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Kicking and screaming the young blond struggles barred in the arms of two rough men. The abandoned warehouse is dusty, smelling of the residue of long-dried chemicals. She kicks her heels against the cool cement floor while the men lug her unwilling body towards a man standing in the shadows. The men throw her onto the floor so hard it knocks the wind out of her lungs. She slowly pushes herself onto her knees, her gaze striding up from a pair of black boots to a man in jeans. His eyes are masked by a pair of black sport glasses, his hair is long and black styled as dreads. A grin slowly pierces his lips revealing toothy fangs. Throwing his black leather jacket aside, he reveals his jostling muscles. They pulse and expand as he lets out a crazed howl. The girl shrieks twisting to get away from his massive hand reaching for her. The two men are dwarfed by the monstrous man as he lifts the girl off the ground. “Help!” she screams and struggles in his grasp.
“I can’t watch this.” one man says his face etched in horror keeping his eyes to the cold concrete floor.
The monster of a man sinks his teeth into the girl’s upper body gnashing down with a loud crunch. “Don’t say a thing, no one can fight Genova. He is king of the city now.” The wet sounds of slurping and gnawing echo through the abandoned warehouse as the two men’s blood runs cold.
Sipping from a straw Apricot sits across from Machi and Solenne. The three girls dine on a small black cast iron picnic table in the park’s center. Apricot cannot help but notice how artificial the trees appear. She was certain some of them were in fact not trees at all but plastic sculptures. They never turned color, and they never seemed to grow. Likewise, the plants; she assumes are made of polysynthetic material. The girls unwrap their sandwiches while pouring glasses of ice tea. Small talk abounds between Machi and Solenne as Apricot finds herself trapped in her own thoughts. What a predicament she found herself in. Working with Shiori has proven, tiring to say the least. Late nights and early mornings gave little time for her to sleep. Machi’s face fell, Apricot was not entirely sure why with her absence of listening. Now as the tone of the conversation changed she found herself drawn out of her thoughts.
“It just worries me.” Solenne continues. “I realize the military won’t risk any of their soldiers but still… there is already fighting.”
Apricot had heard about the situation on the news. Some miners discovered a recent resource deposits of Urizen. Now Uchella and Aslana are fighting over the rights to the deposits. The unfortunate part is it is near the center of the demilitarized zone which has been off-limits for years. It was about a month ago when Arjun was deployed. Solenne has been a nervous wreck since Apricot noted.
Machi nods her head. “Well, he is not in combat is he?”
“Yeah, he is actually.” Apricot remembers the conversation she had with the general. The situation is growing worse by the day and this new news of combat sets her uneasy. “Already the base they deploy him to has seen several air scares.” Solenne sighs. “He won‘t admit to it but I know he has been in a couple dogfights at least. He told me about scrambling a bomber and how proud he was to send the accompanying fleet running with their tales between their legs. It scares me.”
“I am sorry to hear that hun. If there is anything I can do please ask.” Apricot says to comfort even though she imagines it would come as none at all.
Machi chimes in “Yeah, we are only a call away.”
Apricot imagines Arjun would not want himself to worry Solenne and he must feel much the same about her when she is on duty as an officer. With the way the town is changing it is too becoming a war-zone. Perhaps even more so if events continue to unfold the way they are going. “Arjun is an ace pilot. He will be fine Solenne, even if he is in a dogfight, he will win.”
“I hope you’re right Apricot. All it takes is one small mistake.”
The echo of steps down the dark underground corridor greets Genova’s ears. He removes his lips from the nape of a young girl’s neck a few years his junior. He smiles seeing Cortez dressed in his usual black leather trench coat. “Cortez my friend.” Genova says his arms wrapped around two girls, one sitting on each leg. They are of the usual brand he found himself with. Street girls who want entry into the gangs, willing to sell themselves for easy money. Willing to give it away just for the opportunity.
“The hell is this? You got yourself a throne?” Cortez grunts observing the stone chair Genova sat upon.
He nods. “Yeah found it down here. Probably some old cults chair. It would amaze you what is beneath this city.” Sitting up from his slouch, Genova bobs the girls up on his knee. “So what do you want?”
