Fog crawled across the fields as the sun was plunged into shadow. Shindara fell to his knees among the mud and rain-soaked grass. He clutched his arm as something more insidious than weakness stirred inside him. Betrayal. He gasped for breath as the agony of a dozen wounds exploded beneath his armor. One sword strike after another had splintered his breastplate until nothing short of death awaited him.
He faced countless adversaries since he wandered through Japan’s war-torn countryside, but nothing compared to this foe. In spite of the odds, he took comfort in the supernatural weapon gripped in his hand. The Obsidian Blade smoldered at his touch, always warning him when evil was drawing near. Shindara just wished he was fighting anyone else… not him. Shuddering from the pain, he lifted his eyes and saw the creature named Hrioshango.
Shindara couldn’t remember how he ended up crossing blades with his former ally. Hrioshango was only half the size of a man, but he was ten times the threat. He was a yokai, a demon that gleefully meddled with forbidden magic, charms, and curses. The creature flashed a mocking smile as he approached.
“Don’t be afraid of death, my friend. It was only a matter of time.”
“We aren’t friends,” Shindara snarled as a chill ran down his spine.
“That wasn’t always the case. Once you saved my life and trusted me to save yours in return.”
Shindara fumbled with the Obsidian Blade as he tried to focus on anything other than the pain.
“And look at where that’s left me. Sparing your life has cost me everything. I should have let you die!”
With a blistering sigh, the demon wiped the blood off his sword. Halfway through the motion, he caught the reflection of his face on the steel. The guilt and sadness mirrored in his eyes startled him and he quickly looked away.
“I’m sorry, Shindara. Honestly, I’m a little surprised that I feel regret about this. I will always think of you as my friend, which is why I take no pleasure in killing you, but it must be done. For my sake.”
With that dark admission, his arm recoiled and lunged like a snake. Shindara shouldn’t have been capable of evading the strike--and he didn’t. With reflexes born of desperation, he threw up an arm to block the sword. He screamed as half of his arm was lopped off in a cruel blow. Fortunately, it hadn’t been his weapon arm.
Hrioshango jerked forward as he felt warmth soaking through his robes. Trembling from head to toe, he looked down at the Obsidian Blade embedded in his chest.
Almost immediately, Shindara released the sword, horrified by what he’d done. The darkling, on the other hand, stared at him as if he was impressed by his deception. He never would have expected a pathetic human to best him.
A grieving Shindara bowed his head because he didn’t cherish this victory. Despite the rage and countless betrayals, he mourned the creature suddenly dying before him. Hrioshango had been his friend, if only for a short time. He promised to save Shindara’s soul from a curse, no matter where their travels might take them.
The man crawled closer as the yokai struggled with his last breaths. He had never seen such fear in Hrioshango’s eyes before, not even when he was surrounded by bandits or rogue samurai. Hrioshango gasped and reached out with his gnarled claws. Without thinking, Shindara took his hand and held it tight, not about to let him die alone. Foe or not, Shindara would stay by his side in his final, vulnerable moments--for the sake of who Hrioshango used to be. With a choked cry, he looked down at the sword stained in his friend’s blood. If only there had been another way.
* * *
Shindara was jerked from his nightmares as a voice called out to him.
“Wake up, my friend! We’re almost there!”
Clutching his chest, Shindara staggered to his feet. The earth felt unsteady beneath him, but at least he wasn’t lying in blood-soaked fields. Through sleep-lidded eyes, he saw a veil of green and emerald hues hidden beneath the frost.
A thick forest was rising from beyond great curtains of mist. A pathway sloped under a web of tree branches, stretching past several shrines dedicated to the Shinto spirits. Izumo Province was a cradle of folklore and mythical stories, which made it precisely the kind of place that he was seeking.
His eyes swept across half-frozen streams and glens freshly blanketed under snow. The beauty inherent to nature never failed to soothe his soul. Perhaps a less soothing sight was that of Hachi, the bandit who startled him out of his sleep.
Hachi was a gangly man with limbs nearly as long and sinewy as the sword he carried. His goat-like beard was always unkempt and his eyes were never without a crazed gleam. Apparently, the wintry chill didn’t bother him this morning either because he was wearing even less armor than he did the day before. The shock of seeing the forest of hair on Hachi’s bare chest was one that made Shindara never want to open his eyes again.
Another voice rasped out a reply.
“One step closer to the Yomi. The Hollow Land.” Shindara’s heart withered at the sound of that voice. He turned to his right and spotted the yokai also known as Hrioshango.
He was a darkling, a goblin-like creature with two horns and skin as green as the ancient forest. He draped himself in tattered robes and wore a wide-brimmed, conical hat. He squinted his eyes at Shindara before they drifted to the weapon at his waist. His lips thinned in a scowl and he abruptly turned away. The chaos magician had always been nervous around the Obsidian Blade, but Shindara sensed something deeper this time. Perhaps Hrioshango was more frightened of the wielder than the weapon itself.
“I thought it would take several more days to locate the entrance,” Shindara said.
“Not with me as your guide. The way inside lies just beyond those trees. We should reach the unclean land by nightfall and put an end to this curse of yours.”
Shindara nodded. Despite the fears weighing on him, he felt indebted to the yokai. Were it not for the strange creature, he would be fading into the underworld with little hope of salvation. It seemed like ages since the curse first took hold of his soul. He could trace its origins to the siege of Nara, where his desperate actions cost him nearly everything.
No one could say exactly how the assault began or how many needlessly died, but Shindara would never forget the events of that night. He remembered waking to the sound of temple bells as samurai from the Taira clan descended on the city with blades and fire.
They focused their rage on the monasteries and the warrior monks sheltered inside. Despite their numbers and a well-devised strategy, they were no match for the Taira. They were slaughtered by the hundreds, if not thousands.
As their defenses crumbled, Shindara searched the burning temple for his wife. Nothing mattered more to him than saving the life of his precious Aya. If he had been a few moments sooner, he might have reached her in time.
Instead, a stray arrow had lodged itself in Aya’s heart. With her last breaths, her life was snuffed out--and so, too, was the life of their unborn child. A man of faith would have taken comfort in the thought that his loved ones were beyond the reach of war--and a better man would have known better than to tamper with dark magic to restore what was lost.
In a moment of madness, Shindara had enacted a ritual to resurrect Aya and his child. Anything but triumph awaited him in the end. The dark realm of the Yomi answered his arrogant attempt to undo death. He was cursed for his meddling in the worst way possible. The darkness of the Yomi entered his soul and began to kill him from within. His death was certain, but what awaited him in the end?
Would he remain trapped in the Yomi for eternity? Or would his soul cease to exist as if he were never born?
The first pang of panic exploded through his heart. He reached for the silver flask dangling from a chain around his neck, and as soon as his fingers touched it, his fear washed away. He lowered his head and pondered the treasure kept inside. The ashes of his wife were safely held within, always close to his heart. He promised to scatter Aya’s ashes until her spirit found peace on the other side, wherever she might be.