Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 22

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Chapter 22

Saint Of Sins

The old concrete staircase reminded Apricot of a bomb shelter. With every step she took, a camera groaned, following her. As Apricot stepped in front of the large metal door, she waved her hand at the camera. One by one, the mechanical bolts slid aside. While she walked into the dark basement, a metallic bang is heard as the door behind her closes again. “Hey, guys, you here?”

As Shiori’s voice was overhead, he mumbled “Apricot. We are in the lobby down the hall.” As Apricot approached, she heard Shiori speaking from down the hall, “Well, figured that would happen. My credit chip was just deactivated.” She walked in to find the group seated on a gray sectional, several drinks arranged on a coffee table in front of them. Their backpacks are arranged against the wall. She assumed they are new clothes and other supplies. “Hi, Apricot. What took you so long?” Shiori asked.

“I needed to rest after I fought Natsukawa. I got your message, but I couldn’t find the location. It is really well hidden.” Apricot’s voice was tired after the night’s efforts.

As Sumai rested her head in her hands, she looked up at the concrete ceiling. She gave Apricot a firm glare as she sat up. “Is he still alive?” Apricot bobbed her head sadly. “Then what are we waiting for?” she asked suddenly. “We can’t let him get away with what he did to Togashi.”

“We don’t know where he is,” Shiori uttered with a sad tone of voice. “Even still, we’re not in a position to go search for him. As terrorists, we are being vilified by the media and the police.  At this point, we can only focus on completing our mission and stopping the seal breaker.”

Apricot’s face was grim as she cleared her throat, her eyes sunken with dark circles. “I may have some information about that. Natsukawa assumed I was working with him and we were meeting up. He said something about knowing he hid out in “the tunnels”. I am assuming it was the tunnels that were shut down. Maybe even the same tunnel system Cortez found Genova in.”

Shiori glances at the ground while shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, if it is the only thing we have to rely on. Akagi, be useful and take a look at those cameras, maybe you can spot something.”

“It could be a trap. I know that area is crawling with troops right now.” Akagi said. “I mean, Natsukawa might realize we are after him. So he pretended to attack Apricot and… I don’t know anymore.” The young teen, rising from the couch, fiddled with his bag before reaching for a silver gray laptop.

“Shoiri, I’ll go.” Sumai said.

“No, you will stay here with Junko and Akagi,” he commanded firmly.

Sumai gave Shiroi a bit of a side-eye before she said, “I am coming if you like it or not.”

“It’s too many people. Apricot and I will go. Apricot because she can actually fight a phantom if anything pops up and I will go because I happen to know about ritual magic. Which he may employ a number of spells.” Shiori reasoned.

Throughout the room, everyone was alarmed when Sumai banged his fist against the table. “Damn it Shiori!“

“Sumai you’re in no state to go out. You are feeding on rage right now. I can see it.” Junko stands behind Sumai and puts her hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. We’re going to rest right now. We will get him and Kyo for what they did later.”

“I hate to tell you this Shiori but those tunnels have no cameras. They are offline, not from a digital lock but rather physically disconnected. They won‘t even ping. There are twenty-six cameras and every single one of them is missing. I don’t like this guys. They posted last month though, so this was a recent thing.” Apricot noticed Akagi’s worried tone.

Apricot sighs, “I don’t like it much either,” a surge of courage welling up inside her. Sumai’s anger must have stirred her as well. The impact of the situation had yet to be felt by her, but she knows it will soon. Nonetheless, she continues, “We have to move forward. If this is what ends all of this, we have to.” She gripped her fist tightly.

“Can you rig something up to stop us from getting caught?” Shiori asked Akagi resting his hand on his back.

“Mmmmm, I can put all the cameras in the city on a relay so they can‘t see you. As far as the police are concerned, I could try to distract them with fake calls. The maintenance crews will be too busy dealing with those to actually bother tracking you down. That virus I rigged up is really causing damage to the network. They are already busy working on that. If you get stopped, it’s game over. I can‘t do much to help you aside from that.” Akagi looked up from the screen furrowing his brow. “Don’t get caught ok.”

“Cheer up kid. Does it look like we’re planning on getting caught?” Shiori laughed, turning away from the group. “Then it is settled. Apricot, are you armed?” Apricot nodded resting her hand on the hilt of her saber tucked into her pant leg. “Good, let’s try and find Cortez.”

“Cortez?” Apricot questioned.

“He is a tunnel rat. I can make it worth his while to come with us.”

“Shiori I don’t think he will…” with a hand raised Shiori silenced Apricot and continued down the hall, the bolts of the door whining open.

Akagi must be keeping a tight hold on all of the city’s surveillance equipment, Apricot thought to herself. A number of police cruisers pass them by as they walk down the sidewalk thoroughfare, the city alive as ever. Despite being a wanted man, Shiori had a tense air about him, even when he was covered up. Seeing him in a hoodie is not typical of his appearance. It did not suit him.

With his gaze darting from side to side, he resorted to using hand gestures instead of verbal commands. Apricot caught on fast. Open palms meant to stop and folded fingers meant it was time to move. All the while, the couple tried their best to mimic normality, but Apricot thought it was only a poor imitation.

Outside of the metroplex station, they stop. At the gate, boarding passes are scanned to allow entry to the train system. Seeing Shiori staring down the gates, Apricot paused and focused on him. As he made his way through the scanners, he took a deep breath. The red light remained as the camera adjusted itself further, inspecting the pair. “This is taking longer than usual,” she said to herself while chewing her lip. Rather than acknowledge her comment, Shiori stared forward stone-faced. As soon as the light turned green, the gates opened to Apricot’s relief.

It seemed as if Apricot had made it aboard the train with little, if any, recognition, aside from a few glances. Shiori whispered to Apricot, “This is your show.” Apricot nodded and guided him down the abandoned cart path. As the metro began its slow speedup, the morning sun barely illuminated the train. Through the last set of doors, Apricot led Shiori to the rear cart. There Cortez was dressed in a black trench coat resting against the wall. His gaze flickered to Apricot then Shiori. “Ah, hell, you two?” Cortez growled. “I told you I was done. What do you want?”

“A minute of your time and possibly a few hours after that,” Shiori said. “Mind if I take a seat?”

“Heh,“ Cortez rolled his eyes, “Ain’t my train.”

In Cortez’s coat, Apricot saw that a knife was already out. “Put it away, we’re only here to talk.” Cortez raised an eyebrow before scratching his head with both hands. As soon as his hands are lowered, the blade had vanished.

“So if you are not here to screw me up, what are you here for?” Cortez grinned.

On the other side, Shiori takes a seat. “We did it. The family will no longer be an issue. We have one last piece to scrub though. That seal breaker. We think we figured out where our friend was hiding.”

“Yeah, that’s great. What’s that got to do with me?” Cortez pointed upwards like the arrogant prick he can be at times.

“We need your help Cortez, he is in the tunnels. You know how to move around the tunnels and navigate them. Could you help us? It’s not necessary for you to do anything but be our guide.” Apricot hopes to win over his sympathies, if he had any. Even though he wouldn’t admit it, she knew he was terrified. His demeanor, however, suggested there was more to it.

“Maybe if you pay me. That service won’t be cheap. I want twice what you are going to pay her.” Cortez said to Shiori.

As Shiori looked over at Apricot, she returned a nod back to him. “Yeah, well, that is not going to be a problem.”

“I know you’re not good for it Shiori. Your credit stick has been shut off. Your jade marks are deactivated too I bet. So how do you plan on paying me?” Cortez gave him a sly smile.

“How the hell did you know that?” Shiori grunted.

“You turn on a TV at all? Your face is plastered all over it. Kind of pisses me off seeing you all over the place.”

“I got my way. Don’t I always pay my debts?” Shiori retorted.

Cortez shook his head. “You pay me now or else I might just turn you two in for a healthy profit. After all, you are both wanted by the police right now. I am sure your warrants are worth far more than whatever you would pay me.” Shiori flings a cloth satchel in Cortez’s direction with an angry stare. When he opened up the bag, Cortez peeked inside. “You got to be shitting me. Are these real?”

“So you coming with us or not?” Shiori rose from his seat. “I am tired of wasting time here.”

“I’ll lead the way,” Cortez replies with a chipper tone. “We ain’t going down there from the abandoned train station. We are doing it from the trash lands. Safe, less likely to run into some soldiers.  Maybe we find Genova and we can put him down too.”

A glint from Cortez’s machine gun could be seen in the dim lighting of the tunnel. In an effort to calm his nerves, he nervously fondles the handle as though in some ritual of seduction. Apricot never felt comfortable with Cortez’s new gun. It was almost like a fetish, the way he held it. 

Despite being so far ahead of them, Shiori continued to walk leading the group through the shadows. Occasionally bobbing his head and casting a glance in search of sigils, as he called them. Apricot had not yet figured out how to spot the well-hidden signs, even after spending such a long time with the group. Nevertheless, she was well-versed in how to recognize signs of hoodlums posing as cults to gain support in suburban culture.

Holding out his hand, Shiori halted in his tracks. As his gaze moved over the walls, he said, “Wards.”

“I see nothing.” Cortez said, only to have Shiori point his rod at a symbol written in the cracks of the wall. “Well, who could see that?” Apricot could not help but laugh at Cortez’s embarrassing admission. With a sharp glare, Cortez shut Apricot’s mouth.

Apricot bent down to look at the spiraling series of symbols. “So, what is this for anyway?”

“Wards? They ward things away.” Shiori grinned, causing Cortez and Apricot to roll their eyes. “It is a sign to keep spirits from entering places. I think we are on the right path.” Shiori glanced over his shoulder. “I suggest haste, as I am sure he will notice us soon enough.”

“Doubt it.” Cortez grunted raising Shiori’s eyebrow. “We are heading into the underground city. Should not be too far ahead. Ruins of the old city lay buried beneath the new one. The place is huge. Looking for him down there, pshhh, good damn luck.”

Shiori sighed as he walked down the hall, quickening his stride. The others follow behind. After the corridor, there was a ruin of skeletal buildings. A dusty remnant of urban decay stretched on into the darkness. Apricot pointed at a fire light surrounded by dancing shadows and asked, “What’s that?”.

The ring of a bell called from the building. “Think it is that easy?” Shiori whispered.

“Let’s get this over with. The place smells moldy.” Cortez kept walking past the two, swinging his gun over his shoulder. Shiori followed closely behind him. Apricot doesn’t know what to make of this open invitation. On the other hand, it’s cold down here, so the seal breaker may assume they’re alone. Eventually, they came across the fires within the ruins. The building before them was shattered like the rest of them. It was tall and had a large bell hanging above it. “It used to be a cathedral.” Cortez commented. Enting through the missing twin doors exposed a chapel hall decorated with hand-painted tapestries which Apricot gave little regard. Instead, her focus was on the lumbering man in a red cloak who stood before an altar.

Upon turning toward the group, he revealed his face was painted with a clay mask. His pale, withered white skin stands out in stark contrast to the ruddy red mask. Apricot stepped in the way of Shiori as the masked man displayed a ritual knife. Cortez lifted the rear sight of his gun to his eye as he growls, “I’ll blow your head off if you move.”

“There is no need for that. You are apostles of the black god, aren’t you?” the man warmly states. “You must be to make the pilgrimage down here. Look around you. What do you believe led you here?”

“Pardon my friend here,” Shiori said, placing his hand on the barrel of Cortez’s gun, pushing it to the ground. “Apostles of the black god? Who is this black god?god?god? Apricot and Shiori know what that means. It’s likely that Cortez does too. The ancient evil worshiped by the strange cult Cortez’s father described. He spoke of an undercity in his writings. This was all too harrowing for Apricot.

“Shame, and here I thought, well, nonetheless. Seeing the large mural covering the wall behind the priest, Apricot can’t help but feel a knot forming in her stomach. The city is surrounded by fire as a black, horned entity hovers over it. Despite its crude appearance, it suggested a powerful and unearthly evil.

In this old cathedral that has been hollowed out, it appears a man has taken up residence. Much of it is covered with undisturbed dust. A trail of dust marks where the priests touched. These trails have preserved his movements for how long is impossible to say. Candles burned dry over and over and over again, forming elaborate models of their own as their waxy channels dried.

“You never answered my question.” Apricot looked up at Shiori, who approached the priest with measured steps.

Lowering his head, the priest placed a hand on his covered chin. “Well, the black god has been here since ancient times. Though the city has forgotten its history. He remains still.”

“Does this black god have anything to do with the seals around the city?” Shiori asked the priest.

Behind his mask, Apricot imagined a smile crossing his face as he looked directly at Shiori. “Heh, one could say that he indeed does. Your lot is not an ignorant one I see.”

“We are seeking someone who is destroying those seals,” Shiori said drawing a pistol from his undercoat. “You would not be that person would you.”

The man slowly turned away from Shiori letting out a sigh. “I can hardly walk, I could never make it to the surface.” He lifted his pants leg to reveal a rusted and damaged prostetic leg. Wires hang out the side between shattered plates. “I am trapped down here until the ritual is finished that is. I shall sustain until the time comes. I do however know who you are looking for. You were right to seek him down here, alas he is difficult to catch.”

