Believers

Dan felt alive.

The noise of the cheering crowd as he strutted to the podium was intoxicating. Better than screwing some hooker. Better than screwing over a business partner. Almost better than remembering these people were cheering him because he’d pulling off the biggest scam of his life. He stopped beside the plain wooden podium and wondered why his advanced team hadn’t done as he’d told them. It should be his trademark gold-covered podium, not this drab piece of shit. Who cares if other presidents and dignitaries had stood behind it and addressed crowds, they weren’t him. Dan knew he was special, and it was time to fire a few of the people who hadn’t done as they were told to remind the rest of that.

Time to get on with the show.

Ignoring the ugliness of his surroundings was something Dan knew how to do, even if he didn’t like doing it. After all, the White House was ugly, inside and out. Those stupid formal gardens with their smelly roses. The stiff, drab exterior of the building. Hell, every fucking room in the place was ugly except for the small space he slept in. Nothing but stupid antiques and old furniture everyone told him was ‘historic’.

Who cared about history anyway?

The only thing that was important was what was happening now. He was in charge. He and he alone gave the orders, and everyone had to listen to him. Just remembering the way he’d finally been able to tell off that idiot Congressman who’d always been getting in his way made Dan want to smile, so he did. He let the joy he felt in this moment, the pleasure of the crowd’s complete adulation, fill him.

“Isn’t this great? Seeing Americans come out to support the greatest president of all time…it makes me proud to see the patriotism being exhibited here tonight.”

The tiny microphone on his lapel caught his words and sent them booming out, a wave of sound that filled the space. But that was nothing compared to the roar of the crowd’s reply. It rolled over Dan like a physical thing and lifted him even higher. Tonight, oh tonight, I’ll give them a show they won’t forget.

Dan opened his mouth to continue, but a deep, booming voice stunned both the crowd and Dan into inaction.

“So now you think they’re patriots? That’s not what you said earlier.”

Then Dan heard his own voice, except it wasn’t the patter he’d prepared for the crowd, it was him talking to Fred McFee, his campaign manager.

“Fuck, Fred, would you look at the bunch of rubes we’ve got tonight? I mean what do these losers do for a living, fuck sheep or something? I mean look at this bunch of idiots! Especially that fat fuck in the front row holding the sign up praising me….what the fuck does he think he’s doing, trying to look like me? Mind you, I’d screw that little piece of ass next to him. What do you think, is that his daughter? How could some ugly slug like that produce a hot little piece like her? Who knows, out here in the sticks, he’s probably screwing her.

Dan could see the people he’d been talking about. Both the fat father and his slender blond daughter stood, crimson-faced, not sixty feet from him. But Dan’s backstage conversation kept booming out over the crowd.

“Whatever the fuck. It’s about time to go out and feed the monkeys their nightly dose of shit. I can’t believe these morons believe the shit I’m tellin’ them! Hell, seeing how easy it is to clip rubes out here in Nowheresville, I can understand how those traveling preachers can go from town to town fleecing the fools for every cent they have. Oh well, as long as these idiot support me in the next election, I’ll tell them their cow’s shit doesn’t stink. Who knows, they might even be dumb…”

Silence. Dan knew he’d kept talking well past that point, but someone on his security detail must have finally found out where, in this backwater auditorium, the sound booth was. And I’ll find out why it took them so long later, oh yes I will, and then someone’s head is gonna roll! But that silence gave even morons like this a chance to think, and giving them a chance to think was never a good idea.

“Can you believe that? Someone thought you’d be dumb enough to believe such an obvious fake imitation of me talking! I mean nobody here is that stupid, are they?”

And it never hurts to praise a moron, any moron, when it makes them believe you.

The crowd roared out their support for Dan, knowing their president would never say something like that about them.

The Death of a Dream

[I am thinking of using this as the prologue to a dystopian novel set in the near future. Any comments?]

Ask anyone who was alive then, and most of them will tell you that America ended on a brisk Monday in January, 2025. The problem is, what happened on January 20, 2025 was just the end of a series of events that had been ongoing for decades. America didn’t end when 78 pounds of highly enriched uranium came slamming together in the back of a small cargo plane a thousand feet over the Capital Building. It didn’t end when the tens of thousands of people who’d assembled to see the president be sworn in for his second term were vaporized, along with the president and much of Congress.

