Nothing Sacred

February 24, 1184

Heian-Kyō, Japan


An armored figure walked silently and deliberately through the red-lacquered halls of Tō-ji Temple. His thoughts were blunted with fear and excitement as he navigated the corridors and glanced across the carvings of sacred deities. It was a path he encountered many times before, lulling him into a false sense of hope before reminding him of his true nature.

He could barely feel his limbs as his feet pounded out a steady gait across the inner sanctum.

When the candlelight met his eyes, they remained as lifeless and opaque as blackened glass.

Nonetheless, those glistening eyes darted furtively across wall pictorials depicting Paradise and the heavens scattered in between. Shindara felt small and insignificant when he paused before the images and reflected on his fate. He could only imagine the desolate realm that awaited his soul when he died.

He supposed it would be one without light, warmth, or a murmur of human presence. As much as that notion disturbed him, he couldn’t help but wonder if that was precisely what he deserved.

The cascade of emotions he felt in that moment was only surpassed by the tremor of agony in his arm. He ignored the pain as he crossed paths with a group of wandering monks. They attempted to bestow blessings on him, but Shindara didn’t offer a word in reply. Rattled by his silence and his brooding stare, the holy men muttered among themselves about the fruit of his karma--one that was no doubt poisoned with resentment and despair.

Shindara paid them no heed.

He maintained his vow of silence as he approached the Kodo Hall. The chamber was vacant and somber, granting him the privacy he so desperately craved. For the first time in days, he felt safe. Without thinking, he fell to his knees and stared into the darkness. As the hours slipped by, he wondered whether the shadows would grant him relief or lay bare his worst fears.

He waited until the embers of dawn flowed through the latticed windows. The darkness peeled away, revealing over a dozen figures towering above Shindara. Twenty-one statues were arranged in a pantheon inside the Kodo Hall, where they congregated around a sculpture of the Buddha of Healing. The gathering consisted of deities and esoteric beings, including the Five Fearful Kings and the Four Heavenly Kings.

If their stone eyes could see, Shindara wondered if they would be repulsed by what they saw. After all, he was unlike any other petitioner who graced these halls. Even if his faith was assured, his existence would border on blasphemy. Shindara was always walking a fragile balance between life and death, but he was never completely bound by one or the other.

He almost chuckled as he remembered how he arrived at this tragic standstill. His memories were skewed by guilt, but the truth existed somewhere at the center of it all. He remembered venturing into the dead realm of the Yomi and encountering a world that defied description. It shouldn’t have been possible for an ordinary man to travel there, but there was nothing ordinary about Shindara.

One could say it was fortunate that he didn’t attempt the journey alone; he was joined by a demon named Hrioshango, a yōkai versed in the aptitudes of chaos magic. Despite the numerous warnings of his companions, Shindara chose to trust and confide in the creature. After all, the demon promised to protect him from the curse eroding his soul.

If hindsight was foresight, Shindara never would have trusted him. It hardly mattered that Hrioshango fulfilled his promise. If he knew that the darkling was planning to turn him into something less than human, he would have walked away without hesitation. Instead, he followed the creature to the River of Three Tortures.

Shindara’s curse wasn’t ended through the Buddha’s mercy or holy incantations--it ended when Hrioshango introduced a sharp blade to his heart. Shindara remembered the piercing blow through his back, biting through armor and bone until the breath left his body.

He would never forget the feeling of his senses growing distant and cold. As much as he tried to repress it, he could still hear Hrioshango’s voice mocking him in his final moments--or at least, what should have been his final moments.

Instead, Shindara emerged from the River of Three Tortures with a thin and possibly undeserving second chance. Truthfully, he had never felt more alive. He appeared human on the surface, but death had transformed him into a beast of unfettered rage--the Abhorrent. Supposedly, it was the only reason why he was still roaming the world of humankind. He was channeling the power and the cunning of a god, not to mention the unrestrained ego of an eternal being.

Within months, it was impossible to discern where Shindara’s will began and where it ended. Paranoia and a lust for power became second nature to him. Nothing was ever enough, not even when the village of Namida adopted him as their guardian and symbolic lord.

