The dull soothing touch of slumber seethed through Apricot’s core. A bright warmth coated her stomach as she hovered in the darkness of her sleep. Eyes shut tight, body restored. Nothingness, broken, by a sharp burning pain in the back. Her eye opened along with her gasping mouth. Panic gave pursuit. Pushing with her hands she stumbles onto her knees from the cold smooth concrete dust slathered ground.
“You‘re alive.” Cortez coughs. Apricot looks to her left side to see him propped up against the wall holding his side. His legs spread in a V. “You got to get that kid. That man in the cloak. He is evil.” His arms cover his stomach where a flowing scarlet river drifts pooling between his legs. “Run before it’s too late.”
Still seeing spots Apricot stumbles to her feet treading slowly down the hall by herself. Once she gains her second wind her stride turns into a trot like limp. Her muscles refusing against her will. Loud opera like singing littered the hall leading to the underground city. The words were in a language Apricot had never heard before. They were off-putting. Once she had reached the city, the voice had become clear; it was the voice of the old man.
Entering into the shrine Apricot sees the old man standing at the altar with a young boy with short black hair laying on top. “What are you doing!?” Apricot shouts.
“I have to thank you. I would never have caught this one by myself.” the old man says. “The boy is the enemy of our lord the black god. I am so glad you could watch the moment.”
Apricot can feel the burning inside her back still from the attack he laid upon her earlier. She clutches her fist as he grins at her. The boy is knocked out cold. “Who are you?”
“If you must know my name is Urias Heldric.” Apricot recoils her face scrunching at the ring. “You know my name. Brilliant.” Urias laughs. “With the death of this boy, the black god will accept me as his host. Watch me become a god!” he roars raising the knife in the air. Apricot’s heart skips a beat as she lunges across the sanctuary hall. As the man is plunging the dagger down at the boy’s chest, she reaves a purple blade of flame from her arm slicing through Uraise’s fore-arm. The arm falls limp on the ground dropping the dagger on the floor. He steps backwards holding his oozing wound as he lets out a scream. Apricot grabs hold of the boy tightly carrying him away from Urias.
Urias limps after Apricot screaming “Wait, you don’t know what you are doing! The boy must die.” Apricot keeps her pace assuming she is being perused by Urais. When she arrives she sees Shiori has gotten up and been tending to Cortez’s wounds.
“You owe me more than those damn rubies.” Cortez growls.
Shiori chuckles. “Maybe I should just let you bleed out in that case.”
“Haha real funny.” Cortez says before looking over to see Apricot. “Hey,” he says slapping Shiori in the chest.
Shiori grins at Apricot as she sets the boy down on the ground. “Is he dead?”
Apricot shakes her head. “We will take him back.”
“Why not just kill him?” Shiori asks.
“I am with Apricot man, let’s hear him out first.” Cortez grunts still holding his gut. “That man stabbed me. Ranted about how the black god would be so pleased with his catch. That with the death of the boy no one would have the knowledge to stop his greater work.”
“He said something to that affect to me as well. That man down there Shiori is Urais Heldric.” Shiori raises an eyebrow. “I think we might have got things wrong.”
“So where is old Urias, anyway?” Shiori asks.
“Bleeding somewhere down there. I cut his arm off with my spirit weapon. If he tries to get up here without treating it he will bleed out. I don’t think he will be a problem.” Apricot says coldly. She looks down at the boy who breathes hard.
When his eyes open, he tries to get up only to have Shiori place his foot on his neck. “Cool it, kid.”
“I am not a kid!” He shouts still struggling. Shiori presses harder on his neck. “Get off me.”
“You’re lucky to be alive. She just saved your ass.” Shiori says. “If I had it my way, I would have killed you.”
“I won’t let you summon the black god!” he yells.
Shiori shakes his head. “Calm the hell down.” He then puts heavy pressure on the kid’s neck cutting off his wind.
“Shiori get off him!” Apricot yells pushing him on the chest. “He is freaked out. Also Urias wants him dead too. I want to hear what he has to say.”
“I saw what you did. You‘re all murderers. You killed people!” the grunts. With a look of disgust Shiori lifts his foot from the boy. He immediately sits up looking at the group.
