Tuesday, March 10, 2009

For New Readers:

This archive is meant to be read from the beginning. When you have finished reading the first post, click "Newer Post" at the bottom to move on to the next one. I recommend you bookmark the last page you read so you can pick up where you leave off, as there are over two hundred posts in the archive.

Believe what you read or do not. The choice is yours.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Mary: Curtain Call


Dazed and in shock, much of what happened next was translated and related back to me in the following days.

After I rubbed my eyes and my vision returned, I looked around and saw every single Smiler in the room slumped over dead, eyes open. Emperor Komei stood in front of Hollis and the Red Lady, a pair of samurai holding their arms behind their backs, their supernatural powers now gone. His voice flat and low, he said, "With only one arm and one leg, I was wondering how Sato-san would spend his remaining years. With the two of you alive, I have my answer." The Emperor couldn't resist giving a small, malicious smile. "For you who have been so quick to deal out death to my people, I make this terrible promise: you shall live to die of old age." He nodded down to Sato, who writhed in pain from his shattered kneecap, but still managed to grin sadistically up at Hollis, who was led away, his face aghast.

Then the Emperor leaned down and placed a hand under Fukimitsu's head, the young samurai pale and coughing up blood from the stab wound inflicted by the Red Lady's dagger. At the time I was hardly unaffected by his plight, but now just thinking about his last words as they were translated to me still makes me cry as I type it:

"My Emperor... my lone regret in this life is that this samurai was cursed with such a poor master. A samurai gains honor through hardship and struggle. He proves his mettle by serving a lord who chooses unwisely- who treats him shabbily and orders him to perform dishonorable acts. Would that I have been blessed to be a vassal to another lord, but instead Fate has cheated me of the chance to reveal the full depths of my character... by forcing me to serve the finest man I have ever known."

Fukimitsu reached up then with a bloody hand to touch his master's face even as his eyes went dark and his body became slack in the Emperor's hands. With all the supreme efforts of will I had seen displayed in our struggle, never had I witnessed the resolve it took for the Emperor of Japan not to weep over the death of his descendant, Fukimitsu.

From the stage then, we could hear a groan as Yoshida woke up, apparently having been stunned into unconsciousness by the Magician's disappearance. I'm sure there are some of you reading this who hunger for vengeance against him for what he did, for his betrayal of his country and his friends, but at the time all I felt was pity. What the Magician offered was everything he could have ever wanted, and I had seen enough death and destruction already. I said, "Please, Emperor, spare his life. I know he has done wrong, but..." Unfortunately, as Yoshida and I realized at the same moment, there was no one left alive to translate for us, and the Emperor would hardly believe Yoshida.

Yoshida shook his head sadly as he looked down at me, the massive, muscle-bound Ota lumbering toward him inexorably. "I am sorry, Stroud. You know that, don't you?" He looked up as Ota towered over him, muttering despondently, "What a waste. What a waste." I turned away then, shielding my eyes. I heard a bone snap, Yoshida gave a sharp yelp and then his body hit the floor, dead.

Ota turned and picked up the chest of bingo charms on the stage, upending the box and pouring out the goo that they had been transformed into, all of them destroyed. We would find out later that the whales- every single one of them on Earth- were dead, their bloated corpses washing up on Japanese shores for months.

There were so many questions still unanswered. How had the Magician gotten the whales to serve him? Had he somehow created them all as a species? What part did the Red Lady's rabbit's foot play in the spell (despite months spent as the Emperor's "guest" in his dungeons, she never spoke a single word)? Who was the Magician really? Was he Geoffrey Gagworth, the first magician to perform the "rabbit out of a hat" trick, or was that just an identity he adopted? Was he even human at all?

We do not know and we will probably never know. This isn't some story where every little loose end is tied into a pretty knot. It's real life, and frankly we may be better off not knowing.

From the edge of the stage I heard a groan, and I dashed over to find Taras, still barely alive, his gray hair hanging down in his face and blood flowing freely from his nose, mouth and ears. Despite being in obvious pain, he smiled at me as I leaned down next to him. "I'm dying." He sounded like he just won the lottery. "And this time I shall stay dead, thank God." A puzzled look crossed his face. "How did you know?"

"That you would do it? The more I read your post, the more I suspected you'd betray the Magician if you thought it would actually work. Using the stage magic- the slight of hand Yoshida taught me- it was easy enough to get the hypo into your pocket, knowing that everyone would be busy watching my other hand carve into your face." I pulled his handkerchief from his coat and attempted to dry the blood, but it just kept coming.

He coughed, spattering my shirt-front with specks of red. "He has no blood... will the Calicivirus kill him? Will it infect whatever new world they were transported to? And the Howlands..."

I shrugged and shook my head, not wanting to think too much about it. "I didn't know what it would do, exactly. I think Doctor Yoshida, Kisho's father, had partially formulated it just for this purpose, so that it would affect him. Regardless, when Josh and I were about to destroy it down in Texas we had second thoughts. All that work he'd put in perfecting the formula... and in the end I guess it came down to the fact that the Doctor was fighting against the Magician and so were we, so we kept it around, buying one extra day from Pierce with a bogus story about not being able to get to FedEx in time. You have any idea how hard it is to find a book written in Japanese to shred in a Texas bookstore? Once the Emperor joined us we told him we still had the formula, and he agreed to manufacture it, though on the off-chance the Magician was still reading the archive we decided to keep it secret."

He chuckled, grimacing in pain and holding his stomach. After a moment, he mumbled, "I hear something."

Nodding and humoring him, I replied, "All right, Taras. It's all right now."

The old man shook his head peevishly. "I know what dying's like, woman. I've done it a hundred times. I said I hear something. From the stage."

Rising, I looked toward the dais, now hearing it as well. It sounded like someone sniffling. I wandered over slowly, peered around the floor and finally found the Magician's cape at the rear of the stage. Underneath it was a trembling lump, and I knelt down next to it and pulled the cape back, revealing a small, blond-haired boy, his face smudged, tear-stained and terrified. His blue eyes focused on me, and he spoke in what sounded like Russian.

From behind me Taras croaked, "It's the orphan. From the alley. The one the Magician made disappear."

Suddenly the boy started babbling, the words coming out in a rush. Taras translated, "He wants to know where he is. He says he has been in darkness for so very long. He asks, 'was it a dream? A nightmare? Am I dreaming now?' He asks where is his little sister. He asks again where he is."

The boy and I stared at each other for a long, long moment, and then I reached out and pulled him to me, hugging him and stroking his blond hair. He began to sob, crying into my chest with great heaving breaths. I began to cry as well, my tears falling onto the top of his head as I held him tight. "Tell him..." I tried to find the words, tried to think of a way to explain what had happened so that he could possibly understand. "Tell him..." I started again, not knowing that Taras was already dead, his face affixed with a beatific smile.

I squeezed the little boy even tighter as he clung to me with all the strength in his young body. "Tell him he's home.

"He's home."


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mary: Leporidae Rex

It was like watching someone throw tinsel on the Mona Lisa. It was like serving Dom Perignon with Ritz crackers and squeeze cheese. The incredibly simple, elegant, profound rock garden and sacred shrine had been "decorated" with black velvet curtains adorned with tacky, tin foil moons and stars. A jade statue of the Buddha in the center of the room had been sprayed with rainbow glitter. From the rafters on the roof of the shrine, someone had hung colored streamers, including an incongruous banner that proclaimed, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" in big, red, block letters.

Smilers arranged themselves like ushers along the walls, and metal folding chairs had been put up in front of a raised dais that would be used as the stage. The curtains on either side of the dais provided an off-stage area that presumably led to other, hidden, adjoining rooms.

The samurai were directed to sit in the chairs, with the Emperor and his top men: Fukimitsu, Ota and Sato seated in places of honor up front on the left side of the center aisle. There were more chairs than there were samurai left alive, so some of the Smilers filled in the gaps to guarantee a full house.

On the right side of the aisle sat the Magician's lieutenants: Hollis, the veiled woman dressed in gray and the man I had assumed to be Taras. Hollis craned his neck to look at Yoshida and I when we entered, waving us over genially to the front of the shrine to two empty seats behind him. He was giddy.

"We saved these two for you, my dear. Oh, you will not believe this show, I guarantee it. Welcome, welcome." He rose as we approached, guiding us into our chairs. His touch on my hand as he helped me sit made my stomach churn, but I was determined to keep my composure, at least for the moment.

"And who are your friends, Mr. Hollis?" I asked, gesturing discreetly at the lady and Taras.

He shook his head in mock-disgrace. "My stars, where are my manners? Miss Mary Stroud, this is the Red Lady of Babil. Forgive the Lady, Miss Stroud, if she does not indulge in pleasantries. Like my master, she uses words sparingly." His tone grew sour as he added, "And this is Taras."

