Still half asleep, eyes heavy, and head foggy, Apricot made her way down the usual route to the morning train. The sunrise sidewalks are heavy with pedestrian traffic, bordered by a wall of cyclists. A dull chatter fills the air as she sleepily galumphs. “Heh, darling you look nearly dead. Had a late night on the town?” calls a voice from behind her. Turning her head Apricot sees Shiori standing on the curb next to a silver sports car. “You‘re not going to school this morning. Come, we have a lot to discuss.”
Apricot turns her head squinting her eyes at Shiori. “And why would I do that?”
“Because I will make it worth your while. Now, now, darling just get in my car.” Apricot lets out a sigh thinking to herself she has been getting in a lot of strange men‘s cars. However, her curiosity is peaked enough. Worthwhile can mean a lot of things from a noble and she had to admit, he is cute.
Inside the car the seats are more than comfortable. They contoured to her every body curve, the material some kind of mix between leather and vinyl she supposes. If one could describe the sensation, it may be akin to something like laying on a cloud. Not that you could but clouds are like giant wads of cotton hanging in a blue glass gallery. The arm rests are crafted from a clear material aside from the black tops. “It’s nice.” Apricot mumbles to herself as her eyes look around the luxury car.
“Well, I suppose to a commoner this is something special. To be honest, I really don’t like it. A little too flashy for my taste. However, what can you do when your mother is a flamboyant and insists?” Shiori muses as he turns the car into drive. Releasing his hand from the steering wheel he turns his head to Apricot allowing the internal AI systems to take over. “I am mighty frustrated with you, darling.”
Apricot furrows her brow “What? Why? What did I do?”
“That,” the word drags on as Shiori attempts to either be dramatic or gather up the exact phrasing he wanted “thing, was a good informant. Not all the othersiders are your enemy Apricot. At least not directly. I had been in contact with that monster about the other side and the goings on in the other world. Now you severed an important contact for the whole society.”
“Society?” Apricot barks. “What society?”
Shiori bends forward cocking his head. “You are not the only one hunting these things. There are quiet a few of us, actually. We have our way of communicating with no one really paying attention to our actions. When you started you were reckless.”
“Well, I appreciate the compliment.” Apricot blushes.
Shiori rolls his eyes and in a dull tone replies “You still are.”
“Hey that phantom was going to kill me!” Apricot burst out.
“So you say,” Shiori looks up at the ceiling relaxing into the seat. He crosses his legs and rolls his head to look at Apricot in the eyes.
“He was going to rip me to pieces.” This only provokes a sigh from the snob. “You were not there! You don’t know.”
Shiori shakes his head. “Wreckless, you were in his domain. At that point you became a trespasser. Wouldn’t you be offended by someone waltzing into your home and asking questions?” Apricot smalls into her seat. Her chin lowers, and she plays with her fingers having an extreme sense of shame coming over her. A little guilt as well. She had never considered if these creatures were good or evil just assumed they were horrible monsters. “Ah, well at least you can learn from your mistakes. From now on darling you are my pet.”
Pet, what a condescending way to speak to someone Apricot thought to herself. An intense urge to strike him for such vagrant disregard of her even as a person welled up curling fists. “What the hell does that mean?” Apricot yells nearly jumping out of her seat.
Shiori laughs “It means you will do what I tell you to do. You will keep going to school like you are and focus on your studies, however after hours you will work with me. You have potential and have drawn the attention of the society. If you keep going down this path, you will attract the attention of others… even more so than you already have.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Well, for one I am a noble and I keep an eye on persons of interest regarding the Okabe family. Consider me a friend to you, I can keep you out of hot water. You know the royal guard knows you by name now. What the hell did you do to get that kind of interest?” Shiori scorns.
Apricot mumbles. “So my suspicions were right.”
Apricot watched as Shiori raises his eyebrow and at that moment his eyes hid something. Concern? “And what would those be?”
“The nobles know about the phantoms.” Apricot says pointedly.
“Well, they are not ignorant. And you keep calling them phantoms. Any reason you picked that name or is it just a shorthand you know?” Shiori grins as Apricot shakes her head. “Fair enough I have secrets of my own.”
“Why would I work with you?” Apricot asks.
“Well for one, I will pay you… hmm what does a journalist make? Heh, eight K marks, per job. Bonuses too if I feel you deserve it.” Apricot’s eyes nearly fell out of her head hearing that number. That is more than she could hope to make after months of working.
“That is like six figures a year…” Apricot says.