Apricot looks back down at the kid. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen. You should have died in the supermarket. I should have known you were a servant of the black god then.” The boy’s eyes shift between the group.
“The supermarket.” Apricot thinks to herself. As she looks at him, she suddenly is flooded with the memory of the boy she helped three years ago when the phantom attacked her at her old job. It had been so long she almost had forgotten about that. “Wait, I know you.”
“You’re pretty slow.” he says.
Apricot disregards his rudeness. “What do you mean about being a servant?”
“I mean you serve the black god! He was with you during the attack.”
Shiori gets down to the kid’s level “What is your name?”
”Hunter.” he says under his breath. “You will regret what you have done. You won’t be forgiven, you are all cursed. You might be able to kill me but he is going to betray you, then we will see who is laughing.”
Apricot furrows her brow. “We don’t want to hurt you. Well, at least I don’t want to.”
“Liar!” he screams.
Shiori growls “Why are you breaking the seals if you are so worried about the black god?” The boy dives to his feet attempting to leave but Shiori grabs his ankle pulling him to the floor. “Answer me! Why are you trying to summon the black god!” He viciously grabs the kid by the throat holding him down. “I am done playing! I want answers!”
“It’s what keeps him bound here.” Hunter chokes out.
Shiori’s grip tightens on his neck. “So you are releasing him!” He looks back at Apricot.
“No,” Hunter gasps struggling against Shiori’s hand. “It will suck him back into the other world.” Shiori loosens his grip. “The black god was sealed here during the devastation of the old city. The Okabe family is evil. They want to use him to make their new world. However, he is tricking them. He promised them a new world but really he wants to merge the dead world with this one. If they break the barrier between worlds both worlds will be a sacrifice. He will become the god of the new world.”
Shiori ponders it. “Why would Urias want you dead?”
“Urias was his pawn. Still is, he went mad. The ritual failed, and the sacrifice was incomplete. It only broke a hole between worlds. It could not merge them. This was the fault of the black god. However, the inhabitants of that world can now enter ours. He was weak when he first entered our world. Barely able to sustain himself at all. So he waited beneath the city deep in the tunnels slowly gathering strength. He has been feeding on all the tragedy and pain beneath the city for years waiting. As he got stronger, he misled people into his service. The seals hold that energy in. Without the seals he has no ability to remain here and will fade back into his world. If I break all the seals, it will defeat him.”
Shiori snickers. Placing a hand over his eye Shiori lets go of the kid. He raises his head to look at the ceiling. “So, the reaper is the black god. We have been douped.” Cortez and Apricot look at Shiori with wide eyes. “Think about it. He was fine until these seals broke. Now he is using your blood to sustain himself and he has gone dormant. He needs to recollect energy again. The kid is our ally.”
“What? What kind of trick is this?” Hunter says.
“We work together. Put an end to this black god. The Okabe family can’t perform their rituals anymore, so they are out of the picture. If we break that last seal, it is over right.” Apricot says to Hunter.
“The only problem is I don’t know where that last seal is. It will be some place the black god guards. I was searching the tunnels to find the seal. I’m also looking for the soul device. It’s down here somewhere. If we destroy it, this won’t happen again.” Hunter tells the group.
“So what we need to do is find the seal and break that machine.” Cortez grumbles. “Do things keep pealing like a damn onion or does this nightmare never end.”
“I think I know where it is.” Apricot says. Shiori raises an eyebrow. “I mean the seal, it‘s in the shrine where the reaper sleeps.” Apricot tells them.
“Only one way to know for sure. However, I can‘t investigate it. I will need your help.“ Hunter says.
“Of course.” Apricot quickly replies.
Hunter shakes his head. “Ok so the seal is a ring. It’s always in the shape of a ring. It will be large. Like that summoning circle the Okabe family were using for their ritual. You remember what that looked like? If you can snap a photo of it on your phone and show me it. I could identify it then. Think you can do that?“ Apricot nods her head.
“While you are doing that Apricot, I will get Cortez to a street doc. Hunter, you wait here. Stay away from Urias. If you get caught, I swear I will kill you.” Shiori commands.
