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A number of books line the walls behind the graying diplomat in the redwood study, while the lighting competes with the cool winter blues from the large window. Across from Apricot, the elder sat at an expansive desk. Looking at the questions in her notepad, she identifies the most pertinent ones. “Thank you again, Lord Ietsuna, for agreeing to be interviewed.”
He was a man of impressive size, dressed in military fatigues. A row of medals ran down the center of his chest, and pins decorated the collar of his shirt. A large military cap mostly hid his snowy white hair. Other than a pair of thin strips above his lips, he is clean-shaven. “My pleasure, you have a very impressive portfolio. You have achieved so much at such a young age. You may call me Tetsuro.” he says gruffly. That is not an option Apricot will accept. Calling a Lord by their first name is too uncomfortable for her. Especially one as powerful as this man. That is why she rarely blurred the line between the two. She would resign all her statements and not mention his name at all in order to avoid such embarrassment.
As she looks at her notes one last time, Apricot bows her head in gratitude. “Can you clarify what your role is as the Ietsuna clan’s representative?”
While Lord Ietsuna bobbed his head, a bubbly smile spread across his lips. It appeared that this man was in a cheerful mood, Apricot wrote. “I present the Okabe clan’s perspective to the Ietsuna clan. Having embraced the western world, the Okabe clans require greater respect. Hence my presence. I oversee the modernization of Okabe and make sure it remains distinctively Uchellan. In a secondary capacity, I assess military movements and Uchellan reactions to those movements.”
As she asked such an absurd question, Apricot laughed inwardly, raising Lord Iestuna’s eyebrows. Apricot immediately returned to her previous professional demeanor. “For any foreign readers, I was wondering how the Ietsuna clan is connected to the other clans of Uchella.”
The posture of his body stiffens as he grins. “We are Uchellan’s true rulers. Other clans, such as the Okabe, fall under the Iestuna clan. The Ietsuna clan has been responsible for maintaining peace between warring states since the Uchella agreement. Emperor Uchella Ietsuna led a most glorious campaign to conquer all the lands of the Empire five hundred years ago. Instead of destroying the clans, he formed a coalition to end the age of war. With the advance of the west, they would soon reach the eastern shores, bringing conquering armies with them. Thus, we have maintained our hegemony in the world. I hope you do not take offense, but we are extremely proud of our people. We treasure our traditions.”
Apricot bowed her head in respect. She raised her head and continued. “I think that’s a fine response. Pride in one’s ethnicity is a good thing. We become better people when we do that.” Her next series of questions make her uncomfortable. She breathes deeply and speaks. “I was wondering if you might be able to speak with me about the tension between Uchella and Arslana. According to the Sotaro clans, Kubebna ships have been passing through their waters to reach the demilitarized zone. How accurate are these claims?”
“I’ve heard the rumors as well. I believe them. Kubebna, Stezyl, and Tvekala have positioned themselves as possible aggressors in Uchellan waters. As you may already be aware, we have had several naval standoffs. A military alliance has been formed between Akiyama, Iori, Kinjo, and Sotaro in the event that Arslana escalates the situation. As of now, the Tatsumi and Okabe families have not gotten involved. In contrast, Armaryol and Tortau have been moving vessels through western waters. I’m afraid we’ll have to begin military operations against the Aristocracies of Arslana if this trend continues. Almost certainly, the Uchellan Empire would unite to defend her lands if that were to happen.” The smile that had once been so bright was now fading. Although it wasn’t much, Apricot noticed.
Apricot diligently wrote his words. She glanced up from her page. “Off the record, just out of curiosity between us. What do the Ietsuna believe?”
The man smirked as he sat back in the large padded chair. “That’s intuitive of you to notice that I haven’t offered you that. You can record this. Our lands should not be invaded, and our support for the Empire is unwavering; we are the Empire. While they are small and easy to deal with, the northern clans are still our people. Uchella, the ancient dragon, will awaken if Arslana thinks they will violate our sovereignty.”
Slowly, Apricot nodded. “What about Castor?” Apricots asked. “Would the Uchellan Empire make an alliance with Castor?”
“No. To maintain our borders, we do not need invitations from other countries. And we don’t want them either.” He asserted firmly.
“I suppose you feel the same way about Estarus.” Apricot replied.
Lord Ietsuna nodded toward her in a measured manner. “Estarus is a peculiar case,” he said. “We have an agreement of non-indulgence. We remain on our lands and they remain on theirs. This is what we prefer. We do things our way.”
“So, what are your thoughts on Okabe’s robust immigration policy?” she inquired, no longer paying attention to her notes.
Ietsuna’s eyes changed, and he seemed to be filled with a positive light. As he smiled warmly, he said, “I am proud of Okabe’s openness to foreigners. Their presence makes our community more colorful. Discovering novel things requires fresh eyes. As long as it stays in Okabe, I don’t see anything wrong with this experiment.”
