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The redwood study has various books strung about the walls. The lighting is warm and cozy while it battles against the cool winter blues from the large window behind the graying diplomate. Apricot sat across from him at his large desk. With a notepad in hand Apricot inspects her list of questions seeking out the most appropriate ones. “Thank you again for agreeing to be interviewed, Lord Ietsuna.”
The man before her is dressed in military fatigues. His collar decorated with several pins, that and along his chest a line of medals. Most likely earned by his leadership ability. Most of his snowy white hair is covered by a large military cap. His facial hair clean shaven aside from twin pair of thin strips above his lips. “My pleasure, I have noticed you have yourself a growing profile. For such a young girl you certainly are making the rounds. Just so you know my dear you may call me Tetsuro.” He comments in a gruff voice. It is a request Apricot would not agree to. For her it is far too uncomfortable to call a Lord by their first name. Especially one of this man’s power. She considered it best never to blur those lines. Instead, she would resign all her statement as to not say his name at all to avoid such embarrassment.
“Thank you,” Apricot lowers her head into a bow while peaking towards her notes one last time. “Just for the record could you explain your occupational duties as the delegate for the Ietsuna clan.“
Lord Ietsuna bobs his head. “My job is to present the view of the Okabe clan to the Ietsuna clan. Seeing as the Okabe clans have embraced the western world they require a stricter appreciation. That is why I am here. I monitor the modernization of Okabe and insure it remains distinctly Uchellan. My secondary position is to analyze military movements and the Uchellan response to those movements.”
Apricot chuckles to herself as a question enters her mind, provoking Lord Iestuna’s eyebrows to raise. She quickly returns to her professionalism before she asks such an absurd question. “Just for any foreign readers, what is the relationship of the Ietsuna clan to the rest of the clans of Uchella.”
The Lord smirks as his posture stiffens and rises. “We are the true rulers of the Uchellan empire. The Iestuna clan rules the other clans including the Okabe. Since the Uchella agreement it has been the Ietsuna clan who has maintained peace among the warring states. Emperor Uchella Ietsuna led the most glorious campaign nearly five hundred years ago and conquered all the lands of the Empire. Instead of destroying the clans he formed a coalition to end the age of war. He argued that the advancement of the west would soon bring them to the eastern shores and with it would be conquering armies. That is how we have maintained our hegemony among the world. Not to offend you but our people are a proud people. We delight in our tradition.”
Apricot smiles. “That is a great answer. It is good to be proud of one’s race. It makes us all better peoples.” Her next set of questions makes her uneasy. She takes in a deep breath before she continues. “I wanted to ask you about the growing tensions between Uchella and Arslana. There has been rumors from the Sotaro clans that Kubebna ships have been passing through their waters to the demilitarized zone. Are these rumors true?”
“Yes, I have heard these rumors too. They are true. Kubebna, Stezyl and Tvekala have all positioned themselves as aggressors in Uchellan waters. We have had several naval stand offs, which as you may already know is troubling. The Akiyama, Iori, Kinjo, and Sotaro clans have all met and agreed to a military alliance if Arslana escalates the situation. The Tatsumi and Okabe clans have so far refused to get involved. That may change though as Tortau and Armaryol have been moving ships through the western waters. I am afraid that if this continues, we will begin military operations against the Aristocracies of Arslana. If that were to occur I am almost positive the Uchellan Empire would unite to defend her lands.”
Apricot writes his words diligently. She looks up from her page. “Between you and me, off the record, just for my curiosity. What is the Ietsuna clan’s opinion?”
The man smirks resting back in his large padded chair. “Intuitive of you to notice I have not offered you that. You can put this on the record. We don‘t like our lands being encroached upon and our support for the Empire is unwavering; We are the Empire. After all, while the northern clans may be small and easily dealt with, they are our people none the less. If Arslana thinks they will violate our sovereignty, they will wake the ancient dragon that is Uchella.”
Apricot nods. “What of Castor? Would the Uchellan Empire agree to an alliance with Castor?”
“Never. We do not need the invitation of other countries to preserve our own borders. Nore do we want it.” He firmly states.
“I suppose you feel the same way towards Estarus.” Apricot adds.
The old man give a measured nod. “Estarus is a special case. Our agreements with them are ones of non indulgence. They stay in their lands and we stay in our own. We prefer it that way. The Uchellan way is the Uchellen way.”
“So how do you feel about the robust immigration policies of Okabe?” Apricot asks not even following her notes any longer.
The Lord’s visage changes. A warm smile crosses his face and a light seem to be shining somewhere behind his eyes. “I am proud of Okabe’s openness to accept good foreigners. They make our community colorful. It takes a pair of fresh eyes to make new discoveries. As long as this experiment remains in Okabe, I see nothing wrong with it.”