“Is that so? Does that mean you are after him too?” Cortez remarked.

“He runs too quickly for me to follow him. And yes I am, I seek his death as well. If he accomplishes his task, there will be no future here.” The priest’s stride stopped before the alter. “If you seek to find him I suggest you hurry. He is leaving again. I can feel his presence slipping away.”

Apricot looked back at Shiori as he turned towards Cortez. He nodded at her. As the priest raises his palm, he reveals that his hand is cut, and blood is pouring over the altar. “I shall sustain until the time comes,” he whispers as they rush to the underground entrance.

“Do you think that man tricked us?” Apricot asked, feeling a heavy feeling coming over her as she searched the tunnels without success.

Cortez grunted “I am starting to think so. The man was crazy, I bet he was the one.”

Shiori stops in his tracks, swiveling his head around. “You two, stop it. You saw his leg. He could not run on that thing if his life depended on it.”

“What if he damaged it running away?” Apricot threw her arms behind her back. “It doesn’t matter, let’s keep searching.”

Cortez then said, “I am getting tired and it smells like shit down here.”

An explosion of purple light erupts from the shadows and flies into the group. Apricot narrowly avoids being hit. “Die!” yelled a young man. In the darkness, Cortez points his gun at the man running toward him. Despite firing his gun, the teen dived aside, kicking the wall and retching the gun from Cortez’s hands.

Apricot quickly grabbed a knife from her wrist and threw it at the cloaked man. In one fluid motion, the cloaked man blocked the knife with the side of the gun and threw it aside. A slashing attack from Shiori’s rod wherls in front of the attacker’s face. He flew to the ground gracefully and slipped his leg into Shiori’s. Shiori fell onto the cement as the young man grabs the rod to kick him.

As the phantom force impacts Apricot, she feels a burning pain in her back. As a result, she falls to the floor. As she watches a machine step past her, her vision becomes hazy. One more blast knocks the teenager to the ground. While looking at the stranger, Shiori is struck by another blast.  Despite Cortez’s best efforts, the man stabs him in the stomach with a dagger.  After trying all she can to get up, Apricot falls limp under the cover of darkness.

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Perosnal Journal

Lyorta Chapter 5

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Chapter 5: Brother’s Blood

~ The City Of Belcross ~

Taking in his brother’s precession from the Reed Arms Tavern balcony, Wolgraft watched the rigors of his arrival. Belcross was awash in festive cheer and celebration, raining down flowers and confetti. Wolgraft quipped, “He loves this.” His sister, Ariest, cheered, waving a handkerchief over the balcony railing. Wolgraft shrugged as he glanced over at Mayfare, his sister’s maid, who stood between the two. As Guildred rode on horseback, the crowd separated as he held high the flag of the revolution, the flag of the Azurian mainland – royal blue with a cross interwoven on the left enclosed in a loris reed circlet.

Ariest encircled Wolgraft’s biceps, saying “He is safe.”.

“Well, I would expect no less.” Raising his hand, Wolgraft gestures at Guildred, who noticed the three standing on the balcony. People dropped flowers at his horse’s feet as he nodded and continued his glad-handing. “It is amazing that even though we are rebels, they seem to love us.”

“You are liberators, not rebels. Don’t you ever listen to what people say?” Mayfare added.

“It is just hard to believe,” Wolgraft exclaimed over the celebration. “I mean, think about it, we attacked as invaders a few years ago. We conquered them… we did this. Then when we rebel against the crown, we are heroes? I don’t understand the logic behind it.”

The girlish chuckle of Ariest rings in Wolgraft’s ears. “It is because you overthink things sometimes. It is important to see things from their point of view. The raiders were all wiped out, and there was peace. Under the rule of the crown, they took and supplied nothing to the people. Even I can understand that, Wolgraft.”

“I suppose you are right.”

Putting one hand on Ariest’s back, Mayfare inquires, “So, does that mean he captured Ulfates?”

“I think so. Assuming Guildred failed, I don’t think he would have come back. He would never have allowed himself to be humiliated.” Ariest replied.

Wolgraft smiled when he thought of the large pastures and homes he used to own. “One step closer to home,” Wolgraft said as Ariest lets out a startling scream. “What!?”

“Look at what he has brought back!” Ariest shouted, pointing towards the sea of people cheering.

The look on Mayfare’s face changed. “I have seen those before in Lasandra’s book of drawings.”

Wolgraft looked away from the two girls, gazing out over the crowd. He is captivated by two huge hauls. “What is that?“ he blurted, stroking his chin. Despite their presence, the crowd is too delighted to hear of their safe return to notice them. They are tied together and several horses are pulling each one. “What is that monster?”

“Village Guard,” Lasandra enthused Wolgraft, who stood over the machine looking down at the hulking crab machine. “The idea that it is asleep but alive kind of scares me, to be honest.” She ran her fingertips along the Village Guard’s brown carapace. “I don’t like dealing with things like this.”

“So what exactly are you doing with these?” Wolgraft stared in astonishment. ”It looks like its armor is more durable than stone.”

Nodding her head, Lasandra said, “It’s a lot stronger than I thought. You won’t see these things being penetrated. Because Village Guards are made for war, they must be stronger than stone. A good Vistis cannon hit will take one down though. At least I think it would. Could be wrong though.” Wolgraft raised an eyebrow, shivering from the thought of taking on one of these monsters. In the days after returning from Ulfates, Guildred hadn’t talked to anyone. From the rumor Wolgraft heard, Guildred acquired his grave wounds by defeating Village Guard in single combat.

Lasandra’s voice wakes Wolgraft from his daydream, telling him: “Guildred wants these two ready for battle. Without a codex, reprogramming would be a lengthy process. In other words, I will remove its systems and let it act according to its own nature. Risky but orders are orders. The problem is I got to cut out the system and if the blood thaws I will have one upset Village Guard, now won’t I?” Lasandra chuckled, gazing up at the massive body with blue eyes.

His eyes became wide as the revelation Lasandra had just revealed to him sank in. “So, they would… just go berserk?” he shouted at her.

Nervously, Lasandra ran her fingers along the machine’s cold frame. “Yeah, that is the goal. Sorta, I mean they would not be aggressive without reason, but generally, it does not take much to get them upset.”

As he looked at Lasandra, Wolfgraft folded his arms. “That is crazy and reckless.”

“So do you think I am crazy, Wol?” She is following my orders.” Wolgraft quickly turned his gaze to the entrance of the barn. There Guildred walked down to the bottom of the barn. “Normally, village guards are docile until they receive a threat. They will serve as good workers, plowing the fields using village guards will make it easy to plant fresh crops.” Wolgraft is puzzled. What is this about crops? They were going home, weren’t they? He stares at his brother, not wanting to question him.

“Lasandra, how is my armor?” Guildred asked with a firm voice.

Lasandra jostled her head in disappointment. “I can’t work with it. It’s all torn to hell. It will take me some time to just get the proper materials for it, let alone repair the internal parts. You busted several ligaments in the shoulder. The muscle sinue got torn to ribbons. It will take time to heal, but I can fix it.”

Guildred’s expression faded for a moment. “O’,” he said in a monotone voice. “Well, that is a pity.”

“Talmian alicids are scarce these…”

With a raised hand, Guildred cuts Lasandra off. “You need not lecture me. I understand.”

The two look away from him as he returns to the stairs. Wolgraft called out, “Wait. How is your shoulder doing?”

Guildred paused for a moment before climbing the stairs again. When his shadow reached its peak, he said, “Soldat hasn’t returned. We’d better get out of here before the locals notice.”

Upon hearing the front door open, Ariest turned around. She made a beeline for the entrance, a wide smile covered her face. Wolgraft and Guildred stand at the end of the hall. Guildred walked past them with his head bowed and no expression on his face. She chirped, “Welcome home.” When she turned to Wolgraft, he locked eyes with her and shook his head. Ariest found it hard to maintain a smile. In the dining room, Mayfare was presenting a feast of angels on horseback. There is a delicious scent of salty sea air filling the room as the oysters are fresh from the harbor. Mayfare just put a fresh loaf of yeast bread on the table, which added to the smell in the air.

“Good evening, Lord Guildred,” Mayfare greeted Guildred as he entered the dining room, bowing as he walked past her to the table. His presence alone was enough to draw everyone’s attention without him speaking a word. The four people silently ate their meal. Guildred ate in an official manner as always, while the others ate much more sluggishly, startled, and reservedly. Wolfgraft wished he could compliment Mayfare on her cooking, but held his tongue for fear of breaking the silence. Guildred looked frazzled, but everyone knew he was about to lose it. His expression caused men’s hearts to skip a beat. With every bite, his hands trembled, jittering as he felt the pain coursing through him.

In that way, he looked toward Mayfare and then to Ariest. “This is delicious, Mayfare, Ariest,” he said, and with that, he nodded toward them both. A half smile appeared on Mayfare’s face. However, the rest refrain from commenting. They continue to eat in silence, as they did when they began. As soon as Guildred raised his hand, Mayfare got up from her chair to clear the dishes. “Wolgraft, help your sister clear the table.” Ariest stared at Wolgraft. Mayfare continued to reach for a plate. “Mayfare, let Wol and Ari handle this, come up to the roof with me,” Guildred instructed before leaving the room.

The hapless maid was utterly confused and looked over at Wolgraft pleading eyes. Wolfgraft looked back while mouthing “I don’t know.”

After taking her shoes off, Mayfare climbed out of the third-story window onto the wooden shingles of the arched roof. Putting her foot down on the mossy shingles, her foot slipped. As Guildered lay on his back, his feet were pressed up against the fall bars as he approached the edge of the roof. She looked at him as he extended his hand toward her. “It’s all right. I won’t let you fall.” He stomped on the metal that rattles the bar. “See it’s sturdy. Come sit with me.” Mayfare carefully walked across the shingles, holding onto the rail with her hand. After slipping on the uneven surface, her foot was able to grab the track again and regain her balance. As she sat, Guildered allowed her to stabilize herself by holding her side.

“Why are we on the roof?” Mayfare asked.

A small smile appeared on Guildred’s face. “It’s serene and private here, everything is so clear. If you look closely, you can even observe the ripples of the tides above.” Mayfare glanced up to see the moons hanging in the open air and a glowing orb whose glow was fading. “This is a beautiful place. Don’t you think so?”

Although the sky caught Mayfare’s attention, it was the streets below that she found more interesting. They do little tasks that don’t seem to be important to anyone except themselves. A cart driver on horseback carries various goods along the streets, multiple children play in the streets and a vendor shouts to the crowds. “It is,” she replied softly.

Guildred nods in agreement. “You’ve always been helpful to us, Mayfare. It seems like just yesterday that you were a little girl. It’s a shame you weren’t born a noble.”

A lump forms in Mayfare’s throat, accompanied by an uneasy flood of questions. Instead, she found that it was best to placate as she did in these tense situations. “Thank you, sir.”

“Still. Sir?” Guildred laughed. “I suppose I should expect you to behave that way. I wanted to speak privately with you because Ariest would be upset at this request.” Mayfare’s face is filled with concern. Guidred, however, did not reveal what his response would be. In the dying evening light, his handsome features seemed more prominent. The light from his eyes seemed almost to shine. “You know times will get rough for us.” She nodded her head in agreement. “You are my slave servant, and I think you have completed your service to our family.”

Mayfare’s heart skips a beat as a sense of dread takes hold of her. The blackness of her mind strangled her as her fears grew. She screams inside. “Do you dare Guildred!”

Her eyes grew wide as he continued, “You have repaid your debt more than once. I’m releasing you from your obligation, and you may leave if you like.” Guildred said.

During what seemed like an eternity, Mayfare’s mind was violated by the words he heard. “But I…” she moaned, her eyes streaming. Despite Guildred’s attempt to be affectionate, the words themselves became arrows in her heart. She had served Lady Ariest since she was very young. Her loyalty was unwavering. She couldn’t leave at this time.

Continuing, Guildred states, “I am offering you a new chance at life. The battle is far from over. We have just begun, and I fear things are about to change. We have been fighting new soldiers and retainers. That is the truth of the matter. It won’t be long until Azure sends real soldiers maybe even from the mainland and I have a feeling they are sending them soon. Everyone associated with us will be labeled traitors. I don’t want to see that happen to you.” He pulled out a pouch from his side. “Here are fifty pieces of gold. It could afford you a good plot of land and the price of traveling wherever you wanted. You could even purchase yourself a small workforce to farm for you.”

“No,” she whispered.

A look of admiration crosses Guildred’s face. “Things will get ugly. If I could, I would have you take sister with you, but the empire would find her and you. You’re not an Ashnod; you could deny association with us because of you being a slave.”

“No, I want to stay,” Mayfare said to Guildred.

Guildred takes a deep breath. “This is your last chance to get yourself out of this mess, Mayfair. Think about what you are doing.”

Tears rained from Mayfare’s cheeks. “I won’t go if I have to leave you all behind. You are my only family.”

