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Apricot took her usual route to the morning train, her eyes heavy and her head foggy with sleep. There was heavy pedestrian traffic on the sunrise sidewalks, which are bordered by a wall of cyclists. She galumphs sleepily whilst mumbling to herself. “Heh, darling, you look nearly dead. A late night on the town?” A male voice asked. Turning her head, she saw a man in an elegant suit standing on the curb. The moment she recognized that coy smile on his face, she was startled to see Shiori. “You won’t be returning to school today. Come, we’ve got much to talk about.”
“This rich brat has another thing coming if he thinks he can order me around.” Apricot scoffed, “And why would I do such a thing?”
“Because I’ll make it worth your time. Now, now, darling, just get in my car.” Apricot sighed, feeling as if she had been getting into quite a few strange men’s cars lately. Still, she was curious enough. Worthwhile means a lot of things to a noble, and she must admit, he’s cute—and most importantly, he’s rich.
The seats in the car are more than comfortable. Her body curves were perfectly shaped, the material being some kind of combination of leather and vinyl. One might compare it to the feeling of lying on a cloud. Aside from the blacktops, the armrests are made of a clear material. As Apricot surveyed the luxury car, she murmured to herself, “It’s nice.”
“I suppose a commoner would find this impressive. However, I find it quite boring. It’s a little too flashy for my liking.” Shiori said. The irony was not lost on Apricot. “Hands and feet inside, my dear.” Shiori pressed a button on the dash and the doors swung down slowly. As he continues, he sighs heavily. “Yet how can you resist your mother’s flamboyance when she is so persistent?” Shiori mused as he shifted the car into drive. He let go of the steering wheel and looked at Apricot, letting the internal AI systems handle the situation. “I’m really frustrated with you, darling.”
Her brows furrowed. “What? Why? What did I do?” she asked.
Shiori dragged out “That,” trying to either be dramatic or find the appropriate phrase, “The thing, was a reliable informant. Those who live on the other side aren’t all enemies, Apricot. At least, not directly. I was in contact with that monster last night, the one you slew, about what was happening on the other side. Your actions have harmed the entire society.”
“Society?” Apricot barked. “What society?”
A cocked head accompanies Shiori as he bends forward. “You’re not the only one who hunts these creatures. As I recall, I had clarified that earlier. In fact, quite a few of us do that. I must admit, you were reckless when you started out.”
Apricot blushed. “Thank you for the compliment.”
Shiori rolled his eyes and said flatly, “You still are.” That had been his plan from the start she thought. How snobby.
“That phantom almost killed me,” Apricot said.
Shiori looks up at the ceiling, relaxing into his chair as he said “So you say.” With crossed legs, he turns his head to one side and gazes directly at her.
“I was going to be ripped apart.” He simply sighed in response. “You weren’t there!” she replied. “You have no idea.”
“In his domain, you were reckless, as I said. You were a trespasser from that moment on. Imagine how offended you would be if someone entered your home and began asking you questions?” Apricot shrinks back into her seat. The girl lowers her chin in shame and plays with her fingers. To her, the creatures were horrible monsters, so she never considered whether they were good or evil. “Oh well, at least you can learn from your mistakes, no matter how grievous they are. From now on, you are my pet.”
What a condescending way to address someone, Apricot thought to herself. Fists curling as she prepares to strike him for his vagrant disregard of her. “What the hell does that mean?” Apricot shouted, nearly jumping from her seat.
Shiori laughs, “It means you’ll do what I say. In addition to going to school and studying, you will be working with me at night. As someone of potential, you’ve attracted attention. By following the path you are on, you will attract the attention of others, even more than you already have.”
“How did you find out about that?” Apricot asked.
“I am a noble and keep track of persons of interest in regard to the Okabe family. I will keep you from getting into trouble. Consider me a friend of yours. The royal guard knows your name now. Did you know that? They have been keeping a close eye on you missy. The hell did you do to get that kind of attention?” Shiori scorned.
Apricot murmured. “It turns out my suspicions were correct.”
Apricot watched as Shiori raised his eyebrow, and his eyes hid something at that moment. Was he concerned? “And what would those be?” he asked.