The bricks against Shiori’s back remind him of the cool winters at the shrine where he grew up. Peaking past the edge of the alleyway he sees the street is still quiet without the usual early morning traffic. He looks back over toward Cortez who is limping while rasping his breath. “Come on. It’s not much further. Also try to keep that cough of yours down.”
“Better be, I am feeling a little light-headed.” Cortez grunts as he stumbles step by sloppy step. His feet drag as he holds his gut. The burning sensation of the deep laceration grows with every painful pace.
Seeing Cortez walk so pathetically brought out a strange feeling of sympathy in Shiori. He walks over to Cortez placing Chiss right arm over his head lifting him up. “Come on.” Assisting or rather pulling Cortez, Shiori increases their pace. Over the cracked and decaying street into the next alley they rush. This would repeat several more times until they stood in front of an old store window cluttered with used appliances of another era on display.
Pushing open the door Shiori walks inside first, with Cortez close behind him. “Hey,” Shiori shouts. “I got rice for you.” No one answers in the empty shop.
“Your street doc ain’t here.” Cortez grunts slumping against the side of a shelf holding himself up while the blood drips off his shirt.
“He isn’t out.” Shiori growls walking towards the back of the room. “Now where the hell is he.” From out of the back of the store a man in a blue button-up shirt walks out with a shotgun in arm. “Wo, what is this?”
“Get the hell out!” the man yells at Shiori.
Shiori shakes his head. “I got a friend who is bleeding out. I will pay twice the normal rate. Get him patched up for me will ya.”
“You are hot,” the man growls. “Get the hell out now, or ill send you down a drain.”
Shiori shakes his head. “He is dying. At least treat my friend. I will get leave.”
Cortez grins slightly hearing Shiori call him a friend. Even if he did not believe that bullshit it is still nice to hear. Turning his gaze towards the window Cortez can see a patrol car slowly coasting down the road. “Hey, we got wet streets outside.”
Picking himself up he goes to the other side of the shelf. Shiori glances over his shoulder than back at the man. “You enjoy housing fugitives?”
“I will turn you in.” the man grumbles.
Shiori grins walking confidently up to the man’s shotgun placing his chest against the barrel. “Go ahead. You think they will let you live after what I have done to the Okabe family?” He puts the barrel of the shotgun to his throat. “Let’s take a gamble.” Shiori snickers. “Care to.”
Sweat seeps from the man’s brow. “That’s what I thought.” Shiori says flicking the beads off his head. “Now get my friend patched up before I get ugly.”
A gentle breeze blows the dust off the unkept shrine courtyard’s polished white stones. The reaper lays lifeless in front of the altar. “He is still at rest.” Apricot thought to herself as she approached the thing. Its red and purple colors almost seemed faded in this state. The beaked mask which obscures its face hung dangling from its slumped over form. Looking around the courtyard Apricot took out her phone and snapped shots of the tiles.
A band of small symbols about the width of a pen scrawled over the grounds. Is this the seal they are looking for? Was she actually right? She looks at her phone noticing a heavy glare of static covering the screen; the air growing warmer around her. The heat grew so quickly she felt as though she would sweat out of her clothes. The head of the reaper weakly lifts. “Apricot.” he whispers.
She turns to look at the fallen Reaper. “You have awoken.”
“I has’t, little, has’t thee did finish, Okabe?” his voice grew harder to hear as he spoke. His weakness fully apparent. Apricot nods her head slowly. “Is the seal breaker dead?”
“No.” She felt her heart welling up inside her throat. A sense of terror coming over her. Realizing that most likely this thing is the black god. He has been using her as a pawn. Yet at the same time in this weakened state she wanted to carve the life from him. Anger growing to her fingertips as she shakes.
Reaching with his metallic claw he gently touches Apricot’s hand. “Hie swiftly issue. Time runs short.”
Apricot nods. “I found him.”
“Has’t thee? Wherefore has’t thee not hath killed him?” he growls. “What has’t I command’d of thee! Didst I not instruct thee to end their life! The fate of the ordinary depends on their end.”
Apricot gives a half smile “I came to report we are tracking him now. He lives below in the tunnels.”
“In the tunnels thee sayeth? Sadly, yond is one lodging I cannot wend. Nevertheless, i am too weak to travel anyways. Beest quick, I am dying and cannot sustain much longer. The ordinary shall falleth into chaos without me holding back the phantoms.”
