Hello everyone, I am Jayce Ran. I view myself as an entertainer of sorts working through the medium of fiction. Through my work, I hope to not only create compelling stories but a discussion on society in general. No, I am not an activist of any kind but rather a philosopher of nothing in particular.
It was a quiet room. In the middle of a cluttered apartment, Shiori lay on an office desk. Apricot held onto his curled hand, looking at him with grief. Although he still wore a tough expression, his subtle winces revealed his true feelings. His clothes had been peeled away from his side, exposing ribs that breach through a sea of black and blue. Fresh snowy towels rested under his back as a steady stream of blood pooled there. Several boxes are scattered around the office. They bear labels and logos Apricot could not read. On another desk, a set of monitors showed live data from the stock market and news in green and red numbers. On the other side of the room are a refrigerator and a small kitchen. Blinds were drawn, allowing only a slight amount of light into the room. As a makeshift operation room fixture, two incandescent lights adorn the ceiling above Shiori. A man in a brown shirt and black pants walked out of the kitchen, pinging a needle.
“Looks like we match now.” Apricot joked.
As Shiori turned his head he grumbled, “Not half as much but yeah, I really wish I did not. This will slow me down.”
Apricot smirked, trying to conceal her worry. “You better not. I won’t be carrying you again.” With a slight chuckle, Shiori winced, letting out a grunt.
The man showed Shiori the needle. Apricot noted how long the thing is, about six inches, as she estimates. “This should alleviate your discomfort,” he said. With a haphazard maneuver, the man stuck Shiori in the side. Volting up, he let out a loud yell. As he lies back on the table, he gritted his teeth and let out a few huffs of pain. “You could have told me the damn thing would feel like a spear injecting lava into me.” Shiori let out a huff.
“Mam, you’re not going to want to see the rest of this. I got to ask you to step outside while I get more acquainted with Lord Kinjo’s insides.” Apricot glanced at Shiori who gave her a confident nod.
Immediately following surgery, Apricot helped Shiori into a black sports car that had just arrived. When Apricot had him seated in the passenger seat, she moved to the driver’s side. Apricot thought to herself, He looked awful. Zonked out for much of the ride. His eyes were barely opened, heavy with sedation. On Shinjo Street, she expected the car to stop in front of the Spook House. Rather than approaching the main entrance, it traveled around the back. Apricot was not even aware of the second entrance. The black sports car entered the hidden carport. As the platform raises to the next floor, metal clanking can be heard. A well-organized garage was revealed.
As the car rested inside Apricot looked over at Shiori who did not even know where he was. She stepped out of the car and walked to the other side. Lifting the latch of the black car, she looked down at Shiori, who is nearly frothing at the mouth. He had a dead look in his blue eyes. He mumbled, “Don’t let my teeth fall out of my face.” Apricot couldn’t help but smirk at the odd comment, and at the same time, it was difficult to see him in such a vulnerable state.
The young woman, with her head lowered under his armpit, jokingly said, “Come on, Prince Kinjo.” She lifted him to his feet and assisted him out of the vehicle. It was obvious to her that he was limp and almost fell to the ground. As she braced herself against the car, Shiori was held upright. “Shiori, get up.”
As he slumped over her body, he commented, “Maid lady, my legs feel like jelly.” Apricot let out a sigh as she yanked him from the car toward a pair of polished metal doors. The design reminded her of a pair of elevator doors. “You are a pretty handsy lady, has anyone told you that miss?” Shiori mumbled. The comment made her blush. Once the doors were close enough, they automatically opened, revealing an attractive living room.
As Apricot looked at the ornate decor, her eyes wandered. “Shiori, you have too much money for your own good.” Everything appeared to have a baroque style. The furniture is likely custom-made for him and is one of a kind.
“I would be flattered but a common maid isn’t hard to impress.” A surge of anger overtook Apricot as she nearly fell to the ground, feeling Shiori’s chuckles. However, as she watched him, it was obvious he had no idea where he was or what was going on.
“So where is your room, Mr. Royalty?” Apricot asked dryly.
“Hmmm, that sounds nice. It’s down the hall, anyway.” She’s not sure what he meant by that, but she didn’t really care. A hallway at the back of the marble-floored room led to the other side of the apartment. After walking down the hall, she looked in the first door to see Shiori’s study. The study was a typical high-end office with a great view of the city.
As Apricot walked to the back of the hall, she groaned, “You’re getting fat.” Pushing open the wooden door, she is surprised to find a plain room. The room has a bed in the middle, a vanity against a wall, and an open closet. “I didn’t expect it to be this modest.” Apricot remarked.
She left his room once Shiori was on his bed, allowing him to rest. She marveled at his living room. He had one of the largest personal book collections she had ever seen. Neither a television nor a computer are present in the room. By contrast, the other side of the building had a clear view of the town from its mirror-glazing windows.
While browsing through the books on the large shelf, Apricot picked up a random work. She mouthed the words “The Cihilbil” but had no idea how to pronounce them. The cover was woven, and the pages looked old. Though she had never heard of the title before, she figured it would be a good way to kill some time.
Taking a seat in a leather armchair, she rested both of her legs on the side of the seat. When she reached the first pages of the book, she pawed through the filler pages. As she read the old fairytale, she watched the sun move across the sky. The story is about an arrogant woman who wished to make the prince of the land fall victim to a faerie’s spell. To Apricot, the story is strange. In the story, an unwanted lover repeatedly tried to steal the woman away. It turned out that the unwanted lover was the faerie’s brother. She was deeply invested in the book when a voice broke her concentration. “You’re still here.” Apricot looked up to see Shiori’s dazed gaze meet hers. She nods. “Why?”
The book was placed on her lap as she closed it. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Yeah, I am,” Shiori said. Shiori breathed deeply as he entered the room. “A lot of books, huh?”
“Yeah, it is.” Apricot could tell she was still fumed a little about his maid comment. “I was just reading the Khialbil.”
“Syolbel.” Shiori corrected her on the pronunciation.
Apricot rolled her eyes, “Right.”
“The importance of knowledge cannot be overstated. That distinguishes us from the commoners. The common folk do not seek knowledge, they are content with their lives. Nobles, however, have a duty to guide the masses with their knowledge. It’s not an easy task.” Shiori mused.
Apricot got up from the chair and placed the book back on the shelf. “So what about the guy who is breaking the seals? I can’t find anything about him. Trust me, I have been looking too. Though I found some stuff about the ancient seals. Seems they were used in old times for rituals.”
“I know that troubles me as well. Two more seals were broken after that first one. The whole world noticed. The Okabe family doesn’t even care to hide it anymore. But how can you explain that? Nothing, short of a missile, could explain that kind of event.” Apricot nodded. As Shiori traces his fingers over the spines of books, he rests his hand on a book. “I don’t like the recent developments,” he muttered. “It’s all too public. It won’t be long before Kyo musters the effort to deal with us. The only thing holding her back is my lineage. After she forgets that for a moment, she’ll be on us fast. That machine…”
“What happens if all the seals break?” Shiori did not reply, instead, he kept his gaze on the books. “Shiori what happens if all the seals break?” Apricot asked louder, a bit more authoritatively.
His lips are slightly smirked. “Funny thing, I don’t know. What happens next is a mystery to me. My life was spent studying the mystic arts because I was to become the high priest of the Kinjo Clan. However, I learned that my grandfather had other plans for me. To foil the Okabe’s plans if they tried to carry them out again, he asked me to keep an eye on them in secret.”
Apricot leaned her back against the bookshelf. “Come clean, Shiori. What are the Okabe family’s plans?”
Shiori glances at Apricot but keeps his face turned away from her. “Well, I guess you might as well know everything. A whole new world. This world is going to disappear. Since ancient times, the Okabe family has been a death cult. The war between Uchella and Okabe was settled by treaty. There has been conflict between us for a long time. Legend has it that the Okabe family would summon spirits and monsters from other worlds to fight on their behalf. They wanted a machine to bring forth a new world, but they never succeeded. Neither did they find the devil or the god they sought. Most of the seals were here before the Blue Ash Crisis. Each seal was built up after a sacrifice. This is where their power comes from. In order to protect the seals, buildings are built around them. Make them the center of attention. With only two left, they may be preparing to release something. Perhaps they wanted to make a pact with that god or devil. That is for sure. Some kind of powerful being that has been bound for a long time will be released when they are broken.”
“That’s terrible.” She uttered the words without thinking. Apricot walked a few steps as she mused about what all that meant. As if it mattered at all. Nothing made sense to her. How could they possibly do this? Then another question occurred to her. “What if it’s not the Okabe family destroying seals? What if it’s someone else?”
“What some loner destroying the Okabe family seals.” Shiori contemplates the thought for a few moments. “That might be worse. Could be some crazy who wants to unleash some sort of ancient evil on the world?”
“If the seals are the Okabe family’s source of power, if they broke them wouldn’t that take the Okabe family out of the picture?” Apricot suggested.
Shiori shook his head. “Whoever the seal breaker is, someone must stop him.”
“Then we stop them both. The Okabe family and the seal breaker. Both must be intertwined in some way.”
Shiori snickered. “You might be right.”
Several large monitors provide dim illumination in the room. The room is strung with cables, and several servers are stacked along the walls. The fight Apricot and Shiori had with the Volkner suit was observed from several perspectives by a few men in suits, a pair of officers, and Empress Kyo. Emperor Kyo watches as Apricot’s arm erupts in flames. A man gasps, “A witch!”
Kyo claps her hands as a smile slowly spreads across her face. The pupil of the Azul around her neck becomes darker until it almost covers the whole eye. “I found you, my witch. Right on time.” Kyo whispers.
Apricot chatted with the guests at the Spook House as she sat at the bar. Meanwhile, Shiori read a book while hanging out behind the bar, while peppering the conversation with off-color comments. As Apricot glanced up, she saw a figure behind the glass doors with a thick file of papers in his arm. The figure is revealed to be Cortez as he opened the front doors. Shiori glanced up from his book. “So you finally scampered on over.” Moving toward the end of the bar, Cortez slammed the file against the bar. Shiori reached over and placed his hands on the papers. “So what is this?”
Cortez hardly glanced at Shiori. “I am done.” He uttered in a calm voice.
“What does that mean?” Shiori grunted. That didn’t sit well with Apricot. Cortez’s face is so dead. They hadn’t spoken since the incident. In fact, she hadn’t even thought about him. Guilt gripped her. That night, he was terrified. Images of him gazing into that light flashed through her mind.
Suddenly, Cortez’s dead eyes opened. “The hell you think it means. I am done.”
He walked away from the bar in the direction of the exit. Shiori quickly grabbed hold of Cortez’s shoulder as he slid over the bar. “Who said you could be done?”
His hand was thrown off by Cortez as he yelled, “I am tired!” which caused everyone in the room to become quiet. “I’m done,” he said, looking back at Apricot. “And you, Apricot, you should be too.”
As Shiori raised his posture, he glanced down at the file, placing his fingers on it. “Okay. Leave.” Shiori watched Cortez walk out of the room with a crooked smile on his face. “Come help me out with this Apricot.” Shiori lifted the file, taking it into the back room with him.
“What am I your assistant now?” Apricot retorted.
Shiori chuckled, “Hardly honey, you’re not cut for the pedigree.”
Multiple documents and notes covered the table, detailing a large network of abductions, sacrifices, tunnels beneath the city, and paranormal activities. In addition, there are notes about the practices and purposes of the rituals. There are numerous photographs of crime scenes in the folder that make Apricot’s stomach turn. Documents are littered with images of open bodies, animal mutilations, and sights around the city where these events took place.
“Shiori listen to this,” Apricot said, reading the paper. “Having witnessed the circles of power in the city, I am convinced that these are ancient monuments. It is through these places that sacrifice is most commonly performed in the city. Those who practice sacrifices claim to do so in the service of the “Black God.” The group that practices these rituals lives below the city. According to their beliefs, the “Black God” founded this city and brought with him prosperity for the small village that existed here before.”
“As I study the papers of Uraias Hilderic, I am becoming increasingly confident that he understood these ancient myths, which was why he chose this site for the Blue Ash project. In my opinion, the circles of power serve to bind the black god to this world. As a result, I am becoming suspicious of the Okabes. It is impossible to ignore the fact that they are at the very least aware of the cult’s activities if not direct participants. The files on Uraias Hilderic have been destroyed. Except for the few documents listing him as the Blue Ash project’s head, there are no public records for this man.”
“If everything I have discovered is true, Uraias Hilderic survived the explosion and is leading the cult’s activities below the city. My suspicion is that these arcane rituals are used by the nobles of Uchella to introduce a new world into existence. It’s a term that keeps popping up. Is it possible they intend to create a new world apart from this one? This appears to be their intention from the way they speak about it. Nonetheless, there are key places around the city that have been designated as sites for the beginning of this new world. Although I have no idea why they choose the sites they do, it is clear they have a method and a reason for doing so. As I learn more about these sites, I will continue to investigate them.”
Shiori smiled. “These documents are what we have been searching for. No wonder Cortez hates the nobles. Pull up a chair honey because by the end of the night we will have read through all these,” Apricot affirms.
Apricot gathered that the phantoms were caused by this cult’s activities. These entities are drawn to this world because the power the cult possesses comes from their world. Among the cult’s goals is merging between worlds to become gods, creating a new world to rule, and sacrificing this world to achieve that. Cortez’s father never figured out how they achieve these things, but he assumed the rituals they perform today are similar if not the same as ancient ones.
Sleepily, Apricot lay in a heap of papers. A small stream of spittle trickled across the papers, slightly wetting them. Her eyes opened to dusty documents and horrific photographs in front of her. After pushing herself up from the table, she sat up straight. She opened her eyes wide and let out a huge yawn as she took her first look around. Still looking at documents, Shiori sat in a corner. Looking at the paper, he commented, “You are up.”
