Updated: Jun 8


“We live and die by the sword,” Mikoto said, facing the revelers with a frenzy in her eyes. Blood trickled down her face from where a piece of shrapnel had cut her. “As we all know, life can be cruel, short, and oftentimes meaningless. There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t reminded of this in some way. Sometimes I’m reminded by the smoke on the horizon. I’m reminded by the stench of rot wafting from a nearby battlefield. Or maybe I’m reminded of the fact that we have an infant child sitting on the throne.”

Most men knew better than to question the Emperor, let alone suggest rebellion. In the eyes of the masses, he was a direct descendant of divinity. Mikoto was in luck that none of her men had any use for the gods.

“I can no longer turn a blind eye to the suffering of Japan—to the farmers ground into dust under the heel of the Taira lords. To the mothers cradling their dead children in the streets of Nara. To the women treated as spoils of war. I cannot turn a blind eye and neither can you. I’m willing to shed blood, give blood, and ultimately sacrifice my life for a unified Japan. Who among you is willing to shed blood, give blood, and die on the battlefields by my side?”

She paced across the camp, meeting their eyes with intensity that could only come from a source of raw fury and determination.

“As we speak, a man named Minamoto Yoritomo is plotting his escape from exile. My spies confirmed he is still alive in Izu Province, twelve days’ march from here. He remains our best chance of cutting out the corruption infesting the capital. I call on all of you to safeguard his passage out of Izu. After his escape, we will await reinforcements from the Muira clan.

“Now is the time to take a stand against the Taira and tear them down from the throne, one way or another. I won’t think less of any of you if you leave my side, but tonight you must choose. Are we going to be a gang of bandits or are we going to form an army?”

Her fierce gaze swept across her men and not one of them shied away.

Without any urging, some of the men stepped forward to confront her. A beast of a man, enormously built and possessed of twice as much strength as any bandit, approached Mikoto.

Shindara watched him carefully but sensed no threat forthcoming. The look in Mikoto’s eyes also told him to stand at ease.

The gathering watched as the behemoth named Yamaguchi slammed his axe into the ground. He bowed low before Mikoto, hiding his face behind long, wet strands of hair.

“Before I joined your ranks, I was a poor leather tanner in a small hamlet,” he growled. “I was forced to live outside my village because of the defilement associated with my trade. A man who works with so much death is tainted, they say. My wife came to resent me and my sons were too ashamed to see me as their father. At one point, the people stopped calling me by my own name. They simply called me ‘untouchable.’

“When the Taia raided our countryside, rumors swirled around me. The people said I was making armor for rebels or harboring them in my home. It wasn’t long before the samurai attacked our village, taking what they wanted and destroying everything in their path. They didn’t even spare my accusers. We were all impure in their eyes. When they came for me, they tortured and killed my wife. Two of my sons were executed and the third…”

Yamaguchi wrung his axe as tears scorched the corners of his eyes, descending down the cracked surface of his face.

“The third was spared because he volunteered to fight for Taira no Kiyomori. I managed to escape, but not before my own son put an arrow in my leg. Days later as my wound festered, I came across Mikoto on the road.”

He looked up at her and was immediately comforted by the pride he saw in her face.

“I was deemed untouchable, but Mikoto saw something else in me. She didn’t even hesitate to give me a new name. My name is Yamaguchi now. She told me that I wasn’t a broken thing to be used and disposed of. I’m so much more than what the others say I am, and she promised to show me how. I will fight alongside you, dear friend, even if it means… even if I have to cut down my own son.”

Mikoto rested her hand on his shoulder, humbled by his loyalty. One by one, more men clambered forward to pledge their devotion to her—and by extension, the rebel Minamoto Yoritomo.

The men celebrated with rousing cries and blades raised high. It seemed Mikoto wasn’t alone in her hatred of the Emperor.

Shindara wondered how many of them included untouchables and disgraced samurai. The leather workers, the executioners, the butchers, and countless others stigmatized for their trade. More than a few farmers who abandoned undesirable land also followed Mikoto, but they belonged to an entirely different caste of their own. Together, they were the lowest of the low. Men that no one would think twice about spitting on or stepping over.

“Scribe!”

He froze at the sound of Mikoto’s voice. She grinned excitedly by the bonfire, extending her hand toward him. As he sighed and crossed the camp, he wondered if this was the moment he would finally be considered one of them.

Shindara moved past seas of men until he stood before her hypnotizing gaze. He felt more nervous standing in front of Mikoto than he did before all the high priests of Todai-ji.

“You’re familiar with inks and paper and knowledge and learning,” she said. “Perhaps you could educate our fine soldiers-to-be about what it means to fight in battle. What does history teach us about war? And most importantly, how do we win it?”

