The Lower Wards were as dormant as a tomb frozen beneath the ice.
Shindara’s breath came out in a hoarse blast as he scanned the tangle of alleyways. He thought Goro’s soldiers might creep out when he was least expecting it, but the shadows continued to taunt him.
There were voices in the distance, many of them torn with desperation, but they didn’t concern Shindara. A glance over his shoulder confirmed what he already knew. Mikoto was conversing with a group of men at the other end of a rain-soaked street. He couldn’t help but wonder if they were connected to Tomoe and Sae’s mysterious disappearance. They had only been ten steps ahead of him when it occurred. One moment, the archer and alchemist were turning the corner of a storehouse, and the next moment, they were gone.
Shindara knew they were splitting into groups, but he was still surprised by how quickly they vanished. In theory, Goro wouldn’t be able to stop all of them from reaching the Cult of Onmyō.
He knew better than to underestimate the mage, but he liked their chances so far. He was reminded of how fragile the element of surprise was when he heard the scuff of boots behind him. Shindara agilely spun on his heel. Instead of crossing blades with Goro’s zealots, he was comforted by the sight of Mikoto. However, she was anything but alone.
Roughly ten men were following in her footsteps, and each of them carried a blade or the crude equivalent of a club. Their gruff appearances told Shindara they were more than ordinary merchants and craftsmen. They were survivors. They faced the worst of the Lower Wards and obviously managed to live this long.
“Who are they?” Shindara asked.
“They may not look like much,” Mikoto smiled, “but these men once fought in the Heiji Rebellion. They know more about street warfare than you and me combined. Not only that, they also know of a secret path through the Lower Wards.”
“A secret path?”
“When the Taira occupied the city, they devised a network of escape routes. They used it to smuggle the Imperial Family out of Heian-kyō during the siege.”
The lines on Shindara’s face seemed to grow darker and pinch together. “We don’t want to leave the city.”
“You know me better than that, Shindara. Running away isn’t in my nature. Diving headlong into chaos, on the other hand, is. We can use this hidden path to move undetected through the city. From there, we can seek out the Cult of Onmyō.”
Shindara shouldn’t have felt this much uncertainty. After all, she was offering him an advantage during a moment of true crisis. On the other hand, as he scanned the faces of battleworn veterans before him, he wondered how long they would last against Goro. His gaze rested on one of them in particular--a square-jawed man with a blade clenched firmly in his hand. He tried his best to stand up straight, but there was no disguising the tremor in his left leg.
“Did Mikoto tell you what this is about?” Shindara asked, meeting his fierce stare.
“We know there’s a renegade mage on the loose. We’re told he wants the two of you dead.”
Shindara didn’t doubt his courage, but no one was that selfless. Not in the Lower Wards. Perhaps there was a better way to determine his motivations. Besides, he needed to know that he could trust these men.
“Whatever she paid you, is it worth dying for? Is it enough?” Shindara wasn’t surprised by the somber silence that greeted him. Even less surprising was the thin-lipped scowl on Mikoto’s face. “Here, take these coins and go.” Shindara reached into the leather satchel at his waist, but Mikoto quickly seized his arm.
“Goro will never find us in the escape tunnels,” she insisted.
“I won’t barter over innocent lives. None of these men will stand a chance against--”
“It was enough,” one of the rebels said, interrupting him. “She paid us enough to see you to safety. I don’t know what you two are involved in, but you aren’t leaving the Lower Wards without our help. Now, you can continue fighting like tanuki pups and we’ll wait here for the enemy to surround us… or you can stop pretending you give a damn about us.”
Shindara couldn’t help but crack a smile at the man’s utter lack of courtesy.
“Does this hidden path actually exist?” he asked.
“I’ve used it more times than I can remember. Now let’s get moving before your friends show up.”
“There is one more thing,” Mikoto said. “We need a decoy to distract Goro. Five of you will lead his soldiers north of here.”
Shindara wondered why she was willing to dismiss half of their armed escorts, but he didn’t have to wonder for long. At least if there were five of them, they might stand a fighting chance against the samurai.
“And take my helmet and my cloak. Drape it around your shoulders as if you were me.” The smallest among them accepted Mikoto’s horo cloak, a cleverly-designed garment that expanded to catch arrows when riding on horseback. Normally, it would have been tethered to the cuirass and hoisted with a framework of wicker or whale bone, but there was simply no time. No amount of preparation would save them from assassins, much less archers.
Shindara felt like a detached observer as the decoy group walked away--as if none of this was actually happening to him. Perhaps it was the adrenaline charging through his veins or the paranoia skewing his mind. Whatever the cause may be, he realized he was lagging behind Mikoto.
The rebels led them past corridors and huts that Shindara never noticed before. It was hard to imagine a lost city existing within the Lower Wards, but the proof was strewn before him. The escape route was squeezed by buildings packed closely together on all sides. More than a few of them were ransacked or torn to pieces by samurai blades. It had been years since the Taira clawed their way out of the capital, leaving behind a legacy of cruelty.
