Better to be a Demon

“Shindara!”

The mention of his name caught him off guard. He spun toward the woman, feeling somewhat startled and exhilarated but mostly enraged. He froze when he saw Mikoto staring back at him. Her face blanched as she looked him up and down and saw the Obsidian Blade quivering in his hand.

“What… what happened to you?”

Shindara looked past her, where he was greeted by the sight of several familiar faces. Hachi, Hrioshango, and nearly two hundred rebels were weaving through the streets in his direction. Instead of answering her, he turned away and quickened his pace.

“Shindara, stop! We’ve been searching all over for you—”

“You didn’t lead his assassins here, did you?”

“No, of course not! We were set upon by bandits as soon as we arrived.”

“Slavers,” Shindara replied as he tried to maintain a tenuous grip of control. “Bandits are terrorizing this village and selling the peasants’ daughters. You were probably spotted by the lookouts.”

“How did the assassins manage to get past—where are you going?”

“An abandoned estate lies outside this town. The slavers must have raided it and turned it into their personal palace. That ends today.”

“That’s your plan? We’re going to blindly rush in? And hack and slash our way to the—”

“There is no we, Mikoto, not this time. I’m doing this on my own.”

“Are you insane? You can’t kill them all by yourself.”

Shindara’s head whipped back with a blank stare that seemed to belong to someone else.

“The Abhorrent can.”

With that guttural reply, he hefted the blade over his shoulder and continued on his way. Stunned, Mikoto watched him follow the dirt road leading out of Namida.

The path gradually climbed toward a mansion surrounded by roofed, earthen walls. The defenses were firm, consisting of a stone wall foundation encased by wooden rails and mud. Shindara expected to find archers keeping a vigilant watch over the hill, but instead, he found several bandits lazily sprawled by the east gate. He didn’t burden himself with thoughts of honor or mercy as he stood over them. He simply lifted his sword and rammed it down. One of the bandits woke to the bite of the Obsidian Blade, but his horror was short-lived.

As Shindara wiped his blade dry, he observed Mikoto to make sure her soldiers were keeping a safe distance away. He wouldn’t tolerate anyone interfering with his mission.

A heavy fog cast its shade across the inner gardens as he slinked through the gated entrance. He stayed within the shadows of the outer walls and followed the sound of water sloshing over stones. As he prowled around the courtyard, he discovered a stream that fed into a pond spanned by sensuously arched bridges.

The pond combined elements of trees and rocks carved into small mountains. They were intended to create an image of the heavens, not unlike the Pure Lands of Amida Buddha. Unfortunately, the years of disuse were not kind to this lord’s version of paradise.

The gardens were diluted into a swampy pit that was rank with scum and plant decay. At its best, it was tantamount to a patch of wild forest. It contributed to the feeling of walking in between worlds and stumbling upon a place forgotten by time.

Years ago, this might have been an ideal retreat for a noble seeking escape from the tumult of the capital. Any hope of a peaceful retirement surely died when the lord’s estate was ransacked by slavers.

Several buildings jutted into the courtyard, most notably a south-facing structure pebbled with moss. Also known as the shinden, it was nestled in a plaza surfaced with pale gravel. Once it served as the central hall to an obscenely wealthy lord. One glance at the entrance told Shindara that it sheltered a different kind of master now. A score of bandits lolled in front of the shinden, laughing as they gnawed on hunks of meat and slurped from jugs of sake.

If Shindara was still human, a mob of bandits might have discouraged him. Unfortunately, his mind was too far gone to distinguish between serious danger and a minor obstacle.

Feeling confident, he emerged from the gardens and started toward them. The sight of Shindara roused shouts of alarm and the slavers promptly reached for their weapons. After the initial surprise wore off, a few of them lowered their blades and burst into laughter.

Others circled him like a pack of stray dogs. They hurled crude insults as they cut off any hope of escape. Unfortunately for them, Shindara wasn’t interested in retreating.

One of the bandits gruffly called out to the manor. “Hanzo! Someone’s here to see you!”

Shindara simply stood and stared, trying to keep his heart as steady as possible. He endured their mocking laughter until a screen door slid open from the shinden. A tall man with an unkempt beard emerged onto the engawa porch.