No, it ended long, long before that.

The disgruntled employee who smuggled the uranium that fueled the ‘nuclear device’ out of a federal lab didn’t kill it. Nor did the handful of angry people who helped him cast the small chunks of uranium into usable parts for a ‘gun’ bomb. It wasn’t killed by the people who drove the parts across country to a small municipal airfield in Maryland. Neither the people who assembled the ‘device’, nor the deranged man who flew the bulky turboprop to the bomb’s point of detonation killed America.

All of them were just the end result of a process that had started before some of them had even been born.

America had been killed by attitudes.

America had been destroyed by factionalism.

America died the day it’s people broke into tribes called political parties.

It died when those tribes had hardened into camps that saw their opposite numbers as ‘other’.

It died when people saw no other point of view but their own group’s as valid.

America died because all of this was organized by a few, who saw the idea of a nation split into warring camps as a way for them to gain and maintain power.

The blinding flash, the energy that raised the temperature of the air to something near that of the surface of the Sun, and the over-pressure wave that swept aside buildings for miles, all of that was nothing but the final act of a play stretching over years. The chaos, death and destruction that followed were little more than the final convulsions of a corpse long dead.

An honest day’s pay

Paullus Lucius Decimus had been on the move, constantly looking for any sort of work, since the day he’d woken up in the abandoned building. He’d faced worse situations, like when he’d been forced to join the masses of humanity fleeing the Mongol army as it swept across eastern Europe. But even then, no one had asked any questions of a man willing to work at whatever task needed doing.

Now, facing a nation increasingly hostile to outsiders, he wondered if it were time to find somewhere else to live. He’d been in America for well over a century, and even in it’s darkest periods of xenophobia, it hadn’t been as bad as this. More than once, he’d gone to construction companies, landscapers, even restaurants, and been asked to show some form or identification. Before that strange reawakening, he’d had a decent set of false ID papers. But they’d not been on him when he came to in the filthy building.

Having been forced to it too often, he hated to resort to begging. So when Paullus heard that a so-called ‘professional’ renaissance fair was looking for help, he’d been glad for the money. He’d spent only a small part of that time in in his native land, finding it far too depressing to see the descendants of Rome taking pride in rediscovering things their ancestors had taken as a part of their daily lives. He’d spent much of that period in Persia, which had been far more interested in building on the knowledge of Rome than on trying to recreate it.

Still, he had spent enough time among the European peoples to know the clothing he was required to wear as he sold mulled wine and other food was more costume than accurate. It made him money, and he told himself that was all that was important.

Then, on the first day of the weekend, a group claiming to be sword masters began to perform. Paullus heard of them from the other workers, who thought they were fascinating. During one of the times he was allowed away from the stand he manned, he wandered down to watch an exhibition of their skills. What he saw made him stifle a belly laugh. None of the people exchanging mock sword strokes would have last a minute against a real sword master. For that matter, none of them would have fared any better against an average legionnaire. Then one man made a thrust Paullus could have avoided in his sleep, but his opponent allowed it through before staggering and falling to the imaginary wound. Shaking his head, Paullus turned away, ready to walk off. As he took his first step, he heard a loud voice behind him call out.

“We, the Swordmasters of the Kingdom of Trakonia, do hereby challenge any swordsman or swordswoman to face us. Defeat one of us, and we will acknowledge you as a worthy opponent. Defeat two of us, and we deem you an equal.” The voice paused, an all-too-obvious device to build suspense before it continued. “Defeat all three of us, and win five hundred dollars cash!”

Most of the people around him gasped, then cheered, clearly hoping to see a true fight unfold. For Paullus, who would make less than half that amount for working the entire event, it was money he intended to win. He pushed his way through the crowd to find a line of people signing their names to a list before laying down five dollars. So that’s how they make it pay, they demand an entrance fee from those who face them, then pay any winner out of the money they take. Paullus had the money to enter, but it would take everything he had. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was an idea he’d known all his life, so when his turn came to sign up, he did so with a smile on his face.