“Sorry.” Apricot apologized. “I did not mean to nod off like that. How long was I out for?”
Shiori smirked. “Several hours. I got some coffee brewing in the kitchen. If you want me to grab you some, I would be happy to.”
Apricot shook her head. “Nah, I think I will step out and get some fresh air though.” She thought to herself that was unusually kind of Shiori.
Shiori nodded his head. “There is news.” Apricot looked up. “Kyo is having a ceremonial dedication tonight.”
When Apricot got up, she stepped over to Shiori who was looking at his phone, where he had a message from Akagi. “What does that mean?”
“Means they are making their move,” Shiori said. “Akagi got all the information on it. They wanted to keep it secret, and they brought several sacrifices for this ritual. However, I think it is a bait to draw us out.”
Apricot shrugged. “Bait to draw us out? What do you mean?”
“Akagi said they normally encrypt this stuff hard. This, however, was very elementary. It did not even take him any effort to decrypt the message. It’s an invitation to us.” Shiori growls. He places his hand on his chin.
“So, we will ignore it.”
Shiori shakes his head. “No, we can’t. If it is a legit ritual, then this could be game over for us if we don’t stop it. If it is bait, then let’s hope that Kyo is there. Either way, this ends tonight. We can put an end to the Okabe family for good. Their aspirations for a new world, at least. They won’t have another chance like this for a long time.”
“Why?” Apricot asked.
“The alignment between the other world and this one. They are close together dimensionally right now. It is the prime time to perform a ritual. After tonight it gets further and further away meaning the power able to be drawn from it is less and less. At least according to these notes.” Shiori smirked. “So in a way it was meant to be this way. Also, guess where they are having this ritual?”
“Where?” Apricot inquired.
“The grand temple garden. Where the biggest seal is located. It’s the oldest one too. So you know who will show up too. It is flawless. This is where it all comes down.” He gets up from his seat. “While I make preparations, would you mind seeing Cortez for me? He won’t answer my calls. It just goes to voice mail. I’m worried about him.”
“Yeah, I can do that,” Apricot said.
The next chapter is waiting for you, why not read it? Just click the button below to go to the next chapter.
“I don’t know how much more I can take of this.” said one officer to another. “I thought I would be helping people, you know, when I joined the police department. Today it seems like all we do is investigate strange incidents. It’s like this whole city has become the set of some bizarre horror movie.”
“Yeah, first there was the insect swarm, now there are explosions in the ruined part of town. Not to mention the ever-growing population of witches.” Bracing against the wall, the other officer peered around. Swigging his coffee, he continued. “Just be glad, rook, your dispatch. We need to get out and look at this crap. Damn, the city is a madhouse. Last week, I had to deal with people eating each other. People are becoming cannibals. Cannibals! Tch, it’s crazy.”
The younger officer shook his head in disbelief. “Just knowing about all these things is enough to make someone go mad. I never thought the SDP was like this. I imagined we would be going after the more hardened criminals. Not spooks and monsters.”
“You didn’t get the memo kid?” grunts the older officer. “They changed the S to Spectral.” the group of officers laughed. “Sure as hell seems that way at least.”
Over the radio, a voice calls out “Hey, ah, is anyone inside the Valkner room?”
At the desk, the young officer glanced at his display, which showed no heat signatures. He answered, “That’s a negative.”
“Well, there is a lot of noise coming from there. Was one of the Valkners left on?”
“That’s a negative as well. The indicators are displaying them all as inactive.”
“I need backup down here, now. Something is moving around inside that room. It is big and made of metal.”
“I’ll send someone down.” The rookie looks toward the older officer. “Could you?”
“Yeah yeah, I am there.” he retorted, setting his coffee down.
An alarm blared from the console just as the officer was about to leave the room. Looking down at the board, the young officer saw a red light flashing. “Hanger three has just been breached from the inside.”
“Shit, help!” the officer cried out over the radio.
“What the hell is wrong with him?” The words rang in Apricot’s ears. Cortez stared into the pillar of radiance as she gazed up. In addition to the thunder, there were subtle screams. The sensation of her chest pounding was intense. Cortez did little more than moan when she tugged at his arm. Slowly, he turned his head towards her, his eyes brightening with life.
Finally, they were running, following Shiori. The shadows of every object stretched out like long spikes, casting themselves upon every wall. As they raced down the alleyway, they saw the white car approaching. Lights from helicopters streak across the roadways as they give way to the bright night sky.
“What the hell was that! Shiori what was that!” Cortez screams, cowering in the back of the car. While Apricot’s tears were too shellshocked to escape her eyes, she still felt the same anxiety. She hears the car’s roar as it races along the ruined road.
“Things got more complicated,” Shiori whispered.
Cortez shook his head. “What the hell was that?!” Apricot tried to ask the same question, but the words wouldn’t come out. Her throat tightens, and her mouth was dry. “Are you going to say something?” Cortez shouted.
“Yes, I am just thinking.” Shiori calmly said. “That was one of several seals around the city. They are old sights around this region.” Shiori explained. His driving slowed as they arrived on more commonly traveled roads.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean!”
Shiori clears his throat. “I think one of them was just broken.”
The ringing of Apricot’s phone jolted her from her thoughts. Back inside her bedroom, the events of a few weeks ago were still heavy on her mind. Looking down at her table she saw her phone gliding as it vibrated. Grabbing hold of the pink plastic plush case she raised it up to see it was a text from Bonni.
“Wanna do some window shopping?!”
Gunfire echoed in the hall of the SDP’s hanger. Like splattered bugs, the bloody remains of officers are smeared across the pavement. “We must stop it!” shouted an officer hiding behind a support beam. There are two more officers concealed in the adjacent pillar. As the war machine marched down the hallway, the officers keep their pistols pressed against their chests. “These weapons are useless. That is reinforced alloy. We will never be able to penetrate that armor.”.
”What are we supposed to do?” yelled the female officer.
The first officer who was monitoring the machine replied, “We need to run and close the gate.” Looking to his colleagues, he added, “It will give us a few minutes to prepare the special units.”
There was unanimous agreement among the officers. From their cover, they run down the corridor to the end, where the machine lumbers towards them. The female officer reached the other side of the corridor and pressed a memorized set of numbers onto the keypad. A creak accompanied the twin doors as they opened. Watching the doors descend, the machine stopped. “It’s not moving.” said the older officer.
Through the doors, the other officers ran hurriedly. As they stared back at the machine, the metal gates slid shut. “Well, that won’t buy us much time. Especially if it rips through this one like the other two.”
“Let’s get out of here.” suggested the female officer.
A groan could be heard coming from the twin doors as the group turned tail down the corridor. When the officers turned back, they saw the door open once more. The Volkner suit remained where it had been. As the red lights on the suit began to glow again, the female officer exclaimed, “What is this?”
As the suit continues to approach the group, it makes another loud stomp. The older officers shouted, “Run!” as the machine fired its thrusters, leaving a glow of blue-white to burn, propelling itself forward.
It was impossible for Apricot not to see the world differently. Walking down the familiar stretch of shops, her gaze wandered to every corner and every shadow. Her experience was similar to this when she was still in the dark about the phantoms. Just for a few more moments of peace, she denied everything. The darkness had returned. She felt Bonni’s fingers resting on her shoulder. That was comforting. Momentarily at least. Although, the recent events are still ringing in my ears as the local city guard surrounds the quiet mall corridors. Nowadays, instead of police walking around, armored police with long rifles guard each intersection in pairs. On the escalator to the next floor, Bonni said, “I was worried about you.”
“Worried? You?” Apricot asked admiring the murals of party officials lining the walls. “Normally, you are only concerned about yourself, Bonni.”
Bonni’s lips pursed coyly like a cat’s mouth. “Well, I will remember to do it less often,” Apricot smirked. The two shared a giggle for a moment, once it had passed Bonni continued. “So, what is the deal with that cutie Shiori?” Bonni asked, raising an eyebrow. “You two an item?”
Bonni watched Apricot with bulging eyes as she wore a heavy layer of blush on her cheeks. “What!” she barked, shaking her head and lightly tapping Bonni on the shoulder. “It’s not like that. He is just my boss. Nothing more.”
“Really?” Bonni pouted. “What a shame, and here I thought you had landed yourself a fairytale catch. Figures though, I could not see the two of you together, anyway. Common girls like us don’t interest nobles.”
It hurt Apricot to hear those words. While she was a common girl, she never considered that around Shiori. His views on Cortez were influenced by his heritage. Perhaps he felt the same way about her as well. “I think you might be right.”
Bonni gestures towards the skylight in the mall’s center. She asks, “What is that?”
Apricot’s eyes darted up to see a shadow looming over the glassy roof. The shards of glass tumbled down in a brilliant display of crystaline color as the shadow grew. Apricot only had time to raise a hand to her mouth. As the rain of fractures fell, the two girls huddled together, desperate to escape the avalanche. She raised her eyes in surprise when she saw a metallic shadow rising from the rubble. Two long rifles could be seen once it lifted its arms, allowing the glass and framing to cascade from its arms. “Get down!” Apricot shouted before the thunder of bullets rumbled through the environment.
As Apricot leapt over the escalator bars, she grabbed Bonni’s arm. The machine warrior was engaged in combat with several armored police opening fire. Apricot locked her eyes on Bonni who was still curled up on the ground. She places an arm around her screaming “Bonni!”, tugging on her dandy coat. “Get over here!” she ordered, and Bonni complied sheepishly down the escalator. She heard the armored soldiers yelling orders and another gun popping out at the top of the escalator, which she assumed was the police returning fire. A torrent of debris was raining down on the crowd of people on the ground floor. The gunshots have ceased, but the panic has continued. Bonni raised her head to gaze up the escalator as a single whirl, a bullet narrowly missed Bonni. Immediately she fell to her knees. “Bonni! We got to move.” Apricot yelled knowing death was fast approaching. She grasped Bonni’s hand and tried to get her to stand. With one more powerful tug, Bonni was dragged by Apricot like a child.
A soldier gestured in the direction of an emergency exit while shouting, “This way!” Apricot was terrified by the tower-like helmet the man was wearing. With one large red glowing sphere, it looked like a cyclops. Two smaller spheres flanked the larger one in a V-shape. Apricot’s train of thought was interrupted as the man raised his rifle in their direction. Both Apricot and Bonni let out shrieks when he fired a shot past them. Stepping forward, he fired another burst of shots while his gray cape flowed. “Get behind me!” he shouted as he marched past the girls. Apricot glanced back at the Volkner at the top of the stairs. In their direction, she could see the red monocle adjusting its focus and turning its radius.
The large machine turned its body ajar, aiming its right arm at the group. It shot a barrage of bullets that landed all around Apricot and Bonni. The armored soldier dives in front of them, using his own body as a shield. Even though Apricot is almost certain that soldier has just been killed, they had to continue down the hallway. “You stabbed me in the throat!“ Apricot heard a voice groan from within her head. Turning around, she saw the bayonet of the mechanical warrior’s rifle slicing through the soldier. “I shall cleave you in half, servant of the betrayer!” it roared into the small hall causing a painful ringing in Apricot’s head. As the migrant passed through her body, she gritted her teeth. Bonni screamed which was not helping, but the fact she was running faster on account of the giant death-machine certainly did.
“This isn’t happening!” Bonni cried.
As Apricot and Bonni crashed out the exit doors, they are greeted by even more of the Volkners. Apricot froze at the sight of the massive police mecha suits with their guns pointed toward them. “Get behind us!” one of the officers commanded. From behind, the other Volkner chasing them broke through the wall. Apricot turned just in time to see a large slash aimed at her. In a burst of sparks, the blade is caught in midair by the arm of the police’s Volkner. As the gun was ripped from the attacking machine, the SDP mecha held it back. “Run.” the officer yelled. Between the legs of the machine, Apricot and Bonni ran to safety.
Bonni screamed “Help!” to a line of armored officers who had formed a wall with their armored trucks. The mecha’s guns roared against the walls as they thundered across the parking lot. Apricot watched the two mechas as they fought, seeing the familiar phantom fire aiding the attacker.
Apricot’s hand releases Bonni’s fingers as their grips part ways. She watches her dive into the arms of an armored soldier who is directly behind the barricade. After another crack, Apricot turned heel to a frightening sight. The Volkners were still fighting, ripping each other apart. Insects had begun to fly about the mechanical soldiers. However, one broke ranks and flew directly to her. “Hold back!” yelled the armored soldier. The police began shooting at the huge mechanical suit that was rapidly advancing.
“That thing is after me!” Apricot gave Bonni one last glance whose eyes are filled with fear like a small child in a panic. Behind the steel door of a truck, Bonni peeked at the oncoming manifestation of death. Apricot bit her lip, looking straight into Bonni’s eyes. As she nodded to her, it may be the last time Apricot does so. In the midst of running through the makeshift vehicular wall, she heard Bonni’s cry, “Apricot!” She dove past the armored soldiers and sprinted through the stagnant traffic to the other side of the parking lot. A loud boom sounded as the machine burst through the barricade. The heavy clash of metals followed and the high-pitched screeching grated on her nerves. “Please let Bonni be OK.” Several cars are speeding towards the end of the lot trying to escape the Volkner. By jumping the barrier, Apricot plunged into the full flow of traffic, narrowly escaping the speeding automobiles. When she reached the other side of the road, her heart pounded as she saw a drop off to another platform below. Without hesitation, she slid down the concrete and landed hard on her feet.