Taras brushed his long, wavy, silver hair from his face and turned to look at me with gray, doleful eyes. "Dobry vechar. Good evening."

Hollis began, "The show should begin in-"

Just then I stood and leaped up and over the row of chairs, landing on Taras and knocking him sideways onto the wooden plank floor. With my right hand I clawed Taras' face as hard as I could, carving four long, bloody slashes into his left cheek from his eye to the bottom of his jaw.

He didn't cry out, and he didn't fight- he merely slowly took hold of my wrists and lifted me up to my feet, his expression puzzled. With heavily accented English he asked, "And what have I done to deserve such special treatment, miss?"

As he held me with an iron grip that was still somehow gentle I leaned close to him, my face only an inch from his and hissed, "Because of all of them, I think you know better." Then I spit right in his face, tore my hands out of his grasp and retook my seat with head held high.

The samurai all tried to suppress satisfied grins as they watched me sit, with Fukimitsu even daring to give me a low, surreptitious "thumbs up". Even Hollis chuckled, clearly loving the exchange.

Meanwhile, Taras simply pulled a stained handkerchief from the pocket of his gray long coat and dabbed at the blood and spittle, sitting back down without another word.

Just then, a Smiler dressed as the captain of a cruise ship strode out onto the stage. Hollis rose, explaining to those nearby, "The Magician sends for his Master of Ceremonies. Excuse me." He moved to take the stage, but Taras stood up as well.

"I prefer to emcee." He spared a look back at me, his expression bitter and defiant.

Hollis was indignant. "I always emcee. Sit down, you old Ukrainian goat!"

Taras sneered, "I managed to kill one of them. You did not. The honor is mine by right."

"Tate? You're counting Ricky god damned Tate as one of them? He hardly can be said to count." The two men stared at each other for a long moment, glaring at each other balefully until finally Hollis begrudgingly sat down cursing under his breath. Taras nodded to himself, then paused to glower over Hollis' shoulder at me, and for a moment I thought he might spit on me in return, but in the end he just turned and took the stage, striding backstage accompanied by the Smiler Captain.

We only had to wait for a couple of minutes (during which time Yoshida leaned over to me- soaked in a cold sweat from the exchange with Taras- and muttered, "You are insane") before Taras appeared from the wings and marched to the center of the stage. He cleared his throat and all was silent, with the Smilers on the aisles reaching up and turning the lanterns down to a low flame.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Tonight you will see the greatest magic show of all time. The Great Gagasti will perform two magic tricks for your amusement, and the skill with which he weaves his spells will dazzle and amaze you.

"And now without further ado, I give you, the Magician!"

Just then, not so coincidentally, the castle shook with an enormous, booming thunderclap from the storm overhead, and the Magician/the Great Gagasti/Jeff Werth strode onto the stage, his dark eyes beaming. He wore the top hat and cape that Josh and I had until recently possessed, and he gave a deep bow to the audience which was responded to with synchronized clapping from the Smilers, enthusiastic applause from Hollis and seething resentment from everyone else.

The woman dressed in black robes and a burqa walked onstage next, and after a moment reached up and tore off the robes, revealing a second outfit underneath of a sequined bodysuit, fishnet stockings and high, stiletto heels. As my hands went to my face in shock, Taras continued, "And introducing the Magician's special assistant for the evening, the lovely Miss Cynthia!"

It was Mrs. Howland, her expression somehow dignified despite the gaudy, degrading costume. She struck a theatrical, sexy pose while keeping her head high, her lip curling with disdain. Unable to contain myself I cried out, "Mrs. Howland! What happened to you? Can you hear me?"

Her sharp eyes darted out to the crowd, and her face brightened for just a moment when she recognized me before her jaw tightened. She spoke with a severity and sobriety that was completely at odds with the spectacle she was a part of. "Mary! Stay back. I have no control whatsoever over my body, only my head. He moves me about like a marionette while I can merely observe."

My eyes welled up as I searched for words, but she cut me short. "No tears! We face this with dignity and composure. If the world is to end- if we are to die- then we will do so nobly. We will show him that despite all his little tricks and illusions, there is not nearly enough dark sorcery in the world to break our indomitable will."

Nodding slowly, my teeth clenched to stop myself from crying, I sat back down. To my left I could see Fukimitsu translating everything for Emperor Komei, who nodded sternly in approval.

Taras continued, "For his first trick, the Magician will saw a man in half." I thought of Josh and my heart raced, imagining all the horrible things they might do to him, when Mrs. Howland stepped off stage and wheeled out a four foot long box, about the size of a coffin for a child. Then from inside his cape, with a flourish the Magician pulled out a simple carpenter's saw and brought it down slowly on the box, tapping it. Then he slid the saw off stage right, and Mrs. Howland propped up the box so that we were seeing it from the top, where we could look directly into it as she opened the lid, revealing a man with both of his arms and legs freshly amputated and with iron, claw-like spikes driven into his eye-sockets.

It was Crayton.

I gasped as his mouth began to move, his lips quivering in anguish. "I- I humbly beg forgiveness of my master... I sent a slave to kill the old woman without his permission. I thought I knew better- I thought we should kill our enemies, oh, God he promised no pain. Oh, God..." He trailed off for a moment, and all was deathly silent in the shrine, with even Hollis holding his breath, riveted and I believe just a little horrified.

"I will listen to my master from now on... he knows best- please, please, please kill me. Please, someone kill me! Please! Please!" His agonized wails grew louder until the Magician slowly closed the lid of the box and gestured for Mrs. Howland to wheel it back offstage. Once again the Smilers performed their odd, synchronized applause, while Hollis could manage only a single, concerned clap.

Taras, also appearing just a touch taken aback from the display, gathered himself and said, "And now for the moment you've all been waiting for. The Magician will perform his second and final act of magic in this world: the rabbit out of a hat trick!"

Mrs. Howland exited stage right only to reappear a moment later pushing a large, flat wooden board about the size of a door, and standing upright strapped to it with leather cords, his chest bare, was Josh. He stared straight ahead with the same resolute expression as Cynthia, purposely avoiding my gaze lest he lose his composure. As we had from the beginning, we took our cues from Cynthia, knowing that even if our deaths were inevitable and out of our control, how we died was not.

She trotted offstage again, returning pushing an empty table on wheels and carrying the chest of bingo charms from Hollis Crossroads. With a twirl of his hand, the Magician removed his top hat and placed it upon the table. He reached into the hat, opened up the hidden bottom and removed the globe key chain and the rolled up newspaper and carelessly tossed them to the floor at the rear of the stage. Next, he bent down, rummaged through the box of bingo charms and selected one, dropping it into the hat. Then he walked to the edge of the dais to Hollis, who rose from his chair and pulled from his inside jacket pocket another, brand-new, still shrink-wrapped globe key chain and a fresh sheet of newspaper, one I thought I could recognize as the Kyoto Shimbun News, the local paper.

With practiced moves, the Magician rolled up the front page, then took it and the new globe key chain and placed them in the bottom of the hat, closing it up again. Then he stepped once again to the edge of the stage, his eyes focused on the Red Lady of Babil. She sat still for a long moment, then finally rose and pulled from her dress a small, brass-bound wooden box, holding it out to the Magician. The Red Lady's eyes burned over her veil like twin suns, her hatred for him palpable.

Even Yoshida, not normally the most astute observer of human interaction, noticed it. He leaned over and whispered to me, "She despises him so! I thought she was one of his people?"

"She does hate him... but only a woman who has loved in the past could hate with that depth of passion. I can only imagine how she must have felt about him... once." I glanced over to see Yoshida blinking confusedly behind his thick glasses and shook my head, knowing that he could never understand.

The Magician slowly opened the tiny box, and pulled from within a pure white rabbit's foot, with no chain or clasp on the end. As Yoshida leaned in again to ask another question, Hollis turned around in his seat and whispered to us. "The left hind foot of a rabbit captured in a cemetery on a rainy Friday the 13th, the foot cut off while the rabbit still lived." He added vindictively, "You see, this is the sort of information the emcee should be providing. I have a favorite quote during this part from R.E. Shay: 'Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit'." He chuckled. "Love that line. God in heaven, but that Ukrainian is doing piss poor work, if you'll pardon my French."

We returned our attention to the stage, where the Magician placed the rabbit's foot carefully into the top hat, then withdrew his old rabbit-skinning knife from his cape. My breath caught as he held it up to the light in front of Josh, it's edge glinting menacingly, and then without hesitation he brought it down to Josh's chest and began to cut him, a trickle of blood working it's way down his stomach.

I put my hands over my mouth to stifle a scream, but after a moment it became apparent that the Magician wasn't killing him, only making shallow, surface cuts. Josh's face was contorted in a fierce grimace, but he never cried out; never gave the Magician the satisfaction.

