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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.

February 24, 1184

Heian-Kyō, Japan

An armored figure walked silently and deliberately through the red-lacquered halls of Tō-ji Temple. His thoughts were blunted with fear and excitement as he navigated the corridors and glanced across the carvings of sacred deities. It was a path he encountered many times before, lulling him into a false sense of hope before reminding him of his true nature.

He could barely feel his limbs as his feet pounded out a steady gait across the inner sanctum.

When the candlelight met his eyes, they remained as lifeless and opaque as blackened glass.

Nonetheless, those glistening eyes darted furtively across wall pictorials depicting Paradise and the heavens scattered in between. Shindara felt small and insignificant when he paused before the images and reflected on his fate. He could only imagine the desolate realm that awaited his soul when he died.

He supposed it would be one without light, warmth, or a murmur of human presence. As much as that notion disturbed him, he couldn’t help but wonder if that was precisely what he deserved.

The cascade of emotions he felt in that moment was only surpassed by the tremor of agony in his arm. He ignored the pain as he crossed paths with a group of wandering monks. They attempted to bestow blessings on him, but Shindara didn’t offer a word in reply. Rattled by his silence and his brooding stare, the holy men muttered among themselves about the fruit of his karma--one that was no doubt poisoned with resentment and despair.

Shindara paid them no heed.

He maintained his vow of silence as he approached the Kodo Hall. The chamber was vacant and somber, granting him the privacy he so desperately craved. For the first time in days, he felt safe. Without thinking, he fell to his knees and stared into the darkness. As the hours slipped by, he wondered whether the shadows would grant him relief or lay bare his worst fears.

He waited until the embers of dawn flowed through the latticed windows. The darkness peeled away, revealing over a dozen figures towering above Shindara. Twenty-one statues were arranged in a pantheon inside the Kodo Hall, where they congregated around a sculpture of the Buddha of Healing. The gathering consisted of deities and esoteric beings, including the Five Fearful Kings and the Four Heavenly Kings.

If their stone eyes could see, Shindara wondered if they would be repulsed by what they saw. After all, he was unlike any other petitioner who graced these halls. Even if his faith was assured, his existence would border on blasphemy. Shindara was always walking a fragile balance between life and death, but he was never completely bound by one or the other.

He almost chuckled as he remembered how he arrived at this tragic standstill. His memories were skewed by guilt, but the truth existed somewhere at the center of it all. He remembered venturing into the dead realm of the Yomi and encountering a world that defied description. It shouldn’t have been possible for an ordinary man to travel there, but there was nothing ordinary about Shindara.

One could say it was fortunate that he didn’t attempt the journey alone; he was joined by a demon named Hrioshango, a yōkai versed in the aptitudes of chaos magic. Despite the numerous warnings of his companions, Shindara chose to trust and confide in the creature. After all, the demon promised to protect him from the curse eroding his soul.

If hindsight was foresight, Shindara never would have trusted him. It hardly mattered that Hrioshango fulfilled his promise. If he knew that the darkling was planning to turn him into something less than human, he would have walked away without hesitation. Instead, he followed the creature to the River of Three Tortures.

Shindara’s curse wasn’t ended through the Buddha’s mercy or holy incantations--it ended when Hrioshango introduced a sharp blade to his heart. Shindara remembered the piercing blow through his back, biting through armor and bone until the breath left his body.

He would never forget the feeling of his senses growing distant and cold. As much as he tried to repress it, he could still hear Hrioshango’s voice mocking him in his final moments--or at least, what should have been his final moments.

Instead, Shindara emerged from the River of Three Tortures with a thin and possibly undeserving second chance. Truthfully, he had never felt more alive. He appeared human on the surface, but death had transformed him into a beast of unfettered rage--the Abhorrent. Supposedly, it was the only reason why he was still roaming the world of humankind. He was channeling the power and the cunning of a god, not to mention the unrestrained ego of an eternal being.

Within months, it was impossible to discern where Shindara’s will began and where it ended. Paranoia and a lust for power became second nature to him. Nothing was ever enough, not even when the village of Namida adopted him as their guardian and symbolic lord.