In the background, an upbeat tune played over a pair of pure white dress shoes atop the wood of a chocolate brown computer desk. Sitting in his office chair, Shiori had opened a book and was casually reading the dusty tome. From the window of his highrise apartment, he had a clear view of the city just past the edge of the book. “Bzzzt Bzzt.” His phone vibrates across the desk. Looking at his phone, Shiori saw the text “Apricot Signa” Letting out a sigh, Shiori placed his book down and lifted the phone to his ear. As soon as he finished he said “Hello Miss,” a barrage of panicked words assaulted him.
“Shioriyougottohelp!Arobotistryingtokillme!Idon’tknowhowmuchlongerIcanrunbutyouneedtodosomethingnow!” The words came so fast it is almost incomprehensible.
Shiori snickered, “You got to slow down, honey. I have no idea what you are saying.”
“Shiori! I have no time for this!” shrieked Apricot.
“Well, if you need my help, that is not the way to go about it.” Shiori snickered again.
Apricot lets out a frustrated growl. “One of those police machines is trying to kill me!”
“That sounds dangerous. I’ll come help you. Keep your phone on, Akagi will locate you.” Shiori said as he clicked his phone. Yawning, he through the slab onto his desk. “That crazy girl, I don’t think she’s even worth the trouble.”
Getting smashed through a car, the mecha suit’s green electronic HUD locks onto Apricot running through an alleyway. Spikes fly from its thrusters as it turns into the stretch of narrow lanes. She uses the passages to her advantage as she jackknifes through the maze of off-roads, trying to lose the machine. From its thrusters, the mecha blew a boom after every turn. Apricot, noticed an open door that led the back of a building.
Apricot ran through the steamy hot room when an older man in a white chefs cloak shouted “Lady, you can’t be here.” A group of waitresses let out a collective gasp as Apricot burst through the double doors open into the dining room. In the front of the building, Apricot could see outside the dining-room window the mecha outside adjusting its arm.
“Get down!” Apricot screamed as the machine unloaded, causing the room to explode into a flurry of steel and wood. There was a lot of ripped fabric flying around the room as the guns tore through everything. “How in the world do I get out of here?” Apricot screamed as she crawled toward a fire door. It was unclear how many people were hurt or if any are still alive, but she could hear moans of agony. Blood painted the waitress as she lay dead. The expression was one of pure terror. Her eyes were like glass. Everything was her fault. She put them in danger. Whatever this thing was, it showed no mercy at all. Could it be Okabe’s doing? It seemed they were slaughtering their own police.
The fire exit allows her to gain a few seconds. The world blurred around her. She ran in the opposite direction until she reached the main intersection. An oncoming white car nearly strikes her as she only has a moment to react. “Get in!” yelled Shiori. Having slid over the hood of his car, Apricot jumped into the passenger seat. Shiori started driving. Pulling the door shut with the handle attached to the still-raised door, Apricot latches it shut. “What the hell is this? It’s all over the news! Why is that Volkner after you? Who is the pilot?”
“It came after me when I was with a friend!” Apricot cried. “I don’t know what the hell it is!”
As Shiori stomped on the gas, he sped past cars appearing in front of him. Apricot realized that they were at risk of a collision at any moment. “Well, way to alienate the rest of the world. This is a problem!” Apricot looked back to see the mechanical warrior close behind him. The device annihilates cars without any regard for the surrounding environment. The armor of the machine has been damaged as the metallic plating has begun to peel off exposing the chasse below. “Where the hell are the cops!” Shiori barked.
Once again, Apricot saw purple flames blazing on her arm. While watching the fire dance, she held out her hand open palmed. “So, there’s a phantom controlling it.”
When Shiori nearly veered off the road yelling “What the hell!” she is jerked out of her seat. “You’re going to kill us. Put that thing out.”
“It doesn’t harm physical objects.” Apricot quietly replied. She turned to Shiori, declaring, “I think it’s just a phantom. At least the phantom is controlling it. It told me earlier that it had stabbed its throat.” A shadow crossed in front of the car. In an instant, Shiori slammed on the brakes; his tires came to a screeching halt. An ear-piercing hiss is heard from the machine. A loud clang was heard as a projectile penetrated deep into the hood of the car. “Get out!” Shiori commanded, pulling his door open. Apricot followed suit, diving out just before the car is lifted and thrown into a building.
In front of the mecha, the two stood. Shiori stood to his feet, clicking the small switch to extend the rod. “I do hope you are right, Apricot.” Shiori said. The fires around Apricot’s arm grew brighter as she nodded her head. “There is only one choice.” With a metallic snap, the cables reappear from the car and slide into the hand of the machine. The imposing device dwarfs the pair as it stands about ten feet tall. “You know Apricot. If you are wrong, we’re gonna die, right?”
Without warning, the machine lunged forward at Shiori. After leaping back, he missed its fist aimed directly at him. The powerful machine slammed into the pavement harshly, pelting Shiori with debris. No matter the minor impact, Shiori struck his rod against the fist of the machine, thrusting through the shrapnel. As the metal moiled against the alloy, the rod sparked. “Shit this is useless!” The machine straightened its back as Shiori roared. As Apricot ran by the machine waving her arms, it positioned its other arm in Shiori’s direction. As the hulking metal soldier turned his attention towards her, he shot down his claws at her. Apricot lept over the metallic tethers as the razor claws sail in the air. A second time, the servos were rapidly retracting their lines, narrowly missing her.
After regaining her sight, Apricot caught a glimpse of Shiori directly under the machine. “Have to be creative.” Shiori roared as he stabbed his rod directly into the chestplate of the mecha. He ripped the pilot’s door off with his rod after removing the chest panel from the machine. The open cockpit is crawling with insects of every kind. The carcass of a dead soldier hung out, his mouth open in agony, and his eyes wide. Maggots oozed from the putrid body. There was a purple orb floating inside the cockpit that stretched throughout the whole machine. Shiori lets out a loud cry as the machine’s powerful hand wrapped around his waist. As if he were a rag doll, he was tossed through the air. He rolled several times on the ground, tearing up his clothes as he did so.
“Shiori!“ Apricot shouted. As soon as it saw an opening, the machine raised its fist to smash Apricot to mush. Apricot let out a scream as the fist descended, diving directly into a purple orb held by the mechanical soldier. She slashes it directly. In a flash, the machine falls forward, smashing its fist into the pavement as its aura bursts. The whole thing collapsed. A cloud of insects fell over her. Apricot panted looked up at the body hanging above her still strapped into the suit. His dead eyes are looking at her, but not at her. A pool of blood dripped from his limp, open mouth.
A liquid flowed from Shiori’s mouth onto the ground as he stands up wheezing and coughing. “Well, it didn’t kill me.” He laughed sheepishly. He roared and writhes in pain, “Damn it. That hurts. Looks like you survived as well.” He grunted, letting out another cough. After stepping out of the machine, Apricot nodded her head. “I’d appreciate your assistance.”
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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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Hundreds of feet of crimson orange moss cover the ground. The thick glade was punctuated by the occasional patch of grass or twisted tree. Birdsongs and insect chatter ring from the forest surrounding the open meadow. Under the shade of a tangled tree, among the tall grass, one could easily overlook a band of neros hunters.
As the pack moved over the fields, low to the ground, it was suddenly stopped by the raising of Lymric’s hand. Within arms reach of her father, Belairus gazed over the open grounds. As her father whispered in the most silent of voices, she followed his gaze pointing her vulpine ears towards him. “What do you see, Belairus?”
After softly brushing her hands over the reeds that concealed her, the reeds bent to reveal a two-legged creature standing alone several yards away snapping its tail. Belairus noted that it was covered with deer fur and resembled an animal with a body like a rhino. Its mouse-like nose sniffed the orange fungus while its two large avian talons bit deep into the soil. The long horns on its head resembled a crown Belairus thought. “This is an Elken,” she replied, recalling their description from tales told about them in the village. As the field beast studies the surroundings, it lets out a small groan. Taking a foot off the ground, the creature bends over and sniffs at the moss again.
A freshly-faced neros moves up behind Lymric and whispers, “See those horns. Their length is impressive. It’s an old, powerful one. It’s swift yet delicious. Lymric, your hunt is worthy of the young princess.” His face is adorned with elaborate designs and swirls around his right eye.
“Uncle Asgar is right father… don’t you agree?” Belairus said feeling the firm grip of Asgar pat upon her shoulder. Lymric looked over to see his brother’s pearly whites grinning from ear to ear.
Lymric bent forward toward Belairus’s ear. “This one will run away if you make a noise. You must be,” Lymric paused for emphasis before he said “silent, slow, deliberate.” He pointed his claw at the throat of the animal. “It will run, but if you get a good poke at it, it will fall.”
A purr of excitement erupted from Belairus. As she stepped out from the cover of foliage, she quieted herself. With her hands inches from dragging as she crawled almost on all fours, she got closer as the creature tapped the ground with its long thin tail.
Lymric whispered to Asgar “Let’s see your worth brother.” Asgar smirked, knowing he taught her well.
Without warning, the elken raised its head, standing straight, its eyes widening with fear in place of its once relaxed stare. Without moving a muscle, Belairus froze, knowing if she moved, she would scare off her prey. Her heart pounded when the creature turned its head toward her. There was a chill in the air as suspicious eyes watched her. They were attentive and careful, intent on finding any predators. She froze, unable to breathe. Watching silently, the pack anticipated her next move.
As if by magic, the sigil of victory appeared. The elken lowered his head. Her ruse had succeeded, she thought. As it poked its tongue out of its mouth, it picked up a thick layer of slimy moss before returning to its mouth. With careful steps, Belairus sunk her foot into the slimy moss, leaving behind a splotch. She looked to see that her foot was buried ankle-deep in the fungus. While lifting her foot, the anklet on her leg slipped off. Aware of the sudden loss of something, she looked to the ground, but she immediately lost her footing in the slimy muck. Stumbling forward, her other foot came crashing down onto solid ground. The sound was loud causing the color to drain from her. Her head jerked up immediately. To her dismay, the elken was looking right at her, its eye growing larger like ink spreading through water.
Now was the time for her to act. She leapt from the ground and charged at the elken. Attempting to lance the thing, she braced her spear against her side. Whirling its tail, it whips up dust on Beliarus with a loud crack, slapping her across the face. Trying to catch herself, she landed on her bottom, watching the beast run swiftly into the thick wood. Raising her hand, she felt a stinging on her cheek. The air is damp with the smell of iron. As she lowers her fingers, she notices that her finger tips have turned red. As she looked back at the group, who have now emerged from their cover, she let out a heavy sigh.
“It will take time, but you will be a skilled hunter.” A tall, muscular woman said, lifting Belairus to her feet. “I am surprised you got that close.”
Belairus glanced at the others and pouted. “But it got away.”
A hearty laugh erupts from Asgar. “Narin is right little flower. If no one ever got away, we would be too fat to hunt, and the forest would be empty.” He grins widely adding, “Even the mighty Asgar has lost many a hunt. You better smile, not pout, it happens to the best of us.”
Belairus sulked after snatching rabbits, foxes, and other small game. Her mind was consumed with her lost catch, and she embarrassed herself in front of her tribe. While rummaging through a bush later in the day her eyes caught sight of the hairy hide of creature. The opportunity presented itself for her to impress. She approached fiercely, clutching her spear tightly around its leather wrap. With a few careful strides, she identified a boar just as it turned its head to face Belairus, lowering its tusks with a snort. Without time to call the others, she froze.
Belairus’s eyes widened as he heard the boar snarl, diving from the grass. She appeared to be dwarfed by the beast in her own eyes, as if it were an enormous creature. As she evaded the beast’s charge to the side, she raked her claws across its thick flesh, leaving a nasty gash.
“Belairus!” Narin shouted, the first to witness the fight. At the rear of the group, Asgar charged out of the brush as the boar turned swiftly back to Belairus. Once more, the hog tried to impale her with its elephantine tusks. The boar didn’t have time to turn before he met the sharp end of Belairus’s spear between the eyes. Her weight helped push the spear deeper as it reared, sending Belairus flying higher and higher. After jumping off the polearm, she landed on the boar’s back with her claws, stabbing it in the neck. Squealing in pain, the boar kicked hard, knocking Belairus off of its back. She slid down onto all fours after rolling around several times on the dusty soil. In front of the beast, she narrowed her eyes as it dragged its hoof to the ground.
Lymric raised his hand to signal Asgar to stop and whistled. Asgar stared at Lymric with narrowed eyes, his fingers moving across the shaft of his spear in readiness to attack. When Lymric closed his hand, he shook his head in disbelief. With his eyes focusing on his niece, Asgar sighed, wishing that she were winning the fight against the wild boar. Although the beast rushed Belairus, she managed to grab hold of the spear still stuck in its face. Her hands slipped back onto the shaft and turned along with its gate as she redrew the spear from the boar’s skull. As the wound is opened, blood leaked out of the boar’s face. The animal screamed in anger as it made another attack on her. After sidestepping the boar again, she attacked it with her spear, slamming it into the boar’s spine knocking it to the ground as it passed her. As her rage flared, she jabbed the spear into the boar several times, ensuring it was indeed dead. A sense of pride welled up within Belairus as she looked upon her bloodied kill. Her father, whose face is covered by a huge smile, looks up at her with similar delight.
“Who would have thought that my flower would become a fearsome beast-slayer?” Asgar said with a voice that was thick with emotion.
“She is absolutely your daughter,” Narin replied. Her body is propped up against the spear, which is stabbed into the ground.
Asgar chuckled. “Smile.” Belairus obliged with the biggest toothy grin she could muster. “Good, that girl of your’s brother, she won’t be bested by any of us, will she?” he exclaims as he inspects the creature she had downed all by herself. “Oh look at it. A bearded boar. Rare to find one of these… if you aren’t looking for it.”
