Currently, it is 3:15 AM where I am. Having finished editing the remainder of Blue Ash Crisis, I am announcing my accomplishment. Starting tomorrow, I will begin editing An End To All You Know. Being done with that book is truly a relief. Finally, I can tell you that I am finished after you thought I would be done a long time ago.
I have learned one thing from this experience. It is more productive for me to have deadlines. I’ve achieved success with weekly releases. Even when I caught covid, I never missed one. I am grateful for the chance to produce for you guys. Although the feedback is next to nothing, I still receive occasional messages from you guys. All of them mean a lot to me as well.
Now!!! Those releases will still take place on Mondays. No changes are expected in my release schedule. You can expect a chapter of An End To All You Know every Monday and a chapter of Lyorta: The Saga of Retribution on the first Monday of every month. I will however take a break between books. I will take a month off in between. An End To All You Know will be released on August 1st. My break allows me to recharge, in addition to getting ahead of the game. Additionally, I am working on The Forever Kingdom, just as I was editing Blue Ash Crisis while I was working on An End To All You Know.
In light of that, I hope you have an exceptional day and that when you see this in the morning, you will think of me. I’m celebrating right now.
The old concrete staircase reminded Apricot of a bomb shelter. With every step she took, a camera groaned, following her. As Apricot stepped in front of the large metal door, she waved her hand at the camera. One by one, the mechanical bolts slid aside. While she walked into the dark basement, a metallic bang is heard as the door behind her closes again. “Hey, guys, you here?”
As Shiori’s voice was overhead, he mumbled “Apricot. We are in the lobby down the hall.” As Apricot approached, she heard Shiori speaking from down the hall, “Well, figured that would happen. My credit chip was just deactivated.” She walked in to find the group seated on a gray sectional, several drinks arranged on a coffee table in front of them. Their backpacks are arranged against the wall. She assumed they are new clothes and other supplies. “Hi, Apricot. What took you so long?” Shiori asked.
“I needed to rest after I fought Natsukawa. I got your message, but I couldn’t find the location. It is really well hidden.” Apricot’s voice was tired after the night’s efforts.
As Sumai rested her head in her hands, she looked up at the concrete ceiling. She gave Apricot a firm glare as she sat up. “Is he still alive?” Apricot bobbed her head sadly. “Then what are we waiting for?” she asked suddenly. “We can’t let him get away with what he did to Togashi.”
“We don’t know where he is,” Shiori uttered with a sad tone of voice. “Even still, we’re not in a position to go search for him. As terrorists, we are being vilified by the media and the police. At this point, we can only focus on completing our mission and stopping the seal breaker.”
Apricot’s face was grim as she cleared her throat, her eyes sunken with dark circles. “I may have some information about that. Natsukawa assumed I was working with him and we were meeting up. He said something about knowing he hid out in “the tunnels”. I am assuming it was the tunnels that were shut down. Maybe even the same tunnel system Cortez found Genova in.”
Shiori glances at the ground while shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, if it is the only thing we have to rely on. Akagi, be useful and take a look at those cameras, maybe you can spot something.”
“It could be a trap. I know that area is crawling with troops right now.” Akagi said. “I mean, Natsukawa might realize we are after him. So he pretended to attack Apricot and… I don’t know anymore.” The young teen, rising from the couch, fiddled with his bag before reaching for a silver gray laptop.
“Shoiri, I’ll go.” Sumai said.
“No, you will stay here with Junko and Akagi,” he commanded firmly.
Sumai gave Shiroi a bit of a side-eye before she said, “I am coming if you like it or not.”
“It’s too many people. Apricot and I will go. Apricot because she can actually fight a phantom if anything pops up and I will go because I happen to know about ritual magic. Which he may employ a number of spells.” Shiori reasoned.
Throughout the room, everyone was alarmed when Sumai banged his fist against the table. “Damn it Shiori!“
“Sumai you’re in no state to go out. You are feeding on rage right now. I can see it.” Junko stands behind Sumai and puts her hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. We’re going to rest right now. We will get him and Kyo for what they did later.”
“I hate to tell you this Shiori but those tunnels have no cameras. They are offline, not from a digital lock but rather physically disconnected. They won‘t even ping. There are twenty-six cameras and every single one of them is missing. I don’t like this guys. They posted last month though, so this was a recent thing.” Apricot noticed Akagi’s worried tone.
Apricot sighs, “I don’t like it much either,” a surge of courage welling up inside her. Sumai’s anger must have stirred her as well. The impact of the situation had yet to be felt by her, but she knows it will soon. Nonetheless, she continues, “We have to move forward. If this is what ends all of this, we have to.” She gripped her fist tightly.
“Can you rig something up to stop us from getting caught?” Shiori asked Akagi resting his hand on his back.
“Mmmmm, I can put all the cameras in the city on a relay so they can‘t see you. As far as the police are concerned, I could try to distract them with fake calls. The maintenance crews will be too busy dealing with those to actually bother tracking you down. That virus I rigged up is really causing damage to the network. They are already busy working on that. If you get stopped, it’s game over. I can‘t do much to help you aside from that.” Akagi looked up from the screen furrowing his brow. “Don’t get caught ok.”
“Cheer up kid. Does it look like we’re planning on getting caught?” Shiori laughed, turning away from the group. “Then it is settled. Apricot, are you armed?” Apricot nodded resting her hand on the hilt of her saber tucked into her pant leg. “Good, let’s try and find Cortez.”
“Cortez?” Apricot questioned.
“He is a tunnel rat. I can make it worth his while to come with us.”
“Shiori I don’t think he will…” with a hand raised Shiori silenced Apricot and continued down the hall, the bolts of the door whining open.
Akagi must be keeping a tight hold on all of the city’s surveillance equipment, Apricot thought to herself. A number of police cruisers pass them by as they walk down the sidewalk thoroughfare, the city alive as ever. Despite being a wanted man, Shiori had a tense air about him, even when he was covered up. Seeing him in a hoodie is not typical of his appearance. It did not suit him.
With his gaze darting from side to side, he resorted to using hand gestures instead of verbal commands. Apricot caught on fast. Open palms meant to stop and folded fingers meant it was time to move. All the while, the couple tried their best to mimic normality, but Apricot thought it was only a poor imitation.
Outside of the metroplex station, they stop. At the gate, boarding passes are scanned to allow entry to the train system. Seeing Shiori staring down the gates, Apricot paused and focused on him. As he made his way through the scanners, he took a deep breath. The red light remained as the camera adjusted itself further, inspecting the pair. “This is taking longer than usual,” she said to herself while chewing her lip. Rather than acknowledge her comment, Shiori stared forward stone-faced. As soon as the light turned green, the gates opened to Apricot’s relief.
It seemed as if Apricot had made it aboard the train with little, if any, recognition, aside from a few glances. Shiori whispered to Apricot, “This is your show.” Apricot nodded and guided him down the abandoned cart path. As the metro began its slow speedup, the morning sun barely illuminated the train. Through the last set of doors, Apricot led Shiori to the rear cart. There Cortez was dressed in a black trench coat resting against the wall. His gaze flickered to Apricot then Shiori. “Ah, hell, you two?” Cortez growled. “I told you I was done. What do you want?”
“A minute of your time and possibly a few hours after that,” Shiori said. “Mind if I take a seat?”
“Heh,“ Cortez rolled his eyes, “Ain’t my train.”
In Cortez’s coat, Apricot saw that a knife was already out. “Put it away, we’re only here to talk.” Cortez raised an eyebrow before scratching his head with both hands. As soon as his hands are lowered, the blade had vanished.
“So if you are not here to screw me up, what are you here for?” Cortez grinned.
On the other side, Shiori takes a seat. “We did it. The family will no longer be an issue. We have one last piece to scrub though. That seal breaker. We think we figured out where our friend was hiding.”
“Yeah, that’s great. What’s that got to do with me?” Cortez pointed upwards like the arrogant prick he can be at times.
“We need your help Cortez, he is in the tunnels. You know how to move around the tunnels and navigate them. Could you help us? It’s not necessary for you to do anything but be our guide.” Apricot hopes to win over his sympathies, if he had any. Even though he wouldn’t admit it, she knew he was terrified. His demeanor, however, suggested there was more to it.
“Maybe if you pay me. That service won’t be cheap. I want twice what you are going to pay her.” Cortez said to Shiori.
As Shiori looked over at Apricot, she returned a nod back to him. “Yeah, well, that is not going to be a problem.”
“I know you’re not good for it Shiori. Your credit stick has been shut off. Your jade marks are deactivated too I bet. So how do you plan on paying me?” Cortez gave him a sly smile.
“How the hell did you know that?” Shiori grunted.
“You turn on a TV at all? Your face is plastered all over it. Kind of pisses me off seeing you all over the place.”
“I got my way. Don’t I always pay my debts?” Shiori retorted.
Cortez shook his head. “You pay me now or else I might just turn you two in for a healthy profit. After all, you are both wanted by the police right now. I am sure your warrants are worth far more than whatever you would pay me.” Shiori flings a cloth satchel in Cortez’s direction with an angry stare. When he opened up the bag, Cortez peeked inside. “You got to be shitting me. Are these real?”
“So you coming with us or not?” Shiori rose from his seat. “I am tired of wasting time here.”
“I’ll lead the way,” Cortez replies with a chipper tone. “We ain’t going down there from the abandoned train station. We are doing it from the trash lands. Safe, less likely to run into some soldiers. Maybe we find Genova and we can put him down too.”
A glint from Cortez’s machine gun could be seen in the dim lighting of the tunnel. In an effort to calm his nerves, he nervously fondles the handle as though in some ritual of seduction. Apricot never felt comfortable with Cortez’s new gun. It was almost like a fetish, the way he held it.
Despite being so far ahead of them, Shiori continued to walk leading the group through the shadows. Occasionally bobbing his head and casting a glance in search of sigils, as he called them. Apricot had not yet figured out how to spot the well-hidden signs, even after spending such a long time with the group. Nevertheless, she was well-versed in how to recognize signs of hoodlums posing as cults to gain support in suburban culture.
Holding out his hand, Shiori halted in his tracks. As his gaze moved over the walls, he said, “Wards.”
“I see nothing.” Cortez said, only to have Shiori point his rod at a symbol written in the cracks of the wall. “Well, who could see that?” Apricot could not help but laugh at Cortez’s embarrassing admission. With a sharp glare, Cortez shut Apricot’s mouth.
Apricot bent down to look at the spiraling series of symbols. “So, what is this for anyway?”
“Wards? They ward things away.” Shiori grinned, causing Cortez and Apricot to roll their eyes. “It is a sign to keep spirits from entering places. I think we are on the right path.” Shiori glanced over his shoulder. “I suggest haste, as I am sure he will notice us soon enough.”
“Doubt it.” Cortez grunted raising Shiori’s eyebrow. “We are heading into the underground city. Should not be too far ahead. Ruins of the old city lay buried beneath the new one. The place is huge. Looking for him down there, pshhh, good damn luck.”
Shiori sighed as he walked down the hall, quickening his stride. The others follow behind. After the corridor, there was a ruin of skeletal buildings. A dusty remnant of urban decay stretched on into the darkness. Apricot pointed at a fire light surrounded by dancing shadows and asked, “What’s that?”.
The ring of a bell called from the building. “Think it is that easy?” Shiori whispered.
“Let’s get this over with. The place smells moldy.” Cortez kept walking past the two, swinging his gun over his shoulder. Shiori followed closely behind him. Apricot doesn’t know what to make of this open invitation. On the other hand, it’s cold down here, so the seal breaker may assume they’re alone. Eventually, they came across the fires within the ruins. The building before them was shattered like the rest of them. It was tall and had a large bell hanging above it. “It used to be a cathedral.” Cortez commented. Enting through the missing twin doors exposed a chapel hall decorated with hand-painted tapestries which Apricot gave little regard. Instead, her focus was on the lumbering man in a red cloak who stood before an altar.
Upon turning toward the group, he revealed his face was painted with a clay mask. His pale, withered white skin stands out in stark contrast to the ruddy red mask. Apricot stepped in the way of Shiori as the masked man displayed a ritual knife. Cortez lifted the rear sight of his gun to his eye as he growls, “I’ll blow your head off if you move.”
“There is no need for that. You are apostles of the black god, aren’t you?” the man warmly states. “You must be to make the pilgrimage down here. Look around you. What do you believe led you here?”
“Pardon my friend here,” Shiori said, placing his hand on the barrel of Cortez’s gun, pushing it to the ground. “Apostles of the black god? Who is this black god?god?god? Apricot and Shiori know what that means. It’s likely that Cortez does too. The ancient evil worshiped by the strange cult Cortez’s father described. He spoke of an undercity in his writings. This was all too harrowing for Apricot.
“Shame, and here I thought, well, nonetheless. Seeing the large mural covering the wall behind the priest, Apricot can’t help but feel a knot forming in her stomach. The city is surrounded by fire as a black, horned entity hovers over it. Despite its crude appearance, it suggested a powerful and unearthly evil.
In this old cathedral that has been hollowed out, it appears a man has taken up residence. Much of it is covered with undisturbed dust. A trail of dust marks where the priests touched. These trails have preserved his movements for how long is impossible to say. Candles burned dry over and over and over again, forming elaborate models of their own as their waxy channels dried.
“You never answered my question.” Apricot looked up at Shiori, who approached the priest with measured steps.
Lowering his head, the priest placed a hand on his covered chin. “Well, the black god has been here since ancient times. Though the city has forgotten its history. He remains still.”
“Does this black god have anything to do with the seals around the city?” Shiori asked the priest.
Behind his mask, Apricot imagined a smile crossing his face as he looked directly at Shiori. “Heh, one could say that he indeed does. Your lot is not an ignorant one I see.”
“We are seeking someone who is destroying those seals,” Shiori said drawing a pistol from his undercoat. “You would not be that person would you.”
The man slowly turned away from Shiori letting out a sigh. “I can hardly walk, I could never make it to the surface.” He lifted his pants leg to reveal a rusted and damaged prostetic leg. Wires hang out the side between shattered plates. “I am trapped down here until the ritual is finished that is. I shall sustain until the time comes. I do however know who you are looking for. You were right to seek him down here, alas he is difficult to catch.”
“Is that so? Does that mean you are after him too?” Cortez remarked.
“He runs too quickly for me to follow him. And yes I am, I seek his death as well. If he accomplishes his task, there will be no future here.” The priest’s stride stopped before the alter. “If you seek to find him I suggest you hurry. He is leaving again. I can feel his presence slipping away.”
Apricot looked back at Shiori as he turned towards Cortez. He nodded at her. As the priest raises his palm, he reveals that his hand is cut, and blood is pouring over the altar. “I shall sustain until the time comes,” he whispers as they rush to the underground entrance.
“Do you think that man tricked us?” Apricot asked, feeling a heavy feeling coming over her as she searched the tunnels without success.
Cortez grunted “I am starting to think so. The man was crazy, I bet he was the one.”
Shiori stops in his tracks, swiveling his head around. “You two, stop it. You saw his leg. He could not run on that thing if his life depended on it.”
“What if he damaged it running away?” Apricot threw her arms behind her back. “It doesn’t matter, let’s keep searching.”
Cortez then said, “I am getting tired and it smells like shit down here.”
An explosion of purple light erupts from the shadows and flies into the group. Apricot narrowly avoids being hit. “Die!” yelled a young man. In the darkness, Cortez points his gun at the man running toward him. Despite firing his gun, the teen dived aside, kicking the wall and retching the gun from Cortez’s hands.
Apricot quickly grabbed a knife from her wrist and threw it at the cloaked man. In one fluid motion, the cloaked man blocked the knife with the side of the gun and threw it aside. A slashing attack from Shiori’s rod wherls in front of the attacker’s face. He flew to the ground gracefully and slipped his leg into Shiori’s. Shiori fell onto the cement as the young man grabs the rod to kick him.
As the phantom force impacts Apricot, she feels a burning pain in her back. As a result, she falls to the floor. As she watches a machine step past her, her vision becomes hazy. One more blast knocks the teenager to the ground. While looking at the stranger, Shiori is struck by another blast. Despite Cortez’s best efforts, the man stabs him in the stomach with a dagger. After trying all she can to get up, Apricot falls limp under the cover of darkness.
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Taking in his brother’s precession from the Reed Arms Tavern balcony, Wolgraft watched the rigors of his arrival. Belcross was awash in festive cheer and celebration, raining down flowers and confetti. Wolgraft quipped, “He loves this.” His sister, Ariest, cheered, waving a handkerchief over the balcony railing. Wolgraft shrugged as he glanced over at Mayfare, his sister’s maid, who stood between the two. As Guildred rode on horseback, the crowd separated as he held high the flag of the revolution, the flag of the Azurian mainland – royal blue with a cross interwoven on the left enclosed in a loris reed circlet.
