The Damage Done

“No, I don’t understand,” Shindara growled as Mikoto stood before him. “You’re siding with the man who wants me dead. He blames me for the disaster in the Kiso Mountains!”

“My mind is already made up, Shindara. If there is to be anything left of Japan, I have to control the outcome of battle. We need Yoshinaka as an ally—and I can make him see reason.”

“You can’t convince him to spare me. Men like him don’t negotiate. He has exactly what he wants—he has you.”

Mikoto flinched as she lowered her gaze to the floor.

“I was charged to protect him,” she murmured. “Yoshinaka is a paranoid, greedy man and probably one of the most selfish lords I’ve ever met. I know exactly what he is. I shouldn’t have to protect someone like him, but I made a promise to Lord Yoritomo.”

“What about your friends?”

Mikoto lurched forward with desperation, her radiant eyes piercing his. “Don’t you see what I’m trying to do?” she yelled hoarsely. “That’s why I agreed to help him! I’m trying to lure his troops away from you!

Shindara sighed as he crossed to the other end of the chamber, where he arrived at a wooden platform. A rich canopy was draped from the ceiling over the dais, once reserved for highlighting a throne or an altar. He paused before a wall of folding screens and pretended to admire the imagery painted over them.

“When do you leave?” he asked.

“At morning’s first light. We head to Kurikara.”

“Don’t do this, Mikoto.”

“This is one of those times,” she replied, “when it’s completely out of our hands and we have to leave the rest to the gods. I’ll see you later.”

As Mikoto walked away, the shadows seemed to take shape in the jamb of the doorway. Shindara materialized in the entrance, blocking her path.

Mikoto was stunned by his boldness. The Shindara she knew would never attempt to stop her. He would never consider holding her against her will. She furrowed her brow as she observed the newfound rage in his face.

“Are you doing this because you don’t want me to fight beside Yoshinaka? Or are you genuinely worried about me as a friend?”

Shindara evaded the questions as deftly as he would two daggers.

“This isn’t what you want,” he said. “This is about what I need.”

“What you need is this.”

Mikoto’s fist collided with Shindara’s jaw and sent him sprawling to the floor. She stepped over him without a second thought. As Shindara tried to stop his head from spinning, he heard Mikoto’s voice from the doorway.

“Fix the monster you’ve created or I’ll put you down myself.”

Her words echoed in his head as he rose, bruised and humiliated, to his feet. How dare she threaten him after everything they endured together.

He lurched toward a wall and clung to the frame for support. Not long after, he was startled by the sound of something clattering to the floor. When he looked down, he saw another face staring up at him. It took a brief moment for him to realize it was the Mask of Izanami.

Shindara picked it up with trembling hands. He could feel the hate and grief inside this relic as vividly as he felt his own. However, it was much more than just a mask—according to the hag of the Yomi, it was a devastating weapon.

Shindara peered into its hollow, vapid eyes. He wondered if he could use such a thing on Yoshinaka. It could kill a thousand men in a single day. For the first time, he found himself contemplating its use.

“Ah, Mikoto was always my favorite warrior,” a voice cackled from the shadows. Shindara whipped around with a startled expression. He sighed as Hrioshango emerged from behind a painted screen. He was surprised to see the darkling ambling toward him. Feeling embarrassed, he quickly tucked the mask under a straw mat.

The darkling slinked forward with a watery chuckle.

“And yes, to answer the look in your eyes, I saw and heard everything. I’m sure even Mikoto was aware of my presence. You don’t think those parting words were intended for you, surely?”

Shindara rubbed his sore jaw as he considered the demon’s explanation. He was somewhat relieved that Mikoto didn’t threaten his life. Still, it didn’t cool his temper when he imagined her offering support to his nemesis.

“That’s quite the predicament you’ve found yourself in,” the darkling continued. “What do you suppose she’s thinking? Siding with the man who would have you killed naked and defenseless in a bathhouse? Well, actually, that sounds like something I would do.”

“I’ll drown Yoshinaka in blood and shadow,” Shindara croaked, stumbling toward the raised dais. A splitting pain erupted in his side and he dropped to one knee.

He winced and tried to ignore his tender bruises as Hrioshango approached. When he opened his eyes, he noticed a smaller, beady pair of eyes watching him from above. He was stunned to see a crow sitting on Hrioshango’s shoulder. One of its wings was badly damaged and held in place by a wooden splint.

“When did you acquire a pet?”

“Only a few minutes ago. It happened just before I teleported here. I was wandering through the forest when I heard its cries.” The crow leaned closer and Hrioshango gleefully stroked its feathered head. “Do you know what they say about crows?”

“Are we really having this conversation?” Shindara groaned.

“Why not?”

“Because I know where this is going. Don’t start comparing me to a bird.”

Hrioshango laughed as he circled his brooding companion. “Some say crows are divine messengers from the heavens. They clean up the battlefields after blood is shed. As such, they represent rebirth and transformation.” Hrioshango amused himself as he scratched his crow under the chin with a long, black nail. “This one reminds me of you. Ironic, isn’t it? You’re going through a transformation yourself. So tell me, do you like what you’re becoming?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t feel in control most of the time, and that frightens me. Mikoto was right about one thing. It feels like something else is living in my head and telling me what to think.”

“It’s probably just the Obsidian Blade,” Hrioshango said dismissively. “So… Yoshinaka is coming for you and bringing his scourge of troops. You don’t think you can take them all on by yourself, do you?”

“I have a handful of men on my side. And you, of course.”

