Signal Boost: WAR DEMONS by Russell Newquist

War Demons.jpg

After five years of war in Afghanistan, Michael Alexander returns home a broken man, haunted by the ghosts of war. Returning to Georgia, he tries to start a new life. But something evil followed him from the mountains of Afghanistan, it’s tearing up everything in its path, and Michael is squarely in its sights.

To survive, Michael has to rely on his military and martial arts training; forge an unlikely alliance with his friends, a homeless prophet and the family members of a lost love; and take the fight to the relentless demon.

But the demon is merely the first of many monsters to come.

(Full disclosure: I received an advance copy in exchange for a blurb.)

WAR DEMONS by Russell Newquist is hands-down the finest urban fantasy thriller I’ve read this year by an indie author. The first book of the Prodigal Son series, WAR DEMONS features a battered veteran struggling with inner and outer demons, a taut mystery intertwined with an ever-escalating conflict, outstanding action set pieces, and all-too-human characters battling with the forces of evil.

Newquist has long championed the Superversive movement, and it shines through in WAR DEMONS. This is an unabashedly Christian work, built on a Christian sense of ethics and populated with Christian characters. But the story refrains from preaching about the faith, instead letting Christianity inform the characters’ actions. They aren’t saints–Michael least of all–but when the chips are down they strive to do the right thing. They may not always succeed, but in doing so they ennoble themselves and inspire everyone around them.

This moral characterization paints them in stark contrast to the villains of the story. While we don’t see their perspective as often as the protagonists, every time they appear they exude an aura of evil and malice. Everything they do reeks of depravity and corruption. They are the agents of pure, elemental Evil, and with their dark powers they seem nigh-unstoppable.

The heroes are sympathetic and the villains utterly vicious. Through this sharp moral delineation, you can fully appreciate the titanic clash of good versus evil. Every victory is hard-won, every defeat stings, every reveal is believable, every act of valor or kindness both simultaneously in character and edifying.

WAR DEMONS begins as a psychological thriller. A strange creature is stalking Michael, and he must find out what it is and why it’s hunting him. At the same time, he battles his own demons of post-traumatic stress. As the story progresses, the veil is lifted, and what follows is a chain of high-octane action sequences and well-timed revelations that inexorably build up to a climactic finale.

Russell Newquist is a fourth degree black belt in Shin Nagare Karate, an eclectic martial art that combines karate, kickboxing and jujitsu. His martial arts sequences are a beauty to behold. They aren’t just technically accurate; they capture the chaos, tension, and sheer rush of combat. Likewise, the firefights are a slick combination of realism and awesomeness, constantly driving the story onward.

In an industry filled with boring message fiction, ugliness and perversion, WAR DEMONS is a breath of fresh air. For readers who love Jim Butcher and Larry Correia, this novel is a must-read.

PSX_20170918_043442

If WAR DEMONS sounds like it’s right up your alley, you’re sure to enjoy my Dragon nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, rated 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon.

The Current State of Alt-Tech

social media.jpeg

The oligarchs of Silicon Valley — Facebook, Twitter and Google — have pursued and continue to pursue policies of censorship and demonetisation of controversial personalities who use their platforms. They don’t have your interests at heart, only their vision of a world under their thumb.

Last year, the Alt-Tech promised a revolution. These platforms aimed to disrupt and replace the legacy platforms, placing the rights and freedoms of users first. One year on, how well did they fare?

Infogalactic

Infogalactic is an unqualified success story. Beginning as a dynamic hard fork of Wikipedia, it strives to be more objective and informative than its predecessor. In line with its Seven Canons, Infogalactic maintains a strict non-ideological position for all facts — but in the future, it will introduce Context and Opinion levels to its pages, allowing greater depth of content.

Every time I compared an Infogalactic page to Wikipedia, I found the former to be more informative and accurate. The only major knock against Infogalactic is its load time, and even that is improving by the day. In the beginning, it took long minutes to load a single page. Today, it is only slightly slower than Wikipedia.

I use Infogalactic exclusively these days. Wikipedia’s explicit left-wing bias means it is no longer a neutral source of information. Infogalactic has demonstrated itself to be a viable and sustainable alternative to Wikipedia, and in the long term I suspect the disruption and replacement of Wikipedia is inevitable.

Gab

Gab was supposed to be the Twitter killer. A platform dedicated to free speech, it has survived allegations and lies about it being the haven of the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazis. Apple and Google have repeatedly prevented Gab from publishing its app on the iTunes Store and Google Play Store respectively for spurious reasons. Gab brands itself as a proponent of free speech — but that is also its undoing.

Gab’s key weakness is its inability or unwillingness to moderate posts. While it is unwaveringly committed to free speech, freedom is not and cannot be unlimited. As the old adage goes, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Harmful speech — speech that incites violence or compromises the privacy and safety of individuals — is not protected speech. Gab must be able to moderate harmful content to preserve the continued health and safety of its users, and it has failed the test.

Over the past week, blogger Vox Day noted that a handful of Gab users have defamed him, and requested Gab to provide their private information so he could take appropriate legal action. Gab refused, prompting Vox Day to send in the lawyers. This catalysed a drawn-out campaign on the Internet, with Gab founder Andrew Torba upholding his position on free speech and Vox Day maintaining his stance on moderation and legal consequences. Since then, other users have continued to defame Vox Day, and threatened to dox him.

At the same time, Asia Registry, Gab’s domain registrar, dropped Gab because one of its users posted hate speech. Gab also allowed users to post home addresses on its site, in clear violation of the law and its own terms of service. Gab has banned the user who posted the offended content and took down the post, but left the other users who conducted defamatory and doxxing activities untouched. Gab has also since secured a new domain registrar.

These controversies expose Gab’s core weakness. As Gab refused to moderate harmful speech, Gab users have no choice but to lodge complaints with the domain registrar, who will inevitably respond by ordering Gab off its platform. Like the Daily Stormer, I foresee Gab migrating from registrar to registrar, virtually guaranteeing disruption of services. Alternatively, these users may turn to the police and the courts instead, which will invite another round of troubles.

Free speech ends where harm begins. Incitement to violence, exposure of confidential information, and lying about someone to smear his reputation counts as harm. If Gab will not handle harmful speech in-house, other parties will. To Gab’s detriment. I, for one, cannot in good conscience continue to recommend anyone to use Gab until they fix this oversight, if ever.

Brave

Brave was supposed to offer a happy compromise between browsers that captured your browsing data to deliver ads and a non-stop arms race between ad blockers and advertisers. It blocked unwanted ads while allowing ads on certain sites, allowing you to support your favourite content providers. It also offered channels to send money directly to these content providers in lieu of ads. It sounds like a win-win situation, but execution remains a problem.

I can’t use Brave on my computer for most of my needs. It’s not compatible with many websites I frequent, including and especially those I use for work and business transactions. It’s also noticeably slower than other browsers I’ve used. On my mobile phone, I’ve noticed increasingly frequent failures to load websites, forcing me to use alternatives.

While Brave is promising, it’s at best a secondary browser. I still use Pale Moon for most of my Internet needs, switching to Brave for the rare occasions when it offers better performance. Perhaps Brave’s performance will improve as time goes by. Its founder is Mozilla co-founder and chief technical officer Brendan Eich, and he has the experience and expertise to make this project a success. For now, however, Brave is just not ready for prime time.

On the Horizon

While Alt-Tech tends to refer to the Big Three of Infogalactic, Gab and Brave, on a more general level it can refer to platforms that compete and disrupt legacy platforms that infringe on the users’ rights. If we look beyond the Big Three, there may be other, more promising platforms.

Voat aims to be the Reddit alternative. Reddit is known for censoring entire subreddits whose users hold controversial opinions, such as Donald Trump supporters and Gamergaters. Like Gab, Voat promises freedom for all, with a user interface extremely familiar to Reddit users. Voat’s stated policy is to not meddle with or censor content unless it is illegal in the United States. However, as yet there are no signs of a mass exodus from Reddit, and Voat itself doesn’t seem to offer any tangible differences from Reddit in terms of user interface and operational concepts. For now, Reddit and Voat can coexist, but barring a major change in the way Voat does things to differentiate itself from Reddit, Voat will continue playing second fiddle into the foreseeable future.

DTube is like YouTube, but integrated into the Steemit blockchain. I expect it to be extremely popular with Steemit users… if it can load properly. Ironically, this is one of the few instances where Brave outshines Pale Moon and Google Chrome: of the three it’s the only browser that loads it properly. The concept is certainly fascinating, and I expect Steemit users to use it in the place of YouTube. It won’t completely disrupt YouTube, but being natively resistant to censorship, I expect it will be more functional and rewarding to users poised to take full advantage of its capabilities.

