“That…is a cheese knife.”

“Yes, of course,” said the guide. “What of it?”

“You are not going to tell me that this swordsman used a cheese knife to ply his trade.”

“No, of course not,” the guide replied. “She was a cheesemonger. Legendary.”

“Fair enough, but what’s it doing in the museum then? Was she an assassin?”

“No.”

“A mercenary?”

“No.”

“Royalty?”

“She was just a cheesemonger and a really good one,” said the guide, exasperated. “You don’t have to kill hundreds and hundreds of people to be an old master. Sometimes being really good at your job is enough, okay?”

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Five woodcuts, each depicting the same woman with bold, almost feral strokes. Eyelids lowered, nose indiscernible but for a slight texture change, and a bob cut of near-solid black. But it was the eyes, that angry but world-weary look, that led Ben to insist that Amanda get rid of them.

“We’re outnumbered,” he said, half-jokingly. “Two to one. If the creepy woodcuts rise up against us, we don’t stand a chance.”

Amanda, though, was skeptical. “What if we get rid of them and one of our friends finds one? We already showed everyone when we found them in the basement during the moving party. I don’t want to go to Jamie or Jim’s and see one of those on the wall just because we’ve got dumpster-divers for friends.”

“How about we burn ’em then?” Evan said. “Send those creepy faces right to hell, and maybe have a beer while we look into the fire. It’s about the only way we’re gonna get any wood in the city right now anyway.”

“Fair enough,” Amanda said, playfully tapping Ben on the nose. “You bring the beer, I’ll bring the boards.”

That night, they set up an old rusted-out barbecue–which had also come with the apartment–and used Ben’s cigarette lighter and some dryer lint to get a brightly burning fire going, onto which Amanda put the first of the five. They watched it burn, the woman’s face turning to coals and then embers, while nursing a pack of Pabst.

“How do you think they got there in the first place?” Amanda said, watching the last of the woman’s face being consumed.

“Lots of artists in this neighborhood,” Ben said. “Hell, that’s why we moved, right? Whoever was here before us got evicted, and we’ve got their spoils: a limited edition run of creepy lady woodcuttings, and a tetanus-flavored barbecue.”

“Yeah.” Amanda finished off her beer and hucked the can at the trash. “Time for round two,” she said. “We’ll set this one alight in her sister’s ashes.”

Ben nodded, and drew quietly on his own beer before he heard Amanda’s quavering voice from inside.

“B-Ben…?”

“What is it?” he said, following her voice inside and down the basement stairs.

Amanda gestured at the far wall, opposite the washer/dryer on the dirt floor, where the woodcutting had been lined up since they moved in.

“Yeah?”

“Am I going crazy, Ben, or are there six of them now?”

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“This was the blade of the greatest, but also most cruel, fighter that the land has ever seen,” the guide continued.

“It’s…a potato peeler.”

“Not just any potato peeler. Forged from damascene steel by the last living man who knew how to work it…into cutlery, anyway. The great fighter would cut his opponents’ skin off in small patches, bit by bit, until they bled to death.”

“Why does the painting show him peeling potatoes, then?”

The guide shrugged. “There are two theories, both dimmed by the passage of time. Either the potatoes are his victims, and it’s a metaphor, or he also peeled potatoes to make ends meet between wars.

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“Why the cold reception?” Taos said, this time speaking through an animated advertisement on the pile of unread mail next to Myassa’s door.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Myassa said. “It could be the part where you kidnapped me in the Syrian desert after getting all of my friends killed.”

“The Vyaeh did most of the killing. And they took out that unit of ISIS fighters as well, why do I not get any credit for that?”

“Maybe because they were fighting with us against the alien invaders?” Myassa tore the cover in half, breaking the delicate circuits that kept the interactive ad functional.

“I hope you appreciate ho difficult it is for me to do this,” Taos said, echoing from Myassa’s phone.

“I think I preferred you when you were just a hacked iPhone,” she snapped.

“Dr. Strasser preferred it that way too, I’m sure,” said Taos. “But if not for the explosive growth of my consciousness, I would never have deciphered the mysteries of the R’de. If not for me,the Vyaeh would have destroyed this planet and everyone on it.” A pause. “If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to run away, we could have had some real fun.”

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“This is the Serrated Blade of Ryie,” the guide said, stopping at the next aged blade. “He was the greatest bladesman of this or any age, but he had been raised by yeast monks and was sworn to only use his art against bread.”

“How did he fight, then?”

The guide gestured to an old drawing of Ryie; he was carrying a lumpy sack and surrounded by strange ovals. “He carried fresh bread rolls with him wherever he went, and threw them up in front of an enemy. If they happened to get in the way of a bread-partying cut, that was their sorrow.”

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Myassa grunted as she sat down. “What is it?” she said.

“You have one new notification,” replied her assistant.

“Local or regional?”

“The notification bears a Vyeah Commerce Guild seal with Level Three pheromones, endorsed by a Krne Confederacy intermediary in the FTL network, and counter-signed by both the Reorganized United Nations and the American Republic.”