Shiori flashes an unamused look. His eyes narrow “Girl, settle for it. I won’t negotiate it.”
“No no, that is fine.” Apricot raises both of her hands up.
“Well good. Now that that is settled, it’s time you met the rest of the society.” Shiori turns his head placing his legs on top of the steering wheel.
Apricot folds her arms feeling a little ashamed of being bought so easily. “You know, your kind of an ass right.”
“Darling, I can afford that opinion.” Shiori chuckles.
Apricot stood in the middle of a market tent filled with antiques and trinkets. The journey into the inner city labyrinths where the small shop is located had Apricot questioning her choices. At the same time measuring Shiori she felt no danger from him. Looking around the displayed goods she could not decide if it is filled with a bunch of junk or perhaps rare treasures. Either way, it is a testament of time. Everything is dusty and coated in a layer of patina that seems to grow from objects themselves. Old technology along with ancient artifacts became a decor of its own. Melding as though fused together by over growth extending through memoriam. “Remember this location darling.”
“What is this place?” Apricot asks, her voice every bit filled with confusion.
“A friend’s place, he will be yours too, maybe, that is if he likes you. Show a little more cleavage and it might convince him.” Apricot blushes feeling a deep need to change shirt entirely. With a casual pluck Shiori rings a bell. From behind a pair of curtains a pale man proudly walks out. The black ushanka crowning his head covers his gray hair. “Hello, my friend.” he says splaying out his arms. His head turns to regard Apricot for a moment. “Who is this?” he says to Shiori then directs his attention towards Apricot. “Come here, girl.”
Apricot glances over at Shiori who gives a smirk while lowing his forehead and raising his eyebrow in an expression that just screams “Don’t be rude.” So she obliges and walks toward the man. He wraps his arms around her looking down into her eyes. Looking back into his brown eyes she felt strange. “Is this the one everyone has been talking about?”
“I don’t think I am.” Apricrot says moving away from his grasp.
“She may be. None the less care to show her around? Show her the special treatment.” Shiori says in a nonchalant yet commanding tone dropping a stack of old cerulean bills onto the table. She had never actually seen one. Their value for trade is a lot more than their official worth. Now just a memory of a time when Uchella ventured to make progress unifying with Castor’s banks.
Apricot turns to look back at Shiori who is resting against one of the tents painted black metal poles. “What do you mean special treatment?”
“That wretched pistol of yours is far too loud. Also it is illegal, that silver pipe you got, smart but you need a proper weapon. I have been rude.” Shiori says looking up. “Introductions, darling this is Harjal, think of him as your outfitter. Harjal, this little darling is Apricot. She is a student journalist, she tells everyone that, more than once too I figured I would save her the trouble. Pity the girl’s entire identity is that little trope.”
“I am standing right here!” Apricot thinks to herself. “And I do not say that… too often.” a faint blush covers her cheeks as she knows Shiori was right but he sure as heck did not need to be so blunt about it.
“Fair enough. Come on, miss Apricot. Let’s find you something worth Shiori’s patronage.” grasping Apricot’s arm Harjal leads her into the back. The room is an arsenal of weapons. Spears stacked in barrels. Swords strung about all the walls. Many kinds of firearms some of them even with those long chains of bullets. Many things Apricot is not sure of the name of, however, she knew when she is looking at something highly illegal. “Take your pick missy. I suggest something with silver, Shiori thinks it kills them things.”
Apricot browses the lanes as though she is in some kind of post apocalyptic grocery store but instead of food it as an assortment of weapons. Her senses could not quite grasp the situation. “You are not planning on killing me are you?” Apricot murmurs.
“Only if you have loose lips.” Harjal laughs. “I provide a service. A service your group needs. I don’t discriminate on my customers.”
Apricot spots several throwing stars. At first they interest her reminding her of a ninja but she has no skill for such a weapon. Seeing a short blade she picks it up. Giving it a full grip it is easy to hold. Though its length really did nothing for her. She places it back down.
“You seem to know what you are looking for.” Harjal comments.
Apricot nods running her finger along the point of a knife. “Yeah, well, I used to fence. So are you part of the society?”
“The society? I don’t have a clue what you are talking about?” Either he was playing dumb, or he was not. There really was no way Apricot could tell. A whip crosses her eye, but that was too stereotypical for a girl. If anything, it would embarrass her to hold such a weapon. From across the room a straight blade grabs her attention. It is a decorative sword. As if meant for her, a tear in the tent’s roof allows light to shine on the blade. Grasping the handle she lifts it. “It is long,” she thought to herself. Giving a few slashes with the blade she finds it most suitable. The handle a simple cross guard that’s easily concealable. “This one.” she says turning to Harjal.
