An End To All You Know (Summer 2019), Fiction, Novels

An End To All You Know: Chapter 2

Table Of Contents

Chapter 2


Inspecting the designer treats displayed in the display case, my mouth watered. There were richly decorated pastries with chocolate and cream accents. The many treats were spread across a reflective metal surface. “My, she seems happier today.” Said the woman behind the commissary.

“Yes, she is.” Vanity said, standing behind me.

In delight, I replied, “I get to go to the beach today.”

“Oh my, wow, well, you’re a lucky girl!” she said as she wrapped the fudge Vanity had bought for me.

So far, my hospital experience has been most pleasant. As I explored the tunnels and gardens, I felt as though I were in a dream. I found the enclosure to be quite expansive as a whole. The days when I could leave the facilities and travel outside were my favorites. My home country, Krasimer, is an ocean away from Luxmeer, on the other side of the world.

However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was being hidden from me. My “disease” never had an exact definition. The only thing I knew was that whatever “it” was deadly and destroying me. Besides those vague terms, nobody answered my questions. Nevertheless, I learned people discussed it among themselves. Despite my efforts to incorporate the subject into conversations, I failed.

In my prints, puddles were left by cold rivers rolling down my bare legs. There are various critters scurrying about inside them that swirl around in the pools. Walking along the soggy shoreline, I enjoyed feeling the sand between my toes. There was a gentle wind blowing that day, catching the streams of my locks. While the incoming tide rolled in, I danced to avoid its stretching wake. I screamed gleefully, “This is great!”. On the beach, Vanity sat atop a clean towel. As Cody sat beside her, he sat next to one of his recent friends, Azamoth. Despite our small group’s unfamiliarity, the other beachgoers paid hardly any attention to us. Almost as if they weren’t there; shadows that wandered and faded.

In contrast to the dreary days indoors, swimming was a welcome respite. Once I had enough shore time, I made my way back to the group and joined their conversation. “So, Primina, how was it?” Vanity asked chipperly.

In the midst of my excitement, I said, “Wonderful!”

Every time Cody smiled, I was struck by his beautiful teeth. His proud glint in his eyes made me even more envious. As if he was pleased with my performance. “You are moving much better than last week. It is very encouraging to see the therapy has been working for you.” My own eyes sparkled as I nodded, delighted with the results. For the first few days, I thought I would never be able to walk without pain. Gladly, though, the pain faded. Now I can mostly ignore it, for the most part.

There are isolated fragments of beaches buried in the mind, like whispers of history lost to childhood. Despite what was missing, there were still faces there, hollow architecture from the past.

It is only a matter of time until Azamoth’s characteristic wolfish grin shows through his thin lips. “The beach is nice, but nothing seems to be enough to keep this dreaded boredom from consuming everything.”

With the help of Azamoth’s little quip, Vanity lets out a chuckle that lasted for several seconds. She curtsied, “Azamoth. How can you be so negative? We just had the most interesting thing happen in years.” I was very fond of Vanity, and she had proven to be a loyal friend. I found myself developing a deep trust in Vanity, despite my ignorance about their origins.

For Cody, too often he tagged along, and I suspected he was observing me for no apparent reason. Even so, I considered him kind.

Among the trio, Azamoth wore suits and acted more nonchalantly than the others. I thought he was one of the few genuine people around because, by some unspoken law, he had to keep his thoughts to himself. It was at least the impression I got. People at the hospital were generally friendly and playful. The realization that I was the only person my age soon dawned on me. Fortunately, the others helped make it easy to forget.

“What was that interesting thing?” I dared to ask.

While Vanity and Cody were looking at each other, Azamoth was staring right at me. “You.”

The first thing Cody did was raise an eyebrow, covering the glare he threw at Azamoth. “Funny Azamoth. Way to make someone feel uncomfortable.” At this, Azamoth gave a quick wink, followed by a loud cackle. “Saying things like that with a straight face and she may think you are being serious.”

It didn’t bother me at all. On the other hand, I didn’t think he was joking either. I felt as though he was being honest in his statement.

“You two stop it. We are here to relax, not have some petty squabble.” Vanity chimed. I do my best to pretend that I have not noticed that all eyes are shifting onto me. During these moments, I feel like a sheep among wolves. The uncomfortable suggestions they made from their expressions always frightened me. I could not bear to look away from the unwelcome face that repeatedly appeared.

In addition, no one gave me an explanation as to how long I had been in “stasis.” So far, I have applied the tactic of asking small, innocent, and sometimes even nave questions to gather information. Taking advantage of this brief moment of levity would be a fitting time to ask one of my silly questions. “Azamoth, how old are you?” The question is subtle enough for me to deduce when he was born. He, however, laughed. That surprised me. A smile spread across Cody’s face as he sat upright. A smile behind me crossed Vanity’s face, artificial as can be but nonetheless painted on as her impenetrable garment. A mask that has become familiar. “Well, I don’t think it is a funny question?” I pout.

“Well then, my dear? How old are you?” Azamoth asked.

As I mouthed back the question, my face fell. “How old am I?” And yet my mind gave no reply. It is hard to believe I forgot something so personal, something so simple as my age. Stasis had scrambled most of my memories, but this is the first time I didn’t remember my age. Only fragments of a forgotten history remained; narratives in someone else’s words. It troubled me, especially when tangible details, so important to me, simply disappeared into thin air. “I don‘t know? How old am I?” I begrudgingly replied.

“Well, when the youngest among us is the eldest, who’s to say?” I will never forget Azamoth’s stare toward Cody. It was as if they were stabbing knives at each other. “Well, why not tell her how old she is?”

“I don’t know.” Cody grimaced. “It, it is not important.”

“Well, how old does she look?”

In response to Azamoth’s glare, Cody furrowed his brow. Whatever Azamoth was poking at, Cody didn’t want me to hear. “What does it matter?”

“Come on, look at her. What is she, a teenager? Pre-teen? Huh? How old?” Cody’s face straightened out, his composure returning. “Judging by her body, I will guess maybe twelve, but you could be as old as fifteen.”

“But how old am I really?” Silence returned among the group. “You guys know, but you won’t tell me. I get it. You don’t want me to know how long I have been in stasis.” The sadness in my voice made me pout, hoping to elicit some pity. “I don’t know why you don’t want me to know.”

“We don’t know how long you have been in stasis.” Vanity assures. “To be honest, no one in the hospital knows exactly how long you were in stasis.”

There it was, the big secret was revealed. “So what else won’t you tell me?” But how was that possible? Surely my records show it.

A sigh escaped Cody’s lips. “A lot. It is for your own good not to question it. Just know that we are protecting you, Primina. A kid doesn’t need to know the weight of the world’s problems. You should just be happy you are out of stasis and safe. Just accept things for what they are.” Those words penetrated my heart; my eyes were glassy as I stared at Cody’s firm face. Eventually, his lips softened into a pout. “It is not my choice. Just as they do not allow you to know, I may not tell you. Trust me, it is hard.”

It was a bright, blinding light when I opened my eyes. Looking to my side, I saw cables and cords hanging across my skin as I sat in a chair. Screams of horror escape my mouth as people in the room look at me with wide eyes. Glossy plastic face masks masked their expressions. A rubber glove, which silences me, quickly covered my mouth. They gripped my legs as a foul taste crept into my mouth, and I went limp into that familiar darkness.

It was sometime later that I woke up in my bed. Vanity was sitting at the foot of my bed with a concerned look on her face. “You’re awake.” Still, my lids were heavy, and it felt as though my body was weak. After sitting up, Vanity’s hand reached for my chest. “Don’t get up, you had a seizure.”

I didn’t have a seizure. “I was at the beach and I woke up in a room. I didn’t have a seizure, Vanity.”

“You did. You woke up when they were treating you.” But Vanity lied. “It is ok, it happens.” I was unsure of why she would lie to me, but there must be a reason, which I pondered. My memories of what happened are fuzzy. The only thing I recall was being at the beach one moment and surrounded by doctors the next. Then again, perhaps she wasn’t lying after all…

Months pass…

Inside the sterile doctor’s office, mechanical servos creaked as metal arms adjusted themselves and occasionally sparked as they assembled a glass tube. Hellibor’s steps moved behind me, out of sight. With my feet dangling off the footrest, I watched the chair adjust itself to make it as comfortable as possible. A needle was inserted into my forearm and a steady stream of red fluid was pumped. As a steady beat was played through the background, a heart monitor’s beeps could be heard.

“I already have had blood taken twice this month,” I complained, laying my head on the rest. Hellibor’s footsteps slowed down. “The rules are twice a month. It is for my own good. Right, well, why again so soon?” After the beach incident, I began giving blood monthly. I found it difficult to accept at first. It was no longer painful to have needles inserted into my arm. By now, I was too accustomed to it. Although Hellibor was kind to me. He never missed a vein. There was no doubt that he was well-practiced.

After a brief titter, Hellibor composed himself. “My, you do know the rules rather well, don’t you?” As he stepped forward, he was wearing a warm smile on his face. Seeing him with that look made me uncomfortable. His smile is never contagious, especially when he is questioned. Essentially, it’s like a piece of clothing in the wrong style and color. There was just something utterly out of place about it on him. I held the armrests tightly. “Well, you are always such a smart girl. There has been a complication in your treatment. We have lost some of our window of opportunity. We are not getting the results we need out of you. What I mean to say is we have less time. I want to make sure you are healthy, but we need to take a little extra blood from you. Just to make sure everything works out.”

I pondered my response. Those rules, those iron-clad laws that constantly change to suit some unknown agenda. Rather than being a means of controlled behavior, the rules themselves seemed to be nothing more than rules that applied to me only. The constant shifting didn’t sit well with me. “I didn’t agree to this.”

Standing to his full height, Hellibor patted the back of my leg and laughed heartily. “I don‘t believe you did in the first place. In fact, if I remember correctly, you used to fight tooth and nail against it. I remember you hiding in those vents.” The man chided, turning away. “Always hiding and trying to miss your appointment, but I always knew you had to eat so I would wait until you got hungry. Primina, I cherish you. You are a treasure among treasures, a real fountain of miracles.”

As I sank back into Hellibor’s chair, I was suddenly reminded of that fact. “I noticed a guy I used to see by the river has not been there in a while. Also, that lady who runs the commissary, she’s also missing. Where is everyone?”

Hellibor placed his hand on the thick glass bottle containing the crimson liquid as he examined it. Until now, I was unaware he had removed the sample. A clear voice rose from his throat, his graying blue eyes locked on mine. “Well, I don’t know where they got to. I tell you what? How about after you rest we try to look for them?” We never looked for them. We never look for them.

It felt nice to have grass against my legs. Just enough springy sensation is created to not irritate the skin. The enticing smells of roasted onions and steak marinated in creamy red pepper cheese sauce from the plate on my lap wafted. Dark leafy greens were on the side, with cherries for dessert. A hidden spring of juice was released when I dipped my fork into the steak. Suddenly, I feel an unusual sensation on my back. “Vanity? How come you never have dinner with me?” Tender hands encompassed themselves onto me. There is nothing entirely unwelcome about the contact. Sincerely, I craved her touch. At arm’s length, every day can become quite exhausting and lonely. Even so, I knew it was a bad idea.

“Silly, you already know that.” the woman chuckled. “I don’t eat until later, after my shift.”

“Yeah, but I am eating now. So why don‘t you just grab a bite with me sometime? Or maybe I could eat later.” I picked up a fork full of greens and gazed at Vanity. Her uniform is always proper, as it should be. Similar to mine, but mostly white except for the blue hemlines.

There was a soft smile on her face today. The one she usually uses is different. “You have a special eating schedule to ensure you have the energy you need. After all, you are having a lot of blood draws, and it seems like Hellibor wants to increase that schedule. It is important you get the right nutrition or else you may get sick.”

“If it can make me sick, why are you doing it?” A tingling yet comforting sensation crawled through my hair. The tips of Vanity’s fingers untangled my hair as they made their way across my scalp. It’s too much. Totally dangerous. The outcome could be disastrous if she pulled out my hair. “You’re touching me.“ My mouth erupted. “Vanity, that is not allowed.” She hummed while running her fingers through. “Vanity?” I called again.

“O’ Prina, stop. Don’t worry about things so much.” I allowed myself to accept the unusual behavior, gazing out over the open park. There is moss on the ground as well as stone floors and a wooden path. The sky was a glassy reflection of the ground, almost as though looking out of water.

Unfortunately, my fears got the best of me and I could no longer stand it. “But we could hurt each other.” I groaned with discomfort.

“Prina, does it hurt?” Admittedly it did not. I shook my head in muted response. “So, it can’t be bad, can it?” I couldn’t help but have visions of Vanity latching onto my locks from behind and ripping my hair all out in one fell swoop. Removed the uppermost layer of skin from my skull as well. Exposing my brain to the open air, leaving me screaming in agony. Such vile thoughts…

With another forkful of greens, I chewed slowly and deliberately for a longer period than usual, allowing myself more time to think. The truth is, it didn’t hurt. It never made sense to me why touching was so bad. In a sense, these new fears of morbid crippling developed like cautionary tales. Swallowing, I gulped. “But we could get into trouble.”

My nose was tickled by a curtain of black hairs falling onto my face. The nighty screen slid off my head as I brushed it away. “Stop it, Vanity.” I chirped as I began to laugh at the sensation. As Vanity’s fingers twitched and wriggled, my ribs jumped. As I toppled onto the ground, I tore through the tickling sensation running down my spine. “Stop Vanity! I am going to pee!” Vanity lay next to me on her back, letting out a little huff of her own.

“That was fun.” she said.

In an instant, Hellibor’s face creased into a demonic mask of rage as a pair of legs approached fast. “Vanity!” he boomed. “What in the world are you doing?” With wide eyes, Vanity raised to her feet. I’d never seen anyone move that quickly before. He pointed his finger at the gates that led to the small garden enclosure. “Out!” Vanity lowered her head and left without saying a word. While still on my knees, his venomous gaze locked onto me.

“What did I tell you Primina? You could have damaged her! You are never to touch others, ever.” Hellibor waved his shaking finger. “In the old days!” he roared as I cowered beneath his wrathful thunder. “I would have strangled you dead for this! Watched the life crawl from your bloody tears.” My eyes streamed with tears; all joy had fled the room, replaced by a tense sense of foreboding. “From now on, the both of you will be separated!”

“No.” My heart cried. That I wouldn’t have been able to survive that. I considered her to be my only true friend. I needed Vanity! “Hellibor, it was my fault.” I cried. “I should not have touched her. I am so sorry!” The words flew with little thought. “Please, I won’t do it again.” I cracked.

With his emotionless, frozen expression, his head only shook. “Fine, but for right now, you eat your food. I will decide what to do later. After you are to report back to your quarters until I tell you to leave. Do I make myself clear?” It terrified me. The rest of me could only nod in response to his curse. As Hellibore marched from the room, I was left alone in the garden with my mandatory meal on my plate.

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 27

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 27

The Aftermath

There was concrete and rubble along the sidewalk. A city once engulfed by skylines that stretched to the heavens appeared more like a junkyard to Apricot. While walking the blood-stained streets, she took in the sights of a freshly infected nightmare. Armed soldiers were removing bodies from the destroyed buildings along the long stretch of road. In the street, she saw a pair of men hoisting a body into the back of a large convoy truck. Inside, she saw an unbelievable number of dead eyes looking back at her. Stacked on top of one another like lumber.

A wise decision or a poor one? Did the reaper lie? That had to be the case. Suddenly, the world was without hope. Here they stood, the price of a new day. Without these wicked haunts, there will be peace. Despite any doubts in her mind, she knew that she had made the right decision. A teenaged Uchellen boy wearing a green shirt stared out the window. She saw her face meet his, and she knew they were both thinking the same thing. How do we proceed from here?

As she watched, a group of soldiers armed with guns marched past her. They paid her hardly any attention. It seemed everyone was focused on cleaning up. “I guess that is all we can do. Pick up the pieces and carry on regardless of what happened.” Apricot mused. She sees a group of young kids pick up small pieces of metal and carry them over to a dumpster, where their parents help them toss the scraps in.

She heard a woman weeping in the distance, probably in a state of regret over losing a loved one. The ending was not what Apricot hoped for. Sure, the threat was eliminated, but its mark will live on forever. But, lo and behold, there it was. It was a line, with people walking the streets as they should. There were no more ruins or rubble. Untouched by the terror that befell the city that dreadful night. Apricot was relieved to find that. Family, her family! Her eyes gleamed as she raced to her neighborhood as fast as she could.

When she opened the gate to her house, everything appeared in order. It was as if a warmth was filling her as she reached for the doorknob. As she wrangled her hand around the knob, she opened the front door. “Thank goodness.” she thought to herself. “Mom, Dad,” Apricot called out. “Jasper!” as she took a few steps inside, she shut the door behind her to see that the house was exactly in its place. As she walked down the hall, she looked into the kitchen. Upon peeking inside, there were no dishes in the sink. “Everyone must be still asleep.” she concluded.

Apricot opened the cupboard to grab a clean glass from the cupboard. Her first stop was the sink, where she poured a glass of cool water. While drinking, she leaned against the sideboard. There was something refreshing about the slight chill on her lips. When she glanced toward the hallway, she saw a shadow pass over the wall. “Jasper?” she called out.

