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 21

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 21


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you taking me?” Apricot asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natsukawa grinned. “You are a family matter.”

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

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

“It’s macabre.” Apricot snapped back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 18

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

Chapter 18

Over Kill

“I don’t know how much more I can take of this.” said one officer to another. “I thought I would be helping people, you know, when I joined the police department. Today it seems like all we do is investigate strange incidents. It’s like this whole city has become the set of some bizarre horror movie.”

“Yeah, first there was the insect swarm, now there are explosions in the ruined part of town. Not to mention the ever-growing population of witches.” Bracing against the wall, the other officer peered around. Swigging his coffee, he continued. “Just be glad, rook, your dispatch. We need to get out and look at this crap. Damn, the city is a madhouse. Last week, I had to deal with people eating each other. People are becoming cannibals. Cannibals! Tch, it’s crazy.”

The younger officer shook his head in disbelief. “Just knowing about all these things is enough to make someone go mad. I never thought the SDP was like this. I imagined we would be going after the more hardened criminals. Not spooks and monsters.”

“You didn’t get the memo kid?” grunts the older officer. “They changed the S to Spectral.” the group of officers laughed. “Sure as hell seems that way at least.”

Over the radio, a voice calls out “Hey, ah, is anyone inside the Valkner room?”

At the desk, the young officer glanced at his display, which showed no heat signatures. He answered, “That’s a negative.”

“Well, there is a lot of noise coming from there. Was one of the Valkners left on?”

“That’s a negative as well. The indicators are displaying them all as inactive.” 

“I need backup down here, now. Something is moving around inside that room. It is big and made of metal.”

“I’ll send someone down.” The rookie looks toward the older officer. “Could you?”

“Yeah yeah, I am there.” he retorted, setting his coffee down.

An alarm blared from the console just as the officer was about to leave the room. Looking down at the board, the young officer saw a red light flashing. “Hanger three has just been breached from the inside.”

“Shit, help!” the officer cried out over the radio.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” The words rang in Apricot’s ears. Cortez stared into the pillar of radiance as she gazed up. In addition to the thunder, there were subtle screams. The sensation of her chest pounding was intense. Cortez did little more than moan when she tugged at his arm. Slowly, he turned his head towards her, his eyes brightening with life.

Finally, they were running, following Shiori. The shadows of every object stretched out like long spikes, casting themselves upon every wall. As they raced down the alleyway, they saw the white car approaching. Lights from helicopters streak across the roadways as they give way to the bright night sky.

“What the hell was that! Shiori what was that!” Cortez screams, cowering in the back of the car. While Apricot’s tears were too shellshocked to escape her eyes, she still felt the same anxiety. She hears the car’s roar as it races along the ruined road.

“Things got more complicated,” Shiori whispered.

Cortez shook his head. “What the hell was that?!” Apricot tried to ask the same question, but the words wouldn’t come out. Her throat tightens, and her mouth was dry. “Are you going to say something?” Cortez shouted.

“Yes, I am just thinking.” Shiori calmly said. “That was one of several seals around the city. They are old sights around this region.” Shiori explained. His driving slowed as they arrived on more commonly traveled roads.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean!”

Shiori clears his throat. “I think one of them was just broken.”

The ringing of Apricot’s phone jolted her from her thoughts. Back inside her bedroom, the events of a few weeks ago were still heavy on her mind. Looking down at her table she saw her phone gliding as it vibrated. Grabbing hold of the pink plastic plush case she raised it up to see it was a text from Bonni.  

“Wanna do some window shopping?!”

Gunfire echoed in the hall of the SDP’s hanger. Like splattered bugs, the bloody remains of officers are smeared across the pavement. “We must stop it!” shouted an officer hiding behind a support beam. There are two more officers concealed in the adjacent pillar. As the war machine marched down the hallway, the officers keep their pistols pressed against their chests. “These weapons are useless. That is reinforced alloy. We will never be able to penetrate that armor.”.

”What are we supposed to do?” yelled the female officer.

The first officer who was monitoring the machine replied, “We need to run and close the gate.” Looking to his colleagues, he added, “It will give us a few minutes to prepare the special units.”

There was unanimous agreement among the officers. From their cover, they run down the corridor to the end, where the machine lumbers towards them. The female officer reached the other side of the corridor and pressed a memorized set of numbers onto the keypad. A creak accompanied the twin doors as they opened. Watching the doors descend, the machine stopped. “It’s not moving.” said the older officer.

Through the doors, the other officers ran hurriedly. As they stared back at the machine, the metal gates slid shut. “Well, that won’t buy us much time. Especially if it rips through this one like the other two.”

“Let’s get out of here.” suggested the female officer.

A groan could be heard coming from the twin doors as the group turned tail down the corridor. When the officers turned back, they saw the door open once more. The Volkner suit remained where it had been. As the red lights on the suit began to glow again, the female officer exclaimed, “What is this?”

As the suit continues to approach the group, it makes another loud stomp. The older officers shouted, “Run!” as the machine fired its thrusters, leaving a glow of blue-white to burn, propelling itself forward.

It was impossible for Apricot not to see the world differently. Walking down the familiar stretch of shops, her gaze wandered to every corner and every shadow. Her experience was similar to this when she was still in the dark about the phantoms. Just for a few more moments of peace, she denied everything. The darkness had returned. She felt Bonni’s fingers resting on her shoulder. That was comforting. Momentarily at least.  Although, the recent events are still ringing in my ears as the local city guard surrounds the quiet mall corridors. Nowadays, instead of police walking around, armored police with long rifles guard each intersection in pairs. On the escalator to the next floor, Bonni said, “I was worried about you.”

“Worried? You?” Apricot asked admiring the murals of party officials lining the walls. “Normally, you are only concerned about yourself, Bonni.”

Bonni’s lips pursed coyly like a cat’s mouth. “Well, I will remember to do it less often,” Apricot smirked. The two shared a giggle for a moment, once it had passed Bonni continued. “So, what is the deal with that cutie Shiori?” Bonni asked, raising an eyebrow. “You two an item?”

Bonni watched Apricot with bulging eyes as she wore a heavy layer of blush on her cheeks. “What!” she barked, shaking her head and lightly tapping Bonni on the shoulder. “It’s not like that. He is just my boss. Nothing more.”

“Really?” Bonni pouted. “What a shame, and here I thought you had landed yourself a fairytale catch. Figures though, I could not see the two of you together, anyway. Common girls like us don’t interest nobles.”

It hurt Apricot to hear those words. While she was a common girl, she never considered that around Shiori. His views on Cortez were influenced by his heritage. Perhaps he felt the same way about her as well. “I think you might be right.”

Bonni gestures towards the skylight in the mall’s center. She asks, “What is that?”

Apricot’s eyes darted up to see a shadow looming over the glassy roof. The shards of glass tumbled down in a brilliant display of crystaline color as the shadow grew. Apricot only had time to raise a hand to her mouth. As the rain of fractures fell, the two girls huddled together, desperate to escape the avalanche. She raised her eyes in surprise when she saw a metallic shadow rising from the rubble. Two long rifles could be seen once it lifted its arms, allowing the glass and framing to cascade from its arms. “Get down!” Apricot shouted before the thunder of bullets rumbled through the environment.

As Apricot leapt over the escalator bars, she grabbed Bonni’s arm. The machine warrior was engaged in combat with several armored police opening fire. Apricot locked her eyes on Bonni who was still curled up on the ground. She places an arm around her screaming “Bonni!”, tugging on her dandy coat. “Get over here!” she ordered, and Bonni complied sheepishly down the escalator. She heard the armored soldiers yelling orders and another gun popping out at the top of the escalator, which she assumed was the police returning fire. A torrent of debris was raining down on the crowd of people on the ground floor. The gunshots have ceased, but the panic has continued. Bonni raised her head to gaze up the escalator as a single whirl, a bullet narrowly missed Bonni. Immediately she fell to her knees. “Bonni! We got to move.” Apricot yelled knowing death was fast approaching. She grasped Bonni’s hand and tried to get her to stand. With one more powerful tug, Bonni was dragged by Apricot like a child.

A soldier gestured in the direction of an emergency exit while shouting, “This way!” Apricot was terrified by the tower-like helmet the man was wearing. With one large red glowing sphere, it looked like a cyclops. Two smaller spheres flanked the larger one in a V-shape. Apricot’s train of thought was interrupted as the man raised his rifle in their direction. Both Apricot and Bonni let out shrieks when he fired a shot past them. Stepping forward, he fired another burst of shots while his gray cape flowed. “Get behind me!” he shouted as he marched past the girls. Apricot glanced back at the Volkner at the top of the stairs. In their direction, she could see the red monocle adjusting its focus and turning its radius.

The large machine turned its body ajar, aiming its right arm at the group. It shot a barrage of bullets that landed all around Apricot and Bonni. The armored soldier dives in front of them, using his own body as a shield. Even though Apricot is almost certain that soldier has just been killed, they had to continue down the hallway. “You stabbed me in the throat!“ Apricot heard a voice groan from within her head. Turning around, she saw the bayonet of the mechanical warrior’s rifle slicing through the soldier. “I shall cleave you in half, servant of the betrayer!” it roared into the small hall causing a painful ringing in Apricot’s head. As the migrant passed through her body, she gritted her teeth. Bonni screamed which was not helping, but the fact she was running faster on account of the giant death-machine certainly did.

“This isn’t happening!” Bonni cried.

As Apricot and Bonni crashed out the exit doors, they are greeted by even more of the Volkners. Apricot froze at the sight of the massive police mecha suits with their guns pointed toward them. “Get behind us!” one of the officers commanded. From behind, the other Volkner chasing them broke through the wall. Apricot turned just in time to see a large slash aimed at her. In a burst of sparks, the blade is caught in midair by the arm of the police’s Volkner. As the gun was ripped from the attacking machine, the SDP mecha held it back. “Run.” the officer yelled. Between the legs of the machine, Apricot and Bonni ran to safety.  

Bonni screamed “Help!” to a line of armored officers who had formed a wall with their armored trucks. The mecha’s guns roared against the walls as they thundered across the parking lot. Apricot watched the two mechas as they fought, seeing the familiar phantom fire aiding the attacker.

Apricot’s hand releases Bonni’s fingers as their grips part ways. She watches her dive into the arms of an armored soldier who is directly behind the barricade. After another crack, Apricot turned heel to a frightening sight. The Volkners were still fighting, ripping each other apart. Insects had begun to fly about the mechanical soldiers. However, one broke ranks and flew directly to her. “Hold back!” yelled the armored soldier. The police began shooting at the huge mechanical suit that was rapidly advancing.

“That thing is after me!” Apricot gave Bonni one last glance whose eyes are filled with fear like a small child in a panic. Behind the steel door of a truck, Bonni peeked at the oncoming manifestation of death. Apricot bit her lip, looking straight into Bonni’s eyes. As she nodded to her, it may be the last time Apricot does so. In the midst of running through the makeshift vehicular wall, she heard Bonni’s cry, “Apricot!” She dove past the armored soldiers and sprinted through the stagnant traffic to the other side of the parking lot. A loud boom sounded as the machine burst through the barricade. The heavy clash of metals followed and the high-pitched screeching grated on her nerves. “Please let Bonni be OK.” Several cars are speeding towards the end of the lot trying to escape the Volkner. By jumping the barrier, Apricot plunged into the full flow of traffic, narrowly escaping the speeding automobiles. When she reached the other side of the road, her heart pounded as she saw a drop off to another platform below. Without hesitation, she slid down the concrete and landed hard on her feet.

In the background, an upbeat tune played over a pair of pure white dress shoes atop the wood of a chocolate brown computer desk. Sitting in his office chair, Shiori had opened a book and was casually reading the dusty tome. From the window of his highrise apartment, he had a clear view of the city just past the edge of the book. “Bzzzt Bzzt.” His phone vibrates across the desk. Looking at his phone, Shiori saw the text “Apricot Signa” Letting out a sigh, Shiori placed his book down and lifted the phone to his ear. As soon as he finished he said “Hello Miss,” a barrage of panicked words assaulted him.

“Shioriyougottohelp!Arobotistryingtokillme!Idon’tknowhowmuchlongerIcanrunbutyouneedtodosomethingnow!” The words came so fast it is almost incomprehensible.

Shiori snickered, “You got to slow down, honey. I have no idea what you are saying.”

“Shiori! I have no time for this!” shrieked Apricot.

“Well, if you need my help, that is not the way to go about it.” Shiori snickered again.

Apricot lets out a frustrated growl. “One of those police machines is trying to kill me!”

“That sounds dangerous. I’ll come help you. Keep your phone on, Akagi will locate you.” Shiori said as he clicked his phone. Yawning, he through the slab onto his desk. “That crazy girl, I don’t think she’s even worth the trouble.”

Getting smashed through a car, the mecha suit’s green electronic HUD locks onto Apricot running through an alleyway. Spikes fly from its thrusters as it turns into the stretch of narrow lanes. She uses the passages to her advantage as she jackknifes through the maze of off-roads, trying to lose the machine. From its thrusters, the mecha blew a boom after every turn. Apricot, noticed an open door that led the back of a building.

Apricot ran through the steamy hot room when an older man in a white chefs cloak shouted “Lady, you can’t be here.” A group of waitresses let out a collective gasp as Apricot burst through the double doors open into the dining room. In the front of the building, Apricot could see outside the dining-room window the mecha outside adjusting its arm.

“Get down!” Apricot screamed as the machine unloaded, causing the room to explode into a flurry of steel and wood. There was a lot of ripped fabric flying around the room as the guns tore through everything. “How in the world do I get out of here?” Apricot screamed as she crawled toward a fire door. It was unclear how many people were hurt or if any are still alive, but she could hear moans of agony. Blood painted the waitress as she lay dead. The expression was one of pure terror. Her eyes were like glass. Everything was her fault. She put them in danger. Whatever this thing was, it showed no mercy at all. Could it be Okabe’s doing? It seemed they were slaughtering their own police.

The fire exit allows her to gain a few seconds. The world blurred around her. She ran in the opposite direction until she reached the main intersection. An oncoming white car nearly strikes her as she only has a moment to react. “Get in!” yelled Shiori. Having slid over the hood of his car, Apricot jumped into the passenger seat. Shiori started driving. Pulling the door shut with the handle attached to the still-raised door, Apricot latches it shut. “What the hell is this? It’s all over the news! Why is that Volkner after you? Who is the pilot?”

“It came after me when I was with a friend!” Apricot cried.  “I don’t know what the hell it is!”

As Shiori stomped on the gas, he sped past cars appearing in front of him. Apricot realized that they were at risk of a collision at any moment. “Well, way to alienate the rest of the world. This is a problem!” Apricot looked back to see the mechanical warrior close behind him. The device annihilates cars without any regard for the surrounding environment. The armor of the machine has been damaged as the metallic plating has begun to peel off exposing the chasse below. “Where the hell are the cops!” Shiori barked.

