As the last of the huts receded behind him, Shindara realized they were approaching the shores of the Inland Sea. At first glance, it would have appeared as vast as the ocean itself. Shindara knew it was anything but a fanciful notion at its core. The Inland Sea was, in fact, a prominent lake that stretched from Heian-kyō to its northernmost point in Omi Province.

It could fit the entirety of the capital in its depths and still have room to spare. As Shindara crunched through the grass, he spotted flames dancing across the surface of the Inland Sea. The lulling murmur of chants emanated from the shore, swelling into a crescendo of nerves and excitement. As Shindara crept closer, he spotted hundreds of men and women gathered by the water’s edge. Each of them was bearing a torch and lifting their voice in song.

Shindara’s heart leaped. What he heard was anything but sinister. The chants on the peasants’ lips were songs of protection and good fortune. He could practically feel their hopes washing over him as he listened to their invocations.

However, one of the figures caught his attention more than most. A robed man was standing on a shore with his arms outstretched toward the lake. He was surrounded by several ornate braziers that reminded Shindara of a nearby temple. Perhaps more mysterious was the length of rope laid out in a circle around him. It was clearly being used to mark a ritual space.

At first glance, it appeared that a multitude of figures were standing still around Goro. Shindara blinked and realized they were human-shaped dolls--forty-nine of them to be precise. He recognized these as the tools of an exorcism ritual, specifically, a practice called karinpō. These purification rites were often used to cast demons out of the city.

The effigies were made of straw to absorb demonic energy, curses, and spiritual impurities. Shindara couldn’t remember how the effigies were disposed of, but he imagined he would find out very soon. Sae couldn’t have looked more pleased with himself when he saw the awe on Shindara’s face.

“Allow me to introduce you to the finest mage in all of Heian-kyō… Master Goro.”

“Goro is your master?!” Mikoto yelled, turning sharply toward Sae.

“I thought I mentioned that.”

“No, you didn’t. Fortunately for us, he’s the man we’ve been looking for.”

“You were looking for him?” Panic lanced across Sae’s face. “Did the Bureau of Onmyō send you?!”

“The Bureau of what…?” Mikoto said incredulously. “We were sent by Lord Go-Shirakawa. He thinks Goro can help us stop the Night Parade.”

“Oh… Oh, well, that’s an entirely different matter. I’m sorry I doubted you, even for that split moment.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be a regular day in Heian-kyō if I wasn’t being accused of murder, spying, or treachery.”

In the distance, Goro raised his voice to recite a text that he spent several days memorizing. It was clear, even to the least arcane, that he didn’t miss a single word. His incantation flowed with a harmony that made it instantly pleasing to the ears, even if its meaning remained indiscernible.

Mikoto squinted as she watched Goro weave his hands in complex patterns. “What is onmyōdō magic?” she asked after a slight pause.

“It began as a collection of rituals to protect the Emperor and the capital city from demons, fire, and disease. It is governed by an elite group called the Bureau of Onmyō. Their duties included reading omens, casting divinations, and maintaining the holy calendar. My master takes a slightly different approach from many of his peers, however. When he splintered away from the Bureau of Onmyō, he expanded his craft to include Taoist spells, hypnosis, exorcisms, and Chinese medicine. Supposedly, if he elevates his mind to a mystical state, blades cannot pierce his skin and he can walk unscathed through fire.”

“Not to mention, he has a cunning ability to hide in plain sight,” Mikoto said. “How has he managed to avoid Lord Go-Shirakawa?”

“No one knows where Goro lives--not even me. When we have an appointment, his personal guards lead me blindfolded to his estate.”

“What reason does Goro have to be in hiding?”

“The Bureau of Onmyō,” Shindara surmised.

“He hasn’t gone into hiding so much as he’s chosen to devote himself fully to his studies… but yes, the Bureau views Goro as a rival. The Bureau was intended as a safeguard to monitor the activities of mages within the capital. Once, it outlined conduct that was deemed in service to the Emperor.”

“Once?” Mikoto asked.

The alchemist sighed with a touch of melancholy. “All things change with time, and the Bureau is no exception. Greed and politics tainted the heart of the organization. Mages began to take sides in the feuds of nobles. Instead of preventing harm, they offered lords the means to kill their rivals. The Bureau became obsessed with influence and wealth instead of matters of the state. Goro was so disgusted that he left to form his own discipline.”