He knew there was more to the cunning look in her eyes. It was an unspoken agreement that now was the time to share his story with the men—about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps it was the common cause of war that suddenly bound them, but he didn’t see the customary fear in their eyes when they looked upon him.

“I lived through the siege of Nara,” he began quietly. “I should have died with the hundreds of monks whose heads are still rotting on pikes as we speak. Instead, another part of me died that night. I left behind a piece of my heart in the burning remains of Todai-ji Temple. A piece that will never be forgotten or replaced.”

As Shindara’s voice grew louder, more men came to gather around the fire and listen intently to his heart-wrenching tale. With every word spoken, he left behind the scribe that once toiled over books and treasures in the repository of Todai-ji. With every sentence, he painted a dark and hopeless picture of his pain and the suffering of all who fell victim to Sadato’s army. Shindara could feel his words weaving a tight, unspoken bond amongst the men. All were united in feeling like downtrodden slaves. All were united in fighting a corrupt government.

As Shindara’s towering figure was seen gesturing before the flames, the men screamed and cheered in raucous harmony for their newly discovered favorite rebel.

Keeping a close eye on him, Mikoto drifted into the mob of bandits. As Shindara’s voice rang out clear and commanding through the plain, she knew she found the man who would carry them into war.

Updated: Jun 8


Shindara tried to sleep that night but he found it nearly impossible. As he curled up under the stars, he closed his eyes and felt as if he couldn’t breathe. The breath rattled in his chest and he sensed the shadows pressing in around him. His heart pounded louder, almost insistently when the night approached.

He wasn’t sure whether it was a sign of anxiety or if the darkness was awakening his connection to the Yomi. Regardless of the cause, he couldn’t escape this outpouring of desperation.

When at last he fell asleep, his worst fears were realized in dreams. His imagination conjured demons of every variety, some of which he read stories about in the Hell Scrolls. He tried to hack his way through the hordes of yokai but they always dragged him to the ground and sank their fangs through the gaps in his armor.

Without warning, Shindara woke as something seared against his palm. This time he wasn’t surprised to find himself clutching the Obsidian Blade. It was becoming more apparent that this weapon was influencing his dreams and sending him visions.

The only thing as insidious as the blade was the way that Hrioshango’s voice echoed continuously in his head.

Don’t underestimate its power. When the dreams start to occur, you’ll know it’s found a way in.

Shindara threw off his blanket and clutched his head. He suddenly felt like vomiting. Nearby, Mikoto woke from her sleep at the sound of his anguished moans.

“Shindara, what’s the matter?”

The sound of another person’s voice briefly broke through his trance. It drowned out the hideous voices beseeching him from the dark.

“I’m afraid I’m losing my mind,” he said, wiping the cold sweat from his face. “I can’t fall asleep. I can’t break through these fears.”

His pupils constricted and the air thinned in his throat.

“It’s strange. The night used to be a source of comfort for me. As a boy, I would eagerly wait for the sun to go down. It made me feel alive all those years ago; now the darkness makes me feel like I’m disappearing into a spider’s web. Like I’m trapped and I’ll never see daylight again.”

Shindara scanned the wilds as if the shadows were plotting to take him captive.

“I’ve felt this way before during my sleeping quarters in Todai-ji. It made me feel trapped, almost as if the walls were closing in around my skull. I needed to see the sky and the trees in order to fall asleep. I don’t know, maybe it’s the drifter in me straining to break free.”

Mikoto mused over his confession, toying with a few blades of grass.

“Your element is air, isn’t it?”

Shindara wrinkled his brow in confusion.

“My element?”

“I’ve noticed it during our travels. You’re drawn to the sky and the sunsets. You think I haven’t seen that boyish grin on your face when you’re on the open road? I bet you were miserable fenced in behind the city walls.”

“That’s a rather spiritual way of seeing things.”

“Yes, isn’t it? You could use a little more faith in your life, Shindara. Faith in yourself, faith in the fates, and faith in people. You spend every day telling yourself you don’t want to die, but you don’t believe in yourself. You believe that the world hasn’t been kind to you.”

“I don’t—” He snapped his jaws shut when he saw the teasing smile on Mikoto’s lips. “You’re right,” he relinquished with a chuckle. “But I take issue with what you said about faith in myself. I know I’ll break free of this curse.”

“We’ll see about that. Did you ever think you can’t fall asleep because you’re afraid of dying? You’re still horrified at the idea that your soul will disappear into a void of nothing. That sounds like the attitude of a man who’s already given up.”

“I wish I didn’t have these thoughts, but how am I to know? Is this my only chance to be alive before I’m gone forever? And if there is nothing after death, does this mean my wife is gone, too?”

Mikoto sat comfortably on the cool grass next to Shindara. The uncanny look in her eyes seemed to cast a spell over him as he anticipated an answer.