Once again, Apricot saw purple flames blazing on her arm. While watching the fire dance, she held out her hand open palmed. “So, there’s a phantom controlling it.”

When Shiori nearly veered off the road yelling “What the hell!” she is jerked out of her seat. “You’re going to kill us. Put that thing out.”

“It doesn’t harm physical objects.” Apricot quietly replied. She turned to Shiori, declaring, “I think it’s just a phantom. At least the phantom is controlling it. It told me earlier that it had stabbed its throat.” A shadow crossed in front of the car. In an instant, Shiori slammed on the brakes; his tires came to a screeching halt. An ear-piercing hiss is heard from the machine. A loud clang was heard as a projectile penetrated deep into the hood of the car. “Get out!” Shiori commanded, pulling his door open. Apricot followed suit, diving out just before the car is lifted and thrown into a building.

In front of the mecha, the two stood. Shiori stood to his feet, clicking the small switch to extend the rod. “I do hope you are right, Apricot.” Shiori said. The fires around Apricot’s arm grew brighter as she nodded her head. “There is only one choice.” With a metallic snap, the cables reappear from the car and slide into the hand of the machine. The imposing device dwarfs the pair as it stands about ten feet tall. “You know Apricot. If you are wrong, we’re gonna die, right?”

Without warning, the machine lunged forward at Shiori. After leaping back, he missed its fist aimed directly at him. The powerful machine slammed into the pavement harshly, pelting Shiori with debris. No matter the minor impact, Shiori struck his rod against the fist of the machine, thrusting through the shrapnel. As the metal moiled against the alloy, the rod sparked. “Shit this is useless!” The machine straightened its back as Shiori roared. As Apricot ran by the machine waving her arms, it positioned its other arm in Shiori’s direction. As the hulking metal soldier turned his attention towards her, he shot down his claws at her. Apricot lept over the metallic tethers as the razor claws sail in the air. A second time, the servos were rapidly retracting their lines, narrowly missing her.

After regaining her sight, Apricot caught a glimpse of Shiori directly under the machine. “Have to be creative.” Shiori roared as he stabbed his rod directly into the chestplate of the mecha. He ripped the pilot’s door off with his rod after removing the chest panel from the machine. The open cockpit is crawling with insects of every kind. The carcass of a dead soldier hung out, his mouth open in agony, and his eyes wide. Maggots oozed from the putrid body. There was a purple orb floating inside the cockpit that stretched throughout the whole machine. Shiori lets out a loud cry as the machine’s powerful hand wrapped around his waist. As if he were a rag doll, he was tossed through the air. He rolled several times on the ground, tearing up his clothes as he did so.

“Shiori!“ Apricot shouted. As soon as it saw an opening, the machine raised its fist to smash Apricot to mush. Apricot let out a scream as the fist descended, diving directly into a purple orb held by the mechanical soldier. She slashes it directly. In a flash, the machine falls forward, smashing its fist into the pavement as its aura bursts. The whole thing collapsed. A cloud of insects fell over her. Apricot panted looked up at the body hanging above her still strapped into the suit. His dead eyes are looking at her, but not at her. A pool of blood dripped from his limp, open mouth.

A liquid flowed from Shiori’s mouth onto the ground as he stands up wheezing and coughing. “Well, it didn’t kill me.” He laughed sheepishly. He roared and writhes in pain, “Damn it. That hurts. Looks like you survived as well.” He grunted, letting out another cough. After stepping out of the machine, Apricot nodded her head. “I’d appreciate your assistance.”

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 17

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 17

Something Wicked

“Looks used.” said a man with a shaved head as he inspects a cybernetic arm augmentation. He pointed to a dent in the upper bicep.  “See that, wear man, tanje you ain’t getting much for this. Where do you get it anyway?”

Cortez rests his back against the ghost of a brick wall where once stood a building. “Guy, owed me money. Did not ask him where he got it. Figured it would be worth more than what he owed. I don’t want gravy for it, man, I am looking for a gun, freelance you know?”

“A gun?” he said stroking his chin. “Yeah, yeah, I got a gun that I might be willing to trade for the chips. Okay, tell ya what, I got a little tiddler. It has seen action, might even be wanted. It still got a serial, no chip though. So it will work.”

Taking a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, Cortez said, “Let’s see.”. He pulled out a single stick with his lips.

The guy gets up off a rusty barrel he sat on. Popping the lid off, he pulled out a compact looking rifle. “What you think?” He tossed the gun to Cortez. Holding the weapon, Cortez looked down at its sights. “You like?”

He flipped it a few times, testing the weight of the weapon. “You give me four clips and it is a deal.”

“Four clips, fine but only two loaded.” the man said peering down his sunglasses. Cortez draws a lighter and lit his cigarette, then took solid inhale. He looked down at the ground and saw the rocks vibrating. The man with the glasses jumps back hiding behind his little rusty barrel. “Holy shit, look at that.”

Cortez looked over his shoulder toward a caravan of black cargo trucks storming down a ruined time-scarred road. “Shit, those look like government trucks. What the hell are they doing over here?” Cortez exclaimed stepping away from the wall. “Hey duster, give me my clips, so I can get lost.”

“Yeah, shit, I am not staying here either.” the man said as he rustles through the barrel. The trucks stop about fifty yards from Cortez in a circular clearing that is generally considered the center of the ruined neighborhood. As they opened their backs, Cortez watched. Many armored soldiers emerged with their guns drawn. “Bishop caps.” Cortez whispered.

The man pulled out of the barrel with the clips in hand. “Look take your shit. I am gone.” He dropped five clips at Cortez’s feet. Cortez spat a puff of air as he retrieved the clips off the ground. “Bonus.”

The strange man popped the barrel’s lid back on. As he scurried off, Cortez did not pay much attention to him. Instead, he gazed at the soldiers. One of the armored units walked up to a local man, probably a grifter, and pointed his rifle at his chest. The man froze, likely in fear.

“Is this a raid?” Cortez asked himself. A gunshot answered him. With their high-powered rifle, they kill the man. “Damn!” Cortez croaked. He moved away from the soldiers hiding under cover. The rest of the locals scurry like roaches caught in the light of the surrounding gunshots. People screamed in terror and cried out in pain as the soldiers shot them down.

As Cortez kept low, he made his way through the crumbling buildings until he reached the safety of an alley. He looked back at the soldiers prowling the streets, setting down black boxes. “What the hell are they doing?” Looking around, Cortez noticed a fire escape on the other side of the alley. “There we go, a little higher up and I might be able to get a better view.”

There is a broken window about halfway up the fire escape which allowed access to the abandoned building. He entered the building with his new gun strapped to his side. It is now a hollowed out memory of what it once was. The halls were strewn with empty cans and trash. Perhaps drug addicts lived here, as well as homeless people. They were all cut from the same cloth, however, Cortez thought. Taking his gun, he made it to the end of the hall where a large window offered a better view of the collapsed part of town. Dust was blown off the streets by men in hazard suits equipped with blowers. As the dirt was removed from the center, a large symbol appeared. He also observed two black cruisers approaching. At an angle, they stopped a short distance away. The doors opened, and people in formal attire stepped out. “What is this?”

“You don’t say. Quite interesting.” Shiori commented over the receiver of his phone. “We can’t allow that, now, can we?” Shiori said.

Apricot’s teeth sunk deeply into the bun of a Bingo Burger. The messy bite dripped down her cheeks. Bonni sat next to Apricot dipping her chicken nugget into mayo teriyaki sauce as she always did. “I’m glad we could get together.” Machi grinned. “Exams have been stressful. I really needed a day to just take a break.”

“It’s been too long.” Solenne said as she placed the straw of her soft drink in her mouth. As she sipped her cool soda, she lets out a satisfied “Ahhh, got to love coke on a hot summer day.”

Bonni moaned in childish frustration as her face darkens. “I really wish I could. Too many sugars for me.”

“Drink diet.” Machi said.

“And get cancer!” Bonni yelled, gesturing with her hands.

Machi took a bite from her burger, rolling her eyes.  “I agree, it is nice.” Apricot said, her voice warm with emotion. “I have been so busy with work and school, I have hardly any time to relax anymore.”

“It’s part of growing up.” Bonni said. “When we were all students in primary school, it was like we had all the time in the world.  We just didn’t know it then.”

Solenne nodded quietly. Machi nearly spat out her food at Bonni’s remark, but swallowed it right away. “That is pretty deep coming from you.”

“I know you think I am dumb Machi, but I can be smart sometimes too. I possess the heart of a dreamer and a deep thinker.” Bonni grinned. “I don’t want to be one of those dumb celebrities with all their opinions. I rather just tell the world of brilliant philosophical statements.”

Machi snickered, “And there is the Bonni I know.”

The retort must have struck deep as Bonni scowled. “What do you mean by that?”

Apricot smiled as she watched the two tangle with each other, her gaze glinting at Solenne who shared the same look as she. Thinking deeply, her troubles weighed heavily on her mind. She had entered a world few people knew about. Solenne’s story is different from her own, but they both have the same element of danger and terror. Solenne faces overseas wars and criminals.  For herself monsters and royal societies. Still, she wondered what Solenne thought of her. Their last meeting had not gone well. She was sure Solenne had some misgivings about her. Despite this, she never divulged her suspicions.

Looking toward the road, she caught sight of a white car and her thoughts were interrupted. As she watched the white car pull into a space across the street, she said, “That can’t be. What would he be doing on this side of town? There is no way that it is Shiori.” Apricot thought.

As the door swings open and those familiar dress cloths walk out of the car. Machi whispered “Do you see that! Holy shit, I think that is Shiori Kinjo.”

With wide eyes, Bonni swiveled her head around and stared at him with a praising look as he slid his fingers back through his blond hair. “I think so,” Bonni whispered back to the group. Look at Shiori’s dress.” Shiori’s cornflower blue and white suit was definitely not cheap. As always, he dressed in the most expensive clothing possible. As vehicles leave the road, a noble and cocky Shiori made his way toward them. Although her heart nearly fluttered, Apricot quickly grew resentful of that stride. The group is absolutely smitten with him.  To her, he was just Shiori.

“He is coming over here!” Bonni gasped.

A pair of tea-colored sunglasses are lowered by Solenne. “I wouldn’t expect a noble to eat at Bingo Burgers.” she chuckled, clearly not star struck like the other girls. Then again she had eyes only for Arjun.

He looked down at the group with a trademark smile and said “Miss Apricot, what a strange coincidence to meet you here. I was thinking about you just now.” All the other girls looked at Apricot, mouths agape, as he said this.

Apricot, flushed with embarrassment, murmured, “Hello Shiori.” She replied sheepishly. “I ah, why are you here? This does not seem like the kind of place you would eat.”

“Well, of course,” Shiori said chuckling. “The simple hotdog is sometimes a delicacy when you eat filet mignon every night.” Shiori glanced at the girls staring at him. Putting his hand on Bonni’s shoulder, he asked, “Can you make a little bit of room for me?” Bonni quickly stepped over as Shiori sat down next to the girls. “Apricot, please introduce me to your friends.”

Apricot shrugged her shoulders. “This is Bonni Willox,” Apricot pointed to Bonni. “That’s Machi and Officer Solenne.”

“Officer Solenne.” Solenne laughed. “Is that how you see me?” she asked, rolling her eyes.

“Ah, great, a member of the regular police, I suppose. According to your fairness, I would not expect you to be placed with the brutes in the SDP.” Solenne blushed slightly, he got her too, Apricot shook her head.

“Yes, that would be correct. Although I hope to work for the SDP as a dispatcher.” Solenne commented.

“So what do you girls do when you’re not gracing this place with your beauty?” Apricot rolls her eyes. The only person that could get away with being so corny would be a noble like Shiori. If it was not for his good looks and pedigree her friends would be laughing.

“I work in a cafe but I have aspirations to be an actor.” Bonni said.

“An actor. Well, I look forward to seeing you on the silver screen.” Shiori said.

His gaze directed itself to Machi, “And you my dear?”

“I am an engineer.” Machi chirped hiding behind her hands. Her index finger pressing her fogging glasses up to her face. “Well, a student engineer.”

Shiori whites again: “Wow, smart girl. You all seem like a wonderful group of ladies.”

“You never told us, you knew Prince Kinjo Apricot.” Solenne said squinting her eyes behind her glasses.

“I, I ah,” Apricot said, trying to think of at least one explanation that might be acceptable to her friends.

Shiori responds immediately.  “I know I’m a little to blame for that. You see, I hired Apricot some time ago.” Apricot felt a lump in her throat grow.

“He will not tell them everything is he?” screamed Apricot in her head.

“My assistant Apricot has been with me for several months now. Her reporting skills have surprised me. In order to start a special venture, I needed some fresh blood. I asked her to help with the design of my new publication. It was a little secret. If you would be so kind as not to tell anyone, I would truly appreciate it.”

“Of course!course!course! Bonni grabbed Shiori’s arm and hugged it tightly. “We would never dream of it.” Shiori tilts his head for a moment. Machi sheepishly nods.

“Speaking of which, a situation has come up and I need your assistance, Miss Apricot.” Shiori said.

Apricots scowled. “I suppose you want me to come with you now?”

Shiori nodded. “Mmmmmmm, it was a pleasure meeting all of you. Sorry to have to leave so quickly. But it is a pressing matter that I must attend to. We will have to do it again.”

Machi shook her head. “No, it’s ok.” Her voice sounded much more feminine than usual.

Apricot glanced back at the group as she got up to leave. As Solenne’s piercing gaze suggested, Shiori immediately regretted this chance meeting. Even if she hadn’t already established Solenne’s inquisitive nature, it’s evident now. While Shiori ushered the girl into the passenger seat, she glanced back at the girls longing to return, knowing full well that Shiori picking her up was bad news.

From behind, a male voice said, “Hey sweet cheeks.” Apricot glances back to see Cortez kicking back with his foot on her seat.

Shiori groaned. “Like a dog,” Shiori sacked him in the leg. “Down! I don’t suppose you have the money to reupholster my leather.” Cortez rolled his eyes and put his feet back on the floor. He spread his legs as he took up the majority of the back seat.

“What is going on?” Shiori closed the door and drove away from Bingo Burgers.

Cortez sighed shaking his head. “You two took too long. I was getting boarded back here all by myself.”

Apricot looked back at Cortez grimacing. “Why doesn’t anyone answer me?”

Shoiri said as he held the wheel tightly in his hand, “Cortez, fill her in, please.”

“He is driving,” Apricot thought to herself. 

She was scared by this. Shiori rarely exhibited tension, or even if he did, he did not show it. He is driving and not letting the AI do it for him, which suggests that there is something wrong. Cortez spat out a puff of air as her gaze fell back on him.