One day at a time, his morals were bent until he saw all of his friends as enemies--and what happened next was truly unforgivable. It was also the reason why he took an oath of silence and seclusion. Yet, no matter where he hid, he could never hide from the shame of his crimes.

Shindara remembered the countless bodies he left behind in Namida. He silently uttered a prayer for his victims.

Eight months had passed since he instigated a battle that claimed thousands of lives along the border of the village. Despite his attempts to stay above the political feuds of lords, he aroused the suspicion of nobles and samurai alike. Foremost among them was a man named Yoshinaka, who marched his troops through the countryside to confront Shindara.

Their rivalry was characterized by a sprawling series of disasters--not the least of which involved a certain chaos magician. In a stunning betrayal, Hrioshango chose to summon a gateway to the Yomi not far from the village. What ensued was nothing short of a blood-soaked hell that would forever be seared into Shindara’s mind. Demons and devils were unleashed on the battlefield, where they proceeded to possess and devour every samurai in their path.

Innocent peasants couldn’t flee fast enough as they were caught between Yoshinaka’s warriors and the hordes of the yōkai realms.

Shindara knew of only one way to stop Hrioshango’s rampage. He possessed a devastating weapon that could summon a plague of blades, blood, and poison, but it was not without its flaws--or one morbid stipulation. To invoke its power was to condemn a thousand men to death. The plagues wouldn’t distinguish between friend or foe, acting only on the chaotic impulses of the relic. Karma be damned, Shindara did what he thought was necessary. He tapped into a vein of magic so foul that he nearly destroyed himself in the process.

To this day, he still questioned if he chose the lesser of two evils. He might have killed Hrioshango, but his defeat came at a steep price.

Shindara glanced down at his arm and recoiled from one of those so-called consequences. The Obsidian Blade was melded with his flesh in a frightening display of primordial magic. It seemed to grow out of his forearm as an extension of his bones.

It didn’t help matters that the Obsidian Blade was a sentient weapon with a mind of its own. He could hear its thoughts and its rabid desires louder than ever before. Once, it would have alerted him to the presence of evildoers and yōkai that might cause him harm. Now, it raged against the wickedness inside Shindara, constantly bombarding him with threats.

As long as the forbidden magic held, they would remain bound to each other; it forced Shindara to hone his meditation and develop techniques that resulted in complete detachment from the world. The moments of peace were few and fleeting, and in some ways, they were more precious than time itself. However, the Obsidian Blade would never stay silent for long, always reminding Shindara of his crimes.

Until today.

Heart pounding, Shindara looked up and beseeched the statue of the Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. It was said that the light he conjured could heal both diseases and spiritual afflictions. Shindara tried to focus on the Buddha’s serene expression. He took several long breaths and savored the fragrance of burning sandalwood incense as it floated above him.

It faintly reminded him of another earthy smell. The smoke of homes burning in Namida. He could almost taste the ashes on his tongue. Shindara clenched his jaw as he tried to keep himself from throwing up.

The screams of the fallen echoed in his mind. Crying out his name and pleading for mercy. He could feel his mind unraveling as the chaos inside him spun out of control. He couldn’t endure the guilt and the nightmares anymore, let alone the Obsidian Blade’s voice in his head.

He longed to be liberated from more than just the steel lodged in his arm. If only he could strive toward Enlightenment again. If the gods were kind, that chance might come sooner rather than later.

Within the hour, he planned to break his vow of silence. He would leave the temple and publicly confess to the atrocities in Namida. He would spare no unpleasant detail, and on this auspicious day, he wouldn’t be lacking for an audience.

A market was held in the square outside Tō-ji at the end of every month, drawing scores of travelers and aristocrats. If Shindara ignored the murmur of chanting monks, he would be able to hear the merchants setting up their wares on the streets.

They would never suspect that the greatest draw of all wouldn’t be their pottery, imported textiles, or freshly-prepared food. It would be the lurid confessions of a killer.

Shaking with anticipation, Shindara rose from his knees. He briefly hesitated as he weighed the benefits of waiting one more day. Before he could indulge those doubts, he looked upon the statue of the Buddha one last time.

