Shindara panted for breath. He was kicked in the ribs and dragged to his feet. He winced as fingers coiled around his throat. A demonic face peered back at him through the smog, scarred with deep ridges and furrows. As his pain subsided, he realized the face was wrought of metal, not flesh. The red mask was carved in the likeness of a demon or “yokai.” Fangs curled and protruded from the mask in an unnerving snarl.
Two pronged horns jutted from atop the man’s helmet. His narrow face was completely concealed except for his eyes.
Inside those twin pits, Shindara saw more darkness than should ever exist in a single man. The samurai behind the mask was a tall and sturdy man ornamented in the finest battle gear. His armor was dyed jet black and vermillion, endowing him with a bony and venomous appearance.
Most imposing of all were the armored plates mounted on his shoulders. The Taira crest gleamed through the ashes and blood smeared on the back of his gauntlets.
He exuded all the traits of a disciplined warrior and a merciless killer as he towered above Shindara. There was little doubt that he was responsible for the assault on Todai-ji and its residents. Before Shindara could stop himself, he spat in his face.
Heaving with rage, Shindara tried to wrestle free of the men restraining him.
“Bastards! You’ve stolen everything from me!”
He winced as blades fell around him, followed by the rhythm of steady thuds. He opened his eyes as several more heads littered the courtyard. He shuddered as the weight of a sword pressed into his shoulder. It wouldn’t have taken much to drag the blade across his throat, but the fearsome samurai seemed to have other ideas on his mind.
He regarded Shindara curiously.
“There is something to be admired in your ferocity. You clearly aren’t a monk and yet you fight like one. What purpose do you serve at this temple? Are you a teacher? Or an acolyte?”
“A scribe.” The masked samurai belted out a laugh. “A scribe that took down two of your men.” He grunted as the blunt end of a sword slammed into his head. Several men forced him to his knees and braced a blade against his throat.
“Stop!” the samurai barked. The men ceased. “Such a spirited young man. Tell me your name, scribe. I am General Taira no Sadato.”
“Shindara… husband to a murdered wife… father to a murdered child. You’ve destroyed the only person that ever mattered to me!”
“You should have thought of your wife before you betrayed your Emperor. You will be nothing but a stain on this temple when I’m through with you. You must have known all along that you were a dead man before I set foot in this city.”
“Why have you done this? I didn’t kill the samurai who came here unarmed!”
“Perhaps not, but you stood with these wretched monks. Tell me, what lies do they spew about us within these halls? Do they say we’re descendants of demons and traitors?”
“They say you’re controlling the Emperor. And that it’s only a matter of time before your clan is exterminated.”
General Sadato lowered himself until they were level. There was a perverse fascination in his eyes as he studied Shindara.
“You could almost make a believer out of me, Shindara, but I know the truth. We will be remembered by every widow whose husband we cut down, and we will never be forgotten--no matter how many times you try to wash out the ashes and blood from these streets. But you… Treason has cost you everything. You have no one left to mourn or bury you. You will fade away as if you were never born.”
Shindara stared at the Taira general, memorizing his dark and empty eyes. The sneer carved into his mask seemed more flesh than metal in the firelight, as if it was coming to life. It was a sight that Shindara would never forget, not after this night. Not after his loss.
“This wasn’t my war and this was never my fight,” he growled. “Just because I stood with the monks doesn’t mean my wife deserved to die. Her death has everything to do with the chaos you have now created in me. This might not have been my fight, but it is now. And I plan to attack you with everything I have. I will not sleep, I will not eat, and I will not breathe a single peaceful breath. I will hunt you until the ends of the earth for taking my wife from me. You killed my only light. My world is darkness and soon yours will be, too.”