Shindara thought he might hurl himself through the flames and somehow come out the other side unscathed. He almost rushed toward the blaze when his gut instinct roared at him to stop—and he knew why in the next few seconds. Jojin stalked around the bend of the tunnel, a sword viciously clutched in his hand and his head bowed low. A half-mask obscured his mouth, but he was almost assuredly grinning behind it. Victory was finally dangled within his reach. There was nothing drunk about his stance this time. His movements were violently sensual as the leaping flames distorted his image. Yet, the worst to come was only a few well-paced steps behind him. A dozen Oni-faced bandits were walking in his shadow. They stormed silently into Mikoto’s lair, confident that their prey was cornered at last. A few of them gleefully dragged their blades across what remained of the Buddhist shrine. In that moment, Shindara wondered if there was any truth to the stories about Jojin’s men. Maybe they were more demonic than human after all. He turned on his heel and ran before he could find out. He twisted his way through the tunnels until he saw the ornate doors. Mikoto would be safely tucked away inside the throne room, hopefully with enough soldiers to stand a chance. He launched himself against the doors anyway, but they held firm. “Mikoto! Let me in! They’re breaking through! The Hinin are inside Ukiyo Court!” Running out of options, he began to pound and punch at the doors. He could hear what sounded like a makeshift barricade being dragged away from the other side. Finally, the doors flung open. “What?” Mikoto demanded as her soldiers yanked him inside. “What’s going on?” “It’s happening right now. We’re coming under attack.” As he scanned the extravagant chamber, he realized Mikoto wasn’t the only one huddled inside. Tomoe was standing ready with an arrow nocked in her longbow. Hachi was pacing back and forth like a caged animal, but he grinned when he saw Shindara. The only one missing was Hrioshango. The chaos magician would be aboard a ship waiting for them at the docks, assuming their escape plan was in effect. Assuming everything that could possibly go wrong hadn’t already. Yes, he was the only companion missing and, of course… her. Shindara’s stomach knotted when he realized Izanami was nowhere in sight. Still. She was likely lost in the tunnels where the Hinin were roaming and killing. Shindara suddenly felt numb on a scale he didn’t know existed. Fortunately, he was interrupted by movement in one corner of the chamber. Past a series of limestone columns, a woman stepped out in black garb and a headdress. The torchlight illuminated her eyes, which latched on immediately to Shindara. Izanami was alive and safe. He felt as if he could melt when she crossed the chamber and threw her arms around him. “Where have you been?” he asked, eventually putting her at arms’ length. “I was looking for you, but I couldn’t find my way down here,” she stammered. “Before I knew what was happening, I was being herded down here by these frightened soldiers. Is it true? Are we under attack by demons?” “I…” Shindara didn’t even know how to answer that question. “Yes” and “no” didn’t seem to suffice for a situation like this. He paused again when something slammed violently against the other side of the doors. Someone was hacking away with axes and swords, followed by ghoulish-sounding shouts. Shindara looked to Mikoto for guidance, but she wasn’t thinking about their next move. She was living in this moment and looking at the woman she’d been married to for less than a month. Tomoe knew exactly what she was feeling. She reached up to stroke the side of Mikoto’s face, who looked as if she could sink into her now. “I thought we would have a little more time with each other.” “I thought so, too. This isn’t what I imagined when I asked you to join me in Sakai.” “It is what it is, Mikoto. I don’t regret any of it. You gave me a beautiful wedding and all the silks a lady could ever ask for.” They laughed at the poorly timed joke. Such a meager attempt to take the edge off the incoming pain. Speaking of dulling the pain, Mikoto reached for a bottle of sake that someone had left lying on the throne. “Our wedding wine,” Mikoto said sheepishly, having already drunk her fair share of it. “If this is our last day together, maybe we should finish off the bottle.” The normally quippy Tomoe didn’t reply. Instead, she eagerly accepted the bottle. She took a deep swig and then another to calm her nerves. She could still hear the Hinin pounding on the doors behind her. Finally, she lowered her drink and smiled warmly at her wife. “I need to tell you something… Thank you. Thank you for finding me. I don’t want to think about how different my life would be without you. I was trapped in a loveless marriage with a tyrant, and I didn’t even realize I was falling apart. Without your love, I would probably be…” Her last words trailed off. Tomoe’s eyes grew wide. Her loving expression was dulled with an edge of shock. She staggered forward and for a moment, she looked as if she might hurl the bottle in Mikoto’s face. Mikoto caught her