When Saba Watanabe was four years old, she woke screaming from a nightmare. In it black smoke pursued her, thick inky tendrils that threatened to devour her at every step.
She ran and ran, her small legs pumping, her straight bangs flopping into her eyes and blinding her.
She was in a cavern, a huge place cut of solid rock that glittered and glowed with gems and veins of pure gold. A beautiful place but for the nightmare that pursued her.
She dashed down a corridor pocked with round niches that seemed to contain interesting things like fat old books and scrolls of paper. She didn't have time to stop and examine this wonder, because the black curls of smoke would catch her at any moment. She knew it would wrap tendrils around her ankles and pull her down, and then the smoke would flow over her and smother her.
Panting, she raced around another corner, somehow knowing that a way out was near but unable to find it. She ran and ran, and suddenly the corridor ended in a blank wall.
Sobbing, she beat on the wall with her small fists, crying in gasps.
She turned and faced the evil pursuing her, trying to summon the strange feelings deep inside her that she could sometimes use to prevent bad things from happening to her. She brought her shaking hands up, palms out, and said to the darkness, "Stop."
The inky black tendrils reared up, as though surprised, then she heard laughter. Gathering itself into something that looked like a mouth, it launched itself at Saba's small form.
Saba screamed, then she gasped and sat straight up in bed. She shook all over and her hands sweated, but it had been a dream. Only a dream, her father would say. It can't hurt you, Saba-chan. It's not real.
Usually she would take comfort in papa-san's words, pull the covers over her head and go back to sleep, but tonight the darkness of her bedroom seemed to stalk her. The comforting yellow glow of her night-light had gone out, and the darkness was absolute.
Her heart raced as she saw the blackness from her dreams gathering on the floor, thick like oily smoke.
"It's not real," she whispered. "It's only a dream."
But the dream raised its head, chuckling, blackness ready to consume her. She started to scream, but the sound cut off as the darkness rose to form a canopy over her bed.
Slowly, slowly it began to settle toward her. When it reached her bed, she would die; she knew this better than she'd known anything in her short life. She watched it come, unable to speak, unable to breathe, hands clenching the bed covers until they ached.
She seemed to hear the voice of her Japanese grandfather whisper in her mind. Old Ojii-san had a small, wrinkled face and a gold tooth that showed in his frequent smiles. He'd taught Saba Japanese words and told her fairy stories, some funny, others frightening, but they always contained a beautiful maiden and a happy ending.
Ojii-san had told her one particular story about nightmares, and the memory of it flooded her now. Unclenching the blanket, she clapped her stiff hands three times and shouted, "Baku, Baku! Come and eat this dream!"
She had no idea if the Baku, a Japanese god, would come all the way from Japan to California to save her, but she clapped and shouted again, liking the strength of her words against the darkness.
There was a hiss and a blinding flash, and then a creature more bizarre than any she'd ever seen appeared beside the bed. It had a lion's head, a row of hideously pointed teeth, a horse's body, a tiger's legs, batlike wings, and a long, hairy tail. He was horrible, but Saba felt no fear, even though he was more than six feet high and nearly overwhelmed her small bedroom.
The Baku snarled and lunged at the darkness. He snuffled and snorted as he gobbled up the darkness, pursuing the inky blackness around the room as it tried to disperse and flee.
Saba watched, round-eyed, as the Baku chased the darkness in its almost comical attempt to escape.
The Baku cornered the remainder of the black smoke against the closet door, opened its mouth, and sucked the blackness in past its gleaming teeth. Saba heard a keening wail, and suddenly the darkness was gone. The night-light came back on, and the room felt right again.
The Baku raised itself up on its strange tiger's legs, patted its stomach, and gave a loud belch. Saba laughed.
The Baku padded to the bed, lowered its head and snuffled Saba's cheek, tickling her. She laughed again and patted its nose, and the Baku gave her a loud, smacking kiss.