“This insanity has got to stop!” King Grandor shouted from the dark chamber. An apparition appeared from across the sanctuary amid the temple’s pillars and ornations wearing a flowing dress dripping blood. The woman was surrounded by ten servants, dressed in leather with billhooks and long knives, pointing toward the gallant soldiers. There was a strong smell of burning meat throughout the sanctum as it had been defiled. “Heilba, please!” Under Heilba, were lying the bodies of priests, who had kept the sacred place, and several of her servants as well.
Her smirk spread across her face as she lifted a blade with zigzags. “Grandor, can’t you see? The gods are not what they seem. They are just like you and me. Despite that, we play their game. They are to blame for the fact that we had to leave Tera. To what end? There is nothing but horror in this war-torn world.” Her gaze shifted back to the shadows behind her that preceded the inner sanctum. “I have been reading the teachings and I understand them now. Even now I see the word so illuminated. My ears are filled with the cries of those seeking freedom. Locking them in darkness was their punishment. That’s how they’ll treat us as well!”
Grandor gasped in pain as she heard such poisonous words flowing from his beloved’s mouth. With no thought at all, she damned herself. “Please!” he cried raising an arm toward her. “We can talk. There is no need for you to go. No, not in the dark.”
Upon seeing Grandor’s olive branch, Heilba cackled loudly. “Come along my sweet husband. I’ll show you the true gods, the primal forces. Together, I will show you the path. We can be freed. They will help us.”
The blasphemies spewed by his wife grieved Grandor deeply. With tears streaming down his face, his eyes watered in the candlelight. “Please, Heilba you are not well.”
A creek emerged out of nowhere. Grandor’s gaze centered on the steps leading down to the sanctuary. He recognized his son as the shadowy adolescent figure walking down the stairs. When he neared the bottom, it was possible to see his blond hair and light blue eyes through the candlelight. “Tybolt! Stop, don’t get any closer.” he cried.
Heilba immediately turned to face her son and softly crooned, “Tybolt, come.”
As Tybolt walked down the red-carpeted staircase, he asked, “Are you two fighting again? You woke me up.”
Despite the strong urge to jump to his son, Heilba’s servants wouldn’t let him cross the room. “Heilba no!” he said. Heilba continued walking to meet Tybolt at the bottom of the stairs before flashing Grandor a soft creeping smile. “Stay away from your mother, Tybolt.”
“Father, what’s the matter with you?” asks the young boy as his mother reveals the knife she had hidden under her shirt sleeve. In a fit of rage, Grandor inched his sword toward Tybolt while one guard pointed his billhook at his neck. Upon hearing the second soldier roar in response to the charge, the other soldier joined Grandor in pressing Hielba’s guards. The blade slashed through the air as she grabbed her groggy son and placed it on his neck.
“That’s enough,” she shouted.
Tybolt’s massive eyes grew wide as he felt the cold steel against his throat, making him mutter desperate words, “Mother!” Grandor stopped his charge as Heilba’s servants closed in on him, forcing their weapons against his own.
A loud scream rang out from Grandor. “Tybolt!” he cried.
In a shrill sob, Tybolt cried, “Father!”.
The young prince’s head was lifted into the air as Heilba tucked the knife beneath his chin. As she led him deeper into the dark inner sanctuary, he began to feel scared. As Tybolt was taken from the light, he looked back at Grandor wide-eyed and his eyes were full of tears. As Grandor’s fist crashed into the servant in front of him, he let out a roar. An unexpected battle erupted between the blades. While clashing with Heilba’s servants, Grandor yelled, “Tybolt!”
When Heilba removed the knife from Tybolt’s throat, she said, “My beautiful Tybolt. It will be okay,” she said. Outside the dark, inner sanctuary room, the sound of clashing men was unavoidably pervasive. While he was trying to gain entry, Grandor could be heard roaring like the wild beast he was. In spite of this, Tybolt seemed to lose interest in everything. Terror gripped him as the one he called mother threatened his life. Watching his mother grasp the knife with a sleek hand, he wondered what was going on. How could she do such a thing? The silver edge seemed to beckon to him, it wanted to cut him. The inner sanctum was filled with flickering lights as Heilba lit the candles at the altar.
It seemed that the shadows moved with life in an unnatural way. Seeing their umbral forms dancing around them in circles, Tybolt thought he saw the faces of monsters staring right at him. His wet gaze lingered over toward his mother once again. There he saw a most startling sight, his mother stood next to an even greater cast of darkness than the others. It was unconquerable, even by the light.
Standing menacingly proud like a noble dragon, the devil stood before him. Its boney hand wrapped around his mother as he lay cloaked in the blackness. Then Tybolt opened his mouth wide when he realized what it was. “Don’t you see my son? You will rule. You will rise above everyone.” Tybolt quaked in fear. “Don’t be afraid my son. I have been told of great things. You must look around yourself to see it. Once you feel its grace, you will surely understand. Go on. Take his hand.”
“You are talking crazy.” Tybolt retorted.
He watched as his mother slowly approached him and knelt down in front of him. As soon as she placed the blade in Tybolt’s small hand, she wrapped his finger around the blade’s hilt. “You are being rude. You are before Elagate, my son. Pay your respects.” She told him. Seeing his mother with both his hands on his shoulders, he looked her in the eye. Her lips curved into a kiss as she said, “Kill your father, kill Grandor.” She then leaned in and hugged Tybolt.
During the plunge into the stomach of his adversary, Grandor heard his wife screaming from inside the sanctuary. Kicking the body off his blade as fast as he could, Grandor made his way. This nightmare began when the traitors who were responsible for this horror began slashing away at the priests. Heavy with fatigue, he hollered “Heilba!” while climbing the stairs. The thoughts that occupied his mind were dark. Could she have come to her senses? Could it have been too late? Was her son slain by her? As Grandor approached the archway, he was bombarded with questions.
When he entered the dark room, he found his son lying on his knees with his mother lying across his lap. “What happened?” He asked as his other soldiers entered the room. He slowly approached his son whose back was toward him. He was startled when he noticed the puddle and Tybolt’s eyes were filled with tears. In front of him was his wife, whose eyes were nearly out of her head as he stared down at her. A furious Grandor yelled, “What have you done?”
Tybolt pushed Heilba off of his body as he slowly turned his head. In spite of his quivering lip and soggy cheeks, he remained silent. Grandor was in awe of what he was seeing. Tybolt’s hand fell from the knife and the knife rolled on the floor, leaving a bloody trail. As he saw Heilba’s death and her manner of dying, Grandor’s jaw dropped. The butcher marked his line as her inside spilled out.
A brief while later, Grandor looked down at his son as he raised his sword above his head. In the seconds before he was about to chop, he felt a hand grab his arm. In an outburst, Benadis exclaimed, “He’s your son.” His gaze fell on Grandor, whose sword had fallen out of his hand. As he collapsed onto his wife, wailing like a child he held her tightly.
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When time ceases to be time, it is easy to lose yourself. We measure our lives in numbers, hours, days, months, years; but we know that there is an end, and it is always moving forward. What would you do if you were given infinity? Would you still be you after the end that did not come?
I lost myself some time ago. Unborn to the world, stashed away, placed on pause. All time converged inside the abyss, past, present, and future.
Each deliberate exhalation raised and lowered my chest as the cool darkness carried me to unknown shores.
Movement, movement; I hadn’t felt movement since untold ages ago. Through the undertide, brisk footsteps echoed across a tiled floor. My heart began to beat as my mind opened up, sparking life anew. The deep pulse channeled through my body once again, and as I clenched my fingers into a fist, I realize I was still here. As I took a deep breath, my soft lips parted as if I was breaking the surface of water. Remorse invaded my mind along with the murk. The taste of mineral steel swelled my mouth as my lungs burned, plump with an unknown fluid.
My ten thousand years of closed eyes opened as the illusion of long-suspended sleep was broken. My first sight was of a sterile white ceiling. Tiles raced like a river, while beams of light shot through the glass like spears. With the remaining brain fog clearing, I could hear footsteps more clearly.
My black silky hair twirled as if it were underwater foliage. Every subtle movement caused the drifts in which I rested to whirl and wander. In my container, I levitated off the smooth, spongy floor. Beyond the glass, I could make out something that looked like a human, but it moved wrong as if it were a reproduction. The strange thing hunched over the foot of my container, cables, and cords lining its scratched and worn metallic armor. A mechanical groan alerted me. With a simple jostle of my hip, I rolled over, my attention turning to another pair of strangers.
A whimper accompanied a carbon-dioxide wisp as I exhaled. I released a bounding shriek as my eyes widened and my jaw dropped open. The lumbering form of an imitation human face rose to look down upon me; imitation to the extent it was something akin to a cheap plastic mask. A sense of claustrophobia quickly overpowered me as I darted about the strange cell. I had inadvertently attracted the alien’s attention, and to my horror, it turned towards me. I was at the mercy of these inhuman pretenders with no way to escape.
I could make out, in the dark, that I was inside something like a stretcher. A glass tube encased me and some kind of liquid that allowed me to breathe surrounded me. “She shouldn’t be awake.” The words startled me. Although the sound was distorted by the smothering liquid, I could still tell it was digital, broken, and artificial like the rest of it.
“Stay quiet.” A second alien engine demanded, its voice deeper and more machine-like than the first. The group froze. Hoping I hadn’t enraged my captors, I halted my breathing. They remained motionless. It strangled my every vein as I waited for a reply. Only the faint whine of their old motors breaks the agonizing silence. Was it me? No. They were watching the hall. “They’ve spotted us.” announced a male voice.
Shivers ran down my spine as I heard an ear-piercing scream from the dark. It felt like an unfamiliar hand crawling across my skin, grooming me in places it shouldn’t. After bracing my knees against my shoulders, I curled up into a ball and covered my ears to stop the stabbing pitch. Screams filled the air. There had to have been a hundred of them, and the roar of gunfire was all too loud. Each percussion thundered through me. I closed my eyes to escape the horrors which I knew would await my lids. The only thing separating me from a nightmare was an inch of glass. A light sob crawled from my throat at the thought.
The sound of scraping became more intense. Beyond that, I could hear the buzz of a chainsaw carving, slathering a wet, pulpy mess as it sawed through whatever it fell upon. Red splatters covered the glass in a violent coat that obscured my vision. With a thud, it swung aside the carrier, throwing me against the container’s wall. Observing the three mechanical soldiers with chainsaws and rifles, I became even more panicked. Beyond them lies a vision of a swarm; malformed tumorous bodies rode with polyps, clawing and screaming in unbridled fury. Kicking at the glass, my feet struck it, pushing me away from the sight. This was a futile effort. I couldn’t escape. My silent dream had released me to this nightmare, and I somehow longed to return to that nothingness.
Once again, the capsule shifted, jolting me from my cowering. Once again, I saw the plastic faces of a pair of mechanical soldiers. With rifles in hand, their arms were slung over the cart as they pushed it. They fired shots into the swarm from all sides. The three in front cut into the creatures as they swung their weapons. There was a glorious howl from their, well, whatever they had. Blood dripped from every wall as insides and limbs fell to the ground. Moving closer to the battle tide, my heart sank. As I watched, I realized the machines were pushing the prison towards that awful visage. “No, no, I don’t want to go there! Please, no!” As I screamed against the fluid, I pleaded for mercy. Nobody answered or even considered my plea. One more time, I stared into those cold unfeeling masks hidden behind those false smiles.
Looking into the fray of battle, I only saw two soldiers. “309!” shouted an android. As I looked at them, I could see how much they cared for one another. Both soldiers increased their pace, cutting and chopping to get to their fellow soldier. As I scanned the fleshy horrors, I spotted the missing android’s arm and head, but that couldn’t be right. There was too much distance between the head and the arm. I pondered what I was seeing. “Grab the tracer!” commanded the android in front of me.
When the puzzle was complete in my mind, I screamed, “They tore it apart!” The two android soldiers in front stopped their advance at the end of the hall. Defending the unending throng of monsters with four arms, slashing and cutting, shattering the monsters with their glorious power, my champions? “Are these things trying to save me?” I asked myself. My emotions were in a maelstrom of total confusion.
I became unable to see the group because of the flood of blood that rained down. The covering of gore comforted me in some ways but brought out intense anxiety about what lay ahead. Meanwhile, another android picked through the ripped torso of their fallen comrade. From its body, the android extracted a small card. Their flesh-bound tethers ripped free as they deposited the card into their own frames.
“I got it!” the machine hollered in victory.
“There is an elevator shaft ahead.” the android, who hung over my capsule, announced. Although its body did not match its voice, it sounded feminine. Apart from a natural patina of rust and wear that allowed them to be distinguished from each other, they all looked the same to me. “We can reach the roof from here. Attach the carrier now.”
There were still a few gaps in the scarlet black. Nevertheless, I could see that the hall had become nothing more than a twitching pile of meat with blood dripping from every surface. Like worms, colored cords swam in the piles of ruination, tying stray pieces back together. As we drew closer to the elevator, the pile seemed to get deeper. The limbs that remained firmly gripped to the androids. With barely any effort, they jerked themselves free, giving the parts no purchase. The soldiers held the line against the onslaught as the others pushed my capsule into the elevator.
A bright blue light lifted the capsule into the air, elevating the android through the tunnel. We rose higher and higher in the tunnel as a blue glow radiated from the entire device. The platform stopped opening to a bleak sky, the color of rusted iron, which cast a dull glow over the rooftops. The city’s buildings were rotting with lines of overgrowth resembling muscle tissue. An odd-looking vehicle awaited the group; judging by the large wings, I presumed it to be a plane, but I wasn’t certain. From the elevator shaft, the other two androids appeared. They were sopping wet with blood. They left behind a messy trail of gore as they walked, bits of flesh rolling off their bodies.
From the ship’s open hanger, a man yelled, “You found one.” My heart pounded. When I heard the man behind the glass, I rushed to the edge to see through the red ooze. In the plane’s dock, the androids lifted the pod as they dragged it to the threshold. Pressing my hands against the window did not produce any results. The darkness made it impossible to see anything. Hearing a human voice was comforting though. “What condition does it seem to be in?” the man inquired.
“It’s awake.” The android grunted.
Pressed into the side of the glass was the torso of a white plastic suit. “We cannot have that.” He told the machine. “My, isn’t she magnificent?” My eyes scanned over my shoulder to see his face hidden behind the visor.
