Shindara thought he might hurl himself through the flames and somehow come out the other side unscathed. He almost rushed toward the blaze when his gut instinct roared at him to stop—and he knew why in the next few seconds. Jojin stalked around the bend of the tunnel, a sword viciously clutched in his hand and his head bowed low. A half-mask obscured his mouth, but he was almost assuredly grinning behind it. Victory was finally dangled within his reach. There was nothing drunk about his stance this time. His movements were violently sensual as the leaping flames distorted his image. Yet, the worst to come was only a few well-paced steps behind him. A dozen Oni-faced bandits were walking in his shadow. They stormed silently into Mikoto’s lair, confident that their prey was cornered at last. A few of them gleefully dragged their blades across what remained of the Buddhist shrine. In that moment, Shindara wondered if there was any truth to the stories about Jojin’s men. Maybe they were more demonic than human after all. He turned on his heel and ran before he could find out. He twisted his way through the tunnels until he saw the ornate doors. Mikoto would be safely tucked away inside the throne room, hopefully with enough soldiers to stand a chance. He launched himself against the doors anyway, but they held firm. “Mikoto! Let me in! They’re breaking through! The Hinin are inside Ukiyo Court!” Running out of options, he began to pound and punch at the doors. He could hear what sounded like a makeshift barricade being dragged away from the other side. Finally, the doors flung open. “What?” Mikoto demanded as her soldiers yanked him inside. “What’s going on?” “It’s happening right now. We’re coming under attack.” As he scanned the extravagant chamber, he realized Mikoto wasn’t the only one huddled inside. Tomoe was standing ready with an arrow nocked in her longbow. Hachi was pacing back and forth like a caged animal, but he grinned when he saw Shindara. The only one missing was Hrioshango. The chaos magician would be aboard a ship waiting for them at the docks, assuming their escape plan was in effect. Assuming everything that could possibly go wrong hadn’t already. Yes, he was the only companion missing and, of course… her. Shindara’s stomach knotted when he realized Izanami was nowhere in sight. Still. She was likely lost in the tunnels where the Hinin were roaming and killing. Shindara suddenly felt numb on a scale he didn’t know existed. Fortunately, he was interrupted by movement in one corner of the chamber. Past a series of limestone columns, a woman stepped out in black garb and a headdress. The torchlight illuminated her eyes, which latched on immediately to Shindara. Izanami was alive and safe. He felt as if he could melt when she crossed the chamber and threw her arms around him. “Where have you been?” he asked, eventually putting her at arms’ length. “I was looking for you, but I couldn’t find my way down here,” she stammered. “Before I knew what was happening, I was being herded down here by these frightened soldiers. Is it true? Are we under attack by demons?” “I…” Shindara didn’t even know how to answer that question. “Yes” and “no” didn’t seem to suffice for a situation like this. He paused again when something slammed violently against the other side of the doors. Someone was hacking away with axes and swords, followed by ghoulish-sounding shouts. Shindara looked to Mikoto for guidance, but she wasn’t thinking about their next move. She was living in this moment and looking at the woman she’d been married to for less than a month. Tomoe knew exactly what she was feeling. She reached up to stroke the side of Mikoto’s face, who looked as if she could sink into her now. “I thought we would have a little more time with each other.” “I thought so, too. This isn’t what I imagined when I asked you to join me in Sakai.” “It is what it is, Mikoto. I don’t regret any of it. You gave me a beautiful wedding and all the silks a lady could ever ask for.” They laughed at the poorly timed joke. Such a meager attempt to take the edge off the incoming pain. Speaking of dulling the pain, Mikoto reached for a bottle of sake that someone had left lying on the throne. “Our wedding wine,” Mikoto said sheepishly, having already drunk her fair share of it. “If this is our last day together, maybe we should finish off the bottle.” The normally quippy Tomoe didn’t reply. Instead, she eagerly accepted the bottle. She took a deep swig and then another to calm her nerves. She could still hear the Hinin pounding on the doors behind her. Finally, she lowered her drink and smiled warmly at her wife. “I need to tell you something… Thank you. Thank you for finding me. I don’t want to think about how different my life would be without you. I was trapped in a loveless marriage with a tyrant, and I didn’t even realize I was falling apart. Without your love, I would probably be…” Her last words trailed off. Tomoe’s eyes grew wide. Her loving expression was dulled with an edge of shock. She staggered forward and for a moment, she looked as if she might hurl the bottle in Mikoto’s face. Mikoto caught her anyway. She looked into Tomoe’s accusing stare and then she uttered two self-damning words. “I’m sorry.” Tomoe was helpless to reply as her eyes fluttered open and shut. Finally, she became as limp as a corpse in Mikoto’s arms. “Hachi…” On cue, the bandit swept forward and eased Tomoe out of her arms. He threw her over his shoulder as if he was hauling a bag of wheat down to the cellar. Shindara was paralyzed where he stood, watching