Reaching into his pocket Cortez draws out a wad of cash. “Got the money I owe you. So we are square now right? This can all be over with.”
A small snicker escapes Genova’s lips, his sharp teeth just visible. “Don’t worry about it.” Cortez raises his eyebrow. “You paid me back more than enough.”
“That’s generous of you.” Cortez comments his face stone straight. For someone like Genova to not take money, is a bad omen that turns his stomach. He could feel a tremor crawling down his leg. At any moment he prepared himself to dodge half expecting someone to draw a gun. His eyes dart to every corner. This is such a strange place to meet up, it already gave Cortez an ill feeling. If he would be offed, this is the place it would happen.
“I got to say, I should pay you back.” Genova clutches both girls tightly in his arm before lowering his jaw to the neck one of the girl’s youthful throats. He gropes the other in arm before sinking his teeth deep into her flesh. She lets out a shriek scrambling to get out his arms. Now kicking and screaming a red burst wets her tank top as the blood drains from her neck. Cortez watches in horror as Genova sucks down a steady stream of blood from the girl’s neck.
“What the hell!” Cortez shouts backing away towards the hall.
Genova’s face tightens, his ears stretch out like that of a goat, his eyes red as blood, and his teeth become like knives. His body ripples with muscles as they pulse outward. He becomes hairy, similar to that of a beast. “You look so shocked.” He mumbles as the blood flows out of his mouth, the girl‘s gaze lays faint. Releasing his jaws she falls dead onto the floor her body pale squirting blood from her neck.
“What the hell are you!?” Cortez whimpers.
Genova rolls his head stretching to get comfortable with his new form. “Those books you paid me to hide. I found them very interesting. Hahahaha your father‘s work, he was so close to the answer. Too bad you did not take him more seriously.”
Cortez eyes fill with fury. “What, I told you not to look at those! Look at you, you are nothing more than a monster now!”
“What are you going to do about it?” Genova laughs. “This was what the cult was seeking and your father too. It appears the cult had not achieved it either or else they would not be looking for his work. Down here though, I was waiting for them. Waiting for them so I can be the first to eliminate any rivals I may have.” Genova extends his hand towards Cortez pointing a clawed finger at him. “I owe it to you, my friend.”
“You were always a jerk, but I never imagined you would do something like this! You murderer!” Cortez yells clutching his fist.
Genova looks down at the terrified girl in his arms. Her eyes puffy with black runny tears. “When I was younger, they picked on me because I was a runt. People didn’t like me very much. This girl in my arm, she would never give me a second look. Everyone cast me aside as a nerd.” He reminisces as a grin grew over his face. The girl in his arms struggles as best she can but to no avail. His bone crushing grip tightens ripping at her skin as she releases a miserable yelp. “Then I got older and understood why my life was hell. I was weak. The weak have no place in the world Cortez.” He turns his red gaze back towards Cortez stopping his heart. “I got strong and soon people followed me around. I got strong, and I got strong fast. The others, they came for protection. So I protected them, I even made a business out of being strong. People paid me to protect them from the eyes of the government from the other vermin gangs. The nobles stayed away.” He looks down at the ground. “Then you came along Cortez. A scared boy who needed work for his family. A strong young boy. It disappointed me when I discovered what you had me hide. Power for the taking, yet, you did not take it.”
“That is not power! That is just evil!” Cortez yells.
“Call it what you like Cortez. However, I am lord now. I am the gate of souls, a ruler, both man and devil, and I will allow no one to stand in my way.” Genova looks up as he hears a metallic click. Outstretched in Cortez’s grasp is a pistol. “Don’t like what I am saying Cortez. Struck a cord?”
Cortez repositions himself with the gun outstretched facing down the hideous beast Genova has become. “You’re insane.”
“Go ahead.” Genova growls. “Shoot me.” His eyes widen as he hears a loud bang. Looking down Genova sees a large hole in his chest. The girl in his arms now wrenching for escape even harder if it were possible. Blood streams out from the wound. Raising his hand to his chest he wets his finger tips. “I bleed.” he whispers before laughing. “Go ahead, shoot me again Cortez.”