When he had finished, the Magician cupped his left hand under Josh's chest and gathered some of the blood, then took it and poured it into the hat, pausing afterward to remove a blindingly white handkerchief from his coat pocket and dab the excess blood off of Josh's wound. Once it was clean I could see that the incision was directly over his heart in the shape of the symbol for infinity.

After the Magician had replaced the knife within his cape, Taras gestured into the audience, his face at its most morose as he intoned, "And now, the Magician asks for a native volunteer from the audience. Without a volunteer, his trick can not be performed. Everlasting life will be yours. You will- should you obey the Magician- feel no pain ever again. Armies of slaves will be at your beck and call, and you shall become the new Emperor of Japan." He scanned the crowd, saw no one move a muscle and his expression brightened with just the tiniest hint of hope. "I call again for a volunteer."

Without moving my head, I peered sidelong at Emperor Komei and his retainers, Fukimitsu, Ota and Sato, wondering which, if any, of the three would rise. As I stared, I caught the Emperor stealing the briefest of looks at Fukimitsu and knew in that moment that he was his most likely suspect. Curious to know who he thought would crack, I turned back to my right to ask Yoshida's opinion.

He was standing.

"Oh, God, Kisho. Don't... please don't." He said nothing. He merely stood with his head bowed, his expression a mask of shame. "For God's sake, haven't you seen how this ends? Take a look around!"

He spoke in a choked whisper, "You do not understand. I need more time. All the things I can accomplish... and the women, I can't-" He swallowed to hold back tears. "I have always been the weak, the bullied... it's everything I need-" A deep breath, and still he couldn't bring himself to look at me. "I am sorry. I truly am." He turned and shuffled slowly up the dais, looking less like a volunteer than a death row prisoner walking to the gas chamber. Yoshida spared a glance at Josh strapped to the board, but Josh spoke not a word- only gazed upon him with a combination of betrayal and pity that I'm sure was far worse than anything he could have said. His head sinking lower into his chest, Yoshida slunk to a position near the Magician while the Emperor and his men glared at him with helpless rage.

After Yoshida was in position, Taras stepped to the edge of the stage and began to wearily recite a speech he clearly had heard far too many times, saying:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Magician will now perform the greatest trick you will ever be graced to see. He will bring this entire world through... to a new land. This world will surround that one, and over the next one hundred plus years he will infect it, conquer it and absorb it until the trick can be performed again ad infinitum. When we wake tomorrow morning, it will once again be July 21st, 1831, and the only difference in the world will be a new kingdom to overthrow-" he paused to gesture back to Yoshida, adding, "And a new Emperor of what was once Japan."

Realization dawned on Mrs. Howland's face. "He will draw us through to a new... dimension? The entire world, like a rabbit out of a hat, with him as the true king. The rabbit king. Leporidae Rex." She shook her head in mounting dread and awe, while at the same time her body continued to pose histrionically.

Taras paused to nod, muttering under his breath, "Same sh*t, different day- or close enough."

Holding up a hand for silence, the Magician stepped over directly behind the hat on the table as Cynthia positioned herself on his left. Josh stood strapped to the board behind him, and on his right Yoshida trembled, rubbed his hands together nervously and stared down at the stage. Taras was farther to the Magician's right toward the front of the stage.

All was quiet as the Magician closed his eyes in concentration, and suddenly from very far away we could hear the beginnings of a hum. The whales had entirely surrounded the island of Japan, and they sang their song over and over, louder and louder. Now the hum amped up to where we could feel it vibrating, and the curtains over the stage began to jiggle very slightly.

A high-pitched whine kicked in then, as it had back on the Dial Up when the whales attacked, and my teeth felt like they were rattling in their sockets. I remembered back to that incident, recollecting that Josh was unaffected by the whales and their song. Because he has the Magician's blood in his veins. That's why they left him alone. Mystery solved, too little, too late, I thought to myself bitterly as the whine elevated in intensity, with even some of the stoic samurai holding their heads and clenching their jaws.

The Magician held his hands over the top hat, and from within the hat came a faint, yellow glow that lighted his face from underneath. As the hum and whine from the whales grew to a deafening, knee-buckling intensity, the glow from the hat became brighter and brighter, until it was like a spotlight shining upward. His tiny smile widened into a demonic grin, and he ever so slowly began reaching into the hat with his right hand, his fingers twitching in anticipation.

I rose then, desperately attempting to keep my composure against the whalesong. Taking a deep breath, I called out, "You are not the only one here who has a trick to play, Magician!" The Great Gagasti spared only one, quick, annoyed glance up at me before immediately returning his attention to the hat. Hollis turned in his chair and hissed at me to sit down and shut up, but I remained standing.

"You read our archive over Mrs. Howland's shoulder. You know back when Agent Pierce forced us to destroy the Rabbit/Human Calicivirus, and we said we did?" Now it was my turn to smile.

"We lied."

Just then, Taras lunged at the Magician, reached into his long coat and pulled from it a thick, metal, hypodermic needle. With one, swift motion he reared back and stabbed it into the Magician's neck, pressing the plunger all the way down and injecting a viscous green liquid into him.

The Magician screamed in agony, the sound of his voice so loud that the very rafters of the castle shook and shuddered. He screamed and clawed at his neck, pausing only to lash out with the back of his hand at Taras, sending him flying to the edge of the stage where he smashed into the wall and shattered one of the room's thick, wooden support beams. He crumpled to a heap on the ground holding his belly, blood seeping from his nose and mouth.

Suddenly everything seemed to happen at once. Cynthia stared down at her body and held her hand in front of her face, realizing that she could once more finally control her limbs. Hollis and the Red Lady of Babil rose from their seats in shock and began to head for the Magician while the closest samurai, Fukimitsu and Sato jumped out of their chairs and leapt between the two of them and the stage.

In the next moment, Mrs. Howland clawed at the Magician's cape and pulled out his rabbit-skinning knife, immediately turning then and hacking at the restraints keeping Josh held fast. "Joshua!" she yelled trying to be heard over the hellish song of the whales and the anguished, enraged screams of the Magician. "He will infect us all with the virus! The entire world!" He nodded to her just as she finished cutting him out, and they reached out to grab the Magician together.

Meanwhile, as Hollis sprinted forward to assist his master, one-armed Sato snarled and attempted a kick up at his face. Hollis caught his foot with one hand and brought his other elbow down on Sato's knee, shattering his leg with a sickening crack. On his right, the Red Lady also stepped toward the stage, only to find her way blocked by Fukimitsu. He jabbed at her with a fast punch to the face, the blow spattering her veil with blood from the inside where her lip split, but in the next instant she pulled a small, sharp, black knife from her dress and drove it into Fukimitsu's stomach, the brave samurai staggering back and falling to the floor with a grunt.

Despite this, however, the Emperor's men had bought Cynthia and Josh the time they needed. The two stood on either side of the Magician, gave each other one last look and together lifted the hat off of the table and down onto the Magician's head as he bellowed in wrath and pain. In a moment, the yellow glow from the hat seemed to spread, the three of them bathed in it up on stage while Yoshida cowered off to the side.

I reached out to Josh and cried, "Josh, stop! It's... I think it's going to take you away with him! Let go!"

He turned to look back in my direction, but blinded by the light from the hat he couldn't see me. "Can't! We've got to take him away... anywhere but here, or the infection will spread." He and Cynthia redoubled their efforts, forcing the hat down on the Magician's head. Now the light surrounding the three was blinding, and even Hollis and the Red Lady put hands up to shield their eyes.

"Josh! Wait, Josh!" I called his name over and over again, tears streaming down my face. "Don't leave me! Please!"

Peering through my fingers I could just barely make out a sad smile on his face. The hum and vibration was out of control now, and I could hear an enormous crash somewhere behind me as entire sections of the castle collapsed. "Mary! If you can hear me..." I could just barely make out his form now, the entire stage ablaze with the light from the top hat. Somehow, despite the chaos around us, I heard his voice come through calm and clear. "Mary, they'll never understand. Never. The greatest magic I have ever seen is that of all the millions of women who were born and walked the Earth... of all of them... there has never been a woman loved as much as I love y-"

The light died then; the sound of the whales and the Magician's screams ended abruptly, and at center stage the Magician, Mrs. Howland and Josh had disappeared.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mary: Decrypted

February 26th, 2009:

In this, the third to last post in this archive, I have decided to decrypt the entire compilation of posts so that the world will know everything that occurred up to and including that fateful night in Kyoto, Japan. There is no point in keeping what transpired secret any longer. I will leave Mrs. Howland's sidebar on the right for sentimental reasons.

I have done my best to adapt what we've written and place it in blog format, using blogger.com as a template. I will link it to various blog compilation sites but do little to actually promote it. I have a feeling it will find its way into the proper hands all on its own.