this surreal scene unfold. “You poisoned her?” he asked. Mikoto was grimly watching as her wife was carried away. “A minor sedative. After the stunt you pulled in Jojin’s lair, I realized this was the only way. I don’t trust her not to get herself killed. I might be risking the lives of my friends, but I’m not risking hers.” “She’ll kill you for this.” “No, she won’t. Jojin will.” She couldn’t help but crack into a darkly humorous grin, and it was just enough to elicit one from Shindara, too. However, as he watched Hachi carry Tomoe away, a different thought occurred to him. “Take her, too,” he said, indicating Izanami. She bolted up with surprise. “But I can keep you safe—” “Not like this. There are too many of them. As powerful as you are, you can still die, and the Hinin will be ruthless. You need to leave.” “I can’t,” she said. “I don’t want to go.” Shindara bit his tongue when he realized what this was all about. She was still seeing everything through the prism of her husband abandoning her. Even now, she couldn’t stop looking at every situation from that distorted point of view. “I’m not abandoning you,” he reassured her. “You’re doing this for me. I’m begging you… Please survive.” “But it feels like this might be the last time we see each other.” “This is different.” He knew what she was trying to imply, but she was wrong. Everything about this nightmare scenario was different. This was being done out of love, not out of rejection. Finally, she looked up into his eyes and begrudgingly allowed herself to trust him. Just this once. “I want to love you, too,” she said. She smiled at him both sweetly and sadly, as if she couldn’t give him what he actually wanted. Not if it meant lowering her guard. Without warning, she kissed him roughly and leaned closer to his ear. Her breath was hot and airy against his skin. “I hope this helps with the pain.” Shindara could have fallen over in that moment. It physically hurt when he watched her walk away because he wanted to wrap his arms around her pain. It was the first time she’d ever expressed any real affection for him, something other than half-feigned interest or disgust. How cruel it would be if this was the last time and the only time he ever heard it. Suddenly, his will to live was more determined than it had been a few minutes ago. He would also make damned sure that Mikoto came out of here alive, too, even if he had to drag her out of this cave. For now, he watched Izanami walk away. She followed the tall, lanky bandit carrying Tomoe, where he led her to a hanging scroll painting against the wall. Brushing it aside revealed a hidden tunnel that no one knew about except for Mikoto and a lucky few. Just as he expected, she paused in the threshold of that passageway. She looked back and met his eyes one last time before the painting fell back into place. As Shindara watched her disappear, the doors to the throne room rattled and bucked again. Several of Mikoto’s men hurled themselves at the barricades, desperate to reinforce them. It didn’t matter if it was hopeless. The mere act of working together gave them some much-needed resolve. However, the doors gaped slightly ajar and the Hinin archers on the other side didn’t hesitate. Wide-eyed, Mikoto watched as her soldiers reeled away with arrows sticking out of their throats or their limbs. The last remaining soldier was still trying to wedge the doors shut when an arrow punched through. It stuck just above his heart and began to fill his lungs with fluid. A rough kick from Jojin sent the double doors spinning open, ramming the arrow a little deeper into the soldier’s chest. Instead of men pouring inside, a dozen torches were sent in first. Shindara batted one aside, but there were too many to avoid. Mikoto cried out as one landed dangerously close to a hanging tapestry. It took hold of the silken threads and sent a river of fire up the wall. A few seconds can make all the difference. Those perilous moments when a room turns into just another bonfire. It’s the moment right before it happens that feels like it lasts forever. Time seems to hold its breath. And then the inferno takes on a life of its own—consuming, erasing, and absolving. Mikoto frantically surveyed her throne chamber as everything she owned fell under a fiery new reign. A lifetime’s worth of treasures would be worth nothing but the sum of their ashes very soon. Even as she watched the tapestries burn, she knew the killing blow had yet to be dealt. When she turned back to the entrance, she caught a glimpse of it. Death looks like a handful of torches arcing through the air. Unfortunately for Mikoto, every last one of them was falling across her.
Night fell like a strange tide across otherworldly shores. Shindara had spent the last few hours wandering the depths of her home with little to no direction. There was no shortage of hallways lined with mother-of-pearl and the more extravagant dome-shaped chambers. At times, it felt as if he was navigating the inside of an empty shell. He had no idea what any of these rooms were used for and maybe he was never meant to find out. He eventually found his way to fresh air and the sight of the night sky. Instead of craning his head out a window, he found himself walking into an open veranda. “A moon-viewing deck,” he murmured under his breath. It offered a decadent view of the ocean bay at night. The shore was lined with a handful of braziers, and each of them was glittering in the distance with flames. Izanami must have set them alight when he was getting hopelessly lost in the palace. Unlike most