Shindara kept to the shadows as Tomoe led them away from the eerie wall of ice. At first, he thought he was imagining the cavern growing smaller, but a second glance confirmed his suspicions. Instead of a colossal dome above their heads, the ceiling was dropping lower.
The air was slightly foul and dry as they stepped into an adjoining chamber. It reminded Shindara of a tomb, save for the tunnels of various shapes and sizes that branched off in every direction. He counted approximately sixteen passages burrowing deep underground.
“Look here,” Tomoe said, interrupting his thoughts. She bent low over the bodies of several dead men. In place of armor, they wore crimson, silken robes and black-lacquered eboshi hats. Their flesh was almost entirely stripped away, but what little they possessed was inked with protective symbols and spells. Judging from the entrails strewn across the chamber, their magic wasn’t strong enough to preserve them.
“These weren’t ordinary marauders.” None too gently, Tomoe yanked a talisman from one of the corpses and dangled it before them. The peculiar charm was engraved with a Yin and Yang symbol.
“The Cult of Onmyō?” Sae shouted. “What were they doing down here?! How did they get in?”
“More importantly,” Tomoe said, “what could have done this to them?”
Shindara knelt before the mages to examine them. “Goro wasn’t exaggerating about the lengths the cult would go to assassinate him. Poison, blades, explosive powder… They came prepared to wage a small war on the temple.”
“But there are only four of them.”
“Four is all they would need,” Sae said, watching the Yin and Yang talisman as it revolved from the end of a decorative chain. “Onmyōji are the city’s most vicious killers. They can turn your blood into acid with a single thought if they choose to. Four of them would be more than enough to eliminate us.”
As Shindara pondered his revelation, he noticed one unsettling detail about the mages. “They were terrified in their last moments. What kind of creature could overwhelm the cult’s assassins?” He wasn’t surprised by the silence that followed his question, but Mikoto was naturally the first to break it.
“The mages were heading in this direction,” she said. “We’ll start with the eastern tunnels and work our way to the West. We’ll spread out in a circular fashion, moving as the sun rises--”
“I don’t think so,” one of Goro’s samurai interrupted. A well-built man stepped out from the armored mob and scowled at Mikoto. “I’ve had enough of this mindless wandering.”
Mikoto smirked at the outspoken samurai.
“Is that so?”
“Don’t play coy with me, Mikoto. What you’re suggesting is tantamount to suicide. An experienced hunter doesn’t trap himself inside the lair of his prey. Only a fool would suggest such a reckless approach. We’ll stay here and wait for the demon to show itself. Bait the corpses and ambush it when it strikes.”
“Are you questioning my leadership?”
The samurai chuckled and rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. He circled Mikoto as if he was contemplating the best way to undermine her.
“Goro may have sent you to eliminate this creature, but these are my soldiers. They answer only to me, not a princess dressed up as a general.”
Mikoto wore a stoic smile, but Shindara had no doubt that she was seething beneath it. Concealing his movements as best as he could, he assumed a stance that would allow him to quickly lunge to Mikoto’s defense. He was so engrossed in their standoff that he didn’t notice a lone soldier straying away from their group.
“Wait,” the samurai said, leaning forward. “Did anyone see that? A glimmer in the northwest tunnel?”
“What did it look like?”
“I’m not sure…” The soldier anxiously shifted back and forth as he reached for his sword. “Maybe it’s that stone that Sae spoke of. If I could just get a little closer and see…”
“Don’t,” Mikoto commanded, but her words were wasted on the insolent soldier. He stopped a short distance away from the yawning mouth of the tunnel. With his hand lingering on the pommel of his sword, he leaned around the bend of the entrance. There was a moment of suspended relief when he didn’t cry out in alarm, and in that moment, the samurai realized they weren’t in danger.
But life is unexpectedly cruel. The soldier gawked at something at the end of the tunnel and erupted in a blood-curdling scream. A riot of scraggly limbs exploded from the shadows and seized him. More violently than anyone could imagine, he was dragged into the darkness.
Shindara and his friends floundered backward as the chamber shook beneath their feet. They fumbled with their weapons as the man’s screams were replaced by a sickly sound--like that of a body being hurled against a wall.
The soldier who challenged Mikoto panicked and staggered away, dropping his torch. It landed next to the corpse of an unfortunate onmyō mage, igniting a patch of explosive powder. In a flash of light, the samurai was engulfed in roiling flames.
He stumbled toward his companions and cried out to be saved, but no one would listen. Half a dozen samurai charged into the tunnels to save the missing soldier instead of their commander. Soon, one scream multiplied into six. There was a frenzy of scraping blades that bordered on insanity, hinting at an assault that no living creature could survive--and yet, their frightened cries suggested otherwise.