She extended a handshake to him, which he warmly accepted. “I really appreciate you taking the time.” She said. “I think that’s all I need to ask. Is there anything you would like me to strike out?” Apricot asked the man as she presented her notes. Normally, she would not do such a thing, but a man in this position could easily ruin her family. Having examined the pad, he gives it back to Apricot.
“This is fine with me. Journalists rarely feel any responsibility toward the subjects they interview these days. They’re more inclined to go for big scoops than the truth.”
Apricot replied, “I try my best.”
This is how Apricot’s life continued. After meeting those strange men, her life appeared to have returned to something reasonable, ordinary, and completely free of curiosity. After class, she headed to the gym and exercised, then returned home to prepare essays and finish her studies. A few times a week, she conducted a casual interview with a member of the community when she had investigations to perform. The interviewees were usually government officials or local celebrities. On weekends, she spent time with her friends. Since then, several months have passed.
After the sun had set, however, in the evening…
A strong smell of mildew and dust emanated from the abandoned building. Apricot emerged from the hall into a ruined auditorium. The stadium was littered with torn-up chairs and bleachers covered in layers of dust. The stage was adorned with a few props that were leftover from whatever was held before the shutdown. A gray-scale humanoid with wings and a horn that grew from the front of his head and sat atop a splintered piano. Apricot thought he looked gargoyle-like. A starry night sky could be seen through the open, destroyed ceiling of the room. “So we finally meet,” he said in a deep voice, rising from his stance.
“I’m glad the reports were true about you.” She pulled a pistol from her side and replied, “I can talk to you.”
The creature snorted at her in response. “I am different from my peers.” He roared so loudly that the wooden bleachers burst into fragments. Apricot veered to the side just in time to avoid being directly hit by the blast. Several pieces of wood, however, cut her arm partially. “Yes, you are pretty fast, aren’t you?” Apricot looked down at the rubies that gushed across her skin, cascading down her arm. An iron odor filled the air. With Apricot clearly wounded, the gargoyle grinned proudly, “But it’s not fast enough.”
“It’s nothing devil,” Apricot growled, looking away from her arm. “Before I kill you, tell me something.”
“The hunter of my kin seeks an audience with me. Child, I am a lord of vengeful spirits! Why should you have this privilege?” he asked.
As Apricot walked down the aisle of the auditorium. “This can turn out either way. It can go peacefully, or it can become brutal.”
As Apricot neared, the creature opened his wings and cried, “I prefer the second.” She dove to her side and pulled the trigger, shooting precisely in mid-air. After impact, the bullet fizzles as it burns into the creature’s skin like acid. “It burns!” he shrieked.
Apricot snarled, “Silver bullet,” as the monster tumbled through rows of benches. The bleachers covered his body in splinters as he arose from the ground, grasping at his arm. He ripped at the injured arm with a roar. The wet bursts caused his skin to pop, revealing the muscle beneath as the tendons thinned. A torrent of blood poured from the limb after he severed his arm. Apricot winced at the sight of blood. He flung his useless part to the ground. As Apricot looked at the maimed creature, she remarked, “That is dedication.” The creature looked surprised by her comment. “What is your purpose here?” Apricot asked.
From across the room, laughter echoed as his gaze engulfed her. When he took a step forward, his blood flowed to the ground in measured beats. “We’ve been here a long time,” he said. “The wait was long. We came first. The intrusion came from you. Now, our world must unite with yours. As they merge, everyone will be able to see the real world.” As he approached, Apricot pointed her gun at him.
“Sure,” Apricot replied as she squeezed the trigger. When the monster flicked its arm, an invisible force flung the gun out of her grasp. With his drooling fangs out, he charged at her in a fury. A vicious slash comes from his clawed hand, forcing Apricot back a step. The nails on his claws barely missed her chest as she backed away from him. She pulled a baton from her side and struck the creature in the face. Similar to Shiori’s rod, a burn appeared on its face. She tried to strike the monster again with the baton, but it grabbed it instead. Shivering, he gripped the rod in his hand. He ripped the smoking baton from her grasp, then threw it away.
“Even silver can’t save you, girl,” he growled, spreading his fangs as he opened his jaws and lunged for her throat. As her hand glistens purple with fire, she punched the creature. Besides shattering the creature’s spine, the flames burned through its stomach. Apricot extended her arm and cut its upper body in half. Within a second, the monster was divided into two halves. She watched the creature disappear into the open air, leaving no trace of its existence behind.
With her teeth clenched, Apricot breathes hard. She looked down at the ground with wide, furrowed eyes. The sound of clapping on the other side of the room made her sigh and think, “Not tonight.” She felt a shiver run down her spine.
Her head snapped rapidly when the clapping man emerged from the shadows, and a familiar voice called out, “I thought you were a goner. It has been a while, reporter girl.”
She was drawn to the man’s shabby appearance. He is immediately recognizable to her. “Cortez?” Images of the train ride flow through her mind. The alley where he spat blood. She remembers the camera he gave her, too.