Shindara walked past the charred remains of a hut, and he was reminded of the soldiers he mistakenly let inside. He swore he wouldn’t give them a chance to devastate Heian-kyō for a second time. He would sooner lop off his arm than let Lord Sadato march into the streets of the capital. As he looked up from the wreckage, he noticed symbols carved into the side of a storehouse. It was partially obscured beneath dirt and ash, but the shape was still recognizable.
“Taira,” he murmured within earshot of Mikoto, nodding at the clan crest. Their guide hesitated at the sound of their voices, and few of the men were visibly uneasy.
Shindara kept waiting for the dawn to provide a flicker of relief, even if it only lasted for a second. When the sun cast its warm tide across the huts and derelict shops, he expected it to make him feel better. Less rotten on the inside. Even though he was a creature of the dark, he craved the light just this once. He would have been grateful for anything other than the stench of the Yomi or the black ichor under his skin.
He didn’t notice the dilapidated fabric shop as he turned to face the sky. It was a graceful townhouse with wooden lattice work and tiles that shimmered like black scales under the sun. It wasn’t worth more than a passing glance, and Shindara almost walked past it without a word. As soon as he walked past its threshold, his vision began to blur.
Colors and shapes congealed together in a frightening display. The sky faded, buildings shuddered out of existence, and the earth felt like it was swallowing them up. Shindara reeled forward as his companions tried to rally into a defensive formation. There was no point in regrouping when everything felt like it was spinning out of control. Not even Mikoto was spared from the vomit-inducing vertigo.
“What’s happening?!” she demanded.
Shindara’s eyes darted back and forth as their surroundings came into greater clarity. Instead of standing in the Lower Wards, they had been transported to a wide alley south of Kiyomizu.
Shindara glanced at their armed escorts as a fierce panic set in.
“We have to get these people out of here before--”
“Shindara!” The voice was instantly recognizable, a melodic sound booming with a throaty menace. Shindara carefully turned around to meet the figure lurking at the other end of the street. There stood Goro with a jaded expression. Robed in opulent splendor, he was flanked by a dozen of his finest bodyguards. Perplexingly, their swords were already reddened with blood. Shindara’s stomach dropped when he saw the bodies of several dead civilians lying at their feet. Having wandered into Goro’s trap, most of them were immolated or hacked into pieces.
When Shindara looked up from the mound of corpses, he saw the insidious smile on Goro’s lips.
“You seem to have lost your way,” the mage said, savoring the anger in Shindara’s eyes. “You’re lucky that I found you in time. There’s no telling what might happen to you in the Lower Wards.”
“You already know where I’m going, so why don’t you drop the façade?”
“Just indulge me for a moment. It’s a shame, you know… We could have been like brothers if not for that pesky sliver of stone in your arm. The Taira will be very interested to learn the truth about the Obsidian Blade.”
Mikoto lunged forward like an animal sensing fresh blood.
“And the Cult of Onmyō will be very interested to know about where you live.”
Goro’s perfectly-composed smile cracked for just a second. Instead of replying to her taunt, he returned his attention to Shindara.
“I never finished telling you the story about my mother, did I?”
Shindara repressed a shudder. His ability as the Abhorrent granted him certain insight into all things supernatural, and in this moment, he sensed something that shouldn’t have been possible. Goro was emitting a tremendous amount of power, more than a human should be capable of sustaining. Half a dozen hexes and charms were layered on him like impenetrable armor. Without taking his eyes off the mage, Shindara whispered into Mikoto’s ear.
“You have to leave me behind.”
“Don’t play the martyr with me,” she chuckled.
“I didn’t realize it until now, but Goro is beyond all of us. I’m counting on you to warn the Cult of Onmyō. You’re our only chance of staving off an attack from the Taira.”
Shindara tensed as Goro reached into the folds of his robes. When he held up his hand, there was a strand of seaweed clutched between his fingers. There was no telling how many spell components were concealed on his person. As Shindara braced himself for the unknown, he noticed Mikoto still hadn’t moved from his side.
Goro snapped his fingers and the seaweed ignited.
“As I said, the village elder believed my mother cursed him for an unpaid debt. It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by angry villagers. They dragged my mother into the streets and beat her with clubs… stones… anything they could wrap their hands around. I was forced to watch her execution. She was cut into several pieces, and each part was buried in a different location. I was forced to carry her head to the beach.”
“Goro!” Shindara thundered, expending the last of his patience. “What in the eight hells do you want?”
“Her eyes were still moving when I tossed her head into the sea,” Goro continued with a vacant stare, almost as if he was peering into his past. “What did she see in that cold, dark prison of hers? What did she feel?” He crushed the flaming seaweed in his hand with a satisfying crunch. “What do you think, Mikoto?”
She released a violent gasp and plunged to her knees.
“Mikoto!” Shindara cried out, rushing toward her.
Unfortunately, she was helpless to reply. When Mikoto opened her mouth, torrents of water gushed out instead of words.