There was no response. Having put the glass down on the sideboard, Apricot turned to enter the hallway. She could see a faint ripple in the morning sunlight in the living room. As the shadow slowly disappeared across the wall, she watched. Turning from the kitchen, she looked into the living room from the hallway. Her view was restricted by the entryway, and she had to approach more closely. She called out, “Mom,” as she stepped forward. Still no reply. “Dad?” she questioned. The moment she stepped into the living room, she turned her head to see a disfigured humanoid holding Jasper in its claw. Both her parents were tied together in the corner of the room. As she stared up at the thing, part of its face was missing. Its lower lip hangs several feet from its head, exposing its sharp teeth. Its neck stretched out as if it had dislocated, like a gooseneck faucet. Its eyes were hollow and white with blood. The other side of its mouth was on its throat and one arm was missing. Although it looked as though his body flesh was melting like wax, it was still clearly flesh.

“Hello, apostle.” Urias said in an eerie voice. The girl’s eyes grew wide. She had no idea what to make of it. “I was waiting for you.” He said raspily.

Apricot clenched her fist. It was as though she had locked eyes with the horror in front of her. “Let my family go.” she insisted.

Absent pupils, she could not tell how his eyes were looking. “I can’t sense the black god anymore.” he groaned. “Where is he?”

She furrowed her brow in irritation. “Put my little brother down now.”

“I don’t think he is here anymore. I think, you made him go away.” He grinned, exposing his gums above his teeth in the process. “I think, you are responsible for all this. You ruined everything,” he mused.

“How are you alive?” Apricot asked.

A childish laugh emanated from Urias. “Oh, I didn’t. I have been dead for a long time. Join me,” He exclaimed throwing Jasper from his grasp. He screamed as he crashed into the wall and knocked pictures down with him. Using one clawed hand, Urias charged at Apricot. After a short hesitation, she jumped into the hallway. As he moved, he snapped his many mouths. Drool dripped from their mouths and reminded her of weeping sores.

Another lunge from Urias was directed at Apricot. The girl dodged his arm, backing into the kitchen. He sauntered into the room quickly. “I expected more from you Apricot. It seems you have lost your powers. Mmmmm, no more favors from the black god aye?” he cackled. On the counter, Apricot pulled a pair of knives from a wood block. “Oooo,” Urias groaned. “You sure about wanting to fight me? But then again I am sure your blood will be enough to call him back.”

Taking both knives, Apricot charged at Urais with a shrill scream. Kicking her in the thigh, she tumbled backwards. Urias regarded her with a cocked head as she covered herself. He took a swipe at her, catching her by surprise, and she slashed at his throat. Using both hands, she blocked his claw-like fingers. After snapping back his claw, he nicked her in the ribs. A loud noise of meat ripping filled Apricot’s ears. It was intense, but not enough to cause any significant damage. After ducking low for another strike, she was grabbed by his hand, Urias’s arm pinning her to the ground.

After that, he picked up her body and threw it against the wall. His follow-through on her arm left her with no time to recover after he was standing over her.  Her body ached while holding the gaping wound with exposed muscles oozing. As she snapped her head up and saw Urias standing over her, she struck him once more. Her swing through the open air was completely missed because he stepped back. As she went round for another strike, Urias sidestepped her attack and raked his claws across her back. Her jacket was sliced open, exposing her shirt and torn skin underneath.

Urias came at her again, causing her to bend over as she suffered from the pain. She grabbed his wrist and held it up. By raking the other knife against his pale stomach, she penetrated the flesh. It became sliced open, releasing an awful odor. Stepping back, he examined her with an open jaw. With his lower lip dangling, he gazed at her. The little spear-like points of his teeth reminded her of a fish’s mouth. As she gazes into his damaged body, she can see that his insides are writhing with life. Black bubbling blood seeped out from the center like sap dropping from a tree.

Apricot was hit by Urias as she was standing on the counter top and several objects fell on the ground. Urias eventually latched on to Apricot’s throat. Taking both knives, she stabbed them into his wrist, ripping through his forearm. Urias released the grip, but he did not back away. Using the counter, Apricot kicked him in the face, causing him to fly through the air and into her refrigerator. She let out a groan as the burning pain in her stomach sent her off the counter onto her feet.

Urias leapt toward her again, reaching out a split hand for her neck. As Apricot dropped to her knees, she stabbed both knives into his lower calves, raising them up the length of his legs. The man fell backward onto the ground screaming in pain. When Apricot collapsed onto his horrid body, he slashed both knives against his throat, cutting off his head. As Urias turned up, he let out a shrill gasp.

After rising to her feet, Apricot looked down at the head that was gripped by gasps. Seeing the desperate movements, she raised her foot and stomped on his skull as if it were a grapefruit. Taking several puffs of air, Apricot caught her breath, feeling her body seethe with rage. As Apricot walked into her living room covered in blood, she saw her parents taped up in the corner. “I think it’s over now.”

Apricot’s mind flashed images of a dull burgundy glow as she rubbed her eyes in slumber. In the background, an annoying buzzing continued to ring in her ears. After a period of deep sleep, she opened her eyes and saw a red glow and a shade of purple obscuring her room. While ignoring the time, her head turned to her alarm clock and she touched the alarm button with her hand. When she removed her covers, she felt the slab patches on her. Looking out of the window, she saw blue skies. “It’s nice to see the morning without fear again,” she said.

Rolling out of bed Apricot strolled to her closet looking through her clothes. She grabbed a red and white striped shirt throwing it onto her bed along with a pair of black jeans with several fashionable tears down the legs. She looked over at her clothes giving a soft smile.

First time eating breakfast at home since she was released from the hospital. Upon walking down the stairs, she noticed the familiar aroma of her mother’s home-cooked salmon and green onion miso. Shyly, she stepped into the kitchen. “Good morning,” Apricot said incapable of looking at her family.

Her mother entered the living room with a plate of cooked rice. “Apricot can you get the soup kettle?” Her father was already seated at the table next to Jasper. Apricot lowered her eyes to the floor with a smile as she placed a kettle on the table. Sitting next to her mother, Apricot bowed her head.

As Apricot glanced back at Jasper, a smile was beaming on his face. Jasper was wearing a white collar around his neck. “Are you like a superhero or something?”

“No,” Apricot softly replied.

“Well, you saved our lives. I consider you my hero.” Jasper said with a smile. His eyes welled up with tears. Apricot furrowed her brow in surprise.

In an attempt to control the feelings welling up inside of her, she snapped, “That is not very manly little boy.”

Her response caused Jasper’s jaw to drop. “What! I am a man.” Apricot smiled. It was, indeed, home. “Dad tell her!”

Apricot was filled with joy as she heard the morning banter. Her eyes were ablaze as she marveled at this moment. She felt comforted as she listened to the mundane conversation of her parents. Jasper’s little nerd remarks were amusing. Exactly how it was supposed to be. After all, the nightmare was over.

The vibrations from her leg prompted her to draw out her phone from her side and see the words “Okabe Government” displayed. Closing her eyes, she realized how fast good things ended. The moment of serenity had gone.

White marble floors glistened like silver throughout the Okabe capitol building. Each of them was immaculately polished. As she walked the hall alone, she admired the pictures and artwork that lined the walls. However, they left her feeling uncomfortable. She tried to forget the faces of those whose lives she had ended. Additionally, the odor of the building was uncomfortable. It was hard for her to identify it, but it reminded her of something like pepper. Her throat closed as she approached the high council’s conference room, just as it had done before.

Weirdly, they allowed her to turn up voluntarily. Even if she wanted to escape, she couldn’t. Upon entering the courtroom, she was plunged into black and white. There was a silver gray and black palette everywhere. The large light fixtures above rendered the room pure white, their light nearly blinding Apricot. A circle of long, metallic desks surrounded the room’s floor. They sat a few young children at each of them. The middle child is probably around the age of thirteen.

“Apricot Signa, thank you for your cooperation,” he said firmly.

Apricot inspected each member of the council and found no one older than the boy in the middle. Would children be making decisions about her life? Could this be possible? “Your welcome, pardon, but I do not know how to address you,” she said, unsure of what she was in for.

“Forgive me, I am not familiar with these formalities myself. My name is Yushio Okabe. I am the inaugurate emperor.” He sighed. “These circumstances are, unusual. I ask that you bear with me.”

Apricot bowed knowingly. “Of course.” she said. Inaugurate, that’s right. Kyo was gone. It was impossible to establish a formal emperor at this point in time. Therefore, this young boy was forced into the position. This made sense, but no sense was made by the other children.

“The events that have unfolded in the last few months have been a long series of unfortunate events. The results of which have ravaged the lives of everyone living in Okabe. You are one of the few people living to have first-hand knowledge of these events.” Apricot felt her hands tingle a bit. “There are holes in our investigation. You see, the last administration did not leave us clear records. We do have a thorough understanding of your role in this. Empress Kyo had a clear interest in you, and Shiori of the Kinjo clan as well. Do you have any knowledge of this?”

“I do.” Apricot said, acknowledging the need to be honest.

His head nodded in agreement. “Good, well, I understand they arrested you for an act of terrorism against the Okabe government. Shiori Kinjo, along with a small group of people attempted to usurp the rightful rule of the Okabe family. Were you in fact a willing participant in that act?”

She bowed sheepishly without saying a word.

“Interesting. What you may not be aware of, perhaps you are, Empress Kyo murdered my grand uncle. Mitsura Okabe. She was in fact a rebel herself. Her actions were vile. Look around Apricot. All of us were touched intimately by these events. This is what remains of the Okabe empire. We are children, not rulers. Everyone else however is dead. It is left for us to uphold the family name and carry on a lasting tradition.” His face remained stone cold. “We understand our history. You have spent years investigating those subjects. A skill I am quiet aware that you hold a degree in. You must have known at that time of the corruption that found a home in our household.” Apricot hesitates. “Our council has spent several hours deliberating on what exactly to do with you. You are a liability.” he said to Apricot.

As her chest tightened, she felt a sharp pain. She felt as if someone was squeezing every vein in her body at once. “I will make a deal with you. I will offer you a complete and total pardon for all the crimes you have committed. In return, you will never talk about the reality of the incident to anyone ever again. Do I have your agreement?”

“That sounds fair, I agree.” Apricot said feeling like she dodged a bullet.

He nodded. “I foresee no further action from the Okabe government regarding you. For your comfort, I will inform you that we are dismantling everything Kyo and Mitsura had assembled. While there was disagreement among the council regarding my planned actions, we agree that what they tried to achieve was pure madness. There will be no more insane projects going forward while under my rule. However, on another note. We have yet to locate Shiori Kinjo, who is of particular interest to us. You would not know of his whereabouts?”

“I do not.” Apricot solemnly said. While seated next to the young boy, he glanced over at the girl next to him.

“She is telling the truth.” Looking into a screen, the girl remarked.

“All right,” he groaned wearyly. “Our conclusions must be true. Shiori has escaped in secret back to the Kinjo clan. Apricot, I have restored your citizenship to Okabe. Your social credit has been restored to its former value as well. Your jade marks have also been returned to you in full. Your license as a journalist has been permanently revoked. You are prohibited from participating in any form of journalism. I hope you understand seeing as how things are. I would consider you a hero if not for the circumstances that led up to these events.” Apricot swallowed hard and felt a lump in her throat. While holding back tears, she knew that her future had just been ripped away. However, she realized journalism was something she couldn’t return to after what she had experienced. “However, as a consolation, I have arranged for you to receive your full pension as though you had fulfilled your duty as a state journalist. I suggest you pursue a life abroad or whatever life you would have wanted instead of journalism. You may leave.”

Apricot sat surrounded by her friends with a half-savored burger in her hands. A burrito was wrapped around Machi’s mouth as she struggled to bite into the steak inside. “So, as I said, I got this new issue of Eerie Truths! No more Claw Fingers sightings, but check this one!” Bonni tossed the mag onto the picnic table. “The valkyrie of Okabe!”, the headline read. Although there are a number of images of a girl, their static made it virtually impossible to see any details. “It’s like we got a superhero!” Bonni exclaimed.

As Apricot smiled to herself, she remained silent. “Thank goodness for Akagi.”

Snapping her head back, Machi swallows the wad down as she chews her food. “Bonni, you can’t even see anything in the pictures! It could be just some random person.” She barked.

“Pshh! Like whatever Machi!” Bonni retorted. “A monster could slap you in the face and you would deny it even existed. What about the monsters who attacked the city a few weeks ago?”

“Everyone knows it was a chemical hallucination. People just erupted into a frenzy.“ Machi responded to Bonni. Solenne gave Apricot a knowing smile. The blush that Apricot wore on her face diminished as she realized Solenne could not be lied to anymore. That, for some reason, made her feel comforted.

“Girls, girls, does it really matter?” Sato said, attempting to diffuse the situation.

“Shut up, Sato!” the two yelled at him together.

“Well, that is something they agree on.” Apricot laughed.

Sato rubbed his head, smirking. “So what do you say we go to a late-night movie?”

From the other side of the street, Hunter gave a slight nod to her and then climbed into the shadows of an ally. A smile appeared on Apricot’s face. “Sorry Sato, but I got a night shift again; clean up duty. You know how it is.”

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An End To All You Know (Summer 2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 26

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Chapter 26

The Truth Revealed

The shrine’s appearance changed as the road to it changed. Against the murky red horizon, the trees which once looked full of life have been stripped of their leaves. Sharp fingers flit against the trees’ naked branches. Rather than a collection of portraits, the statues lined the road with faces that seemed perpetually agonized, their mouths open toward the sky like round holes in the sky. The road itself was foggy and dark. A blaze of wax adorned the sidewalk that led to the stairway that rose up to the shrine’s gates. There were pools of black inky liquid as the liquid dripped from the stairs. Observing Apricot as she climbed the stairs, two-winged animals sat atop the red arch, bars of incisors spangled in an open snarl.

As she reached the top, she saw the reaper squatting in the courtyard with his back to her, moving his hands. Her attention was drawn to the creatures atop the gateway. With closer inspection, she saw their razor teeth more clearly. The two-winged beasts dropped in front of her roaring when she stepped in front of the archway. With a long boney arm, one creature slashed at Apricot. When the wind of its fingertips brushed against her nose, she jumped back. On her feet she sprung forward with her blazing hand, unleashing a bolt of fire directly into the creature’s head. Upon impact, the skull of the creature bowed, crushed. After slamming into the ground like a rag doll, the creature fell limp.

Apricot withdrew her arm from the fallen body, holding the flame like a blade. As the other creature stepped forward he struck at her, but she avoided the sharp claw by tapping away its arm. Her arm retracted, and another assault was launched for her side. The flaming blade of Apricot glided along its other arm. The blade sliced the arm in half, splintering down the middle. Holding the mangled arm, it screamed. She slashed with a clean strike from the creature’s head to its pelvis without wasting a moment. Sprouting blood, the split monster turned into blue orbs before falling aside.

She paused, her gaze fixed on the reaper. Passing through the red gate, she entered the courtyard of the shrine. She felt her mind race with fear. She knew that this was the end and that he had the power to kill her with a snap of his fingers. In her first meeting with him, she had no idea how he performed that trick and had hoped it was just a trick. After repositioning his arms in front of his chest, the reaper turned to face Apricot. “My thou has’t the fury of a devil burning in thy eyes. What is it that thee plan on doing with that blazing fire of yours?”

He was in the sights of her blade. The flaming blade parts are dripping onto the ground as they impact. “I have come to kill you once and for all!” Apricot proclaimed. A small chuckle escaped his lips.

“A motley-minded endeavor. Thee cannot killeth me. I can understandeth the sentiment though. I too findeth this world a horrible lodging as well. Thee art still blind.” he said, extending his hand towards Apricot. “Cometh walketh with me.”

Apricot shook her head in protest, crying and afraid of death. “The time for talk is over!“ She shouted, tears rolling down her cheeks. Even the mere heat of his presence caused the tears to dry before falling from her face.

Apricot saw the astonished as he lowered his head towards her in what seemed like a solum stance. “Peradventure mine method wast too harsh. I apologize but I hadst to has’t thee understandeth the true nature of this world. It’s retched festering evil. So I hath sent thee on this journey, to gain wisdom. Now I giveth thee a new journey.”

“What are you on about?about?about? Apricot croaked, still pointing the blade at him. Bringing the blade closer as he glided toward Apricot, she prepared to stab him.

“Understandeth me Apricot. From the beginning I hath brought thee through the nightmare.” His voice was soothing, slow, and serene. Apricot hated the thought of it more than anything else. There was a wicked magic that filled his tone. “Thee knoweth the rate of thy friends. Thee seen the deepest torment of those above. The cries of those sacrificed in vain. Now thee art eft to taketh a rightful lodging. To end this chaos, tis in thy hands now. Thee alone has’t the choice to save this world or alloweth it to rot eternally.”

Apricot replied, “I don’t understand?”

The reaper slowed as it neared her landing. As he bowed, he lowered his head. “At which hour we first hath met. Thee wast a fool. Thee hadst no knowledge of the real world. The truth of this city. The ruling powers who abused its people. Thee didst not knoweth about the vile criminals who harm the people. 

Now thou has’t seen the reality of the gangs and their overlords. Thou has’t seen the poor folk trodden upon and given nothing but misery. The royals who treat those below those folk as livestock for slaughter. The unruly demons who haunt this world.

The wars and those who maketh wars. The uncaring hearts of the hath lost. The savage minds of the abusers. The dreams, stolen from valorous people. See this truth Apricot. Together we can changeth this all. Join me, beest the god this world needeth.

By thy hands those gents don’t needeth to die. We can save all those who died. Those who were undone to this world beest hath brought to death. All those sacrificed given new life. In a paradise which thee shalt rule. All thou has’t to doth is allow me to bringeth thee across the threshold. We can cease all this evil.” The reaper said as he stuck out his clawed hand at Apricot. “So doth thee chooseth life or doth thee chooseth death?”

