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The Grand Shrine
The morning sun greeted the train as it traveled along its channel. Apricot carefully navigated the length of black grooved rubber floor toward Cortez’s usual spot while avoiding the sporadic bob of the floor. The doors opened to find it empty, much to her disappointment. The other night, he appeared pretty upset. The feeling of guilt engulfed her as she wondered whether she should have followed him. Apricot approached the weathered seat where he usually rests. She felt the blue vinyl seat was cold as she placed her fingers on it.
As Cortez did, she lay on it, resting her head against the window. She occupied too much room she thought to herself. One part of her hoped that his action would persuade him to keep her away from what was hers. Apricot found herself in deep thought while tracing the lines on the window. Suddenly, she felt overwhelmed. Her mind was racing with thoughts of ghosts and cults, of Cortez, his father. Her attention was drawn to a spot on the metal paneling that had been scratched – probably with a knife. When she ran her fingers over the strange texture, she could tell that something was written. On the cut metal, someone had carved the words “Old Shrine On A Hill.” Apricot let out a yawn and straightened up. Now she knew where she was going.
There is not much of a hike between the train station and the shrine. It is surrounded by hilly terrain and outskirt huts and shacks. The roadside is lined with many trees that are not trimmed and are unkempt. Sculptures depicting crude bulbus-headed people line the dirt and brick pathways. They have traditionally been used to guide the dead to the afterlife and are known as spirit guardians. Moss has heavily grown over the statues and are unmaintained. Candles once held in their hands had all melted and congealed between their round feet.
There was an old shrine on the hill that is known as the shrine of the forgotten god. This shrine was mentioned in Cortez’s father’s notes she remembered. As Apricot looked up she could see the entrance to the shrine. Colored in red with black accents, the gate appeared to strike against the clear blue sky.
As Apricot climbed the stairs she could not help but remember an old adage she was taught. Shrines traditionally had fewer than a hundred steps. The Uchella believed that a spirit couldn’t ascend more than one hundred steps and thus be damned forever to wander the earth. Apricot figured there were over a hundred as she climbed to the top. At the shrine’s reach, there was a clearing in front of the small hall. Apricot proceeded through the rustic gateway entering the courtyard of white polished stone. There she saw Cortez resting on his knees in front of the hall of worship. As Apricot saw the reaper’s body lying on the steps of the hall, she was shocked.
Cortez turned slowly as Apricot’s feet clicked on the dusty stone floor. “Cortez? ” His eyes had life but turned away once he saw that it was Apricot who had approached to examine the reaper’s avatar.
“Saw my note on the train. Surprised you came. Cortez’s voice is monotone and uninterested as he remarks, “It seems like you care about me after all.”
Despite being offended by Cortez’s remark, she carried herself over to the pair and kneeled beside him. “What does that mean?”
Patting the floor next to him, Apricot falls to her knees. “It’s nothing.” There, claw fingers, lay the reaper, or at least his attire, because now the body slumbered. Clothing hung on him like one would expect it to rest on a manacan. He wore a mask that covered his face and exposed his unnaturally textured skin. It was smooth and had no pours.
“Why are you here?” she asks, placing her hand on Cortez’s.
As he closes his fingers around Apricot’s, he smiles. “I wanted to see if the reaper would talk to me again.”
“How did you know he would be here?”
Cortez smirked. “He told us when we met him he would be here. Seems he is not here right now or sleeping. I am not sure how these kinds of things work.” Apricot remembered some garble that he said about the hill, but who could make out half of what he said. Cortez’s face grew real serious. “It looked like a terrible place when I peered inside that pit. It looked like an endless tower of pain. When I looked at it, I couldn’t stop gazing at it. Seeing it, it seemed to welcome me. Had you not… perhaps I would have jumped in.”
Apricot shuddered at the imagery used bringing back dreams she had. “What do you mean by a tower?”
“It was like looking up from the bottom of a tower, but I was only looking down. It was as if I was upside down. Cortez shivers as he said, “I can’t explain it, but those spirits being awoken were in agony.”
“We need you Cortez. Don’t do anything stupid like that.” Apricot softly uttered.
Cortez shook his head. “You don’t need me. Even if you did, it would not matter.” Tears flowed down his cheeks. “There is no way we can win. It is us against another world, Apricot, and the powers of this one too. We are fighting with gods. What are we even doing?” Cortez yelled getting to his feet. “What the hell are we even doing? Do you know! Does Shiori know! Cause I sure as hell feel like I am fighting against the night with a damn candle. The night, Apricot, is impossible to defeat. It comes whether or not you like it.”