One day at a time, his morals were bent until he saw all of his friends as enemies--and what happened next was truly unforgivable. It was also the reason why he took an oath of silence and seclusion. Yet, no matter where he hid, he could never hide from the shame of his crimes.

Shindara remembered the countless bodies he left behind in Namida. He silently uttered a prayer for his victims.

Eight months had passed since he instigated a battle that claimed thousands of lives along the border of the village. Despite his attempts to stay above the political feuds of lords, he aroused the suspicion of nobles and samurai alike. Foremost among them was a man named Yoshinaka, who marched his troops through the countryside to confront Shindara.

Their rivalry was characterized by a sprawling series of disasters--not the least of which involved a certain chaos magician. In a stunning betrayal, Hrioshango chose to summon a gateway to the Yomi not far from the village. What ensued was nothing short of a blood-soaked hell that would forever be seared into Shindara’s mind. Demons and devils were unleashed on the battlefield, where they proceeded to possess and devour every samurai in their path.

Innocent peasants couldn’t flee fast enough as they were caught between Yoshinaka’s warriors and the hordes of the yōkai realms.

Shindara knew of only one way to stop Hrioshango’s rampage. He possessed a devastating weapon that could summon a plague of blades, blood, and poison, but it was not without its flaws--or one morbid stipulation. To invoke its power was to condemn a thousand men to death. The plagues wouldn’t distinguish between friend or foe, acting only on the chaotic impulses of the relic. Karma be damned, Shindara did what he thought was necessary. He tapped into a vein of magic so foul that he nearly destroyed himself in the process.

To this day, he still questioned if he chose the lesser of two evils. He might have killed Hrioshango, but his defeat came at a steep price.

Shindara glanced down at his arm and recoiled from one of those so-called consequences. The Obsidian Blade was melded with his flesh in a frightening display of primordial magic. It seemed to grow out of his forearm as an extension of his bones.

It didn’t help matters that the Obsidian Blade was a sentient weapon with a mind of its own. He could hear its thoughts and its rabid desires louder than ever before. Once, it would have alerted him to the presence of evildoers and yōkai that might cause him harm. Now, it raged against the wickedness inside Shindara, constantly bombarding him with threats.

As long as the forbidden magic held, they would remain bound to each other; it forced Shindara to hone his meditation and develop techniques that resulted in complete detachment from the world. The moments of peace were few and fleeting, and in some ways, they were more precious than time itself. However, the Obsidian Blade would never stay silent for long, always reminding Shindara of his crimes.

Until today.

Heart pounding, Shindara looked up and beseeched the statue of the Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing. It was said that the light he conjured could heal both diseases and spiritual afflictions. Shindara tried to focus on the Buddha’s serene expression. He took several long breaths and savored the fragrance of burning sandalwood incense as it floated above him.

It faintly reminded him of another earthy smell. The smoke of homes burning in Namida. He could almost taste the ashes on his tongue. Shindara clenched his jaw as he tried to keep himself from throwing up.

The screams of the fallen echoed in his mind. Crying out his name and pleading for mercy. He could feel his mind unraveling as the chaos inside him spun out of control. He couldn’t endure the guilt and the nightmares anymore, let alone the Obsidian Blade’s voice in his head.

He longed to be liberated from more than just the steel lodged in his arm. If only he could strive toward Enlightenment again. If the gods were kind, that chance might come sooner rather than later.

Within the hour, he planned to break his vow of silence. He would leave the temple and publicly confess to the atrocities in Namida. He would spare no unpleasant detail, and on this auspicious day, he wouldn’t be lacking for an audience.

A market was held in the square outside Tō-ji at the end of every month, drawing scores of travelers and aristocrats. If Shindara ignored the murmur of chanting monks, he would be able to hear the merchants setting up their wares on the streets.

They would never suspect that the greatest draw of all wouldn’t be their pottery, imported textiles, or freshly-prepared food. It would be the lurid confessions of a killer.

Shaking with anticipation, Shindara rose from his knees. He briefly hesitated as he weighed the benefits of waiting one more day. Before he could indulge those guilty pleasures, he looked upon the statue of the Buddha one last time.