Paullus and the other contestants were herded into a small, roped off enclosure where they were to watch while they awaited their turn. Each challenger was led out of the space and offered a selection of swords provided by their opponent. That by itself bothered Paullus, who’s familiarity with Rome’s gladiatorial games reminded him that offering a bad sword to an opponent was one of the easiest ways to fix a fight. But as he watched, none of the challengers lost due to a blade the broke under an opportune blow, or warped when used.

No, all of the challengers lost because they were fools who had never handled a sword in deadly earnest. Some strove for follow the forms of dueling, and lost to the men they faced who actually knew the basics of such things. Others tried to simply beat down their opponents, and fell to disciplined sword work like any of the barbarians Paullus had faced. Then, it was his turn.

Paullus left the much emptier enclosure and approached the table covered in different styles of swords. He knew all of the classics lying before him: saber, cutlass, broadsword, rapier and many others. Only one sword caught his eye, and as he picked the gladius up from among the rest, he knew someone had put a great deal of effort into getting at least the form right. It was obviously a wooden replica, far too light to simulate the feel of a real blade. But as he gave it a tentative swing, it felt right in his hand.

He’d watched his opponent as he dispatched challenger after challenger. He was a head taller than Paullus, and had the extra reach to go with that height advantage. He was also a swaggering, over-confident fool. He loved to flip his rapier around in broad, useless flourishes, and he never resorted to any sort of footwork, stay flat on his feet through all the matches so far. This is going to be too easy.

Paullus saw his opponent smile as he walked towards him. Motioning towards the sword in Paullus’ hand, he tried to taunt him. “What, did you pick up a sword to match your manhood?”

Holding the gladius in front of him, Paullus looked it over, then smiled. “No, unlike you, I don’t need to carry a huge sword to make up my lack of manhood.” The ugly red flush that spread across the now scowling face told him he’d hit his mark. “I do have one question before we start: What are the rules of this contest?”

The scowl disappeared. “Rules? Why do you ask about…”

Paullus’ opponent didn’t get to finish his response. Two long steps were all it took for him to cross the space between them. The heavy pommel of the gladius slammed into the other man’s stomach, and he folded as the air whooshed out of him. As he fell to his knees, Paullus switched his weapon around and brought the edge whistling down to stop just short of the kneeling man’s neck. “Because I wanted to know if this means I’ve defeated you.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then the crowd roared out it’s approval as his opponent dropped his rapier. Paullus didn’t care what they thought. He lifted his eyes to the two men standing on the inside of the open area. “So, which one of you is next?”

They were polar opposites. One, a short, stout man in a knee-length coat of chain mail and armed with a sword like the Crusader’s sword Paullus had once wielded as a mercenary in the Second Crusade. The other was tall and slender, dressed like some 16th Century fop and carrying an epee. They looked at each other, and the tall man stepped forward. “I will face you.”

Paullus hadn’t had a chance to watch this man fight, but as they faced each other, his movements made it clear he possessed more skill with his blade than the last man. Between his longer arms and the superior length of his blade, he had even more advantage in reach. But like many epee users Paullus had faced, he tended to commit himself to every stroke. He dodged two thrusts, waiting for the moment when he moved too far off his center to cover himself. As he did, Paullus shifted inside him, driving his knee into his attackers crotch.

Whatever sound he might have made was drowned out by the groan of sympathetic pain that came from the crowd. This time, Paullus didn’t spare his opponent. He drove the pommel of his sword into the back of the other man’s head, dropping him on the spot. Lifting his eyes, he swept the crowd. “This is how a real sword fight is conducted. There is only one rule: win. Win because the only alternative is death.” Fixing his eyes on the final man, he put every bit of his experience in killing into the cold voice he addressed his final opponent in the sudden silence. “So, sir, will you face me, or do you yield?”

The man in chain mail didn’t so much drop his sword as throw it aside as he shouted “I yield!”

The cheers of the crowd didn’t move Paullus at all. The only thing that truly made him smile was watching as the fat man counted out his five hundred dollars, a fine pay day for a sort day’s worth of fighting. Tomorrow, and for the next few days at least, he would not have to worry about food and lodgings. After that? He slipped his hand into the pocket of the jeans he wore under his costume.

