Shindara passed by the last of his sleeping companions and followed the darkling into the woods. The warmth and safety of the camp receded as dark boughs closed in around him.

A few Shintō shrines dedicated to the gods were scattered along the path, half-hidden by the snow. He reached out and touched one of the forgotten shrines for good luck. As they wound through the forest, they encountered a path that split off in two different directions. One led to the left under a grove of peach trees while the right path led into the endless night gloom.

“Which way?”

Without answering, Hrioshango crept toward the left path under the trees.

Shindara almost asked about the other way, but he quickly changed his mind. Instead, another question came to his mind that he had been yearning to ask.

“Have you ever been afraid of death?”

Hrioshango shambled to a slow stop.

“Yes and no. It’s probably no surprise that my fears are different from yours. I’ve seen enough pain, horror, and evil to fill several lifetimes. You’re afraid to die. I’m afraid to continue living.” He turned a sly smile to Shindara. “But fear is just the moment before the sun fades, isn’t it? When the shadows hold you tight.”

Shindara gawked at him in disbelief. Those were words he never shared with Hrioshango, yet he took them right out of his mouth—with a few flowery additions of his own. After all, he once shared those words with Mikoto many moons ago on the beaches of Owari.

With a shrug, Hrioshango added, “I guess you could say that moment is almost here.”

They continued onward as Shindara pondered his answer. He knew better than anyone about the fragility of life and the suffering of existence. When he was a much younger scribe, he viewed death as the greatest of teachers and an inevitable path that all must take. Death was the liberator that would usher him into the next life and one step closer to Enlightenment. Those concepts were shattered when he met Aya.

Suddenly, he couldn’t imagine leaving the world behind. Aya became the breath of air that he couldn’t live without. He knew he would always want her and he promised to love her even more tomorrow… but her tomorrow never came. If Aya was still here, she would know exactly what to say to soothe him. Instead, Hrioshango’s voice jarred against the silence.

“We’re getting close. Can you hear it?”

“I hear nothing.”

“The hissing of the snakes, the chittering of the centipedes, all creatures associated with the Yomi. They whisper their strange songs to the darkness. You’ll hear them soon enough.”

The unlikely pair stepped through the thickets and into a moon-cast glen. Shindara’s eyes swept across the snow and ice until he spotted a massive boulder. He stopped mid-step as a feeling like no other overwhelmed him. He could feel the darkness roiling beneath that rock, salivating and begging to be let free.

“At last,” Hrioshango sighed as he descended into the small valley.

“Was the entrance always sealed?” Shindara asked.

“Not always. It’s been thousands of years since the way was shut. It was meant to keep something from getting out.”

Without warning, Hrioshango lifted his hand and curled his fingers in the shape of a dying spider. The boulder shifted and Shindara braced himself. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck as the rock tumbled away. Hidden beneath the boulder was a great pit, a hole charred into the existence of the world. As he peered into the abyss, he could finally hear it. The snakes slithering in the grass, the centipedes crawling under damp logs, and the crows lamenting from the trees.

The harbingers of the Yomi seemed everywhere at once as the pit beckoned him. What kind of world existed where the night was eternal? What creatures or despondent souls lurked on the other side?

As he considered the possibilities, a faint voice piped up from his side.

“If it’s any comfort, I’m here for you… as your friend.”

Shindara turned to Hrioshango, where the darkling managed a weak smile.

“Thank you. And yes, it is comforting. I’m glad I can count on someone like you.”

The darkling nodded and swept out his hand toward the pit.

With a quiver in his heart, Shindara took one step forward and prayed that it wouldn’t be his last.

Updated: Apr 26

Shindara wondered if there was a more beautiful feeling than riding a horse under the open sky. It didn’t even feel like its hooves were touching the ground as they were carried past slumbering maples and Shinto gates cloaked in white. Whether he imagined it or not, he was delighted to share this moment with Kenji.

Finally, he caught sight of several riders ahead and urged his horse faster.

“You seem awfully confident today,” Shindara said as he caught up to Mikoto.

“You might have noticed we aren’t encountering as many Taira in our travels.”

“Why is that?”

“They just suffered a defeat along the Fujigawa and are pulling their troops back. Some say they’re trying to suppress the threat of rebellion in their lands. The droughts and floods have destroyed their crops. And as we all know, famine is just a preface for rebellion.”