“An honorable choice,” Shindara remarked.

“Some say honorable but I say practical. You must understand, Shindara, the Bureau is and always will be a hierarchy. Only men from the Kamo and Abe families are recognized as mages or onmyōji. Goro’s family situation is tenuous, to say the least. He was born into a family of Okinawan witches. Thus, he was never viewed as a legitimate mage.”

“Does the Bureau feel threatened by him?”

“They gleefully try to depict him as a fraud, but in private, they despise him for his power.”

Shindara wondered how one man could garner so much fear and resentment, especially from a cabal of mages. And yet, he understood how quickly the tide of public opinion could turn one man into a monster. Didn’t he make hordes of enemies as the Abhorrent? At his lowest point, he wouldn’t leave his manor in Namida because he suspected assassins around every corner. It was an existence that was always bound for paranoia and spiteful delusions, and it had been a hell of his own making.

“What will the Bureau’s mages do if they track him down?” he finally asked.

Sae bit his lip as he hesitated to divulge the horrors he was imagining.

“I don’t think any of us can comprehend the tortures they would put Goro through. They don’t tolerate… agitators.”

“Can you tell me more about these exorcisms he performs? Does he vanquish demons?”

“Not only can he banish yōkai, but he can also drive out disease. He’s been helpful in stemming the spread of the plague, both through his charity and his magical talents.”

Before he could continue in his praise of Goro, they were drawn to sudden activity on the beach. The mage was gesturing at his servants, who raced to collect the straw effigies. As quickly as the dolls were retrieved, they were placed in seven boats drifting along the shore. The servants pushed one of the vessels into the Inland Sea. The peasants immediately fell silent and watched with rapt anticipation.

A torch was thrown by one of the servants, and it landed deftly in a boat packed with effigies. The custom was repeated until seven boats were cutting a flaming swathe across the shining, black surface of the lake.

Mesmerized, Shindara and Mikoto watched the vessels glide into the night like omens of fire. The sight was as soothing as it was surreal. Shindara couldn’t help but wonder how long their journey would last. When they scattered as ash, they would also extinguish the curses absorbed by the effigies.

“Floating away the darkness,” Shindara said softly. If only the soul was as salvageable. His inner demons couldn’t be so easily dispelled, but the fires on the lake still offered him a glimpse of hope.

“Mikoto?” Shindara stammered.

He took an involuntary step backward, but Mikoto proved faster. She seized his arm and ushered him away from the spectators.

“You refuse to see me or anyone,” she said, “and on the day that I’ve come to drag you out of the temple, you stage a public confession? Were you trying to provoke a violent mob?”

“I’ve survived worse,” Shindara chuckled, but he immediately regretted those words. Mikoto snapped an angry glare on him.

“You won’t survive me.”

As she led him across the courtyard, Shindara noticed the numerous dents and scrapes inflicted on her armor. He wrinkled his nose as he caught the putrid scent of death.

“Judging from the amount of blood and sweat, someone didn’t survive you.”

Mikoto struggled to maintain her serious composure, and despite her best efforts, she burst into laughter.

“How I missed your dry sense of humor.”

“I missed you, too, Mikoto. In fact, you’re back sooner than I expected.” Weaving through the crowded markets, they emerged into one of the sparse streets. “Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asked, growing weary of the suspense. “You returned from Awazu Province, didn’t you?”

Mikoto nodded.

“So tell me, is Lord Yoshinaka dead?”

“Is that whining sympathy in your voice?”

“For the man who hunted me down and branded me a traitor among rebels? Not likely.”

“We cornered Lord Yoshinaka and his forces as he fled into Omi Province. He fell to an arrow when his horse became stuck in a muddy, half-frozen field. General Imai was found dead shortly afterward. It seems he committed suicide by leaping off his horse with a sword in his mouth.”

“What a grisly way to end,” Shindara said, but this time his voice was genuinely tinged with remorse.

“With Yoshinaka defeated, the dispute among leadership is resolved. The Minamoto clan is united once more against our true enemy.”

“There have been so many battles that I can’t remember how we ended up here.”

“Then allow me to remind you,” Mikoto said. “After we liberated the capital, Yoshinaka broke the peace secured by his cousin. When he learned that the Cloistered Emperor was supporting Yoritomo’s claim to the throne, he flew into a rage.”