Lymric walked over to Belairus and grabbed her under her arms, lifting her up. She clung to his side. “Your first hunt is a bearded boar. You make your father proud”, he said tickling her belly, causing her to giggle.
Barieve, another warrior that guarded the group, grinned before he said “Fantastic.” He then audibly licked his lips. “I can hardly wait to dig in.”
Asgar lifted up the dead boar behind his back and nodded his head in agreement. “This is a noble hunt Belairus. Lumaria smiles upon you. The boar is a stronger creature than a girl. The hunt will be told in stories.” Belairus’s toothy grin beamed with joy.
On a log covered in dense moss, Belairus sat alongside her father. Over a small fire, a couple of wooden branches are used as spits to roast the boar. Barrieve stood above the group, on a tree branch looking out over the distant woods for any sign of danger. In the meantime, Asgar spun the spit gently roasting the meal as Narin relaxed on a flat rock, sunning herself. Asgar intently watching the fires. The smell of the meat cooking made the young neros mouth water. Then, Asgar turned his attention to her. “Belairus, do you know what Barieve is looking for?”
Belairus shook her head. “We’re in the land of a winged god.” Her eyes lit up. He said, “Yes, my girl, a winged god.”
“Are these the same winged gods we praise at the wisdom tree?” Belairus inquired.
“This one lives here in our world. The others fled long ago to the land of the wisdom tree.” Lymric said calmly, rubbing her head. “The winged goddess is called Visaraliel, and she is the queen of the forests. I have never met her, but Barieve has.”
Barieve glanced at Lymric with a sly grin. “And I wish not to again.”
Belairus stared up at Barieve in astonishment. “You met a winged god!” she exclaimed. “What was she like? I mean what did she look like?”
His eyes slowly pan down at Belairus for a moment, Barrieve turned his attention back toward the distant horizon. “Her body resembles the body of a feathered viper, and her horns are like those of a ram. Her wings are so large they block out everything but fold tightly on her back. Like a mastodon, she had massive arms and legs. Seeing her tree-like tail, I was terrified. She told me to leave, and I did.”
“What happened to the winged gods?” Belairus asked.
“They left. Nobody knows why they left. They just left.” Asgar said. “When the world ends, the priests say they will return to battle with the gods of the sky.”
As Beliarus watched the boar cook staring deeply into the burning embers, she said under her breath, “When the world ends…”.
There were no birdsongs to be heard among the timbers. Narin sniffed the air, her eyes widening with anger. Belairus sniffed too, smelling an odd smell in the air. She glanced at her father who had also noticed the strange scent. She heard Asgar whisper, “I know that salty smell. It’s a human.” Asgar, Barieve, and Narin lower their ears, and their tail fur bushes out, claws extending out of their fingers, and their pupils grow into thin slits. “They’ll die.”
“Not unless I command it.” Lymric snarled at Asgar. They followed the scent and saw a earless person dressed in a strange dirty jerkin vest. His bulging eyes and trembling body suggest to Belarius that he was in a panic as he stumbles through the brush. Lyrmic placed his palm on Belairus’s head “This is a worthwhile test. Belairus, what shall we do with this human?”
“Is this truly a human? He doesn’t seem so scary or strong, does he?” she asked curiously. “Shouldn’t we see what he is up to before we do anything?”
Asgar wrinkled his nose. “And dishonor our lands? Not I.” Asgar gripped his spear walking toward the man. Lymric placed his hand on Asgar’s shoulder holding him in place. “And why not?”
Lymric bared his fangs at Asgar. “She must learn how to lead. I am curious to see how she would handle this.”
“By the Lumaria, I think you are making a big mistake listening to little flower.” Asgar groaned.
Belairus said, “Father,” placing her hand on his chest at which he lowers his fangs. Then she turned to face Asgar directly. “We have formed an alliance with the humans of Haven. Have you forgotten the honor you owe the Aria? Would you like me to sully the Hukoten clan in the eyes of the Aria?” she asked pointedly.
Asgar widened his eyes in response to Belairus’s statement. “Little flower thinks too highly of herself.”
“We honor our word to the Aria above our own interests,” she said with a firm voice.
Narin hisses indignantly, “He’s on our territory. That is breaking our treaty.”
“Would you have me kill him?” Belairus asked.
Barieve licks his lips and said “Yes and eat him.”
“He smells terrible Barieve. You would eat that?” Belairus asked in a joking manner.
Lymric stepped out from cover and walked ahead of the others. He is followed by the rest of the neros. He looks up, his mouth immediately widens. “Where do you come from?” Lymric asked in a slow, deliberate tone.
“I am lost, please help me.” Pulling his pants pockets out of his side, the stranger stammered, “I am not a threat. See no weapons, I swear, I am unarmed.”
Lymric lowered his head, slamming his spear into the ground. “That’s not what I asked.”
“I am from Haven,” he cried in absolute terror. “Please forgive me. My caravan was separated from me. I’ve been heading north for some time, but I seem to only be getting into denser jungles.” The man said with a hint of dread in his voice.
Belairus grabbed her father’s shoulder and pulled him down to her level. She whispers, “North… He’s confused. South… He’s headed south.” Lymric’s eyes met hers, a glint forming at their core. He looked back at the man.
“My daughter saved you from certain death. You should be grateful to her,” said Lymric. “I would have killed you if she hadn’t been here. We do not tolerate trespassers here.” Lymric growled, letting out a snarl. With a toothy grin, Belairus approached the man. She reached out her hands toward him. He grasps her palms as she helps him to his feet.
“I must be in the wildling lands?” he asked in a shocked tone. “I appreciate your kindness.”
Belairus stared at the man inspecting him as she walked around him. Biting his bottom lip, he watched the other three look like they want to kill him. He swallowed a lump that formed in his throat. A growl erupted from Asgar, “What brings you here?” Lymric’s gaze darted to Asgar’s.
“My caravan was attacked by thieves. Think they were from the Golden Kingdom. Not sure but they plundered our carts. During the fight, I got scared and ran off. I thought I was heading north, but I was heading south instead. This is quite a surprise. Could I have an escort… out of your land? I don’t mean to intrude.”
Lymric glanced over at Barieve who is salivating. “Barieve, can I trust you to take him to our border?”
Barrieve’s expression is cartoonishly pained. “Of course.”
“He can’t be harmed. Not even a little,” said Lymric.
After looking over the man for a moment, Belairus stands in front of him. “I have never seen a human before. Where is your tail? And what happened to your ears?”
He smiled briefly. “I don’t have a tail.” He showed her his hands. “Neither do I have claws. My ears are on the side of my head.”
“Your eyes look funny. They look like dots.” she chuckled. “We are different, aren’t we. I am pleased to have met you human. Go in peace.”
As he looked up to see Barieve standing in front of him, the man gulped. He turned back to Belairus and bowed his head in respect. “Thank you. You are most gracious.”
Asgar growled “Get moving human… ” as he turned to walk away. Barieve took the man with him down another path. Belairus glanced back at the man before she said, “He sounded kind and terrified at the same time. What makes humans such a threat to us?”
“They are not, and we should have killed them all a long time ago,” Asgar growled before running forward.
Belairus sighs as Lymric looks down at him. “Long ago, we fought the humans. It was before I or any of us were born. Nobody remembers why we went to war, but we have been at war ever since. For a long time, the humans of Haven were our friends. Now, not so much. Our relationship is strained. It’s surprising you know about that alliance. However, they have an extremely significant role to play. In the absence of them, the humans from other lands would overtake the Aria with their weapons. Therefore, we protect them from those other kingdoms.”
Narin snarled. “Not that long ago, Lymric. It was not nearly long enough to forgive them for their betrayal. I have not.”
“Those were not the true leaders of Haven,” Lymric said to Narin.
“Fenrir told me of the human alliance, and the dangers of humans, but I do not understand. If the humans are our friends why do we not trust them now?” Belairus wondered aloud.
“Haven was captured by a people from another land. They attacked the Aria, and our elders were forced to slaughter the people of Haven. They did not kill all the humans, though.” Lymric said. “Most of us Hukoten are still bitter towards the Haven people. Aria demanded that the pact remained in place. This is why we hate humans, Belairus. You are too kind to them, and they will kill you when your back is turned. They hate us as much as we hate them. If the people of Haven had their way, they would certainly like to go to war with us, but they know they cannot because we would overpower them.”
“That is sad,” Belairus said as she continued walking.
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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?”
The next chapter is waiting for you, why not read it? Just click the button below to go to the next chapter.
STOP! WAIT! I am writing this article to get you to visit my Facebook page. I’m sick. It’s a bait and switch. Now that’s out of the way. What’s the point of following my Facebook page? To build a community. To make you feel cared for! To make you feel important! Not just the collective you, but you as an individual. By the way, you look great in that red shirt. Sorry, it’s not red, you look good with it too.
I’m blushing now. Let’s discuss why I’m doing this. It has come to my attention that I am bad at social media and do not pay enough attention to it. Nevertheless, I write quite a bit. But I don’t share it. It’s only through a strong social media presence that I can share it. I will smash the gates with all my crippling social anxiety and try to break through. Could you help me? If you enjoy my writing, please spread it around. It would be greatly appreciated.
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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A young blonde was held in the arms of two rough men as she screamed and struggled. A fine layer of dust still clung to the abandoned warehouse, which smelled of dried chemicals. As she kicked her heels against the cement floor, the men drag her body toward a shadowy figure. They knocked the wind out of her after being thrown to the ground. Slowly, she pressed her knees as her runny mascara gaze shifted to a pair of dark boots and a man in jeans. With black-rimmed sunglasses covering his eyes, his dreadlocks concealed his face. A slow grin revealed toothy fangs like those of a wild animal. Taking off his black leather jacket, he revealed his bulging muscles. As he howled, they pulsed and expanded. The girl shrieked, seeing the man transform before her eyes. She tries to get away from his giant hand but fails as he gripped both of her legs with one hand. The monstrous man dwarfed the two men while he lifted the girl off the ground. “Help! “Please!” she cried, trying to free herself from his grip.
In horror, one man kept his eyes on the concrete floor, and said, “I can’t watch this.”
The monster of a man bit into the girl’s upper body with a loud crunch. “Do not speak, no one can defeat Genova. He is the king of the city now.” The abandoned warehouse is filled with the sounds of slurping and gnawing as the two men’s blood runs cold.
Across from Machi and Solenne, Apricot drank from a straw. The three girls are seated at a small black cast iron picnic table in the park’s center. It’s nearly impossible not to notice how artificial the trees are. There was no question that the trees were plastic sculptures. Moreover, they did not grow or take on any color. Apricot presumed that the plants had to be made of polysynthetic materials.. After unwrapping their sandwiches, the girls poured ice tea into their glasses. As Apricot finds herself lost in her own thoughts, Machi and Solenne have a lot of small talk. Apricot finds herself in a strange situation. Having to deal with Shiori has been exhausting to say the least. Sleep has been scarce lately. Machi’s face fell, and Apricot had no idea why due to her lack of listening. Now that the tone of the conversation had changed, she was roused from her thoughts.
“It worries me.” Solenne continued. “I realize the military won’t risk any of its soldiers, but still… the fighting has already begun.”
In the news, Apricot had read about the situation. Miners had discovered a remarkably large deposit of Urizen resources. Currently, Uchella and Aslana are fighting over the deposits. There is a demilitarized zone near it, which has been off-limits for years. Arjun was deployed about a month ago. Since then, Solenne has been anxious.
Machi chimed in, “Well, he is not in combat, is he?”
“He is,” Apricot recalls the conversation she had with the general. Still, the situation continues to deteriorate despite her unease. Solenne sighed. “They’ve seen a few air scares,” she observed. “I think he was in at least one dogfight, but he won’t admit it. Having scrambled a bomber, he proudly told me how he had sent the accompanying fleet away. That scares me.”
“I’m sorry, that’s terrible.” Apricot says to comfort, even though she imagines it wouldn’t be much use.
Machi added, “We’re just a phone call away.”
Apricot imagines Arjun wouldn’t want to worry Solenne, and he must feel exactly the same way about her when she is on duty. Similarly, the town is becoming more and more like a battleground as it changes. Maybe even more so if things continue to unfold as they are. “Arjun is an amazing pilot. Even if he’s in a dogfight, he’ll win.”
“I hope you are right, Apricot. One small mistake is all it takes.”
A shadowy underground corridor echoes with footsteps. A wolfish grin appeared on Genova’s face as he heard the steps approaching. His lips retreat from the nape of a young girl. In his usual black leather trench coat, Cortez emerged from the shadows, seemingly unperturbed. As Genova embraced two girls, one sitting on each leg, he said, “Cortez, my friend.” Both are of the typical brand that Genova is known for; street girls willingly sell themselves to join gangs in order to make money. Willing to give it away just for the opportunity.
“The hell is this? You have a throne?” Cortez grunted as he observed Genova’s stone chair.
Genova’s black sunglasses frame Cortez with a simple nod. “Yeah, I found it down here,” he replied. “This was probably an old cult chair. The world beneath this city would amaze you.” Genova rose from his slouch as he bounced the girls on his knee. “So, what do you want?”
As he reached into his pocket, he pulled out a wad of cash. He said, “I got the money I owe you. So now things are square?” he asked. “We can end this here.”
As Genova snickers, the teeth of his mouth are barely visible. Cortez raises an eyebrow. “Don’t worry about it. You repaid me more than enough.”