Cortez fires the gun several more times. Each bullet landing in a small scatter around Genova’s heart. He keeps holding out his arm clicking the trigger as it chirps. “Out of bullets.” Genova smiles. Cortez’s chest now raises up and down. His hand trembles as he lowers the gun. He turns tail towards the hall running down the corridor as fast as he can.
“Maggots do not scare Kings.” Genova yells out to Cortez. “Run Cortez, it’s only a matter of time.” Cortez keeps running without looking back even as he hears the girl’s screams echoing from the hall.
“You got to get people down here! As many as you can! Shiori, everyone! All of them!” Apricot pulls her phone away from her ear as Cortez screams. His voice laden in a panic.
“It must be really something if you want Shiori’s help.” Apricot comments.
“Look look, tell him I will work with him no problem. This is not a time to joke Apricot. The situation, it’s the worst thing that could have happened. My notes, my father’s notes! A guy got his hands on them and completed some ritual. Now he is eating people alive! We need to kill him before he gets any stronger!” Cortez shouts.
A man turning into a monster. She had seen that once. Back at the grocery store. The image of his face splitting laid back into her mind. That woman in the tunnel too. It had not occurred to her until now but were those phantoms or were they people? “Calm down Cortez. All right, stay calm. I will go get help. I am on my way out the door now. I will stop down at the Spook House and get as many people to come as I can. Then I will come help. Are you safe? Can you give me about an hour?”
“Yeah, I am outside above ground. He is hid up in a gang hideout in the old city. Ill send my location to you. If he comes up though, I am out of here. I think he is enjoying himself right now with the girl I, I tried to save her. Gah, my gawd what have I done!” Cortez sobs. “I left her to die!” he whimpers.
Apricot feels a lump growing in her throat. The cool street urchin is breaking down over the phone with her. He must have seen something awful. Apricot swallows the information and assumes the girl is already dead or at least is on her way out. There is nothing she can do now aside from gathering help. “I will call you in a few.”
“She will sell us out for an article she is working! Either that or she is an Okabi spy!” Apricot hears the angry voice of a woman. Pulling open the door Apricot enters to see Togashi resting at the bar with an off put face. Akagi is sipping on what appears to be a glass of soda. A slender black-haired girl sat next to him, her eyes shut. She looks to be about Apricot’s own age maybe a year or two younger.
“Your silly, miss Ohara I am disappointed.” Shiori laughs from the back room.
There is a loud slam before a tumble. “Don’t give me that bullshit! You know they did not secure her! She is one of them!” The argument between the two continues in rapid bursts and hollers. While Shiori retorts with his usual casual joking manner.
“What is with all the yelling?” Apricot asks as she makes her way to the bar.
Akagi smirks. “O’ don’t mind them, Sumai and Shiori are fighting like usual. It will end soon.”
“Tiring squabble this one is.” Togashi drums his fingers on the counter rolling his eyes.
The twin doors to the back room breach open exposing a red-haired middle-aged woman with blue eyes which lock onto Apricot after spotting her. The ferocity in them felt as though it was gripping at Apricot’s throat. “You need to leave!” she roars.
“What is this all about?” Apricot asks in a calm tone.
Storming up to the counter Sumai pushes Togashi aside receiving a raised eyebrow and snicker from him. “I know all about you Apricot! You are an Okabi spy. How else would you be allowed to get out of all the messes you have been in!”
Apricot raises up both of her hands. “Wait what! I am not a spy!”
“Where did you get a gun then?” Sumai presses.
Shiori staggers out of the room his tie out of place. “Sumai,” she turns her head towards him. “Outside, leave her alone and cool down. Right as of this moment, you are not allowed in the Spook House until I re-invite you in. So out.”
Sumai shakes her head. “You are such a bastard.” Sumai huffs walking out from behind the bar. “I am not done with this!” she announces to Shiori. Her scornful gaze quickly returns to Apricot. “I got my eyes on you!” Sumai growls wagging her finger at Apricot as she strides out the front doors.
“You are here mighty early Apricot.” Shiori says. “What’s up?”
