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The old concrete staircase reminds Apricot of a bomb shelter. With every step she took the camera watches following her. The door’s mechanical bolts snap open, sliding aside. As she walks inside the dark basement the door behind her closes re-locking with a metallic bang. “Hey guys, you here?”
“Apricot,” Shiori’s voice calls over the speakers. “We are in the lobby down the hall.” As Apricot approaches, she hears Shiori say “Well, figured that would happen. My credit chip was just deactivated.” As Apricot walks in, she sees the rest of the group sitting on a gray sectional, several drinks rest on a coffee table in front of them. Their backpacks rest along the wall. She assumes they are changes of cloths and other supplies. “Hey Apricot. What took you so long?” Shiori inquires.
“I had to rest after that scuffle with Natsukawa. I got your test but couldn’t find the place. It is really well hidden.” Apricot’s voice came out tired from the nights exhaustion.
Sumai rests her head in her hands. She sits up giving Apricot a firm eye. “Is he dead?” She shakes her head. “Then what are we waiting for. We can’t let him get away with what he did to Togashi.”
“We don’t know where he is.” Shiori utters in a sad tone. “Even still we are not in a situation to go look for him. The police are on us and the media has put our faces out as terrorists. The only thing we can do right now is complete our mission and stop the seal breaker.”
Apricot clears her throat. “I might have some information about that. Natsukawa assumed I was going after him. He said something about knowing he hid out in “the tunnels”. I am assuming it is the tunnels nearby that were shut down. Maybe even the same tunnel system Cortez found Genova in.”
Shiori looks at the ground. He shakes his head. “Well, if it is the only thing we have to go on. Akagi be useful and take a look on those cameras, maybe you can spot something.”
“It could be a trap. I know that area is crawling with troops right now.” Akagi says. “I mean, Natsukawa might know we are after him. So he pretended to attack Apricot and and… I don’t know anymore.” Rising from the couch the young teen fiddles with his bag taking out a silver gray laptop.
“Shoiri, I’ll go.” Sumai says.
“No, you will stay here with Junko and Akagi.” he commands firmly.
Sumai shakes her head. “I am coming if you like it or not.”
“It’s too many people. Apricot and myself will go. Apricot because she can actually fight a phantom if anything pops up and I will go because I happen to know about ritual magic. Which he may employ a number of spells.” Shiori reasons.
The bang of Sumai’s fist against the table alarms everyone in the room. “Damn it Shiori!“
“Sumai you’re in no state to go out. You are feeding on rage right now. I can see it.” Junko walks up behind Sumai placing her hands on her shoulders. “It’s ok. We rest right now. We will get him and Kyo for what they did later.”
“I hate to tell you this Shiori but those tunnels have no cameras. They are offline, not from a digital lock but rather physically disconnected. They won‘t even ping. There is twenty-six cameras and every single one of them is missing. I don’t like this guys. They posted last month though, so this was a recent thing.” Akagi sounds worried Apricot thought to herself.
“Yeah, I don’t like it much either.” Apricot comments a blaze of courage welling up inside her. Maybe she too shared in Sumai’s anger. Even still everything is dull inside, it’s like reality has not hit her yet, but she knew soon the impact of the situation would crash. “But, we got to do it. If this is what ends all of this, we have to.” She says clutching her fist.
“You think you could rig up a way to keep us from getting caught by the authorities?” Shiori asks Akagi resting his hand on his back.
“Mmmhmmm, I can put all the cameras in the city on a loop so they can‘t see you. As far as the police I could try to distract them with fake calls. The maintenance crews will be too spent dealing with those to actually bother tracking you down. That virus I rigged up is really causing damage to the network. They are already busy working on that. If you get stopped though that’s game over. I can‘t do much to help you aside from that.” Akagi looks at the screen furrowing his brows. “Don’t get caught ok.”
“Cheer up kid. Does it look like I will get caught?” Shiori laughs turning away from the group. “Then it is settled. Apricot, are you armed?” Apricot nods resting her hand on the hilt of her saber tucked into her pant leg. “Good, let’s go find Cortez.”
“Cortez?” Apricot questions.
“He is a tunnel rat. I can make it worth his while to come with us.”
“Shiori I don’t think he will…” with a hand raised Shiori silences Apricot and continues down the hall, the bolts of the door whining open.
Akagi must be working hard to keep the entire cities surveillance grid bogged down Apricot thought to herself. The city is alive as ever, several police cruisers pass them by as they make their trek down the sidewalk thoroughfare. She also noted a tense anxiety had come over Shiori who was a recognizable figure to begin with regardless of being a wanted man. Seeing him covered up with a hoodie is unlike his usual style. It did not fit him.
His gaze would dart from side to side and he abandoned his usual verbal commands to a series of hand gestures. Apricot caught on fast, open palms meant stop and folded fingers meant it is time to move. All the while the pair attempted to move with a normality that Apricot felt is a poor imitation at best.