“Of course. I will return when he is dead.” Apricot tells the reaper who slumps back down lifeless. She turns from him walking away, half expecting him to stab her in the back. At least he cannot read minds or at least she hopes he can’t.
Cortez screams loudly as Shiori holds him down while the street doc plunges the hot end of a hand-held device into his skin. It seers with a loud hiss as his flesh is abruptly burned shut. “Damn you!” Cortez screams his mouth agape in pain.
“Kid your lucky to be alive with stabs like that. I can’t do much for the torn muscle you just gotta let the machines do their job.” he says grunting as he removes the device from Cortez’s now cauterized stomach. “Don’t touch it.” he looks up to Shiori. “Put a wet rag on it will ya.” he says as he walks away from the metallic desk over to a fridge in the corner. “I got derms for you. Expensive but I am sure your friend here, he can afford it.”
“Only the best.” Shiori says sharply. As the wet towel is placed onto Cortez, he jumps up in pain reaching for the towel on his stomach. “Contain yourself!” Shiori commands grabbing both of his arms. “You will be fine in a moment. Just bare it.”
“It burns man.” Cortez says tears filling his eye ducks. “It burns like a hot iron.”
“It was a hot iron.” Shiori smirks.
Cortez face furrows into a scowl. “The hell man, why don’t you try it.” He says retching his arms away grabbing the iron device.
Shiori steps back. “Shit,” is all he says while blowing out the faintest puff of air.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Cortez growls.
The man walks back over holding a slab of what looks like a large cut of bacon. The meaty hand of the man crashes into Cortez’s face nearly knocking him off the table. Cortez looks up in shock at the man. “You touch it again and I will shove it down your damn throat.” he roars. “Now lay on the table. What type of company do you keep “Lord” Kinjo.”
“He is for the entertainment value alone.” Shiori says smirking.
Lifting the towel off of Cortez’s stomach reveals the nerve endings of his clean flesh. Shiori can hardly look at the macabre display of porphyria before his eyes. Slapping the flesh on top of Cortez’s stomach, the man skillfully massages it in. Soon the strange material molds into Cortez’s side covering the stab wound holes. Cortez’s strained face fades into a more relaxed one. “Don’t scratch it. Your guts will fall out. Also, take it easy for the next few weeks. You should be fine though. Now get your asses out of my shop.”
Cortez gets up off the table walking towards the front door. Shiori however keeps his eye on the man. “You will be paid for this greatly. I promise. Once all this blows over.” The man just smiles and nods.
“Don’t sweat it.” the man grunts. “I am a good hostage.”
Turning through the door Shiori exits the room into the main shop. Cortez looks at Shiori smirking. “What is that for?”
“You actually saved my life. I did not think you cared about anyone but yourself.” Cortez says.
Shiori looks down his nose. “What? Doesn’t a good master not take care of his dog?” Shiori says walking past Cortez.
“Is that how it is?” Cortez laughs.
Looking out the storefront Shiori could see a ripple wave over the street. Another one follows. Like a short tide of water floating in air. His eyes widen before he screams. “Get down!”
Shiori turns to dive on Cortez before he watches his head explode as a bullet passes square between his eyes. “Cortez!” Shiori roars a tearful yelp. The room is torn apart by the sound of soaring bullets. Shiori hits the ground hard looking at the blood pooling around Cortez’s headless body. “You bastards! YOU BASTARDS!” Shiori screams drawing his segmented staff from his shirt sleeve.
“No no no no no!” Apricot hears Hunter‘s worried voice echo down the hall. She rushes down the corridor, her heart sinking as she approaches the bend. At first everything seems fine aside from Hunter looking in every direction. Upon closer inspection his sigils are destroyed by what looks like a series of sharp claw strikes. His eyes are huge as he turns his head to Apricot. “It’s not safe to be here.” he says. “The ghosts, they are coming.”
Apricot shook her head. “There is no more running Hunter.” She lowers her gaze. “It’s time we were on the attack. Let’s go deal with Claw Fingers.” Apricot growls. Hunter nods his eyes teary and glistening in the dull lamp lights.