A note on language: Some of what was said in this post was originally in Japanese. It was either translated by Fukimitsu or Yoshida at the time, or conveyed to me afterward.

Continuing where Emperor Komei left off:

As the rain began to pour down on the castle in thick sheets, the Magician strode through the piles of wriggling bodies and down some steps into the bowels of the castle followed by a parade of Smilers carrying antique steamer trunks. Meanwhile, Hollis meandered over to Emperor Komei, who was pinned but still struggling under no less than six Smilers.

Hollis cleared his throat and said politely, "If you will pardon me, your majesty, my master would like to extend you every courtesy before the show. He offers you time to care for your men medically as well as the opportunity to bathe and change into fresh clothes. I understand that officially surrendering is anathema to you, but would it not be more comfortable to view the magic show from chairs instead of where you are presently?"

Emperor Komei scowled, his eyes burning with rage, and with a supreme effort he freed his right hand, grasped one of the Smilers by the face and squeezed, its head exploding in a shower of skull and brains. Without a word, three more Smilers piled on, immobilizing him once more.

Nodding patiently, Hollis bent down next to the nearest samurai held helplessly next to the Emperor. With one hand he carefully reached down and pried the soldier's jaws open, then held his other hand an inch over his face. In the next moment, giant, wriggling centipedes poured out from inside his shirt-sleeve and clawed their way into the poor man's mouth, his neck bulging hideously as they crawled down his throat. The samurai twitched and struggled, slowly turned purple, his eyes wide with pain and horror, and then was still.

Hollis turned and smiled at the Emperor. After a long moment, finally, Emperor Komei nodded.

All of the Smilers rose then, releasing all of us, and we scrambled unsteadily to our feet. Hollis said, "You will be escorted to the baths. Medical supplies will be provided, as will dinner. The show begins at midnight."

Josh, rubbing his shoulder from where a Smiler had laid hard upon him, growled, "How? How the hell did he get in here? There was no blood! We searched everyone, no centipedes got in... so how?"

"It can't hurt to tell you now, Mr. Howland." Hollis stepped gingerly over the bloated, centipede-stuffed corpse and over to Josh, carefully taking the Magician's knife from his hand. "The 'rabbit out of a hat' trick. You know when it was first performed?"

"1831. Of course."

Hollis nodded, his smile widening in anticipation. "And you know where?"

Growing impatient, Josh snapped, "England. Get to it, would you? Wouldn't want to miss the 'show', now would we?"

If anything, Hollis slowed down, stepping even closer, his eyes dancing with sadistic mirth. "And where in England, precisely? Do you know?"

Josh shook his head. "No... probably some place with a high rabbit population, I suppose. Someplace relatively rural..." Slowly, realization dawned on his face. "Oh, no. Oh, God... Worcester?"

Hollis' yellow smile seemed to almost split his face in half. Josh continued, dazed, "My... my family on my mother's side is from Worcester. They built their fortune in the glove industry there..."

"Rabbit fur gloves, to be precise." Hollis hissed. Josh put his hands to his head, stunned, and I put my arm around him, holding him tight. Hollis went on, reveling in the moment. "You are not only descended from Leopold, you are of my master's line as well."

Sinking to his knees, still holding his head, Josh moaned. "His blood. His blood runs through my veins." With dawning realization, he gazed up at Hollis. "You weren't trying to kill me. Like Crayton that night on Wardang Island, you were driving me. You hounded me, pushed me to Hitoshirezu-jo. It was all to bring me here and lull Emperor Komei into trusting me so that he would invite me into the sacred castle willingly."

Hollis knelt as well, putting his face only inches from Josh's. "Your blood is the Magician's blood. That iron will of yours and your mother's? That's from him. Your blood... your very soul... he owns them, boy." He rose then and straightened his red-stained tie. "And tonight he's going to collect."

Hours later we soaked in the spacious steam-filled baths of the castle, the water in the tubs so volcanically hot that Josh and I had to submerge ourselves a half-inch at a time so our bodies would adjust. While everyone was naked and I was the only woman, I wasn't given a second glance, first because apparently in their culture it wasn't uncommon for men and women to bathe together, and second because everyone was too exhausted and defeated to be able to muster up the energy to leer.

We spoke little, spending our time dressing wounds, administering medicine and resting. After a couple of hours we were told that dinner was served, and the thirty or so of us limped off to a large dining area decorated with priceless Japanese antiques and artwork. We ate sparingly, the only conversation of note taking place between Yoshida and Josh, who was attempting to raise his own spirits by talking:

JOSH: Maybe that's why Japan is so crazy. The outside world that invaded is infecting the place, warping the people's minds, and they can't handle it.

YOSHIDA: Japan is not crazy. It only appears that way to a gaijin.

JOSH: You sell soiled panties out of vending machines. You drink curry, cucumber and eel-flavored colas. Your game shows violate the Geneva Convention. Seemingly every one of your cartoons has at least once scene where a schoolgirl gets violated by a tentacle.

I stand by my statement. With all due respect, you people are f*cking crazy.

YOSHIDA: (pause) You may have a point.

MARY: Amazing. Even at the end of the world, you two still find the time to talk about tentacle rape.

We ate as comfortably as possible while being surrounded and stared at by a mob of elderly people with demented grins on their faces, dried blood on their hands and red-spattered "#1 Grandma!" shirts on. The time passed too quickly, and soon it was almost midnight.

Hollis entered the dining hall, his gore-soaked white suit having been replaced with a pristine duplicate. "Attention, if you please! The magic show is about to begin! Please make your way to the sacred shrine in the rear of the castle!"

With a reluctant nod from Emperor Komei, the men shuffled off down the corridor. Josh, Yoshida and I were the last ones to go, and Hollis put out a hand to bar us at the dining hall door. "Mr. Howland, your great-great-great-great grandfather politely requests your assistance for the show, if you would be so kind to accompany me backstage."

I could see in Josh's face that he considered refusing, but he quickly did the math and saw that resistance at this point was useless. He turned to me with a wan smile and kissed me gently on the lips and the forehead. "I wish the Emperor could have married us before... before this."

Gazing into his eyes, I tried to think of something to say, finding nothing. The two of us held each other for a long while, kissed again, and with a smile and a tear he and Hollis walked off down the corridor in the opposite direction, disappearing around the corner.

With a nudge from a paunchy, Hispanic, smiling ship's cook, Yoshida and I made our way to the shrine.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tenno Heika Komei: The Battle Of Hitoshirezu-jo, Part II

At noon, the enemy arrived. Sunshine still ruled the day, though darker clouds had edged ever closer, the afternoon comfortably cool. It stood to reason that the weather would be perfect for battle, as the bingo charms granted the Magician (as I understood it) some degree of prognostication.

The enemy forces crested the forested hill directly in front of the castle, a small valley standing between their grassy hill and my forces outside Hitoshirezu-jo. While a right-thinking tactician would at this juncture politely mention that my small army would have the greater advantage utilizing the castle's walls as a defensive position, the very point of our defense was to keep the Magician out of the structure entirely. I would use the castle as a fallback position only, for late last year I had received a letter that read thusly:

To the great and powerful Emperor Komei of Japan,

Forgive the brevity of this note, but I have not much time. I am preparing to write a letter to my descendant, and I have not much doubt that once I do so my old master will sense my betrayal and take vengeance upon me from afar.

This I know, and mark me well: should the Magician set a single foot inside Hitoshirezu-jo, you will be powerless to stop him from performing his trick, thus bringing the world as you know it to an end. You must keep him outside of the castle walls at all costs.

He does have one hurdle, however, and that is that he must somehow place a portion of his blood inside the castle for him to be able to enter. Be aware as well that his body no longer contains blood of its own, so he cannot merely open a vein on your doorstep. He might have an old vial, or use other means to smuggle it inside, such as (and this is my own devious mind at work) painting blood onto Hollis' centipedes and having them run up the walls and into the windows. Or perhaps he will tempt one of your men into hiding a vial on his person. Search all of your people. There will always be a traitor, as I well know to my ultimate shame.

Best of luck to you. End it, once and for all, I beg you.

Your fellow sovereign,

Leopold George Christian Frederick, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony, King of the Belgians

With this missive in mind, I had the walls of the castle covered in grease so that none of the foul insects could scurry up its sides, and though I was disgusted by the ordering of the mistrustful act, I had had all of my troops' clothing and armor inspected for blood, discovering none.

My foe and his men gathered over the next hour, his grinning, elderly, yet superhumanly strong forces arranging themselves in a line on the ridge. We would do battle on the small plain in front of the castle, and as both he and I knew that there was no element of surprise to be had, we assembled and positioned our fighters at our leisure.

