Updated: Jun 8

Shindara lay beside Aya.

He ran his fingers through her perfumed hair and marveled at the softness of her skin. He kissed her cheek and let his hand wander still, dedicated to finding every curve on her body. Shindara rested his hands across her growing belly.

“I wonder if we’ll have a girl,” he whispered, unable to hide the excitement in his voice.

“Most men would want a son, but not you.”

“I want her to be just like you.”

Shindara held his wife close and imagined their child waiting to be born. A piece of him and a piece of her would live in this baby.

“I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see her grow into the woman she was meant to be,” Aya said, gazing off into space. “If we had a daughter, what would you teach her about life?”

Shindara opened and closed his mouth several times but no words came out at first.

“I would try to teach her about compassion and forgiveness… two things that I’ve struggled with. I don’t want her to go through life as angry as I was, always looking over my shoulder.” He caught the amused grin on Aya’s face and chuckled. “Well, don’t you look surprised.”

“You aren’t exactly High Priest Kobo.”

“I admit, I wasn’t the most compassionate man before I joined the monks. I hardly knew what my purpose was. I was lost and always angry.”

“Why were you so angry and unforgiving?”

Shindara looked down at his wife’s small hands as they wrapped around his. He struggled to recall the memories that he repressed under the foundation of his new life. At most, he only thought of them when he laid down to sleep.

“Before I came to Nara, I lived in a poor mountain village. My father and mother worked as butchers. As their only child, I was deemed untouchable and tormented by the other boys. Maybe it’s no surprise that they treated me like a demon. When I came of age, I vowed to leave and go somewhere where no one would know my name. I found my way to Nara and I was instantly drawn to the temples. Perhaps I saw them as a means of cleansing myself.”

Shindara almost couldn’t meet her eyes as he remembered his journey from an unwanted child to a scribe.

“I’d been told all my life that I carried the taint of death because of my parents. I saw the quiet halls of Tōdai-ji as the answer. I didn’t want to become a monk, but I wanted to study within those golden halls. High Priest Kobo agreed to take me in as a scribe. But I still haven’t learned to let go of my anger yet. It’s always lurking there, try as I might to hide it.”

“You’ll find a way, Shindara.”

“Thank you… now it’s your turn. Tell me, Aya, what would you teach our daughter?”

Aya looked meaningfully at the child growing in her belly.

“I would teach our daughter not to make the same mistakes as me. Sometimes I worry that I’ve wasted so much of my life, trying to figure out my purpose and what I should be doing while I’m still alive. I’m afraid I’ve accomplished nothing.”

“What mistakes? You’ve accomplished so much more than you’ll ever know. Have you already forgotten the way you’ve touched countless lives? And have you forgotten about what you’ve done to change mine?”

Aya chuckled between her tears.

“That doesn’t sound like Buddhist doctrine, looking at life in terms of human connections. Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to sever your ties from humanity?”

“I’m only a scribe. And I would never sever myself from you, no matter what the gods demand.”

She cupped Shindara’s face between her hands.

“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered.

“If that’s the case, then I don’t deserve you either. And despite the odds, we somehow found each other in this strange life. I know you deserve all the love and happiness that the world can offer you, and we will have it together with our child.”

She nodded but her mind remained elsewhere.

“I don’t believe in regrets but there is one thing I wish I could change. I wish we’d met each other sooner, Shindara. I wish I could’ve met you when I was a little girl running through the fields of Owari. I could have shown you so much of the world and we could have enjoyed so many adventures together. Something tells me you could have restored the hope I lost as a child. And I think maybe I could have healed the anger and pain buried deep inside you. But most of all, we would have taught each other everything we know about love.”

They reached for each other simultaneously, taking shelter in one another’s arms.

“You make it sound as if you’re leaving me. This life isn’t over yet, Aya. We have the rest of our lives to spend together and teach each other how to love.”

“We don’t have any control over when we leave. When my time comes, you’ll be helpless to stop it. Life is a circle she spins on her own. Everything comes and goes for a reason and that includes me. You might not be able to see it yet, but one day you will.”

Shindara’s loving embrace changed in a matter of seconds. As he drank in her words, he clung to her for fear of being abandoned. Shindara buried his face in her hair as her fingers entwined with his.

“Aya, don’t leave me behind,” he whispered. “Stay with me forever.”

She held him tighter to reassure him. He sighed at her touch and the smell of her skin. In that moment, he felt safer than he had ever known in his life because she was beside him. Maybe eternity did exist after all. He held his breath as she leaned her lips close to his ear.

