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“Looks used.” said a man with a shaved head as he inspects a cybernetic arm augmentation. He pointed to a dent in the upper bicep. “See that, wear man, tanje you ain’t getting much for this. Where do you get it anyway?”
Cortez rests his back against the ghost of a brick wall where once stood a building. “Guy, owed me money. Did not ask him where he got it. Figured it would be worth more than what he owed. I don’t want gravy for it, man, I am looking for a gun, freelance you know?”
“A gun?” he said stroking his chin. “Yeah, yeah, I got a gun that I might be willing to trade for the chips. Okay, tell ya what, I got a little tiddler. It has seen action, might even be wanted. It still got a serial, no chip though. So it will work.”
Taking a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, Cortez said, “Let’s see.”. He pulled out a single stick with his lips.
The guy gets up off a rusty barrel he sat on. Popping the lid off, he pulled out a compact looking rifle. “What you think?” He tossed the gun to Cortez. Holding the weapon, Cortez looked down at its sights. “You like?”
He flipped it a few times, testing the weight of the weapon. “You give me four clips and it is a deal.”
“Four clips, fine but only two loaded.” the man said peering down his sunglasses. Cortez draws a lighter and lit his cigarette, then took solid inhale. He looked down at the ground and saw the rocks vibrating. The man with the glasses jumps back hiding behind his little rusty barrel. “Holy shit, look at that.”
Cortez looked over his shoulder toward a caravan of black cargo trucks storming down a ruined time-scarred road. “Shit, those look like government trucks. What the hell are they doing over here?” Cortez exclaimed stepping away from the wall. “Hey duster, give me my clips, so I can get lost.”
“Yeah, shit, I am not staying here either.” the man said as he rustles through the barrel. The trucks stop about fifty yards from Cortez in a circular clearing that is generally considered the center of the ruined neighborhood. As they opened their backs, Cortez watched. Many armored soldiers emerged with their guns drawn. “Bishop caps.” Cortez whispered.
The man pulled out of the barrel with the clips in hand. “Look take your shit. I am gone.” He dropped five clips at Cortez’s feet. Cortez spat a puff of air as he retrieved the clips off the ground. “Bonus.”
The strange man popped the barrel’s lid back on. As he scurried off, Cortez did not pay much attention to him. Instead, he gazed at the soldiers. One of the armored units walked up to a local man, probably a grifter, and pointed his rifle at his chest. The man froze, likely in fear.
“Is this a raid?” Cortez asked himself. A gunshot answered him. With their high-powered rifle, they kill the man. “Damn!” Cortez croaked. He moved away from the soldiers hiding under cover. The rest of the locals scurry like roaches caught in the light of the surrounding gunshots. People screamed in terror and cried out in pain as the soldiers shot them down.
As Cortez kept low, he made his way through the crumbling buildings until he reached the safety of an alley. He looked back at the soldiers prowling the streets, setting down black boxes. “What the hell are they doing?” Looking around, Cortez noticed a fire escape on the other side of the alley. “There we go, a little higher up and I might be able to get a better view.”
There is a broken window about halfway up the fire escape which allowed access to the abandoned building. He entered the building with his new gun strapped to his side. It is now a hollowed out memory of what it once was. The halls were strewn with empty cans and trash. Perhaps drug addicts lived here, as well as homeless people. They were all cut from the same cloth, however, Cortez thought. Taking his gun, he made it to the end of the hall where a large window offered a better view of the collapsed part of town. Dust was blown off the streets by men in hazard suits equipped with blowers. As the dirt was removed from the center, a large symbol appeared. He also observed two black cruisers approaching. At an angle, they stopped a short distance away. The doors opened, and people in formal attire stepped out. “What is this?”
“You don’t say. Quite interesting.” Shiori commented over the receiver of his phone. “We can’t allow that, now, can we?” Shiori said.
Apricot’s teeth sunk deeply into the bun of a Bingo Burger. The messy bite dripped down her cheeks. Bonni sat next to Apricot dipping her chicken nugget into mayo teriyaki sauce as she always did. “I’m glad we could get together.” Machi grinned. “Exams have been stressful. I really needed a day to just take a break.”
“It’s been too long.” Solenne said as she placed the straw of her soft drink in her mouth. As she sipped her cool soda, she lets out a satisfied “Ahhh, got to love coke on a hot summer day.”
Bonni moaned in childish frustration as her face darkens. “I really wish I could. Too many sugars for me.”
“Drink diet.” Machi said.
“And get cancer!” Bonni yelled, gesturing with her hands.
Machi took a bite from her burger, rolling her eyes. “I agree, it is nice.” Apricot said, her voice warm with emotion. “I have been so busy with work and school, I have hardly any time to relax anymore.”