The breath stuck in his throat. He was too forlorn to notice earlier, but the Buddha’s right hand was forming a symbol of fearlessness. Protection and fearlessness. His fingers were pointing toward the heavens while his palm faced outward in a gesture of protection.

Determined to prove himself worthy of such a blessing, Shindara embarked on the quickest path to the streets. He needed to act on this whim before his anxiety cost him again. He entered a dim corridor that he carefully avoided for many months. Sunlight streamed through the open doors ahead of him.

As he listened to voices resounding outside, he reached into a hemp bag dangling from his belt. He retrieved a damaged paintbrush that once belonged to his wife.

He rolled it between his fingers as he imagined the last time it sat in Aya’s hand. It must have been five years since it thrived under her artistic touch. Shindara clutched the brush to his chest. He prayed to her for strength and resolve as he tried to remember the last moments they shared together.

If Shindara listened closely, he could almost hear Aya’s voice reassuring him. As much as he wanted to speak her name, he couldn’t break his oath yet. Only a few more moments of silence stood between him and the judgment of the city. He squeezed the paintbrush for comfort before he returned it to his pocket.

Shindara walked toward the elaborately-carved doors. It had been too long since he left the temple and looked upon the capital city. He wondered if it would feel like stepping into Heian-kyō again for the first time. He blinked against the harsh light until his eyes adjusted, but it hardly prepared him for the marvels waiting outside.

The temple wasn’t located far from the Rashōmon Gate, which granted passage to weary travelers and merchants from the outlying villages. The capital itself was surrounded by mountains and lofty hills in the absence of an exterior wall, forming a natural defense from invading armies.

Regarded as one of the greatest wonders of Japan, Heian-kyō sprawled across two dozen avenues and nearly three times as many streets. It opened up to several quarters and crowded wards, often scattered by rivers and wooden bridges.

Shindara stood in awe of the city as he lingered on the steps of the temple. His gaze was drawn to a pagoda rising from the southwest corner of the courtyard. Though it was constructed over a thousand years ago, the Toji pagoda aged with grace throughout the centuries. Composed of five stories, it radiated with color and poise beneath the blushing dawn. The tower could be seen from nearly every direction in Heian-kyō, providing an easy landmark to guide one’s journey.

Shindara’s eyes flickered from the pagoda to the market directly below. The plaza was teeming with displays of ceramics, wood carvings, scrolls, and kimonos.

Several guards wandered freely among the peasants, clutching spears as they oversaw several boisterous transactions. Their presence wasn’t lost on Shindara. He wondered if he would find himself at the end of their spears soon enough. He swallowed nervously as a handful of monks emerged from the temple to investigate the commotion.

“My name is Shindara,” he began softly, “and I am…”

His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. As he stared into several onlookers’ eyes, a somber question crossed his mind. Was he expecting forgiveness from strangers? Or did he secretly crave punishment?

He remained calm as an imperial guard turned in his direction. He watched Shindara’s hand carefully as he reached into the drawstring bag at his waist. Instead of searching for a weapon, Shindara was holding Aya’s paintbrush.

“I am ready to let go of the pain that remains in me,” he said. “With all that I possess, I am ready to declare the wicked deeds that cling to me. I have chased Enlightenment and found myself in the pits of torment instead. For all the evils I have committed with my body, my mind, and my spirit, I only ask that you listen. What I have done cannot be forgiven. I am the one who desecrated and destroyed--”

Suddenly, he realized a woman clad in regal armor was storming toward him. Dressed in leather scales and large, rectangular plates on her shoulders, she cut an imposing figure among the merchants and traders. Her plump lips were pursed tightly in a scowl and her jaw was tense with aggravation. Her raven hair, drawn back and tied behind her head, bobbed wildly with every hurried step she took toward Shindara.

Of all her characteristics, perhaps the most striking was the frantic look in her eyes. She seemed on the verge of drawing her sword, but Shindara stood rooted to the spot.

Before he could utter another word, the visibly enraged woman bore down on him with four words that may as well have seized him by the throat.

“You’re a damned fool.”

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.”


“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.

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