Shindara knew that a Cloistered Emperor still possessed considerable influence, no matter how far removed he was from the Imperial Court. It was a term reserved for Emperors who willingly abdicated the throne and entered the Buddhist priesthood. To the best of Shindara’s knowledge, the man at the center of the dispute was named Go-Shirakawa.

“How did Yoshinaka retaliate?” he asked.

Mikoto cast a knowing smile in his direction.

“You’ll see.”

“And how is that?”

“Aren’t you wondering why I ambushed you at the temple? We have an appointment with the Cloistered Emperor himself. Go-Shirakawa has requested your presence.”

Shindara instantly felt trapped at the idea of meeting with a member of the nobility. He had no intention of being dragged into the shadow politics of a former Emperor.

“I can safely assume what he wants, and my answer remains ‘no.’ I already told you that I refuse to fight in this war.”

Mikoto glanced warily at him. “You still blame yourself for the Battle of Namida.”

“You know about the pain I caused better than anyone else. You were there. You survived when very few did.”

The samurai fell silent as if she was recalling her nightmarish experience.

“You weren’t the only one at fault. As far as I’m concerned, Hrioshango is responsible for the predicament we find ourselves in today… and you would be wise to remember that.”

“Why?”

“Because more people have been asking about what happened on that terrible night. Politicians are seeking answers and they want someone to blame. In fact, that incident is precisely what Go-Shirakawa wants to speak to you about.”

Shindara tensed.

No one knew about his role in the disaster except for Mikoto and his closest companions. He was certain that no one would reveal how he nearly ushered in a world of plagues and darkness.

Wracked with questions, he followed Mikoto to a wide street lined with willow trees. Also known as Suzaku Avenue, it flowed in a straight line through the city. Ordinary peasant homes weren’t allowed anywhere near the central artery of Heian-kyō. It was dominated instead by government offices, landscaped gardens, vermillion bridges, and pavilions.

The prevalence of Chinese-style mansions suggested they were drawing closer to the residence of the Cloistered Emperor. As if to confirm his suspicions, Shindara spotted a sake brewery that only catered to the royal court.

He nearly jumped as Mikoto cried out beside him.

This,” she gestured, “is how Lord Yoshinaka retaliated.”

Shindara turned his head and observed the Imperial Palace--or, at the very least, what remained of it. “What in the eight hells…?”

Singed ruins awaited him instead of pleasant towers and pagodas. The most impressive and symbolic of the structures, the Great Hall, had been demolished. Shindara supposed the Emperor’s throne was lying somewhere underneath the collapsed roof and the scorched pillars.

Elsewhere, covered walkways had been reduced to skeletons of their former glory. Not even the religious shrines were spared from the destruction.

As Shindara gawked at the wreckage, Mikoto sighed beside him.

“Before Yoshinaka escaped, his mob swept through the city and set the palace aflame. Not to mention, he tried to abduct Go-Shirakawa.”

“It certainly bears Yoshinaka’s mark, doesn’t it? The last desperate act of a coward.”

“Agreed. No offense, of course, Tomoe.”

“Tomoe?” Shindara said, whipping around in search of the famed archer. He felt her captivating presence long before he saw her. She was a lethal combination of authority and charm who always dominated every room she set foot in.

Clad in robust armor, she wore a golden headdress ornamented with red tassels. Her crown harkened to her previous life of luxury and status, proudly bearing a crest reminiscent of a samurai lord’s helmet. Tomoe Gozen was equal if not superior to her military peers, as her skill with the longbow was revered on the battlefield. After all, mere months ago, she still commanded scores of Yoshinaka’s soldiers. Every one of them had been willing to die for her--and they likely would have if she hadn’t convinced them to switch their allegiance.

She ground to a stop before Shindara and Mikoto.

“He chose his path,” she said, her voice wilting with a hint of sadness. After a slight pause, a smile tugged at the corner of her lips and she fondly regarded Mikoto. “And I chose mine.”

Tomoe leaned in to kiss her, suddenly anxious for her lips.

“And I thought you said you wouldn’t miss me,” Mikoto teased as soon as she caught her breath.

Before Tomoe could reply, there was an eruption of crude laughter behind them.

“You should have seen how he died! By the gods!” Grinning madly and toting a large sword over his shoulder, Hachi sauntered toward them. He looked as delightful as ever, despite wearing the blood and filth of several recent battles. “I stood over him and shouted, ‘Lord Yoshi! Or is it Lord Kiso? Or Lord Yoshinaka? What should I call you? You have so many titles.’ And he screamed, ‘You damned bastard!’ I replied, ‘Not what I was expecting, but I think it’s fitting.’ And then I lifted my sword and--”

“Hachi!” Mikoto snapped.