“This is the work of the gods, my friend,” Hachi cried, extending his hands to the sky. “Maybe if the Taira stopped burning temples, they wouldn’t have brought down the wrath of the Buddha.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Mikoto said as she mused over the idea. “The lands under the Minamoto clan are thriving while the Taira’s waste away. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage. A little superstition goes a long way.”

“Nevertheless,” Shindara said, “I wouldn’t lower our guard. Don’t forget the slaughter we survived in the mountains. The Taira are ruthless. They won’t retreat for very long. We may have defeated Lord Sadato, but there will be many more like him.”

Shindara clenched the reins a little tighter as he remembered Sadato. That man was single-handedly responsible for the siege of Nara and every death that ensued. Were it not for Sadato, his wife and child would still be alive today.

“How does it feel to finally be rid of that bastard?” Mikoto asked.

It was a question that Shindara had been asking himself since the events of that battle, and it was one that kept him awake late into the night. He didn’t regret killing him because he knew the world needed less people like Sadato. There was something else whirling around in his head and turning his thoughts against him.

“I would be lying if I said I was happy. It doesn’t feel as though Sadato’s death changed anything.” He gritted his teeth. “Does it sound terrible to say there’s a void inside me now that he’s gone?”

“That’s not for me to answer. You pinned all of your revenge on him. Now that he’s dead, you’re probably asking what you’re fighting for.”

“I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” Shindara said, as they ambled past a tangle of shrubs and thorns. “Why does wanting something always feel better than the moment when you finally have it? As soon as Sadato died, I felt as lost as a child. I felt abandoned and alone, as if I needed him to still be alive—as if I still needed someone to hate.”

“Maybe he gave you a purpose when you had none.”

“Hate isn’t a purpose. It’s a burden on our souls. Hate is the one thing that separates me from men like Sadato. Hate is the reason why we’re fighting this insane war.”

“If that’s the case, then take a good look at the men around you. You see that soldier carrying the spear? Do you think his heart is filled with hate? Of course not. It’s filled with hope because he can see a freer Japan. Many of us can, even if you don’t. We’re fighting for our freedom and hate has nothing to do with it.”

“I apologize,” Shindara said. “I meant no offense—”

“When can I fight?” Kenji asked. In that moment, Shindara realized there was one question more troubling than the ethics of revenge.

“The battlefield is no place for a boy.”

“But we could face the Taira any day now. There are more men like Lord Sadato out there—people who won’t take any prisoners.”

“Trust me when I say you aren’t ready. I spent years training with the warrior monks of Nara. It takes focus, instinct, control, and discipline. You can hone your body and your mind every day and night, but nothing prepares you for war. Absolutely nothing.”

“Then let me teach him,” Mikoto interrupted. “I’ll show him how to survive a battlefield. Take away all the warrior monk nonsense and you’re left with one simple truth. There’s nothing standing between you and death but a blade and the will to live. Did your monks teach you about that?”

Shindara wavered in his answer, too long for Mikoto’s liking.

“He has the right to defend himself, Shindara. And the road ahead will be riddled with danger.”

Hachi nodded enthusiastically.

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Shindara wanted nothing more than to protect Kenji from the impending war. They were lucky to have survived this long without an attack from the Taira, but time wasn’t on their side. As soon as the famine receded, the samurai would throw all of their might at the rebellion. Anyone caught venturing with Mikoto would die by the blade or a hail of arrows. He couldn’t let that happen to someone as innocent as Kenji.

“Very well.” The boy’s face brightened with immediate joy. “But you’ll need a proper weapon. And no more lessons from Hachi.”

“Of course! When do I start?”

“Tomorrow,” Mikoto answered quickly. “We’ll start your training tomorrow.”

Daylight soon dwindled and the snow glimmered less. The sky was growing darker as dusk crept over the horizon. The hours they spent wandering through frozen creeks and glades were slowly coming to an end. All the while, Shindara could feel the Yomi calling out to him. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach, inviting him into the darkest parts of the forest. And yet, it seemed he wasn’t the only one to notice.

The horses shifted nervously as they approached a grove.

“Why have you stopped?” Mikoto barked at her soldiers.

“The horses refuse to go any further.”

“It’s the ghosts, I’m telling you. Even the horses can sense them out there, the spirits of the war dead.”

“Is it the spirits or is it your manhood?” Mikoto said bluntly. The men looked too sheepish to answer. With a scowl, Mikoto dug her heels into her horse and it lurched forward a few steps. She wrestled with the reins as the creature suddenly bucked beneath her. With a piercing whinny, it reared up and tossed Mikoto off its back.

