The Case of the Unicorn

I wouldn’t have picked Miss Lawrence for a nut when she first sat down in my office. She held her back rigidly straight, as if she would be penalized for slouching, and her iron gray hair was shellacked into metallic curls. Her eyes behind her sensible glasses were sharp and fiercely intelligent, and although she dressed in classic little old lady style (navy blue dress twenty years out of style, the kind of shoes that only old ladies and old fashioned nuns wore), there was nothing of the sweet little old lady stereotype in her attitude.

So she surprised me by her opening remark, especially since she sat in the straight-backed chair for a whole minute, studying me, before she made it. “You’ll do,” she said. “I need someone to find my unicorn.”

I folded my hands on my desk. “A statue? Porcelain? Some kind of heirloom?”

She glared at me as if I’d exposed some unbelievable vein of stupidity. “No, of course not. A live unicorn. She disappeared yesterday and I must get her back.”

I chose my words carefully. “I don’t know, Miss Lawrence, where you got my name — “

“It’s none of your business,” she replied without hesitation.

” — But I’m a private investigator. I’m not a psychiatrist, I don’t do delusional clients, and I don’t have time to play games, with you or with anyone else.” I began to rise from my chair, to give her the idea, but she eyed me sharply. There was something about that gaze that told me this woman, in her prime, had probably terrorized whole rooms full of people. I sank back into my seat.

“Don’t pretend you don’t believe in unicorns,” she said, glaring at me. “I know you do. I know you’ve seen one yourself. I know you can still see them.”

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Shini-tai

Shintaro Oba rushed through the forest, his hand closed about the hilt of the heavy uchigatana he wore at his waist. Shouts, the crash of steel and the screams of stricken men had broken the tranquillity of the forest with such suddenness that the samurai found himself running towards the sounds of battle before he was even aware of what he was doing. A moment’s thought, however, spurred him to greater effort. Even in so civilized and settled a region of Mu-Thulan there were still gangs of bandits waiting to prey upon the unwary and renegade ashigaru willing to use murder to earn their gold.

As the samurai emerged from the trees, however, he found a very different scene than the one he had expected. Instead of the cart of some unlucky farmer or wandering merchant, he found a half-dozen shaven-headed monks surrounding a large sedan chair covered in yellow silk. Instead of bandits, Oba found that the attackers were something all together different. They had the rough appearance of men, but their skin was rough and leathery, faded into a dull crimson hue. Their faces were twisted, demonic visages with jutting fangs and scrunched, snout-like noses. Heavy straw cloaks drooped about their bodies and in their clawed hands they wielded a motley assortment of swords and axes.

Namahage! Oba recognized the beasts at once. As a warrior in service to the Sekigahara clan, he’d fought against such creatures in many campaigns. Long ages past, demons had sired offspring with human women. The namahage were the degenerate descendants of this profane lineage, mortal like men but possessed of the ruthlessness and evil drives of demons. Almost every mountain range throughout the empire was infested with tribes of namahage and it was rumoured that entire clans of the beasts lurked beyond the northern frontier. However fiercely the daimyo and hatamoto tried to exterminate them, the namahage would always manage to endure and return to raid villages and farms.

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The Last Winter

In his youth, Ozel came to seek the visions of the Milk-eyed Crone.

The Crone threw her bones and said ‘You live forever, boy. The tribes in the woods and across the sea will wonder at your undying, ever young flesh. Where others rot, you will rise.’

He lived his life with a head held tall ever after.

But witches lie, and the few truths they tell are only in service to greater suffering.

Her prophecies were no comfort when Mother Cold breathed death upon the land.

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Number 43

First came the gurgling in my ears, swiftly turning into a roar as the fluid all around me emptied into suddenly-gaping orifices. Next I was falling, slamming hard into a metal grating on my hands and knees. I let out a low moan, flinching as gobbets of tissue and semi-congealed blood splattered onto the floor all around me and slithered down my back. Gasping for air I curled my fingers into the holes in the grating and glimpsed the dull glint of metal beneath the fluid that coated my skin. Seeing more metal encasing my joints and feeling unexpected firmness in other parts of my body I shuddered, and wondered what had been done to me this time.

Lifting a hand to wipe my face clear of the liquid, I looked up as a rattling, clanking sound announced the arrival of a servant. An iron framework in the rough shape of a man stood before me, spars lancing inwards to pierce the flesh of the hunched person within at half a dozen points, the most prominent being straight through the forehead. His cloudy eyes rolled madly as he tried to focus on me, eventually settling on a point somewhere above my left shoulder.

“The Master will see you now,” he intoned, rasping voice tinged with faint static, amplified by a speaker sutured into his throat. He turned, twitching within his iron shell, and lurched away through an open doorway without waiting for a response.

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We Bury Our Own

“Brother Micah has fallen. And it’s your fault.”

Preceptor Adam jabbed his finger into Gabriel’s chest. Gabriel fought the urge to snap it. He was a mere sergeant, and the preceptor was as human as he was. No man of the Order may raise his hand against another human, not for something as trivial as this.

And, more importantly, Adam was right.

“I accept responsibility,” Gabriel said. “I shouldn’t have signed off on his solo patrols.”

“We have the two man rule for a reason, Sergeant Gabriel. We are men, not angels. None of us are above the rule. Not even for someone like Micah.” He snorted. “Especially for someone like Micah.”

Again, the preceptor was right. Among the men he had served with, Micah was the best. He could go alone into the mists, become one with it, and return unscathed. He boasted often of his exploits, and took pride in them.

And pride was the first sin, the cardinal vice that led to the Deluge and the Second Fall of Man.

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