Apricot pointedly said, “The nobles know about the phantoms.”
“Well, they are not ignorant. Yet, you continue to call them phantoms. Does that name have any significance or is it just shorthand you adopted?” Shiori chuckled as Apricot shook her head. “Of course, I have secrets as well.”
“Why would I work with you?”, Apricot asked as she turned her attention to the window. Old buildings surrounded them. Though it was probably less than a decade old, she assumed the locals would refer to it as an ancient part of the city.
“First of all, I’ll pay you…hmm…hmm, what is a journalist’s salary? About eight thousand marks per job, I guess. And bonuses if I think you deserve them.” Apricot nearly fell out of her chair when she heard that number. It was more than she could have hoped for after laboring for months.
Apricot said, “That’s over six figures a year.”
Shiori looked unamused. “Girl, accept it. I’m not inclined to negotiate.”
“No no. That’s fine.” Apricot raised both hands.
“Now that that is settled, it’s time for you to meet the rest of society.” Shiori turned his head and placed his legs on the steering wheel.
Apricot feels ashamed to have been so easily purchased. She said, “You know, you’re a right ass.”
“Darling, I can afford that opinion,” Shiori replied.
Dusty old antiques and trinkets surround the market tent. As she walked through the inner city labyrinth, Apricot was unsure about her choice, but after measuring Shiori, she knew he wasn’t dangerous. When she looked at the displayed goods, it was difficult for her to decide if they were junk or if they were valuable. Either way, they were a testimony to time. The objects are covered in dust and a layer of patina that appeared to be growing on them. Ancient artifacts and old technology created a style all their own. As if by a process of overgrowth, the two have merged. “Don’t forget this location, darling.”
“What is this place?” She asked, her voice filled with confusion. Despite everything appearing to be junk, she was almost certain they held substantial value. She resisted the urge to touch them for fear of damaging them.
It’s a friend’s place, and if he likes you, it’ll be yours too. You might be able to get him if you show a little more cleavage.” Apricot blushes, feeling the sudden urge to switch shirts. With a casual pluck, Shiori rings a bell. Unseen behind a pair of curtains, a man emerges with gray hair concealed by a black ushanka.
He stretched out his arms toward Shiori and said, “Hello, my friend.” His gaze briefly turned to Apricot. “And who is this?” The man eagerly inquired. “Come here, girl.”
In response, Apricot glanced at Shiori, who gave a smirk and lowered his forehead while raising his eyebrows in an expression that said, “Don’t be rude.” As a result, Apricot walked toward the strange man. Wrapping his arms around her, he embraced her. His eyes are deep brown and inquisitive, probing into the very core of her being. “Is this the one everyone talks about?”
Apricot stepped out from under his grasp and said, “I don’t believe I am.”
“She may well be. How about showing her around? Give her special treatment.” He dropped a stack of cerulean bills on the table in an unassuming yet commanding tone. Once upon a time, Uchella attempted to gain access to Castor’s banks, but that is a distant memory now.
Aprit glanced back at Shiori, who is leaning against a painted black metal pole in the tent. “What do you mean by special treatment?”
“That dreadful pistol of yours is far too loud. Additionally, it is illegal, and that silver pipe you got is smart, but you need a real weapon.” Shiori replied, looking up toward the sky.
“How the hell did you know about that!?” Apricot screams.
Shiori laughed loudly. “I told you, I keep an eye on subjects of interest. You seem so shocked.” The idea of Shiori “watching” is bothersome, to say the least. It also implied that others might be watching closely as well.
“Introductions! Darling, this is Harjal, think of him as your outfitter. Harjal, this adorable darling is Apricot. She is a student journalist. She tells everyone that, more than once. I’ll save her the trouble.” Shiori’s winked. That really grinded her gears. “Pity the girl’s entire identity is that ridiculous trope.”
“I am standing right here!” Apricot thought to herself. “And I do not say that… that often.” A faint blush covered her cheeks as she realized Shiori was right but he didn’t have to be so direct.
