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While running through the busy streets, Akagi dodged and weaved through pedestrians. Approaching the twin doors of the Spook House, he grasped their handles with both hands. Despite his tugging, the doors won’t budge. He yelled “Shiori!” at the door. From the wooden ornations surrounding the glass, he noticed Shiori’s office light is on. “He’s in there,” he said. Before kicking the door, he frowned. “He must hear me, too. You jerk.” Akagi looked to the alleyway. “I’ll show him.”
Keeping an eye out for other people, Akagi scanned the crowded streets. When the coast was clear, he slipped down the alley with his computer bag in hand. Approaching the back door, he checked the digital lock. “Now let’s see,” Akagi said as he placed his hand on the keypad. Using his palm, he pressed on each key. An access denied message appeared on the LCD. After a second press, the system displayed the same message. “Come on.” He repeated it again, but this time access denied remains on the screen. After removing his hand, he smiled smugly and backed away.
Eventually, the door opens, revealing Shiori painted with a down-turned face. “What do you want, little brat?” growled Shiori as the alarm blares.
Akagi laughed happily. “I knew the alarm would go off.”
In the end, Shiori pushed Akagi against the wall. He yelled, “You little punk, I’m busy.”
“Nah,” Akagi replied, pulling his computer out of his bag. Shiori leaned over Akagi. “You’ll drop it when I show you what I have.”
“We’ll see,” he growled.
Akagi works the keyboard with his magic hands while sitting at Shiori’s desk, his laptop open. Shiori paces the floor with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “When was the last time you saw Mitsura Okabe?”
Shiori frowned in displeasure. “A couple of days ago,” he recalled, unamused. “Why? You got some compromising pictures of him or something?”
“It was something like that. I received a communication from the inner Okabe family council.” Shiori glances at Akagi, working on his laptop, “I got into their D-Link servers like you asked.” This information raises his eyebrows. “That wasn’t Mitsura you saw the other day, even though you might have thought you did. You saw a digital construct of him.”
Shiori stopped pacing and asked, “What? Are you referring to holograms? He sick or something?”
“Nah, fraid not, he croaked. Half of the council is dead, from what I can tell.” Akagi turned his laptop so Shiori could view the open letters he collected. As Shiori adjusted the screen, his eyes were filled with fascination. “Good work?”
As he continued to read, he smiled as he said, “Damn good work! Akagi, do you realize what we have proof of? This completely changes everything.”
Despite his smirk, Akagi continued. “Mmmhm, the only thing I can’t figure out who’s behind all of this. I keep hearing someone referred to as the high priestess or the empress. The high priestess died about a year ago. Who is this new empress?”
When Shiori became overly interested in something, Akagi never liked the look he got. It reminded him of a vicious wolf looking at its prey. Behind that gaze, there was something sinister, but he was also glad to let it out. “How about a game? My little prodigy, this will be fun. Let’s get this “empress” out to the public.”
Shiori peered out of the window of his high-rise apartment. As he observed the reflection of his television, a smile appeared on his face. He watched a live news broadcast. There are several ministers and officials gathered around a podium where Mitsura will speak. The morning sun reflects off the towers, blocking the beams. He takes a deep breath and his face calms.
Taking his place in front of the crowd, Mitsura bent the microphone closer to his mouth and spoke. Using hand gestures, Mitsura explained Okabe’s hopes for the future. After a few minutes, it happens. Seeing the sun glint in his eyes, Shiori grinned. Mitsura has disappeared, and the hologram has been turned off in front of everyone. The speech continues. Suddenly, the news station shuts down. Anchors immediately try to explain away the situation, their faces covered in horror. A whisper comes from Shiori. He said, “I win.”
Toward a crystal blue sky rose the city of Blue Ash, a city of shining silver towers. While Solenne rode her white and blue police tricoa, the gleaming sun lights the streets with its easy traffic. As she passed each vehicle, she glanced over her digital HUD, dressed in her uniform.
