Literature

Happy New Year!

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Happy New Year to all our readers! The Excalibur Crew has been traveling over the winter season … doing more research for more novels … we’ll be sending out some publishing news very soon!!! 👍🏼

The Cost of a ‘Like’

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GUEST POST BY CODY L. MARTIN, AUTHOR OF “ZERO SUM GAME”.

 

An artist online recently posted about how he spends hours doing 3D art then gets so little feedback. That got me thinking about commenting and liking on someone’s post. I’m taking about the 3D art, the poem, short story, or whatever piece of creativity they put out into the digital world to share.

This is merely my theory but it feels like people think it isn’t necessary to comment on something they see online that they like. Surely if they like it, the artist must know they like it, right? After all, the viewer didn’t post a negative comment or give it a thumbs down icon. That must mean they like it.

Actually, no. For artists, it feels the opposite. The less feedback we get, the more we feel people don’t like out work. In fact, it’s worse than disliking our work: it’s indifferent. With no positive or negative comments and icons, we feel that our work didn’t resonate with you the viewer strong enough to act. It didn’t stir up feelings of praise or even feelings of disgust. Our work was viewed then passed over. The audience felt nothing.

It may sound like artists are clingy but in some ways we are: we need those comments, good and bad, to tell us what our audience wants. If I write three stories in three totally different genres, how am I supposed to know which ones my audience liked if no one tells me? If my SF piece was the most popular and readers want me to write more SF and to stay away from Westerns because that piece was garbage, how am I supposed to know?

We’re not asking for full-blown reviews (although those are welcome too). In fact, comments can be boiled down to three words (“I like it”, I hated it”, “Not too bad”) or even down to one word (Nice. Great! Terrible!). Just that sliver of info helps us, both in our egos and in what we need to do to improve our craft. If my Western short story is receiving several bad one word reviews and my SF story is getting several positive one word comments, I know what I should write.

Is this a case of “Do as I say and not as I do”? Yes it is. I’m just as guilty about not commenting enough. But online viewers don’t need to comment on every picture and story they come across; if you follow 35 different DeviantArt artists and several more on Pixiv you’ll spend hours commenting only. Perhaps pick out a few each day that catch your eye, whether for good or bad reasons. Maybe you liked the coloring on this painting or maybe someone drew your favorite character from The Never Ending Story. Just tell the artist that.

It doesn’t take long, less than a minute to leave a quick comment. But those comments build up. Yours may be the one the artist needs to read when they are having a bad day and want to pack it in for the rest of their life. It may be yours that gives them hope to start again tomorrow, or to keep working on a project they thought everyone hated but someone actually likes. It could be yours that makes them happy!

“Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy – now complete!

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00049]“Voice of the Jewel”, the final book in the “Sword, mirror, Jewel” trilogy, is available online in ebook form! The paperback will be available in January – and the first volume of the series, “voice of the sword”, will be available at the special price of $0:99 through december!

 

Reiko Bergman and her friends are on a school trip to the island of Hokkaido, in northern Japan. Sapporo city is host to the world-famous Snow Festival, where giant ice statues and sculptures are on display to the public.

They think they are out of danger. They think the Jewel, the third Sacred Treasure of Japan, is safely protected. They think the Kagetori have given up their quest for revenge.

But then they find they are being tracked through the snow-covered streets by shadowy assailants …

An impenetrable force field appears around Sapporo city center, trapping Reiko and hundreds of people within it. The ice statues come to life, animated by one purpose; kill Reiko and anyone else who knows of the existence of the Jewel. The Snow Festival has become a death trap.

The stakes have never been higher … the evil has never been colder … and when Reiko finally discovers who is behind the chaos, she will find herself at the edge of defeat, powerless to prevent the death of one of her friends …

TO BUY VOICE OF THE SWORD AT THE SPECIAL PRICE, GO HERE! 

FOR VOICE OF THE MIRROR, GO HERE!

FOR VOICE OF THE JEWEL, GO HERE!

 

Cover Reveal: “Into The Valley”

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COVER DESIGN AND ARTWORK BY DANIELLE DRAKE!
“INTO THE VALLEY” IS THE TENTH STORY IN THE “FUTURIST MANIFESTO” SERIES. IT WILL BE RELEASED AS AN E-SHORT EARLY 2017, AND PUBLISHED IN VOLUME 2 OF “TALES FROM BEYOND TOMORROW” IN SUMMER 2017.

FOR MORE DETAILS OF THE “FUTURIST MANIFESTO” SERIES, GO HERE!

Cover Reveal: “A Coffin Full of Stars”

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Cover design and artwork by Danielle Drake!

“A Coffin Full of Stars” is the ninth story in the “Futurist Manifesto” series. It will be released as an e-short early 2017, and published in Volume 2 of “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow” in summer 2017.

For more details of the “Futurist Manifesto” series, go here!  

 

 

Cover Reveal – Voice of the Jewel!

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00049]
now it can be revealed!

This stunning ebook cover by Stephanie Hobbs heralds the explosive end to the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy! 

Reiko Bergman and her friends are on a school trip to the island of Hokkaido, in northern Japan. Sapporo city is host to the world-famous Snow Festival, where giant ice statues and sculptures are on display to the public.

They think they are out of danger. They think the Jewel, the third Sacred Treasure of Japan, is safely protected. They think the Kagetori have given up their quest for revenge.

But then they find they are being tracked through the snow-covered streets by shadowy assailants …

An impenetrable force field appears around Sapporo city center, trapping Reiko and hundreds of people within it. The ice statues come to life, animated by one purpose; kill Reiko and anyone else who knows of the existence of the Jewel. The Snow Festival has become a death trap.

The stakes have never been higher … the evil has never been colder … and when Reiko finally discovers who is behind the chaos, she will find herself at the edge of defeat, powerless to prevent the death of one of her friends …

on sale december 2016!

for volumes i and ii – go here!!!

The Ghosts of Gunkanjima

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excerpt

 

June 18th, 2005.

As the morning sun rose above Nagasaki Bay, the Nine Star Division’s patrol boat sped toward the dead city on the horizon.

The city’s real name was Hashima, but it was known to the whole nation as Gunkanjima – Battleship Island – after the shape of the huge sea walls, resembling the squared-off stern and the long pointed bow of a warship.

For ninety years the tiny city of Gunkanjima had been a densely populated mining community, with over five thousand workers and their families burrowing out undersea tunnels and extracting the rich seams of coal. In April 1974, the mines were closed and sealed off, and the population hurriedly evacuated. The official story was that the mines had simply run out of coal.

The real reason was a closely guarded secret, kept secure in the files of the Nine Star Division.

For over thirty years the island city had stood abandoned, pummeled by high waves and typhoons, in a terminal state of neglect and disrepair.

But not forgotten.

The 200-tonne Shin-Hayabusa cut effortlessly through the waves toward the island. The hydrofoils lifted the aluminum-magnesium-alloy hull gracefully out of the water, and the Kawasaki-Maizuru four-stroke supercharged engines thrust it forward at the top speed of fifty knots. The crew aboard was an elite collection of personnel recruited from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, the National Police Department, and the Coast Guard; in short, the Nine Star Division, the secret organization charged with investigating supernatural and extra-terrestrial threats to Japan’s national security.

