Shindara awoke with a start, staring wildly into the depths of the forest. The senseless void from his nightmares was replaced by the brilliant canopy of trees. A grey thrush twittered in the low hanging boughs. Sunlight splashed across his face from his perch in the knotted branches. His back rested comfortably against the trunk as fiery leaves spiraled past him in their serene dance. He vaguely recalled climbing the tallest tree in the forest and drifting off to a restless sleep.
A feathered breeze ruffled his hair, stirring sensations in his heart that he feared he would never feel again. He stroked his face to ensure it was intact, running his fingers along his jawline and a shadow of a beard. He held his hand in front of his eyes as if he could seize the gold-tinted mist. Everything was as he left it when he fell asleep.
He had dreamt of the Yomi realm again. It was never far from his waking thoughts and now it had established a foothold in his nightmares.
As a scribe at the Buddhist temple of Todai-ji, it was unthinkable that he entertained these secret fantasies. Perhaps his servitude was the reason that he was drawn so deeply to this unspeakable place. Part of his sacred duties included overseeing the countless treasures in the temple storehouse. One such item was the Hell Scrolls of Nara. If only he didn’t unfurl the scrolls and read about the Yomi, “kami” spirits, and demonic creatures known as “yokai.”
It was enough to test the faith of Nara’s most fortuitous monks, let alone a man on the beginning of his path to enlightenment.
Shindara’s faith oscillated between hope and despair ever since he considered the possibility of a shadow realm congealed of souls. Perhaps it was the fear of the unknown that kept him awake at night and didn’t let him close his eyes.
The Hollow Land. The Land of Roots. The World of Darkness.
It ran counter to the teachings of Buddhism and ideals of reincarnation. With a sigh, Shindara tried to shake the haze of the nightmare from his mind.
He reached into his pocket, feeling the scrap that he tore from the Hell Scrolls. The breath held tight in his chest as he lifted the aged silk to his eyes. Perhaps one more glimpse at the illustrations of the Yomi would be enough to satisfy his morbid curiosity.
Suddenly, his ears were assaulted by a sound like no other. Gone was the wind rustling through the leaves or the birds calling out in the mist. This deranged noise whirled around his head as if it had been there all along. He bolted up from his perch as the branches rattled and the earth groaned.
For an irrational moment, Shindara pictured a tide of darkness sluicing out from between the trees, a veritable entrance to the Yomi.
Thundering hooves tore through the ground.
He froze when he saw armed samurai on horseback bursting through darkened boughs below him. The earth bucked and broke beneath the beasts, flinging clots of dirt across the forest path.
“They’re heading toward the city,” he breathed.
Shindara gripped the tachi sword hanging from the sash around his waist. His knuckles whitened to the bone as he watched their traversing.
There it was. Golden flecks of sunlight caught the crest of the Taira clan gleaming atop their helmets. A sea of red-laced, highly decorative armor clanked and rattled below him. Nearly two hundred seasoned warriors passed and left a path of destruction in their wake.
Shindara never considered fleeing deeper into the forest and away from the charge of the samurai. With precision born from many years of treading the wilderness, he sprang down from his perch. Shindara’s horse was nowhere to be found, spooked by the arrival of the invaders.