To the surprise of her men, she took a rough tumble into the snow. Shindara was the first to reach her while the others were still clambering down from their horses.

“Mikoto, are you hurt?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” she said, looking slightly embarrassed as she clawed the snow out of her hair. “Very well… we can camp here for the night.”

“Camp here?” one of the warriors scoffed. “We may as well offer ourselves up to the ghosts.”

Shindara was surprised by the number of frightened faces surrounding him. These battle-hardened men were willing to clash with scores of samurai, but their courage faltered at the mention of spirits.

“Not ghosts. Yōkai. The Yomi is crawling with hundreds of guardian demons.”

“Then we mustn’t find the entrance,” an archer said, echoing the thoughts of countless soldiers around him. Before Mikoto could refute him, a sharp cry rang out.

“Damn it!” a warrior yelled as his horse bolted into the woods. “We shouldn’t be here! We need to turn back before it’s too late!”

“Don’t even think of it,” Mikoto growled.

The men clutched their swords as mutiny became more inevitable, and there was little Shindara or Mikoto could do to stop it.

Suddenly, Hachi hopped to his feet and screamed, “What’s the matter with all of you? Haven’t you ever seen a yōkai before?” A handful of men glanced at Hrioshango. “Not, not that one! I mean a true yōkai that can spread pestilence, curse your soul, and steal your face!”

“Well, actually—” Hrioshango began indignantly before he was cut off.

“This reminds me of the time I was wandering through a village with my sons—the Buddha rest their souls now. You see, word was getting around that the village elder’s wife had a secret lover and, naturally, being the most good-looking, fertile, and vigorous man of the rabble, the elder thought it was me! I was exonerated after a humiliating public spectacle… and when it turned out that the lady was missing, they insisted that I find this wife-snatching rogue and—”

Shindara felt a sudden tap on his shoulder. He turned around and was relieved to see Mikoto staring back at him.

“I need you and Kenji to follow me. I have an idea to keep the men from deserting.”

Updated: Apr 26

Fog crawled across the fields as the sun was plunged into shadow. Shindara fell to his knees among the mud and rain-soaked grass. He clutched his arm as something more insidious than weakness stirred inside him. Betrayal. He gasped for breath as the agony of a dozen wounds exploded beneath his armor. One sword strike after another had splintered his breastplate until nothing short of death awaited him.

He faced countless adversaries since he wandered through Japan’s war-torn countryside, but nothing compared to this foe. In spite of the odds, he took comfort in the supernatural weapon gripped in his hand. The Obsidian Blade smoldered at his touch, always warning him when evil was drawing near. Shindara just wished he was fighting anyone else… not him. Shuddering from the pain, he lifted his eyes and saw the creature named Hrioshango.

Shindara couldn’t remember how he ended up crossing blades with his former ally. Hrioshango was only half the size of a man, but he was ten times the threat. He was a yokai, a demon that gleefully meddled with forbidden magic, charms, and curses. The creature flashed a mocking smile as he approached.

“Don’t be afraid of death, my friend. It was only a matter of time.”

“We aren’t friends,” Shindara snarled as a chill ran down his spine.

“That wasn’t always the case. Once you saved my life and trusted me to save yours in return.”

Shindara fumbled with the Obsidian Blade as he tried to focus on anything other than the pain.

“And look at where that’s left me. Sparing your life has cost me everything. I should have let you die!”

With a blistering sigh, the demon wiped the blood off his sword. Halfway through the motion, he caught the reflection of his face on the steel. The guilt and sadness mirrored in his eyes startled him and he quickly looked away.

“I’m sorry, Shindara. Honestly, I’m a little surprised that I feel regret about this. I will always think of you as my friend, which is why I take no pleasure in killing you, but it must be done. For my sake.”

With that dark admission, his arm recoiled and lunged like a snake. Shindara shouldn’t have been capable of evading the strike--and he didn’t. With reflexes born of desperation, he threw up an arm to block the sword. He screamed as half of his arm was lopped off in a cruel blow. Fortunately, it hadn’t been his weapon arm.

Hrioshango jerked forward as he felt warmth soaking through his robes. Trembling from head to toe, he looked down at the Obsidian Blade embedded in his chest.

Almost immediately, Shindara released the sword, horrified by what he’d done. The darkling, on the other hand, stared at him as if he was impressed by his deception. He never would have expected a pathetic human to best him.

A grieving Shindara bowed his head because he didn’t cherish this victory. Despite the rage and countless betrayals, he mourned the creature suddenly dying before him. Hrioshango had been his friend, if only for a short time. He promised to save Shindara’s soul from a curse, no matter where their travels might take them.