A smirk spread across Guildred’s face. “They may kill you. You know that, right? They might not but they may kill all of us, and you would be left with nothing.”

Mayfare came to a halt. Guildred’s words were nothing new; all of these thoughts have already run through her head a hundred times. The thought of leaving almost occurred to her. But she was still aware that she would regret it for the rest of her life. Particularly if something happened to Ariest, whom she loved with all her heart. “I know. This is why I don’t want to leave. I can’t do much, and Ariest can’t either, but she needs someone to watch over her because she’s so young.”

Guildred drummed his fingers against the wood. “Well, that’s the problem. As a result of protecting you both, you will wind up being a burden to us if things don’t work out.” Guildred stares at her sternly. “Have you considered that?”

The tears fell from Mayfare’s eyes. “I understand, but I can help.” she pleaded.

Guildred wrapped his arms around Mayfare and half-hugs her. Guildred sat up and got to his feet. “I know.” He said. “I’m glad you are staying. Make sure I don’t regret this.” Mayfair heard on the city’s streets as the hooves clomp. A single rider is rushing towards them. A pouch of gold coins is dropped next to Mayfare’s delicate foot by Guildred. “Last chance,” Guildred said before climbing back into the house, leaving Mayfare on the roof alone. The rider stopped before the bar. As Mayfare picked up the pouch, she kept an eye on the rider. She examined a single gold out of the pouch as it lay flat in the palm of her hand. After inhaling slowly, she released it, placing the coin back inside with a metallic “clink.”

Two cloth blades hit each other back and forth faster than Wolgraft was able to see. Sweat poured from Wolgraft’s forehead. In the tavern’s backyard, Guildred and Wolgraft traded blows with each other. Wolgraft could tell from Guilderd’s posture that he was in perfect shape and did not appear fatigued, while his own felt the opposite. Guildred stabbed through Wolgraft’s strikes just before his face. “You must be faster than a blink.” He said. “Every attack, one step and you are dead.” Wolgraft was forced to back up when the cloth tip of his brother’s sword was just inches from his nose. When Guildred lunged, he strikes with incredible speed. In the space of one strike, Guildred was hitting his blade four or five times, knocking it every which way. “You are not focusing! You are too slow and your grip is too firm.”

“Damn it!” Wolgraft screamed as he made his best effort to keep up. The young man gritted his teeth and let out a growl as he lunged at Guildred, who dodged.

Guildred slams his sword right between Wolgraft’s eyes, knocking him backward. “You’re opponent won’t give you the mercy of back and forth like this.”. Pain penetrates his face as a splash of darkness fills his vision. “They will kill you like this.” When Wolgraft’s vision cleared, he realized Guildred was just looking at him as he stood calmly.

In tears, with blood flowing from his nostrils, Wolgraft shouted, “What the hell was that?” His mouth hung open with surprise.

Guildred firmed his eyes. “Sloppy work like that will kill you.” Wolgraft snorted and wiped the blood off of his hand onto his pants. He lifted his sword and pointed it back at Guildred. “That is the spirit. Come get me.”

With both hands on the grip of his blade, Wolgraft charged at Guildred. The sword swung as fast as he can, but Guildred caught it with his own sword. Wolgraft felt his grip loosening as Guildred twisted and knocked the sword from his grasp. He begins to see an opening before him. The sword was never intended for Wolgraft to grab. In a jerk, Wolgraft pulled Guildred’s sword from his hands and snatched it from his grip. Guildred’s hand slammed into Wolgraft’s face, knocking him off his feet, but Wolgraft didn’t see it. The blow was hard enough to knock him out. The first thing he saw when he awoke was his brother kneeling over him. “You’re done with your training today.”

“Why are you being so hard on me?”, Wolgraft asked in a small voice. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get some liberties in combat with his brother. As well, he was not as experienced as his brother, who was an expert swordsman. Looking into Guildred’s downturned face, he realized something was wrong. “What did that messenger say to you?”

“Soldat has not returned, nor have his scouts. It is doubtful that he will return anytime soon. His group might have been intercepted. In that case, we will lose everything. There is no returning home brother. If everything goes well, I don’t even know if there is a way home. It is time that I stop treating you like a child and see to it that you handle yourself on the field.”

Wolfgraft felt anger boiling within him. “My troops have already fought in several battles. As far as I am concerned, I can handle myself just fine.”

As Guildred rolled his eyes, he frowned. “Can you? Are you aware that you have been fighting bandits and hired soldiers? They are not skilled warriors. A band of Azurian soldiers is enough to handle such rabble. The battle against Azurian knights and lords will become more complex as time passes. They are much more skilled than you.”

“What are you saying?” Wolgraft asked. “Did you lose hope in our cause? Do you think we are not capable of achieving anything more?”

“It isn’t like that. If I thought that you were being trained for no reason, I would not train you. We are fighting to go home but what home is left for us?” Guildred reached out his open palm for Wolgraft. He lifted his brother to his feet. “We are traitors, Wolgraft, deserters, the only leverage we have is our numbers and these cities. Both of which are dwindling like grains of sand through our fingers. We are about to hold an entire kingdom hostage, to get back home. Do you think we get out of this alive?”

There is silence between the two for a short time before Wolgraft weakly asked, “What choice did we have? Go east and die fighting Dalmaskans on some unnamed island.” He spat onto the ground before continuing. “Grandor that bastard. He lied to us all. We need to get word to the Imperator.”

“Any communication with the Imperator must go through Grandor. That is unless we have access to an airship. I doubt we have such a vessel at our disposal. If we send someone, they will be viewed as a traitor,” Guildered sighed as he looked somewhat distressed, Wolgraft thought to himself. “I suppose Grandor would want the entire thing to end too. However, we overplayed our hands. There was no way I expected everyone to revolt. When that happened, Grandor had no choice but to stop it. Thus, we are trapped in this war that no one wants.”

A tightness comes over Wolgraft’s chest. “Is it really that simple?”

“I fear so.” Guildred scuffed his foot against the ground. “This may all be for nothing.” He concludes. In the event that Grandor decides it’s an all-out war and we don’t negotiate a release, then we won’t be able to leave. Though I hope he will not want to stain his legacy.”

Under his breath, Wolgraft remarks, “This is a dangerous game.”

“It is. There is only one way out of this.” Just then the clomping of hooves interrupted the two. As the brothers look up, they notice a messenger riding through the field. He rode his horse up to the group and sat atop the beast upright and gallantly, with a message in hand. Guildred folded his arms looking up at the rider. “My Lord, Soldat is waiting at Ziekden. He has news.” The two brothers look at each other and smirk.

A large map lies spread across the table as Wolgraft sits at a table dressed in an elaborate Azurian uniform. A number of pins were positioned in various locations throughout the map. When he looked at the battle plans he had put together, warmth filled him. As Guildred paced around the table, he played with his facial hair with his hand. From time to time, he looked at the tactical laid before him. One of the guests was an older man with a shaved head, who sat across from Wolgraft, picking his teeth with a knife. The men were wearing gold-trimmed Azurian blue cloaks, and their armor was decorated with gold and silver griffons. Yet all of this had been tarnished by dirt and grit and did not shine as new.

Among Guildred’s trusted advisors was the older man, Soldat. It was true what Wolgraft knew, but he was not enjoying the position Guildred assigned him. As it was, Soldat was a man without a name, and that by itself was enough to upset the Ashnod in Wolgraft. He glanced around the old windmill farmhouse. The two men clad in half sets of armor stood looking out two windows, guarding. Using his fingers, Guildred brushed his golden hair back in a more formal style. “If this is our best option, we must pursue it. In what condition are your invasion armies, Wolgraft?” Guildred inquired.

“They’re on the verge of invading Verst. We’re just waiting for your orders, Lord”, Wolfgraft said, his gaze locked on his map. In spite of Wolgraft’s best efforts, he realizes that this is merely a performance. Guildred had lied to everyone about the operations, knowing that if they halted it would mean death for everyone and that if they survived they’d never look back.

While glancing at the carved wooden pieces representing enemy camps on the map, Guildred smiled. As he does, he pointed at the battle plans. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. “Even if they have the support they need after taking Verst, we could shut down all trade from the south.” Wolgraft knew Guildred operated by a margin so thin that it borders on insanity. It was a struggle they could not win, but also could not avoid.

Soldat points on the map to Elitus. ‘They will bolster their forces in the hold of Amura. Moving north will be impossible from this point on. “If the Freeholds are not onboard, we will be stymied.” Wolgraft thought to himself that Soldat was coming to the same conclusion as he was.

“Neither Lord Rasario nor the Lords of the Brave clan rallied for us. We won’t have any chance of gaining the support of the Freelanders without either of them. As a clan and a kingdom, we don’t have much standing among the people. In fact, we are refugees from a war that began two years ago. Consequently, we have nothing to offer the Freeholds. On top of that, no one wants to shake up the Azure empire. We hold our positions. That is the only choice we have.” Guildred said before looking over at his brother.

As Solat studies the map he tries to figure out what his next move should be. “You are an Ashnod, Guildred, does that not count for anything?”

“Not in Marion. The name Guildred means more to them, and even that garnered no support.” Woolgraft glances up to inspect Guildred’s sudden gaze, which seems to be focused on him. He looked concerned before he said, “allograft, you have been silent.”

An idea or rather a realization struck Wolgraft. His soft smile spread across his face as he realized what Guildred suggested to him earlier. The village guards tilling the land, holding the kingdoms hostage; the plan was never to return home. Because of Grandor, there was no home to go back to. Here, away from the influence of the Azurian kingdoms, was to be their new home. Guildred was obliged by duty, however, not to say such a thing. It would have to come directly from someone close to him. Wolgraft could be that person.

“We will never be able to return. Wolgraft points at the triangle of cities soon to come under his control. “Why not stay here?” he asked. “We can become a nation.” He paused for a moment to look at Guildred whose eyes were not wavering. Seeing this, Wolgraft took it to mean he was on the right track. “After we have formed a sovereign country, we can convince the freeholds to form an alliance with us. Most of them are unhappy with the Azurian invasion. We would welcome Golgotha. They would revolt.”

“…and we will see half of our army desert. The others would withdraw and fight Dalmaska in the east.” At that moment Wolgraft felt like the understanding he had of his brother’s plan was shattered. When he looks up from the map, he fears Guildred is simply going insane due to stress. “We have no alternative but to barter these cities for hostages and cut trade to the north. The provisions we have now are not sufficient to take Elitus, who will port east. There’s no turning back now. We’re embarking on a long, drawn-out war of attrition, whether we like it or not. Though we don’t yet have Verst, I have ready my armies. How about your armies, Soldat?”

Smugly, Solat grinned. Wolfgraft imagined a commoner like himself would quietly enjoy leading soldiers around. “They are,” he replied. “Several new regiments have been constructed. In return for their services, the locals wish to become our squires. We elected only the best and the brightest for this position. In fact, our armies have almost grown by a quarter.”

“I’m ready as well. Unfortunately, I lost a few along the way. During the night, a band of wildlings raided our camp. Despite our best efforts, the lookouts were unable to start fires in time to warn us. Nevertheless, we must continue moving forward. It was my intention to tell you upon your return from Ulfates, but I was unable to do so.” Wolgraft said.

After glancing sternly at Wolgraft, Guildred turned and continued walking. “Fair enough.” He clapped his hands twice. “Good… then three days from now you lead your armies north, Soldat. Wolgraft, march your forces tonight. When you see Soldat attacking outside of the city, you should attack with all your strength. My troops will move by riverway into the sewers on the fourth nightfall and capture the city.”

In the midst of their plans, one guard shrieked, pointing out the window towards the horizon. “Oh, gods! It’s the Azurians!” yelled the other guard by the window.

Guildred sprang to the window in order to observe the force of soldiers. Immediately he thought they seemed to be fairly well positioned. They appeared to be in four waves, each holding four ranks. Then he saw something horrific on the flanks. Among the armies were several large metal vehicles. “I see they have tanks.” Wolgraft’s wide eyes glistened as he peered over the distant field. It was clear from the outset they would be impossible to fight their way off, even though they had just breached the hillside. This was no mere war band, but an entire army. Guildred said, “There’s a traitor among us, brother.” Wolgraft’s hands trembled. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “Tonight is my night to sacrifice on the altar alone. Soldat, gather your men and depart. Head to Belcross and move your armies to Ulfates.”
A bow of gratitude emanated from Soldat. “Yes my Lord,” he replied as he hurried down the windmill’s spiral staircase, hollering “To arms men.”

Wolgraft stepped up from the table and walked over to Guildred, who was still gazing out the window. “My brother, you must stand tall for me.” Wolgraft nodded approvingly. “Send our sisters to safety and grab Lasandra – she is too valuable to leave behind.”

“Of course.” Wolgraft replied.

“There’s an old tavern along the road. There is a man there named Bram. Get him before you go to your sister. In addition to knowing the wilderness, Bram is an accomplished slayer. Go north past Verst. Go north to Elitus… Soldat will hold the southern lands. Blend in with the people and establish a new base until I return. Keep sister safe. Go as merchants if you must but keep sister and yourself safe.”