“Fair enough. Welcome, Miss Apricot. Let’s find you something worth Shiori’s patronage.” Harjal grasped Apricot’s arm as he led her into the back. The room is full of weapons. In barrels, spears are stacked. There are swords hung everywhere. There are various kinds of firearms, some of which have long chains of bullets. Apricot couldn’t name half of the weapons, but she knows when she is looking at something highly illegal. “Pick your poison, Missy,” said Harjal. “I recommend sticking with silver. Shiori believes it kills them.”
Apricot searches the lanes like she is in some sort of post-apocalyptic grocery store. She had a hard time grasping the situation. “You’re not planning to kill me, are you?”
“Only if you have loose lips,” Harjal replied. “I do the service. One your group needs. There is no discrimination against the clients I serve. People from many walks of life use my services. You may be surprised to learn how many people use them. In any case, I stay silent. We are the closest of friends if you stay silent too.”
Apricot saw several throwing stars. They initially fascinate her since they remind her of a ninja, but she lacked the skills and time to master them. Her eye caught one of the short blades. Her hand easily grasped it when she gave it a full grip. However, the length did not appeal to her.
“You seem to know what you are looking for,” Harjal commented.
Nodding, Apricot runs her finger along the edge of a knife. “I used to fence, so that might explain it. Are you a member of the society?”
“The society? I don’t have a clue what you are talking about?” Either he was acting dumb or he wasn’t. Apricot really couldn’t tell which. A whip crossed her eye, but that was too stereotypical for a girl. The mere thought of holding such a weapon would make her feel embarrassed. Including, she isn’t hunting vampires. She notices a decorative straight blade across the room. An opening in the tent’s roof allows light to shine on the blade as if it was made for her. She lifted it by the handle. “It’s long,” she thought. After slashing the blade a few times, she found it most convenient. The handle is a simple cross guard that’s easily concealed. She turned to Harjal and said, “This one.”
“That’s a very useful little weapon. It doesn’t look unattractive either. I bought it from a sword maker in Eindzaal. I’ll throw in these too.” he said, flinging down a black armband with several throwing knives hidden inside it. “You can wear that under your shirt. They are pure silver,” he added. “These babies could solve problems distantly. You wouldn’t even need to get up close to them. It would be quiet too, if you hit your target. Miss and you’ll hear metal clanking, so don’t do that.”
Shiori glanced at Apricot as she exited. “Took long enough. Got what you need?” Apricot nodded, holding up the blade. “I see. You went with a sword. At least you have taste. I guess we better get moving. The Spookhouse is about to open. It’s almost noon.”
The “Spookhouse” is dimly lit, nearly empty, aside from a bartender and a few staff members chatting. Apricot was guided through the empty bar by Shiori’s hand on her back. “This, my darling, is the Spookhouse. Many of the patrons here are well informed about what is happening in Blue Ash. Most importantly, I will always be here as I own the business. You can think of this as the resistance’s headquarters against the phantoms. Our efforts have been tireless in securing this refuge. Not even the Okabes can reach us here. Not without starting an international dispute between the clans. You are therefore free to express yourself here. Upon entering, we will let you know if a stranger is present.”
“You must be away from the Okabe family for some reason,” Apricot suggested.
He strokes his chin. “If you have to ask, then you’ll never know.” He turns to a woman with long black hair and said, “No point in explaining. Just a moment, dear. I have some business to attend to. Have a seat. I think you will find Togashi to be a wonderful conversationalist.”
Apricot walks toward the bar as instructed. In a stylish waiter suit, a man polishes a glass. With his grin, he looks almost like a cat. White bleached hair adorns his head, accentuating his polished blue eyes. “Hello. How do you say, a friend of Shiori’s?” he asked with a thick accent from another country she could not place. How odd. The man appears to be of Uchellan descent. Apricot nodded while she plopped down on a bar stool, resting her arms on the long stretch of polished wood. “Care for a drink, yes?”
“Just a glass of water would be nice.” Apricot said. “So you‘re Togashi?”
Taking a glass, he walked over to a black slate polished fridge. “Indeed, I am.”
“Where did you get your accent?” 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.” Taking a blue bottle from the fridge, he pops the cap off and pours a decent amount into the glass, topping it off with a few rocks of ice. “I hope you don’t mind the ice. But you are Castor are you not?”
Apricot half-smiled some. “Oh, how could you tell?”
