shinais. When we get up, we step backwards, take our bows, and exit the court.
Once stepping out of the court, I let my emotions run wild as I rush towards my father who awaits me. I race at him with my remaining strength and grasp him tightly.
“I’ve done it! I’ve done it!”
My father pats me on my hand and laughs as I wipe my joyful tears on my father’s shirt.
“You have actually done it, Anna. You’ve just claimed the world title! This calls for a celebration!”
“Let’s wait until we return home so we can also celebrate with Mom and Polya too. Besides, I want to rest after the match today. Also, our flight is tomorrow morning, right?”
“Yeah, you wanted an early flight back, no?”
“Yeah! We need to prepare for our upcoming trip to your hometown!”
“We still have a good couple of weeks before Polina’s birthday. We could have explored more of Tokyo since you’ve never been here.”
“We’ve already been here for about two weeks.”
Before my father could say another word, he chuckles in my direction as someone walks up to me.
“Hi, you’re Anna Feodorovna, right? I’m-”
“Sho! Akiyama! Sorry! Yeah, I’m Anya. Nice to meet you. It’s an honour, Sir.”
My eyes sparkle with excitement as the previous world champion approach me. He reaches his hand towards me as I reach mine to shake his.
“The honour is mine. I came here to congratulate you. You proved yourself as a worthy opponent despite your age. You are also the first person who managed to counter my moves.”
I put my fists on my hips and look up at him with a proud smile on my face.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you perfectly counter it at the end?”
I smirk at Sho, thinking of a way to tell him without oversharing.
“Your moves were telegraphed.”
Sho stares off into the distance, thinking about what I’ve said.
“Hah… very well then… So, shall we? The awards ceremony is about to begin.”
I look back at my dad as he nods and takes out his camera.
“Remember to smile!”
I left for the courts alongside Sho and wave the back of my hand at my father.
* * *
“Anya Fyodorovna? We’re huge fans. Can we have a picture, please?”
Two girls younger than me walk up to my seat from the back of the plane.
“Excuse me, please do not disturb the passengers. You are not allowed in the Business Class.”
“It’s okay. Thank you.”
I nod at the stewardess who’s trying to keep the peace, then I look back at the two girls next to me.
The girl with the auburn hair pulls out her phone and takes pictures with the three of us. During some of the shots, my father decides to jump into the pictures as well.
“Thank you so much, Miss Anya. But ummm…”
The other girl with the Emerald green hair holds out a pen and a leaflet from the World Kendo Championship.
“Yeah! Of course!”
I grab the pen and the leaflet.
“Do you also play Kendo, ummm?”
She brushes her hair, tucking it back behind her ears.
“Yeah, I just started it about a year ago.”
“And your sister?”
“I’m Alisa. Sadly, I don’t… but I do archery.”
“That’s nice! I always wanted to try archery.”
“It’s quite fun! Maybe when you try it, you’ll be the world champion as well.”
“If only it’s that easy.”
― To Liza and Alisa, best of luck in your future! Love, Anya.
“Thank you! I’m gonna frame this!”
“Liza, I think we should go now. Our parents must be wondering where we are.”
“Oh yeah. Better before one of the crew comes back as well!”
She turns towards me once again, showing the same sparkle as when I met Sho.
“Thank you so much. It’s been great meeting you. Hope we’ll meet again soon! Bye!”
The sisters leave to their seats as I rest down on my chair.
“Look who’s getting famous.”
“I’m inspiring others and that’s what’s matters, right?”
My dad pats me on the head, smiling at me. We soon lean back and wait for landing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Sheremetyevo International Airport. Local time is ten eighteen in the morning and the temperature is seven degrees Celsius. For your safety-”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“Depends on the time, I told your mother that we’ll be picking up Polina, but I might be dropping you off there first. I’ll bring our stuff back home and drive your mother to the shopping mall we usually go to. Then we celebrate for the night!”
“Sounds good. Do you think mother’s awake now?”
“She should be-”
My father’s phone suddenly rings.