“After that will be after that” he whispered to himself as he walked through the crowd that parted before him.

Out cold

Amos Afah stepped out of St. Franicis’ ER entrance to get some warmth. It had been nearly two decades since he’d left his hometown of Ebolowa in the Southern district of Cameroon, but he still found the air conditioned interior chilly. Out here, with the rain pouring out of a warm, humid night reminded him of home. There, the storm that brought flashes of lightening and the occasional strong gust of wind would have been regarded as an ordinary part of the monsoon season. Here, in Maryville, in the northwestern corner of Missouri, it rated a severe thunderstorm warning. The distant sound of an ambulance siren reminded him it also brought him a patent in need of his care.

Lights flashing and motor revving, the huge red cube of an ambulance made the turn up the entrance driveway and came to a stop under the pillared shelter that protected Amos. Two men piled out of the rear doors, then brought their charge out on a gurney. The stocky man under the blanket would have been thought dark skinned by the two pale EMT’s. The smooth face behind the oxygen mask was unlined, giving no hint as to his age. Amos led them through the sliding doors into the ER proper. “What happened?”

One of the EMT’s looked at him, then at the patient. “Don’t know, Doc. Dispatch got a call from a motorist that there was someone lying along Stuart Road, just out past the edge of town. We responded, and found this guy lying on the edge of a patch of scorched grass. His clothing is burned off down his left side, and what was left of his left shoe was lying in the center of the scorched patch. We figured he was dead, struck by lightening, until Pete here heard him moan. So we brought him in for you to look at.”

The portable heart monitor they’d hooked him up to beeped regularly, giving no sign of cardiac distress, and the broad chest rose at a slow, even rate. “Help me get him transferred so I can do a more detailed exam.” Together, the three men shifted the unconscious one from the ambulance gurney to the hospital’s, and Amos removed the blanket to see what the body could tell him.

As they’d said, the left leg of the man’s jeans was a charred mass of shredded fabric. Yet for all the damage to his clothing, the stranger’s skin exhibited none of the telltale signs someone who had been struck by lightening. There was no charring to his skin, no open wounds where blood vessels near the surface had exploded from the sudden heating of a lightening bolt pass through the tissue. Then Amos noticed a pale scar, like a jagged white line that travelled from the top of the left foot, up the leg, across the length of the chest before climbing the neck and disappeared into the damp mass of black hair covering the patient’s head. He also saw the man’s body was covered in scars. Some of the round ones looked like healed bullet wounds. Other, bigger round wounds baffled him, but these were nothing compared to the array of crisscrossing scars that marred nearly ever visible piece of skin. Some looked like cuts from an accidental fall into a plate glass window. Others looked like they’d been the result of being slashed and stabbed by edged weapons. One long, puckered wound across the abdomen could only have been caused by some slash or stab that had opened the abdominal cavity completely. Amos looked at the EMT’s who like him, were looking at the patient as if they too couldn’t believe he’d taken all these wounds and survived. “What the hell has this man been doing?”

Before either of them could speak, the patient’s eyes popped open, and an amazingly strong hand closed around Amos’ wrist.

Nubian, qui es, ubi sum?”

The deep, growling voice had none of the hesitation of someone speaking a second language. No, this man spoke fluently, as if he were speaking his native tongue. Amos didn’t recognize a bit of it, and from the blank looks of the EMT’s neither did they. “Sir, do you understand me? You’re in a hospital, and I need to know who you are.”

The grip on Amos’ wrist tightened as the strange man’s eyes bored into his .“Quod lingua barbara est, quod loqueris?” The eyes flickered to the EMT’s, widened, and the man spoke again.Ego horum hominum captivus?” His eyes shifted back to Amos’, and for the first time, he saw fear there. Hi Gallorum, Germanorum?”

With no clue what he was being asked, Amos fell back on the oldest form of communications. Gently patting his patient’s hand, he said in as soothing a voice as he could. “It’s all right, sir. No one is going to harm you.”

The sentiment, if not the meaning, seemed to get through. The grip loosened, then the hand released him as some of the tension left the patient’s face. Amos looked towards the EMT’s. “I think he’s afraid of you two. He have any reason to be?”