“Where are we going?” Hunter asks Apricot.
Apricot keeps marching forward “We are going to the train. That shrine I went to check out. That is the last seal. I am sure of it. ” She pulls out her phone pulling up the photo with a few taps of her finger. “The reaper, he is the black god. There is no question anymore. To think he got me into this mess and is orchestrating every detail of my nightmare.” Holding it up Hunter inspects the screen his face growing into a look of glee. “Don‘t get too excited yet. I don’t think this is going to be all that easy.”
“I know. He will try to kill me. I will need you to distract him while I get ready to perform the breaking.” Hunter tells Apricot.
She nods her head. “I kind of expected that. I am not disappointed by that honestly.” Reaching the surface Hunter covers his eyes. The sun beams bright on him. “It’s been a while since you seen sunlight, huh?”
“You could say that.” Up the stairs the pair go into the busy morning streets. Hunter runs ahead jumping over the off limits sign raising his hand to assist Apricot. She takes his hand as she hops over the sign. A slight blush coming over her face. Such a gentleman she thinks to herself. Although far too young to provoke any kind of interest.
As Apricot walks down the street her heart pounds. A feeling of dread grows every time she meets someone’s gaze. Her only hope is Akagi is still hard at work keeping Shiori and her off the radar. Speaking of which, she wondered how Cortez and him are doing. It is almost as if they ghosted out of her mind for a while. A slight feeling of guilt coming over her. Then again, it was not important. Everything they had worked for is laid out before her right now. With Hunter her nightmare will be over. At least the immediate threat.
Hunter leads the way to the train with both hands in his hoodie pulling the hood down over his head. “Apricot, what happens after?” Hunter asks her.
“I was just wondering that myself.” Apricot muses. “I am not sure. I think my life is over but you can still run away from all this.” Hunter nods his head. “The train platform is not far from here.” Apricot tells Hunter.
On the train the pair sit towards the train’s rear cart to keep out of view. This morning the train is sparsely populated. Their cart had only a few passengers. The ones towards the front are a little more so. As Apricot rests in the spongy seat a burn descended to her ankles, a slight stiffness over taking her. Rising from the middle of the cart are three men dressed in commoners street clothing. As they began their trek towards the back of the cart Apricot identified them as a group of delinquents. Her fingers gently tucked into her sleeve readying a blade. Some time ago she might have been afraid, now, they were nothing more than an annoyance presenting little if any danger at all. Hunter nervously looks at the group as they sat in the seats around the pair.
“Hey cutie. What are you doing with the kid? He your bro or something?” one guy asks. His teeth are rotted and gave off a festering stink that reminds her of spoiled rice.
“I am not her brother.” Hunter says defensively. “Now get lost.”
The guys laugh to each other. “Wow, tough guy.” one of them snarkily comments. This provokes more laughter.
“Think she is a kiddie fiddler?” Apricot immediately blushes narrowing her eyes. “Wo, I think she is.”
The man with the bad breath then barks “Well, kid you gotten lucky with her?”
“Shut up!” Apricot says. “Shut your mouth.”
“Wo, girl, calm down. I am sure the boss has work for a kiddie fiddler like you.” the larger of the guys says. He rises from his seat standing to his full height. Apricot backs up into the seat shielding Hunter. “What, I don’t wanna hurt ya. How about the both of you come with us?” He takes a step forward into her reach and in a flash lets out a shout as Apricot charges him pressing a throwing knife against his throat.
“Back the hell up or I’ll slit your throat!” she snarls at the man.
“Holy shit.” one guy yelps. Apricot feels a prideful warmth rise in her. Power. This is strength she thought to herself. Her thoughts come crashing asunder as four knife like razor claws pierce through the front of the man’s face. With a heavy throw the man goes flying through the side of the train window. Standing in front of her is the reaper. “Oh my god!” the man with bad breath screams scrambling to get out of the way. The reaper raises his hand forcing him out the window by an invisible force.
“Apricot thee has’t did betray me.” the reaper says through his mask. The wind from outside of the train throws his clothing all about as Hunter screams. Everything seems dull and faded; the only thing Apricot sees is the reaper standing before her. It is as if everything has slowed to a stop. “Nay matter, thee still has’t did provide me the lamb I seek to slaughter.”
