I recently had the pleasure of answering questions for an author interview at NFReads.com. I describe some of the true stories behind my novels, what inspires me, upcoming books, and more! You can check out the full interview at this link. Thank you for reading and thank you to NFReads.com for this excellent opportunity!

Shindara snapped out of his reverie and looked up. A grove of cherry blossoms was growing near the end of the mountain pass. To his astonishment, he could see the vaguest of pink shimmering on the petals. It was as if color was trying to break through the diluted blacks and grays of the Yomi. His pulse quickened when he saw ripe fruit hanging from the branches, too.

The shift in energy was unmistakable here. It felt as though the all-pervading darkness lifted and let a sliver of light and hope inside. Without thinking, he took one step toward the grove.

“Shindara, don’t.”

The tone in Hrioshango’s voice made him hesitate. After all, one look at the fruit-bearing trees reminded him of the hag’s warning. Anyone who ate from those branches would be damned to the Yomi for eternity. Ignoring his doubts and trusting his instincts, Shindara set out toward the other end of the gorge.

His feet sifted through countless blossoms strewn across the ground. The air tasted sweeter as a mountain breeze rustled past him. Finally, he stood in the shadow of the great cherry blossom trees and he felt transported to another time and place. He sighed and looked up at the slender branches weaving patterns in the sky.

Suddenly, his eyes opened wide when he heard laughter. It was a sound that couldn’t possibly exist inside the Yomi. Again, light laughter rang out from somewhere in the grove. His head whipped from side to side and he spotted a young girl running through the trees. She nearly tripped over her feet as he tried to catch the petals falling from the boughs.

Shindara felt drawn to her as surely as if his soul was being yanked forward.

Realizing she was being watched, the girl stopped in a circle of cherry blossoms and turned to face him. Shindara wanted to speak, but he was afraid to shatter the silence.

“Do you not know me?” the girl asked.

Shindara searched her face and a pang of fear exploded through him. He was afraid to believe what his eyes were telling him. He recognized features of himself and his beloved wife in the child’s face, and the sight took the life out of him. Tears filling his eyes, he began to sink to his knees. Between shakes and sobs, Shindara choked out one word.

“Ryoko…?”

The girl smiled warmly at him.

“Of course, father. It’s me. Your daughter.”

Shindara felt as if he had been born again when he heard the word “father.” He reached blindly for his child, but she was already running into his arms. He caught Ryoko and swung her up into the air and held onto her with every fiber of his being.

When at last he set her down, he tried to stop from crying, but it was futile.

“Are you happy?” he whispered through his tears, his pain, and his joy.

“I am,” Ryoko replied with a giggle. Still gasping for air, Shindara reached out to stroke her cheek.

“Your mother… is she here? Have you seen her?”

“She is always with me. I see you carry her close to your heart, too.”

Shindara looked down at the flask of ashes hanging from his neck and he immediately grabbed it.

“I’ve thought of you and prayed for you every day. I whispered your name to the ancestors, begging for your happiness and your forgiveness.”

Ryoko answered with earnest seriousness and a hint of puzzlement.

“What for? There’s nothing to forgive, father.”

“But I should have saved you. I could have fought harder, ran faster, and maybe…” He wiped at the tears streaming down his face. “I’ve lived with your loss and your mother’s every moment of every day.”

Rushing back into his arms, Ryoko gave him the tightest hug that she possibly could. After much silence, she looked up at him. Her face was playful and joyous, but her eyes betrayed the somberness in her voice.

“Remember, father, all darkness must end.”

“How do you know this?”

“Because nothing lasts forever.”

Her words comforted Shindara and reminded him of how much he had at stake. He knew the darkness would end once his curse was removed. If his daughter believed in his salvation, then he certainly did, too. He squeezed her hand in thanks, but her fingers quickly slipped through his.

Shindara watched as his daughter slowly retreated, but the loving smile never left her face. Ryoko stepped back as if her soul was being tugged in the opposite direction. With a sigh of the wind, she vanished in a shower of flower petals. It felt like Shindara’s heart was wrenched into two as the cherry blossoms tumbled to the ground.

Shindara awoke—or perhaps, there was no such thing as waking in the realm of the dead. His senses could be deceiving him at this very moment.