This is a very generous gesture from you.” Cortez observed with stone-straight eyes. His refusal to accept money is an omen of ill tidings that makes him sick to his stomach. Tremors ran down his leg as the urge to urinate hit him hard. At this point, the expectation of a well-fired gun shot was high. His gaze was darting to every corner. However, this was a strange place for a gathering, it already gave Cortez an uneasy feeling. If he would be offed, this is the place where it would happen.
As Genova cradled both girls in his arms, his jaw fell to the throat of one of the girls, and he whispered, “I owe you.” Digging deep into the flesh of the other girl, he firmly gripped her. As she scrambled to free herself, she shrieked. The blood drains from her neck as she kicks and screams as a red burst wets her tank top. As Cortez watches in horror, the girl grew pale while Genova suckled her dry.
“What the hell!” Cortez shouted, backing away from the hall.
His face becomes tight, his ears bulge like goat ears, his eyes turn red, and his teeth become razor sharp. The pulse of his muscles continues as he tightens. His hair begins to grow, as if he were a beast. His gaze flutters faintly as blood splashes from his mouth. He mumbles, “You look so shocked.” Suddenly, he releases his jaws, and the woman falls to the ground, sputtering blood.
“What the hell are you!?” Cortez responded with a hand to his chest. Genova rolled his head back and forth to get used to his brand-new form. “Those books you hired me to protect. They’re fascinating. I was so impressed with your father’s work. It was something you should have taken seriously.”
Cortez’s eyes are filled with fury. “I told you not to look.” he yelled. “You are now nothing more than a monster!”
“What are you going to do?” Genova laughed. “This was what your father was looking for as well. As far as I can tell, the cult had not achieved it either, otherwise they wouldn’t be searching for it. But it didn’t stop me from waiting for them down here. I’m waiting for them, hoping to eliminate my rivals before they eliminate me.” Genova pointed a clawed finger at Cortez. “I owe it to you.” he proudly said.
“I have never expected you to do this, even though you have always been a jerk, you murderer!” Cortez hissed as he clutched at his fist.
The terrified girl in Genova’s arms looks up at him. Runny black tears are streaming down her face. “When I was younger, they teased me for being a runt. I did not have many friends. This girl in my arms never gave me another glance. Everyone cast me aside as a nerd.” He smiled as he reminisced. She struggled in vain as he tightened his grasp on her. She yelled in pain as he tears at her skin.
“As I grew older, I understood why my life was hell. My helplessness was overwhelming. Cortez, weak people have no place in the world.” He turned his piercing gaze back toward Cortez. “When I became strong, people looked up to me. The strength I gained came faster than I expected. The others sought protection from me. Taking advantage of this, I even started my own business. My job was to protect them from other vermin gangs; from the government’s eyes. The nobles kept their distance.” He stared at the ground. “But then you showed up. This scared boy was trying to support his family. You were a strong kid. When I learned what you were hiding, I was surprised. You had the power, but you chose not to use it.”
“That is not power! That is just evil!” Cortez yelled.
“Call it what you will, Cortez. But I’m the Lord now. I will not let anyone stand in my way. I am the gate of souls, a ruler of both men and devils.” Genova looked up, hearing a metallic click. Cortez holds a pistol in his hand. “Struck a cord?”
Cortez faced the hideous beast that Genova had become with his gun outstretched. “You’re crazy.”
Genova growled, “Go ahead, shoot me.” As soon as he heard the loud bang, his eyes widened. A gaping hole can be seen in his chest as he was battered. The girl in his arms desperately tried to escape. There was a heavy smell of wet iron as blood flowed from his wound. He moistened his finger tips by raising his hand above his chest. He murmured, “I’m bleeding.” before laughing. Then he smiles and said, “Go ahead, shoot me again.”
Cortez continued to fire his gun several times. The bullets scatter around Genova’s heart with each shot. Holding out his arm, he clicked the trigger while it chirped. “No bullets left.” Genova said. Cortez’s chest suddenly rose and fell. As he lowered the gun, his hand trembled. Turning his tail toward the hall, he ran along the corridor as quickly as he could.
“Maggots don’t frighten Kings,” Genova yelled out to Cortez. “Run Cortez, it’s only a matter of time.” Even as the girl’s scream echoed from the hall, Cortez kept running without looking back.
“The more people you can bring here, the better! Shiori, everyone! All of them!” Apricot pulled the phone away from her ear as Cortez yelled; his voice tinged with fear.
Apricot commented, “You must really need Shiori’s help if you want his help.”
“Look, look, tell him I am willing to work with him. Apricot, now is not the time to joke. It’s the worst thing that could’ve happened. These are my notes, these are my father’s notes! There was some ritual performed on them. Now he is eating people alive! We must kill him before he gets stronger!” shouted Cortez.
A man who became a monster. Her mind kept floating back to the image of the man’s face splitting apart. The woman in the tunnel too. It had not occurred to her until now, but were those phantoms, or were they people? “Cortez stay calm. Let’s just remain calm. I’ll call for help. I am heading out the door. The Spook House is my next stop, so I’ll try to get as many people there as possible. Afterward, I will try to help. Are you OK? Can you give me about an hour?”
“Yeah, I’m above ground. A gang hideout in the old city has him hidden away. I’ll send you my location. But if he comes, I’m out. I think he is enjoying himself right now with the girl I tried to save. Gah, my lord, what have I done?” cried, Cortez. “I abandoned her!” he sobbed.
Apricot felt like he had a lump in his throat. The cool street urchin breaks down as he speaks. Something terrible must have happened to him. Apricot swallows the information and assumes the girl has died or is on her way out. There is nothing she can do except gather help. “I’ll call you soon.”
“She will sell us out for an article she is working on! Or she is an Okabi spy!” Apricot heard a woman’s angry voice. Apricot pulled open the door to discover Togashi sitting at the bar with an off-put expression. Akagi was drinking what looked like a soda out of a glass. A slim black-haired girl sat next to him with her eyes shut. She appeared to be Apricot’s age or one or two years younger.
“You’re silly, miss Ohara, I am disappointed.” Shiori laughed from the back room.
There is a loud slam before a tumble. “Don’t give me that bullshit! You know they did not secure her! She’s one of them!” The argument between the two continued in rapid bursts. While Shiori chuckled with his usual casual joking manner.
“What is with all the yelling?” Apricot asked as she made her way to the bar.
Akagi smirked. “O’ don’t mind them, Sumai and Shiori are fighting like usual. It will end soon.”
“Tiring squabble this one is.” Togashi drummed his fingers on the counter, rolling his eyes.
The twin doors to the back room breach open, exposing a red-haired middle-aged woman with blue eyes, which locked onto Apricot after spotting her. Their ferocity felt as if it gripped Apricot. “You need to leave!” she roared.
“What is this all about?” Apricot asked in a calm tone.
Storming up to the counter, Sumai shoved Togashi aside, receiving a snicker from him. “I know all about you Apricot! You are an Okabi spy. How else would you be allowed to get out of all the messes you have been in?”
Apricot raised both of her hands. “Wait what! I am not a spy!”
“Where did you get a gun from?” Sumai pressed.
Shiori staggered out of the room, his tie out of place. “Sumai,” she turned her head toward him. “Outside, leave her alone and cool down. As of right now, you are not permitted to enter the Spook House. So out.”
Sumai shook her head. “You are such a bastard.” Sumai huffed, walking out from behind the bar. “I am not done with this!” she announced to Shiori. Her scornful gaze quickly returned to Apricot. “I got my eyes on you!” Sumai growled, wagging her finger at Apricot as she stomped out the front doors.
“You are very early, Apricot,” Shiori said. “What’s up?”
Apricot regained her composure as images flood her mind again. She felt a slight touch on her back. “Don‘t let her get to you. Sumai is the same way with everyone. It’s just the way she is. She is protective to the end, a bit hardheaded, but in the end she will treat you the same way.” Akagi said, his face beaming.
“Cortez called me and told me that there is a guy who used some weird ritual to become a monster. He is waiting outside of his underground gang hideout or something. Apparently, there is a girl down with him. Some gang members, too.” It surprised Apricot to see everyone give her an unamused look.
“Heh, no.” Shiori grunted. “Cortez is a con artist, Apricot. Don’t trust him.” Shiori turned his back to Apricot and walked toward his office.
“Wait!” Apricot said. “Help him for me. I think this is serious.”
Shiori shook his head placing a hand on his hip. “It’s your funeral. You showed a lot of potential, but I won’t waste my time on a dog like Cortez. So help him. I will not clean his messes.”
Fuming Apricot is on her way out the door. After several steps, she rested her back against the side of the building to catch her breath. On her back, the bricks were warm from the sun’s rays. “How am I going to handle this?” She wondered. As time passed, this entire situation became darker. New questions arise, what exactly happened between them?
“You’re a piece of trash and you need to get lost or else.” Apricot scowled looking beside her to see Sumai glaring at her. Without a word, Apricot leapt off the wall, taking off before she said something she regretted herself. Surely, she was not inclined to stand for such abuse from a stranger. After about a block, she hears footsteps following her.
“Would you leave me?” Apricot asked, turning to look at the black-haired girl with the sapphire eyes. “I’m so sorry, I thought you were,” Apricot said.
“It’s fine. I heard what Sumai said.” the girl replied without moving her lips. It’s a soft, calm voice accompanied by deep, dark eyes. “I am Junko Morie. I apologize for not introducing myself earlier.”
This seemed strange to Apricot, making her thoughts race. “How are you doing that?”
“I speak through mental conversions. It is more comfortable for me to speak this way. Also far more private. For me that is.” Junko explained. Apricot strains her face in thought. Junko laughed, covering her mouth with her gloved hand. “It’s okay to use your voice. I can’t read minds, but at least I understand what I see.”
“That is a pretty cool talent,” Apricot said to Junko who nodded her head. “It is nice meeting you but I really have to go now.”
Junko frowned. “You seem sincere.” Apricot nodded. “I will come too if only to ensure your safety from Cortez.”
“Why does everyone dislike him? What did he do?” Apricot asked.
Junko shook her head. “It is not my place to say.”
Walking through this area of the city made Apricot uncomfortable. With broken glass littering the ground, it was a ruin that had been abandoned for a long time. Known by many as the trash land. If only they could hire workers to clear the grounds, the property would be very valuable. However, superstitions about ghosts and spirits are still prevalent. Therefore, this part of the city was inhabited only by the poorest and least moral people.
Apricot turned to see Cortez at the bottom of a set of stairs leading to a collapsed subway tunnel. Her soft footsteps divert his attention. A smirk crossed his face. “Nice shorts,” he remarked. Her jean shorts and pink tank top contrasted with Junko’s gothic attire. Cortez turned back toward the tunnel. “I am surprised to see you here, Junko.” Cortez murmured softly. “He’s not coming, is he?” Cortez moaned gruffly under his breath.
“Yeah, it’s just the two of us.” Apricot walks beside Cortez and looks down at the darkness below. The deep darkness appeared cold and unwelcoming.
As Junko looks over Apricot’s shoulder, she places her hand on her back. “I just came for her. Don’t cross your lines.”
Cortez grunted, “Yeah. I figured as much, so Shiori is too busy or what?” Apricot’s suspicions about Cortez’s prior relationship with the group grew. Junko must have known him. In her cold eyes, there was a kind of fondness. Concerning Cortez’s words, they felt pained. Their relationship was like an old friendship. Although Apricot diverted herself, her attention cannot be diverted from the subject at hand. She can wonder afterwards.
“No, he refused as expected. I take it he is still there?” Apricot asked.
Cortez does not avert his gaze. The man has not yet appeared, if that’s what you mean. There are tunnels everywhere. He could have escaped through another route, but I doubt he would bother. I shot him. It did not even phase him. We need Shiori’s entire group, hell, we need a damn army.”
She waited for Cortez to continue, but he remained silent. “A monster?” she asked, hoping for more information.
Silently, he nodded. Both hands were clenched. “Call Shiori,” Cortez growled, “I want to confront that asshole myself.”
Apricot drew the black slab phone from her front pocket and opened it with a click. “You know better Cortez. He is not coming,” Junko said.
Take the phone from Apricot. Cortez said, “I want to know for myself.”
The phone rang briefly, then clicked. In his usual condescending tone, Shiori said, “Heh, the dog boy wants to talk to me.”
“I don’t have time for bullshit.” Cortez said. “I saw a man transform into a monster. He’s already killed several people.”
“Cortez, maybe this isn’t the job for us. We should call the police. Leave it in their hands.” Apricot suggested.
Shiori’s laughter can be heard over the phone. “That would not be smart Apricot. They would kill you for seeing it.”
“What!?” Apricot shouted.
“What you did not know? My dear, you have figured out anything of this nature was covered up by the Okabe government. No witnesses will be allowed for these spooky rumors.” Shiori pauses. Doggy boy, what exactly led you to the badlands? Is it the work of your traitorous father?”
“Shut up, you don’t know anything about my Dad,” Cortez yelled. “But yeah, that file he had is down there. It was a gang I was paying to watch over it for me. Heh, you met them Apricot. Remember those guys who kicked the crap out of me when I met you?”
“Seems to be a common occurrence for you.” Shiori gloated.
“Shiori.” Apricot chided.
Shiori’s stifled snicker reached through the receiver. “Be truthful Cortez, we both know you were not paying them to look over that file.”
“I did but anyway, the tall one with the black dreads is named Genova. He is their leader.” Cortez said turning his gaze towards Apricot. “He solved the riddles in my father’s work, apparently. I figured he was a meathead and could not figure stuff out like that.”
“So your drug lord boss has a hit out for you and you want our help?” Apricot drops her jaw. “I’m not interested in helping criminal dogs like you, Cortez. You made your own mess. Apricot, I suggest you do the same.”
“Shiori, please, I need your help!” Cortez begged.