“No!” Apricot shouts at the reaper.
“T’wast not a request but rather a statement. F’r thy valorous worketh I shalt maketh thy death quick.” the reaper points his hand at Apricot. She dives onto the floor as she feels a force like the vibration of a powerful amplifier rush over her. It smashes a hole in the back of the train destroying the right corner seat. Hunter dives over the seat throwing a stone at the reaper. It bursts into a pouder as Apricot gets back to her feet. Charging the reaper with two knives in hand light flashes with each strike. As she stabs at him he blocks bother her blades with a single hand pushing her back away from him.
Standing erect the reaper strokes his chin with his claw. “Is this the length of thy talents? Thee foolish wench. Thither is nothing thee can doth to stand ho me. Thee see, I needeth not thee anymore.” She notices the temperature rising regardless of the backdraft from the trains gaping holes. It felt as though her face is searing as she stood in the reaper’s presence.
“You were dying! How did this happen?” Apricot asks.
“An act. Twas a rouse to confuse mine own true enemies. As long as I hath appeared weak, thither wast nay way thee couldst has’t known I did feed from the seals he hath broken. Anon I am just short of a divine creature. I shalt rend the gates open and claim mine own kingdom ov’r both worlds.” The reaper declares. Apricot jumps as she sees Hunter run past her head. He spreads his arms as a light blinds Apricot knocking him backwards. Turning her head she catches the last glimpse of Hunter before he falls out the back of the train.
“Hunter!” Apricot screams. She snaps her head back at the reaper charging him again. Each attack she attempts he effortlessly blocks and sidesteps.
“Yond’s right. Misprise me. Alloweth it fill thee and infect thy core. Cometh findeth me at the shrine. I shalt beest waiting f’r thee. Enjoy the hell thee unleash’d.” the reaper laughs backing away down the train from Apricot. She runs as swiftly as she can after him. However, he moves too quickly for her to keep up. Each person he passes explodes splattering in a bloody mess.
The train rushes onward into the air as it reaches the skyrails above the city’s heavy traffic. Buildings rush past the horizon of the windows as the train travels along its channel. Apricot lets out a scream running to the front of the train. As she passes by she can feel her feet slipping in the bloody remains of the destroyed passengers. Pulling on the large door to the front of the train she opens up the operator’s room. It is empty aside from a few switch panels that are remotely controlled by the conductors in the station. She looks over the panels to see if she can stop the speeding train. Sadly to her dismay she could not understand any of the controls. She had to get off the train.
Running back to the rear of the train Apricot stares out the gaping hole in the back of the train. Building her nerve she debates on jumping. However, she is not sure if the fall would kill her or not. The traffic on the ground seems busier than usual. “Bang!” she hears on the metal roof above her. She gazes up to hear several more. “Put your hands behind your head!” a voice commands. Hearing this Apricot does not hesitate; she dives out of the back of the train free falling. She lets out a scream while tumbling through the air. Spreading her arms and legs out to the sides she allows the air to soar between her fingertips. A moment of peace overtaking her as she fell. Spotting an advertisement banner hanging off the side a rail support pole give her an idea. Grabbing the middle of the fabric it tares open. She grips the banner as tightly as she can while swinging her forward breaking her momentum before she lets go rolling on the sidewalk.
Apricot rises to her feet. Several onlooking gock at her with shocked expressions. She runs as quickly as she can to get anywhere but where she is. It is not long before she finds herself pressed by several SDP vehicles. She glances up at the streetlights seeing all of them flashing every color. Ahead of her the street lights are strobbing everywhere and every building’s lights did much the same. The city is going into full meltdown. “What is going on?” she questions. Her body is dripping red leaving fading bloody prints behind her. Rushing into an alleyway Apricot looks every which way for a quick escape. Spotting a manhole she grabs hold of the metal bars moving it aside before quickly diving into the sewer system below. It is much hotter down in the tunnels than in the open air above; not to mention full of foul odors.
Tear stream down her face as she continues through the dark. Her mind full of fears and she has no clue how she will get out of this now. She did not even know if Shiori and the others are still alive. Let alone Hunter who seemed to be her only hope to end this nightmare.