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“Stay alert,” Mikoto whispered to Shindara. “The fort is too quiet for my liking.” As if to reject her suspicions, the castle gates groaned and juddered open. A hundred samurai on horseback rumbled out of the garrison. They flowed outward like a tide of gleaming armor, rushing swiftly toward Mikoto and her rebel companions.

The man spearheading the riders was dressed in a sleeveless surcoat laden with elaborate motifs and weaving trails of silk. Beneath the expensive layers, he wore black and gold armor fit for a high-ranking samurai.

A score of mounted bowmen flanked him as he closed the gap to Mikoto’s army. The thunder of hooves abated and he came to an erratic halt, jerking hard on his reins.

“State your intentions,” the man demanded, wheeling his horse around as it snorted nervously. “Why do you approach my castle so heavily armed?”

“Lord Yoshinaka, we come on behalf of your cousin.”

It was clear to Mikoto that there was no love lost between the blood kin. As soon as she uttered the name, Yoshinaka directed a bitter scowl at one of his samurai.

“Did you hear that, General Imai? The future Emperor sends his regards.”

“We’ve come to warn you,” Mikoto said forcefully. “You’ve dealt a severe blow to the Taira and now they see you as a problem. An army is already on its way here.”

If Yoshinaka felt threatened in any way, he concealed it effortlessly. In fact, he didn’t seem surprised by the news of an imminent attack on his fortress.

“How many?” he asked.

“Sixty thousand strong. They’re being led by a fiend of a man. Lord Sadato.”

“Sadato… yes, I’ve heard of him. The Scourge of Nara or so they say.”

Mikoto could tell from the sneer on his face that he wasn’t daunted by the warlord. On the contrary, he seemed hungry for a clash between their egos. He snapped out of his battlefield reveries at the sound of Mikoto clearing her throat.

“You knew they would come for you?”

“I knew it was only a matter of time,” he replied, scanning the peasants as they continued to frantically dig. “Still, I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.” Growing bored of their menial labor, he turned to Mikoto with renewed interest. Eager to make an impression, he urged his horse closer until he towered above her. “You must be quite the warrior if my cousin sent you here.”

“A general, actually.”

“I see,” he said, his eyes lingering on more than just her sword. “And who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?”

“General Mikoto.”

“Mikoto?” he echoed, his voice incredulous. “The same one who survived the massacre in the Hakone Mountains? And the Battle of Yahagi River?”

Mikoto dipped into a slight bow. “I’m at your service, my lord.”

Yoshinaka grinned in delight.

“Your exploits on the battlefield are the tales of valor! And who could forget how it all began? How you rose from nothing to become this warrior goddess among men.” Mikoto smiled and indulged his flattery, even if it made her cringe under the surface. His enthusiasm was endearing in a child-like way, if not somewhat pathetic. She was less forgiving of the smirk on Shindara’s face, however, and it took all of her restraint not to swat him. Meanwhile, Yoshinaka seemed as though he could hardly contain himself.

“Anyone who could do what you’ve done… it’s inspiring,” he rambled. “You’re welcome at my castle--and your men, too, of course.”

“Thank you, my lord. You’re too kind.”

Yoshinaka nodded and ushered them toward the yawning gates of his keep.

“Please, my retainers will see you all to the garrison.”

A swift motion from Mikoto sent her soldiers on the march again. She noticed all of her men averted their eyes out of respect for Yoshinaka—all but one. She was aghast when she saw the look on Shindara’s face.

He stared directly at the lord, his eyes hardened with disdain. He refused to show any sign of submission. It appeared that slight wasn’t lost on Yoshinaka either, who held his rapt gaze.

Rattled by what she just witnessed, Mikoto followed the procession of exhausted troops into the fort. It was no secret that Shindara disliked authority, whether it happened to be the Imperial Court or the nobles who reigned over large swathes of land. However, she wondered if there was something else at play besides his animosity for the elite. He’d been behaving in a strange manner ever since he returned from the Yomi. Three years may have passed since they last met, but he wasn’t as she remembered. Shindara was different now. She just wasn’t sure what that “different” entailed.