Both of them frowned, their offended honor clear on their faces. Pete, who hadn’t spoken until that point, answered for them. “None I can think of. He wasn’t awake when we found him, nor while we loaded him up. Maybe he had a bad experience with some other emergency personnel.” Pete patted the man, and when his eyes darted to him, he gave him a smile. “It’s okay, buddy, we’re not going to hurt you.”

More tension left the man on the gurney, and he even gave a brief smile. Time to get on with the examination. Amos turned away, opened the drawer holding IV hardware, and withdrew one of the prepackaged ports. Tearing open the packaging, he turned to his patient. “Now, sir, I need to get some blood from you….”

Amos had a moment to see the man’s eyes go wide, then he was off the gurney in a blur of motion that ended with him standing behind Pete with his arm wrapped tight around Pete’s neck. “Mendacibus!” Whatever the meaning of the word he shouted, Amos could hear the anger in his voice, and see the cold, killing intent in his eyes. When Pete’s partner started to shift sideways, Amos raised a hand to stop him. “Don’t. He’s scared, and he’s desperate. I think your best bet is to just stand there and let me see if I can reason with him.” The EMT stopped, and Amos focused his attention on his former patient. “It’s okay, just relax. You don’t like needles? Neither do I.” Laying the port behind him, Amos brought his empty hands out, spreading his arms to show he had nothing that could threaten this desperate man. “He wasn’t going to hurt you, so why don’t you just let him go?” He took a step forward, and seeing the already tight arm muscles stand out more, stopped. For the first time since he’d come to work there, he wished that St. Francis had a security guard. He saw those remorseless brown eyes focus on him, shift back to Pete’s partner, then with a wordless grunt, the unknown man shoved Pete at Amos and bolted out of the ER.

From the shouts and the sound of the entrance door opening, Amos knew the man was gone. Pete’s partner started towards the exit, but Amos stopped him. “Call the police, let them do their job. Help me check your partner to make sure he isn’t injured.”

Pete didn’t give either of them a chance to examine him. Waving both of them away, he rubbed his neck and looked towards the exit. “I’m fine, Doc, seriously. Outside of choking me a little, he didn’t hurt me. But what the fuck was that guy’s story? From all those scars, you’d think he was some cartel soldier or something like that. But that sure as hell wasn’t Spanish he was shouting.”

The mention of soldier brought several things about the stranger’s wounds together in Amos’ mind. What would a soldier who lived forever look like? With no way to know, all Amos could do was speculate about what he’d just encountered. “I don’t know, but I think all three of us are lucky to be alive. I don’t know about you two, but I fear he could have killed all of us if he’d been so inclined.” Amos wasn’t surprised when neither of the other men objected.

#

Paullus Lucius Decimus awoke shivering, half naked and soaking wet in what appeared to be an abandoned building. His last memory was of a rainstorm he’d been walking through as he made his way across Missouri. He’d been walking because bus passengers faced increased security when boarding due to a recent string of immigration raids. Illegal aliens? I wonder what they’d make of me? In his nearly two thousand years of life, Paullus had never held any citizenship but to his native Rome. His duffle bag was gone, and with it his phone and everything else he possessed.

He sat up, and feeling something tugged at the skin on his chest, ran a hand across the spot. Something was stuck to him, and after peeling it off, he moved to a pool of light beneath a window. What he saw was a small metal nub portruding from a sticky pad. While he’d never worn one, Paulls had seen images of things like this: it was a heart monitor sensor. How…? Even as he wondered, fragments of memory came to him. A hard bed in a cold white room filled with equipment. The coal-black face of a huge man in a white coat. Standing in the rain, surrounded by a blinding white light as searing pain washed through his body.

Did Jove strike me with lightening?

Paullus had never been pious, had never even been what moderns called agnostic. Whatever had happened, whether divine displeasure or simple bad luck, he was where he had been many times before: without funds or possessions in a world that prized wealth both. Then he remembered the Roman coin he’d been given by the mysterious prostitute. Yes, it was still in his pocket, along with a handful of modern coins, but could he bring himself to sell it?