“Help me, let me out!” I shouted, throwing my body against the window. Compared to the androids, the man’s face appeared even more unconcerned. In response to my struggles, he only glared at me with a dehumanizing gaze. “Why are you doing this to me? What am I doing here? Who am I?” My eyes twitched as round crystals floated in from the capsule’s ducts.
“Phhhshhhhhhhhh…” A small vent above my head emitted a malaise of white cloud. The stench was rancid, and I gasped. The tightening in my body made me gasp for another scream, but my chest could not manage it. As everything grew heavier, I let a low moan escape. I struggled in the milky fluid but failed. My fingers pressed against the glass as my arms became heavier. I felt as if I was being crushed, and I fell limp. While the theater of this nightmare came to a sudden halt, my iron lids closed like curtains; the deep slumber of stasis returned.
“So, she is asleep. Just like that?” The android I had hired commented. He had a thin, rectangular head, and his upper reticle was blue; its general shape reminded me of the shape of a pistol. It looks like what a human body would look like if scraps were gathered and put together. Various cables and ribbons hung from the gaps in its plating and from the back of its head. Having no use for its artificial visage, the mask dangled from the side of its head. It was entirely constructed of black gunmetal. There are several decades etched into its body, scraped and scratched with incomplete model numbers.
In all my years, I never dreamed I would get this chance. My heart filled with a child-like giddiness as I looked at the bloodied container. I nodded in disbelief at the android’s question, unable to look away. “Indeed, she is,” I murmured a bit. As I stood up, I glanced around the cargo carrier’s rusted interior. Even though it looked shabby, they actually succeeded in their mission. Then I noticed how spacious the area suddenly became. Despite paying for a squad of five, before me, there were only four. “I see that only four of you returned. My apologies for not acknowledging your loss earlier.”
The computer then said something that seemed most bizarre to me. “309 will live again, like your girl.” The android lifted a small rectangular chip from his bloodied breastplate. “We need to refurbish his body. That’s your responsibility.”
“Cover your mistake with a body, huh? Why should I pay for it? I hired you to retrieve her, not to rehabilitate your aging bodies. When I hired you, you knew the risks. That is your own fault because you didn’t consider the complications.” I replied.
As the reticle twisted and turned, narrowing in on me, I was not pleased to see my own worried reflection. The hanger motor grumbled as the doors raised, revealing his intentions. Suddenly, the open doors seized my breath as I heard, “Our contract ends, there is no negotiation.” The mere thought of my suit being berated like that terrified me. As I stood before the unknowable plummet, my feet became unsteady.
“Wait! Stop!” I screamed. “We can make it work.” The ship’s doors closed as my will bent. Was there anything else I could do? My position did not allow me to argue against it. “I should have known better. Unfortunately, our colony does not have military-grade android parts. Would a trade be possible? For something of equal value?”
“That’s fine with me. We’ll need more seeds.”
As I shook my head in disbelief, I realized how surreal the situation is. Visiting the outside world has been a long time coming for me. Before, androids served humans. Now they were driving a tense bargain. I don’t know where they learned this type of behavior. Through observation over time, I suppose they have become like such things. Still, what could they possibly want from seeds? There is no place for them to grow, and besides, what would artificial beings like them want from anything biological? I had to know. “So what do you hope to gain from seeds?”
“Unmodified seeds are among the most valuable things in the world. Unlike most things, they can’t be manufactured. Our goal is to restore the world to the way it was before this cursed decay spread, unlike our greedy peers in the empire.” the android said.
It was impossible, it cannot be done. Certainly not by their hands. That thought was kept to myself, not wanting the machine to frighten me further. “Well then, good luck with that,” I grunted, walking back over to the capsule, gazing inside at the fair-skinned girl resting soundly. Our salvation.
The vessel carried us over the ruins of an old city, through the slumbering lands that had rotted. We flew over an even more lonely sky, over a vast sea, over mountain passes, and over fleshy fields of sinew; until we reached a desert wasteland of hollowed buildings that stretched for miles.
As the ship fell to the ground, a secret hangar door emerged as the craft sank. On the platform, two people awaited our arrival. In charge of this girl was a young woman with black hair named Vanity and a much older man, a doctor named Hellibor Winters. As the ship landed, the doors opened to reveal the ark in which she lived. Vanity cried out, “They did it!” Everyone could hear it, even from the confines of the ship.
“Brilliant. I told you we could trust them.” Hellibor grumbled in his usual grouchy voice. He stood stoic as ever, in contrast to Vanity’s excitement as I made my way out of the craft. Hellibor said to me before I could even speak, “Bring me the containment chamber.” in that familiar, commanding tone.
I thought to myself, “It’s a relief to be home.”
“There was a complication,” I murmured. “We need to pay the androids a bit more before they can release the girl.” I regretfully informed them.
The low growl Hellibor let out under his breath was still fresh in my memory. I could tell by the growl that there would be repercussions for this. Turning to Vanity, he gestured. “Vanity, get another seed and give it to Brainer to feed the swine.”
Vanity answered in the usual formal way, “Yes, sir, Hellibor.” It was impossible not to notice her sway when she entered the building. It was one of the few pleasures left in the world.
“So, you recovered a specimen,” said Hellibor. Together, Hellibor and I walked side by side to watch the machines perform their usual pre-take-off tasks.
“As you had hoped, it was a girl. However, she woke up during the extraction. The ark’s seal was broken.” I couldn’t even look him in the eye. My palms soon became wet inside my suit.
He grunted, not as sour as I had expected. “It shouldn’t matter.” He said. “If she is infected, then the contaminants shouldn’t affect her.”
“They almost threw me overboard. I think they might have thrown her as well. That’s one way to negotiate extra payment.” Hellibor shook his head as he placed his hand on my back. To be honest, it was strange because it was the first time in quite a while that I had felt a touch. There was nothing natural about it. Hellibor, I guess, felt the same way; the second he realized what he had done, he whipped his hand away.
Vanity came back with a pair of test tubes. “Two seeds,” she chirped, holding out the meager specimens toward me. As though it mattered, she replied, “They are still cold.”
In reaching for the two seeds, I felt a heaviness in my gut. “They’ll take this as an insult.” My mind shrieked. Two seeds for what they just did. That’s hardly payment. Although their contract did not specify any amount, it was still clearly plural. When I took the two suspended seeds from her, I said, “This is all you will give them.”
Hellibor gave a confident nod. To present our payment, we walk together to the drop ship’s hangar doors. The leader of the group stood at the lip of the hangar, towering above us like a giant. Seeing the pair of reflective tubes I held in my hand, he jumped onto the platform. “May I inspect them?”
Hellibor spoke just as I reached for the skeletal metal hand. “I’d like to see the girl myself before we pay. I want to make sure she doesn’t have any blemishes. For that, I will need to run scans on her.”
“That won’t happen without my payment. Payment will be made upon delivery. A specimen has been delivered. We have fulfilled our end of the bargain. Now you must abide by yours.” the sternal android replied.
“Brainer, give him the seeds.” This surprised me. It seems Hellibor also knew when to quit.
I extended my open palm. The android took a sample out of my hand and examined it carefully. He then asked, “Where is the rest of our payment?”
“That is it. One seed, one person. I granted you two seeds graciously, seeing as you wanted double payment.” Hellibor stated with authority. He knew that deep down the machine would not accede to such a ridiculous request.
“I’m not amused by your humor.” the android groaned.
“A seed is the most valuable thing on earth.” Even though I was wasting my time on this, I knew from the look in the machine’s eye that I hadn’t impressed that machine.
It laughed inhumanly, with grating synthesized sounds. As it pointed at me, it said, “Now you, you know humor. But I have a feeling this girl is more valuable to you than those seeds. If you wish to continue with your game of negotiations, I will destroy her and call it a loss.” Our smug faces melted. When I looked over at Hellibor, I wanted to know whether he wanted to continue. He was stiff and I couldn’t read any of his facial expressions, but the fear of failure that stabbed through his body was clear from the machine’s comments.
It was true: we needed her far more than the androids needed their seeds. It had taken us years to find someone held in stasis, and now we had it. Despite being so close to our goal, Hellibor’s foolish pride was the only thing holding us back; and he sacrificed that pride for our sake. “How many do you want?”
“As many seeds as you have inside that cozy shelter of yours.”
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Currently, it is 3:15 AM where I am. Having finished editing the remainder of Blue Ash Crisis, I am announcing my accomplishment. Starting tomorrow, I will begin editing An End To All You Know. Being done with that book is truly a relief. Finally, I can tell you that I am finished after you thought I would be done a long time ago.
I have learned one thing from this experience. It is more productive for me to have deadlines. I’ve achieved success with weekly releases. Even when I caught covid, I never missed one. I am grateful for the chance to produce for you guys. Although the feedback is next to nothing, I still receive occasional messages from you guys. All of them mean a lot to me as well.
Now!!! Those releases will still take place on Mondays. No changes are expected in my release schedule. You can expect a chapter of An End To All You Know every Monday and a chapter of Lyorta: The Saga of Retribution on the first Monday of every month. I will however take a break between books. I will take a month off in between. An End To All You Know will be released on August 1st. My break allows me to recharge, in addition to getting ahead of the game. Additionally, I am working on The Forever Kingdom, just as I was editing Blue Ash Crisis while I was working on An End To All You Know.
In light of that, I hope you have an exceptional day and that when you see this in the morning, you will think of me. I’m celebrating right now.
Taking in his brother’s precession from the Reed Arms Tavern balcony, Wolgraft watched the rigors of his arrival. Belcross was awash in festive cheer and celebration, raining down flowers and confetti. Wolgraft quipped, “He loves this.” His sister, Ariest, cheered, waving a handkerchief over the balcony railing. Wolgraft shrugged as he glanced over at Mayfare, his sister’s maid, who stood between the two. As Guildred rode on horseback, the crowd separated as he held high the flag of the revolution, the flag of the Azurian mainland – royal blue with a cross interwoven on the left enclosed in a loris reed circlet.
Ariest encircled Wolgraft’s biceps, saying “He is safe.”.
“Well, I would expect no less.” Raising his hand, Wolgraft gestures at Guildred, who noticed the three standing on the balcony. People dropped flowers at his horse’s feet as he nodded and continued his glad-handing. “It is amazing that even though we are rebels, they seem to love us.”
“You are liberators, not rebels. Don’t you ever listen to what people say?” Mayfare added.
“It is just hard to believe,” Wolgraft exclaimed over the celebration. “I mean, think about it, we attacked as invaders a few years ago. We conquered them… we did this. Then when we rebel against the crown, we are heroes? I don’t understand the logic behind it.”
The girlish chuckle of Ariest rings in Wolgraft’s ears. “It is because you overthink things sometimes. It is important to see things from their point of view. The raiders were all wiped out, and there was peace. Under the rule of the crown, they took and supplied nothing to the people. Even I can understand that, Wolgraft.”
“I suppose you are right.”
Putting one hand on Ariest’s back, Mayfare inquires, “So, does that mean he captured Ulfates?”
“I think so. Assuming Guildred failed, I don’t think he would have come back. He would never have allowed himself to be humiliated.” Ariest replied.
Wolgraft smiled when he thought of the large pastures and homes he used to own. “One step closer to home,” Wolgraft said as Ariest lets out a startling scream. “What!?”
“Look at what he has brought back!” Ariest shouted, pointing towards the sea of people cheering.
The look on Mayfare’s face changed. “I have seen those before in Lasandra’s book of drawings.”
Wolgraft looked away from the two girls, gazing out over the crowd. He is captivated by two huge hauls. “What is that?“ he blurted, stroking his chin. Despite their presence, the crowd is too delighted to hear of their safe return to notice them. They are tied together and several horses are pulling each one. “What is that monster?”
“Village Guard,” Lasandra enthused Wolgraft, who stood over the machine looking down at the hulking crab machine. “The idea that it is asleep but alive kind of scares me, to be honest.” She ran her fingertips along the Village Guard’s brown carapace. “I don’t like dealing with things like this.”
“So what exactly are you doing with these?” Wolgraft stared in astonishment. ”It looks like its armor is more durable than stone.”
Nodding her head, Lasandra said, “It’s a lot stronger than I thought. You won’t see these things being penetrated. Because Village Guards are made for war, they must be stronger than stone. A good Vistis cannon hit will take one down though. At least I think it would. Could be wrong though.” Wolgraft raised an eyebrow, shivering from the thought of taking on one of these monsters. In the days after returning from Ulfates, Guildred hadn’t talked to anyone. From the rumor Wolgraft heard, Guildred acquired his grave wounds by defeating Village Guard in single combat.
Lasandra’s voice wakes Wolgraft from his daydream, telling him: “Guildred wants these two ready for battle. Without a codex, reprogramming would be a lengthy process. In other words, I will remove its systems and let it act according to its own nature. Risky but orders are orders. The problem is I got to cut out the system and if the blood thaws I will have one upset Village Guard, now won’t I?” Lasandra chuckled, gazing up at the massive body with blue eyes.
His eyes became wide as the revelation Lasandra had just revealed to him sank in. “So, they would… just go berserk?” he shouted at her.
Nervously, Lasandra ran her fingers along the machine’s cold frame. “Yeah, that is the goal. Sorta, I mean they would not be aggressive without reason, but generally, it does not take much to get them upset.”
As he looked at Lasandra, Wolfgraft folded his arms. “That is crazy and reckless.”
“So do you think I am crazy, Wol?” She is following my orders.” Wolgraft quickly turned his gaze to the entrance of the barn. There Guildred walked down to the bottom of the barn. “Normally, village guards are docile until they receive a threat. They will serve as good workers, plowing the fields using village guards will make it easy to plant fresh crops.” Wolgraft is puzzled. What is this about crops? They were going home, weren’t they? He stares at his brother, not wanting to question him.
“Lasandra, how is my armor?” Guildred asked with a firm voice.
Lasandra jostled her head in disappointment. “I can’t work with it. It’s all torn to hell. It will take me some time to just get the proper materials for it, let alone repair the internal parts. You busted several ligaments in the shoulder. The muscle sinue got torn to ribbons. It will take time to heal, but I can fix it.”
Guildred’s expression faded for a moment. “O’,” he said in a monotone voice. “Well, that is a pity.”
“Talmian alicids are scarce these…”
With a raised hand, Guildred cuts Lasandra off. “You need not lecture me. I understand.”
The two look away from him as he returns to the stairs. Wolgraft called out, “Wait. How is your shoulder doing?”