“The blood, the screams, the broken bones, the sweat of the gods--”

Hachi!” Mikoto snapped.

“What?”

“He was still her--” She cast an apologetic glance at Tomoe. “--her husband. At least, he was at one point.”

“Oh… well, if it’s any comfort to you, he didn’t suffer. For very long. And whatever you heard about me parading his severed head simply isn’t true.”

“That’s all right,” Tomoe cringed, patting him on the arm as she passed by. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”

“I thought you said Yoshinaka fell to an arrow,” Shindara murmured, leaning toward Mikoto.

“That’s the official account.”

February 24, 1184

Heian-Kyō, Japan


An armored figure walked silently and deliberately through the red-lacquered halls of Tō-ji Temple. His thoughts were blunted with fear and excitement as he navigated the corridors and glanced across the carvings of sacred deities. It was a path he encountered many times before, lulling him into a false sense of hope before reminding him of his true nature.

He could barely feel his limbs as his feet pounded out a steady gait across the inner sanctum.

When the candlelight met his eyes, they remained as lifeless and opaque as blackened glass.

Nonetheless, those glistening eyes darted furtively across wall pictorials depicting Paradise and the heavens scattered in between. Shindara felt small and insignificant when he paused before the images and reflected on his fate. He could only imagine the desolate realm that awaited his soul when he died.

He supposed it would be one without light, warmth, or a murmur of human presence. As much as that notion disturbed him, he couldn’t help but wonder if that was precisely what he deserved.

The cascade of emotions he felt in that moment was only surpassed by the tremor of agony in his arm. He ignored the pain as he crossed paths with a group of wandering monks. They attempted to bestow blessings on him, but Shindara didn’t offer a word in reply. Rattled by his silence and his brooding stare, the holy men muttered among themselves about the fruit of his karma--one that was no doubt poisoned with resentment and despair.

Shindara paid them no heed.

He maintained his vow of silence as he approached the Kodo Hall. The chamber was vacant and somber, granting him the privacy he so desperately craved. For the first time in days, he felt safe. Without thinking, he fell to his knees and stared into the darkness. As the hours slipped by, he wondered whether the shadows would grant him relief or lay bare his worst fears.

He waited until the embers of dawn flowed through the latticed windows. The darkness peeled away, revealing over a dozen figures towering above Shindara. Twenty-one statues were arranged in a pantheon inside the Kodo Hall, where they congregated around a sculpture of the Buddha of Healing. The gathering consisted of deities and esoteric beings, including the Five Fearful Kings and the Four Heavenly Kings.

If their stone eyes could see, Shindara wondered if they would be repulsed by what they saw. After all, he was unlike any other petitioner who graced these halls. Even if his faith was assured, his existence would border on blasphemy. Shindara was always walking a fragile balance between life and death, but he was never completely bound by one or the other.

He almost chuckled as he remembered how he arrived at this tragic standstill. His memories were skewed by guilt, but the truth existed somewhere at the center of it all. He remembered venturing into the dead realm of the Yomi and encountering a world that defied description. It shouldn’t have been possible for an ordinary man to travel there, but there was nothing ordinary about Shindara.

One could say it was fortunate that he didn’t attempt the journey alone; he was joined by a demon named Hrioshango, a yōkai versed in the aptitudes of chaos magic. Despite the numerous warnings of his companions, Shindara chose to trust and confide in the creature. After all, the demon promised to protect him from the curse eroding his soul.

If hindsight was foresight, Shindara never would have trusted him. It hardly mattered that Hrioshango fulfilled his promise. If he knew that the darkling was planning to turn him into something less than human, he would have walked away without hesitation. Instead, he followed the creature to the River of Three Tortures.

Shindara’s curse wasn’t ended through the Buddha’s mercy or holy incantations--it ended when Hrioshango introduced a sharp blade to his heart. Shindara remembered the piercing blow through his back, biting through armor and bone until the breath left his body.

He would never forget the feeling of his senses growing distant and cold. As much as he tried to repress it, he could still hear Hrioshango’s voice mocking him in his final moments--or at least, what should have been his final moments.