“Thou are wrong.” As the reaper leaped up, he stirred slightly sitting upon his heels startling the pair. “Their window of opportunity is closing swiftly.” he continued. “Cortez, thou hast help me greatly. Alas, I am dying and I doubt I remain through to the end. The Okabe hast one last ritual to mere their devastation upon the orb. They are preparing now at their shrine. This is the broil for the orb. Mercy Cortez, for sustaining me for as long as thou hast. Hie doth this one last office for me. Apricot, thou hast awoken greatly since we first met. Thy power is growing. Seek to merge yourself. The victory is at hand. I hast one last crave ere I might not but rest. Seek out the destroyer of the seals and forbear him. If the devil occulted below the town is unleashed, all shall be lost.” Lowering down again, the reaper rested forward.
Cortez shouted, “Wait I have questions!”
“Thou go as I gentle down,” he said before returning to his usual resting position on the ground.
His chin dropped as he gritted his teeth. As he shook the lifeless body back and forth, he grabbed the sides of the reaper. “Tell me, damn it! Tell me what it was I saw? Gawd damn it! Why? Why is everyone ignoring me? What do I have to do?!” yelled Cortez, slamming his fist into the reaper’s body. His fist pounded on it again and again. He was pulled back by Apricot. She looked down to see his bloody knuckles. “Why won’t anyone explain to me what is going on?”
Apricot stepped behind Cortez. “I have felt the same way from day one Cortez.” she sniffs. “Look this is a burden on everyone. However, this is coming to a head. The reaper is not lying. The Okabe family is preparing for a ritual tonight. This is why I came to get you.” Cortez turned from Apricot, staring down at the reaper that lay strewn on the ground with the appearance of death. “I have a feeling the reaper has been at work on our behalf for a long time, Cortez. Come on, let’s go. He is not around right now.”
“I gave my blood to him.” Cortez roared. “The least the leech can do is answer my questions.” He lifted his coat sleeve and showed the strange symbols and markings on his arm. “I was feeding him to keep him alive. He never answers me. He only gives me a comment or thanks.”
Apricot felt sick to her stomach. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since he first appeared to us.” Cortez got up and turned around.
“Let’s go tell the others what the reaper said. We need as many people as we can get to stop them.” Cortez blew a puff of air. His arm is grabbed by Apricot, who leads him next to her as they return to the train station.
“I’m not going, Apricot.”
She did not even look at him as she stopped in her tracks. “I can’t convince you, can I?”
Turning around, Cortez let go of her hand. “I am sorry.”
An improvised bomb, a case of ammunition, and several rifles are arranged on top of the table. In a nearby corner are several clips marked in red. In addition to the body armor, there are pads and other gadgets. Akagi gocked at the pile with wide eyes. “Wo which one do I get?” He asked, playing with the weapons.
“Nothing.” Shiori laughed. Akagi looked up pouting. “You don’t have time to fight because you have an important job.”
Togashi slumps against the wall. Across from him, Apricot sits at a desk, arms folded. Sumai examines the items on the table. Sumai picks up a rifle to feel its weight. “Yeah, this is solid stuff, Shori boy.” Junko stands across from Shiori next to the others.
“Are we doing this really?” Junko asked with a down-turned mask of horror.
Shiori smiles. “Don’t look so grim. We are only about to become fugitives.” Shiori joked. “Look, I don’t want to do this either. However, the price of not doing it means everyone in the city will die for sure. Maybe even everyone in the world. We have no clue what a new world means. If this ritual is complete, it is clear that something bad will happen to everyone except Kyo and her wicked ilk.” Shiori rose from the table standing in front of the group. “If you don’t want to do this. I won’t blame any of you.”
“Hmmm, well, it ends on the road no matter what.” Togashi chuckled. “I help. Fixed up caustic bullet like you ask.” He pointed to a plastic container of bullets. “Don‘t touch with bare hand, wear rubber glove. They burn flesh. I made strong. Quick kill.” Togashi shifted his shirt collar as he cleared his throat. “I don‘t like at all.”
“If I got a chance to kill one of them assholes, I will take it. Teach them a lesson for what they did to my daughter.” Sumai’s vicious grin made Apricot feel relieved not to be on her bad side any longer.
She couldn’t be silent any longer. Though the lump in her throat made her feel a bit sick. “I’ll help. I don’t want to kill anyone though.” Apricot commented.
Junko nodded in agreement. “I will,” she replied hoarsely. “There is no other way.” She picks up a rifle and looks down its sights. “I haven’t shot a gun for a long time. Would you mind if I went to the range before we started?”
“Go ahead. Don’t get caught.” Shiori chirped. “So we are all in agreement. Alright. Here is my plan. Apricot you will stay in the shadows. I want you to be there to protect us from any phantoms that may come out from their ritual or maybe guardians of the clan. Sumai, Junko, Togashi, I want you to be cover fire. When things go down, there will be guards. I want you to keep them away from Kyo. If you have a shot on Kyo kill her. Kill her first. She is priority one.” Shiori growled.
