The rustic creaking of wood. The slightly pungent odor of mud mixed in with vast amounts of peat. These were the odd sensations that Shindara awoke to as he weakly opened his eyes.
He licked his lips, but they felt numb against the cold, moist air. A veil of mist was suspended in the sky above him, transforming the sun into a ghostly eye. His stomach twisted as it stared down at him from a thick sea of smoky gray. He didn’t have the vaguest notion of what happened to him. He should have been lounging in the warm sanctuary of his villa, not freezing in the harsh winds outside.
“Where in the eight hells…?” Suddenly, his body was rocked back and forth, intensifying the pain in his head. Shindara sensed that he was lying flat on his back, and his head was resting against a bundle of furs and animal skins. For reasons not apparent to him, he was being transported in a wagon weighed down with supplies. It jolted over the uneven ground again before it dipped low.
Brackish water sloshed past the wheels as the wagon rumbled through a marshland blanketed in fog. Shindara could hear several dozen footsteps marching through the peat, accompanied by horses. Judging from the sound, there were nearly ten of them on horseback and five of them traveling on foot.
“Are you sure this was a good idea?” Hachi asked nearby. “We’re leaving the town vulnerable to Lord Yoshi’s attack. What if he attacks while we’re out here?”
Mikoto answered him quietly, as if she was afraid that Shindara would wake.
“I’ve already seen to that. I have an ally embedded in his army. With a little misinformation and plenty of luck, he’ll stay far away from Namida.”
“That doesn’t seem likely. What makes you think he’ll delay the attack?”
“I won’t give him a choice. Do you remember how we tricked the Taira into thinking we outnumbered them?”
“I’m using the same tactics to imitate a Taira outpost. As soon as he circles around the Inland Sea, he’ll spot hundreds of enemy banners and pavilions. He wouldn’t dare advance.”
“How did you…?”
“There were plenty of supplies for the taking after the Battle of Kurikara. I sensed an opportunity and didn’t let it go to waste.”
“That’s brilliant,” Hachi replied.
“It’s only a matter of time before he sees through the ruse, but it should buy us a few days.”
“Which should give us enough time to cure Shindara and bring him back to the town.” Tense silence followed as they waded through the swamp. “What if this doesn’t work, Mikoto?”
“We’re doing everything we can. Shindara doesn’t understand what the Abhorrent has done to his mind.”
“Well, he isn’t thinking clearly.”
Shindara wasn’t sure how much more of this conversation he could endure. He gripped the edge of the wagon and hoisted himself upright. His head felt as though it was spinning from the inside, but he managed several steps before he stumbled out of the wagon. A handful of soldiers exclaimed as he landed awkwardly in the muck.
When he looked up, he saw Mikoto and Hachi gawking at him.
“You’re all wasting your time,” he growled, shrinking away from the judgment in their eyes.
“We’re only trying to help you. We need to take you to a temple—”
“And you thought depriving me of my choice was the best way to help me?” He chuckled and scorned her with a shake of his head. “I don’t need you or anyone else to redeem me.”
“You might not be able to see it, but the Abhorrent is killing you. Every day, I see less of the man I knew and more of this slavish creature instead.”
“You have no idea what this feels like. To be cursed with this much power and influence, to be the envy of Yoshinaka and the bane of Lord Sadato. The Abhorrent is the only thing keeping me alive.”
“Except you aren’t,” Mikoto said, her voice stretched thin with remorse. “In fact, that’s precisely the reason why you’re dead.”
Shindara stared at her as if she violently slapped him across the face. “I’ve heard enough,” he said coldly, evading her eyes. He glanced down at his belt and noticed the absence of the Obsidian Blade. “Now hand over my sword.”
When Mikoto hesitated, Shindara jerked forward with barely-constrained malice. He only relaxed when she approached her horse and reached for an oddly-shaped bundle strapped to the saddle. Wrapping the Obsidian Blade in leather was the only foreseeable way Mikoto could handle it without suffering its mental assault.
She hesitantly offered it to Shindara, and he snatched it out of her hands. He tossed the covering aside and rammed the blade into his scabbard.
“I never want to see you again,” he growled. “You know nothing about me. And now you mean nothing to me.” Ignoring the troubled expression on Mikoto’s face, he walked away. He couldn’t stand to hear another word out of her, much less look at her.
He pretended not to notice as she took off in the opposite direction. He tried to swallow the bitterness in his throat as she herded her soldiers away from him like a diseased dog. Perhaps that was exactly what he was. Rabid. Unrestrained. Unintelligent. He slogged through the mud as he wrestled with the doubts floating to the surface of his brain. Every time he thought of Mikoto, he felt soul-shaking rage.
How dare she try to reduce him to a simple, pathetic man. He was nothing but weakness without the Abhorrent. Did she have any idea what a cleansing ritual might have done to him? More than likely, undoing Hrioshango’s magic would strip him of his power and revert him to a corpse. If it didn’t outright kill him, it would render him vulnerable to his enemies. Either way, her actions would have turned him into a dead man. She was supposed to be the one who always looked out for his best interests.
Not the one to betray him.
On impulse, he wheeled around and plodded toward her. Something less rudimentary than thought and more overt than instinct ran through his mind—something bestial. An eagle-eyed soldier noticed Shindara over his shoulder and turned to confront him.
Shindara whipped his blade across and sent his head spiraling to the ground. Seamlessly, he yanked the spear out of the corpse’s hands and hurled it at the next samurai to turn around and face him. Shindara felt exhilarated, unstable, and unexplainably fragile. As he mindlessly pitched forward and staggered back, he vaguely recalled seeing blood unravel in the swamp water. If only he could remember who it belonged to.
He heard the screams of his former companions ringing in his head. Before he could fully comprehend what he’d done, eight men were converging on him with blades gleaming. He briefly saw the horrified expression on Mikoto’s face, and he couldn’t help but smile at her.
“Run,” he mouthed.