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.”
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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“Fire! Fire!” The town square will erupt into shrieks as it burns. The bell towers in Ulfates will ring while the townspeople and soldiers rush with buckets of water to douse the flames. The water will be poured endlessly, but the fire will still burn. Rather than growing weaker, it will spread until the entire town square is engulfed. From every horizon in southern Golgotha, the blaze will appear as a black pillar of smoke.
Bilk, the fat cow of a man, will be escorted from his fortified town hall. He will go to the town square himself to witness the fire. Being a learned man, he will be able to see things others miss, and it will show in his eyes. At that moment, we will strike…”
Bam! “What is this fire you are bothering me about?” Lord Bilk growled, slamming his hand on the cluttered table. Several papers fell off a stack in the upper corner and caught his attention. Four trouble soldiers stood at the entrance to his office, while he screamed, “Blast! Look what you did! How can you people not put out a simple fire? Must I tell you everything, you simpletons?”
One soldier, a blond Azurian man, rubbed the back of his neck. “We are doing our job, sir, but this fire is not behaving normally.”
Standing at his desk with a quill of ink in front of him, Bilk crosses his arms. “I’m trying to save the empire a fortune at the moment.” He coughs. Could any of you come up with a way to accomplish that?” Bilk watches them while they remain silent, waiting for an answer. ‘Well, what say you? You all got so quiet.”
A soldier with a few blue feathers on his helmet says, “No sir.”
“Nore has the empire. “They need my brilliance, unlike you. I know I’m wasting my time, but listen,” he says gesturing with his index finger. “Using fewer links in chainmail will save the blacksmith guilds and the empire enough to build a new airship within a century.” The men stare at each other as they grasp their spears tightly.
Clearing his throat, the captain speaks. “Yes, your business is significant, my Lord. But we need your brilliant mind to put out the fires.”
“I guess you simpletons need me; otherwise, you’d be lost. “I can’t help but help the commonwealth.” Lord Bilk grumbles. The soldiers bow as he rises from his wobbly chair with his pot-bellied form. Lord Bilk blows out a puff of air with a flat gaze. As he stretches, he grumbles, his eyes wandering to a sheet of scribed paper. “I got to the heart of my proposal. Well, that will have to wait.”
“My Lord!” exclaimed the captain. “Please come, it is urgent.” This only caused the portly man to roll his eyes.
“Now where did I put that thing?” The soldier’s movements became jerky. “Oh, yes.” Bilk paused before removing a small metallic horn from his desk drawer. “There it is. I can’t go to an emergency without this.” He smiled taking a few steps toward the threshold of his room. Each of the men looked at the other with their heads bowed. “Well, you fools, get up! I don’t have time to waste on your lot.”
As Lord Bilk, followed by his guard, strolls out from the city courtyard, he does not seem to be rushed or perhaps he’s lacking in physicality. Who knows? With slight concern, he uttered, “My goodness, that is a tremendous flame.” The fire spread rapidly engulfing the sky and forcing several aircraft to divert their course. “You don’t think the fires will spread here, do you?” Bilk looked back to the obsidian tower before returning his gaze to the captain.
“The fires have supernatural origins. They won’t put out.” a soldier told his comrades.
“It’s fire from Maelstrum,” said another. His voice quivered in fear as he said, “It was the devils who did it.”.
Bilk growled, “Nonsense.”. As the flames neared, people ran in panic, gathering their belongings to escape. Troops pushed carts filled with water up and down the streets. A cart nearly struck Lord Bilk as it whirled past him. In the wake of the out-of-control cart, a man chased it. Bilk pointed his finger at the man, he screamed, “Cease him. Throw him into the fires. That man nearly killed me!”
“Sir, the fires are burning. What should we do?” the captain asked, trying to distract Bilk from his frustration.
Still meandering, Bilk shook his head, “Well, I’ll just have to see it for myself before I decide.” Sweat started to fall from his brow. Sure Bilk would have told you it was the heat from the fire. However, the truth is he was scared. A fire that did not completely burn out? What kind of spell was that? The group continues down the street until they reach the town square.
There is a roar of sizzling heat accompanying the smoke pillars as the flames rushed and whirled in the winds. Bilk said, gazing deep into the flames, “My, that’s a terrible flame.” There is a spark in the fire that caught his attention. He watched the flaming spark again. As the answer to the “supernatural power” of this fire revealed itself, he gasped. “Phlogiston,” Bilk muttered to himself, making the answer apparent. A material of pure fire forged by a wise mind for the purpose of mechanizing an engine. However, if left unkempt, it became a raging disaster.
His eyes grew wide. “Phlogiston!” the man yelled, reaching for the horn strapped to his side and bringing it to his mouth. He fell to the ground as pain swept over him. The cobblestones scraped against his palms as he landed. The smell of cooked meat and a sizzle sent a shock through Bilk’s body. The screaming had him gasping for breath, and he wanted them to stop so he could catch his breath. He harshly realizes that someone was him as his vision returns and his ears stop ringing. Raising his hand, he sees that it is stained with red and dripping with blood. “They shot me.” He stumbled hunched over as he backed away limping.
As Bilk fled, he saw his men fighting each other. The men fighting his men were wearing soiled clothing, their capes were caked in mud, and their armor was tarnished with blood. His first thought was, “Bandits,” but then he thought “No, they’re real knights, they battle like real knights. Are these the Royal Azurian Knights?” he asked in confusion. “Who ordered this assault?” he cried, getting no answer.
In the midst of the fighting, he notices one man that stands out. Dressed in silver armor, a man or perhaps even a god had many flourishes on his shoulders. A griffin’s head and two huge horns adorned the helm he wore. Using his shield, he threw a man to the ground as his blue cape flowed. The man looks right at Bilk as he marches with his saber at his side. Bilk’s heart skipped a beat as he felt the warrior’s gaze grip his neck.
And then it was then Bilk knew exactly who he was dealing with. As the horrific conclusion became apparent, he was convinced these were not the Azurians. Rather, the men were the feared rebels led by Lord Guildred. “How did the rebels get inside the city guard?” Bilk blows the horn as he continues limping back to the town hall’s courtyard.
