Updated: Oct 21

The rustic creaking of wood. The slightly pungent odor of mud mixed in with vast amounts of peat. These were the odd sensations that Shindara awoke to as he weakly opened his eyes.

He licked his lips, but they felt numb against the cold, moist air. A veil of mist was suspended in the sky above him, transforming the sun into a ghostly eye. His stomach twisted as it stared down at him from a thick sea of smoky gray. He didn’t have the vaguest notion of what happened to him. He should have been lounging in the warm sanctuary of his villa, not freezing in the harsh winds outside.

“Where in the eight hells…?” Suddenly, his body was rocked back and forth, intensifying the pain in his head. Shindara sensed that he was lying flat on his back, and his head was resting against a bundle of furs and animal skins. For reasons not apparent to him, he was being transported in a wagon weighed down with supplies. It jolted over the uneven ground again before it dipped low.

Brackish water sloshed past the wheels as the wagon rumbled through a marshland blanketed in fog. Shindara could hear several dozen footsteps marching through the peat, accompanied by horses. Judging from the sound, there were nearly ten of them on horseback and five of them traveling on foot.

“Are you sure this was a good idea?” Hachi asked nearby. “We’re leaving the town vulnerable to Lord Yoshi’s attack. What if he attacks while we’re out here?”

Mikoto answered him quietly, as if she was afraid that Shindara would wake.

“I’ve already seen to that. I have an ally embedded in his army. With a little misinformation and plenty of luck, he’ll stay far away from Namida.”

“That doesn’t seem likely. What makes you think he’ll delay the attack?”

“I won’t give him a choice. Do you remember how we tricked the Taira into thinking we outnumbered them?”

“Vaguely, yes.”

“I’m using the same tactics to imitate a Taira outpost. As soon as he circles around the Inland Sea, he’ll spot hundreds of enemy banners and pavilions. He wouldn’t dare advance.”

“How did you…?”

“There were plenty of supplies for the taking after the Battle of Kurikara. I sensed an opportunity and didn’t let it go to waste.”

“That’s brilliant,” Hachi replied.

“It’s only a matter of time before he sees through the ruse, but it should buy us a few days.”

“Which should give us enough time to cure Shindara and bring him back to the town.” Tense silence followed as they waded through the swamp. “What if this doesn’t work, Mikoto?”

“We’re doing everything we can. Shindara doesn’t understand what the Abhorrent has done to his mind.”

“Well, he isn’t thinking clearly.”

Shindara wasn’t sure how much more of this conversation he could endure. He gripped the edge of the wagon and hoisted himself upright. His head felt as though it was spinning from the inside, but he managed several steps before he stumbled out of the wagon. A handful of soldiers exclaimed as he landed awkwardly in the muck.

Shindara?

When he looked up, he saw Mikoto and Hachi gawking at him.

“You’re all wasting your time,” he growled, shrinking away from the judgment in their eyes.

“We’re only trying to help you. We need to take you to a temple—”

“And you thought depriving me of my choice was the best way to help me?” He chuckled and scorned her with a shake of his head. “I don’t need you or anyone else to redeem me.”

“You might not be able to see it, but the Abhorrent is killing you. Every day, I see less of the man I knew and more of this slavish creature instead.”

“You have no idea what this feels like. To be cursed with this much power and influence, to be the envy of Yoshinaka and the bane of Lord Sadato. The Abhorrent is the only thing keeping me alive.”

“Except you aren’t,” Mikoto said, her voice stretched thin with remorse. “In fact, that’s precisely the reason why you’re dead.”

Shindara stared at her as if she violently slapped him across the face. “I’ve heard enough,” he said coldly, evading her eyes. He glanced down at his belt and noticed the absence of the Obsidian Blade. “Now hand over my sword.”

When Mikoto hesitated, Shindara jerked forward with barely-constrained malice. He only relaxed when she approached her horse and reached for an oddly-shaped bundle strapped to the saddle. Wrapping the Obsidian Blade in leather was the only foreseeable way Mikoto could handle it without suffering its mental assault.

She hesitantly offered it to Shindara, and he snatched it out of her hands. He tossed the covering aside and rammed the blade into his scabbard.

“I never want to see you again,” he growled. “You know nothing about me. And now you mean nothing to me.” Ignoring the troubled expression on Mikoto’s face, he walked away. He couldn’t stand to hear another word out of her, much less look at her.