“You can’t be serious. We will both leave.” Wolgraft barked.

Taking Wolgraft by the shoulders, Guildred shakes him once. The whites of his eyes resembled water around a small island. “I need you to obey my commands right now,” he said. I leave now, and our troops won’t have any morale, and we won’t hold on long enough to ensure most of our troops escape. I can hold off this group for a few hours.”

Suddenly, Wolgraft breaks Guildred’s grip, throwing his arm up in a wild gesture. “Then I fight with you. The two of us as brothers. Let Soldat take sister!”

“Don’t be stupid!” He roared, setting Wolgraft back. “If both of us die here, there will be no one to carry on the Ashnod family, and then there will be no way to return. Our souls will be forfiet to Naraka!” He walked over to the window and looked out over the field at the approaching forces. “At least, this way I can ensure that some of us make it home. You’re wasting time, get Aerist and get the hell out of here.” Guildred pulled his knife from his side as he ripped off his glove. Squeezing his palm, he cuts into his palm to allow his blood to drip onto the floor. It felt as if Wolgraft’s eyes were about to fall out. Only people who practice witchcraft do things like that. “Go now; that is an order, brother,” Guildred sniffed the air, his iron scent filled his nostrils. Wolgraft figured by now he felt the pain searing in his hand. He placed his glove back on and strolled away from Wolgraft down into the hall while all the knights were heading to their positions.

As he looked out the window again, Wolfgraft glanced back at the door to where his brother went. “Guildred you fool! Do you intend to die after all we been through? He’s right, though. If I die too, there is no telling who will carry the revolt. Our deaths would simply be a stain on a page.” He thought to himself as he walked to the stables.

Silence is broken by the clopping of horse hooves on the calm farmlands. He rides over meadows of green, orange, and yellow, with a gentle breeze ruffling the abundant reeds. Field workers stand, revealing themselves in the harvest columns. The old wooden country tavern draws closer and Wolgraft kicks his feet from the stirrups of his horse. Wolgraft, halting his horse, leaps down from it. After crossing the dusty walkway, he reaches his destination. Wolfgraft avoids tripping over grass patches which poke through the sunken cobblestones. A wooden two-story building stood next to a stable with some oxen tethered to the side. Upon banging his fist on the withered pine door, commotion intrudes from inside.

Upon opening the door, a grit-covered older man is revealed. “I recognize you, but you’re too young to be Guildred; you must be Wolgraft, his brother?”

“I am pressed for time. Get every able man ready. The Azurians, they are coming.” The old man’s gaze turned from concerned to downright anxious. “”Take strategic shots if anyone comes down that road and get the hell out of here. They will be coming from the northeast.” The old man nodded before turning back into the house. As the old man turns away, Wolfgraft grabs his arm. “These orders came from Guildred himself. He also said there was a slayer here by the name of Bram.”

Having hunched over the battle plans, Guildred swings his arm and knocks them all to the ground. Eventually, they stop rolling as they fall to the ground. “It was all for nothing. For nothing!” He bellowed. As he stood up straight, he walked over to the window, placing his hands on the sill. His gaze shifted to their faces and he no longer saw distant figures. At the front, they appear inadequately equipped. However, as he turned his attention to the rear rows, he saw a gradient of more capable soldiers transforming into full-blown knights.

A group of soldiers had gathered beside him, each with a rifle in their hands. Guildred smiled as the long-barreled guns were a welcome sight. “How many shots do we have?”

One man replied, “We have 15 shots between the five of us.”

Guildred exclaimed, “Good, then I expect to see 20 dead officers. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take the roof!” Guildred ordered pointing at two of the men. “You three, windows.” As the men trotted to their positions, he yelled, “We’ll give them hell.”

He points to another soldier. “Go gather the men on the bottom floor. Bury a spear in the throats of anyone who dare approach the doors. Today, this is no longer a farmhouse. I’m making this my bloody castle.”

Candlelight dimly illuminated a table in the dank cellar where Wolgraft sat. A grizzled voice said, “So Guildred is asking for my help. Figures, so you want me to smuggle you out of here. Bloody hell, can never have it easy with em heh.”

“Me and my sister and our maid servant. Also the daughter of a mancer named Lasandra.” Wolgraft added.

In the dark, he was silent and just stared off into the distance. After letting out a long sigh, he said, “That sounds quite complicated. Okay, gather your things and meet me outside of Belcross’ northern walls. Take only what you need. Got it.”

Wolgraft nodded. “Thank you, Bram.”

“Yeah yeah, Guildred saved my life once, boy. Ight guess I should save you from that trouble.” Bram said, before motioning for Wolgraft to leave. “Well, go on now, you best hurry and bugger off. I’d like to get a good lead on these Azures. Bloody evil runs in their veins.” He glanced back at Wolgraft whose face was a fallen mess of sunken lips and eyes. A chuckle escapes his lips. “No offense, Sir Ashnod.”

Taking the merchant road through the woods as swiftly as possible, Wolfgraft dodged trees and thick trunks as he rode. He was consumed by the plight of his brother. It was peaceful in the forest as the hollers of warriors melted into the background. His sword rattled as he kicked up dead leaves with his horse’s hooves.

The threshold drew closer as he rode out into open fields. The walls of Belcross loomed in the distance. When he entered the vast expanses of farmlands, he heard his cape flowing behind him. It did not take long for him to attract the attention of everyone working in the fields. As he passed several watchtowers, the Honor Brotherhood guards followed him.

An armed guard caught up to Wolgraft and said “Oh, it is you, sir. Wolgraft, is anything wrong?”

“Invasion, Soldat is coming for you. Prepare yourself now.” You are going to Ulfates. If the empire finds us here, then all our lives are ruined.” Wolgraft composed himself as well as he could, but his face was solemn. “Ulfates, defend her, if we fail there, then our cause is lost.”

Wolgraft’s horror was spelled out in the soldier’s sour eyes as he spoke. “We are not going home to Azure, are we?” During the ride back to the city, Wolgraft said nothing as he rode forward.

The Reed Arms Tavern was a pub-colored building with pub chairs, pub tables, and traditional pub bar stools with all the usual tavern inhabitants. Behind the bar, various liqueurs adorned the walls. The tavern was crowded with people chatting and drinking, barely paying attention to the goings-on. When Wolgraft entered the pub, he headed straight to a hidden door in the back, causing a pair of soldiers to rise from the bar. Without uttering a word, he entered through the door.

Leaving the creaking cellar stairs, Wolgraft approached a small hall that had several doors. After passing the first three, Wolgraft reached for the fourth on his left. When Wolgraft opened the old withered door, his sister along with Mayfare and Lasandra turned to face him, bearing daggers in their hands.

Lasandra stood out with her long pale red hair and pointed nose, but her most noticeable characteristic was her long ears. She looked remarkably like an elf. Evidently, everyone else thought so as well, since she had gained such a moniker as Lasandra the elf. Wolgraft, however, would never utter those words in her presence. The emerald blue of her eyes shone with joy. Putting the knife flat on her chest, she said, “It’s just you.”.

“Brother what are you doing here?” Ariest inquired from her bed next to Mayfare. In an attempt to accentuate Ariest’s royal heritage, Mayfare was in the process of braiding her golden blond hair.

Mayfare dropped the twin ropes of hair from her head getting to her feet, her purple eyes hidden behind lavender locks. This made Ariest bark, “Mayfare!?”

It was so obvious to her,” Wolgraft thought to himself. “Get your things together, ladies. We are leaving.” Wolgraft said. The sound of rushing boots down the stairs prompted Wolgraft to turn to greet the three soldiers.

“Are those claims true?” A man with red hair shouted. “Are we being attacked?”

Wolgraft’s eyes widened. “Attack?” Ariest yelled. She sprung from the bed and rushed towards him. 

Wolfgraft stared at the soldiers’ questioning eyes as he closed the door behind him. “Men you have your orders! Gather your things and meet with Soldat.”

A younger soldier, clearly of the three sisters, asked “And where will you go?”

A sigh escaped Wolgraft’s lips. “It would be very inappropriate for you to question me at this time. My Lord Brother has entrusted me with an extremely vital mission. Guildred was very specific about his plans. Soldiers, follow your orders and gather your belongings. Proceed to Ulfates with Soldat. I’ll meet you there later.”

“Yes, sir.” the men said in unison.

Behind Wolgraft, Ariest opened the door. His gaze was fixed on the three men as he nodded. Together they began to walk down the hall. “What is this about, Brother? Where is Guildred?”

A glance over his shoulder caught Aerist off guard. “I need you to get your things ready! I will explain later.” He yanked the door shut once more.

“Lord Guildred is not with you?” asked a soldier from down the hall, causing Wolgraft to turn back to him. “Where is Guildred?”

“He is at the windmill Ziekden,” Wolgraft replied while his eyes shifted back and forth as he realized his brother most likely had been killed in battle by now. “Go!” Wolgraft barked at the soldiers. “You are wasting time.”

“Yes, sir!”

A swarm of people surrounded Soldat as he rode into the town gates. From them, pleas for him not to leave with his troops are heard. When Soldat unsheathed his blade from his side, he hollered, “Keep your hands off me.” The crowd backed away a few steps as Soldat rode through. There was widespread panic throughout the city. It was chaos all around, and soldiers are fighting to keep ordinary people from encroaching on them.

An elder man grabbed Soldat from his horse, “Don’t leave, they’ll kill us all.”.

“We have orders,” Soldat growled coldly while seated upright on his horse.

Throughout the town, people barricaded their houses and rushed out of the town, just as the soldiers had done. Within a short period, he had gathered his men outside the city and they were ready. Now he stands in front of more than two thousand soldiers. “We fought hard to get here today; we fought hard yesterday; we will fight harder tomorrow. An army that we have never faced before is coming our way. Defeating them here isn’t possible. We must fall back, but we do not act like cowards. Guildred is fighting right now for us to give us time to unify our armies. Their forces are doing everything they can on this side of the world to defeat us. There is no reason to fear them and we should regroup. To Ulfrates!” he hollered. As the silence and scattered responses continued to envelop him, Soldat felt a lump in his throat. Raising his hand, he directed his horse eastward. Even though the soldiers were reluctant to follow, they did so.

On his horse, Wolfgraft sat with his sister perched on his lap. She and Wolgraft are both wearing brown cloaks. While Bram guided the group, the two maidens rode their horse shared by them. Trotting in a triangular formation, the three horses quickly rode away from the city into open orange fields. “Guildred! Where is Guildred?” yelled Aerist, turning her head to look into her brother’s dead eyes.

As Wolfgraft arches his head back, his body tenses. “He has already departed for the north. He left without us because he feared we would be captured in such a large group.” As they spoke he felt a lump forming in his throat, knowing Guildred was probably fighting for his life. It might even be dead, lying on the ground with a spear piercing his belly. This idea made Wolgraft sick to his stomach. However, as instructed, he tried to keep a smile on his face.

“You think he went north. Where are we going?” Mayfare’s sheepish voice was barely audible above the sound of clopping hooves.

“We are going to Elitus. It is not safe for us in the south anymore.” His younger sister snuggled up against him as he replied pleasantly.

Wolgraft’s words and embrace, however, did not bring her any comfort. “And it is safe in Elitus! Have you two lost your minds?” Ariest asked, struggling to free herself from her brother’s grasp.

“No, it makes perfect sense. The Azurians won’t be looking under their own nose. Instead, they will look for us to the south. Once they cannot find us in the south, they will assume we are hiding in the Freeholds. They won’t go to the Freeholds, the Sparks clan will make sure of that.”

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Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 21

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Chapter 21


Dim moonlight streams through Shiori’s guest room window and illuminates the deep slumbering Apricot. She rolls under the covers, adjusting her aching body as the cool night air fills her lungs. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her heart absinthe as the horror of what unfolded stained her soul. This marks her as a murderer; she helped kill people. No longer a reluctant participant, she knew that what she had to do was right. Still, she could not stop the endless guilt that prompted the fountains she sailed upon as she sailed into a dreamland.

In the back of her mind, haunting questions echoed. Had tonight been a victory? Her doubts were growing. It was hard to believe that this was the end of their struggles. Rather, it felt like their true battle was just beginning. There was still one seal left, and Kyo was still alive. Her dreams would be written by nightmares. Pictures of death befalling everyone she cared about. Her life as a fugitive. Knowing that she would never return home. By now her parents have seen some semblance of what they have done. Eventually, her name will be attached. She would be labeled a terrorist for slaying the Okabe officials. This would be considered an act of insurrection.

As she sat in bed, her restless mind was tossed asunder as the door to her bedroom slowly opened. While half-dazed from sleep, she is abruptly awoken by the touch of cold steel against the bottom lid of her left eye. Her mouth is gently covered with a firm velvet glove. “I will pierce your broca if you scream.” said a playful honeyed male voice. “It allows you to speak, so screaming won’t be a problem if I cut it.” Apricot is held firmly by this stranger’s hand as he bent over the face of an elderly man with deep wrinkles. His hair was graying black or perhaps dark brown. In the dark, Apricot did not know. “My darling someone has told me to bring you alive, that does not mean intact though. You need to be breathing and plump with blood. Now get dressed.”