“Over in my part of town, something very big is happening. Apparently, some people are preparing for a huge burning ritual. There’s no doubt it’s the Okabe family because they got private soldiers and were dressed like ol’ suity boys. The problem is that the spot they chose is “underground,” the haunt of my old gangs. It’s a junkyard. Ruined buildings everywhere. This is part of the ruined city. We never paid much attention to it, but there is a huge circle that we always joked was a witch’s porthole. I suppose it’s not a joke anymore.” Cortez leaned back in his seat and looked out the window.

Apricot shook her head. “So what are we going to do?”

“Stop it.” Shiori said firmly.


“I don’t know… interrupt the ritual.” Shiori growled.

“Won’t that make us fugitives?” Apricot gasped.

“What else are we supposed to do? I got eyes on Lady Kyo right now… she is not attedance from what I can tell. That disturbs me even more.” Shiori said as he pushed hard on the peddle.

“Shiori, you’re speeding.” Apricot softly said touching his arm.

“I’m pretty sure Shiori knows more than he’s telling us, Apricot.” Cortez grunted. Apricot glanced back at Cortez who is holding a compact submachinegun. As they rush towards the ruined city, she sat quietly.

The ruins of the old city are illuminated by hundreds of lanterns. The night sky cast a warm orange glow around the large circle as several people chant. In one hand was an old weathered book held by a man wearing a white dress shirt with suspenders and black slacks. “We will avenge our fallen fathers. If Lady Kyo thinks we will hand her the keys to the new world, she is starkly mistaken.” The dust still resting on the ground swirled in ghostly winds. Flames of green dance in the supernatural storm as the clothing of the ritualists are blown.

“So you have heard me!”, said the man. Shiori and Apricot are standing on the edge of a collapsed building. In the process of climbing up the fallen wall, Cortez popped his head out of the window.

“Awaken!” the man with the book called out. The man raised his white gloved hand dramatically. Apricot can discern a star embroidered on the back of a man’s hand. He pointed his middle and index fingers toward the sky as a bolt of lightning struck in the middle of the stone circle. The winds grew stronger, pushing him back with their force.

Ritualists struggled to remain steadfast against the winds. A man stumbled, and his black slacks catch fire immediately. His screams of horror escaped his mouth as the flames engulfed him. Then he splattered like a grape when he fell to the ground. His remains colliding with another person, who blows to pieces without a word.

Shiori watched Cortez as he looked down at the site. The Cortez tugged at the black leather strap of his gun. “I guess you’re not going to do anything.” he said.

Shiori firmly slapped the gun down from Cortez’s arm. “We’re too late,” he said. “There is no stopping it now.”

“To hell with that! I am going to shoot them!” Cortez gritted as he pulled the gun from Shiori’s arm. But before he could aim, he was yanked backwards by Apricot. “Shit!” he shouted.

This caused a ritualist to glance up, their clothes igniting and their flesh turning to a shadow in the blaze. In addition to the ritualist’s shadows, others also form around the ring of fire, encircling the flames. “He’s right, we can’t take the risk.” The shadows took a variety of forms but their black silhouettes become more pronounced as the event continues. Their voices grow deeper, stronger, and more powerful as they chant with the others. “What is happening?” Apricot whispered.

Gritting his teeth, Shiori stared at the event. “Not sure. Nevertheless, it is a seal.” The fires grew hotter, pushing hard enough to drive the ritualists away. Even the caller leading the ritual is pushed by the growing force. “Ahhhh!” he writhed as his cheeks bled, his blood streaming in sloppy streams.

As ghostly spirits flew about in a smog-like haze, blue waves of light rose from the circle. Floating about the fires, their faces are twisted and turned into skeletal shapes. As though it were made of disturbed waters, the ring’s center ripples. Rising from inky blackness was a massive wad of bodies curled into each other. Their decomposing forms store in all directions. They appeared saturated in a blood-red gel. Apricot’s stomach twitched. She smelled rotten rice as she looked at the corpses.  

Apart from one standing caller, all the other ritualists collapsed at the sight. Their entrails flapping in the wind like tassels. He stopped an even stronger blast of wind by raising his hand in front of him. “Why don’t you submit to me?!” He screamed.

“We are the dead of this city. It is the blood in your veins which buries us here. We were the sacrifice that brought your family power. Now you are trying to exploit us again. Let us slumber below the city. Let us rest.” A thousand voices of men, women, and children cried out.

“I offer you revenge. I’ll release you. Use that opportunity to destroy the Okabe family! Ruin this retched city! Kill Lady Kyo! Do not deny me!” the man yelled. “My vengeance is yours to have! Avenge my father, Lord Heigia, and I give you this! A time to feast upon those who have soiled you, who have brought this upon you.”

“It was you who brought us all here, on a leash,” the wad of corpses replied. “Let us slumber! In peace!” The flames intensified, the faces of the dead flickering away just as quickly as they appeared.

Apricot’s heart aches from the terror. She placed her hand on her chest to feel it pound. “How interesting.” Apricot glanced at Shiori, whose eyes are full of wonder. Shiori’s jaw is squared with determination. He was wearing a new mask, as though he was more curious than upset about the situation.

Cortez must have noticed it too, as he replied, “The hell is interesting about this! Let’s stop it before it’s too late.”

“You don’t even understand.” Shiori whispered. “You have no clue what has just occurred.”

“No, so fill me in?” Cortez growled.

All the while, the man pleaded with the abomination. “Those are the spirits who were sacrificed to create this city.”

Apricot was reminded of Chino’s story. “Are these really the people who died in the Crisis?”

Shiori softly replied, “Mhmmm.” She had not meant to speak and didn’t even realize she had.  

“Who is that?” Cortez asked, pointing ahead. Apricot saw a person running down the road to the other side of the circle in a cloak. Shiori stood up to get a better view. It’s clear the man performing the ritual noticed the stranger as his eyes grew so wide he nearly fell over.

“Violator!” the ritualist roared. Outside the circle, the person slammed their hand into the ground. Embers of light rippled surrounding the ring before Shiori and the ritualist screamed, “NO!” There was a blinding light emanating from the center of the ring as Shiori grabbed Apricot and Cortez, pulling them flat against the building floor.

Everything rumbles with a loud boom. Apricot’s ears rung as though she just heard a bomb go off when the vibration rattled her to the bone. Shiori was pulling Apricot off the ground and screaming something but it’s muffled after the light faded out. Cortez also looked dazed like a zombie.

With his rod stabbed into the brick, Shiori raised the rod up in the air, the rings rattling with a strange force. Stabilizing himself, he held her arm. He said, “Get up! Get up! We got to run!” Apricot heard him roar as he pulled her away from the ground. “Get up!”

Flames of purple engulf Apricot’s vision. The radiance engulfs her entire body. She feels Shiori take a step back away from her. Nodding her head to Shiori, she stumbles forward. Turning away from her, he runs down the building’s side. Apricot is close behind him. She looks back to see Cortez staring at the beam shining from the circle from above as she remembers him. “Cortez!” She screams out. Due to the rumbling sounds and paranormal screams, her voice did not carry over the perpetual thunder.

Running up the side of the building she grabbed onto Cortez’s arm. “Leave him!” Shiori shouted. Apricot yanked on his arm, pulling Cortez along with her. As soon as Cortez comes to his senses, he starts running down the building closely behind Apricot.

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 16

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

Chapter 16

The Swarm In The Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Affairs, what affaires?” Shoiri asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You busy tonight?” Shiori asked.

“You asking for a date?” Apricot snickered.

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

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

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

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

“Was that Sato?” Jasper asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Screw you, man.” Cortez retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to leave now,” Shiori said.

Apricot looked around. “Where is Cortez?”

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

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

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

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 15

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 15

Street Samurai

While running through the busy streets, Akagi dodged and weaved through pedestrians. Approaching the twin doors of the Spook House, he grasped their handles with both hands. Despite his tugging, the doors won’t budge. He yelled “Shiori!” at the door. From the wooden ornations surrounding the glass, he noticed Shiori’s office light is on. “He’s in there,” he said. Before kicking the door, he frowned. “He must hear me, too. You jerk.” Akagi looked to the alleyway. “I’ll show him.”

Keeping an eye out for other people, Akagi scanned the crowded streets. When the coast was clear, he slipped down the alley with his computer bag in hand. Approaching the back door, he checked the digital lock. “Now let’s see,” Akagi said as he placed his hand on the keypad. Using his palm, he pressed on each key. An access denied message appeared on the LCD. After a second press, the system displayed the same message. “Come on.” He repeated it again, but this time access denied remains on the screen. After removing his hand, he smiled smugly and backed away.

Eventually, the door opens, revealing Shiori painted with a down-turned face. “What do you want, little brat?” growled Shiori as the alarm blares.

Akagi laughed happily. “I knew the alarm would go off.”

In the end, Shiori pushed Akagi against the wall. He yelled, “You little punk, I’m busy.”

“Nah,” Akagi replied, pulling his computer out of his bag. Shiori leaned over Akagi. “You’ll drop it when I show you what I have.”

“We’ll see,” he growled.

Akagi works the keyboard with his magic hands while sitting at Shiori’s desk, his laptop open. Shiori paces the floor with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “When was the last time you saw Mitsura Okabe?”

Shiori frowned in displeasure. “A couple of days ago,” he recalled, unamused. “Why? You got some compromising pictures of him or something?”

“It was something like that. I received a communication from the inner Okabe family council.” Shiori glances at Akagi, working on his laptop, “I got into their D-Link servers like you asked.” This information raises his eyebrows. “That wasn’t Mitsura you saw the other day, even though you might have thought you did. You saw a digital construct of him.”

Shiori stopped pacing and asked, “What? Are you referring to holograms? He sick or something?”

“Nah, fraid not, he croaked. Half of the council is dead, from what I can tell.” Akagi turned his laptop so Shiori could view the open letters he collected. As Shiori adjusted the screen, his eyes were filled with fascination. “Good work?”

As he continued to read, he smiled as he said, “Damn good work! Akagi, do you realize what we have proof of? This completely changes everything.”

Despite his smirk, Akagi continued. “Mmmhm, the only thing I can’t figure out who’s behind all of this. I keep hearing someone referred to as the high priestess or the empress. The high priestess died about a year ago. Who is this new empress?”

When Shiori became overly interested in something, Akagi never liked the look he got. It reminded him of a vicious wolf looking at its prey. Behind that gaze, there was something sinister, but he was also glad to let it out. “How about a game? My little prodigy, this will be fun. Let’s get this “empress” out to the public.”

Shiori peered out of the window of his high-rise apartment. As he observed the reflection of his television, a smile appeared on his face. He watched a live news broadcast. There are several ministers and officials gathered around a podium where Mitsura will speak. The morning sun reflects off the towers, blocking the beams. He takes a deep breath and his face calms.

Taking his place in front of the crowd, Mitsura bent the microphone closer to his mouth and spoke. Using hand gestures, Mitsura explained Okabe’s hopes for the future. After a few minutes, it happens. Seeing the sun glint in his eyes, Shiori grinned. Mitsura has disappeared, and the hologram has been turned off in front of everyone. The speech continues. Suddenly, the news station shuts down. Anchors immediately try to explain away the situation, their faces covered in horror. A whisper comes from Shiori. He said, “I win.”

Toward a crystal blue sky rose the city of Blue Ash, a city of shining silver towers. While Solenne rode her white and blue police tricoa, the gleaming sun lights the streets with its easy traffic. As she passed each vehicle, she glanced over her digital HUD, dressed in her uniform.

“Another relaxed morning.” Solenne thought to herself. An overpass’s shadow covered her in a chill while she rode under it. The ramp opened to reveal a view of the city as she approached the large police station in Blue Ash City. The regular police and the special defense police are both housed in the same building. The front two-thirds are the property of the regular police, while the rear is exclusively the SDP’s.

A gentleman at the entrance greeted her with a warm smile, “Good morning, Miss Solenne.”

Solenne bowed. “Morning Walter. You look rather rosy.”

A light blush covered his bubbly nose. “Well, it’s always a bright day when I see you.”

Solenne smiled as she walked through the automatic glass doors. The police station’s interior resembled a hospital. The walls are a sterile white color that doesn’t belong. As she continued down the hall toward her office, she gave subtle greetings to other officers along the way. After entering her office, she sat at her desk and looked over her work tray full of papers. “So much for an easy morning,” Solenne complained.

She immediately began her work by typing the usual daily reports. “Hey, you got it too.” said a young man. Solenne glanced over to see a brown-haired man with a toothy grin hanging on her office door. “I got it bad too this morning. Apparently, there was a lot of activity on the south side of town. Lots of missing persons. Not to mention that whole thing with Mitsura Okabe being missing.”

Solenne’s heart immediately skipped a beat at hearing the news. “Mitsura is missing!?”

“Apparently, they have been using a hologram for him speaking. Just got released this morning. No one knows what the hell is going on. The media department is going absolutely nuts trying to handle the situation. It’s going to be a long day.” the man said, taking a swig of coffee.

“Seems like the workload doesn’t get any easier.” Solonne moaned.

“It’s damn near a crisis.” the guy said before looking at the ground. “Heh, well, I will let you get to it.”

“Seeya Joji.” Solenne looked at her keyboard, releasing a deep breath.

A few hours later, Solenne had a stack of papers to file. She shuffled them into a large binder. Opening the binder, she reached for the first page. After lifting a stamp from its well, she pressed it onto the page. It left a red mark that reads SDP Class 7 when she removed the wooden rectangle. As she walked down the long hall, she found herself in a filing room lined with several large computers. With her badge in hand, she placed the stack of papers on top of one of the large white machines. She drew her badge from her side, placing it onto a small glass screen. The machine beeps, allowing her access.

She hastily scanned each page, one after the other. Solenne was about halfway through the stack when she grabbed the keyboard and begins searching the files. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked to see if anyone was watching her. Once she considered herself in the clear, she added a set of files to her print load, then returned to scanning the rest of the documents as if everything was ordinary.

“You could actually get them,” Apricot exclaimed with a huge grin on her face. Solenne hands the folder over sheepishly.

“I feel so dirty.” Solenne groaned.

Apricot shook her head. “Don’t worry.” She flipped through the pages in the manilla folder”It’s not like these aren’t publicly available. It would just have taken me forever to get my hands on all this info.”

Solenne tilted her head. “It really was nothing, right? Why are you writing about the ruling family? Did you know about Mitsura’s disappearance?”

“No, that kind of came as a shock to me. However, the Okabe family has interested me for a long time. They have been here since the feudal era. It is not often we preserve a rich history such as theirs.” Still eyeing the files, Apricot stumbled upon a photo of a person torn to pieces. Splintered and stretched flesh was visible on the stretched organs. Her eyes grow wide as she glances up to see Solenne’s stern eyes.