Guildred paused for a moment before climbing the stairs again. When his shadow reached its peak, he said, “Soldat hasn’t returned. We’d better get out of here before the locals notice.”
Upon hearing the front door open, Ariest turned around. She made a beeline for the entrance, a wide smile covered her face. Wolgraft and Guildred stand at the end of the hall. Guildred walked past them with his head bowed and no expression on his face. She chirped, “Welcome home.” When she turned to Wolgraft, he locked eyes with her and shook his head. Ariest found it hard to maintain a smile. In the dining room, Mayfare was presenting a feast of angels on horseback. There is a delicious scent of salty sea air filling the room as the oysters are fresh from the harbor. Mayfare just put a fresh loaf of yeast bread on the table, which added to the smell in the air.
“Good evening, Lord Guildred,” Mayfare greeted Guildred as he entered the dining room, bowing as he walked past her to the table. His presence alone was enough to draw everyone’s attention without him speaking a word. The four people silently ate their meal. Guildred ate in an official manner as always, while the others ate much more sluggishly, startled, and reservedly. Wolfgraft wished he could compliment Mayfare on her cooking, but held his tongue for fear of breaking the silence. Guildred looked frazzled, but everyone knew he was about to lose it. His expression caused men’s hearts to skip a beat. With every bite, his hands trembled, jittering as he felt the pain coursing through him.
In that way, he looked toward Mayfare and then to Ariest. “This is delicious, Mayfare, Ariest,” he said, and with that, he nodded toward them both. A half smile appeared on Mayfare’s face. However, the rest refrain from commenting. They continue to eat in silence, as they did when they began. As soon as Guildred raised his hand, Mayfare got up from her chair to clear the dishes. “Wolgraft, help your sister clear the table.” Ariest stared at Wolgraft. Mayfare continued to reach for a plate. “Mayfare, let Wol and Ari handle this, come up to the roof with me,” Guildred instructed before leaving the room.
The hapless maid was utterly confused and looked over at Wolgraft pleading eyes. Wolfgraft looked back while mouthing “I don’t know.”
After taking her shoes off, Mayfare climbed out of the third-story window onto the wooden shingles of the arched roof. Putting her foot down on the mossy shingles, her foot slipped. As Guildered lay on his back, his feet were pressed up against the fall bars as he approached the edge of the roof. She looked at him as he extended his hand toward her. “It’s all right. I won’t let you fall.” He stomped on the metal that rattles the bar. “See it’s sturdy. Come sit with me.” Mayfare carefully walked across the shingles, holding onto the rail with her hand. After slipping on the uneven surface, her foot was able to grab the track again and regain her balance. As she sat, Guildered allowed her to stabilize herself by holding her side.
“Why are we on the roof?” Mayfare asked.
A small smile appeared on Guildred’s face. “It’s serene and private here, everything is so clear. If you look closely, you can even observe the ripples of the tides above.” Mayfare glanced up to see the moons hanging in the open air and a glowing orb whose glow was fading. “This is a beautiful place. Don’t you think so?”
Although the sky caught Mayfare’s attention, it was the streets below that she found more interesting. They do little tasks that don’t seem to be important to anyone except themselves. A cart driver on horseback carries various goods along the streets, multiple children play in the streets and a vendor shouts to the crowds. “It is,” she replied softly.
Guildred nods in agreement. “You’ve always been helpful to us, Mayfare. It seems like just yesterday that you were a little girl. It’s a shame you weren’t born a noble.”
A lump forms in Mayfare’s throat, accompanied by an uneasy flood of questions. Instead, she found that it was best to placate as she did in these tense situations. “Thank you, sir.”
“Still. Sir?” Guildred laughed. “I suppose I should expect you to behave that way. I wanted to speak privately with you because Ariest would be upset at this request.” Mayfare’s face is filled with concern. Guidred, however, did not reveal what his response would be. In the dying evening light, his handsome features seemed more prominent. The light from his eyes seemed almost to shine. “You know times will get rough for us.” She nodded her head in agreement. “You are my slave servant, and I think you have completed your service to our family.”
Mayfare’s heart skips a beat as a sense of dread takes hold of her. The blackness of her mind strangled her as her fears grew. She screams inside. “Do you dare Guildred!”
Her eyes grew wide as he continued, “You have repaid your debt more than once. I’m releasing you from your obligation, and you may leave if you like.” Guildred said.
During what seemed like an eternity, Mayfare’s mind was violated by the words he heard. “But I…” she moaned, her eyes streaming. Despite Guildred’s attempt to be affectionate, the words themselves became arrows in her heart. She had served Lady Ariest since she was very young. Her loyalty was unwavering. She couldn’t leave at this time.
Continuing, Guildred states, “I am offering you a new chance at life. The battle is far from over. We have just begun, and I fear things are about to change. We have been fighting new soldiers and retainers. That is the truth of the matter. It won’t be long until Azure sends real soldiers maybe even from the mainland and I have a feeling they are sending them soon. Everyone associated with us will be labeled traitors. I don’t want to see that happen to you.” He pulled out a pouch from his side. “Here are fifty pieces of gold. It could afford you a good plot of land and the price of traveling wherever you wanted. You could even purchase yourself a small workforce to farm for you.”
“No,” she whispered.
A look of admiration crosses Guildred’s face. “Things will get ugly. If I could, I would have you take sister with you, but the empire would find her and you. You’re not an Ashnod; you could deny association with us because of you being a slave.”
“No, I want to stay,” Mayfare said to Guildred.
Guildred takes a deep breath. “This is your last chance to get yourself out of this mess, Mayfair. Think about what you are doing.”
Tears rained from Mayfare’s cheeks. “I won’t go if I have to leave you all behind. You are my only family.”
A smirk spread across Guildred’s face. “They may kill you. You know that, right? They might not but they may kill all of us, and you would be left with nothing.”
Mayfare came to a halt. Guildred’s words were nothing new; all of these thoughts have already run through her head a hundred times. The thought of leaving almost occurred to her. But she was still aware that she would regret it for the rest of her life. Particularly if something happened to Ariest, whom she loved with all her heart. “I know. This is why I don’t want to leave. I can’t do much, and Ariest can’t either, but she needs someone to watch over her because she’s so young.”
Guildred drummed his fingers against the wood. “Well, that’s the problem. As a result of protecting you both, you will wind up being a burden to us if things don’t work out.” Guildred stares at her sternly. “Have you considered that?”
The tears fell from Mayfare’s eyes. “I understand, but I can help.” she pleaded.
Guildred wrapped his arms around Mayfare and half-hugs her. Guildred sat up and got to his feet. “I know.” He said. “I’m glad you are staying. Make sure I don’t regret this.” Mayfair heard on the city’s streets as the hooves clomp. A single rider is rushing towards them. A pouch of gold coins is dropped next to Mayfare’s delicate foot by Guildred. “Last chance,” Guildred said before climbing back into the house, leaving Mayfare on the roof alone. The rider stopped before the bar. As Mayfare picked up the pouch, she kept an eye on the rider. She examined a single gold out of the pouch as it lay flat in the palm of her hand. After inhaling slowly, she released it, placing the coin back inside with a metallic “clink.”
Two cloth blades hit each other back and forth faster than Wolgraft was able to see. Sweat poured from Wolgraft’s forehead. In the tavern’s backyard, Guildred and Wolgraft traded blows with each other. Wolgraft could tell from Guilderd’s posture that he was in perfect shape and did not appear fatigued, while his own felt the opposite. Guildred stabbed through Wolgraft’s strikes just before his face. “You must be faster than a blink.” He said. “Every attack, one step and you are dead.” Wolgraft was forced to back up when the cloth tip of his brother’s sword was just inches from his nose. When Guildred lunged, he strikes with incredible speed. In the space of one strike, Guildred was hitting his blade four or five times, knocking it every which way. “You are not focusing! You are too slow and your grip is too firm.”
“Damn it!” Wolgraft screamed as he made his best effort to keep up. The young man gritted his teeth and let out a growl as he lunged at Guildred, who dodged.
Guildred slams his sword right between Wolgraft’s eyes, knocking him backward. “You’re opponent won’t give you the mercy of back and forth like this.”. Pain penetrates his face as a splash of darkness fills his vision. “They will kill you like this.” When Wolgraft’s vision cleared, he realized Guildred was just looking at him as he stood calmly.
In tears, with blood flowing from his nostrils, Wolgraft shouted, “What the hell was that?” His mouth hung open with surprise.
Guildred firmed his eyes. “Sloppy work like that will kill you.” Wolgraft snorted and wiped the blood off of his hand onto his pants. He lifted his sword and pointed it back at Guildred. “That is the spirit. Come get me.”
With both hands on the grip of his blade, Wolgraft charged at Guildred. The sword swung as fast as he can, but Guildred caught it with his own sword. Wolgraft felt his grip loosening as Guildred twisted and knocked the sword from his grasp. He begins to see an opening before him. The sword was never intended for Wolgraft to grab. In a jerk, Wolgraft pulled Guildred’s sword from his hands and snatched it from his grip. Guildred’s hand slammed into Wolgraft’s face, knocking him off his feet, but Wolgraft didn’t see it. The blow was hard enough to knock him out. The first thing he saw when he awoke was his brother kneeling over him. “You’re done with your training today.”
“Why are you being so hard on me?”, Wolgraft asked in a small voice. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get some liberties in combat with his brother. As well, he was not as experienced as his brother, who was an expert swordsman. Looking into Guildred’s downturned face, he realized something was wrong. “What did that messenger say to you?”
“Soldat has not returned, nor have his scouts. It is doubtful that he will return anytime soon. His group might have been intercepted. In that case, we will lose everything. There is no returning home brother. If everything goes well, I don’t even know if there is a way home. It is time that I stop treating you like a child and see to it that you handle yourself on the field.”
Wolfgraft felt anger boiling within him. “My troops have already fought in several battles. As far as I am concerned, I can handle myself just fine.”
As Guildred rolled his eyes, he frowned. “Can you? Are you aware that you have been fighting bandits and hired soldiers? They are not skilled warriors. A band of Azurian soldiers is enough to handle such rabble. The battle against Azurian knights and lords will become more complex as time passes. They are much more skilled than you.”
“What are you saying?” Wolgraft asked. “Did you lose hope in our cause? Do you think we are not capable of achieving anything more?”
“It isn’t like that. If I thought that you were being trained for no reason, I would not train you. We are fighting to go home but what home is left for us?” Guildred reached out his open palm for Wolgraft. He lifted his brother to his feet. “We are traitors, Wolgraft, deserters, the only leverage we have is our numbers and these cities. Both of which are dwindling like grains of sand through our fingers. We are about to hold an entire kingdom hostage, to get back home. Do you think we get out of this alive?”
There is silence between the two for a short time before Wolgraft weakly asked, “What choice did we have? Go east and die fighting Dalmaskans on some unnamed island.” He spat onto the ground before continuing. “Grandor that bastard. He lied to us all. We need to get word to the Imperator.”
“Any communication with the Imperator must go through Grandor. That is unless we have access to an airship. I doubt we have such a vessel at our disposal. If we send someone, they will be viewed as a traitor,” Guildered sighed as he looked somewhat distressed, Wolgraft thought to himself. “I suppose Grandor would want the entire thing to end too. However, we overplayed our hands. There was no way I expected everyone to revolt. When that happened, Grandor had no choice but to stop it. Thus, we are trapped in this war that no one wants.”
A tightness comes over Wolgraft’s chest. “Is it really that simple?”
“I fear so.” Guildred scuffed his foot against the ground. “This may all be for nothing.” He concludes. In the event that Grandor decides it’s an all-out war and we don’t negotiate a release, then we won’t be able to leave. Though I hope he will not want to stain his legacy.”
Under his breath, Wolgraft remarks, “This is a dangerous game.”
“It is. There is only one way out of this.” Just then the clomping of hooves interrupted the two. As the brothers look up, they notice a messenger riding through the field. He rode his horse up to the group and sat atop the beast upright and gallantly, with a message in hand. Guildred folded his arms looking up at the rider. “My Lord, Soldat is waiting at Ziekden. He has news.” The two brothers look at each other and smirk.
A large map lies spread across the table as Wolgraft sits at a table dressed in an elaborate Azurian uniform. A number of pins were positioned in various locations throughout the map. When he looked at the battle plans he had put together, warmth filled him. As Guildred paced around the table, he played with his facial hair with his hand. From time to time, he looked at the tactical laid before him. One of the guests was an older man with a shaved head, who sat across from Wolgraft, picking his teeth with a knife. The men were wearing gold-trimmed Azurian blue cloaks, and their armor was decorated with gold and silver griffons. Yet all of this had been tarnished by dirt and grit and did not shine as new.
Among Guildred’s trusted advisors was the older man, Soldat. It was true what Wolgraft knew, but he was not enjoying the position Guildred assigned him. As it was, Soldat was a man without a name, and that by itself was enough to upset the Ashnod in Wolgraft. He glanced around the old windmill farmhouse. The two men clad in half sets of armor stood looking out two windows, guarding. Using his fingers, Guildred brushed his golden hair back in a more formal style. “If this is our best option, we must pursue it. In what condition are your invasion armies, Wolgraft?” Guildred inquired.
“They’re on the verge of invading Verst. We’re just waiting for your orders, Lord”, Wolfgraft said, his gaze locked on his map. In spite of Wolgraft’s best efforts, he realizes that this is merely a performance. Guildred had lied to everyone about the operations, knowing that if they halted it would mean death for everyone and that if they survived they’d never look back.
While glancing at the carved wooden pieces representing enemy camps on the map, Guildred smiled. As he does, he pointed at the battle plans. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. “Even if they have the support they need after taking Verst, we could shut down all trade from the south.” Wolgraft knew Guildred operated by a margin so thin that it borders on insanity. It was a struggle they could not win, but also could not avoid.
Soldat points on the map to Elitus. ‘They will bolster their forces in the hold of Amura. Moving north will be impossible from this point on. “If the Freeholds are not onboard, we will be stymied.” Wolgraft thought to himself that Soldat was coming to the same conclusion as he was.
“Neither Lord Rasario nor the Lords of the Brave clan rallied for us. We won’t have any chance of gaining the support of the Freelanders without either of them. As a clan and a kingdom, we don’t have much standing among the people. In fact, we are refugees from a war that began two years ago. Consequently, we have nothing to offer the Freeholds. On top of that, no one wants to shake up the Azure empire. We hold our positions. That is the only choice we have.” Guildred said before looking over at his brother.