“Another relaxed morning.” Solenne thought to herself. An overpass’s shadow covered her in a chill while she rode under it. The ramp opened to reveal a view of the city as she approached the large police station in Blue Ash City. The regular police and the special defense police are both housed in the same building. The front two-thirds are the property of the regular police, while the rear is exclusively the SDP’s.
A gentleman at the entrance greeted her with a warm smile, “Good morning, Miss Solenne.”
Solenne bowed. “Morning Walter. You look rather rosy.”
A light blush covered his bubbly nose. “Well, it’s always a bright day when I see you.”
Solenne smiled as she walked through the automatic glass doors. The police station’s interior resembled a hospital. The walls are a sterile white color that doesn’t belong. As she continued down the hall toward her office, she gave subtle greetings to other officers along the way. After entering her office, she sat at her desk and looked over her work tray full of papers. “So much for an easy morning,” Solenne complained.
She immediately began her work by typing the usual daily reports. “Hey, you got it too.” said a young man. Solenne glanced over to see a brown-haired man with a toothy grin hanging on her office door. “I got it bad too this morning. Apparently, there was a lot of activity on the south side of town. Lots of missing persons. Not to mention that whole thing with Mitsura Okabe being missing.”
Solenne’s heart immediately skipped a beat at hearing the news. “Mitsura is missing!?”
“Apparently, they have been using a hologram for him speaking. Just got released this morning. No one knows what the hell is going on. The media department is going absolutely nuts trying to handle the situation. It’s going to be a long day.” the man said, taking a swig of coffee.
“Seems like the workload doesn’t get any easier.” Solonne moaned.
“It’s damn near a crisis.” the guy said before looking at the ground. “Heh, well, I will let you get to it.”
“Seeya Joji.” Solenne looked at her keyboard, releasing a deep breath.
A few hours later, Solenne had a stack of papers to file. She shuffled them into a large binder. Opening the binder, she reached for the first page. After lifting a stamp from its well, she pressed it onto the page. It left a red mark that reads SDP Class 7 when she removed the wooden rectangle. As she walked down the long hall, she found herself in a filing room lined with several large computers. With her badge in hand, she placed the stack of papers on top of one of the large white machines. She drew her badge from her side, placing it onto a small glass screen. The machine beeps, allowing her access.
She hastily scanned each page, one after the other. Solenne was about halfway through the stack when she grabbed the keyboard and begins searching the files. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked to see if anyone was watching her. Once she considered herself in the clear, she added a set of files to her print load, then returned to scanning the rest of the documents as if everything was ordinary.
“You could actually get them,” Apricot exclaimed with a huge grin on her face. Solenne hands the folder over sheepishly.
“I feel so dirty.” Solenne groaned.
Apricot shook her head. “Don’t worry.” She flipped through the pages in the manilla folder”It’s not like these aren’t publicly available. It would just have taken me forever to get my hands on all this info.”
Solenne tilted her head. “It really was nothing, right? Why are you writing about the ruling family? Did you know about Mitsura’s disappearance?”
“No, that kind of came as a shock to me. However, the Okabe family has interested me for a long time. They have been here since the feudal era. It is not often we preserve a rich history such as theirs.” Still eyeing the files, Apricot stumbled upon a photo of a person torn to pieces. Splintered and stretched flesh was visible on the stretched organs. Her eyes grow wide as she glances up to see Solenne’s stern eyes.
Solenne frowned. “That, you know what that is a picture of?” Apricot turned, feeling her face fall as she nodded. “That’s the detective you asked me for information on. Sadly, his file was tampered with, but here is a picture of his autopsy. There was no way to reconstruct the body,” she sighs. “According to reports, it hit the department hard. It was before my time, but I can’t imagine if someone I worked with turned up like that.”
“What did the report say happened to Detective Long?” Apricot could feel a lump in her throat forming as the words left her tongue.
“You got all of it in that file.” Solenne’s lips purse into a down-turned frown. “What have you got yourself involved in, Apricot? You have been acting funny lately. I don’t like this. This is not a matter of investigation. Fess up.” Apricot felt her heart tighten. The firm fingers of Solenne’s hand rubbed against Apricot’s shoulder. “I am worried about that neural agent you were exposed to.”