Solenne frowned. “That, you know what that is a picture of?” Apricot turned, feeling her face fall as she nodded. “That’s the detective you asked me for information on. Sadly, his file was tampered with, but here is a picture of his autopsy. There was no way to reconstruct the body,” she sighs. “According to reports, it hit the department hard. It was before my time, but I can’t imagine if someone I worked with turned up like that.”

“What did the report say happened to Detective Long?” Apricot could feel a lump in her throat forming as the words left her tongue.

“You got all of it in that file.” Solenne’s lips purse into a down-turned frown. “What have you got yourself involved in, Apricot? You have been acting funny lately. I don’t like this. This is not a matter of investigation. Fess up.” Apricot felt her heart tighten. The firm fingers of Solenne’s hand rubbed against Apricot’s shoulder. “I am worried about that neural agent you were exposed to.”

She felt her face scrunch as the words rang empty in her mind. “Neural agent?” she retorted.

“How can you forget? You were ground zero, the market attack!” Solenne barked. “See, this is what I am worried about. It’s not normal Apricot.”  As Solenne’s eyes winced, tears flow down her cheeks. “I am worried enough about Arjun. I don’t need this from you either. Tell me what is happening to you, Apricot.”

Without any thought, Apricot replied, “I am just doing my job, Solenne.” The words felt cold, colder than usual. They clearly stung as Solenne removes her hand turning away from Apricot.

“Whatever hun, just get some help or figure stuff out,” Solenne said as she continued walking towards the alleyway. Apricot wanted to reach out to her, but her body was not willing. Solenne stopped and without even a glance said, “I don’t want to know why you needed those files and don’t tell me. This is the last time I help you, though.” The clicking of her heels on the pavement grows more distant as Apricot watched her leave.

“Why are you sulking?” Shiori asked, looking at Apricot across the bar as she walked into the Spook House. She threw the file down in front of Shiori and Cortez, who were seated on stools at the bar. Cortez raised his beer glass to his lips and took a sip. “Well, you pulled through after all.” Shiori laughed. “That is my girl.”

As Apricot sat on the stool next to Cortez, she rested her arms on the counter. “So, you two are friends?”

“Hardly,” Cortez said. “I’m just here for this meeting. Think of it as a favor for helping me out. I hear you had yourself a good run with a phantom.”

Apricot shrugged. “Fifth one this week. Shiori, I really need a day off.”

“We’ll see.” Shiori grabbed the file and quickly parses it. “I see you have the locations I needed,” Shiori said. “Hopefully, from here I will find some of their lesser-known shrines. If they don’t turn up anything, I’m lost. Cortez boy filled me in on your background. Oh, and I didn’t find your monster. It must lurk deep within the depths of that place. Under the city, licking his wounds.” Shiori placed the folder on the table and brought his face close to Apricot’s. “Dear, you never answered me. What’s up with your long face?”

“Shut up Shiori.” she groaned, turning her back against the bar. “You just let me worry about my own problems.”

“So, what do we do now?” Cortez asked.

Shiori smirked as he raised his eyes. “We don’t do anything. After looking through these, I will make a shortlist of places to explore, and then we will arrange to investigate these places. For now, the two of you, don’t be suspicious. Carry on about your lives as if nothing is happening.”

“Tch,” Cortez chuckled. “Right, as if nothing is happening. I got some ghost clown from who knows where telling me the world is going to end if we don’t stop it. My boss has turned into a damn beast. Sounds perfectly normal to me. The gang is probably after me if there is anyone left. Some demon spawns from hell are crawling all around while everyone seems to be oblivious and the nobles are in on it too. Yeah, real damn normal Shiori.”

Shiori shakes his head. “The “Okabe” nobles are in on it.”

“Hell, what’s the difference? They’re the only nobles who matter here, anyway.  The damn province is named after them.”

Apricot laid her head down on her arms. “Taking a rest sounds good. Seems like we’ve been doing a lot of getting nowhere. I mean, how many of them have we killed? There is no end to them.”

“For now, but if I am right, and that Claw Fingers was right, we are about to turn the tide in this little war of ours.” Shiori placed a glass next to Apricot. “Here, have a drink and get yourself home for some rest. Cortez, do yourself a favor and get yourself some, too. I think both of you could use it.”

Apricot was engulfed in the smell of the city. It had a sulfurous smell mixed with sweat. Togashi leaned behind the bar, a shining glass in his hands, as she approached from the rainy front doors with a smirk. “So the investigations were fruitless?” Togashi asked. Apricot scratched her head as she slumped onto the bar, her mind filled with frustration. “Eh, we have the saying in our home country. Rain comes when rain comes. A path opens eventually.” Apricot nodded, not particularly interested in hearing Togashi’s little sayings at the moment.

The truth was the group had been investigating the Okabe family for weeks now and still no clear plans have been uncovered. Their tracks are almost completely hidden as if they had no involvement whatsoever. As Apricot contemplated this, she wondered if they were being sent on a rouse for nefarious purposes. There were still plenty of monstrous phantoms to contend with within the city. Beyond Shiori uncovering some sort of internal overthrow, there is absolutely nothing to base conclusions on. But perhaps that is a blessing.

Resting her weary head on the redwood bar, she glanced over to Cortez, who lay on a red leather couch, face tucked down, eyes closed. “How long has he been here?”

Togashi raised his head, glancing in Cortez’s direction. “All day. Sleeping, I think. Is he homeless?“

“No.“ Apricot said. At least she didn’t think so, but then again, she hadn’t thought of that before. In the aftermath of Cortez’s encounter with Genova, he seems to have turned a new leaf. However, the group did not seem to trust him. Although he tolerated Shiori for the most part. There were several occasions when he accompanied the group. Additionally, she had gained the affection of Sumai and the rest of the group, but that is a story for another day. “Hey! Togashi, grab me a drink.”

“Drink, you? That’s new,” Togashi remarked with a puzzled face.

A weathered groan escaped Apricot. She thought of the many ways she could respond to that line of questioning. Some sassy quip. Maybe she wanted to comment on his lack of reading a situation. She ultimately decided against it. If anything, she knew when her own nerves were stretched. She did not need to add to the tension. “Well, a lot has been changing lately.”

The twin doors to the back room opened as Shiori walked out. His eyes were drawn to Apricot immediately. His face lit up with a smile. “Oh, you arrived. I thought I heard you.” Shiori chirped.”Well, did the shrine turn up anything?”

“We are in the dark, Shiori.” Apricot sighed. Search for what seemed like endless shrines. Places of worship, altars and old stone statues, trees of strange shapes, and people of odd appearance. Nothing.

“Could be worse,” Cortez snorted while he arose from his slumber, stretching with a long yawn. Shiori made his way over to the back of the bar next to Togashi. “We could have normal lives with nothing to do.” Apricot rolled her eyes at the constant sarcasm. It grated on her, but then again she was guilty of it too. It seemed stress brought that out, like scraping to find a touch of humor just to lighten things up, even if the sarcasm was its most desperate form.

“Where are Sumai and Junko?” Shiori asked.

Togashi grabbed a bottle of amber liquid and poured a shot. “Sumai and Junko are out hunting,” he replied, handing over the drink to Apricot. “Checking out the lake monster rumor.” Apricot drank from the glass, taking a quick swig. Upon tasting the substance in her mouth, her face turned bitter. Her mouth opened as she swallowed and allowed some air to enter to stop the burning sensation. The glare Shiori gave Togishi could kill a man. “I gave her something light. It’s floral honey bourbon,” he replied quickly.

With a boom, the entrance doors slammed open, startling everyone in the room. As the door opened, a man in vintage warrior clothes entered the room. The way he walked reflected a seriousness of purpose in his strides – like that of a soldier, perhaps. “You two better get out of the way,” Shiori told Apricot as she arose from her seat alongside Cortez. From the corner of her eye, she saw Togashi draw a pistol, cocking it with a click.

Toward the back of the room, Apricot and Cortez made their way. Shiori’s steps seemed to reverberate throughout the room, amidst the dull chatter of unaware clients. With a booming voice, the stranger shouted, “May I have everyone’s attention!” The chatter dulled for the strange old soldier. He turned to Shiori, who had stepped in front of the bar. Apricot imagined the man smirking behind the black mask as he said, “Master Kinjo, I have a message from our lady Kyo.” As the man hollered “Au Ra-voir,” Shiori grabbed a metal baking sheet from the counter to shield his chest and stomach as two black submachine guns rose from the soldier’s side. In an instant, they scream peppering the cast iron plate. Everyone in the building scrambles for any exit they can find.

As Shiori rolled over the counter, he released the pan and took cover. “Why are you running?” he asked. The soldier marched closer, both guns hanging from tethered cables. The man cackled, “Accept your fate!”.

“Run Shiori,” Togashi ordered as he fired another barrage of bullets. The soldier danced as he dodged bullets with impossible movements. Apricot was in awe as she watched the man move. The panic surrounding her slowed to a standstill. He is beautiful, like something from a movie. In spite of this, he flicked his wrists and retrieved two metallic tubes from within his sleeves as reality sinks in. His toss toward the counter launched the two tubes into the air. One fluid motion practiced hundreds of thousands of times before. Now set forth into action. From behind the counter, Togashi grabbed Shiori and propelled him away from the twin objects. As Shiori was pushed beyond the bar, he stopped next to a table. He broke the leg off with a kick as he shielded himself behind the table. The two objects bounce and land about a foot from Togashi. The erupting power caused the counter to shatter into a thousand shards as he tumbles over the bar.

“You have interfered in the Okabe family’s affairs for the last time. Your punishment is death.” The man said again, grabbing a gun from his side and firing again at the table. Shiori rolls out of the way and fires with a thick pistol at the man.

“What the hell! Apricot move!” Cortez growled, grasping her arm. A firm, sudden tug jarred her out of her trance. “We have to go!” Cortez shouted, almost dragging Apricot with him. Watching Togashi fire a few shots at the man, she sees the bullets miss every time. But that is impossible. Apricot then notices that the bullets are fleeing from him. Togashi fires another round of bullets, and it hits the table next to him. While watching, Apricot concludes that the bullets arc away from him. The assassin lept from the balcony to the ground below. “Foolish Kinjo stray!” the man exclaimed before opening fire again. Shiori misses being hit by the volley as he moves back behind the smoking counter.

Apricot and Cortez hide behind an ornate wooden pillar. “Cortez, take action!” Apricot commanded.

Cortez shook his head. “That’s an assassin. I hear they’re specially designed for such things. Ta hell if I’m going to get killed. If we leave him alone, we might make it out of here alive.” Suddenly, the anti-fire system turned on and the building is awash in a steady stream of water.

“Lady Kyo is crazy. What the hell is she up to? A war!” Shiori yelled at Togashi.

Among the black iron cafe tables, Togashi hides from view. “Sir, it is wise to run.” A few bullets bounced off the table, leaving dents.

Shiori’s back is lit by a flash behind the wall, and Apricot gasped. The image of the cloaked troopers at the bank comes to mind. “Shiori behind you!” Before he could turn from the ruins of the counter, static grabbed his throat.

“Your execution is now!” The assassin declared, raking his knife across Shiori’s neck.

“Master Kinjo!” Togashi cried as he rose from his feet.

Shiori grabbed the attacker’s arms and threw him on top of the countertop, hanging him. A spring-loaded blade was released from Shiori’s boot and he kicked the soldier in the head. The dagger sank deep into his body. He repeatedly ripped chunks out of his head, leaving a sickening squelch and crack behind. After looking down, Shiori realizes his foot is half in his head; his brain is nothing more than a lump of meat.

“Shiori!” Apricot cried as she ran across the debris-smeared floor to him. As he looked at Apricot with eyes like a wild beast, he raised a hand to his bleeding throat. She had never seen a look like that from him before. It wasn’t human. “Are you alright?” she screamed. Shiori just grinned as he looked back at the man.

“He thought he had me. Probably died thinking it, too.” He glanced up from the bloodied corpse. “Funny thing. I got dermal sheathing in my neck,” He remarked, poking the hole with his finger to reveal metal plating. “My father insisted,” he snickered nervously. “I thought it was a touch over the top. Guess I was damn wrong about that.”

Cortez snorted. “You had trouble there.”

“When they’re not allergic to silver… I don’t fare so well in the fighting department.” He turned his head as he walked past Apricot and Cortez towards the broken glass bottles. “Well, I got to get myself patched up and then I got some cleaning to do. Would you two care to show yourselves out? Togashi, can you take me to the black clinic?”

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 14

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 14

Tooth And Bone

A young blonde was held in the arms of two rough men as she screamed and struggled. A fine layer of dust still clung to the abandoned warehouse, which smelled of dried chemicals. As she kicked her heels against the cement floor, the men drag her body toward a shadowy figure. They knocked the wind out of her after being thrown to the ground. Slowly, she pressed her knees as her runny mascara gaze shifted to a pair of dark boots and a man in jeans. With black-rimmed sunglasses covering his eyes, his dreadlocks concealed his face. A slow grin revealed toothy fangs like those of a wild animal. Taking off his black leather jacket, he revealed his bulging muscles. As he howled, they pulsed and expanded. The girl shrieked, seeing the man transform before her eyes. She tries to get away from his giant hand but fails as he gripped both of her legs with one hand. The monstrous man dwarfed the two men while he lifted the girl off the ground. “Help! “Please!” she cried, trying to free herself from his grip.

In horror, one man kept his eyes on the concrete floor, and said, “I can’t watch this.”

The monster of a man bit into the girl’s upper body with a loud crunch. “Do not speak, no one can defeat Genova. He is the king of the city now.” The abandoned warehouse is filled with the sounds of slurping and gnawing as the two men’s blood runs cold.

Across from Machi and Solenne, Apricot drank from a straw. The three girls are seated at a small black cast iron picnic table in the park’s center. It’s nearly impossible not to notice how artificial the trees are. There was no question that the trees were plastic sculptures. Moreover, they did not grow or take on any color. Apricot presumed that the plants had to be made of polysynthetic materials.. After unwrapping their sandwiches, the girls poured ice tea into their glasses. As Apricot finds herself lost in her own thoughts, Machi and Solenne have a lot of small talk. Apricot finds herself in a strange situation. Having to deal with Shiori has been exhausting to say the least. Sleep has been scarce lately. Machi’s face fell, and Apricot had no idea why due to her lack of listening. Now that the tone of the conversation had changed, she was roused from her thoughts. 

“It worries me.” Solenne continued. “I realize the military won’t risk any of its soldiers, but still… the fighting has already begun.”

In the news, Apricot had read about the situation. Miners had discovered a remarkably large deposit of Urizen resources. Currently, Uchella and Aslana are fighting over the deposits. There is a demilitarized zone near it, which has been off-limits for years. Arjun was deployed about a month ago. Since then, Solenne has been anxious.

Machi chimed in, “Well, he is not in combat, is he?”