As Apricot’s eyes fill with tears, he lets out a sigh. “Why me!” she cries in despair.

“The Okabe abused mine plan. Instead, those gents tormented people for their own selfish gain. Those gents hath used me as a nexus for power. Urias, that gent is a madman. Kyo, the lady too wast hath lost. The ones ere thee, those gents hath lost their minds. Thou has’t endured. Tis thee I searched for and forged from hellfire. Cometh Apricot, tis time.” Apricot hesitated a bit as she entered the seal. Her steps were like those of a child. Looking up at the reaper, she saw the eyes that were behind the mask. The eyes were like a machine, fixed like dead eyes. “Very valorous, I am glad thou has’t madeth the right choice.”

As Apricot lifted her hand, she placed it among the reapers. Just above his claws, her fingertips hovered. A roar erupted from her as she brought forth a flame and quickly stabbed her blade into his chest. “You are a liar!” The reaper backed away from Apricot and howled. He stared at the blazing blade in her hand. “You’re no better than the Okabe. You murder and scheme and manipulate people. You’re no righteous god! You are a devil.”

Under his breath, the reaper growled. An enormous gash covers his chest, and his claws extend below the sliced fabric into the metal casing. “I am not flesh. This is a manifestation of me. If ‘t be true this how it must beest, then I shalt taketh what is mine by force. Apricot thee shalt beest mine, willing or as mine unwilling host. I shalt ride thee as a horse if ‘t be true I must!”

While his claws aimed at her heart, he lunged toward her. By sidestepping the reaper, Apricot blocked his assault with an arm. “You want to strip people of their will. Even me, the one you desire to change the world. You want to strip my will from me.” Apricot avoided his next punch over her head. As she hit him upward, she severed his mechanical prosthetic. Upon being knocked to the ground, the twitching leg reveals cables and hanging cords.

“Every world is not complete without a god and a devil. Thither cannot beest valorous without evil. Balance is the key.” The reaper slashed Apricot’s shoulder, blood spurting out and the pain radiating from her muscles. She let out a cry of pain and tried to back away from him.

Despite rolling off the blow, Apricot was shaking from the exhausting pain. “Balance is a lie! Evil always wants balance because it is nothing against good. Evil is evil and good is good! The only ones who try to blur the lines are the evil ones!” Apricot roared sharply as she sliced the reaper’s face with her flaming blade. The mask crumbled. They reveal a mechanical manikin

Mechanically, the reaper shook. For Apricot, it seemed like the machine was falling apart. She seized this opportunity and cut effortlessly through the torso and left arm of the reaper. The upper body of the machine floated out in front of her and grinned artificially. “Flesh is undone by mine spirit. So I has’t addressed thee with the spirit of phantoms. Wherefore doth thee bethink I hadst thee hunt those folk and gaveth thee the power to absorb their energy. That is wherefore thy soul blade hath grown stronger. Now thee art eft to beest wed with mine spirit. Alloweth me in!”

Appricot sprang away. “You want to possess me?”

He nodded his head. “Forsooth. You art mine vessel. That is what you art destined to beest. Now surrender yourself. I has’t damaged thee enough already.” The flying body charged Apricot, ejecting black fluid. Apricot attempted to sidestep, but he was moving too fast. A silver rod whipped between the reaper’s claw and Apricot. Her heart pounded as she saw Shiori forcefully pressing the rod against the reaper, glaring into its eyes. “Shiori wherefore doth thee cease me? We hadst a deal!”

“Don’t you know when you have been doublecrossed?” Shiori muttered, throwing the reaper to the ground. Using his teeth, Shiori removed the white glove covering his hand. “Run Apricot. Get outside the seal.” He commanded as he rammed his hand into the reaper’s back. In a flash, Shiori was covered in a red glow as though struck by lightning. 

“What has’t thee done!” he barked. “It’s over for you.”

Initially, Apricot hesitated. The mechanical body went lifeless and she suddenly became terrified. “Shiori, what is happening?”

“Apricot, help me. The reaper is in me. Come help me out of the lock!” Shiori gasped, his mouth foaming.

Appricot stepped carefully towards him as he shook his head. “Apricot no!” a familiar voice called out. “Don’t touch him.” Hunter was standing at the threshold of the seal when she turned her head. “Get out of the seal!”

“But Shiori.” Apricot whimpered. Her eyes went wide as his skin sliced, his body decaying in front of her. “Shiori, I am sorry.” she said. Tears rolled down Shiori’s cheek as he smiled. As Apricot escaped, Shiori bowed to the side. Hunter held up his hand as Shiori’s body jerked attempting to move but instead held in place.

as the pieces fall; its artificial blue eyes and blond white hair dangle from the jester’s cap. “Nothing about you is real.”

“Thee wench! Cometh back thee wench! Don’t leaveth me! Thee art going to rid the world! No, this cannot beest! Shiori, thee fool. Doth thee very much expect to survive. We art going to beest trapped in the dead world! Is this what thee wanteth?” The reaper screamed from Shiori’s mouth.

As Hunter placed his hand on the rim of the seal, Shiori cynically commented, “Let’s see what your world is like.” The symbols and signs formed as the ground turned pitch black. While the symbols exploded with a thunderous roar, Shiori got sucked into the darkness. Apricot looked up to see Hunter holding her arm as the two escaped the powerful vacuum winds. After one last boom, the grounds vanished, reappearing as a deep chasm at the temple’s center.

Apricot rose from the ground and walked toward the destroyed temple’s courtyard, where the polished bricks once lay. It caused her heart to beat faster. There was no sign of him. He had been taken to that horrible place. “Shiori!“Shiori!“Shiori!”, she screamed with tears streaming down her face. She shook her head, clutching her face. “Why did it have to end like this?” She sniffled. “What the hell Shiori?” She looked toward Hunter. With his back turned toward the pit, he watched as the city’s glow faded into a vague haze.

“You!” Apricot screamed. “You did this! You knew! You knew he would die! Didn’t you?” She waited for his reply, but it never arrived. Without another word, he walked to the stairs. “Don’t ignore me.” He sat down at the top of the step. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

As he pats the ground adjacent to him, Hunter frowns. “Because, you would not have allowed us to do it,” he replied sourly. Apricot walked up to the staircase and sat down next to him. “Don’t be mad at me. He made me swear not to tell you. I knew, and he did too.”

The first rays of morning light showed up over the horizon, and the two could see the sounds of battle had disappeared. Instead, sirens descended from every street. “It’s over now,” Apricot said, making his way towards Hunter who was also sobbing. She grabbed at his shoulder and pulled him in for a hug. In the early morning light, the two waited for hours. After the sirens subsided, Apricot and Hunter left together.

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Episodic Series, Fiction, Lyorta

Lyorta: The Saga Of Retribution: Chapter 6

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Chapter 6: The Queen’s Errant

Elven Blood I

~ 868 RE ~

~ Far Western Iest Kingdom, The Port City Of Taber Nightfall ~

A constant clattering of cups and the banging of iron fill the dimly lit hall while the small talk was plentiful. It filled the air with wonderful music and cheer, along with the chatter of a small fire living at its center. From the kitchenette, the aroma of sizzling meat and fresh herbs and vegetables wafted out. A swaying young lady in a cobalt commoner’s dress stirred a charcoal skillet while wearing a patterned dress. Thick laughter covered the local mumblings when a joke was told.

Everybody was dressed as they would in their own country. Women in simple dresses with aprons and brooches of another color, while men in kyrtill tunics and belted trousers. Except for a group of rather dirty-looking men. Not that people with soiled clothing did not come in, but the style these men wore was of a more than reputable brand. They wore imperial coats, shirts made of delicate fabrics, and armor decorated with studded metals. On their sides hung blades forged by the finest artisans without the proper honorifics. However, their condition betrayed no respect. It looked as if they had been uncared for some time, with bloodstains that set everyone who saw them with anxiety.

An older man was garbled with a mouth full of chicken and rice, “No place better than the east.” He said. The man had a strong Azurian mainland accent, not a Marionian’s as one would expect. That alone is not the odd part, but it is the thickness of it. He grabbed a large mead mug and took a full swig, swishing his half-chewed food down. “This is living,” he said, slapping the back of the man next to him. His crow’s eyes are his most distinctive feature of him; a dark mask so piercing it is unsettling.

“I agree. Finally, we made it to paradise.” The other man smiled with his patchy grin. There are more than half a dozen missing teeth and the ones that are there were mostly damaged. Around the table, three other men sat. Their plates were filled with various foods and their glasses were overflowing with ale. “I dare say this is the best time since leaving the mainland.”

A patch covered one man’s eye, and it was not pleasant. Rather like a piece of old ripped leather, to call it a patch would be far too generous. He had just slouched the scrap over to keep the dust out. It was obvious there was nothing behind that patch but a sunken hole. The part underneath got sucked in by the pressure as he breathed, so if you looked closely, you would see it bellow. “I am just glad King Grandor kept his word. I thought once we landed in port, we’d be done for.”

“We are now the Blue Hammers, lad. All you see is ours in this region of Marion. We could as well be kings.” The elder of the men laughed. His gruffness could almost be excused. The crest that was patched into his vest was one of the royal Azurian Guard, a captain, in fact. With a good wash, he might have been a handsome old man, but the grime became layers built upon layers of dirt painting over his features, making him appear much older than his age.

Bar patrons try to ignore the obnoxious hollering while they continue drinking. No one dared to disturb these men. Everybody knew about the Blue Hammers. Since the day they showed up, they have become well feared throughout the region. It wasn’t so long ago that the Blue Hammers were an unnamed group of thugs. Nowadays, they are known primarily for being cruel mercenaries.

The group of marauders chuckled at the sight of the curvy young barmaid. “She is a cutie,” said the crow-eyed man with a smile spreading across his wretched face. All the guys gawked and turned their heads in agreement. She wore her milk chocolate-colored hair in two bunny ears formed by red ribbons. The rest was long curls extending to her mid-back, and short bangs just above her forest brown eyes. As she picked up plates from table to table, her smile became sweeter and sweeter.

Having grown up in the tavern with her father, she had become an accomplished tavern maid. Her practice at serving had made her graceful. As she bobbed and weaved around the tables in the lively hall, it was almost like an art form. Every knot and imperfection was known to her as she sailed through the channels of the wooden floorboards. The waitress escaped the various stubs sticking out of the wood. Her feet dashing just next to uneven places and all around them. Despite that, she never tripped. She always knew exactly where she was going. Her crimson, white-trimmed dress swayed as she weaved around the room. The flow of her frilly apron matched the rhythm of her steps.

Licking the corner of his mouth, the eye-patched man stuck out his tongue, saying, “Wouldn’t mind tasting that.”

“She must be a clean one too,” replied the crow-eyed man. “Not like those dirty clams whoring at the ports.”

The man with the gap-filled smile smirked at the rude jab. “Hey, waiter girl! Over here!” he yelled. After seeing the men in blue cloaks, she felt a sense of terror creep over her. A twisted smile spread across his face. What could they want from her? The girl wondered to herself. Her body became paralyzed as she walks over the lengthening room. “Com’mon we won’t bite,” he joked.

A fake smile appeared on her face as she approached the table. “How may I help you tonight? Are you done with your meals yet?” She asked with a cute tone of voice.

Due to his advanced age, the captain grumbled a tad. You have fun, you guys. I need to step out for a few minutes.” Seeing the older man leave the table fills the girl with a strange uneasiness she has never experienced before. Her heart beats faster. Looking over at her father, she observes him tending to the drunkenness at the bar. Then over toward the band but they shook their heads at her.

The crow-eyed man scooted his chair out. “Come on baby, take a seat,” he laughed, patting his lap. As though they were dogs peering at a piece of meat, the other men stared at her. In her mind, she could tell if she got into their grasp, she would be with them at least for the night.

As soon as she sat down, she knew this man would grope her in front of everyone. The sword by the man’s waist catches her eye as she looks at his tattered muddy blue jacket. This violent man wasn’t someone she wanted to be in the arms of. Rather than risk escalating the situation, she decided to avoid this gesture. “I cannot, I have other tables to attend to.” She smiles as brightly as she can given the circumstances. It was the smile she inherited from her mother.

Taking a drink from his cup, he wiped his mustache with a reflexive movement. “You’ve been working hard all night. Kick back a little, we want to talk,” said the man with the eyepatch. He drank from his cup.

“If I slacked off, my father would be upset.”

“Who’s your dad? We will shut em up,” the crow-eyed man said from his chair. He licked his lips. She was disgusted by his behavior. By spreading his legs, he beckoned her to sit. At that point, she noticed his palm on his sword handle tilting it as if to warn, “If you don’t, I’ll kill you.” At least, that’s how she interpreted it.

When she realizes they won’t budge, she sits on the dangerous man’s lap. As her bottom pressed against his leg, he made a sound, a shudder, that almost made her wretch. He sniffed her hair. It was fresh. Her body shook as he grabbed her waist with both hands. The back of her neck twitches as his breath rolls across it. The smell reminded her of the sludge they dumped out of ships. He whispered, “See not so shabby.” as he put his fingers on her hips.

He put his leg against her crotch, pressing against her. He was more forceful. Her face turned red with embarrassment. Something hard is pressed into her rear. Her eyes grew wide as she looked over towards her father who was just watching as he rubbed a glass.

There are two men seated at the bar who glance over at the men groping the young lady. Before turning his head, the man drinks the rest of his ale from his jug. His long elf ears poked out from beneath the faded and kinky white hair atop his head. The handsome features of his face rounded out his appearance. Silver eyes glared at the men as he stood to his feet. The other man placed his hand on the elf’s shoulder.

In the charcoal brown that hung against his stubble-covered jawline, he looked down on his drunkard of a friend. Considering that his skin was tan, he was clearly from another country. The tan gave his brown eyes a dirty, muddy appearance. Despite his thin build, he’s muscular. Turning his head, he saw the girl getting touched on the shoulder by the crow-eyed man. His face was covered in scars. As the elf turned away from him, he pressed his fingers into his back.

“Must you, Elward?” His tired voice asked. With piercing eyes of flamed silver, Elward stared at his companion.

“These are the ones we are looking for. Come, Rhomond,” he called, turning and walking toward the men sitting at the table.

Rhomund muttered under his breath, “Sure.” Thumping on the leather holster of his dagger, he unbuttoned the strap. While standing up, he looked at the ail he had barely touched before rolling his eyes and saying, “I wasn’t planning on finishing my drink anyway.” as he let out a long sigh.

Before he got away from the bar, the owner grabbed his shoulder. His face is rosy, and his eyes are filled with concern. “Wait, that is my daughter.” Rhomund nodded his head as he took several steps just behind Elward.

A moment of silence was followed by the man as the wrong teeth said, “Got a place to be, pointer.” Elward glared at the slur as Rhomund stepped forward and placed his arm on Elward’s shoulder.

Rhomund asked with the most charming look, “Care if we join you?”

Rhomund watched the man with the eye patch point his eating knife at him and rolled his wrist in a circle a few times. His index finger resting on the tang of the blade. “Who are you?” His face was unamused, and he was staring blankly at the pair. The waitress glanced at the men with feverish eyes. In a twitching gesture, the girl pressed her nails into her tender skin as nails dug deeply into her knees.

Even though she mouthed the word “No.” to the two, Elward just kept looking at them. From his chair, the man who had messed up his teeth lifted his dirty hand to the sword he held. It was evident that the people surrounding the area bent their necks and hunched over.

“We are just two errants. Now now,” Rhomund stuttered. “My friend here… he is rather concerned about that girl on your lap.”

This only caused the man to lick the girl’s ear, while he put his hand on her breast, cupping it as he squeezed. He said, “We are friends, isn’t that right?”.

“Yes!” she said without wanting to upset him.

“See she likes me. So go get yourselves lost,” the crow-eyed man snarled at Rhomund. As the man wearing the eye patch looked over at his buddies, he now grins, snickering.

Elward clenched his fists while holding his arms to his side. “Look at the pointer,” said the guy with missing teeth. “Well, are ya gonna do something?”

“I see, you are unfamiliar with the customs here. She is a waitress. She must be more than generous to you.” The girl’s face creases with fear. “You see this girl has signed her father several times. That bartender over there.” The man pointed to the brambly older gentleman. “And who I presume is her brother?” He points to a man with a guitar on his lap.

When her lips trembled, the maid rasped her breath. “What’s it to you? You might be wise to know who you’re dealing with.” As he scrunched up his face in anger, his crow-like visage got even worse.

As Rhomond gestures, he stretches out his fingers with both of his hands. As he continued, “I suggest you do not upset him. You see my friend here has a special set of talents you may not be aware of.” His fingers closed up, holding up only his two index fingers. “Granted, I understand you perfectly. She is cute.” He waves his hand after uttering each word. “Though my friend here. He thinks you’re not respecting her.”

“Yeah, your friend. The bloody pointer should know his place,” he said, extending his knife toward Elward.

Rhomund nodded his head. “I was saying the same thing. Men must be men. Though my friend… he does not see things our way. While I am fine with you, he is not.”

The crow-eyed man pulled a sword from his side, pushing the girl off his lap as he said, “You are threatening me.” The man pointed his blade at Rhomund’s neck. Gritting his teeth, he grunted. “I will put my sword straight through you.”

