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The Swarm In The Tower
Several boxes lay about the broken and damaged front of the Spook House. Most of the ornate wood is split or riddled with bullets. The railing over the upper loft became nothing more than several sharp spikes of various lengths. The counter remained a ghost, with large chunks removed from its top. Shiori unboxes the brand-new glasses for the freshly replaced wall rack. A knock on the side of his entry alerts him. An older man with slicked black hair and glasses makes his way inside the building. “Master Kinjo, am I interrupting you?”
Shiori rolled his eyes, shaking his head. “You come to do me in too, sir Okabe.”
“Hardly, though it appears to have been a fair, challenging scrap. It’s a shame you do all this alone. Where are your employees?” He asked, taking several steps over the tarnished wooden floor. As he walked, he was careful to avoid the broken slats.
With a grumble, Shiori set down a glass. “Afraid they’ll blow their heads off, I suppose.” Probably that or the bombs. I did not have the chance to call them up and tell them the war is over.” Shiori glanced at the man as he approached a stool and warns him, “My royal guard is still here.
“Well, I see you have not lost your sense of humor. Due to time constraints, I won’t make this long. I have a message from Empress Kyo.”
A chuckle escaped Shiori’s lips. “She’s calling herself Empress now?” Shiori asked. “Ah, so that explains it. The Okabe family did not seat her or dedicate her, but then she killed most of the superior nobles, so what more could be expected? Sure, she is empress all right, no one left to crown her, so she crowns herself. Shiori watches the man intently. “So it was Kyo that killed the others,” he thought to himself. Her young age made this very unlikely, but the man’s eyes confirmed everything: this is Kyo behind all these violent affairs.
“You are aware that the situation between you and the Okabe clan could escalate. I would hate for it to happen, but if the meddling in the Okabe family affairs continues, we will have no choice.”
“Affairs, what affaires?” Shoiri asked.
“I think you understand exactly what I mean. You seem to know a lot about our internal workings. I doubt I need to remind you that spying is a capital crime. We have our suspicions about other subjects. Your silly hologram game has caused our clan an economic nightmare. You have been warned.” The man turned to leave after finishing speaking without giving Shiori a chance to respond.
Shiori reaches over the counter and grabs the man’s shoulder, pulling him face-to-face. “Kyo screwed up. You are shooting blind. I did not deceive the people for who knows how long. You should never have tried to kill me. One call to my clan and an international war breaks out. If that is not enough to get Kyo’s attention, maybe this will. Natsukawa’s crimes would be embarrassing to the public if they became known. You can now go and get lost. Go lick your master’s piddle like a dog.”
The man pulls away from Shiori without missing a beat. His collar is smoothed as he looks at Shiori again. As he leaves through the front doors, He warns once more, “You have been warned.”
“Sis!” Jasper yelled, running into the room. Apricot is curled up on the couch in her living room with a blanket covering her. For the past few hours, a sci-fi movie had consumed her attention. “Look outside!” Apricot turned her head to see a sea of black covering the once blue sky. She pushed the blanket off and got up to see better from the window. “What do you think it is?”
Even complete cloud cover did not trigger the street lights to turn on, and yet they were on. This is very different. Toward the distance, the darkness blended into something like inky smudges in the sky. Outside of the city, blue skies still hung in the air. In a documentary, she had seen something similar. When locusts swarm for food out in the wilderness, this happened occasionally. “Apricot!” Jasper shouted, jerking her out of her trance. But this was not the wilderness and there were no locusts.
“Jasper, stay inside,” she told him as she walked to the front door. She opened the door to see that it was indeed an insect swarm. Its loud buzzing resembled the constant roll of thunder or a heavy engine running at idle. “What in the world?” she asked, as she returned to the house and shut the door. Jasper stares at her in disbelief. “Are all the windows closed?” Jasper looked at Apricot with partially closed eyes while nodding. “Good. Let’s go see what the news has to say about this.”
The two sit on the couch in the living room. A news report was playing in the background. This would normally trigger an alert from the authorities. However, every station she checked was on another topic. The lack of recent news reports on the topic was not subtle. Apricot suspects there was a media blackout on the subject. The resulting punishment would be severe if any journalist or outlet were to cover the subject.