Mikoto was confident the answer would come to her in time, but in the meanwhile, she would focus on the coming siege. She swept past several guards and found a ladder leading to the top of the outer wall of the fort. Climbing one rung at a time, she emerged beneath a hazy, gray sky. The clouds hinted at impending rain. A cool breeze teased her hair as she took stock of the castle defenses.

Hiuchi Castle was large enough to enclose a decent-sized village, and from her vantage point, it nearly resembled one. The impregnable courtyard was dense with small structures lumped together from wattle, daub, and thatch. Stables and a forge were built in close proximity along the eastern wall. Perhaps she would stop by the smith tomorrow to have the dents hammered out of her breastplate. Repairing the battered edge of her sword couldn’t hurt either.

As impressive as the garrison was, nothing compared to the lavish structure to the north. Lord Yoshinaka’s residence consisted of a central complex flanked by living quarters and subsidiary halls for servants. She watched as attendants scurried back and forth between the mansion and the storehouses filled with rice and grain.

Mikoto was joined by the thud of armored footsteps on the wooden ramparts. She turned to greet her guest, and somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see Yoshinaka standing there.

Now that his helmet was removed, she had a clearer view of his face. His hair was pulled back in a topknot and he sported a neatly-trimmed beard on his chin.

He smiled at her, but otherwise he didn’t say a word. Mikoto could feel him watching her as she observed the laborers digging in the valley below. She squinted as more soldiers dragged felled trees into place.

“I see what you’re planning.”

“Clever, isn’t it? I’m rerouting the Nomi and Shindo Rivers to create a lake. It occurred to me after we surrounded the fort with palisades.”

“And now you’re dismantling them to build a dam.”

“Exactly. The Taira won’t be able to reach the outer walls, and they won’t have any idea about the dam. Not to mention, we have plenty of supplies to outlast a siege.”

Mikoto chuckled.

“You’ve been planning this for quite some time, haven’t you?”

“I knew the Taira would come for me. Still, Lord Sadato couldn’t have picked a worse time to attack. His men will starve to death outside our walls or my archers will pick them off as they try to cross the moat.”

“Your gamble might just pay off.”

Yoshinaka nodded as he scoured the valley. His eyes darted back and forth as if he was already envisioning thousands of Taira trekking through the mountains.

“Speaking of gambles, how long have you been working with my cousin?”

Mikoto grew tense. She’d already had this conversation too many times with Shindara. She wasn’t looking forward to another barrage of questions about their would-be Emperor. Yoshinaka chuckled as she held her tongue.

“I’m only trying to warn you,” he crooned. “I would be careful about who you place your trust in.”

“Yoritomo has been a steadfast ally and a friend to me for years.”

“Well, maybe you’ll rethink your loyalty when I tell you the truth about his side of the family. Life has always been a volatile mix of power and politics within the Minamoto clan, just a spark away from conflict. I learned this firsthand when my cousin killed my father.”

“Yoritomo couldn’t have—”

“Not Yoritomo. It was his brother, Yoshihara. We share the same blood, but it didn’t stop him from craving more power and seizing it—even from his own kin.” He allowed himself a chuckle as he idled near the battlements. “I was only a child when the massacre began. I was too young to understand anything. I only knew that my father was gone and that I had to flee into the mountains to avoid the same fate.”

Mikoto chewed her lip as she tried to strike a delicate balance with her reply. “You persevered against the odds and you’ve built yourself into a mighty lord. You should be proud of everything you’ve achieved.”

Yoshinaka nodded, but the sadness was slow to ebb from his eyes.

“I deserved more.” He leaned over the ramparts and observed the ice-capped mountains that marked the edge of his domain. “I could have reclaimed my father’s lands, but who do you suppose stood in my way? It wasn’t my father’s killer. It was Yoritomo.” His knuckles whitened and he gripped the edge of the wall. “It was his army that stood in my way. Musashi Province belongs to me--and he had no right to call it his own. Tell me, how am I supposed to accept him as my leader? He doesn’t respect you or me. He only sees us as his weapons and shields, not as his allies. We’re a means to an end.”