“I see,” Rhomund said, touching the sword’s tip with his fingertip. “That was a mistake, my friend.” As soon as Rhomund had finished speaking he pulled the blade from the man’s hand. The man could not utter a word before Rohomund drew himself in close. In his folded arm, he placed his elbow and the blade’s edge against the crow-eyed man’s collar. With squinted eyes he whispered, “Leave, you and your friends,” he said. “Live to fight another day. Am I understood, gentleman?”

Backing up a step, the crow-eyed man returned to his original position. Rhomond spun the blade with graceful handling and presented him with its handle. He reaches for it in a jerky, unfluent motion. “You wait,” he yelped. “When my Lords hear about this, we will burn down this place.”

“Is that so?”, Elward asked as he drew a dagger from his side and slit the crow-eyed man’s throat with inhuman speed. In response, the man with the messed up teeth backs up, but Rhomund has already moved behind him. He bumps into Rhomund, turns, and reaches for his sword but can’t feel it. He is surprised as Rhomund reveals his sword was in his hands and he inserts the blade into his throat. As the one-eyed man tries to run, Elward’s dagger plants itself in the back of his head. He stopped for a moment before falling to the floor with a bang on the back of his head.

The girl gasps for breath as she looks at the bloody mess. While Rhomund wipes the blood off his coat with a stray tablecloth, she backs up screaming. “I apologize, mam,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Who are you two?” she asks, looking at them both. “Do you realize what you have done?” Everyone is running out of the pub in a frenzied state.

“This is my friend Elward… and my name is Rhomund. We are the Queen’s personal errantry.”

~ 868 RE ~

~ Iest Kingdom, Afternoon On A Merchant Road To Port Branderfel ~

“Damn it. The axle broke and we ain’t getting anywhere for a while,” said an older man wearing a straw hat. It was a warm day in the breezy canyon, as the sun beat down on the caravan of travelers. “I don’t like being in these parts.” he said. “Unsavory things lurk around in this canyon. One time, I saw wolves out here. “They had already found their pickings, though.” He said standing beside a horse-drawn carriage. A snapped wooden rod protruded from the bottom of the front wheel, which lay on the ground. The two horses pulling the carriage stand calmly.

Raven-haired youth glanced over at the wagon master. “So we’re stuck out here then?”

“That’s how it’s looking girly. I said I’d bring you to Port Branderfel and that’s what I intend to do. You have my word. It will just take a little to fix this. As a precaution, you wait behind the carriage.” He bent down and looked beneath the carriage. A man dressed in tattered and dirty clothing emerged from the back.

“If we will be here for a while, then I guess I will go pee.” he quiped as he walked over to some shrubbery.

Suddenly the man under the cart shouted, “I warned ya already ‘bout the things out here. If you get bitten, I won’t be able to get ya to help. I may haf’ta heft off your leg and I don’t want to deal with that bloody mess.”

Having looked out across the canyon, she sighed, then walked to the back of the carriage. Above them, on the step of the canyon, a few men hold sabers and pole arms in readiness to encircle the caravan. As they descend to the ground, they make themselves known to the stranded group. “Bandits. Diyano, you have cursed us.” The wagon master grumbled as he saw several pairs of boots from the ground under the cart.

The raven-haired girl turned around to see the group of men approaching. “Looks like you need a touch of help. We might be able to help. It will cost you. “Of course, this highway has a fee to travel it.” protested a man with a torn strip of cloth surrounding his mouth and nose. Having long brown hair and a sword, he appeared frightening. He was covered in frayed and torn rags, uncharacteristic of his armor. Similarly, the other men were armed.

A man gripped the girl’s arm with his brown leather gloved hand whilst wearing a shrill bag with eye holes on top of his head. “Aren’t you a cutie? Heh, old man, you want to live right. The girl is your tax.”

The girl tugged her arm free from the man’s firm grasp. “Get your hands off of me!” she added, taking two steps back.

An axe-wielding short man laughed. “She told you.”

“Yeah, but that’s all right. I like them feisty,” he laughed. “So what do you say, old man?”

A large pair of eyes swept over the girl as the wagon master glanced over at her. “I am sorry.” He whispered, closing his eyes firmly.

“What!” She cried out in terror. Trying to escape, she twisted and screamed as the bandits grabbed hold of her. They then pinned her in their grasp and started dragging her down the dusty road.

With arms spread out, the other man dived in to separate the group from the girl. “You must not let them take her.” As soon as he had finished, the man in the sackcloth stabbed his saber into his stomach. When he fell to his knees, holding his belly, its contents spilled out onto the ground, his eyes glistening. Looking up, he saw the group of bandits dragging off the screaming girl.

“My queen, I swear on my honor. Throughout the merchant roads, there are corpses everywhere. This was the first time I saw something like it, I thought it was wildlings. Originally I planned to go to Taber, but saw so many bodies I became fearful.” said a man bowed down to the young Queen Gazalia. In response, Aschiles’ advisor raised an eyebrow. His gaze wandered over to Queen Gazalia, who nodded approvingly.

Gazalia stood up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You have done a good thing by returning my dear servant. Wisdom dictates that a person avoid what he cannot overcome. There will be no harm done to you or to your family inside these walls.” She looked at the man on his knees with her hand still on his head. “What do you have to say about this Lord Achiles?”

“Wildlings do not act in this fashion. Their brutality in battle and terror during wartime makes them a nation’s nightmare. You said you came upon a family that was hung from a tree?”

“Yes my Lord,” said the man whose head bowed.

“Wildlings skin their victims and tie their skins to the trees to intimidate. However, they do not hang their victims. They would consider it nothing but waste of good meat.” Lord Achiles muttered in a hoarse voice.

Gazalia removed her hand from the man’s head. “If not wildlings, who else would stand against me in such a manner?” she asked.

“Humans. Not petty bandits, but bandits nonetheless. My queen, they were sending you a message. They are claiming the merchant roads as their territory. Thus, they may have been backed by a powerful group, even an empire larger than themselves. Still, old tribal conflicts still haunt Iest. Surely some factions of the old empire still have not declared themselves to us. We should pay attention and put an end to this before the people see that as weakness.”

The queen slowly returns to her throne and sits down. “Please have my knights guard the roads from the Kingdom to Port Branerfel. Also, have another group of knights travel towards Matrick. Instruct them to hunt down and kill any bandit they find without mercy. Ask them to disguise themselves as commoners and hide their weapons and armor. We will show these crooks whose kingdom they are trying to rob.”

“At once my queen.” said Lord Achiles bowing before her throne.

“No one will threaten my people. Every traveler in my land must be protected by the shield of my kingdom. Achiles bring me my Lord Knights. I have an errand for those two.”

~ 868 RE ~

~ Far West Iest Kingdom, In The City Of Taber At Nightfall ~

An eerie violet glow permeated the night. As Elward looked out from atop the tavern, it revealed a city of ruins and decaying streets. As he watched the outside and waited for any sign of the gangsters approaching. With a twitch of his ears, the sound of the balcony door opening diverted his attention to the side of him. His silver eyes stare at the barmaid in front of him carrying a large horn mug and a pitcher of clear liquid. The water smelled pristine. “You ought to sleep,” he said to the girl.

When she poured water for him, she shyly added, “I thought you might be thirsty.”. With her horn, she offered him a drink. He took her container graciously. The girl blushed slightly. “It was very you to protect me. Thank you. Sorry, I screamed.”

He smirked a smidgen, “That is quite alright.”

With a sheepish look on her face, she asked, “Is it true… that you’re an elf?”

Elward shook his head. “My father was human.”

“What about your mother?”

As Elward turned to face her, he said, “My mother, people say she was an elf, but I do not know.”

“Really?” she questioned.

He nodded his head. “I do not remember her.”

“That’s a pity. I don’t think all elves are that cruel, because I think you’re really kind,” the barmaid said with a sweetness in her voice that rubbed Elward the wrong way.

Elward looked at her his eyes shining white. “Is that so?so?so? ” he smugly replied, revealing his true eyes to her. His paling face was obscured by her hands. Afterward, his eyes grew dim and his gaze returned to normal. “I would be afraid of them, and that is my advice to you.”

As soon as the girl regained her composure, she asked, “So who is that man you travel with?”

“That is the man who killed my mother.” He said coldly. “And I intend to return the favor as does he.” She was stunned by his reply. “We are under oath to work together, but if truth be known we are enemies. Alas, child enough stories it is late, and you should be sleeping.”

“Aren’t you going to sleep?” the girl asked Elward.

He shook his head before saying, “I don’t sleep.”

~The Next Morning~

“Thank you for saving my daughter,” said the bartender. At this point, the tavern hall was quiet and everyone had departed. There was no longer any fire, but the lingering smell of the night’s dinner remains. The young girl’s father sat at a large table with Rhomund and Elward. There was a sharp light streaming through the pub’s windows. “Do you believe we are safe now? Do you think they will return?”

“We hope they do,” Elward said, polishing his blade.

The bartender scratches his head. “These Blue Hammers you called them, they have become troublesome,” Romund gestured by making circles with his fingers. “To everyone.” On the table, the weapons the bandits carried were spread out. Among the armor pieces were a few garments. The ornate designs and skilled workmanship indicate military equipment. “As you may have noticed these weapons are valuable. I doubt a group of bandits would have supplies like this.”

Elward nodded firmly. “I believe these are Azurian made weapons; from Flaggard.”

Looking at the two men, the middle-aged man sighed. “Flaggard. Isn’t that on the other side of the world?”

“Never been there,” said Rhomund. “I can tell you though it is not close. Got a whole sky to travel to get to it. So why are they in the hands of these Blue Hammers? This is a port town, isn’t it? Travels to and imports from the Southern Kingdom as I understand it.”

His chin was stroked as he nodded his head in agreement. “Yes. Although recently we have seen fewer merchants and more bandits. They are everywhere I am afraid.”

“Interesting. I am not familiar with the leadership of Taber. Tell me, where is the city guards?” Rhomund asked.

“That’s the shameful part. King Kerchov has himself hid up in his manor. The city guards for some time have only guarded the royals in the northern province. The coward was the heir. His uncle died ‘bout two years ago. That’s when things fell apart here. When he claimed his place as the “lawful” Baron, he proved to be little more than a greedy man. Taxes and taxes and the loyal guards refused to follow his orders. He disbanded the old guard and hired marauders from the surrounding lands. Calls em’ common guards. So while he has real guards, he allows the common guards to do what they will. As long as it is not causing him any trouble that is. I am not even sure if he is the one who raises taxes anymore.”

“Interesting, Taber does not have a King, it has a baron.” Elward commented.

“Well, no offense to the two of ya but the Iest Kingdom has been long forgotten. Until now I believed the Iest Kingdom had forgotten us as well. If I speak with honor I do not trust the two of you.”

Elward grinned. “We are not to be trusted. Until some time ago Rhomund and I were traveling sellswords. More or less men who kill for the highest bidder. Yet we now are under the service of a different ruler. She has another vision of Iest Kingdom. One that lives up to the old glory it used to be or perhaps something more. Yet, she is but a child.”

“Elward enough, it appears we have business with this “King” of Taber,” Rhomund rose from his seat.

With stone pillars and baroque statues, the main streets of Taber are ornate. However, the façade of elegance conceals a maze of buildings. These buildings appeared to have been sprouted from wood scraps. It was as if the street networks grew out of the ground. It reminded Elward of a garbage dump. Anything like this would burn to the ground in the Fae world because it was so hideous. The thick mud of waste lined the sides of the streets and the smell was far from pleasant.

Although the two wended their way through crowded streets, Rhomund nevertheless felt at home. There was almost a feeling of him poised to collide with someone but never did. Despite using more elegant steps, Elward had to put more focus on how he maneuvered. The simple act of not colliding with another person took a great deal of effort. Several minutes later, they arrive at their destination after negotiating the tangle of streets. A large gateway with several gruff looking men in armor guarding it appeared before them.

The guard on the right immediately called out stopping the others from pointing spears at Elward. Rhomund tried to explain, but the guard did not lower his spear. Elward stared at him with a boredom look that he could muster. With his back to the wall of the gate, the older guard stepped over and spoke to the younger guard. Laying down his spear, he moved aside so that the two could walk past. Suddenly, they had arrived in what seemed to be another city. A few chariots could pass through the streets once one passes through the threshold. Many buildings are in good shape, as well as the main streets.

An expanse of white stone road leads to a palace topped by many domes. There are several spires surrounding the castle that look like spikes reaching into the sky. They appear to be sharp against the heavens. From the south, the open blue skies and the lower levels of ports can be seen. On a large bridge, Rhomund and Elward were mere silhouettes. Through the crossing, they enter the palace’s courtyard.

An enormous dome crowned this massive building. Around the side of the building, towers, walls and spires can be seen. Rhomund thought that it could house an army. Elward, meanwhile, was intrigued by the structure. His impression was that it didn’t seem to be a Marionian building. With its paintings and love of art, its design had an Azurian influence. However, Marion wasn’t keen on that. There was also a differing cultural viewpoint as well.

“He likes to keep his guests waiting.” Elward stared at the baroque pillar as they stood in a corridor with many delicately carved ivory pillars. The carvings depicted colorful pieces of local history. The three tribes, the first men arriving in Marion on gliders, the old queen who conquered the lands and the history of a man’s conquest over the dragons. The towering glass structures behind which the city loomed revealed a vista of the city. Through the city, both its past and future blend into a harmonious whole. Elward looked at the columns with amusement as he studied them. Besides him, Rhomond was walking slowly behind him pointing at a carved dragon. “Dragons,” He said in a sharp tone getting a small chuckle from Elward who then rolled his eyes as he looked away.

Upon opening the large doors to the court, a meaty guard announced, “His highness is ready to see you.”

Astonished by the throne room’s extravagance, Rhomund and Elward could not believe their eyes. The floor was made of smooth polished stone that reflected light. On either side of the throne stood two decorative columns supporting the balcony above. Throne itself was atop a platform above the rest of the room, connected to it by a staircase. Paintings on both sides of the platform depict the gods combating the primal forces. In fact, the walls were covered with gold and painted depictions as well. “This is a shrine to history.” Elward said abruptly.

“I see you noticed,” said a man standing by the throne. He walked down the stairs with his hands open, considering the gesture. He wore purple robes with golden dragons print. The white and purple striped rope tied off the black toga that covered his chest. “If I could do one thing for this world I would preserve its history.” He had the smile of a Howl celebrity. “What brings the two of you here?”

Rhomand did not seem as impressed as Elward, who stood up straight before speaking. “I have orders from the Queen to ensure the safety of her territories. Baron Kerchov, I presume.”

“Ah, yes.” Kerchov’s face became puzzled. “You are?”

“Queen Gazalia’s errants,” Elward replied in a proud tone.

“So, you are the two wandering knights. I have heard stories about you. Mighty fine warriors, duel to the death ended by a Queen’s orders. I must pay a visit to our Queen. She sounds most magnificent. And here are two legends in the flesh. So, what can I do for the two of you?”

“You can start by looking after your people. The two of us had the pleasure of meeting bandits within the city borders. They seemed to have no fear of city guards either. In fact, we killed them, and still, no guards showed up to even question us. This is a severe problem wouldn’t you agree?”

“I see… that does sound like a trifling affair. I must get my guards to be more prominent in the lives of common folk,” he said. “Allow them some freedom and they become savage as wildlings.”

A look of interest crossed Elward’s face as he looked at Rhomund. “Well, we can assist you in this. There is already a patrol of guards from the Iest Kingdom conducting road checks. We can have them establish a city watch.”

While he turned away to face his throne, Kerchov licked his lips. Rhomund looked up as he turned back to him after a few steps. “I could not bear to burden you with the problems of my city,” he paced the floor. In the midst of deep thought, Kerchov raised his hand for silence as Rhomund attempted to speak. In addition to pacing a few more times across the polished floors, he looked up and down. “I have a better plan of approach I believe. I must assist in setting up these road checks. This will give my guardsmen the proper training they need.”

“They will learn more from being within these walls with Iest Kingdom’s finest soldiers,” Rhomund said immediately after asserting his authority.

A sigh escaped Kerchov’s lips. “There is a cultural aesthetic you are failing to appreciate, my dear Rhomund. I am sure such a nobleman as Elward would agree with me, seeing as how he appreciates… what I have done here. Taber is not merely a city. It is a sanctuary of culture! We may be a mere port but isn’t a port a grand cauldron to cultivate the ideals and ideas of the people. We are kindred spirits can’t you see?”

Rhomund’s eyes grew wide from the strange remark. “You’re joking? This city is falling apart.”

Kerchov grunted, “Falling apart. It is steeping. You will see what will grow out of my kingdom.”

“Your kingdom. About that, I see you have a crown?” Elward said pointing at Kerchov’s head.

Kerchov nodded his head a few times while blinking. Observing his strained effort to avoid eye contact, Elward took note. “That is punishable and considered treason you know,” Rhomund added.

There was a short silence before Kerchov spoke, “I am King of Taber, a crown is suitable for a king.” he rubbed the back of his neck.

“Really?” Elward said. “Last I knew Taber was under the rule of a baron and not a king. Queen Gazalia will be displeased when we return with news of a descent. Perhaps we should return you to her to explain yourself in person.”

“Really there is no need for this. It’s semantics anyway. So I won’t use the name King any longer.” Kerchov raised his hand rolling his head slightly. “I am Baron Kerchov, fine by me.”

Rhomund walked up backhanding him in the face and knocking the crown off his head. “Put it on again, and you will wear it to the grave. Understood?”

Grabbing the side of his face, Kerchov stood shocked. “Of course. You clearly appreciate mercy.”