Steemit doesn’t compete with any Silicon Valley oligarch directly. But its hybrid approach of easy Medium-like blogging and Reddit-style commenting, coupled with cryptocurrency incentives, might point the way forward to future crowd-based social media platforms. It can’t, however, replace blogs for everyone just yet, if at all. For professionals who use blogs to drive user traffic to purchase products, Steemit just doesn’t offer the bevy of features they need. That might not necessarily be a bad thing: I’d like Steemit to focus on what it’s good at and leave the beta stage before branching off into new ground.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Reddit started the modern Internet age, but have abused their near-monopolistic powers to the cost of users. The time is ripe for alternative tech platforms to dethrone them and return freedom to the users. Given the current state of Alt-Tech and other platforms, I’m not sure it’ll happen soon.

But I think I’ll live long enough to see it happen.

PSX_20170918_044151

If you would like to support my fiction, do check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

Can Steemit Revitalise Short Fiction?

Astounding

A century ago, pulp magazines were the popular entertainment of the working class. Cheap and ubiquitous, the pulps brought exciting tales of action and adventure to the everyman. Fiction was no longer the pursuit of the leisure class; it was now within the reach of regular people. And the secret was length.

Back, popular fiction was much shorter than it is today. The average novel didn’t far exceed 50,000 words. Short stories floated between 5,000 to 10,000 wprds. Everything in between was a short novel or novelette. Pulp magazines, jam-packed with such stories, offered multiple exciting tales for the price and length of a single novel. Being paid by the word, prolific writers with a solid work ethic could support their families solely by writing for the pulps. With proliferation came even more stories to satisfy the demands of an ever-widening audience, creating a virtuous cycle that exploded into a cultural phenomenon.

Short fiction built the pulps. But today, conventional wisdom says short fiction is no longer viable.

It’s a given that the short fiction SFF market today does not pay well. Royalties usually float between one and a half to six cents a word, depending on the magazine’s budget, or none at all. Being published is virtually impossible if you don’t write about the right topics or have the right chromosomes: as Jon Del Arroz discovered, only 2.8% of female writers who submit short stories get published, and just 0.7% of men do. And most of the short fiction markets out there do not seek stories written in the pulp tradition.

There are other magazines today that try to emulate the pulps: Cirsova, Storyhack, Astounding Frontiers. While I’ve heard nothing but good reviews about them, they don’t publish regularly enough or pay well enough for writers to earn more than walking-around money.

Lyonesse, with its subscription model, attempts to use technology to solve the problem of royalties. In effect, readers pay the equivalent price of one novel for 52 stories, plus bonuses, delivered weekly. It’s a fascinating business approach, and I wish them the best, but from a writer’s perspective until Lyonesse reaches critical mass it won’t contribute significantly to one’s income either.

Being paid is critical. The promise of financial incentives drove many of the pulp writers to hone their craft and write vast numbers of stories. High quality and high numbers of stories attracted more readers to the pulps, in turn increasing the potential earnings for writers who serve these customers.

This is where Steemit comes in.

A week ago, Rawle Nyanzi discussed whether Steemit can monetise short fiction. True to the pulp spirit, Rawle has been producing lots of flash fiction online, the kind of content that seems a good fit for Steemit. However, he believes that the US tax code is presently too complex to justify the effort it takes to hop on board Steemit.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have such problems.

Steemit lends itself well to short and serial fiction. Short fiction can be read in a single setting, and the reader can quickly decide whether to upvote it or not. Serial fiction takes full advantage of the 7-day voting window for each post: posts published in quick succession will feed into each other, allowing for a potentially higher payout.

Quite fortuitously, short and serial fiction are the same kinds of fiction that built the pulps.

For authors who can put in the work, Steemit doesn’t just offer a platform to monetise short fiction — it can revitalise the format. A quick look at the fiction tag will show you stories that have earned hundreds of dollars, and stories that have earned hundreds of dollars per chapter. There is significant financial incentive to be prolific and technically excellent, there is a critical and growing mass of customers, and Steemit is only getting started.

I think authors who write in the pulp spirit will find Steemit an excellent platform to write short fiction, get feedback, and GET PAID. It can’t take the place of pulp magazines, but there is no need to. Traditional and up-and-coming magazines can focus on developing a particular genre or aesthetic, while Steemit helps authors build their brands. Steemit makes the fiction pie bigger for everyone, creating the potential to set up the virtuous cycle that led to the pulp explosion of the early twentieth century.

As for myself, I’m putting skin in the game. You can find my story TWO LIVES on Steemit. I’m preparing another story for publication as well. Come 2018, I’ll have more stories in the wings.

I think Steemit won’t just revitalise short fiction — it’ll transform it. And I’ll be there to make it happen.

TWO LIVES can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

If you prefer longer fiction, check out my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS here.

I Remember

911TributeInLight2-1024x768.jpg

I remember a dream of an airplane, falling sharply through the sky. I remember carts barrelling down the aisles and the floor falling sharply beneath me. I remember the screaming.

It was the night of 10 September 2001.

The following night, I understood what the dream meant.

I remember the phone call from a friend that night, claiming a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I remember turning on the television to see the Twin Towers burning, the news casters frantic rehashing of events halfway across the globe, repeating them every few minutes. I remember the face of Satan in the smoke.

I remember the fall.

I remember the smiles, the laughter and the cheers of many people who had seen the collapse of the towers. This was my first brush with naked evil, and my first encounter with those who wish nothing more than to watch the world burn.

It’s been 16 years since then. A lifetime. There is an entire generation of children who have never seen the Towers fall, but have lived with the consequences. A decade and a half of war, fathers and mothers leaving home for war and returning crippled or in coffins, regular reminders of terrorism and national security threats, the steady erosion of necessary liberties for temporary security.

To the generation after theirs, 9/11 would be something they read in history books or learn from their parents. They will never experience the consequences of that day, only the second- and third- and fourth-order effects. When the day comes, what should I tell my children?

I was born in the shadow of a nuclear apocalypse. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a generations-long cold war, every word and gesture backed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. A few years later, the Soviet Union suddenly ceased to exist.

My generation was promised a brave new world and the end of history. We merely enjoyed a brief respite before the war of our generation crashed into every television, every computer and every radio in the world.

While a War on Terror beats nuclear annihilation, it demands a new way of living, a new way of thinking, and the recognition that things never become better all by themselves — we must make them so, or hurtle into the abyss.

Being born in Singapore, I was sheltered from the shock. 9/11 was a tragedy, but not a personal one. None who died were my countrymen, much less people I know. We never had to go to war—though we were, and still are, targeted by terrorists. I could have been born in America and experienced far greater loss; I could have been born in Afghanistan, and forced to choose between the Taliban and the West.

There but for the grace of God go I.

The psychic wounds have healed over, faded to shallow scars. The rage, the grief, the horror, they have bled out long ago, leaving little more than a cyst of sorrow. Now that I am a man, I have shouldered greater responsibilities, and prepare myself for greater ones still.

Now, not so long after 9/11, there are new challenges. The never-ending War on Terror. The culture war between the social justice warriors and those who would face them. The Control-Left versus the Alt-Right. The clash of civilizations—not just between Islam and the West, but between everybody and everybody else. Corporations who arrogate to themselves the power to decide what speech is acceptable on social media. Governments who use all number of excuses to shore up their own power and take away everybody else’s rights. I have no doubt that my children will face challenges of their own.

What shall I teach them?

I will teach them of the boundless resilience of the human spirit and the breadth of the human heart. That sovereigns come and go, but ethics endures through the ages. That kith and kin matter more than the political fads of the day. That evil must be met with courage and righteousness and that all lies are sundered by the truth. That rulers and bandwagons must always be watched with a suspicious eye. That the triumph of evil comes simply from silence, but the triumph of good demands unbending virtue lived day after day. That they are the latest link in an unbroken chain stretching into the mists of antiquity, each generation building upon the achievements of the last, that for civilization to endure they themselves must be ready and able to bow their backs to the task and lay the groundwork for the glories of the next age.

Most of all, I will teach them to remember.

Cover image by Chris Schiffner.

TWO LIVES: Part 5 of 5

IMG_0186.JPG

Two scenes in a row. That was intense. I wiped the sweat from my brow—and then I realized I was mimicking the upwards parry Akira had used. My heart thumped in my chest. Blood pumped to my fists and feet.

I had to get a grip. That battle was long in the past. I had to leave it there.

At the shrine, I saw a large golden maneki neko. Gathered around the statue was a collection of smaller cats, their left paws raised. Legend held that keeping a maneki neko at a place of business was sure to bring good fortune. Which, no doubt, explained their popularity in Singapore and Japan.