Apricot extends her hand to shake his. “Thank you so much for your time. I believe that is all the questions I have for you. Is there any of this you would like me to strike out?” Apricot says presenting her notes to the man. Normally she would not do such a thing but a man of this position could easily see her family in ruin. After giving the pad a careful inspection he hands it back to Apricot.
“That is all fine with me. Thank you for your consideration. Rarely does a journalist feel any responsibility to the one they are interviewing. More often than not they seek big scoops over truth these days.”
“I try my best.” Apricot replies.
And so Apricot’s life continues like this. From an outside perspective, her life after the meeting with those strange men returned to something that could be reasonable, average and entirely without curiosities. Her routine became one of going to school in the morning, after class she would exercise at the gym, then head home to prepare essays and complete her studies. On days she had investigative assignments she performed run-of-the-mill interviews of various figures in the community. Mostly government officials or local pop stars. On weekends she spent it out with friends. Months had passed since that day.
At night when the sun had fallen, however…
The abandoned building smells of mildew and dust. Apricot walks out the hall into a torn up auditorium. Her eyes scan the surroundings. Torn up seats and bleachers covered in layers of dust, a stage with a few left over props from whatever event had been displayed before the shutdown. On top of a piano rests a humanoid gray skinned man with wings and a single horn coming from his forehead. He appeared like a gargoyle to Apricot. The starry night sky lit the room from its open, destroyed ceiling. “So we finally meet,” he calls out in a deep voice rising from his posture.
“I am glad the reports about you were true. You can talk.” Apricot says drawing a pistol from her side.
The creature snickers at her. “I am not like the others. That will not help you here.” he roars so powerfully it causes the wooden bleachers to burst into fragments. Apricot dives aside just in time to miss being hit by the blast directly. Several shards of wood however still cut the side of her arm. “You’re pretty fast human. I’ll give you that.” Apricot glances at the gash dripping warm blood down her arm. “But not fast enough it seems.”
“Hmmm, it’s nothing devil,” Apricot growls. “Before I kill you I want to know something.”
“So the hunter of my kin seeks an audience with me. Child I am a Lord of vengeful spirits! What makes you think you deserve the privilege?” he shouts.
Apricot begins her stride down the isle of the auditorium. “This can go two ways. Peacefully, or I can beat it out of you.”
The creature spreads its wings swooping towards Apricot hollering “I prefer the second.” She dives aside in mid-air squeezing the trigger charging a precise shot. Apricot hits the creature in the shoulder as she lands on the dusty ground. The impact of the bullet fizzles as it burns into the creature’s skin like acid. “It burns!” he screams.
“Silver bullet.” Apricot snarls while the monster tumbles several yards away from her crashing through rows of benches. The splinters stab out of his body as he rises from the ground grabbing his arm. He lets out a roar as he pulls the igniting arm ripping at the injury. The skin pops exposing the muscle laid beneath as it stretches the tendons thin, the tethers snapping with wet bursts. Blood pours off the creatures torn off limb. The gruesome sight causes Apricot to wince. He tosses aside the useless appendage onto the ground. “That is dedication.” Apricot muses looking at the maimed creature. “Why are you things here?” Apricot asks.
This receives a chuckle from the monster as he stares at her from across the room. He takes a step forward all the while its blood pumps in measured beats onto the floor. “We have been here for a long time. We were waiting. Our world was here first. You things intruded. Now it is time for our world and yours to become one. Soon all will see the true world as they merge.” He continues walking towards Apricot who now holds her gun up preparing for another shot.
“Hmm, sure,” Apricot says as she squeezes the trigger. With a flick of the monsters one arm he throws the gun from her hand by an invisible force. He rushes her slashing with his clawed hand. Apricot steps back, his nails just missing her chest. She draws a small baton from her side smashing the creature in the face. It leaves a burn much like Shiori’s rod did before. She goes to strike the monster again, but the monster grabs the end of the baton. His hand sizzles as the rod burns into his palm. Clutching the baton he rips the rod from her grasp throwing it away.
“You’re rather well prepared but not even silver will save you girl.” the monster snarls, his fangs extending out as he opens his jaws lunging towards her throat. She punches forward with her hand incarnating as a purple flame. It blasts through the stomach of the creature and out its back. Apricot lifts her arm slicing the upper part of its body in half. Immediately the monster tumbles to the ground dead on the spot, split in half. She looks down at the creature as it fizzles into the open air erasing any evidence of its presence.
Apricot breathes biting down on her teeth. Her eyes large and furrowed. “Not tonight,” she says to herself. She hears clapping from the other side of the room. Her head snaps quickly as her heart races to see a man walk out of the shadows. “I thought you were a goner.” says a familiar male voice. “It’s been a while hasn’t it reporter girl.”
“Cortez?” Apricot asks completely confused.