Sergeant Ryuji Kato waited nervously in the assembly chamber located directly underneath the control room, feeling his seat lurch up and down with the boat’s movements, hearing the nine other soldiers around him speculate in hushed voices about where they were going and why. All discussions ceased when the door opened and Captain Uchida entered the room, his face grim, and his eyes hard beneath his peaked cap. Behind him walked a grey-haired bespectacled man in a laboratory coat; this was Dr. Nanjo, the Nagasaki unit’s civilian scientific advisor.

“I apologize for the lack of notice for this launch,” the Captain began, “so we have to conduct this briefing on the way to our mission. At 09:27 this morning, we lost contact with a regular patrol crew, tasked with checking containment seals at HRA # 42/56.”

Kato closed his eyes. The Captain was only confirming what he and the other men suspected. HRA: Hostile Recovered Artifact. If their destination was Gunkanjima, there was only one reason why they were going …

“We have a suspected containment breach. Gunkanjima is now in a state of quarantine, and Central Control has declared a Code Red threat. Our mission is to locate the team, establish the level of threat, and secure the facility.”

There was a general muttering of alarm throughout the room.

“For the junior officers,” Uchida continued, “Let me establish the timeline here. The mines were closed down in 1974 and the population was quickly evacuated. That was the official version of events. The real story is that the miners accidently uncovered something underground. Something so dangerous that every human being had to be immediately taken off the island, and the entrance to the mine sealed forever. Ever since then, landing on the island has been strictly forbidden, and the NSD has undertaken daily patrols to check the integrity of the seals.”

“Let me add something,” Dr. Nanjo said. “It might sound difficult to believe that if the earth’s crust covers an area of millions of miles, the drills of the Hashima coal miners encountered HRA # 42/56 by sheer chance because it happened to be lying underneath the island. That is not the case. HRA # 42/56 is a distributed intelligence; it is a living mind, spread all through the crust like a neural net. For some reason that we do not understand, the mining at Hashima attracted its attention, and it concentrated itself on that area, seeking an entry point. We managed to prevent that entry, but lost several lives while doing so. That is why this threat has the highest security level.”

Captain Uchida stepped forward to an open laptop on the desk, and pressed several keys. “This is the last message that the patrol sent to Sasebo base.”

A male voice, distorted by interference, crackled through the room’s speakers. Uchida turned the volume all the way up so they could hear it over the sound of the boat engines.

          “We request immediate assistance. Officer Tomatsu is down, repeat, Officer Tomatsu is down, over.”

Sasebo base: “What is the extent of his injuries, over?”

          “He’s not injured, he’s … We have a situation here. We need immediate back-up, and -“

A deafening burst of static drowned the man’s voice. The harsh interference was suddenly cut off, and the man’s voice resumed – but only for one word. A question, spoken in surprise, or fear.

          “Father?”

Silence. Captain Uchida looked up from the computer and said, “There have been no more transmissions since then, and they are not responding to calls. The patrol consisted of Officers Hayama, Tomatsu, Okubo, and Koshimizu.”

Kato’s heart sank. He knew all of those men; had eaten and drank with them in the officer’s mess.

“In addition to SOP,” Uchida continued, “there are certain things you must be aware of. Reports from the initial attack in 1974 say that HRA # 42/56 attacks through mirrors, windows and any dry reflective surface made of glass. Fortunately, the windows of virtually all the buildings have been blown out and broken over the years because of storms and typhoons. However, if you enter any structure and encounter any mirrors still intact, you are to fire upon them immediately. Understood?”

The members of the NSD Search-and-Recover Unit nodded in unison.

 

 

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The men had assembled on deck, and Kato looked out over the side of the boat.

They were approaching the island. The sky was graying with a fine mist-like drizzle, but visibility was excellent. As Gunkanjima approached, it was easy to see how it got its name. The sea wall stretched around the island like a ship’s hull, with the eastern side a pointed prow. The massive grey-black slabs of concrete apartment buildings resembled conning towers, bridges and charthouses. It was only as they got closer Kato saw that the black squares along the walls were gaping holes where windows used to be. When people lived here, the huge Brutalist structures had also served as wave barriers, sheltering the island against Nagasaki Bay’s notorious high tides. The ocean-side windows were smaller, to prevent them from breaking during storms. All the glass had, of course, long gone.

Captain Uchida pointed at something low in the water near the western end of the island. “There’s the patrol boat,” he said. “It means they’re still on the island.”

“Well, it’s not likely that they swam to Nagasaki, sir,” called Nanjo from the railing. The Captain shot him an angry look.

Captain Uchida and his second-in-command Kurata were trained Fulgurkinetics. They had the ability to release electrical discharges from their bodies, or absorb electrical fields from outside without harm. As such, they were leading this team, with the Bio-PK Medics Tamura and Yasumoto along as the unit’s healers. There were five other psychics, three men and two women from the Nine Star Division’s ESP Section, but they would be confined to the boat; the island’s constant background radiation of psychic interference would immediately paralyze any sensitive who set foot on the island.

The five-person ESP unit stood lined up against the railing, watching the island approach. Next to them, his movable trolley of computer monitors and cameras sheltered beneath an overhead canopy, Dr. Nanjo sat watching data scroll rapidly down the screen of his laptop.

“There is an electro-magnetic field all across the island,” he announced. “It was not there yesterday.”

Captain Uchida turned to the ESP unit’s leader, a young uniformed woman named Kira.

“I’m picking up sensations,” she said, “but I can’t establish where they’re coming from.”

“Do you sense that the four men are still alive?” Uchida asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t say. There is life, for certain, but it’s all over the area … as if the island itself is alive.”

Uchida muttered something that Kato couldn’t hear and turned to the troopers getting ready for landfall.

“Now listen,” he announced to everyone. “We’re coming into the southern quay soon. Dr. Nanjo is your acting Comms officer. Run through your final equipment checks now. This island is Code Red; nobody gets off it without our permission.”

“Understood,” they shouted in unison.

The boat cut power as it moved alongside the southern quay. The engineers switched on the EM clamps to secure the hull to the quay, and then lowered the gangplank.

“Squad, on me,” Uchida shouted. “Move out, double time!”

Kato and the NSD officers ran across the gangplank, boots thudding on metal and wood, and spread out in defensive formation across the island’s loading zone. They carried Howa Type 89 assault rifles with flashlights, video cameras and tiny protective amulets from Tokyo’s Yasakuni Shrine attached to the barrels. They wore filter masks under their goggles and helmets, and the sleeves and cuffs of their Flecktarn camouflage uniforms were sealed with Velcro strips, to guard them against asbestos dust, mites and fleas.

Kato knew that if what the Captain said were true, however, asbestos dust would be the least of their problems.

 

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The troopers picked their way over a ground covered with loose stones of all sizes. A sea of broken concrete and shattered facades stretched away up an artificial hill overgrown with stunted, sickly trees. To their left was the Mine Complex, where colossal arches and rusted conveyer belts marked where the coal had been stored. The warehouses were empty shells without doors or windows. Warped steel girders and corroded shards of metal jutted from the skeletal infrastructure. Behind it rose the giant slab of concrete, stained and befouled by time and weather, that used to be Apartment Block 30.

“Sir!” yelled the trooper standing next to the Captain.

To their right a road led away toward the school, the hospital, and Block 65. Someone stood on the road by the trees, looking back towards the approaching soldiers. The figure was unmistakably human. One arm was raised in a curious, defensive gesture, and the face was downturned, with its eyes on the ground.

