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.”
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.”
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 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.