He pretended not to notice as she took off in the opposite direction. He tried to swallow the bitterness in his throat as she herded her soldiers away from him like a diseased dog. Perhaps that was exactly what he was. Rabid. Unrestrained. Unintelligent. He slogged through the mud as he wrestled with the doubts floating to the surface of his brain. Every time he thought of Mikoto, he felt soul-shaking rage.

How dare she try to reduce him to a simple, pathetic man. He was nothing but weakness without the Abhorrent. Did she have any idea what a cleansing ritual might have done to him? More than likely, undoing Hrioshango’s magic would strip him of his power and revert him to a corpse. If it didn’t outright kill him, it would render him vulnerable to his enemies. Either way, her actions would have turned him into a dead man. She was supposed to be the one who always looked out for his best interests.

Not the one to betray him.

On impulse, he wheeled around and plodded toward her. Something less rudimentary than thought and more overt than instinct ran through his mind—something bestial. An eagle-eyed soldier noticed Shindara over his shoulder and turned to confront him.

“Shin—”

Shindara whipped his blade across and sent his head spiraling to the ground. Seamlessly, he yanked the spear out of the corpse’s hands and hurled it at the next samurai to turn around and face him. Shindara felt exhilarated, unstable, and unexplainably fragile. As he mindlessly pitched forward and staggered back, he vaguely recalled seeing blood unravel in the swamp water. If only he could remember who it belonged to.

He heard the screams of his former companions ringing in his head. Before he could fully comprehend what he’d done, eight men were converging on him with blades gleaming. He briefly saw the horrified expression on Mikoto’s face, and he couldn’t help but smile at her.

Run,” he mouthed.

Hooves pounded the rain-spattered earth as Mikoto rode quickly through the mountain pass. She pulled sharply on the reins and dismounted. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she cut a swift gait toward a pavilion erected at the end of a soldier encampment.

“Lord Yoshinaka,” she said, catching her breath as she shuddered from the cold. “Your tactics seem to be working. We displayed thirty banners on Kurosaka Hill to trick the Taira into thinking our forces outnumber theirs.”

Lord Yoshinaka, flanked by his generals and dressed in his finest battle regalia, emerged from the shelter of his makeshift pavilion.

“And they stopped their advance?”

Mikoto nodded. “They’re holding their position near the head of Kurikara Pass. Come nightfall, they’ll likely turn back to the plains and break for camp.”

Yoshinaka turned gleefully to General Imai.

“What did I tell you? Even Lord Sadato knows better than to leave his troops out in the open. He might be a difficult man to kill, but he won’t sacrifice his army.”

“We shouldn’t waste this opportunity,” Imai replied hastily. “Tonight will be our best chance for victory. We can split our main force into four units, each one attacking the camp in succession.”

“Can I make a suggestion, my lord?” Mikoto interrupted, piquing Yoshinaka’s interest.

“Very well. Go ahead, general.”

“The Taira outnumber us, but we can work the terrain to our advantage. Perhaps we could trap them in the gorge. With a little bit of strategy, we could drive them into Hell Valley.”

Yoshinaka’s amused smirk melted away to a wide-eyed stare. He cocked his head at General Imai, as if to ask why he didn’t suggest this tactic earlier. In truth, it was an idea that wouldn’t have occurred to his closest advisers. Anyone who suggested chasing the Taira into Hell Valley would have been rightfully laughed out of his war council. It was more of a smoking crater than a valley, a cauldron of mud ponds and volcanic vents spewing steam into the sky. Additionally, it wasn’t far from the plain where the Taira would form their camp.

“Into Hell Valley? What exactly do you have in mind?”

“You could divide your army into three forces, but if we all work as one, we can maneuver the Taira into a trap. An ambush party could circle around to the North and follow the Taira up the mountain pass. They would attack from the rear as the second group flanks them from the West. They would strike fast and drive them into the dead end of the valley, where the third group would be waiting.”

“That’s impossible,” snorted Yoshinaka, shaking his head. “There’s no way we could conceal that movement from the Taira. And it would take nearly all of tonight—”

“And tomorrow,” Mikoto said firmly. Yoshinaka regarded her with a stunned look. Finally, he grinned with raucous laughter and slapped his leg.

“You’re either very confident or very mad, Mikoto. I admire that in you. Still, what’s to stop the Taira from noticing my soldiers as they circle around?”

“The decoy troops and banners you displayed should delay them through the night. But come morning, your main force will need to draw their attention.”

