VOLUME INDEX



Cover © 2009 Del Borovic
Manga © 2009 Rebecca Gunter

 
 
 
 






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 regularity.

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?”

“Anything.”

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 through walls.

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 sneakers?”

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 garage.”

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 intoned:

「夏草や 、兵どもが、夢の 跡。」1

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 National Museum.”

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.

“Yeah, whatever.”


1 Poem by Matsuo Bashô. Translation: The summer grasses— / Of the brave soldiers' dreams / The aftermath.


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