There was a plaque nearby. It read: A manner of joining hands in prayer. Relax, join hands in front of your chest and close your eyes. Raise your left hand to the height of your left ear and mew. Your prayers will be answered.

I smiled. The Japanese sure had some strange customs. Then again, in Singapore, Chinese Buddhists pray by grasping burning incense sticks at chest height and bowing deep and often, sometimes punctuating it by waving their hands up and down in exaggerated motions. What would a Japanese think if he saw that?

Nevertheless, I clasped my hands together and nodded. Japan was a land of kami, and in that sense little different from the branch of Buddhism I had grown up with.

A strange thought popped into my head. Is there anything you want?

I’d experienced too much to dismiss it as a random thought. Instead, I smiled. How did Akira’s story end?

Here.


I was a ronin again.

Hattori was true to his word. He paid me for the job and erased my name from official mentions. The dead bandits were explained away as ‘self-defence’. The bandit chief himself was reported to have ‘died from his wounds’. I couldn’t think of a better outcome.

With the bandits eliminated, the merchant no longer needed yojimbo. With Hana dead, I had nothing tying me down to the city. I tried to stay, but I was surrounded by ghosts. Her smile in the moonlight near the river we had met, the tinkle of her laughter, the way she tugged at my sleeve when she wanted my attention.

I’d never known what she saw in a ronin like me. Perhaps I never would.

Summer surrendered to autumn. I continued teaching at the temple, but already I felt restless. The city felt a strange place, an alien world of noise and colour and strange customs. There was no place here for ronin like me. It was time for a new city, a new life.

After the final class of the season, I gathered my worldly belongings and prepared to leave. It wasn’t much: the clothes on my back, my weapons, my purse, a small sack holding travel essentials. Everything else I bequeathed to the temple.

I left Hiro with the monks. They could take care of it better than me. The road was no place for a cat used to life in the city. All I had left to remember Hana was the omamori I had never returned.

I headed north. I resumed the discipline of the road easily enough. Walk until tired, rest until ready, keep on walking. Sleep under the stars on dry nights, under trees during the rains, inside inns and temples if they were available and if I had the funds. For sustenance I had tea leaves and rice, and I harvested wild fruits and tubers where available.

I passed through an assortment of villages and towns, taking odd jobs for pay, but never staying for too long. I found no reason to stay, so I kept walking.

As winter approached, the days shortened and the air cooled. Falling ill now was dangerous. A man could freeze to death by the road and no one would notice. Or care. I quickened my pace, heading to the next city. I would shelter there for the winter. After that, well, who knows?

I pushed on, going further and further without rest. The first snows fell, dusting the world in white. I wrapped my haori tightly around myself and endured the cold. My destination was in sight, a black dot in the distance, past a sward of dried and yellowing grass.

I reached the gates in the evening. I pleaded with the sole watchman to let me in, and eventually he relented. At least he showed me the way to the nearest temple.

The snow grew thicker, occasionally slipping under my kimono and freezing my flesh. My geta sank deeper and deeper, barely keeping my feet clear of the layer of white. People retreated indoors, where they could find light and warmth. I doubted I could afford a room at an inn. But monks would never turn away a man like me.

Past the torii, I had to climb a series of stairs to reach the temple. Cold sweat clung to my flesh. I sneezed, wiping my nose against my sleeve. I planted my feet carefully, retaining my balance on the slippery stone.

The stairs fed into the sando, the narrow road that approached the temple. Two lines of toro lit the way. In the distance I just about made out the silhouette of the worship hall. There was another building on my right. Light beckoned from the windows. Perhaps I could find the monks there.

But first, I had one more thing to do.

To my left was a small pavilion. A temizuya. I checked the chozubachi; the stone water vessel was full. Rolling up my sleeve, I took a dipper and poured water on my left hand. The water shocked my skin and numbed my fingers. I rinsed my right hand and mouth, then dipped the handle into the water.

Now ritually pure, I wiped my hands on my hakama and my mouth on my sleeve, and headed for the lit building. By the light of the toro I saw a petite woman approach.

A woman?

She wore no makeup, but her long hair was tied into a neat bun. She wore a haori dyed a pure white, and a hakama the colour of blood.

She was not a nun. She was a miko.

This was not a Buddhist temple. This was a Shinto shrine.

She studied me as she approached. She saw the swords at my side and bowed, deep and low.

“Good evening,” she said.

I returned her bow. “Good evening.”

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I need a place to stay for the winter.”

She smiled broadly, fire dancing in her eyes.

“Come inside. We’d be pleased to have a guest.”


Is that everything? I wondered.

It is enough.

Another life. Another city. Another chance to try again. I hoped it was enough for Akira. For me.

I bowed, and walked away.

Here I was, living a life utterly different from, yet eerily similar to, the one Akira had led. We were ronin who had studied the sword. We were thinkers, not talkers. Buddhism had shaped us. We had lovers named for flowers. He had lost Hana. Mine was still around.

A quiet voice, deep and calm, flooded my mind.

You have one more chance with her. Don’t waste it.

Akira’s voice. My voice, reaching across the centuries.

I won’t.

In the evening, in my hotel, I brought out my laptop. My lover was online. I opened Facebook Messenger and touched my fingers to the keys.

Something funny happened earlier today…


The places and performances described at Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura are as I have experienced them in July 2016.

Earlier chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4.

nogods_256

Interested in more stories from me? Check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

TWO LIVES: Part 4 of 5

Samurai.jpg

My heart thudded sharply in my chest. I hadn’t seen that coming.

Cold crept through my chest. I breathed through it, focusing blanking out everything but the cycling of air through my lungs. A shard of grief embedded in my heart. Centuries removed from the event, I still felt the echo of the trauma; I couldn’t begin to comprehend what Akira had felt under his mask.

But I wasn’t him. I am me.

No, not quite. I am he, and he is me. How else could I have seen these images, spotted the parallels between his life and mine?

My parents beckoned me to go. I followed them numbly, trying to immerse myself into the flow of information. It was like trying to grasp water; every time I thought I had something it slipped through my fingers. Meaningless babble filled my words. Vague impressions lightly touched my body.

I paused to look around, careful to avoid bumping into people. We were heading towards a temple. Through the doorway I saw figures arranged on an altar. People prayed before them in their own ways. Some clasped their hands and closed their eyes, others added a bow or lowered their heads.

But that wasn’t the temple I remembered. The one I had known was…empty.


It was a quiet day. The children had gone. The priests were busy with their chores. That left me free to practice the sword.

In the empty courtyard, I practiced draws and cuts, thrusts and slashes, body slams and grappling techniques. With every stroke I imagined cutting down a bandit.

The monks continued their chores, already used to my regimen. Hiro was wandering the grounds somewhere, hunting for mice and other treasures. No one came to disturb me. Good.

Hana’s absence had left a hole in my heart, as though an unseen demon had clawed out a chunk of me. In the morning, I had lit incense for Hana and her family, and dedicated an hour of prayers. The funeral had been carried out long ago, well before I had returned to the city. This was the best I could do.

My chest throbbed. I kept training. My services were not required today. My employer said I needed time to grieve. He was right – but grieving can wait. The sword came first. Soon, there would come a time for vengeance. I had to be ready for that moment of truth.

I switched to my wakizashi, reacquainting myself with the feel of the smaller sword, studying how the length and balance affected my techniques. If I had to fight indoors, this would be my primary weapon; the longer katana would be too unwieldy.

A visitor stepped into the courtyard. His bamboo hat shielded his face from sight, but I could feel his eyes on me. He wore a dark green kimono with a white collar, matched with a heavy grey hakama. At his left hip he carried a daisho, and tucked into his obi was a jitte.

He was no ordinary samurai; he was a police samurai.

I sheathed my sword and bowed. He bowed back.

“Are you the ronin who lives in the temple?” the samurai asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I heard what happened to your woman. On behalf of the police, you have my condolences.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you doing well?”

Every living being must die. It is simply the way of things. Instead of dwelling on her death, the head monk had advised me to remember what made Hana’s life worth celebrating, and how I could live my life to honour her memory. It almost worked.

“Yes.” I paused. “But you did not come here simply to ask after me.”

He smiled. “Of course. Please, step outside with me. We have much to talk about.”

“Such as?”

“It is not proper to speak of bloodshed before the Buddha.”

I exited the temple with him. As we strolled down the street, he began speaking.

“Two months ago, we heard that a mysterious ronin cut down a pair of bandits in the marketplace. One was slain, the other’s hands were cut off. Leaving aside the legality of the incident, we took the maimed bandit into custody.

“We spread the word that he bled to death. In reality, we locked him up and questioned him rigorously. He revealed to us the location of the bandits’ hideout. We have since confirmed the information, and are putting together a task force to apprehend the criminals. You may come with us if you wish.”