The breath stuck in his throat. He was too forlorn to notice earlier, but the Buddha’s right hand was forming a symbol of fearlessness. Protection and fearlessness. His fingers were pointing toward the heavens while his palm faced outward in a gesture of protection.

Determined to prove himself worthy of such a blessing, Shindara embarked on the quickest path to the streets. He needed to act on this whim before his anxiety cost him again. He entered a dim corridor that he carefully avoided for many months. Sunlight streamed through the open doors ahead of him.

As he listened to voices resounding outside, he reached into a hemp bag dangling from his belt. He retrieved a damaged paintbrush that once belonged to his wife.

He rolled it between his fingers as he imagined the last time it sat in Aya’s hand. It must have been five years since it thrived under her artistic touch. Shindara clutched the brush to his chest. He prayed to her for strength and resolve as he tried to remember the last moments they shared together.

If Shindara listened closely, he could almost hear Aya’s voice reassuring him. As much as he wanted to speak her name, he couldn’t break his oath yet. Only a few more moments of silence stood between him and the judgment of the city. He squeezed the paintbrush for comfort before he returned it to his pocket.

Shindara walked toward the elaborately-carved doors. It had been too long since he left the temple and looked upon the capital city. He wondered if it would feel like stepping into Heian-kyō again for the first time. He blinked against the harsh light until his eyes adjusted, but it hardly prepared him for the marvels waiting outside.

The temple wasn’t located far from the Rashōmon Gate, which granted passage to weary travelers and merchants from the outlying villages. The capital itself was surrounded by mountains and lofty hills in the absence of an exterior wall, forming a natural defense from invading armies.

Regarded as one of the greatest wonders of Japan, Heian-kyō sprawled across two dozen avenues and nearly three times as many streets. It opened up to several quarters and crowded wards, often scattered by rivers and wooden bridges.

Shindara stood in awe of the city as he lingered on the steps of the temple. His gaze was drawn to a pagoda rising from the southwest corner of the courtyard. Though it was constructed over a thousand years ago, the Toji pagoda aged with grace throughout the centuries. Composed of five stories, it radiated with color and poise beneath the blushing dawn. The tower could be seen from nearly every direction in Heian-kyō, providing an easy landmark to guide one’s journey.

Shindara’s eyes flickered from the pagoda to the market directly below. The plaza was teeming with displays of ceramics, wood carvings, scrolls, and kimonos.

Several guards wandered freely among the peasants, clutching spears as they oversaw several boisterous transactions. Their presence wasn’t lost on Shindara. He wondered if he would find himself at the end of their spears soon enough. He swallowed nervously as a handful of monks emerged from the temple to investigate the commotion.

“My name is Shindara,” he began softly, “and I am…”

His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. As he stared into several onlookers’ eyes, a somber question crossed his mind. Was he expecting forgiveness from strangers? Or did he secretly crave punishment?

He remained calm as an imperial guard turned in his direction. He watched Shindara’s hand carefully as he reached into the drawstring bag at his waist. Instead of searching for a weapon, Shindara was holding Aya’s paintbrush.

“I am ready to let go of the pain that remains in me,” he said. “With all that I possess, I am ready to declare the wicked deeds that cling to me. I have chased Enlightenment and found myself in the pits of torment instead. For all the evils I have committed with my body, my mind, and my spirit, I only ask that you listen. What I have done cannot be forgiven. I am the one who desecrated and destroyed--”

Suddenly, he realized a woman clad in regal armor was storming toward him. Dressed in leather scales and large, rectangular plates on her shoulders, she cut an imposing figure among the merchants and traders. Her plump lips were pursed tightly in a scowl and her jaw was tense with aggravation. Her raven hair, drawn back and tied behind her head, bobbed wildly with every hurried step she took toward Shindara.

Of all her characteristics, perhaps the most striking was the frantic look in her eyes. She seemed on the verge of drawing her sword, but Shindara stood rooted to the spot.

Before he could utter another word, the visibly enraged woman bore down on him with four words that may as well have seized him by the throat.

“You’re a damned fool.”