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.

I stroke my shattered reflection on this broken surface

Fragments of chaos and anomalies.

Their voices lull me to drift unto you

I achieve happiness for a second

A rift inside me becomes an explosion.

The stranger in the corner had been watching Hachi for several hours now. Every time he turned his back, he could feel his eyes boring into him. He couldn’t see the man’s face beneath the cowl, but perhaps he didn’t need to. Hachi was familiar with the type of wretches who stumbled into this ill-reputed establishment.

Deep in the shadows of Ishibei-koji Alley, a path of pulsating, red lanterns lured the most unfortunate denizens to its threshold. It was disguised as a sake shop, but it operated as a gambling den for criminal patrons. Only the most desperate and deplorable knew the way, and Hachi was surrounded by at least three dozen of them now.

To his left and his right, gamblers were sitting on sake barrels or tatami mats while they indulged in meager pleasures. With a drink in one hand and dice in the other, they numbed themselves into believing they were owed a temporary scrap of happiness. Hachi knew the process better than any of these so-called degenerates. Nevertheless, it felt like a lifetime ago since he drowned his sorrows in the equivalent of poison.

The sake was past its prime and smelled like a wet hound, but beneath its tongue-curling taste, it offered him a glimmer of solace. Wiping the spittle from his chin, he pushed his cup in the direction of his host. Again. Again. And again. Toxin was the only remedy for escaping his blood-soaked past.

He glanced over his shoulder and, just as he thought, the hooded figure was still observing him. He was dressed in monks’ robes and sitting on a barrel in the corner of the den. He was content to be without a single vice, as if he was above their hedonist rituals. Hachi wondered if he was an outcast or one of the plague’s many disfigured victims. Maybe there was something more sinister lurking under those soiled rags.

Hachi lifted the cup to his lips as he pretended not to notice him. He was aware of the rumors about Taira spies and sympathizers roaming the city. Supposedly, they were eliminating Minamoto soldiers in their homes and taking their loved ones hostage. He would make a tempting target for elite assassins--and probably the least experienced and the most reckless. After all, he was well-known on and off the battlefield for his prowess.

He took comfort in the fact that most of these patrons ignored him. They were content to wager their month’s earnings on a game of sugoroku or gnaw at cooked meat on skewers.

As he drank his warmed sake, he caught the conversation of the peasants seated behind him. He listened as dice exchanged hands and their voices lowered to whispers.

“Did you hear about the cache of weapons in the Lower Wards? They say it was smuggled in through the Kamo River.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve said all night. It’s probably just Izumi spreading his stories again.”

“Not true. I was there when a group of imperial guards showed up outside Takada’s storehouse. When they emerged, they were hauling out enough blades and bows for a small uprising.”

“Takada… There was always something off about that one. Just a few days ago, I found him skulking outside my house in the dead of night, frightened out of his wits. He was ranting about samurai who could walk through walls.”

“Sounds like a guilty conscience to me. He knew the imperial guards would be coming for him. They’ll find his corpse curled up in the alleys like the dirty earth spider he is.”

Hachi was so engrossed in their tale that he didn’t notice a hunched figure settle down next to him. Finally, he glanced to the side, saw the hooded stranger, and dropped his cup. It clattered noisily across the top of a barrel as he lunged forward to save it.

The man from the corner was sitting next to him. Voiceless, faceless, and unmoving. He was a silhouette of cloth, one who blended in seamlessly with the other patrons. If this was an elaborately laid trap, Hachi knew his life was nearing its end. With as little movement as possible, he reached for the dagger concealed at his waist. The din of gambling patrons faded from his ears. He could barely smell the pungent aroma of sake swirling around him. He was focused on nothing else except the distance between him and the stranger.

As soon as his fingers brushed against the knife, a voice met his ears.

“Strange times, is it not?”

Hachi was too startled to reply. He was prepared for a wet stab in the ribs or a bottle smashed over his skull but certainly not a question. When he didn’t reply, the man of rags let out a raspy laugh. He leaned close enough that Hachi could smell the foulness on his breath, like the inside of an incense pot.

“What brings you here? Are you trying to escape your wife? Or children perhaps?”

Hachi muttered something under his breath, most likely a slew of curses. An astute man would realize that Hachi was actually reciting a prayer. He was praying to any gods who would listen, asking to be left alone, or, better yet, alive.

The stranger released sharp hisses of laughter between his teeth as he pulled away. “No, you strike me as the lonely type. After all, why else would you be here?”

“I came here to drink in peace,” Hachi grumbled.

“There’s no shame in admitting when you’re alone. After all, that’s how we enter this world and that’s how we leave it.”

In the awkward silence that followed, the stranger grumbled and twisted away.

Hachi hoped that was the end of their morbid conversation. He required a few more hours of this sake and he could curl up in the corner and forget about the world outside. He needed one dreamless night. Just one night without visions of Toshiro’s war-torn body. As the cup of sake began to shake in his unsteady hand, the stranger’s voice echoed in his ear again.

“Isn’t anyone looking for you?” Hachi’s knuckles whitened around the handle of his dagger. “Isn’t there someone out there who needs you?”

“No one needs me.”

“Spoken like a true outcast. Everyone has someone, even the least of us… especially the least of us.”

Hachi grunted in vague disagreement. Nothing would have made him happier than drinking his misery in solitude.

“What is your name?” the stranger rasped.

A mocking smile curled Hachi’s lips. “Let’s not pretend. You know who I am, otherwise, you wouldn’t have approached me.”

“Ha, true enough. You have a certain reputation for this sort of thing.” The cloaked man rapped his knuckles against the barrel he was sitting on.