“Yoritomo wasn’t there when your father died,” Mikoto refuted, “and he didn’t strike the killing blow. Right now, we’re facing something much bigger than a family power struggle. We’re standing on the edge of real tyranny. Instead of sulking over a province, you should be asking yourself another question: what kind of clan forces the Emperor off the throne and props up an infant child in his place?”

His chest heaving, Yoshinaka stared off into the distance. Mikoto could tell by the deep lines in his brow that he was still dwelling on his cousin, but it didn’t stop her from bestowing one last piece of advice.

“You don’t always get what you want, especially when you want it. And in the end, what you want might not be what you need.”

“Then tell me, why am I undeserving of the same rank and prestige as my cousin? Honestly, have you seen some of these fools who call themselves nobles? It’s a miracle they haven’t lost everything to the famine. I’ve managed to keep my people fed while most of the lands are spoiled and rampant with disease.”

“You’ve done much with the Kiso Mountains. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

“You say that as if I should be grateful… as if this is all I will ever amount to.” Yoshinaka deflated with a sigh. “I will always be fond of these mountains, but it’s not my father’s land. This has never been enough for me. I deserve more than a gloomy fortress in the cliffs. I could be so much more. Japan could be so much more if they would only give me a chance.”

“And what is your vision for Japan?”

“A land is nothing without its people, and I understand that better than the Imperial Court. I’ve seen fields wither and die because of lazy leadership. The nobles care nothing for the farmers that keep their bellies fed. I would ensure their prosperity instead of taxing them into the grave.”

Before Mikoto could put in another word, Yoshinaka elaborated on a slew of political aspirations, everything from overhauling the land tax to reorganizing the provincial governors. Mikoto wondered how much of it was sincere. With the right question, maybe she could glean the truth from his fantasies.

“What if you never get your land back?”

Yoshinaka’s face clouded over as he surveyed the soldiers digging the trenches below.

“Then I’ll die with my back against the wall. Fighting both the Taira and my own family.”

Mikoto could sense a lost cause when she heard it. There was only so much she could say to guide him, but he had a twisted logic all his own. She pushed off the battlements and turned to walk away. To her surprise, Yoshinaka seized her arm.

“My cousin doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he growled into her ear. “He’s drowning in petty squabbles while we fight his battles in the mud. Is that the kind of man you want as your Emperor?”

“I’ll take whoever can defeat the Taira.”

Yoshinaka smiled.

“Then you would be wise to side with me.”

“So it’s true. You do covet the throne for yourself.”

“Does that bother you? Who’s to say I wouldn’t make a better leader than my cousin?” Mikoto didn’t reply. “Together, we can become the architects of a new Japan, one that will emerge stronger than anyone could have dreamed of.”

As quickly as the words left his lips, he froze like a deer catching the scent of its predator. A nervous energy washed over him as he peered into the courtyard below. Shindara happened to be passing by the soldiers preparing to outlast the siege.

The scribe slowed to a stop and looked up at the ramparts. Yoshinaka’s hand immediately recoiled from Mikoto when he saw the look in his eyes. He could practically sense the animosity emitting from him.

Shindara lingered for a moment longer before he was satisfied. He meandered to the other end of the courtyard. As for Yoshinaka, he seemed on the verge of fleeing to his private villa.

“Is he the one they call the Obsidian Wraith?” he asked.

“Yes, but I prefer to call him Shindara.”

“I don’t like the look of him. Can’t you feel it? It’s almost like the air turns to tar around him.”

“Did I just hear a quiver in your voice?” Mikoto taunted. Yoshinaka wasn’t used to a soldier addressing him so informally, especially a woman. “He’s an amazing warrior, but he’s also a man. He’s flesh and blood, the same as you and me.”