The figure didn’t speak or react as the soldiers approached.

“Nanjo, we have visual contact on Officer Tomatsu,” said Uchida. “Stay online.”

Tomatsu remained unmoving as the men arrived and circled him. It was like a manikin, Kato thought, not a human being. Nobody could stay as still as that. If he was dead, or unconscious, why was he standing up? Was he paralyzed? Could he communicate in any way at all?

Then Kato noticed what Uchida was staring at: Officer Tomatsu’s service pistol. It was halfway between his hand and the ground, and it hung in the air, with no visible means of support. It was as if something had attacked Tomatsu, and the scene had frozen in the midst of the attack, with the soldier and his gun remaining in their last position.

“Nanjo, are you getting this?” Uchida said into his mike. “I need analysis.”

He put his mike on speaker mode so all the troops could hear Nanjo’s reply. “I’m running a bioscan, Captain.”

“Is it a parasite? A mutagenetic virus?” asked Uchida. “Demonic possession?”

After a few seconds, Nanjo’s answer crackled into the still air. “I’m trying to make sense of the data … it doesn’t look good. Tomatsu seems to be right at the center of a localized standing quantum wave.”

“Plain language, Nanjo!”

“He’s standing in a vortex where time has stopped, Captain. He’s frozen between one moment and the next. It’s a field surrounding him and the small amount of physical space around him, which is why the gun has stopped on its way to the ground.”

“Is he still alive?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“How is this possible? How can time stop in one tiny place and not stop everywhere?”

A brief pause. “My expert technical opinion? I haven’t a clue, Captain.”

“Any leads on the three other patrolmen?”

“I’m handing you over to our resident psychic supervisor, Captain.” Another pause, and then Kira’s voice.

“Can you see anyone else in the area?” she said.

“Negative.”

“The three soldiers are still alive and they’re close to your position, Captain. Very close.”

Kato felt a wave of tension go through the whole unit of soldiers. Eyes moved up and around, scanning the jagged rooftops, the countless piles of rubble, the shadows deep within the gaping doorways.

“Continue scanning, all of you. Uchida out.” The Captain turned and raised his voice to address the whole unit.

“Now listen! We need to fan out and search the whole island. Furuya and Sagano, you stay here and secure the perimeter. Kurata, Yasumoto and Aikawa, you take the school and the hospital. Ishikawa, Hamano, and Kato, you check Block 65. Tamura and Misawa, with me, checking Block 30.”

He opened his jacket, and took a number of slender metal tubes from the loops attached to his belt. They were quickly distributed among the soldiers. “I want O-fuda placed at the entrance to every section that’s been checked. Go!”

 

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The soldiers fanned out, picking their way over collapsed walls and scattered bricks, and made their way through a silent wasteland ruled by dereliction and decay.

A wide avenue led from the quay up the man-made hill, past the Nikkyu apartment buildings where the day-wage laborers had lived. The buildings had fallen into total disrepair, their fronts choked and overgrown with weeds and stunted bushes. In some parts trees were actually growing out of the walls. The battered remains of a Shinto shrine could be seen on one of the rooftops, and behind it loomed the shipping beacon, a tower placed there after the evacuation, after the main electrical grid had been permanently switched off.

They passed a number of smaller apartments and a crumbling, covered staircase that led out of sight. Kato looked at the schematic of the island Uchida had sent to his mini-tab.

“See that? It’s what the residents called the Stairway to Hell,” Kato said. “That must have cheered them up.”

“Don’t you mean Stairway to Heaven?” said Ishikawa.

“Nope,” said Kato, putting away the small device and walking towards the base of the steps.

“Why’d they call it that?” asked Ishikawa.

“Because their legs hurt like hell when they got to the top,” said Kato.

Hamano smiled. “Seems like you know a lot about Gunkanjima.”

Kato shrugged. “I’m interested in old wrecks.”

“Must be why you applied to Captain Uchida’s unit.”

Kato gave him a quizzical look. “You know he’s probably listening to us through the headsets, don’t you? Now come on.”

Kato’s squad trudged up the slope toward Block 65, the towering concrete monstrosity that housed most of the regular workers. The entire front facade was now a grid of massive concrete struts and gaping square holes where the living quarters were open to the elements. A massive stairway zigzagged in a distinctive X-shape up the western side of the apartment block.

“We’ll take that and go in on the fifth floor,” said Kato.

“Why don’t we take the stairs inside?” asked Ishikawa.

“None of these buildings are safe. Use the stairs inside, and your foot could go through the steps, or the ceiling could fall on your head.”

Kato noticed Hamano and Ishikawa glance at each other. He started to climb the steps, looking up and keeping his rifle pointed forward, turning his head in sweeps to take in all directions. The air was still, humid and oppressive, and the island was almost silent. Even the sound of the waves and the cries of the seagulls were muted. His mask itched, and he tried not to imagine all the disturbed dust motes floating through the air.

“Man, that’s just wrong,” muttered Ishikawa behind him. “They should have called it Stairway to Heaven. I used to be in a covers band at college, man. Zeppelin … Bon Jovi … Nirvana … all the foreign classics.”

“You’re chattering because you’re nervous,” Kato said without turning round. “Relax, Ishikawa. I feel it too. Concentrate and keep looking all around you.”

The younger soldier lapsed into a guilty silence.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Kato examined the corroded lock to the outside door. One well-placed kick sent it crashing inwards with a hollow metallic boom and an explosion of dust.

 

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The soldiers advanced cautiously through corridors that stank of mildew and damp. They switched on the flashlights attached to the barrels of the guns, and stood at the doorway to each apartment in turn. They swept their torches over rotting tatami mats and dust-covered Formica tables. They probed the silent shadows behind sewing machines, rice cookers and empty refrigerators all stamped with the Mitsubishi Mining Company logo.

At the end of the corridor Kato announced “Clear” into his headset, and took an O-fuda cylinder from his belt. He cracked it open and applied the self-adhesive paper with its elegant calligraphy to the door that used to be the fire exit.

They retraced their steps and went up to the next floor, rifles at the ready, beams of light stabbing into the dark. Your back can’t take the place of your belly, Kato told himself, remembering the proverb his school baseball coach was fond of saying, whenever courage was called for.

The silence of the tower block was broken by the sound of distant gunfire. The three men froze, staring at each other.

Within seconds, Uchida’s voice crackled in their headsets. “All units, report contact!”

“Yasumoto reporting, sir,” came another voice. “We found an intact mirror at the back of the hospital.”

“Roger that. Kato?”

“Sir?” Kato instinctively stood to attention.

“Watch out for the television set. There’s meant to be an intact one up there. If you see it, fire at will.”

“Understood.”

The voice clicked off, and the three soldiers lifted their rifles, ready to continue searching.

On the next floor, after passing four more open doors into derelict rooms and finding grimy dial-telephones and empty shochu bottles, Kato saw something that made him stop in his tracks. He advanced slowly into the apartment, and crouched down to gaze at the object on the floor that had caught his eye.

It was an NSD issue Flecktarn jacket. A clear, glutinous slime covered one arm. Kato lifted it with the barrel of the rifle to see the nametag on the left side.

It read KOSHIMIZU.

“They’ve been in this building,” Kato said, straightening up.

“Sir, do you think there’s something they didn’t tell us at the briefing?” asked Hamano quietly.

“I think we know what we need to know,” said Kato. “Which is – keep your eyes open and don’t do anything stupid.”