“He is,” Apricot recalls the conversation she had with the general. Still, the situation continues to deteriorate despite her unease. Solenne sighed. “They’ve seen a few air scares,” she observed. “I think he was in at least one dogfight, but he won’t admit it. Having scrambled a bomber, he proudly told me how he had sent the accompanying fleet away. That scares me.”

“I’m sorry, that’s terrible.” Apricot says to comfort, even though she imagines it wouldn’t be much use.

Machi added, “We’re just a phone call away.”

Apricot imagines Arjun wouldn’t want to worry Solenne, and he must feel exactly the same way about her when she is on duty. Similarly, the town is becoming more and more like a battleground as it changes. Maybe even more so if things continue to unfold as they are. “Arjun is an amazing pilot. Even if he’s in a dogfight, he’ll win.”

“I hope you are right, Apricot. One small mistake is all it takes.”

A shadowy underground corridor echoes with footsteps. A wolfish grin appeared on Genova’s face as he heard the steps approaching. His lips retreat from the nape of a young girl. In his usual black leather trench coat, Cortez emerged from the shadows, seemingly unperturbed. As Genova embraced two girls, one sitting on each leg, he said, “Cortez, my friend.” Both are of the typical brand that Genova is known for; street girls willingly sell themselves to join gangs in order to make money. Willing to give it away just for the opportunity.

“The hell is this? You have a throne?” Cortez grunted as he observed Genova’s stone chair.

Genova’s black sunglasses frame Cortez with a simple nod. “Yeah, I found it down here,” he replied. “This was probably an old cult chair. The world beneath this city would amaze you.” Genova rose from his slouch as he bounced the girls on his knee. “So, what do you want?”

As he reached into his pocket, he pulled out a wad of cash. He said, “I got the money I owe you. So now things are square?” he asked. “We can end this here.”

As Genova snickers, the teeth of his mouth are barely visible. Cortez raises an eyebrow. “Don’t worry about it. You repaid me more than enough.”

This is a very generous gesture from you.” Cortez observed with stone-straight eyes. His refusal to accept money is an omen of ill tidings that makes him sick to his stomach. Tremors ran down his leg as the urge to urinate hit him hard. At this point, the expectation of a well-fired gun shot was high. His gaze was darting to every corner. However, this was a strange place for a gathering, it already gave Cortez an uneasy feeling. If he would be offed, this is the place where it would happen.

As Genova cradled both girls in his arms, his jaw fell to the throat of one of the girls, and he whispered, “I owe you.” Digging deep into the flesh of the other girl, he firmly gripped her. As she scrambled to free herself, she shrieked. The blood drains from her neck as she kicks and screams as a red burst wets her tank top. As Cortez watches in horror, the girl grew pale while Genova suckled her dry.

“What the hell!” Cortez shouted, backing away from the hall.

His face becomes tight, his ears bulge like goat ears, his eyes turn red, and his teeth become razor sharp. The pulse of his muscles continues as he tightens. His hair begins to grow, as if he were a beast. His gaze flutters faintly as blood splashes from his mouth. He mumbles, “You look so shocked.” Suddenly, he releases his jaws, and the woman falls to the ground, sputtering blood.

“What the hell are you!?” Cortez responded with a hand to his chest. Genova rolled his head back and forth to get used to his brand-new form. “Those books you hired me to protect. They’re fascinating. I was so impressed with your father’s work. It was something you should have taken seriously.”

Cortez’s eyes are filled with fury. “I told you not to look.” he yelled. “You are now nothing more than a monster!”

“What are you going to do?” Genova laughed. “This was what your father was looking for as well. As far as I can tell, the cult had not achieved it either, otherwise they wouldn’t be searching for it. But it didn’t stop me from waiting for them down here. I’m waiting for them, hoping to eliminate my rivals before they eliminate me.” Genova pointed a clawed finger at Cortez. “I owe it to you.” he proudly said.

“I have never expected you to do this, even though you have always been a jerk, you murderer!” Cortez hissed as he clutched at his fist.

The terrified girl in Genova’s arms looks up at him. Runny black tears are streaming down her face. “When I was younger, they teased me for being a runt. I did not have many friends. This girl in my arms never gave me another glance. Everyone cast me aside as a nerd.” He smiled as he reminisced. She struggled in vain as he tightened his grasp on her. She yelled in pain as he tears at her skin.

“As I grew older, I understood why my life was hell. My helplessness was overwhelming. Cortez, weak people have no place in the world.” He turned his piercing gaze back toward Cortez. “When I became strong, people looked up to me. The strength I gained came faster than I expected. The others sought protection from me. Taking advantage of this, I even started my own business. My job was to protect them from other vermin gangs; from the government’s eyes. The nobles kept their distance.” He stared at the ground. “But then you showed up. This scared boy was trying to support his family. You were a strong kid. When I learned what you were hiding, I was surprised. You had the power, but you chose not to use it.”

“That is not power! That is just evil!” Cortez yelled.

“Call it what you will, Cortez. But I’m the Lord now. I will not let anyone stand in my way. I am the gate of souls, a ruler of both men and devils.” Genova looked up, hearing a metallic click. Cortez holds a pistol in his hand. “Struck a cord?”

Cortez faced the hideous beast that Genova had become with his gun outstretched. “You’re crazy.”

Genova growled, “Go ahead, shoot me.” As soon as he heard the loud bang, his eyes widened. A gaping hole can be seen in his chest as he was battered. The girl in his arms desperately tried to escape. There was a heavy smell of wet iron as blood flowed from his wound. He moistened his finger tips by raising his hand above his chest. He murmured, “I’m bleeding.” before laughing. Then he smiles and said, “Go ahead, shoot me again.” 

Cortez continued to fire his gun several times. The bullets scatter around Genova’s heart with each shot. Holding out his arm, he clicked the trigger while it chirped. “No bullets left.” Genova said. Cortez’s chest suddenly rose and fell. As he lowered the gun, his hand trembled. Turning his tail toward the hall, he ran along the corridor as quickly as he could.

“Maggots don’t frighten Kings,” Genova yelled out to Cortez. “Run Cortez, it’s only a matter of time.” Even as the girl’s scream echoed from the hall, Cortez kept running without looking back.

“The more people you can bring here, the better! Shiori, everyone! All of them!” Apricot pulled the phone away from her ear as Cortez yelled; his voice tinged with fear. 

Apricot commented, “You must really need Shiori’s help if you want his help.”

“Look, look, tell him I am willing to work with him. Apricot, now is not the time to joke. It’s the worst thing that could’ve happened. These are my notes, these are my father’s notes! There was some ritual performed on them. Now he is eating people alive! We must kill him before he gets stronger!” shouted Cortez.

A man who became a monster. Her mind kept floating back to the image of the man’s face splitting apart. The woman in the tunnel too. It had not occurred to her until now, but were those phantoms, or were they people? “Cortez stay calm. Let’s just remain calm. I’ll call for help. I am heading out the door. The Spook House is my next stop, so I’ll try to get as many people there as possible. Afterward, I will try to help. Are you OK? Can you give me about an hour?”

“Yeah, I’m above ground. A gang hideout in the old city has him hidden away. I’ll send you my location. But if he comes, I’m out. I think he is enjoying himself right now with the girl I tried to save. Gah, my lord, what have I done?” cried, Cortez. “I abandoned her!” he sobbed.

Apricot felt like he had a lump in his throat. The cool street urchin breaks down as he speaks. Something terrible must have happened to him. Apricot swallows the information and assumes the girl has died or is on her way out. There is nothing she can do except gather help. “I’ll call you soon.”

“She will sell us out for an article she is working on! Or she is an Okabi spy!” Apricot heard a woman’s angry voice. Apricot pulled open the door to discover Togashi sitting at the bar with an off-put expression. Akagi was drinking what looked like a soda out of a glass. A slim black-haired girl sat next to him with her eyes shut. She appeared to be Apricot’s age or one or two years younger.

“You’re silly, miss Ohara, I am disappointed.” Shiori laughed from the back room.

There is a loud slam before a tumble. “Don’t give me that bullshit! You know they did not secure her! She’s one of them!” The argument between the two continued in rapid bursts. While Shiori chuckled with his usual casual joking manner.

“What is with all the yelling?” Apricot asked as she made her way to the bar.

Akagi smirked. “O’ don’t mind them, Sumai and Shiori are fighting like usual. It will end soon.”

“Tiring squabble this one is.” Togashi drummed his fingers on the counter, rolling his eyes.

The twin doors to the back room breach open, exposing a red-haired middle-aged woman with blue eyes, which locked onto Apricot after spotting her. Their ferocity felt as if it gripped Apricot. “You need to leave!” she roared.

“What is this all about?” Apricot asked in a calm tone.

Storming up to the counter, Sumai shoved Togashi aside, receiving a snicker from him. “I know all about you Apricot! You are an Okabi spy. How else would you be allowed to get out of all the messes you have been in?”

Apricot raised both of her hands. “Wait what! I am not a spy!”

“Where did you get a gun from?” Sumai pressed.

Shiori staggered out of the room, his tie out of place. “Sumai,” she turned her head toward him. “Outside, leave her alone and cool down. As of right now, you are not permitted to enter the Spook House. So out.”

Sumai shook her head. “You are such a bastard.” Sumai huffed, walking out from behind the bar. “I am not done with this!” she announced to Shiori. Her scornful gaze quickly returned to Apricot. “I got my eyes on you!” Sumai growled, wagging her finger at Apricot as she stomped out the front doors.

“You are very early, Apricot,” Shiori said. “What’s up?”

Apricot regained her composure as images flood her mind again. She felt a slight touch on her back. “Don‘t let her get to you. Sumai is the same way with everyone. It’s just the way she is. She is protective to the end, a bit hardheaded, but in the end she will treat you the same way.” Akagi said, his face beaming.

“Cortez called me and told me that there is a guy who used some weird ritual to become a monster. He is waiting outside of his underground gang hideout or something. Apparently, there is a girl down with him. Some gang members, too.” It surprised Apricot to see everyone give her an unamused look.

“Heh, no.” Shiori grunted. “Cortez is a con artist, Apricot. Don’t trust him.” Shiori turned his back to Apricot and walked toward his office.

“Wait!” Apricot said. “Help him for me. I think this is serious.”

Shiori shook his head placing a hand on his hip. “It’s your funeral. You showed a lot of potential, but I won’t waste my time on a dog like Cortez. So help him. I will not clean his messes.”

Fuming Apricot is on her way out the door. After several steps, she rested her back against the side of the building to catch her breath. On her back, the bricks were warm from the sun’s rays. “How am I going to handle this?” She wondered. As time passed, this entire situation became darker. New questions arise, what exactly happened between them?

“You’re a piece of trash and you need to get lost or else.” Apricot scowled looking beside her to see Sumai glaring at her. Without a word, Apricot leapt off the wall, taking off before she said something she regretted herself. Surely, she was not inclined to stand for such abuse from a stranger. After about a block, she hears footsteps following her.

“Would you leave me?” Apricot asked, turning to look at the black-haired girl with the sapphire eyes. “I’m so sorry, I thought you were,” Apricot said.

“It’s fine. I heard what Sumai said.” the girl replied without moving her lips. It’s a soft, calm voice accompanied by deep, dark eyes. “I am Junko Morie. I apologize for not introducing myself earlier.”

This seemed strange to Apricot, making her thoughts race. “How are you doing that?”

“I speak through mental conversions. It is more comfortable for me to speak this way. Also far more private. For me that is.” Junko explained. Apricot strains her face in thought. Junko laughed, covering her mouth with her gloved hand. “It’s okay to use your voice. I can’t read minds, but at least I understand what I see.”

“That is a pretty cool talent,” Apricot said to Junko who nodded her head. “It is nice meeting you but I really have to go now.”

Junko frowned. “You seem sincere.” Apricot nodded. “I will come too if only to ensure your safety from Cortez.”

“Why does everyone dislike him? What did he do?” Apricot asked.

Junko shook her head. “It is not my place to say.”

Walking through this area of the city made Apricot uncomfortable. With broken glass littering the ground, it was a ruin that had been abandoned for a long time. Known by many as the trash land. If only they could hire workers to clear the grounds, the property would be very valuable. However, superstitions about ghosts and spirits are still prevalent. Therefore, this part of the city was inhabited only by the poorest and least moral people.

Apricot turned to see Cortez at the bottom of a set of stairs leading to a collapsed subway tunnel. Her soft footsteps divert his attention. A smirk crossed his face. “Nice shorts,” he remarked. Her jean shorts and pink tank top contrasted with Junko’s gothic attire. Cortez turned back toward the tunnel. “I am surprised to see you here, Junko.” Cortez murmured softly. “He’s not coming, is he?” Cortez moaned gruffly under his breath.

“Yeah, it’s just the two of us.” Apricot walks beside Cortez and looks down at the darkness below. The deep darkness appeared cold and unwelcoming.

As Junko looks over Apricot’s shoulder, she places her hand on her back. “I just came for her. Don’t cross your lines.”

Cortez grunted, “Yeah. I figured as much, so Shiori is too busy or what?” Apricot’s suspicions about Cortez’s prior relationship with the group grew. Junko must have known him. In her cold eyes, there was a kind of fondness. Concerning Cortez’s words, they felt pained. Their relationship was like an old friendship. Although Apricot diverted herself, her attention cannot be diverted from the subject at hand.  She can wonder afterwards.

“No, he refused as expected. I take it he is still there?” Apricot asked.

Cortez does not avert his gaze. The man has not yet appeared, if that’s what you mean. There are tunnels everywhere. He could have escaped through another route, but I doubt he would bother. I shot him. It did not even phase him. We need Shiori’s entire group, hell, we need a damn army.”

She waited for Cortez to continue, but he remained silent. “A monster?” she asked, hoping for more information.

Silently, he nodded. Both hands were clenched. “Call Shiori,” Cortez growled, “I want to confront that asshole myself.”

Apricot drew the black slab phone from her front pocket and opened it with a click. “You know better Cortez. He is not coming,” Junko said.

Take the phone from Apricot. Cortez said, “I want to know for myself.” 

The phone rang briefly, then clicked. In his usual condescending tone, Shiori said, “Heh, the dog boy wants to talk to me.”

“I don’t have time for bullshit.” Cortez said. “I saw a man transform into a monster. He’s already killed several people.”

“Cortez, maybe this isn’t the job for us. We should call the police. Leave it in their hands.” Apricot suggested.

Shiori’s laughter can be heard over the phone. “That would not be smart Apricot. They would kill you for seeing it.”

“What!?” Apricot shouted.

“What you did not know? My dear, you have figured out anything of this nature was covered up by the Okabe government. No witnesses will be allowed for these spooky rumors.” Shiori pauses. Doggy boy, what exactly led you to the badlands? Is it the work of your traitorous father?”

“Shut up, you don’t know anything about my Dad,” Cortez yelled. “But yeah, that file he had is down there. It was a gang I was paying to watch over it for me. Heh, you met them Apricot. Remember those guys who kicked the crap out of me when I met you?”