“What about me?” Akagi moaned. “I want to help too. I don’t want my family to die. I want to fight Shiori.”
Looking over at Akagi, he smiled. “You are going to have the most important job. I want you to hack the security systems. I also want you to keep the lights off of us and on them. On top of that, I want you to jam their broadcasts. If you can also manage to keep us anonymous during this, that would be great. I am counting on you so don’t screw it up.”
Despite his nervousness, Akagi nodded. “I, that, that is a lot of things to do.”
“If anyone can do it, it is you, Akagi.” Junko gently placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Yeah, you think so?”
As she looks at the table, Apricot sighs. “So, what are we doing after? Do we wait for them to arrest us? What is the end game Shiori?”
“The end game, is we stop the Okabe from this ritual. I have arranged for several cars to pick us up. There will be so many arriving it will be impossible to track any particular vehicle. I bought a secured apartment on the outskirts of town. I have owned it for years. It is nothing special, but I fortified it and it’s anonymous. We will hide out there. If that fails I have a second location we can hide in. It is quite literally a bunker. These two locations will serve as our new HQs until we clean up the rest of this mess. I will clear all our names. Even still, the Kinjo clan will come to my aid if need be. That includes all of you. As a last-ditch effort, we can leave Okabe if necessary. So don’t worry.”
“What about before then?” Apricot asked.
“We will be considered terrorists.” Shiori firmly stated. “So let’s save the world at sunset. You know where to meet up.”
The shrine of the Okabe family stands in the center of the city. Gold lines the slanted roofs and towering pillars, and the light from the shrine shone almost supernaturally. Apricot was reminded of a torch burning with golden light. In an interesting blend of modern and historic architecture, the ornate building stood in contrast to the skyscrapers surrounding the temple court.
The temple courtyard has a large circle of candles at the center of which Kyo sits. Kneeling, she wears a crimson red dress lined with gold, black, and red stripes. Her head is crowned with silver pieces. The hair is kept loose so as not to obscure her eyes. A variety of metal charms and jewels adorn her. An elaborate headcover trails down her back. The gold and silver bands that adorn her wrists sparkle majestically. Her lips were painted red, and her eyes were outlined in black.
Men wearing black and red robes swing metal baskets around the ring while incense burns in their long chains. Flames from the candles flash purple and blue as they burn. Kyo whispers something to herself quietly. A large number of armed soldiers are posted around the courtyard wearing heavy black armor.
After hearing Shiori’s shoes click through the main entrance, Kyo looked up from the bowl in front of her. Her mouth drops open in a smile seeing Shiori in a white suit with a blue tie. “Shiori Kinjo, prince of the Kinjo clan. I expected you to arrive,” she said calmly. Shiori watched the soldiers aim their guns at him as he scanned the vast shrine. As Kyo raised her hand, she stood up. “It’s ok. Don’t worry. We finally get to meet.”
“Nice ritual you got going on. It looks like this is the final act of our drama. However, I noticed something. I wonder where your sacrifices are.” Shiori remarked snidely.
“It appears as if it has just arrived. Now, Shiori. How foolish do you think I am; to just allow you to walk in here with no one stopping you. I thought you were a smarter man. Now please come calmly. Arrest him.”
The armored soldiers approach Shiori. In a split second, he glances at them before switching back to Kyo. When your back is against the wall, it’s all or nothing, Kyo. It isn’t wise to trap noble beasts.” Shiori grinned as he drew his pistol from his undercoat. He fires a single bullet out of the barrel of the gun. The bullet hit an armored soldier squarely in his chest as he dove to cover Kyo. When it was time for the other soldiers to fire, Shiori tumbled to the ground. Shiori roared, “Come get it!”.
At first, Kyo gazed in horror at Shiori nearly killing her. “What do you expect to accomplish Shiori? You cannot win this fight!” she screamed.
In the shadow of a skyscraper, Akagi rested his feet on the edge, allowing them to dangle. In his arm, he held a laptop. From his vantage point so high above the shrine’s walls, he saw the court in full view. The entire drama had been played out before him. Throughout the soldiers’ encirclement of Shiori, Agaki glided his fingers over the keys of his laptop. “It looks like it’s action time,” he said with a smirk. From the window, he saw a live news feed reporting power outages in the city. His plot has been carefully crafted. Infecting everything connected to the national database with his own worm, he tunneled through the Okabe network.
Adding a few lines of code to his computer, Akagi commented, “I hope you’re ready for a light show.” All lights in the shrine are turned out. Even the front end of the shrine had been dimmed. The automatic doors and gates to the shrine are all opened. “Alright!” Agaki cheered.