As Solat studies the map he tries to figure out what his next move should be. “You are an Ashnod, Guildred, does that not count for anything?”
“Not in Marion. The name Guildred means more to them, and even that garnered no support.” Woolgraft glances up to inspect Guildred’s sudden gaze, which seems to be focused on him. He looked concerned before he said, “allograft, you have been silent.”
An idea or rather a realization struck Wolgraft. His soft smile spread across his face as he realized what Guildred suggested to him earlier. The village guards tilling the land, holding the kingdoms hostage; the plan was never to return home. Because of Grandor, there was no home to go back to. Here, away from the influence of the Azurian kingdoms, was to be their new home. Guildred was obliged by duty, however, not to say such a thing. It would have to come directly from someone close to him. Wolgraft could be that person.
“We will never be able to return. Wolgraft points at the triangle of cities soon to come under his control. “Why not stay here?” he asked. “We can become a nation.” He paused for a moment to look at Guildred whose eyes were not wavering. Seeing this, Wolgraft took it to mean he was on the right track. “After we have formed a sovereign country, we can convince the freeholds to form an alliance with us. Most of them are unhappy with the Azurian invasion. We would welcome Golgotha. They would revolt.”
“…and we will see half of our army desert. The others would withdraw and fight Dalmaska in the east.” At that moment Wolgraft felt like the understanding he had of his brother’s plan was shattered. When he looks up from the map, he fears Guildred is simply going insane due to stress. “We have no alternative but to barter these cities for hostages and cut trade to the north. The provisions we have now are not sufficient to take Elitus, who will port east. There’s no turning back now. We’re embarking on a long, drawn-out war of attrition, whether we like it or not. Though we don’t yet have Verst, I have ready my armies. How about your armies, Soldat?”
Smugly, Solat grinned. Wolfgraft imagined a commoner like himself would quietly enjoy leading soldiers around. “They are,” he replied. “Several new regiments have been constructed. In return for their services, the locals wish to become our squires. We elected only the best and the brightest for this position. In fact, our armies have almost grown by a quarter.”
“I’m ready as well. Unfortunately, I lost a few along the way. During the night, a band of wildlings raided our camp. Despite our best efforts, the lookouts were unable to start fires in time to warn us. Nevertheless, we must continue moving forward. It was my intention to tell you upon your return from Ulfates, but I was unable to do so.” Wolgraft said.
After glancing sternly at Wolgraft, Guildred turned and continued walking. “Fair enough.” He clapped his hands twice. “Good… then three days from now you lead your armies north, Soldat. Wolgraft, march your forces tonight. When you see Soldat attacking outside of the city, you should attack with all your strength. My troops will move by riverway into the sewers on the fourth nightfall and capture the city.”
In the midst of their plans, one guard shrieked, pointing out the window towards the horizon. “Oh, gods! It’s the Azurians!” yelled the other guard by the window.
Guildred sprang to the window in order to observe the force of soldiers. Immediately he thought they seemed to be fairly well positioned. They appeared to be in four waves, each holding four ranks. Then he saw something horrific on the flanks. Among the armies were several large metal vehicles. “I see they have tanks.” Wolgraft’s wide eyes glistened as he peered over the distant field. It was clear from the outset they would be impossible to fight their way off, even though they had just breached the hillside. This was no mere war band, but an entire army. Guildred said, “There’s a traitor among us, brother.” Wolgraft’s hands trembled. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “Tonight is my night to sacrifice on the altar alone. Soldat, gather your men and depart. Head to Belcross and move your armies to Ulfates.” A bow of gratitude emanated from Soldat. “Yes my Lord,” he replied as he hurried down the windmill’s spiral staircase, hollering “To arms men.”
Wolgraft stepped up from the table and walked over to Guildred, who was still gazing out the window. “My brother, you must stand tall for me.” Wolgraft nodded approvingly. “Send our sisters to safety and grab Lasandra – she is too valuable to leave behind.”
“Of course.” Wolgraft replied.
“There’s an old tavern along the road. There is a man there named Bram. Get him before you go to your sister. In addition to knowing the wilderness, Bram is an accomplished slayer. Go north past Verst. Go north to Elitus… Soldat will hold the southern lands. Blend in with the people and establish a new base until I return. Keep sister safe. Go as merchants if you must but keep sister and yourself safe.”
“You can’t be serious. We will both leave.” Wolgraft barked.
Taking Wolgraft by the shoulders, Guildred shakes him once. The whites of his eyes resembled water around a small island. “I need you to obey my commands right now,” he said. I leave now, and our troops won’t have any morale, and we won’t hold on long enough to ensure most of our troops escape. I can hold off this group for a few hours.”
Suddenly, Wolgraft breaks Guildred’s grip, throwing his arm up in a wild gesture. “Then I fight with you. The two of us as brothers. Let Soldat take sister!”
“Don’t be stupid!” He roared, setting Wolgraft back. “If both of us die here, there will be no one to carry on the Ashnod family, and then there will be no way to return. Our souls will be forfiet to Naraka!” He walked over to the window and looked out over the field at the approaching forces. “At least, this way I can ensure that some of us make it home. You’re wasting time, get Aerist and get the hell out of here.” Guildred pulled his knife from his side as he ripped off his glove. Squeezing his palm, he cuts into his palm to allow his blood to drip onto the floor. It felt as if Wolgraft’s eyes were about to fall out. Only people who practice witchcraft do things like that. “Go now; that is an order, brother,” Guildred sniffed the air, his iron scent filled his nostrils. Wolgraft figured by now he felt the pain searing in his hand. He placed his glove back on and strolled away from Wolgraft down into the hall while all the knights were heading to their positions.
As he looked out the window again, Wolfgraft glanced back at the door to where his brother went. “Guildred you fool! Do you intend to die after all we been through? He’s right, though. If I die too, there is no telling who will carry the revolt. Our deaths would simply be a stain on a page.” He thought to himself as he walked to the stables.
Silence is broken by the clopping of horse hooves on the calm farmlands. He rides over meadows of green, orange, and yellow, with a gentle breeze ruffling the abundant reeds. Field workers stand, revealing themselves in the harvest columns. The old wooden country tavern draws closer and Wolgraft kicks his feet from the stirrups of his horse. Wolgraft, halting his horse, leaps down from it. After crossing the dusty walkway, he reaches his destination. Wolfgraft avoids tripping over grass patches which poke through the sunken cobblestones. A wooden two-story building stood next to a stable with some oxen tethered to the side. Upon banging his fist on the withered pine door, commotion intrudes from inside.
Upon opening the door, a grit-covered older man is revealed. “I recognize you, but you’re too young to be Guildred; you must be Wolgraft, his brother?”
“I am pressed for time. Get every able man ready. The Azurians, they are coming.” The old man’s gaze turned from concerned to downright anxious. “”Take strategic shots if anyone comes down that road and get the hell out of here. They will be coming from the northeast.” The old man nodded before turning back into the house. As the old man turns away, Wolfgraft grabs his arm. “These orders came from Guildred himself. He also said there was a slayer here by the name of Bram.”
Having hunched over the battle plans, Guildred swings his arm and knocks them all to the ground. Eventually, they stop rolling as they fall to the ground. “It was all for nothing. For nothing!” He bellowed. As he stood up straight, he walked over to the window, placing his hands on the sill. His gaze shifted to their faces and he no longer saw distant figures. At the front, they appear inadequately equipped. However, as he turned his attention to the rear rows, he saw a gradient of more capable soldiers transforming into full-blown knights.
A group of soldiers had gathered beside him, each with a rifle in their hands. Guildred smiled as the long-barreled guns were a welcome sight. “How many shots do we have?”
One man replied, “We have 15 shots between the five of us.”
Guildred exclaimed, “Good, then I expect to see 20 dead officers. You hear me?”
“Take the roof!” Guildred ordered pointing at two of the men. “You three, windows.” As the men trotted to their positions, he yelled, “We’ll give them hell.”
He points to another soldier. “Go gather the men on the bottom floor. Bury a spear in the throats of anyone who dare approach the doors. Today, this is no longer a farmhouse. I’m making this my bloody castle.”
Candlelight dimly illuminated a table in the dank cellar where Wolgraft sat. A grizzled voice said, “So Guildred is asking for my help. Figures, so you want me to smuggle you out of here. Bloody hell, can never have it easy with em heh.”
“Me and my sister and our maid servant. Also the daughter of a mancer named Lasandra.” Wolgraft added.
In the dark, he was silent and just stared off into the distance. After letting out a long sigh, he said, “That sounds quite complicated. Okay, gather your things and meet me outside of Belcross’ northern walls. Take only what you need. Got it.”
Wolgraft nodded. “Thank you, Bram.”
“Yeah yeah, Guildred saved my life once, boy. Ight guess I should save you from that trouble.” Bram said, before motioning for Wolgraft to leave. “Well, go on now, you best hurry and bugger off. I’d like to get a good lead on these Azures. Bloody evil runs in their veins.” He glanced back at Wolgraft whose face was a fallen mess of sunken lips and eyes. A chuckle escapes his lips. “No offense, Sir Ashnod.”
Taking the merchant road through the woods as swiftly as possible, Wolfgraft dodged trees and thick trunks as he rode. He was consumed by the plight of his brother. It was peaceful in the forest as the hollers of warriors melted into the background. His sword rattled as he kicked up dead leaves with his horse’s hooves.
The threshold drew closer as he rode out into open fields. The walls of Belcross loomed in the distance. When he entered the vast expanses of farmlands, he heard his cape flowing behind him. It did not take long for him to attract the attention of everyone working in the fields. As he passed several watchtowers, the Honor Brotherhood guards followed him.
An armed guard caught up to Wolgraft and said “Oh, it is you, sir. Wolgraft, is anything wrong?”
“Invasion, Soldat is coming for you. Prepare yourself now.” You are going to Ulfates. If the empire finds us here, then all our lives are ruined.” Wolgraft composed himself as well as he could, but his face was solemn. “Ulfates, defend her, if we fail there, then our cause is lost.”
Wolgraft’s horror was spelled out in the soldier’s sour eyes as he spoke. “We are not going home to Azure, are we?” During the ride back to the city, Wolgraft said nothing as he rode forward.
The Reed Arms Tavern was a pub-colored building with pub chairs, pub tables, and traditional pub bar stools with all the usual tavern inhabitants. Behind the bar, various liqueurs adorned the walls. The tavern was crowded with people chatting and drinking, barely paying attention to the goings-on. When Wolgraft entered the pub, he headed straight to a hidden door in the back, causing a pair of soldiers to rise from the bar. Without uttering a word, he entered through the door.
Leaving the creaking cellar stairs, Wolgraft approached a small hall that had several doors. After passing the first three, Wolgraft reached for the fourth on his left. When Wolgraft opened the old withered door, his sister along with Mayfare and Lasandra turned to face him, bearing daggers in their hands.
Lasandra stood out with her long pale red hair and pointed nose, but her most noticeable characteristic was her long ears. She looked remarkably like an elf. Evidently, everyone else thought so as well, since she had gained such a moniker as Lasandra the elf. Wolgraft, however, would never utter those words in her presence. The emerald blue of her eyes shone with joy. Putting the knife flat on her chest, she said, “It’s just you.”.
“Brother what are you doing here?” Ariest inquired from her bed next to Mayfare. In an attempt to accentuate Ariest’s royal heritage, Mayfare was in the process of braiding her golden blond hair.
Mayfare dropped the twin ropes of hair from her head getting to her feet, her purple eyes hidden behind lavender locks. This made Ariest bark, “Mayfare!?”
It was so obvious to her,” Wolgraft thought to himself. “Get your things together, ladies. We are leaving.” Wolgraft said. The sound of rushing boots down the stairs prompted Wolgraft to turn to greet the three soldiers.
“Are those claims true?” A man with red hair shouted. “Are we being attacked?”
Wolgraft’s eyes widened. “Attack?” Ariest yelled. She sprung from the bed and rushed towards him.
Wolfgraft stared at the soldiers’ questioning eyes as he closed the door behind him. “Men you have your orders! Gather your things and meet with Soldat.”
A younger soldier, clearly of the three sisters, asked “And where will you go?”
A sigh escaped Wolgraft’s lips. “It would be very inappropriate for you to question me at this time. My Lord Brother has entrusted me with an extremely vital mission. Guildred was very specific about his plans. Soldiers, follow your orders and gather your belongings. Proceed to Ulfates with Soldat. I’ll meet you there later.”
“Yes, sir.” the men said in unison.
Behind Wolgraft, Ariest opened the door. His gaze was fixed on the three men as he nodded. Together they began to walk down the hall. “What is this about, Brother? Where is Guildred?”
A glance over his shoulder caught Aerist off guard. “I need you to get your things ready! I will explain later.” He yanked the door shut once more.
“Lord Guildred is not with you?” asked a soldier from down the hall, causing Wolgraft to turn back to him. “Where is Guildred?”
“He is at the windmill Ziekden,” Wolgraft replied while his eyes shifted back and forth as he realized his brother most likely had been killed in battle by now. “Go!” Wolgraft barked at the soldiers. “You are wasting time.”
A swarm of people surrounded Soldat as he rode into the town gates. From them, pleas for him not to leave with his troops are heard. When Soldat unsheathed his blade from his side, he hollered, “Keep your hands off me.” The crowd backed away a few steps as Soldat rode through. There was widespread panic throughout the city. It was chaos all around, and soldiers are fighting to keep ordinary people from encroaching on them.
An elder man grabbed Soldat from his horse, “Don’t leave, they’ll kill us all.”.
“We have orders,” Soldat growled coldly while seated upright on his horse.
Throughout the town, people barricaded their houses and rushed out of the town, just as the soldiers had done. Within a short period, he had gathered his men outside the city and they were ready. Now he stands in front of more than two thousand soldiers. “We fought hard to get here today; we fought hard yesterday; we will fight harder tomorrow. An army that we have never faced before is coming our way. Defeating them here isn’t possible. We must fall back, but we do not act like cowards. Guildred is fighting right now for us to give us time to unify our armies. Their forces are doing everything they can on this side of the world to defeat us. There is no reason to fear them and we should regroup. To Ulfrates!” he hollered. As the silence and scattered responses continued to envelop him, Soldat felt a lump in his throat. Raising his hand, he directed his horse eastward. Even though the soldiers were reluctant to follow, they did so.
