Shindara passed by the last of his sleeping companions and followed the darkling into the woods. The warmth and safety of the camp receded as dark boughs closed in around him.
A few Shintō shrines dedicated to the gods were scattered along the path, half-hidden by the snow. He reached out and touched one of the forgotten shrines for good luck. As they wound through the forest, they encountered a path that split off in two different directions. One led to the left under a grove of peach trees while the right path led into the endless night gloom.
Without answering, Hrioshango crept toward the left path under the trees.
Shindara almost asked about the other way, but he quickly changed his mind. Instead, another question came to his mind that he had been yearning to ask.
“Have you ever been afraid of death?”
Hrioshango shambled to a slow stop.
“Yes and no. It’s probably no surprise that my fears are different from yours. I’ve seen enough pain, horror, and evil to fill several lifetimes. You’re afraid to die. I’m afraid to continue living.” He turned a sly smile to Shindara. “But fear is just the moment before the sun fades, isn’t it? When the shadows hold you tight.”
Shindara gawked at him in disbelief. Those were words he never shared with Hrioshango, yet he took them right out of his mouth—with a few flowery additions of his own. After all, he once shared those words with Mikoto many moons ago on the beaches of Owari.
With a shrug, Hrioshango added, “I guess you could say that moment is almost here.”
They continued onward as Shindara pondered his answer. He knew better than anyone about the fragility of life and the suffering of existence. When he was a much younger scribe, he viewed death as the greatest of teachers and an inevitable path that all must take. Death was the liberator that would usher him into the next life and one step closer to Enlightenment. Those concepts were shattered when he met Aya.
Suddenly, he couldn’t imagine leaving the world behind. Aya became the breath of air that he couldn’t live without. He knew he would always want her and he promised to love her even more tomorrow… but her tomorrow never came. If Aya was still here, she would know exactly what to say to soothe him. Instead, Hrioshango’s voice jarred against the silence.
“We’re getting close. Can you hear it?”
“I hear nothing.”
“The hissing of the snakes, the chittering of the centipedes, all creatures associated with the Yomi. They whisper their strange songs to the darkness. You’ll hear them soon enough.”
The unlikely pair stepped through the thickets and into a moon-cast glen. Shindara’s eyes swept across the snow and ice until he spotted a massive boulder. He stopped mid-step as a feeling like no other overwhelmed him. He could feel the darkness roiling beneath that rock, salivating and begging to be let free.
“At last,” Hrioshango sighed as he descended into the small valley.
“Was the entrance always sealed?” Shindara asked.
“Not always. It’s been thousands of years since the way was shut. It was meant to keep something from getting out.”
Without warning, Hrioshango lifted his hand and curled his fingers in the shape of a dying spider. The boulder shifted and Shindara braced himself. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck as the rock tumbled away. Hidden beneath the boulder was a great pit, a hole charred into the existence of the world. As he peered into the abyss, he could finally hear it. The snakes slithering in the grass, the centipedes crawling under damp logs, and the crows lamenting from the trees.
The harbingers of the Yomi seemed everywhere at once as the pit beckoned him. What kind of world existed where the night was eternal? What creatures or despondent souls lurked on the other side?
As he considered the possibilities, a faint voice piped up from his side.
“If it’s any comfort, I’m here for you… as your friend.”
Shindara turned to Hrioshango, where the darkling managed a weak smile.
“Thank you. And yes, it is comforting. I’m glad I can count on someone like you.”
The darkling nodded and swept out his hand toward the pit.
With a quiver in his heart, Shindara took one step forward and prayed that it wouldn’t be his last.