No. If a long life had taught him nothing else, it had taught him that there were always those who would hire someone willing to work cheaply. Tomorrow, he would find some store selling used clothing. Then he’d find a menial job and start over again.

The Real Demon

Morag smiled as he watched the girl wandered down the country back lane. Oh, I am so going to have fun playing with her! He’d been stalking the inhabitants of this innocent countryside since he’d killed the sorcerer that had summoned him months ago. Morag enjoyed terrorizing the people he killed before consuming their souls. He had no fixed form, so he could assume any shape he felt like. For this girl, he chose one of his favorites: a wolf, but one ten time bigger than any normal beast. Teeth like sabers, eyes that glowed a fiery red, paws bigger than this girl’s head, Morag became the embodiment of fear.

He leapt into the lane when the girl came within a few steps of him. Stretching lips back to bare his teeth, he let out a snarl that had caused grown men to quake. But while the girl stopped, her face revealed no fear. No, for some reason, she smiled at Morag. Did she not understand she was about to die? He snarled at her again as he crouched down, gathered himself to pounce…and her smile grew wider. Is this child daft? The fact that she demonstrated no fear angering him more than he could have imagined, Morag sprang at the girl, intent on ripping her apart.

His eyes fixed on hers, time seemed to slow as he opened his jaws to grab her…then, she vanished. Morag’s jaws snapped closed as he landed, but they closed on nothing. But at the moment his teeth came together, he felt a searing pain along his left side.

Morag’s head came around and he saw a long, deep gash that ran from just behind his front leg all the way along his huge barrel chest to his back thigh. And there, standing just behind him with a knife in her hand, was the girl.

He rounded on her, but even as he opened his mouth to ask “How?”, she vanished again. And just like before, Morag felt a burning pain spread down his side, but this time, it was his right side.

The question turned into a howl of frustration, pain and rage. How could this mortal child best him? The thought formed in his mind even as another wave of pain came over him and he tottered, his left rear leg useless, it’s hamstring severed.

Now, the girl was before him. But she no longer looked like an innocent. Her face was a blood-covered mask, his blood. Her smile a grin of triumph, her eyes ablaze with hatred, she vanished again, and Morag collapsed as his left front leg’s hamstring was also severed.

Panicking, Morag tried to change shapes, and found he couldn’t.

Terror filled Morag’s heart. And as it did, the girl appeared before him. “So, demon, how does it feel? How do you enjoy terror now? Does it feel as sweet as it did when you inflicted it on your victims?” He would have replied, but the girl didn’t give him the chance.

The knife in her hand was far too small to instill the fear that now drowned Morag. No, the terror that swallowed him whole came from her eyes. He had seen every emotion from blank terror to desperate defiance in the eyes of his victims…but Morag had never seen anything like the all-consuming hatred that filled the little girl’s eyes. She stepped closer, the knife rose.

“For my parents, who you tore to pieces for pleasure.” Those were the last words the demon Morag heard.

The Apology

Cheri Paulsen knew she was lucky. Landing the job of Public Relations Specialist at the Consulate-General of Japan hadn’t been her reason for taking a major in Japanese history at Northwestern. But the necessary fluency in Japanese such a degree required had given her an ‘in’ for this job when she’d found jobs in her chosen field few and far between.

So now she took the Metra every weekday from Glenview to downtown, an experience that left her wondering if that was how Japanese office workers felt getting into downtown Tokyo. Probably not. She’d mentioned the idea once to Goto-sama, the actual Consulate-General, and he’d laughed at it. He told her commuter trains in Japan were standing-room-on on weekdays, the people packed in so tight movement was virtually impossible. And seeing as how Goto Eiji had grown up in Tokyo, he would be an expert on such matters.

Even though she was fluent in Japanese, Goto-sama preferred to speak to her in English. When she’d asked why, his answer reflected the blunt pragmatism that seemed to be at his core. “If I only speak English when I am talking to some visitor, how can I possibly stay fluent enough not to embarrass myself?”

Cheri was at the office coffee maker when she saw Goto-sama walk out of the elevator. His office was on the same floor as hers, so that wasn’t amazing. What caught her attention was the stunned, empty look on his face. Something about it worried her, so she approached her boss to find out what was bothering him.

