The Phoenix Art Museum, an impressive building constructed mostly out of desert Feng
Shui and panache, lay barely a stone’s throw away from the Matsuri Festival. However, the
deeper that one pressed into the very innards of Phoenix, the more crowded and clustered the buildings.
The streets had a labyrinthine nature about them, some spanning lengths that could be measured in hand
spans and others that stretched all the way through the city but split and changed names with uncertain
It took almost half-an-hour to drive from the festival to edge the cab into the
shade of one of the thorny Palo Verde trees at the furthest limits of the museum’s parking
lot. Which, Vex noted, bore strange graffiti down its green trunk. Not only did the roads work against
her as she tried to drive from one to the other—today everyone seemed to be in an Asian mood;
because the parking lot closer to the actual building had already been packed by previous arrivals.
Previous arrivals who were currently pouring from every available exit of the
building as if during a fire drill. They looked mostly better dressed than the entire crowd at the
festival, and generally a bit older, but equally flustered.
“I don’t think anyone’s getting in that way,” Megan said as they walked towards the glittering granite and celadon quartz walls of the closest
wing. Police cars had already arrived, lights flashing, and security guards were shuffling confused
people into the parking lot. Urging them to stay calm.
“It’s just a precaution,” said one well-dressed and
well-fed bureaucrat. His face looked flushed and a little bit pinched as he gestured broadly. “The fire department will be here soon to determine the source of the smoke.”
“Yeah, right,” Vex said under her breath. “Something tells me that mask-boy is at work here. Do you see a way in?”
Megan tapped Vex’s arm and pointed her to a shadowy alcove cut into the
side of the building. A solitary, tired security guard stood there talking into his shoulder. Both girls
moved into a conspiratorial huddle and glanced about to make certain nobody else was nearby. For the
most part the crowd and police were occupied with the fire drill. Vex fished around in her pocket and
produced a small phial.
“This is actually a gift for someone else,” she said,
uncorking it. She sniffed the contents. Still good. “But it’ll work here. Drink
this.” She handed it over.
Megan looked at the phial for a moment, shrugged, and then downed the contents.
“Tastes like apple juice,” she said. “Okay. Now what?”
“Flirt with him.”
“He’s not that cute,” Megan said. “What
would I say anyway?”
As they approached, the guard stiffened and took his hand away from the radio on
his shoulder. “Whoa, you two, there’s nothing in this direction. You should just
turn around and go back to the rest of the crowd. Everything is under control.”
“Er—uh,” Megan said. “I got separated
from my friends and this spot looked like a good place to stay out of the sun… Can’t
I just wait here?”
The moment that she started to talk his eyelids drooped, a silly smile crossed
his lips and he nodded a little.
“Well,” he started to say, a bit more slow and less terse
than before. “If you want I could keep you company until your friend returns.”
“Gee, would you?” Megan said. “By the way—do you play Pokémon?”
Vex smirked and walked around him, his eyes had fixated so totally that he
didn’t even react to her walking past him. With a word, her cantrip popped the lock and she
slipped through the door. As the door clicked closed behind her she could hear him trying to come up
with everything that he knew about the cartoon.
The hallway in of itself was unremarkable. White security lights lit her way as
she dashed down the hallway passing by nondescript door after nondescript door.
A rumble ahead told her that she was running in the right direction.
Then she found it, a door that bore a likely label: East Wing Asian Art Exhibit.
The door resisted when she tried the handle, but a well-placed shoulder blow
managed to force it open.
That moment Vex wondered what would happen if a thing of that bulk had been
squeezed into even a building of this size—and after forcing open the door, she didn’t have to. The ominous bulk of the monster expanded to take up most of the room, the jellyfish
blob oozed through doors and flattened exhibits as its tentacles punched holes in walls and crashed
Knuckledusters leading the way, she punched and pounded her way past waving
tentacles, which withdrew like fingers encountering flame as she swung at them. As she moved she stepped
over a downed person, who turned out to be a contorted mannequin wearing a colorful kimono. Amidst the
wreckage and mayhem lay a lot of shattered glass, and much to Vex’s instant irritation, some
broken Qing Dynasty cloisonné bowls. The obliteration appeared to be indiscriminate.
