“Ho there. We seek Hamasaki-San on behalf of the Daimyō Tokatsu, for it is said that his lands abut the Canyons of Kyōkoku and that none know the land like he and his family.”

“I am the Hamasaki-san you seek, in that case,” said the older man, “and these are my lands. I am happy to serve the servants of the Daimyō Tokatsu, whatever they might require, if only I might know their purpose.”

“We seek the Ryūsei,” said Nakano Shoji. “Our sages have determined that its resting place is in the Canyons of Kyōkoku, and we seek to discover it and deliver it to its proper owner.” The rider left the latter statement purposely ambiguous, though the gleam in Hamasaki-san’s eyes was one of immediate comprehension.

“That old legend? If you’ll forgive my saying so, I have always found it to be beneath serious consideration.”

“Then surely you’ll have no objection to providing us a guide, since we will pay you for nothing.” Nakano Shoji had taken an instant dislike to the old man, but his continued politeness was necessary. The haughty courtiers of the other daimyō retainers searching the Canyons of Kyōkoku would no doubt proceed on their own, and therein lay their disadvantage.

“You may take my niece, Hamasaki Moriko,” said Hamasaki-san. “She is a burden left to me by my departed elder brother, and were it not for the familial obligation I bear him, I would long since have rid myself of the extra mouth I have to feed and the extra lip I have to endure.”

“The men of the daimyō will not accept such a guide,” said Nakano Shoji. “We demand the best that your valley has to offer.”

“Surely your daimyō did not send his best men on such a trivial errand,” said Hamasaki-san cunningly, “since I know him to be a wise and sober man who puts little stock in rumor and legend. And surely it behooves me not to send my best son to guide them, as the cost would be ruinous should the endeavor fail.”

Nakano Shoji might have struck Hamasaki-san for his insolence, but he was ostensibly a guest in those lands, and any disturbance would bring the attention of the local daimyō. The daimyōs were on good terms, but not so good as to strike a landowner whose tongue had to draw blood before it was sheathed.

“What have you to say for yourself?” Nakano Shoji demanded when Hamasaki Moriko was offered up, a sensibly-dressed but plain woman of indeterminate age.

“I know the Canyons of Kyōkoku as I know the folds of my own kimono,” Hamasaki Moriko responded, “and I bear my departed father’s sharpened kaiken dagger. Should you or your men have any dishonorable ideas, I will not hesitate to assist them in reclaiming their honor through seppuku before redeeming my own through jigai.”

Nakano Shoji looked to Hamasaki-san, his gaze sharp, as the first words out of their guide’s mouth concerned ritual disembowelment. The old man responded by throwing up his hands; “see what I have to deal with?” was the essential thrust of the gesture.

“We are off to an auspicious start, to be sure,” Nakano Shoji griped. There was no time to waste, though: the Ryūsei awaited, the prize of ten thousand lifetimes. Other retainers sought it, and it was far better for him and his men to be jewels shattered in the attempt than intact clay tiles dishonored by their failure.

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The Ryūsei was more than a bauble fought over by kings and kingdoms. It was more than a symbol of wealth, more than a shooting star that had fallen amidst a superstitious people. Whether from its own unknown inner nature or the way that the world’s chi flowed through it, the Ryūsei had the power to reshape the world around it.

Those first warring and petty kings who had possessed it used it selfishly, foolishly. The Ryūsei could turn stone into gold, but greed and inflation would eat away at any gains quickly. Wiser rulers used it the Ryūsei to raise and equip armies for conquest, but even then there was no guarantee that those troops would not seek to place the artifact into hands more of their liking. By the end of the great wars between the petty states that the Ryūsei engendered, it was being used to lay waste to enemy countryside: a weapon of such destructive power that it would not be equaled for a thousand centuries.

In the end, a wise man who time has forgotten found himself in possession of the Ryūsei. Besieged on all sides and yet blessed with the clarity to see that the item was a curse to all who possessed it, he had the idea to turn the Ryūsei’s power in on itself to render it unrecognizable. He reshaped the reshaper.