“Ah, speaking of the devil.”
He picks up his phone only to hear nothing coming from the other side.
“Hello…? Can you hear me, Love… Hmmm… Must have been… an accidental call.”
“Should have bet you that she’s still asleep.”
For the first time, I witness Father without a smile on his face.”
“Right, let’s hurry then. We don’t want to have Polya waiting for us.”
* * *
It took us more than an hour to leave the airport and reach the car. It wasn’t fun; the oversized sports equipment was a pain to travel with. Two more hours more have passed before reaching Polya’s school. I hop off the car and check if I have left anything important.
“I’ll be back in an hour with your mother. Meet you at Magick’s?”
“Sure, let’s see how many games can Polya go through before you arrive.”
“Hah, I’m sure it’ll be more than a hundred. Right, see you soon, Anna. Let’s celebrate ‘till we drop when I come back.”
“See you, Dad. Love you!”
My father smiles at me, the biggest I’ve ever seen.
“Love you more, Kiddo.”
― Am I thinking too much, or was there a hint of sorrow in his eyes?
I wave goodbye as he drives away. After a few moments, I walk into the school reception and wait for my sister. When she arrives at the school reception and sees me, she runs towards me in delight.
“Anya? Anya! You’re back! I’ve missed you!”
“I’ve missed you too, Polya.”
Polya charges into me with her full force and squeezes me tightly. I hug her back and ruffle her hair.
“I saw the livestream of the competition! That final match was amazing!”
“I can’t believe I’ve pulled that off as well.”
“Did you see through him because he telegraphed his move like I told you?”
“Yeah, if you have never told me, I wouldn’t have noticed.”
Polya takes out her black, white, and gold headphones from her small schoolbag and put them on her neck. She got them recently when she dragged me and my family to an Esport match before leaving for Tokyo. The headphones are quite expensive as they are covered in black carbon fibre and golden stripes.
“So, where are we heading to?
“We’re going to wait for Mom and Dad at Magick’s.”
“Oh nice, ready to lose again, Anya?”
“Oh no, I’m gonna win this time.”
“I like to see you try.”
We slowly make our way towards the shopping mall while arguing about who’s going to win. When we arrived at the arcade, we quickly went onto the machines and challenge each other to only find myself losing in every game we’ve played. Soon, an hour passed then another, but there is still no sign of our parents who said they would arrive in the previous hour.
“Anya, where’s Mom and Dad? Shouldn’t they be here already?”
“I thought they would be as well.”
I take out my phone to check the time, then I ring both my parents and aunt without success.
“… They aren’t picking up. Hope they’re alright…”
“When Dad dropped me off at your school, he doesn’t look too good.”
“Was it because of the flight?”
“I don’t think so… But Polya, I think… we should go home now.”
“Yeah… I think we should too.”
We start walking back home. The distance between the shopping mall and home is about fifteen kilometres. It’s usually a calm and relaxing walk around Lake Pleshcheyevo, but now, every step we take seems we’re walking onto uncharted grounds.
“Are we there yet? We’ve been walking for more than an hour already.”
“Polya, we’re not even halfway home… but come here, I’ll carry you.”
I stopped by the fence and lifted Polya onto my back.
“Yay! Thanks, Anya.”
“Don’t move too much; we still have a long way back.”
“Sorry… Oh, by the way, Anya. Was it just me or did you feel the arcade is a bit stuffy even as there weren’t many people?”
“I thought that was just me, but I guess not. It might just be the aircon.”
Polya adjusts her headphones and leans on my back. After walking further along the lake, the sun eventually sets and the atmosphere changes as the starlight glow warmly. The lake next to us reflects the moon's radiance as the wind creates waves on the water surface.
After around two hours have passed, we finally reach the street that our home is located. When I spot the streetlights are all out, I let Polya down and hide her behind me.
“Polya, stay close to me. Something doesn’t feel right…”
Polya grabs onto my waist, walking slowly behind me. When we reach our house, the lights were also absent. I take a deep breath and walk towards my father’s workshop close by.
