An elegant pagoda rose from the northern end of the temple like a beacon of mystery. Steeped in rich tones of red and emerald green, it was built in five tiers to symbolize each of the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and sky.
To the right of the tower, the Grand Hall tempted Shindara. Flanked by twin wing corridors, it featured an upward-sloping roof with stone tiles. The outer walls of the shrine were detailed with intricate latticework and cedar carvings of lotus blossoms. It would have made for a tranquil scene if not for the ominous samurai stomping through the courtyard.
Shindara’s throat dried when he saw the sheer number of soldiers roaming the temple complex. Equipped with torches and bladed spears, groups of three or four samurai were patrolling near the pagoda and the lustrous Grand Hall. Timing and quick judgment would be essential to avoiding them. If he was caught, there was no telling what kind of frenzy the Taira would be whipped into--and he might lose his only chance to uncover Sadato’s secrets.
Kenji huddled closer to Shindara as he memorized the patterns of several patrols.
“There’s something else you should know.”
“What is it, Kenji?”
“It’s said that Lord Sadato is hunting the Obsidian Wraith. He stalks the countryside and goes anywhere a story about you springs up.”
“So Sadato is interested in these stories?”
“It’s more than that. He tortures peasants for information about you, anything to learn your whereabouts or how you turned into the Obsidian Wraith.”
“They would have no idea about who or what I am,” Shindara said. “Well? What does he do to them when he’s finished?”
“He’s calculated in his madness. For every village that can’t help him, he forces their sons into his army. And if anyone fights back, he burns them alive.”
Shindara’s hand lunged of its own accord toward the hilt of the Obsidian Blade. He arrested his fingers at the last second, refusing to give in to the animalistic rage. He needed to remain in control while he extracted Mikoto’s spy.
“He’s obsessed with you,” Kenji murmured.
Shindara’s eyes flared as he watched the Taira guards gathering like insects below.
“He won’t have to wait long for me. Now hurry along back to the camp. Keep Mikoto calm until I return.”
“You promise you’ll be back?”
“I came back from the Yomi, didn’t I?”
Shindara regretted the question as soon as he saw the impish grin on Kenji’s face.
“It only took you three years.”
Shindara watched the young man retrace his steps as he weaved in and out of the shadows. Kenji paused near the hill and looked over his shoulder. A lingering look passed between them and he finally vanished into the shrubs. It was still bewildering to see the boy as a disciplined warrior. It suddenly occurred to Shindara that his adopted son had more experience facing the Taira than he ever did. Three years’ worth of fighting, fleeing, and surviving. Perhaps there was no need for the Obsidian Wraith anymore.
With that sobering thought on his mind, he focused on the strange activity in the courtyard. For the third time, he watched a patrol meander past the southwest corner of the temple, and he saw his opportunity.
He rapidly scaled the outer wall and plunged into the courtyard. Tucking his body into a silent roll, he seamlessly flowed to his feet and crept up behind them. He had eight seconds before a second patrol rounded the corner of the lecture hall and a third group brought up the rear from the main gate.
They wouldn’t hesitate to cut him into pieces if he was discovered on the temple grounds. He broke into a sweat as he hurled himself against the side of a semi-enclosed hall. He stifled his panic and slipped through a window, where he landed among a collection of Buddhist relics. Religious artifacts, bronze statues, and silk textiles were scattered carelessly across the hall. Judging from the fine layer of debris, they were recently exhumed from the pagoda’s relic chamber.
It was no surprise that the Taira were repossessing the temple’s wealth for themselves. They were likely scouring the Grand Hall at this moment for trinkets to send back to the capital.
Shindara ducked below the window as torchlight glistened over the flagstones. He timed his escape as three guards rounded off their patrol near the monks’ quarters. After several frustrating attempts to avoid detection, he skirted around the temple gardens and found what he was seeking. An inconspicuous moon bridge would grant him entry to the courtyard closest to the Grand Hall.
Few patrols were stationed near the northeast corner of the sanctuary. If luck was on his side, he would have no trouble slipping past their notice.
A moss garden muffled his footsteps as he approached the rightmost section. With his heart hammering in his chest, he entered the Grand Hall through an open window.
As his eyes adjusted to the candlelight, he found himself in the hall of offerings. One end of the corridor held an altar sprinkled with flowers, ornaments, and ritual implements. Shindara wrinkled his nose as he caught the pungent smell of rotting fruit. Some of these offerings hadn’t been tended to in weeks. What, if anything else, was taking up the monks’ precious time? Was their obsession with the occult so mind-consuming?
With one last look at the pitiful shrine, Shindara decided it was time to take a peek inside the sanctuary. He emerged to the sound of quiet chanting. The inner cloister was threaded with wide corridors that ran the length of the temple, interspersed with ornate prayer rooms.
He paused outside one of the chambers as he heard the sound of low, subdued voices. A metal cymbal echoed in the dark to announce the reading of holy scriptures. Instead of the Buddha’s wisdom, the monks groaned in a language that Shindara didn’t understand.
Their voices layered over each other with demonic tones, reciting a chant that returned to its beginning like a snake devouring its tail.
Shindara already knew something evil was on its way before the Obsidian Blade smoldered at his side. It seemed the stories about yōkai worship in Norō-ji were more than overzealous rumors.