Ariest encircled Wolgraft’s biceps, saying “He is safe.”.
“Well, I would expect no less.” Raising his hand, Wolgraft gestures at Guildred, who noticed the three standing on the balcony. People dropped flowers at his horse’s feet as he nodded and continued his glad-handing. “It is amazing that even though we are rebels, they seem to love us.”
“You are liberators, not rebels. Don’t you ever listen to what people say?” Mayfare added.
“It is just hard to believe,” Wolgraft exclaimed over the celebration. “I mean, think about it, we attacked as invaders a few years ago. We conquered them… we did this. Then when we rebel against the crown, we are heroes? I don’t understand the logic behind it.”
The girlish chuckle of Ariest rings in Wolgraft’s ears. “It is because you overthink things sometimes. It is important to see things from their point of view. The raiders were all wiped out, and there was peace. Under the rule of the crown, they took and supplied nothing to the people. Even I can understand that, Wolgraft.”
“I suppose you are right.”
Putting one hand on Ariest’s back, Mayfare inquires, “So, does that mean he captured Ulfates?”
“I think so. Assuming Guildred failed, I don’t think he would have come back. He would never have allowed himself to be humiliated.” Ariest replied.
Wolgraft smiled when he thought of the large pastures and homes he used to own. “One step closer to home,” Wolgraft said as Ariest lets out a startling scream. “What!?”
“Look at what he has brought back!” Ariest shouted, pointing towards the sea of people cheering.
The look on Mayfare’s face changed. “I have seen those before in Lasandra’s book of drawings.”
Wolgraft looked away from the two girls, gazing out over the crowd. He is captivated by two huge hauls. “What is that?“ he blurted, stroking his chin. Despite their presence, the crowd is too delighted to hear of their safe return to notice them. They are tied together and several horses are pulling each one. “What is that monster?”
“Village Guard,” Lasandra enthused Wolgraft, who stood over the machine looking down at the hulking crab machine. “The idea that it is asleep but alive kind of scares me, to be honest.” She ran her fingertips along the Village Guard’s brown carapace. “I don’t like dealing with things like this.”
“So what exactly are you doing with these?” Wolgraft stared in astonishment. ”It looks like its armor is more durable than stone.”
Nodding her head, Lasandra said, “It’s a lot stronger than I thought. You won’t see these things being penetrated. Because Village Guards are made for war, they must be stronger than stone. A good Vistis cannon hit will take one down though. At least I think it would. Could be wrong though.” Wolgraft raised an eyebrow, shivering from the thought of taking on one of these monsters. In the days after returning from Ulfates, Guildred hadn’t talked to anyone. From the rumor Wolgraft heard, Guildred acquired his grave wounds by defeating Village Guard in single combat.
Lasandra’s voice wakes Wolgraft from his daydream, telling him: “Guildred wants these two ready for battle. Without a codex, reprogramming would be a lengthy process. In other words, I will remove its systems and let it act according to its own nature. Risky but orders are orders. The problem is I got to cut out the system and if the blood thaws I will have one upset Village Guard, now won’t I?” Lasandra chuckled, gazing up at the massive body with blue eyes.
His eyes became wide as the revelation Lasandra had just revealed to him sank in. “So, they would… just go berserk?” he shouted at her.
Nervously, Lasandra ran her fingers along the machine’s cold frame. “Yeah, that is the goal. Sorta, I mean they would not be aggressive without reason, but generally, it does not take much to get them upset.”
As he looked at Lasandra, Wolfgraft folded his arms. “That is crazy and reckless.”
“So do you think I am crazy, Wol?” She is following my orders.” Wolgraft quickly turned his gaze to the entrance of the barn. There Guildred walked down to the bottom of the barn. “Normally, village guards are docile until they receive a threat. They will serve as good workers, plowing the fields using village guards will make it easy to plant fresh crops.” Wolgraft is puzzled. What is this about crops? They were going home, weren’t they? He stares at his brother, not wanting to question him.
“Lasandra, how is my armor?” Guildred asked with a firm voice.
Lasandra jostled her head in disappointment. “I can’t work with it. It’s all torn to hell. It will take me some time to just get the proper materials for it, let alone repair the internal parts. You busted several ligaments in the shoulder. The muscle sinue got torn to ribbons. It will take time to heal, but I can fix it.”
Guildred’s expression faded for a moment. “O’,” he said in a monotone voice. “Well, that is a pity.”
“Talmian alicids are scarce these…”
With a raised hand, Guildred cuts Lasandra off. “You need not lecture me. I understand.”
The two look away from him as he returns to the stairs. Wolgraft called out, “Wait. How is your shoulder doing?”
Guildred paused for a moment before climbing the stairs again. When his shadow reached its peak, he said, “Soldat hasn’t returned. We’d better get out of here before the locals notice.”
Upon hearing the front door open, Ariest turned around. She made a beeline for the entrance, a wide smile covered her face. Wolgraft and Guildred stand at the end of the hall. Guildred walked past them with his head bowed and no expression on his face. She chirped, “Welcome home.” When she turned to Wolgraft, he locked eyes with her and shook his head. Ariest found it hard to maintain a smile. In the dining room, Mayfare was presenting a feast of angels on horseback. There is a delicious scent of salty sea air filling the room as the oysters are fresh from the harbor. Mayfare just put a fresh loaf of yeast bread on the table, which added to the smell in the air.
“Good evening, Lord Guildred,” Mayfare greeted Guildred as he entered the dining room, bowing as he walked past her to the table. His presence alone was enough to draw everyone’s attention without him speaking a word. The four people silently ate their meal. Guildred ate in an official manner as always, while the others ate much more sluggishly, startled, and reservedly. Wolfgraft wished he could compliment Mayfare on her cooking, but held his tongue for fear of breaking the silence. Guildred looked frazzled, but everyone knew he was about to lose it. His expression caused men’s hearts to skip a beat. With every bite, his hands trembled, jittering as he felt the pain coursing through him.
In that way, he looked toward Mayfare and then to Ariest. “This is delicious, Mayfare, Ariest,” he said, and with that, he nodded toward them both. A half smile appeared on Mayfare’s face. However, the rest refrain from commenting. They continue to eat in silence, as they did when they began. As soon as Guildred raised his hand, Mayfare got up from her chair to clear the dishes. “Wolgraft, help your sister clear the table.” Ariest stared at Wolgraft. Mayfare continued to reach for a plate. “Mayfare, let Wol and Ari handle this, come up to the roof with me,” Guildred instructed before leaving the room.
The hapless maid was utterly confused and looked over at Wolgraft pleading eyes. Wolfgraft looked back while mouthing “I don’t know.”
After taking her shoes off, Mayfare climbed out of the third-story window onto the wooden shingles of the arched roof. Putting her foot down on the mossy shingles, her foot slipped. As Guildered lay on his back, his feet were pressed up against the fall bars as he approached the edge of the roof. She looked at him as he extended his hand toward her. “It’s all right. I won’t let you fall.” He stomped on the metal that rattles the bar. “See it’s sturdy. Come sit with me.” Mayfare carefully walked across the shingles, holding onto the rail with her hand. After slipping on the uneven surface, her foot was able to grab the track again and regain her balance. As she sat, Guildered allowed her to stabilize herself by holding her side.
“Why are we on the roof?” Mayfare asked.
A small smile appeared on Guildred’s face. “It’s serene and private here, everything is so clear. If you look closely, you can even observe the ripples of the tides above.” Mayfare glanced up to see the moons hanging in the open air and a glowing orb whose glow was fading. “This is a beautiful place. Don’t you think so?”
Although the sky caught Mayfare’s attention, it was the streets below that she found more interesting. They do little tasks that don’t seem to be important to anyone except themselves. A cart driver on horseback carries various goods along the streets, multiple children play in the streets and a vendor shouts to the crowds. “It is,” she replied softly.
Guildred nods in agreement. “You’ve always been helpful to us, Mayfare. It seems like just yesterday that you were a little girl. It’s a shame you weren’t born a noble.”
A lump forms in Mayfare’s throat, accompanied by an uneasy flood of questions. Instead, she found that it was best to placate as she did in these tense situations. “Thank you, sir.”
“Still. Sir?” Guildred laughed. “I suppose I should expect you to behave that way. I wanted to speak privately with you because Ariest would be upset at this request.” Mayfare’s face is filled with concern. Guidred, however, did not reveal what his response would be. In the dying evening light, his handsome features seemed more prominent. The light from his eyes seemed almost to shine. “You know times will get rough for us.” She nodded her head in agreement. “You are my slave servant, and I think you have completed your service to our family.”
Mayfare’s heart skips a beat as a sense of dread takes hold of her. The blackness of her mind strangled her as her fears grew. She screams inside. “Do you dare Guildred!”
Her eyes grew wide as he continued, “You have repaid your debt more than once. I’m releasing you from your obligation, and you may leave if you like.” Guildred said.
During what seemed like an eternity, Mayfare’s mind was violated by the words he heard. “But I…” she moaned, her eyes streaming. Despite Guildred’s attempt to be affectionate, the words themselves became arrows in her heart. She had served Lady Ariest since she was very young. Her loyalty was unwavering. She couldn’t leave at this time.
Continuing, Guildred states, “I am offering you a new chance at life. The battle is far from over. We have just begun, and I fear things are about to change. We have been fighting new soldiers and retainers. That is the truth of the matter. It won’t be long until Azure sends real soldiers maybe even from the mainland and I have a feeling they are sending them soon. Everyone associated with us will be labeled traitors. I don’t want to see that happen to you.” He pulled out a pouch from his side. “Here are fifty pieces of gold. It could afford you a good plot of land and the price of traveling wherever you wanted. You could even purchase yourself a small workforce to farm for you.”
“No,” she whispered.
A look of admiration crosses Guildred’s face. “Things will get ugly. If I could, I would have you take sister with you, but the empire would find her and you. You’re not an Ashnod; you could deny association with us because of you being a slave.”
“No, I want to stay,” Mayfare said to Guildred.
Guildred takes a deep breath. “This is your last chance to get yourself out of this mess, Mayfair. Think about what you are doing.”
Tears rained from Mayfare’s cheeks. “I won’t go if I have to leave you all behind. You are my only family.”
A smirk spread across Guildred’s face. “They may kill you. You know that, right? They might not but they may kill all of us, and you would be left with nothing.”
Mayfare came to a halt. Guildred’s words were nothing new; all of these thoughts have already run through her head a hundred times. The thought of leaving almost occurred to her. But she was still aware that she would regret it for the rest of her life. Particularly if something happened to Ariest, whom she loved with all her heart. “I know. This is why I don’t want to leave. I can’t do much, and Ariest can’t either, but she needs someone to watch over her because she’s so young.”
Guildred drummed his fingers against the wood. “Well, that’s the problem. As a result of protecting you both, you will wind up being a burden to us if things don’t work out.” Guildred stares at her sternly. “Have you considered that?”
The tears fell from Mayfare’s eyes. “I understand, but I can help.” she pleaded.
Guildred wrapped his arms around Mayfare and half-hugs her. Guildred sat up and got to his feet. “I know.” He said. “I’m glad you are staying. Make sure I don’t regret this.” Mayfair heard on the city’s streets as the hooves clomp. A single rider is rushing towards them. A pouch of gold coins is dropped next to Mayfare’s delicate foot by Guildred. “Last chance,” Guildred said before climbing back into the house, leaving Mayfare on the roof alone. The rider stopped before the bar. As Mayfare picked up the pouch, she kept an eye on the rider. She examined a single gold out of the pouch as it lay flat in the palm of her hand. After inhaling slowly, she released it, placing the coin back inside with a metallic “clink.”
Two cloth blades hit each other back and forth faster than Wolgraft was able to see. Sweat poured from Wolgraft’s forehead. In the tavern’s backyard, Guildred and Wolgraft traded blows with each other. Wolgraft could tell from Guilderd’s posture that he was in perfect shape and did not appear fatigued, while his own felt the opposite. Guildred stabbed through Wolgraft’s strikes just before his face. “You must be faster than a blink.” He said. “Every attack, one step and you are dead.” Wolgraft was forced to back up when the cloth tip of his brother’s sword was just inches from his nose. When Guildred lunged, he strikes with incredible speed. In the space of one strike, Guildred was hitting his blade four or five times, knocking it every which way. “You are not focusing! You are too slow and your grip is too firm.”
“Damn it!” Wolgraft screamed as he made his best effort to keep up. The young man gritted his teeth and let out a growl as he lunged at Guildred, who dodged.
Guildred slams his sword right between Wolgraft’s eyes, knocking him backward. “You’re opponent won’t give you the mercy of back and forth like this.”. Pain penetrates his face as a splash of darkness fills his vision. “They will kill you like this.” When Wolgraft’s vision cleared, he realized Guildred was just looking at him as he stood calmly.
In tears, with blood flowing from his nostrils, Wolgraft shouted, “What the hell was that?” His mouth hung open with surprise.
Guildred firmed his eyes. “Sloppy work like that will kill you.” Wolgraft snorted and wiped the blood off of his hand onto his pants. He lifted his sword and pointed it back at Guildred. “That is the spirit. Come get me.”
With both hands on the grip of his blade, Wolgraft charged at Guildred. The sword swung as fast as he can, but Guildred caught it with his own sword. Wolgraft felt his grip loosening as Guildred twisted and knocked the sword from his grasp. He begins to see an opening before him. The sword was never intended for Wolgraft to grab. In a jerk, Wolgraft pulled Guildred’s sword from his hands and snatched it from his grip. Guildred’s hand slammed into Wolgraft’s face, knocking him off his feet, but Wolgraft didn’t see it. The blow was hard enough to knock him out. The first thing he saw when he awoke was his brother kneeling over him. “You’re done with your training today.”
“Why are you being so hard on me?”, Wolgraft asked in a small voice. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get some liberties in combat with his brother. As well, he was not as experienced as his brother, who was an expert swordsman. Looking into Guildred’s downturned face, he realized something was wrong. “What did that messenger say to you?”
“Soldat has not returned, nor have his scouts. It is doubtful that he will return anytime soon. His group might have been intercepted. In that case, we will lose everything. There is no returning home brother. If everything goes well, I don’t even know if there is a way home. It is time that I stop treating you like a child and see to it that you handle yourself on the field.”
Wolfgraft felt anger boiling within him. “My troops have already fought in several battles. As far as I am concerned, I can handle myself just fine.”
As Guildred rolled his eyes, he frowned. “Can you? Are you aware that you have been fighting bandits and hired soldiers? They are not skilled warriors. A band of Azurian soldiers is enough to handle such rabble. The battle against Azurian knights and lords will become more complex as time passes. They are much more skilled than you.”
“What are you saying?” Wolgraft asked. “Did you lose hope in our cause? Do you think we are not capable of achieving anything more?”
“It isn’t like that. If I thought that you were being trained for no reason, I would not train you. We are fighting to go home but what home is left for us?” Guildred reached out his open palm for Wolgraft. He lifted his brother to his feet. “We are traitors, Wolgraft, deserters, the only leverage we have is our numbers and these cities. Both of which are dwindling like grains of sand through our fingers. We are about to hold an entire kingdom hostage, to get back home. Do you think we get out of this alive?”
There is silence between the two for a short time before Wolgraft weakly asked, “What choice did we have? Go east and die fighting Dalmaskans on some unnamed island.” He spat onto the ground before continuing. “Grandor that bastard. He lied to us all. We need to get word to the Imperator.”
“Any communication with the Imperator must go through Grandor. That is unless we have access to an airship. I doubt we have such a vessel at our disposal. If we send someone, they will be viewed as a traitor,” Guildered sighed as he looked somewhat distressed, Wolgraft thought to himself. “I suppose Grandor would want the entire thing to end too. However, we overplayed our hands. There was no way I expected everyone to revolt. When that happened, Grandor had no choice but to stop it. Thus, we are trapped in this war that no one wants.”
A tightness comes over Wolgraft’s chest. “Is it really that simple?”
“I fear so.” Guildred scuffed his foot against the ground. “This may all be for nothing.” He concludes. In the event that Grandor decides it’s an all-out war and we don’t negotiate a release, then we won’t be able to leave. Though I hope he will not want to stain his legacy.”
Under his breath, Wolgraft remarks, “This is a dangerous game.”
“It is. There is only one way out of this.” Just then the clomping of hooves interrupted the two. As the brothers look up, they notice a messenger riding through the field. He rode his horse up to the group and sat atop the beast upright and gallantly, with a message in hand. Guildred folded his arms looking up at the rider. “My Lord, Soldat is waiting at Ziekden. He has news.” The two brothers look at each other and smirk.