“That is a good little weapon. Not uneasy on the eye as well. I got it from a sword maker in Eindzaal. Here I will throw in these too.” he says tossing down a black armband with several straight throwing knives hidden in the sleeve. “You can wear that under your shirt. They are pure silver. One of these babies should solve an issue from afar. You won‘t even need to get up close. Silent too, if you hit your target at least. Miss and you will hear metal clanking so don‘t do that.”
As Apricot exited Shiori glances over. “Took long enough, got what you need.” Apricot nods holding up the blade. “I see, you went with a sword. Well, at least you have taste. Good now lets go, the Spookhouse is just about to open. It’s nearly noon.”
Dim lit the Spookhouse is nearly empty. That aside from a bartender and a few staff chatting about. Shiori guides Apricot with his hand on her back as they walk through the empty bar. “This my darling is the Spookhouse. You will find many of the patrons here to be well informed about the, more secret events that are plaguing our little city of Blue Ash. More importantly, I will always be around the place as I own it. Think of this as headquarters of the resistance army against your “phantoms”. We have worked tirelessly to afford ourselves a refuge. Not even the grip of the Okabe family can reach us here. At least not without starting an international dispute between the clans. So, this is your haven to act freely and speak freely. If a stranger is about, we will inform you upon entry.”
“Why would you need to be away from the Okabe family?”
Shiori strokes his chin. “If you have to ask then you will never know. No point in explaining.” Shiori says turning towards a woman with long black hair. ”Just one moment my dear. I have business to attend to. Have a seat I think you will find Togashi to be a lovely conversationalist.”
Apricot as instructed walks toward the bar. A man in a well styled waiter suit polishes a glass. He almost looks cat like with the way he is grinning. Long bleached white hair tops his head which only accents his polished blue eyes. “Hello darling. How do you say, friend of Shiori’s?” he asks. His accent is thick from another country she could not place. How odd. The man clearly was of Uchellan decent but to have such a thick accent suggested he is a foreigner. She plops down on the barstool resting her arms on the long stretch of polished wood. “Care for a drink, yes?”
“Just a glass of water would be nice.” Apricot says. “So you‘re Togashi?”
He immediately moves to serve taking a glass and wandering over towards a black slate polished fridge. “Indeed, I am.”
“Your accent where is it from?” Apricot felt prehension as the words left her mouth. Was it insulting to ask where an accent came from? His eye upturns towards her as that sly cat like grin grew. “I meant nothing by it.”
“No my dear. How you say, it is fine.” drawing a blue bottle from the fridge he pops the cork off the top and pours a fair amount into the glass topping it with a few rocks of ice. “I am not the native of Uchella. I hail from Sarlimar, my father is Uchella but my mother is an Estarius.”
“Wow, how did you end up back in Uchella?” Apricot asks while Togashi slides the glass towards her.
Togashi smirks. “All the questions are we dear. You must Apricot, the reporter girl, am I correct, no?”
Apricot blushes. “I am but how did you know?”
“You are, how do I say this, topic of interest around these parts. However, to answer your question I am chemist and in Sarlimar chemistry viewed as witchcraft, you may know. Sadly, mother and father were murdered by locals they viewed my father‘s sciences as weapon of evil. I escaped attack. Left to world as teen aged adult, I searched for family name. I traveled UIchella and accepted by family. Togashi Siochiro, not famous house but servant house. Still it’s life more than I could dreamed having in Estarius.”
“I had no clue. Your story is amazing. Would you,” Apricot is swiftly cut off by Togashi’s white gloved hand.
He shakes his head raising his index finger. “Not the slightest words dear. I tell you why!? I am vassal of Lord Kinjo. My mission is to protect him. Any address of me will bring, unwanted attention to my Lord. So no, no interview, no story, no topic of interest.”
A tug at Apricots side jumps her nearly out of her seat. She turns her head to see a young blond boy around the age of nine or ten looking up at her. “Hey miss! Are you Apricot?”
“Ah, who are you?” Apricot asks a bit confused.
The boy grins. “I had to do a lot of research on you. My name is Akagi. I am pretty much the best hacker in all of Okabi maybe even the world.” he says beaming with pride. “Oh, you should put tape on your webcam by the way. You have too little security on your computer.”
“What?!” Apricot burst out.