“You’re too late!” A voice shouted from the far end
of the room, on a balcony above. There, framed momentarily then obscured by the frantic lashing of the
tentacled horror, stood a tall Samurai warrior wearing red-stained armor. The mask that covered his face
depicted a horrible demonic face contorted into a vicious sneer and appeared to be wreathed in flames
that spiraled up around brow and branched into blackened antlers. Altogether his outfit was stunning,
right out of a Japanese movie—except for the black jean cuffs and tennis shoes.
“Give it up kid! You do not want to mess with me.” Vex
pointed at him. “By the by, what kind of Japanese geek goes cosplaying wearing fucking
He looked down and sneered back, “My power is almost complete.
Comparing wits with you, I think, can wait.”
“This is supposed to be my day off!” she shouted after him.
“It may be your last,” floated back his hollow reply. “Kill her. When you’re done here, return to me. Across the street at the parking
The tentacles this time were much sturdier and covered in a tough leathery skin
that bruised her knuckles when she struck them. Although, even toughened, the tentacles still ruptured
after a few blows, she was making little headway against them. Arms extended and fists balled tight, she
called a metaphysical shield into existence.
With the dark tentacles closing in, Vex knew that she wouldn’t be able
to hold them off for long so she reached out for answers. Whispers chuckled out of the near dark in her
mind, laughing about the simplicity of the construction and manifestation of the monster. Some chided
her for wasting her time to stop it—but a few had ideas.
Along one wall a smashed glass case held a dazzling array of weapons: swords,
spears, katana, tessen, kodachi, and naginata. Following the advice of that lone, thready voice, she
called out to the weapons—whispering ancient Japanese names that she could barely pronounce,
pleading and imploring for their presence.
Ancient soldiers, those who might have wielded those same weapons materialized
among them, wearing old armor and tattered helmets. Glowing eyes turned towards her.
“Aid me,” Vex said.
“Prove yourself!” challenged the spirit.
She let go of her shield and placed her hands together in a bow—the
tentacles surged forward; time slowed. This too she had been told, eyes closed, voice solemn, she
A tentacle descended and she prepared to block the blow.
“We find you worthy.”
The limbs of the monster disintegrated as the warriors cut through them with
ease. The entire gurgling mass once again screamed in anger and pain as every pseudopod it threw at her
found itself caught in a spectral blender. The phantom warriors made short work of the creature,
chopping it down like a writhing forest of black, rubbery trees. They crashed down all around her until
finally the monstrosity could take the punishment no longer and vanished.
Tattered bits of paper, scraps of cracked plaster, and shards of broken glass
rattled to the floor from where they had landed on the now-fled monster. She heaved a sigh of relief and
bowed deeply to the ghost warriors, whispering her thanks for their aid and dismissing them with a
statement of deep gratitude.
The bushi ghosts bowed in return and vanished leaving her alone.
Carefully, she picked her way through the wreckage and looked over the carpet of
smashed exhibits, glass, wood, and contorted steel. The monster had done a tragic number on everything
in the room—especially the glass case in the center—but, although mostly wreckage,
she discovered a plaque describing the contents:
“The armor of an ancient Japanese shogun unnamed, found in the Sea of
Japan. Inscriptions on the armor depict a ritual involving a sword and a mask, perhaps further pieces of
this artifact. From the fine work of the armor it may have been commissioned by an extremely wealthy
shogun to commemorate some yet deciphered legend. On loan to the Phoenix Art Museum by the Kyoto
“Of course there’s a ritual!” Vex stomped
out of the room as best she could without damaging any of the vases and bowls laying about. “There’s always a ritual…”
The security guard was still skewered on Megan’s every word when Vex
threw the door open—the silver tongue phial would last a few more hours on the poor boy. She
idly hoped that Megan didn’t test the limits of the charm, although, the girl didn’t
seem like the type who would ask him to wade out into traffic for her.
“Stay here,” Vex said to Megan as she stalked past. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“Where are you going?” The cat-eared girl asked.
“To throw a wrench in a rite of ascension written straight out of the
pages of one of your Japanese comic books.”
“Manga,” Megan said.
1 Poem by Matsuo
Bashô. Translation: The summer grasses— / Of the brave soldiers' dreams / The aftermath.