A large map lies spread across the table as Wolgraft sits at a table dressed in an elaborate Azurian uniform. A number of pins were positioned in various locations throughout the map. When he looked at the battle plans he had put together, warmth filled him. As Guildred paced around the table, he played with his facial hair with his hand. From time to time, he looked at the tactical laid before him. One of the guests was an older man with a shaved head, who sat across from Wolgraft, picking his teeth with a knife. The men were wearing gold-trimmed Azurian blue cloaks, and their armor was decorated with gold and silver griffons. Yet all of this had been tarnished by dirt and grit and did not shine as new.
Among Guildred’s trusted advisors was the older man, Soldat. It was true what Wolgraft knew, but he was not enjoying the position Guildred assigned him. As it was, Soldat was a man without a name, and that by itself was enough to upset the Ashnod in Wolgraft. He glanced around the old windmill farmhouse. The two men clad in half sets of armor stood looking out two windows, guarding. Using his fingers, Guildred brushed his golden hair back in a more formal style. “If this is our best option, we must pursue it. In what condition are your invasion armies, Wolgraft?” Guildred inquired.
“They’re on the verge of invading Verst. We’re just waiting for your orders, Lord”, Wolfgraft said, his gaze locked on his map. In spite of Wolgraft’s best efforts, he realizes that this is merely a performance. Guildred had lied to everyone about the operations, knowing that if they halted it would mean death for everyone and that if they survived they’d never look back.
While glancing at the carved wooden pieces representing enemy camps on the map, Guildred smiled. As he does, he pointed at the battle plans. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. “Even if they have the support they need after taking Verst, we could shut down all trade from the south.” Wolgraft knew Guildred operated by a margin so thin that it borders on insanity. It was a struggle they could not win, but also could not avoid.
Soldat points on the map to Elitus. ‘They will bolster their forces in the hold of Amura. Moving north will be impossible from this point on. “If the Freeholds are not onboard, we will be stymied.” Wolgraft thought to himself that Soldat was coming to the same conclusion as he was.
“Neither Lord Rasario nor the Lords of the Brave clan rallied for us. We won’t have any chance of gaining the support of the Freelanders without either of them. As a clan and a kingdom, we don’t have much standing among the people. In fact, we are refugees from a war that began two years ago. Consequently, we have nothing to offer the Freeholds. On top of that, no one wants to shake up the Azure empire. We hold our positions. That is the only choice we have.” Guildred said before looking over at his brother.
As Solat studies the map he tries to figure out what his next move should be. “You are an Ashnod, Guildred, does that not count for anything?”
“Not in Marion. The name Guildred means more to them, and even that garnered no support.” Woolgraft glances up to inspect Guildred’s sudden gaze, which seems to be focused on him. He looked concerned before he said, “allograft, you have been silent.”
An idea or rather a realization struck Wolgraft. His soft smile spread across his face as he realized what Guildred suggested to him earlier. The village guards tilling the land, holding the kingdoms hostage; the plan was never to return home. Because of Grandor, there was no home to go back to. Here, away from the influence of the Azurian kingdoms, was to be their new home. Guildred was obliged by duty, however, not to say such a thing. It would have to come directly from someone close to him. Wolgraft could be that person.
“We will never be able to return. Wolgraft points at the triangle of cities soon to come under his control. “Why not stay here?” he asked. “We can become a nation.” He paused for a moment to look at Guildred whose eyes were not wavering. Seeing this, Wolgraft took it to mean he was on the right track. “After we have formed a sovereign country, we can convince the freeholds to form an alliance with us. Most of them are unhappy with the Azurian invasion. We would welcome Golgotha. They would revolt.”
“…and we will see half of our army desert. The others would withdraw and fight Dalmaska in the east.” At that moment Wolgraft felt like the understanding he had of his brother’s plan was shattered. When he looks up from the map, he fears Guildred is simply going insane due to stress. “We have no alternative but to barter these cities for hostages and cut trade to the north. The provisions we have now are not sufficient to take Elitus, who will port east. There’s no turning back now. We’re embarking on a long, drawn-out war of attrition, whether we like it or not. Though we don’t yet have Verst, I have ready my armies. How about your armies, Soldat?”
Smugly, Solat grinned. Wolfgraft imagined a commoner like himself would quietly enjoy leading soldiers around. “They are,” he replied. “Several new regiments have been constructed. In return for their services, the locals wish to become our squires. We elected only the best and the brightest for this position. In fact, our armies have almost grown by a quarter.”
“I’m ready as well. Unfortunately, I lost a few along the way. During the night, a band of wildlings raided our camp. Despite our best efforts, the lookouts were unable to start fires in time to warn us. Nevertheless, we must continue moving forward. It was my intention to tell you upon your return from Ulfates, but I was unable to do so.” Wolgraft said.
After glancing sternly at Wolgraft, Guildred turned and continued walking. “Fair enough.” He clapped his hands twice. “Good… then three days from now you lead your armies north, Soldat. Wolgraft, march your forces tonight. When you see Soldat attacking outside of the city, you should attack with all your strength. My troops will move by riverway into the sewers on the fourth nightfall and capture the city.”
In the midst of their plans, one guard shrieked, pointing out the window towards the horizon. “Oh, gods! It’s the Azurians!” yelled the other guard by the window.
Guildred sprang to the window in order to observe the force of soldiers. Immediately he thought they seemed to be fairly well positioned. They appeared to be in four waves, each holding four ranks. Then he saw something horrific on the flanks. Among the armies were several large metal vehicles. “I see they have tanks.” Wolgraft’s wide eyes glistened as he peered over the distant field. It was clear from the outset they would be impossible to fight their way off, even though they had just breached the hillside. This was no mere war band, but an entire army. Guildred said, “There’s a traitor among us, brother.” Wolgraft’s hands trembled. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “Tonight is my night to sacrifice on the altar alone. Soldat, gather your men and depart. Head to Belcross and move your armies to Ulfates.” A bow of gratitude emanated from Soldat. “Yes my Lord,” he replied as he hurried down the windmill’s spiral staircase, hollering “To arms men.”
Wolgraft stepped up from the table and walked over to Guildred, who was still gazing out the window. “My brother, you must stand tall for me.” Wolgraft nodded approvingly. “Send our sisters to safety and grab Lasandra – she is too valuable to leave behind.”
“Of course.” Wolgraft replied.
“There’s an old tavern along the road. There is a man there named Bram. Get him before you go to your sister. In addition to knowing the wilderness, Bram is an accomplished slayer. Go north past Verst. Go north to Elitus… Soldat will hold the southern lands. Blend in with the people and establish a new base until I return. Keep sister safe. Go as merchants if you must but keep sister and yourself safe.”
“You can’t be serious. We will both leave.” Wolgraft barked.
Taking Wolgraft by the shoulders, Guildred shakes him once. The whites of his eyes resembled water around a small island. “I need you to obey my commands right now,” he said. I leave now, and our troops won’t have any morale, and we won’t hold on long enough to ensure most of our troops escape. I can hold off this group for a few hours.”
Suddenly, Wolgraft breaks Guildred’s grip, throwing his arm up in a wild gesture. “Then I fight with you. The two of us as brothers. Let Soldat take sister!”
“Don’t be stupid!” He roared, setting Wolgraft back. “If both of us die here, there will be no one to carry on the Ashnod family, and then there will be no way to return. Our souls will be forfiet to Naraka!” He walked over to the window and looked out over the field at the approaching forces. “At least, this way I can ensure that some of us make it home. You’re wasting time, get Aerist and get the hell out of here.” Guildred pulled his knife from his side as he ripped off his glove. Squeezing his palm, he cuts into his palm to allow his blood to drip onto the floor. It felt as if Wolgraft’s eyes were about to fall out. Only people who practice witchcraft do things like that. “Go now; that is an order, brother,” Guildred sniffed the air, his iron scent filled his nostrils. Wolgraft figured by now he felt the pain searing in his hand. He placed his glove back on and strolled away from Wolgraft down into the hall while all the knights were heading to their positions.
As he looked out the window again, Wolfgraft glanced back at the door to where his brother went. “Guildred you fool! Do you intend to die after all we been through? He’s right, though. If I die too, there is no telling who will carry the revolt. Our deaths would simply be a stain on a page.” He thought to himself as he walked to the stables.
Silence is broken by the clopping of horse hooves on the calm farmlands. He rides over meadows of green, orange, and yellow, with a gentle breeze ruffling the abundant reeds. Field workers stand, revealing themselves in the harvest columns. The old wooden country tavern draws closer and Wolgraft kicks his feet from the stirrups of his horse. Wolgraft, halting his horse, leaps down from it. After crossing the dusty walkway, he reaches his destination. Wolfgraft avoids tripping over grass patches which poke through the sunken cobblestones. A wooden two-story building stood next to a stable with some oxen tethered to the side. Upon banging his fist on the withered pine door, commotion intrudes from inside.
Upon opening the door, a grit-covered older man is revealed. “I recognize you, but you’re too young to be Guildred; you must be Wolgraft, his brother?”
“I am pressed for time. Get every able man ready. The Azurians, they are coming.” The old man’s gaze turned from concerned to downright anxious. “”Take strategic shots if anyone comes down that road and get the hell out of here. They will be coming from the northeast.” The old man nodded before turning back into the house. As the old man turns away, Wolfgraft grabs his arm. “These orders came from Guildred himself. He also said there was a slayer here by the name of Bram.”
Having hunched over the battle plans, Guildred swings his arm and knocks them all to the ground. Eventually, they stop rolling as they fall to the ground. “It was all for nothing. For nothing!” He bellowed. As he stood up straight, he walked over to the window, placing his hands on the sill. His gaze shifted to their faces and he no longer saw distant figures. At the front, they appear inadequately equipped. However, as he turned his attention to the rear rows, he saw a gradient of more capable soldiers transforming into full-blown knights.
A group of soldiers had gathered beside him, each with a rifle in their hands. Guildred smiled as the long-barreled guns were a welcome sight. “How many shots do we have?”
One man replied, “We have 15 shots between the five of us.”
Guildred exclaimed, “Good, then I expect to see 20 dead officers. You hear me?”
“Take the roof!” Guildred ordered pointing at two of the men. “You three, windows.” As the men trotted to their positions, he yelled, “We’ll give them hell.”
He points to another soldier. “Go gather the men on the bottom floor. Bury a spear in the throats of anyone who dare approach the doors. Today, this is no longer a farmhouse. I’m making this my bloody castle.”
Candlelight dimly illuminated a table in the dank cellar where Wolgraft sat. A grizzled voice said, “So Guildred is asking for my help. Figures, so you want me to smuggle you out of here. Bloody hell, can never have it easy with em heh.”
“Me and my sister and our maid servant. Also the daughter of a mancer named Lasandra.” Wolgraft added.
In the dark, he was silent and just stared off into the distance. After letting out a long sigh, he said, “That sounds quite complicated. Okay, gather your things and meet me outside of Belcross’ northern walls. Take only what you need. Got it.”
Wolgraft nodded. “Thank you, Bram.”
“Yeah yeah, Guildred saved my life once, boy. Ight guess I should save you from that trouble.” Bram said, before motioning for Wolgraft to leave. “Well, go on now, you best hurry and bugger off. I’d like to get a good lead on these Azures. Bloody evil runs in their veins.” He glanced back at Wolgraft whose face was a fallen mess of sunken lips and eyes. A chuckle escapes his lips. “No offense, Sir Ashnod.”
Taking the merchant road through the woods as swiftly as possible, Wolfgraft dodged trees and thick trunks as he rode. He was consumed by the plight of his brother. It was peaceful in the forest as the hollers of warriors melted into the background. His sword rattled as he kicked up dead leaves with his horse’s hooves.
The threshold drew closer as he rode out into open fields. The walls of Belcross loomed in the distance. When he entered the vast expanses of farmlands, he heard his cape flowing behind him. It did not take long for him to attract the attention of everyone working in the fields. As he passed several watchtowers, the Honor Brotherhood guards followed him.
An armed guard caught up to Wolgraft and said “Oh, it is you, sir. Wolgraft, is anything wrong?”
“Invasion, Soldat is coming for you. Prepare yourself now.” You are going to Ulfates. If the empire finds us here, then all our lives are ruined.” Wolgraft composed himself as well as he could, but his face was solemn. “Ulfates, defend her, if we fail there, then our cause is lost.”
Wolgraft’s horror was spelled out in the soldier’s sour eyes as he spoke. “We are not going home to Azure, are we?” During the ride back to the city, Wolgraft said nothing as he rode forward.
The Reed Arms Tavern was a pub-colored building with pub chairs, pub tables, and traditional pub bar stools with all the usual tavern inhabitants. Behind the bar, various liqueurs adorned the walls. The tavern was crowded with people chatting and drinking, barely paying attention to the goings-on. When Wolgraft entered the pub, he headed straight to a hidden door in the back, causing a pair of soldiers to rise from the bar. Without uttering a word, he entered through the door.
Leaving the creaking cellar stairs, Wolgraft approached a small hall that had several doors. After passing the first three, Wolgraft reached for the fourth on his left. When Wolgraft opened the old withered door, his sister along with Mayfare and Lasandra turned to face him, bearing daggers in their hands.
Lasandra stood out with her long pale red hair and pointed nose, but her most noticeable characteristic was her long ears. She looked remarkably like an elf. Evidently, everyone else thought so as well, since she had gained such a moniker as Lasandra the elf. Wolgraft, however, would never utter those words in her presence. The emerald blue of her eyes shone with joy. Putting the knife flat on her chest, she said, “It’s just you.”.
“Brother what are you doing here?” Ariest inquired from her bed next to Mayfare. In an attempt to accentuate Ariest’s royal heritage, Mayfare was in the process of braiding her golden blond hair.
Mayfare dropped the twin ropes of hair from her head getting to her feet, her purple eyes hidden behind lavender locks. This made Ariest bark, “Mayfare!?”
It was so obvious to her,” Wolgraft thought to himself. “Get your things together, ladies. We are leaving.” Wolgraft said. The sound of rushing boots down the stairs prompted Wolgraft to turn to greet the three soldiers.
“Are those claims true?” A man with red hair shouted. “Are we being attacked?”
Wolgraft’s eyes widened. “Attack?” Ariest yelled. She sprung from the bed and rushed towards him.
Wolfgraft stared at the soldiers’ questioning eyes as he closed the door behind him. “Men you have your orders! Gather your things and meet with Soldat.”
A younger soldier, clearly of the three sisters, asked “And where will you go?”
A sigh escaped Wolgraft’s lips. “It would be very inappropriate for you to question me at this time. My Lord Brother has entrusted me with an extremely vital mission. Guildred was very specific about his plans. Soldiers, follow your orders and gather your belongings. Proceed to Ulfates with Soldat. I’ll meet you there later.”
“Yes, sir.” the men said in unison.
Behind Wolgraft, Ariest opened the door. His gaze was fixed on the three men as he nodded. Together they began to walk down the hall. “What is this about, Brother? Where is Guildred?”
A glance over his shoulder caught Aerist off guard. “I need you to get your things ready! I will explain later.” He yanked the door shut once more.
“Lord Guildred is not with you?” asked a soldier from down the hall, causing Wolgraft to turn back to him. “Where is Guildred?”
“He is at the windmill Ziekden,” Wolgraft replied while his eyes shifted back and forth as he realized his brother most likely had been killed in battle by now. “Go!” Wolgraft barked at the soldiers. “You are wasting time.”
A swarm of people surrounded Soldat as he rode into the town gates. From them, pleas for him not to leave with his troops are heard. When Soldat unsheathed his blade from his side, he hollered, “Keep your hands off me.” The crowd backed away a few steps as Soldat rode through. There was widespread panic throughout the city. It was chaos all around, and soldiers are fighting to keep ordinary people from encroaching on them.
An elder man grabbed Soldat from his horse, “Don’t leave, they’ll kill us all.”.
“We have orders,” Soldat growled coldly while seated upright on his horse.
Throughout the town, people barricaded their houses and rushed out of the town, just as the soldiers had done. Within a short period, he had gathered his men outside the city and they were ready. Now he stands in front of more than two thousand soldiers. “We fought hard to get here today; we fought hard yesterday; we will fight harder tomorrow. An army that we have never faced before is coming our way. Defeating them here isn’t possible. We must fall back, but we do not act like cowards. Guildred is fighting right now for us to give us time to unify our armies. Their forces are doing everything they can on this side of the world to defeat us. There is no reason to fear them and we should regroup. To Ulfrates!” he hollered. As the silence and scattered responses continued to envelop him, Soldat felt a lump in his throat. Raising his hand, he directed his horse eastward. Even though the soldiers were reluctant to follow, they did so.