Many years hence, people still bicker over the location of the Ryūsei and what form it might currently possess. But one key insight still eludes them: it is not a what, but a who.

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Peach Cail, a monster of myth that generations of Irish grandmothers had warned their children against, was living the high life.

As a kelpie, a creature literally formed from the raw, sticky tendrils of a seaweed-like creature older than mankind itself, Peach had always been forced to contend with her raw-seafood smell and dead-green color. That required taking victims on dark nights (or those who couldn’t see too well) and only from downwind. She couldn’t count how many times her smell or texture had left the intended victim fleeing and months if not years of wracking hunger pangs.

While in her relaxed form, a pile of quasi-seaweed at the bottom of a brackish estuary in County Kilkenny, Peach would often reflect on the quaint ways of humans as she sucked the marrow from their bleached bones. Another facet or her kelpie nature was that, due to her smell and color and texture and need to retreat to brackish water every so often, she couldn’t take advantage of her victims’ leavings and dress up to go into town. The estuary could be frightfully dull, after all.

Luckily, her human victims had solved the problems for her. Waterproof foundation makeup took care of the dead-green coloration Peach presented to the world when she molded herself into a humanoid shape. Designer perfume expertly masked the raw-seafood smell. Trendy shades obscured the fact that her “eyes” were dead and blank with no pupils. A fine wig was more convincing than any hair she could mold.

That, along with a canny relocation to New York City in a shipment of bog peat, meant that Peach no longer had to worry about boredom or her prey being tipped off by her kelpie nature. Devouring the occasional meal and pawning their stuff meant that all she needed to rejuvenate herself was a quick dip in a saltwater bathtub in a Manhattan apartment.

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There are some things frat boys are not meant to know.

That had always been the excuse given by the sisters of Lambda Qoppa Delta for the strict prohibition on guests, boyfriends, and photography at their annual Spring Fling. They went to an undisclosed location in the wilderness outside of town for a weekend, carrying enough supplies for a grand feast, and returned woozy on Monday.

To Wesley McCall of Phi Qoppa Beta, the isolation and supplies meant only one thing: the Lamb Qops must have been engaging in a salacious, girls-only free-for-all. As such, one year he followed them into the woods.

It was easy enough; he loaned his car to his Lamb Qop girlfriend and it had GPS tracking software installed. With a borrowed Land Rover, not to be confused with the Land Rover he had loaned out, Wes tracked her to a location deep inside Lauryn Ghantt State Forest. The dirt road was blocked off with a chain bearing a stern-looking park ranger warning; Wes cut the lock with bolt cutters and opened it himself. He hadn’t gone to all that trouble to go home without laying eyes (and camera lens) on ribald frolicking Lamb Qops.

To Wes’s surprise, after a time the dirt road turned to well-maintained asphalt, and he came across a parking lot that wouldn’t have been out of place in the suburbs, cunningly laid in and around the lofty pines so as to be all but invisible from the air. He slid his vehicle into an empty space, distinguished from the other Beemers and Land Rovers only by its lack of Lamb Qop bumper stickers. Keeping to the trees, and dressed in neutral tones, Wes continued on foot.

Streams of Lamb Qops dressed in bright colors and bearing coolers were flowing along brick-paved paths to a pine-hemmed hollow. Wes recognized the figure on a raised dais therein as Beryl Sawyer, the Lamb Qop housemother, but he did not recognize the ornate robes she wore or the midnight-black stone from which the dais had been hewn. Unlike the robes that the brothers of Phi Qoppa Beta wore during imitation (and hazing), Sawyer’s robe glistened with an unearthly sheen that gave Wes a headache.

“Sisters of Lambda Qoppa Delta!” cried Sawyer. “We have come together in the spirit of sisterhood to make our offerings in the abode of our patron. Let all among you who would call yourself Lamb Qops display your true colors proudly!”