“It’s not out of the question,” a female archer said nearby. “We could engage them and hold our position as we lure them into the trap.” Mikoto flashed a thankful smile in her direction. It took all but a few seconds for her gratitude to turn into a sharp pang of longing. She was awestruck by the woman’s alluring face.

Mikoto found herself looking into the stranger’s eyes, perhaps a little too excitedly.She tried to concentrate on their battle plans, and it still wasn’t enough. She focused instead on the soft contour of the woman’s cheeks, the rosy hue of her mouth, and her icy, entrancing eyes. There was an elegance to the mysterious archer that intrigued Mikoto even more than the sensual curves hidden beneath her armor.

The other woman’s lips tugged in a quick smile and she glanced away.

“Ambushes and trickery,” Yoshinaka said, interrupting Mikoto’s lustful fantasies. “This isn’t how we learned to wage war, Tomoe. What happened to honor and the rules of engagement? Isn’t that what separates us from our enemies?”

The woman named Tomoe stared down Yoshinaka with steely eyes. “I don’t believe her plan has been properly considered. Don’t you think so, general?”

Mikoto eagerly nodded. “My lord, let them believe you’ll honor the classic tradition of battle.”

“How?”

“Send out groups of ten or twenty archers to engage the Taira. Take a hundred of your best samurai and let them challenge Sadato’s strongest. They wouldn’t say no to being the first in battle.”

Yoshinaka fell silent as he weighed the possibility. He also seemed to be balancing his desire to live against his stifling notions of honor.

“This isn’t treachery, my lord. This is survival. If we pull this off, you’ll be remembered as a master of strategy.”

Yoshinaka’s jaw stiffened and his eyes darted between Imai and Tomoe. He didn’t seem entirely convinced. He settled on Mikoto with a solemn expression, revealing the doubt in his face. She braced herself for the worst as he let out a sigh.

“General Imai, gather six thousand of your finest warriors. Surround Hell Valley with archers and lie in wait. Tomoe will take an additional seven thousand men to bolster you. Nakahara, you will lead the ambush party. Take four thousand men and circle around until you follow the Taira up the pass. You will lead a two-pronged attack from the South and the West.”

Mikoto could hardly believe her ears. He was clearly intrigued by her plan and willing to bet the odds on her.

“Lord Yoshinaka, if you let me, I can gather my soldiers and join Tomoe in Hell Valley.”

“I have a better idea. You will stay with me and the main force.” He fondly patted her on the arm as he walked past her. “After all, I don’t know what I would do without my cleverest general.”

It was the closest that Mikoto would ever receive to acknowledgement as the engineer of their battle plan. She took it in stride because she was quite accustomed to Yoshinaka’s ego by now.

As the generals departed to command their respective units, Mikoto lingered. She watched as the female archer removed her helmet and shook free a cascade of black, silken hair. Mikoto was quickly joined by Yoshinaka, who followed her hungry gaze.

“Ah yes, Lady Tomoe Gozen. There’s no else quite like her… I suppose that’s why I married her. Tell me, what do you think of her?”

Mikoto inclined her head with a sly grin.

“I think I just found a woman who’s demon enough for me.”

Yoshinaka furrowed his brow as if he hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about.

“Yes, well… enough about her. Anyway, there is one more thing on my mind.”

“I assure you, our plan will thwart Sadato from advancing.”

“This has nothing to do with our strategy. Please, don’t burden yourself with ill tidings of war. Walk with me for a moment, Mikoto. I wanted to talk to you about the Obsidian Wraith.”

Mikoto felt the color draining from her face. Fortunately, the chill from the rain made her pallor less obvious.

“I know you were close to him,” Yoshinaka said, speaking softly. “I can only imagine how difficult it was for you when I tried to bring him to justice.”

“So you still believe he’s the traitor?”

“How else am I supposed to explain his mark on that letter? He threatened the social and political order of Japan. Remember, he’s not one of us. We are flesh and blood, but he is only darkness. Maybe that’s why he disappeared for so long. He’s a vengeful spirit that refuses to die.”

“He’s not,” Mikoto snapped.

Yoshinaka stopped dead in his tracks and scowled at her. If anyone else interrupted him, they would have been tied to a post in the middle of the camp and flogged.

“If I’ve offended you, I’m sorry,” he said instead, surprising her. “I’m well aware of the situation I put you in. When I confronted Shindara, I saw how much you wanted to help him. I saw the loyalty in your eyes. It was the kind of devotion that only comes from two warriors who fought side by side in battle. But you didn’t go after him. You chose me.