“Kill him! Kill that man! Kill Guildred!” Bilk cried as he pointed toward the griffin knight. With a swift strike, Guildred stabbed the first of Bilk’s soldiers in the stomach. As he removed his blade and disemboweled the soldier, he saw a sword coming toward his chest. With a crash of his shield against the blade, Guildred slashed the man’s stomach open, bringing him to his knees.
“Raa!” another soldier yelled as he dove into the air. A long pike is thrust toward Guildered’s neck. Following the momentum of the strike, Guildred’s shield directs the spear’s head toward his side. Performing a spinning attack, the blade cuts through the soldier’s gut. The soldier’s lumpy coils explode all over the ground as soon as they land on their feet.
As the tension of battle burned in Guildred’s muscles, he felt the warm blood dripping off his armor. As he looked over the battlefield, he saw one of his men about to be stabbed by a soldier. His fingers grab his arctavist as he raises the barrel from his hip. An intense pink light struck the soldier’s upper body, severing it in half. Guildred turned his gaze back to Lord Bilk limping in absolute fear. “Stop him!” cried Bilk. Guildred heard the tremors in his voice. That sniveling little shit would see his end this day. More soldiers rushed to Bilk’s aid in an attempt to stop Guildred’s charge. The men are cut down by Guilderd’s sword without mercy. As they fall to pieces, blood sprays into a violent mist. When Bilk blew the horn a second time, his jaw dropped. “Someone, anyone, stop him!” he shrieked.
Guildred pointed his sword towards Bilk as he slashed through soldier after soldier, leaving a trail of bloodied bodies behind him. Guildred was startled as his path was blocked by a man whose bulk obscured the entire street. In heavier armor, he was large and imposing. Regardless, Guildred squares off with the man, he stands only half his height. “Well… come get me,” Guildred commands from under his helm.
He was armed with a large two-handed blade. Guildred dodges the attack as the titan swings at him. He lunged as the blade passed, cutting the giant in the back of the neck. As the colossus tumbled to the ground, Guildred did not have time to catch his breath. He was still lunging when a soldier struck him from behind. His blade caught his armor but failed to pierce it. The soldier prepared another swing in time for Guildred to parry the soldier’s next attack. Rolling forward, he rises to his feet as the blade cuts through his cape. With a spin and a lick of his sword, he snapped back down, slicing the other soldier in half.
At the same moment that Guildred’s sword approached his side, a soldier’s spear passed by his flank. Suddenly his attention was caught by the soldier who had begun a dance of death with him. One familiar to Guildred. As each thrust moved closer, Guildred could see his footwork moving back and forth. Grabbing the spear’s shaft, Guildred closed in on the spearman punching him in the throat with his shield.
There is a scattering and retreating of Lord Bilk’s troops. Guildred slows down to allow his men to gain ground behind him. He turns as he hears a loud crash and sees one of his soldiers backing out of an alley with his shield raised. “Village Guard!” He screamed as three arm-sized claws flew through the air and struck his shield. He was knocked back several steps when the claws stabbed through his shield, attached by blue fleshy tethers. The claws retract as fast as they flew into the shield, tearing the soldier’s arm from the shoulder, causing him to fly. As Guildred’s helm was rattled by the sounds of crushing steps, the man hollered out in pain as he rose to his feet.
The metallic colossus walked out of the alleyway onto the street. According to Guildred, the top of the body looks like a crab’s carapace. Upon its rust-colored shell, it has three large domed amber eyes. Having three long claws on each arm, the arms resembled mighty metallic mastodon legs. In the left claw, the shield is still speared on the terror’s fingers, his arm hanging from the straps like a piece of meat in a butcher shop. For the first time in a long time, Guildred’s stomach turned. The colossus snapped the shield into three pieces with a creak of its mighty hands. As the one-armed soldier stared up at the monster, he stood to his feet. “You bastard! Take my arm!” He charges forward with his sword raised high.
Guildred muttered in his mind, “You fool.” The machine struck the sword with its other arm, causing the blade to shatter. With both claws, it grabbed the man by his last arm and leg and lifted him from the ground. He screamed as the claws bit deeply into his flesh. As the spinal column separates, a loud series of snaps could be heard. Guildred gritted his teeth and turned his head to hide the sight of the man being torn apart. Both sides of the soldier rose in the air, but a line of entrails still connects him in the middle. A couple of other soldiers are knocked to the ground as the body of the man is tossed at them. While Guildred watched, the machine let out a loud crackle.
His heart pounding, Guildred raised his shield. He froze as he felt a sense of shock creeping over him. The machine let out another low cackle, extending its multi-segmented leg, and took a stride twice its own length, startling Guildred. In a flash, its claws stab the shield, scraping away a thin layer of metal. Guildred lunged just in time to avoid the razor after another swift swing. He dove and weaved around the beast, ducking and swerving as he tried to get some distance from the claw blades.
The machine’s fist collides with Guildred’s shield like a hammer, knocking him on his knees. The shield’s top half is dented almost to his face. His attempt to stand is stymied by another attack. Everyone watching cringes as the sound of a loud snap is heard. Guildred howls with pain and can feel his shoulder becoming stiff.
“My lord!” yelled a man running toward the colossus with a spear. The man climbed onto the machine’s back. Guildred got to his feet limping while tending to his injured arm. The soldier stabbed his spear into the creature’s carapace in an attempt to cut through the creature’s rear thorax. As the blade scraped against the creature’s shell, it shouted. It aimed its claw at its back, firing its fingers, stabbing the soldier, causing him to fall off the machine. The soldier’s body collided with a brick building, splitting his face in half. He tumbles from the building onto the ground, leaving a bloody puddle. The other soldiers cower several steps away from the titanic being.
In a wide stance, Guildred plants his feet. He hurls his shield to bounce off the machine under his breath as he said, “Giza I hope you’re watching my display.” The machine returned its attention to Guildred as he stroked the hilt of his saber. As if on command, the claws retract back into place then fire right at him. As the claws flew past Guildred, he redirected the attack and slashed at the machine’s exposed tethers with a heavy chop. He tore through the creature’s cuticle clear to the ground. He was splashed with a baby blue liquid from the exposed wound in his fury. It sizzles as the acidic blood ate through the metal plates and muscle fibers of his armor. When a drop hits his bare flesh, he screamed.