His lieutenants were the last to appear, and from King Leopold's earlier writings I recognized a good many of the personages. First to appear was the American, Hollis, a man I despised almost as much as the Magician himself, as he had bestowed the secret of nuclear fire to our enemies and brought Nippon to its knees. He was dressed in a white, three-piece suit and casually held a Confederate cavalry saber at his side.

Next could be seen a tall man, black as coal, dressed in only a loincloth and lion's mane headdress. He carried a pair of spears and a shield, and roaming about his feet were four mangy, giggling, snarling hyenas. The man gazed upon my assembled army with an arrogant sneer. From my readings, I concluded that this was Nhlakanipho Mabuza.

Following him was an old woman of middle-eastern descent. She was wrapped in gray cloth, her face thinly veiled, though even from my far position, through my telescope I could see that once she had been a specimen of incomparable beauty. She peered over her nose at the battlefield with what seemed an odd combination of boredom and disdain. I guessed that this might be who Leopold referred to as the Red Lady of Babil, but I could not be certain.

The last of the Magician's Lieutanants limped up the hill, peering up at the castle with gray, melancholy eyes as a rangy, tired-looking wolf slumped up next to him and gazed disinterestedly at the army assembled in front of it. In the man's hand was a Russian shashka (a hilt-less saber) held so loosely and carelessly that it actually dragged at the ground at his feet. His gray hair was long and ragged and the Soviet longcoat he wore identified him to me as Taras the Mutineer.

Finally the Magician himself appeared, strolling up the hill in a full tuxedo, his dark eyes staring up at the castle, the hint of a smile dancing at the edge of his lips. By his side was a woman dressed all in a funereal, black, burqa-like garment. I wondered if perhaps this was the Red Lady instead, but could afford no time to dwell upon the matter further.

From his far vantage point, the Magician picked my person out from the crowd, and gave a theatrical bow in my direction which I did not see fit to return. Then, with a gesture, he commanded his troops to advance.

At my side, sadistic Sato snarled uncontrollably, almost mad with the exertion of restraining himself on the brink of battle. Further toward the line I could see my archers, with Hara serenely stringing his bow and testing its pull as calmly as if it were another day on the practice range.

At the front and center of the line stood Ota, his block-like form stoically poised for battle. Fukimitsu sat atop his horse with the other cavalry on our right flank, his usual whimsical smile replaced with a more proper look of determination and focus.

In the rear stood the reserves and the gaijin, with him gripping the Magician's knife, his knuckles white around the handle, hovering over the opened chest of bingo charms and her holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in another. As I watched they turned and simply stared at one another for a long moment. Before I turned away, in their eyes I saw a reflection of the purest romantic love, and I was reminded that while the outlanders did not belong in our world, they were not all to blame for what had gone wrong in the universe. In that split second, I almost regretted not fulfilling their request and marrying them, even on our most-sacred site.

I pushed these thoughts from my mind, as regret has no place in a leader's mind on a battlefield. The "Smilers" as Howland and Stroud referred to them advanced down the hill to our position, with the African Nhlakanipho Mabuza loping down with them. Hollis sauntered down at a leisurely pace behind, while the Magician, Taras and the two ladies remained in the rear.

Calling out to Hara, I said, "Target the lieutenants. It will take many arrows to bring them down, so aim true for once, Hara-san!" He bowed back to me as my men chuckled politely at my small jest. From my position I could see Hara take a deep breath and close his eyes, then he pulled a long, barbed arrow from the ground and fitted it to the string. With perfect form, he raised his bow high and pulled back the arrow just as Nhlakanipho Mabuza reared back and heaved one of his spears with savage force, the shaft whooshing through the air with a sound I could hear even in the rear, and before Hara could loose even a single bolt, the spear punched straight through the center of his head, dropping him to the ground with an awkward thud, killing him instantly.

My army gasped, and the gaijin Howland summed up our collective thoughts with a stunned English curse that even I recognized: "Motherf*cker!"

I had been harshly reminded of that old tenet of war: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

And then the battle was joined as the front row of Smilers waded into my troops with their Hawaiian shirts and straw hats, a few of them even randomly clicking away with their cameras as my infantry hacked into them, their katanas flashing in the sun.

My front line held, Ota's gigantic frame providing a constant reference point throughout the engagement. With my telescope I could see one of my soldiers beheading a young, blond-haired cruise director in one place, while refocusing on another area would reveal one of my samurai's arms being torn off by a grinning elderly woman and being beaten to death with it. All along the front was chaos, and in another moment I could see my men staggering back almost as one as they writhed about in what appeared to be an odd dance. Deducing what was happening, I shouted and pointed at Howland, who nodded, stabbing down with the knife into the chest of charms.

With a bright flash, The centipedes which now covered my infantry dropped off, killed instantly, as were Nhlakanipho Mabuza's blood-gorged hyenas and Taras' wolf, who laid down and died almost gratefully. In addition, all of the Magician's Lieutenants staggered back holding their heads, reeling and confused.

My men cheered, redoubling their efforts as I flagged Fukimitsu to commence his cavalry charge. He and his men put the spurs to their steeds with a yell, and the thunder of hoof beats bore down on the enemy, smashing into their flank ferociously and carving a deep hole into their ranks.

We took every advantage of the moment until eventually the Lieutenants recovered, Nhlakanipho Mabuza and Hollis once again attacking my front lines and conjuring more centipedes and hyenas.

And so that is how the day was spent, with the Magician's forces pushing us back to the castle gates until Howland destroyed another charm, when the first few ranks of Smilers and every animal in sight would fall over dead, and the more powerful henchmen of the Magician would be left stunned and staggering, and then we would rally until they recovered and back again. By late afternoon the dark clouds were almost upon us, and while we had slaughtered thousands of them, the Magician still had all of his most powerful servants while I possessed only a few hundred samurai.

Just after five o'clock in the evening, Nhlakanipho Mabuza- drenched in samurai blood and howling for more- was running rampant through my lines. It was then that I finally released my reserves, led by Sato, who at this stage was virtually foaming at the mouth.

Sato charged straight for the African, waving his katana and shouting various profanities. Both the Smilers and the other samurai parted as the two madmen clashed, Sato's katana deflected by Mabuza's shield, a quick side-step saving Sato from impalement on Mabuza's spear in return. Round and round the two circled, all the while furiously attacking and barely bothering to defend.

Eventually, Sato stepped in too close, and Nhlakanipho Mabuza's spear stabbed him through the left shoulder, the point jutting out of his armor on the other side. The Magician's servant smiled with bone-white teeth at the hit before realizing that Sato had offered up the sacrifice of his bad arm so that he could get a clear shot with his good one. Before Mabuza could react, Sato's katana arced sideways underneath his shield, disemboweling him.

Nhlakanipho Mabuza stared down at the intestines and gore spilling out of his belly and cursed, looking peevish. Without hesitation, he yanked the spear from Sato's shoulder with one hand while with the other he lifted up his intestines and threw them over his shoulder like a scarf, getting them out from underfoot. With his internal organs draped over his back like a cape, Mabuza renewed his attack to Sato's great surprise, beating him down to the ground with the butt of his spear. Another hit, and Sato's katana went flying, but as he raised his spear for the killing blow, Fukimitsu roared past on his horse, his sword flashed in the final rays of the day's sun, and Nhlakanipho Mabuza's head fell to the gore-soaked ground, a shocked expression permanently etched on the dead man's face.

A great cheer went up from my men, but only a moment later Hollis stepped from the pack, his pristine, white suit now almost totally soaked in red, and chopped low, hacking off Fukimitsu's horse's forelegs as it galloped. His steed tumbling and screaming, Fukimitsu went flying, hurtling high over the field and down in a clattering heap, dazed and momentarily helpless while Hollis grinned a yellow smile and sauntered over to his prone form twirling his saber in anticipation for the killing blow.

While it is up to a leader of men to treat every one of his men with a certain equanimity, some simply have more value than others. Fukimitsu was my interpreter and my chief Lieutenant, and his loss would have been a heavy burden on my command. Can I claim in all truth that I would have personally leapt to his rescue if he were not my descendant? Perhaps not, but therein lies another rule of leadership: rank hath its privileges.

Drawing my blade, I charged down through the fray, pushing aside friend and foe alike until I bore down on Hollis, calling his name to try and turn him away from Fukimitsu. Finally I was almost upon him, but Hollis stood directly over him, placed his foot on my great-great-great-great grandson's neck, held his sword pointed directly downward at his face and turned his head to smile at me cunningly out of the corner of his eye.

I knew that if I took one more step Hollis would kill him, so I halted in my tracks and considered what I could possibly say to make him stop. I could think of nothing that would not impugn either my or Fukimitsu's honor, so I said nothing and merely stared.