Mikoto wasn’t sure whether to laugh or recoil. She made a calculated choice to let Shindara flee. If she fought on his behalf, he would have stayed to protect her. In other words, it would have been a massacre that no one could survive.

As she looked upon Yoshinaka, she knew he could never understand the sacrifice she made.

“Shindara!”

The mention of his name caught him off guard. He spun toward the woman, feeling somewhat startled and exhilarated but mostly enraged. He froze when he saw Mikoto staring back at him. Her face blanched as she looked him up and down and saw the Obsidian Blade quivering in his hand.

“What… what happened to you?”

Shindara looked past her, where he was greeted by the sight of several familiar faces. Hachi, Hrioshango, and nearly two hundred rebels were weaving through the streets in his direction. Instead of answering her, he turned away and quickened his pace.

“Shindara, stop! We’ve been searching all over for you—”

“You didn’t lead his assassins here, did you?”

“No, of course not! We were set upon by bandits as soon as we arrived.”

“Slavers,” Shindara replied as he tried to maintain a tenuous grip of control. “Bandits are terrorizing this village and selling the peasants’ daughters. You were probably spotted by the lookouts.”

“How did the assassins manage to get past—where are you going?”

“An abandoned estate lies outside this town. The slavers must have raided it and turned it into their personal palace. That ends today.”

“That’s your plan? We’re going to blindly rush in? And hack and slash our way to the—”

“There is no we, Mikoto, not this time. I’m doing this on my own.”

“Are you insane? You can’t kill them all by yourself.”

Shindara’s head whipped back with a blank stare that seemed to belong to someone else.

“The Abhorrent can.”

With that guttural reply, he hefted the blade over his shoulder and continued on his way. Stunned, Mikoto watched him follow the dirt road leading out of Namida.

The path gradually climbed toward a mansion surrounded by roofed, earthen walls. The defenses were firm, consisting of a stone wall foundation encased by wooden rails and mud. Shindara expected to find archers keeping a vigilant watch over the hill, but instead, he found several bandits lazily sprawled by the east gate. He didn’t burden himself with thoughts of honor or mercy as he stood over them. He simply lifted his sword and rammed it down. One of the bandits woke to the bite of the Obsidian Blade, but his horror was short-lived.

As Shindara wiped his blade dry, he observed Mikoto to make sure her soldiers were keeping a safe distance away. He wouldn’t tolerate anyone interfering with his mission.

A heavy fog cast its shade across the inner gardens as he slinked through the gated entrance. He stayed within the shadows of the outer walls and followed the sound of water sloshing over stones. As he prowled around the courtyard, he discovered a stream that fed into a pond spanned by sensuously arched bridges.

The pond combined elements of trees and rocks carved into small mountains. They were intended to create an image of the heavens, not unlike the Pure Lands of Amida Buddha. Unfortunately, the years of disuse were not kind to this lord’s version of paradise.

The gardens were diluted into a swampy pit that was rank with scum and plant decay. At its best, it was tantamount to a patch of wild forest. It contributed to the feeling of walking in between worlds and stumbling upon a place forgotten by time.

Years ago, this might have been an ideal retreat for a noble seeking escape from the tumult of the capital. Any hope of a peaceful retirement surely died when the lord’s estate was ransacked by slavers.

Several buildings jutted into the courtyard, most notably a south-facing structure pebbled with moss. Also known as the shinden, it was nestled in a plaza surfaced with pale gravel. Once it served as the central hall to an obscenely wealthy lord. One glance at the entrance told Shindara that it sheltered a different kind of master now. A score of bandits lolled in front of the shinden, laughing as they gnawed on hunks of meat and slurped from jugs of sake.

If Shindara was still human, a mob of bandits might have discouraged him. Unfortunately, his mind was too far gone to distinguish between serious danger and a minor obstacle.

Feeling confident, he emerged from the gardens and started toward them. The sight of Shindara roused shouts of alarm and the slavers promptly reached for their weapons. After the initial surprise wore off, a few of them lowered their blades and burst into laughter.

Others circled him like a pack of stray dogs. They hurled crude insults as they cut off any hope of escape. Unfortunately for them, Shindara wasn’t interested in retreating.

One of the bandits gruffly called out to the manor. “Hanzo! Someone’s here to see you!”