“No Uchellan would have such fair skin.” Apricot felt a slight blush coming on. “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 asked while Togashi slides the glass towards her.
Togashi smirked. “All the questions are we, dear. Ah, I see, I know you. You must be Apricot, the reporter girl. Am I correct, no?”
Apricot blushes. “I am, but how did you know my name?”
“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 the 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 have dreamed having in Estarius.”
“I had no clue. Your story is amazing. Would you mind if I wrote an,” Apricot is swiftly cut off by Togashi’s white-gloved hand.
Raising his index finger, he shakes his head. “Not the slightest words. 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.”
The tug on Apricot’s shirt nearly caused her to fall out of her seat. When she turned her head, she saw a raven-haired boy of about eight or nine years old looking up at her. “Hey Miss!” he shouted. “You’re Apricot, aren’t you?”
“Ah, who are you?” Apricot asked a little baffled.
His grin spread across his face. “It took me a while to research you. I’m Akagi. I’m probably the finest hacker in Okabi, perhaps even the world.” He beamed with pride. “By the way, I suggest that you tape your webcam,” he adds. “Your computer is extremely vulnerable. By the way, heh, do you always sleep nude?”
“What?!” Apricot shouted. Apricot felt violated by a young deviant, no less.
As Shiori entered the bar, he yelled, “Akagi, leave her alone, and he is only joking. Go play some video games or something. It’s time for the adults to talk.”
Furrowing his brow, Akagi stares at the ground. “I was just introducing myself,” he said. “Gee, Shiori, why are you being such a jerk?”
Shiori points to the back and said, “Go.”
The young hacker sighs. “You know I will just listen to you anyway using your cell phone.” As Akagi walked out the back door, he smiled smugly.
“I left it in my office.” Shiori smiles. Akagi stamps his foot, leaving. “Let’s talk business now, now that the little terror is gone,” he said.
“So, what now Shiori?” Apricot sip’s her water and looked into his calm face.
“You addressed me by my name. I believe for the first time,” Shiori replied warmly. Shiori begins, “Right now, you can rest. We need to decide what to do next. There is no clear answer. It seems we need to look into this further. Could you please explain why you chose this path? You know my biggest secret. I am trying to make sense of these strange events.”
She felt a lump growing in her throat. However, she was comfortable all the same. Apricot described the events that led up to her meeting Shiori. Initially, he appeared distant, but as the conversation progressed, he became more interested. Even though it seemed like Togashi wasn’t listening, he too seemed to be interested when she told them about the attack at her house. She left out the reaper and Cortez in her story.
As Shiori drummed his fingers, he said, “That’s an interesting story.”
“It looks like you’ve got a pretty good network going on. Who else is involved?” Apricot inquired.
Shiori pauses for a moment of reflection. He takes a deep breath and glances at Togashi who nods in agreement. “I’m not quite sure,” he admits. “There are others who aren’t in my network. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t very good. I was hesitant to pursue you at first because I thought that you would soon die. But I was proved wrong. When did you discover Apricot?” the bartender smirked.
“About the time she broke into East Way Park. You can thank Akagi for notifying Shiori of your wandering.” Togashi said. “There is how you say a fondness for you around these parts.”
Shiori nodded in agreement. “You’re right,” he said. “Our team has been watching and protecting you for quite some time. When you were recorded by their surveillance systems, we have disrupted the police’s operations frequently, so they couldn’t collect data about you.”
Apricot sighed. “It’s a lot to take in, but I’m glad someone has my back.”
“Truly, it is a two-edged sword. While it may be comforting to know someone is protecting you, it does mean that we have violated your sense of privacy. I apologize for that. I had to know if I could trust you.” Shiori paused. “I do by the way.”
Apricot rocked her head in a slight nod. “Now, when you say not all of them are good, do you mean they work with the phantoms?”
“No, I don’t think so. At least, that’s not my impression. A lot of them are just killers. It is a way for them to live out their fantasies. Sickos. However, there is one insane person. That person is Natsukawa Okabe. A dirty, little-known secret of the Okabe family. As well as being a serial killer, he also deals with phantoms. Basically kills everything that comes his way. Sincerely, he scares the hell out of me.” Shiori said grimacing. “They should really put him down. It’s no life to live as a mad dog.”