During his stumble, Guildred’s chest was smashed by the machine, sending him flying off a wall to bounce. The titanic strike would have killed most men, but then again Guildred wasn’t most men. As he landed on his knees, he found himself empty-handed, his sword several feet away. Although he tries to retreat, the monster has already seized him. Towering over him, he swerves to avoid the toes of the thing as they dig into the ground. Rolling on his back, he saw its other foot approaching threatening to trample him. The creature stomped and stomped as he rolled. Again the other foot comes crashing down on him. His knife, if only he could grab his knife. It was tucked behind his leg as he reached for it. But the machine did not slow down. Then his fingers grabbed the pommel to a jubilant celebration. He plunged it into the creature’s ankle joint with a loud shout of anger. More boiling acid blood sprayed onto him. As it soaks into his armor, he screamed once more. His armor recoils from the burning acid taking on its own will as the fibers attempt to get away.
As Guildred rose to his feet, the machine struggled to lower its leg. Grabbing his blade from the ground, Guildred climbed onto the back of the machine and grabbed hold of its hoses. Blue blood gushed out of the monster like fountains after he slashed through the hoses. A high-pitched series of chirps are heard before the dying monster falls to the ground. Guildred looks up at his men as his chest rose up and down.
Over his desk, Lord Bilk slumps. The blood pours out of his soaked clothes as he grips his stomach. It lands on the carpet in splotches of just the right color to offset the red. What do I do?do?do? ” He whimpers into a metal box on the table that has many knobs. There are cables running from the box to the wall-mounted panel. “My lord, Ulfates is lost. His men were in our city. Guildred and his men. They were here already.” Bilk lets out a series of hoarse coughs and a snotty snort. “I don’t know how long I have. He is coming for me.”
On the other end, there is silent static. “Have they destroyed the tower already?” Bilk sobbed. His eyes grew wide as he heard a loud crash at the wooden door, sealing him inside. In horror, Bilk turned to see an axe head peeking through. The axe head chopped into the wood again. “Gods, save me. Gods! Where are you? Is anyone around? My guards where are they? Have they abandoned me?” After three more bites, the door fell to pieces. As Guildred stands on the threshold, his dented armor dripping in crimson blood. Under the armor’s metal plates, strange muscles-like fibers drip inky black liquid. He stares at Bilk who is cowering in the room. “Volkmar! Volkmar! Volkmar!” He lifted his arctavist rifle and pointed it at Lord Bilk. After pulling the trigger, a pink firecracker light shot through the cables connecting the radio.
Without hesitation, Guildred lunged at Bilk, grabbing his throat. “Where is the village guard’s horn, fat man?” Bilk trembled as Guildred’s grip tightened. His windpipe was being crushed. Guildred watched Bilk fidget at his side while raising the horn in his face. His grip on Bilk was released, and he fell to the ground. “Good, now blow it.”
Bilk blew into the horn as he raised it to his lips. Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through him. His eyes flew open. As he looked down, he saw Guildred slamming a knife into and out of his body. As everything grew gray and hazy, Bilk is overcome with pain and cold.
The blue glow of LEDs illuminates the dark room. A shadowed old man peering out of a large plate-glass window viewed the city below. There is a pillar of smoke blocking the sight, but the display across the glass depicts a highly detailed, three-dimensional model of the city. On a sculpted throne that hovered a foot above the ground, the old man was draped in Azurian cloaks. His orange eyes are glued to the horrifying sight as he strokes his withered chin with a soft “Hmmm.” A pair of guards dressed in blue robes approached him bowing. “Tell Grandor Ulfates has fallen under rebel control.”
“Yes, my lord!“ In unison, leaving the room.
He raised a glass of wine to his mouth and took a sip. While looking out the window, he gestures with his fingers, bringing up a hologram of the village guard and Guildred. The two are fighting and slashing each other. He freezes the frame, zooming in on Guildred’s face. “Guildred. I found you at last.” He chuckles. “And soon our little game of hide and seek will be over.”
One Moon Later
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Belairus was as stiff as a fence post. Around the young neros girl, a circle of trees was illuminated by midnight fires. Her ears twitched as a slag-smothered smoke blew from a burning log. She could not help but hear strange stories of sacred spirits whispered in her mind. In the warm glow, she could see ancient carvings etched into the trees. A great arm curled around her back as she clung to her father and buries her face in his stomach, but that did little to ease her pounding heart.
Her eyes traced the stranger who brought her to the druids. He had shown up in her village and they traveled for days. A wanderer by the name of Fenrir. His tale was a wild one told in the Aria. The Hukoten people were moved by the story of their goddess come in the flesh, even though she did not understand it. According to her father, they were sworn to uphold a sacred duty. Fenrir and Belairus, along with her father, traveled the long distance to the high priests of Aria.
Her opinion of him was unfavorable. She seemed to be the object of his unhealthy fascination. He’s a dirty warung and shady at that. His robes are black, like the ash-strewn soil around him. While traveling, he had been referred to as a mystic by a few, and a witch by most.
Belairus peered up the head of an incline, past her father’s side. In the bonfire’s flare, vast shadows of people wearing red cloaks and drenched in gold trinkets watched, silent, reminding her of hanging stars. Her eyes dart from one side of the cliff to the other. She saw a pair of naked, white-furred beasts. Both were holding torches that conjured images of strange creatures spouting fire from their open mouths. The red hoods covering their faces added to the impression. There was something dreadful about them. Yet, what is worse are the enormous swords embedded deep in the earth. No one could swing such powerful weapons. Even her father, Lymric, was not strong enough to deal with blades of that size.
As she watched the fire, a snapping branch caught her attention. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed a shadow in the flames. The impossible image became real when another branch was snapped. Despite the flames, her eyes did not lie; a shadow in the fire stirred through them. The girl grasped her father’s arm with both hands. “Someone’s in the fire! Father, do something!” she shouted. Lymric responded with a harsh hush.
An uninjured man emerges from the fire unharmed by the heat and fury of the blaze. “Maybe it is a ghost,” she speculated. Although she was tempted to flee, her father kept her anchored to the spot.