“Watch it. I could do worse still.”

Kerchov took a step back and cowered. “You would not dare. Remember it is my halls that stand in.”

“Rhomund, let him go. He’s from Javel.” Rhomund looks disgusted for a moment. After that, he stepped back. An oozing stream of blood poured from Kerchov’s nostril.

“Javel, that explains things but how did you know that?”

“His appreciation of art and history. Yet he has no leadership skills, and he is a coward.” Kerchov stared with an angry glare that folded into absolute terror. “Isn’t this true Kerchov?”

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 25

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 25


By pressing the microswitch, Solenne released the electronic cuffs. As a mechanical hiss filled the air, Apricot was released from the pole onto the plated floor. After tossing the cuffs aside, Solenne moved over to Hunter. “It’s all right, baby,” Solenne said. “We’ll get you down.”

As Apricot glanced at Shiori wriggling his arms, he flashed her coy eyes. “Care to help me down?” he asked jokingly. Apricot reached behind Shiori and grabbed her steel cuffs. After examining the metal device, she noticed the switch on his wrist. With the assistance of the switch, she released Shiori from the cuffs. Having gotten off that pole, he deflected his gaze to Solenne. “Boy, am I glad to see you again.”

In the meantime, Solenne had helped Hunter free himself of his restraints. “How did you know where to look?” Apricot asked Solenne.

Although Solenne’s eyes were full of tears, her expression was flat as she weaved together her words. Apricot noticed that her hands were shaking. “I did not feel right. The way they treated you. I followed the car to a really sketchy run-down building.” Hunter glanced over at Shiori and nodded. Apricot watched as the pair walked toward the entrance together. Then I followed the truck to the subway station, where they blindfolded your group and brought you underground. Even as I kept my distance from the guards, I sensed that something was wrong. Then that guy over there…” Solenne pointed to Urias’s dead body on the ground with his mask lying close by. “He made people explode by looking at them.” The blonde shivered. “I have never seen anything like that. I kept following him down after. He was mumbling about black gods and all this weird talk.” Solenne shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t know, Apricot, what is going on?”

She embraced Solenne with both of her arms. “You did a good thing. We can’t talk about it right now Solenne. There are still things we have to do. So, can you help us get back to the surface? We need to get to the shrine to end all this.”

When she reached the entrance, Shiori stepped back. He looked at the machine and said, “You two can continue without me.” It made that horrible droning noise regardless. “Someone still has to stop the machine. Might as well be me. I can’t do anything about the seal or the reaper anyway.”

As Apricot nodded confidently, Shiori nodded back as well. As Hunter started down the dark corridor, he called back to the, “We have to hurry. That machine is active and who knows what the surface looks like now.”

“What do you mean?” Apricot asked curiously.

“He means the ability for phantoms to cross over effortlessly.” Shiori turned his attention to the gate. Since the machine has been running for so long, the city has probably been teeming with manifestations. There are probably enough of them to cause real damage to the city.”

“Phantoms?” Solenne asked as her voice shook. “What are those?”

Apricot said, “Monsters.”

“A little further up there.” Solenne said, as the group ran up the ramp. The group had entered a tunnel in a subway system. “They hid it pretty well.” She said, leading the pair in the right direction. Upon approaching the tunnel’s edge, the lights began to flicker and flash as though the power was about to cut out. Despite her nervousness, Apricot glanced back at Hunter. He narrowed his eyes in the direction of the corridor. Apricot then noticed Solenne froze on the threshold motionless like a statue as she glanced at the metro platform.

Apricot paused in front of Solenne, stunned to see a sight that sent shivers down her spine. An enormous snake-like monster stood on all fours. Overlapping scales decorated its body. Its brassy eyes adorned the sides of its head, opened wide and displaying their vibrant colors. With jerky movements, the thing cocked its head back and forth on the platform, snapping its tail that reached to the other side. As Solenne tried to grab Hunter’s hand, Hunter released it. Then he whispered, “You should stay back.”

As the creature let out a bone-rattling howl, everyone in the group was trembling. Solenne screamed as she backed slowly away from the pair. Apricot saw her trip and she nearly fell over. “Is that what I was like?” Apricot thought to herself. While the purple flame glowed around her fingers, she focused all her attention on the monster. After seeing Apricot’s sudden fire, Solenne panicked, falling backwards. In the process of running alongside the wall, Hunter jumped onto the platform and dived to the bench. When Hunter approached the creature, it turned its head toward him. “Raaa!” He yelled, watching as the creature responded with a loud roar of its own. The razor jaws had been expanded into a bundle of long tongues, engulfing Hunter. He jumped out of the bench when the phantom’s tongues collided with the seat and snapped it in half. Apricot’s heart pounded.

Hunter shouted to her, “Apricot! I just got to touch it.”

Apricot stared straight at Hunter before running beside the rail. “Hey!” she shouted. The creature’s head turned toward Apricot, snapping the massive tail along the concrete wall that it sliced into. Another scream was emitted as the being slammed its claws down in front of Apricot and blocked her path. Apricot, uttering a shrill shriek as she turned back, did not expect the swiftness of the attack. The creature’s mighty jaws snapped shut behind her during its close shot, generating hot air from its open maw. She caught the smell of its breath as it crept closer to her nostrils.

“BANG! BANG! BANG!” Solenne’s gun roared. She was standing on the other side of the metro, her hand extended, pointing her pistol at him. Her huffing was accompanied by a little bit of grimacing as she watched it stare at her. When it viewed her, its pupils shrank to a dot. Taking an unexpected dive into a wall, Apricot squeaked past the immense scales threatening to crush her. It was then that the beast came rushing toward Solenne.

While the tail whipped toward Hunter, Hunter was socked in the chest, and he collapsed to the ground. After the creature rose its head over Solenne, its tail swept back around. She crumpled up against the wall, her legs becoming weak. Despite her efforts, the snarling beast’s teeth dripped open above her, promising death. The beast’s mouth opened in a snap. In response, Solenne bounded forward as the creature’s jaw crashed into the wall. Behind her, three orange eyes stared back at her, with blacks filling the pupil completely. Solenne kicked her legs against the giant eyes to gain distance from the creature.

“Not today!” Hunter shouted as he stabbed both of his hands into the creature’s side. Hunter’s arms were ablaze as the creature looked up at him. Suddenly, the creature leapt into the air, sending orbs of blue light dissipating about the room. While she huddled up, Solenne kicked her legs in the open air. She screamed as she leapt to her feet. Involuntary shivers shook her body as her hands wriggled wildly. “You asked what a phantom was. That was one.” Hunter chuckled.

When Solenne turned her head she saw Apricot climbing up onto the platform. After walking over to Solenne, Apricot put her arm around her back. “It’s okay. The two of us will get you out of here.” Apricot turned to Hunter with a smirk on her face. “That is a nifty trick you got there. How did you do that without silver?”

As Hunter lifted the sleeves of his coat, he displayed tattoos on his arms. “These are all sigils required for exhortation,” he said. A phantom’s energy can be broken, and they can lose their physical form briefly for a period of time. Before that thing can reassemble, we should move.”

After ascending the subway metro stairs, the group witnessed a red glowing sky for miles in all directions. Lights throughout the city flashed furiously as if a widespread epidemic had swept through. There was a flurry of gunshots all around and screams of people and beasts alike. Blue Ash had turned into a battleground. Smoke and iron dominated the atmosphere. Sirens shrieked for death.

“What is happening!” Solenne asked, looking at the deluge of debris that has piled up in the city.

Taking a deep breath, Apricot released it slowly. “Solenne what part of town are we in?”

Her brows furrowed as she contemplated. “I am not sure, maybe the southside.”

“We need to get to the outer eastern side of town,” Hunter told her. “We have work to finish.”

“What do you mean!??? Solenne pleaded, her voice tainted with fear.

“Solenne, they won’t die from your bullets. To kill them, you must use silver.” Apricot advised. Then, she took her shoe off by removing the sole. “Here.” She made her way back up holding a flat silver knife in her hand. “Go protect yourself with this and inform the others. Anything silver will work. Merely touching them with silver will seriously harm them.”

Her fingers grasped the knife in her hand. “What about you? How will you protect yourself?”

As Apricot smirked, he turned back to Solenne. “I got my own ways of dealing with them.”

“Well, I am coming with you.” replied Solenne.

Hunter and Apricot gazed at each other. “All right, let’s go!” The group headed down the street in an easterly direction. During the battle, Apricot kept seeing specks of glitter in the sky as airships dropped soldiers to fight in overrun places. There were many monsters rummaging through buildings as they ran. Some parts of the city, such as the highways, are bounded by soldiers’ blockades. “I am still wanted. By now, Hunter is probably too.” Apricot remembered that knowledge weighed heavily on her heart.

Solenne couldn’t come, Apricot thought. Both Hunter and her knew it. However, she was definitely not going to let the pair of them go their separate ways. In fact, Solenne had always been loyal even to a fault. Looking at one of the large blockade ahead, Apricot halts. “Solenne, I need your help.”

The skies were covered with strange flying monsters drifting above as if they had an aura of supernatural power. Many of their appendages dangled from their sides, giving their bodies a long, sharp appearance. At the back, a large tail flailed in the air. Compared to their heads, they looked like large cicadas with a hundred eyes each. Fighter jets launched rockets from the wings of their aircraft, lighting up the skies. Screaming loudly, they collided in huge explosions of fire, leaving clouds of smoke in their wake.

The flying creatures waved their arms knocking planes out of the sky and falling in a death spiral, leaving a heavy trail of black burning smoke following their descent. From the mouth of one flying creature came a burst of light which scorched the earth below. A barrage of laser light from the ground struck one of the flying creatures, resulting in bloodshed. As it fell from the sky, its corpse smashed through the towers below, wrecking the buildings.

Numerous mechanical Valkners emerged from the ash and fought the terrors. Meanwhile, blue orbs manifest as creatures as they rise out of the ground. Forms wildly diverse and awful to behold, creatures twisted from nightmares, beasts, and monstrous figures.

People inside a storefront with furniture stacked up against the doors and windows huddle together to watch as the monsters pass by. As two men skulked behind a dumpster in an alley, they slowed together in case two insect-like centipede creatures spotted them. While passing inches from each other, their many segments scratched against the pavement.

A group of armored SDP soldiers was firing their rifles at a monster that stood about twice the height of a normal person. Its head resembled a bulbous thing without a face. Two long tentacles with claw-like hooks at their ends dangled from its side-like arms. Its limbs were thick and slow as the horror lumbered toward the officers; civilians ran by as the soldiers held the line. A quick burst of fire proved ineffective as the slow-moving creature approaching remained unphased by their bullets. The soldiers back away as the monster advanced, still firing at it hoping that a shot will stop it.

The two insect-like creatures appeared from the alley. As they approached, they dived onto the nearest soldier. Screaming, he let out a scream after its jaws ripped through his armor and into his chest. However, the other two soldiers continued firing on the unknowing nightmare. After hearing the blood squeal, one of the soldiers turned his head. Seeing the Centipede-like creatures devouring the officer’s body, he froze in his tracks. “Holy shit!” he screamed in a panic. While his breathing became more rapid, his air hose hissed in response.

His partner, who was facing the wrong way, also stopped firing looking over to the other soldier. “What the hell are you doing!” He yelled, unloading his clip at it. “Raaaa!” he cried. Regardless of how many bullets penetrate its body, the creature does not seem phased in the least. “Damn it!”, he shrieked, as the big hulking monster slashed him with his tentacles. A claw pierced his face mask, piercing through the solid visor. Taking the man’s head and some of his spinal column from his body, the claw lifted up away from the monster.

In front of the last soldier, the monster opened a hole in its chest, sitting on its head. Looking down at the soldier’s armor that was still upright without a head, he was fascinated. The other soldier’s half-eaten body was visible as he turned his back against the side of the building. Pointing his gun at the insects, he began shooting them. In the glare of the bullet sparked off of their bodies, their carapace gleamed. ”Come on, kill me!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet. “Want some? Eat this!” The man roared, pulling an iron rod out of his chest. In the cafe, the explosion shattered the glass, forcing everyone to scream. Eventually, the soldiers and monsters outside disappeared, along with the dust. It’s all left is a smoldering pile of charred ash.

A ring of troops was built around the entire unaffected city to contain the advancing troops. The first layer of the barricade consisted of Valkner mechanical soldiers. Their size towers over the next line of ground troops huddled together.

“Solenne, we stick to our plan,” Apricot grunted her agreement before walking towards the row of soldiers.

Her gaze fell on Hunter whose face was filled with unease. “We can’t do this,” Hunter said.

Nodding her head, she looked back at Solenne, who was about half a block away. “I know, I just told her that so she would not come with us.”

One soldier stopped Solenne when she approached the barricade. “Officer Solenne! What in the world are you doing out here?” The soldier yelled in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, but I cannot explain right now. I must let them through.” Solenne turned to Apricot, but she has vanished.

The man let out a small chuckle. “Everyone is allowed through. Solenne, are you ok?” Her face sunk as she furrowed her brow. “Come on, it’s better on the other side. We will hold the line, you get yourself somewhere safe.”

In sight of a translucent figure crawling out of the wall, Solenne turned to face the barricade’s rear. She points screaming “Look out!” The enormous Valkner couldn’t react before the beast turned into a giant, wolf-like beast with ram-like horns. Using its razor-like jaws, it ripped open the cockpit of the Valkner. On the other side was a giant tangle of thorny tendrils, with scythe-like arms and a large bird-like head. The tendrils ripped through the machine, cutting it open in half. Electrical components on the machine began ablaze. More creatures emerged from the walls and the other three Valkners turned to fire. Several rounds of large ammunition made holes in the creatures, forcing them to retreat.

Those on foot crossed the barriers to the other side. A panic gripped Solenne because of the chaos surrounding her. While talking to her, one of the soldiers grabbed her arm and dragged her away from the mayhem. “This is a nightmare…” Solenne muttered quietly to herself. 

In response, the soldiers opened fire, their bullets striking the strange monsters as some rounds struck and caused minor injuries to the creatures while others did little or nothing. “Damn you!” raged the Valkner leader. He blew the beast to pieces, roaring, “We hold the line!”.

To her surprise, Solenne saw the scythe slashing toward her. But she was able to sidestep it as it managed to narrowly miss her chest. The creature’s mandibles were headed straight for her as she watched. Using the knife Apricot gave her, she stabbed its large bulb of an eye directly. As it let out a gasp, the creature spun around sparking. The guns of the officers rattled off several shots into the monster, blowing holes into it until it fell to the ground. Its body illuminated a brilliant blue light leaking into the earth below.

“Are you okay?” an officer asked Solenne. Almost without thinking, Solenne nodded. When her eyes turned to the Valkners, she saw them fighting off a group of creatures that had just attacked. After drawing her weapon, she removed her old clip and replaced it with a new one. After joining in with the other ground officers, she opened fire. One Valkner was knocked to the ground by an entity that caught hold of him. Once Valkner had fallen to the ground, the entity bit into his cockpit and tore him apart. They watched as it twisted its head from front to back, chewing into their flesh. “Fall back! Move back! Back, back, back.” yelled the group’s leader.

Upon receiving orders to run, Solenne turned away from the monsters ripping the officer next to her to shreds. Mist poured from his body as the blood splattered. She felt her heart pumping hard in this situation but she had been trained for these kinds of situations. Those training sessions prepared her for situations such as this. She, she, she never knew there were moments like this. Compared to this, Solenne thought to herself, nightmares, horrors, and wars were all mere mercy. As she ran with the others, she left the gunfire behind her and the screaming behind her. “Is this the end of the world? Apricot, why did you leave me?” She thought to herself.

The puddles of sweat ran down Apricot’s brow as she ran along the torn streets. Apricot traveled as fast as she could. Because of the lack of rails, she had to walk to the shrine. She lamented this sorely. At every major intersection in the city, barricades stood in the way and the creatures were attacking most of them.

“We are going to have to run through a barricade,” Hunter told Apricot, much to apprehension. 

It didn’t help that Apricot shrugged her shoulders. “No, we keep running until we find a clear area to cross.” Not willing to recognize the truth.

As Apricot tried to escape, Hunter grabbed her arm. “It will not happen. We need to run through, it’s the only way to get to the shrine.”

It was necessary to find an alternative. Risking capture was not an option. Yet she also had to admit that the longer it took, the less likely it was they could reverse the disastrous situation. Over the chaotic ambiance, Apricot cleared her throat. “What if they stop us?”

“They will be more worried about the monsters tearing them apart. That is what I am going to speculate.” Hunter said. “Look you can keep running but I am going to cross here, now. We have wasted too much time trying to find an opening.” Apricot looked over to see the group firing in the direction of the southern street. He pointed east. Perhaps there was hope. “They won’t be looking if we cross from behind.”

“I don’t know Hunter.” she replied, already considering it.

Slipping from Apricot’s grasp, Hunter ran for the barracade. A sharp pain began to develop in her ankles as she picked up her pace after him. As they approached the line, the sound of their gunfire cut into Apricot’s ears. Each bullet release pounded a sound so loud that it echoed all over the building. Although both of her hands were raised to her ears, she noticed the booms seeping through. As she raced throughout the squad, she attempted not to get noticed.

“Die you Bastards!” yelled a man while holding the trigger. This reverberated through her. Apricate glanced over to the line of bodies these creatures had killed. Still, they fought even though some of them were damaged and bloodied. It was clear that large patches of Volkner’s armor had been scraped off. It was as Hunter had predicted that they paid little attention to them. While they focused only on the phantoms, the two were able to proceed smoothly.