On his horse, Wolfgraft sat with his sister perched on his lap. She and Wolgraft are both wearing brown cloaks. While Bram guided the group, the two maidens rode their horse shared by them. Trotting in a triangular formation, the three horses quickly rode away from the city into open orange fields. “Guildred! Where is Guildred?” yelled Aerist, turning her head to look into her brother’s dead eyes.
As Wolfgraft arches his head back, his body tenses. “He has already departed for the north. He left without us because he feared we would be captured in such a large group.” As they spoke he felt a lump forming in his throat, knowing Guildred was probably fighting for his life. It might even be dead, lying on the ground with a spear piercing his belly. This idea made Wolgraft sick to his stomach. However, as instructed, he tried to keep a smile on his face.
“You think he went north. Where are we going?” Mayfare’s sheepish voice was barely audible above the sound of clopping hooves.
“We are going to Elitus. It is not safe for us in the south anymore.” His younger sister snuggled up against him as he replied pleasantly.
Wolgraft’s words and embrace, however, did not bring her any comfort. “And it is safe in Elitus! Have you two lost your minds?” Ariest asked, struggling to free herself from her brother’s grasp.
“No, it makes perfect sense. The Azurians won’t be looking under their own nose. Instead, they will look for us to the south. Once they cannot find us in the south, they will assume we are hiding in the Freeholds. They won’t go to the Freeholds, the Sparks clan will make sure of that.”
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The morning sun greeted the train as it traveled along its channel. Apricot carefully navigated the length of black grooved rubber floor toward Cortez’s usual spot while avoiding the sporadic bob of the floor. The doors opened to find it empty, much to her disappointment. The other night, he appeared pretty upset. The feeling of guilt engulfed her as she wondered whether she should have followed him. Apricot approached the weathered seat where he usually rests. She felt the blue vinyl seat was cold as she placed her fingers on it.
As Cortez did, she lay on it, resting her head against the window. She occupied too much room she thought to herself. One part of her hoped that his action would persuade him to keep her away from what was hers. Apricot found herself in deep thought while tracing the lines on the window. Suddenly, she felt overwhelmed. Her mind was racing with thoughts of ghosts and cults, of Cortez, his father. Her attention was drawn to a spot on the metal paneling that had been scratched – probably with a knife. When she ran her fingers over the strange texture, she could tell that something was written. On the cut metal, someone had carved the words “Old Shrine On A Hill.” Apricot let out a yawn and straightened up. Now she knew where she was going.
There is not much of a hike between the train station and the shrine. It is surrounded by hilly terrain and outskirt huts and shacks. The roadside is lined with many trees that are not trimmed and are unkempt. Sculptures depicting crude bulbus-headed people line the dirt and brick pathways. They have traditionally been used to guide the dead to the afterlife and are known as spirit guardians. Moss has heavily grown over the statues and are unmaintained. Candles once held in their hands had all melted and congealed between their round feet.
There was an old shrine on the hill that is known as the shrine of the forgotten god. This shrine was mentioned in Cortez’s father’s notes she remembered. As Apricot looked up she could see the entrance to the shrine. Colored in red with black accents, the gate appeared to strike against the clear blue sky.
As Apricot climbed the stairs she could not help but remember an old adage she was taught. Shrines traditionally had fewer than a hundred steps. The Uchella believed that a spirit couldn’t ascend more than one hundred steps and thus be damned forever to wander the earth. Apricot figured there were over a hundred as she climbed to the top. At the shrine’s reach, there was a clearing in front of the small hall. Apricot proceeded through the rustic gateway entering the courtyard of white polished stone. There she saw Cortez resting on his knees in front of the hall of worship. As Apricot saw the reaper’s body lying on the steps of the hall, she was shocked.
Cortez turned slowly as Apricot’s feet clicked on the dusty stone floor. “Cortez? ” His eyes had life but turned away once he saw that it was Apricot who had approached to examine the reaper’s avatar.
“Saw my note on the train. Surprised you came. Cortez’s voice is monotone and uninterested as he remarks, “It seems like you care about me after all.”
Despite being offended by Cortez’s remark, she carried herself over to the pair and kneeled beside him. “What does that mean?”
Patting the floor next to him, Apricot falls to her knees. “It’s nothing.” There, claw fingers, lay the reaper, or at least his attire, because now the body slumbered. Clothing hung on him like one would expect it to rest on a manacan. He wore a mask that covered his face and exposed his unnaturally textured skin. It was smooth and had no pours.
“Why are you here?” she asks, placing her hand on Cortez’s.
As he closes his fingers around Apricot’s, he smiles. “I wanted to see if the reaper would talk to me again.”
“How did you know he would be here?”
Cortez smirked. “He told us when we met him he would be here. Seems he is not here right now or sleeping. I am not sure how these kinds of things work.” Apricot remembered some garble that he said about the hill, but who could make out half of what he said. Cortez’s face grew real serious. “It looked like a terrible place when I peered inside that pit. It looked like an endless tower of pain. When I looked at it, I couldn’t stop gazing at it. Seeing it, it seemed to welcome me. Had you not… perhaps I would have jumped in.”
Apricot shuddered at the imagery used bringing back dreams she had. “What do you mean by a tower?”
“It was like looking up from the bottom of a tower, but I was only looking down. It was as if I was upside down. Cortez shivers as he said, “I can’t explain it, but those spirits being awoken were in agony.”
“We need you Cortez. Don’t do anything stupid like that.” Apricot softly uttered.
Cortez shook his head. “You don’t need me. Even if you did, it would not matter.” Tears flowed down his cheeks. “There is no way we can win. It is us against another world, Apricot, and the powers of this one too. We are fighting with gods. What are we even doing?” Cortez yelled getting to his feet. “What the hell are we even doing? Do you know! Does Shiori know! Cause I sure as hell feel like I am fighting against the night with a damn candle. The night, Apricot, is impossible to defeat. It comes whether or not you like it.”
“Thou are wrong.” As the reaper leaped up, he stirred slightly sitting upon his heels startling the pair. “Their window of opportunity is closing swiftly.” he continued. “Cortez, thou hast help me greatly. Alas, I am dying and I doubt I remain through to the end. The Okabe hast one last ritual to mere their devastation upon the orb. They are preparing now at their shrine. This is the broil for the orb. Mercy Cortez, for sustaining me for as long as thou hast. Hie doth this one last office for me. Apricot, thou hast awoken greatly since we first met. Thy power is growing. Seek to merge yourself. The victory is at hand. I hast one last crave ere I might not but rest. Seek out the destroyer of the seals and forbear him. If the devil occulted below the town is unleashed, all shall be lost.” Lowering down again, the reaper rested forward.
Cortez shouted, “Wait I have questions!”
“Thou go as I gentle down,” he said before returning to his usual resting position on the ground.
His chin dropped as he gritted his teeth. As he shook the lifeless body back and forth, he grabbed the sides of the reaper. “Tell me, damn it! Tell me what it was I saw? Gawd damn it! Why? Why is everyone ignoring me? What do I have to do?!” yelled Cortez, slamming his fist into the reaper’s body. His fist pounded on it again and again. He was pulled back by Apricot. She looked down to see his bloody knuckles. “Why won’t anyone explain to me what is going on?”
Apricot stepped behind Cortez. “I have felt the same way from day one Cortez.” she sniffs. “Look this is a burden on everyone. However, this is coming to a head. The reaper is not lying. The Okabe family is preparing for a ritual tonight. This is why I came to get you.” Cortez turned from Apricot, staring down at the reaper that lay strewn on the ground with the appearance of death. “I have a feeling the reaper has been at work on our behalf for a long time, Cortez. Come on, let’s go. He is not around right now.”
“I gave my blood to him.” Cortez roared. “The least the leech can do is answer my questions.” He lifted his coat sleeve and showed the strange symbols and markings on his arm. “I was feeding him to keep him alive. He never answers me. He only gives me a comment or thanks.”
Apricot felt sick to her stomach. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since he first appeared to us.” Cortez got up and turned around.
“Let’s go tell the others what the reaper said. We need as many people as we can get to stop them.” Cortez blew a puff of air. His arm is grabbed by Apricot, who leads him next to her as they return to the train station.
“I’m not going, Apricot.”
She did not even look at him as she stopped in her tracks. “I can’t convince you, can I?”
Turning around, Cortez let go of her hand. “I am sorry.”
An improvised bomb, a case of ammunition, and several rifles are arranged on top of the table. In a nearby corner are several clips marked in red. In addition to the body armor, there are pads and other gadgets. Akagi gocked at the pile with wide eyes. “Wo which one do I get?” He asked, playing with the weapons.
“Nothing.” Shiori laughed. Akagi looked up pouting. “You don’t have time to fight because you have an important job.”
Togashi slumps against the wall. Across from him, Apricot sits at a desk, arms folded. Sumai examines the items on the table. Sumai picks up a rifle to feel its weight. “Yeah, this is solid stuff, Shori boy.” Junko stands across from Shiori next to the others.
“Are we doing this really?” Junko asked with a down-turned mask of horror.
Shiori smiles. “Don’t look so grim. We are only about to become fugitives.” Shiori joked. “Look, I don’t want to do this either. However, the price of not doing it means everyone in the city will die for sure. Maybe even everyone in the world. We have no clue what a new world means. If this ritual is complete, it is clear that something bad will happen to everyone except Kyo and her wicked ilk.” Shiori rose from the table standing in front of the group. “If you don’t want to do this. I won’t blame any of you.”
“Hmmm, well, it ends on the road no matter what.” Togashi chuckled. “I help. Fixed up caustic bullet like you ask.” He pointed to a plastic container of bullets. “Don‘t touch with bare hand, wear rubber glove. They burn flesh. I made strong. Quick kill.” Togashi shifted his shirt collar as he cleared his throat. “I don‘t like at all.”
“If I got a chance to kill one of them assholes, I will take it. Teach them a lesson for what they did to my daughter.” Sumai’s vicious grin made Apricot feel relieved not to be on her bad side any longer.
She couldn’t be silent any longer. Though the lump in her throat made her feel a bit sick. “I’ll help. I don’t want to kill anyone though.” Apricot commented.
Junko nodded in agreement. “I will,” she replied hoarsely. “There is no other way.” She picks up a rifle and looks down its sights. “I haven’t shot a gun for a long time. Would you mind if I went to the range before we started?”
“Go ahead. Don’t get caught.” Shiori chirped. “So we are all in agreement. Alright. Here is my plan. Apricot you will stay in the shadows. I want you to be there to protect us from any phantoms that may come out from their ritual or maybe guardians of the clan. Sumai, Junko, Togashi, I want you to be cover fire. When things go down, there will be guards. I want you to keep them away from Kyo. If you have a shot on Kyo kill her. Kill her first. She is priority one.” Shiori growled.
“What about me?” Akagi moaned. “I want to help too. I don’t want my family to die. I want to fight Shiori.”
Looking over at Akagi, he smiled. “You are going to have the most important job. I want you to hack the security systems. I also want you to keep the lights off of us and on them. On top of that, I want you to jam their broadcasts. If you can also manage to keep us anonymous during this, that would be great. I am counting on you so don’t screw it up.”
Despite his nervousness, Akagi nodded. “I, that, that is a lot of things to do.”
“If anyone can do it, it is you, Akagi.” Junko gently placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Yeah, you think so?”
As she looks at the table, Apricot sighs. “So, what are we doing after? Do we wait for them to arrest us? What is the end game Shiori?”
“The end game, is we stop the Okabe from this ritual. I have arranged for several cars to pick us up. There will be so many arriving it will be impossible to track any particular vehicle. I bought a secured apartment on the outskirts of town. I have owned it for years. It is nothing special, but I fortified it and it’s anonymous. We will hide out there. If that fails I have a second location we can hide in. It is quite literally a bunker. These two locations will serve as our new HQs until we clean up the rest of this mess. I will clear all our names. Even still, the Kinjo clan will come to my aid if need be. That includes all of you. As a last-ditch effort, we can leave Okabe if necessary. So don’t worry.”
“What about before then?” Apricot asked.
“We will be considered terrorists.” Shiori firmly stated. “So let’s save the world at sunset. You know where to meet up.”
The shrine of the Okabe family stands in the center of the city. Gold lines the slanted roofs and towering pillars, and the light from the shrine shone almost supernaturally. Apricot was reminded of a torch burning with golden light. In an interesting blend of modern and historic architecture, the ornate building stood in contrast to the skyscrapers surrounding the temple court.
The temple courtyard has a large circle of candles at the center of which Kyo sits. Kneeling, she wears a crimson red dress lined with gold, black, and red stripes. Her head is crowned with silver pieces. The hair is kept loose so as not to obscure her eyes. A variety of metal charms and jewels adorn her. An elaborate headcover trails down her back. The gold and silver bands that adorn her wrists sparkle majestically. Her lips were painted red, and her eyes were outlined in black.
Men wearing black and red robes swing metal baskets around the ring while incense burns in their long chains. Flames from the candles flash purple and blue as they burn. Kyo whispers something to herself quietly. A large number of armed soldiers are posted around the courtyard wearing heavy black armor.
After hearing Shiori’s shoes click through the main entrance, Kyo looked up from the bowl in front of her. Her mouth drops open in a smile seeing Shiori in a white suit with a blue tie. “Shiori Kinjo, prince of the Kinjo clan. I expected you to arrive,” she said calmly. Shiori watched the soldiers aim their guns at him as he scanned the vast shrine. As Kyo raised her hand, she stood up. “It’s ok. Don’t worry. We finally get to meet.”
“Nice ritual you got going on. It looks like this is the final act of our drama. However, I noticed something. I wonder where your sacrifices are.” Shiori remarked snidely.
“It appears as if it has just arrived. Now, Shiori. How foolish do you think I am; to just allow you to walk in here with no one stopping you. I thought you were a smarter man. Now please come calmly. Arrest him.”
The armored soldiers approach Shiori. In a split second, he glances at them before switching back to Kyo. When your back is against the wall, it’s all or nothing, Kyo. It isn’t wise to trap noble beasts.” Shiori grinned as he drew his pistol from his undercoat. He fires a single bullet out of the barrel of the gun. The bullet hit an armored soldier squarely in his chest as he dove to cover Kyo. When it was time for the other soldiers to fire, Shiori tumbled to the ground. Shiori roared, “Come get it!”.
At first, Kyo gazed in horror at Shiori nearly killing her. “What do you expect to accomplish Shiori? You cannot win this fight!” she screamed.
In the shadow of a skyscraper, Akagi rested his feet on the edge, allowing them to dangle. In his arm, he held a laptop. From his vantage point so high above the shrine’s walls, he saw the court in full view. The entire drama had been played out before him. Throughout the soldiers’ encirclement of Shiori, Agaki glided his fingers over the keys of his laptop. “It looks like it’s action time,” he said with a smirk. From the window, he saw a live news feed reporting power outages in the city. His plot has been carefully crafted. Infecting everything connected to the national database with his own worm, he tunneled through the Okabe network.
Adding a few lines of code to his computer, Akagi commented, “I hope you’re ready for a light show.” All lights in the shrine are turned out. Even the front end of the shrine had been dimmed. The automatic doors and gates to the shrine are all opened. “Alright!” Agaki cheered.
An armored soldier yelled, “Oh shit, I can’t see.” He ripped off his helmet. The other soldiers follow taking their helmets off as well. All of the soldiers look exactly the same like clones of one another.
Taking a step back, Kyo looked at the captain. “What is going on?” The lights on Shiori dim as well. In a ring around Kyo, the guards use their bodies as shields.
The captain of the guard said to Kyo, “My lady, we must end the ritual and leave now.”
From the shrine’s wall, shots come from every direction. In a kneeling position, Togashi aimed his sights down at the soldiers. A motorcycle’s roar could be heard as Junko rides through the gates. With her hair flying, Sumai sat on the back of the bike. She pulled back on the trigger of her gun, unleashing a torrent of bullets at the group. “Die imp bastards!” she shouted with a gleeful laugh.
Around the shrine, the soldiers return fire. As Shiori’s group moved, strobe lights appeared behind them. “Damn it! I can’t see!” Another soldier cried as their shots missed their moving targets under the cover of the shifting light.
In the distance, Sumai watched as the soldiers moved in a circle to the rear of the shrine. By a large gateway, she saw that there are a couple of other guards awaiting the group. “Junko!” she exclaims. “Kyo is trying to escape through the back.”
Junko acknowledged her with a small “Mmm.” She immediately turned her attention to the exit, rushing around the side of the shrine while narrowly avoiding being shot. Sumai fired at Kyo’s guards as they passed by them on their way to the exit. The soldiers rushed for cover with Kyo as bullets hurtled down the courtyard. Grabbing a pair of small rods from the side of the bike, Sumai tossed them at the exit. The rods instantly burst into flames, lighting a few of the guards.