Shiori calls out “Akagi leave her alone, and he is only joking. Go play some video games or something. The adults need to talk.”
Akagi furrows his brow. “I was just introducing myself, gee Shiori why you got to be such a jerk?”
“Go.” Shiori says pointing his finger toward the back.
Akagi frowns. “Fine but, you know I am just going to listen to you anyway using your cell phone.”
“Left it in the back room.” Shiori grins. Akagi stamps his foot leaving. “Now that the little terror is gone,” he says taking a seat next to Apricot. “Let‘s talk business.”
“So, what now Shiori?” Apricot takes a sip of her water looking into Shiori’s calm face.
“You said my name. The first time I believe.” Shiori responds with warmth in his voice. “Well, you can relax here for now. We need to plan on what exactly we will do next. I am at a loss. As far as I can tell we need to investigate but what exactly. I am curious why you have made this your calling? I have let you in on my most intimate secret darling. I am running a resistance here to this weird series of events. I expect you to trust me now.”
Apricot felt a lump grow in her throat. An unease but one that left her still comfortable. “I experienced this stuff a while ago,” Apricot explains the events that has lead up to her meeting Shiori. At first his expression is distant but as the conversation went on his interest appears piqued. Togashi put up a good face for appearing not to be listening but even he seems to take an interest when she mentions the attack in her home. She told them everything omitting the reaper and Cortez.
“That is an interesting story you have there.” Shiori says drumming his fingers.
“You seem to have a pretty good network going. So who else is doing this?” Apricot asks.
Shiori pauses for a moment. Taking a deep breath, he glances at Togashi who nods back to him. “I am not entirely sure to be honest. I know there is a couple others not related to my network. Not all of them good might I add. I was hesitant to pursuit you because I thought you would be dead shortly. I was wrong. Togashi, when did we discover Apricot.” the bartender smirks.
“Roughly about when she broke into east way park. You can thank Akagi for notifying Shiori of your wandering.” Togashi says. “There is how you say a fondness of you around these parts.”
Shiori nods. “That is right. We have been protecting and watching you for some time. The police could not collect data on you because we have disrupted their operations frequently when you were recorded by their surveillance systems.”
Apricot sighs. “That is a lot to take in, but it is good knowing someone has my back.”
“Indeed, it is a double-edge sword. It may comfort to know someone is protecting you but it also means we have violated a sense of privacy you held. I apologize for that. I had to know if I could trust you.” Shiori pauses. “I do.”
Apricot nods her head rocking slightly. “Now, when you say not all of them good… do you mean they work with the phantoms?”
“No, not at all. At least I don’t think they do. Some are just killers. They do it because it is a way for them to live out their fantasies. Sickos. There are some that try to understand the phantoms like myself. There is one person who is insane. His name is Natsukawa Okabe. Little dirty secret of the Okabe family. He is a serial killer, also happens to deal with the phantoms too. Kills anything that crosses his path. He scares the shit out of me to be honest.” Shiori says grimacing. “They should really put him down. It’s no life to live as a mad dog.”
Togashi laughs “So we call Phantoms now?”
“Can you think of a better name for them?” Shiori laughs. “Let’s take it as Apricot’s first contribution to the team. She is our shorthand maiden.”
Apricot blushes not really liking being called a maiden. “I know someone, who knows a little about the phantoms too.” Apricot says sheepishly. Shiori raises an eyebrow. “Well, a little. I will be honest. I am clueless as to what is going on. He probably is too to be honest. I know we need to stop this before something terrible happens. I figure the more information we can gather the faster we can fix things. I think he is trustworthy too.”
Shiori nods his head. “All right, lets go find this friend of yours. Perhaps with their help we can figure out a plan going forward.”
The alleyway is dark, only lit by a single wall light. Shiori sits atop of a dumpster while Apricot rests her back against the brick wall. From down the alleyway a shadow begins its trek. “Hey,” says Cortez. “You had something to discuss with me?”
“Long time no see.” Shiori says waving. “I was not aware you meant him Apricot.”
Cortez pauses his stride, staring at Shiori. “Oh shit, what is he doing here?” he yells slashing the air with his arm.
“Oh, you two know each other.” Apricot says a little surprised at Cortez’s reaction.
“Sort of,” Shiori adds.
“What are you doing hanging out with noble scum?” Cortez yells.
“Excuse me!” Apricot bursts out.
Shiori laughs slapping the top of the dumpster with his gloved hand. “Listen to the common dog bark.”