Kato pressed ‘send’ on his mike and reported the find to the Captain.

“Nanjo,” he heard Uchida say. “Anything to report?”

“I’m still getting readings of that electro-magnetic field all over the island, Captain. The computer’s trying to identify it. Officer Kato, apart from the jacket, have you made any contact with any of the three patrol members?”

“Negative, sir. There’s nobody in the building except us.”

“According to Kira and the ESP unit, there is. Proceed with caution. Tell us as soon as you have contact.”

“You’ll be the first ones to know about it,” muttered Ishikawa.

They went up one more floor, cautiously treading on the cracked stone steps of the internal fire exit.

Kato stepped into the corridor. The gaping hole of window at the far end was partly obscured by something blocking the sunlight. With a sudden shock, Kato realized what the shape was.

The outline of a man’s head and upper body.

He brought up his rifle but the shape ducked away to the left, into another corridor, moving so fast it was hard to register any movement at all. “Wait!” Kato shouted.

He started running down the corridor, the other two behind him.

“Is it them?” Hamano asked.

“Yes, it’s one of them. I saw the Kevlar vest.”

Kato paused at the corner and then swung round, rifle first. It was empty, but disturbed dust swirled in the air, and heavy boots thumped on stairs somewhere close by. He ran in the direction of the sounds.

“We’ve got movement,” Kato said into his headset.

He came to the bottom of a decaying flight of wooden stairs leading up to the next floor. The shape rushed across the doorway at the top, too fast to see it clearly.

Ishikawa jerked his rifle up, but Kato put an arm out to stop him. “Wait! Hold your fire!”

The Captain’s voice crackled over the headset. “All units, converge on Kato.”

Rifle held steady, Kato began to climb the stairs, which creaked and sagged dangerously under his weight. The wood felt soft and spongy under his boots, and the sensation repulsed him. Sweat broke out on his brow. He was trying furiously not to blink.

He reached the top of the stairs, braced himself, and leaped through the doorway into a crouching position. He was in a large communal waiting area, with a moldering carpet covered with filth and smashed furniture. It was empty.

“Where did he go?” asked Ishikawa behind him.

“Or where did it go?” said Hamano.

Kato jerked around at a sudden movement to his left. The wall on that side was now a gaping hole, open to the elements, and something had flashed past it, heading downward. Something large.

Kato knew he wasn’t mistaken when he heard the thump of impact.

The three men ran to the edge of the floor and Kato slowly leaned out over the edge, holding on to the side of the wall for balance. Sure enough, there was a human figure spread-eagled on the concrete below.

“Captain?” he said into his headset.

“Report, Kato.”

“Someone has either jumped or fallen from the roof, sir. Looks like one of the patrol.”

“Get down to the ground floor and I’ll meet you there.”

Kato turned to relay the orders, but saw there was only one person behind him; Ishikawa. “Where’s Hamano?” he asked.

Hamano was further back in the waiting area. Kato found him standing in the center, staring at something on the begrimed shelves on the wall opposite.

“What are you looking at?” Kato asked.

“That,” said Hamano quietly.

Kato followed his gaze, and saw something that reminded him of his own childhood. One of the old self-righting Poron-chan dolls, that wobbled and swayed but never fell over, was still on the shelf.

“The eyes of dolls,” said Hamano quietly. “Have you noticed how they follow you around?”

“Huh?”

“The other day, I saw a news clip of a plane crash in South America. The camera had a close-up of a kid’s doll found among the wreckage. It was lying there looking blackened and chipped but it still had its head and arms and everything, and I thought to myself, If that’s still intact, why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff the doll’s made out of?”

Kato frowned. “What’s the matter with you, Hamano?”

He turned and gave Kato a nervous grin. “Sorry, sir. It’s this place. It’s giving me weird thoughts.”

“Yeah, I can believe that. But you’ve got to stay focused, especially when the Captain gets here and starts asking questions.”

They took the external staircase down to ground level, and the other troops were already running up when they reached the bottom.

The body lay with arms and legs splayed at awkward, twisted angles. Kato realized with a shock that there was no blood, and hoped for a second that this was a fake, a dummy that had somehow been thrown out as some kind of decoy.

Uchida nodded, and Yasumoto stretched a hand over the body, closing his eyes. “No signs of life,” he said after a few seconds.

Uchida crouched down, pushed the man’s shoulder, turning the body over. Kato caught his breath when he saw the face but fought to keep silent. He realized that the other men were also trying to keep calm, and show no emotion.

The man who had fallen from the roof had no face. From the hairline to the jaw was a pale expanse of blank pink flesh – no eyes, no nose, no mouth, and no scars to show that any kind of mutilation had occurred.

“Nopperaboh,” someone behind Kato muttered.

to be continued …

this is the second prologue to book 3 of the “sword, Mirror, jewel” trilogy!

the first prologue  can be found here 

more information on the trilogy can be found here

 

London 1987: Fast Falls The Eventide

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EXCERPT

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide,

The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide …

The back doors of the five-ton truck swung outward, and the ramp was hastily lowered. Senior Explosives Officer Christopher Owen eased forward and tilted his chassis down to crawl into the night.

The camera he held flicked from convention spotlight scanner, to Star-Tron magnification scope, then to infra-red. For ninety seconds Owen observed the somber, cooling buildings that passed his line of sight as he orientated himself. Police officers ran past him from left to right in polychromatic blurs.

In the truck parked a few yards away from Owen’s carrier, Explosives Officer Don Hickman found a flat surface for his Amstrad keyboard and donned a spindly speaker-headset, never once taking his eyes off the monitor screen. Snapping back from thermal imaging to conventional mode, he watched the floodlight cast a powerful ring of light across the Adelaide Street tarmac.

“Lima Four Zero, over.” Captain Benjamin Craig thumbed the switch on the R/T to hear the reply. “Roger. We are on site, and sending in Mark Nine now. Any word from the Home Secretary yet?”

When he finished his short, terse dialogue, Craig let the young corporal in charge of the R/T take over, and stood up to address the rest of the four-man unit. “Right, we’ve got the area sealed off. Doughty, man the R/T and keep in touch with the evacuee units. Bilton, get out there and help the others with the generator.” As the uniformed officer quickly scrambled from the mobile headquarters, Craig crossed to where Hickman sat. “How’s our man?”

“System check runs A-OK, sir. He’s online now.”

“Right.” Craig swept off his cap and ran a hand over his damp forehead. His long face, features emphasised by a severely trimmed blond mustache, looked pale and sickly in the harsh light. “Get him onto ground zero, Don.”

Hickman’s fingers tapped with unnecessary force against the keys. On the monitor screen, the road slid away from view toward the left …

Out on Adelaide Street, Owen swung slowly toward the left until the portico and entrance to the Church of St Jude’s lay square in his field of vision. The image trembled as he propelled himself forward. The stone of the portico’s column gleamed under the harsh scrutiny of the approaching lamp. The image rolled and then swayed up and down as Owen’s tractor treads bit into the crumbling steps that led up to the church. He reached the top and leveled off, pushing himself forward through the unlocked doors into the vestry. Past the North Aisle door, his camera registered the shadow stripes cast by the rows of pews, and to his left, the entrance to the old tower gaped vacantly.

If Owen were still human, he would have felt cold.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me …

Christopher Owen, seven years of age, prepared for his first confession.