Amid the chaos, Shindara keeled over with a gasp.
“I can feel it,” he retched, clutching his arm. The Obsidian Blade burned like an ember under his skin. Mikoto refused to take her eyes off the tunnels, but she spared one flustered glance at him.
“Now the Obsidian Blade warns you?!” she yelled.
“Sae,” Shindara grunted through the pain. “Ready the dragon engine.”
“But this chamber is too small! It might backfire on us and--”
“Do it now!”
Before Sae could protest, a ravenous snarl drowned out their voices.
A spindly figure hurled through the air above their heads, and an unsuspecting samurai was immediately snatched up. His screams reverberated in Shindara’s ears as he failed to escape the beast’s clutches.
“What was it?! What did you see?!” Mikoto yelled.
Suddenly, three butchered corpses were ejected from a nearby tunnel as if something spat them out.
While one of the soldiers gawked at the remains of his comrades, he was wrenched off his feet. He barely let out a howl as he was dragged into an adjacent tunnel. Sae heard his cry and frantically tried to fire the dragon engine, but he was too slow. He unleashed a shower of flames that nearly scorched his companions in the process.
“Damn it, Sae!” Mikoto pawed at the embers on her armor before they could burn through the leather. While Sae sputtered several frantic apologies, Shindara tried to focus on the darkness.
The burning samurai who was once crying out for help had fallen eerily silent. There was only the steady crackle of flames hinting at his demise. Shindara tensed as he heard something slithering over the dank limestone floor. He glanced at Sae and nodded. The alchemist nervously lit another dragon engine and aimed it at one of the passages.
They held their breath as something chittered in the distance. Suddenly, Shindara heard it behind them. Acting quickly, he seized Sae and spun him in the direction of the tunnel.
Flames and sparks exploded from the end of the dragon engine, illuminating the face of a ghastly creature. A tower of flesh and scaly limbs writhed above them, begging equal amounts of disbelief and horror. It possessed twelve scaly arms and legs that were perfect for mauling its prey. Antennae bobbed furiously from its head just above its pincers and a razor-sharp maw. Its barbed tail was almost reptilian in appearance, providing one final clue to the creature’s origins.
It combined the worst attributes of a centipede and a dragon in ways that Shindara didn’t think were possible. It only took him a moment to realize what kind of demon they stumbled upon--and now that they were inside its lair, he knew they weren’t leaving alive.
The beast reared up and flailed as the dragon engine engulfed it in a fiery blaze. With a piercing screech, it hid its belly under a shell of leathery plates.
“Fire and light!” Mikoto shouted. “That must be its weakness!”
Shindara stood as rigid as a statue, staring at the frenzy of claws and scales.
“It cannot be killed…”
“What?” Mikoto snapped, spinning in his direction.
Shindara trembled as the Obsidian Blade raged inside his arm. “Goro didn’t ask us to eliminate any ordinary yōkai. This is an Omukade. Ordinary weapons cannot harm it!”
The demon launched itself forward with gaping jaws, whipping through the air above their heads like a cyclone of teeth. It seized two samurai at once and threw them against a wall. Shindara didn’t need to see their twisted bodies to know they were already dead. He joined Mikoto and Tomoe as they formed a defensive circle around Sae. Each of them knew that the alchemist was their best hope of staying alive.
Sae might have been flattered if he wasn’t shaking and trying to light the end of a dragon engine. His weapon wasn’t potent enough to kill an Omukade, but perhaps he could blind it with the explosion.
“Left!” Mikoto cried out. Between the panic and the adrenaline, Sae rightly couldn’t discern between right and left. The dragon engine almost slipped out of his hands, but he clenched it in terror when the Omukade burst out of the dark. Another gout of flames sent the creature reeling backward.
Sae released an incredulous laugh. To his surprise, it echoed in the cavern when it should have been drowned out by the screams of the dying. An eerie silence lingered over them, and they realized they were the only ones left alive.
Not far away, Shindara scanned the various tunnel entrances and listened for the sound of scales rubbing against stone. All senses told him that they were alone, but he knew it couldn’t be true. Just as he was beginning to doubt his instincts, the Obsidian Blade spoke to him. Frantically turning to Sae, he tried to warn him in time.
The white-knuckled alchemist tried to hold the dragon engine steady as he whipped around. There was a high-pitched whine and the dragon engine exploded in his hands. Sae was flung backward as twin streaks of fire rained sparks over their heads.
It was the last flicker of light they saw because their torches were also extinguished by the blast. It felt as if the explosion sucked the air out of their lungs, leaving them breathless and disoriented.
“Mikoto? Tomoe?” Shindara coughed violently as he stumbled in the dark. His companions must have been knocked unconscious by the misfire, leaving him to face an unimaginable terror alone.