“It’s part of growing up.” Bonni said. “When we were all students in primary school, it was like we had all the time in the world. We just didn’t know it then.”
Solenne nodded quietly. Machi nearly spat out her food at Bonni’s remark, but swallowed it right away. “That is pretty deep coming from you.”
“I know you think I am dumb Machi, but I can be smart sometimes too. I possess the heart of a dreamer and a deep thinker.” Bonni grinned. “I don’t want to be one of those dumb celebrities with all their opinions. I rather just tell the world of brilliant philosophical statements.”
Machi snickered, “And there is the Bonni I know.”
The retort must have struck deep as Bonni scowled. “What do you mean by that?”
Apricot smiled as she watched the two tangle with each other, her gaze glinting at Solenne who shared the same look as she. Thinking deeply, her troubles weighed heavily on her mind. She had entered a world few people knew about. Solenne’s story is different from her own, but they both have the same element of danger and terror. Solenne faces overseas wars and criminals. For herself monsters and royal societies. Still, she wondered what Solenne thought of her. Their last meeting had not gone well. She was sure Solenne had some misgivings about her. Despite this, she never divulged her suspicions.
Looking toward the road, she caught sight of a white car and her thoughts were interrupted. As she watched the white car pull into a space across the street, she said, “That can’t be. What would he be doing on this side of town? There is no way that it is Shiori.” Apricot thought.
As the door swings open and those familiar dress cloths walk out of the car. Machi whispered “Do you see that! Holy shit, I think that is Shiori Kinjo.”
With wide eyes, Bonni swiveled her head around and stared at him with a praising look as he slid his fingers back through his blond hair. “I think so,” Bonni whispered back to the group. Look at Shiori’s dress.” Shiori’s cornflower blue and white suit was definitely not cheap. As always, he dressed in the most expensive clothing possible. As vehicles leave the road, a noble and cocky Shiori made his way toward them. Although her heart nearly fluttered, Apricot quickly grew resentful of that stride. The group is absolutely smitten with him. To her, he was just Shiori.
“He is coming over here!” Bonni gasped.
A pair of tea-colored sunglasses are lowered by Solenne. “I wouldn’t expect a noble to eat at Bingo Burgers.” she chuckled, clearly not star struck like the other girls. Then again she had eyes only for Arjun.
He looked down at the group with a trademark smile and said “Miss Apricot, what a strange coincidence to meet you here. I was thinking about you just now.” All the other girls looked at Apricot, mouths agape, as he said this.
Apricot, flushed with embarrassment, murmured, “Hello Shiori.” She replied sheepishly. “I ah, why are you here? This does not seem like the kind of place you would eat.”
“Well, of course,” Shiori said chuckling. “The simple hotdog is sometimes a delicacy when you eat filet mignon every night.” Shiori glanced at the girls staring at him. Putting his hand on Bonni’s shoulder, he asked, “Can you make a little bit of room for me?” Bonni quickly stepped over as Shiori sat down next to the girls. “Apricot, please introduce me to your friends.”
Apricot shrugged her shoulders. “This is Bonni Willox,” Apricot pointed to Bonni. “That’s Machi and Officer Solenne.”
“Officer Solenne.” Solenne laughed. “Is that how you see me?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
“Ah, great, a member of the regular police, I suppose. According to your fairness, I would not expect you to be placed with the brutes in the SDP.” Solenne blushed slightly, he got her too, Apricot shook her head.
“Yes, that would be correct. Although I hope to work for the SDP as a dispatcher.” Solenne commented.
“So what do you girls do when you’re not gracing this place with your beauty?” Apricot rolls her eyes. The only person that could get away with being so corny would be a noble like Shiori. If it was not for his good looks and pedigree her friends would be laughing.
“I work in a cafe but I have aspirations to be an actor.” Bonni said.
“An actor. Well, I look forward to seeing you on the silver screen.” Shiori said.
His gaze directed itself to Machi, “And you my dear?”
“I am an engineer.” Machi chirped hiding behind her hands. Her index finger pressing her fogging glasses up to her face. “Well, a student engineer.”
Shiori whites again: “Wow, smart girl. You all seem like a wonderful group of ladies.”
“You never told us, you knew Prince Kinjo Apricot.” Solenne said squinting her eyes behind her glasses.
“I, I ah,” Apricot said, trying to think of at least one explanation that might be acceptable to her friends.
Shiori responds immediately. “I know I’m a little to blame for that. You see, I hired Apricot some time ago.” Apricot felt a lump in her throat grow.
“He will not tell them everything is he?” screamed Apricot in her head.
“My assistant Apricot has been with me for several months now. Her reporting skills have surprised me. In order to start a special venture, I needed some fresh blood. I asked her to help with the design of my new publication. It was a little secret. If you would be so kind as not to tell anyone, I would truly appreciate it.”