“Yeah, you remembered this time.” Cortez laughs. “I didn’t take you for a mage but look at you. There is a lot more to you than meets the eye.” He jumps down from off the front stage walking towards the bleachers. “So you killed that thing all by yourself. Heh, wow. Would have never guessed you had it in you. I take it you have done this before. Experienced enough to bring silver with you at least.”
“You know about all this?” Apricot ask bewildered.
“No, not really, probably as much as you do to be honest. Let’s go get something to eat, huh, what do you say?”
“What are you crazy?” Apricot shouts.
“No, I am hungry. I bet you are too after that fight.”
As much as Apricot hates to admit it Cortez is right, she is hungry and the idea actually sounded nice. “Alright, I guess.”
“Yeah, I have a place we can eat, and it is private too.”
The room is gently fogged with cigarette smoke, black and white tile floors, red and white booth seats with black top tables decorated the diner. Apricot felt out of her element, the people who sat about are shady looking, even the waitress seems as though she was some kind of prostitute with her low cut uniform. “What kind of place is this?” Apricot asks.
“Heh, a place we can talk, and no one will care,” he says leaning back in the booth’s corner resting his head against the cold window. “So, how long have you been at this?”
Apricot glances around the room inspecting people, no one really seems to be paying attention. “For a few months now. Around the time I met you, actually.” she shrugs. “I picked up a trick or two but, I don’t really understand what is going on.”
“So, how did you do it?” Cortez whispers leaning in closer. Apricot furrows her brow. “The thing with the fire. How did you do it? Can you show me?”
Apricot shakes her head. “I can only do it when those things get close to me. I don’t know. It happened the first time when my life was in danger. After I hunted those things, I kind of figured it out. I have killed twelve, well thirteen with tonight.”
“Yeah, hmmm you’re pretty tough. A lot braver than any the other girls I met. So what makes you do it?” Cortez asks.
Raising her hand Apricot pauses Cortez. “Wait a minute, I got some questions of my own. How do you know about these things?”
Cortez rolls his eyes “Well, if you insist.”
Apricot lowers her gaze. “I do, I want to know who I am dealing with.”
“Ok so like this city is pretty shady. Right, so my father used to be a cop. Real good guy. An investigator for the SDP. Smart man, someone I really looked up to. So like it was about a year ago, maybe closer to two now. So like there was this case he was on. Something about internal corruption with the nobles. Apparently, they had been kidnapping kids around town for sacrificial rituals right. So one day he gets called out on this emergency call. Some guy at the mall had become an active shooter. They send in my dad with a group of other police. Active shooter got away, and my dad got a hole put in his face.” Cortez says biting his lip.
“I am sorry.”
He rolls his eyes. “Save it; I am not done. My dad always told me if something happened to him he wanted me to keep his records hidden. So, when we got the old man at the door knocking in uniform, I knew dad was dead or out the door. I got his file right, I hid it under the floorboards. The cops damn near tore our house apart looking for it. They really wanted it. He asked me to burn them. I didn’t though. I looked through it. Had all kinds of horrible stuff in it. Crime scene photos of little girls chopped up like they were from a butcher shop. Blood drained all over the floor. Reports, endless reports of monsters and other things. From what I gathered the Okabe family is responsible. So I got some balls right, I decided to find one of their temples. They got them all over the place around the city in odd places.”
Apricot raises her soda to her mouth sucking a sip out of the long straw. “So, like, I found one. It was in the industrial section of town. So, like, ah, man, it was like any normal temple. Right, so I am looking around this temple, and it is empty, and I mean no groundskeepers or anything it’s just this old abandoned temple. I had this feeling like I was being watched the entire time. That was when this hideous thing just comes out of the shadows. It looked like a rat dog, thing. It had a huge mouth, took up like half its body.”
“Made of shadows?”
“Yeah, you saw one too?”
Apricot nods. “In my kid brother’s room.”
“Shit.“ Cortez’s breathing rasps. “Well. I grabbed anything I could. It was a silver rod off the wall. I struck the thing, and it burst into dust. I ran out of that place so fast. I figured there was more of them, but I did not want to find out. I did a little more digging, and there are places around town where people who know about this gather and chat. This is one of those places. It’s safe here, there is mutual respect among people to keep out of each other’s conversations. My dad used this place to investigate. So like all these reports, of terrorists are all lies. There are no attacks and no chemicals. The thing is, these reports have been going back a long time. They are increasing every day it seems. People are almost in a panic, and I feel like it’s leading up to something really big.”
“I have had that same feeling too. So what now?” Apricot asks.
Cortez shakes his head “To hell if I know. Keep in touch ok. After saying all that I feel a little uncomfortable myself.” Cortez says leaving a few marks laying on the table. “You ah, take care. If you need help, you know how to contact me. The train still, every morning.” Apricot nods as he rises to his feet walking out of the diner. Apricot lays back in the chair sipping on her soda contemplating the things she had just heard.
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