After a long moment, Hollis bowed to me in his Southern American style and said in heavily accented Japanese, "I had the pleasure of entertaining your man Tanaka for a year or so, your majesty. While I taught him English, I did the best I could to learn his language in turn for just such an occasion. Ironically, however, after all my struggles to learn your three alphabets and dizzying patterns of speech, with all due respect, here you turn out to be not much of a conversationalist." He laughed then with good humor, or as good as a soul so utterly twisted could manage.

Slowly circling him to try and draw his attention toward me and away from Fukimitsu, I said, "Tell me, there are so many countries and culture that were brought to this world, so why are there so few of the traitors who serve the Magician here today? Should there not be fifty or a hundred of you or more?"

I kept my eyes on his, but still his sword point hung only inches from Fukimitsu's head. Hollis nodded, more than happy to carry on a conversation amidst a full-on war. "Some regret their decision and do not come when called. My master does not punish those who do not participate, only those who turn on him. Also by this point, many have died- some by accident, some by murder and the rest by their own hand." He shrugged. "Immortality isn't for everyone."

He grinned then, his sword whipping up and away from Fukimitsu's face. "Care for a sword-fight, your majesty? That's all I wanted when I cut your boy's horse out from under him in the first place." He raised his saber in salute and I granted him a nod in response before we charged, our blades smashing into each other in a shower of sparks. Again and again we attacked, and I could not help but smile. For all of these years the tremendous physical gifts that Nippon had bestowed upon me had gone all but unused, but now finally I could reveal the speed, strength and agility that made me the Magician's equal, at least of the flesh.

I was concentrating so completely on Hollis that I was surprised when a stray Smiler lunged at me from the side, her wrinkled and liver-spotted hands reaching out for my neck, and I was even more taken aback when her advance was stopped by Hollis himself, who brought his saber down on her skull, splitting her head in two and dropping her to the ground. He muttered, "Pardon, ma'am. Private party," before saluting me once more and rejoining the combat.

I do not know how long we fought there on the field- for the most part unmolested by the surrounding troops- but finally I was able to convince him in the false sincerity of a downward feint and thus take his left arm off with a rapid upward slash. His face betrayed not a hint of pain, but he shook his head at the wound and gave a soft curse. "I tell you, sir, on our last campaign I duelled the King of the Belgians, and he did not land a single blow."

My head held high, I said, "The Emperor of Japan is superior in swordplay to the King of the Belgians. This surprises you?" He shook his head, chuckling, but before he could speak I continued, "And Leopold, he was one of the King's men?"

"A minister."

"And he betrayed his King? Joined the Magician, gained immortality and was himself made King after the Magician brought his world to invade Nippon?"

Hollis paused to kick his severed arm out from underfoot. "Yes, your majesty. A decision he came to regret, apparently."

"But you do not."

He shook his head. "Why am I the way I am? Is that your question, sir?" For the first time I felt I was nearing the heart of the man. "An abusive father? A neglectful mother? Broken home? Crippling poverty? A true love lost to another man? All of it? All and more?" Hollis sighed. "Does it matter now? If anyone can accept a monster for what he is, surely it is you and your people. The only reason that matters is that I do it because I can. Looking beyond that has rapidly diminishing returns, I assure you."

My blade sang out then, slashing across his midsection, but the tip of my katana only just caught his belly, dealing a mere flesh wound. In another moment Hollis was retreating, darting back up the hill toward the Magician, weaving his way through the army of Smilers who now were free to turn their attentions on me. I spit on the ground after the retreating American, then made my way back to my position behind the lines, beheading whatever Smilers I happened to run across on my path.

Once I had returned to my vantage point nearer the castle, I trained my telescope on the opposite hill to find that a small unit of samurai had fought their way up the left flank all the way to the Magician, Taras and the two veiled women. They reached Taras first, and he raised his sword and parried without enthusiasm, blocking blow after blow until finally stepping forward, reaching out a hand and pushing his attacker down the hill as a child would in a game of king of the mountain.

Another of my men stepped closer to the beautiful, veiled woman in gray standing on the right hand of the Magician, and though she had no weapon he raised his katana to cut her down. Just before he could bring the blade down upon her, she raised her hand, and suddenly his face was covered with snakes, their fangs sunk deep in his cheeks and eyes. As he writhed on the ground before her in anguish, though I could not see her expression behind her veil, her eyes danced with cruel glee.

Over the screams of the dead and dying I could hear the rumble of thunder now as the dark clouds massed closer. Dusk was approaching, and with every lost moment of daylight we lost our advantage. The Smilers showed no sign of fatigue, while my men (with the exception of Ota) were almost completely exhausted. We had killed at least seven of them to every one of us, but still they kept coming, pouring over the hill in a seemingly endless stream.

Noticing that there was a limited range on the damage that the bingo charms could do when they were destroyed, Howland had moved up closer to the front, smashing the knife down and dropping hundreds of the enemy with a single blow, but as night fell only a few charms remained. The woman, Stroud, fired her bow when necessary to kill a stray foe that happened to straggle toward them, and I was forced to concede that her past months' training had been effective, and her courage in the face of the enemy was impressive.

Finally, the last light of day was swallowed up by the dark clouds, and we were fighting virtually blind. Taking heavy losses, I reluctantly gave the order to retreat to the castle walls, and here is where our woes truly began.

The samurai is never as ferocious and unbeatable as when he is on the all-out attack, and conversely, is always at his weakest when forced to withdraw. Contrary to the belief of gaijin and their preposterous portrayals of Japanese warriors in their stories, the samurai has no maneuver that you could reasonably label a "parry". If two katanas strike one another, it simply means that they were both attacking the same place, not that one was employing a defense. Because of this fighting style, retreating can be next to impossible. Our only two saving graces were that the enemy's footsoldiers used no weapons, and every time they were on the brink of completely overwhelming us on our stumbling run back to the castle, Howland would destroy another charm, buying us much needed time.

Yet, by the time my men had made it back to the castle doors, less than thirty remained, with most heavily wounded. Sato's left arm had been rendered entirely ineffective by the spear-wound at the hands of Nhlakanipho Mabuza and would certainly have to be amputated. Fukimitsu had a savage gash over his left eye from the fall from his horse during Hollis' attack, the wound stubbornly leaking blood down his face through the crude stitches. Ota was seemingly one, giant, open wound, bleeding from a thousand cuts and scratches, but never once did he say a single word of complaint, or a word of any kind. He simply continued to fight, performing precisely as I expected he would on the day he was born for.

Even young Kisho Yoshida, blinking behind his thick glasses, had been wounded. He limped around on a smashed foot, hurt as he was delivering arrows to the archers and bandages and painkillers to the medics. Early in the fight his archery skills had been deemed just as deadly to us as the enemy, so he had been demoted to packhorse, hauling supplies where needed. Despite his clear lack of aptitude at fighting, he had carried out his new tasks admirably enough.

As for his uncles, the brothers Yoshida, I would only discover later that the two had been slain most brutally by Hollis when they charged him in the field, howling for vengeance for their murdered brother.

The last ones to the door were Howland and Stroud, with her firing one arrow after the next at the advancing horde, and him smashing the knife down into the box, felling wave after wave until finally he tossed the chest aside, all the charms destroyed. The two of them turned around and moved to step inside only to find Ota blocking their path into the castle.

Speaking softly, I said, "I swore long ago that no gaijin would ever set foot in this sacred place. Tell them... tell them I wish it were otherwise."

Fukimitsu stared at me pleadingly. "My lord, your majesty... grandfather... they have fought with us! They have bled with us... if not for them... I ask you, please reconsider. Do not leave them outside the castle to their doom." We could now see a few shambling forms lurching ever closer, coming up behind the gaijin, the two of them speaking to me imploringly from outside the threshold.

Young Kisho bowed to me as well. "Your majesty, no one has fought for you harder then they, though they were unaware of whom they were assisting. I beg you, do not let them die like this... abandoned and betrayed. Though they are gaijin, they are... they have shown me that-" I cut him off with a gesture, and he bowed again, falling to his knees.

Gritting my teeth, I turned to Fukimitsu. "This is not a pleasant decision. Understand... every instinct I possess screams at me not to let them inside this place. Every molecule of my royal person, blessed by the spirit of Nippon, tells me that their presence must not defile Hitoshirezu-jo." Now the leering grins of the Smilers could be seen hovering forward into the ring of torchlight, their arms reaching out for the back of the gaijin's necks. Howland and Stroud stopped talking- seeing as no one was listening- and simply stared at me, their eyes conveying a mixture of exhaustion and betrayal.