Apricot heard a buzzing on her side and saw images of a monster clinging to her. Before realizing it is her phone, she let out a small chirp. Picking it up, she saw Shiori was calling her. “Hey,” she replied.
“You busy tonight?” Shiori asked.
“You asking for a date?” Apricot snickered.
“Heh, you wish I was that lonely. Nah, I am sure you saw the sky. Well, it is centered on one of the towers owned by the Okabe. I figured we should check it out. You in?” Shiori explained.
Apricot looked over at Jasper. “You‘re not asking, are you?”
“No, I am really not. Cortez is slated to be our navigator. For once, he is useful. We will meet up in about three hours. Can you be here by then?” Shiori asked.
“Yeah, if I must.” Apricot hanged up the call.
“Was that Sato?” Jasper asked.
“Another friend, my boss, actually. Hey Jasper, I have to go out. So you stay inside.” Apricot said.
“Again!?” Jasper moaned. “I thought we were going to hang out while Mom and Dad were not here.”
“Something came up, and I got to work. Don’t worry though. We are going to have a lot of fun soon. Tell you what. I will buy you a model if you don‘t pout.”
Jasper folded his lips up and bounced his head. “Ok, that is fair.”
“Even with this stupid mask on, it smells so horrible down here!here!here! ” Apricot lamented. Shiori trailed behind with a gas mask covering his face. They are knee-deep in mucky sewage lit only by their headlamps.
A western-style sword is held in the hand of Cortez, who led the group. “Hmm, yeah, who came up with this?”
“Tis mine, I got it from my lovely Apricot. It’s not your first time under the city, is it?” Shiori laughs. While they trudged through the thick waters, Apricot’s growl can be heard under her breath. “Well, how else were we going to get past the barricades? Every SDP officer and news outlet is running the circus. This is probably the best plan. Thank goodness Arjun had those extra radiation suits. If I do say so myself, I think it works quite well as a sewer suit.” Shiori said cheerfully. “However stop complaining, the ladder into the building is right there.”
Cortez directed his light toward a ladder leading up an ominous grate. He was at the front of the group. “These bags weigh a ton. What the hell is inside them?” His body ached from carrying so many backpacks.
“Torches, well, improvised torches,” Shiori said before reaching for the ladder’s rungs.
When Cortez saw the bagless prince ascending the ladder, he yelled, “Where are your bags? Can you believe this guy?” He said turning his head to Apricot.
Apricot raised her hands to her chest fidgeting. “Well, actually,” she said turning to the side showing that she too had no bags with her.
“What the hell. Why the hell am I the only one with bags?”
Shiori called down from the top. “I am injured, and she is useful. Makes perfect sense to me.”
“Screw you, man.” Cortez retorted.
Apricot was motioned upward by Cortez. Apricot laughed and shook her head. “You’re not looking up at my butt.”
“Well, shit, there is nothing to look at anyway in these baggy things,” Cortez grumbled grabbing the ladder. “Well, excuse me for being polite.” Tossing the bag out of the hole Cortez crawled from the dark abyss into the open basement of what appears to be a warehouse. Shiori shook his blond hair free of the suit as he peeled it from his skin. Lowering his hand into the dark Cortez helps Apricot.
Apricot immediately removes the suit. She is happy to take the smelly thing off. “Do you hear that?” Apricot asked. Cortez looked around. A low droning echoes through the building.
Shiori was already pawing through the bag grabbing a gas canister and attaching it to a hose. “Here.” He said tossing Cortez the canister.
“Whoa!” shouted Cortez as he grabbed it with the tips of his fingers. “That’s dangerous!”
“You caught it, we’re fine,” Shiori laughed. “Even if you didn’t, I’m sure it wouldn’t blow up.” Shiori reached inside the bag and pulled out a pipe attached to a hose. Turning the knob slightly, he placed the canister on his side and pressed a button to light the end of the torch. “Alright,” he readjusted the torch until it was a nice thin beam. “Now, this will deal with any critters we come across.” He points to the other trigger. “This will shoot out a spray of some mixed chemicals. All you need to know is, if you spray it, it spits fire.”
“But if it is a phantom we are after, the torch won‘t help us much,” Apricot said.
Shiori nodded his head. “Yeah but I am thinking the swarms of bugs on the upper floors have more to do with real-life bugs than the phantom itself. Also including, we don’t know for sure. We’ll see. Perhaps they’ll be burned by fire. I’ve never done it myself.”