“If you believe in faith and you believe in love, there is no separating the two. Love is faith and as long as you arm yourself with either, you’ll find Aya again. But it must be true and from the heart.”

“My love is true,” Shindara gasped, leaning forward. “I know I’m standing at a crossroads with my faith. I’m not sure which direction to take or what my destination is. I don’t want to be frightened of the afterlife. I keep waiting for a revelation to strike and show me that death isn’t the end.”

“You’ll find it. But you have to find it on your own. I can only help you as much as I’m able, but at the end of the day, you know there aren’t any guarantees. And faith is exactly as easy and hard as we make it.”

Shindara wondered how such a simple truth was within Mikoto’s grasp. As a scribe, he should have known better, but he was still a youngling on his spiritual journey compared to her.

“You believe in love so easily because you think you’re believing in Aya,” Mikoto continued. “Believe that you’ll find her in whatever follows this life and you will. Have faith and love. They will never steer you wrong, though we may not always see the end course.”

Updated: Jun 8

Shindara laughed so vigorously that a sharp pain began to flare between his bruised ribs.

“Buddha and the gods above, I needed a laugh like that. It’s been a while. Thank you, Hachi.”

He threw back his head and looked to the gray sky, marveling at this strange sensation on his face. It felt as though ages passed since he could sincerely smile.

With a heavy sigh, he said, “I’m cursed, Hachi. Don’t you get it? I’ve been touched by another realm.”

“What?”

The scribe stopped to admire a secluded water mill among the wreckage.

“It happened in the siege of Nara.” The fog whirled around Shindara, a taunting reminder of the darkness that envied his soul. “My wife died in my arms along with our unborn child. We both should have burned in the temple together with the rest of the city, but I refused to die. Maybe one day I’ll tell you the full story, but you only need to know this. I called upon forces that I didn’t understand. No man can possibly understand the Yomi, the World of Darkness.”

“The Yomi?”

Hachi took a step back.

“I was blighted by shadow,” Shindara said with a gravely edge to his voice. “Can you guess what happened to me next?”

“It didn’t make you immortal, did it?”

“Not quite. I’m fading away. But before it consumes my soul, I still have a few things left to do.”

Shindara’s shoulders bobbed between heavy, ragged breaths. He struggled to contain the anger that seemed married to his pain.

“Hachi, have you ever heard of a man named General Sadato?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Shindara brooded as he surveyed the bodies strewn around the village. How many innocents had the Taira cut down here in their deranged quest for solidifying power?

“Perhaps I was wrong about you,” Hachi said.

Shindara looked up and was somewhat frightened by the fascination in Hachi’s face.

“That rage in you… Vengeful gods, you remind me of myself.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes!” Before Shindara could escape, the madman slung his arm around his shoulders. “Demon or not, you have the steadfast heart of a bandit. It’s no wonder Mikoto sent us in here with little hope of survival. I should have known better than to doubt her judgment!”

Shindara wriggled free of his grip and adjusted his light armor. The leather scales of his cuirass did little to ward off the cool winds, but he did his best to warm his exposed arms. He supposed he was grateful that he could feel nothing in his cursed hand.

“Speaking of Mikoto, do you know where she’s taking us?”

“She’s leading us away from the war.”

“Then what are we doing in the middle of a massacred village?”

Hachi didn’t reply as he idled on the dirt path, occasionally poking a body with his blade. Meanwhile, Shindara leaned through the window of a dilapidated hut. The interior was in disarray as if the samurai set upon the residing family in the middle of the night. Deep furrows were raked into the walls, perhaps the result of someone blindly swinging their sword. A chill ran up his spine as he examined the markings. He wondered what kind of blade was capable of ripping through so much wood and thatch.

“Don’t you find it odd that the huts are still standing?” he asked. “The Taira killed everyone but didn’t set the village on fire.”

“Pillaging can be tough work, sometimes the firestarting can wait for a day or two,” Hachi said, drawing a curious look from his companion.

“What is your story, Hachi? How did you come to join Mikoto and her band of rebel warriors?”

Hachi broke into a grin as the memory filled him with tremendous joy.

“As with most great tales, it all began with an act of love. A very bold and daring act of love that will remain with me until the end of my days. It must have been destiny that brought us together—”

“You and Mikoto?”

“What? No! Me and the governor’s wife!”

Hachi strutted past the huts with a newfound spring in his step.

“Unfortunately, the governor came home and found me with his wife… and a number of his family members. Ah, I remember that night before the guards dragged me away. Even the memory of the blades against my throat tends to fade into the background when I think of her. It’s all rushing back to me now… His wife was like a lotus flower herself. So fragrant. So pure. I suppose there’s no getting that purity back now, is there? By the look on your face, I’d say no. And the governor’s daughter was sweeter than honey, but the governor’s mother… Gods above! She was the rarest jewel I have ever touched! That woman rode me harder than—”

“Hachi! Three generations at once?! Have you no shame?”