On his horse, Wolfgraft sat with his sister perched on his lap. She and Wolgraft are both wearing brown cloaks. While Bram guided the group, the two maidens rode their horse shared by them. Trotting in a triangular formation, the three horses quickly rode away from the city into open orange fields. “Guildred! Where is Guildred?” yelled Aerist, turning her head to look into her brother’s dead eyes.
As Wolfgraft arches his head back, his body tenses. “He has already departed for the north. He left without us because he feared we would be captured in such a large group.” As they spoke he felt a lump forming in his throat, knowing Guildred was probably fighting for his life. It might even be dead, lying on the ground with a spear piercing his belly. This idea made Wolgraft sick to his stomach. However, as instructed, he tried to keep a smile on his face.
“You think he went north. Where are we going?” Mayfare’s sheepish voice was barely audible above the sound of clopping hooves.
“We are going to Elitus. It is not safe for us in the south anymore.” His younger sister snuggled up against him as he replied pleasantly.
Wolgraft’s words and embrace, however, did not bring her any comfort. “And it is safe in Elitus! Have you two lost your minds?” Ariest asked, struggling to free herself from her brother’s grasp.
“No, it makes perfect sense. The Azurians won’t be looking under their own nose. Instead, they will look for us to the south. Once they cannot find us in the south, they will assume we are hiding in the Freeholds. They won’t go to the Freeholds, the Sparks clan will make sure of that.”
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The morning sun greeted the train as it traveled along its channel. Apricot carefully navigated the length of black grooved rubber floor toward Cortez’s usual spot while avoiding the sporadic bob of the floor. The doors opened to find it empty, much to her disappointment. The other night, he appeared pretty upset. The feeling of guilt engulfed her as she wondered whether she should have followed him. Apricot approached the weathered seat where he usually rests. She felt the blue vinyl seat was cold as she placed her fingers on it.
As Cortez did, she lay on it, resting her head against the window. She occupied too much room she thought to herself. One part of her hoped that his action would persuade him to keep her away from what was hers. Apricot found herself in deep thought while tracing the lines on the window. Suddenly, she felt overwhelmed. Her mind was racing with thoughts of ghosts and cults, of Cortez, his father. Her attention was drawn to a spot on the metal paneling that had been scratched – probably with a knife. When she ran her fingers over the strange texture, she could tell that something was written. On the cut metal, someone had carved the words “Old Shrine On A Hill.” Apricot let out a yawn and straightened up. Now she knew where she was going.
There is not much of a hike between the train station and the shrine. It is surrounded by hilly terrain and outskirt huts and shacks. The roadside is lined with many trees that are not trimmed and are unkempt. Sculptures depicting crude bulbus-headed people line the dirt and brick pathways. They have traditionally been used to guide the dead to the afterlife and are known as spirit guardians. Moss has heavily grown over the statues and are unmaintained. Candles once held in their hands had all melted and congealed between their round feet.
There was an old shrine on the hill that is known as the shrine of the forgotten god. This shrine was mentioned in Cortez’s father’s notes she remembered. As Apricot looked up she could see the entrance to the shrine. Colored in red with black accents, the gate appeared to strike against the clear blue sky.
As Apricot climbed the stairs she could not help but remember an old adage she was taught. Shrines traditionally had fewer than a hundred steps. The Uchella believed that a spirit couldn’t ascend more than one hundred steps and thus be damned forever to wander the earth. Apricot figured there were over a hundred as she climbed to the top. At the shrine’s reach, there was a clearing in front of the small hall. Apricot proceeded through the rustic gateway entering the courtyard of white polished stone. There she saw Cortez resting on his knees in front of the hall of worship. As Apricot saw the reaper’s body lying on the steps of the hall, she was shocked.
Cortez turned slowly as Apricot’s feet clicked on the dusty stone floor. “Cortez? ” His eyes had life but turned away once he saw that it was Apricot who had approached to examine the reaper’s avatar.
“Saw my note on the train. Surprised you came. Cortez’s voice is monotone and uninterested as he remarks, “It seems like you care about me after all.”
Despite being offended by Cortez’s remark, she carried herself over to the pair and kneeled beside him. “What does that mean?”
Patting the floor next to him, Apricot falls to her knees. “It’s nothing.” There, claw fingers, lay the reaper, or at least his attire, because now the body slumbered. Clothing hung on him like one would expect it to rest on a manacan. He wore a mask that covered his face and exposed his unnaturally textured skin. It was smooth and had no pours.
“Why are you here?” she asks, placing her hand on Cortez’s.
As he closes his fingers around Apricot’s, he smiles. “I wanted to see if the reaper would talk to me again.”
“How did you know he would be here?”
Cortez smirked. “He told us when we met him he would be here. Seems he is not here right now or sleeping. I am not sure how these kinds of things work.” Apricot remembered some garble that he said about the hill, but who could make out half of what he said. Cortez’s face grew real serious. “It looked like a terrible place when I peered inside that pit. It looked like an endless tower of pain. When I looked at it, I couldn’t stop gazing at it. Seeing it, it seemed to welcome me. Had you not… perhaps I would have jumped in.”
Apricot shuddered at the imagery used bringing back dreams she had. “What do you mean by a tower?”
“It was like looking up from the bottom of a tower, but I was only looking down. It was as if I was upside down. Cortez shivers as he said, “I can’t explain it, but those spirits being awoken were in agony.”
“We need you Cortez. Don’t do anything stupid like that.” Apricot softly uttered.
Cortez shook his head. “You don’t need me. Even if you did, it would not matter.” Tears flowed down his cheeks. “There is no way we can win. It is us against another world, Apricot, and the powers of this one too. We are fighting with gods. What are we even doing?” Cortez yelled getting to his feet. “What the hell are we even doing? Do you know! Does Shiori know! Cause I sure as hell feel like I am fighting against the night with a damn candle. The night, Apricot, is impossible to defeat. It comes whether or not you like it.”
“Thou are wrong.” As the reaper leaped up, he stirred slightly sitting upon his heels startling the pair. “Their window of opportunity is closing swiftly.” he continued. “Cortez, thou hast help me greatly. Alas, I am dying and I doubt I remain through to the end. The Okabe hast one last ritual to mere their devastation upon the orb. They are preparing now at their shrine. This is the broil for the orb. Mercy Cortez, for sustaining me for as long as thou hast. Hie doth this one last office for me. Apricot, thou hast awoken greatly since we first met. Thy power is growing. Seek to merge yourself. The victory is at hand. I hast one last crave ere I might not but rest. Seek out the destroyer of the seals and forbear him. If the devil occulted below the town is unleashed, all shall be lost.” Lowering down again, the reaper rested forward.
Cortez shouted, “Wait I have questions!”
“Thou go as I gentle down,” he said before returning to his usual resting position on the ground.
His chin dropped as he gritted his teeth. As he shook the lifeless body back and forth, he grabbed the sides of the reaper. “Tell me, damn it! Tell me what it was I saw? Gawd damn it! Why? Why is everyone ignoring me? What do I have to do?!” yelled Cortez, slamming his fist into the reaper’s body. His fist pounded on it again and again. He was pulled back by Apricot. She looked down to see his bloody knuckles. “Why won’t anyone explain to me what is going on?”
Apricot stepped behind Cortez. “I have felt the same way from day one Cortez.” she sniffs. “Look this is a burden on everyone. However, this is coming to a head. The reaper is not lying. The Okabe family is preparing for a ritual tonight. This is why I came to get you.” Cortez turned from Apricot, staring down at the reaper that lay strewn on the ground with the appearance of death. “I have a feeling the reaper has been at work on our behalf for a long time, Cortez. Come on, let’s go. He is not around right now.”
“I gave my blood to him.” Cortez roared. “The least the leech can do is answer my questions.” He lifted his coat sleeve and showed the strange symbols and markings on his arm. “I was feeding him to keep him alive. He never answers me. He only gives me a comment or thanks.”
Apricot felt sick to her stomach. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since he first appeared to us.” Cortez got up and turned around.
“Let’s go tell the others what the reaper said. We need as many people as we can get to stop them.” Cortez blew a puff of air. His arm is grabbed by Apricot, who leads him next to her as they return to the train station.
“I’m not going, Apricot.”
She did not even look at him as she stopped in her tracks. “I can’t convince you, can I?”
Turning around, Cortez let go of her hand. “I am sorry.”
An improvised bomb, a case of ammunition, and several rifles are arranged on top of the table. In a nearby corner are several clips marked in red. In addition to the body armor, there are pads and other gadgets. Akagi gocked at the pile with wide eyes. “Wo which one do I get?” He asked, playing with the weapons.
“Nothing.” Shiori laughed. Akagi looked up pouting. “You don’t have time to fight because you have an important job.”
Togashi slumps against the wall. Across from him, Apricot sits at a desk, arms folded. Sumai examines the items on the table. Sumai picks up a rifle to feel its weight. “Yeah, this is solid stuff, Shori boy.” Junko stands across from Shiori next to the others.
“Are we doing this really?” Junko asked with a down-turned mask of horror.
Shiori smiles. “Don’t look so grim. We are only about to become fugitives.” Shiori joked. “Look, I don’t want to do this either. However, the price of not doing it means everyone in the city will die for sure. Maybe even everyone in the world. We have no clue what a new world means. If this ritual is complete, it is clear that something bad will happen to everyone except Kyo and her wicked ilk.” Shiori rose from the table standing in front of the group. “If you don’t want to do this. I won’t blame any of you.”
“Hmmm, well, it ends on the road no matter what.” Togashi chuckled. “I help. Fixed up caustic bullet like you ask.” He pointed to a plastic container of bullets. “Don‘t touch with bare hand, wear rubber glove. They burn flesh. I made strong. Quick kill.” Togashi shifted his shirt collar as he cleared his throat. “I don‘t like at all.”
“If I got a chance to kill one of them assholes, I will take it. Teach them a lesson for what they did to my daughter.” Sumai’s vicious grin made Apricot feel relieved not to be on her bad side any longer.
She couldn’t be silent any longer. Though the lump in her throat made her feel a bit sick. “I’ll help. I don’t want to kill anyone though.” Apricot commented.
Junko nodded in agreement. “I will,” she replied hoarsely. “There is no other way.” She picks up a rifle and looks down its sights. “I haven’t shot a gun for a long time. Would you mind if I went to the range before we started?”
“Go ahead. Don’t get caught.” Shiori chirped. “So we are all in agreement. Alright. Here is my plan. Apricot you will stay in the shadows. I want you to be there to protect us from any phantoms that may come out from their ritual or maybe guardians of the clan. Sumai, Junko, Togashi, I want you to be cover fire. When things go down, there will be guards. I want you to keep them away from Kyo. If you have a shot on Kyo kill her. Kill her first. She is priority one.” Shiori growled.
“What about me?” Akagi moaned. “I want to help too. I don’t want my family to die. I want to fight Shiori.”
Looking over at Akagi, he smiled. “You are going to have the most important job. I want you to hack the security systems. I also want you to keep the lights off of us and on them. On top of that, I want you to jam their broadcasts. If you can also manage to keep us anonymous during this, that would be great. I am counting on you so don’t screw it up.”
Despite his nervousness, Akagi nodded. “I, that, that is a lot of things to do.”
“If anyone can do it, it is you, Akagi.” Junko gently placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Yeah, you think so?”
As she looks at the table, Apricot sighs. “So, what are we doing after? Do we wait for them to arrest us? What is the end game Shiori?”
“The end game, is we stop the Okabe from this ritual. I have arranged for several cars to pick us up. There will be so many arriving it will be impossible to track any particular vehicle. I bought a secured apartment on the outskirts of town. I have owned it for years. It is nothing special, but I fortified it and it’s anonymous. We will hide out there. If that fails I have a second location we can hide in. It is quite literally a bunker. These two locations will serve as our new HQs until we clean up the rest of this mess. I will clear all our names. Even still, the Kinjo clan will come to my aid if need be. That includes all of you. As a last-ditch effort, we can leave Okabe if necessary. So don’t worry.”
“What about before then?” Apricot asked.
“We will be considered terrorists.” Shiori firmly stated. “So let’s save the world at sunset. You know where to meet up.”
The shrine of the Okabe family stands in the center of the city. Gold lines the slanted roofs and towering pillars, and the light from the shrine shone almost supernaturally. Apricot was reminded of a torch burning with golden light. In an interesting blend of modern and historic architecture, the ornate building stood in contrast to the skyscrapers surrounding the temple court.
The temple courtyard has a large circle of candles at the center of which Kyo sits. Kneeling, she wears a crimson red dress lined with gold, black, and red stripes. Her head is crowned with silver pieces. The hair is kept loose so as not to obscure her eyes. A variety of metal charms and jewels adorn her. An elaborate headcover trails down her back. The gold and silver bands that adorn her wrists sparkle majestically. Her lips were painted red, and her eyes were outlined in black.
Men wearing black and red robes swing metal baskets around the ring while incense burns in their long chains. Flames from the candles flash purple and blue as they burn. Kyo whispers something to herself quietly. A large number of armed soldiers are posted around the courtyard wearing heavy black armor.
After hearing Shiori’s shoes click through the main entrance, Kyo looked up from the bowl in front of her. Her mouth drops open in a smile seeing Shiori in a white suit with a blue tie. “Shiori Kinjo, prince of the Kinjo clan. I expected you to arrive,” she said calmly. Shiori watched the soldiers aim their guns at him as he scanned the vast shrine. As Kyo raised her hand, she stood up. “It’s ok. Don’t worry. We finally get to meet.”
“Nice ritual you got going on. It looks like this is the final act of our drama. However, I noticed something. I wonder where your sacrifices are.” Shiori remarked snidely.
“It appears as if it has just arrived. Now, Shiori. How foolish do you think I am; to just allow you to walk in here with no one stopping you. I thought you were a smarter man. Now please come calmly. Arrest him.”
The armored soldiers approach Shiori. In a split second, he glances at them before switching back to Kyo. When your back is against the wall, it’s all or nothing, Kyo. It isn’t wise to trap noble beasts.” Shiori grinned as he drew his pistol from his undercoat. He fires a single bullet out of the barrel of the gun. The bullet hit an armored soldier squarely in his chest as he dove to cover Kyo. When it was time for the other soldiers to fire, Shiori tumbled to the ground. Shiori roared, “Come get it!”.
At first, Kyo gazed in horror at Shiori nearly killing her. “What do you expect to accomplish Shiori? You cannot win this fight!” she screamed.