The booth in which he tried not to fidget held the same coolness the school chapel seemed to harbor. No matter how hot the summer’s day, the church held that same chill ambience. Owen tugged down the bottoms of his short trousers to stop splinters piercing his legs.

“Forgive me, father,” he said, “for I have sinned.”

Looking up, briefly, Owen saw the priest in silhouette through the grill. Head bent, eyes shut, as if his body was overburdened with other people’s sin. The still figure muttered something Owen couldn’t catch. Nervously, the boy nodded in agreement, but to what, he didn’t know.

Had he really sinned? His mother was upset; she kept saying that she didn’t want him to go on to the practice grounds, she didn’t want him to get hurt. But what about Dad? He was a soldier, so he did that sort of thing every day of his life.

The broken treasures scattered across the grounds of Netheravon Camp were the spoils of imaginary wars to a clever, curious child; cartridges, spent shells, discarded tin boxes … did the cordite smell any worse than the smells sticking to the other boys’ hands?

Owen stumbled through a litany of anything that could get him into trouble at home. It wasn’t difficult; Father Reid, tall with grey stubbly hair, his breath always smelling like over-ripe fruit, seemed to find fault in almost anything a child was capable of doing. Owen’s mother would always hide the battered deck of cards before the priest came to call, even thought they’d only been playing ‘snap’.

The priest dismissed the boy with a cursory absolution and a request for purity in thought and body. The whole thing took less than ten minutes. Owen, standing outside the booth in the church that dwarfed his small body, toyed with many thoughts. He thought of going home and mass-producing homemade grenades. Kicking his brother. Never going back to boarding school. He thought of doing them all, and then after ten minutes in the Confessional booth he’d still be forgiven.

Of course, he didn’t do any of them.

ira-mural

Swift to its close ebbs life’s little day,

Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away …

The floor plan of the Church of St Jude’s crackled like kitchen paper as Craig spread it out beside the keyboards. Leaning down on it with both hands, he and Hickman gazed from the map to the view of the church on the monitor.

Owen moved slowly down the aisle, picking out his way by feedback sensors. In the spotlight’s wash the pews stood erect and lumpen, holding their massed congregation of shadows. At the periphery of vision hung the organ pipes, drained of color, silent and leaden. Looking from the monitor to the plan of the church, Craig traced the path Owen took into the nave, the path leading straight ahead to the chancel and, off to the right, the small side chapel. The crypt, he noted, was crammed with the boiler and heating equipment, and almost inaccessible.

“Sir,” Hickman said. He pointed to something pale daubed on the chapel wall. Craig increased the magnification; two words in Latin had been messily painted onto the brick.

                                       QUIS SEPARABIT

“The UDA,” Hickman whispered. “It’s for the peace talks …”

“Never mind that now,” Craig snapped. “Scan for booby traps. Start with anything electromagnetic or sonic.”

“Owen is signaling to begin the sweep, sir,” the sergeant hastily reported.

“Right. If there’s anything there, we need to spot it right now.”

Owen switched to infra-red. The two explosives officers followed the monitor’s view, as it swung on its axis.

The quiet was broken by a messenger at the back doors, saluting and asking for the CO. Craig didn’t bother to reply but took the small sealed envelope. He tore open the flap and scanned the slip of paper it contained. “Shit,” he muttered.

“Switching to UV,” Hickman announced. Moments passed. “Ultrasonics.” The church was still clean. No booby traps, but still no primary explosive device.

“I know it’s in there somewhere.” Craig glanced at the slip of paper then folded it into his back pocket. “I know it’s there. Try X-Ray.” Hickman’s fingers flickered across the keyboard once more.

Craig never had time to wonder why Owen fired the X-Ray camera at the altar first.

Change and decay in all around I see,

O thou who changest not, abide with me …

Christopher Owen, twenty-eight years of age, gunned his jeep through the Catholic ghetto of Clonard.

The years of training at Aldershot, the Bramley Scool of Ammunition, and service abroad, had taken a childhood obsession and turned it into a career in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. As to be expected, he found himself in Belfast, based at Girdwood Park Barracks. It was from there that his vehicle sped as he repeatedly called over the R/T for more information on the device just located. Kashmir St, Springfield Rd, Cawnpore St, the rebuilt Bombay St – he read off the street names of West Belfast like the beads on a well-worn rosary.

A flash of light near the corner of the eye, like summer lightning. A low grinding rumble felt through the car’s bodywork. Other peripheral sounds followed the main explosion; the breaking of glass, the collapsing of timber, the climbing arc of a scream. A pall of smoke and dust began to rise from the rim of Clonard.

“Christ!” The Lance-Corporal seated next to Owen pointed needlessly in the direction of the blast. “That was close.”

Rounding a corner, Owen saw the bulk of a warehouse almost obscured by smoke and dust, a scarlet tongue of flame beneath its low roof. Screaming, and the chiming crunch of glass, came from all around. The jeep screeched to a halt and the soldiers bundled out.

“Here, sir!” The shout came from one of a four-man patrol, who struggled toward Owen through the smoke, retching, covered in dust and plaster. He pointed behind him, to what Owen thought at first were a pair of ripped-up combat fatigues, torn from someone’s legs and flung on the sidewalk. Then he saw the blood, and the gleam of shattered bone.

Choking back the smoke, Owen and his unit cleared the rubble from around the fallen soldier. Mercifully, the legs were still attached to the body; but Owen soon saw that the severity of the man’s wounds had been hidden by the dust that covered him. The soldier’s battered head lolled, and blood began to froth from the top of his skull.

“It’s too late, sir,” the Lance-Corporal gasped. “He’s a goner.”

Ignoring him, Owen radioed for a medic. On his knees beside the unconscious man, the Lance-Corporal gingerly looked for a way to remove the man’s backpack, without aggravating his injuries. The civvies were gathering, standing beyond the smoke. Owen could feel their stares of contempt, could hear their muttered jeers.

Looking up from the body, Owen turned his face to the gathering crowd, the dour stares, the tension, the barely concealed excitement. One figure in particular pushed through them, picking his way toward the rubble. The man was tall, in a dark jacket and trousers, grey hair blown back by the wind into an unruly crest. Owen stood up. “Let me through,” the man called.

“Absolutely not. Please get back with the others,” Owen snapped.

“I’m a priest!” the newcomer yelled. “Let me tend to that man.”

Before Owen could answer, a ferocious snarling made him turn round. A large dog, released by one of the civvies, bounded up to them and lunged toward the dying soldier’s body. Alarmed, the other patrol members stood defensively in front of their fallen comrade.

“Get away from the dog!”

As they stepped away, Owen swung his Browning rifle up, the stock slapping into his arm. Through the drifting smoke, he sighted into the eyes of the animal. His gun cracked and spat brief, bright fire. The animal jerked aside, its hide ripped open by the bullets.

Dazed, Owen stood tall in the sudden silence, his gun still aimed at the dying animal. He realized that the priest had dropped to his knees beside the dying soldier. Head bent, his hand making quick gestures above the man’s face, the priest spoke quickly but confidently in Latin.

The last rites, thought Owen. He’s giving him the last rites.

Owen caught the Lance-Corporal’s gaze from the corner of his eye, and motioned him to be still. The soldiers didn’t move until the military ambulance screeched into the road, a Land Rover behind it. The civvies had melted into the graffiti-stained background; whoever owned the dog had disappeared. The priest got slowly to his feet, looked cannily at Owen, and turned to walk back into the bloodstained maze of Clonard.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,

But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord …

TO READ THE COMPLETE ‘E-SHORT’ STORY, GO HERE!