Apricot regathers her composure the images flooding her mind again. She feels a small hand on her back. “Don‘t let her get to you. Sumai is like that with everyone. She is den mother. Protective to the end, a little hard-headed but she will treat you the same way in time.” Akagi says, his face beaming with happiness.
“Cortez called me, told me that there is a guy who used some weird ritual to become a monster. He is waiting outside of his lair. Apparently there is a girl down with him. Some gang members too.” It surprises Apricot to see everyone give her an unamused look.
“Heh, no.” Shiori grunts. “Cortez is a con artist Apricot. Don’t trust him.” Shiori turns his back to Apricot heading towards his office.
“Wait!” Apricot shouts. “Help him for me. I think this is serious.”
Shiori shakes his head placing a hand on his hip. “It’s your funeral. You showed a lot of potential but I won’t waste my time on a dog like Cortez. So help him. I will not clean his messes.”
Fuming Apricot finds herself out the door. She takes several steps before resting her back against the side of the building gathering her air. “What am I going to do?” She thought to herself. This whole situation is growing darker by the moment. New questions arose though, what happened between those two?
“You are a piece of trash and you need to get lost or else you are going to have problems.” Apricot scowls looking beside her to see Sumai glaring at her. Without a word Apricot lunges off the wall taking off before she said something she regretted herself. She sure as hell was not going to take that kind of abuse from a perfect stranger. She makes it about a block before she hears foot steps following from behind her.
“Would you leave me,” Apricot says as she turns to see the young black-haired girl looking at her with her sapphire eyes. “I am so sorry I thought you were,”
“It’s all right. I heard what Sumai said.” the girl said without moving her lips. Her voice is soft, calm, and deep in her eyes. “My name is Junko Morie, I am sorry I could not introduce myself earlier.
This is far too strange for Apricot her thoughts race. “How are you doing that?”
“I speak through mental conversions. It is more comfortable for me to speak this way. Also far more private. For me that is.” Junko explains. Apricot thinks hard straining her face. The girl laughs covering her mouth with her gloved hand. “It’s ok to speak with your voice. I cannot read minds, at least understand what I read that is.”
“That is a pretty cool talent.” Apricot says to Junko who nods her head. “It is very nice meeting you but I really have to go now.”
Junko frowns. “You seem sincere.” Apricot nods. “I will come too, if only to ensure your safety from Cortez.”
“Why does everyone dislike him? What did he do?” Apricot asks.
Junko shakes her head. “It is not my place to say.”
Apricot felt uncomfortable walking through this part of the city. It has been long deserted, a ruin, with broken glass littering the ground. Many people referred to it as the trash lands. The property would hold a great amount of value if only they could get workers to clear the grounds. However, superstitions of ghosts and spirits are far too prevalent. So this part of the city became inhabited only by the poorest and least moral individuals.
Apricot lays eyes on Cortez who stood looking down a flight of stairs leading to a ruined subway tunnel. Her soft steps from behind him diverts his gaze. A smirk crosses Cortez’s face. “Nice shorts,” He jokes. Her jean shorts and pink tank top are poppy compared to Junko’s gothic attire. Cortez turns back to the tunnel. “I am surprised to see you here Junko.” Cortez softly murmurs. “He is not coming, is he.” Cortez gruffly moans under his breath.
“Yeah it’s just the two of us.” Apricot walks beside Cortez to look down into the darkness below. Its visage looks cold and unwelcoming.
Junko places her hand on Apricots back as she looks over her shoulder. “I came for her sake alone. Don’t get your lines crossed.”
“Yeah,” Cortez grunts. “Figured as much, so Shiori too busy or what?” Apricot felt her suspicions about Cortez’s prior relationship to the group growing. Junko clearly knew him. There was a fondness hidden behind those cold eyes of hers. As far as Cortez goes, his words, they felt pained. Like they were old friends or something. Apricot diverts herself, her attention cannot be swaying from the matter at hand. She can wonder after.
“No, he refused as expected. I take it he is down there still?” Apricot asks.
Cortez does not divert his eyes. “He has not come out yet if that is what you are asking. The tunnels stretch everywhere. He could have left through somewhere else but I doubt he would avoid me. I shot him. It did not even phase him. We need Shiori’s entire group, hell, we need a damn army.”