“What’s this?” he chuckled, setting his hands on his hips. “I don’t remember asking for you. Is this what we’re selling these days?” The bandits’ laughter reached a fevered pitch and their leader flashed an obscene smile. “Have you come to trade places with your daughter?”

Shindara’s hand shook uncontrollably as his grip tightened around his sword.

“I’m not from the town.”

Perhaps it was the tone of Shindara’s voice, but the grin soured on Hanzo’s face. He would never tolerate disrespect from a common man.

“Kill him—”

Before he finished that sentence, the Obsidian Blade cleaved through one of the slavers and dropped him in a bloody heap. The men floundered backward and fumbled for the swords. A few of them turned to Hanzo for orders, but he was equally at a loss for words. He could barely keep a straight face when he saw what Shindara accomplished with a single blow.

“All of you, kill him now!” he finally screamed.

Shindara lifted his sword. His blade scythed back and forth as one bandit after another charged toward him. He was tempted to call upon the powers of the Yomi, but that would have been too easy. He wanted this fight to be as brutal as possible.

He spun away from their attacks, but he wasn’t quick enough to escape completely unscathed. He felt blades poke and scrape his body, but the pain was oddly subdued. The only purpose it served was to further provoke him.

He cut through the last of the human fodder that Hanzo sent his way. As he caught his breath, he noticed a score of figures emerging from the gardens. Before he could mistake them for reinforcements, he recognized them as his fellow rebels. He spotted Mikoto among the soldiers and tried to smile reassuringly at her.

That distraction almost cost him dearly. Hanzo lunged at him from behind with a deft swing.

Shindara attempted to counter, but Hanzo’s blade still stung his arm. Instead of blood, blackened mist spat out of his wounds. It floated into the air like a dark geyser. Even as the Abhorrent, he seemed incapable of bleeding.

The chilling sight gave Shindara an idea. So long as these minor scratches didn’t kill him, there was no harm in turning it against Hanzo. Besides, it wouldn’t take much effort to trick the slave master into believing he held the advantage.

Shindara offered a sloppy defense, one so meager that he could practically feel Mikoto quaking from where she stood. With every successful strike, another plume of darkness unfurled into the air. Shindara pretended to falter mid-strike, and Hanzo pounced.

Growling in anticipation, the bandit thrust ahead. There was no impact this time. Shindara was gone. Suddenly, Hanzo couldn’t see past the dark fog lingering in the air.

However, he heard the crunch of the gravel behind him. Breaking out in a sweat, Hanzo worked his fingers fast to pluck a dagger from the sash around his waist. With a piercing cry, he whipped around and plunged the blade into the side of Shindara’s neck.

The scribe choked and keeled over as dizziness rushed to his head. Despite the ringing sound in his ears, he heard Mikoto cry out. He felt the life drain out of him in an instant.

Just as quickly as the feeling swept over Shindara, it vanished. Shaking himself free of the nausea, he staggered upright and seized the bandit’s arm. Hanzo howled with terror.

“You’re a demon!”

Shindara’s vision blurred. Black ichor leaked from the corners of his eyes and a smile rippled across his face.

“Better to be a demon than a rapist,” his voice slithered.

Shindara twisted the man’s arm until bones snapped in protest. Before Hanzo could squirm free, the air was blasted out of his chest with a kick. Shindara bore down on him.

“You take. You ruin. You destroy.”

He slammed his fist into the slaver’s nose, turning his vision into a white haze. There was no way Hanzo could defend himself. He flailed with his sword, but Shindara didn’t give any thought to mercy. Mercy was an utter waste of time.

Shindara thought of the mutilated girl he encountered inside the inn, and he wasn’t sure whether he felt more like screaming or throwing up. There was only one way to remedy a situation like this.

“Men like you don’t deserve to breathe.”

In one swift motion, Shindara seized a handful of the bandit’s hair. His arm was taut like iron as he dragged him across the gravel plaza. Without a flicker of humanity on his face, he thrust the rapist’s head into the scum-infested pond.

Running halfway across the courtyard, Mikoto slowed to a stop. She watched as one of the gentlest men she’d ever known gladly drowned another human. She was stunned by the uncontrollable rage he was capable of. Her stomach lurched when she saw the frenzied expression on her friend’s face. On the Abhorrent’s face.