“None whatsoever! And Grandmother was the best,” he said with a lascivious grin.

“Stop! Enough! What in the eight hells does this have to do with you joining Mikoto?!”

“I’m getting to that part, you ass! I’m trying to describe the background!”

Shindara shook his head in disbelief.

“Anyway, as you might imagine, the governor wasn’t too thrilled to find me tilling half the soil in his garden—forgive the expression. He could have had me killed on the spot but he settled for tying my legs to the back of an ox cart and dragging me through town. Or at least that was the general idea. You see, one of the guards owed me a favor and convinced the governor to put me in prison instead.

“But the guard’s debt was still not yet paid! You see, Shindara, he was once very depressed about the passing of his horse because he preferred four-legged females for all things so I bought him a—never mind. Well, when no one was looking, the good guard unlocked my cell and led me to a tunnel used for getting rid of waste and bodies. It was the only foreseeable way I could escape the prison undetected. I had no choice but to sacrifice my dignity. I had to contract every bone in my body and slither on my belly through the filth and squalor. And by the gods above, I followed the smell of freedom!”

“So freedom smells like excrement?”

“Yes! Very sweet! Oh you have no idea!”

Shindara was only half-listening to Hachi’s story as they wound through the abandoned hamlet. Instead, his attention drifted toward the river and the grunting cormorants. They grew louder as though something was slinking through the water and dragging itself ashore.

Shindara loosened his sword from the sash around his waist.

“Hachi, be quiet.”

Unfortunately, the bandit was too engrossed in his own tale to listen. Shindara halted in his footsteps as a flash of light startled him. An oily substance was clinging to the outside of the village elder’s hut, where it caught the reflection of the sun. The fiery orb was dipping low behind the village but it still managed to illuminate the green ichor.

“What is this?” he murmured, stepping off the path to investigate. Upon closer inspection, he wasn’t sure whether it was oil or an entirely different substance. It almost looked poisonous in nature, but he wasn’t about to confirm his suspicions. He retreated from the shack and rejoined Hachi on the village path.

Fortunately, the scoundrel didn’t miss a beat in his rambling anecdote while his one-man audience was away.

“—and that’s when Mikoto took one look at me as I stood outside the royal banquet hall, armed with a bamboo stick and wearing nothing but a turtle shell on my head, and she said—”

Shindara and Hachi stopped in their tracks as a scene of carnage awaited them.

Human skulls bleached from the sun lie scattered across the dirt, mingled with slaughtered livestock. The village oxen had been ripped apart with more force than a horde of samurai should have been able to inflict. Partially eaten entrails were dragged from their bellies and the ribs looked as though they had been liquidized.

Shindara bit his lip.

“This may not be the Taira at all.”

He motioned for Hachi to follow so he could lead them out of the village and return to Mikoto. It should have been a simple task but the mist closed in and concealed their path. Every shanty and field looked the same in the shroud of fog.

“Do you hear that?” Hachi’s head twisted furiously from left to right. They turned to the fields as a voice, no louder than a whimper, swept through the tall grass.

“What is it?”

Hachi huddled close to Shindara while the mist transformed the landscape into a gray, unfriendly void. The young scribe squinted through the darkness and saw a girl’s face peering back at his.

“That can’t be possible,” he breathed. “How did she survive the massacre?”

The grass swayed hauntingly around her before the vision was scuttled.

“Was that one of your demon daughters?” Hachi asked.

“Shut up!” Shindara snapped, giving him a shove. “We need to get out of here before that thing in the mist finds us.”

“Thing? Why should we wait for her to find us? I’ll be damned if I run away from a little girl—”

“—who just happens to be lurking in the murky fields outside a slaughtered village. Very astute, Hachi.”

“Laugh all you want, I’m going to find out what she’s doing out there.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not. Or you’re not me.” A scowl crossed Hachi’s face as he searched his thin vocabulary for the proper words. “Just shut up and watch my back.”

Hachi set out in the direction where the child last appeared. The fog lifted and Shindara could see her ghostly form again. She stood motionless in the fading dusk, staring straight ahead as Hachi approached. Something about the girl’s appearance unsettled Shindara, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

Hachi was only ten paces away from the girl when Shindara finally realized her alarming flaw. A small, third eye was seated in the center of her forehead.

“Hachi, get away from it!”

Fangs sprung from the girl’s mouth and her body bloated to four times her size. Her flesh gave way to coarse, unkempt hair and curved horns. Hachi screamed at the sight of the gargantuan spider suddenly towering before him. It reared up and brandished front legs tipped with a single claw.

Slavering with glee, it pounced on Hachi and dragged him into the tangled undergrowth.