“Of course!course!course! Bonni grabbed Shiori’s arm and hugged it tightly. “We would never dream of it.” Shiori tilts his head for a moment. Machi sheepishly nods.
“Speaking of which, a situation has come up and I need your assistance, Miss Apricot.” Shiori said.
Apricots scowled. “I suppose you want me to come with you now?”
Shiori nodded. “Mmmmmmm, it was a pleasure meeting all of you. Sorry to have to leave so quickly. But it is a pressing matter that I must attend to. We will have to do it again.”
Machi shook her head. “No, it’s ok.” Her voice sounded much more feminine than usual.
Apricot glanced back at the group as she got up to leave. As Solenne’s piercing gaze suggested, Shiori immediately regretted this chance meeting. Even if she hadn’t already established Solenne’s inquisitive nature, it’s evident now. While Shiori ushered the girl into the passenger seat, she glanced back at the girls longing to return, knowing full well that Shiori picking her up was bad news.
From behind, a male voice said, “Hey sweet cheeks.” Apricot glances back to see Cortez kicking back with his foot on her seat.
Shiori groaned. “Like a dog,” Shiori sacked him in the leg. “Down! I don’t suppose you have the money to reupholster my leather.” Cortez rolled his eyes and put his feet back on the floor. He spread his legs as he took up the majority of the back seat.
“What is going on?” Shiori closed the door and drove away from Bingo Burgers.
Cortez sighed shaking his head. “You two took too long. I was getting boarded back here all by myself.”
Apricot looked back at Cortez grimacing. “Why doesn’t anyone answer me?”
Shoiri said as he held the wheel tightly in his hand, “Cortez, fill her in, please.”
“He is driving,” Apricot thought to herself.
She was scared by this. Shiori rarely exhibited tension, or even if he did, he did not show it. He is driving and not letting the AI do it for him, which suggests that there is something wrong. Cortez spat out a puff of air as her gaze fell back on him.
“Over in my part of town, something very big is happening. Apparently, some people are preparing for a huge burning ritual. There’s no doubt it’s the Okabe family because they got private soldiers and were dressed like ol’ suity boys. The problem is that the spot they chose is “underground,” the haunt of my old gangs. It’s a junkyard. Ruined buildings everywhere. This is part of the ruined city. We never paid much attention to it, but there is a huge circle that we always joked was a witch’s porthole. I suppose it’s not a joke anymore.” Cortez leaned back in his seat and looked out the window.
Apricot shook her head. “So what are we going to do?”
“Stop it.” Shiori said firmly.
“I don’t know… interrupt the ritual.” Shiori growled.
“Won’t that make us fugitives?” Apricot gasped.
“What else are we supposed to do? I got eyes on Lady Kyo right now… she is not attedance from what I can tell. That disturbs me even more.” Shiori said as he pushed hard on the peddle.
“Shiori, you’re speeding.” Apricot softly said touching his arm.
“I’m pretty sure Shiori knows more than he’s telling us, Apricot.” Cortez grunted. Apricot glanced back at Cortez who is holding a compact submachinegun. As they rush towards the ruined city, she sat quietly.
The ruins of the old city are illuminated by hundreds of lanterns. The night sky cast a warm orange glow around the large circle as several people chant. In one hand was an old weathered book held by a man wearing a white dress shirt with suspenders and black slacks. “We will avenge our fallen fathers. If Lady Kyo thinks we will hand her the keys to the new world, she is starkly mistaken.” The dust still resting on the ground swirled in ghostly winds. Flames of green dance in the supernatural storm as the clothing of the ritualists are blown.
“So you have heard me!”, said the man. Shiori and Apricot are standing on the edge of a collapsed building. In the process of climbing up the fallen wall, Cortez popped his head out of the window.
“Awaken!” the man with the book called out. The man raised his white gloved hand dramatically. Apricot can discern a star embroidered on the back of a man’s hand. He pointed his middle and index fingers toward the sky as a bolt of lightning struck in the middle of the stone circle. The winds grew stronger, pushing him back with their force.
Ritualists struggled to remain steadfast against the winds. A man stumbled, and his black slacks catch fire immediately. His screams of horror escaped his mouth as the flames engulfed him. Then he splattered like a grape when he fell to the ground. His remains colliding with another person, who blows to pieces without a word.
Shiori watched Cortez as he looked down at the site. The Cortez tugged at the black leather strap of his gun. “I guess you’re not going to do anything.” he said.
Shiori firmly slapped the gun down from Cortez’s arm. “We’re too late,” he said. “There is no stopping it now.”