Apricot waits for Cortez to continue but his pause becomes a full stop. “A monster?” she inquires.
He nods staying silent. His fists clutch together. “Call Shiori. I want to talk to that asshole myself.” growls Cortez.
Apricot reaches into her front pocket drawing out the black slab phone opening it with a click. “You know better Cortez. He is not coming.”
“I want to know for myself.” Cortez says taking the phone from Apricot. It rings briefly before the phone clicks. “Heh, the dog boy wanted to talk to me I assume.” Shiori says in his usual condescending tone.
“I don’t have time for bullshit Shiori.” Cortez yells. “I saw a guy transform into some sort of monster. He killed several people already.”
“Cortez maybe this isn’t a job for us. We should report it to the police. Let them handle it.” Apricot suggests.
They can hear Shiori’s laughter over the phone. “O‘ I got a direct line with you. That would not be smart Apricot. They would kill you for seeing it.”
“What!?” Apricot shouts.
“What you did not know? I am sure you my dear have figured out anything of this nature has been covered up by the Okabe government. The family will not allow any of these spooky rumors to have witnesses.” Shiori pauses. “So doggy boy, what exactly brought you down to the depths of the badlands? Perhaps it is your traitor of a father’s work.”
“Shut the hell up, you don’t know shit about my Dad.” Cortez yells. “But yeah, that file he had I hid is down there. I was paying a gang to watch over it for me. Heh, you met them Apricot. Remember those guys who were kicking the shit out of me when I met you.”
“Seems to be a common occurrence for you.” Shiori gloats.
“Shiori.” Apricot chides.
Shiori’s stifled snicker reaches through the receiver. “Be truthful Cortez, we both know you were not paying them to look over it.”
“I did but anyway, the tall one with the black dreads is named Genova. He is their leader.” Cortez says turning his gaze towards Apricot. “He solved the riddles in my father’s work, apparently. I figured he was a meat head and could not figure stuff out like that.”
“So your drug lord boss has a hit out for you and you want our help?” Apricot drops her jaw. “I’m not going to be helping criminal dogs like yourself, Cortez, you made your own mess. Apricot, I suggest you do the same.”
“Shiori, please, I need your help!” Cortez begs.
Apricot furrows her brow. “Shiori, this is a lead in the right direction. We should at least investigate it. We will deal with Cortez after.”
“I won’t be a lap dog for this man’s gang troubles. Fair well.”
“Shiori, don’t go. I need your help.” Cortez once again asks.
Shiori pauses for a moment before saying “And you lack it.” A click follows signaling the phone calls end.
“You did not tell me you were in a gang!” Apricot yells at Cortez latching onto his arm. “What the hell are you doing with a gang?”
His gaze falls towards the ground. “I had no other choice, my family, they needed the money. The gang… well, they helped me.”
“So you sell drugs.” Apricot asks.
“I sell, all kinds of things.” Cortez turns his back towards Apricot pulling away. “I will deal with it myself if you won’t help me.”
“How?” Apricot asks.
“I don’t know. I was hoping Shiori would help… he might not seem like it but, he is strong. I kind of figured he would not be around so I, had an idea of my own. It would be a lot easier with you two. Junko please help me.” Cortez says.
Junko stretches her posture. “I am listening.”
“I will help you too. But I am not happy with you. So what is this plan of yours?” Apricot asks.
Cortez pulls out a vile with some kind of putty substance in it. “I got this, it’s called Lyiatris, I use it to break into places. A dot of it can blow a lock off.” Cortez gaze looks away from Apricot. “But this tube of it can really do damage. I got one cell phone on me and a burner. So I need one more. I would need a few wires, any wires would do. So like, I can rig up a few bombs from this. Three. The tunnel down there is long. So like, we can string the bombs along a line. Three of them fairly spaced apart but not too spaced apart. Use a group call to detonate all of them at once when he is in the middle. It should collapse the walls around him trapping him. We need kindling because we want him to burn.” Apricot grimaces hearing the gory details of Cortez’s plan. “I figure if he is burned to ash he won’t be able to reform. Like old troll legends.”