Cortez looked down. “I am not about to light fires just to kill a few bugs.”
“Did you see it from outside or did you forget? The sky is black with the swarms around this building.” Shiori begins walking down the hall. “Suit yourself though. I am about to search the upper floors. Cortez, get familiar with the basement. Apricot, you cover the lower floors. We keep heading up after. If anyone has an issue, send a text.” Shiori said with a silver stave slung over his shoulder as he walked into the dark.
“Like I am taking orders from him. Come on, let’s stick together, Apricot,” Cortez said.
“Actually, I like the idea of covering ground fast,” Apricot said as she heads towards a large metal staircase.
“Sure, let’s do that. Come on, let’s split up and let’s all be messed up one by one. Just like in the horror movies. Tcha’, damn,” Drawing his pistol from his side, Cortez holds the firearm close to him.
Shiori crunched into the crusty shell of another bug as he walked across an insect-infested floor. Walking along the dimly lit corridor, he noticed that the walls seemed to be alive. “PSHHHH!” the torch hissed as several insects were ignited by the flames. The relaxed expression on his face was replaced by the contemplative expression of a stoic statue.
He entered a large office filled with many cubicles and the loud humming intensifies. The floor changed; it was previously carpeted in the hall but is now a black and white checkerboard made of stone. “Mmmmm, I didn’t even realize so many insects existed in this city,” Shoiri commented as he looked around the hazy room alive with crawling insects. From somewhere in the dark room, he heard a low beetle like a screech. Shiori thought to himself: “That sound is from something much larger than a bug. Good, I found you,” he said, lowering his rod. A jingle is heard from the rings on the end of the rod. Then he added, “And you are not alone. Maybe an initiation?”
Despite the darkness, he saw two large, glowing red eyes like the eyes of a fly. The creature leapt from the edge of a cubical and was hung by its clawed toes. In the glimmer of firelight that shined on it, the thin body of the creature glistened like a green jewel. Its back was characterized by two large mantis claws. Four humanoid arms with long fingers extend from their sides. Each one of its four mandibles twitched with anticipation.
Slowly, Shiori approached the creature holding up his staff. Inside his head, a searing whisper greeted him. It said, “Fool. Did you come here to die? There are three of you. Where are your friends? They’ll make good meals.” The words rang in his head like an intense migraine.
“So you’re telepathic. Wish Junko was here.” Shiori said as he lunged at the creature with his rod. “Nice trick!” Shiori shouts before slamming his rod into the insect. It is blocked by its mantis-like arm. While Shiori watches the creature push off his silver rod, he widens his eyes. “What are you?! I’ve never met a phantom able to touch silver!”
Shiori’s head echoes with the voice again. “I see. You are like him? Phantoms. Kikikikiki!” the creature cackled. “I am not a phantom but rather a spirit summoned by an agonizing cry!” The creature stands on the edge of the cubicle, spreading its wings. “A young girl was slain above calling out for a god to save her. None answered, so a devil has answered and I intend to fulfill her final prayer, a curse. Sadly for me, the one who slew her has passed. Still, her blood cries out for vengeance against all the nobles. I have no toil with the blood of a Kinjo, it is the Okabe’s blood I seek.”
Shiori clutched the rod nervously. His answer was, “Serves them right.” Bending to Shiori’s level, it stretched out its head. He could feel the warmth and foul odor of the creature’s breath wash over her cheek. “I will leave you to your oath.”
Shiori dove backward to avoid the strike by mere inches as the mantis swung its sharp claw at his chest. “I’ve never promised to let you go.” it declared. “I am going to kill you just for the fun of it!” the creature said jumping off the cubicle wall onto the ground. With its scythes rubbed together, it made a metallic scraping sound while standing to its full height dwarfing Shiori.
Apricot’s nerves twitched as she walked the dark halls alone under the drone of the buzzing insects. Her gaze darted at every slight noise as she grabbed the hilt of her sword, ready to stab at any moment. The idea that this phenomenon might be caused by a phantom weighed heavily on her mind. Never before had she considered that these entities could control other entities. Could this one see through the insects’ eyes? She wondered. A sour expression appeared on her face at the unsettling thought.