“You must think I’m a fool. His legend grows bolder by the day. They say he eliminates military outposts, rescues villagers, and tears through yōkai… even though he’s a demon himself.”

“You see a demon where I see a friend. And I trust him more than anyone I know.”

Yoshinaka dismissed her affection with a shake of his head.

“It just doesn’t make any sense. No one has seen him in nearly three years. What in the hells has he been doing all this time? Where has he been?” With a cunning sneer, he brought his face closer to hers. “Or would it be more appropriate to ask what is he now?

Mikoto hesitated.

“What do you mean?”

“That man isn’t human, but you claim he isn’t a demon. Is that what you like in your man? A little demon mixed in?”

“Actually, I prefer a little demon mixed in with my woman.” Yoshinaka turned an incredulous stare on her. “Don’t look so surprised,” Mikoto smirked. “You’re not meant for me and you never will be.”

An elegant pagoda rose from the northern end of the temple like a beacon of mystery. Steeped in rich tones of red and emerald green, it was built in five tiers to symbolize each of the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and sky.

To the right of the tower, the Grand Hall tempted Shindara. Flanked by twin wing corridors, it featured an upward-sloping roof with stone tiles. The outer walls of the shrine were detailed with intricate latticework and cedar carvings of lotus blossoms. It would have made for a tranquil scene if not for the ominous samurai stomping through the courtyard.

Shindara’s throat dried when he saw the sheer number of soldiers roaming the temple complex. Equipped with torches and bladed spears, groups of three or four samurai were patrolling near the pagoda and the lustrous Grand Hall. Timing and quick judgment would be essential to avoiding them. If he was caught, there was no telling what kind of frenzy the Taira would be whipped into--and he might lose his only chance to uncover Sadato’s secrets.

Kenji huddled closer to Shindara as he memorized the patterns of several patrols.

“There’s something else you should know.”

“What is it, Kenji?”

“It’s said that Lord Sadato is hunting the Obsidian Wraith. He stalks the countryside and goes anywhere a story about you springs up.”

“So Sadato is interested in these stories?”

“It’s more than that. He tortures peasants for information about you, anything to learn your whereabouts or how you turned into the Obsidian Wraith.”

“They would have no idea about who or what I am,” Shindara said. “Well? What does he do to them when he’s finished?”

“He’s calculated in his madness. For every village that can’t help him, he forces their sons into his army. And if anyone fights back, he burns them alive.”

Shindara’s hand lunged of its own accord toward the hilt of the Obsidian Blade. He arrested his fingers at the last second, refusing to give in to the animalistic rage. He needed to remain in control while he extracted Mikoto’s spy.

“He’s obsessed with you,” Kenji murmured.

Shindara’s eyes flared as he watched the Taira guards gathering like insects below.

“He won’t have to wait long for me. Now hurry along back to the camp. Keep Mikoto calm until I return.”

“You promise you’ll be back?”

“I came back from the Yomi, didn’t I?”

Shindara regretted the question as soon as he saw the impish grin on Kenji’s face.

“It only took you three years.”

Shindara watched the young man retrace his steps as he weaved in and out of the shadows. Kenji paused near the hill and looked over his shoulder. A lingering look passed between them and he finally vanished into the shrubs. It was still bewildering to see the boy as a disciplined warrior. It suddenly occurred to Shindara that his adopted son had more experience facing the Taira than he ever did. Three years’ worth of fighting, fleeing, and surviving. Perhaps there was no need for the Obsidian Wraith anymore.

With that sobering thought on his mind, he focused on the strange activity in the courtyard. For the third time, he watched a patrol meander past the southwest corner of the temple, and he saw his opportunity.

He rapidly scaled the outer wall and plunged into the courtyard. Tucking his body into a silent roll, he seamlessly flowed to his feet and crept up behind them. He had eight seconds before a second patrol rounded the corner of the lecture hall and a third group brought up the rear from the main gate.

