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.
“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.”