Instead, Shindara emerged from the River of Three Tortures with a thin and possibly undeserving second chance. Truthfully, he had never felt more alive. He appeared human on the surface, but death had transformed him into a beast of unfettered rage--the Abhorrent. Supposedly, it was the only reason why he was still roaming the world of humankind. He was channeling the power and the cunning of a god, not to mention the unrestrained ego of an eternal being.

Within months, it was impossible to discern where Shindara’s will began and where it ended. Paranoia and a lust for power became second nature to him. Nothing was ever enough, not even when the village of Namida adopted him as their guardian and symbolic lord.

One day at a time, his morals were bent until he saw all of his friends as enemies--and what happened next was truly unforgivable. It was also the reason why he took an oath of silence and seclusion. Yet, no matter where he hid, he could never hide from the shame of his crimes.

Shindara remembered the countless bodies he left behind in Namida. He silently uttered a prayer for his victims.

Eight months had passed since he instigated a battle that claimed thousands of lives along the border of the village. Despite his attempts to stay above the political feuds of lords, he aroused the suspicion of nobles and samurai alike. Foremost among them was a man named Yoshinaka, who marched his troops through the countryside to confront Shindara.

Their rivalry was characterized by a sprawling series of disasters--not the least of which involved a certain chaos magician. In a stunning betrayal, Hrioshango chose to summon a gateway to the Yomi not far from the village. What ensued was nothing short of a blood-soaked hell that would forever be seared into Shindara’s mind. Demons and devils were unleashed on the battlefield, where they proceeded to possess and devour every samurai in their path.

Innocent peasants couldn’t flee fast enough as they were caught between Yoshinaka’s warriors and the hordes of the yōkai realms.

Shindara knew of only one way to stop Hrioshango’s rampage. He possessed a devastating weapon that could summon a plague of blades, blood, and poison, but it was not without its flaws--or one morbid stipulation. To invoke its power was to condemn a thousand men to death. The plagues wouldn’t distinguish between friend or foe, acting only on the chaotic impulses of the relic. Karma be damned, Shindara did what he thought was necessary. He tapped into a vein of magic so foul that he nearly destroyed himself in the process.

To this day, he still questioned if he chose the lesser of two evils. He might have killed Hrioshango, but his defeat came at a steep price.

Shindara glanced down at his arm and recoiled from one of those so-called consequences. The Obsidian Blade was melded with his flesh in a frightening display of primordial magic. It seemed to grow out of his forearm as an extension of his bones.

It didn’t help matters that the Obsidian Blade was a sentient weapon with a mind of its own. He could hear its thoughts and its rabid desires louder than ever before. Once, it would have alerted him to the presence of evildoers and yōkai that might cause him harm. Now, it raged against the wickedness inside Shindara, constantly bombarding him with threats.

As long as the forbidden magic held, they would remain bound to each other; it forced Shindara to hone his meditation and develop techniques that resulted in complete detachment from the world. The moments of peace were few and fleeting, and in some ways, they were more precious than time itself. However, the Obsidian Blade would never stay silent for long, always reminding Shindara of his crimes.

Until today.

Heart pounding, Shindara looked up and beseeched the statue of the Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. It was said that the light he conjured could heal both diseases and spiritual afflictions. Shindara tried to focus on the Buddha’s serene expression. He took several long breaths and savored the fragrance of burning sandalwood incense as it floated above him.

It faintly reminded him of another earthy smell. The smoke of homes burning in Namida. He could almost taste the ashes on his tongue. Shindara clenched his jaw as he tried to keep himself from throwing up.

The screams of the fallen echoed in his mind. Crying out his name and pleading for mercy. He could feel his mind unraveling as the chaos inside him spun out of control. He couldn’t endure the guilt and the nightmares anymore, let alone the Obsidian Blade’s voice in his head.

He longed to be liberated from more than just the steel lodged in his arm. If only he could strive toward Enlightenment again. If the gods were kind, that chance might come sooner rather than later.

Within the hour, he planned to break his vow of silence. He would leave the temple and publicly confess to the atrocities in Namida. He would spare no unpleasant detail, and on this auspicious day, he wouldn’t be lacking for an audience.

A market was held in the square outside Tō-ji at the end of every month, drawing scores of travelers and aristocrats. If Shindara ignored the murmur of chanting monks, he would be able to hear the merchants setting up their wares on the streets.

