Hrioshango smiled and lifted a pipe to his mouth, enjoying a few well-deserved puffs of delirium. His gaze broke away as he temporarily watched the sky. Not even the starlight reached his cold eyes.
“What do you think, Shindara? Are you a coward or a demon? Or something greater?”
Shindara’s head snapped up.
“How could you possibly know about that conversation?”
“Answer the question.”
Shindara glanced down at the Obsidian Blade. It was never far from his side these days and he felt unwhole when it was tucked away. It seemed to have become an extension of his body. Another limb. Something more precious than his arms or legs.
“I’m changing, I know this. My grief is turning me into someone I no longer recognize. Sometimes I feel like a leaf tossed about by the wind. Out of control. On the verge of being torn apart or disappearing into the storm. And I fear the only thing that can bring me back is her. I would give anything to have Aya one last time.”
“To have and possess. How human-like.”
“I love her with every beat of my heart and every breath I can muster. I should have been the one to die in the fires of Nara, not her. She could have lived and given birth to our child.”
Hrioshango sighed wistfully.
“Will you spend your final days pining over her?”
Shindara watched the ghostly balls of fire settle around Hrioshango like fireflies.
“I should have known that you summoned these spirit lights.”
“Oh yes. No one can resist their pull, especially not a man stranded between two worlds. I had faith they would lure you down here. Besides, we wouldn’t want to discuss your curse in front of the rabble, now would we?”
“Does this mean you found a way to stop the Yomi?”
The darkling seemed to have no trouble stretching the silence and teasing Shindara’s hopes. He turned a cunning eye to the stars and mused over the countless ways he might answer that question.
“No. One doesn’t easily go about removing a curse inflicted by an entire realm. The Yomi is a formidable and mysterious place and Hrioshango is still trying to learn as much as he can about it. The Hell Scrolls weren’t nearly as helpful as Hrioshango hoped.”
Shindara refused to believe that they were running out of options and time. He needed hope as much as he needed air. To resign himself to oblivion would have been the ultimate death knell.
“Don’t do this to me,” he beseeched. “Tell me there’s some way to protect my soul. Every day, I feel the darkness in my blood and I hear it in my head. You’re all I have left, Hrioshango.”
The chaos magician looked disenchanted by his choice of words. The idea of being reduced to a dying man’s last resort insulted his overly-inflated ego. He grumbled under his breath and folded his hands.
“Very well. I didn’t want to tell you this, but I’ve found one way to end the curse. But I didn’t think you would agree with my methods. Not even you would want your soul that badly.”
“Tell me! What is it?”
The darkling looked quite distraught as he stared at the ground, trying to loosen his own tongue. It seemed the explanation was just as painful as the cure itself. Finally, he glanced up at Shindara. Over the years, the darkling had seen his share of petitioners, the sick, the vengeful, all clambering for him to perform miracles and spells. He saw something in Shindara’s eyes that separated him from the undisciplined masses who wanted a panacea for life’s troubles. He suspected Shindara would fight to the brutal end to reclaim his soul, but this time, he wondered if the ends justified the means.
“The cure will break you, if you can even call it a cure,” Hrioshango said. “You will still have your soul but you won’t come out of this unscathed. You will lose other pieces of you. You will lose friends and loved ones again. If you aren’t careful, you will lose your true self.”
“It sounds no different than entering the Yomi.”
Hrioshango grinned at the sordid comparison, a little too much for Shindara’s taste.
“When and if the time comes, we’ll do this the hard way. Hrioshango is still determined to find other ways to lift your hex. Hrioshango is a chaos magician, after all. We are renowned for achieving the impossible.”
As he rose to his feet and dusted off his robes, he noticed the yokai-slaying sword by Shindara’s side.
“You’ve become quite fond of the Obsidian Blade, I see.”
“It’s unlike anything I’ve held before. Even in the height of battle, it senses where my enemies are and tells me. I can almost see a soldier charging me from behind, lunging to run me through. And then the blade tells me precisely when and where to move, how to deflect, how to strike down several men in a single counterattack.”
“So it’s linked with your mind. You’re luckier than most of the previous owners. A weaker man would be burned out and replaced by the absolute will of the blade. It could have easily made a living corpse out of you. I suppose it’s a true testament to your will.”
Shindara wasn’t eager to reveal his failings in the ambush attack, but it was pointless trying to hide anything from the demon.
“You give me too much credit. Today, I lost control and attacked a camp of samurai by myself. If Mikoto’s men didn’t already think I was a demon, they surely think I’m deranged now.”
Hrioshango eyed the wound in Shindara’s ribs, where blood continued to steadily soak through the bandages. With a snap of the demon’s fingers, the pain instantly ceased in the man’s side. The scribe was much too flummoxed to reply.
“How did you—?”
“If you lose your temper and can’t control this blade, you may as well be dead already,” Hrioshango muttered, hopping to his feet.
“What are you suggesting I do instead?”