“My dear Shindara. As long as you see the stars in the sky or see the swans in the winter, I will always be with you. I will never leave you.”

Updated: Jun 8

“I can’t believe we’re delivering the exploding kappa eggs,” Hachi grumbled as their boat glided along the Kiso River.

“They’re firepots,” Shindara insisted.

“Nonsense! But if what you’re saying is true, then these jars are infused with the same magic that makes kappa eggs so highly explosive! After all, that demon Hrioshango had a hand in their design, did he not? Mikoto said as much.”

“Please don’t ever say that again out loud. Not in front of me, not in front of Mikoto, not in front of an imperial guard…”

“It’s fine if you can’t handle the truth. I mean, honestly, it’s quite obvious that they’re using the kilns to heat these eggs to just the right consistency so that they’re unstable when thrown. We were standing on top of a fresh kappa egg farm.”

Shindara grunted as he maneuvered the ukai boat along a rough current. A fire blazed in an iron basket dangling from a pole near the front of the boat. The crackling flames parted the evening gloom that heralded their passage. Their smuggled cargo was concealed in baskets along with a number of rations. If the firepots were as sustainable as Mikoto claimed, they would be more than capable of surviving the journey. Shindara hoped he could say the same of his companion, who was leaning dangerously over the edge of the boat.

“Very well,” the scribe said. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll call them exploding kappa eggs, too.”

Hachi immediately pulled back from the river in bewilderment.

“At last! You’re the first person to take my side!”

“Just remember, if we’re caught by the Taira, we’re only fishermen. Never mind the fact that we have no idea how to catch fish with cormorants.”

A dozen sea birds trailed the ukai boat by leashes, grunting and dunking their heads underwater in search of a fresh catch.

The Kiso River flowed lazily through a stretch of untamed countryside on the way to the village of Juku. Shindara thought he saw a few lonely hamlets and shrines scattered along the river bank, but his eyes deceived him. Rugged forests cloaked the shore, where one could easily find themselves at the mercy of the darkness. Wild hogs were known to scrounge for food in the deep valleys beyond the woods without fear of humans.

Shindara treasured the silence as their nocturnal journey stretched from one river bend to another. Even Hachi had fallen under the spell of the murmuring waters, as he was content to gaze into the fire and sip from a dried gourd filled with sake.

In fact, the persistent grunting of the cormorants had also vanished. An intrigued Shindara looked over his shoulder.

“What happened to the birds?”

The cormorants were nowhere to be found, but their leashes dragged freely in the water.

Hachi leaned over the boat.

“I’m sure there’s a completely reasonable explanation for--”

A webbed claw burst from the water and clamped down on his hand. Hachi screamed and nearly tumbled off the boat. As he caught his breath, a humanoid face emerged from the river. Hachi almost forgot how to speak as he was confronted by a strange cross between a monkey and a turtle.

Shindara immediately drew the Obsidian Blade and swiped at the river demon. It cackled like a possessed child and withdrew underwater.

“Why didn’t the Obsidian Blade warn you?” Hachi screamed. Before Shindara could answer, he heard the violent thrashing of water ahead. Hachi peered over the boat to see the commotion for himself and his heart dropped into his gut.

“By the gods… anything but kappa.”

Updated: Jun 8

Hrioshango smiled and lifted a pipe to his mouth, enjoying a few well-deserved puffs of delirium. His gaze broke away as he temporarily watched the sky. Not even the starlight reached his cold eyes.

“What do you think, Shindara? Are you a coward or a demon? Or something greater?”

Shindara’s head snapped up.

“How could you possibly know about that conversation?”

“Answer the question.”

Shindara glanced down at the Obsidian Blade. It was never far from his side these days and he felt unwhole when it was tucked away. It seemed to have become an extension of his body. Another limb. Something more precious than his arms or legs.

“I’m changing, I know this. My grief is turning me into someone I no longer recognize. Sometimes I feel like a leaf tossed about by the wind. Out of control. On the verge of being torn apart or disappearing into the storm. And I fear the only thing that can bring me back is her. I would give anything to have Aya one last time.”

“To have and possess. How human-like.”

“I love her with every beat of my heart and every breath I can muster. I should have been the one to die in the fires of Nara, not her. She could have lived and given birth to our child.”

Hrioshango sighed wistfully.

“Will you spend your final days pining over her?”