TO READ VOLUME ONE OF ‘TALES FROM BEYOND TOMORROW’, GO HERE!

margaret-thatcher-1992-ma-020

The Yokai Hunters

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dream-school

This story is a prequel to the the events in the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” urban fantasy trilogy. It was first published as “Staring at the Haiku” in TOMO: FRIENDSHIP THROUGH FICTION – AN ANTHOLOGY OF JAPAN TEEN STORIES, from Stone Bridge Press, a book dedicated to raising funds and awareness  to help communities damaged by the 3/11 Tohoku disaster. 

The story goes like this:

The young trainee teacher was patrolling the long, empty high school corridors, making sure all students have gone home. His footsteps echoed down the halls, and beyond the windows it was already dark; the hot, steamy twilight of a Japanese July. He was feeling nervous; summer is the time for ghost stories in Japan, and all kinds of tales were going through his head.

Then he heard the crying.

It was coming from the end of the corridor. He walked through pools of shadow to the classroom, opened the door, stepped inside. He flicked the switch; the lights weren’t working. Strange. But in the dark he could make out a girl, in school uniform, sitting at one of the desks. She sat turned away from him, her head hanging down, long black hair over her face, and sobbing like her heart was broken.

“Every student should have gone home,” he said, trying to keep his voice firm.

The girl didn’t turn around. She kept on sobbing, her hair masking her face, and the teacher was feeling really creeped out by now.

“Are you all right? What are you doing here on your own?”

He walked slowly into the classroom. He reached out a hand and gently tapped the girl on the shoulder.

As quick as a striking snake, the girl turned toward him, her hands snatching at the teacher’s arm with razor-sharp nails. She flicked back her long hair, and her face –

Her face was –

Her face, was like –

 

Well, what do you think it was like? Welcome to –

 

www.yokaihunters.com

 

– which is the most amazing blog ever on Japanese ghosts, written by yours truly Tomoe Kanzaki! In English! I’m seventeen years old, and a student in the Global Studies class for returnees, here at Chiyoda High. Now I’ll let the other ghostbusting ghostbloggers in the Club introduce themselves – scroll down for the introductions!

Hi, I’m Shunsuke Wakita. My birthday’s January 27th and my blood type is B. I like PE, and I’m in the baseball club at school. My family lived in Ohio for three years and Frankfurt for two years. My ambition is to get into a good University – or become an F1 racer. Yoroshiku Onegai Shimasu.

         Hi, I’m Xin Yao Liu! I’m an exchange student in Japan for a year, and I’m from Chongqing in southwest China. My strong point is I’m a quick reader – I can finish a novel in less than a day. My ambition? I’m interested in science, so I’d like to be a pharmacist.

         I’m Hideaki Sakamoto. I like all sports, but I’m in the Kendo Club. I like animals, pasta, Japanese curry-rice, going for karaoke parties, and hanging out in Shibuya. In the future I’d like to travel around the world and then get into male modeling. Or maybe the other way around.

         I’m Reiko Bergman. I’m half-Japanese, or a Ha-fu, as they say here. My father’s American and my mother’s Japanese, and we lived in New York for eight years. My other nickname is Rekijo, which means ‘History Girl’ – but I’m not a geek! I just like stories from long ago, and I’ve got a good memory.

 

And like I said, I’m Tomoe, and this is my blog. I could tell you more about myself, but I won’t, because we’ve got ghost stories to deal with!!

 

Assignment 1:

The Calligraphy Lesson

 

 

The last two weeks of February. The time of year for the final exams, the graduation ceremony, and then the Spring Break, when every teenager within a hundred kilometers of the capital tries to get into Tokyo Disneyland at the same time. It’s also the season for Girl’s Day, on March 3rd, when families put up a special display of Japanese style dolls in their houses, and have hamaguri clam soup with sweet sake to celebrate. For some reason Boy’s Day on May 5th is a national holiday but on Girl’s Day we still have to go to school. Boys get all the lucky breaks, huh?

So there we were, with the finals done and grades given out, looking forward to a break with no lessons or homework, when – bang! The craziest thing happened! The junior high school girls started talking about a miracle in the Calligraphy Room!

It was an urban legend – and you know what urban legends are like once they get started. Here in Japan, there are some that everyone knows; the girl crying alone in the dark (see above), the masked woman who hangs around the school gates, Little Hanako the haunter of the toilet – but the one in our school was something totally new. This spread around all the classes and soon everybody was totally OMG. Except the teachers, of course. The teachers were more concerned with the Principal’s toy – a set of antique dolls that he’d put on display in the third floor lobby for Girl’s Day. Go figure.

So what kind of urban legend was it? The juniors said that if you put a blank sheet of calligraphy paper on the wall before you went home, the next morning you’d find the first Kanji character of your future boyfriend’s name written on it! So if you saw a character pronounced ‘MA’ – like, maybe

                    摩

 

– then your boyfriend could be Masahiro, or Masatoshi, or Masataka! And you know what juniors are like – they all believed it!

This is what we discussed at the very first Yokai Hunters Club meeting held in the Chiyoda Station Starbuck’s, after school. I was the chairman, and also the note-taker, and I explained in great detail the nature of Assignment # 1.

“You are the freakiest person I ever met,” Reiko said, after I’d finished.

“Thank you!”

“It wasn’t a compliment,” she added, shaking her head.

That’s just how she is.

“Urban legends are like mega-creepy,” said Xin Yao. “And I don’t need to find out my boyfriend’s name like this!”

“Because you’ve already got a boyfriend?” Hideaki muttered.

“Come on, guys,” I said, in my Madam Chairman voice. “Something amazing is going on, right? This is like those stranger-than-fiction TV specials, like those stories of statues that weep blood and drink milk.”

“Or statues that drink blood and weep milk,” said Hideaki, digging Shunsuke in the ribs.

“Shut up!” Xin Yao yelled, and I thanked her and quickly brought her into the discussion, as our resident calligraphy expert. I asked her if there was anything special about the paper used in the calligraphy room. I gave her a few sheets I’d secretly ‘borrowed’ today and she held them up to the light.

“It looks like ordinary paper and ink to me,” she said. “Smells like it, too.”

“Oh, come on,” said Hideaki, leaning back in his chair. “It’s all a joke, right? Someone steals the key, gets into the Calligraphy Room after school, puts something on the wall and laughs at the juniors the next day.”

“That would be the obvious answer,” I said, “and this is my proposal for ruling it out. Hideaki, your mom and dad gave you a little Minoru robot with a stereo webcam inside it, right?”

“Yeah. It was a free sample from one of my dad’s clients.”

“How about,” I said, trying not to grin too much, “if we put it in the calligraphy room to monitor what happens, and we do an all-night vigil from our bedrooms?”

“Keep it online all night?” Shunsuke cried. “How much is that going to cost?”

“Got a flat monthly rate from J-Com,” Hideaki said with a shrug.

“There is no way I’m staying awake all night for this,” said Reiko hotly. “I’m up until twelve every night doing homework already!”

“Doesn’t have to be all night,” I kept on. “We keep a guard rota. We take one hour each, and when the hour’s up, we call the next person.”