Those who were wounded on the ground started smoking. When the other soldiers are caught in the fresh plumes, the air itself corrodes their armor, melting it against their skin. In response to the acid breeze’s assault, they screamed.
“I’ve had enough!” Kyo shouted, raising both arms in the air. Suddenly, a black dot appeared on the ground. A creepy creature emerged from the pool of darkness that had formed before Kyo. “Help me, guardians of the forbidden. Come help me protect this child.” The being’s body was twisted in all the wrong directions. Besides its chest, its pelvis resembled a man with sharp teeth, its legs resembled those of a bird. Its body was like that of a man, its arms resembled hooks, and its head is nothing more than a snapping mouth. Approximately ten feet tall, the abomination stood on four legs.
“What is that thing?” Apricot asked herself as she charged out of the dark with her rapier in hand. Her body flared in flames as she ran at the creature. Due to her unnatural speed, she collided with the beast with her blade knocking them backward with the force of her piercing blow.
“There’s my witch,” Kyo thought to herself. The smile on her face intensified. After Apricot stabbed the creature in the leg, it did not have much time to react. The monster attempted to escape by swinging its hooks at Apricot. Ultimately, she dived back to avoid being knocked down. The creature helped itself up by stabbing its spire into the ground, pushing itself up. Apricot struck again, landing a blow right in its chest eye. It broke away from her, the sword still embedded deep in, sizzling as it burned. Instantly, the weapon burst into flames. As soon as it hit the ground, the creature broke into cinders.
“Kyo give up!” Shiori said. “Nothing you can do now.” The guards were still wailing in agony as the acid ripped through them. What few guards she left flanked Kyo.
Kyo laughed as the circle glows brightly. “You fool,” she laughed.
Apricot felt a sense of burning wash over her. Below her, the ground was distorted and radiating. “Shiori something is wrong!” she screamed. It felt as if she was slipping into shadows and sinking. It was as if they were gripping her. As the demons from her dreams clawed at her, she became paralyzed with fear. Shiori ran quickly, he caught Apricot, lifting her out of the strange darkness that had appeared in front of her. Her eye catches sight of someone jumping from the wall. It is a man in black who is running to the edge of the circle. “Shiori? Who is that?that?that?“ she asked. Shiori turned his head. Apricot knew instantly from the look in his eyes that something was wrong. She took a few seconds to get up. In a half-drag, they run toward the entrance with him pulling her.
Other entities began to rise from the circle in swarms as the cloaked person placed his hand on the circle. Kyo‘s group was left fighting these entities as the shadows tell the story of their attackers. Apricot stopped to look but Shiori kept pulling her. “We have to get out of here!”
Shiori had hardly finished speaking when the ring lit up. As a pillar of shadow rises from the circle, a loud sound is heard before the shadows immediately fall, turning the circle into a pit. There was an ear-shattering roar coming from the circle as the group made their way to the parking lot. The group was greeted by a swarm of cars. As they piled into one of the cars, Shiori said, “Let’s get out of here.”
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It was a quiet room. In the middle of a cluttered apartment, Shiori lay on an office desk. Apricot held onto his curled hand, looking at him with grief. Although he still wore a tough expression, his subtle winces revealed his true feelings. His clothes had been peeled away from his side, exposing ribs that breach through a sea of black and blue. Fresh snowy towels rested under his back as a steady stream of blood pooled there. Several boxes are scattered around the office. They bear labels and logos Apricot could not read. On another desk, a set of monitors showed live data from the stock market and news in green and red numbers. On the other side of the room are a refrigerator and a small kitchen. Blinds were drawn, allowing only a slight amount of light into the room. As a makeshift operation room fixture, two incandescent lights adorn the ceiling above Shiori. A man in a brown shirt and black pants walked out of the kitchen, pinging a needle.
“Looks like we match now.” Apricot joked.
As Shiori turned his head he grumbled, “Not half as much but yeah, I really wish I did not. This will slow me down.”
Apricot smirked, trying to conceal her worry. “You better not. I won’t be carrying you again.” With a slight chuckle, Shiori winced, letting out a grunt.
The man showed Shiori the needle. Apricot noted how long the thing is, about six inches, as she estimates. “This should alleviate your discomfort,” he said. With a haphazard maneuver, the man stuck Shiori in the side. Volting up, he let out a loud yell. As he lies back on the table, he gritted his teeth and let out a few huffs of pain. “You could have told me the damn thing would feel like a spear injecting lava into me.” Shiori let out a huff.
“Mam, you’re not going to want to see the rest of this. I got to ask you to step outside while I get more acquainted with Lord Kinjo’s insides.” Apricot glanced at Shiori who gave her a confident nod.
Immediately following surgery, Apricot helped Shiori into a black sports car that had just arrived. When Apricot had him seated in the passenger seat, she moved to the driver’s side. Apricot thought to herself, He looked awful. Zonked out for much of the ride. His eyes were barely opened, heavy with sedation. On Shinjo Street, she expected the car to stop in front of the Spook House. Rather than approaching the main entrance, it traveled around the back. Apricot was not even aware of the second entrance. The black sports car entered the hidden carport. As the platform raises to the next floor, metal clanking can be heard. A well-organized garage was revealed.
As the car rested inside Apricot looked over at Shiori who did not even know where he was. She stepped out of the car and walked to the other side. Lifting the latch of the black car, she looked down at Shiori, who is nearly frothing at the mouth. He had a dead look in his blue eyes. He mumbled, “Don’t let my teeth fall out of my face.” Apricot couldn’t help but smirk at the odd comment, and at the same time, it was difficult to see him in such a vulnerable state.
The young woman, with her head lowered under his armpit, jokingly said, “Come on, Prince Kinjo.” She lifted him to his feet and assisted him out of the vehicle. It was obvious to her that he was limp and almost fell to the ground. As she braced herself against the car, Shiori was held upright. “Shiori, get up.”
As he slumped over her body, he commented, “Maid lady, my legs feel like jelly.” Apricot let out a sigh as she yanked him from the car toward a pair of polished metal doors. The design reminded her of a pair of elevator doors. “You are a pretty handsy lady, has anyone told you that miss?” Shiori mumbled. The comment made her blush. Once the doors were close enough, they automatically opened, revealing an attractive living room.
As Apricot looked at the ornate decor, her eyes wandered. “Shiori, you have too much money for your own good.” Everything appeared to have a baroque style. The furniture is likely custom-made for him and is one of a kind.
“I would be flattered but a common maid isn’t hard to impress.” A surge of anger overtook Apricot as she nearly fell to the ground, feeling Shiori’s chuckles. However, as she watched him, it was obvious he had no idea where he was or what was going on.
“So where is your room, Mr. Royalty?” Apricot asked dryly.
“Hmmm, that sounds nice. It’s down the hall, anyway.” She’s not sure what he meant by that, but she didn’t really care. A hallway at the back of the marble-floored room led to the other side of the apartment. After walking down the hall, she looked in the first door to see Shiori’s study. The study was a typical high-end office with a great view of the city.
As Apricot walked to the back of the hall, she groaned, “You’re getting fat.” Pushing open the wooden door, she is surprised to find a plain room. The room has a bed in the middle, a vanity against a wall, and an open closet. “I didn’t expect it to be this modest.” Apricot remarked.
She left his room once Shiori was on his bed, allowing him to rest. She marveled at his living room. He had one of the largest personal book collections she had ever seen. Neither a television nor a computer are present in the room. By contrast, the other side of the building had a clear view of the town from its mirror-glazing windows.
While browsing through the books on the large shelf, Apricot picked up a random work. She mouthed the words “The Cihilbil” but had no idea how to pronounce them. The cover was woven, and the pages looked old. Though she had never heard of the title before, she figured it would be a good way to kill some time.
Taking a seat in a leather armchair, she rested both of her legs on the side of the seat. When she reached the first pages of the book, she pawed through the filler pages. As she read the old fairytale, she watched the sun move across the sky. The story is about an arrogant woman who wished to make the prince of the land fall victim to a faerie’s spell. To Apricot, the story is strange. In the story, an unwanted lover repeatedly tried to steal the woman away. It turned out that the unwanted lover was the faerie’s brother. She was deeply invested in the book when a voice broke her concentration. “You’re still here.” Apricot looked up to see Shiori’s dazed gaze meet hers. She nods. “Why?”
The book was placed on her lap as she closed it. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Yeah, I am,” Shiori said. Shiori breathed deeply as he entered the room. “A lot of books, huh?”
“Yeah, it is.” Apricot could tell she was still fumed a little about his maid comment. “I was just reading the Khialbil.”
“Syolbel.” Shiori corrected her on the pronunciation.
Apricot rolled her eyes, “Right.”
“The importance of knowledge cannot be overstated. That distinguishes us from the commoners. The common folk do not seek knowledge, they are content with their lives. Nobles, however, have a duty to guide the masses with their knowledge. It’s not an easy task.” Shiori mused.
Apricot got up from the chair and placed the book back on the shelf. “So what about the guy who is breaking the seals? I can’t find anything about him. Trust me, I have been looking too. Though I found some stuff about the ancient seals. Seems they were used in old times for rituals.”
“I know that troubles me as well. Two more seals were broken after that first one. The whole world noticed. The Okabe family doesn’t even care to hide it anymore. But how can you explain that? Nothing, short of a missile, could explain that kind of event.” Apricot nodded. As Shiori traces his fingers over the spines of books, he rests his hand on a book. “I don’t like the recent developments,” he muttered. “It’s all too public. It won’t be long before Kyo musters the effort to deal with us. The only thing holding her back is my lineage. After she forgets that for a moment, she’ll be on us fast. That machine…”
“What happens if all the seals break?” Shiori did not reply, instead, he kept his gaze on the books. “Shiori what happens if all the seals break?” Apricot asked louder, a bit more authoritatively.
His lips are slightly smirked. “Funny thing, I don’t know. What happens next is a mystery to me. My life was spent studying the mystic arts because I was to become the high priest of the Kinjo Clan. However, I learned that my grandfather had other plans for me. To foil the Okabe’s plans if they tried to carry them out again, he asked me to keep an eye on them in secret.”
Apricot leaned her back against the bookshelf. “Come clean, Shiori. What are the Okabe family’s plans?”
Shiori glances at Apricot but keeps his face turned away from her. “Well, I guess you might as well know everything. A whole new world. This world is going to disappear. Since ancient times, the Okabe family has been a death cult. The war between Uchella and Okabe was settled by treaty. There has been conflict between us for a long time. Legend has it that the Okabe family would summon spirits and monsters from other worlds to fight on their behalf. They wanted a machine to bring forth a new world, but they never succeeded. Neither did they find the devil or the god they sought. Most of the seals were here before the Blue Ash Crisis. Each seal was built up after a sacrifice. This is where their power comes from. In order to protect the seals, buildings are built around them. Make them the center of attention. With only two left, they may be preparing to release something. Perhaps they wanted to make a pact with that god or devil. That is for sure. Some kind of powerful being that has been bound for a long time will be released when they are broken.”
“That’s terrible.” She uttered the words without thinking. Apricot walked a few steps as she mused about what all that meant. As if it mattered at all. Nothing made sense to her. How could they possibly do this? Then another question occurred to her. “What if it’s not the Okabe family destroying seals? What if it’s someone else?”
“What some loner destroying the Okabe family seals.” Shiori contemplates the thought for a few moments. “That might be worse. Could be some crazy who wants to unleash some sort of ancient evil on the world?”
“If the seals are the Okabe family’s source of power, if they broke them wouldn’t that take the Okabe family out of the picture?” Apricot suggested.
Shiori shook his head. “Whoever the seal breaker is, someone must stop him.”
“Then we stop them both. The Okabe family and the seal breaker. Both must be intertwined in some way.”
Shiori snickered. “You might be right.”
Several large monitors provide dim illumination in the room. The room is strung with cables, and several servers are stacked along the walls. The fight Apricot and Shiori had with the Volkner suit was observed from several perspectives by a few men in suits, a pair of officers, and Empress Kyo. Emperor Kyo watches as Apricot’s arm erupts in flames. A man gasps, “A witch!”
Kyo claps her hands as a smile slowly spreads across her face. The pupil of the Azul around her neck becomes darker until it almost covers the whole eye. “I found you, my witch. Right on time.” Kyo whispers.
Apricot chatted with the guests at the Spook House as she sat at the bar. Meanwhile, Shiori read a book while hanging out behind the bar, while peppering the conversation with off-color comments. As Apricot glanced up, she saw a figure behind the glass doors with a thick file of papers in his arm. The figure is revealed to be Cortez as he opened the front doors. Shiori glanced up from his book. “So you finally scampered on over.” Moving toward the end of the bar, Cortez slammed the file against the bar. Shiori reached over and placed his hands on the papers. “So what is this?”
Cortez hardly glanced at Shiori. “I am done.” He uttered in a calm voice.
“What does that mean?” Shiori grunted. That didn’t sit well with Apricot. Cortez’s face is so dead. They hadn’t spoken since the incident. In fact, she hadn’t even thought about him. Guilt gripped her. That night, he was terrified. Images of him gazing into that light flashed through her mind.
Suddenly, Cortez’s dead eyes opened. “The hell you think it means. I am done.”
He walked away from the bar in the direction of the exit. Shiori quickly grabbed hold of Cortez’s shoulder as he slid over the bar. “Who said you could be done?”
His hand was thrown off by Cortez as he yelled, “I am tired!” which caused everyone in the room to become quiet. “I’m done,” he said, looking back at Apricot. “And you, Apricot, you should be too.”
As Shiori raised his posture, he glanced down at the file, placing his fingers on it. “Okay. Leave.” Shiori watched Cortez walk out of the room with a crooked smile on his face. “Come help me out with this Apricot.” Shiori lifted the file, taking it into the back room with him.
“What am I your assistant now?” Apricot retorted.
Shiori chuckled, “Hardly honey, you’re not cut for the pedigree.”
Multiple documents and notes covered the table, detailing a large network of abductions, sacrifices, tunnels beneath the city, and paranormal activities. In addition, there are notes about the practices and purposes of the rituals. There are numerous photographs of crime scenes in the folder that make Apricot’s stomach turn. Documents are littered with images of open bodies, animal mutilations, and sights around the city where these events took place.
“Shiori listen to this,” Apricot said, reading the paper. “Having witnessed the circles of power in the city, I am convinced that these are ancient monuments. It is through these places that sacrifice is most commonly performed in the city. Those who practice sacrifices claim to do so in the service of the “Black God.” The group that practices these rituals lives below the city. According to their beliefs, the “Black God” founded this city and brought with him prosperity for the small village that existed here before.”
“As I study the papers of Uraias Hilderic, I am becoming increasingly confident that he understood these ancient myths, which was why he chose this site for the Blue Ash project. In my opinion, the circles of power serve to bind the black god to this world. As a result, I am becoming suspicious of the Okabes. It is impossible to ignore the fact that they are at the very least aware of the cult’s activities if not direct participants. The files on Uraias Hilderic have been destroyed. Except for the few documents listing him as the Blue Ash project’s head, there are no public records for this man.”
“If everything I have discovered is true, Uraias Hilderic survived the explosion and is leading the cult’s activities below the city. My suspicion is that these arcane rituals are used by the nobles of Uchella to introduce a new world into existence. It’s a term that keeps popping up. Is it possible they intend to create a new world apart from this one? This appears to be their intention from the way they speak about it. Nonetheless, there are key places around the city that have been designated as sites for the beginning of this new world. Although I have no idea why they choose the sites they do, it is clear they have a method and a reason for doing so. As I learn more about these sites, I will continue to investigate them.”
Shiori smiled. “These documents are what we have been searching for. No wonder Cortez hates the nobles. Pull up a chair honey because by the end of the night we will have read through all these,” Apricot affirms.
Apricot gathered that the phantoms were caused by this cult’s activities. These entities are drawn to this world because the power the cult possesses comes from their world. Among the cult’s goals is merging between worlds to become gods, creating a new world to rule, and sacrificing this world to achieve that. Cortez’s father never figured out how they achieve these things, but he assumed the rituals they perform today are similar if not the same as ancient ones.
Sleepily, Apricot lay in a heap of papers. A small stream of spittle trickled across the papers, slightly wetting them. Her eyes opened to dusty documents and horrific photographs in front of her. After pushing herself up from the table, she sat up straight. She opened her eyes wide and let out a huge yawn as she took her first look around. Still looking at documents, Shiori sat in a corner. Looking at the paper, he commented, “You are up.”
“Sorry.” Apricot apologized. “I did not mean to nod off like that. How long was I out for?”
Shiori smirked. “Several hours. I got some coffee brewing in the kitchen. If you want me to grab you some, I would be happy to.”
Apricot shook her head. “Nah, I think I will step out and get some fresh air though.” She thought to herself that was unusually kind of Shiori.