“Why me?”

“What they did to your woman demands vengeance.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“A job. Monetary compensation. And the police would not look too closely into your activities on the day the bandits were cut down.”

If the police had truly wanted to question me, they could have found me anytime they pleased. They must have felt that dealing with the bandits was a higher priority than a ronin lodging in a temple.

“You look sceptical,” he added.

The money would be nice. The promise of reduced police attention would be a bonus, assuming he spoke the truth. But the rewards were ancillary. As soon as he had made the offer I had made my decision.

After all, what warrior would not avenge his woman?

I shook my head.

“I’m in,” I said.


The samurai called himself Hattori. At sunset I met his team of twelve lesser samurai at the city gates. They were clad in helmets and suits of mail armour, reinforced with plates on their sleeves, thighs and shins. Their primary armaments were polearms—arresting tools, not weapons of war—but they all carried swords by their sides. All of them had horses.

I was the only one without armour, a non-lethal implement or a horse. What I did have was Hana’s omamori, secured to my obi. None of them commented on my equipment. The moment I mounted Hattori’s horse, we set off.

The bandits lived in a house outside the city. Formerly an inn, the owners had long ago abandoned it, giving the criminals a perfect hideout. It was situated inside a forest by the main road, with a lone dirt path providing access.

The samurai left the horses a distance away and gathered for a strategy meeting.

“We will split into two groups,” Hattori said. “Sumimori, you will take six men and secure the perimeter. Mine will attack the house and apprehend the criminals. We should expect at least six bandits inside the house. In case we need reinforcements, Sumimori’s team will double as our reserve force.

“We will make our approach through the trees, parallel to the road. Sumimori, your group will go first and deal with any guards and traps within the forest. When you’re done, assemble on the left side of the road and mimic the call of an owl. I will reply with a similar call. My team will pass through the forest to the right of the path. When we’re in position, I will sound the attack with my jinkai. Sumimori, if you are discovered, blow your own jinkai and my team will rush in.”

Sumimori gathered his men and crept off into the night. I stayed with Hattori.

There was nothing left to say, nothing more to do but wait. Crickets sang all around us. The remaining samurai checked their equipment and gathered around their leader. I tugged at my daisho, ensuring they were firmly held in place, and joined them. Hattori retrieved his jinkai from his horse. Held in a basket, it was a large conch shell with a brass mouthpiece that served as a trumpet.

Time crawled. I focused on my breath, clearing my mind. There was no room for thoughts of revenge, of duty, of Hana. Only victory.

A long, low whoop filled the air.

Hattori placed his hands to his mouth and issued a similar call.

“Let’s go, he whispered.

He led the way into the forest. I followed. Most of the samurai was city dwellers, unused to the forest. Now and then I heard the snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves, the soft thuds of weapons bumping into trees. I moved deliberately, keeping my swords pinned to my side with one hand and the other outstretched to detect unseen obstacles.

Reaching the tree line, I saw the house under the light of the moon. It was a sturdy two-story structure with a nearby stable. Long shadows crept under the roof. The windows were dark. Nobody seemed to be awake.

Something moved within the shadows. A man. He walked in a small circle, swinging his arms and stretching his neck. In the dark I couldn’t tell if he were armed, but there was no reason to assume he wasn’t.

Hattori placed his jinkai to his lips and blew a deep two-tone call.

Samurai boiled out of the woods, screaming at the top of their lungs. I drew my wakizashi and followed.

The guard stood his ground. Bellowing something unintelligible, he drew his sword and slashed uselessly at the air. He must be trying to scare the police – but they kept coming.

A samurai charged him, sasumata in hand. The bandit hacked away at the spear fork to no effect. The samurai ensnared the bandit in the crook of the sasumata’s horns and drove him against the wall. Undeterred, the guard flailed about, his sword passing dangerously close to the samurai’s limbs.

Another police samurai arrived, this one armed with a sodegarami. Approaching the bandit from the side, he thrust the sleeve entangler just as the bandit slashed again. The sword clashed against the sodegarami’s head, lodging between its forward prongs. Sliding his weapon down, the samurai drew a tight circle, capturing the bandit’s hand with the pole arm’s rear-facing hooks, and yanked. The sword flew away.

Two more samurai pounced on the halpless bandit, wrestling him to the ground. Inside the house, men yelled. Light spilled out the windows. The front door opened. The faint glow of a lantern revealed a huge man with a katana. His eyes locked on the nearest target.

Me.

Screaming, he raised his katana. The blade caught on the doorframe. As he struggled to pull it free, I thrust into his exposed throat. Retracting the wakizashi, I rammed my shoulder into him.

We tumbled into the house. The dying bandit flopped over, clutching at his throat. To my left, a pair of bandits stormed through an open door.

A police samurai barged past me, going for the left-hand bandit. I raised my weapon and approached the other one. He snarled a curse and rushed me with a frenzy of wild sword strokes. I leapt back, but I felt steel slicing across my arm.

He slashed again. I stepped in, raising my sword. My blade met his with a loud clang. I flowed around his slash, brought my wakizashi high and took off his head.

I looked down. The sword had scored my right forearm. Only bone, minimal damage.

The other police samurai seemed to be in trouble. He held a short jitte against his forearm, while the bandit had a much longer sword. The samurai backpedalled, evading a slash. The bandit stepped in and cut again.

The samurai shot in, blocking the blade with his jitte. Quick as a flash, he hooked the sword with the prong of his jitte and grabbed his opponent’s left hand. The samurai wheeled his arms around, and suddenly he was on his feet, holding the bandit’s weapon. More samurai swarmed the disarmed bandit, tackling him down.

Another police samurai ran past me. Hattori.

“Upstairs!” he shouted. “Follow me!”

I obeyed, running right behind him. Hattori had a te yari, a spear specially shortened for room fighting. This one had a crossbar mounted behind the tip. It seemed he wasn’t interested in taking prisoners.

The room next to us had a staircase. As we pounded up the stairs, I heard men shouting from above. Hattori yelled back, jabbing his te yari. I stepped back and down, giving him room to work. Over his shoulder, I saw a bandit waving a sword. Two more bandits waited nearby, watching the fight.

Hattori aimed high, going for the bandit’s face. The man moved to guard—but it was a feint. Hattori swooped low, hooked the crossbar behind his ankle and pulled. The man went down with a resounding crash. Hattori adjusted his aim and thrust. A high-pitched shriek filled the air and curdled my blood. He’d just been unmanned.

The surviving bandits turned and fled to a nearby room.

Ike!” Hattori urged. Go!

We chased the bandits into the room. Hattori stepped through the door, spear in hand. A bandit blindsided him, tackling him against a wall. Entering the room, I kicked the attacker in the temple. The bandit turned over on his side. Hattori released his weapon and grappled with the bandit.

That left one more bandit in the room. He wore an expensive indigo-dyed kimono and a fine grey hakama. A long scar crossed his right eye. A short sword dangled from his right hand.

“Are you the bandit chief?” I asked.

He snorted. “And what if I am?”

I circled to his right. “You killed my woman.”

He leered. “Really? I can’t remember. I’ve slain so many over the years, after having my way with them. The sight of women on all fours, begging for mercy, really gets the blood going. You know what I mean?”

He continued spewing filth, circling as he spoke. The banter was a distraction. He was slowly approaching me, sliding his feet forward to shorten the distance between us. I let him continue, trying to get an angle into his diminished right side.

He was in range. I stepped in, rearing my body up.

He cut at my neck.

I swooped in low, ducking under his stroke. With a loud kiai I cut through his belly. I stepped through and whirled around.

The bandit was down, blood seeping into the tatami under my feet.

I glanced at Hattori. Two more samurai had come to assist, one to hold down the prisoner and the other to tie him up.

I pricked my ears and listened. Men spoke to each other in conversational tones. There were no more orders, no desperate cries, no ringing of steel of steel. The metallic tang of blood intermingled with the odour of faeces and urine. I counted the number of men we had met along the way. Six of them. The bandits had been dealt with.

The bandit chief moaned, slowly bleeding to death. I wondered why he didn’t resist. Then I saw what had happened to his spine.

I flicked the blood from my sword. It splashed at Hattori’s feet.

“Looks like you’ve gotten your revenge,” he said.

I nodded numbly. I didn’t feel anything. Not satisfaction, not joy, just… calm. An understanding that the wheel of karma had turned once again, like it always had and always will. This wouldn’t bring Hana back—but it would stop the bandits from harming any more innocents.

“He needs a physician,” I said.

Hattori shook his head. “You cut through his spine. With a wound that deep, we should just put him out of his misery.”

“I shall leave that decision to you.”