“Spying on the school?” Hideaki nodded slowly. “Yeah, okay! Why not.”

“You’d better put the webcam somewhere the teacher won’t find it,” I said.

“I’ll make up some errand and go in early in the morning and take the camera out.” Said Shunsuke.

“I’ll come in with you and distract the teacher so she doesn’t notice,” said Xin Yao.

“I’ll stand in the background and whistle the Mission: Impossible theme,” said Hideaki.

The Yokai Hunter’s first investigation had begun!!!

 

The next morning, after a disturbed sleep broken by an hour of staring at a darkened computer monitor, I met the other bloggers in the homeroom, when all the other kids were at the lockers or eating early morning snacks.

“You didn’t see anything?

“It was too dark,” whined Xin Yao. “I could see the paper’s faint outline, but nothing else.”

There were slow nods all round.

“Was there anything written on it when you came in?” I asked Shunsuke.

“Yeah, the juniors were all over it. But it wasn’t kanji. It was the Hiragana character for mo.”

“So somebody’s going to have a boyfriend called … Motoki?” Hideaki asked.

In math, we learned that two negatives make a positive – or something like that; and as I listened to my classmates gripe over the sleep they lost, I suddenly realized – with a big shock of happiness – the negatives they brought to the table added up, in fact, to one big positive. Which is not mathematically sound, but it was lucky for us.

“Guys! Nobody came into the Calligraphy Room, right? So however this is happening – it’s not a junior or senior sneaking in to write something as a joke! We’ve got a genuine case of paranormal activity on our hands!”

Blank looks turned into shifty sidelong glances as everyone tried not to look scared.

“So what do we do now?” asked Shunsuke.

“We find out what happens when there’s no paper on the wall,” I said.

So that night, after the latest crowd of giggling juniors had put up a blank sheet of paper in the ‘special’ place on the wall, Xin Yao and I went in and took it down again.

 

The next morning the homeroom teacher told us of a special announcement from the principal, broadcast over the PA to every classroom. Uh oh, we thought, he’s found out about the urban legend and he’s going to warn us about impressionable young minds and not believing gossip or whatever.

Nope. Instead of that, he spent the whole ten minutes of homeroom time telling us not to touch the antique dolls. Apparently someone had moved them or been playing with them after school yesterday.

Men and dolls. Brrrrr…

 

“Tomoe, Tomoe, you’ve gotta see this!” Xin Yao said from the door to the Calligraphy Room. She had the keys, so the five of us locked ourselves in, keeping the juniors out.

There was a new kanji character. Written on the wall in the place where the paper would have been.

                    読

 

We got up close and peered at it. It was the verb ‘to read’. It looked kind of gross; it hadn’t been drawn with a brush, it was made of dark spots and stains that were almost … organic.

“What is that stuff?”

“Not ink,” said Xin Yao. She leaned forward, and recoiled with a face like a lemon. “It smells like … mold.”

“We’ve gotta clean this off,” said Shunsuke.

“But this is evidence!” I said.

“Evidence for who?” said Hideaki. “We’ve seen it, that’s enough. I’ll take a picture with my smartphone. If the teacher sees it, she’ll go crazy.”

         We had no idea how crazy things were going to get!

 

I went through the rest of the day in a trance, unable to concentrate on lessons, until Xin Yao came up to me after school and said breathlessly, “I think I’ve got something.”

“What?”

“The kanji. Sen-Botsu-Tai-Shou-Ni and the rest. We thought the characters meant boy’s names, like Tsuyoshi or Taishi or Shoutaro – but they don’t. If you put them together, the whole thing spells a haiku!”

She handed me the paper. From top to bottom, and right to left, she’d brushed hasty but elegant kanji characters. In English, the poem said:

Of our captain lost

         Banners speak of fate; Omens read

         In death we meet again.

“And this means?”

“It’s a poem from the late Sengoku civil war period,” she said, “composed by one of the Shogun Tokugawa’s samurai generals. The kanji on the wall this morning was yo, right? That means the next one tomorrow should be shin, beginning the poem’s final line.”

“The Kanji for death.” My head was spinning, and I felt my skin break out in goosebumps. “Xin Yao – you’re a genius! Now, if we could only figure out how and why this is turning up on our wall …”

800px-japaneseroom

Every answer we got was throwing up more questions. To tell the truth, after school that day I felt like leaving it alone, before things got any weirder – but like my dad always says, “Don’t give up.”

He also said, “Tomoe, do what you’re best at.” And as it turns out, that means investigating funky paranormal stuff. Who knew?

Speaking of the Old Guys, that night I got home and Mom was yakking on the phone to her club cronies. Ballroom dancing – she’s off every Sunday with her friends in tacky costumes, but she says that’s how she keeps her figure. While we waited for Dad to get home for dinner I went up to my room, put the headphones on and started blasting out Spacecandle so I could concentrate.

Spacecandle. Only the best Japanese rock band ever. They helped me get through revising for all my exams so far, so they’d help me with this. I lay on the bed, headphones on, staring at the haiku.

Hmmmm. If I ever form a rock band, which is my ambition, I’m going to call the first album Staring at the Haiku.

Just before Dad called “Tadaima!” as he slipped his shoes off in the parlor, the answer hit me.

“We’ve been looking at it the wrong way,” I told them the next day, when we all gathered in the calligraphy room. “It’s not the kanji themselves.”

“So what is it?”

“It’s the wall.”

Shunsuke made a face. “There’s something special about the wall of the calligraphy room?”

“Yeah, there is,” I told him with pride. “It faces the Kimon. You know what the Kimon is?”

“Yeah, sure.” Shunsuke threw a sidelong glance at Hideaki. “Not really.”

I pointed to the big window running along the wall of the room. “The Kimon – the Demon Gate. The old superstition that says spirits enter and exit the world of the living from the northeast; that’s why there are so many temples and shrines in northeast Tokyo.”

“A line of defense,” muttered Reiko, nodding.

“The haiku is a message,” said Xin Yao. “It’s trying to tell us something.”

“A message from who?”

We all moved to the window. Central Tokyo stretched away from us, towers of steel and glass shining in the sharp winter light, and not far away, the tranquil green of the Imperial Palace gardens.

“The flow of spirit energy,” I said, “is entering the building from this direction, so it’s passing that way.” I turned around, and pointed to the door.

“Over there?” Hideaki said. “There’s only the staircase.”

“And the windows.”

“And a janitor’s storeroom on the landing. You think the janitor’s doing it?”

Reiko opened the door.

“And the dolls,” we all said at the same time.

 

Dolls. And not just any dolls.

Usually, the Girl’s Day dolls were little figures wearing traditional Japanese costumes. A medium-size display had one Emperor, one Empress, three ladies in waiting, three male attendants and five court musicians. But ours were different. There were eleven male retainers wearing samurai armor from the Sengoku Civil War Period, and one female doll dressed in kimono as the General’s wife – but the General’s doll was conspicuously missing. According to the plaque on the wall, the dolls had been in school storage for many years, but were brought out especially for this year, the 400th anniversary of the Siege of the Kodaira Garrison in western Japan.

“I might have guessed it was dolls,” Xin Yao said when we were in Starbucks again. “Dolls are so freaky.”

Hideaki looked up from his café latte. “Why are you so scared of them?”

“There was a doll once. It freaked me out.” She glared angrily back at him. “End of story, okay?”