moon-viewing decks, this one was replete with an ornamental railing and intricately carved designs. It was one of the coziest verandas Shindara ever had the pleasure of lounging in. It was more akin to an oyster than it was a sheltered porch. And what a lovely comparison that was because the moon reflected like a pearl on the ocean waves. Shimmering. Pulsing. Unreachable. Speaking of something else unreachable, he happened to see Izanami out of the corner of his eye. She’d stepped out of the shadows a few moments ago, intriguing him with a new change of dress. Instead of her tattered kimono, she dug into the finery left in her home. A fine, silken court dress complemented her figure. It would have been as black as the shadows if not for the golden embroidery woven throughout the collar. Her hair was secured in an elaborate display of kanzashi hairpins and light chains. Several rings also glinted on her fingers as stepped within reach of the moonlight. Shindara noticed one of those rings was more unique-looking than the rest because it bore a remarkable sigil. “This represents me,” Izanami said, brandishing it when she noticed his gaze. “It’s the symbol of my power and inner strength. It’s funny, isn’t it? The little things that bring us comfort. I’ve only ever shown this to my husband.” “I’m honored that you would share it with me, too.” She smiled at the obvious attempt at flattery, but she didn’t mind. She was enjoying his company, flattery or not. “I’m starting to feel more like myself since I’ve returned to my home,” she said, approaching the edge of the deck. “It’s still not enough, but it’s better.” “What was it like when you became the Abhorrent?” he ventured to ask. Izanami approached the railing and held a silent vigil over the shore. “I was the first one. At least you had friends to keep you from changing into the worst version of yourself. I only had the demons to keep me company.” Shindara followed her stare to the edge of the bay. She seemed fixated on a column of stone that was rising out of the water. There was something otherworldly about it as if this rock was announcing the arrival of gods. In some ways, it was reminiscent of the spear Izanami described her husband wielding. “Do you still hate your husband?” “Ex-husband,” she vehemently corrected. “And sometimes I do. It’s hard to describe because I still love the person he used to be. But as we all know, he showed his true character when he left me behind.” “Then he didn’t deserve you. What he did to you was cruel and disturbing.” “And he killed my child, too,” Izanami replied. “That’s why I can never forgive him. Do you remember what it felt like? When the pain and anger was all you had left? Mine festered until the rage practically became an entity unto itself. The Abhorrent, as we know it. Sometimes it was a balm for me. As long as I was angry, nothing could ever hurt me again. It became my armor.” “There is a seductive quality about it,” Shindara admitted, moving closer. “Sometimes, the rage was intoxicating. Other times, it felt like I wasn’t in control of myself.” “You only tell yourself that,” she chimed. “The truth is you knew what you were doing. Even if it was bad for you, you wanted it anyway.” “And what do you think I want most of all?” Something devious tugged at the corner of her lips. She didn’t take her eyes off him as she listened to the low, sleepy growl of the tide. “The same thing I want.” It was clear that she expected him to hazard a guess in the next few seconds. Shindara only hoped he had the answer on the tip of his tongue. “You want to belong.” “Am I weak for wanting that?” “No. Not at all.” When he didn’t elaborate, Izanami looked closely at him. It was almost as if she could see the raw wounds he was trying to hide. “You understand how it feels, too, don’t you?” “I do, but it’s not for the reasons you think,” he said. How could she know what he went through? No one seemed to understand what it felt like. “I was born and raised as an untouchable. I was viewed as less than a person because, supposedly, there was something intrinsically wrong with me. The child of an untouchable is just as guilty as their parents. So I understand what it feels like not to be wanted.” “Maybe you should have been the first Abhorrent,” she said, and there was something almost predatory about her smile. “Didn’t your parents want you?” Damn it, Shindara wished he could take this entire conversation back. He never should have started down this road of telling her about his past, but it was too late to reverse course now. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I was simply there. It was my duty to help them survive, but did we ever act like a family?” He shook his head. “Not really. Love was something I didn’t understand on a basic level. It’s probably why I was so nervous when I met my wife for the first time.” “You were never loved before your wife?” “No.” He decided to leave it at that, as if the truth wasn’t worth expounding on. He didn’t want to admit that being an untouchable meant he didn’t exist. He could have died in the dirt roads of his home village and no one would have batted an eye. Shindara looked away when he noticed the expression on her face, something akin to sympathy. He didn’t want her pity and he certainly didn’t want her affections because of it. In fact, part of him was embarrassed for sharing those revealing shreds of his past. The more he was drawn into her eyes, however, he realized it wasn’t sympathy at all. There was something else she badly wanted to say to him. “What if you don’t deserve the love