“You’re not going to do it?”

“He’s…no longer a threat. If I did anything else in front of a police samurai, I could be charged with murder.”

Hattori chuckled grimly. “Come. We still have work to do.”


Earlier chapters: Part 1, 2 and 3.

nogods_256.jpg

For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

TWO LIVES: Part 3 of 5

Sakura 2.jpeg

I escorted the merchant home, glaring at everyone who dared to stand in my way. The commoners took one glance at my daisho and the blood on my clothes, and hurried to make way. No one wanted to be the next to die.

The moment the client opened the door, I practically shoved him through.

“I’m going to get help,” I said. “Stay here. Do not open the door for anyone except the police.”

He shut the door. I staggered out into the street. Blood stained my kimono and dripped on the ground. This was the only good set of clothes I had. I sighed, and shook my head. I could worry about that later. For now, I needed help. I needed to get to the temple. The priests there would know whom to…

A woman stared at me, dumbfounded. It was Hana.

“Hello,” I said.

“You’re wounded,” she said.

“It’s not serious. But I require a physician.”

She pursed her lips. “Come with me.”

She reached for her hair and yanked a length of red ribbon loose. Her hair cascaded down in a messy bundle. Taking my injured arm, she wrapped the ribbon around the wounds. Dark spots soaked through the fabric.

“That ribbon is expensive,” I said.

“I have plenty more.”

She led me to a nearby house. Walled off from the rest of the street, it was easily the largest dwelling here. Well-worn stones traced a path from the entrance to the front door. To my left was a garden overflowing with shrubs and flowers. A solitary tree wept dried leaves on the stone path. To my right was a tranquil pond. Koi swum lazily in the water, occasionally stopping to stare at me.

This was the first time I’d been to her home. She definitely came from a family of wealth and taste.

An older man sat by the door, observing the pond. He looked up as she approached.

“Hana! Who is this?” he demanded.

“Father, he’s a friend,” she replied. “He’s injured and needs help.”

He stared suspiciously at me. Meeting his gaze, I delivered a formal bow. My torn flesh complained.

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said.

He squinted at me. “Come in.”

I left my katana at the door, with the tsuba pointed to the left, while my wakizashi stayed at my side. Hana’s father nodded ever so slightly, and opened the door for me.

Inside the main room, Hana’s father bade me sit on the tatami floor and barked orders. A servant hauled a medicine chest into the room. Hana and the servant removed my kimono and examined my wounds, fussing over the injuries. The cat stayed out of the way, but observed the proceedings.

“You are most fortunate,” the servant remarked. “These are shallow wounds. They would heal nicely. But first, we must disinfect them.”

“Let me do it,” Hana said.

She undid the ribbon bandage, grabbed a piece of gauze and wiped away the blood on me. It stung on contact. I endured the pain as best as I could, but Hana lightened her touch.

“What happened?” her father demanded.

I spoke about the encounter at length, sketching over the gory details. A woman didn’t need to know what the insides of a man looked like as they spilled across the ground. Hana set the bloodied gauze aside, poured ointment on a fresh cotton patch, and applied it to the wounds. Fire scorched my flesh. I sucked in a deep breath and carried on. Pain always passes. To acknowledge it was to make it worse. I simply let it pass through me and continued speaking.

Hana finished shortly after me. Reaching into the medicine chest, she grabbed several rolls of white cloth. As she bandaged my wounds, I said, “You know medicine?”

“Everyone in my household must know the arts of war,” her father said. “That includes tending to minor wounds.”

“A wise precaution,” I said. Turning to her, I nodded. “Thank you.”

Her hand rested on my shoulder a little longer than necessary. “It’s nothing.”

The servant carried away the chest, the remains of my kimono and the expended cloth patches, leaving the three of us alone. Hana placed the cat on her lap and stroked its neck.

“You saved my friend’s life,” her father said. “Domo arigatou gozaimasu.”

Iie,” I said. “I was merely doing my job.”

“Nevertheless, you did well. I shall speak to the police. Such a brazen attack cannot go unpunished.”

“May the bandits get what they deserve,” I said.

With Hana out of the way, and the pain subsiding into a low boil, I could study the room properly. Like me, Hana’s father wore a short sword in his obi. Behind him, mounted on the wall within arm’s reach, was a full-length katana.

“I see you are a samurai,” I said, “no doubt of a long and illustrious lineage.”

He smiled tightly. “Yes.”

Which made Hana the daughter of a samurai.

“You carry a daisho,” he said. “I trust you are one too?”

“I come from a humble bloodline. Our domain was abolished long ago.”

“A ronin, then.”

“Yes.”

His eyes hardened. “How did you meet my daughter?”

“Quite by chance. I was sitting by the river when her cat came up to me. It led me to her. I saw that she had fallen and sprained her ankle, and helped her up. We started talking.”

As if on cue, Hiro the cat padded into the room. It studied us imperiously, then rubbed itself against my leg.

Hana giggled. “Hiro remembers you.”

I patted its head gently. It purred softly, then bounded away and leapt on Hana’s lap. It kneaded her thighs and nuzzled against her belly. Smiling, she caressed its neck and back.

“Is that your family cat?” I asked.

“Hiro comes and goes as it pleases, but it seems attached to Hana,” he said. “I’ve never seen it approach a stranger.”

“Hiro’s a good judge of character, ne?” Hana said.

He grunted. “I trust my daughter more than a cat.”

“Father!” she exclaimed, still stroking the animal.

He turned to me. “She told me she knew a ronin who could serve as a fine yojimbo. I see her judgment is accurate.”

She beamed. “Of course! And Hiro’s too.”

“Do you wish to continue seeing Hana?”

She stiffened, and sighed. “Father, he’s just a friend.”

“Yes,” I replied.

He grunted. “My daughter is a strange woman.”

“Father!” she protested. “I’m not ‘strange’!”

“I agree,” I said.

She made a face and looked bashfully away. Her father laughed.

“Please continue looking after her,” he said.

“I will.”


The present and the past twisted into each other. A torrent of snapshots filled my head: a moonlight stroll along the river where we had met; a black-toothed smile, almost invisible in the night; warm conversation over hot meals; a soft small hand in a large rough one; fingers gliding over soft fur; unending repetitions of sword strokes in an empty temple courtyard; the jangling of coins in an increasingly-heavy pouch.

Nothing I did could shut them out.

Like a sleepwalker, I stumbled through a haunted house, filled with depictions of youkai. None of the monsters matched the intensity of the flashbacks. None of them were real, not the way what Akira—what I—had experienced was real. Only once did the flashbacks stop, when I had to navigate a series of treacherously shifting floors.

When I emerged into the sun, more sense-impressions flooded my mind. Sharpened steel biting through flesh and bone; the warmth of skin on skin; husky feminine whispers at night; laughter in the rain; blades flashing through the air in smooth, practiced arcs.

Abruptly, another flashback kicked in.


Hana and I strolled towards the market. The lunchtime crowd was flooding the street, and with them came a cacophonous riot of noise and colour. I had to raise my voice just to be heard.

“I will be going away for a while,” I said.

“Oh?”

“My client wishes to do business outside the city. It could take a while. Ten days, perhaps.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the surrounding villages. He wishes to expand his business and sell his wares to a wider audience. I will be leading a group of yojimbo to guard his convoy.”

“I see.”

Reaching into her obi, she removed a cloth bag.

“Here,” Hana said. “I want you to have this.”

“What is it?”

“An omamori. It’s kept me safe over the years. I want you to have it. You can give it back when you come home.”
I’d seen the monks at the temple craft omamori in their spare time. These were small amulets made of wood or paper, dedicated to Buddha and the gods. Hana’s was small enough to fit inside the bag.

“Thank you.”

I tucked the amulet away. She held her arms wide in invitation. I encircled her slim body with my arms and held her tight. I drank in the scent of her hair and the warmth of her body, burning them into my mind.

“Be careful,” she said.

“I will.”


The flashback had come so powerfully I had no time to brace myself, and by the time I realised I was in another Japan I had returned to this one.

Maybe I was doing this wrong. This stream of consciousness should not be resisted; it should be embraced, experienced, ridden out all the way to the end. I perched myself on a bench, took a sip of water and a deep breath, found the nearest image and plunged in.


The days crawled by at an agonising pace. Previously, I would have been indifferent to the time spent on the job. Ever since I walked the road of a ronin, I had never visited the same place twice. I was always on the go, drifting from one place to another, with no bedding but my haori and no roof but the sky. To a man with no master, no home and no place, sentimentality was an alien emotion.

But today, I had a reason to return.

Hana.

The moment the merchant and I passed through the city gates, I felt something wrong. The mood of the city was subdued. Hawkers were still peddling their wares, people were still doing their business, but not with the same restless energy I had come to associate with the city. Police samurai patrolled the streets, openly wearing weapons and armour.