Shiori nodded his head. “There is news.” Apricot looked up. “Kyo is having a ceremonial dedication tonight.”
When Apricot got up, she stepped over to Shiori who was looking at his phone, where he had a message from Akagi. “What does that mean?”
“Means they are making their move,” Shiori said. “Akagi got all the information on it. They wanted to keep it secret, and they brought several sacrifices for this ritual. However, I think it is a bait to draw us out.”
Apricot shrugged. “Bait to draw us out? What do you mean?”
“Akagi said they normally encrypt this stuff hard. This, however, was very elementary. It did not even take him any effort to decrypt the message. It’s an invitation to us.” Shiori growls. He places his hand on his chin.
“So, we will ignore it.”
Shiori shakes his head. “No, we can’t. If it is a legit ritual, then this could be game over for us if we don’t stop it. If it is bait, then let’s hope that Kyo is there. Either way, this ends tonight. We can put an end to the Okabe family for good. Their aspirations for a new world, at least. They won’t have another chance like this for a long time.”
“Why?” Apricot asked.
“The alignment between the other world and this one. They are close together dimensionally right now. It is the prime time to perform a ritual. After tonight it gets further and further away meaning the power able to be drawn from it is less and less. At least according to these notes.” Shiori smirked. “So in a way it was meant to be this way. Also, guess where they are having this ritual?”
“Where?” Apricot inquired.
“The grand temple garden. Where the biggest seal is located. It’s the oldest one too. So you know who will show up too. It is flawless. This is where it all comes down.” He gets up from his seat. “While I make preparations, would you mind seeing Cortez for me? He won’t answer my calls. It just goes to voice mail. I’m worried about him.”
“Yeah, I can do that,” Apricot said.
The next chapter is waiting for you, why not read it? Just click the button below to go to the next chapter.
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STOP! WAIT! I am writing this article to get you to visit my Facebook page. I’m sick. It’s a bait and switch. Now that’s out of the way. What’s the point of following my Facebook page? To build a community. To make you feel cared for! To make you feel important! Not just the collective you, but you as an individual. By the way, you look great in that red shirt. Sorry, it’s not red, you look good with it too.
I’m blushing now. Let’s discuss why I’m doing this. It has come to my attention that I am bad at social media and do not pay enough attention to it. Nevertheless, I write quite a bit. But I don’t share it. It’s only through a strong social media presence that I can share it. I will smash the gates with all my crippling social anxiety and try to break through. Could you help me? If you enjoy my writing, please spread it around. It would be greatly appreciated.
“2nd Season, 5th Moon, 2nd Week, 1st Day” ~Taer, The Azurian Capitol Of Marion, At Dusk
“Are you afraid your boyfriend will run away with a pretty lady he meets in the woods?”, teased Salome as she stretched her leg and played with her yellow skirt’s bows. Salome’s pale leg resembled porcelain, and her white floral stockings only added to her doll-like appearance. Amelie, Salome’s target of taunts, stood next to Talumn. Her gaze was fixed on a large pane of glass, watching nine horses trot across the fields toward a forest. In her mind, Talumn thought about how inaccessible those forests had become. It was melodramatic at its finest to see Amelie spread her fingers over the window. “I hate it when they go into those woods.” she moaned. A sigh escaped Salome’s lips. “You are boring when your boyfriend is around. You just romance over him.” She dropped her yellow skirt, sticking her tongue out, pretending to gag. Laughing, Talumn watched the princess wiggle a few times before leaping from the sill of the stone window. Amelie shook her head as she placed her hands on her hips. “I’m not.” Talumn knew she had never admitted to Median her crush, but it was obvious to everyone else. Despite her best efforts, she could not help but snicker. Amelie’s quick rejoinder drew a full laugh from Salome, who too found it funny. “And he’s not my boyfriend!” Amelie blurted out in a blush. Salome wagged her tongue in amusement. “You little devils!” Amelie screamed, giving them a look that would turn anyone with any sense to stone. Talumn, startled, looked down at Salome, who was smugly grinning with her hands on her hips. “Did you come all the way just to snub me?” “I didn’t come here to watch my brother ride a horse,” Salome said, raising her voice an octave. Seeing her elder sister challenged by someone for once is a fulfilling experience, especially since it’s someone so much younger than Amelie. As the two girls stared at each other, there was a creeping silence. Talumn caught herself sheepishly stifling a chuckle as the entire event appeared humorous to her. In a manner that suggested she had never taken part in the contest, Salome snapped her head away. “I’m bored,” she said. “Let’s go find something fun to do.” The younger blue-haired girl said grabbing Talumn’s hand. “I don’t want to be around dreamer girl anymore. She makes me sick.” “Come on, honey. Let’s go exploring.” Salome’s cheeks light up at Talumn’s suggestion. “That sounds like fun, I know just where to look too.” Talumn grinned and raised an eyebrow. “Let’s listen in on the Lords’ meeting.” Talumn’s face is bright with a wide grin as she imagined what they might be hearing. Getting an inside look at the operations of the kingdom had always been a hobby of hers. She felt important, as if she were a lord or an aristocrat. This was a piece of knowledge that only the finest few had access to, and she was one of them. She was not an orphan, but a true lady of the kingdom. However, Salome’s words result in Amelie’s loud burst from the window. The two girls are startled to see Amelie standing up with her arms folded. “No, you don’t!” she roars. “You little minx, Father would be furious if he found you.” “That’s why it’s so fun,” Salome said. “You can’t have fun if there is no danger involved.” Talumn’s arm is grabbed tightly by Amelie. “You better not do it.” “Oh, don’t act like a dead lizard. Where is your spirit of adventure?!” Salome said, pulling Talumn’s arm away. “Including I did not invite you. I and Talumn will go on our own.” Amelie shook her head in disbelief. I’m fine with you going, but you’re not taking Talumn. Don’t expect me to cry at your funeral if you get caught.” Crossing her arms, Talumn stands. “I would not mind going… I think it would be fun.” Amelie sighs, shaking her head. “It is said that we are ladies of the crown. The most they will do is scold us harshly. My father would never let old King Grandor touch me.” Salome taunts. “Your father is in Ruby Falls, serving the crown Salome,” Amelie retorted harshly. “Don’t forget you are a guest here Salome. You should act like a proper lady.” “I am a lady, Amelie! My brother will take care of your old father for me. What do you think of that?that?that? She wrinkles her nose and wiggles her fingers at the older princess. Amelie shakes her head while the young girl turns to Talumn pulling at her arm. “Let’s go.” “It is fine. We will only listen for a little Amelie.” Talumn said walking down the corridor with Salome. “You would be wise not to.” The two girls lift their skirts as they run down the baroque hall. A few seconds later, Amelie yells, “You stupid brats, don’t do it.”
Marshal Bregar, Hierarch Nigel and Lord Abelon the treasurer; all bow before taking a seat at the polished mahogany table. Grandor looks around his room. Yet, one spot at his table remains untouched, increasing the rage in his heart. The brows on his face narrow into a scowl. “Where is Griel?” his voice echoed through the chamber like a clap of booming thunder.
“Most likely in the taverns, my Lord,” a black-haired man whispered into the ear of High King Grandor. His name was Benidis, the voice of the kingdom and a fickle man.
With a long, drawn-out sigh, King Grandor replies, “Of course.” Griel’s behavior is predictable. In retrospect, he should have expected this from him. Since there was no point in wasting any more time, Grandor decided to begin the meeting now. In any case, Griel did not have much to add to the conversation. “What are our losses?” Grandor asked.
Lord Arwin sat to his right, whom Grandor had always kept close since he became High King. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Well, it could be more serious. We are still estimating the damage caused by the last moon’s attack. Volkmar has said that Lord Bilk is dead. We also lost Ulfates.” Grandor smiled a tad when he realized he had rid himself of that fool. A few weeks earlier, he had burned Bilk’s ramblings as kindling. It was after all the most appropriate way to dispose of them. There was hardly any reason to archive words so meaningless. “However, I have a concern. According to reports, the rebels are moving village guards out of Ulfates. Where they are going is unknown. This is troubling news. Benedis, I understand you have received several messages on behalf of the kingdom.” Grandor’s silver eyes gaze at the far end of the table. There sat “King” Bridehan, if anyone still considers him to be such.
Benedis said, “Unfortunately, I have. Parish has informed me. The Dalmaskans have attacked. Currently, they are being raided, and they are expected to suffer a full-scale invasion soon. Once again, My Lord, forces are requested of the throne.”
“Perhaps I can ease your mind, my lord.” Marshal Bregar looked at an old, rusted map on the table. Using a compass, he pointed to Ulfates in the east. “Following the capture of Ulfates, we have had several skirmishes in the villages leading to Verst. It appears they intend to conquer Verst from the east. Knowing this gives the kingdom an advantage.” He smiled as he pointed at the map. “We have been in contact with Lord Knight Hyde, who is planning an invasion of Ziekden, a small farming community outside of Belcross.”
“What makes Ziekden’s control so desirable?” Grandor grumbles.
Just west of Belcross, the Marshal pointed. “We’ve got an informant.” This person claims to still be loyal to the throne of the imperial kingdom. He has offered Guildred in exchange for immunity. Ziekden is building quite an operation, as it turns out. By striking them there, we will disrupt their entire operation. Lord Volkmar has already been informed of this information by me.”
“Very good.” Grandor looked at Bridehan with a piercing gaze. “Do you know anything about Ziekden Bridehan?” Bridehan shrunk into his chair at the question. Grandor growled, “That’s what I figured.”
“If I may interject… “, Arwin said, clearing his throat as Grandor taps his fingers on the table as he looks to Arwin, who could be called ancient. His brown eyes glanced around the room before speaking. “Lord Volkmar told me the rebels had located the fortress in Belcross. We take this Ziekden we may have an opportunity to not only take Ziekden but move to Belcross. Further, if we take Belcross at the same time as we retake Ulfates; there is no doubt in my mind that Guildred and his lot will be wiped off the map before the moon is over.” Grandor laughed at the idea. Suddenly the trouble he had been carrying left him and he felt a sense of ease.
“I will offer prayers for the kingdom to the true gods. May their will be done.” Chimes the hierarch.
Grandor thought to himself that it was nearly impossible not to laugh. If they were ever here, the gods were no more. Grandor rolls his eyes before looking back at Bridehan. “That’s a positive thing. Briehan, did you hear that?” Grandor snarled. “In less than a year from now, the uprising will be over.” Everyone looked at Bridehan snidely while he simply bowed down in shame. “So tell me, what is your plan for regaining control of your kingdom, Bridehan?”
King Bridehan of Taer was a fearsome warrior during the war, but after he gained the throne, he lost his once-powerful physique and instead became like a pig. Neither was he an intelligent person nor was he a skilled tactician, but rather he was a useful idiot. His body was like a golem. His hair was fading brown, turning gray. “It’s still ongoing,” Bridehan said.
“It’s still a pain in my side all these years later to think of Golgatha. Uprisings have again swept the land. Tributes have been severely lacking. The kingdom is losing soldiers. These developments have deeply concerned me. The Dalmaskans are raiding our allies in Parish day after day. We have no air forces to offer General Beney. If we don’t have a hold on our knights, how can we have a hold on the eastern kingdom? I fear we will be locked in a conflict with those savages in the far east unless our territories yield soldiers. Our interests would not only have to retreat to the mainland, but we would also face the wrath of the Imperator. Bridehan, how do you propose a solution to the mess you have created?” Grandor asked, placing more emphasis on the previous sentence.
Bridehan looked over sheepishly like a dog whipped by its master. “They are beasts without a sense of duty to the Royals. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know when to admit defeat, because it’s not my fault. I have never witnessed such pride. We risk a war unlike the last if we underestimate the people of Golgotha. We were able to negotiate a surrender and take Golgotha because of King Leon.”
Red-faced, the Marshal growled. “In which case, the man you poisoned!”
“It wasn’t me who did that. As much as you were surprised by King Leon’s poisoning, I was as well. That horror didn’t have to be witnessed by you. I was at the table with him when he died.” Bridehan said, leaping to his feet.
“That’s enough!” Grandor roared. ”Bridehan, continue what you were saying.”
“The people of the land don’t even respect me as their king, let alone follow my decrees. I would have full-blown revolts if I used more force. My knights and I are not feared by them. It is the ideals they strive for that are problematic. I cannot kill it from their hearts. The thought of these things has kept me awake many nights. I have given them everything they asked for and they still want more! Even if I had thrown down my crown before them, they would still not be pleased.” said Bridehan.
“You say it’s out of your hands. You are a powerless king in a land rife with barbarians?” said the King. “Marshal Bregar, how would you deal with such a populace?”
“My Lord, make an example of them. If their crops fail to produce, burn them. Take their youth and make them soldiers if soldiers don’t come. Quell them if they refuse to bend their knees. The problem you have, Bridehan, is that they do not fear you.” said Bregar looking every bit as fierce as a black lion. From his mane-like hair and beard to his glowing yellow eyes. It’s hard not to be impressed.
Bridehan stood from his chair with his hands slamming on the table. “That is insane!” he exclaimed. “Do that, and you will see the biggest uprising in Golgotha you’ve ever seen! Your ideas of how easily controllable these people are are incorrect. They have their own traditions and even a different set of gods than we do. I will not be afflicted by madmen.”
In a calm voice, Grandor commanded, “Sit.” Bridehand eased himself back into his chair. As he sat back, he heard a small creek. Then there was silence. “Very well.” he said. “What about you, Rhal?” Grandor asked in a raspy voice.
From his guard position in front of the large twin doors, the young knight looks up slowly. He glanced over the group of much older and wiser men than himself with bright silver eyes. “I would pretend to be one of them. When you control the love of the people, then nothing is beyond your reach.” Rhal stated before returning to his guard position, hand resting on the pommel of his saber.
As Bridehan looked over at Rhal, he folded his arms. “How am I supposed to convince them to give me that?” Rhal’s discomfort was obvious to everyone. Because it was completely unnatural for him to address a king as an equal, he simply bowed.
Rhal was spared the shame of answering when High King Grandor spoke up. “Would you like to know how I would deal with this King Bridehan?” Slowly, Bridehan turned his head from Rhal’s grin and to Grandor and watched him intently. “I would get a new king.” he said.
Bridehan’s eyes widen as the words leave his mouth. As he realized tonight that he might be executed, he became terrified. “My Lord King, please have mercy on me!” shouted the king.
“You see, this didn’t happen overnight, Bridehan. For the last twenty years, you have ruled. The decline was gradual. Using your power in an unwise way resulted in you losing control over time. In your castle, you hid up like a coward while thieves ravaged your domain and you dined on the finest foods. Having become weak, now you want to regain strength. We now face civil war among our forces after you permitted a small uprising by the Knights. The news of our inability to handle our troops will lead to my head on a pike if it reaches west. There is no purpose for you anymore and you are no longer able to be strong. I, on the other hand, am the true king. If you are a mere figurehead, I will let you stay. You shall be the King of Tidas. You will be hated by the East, and I want them to hate you. You will be the fool in their eyes. Therefore, keep your fool’s crown.” declared the King.
“My High King, I thank you, but what about Golgatha?” He breathed heavily as he realized this would not be the end of Grandor’s curse.
“Golgatha needs a King they can rally around. Rhal is right. A king must love his people. The way to have that is to be a native of Golgatha. Arwin, how are your studies with Prince Illian?”
“Prince Illian is a refined nobleman. He is an outstanding strategist. He has my highest regard.” said Lord Arwin.
“I know my son has struggled with his studies. He isn’t ready to claim his place in the east, according to my understanding. Consequently, Illian shall be made King of Elitus. Surely you wouldn’t object to this, wouldn’t you Bridehan?” Bridehan looked down at the table, fiddling with his hands. “Benidis, get things in order. Get him crowned in Elitus before the full moon.”
Counselor Benidis responds, “Yes, sir.”
Grandor leaned back in his chair and sighed. He looked around the room slowly. His attention is drawn to Lord Arwin. “Now that that order of business is done. How are the skies up north?”
“It was horrible, cutting off his head. There was blood all over the ground. I feel sick to my stomach just thinking of it.” Tybolt clutched his horse’s bridle tight as he described executing a local earlier in the day.
Taking a glance in Tybolt’s direction, Illian stroked his chin. “Would you want our city to be swarming with thieves?”
With a shudder, he shook his head. “N-no, but you’d think they’d have another method of execution that is less messy. Like starving them to death in a box or poisoning them. Not just axing their heads off in the street.” The blond prince shivered, “It’s disgusting.”
As Tybolt looks over at Median, who is slightly ahead of him. “What happens to the criminals in Ruby Falls?” Illian was also curious about Median’s response. The stories and ideas he told were very different from those he was used to hearing. Since arriving when he was a child, Illian had never left Taer. To him, it was his world. Median, an alien visitor, is welcomed warmly.