She tried desperately to look away, but found herself unable to do so. Her once thin irises are now large black spheres, as a mixture of fear and enchantment took over her. The man of flames held a massive iron stave half as tall as himself. When she was a child, she had heard stories about high priests and those large staves they carried. The priest’s robes extinguish, unburned as if the fire never touched them. That large stave must be hot, Belairus reasoned.
She whispered to her father, “I don’t like this place,” with the childish hope that he will take her home. Sadly, the familiar touch of Lymric’s hand on her head was her answer. As soon as she felt that gentle stroke, she understood. As her pointed ears turned sideways, her tail brushed against the ground, moving back and forth.
Her heart sinks as a rather dull and monotonous voice from behind the black and red wooden mask called “Belairus come forward.” Her tail bushed out much like a duster. Sheepishly she took a step, as if dipping her toe in cold water. Belairus looked back up at her father, who bent down to push her. With a deep breath, she walked across the warm ash-covered earth, painting her pale feet as black as the twilight skies.
The masked man motioned limply with his hand. “Come now, child.”
Her fear of upsetting the elder caused her to leap over the dust. In the firelight, the golden accents on the mask glittered. The priest towered over her; far taller than she expected. He may even be taller than her father. And that brutal heat; she could feel its intense kiss on her face as a chill ran down her spine. The man lowered his hand while exposing his cloth-wrapped palm. The long bony fingers of the high priest curled around Belairus’s sweet appendages as she raised her hands in greeting. Belairus wondered, “He is cold. But how? The heat. Is he really that cold?”
“Old friend, why are you here with this child?” the high priest inquired to Fenrir.
Fenrir stepped forward with his chest outwardly prideful as always. “The pride land had rumors of a sacred child being born. When I followed these stories, I found Belairus. In my opinion, she is the perfect avatar. I have tested her and found that she does indeed possess the spirit of Lumaria. Her image alone can unify the tribes. I have come to pose that we should prepare her to become the avatar and be trained as a high priestess for all the tribes to follow.” Belairus always found Fenrir’s style of words to be one full of arrogance. She assumed it was because he looked down at her people. Now she sees that he was just conceded in himself.
The high priest straightens up without saying a word. The palm of his hand grips her lower cheek. His fingers forced her face to the side grabbing her jowl. He examined her left cheek, then her right, as if searching for a hidden inscription beyond the sight of other folks. Gazing into her royal blue eyes, he discovered he was smiling even as he examined her, though no one could see it behind the mask.
As the ambiance of fire drew out, Belairus could hear only the beating of her own heart. “Child,” a voice called out to Belairus. The voice is near, too close. It feels violating. As she realized the voice came from inside her own head, her irises became slits. “I see you’re listening. You speak as we do. Very interesting. That was not what I expected.” Another voice spoke in her head.
From behind the mask, the High Priest spoke, “Belairus?” In her head, another voice asked, “Have you learned how to speak like this?”
Belairus muttered inwardly to herself, “No.”
A small chuckle erupted from underneath the high priest’s mask. “That’ll do,” he said out loud. “Do you understand what Fenrir intends to accomplish with you, Belairus?” the high priest asked in a soft voice.
“He tells me I am the avatar. I will learn from you the ways of the Aria priests. At least that is what, he, says.” Belairus grew to believe this priest possessed some magic power that could see into her mind. Maybe he could even see how much she despised him.
Fenrir caught the high priest’s attention as he glanced at him. He asked, “Do you understand what being the avatar of the sacred Lumaria means?” His gaze never left Fenrir as he spoke.
She simply stated, “No.”
“Are you willing to give yourself up for another? To a stranger, you don’t know. Are you prepared to let someone else control and speak for you within your body?”
“No. That sounds scary,”
“Indeed, it is.”
“I will do what I must to make my family proud.”
After a low mumble, he said, “I’ve decided. It’s true what they say. I can see why they would call her the goddess. Though it is only silly superstition among the neros tribes. Paleness alone proves nothing. She is a girl. You should not lead a young lady like this astray, Fenrir. Belairus, tell us of higher things? Where are we from?”
She did not know what higher things were, she did not even learn what they were. Trees? That can’t be right. Probably he means the birds, since he wears a mask like that, though she knew nothing about birds. She considered the sky. She knew nothing about it, either. She shrinks back before stating, “I do not know about higher things. I only know we come from Lumaria, the goddess, and she is our homeland.” Her ears droop as shame seeped into her mind.
The high priest petted her head with those long fingers. “If you speak as we do, you have probably encountered many spirits. What do the spirits say to you?”
Belairus glanced at her father, who was now raising an eyebrow at her. “Stay away from their domains.”
“Domains?” He asked now sounding interested.
“The sacred places in the woods,” Belairus replied.
The high priest said, “See Fenrir,” with a warm voice. He goes on, “She’s a girl. Let a child be a child.”
Fenrir barked in a snappy tone, “You wouldn’t know the spirits of the Lumaria if they were incarnate in front of you.”
“Is it your suggestion that I would let an opportunity slip by?” remarked the high priest. His rod is aimed at Fenrir, rattling as the rings. The wind blew, causing the fire behind him to flare up into a blazing rage. Belairus clung to the high priest, burying her face in his robes as the fires swirl and dive around the high priest. “Here Fenrir, we don’t bow to the Tempest. Nor will we enter the Maelstrom like heretics. A hand pats Belairus’s back as the priest said, “You are safe, young child.”
“You’ve become a fool. Do you think our queen should be denied her right?” Fenrir asked in a low voice.
The high priest shook his head. “I will cast you into the fires if you don’t watch your tongue.” Fenrir swallows. Belairus assumes that Fenrir knew he went too far and has now angered the priest. A grimace appears on Lymric’s face as he glances over at Fenrir. “Your little scheme is not welcome here.” Fenrir remained silent.
He bends down to Belairus’s level and lifted his mask to reveal the warung’s wolfish face. “Belairus, you have great potential. I don’t want you to think wrong of me. If there is a queenship to be had, I am not going to deny you. But you aren’t the avatar. I believe you will play an important role. But not one that serves the Aria.”
Watching her father stare off with a wide-eyed expression and his mouth agape, Belairus turns her head. Gazing over at Fenrir, he then turns to face the high priest. Incredulous, Belairus thought, “How can this be happening?”