They wouldn’t hesitate to cut him into pieces if he was discovered on the temple grounds. He broke into a sweat as he hurled himself against the side of a semi-enclosed hall. He stifled his panic and slipped through a window, where he landed among a collection of Buddhist relics. Religious artifacts, bronze statues, and silk textiles were scattered carelessly across the hall. Judging from the fine layer of debris, they were recently exhumed from the pagoda’s relic chamber.

It was no surprise that the Taira were repossessing the temple’s wealth for themselves. They were likely scouring the Grand Hall at this moment for trinkets to send back to the capital.

Shindara ducked below the window as torchlight glistened over the flagstones. He timed his escape as three guards rounded off their patrol near the monks’ quarters. After several frustrating attempts to avoid detection, he skirted around the temple gardens and found what he was seeking. An inconspicuous moon bridge would grant him entry to the courtyard closest to the Grand Hall.

Few patrols were stationed near the northeast corner of the sanctuary. If luck was on his side, he would have no trouble slipping past their notice.

A moss garden muffled his footsteps as he approached the rightmost section. With his heart hammering in his chest, he entered the Grand Hall through an open window.

As his eyes adjusted to the candlelight, he found himself in the hall of offerings. One end of the corridor held an altar sprinkled with flowers, ornaments, and ritual implements. Shindara wrinkled his nose as he caught the pungent smell of rotting fruit. Some of these offerings hadn’t been tended to in weeks. What, if anything else, was taking up the monks’ precious time? Was their obsession with the occult so mind-consuming?

With one last look at the pitiful shrine, Shindara decided it was time to take a peek inside the sanctuary. He emerged to the sound of quiet chanting. The inner cloister was threaded with wide corridors that ran the length of the temple, interspersed with ornate prayer rooms.

He paused outside one of the chambers as he heard the sound of low, subdued voices. A metal cymbal echoed in the dark to announce the reading of holy scriptures. Instead of the Buddha’s wisdom, the monks groaned in a language that Shindara didn’t understand.

Their voices layered over each other with demonic tones, reciting a chant that returned to its beginning like a snake devouring its tail.

Shindara already knew something evil was on its way before the Obsidian Blade smoldered at his side. It seemed the stories about yōkai worship in Norō-ji were more than overzealous rumors.

Sensual plumes of incense poured out of the chamber in thick, lingering waves. The warm scent of sandalwood wrapped itself around him and, for a single moment, he almost felt like a scribe again. It felt like a lifetime ago since he prayed in a temple or bathed in the radiance of the gods. In some ways, it had been. After all, he died inside the Yomi and took on a new life.

He wondered if it was a sin to walk these sacred halls as the Abhorrent. Surely, the Buddha would always find him worthy of his grace, wouldn’t he? The more Shindara considered that question, the more his confidence unraveled. Perhaps there was only one way to know for sure. Suddenly, the idea of extracting Mikoto’s spy was the furthest thing from his mind.

The Taira patrols were few and far between as he wandered the remaining corridors. The bulk of the samurai were prowling outside the monastery, leaving the monks alone to their meditation.

If he remembered correctly, the sanctuary adjoined a structure called the Amida Hall. It was aptly named for the Buddha and his glorious paradise. When he saw the relief carvings of celestial worlds on the walls, he knew he was heading in the right direction. He abruptly stopped as if he walked into an invisible barrier.

All thoughts washed away as he looked upon the statue of the Amida Buddha. It sat enshrined on a raised platform with carvings of lotus flowers and leaves. His spiritual doubts came rushing back to him. His legs buckled and he fell to his knees. He inhaled from a bowl of burning incense near the statue, and he tried to convince himself that he was the same man he had always been.

He felt lower than unworthy as he begged the heavens for a second chance. After all, what was he now? He was something on the same level as a yōkai. The Abhorrent. With a prayer on his lips and a tremble in his hand, he reached out to the Buddha and asked for mercy.

A gruff cry rang out behind him.

He froze before his fingers could brush against the golden statue. The rapid thuds of armored footsteps quickened and a shadow fell upon him.