Shindara watched the ghostly balls of fire settle around Hrioshango like fireflies.

“I should have known that you summoned these spirit lights.”

“Oh yes. No one can resist their pull, especially not a man stranded between two worlds. I had faith they would lure you down here. Besides, we wouldn’t want to discuss your curse in front of the rabble, now would we?”

“Does this mean you found a way to stop the Yomi?”

The darkling seemed to have no trouble stretching the silence and teasing Shindara’s hopes. He turned a cunning eye to the stars and mused over the countless ways he might answer that question.

“No. One doesn’t easily go about removing a curse inflicted by an entire realm. The Yomi is a formidable and mysterious place and Hrioshango is still trying to learn as much as he can about it. The Hell Scrolls weren’t nearly as helpful as Hrioshango hoped.”

Shindara refused to believe that they were running out of options and time. He needed hope as much as he needed air. To resign himself to oblivion would have been the ultimate death knell.

“Don’t do this to me,” he beseeched. “Tell me there’s some way to protect my soul. Every day, I feel the darkness in my blood and I hear it in my head. You’re all I have left, Hrioshango.”

The chaos magician looked disenchanted by his choice of words. The idea of being reduced to a dying man’s last resort insulted his overly-inflated ego. He grumbled under his breath and folded his hands.

“Very well. I didn’t want to tell you this, but I’ve found one way to end the curse. But I didn’t think you would agree with my methods. Not even you would want your soul that badly.”

“Tell me! What is it?”

The darkling looked quite distraught as he stared at the ground, trying to loosen his own tongue. It seemed the explanation was just as painful as the cure itself. Finally, he glanced up at Shindara. Over the years, the darkling had seen his share of petitioners, the sick, the vengeful, all clambering for him to perform miracles and spells. He saw something in Shindara’s eyes that separated him from the undisciplined masses who wanted a panacea for life’s troubles. He suspected Shindara would fight to the brutal end to reclaim his soul, but this time, he wondered if the ends justified the means.

“The cure will break you, if you can even call it a cure,” Hrioshango said. “You will still have your soul but you won’t come out of this unscathed. You will lose other pieces of you. You will lose friends and loved ones again. If you aren’t careful, you will lose your true self.”

“It sounds no different than entering the Yomi.”

Hrioshango grinned at the sordid comparison, a little too much for Shindara’s taste.

“When and if the time comes, we’ll do this the hard way. Hrioshango is still determined to find other ways to lift your hex. Hrioshango is a chaos magician, after all. We are renowned for achieving the impossible.”

As he rose to his feet and dusted off his robes, he noticed the yokai-slaying sword by Shindara’s side.

“You’ve become quite fond of the Obsidian Blade, I see.”

“It’s unlike anything I’ve held before. Even in the height of battle, it senses where my enemies are and tells me. I can almost see a soldier charging me from behind, lunging to run me through. And then the blade tells me precisely when and where to move, how to deflect, how to strike down several men in a single counterattack.”

“So it’s linked with your mind. You’re luckier than most of the previous owners. A weaker man would be burned out and replaced by the absolute will of the blade. It could have easily made a living corpse out of you. I suppose it’s a true testament to your will.”

Shindara wasn’t eager to reveal his failings in the ambush attack, but it was pointless trying to hide anything from the demon.

“You give me too much credit. Today, I lost control and attacked a camp of samurai by myself. If Mikoto’s men didn’t already think I was a demon, they surely think I’m deranged now.”

Hrioshango eyed the wound in Shindara’s ribs, where blood continued to steadily soak through the bandages. With a snap of the demon’s fingers, the pain instantly ceased in the man’s side. The scribe was much too flummoxed to reply.

“How did you—?”

“If you lose your temper and can’t control this blade, you may as well be dead already,” Hrioshango muttered, hopping to his feet.

“What are you suggesting I do instead?”

“You have other tools at your disposal besides the Obsidian Blade. Maybe you can learn to rely less on it. During my research, I learned about… certain aspects of your curse that you can use to your advantage. You can bend the darkness to your will.”

Shindara was immediately unnerved by the idea.

“Tampering with unnatural forces is what landed me in this situation in the first place. Now you want me to wade deeper into the muck?”

“You are part of the Yomi now, Shindara, like it or not. This is your nature and I can teach you how to harness it. The next time you come across the Taira, you might not be so lucky. But if you learn from a true mystic like me, you might stand a fighting chance. Intrigued? Then follow me.”