“Please,” her father said, causing the High Priest to lower his mask and turn to face Lymric. “Reconsider. Let her train with you at least,” the high priest stood to his full height. As he stood ajar in Lymric’s orientation, there was a moment of silence. “Educate her in the ways of being a high priest like yourself. I implore you.”
His tone of voice was indifferent when he said, “There is nothing I can do.”. Belairus raised a finger to her mouth and nibbled on the tip of her claw. Lymric opens his mouth to speak again, but the priest barks at him. “Nothing!” he demands. “I don’t think the priests should be teaching Belairus mystic ways. Have Fenrir train her; he believes himself to be higher than us as it is. Although, I believe that teaching her in such a manner would be a grave error. She would be better off training as a warrior. Not in the ways of priestly duties. The Hukoten have a proud history of being the noble warriors of the tribes.” Looking down at Belairus’s overwhelmed expression, he placed his finger on her cheek and a ticklish sensation overtook her as she couldn’t help but smile. “The responsibility for preparing her lies with you. I have seen monumental struggles in her life. Prepare her for it, or the stream of time for her will run dry. Now go…” said the high priest.
He pressed his bony hand against Belairus’s back. The young lady runs back over to her father. There is a look of disappointment on his face. It appeared that she had done something wrong and disrespected her father. Her face was filled with shock and shame. Lymric kneels down and embraced her. Holding her hand, he led her through the forest to a dark path.
As Fenrir turned to walk with the two, the high priest called out, “Fenrir you stay.” The three-stop and turn to look at the priest. Standing with his arm extended, he pointed a long claw at Fenrir. A small growl comes from Fenrir as he scowled at the high priest displaying his teeth. “I have meant to find you, and I am not through Fenrir. There is another matter I need to discuss with you.” The high priest then gestured to Lymric and Belairus with his waving fingers, telling both of them to go.
“What could that possibly be?” snarled old Fenrir. With his hand resting on Belairus’s back, Lymric urged her to continue down the path. She glanced at the mystics one more time. Their voices trailed through the woods quite a distance, speaking in strange tongues that she didn’t recognize.
In the shadows, Fenrir’s form was visible to the red druids. The fires snapped. “I have noticed your comings and goings recently. My curiosity is piqued. What are you doing these days? Why did you bring this child to me? Both of us know she is too young for such a responsibility. Whether or not she’s an avatar, why would you tell her now?” he asked.
Fenrir said under his breath, walking back towards the fire, “Oh, you’ve been watching me.” A small black plume of ash flew up with every step he took. Fenrir gritted his teeth in a measured snicker. “You would not let a man see his privileges. If you had any sense, you would have trained her. I was impressed when I first saw her in the Hukoten’s village. It is indisputable that her image alone is enough to convince others that she is a true avatar. In any case, she can be used to rally the armies whether or not she is. The smooth skins movement needs to be taken into consideration. Every year, Golden Kingdom folk expand eastward. We will be at war, and we must come together as tribes if we are to survive. She will be trained by me, and when she sits upon the restored throne of the Aria, you will be expelled from the temple.”
A chuckle erupts from the high priest. “Bitter words, my friend; angry words. We’ve had a tense relationship in the past. I appreciate this. You were not accepted by us when you were a lad, and now you spin tales with the surrounding tribes. Fenrir, you may convince them you’re an ancient seer, but you’re far from it. It has been many years since we were just children. By refusing you, Fenrir, I chose the right path. No, you chose a darker path, and it is a path you shouldn’t trust. You’ve aligned yourself with foul spirits. It’s been interesting to watch you wander about. Although you are searching within our lands, I am no fool. Do you intend to campaign?”
Fenrir jerks his head back and glared at the priest with his mouth agape. “You’re suggesting I’m a traitor, aren’t you?” Fenrir howls.
The high priest bowed his head. He said, “That remains to be seen…”
In Lymric’s arms, Belairus felt safe. A small fire pit in the middle of the leather tent heated the soft wolf’s pelt beneath her. Despite the mask of happiness covering her face as the two snuggled together, she could tell her father saw right through the smile. “What’s on your mind, Belair?” He asked.
Initially, Belairus shook her head. With Lymric’s stern gaze, she knew that the ruse was over. Her ears dropped to the sides. “Did I do something wrong, Father?” Her face was etched with disappointment, shame, pain, fear. Unlike her usual perky self, she slumped the entire way to the camp. So much so that her tail dragged.
He held her close to him and played with her hair as she smiled. “I am so proud of you. There is nothing wrong with you. Rather than believing you’re an avatar, they believe you’re destined to be a great warrior. The fact alone is something to be proud of.” Lymric chuckled, tears forming in his eyes.
There is one question on her mind that is tugging at her, and the meeting with the mystic just added weight to it. “What is an avatar?” Belairus asked.
“A sign to our people. Avatars will manifest as the goddess among us.” explains Lymric.
“How can I be that?” Her head hurts as she considers the impossibility of being a god. “Wouldn’t I recognize myself if I were the avatar?”
“Yes, I suppose you would.” Lymric paused, rubbing Belairus’ pointed ear. “Fenrir might have been mistaken. The man is driven to restore the Aria. To his own fault, he must have been blinded by his own ambition.”
As Belairus peered into the fires, she asked, “Is that so?” Her rosy lips were tinged with a slight smile, her fangs peeking out just beneath them.
Lymric clenches his jaw. “The elder believes you are capable of becoming a fine warrior. However, you must make your own decision. I will let you train with Fenrir if he allows it. Although he is not a priest of the Aria, he is a talented mystic. You can learn more from him than anyone else in the tribe about such things. Alternatively, I can let you train under your uncle with that spear of yours, learning the ways of the hunt and the spirit of the warrior.”
“That priest, he commanded the bonfire, and he was able to communicate with spirits. Maybe Fenrir also knows such things. But if I train under Fenrir, I would need protection from the tribe.” Belairus said, staring into his chili yellow eyes. “If I trained with Uncle, I could protect our kin and feed them when they were hungry.”
“Thinking about replacing me already.” Lymric smiled.