“You would certainly stand a chance as the Abhorrent. You aren’t human anymore. Your bones don’t break as easily. Your body doesn’t even need blood anymore, just the darkness. Having me on your side also increases your odds of survival, but you still need to tip the scales. Perhaps I should have shared this information with you earlier.”

“What information?”

Hrioshango gestured at the floor. Shindara looked down and froze. An array of symbols and markings were inscribed there in salt—enough salt to cure their meat for the rest of the year, if one could forgive the lingering stench of seaweed.

A single look at the sigils told the scribe everything he needed to know about the darkling’s intentions. He recoiled with a short, hissing breath.

“When did you have time to do this? I saw you leave for the forest—”

“It’s just something I whipped up while Mikoto was smacking you around. Now listen closely. As the Abhorrent, you can summon certain entities from the other side. You can bind them to your will and ensure their loyalty.”

“Surely, you don’t mean…”

“Yōkai, demons, yurei, abominations… are they so different from the people you humans deem untouchables?”

“Untouchables…”

“Yes, you were labeled one yourself, weren’t you? Your parents toiled as butchers. Their hands were always unclean with death. Your entire village ostracized you because of them, or so I’m told.”

With no reply forthcoming, Hrioshango beckoned him closer. Shindara crouched low and ran his fingers along the fine markings formed in salt. He could feel the energy humming beneath them. Something foul and brilliant was waiting on the other side, its voice oozing into his head, sweetly promising that it would obey him.

“What are they saying?” he asked as the hairs rose on the back of his neck.

“Absolute servitude. You will have an endless supply of warriors willing to fight for you. They cannot be killed, unlike the samurai.”

“I sense hunger within them. Hunger and malice.”

“They detest humans, true, but you are in no danger. If anything, this pesky Lord Yoshinaka will be in danger when he tries and fails to kill you. But make no mistake, he will try to kill you.”

“Sadato is out there, too,” Shindara murmured. “Could a yōkai destroy him? Would it be enough?” He could hardly believe that he was contemplating Hrioshango’s offer.

“Perhaps, but there might be another way. I’m still examining the talisman you recovered from the temple, but these things take time. Unfortunately, you can’t afford to wait while the wolves are circling.”

Despite his best intentions, Shindara nodded in agreement. There was only so much he could do to stave off Sadato’s inevitable assault. Or should he be more concerned about Yoshinaka? It was hard to decide which adversary should be his priority.

Shindara stood up as he focused on a single thought, one that might ensure his survival. “Show me then,” he said with a gravelly whisper.

Hrioshango jerked forward, startling the crow on his shoulder.

“You want to summon one now?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, well… it’s very simple, actually. Wild, raging spirits are always trying to break free from the void. All they need is the connection of another soul.”

“Which would be me?”

“The yōkai will latch onto your soul and make the journey between worlds. All you have to do is stand before the sigil and speak its name. Listen and feel your way through the aether. When you’ve found the creature you’re looking for, beckon it here.”

Shindara nodded in apparent understanding. He approached the intricate patterns. He listened as a voice seemed to call out from somewhere in the sanctuary. It seemed nearby and faraway at the same time. He patiently sifted through the shadows surrounding him. He could faintly discern the name of the creature trying to connect with him.

“Kamikiri,” he said, reveling in the power of its name. “Kamikiri…” The salt on the floor burst into flames and smoldered, but a chill swept through the spacious room. The occult symbols seemed to move of their own will, wavering and forming new shapes in the darkness. Shindara felt its presence immediately. A spindly figure dropped from the ceiling as if it had been hiding under the roof tiles the entire time.

It chittered with laughter and stretched its scaly legs. Shindara’s jaw dropped as the yōkai scampered forward, struggling with its reedy body and a bloated abdomen. Even when it was hunched over, it was still massive enough to be staring down at him. The kamikiri resembled a demonic praying mantis—with a few unsightly additions to its face.

In place of its mouth was a spear-like beak. Its neck was absurdly long, and its skin was purple and distorted like a fish left outside to rot in the sun.

However, nothing could detract from the demon’s colossal pincers. Shindara’s awe turned to disbelief as the kamikiri screeched at him and attacked.

He twisted to the side as the demon came around with a scythe-like arm. It flailed and tore a regal canopy from the ceiling, which landed on top of a screaming Hrioshango.

Shindara tried to pull the Obsidian Blade free, but it jammed in his new scabbard. The beast sensed an easy kill and lunged at him with a shrill cry.

No!” yelled Shindara. To his surprise, the yōkai stopped. Its claws were raised in mid-strike, but it held completely still. Shindara couldn’t believe his eyes. Neither could Hrioshango as he emerged from under the tattered canopy. The kamikiri scuttled backward. Its eyes darted around in its skull as it chittered again. Finally, it lowered its head in an acquiescing gesture.

“Shindara… it recognizes you as the Abhorrent. It’s promised to do whatever you say.”

The fear slowly disappeared from Shindara’s face. It was replaced with curiosity. His heart beat rapidly, and he trembled with heady anticipation. Suddenly, he was tantalized by the endless possibilities before him.

After all, he knew what needed to be done. He would be a fool to deny himself this opportunity. As he approached the summoning circles, the last of his doubts melted away. He knew he wasn’t the gentle, naive scribe he used to be. He knew exactly what he was, and there was nothing abhorrent about it. He was becoming the better version of himself.

Hrioshango smiled when he saw the cold, calculating menace in Shindara’s eyes. He beckoned him toward dozens of glowing sigils on the floor.

“It’s time to assemble your army, Shindara.”