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Perosnal Journal

3:15 AM

Currently, it is 3:15 AM where I am. Having finished editing the remainder of Blue Ash Crisis, I am announcing my accomplishment. Starting tomorrow, I will begin editing An End To All You Know. Being done with that book is truly a relief. Finally, I can tell you that I am finished after you thought I would be done a long time ago.

I have learned one thing from this experience. It is more productive for me to have deadlines. I’ve achieved success with weekly releases. Even when I caught covid, I never missed one. I am grateful for the chance to produce for you guys. Although the feedback is next to nothing, I still receive occasional messages from you guys. All of them mean a lot to me as well.

Now!!! Those releases will still take place on Mondays. No changes are expected in my release schedule. You can expect a chapter of An End To All You Know every Monday and a chapter of Lyorta: The Saga of Retribution on the first Monday of every month. I will however take a break between books. I will take a month off in between. An End To All You Know will be released on August 1st. My break allows me to recharge, in addition to getting ahead of the game. Additionally, I am working on The Forever Kingdom, just as I was editing Blue Ash Crisis while I was working on An End To All You Know.

In light of that, I hope you have an exceptional day and that when you see this in the morning, you will think of me. I’m celebrating right now.

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 24

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 24

The Mantra Device

Having walked through the putrid sewers, Apricot was left grasping at her chest as she caught her breath. From the sewer grate, she looked back toward the streets, spying a police patrol run by without much regard for her. A long sigh of relief escaped her lips as she rested beside a dumpster filled to bursting. A pair of shoes stepped across the grungy expanse between buildings, raising Apricot’s eyelids.

She heard a familiar voice call out, “Apricot.” Getting out from behind the dumpster, Apricot spotted Solenne standing on the other side of the alley in uniform. “Don’t move.”

“Solenne?” Apricot gasped. “I don’t know what you have,”

“Stop!” Solenne exclaimed as she drew her pistol and pointed it at Apricot. “Don’t move!”

“It’s not what you think!” Apricot protested.

With gritted teeth, Solenne’s cheeks became red. “I could not believe it. Honestly, I didn’t want to believe it. I knew something wasn’t right.”

“I swear!” Apricot tried to defend herself, but instinctively she knew it was too late to argue.

“Shut up!” Solonne snapped back. “You’re a terrorist. You tried to murder the ruling family. Everything makes sense now. That strange behavior. That being at the center of all those odd happenings. The shady movements. Those questions! Everything. It’s so obvious! Apricot, you betrayed me. I trusted you!” Solenne cried out in anger. “So many people died because of you. You are a traitor!”

As Apricot began to shake her head, she raised a hand in front of her. “No, it’s not like that! Solenne you have to let me go. I need to get to the old shrine. You would never believe me but there is an evil being trying to take over the city and the world!”

Solenne stared at Apricot, allowing her firm hard face to soften slightly. A tear rolled down her cheek before she sniffed. “I don’t know what happened to you. As she regained her composure, Solenne whimpered, “I don’t know. Put your hands up!” her voice trembled as she spoke. Apricot complied. “Behind your head. You are lucky it was me who found you. You left your cell on. Stupid. I was tracking you all around the city. I know what you’ve been doing today.”

“Solenne, you need to trust me. Please. I have wanted to tell you so much. But you can’t do it. Please take me to the shrine. Arrest me after I get to the shrine!” She shook her head and put on a pair of mechanical cuffs. Apricot’s face was firmly pressed against the brick wall by Solenne with one swift movement. She is tied tightly to the ratcheting cuffs around her wrists. With a tug, Solenne pulled Apricot off the wall and lifted her.

“Spread your legs.“ She ordered with authority. As Apricot stretched her legs for Solenne, Solenne bent down to pat her leg carefully. Her hand touched something long and hard. A look of surprise crossed her face.

“It’s a sword, a rapier to be particular.” Solenne inserted her hand under Apricot’s waistband and removed the blade.

The arcaic weapon caught Solenne’s attention. She stared up at Apricot with an expression of shock. “This is made of silver, isn’t it?”

“It is. It’s a long story.” Apricot looked amused.

A sigh escaped Solenne’s lips. She then kicked Apricot’s ankle to get her to place her legs together. Apricot’s feet were also cuffed by the mechanical devices. Taking hold of Apricot’s wrist, she guided her to the edge of the alley.

“I must inform you, you are now a state possession. The state has officially revoked your rights. The Okabe government will select a tribunal from which you will have the opportunity to prove your innocence. Until further notice, any social credit you may have is invalid. All monies procured will be revoked and returned only after receiving personhood again.” Solenne pressed a button to the side of her shoulder. “I got that 52-50.”

Seeing Solenne’s face scrunched up, Apricot looked over at her. “Excuse me. Joji, this is a police matter.” she said, her voice ringing with confusion.

As Apricot listens closely, she can hear over the earpiece, “Orders are coming from the top. From Empress Kyo herself. She is to be handed over to the royal guard.”

“That cannot be.” Solenne glanced at Apricot as she turned her head.

Yes, it beats me too, Miss Solenne, but what are you supposed to do? On the other hand, kicking a nest of wasps will result in a swarm. I’m sorry, but I had to lock your car. They’ll pick her up soon. In the meantime, keep her close.” he said.

“Got it. Thank you, Joji.” Solenne said, switching off her headset. Leaving Apricot to stroke her chin, she turned her head away.

Apricot looked down at the ground reluctantly, not wanting to see her friend in such humiliation. “You should let me go Solenne. The Okabe’s are not what they seem.”

Solenne’s expression changed to that of indifference. Now, the conversation was not among friends. Apricot saw it written all over her face. “Sorry, this is how it’s going to be.” Solenne breathed out, examining the device on her arm. “They did not even let me log your arrest.”

“They are going to kill me Nay-nay.” Apricot warned.

“Shut up Apricot. Don’t do that cute stuff with me right now.” She whispered softly. “I got a duty to uphold the law. You broke it. I can’t violate my orders.”

Apricot sighed in frustration. “I understand Sol. I forgive you.”

“Well, that is good to know. However, I don’t need the forgiveness of a traitor.” Solenne said, looking over to see a cruiser from the Empire Guard approaching. “The fact remains you’re still a killer, nonetheless.” The black cruiser halted next to them, its interior hidden behind tinted windows. As two men dressed in black suits and glasses strolled around Solenne, the passenger side doors opened.

“Officer Solenne,” said one guard. “Thank you for apprehending this rogue agent.” Another agent grabbed Apricot by the arm and pulled her away from Solenne. As Apricot glanced behind her, she caught the attention of Solenne, who shifted her gaze away from her.

In front of the agent, Solenne raised her arm to demonstrate the screen. “It won’t let me log her arrest.” Apricot heard Solenne pointing out to another guard.

“This is no longer a public matter. It is better that you forget about this little incident.” The guard replied with no change in expression.

Suddenly, Apricot is forced into the back of the car by the hand of a man. “Get in there, sit.” He muttered.

“She is under my charge while she is under my arrest.” Solenne said bluntly.

Laughing, he walked away. “Cute, but she is not your concern anymore.” Apricot cannot see out of the car. Having climbed inside, the guard sat next to her. She knew that her fate was sealed once he closed the passenger door.

Watching the traffic traveling along the interstates from her high-rise tower balcony, Empress Kyo admired the scenery. The lights of the cars fought against the dying rays of the setting sun. “Here you are, my Empress.” said the gruff man getting down on one knee, bowing before the gold hem of her red long-tail dress.

“Report.” Kyo commanded.

“Your majesty, we have caught the traitors. They are being transported to holding cells to await your judgement.” the man explained, keeping his head down.

Kyo smiled and cast a glance toward Natsukawa who laid against the rail, his vicious grin growing ever more ferocious. “Very good. The prophecy is fulfilled. It is now our turn to act.”

Natsukawa chuckled at her comment. “Are you ready?”

As the man bowed, Kyo replied, “I am.” Kyo touched the back of his neck with her fingers. “Rise. You have done well. Please tell the others that Natsukawa shall be my escort. All I want is a small retainer.”

“Yes, Empress,” the man said, placing his hands on his chest before bowing humbly.

As the man left, Kyo raised her hand. “One more thing.” she said. “Start the ritual cleansing. I want it prepared before I arrive.”

“Get in there!” shouted a guard as Apricot was tossed onto the icy hard surface. Her elbow was pressed against her ribcage as she tumbled. “You’re done girl. You’re so done.” he muttered as he walked down the hall.

Apricot struggled to sit upright against the wall of the empty cell. There were uneven bricks pushing into her back as she struggled to sit upright. In addition to the uneven floor, there were also several cracks on the wall. In fact, at some points, the wall was sharp. She pondered how it was set up in such a way as to achieve a perpetually restless outcome. “So they got you too.” Shiori called from a nearby cell.

“Shiori!” Apricot called out to him with some assurance.

“Yeah,” he replied promptly.

She felt a warmth of joy overtake her. “Are you ok?”

Shiori said, “Yeah.” Shiori took a deep breath and replied, “Looks like this is the end of the line for us.”

An air of metallic clank filled the holding cells as the gate opened. “Damn it! Let go of me!” Hunter shouted at the top of his lungs. In front of Apricot, the four officers bound him up in a wormlike manner. Taking his body across from Apricot’s cell, they heaved the door open and threw him on the floor in the same fluid motion. A cry of pain arose from his lips. Sighing, Hunter collapsed on the floor. “You bastards,” he wheezed.

“I told you to shut up, kid. In any case, you’re going to hell soon enough.” As they left the room, an officer commented, “That goes for all of you.”

“Hunter! You’re alive!” Apricot exclaimed, although she could not see him. “Shiori are your arms free?”

“Fraid not. They tangled me up pretty tight. How about you?” Shiori asked.

Apricot slumped. “I am too.”

“Figures, they consider us dangerous.” Shiori chimed. “Even in these cells.”

“Shiori?” Apricot said.


Her mouth was dry as she asked, “Where is Cortez?”

“He got away I guess.” Shiori grunted. “Heh, he was always talented at that. Last I saw of him he was being treated by the street doc I left him with.”

“Shiori. How did you get captured?” Apricot asked, suspecting that there was more to it. However, she had a feeling Shiori was lying although she could not put her finger on it.

“Heh, I didn’t make it far. I dropped Cortez off and got jumped by the police about three blocks away,” Shiori said. “Hey this is a bit too much right now. I think I will sleep some.”

“How can you rest at a time like this?” Apricot blurted. To be able to sleep at this time, however, either signified good luck or that you had no control over the events that were unfolding.

Shiori chuckled. “Not much else to do. Might as well get rested for whatever comes next.”

“You can sleep when you are dead.” Hunter growled. “We need to figure out a way out of this mess.” Shiori laughed and laughed and laughed to the point it chilled Apricot to the bone. “What is so funny?” Hunter yelled.

“Can’t you see? We are already dead.”

Apricot felt the words ring harshly in her ear. Shiori did not have a means to save them. And Hunter had no means to save them either. They are as good as dead; Shiori was correct. The news was painful to hear. Even though Apricot had already realized it was true. The best they could do was rest. As Apricot puts her head on the cold floor, her eyes become soggy.

Sleep was broken by the rasping hands on Apricot’s forearm. She was hoisted to her feet as a voice grunted, “Get up.” Her surreal perception of the situation was clouded in a drowsy fog. After a few seconds, her eyes dangled open as she regained a semblance of her bearings. Suddenly, a loud holler was heard halfway down the hall. She is surrounded by sterile white walls, light above her. She blinked at a well-groomed man placing a black blindfold over her eyes. They don’t spend much time with her. “Get your mitts off of my face!” Shiori roared.

“Shut up.” The man said after Apricot heard Shiori retch guttural sounds.

There was something wet falling on the floor. “Heh,” someone laughed.

Another man grumbled, “Ah shit. Seriously, did you have to puke?” There was a loud thwack.

Suddenly, Shiori cried, and groaned, “Damn you!”.

“Hey, cut it out. Empress Kyo wants them alive.” Another man hissed.

“Yeah, yeah,” the voice of a girl replied.

With a hand on her back, a voice said, “Walk.” Wearing the blindfold added to the eerie experience. They traveled quite a distance in total darkness. Once she smelled the street rot and heard the twin doors opening, she realized that she was outside. At first, she considered screaming but eventually decided to play along. Her ears then heard the sound of a truck’s door opening. “Get them in the back.”

It was unclear exactly where she was or the direction she was being taken in. It’s obvious they are inside some kind of moving vehicle. She felt herself crashing in and out of touch. The smell of exhaust was present at first, but after the movement stopped, they led her down a few flights of stairs.

“Where are you taking us?” Shiori barked.

Shiori let out an audible gasp as Apricot hears what sounds like a punch. “Speak again and I’ll leave your tongue behind. That holds true for any of you.”

While she was a bit surprised at the length of the trip, she began to wonder exactly where they were being taken to. Suddenly anything that could be heard in the city disappeared. A low hum was audible throughout their journey, and it becomes louder as they advanced blindfolded.

She noticed the elevation changing as they descended what seemed like a series of ramps winding deeper and deeper. In the end, there was no doubt that they were headed toward a never-ending abyss. They had to descend thousands of feet below the city to the place where it all began. The cold air swept over her. As she crept closer, she realized that the narrow walls led to a larger room. When she was pressed against something cold and rigid, she realized the room was larger. After someone grabbed her by the arms, she felt another coil wrapped around her wrists. A hissing noise was heard as the mechanical device tightened, pinning her arms around a big pole. Then the blindfold was removed, revealing the light, causing her eyes a good bit of strain as they adjusted to the sudden brightness.

She found herself standing in a large white room her arms bound to something. There was an odd-looking device in the middle with a large circular mirror; polished black, reflecting everything around it. The ground lay flat at her feet with a trough-like depression leading to an open part of the ground. Afterward, her eyes flicked around the room and she saw that Shiori and Hunter are also bonded to similar poles with other people. After that, she noticed that the black-haired man Cortez knew was chained up as well. It made her heart skip a beat. The devil man was among them. Unfortunately, she did not know his name. Geno, Genva, or something like that. A sinister expression appeared on his face like he was trapped between his demon form and his mortal body.

She counts five armored guards in the room. Two of the guards remained stationed at a table adorned with metal and a large ceremonial blade. Suddenly, her attention was drawn to a group of people walking into view. In a red dress trimmed with gold, Kyo prances with a gleeful expression that’s tinged with madness. Immediately behind her was Natsukawa. A sly grin slowly appeared across her face as she saw Natsukawa’s scarred and wounded face. Shiori grumbled, “Well, she showed up today.”

“I demand to know what is going on? You can’t do this to us!” screams another young girl bound in chains.

Apricot was disgusted by Kyo’s obnoxious grin and how she moved along with that happy little jont. In the middle of the room, Kyo positioned herself before the altar. A long, cloth-wrapped object occupied both of her hands. When Apricot saw the item Kyo was carrying, she assumed it was some sort of relic or weapon. Rather than worrying about death, she worried about how it would be handled. Knowing Kyo’s passion for ritual, she guessed it would involve some kind of taboo torture to invoke some kind of secret power.

“When I get out of here, I will rip your spine out! I promise!” shrieked that Geno man, as his jaw elongated something that could be described as canine. As he spat a snarl, his body vibrated like he was having a seizure. The muscles on his body grew out, and he turned into the monster he had once been. It sent the girls chained next to him forlornly screaming for help.

Kyo tilted her head toward him with a coy glance, her eyes lining in bold eyeshadow. Makeup caked her face, giving her a look more like an artificial model than a person. In her excitement, she unwrapped the cloth and the devil’s smile appeared on her lips. With a pull of her hands, she unveiled a silver decorative knife resting in her hands. In front of her, Natsukawa bowed his head while holding his hands out wide. After slipping the blade into his hands, she walked over to the large black mirror and closed her eyes.

An empty well stood before her feet. With her hand on her neck, she grabbed a red orb attached to a necklace. After lifting it from her head, she hung it from the thin chain above the basin. “The blood of the dead for you to drink.” The red orb emanated a torrent of blood. Allowing the necklace to fall from her fingertips, Kyo plunged the orb into the growing fountain of blood. While the machine made an oscillating groan, a glowing light shone under the pond. Blue orbs flitted through the darkness far away as she twinkled in the black mirror behind her. She whispered, “I have prepared the way. It is time to finish this bridge to evermore. Natsukawa does the honors.”

His splintered face was etched with the painful results of taking a step forward. Geno let out a roar which resulted in him gaining an audience with Natsukawa. Looking at the giant man-eating beast, Natsukawa locked his gaze upon him. Slowly, he strode toward the monster in the posture of a butler. As Geno lunged toward Natsukawa, Apricot thought Geno had him but he escaped his grasp by inches. Natsukawa grinned hugely as the skin on his cheeks ripped exposing the muscle hidden beneath. The saliva dripping from Geno’s jaws covered his lapel. Almost inhumanly fast, Natsukawa pressed the side of the blade against Geno’s chest. Immediately it began to sizzle as Geno let out an agonizing cry. “Silver!” he screamed.

“Such a weakness for all the power you’ve been given by your pact.” Natsukawa laughed. “Does it seem worth it now? Your transmigrations have certainly been worthwhile.”

“What do you mean?”, Geno queried. Geno shrieked in agony with another bladestroke from Natsukawa. Geno seemed almost scared as his body seized up.