The two stop outside of the metroplex station. The large gate serves to scan boarding passes allowing entry to the train system. Apricot pauses looking to Shiori who stares down the gates. With a deep breath he returns to his stride making his way through the scanners. The light remains red as the camera adjusts itself inspecting the pair. “This is taking longer than usual.” she teeths through her lips. Shiori does not acknowledge her comment but instead keeps stone faced looking forward. The light turns green and the gates ding open much to Apricot’s relief.
Aside from a few glances, Apricot felt as though the two had made it aboard the train with little recognition, if any. “This is your show.” Shiori says under his breath. Apricot nods before leading him down the abandoned carts. The morning sun barely lit the train as the metro started its slow acceleration. Through the last set of doors Apricot leads Shiori into a rear cart. There he is resting against the wall. His glance raises to meet Apricot’s gaze. “Ah, hell, you two?” Cortez growls. “I told you I was done. What do you want?”
“A minute of your time and possibly a few hours after that.” Shiori says. “Mind if I take a seat?”
“Heh,“ Cortez rolls his eyes, “Ain’t my train.”
Apricot notices a knife under Cortez’s coat already open. “Put it away, we are only here to talk.” Cortez raises an eyebrow before raising both his arms to scratch the back of his head. When he lowers them again, the blade is gone.
“So if you are not here to screw me up, what are you here for?” Cortez grins.
Shiori takes a seat on the other side. “We did it. The family will no longer be an issue. We have one last piece to scrub though. That seal breaker. We think we figured out where our friend is.”
“Yeah, that’s great. What’s that got to do with me?” Cortez raises his head towards the ceiling like the sometimes arrogant prick he could be.
“We need your help Cortez, he is in the tunnels. You know how to move around the tunnels and navigate them. Could you help us? You don’t need to do anything aside be our guide.” Apricot hopes to appeal to his sympathies if he had any. She could tell he is scared shitless even if he would not admit it to anyone. Still there was something about his demeanor that suggested there is something more.
“Maybe if you pay me. That service isn’t going to be cheap. I want twice what you are going to pay her.” Cortez says to Shiori.
Shiori glances over at Apricot. Apricot nods back to him. “Yeah, well, that is not going to be a problem.”
“I know you’re not good for it Shiori. Your credit stick has been shut off. Your jade marks are deactivated too I bet. So how do you plan on paying me?”
“How the hell did you know that?” Shiori grunts.
“You turn on a TV at all? Your face is plastered all over it. Kind of pisses me off seeing you all over the place.”
“I got my ways. Don’t I always pay my debts?” Shiori retorts.
Cortez shakes his head. “You pay me now or else I might just turn you two in for a healthy profit. After all your both wanted by the police right now. I am sure your warrants are worth far more than whatever you would pay me.” Shiori tosses a cloth satchel into Cortez’s lap giving him an angry glare. Opening it up Cortez looks inside. “You got to be shitting me. Are these real?”
“So you coming with us or not?” Shiori rises from his seat. “I am tired of wasting time here.”
“I’ll lead the way.” Cortez replies with a chipper tone. “We ain’t going down there from the abandoned train station. We are doing it from the trash lands. Safe, less likely to run into some soldiers. Maybe we find Genova and we can put him down too.”
Through the dim lighting of the tunnel Cortez’s machine gun glimmers. Apricot never felt quiet right about Cortez and that new gun of his. The way he held it is like a borderline fetish. His fingers nervously fondling the handle as though in some ritual of seduction to calm his nerves. Shiori walks several paces ahead of the pair. His head bobbing casting casual glances in search of “sigils” as he called them. Even still after spending such time with the group Apricot still had not picked up on being able to spot the well-hidden signs. She knew what poorly crafted ones looked like. Local hoodlums often took up the mantle of a cult to posture. Such is the subculture in suburbia.
Shiori stops in his tracks holding out his hand. “Wards.” is all he says as his gaze covers the walls.
“I see nothing.” Cortez says only to have Shiori point his rod at a symbol written along with the contours of cracks in the wall. “Well, who could see that?” she could not help but chuckle at Cortez’s embarrassing admission. With a sharp glare Cortez shuts Apricot’s mouth.
Apricot bends down to look at the spiraling series of symbols. “So, what is this for anyway?”
“Wards? They ward things away. It is a sign to keep spirits from entering places. I think we are on the right path.” Shiori glances over his shoulder. “I suggest haste as I am sure he will notice us soon enough.”
“Doubt it.” Cortez grunts raising Shiori’s eyebrow. “We are heading into the underground city. Should not be too far ahead. Ruins of the old city lay buried beneath the new one. Place is huge. Looking for him down there, pshhh, good damn luck.”
Shiori lets out a sigh, quickening his stride down the hall. Sure enough, the corridor opens into a ruin of skeletal buildings. The dust-covered remains of urban decay stretched on into the darkness. “What’s that.” Apricot says as she points to a fire light surrounded by dancing shadows.
The ring of a bell calls from the building. “Think it is that easy?” Shiori whispers.