“Apricot?” She let out a shriek as the voice startled her. Her chest grew heavy as she turned her head to see Sato standing with a camera in hand. “Hey sorry about scaring you like that. Wow, never thought I would see you here? What’s with the weird clothes? You look like a ninja.” He laughed.
Her heart pounded harder. She was found out. She had to play it cool. After all, she did not know if she had raised suspicion yet. “Oh, my goodness! Sato! You scared the hell out of me. This place is creepy as it is.”
“Oh, excuse me. I just happened to see a dark figure walking down the hall with a sword. What the heck is with all that stuff, anyway?” Sato asked. She could barely make out his perplexed face in the dim glow of the emergency lights.
Apricot nodded her head. “Yeah, I guess this would look kind of weird. It was an old costume I had. Heh, figured the bugs could not crawl down something so tight. The sword well, I did not want to get mugged in here. I have been thinking about that a lot lately. I know I’m a little paranoid but I figured it was better than being at someone’s mercy.”
Sato gave a suspicious nod of agreement, though she could tell he found her response strange. A nervous sigh escaped her lips. “Well, ah I guess I can kind of understand that after all you’ve been through.” Sato took a step forward. “Still why are you here? How did you get in?”
“I am investigating the infestation. I wanted a closer look.” Apricot replied, hoping her ruse would escape suspicion. “How did you get in?”
“Yeah, well, I am kind of here for the same reason. I sneaked past the police. You know this place is under lockdown right now. The police are not even coming in. Actually, from what I hear, there are still people trapped in the building. They have strict orders not to enter though.”
“That is kind of scary to think about. Hope they turn up. Seems like we both have the same idea.” Apricot laughed. Suddenly, she felt a vibration against her leg. Her eyes widen instinctually. She immediately concealed her reflexive action by adopting a dull expression. One of the guys must have spotted something. “Hey Sato, I ah I got to run.”
Sato shook his head. “I am not letting you walk around here alone. It could be dangerous. We should stick together.”
The vibration started again. “Really, Sato, I am fine.”
“I insist,” Sato replied firmly. “I would die of guilt if anything happened to you.” Apricot pursed her lips slightly blowing a puff of air. “What?” Sato asked.
“I don’t need you to babysit me. I am fine on my own,” Apricot said. Sato’s expression told her he was not having any of that. “I have to run,” she said to herself not really wanting to. “Well, Sato. Tell you what. I will let you follow me if you can keep up.” She laughed before disappearing into the shadows of the halls.
“Wait!” Her leg started vibrating again as she took random corners down the hall. “Apricot!” Sato shouted as she turned each corner. After twisting and turning in the halls, she arrived at the stairs.
After continuing up and getting on another fire escape, she assumed that Sato was lost. The buzzing of bugs could be heard in the pitch blackness. The surrounding buzz grew stronger as she proceeded up the fire escape. “Thrack!” It was as if a rock had fallen on her. As she raised her hand to her cheek, Apricot could feel a red irritation beginning to form. “Thwack!” Another, then another, and yet another. She was being pelted by a variety of flying insects. As she looked around in the storm, she felt like she was in a movie. Absolute madness. Her heart pounded at the sight of the flashing lights of the police and the crowds growing, motivating her to run faster.
The razor claws of the insects clashed with the metal of Shiori’s segmented staff. Shiori blocked blow after blow from the mantis monster while alternating between her arms. Rotating the staff, Shiori saw his chance after the next block. Overextending the top segment of his staff, he clubbed the creature in the side of the head, causing it to stumble backward.
When the staff whirled towards the creature’s feet, it leaped out of the way flapping its four wings. In a flash, Shiori retracted, and the segments fly back into his hand just in time to block a strike aimed at his side. It was remarkable how far the monster reaches, he noted. Although he moved quickly, Shiori felt his stamina ebbing away quickly.
Shiori leaped back, extending out his arm from the chain of his staff so that it was aimed directly at the creature’s head. When the monster whipped its arm, several pieces of its carapace fly into the air, knocking the bludgeon to the ground.
Shiori spun the silver rod around his body and unleashed a crushing blow on the insect. The creature stumbled backward with every strike. He forced the monster into a cubicle, the artificial wall tumbled over into a slope over a desk.