She felt her face scrunch as the words rang empty in her mind. “Neural agent?” she retorted.
“How can you forget? You were ground zero, the market attack!” Solenne barked. “See, this is what I am worried about. It’s not normal Apricot.” As Solenne’s eyes winced, tears flow down her cheeks. “I am worried enough about Arjun. I don’t need this from you either. Tell me what is happening to you, Apricot.”
Without any thought, Apricot replied, “I am just doing my job, Solenne.” The words felt cold, colder than usual. They clearly stung as Solenne removes her hand turning away from Apricot.
“Whatever hun, just get some help or figure stuff out,” Solenne said as she continued walking towards the alleyway. Apricot wanted to reach out to her, but her body was not willing. Solenne stopped and without even a glance said, “I don’t want to know why you needed those files and don’t tell me. This is the last time I help you, though.” The clicking of her heels on the pavement grows more distant as Apricot watched her leave.
“Why are you sulking?” Shiori asked, looking at Apricot across the bar as she walked into the Spook House. She threw the file down in front of Shiori and Cortez, who were seated on stools at the bar. Cortez raised his beer glass to his lips and took a sip. “Well, you pulled through after all.” Shiori laughed. “That is my girl.”
As Apricot sat on the stool next to Cortez, she rested her arms on the counter. “So, you two are friends?”
“Hardly,” Cortez said. “I’m just here for this meeting. Think of it as a favor for helping me out. I hear you had yourself a good run with a phantom.”
Apricot shrugged. “Fifth one this week. Shiori, I really need a day off.”
“We’ll see.” Shiori grabbed the file and quickly parses it. “I see you have the locations I needed,” Shiori said. “Hopefully, from here I will find some of their lesser-known shrines. If they don’t turn up anything, I’m lost. Cortez boy filled me in on your background. Oh, and I didn’t find your monster. It must lurk deep within the depths of that place. Under the city, licking his wounds.” Shiori placed the folder on the table and brought his face close to Apricot’s. “Dear, you never answered me. What’s up with your long face?”
“Shut up Shiori.” she groaned, turning her back against the bar. “You just let me worry about my own problems.”
“So, what do we do now?” Cortez asked.
Shiori smirked as he raised his eyes. “We don’t do anything. After looking through these, I will make a shortlist of places to explore, and then we will arrange to investigate these places. For now, the two of you, don’t be suspicious. Carry on about your lives as if nothing is happening.”
“Tch,” Cortez chuckled. “Right, as if nothing is happening. I got some ghost clown from who knows where telling me the world is going to end if we don’t stop it. My boss has turned into a damn beast. Sounds perfectly normal to me. The gang is probably after me if there is anyone left. Some demon spawns from hell are crawling all around while everyone seems to be oblivious and the nobles are in on it too. Yeah, real damn normal Shiori.”
Shiori shakes his head. “The “Okabe” nobles are in on it.”
“Hell, what’s the difference? They’re the only nobles who matter here, anyway. The damn province is named after them.”
Apricot laid her head down on her arms. “Taking a rest sounds good. Seems like we’ve been doing a lot of getting nowhere. I mean, how many of them have we killed? There is no end to them.”
“For now, but if I am right, and that Claw Fingers was right, we are about to turn the tide in this little war of ours.” Shiori placed a glass next to Apricot. “Here, have a drink and get yourself home for some rest. Cortez, do yourself a favor and get yourself some, too. I think both of you could use it.”
Apricot was engulfed in the smell of the city. It had a sulfurous smell mixed with sweat. Togashi leaned behind the bar, a shining glass in his hands, as she approached from the rainy front doors with a smirk. “So the investigations were fruitless?” Togashi asked. Apricot scratched her head as she slumped onto the bar, her mind filled with frustration. “Eh, we have the saying in our home country. Rain comes when rain comes. A path opens eventually.” Apricot nodded, not particularly interested in hearing Togashi’s little sayings at the moment.