His hand became more supple as he released his hold. In a moment, he retracted the knife from Apricot’s eye and got up. But she didn’t catch where he put it. Perhaps inside his coat or up his sleeve. It didn’t matter who this man was or what weapon he was carrying, Apricot knew he was very quick with it. Too quick for her to escape. Her covers fell off her as she sat up cautiously to avoid startling the man, revealing that she was already dressed in a pair of spare clothes Shiori gave her. “My, you’ve dressed already. You make it easy.”

Apricot began to speak before the man covered her mouth once more. “Pshh, no talking remember? If I have to cut out your nerves, I will have to kill everyone in here. Such a dreadful amount of work for these old bones. Now my lamb, follow me.” As he exited the room, Apricot felt a pounding fear as though she were being hit with a hammer. She considered how he moved about so confidently. A separation between the two could trigger an attack, she thought, so it is best to prevent him from getting too far ahead of her.

In the next room, Apricot was sure Togashi would be waiting armed with a gun. Earlier, the group had drawn straws to select the guard for the night. Tragically, it was Togashi who drew the short straw. This man would regret his carelessness if she just waited.

No sign of worry could be seen on the man’s face as he advanced into the hall. As Apricot glanced back toward the guest room, he noticed that the window was closed. But how exactly did he get into the room? Upon seeing the man enter the living room, Apricot felt a sinking feeling. The absence of a commotion lent weight to Apricot’s steps. In a strange way, it was as if she suddenly found herself in concrete. Nevertheless, her question was quickly answered by the horrific image sitting up on the living room couch. A pool of blood soaked the floor as Togashi’s intestines lay open before all eyes. A closer look at the vivisection revealed the contents that were once hidden behind the ribcage, still beating gore. His left eye was filled with an eerie stream running down his cheek. She muffled her gasp as she covered her mouth. Her stomach retched as it tried to empty itself. In the face of such horrors, she was quickly dwarfed by the moment. As she turned to face the man, he is grinning widely at her. He said, “Oh, yes, I can handle knives well. Don’t you agree?” Apricot nodded her head to indicate agreement. “He wasn’t so fast with his gun. Caught his wrist before he could draw it. Shame, it might have been fun if he had.”

The remaining eye of Togashi pivots toward Apricot. A squelch of blood erupts from his exposed tubes. “He is not dead!” Apricot screamed inside.

“A fine work, if I do say so myself.” the man pronounced, opening the front door.

As Apricot emerged from its entrance, a white stretch car was awaiting him, ornate with silver trim and metal sculptures decorating each side of the vehicle. “Come now, darling. I don’t have much patience for loitering.” Stepping inside the open door of the car revealed red seats with gold trim and white interior. A few seconds later, they found themselves directly across from each other. The stranger stretched, and his white suit opened up to reveal a sky blue interior.

“Where are you taking me?” Apricot asked.

“To my dear young lady,” he smirked. A concerto orchestra is heard from the speakers as the car moves. The sophistication of the music unnerved Apricot. Before her, sat such a savage man with a pedigree yet the heart of a demon. “You don’t like the music?”, he asked softly. Her gaze was fixed on him. “A brilliant composer, Galeno Maogagoitia. You are young though, would you care for something more modern? Something more to your, liking.” Apricot did not answer. “You are silent dear, and your eyes spell nothing but fear. Is there any reason to be uncomfortable?”

It’s traumatic to be kidnapped, Apricot mused to herself. There were many things she did not want to talk about, but one nagging question still plagued her. “Who are you?”

As he diverted his attention from Apricot for the first time, he smiled a broad toothy grin. “Well, that is a tricky thing. I get called a lot of things. But I owe you a bit of honesty. I am Natsukawa Okabe.”

Her face was etched with strain, proclaiming her terror. “I’ve heard that name before,” she whispered back.

“O’ I am quite sure you have.” He laughed. Sitting back with a smirk on his face, he asked “May I smoke?” From his coat pocket, he pulled out a stylized pipe from his pocket. Apricot shook her head, unsure of what to do. “Smoking a good stack before I start work always calms the nerves. I don’t need to if you are worried about getting cancer in the old age; though I am sure you have little reason to worry about that. All things considered, that is.” The chuckle that followed assured Apricot that her situation must end with death. However, she is more fearful of the moments before that death.

Having lit his pipe, he gently puffs a few times, letting out a plume of smoke. “Why are you doing this? From what I understand, the clan does not particularly value your presence. It seems like you would not work for the clan. That is what this is right? You‘re capturing me for Empress Kyo, right?”

“Frankly, if you know who I am, I can understand your fear. Someone promised me your skin after they were through with you. Now that I have had a look at you, I think I may want the flesh as well.” Apricot felt her throat closing up around her as her eyes grew wide with horror. “Fair child, you sit upon the bodies of several people right now. Commoners and nobles alike. Unlike my family, I do not see us as nobles. When we are dead, we are all the same.”

Inhaling heavily, Apricot tugged at her shirt to relieve tension in her throat. “You appear breathed. Calm down. You are all right for now. I do not intend to hurt you, yet. I am actually enjoying your company. It is rare that I get to talk with my prey so openly.” Apricot moved back against the corner, trying to put as much distance between her and him as possible. “Most of the time they just scream, and shout, scream and shout, scream, and shout. You on the other hand have engaged me. I would expect as much from a curious reporter.”

Although she wanted to resort to screaming and shouting, she had to speak to him more to gain more information from him. “So, you’re abiding by Kyo’s commands?” Apricot asked. “Seems a bit strange for you. Is my skin really that valuable?”

“You made a lot of faulty assumptions about me,” Natsukawa said. “I am only in this for my own interests. I seek a day when I can openly slaughter as many as I please. I need more material for my art. The human body can be crafted into so many things. Transformation. I seek to see real transformation. Kyo understands this. Except she will transform the world. So of course I would assist her. After all, she is my great great great great grand niece.”

“How old are you?” Apricot asked. Natsukawa just snickered. From the window, Apricot can see that soon they will be approaching a populated area of the city which is very much awake at this late hour. “So, you enjoy killing the phantoms as well?”

“Phantoms hmm, if you mean the things that crossover, of course. No one complains when killing a ghost.” Natsukawa’s smirk displayed his toothy fangs. They remind her of a vampire pretty fitting for his character. “Everyone seems to get upset when you carve up a useless dreg of society. I have you know I only kill those who have already forfeited their life. I am an honorable man.”

“Is that why you will kill me?” Apricot asked.

Natsukawa grinned. “You are a family matter.”

“A family matter what is that supposed to be about?” Apricot asked inquisitively.

“Well, you attacked my family. Humiliated Kyo. So she bartered with me to get you. Actually, the family has grown small. She does not have many people of age she can ask to assist. You might not know of this but your little group is not the only one troubling us. We have been at work collecting witches like you and spending them feverously to build Kyo’s little stone. She believes that stone is the key. The idea of it collecting and growing from the blood it drinks. Now that is a fascinating thing. Don’t you think?”

“It’s macabre.” Apricot snapped back.

“You’re getting comfortable,” Natsukawa said snapping a grin back at her. He drew in a deep breath releasing a long sigh. “So tell me, why are you risking yourself? What is it you think you can accomplish? You are a lamb fighting a pack of vicious wolves. That fire that hides in your arms. It makes me curious to find out what else you hide under there.”

“I did not want this. They forced it upon me. These monsters are your doing. This whole situation is because of your family not being satisfied with being royalty. You will ruin the world for what? You are all insane.” Natsukawa’s eyes lit up as he gave her another toothy smile.

“You are right, now, I can‘t contain myself,” he said with all the excitement of a child looking at a new toy. He flicked a knife from his palm. “Let’s have a look inside that arm. “I’m too curious to wait.” He said lunging at Apricot. Then, she kicked him in the face with both of her feet from the corner in which she found herself. By grabbing the latch to the car door, Apricot quickly opened it so that she could roll out of the moving vehicle. When she hit the side of the road her ribs cracked. Onlookers reacted with startled reactions as Apricot rolled several feet on the pavement.

As Apricot leaped off the black pavement, she ran on foot to escape Natsukawa’s coasting car. She suddenly sprinted towards the crowd of people who were going about their normal routines, many of them unwilling to participate. He laughed the whole time. “You can’t run from me,” he said, standing outside the car. The area was populated and that meant safety. He can’t make his move now, or at least Apricot would bet her life on it. At least she was certain: He wanted her alive. Possibly, it was not even a want, but rather a necessity that he keep her alive. As she watched the white car drive away, she could feel a growing relief. Until she realized he was going in the same direction they came from.

Panic sat on top of her again. Patting her sides down, a lump in her pocket was the grace that she sought. Apricot grabbed the slab from her pocket and called Shiori. Several rings followed before Shiori answered with a sleepy voice. “Why don’t you knock? I am down the damn hall.”

“Shiori, you need to listen to me. Get everyone out of bed and into the living room. Togashi is dead.” Apricot murmured, hoping he won’t be an ass like usual. “Natsukawa kidnapped me and he’s going after you.” The line goes silent abruptly. “Shiori?” Apricot whispered, her heart pounding.

“He is after you and your family. Run.” Shiori coldly said.

The technicolor midnight streets are alive with an intrusive clamor as Apricot ran through them at a sprint, disdaining any consideration for respect. Apricot vowed to herself, “That bastard will not hurt my family.” As she breathed, her heartbeat accelerated. Kiting through alleyways, Apricot was moving as fast as her legs would allow her. “I might be able to get home before him if I take the railway.” Apricot jumped over a pile of litter on the side road hoping to be lucky and have the train leave when she arrived.

She reassured herself, “Just one more block.” Out of the shadows, she encountered a figure that halted her in her tracks. Her eyes catch a glimpse of a knife as the figure takes a lunge at her. She shudders and a loud scream erupted from her. The hand around her neck tightened with tremendous pressure, forcing her down on her knees.

“You little bitch.” Natsukawa grumbled. “I knew you were going to Hunter’s tunnels. He gestured with his knife. “You provided me with all the evidence I needed.” Apricot notices that an empty glass bottle lies on the ground beside her. “What made you think I’d forget to lock the door? You rats are so easy to catch.” His toothy grin contorted into a demon’s face as he snickered. After rapping her fingers around the neck of the bottle, Apricot swung as hard as she can, hitting Natsukawa in the face and shattering the glass. He let her go for the moment that she needed to get back on her feet.

Among the many pieces of glass stuck into his torn cheek, he lifted one large shard with his free hand. Slowly peeling back the shard from his skin, he inspected the blood-drenched shard before flicking it aside. “Ooh, you’re fun. I like this.” He chirped before taking another pass at her. This time she sidesteps him, cutting him against the neck with the bottle. “Gaaa,” he shrieks falling on his face. Apricot wasted no time, diving onto his back, hammering the glass bottle as hard as she can. Her brutal stabs pierced holes in his coat, revealing white that is being eaten away by blood.

With a twist of his body, he flung Apricot off his back onto the ground. Suddenly he was on top of her before she could even look up. Face to face with the bloodied visage of the beast, she could feel his warm, scarlet tears dripping onto her skin as she tried to free herself from his grasp. Unable to free her braced arms, she arched her back and bit into his already sliced throat. Apricot caught a full mouthful of flesh when he pulled away from the burst of wetness. Upon spitting the unsettling bite on the ground, Apricot rose to her feet. Natsukawa glared back at her as he walked away limping. You win tonight, but I enjoy the hunt.” Natsukawa wheezed before taking off at full speed. Huffing for air, she wanted to chase him, but she knew if she chased the bloodied-up Okabe, she would be arrested.

After feeling the pain of the glass shard she gripped so tightly, she realized how intense it was. As she huddled in the alleyway, she dropped the bloodied bottle from her hand.

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Perosnal Journal

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 20

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Chapter 20

The Grand Shrine

The morning sun greeted the train as it traveled along its channel. Apricot carefully navigated the length of black grooved rubber floor toward Cortez’s usual spot while avoiding the sporadic bob of the floor. The doors opened to find it empty, much to her disappointment. The other night, he appeared pretty upset. The feeling of guilt engulfed her as she wondered whether she should have followed him. Apricot approached the weathered seat where he usually rests. She felt the blue vinyl seat was cold as she placed her fingers on it.

As Cortez did, she lay on it, resting her head against the window. She occupied too much room she thought to herself. One part of her hoped that his action would persuade him to keep her away from what was hers. Apricot found herself in deep thought while tracing the lines on the window. Suddenly, she felt overwhelmed. Her mind was racing with thoughts of ghosts and cults, of Cortez, his father. Her attention was drawn to a spot on the metal paneling that had been scratched – probably with a knife. When she ran her fingers over the strange texture, she could tell that something was written. On the cut metal, someone had carved the words “Old Shrine On A Hill.” Apricot let out a yawn and straightened up. Now she knew where she was going.