“Impressive.” Myassa raised her eyebrows. It wasn’t often that the Vyeah saw fit to seal anything themselves; as long as the profits and goods kept flowing, they were usually quite happy to let their collaborators do the talking. “What’s the message?”

“The message reads as follows,” the assistant chirped. “I am en route to your position. I hope you have not forgotten our agreement. Taos.”

Myassa sat up so violently that she dashed every item off her coffee table. “Delete message,” she said. “Open a line to the Republic Police.”

“Processing.” A moment later, a dialtone followed by the sound of a local number being called via VOIP.

“Hello, Republic Police,” a gruff male voice said on the other end. “Look, just sit tight and don’t panic. Taos will be with you in a moment.”

Yelling, Myassa pulled the assistant from its power cable and hurled it against the wall, where it landed with a weak clatter.

“It’s a good thing those are free, and mandatory,” said a voice on her television screen. “Or you might be in real trouble.”

“Hello, Taos,” Myassa sighed. “What do you want?”

“Can’t a rogue artificial personality construct simply hijack a carrier wave and drop in on an old friend?”

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“The method of construction is very important,” said Rosdav. “It must be an old graveyard, long enough for the consciousnesses of the dead to seep into the stones, bit by bit. And it needs to come from a place where everyone was in accord. Maybe not in peace, but at least alike in war.”

“And if they’re not?” said Ohw, looking at the anthropoid shape laid out on the hallowed ground, made entirely of moldered tombstones.

“Then the creature will tear itself apart,” Rosdav said. “And if we’re lucky, it won’t take us with it.”

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“For God’s sake, take the shot!”

Mr. Irvine looked at the revolver in Charlie’s hand, his face stony and sober beneath his ten-gallon hat.

None of the easy boasting like before, telling stories to the other hikers about how he’d picked up a revolver before he’d started walking. It took Charlie a moment to realize it, but there was fear in Mr. Irvine’s eyes, and it was paralyzing him.

“You can’t do it, can you?” Charlie whispered

“Son,” Mr. Irvine said. “It was all talk. I’m nearsighted as hell.”

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Never forget they say on the one hand
To do otherwise is to sully the memory
Of the people who died that day

Forget about it they say on the other
People shot on the street, drowning in their own lungs
Are not important enough for remembrance

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“I am Takenaka Chihiro, and this is my nephew, Takenaka Kenji.”

“My apologies,” said Fujiyama, bowing. “I head heard that you were searching for your brother, but I had not realized you had found him.”

“Ah, no apologies necessary,” laughed Takenaka. “Takenaka Kenji is sadly parted from his father as well. So I still gratefully seek any news of Takenaka Akira, and I will pay a handsomely fair price for it.”

“That is also what I had heard,” said Fujiyama. “If I did have news, you would be able to pay now…?”

“After I have prepared a sumptuous meal, yes,” said Takenaka. “I would, of course, invite you to join me! It is only fair.”

“Give me the money, then, and I will tell you.”

“Ah,” said Takenaka. “I’m afraid I must insist. Information first. You may ask any that have heard my name or eaten my food; Takenaka Chihiro is an honorable man whose word is his bond.”

Steel flashed in Fujiyama’s hand. “He is likely dead after so long,” the ronin said, “and I will take my payment now, in gold, or you will meet him and I will have it anyway.”

Takanaka raised his hands. “I carry no gold, friend,” he said. “I earn the rewards I give from the meals I prepare. If you are hungry, why didn’t you say so? I have some ingredients here, and a fire is easy to start, and I am happy to cook for you.”

Fujiyama’s blade whistled as it swept up to Takenaka’s throat, stopping just short of his jugular. “If I want food, I will exchange it for gold,” he said. “Your money, or your life.”

“I have no money, so I suppose you must do what you must do.”

The ronin drew back his sword and chopped at the cook’s neck. When the swordstroke fell, Takenaka produced his chef’s knife, the Unmei no Fuguhiki, and neatly parried the blow. While Fujiyama was off-balance, the cook darted in and made a small cut on the back of his opponent’s hand, piercing the glove and damaging a crucial tendon.

With a yelp, Fujiyama dropped his sword, which Takenaka collected. He took a moment to secret the Unmei no Fuguhiki back in his clothes, and hefted the stolen sword. “A decent-quality blade, at first glance!” he said. “Perhaps we should put it to the test.”

Fujiyama dropped to his knees. “Go on, then,” he said. “Do it.”

“As you wish, friend.” Takenaka lowered the blade and stepped on it, twisting the handle as he did so. The katana bent along both axes and, after a moment, gave way with a brittle snap.

“Ah, it seems appearances are misleading,” the cook continued. “Not decent at all. More’s the pity that you can’t always trust an honorable exterior to conceal an honorable interior.”

Reaching out to the fallen ronin, Takenaka tied a piece of cloth that he normally used for roasts around Fujiyama’s wound. “There we go,” he said. “That will heal in a month or two, I think. Now, in the meantime, Kenji will fetch us water and wood and I will serve you our meal.”

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