The truth was the group had been investigating the Okabe family for weeks now and still no clear plans have been uncovered. Their tracks are almost completely hidden as if they had no involvement whatsoever. As Apricot contemplated this, she wondered if they were being sent on a rouse for nefarious purposes. There were still plenty of monstrous phantoms to contend with within the city. Beyond Shiori uncovering some sort of internal overthrow, there is absolutely nothing to base conclusions on. But perhaps that is a blessing.
Resting her weary head on the redwood bar, she glanced over to Cortez, who lay on a red leather couch, face tucked down, eyes closed. “How long has he been here?”
Togashi raised his head, glancing in Cortez’s direction. “All day. Sleeping, I think. Is he homeless?“
“No.“ Apricot said. At least she didn’t think so, but then again, she hadn’t thought of that before. In the aftermath of Cortez’s encounter with Genova, he seems to have turned a new leaf. However, the group did not seem to trust him. Although he tolerated Shiori for the most part. There were several occasions when he accompanied the group. Additionally, she had gained the affection of Sumai and the rest of the group, but that is a story for another day. “Hey! Togashi, grab me a drink.”
“Drink, you? That’s new,” Togashi remarked with a puzzled face.
A weathered groan escaped Apricot. She thought of the many ways she could respond to that line of questioning. Some sassy quip. Maybe she wanted to comment on his lack of reading a situation. She ultimately decided against it. If anything, she knew when her own nerves were stretched. She did not need to add to the tension. “Well, a lot has been changing lately.”
The twin doors to the back room opened as Shiori walked out. His eyes were drawn to Apricot immediately. His face lit up with a smile. “Oh, you arrived. I thought I heard you.” Shiori chirped.”Well, did the shrine turn up anything?”
“We are in the dark, Shiori.” Apricot sighed. Search for what seemed like endless shrines. Places of worship, altars and old stone statues, trees of strange shapes, and people of odd appearance. Nothing.
“Could be worse,” Cortez snorted while he arose from his slumber, stretching with a long yawn. Shiori made his way over to the back of the bar next to Togashi. “We could have normal lives with nothing to do.” Apricot rolled her eyes at the constant sarcasm. It grated on her, but then again she was guilty of it too. It seemed stress brought that out, like scraping to find a touch of humor just to lighten things up, even if the sarcasm was its most desperate form.
“Where are Sumai and Junko?” Shiori asked.
Togashi grabbed a bottle of amber liquid and poured a shot. “Sumai and Junko are out hunting,” he replied, handing over the drink to Apricot. “Checking out the lake monster rumor.” Apricot drank from the glass, taking a quick swig. Upon tasting the substance in her mouth, her face turned bitter. Her mouth opened as she swallowed and allowed some air to enter to stop the burning sensation. The glare Shiori gave Togishi could kill a man. “I gave her something light. It’s floral honey bourbon,” he replied quickly.
With a boom, the entrance doors slammed open, startling everyone in the room. As the door opened, a man in vintage warrior clothes entered the room. The way he walked reflected a seriousness of purpose in his strides – like that of a soldier, perhaps. “You two better get out of the way,” Shiori told Apricot as she arose from her seat alongside Cortez. From the corner of her eye, she saw Togashi draw a pistol, cocking it with a click.
Toward the back of the room, Apricot and Cortez made their way. Shiori’s steps seemed to reverberate throughout the room, amidst the dull chatter of unaware clients. With a booming voice, the stranger shouted, “May I have everyone’s attention!” The chatter dulled for the strange old soldier. He turned to Shiori, who had stepped in front of the bar. Apricot imagined the man smirking behind the black mask as he said, “Master Kinjo, I have a message from our lady Kyo.” As the man hollered “Au Ra-voir,” Shiori grabbed a metal baking sheet from the counter to shield his chest and stomach as two black submachine guns rose from the soldier’s side. In an instant, they scream peppering the cast iron plate. Everyone in the building scrambles for any exit they can find.