Despite Shiori’s best efforts, the creature grabbed the rod, pulling her closer. Within range of the scythe, Shiori dodged left and right as the blades stabbed at his body. The rod was released when Shiori kicked the animal in its abdomen. A shriek erupted as Shiori withdraws his kick, and blood pours from its side. Seeing the creature stagger, Shiori pulled the rod from its grasp.
Both scythes collided with Shiori’s rods, knocking him back a step. As the blades bit into Shiori’s rod, the power was so great he fell to his knees. As Shiori rose to take another step back, he blocked another pair of blades as he slipped out from the attack. A tide of battle is raging between the two, trading blows rapidly without an end in sight.
The creature’s razor scythe slashed through the sheetrock as Shiori rolled aside a wall. It scraped down on the wall as Shiori retreated, leaving a deep fissure in the white wall. Snapping the ignition switch off the handle of the torch, he turned the gas all the way on. An explosion of flame erupted from the nozzle at the same time as the monster pulled his arm from the wall. A scream of agony is emitted by the insect as it was engulfed in flames. After removing the strap from the makeshift flame thrower, Shiori swings the canister at the target, causing it to strike with all the force of a bowling ball. The canister exploded in a blast of billowing flames, igniting the atmosphere around it immediately.
Thousands of insects scurry from the heat as the walls glow, moving and changing shape. The creature leaned against the ground, groaning. His shadow appeared to rise to his feet, a portion of his body blown open and his wings mangled. A powerful roar shook the ground as it turns to charge forward, diving through the flames.
“Shiori!“Shiori!“Shiori!,” Apricot screamed from the shadows as she drew her sword. With long slimy ends, the creature’s cracked carapace slid off its body. Despite being burned and bleeding, the creature crashed into Shiori, knocking him to the ground. It raised its head to snap at his face, only to bite down on his rod. The creature continued to push as its three semifunctional mandibles cut at his face. Seeing the creature dive off Shiori, Apricot lunged toward the open air. As it broke free, its body rotated to dive directly at Apricot.
The beast was struck in the ribs as she evaded. A painful shock traveled through her arm when her blade bounced off its carapace. Watching Apricot stand against the monster, Shiori struggled to stand up with the rod raised. The red eyes of the creature shone through the smokey darkness as it turned back toward Apricot. “How is that possible?” she exclaimed. “The silver did not hurt it!” Apricot screamed in her mind. When the reality of the situation dawned on her, she was terrified. Huffing, the creature squirted dark fluid from its open wound.
As Shiori smashed the creature’s eye with a wet pop, Apricot felt the wind of Shiori’s segmented rod fly past her face. A thick, inky layer of gore painted Apricot’s skin with the juices it contained. Following that, he jabbed the other end of his staff inside the creature’s chest; the rings pressing through a gap in its natural armor. Apricot, escaping her shock, leapt in and attacked the creature’s mouth, its fist slamming into her stomach. The wind was knocked out of her, as Shiori blocked the remaining scythe’s attack aimed at him.
Apricot rolled backward, landing on her back. The room started to rain as the sprinklers hissed. A scream emanated from her as she lunged at the creature again, stabbing it in the throat. The creature was thrown over Shiori’s shoulder as he wrapped the segmented rod around its neck. The blade is ripped free by Apricot mid-swing, and the insect’s upper body collapses. As everything around it disintegrated, its legs twitch and its circulatory system fell to the ground.
Shiori turned around and walked away from the sight. Her stomach lurched, and Apricot pushed up against the wall. As she vomited, a torrent of water splashed at her feet. With an exaggerated huff, Shiori turns his head toward her. “Took you long enough.”
Apricot stared down at her vomit. Rice and fish were clearly visible in it. Another convulsion hit her and she turned her head to feel her chest pound. “It’s alive. It was alive,” she said before puking again. “What is that?” She cried in a panic.
It dematerialized into a purple flame, floated before the two, then disappeared from the building. Taking flight after the wisp as the razor wings of the insects collided with Apricot’s skin, she let out a scream and fell to her knees.
“We need to leave now,” Shiori said.
Apricot looked around. “Where is Cortez?”
“I would like to know that myself,” Shiori said. “Then again, I really couldn’t care less. He is exactly who I expected him to be.”
“Shiori, I am scared… someone saw me and they know me.” Shiori’s gaze shifted uncomfortably toward Apricot’s eyes. She could feel the fear that was shared.
“Looks like all our masks are being removed. Does it chill you to the bone?”
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