Apricot nods her head. “Why not just light him on fire?” Her stomach turned at how casually she came up with such a terrible suggestion.
“Well, trapping him will not allow him to get out of the flames. So… he will die for sure.” Cortez says looking at the ground.
Junko looks at the tube. “Will it be strong enough to do that? Those walls are solid concrete.” she says aloud.
“I hope.” Cortez turns to look away. “I am not sure though. I will act as bate. Have him chase me. So, what I need you two to do is wait here while I scavenge the parts.”
“You are not leaving. I don’t trust you Cortez.” Junko says.
“Fine you two, go find kindling and a cable for anything, as long as it is for an electronic. I can rig it up with that.” Cortez says resting his back against the concrete wall. “You got a half an hour before I do it myself.”
Blood streams down the corners of the tunnel. Apricot shuffles her feet to avoid a puddle of blood greeting the entrance to Genova’s “lair”. Her stomach turns as the heavy smell of iron fills the air. Torn flesh is strung around the room. Cortez shields Apricot with his body as he walks into the dark corridor. The only light in the dim-lit room shines down from a small sewer grate. In the shadows a set of red glowing eyes look back. “Your brave to return Cortez and you brought an offering.” the low growl echoes throughout the empty concrete walls.
“Something like that.” Cortez says as he walks. His body jerking against each step. “I want my father’s file back.”
Genova sits up on his throne exposing himself to the light. He stood to the ceiling having to duck down. His grin reminds Apricot of a wolf’s face. “Your joking.” Genova grabs his gut and cackles. “Don’t you comprehend the situation you are in?”
“I am not.” Cortez says as Genova takes a step forward. His foot clops on the floor. It’s a hoove. “Now where is it?”
Apricot felt her knees getting weak as the face of that man from the grocery store comes into view. A burning sensation streams down her arm as her heart pounds. “Was that man,” she says under her breath. Genova interrupts her train of thought as he lets out a loud laugh that morphs into a roar.
“You dare to make demands of me?” he howls. “I will break your legs and make you watch as I rip your friend‘s skin off.” He raises both his hands to the light displaying a set of large bear like claws as he chuckles. “Scream for me!” he yells stamping his foot.
Cortez backs away from Genova yelling “Run!” Apricot turns tail and moves back into the dark halls leading towards the exit of the tunnels. She holds her cellphone tight in hand. With the click of the button the bombs would go off. As she runs past the first bomb she feels a sense of relief. Junko waits for her at the end of the hall. She can hear Cortez running close behind her as the stomping of hooves thunder towards her. Passing the second one she continues until she reaches a green x marked with chalk on the floor.
Turning around, she watches Cortez pass a red line. The beast close behind him. She clicks the microswitch. Nothing. Her hands tense onto the controls as she does it again with similar results. “What are you waiting for?” Cortez screams.
“It’s not working.” Apricot yelps. Her vision goes blurry as her heart sinks deep into her chest. “Oh god!” she shrieks. A burning pain surges down her arm again as the purple glowing aura returns. “Wait…” she says looking up to see Cortez facing the monster. Junko lets out a quiet grunt. Genova stops dead in his tracks. He lets out a cry of pain. Cortez draws a knife from his side bobbing back and forth.
Looking behind her Apricot sees Junko holding her hand out her eyes white, rolled back behind her head. The veins in Genova‘s body pumping as he grimaces. Apricot reaches towards her arm band drawing a single knife. Genova raises his arm above Cortez. Apricot prays she is correct as she releases the knife and it sores straight into Genova’s chest. A wet smoking burst sends Genova back. He stands staring down Apricot and Cortez with heavy breathing. Junko lets out a gasp dropping onto the floor. “I can’t.” she cries.
Latching onto the silver knife Genova rips it out of his chest. It sizzles as he screams out “It burns!” Throwing the knife onto the ground Genova retreats down the hall leaving a heavy trail of blood behind him. Cortez stands stiff staring into the darkness.
“Should we go, after, him?” Apricot murmurs her body shaking uncontrollably.
In response Cortez drops to his knees letting out a long sigh. “I don’t think we should.” as he rasps his breath.
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