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Explosions of light bombarded Shindara. Gouts of fire were ripping through the Main Hall and furiously consuming the ornately carved pillars. His vision was swimming back and forth as if he was being pulled between two places at once. He briefly saw Hachi pleading for his help while embers rained down from the ceiling above. Shindara tried to reply, but his tongue was clinging to the roof of his mouth.

Meanwhile, Sae was in the midst of lighting another dragon engine. He let out a frightened shout at precisely the same time the weapon burst into flames. Shindara winced and recoiled from the explosion. When he opened his eyes, however, he saw the inside of a different temple and a different time.

Instead of a sword in his hand, he was wielding a brush against paper. He was attempting to copy a scroll about the mudras, Buddhist hand gestures that would reveal the ultimate truths of reality. It was the only thing keeping him sane at this moment, to stop himself from thinking about… her.

He sighed and tried yet again to focus on the symbols. He was nearly finished copying them when he heard faint voices in the reading chamber. High Priest Kobo had returned from his prayer and was talking excitedly about the means of salvation. Shindara already had this conversation with Kobo many times before. He would never convince him that Enlightenment was achieved through simple faith and not through kindness to others. It seemed Kobo found himself a worthy opponent because he was vigorously debating a new theory.

Shindara chuckled to himself and returned to his private studies. He barely pressed his brush against the scroll when he heard a woman’s voice above him. It seemed strangely soothing and familiar, but he didn’t know why or where he heard it before.

“Could that scribe help me?”

Shindara glanced up from his scroll and almost dropped the brush in his hand. Aya was looking down at him—the source of this terrible, gaping wound in his heart. He stared into her eyes as if he expected her to say something, anything to explain why he felt this way about her.

“Yes, of course,” High Priest Kobo said, ushering her forward. “Shindara, would you help this kind patron? She needs help translating a passage.”

Shindara didn’t remember agreeing, but he must have. He felt frozen to his seat as he listened to the receding footsteps of his mentor, leaving him alone with his heart’s muse. He tried not to show how anxious he was. He forced a smile on his face when Aya handed him a dusty pile of scrolls. He tried to avoid touching her fingers, afraid of what might happen if he felt the tiniest spark of her skin. She’d been avoiding him ever since the animalistic sex. Clearly, she must have changed her mind and decided he wasn’t worthy of her time.

Shindara couldn’t make any sense of it, especially now that she was sitting in front of him.

“Did you know this comes from the oldest Buddhist scripture?” Shindara asked, clearing his throat. “This chapter explores the themes of clinging, beginning with the perils of…” His fingers paused across the rough, faded pages. “…sensual pleasures. An interesting choice.”

“I thought we could both learn something new about this.”

Shindara’s lips curled in a smile, but he refused to fall for her bait. He would play along with her for a little while longer… but this couldn’t go on forever. He still had absolutely no idea what she was doing with him.

“If one, longing for sensual pleasures, achieves it, he is enraptured at heart. He is afflicted as if shot with an arrow. Whoever avoids sensual desires—as he would, with his foot, the head of a snake—goes beyond, mindful, this attachment in the world.”

He could feel Aya watching him closely, and for every second that passed him by, this conflict inside him grew. He was amused and frustrated by her game, and he realized this was entirely by her design. Making him preach about the dangers of the flesh was so cruel that it was turning him on.

“A man who is greedy for fields, land, gold, cattle, horses, servants, employees, women, relatives, many sensual pleasures, is powered with weakness and trampled by trouble. Pain invades him as water, a cracked boat—” Her petal soft fingers touched his thigh, making him squirm. “So one, always mindful, should avoid sensual desires. Letting them go, he would cross over the flood like one who, having bailed out his boat, has reached the far shore—”

She leaned into him and Shindara quickly rushed forward. When his lips met hers, he remembered how much he missed this feeling. The taste of her mouth was more than just tempting. There was unrestrained hunger behind each of her kisses. She was making him feel like he was the only person who mattered to her. He answered her siren call with a hunger of his own, longing to explore what lay beyond the tender intrigue of her lips.

He didn’t know where his breath ended and where hers began, but it felt as if they were sharing one. When his tongue briefly touched hers, she opened her mouth slightly to invite him deeper inside. Shindara wanted her so fiercely that he was losing himself in her.

Suddenly terrified, Shindara pulled away. Everything about their kiss left him feeling aroused, confused, and angry.

“I haven’t seen you in the market for almost two weeks, not since we… I thought I must have done something terrible to you. You obviously didn’t want to see me anymore.” Suddenly, the words were coming out faster than he could think them through. “I was ready to move on from you. Now that you’re here in front of me, I feel like I’m right back where I started. The more I try to pull away, the more I feel like I’m drowning in you. The truth is you changed me. I feel like a stranger in my own skin when I’m with you. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Aya lowered her head, trying to hide the guilt in her eyes.

“It was difficult to see you again. After that night, I could feel myself falling for you. You see my worth in a way that makes me feel seen and understood. I wasn’t sure if I could ever see you again.”

“But you came here anyway. What made you change your mind?”

Aya looked down at his hand trembling next to hers, hinting at his pained desire.