An armored soldier yelled, “Oh shit, I can’t see.” He ripped off his helmet. The other soldiers follow taking their helmets off as well. All of the soldiers look exactly the same like clones of one another.
Taking a step back, Kyo looked at the captain. “What is going on?” The lights on Shiori dim as well. In a ring around Kyo, the guards use their bodies as shields.
The captain of the guard said to Kyo, “My lady, we must end the ritual and leave now.”
From the shrine’s wall, shots come from every direction. In a kneeling position, Togashi aimed his sights down at the soldiers. A motorcycle’s roar could be heard as Junko rides through the gates. With her hair flying, Sumai sat on the back of the bike. She pulled back on the trigger of her gun, unleashing a torrent of bullets at the group. “Die imp bastards!” she shouted with a gleeful laugh.
Around the shrine, the soldiers return fire. As Shiori’s group moved, strobe lights appeared behind them. “Damn it! I can’t see!” Another soldier cried as their shots missed their moving targets under the cover of the shifting light.
In the distance, Sumai watched as the soldiers moved in a circle to the rear of the shrine. By a large gateway, she saw that there are a couple of other guards awaiting the group. “Junko!” she exclaims. “Kyo is trying to escape through the back.”
Junko acknowledged her with a small “Mmm.” She immediately turned her attention to the exit, rushing around the side of the shrine while narrowly avoiding being shot. Sumai fired at Kyo’s guards as they passed by them on their way to the exit. The soldiers rushed for cover with Kyo as bullets hurtled down the courtyard. Grabbing a pair of small rods from the side of the bike, Sumai tossed them at the exit. The rods instantly burst into flames, lighting a few of the guards.
Those who were wounded on the ground started smoking. When the other soldiers are caught in the fresh plumes, the air itself corrodes their armor, melting it against their skin. In response to the acid breeze’s assault, they screamed.
“I’ve had enough!” Kyo shouted, raising both arms in the air. Suddenly, a black dot appeared on the ground. A creepy creature emerged from the pool of darkness that had formed before Kyo. “Help me, guardians of the forbidden. Come help me protect this child.” The being’s body was twisted in all the wrong directions. Besides its chest, its pelvis resembled a man with sharp teeth, its legs resembled those of a bird. Its body was like that of a man, its arms resembled hooks, and its head is nothing more than a snapping mouth. Approximately ten feet tall, the abomination stood on four legs.
“What is that thing?” Apricot asked herself as she charged out of the dark with her rapier in hand. Her body flared in flames as she ran at the creature. Due to her unnatural speed, she collided with the beast with her blade knocking them backward with the force of her piercing blow.
“There’s my witch,” Kyo thought to herself. The smile on her face intensified. After Apricot stabbed the creature in the leg, it did not have much time to react. The monster attempted to escape by swinging its hooks at Apricot. Ultimately, she dived back to avoid being knocked down. The creature helped itself up by stabbing its spire into the ground, pushing itself up. Apricot struck again, landing a blow right in its chest eye. It broke away from her, the sword still embedded deep in, sizzling as it burned. Instantly, the weapon burst into flames. As soon as it hit the ground, the creature broke into cinders.
“Kyo give up!” Shiori said. “Nothing you can do now.” The guards were still wailing in agony as the acid ripped through them. What few guards she left flanked Kyo.
Kyo laughed as the circle glows brightly. “You fool,” she laughed.
Apricot felt a sense of burning wash over her. Below her, the ground was distorted and radiating. “Shiori something is wrong!” she screamed. It felt as if she was slipping into shadows and sinking. It was as if they were gripping her. As the demons from her dreams clawed at her, she became paralyzed with fear. Shiori ran quickly, he caught Apricot, lifting her out of the strange darkness that had appeared in front of her. Her eye catches sight of someone jumping from the wall. It is a man in black who is running to the edge of the circle. “Shiori? Who is that?that?that?“ she asked. Shiori turned his head. Apricot knew instantly from the look in his eyes that something was wrong. She took a few seconds to get up. In a half-drag, they run toward the entrance with him pulling her.
Other entities began to rise from the circle in swarms as the cloaked person placed his hand on the circle. Kyo‘s group was left fighting these entities as the shadows tell the story of their attackers. Apricot stopped to look but Shiori kept pulling her. “We have to get out of here!”
Shiori had hardly finished speaking when the ring lit up. As a pillar of shadow rises from the circle, a loud sound is heard before the shadows immediately fall, turning the circle into a pit. There was an ear-shattering roar coming from the circle as the group made their way to the parking lot. The group was greeted by a swarm of cars. As they piled into one of the cars, Shiori said, “Let’s get out of here.”
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