His back was pressed flat against the ground and he gazed up into the sky. It briefly crossed his mind to stand up, but he could hardly move his limbs. His soul was in flux because he was living and breathing in a realm intended for the dead. With the absence of life came the absence of hope, and as he staggered to his feet, he immediately knew he didn’t belong here.

The sky existed and, yet, it didn’t at the same time. Mountains grew out of the clouds like a set of black teeth poised to rip the world in half. The jaw-dropping spectacle raised new questions about the origin of the Yomi. A Shinto priest once told him that the dark realm existed beneath the earth, a notion that Shindara laughed off. However, what else could explain why the mountains grew upside down here?

Suddenly, it dawned on him that he was standing on the edge of a cliff. His eyes swept across a sea of fog in a sunken valley. He watched in awe as it slithered over the ground with a mind of its own. A low moan reverberated from the lowlands, and the mist rippled outward in its hungry search for the dead.

Shindara looked down as his boots crunched against something soft. The ground consisted only of dry rock with a fine coating of dust. Beyond that, the landscape of the Yomi conveyed a surreal harmony in its crags, mountains, and plains.

There was no sense of time here, but if he waited long enough, the clouds would part to reveal a jade green sky. It was the first evidence of color in this world blanketed in ash.

“Greetings, fiendling!”

Shindara spun around at the sound of that voice and spotted Hrioshango.

“How long have you been here? Did you just arrive?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. Time travels differently here. I’m not sure how I would explain it in human terms.”

“And as you can see, I’m still wearing my armor.”

“A stunning success! We’re already halfway to getting rid of your curse!”

“I… can’t tell whether you’re mocking me or being serious.”

“Naturally, I was being—”

Hrioshango never finished that thought. Shindara winced as the Obsidian Blade burned at his side, faintly at first before it exploded into searing pain. Something foul was slinking toward them.

“Why have you come here?” a voice rasped.

Catching sight of a hunched figure in the mist, Shindara hefted his blade. Hrioshango’s eyes opened wider than an owl’s and he, too, brandished his sword.

“Stand back, Shindara!”

The creature in the mist hacked up a laugh as it drew closer. A cloak was wrapped around its feeble body, the frayed edges dragging along the ash-covered earth. A withered hand lifted the cowl of the cloak to reveal a hag-like face.

“You have nothing to fear from me,” she said.

“What are you?” Shindara demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been waiting. Waiting for someone like you.” Her lips parted in a crooked smile of warped teeth. “I thought you might be him… coming back after all this time.”

Shindara exchanged nervous glances with his demon companion. He wasn’t sure whether to further engage this creature or chase it away with his blade. He wondered if this was one of the demons that Hrioshango warned him about. Could it be one of the eight devils appearing to him as sickly and weak, when it was anything but? Trusting in his instincts, he slowly returned the Obsidian Blade to the cords hanging from his belt.

“This man that you were expecting,” he began unsurely, “…you thought I was him?”

“Not a man. A god.” The hag noticed the Obsidian Blade by his side, but she didn’t recoil. “Perhaps I should start from the beginning and you’ll understand why I’m here. My existence began in the Yomi. I was brought about by the goddess Izanami.”

“The creator goddess of life and death,” Shindara said quietly. The hag nodded and a glint came to her eyes.

“Once she was as beautiful and radiant as the moonlight on Lake Suwa. The god Izanagi fell in love with her and created the living world. When they thrust a jeweled spear into the ocean, the island of Onogoro rose from the sea. They built their palace on a sacred hill on this island. It wasn’t long before they were married and creating life out of chaos. Their union resulted in the birth of several more lands and spirits, but their marriage was never destined to last. Sadly, Izanami died giving birth to the fire god.”

Still listening, Shindara scanned the surrounding wasteland. “When she died, did she end up in the Yomi?”

“She was the first. No one else had set foot in the Yomi before her. My Lady missed her husband and the treasures of the living world. Here, she trembled from the cold and she cowered in the dark, but most of all, she hungered relentlessly. She tasted the fruit of the Yomi, unaware that all who eat from these trees are bound to rot in the shadows forever. There was no chance she would leave the dead realm now.”

“She was trapped,” Shindara murmured.

“Soon after, her beauty decayed and maggots ate her flesh. She became the Shinigami, the Death Bringer, the Grand Deity of the Yomi… the Abhorrent.”