“I wanted to see if I still felt this way when I saw you… or if I was imagining all of this in my head.”

Shindara was almost too afraid to pose his next question.

“And how do you feel?”

Her amber-colored eyes somberly gazed into his. She looked at Shindara as if she secretly didn’t know what to do with him—but her body suggested that she already made up her mind. She leaned into him again and her lips caressed his. One ravenous kiss turned into a second and finally a third. If she kissed him again, he feared he might shatter into pieces, and nothing would ever be able to put him back together. He didn’t remember her mouth pulling away from his, but all of a sudden, her voice was growling pleasantly into his ear.

“You’re everything I want in every way.” Shindara could have succumbed to this desire. This felt like dying and being born again, a throbbing of passions that left him unable to think, breathe, or speak. This was everything that High Priest Kobo warned him about.

“We have to stop—someone might find us at any moment—” Despite his hollow pleas, he continued to kiss the slope of her neck, gently squeezing her skin between his teeth.

“Don’t ever stop,” Aya said breathlessly. Reaching down, she excitedly took his hand. She guided him under her kimono until his fingers were buried between her legs.

Shindara froze when he felt her wet skin. He only wished he was plunging inside her now. He wanted to feel her body achingly entwined with his. Her skin felt sensuous to the touch and burning up with lust—like everything was catching on fire around her. As her kimono slipped from her shoulders, Shindara noticed the flames behind her. And they were the most beautiful flames he had ever seen.

Suddenly, a scorching light filled Shindara’s vision. Burning tiles were falling from the ceiling above him. Instead of Aya, he saw only the destruction of Kiyomizu. Taira soldiers were running back and forth to escape the storm of chaos.

He thought he heard Hachi’s voice somewhere among the flames and battle cries.

“Shindara, are you hurt?!”

“Where’s Aya?!” He froze when he heard how insane his question sounded. Of course she wasn’t here. She was never here. He felt embarrassed for even voicing it out loud. Breathing hoarsely, he staggered to his feet and tried not to look directly at Hachi.

“Shindara—”

“Find him,” Shindara said, trembling where he stood. He flinched as Hachi took a step toward him. “No. Just find Buranchi now.”

His mind was surprisingly still as he gazed into the flames. He had to keep it still if he wanted to stop himself from breaking. He felt cheated. That was the happiest he felt in years, and it was cruelly ripped away. Dangled only to be denied. A few more seconds of it would have made everything better.

That had been a memory of Aya, not a fantasy. It was one of the sweetest he could remember because everything changed in that moment. At last, he found someone who saw the darkness inside him and wasn’t scared away. She loved him for it and in spite of it.

Standing quite still, Shindara felt someone over his shoulder. He heard the whistle of steel and sensed the blade lunging toward his head. He almost didn’t move. And yet, before the wicked steel could reach him, he spun around and scraped it aside.

With every strike and parry, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about her. Everywhere he turned, he kept expecting to see Aya’s smile. He reacted to the clash of swords around him, but he wasn’t consciously aware of what he was doing.

He wanted to hear her voice one last time. Just one more. In that moment, he could do nothing but scream in an effort to bleed out the pain. If he couldn’t hear her voice, he would listen to his own instead. With every flick and thrust of his blade, he let loose a desperate sound that might have been confused as a battle cry. No one would have known that he was mentally coming undone.

To the hells with it all, it didn’t matter how many times he swung his sword. There was no stemming the tide of samurai surging out of the caverns below. The enemy was endless while their side numbered little more than six.

“Shindara, we have to get out of here!” Hachi’s voice cried over the crackling flames. Shindara almost wanted to stay. His story once began in a burning temple. Maybe it was time to end it in one, too.

With black tears still running from his eyes, he furiously growled for breath. He almost let his sword fall to the floor when he looked down and froze. Buranchi was gazing up at him, cradled in Hachi’s arms. The feeble man seemed dazed and completely unaware of his surroundings.

“You found him…?”

“We have to leave now!”

He noticed something among the ruins that captured his attention. His focus remained purely on the shards of broken pottery on the ground. He knelt down and gingerly traced his fingers along the edges, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him.

“Shindara, are you coming?” Mikoto shouted, briefly interrupting his thoughts.

“Just a moment.”

The pottery had been broken once before, as evidenced by the gold used to mend the cracks. It was likely a jug used for hauling water from the nearby stream.

As Shindara puzzled over the pieces, a memory stirred in the back of his mind, one that he’d almost thought had been taken from him. He was vividly reminded of a time when he found a similar water jug. He could still feel its weight in his arms. He remembered tracing his fingers along the etchings in the clay, marveling at the artistry behind them. He remembered how his heart was pounding against the jug as held it to his chest.

Shindara held his breath and became still in the shadows of the hut. He remembered all of it.

Almost seven years had passed since that day.


* * *


Shindara paused to sniff the air as he walked through the West Markets of Nara. The smell of grilled fish and vegetables wafted on the breeze, hinting at the temptations that surely awaited him. He hadn’t eaten since the beginning of the New Year’s festival, continuing his fast for the ninth day. If he finished tonight, he would prove his self-control over the most basic of human desires.