Belairus raised her hands in the air. “No father! I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know that, little one.” After her outburst, she calmed herself.
“Why is uncle Asgar training me rather than you, father?” Belairus asked curiously.
A long, heavy sigh escaped Lymric’s lips. He said, “I don’t have the courage to train you, Belairus. I would never allow you to fail,” he said. Occasionally, the fires snap. Belairus finds this comforting, unlike the blaze at the tribal council.
Belairus pokes a stick into the burning embers at the edge of the rock circle. Small flames come to life and dance. She breathes gently so that the fires sway back and forth. Her smile grows brighter. “And uncle would?”
The twigs in Belairus’s hair tangle under Lymric’s thick fingers. Belairus bats at Lymric’s hand in an attempt to brush it away. “He wants to make sure you are the right chieftain to rule. You must be strong and powerful. You will have to fight to keep your hold on the tribe even now. Anyone can steal such a title away from you.”
It never occurred to her that she would succeed her father as chieftain. She would be the greatest leader her tribe has ever seen if she became ruler one day. She’d be clever as a fox and wise as a serpent. Despite the foul taste Fenrir left in her mouth, she must learn from it for her people. “Can I learn from both?”
Lymric nods without a moment’s hesitation. “That would be quite the undertaking. You won’t be able to play with your friends very often if you train under both.”
“Then, if Fenrir is as wise as everyone says… why hasn’t he learned to hold his tongue?” she asked bluntly.
Lymric roared at Belairus’s short words. “That’s a mighty good question. Speaking of which, it’s late, so it’s probably time for you to go to bed.”
“But I don’t want to go to bed.” Belairus frowns with a kind of exaggerated disappointment that almost seems comical.
Lymric grinned, patting her head. “Silly. Before we go to sleep, I’ll see Fenrir. Now go to sleep. I don’t want you to get lost.”
“We are in Aria!” Belairus smiled smugly as she stated, “I am safe from harm.”
Lymric stood up when he uncurled his arms. “No, stay here. There is something to discuss. It will be a long walk back home tomorrow. You don’t want to be sleepy.”
Still arguing, Belairus moaned, “It takes seven days to walk back from here.”
“Seven days, but if you don’t get your sleep, it may take eight or even nine.” Lymric replied smugly.
“Fine… I will sleep. However, if I wake up early, I want you to wake up with me so I won’t be bored.” Belairus chirpped with a toothy grin.
In response, Lymric nodded his head. “Of course, my queen.” Belairus cast a bashful look at his comment.
The morning came quickly for Belairus. Her eyes opened abruptly as she peered over the tent and saw the blankets her father had slept in already rolled up and packed. Her father’s fire had warmed her during the night, but it had gone out. From the open doorway of the tepee, light enters the room through a small hole at the top. While looking outside, she notices that her father is nowhere to be found.
Fenrir, however, is seated on a log in front of the lifeless outer campfire. Belairus slowly gets up. With ash-covered hands, she rubs her messy hair and face. Her makeup smeared, and the crescent moon was no longer visible. Only a black mark remained.
As she sat up inside her tent, she said, “Morning, mystic.” in a groggy voice.
With his hood down, Fenrir looks over. A toothy grin appears on his muzzle. “You’re awake now, child,” he said. “I’m glad. Your father is out hunting.”
“Why are you hunting?” Belairus was puzzled by Fenrir’s idleness.
A chuckle escaped Fenrir. “Your father is better suited to such a task. Get up, child. It’s my job to teach you. It’s time for your first lesson.”
Slowly, Belairus crawled out from beneath the tent and over to Fenrir’s log. “O all right. I’m still waking up. I hope i’ll understand.”
“This is a perfect time, child. Look and tell me what you see.” Fenrir points into the cinders.
Belairus thought to herself as she looked at the empty campfire. Was there anything she was missing? With a downcast expression, she thought the question became absurd. “What kind of game is this?” she wondered, not knowing, but it was not one she liked. “A burnt out fire.” Glancing up at Fenrir, she sees him smile.
He snapped at her, “Keep looking.”
However, the fire had been completely extinguished. Still, “It’s a fire pit.”
A snort escapes Fenrir. “Look past it.” he said.
The stone circle’s center turns dark like ink as Belairus watched it. Ash covered the ground until it was a black circle. Rotted things stared at her. They frighten her. “The dead!” she cried. “I see the dead!”
“These are old ones. Listen to those who have lived a long time Belairus. Their guidance is most sacred.” Fenrir commented.
A deep voice speaks out of the darkness, “The child has seen.”
Another whisper follows, “The child has seen.”
“The child has witnessed.”
There are more voices in the darkness. “The child is the witness.”
Belairus closed her eyes and shrieked. “I don’t want to hear them any longer!” she cried. “I don’t want to see them,” she yelled. As Fenrir strikes the ashes with his rod, a plume of dust flew into the air. Belairus opened her eyes to find the burned-out campfire. “I didn’t like that.”
Fenrir smirked. “When I saw the old ones for the first time, I was frightened. They are attracted to fires. They can’t show themselves without a source of power. Fire permits them to live among us.”
“But they have already died. The dead should stay with the dead,” she said as her chest rose and fell with every breath.
“It is sometimes necessary to bring the dead back to life in order to gain knowledge. Keep that in mind, Belairus. We get guidance from our ancestors in this way.” Fenrir stood up. “Lymric, what have you brought for us.” Belairus glanced at her father as he walked down the path, several water otters dangling from a stick attached to his shoulder.
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The blackness of the city’s shadow obscured the expression of something grotesque that coughed, “You.” The sludge slowly invaded a street light and emerged as an inky black puddle of remains. “You promised, why? Why have you done this to me?” The sludge monster choked and wheezed as it breathed.
In an alleyway, a proud male voice echoed “I warned you.” as slow deliberate steps reverberated through against the walls. “It was not the right time to make yourself flesh, but you had to make yourself flesh when we were not ready.”
The stack of fluids thundered, “Bastard!” With a clang, the man lowers the tip of his cane into the pond’s face.
The man shrugged his shoulders and snickered. “You poor eager soul.”
A puddle of necrotic, meat-like material rises out of it with skeletal appendages dripping melting flesh. The creature extends its arms toward the legs of the man. It hissed, “Don’t mock me!”