Something had happened here. But what?

First, the client. I could speak with Hana about that later.

I led the way back to the merchant’s home. Behind us, the other yojimbo—ronin one and all—protected my flanks and back. Commoners bowed just a little lower, stepped away just a little faster. Now, it didn’t matter that I was still a ronin: I wore a daisho, I was a known face around these parts, and I worked for a wealthy man. I was still unused to such deference, and I was more concerned with potential threats than social niceties.

No bandits jumped out from the crowd to ambush us. After seeing him home, the merchant dismissed us for the day. I sauntered down the street, heading to Hana’s residence.

But it was gone.

My breath caught in my chest. I forced myself to breathe, and studied the sight before me.

Her home had been torched, burned down to its foundations. The garden, so carefully tended, was reduced to ashes. Dead fish choked the pond. There was nothing left but scorched timbers and blackened earth.

I glanced left and right, checking the address. I was at the right place. But her home was a ruin. How?

My head spun. My breath died in my lungs. My legs wobbled.

“Impossible…” I whispered.

But the truth was before me. To deny it would be to deny the world itself. I had to find out more.

I marched to the house across the street. An elderly woman, her back bent with age, carefully swept the area around the front door. She looked up as I approached, and bowed as low as her spine allowed her to go.

My heart demanded me to question her. My brain could not craft the right words. An eternity later, I found a compromise.

“What happened?” I demanded, gesturing at the ruin.

She peered at me. “I recognise you. You visited Hana-chan frequently, ne?”

I nodded. My throat locked up. I forced out what words I could fine. “Yes. What… Is she…?”

“Bandits.”

My fists tightened. My heart pounded. Blood sang in my veins.

“Tell me what happened.”

The grandmother took a moment to compose herself.

“I can only tell you what I heard. Bandits broke into the home last night. I heard sounds of fighting. Men shouting, screaming, dying. I heard Hana-chan crying, too. I was too frightened to look. I hid for a long time. But suddenly, I smelled smoke.

“I slid the door open a crack and peeked out. The house was ablaze. A gang of armed men—four, five of them—slipped out the gate, carrying heavy sacks over their shoulders. The neighbours cried for the samurai and the fire brigade. I ran away in case the fire spread.

“After the fire brigade put out the flames, we helped to sift through the wreckage. We… We found Hana-chan and her father.”

“Dead?”

She nodded. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“She was such a charming girl. So smart, so lively. And now…” She looked up at me. “You were close, yes?”

I nodded numbly.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Ronin I might be, but I was still the son of a noble line. I was a man of the sword. I had to comport myself accordingly.

I walled off my emotions and bowed deeply. “Thank you for telling me.”

She held her hands up, waving away the gesture. “Please, it is nothing. I have done nothing important.”

“It is important enough to me.”

I looked again at the house. I remembered the times I paid a visit to her home when I was off-duty. The evenings of tea and art and poetry with her and her father. The times when I walked her home from an errand. Her father had contemplated marrying her off to another samurai family, but none of her potential suitors visited her as often as I did.

My fingers remembered the gentleness of her touch, the warmth of her skin, the silky smoothness of her hair. My ears recalled her soothing voice, her laughter, her cries, her whispers.

She was gone. Ashes in the wind. All that was left of her was the omamori I’d never have a chance to return. With her passing I was unmoored, a dead cherry blossom floating in a turbulent river.

Nyaaaaaaaa.

Hiro. The cat entwined itself around my legs and looked up expectantly at me. Kneeling, I picked it up and cradled it to my chest. It cried plaintively, nuzzling my neck.
I almost broke. I stood my ground and sucked in a breath. Moisture stained my eyes. I touched my fingers to them and cleared it away. The woman did not comment.

“That’s Hiro-kun, ne?” she asked.

I rubbed its head. “Yes.”

“Poor baby. I wonder who will take care of it now.”

“I will,” I replied, keeping my voice steady.

“That’s good to hear.” She pursed her lips. “This must be such a shock. Will you be well?”

“In time.”

She didn’t look convinced. “What will you do?”

“What I must.”


Earlier chapters: Part 1 and 2.

nogods_256

For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

TWO LIVES: Part 2 of 5

River

I sat by the river and stared at the water. It seemed still, but the leaves drifting across the surface betrayed a hidden current, illuminated in the amber hue of the setting sun.

No luck finding work. My funds were running low, and I couldn’t remember the last time I ate anything more substantial than a bowl of rice. The daimyo wasn’t hiring, and in this age of peace what place was there for a man of the sword?

Perhaps it was time to move on. Surely there had to be somewhere I could—

Nyaaa!

A cat. A white bobtail with black and brown patches adorning its coat. It slinked up to me and peered curiously at me. I rubbed its forehead. It bumped its head against my leg and snaked around my ankle.

The creature looked back at me, called again, and trotted off. A few moments later, it stopped, sat on its haunches, and looked back at me.

“Do you want something?” I asked.

Nyaaaaaaaa.

It was longer, more insistent. Maybe the cat wanted me to follow it.

I got up and dusted myself off. The cat turned around and padded down the riverbank. I followed.

A woman sat by the riverbank, massaging her right ankle. The cat pounced on her lap and purred. She smiled, rubbing the back of its ear.

The woman’s face, neck and shoulders were plastered in white makeup. An elaborate hair bun towered over her head, held in place with a comb and a ribbon. A pair of red fabric flowers, hana kazashi, rested on either side of her forehead. She had simple sandals on her feet, but her kimono was made of silk. A deep blue silk kimono, embroided with pink flowers.

A woman of means.

Konnichiwa,” I said.

She faced me. Her gaze transfixed me. For a moment, it felt like she was peering into my soul—and I was looking at hers. Her eyes were as calm as a placid lake, and as dark as the night. She had a pleasant demeanour, and her profile not unattractive. More than that, she was… familiar.

But she was a stranger.

Konnichiwa,” she said, setting the cat aside. “I’d stand, but I fear I sprained my ankle.”

“Do you need help?”

She held out her hand. “Onegaishimasu.”

I took her hand and helped her up. She stood awkwardly, placing her weight on her left ankle, but she seemed none the worse for wear. She swept off the dirt from her clothes and bowed. Low enough to show respect, but not the deep bow commoners granted to samurai. I returned the gesture.

Arigatou gozaimasu,” she said. Thank you very much.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

Her cat coiled itself around her wounded leg. She smiled down at it. “Hiro seems to like you.”

“How so?”

“Hiro rarely approaches people. You seem to be a nice person.”

“I do my best.”

“I’m sure you do.” Sparks danced in her eyes. “I saw you while I was walking down the river. You looked pretty sad, sitting by the river like yourself. Are you well?”

Women do not speak so forthrightly like this. Who was she?

“Yes.”

“Is that so? Are you a ronin?”

“Yes.”

She made a low, soft sound. “Times are difficult for ronin.”

“Always have been.”

“You seem troubled. Is there anything I could do to help?”

I shook my head. “I was just…thinking. I’m not in a mood for talking.”

“Ah.”

Her lips curved upwards. Reaching up, she pulled her ribbon out of her hair.

“Here. You can give it back when you want to talk.”

I blinked. She was an odd one. But I wasn’t above accepting charity.

“Thanks,” I said.

I tucked the ribbon into my obi. It felt ridiculous. It was ridiculous. But with her, it felt… right.

Bowing, she said, “I shall take my leave.”

“Wait.”

“Yes?”

“What’s your name?”


The scene faded out. Reality crashed into my brain. I bit back a curse. What was her name?

Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the scene, willing it to return. I saw an outline of her face against the dark. Her lips moved, but no sound emerged. I slowed down the scene, replaying it again and again.

Hana.

That was her name. And mine?

I loosened my jaw, relaxed my tongue, willing for sound to flow out.

Akira.

No family names. No clan names. That wasn’t right. Had they been lost to the mists of time? Or was I simply lost in some elaborate daydream?

No answers arrived.

Hana. Japanese for flower. And my fiancé was named after one. Either it was a remarkable coincidence or the byproduct of an overactive imagination. Given my profession, it was even odds on both.

The tour group dispersed into family units. Mine headed for a corner of the park, purportedly a life-sized reproduction of an Edo street. Every house was an exhibition, offering a snapshot into daily life. One house held a fisherman gathering his catch. Another showed a merchant displaying his wares.

Down the street, I caught sight of a man in a topknot sitting on the floor, cradling an umbrella. A nearby display explained that less well-off samurai often supplemented their income by making and selling umbrellas and other items.

But Akira—I—wasn’t a craftsman. I was—


I wasn’t clever with my hands the way artisans were, and it was too late to start now. I could, however, read and write. And there was always work for a literate man.