He smiled as he stepped away from the hideous beast. “You see. Without those arts, we never would have known the extent to which a person could be transformed. If we had known you could infuse people with Raka, we would have been producing our own blood for a sacrifice.” Natsukawa stared pensively into the face of a pretty young Uchellan. As Natsukawa’s torn up face occupied her attention, she wore a white paper mask of horror. “Nor would we have known how to find these witches.”

“Please, I am not a witch! I am nothing like that monster.” After that, he pressed the blade against her leg. She screamed and struggled with the same vigor as he did when it seared into her flesh. “See, witches like you, are perfect for sacrificing.” The other girl was drawn speechless from the terror before her.

He almost danced when he returned to Kyo’s side. “So, what the hell do you have planned? If you are about to cut our throats, then just get it over with.” Shiori snapped back with a face that showed pure indignation.

“You, Prince Kinjo, shall be last. I want to savor that strong facade falling to pieces as we butcher your friends but first, the strangers.” Kyo replied with a matter-of-fact tone.

Shiori snorted, “You think I care about anyone here.”

“I do.” Kyo sang. “I think you care an awful lot about people. Why else would you have risked your life Shiori? You gave up a cushy royal life just to stop me because of your dying grandfather’s wishes. Was it an omen that told him?him?him? she asked mockingly. Apricot observed Shiori’s steel-like face, which was unnerved. “What quiet now?” The stiffness in it told Apricot something was off. Could this be Shiori when he is afraid? Apricot’s heart was racing. She looked at Hunter who was relaxed. “You seemed so confident and proud when you thought your naive peasants had ruined my ritual. O’ I am sure you knew it was a trap. I wanted you to think that. Amazing how poorly my guard’s aim was. Oh, it was worth the sacrifice. See, you made it happen Shiori; you were my fated key. Foolish Shiori, I have orchestrated your every move this whole time.” Apricot watched as Shiori bared his teeth in frustration. It was the first time she had ever seen him so composed. Behind his eyes, he was dying and she knew it.

“Natsukawa, I’m tired of waiting, let’s start with the big brute. I’m offended by that face.” Holding the knife in hand, Natsukawa walked over to Geno. He played with the edge of the blade a few times before piercing it into his right thigh. He stepped back as Geno’s arms rushed toward him. As Geno’s body immediately began to erupt in blood, the knife was washed clean and a river of blood immediately poured out. An intensive and steady flow poured out. As it flowed down the trough, it reminded Apricot of thin paint. The monster continued his fruitless snarls and snaps, though he grew slower as the blood flowed. His body eventually grew limp and pale. His snarling withered on the wind like an empty lighter. Natsumawa merely smiled as the light left his eyes. As if he were tasting a delicacy, he was able to appreciate it. He took the time to relish each taste before snapping to the next girl.

“Please, no!”, the girl cried with puffy sullied eyes. “I will do anything, let me go!” she yelled in exasperation as Natsukawa plunged the dagger into her eye. Apricot watched as he ripped at her, tearing her eye from its socket. A devastating cry of agony filled Apricot’s ears. When he raked the knife against her inner thigh, the blood flowed more rapidly out. Suddenly the third girl began screaming bloody murder as Natsukawa danced in front of her. The blood pooled at the front of the room in the center where there is a divot in the ground. When the blood fell inside the circle, it began to glow. Apricot noticed her arm burning. A purple flame shot forth igniting her body.

From her arm, she caught a glimpse of Kyo smiling and staring at the pool. In the same way that her body was surrounded by purple flames, hers was engulfed in red ones as well. Apricot could see Hunter’s eyes were fixed on the dying girl whose blood was draining from her body as she became pale and drowsy. “Shiori!”, Apricot said as she crossed the queue, as she was next.

Shiori’s gaze never wanders away; instead, he bears an ever-widening grin. As he broke, Apricot could almost feel the machine itself grinding into dust. Suddenly, a shriek erupted from the third girl, as Natsukawa plunged the dagger into her hip. “Shhhh,” he said softly. “It’s ok, you will be dead shortly.” Apricot watched him as he stepped over to her. Her eyes gazed downward as she struggled for her life. “Hello sweetheart,” Natsukawa said with a large smile. “Would you believe this is the one who scarred me?” he asked, looking at Kyo. Kyo however, was too occupied with the sickness of her bloodlust. “I shall enjoy sending you to hell. Heh, and no. My kindness won’t extend to just pricking you. Piece by bloody piece, I am going to dismember you.” He moved behind and reached for her left hand. “Starting with the tips of your fingers, we are going to saw away.”

Natsukawa’s attention is caught by the sound of boots walking down the hall. The guards immediately draw their guns and point them at the entrance. Her stomach was in knots when Apricot saw the man enter the room. As they approached him and tried to stop him from entering, he raised his hand, sent them all falling to the ground and they all died. “Who is this?” Kyo’s voice filled to the brim with anger.

“You are performing my ritual,” Urias said.

Kyo burst into tears of joy like a child being thrilled to see a long-lost parent. With both arms around him, she dove straight into his embrace. “You have returned.” Kyo cried out in anguish. “It’s been so long. I thought you were dead.”

“No Kyo, I’ve been here. Waiting, with the black god.” Urias murmured. The young woman backed away and her eyes became wide. When Apricot noticed the dagger sticking in Kyo’s stomach, her jaw dropped. Her words were inaudible as she struggled to keep them from falling out. In her dying breath, she let out a weak croak before falling back into the pool of blood. A gurgling shriek escaped her lips. As she struggled in the blood, she was overwhelmed by the red tide. At the edge of the pool, Natsukawa stood and stared. His eyes were filled with fascination. The last dying bubbles are observed as he lurched across the spring of blood.

As Natsukawa arose, he regained his balance. After a moment of thought, he looked at Urias, paused again, and burst into laughter. “And the bitch is dead!” he said. “Moments before she finishes the work nonetheless.” He stepped over the bloody rivers of blood toward Urias. “Drowned in her own sacrifice.” He cackled again. “No one’s left to complete this task.” Natsukawa’s tone grew acrid. “And I sure as hell am not going to let you do this.” He charged at Urias who dodged before grabbing him in the hand. “What going to rub me to death old man?”

As Natsukawa exploded, pieces of him fell all over the place. A pile of inverted flesh lay in front of Urias. Despite the distraction, he focused his attention on the group and brushed the gore off. “Hello Hunter,” he said unphased by the display. “I must admit my jealousy. I was hoping I would have been the one to capture you. But I will at least be the one to end you. Black god, are you watching? Allow me to be your vessel, and see what I can do for you. Come and dwell in me!” Bang, Urias’s head stretched out revealing its disfiguring contents as he tumbled to the floor. Apricot glanced over to the entrance to see Solenne rushing in with her pistol drawn.

“Solenne!” Apricot screamed, her heart pounding. As Shiori rolled his eyes, he sighed heavily. Hunter’s eyes still shoned with terror.

As she looked around the room, Solenne’s face was filled with horror. However, Solenne shrugged it off and chose to look at the group. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but we got to get you all down.”

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 23

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 23

Some Day, Dominion

Throughout Apricot’s core, the muted touch of slumber permeated. The warmth of her stomach washed over her as she lingered in the darkness of her sleep. Her eyes were shut tightly, and her body rested. Nothingness, broken, by a sharp burning pain in the back. She opened both eyes and mouth in exhalation. Panic pushed her up with its anxious arms. Stumbling from the icy smooth concrete dust-slathered ground, the sharp pain in her side made her fall to her knees.

“You‘re alive,” Cortez coughed. She turns to her left and sees him propped up against a wall, holding on to his side. In a V-shape, his legs were spread. “You got to get that kid. “That cloaked freak is evil.” He covered his stomach with a scarlet river flowing between his legs. “Run before it’s too late.”

Despite seeing spots, Apricot sprung to her feet and made her way down the hallway. After gaining her second wind, her stride changed into a limping trot. It was as if her muscles protested against the pain running through her body. Singing similar to opera filled the corridor leading to the underground city. Apricot had never heard such a language before; it is off-putting to her. As she neared the city, the voice became clearer; it was that of the old man.    

On entering the shrine, Apricot saw the old man standing at the altar and a short, black-haired boy lying on top of a concrete slab. “What are you doing!?” Apricot shouted.

“I must thank you. I couldn’t have caught this one on my own.” the old man’s gratitude tasted like poison. “The boy opposes our Lord, the black god. I am glad that you are able to witness this event.”

Her back was still burning from the attack he had inflicted on her earlier. While he grinned at her, she clutched her fist tightly. “Who are you?” she asked as the elder rubbed the edge of his dagger with a childlike curiosity.

“If you must know my name is Urias.” Apricot recoiled from the name and scrunched her face. “You know my name. Brilliant.” Urias laughed with a drawl that sounded like bile. “With the death of this boy, the black god will accept me as his host. Watch me become a god!” he roared, raising his knife to the sky. Apricot’s heart skipped a beat as she lunged across the sanctuary hall and the man plunged the dagger directly toward the boy’s chest. A purple blade of flame emerged from Apricot’s arm, slicing its way through his forearm. When the arm fell to the ground, the fingers spread out to release the dagger. Screaming loudly, the old man steps backwards while holding his bleeding wound.

Taking hold of the boy in both arms, Apricot lifted him off the alter, paying him no mind. While he is heavy, she nevertheless carries him through the ruined cathedral. “It’s gonna be alright, kid,” Apricot murmured, unsure if the boy even heard her. The dragging of Urias’s limp could be heard behind her. He called to her as he said, “Wait, you don’t know what you’re doing! You’ve got to kill the boy.” She ignored the crazed man and kept walking. Taking it for granted, she assumed the crazed occultist was close at hand. The boy was ferried out of the city and to the corridors above so Apricot could return to the others.

The sound of Cortez growling could be heard as she approached. “You owe me more than those damn rubies.”

After hearing Shiori’s laughter, she sighed with relief. “Maybe I should just let you bleed out in that case.”

“Real funny,” Cortez said as he turned to see Apricot. “Hey,” He said then he gently slapped Shiori across the chest.

Shiori turned to Apricot as she set the boy down, smiling at her. “Is he dead?”

She shook her head. “We will take him back.”

“Why not just kill him now?” Shiori asked.

“I agree with Apricot, let’s hear him out first.” Cortez shrugged, still holding his gut. “That man stabbed me. Ranted about how the black god would be so pleased with his catch. That with the death of the boy no one would have the knowledge to stop his greater work.”

“He told me something along those lines as well. That man down there Shiori is Urais Heldric.” Shiori raises an eyebrow. “I think we might have got things wrong.”

“So where is old Urias, anyway?” Shiori asked.

“Bleeding somewhere down there. I cut his arm off with my spirit weapon. Which troubles me a bit. I have never been able to do that before with a human being.” Apricot mused.

She stroked Shiori’s chin as if deep in thought. “It does not much matter. Do you think he is in a condition to follow?”

“If he tries to get up here without treatment, I am pretty sure he will bleed out. I don’t think he will be a problem.” Apricot said coldly. As the boy’s chest rose and fell with heavy strokes, she gazed down at him.

Upon opening his eyes, he immediately tries to sit up. As Shiori lunged at the boy, he slammed his head against the ground while placing his foot on the boy’s neck. “Cool it, kid.”

“I am not a kid!” He screamed while clutching both hands onto Shiori’s leg as he wrestled to remove it. The boy cried out as Shiori pressed harder onto his neck, “Get off me.”

“You’re lucky to be alive. Apricot just saved your ass.” Shiori gestures with his nose to Apricot. “If I had it my way, I would have killed you.”

“I won’t let you summon the black god!” he croaked amidst his struggle. A futile attempt to throw Shiori off of him leads to him trying to kick and buck with his legs.

“Calm down.” Shiori applied more pressure to the kid’s neck, completely suffocating him. His face became red and his eyes watered as his struggles became limp.

“Shiori get off him now! You’re about to kill him.” Apricot shouted, pushing Shiori in the chest. This irritates him, but he does not remove his foot. “He is freaked out. Also, Urias wants him dead too. I want to hear what he has to say.”

As Shiori let go of the boy’s neck, he barked, “I saw what you did. You‘re all murderers. You killed people!” With a look of disgust, Shiori lifted his foot from the boy. He sat up at once and looked around at the group.

Apricot glanced down at the kid. “How old are you?”

“Fourteen. You should have died at the supermarket. I should have known then that you were a servant of the black god.” The boy glances between the group.

Apricot thinks to herself, “The supermarket.” Looking at him, she suddenly recalls the boy she helped when the phantom attacked her three years ago. After so much time, she almost forgot about it. “Hold on, I know you.”

“You’re pretty slow,” he grunted. As Shiori glanced at Cortez, he rolled his eyes.

Despite his rudeness, Apricot ignores it. “What do you mean about being a servant?”

“Don’t play dumb with me! I know you serve the black god! He was with you during the attack.”

Just then, Shiori’s eyes got really wide. Looking directly into the kid’s eyes, he asked, “What’s your name?”

”Hunter.” he said under his breath. “You will regret what you have done. You won’t be forgiven, you are all cursed. You might be able to kill me but he is going to betray you. Then we will see who is laughing.”

Apricot furrowed her brow. “We don’t want to hurt you. Well, at least I don’t want to.”

“Liar!” he screamed.

Shiori yanked Hunter’s hair. “Why are you breaking the seals if you are so worried about the black god”? Suddenly the boy flung his head from Shiori’s grasp and leapt to his feet. When he tried to run, Shiori caught his ankle and pulled him down. As he hit the ground hard, Apricot winced. “Answer me! Why are you trying to break all the seals?!” Shiori pulled Hunter in front of him flipping his body over while viciously grabbing Hunter by the throat and holding him down. “I am done playing! I want answers!”

“It’s what keeps him bound here.” Hunter choked out.

The tightening grip of Shiori around his neck was deafening. “So you are releasing him!” Apricot looked at him in surprise. “What did I tell you!” He is full of that animalist fury she saw once.

“No,” Hunter gasps while struggling against Shiori’s grasp. “It will suck him back into the other world.” Shiori loosened his grip. The Okabe family sealed the black god here many years ago. It feeds off the seals. They are made by sacrificing people and tying them to him. He would not be able to survive without them. The Okabe family is evil. They want to make their own world using him. He, however, is tricking them. They were promised a new world, but really he wants to merge the dead world with the living one. By breaking the barrier between worlds they will sacrifice both worlds. He will become the god of the new world.”

Shiori pondered it. “Why would Urias want you dead?”

“Urias was his pawn. Still is. He went mad. The ritual failed, and the sacrifice was incomplete. The ritual only broke a hole between worlds. But it did not merge them. In spite of this, the inhabitants of that world can now enter ours due to the black god. Having been weak after the ritual, he had to use most of his power to create the hole. After that, he could barely function. As he waited deep beneath the city in the tunnels, he slowly gained strength. He has been feeding on all the pain and tragedy beneath the city for years. He tricked people into believing he was helping them. That energy is held in the seals. Without the seals, he cannot remain here and will fade back into his world. If I break all the seals, he will be defeated.”

Shiori snorted, putting a hand over his eye, letting go of Hunter. He raised his head to look at the ceiling. “So, the reaper is the black god. We have been duped.” Both Cortez and Apricot stare at Shiori with wide eyes. “Think about it. He was fine until these seals broke. Now he is using Cortez’s blood to sustain himself and he has gone dormant. He needs to regain his energy. The kid is our ally.”

“What? What kind of trick is this?” Hunter yelled. “You just tried to kill me!”

Apricot said to Hunter. “We work together. Put an end to this black god. The Okabe family can’t perform their rituals anymore, so they are out of the picture. If we break that last seal, it is all over.” 

“The only problem is I don’t know where that last seal is. It will be someplace the black god guards. I was searching the tunnels for the seal. I ran into you though.” Hunter said uncomfortably. “I’m also looking for Urias’s soul device. It’s down here somewhere. If we destroy it, this won’t happen again.” Hunter told the group.

Shiori raised an eyebrow. “The soul device?”

“The machine that caused the Blue Ash Crisis. It’s called the Mantra or soul device. It reaches into other worlds. Thins the barrier between them sort of.” Hunter explained.

“So what we need to do is find the seal and break that machine,” Cortez grumbled. “Do things keep peeling like a damn onion or does this nightmare never end?”

“I think I know where it is.” Apricot chirped, grabbing everyone’s attention. “I mean the seal, it is in the shrine where the reaper sleeps. I think at least. I could be wrong though.” Apricot told them.

“Only one way to know for sure. However, I can‘t investigate it. I will need your help.“ Hunter said.

Shiori turns her head to Hunter with a downturned expression. “Why can’t you investigate it?”

Hunter shook his head and grunted. “You’re not that bright either I see.” Apricot chuckled as she couldn’t recall the last time she heard a stranger talk to Shiori like that.

As for Cortez, he laughed a tiny bit at the same time. “Damn it hurts. Don’t make me laugh.” He moaned.

“If the black god is there, he will kill me.” Hunter grinned. “So you need to be there for me.”

“Of course, I can do it,” Apricot replied immediately.

“Okay, so it always takes the form of a ring. This ring is usually large. Like the summoning circle the Okabe family used for their ritual. Can you recall how that looked? You can take a picture of it and show it to me on your phone. I’ll be able to identify it then. You believe you can do it?” Apricot nods in agreement.

“While you are doing that Apricot, I will get Cortez to a street doc. Hunter, you wait here. Stay away from Urias, please. If you get caught, I swear I will kill you myself.” Shiori threatened. Hunt smiled hesitantly. After that, everyone went their separate ways.