“You have other tools at your disposal besides the Obsidian Blade. Maybe you can learn to rely less on it. During my research, I learned about… certain aspects of your curse that you can use to your advantage. You can bend the darkness to your will.”
Shindara was immediately unnerved by the idea.
“Tampering with unnatural forces is what landed me in this situation in the first place. Now you want me to wade deeper into the muck?”
“You are part of the Yomi now, Shindara, like it or not. This is your nature and I can teach you how to harness it. The next time you come across the Taira, you might not be so lucky. But if you learn from a true mystic like me, you might stand a fighting chance. Intrigued? Then follow me.”
Shindara felt he had little choice as the eccentric demon departed from the footpath. Bolstered by the relief of his newly-mended wound, his entire body felt rejuvenated. The least he could do was follow the little scamp and find out what he wanted.
Hrioshango led him to the middle of the paddy fields, where he stood quite still and watched the phantom lights congregating in the distance.
“You can transform into darkness and move between worlds, faster than any man should be capable. See where the spirit lights are? The truth is, you can reach them if you try. Picture them in your head and focus. Listen to the darkness. Embrace it. Let it flow through you and be your guide.”
Shindara squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated.
“I… I can’t do it.”
“Then you aren’t trying hard enough. You’ve been given an extraordinary gift in addition to a curse. You can slip past your foes undetected, travel unseen through enemy strongholds, and spirit your way through the provinces. However, I would settle for you crossing from one end of the field to the other for now.”
Shindara tried to steady his heartbeat and focus on his breathing. He relaxed his core but he was no closer to transforming into a creature of shadow.
“This isn’t working, demon. I’m more man than darkness.”
“And that’s precisely the kind of negative thinking that is holding you back! Be the darkness! Don’t be human! Why would you want to be weak and pitiful?”
“Oh by the gods…”
“Okay, let me rephrase. Maybe humiliation isn’t the best approach in a situation like this. Perhaps a little incentive is what we need.”
Hrioshango scratched his chin and watched the fireballs weaving above the rice fields.
“See the Chōchinbi and how they bob from one end of the field to another? Always staying out of reach? They’re suspicious of humans, you see. You would never be able to catch up to them.”
The corner of his mouth curved into a devious grin.
“Now imagine your wife’s soul among those lights.” There was no mistaking the intensity that appeared on Shindara’s face. He studied their movements and unorthodox patterns. Every thought in his mind focused on achieving the impossible, ranging from ending his curse to reuniting with Aya.
“Go to them,” Hrioshango uttered.
It felt like Shindara’s insides turned to liquid. He no longer felt his limbs. He felt lighter, almost nonexistent, and without warning, every sense deadened and became cold. His body burst into a shower of darkness.
His essence spiralled through the air like a fountain of oily, blackened mist. He arced high above the fields and his vision spun in a dozen different directions at once. In fact, he didn’t see the world around him so much as he sensed the gradients of light and dark. The world was an ever shifting palette of colors that he tried to navigate to no abandon.
He wanted to cry out to Hrioshango, but he had no voice to speak of. He wasn’t sure he could even return to his human form after this radical transformation.
He plummeted to the ground and skimmed across the top of the rice fields as he regained a measure of control. He imagined Aya waiting for him at the other end of this murky void. Anything to give him the discipline he needed to keep from spinning out of control. Before Shindara knew it, he could see the world more clearly. He spotted the trail of blue fire bobbing along a secluded footpath. The yokai lights danced and frolicked with the peculiarities of mischievous children.
Shindara gathered his strength and descended from the sky. He landed in an explosion of darkness that scattered the Chōchinbi.
The mist at the center dissolved, revealing Shindara in his human form.
“That was exhilarating,” he began, grinning at the fleeing lights. “I’ve never felt more—” His stomach clenched and he immediately threw up.
“Oh… how disgusting.” Hrioshango said as he appeared by his side.
A scarlet tinge crept over the horizon as dawn broke across the fields. Hrioshango knew a red sun rising never boded well. He happened to look down at the Obsidian Blade and knew his fears were well-founded.
“Shindara,” he snapped. The scribe followed his gaze and saw the bloody red sheen of his blade. “Yokai are coming. It seems my spirit lights may have attracted them from other worlds. You should leave now.”
“Will you find me again?” Shindara asked.
“Of course. Perhaps I can teach you more about your new abilities one day. Until then, continue to tap into your powers and discover what you’re capable of. That is, assuming you want to survive the coming war.”
The darkling tipped his hat and prepared to saunter away—that is, until Shindara said one of the strangest things that had ever been uttered in the darkling’s presence.
“Thank you, Hrioshango. You’ve given me hope.”
The darkling was stunned. Very few had ever expressed gratitude to a chaos magician like him.
“Yes, you’re… welcome.” Perplexed, he watched as Shindara ambled his way back up the hills.
Hrioshango chuckled and finally continued on his way through the lonely paddy fields. Hope was such an infectious disease. He, too, hoped that they wouldn’t be forced to remove Shindara’s curse by the method he deemed a last resort.