In the shadow of a skyscraper, Akagi rested his feet on the edge, allowing them to dangle. In his arm, he held a laptop. From his vantage point so high above the shrine’s walls, he saw the court in full view. The entire drama had been played out before him. Throughout the soldiers’ encirclement of Shiori, Agaki glided his fingers over the keys of his laptop. “It looks like it’s action time,” he said with a smirk. From the window, he saw a live news feed reporting power outages in the city. His plot has been carefully crafted. Infecting everything connected to the national database with his own worm, he tunneled through the Okabe network.
Adding a few lines of code to his computer, Akagi commented, “I hope you’re ready for a light show.” All lights in the shrine are turned out. Even the front end of the shrine had been dimmed. The automatic doors and gates to the shrine are all opened. “Alright!” Agaki cheered.
An armored soldier yelled, “Oh shit, I can’t see.” He ripped off his helmet. The other soldiers follow taking their helmets off as well. All of the soldiers look exactly the same like clones of one another.
Taking a step back, Kyo looked at the captain. “What is going on?” The lights on Shiori dim as well. In a ring around Kyo, the guards use their bodies as shields.
The captain of the guard said to Kyo, “My lady, we must end the ritual and leave now.”
From the shrine’s wall, shots come from every direction. In a kneeling position, Togashi aimed his sights down at the soldiers. A motorcycle’s roar could be heard as Junko rides through the gates. With her hair flying, Sumai sat on the back of the bike. She pulled back on the trigger of her gun, unleashing a torrent of bullets at the group. “Die imp bastards!” she shouted with a gleeful laugh.
Around the shrine, the soldiers return fire. As Shiori’s group moved, strobe lights appeared behind them. “Damn it! I can’t see!” Another soldier cried as their shots missed their moving targets under the cover of the shifting light.
In the distance, Sumai watched as the soldiers moved in a circle to the rear of the shrine. By a large gateway, she saw that there are a couple of other guards awaiting the group. “Junko!” she exclaims. “Kyo is trying to escape through the back.”
Junko acknowledged her with a small “Mmm.” She immediately turned her attention to the exit, rushing around the side of the shrine while narrowly avoiding being shot. Sumai fired at Kyo’s guards as they passed by them on their way to the exit. The soldiers rushed for cover with Kyo as bullets hurtled down the courtyard. Grabbing a pair of small rods from the side of the bike, Sumai tossed them at the exit. The rods instantly burst into flames, lighting a few of the guards.
Those who were wounded on the ground started smoking. When the other soldiers are caught in the fresh plumes, the air itself corrodes their armor, melting it against their skin. In response to the acid breeze’s assault, they screamed.
“I’ve had enough!” Kyo shouted, raising both arms in the air. Suddenly, a black dot appeared on the ground. A creepy creature emerged from the pool of darkness that had formed before Kyo. “Help me, guardians of the forbidden. Come help me protect this child.” The being’s body was twisted in all the wrong directions. Besides its chest, its pelvis resembled a man with sharp teeth, its legs resembled those of a bird. Its body was like that of a man, its arms resembled hooks, and its head is nothing more than a snapping mouth. Approximately ten feet tall, the abomination stood on four legs.
“What is that thing?” Apricot asked herself as she charged out of the dark with her rapier in hand. Her body flared in flames as she ran at the creature. Due to her unnatural speed, she collided with the beast with her blade knocking them backward with the force of her piercing blow.
“There’s my witch,” Kyo thought to herself. The smile on her face intensified. After Apricot stabbed the creature in the leg, it did not have much time to react. The monster attempted to escape by swinging its hooks at Apricot. Ultimately, she dived back to avoid being knocked down. The creature helped itself up by stabbing its spire into the ground, pushing itself up. Apricot struck again, landing a blow right in its chest eye. It broke away from her, the sword still embedded deep in, sizzling as it burned. Instantly, the weapon burst into flames. As soon as it hit the ground, the creature broke into cinders.
“Kyo give up!” Shiori said. “Nothing you can do now.” The guards were still wailing in agony as the acid ripped through them. What few guards she left flanked Kyo.
Kyo laughed as the circle glows brightly. “You fool,” she laughed.
Apricot felt a sense of burning wash over her. Below her, the ground was distorted and radiating. “Shiori something is wrong!” she screamed. It felt as if she was slipping into shadows and sinking. It was as if they were gripping her. As the demons from her dreams clawed at her, she became paralyzed with fear. Shiori ran quickly, he caught Apricot, lifting her out of the strange darkness that had appeared in front of her. Her eye catches sight of someone jumping from the wall. It is a man in black who is running to the edge of the circle. “Shiori? Who is that?that?that?“ she asked. Shiori turned his head. Apricot knew instantly from the look in his eyes that something was wrong. She took a few seconds to get up. In a half-drag, they run toward the entrance with him pulling her.
Other entities began to rise from the circle in swarms as the cloaked person placed his hand on the circle. Kyo‘s group was left fighting these entities as the shadows tell the story of their attackers. Apricot stopped to look but Shiori kept pulling her. “We have to get out of here!”
Shiori had hardly finished speaking when the ring lit up. As a pillar of shadow rises from the circle, a loud sound is heard before the shadows immediately fall, turning the circle into a pit. There was an ear-shattering roar coming from the circle as the group made their way to the parking lot. The group was greeted by a swarm of cars. As they piled into one of the cars, Shiori said, “Let’s get out of here.”
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I’m blushing now. Let’s discuss why I’m doing this. It has come to my attention that I am bad at social media and do not pay enough attention to it. Nevertheless, I write quite a bit. But I don’t share it. It’s only through a strong social media presence that I can share it. I will smash the gates with all my crippling social anxiety and try to break through. Could you help me? If you enjoy my writing, please spread it around. It would be greatly appreciated.
“2nd Season, 5th Moon, 2nd Week, 1st Day” ~Taer, The Azurian Capitol Of Marion, At Dusk
“Are you afraid your boyfriend will run away with a pretty lady he meets in the woods?”, teased Salome as she stretched her leg and played with her yellow skirt’s bows. Salome’s pale leg resembled porcelain, and her white floral stockings only added to her doll-like appearance. Amelie, Salome’s target of taunts, stood next to Talumn. Her gaze was fixed on a large pane of glass, watching nine horses trot across the fields toward a forest. In her mind, Talumn thought about how inaccessible those forests had become. It was melodramatic at its finest to see Amelie spread her fingers over the window. “I hate it when they go into those woods.” she moaned. A sigh escaped Salome’s lips. “You are boring when your boyfriend is around. You just romance over him.” She dropped her yellow skirt, sticking her tongue out, pretending to gag. Laughing, Talumn watched the princess wiggle a few times before leaping from the sill of the stone window. Amelie shook her head as she placed her hands on her hips. “I’m not.” Talumn knew she had never admitted to Median her crush, but it was obvious to everyone else. Despite her best efforts, she could not help but snicker. Amelie’s quick rejoinder drew a full laugh from Salome, who too found it funny. “And he’s not my boyfriend!” Amelie blurted out in a blush. Salome wagged her tongue in amusement. “You little devils!” Amelie screamed, giving them a look that would turn anyone with any sense to stone. Talumn, startled, looked down at Salome, who was smugly grinning with her hands on her hips. “Did you come all the way just to snub me?” “I didn’t come here to watch my brother ride a horse,” Salome said, raising her voice an octave. Seeing her elder sister challenged by someone for once is a fulfilling experience, especially since it’s someone so much younger than Amelie. As the two girls stared at each other, there was a creeping silence. Talumn caught herself sheepishly stifling a chuckle as the entire event appeared humorous to her. In a manner that suggested she had never taken part in the contest, Salome snapped her head away. “I’m bored,” she said. “Let’s go find something fun to do.” The younger blue-haired girl said grabbing Talumn’s hand. “I don’t want to be around dreamer girl anymore. She makes me sick.” “Come on, honey. Let’s go exploring.” Salome’s cheeks light up at Talumn’s suggestion. “That sounds like fun, I know just where to look too.” Talumn grinned and raised an eyebrow. “Let’s listen in on the Lords’ meeting.” Talumn’s face is bright with a wide grin as she imagined what they might be hearing. Getting an inside look at the operations of the kingdom had always been a hobby of hers. She felt important, as if she were a lord or an aristocrat. This was a piece of knowledge that only the finest few had access to, and she was one of them. She was not an orphan, but a true lady of the kingdom. However, Salome’s words result in Amelie’s loud burst from the window. The two girls are startled to see Amelie standing up with her arms folded. “No, you don’t!” she roars. “You little minx, Father would be furious if he found you.” “That’s why it’s so fun,” Salome said. “You can’t have fun if there is no danger involved.” Talumn’s arm is grabbed tightly by Amelie. “You better not do it.” “Oh, don’t act like a dead lizard. Where is your spirit of adventure?!” Salome said, pulling Talumn’s arm away. “Including I did not invite you. I and Talumn will go on our own.” Amelie shook her head in disbelief. I’m fine with you going, but you’re not taking Talumn. Don’t expect me to cry at your funeral if you get caught.” Crossing her arms, Talumn stands. “I would not mind going… I think it would be fun.” Amelie sighs, shaking her head. “It is said that we are ladies of the crown. The most they will do is scold us harshly. My father would never let old King Grandor touch me.” Salome taunts. “Your father is in Ruby Falls, serving the crown Salome,” Amelie retorted harshly. “Don’t forget you are a guest here Salome. You should act like a proper lady.” “I am a lady, Amelie! My brother will take care of your old father for me. What do you think of that?that?that? She wrinkles her nose and wiggles her fingers at the older princess. Amelie shakes her head while the young girl turns to Talumn pulling at her arm. “Let’s go.” “It is fine. We will only listen for a little Amelie.” Talumn said walking down the corridor with Salome. “You would be wise not to.” The two girls lift their skirts as they run down the baroque hall. A few seconds later, Amelie yells, “You stupid brats, don’t do it.”
Marshal Bregar, Hierarch Nigel and Lord Abelon the treasurer; all bow before taking a seat at the polished mahogany table. Grandor looks around his room. Yet, one spot at his table remains untouched, increasing the rage in his heart. The brows on his face narrow into a scowl. “Where is Griel?” his voice echoed through the chamber like a clap of booming thunder.
“Most likely in the taverns, my Lord,” a black-haired man whispered into the ear of High King Grandor. His name was Benidis, the voice of the kingdom and a fickle man.
With a long, drawn-out sigh, King Grandor replies, “Of course.” Griel’s behavior is predictable. In retrospect, he should have expected this from him. Since there was no point in wasting any more time, Grandor decided to begin the meeting now. In any case, Griel did not have much to add to the conversation. “What are our losses?” Grandor asked.
Lord Arwin sat to his right, whom Grandor had always kept close since he became High King. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Well, it could be more serious. We are still estimating the damage caused by the last moon’s attack. Volkmar has said that Lord Bilk is dead. We also lost Ulfates.” Grandor smiled a tad when he realized he had rid himself of that fool. A few weeks earlier, he had burned Bilk’s ramblings as kindling. It was after all the most appropriate way to dispose of them. There was hardly any reason to archive words so meaningless. “However, I have a concern. According to reports, the rebels are moving village guards out of Ulfates. Where they are going is unknown. This is troubling news. Benedis, I understand you have received several messages on behalf of the kingdom.” Grandor’s silver eyes gaze at the far end of the table. There sat “King” Bridehan, if anyone still considers him to be such.
Benedis said, “Unfortunately, I have. Parish has informed me. The Dalmaskans have attacked. Currently, they are being raided, and they are expected to suffer a full-scale invasion soon. Once again, My Lord, forces are requested of the throne.”
“Perhaps I can ease your mind, my lord.” Marshal Bregar looked at an old, rusted map on the table. Using a compass, he pointed to Ulfates in the east. “Following the capture of Ulfates, we have had several skirmishes in the villages leading to Verst. It appears they intend to conquer Verst from the east. Knowing this gives the kingdom an advantage.” He smiled as he pointed at the map. “We have been in contact with Lord Knight Hyde, who is planning an invasion of Ziekden, a small farming community outside of Belcross.”
“What makes Ziekden’s control so desirable?” Grandor grumbles.
Just west of Belcross, the Marshal pointed. “We’ve got an informant.” This person claims to still be loyal to the throne of the imperial kingdom. He has offered Guildred in exchange for immunity. Ziekden is building quite an operation, as it turns out. By striking them there, we will disrupt their entire operation. Lord Volkmar has already been informed of this information by me.”
“Very good.” Grandor looked at Bridehan with a piercing gaze. “Do you know anything about Ziekden Bridehan?” Bridehan shrunk into his chair at the question. Grandor growled, “That’s what I figured.”
“If I may interject… “, Arwin said, clearing his throat as Grandor taps his fingers on the table as he looks to Arwin, who could be called ancient. His brown eyes glanced around the room before speaking. “Lord Volkmar told me the rebels had located the fortress in Belcross. We take this Ziekden we may have an opportunity to not only take Ziekden but move to Belcross. Further, if we take Belcross at the same time as we retake Ulfates; there is no doubt in my mind that Guildred and his lot will be wiped off the map before the moon is over.” Grandor laughed at the idea. Suddenly the trouble he had been carrying left him and he felt a sense of ease.
“I will offer prayers for the kingdom to the true gods. May their will be done.” Chimes the hierarch.
Grandor thought to himself that it was nearly impossible not to laugh. If they were ever here, the gods were no more. Grandor rolls his eyes before looking back at Bridehan. “That’s a positive thing. Briehan, did you hear that?” Grandor snarled. “In less than a year from now, the uprising will be over.” Everyone looked at Bridehan snidely while he simply bowed down in shame. “So tell me, what is your plan for regaining control of your kingdom, Bridehan?”
King Bridehan of Taer was a fearsome warrior during the war, but after he gained the throne, he lost his once-powerful physique and instead became like a pig. Neither was he an intelligent person nor was he a skilled tactician, but rather he was a useful idiot. His body was like a golem. His hair was fading brown, turning gray. “It’s still ongoing,” Bridehan said.
“It’s still a pain in my side all these years later to think of Golgatha. Uprisings have again swept the land. Tributes have been severely lacking. The kingdom is losing soldiers. These developments have deeply concerned me. The Dalmaskans are raiding our allies in Parish day after day. We have no air forces to offer General Beney. If we don’t have a hold on our knights, how can we have a hold on the eastern kingdom? I fear we will be locked in a conflict with those savages in the far east unless our territories yield soldiers. Our interests would not only have to retreat to the mainland, but we would also face the wrath of the Imperator. Bridehan, how do you propose a solution to the mess you have created?” Grandor asked, placing more emphasis on the previous sentence.