“Seems to be a common occurrence for you.” Shiori gloated.

“Shiori.” Apricot chided.

Shiori’s stifled snicker reached through the receiver. “Be truthful Cortez, we both know you were not paying them to look over that file.”

“I did but anyway, the tall one with the black dreads is named Genova. He is their leader.” Cortez said turning his gaze towards Apricot. “He solved the riddles in my father’s work, apparently. I figured he was a meathead and could not figure stuff out like that.”

“So your drug lord boss has a hit out for you and you want our help?” Apricot drops her jaw. “I’m not interested in helping criminal dogs like you, Cortez. You made your own mess. Apricot, I suggest you do the same.”

“Shiori, please, I need your help!” Cortez begged.

Apricot furrowed her brow. “Shiori, this is a lead in the right direction. We should at least investigate it. We will deal with Cortez after.”

“I won’t be a lap dog for this man’s gang troubles. Fair well.”

“Shiori, don’t go. I need your help.” Cortez once again asked.

After a moment, Shiori said, “And you lack it.” A click signaled the end of the phone call.

“You didn’t mention you were in a gang!” Apricot yelled, grabbing Cortez’s arm. “What have you doing with a gang?”

His gaze fell toward the ground. “I had no other choice, my family, they needed the money. The gang… well, they helped me.”

“Do you sell drugs?” Apricot asked.

“I sell all kinds of things.” Cortez turned his back toward Apricot pulling away. “I will deal with it myself if you won’t help me.”

“How?” Apricot asked.

“I don’t know. I was hoping Shiori would help… he might not seem like it, but he is strong. I kind of figured he would not be around so I had an idea of my own. It would be a lot easier with you two. Junko, please help me.” Cortez said.

Junko stretched her posture. “I am listening.”

“I will help you too. But I am not happy with you. So what is this plan of yours?” Apricot asked.

Cortez pulled out a vile containing some kind of putty substance. “I got this, it’s called Lyiatris, and I use it to break into places. A dot of it can blow a lock off.” Cortez’s gaze shifted away from Apricot. “But this tube carries a lot more danger. I’ve got a cell phone and a burner with me. I need another. I need a few wires, any wires will do. From this, I can rig up a few bombs. Three. There’s an extensive tunnel down there. We can string bombs along it. Three of them, not too far apart, but fairly close together. When he is in the middle of them, use a group call to detonate them all. That should collapse the walls around him and trap him. We need kindling because we want him to burn.” Apricot grimaced as Cortez described the gory details of his plan. “I figure he’ll be unable to reform if he’s burned to ashes. Just like old troll legends.”

She nodded her head in agreement. “Why not just light him on fire?” Her stomach turned at how casually she came up with such a terrible idea.

“Well, trapping him would keep him stuck in the flames. So, he will die for sure.” Cortez said as he stares at the ground.

Junko looked at the tube. “Will it be strong enough to do that? Those walls are made of concrete,” she said aloud.

“I hope.” Cortez turned to look away. “I am not sure though. I will act as a bate. Have him chase me. So, what I need you two to do is wait here while I scavenge the parts.”

“You are not leaving. I don’t trust you, Cortez,” Junko said.

“Fine you two, go find some kindling and a cable for anything, as long as it is for an electronic. I can rig it up with that.” Cortez said resting his back against the concrete wall. “You only have a half an hour before I do it myself.”

Blood flowed down the corners of the tunnel. Apricot shuffled her feet to avoid the puddle of blood at the entrance to Genova’s “lair”. An irony smell filled the air, making her nauseous. There are pieces of torn flesh scattered about the room. As Cortez walked along the dark corridor, he shielded Apricot with his body. In the dimly lit room, the only source of light was a small sewer grate that projects light down. A red glow emanated from a set of eyes in the shadows. A low growl echoed through the empty concrete walls, “Your bravery to return Cortez and what an offering.”

“Something like that,” Cortez said as he walked. His body jerked against each step. “I want my father’s file back.”

Genova sat upon his throne exposing himself to the light. He had to duck down when he stood up to the ceiling. His grin reminded Apricot of a wolf’s face. “You’re joking.” Genova grabbed his gut and cackled. Isn’t it obvious to you the situation you are in?”

“I am not,” Cortez said as Genova takes a step forward. The sole of his hooved foot clopped on the floor. “Now where is it?”

When Apricot saw the face of the man from the grocery store, her knees began to tremble. She felt a burning sensation down her arm as her heart pounded. She whispered, “Was that man?” Genova interrupted her train of thought with a loud roar that morphed into a laugh.

“You dare to make demands of me?” he howled. “I will break your legs and make you watch as I rip your friend‘s skin off.” He raised both his hands to the light displaying a set of large bear-like claws as he chuckles. “Scream for me!” he yelled stomping his foot.

Cortez backed away from Genova yelling, “Run!” Apricot turned tail and scurried back into the dark tunnels. Apricot clutched her cellphone tightly. Upon pressing the button, the bombs would go off. It was a relief to run past the first bomb. Junko awaited her at the end of the hall. Cortez can be heard running close behind her as the stomping of hooves thundered toward her. She passed the second one and continued until she reached a green x on the floor marked with chalk.

Watching Cortez cross the final red line, she turned around. Behind him followed the beast. Clicking the microswitch, she hudled. Nothing happens. As she does it again, her hands tense on the controls. “What are you doing?” Cortez yelled.

Apricot yelled, “It’s not working.” Her vision blurred as her heart sunk deep into her chest. “Oh no!” she shrieked. As the purple glowing aura returned, she felt a burning sensation in her arm. She looks at Cortez facing the monster and said, “Wait…” Junko grunted.  Genova stops dead in his tracks. Genova lets out a pained howl. Bobbing back and forth, Cortez draws a knife from his side.

Apricot noticed Junko holding her hand out, her eyes white and rolled back behind her head. Genova’s veins pulsate as he grimaces. She reaches for her arm band and pulls out a single knife. Genova raised his arm high above Cortez’s head. The knife flew straight into Genova’s chest as Apricot prays that she is correct. A burst of wet smoke sent him flying backwards. With heavy breathing, he stares down Apricot and Cortez. Junko gasped, falling to the ground. She cried, “I can’t.”

Genova grabbed the silver knife and ripped it from his chest. It sizzled as he screamed out “It burns!“ Throwing the knife onto the ground, Genova retreated down the hall leaving a trail of blood behind him. Cortez stares rigidly into the darkness.

“Should we follow him?” Apricot murmured, her body trembling uncontrollably.

In response, Cortez drops to his knees and let out a long sigh. “I don’t think we should.” as he rasped his breath.

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

Blue Ash Crisis Chapter: 13

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Chapter: 13

Falling Pieces

Apricot took her usual route to the morning train, her eyes heavy and her head foggy with sleep. There was heavy pedestrian traffic on the sunrise sidewalks, which are bordered by a wall of cyclists. She galumphs sleepily whilst mumbling to herself. “Heh, darling, you look nearly dead. A late night on the town?” A male voice asked. Turning her head, she saw a man in an elegant suit standing on the curb. The moment she recognized that coy smile on his face, she was startled to see Shiori. “You won’t be returning to school today. Come, we’ve got much to talk about.”

“This rich brat has another thing coming if he thinks he can order me around.” Apricot scoffed, “And why would I do such a thing?”

“Because I’ll make it worth your time. Now, now, darling, just get in my car.” Apricot sighed, feeling as if she had been getting into quite a few strange men’s cars lately. Still, she was curious enough. Worthwhile means a lot of things to a noble, and she must admit, he’s cute—and most importantly, he’s rich.

The seats in the car are more than comfortable. Her body curves were perfectly shaped, the material being some kind of combination of leather and vinyl. One might compare it to the feeling of lying on a cloud. Aside from the blacktops, the armrests are made of a clear material. As Apricot surveyed the luxury car, she murmured to herself, “It’s nice.”

“I suppose a commoner would find this impressive. However, I find it quite boring. It’s a little too flashy for my liking.” Shiori said. The irony was not lost on Apricot. “Hands and feet inside, my dear.” Shiori pressed a button on the dash and the doors swung down slowly. As he continues, he sighs heavily. “Yet how can you resist your mother’s flamboyance when she is so persistent?” Shiori mused as he shifted the car into drive. He let go of the steering wheel and looked at Apricot, letting the internal AI systems handle the situation. “I’m really frustrated with you, darling.”

Her brows furrowed. “What? Why? What did I do?” she asked.

Shiori dragged out “That,” trying to either be dramatic or find the appropriate phrase, “The thing, was a reliable informant. Those who live on the other side aren’t all enemies, Apricot. At least, not directly. I was in contact with that monster last night, the one you slew, about what was happening on the other side. Your actions have harmed the entire society.”

“Society?” Apricot barked. “What society?”

A cocked head accompanies Shiori as he bends forward. “You’re not the only one who hunts these creatures. As I recall, I had clarified that earlier. In fact, quite a few of us do that. I must admit, you were reckless when you started out.”

Apricot blushed. “Thank you for the compliment.”

Shiori rolled his eyes and said flatly, “You still are.” That had been his plan from the start she thought. How snobby. 

“That phantom almost killed me,” Apricot said.

Shiori looks up at the ceiling, relaxing into his chair as he said “So you say.” With crossed legs, he turns his head to one side and gazes directly at her.

“I was going to be ripped apart.” He simply sighed in response. “You weren’t there!” she replied. “You have no idea.”

“In his domain, you were reckless, as I said. You were a trespasser from that moment on. Imagine how offended you would be if someone entered your home and began asking you questions?” Apricot shrinks back into her seat. The girl lowers her chin in shame and plays with her fingers. To her, the creatures were horrible monsters, so she never considered whether they were good or evil. “Oh well, at least you can learn from your mistakes, no matter how grievous they are. From now on, you are my pet.” 

What a condescending way to address someone, Apricot thought to herself. Fists curling as she prepares to strike him for his vagrant disregard of her. “What the hell does that mean?” Apricot shouted, nearly jumping from her seat.

Shiori laughs, “It means you’ll do what I say. In addition to going to school and studying, you will be working with me at night. As someone of potential, you’ve attracted attention. By following the path you are on, you will attract the attention of others, even more than you already have.”

“How did you find out about that?” Apricot asked.

“I am a noble and keep track of persons of interest in regard to the Okabe family. I will keep you from getting into trouble. Consider me a friend of yours. The royal guard knows your name now. Did you know that? They have been keeping a close eye on you missy. The hell did you do to get that kind of attention?” Shiori scorned.

Apricot murmured. “It turns out my suspicions were correct.”

Apricot watched as Shiori raised his eyebrow, and his eyes hid something at that moment. Was he concerned? “And what would those be?” he asked.

Apricot pointedly said, “The nobles know about the phantoms.”

“Well, they are not ignorant. Yet, you continue to call them phantoms. Does that name have any significance or is it just shorthand you adopted?” Shiori chuckled as Apricot shook her head. “Of course, I have secrets as well.”

“Why would I work with you?”, Apricot asked as she turned her attention to the window. Old buildings surrounded them. Though it was probably less than a decade old, she assumed the locals would refer to it as an ancient part of the city.

“First of all, I’ll pay you…hmm…hmm, what is a journalist’s salary? About eight thousand marks per job, I guess. And bonuses if I think you deserve them.” Apricot nearly fell out of her chair when she heard that number. It was more than she could have hoped for after laboring for months.

Apricot said, “That’s over six figures a year.”

Shiori looked unamused. “Girl, accept it. I’m not inclined to negotiate.”

“No no. That’s fine.” Apricot raised both hands.

“Now that that is settled, it’s time for you to meet the rest of society.” Shiori turned his head and placed his legs on the steering wheel.

Apricot feels ashamed to have been so easily purchased. She said, “You know, you’re a right ass.”

“Darling, I can afford that opinion,” Shiori replied.

Dusty old antiques and trinkets surround the market tent. As she walked through the inner city labyrinth, Apricot was unsure about her choice, but after measuring Shiori, she knew he wasn’t dangerous. When she looked at the displayed goods, it was difficult for her to decide if they were junk or if they were valuable. Either way, they were a testimony to time. The objects are covered in dust and a layer of patina that appeared to be growing on them. Ancient artifacts and old technology created a style all their own. As if by a process of overgrowth, the two have merged. “Don’t forget this location, darling.”

“What is this place?” She asked, her voice filled with confusion. Despite everything appearing to be junk, she was almost certain they held substantial value. She resisted the urge to touch them for fear of damaging them.

It’s a friend’s place, and if he likes you, it’ll be yours too. You might be able to get him if you show a little more cleavage.” Apricot blushes, feeling the sudden urge to switch shirts. With a casual pluck, Shiori rings a bell. Unseen behind a pair of curtains, a man emerges with gray hair concealed by a black ushanka.

He stretched out his arms toward Shiori and said, “Hello, my friend.” His gaze briefly turned to Apricot. “And who is this?” The man eagerly inquired. “Come here, girl.”

In response, Apricot glanced at Shiori, who gave a smirk and lowered his forehead while raising his eyebrows in an expression that said, “Don’t be rude.” As a result, Apricot walked toward the strange man. Wrapping his arms around her, he embraced her. His eyes are deep brown and inquisitive, probing into the very core of her being. “Is this the one everyone talks about?”

Apricot stepped out from under his grasp and said, “I don’t believe I am.”

“She may well be. How about showing her around? Give her special treatment.” He dropped a stack of cerulean bills on the table in an unassuming yet commanding tone. Once upon a time, Uchella attempted to gain access to Castor’s banks, but that is a distant memory now.

Aprit glanced back at Shiori, who is leaning against a painted black metal pole in the tent. “What do you mean by special treatment?”

“That dreadful pistol of yours is far too loud. Additionally, it is illegal, and that silver pipe you got is smart, but you need a real weapon.” Shiori replied, looking up toward the sky.

“How the hell did you know about that!?” Apricot screams.

Shiori laughed loudly. “I told you, I keep an eye on subjects of interest. You seem so shocked.” The idea of Shiori “watching” is bothersome, to say the least. It also implied that others might be watching closely as well.

“Introductions! Darling, this is Harjal, think of him as your outfitter. Harjal, this adorable darling is Apricot. She is a student journalist. She tells everyone that, more than once. I’ll save her the trouble.” Shiori’s winked. That really grinded her gears. “Pity the girl’s entire identity is that ridiculous trope.”

“I am standing right here!” Apricot thought to herself. “And I do not say that… that often.” A faint blush covered her cheeks as she realized Shiori was right but he didn’t have to be so direct.

“Fair enough. Welcome, Miss Apricot. Let’s find you something worth Shiori’s patronage.” Harjal grasped Apricot’s arm as he led her into the back. The room is full of weapons. In barrels, spears are stacked. There are swords hung everywhere. There are various kinds of firearms, some of which have long chains of bullets. Apricot couldn’t name half of the weapons, but she knows when she is looking at something highly illegal. “Pick your poison, Missy,” said Harjal. “I recommend sticking with silver. Shiori believes it kills them.”