As Shiori rolled over the counter, he released the pan and took cover. “Why are you running?” he asked. The soldier marched closer, both guns hanging from tethered cables. The man cackled, “Accept your fate!”.
“Run Shiori,” Togashi ordered as he fired another barrage of bullets. The soldier danced as he dodged bullets with impossible movements. Apricot was in awe as she watched the man move. The panic surrounding her slowed to a standstill. He is beautiful, like something from a movie. In spite of this, he flicked his wrists and retrieved two metallic tubes from within his sleeves as reality sinks in. His toss toward the counter launched the two tubes into the air. One fluid motion practiced hundreds of thousands of times before. Now set forth into action. From behind the counter, Togashi grabbed Shiori and propelled him away from the twin objects. As Shiori was pushed beyond the bar, he stopped next to a table. He broke the leg off with a kick as he shielded himself behind the table. The two objects bounce and land about a foot from Togashi. The erupting power caused the counter to shatter into a thousand shards as he tumbles over the bar.
“You have interfered in the Okabe family’s affairs for the last time. Your punishment is death.” The man said again, grabbing a gun from his side and firing again at the table. Shiori rolls out of the way and fires with a thick pistol at the man.
“What the hell! Apricot move!” Cortez growled, grasping her arm. A firm, sudden tug jarred her out of her trance. “We have to go!” Cortez shouted, almost dragging Apricot with him. Watching Togashi fire a few shots at the man, she sees the bullets miss every time. But that is impossible. Apricot then notices that the bullets are fleeing from him. Togashi fires another round of bullets, and it hits the table next to him. While watching, Apricot concludes that the bullets arc away from him. The assassin lept from the balcony to the ground below. “Foolish Kinjo stray!” the man exclaimed before opening fire again. Shiori misses being hit by the volley as he moves back behind the smoking counter.
Apricot and Cortez hide behind an ornate wooden pillar. “Cortez, take action!” Apricot commanded.
Cortez shook his head. “That’s an assassin. I hear they’re specially designed for such things. Ta hell if I’m going to get killed. If we leave him alone, we might make it out of here alive.” Suddenly, the anti-fire system turned on and the building is awash in a steady stream of water.
“Lady Kyo is crazy. What the hell is she up to? A war!” Shiori yelled at Togashi.
Among the black iron cafe tables, Togashi hides from view. “Sir, it is wise to run.” A few bullets bounced off the table, leaving dents.
Shiori’s back is lit by a flash behind the wall, and Apricot gasped. The image of the cloaked troopers at the bank comes to mind. “Shiori behind you!” Before he could turn from the ruins of the counter, static grabbed his throat.
“Your execution is now!” The assassin declared, raking his knife across Shiori’s neck.
“Master Kinjo!” Togashi cried as he rose from his feet.
Shiori grabbed the attacker’s arms and threw him on top of the countertop, hanging him. A spring-loaded blade was released from Shiori’s boot and he kicked the soldier in the head. The dagger sank deep into his body. He repeatedly ripped chunks out of his head, leaving a sickening squelch and crack behind. After looking down, Shiori realizes his foot is half in his head; his brain is nothing more than a lump of meat.
“Shiori!” Apricot cried as she ran across the debris-smeared floor to him. As he looked at Apricot with eyes like a wild beast, he raised a hand to his bleeding throat. She had never seen a look like that from him before. It wasn’t human. “Are you alright?” she screamed. Shiori just grinned as he looked back at the man.
“He thought he had me. Probably died thinking it, too.” He glanced up from the bloodied corpse. “Funny thing. I got dermal sheathing in my neck,” He remarked, poking the hole with his finger to reveal metal plating. “My father insisted,” he snickered nervously. “I thought it was a touch over the top. Guess I was damn wrong about that.”
Cortez snorted. “You had trouble there.”
“When they’re not allergic to silver… I don’t fare so well in the fighting department.” He turned his head as he walked past Apricot and Cortez towards the broken glass bottles. “Well, I got to get myself patched up and then I got some cleaning to do. Would you two care to show yourselves out? Togashi, can you take me to the black clinic?”
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