The man crawled closer as the yokai struggled with his last breaths. He had never seen such fear in Hrioshango’s eyes before, not even when he was surrounded by bandits or rogue samurai. Hrioshango gasped and reached out with his gnarled claws. Without thinking, Shindara took his hand and held it tight, not about to let him die alone. Foe or not, Shindara would stay by his side in his final, vulnerable moments--for the sake of who Hrioshango used to be. With a choked cry, he looked down at the sword stained in his friend’s blood. If only there had been another way.

* * *

Shindara was jerked from his nightmares as a voice called out to him.

“Wake up, my friend! We’re almost there!”

Clutching his chest, Shindara staggered to his feet. The earth felt unsteady beneath him, but at least he wasn’t lying in blood-soaked fields. Through sleep-lidded eyes, he saw a veil of green and emerald hues hidden beneath the frost.

A thick forest was rising from beyond great curtains of mist. A pathway sloped under a web of tree branches, stretching past several shrines dedicated to the Shinto spirits. Izumo Province was a cradle of folklore and mythical stories, which made it precisely the kind of place that he was seeking.

His eyes swept across half-frozen streams and glens freshly blanketed under snow. The beauty inherent to nature never failed to soothe his soul. Perhaps a less soothing sight was that of Hachi, the bandit who startled him out of his sleep.

Hachi was a gangly man with limbs nearly as long and sinewy as the sword he carried. His goat-like beard was always unkempt and his eyes were never without a crazed gleam. Apparently, the wintry chill didn’t bother him this morning either because he was wearing even less armor than he did the day before. The shock of seeing the forest of hair on Hachi’s bare chest was one that made Shindara never want to open his eyes again.

“Almost where…?”

Another voice rasped out a reply.

“One step closer to the Yomi. The Hollow Land.” Shindara’s heart withered at the sound of that voice. He turned to his right and spotted the yokai also known as Hrioshango.

He was a darkling, a goblin-like creature with two horns and skin as green as the ancient forest. He draped himself in tattered robes and wore a wide-brimmed, conical hat. He squinted his eyes at Shindara before they drifted to the weapon at his waist. His lips thinned in a scowl and he abruptly turned away. The chaos magician had always been nervous around the Obsidian Blade, but Shindara sensed something deeper this time. Perhaps Hrioshango was more frightened of the wielder than the weapon itself.

“I thought it would take several more days to locate the entrance,” Shindara said.

“Not with me as your guide. The way inside lies just beyond those trees. We should reach the unclean land by nightfall and put an end to this curse of yours.”

Shindara nodded. Despite the fears weighing on him, he felt indebted to the yokai. Were it not for the strange creature, he would be fading into the underworld with little hope of salvation. It seemed like ages since the curse first took hold of his soul. He could trace its origins to the siege of Nara, where his desperate actions cost him nearly everything.

No one could say exactly how the assault began or how many needlessly died, but Shindara would never forget the events of that night. He remembered waking to the sound of temple bells as samurai from the Taira clan descended on the city with blades and fire.

They focused their rage on the monasteries and the warrior monks sheltered inside. Despite their numbers and a well-devised strategy, they were no match for the Taira. They were slaughtered by the hundreds, if not thousands.

As their defenses crumbled, Shindara searched the burning temple for his wife. Nothing mattered more to him than saving the life of his precious Aya. If he had been a few moments sooner, he might have reached her in time.

Instead, a stray arrow had lodged itself in Aya’s heart. With her last breaths, her life was snuffed out--and so, too, was the life of their unborn child. A man of faith would have taken comfort in the thought that his loved ones were beyond the reach of war--and a better man would have known better than to tamper with dark magic to restore what was lost.

In a moment of madness, Shindara had enacted a ritual to resurrect Aya and his child. Anything but triumph awaited him in the end. The dark realm of the Yomi answered his arrogant attempt to undo death. He was cursed for his meddling in the worst way possible. The darkness of the Yomi entered his soul and began to kill him from within. His death was certain, but what awaited him in the end?

Would he remain trapped in the Yomi for eternity? Or would his soul cease to exist as if he were never born?

The first pang of panic exploded through his heart. He reached for the silver flask dangling from a chain around his neck, and as soon as his fingers touched it, his fear washed away. He lowered his head and pondered the treasure kept inside. The ashes of his wife were safely held within, always close to his heart. He promised to scatter Aya’s ashes until her spirit found peace on the other side, wherever she might be.