Togashi laughed “So we call phantoms now?”
“Can you come up with a better name for them?” Shiori laughed. “We will count it as Apricot’s first contribution. She is our shorthand maiden.”
Apricot blushed at being called a maiden. Apricot replied sheepishly, “I know someone who knows something about the phantoms too.” Shiori raised an eyebrow at this. “Well, sort of. Honestly, I am not sure. I have no idea what’s going on. He probably has no idea as well. I’m sure something terrible will happen if we don’t stop it. The more information we can gather, the faster we can solve the problem. I also believe he is trustworthy though.”
Nodding his head, Shiori continued. “All right, let’s find this friend of yours. With their help, perhaps we can figure something out.”
Only a single wall light illuminates the alleyway. Apricot leans against the brick wall while Shiori sits on top of the dumpster. A shadow emerges from down the alleyway. Cortez said, “Hey. You had something to talk about?”
“It’s been a while,” Shiori said, waving. “I didn’t realize you meant him, Apricot.”
Shiori gazed at Cortez as he paused in his stride. “Oh shit, what is he doing here?” he yelled, cutting the air with his arm.
A little surprised by Cortez’s reaction, Apricot said, “Oh, you both know each other.”
“Sort of,” Shiori added.
“What are you doing hanging out with noble scum?” Cortez yelled.
“Excuse me!” Apricot erupted.
Shiori laughed as he slapped the top of the dumpster with his gloved hand. “Listen to the bark of the common dog.”
“Shut up!” Cortez shouted. “Apricot, if you expect me to tell him anything, you’re crazy!”
“What? What is going on?” Apricot asked utterly confused.
“He is a user Apricot. In no way does he care about us. Shiori isn’t like us!” Cortez exclaimed. “He thinks of us as his puppets. He flashes his money around like it’s something special. He lives above everyone else, but gives us common folk table scraps.”
“It is the right place for impure muts like you. Cortez, you should be glad the ruling families paid blood for this land.” Shiori replied unflinchingly. As Cortez approached Shiori, he stared down at him atop the dumpster.
“Our families fought in your wars!” Cortez replied, causing Shiori to laugh.
“The masses are nothing more than animals.” Cortez grabbed Shiori’s leg and pulled him off the rubbish bin. Shiori stumbled and fell to the ground. “Is the dog about to bite me?” Shiori scoffed as he stood up.
“You’ll regret that!” Cortez took a swing at Shiori only to find his fist in the grasp of the metal claw. Between them stood the reaper who materialized out of nowhere. It squeezed down on him causing him to scream in pain.
“Thee fools, wherefore doth thee speaketh such ills for each other? Doth thee not see that thee art allies? Cease thy combat at once.” The reaper said throwing Cortez back. Shiori’s jaw dropped in disbelief. As the reaper turned to face Apricot, he asked, “Haven’t thee desired a meeting with me, Apricot?”
“Do you know this freak?” Cortez backed away with his arms raised.
“How shameful?” The reaper grunted. “Cortez, lay down thy guard. Thee art mine ally. I seek not to harm thee.”
The grin spread across Shiori’s face. He replied, “So you finally decided to show yourself to us. Why didn’t you tell me you knew claw fingers? It seems like you are allying with us. Please prove it.”
“Claw fingers? This yond what they art calling me?” He remarked toward Shiori before turning his gaze toward 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 ends.” He said, turning toward 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.” The Reaper slowly approaches Shiori.
“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 asked.
“Sadly, if ‘t be true, that is what must beest done.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Shiori wondered.
“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 was frightened by what he was 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?”
Shiori pondered, “So these phantoms, where do they come from?”
“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 inquired.
“We work together,” Apricot said softly.
Snarling, Cortez turned his back and walked out of the alleyway. Shiori stared at the starry night sky. “Apricot.”
“Yeah,” she replied distantly.
“Cortez is a coward. At the first sign of trouble, he will run. Remember that.” She turned to look over at Shiori who too is walking in the other direction out of the alleyway. She sighed staring up at the sky wondering what exactly is about to unfold.
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