They would never suspect that the greatest draw of all wouldn’t be their pottery, imported textiles, or freshly-prepared food. It would be the lurid confessions of a killer.

Shaking with anticipation, Shindara rose from his knees. He briefly hesitated as he weighed the benefits of waiting one more day. Before he could indulge those guilty pleasures, he looked upon the statue of the Buddha one last time.

The breath stuck in his throat. He was too forlorn to notice earlier, but the Buddha’s right hand was forming a symbol of fearlessness. Protection and fearlessness. His fingers were pointing toward the heavens while his palm faced outward in a gesture of protection.

Determined to prove himself worthy of such a blessing, Shindara embarked on the quickest path to the streets. He needed to act on this whim before his anxiety cost him again. He entered a dim corridor that he carefully avoided for many months. Sunlight streamed through the open doors ahead of him.

As he listened to voices resounding outside, he reached into a hemp bag dangling from his belt. He retrieved a damaged paintbrush that once belonged to his wife.

He rolled it between his fingers as he imagined the last time it sat in Aya’s hand. It must have been five years since it thrived under her artistic touch. Shindara clutched the brush to his chest. He prayed to her for strength and resolve as he tried to remember the last moments they shared together.

If Shindara listened closely, he could almost hear Aya’s voice reassuring him. As much as he wanted to speak her name, he couldn’t break his oath yet. Only a few more moments of silence stood between him and the judgment of the city. He squeezed the paintbrush for comfort before he returned it to his pocket.

Shindara walked toward the elaborately-carved doors. It had been too long since he left the temple and looked upon the capital city. He wondered if it would feel like stepping into Heian-kyō again for the first time. He blinked against the harsh light until his eyes adjusted, but it hardly prepared him for the marvels waiting outside.

The temple wasn’t located far from the Rashōmon Gate, which granted passage to weary travelers and merchants from the outlying villages. The capital itself was surrounded by mountains and lofty hills in the absence of an exterior wall, forming a natural defense from invading armies.

Regarded as one of the greatest wonders of Japan, Heian-kyō sprawled across two dozen avenues and nearly three times as many streets. It opened up to several quarters and crowded wards, often scattered by rivers and wooden bridges.

Shindara stood in awe of the city as he lingered on the steps of the temple. His gaze was drawn to a pagoda rising from the southwest corner of the courtyard. Though it was constructed over a thousand years ago, the Toji pagoda aged with grace throughout the centuries. Composed of five stories, it radiated with color and poise beneath the blushing dawn. The tower could be seen from nearly every direction in Heian-kyō, providing an easy landmark to guide one’s journey.

Shindara’s eyes flickered from the pagoda to the market directly below. The plaza was teeming with displays of ceramics, wood carvings, scrolls, and kimonos.

Several guards wandered freely among the peasants, clutching spears as they oversaw several boisterous transactions. Their presence wasn’t lost on Shindara. He wondered if he would find himself at the end of their spears soon enough. He swallowed nervously as a handful of monks emerged from the temple to investigate the commotion.

“My name is Shindara,” he began softly, “and I am…”

His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. As he stared into several onlookers’ eyes, a somber question crossed his mind. Was he expecting forgiveness from strangers? Or did he secretly crave punishment?

He remained calm as an imperial guard turned in his direction. He watched Shindara’s hand carefully as he reached into the drawstring bag at his waist. Instead of searching for a weapon, Shindara was holding Aya’s paintbrush.

“I am ready to let go of the pain that remains in me,” he said. “With all that I possess, I am ready to declare the wicked deeds that cling to me. I have chased Enlightenment and found myself in the pits of torment instead. For all the evils I have committed with my body, my mind, and my spirit, I only ask that you listen. What I have done cannot be forgiven. I am the one who desecrated and destroyed--”

Suddenly, he realized a woman clad in regal armor was storming toward him. Dressed in leather scales and large, rectangular plates on her shoulders, she cut an imposing figure among the merchants and traders. Her plump lips were pursed tightly in a scowl and her jaw was tense with aggravation. Her raven hair, drawn back and tied behind her head, bobbed wildly with every hurried step she took toward Shindara.

Of all her characteristics, perhaps the most striking was the frantic look in her eyes. She seemed on the verge of drawing her sword, but Shindara stood rooted to the spot.

Before he could utter another word, the visibly enraged woman bore down on him with four words that may as well have seized him by the throat.

“You’re a damned fool.”