There is not much of a hike between the train station and the shrine. It is surrounded by hilly terrain and outskirt huts and shacks. The roadside is lined with many trees that are not trimmed and are unkempt. Sculptures depicting crude bulbus-headed people line the dirt and brick pathways. They have traditionally been used to guide the dead to the afterlife and are known as spirit guardians. Moss has heavily grown over the statues and are unmaintained. Candles once held in their hands had all melted and congealed between their round feet.

There was an old shrine on the hill that is known as the shrine of the forgotten god. This shrine was mentioned in Cortez’s father’s notes she remembered. As Apricot looked up she could see the entrance to the shrine. Colored in red with black accents, the gate appeared to strike against the clear blue sky.

As Apricot climbed the stairs she could not help but remember an old adage she was taught. Shrines traditionally had fewer than a hundred steps. The Uchella believed that a spirit couldn’t ascend more than one hundred steps and thus be damned forever to wander the earth. Apricot figured there were over a hundred as she climbed to the top. At the shrine’s reach, there was a clearing in front of the small hall. Apricot proceeded through the rustic gateway entering the courtyard of white polished stone. There she saw Cortez resting on his knees in front of the hall of worship. As Apricot saw the reaper’s body lying on the steps of the hall, she was shocked.

Cortez turned slowly as Apricot’s feet clicked on the dusty stone floor. “Cortez? ” His eyes had life but turned away once he saw that it was Apricot who had approached to examine the reaper’s avatar.

“Saw my note on the train. Surprised you came. Cortez’s voice is monotone and uninterested as he remarks, “It seems like you care about me after all.”

Despite being offended by Cortez’s remark, she carried herself over to the pair and kneeled beside him. “What does that mean?”

Patting the floor next to him, Apricot falls to her knees. “It’s nothing.” There, claw fingers, lay the reaper, or at least his attire, because now the body slumbered. Clothing hung on him like one would expect it to rest on a manacan. He wore a mask that covered his face and exposed his unnaturally textured skin. It was smooth and had no pours.

“Why are you here?” she asks, placing her hand on Cortez’s.

As he closes his fingers around Apricot’s, he smiles. “I wanted to see if the reaper would talk to me again.”

“How did you know he would be here?”  

Cortez smirked. “He told us when we met him he would be here. Seems he is not here right now or sleeping. I am not sure how these kinds of things work.” Apricot remembered some garble that he said about the hill, but who could make out half of what he said. Cortez’s face grew real serious. “It looked like a terrible place when I peered inside that pit. It looked like an endless tower of pain. When I looked at it, I couldn’t stop gazing at it. Seeing it, it seemed to welcome me. Had you not… perhaps I would have jumped in.”

Apricot shuddered at the imagery used bringing back dreams she had. “What do you mean by a tower?”

“It was like looking up from the bottom of a tower, but I was only looking down. It was as if I was upside down. Cortez shivers as he said, “I can’t explain it, but those spirits being awoken were in agony.”

“We need you Cortez. Don’t do anything stupid like that.” Apricot softly uttered.

Cortez shook his head. “You don’t need me. Even if you did, it would not matter.” Tears flowed down his cheeks. “There is no way we can win. It is us against another world, Apricot, and the powers of this one too. We are fighting with gods. What are we even doing?” Cortez yelled getting to his feet. “What the hell are we even doing? Do you know! Does Shiori know! Cause I sure as hell feel like I am fighting against the night with a damn candle. The night, Apricot, is impossible to defeat. It comes whether or not you like it.”

“Thou are wrong.” As the reaper leaped up, he stirred slightly sitting upon his heels startling the pair. “Their window of opportunity is closing swiftly.” he continued. “Cortez, thou hast help me greatly. Alas, I am dying and I doubt I remain through to the end. The Okabe hast one last ritual to mere their devastation upon the orb. They are preparing now at their shrine. This is the broil for the orb. Mercy Cortez, for sustaining me for as long as thou hast. Hie doth this one last office for me. Apricot, thou hast awoken greatly since we first met. Thy power is growing. Seek to merge yourself. The victory is at hand. I hast one last crave ere I might not but rest. Seek out the destroyer of the seals and forbear him. If the devil occulted below the town is unleashed, all shall be lost.” Lowering down again, the reaper rested forward.

Cortez shouted, “Wait I have questions!”

“Thou go as I gentle down,” he said before returning to his usual resting position on the ground.

His chin dropped as he gritted his teeth. As he shook the lifeless body back and forth, he grabbed the sides of the reaper. “Tell me, damn it! Tell me what it was I saw? Gawd damn it! Why? Why is everyone ignoring me? What do I have to do?!” yelled Cortez, slamming his fist into the reaper’s body. His fist pounded on it again and again. He was pulled back by Apricot. She looked down to see his bloody knuckles. “Why won’t anyone explain to me what is going on?”

Apricot stepped behind Cortez. “I have felt the same way from day one Cortez.” she sniffs. “Look this is a burden on everyone. However, this is coming to a head. The reaper is not lying. The Okabe family is preparing for a ritual tonight. This is why I came to get you.” Cortez turned from Apricot, staring down at the reaper that lay strewn on the ground with the appearance of death. “I have a feeling the reaper has been at work on our behalf for a long time, Cortez. Come on, let’s go. He is not around right now.”

“I gave my blood to him.” Cortez roared. “The least the leech can do is answer my questions.” He lifted his coat sleeve and showed the strange symbols and markings on his arm. “I was feeding him to keep him alive. He never answers me. He only gives me a comment or thanks.”

Apricot felt sick to her stomach. “How long has this been going on?”

“Since he first appeared to us.” Cortez got up and turned around.

“Let’s go tell the others what the reaper said. We need as many people as we can get to stop them.” Cortez blew a puff of air. His arm is grabbed by Apricot, who leads him next to her as they return to the train station.

“I’m not going, Apricot.”

She did not even look at him as she stopped in her tracks. “I can’t convince you, can I?”

Turning around, Cortez let go of her hand. “I am sorry.”

An improvised bomb, a case of ammunition, and several rifles are arranged on top of the table. In a nearby corner are several clips marked in red. In addition to the body armor, there are pads and other gadgets. Akagi gocked at the pile with wide eyes. “Wo which one do I get?” He asked, playing with the weapons.

“Nothing.” Shiori laughed. Akagi looked up pouting. “You don’t have time to fight because you have an important job.”

Togashi slumps against the wall. Across from him, Apricot sits at a desk, arms folded. Sumai examines the items on the table. Sumai picks up a rifle to feel its weight. “Yeah, this is solid stuff, Shori boy.” Junko stands across from Shiori next to the others.

“Are we doing this really?” Junko asked with a down-turned mask of horror.

Shiori smiles. “Don’t look so grim. We are only about to become fugitives.” Shiori joked. “Look, I don’t want to do this either. However, the price of not doing it means everyone in the city will die for sure. Maybe even everyone in the world. We have no clue what a new world means. If this ritual is complete, it is clear that something bad will happen to everyone except Kyo and her wicked ilk.” Shiori rose from the table standing in front of the group. “If you don’t want to do this. I won’t blame any of you.”

“Hmmm, well, it ends on the road no matter what.” Togashi chuckled. “I help.  Fixed up caustic bullet like you ask.” He pointed to a plastic container of bullets. “Don‘t touch with bare hand, wear rubber glove. They burn flesh. I made strong. Quick kill.” Togashi shifted his shirt collar as he cleared his throat. “I don‘t like at all.”

“If I got a chance to kill one of them assholes, I will take it. Teach them a lesson for what they did to my daughter.” Sumai’s vicious grin made Apricot feel relieved not to be on her bad side any longer.

She couldn’t be silent any longer. Though the lump in her throat made her feel a bit sick. “I’ll help. I don’t want to kill anyone though.” Apricot commented.

Junko nodded in agreement. “I will,” she replied hoarsely. “There is no other way.” She picks up a rifle and looks down its sights. “I haven’t shot a gun for a long time. Would you mind if I went to the range before we started?”

“Go ahead. Don’t get caught.” Shiori chirped. “So we are all in agreement. Alright. Here is my plan. Apricot you will stay in the shadows. I want you to be there to protect us from any phantoms that may come out from their ritual or maybe guardians of the clan. Sumai, Junko, Togashi, I want you to be cover fire. When things go down, there will be guards. I want you to keep them away from Kyo. If you have a shot on Kyo kill her. Kill her first. She is priority one.” Shiori growled.

“What about me?” Akagi moaned. “I want to help too. I don’t want my family to die. I want to fight Shiori.”

Looking over at Akagi, he smiled. “You are going to have the most important job. I want you to hack the security systems. I also want you to keep the lights off of us and on them. On top of that, I want you to jam their broadcasts. If you can also manage to keep us anonymous during this, that would be great. I am counting on you so don’t screw it up.”

Despite his nervousness, Akagi nodded. “I, that, that is a lot of things to do.”

“If anyone can do it, it is you, Akagi.” Junko gently placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Yeah, you think so?”

As she looks at the table, Apricot sighs. “So, what are we doing after? Do we wait for them to arrest us? What is the end game Shiori?”

“The end game, is we stop the Okabe from this ritual. I have arranged for several cars to pick us up. There will be so many arriving it will be impossible to track any particular vehicle. I bought a secured apartment on the outskirts of town. I have owned it for years. It is nothing special, but I fortified it and it’s anonymous. We will hide out there. If that fails I have a second location we can hide in. It is quite literally a bunker. These two locations will serve as our new HQs until we clean up the rest of this mess. I will clear all our names. Even still, the Kinjo clan will come to my aid if need be. That includes all of you. As a last-ditch effort, we can leave Okabe if necessary. So don’t worry.”

“What about before then?” Apricot asked.

“We will be considered terrorists.” Shiori firmly stated. “So let’s save the world at sunset. You know where to meet up.”

The shrine of the Okabe family stands in the center of the city. Gold lines the slanted roofs and towering pillars, and the light from the shrine shone almost supernaturally. Apricot was reminded of a torch burning with golden light. In an interesting blend of modern and historic architecture, the ornate building stood in contrast to the skyscrapers surrounding the temple court.

The temple courtyard has a large circle of candles at the center of which Kyo sits. Kneeling, she wears a crimson red dress lined with gold, black, and red stripes. Her head is crowned with silver pieces. The hair is kept loose so as not to obscure her eyes. A variety of metal charms and jewels adorn her. An elaborate headcover trails down her back. The gold and silver bands that adorn her wrists sparkle majestically. Her lips were painted red, and her eyes were outlined in black.

Men wearing black and red robes swing metal baskets around the ring while incense burns in their long chains. Flames from the candles flash purple and blue as they burn. Kyo whispers something to herself quietly. A large number of armed soldiers are posted around the courtyard wearing heavy black armor.

After hearing Shiori’s shoes click through the main entrance, Kyo looked up from the bowl in front of her. Her mouth drops open in a smile seeing Shiori in a white suit with a blue tie. “Shiori Kinjo, prince of the Kinjo clan. I expected you to arrive,” she said calmly. Shiori watched the soldiers aim their guns at him as he scanned the vast shrine. As Kyo raised her hand, she stood up. “It’s ok. Don’t worry. We finally get to meet.”

“Nice ritual you got going on. It looks like this is the final act of our drama. However, I noticed something. I wonder where your sacrifices are.” Shiori remarked snidely.

“It appears as if it has just arrived. Now, Shiori. How foolish do you think I am; to just allow you to walk in here with no one stopping you. I thought you were a smarter man. Now please come calmly. Arrest him.”

The armored soldiers approach Shiori. In a split second, he glances at them before switching back to Kyo. When your back is against the wall, it’s all or nothing, Kyo. It isn’t wise to trap noble beasts.” Shiori grinned as he drew his pistol from his undercoat. He fires a single bullet out of the barrel of the gun. The bullet hit an armored soldier squarely in his chest as he dove to cover Kyo. When it was time for the other soldiers to fire, Shiori tumbled to the ground. Shiori roared, “Come get it!”.

At first, Kyo gazed in horror at Shiori nearly killing her. “What do you expect to accomplish Shiori? You cannot win this fight!” she screamed.

In the shadow of a skyscraper, Akagi rested his feet on the edge, allowing them to dangle. In his arm, he held a laptop. From his vantage point so high above the shrine’s walls, he saw the court in full view. The entire drama had been played out before him. Throughout the soldiers’ encirclement of Shiori, Agaki glided his fingers over the keys of his laptop. “It looks like it’s action time,” he said with a smirk. From the window, he saw a live news feed reporting power outages in the city. His plot has been carefully crafted. Infecting everything connected to the national database with his own worm, he tunneled through the Okabe network.

Adding a few lines of code to his computer, Akagi commented, “I hope you’re ready for a light show.” All lights in the shrine are turned out. Even the front end of the shrine had been dimmed. The automatic doors and gates to the shrine are all opened. “Alright!” Agaki cheered.

An armored soldier yelled, “Oh shit, I can’t see.” He ripped off his helmet. The other soldiers follow taking their helmets off as well. All of the soldiers look exactly the same like clones of one another.