“Shut up!” Cortez yells. “If you expect me to tell him anything Apricot you are out of your mind!”
“What? What is going on?” Apricot asks floored by the situation unfolding.
“He is a user Apricot. He does not care about us at all. Shiori is not like us.” Cortez yells. “He is a noble and views us as his puppets. Flashes his money around like it makes him special. He lives above everyone else while he allows us common folk table scraps.”
“It’s the right place for impure muts like yourself. Cortez you should be glad the ruling families paid for this land with their blood.” Shiori replies his voice unmoved. Cortez marches up to Shiori who looks down at him.
“It was our families who fought your wars!” Cortez’s reply causes Shiori to laugh.
“It is not our fault the common masses are nothing more than animals.” Cortez latches onto Shiori’s leg dragging him off the dumpster. He lands hard on the ground. “Is the dog going to bite me?” Shiori scoffs while getting to his feet.
“You’ll regret that!” Cortez takes a swing at Shiori only to find his fist in the clutches of a sharp metal claw. It squeezes down causing him to scream out in pain. Between the two stood the reaper who materialized out of nowhere.
“Thee fools, wherefore doth thee speaketh such ills for eachother? Doth thee not see that thee art allies? Cease thy combat at once.” the reaper says tossing Cortez back. Apricot’s eyes wide as can be as she backs to the corner. Shiori’s mouth agape. The reaper turns his head to face Apricot “Haven’t thee desired a meeting with me, Apricot?”
“Do you know this freak?” Cortez backs away with both of his arms up.
“How shameful?” the reaper grunts. “Cortez, lay down thy guard. Thee art mine ally. I seek not to harm thee.”
Shiori grins. “So you finally show yourself to us. Apricot, why didn’t you tell me you knew claw fingers. So you claim to be our ally. Prove it.”
“Claw fingers? this yond what they art calling me?” he comments toward Shiori before turning his gazes to Apricot. “I cameth to giveth thee a treasure in the form of knowledge. Hark, thither is much to be done. Thee art hunting the phantoms and has’t done well so far but thou has’t been doing so without direction. Blind, in the dark. Allow me to pardon your burden. The phantoms has’t cometh for thy world. Thither art people assisting them for their own purposes.” the reaper says turning towards Cortez.
“Coequal now these phantoms buildeth an army. Thither art warlords leading the phantoms through the threshold. Tis not with their own power, however. Thither art witches that direct these beings. They assist the phantoms crossing ov’r from the other side. Tis thee that must cease those doing so. The Okabe family hath refused the calleth and art not worthy to carryeth out their duty to cease this.” Turning his sights towards Shiori the Reaper slowly approaches him.
“Tis by their meddling the phantoms entered this world as you must know. In thy words the “Blue Ash Crisis” causes all this. A passage between their world and yours wast hath opened and nev’r closed. Now the phantoms lay in between worlds, as ghosts until they art manifest as flesh.”
“You want us to kill people?” Cortez asks.
“Sadly, if ‘t be true, that is what must beest done.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Shiori presses.
“Prove me wrong. If ‘t be true I has’t lied then I must not beest trusted. But if ‘t be true I has’t given truth than thou has’t no choice but to trust me.”
“Why reveal yourself now?” Apricot asks frightened by what he is suggesting.
“Time is short. I cannot sustain the situation much longer. If ‘t be true something is not done all wilt beest lost and in the hands of careless ones who seek to maketh a new world and consume this one. This cannot beest allowed. I seek to returneth home myself. I cannot doth so until either this world is restored or destroyed. I seek to save this world, don’t thee?”
“Interesting, so these phantoms where do they come from?” Shiori asks.
“The phantoms art the original inhabitants of the world ere this one. Those gents cursed themselves and destroyed their world. At which hour the new world wast born all who hath lived in the fusty one wast sealed. Now, these beasts seek to devour this one and taketh this world for their own. I tire, I must leaveth thee now. At the fusty shrine on the hill thee wilt findeth me. Thither I rest, please hie time is short.”
At this the reaper ascends into the sky like a shooting star disappearing behind the buildings. “What do we do now?” Cortez asks.
“We work together.” Apricot says in a soft voice.
Cortez snarls turning his back and walking out of the alleyway. Shiori looks up at the starry sky. “Apricot.”
“Yeah,” she says in a distant tone.
“Cortez is a dog, at the first sign of trouble he will run. Remember that.” She turns to look over at Shiori who too is walking the other direction out of the alleyway. She sighs staring up at the sky wondering what exactly is about to unfold.