Shindara felt he had little choice as the eccentric demon departed from the footpath. Bolstered by the relief of his newly-mended wound, his entire body felt rejuvenated. The least he could do was follow the little scamp and find out what he wanted.

Hrioshango led him to the middle of the paddy fields, where he stood quite still and watched the phantom lights congregating in the distance.

“You can transform into darkness and move between worlds, faster than any man should be capable. See where the spirit lights are? The truth is, you can reach them if you try. Picture them in your head and focus. Listen to the darkness. Embrace it. Let it flow through you and be your guide.”

Shindara squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated.

“I… I can’t do it.”

“Then you aren’t trying hard enough. You’ve been given an extraordinary gift in addition to a curse. You can slip past your foes undetected, travel unseen through enemy strongholds, and spirit your way through the provinces. However, I would settle for you crossing from one end of the field to the other for now.”

Shindara tried to steady his heartbeat and focus on his breathing. He relaxed his core but he was no closer to transforming into a creature of shadow.

“This isn’t working, demon. I’m more man than darkness.”

“And that’s precisely the kind of negative thinking that is holding you back! Be the darkness! Don’t be human! Why would you want to be weak and pitiful?”

“Oh by the gods…”

“Okay, let me rephrase. Maybe humiliation isn’t the best approach in a situation like this. Perhaps a little incentive is what we need.”

Hrioshango scratched his chin and watched the fireballs weaving above the rice fields.

“See the Chōchinbi and how they bob from one end of the field to another? Always staying out of reach? They’re suspicious of humans, you see. You would never be able to catch up to them.”

The corner of his mouth curved into a devious grin.

“Now imagine your wife’s soul among those lights.” There was no mistaking the intensity that appeared on Shindara’s face. He studied their movements and unorthodox patterns. Every thought in his mind focused on achieving the impossible, ranging from ending his curse to reuniting with Aya.

“Go to them,” Hrioshango uttered.

It felt like Shindara’s insides turned to liquid. He no longer felt his limbs. He felt lighter, almost nonexistent, and without warning, every sense deadened and became cold. His body burst into a shower of darkness.

His essence spiralled through the air like a fountain of oily, blackened mist. He arced high above the fields and his vision spun in a dozen different directions at once. In fact, he didn’t see the world around him so much as he sensed the gradients of light and dark. The world was an ever shifting palette of colors that he tried to navigate to no abandon.

He wanted to cry out to Hrioshango, but he had no voice to speak of. He wasn’t sure he could even return to his human form after this radical transformation.

He plummeted to the ground and skimmed across the top of the rice fields as he regained a measure of control. He imagined Aya waiting for him at the other end of this murky void. Anything to give him the discipline he needed to keep from spinning out of control. Before Shindara knew it, he could see the world more clearly. He spotted the trail of blue fire bobbing along a secluded footpath. The yokai lights danced and frolicked with the peculiarities of mischievous children.

Shindara gathered his strength and descended from the sky. He landed in an explosion of darkness that scattered the Chōchinbi.

The mist at the center dissolved, revealing Shindara in his human form.

“That was exhilarating,” he began, grinning at the fleeing lights. “I’ve never felt more—” His stomach clenched and he immediately threw up.

“Oh… how disgusting.” Hrioshango said as he appeared by his side.

A scarlet tinge crept over the horizon as dawn broke across the fields. Hrioshango knew a red sun rising never boded well. He happened to look down at the Obsidian Blade and knew his fears were well-founded.

“Shindara,” he snapped. The scribe followed his gaze and saw the bloody red sheen of his blade. “Yokai are coming. It seems my spirit lights may have attracted them from other worlds. You should leave now.”

“Will you find me again?” Shindara asked.

“Of course. Perhaps I can teach you more about your new abilities one day. Until then, continue to tap into your powers and discover what you’re capable of. That is, assuming you want to survive the coming war.”

The darkling tipped his hat and prepared to saunter away—that is, until Shindara said one of the strangest things that had ever been uttered in the darkling’s presence.

“Thank you, Hrioshango. You’ve given me hope.”

The darkling was stunned. Very few had ever expressed gratitude to a chaos magician like him.

“Yes, you’re… welcome.” Perplexed, he watched as Shindara ambled his way back up the hills.

Hrioshango chuckled and finally continued on his way through the lonely paddy fields. Hope was such an infectious disease. He, too, hoped that they wouldn’t be forced to remove Shindara’s curse by the method he deemed a last resort.