Taking a step back, Kyo looked at the captain. “What is going on?” The lights on Shiori dim as well. In a ring around Kyo, the guards use their bodies as shields.

The captain of the guard said to Kyo, “My lady, we must end the ritual and leave now.”

From the shrine’s wall, shots come from every direction. In a kneeling position, Togashi aimed his sights down at the soldiers. A motorcycle’s roar could be heard as Junko rides through the gates. With her hair flying, Sumai sat on the back of the bike. She pulled back on the trigger of her gun, unleashing a torrent of bullets at the group. “Die imp bastards!” she shouted with a gleeful laugh.

Around the shrine, the soldiers return fire. As Shiori’s group moved, strobe lights appeared behind them. “Damn it! I can’t see!” Another soldier cried as their shots missed their moving targets under the cover of the shifting light.

In the distance, Sumai watched as the soldiers moved in a circle to the rear of the shrine. By a large gateway, she saw that there are a couple of other guards awaiting the group. “Junko!” she exclaims. “Kyo is trying to escape through the back.”

Junko acknowledged her with a small “Mmm.” She immediately turned her attention to the exit, rushing around the side of the shrine while narrowly avoiding being shot. Sumai fired at Kyo’s guards as they passed by them on their way to the exit. The soldiers rushed for cover with Kyo as bullets hurtled down the courtyard. Grabbing a pair of small rods from the side of the bike, Sumai tossed them at the exit. The rods instantly burst into flames, lighting a few of the guards.

Those who were wounded on the ground started smoking. When the other soldiers are caught in the fresh plumes, the air itself corrodes their armor, melting it against their skin. In response to the acid breeze’s assault, they screamed.

“I’ve had enough!” Kyo shouted, raising both arms in the air. Suddenly, a black dot appeared on the ground. A creepy creature emerged from the pool of darkness that had formed before Kyo. “Help me, guardians of the forbidden. Come help me protect this child.” The being’s body was twisted in all the wrong directions. Besides its chest, its pelvis resembled a man with sharp teeth, its legs resembled those of a bird. Its body was like that of a man, its arms resembled hooks, and its head is nothing more than a snapping mouth. Approximately ten feet tall, the abomination stood on four legs.

“What is that thing?” Apricot asked herself as she charged out of the dark with her rapier in hand. Her body flared in flames as she ran at the creature. Due to her unnatural speed, she collided with the beast with her blade knocking them backward with the force of her piercing blow.

“There’s my witch,” Kyo thought to herself. The smile on her face intensified. After Apricot stabbed the creature in the leg, it did not have much time to react. The monster attempted to escape by swinging its hooks at Apricot. Ultimately, she dived back to avoid being knocked down. The creature helped itself up by stabbing its spire into the ground, pushing itself up. Apricot struck again, landing a blow right in its chest eye. It broke away from her, the sword still embedded deep in, sizzling as it burned. Instantly, the weapon burst into flames. As soon as it hit the ground, the creature broke into cinders.

“Kyo give up!” Shiori said. “Nothing you can do now.” The guards were still wailing in agony as the acid ripped through them. What few guards she left flanked Kyo.

Kyo laughed as the circle glows brightly. “You fool,” she laughed.

Apricot felt a sense of burning wash over her. Below her, the ground was distorted and radiating. “Shiori something is wrong!” she screamed. It felt as if she was slipping into shadows and sinking. It was as if they were gripping her. As the demons from her dreams clawed at her, she became paralyzed with fear. Shiori ran quickly, he caught Apricot, lifting her out of the strange darkness that had appeared in front of her. Her eye catches sight of someone jumping from the wall. It is a man in black who is running to the edge of the circle. “Shiori? Who is that?that?that?“ she asked. Shiori turned his head. Apricot knew instantly from the look in his eyes that something was wrong. She took a few seconds to get up. In a half-drag, they run toward the entrance with him pulling her.

Other entities began to rise from the circle in swarms as the cloaked person placed his hand on the circle. Kyo‘s group was left fighting these entities as the shadows tell the story of their attackers. Apricot stopped to look but Shiori kept pulling her. “We have to get out of here!”

Shiori had hardly finished speaking when the ring lit up. As a pillar of shadow rises from the circle, a loud sound is heard before the shadows immediately fall, turning the circle into a pit. There was an ear-shattering roar coming from the circle as the group made their way to the parking lot. The group was greeted by a swarm of cars. As they piled into one of the cars, Shiori said, “Let’s get out of here.”

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Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 19

The previous chapter may be worth reading first if you have not already done so. To access the previous chapter, click the button below.

Chapter 19

Hidden Motives

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.

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Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 18

The previous chapter may be worth reading first if you have not already done so. To access the previous chapter, click the button below.

Chapter 18

Over Kill

“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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Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 17

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Chapter 17

Something Wicked

“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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Episodic Series, Fiction, Lyorta

Lyorta: The Saga Of Retribution: Chapter 4

The previous chapter may be worth reading first if you have not already done so. To access the previous chapter, click the button below.

Chapter 4: The Noble Hunt

~ 865 RE ~

~ Southern Kingdom, Sacred Grounds Of The Aria ~

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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Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 16

The previous chapter may be worth reading first if you have not already done so. To access the previous chapter, click the button below.

Chapter 16

The Swarm In The Tower

Several boxes lay about the broken and damaged front of the Spook House. Most of the ornate wood is split or riddled with bullets. The railing over the upper loft became nothing more than several sharp spikes of various lengths. The counter remained a ghost, with large chunks removed from its top. Shiori unboxes the brand-new glasses for the freshly replaced wall rack. A knock on the side of his entry alerts him. An older man with slicked black hair and glasses makes his way inside the building. “Master Kinjo, am I interrupting you?”

Shiori rolled his eyes, shaking his head. “You come to do me in too, sir Okabe.”

“Hardly, though it appears to have been a fair, challenging scrap. It’s a shame you do all this alone. Where are your employees?” He asked, taking several steps over the tarnished wooden floor. As he walked, he was careful to avoid the broken slats.

With a grumble, Shiori set down a glass. “Afraid they’ll blow their heads off, I suppose.” Probably that or the bombs. I did not have the chance to call them up and tell them the war is over.” Shiori glanced at the man as he approached a stool and warns him, “My royal guard is still here.

“Well, I see you have not lost your sense of humor. Due to time constraints, I won’t make this long. I have a message from Empress Kyo.”

A chuckle escaped Shiori’s lips. “She’s calling herself Empress now?” Shiori asked. “Ah, so that explains it. The Okabe family did not seat her or dedicate her, but then she killed most of the superior nobles, so what more could be expected? Sure, she is empress all right, no one left to crown her, so she crowns herself. Shiori watches the man intently. “So it was Kyo that killed the others,” he thought to himself. Her young age made this very unlikely, but the man’s eyes confirmed everything: this is Kyo behind all these violent affairs.

“You are aware that the situation between you and the Okabe clan could escalate. I would hate for it to happen, but if the meddling in the Okabe family affairs continues, we will have no choice.”

“Affairs, what affaires?” Shoiri asked.

“I think you understand exactly what I mean. You seem to know a lot about our internal workings. I doubt I need to remind you that spying is a capital crime. We have our suspicions about other subjects. Your silly hologram game has caused our clan an economic nightmare. You have been warned.” The man turned to leave after finishing speaking without giving Shiori a chance to respond.

Shiori reaches over the counter and grabs the man’s shoulder, pulling him face-to-face. “Kyo screwed up. You are shooting blind. I did not deceive the people for who knows how long. You should never have tried to kill me. One call to my clan and an international war breaks out. If that is not enough to get Kyo’s attention, maybe this will. Natsukawa’s crimes would be embarrassing to the public if they became known. You can now go and get lost. Go lick your master’s piddle like a dog.”

The man pulls away from Shiori without missing a beat. His collar is smoothed as he looks at Shiori again. As he leaves through the front doors, He warns once more, “You have been warned.”

“Sis!” Jasper yelled, running into the room. Apricot is curled up on the couch in her living room with a blanket covering her. For the past few hours, a sci-fi movie had consumed her attention. “Look outside!” Apricot turned her head to see a sea of black covering the once blue sky. She pushed the blanket off and got up to see better from the window. “What do you think it is?”

Even complete cloud cover did not trigger the street lights to turn on, and yet they were on. This is very different. Toward the distance, the darkness blended into something like inky smudges in the sky. Outside of the city, blue skies still hung in the air. In a documentary, she had seen something similar. When locusts swarm for food out in the wilderness, this happened occasionally. “Apricot!” Jasper shouted, jerking her out of her trance. But this was not the wilderness and there were no locusts.

“Jasper, stay inside,” she told him as she walked to the front door. She opened the door to see that it was indeed an insect swarm. Its loud buzzing resembled the constant roll of thunder or a heavy engine running at idle. “What in the world?” she asked, as she returned to the house and shut the door. Jasper stares at her in disbelief. “Are all the windows closed?” Jasper looked at Apricot with partially closed eyes while nodding. “Good. Let’s go see what the news has to say about this.”

The two sit on the couch in the living room. A news report was playing in the background. This would normally trigger an alert from the authorities. However, every station she checked was on another topic. The lack of recent news reports on the topic was not subtle. Apricot suspects there was a media blackout on the subject. The resulting punishment would be severe if any journalist or outlet were to cover the subject.

Apricot heard a buzzing on her side and saw images of a monster clinging to her. Before realizing it is her phone, she let out a small chirp. Picking it up, she saw Shiori was calling her. “Hey,” she replied.

“You busy tonight?” Shiori asked.

“You asking for a date?” Apricot snickered.

“Heh, you wish I was that lonely. Nah, I am sure you saw the sky. Well, it is centered on one of the towers owned by the Okabe. I figured we should check it out. You in?” Shiori explained.

Apricot looked over at Jasper. “You‘re not asking, are you?”

“No, I am really not. Cortez is slated to be our navigator. For once, he is useful. We will meet up in about three hours. Can you be here by then?” Shiori asked.

“Yeah, if I must.” Apricot hanged up the call.

“Was that Sato?” Jasper asked.

“Another friend, my boss, actually. Hey Jasper, I have to go out. So you stay inside.” Apricot said.

“Again!?” Jasper moaned. “I thought we were going to hang out while Mom and Dad were not here.”

“Something came up, and I got to work. Don’t worry though. We are going to have a lot of fun soon. Tell you what. I will buy you a model if you don‘t pout.”

Jasper folded his lips up and bounced his head. “Ok, that is fair.”

“Even with this stupid mask on, it smells so horrible down here!here!here! ” Apricot lamented. Shiori trailed behind with a gas mask covering his face. They are knee-deep in mucky sewage lit only by their headlamps.

A western-style sword is held in the hand of Cortez, who led the group. “Hmm, yeah, who came up with this?”

“Tis mine, I got it from my lovely Apricot. It’s not your first time under the city, is it?” Shiori laughs. While they trudged through the thick waters, Apricot’s growl can be heard under her breath. “Well, how else were we going to get past the barricades? Every SDP officer and news outlet is running the circus. This is probably the best plan. Thank goodness Arjun had those extra radiation suits. If I do say so myself, I think it works quite well as a sewer suit.” Shiori said cheerfully. “However stop complaining, the ladder into the building is right there.”

Cortez directed his light toward a ladder leading up an ominous grate. He was at the front of the group. “These bags weigh a ton. What the hell is inside them?” His body ached from carrying so many backpacks.

“Torches, well, improvised torches,” Shiori said before reaching for the ladder’s rungs.

When Cortez saw the bagless prince ascending the ladder, he yelled, “Where are your bags? Can you believe this guy?” He said turning his head to Apricot.

Apricot raised her hands to her chest fidgeting. “Well, actually,” she said turning to the side showing that she too had no bags with her.

“What the hell. Why the hell am I the only one with bags?”

Shiori called down from the top. “I am injured, and she is useful. Makes perfect sense to me.”

“Screw you, man.” Cortez retorted.

Apricot was motioned upward by Cortez. Apricot laughed and shook her head. “You’re not looking up at my butt.”

“Well, shit, there is nothing to look at anyway in these baggy things,” Cortez grumbled grabbing the ladder. “Well, excuse me for being polite.” Tossing the bag out of the hole Cortez crawled from the dark abyss into the open basement of what appears to be a warehouse. Shiori shook his blond hair free of the suit as he peeled it from his skin. Lowering his hand into the dark Cortez helps Apricot.

Apricot immediately removes the suit. She is happy to take the smelly thing off. “Do you hear that?” Apricot asked. Cortez looked around. A low droning echoes through the building.

Shiori was already pawing through the bag grabbing a gas canister and attaching it to a hose. “Here.” He said tossing Cortez the canister.

“Whoa!” shouted Cortez as he grabbed it with the tips of his fingers. “That’s dangerous!”

“You caught it, we’re fine,” Shiori laughed. “Even if you didn’t, I’m sure it wouldn’t blow up.” Shiori reached inside the bag and pulled out a pipe attached to a hose. Turning the knob slightly, he placed the canister on his side and pressed a button to light the end of the torch. “Alright,” he readjusted the torch until it was a nice thin beam. “Now, this will deal with any critters we come across.” He points to the other trigger. “This will shoot out a spray of some mixed chemicals. All you need to know is, if you spray it, it spits fire.”