“That is all for today,” I said.

The students bowed. I bowed back. The formalities of ritual observed, they reverted to being children. Climbing to their feet, they rushed out the door, giggling and chatting. Some were already organising teams for games. Dusting off my hakama, I rose and stepped out of the hall.

Everywhere I went, I could always count on the generosity of monks. The monks of this city were no different. Perhaps they saw in me a fellow inhabitant of the dewdrop world, an existence as fragile as a puff of smoke, yet anchored by an unbreakable code. Ronin I might be, but unlike the bureaucrats who played at being samurai, I would never sell the steel of my weapons. I was still a man of the sword—but sometimes it meant being a man of the pen at times.

The monks here allowed me to sleep under their roof, and I earned my keep by teaching children how to read and write. It wasn’t a glamorous job by any means, but it was infinitely better than starving to death.

As I entered the temple courtyard, I saw a familiar face. Hana.

Ohisashiburi desu,” she called, bowing. It’s been a while.

Ohisashiburi,” I agreed.

Today, Hana wore a pink kimono with yellow floral decorations. Yellow hana kazashi hung in her hair. She had painted her face and neck in dazzling white, and her eyebrows were shaped into gentle crescents.

“I see you’ve found a place,” she said.

“For now.” Reaching into my obi, I removed a carefully folded length of red silk. “I believe this is yours.”

Smiling, she revealed a mouthful of black-dyed teeth.

“Thank you,” she said, tucking her ribbon into her obi. “You remembered.”

“A man never takes what belongs to another.”

Her ribbon had tied me here as surely as a promise. I couldn’t leave the city without giving it back. I had redoubled my efforts, and found my current profession. And if I had absconded, she would only have lost a ribbon

“How did you find me?” I asked.

Her eyes twinkled. “I have many friends.”

“That’s it?”

She giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. “I saw you teaching here once. But I was too busy to speak to you then. I’m making up for it now.”

“Ah.”

“I didn’t expect you to be a teacher, though. I heard you need to be a talker to be a teacher. But you… you’re not a talker.”

I shrugged.

Another giggle. “Hora! You’re too quiet. I think you prefer to let your actions do your talking, and do your thinking before you act.”

“Just how do you know so much about me?”

“I just know things about people.”

She was a weird one. I could not underestimate her. And I still didn’t know what, exactly, she did. if indeed she had a job at all.

“Do you like teaching?”

“It’s a job.”

“You are a man of the sword. Perhaps I have a better opportunity for you.”

“Do tell.”

“My father’s friend is a merchant. Lately he has come into money, and he fears bandits are targeting him. He wishes to hire a bodyguard.”

“A yojimbo?” I echoed. “I suppose in this age there is still a need for warriors.”

“Unfortunate, but true. Will you take the job?”

“How could I not?”


The world melted. The scene didn’t fade so much as blur, temporarily ceding to reality. Every time I took a step, I felt like I was lifting two feet at once: one shoe-clad foot in this world; a rough, exposed foot in a cheap clog in another.

The street was empty. It wasn’t right. Cities weren’t so quiet, not in the day. The ghosts of men and women brushed past me, commoners in cheap attire, geisha with their painted faces and elaborate clothing, a group of armed and armoured samurai on patrol. It was quiet here, but if I pricked my ears, I could just about make out the hollering of merchants, the laughter of children, the haggling of women, the distant echoes of a long-forgotten past.

For all that, I was not losing my mind. Long experience with flashbacks and sensory overloads and meltdowns had acquainted me with the ragged edge of sanity. This was not it. I was far from the threshold. This past life experience, whatever it was, felt wrong…but at a deeper level, it was right. Like a long-forgotten memory of a distant time and place, suddenly unfolding from depths of my mind and demanding to be remembered.

Was I supposed to learn something? Was there a connection with this life?

Drawing a deep breath, I focused on the present, looking past the ghosts to see where I was going. Presently a tall man loomed before me, his head turned elsewhere. As I prepared to step aside, he looked at me and—


I hated crowds. It wasn’t just the noise of people competing to be heard, the heat and odour of so many people packed together, the constant jostling and bumping. It was the fact that someone could slide in next to you and thrust a blade into your belly before you had time to react.

Keeping one hand on my daisho, I navigated through the crowd. The commoners — those who saw me — scurried out of the way. I didn’t mind. Every extra shaku was an extra moment to react, to draw, to cut.

My client didn’t mind, too. Having a yojimbo was as much a status symbol as it was a necessity for the rich. Without one, he was just another man on the street; with me around, lesser beings had to give way to him.

The client had spoken of his admiration for samurai, of how he had mingled with them at clubs and business meetings. He wore the distinctive topknot of a samurai too, and his expensive silk kimono was embroided in silvery metallic thread, but he lacked a daisho. But why should he wear one, when he could rent mine?

The sun climbed high in the sky. Peddlers redoubled their cries, shouting out their wares: sweet potatoes, dried fish, soba, bean paste soup. The crowd grew thicker with every step. I kept one hand on my katana and the other on my purse. I stole a glance behind me. The merchant was sticking close to me, also discreetly guarding his money. He had just concluded a business deal, and it would not do to lose his profits to a thief.

I returned my attention to the crowd. There was a ripple ahead of me to my right. Someone was going against the flow of traffic, coming my way. I shifted my left hand to the sheath of my katana, my right to my handle.

A man stepped through the crowd. He looked at me, at my daisho, and nodded perfunctorily. His gaze shifted above and behind my shoulder, and his eyes narrowed. He held his right hand close to his leg, cocked at an unnatural angle.

Knife!

Yelling, he flipped the tanto around, braced it at his hip, and charged.

I stood my ground. Let him come. At the last moment I stepped aside, putting myself between me and the merchant. Bellowing a kiai, I drew my katana and arced it into a slash.

At the last moment, he swerved, rushing me. My sword cut clean through him. But his dead weight slammed into me. Something sharp pricked my right forearm. I crashed my shoulder into him. He fell to the ground, and from the mess I knew he was done.

“Help!” the merchant yelled.

A second attacker rushed through the crowd, sword held high. He slashed. I leapt away, bumping into the merchant. Metal scraped against my sternum. He raised his sword and slashed again.

I stepped into the attack with a rising cut. Hot blood showered over my face. Spinning the sword around, I slammed the pommel into his temple, driving him to the ground. He tried to pick himself up, but his hands were gone. He stared at the stumps in wide-eyed horror as blood gushed from the wounds. I stomped him in the face and he went still.

I scanned again. The street was rapidly emptying. Passers-by fled, screaming and calling for help. The merchant was rooted to the spot, his mouth agape. Blood flowed down my blade and ran over my hands. My kimono flapped loosely.

“You’re injured,” the merchant said.

I wiped the blood away, revealing a thin red line scoring my chest. More blood welled from two spots on my forearm.

“I’ll be fine,” I grunted. “Let’s go.”


I stepped around the passer-by and reminded myself to breathe. The battle had been so real—yet so distant, as though it were happening to someone else, and I was merely borrowing his eyes.

A faint ache emanated from my chest. Once again I felt the blades scraping across my bones. I glanced down, reminding myself that I was well. But there was a pair of moles on my forearm. The same places I’d been wounded back then.

A coincidence? Or something else?

Our next stop was a collection of ninja weapons and equipment. Unlike the earlier skit these were authentic replicas of tools described in ninjutsu texts. There was a short, straight sword, distinct from the long, curved katana; multiple types of shuriken, including stars and darts; a foldable rope ladder for infiltration. My heart quickened. Here was the kit used by spies, murderers and cowardly…

Cowardly?

I was a civilian. Neither samurai nor ronin. Why would I care about such things?

The world spun. It felt like I was merging with Akira, his thoughts and emotions leaking into mine. I slipped out of the house of weapons and braced myself.

Ghostly babble filled my ears, strange scents invaded my nostrils, and a wet sticky sensation spread across my chest. I touched my hands to my hips.

And I fell.

You can read Part 1 here.

nogods_256

If you would like more fiction from me, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS here.

TWO LIVES: Part 1 of 5

Sakura.jpg

Summer in Hokkaido was unlike the summers I have known. In Singapore, so close to the equator, summers were hot and humid, the sun so fierce it glazed the world in subtle hues of orange. Here, the air was cold and crisp, so cool I had to keep my jacket on all the time. The light was different, too, framing instead of drowning, bringing out the blues of the skies and the greens of the earth.

It was the second day of our group tour. It had started on an evil note: a visit to Jigokudani, better known as Hell Valley. Hot springs and mineral-rich streams issued thick sulfurous clouds, choking the air and closing off lungs. The guide had explicitly warned off anyone who had respiratory ailments. I stayed long enough to snap a couple of photos before beating a tactical retreat.