Apricot furrowed her brow. “Shiori, this is a lead in the right direction. We should at least investigate it. We will deal with Cortez after.”
“I won’t be a lap dog for this man’s gang troubles. Fair well.”
“Shiori, don’t go. I need your help.” Cortez once again asked.
After a moment, Shiori said, “And you lack it.” A click signaled the end of the phone call.
“You didn’t mention you were in a gang!” Apricot yelled, grabbing Cortez’s arm. “What have you doing with a gang?”
His gaze fell toward the ground. “I had no other choice, my family, they needed the money. The gang… well, they helped me.”
“Do you sell drugs?” Apricot asked.
“I sell all kinds of things.” Cortez turned his back toward Apricot pulling away. “I will deal with it myself if you won’t help me.”
“How?” Apricot asked.
“I don’t know. I was hoping Shiori would help… he might not seem like it, but he is strong. I kind of figured he would not be around so I had an idea of my own. It would be a lot easier with you two. Junko, please help me.” Cortez said.
Junko stretched her posture. “I am listening.”
“I will help you too. But I am not happy with you. So what is this plan of yours?” Apricot asked.
Cortez pulled out a vile containing some kind of putty substance. “I got this, it’s called Lyiatris, and I use it to break into places. A dot of it can blow a lock off.” Cortez’s gaze shifted away from Apricot. “But this tube carries a lot more danger. I’ve got a cell phone and a burner with me. I need another. I need a few wires, any wires will do. From this, I can rig up a few bombs. Three. There’s an extensive tunnel down there. We can string bombs along it. Three of them, not too far apart, but fairly close together. When he is in the middle of them, use a group call to detonate them all. That should collapse the walls around him and trap him. We need kindling because we want him to burn.” Apricot grimaced as Cortez described the gory details of his plan. “I figure he’ll be unable to reform if he’s burned to ashes. Just like old troll legends.”
She nodded her head in agreement. “Why not just light him on fire?” Her stomach turned at how casually she came up with such a terrible idea.
“Well, trapping him would keep him stuck in the flames. So, he will die for sure.” Cortez said as he stares at the ground.
Junko looked at the tube. “Will it be strong enough to do that? Those walls are made of concrete,” she said aloud.
“I hope.” Cortez turned to look away. “I am not sure though. I will act as a bate. Have him chase me. So, what I need you two to do is wait here while I scavenge the parts.”
“You are not leaving. I don’t trust you, Cortez,” Junko said.
“Fine you two, go find some kindling and a cable for anything, as long as it is for an electronic. I can rig it up with that.” Cortez said resting his back against the concrete wall. “You only have a half an hour before I do it myself.”
Blood flowed down the corners of the tunnel. Apricot shuffled her feet to avoid the puddle of blood at the entrance to Genova’s “lair”. An irony smell filled the air, making her nauseous. There are pieces of torn flesh scattered about the room. As Cortez walked along the dark corridor, he shielded Apricot with his body. In the dimly lit room, the only source of light was a small sewer grate that projects light down. A red glow emanated from a set of eyes in the shadows. A low growl echoed through the empty concrete walls, “Your bravery to return Cortez and what an offering.”
“Something like that,” Cortez said as he walked. His body jerked against each step. “I want my father’s file back.”
Genova sat upon his throne exposing himself to the light. He had to duck down when he stood up to the ceiling. His grin reminded Apricot of a wolf’s face. “You’re joking.” Genova grabbed his gut and cackled. Isn’t it obvious to you the situation you are in?”
“I am not,” Cortez said as Genova takes a step forward. The sole of his hooved foot clopped on the floor. “Now where is it?”
When Apricot saw the face of the man from the grocery store, her knees began to tremble. She felt a burning sensation down her arm as her heart pounded. She whispered, “Was that man?” Genova interrupted her train of thought with a loud roar that morphed into a laugh.
“You dare to make demands of me?” he howled. “I will break your legs and make you watch as I rip your friend‘s skin off.” He raised both his hands to the light displaying a set of large bear-like claws as he chuckles. “Scream for me!” he yelled stomping his foot.
Cortez backed away from Genova yelling, “Run!” Apricot turned tail and scurried back into the dark tunnels. Apricot clutched her cellphone tightly. Upon pressing the button, the bombs would go off. It was a relief to run past the first bomb. Junko awaited her at the end of the hall. Cortez can be heard running close behind her as the stomping of hooves thundered toward her. She passed the second one and continued until she reached a green x on the floor marked with chalk.
Watching Cortez cross the final red line, she turned around. Behind him followed the beast. Clicking the microswitch, she hudled. Nothing happens. As she does it again, her hands tense on the controls. “What are you doing?” Cortez yelled.
Apricot yelled, “It’s not working.” Her vision blurred as her heart sunk deep into her chest. “Oh no!” she shrieked. As the purple glowing aura returned, she felt a burning sensation in her arm. She looks at Cortez facing the monster and said, “Wait…” Junko grunted. Genova stops dead in his tracks. Genova lets out a pained howl. Bobbing back and forth, Cortez draws a knife from his side.
Apricot noticed Junko holding her hand out, her eyes white and rolled back behind her head. Genova’s veins pulsate as he grimaces. She reaches for her arm band and pulls out a single knife. Genova raised his arm high above Cortez’s head. The knife flew straight into Genova’s chest as Apricot prays that she is correct. A burst of wet smoke sent him flying backwards. With heavy breathing, he stares down Apricot and Cortez. Junko gasped, falling to the ground. She cried, “I can’t.”
Genova grabbed the silver knife and ripped it from his chest. It sizzled as he screamed out “It burns!“ Throwing the knife onto the ground, Genova retreated down the hall leaving a trail of blood behind him. Cortez stares rigidly into the darkness.
“Should we follow him?” Apricot murmured, her body trembling uncontrollably.
In response, Cortez drops to his knees and let out a long sigh. “I don’t think we should.” as he rasped his breath.
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“2nd Season, 5th Moon, 2nd Week, 1st Day” ~Taer, The Azurian Capitol Of Marion, At Dusk
“Are you afraid your boyfriend will run away with a pretty lady he meets in the woods?”, teased Salome as she stretched her leg and played with her yellow skirt’s bows. Salome’s pale leg resembled porcelain, and her white floral stockings only added to her doll-like appearance. Amelie, Salome’s target of taunts, stood next to Talumn. Her gaze was fixed on a large pane of glass, watching nine horses trot across the fields toward a forest. In her mind, Talumn thought about how inaccessible those forests had become. It was melodramatic at its finest to see Amelie spread her fingers over the window. “I hate it when they go into those woods.” she moaned. A sigh escaped Salome’s lips. “You are boring when your boyfriend is around. You just romance over him.” She dropped her yellow skirt, sticking her tongue out, pretending to gag. Laughing, Talumn watched the princess wiggle a few times before leaping from the sill of the stone window. Amelie shook her head as she placed her hands on her hips. “I’m not.” Talumn knew she had never admitted to Median her crush, but it was obvious to everyone else. Despite her best efforts, she could not help but snicker. Amelie’s quick rejoinder drew a full laugh from Salome, who too found it funny. “And he’s not my boyfriend!” Amelie blurted out in a blush. Salome wagged her tongue in amusement. “You little devils!” Amelie screamed, giving them a look that would turn anyone with any sense to stone. Talumn, startled, looked down at Salome, who was smugly grinning with her hands on her hips. “Did you come all the way just to snub me?” “I didn’t come here to watch my brother ride a horse,” Salome said, raising her voice an octave. Seeing her elder sister challenged by someone for once is a fulfilling experience, especially since it’s someone so much younger than Amelie. As the two girls stared at each other, there was a creeping silence. Talumn caught herself sheepishly stifling a chuckle as the entire event appeared humorous to her. In a manner that suggested she had never taken part in the contest, Salome snapped her head away. “I’m bored,” she said. “Let’s go find something fun to do.” The younger blue-haired girl said grabbing Talumn’s hand. “I don’t want to be around dreamer girl anymore. She makes me sick.” “Come on, honey. Let’s go exploring.” Salome’s cheeks light up at Talumn’s suggestion. “That sounds like fun, I know just where to look too.” Talumn grinned and raised an eyebrow. “Let’s listen in on the Lords’ meeting.” Talumn’s face is bright with a wide grin as she imagined what they might be hearing. Getting an inside look at the operations of the kingdom had always been a hobby of hers. She felt important, as if she were a lord or an aristocrat. This was a piece of knowledge that only the finest few had access to, and she was one of them. She was not an orphan, but a true lady of the kingdom. However, Salome’s words result in Amelie’s loud burst from the window. The two girls are startled to see Amelie standing up with her arms folded. “No, you don’t!” she roars. “You little minx, Father would be furious if he found you.” “That’s why it’s so fun,” Salome said. “You can’t have fun if there is no danger involved.” Talumn’s arm is grabbed tightly by Amelie. “You better not do it.” “Oh, don’t act like a dead lizard. Where is your spirit of adventure?!” Salome said, pulling Talumn’s arm away. “Including I did not invite you. I and Talumn will go on our own.” Amelie shook her head in disbelief. I’m fine with you going, but you’re not taking Talumn. Don’t expect me to cry at your funeral if you get caught.” Crossing her arms, Talumn stands. “I would not mind going… I think it would be fun.” Amelie sighs, shaking her head. “It is said that we are ladies of the crown. The most they will do is scold us harshly. My father would never let old King Grandor touch me.” Salome taunts. “Your father is in Ruby Falls, serving the crown Salome,” Amelie retorted harshly. “Don’t forget you are a guest here Salome. You should act like a proper lady.” “I am a lady, Amelie! My brother will take care of your old father for me. What do you think of that?that?that? She wrinkles her nose and wiggles her fingers at the older princess. Amelie shakes her head while the young girl turns to Talumn pulling at her arm. “Let’s go.” “It is fine. We will only listen for a little Amelie.” Talumn said walking down the corridor with Salome. “You would be wise not to.” The two girls lift their skirts as they run down the baroque hall. A few seconds later, Amelie yells, “You stupid brats, don’t do it.”
Marshal Bregar, Hierarch Nigel and Lord Abelon the treasurer; all bow before taking a seat at the polished mahogany table. Grandor looks around his room. Yet, one spot at his table remains untouched, increasing the rage in his heart. The brows on his face narrow into a scowl. “Where is Griel?” his voice echoed through the chamber like a clap of booming thunder.
“Most likely in the taverns, my Lord,” a black-haired man whispered into the ear of High King Grandor. His name was Benidis, the voice of the kingdom and a fickle man.
With a long, drawn-out sigh, King Grandor replies, “Of course.” Griel’s behavior is predictable. In retrospect, he should have expected this from him. Since there was no point in wasting any more time, Grandor decided to begin the meeting now. In any case, Griel did not have much to add to the conversation. “What are our losses?” Grandor asked.
Lord Arwin sat to his right, whom Grandor had always kept close since he became High King. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Well, it could be more serious. We are still estimating the damage caused by the last moon’s attack. Volkmar has said that Lord Bilk is dead. We also lost Ulfates.” Grandor smiled a tad when he realized he had rid himself of that fool. A few weeks earlier, he had burned Bilk’s ramblings as kindling. It was after all the most appropriate way to dispose of them. There was hardly any reason to archive words so meaningless. “However, I have a concern. According to reports, the rebels are moving village guards out of Ulfates. Where they are going is unknown. This is troubling news. Benedis, I understand you have received several messages on behalf of the kingdom.” Grandor’s silver eyes gaze at the far end of the table. There sat “King” Bridehan, if anyone still considers him to be such.
Benedis said, “Unfortunately, I have. Parish has informed me. The Dalmaskans have attacked. Currently, they are being raided, and they are expected to suffer a full-scale invasion soon. Once again, My Lord, forces are requested of the throne.”
“Perhaps I can ease your mind, my lord.” Marshal Bregar looked at an old, rusted map on the table. Using a compass, he pointed to Ulfates in the east. “Following the capture of Ulfates, we have had several skirmishes in the villages leading to Verst. It appears they intend to conquer Verst from the east. Knowing this gives the kingdom an advantage.” He smiled as he pointed at the map. “We have been in contact with Lord Knight Hyde, who is planning an invasion of Ziekden, a small farming community outside of Belcross.”
“What makes Ziekden’s control so desirable?” Grandor grumbles.
Just west of Belcross, the Marshal pointed. “We’ve got an informant.” This person claims to still be loyal to the throne of the imperial kingdom. He has offered Guildred in exchange for immunity. Ziekden is building quite an operation, as it turns out. By striking them there, we will disrupt their entire operation. Lord Volkmar has already been informed of this information by me.”
“Very good.” Grandor looked at Bridehan with a piercing gaze. “Do you know anything about Ziekden Bridehan?” Bridehan shrunk into his chair at the question. Grandor growled, “That’s what I figured.”
“If I may interject… “, Arwin said, clearing his throat as Grandor taps his fingers on the table as he looks to Arwin, who could be called ancient. His brown eyes glanced around the room before speaking. “Lord Volkmar told me the rebels had located the fortress in Belcross. We take this Ziekden we may have an opportunity to not only take Ziekden but move to Belcross. Further, if we take Belcross at the same time as we retake Ulfates; there is no doubt in my mind that Guildred and his lot will be wiped off the map before the moon is over.” Grandor laughed at the idea. Suddenly the trouble he had been carrying left him and he felt a sense of ease.
“I will offer prayers for the kingdom to the true gods. May their will be done.” Chimes the hierarch.
Grandor thought to himself that it was nearly impossible not to laugh. If they were ever here, the gods were no more. Grandor rolls his eyes before looking back at Bridehan. “That’s a positive thing. Briehan, did you hear that?” Grandor snarled. “In less than a year from now, the uprising will be over.” Everyone looked at Bridehan snidely while he simply bowed down in shame. “So tell me, what is your plan for regaining control of your kingdom, Bridehan?”