“I’m getting really confused now,” said Shunsuke. “This started off as an urban legend, but we’re now investigating a bunch of spooky dolls?”

I turned to Reiko. Or more correctly, I held up my smartphone. This was her night for exam prep at cram school, but she was sending text messages every ten minutes.

“The Kodaira garrison was about to be overrun by the forces of the invading Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi,” I said, reading from Reiko’s text. “General Hasegawa and his eleven men chose to stay behind and engage the enemy, giving their lord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, time to regroup. The night before their last battle, Hasegawa composed his suicide poem. The next day, every last man was cut down in combat as the garrison burned around them.”

We all sat quietly around the table for a while, just taking it all in.

“But there are only eleven dolls,” said Shunsuke eventually. “Where’s the leader? Where’s the General Hasegawa doll?”

I held up the phone again. “This is the clincher, guys. There was a doll in the likeness of General Hasegawa, but it was badly damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and laid to rest in Kosenji Shrine near Roppongi. There’s a special part of the grounds where broken toys and dolls are laid to rest.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Hideaki.

“The Shinto religion says everything has a soul,” Xin Yao mused. “Even dolls.”

“So these dolls have been in storage for decades, until the Principal puts them on display for the anniversary, ” said Hideaki.

“Somehow, it awakens their spirits, and they become … aware,” said Xin Yao.

“They sense the final thoughts of their dying General, from across Tokyo,” said Shunsuke.

“And across the centuries,” I added. “Thoughts that take form on the wall of our school where the dolls are displayed.”

“And they’re going to do what?” said Hideaki, almost as if he was angry. “Follow their General into the great Doll Afterlife?”

“Whatever they’re going to do,” said Xin Yao, “they’ll probably do it three nights from now. That’s when the haiku ends. And…” she looked at me. “Oh, no. No, Tomoe! We’re not going to!”

But of course, we were.

 

If you want to secretly stay behind in school after the premises have been locked up, it’s not impossible. All you have to do is find a nice dark place and be absolutely quiet. Which is maybe impossible for Hideaki, but you know what I mean. The security guards are retired salarymen who spend most of the night in their cabin with their TV and boxed dinners, and there are security cameras at the school entrances, but not inside the corridors. In Chiyoda High, students have individual keys to their lockers, but there’s no lock itself on the door to the Locker Room on the second floor. So that’s where we hid.

We stayed there until six. It gets dark really early in Japan, so when we opened the door and crept out, the corridors were in darkness, with white security lights shining out onto the tennis ground and the trees. Hideaki and Shunsuke took up the lead, with the wooden bokken swords borrowed from the Kendo Club. I was behind, and Reiko and Xin Yao took up the rear (holding hands – hah!) We tiptoed down the corridor and got to the stairwell leading to the calligraphy room, and then – that’s where we saw them.

They weren’t dolls.

Not anymore.

Eleven tall shadows stood above us, the dim light reflecting from iron and leather masks, battered chest plates, leather gloves covered in nameless stains. The two horns of a crescent moon insignia gleamed upon their helmets, and their swords hung at their sides.

Someone gave a muffled scream; it could have been Reiko or Xin Yao. Or maybe me. Shunsuke and Hideaki huddled together, their wooden swords held up in front of them. Even in semi-darkness, I could tell their faces had gone white.

With shaking hands, I lifted my smartphone, switched on the video camera, and held it up in front of my face like a talisman.

The eleven figures moved down the stairs like smoke. Their outlines were misted, almost transparent. The corridor filled with a whispering, like echoes in a cave, and the overpowering smell of forest earth and decaying leaves.

We followed them, because we couldn’t stop ourselves. They melted into the glass of the windows and reappeared on the other side, in the courtyard. They marched silently into the trees. We ran to the window and pressed our faces up to the glass, and I saw the last man in the line turn back. He lifted up his head, his great dark mask with hideously blank eyeholes in the battle-scarred metal – and he bowed to us, arms straight by his side, in formal Japanese style.

Then he melted into the Tokyo night like he’d never been there at all.

 

The next day the school was pretty quiet.

There wasn’t much to show the police were there; one patrol car parked discreetly at the back entrance. The Principal was trying to keep the lid on the fact that his entire display of dolls had disappeared – but there were no signs of a break-in.

Our post-mission debriefing at Starbucks. I looked around the café; tables of junior girls giggling about boys and zit cream and pop idols, student types with their books and their headphones screwed into their ears to shut themselves away, the young salarymen with their laptops and schedules taking a break between sales appointments … none of them knew. None of them knew what we knew.

That there was another world beyond this one.

And my team, my club, my nakama – I looked around the table at them, as they looked soberly back at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said eventually.

Shunsuke did a double-take. “Why?”

I shrugged. “Well, for one thing, the cell phone video didn’t come out. We can’t put that on the blog because it’s too dark to see anything. And I feel kind of bad for getting you into this.”

“We voted on staying,” said Xin Yao.

“Yeah, but they were all …” I made a mask gesture with my hands over my face.

“I think They Were All Dead is what she’s trying to say,” put in Hideaki.

“Thanks.” I took a deep breath. “Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe we should just forget ghosts and concentrate on the living.”

“I don’t think so,” said Reiko.

We all looked at her.

“Now, we know some legends are not just legends, right? There are things that people never talk about but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I think we should find out how many of these old stories are based on some kind of truth. I think we should do it; it’s a responsibility.”

“A responsibility to a world that can’t be seen,” said Xin Yao, with a funny look in her eyes.

I raised my frappuccino in salute. “That was really well put, Reiko. We’ve got a mission!”

Clink!

That would have been the noise our toast made if we had glasses instead of paper cups. But there it was, our new brotherhood and our first mission, sealed with coffee and juice.

“What the heck,” snorted Hideaki. “This is more fun than the Kendo club.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE TOMO ANTHOLOGY AND TOHOKU’S RECOVERY OVER THE YEARS, GO HERE:

tomoanthology.blogspot.com  

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE “SWORD, MIRROR, JEWEL TRILOGY” … GO HERE:

Sword, Mirror, Jewel 

 

japanese_classroom

“Zero Sum Game” by Cody L. Martin

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Out September 2016!

 

The resurrection of one world will mean the destruction of another.

 

The homeworld of the alien Noigel has been annihilated. Their existence as a species is on a razor’s edge. But they have found a replacement: Earth. But it must be changed to suit their needs. If they succeed, all of humanity will perish.

 

When an alien secret agent is killed, his technology and mission are given to Hina Takamachi. The Japanese schoolgirl discovers the alien’s battle suit gives her incredible powers, just like the anime heroines she admired as a kid. The battle suit’s artificial intelligence, whom Hina names Voice, informs her that only she can save the world from the Noigel.

 

With Voice training and guiding her, Hina must overcome her own self-doubts and find the courage to stop the Noigel’s plan.

 

For one world to win, the other must lose …

 

Cody L. Martin is an American writer living in Japan. An avid sci-fi fan, he wrote his first screenplay in high school and has branched out into sci-fi and action novels. He has written articles about Star Trek, science fiction fandom, comic book movies, and living in Japan for various magazines and websites. He is the author of “Adventure Hunters: Similitude.” He lives in Yamaguchi with his beautiful wife, Yoko. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys watching movies, reading, and listening to Morning Musume, Berryz Koubou, C-ute, and other J-pop singers.

 

Ebook available for pre-order here!

 

paperback available for pre-order here! 

 

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