His rod snapped at the creature, causing its body to burst back into an unformed pool. “Hush, it’s not all lost.” He said, walking away from the insidious mess. “You must consume the meat of others to build fiber for a body.”
“Don’t wander off!” the puddle commanded. “I’m not done with you yet.”
On his heels, the man stood, scuffing his shoe against the bricks. “I suppose you are not,” he chuckled before returning to his gate. He continued, walking away from the creature, “Find me later, or maybe I’ll find you when you are born into this world.”
From the pond, two arms emerged. It dug its boney fingers deep into the solid road, clawing its way deeper into the darkness of the alley. “Later you say.”
In Ichigari Grocery’s ambiance, the low buzz of shoppers, the sound of ringing registers, and computers beeping became the norm. The aisles were stocked with foods of every kind. Apricot leaned on her knees as she stacked milk cartons on a refrigerator shelf. “I’m in so much trouble. The Bureau would surely kick me out if Miss Akagi reported what I had done to them,” she thought to herself.
Her eyes scanned another carton of milk as she watched slight condensation drip from the white cardboard. This time, the carton was heavier. “I won’t amount to anything.” she moaned. “I will stock shelves for the rest of my life, and that rotten Jasper will become a famous engineer or something, and he will always rub it in my face! When Mom and Dad discover the truth,” stopping mid-thought, she finds herself panicking. “I have to concentrate on the good things. I got one of the best scoops of the year. I witnessed a robbery firsthand, and I survived. I would be dead right now if not for those officers.” Apricot trapped in her mind kept stocking shelves. “I nearly died today, in fact.” With a clenched jaw, she pinched her lips together. “You would think that being a hostage would be enough to get off work.”
Apricot nearly jumped out of her skin when a hand rested on her back. Her eyes focused on the pitted face of a middle-aged man. With his leg pressing against her cheek, he bent over and grabbed a gallon of milk off the shelf. “Thank you for shopping at Ichigari Grocery,” Apricot said in a friendly tone. The man grinned broadly at her.
She assumed he would move on afterward, but he just stared at her. Apricot wondered, “What the hell is this guy up to?” after continuing to ignore the odd behavior. As she replaced the gallon of milk that he had taken, she reached for another.
The man bleated “And…” with a low tone as he tapped his foot.
Taking a deep breath, she grumbled and screamed internally. As she flashed wide blue eyes and a huge grin across her face, she said, “Have a nice day!” Putting his milk into the cart, the man continued along the aisle. She shook her head in disbelief. “This is what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life. I want to die! Ugh!”
She heard the distinct clop of her boss’s shoes traveling from behind. Whether he did this to irritate others or just by accident was unclear. At least she had a sign he was approaching. Her eyes rolled, knowing from past events that he wanted to give her new chores. Whenever he appears happy, he’s looking for something. Her theory is that the illusion of joy is him being as stretched like a wire; he may snap at any moment. As she turned her head toward the older man, she saw him dressed in a button-up shirt and black pants. The usual.
“Apricot,” he said, ending his speed walk in front of her.
“Hello, Mr. Kyabetsu. How are things?” she said, raising her pitch to sound excited.
His feet are constantly tapping as he moves them, like he had to pee or something. “Oh, I’ve gotta go, I’ve gotta go! I’ve gotta go, I’ve got to go!” His balding head is smeared with a fake smile. A few times, he pokes at his clipboard with a pen. He asks, “Is your project going well?”
She glanced over at the milk crates for a moment, knowing full well he would ask more of her. She hoped Mr. Kyabetsu would remember her schoolwork. “Well, I still have this left after that, and then I need to clean up. I have an important article for tomorrow.” She said.
“Good. Good. Good. Ah, so you’re about done. Hey, one more thing. Can you mop the sidewalks?” He walked away before she could answer. He replied, “Great, I appreciate that.”
Apricot sighed, looking at the two boxes of milk. Suddenly she cried, “I’m not even supposed to work today. Please let me leave on time just once!”.
The shine of fluorescent lights filled hollow streets. Its glow painted the gray sidewalk faint orange around the edges with a kaleidoscope of greens, purples, blues, and reds. Apricot’s black slacks and white button-up shirt were stained with grease and soda. “Mop that parking lot before you go… it should not take too long,” she fumed under her breath. An empty dented soda can clanked by. Its roll reminded her of troubled laughter; an odd thought, she admitted. “At least it’s over now,” she said, glancing at the vast cityscape, the path ending at an enormous staircase.
She stops for a moment to take in the sight from the high vantage point. The city really is pretty at night, she thinks to herself. The twinkle of the high-rise buildings, the bright colors of all the advertisements plastered upon every open space. On its own, it is annoying, but when taken in like a mosaic, it is art.
In mid-tread, Apricot felt something slam into her leg. She is airborne, in a free fall over the stairs flailing her arms letting out a wail. As her foot hit a step with a loud crack, she cried out in shock. Pain surged up her left leg as the ground fast approached. She slammed her eyes shut, not willing to see her inevitable ultimate demise played out.
Apricot squealed again, yet did not receive the jolt. After several moments, she opened her eyes to see the pavement in front of her face. Apricot attempted to squirm, but could not. “What?” she dully cried. “What is happening?” Apricot raised her head to meet a pair of pointed black boots in front of her. “Who…”
“Tis time for thou to make a choice girl. Doeth thou wish to die or wilt thou choose life?” expressed an honorable male voice.
“Who are you?” Apricot gasped. “What do you mean?”
The man tapped his foot twice unpatiently. “Thou find yourself moments before thous curtain call. I hast stood in the way of that death to give thou a choice. Doth thou choose life or doth thou choose death.”
“You’re speaking all weird. What are you trying to tell me?” Apricot yelled at the man. She attempted to struggle but finds herself paralyzed.
“Haply ‘tis thou that speaks the stranger’s tongue. Nonetheless, ye are running out of time to make the choice. Doth thou wish to live or die? I tender life as a gift for thou, choose wisely as a serpent.” His words were muddled to Apricot, but what alternative did she have?