The other highlight of the day’s schedule was Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura. A theme park based on city life in the Edo period. Tokugawa had destroyed his rivals, uniting all of Japan. The shogun ruled the nation, while the daimyo retained their authority over their holdings. The ancient class system was rigid and ossified, the bureaucracy ruled all, and the way of the sword had come to an end.

Stepping off the bus, I followed the guide to the entrance. At the gate, figures of samurai with katana and armour stood next to greeters dressed in stereotypical all-black ninja outfits. A man and a woman dressed in period costumes stood at the gates, welcoming us in Japanese and English and Mandarin. They weren’t completely authentic; I saw wires snaking to earpieces and radios.

The guide issued us our tickets. The greeters exchanged them for pamphlets. Glancing at the map, I stepped through the open gate and—


Summer had come. The days were growing longer, the nights warmer. Sweat soaked through my kimono and stained my haori. My hakama clung to my legs with every step. I was long used to it; I had walked countless ri in my ancient geta, and no doubt I would cover countless more in the cheaply-made wooden clogs. A familiar ache pervaded my muscles. I ignored them. My destination was in sight.

A city. A real city. Walls of unyielding stone stretched along the perimeter. The road—a paved road, built for carriages and horses—led to the sole gate that controlled access into and out of the city.

A pair of armed men stood guard next to the massive double doors. Both men carried yari in their hands, the shafts planted firmly against the ground. They wore simple iron helmets and chest armour, and under those they wore cheap shitagi and hakama. As I approached, they sized me up. I felt their eyes crawling across my face, down my clothing, and to my obi.

They bowed.

These men had many things I did not. Jobs. Homes. Maybe families. But I had two things they did not: a katana and a wakizashi worn by my side. The daisho that was the hallmark of the warrior class.

“Good morning, sir,” they said in unison.

These men were ashigaru. Ordinary foot soldiers of common blood. In some domains they were considered samurai, in others they were not. Apparently, the local custom placed ashigaru beneath me.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Are you expecting trouble?”

“There are bandits in the area,” the older one said. “We have been asked to reinforce the police.”

And where there were bandits, there was work for a man who lived by the sword.

“I see,” I said.

“Sir, what is your purpose in coming here?”

“I seek employment,” I replied truthfully.

Both men glanced at each other, barely hiding their disdain. If my cheap clothes and lack of a horse hadn’t given it away, now they knew who I am. I was no true samurai, just a masterless ronin. A man with no place in society, doomed to an existence as ephemeral as the dewdrop world.

“The daimyo is not currently recruiting,” the younger guard said, in a tone only a shade removed from naked disrespect.

“Perhaps there are other opportunities,” I said mildly.

“Perhaps,” the senior man echoed.

After a cursory inspection, they let me pass. I stepped through the gates, letting the road guide my feet.


—I blinked.

What was that?

It was like my mind had been transported to another time and place, leaving my body in modern-day Japan. Images and sense-impressions flooded my brain, superimposing themselves over my current experience. And just as abruptly, here I was again.

Was I imagining things? Or was that something else?

I grabbed my bottle and chased that thought with a gulp of water, but no new fresh insights surfaced.

Well, whoever he was, I could sympathise with the ronin. I was one too, in my own way: instead of two swords I wielded a laptop and a smartphone. I was presently carrying them on my person, the computer in my backpack and the phone in my pocket. Like him, I had no formal employer; I’d slipped into the nebulous existence of the freelancer since I completed my education, and had never left. I practice a blade-based martial art, and, no doubt, so did he.

Coincidence? Or something else?

The group was moving on. I could ponder the vision later. I followed them down the main road, where we queued up for a live performance. It seemed to be highly popular: ahead of me, dozens of young Japanese teenagers chattered excitedly, while behind tourists of all ages conversed in their native tongues. Others sneaked away to the smoking zone.

Studying the nearby buildings, a sense of deja vu descended on me. I had seen my fair share of similar designs: documentaries, encyclopedias, Age of Empires, Rorouni Kenshin. But this felt different. The gently curved tiled roofs, the oversized eaves, the heavy wooden support columns, the dimness that the sun could not banish. It felt like I had lived here, somehow, though I had never visited Japan before.

Odd.

The performance was a reproduction of an Edo-era play. Everyone spoke in clear but rapid-fire Japanese. According to my brochure, printed in Japan’s world-famous Engrish, said that this was the story of an oiran and a court official. As she drank sake with him, her attendants remarked that the way he drank reminded them of the oiran’s lover – who was another official. Instead of taking offense, her customer helped them get married. The locals seemed to like it. For everyone else, the main thrust of humor came from the man who played the customer — a hapless tourist who spoke not a word of Japanese, but gamely played along with the narrator’s assistance.

At the end of the performance, to mimic Edo-era etiquette, the audience was encouraged to wrap coins in rice paper and throw them at the stage as a sign of their appreciation. As the money flew, a new image flashed through my head.

A bright morning. An elaborate wooden stage, raised above the street. A cheering crowd. A line of actors and actresses in full costume, bowing deeply. Paper fluttering through the air, weighted by metal coins.

I shook my head and took another drink of water. This was no mere delusion. This was something like… a memory. A memory from a previous life.

The next performance was at the ninja house. This one, the brochure claimed, told the story of an older ninja and a junior kunoichi. Having obtained vital information, they were taking refuge in a safe house — but the enemy was pursuing them. The first half of the performance was a skit. The Japanese laughed uproariously; all I understood was a small segment where the kunoichi drank her senior’s sake with gusto right after the ninja expounded its benefits. The second half began when the enemy broke in. The shinobi attacked the intruders, taking full advantage of the house’s false walls, secret tunnels and booby traps. Here, physical humor transcended language, and the shinobi finally triumphed.

As the show came a close, another vision struck me. Nightfall. Lanterns lining the road, illuminating another raised platform. As an actress in an elaborate costume delivered her lines, burly men in black clothes hustled in the background. They were stagehands, their all-black clothing a sign that the audience should ignore them.

I needed to clear my head.

A shallow river ran through the park. A place where people could sit and rest by the water. There were no people, though. Just a pair of tame goats.

Goats.JPG

I’d seen a similar river, in another time and place. Back then, I didn’t see goats. I saw…a cat. A woman. A ribbon.

As I framed that thought, the past crashed into my mind.

****

nogods_256

If you would like more fiction from the author, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Dragon Awards 2017 Winners

Dragoncon

The results of the Dragon Awards 2017 are in. The winners have my heartiest congratulations for producing such fine stories, and the voters have my thanks for making the Dragon Awards the premier fan awards in science fiction and fantasy.

While my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS did not win the award, against a titanic figure like Harry Turtledove there simply is no competition. Turtledove has writing since long before I was born, and has contributed immeasurably to the field. Likewise, while none of the authors I recommended for the award won, this was simply because they were up against names even more famous and accomplished than themselves. I am particularly pleased that John Ringo, Larry Correia and Jim Butcher have won awards; they are giants in their field, and such recognition is long overdue.

Going by the numbers alone, it’s clear that the Dragon Awards is far more representative of fandom. With double the total votes of the Hugo Awards, the Dragons have demonstrated which award fandom would rather be a part of. Bear in mind that in recent years the Hugos have benefited from press coverage (and lies) about Puppy-related drama, while the Dragon Awards have by and large flown under the radar.

Of course, the Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to take it lying down. N K Jemisin and Alison Littlewood failed to discredit the awards after they withdrew their nominations (and disrespected their fans). John Scalzi failed to win an award in spite of the drama he generated by first withdrawing from, then returning to, the ballot. To further discredit the Awards, the new narrative is that the Dragon Awards is sexist, because all the winners are men.

To this, I have the following rejoinders:

  1. Women swept the Hugo Awards. If this isn’t sexist, then it’s not sexist for men to sweep the Dragons.
  2. For women to have a chance to win an award, they have to show up and stay in the game. Jemisin and Littlewood, both women, abandoned the field of honour. Such a pity, too: being a double Hugo award winner, Jemisin would have had a decent chance at unseating James S A Corey.
  3. Patty Jenkins, a woman, won the Dragon Awards for directing Wonder Woman.

I have no doubt that next year the SJWs will again try to besiege the Dragons. And again, I must recommend that the organisers establish a firm withdrawals policy. They should either prevent authors from withdrawing works, or allow them to do so on the condition that they are permanently banned and blacklisted from future awards. They must be ready to stand fast in the face of pressure from SJWs.

As for myself, I’m in the final stages of preparing my next story. For those who have voted for me, thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

nogods_256

If you would like to get your hands on the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, you can find it here.