Shindara awoke—or perhaps, there was no such thing as waking in the realm of the dead. His senses could be deceiving him at this very moment.
His back was pressed flat against the ground and he gazed up into the sky. It briefly crossed his mind to stand up, but he could hardly move his limbs. His soul was in flux because he was living and breathing in a realm intended for the dead. With the absence of life came the absence of hope, and as he staggered to his feet, he immediately knew he didn’t belong here.
The sky existed and, yet, it didn’t at the same time. Mountains grew out of the clouds like a set of black teeth poised to rip the world in half. The jaw-dropping spectacle raised new questions about the origin of the Yomi. A Shinto priest once told him that the dark realm existed beneath the earth, a notion that Shindara laughed off. However, what else could explain why the mountains grew upside down here?
Suddenly, it dawned on him that he was standing on the edge of a cliff. His eyes swept across a sea of fog in a sunken valley. He watched in awe as it slithered over the ground with a mind of its own. A low moan reverberated from the lowlands, and the mist rippled outward in its hungry search for the dead.
Shindara looked down as his boots crunched against something soft. The ground consisted only of dry rock with a fine coating of dust. Beyond that, the landscape of the Yomi conveyed a surreal harmony in its crags, mountains, and plains.
There was no sense of time here, but if he waited long enough, the clouds would part to reveal a jade green sky. It was the first evidence of color in this world blanketed in ash.
Shindara spun around at the sound of that voice and spotted Hrioshango.
“How long have you been here? Did you just arrive?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. Time travels differently here. I’m not sure how I would explain it in human terms.”
“And as you can see, I’m still wearing my armor.”
“A stunning success! We’re already halfway to getting rid of your curse!”
“I… can’t tell whether you’re mocking me or being serious.”
“Naturally, I was being—”
Hrioshango never finished that thought. Shindara winced as the Obsidian Blade burned at his side, faintly at first before it exploded into searing pain. Something foul was slinking toward them.
“Why have you come here?” a voice rasped.
Catching sight of a hunched figure in the mist, Shindara hefted his blade. Hrioshango’s eyes opened wider than an owl’s and he, too, brandished his sword.
“Stand back, Shindara!”
The creature in the mist hacked up a laugh as it drew closer. A cloak was wrapped around its feeble body, the frayed edges dragging along the ash-covered earth. A withered hand lifted the cowl of the cloak to reveal a hag-like face.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” she said.
“What are you?” Shindara demanded. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been waiting. Waiting for someone like you.” Her lips parted in a crooked smile of warped teeth. “I thought you might be him… coming back after all this time.”
Shindara exchanged nervous glances with his demon companion. He wasn’t sure whether to further engage this creature or chase it away with his blade. He wondered if this was one of the demons that Hrioshango warned him about. Could it be one of the eight devils appearing to him as sickly and weak, when it was anything but? Trusting in his instincts, he slowly returned the Obsidian Blade to the cords hanging from his belt.
“This man that you were expecting,” he began unsurely, “…you thought I was him?”
“Not a man. A god.” The hag noticed the Obsidian Blade by his side, but she didn’t recoil. “Perhaps I should start from the beginning and you’ll understand why I’m here. My existence began in the Yomi. I was brought about by the goddess Izanami.”
“The creator goddess of life and death,” Shindara said quietly. The hag nodded and a glint came to her eyes.
“Once she was as beautiful and radiant as the moonlight on Lake Suwa. The god Izanagi fell in love with her and created the living world. When they thrust a jeweled spear into the ocean, the island of Onogoro rose from the sea. They built their palace on a sacred hill on this island. It wasn’t long before they were married and creating life out of chaos. Their union resulted in the birth of several more lands and spirits, but their marriage was never destined to last. Sadly, Izanami died giving birth to the fire god.”
Still listening, Shindara scanned the surrounding wasteland. “When she died, did she end up in the Yomi?”
“She was the first. No one else had set foot in the Yomi before her. My Lady missed her husband and the treasures of the living world. Here, she trembled from the cold and she cowered in the dark, but most of all, she hungered relentlessly. She tasted the fruit of the Yomi, unaware that all who eat from these trees are bound to rot in the shadows forever. There was no chance she would leave the dead realm now.”
“She was trapped,” Shindara murmured.
“Soon after, her beauty decayed and maggots ate her flesh. She became the Shinigami, the Death Bringer, the Grand Deity of the Yomi… the Abhorrent.”