“To hell with that! I am going to shoot them!” Cortez gritted as he pulled the gun from Shiori’s arm. But before he could aim, he was yanked backwards by Apricot. “Shit!” he shouted.
This caused a ritualist to glance up, their clothes igniting and their flesh turning to a shadow in the blaze. In addition to the ritualist’s shadows, others also form around the ring of fire, encircling the flames. “He’s right, we can’t take the risk.” The shadows took a variety of forms but their black silhouettes become more pronounced as the event continues. Their voices grow deeper, stronger, and more powerful as they chant with the others. “What is happening?” Apricot whispered.
Gritting his teeth, Shiori stared at the event. “Not sure. Nevertheless, it is a seal.” The fires grew hotter, pushing hard enough to drive the ritualists away. Even the caller leading the ritual is pushed by the growing force. “Ahhhh!” he writhed as his cheeks bled, his blood streaming in sloppy streams.
As ghostly spirits flew about in a smog-like haze, blue waves of light rose from the circle. Floating about the fires, their faces are twisted and turned into skeletal shapes. As though it were made of disturbed waters, the ring’s center ripples. Rising from inky blackness was a massive wad of bodies curled into each other. Their decomposing forms store in all directions. They appeared saturated in a blood-red gel. Apricot’s stomach twitched. She smelled rotten rice as she looked at the corpses.
Apart from one standing caller, all the other ritualists collapsed at the sight. Their entrails flapping in the wind like tassels. He stopped an even stronger blast of wind by raising his hand in front of him. “Why don’t you submit to me?!” He screamed.
“We are the dead of this city. It is the blood in your veins which buries us here. We were the sacrifice that brought your family power. Now you are trying to exploit us again. Let us slumber below the city. Let us rest.” A thousand voices of men, women, and children cried out.
“I offer you revenge. I’ll release you. Use that opportunity to destroy the Okabe family! Ruin this retched city! Kill Lady Kyo! Do not deny me!” the man yelled. “My vengeance is yours to have! Avenge my father, Lord Heigia, and I give you this! A time to feast upon those who have soiled you, who have brought this upon you.”
“It was you who brought us all here, on a leash,” the wad of corpses replied. “Let us slumber! In peace!” The flames intensified, the faces of the dead flickering away just as quickly as they appeared.
Apricot’s heart aches from the terror. She placed her hand on her chest to feel it pound. “How interesting.” Apricot glanced at Shiori, whose eyes are full of wonder. Shiori’s jaw is squared with determination. He was wearing a new mask, as though he was more curious than upset about the situation.
Cortez must have noticed it too, as he replied, “The hell is interesting about this! Let’s stop it before it’s too late.”
“You don’t even understand.” Shiori whispered. “You have no clue what has just occurred.”
“No, so fill me in?” Cortez growled.
All the while, the man pleaded with the abomination. “Those are the spirits who were sacrificed to create this city.”
Apricot was reminded of Chino’s story. “Are these really the people who died in the Crisis?”
Shiori softly replied, “Mhmmm.” She had not meant to speak and didn’t even realize she had.
“Who is that?” Cortez asked, pointing ahead. Apricot saw a person running down the road to the other side of the circle in a cloak. Shiori stood up to get a better view. It’s clear the man performing the ritual noticed the stranger as his eyes grew so wide he nearly fell over.
“Violator!” the ritualist roared. Outside the circle, the person slammed their hand into the ground. Embers of light rippled surrounding the ring before Shiori and the ritualist screamed, “NO!” There was a blinding light emanating from the center of the ring as Shiori grabbed Apricot and Cortez, pulling them flat against the building floor.
Everything rumbles with a loud boom. Apricot’s ears rung as though she just heard a bomb go off when the vibration rattled her to the bone. Shiori was pulling Apricot off the ground and screaming something but it’s muffled after the light faded out. Cortez also looked dazed like a zombie.
With his rod stabbed into the brick, Shiori raised the rod up in the air, the rings rattling with a strange force. Stabilizing himself, he held her arm. He said, “Get up! Get up! We got to run!” Apricot heard him roar as he pulled her away from the ground. “Get up!”
Flames of purple engulf Apricot’s vision. The radiance engulfs her entire body. She feels Shiori take a step back away from her. Nodding her head to Shiori, she stumbles forward. Turning away from her, he runs down the building’s side. Apricot is close behind him. She looks back to see Cortez staring at the beam shining from the circle from above as she remembers him. “Cortez!” She screams out. Due to the rumbling sounds and paranormal screams, her voice did not carry over the perpetual thunder.
Running up the side of the building she grabbed onto Cortez’s arm. “Leave him!” Shiori shouted. Apricot yanked on his arm, pulling Cortez along with her. As soon as Cortez comes to his senses, he starts running down the building closely behind Apricot.
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