“Goto-sama. Goto-sama. Is something the matter, Goto-sama?”

His face stayed blank for a moment, like her words hadn’t registered with him. Then his head turned towards her and his eyes focused on her face. “Excuse me, Paulsen-san, but I’ve just had a disturbing encounter with one of your countrymen.”

Someone as important as the Consul-General didn’t usually deal with anyone less than an important corporate types. They weren’t the type of people she imagined insulting or even delivering disturbing news to an important official like Goto-sama. She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, when her boss continued.

“The front desk called me, informing me that an American was there asking for the opportunity to apologize. I couldn’t imagine why they’d called me, but Hiru-san insisted I come down to see the individual.” Goto-sama held out a small package neatly wrapped in cloth. It must have been tied together at the top at one time, for the folds still held the rough shape of the knot they’d been tied in. Now they overlapped, covering whatever was inside. “There was a large, elderly gentleman waiting for me, and he actually managed to introduce himself in quite good Japanese. Then he started a short speech that he had evidently tried to memorize, but he lost his way after the first few sentences. What he wanted to do was apologize for something his father had done.” Pointing towards the package, he continued. “His father had been in the Philippines, one of the soldiers guarding Clark Field after the Americans retook it. His father had helped stop a wave of suicide attacks the Japanese defenders staged one night, and the next morning, he and the rest of the soldiers went out to collect trophies. He brought this back.”

Goto-sama slowly uncovered the package, which consisted of a pair of faded photos, some Japanese money, what looked like an old Japanese medal….and peeking from under all that, a tightly-folded, deeply stained white silk cloth covered in kanji characters. “Is that a yosegaki hinomaru?”

Hai.

The fact that Goto-sama had fallen back into Japanese, even for a moment, told Cheri there was something profoundly disturbing about this relic of Japan’s dark past. Laying the photos and other material reverently aside, he carefully unfolded the cloth. More writing came into view, then, the last fold opened revealing a larger, bolder hand’s writing. It was a name that took Cheri’s breath away.

Goto.

Cheri looked at her boss and saw something she’d never seen before: tears. Goto-sama’s attention was focused on the flag. “My grandfather told me about his older brother, a gunsō, a sergeant, in the Imperial Army. How he’d been part of the Manilla garrison, and how the family never knew what had happened to him.” Goto-sama pointed at a shaky line of characters, so inexpertly drawn Cheri couldn’t make them out. “This is my grandfather’s final wish to his older brother. ‘May your military fame be eternal.’ That’s his name, Goto Eiji, just like mine.”

Cheri knew Japanese families put great emphasis on venerating their ancestors. “I’m glad your family has recovered this, Goto-sama, and that they know now what happened to your grandfather’s brother. I know this means a lot to you and your family.”

Hai. Sheri-san, arigatōgozaimashita.” Goto-sama wiped his eyes before looking at her. “I just wonder how many more families in Japan wait like mine for word of a lost ancestor, and how many American families carry the burden like that man for something their ancestor did.”

What are monsters made of?

“Sarah!”

The thing in front of him did not like Pete yelling. “Thing” was the only word he could use to describe the muscular human body wearing a tattered pair of jeans and topped with a wolf’s head. It lunged forward, reaching out like a man would to grab him while it’s muzzle split open in a snarl. The teeth this revealed would shred him in an instant if he didn’t do something.

He did something. It moved like a man, but it seemed to have the mind of a wolf. Pete was able to dodge it, and as it passed, he slammed the crowbar in his hand into the back of it’s head. The thing went down, and howled like a dog as Pete brought the crowbar down again and again until it fell silent.

It wasn’t the first horror Pete had seen. Another thing, much like this one but smaller, lay in the front room of his house. A woman’s body with a cat’s head and claws lay on the steps to his house. Pete had beaten them to death too.

Now that wolf-head was dead, there was nothing between him and his daughter’s room. He stepped over the still form and advanced on the familiar door. Blood had spattered everywhere in the hall, including a thin line of drops marred the childish sunflower that decorated Sarah’s door. Pete reached out to grab the door knob, and the house shook. It wasn’t hard to understand why it was shaking. Not a block away, a giant lizard was methodically reducing Plainview Grade School to a pile of rubble.