Torn, knowing from reading this archive just how completely they had suffered in their quest to destroy my sworn enemy, I finally let out a curse and broke my lifetime oath. "Search them, quickly! Make absolutely certain they have no vials of blood on them. Hurry!" My men let out a quick cheer, relieved by my decision, and two of my samurai leapt forward and pawed at the gaijin even as the grinning, one-armed figure of Hollis stepped through the ranks of the Smilers, sword in hand. While my men frantically worked their way down the Americans' bodies, Hollis stepped within a few yards and lifted his saber, preparing to cut sideways through both of them with a single blow. As he reared back to deliver the killing strike, my men had worked their way down to their socks, hurriedly turning around to me to proclaim them clean.

"Ota-san!" I yelled. "Now!" Ota reached forward with a speed that belied his enormous frame, grabbed both Howland and Stroud by their shirt fronts and yanked them inside just as Hollis' saber whistled behind them, cutting only air.

I suddenly felt nauseous and fought the urge to vomit, feeling as though a barrel of black, foul oil had been poured into a basin of the holiest water, my very soul crying out at the presence of the gaijin in our most sacred place.

Now we all huddled in the torchlight of the castle's entryway, Ota standing in the doorway waiting for a charge that did not come. The enemy massed just feet away outside the castle, but they made no move to enter. After a few moments, Hollis stepped aside, and the Magician strolled up in front of the door, just feet from Ota. Even after the day's fighting, his tuxedo was pristine, and he had not a scratch on him.

"Ota-san, be sure to stay on this side of the doorway. He cannot enter." Ota backed up two paces, leaving the entryway open. For a long time, all was quiet, save for the panting of my exhausted soldiers and the muted groans of the wounded. The enemy army was massed on the other side of the archway, but they made neither movement nor sound.

After a few long moments, the Magician- standing mere inches from the threshold- raised his hands and pulled back his cuffs, showing us that there was nothing up his sleeves. Then he ever so slowly began to raise his right foot and step forward, closer and closer, until he brought his polished, black leather shoe down on the cobblestone floor inside the castle. When his foot hit the ground, the very earth shook, and behind him was the deafening crack of a thunderclap.

"Oh, sh*t," Fukimitsu gasped as the Smilers poured around the Magician, flooding inside the entryway and throwing themselves upon us in wave after wave of wrinkled, supernaturally strong flesh, their sheer mass pressing us down and pinning us in the confined quarters.

In an instant, with a single footstep, the Magician had won the Battle of Hitoshirezu-jo. Disarmed and defeated, we could do naught but await our fates and the grand trick that would end our world.

Tenno Heika Komei: The Battle Of Hitoshirezu-jo, Part I

To be a leader of men, whether in war or peace, one must know his followers as well as himself. At issue is a word that is greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted, and that word is: trust.

Trust in the Western world in leadership is thought to be a question of whether or not the men will betray their leader to the enemy or simply fail to exert themselves to the degree necessary to accomplish whatever task is set for them.

With Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior, all of the daimyo's (or, lord's) samurai are assumed to be absolutely faithful and prepared to strive for excellence in all things at every moment of their lives.

And so the question for the daimyo becomes, what tasks are each samurai individually capable of performing? This is what I mean when I speak of trust. I trust Ota completely, but do I trust him to translate English? If I did, I would be a fool, for I doubt I have heard him say ten words in his entire life even in his native Japanese. Do I trust Hara to lift a three hundred pound stone? No, because while his prowess with a bow and arrow verges on the sublime, his physique is reminiscent of the phasmatodea, or stick insect.

It is not enough for a leader of men to be trusted and served faithfully by his followers- he must reward that faith by knowing them in turn and utilizing them in a fashion that maximizes their capabilities and minimizes their weaknesses.

These were my thoughts as I strode among my warriors, their lacquer armor gleaming in the early morning light; the red and gold banners on their backs fluttering in the chill wind. On the horizon I could see a massing of dark clouds, and was hopeful for rain later in the day should the enemy attempt to fire the castle.

I stalked down the line, looking each of my lieutenants in the eye in turn and judging their characters. First, Sato: driven by the most savage and cruel instincts, he was most likely to be drawn out of position by the enemy early in the battle. Here was a man who would certainly have committed horrible crimes against humanity if not for his loyalty to his lord. Him I would keep by my side for use as a reserve, as his blood-lust would be stoked into a killing frenzy by mid-battle, and his sudden introduction to the fight would grant his comrades a boost of energy just as theirs was beginning to wane.

Then Hara: his bowmanship was such an art form- really an act of meditation- that he fired most shots without even looking at the target. I would place him in the center of the field and provide him with a forest of arrows so that he would be always firing, firing, firing from the first moment of combat to the last.

Ota: while I would very much have preferred to hold my strongest warrior in reserve, he was simply too valuable to leave off the field for even an instant. Indefatigable, intractable and seemingly indestructible, Ota would be the anchor that held my line intact.

And finally, my great-great-great-great grandson Fukimitsu. If there was any doubt as to character, it was here. Not to cast aspersions on the young man, but can any grandfather be the supreme judge of his grandson's mettle? By all appearances he would acquit himself with honor, but he had spent so much time dabbling in the ways of the outlanders that I could not with complete honesty swear that I knew him absolutely.

At every time in the past, one of the Magician's enemies had betrayed their masters and gone to him, from then on to be one of his lieutenants. Would Fukimitsu be that traitor? Savage Sato? Would it be seemingly superhuman Ota, the possibility of his mutiny seemingly inconceivable? Or would- for the first time- the Magician's hopes be dashed, his series of conquests ground to a halt here in the land of the rising sun?

Never once did I allow these questions or doubts to surface in my expression or bearing, as I completed my inspection of the men. Not only should a leader never appear to be without a plan, he must also never ask a question of any kind of his men. Everything must be given as an order. The question took form in my mind: where is the enemy now? and was instantly translated as, "Fukimitsu-san, report the enemy's position."

He did, informing me that the line of outlanders would arrive at Hitoshirezu-jo by noon. Just then, the cars conveying Shouhei, Shouta and Kisho Yoshida as well as our gaijin allies, Howland and Stroud pulled up the long gravel drive and up the hill to the castle.

The Yoshidas were hastily issued armor, bows and katanas, the young one Kisho nearly toppling over as his helmet was placed atop his slim, awkward frame.

Howland and Stroud approached, their attempts at bowing making a mockery of the act. While I knew very well that they despised the Magician as much as I did, my very bones screamed for their deaths with every moment they stood before me. Nippon's gifts to me had made me acutely aware of how much the outlanders did not belong here- in this world generally, Nippon particularly and this sacred castle specifically.

The man Howland spoke, and Fukimitsu translated. "Howland announces that he and Stroud are now engaged, and he humbly requests that you marry them here and now so that they may face their fates as husband and wife."

"I would just as soon preside over their funerals. Preposterous. As if I would ever bless a gaijin union on this holy spot." Keeping my face composed took no small effort. "Invent an excuse."

Fukimitsu did as commanded, and when he concluded the two were disappointed but apparently satisfied. I continued, "Tell the gaijin to wait until the enemy is packed in close before he uses the knife to destroy one of the charms. If fortune is with us, each charm will destroy the Magician's minions in a wide radius. Tell him to stay back with his woman in a rear position, though should the range of the charms be ineffective, I will call upon him to advance to the front."

Again he translated. He returned, "Howland informs your supreme majesty that there is no cause for concern. He says that he knows how to use a smart bomb. He says that he plays video games." I considered ordering Fukimitsu to tell me what the gaijin's gibberish was supposed to mean, but my great-great-great-great grandson had found the answer to be satisfactory so I decided to turn my attention back to my men.

The rest of the morning was spent checking and double-checking supplies, monitoring the movement of the enemy and maintaining troop morale, no small task considering the situation. However, while the men knew that the Magician and his forces were great and terrible, they were all well aware that we were the final line of defense against the ultimate destruction of not only Nippon, but the world itself.

In all, we spent our time attempting to occupy ourselves while waiting for the coming battle.

We would not have long to wait.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Josh: Tourist Trap

He's here.

For the first time since we began this archive, the actual date is the same as the one on the time stamp at the top of this post. It is Wednesday, February 25th, 2009.

At 6:31 P.M. ("That's 18:31 in military time." Thank you, Yoshida) last night a Carnival cruise ship docked as scheduled in Kyoto harbor for a sightseeing tour. Then at midnight, another enormous cruise ship docked, surprising the harbor master as it was completely unscheduled. Finally, just before dawn this morning, a third cruise liner docked, with other boats having to make a mad scramble to accommodate it. The event was unheard of, unprecedented and upsetting to everyone on the dock but the brothers Yoshida, who were the only ones who knew exactly what was happening.

The call went out. Cars were dispatched for Mary, Yoshida and I, and at Hitoshirezu-jo, they began the final preparations for battle.

Precisely at dawn, the gangplanks on all three ships went down, and the massive cruise lines disgorged their contents as thousands of gray and blue-haired, overweight, Hawaiian shirt-wearing tourists grinning ear-to-ear streamed down into the streets of Kyoto, marching into the rising sun.