“Well, we always need people to fill the Colosseum,” said Median when he flashed a toothy smile. He brushed his hand through his fiery red hair as he said, “We simply throw them in a pit, give them a weapon and let them fight in battle until they die.” His blue eyes framed a face Illian found more beautiful than the sculpted gods at the shrine.
A horrified look crossed Tybolt’s face as he groaned and held his stomach. “That sounds absolutely barbaric.” he muttered.
Shaking his head slowly, the prince in black armor looks into the distance. “It is very graceful. A work of art. There is an undertone of death and life in it. The glorious struggles of a man to survive. His true nature is on display for all to see. Crimes are paid for, revenue is generated, and people are entertained. It’s better all around.” said Median. “Well, except for the poor blokes who can’t fight, but they usually die pretty quickly.”
Illian’s ears rang as he heard the man casually speak of such a painful death. In spite of how unethical it may sound, Median was exactly right, Illian thought. All of those benefits would be achieved but at the cost of morality of course. “This is something I never considered before.” Tybolt chimes sarcastically, “I assumed your gladiators were free men looking to make a name for themselves.” Illian was also surprised. There was no mention of criminal competitors in his extensive study of the colosseum in Ruby Falls.
“Most of the time, they are,” Median added with a lively voice. The problem is that when we reenact a battle, we often do not have enough bodies to make it look spectacular. We use the seized for that.” According to Illian, Median, unlike his father, King Ailer, believed that the best way to rule was through overwhelming force. He certainly was not a man to be triffled with. Yet, he was a poet and philosopher who kept his people spellbound with his mysterious charm.
It was a beautiful evening as Illian admired the bioluminescent forest. Throughout the blossoming night, neon shades of blue, green, and pink surrounded us. Their band on horseback strolled casually through a garden road. Median, however, wore a black breastplate of armor covering his commoner’s clothing, rather than the royal fatigues Illian and Tybolt wore.
Tybolt glanced behind him at Illian. “You need to hurry up! You’re too slow.” Tybolt huffed, pulling his Azure blue cape tight against his chest. “What are you looking at anyway?” he asked as he gestured in the direction of the thick forest, “There’s nothing but trees out here.”
“That is exactly what I am doing now. We don’t ride in the woods very often at night. Did you ever stop to consider how beautiful things are?” Illian asked with genuine interest.
A snap of Tybolt’s head brought him back to his front. “You can admire it from the walls of the castle. I’m tired of riding and I’m ready to go home. Plus, you two can talk about your cruel interests in a tavern. I can’t imagine what rousing conversation you two would have with a drink in hand.”
“I would assume you would get tired of being inside those walls,” Median says dully. Sometimes, Tybolt, you remind me of a caged animal. One that is disappointing and cowardly.” He sprawls back onto his horse with absolute comfort. Observing Medion’s mail raising, Tybolt could not help but notice his toned stomach.
Not wanting to be aroused, he closes his eyes. “Perhaps if I lived in a cave like some mud person you would change your mind? We are royalty, and we do not belong among these… primitive people. We are not peasants, we are rulers.”
Prince Medion snickered. “What’s the difference?”
“To be out here among the dirt is careless and lax. Having a city as your home is a dignified thing, it means you have an important place to be in.” He replied.
While Tybolt was paying attention to Illian, a smile began to spread across his face. While pulling his horse to stand beside Tybolt’s white stallion, he asked, “And where would that prominent place be?”
“What does it mean to you? You seem to prefer to be with a pack of trees. Given the amount of time you spend with books, I should have guessed it. They’re all made from the same damn thing anyway, and I for one don’t want to be in these woods all night.” Tybolt taps Illian’s horse as he explores the dimly lit forest. As Illian realizes Tybolt still has a childish fear of the dark, he snickers to himself. Probably also of the outdoors. For as long as he could remember, Tybolt had been a coward. With a knowing look, he smirked at Tybolt. “The look on your face is not flattering to me.” Tybolt snarled, turning away from Illian.
“I myself enjoy night rides. I don’t mean to offend you, but that castle is rather boring.” Median remarked from the back of his horse. There is a slight breeze rustling the leaves.
“What you too?” Tybolt asked betrayed. “Joining his side? Why do you behave like a traitor?” Tybolt asked sarcastically. “You are meant to agree with me.”
“I don’t have a side to play in this.” Medion replied.
“Go ahead if you want,” Illian said. “Take the three royal guards with you. I will stay with the rear three.” A howl from the dark alerted the knights, sending them to reach for their swords. As Tybolt froze, he turned pale. He shot an angred glance at Illian.
“Look at all the wolves,” said Medion. The woods are brightly illuminated by hundreds of white shining eyes. “They must regard us as invaders.”
“The wise keepers of the woods. After all, we are in their house. Naturally, they would take an interest in us. At least they are not wildlings. Illian smiled softly as he said, “They know better than to challenge.”
“Wolves, wise are the last words that come to mind when I think of them.” As he looked out among their number, Tybolt resisted every urge in his body to quiver. “Cowards, that’s what they are. They hide in numbers but never act alone.” Tybolt shook his head and whispered, “I said let’s go, Illian!”
Median as he sat up and turns on the saddle of his horse to face the young prince. Illian watches Medion’s curious grin spread across his face. “Are you still scared of the dark?”
“I do not fear the dark.” roared Tybolt, sending several birds scurrying away. “I just feel achy after all this riding, and I would like to take a hot bath before bed.”
Medion chuckled teasingly, “It sounds like you’re making an excuse.”
Now red as a cherry, Tybolt let out an audible gasp completely forgetting his fear of wolves. His fingers rattled against the pommel of his rapier. From his side, he draws it, pointing the tip at Medion’s throat. “I dare you to repeat that. Medion, I bloody dare you.” In half an instant, Medion had secured his dagger against Tybolt’s neck. Snapping his fingers, he returned his knife to its holster. Watching Tybolt’s face and sword fall in defeat, Illian grinned. “If father were here, you would never treat me like this.”
“Your father would be extremely upset if he were here and saw how you are acting,” Medion said firmly as he points a finger between Tybolt’s eyes.
He stopped his horse in its tracks, saying, “I’m not a child.”. After giving Tybolt one more glance, Medion smiled at Illian and they exchanged a quick nod before continuing down the path past the three front guards.
Tybolt hollers, “You can’t leave Medion without guards.”
His remark made one of the guards chuckle. “I am not sure if Medion has guards or if he guards the guards, my lord.” Tybolt grinned at the man. Ilian recognized that grin; it was feral, like a wild animal’s. “I suppose that’s true though. He shouldn’t be out there all by himself like that though.”
“My lady, come on, Grandor will have us slew if we don’t get you in on time.” one of the guards in the front said. Everyone laughed, except Tybolt. Illian glanced at Tybolt’s still face that was staring forward blankly, and he knew something terrible was about to happen at that moment.
Tybolt’s nostrils flared as he breathed heavily as he faced the man. “What did you say?” Tybolt snapped his fingers and pointed at the man. “Get off your horse and bow your head,” he commanded softly.
He looked over at the other soldiers. Their heads nodded to him, and he smirked before jumping off the back of his horse. Taking his foot off the saddle’s strap, Tybolt slowly lowered himself from the horse’s back. He stood several inches shorter than the soldier as he approached. The soldier stared at him with an intent look as Tybolt grinned with a crazed look. In the faintest voice he could muster, he whispered, “On your knees.”
Illian leapt from his horse and ran toward Tybolt. While drawing his sword from its ivory sheath, Tybolt cocked his head looking directly back at Illian. “Illian, I’m going back to the savagery of my father. Want to see?”
Illian dove for Tybolt as Tybolt held the blade over the man’s neck. He grabbed the blade with his bare hand and yelled, “Tybolt! Let your father deal with him.”
As Tybolt struggled to pull the sword away from Illian, he squealed, “Know your place, Illian!” The guard jumped to his feet, taking several steps away as Tybolt kicked Illian in the ribs, nearly knocking him unconscious. Two young nobles struggle with blades while guards watch intently. Despite Tybolt’s best efforts, Illian manages to retch the sword from his grip.
“I do Tybolt, you should know yours too,” Illian said, tossing his sword onto the ground before Tybolt. A firm slug to the chin knocked Illian backward. Tybolt grabbed the saber without a word, retiring to the side of his horse. Illian stares at him, the fire in Tybolt’s eyes this was not over. He grabs the side of the horse, then lunges onto its back in an unusual acrobatic display. Although he could not believe what he had just seen, the look on everyone’s faces clearly indicated he should.
The meeting of lords was now over, and Rhal braced himself against the huge hall doors. Royals gather their things as he awaited dismissal. “Gods and Grandor should be praised for sparing him from Bridhan’s scorn,” he reasoned. His attention is caught by a series of stifled squeals coming from the other side of the door. Hearing the click of cork heels trailing down the hall, he glanced at the crack between the doors. From the entrance, his silver eyes turn to Lord Grandor who is gathering several documents. “Those bloody girls are doing it again.” Rhal whispered to himself. “I better get them out of here before Grandor sees his daughter snooping.” He bowed to his knee and said, “My High King, may I excuse myself at this time?”
From his papers, Grandor glanced up. “Do what you must,” Grandor said while waving his hand. “I am happy with your performance today.” Rhal bowed lower with this. “I may have to take a closer look at you in the near future.”
“Thank you, my lord. It means a great deal to hear this from you.” Rhal stood as Grandor nodded. As he pushed the twin bars aside, the doors creak open loudly. As Rhal peered from behind a pillar, he saw the edge of a light blue dress and yellow ribbon.
Slowly he walked along with the polished white marble floors with a smile on his face. Just as he reached the pillar, he stopped. The two girls sheepishly poke their heads from behind the mast after a short bit of giggling. His boots go clanking with each slow and deliberate step he took. Rhal grinned at the young beauties hiding behind their hair. In a calm voice, he said, “Well…”.
Glancing at each other, the two princesses are gleefully blushing. Princess Talumn, trying to appear serious, asked, “Is this any way to address two fair ladies of the crown, Sir Rhal?” Light pink lips appear against her russet skin.
“I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a lady,” he said, stroking his chin. “Where might she be?”, he asked with a hint of amusement.
“What do you mean by what you said?” Princess Salome barks at him, her hands are placed on both sides of her vanilla dress as she narrows her eyes.
The man raised his eyebrows while placing his hand to his side. “To be honest, it looks like I am talking to a couple of very very talented little spies.” They beamed and chortled. The small outburst caused Rhal to glance around uneasily. “If you keep doing this, I’ll get in trouble. You know better than to listen in on the King’s meetings. There you two are again creeping around. Don’t do it. You girls will make tempting captives of yourselves.” He wagged a white-gloved finger at the girls.
Talumn grasped Rhal’s arm, stopping him from wagging his finger. “We have faith in our great and honorable protector,” Talumn said.
Salome follows embracing him and pressing her head into his chest. “After all, we are safe with you around.”
Rhal rolled his eyes and slumped back as he pushed the two girls off of him. “And what if I am not around?”
Salome looked at Rhal with a broad grin on her face. “Then we will scream and you will come running,” she said matter of factly, almost as if she believed it herself. While gazing into her sapphire eyes, he stroked her ice-blue hair. Before he messes up her hair, she gives him a childish pout.
“So you have that much faith in me do you?” Rhal glared at the two before he said, “What am I to do with you? Just be good at it if you must.”
“Are you going to tell father?” Talumn’s voice rose several octaves higher and became very childish. Naturally, he wouldn’t fall for that, but if he did, it would only get the girls in trouble and maybe result in reprimand for him. But if he doesn’t know, they will do it again.
He shook his head. “No, only because he has more urgent matters to attend to.” That’s when Rhal noticed that Amelie wasn’t with them. The only one who can get him out of his trouble is Amelie, and he would make sure she knew it. “And where is your elder sister, Talumn?” he asked. “Isn’t she part of your usual group?”
Folding her arms, Salome stood up straight. “She wasn’t interested in coming today. She is waiting for the boys to return from riding.” She puts her tongue to her cheek. “She always talks about my brother. It’s gross.”
Rahl chuckled, “Ah, I see, that explains it.” He had noticed the two of them spending more time together lately. He had suspected it, but now it was confirmed. If Grandor found out about their flirting, he wasn’t sure how he would react. Still, it wasn’t his place to worry about it. “Before you get in real trouble, skedaddle out of here. You aren’t even supposed to be on this side of the castle.” The two grin at each other and run off, raising their skirts and exposing themselves as they do so. Half-smiling, Rhal shakes his head. “Those two.”
Princess Amelie waited in the castle courtyard on the rim of a vast fountain. Her gaze was drawn to the statue of Luniel the peace bringer, which guarded the center of the fountain pool. Water flowed from the goddess’s raised palms, displaying a sense of quiet peace. Watching the distant dark for any sign of light, the princess looked down at her beautiful silk scarlet pleated skirt. It didn’t take Amelie long to see a horse with a lantern strapped to its side breach the darkness. As her heart fluttered, a feeling of dread creeps up her spine, wrapping its terrible arms around her. In an attempt to see the rider, she craned her neck, but the darkness intended to conceal its presence.
Upon reaching the gates, the envy of her eye, Prince Medion, appeared to be in proper order, to her complete delight. In a moment of relief, Amelie rose to her feet. Medion halted his horse in the courtyard. He jumped off its back in grand style. Princess Amelie hurriedly embraced him. “A welcome party!” he laughed, hugging her tightly. His fingers stroked Amelie’s flaxen hair. In exchange for the softest of kisses on her cheek, she gave him the best smile she could muster.
In that moment, she realized that she had forgotten about her previous worries. “Where are the others?“ She asked looking up at him with lotus-colored eyes. His head rolled around his shoulders as he gave a half-grin before rolling his eyes. The elegant princess held back her laughter. “I always worry about you when you ride into the night like this,” Amelie said as she laid her head against Medion’s cold black breastplate of armor.
Medion merely smiles at her and pets her head. He is quite tall, almost an entire foot taller than she is. “Milady, would you like to come along with Flowen and me to the stables?”
Amelie said, “I would love to.” Over her shoulder, she saw Tybolt’s white horse bounding from the woods. As he rushed in past Medion and herself, he did not even bother to slow down for gate guards. Following closely behind him are the other guards and Illian. Upon passing the gate, Medion looks over and waves to Illian.
As Illian rode his horse up next to the pair, he scratched his head. Tybolt’s horse echoes through the courtyard. Illian said with a chuckle, “He is upset.”
“What else is new with my idiot brother?” Amelie said. “And what did he do this time?”
“Father!” the prince cried. “Father!” Tybolt hollered again as he stormed into his father’s quarters. The candle on Grandor’s desk flickered as he slammed the door behind him. Grandor turned his head away from the pile of papers laying before him.
Shaking his head, Grandor sighed at his son’s antics. “Yes, my son. What troubles you?”
Snarling like a wolf, Tybolt ground his teeth. “Those are some fine knights you keep. They insult me without mercy.” Tybolt shouted at the top of his lungs, “Your filthy guards are worthless.”
Grandor returned his pen to its inkwell. “Would you be so kind as to enlighten me on what happened?”
Tybolt was clenching his fists. “One of your guards called me a damn woman!” he exclaimed.
“How should we deal with such a matter, my father?” Grandor’s eyes grew heavy as he rose from the table.
“Do you have any questions about what should be done?” He threw his hand in the air as he walked to the other side of the table.
“How often do you come here? It seems you always have something to say about my guards. Would you prefer to pick them yourself?” Tybolt opened his mouth but was swiftly cut off. “No, please do not answer that. Are you dead?” Grandor grunted.
A narrow look crossed Tybolt’s face. “The question is ridiculous.”
“That’s right, why would you be dead? You’re well guarded by my guards. With that mouth of yours, you’re lucky to still have it.” Tybolt stared for a moment at his father’s shaking eyes.
“Well, I… It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims. “I was called a woman! I am the heir to the throne. I expect him to respect royalty. This-this-this dog might as well have bitten me.” A long breath erupted out of his nostrils.
Grandor just shook his head. “You should consider what you are saying.”
“I know what I say!” Tybolt shouted back.
Slowly, Grandor approached his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Yes, and that bothers me,” he said. “I sometimes feel sick thinking about leaving the throne to you. I’ve stayed up all night worrying about you. Your sister may be better suited to ruling than you.”
Tybolt pushed his father’s hand away. “He called me a woman! Even by your standards, that is asking for death.”
Afterward, Grandor roared. “It is because of childish things like this that I have to send someone else to handle Galgotha instead of dealing with it myself. It is advisable if I leave Taer in your hands, Tybolt, instead of staying here as your supervisor.”