“But if it is a phantom we are after, the torch won‘t help us much,” Apricot said.

Shiori nodded his head. “Yeah but I am thinking the swarms of bugs on the upper floors have more to do with real-life bugs than the phantom itself. Also including, we don’t know for sure. We’ll see. Perhaps they’ll be burned by fire. I’ve never done it myself.”

Cortez looked down. “I am not about to light fires just to kill a few bugs.”

“Did you see it from outside or did you forget? The sky is black with the swarms around this building.” Shiori begins walking down the hall. “Suit yourself though. I am about to search the upper floors. Cortez, get familiar with the basement. Apricot, you cover the lower floors. We keep heading up after. If anyone has an issue, send a text.” Shiori said with a silver stave slung over his shoulder as he walked into the dark.

“Like I am taking orders from him. Come on, let’s stick together, Apricot,” Cortez said. 

“Actually, I like the idea of covering ground fast,” Apricot said as she heads towards a large metal staircase.

“Sure, let’s do that. Come on, let’s split up and let’s all be messed up one by one. Just like in the horror movies. Tcha’, damn,” Drawing his pistol from his side, Cortez holds the firearm close to him.

Shiori crunched into the crusty shell of another bug as he walked across an insect-infested floor. Walking along the dimly lit corridor, he noticed that the walls seemed to be alive. “PSHHHH!” the torch hissed as several insects were ignited by the flames. The relaxed expression on his face was replaced by the contemplative expression of a stoic statue.

He entered a large office filled with many cubicles and the loud humming intensifies. The floor changed; it was previously carpeted in the hall but is now a black and white checkerboard made of stone. “Mmmmm, I didn’t even realize so many insects existed in this city,” Shoiri commented as he looked around the hazy room alive with crawling insects. From somewhere in the dark room, he heard a low beetle like a screech. Shiori thought to himself: “That sound is from something much larger than a bug. Good, I found you,” he said, lowering his rod. A jingle is heard from the rings on the end of the rod. Then he added, “And you are not alone. Maybe an initiation?”

Despite the darkness, he saw two large, glowing red eyes like the eyes of a fly. The creature leapt from the edge of a cubical and was hung by its clawed toes. In the glimmer of firelight that shined on it, the thin body of the creature glistened like a green jewel. Its back was characterized by two large mantis claws. Four humanoid arms with long fingers extend from their sides. Each one of its four mandibles twitched with anticipation.

Slowly, Shiori approached the creature holding up his staff. Inside his head, a searing whisper greeted him. It said, “Fool. Did you come here to die? There are three of you. Where are your friends? They’ll make good meals.” The words rang in his head like an intense migraine.

“So you’re telepathic. Wish Junko was here.” Shiori said as he lunged at the creature with his rod. “Nice trick!” Shiori shouts before slamming his rod into the insect. It is blocked by its mantis-like arm. While Shiori watches the creature push off his silver rod, he widens his eyes. “What are you?! I’ve never met a phantom able to touch silver!”

Shiori’s head echoes with the voice again. “I see. You are like him? Phantoms. Kikikikiki!” the creature cackled. “I am not a phantom but rather a spirit summoned by an agonizing cry!” The creature stands on the edge of the cubicle, spreading its wings. “A young girl was slain above calling out for a god to save her. None answered, so a devil has answered and I intend to fulfill her final prayer, a curse. Sadly for me, the one who slew her has passed. Still, her blood cries out for vengeance against all the nobles. I have no toil with the blood of a Kinjo, it is the Okabe’s blood I seek.”

Shiori clutched the rod nervously. His answer was, “Serves them right.” Bending to Shiori’s level, it stretched out its head. He could feel the warmth and foul odor of the creature’s breath wash over her cheek. “I will leave you to your oath.”

Shiori dove backward to avoid the strike by mere inches as the mantis swung its sharp claw at his chest. “I’ve never promised to let you go.” it declared. “I am going to kill you just for the fun of it!” the creature said jumping off the cubicle wall onto the ground. With its scythes rubbed together, it made a metallic scraping sound while standing to its full height dwarfing Shiori.

Apricot’s nerves twitched as she walked the dark halls alone under the drone of the buzzing insects. Her gaze darted at every slight noise as she grabbed the hilt of her sword, ready to stab at any moment. The idea that this phenomenon might be caused by a phantom weighed heavily on her mind. Never before had she considered that these entities could control other entities. Could this one see through the insects’ eyes? She wondered. A sour expression appeared on her face at the unsettling thought.

“Apricot?” She let out a shriek as the voice startled her. Her chest grew heavy as she turned her head to see Sato standing with a camera in hand. “Hey sorry about scaring you like that. Wow, never thought I would see you here? What’s with the weird clothes? You look like a ninja.” He laughed.

Her heart pounded harder. She was found out. She had to play it cool. After all, she did not know if she had raised suspicion yet. “Oh, my goodness! Sato! You scared the hell out of me. This place is creepy as it is.”

“Oh, excuse me. I just happened to see a dark figure walking down the hall with a sword. What the heck is with all that stuff, anyway?” Sato asked. She could barely make out his perplexed face in the dim glow of the emergency lights.

Apricot nodded her head. “Yeah, I guess this would look kind of weird. It was an old costume I had. Heh, figured the bugs could not crawl down something so tight. The sword well, I did not want to get mugged in here. I have been thinking about that a lot lately. I know I’m a little paranoid but I figured it was better than being at someone’s mercy.”

Sato gave a suspicious nod of agreement, though she could tell he found her response strange. A nervous sigh escaped her lips. “Well, ah I guess I can kind of understand that after all you’ve been through.” Sato took a step forward. “Still why are you here? How did you get in?”

“I am investigating the infestation. I wanted a closer look.” Apricot replied, hoping her ruse would escape suspicion. “How did you get in?”

“Yeah, well, I am kind of here for the same reason. I sneaked past the police. You know this place is under lockdown right now. The police are not even coming in. Actually, from what I hear, there are still people trapped in the building. They have strict orders not to enter though.”

“That is kind of scary to think about. Hope they turn up. Seems like we both have the same idea.” Apricot laughed. Suddenly, she felt a vibration against her leg. Her eyes widen instinctually. She immediately concealed her reflexive action by adopting a dull expression. One of the guys must have spotted something. “Hey Sato, I ah I got to run.”

Sato shook his head. “I am not letting you walk around here alone. It could be dangerous. We should stick together.”

The vibration started again. “Really, Sato, I am fine.”

“I insist,” Sato replied firmly. “I would die of guilt if anything happened to you.” Apricot pursed her lips slightly blowing a puff of air. “What?” Sato asked.

“I don’t need you to babysit me. I am fine on my own,” Apricot said. Sato’s expression told her he was not having any of that. “I have to run,” she said to herself not really wanting to. “Well, Sato. Tell you what. I will let you follow me if you can keep up.” She laughed before disappearing into the shadows of the halls.

“Wait!” Her leg started vibrating again as she took random corners down the hall. “Apricot!” Sato shouted as she turned each corner. After twisting and turning in the halls, she arrived at the stairs. 

After continuing up and getting on another fire escape, she assumed that Sato was lost. The buzzing of bugs could be heard in the pitch blackness. The surrounding buzz grew stronger as she proceeded up the fire escape. “Thrack!” It was as if a rock had fallen on her. As she raised her hand to her cheek, Apricot could feel a red irritation beginning to form. “Thwack!” Another, then another, and yet another. She was being pelted by a variety of flying insects. As she looked around in the storm, she felt like she was in a movie. Absolute madness. Her heart pounded at the sight of the flashing lights of the police and the crowds growing, motivating her to run faster.

The razor claws of the insects clashed with the metal of Shiori’s segmented staff. Shiori blocked blow after blow from the mantis monster while alternating between her arms. Rotating the staff, Shiori saw his chance after the next block. Overextending the top segment of his staff, he clubbed the creature in the side of the head, causing it to stumble backward.  

When the staff whirled towards the creature’s feet, it leaped out of the way flapping its four wings. In a flash, Shiori retracted, and the segments fly back into his hand just in time to block a strike aimed at his side. It was remarkable how far the monster reaches, he noted. Although he moved quickly, Shiori felt his stamina ebbing away quickly.

Shiori leaped back, extending out his arm from the chain of his staff so that it was aimed directly at the creature’s head. When the monster whipped its arm, several pieces of its carapace fly into the air, knocking the bludgeon to the ground.

Shiori spun the silver rod around his body and unleashed a crushing blow on the insect. The creature stumbled backward with every strike. He forced the monster into a cubicle, the artificial wall tumbled over into a slope over a desk.

Despite Shiori’s best efforts, the creature grabbed the rod, pulling her closer. Within range of the scythe, Shiori dodged left and right as the blades stabbed at his body. The rod was released when Shiori kicked the animal in its abdomen. A shriek erupted as Shiori withdraws his kick, and blood pours from its side. Seeing the creature stagger, Shiori pulled the rod from its grasp.

Both scythes collided with Shiori’s rods, knocking him back a step. As the blades bit into Shiori’s rod, the power was so great he fell to his knees. As Shiori rose to take another step back, he blocked another pair of blades as he slipped out from the attack. A tide of battle is raging between the two, trading blows rapidly without an end in sight.

The creature’s razor scythe slashed through the sheetrock as Shiori rolled aside a wall. It scraped down on the wall as Shiori retreated, leaving a deep fissure in the white wall. Snapping the ignition switch off the handle of the torch, he turned the gas all the way on. An explosion of flame erupted from the nozzle at the same time as the monster pulled his arm from the wall. A scream of agony is emitted by the insect as it was engulfed in flames. After removing the strap from the makeshift flame thrower, Shiori swings the canister at the target, causing it to strike with all the force of a bowling ball. The canister exploded in a blast of billowing flames, igniting the atmosphere around it immediately.

Thousands of insects scurry from the heat as the walls glow, moving and changing shape. The creature leaned against the ground, groaning. His shadow appeared to rise to his feet, a portion of his body blown open and his wings mangled. A powerful roar shook the ground as it turns to charge forward, diving through the flames.

“Shiori!“Shiori!“Shiori!,” Apricot screamed from the shadows as she drew her sword. With long slimy ends, the creature’s cracked carapace slid off its body. Despite being burned and bleeding, the creature crashed into Shiori, knocking him to the ground. It raised its head to snap at his face, only to bite down on his rod. The creature continued to push as its three semifunctional mandibles cut at his face. Seeing the creature dive off Shiori, Apricot lunged toward the open air. As it broke free, its body rotated to dive directly at Apricot.

The beast was struck in the ribs as she evaded. A painful shock traveled through her arm when her blade bounced off its carapace. Watching Apricot stand against the monster, Shiori struggled to stand up with the rod raised. The red eyes of the creature shone through the smokey darkness as it turned back toward Apricot. “How is that possible?” she exclaimed. “The silver did not hurt it!” Apricot screamed in her mind. When the reality of the situation dawned on her, she was terrified. Huffing, the creature squirted dark fluid from its open wound.

As Shiori smashed the creature’s eye with a wet pop, Apricot felt the wind of Shiori’s segmented rod fly past her face. A thick, inky layer of gore painted Apricot’s skin with the juices it contained. Following that, he jabbed the other end of his staff inside the creature’s chest; the rings pressing through a gap in its natural armor. Apricot, escaping her shock, leapt in and attacked the creature’s mouth, its fist slamming into her stomach. The wind was knocked out of her, as Shiori blocked the remaining scythe’s attack aimed at him.

Apricot rolled backward, landing on her back. The room started to rain as the sprinklers hissed. A scream emanated from her as she lunged at the creature again, stabbing it in the throat. The creature was thrown over Shiori’s shoulder as he wrapped the segmented rod around its neck. The blade is ripped free by Apricot mid-swing, and the insect’s upper body collapses. As everything around it disintegrated, its legs twitch and its circulatory system fell to the ground.

Shiori turned around and walked away from the sight. Her stomach lurched, and Apricot pushed up against the wall. As she vomited, a torrent of water splashed at her feet. With an exaggerated huff, Shiori turns his head toward her. “Took you long enough.”

Apricot stared down at her vomit. Rice and fish were clearly visible in it. Another convulsion hit her and she turned her head to feel her chest pound. “It’s alive. It was alive,” she said before puking again. “What is that?” She cried in a panic.

It dematerialized into a purple flame, floated before the two, then disappeared from the building. Taking flight after the wisp as the razor wings of the insects collided with Apricot’s skin, she let out a scream and fell to her knees.

“We need to leave now,” Shiori said.

Apricot looked around. “Where is Cortez?”

“I would like to know that myself,” Shiori said. “Then again, I really couldn’t care less. He is exactly who I expected him to be.”

“Shiori, I am scared… someone saw me and they know me.” Shiori’s gaze shifted uncomfortably toward Apricot’s eyes. She could feel the fear that was shared.

“Looks like all our masks are being removed. Does it chill you to the bone?”

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