King Bridehan of Taer was a fearsome warrior during the war, but after he gained the throne, he lost his once-powerful physique and instead became like a pig. Neither was he an intelligent person nor was he a skilled tactician, but rather he was a useful idiot. His body was like a golem. His hair was fading brown, turning gray. “It’s still ongoing,” Bridehan said.
“It’s still a pain in my side all these years later to think of Golgatha. Uprisings have again swept the land. Tributes have been severely lacking. The kingdom is losing soldiers. These developments have deeply concerned me. The Dalmaskans are raiding our allies in Parish day after day. We have no air forces to offer General Beney. If we don’t have a hold on our knights, how can we have a hold on the eastern kingdom? I fear we will be locked in a conflict with those savages in the far east unless our territories yield soldiers. Our interests would not only have to retreat to the mainland, but we would also face the wrath of the Imperator. Bridehan, how do you propose a solution to the mess you have created?” Grandor asked, placing more emphasis on the previous sentence.
Bridehan looked over sheepishly like a dog whipped by its master. “They are beasts without a sense of duty to the Royals. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know when to admit defeat, because it’s not my fault. I have never witnessed such pride. We risk a war unlike the last if we underestimate the people of Golgotha. We were able to negotiate a surrender and take Golgotha because of King Leon.”
Red-faced, the Marshal growled. “In which case, the man you poisoned!”
“It wasn’t me who did that. As much as you were surprised by King Leon’s poisoning, I was as well. That horror didn’t have to be witnessed by you. I was at the table with him when he died.” Bridehan said, leaping to his feet.
“That’s enough!” Grandor roared. ”Bridehan, continue what you were saying.”
“The people of the land don’t even respect me as their king, let alone follow my decrees. I would have full-blown revolts if I used more force. My knights and I are not feared by them. It is the ideals they strive for that are problematic. I cannot kill it from their hearts. The thought of these things has kept me awake many nights. I have given them everything they asked for and they still want more! Even if I had thrown down my crown before them, they would still not be pleased.” said Bridehan.
“You say it’s out of your hands. You are a powerless king in a land rife with barbarians?” said the King. “Marshal Bregar, how would you deal with such a populace?”
“My Lord, make an example of them. If their crops fail to produce, burn them. Take their youth and make them soldiers if soldiers don’t come. Quell them if they refuse to bend their knees. The problem you have, Bridehan, is that they do not fear you.” said Bregar looking every bit as fierce as a black lion. From his mane-like hair and beard to his glowing yellow eyes. It’s hard not to be impressed.
Bridehan stood from his chair with his hands slamming on the table. “That is insane!” he exclaimed. “Do that, and you will see the biggest uprising in Golgotha you’ve ever seen! Your ideas of how easily controllable these people are are incorrect. They have their own traditions and even a different set of gods than we do. I will not be afflicted by madmen.”
In a calm voice, Grandor commanded, “Sit.” Bridehand eased himself back into his chair. As he sat back, he heard a small creek. Then there was silence. “Very well.” he said. “What about you, Rhal?” Grandor asked in a raspy voice.
From his guard position in front of the large twin doors, the young knight looks up slowly. He glanced over the group of much older and wiser men than himself with bright silver eyes. “I would pretend to be one of them. When you control the love of the people, then nothing is beyond your reach.” Rhal stated before returning to his guard position, hand resting on the pommel of his saber.
As Bridehan looked over at Rhal, he folded his arms. “How am I supposed to convince them to give me that?” Rhal’s discomfort was obvious to everyone. Because it was completely unnatural for him to address a king as an equal, he simply bowed.
Rhal was spared the shame of answering when High King Grandor spoke up. “Would you like to know how I would deal with this King Bridehan?” Slowly, Bridehan turned his head from Rhal’s grin and to Grandor and watched him intently. “I would get a new king.” he said.
Bridehan’s eyes widen as the words leave his mouth. As he realized tonight that he might be executed, he became terrified. “My Lord King, please have mercy on me!” shouted the king.
“You see, this didn’t happen overnight, Bridehan. For the last twenty years, you have ruled. The decline was gradual. Using your power in an unwise way resulted in you losing control over time. In your castle, you hid up like a coward while thieves ravaged your domain and you dined on the finest foods. Having become weak, now you want to regain strength. We now face civil war among our forces after you permitted a small uprising by the Knights. The news of our inability to handle our troops will lead to my head on a pike if it reaches west. There is no purpose for you anymore and you are no longer able to be strong. I, on the other hand, am the true king. If you are a mere figurehead, I will let you stay. You shall be the King of Tidas. You will be hated by the East, and I want them to hate you. You will be the fool in their eyes. Therefore, keep your fool’s crown.” declared the King.
“My High King, I thank you, but what about Golgatha?” He breathed heavily as he realized this would not be the end of Grandor’s curse.
“Golgatha needs a King they can rally around. Rhal is right. A king must love his people. The way to have that is to be a native of Golgatha. Arwin, how are your studies with Prince Illian?”
“Prince Illian is a refined nobleman. He is an outstanding strategist. He has my highest regard.” said Lord Arwin.
“I know my son has struggled with his studies. He isn’t ready to claim his place in the east, according to my understanding. Consequently, Illian shall be made King of Elitus. Surely you wouldn’t object to this, wouldn’t you Bridehan?” Bridehan looked down at the table, fiddling with his hands. “Benidis, get things in order. Get him crowned in Elitus before the full moon.”
Counselor Benidis responds, “Yes, sir.”
Grandor leaned back in his chair and sighed. He looked around the room slowly. His attention is drawn to Lord Arwin. “Now that that order of business is done. How are the skies up north?”
“It was horrible, cutting off his head. There was blood all over the ground. I feel sick to my stomach just thinking of it.” Tybolt clutched his horse’s bridle tight as he described executing a local earlier in the day.
Taking a glance in Tybolt’s direction, Illian stroked his chin. “Would you want our city to be swarming with thieves?”
With a shudder, he shook his head. “N-no, but you’d think they’d have another method of execution that is less messy. Like starving them to death in a box or poisoning them. Not just axing their heads off in the street.” The blond prince shivered, “It’s disgusting.”
As Tybolt looks over at Median, who is slightly ahead of him. “What happens to the criminals in Ruby Falls?” Illian was also curious about Median’s response. The stories and ideas he told were very different from those he was used to hearing. Since arriving when he was a child, Illian had never left Taer. To him, it was his world. Median, an alien visitor, is welcomed warmly.
“Well, we always need people to fill the Colosseum,” said Median when he flashed a toothy smile. He brushed his hand through his fiery red hair as he said, “We simply throw them in a pit, give them a weapon and let them fight in battle until they die.” His blue eyes framed a face Illian found more beautiful than the sculpted gods at the shrine.
A horrified look crossed Tybolt’s face as he groaned and held his stomach. “That sounds absolutely barbaric.” he muttered.
Shaking his head slowly, the prince in black armor looks into the distance. “It is very graceful. A work of art. There is an undertone of death and life in it. The glorious struggles of a man to survive. His true nature is on display for all to see. Crimes are paid for, revenue is generated, and people are entertained. It’s better all around.” said Median. “Well, except for the poor blokes who can’t fight, but they usually die pretty quickly.”
Illian’s ears rang as he heard the man casually speak of such a painful death. In spite of how unethical it may sound, Median was exactly right, Illian thought. All of those benefits would be achieved but at the cost of morality of course. “This is something I never considered before.” Tybolt chimes sarcastically, “I assumed your gladiators were free men looking to make a name for themselves.” Illian was also surprised. There was no mention of criminal competitors in his extensive study of the colosseum in Ruby Falls.
“Most of the time, they are,” Median added with a lively voice. The problem is that when we reenact a battle, we often do not have enough bodies to make it look spectacular. We use the seized for that.” According to Illian, Median, unlike his father, King Ailer, believed that the best way to rule was through overwhelming force. He certainly was not a man to be triffled with. Yet, he was a poet and philosopher who kept his people spellbound with his mysterious charm.
It was a beautiful evening as Illian admired the bioluminescent forest. Throughout the blossoming night, neon shades of blue, green, and pink surrounded us. Their band on horseback strolled casually through a garden road. Median, however, wore a black breastplate of armor covering his commoner’s clothing, rather than the royal fatigues Illian and Tybolt wore.
Tybolt glanced behind him at Illian. “You need to hurry up! You’re too slow.” Tybolt huffed, pulling his Azure blue cape tight against his chest. “What are you looking at anyway?” he asked as he gestured in the direction of the thick forest, “There’s nothing but trees out here.”
“That is exactly what I am doing now. We don’t ride in the woods very often at night. Did you ever stop to consider how beautiful things are?” Illian asked with genuine interest.
A snap of Tybolt’s head brought him back to his front. “You can admire it from the walls of the castle. I’m tired of riding and I’m ready to go home. Plus, you two can talk about your cruel interests in a tavern. I can’t imagine what rousing conversation you two would have with a drink in hand.”
“I would assume you would get tired of being inside those walls,” Median says dully. Sometimes, Tybolt, you remind me of a caged animal. One that is disappointing and cowardly.” He sprawls back onto his horse with absolute comfort. Observing Medion’s mail raising, Tybolt could not help but notice his toned stomach.
Not wanting to be aroused, he closes his eyes. “Perhaps if I lived in a cave like some mud person you would change your mind? We are royalty, and we do not belong among these… primitive people. We are not peasants, we are rulers.”
Prince Medion snickered. “What’s the difference?”
“To be out here among the dirt is careless and lax. Having a city as your home is a dignified thing, it means you have an important place to be in.” He replied.
While Tybolt was paying attention to Illian, a smile began to spread across his face. While pulling his horse to stand beside Tybolt’s white stallion, he asked, “And where would that prominent place be?”
“What does it mean to you? You seem to prefer to be with a pack of trees. Given the amount of time you spend with books, I should have guessed it. They’re all made from the same damn thing anyway, and I for one don’t want to be in these woods all night.” Tybolt taps Illian’s horse as he explores the dimly lit forest. As Illian realizes Tybolt still has a childish fear of the dark, he snickers to himself. Probably also of the outdoors. For as long as he could remember, Tybolt had been a coward. With a knowing look, he smirked at Tybolt. “The look on your face is not flattering to me.” Tybolt snarled, turning away from Illian.
“I myself enjoy night rides. I don’t mean to offend you, but that castle is rather boring.” Median remarked from the back of his horse. There is a slight breeze rustling the leaves.
“What you too?” Tybolt asked betrayed. “Joining his side? Why do you behave like a traitor?” Tybolt asked sarcastically. “You are meant to agree with me.”
“I don’t have a side to play in this.” Medion replied.
“Go ahead if you want,” Illian said. “Take the three royal guards with you. I will stay with the rear three.” A howl from the dark alerted the knights, sending them to reach for their swords. As Tybolt froze, he turned pale. He shot an angred glance at Illian.
“Look at all the wolves,” said Medion. The woods are brightly illuminated by hundreds of white shining eyes. “They must regard us as invaders.”
“The wise keepers of the woods. After all, we are in their house. Naturally, they would take an interest in us. At least they are not wildlings. Illian smiled softly as he said, “They know better than to challenge.”
“Wolves, wise are the last words that come to mind when I think of them.” As he looked out among their number, Tybolt resisted every urge in his body to quiver. “Cowards, that’s what they are. They hide in numbers but never act alone.” Tybolt shook his head and whispered, “I said let’s go, Illian!”
Median as he sat up and turns on the saddle of his horse to face the young prince. Illian watches Medion’s curious grin spread across his face. “Are you still scared of the dark?”
“I do not fear the dark.” roared Tybolt, sending several birds scurrying away. “I just feel achy after all this riding, and I would like to take a hot bath before bed.”
Medion chuckled teasingly, “It sounds like you’re making an excuse.”
Now red as a cherry, Tybolt let out an audible gasp completely forgetting his fear of wolves. His fingers rattled against the pommel of his rapier. From his side, he draws it, pointing the tip at Medion’s throat. “I dare you to repeat that. Medion, I bloody dare you.” In half an instant, Medion had secured his dagger against Tybolt’s neck. Snapping his fingers, he returned his knife to its holster. Watching Tybolt’s face and sword fall in defeat, Illian grinned. “If father were here, you would never treat me like this.”
“Your father would be extremely upset if he were here and saw how you are acting,” Medion said firmly as he points a finger between Tybolt’s eyes.
He stopped his horse in its tracks, saying, “I’m not a child.”. After giving Tybolt one more glance, Medion smiled at Illian and they exchanged a quick nod before continuing down the path past the three front guards.
Tybolt hollers, “You can’t leave Medion without guards.”
His remark made one of the guards chuckle. “I am not sure if Medion has guards or if he guards the guards, my lord.” Tybolt grinned at the man. Ilian recognized that grin; it was feral, like a wild animal’s. “I suppose that’s true though. He shouldn’t be out there all by himself like that though.”
“My lady, come on, Grandor will have us slew if we don’t get you in on time.” one of the guards in the front said. Everyone laughed, except Tybolt. Illian glanced at Tybolt’s still face that was staring forward blankly, and he knew something terrible was about to happen at that moment.
Tybolt’s nostrils flared as he breathed heavily as he faced the man. “What did you say?” Tybolt snapped his fingers and pointed at the man. “Get off your horse and bow your head,” he commanded softly.
He looked over at the other soldiers. Their heads nodded to him, and he smirked before jumping off the back of his horse. Taking his foot off the saddle’s strap, Tybolt slowly lowered himself from the horse’s back. He stood several inches shorter than the soldier as he approached. The soldier stared at him with an intent look as Tybolt grinned with a crazed look. In the faintest voice he could muster, he whispered, “On your knees.”