Apricot searches the lanes like she is in some sort of post-apocalyptic grocery store. She had a hard time grasping the situation. “You’re not planning to kill me, are you?”

“Only if you have loose lips,” Harjal replied. “I do the service. One your group needs. There is no discrimination against the clients I serve. People from many walks of life use my services. You may be surprised to learn how many people use them. In any case, I stay silent. We are the closest of friends if you stay silent too.”

Apricot saw several throwing stars. They initially fascinate her since they remind her of a ninja, but she lacked the skills and time to master them. Her eye caught one of the short blades. Her hand easily grasped it when she gave it a full grip. However, the length did not appeal to her.

“You seem to know what you are looking for,” Harjal commented.

Nodding, Apricot runs her finger along the edge of a knife. “I used to fence, so that might explain it. Are you a member of the society?”

“The society? I don’t have a clue what you are talking about?” Either he was acting dumb or he wasn’t. Apricot really couldn’t tell which. A whip crossed her eye, but that was too stereotypical for a girl. The mere thought of holding such a weapon would make her feel embarrassed. Including, she isn’t hunting vampires. She notices a decorative straight blade across the room. An opening in the tent’s roof allows light to shine on the blade as if it was made for her. She lifted it by the handle. “It’s long,” she thought. After slashing the blade a few times, she found it most convenient. The handle is a simple cross guard that’s easily concealed. She turned to Harjal and said, “This one.”

“That’s a very useful little weapon. It doesn’t look unattractive either. I bought it from a sword maker in Eindzaal. I’ll throw in these too.” he said, flinging down a black armband with several throwing knives hidden inside it. “You can wear that under your shirt. They are pure silver,” he added. “These babies could solve problems distantly. You wouldn’t even need to get up close to them. It would be quiet too, if you hit your target. Miss and you’ll hear metal clanking, so don’t do that.”

Shiori glanced at Apricot as she exited. “Took long enough. Got what you need?” Apricot nodded, holding up the blade. “I see. You went with a sword. At least you have taste. I guess we better get moving. The Spookhouse is about to open. It’s almost noon.”

The “Spookhouse” is dimly lit, nearly empty, aside from a bartender and a few staff members chatting. Apricot was guided through the empty bar by Shiori’s hand on her back. “This, my darling, is the Spookhouse. Many of the patrons here are well informed about what is happening in Blue Ash. Most importantly, I will always be here as I own the business. You can think of this as the resistance’s headquarters against the phantoms. Our efforts have been tireless in securing this refuge. Not even the Okabes can reach us here. Not without starting an international dispute between the clans. You are therefore free to express yourself here. Upon entering, we will let you know if a stranger is present.”

“You must be away from the Okabe family for some reason,” Apricot suggested.

He strokes his chin. “If you have to ask, then you’ll never know.” He turns to a woman with long black hair and said, “No point in explaining. Just a moment, dear. I have some business to attend to. Have a seat. I think you will find Togashi to be a wonderful conversationalist.”

Apricot walks toward the bar as instructed. In a stylish waiter suit, a man polishes a glass. With his grin, he looks almost like a cat. White bleached hair adorns his head, accentuating his polished blue eyes. “Hello. How do you say, a friend of Shiori’s?” he asked with a thick accent from another country she could not place. How odd. The man appears to be of Uchellan descent. Apricot nodded while she plopped down on a bar stool, resting her arms on the long stretch of polished wood. “Care for a drink, yes?”

“Just a glass of water would be nice.” Apricot said. “So you‘re Togashi?”

Taking a glass, he walked over to a black slate polished fridge. “Indeed, I am.”

“Where did you get your accent?” Apricot felt prehension as the words left her mouth. Was it insulting to ask where an accent came from? His eye upturns towards her as that sly cat-like grin grew.  “I meant nothing by it.”

“No my dear.  How you say, it is fine.” Taking a blue bottle from the fridge, he pops the cap off and pours a decent amount into the glass, topping it off with a few rocks of ice. “I hope you don’t mind the ice. But you are Castor are you not?”

Apricot half-smiled some. “Oh, how could you tell?”

“No Uchellan would have such fair skin.” Apricot felt a slight blush coming on. “I am not the native of Uchella. I hail from Sarlimar. My father is Uchella but my mother is an Estarius.”

“Wow, how did you end up back in Uchella?” Apricot asked while Togashi slides the glass towards her. 

Togashi smirked. “All the questions are we, dear. Ah, I see, I know you. You must be Apricot, the reporter girl. Am I correct, no?”

Apricot blushes. “I am, but how did you know my name?”

“You are, how do I say this, topic of interest around these parts. However, to answer your question I am chemist and in Sarlimar chemistry viewed as witchcraft, you may know. Sadly, mother and father were murdered by locals. They viewed my father‘s sciences as weapon of evil. I escaped attack. Left to the world as teen-aged adult, I searched for family name. I traveled UIchella and accepted by family. Togashi Siochiro, not famous house but servant house. Still it’s life more than I could have dreamed having in Estarius.”

“I had no clue. Your story is amazing. Would you mind if I wrote an,” Apricot is swiftly cut off by Togashi’s white-gloved hand.

Raising his index finger, he shakes his head. “Not the slightest words. I tell you why! I am vassal of Lord Kinjo. My mission is to protect him. Any address of me will bring, unwanted attention to my Lord. So no, no interview, no story, no topic of interest.”

The tug on Apricot’s shirt nearly caused her to fall out of her seat. When she turned her head, she saw a raven-haired boy of about eight or nine years old looking up at her. “Hey Miss!” he shouted. “You’re Apricot, aren’t you?”

“Ah, who are you?” Apricot asked a little baffled.

His grin spread across his face. “It took me a while to research you. I’m Akagi. I’m probably the finest hacker in Okabi, perhaps even the world.” He beamed with pride. “By the way, I suggest that you tape your webcam,” he adds. “Your computer is extremely vulnerable. By the way, heh, do you always sleep nude?”

“What?!” Apricot shouted. Apricot felt violated by a young deviant, no less.

As Shiori entered the bar, he yelled, “Akagi, leave her alone, and he is only joking. Go play some video games or something. It’s time for the adults to talk.”

Furrowing his brow, Akagi stares at the ground. “I was just introducing myself,” he said. “Gee, Shiori, why are you being such a jerk?”

Shiori points to the back and said, “Go.”

The young hacker sighs. “You know I will just listen to you anyway using your cell phone.” As Akagi walked out the back door, he smiled smugly.

“I left it in my office.” Shiori smiles. Akagi stamps his foot, leaving. “Let’s talk business now, now that the little terror is gone,” he said.

“So, what now Shiori?” Apricot sip’s her water and looked into his calm face.

“You addressed me by my name. I believe for the first time,” Shiori replied warmly. Shiori begins, “Right now, you can rest. We need to decide what to do next. There is no clear answer. It seems we need to look into this further. Could you please explain why you chose this path? You know my biggest secret. I am trying to make sense of these strange events.”

She felt a lump growing in her throat. However, she was comfortable all the same. Apricot described the events that led up to her meeting Shiori. Initially, he appeared distant, but as the conversation progressed, he became more interested. Even though it seemed like Togashi wasn’t listening, he too seemed to be interested when she told them about the attack at her house. She left out the reaper and Cortez in her story.

As Shiori drummed his fingers, he said, “That’s an interesting story.”

“It looks like you’ve got a pretty good network going on. Who else is involved?” Apricot inquired.

Shiori pauses for a moment of reflection. He takes a deep breath and glances at Togashi who nods in agreement. “I’m not quite sure,” he admits. “There are others who aren’t in my network. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t very good. I was hesitant to pursue you at first because I thought that you would soon die. But I was proved wrong. When did you discover Apricot?” the bartender smirked.

“About the time she broke into East Way Park. You can thank Akagi for notifying Shiori of your wandering.” Togashi said. “There is how you say a fondness for you around these parts.”

Shiori nodded in agreement. “You’re right,” he said. “Our team has been watching and protecting you for quite some time. When you were recorded by their surveillance systems, we have disrupted the police’s operations frequently, so they couldn’t collect data about you.”

Apricot sighed. “It’s a lot to take in, but I’m glad someone has my back.”

“Truly, it is a two-edged sword. While it may be comforting to know someone is protecting you, it does mean that we have violated your sense of privacy. I apologize for that. I had to know if I could trust you.” Shiori paused. “I do by the way.”

Apricot rocked her head in a slight nod. “Now, when you say not all of them are good, do you mean they work with the phantoms?”

“No, I don’t think so. At least, that’s not my impression. A lot of them are just killers. It is a way for them to live out their fantasies. Sickos. However, there is one insane person. That person is Natsukawa Okabe. A dirty, little-known secret of the Okabe family. As well as being a serial killer, he also deals with phantoms. Basically kills everything that comes his way. Sincerely, he scares the hell out of me.” Shiori said grimacing. “They should really put him down. It’s no life to live as a mad dog.”

Togashi laughed “So we call phantoms now?”

“Can you come up with a better name for them?” Shiori laughed. “We will count it as Apricot’s first contribution. She is our shorthand maiden.”

Apricot blushed at being called a maiden. Apricot replied sheepishly, “I know someone who knows something about the phantoms too.” Shiori raised an eyebrow at this. “Well, sort of. Honestly, I am not sure. I have no idea what’s going on. He probably has no idea as well. I’m sure something terrible will happen if we don’t stop it. The more information we can gather, the faster we can solve the problem. I also believe he is trustworthy though.”

Nodding his head, Shiori continued. “All right, let’s find this friend of yours. With their help, perhaps we can figure something out.”

Only a single wall light illuminates the alleyway. Apricot leans against the brick wall while Shiori sits on top of the dumpster. A shadow emerges from down the alleyway. Cortez said, “Hey. You had something to talk about?”

“It’s been a while,” Shiori said, waving. “I didn’t realize you meant him, Apricot.”

Shiori gazed at Cortez as he paused in his stride. “Oh shit, what is he doing here?” he yelled, cutting the air with his arm.

A little surprised by Cortez’s reaction, Apricot said, “Oh, you both know each other.”

“Sort of,” Shiori added.

“What are you doing hanging out with noble scum?” Cortez yelled.

“Excuse me!” Apricot erupted.

Shiori laughed as he slapped the top of the dumpster with his gloved hand. “Listen to the bark of the common dog.”

“Shut up!” Cortez shouted. “Apricot, if you expect me to tell him anything, you’re crazy!”

“What? What is going on?” Apricot asked utterly confused.

“He is a user Apricot. In no way does he care about us. Shiori isn’t like us!” Cortez exclaimed. “He thinks of us as his puppets. He flashes his money around like it’s something special. He lives above everyone else, but gives us common folk table scraps.”

“It is the right place for impure muts like you. Cortez, you should be glad the ruling families paid blood for this land.” Shiori replied unflinchingly. As Cortez approached Shiori, he stared down at him atop the dumpster.

“Our families fought in your wars!” Cortez replied, causing Shiori to laugh.

“The masses are nothing more than animals.” Cortez grabbed Shiori’s leg and pulled him off the rubbish bin. Shiori stumbled and fell to the ground. “Is the dog about to bite me?” Shiori scoffed as he stood up.

“You’ll regret that!” Cortez took a swing at Shiori only to find his fist in the grasp of the metal claw. Between them stood the reaper who materialized out of nowhere. It squeezed down on him causing him to scream in pain.

“Thee fools, wherefore doth thee speaketh such ills for each other?  Doth thee not see that thee art allies?  Cease thy combat at once.” The reaper said throwing Cortez back. Shiori’s jaw dropped in disbelief. As the reaper turned to face Apricot, he asked, “Haven’t thee desired a meeting with me, Apricot?”

“Do you know this freak?” Cortez backed away with his arms raised.

“How shameful?” The reaper grunted. “Cortez, lay down thy guard.  Thee art mine ally.  I seek not to harm thee.”

The grin spread across Shiori’s face. He replied, “So you finally decided to show yourself to us. Why didn’t you tell me you knew claw fingers? It seems like you are allying with us. Please prove it.”

“Claw fingers? This yond what they art calling me?” He remarked toward Shiori before turning his gaze toward Apricot. “I cameth to giveth thee a treasure in the form of knowledge. Hark, thither is much to be done. Thee art hunting the phantoms and has’t done well so far but thou has’t been doing so without direction. Blind, in the dark. Allow me to pardon your burden. The phantoms has’t cometh for thy world. Thither art people assisting them for their own ends.” He said, turning toward Cortez.

“Coequal now these phantoms buildeth an army. Thither art warlords leading the phantoms through the threshold. Tis not with their own power, however. Thither art witches that direct these beings. They assist the phantoms crossing ov’r from the other side. Tis thee that must cease those doing so. The Okabe family hath refused the calleth and art not worthy to carryeth out their duty to cease this.” The Reaper slowly approaches Shiori.

“Tis by their meddling the phantoms entered this world as you must know. In thy words the “Blue Ash Crisis” causes all this. A passage between their world and yours wast hath opened and nev’r closed. Now the phantoms lay in between worlds, as ghosts until they art manifest as flesh.”

“You want us to kill people?” Cortez asked.

“Sadly, if ‘t be true, that is what must beest done.”

“How do we know we can trust you?” Shiori wondered.

“Prove me wrong. If ‘t be true I has’t lied then I must not beest trusted. But if ‘t be true I has’t given truth than thou has’t no choice but to trust me.”

“Why reveal yourself now?” Apricot was frightened by what he was suggesting.

“Time is short. I cannot sustain the situation much longer. If ‘t be true something is not done all wilt beest lost and in the hands of careless ones who seek to maketh a new world and consume this one. This cannot beest allowed. I seek to returneth home myself. I cannot doth so until either this world is restored or destroyed. I seek to save this world, don’t thee?”

Shiori pondered, “So these phantoms, where do they come from?”

“The phantoms art the original inhabitants of the world ere this one. Those gents cursed themselves and destroyed their world. At which hour the new world wast born all who hath lived in the fusty one wast sealed. Now, these beasts seek to devour this one and taketh this world for their own. I tire, I must leaveth thee now. At the fusty shrine on the hill thee wilt findeth me. Thither I rest, please hie time is short.”

At this, the reaper ascends into the sky like a shooting star disappearing behind the buildings. “What do we do now?” Cortez inquired.

“We work together,” Apricot said softly.

Snarling, Cortez turned his back and walked out of the alleyway. Shiori stared at the starry night sky. “Apricot.”

“Yeah,” she replied distantly.

“Cortez is a coward. At the first sign of trouble, he will run. Remember that.” She turned to look over at Shiori who too is walking in the other direction out of the alleyway. She sighed staring up at the sky wondering what exactly is about to unfold.