The bricks against Shiori’s back remind him of the cool winters at the shrine where he grew up. His mind drifted to the pure scent of the mountain’s snow. He longed for those mornings again. Passing by the alleyway, he noticed that the street was still quiet, without the usual early morning traffic. Looking back toward Cortez, he heard him rasping his breath as he limped. He said, “Come on. It’s not much further. Try to keep your cough at bay.”

“It better be, I’m feeling a little lightheaded.” Cortez scrambled as he stumbled step by sloppy step leaving a trail of crimson drops behind. As his legs dragged, his stomach tightened, causing Cortez to let out a distressed groan. The deep laceration burned with every painful step.

The sight of Cortez suffering so pathetically made Shiori express a slight leer. Strolling over to Cortez, he lifted him up over his head with his right arm. Assisting or rather pulling Cortez, Shiori quickened the pace. They rush through the crumbling alley, over the cracked and decaying surface. They kept repeating this several times until they stood in front of an old store window full of old appliances from another era.

Shiori pushed the door open first, followed closely by Cortez. “Hey,” Shiori shouted. “I got rice for you.” There was no response in the empty shop.

“Your street doc ain’t here.” He grunts, slumped against the side of a shelf holding himself up as blood drips off his shirt.

As Shiori walked toward the back of the room, he growled, “He isn’t out. Now where the hell is he?” A man in a blue button-up shirt stepped out of the back of the store with a shotgun. “Wo, what is this?”

“Get the hell out,” the man shouted to Shiori.

Shiori shakes his head in frustration. “I have a friend who is bleeding out. I will pay twice the normal rate. Get him patched up for me will you?”

“You are hot,” the man growled. “Get the hell out now, or I’ll send you down a drain.”

A sigh escapes Shiori’s lips. “He is dying. At least treat my friend. I will get gone, ok.”

Cortez smirked slightly at the two fighting. A black spot encroached on his vision and caused it to blur. As he turns to the window, Cortez notices a patrol car slowly coasting down the road. “Hey, we got wet streets outside.”

He stood up and moved to the other side of the shelf. Taking a look at the man, Shiori glanced back over his shoulder. “You enjoy housing fugitives?” Shiori said with a smirk.

“I will turn you in.” the man grumbled.

Shiori grinned confidently while placing his chest against the barrel of the man’s shotgun. “Go for it. After what I have done to the Okabe family, do you think they will let you live?” The man placed the shotgun barrel to his throat. “Let’s gamble.” Shiori snickered. “Care to.”

Sweat dripped from the man’s brow. “That’s what I thought,” Shiori replied, flicking the beads off his head. “Patch up my friend, before I get ugly.”

Dust blows from the polished white stones of the unkempt shrine courtyard. The reaper lies lifeless before the altar where Apricot last saw him. While approaching the object, Apricot thought to herself, “He’s still at rest.” His red and purple colors have almost faded in this state. His beaked mask obscured his face as he hung dangling from his slumped-over form. While exploring the courtyard, Apricot pulled out her phone to snap pictures of the tiles.

Over the ground are several small symbols about the width of a pen. Is this the seal they’re searching for? Did she actually get it right? Grinning, she realizes that she was correct. Static covers the screen of her phone as the surrounding air becomes warmer. The heat grew so quickly that she felt as if she was sweltering out of her clothes. Weakly, the reaper lifted its head. He whispered, “Apricot.”.

Taking a closer look at the object, she turns around. “I see that you’ve woken up,” she said.

“I has’t, little, has’t thee did finish, Okabe?” his voice became more challenging to hear. It was evident his weakness. Apricot nodded slowly. “Is the seal breaker dead?”

Her heart welled up inside her throat as she replied, “No.” She felt a wave of terror wash over her; almost certain that it was the black god. It was clear that he manipulated her for his own ends. In this weakened condition, she still wanted to take his life. As she refused the urge, her anger rose to her fingertips.

Using his metallic claw, he gently touched Apricot’s hand. “Hie swiftly issue. Time runs short.”

Apricot nodded. “I found him.”

“Has’t thee?  Wherefore has’t thee not hath killed him?” he growled. “What has’t I command’d of thee!  Didst I not instruct thee to end their life!  The fate of the ordinary depends on their end.”

Apricot smiled half-heartedly, “I came to report we are tracking him now.  He lives below in the tunnels.”

“In the tunnels thee sayeth? Sadly, yond is one lodging I cannot wend. Nevertheless, i am too weak to travel anyways. Beest quick, I am dying and cannot sustain much longer. The ordinary shall falleth into chaos without me holding back the phantoms.”

“Of course. I will return when he is dead.” Apricot told the reaper. The reaper slumped back down lifeless. She looked away from him as she walked away, half expecting him to stab her in the back. At least he can’t read minds, or at least she hopes he can’t.

The street doctor plunges the hot end of a hand-held instrument into Cortez’s skin while he screamed loudly. As his flesh was abruptly burned shut, it sounded like the loud hiss of grilled meat. “Damn you!” He hollered, mouth agape in pain.

“Kid, you’re lucky to be alive with stabs like that. I can’t do much for the torn muscle you just gotta let the machines do their job,” Cortez grunted, pulling the cautery device from his stomach. “Don’t touch it.” The Doc looked up at Shiori. “Put a wet rag on it will ya,” he said as he walked from the metal desk to a nearby refrigerator. “I got derms for you. Expensive but I am sure your friend here can afford it.”

Shiori said sharply while holding a wet towel. “Only the best.” Shiori spread a towel out over the burns. The man jumps up and grabs the towel when he feels the wet towel placed on his stomach. “Contain yourselves!” Shiori commanded, grasping his arms. “You will be fine in a moment. Just bear it.”

“It burns man,” Cortez said, his eyes filled with tears. “It burns like a hot iron.”

“It was a hot iron,” Shiori smirked.

Cortez’s face frowned into a scowl. “The hell man, why don’t you try it?” He said retching his arms away and grasping the iron device.

Taking a step back, Shiori said, “Shit,” as he blew a tiny puff of air.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Cortez growled putting the iron down.

The Doc walked over holding what looks like a large piece of bacon. Almost knocking Cortez off the table, the Doc’s hand slammed into Cortez’s face. The Doc stared at Cortez in shock. “If you touch it again, I’ll shove it down your damn throat.” he roars. “Now lie on the table,” he ordered. “What type of company do you keep “Lord” Kinjo.”

“He is for entertainment value alone,” Shiori said with a smirk.

As the towel is pulled off Cortez’s stomach, the nerve endings on his clean flesh are revealed. Shiori can barely look at the macabre display of porphyria before him. After slapping the flesh on top of Cortez’s stomach, the man skillfully massages it in. Within seconds, the strange material covered Cortez’s stab wounds and molded into his side. The strained expression on Cortez’s face fades away. “Don’t scratch it. Your guts will fall out,” he said. “Also, take a break for a few weeks. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Now get your asses out of my shop.”

As the Doc approached the front door, Cortez got up and walked away from the table. Yet Shiori kept an eye on him. “You will be rewarded greatly for this,” he said. “I guarantee it. After all, this blows over.” The Doc just smiled with a half-grin.

“Don’t sweat it,” he grunted. “I am a good hostage.”

After exiting the room, Shiori entered the main shop. Cortez looked at Shiori with a smirk on his face. Shiori then asked, “What is that smirk for?”

“You saved my life. I thought you cared only about yourself,” Cortez said.

As Shiori looked down his nose, he frowned. “What? Doesn’t a good master not take care of his dog?” He said as he walked by Cortez.

“Is that how it works?” laughed Cortez.

Shiori surveyed the street from her storefront as he watched a rippling wave. A second wave followed. As if a short tide of water floated by the storefront. Before he screamed, his eyes widened. “Get down!”

As Shiori dove on Cortez, he felt Cortez’s head explode as a bullet pierced the space between his eyes. “Cortez!” Shiori shouted in a tearful yelp the warmth of his blood splattering him. As the bullets flew, the room was ripped apart. Cortez’s headless body was spraying blood as he hit the ground hard. “You bastards!” he shrieked. “You Bastards!” Shiori screamed, pulling the segmented staff out of his sleeve.

“No, no, no, no!” Hunter’s worried voice echoed down the hall. Approaching the bend, Apricot rushed down the corridor, her heart sinking. When she came upon Hunter, everything seemed fine at first, except for Hunter’s wandering gaze. When she examined closer, it appeared that his sigils had been destroyed by a series of sharp claw strikes. His eyes grew large as he turned to Apricot. “It’s not safe to be here,” he said in a panic. “The ghosts will come.”

As Apricot shook her head, she sighed. “There is no more running Hunter.” She lowered her gaze. “It’s time we were on the attack. Let’s deal with Claw Fingers.” Apricot looked at him with serious eyes. In the dull light, Hunter’s eyes are teary and glistening.

“Where are we going?” Hunter asked Apricot.

Apricot keeps marching forward, “We are going by train. That shrine I went to check out. It’s the last seal. I am sure of it.” She pulled out her phone and brought up the picture with a few taps on the screen. “The reaper, he is the black god. There is no question anymore. To think he got me into this mess and is orchestrating every detail of my nightmare.” Holding up the screen, Hunter inspects it, his eyes widening in enjoyment. “Don‘t get too excited yet. I don’t think this is going to be all that easy.”

“I know. He will try to kill me. I will need you to distract him while I get ready to perform the breaking.” Hunter explained.

Apricot folded her arms as she walked out of the corridor. “I kind of expected that. Truthfully, I’m not disappointed by that.” Hunter covered his eyes as he reached the surface. “It’s been a while since you have seen sunlight, huh?”

“I suppose you could say that.” Jumping over a barrier, Hunter ran ahead to assist Apricot. He held her hand as she crossed the barrier. Her cheeks began to flush a little bit. Her thoughts turned to how gentlemanly he is. However, he is still too young to develop any kind of interest in her.

Throughout Apricot’s walk, she felt her heart pound. Whenever someone’s gaze met hers, she felt a sense of dread. There is only one hope for her: Akagi is still working hard to keep them from being detected. On that note, she wondered how Cortez and Shiori are doing. For a while, they seemed to disappear from her mind. Despite feeling guilty about that, it was not pertinent now. All they had achieved was laid out before them. Her nightmare would soon be over. Or at least the immediate threat would be over.

Using his hands to pull the hood down over his head, Hunter led the way to the train. “Apricot, what happens afterward?” Hunter asked.

“I was just thinking about that myself,” Apricot said. “I am not sure. I think my life is over but you can still run away from all this.” Hunter’s face fell. “The train platform is not far from here,” Apricot told Hunter trying to get his mind off her rather grim revelation.

There were hardly any passengers on the cart Apricot and Hunter rode this morning. Those at the front are mostly salaried men on their way to work. The ones closest to them had a criminal bent. Apricot leaned back in the spongy seat and felt her ankles burning slowly, a slight stiffness taking control of her. Among the cart’s occupants are three men dressed in commoners’ street clothes. A group of delinquents where chatting with each other. As they kept looking in Apricot’s direction they chittered further. Eventually, they began their trek toward the back of the cart. She tucked her fingers gently into her sleeve, readying a blade. Her fear was a thing of the past; now they are merely an irritation, posing no real danger. As they sat around the pair, Hunter nervously glanced at the group.

“Hey there, cutie. What are you doing with the kid? He’s your bro or something?” one guy asked. He has rotten teeth and a festering odor that reminded her of spoiled meat.

“I am not her brother,” Hunter said defensively. “Now get lost.”

They chuckle at each other. One of them snarkily commented, “Wow, tough guy.” More laughter ensued.

“Think she is a kiddie fiddler?” Apricot flushed and narrowed her eyes. “Wo, I think she is, man.”

As the man with bad breath barked, “Well, kid you gotten lucky with her?”

“Shut up!” Apricot said the guys laughed and slapped the seats without a second thought. She repeated, “Shut your mouth.”

“Wo, girl, calm down. I am sure the boss has work for a kiddie fiddler like you.” said one of the larger men. The man stood to his full height, an impressive six and a half feet at least. Apricot arched her back into the seat, shielding Hunter. “What, I don’t wanna hurt ya. How about both of you come with me?” He asked taking a step forward into her reach. In a flash, he let out a loud yell as Apricot charged him, pressing a throwing knife against his throat.

“Back the hell up or I’ll slit your throat!” She snarled.

One guy yelled, “Holy shit.”. Apricot was filled with a prideful warmth. Strength. Her strength. As four razor-like claws pierce through the man’s head, her thoughts are shattered. In one powerful throw, the man is hurled through the train window. Before her stood the reaper. “Oh my god!“ screamed the man with bad breath, scrambling to get away from him. As the reaper raised his hand from his side, the man was thrown through the wall of the train with an invisible force.

“Apricot thee has’t did betray me.” Shouted the reaper through his mask. As Hunter screamed, the wind from outside the train tossed his clothes around. It seemed as if everything in her world had faded away; she could only see the reaper before her. “Nay matter, thee still has’t did provide me the lamb I seek to slaughter.”

“No!” Apricot shouted at the reaper.

“T’wast not a request but rather a statement. F’r thy valorous worketh I shalt maketh thy death quick.” Apricot sees the reaper point his hand at her. While she is diving onto the ground, she feels a force like the vibration of a powerful amplifier. It smashes a hole in the back of the train destroying the right corner seat. Hunter dives over the seat and launches a stone at the reaper. As Apricot got back to her feet, the stone exploded into powder. Grabbing the knives under her sleeve Apricot charged the smokey air. She immediately met the reaper in the plume slashing at him vigorously. In response to her stabs, he blocked both her blades with a single hand, pushing her away from him.

With his claw, he stroked his chin as he stood tall. “Is this the length of thy talents? Thee foolish wench. Thither is nothing thee can doth to stand ho me. Thee see, I needeth not thee any more.” Despite the backdraft from the gaping holes in the train, she noticed the temperature was rising. While standing in the reaper’s presence, she felt as if her face was searing.

“You were dying! How did this happen?” Apricot asked.

“An act. Twas a rouse to confuse mine own true enemies. As long as I hath appeared weak, thither wast nay way thee couldst has’t known I did feed from the seals he hath broken. Anon I am just short of a divine creature. I shalt rend the gates open and claim mine own kingdom ov’r both worlds.” Declared the reaper. Apricot jumped as she saw Hunter run by behind her. Spreading his arms, the reaper knocked Apricot backward as a flash of light blinds her. Her head turned, and she caught her last glimpse of Hunter before he fell out the back of the train.

“Hunter!” Apricot screamed. She turned back at the reaper who was charging her.  The reaper dodged all of her attacks and blocked them effortlessly.

“Yond’s right. Surprise me. Alloweth it fill thee and infect thy core. Cometh findeth me at the shrine. I shalt beest waiting f’r thee. Enjoy the hell thee unleash’d.” The reaper laughed as he backs away down the train from Apricot. She follows him as quickly as possible. He smashes through every door as if it was nothing.   She let out a scream of frustration when she couldn’t keep up with his pace as well as the people around her who now realized what had happened. Immediately upon passing each person, a bloody mess splattered out of them as their corporal forms were turned inside out.

From out the train’s windows, Apricot was overlooking the city’s heavy traffic, the train hurries into the air as it reaches the sky rails. She lunged onto a chair to keep herself from tumbling down the hall of carts. Buildings passed alongside the train track. As the train leveled out, Apricot rushed to the front. When she passed by the bloody remains of the destroyed passengers, her eyes focused on the large door to the front of the train that she opened. The room was largely empty, save for a few switch panels controlled by the conductors in the station. In a panic, she checked the panels looking for any hint to how they worked. To her dismay, the sheer amount of knobs, buttons, switches, and screens made no sense at all to her.

Her attention was caught by the gaping hole as she sprinted to the rear of the train. When she looked out, she saw large drops with rushing streets below. She knew that she wouldn’t make it. Even so, she wasn’t sure if she would die of the fall. There was a lot more traffic than usual on the ground.

“Bang!” The metal roof above her echoed. The sound was repeated several times before a voice commanded, “Put your hands behind your head!”

As soon as she realized what was happening, Apricot leapt from the back of the train, free falling. Tumbling through the air, she screamed. In a split second, a moment of peace overtook her as air soared between her fingertips. When she passed by a pole supporting the rail, she noticed an advertisement banner hanging off the side of it. By pulling at the fabric, the banner tore from the pole. Grabbing the banner tightly, she swung forward at incredible speed. Her momentum was broken as she neared the ground, allowing her to let go and roll onto the sidewalk.

Several curious onlookers gawked at Apricot as she rose to her feet. Their faces are twisted with shock. As she fled, she tried to reach anywhere but here. Apricot continued to run for several blocks. The sound of police sirens grew closer and closer. Looking in the direction of the sirens, she saw a squad of SDP vehicles heading straight for her. Her vision was suddenly blinded by a flash of lights. The street lights ahead of her have begun flashing just like Akagi did, and the buildings in the distance have done the same.

However, this time she was quite sure it was not Akagi doing this. A complete meltdown had taken place. “What’s happening?” she questioned. As her body dribbled blood, faded bloody prints were left behind. In an attempt to escape, Apricot rushes into an alleyway. Her eyes scan all around in an effort to make her way out. Seeing a manhole, she grabbed hold of the metal bars and moved them aside before diving into the sewer below. Tunnels are hotter than open-air above, and they are filled with foul smells.

Her eyes are filled with tears as she walks through the dark. There are many fears and she doesn’t know what to do. In fact, she doesn’t even know if Shiori and the others are alive. Not to mention Hunter, who seemed to be her only hope. Was the reaper really victorious? Is running even worth it?

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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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