Bridehan looked over sheepishly like a dog whipped by its master. “They are beasts without a sense of duty to the Royals. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know when to admit defeat, because it’s not my fault. I have never witnessed such pride. We risk a war unlike the last if we underestimate the people of Golgotha. We were able to negotiate a surrender and take Golgotha because of King Leon.”
Red-faced, the Marshal growled. “In which case, the man you poisoned!”
“It wasn’t me who did that. As much as you were surprised by King Leon’s poisoning, I was as well. That horror didn’t have to be witnessed by you. I was at the table with him when he died.” Bridehan said, leaping to his feet.
“That’s enough!” Grandor roared. ”Bridehan, continue what you were saying.”
“The people of the land don’t even respect me as their king, let alone follow my decrees. I would have full-blown revolts if I used more force. My knights and I are not feared by them. It is the ideals they strive for that are problematic. I cannot kill it from their hearts. The thought of these things has kept me awake many nights. I have given them everything they asked for and they still want more! Even if I had thrown down my crown before them, they would still not be pleased.” said Bridehan.
“You say it’s out of your hands. You are a powerless king in a land rife with barbarians?” said the King. “Marshal Bregar, how would you deal with such a populace?”
“My Lord, make an example of them. If their crops fail to produce, burn them. Take their youth and make them soldiers if soldiers don’t come. Quell them if they refuse to bend their knees. The problem you have, Bridehan, is that they do not fear you.” said Bregar looking every bit as fierce as a black lion. From his mane-like hair and beard to his glowing yellow eyes. It’s hard not to be impressed.
Bridehan stood from his chair with his hands slamming on the table. “That is insane!” he exclaimed. “Do that, and you will see the biggest uprising in Golgotha you’ve ever seen! Your ideas of how easily controllable these people are are incorrect. They have their own traditions and even a different set of gods than we do. I will not be afflicted by madmen.”
In a calm voice, Grandor commanded, “Sit.” Bridehand eased himself back into his chair. As he sat back, he heard a small creek. Then there was silence. “Very well.” he said. “What about you, Rhal?” Grandor asked in a raspy voice.
From his guard position in front of the large twin doors, the young knight looks up slowly. He glanced over the group of much older and wiser men than himself with bright silver eyes. “I would pretend to be one of them. When you control the love of the people, then nothing is beyond your reach.” Rhal stated before returning to his guard position, hand resting on the pommel of his saber.
As Bridehan looked over at Rhal, he folded his arms. “How am I supposed to convince them to give me that?” Rhal’s discomfort was obvious to everyone. Because it was completely unnatural for him to address a king as an equal, he simply bowed.
Rhal was spared the shame of answering when High King Grandor spoke up. “Would you like to know how I would deal with this King Bridehan?” Slowly, Bridehan turned his head from Rhal’s grin and to Grandor and watched him intently. “I would get a new king.” he said.
Bridehan’s eyes widen as the words leave his mouth. As he realized tonight that he might be executed, he became terrified. “My Lord King, please have mercy on me!” shouted the king.
“You see, this didn’t happen overnight, Bridehan. For the last twenty years, you have ruled. The decline was gradual. Using your power in an unwise way resulted in you losing control over time. In your castle, you hid up like a coward while thieves ravaged your domain and you dined on the finest foods. Having become weak, now you want to regain strength. We now face civil war among our forces after you permitted a small uprising by the Knights. The news of our inability to handle our troops will lead to my head on a pike if it reaches west. There is no purpose for you anymore and you are no longer able to be strong. I, on the other hand, am the true king. If you are a mere figurehead, I will let you stay. You shall be the King of Tidas. You will be hated by the East, and I want them to hate you. You will be the fool in their eyes. Therefore, keep your fool’s crown.” declared the King.
“My High King, I thank you, but what about Golgatha?” He breathed heavily as he realized this would not be the end of Grandor’s curse.
“Golgatha needs a King they can rally around. Rhal is right. A king must love his people. The way to have that is to be a native of Golgatha. Arwin, how are your studies with Prince Illian?”
“Prince Illian is a refined nobleman. He is an outstanding strategist. He has my highest regard.” said Lord Arwin.
“I know my son has struggled with his studies. He isn’t ready to claim his place in the east, according to my understanding. Consequently, Illian shall be made King of Elitus. Surely you wouldn’t object to this, wouldn’t you Bridehan?” Bridehan looked down at the table, fiddling with his hands. “Benidis, get things in order. Get him crowned in Elitus before the full moon.”
Counselor Benidis responds, “Yes, sir.”
Grandor leaned back in his chair and sighed. He looked around the room slowly. His attention is drawn to Lord Arwin. “Now that that order of business is done. How are the skies up north?”
“It was horrible, cutting off his head. There was blood all over the ground. I feel sick to my stomach just thinking of it.” Tybolt clutched his horse’s bridle tight as he described executing a local earlier in the day.
Taking a glance in Tybolt’s direction, Illian stroked his chin. “Would you want our city to be swarming with thieves?”
With a shudder, he shook his head. “N-no, but you’d think they’d have another method of execution that is less messy. Like starving them to death in a box or poisoning them. Not just axing their heads off in the street.” The blond prince shivered, “It’s disgusting.”
As Tybolt looks over at Median, who is slightly ahead of him. “What happens to the criminals in Ruby Falls?” Illian was also curious about Median’s response. The stories and ideas he told were very different from those he was used to hearing. Since arriving when he was a child, Illian had never left Taer. To him, it was his world. Median, an alien visitor, is welcomed warmly.
“Well, we always need people to fill the Colosseum,” said Median when he flashed a toothy smile. He brushed his hand through his fiery red hair as he said, “We simply throw them in a pit, give them a weapon and let them fight in battle until they die.” His blue eyes framed a face Illian found more beautiful than the sculpted gods at the shrine.
A horrified look crossed Tybolt’s face as he groaned and held his stomach. “That sounds absolutely barbaric.” he muttered.
Shaking his head slowly, the prince in black armor looks into the distance. “It is very graceful. A work of art. There is an undertone of death and life in it. The glorious struggles of a man to survive. His true nature is on display for all to see. Crimes are paid for, revenue is generated, and people are entertained. It’s better all around.” said Median. “Well, except for the poor blokes who can’t fight, but they usually die pretty quickly.”
Illian’s ears rang as he heard the man casually speak of such a painful death. In spite of how unethical it may sound, Median was exactly right, Illian thought. All of those benefits would be achieved but at the cost of morality of course. “This is something I never considered before.” Tybolt chimes sarcastically, “I assumed your gladiators were free men looking to make a name for themselves.” Illian was also surprised. There was no mention of criminal competitors in his extensive study of the colosseum in Ruby Falls.
“Most of the time, they are,” Median added with a lively voice. The problem is that when we reenact a battle, we often do not have enough bodies to make it look spectacular. We use the seized for that.” According to Illian, Median, unlike his father, King Ailer, believed that the best way to rule was through overwhelming force. He certainly was not a man to be triffled with. Yet, he was a poet and philosopher who kept his people spellbound with his mysterious charm.
It was a beautiful evening as Illian admired the bioluminescent forest. Throughout the blossoming night, neon shades of blue, green, and pink surrounded us. Their band on horseback strolled casually through a garden road. Median, however, wore a black breastplate of armor covering his commoner’s clothing, rather than the royal fatigues Illian and Tybolt wore.
Tybolt glanced behind him at Illian. “You need to hurry up! You’re too slow.” Tybolt huffed, pulling his Azure blue cape tight against his chest. “What are you looking at anyway?” he asked as he gestured in the direction of the thick forest, “There’s nothing but trees out here.”
“That is exactly what I am doing now. We don’t ride in the woods very often at night. Did you ever stop to consider how beautiful things are?” Illian asked with genuine interest.
A snap of Tybolt’s head brought him back to his front. “You can admire it from the walls of the castle. I’m tired of riding and I’m ready to go home. Plus, you two can talk about your cruel interests in a tavern. I can’t imagine what rousing conversation you two would have with a drink in hand.”
“I would assume you would get tired of being inside those walls,” Median says dully. Sometimes, Tybolt, you remind me of a caged animal. One that is disappointing and cowardly.” He sprawls back onto his horse with absolute comfort. Observing Medion’s mail raising, Tybolt could not help but notice his toned stomach.
Not wanting to be aroused, he closes his eyes. “Perhaps if I lived in a cave like some mud person you would change your mind? We are royalty, and we do not belong among these… primitive people. We are not peasants, we are rulers.”
Prince Medion snickered. “What’s the difference?”
“To be out here among the dirt is careless and lax. Having a city as your home is a dignified thing, it means you have an important place to be in.” He replied.
While Tybolt was paying attention to Illian, a smile began to spread across his face. While pulling his horse to stand beside Tybolt’s white stallion, he asked, “And where would that prominent place be?”
“What does it mean to you? You seem to prefer to be with a pack of trees. Given the amount of time you spend with books, I should have guessed it. They’re all made from the same damn thing anyway, and I for one don’t want to be in these woods all night.” Tybolt taps Illian’s horse as he explores the dimly lit forest. As Illian realizes Tybolt still has a childish fear of the dark, he snickers to himself. Probably also of the outdoors. For as long as he could remember, Tybolt had been a coward. With a knowing look, he smirked at Tybolt. “The look on your face is not flattering to me.” Tybolt snarled, turning away from Illian.
“I myself enjoy night rides. I don’t mean to offend you, but that castle is rather boring.” Median remarked from the back of his horse. There is a slight breeze rustling the leaves.
“What you too?” Tybolt asked betrayed. “Joining his side? Why do you behave like a traitor?” Tybolt asked sarcastically. “You are meant to agree with me.”
“I don’t have a side to play in this.” Medion replied.
“Go ahead if you want,” Illian said. “Take the three royal guards with you. I will stay with the rear three.” A howl from the dark alerted the knights, sending them to reach for their swords. As Tybolt froze, he turned pale. He shot an angred glance at Illian.
“Look at all the wolves,” said Medion. The woods are brightly illuminated by hundreds of white shining eyes. “They must regard us as invaders.”
“The wise keepers of the woods. After all, we are in their house. Naturally, they would take an interest in us. At least they are not wildlings. Illian smiled softly as he said, “They know better than to challenge.”
“Wolves, wise are the last words that come to mind when I think of them.” As he looked out among their number, Tybolt resisted every urge in his body to quiver. “Cowards, that’s what they are. They hide in numbers but never act alone.” Tybolt shook his head and whispered, “I said let’s go, Illian!”
Median as he sat up and turns on the saddle of his horse to face the young prince. Illian watches Medion’s curious grin spread across his face. “Are you still scared of the dark?”
“I do not fear the dark.” roared Tybolt, sending several birds scurrying away. “I just feel achy after all this riding, and I would like to take a hot bath before bed.”
Medion chuckled teasingly, “It sounds like you’re making an excuse.”
Now red as a cherry, Tybolt let out an audible gasp completely forgetting his fear of wolves. His fingers rattled against the pommel of his rapier. From his side, he draws it, pointing the tip at Medion’s throat. “I dare you to repeat that. Medion, I bloody dare you.” In half an instant, Medion had secured his dagger against Tybolt’s neck. Snapping his fingers, he returned his knife to its holster. Watching Tybolt’s face and sword fall in defeat, Illian grinned. “If father were here, you would never treat me like this.”
“Your father would be extremely upset if he were here and saw how you are acting,” Medion said firmly as he points a finger between Tybolt’s eyes.
He stopped his horse in its tracks, saying, “I’m not a child.”. After giving Tybolt one more glance, Medion smiled at Illian and they exchanged a quick nod before continuing down the path past the three front guards.
Tybolt hollers, “You can’t leave Medion without guards.”
His remark made one of the guards chuckle. “I am not sure if Medion has guards or if he guards the guards, my lord.” Tybolt grinned at the man. Ilian recognized that grin; it was feral, like a wild animal’s. “I suppose that’s true though. He shouldn’t be out there all by himself like that though.”
“My lady, come on, Grandor will have us slew if we don’t get you in on time.” one of the guards in the front said. Everyone laughed, except Tybolt. Illian glanced at Tybolt’s still face that was staring forward blankly, and he knew something terrible was about to happen at that moment.
Tybolt’s nostrils flared as he breathed heavily as he faced the man. “What did you say?” Tybolt snapped his fingers and pointed at the man. “Get off your horse and bow your head,” he commanded softly.
He looked over at the other soldiers. Their heads nodded to him, and he smirked before jumping off the back of his horse. Taking his foot off the saddle’s strap, Tybolt slowly lowered himself from the horse’s back. He stood several inches shorter than the soldier as he approached. The soldier stared at him with an intent look as Tybolt grinned with a crazed look. In the faintest voice he could muster, he whispered, “On your knees.”
Illian leapt from his horse and ran toward Tybolt. While drawing his sword from its ivory sheath, Tybolt cocked his head looking directly back at Illian. “Illian, I’m going back to the savagery of my father. Want to see?”
Illian dove for Tybolt as Tybolt held the blade over the man’s neck. He grabbed the blade with his bare hand and yelled, “Tybolt! Let your father deal with him.”
As Tybolt struggled to pull the sword away from Illian, he squealed, “Know your place, Illian!” The guard jumped to his feet, taking several steps away as Tybolt kicked Illian in the ribs, nearly knocking him unconscious. Two young nobles struggle with blades while guards watch intently. Despite Tybolt’s best efforts, Illian manages to retch the sword from his grip.
“I do Tybolt, you should know yours too,” Illian said, tossing his sword onto the ground before Tybolt. A firm slug to the chin knocked Illian backward. Tybolt grabbed the saber without a word, retiring to the side of his horse. Illian stares at him, the fire in Tybolt’s eyes this was not over. He grabs the side of the horse, then lunges onto its back in an unusual acrobatic display. Although he could not believe what he had just seen, the look on everyone’s faces clearly indicated he should.
The meeting of lords was now over, and Rhal braced himself against the huge hall doors. Royals gather their things as he awaited dismissal. “Gods and Grandor should be praised for sparing him from Bridhan’s scorn,” he reasoned. His attention is caught by a series of stifled squeals coming from the other side of the door. Hearing the click of cork heels trailing down the hall, he glanced at the crack between the doors. From the entrance, his silver eyes turn to Lord Grandor who is gathering several documents. “Those bloody girls are doing it again.” Rhal whispered to himself. “I better get them out of here before Grandor sees his daughter snooping.” He bowed to his knee and said, “My High King, may I excuse myself at this time?”