Clenching his teeth, Shindara tore the Obsidian Blade from the cords at his belt. He exploded to his feet as a samurai lunged at him from behind. He moved into a tight spin and clipped the man’s arm as he came around.

The other samurai didn’t let the wound slow him down. He swept his blade across and tried to tear the weapon out of Shindara’s hands. The brute honed his next strikes with as little finesse as possible, preferring instead to rely on sheer force.

Shindara’s arm was taut with pain as one blow after another rained down on the Obsidian Blade. A vicious strike sent him into a sidelong roll. As soon as his feet planted on the ground, he launched into a wild sprint. Shindara erupted in a rapid flurry of cuts, trying desperately to undo the samurai’s offensive gains. He dove headlong into a low thrust to take out one of his knees.

The Taira samurai proved quicker. He tried to sink his blade into Shindara’s shoulder, but it rang against the Obsidian Blade instead.

Shindara deflected another overhand chop as the warrior pressed the advantage, bull rushing him into the statue.

Thinking fast, Shindara slipped his foot under the bowl of burning incense and kicked it into the samurai’s face. The choking cloud of ash sent the Taira into a frenzy. Through the chaos of blades shrieking back and forth, Shindara performed a perfectly-executed cross that drove the samurai’s sword harmlessly out to the side.

The Obsidian Blade rammed into his opponent’s gut up to the hilt. With an anguished cry, the warrior stared wide-eyed at him. The scribe retreated from the accusing stare as he pulled the blade free, letting his opponent sprawl to the floor in a disjointed series of moans.

He took no pleasure in this carnage--or at least, he tried to convince himself of this. As he stepped over the dying man, his stomach wrenched and his head began to spin. He wobbled on his knees and clumsily tried to return the blade to his belt.

His senses roared back to life as he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. Bringing his sword to bear, he whipped around and came face to face with a terrified monk.

Both men froze at the sight of each other. Shindara realized his arm was still raised in mid-strike. He staggered back and lowered his gaze to the floor, where blood continued to pool around the samurai. The Taira’s eyes were glazed over in death. As the frenzy of battle wore off, Shindara realized with horror what he had done.

He tried to scream, but his throat locked up when he saw how he defiled the holiest hall in the temple. No, not here. Anywhere but the Amida Hall. He had painted the heavens in blood.

He fled the chamber, his feet slapping frantically against the floor. Within seconds, the priest began screaming at the top of his lungs and rallying the temple guards. Shindara’s heart sank when he heard two words shouted clearly above the chaos.

“Obsidian Wraith!”

Cursing the monk, he rounded a corner and pressed his back flat against a wall. He could already hear a mob of samurai thundering in his direction. He hoped the pursuing Taira wouldn’t notice him, but it was a foolish hope. He could always resort to the unthinkable to save his skin. Nothing was stopping him from conjuring the Yomi, except a misplaced sense of righteousness. Still, wasn’t it bad enough to commit murder in the most sacred of chambers? Did he really need to stoop to summoning dark magic?

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. He shrank against the wall as the heavy footsteps pounded closer. Maybe it was time to stop denying what he was. This temple had already been desecrated by the presence of yōkai and malignant spirits. He couldn’t do anything worse than what these monks had already achieved.

“All darkness must end,” he said between panicked breaths, using Ryoko’s words to calm down. His eyes darted between the candles and metal braziers illuminating the sanctuary. “And so does the light,” he realized, raising his hand toward the flames. With a close of his fist, the light died and darkness flooded the corridors.

Shindara awoke—or perhaps, there was no such thing as waking in the realm of the dead. His senses could be deceiving him at this very moment.

His back was pressed flat against the ground and he gazed up into the sky. It briefly crossed his mind to stand up, but he could hardly move his limbs. His soul was in flux because he was living and breathing in a realm intended for the dead. With the absence of life came the absence of hope, and as he staggered to his feet, he immediately knew he didn’t belong here.