Shindara simply stood and stared, trying to keep his heart as steady as possible. He endured their mocking laughter until a screen door slid open from the shinden. A tall man with an unkempt beard emerged onto the engawa porch.

“What’s this?” he chuckled, setting his hands on his hips. “I don’t remember asking for you. Is this what we’re selling these days?” The bandits’ laughter reached a fevered pitch and their leader flashed an obscene smile. “Have you come to trade places with your daughter?”

Shindara’s hand shook uncontrollably as his grip tightened around his sword.

“I’m not from the town.”

Perhaps it was the tone of Shindara’s voice, but the grin soured on Hanzo’s face. He would never tolerate disrespect from a common man.

“Kill him—”

Before he finished that sentence, the Obsidian Blade cleaved through one of the slavers and dropped him in a bloody heap. The men floundered backward and fumbled for the swords. A few of them turned to Hanzo for orders, but he was equally at a loss for words. He could barely keep a straight face when he saw what Shindara accomplished with a single blow.

“All of you, kill him now!” he finally screamed.

Shindara lifted his sword. His blade scythed back and forth as one bandit after another charged toward him. He was tempted to call upon the powers of the Yomi, but that would have been too easy. He wanted this fight to be as brutal as possible.

He spun away from their attacks, but he wasn’t quick enough to escape completely unscathed. He felt blades poke and scrape his body, but the pain was oddly subdued. The only purpose it served was to further provoke him.

He cut through the last of the human fodder that Hanzo sent his way. As he caught his breath, he noticed a score of figures emerging from the gardens. Before he could mistake them for reinforcements, he recognized them as his fellow rebels. He spotted Mikoto among the soldiers and tried to smile reassuringly at her.

That distraction almost cost him dearly. Hanzo lunged at him from behind with a deft swing.

Shindara attempted to counter, but Hanzo’s blade still stung his arm. Instead of blood, blackened mist spat out of his wounds. It floated into the air like a dark geyser. Even as the Abhorrent, he seemed incapable of bleeding.

The chilling sight gave Shindara an idea. So long as these minor scratches didn’t kill him, there was no harm in turning it against Hanzo. Besides, it wouldn’t take much effort to trick the slave master into believing he held the advantage.

Shindara offered a sloppy defense, one so meager that he could practically feel Mikoto quaking from where she stood. With every successful strike, another plume of darkness unfurled into the air. Shindara pretended to falter mid-strike, and Hanzo pounced.

Growling in anticipation, the bandit thrust ahead. There was no impact this time. Shindara was gone. Suddenly, Hanzo couldn’t see past the dark fog lingering in the air.

However, he heard the crunch of the gravel behind him. Breaking out in a sweat, Hanzo worked his fingers fast to pluck a dagger from the sash around his waist. With a piercing cry, he whipped around and plunged the blade into the side of Shindara’s neck.

The scribe choked and keeled over as dizziness rushed to his head. Despite the ringing sound in his ears, he heard Mikoto cry out. He felt the life drain out of him in an instant.

Just as quickly as the feeling swept over Shindara, it vanished. Shaking himself free of the nausea, he staggered upright and seized the bandit’s arm. Hanzo howled with terror.

“You’re a demon!”

Shindara’s vision blurred. Black ichor leaked from the corners of his eyes and a smile rippled across his face.

“Better to be a demon than a rapist,” his voice slithered.

Shindara twisted the man’s arm until bones snapped in protest. Before Hanzo could squirm free, the air was blasted out of his chest with a kick. Shindara bore down on him.

“You take. You ruin. You destroy.”

He slammed his fist into the slaver’s nose, turning his vision into a white haze. There was no way Hanzo could defend himself. He flailed with his sword, but Shindara didn’t give any thought to mercy. Mercy was an utter waste of time.

Shindara thought of the mutilated girl he encountered inside the inn, and he wasn’t sure whether he felt more like screaming or throwing up. There was only one way to remedy a situation like this.

“Men like you don’t deserve to breathe.”

In one swift motion, Shindara seized a handful of the bandit’s hair. His arm was taut like iron as he dragged him across the gravel plaza. Without a flicker of humanity on his face, he thrust the rapist’s head into the scum-infested pond.

Running halfway across the courtyard, Mikoto slowed to a stop. She watched as one of the gentlest men she’d ever known gladly drowned another human. She was stunned by the uncontrollable rage he was capable of. Her stomach lurched when she saw the frenzied expression on her friend’s face. On the Abhorrent’s face.