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

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 12

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Chapter 12

Rumble Stadium

A number of books line the walls behind the graying diplomat in the redwood study, while the lighting competes with the cool winter blues from the large window. Across from Apricot, the elder sat at an expansive desk. Looking at the questions in her notepad, she identifies the most pertinent ones. “Thank you again, Lord Ietsuna, for agreeing to be interviewed.”

He was a man of impressive size, dressed in military fatigues. A row of medals ran down the center of his chest, and pins decorated the collar of his shirt. A large military cap mostly hid his snowy white hair. Other than a pair of thin strips above his lips, he is clean-shaven. “My pleasure, you have a very impressive portfolio. You have achieved so much at such a young age. You may call me Tetsuro.” he says gruffly. That is not an option Apricot will accept. Calling a Lord by their first name is too uncomfortable for her. Especially one as powerful as this man. That is why she rarely blurred the line between the two. She would resign all her statements and not mention his name at all in order to avoid such embarrassment.

As she looks at her notes one last time, Apricot bows her head in gratitude. “Can you clarify what your role is as the Ietsuna clan’s representative?”

While Lord Ietsuna bobbed his head, a bubbly smile spread across his lips. It appeared that this man was in a cheerful mood, Apricot wrote. “I present the Okabe clan’s perspective to the Ietsuna clan. Having embraced the western world, the Okabe clans require greater respect. Hence my presence. I oversee the modernization of Okabe and make sure it remains distinctively Uchellan. In a secondary capacity, I assess military movements and Uchellan reactions to those movements.”

As she asked such an absurd question, Apricot laughed inwardly, raising Lord Iestuna’s eyebrows. Apricot immediately returned to her previous professional demeanor. “For any foreign readers, I was wondering how the Ietsuna clan is connected to the other clans of Uchella.”

The posture of his body stiffens as he grins. “We are Uchellan’s true rulers. Other clans, such as the Okabe, fall under the Iestuna clan. The Ietsuna clan has been responsible for maintaining peace between warring states since the Uchella agreement. Emperor Uchella Ietsuna led a most glorious campaign to conquer all the lands of the Empire five hundred years ago. Instead of destroying the clans, he formed a coalition to end the age of war. With the advance of the west, they would soon reach the eastern shores, bringing conquering armies with them. Thus, we have maintained our hegemony in the world. I hope you do not take offense, but we are extremely proud of our people. We treasure our traditions.”

Apricot bowed her head in respect. She raised her head and continued. “I think that’s a fine response. Pride in one’s ethnicity is a good thing. We become better people when we do that.” Her next series of questions make her uncomfortable. She breathes deeply and speaks. “I was wondering if you might be able to speak with me about the tension between Uchella and Arslana. According to the Sotaro clans, Kubebna ships have been passing through their waters to reach the demilitarized zone. How accurate are these claims?”

“I’ve heard the rumors as well. I believe them. Kubebna, Stezyl, and Tvekala have positioned themselves as possible aggressors in Uchellan waters. As you may already be aware, we have had several naval standoffs. A military alliance has been formed between Akiyama, Iori, Kinjo, and Sotaro in the event that Arslana escalates the situation. As of now, the Tatsumi and Okabe families have not gotten involved. In contrast, Armaryol and Tortau have been moving vessels through western waters. I’m afraid we’ll have to begin military operations against the Aristocracies of Arslana if this trend continues. Almost certainly, the Uchellan Empire would unite to defend her lands if that were to happen.” The smile that had once been so bright was now fading. Although it wasn’t much, Apricot noticed. 

Apricot diligently wrote his words. She glanced up from her page. “Off the record, just out of curiosity between us. What do the Ietsuna believe?”

The man smirked as he sat back in the large padded chair. “That’s intuitive of you to notice that I haven’t offered you that. You can record this. Our lands should not be invaded, and our support for the Empire is unwavering; we are the Empire. While they are small and easy to deal with, the northern clans are still our people. Uchella, the ancient dragon, will awaken if Arslana thinks they will violate our sovereignty.”

Slowly, Apricot nodded. “What about Castor?” Apricots asked. “Would the Uchellan Empire make an alliance with Castor?”

“No. To maintain our borders, we do not need invitations from other countries. And we don’t want them either.” He asserted firmly.

“I suppose you feel the same way about Estarus.” Apricot replied.

Lord Ietsuna nodded toward her in a measured manner. “Estarus is a peculiar case,” he said. “We have an agreement of non-indulgence. We remain on our lands and they remain on theirs. This is what we prefer. We do things our way.”

“So, what are your thoughts on Okabe’s robust immigration policy?” she inquired, no longer paying attention to her notes.

Ietsuna’s eyes changed, and he seemed to be filled with a positive light. As he smiled warmly, he said, “I am proud of Okabe’s openness to foreigners. Their presence makes our community more colorful. Discovering novel things requires fresh eyes. As long as it stays in Okabe, I don’t see anything wrong with this experiment.” 

She extended a handshake to him, which he warmly accepted. “I really appreciate you taking the time.” She said. “I think that’s all I need to ask. Is there anything you would like me to strike out?” Apricot asked the man as she presented her notes. Normally, she would not do such a thing, but a man in this position could easily ruin her family. Having examined the pad, he gives it back to Apricot.

“This is fine with me. Journalists rarely feel any responsibility toward the subjects they interview these days. They’re more inclined to go for big scoops than the truth.”

Apricot replied, “I try my best.”

This is how Apricot’s life continued. After meeting those strange men, her life appeared to have returned to something reasonable, ordinary, and completely free of curiosity. After class, she headed to the gym and exercised, then returned home to prepare essays and finish her studies. A few times a week, she conducted a casual interview with a member of the community when she had investigations to perform. The interviewees were usually government officials or local celebrities. On weekends, she spent time with her friends. Since then, several months have passed.

After the sun had set, however, in the evening…

A strong smell of mildew and dust emanated from the abandoned building. Apricot emerged from the hall into a ruined auditorium. The stadium was littered with torn-up chairs and bleachers covered in layers of dust. The stage was adorned with a few props that were leftover from whatever was held before the shutdown. A gray-scale humanoid with wings and a horn that grew from the front of his head and sat atop a splintered piano. Apricot thought he looked gargoyle-like. A starry night sky could be seen through the open, destroyed ceiling of the room. “So we finally meet,” he said in a deep voice, rising from his stance. 

“I’m glad the reports were true about you.” She pulled a pistol from her side and replied, “I can talk to you.”

The creature snorted at her in response. “I am different from my peers.” He roared so loudly that the wooden bleachers burst into fragments. Apricot veered to the side just in time to avoid being directly hit by the blast. Several pieces of wood, however, cut her arm partially. “Yes, you are pretty fast, aren’t you?” Apricot looked down at the rubies that gushed across her skin, cascading down her arm. An iron odor filled the air. With Apricot clearly wounded, the gargoyle grinned proudly, “But it’s not fast enough.”

“It’s nothing devil,” Apricot growled, looking away from her arm. “Before I kill you, tell me something.”

“The hunter of my kin seeks an audience with me. Child, I am a lord of vengeful spirits! Why should you have this privilege?” he asked.

As Apricot walked down the aisle of the auditorium. “This can turn out either way. It can go peacefully, or it can become brutal.”

As Apricot neared, the creature opened his wings and cried, “I prefer the second.” She dove to her side and pulled the trigger, shooting precisely in mid-air. After impact, the bullet fizzles as it burns into the creature’s skin like acid. “It burns!” he shrieked. 

Apricot snarled, “Silver bullet,” as the monster tumbled through rows of benches. The bleachers covered his body in splinters as he arose from the ground, grasping at his arm. He ripped at the injured arm with a roar. The wet bursts caused his skin to pop, revealing the muscle beneath as the tendons thinned. A torrent of blood poured from the limb after he severed his arm. Apricot winced at the sight of blood. He flung his useless part to the ground. As Apricot looked at the maimed creature, she remarked, “That is dedication.” The creature looked surprised by her comment. “What is your purpose here?” Apricot asked.

From across the room, laughter echoed as his gaze engulfed her. When he took a step forward, his blood flowed to the ground in measured beats. “We’ve been here a long time,” he said. “The wait was long. We came first. The intrusion came from you. Now, our world must unite with yours. As they merge, everyone will be able to see the real world.” As he approached, Apricot pointed her gun at him.

“Sure,” Apricot replied as she squeezed the trigger. When the monster flicked its arm, an invisible force flung the gun out of her grasp. With his drooling fangs out, he charged at her in a fury. A vicious slash comes from his clawed hand, forcing Apricot back a step. The nails on his claws barely missed her chest as she backed away from him. She pulled a baton from her side and struck the creature in the face. Similar to Shiori’s rod, a burn appeared on its face. She tried to strike the monster again with the baton, but it grabbed it instead. Shivering, he gripped the rod in his hand. He ripped the smoking baton from her grasp, then threw it away.

“Even silver can’t save you, girl,” he growled, spreading his fangs as he opened his jaws and lunged for her throat. As her hand glistens purple with fire, she punched the creature. Besides shattering the creature’s spine, the flames burned through its stomach. Apricot extended her arm and cut its upper body in half. Within a second, the monster was divided into two halves. She watched the creature disappear into the open air, leaving no trace of its existence behind.

With her teeth clenched, Apricot breathes hard. She looked down at the ground with wide, furrowed eyes. The sound of clapping on the other side of the room made her sigh and think, “Not tonight.” She felt a shiver run down her spine.

Her head snapped rapidly when the clapping man emerged from the shadows, and a familiar voice called out, “I thought you were a goner. It has been a while, reporter girl.”

She was drawn to the man’s shabby appearance. He is immediately recognizable to her. “Cortez?” Images of the train ride flow through her mind. The alley where he spat blood. She remembers the camera he gave her, too.

“Yeah, you remembered me this time.” Cortez laughed. “I didn’t think you were a mage, but look at you. There’s more to you than meets the eye.” He jumped off the stage and walked to the bleachers. “So, you handled everything yourself,” he exclaimed. “Heh, wow. Never would have guessed you were capable. I assume you have done this before. At least experienced enough to bring silver.”

“Do you know about all this?” Apricot asked, puzzled.

“No, not really. To be honest, I probably do as much as you do. Come on, let’s grab a bite, shall we? Is that alright with you?” replied Cortez. Apricot was thrown into an ocean of confusion. His audacity, acting as if they were friends. Of all times, too.

“What are you crazy?” Apricot shouted.

A sigh escaped Cortez’s lips. “No, I am hungry. After that fight, I’m sure you are, too.”

Despite Apricot’s indignation, Cortez was right. Apricot was hungry, and the idea sounded intriguing, to say the least. “Sure, whatever,” she replied.

“Yes, I have a place where we can eat and it is private, too.”

There is a little smoke in the room, and the floor is black and white tiled. The diner is decorated with red and white booths and black tables. To Apricot, it was a strange place. It seemed as if the people sitting around were shady. Even the waitress was wearing a low-cut uniform implied she was a lady of the night. “What kind of place is this?” Apricot inquired.

“Heh, a booth where we can talk and no one cares,” he said, his head resting against the cold window. “I am curious how long you have, you know, worked at it?”

Apricot made sure nobody was paying attention by looking around the room. “For a few months. Around the time I met you.” She shrugged. “I picked up a couple of tricks, but I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“So, how did you do it?” Cortez whispered, leaning closer. Apricot frowned, furrowing her brow. “The thing with the fire. Can you tell me how you did it? Could you show me?”

Apricot shrugged. “I can only do it when those things get close to me. I don’t know how it works. The first time it happened, I nearly died. It kind of clicked after I hunted those things. I’ve killed twelve, well, thirteen tonight.”

“Hmm, you’re pretty tough, right?” he replied. “I had not met any other girls this brave. So what makes you do it?” Cortez asked.

Putting her hand up, Apricot paused. “Wait a minute. I have a few questions of my own. I’m wondering how you know such things.”

“Well, if you insist.” Cortez rolled his eyes.

She lowered her gaze. “Yes, I do. I want to know who I am dealing with.”

“Okay, so this city is pretty shady. Right, so my father was a cop. Great guy. He was an investigator with the SDP. A very smart man whom I respected a lot. Probably about a year ago, maybe closer to two. Like he had this case dragging on. Something about internal corruption among nobles. Apparently, they were kidnapping kids for sacrifice rituals around town. He gets called out one day to respond to an emergency. At the mall, someone had become a gunman. They dispatched my dad and other officers to deal with the situation. The active-shooter got away, but my dad got shot in the face.” said Cortez, gnashing his teeth. 

“I am sorry.”

She could see Cortez rolling his eyes. “Save it; I am not done yet. In case of his death, my dad wanted me to keep his records hidden. When the old man came knocking in uniform, I knew dad was dead or gone. Under the floorboards, I tucked his file away. When the police searched for it, they almost destroyed our home. They really wanted it. He told me to burn it. But I didn’t. I looked through it. It contained many horrible things. Little girls with their bodies chopped up like they were in a butcher shop. The floor was soaked in blood. Unending reports of monsters. Okabe’s are to blame. After I got some balls right, I looked for a temple in that area. I found a few scattered around the city in unexpected places.”

Apricot raised her soda to her mouth and sipped out of the long straw. She couldn’t take her eyes off Cortez. “Yeah, well, I found one.” he continued. “In the industrial district, I guess. Man, it was just like any other temple. So, while I’m walking around this temple, I notice it was empty, and it really is an abandoned temple with no groundskeepers or anything. I had the feeling that I was being watched the whole time. Suddenly, something hideous came from the shadows. This was like some type of rat dog creature. It had a big mouth, like half its body.”

“Made of shadows?” Apricot added in a dull tone.

Cortez choked. “Yeah, you saw one too?”

Apricot nodded. “In my kid brother’s room.”

“Shit. “ Cortez’s breathing rasped. “I grabbed anything I could find. A silver rod was hanging from the wall. After striking it, it exploded into dust. I rushed out of there in a flash. I figured there were more of them, but didn’t want to find out. I did a little more digging and discovered there are places around the city where people who know about this congregate. This is one of those places. It’s safe here, and people respect each other enough to keep out of each other’s business. Like all these stories about terrorists, they’re all lies. No bombs, no chemicals. This stuff’s been carrying on for years. And they keep happening. There’s a panic brewing on, and I feel like something big is about to happen.”

“I have felt the same way, too. So what now?” Apricot asked.

On this issue, Cortez remained silent. Outside, a light drizzle fell against the window. He stretched his arms and his back. “Hell if I knew. Keep in touch. After all that, I feel a little uneasy myself.” Cortez said. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulls out a wad of marks, leaving it on the table. “You be careful. If you need help, you know where to find me. Every morning, the train still rolls in.” Apricot nodded as he left the diner. As she sipped her soda, Apricot muses on what she heard just now.

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