“Let’s get this over with. The place smells moldy.” Cortez keeps walking hanging his gun over his shoulders. Shiori grins and follows close behind. Apricot feels apprehensive about such an open invitation. Then again, it is cold down here and he most likely assumes he is alone. As they traversed the ruins, they eventually came upon the fires in question. “It used to be a cathedral.” Cortez comments. Enting through the missing twin doors exposed a chapel hall decorated in hand-painted tapestries which Apricot gave little regard. Instead, her focus is on the lumbering man in a red cloak who stood before an alter.
When the man turns towards the group, he reveals his face is covered by a painted clay mask. The mask is ruddy red against his pale withered white skin. The eyes painted black and white along with painted lips. Apricot steps behind Shiori as the man raises a ritual knife. “Ill blow your head off if you move.” Cortez growls leveling the rear sight of his gun to his eye.
“There is no need for that. Are you apostles of the black god, are you not?” the man warmly states. “You must be to make the pilgrimage down here. Look around you. What do you believe led you here?”
“Pardon my friend here.” Shiori says placing his hand on the barrel of Cortez’s gun pushing it down to the floor. “Apostles of the black god? Who is this black god?” Apricot knows that term, Shiori does too. Cortez most likely so as well. The ancient evil being worshipped by the strange cult Cortez’s father chronicled. This is the under-city he spoke of.
“Shame, and here I thought, well, none the less. Welcome.” Apricot can’t help but feel a knot grow in her stomach as she looks at the large mural covering the wall behind the priest. A city surrounded by fire being overshadowed by a black being with horns. It is crude, but the image suggested a powerful unearthly evil.
It is apparent the man has taken up residency in this old hollowed out cathedral. Patches of undisturbed dust coated most things. Trails along the dust marked where the priests touch has remained like a record archiving his movements for who knows how long. Candles burned dry over and over and over again, its waxy channels became figures of their own as they dried into elaborate streaming towers.
“You never answered my question.” Apricot looks up to see Shiori approaching the priest with measured steps.
Lowering his head, the priest places a hand on his covered chin. “Well, the black god has been here since ancient times. Though the city has forgotten their history. He remains still.”
“Does this black god have anything to do with the seals around the city?” Shiori asks the priest.
Apricot imagines behind his mask a smile crossed his face as he looks directly at Shiori. “Heh, one could say that he indeed does. Your lot is not an ignorant one I see.”
“We are seeking someone who is destroying those seals.” Shiori says drawing a pistol from his undercoat. “You would not be that person would you.”
The man slowly turns away from Shiori letting out a sigh. “I can hardly walk, I could never make it to the surface.” He lifts his pant leg to reveal a rusted and damaged cybernetic leg. Wires hang out the side between shattered plates. “I am trapped down here, until the ritual is finished that is. I shall sustain until the time comes. I do however know who you are looking for. You were right to seek him down here, alas he is difficult to catch.”
“Is that so? Does that mean you are after him too?” Cortez remarks.
“He runs too quickly for me to follow him. And yes I am, I seek his death as well. If he accomplishes his task, there will be no future here.” The priests stride stops before the alter. “If you seek to find him I suggest you hurry. He is leaving again. I can feel his presence slipping away.”
Shiori turns towards Cortez and then looks back at Apricot. She gives him a nod. The priest raises his palm revealing his hand is cut, and the blood is streaming down on top of the altar. “I shall sustain until the time comes.” he whispers as the group rushes out to the entrance of the underground city.
“Do you think that man tricked us?” Apricot asks the heavy feeling coming over her as they search the tunnels with no results.
Cortez grunts “I am starting to think so. The man was crazy, I bet he was the one.”
Shiori stops in his tracks swiveling his head. “You two, stop it. You saw his leg, he could not run on that thing if his life depended on it.”
“What if he damaged it running away?” Apricot stretches her arms behind her back. “It doesn’t matter, let’s keep searching.”
Cortez shakes his head. “I am getting tired and it smells like shit down here.”
Out of the shadows a blast of purple light flies burning towards the group. Apricot narrowly dives out of the way. “Die!” yells a young male. Cortez points his gun towards the dark tunnels to see the cloaked man running at him. Cortez fires his gun but the man dives aside kicking off the wall and retches the gun away from Cortez’s hands.
Apricot quickly grabs a knife from her wrist throwing the blade at the cloaked man. With one fluid motion he blocks the knife with the side of the gun throwing it aside. Shiori dives at the attacker slashing at him with his rod. The young man grabs the rod lowering to the floor sweep kicking Shiori onto the hard cement.
A burning pain sears into Apricots back as she is impacted by a phantom force. She falls to the floor. Her sight grows hazy as she watches a mechanical foot step past her. Another blast hits the teen knocking him to the floor. Shiori turns to look at the stranger only to be hit himself. Cortez runs up to grab the man, but he plunges a dagger into Cortez’s stomach. Apricot tries with all her might to get up but instead she falls limp under the cover of darkness.
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