Wes was delighted to see that the assembled girls immediately began removing their colorful sorority shirts (which formed a uniform so strict and standardized that even the Prussian Imperial Guard would have been envious). But there was something underneath – different shirts, bearing different slogans, in a script so fiendishly twisted that it blurred the edges of Wes’s vision just to behold it. And the colors! They were no hues that existed or could exist in nature, brighter and more pastel while at the same time luminous and ruinous, like holes torn in the fabric of a sane universe.

If the script made Wes’s vision blur, the colors threatened to draw the very breath from his lungs and lay him flat upon the pine needles.

“And with your true colors displayed, bring forth your offerings to our patron, the dread lord Rnyugnatlath! Can you feel it, sisters? Star-Spawn of the Infinite Void, the Creeping Conundrum, It Whom Human Tongues Fail, come forth at the call of your faithful on this spot where our offerings to you have lain since the time before time, the world before the world!”

When the first appendage of dread Rnyugnatlath emerged from the howling void on the dais, the ceremony was interrupted by the soul-shattering screams of an interloper in the woods. Wes was found a week later, raving in gibberish, his hair a white shock and his body sunburnt across his face and the palms of his hands. What little remained of his life was spent in the Granath Nulty Asylum.

There are somethings frat boys are not meant to know.

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If I had but known
The secrets of the universe
Were revealed in a beaten
Paperback book

I would have been
Less of a hardcover snob
All these weary long years
In the wilderness

If you find it yourself
You will know the sign
When the words dance
At the roar of distant water

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“It’s not just the egg salad. No, it’s everything…that goddamn egg salad is like a metaphor for our marriage, how you micromanage every little thing, beat me over the head with your daddy and your money and think that I am just going to lie there and take it. You and home and the boys at the agency, all trying to push this old man around because his best years are behind him and he’s an easy target. Well, no more. Do you hear me? No more. You see to your own egg salad, because I am through taking a back seat to you and your complaints, the boys and their schemes. I don’t care if someone dies from eating that stuff…my days of being beholden to you and your egg salad are over, do you hear me? So help me, they are over!”

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The first complaints started trickling in at around 7:00 am: soda pop machines on campus had suddenly stopped accepting cash and student meal plan dollars. This was ignored as a minor inconvenience, though university employees found it somewhat odd that their calls to the machines’ manufacturer wouldn’t go through.

By 7:30, though, the trickle had turned into a river. Students waking up for class had found that their student meal plan dollars were not accepted, and that the registers would not recognize employees’ card swipes for payment in cash. Around this time, too, the IT department started receiving sporadic complaints of a network outage–unusually, all complaints were delivered in person, as people complained that IT’s phones were not accepting incoming calls.

Around 8:15, the local cell phone network collapsed under the strain of thousands of students, staff, and professors using their data plans to try and bypass the internet and telephone outage. Local merchants facing a flood of hungry students unable to purchase food even at campus retail outlets soon found that they were suffering from the same problem: their registers would not accept most transactions and refused logins. Only the smallest mom-and-pop establishments with completely manual cash registers were able to conduct any business, and even then only in cash.

Overwhelmed, the university was forced to cancel classes. The issue clearly caught the administration flatfooted, and by the time they authorized IOUs for food students had fled campus en masse for surrounding towns and several angry groups had raided stores while university employees looked on passively.

At fault? The school’s much-vaunted digital overhaul. Everything from soda pop machines to cash registers was connected to the internet and used remote servers managed by contractors to authenticate and track purchases (even those made in cash) and logon authorized users. No provisions had been made for a campuswide network outage, because such a thing was considered an extremely remote possibility.

So when a backhoe ran over the main fiber-optic pipeline outside of town, it had the unusual effect of completely disabling a system that had wormed its way into every aspect of the university community. That incident only lasted a day, though the company responsible never faced any charges.

But others had been watching and paying close attention to the situation. Next time would be far, far worse.

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