“Better a drink than a sword in my hand. At least that way, I can’t hurt anyone.”

“Why not a drink and a sword? That sounds like the Hachi I’ve heard of.” The stranger’s laughter reverberated over the dice rolling across the floor and the cups clinking together. Instead of replying to his taunt, Hachi reflected on a life stitched together from one too many battles. He reveled in the thrill of swords clashing and blood flowing down his face, but did he ever once pause to ask what he was fighting for?

Thirty-three duels. Fourteen battlefields. Hundreds of lives irreparably changed. Was this worth celebrating or was it worth mourning?

“I’m not that kind of man anymore,” Hachi said. “At least, I don’t want to be. I can’t allow myself to hurt anyone else. Especially not the people closest to me.”

“Perhaps there is no sparing our loved ones.”

Hachi pondered his words, wondering if there was a confession hidden somewhere in them.

“Who have you hurt?”

Cold silence greeted him. Beneath his cowl, the stranger seemed to stare into the distance, perhaps revisiting a sordid past of his own.

Hachi released a sigh that had been gathering in his chest. “I’ve wronged many people. More than I can ever count. I used to wonder why I survived when so many others died. I always thought the gods were protecting me. Now I wonder if they wanted me to suffer.”

“Perhaps they did,” the stranger said, surprising him. “Maybe they abandoned you. They moved on to less damaged souls worth saving… or maybe there is a more cunning force at work here. Perhaps you wanted yourself to suffer.”

Hachi didn’t know which one held a grain of truth. He could accept being forsaken by the gods, but he was terrified by the idea that he might hate himself. Could it be possible that he hated himself all this time for Toshiro’s death? Did the act of seeing Old Man Buranchi thrust these ugly emotions to the surface?

“You said something earlier that piqued my interest. You claim that you’re not that kind of man anymore. Tell me something. Who are you now?”

“It’s not a question of who I am. It’s a matter of who I want to be,” Hachi replied.

“And who would that be? A man who drinks less than three jugs of piss water sake?”

Hachi laughed in spite of himself. He relaxed his grip on the knife, no longer afraid of the stranger.

“I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t run away from his mistakes. Someone who doesn’t mask his pain under laughter. I don’t want to be known as a criminal in forty-two provinces. Just this once, I’d like to be known for something good I’ve done. But my demons keep getting in the way.”

A throaty voice rose from behind the stranger’s cowl, a primordial and earthy sound like embers popping in a fire.

“No one ever truly knows the demons we keep.”

Hachi pondered those words as he stared into the bottom of his empty cup.

“What do you do with those demons?” he asked softly. The hairs on his arms stood up straight as the stranger’s voice crackled with a sudden fierce energy.

“You wrestle back your control from them. Even if you have to tear it out of their greedy, screaming jaws. You never give in. You never relent. You take back your soul and what you always were.”

“A warrior?”

The man of rags chuckled.

“Something more. I can’t tell you what that is because it’s different for every person. Only you know the truth in your heart. May you find the man you truly wish to be.”

Hachi lowered his head, and before he knew it, he was closing his eyes to keep his tears from escaping. He knew the kind of man he wanted to be. He wished to be the kind who wasn’t losing himself in a bottle. Someone who wasn’t wracked with guilt and disappointing the people who mattered the most to him.

“These demons define us,” the hooded figure said, interrupting his thoughts. “To suggest anything else is a lie. However, I believe we are also defined by the friends we keep. And despite your claims, I don’t think you’re truly alone. I’m sure there is someone out there who needs you. Perhaps someone who is hurting just as much as you.”

Hachi thought of Mikoto and Tomoe, mostly the expressions on their faces when he fled. He could see how much they wanted to help him, but he stubbornly refused. Tears rushed to his eyes as he thought about Shindara most of all. Somewhere in the midst of this rotting city, he was haunted by the massacre of Namida. He carried the souls of every man, woman, and child who perished, much like wounds that would never completely heal. Yet, the biggest scar of all was the Obsidian Blade.

Shindara would have one less friend by his side for every day that Hachi remained hidden. He was too terrified to leave, and for that, he was disgusted with himself. Hachi tried to repress the sorrow, but one of his tears cut a glistening trail down his cheek.

“The beauty of the ones we love is that they always give us a second chance at redemption,” the stranger continued. “True friends always do.”

Hachi nodded as he fidgeted with the cup in his hands. He could finally admit to himself that he wanted to see his companions. For the first time in days, he felt strong enough to venture into Heian-kyo. Perhaps the worst of his troubles had passed.

Before he could smile at his good fortune, a shadow passed over him. He looked up as the den owner deposited another cup of sake in front of him. Hachi pondered the drink within his reach, trying to decide whether he should abandon temptation or indulge in his self-pity.

One more time.

His hand seemed to move of its own accord. Hachi sucked in a ragged breath as he reached for the cup. He closed his eyes and imagined the bittersweet oblivion waiting for him at the bottom of this cup. He began to lift it to his face, and as soon as the pottery touched his lips, something cried out inside him. A silent scream that no one could hear except for him. It was begging him to stop. In that moment of weakness, he realized he was stronger than the demons trapped inside his heart.

A fond smile found its way to Hachi’s face. He was so much more than a warrior, and he realized what he had to do next. It took a complete stranger for him to understand. He would never be lost as long as he was true to himself.

On impulse, Hachi spun toward his new companion.

“This one’s for you, my friend--”

He faced the stranger with a grateful smile and a drink offered in his hand. To his surprise, there was no one there to accept his cup or his thanks.

The man who was once sitting next to him was gone.