“I choose life!” she yelped. Apricot slammed into the ground with a violent impact, knocking the air out of her. She opened her eyes to catch she had slid several feet. She forced herself up with a considerable strain on her chest. “I must have hit my head.” She shifts to gaze up the staircase to watch a shadow staring at her. “What the hell is that thing?”
“Mineth dear, that wouldst be a phantom. Thy trial is not over. Feareth not, though. You hast the tools to defeat such a fearsome foe.” said the alien-looking man. Her sight gazed up at a long-nosed mask that reminded her of a beak. His clothing is like a jester’s. Two long striped lilac and red horns crown his head and his fists are like metallic claws. He stayed with a very prominent stance that appeared weightless and is six and a half feet tall by Apricot’s estimation. “I wouldst suggesteth thou doth something yarely before that creature notices ye art still alive. I hast left thy power within thou to defeat the phantom. How it manifests is up to thou.” He gestured his bladed claw toward the shadowy creature.
Apricot widened her eyes and shrieked in pain. With a flash, two white eyes appeared on the sliding shadow. After splashing on the ground, the blob spilled over the stairs. Despite her protests, the gentlemanly stranger beside her did not flinch as he watched her, folding his arms. As the stalker rose out of the stairs, several dripping arms were exposed. Apricot counted eight arms arriving from the creature’s back before turning tail to flee. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw an arm slash toward her face with a blade. The arm was segmented too many times to be considered a human arm, Apricot notes.
She dodged the attack, lunging away, raising both palms up to her face, and her back towards the wall. “Feast of flesh!” the centipede-like creature howls, bearing many knives as it ascends from its pond of black. Its silvery eyes cut through the blackness with blinding might.
Apricot took a heavy breath as the creature lurched towards her, dripping onto her face as its body extended. A warm light inside Apricot’s arm grows stronger, urging her forward. She lept, missing another knife aimed at her face. The image was overwhelming. She huddled up, covering her face with one arm, and with the other outstretch she yelled “Stop!” A glow burst from her open palm, igniting the creature in a purple beam of light. The creature let out a wet screech of pain. Apricot’s eyes grew wide, watching the purple flame blaze from her palm, dancing in the wind. She shivered. “What is happening!”
“You bitch!” the creature roared before spreading out many more arms as it dived into the air. Apricot threw her arm, allowing the flame to slash through the torso of the creature. It splattered into burning pieces, raining ash onto the ground. The parts fizzled and rolled at Apricot’s feet until nothing but small orbs of light floated into the open air. Apricot held her burning arm out, observing the impossible sight. The fire in her hand extinguished as the last few wisps disappeared. “I don’t believe this is happening,” she said as she grasped her palm.
“Splendid! The ritual is finished.” the masked man whispered.
She blinked, unable to believe what she had just seen. “I had to have hit my head.” She turned around and walked away from the masked man. “None of this can be real.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man floating as if wading in water. “You’re not real!” Apricot yelled as she scuffled ahead.
“Tis true thou hit thy mazard, but ye art not seeing things. Thou hast defeated the first of many phantoms. Thy method of manifesting thy power was rather unorthodox, but it accomplished thy task nonetheless.” he said with no inflection.
Her footsteps echoed around the empty road before coming to a stop. She turns toward the stranger. The blue light from an LCD screen advertising beer colors Apricot’s medium-length fiery brown hair purple. A few papers carried by a breeze shuffled by. “I want to go home after having a long day at work. You expect me to believe you’re real. I just killed a monster by shooting a laser fire thing out of my hand.” She raised her hands to her mouth. “Oh God, I am crazy. I hit my head and now I am crazy. I am talking to a clown in the street at night.”
The masked man floated in front of her and landed on the ground, blocking her path. He placed his hands on her shoulders, looking into her blue eyes. Apricot couldn’t see his eyes through the shadowed mask holes. There is something, a slight reflection, maybe glasses, though she could not be sure. “Thou ramble like a daw. Thou hast work to be done. The power I hast given thy is not for free. Nay, I hast a task for thou.”
“A task? What task?” Apricot asked.
“Thou shalt mortal arbitrament the phantoms from the city.” Apricot tried to walk through him. With a powerful thrust, he pushed her back onto the ground. “Doth thou still believe me to be a vision?” he snapped.
Shaking uncontrollably, she took a painful breath. Apricot wipes the street dust off her nose and looks up at him with tearing eyes. “I don’t know what you want from me. Leave me alone!”
“I gave thou that power to hurly-burly with the phantoms from thy city. Tis mine task to remove them from thous ordinary before I can return to mine home.” In a flash, the jester was before Apricot, extending his clawed hand to her.
As her soft fingers touched the metal fingers, they clasped around her hand, gently assisting Apricot to her feet, careful not to cut them with their sharp edge. Something she did not expect. “What is hurly-burly?”
“To kill the phantoms,” he said in a bitter voice.
“What if I don’t?” Apricot replied to him.
He snapped her in close to his face; his painted wooden nose poking her cheek. “Then I shall taketh thy soul as the collection for giving thou those powers.”
Apricot scrunched up her face and squints her eyes at him. “You can’t do that?” With the flash of his eyes, Apricot went limp and saw the world tumble. She looked up at the strange figure before her. The world’s color was sucked away, the air is full of arctic chill. She looked to her feet to see her body drooling out a thick foam, mouth gasping; eyes rolled back to the whites as she convulsed. The being’s hand opens, and she felt herself go back into her body. Her vision became her own again. She rolled on her side, spitting up a heavy flow of bile.
“Thou will doth the task I hast given thou. Thou made thy choice. Thou chose life. Anon ‘tis time to pay the toll of salvation, Apricot.” he said in a firm tone.
“How do you know my name? I never gave it to you!” She screamed at him.
He turned towards her. “A reaper knows all names. Goeth, rest for in time thou shalt be called upon to doth thy duty.” Apricot blinked her eyes to see she was the only one standing in the street.
“There is no way any of that could have been real.” She looked up to see a hazed, starless sky obscured by the streetlights. “I need to get home.”
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My page needs to be cleaned up. Perhaps you have already noticed the changes. I am currently rearranging things. Everything will be back to normal soon. Many new things will be coming down, so get ready. 2022 is going to be an interesting year. Thanks and love to all my friends and all the villains.