“Then who will you send in your place?” Tybolt snapped.
Grandor looked away from Tybolt and said, “Illian.” in a quiet, calm voice.
Tybolt took several steps forward, lowering his head like a crow. He mumbles, “Illian?”
Walking toward his balcony, Grandor said, “He leaves three days from now.” Tybolt follows him but stops at the threshold.
Grandor ran his fingers along the edge of the railing. “How is that possible?” Tybolt asked, completely puzzled.
“He is to be crowned King of Elitus,” Grandor said, turning to Tybolt to see his reaction. As Tybolt’s eyes grew crazed, he knew what was coming. As a child, he always got the same look when he was forced to share his toys.
“My kingdom is Golgatha. Bridehan is ruling in my stead.” Tybolt pointed a finger at his father while cocking his head to one side.
“And Elitus is Illian’s; you knew this day would come. It is his by right.” Grandor then corrected Tybolt, “Including he can serve a purpose now.”
“For what purpose?” Tybolt stepped onto the balcony. “It makes more sense to keep him here than to send him to those savages at Golgotha.”
Grandor peered over the edge to view the whole city and a vast distance beyond his grand kingdom of Taer. “He is a native son; they won’t treat him as they would one of us. Golgotha can have what they want, their country. Elitus will be put back in its place. As an empire, Golgotha cannot stand against us without Elitus. It’s as simple as that Tybolt.”
Tybolt shook his head in disbelief. “Illian is still too young to rule.”
Arwin considers Illian to be a wise man. So do I. Illian is similar to his father. He would be proud of him, just as I am.” Grandor turned away from Tybolt.
This is not one of Arwin’s scenarios. This is Illian ruling a kingdom.” Tybolt tapped his foot. “Nevertheless, what does Illian know about Golgotha? He is as native as a son as I am. Moreover, they will view Illian as an enemy.”
“I have appointed many kings, Tybolt. I will appoint many more after Illian. It is foolish of you to think you are wiser than me.” Grandor glanced at his son.
In disbelief, Tybolt shook his head. “Father, you can’t have him. He is my brother. Do you wish to take him away?”
“Illian is the future of my kingdom, as well as yours. You will not have to clean up your father’s filth when I leave you, Marion. I will leave the Empire in pristine condition. All you have to do is learn how to rule it. As soon as you have proven to me that you are dedicated to the Imperator, and you will take your role in the kingdom seriously, I will consider giving you a position in the kingdom. Up until then, I won’t be hearing anything from you.” Grandor let out a heavy sigh. “Sometimes, I feel ashamed to call you my son. Unlike Illian, who has advanced in the ranks and proven himself to Arwin, you have chosen to disregard your studies. As a father, can you imagine how difficult it is for me to do this? You are splinters in my cup!” Grandor turned away from his son and stepped away from the edge.
Instead, Tybolt walks past his father, grabbing onto the railing as he points at the city below. His fist slowly closes. “Illian was not meant for you,” he said. “Both of you are ignorant of the truth. Truth is, ruling is not about being loyal to your kingdom. It’s about being powerful and feared. You must command respect and loyalty from your people if you expect them to obey you. Bridehan chose to be weak. If they do not follow orders, hang their bodies from every rafter in the city. That is how you rule.” Tybolt said, his eyes burning. “Despite such a small number, the Talmians held strong. So why don’t we strive to have a kingdom like theirs? I am made to study useless drivel, names of past kings and lords, and their meager accomplishments, by Arwin. Then I read about Valarious, the man who established the Azure Kingdom. The Talmian student surpassed Hemlock and his empire, which spanned the whole known world. I aspire to surpass him.”
“The dreams of a child. The people of Talmia were evil. This world was cursed by them. Everything they touched was ruined. By following their path, you will rule a kingdom of sand. Valarious was highly regarded despite his Talmian heritage. Grandor sighed. “I love you, but you are not yet ready to rule. There is much to learn.”
Tybolt gazed down at the vast city below, his mouth salivating as he said, “My kingdom will be more glorious than any kingdom this world has ever seen. I have seen it. A glorious bride. My kingdom is waiting for me. It is destiny.”
Through the threshold of the balcony, Grandor walked back inside, shaking his head. “It is, for this reason, I do not trust you.”
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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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The morning rays of light peek over the dark cityscape. Apricot ran along a sidewalk, her backpack skipping with each step. The damp breeze fluttered her skirt as the early traffic passed her. She stopped in front of a large apartment building. Somewhat winded, she took a moment to breathe. Her shoes echoed as she walked up the concrete steps toward a pair of double glass doors. Leaning into the bars of the doors, she found no purchase. Glancing over to the side, she saw a large white box on the wall. It was overwhelming how many rooms were on the panel. After navigating to 15E, she pressed the white square with her digit. With a beep announcing her, she said “Bon Bon! Hey Bon Bon, it’s Apricot. Buzz me in.”
A few seconds passed before the intercom beeped again. “Api, what the heck are you doing here so early?” Bonni replied in a groggy voice.
“Bonni!” Apricot shouted. “Just let me in.” Another pause passed and continued. “Is she not going to let me in?” Apricot pondered.
“Fine,” Bonni sighed as the front door’s automatic latch clicked open. “Come on up.”
The apartment complex is uninspiring inside. The carpet is brown, and the walls were painted several years ago, apparently out of style. It reminded her more of a cheap motel than a place people would live. The immediate scent of cigarette smoke greeted her. “Bonni, what are you doing here?” The entire experience left Apricot contemplating that thought all the way into the elevator.
Upstairs, everything is much the same. Apricot made her way down the musky hall toward 15E. Once there, she knocks. Bonni replies from behind the several times painted door, “It’s open.” Apricot turned the brass doorknob to see a much more pleasant sight. Black coal ceilings with studio lamps, a polished faux stone floor, and clean white walls. It is definitely Bonni’s style. “Good morning!” Apricot said to Bonni, who was covered in a fluffy pink bathrobe.
Her eyes were half shut and her hair was uncombed. “You are awfully spry already. Going to school?” Bonni asked.
“Sure am. Hey, I had a question to ask you?” Apricot smiled as Bonni rolled her eyes.
Bonni walked over towards her noisy coffee maker. “Not yet, girl. Look, I was sleeping. Do you need a ride to school or something?”
“No, no!” Apricot shouted, waving both of her hands. “Nothing like that.”
Bonni took a sip from the black cup of coffee. After the swig, she swallowed and took a deep breath. A slow exhale followed. “Well, what is it then?”
“How many of those Paranormal Monthly’s do you still have?”
“You mean Eerie Truth’s Monthly?” Bonni chuckled. Her demeanor changed. She was awake as she walked up to Apricot, poking her in the chest. “I knew you would get hooked!” Bonni chirped. “You want to borrow some of my past editions?”
Apricot shook her head. “Yeah, if you could, as many of them as you have. I got the latest one, and I could not stop reading it. Did you read the one about the vampire club?” Apricot asked Bonni.
“Yeah, I did. What a weird group of people. You know, I think I met those people once! I was auditioning for a movie.” Bonni trailed off in her conversation as she walked out of the room. Apricot looks around the apartment. She imagined it would not take much effort to make this place look messy. A minimalist style is always so minimal that anything out of place would throw off the entire appeal. A few papers rest on her coffee table. Apricot could not help but take a glance. There is a script for a play or movie, a few bills, and a sci-fi book called Robicon. Glancing out the twin pan windows, Apricot could see a good part of the city. The view is beautiful. It made sense now why Bonni lived in such a place. The lobbies suck, but the apartments are not half bad.
“Here we are,” Bonni said, carrying out a stack of magazines. “I got more, but I figured this is plenty enough to keep you busy.” A wide grin filled Apricot’s face.
She took off her backpack placing it on the floor. Carefully, she slides each magazine inside and zips up the bag. “You are a lifesaver, Bonni,” Apricot hoisted the now heavy backpack onto her shoulders. She slumped backward before regaining her posture.
“Well, you know, I like to help,” Bonni commented. “So you heading off to school?”
“Yeah, sadly I got to,” Apricot told Bonni. Bonni nodded with a smirk. “Have a good day Bon Bon.”
Bonni gave Apricot a parting hug. “You too. We can talk later about the stories!” Apricot nodded before heading out the door.
Class didn’t seem necessary as Apricot listened to Miss Akagi’s lecture. Concentration evaded her as she speculated about that Kinjo noble. He seemed to know what he was doing. So these phenomena cannot be something new, she concluded. If he perceived the crisis was linked to these creatures, then maybe all the nobles recognized this. That might be why they are so desperate to cover it up. It would explain things, but that only left more questions to be answered. If what Chino Tokuma said was correct, then she had much more to consider. Like who was this Urias guy and why would he be eating people. Now that she thought about it, Solenne mentioned something about that the other day at the arcade.
If the nobles knew of this and planned a city as a sacrifice for that ritual, what else were they capable of and what would they have planned in the future. She concludes her best choice right now is to investigate the phantoms and carry on as if that is her only goal. To stay open-minded but not veer from her task. If the phantoms were causing all the disturbances, the fewer of them there were, the more stable her situation would become.
“Apricot,” Miss Akagi’s voice boomed. “What are the four tenants of journalism?”
“Seek truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently, and to be accountable.” Her response must have been beyond what Miss Akagi expected, as she gave a slow nod before continuing her lecture. A warm satisfaction filled her knowing she bested her teacher. In all honesty, though, it almost seems trivial considering the more significant issue at hand.
The reaper, how would she find and talk to the reaper. She had questions, and she wanted answers. What exactly is his role in all this? How did she fit in? Clearly, he had one, though that seemed even more mysterious than the role of the Okabe in all this. Her hope for a meeting is a strange encounter at the reaper’s convenience. For now, she just possessed small fragments to follow leads on. From this point forward, things will be different she resolved. Earie Truth’s Monthly would become her roadmap and the path to an ultimate end. To what end, she was not entirely sure, but whatever it was had to be better than this limbo.
After class, Apricot took a detour towards the gym. Once inside, some old acquaintances greeted her she couldn’t quite place the names of. A smile and wave satisfied her as a proper response. Routing towards the aerobic equipment, she began the usual stretches she had learned in primary school. It had been a long time since she was in competitive gymnastics and fencing, but if she would undergo such a dangerous journey; she considered it best to be as prepared as possible. She spent several hours at the gym before picking up her things and heading home.
Tsungdung is always busy. This stretch of road is lined with markets. The enticing aromas of the many different cuisines made anyone’s mouth water. Deep in thought, she glanced beside her to see a polished midnight cruiser driving beside her. The mirror glass side window rolled down. Behind black sunglasses, a man in a black suit peered through the door at her. The man said, “Mam, I need you to step into the car.”
Are these guys related to Ji Li or Shiori? Whatever their relationship, she wouldn’t be getting into that car today. Apricot replied, “I’m not.”
“This is not a request.” the man said, pulling a badge from his pocket that read “Okabi Special Investigative Force #2044”. Apricot felt her chest become heavy, and a cold sweat formed. Upon opening the rear passenger door, a man dressed exactly the same steps out of the car and leads her inside.
Apricot glided across the leather seat. After stepping back inside the vehicle, the other man closed the door as the vehicle continued to coast. Stuffed in the back of this car between two bulky men brought sardines to mind. “Apricot.” The front passenger replied, “I understand you were involved in the Ichigari Grocery incident.”
“Yes,” Apricot replied, knowing that keeping a low profile was best since she had no idea what was happening.
“How have those biologicals affected you? Have you had any strange visions since then? Has your behavior changed?” the man inquired.
“No, not at all.” She lied.
“That’s good to hear,” he replied, although the fakeness and raised tone of his voice indicated he was searching for something more. “So, ever see anything strange on Ikijoji street, perhaps at night, walking home from Ichigari Grocery?” The man leaned his body over the armrest to look back at Apricot. He lowered his glasses to reveal his dark brown eyes.
The words were like daggers into Apricot. “I fell there a few weeks ago,” Apricot replied while trying to maintain a cool demeanor. “Nothing other than that.”
The man raised his glasses back, chewing with his closed mouth. “Nothing out of the ordinary? You did not see any monsters, right?”
“Monsters? What do you mean by monsters? I heard about the murders if that is what you mean. “I saw nothing,” Apricot said, feeling her palms sweat.
Everyone in the car seems almost inanimate, except for the man. “Funny thing…I noticed you purchased a copy of the Erie Truth’s Monthly recently. It’s a bit strange that you bought it out of the blue. Isn’t it, Miss Signa?”
“I was recently shown an issue by a friend of mine. As a journalist, I find them entertaining.” These guys knew everything about her, Apricot realized. As her breath became shallow, she felt as if her throat was about to close on her.
“You wouldn’t have been trying to buy a gun at a store called Bullseye’s, would you?“ he asked, holding up a piece of paper. The page featured several screenshots taken from a security camera, captured in grainy, low-resolution photos. “I think you did. You really had that shop owner tangled up.”
Apricot nodded. “I was doing an investigation into illegal gun trades.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re a persistent journalist, aren’t you? Doing some investigative reporting on the ground. I like that kind of reporting. Recently, I read about something similar. Actually, I think it was by you.”
“By me?” Apricot asked.
“Yes, about being a hostage. You don’t have to be reminded of it. You must have had a traumatic experience.” he says. “Well, it seems you don’t remember much, so let me remind you. It’s time to stop your investigation. We considered Chino Tokuma’s visit to be the final straw. Furthermore, you broke into a restricted area, Eastway Park, which you probably learned about from that magazine you got. We wanted you to know, Miss Signa, that we are keeping an eye on you.”
Apricot didn’t even notice the events that followed. One moment she was in the back of an anonymous government car and the next she stood on the sidewalk of Tsungdung street staring off, surrounded by people who had no idea what she was going through. The smells and sounds faded as a phone rested against her ear.
“Hello,” said a gruff male voice over the line.
“Arjun, are you off duty?” Apricot heard the quiver in her own voice.
“Apricot?” Arjun replied, his voice trembling with concern.
“Come get me now, please.” She sniffled.
As Lady Kyo gazed from the private balcony of a crowded theater, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful?” She held the red Azoth in her hand as it gazed back at her. A red-eye, now bare, rolled from side to side. “My baby… a new world will be born for you,” she whispered. In expensive fatigues, an elderly gentleman sits upright opposite her. Several people in black suits surround the two with their arms folded.
Kyo’s own thoughts, as she stares at the thing, drown out the song of an opera singer. She shows the Azoth to the man next to her. “I believe you are now the master of the Okabe family. Given these circumstances, I doubt anyone would object to your ascendancy. Tell me what you have planned for your newly acquired position.”
The jewel was the only thing Kyo paid attention to while she ignored the man’s questions. “Tell me, Hegia, how long have our ancestors been seeking this. How do you interpret it? Take a look around you. We are the privileged few who can really appreciate it. A sense of calm. Take a look at her down there. “Young, brilliant, and beautiful,” Kyo said, turning her attention to the opera singer. “What does her talent mean to you?”
Hegia smirked. “I suppose you will tell me?”
“No. Not at all. Doesn’t matter. All things considered. It won’t save her.” She glanced at Hegia without moving her face. “To answer your question, does it matter if I tell you? It won’t make a difference to you anyway.”
Hegia stiffened, raising a hand to fix his collar. “Lady Kyo?”
“The new world needs none of us. It only needs a mother, and she too can die in labor.” Kyo mused. While he tried to maintain his composure, the look on his face showed his discomfort. Rocking in his seat, he swallowed hard. “All the people in this room are already dead. They just aren’t aware of it yet. The coming age will sacrifice all of us. Just like the previous worlds did. What power do I have then?”
“You envision a new world left to be decided by chance? Who will guide this new world if the nobility is absent?”
Lady Kyo chuckled “You disappoint me Hegia, there is always order out of chaos.”
“The hidden hand guides in that chaos.” Hegia lashed out.
“Foolish Hegia, the hidden hand, has never been the nobility. We simply serve at his pleasure.” With the singer’s song finished, the audience began to applaud. Hegia felt a burning sting across his neck and opened his eyes. An immediate feeling of coldness swept over him as he glanced up to see an agent with a bloody knife. “Goodbye Hegia.” Kyo stood up and an agent placed a black fur cloak around her shoulders.
As the crowd’s applause died down, Lady Kyo glanced at Hegia, whose final shakes had left him. “You are not a worthy sacrifice. We both know what you are after. Hagia, you are the last traitor. You planned to kill me tonight. It wouldn’t be right to throw me off the balcony to save the world. Regardless, the world would be doomed. You have benefited from our work for centuries. Hegia, how old are you? How many lives have prolonged yours? Sadly, the praetorian guard has been slain with you. As you spend your last moments, please appreciate this,” she told Hegia as he closed his eyes for the last time.
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