Fuck it, Pete, be honest, that’s fucking Godzilla stomping the school to pieces.

Pete remembered staring at the giant beast through his front windshield, wondering how many kids had escaped before the walking nightmare had begun its work. Even if the kids had all escaped, he had to do something, and quick. His fingers closed around the familiar doorknob, and it opened as it always had when he twisted his wrist.

“Sarah?”

The inside of his daughter’s room was all shadows and half-light. Like him, she had trouble sleeping if there was too much light in the room. So the room’s only illumination came from a tiny strip of sunlight that leaked around the edges of a set of heavy ‘black-out’ curtains. As it often was, there was a minefield of toys and discarded cloths between Pete and the bed where Sarah lay. She gave no hint she’d heard him.

“Sarah?”

He spoke louder, hoping she’d wake, but beyond a quick toss of her head, Sarah gave no sign of having heard. Again, like him, once his daughter was asleep, waking her could be near-impossible.

“Sarah!”

Louder still, but as he spoke, a thunderous roar tore the air outside. Sounding like a cross between tearing metal and low-flying jet, it shook not just the air, it rattled the room’s windows and throbbed through Pete’s body.

And still Sarah did nothing more than toss fitfully in her sleep.

Pete threaded his way through the object on the floor to reach his daughter’s bed. Bending down, he touched her shoulder. “Sarah, it’s Daddy. Wake up honey.”

His daughter rolled away from him with an inarticulate moan, and the temperature around him drop. His next breath came out as a cloud of fog, and across the bed from him, Pete saw a dark shape forming. If the thing with a wolf’s head had been a terror, to huge blob gathering before him would be a nightmare incarnate. It towered over him, topping out just beneath the eight foot ceiling, and half as wide as Sarah’s bed was long.

Pete had seen the darkness take shape before. His daughter had been a scared three year old, and he had gone to her bedroom to check on her. Like now, he’d found her asleep already. But as he stood beside her bed, he’d watched as the shadows coalesced into a teddy bear…a teddy bear in armor, carrying a sword and shield…a teddy bear that rose and moved between Pete and his daughter like a sentry.

“Sarah, you have to wake up now!”

The guardian teddy hadn’t done anything, but the way it positioned itself between them told Pete he would not be allowed to touch his daughter. It was gone the next morning, and Sarah had no memory of it.

But a few weeks later, another child had pushed Sarah down at the playground. The child and its parent had apologized, and Sarah had seemed to accept it with no hard feelings. But that night, Pete had witnessed a black outline of something that looked like himself stalk out of the house and vanish into the night. The next day, the town was abuzz with stories of a family murdered in their sleep, each member beaten to death in their beds. It wasn’t until the local paper printed their obituaries that Pete realized the family had been that of the child who’d pushed Sarah. And no one was ever brought to trial for the crime.

The dark shape became more defined. A rounded head, a long muzzle, broad shoulders…it began to look like one of the polar bears that had so fascinated Sarah at the zoo. Another screech, like the world itself were being ripped apart, tore the air outside.

People were dying outside, just as his wife had died after telling Sarah she shouldn’t be angry all the time. A black something had ripped her to shreds as she took a bag out to the garbage, leaving no trace the police could find. After that, things had gotten worse, and Sarah seemed angry all the time, just as she had been this afternoon when she’d come home from her first day at school. And now the school was being destroyed.

Pete had to act, now, before the monstrous shape across the bed could solidify and kill him. He had to act, or more people would die.

“Please, Sarah, wake up for Daddy. Please stop this.”

Sarah didn’t wake, but the giant shape became more defined. It’s thick arms made a few tentative swings, and from deep in its broad chest, he heard a rumbling growl like a dozen angry mastiffs.

Pete’s daughter was becoming a monster. He knew that. He’d hoped she’d grow out of it. But she ‘d just become angrier.

“I love you, Sarah. Daddy will protect you from the monsters.”

His arm rose, the crowbar came down, he swung it again and again, until the monster in his daughter’s bed was dead, and he wished himself dead beside her.