― This isn’t the time to cower.
I take Polya into the shed and turn on the lights inside only for the lightbulbs to implode.
We shuffle across my father’s blacksmith equipment to reach his office. I sat down at his table and reach into the secret compartment my father showed me in case of an emergency. I take out a Soviet semi-automatic pistol, a box of nine by eighteen-millimetre rounds and a taser.
“Polya, do you know how to use a taser?”
“Looks simple enough, you point, and you shoot. But I only get one shot. Better make it count then…”
I hand over the taser to Polya.
― This is a bad idea.
I load eight rounds into the magazine, slide it into the gun and cock it so that it chambers a bullet. I then remove the magazine, load an extra round, and slide it back into the gun again. With the safety still on, I set it aside on the desk.
“Polya, look at me. I’m going to check the house, don’t open the door unless it’s me.”
“How do I know if it’s you.”
Before picking up the gun again, I walk towards the wall mount that displays some of my father’s katanas and scabbards. I quickly wear one onto my belt.
“Why the katana Anya?”
“I don’t trust myself with a gun, but I do with a katana.”
I return to the desk, grabbing the gun, and make my way towards the exit. Before leaving the room, I see a flashlight on a shelf. Thinking about what had happened before, I take the flashlight and hold it out to try my luck. At first, it didn’t work but then to my surprise, it turns on rather - magically…
― I’ll take what I have.
When I’m at the door of the shed, I look back at Polya.
“Polya… If I don’t come back… Hide until morning and call Aunt Liliya. I… I’ll see you soon.”
“Promise you’ll come back, Anya. Please…”
I sigh, closing my eye gently and open them with determination. I shut the door and make my way towards my house.
“Mom…? Dad…? Are you here?”
There is no answer, but faint footsteps can be heard
I point my gun up, gripping it tightly with both hands while the flashlight sits in between my index and middle finger. My thumb is on the safety lever, ready to switch it off.
Soon I reach the living room. As I flash my light around, I find something that broke me.
I rush towards my dad who’s kneeling on the floor, his hands dangling on his sides. His lifeless body slopes forward with his head tilted down to the floor.
“Dad… Wake up… Please… Wake up.”
I shake my father’s shoulder, tears rolling down my face uncontrollably. With no response, I crumble down onto the floor.
“No… Dad… Why…”
I slowly look up at Father’s empty face and edge forward to hug him only to cut myself on something.
I move back and notice he is impaled by a shadow-like sword from his back.
“What? What is this?”
When I reach for the shadow, it dissipates and my father’s body plummets forward. I catch hold of his body before it slams onto the floor. I hold his cold body tight in my arms not wanting to let go. Soon I am covered in blood, crying helplessly on the floor.
“Mom… Mom… Where’s mom…”
As I lay my father down, a flicker of light shines from my left. I look towards where the light is from and see a katana glowing dimly in the dark.
“Is this my father’s?”
I pick up the katana and studies it. The katana is light and easy to move with. The katana is mainly black with a white hilt wrapping and two golden guards, both marked with a silver four-pointed star but one rotated by forty-five degrees horizontally. The is also something chained to the guard.
“Hah… The necklace I made for my father.”
I let out hollow laughs between sobs while looking at my present.
“I’ll look after this for you, Father.”
I unsheathe my katana and replace it with my father’s. I then thrust the other blade into the floor next to my father. Once I’m done, I grab hold of my pistol and stand up. When I point my flashlight around, I realize there is a trail of blood leading from my father’s corpse towards the study room. I hold my gun up again and slowly follow the blood trail.
“Mom? Are you here?”
“Anya…? No… You can’t be here… Run…”
I slowly open the door into the study room and see my mother sitting in the corner of the room, breathing heavily. She’s holding her hand over her bleeding wound while it glows dimly.
I run towards my mother, using my hand to cover her bleeding wound.
“Mom, you’re alive! What’s going on… I saw dad-”
“I know… you must have so many questions now… but there isn’t… time to explain. You’ve… got to get out of here…”
“What? No, I can’t just leave you!”