“Yeah, you remembered me this time.” Cortez laughed. “I didn’t think you were a mage, but look at you. There’s more to you than meets the eye.” He jumped off the stage and walked to the bleachers. “So, you handled everything yourself,” he exclaimed. “Heh, wow. Never would have guessed you were capable. I assume you have done this before. At least experienced enough to bring silver.”
“Do you know about all this?” Apricot asked, puzzled.
“No, not really. To be honest, I probably do as much as you do. Come on, let’s grab a bite, shall we? Is that alright with you?” replied Cortez. Apricot was thrown into an ocean of confusion. His audacity, acting as if they were friends. Of all times, too.
“What are you crazy?” Apricot shouted.
A sigh escaped Cortez’s lips. “No, I am hungry. After that fight, I’m sure you are, too.”
Despite Apricot’s indignation, Cortez was right. Apricot was hungry, and the idea sounded intriguing, to say the least. “Sure, whatever,” she replied.
“Yes, I have a place where we can eat and it is private, too.”
There is a little smoke in the room, and the floor is black and white tiled. The diner is decorated with red and white booths and black tables. To Apricot, it was a strange place. It seemed as if the people sitting around were shady. Even the waitress was wearing a low-cut uniform implied she was a lady of the night. “What kind of place is this?” Apricot inquired.
“Heh, a booth where we can talk and no one cares,” he said, his head resting against the cold window. “I am curious how long you have, you know, worked at it?”
Apricot made sure nobody was paying attention by looking around the room. “For a few months. Around the time I met you.” She shrugged. “I picked up a couple of tricks, but I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“So, how did you do it?” Cortez whispered, leaning closer. Apricot frowned, furrowing her brow. “The thing with the fire. Can you tell me how you did it? Could you show me?”
Apricot shrugged. “I can only do it when those things get close to me. I don’t know how it works. The first time it happened, I nearly died. It kind of clicked after I hunted those things. I’ve killed twelve, well, thirteen tonight.”
“Hmm, you’re pretty tough, right?” he replied. “I had not met any other girls this brave. So what makes you do it?” Cortez asked.
Putting her hand up, Apricot paused. “Wait a minute. I have a few questions of my own. I’m wondering how you know such things.”
“Well, if you insist.” Cortez rolled his eyes.
She lowered her gaze. “Yes, I do. I want to know who I am dealing with.”
“Okay, so this city is pretty shady. Right, so my father was a cop. Great guy. He was an investigator with the SDP. A very smart man whom I respected a lot. Probably about a year ago, maybe closer to two. Like he had this case dragging on. Something about internal corruption among nobles. Apparently, they were kidnapping kids for sacrifice rituals around town. He gets called out one day to respond to an emergency. At the mall, someone had become a gunman. They dispatched my dad and other officers to deal with the situation. The active-shooter got away, but my dad got shot in the face.” said Cortez, gnashing his teeth.
“I am sorry.”
She could see Cortez rolling his eyes. “Save it; I am not done yet. In case of his death, my dad wanted me to keep his records hidden. When the old man came knocking in uniform, I knew dad was dead or gone. Under the floorboards, I tucked his file away. When the police searched for it, they almost destroyed our home. They really wanted it. He told me to burn it. But I didn’t. I looked through it. It contained many horrible things. Little girls with their bodies chopped up like they were in a butcher shop. The floor was soaked in blood. Unending reports of monsters. Okabe’s are to blame. After I got some balls right, I looked for a temple in that area. I found a few scattered around the city in unexpected places.”
Apricot raised her soda to her mouth and sipped out of the long straw. She couldn’t take her eyes off Cortez. “Yeah, well, I found one.” he continued. “In the industrial district, I guess. Man, it was just like any other temple. So, while I’m walking around this temple, I notice it was empty, and it really is an abandoned temple with no groundskeepers or anything. I had the feeling that I was being watched the whole time. Suddenly, something hideous came from the shadows. This was like some type of rat dog creature. It had a big mouth, like half its body.”
“Made of shadows?” Apricot added in a dull tone.
Cortez choked. “Yeah, you saw one too?”
Apricot nodded. “In my kid brother’s room.”
“Shit. “ Cortez’s breathing rasped. “I grabbed anything I could find. A silver rod was hanging from the wall. After striking it, it exploded into dust. I rushed out of there in a flash. I figured there were more of them, but didn’t want to find out. I did a little more digging and discovered there are places around the city where people who know about this congregate. This is one of those places. It’s safe here, and people respect each other enough to keep out of each other’s business. Like all these stories about terrorists, they’re all lies. No bombs, no chemicals. This stuff’s been carrying on for years. And they keep happening. There’s a panic brewing on, and I feel like something big is about to happen.”
“I have felt the same way, too. So what now?” Apricot asked.
On this issue, Cortez remained silent. Outside, a light drizzle fell against the window. He stretched his arms and his back. “Hell if I knew. Keep in touch. After all that, I feel a little uneasy myself.” Cortez said. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulls out a wad of marks, leaving it on the table. “You be careful. If you need help, you know where to find me. Every morning, the train still rolls in.” Apricot nodded as he left the diner. As she sipped her soda, Apricot muses on what she heard just now.
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