Illian leapt from his horse and ran toward Tybolt. While drawing his sword from its ivory sheath, Tybolt cocked his head looking directly back at Illian. “Illian, I’m going back to the savagery of my father. Want to see?”
Illian dove for Tybolt as Tybolt held the blade over the man’s neck. He grabbed the blade with his bare hand and yelled, “Tybolt! Let your father deal with him.”
As Tybolt struggled to pull the sword away from Illian, he squealed, “Know your place, Illian!” The guard jumped to his feet, taking several steps away as Tybolt kicked Illian in the ribs, nearly knocking him unconscious. Two young nobles struggle with blades while guards watch intently. Despite Tybolt’s best efforts, Illian manages to retch the sword from his grip.
“I do Tybolt, you should know yours too,” Illian said, tossing his sword onto the ground before Tybolt. A firm slug to the chin knocked Illian backward. Tybolt grabbed the saber without a word, retiring to the side of his horse. Illian stares at him, the fire in Tybolt’s eyes this was not over. He grabs the side of the horse, then lunges onto its back in an unusual acrobatic display. Although he could not believe what he had just seen, the look on everyone’s faces clearly indicated he should.
The meeting of lords was now over, and Rhal braced himself against the huge hall doors. Royals gather their things as he awaited dismissal. “Gods and Grandor should be praised for sparing him from Bridhan’s scorn,” he reasoned. His attention is caught by a series of stifled squeals coming from the other side of the door. Hearing the click of cork heels trailing down the hall, he glanced at the crack between the doors. From the entrance, his silver eyes turn to Lord Grandor who is gathering several documents. “Those bloody girls are doing it again.” Rhal whispered to himself. “I better get them out of here before Grandor sees his daughter snooping.” He bowed to his knee and said, “My High King, may I excuse myself at this time?”
From his papers, Grandor glanced up. “Do what you must,” Grandor said while waving his hand. “I am happy with your performance today.” Rhal bowed lower with this. “I may have to take a closer look at you in the near future.”
“Thank you, my lord. It means a great deal to hear this from you.” Rhal stood as Grandor nodded. As he pushed the twin bars aside, the doors creak open loudly. As Rhal peered from behind a pillar, he saw the edge of a light blue dress and yellow ribbon.
Slowly he walked along with the polished white marble floors with a smile on his face. Just as he reached the pillar, he stopped. The two girls sheepishly poke their heads from behind the mast after a short bit of giggling. His boots go clanking with each slow and deliberate step he took. Rhal grinned at the young beauties hiding behind their hair. In a calm voice, he said, “Well…”.
Glancing at each other, the two princesses are gleefully blushing. Princess Talumn, trying to appear serious, asked, “Is this any way to address two fair ladies of the crown, Sir Rhal?” Light pink lips appear against her russet skin.
“I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a lady,” he said, stroking his chin. “Where might she be?”, he asked with a hint of amusement.
“What do you mean by what you said?” Princess Salome barks at him, her hands are placed on both sides of her vanilla dress as she narrows her eyes.
The man raised his eyebrows while placing his hand to his side. “To be honest, it looks like I am talking to a couple of very very talented little spies.” They beamed and chortled. The small outburst caused Rhal to glance around uneasily. “If you keep doing this, I’ll get in trouble. You know better than to listen in on the King’s meetings. There you two are again creeping around. Don’t do it. You girls will make tempting captives of yourselves.” He wagged a white-gloved finger at the girls.
Talumn grasped Rhal’s arm, stopping him from wagging his finger. “We have faith in our great and honorable protector,” Talumn said.
Salome follows embracing him and pressing her head into his chest. “After all, we are safe with you around.”
Rhal rolled his eyes and slumped back as he pushed the two girls off of him. “And what if I am not around?”
Salome looked at Rhal with a broad grin on her face. “Then we will scream and you will come running,” she said matter of factly, almost as if she believed it herself. While gazing into her sapphire eyes, he stroked her ice-blue hair. Before he messes up her hair, she gives him a childish pout.
“So you have that much faith in me do you?” Rhal glared at the two before he said, “What am I to do with you? Just be good at it if you must.”
“Are you going to tell father?” Talumn’s voice rose several octaves higher and became very childish. Naturally, he wouldn’t fall for that, but if he did, it would only get the girls in trouble and maybe result in reprimand for him. But if he doesn’t know, they will do it again.
He shook his head. “No, only because he has more urgent matters to attend to.” That’s when Rhal noticed that Amelie wasn’t with them. The only one who can get him out of his trouble is Amelie, and he would make sure she knew it. “And where is your elder sister, Talumn?” he asked. “Isn’t she part of your usual group?”
Folding her arms, Salome stood up straight. “She wasn’t interested in coming today. She is waiting for the boys to return from riding.” She puts her tongue to her cheek. “She always talks about my brother. It’s gross.”
Rahl chuckled, “Ah, I see, that explains it.” He had noticed the two of them spending more time together lately. He had suspected it, but now it was confirmed. If Grandor found out about their flirting, he wasn’t sure how he would react. Still, it wasn’t his place to worry about it. “Before you get in real trouble, skedaddle out of here. You aren’t even supposed to be on this side of the castle.” The two grin at each other and run off, raising their skirts and exposing themselves as they do so. Half-smiling, Rhal shakes his head. “Those two.”
Princess Amelie waited in the castle courtyard on the rim of a vast fountain. Her gaze was drawn to the statue of Luniel the peace bringer, which guarded the center of the fountain pool. Water flowed from the goddess’s raised palms, displaying a sense of quiet peace. Watching the distant dark for any sign of light, the princess looked down at her beautiful silk scarlet pleated skirt. It didn’t take Amelie long to see a horse with a lantern strapped to its side breach the darkness. As her heart fluttered, a feeling of dread creeps up her spine, wrapping its terrible arms around her. In an attempt to see the rider, she craned her neck, but the darkness intended to conceal its presence.
Upon reaching the gates, the envy of her eye, Prince Medion, appeared to be in proper order, to her complete delight. In a moment of relief, Amelie rose to her feet. Medion halted his horse in the courtyard. He jumped off its back in grand style. Princess Amelie hurriedly embraced him. “A welcome party!” he laughed, hugging her tightly. His fingers stroked Amelie’s flaxen hair. In exchange for the softest of kisses on her cheek, she gave him the best smile she could muster.
In that moment, she realized that she had forgotten about her previous worries. “Where are the others?“ She asked looking up at him with lotus-colored eyes. His head rolled around his shoulders as he gave a half-grin before rolling his eyes. The elegant princess held back her laughter. “I always worry about you when you ride into the night like this,” Amelie said as she laid her head against Medion’s cold black breastplate of armor.
Medion merely smiles at her and pets her head. He is quite tall, almost an entire foot taller than she is. “Milady, would you like to come along with Flowen and me to the stables?”
Amelie said, “I would love to.” Over her shoulder, she saw Tybolt’s white horse bounding from the woods. As he rushed in past Medion and herself, he did not even bother to slow down for gate guards. Following closely behind him are the other guards and Illian. Upon passing the gate, Medion looks over and waves to Illian.
As Illian rode his horse up next to the pair, he scratched his head. Tybolt’s horse echoes through the courtyard. Illian said with a chuckle, “He is upset.”
“What else is new with my idiot brother?” Amelie said. “And what did he do this time?”
“Father!” the prince cried. “Father!” Tybolt hollered again as he stormed into his father’s quarters. The candle on Grandor’s desk flickered as he slammed the door behind him. Grandor turned his head away from the pile of papers laying before him.
Shaking his head, Grandor sighed at his son’s antics. “Yes, my son. What troubles you?”
Snarling like a wolf, Tybolt ground his teeth. “Those are some fine knights you keep. They insult me without mercy.” Tybolt shouted at the top of his lungs, “Your filthy guards are worthless.”
Grandor returned his pen to its inkwell. “Would you be so kind as to enlighten me on what happened?”
Tybolt was clenching his fists. “One of your guards called me a damn woman!” he exclaimed.
“How should we deal with such a matter, my father?” Grandor’s eyes grew heavy as he rose from the table.
“Do you have any questions about what should be done?” He threw his hand in the air as he walked to the other side of the table.
“How often do you come here? It seems you always have something to say about my guards. Would you prefer to pick them yourself?” Tybolt opened his mouth but was swiftly cut off. “No, please do not answer that. Are you dead?” Grandor grunted.
A narrow look crossed Tybolt’s face. “The question is ridiculous.”
“That’s right, why would you be dead? You’re well guarded by my guards. With that mouth of yours, you’re lucky to still have it.” Tybolt stared for a moment at his father’s shaking eyes.
“Well, I… It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims. “I was called a woman! I am the heir to the throne. I expect him to respect royalty. This-this-this dog might as well have bitten me.” A long breath erupted out of his nostrils.
Grandor just shook his head. “You should consider what you are saying.”
“I know what I say!” Tybolt shouted back.
Slowly, Grandor approached his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Yes, and that bothers me,” he said. “I sometimes feel sick thinking about leaving the throne to you. I’ve stayed up all night worrying about you. Your sister may be better suited to ruling than you.”
Tybolt pushed his father’s hand away. “He called me a woman! Even by your standards, that is asking for death.”
Afterward, Grandor roared. “It is because of childish things like this that I have to send someone else to handle Galgotha instead of dealing with it myself. It is advisable if I leave Taer in your hands, Tybolt, instead of staying here as your supervisor.”
“Then who will you send in your place?” Tybolt snapped.
Grandor looked away from Tybolt and said, “Illian.” in a quiet, calm voice.
Tybolt took several steps forward, lowering his head like a crow. He mumbles, “Illian?”
Walking toward his balcony, Grandor said, “He leaves three days from now.” Tybolt follows him but stops at the threshold.
Grandor ran his fingers along the edge of the railing. “How is that possible?” Tybolt asked, completely puzzled.
“He is to be crowned King of Elitus,” Grandor said, turning to Tybolt to see his reaction. As Tybolt’s eyes grew crazed, he knew what was coming. As a child, he always got the same look when he was forced to share his toys.
“My kingdom is Golgatha. Bridehan is ruling in my stead.” Tybolt pointed a finger at his father while cocking his head to one side.
“And Elitus is Illian’s; you knew this day would come. It is his by right.” Grandor then corrected Tybolt, “Including he can serve a purpose now.”
“For what purpose?” Tybolt stepped onto the balcony. “It makes more sense to keep him here than to send him to those savages at Golgotha.”
Grandor peered over the edge to view the whole city and a vast distance beyond his grand kingdom of Taer. “He is a native son; they won’t treat him as they would one of us. Golgotha can have what they want, their country. Elitus will be put back in its place. As an empire, Golgotha cannot stand against us without Elitus. It’s as simple as that Tybolt.”
Tybolt shook his head in disbelief. “Illian is still too young to rule.”
Arwin considers Illian to be a wise man. So do I. Illian is similar to his father. He would be proud of him, just as I am.” Grandor turned away from Tybolt.
This is not one of Arwin’s scenarios. This is Illian ruling a kingdom.” Tybolt tapped his foot. “Nevertheless, what does Illian know about Golgotha? He is as native as a son as I am. Moreover, they will view Illian as an enemy.”
“I have appointed many kings, Tybolt. I will appoint many more after Illian. It is foolish of you to think you are wiser than me.” Grandor glanced at his son.
In disbelief, Tybolt shook his head. “Father, you can’t have him. He is my brother. Do you wish to take him away?”
“Illian is the future of my kingdom, as well as yours. You will not have to clean up your father’s filth when I leave you, Marion. I will leave the Empire in pristine condition. All you have to do is learn how to rule it. As soon as you have proven to me that you are dedicated to the Imperator, and you will take your role in the kingdom seriously, I will consider giving you a position in the kingdom. Up until then, I won’t be hearing anything from you.” Grandor let out a heavy sigh. “Sometimes, I feel ashamed to call you my son. Unlike Illian, who has advanced in the ranks and proven himself to Arwin, you have chosen to disregard your studies. As a father, can you imagine how difficult it is for me to do this? You are splinters in my cup!” Grandor turned away from his son and stepped away from the edge.
Instead, Tybolt walks past his father, grabbing onto the railing as he points at the city below. His fist slowly closes. “Illian was not meant for you,” he said. “Both of you are ignorant of the truth. Truth is, ruling is not about being loyal to your kingdom. It’s about being powerful and feared. You must command respect and loyalty from your people if you expect them to obey you. Bridehan chose to be weak. If they do not follow orders, hang their bodies from every rafter in the city. That is how you rule.” Tybolt said, his eyes burning. “Despite such a small number, the Talmians held strong. So why don’t we strive to have a kingdom like theirs? I am made to study useless drivel, names of past kings and lords, and their meager accomplishments, by Arwin. Then I read about Valarious, the man who established the Azure Kingdom. The Talmian student surpassed Hemlock and his empire, which spanned the whole known world. I aspire to surpass him.”
“The dreams of a child. The people of Talmia were evil. This world was cursed by them. Everything they touched was ruined. By following their path, you will rule a kingdom of sand. Valarious was highly regarded despite his Talmian heritage. Grandor sighed. “I love you, but you are not yet ready to rule. There is much to learn.”
Tybolt gazed down at the vast city below, his mouth salivating as he said, “My kingdom will be more glorious than any kingdom this world has ever seen. I have seen it. A glorious bride. My kingdom is waiting for me. It is destiny.”
Through the threshold of the balcony, Grandor walked back inside, shaking his head. “It is, for this reason, I do not trust you.”