The sky existed and, yet, it didn’t at the same time. Mountains grew out of the clouds like a set of black teeth poised to rip the world in half. The jaw-dropping spectacle raised new questions about the origin of the Yomi. A Shinto priest once told him that the dark realm existed beneath the earth, a notion that Shindara laughed off. However, what else could explain why the mountains grew upside down here?

Suddenly, it dawned on him that he was standing on the edge of a cliff. His eyes swept across a sea of fog in a sunken valley. He watched in awe as it slithered over the ground with a mind of its own. A low moan reverberated from the lowlands, and the mist rippled outward in its hungry search for the dead.

Shindara looked down as his boots crunched against something soft. The ground consisted only of dry rock with a fine coating of dust. Beyond that, the landscape of the Yomi conveyed a surreal harmony in its crags, mountains, and plains.

There was no sense of time here, but if he waited long enough, the clouds would part to reveal a jade green sky. It was the first evidence of color in this world blanketed in ash.

“Greetings, fiendling!”

Shindara spun around at the sound of that voice and spotted Hrioshango.

“How long have you been here? Did you just arrive?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. Time travels differently here. I’m not sure how I would explain it in human terms.”

“And as you can see, I’m still wearing my armor.”

“A stunning success! We’re already halfway to getting rid of your curse!”

“I… can’t tell whether you’re mocking me or being serious.”

“Naturally, I was being—”

Hrioshango never finished that thought. Shindara winced as the Obsidian Blade burned at his side, faintly at first before it exploded into searing pain. Something foul was slinking toward them.

“Why have you come here?” a voice rasped.

Catching sight of a hunched figure in the mist, Shindara hefted his blade. Hrioshango’s eyes opened wider than an owl’s and he, too, brandished his sword.

“Stand back, Shindara!”

The creature in the mist hacked up a laugh as it drew closer. A cloak was wrapped around its feeble body, the frayed edges dragging along the ash-covered earth. A withered hand lifted the cowl of the cloak to reveal a hag-like face.

“You have nothing to fear from me,” she said.

“What are you?” Shindara demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been waiting. Waiting for someone like you.” Her lips parted in a crooked smile of warped teeth. “I thought you might be him… coming back after all this time.”

Shindara exchanged nervous glances with his demon companion. He wasn’t sure whether to further engage this creature or chase it away with his blade. He wondered if this was one of the demons that Hrioshango warned him about. Could it be one of the eight devils appearing to him as sickly and weak, when it was anything but? Trusting in his instincts, he slowly returned the Obsidian Blade to the cords hanging from his belt.

“This man that you were expecting,” he began unsurely, “…you thought I was him?”

“Not a man. A god.” The hag noticed the Obsidian Blade by his side, but she didn’t recoil. “Perhaps I should start from the beginning and you’ll understand why I’m here. My existence began in the Yomi. I was brought about by the goddess Izanami.”

“The creator goddess of life and death,” Shindara said quietly. The hag nodded and a glint came to her eyes.

“Once she was as beautiful and radiant as the moonlight on Lake Suwa. The god Izanagi fell in love with her and created the living world. When they thrust a jeweled spear into the ocean, the island of Onogoro rose from the sea. They built their palace on a sacred hill on this island. It wasn’t long before they were married and creating life out of chaos. Their union resulted in the birth of several more lands and spirits, but their marriage was never destined to last. Sadly, Izanami died giving birth to the fire god.”

Still listening, Shindara scanned the surrounding wasteland. “When she died, did she end up in the Yomi?”

“She was the first. No one else had set foot in the Yomi before her. My Lady missed her husband and the treasures of the living world. Here, she trembled from the cold and she cowered in the dark, but most of all, she hungered relentlessly. She tasted the fruit of the Yomi, unaware that all who eat from these trees are bound to rot in the shadows forever. There was no chance she would leave the dead realm now.”

“She was trapped,” Shindara murmured.

“Soon after, her beauty decayed and maggots ate her flesh. She became the Shinigami, the Death Bringer, the Grand Deity of the Yomi… the Abhorrent.”

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