anyway. She looked into Tomoe’s accusing stare and then she uttered two self-damning words. “I’m sorry.” Tomoe was helpless to reply as her eyes fluttered open and shut. Finally, she became as limp as a corpse in Mikoto’s arms. “Hachi…” On cue, the bandit swept forward and eased Tomoe out of her arms. He threw her over his shoulder as if he was hauling a bag of wheat down to the cellar. Shindara was paralyzed where he stood, watching this surreal scene unfold. “You poisoned her?” he asked. Mikoto was grimly watching as her wife was carried away. “A minor sedative. After the stunt you pulled in Jojin’s lair, I realized this was the only way. I don’t trust her not to get herself killed. I might be risking the lives of my friends, but I’m not risking hers.” “She’ll kill you for this.” “No, she won’t. Jojin will.” She couldn’t help but crack into a darkly humorous grin, and it was just enough to elicit one from Shindara, too. However, as he watched Hachi carry Tomoe away, a different thought occurred to him. “Take her, too,” he said, indicating Izanami. She bolted up with surprise. “But I can keep you safe—” “Not like this. There are too many of them. As powerful as you are, you can still die, and the Hinin will be ruthless. You need to leave.” “I can’t,” she said. “I don’t want to go.” Shindara bit his tongue when he realized what this was all about. She was still seeing everything through the prism of her husband abandoning her. Even now, she couldn’t stop looking at every situation from that distorted point of view. “I’m not abandoning you,” he reassured her. “You’re doing this for me. I’m begging you… Please survive.” “But it feels like this might be the last time we see each other.” “This is different.” He knew what she was trying to imply, but she was wrong. Everything about this nightmare scenario was different. This was being done out of love, not out of rejection. Finally, she looked up into his eyes and begrudgingly allowed herself to trust him. Just this once. “I want to love you, too,” she said. She smiled at him both sweetly and sadly, as if she couldn’t give him what he actually wanted. Not if it meant lowering her guard. Without warning, she kissed him roughly and leaned closer to his ear. Her breath was hot and airy against his skin. “I hope this helps with the pain.” Shindara could have fallen over in that moment. It physically hurt when he watched her walk away because he wanted to wrap his arms around her pain. It was the first time she’d ever expressed any real affection for him, something other than half-feigned interest or disgust. How cruel it would be if this was the last time and the only time he ever heard it. Suddenly, his will to live was more determined than it had been a few minutes ago. He would also make damned sure that Mikoto came out of here alive, too, even if he had to drag her out of this cave. For now, he watched Izanami walk away. She followed the tall, lanky bandit carrying Tomoe, where he led her to a hanging scroll painting against the wall. Brushing it aside revealed a hidden tunnel that no one knew about except for Mikoto and a lucky few. Just as he expected, she paused in the threshold of that passageway. She looked back and met his eyes one last time before the painting fell back into place. As Shindara watched her disappear, the doors to the throne room rattled and bucked again. Several of Mikoto’s men hurled themselves at the barricades, desperate to reinforce them. It didn’t matter if it was hopeless. The mere act of working together gave them some much-needed resolve. However, the doors gaped slightly ajar and the Hinin archers on the other side didn’t hesitate. Wide-eyed, Mikoto watched as her soldiers reeled away with arrows sticking out of their throats or their limbs. The last remaining soldier was still trying to wedge the doors shut when an arrow punched through. It stuck just above his heart and began to fill his lungs with fluid. A rough kick from Jojin sent the double doors spinning open, ramming the arrow a little deeper into the soldier’s chest. Instead of men pouring inside, a dozen torches were sent in first. Shindara batted one aside, but there were too many to avoid. Mikoto cried out as one landed dangerously close to a hanging tapestry. It took hold of the silken threads and sent a river of fire up the wall. A few seconds can make all the difference. Those perilous moments when a room turns into just another bonfire. It’s the moment right before it happens that feels like it lasts forever. Time seems to hold its breath. And then the inferno takes on a life of its own—consuming, erasing, and absolving. Mikoto frantically surveyed her throne chamber as everything she owned fell under a fiery new reign. A lifetime’s worth of treasures would be worth nothing but the sum of their ashes very soon. Even as she watched the tapestries burn, she knew the killing blow had yet to be dealt. When she turned back to the entrance, she caught a glimpse of it. Death looks like a handful of torches arcing through the air. Unfortunately for Mikoto, every last one of them was falling across her.
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