“You have to… Where's Polya?”
“She's in the shed. She’s armed with the taser.”
“Go to her… and run to Liliya. She'll explain everything…Go!”
“No! You’re coming with-”
“Well, well… Isn’t this interesting? Look how much you’ve grown, little girl.”
Someone appears out of nowhere. He’s nicely dressed in Lapis-blue and black trench-coat.
“Anya, go! Styx! Your fight is with me! Don’t you dare touch her!”
“Oh? But you're already dead, ‘Zorya’. You can't stop me now; this isn’t like before; you’re not the … chosen one anymore.”
“Feisty girl, this one. Aren’t you supposed to be afraid of the dark?”
Styx slowly walks towards me and my mother. I point my pistol at him, ready to fire. He ignores it and keeps walking towards us.
“I said stand back!”
I pull the trigger and unload the magazine.
I look at Styx, who is just looking at me with a confused face.
“Who do you think we are? Humans? Bullets can't hurt us. Zorya, don’t you teach her anything?”
“Well, let me introduce myself. Let’s see… I’m Styx… I’m the ruler of Paranormia. And no, I have NO connection to the Greeks…Umm… I think that’s about-”
Styx stops at the glimpse of my father’s katana sheath on my left.
“I was wondering where that katana went right after killing him.”
“That's... That's the best katana I've forged with your father... Hah… Thank you...”
I drop the pistol and unsheathe the katana which brightens the room.
“Ugh, do you mind? It’s bright.”
“You’re scared of this?”
I run towards Styx and swing my katana at him, but he easily dodges.
“I thought you would be at least faster.”
Styx forms a layer of shadow around his fist and throws a punch at me. Before I could react, Mother launches herself in front of me to block the punch. She stares into my eyes; her skin starts to glow and break apart.
“Please… Take care of Polya for me.”
Still blocking Styx’s punches, she snaps her fingers and a white circle forms behind me.
“Step through that. It’ll lead you to Polya.”
“Oh, I’ll just catch up to them soon.”
Mother turns around to face Styx.
“You have to go through me first.”
“Sorry, Mother... And thank you...”
I step into the white circle and suddenly, I’m next to Polya. She aims the taser at me at first, but soon she throws down the taser and runs towards me. I wanted to stop her from hugging me, but I realised the blood on me are gone and my father’s katana I was holding sheathed itself in its scabbard.
“That doesn’t matter anymore. We have to go to Aunt Liliya.”
“Have you found Mom and Dad?”
I crouch down and stare into her eyes.
“They aren’t with us anymore, Polya. We-”
“What? No? What do you mean? They’re just not at home, that’s all.”
“Polya, look at me. They… They haven’t unlocked the respawn button.”
“They will one day, right?”
I hug Polya closely.
Soon our hug is interrupted by a phone call. When I reach for my phone, I found something I wasn’t expecting.
― This is Mom’s necklace. Why is it here?
“Huh? Oh sorry… I spaced out…”
I pick up the phone.
“Hi, sorry I didn’t pick up before, I was… On a work trip. I want to ask, is your mother with you?”
There was a silence between us. Before long, she starts speaking again in a quavering voice.
“Where are you now?”
“In my father’s workshop with Polya.”
“I’m coming over to pick you up.”
“I’ll meet you on the main street.”
“Run as far as you can along the main street towards my house.”
I hang up the phone and remount my katana onto my back. I nod at Polya and starts running from the shed and onto the streets. When Polya is falling behind, I decide to hoist her up onto my left arm. When we reach the main street, we look back at what we had called home one last time before suddenly a flash of bright light explodes from the house covering everything.
“Our home… What… what do we do now, Anya?”
“The only thing we can do… Run.”
― Goodbye, Mom… Goodbye, Dad… Don't worry, I'll protect Polya... Even if it cost me my life.
Tears start to form again when all of a sudden shooting stars emerge in the sky. Polya and I come to a halt and admire the light show. At that moment, I close my eyes and make a wish.