The brothers Yoshida had positioned spies down at the port to report the enemy's movements, and they said that whenever a native would approach a tourist and ask them if they needed assistance or wanted to make a purchase, the tourist would merely lift up their camera, flash a few shots of something at random and keep walking. This would satisfy the questioner that the elderly tourist was where they were supposed to be, and on the off-chance that it didn't, one or another of the tourist group-leaders would step over to the native, whisper a few kind words in their ear and invite them to join the processional.

After their little chat, the native seemed quite happy to do just that.

They walked slowly but surely to the castle. It will take them hours, but they don't seem to mind.

Mary and I packed quickly, and soon our car had arrived to take us away to Hitoshirezu-jo. Before we left I pulled her close and kissed her, taking one final, wistful look at our apartment. In the past couple of months it had become home. While the waiting for battle had been stressful at points, it had also been, without question, the most wonderful time of my entire life.

I peered around nostalgically while Mary fretted about whether it was clean enough to leave.

"Mary, in all probability the world's about to end. Is it that important that you didn't scrub the grout in the shower?"

She ignored me, going about her last minute-tidying and finally noticed a small box on the table by the front door. Mary picked it up, stared at it quizzically and ran a finger over the black felt on top. She opened it. She looked at me.

"It's a ring."

I nodded.

She came and put her arms around me, gently, her eyes filling with tears. We stood there holding each other close while the doorbell rang again and again and the smiling armies of the enemy advanced upon us, neither of us wanting to let go.

Finally we wiped our tears, gathered the last of our things, gave an awkward little bow to our apartment and headed down to the car.

We stopped to pick up Yoshida, and when he got to the car his shirt was mis-buttoned down the front, with one side sticking up higher than the other, there was a glob of peanut butter on his chin and his fly was open. In other words, he was only slightly more disheveled than normal.

"You okay, buddy?"

He nodded as he sat down across from us and began chewing his nails. "I know there are other instances of that year that I'm missing. 1831. It is like one of your Easter egg hunts: I feel as though I will be punished for not finding them all."

Mary smiled. "That's not how Easter egg hunts work."

Yoshida ignored her. "More time. It's all ending. I just wanted more time. Is that a new ring?"

She beamed, extending her hand to show him. "I know it doesn't have a diamond and it has an unusual design. And I know it's a bit larger than a normal engagement ring. Don't say anything about it being different." Mary began to scowl. "Don't say anything mean. In fact, don't say anything." Finally she added with a warning glare, "Just say 'congratulations'."


Mary smiled again. "Thank you."

I cleared my throat. "Yoshida, I'd like you to be my best man."

Both he and Mary turned to me with the same astonished expressions, saying simultaneously, "You would?"

I shrugged. "Everyone else I know is dead. Besides, I think you would give the most staggeringly awkward best man toast since the invention of human speech. I can't wait to hear it." After a moment he mumbled that he would be deeply honored, and we all settled in for the ride to the castle, with me writing this post on my Blackberry as we went.

With her head resting on my shoulder, Mary gazed down at her ring and asked innocently, "Where did you get the design?"

"Uh... well, it was Galadriel's ring from 'Lord of the Rings'. It was kind've a last minute thing..."

She pulled away, giving me a deadly look. "'Lord of the Rings'? And this writing on the inside, what does it say?"

Now I was squirming. "Yeah... probably something about Sauron. I'm not really sure. It's in Elvish."

Mary stared at me, shaking her head, her mouth open. Her face began to get red and I glanced up to see Yoshida was pointing his phone at us again ("Why?" I asked him later. "She was either going to have sex with you or murder you. Either way, I wanted a copy.") She started to say something, then took a deep breath, looked back down at the ring and finally laughed.

She gave me a sloppy kiss, talking and giggling all at the same time. "It's ridiculous and wildly inappropriate and one-of-a-kind and I have never in my life loved anything more."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mary: The Whales

February 2nd, 2009:

A month of training; a month of waiting. The Magician is taking his time.

The only news we've had came today from Yoshida, who over lunch told Josh and I that marine biologists across the globe were detecting massive migrations of the world's whale populations. They were heading for Japan.

"How many?" I asked.

"Roughly?" Yoshida paused to bite the entire head off a fish, crunching it with his mouth open in his usual charming style. "All of them."

Josh: No, No, You Really Shouldn't Have

Merry Christmas!!!

Oh, that's right, the damn time stamps are still way off. Well, it's the day after Christmas and we're still alive. Mary has been continuing her training with the naginata and the bow and arrow, and she's doing awesome. Plus, after a training session she has that whole, "I'm sweaty and jazzed up and I could cut you in half with this spear/sword thing", and whoa, nellie, is that a turn-on.

Meanwhile, to try and keep up I started joining her in classes. I know I'll be busy with the Magician's knife and the charms in the fight, but I figured it's never too late to learn something new. However, after two lessons Mary's sensei decided that it actually was too late after I accidentally fired an arrow into a portrait of his late mother, so now I just sit on the sidelines and cheerlead for Mary.

Here's a terrifying story from yesterday: Mary and I were snuggling up just after we opened our presents (video games, comics and DVD's for me, lingerie, perfume and a huge, signed "Road House" movie poster for her. Yeah, she gave me that look, too) when our doorbell rang and we welcomed in Emperor Komei's right-hand man and interpreter, Fukimitsu. He and an elderly servant bowed, the servant holding a large, wrapped box with a golden bow on top.

We offered them some tea, made ourselves comfortable, and Mary asked, "So forgive my asking the question, Fukimitsu-san, but if you and the Emperor despise everything that is not from Japan, how is it that you know how to speak English?"

His perpetual smile widened as he said, "Like Kisho Yoshida, I was not always privy to the true nature of the universe. I grew up under normal circumstances here in Kyoto, and it was only upon my eighteenth birthday that the divine Emperor revealed to me the truth about the outside world and the gaijin."

I poured myself some tea and sat down next to Mary, snuggling in on the couch. "Why you? Did he need you for something special?"

"On that day, his majesty the Emperor informed me that I am his great-great-great-great-grandson." He nodded to me, adding, "As you are King Leopold's. It appears that though we are merely the descendants of some of the most powerful men to rule the Earth, perhaps we will also have the opportunity to contribute to how the world's final chapter is written." Fukimitsu gestured to the servant holding the present, and the old man hobbled over to us and laid it gently on our laps.

Mary grinned and made that "shaking fists in a ball right in front of her face" move that women do when they're excited to open a gift, and I glanced up at Fukimitsu, saying, "It's a head, right? I saw 'Se7en' and I know how you guys roll."

Fukimitsu laughed and even gave a single clap. "Excellent guess, Howland-san! Not quite. Please." He bowed to the box, and Mary and I opened it.

Mary screamed.

I stared down into the box and back up at Fukimitsu, then back down into the box. "There are two, severed, human heads in here."

Fukimitsu nodded. "I said it was an excellent guess."

Mary lost it. "Why the hell would you do this? Who are these poor... what the f*ck is wrong with you people?!"

He kept his composure perfectly, even chuckling a little. "Kisho-chan mentioned your propensity for cursing, and now that I hear it I find it actually quite charming. That is Endo-san and his wife."


"The Emperor read your missive from your time aboard the Dial Up. Captain Maeda's tale was a particularly touching one. Despite all his hardships, he acted honorably, while his partner in business did not. My lord was also quite displeased to hear of the Captain's wife's actions in marrying Maeda-san's partner simply for his money. Most horrible."

I pointed down at the heads. "So this is..."

"Ota-san paid them a visit. They were given the opportunity to make restitution and redeem themselves. They declined."

Mary shook her head. "Maybe they- alright, they did deserve to be punished for what they did, but this-"

Fukimitsu rose from his chair. "They were my great-great-great-great grandfather's subjects. They acted with dishonor and he punished them, as is his right. It was their karma. It was justice." He bowed and turned to leave, adding, "Merry Christmas."

I finally pulled it together enough to stand, still holding the box. "Uh, would you mind taking this back with you? We're grateful for the gift, but I just haven't got around to finishing that human head display stand down in my workshop. I was going to get to it right after the bird feeder, but you know how it is."

He laughed, and the servant took the box back, carefully folding down the flaps.

"Wish the Emperor a merry one, too, okay?"

Fukimitsu shook his head. "If you insist. I am sure you can imagine his feelings concerning such a 'holiday'. Turn the other cheek, live and let live, always forgiving every transgression-"

"Uh, on second thought, never mind. Thanks, Fukimitsu-san."

He bowed. "An excellent choice, Howland-san. I would hate for the next present I deliver to be you." He laughed good-naturedly as he left, closing the door behind him.