you think you do?” she asked. “What if it takes someone truly damaged to see the beauty and depth in you? Maybe you don’t actually need someone to love you. Maybe you just need someone to break your chains.” “You’re right. Besides, those chains would probably look better on you.” She almost seemed impressed with how quickly he turned it back on her. “That’s the most interesting thing you’ve said all day,” she laughed, the sound itself lingering over the bay. Together, they briefly lost themselves in the moon as it danced on the ceiling of the sea. Izanami was practically hypnotized by the view. She wasn’t even looking at Shindara anymore. He almost thought he lost her attention entirely when she spoke up. “Thank you for telling me a little more about your story. You remind me of myself, which brings me to a question I don’t think you’re going to like… What if you’re not the hero in your own story? What if we’re just as bad as the villains? And more importantly… so what?” With those parting words, she sidled past Shindara, just barely grazing his arm with her own. He couldn’t have watched her leave even if he wanted to. He felt paralyzed where he stood, wrapped up in a hurricane of thoughts and feelings that frightened him. When he was finally ready to face her, of course she was gone. Shindara leaned against the balcony without a sound or a sigh. He couldn’t stop thinking about how much he wished he kissed her when she was taunting him. She always left him feeling like he was standing on the edge—but on the edge of what exactly? Yes, he was tempted to join in her occult ritual, but there was one dubious thought holding him back. Was he falling for someone who wasn’t emotionally available? He didn’t believe she was telling him everything he needed to know, but it didn’t outright discourage him. He just wanted to have a reason to be close to her. Frankly, he was surprised that he was contemplating it at all. Most of the time, he wasn’t sure whether he was repulsed by her or aroused. Even the terror has a strange way of twisting itself into an absurd fascination when it came to Izanami. He couldn’t deny there were parallels between them that were nothing short of chilling. As he leaned against the balcony, he suddenly wanted to find out what else they shared in common. The next hour drifted by while he was increasingly lost in thought. He was almost too distracted to notice the melody in the air. A mournful sound was trailing out of the palace. Everything felt different when Shindara pushed his way off the balcony and answered the call. This moment felt surreal as if it shouldn’t be happening. Shindara plunged into the unknown because he wasn’t afraid of whatever he might find waiting for him. He stormed his way from the breezeways to the corridors of the inner sanctum. The voice was certainly hers. Izanami’s melody rose and disappeared, but he suspected he was getting close. He lurched to a halt behind several columns of stone when he saw her. Izanami stood in a chamber that was all but dripping with candles. As for the walls, they seemed to be carved out of coral. It was a deep orange hue like copper freshly pulled out of the forge. These luxuries must have been collected from the reefs beyond the moon-viewing deck. Many of those individual pockets of coral held candles that left the chamber awash in a low, husky glow. Shindara couldn’t take his eyes off her. Izanami was dancing and singing to herself as if there was no greater pleasure. He didn’t know her hips could move like that and he never noticed how weighty her breasts were before. The only thing more maddening than the sight of her was the way she sounded. He didn’t recognize the song she was weaving, but he loved how her voice rose and fell and wavered. It was ridiculous, he knew, to feel so completely under her sway. He was weak and wanting and he cursed himself for it. As he watched her half-lidded eyes, he wondered if she noticed him hiding behind the pillars. He couldn’t tell if she was trying to seduce him or pretending that he was utterly beneath her. Both options were fraught with dangerously tempered egos. The candlelight paid worship to her skin in many various ways. For every drop of sweat that was rolling down her throat, he wished he could be there to grasp her neck and kiss his way up to her ear, his grip slowly tightening. It frightened him to feel this out of control for anyone. It was better not to feel any of this at all. To desire is to be weak. But if that was true, then he was surely the weakest man stranded in the ocean. As he tried to close his mind off to these tempting fantasies, it was pointless. He marveled at the way her voice undulated over some of the words. He wasn’t even sure there were words at this point. Izanami weaved past several columns, always remaining slightly concealed and out of reach. Yet, no matter how she tried to hide it, he could see the inner sadness buried under the sensuality. He saw it in the way she bit her lip or closed her eyes—not because she was lost in ecstasy but because she didn’t want to see how lonely and empty her world had become. He didn’t know how to describe it, but he could sense when she was crying out for something more. He could feel her craving, her wanting, and all the pieces she was missing. How immaculate that her loneliness matched his. He didn’t have to fight the darkness when he was with her. With all of her scars and all of his flaws, he had to believe they were more than enough for each other. And suddenly, he wanted that kind of loneliness with her more than anything.