Sensual plumes of incense poured out of the chamber in thick, lingering waves. The warm scent of sandalwood wrapped itself around him and, for a single moment, he almost felt like a scribe again. It felt like a lifetime ago since he prayed in a temple or bathed in the radiance of the gods. In some ways, it had been. After all, he died inside the Yomi and took on a new life.
He wondered if it was a sin to walk these sacred halls as the Abhorrent. Surely, the Buddha would always find him worthy of his grace, wouldn’t he? The more Shindara considered that question, the more his confidence unraveled. Perhaps there was only one way to know for sure. Suddenly, the idea of extracting Mikoto’s spy was the furthest thing from his mind.
The Taira patrols were few and far between as he wandered the remaining corridors. The bulk of the samurai were prowling outside the monastery, leaving the monks alone to their meditation.
If he remembered correctly, the sanctuary adjoined a structure called the Amida Hall. It was aptly named for the Buddha and his glorious paradise. When he saw the relief carvings of celestial worlds on the walls, he knew he was heading in the right direction. He abruptly stopped as if he walked into an invisible barrier.
All thoughts washed away as he looked upon the statue of the Amida Buddha. It sat enshrined on a raised platform with carvings of lotus flowers and leaves. His spiritual doubts came rushing back to him. His legs buckled and he fell to his knees. He inhaled from a bowl of burning incense near the statue, and he tried to convince himself that he was the same man he had always been.
He felt lower than unworthy as he begged the heavens for a second chance. After all, what was he now? He was something on the same level as a yōkai. The Abhorrent. With a prayer on his lips and a tremble in his hand, he reached out to the Buddha and asked for mercy.
A gruff cry rang out behind him.
He froze before his fingers could brush against the golden statue. The rapid thuds of armored footsteps quickened and a shadow fell upon him.
Clenching his teeth, Shindara tore the Obsidian Blade from the cords at his belt. He exploded to his feet as a samurai lunged at him from behind. He moved into a tight spin and clipped the man’s arm as he came around.
The other samurai didn’t let the wound slow him down. He swept his blade across and tried to tear the weapon out of Shindara’s hands. The brute honed his next strikes with as little finesse as possible, preferring instead to rely on sheer force.
Shindara’s arm was taut with pain as one blow after another rained down on the Obsidian Blade. A vicious strike sent him into a sidelong roll. As soon as his feet planted on the ground, he launched into a wild sprint. Shindara erupted in a rapid flurry of cuts, trying desperately to undo the samurai’s offensive gains. He dove headlong into a low thrust to take out one of his knees.
The Taira samurai proved quicker. He tried to sink his blade into Shindara’s shoulder, but it rang against the Obsidian Blade instead.
Shindara deflected another overhand chop as the warrior pressed the advantage, bull rushing him into the statue.
Thinking fast, Shindara slipped his foot under the bowl of burning incense and kicked it into the samurai’s face. The choking cloud of ash sent the Taira into a frenzy. Through the chaos of blades shrieking back and forth, Shindara performed a perfectly-executed cross that drove the samurai’s sword harmlessly out to the side.
The Obsidian Blade rammed into his opponent’s gut up to the hilt. With an anguished cry, the warrior stared wide-eyed at him. The scribe retreated from the accusing stare as he pulled the blade free, letting his opponent sprawl to the floor in a disjointed series of moans.
He took no pleasure in this carnage--or at least, he tried to convince himself of this. As he stepped over the dying man, his stomach wrenched and his head began to spin. He wobbled on his knees and clumsily tried to return the blade to his belt.
His senses roared back to life as he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. Bringing his sword to bear, he whipped around and came face to face with a terrified monk.
Both men froze at the sight of each other. Shindara realized his arm was still raised in mid-strike. He staggered back and lowered his gaze to the floor, where blood continued to pool around the samurai. The Taira’s eyes were glazed over in death. As the frenzy of battle wore off, Shindara realized with horror what he had done.
He tried to scream, but his throat locked up when he saw how he defiled the holiest hall in the temple. No, not here. Anywhere but the Amida Hall. He had painted the heavens in blood.
He fled the chamber, his feet slapping frantically against the floor. Within seconds, the priest began screaming at the top of his lungs and rallying the temple guards. Shindara’s heart sank when he heard two words shouted clearly above the chaos.
Cursing the monk, he rounded a corner and pressed his back flat against a wall. He could already hear a mob of samurai thundering in his direction. He hoped the pursuing Taira wouldn’t notice him, but it was a foolish hope. He could always resort to the unthinkable to save his skin. Nothing was stopping him from conjuring the Yomi, except a misplaced sense of righteousness. Still, wasn’t it bad enough to commit murder in the most sacred of chambers? Did he really need to stoop to summoning dark magic?
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. He shrank against the wall as the heavy footsteps pounded closer. Maybe it was time to stop denying what he was. This temple had already been desecrated by the presence of yōkai and malignant spirits. He couldn’t do anything worse than what these monks had already achieved.
“All darkness must end,” he said between panicked breaths, using Ryoko’s words to calm down. His eyes darted between the candles and metal braziers illuminating the sanctuary. “And so does the light,” he realized, raising his hand toward the flames. With a close of his fist, the light died and darkness flooded the corridors.