He couldn’t allow himself even the smallest of pleasures during his ritual. He avoided lying down or sitting, and sleep was strictly forbidden during his fast. When the stars were out, he would walk undisturbed through the mountains until he found a suitable rock to meditate on.

Midday was spent studying calligraphy and various religious scripts. Many of the past evenings were spent reciting prayer chants and preparing for his journey into the mountains. Fortunately, he could sleep in his bed tonight and fill his belly with steamed rice.

He would reach the steps of Tōdai-ji Temple while the sun was burning low, signifying the end of his fast. Hoping to avoid further temptation, he turned down one of the streets that wasn’t lined with delicacies or the enticing smell of meat. He was relieved to find himself in the company of artists and craftsmen selling their wares. He had no use for material possessions, but he still found himself in awe of the many creations being sold.

His attention briefly wandered across the market. A girl raced past him with a decorative arrow in her hand, a charm normally found at shrines during the New Year. He was so struck by the joy on the child’s face that he almost didn’t notice the young woman selling pottery to the left of him.

Shindara froze. His eyes met hers at exactly the same time, and he felt like he couldn’t form a single coherent thought. He couldn’t decide which was more intoxicating—the way her eyes smoldered like embers or the way they way they captured so much mystery and intrigue in a single glance. Her hair fell in dark, molten waves over her shoulders, spilling down against the soft hue of her skin. Yet, nothing was more pleasing to him than the shape of her lips and whatever secrets they might hold.

Suddenly, he couldn’t remember what he was doing on this street or where he was heading. All thoughts of hunger left him when he looked at her. Instead, a different kind of hunger stirred inside him, feelings that instantly left him feeling terrified and embarrassed. He must have been opening his mouth and trying to form words because she was laughing at him.

“I-I’m Shindara,” he said, swooping toward her as he hoped to save what was left of his dignity.

“Do you see something you like?” she asked with laughter. Shindara almost joined in her laughter. Of course he saw something he liked, but he couldn’t admit it out loud—least of all to himself. Trying to pretend that he hadn’t been staring at her this entire time, he turned his attention to the pottery. He could feel his face burning as he tried to think of something intelligent to say.

“I’ve never seen designs like these before.”

“My father made most of what you see. I help with the painting and glazing. I’ve always enjoyed working with the earth, shaping and molding it to my imagination.”

“And a stunning imagination it is,” he said without thinking. His cheeks grew hotter still when he heard the gentle squeak of her laughter.

“Which one do you like the best?”

Shindara paused. It felt like a test that he couldn’t afford to lose, and yet, there was no obvious answer. His eyes darted between the bowl with the green glaze and the urn with the distinctive, ash-sprinkled pattern.

“I like this bowl.”

“I thought you would. Would you like to see which ones are my favorite?”

Shindara could feel his pulse throbbing in his neck as he nodded. The enchanting woman brought out a selection of smaller bottles and jars, but they were hardly what Shindara was expecting. Each of them was unique in their respective hue and shape, but they were bonded by one common trait. Every object looked as though it had been damaged in the past and lovingly restored.

“These ones are the most beautiful to me,” she said, tracing her fingers over the cracks, many of which were mended with gold. Shindara watched her hands move languidly from one pot to another, and he found himself hypnotized by her movements and the sound of her voice.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because they’re like us. Precious and fragile and easily broken. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be mended.” Her eyes were drawn to a water jug veined with hints of gold that sparkled in the dimming sunlight. “They’re all the more beautiful for their flaws and imperfections… and so much more interesting.” Her warm, welcoming eyes flickered to him and held his rapt gaze. Shindara feared that she could suddenly see all of his flaws and shortcomings. Even if she did, it didn’t dissuade her because she was looking at him with more intrigue than ever before.

“I’d like to buy this one,” he said—again, without thinking.

“You want to buy a broken jug?” she asked incredulously.

“But you just said—” Her eyes were sparkling with laughter, and he knew at once she was teasing him. Shindara’s mind was racing so quickly that he almost couldn’t count the coins in his hand.

Her fingers brushed against his, and her silken touch felt both pleasing and forbidden against his skin..

“There is something else I wanted to ask you before I leave,” Shindara confessed. Suddenly, he was feeling even more anxious about the next question he might pose. “Can you tell me your name?”

The silence between them could have filled a chasm, and Shindara feared that he might have scared her away.

“You can call me Aya.”

His heart lifted at the sound of her voice. “I hope we meet again, Aya… One day soon.”

“I hope so, too.”

With a final, longing glance, Shindara forced himself to walk away. He knew he must be crazy as he continued on his way to Tōdai-ji Temple. In fact, he couldn’t help but shake his head and laugh at himself. He’d just met the most fascinating woman, and somehow, she convinced him to buy a damaged water jug.

And he would have gladly bought a dozen more.

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 who 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,” 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 drink. 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. Maybe it was a silent scream that no one else could hear except for him. It was begging him to stop. In that moment of weakness, he realized he was better than the demons in 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 needed to do next. It took a complete stranger for him to understand, but 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.


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