From his papers, Grandor glanced up. “Do what you must,” Grandor said while waving his hand. “I am happy with your performance today.” Rhal bowed lower with this. “I may have to take a closer look at you in the near future.”
“Thank you, my lord. It means a great deal to hear this from you.” Rhal stood as Grandor nodded. As he pushed the twin bars aside, the doors creak open loudly. As Rhal peered from behind a pillar, he saw the edge of a light blue dress and yellow ribbon.
Slowly he walked along with the polished white marble floors with a smile on his face. Just as he reached the pillar, he stopped. The two girls sheepishly poke their heads from behind the mast after a short bit of giggling. His boots go clanking with each slow and deliberate step he took. Rhal grinned at the young beauties hiding behind their hair. In a calm voice, he said, “Well…”.
Glancing at each other, the two princesses are gleefully blushing. Princess Talumn, trying to appear serious, asked, “Is this any way to address two fair ladies of the crown, Sir Rhal?” Light pink lips appear against her russet skin.
“I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a lady,” he said, stroking his chin. “Where might she be?”, he asked with a hint of amusement.
“What do you mean by what you said?” Princess Salome barks at him, her hands are placed on both sides of her vanilla dress as she narrows her eyes.
The man raised his eyebrows while placing his hand to his side. “To be honest, it looks like I am talking to a couple of very very talented little spies.” They beamed and chortled. The small outburst caused Rhal to glance around uneasily. “If you keep doing this, I’ll get in trouble. You know better than to listen in on the King’s meetings. There you two are again creeping around. Don’t do it. You girls will make tempting captives of yourselves.” He wagged a white-gloved finger at the girls.
Talumn grasped Rhal’s arm, stopping him from wagging his finger. “We have faith in our great and honorable protector,” Talumn said.
Salome follows embracing him and pressing her head into his chest. “After all, we are safe with you around.”
Rhal rolled his eyes and slumped back as he pushed the two girls off of him. “And what if I am not around?”
Salome looked at Rhal with a broad grin on her face. “Then we will scream and you will come running,” she said matter of factly, almost as if she believed it herself. While gazing into her sapphire eyes, he stroked her ice-blue hair. Before he messes up her hair, she gives him a childish pout.
“So you have that much faith in me do you?” Rhal glared at the two before he said, “What am I to do with you? Just be good at it if you must.”
“Are you going to tell father?” Talumn’s voice rose several octaves higher and became very childish. Naturally, he wouldn’t fall for that, but if he did, it would only get the girls in trouble and maybe result in reprimand for him. But if he doesn’t know, they will do it again.
He shook his head. “No, only because he has more urgent matters to attend to.” That’s when Rhal noticed that Amelie wasn’t with them. The only one who can get him out of his trouble is Amelie, and he would make sure she knew it. “And where is your elder sister, Talumn?” he asked. “Isn’t she part of your usual group?”
Folding her arms, Salome stood up straight. “She wasn’t interested in coming today. She is waiting for the boys to return from riding.” She puts her tongue to her cheek. “She always talks about my brother. It’s gross.”
Rahl chuckled, “Ah, I see, that explains it.” He had noticed the two of them spending more time together lately. He had suspected it, but now it was confirmed. If Grandor found out about their flirting, he wasn’t sure how he would react. Still, it wasn’t his place to worry about it. “Before you get in real trouble, skedaddle out of here. You aren’t even supposed to be on this side of the castle.” The two grin at each other and run off, raising their skirts and exposing themselves as they do so. Half-smiling, Rhal shakes his head. “Those two.”
Princess Amelie waited in the castle courtyard on the rim of a vast fountain. Her gaze was drawn to the statue of Luniel the peace bringer, which guarded the center of the fountain pool. Water flowed from the goddess’s raised palms, displaying a sense of quiet peace. Watching the distant dark for any sign of light, the princess looked down at her beautiful silk scarlet pleated skirt. It didn’t take Amelie long to see a horse with a lantern strapped to its side breach the darkness. As her heart fluttered, a feeling of dread creeps up her spine, wrapping its terrible arms around her. In an attempt to see the rider, she craned her neck, but the darkness intended to conceal its presence.
Upon reaching the gates, the envy of her eye, Prince Medion, appeared to be in proper order, to her complete delight. In a moment of relief, Amelie rose to her feet. Medion halted his horse in the courtyard. He jumped off its back in grand style. Princess Amelie hurriedly embraced him. “A welcome party!” he laughed, hugging her tightly. His fingers stroked Amelie’s flaxen hair. In exchange for the softest of kisses on her cheek, she gave him the best smile she could muster.
In that moment, she realized that she had forgotten about her previous worries. “Where are the others?“ She asked looking up at him with lotus-colored eyes. His head rolled around his shoulders as he gave a half-grin before rolling his eyes. The elegant princess held back her laughter. “I always worry about you when you ride into the night like this,” Amelie said as she laid her head against Medion’s cold black breastplate of armor.
Medion merely smiles at her and pets her head. He is quite tall, almost an entire foot taller than she is. “Milady, would you like to come along with Flowen and me to the stables?”
Amelie said, “I would love to.” Over her shoulder, she saw Tybolt’s white horse bounding from the woods. As he rushed in past Medion and herself, he did not even bother to slow down for gate guards. Following closely behind him are the other guards and Illian. Upon passing the gate, Medion looks over and waves to Illian.
As Illian rode his horse up next to the pair, he scratched his head. Tybolt’s horse echoes through the courtyard. Illian said with a chuckle, “He is upset.”
“What else is new with my idiot brother?” Amelie said. “And what did he do this time?”
“Father!” the prince cried. “Father!” Tybolt hollered again as he stormed into his father’s quarters. The candle on Grandor’s desk flickered as he slammed the door behind him. Grandor turned his head away from the pile of papers laying before him.
Shaking his head, Grandor sighed at his son’s antics. “Yes, my son. What troubles you?”
Snarling like a wolf, Tybolt ground his teeth. “Those are some fine knights you keep. They insult me without mercy.” Tybolt shouted at the top of his lungs, “Your filthy guards are worthless.”
Grandor returned his pen to its inkwell. “Would you be so kind as to enlighten me on what happened?”
Tybolt was clenching his fists. “One of your guards called me a damn woman!” he exclaimed.
“How should we deal with such a matter, my father?” Grandor’s eyes grew heavy as he rose from the table.
“Do you have any questions about what should be done?” He threw his hand in the air as he walked to the other side of the table.
“How often do you come here? It seems you always have something to say about my guards. Would you prefer to pick them yourself?” Tybolt opened his mouth but was swiftly cut off. “No, please do not answer that. Are you dead?” Grandor grunted.
A narrow look crossed Tybolt’s face. “The question is ridiculous.”
“That’s right, why would you be dead? You’re well guarded by my guards. With that mouth of yours, you’re lucky to still have it.” Tybolt stared for a moment at his father’s shaking eyes.
“Well, I… It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims. “I was called a woman! I am the heir to the throne. I expect him to respect royalty. This-this-this dog might as well have bitten me.” A long breath erupted out of his nostrils.
Grandor just shook his head. “You should consider what you are saying.”
“I know what I say!” Tybolt shouted back.
Slowly, Grandor approached his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Yes, and that bothers me,” he said. “I sometimes feel sick thinking about leaving the throne to you. I’ve stayed up all night worrying about you. Your sister may be better suited to ruling than you.”
Tybolt pushed his father’s hand away. “He called me a woman! Even by your standards, that is asking for death.”
Afterward, Grandor roared. “It is because of childish things like this that I have to send someone else to handle Galgotha instead of dealing with it myself. It is advisable if I leave Taer in your hands, Tybolt, instead of staying here as your supervisor.”
“Then who will you send in your place?” Tybolt snapped.
Grandor looked away from Tybolt and said, “Illian.” in a quiet, calm voice.
Tybolt took several steps forward, lowering his head like a crow. He mumbles, “Illian?”
Walking toward his balcony, Grandor said, “He leaves three days from now.” Tybolt follows him but stops at the threshold.
Grandor ran his fingers along the edge of the railing. “How is that possible?” Tybolt asked, completely puzzled.
“He is to be crowned King of Elitus,” Grandor said, turning to Tybolt to see his reaction. As Tybolt’s eyes grew crazed, he knew what was coming. As a child, he always got the same look when he was forced to share his toys.
“My kingdom is Golgatha. Bridehan is ruling in my stead.” Tybolt pointed a finger at his father while cocking his head to one side.
“And Elitus is Illian’s; you knew this day would come. It is his by right.” Grandor then corrected Tybolt, “Including he can serve a purpose now.”
“For what purpose?” Tybolt stepped onto the balcony. “It makes more sense to keep him here than to send him to those savages at Golgotha.”
Grandor peered over the edge to view the whole city and a vast distance beyond his grand kingdom of Taer. “He is a native son; they won’t treat him as they would one of us. Golgotha can have what they want, their country. Elitus will be put back in its place. As an empire, Golgotha cannot stand against us without Elitus. It’s as simple as that Tybolt.”
Tybolt shook his head in disbelief. “Illian is still too young to rule.”
Arwin considers Illian to be a wise man. So do I. Illian is similar to his father. He would be proud of him, just as I am.” Grandor turned away from Tybolt.
This is not one of Arwin’s scenarios. This is Illian ruling a kingdom.” Tybolt tapped his foot. “Nevertheless, what does Illian know about Golgotha? He is as native as a son as I am. Moreover, they will view Illian as an enemy.”
“I have appointed many kings, Tybolt. I will appoint many more after Illian. It is foolish of you to think you are wiser than me.” Grandor glanced at his son.
In disbelief, Tybolt shook his head. “Father, you can’t have him. He is my brother. Do you wish to take him away?”
“Illian is the future of my kingdom, as well as yours. You will not have to clean up your father’s filth when I leave you, Marion. I will leave the Empire in pristine condition. All you have to do is learn how to rule it. As soon as you have proven to me that you are dedicated to the Imperator, and you will take your role in the kingdom seriously, I will consider giving you a position in the kingdom. Up until then, I won’t be hearing anything from you.” Grandor let out a heavy sigh. “Sometimes, I feel ashamed to call you my son. Unlike Illian, who has advanced in the ranks and proven himself to Arwin, you have chosen to disregard your studies. As a father, can you imagine how difficult it is for me to do this? You are splinters in my cup!” Grandor turned away from his son and stepped away from the edge.
Instead, Tybolt walks past his father, grabbing onto the railing as he points at the city below. His fist slowly closes. “Illian was not meant for you,” he said. “Both of you are ignorant of the truth. Truth is, ruling is not about being loyal to your kingdom. It’s about being powerful and feared. You must command respect and loyalty from your people if you expect them to obey you. Bridehan chose to be weak. If they do not follow orders, hang their bodies from every rafter in the city. That is how you rule.” Tybolt said, his eyes burning. “Despite such a small number, the Talmians held strong. So why don’t we strive to have a kingdom like theirs? I am made to study useless drivel, names of past kings and lords, and their meager accomplishments, by Arwin. Then I read about Valarious, the man who established the Azure Kingdom. The Talmian student surpassed Hemlock and his empire, which spanned the whole known world. I aspire to surpass him.”
“The dreams of a child. The people of Talmia were evil. This world was cursed by them. Everything they touched was ruined. By following their path, you will rule a kingdom of sand. Valarious was highly regarded despite his Talmian heritage. Grandor sighed. “I love you, but you are not yet ready to rule. There is much to learn.”
Tybolt gazed down at the vast city below, his mouth salivating as he said, “My kingdom will be more glorious than any kingdom this world has ever seen. I have seen it. A glorious bride. My kingdom is waiting for me. It is destiny.”
Through the threshold of the balcony, Grandor walked back inside, shaking his head. “It is, for this reason, I do not trust you.”
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A number of books line the walls behind the graying diplomat in the redwood study, while the lighting competes with the cool winter blues from the large window. Across from Apricot, the elder sat at an expansive desk. Looking at the questions in her notepad, she identifies the most pertinent ones. “Thank you again, Lord Ietsuna, for agreeing to be interviewed.”
He was a man of impressive size, dressed in military fatigues. A row of medals ran down the center of his chest, and pins decorated the collar of his shirt. A large military cap mostly hid his snowy white hair. Other than a pair of thin strips above his lips, he is clean-shaven. “My pleasure, you have a very impressive portfolio. You have achieved so much at such a young age. You may call me Tetsuro.” he says gruffly. That is not an option Apricot will accept. Calling a Lord by their first name is too uncomfortable for her. Especially one as powerful as this man. That is why she rarely blurred the line between the two. She would resign all her statements and not mention his name at all in order to avoid such embarrassment.
As she looks at her notes one last time, Apricot bows her head in gratitude. “Can you clarify what your role is as the Ietsuna clan’s representative?”
While Lord Ietsuna bobbed his head, a bubbly smile spread across his lips. It appeared that this man was in a cheerful mood, Apricot wrote. “I present the Okabe clan’s perspective to the Ietsuna clan. Having embraced the western world, the Okabe clans require greater respect. Hence my presence. I oversee the modernization of Okabe and make sure it remains distinctively Uchellan. In a secondary capacity, I assess military movements and Uchellan reactions to those movements.”
As she asked such an absurd question, Apricot laughed inwardly, raising Lord Iestuna’s eyebrows. Apricot immediately returned to her previous professional demeanor. “For any foreign readers, I was wondering how the Ietsuna clan is connected to the other clans of Uchella.”
The posture of his body stiffens as he grins. “We are Uchellan’s true rulers. Other clans, such as the Okabe, fall under the Iestuna clan. The Ietsuna clan has been responsible for maintaining peace between warring states since the Uchella agreement. Emperor Uchella Ietsuna led a most glorious campaign to conquer all the lands of the Empire five hundred years ago. Instead of destroying the clans, he formed a coalition to end the age of war. With the advance of the west, they would soon reach the eastern shores, bringing conquering armies with them. Thus, we have maintained our hegemony in the world. I hope you do not take offense, but we are extremely proud of our people. We treasure our traditions.”
Apricot bowed her head in respect. She raised her head and continued. “I think that’s a fine response. Pride in one’s ethnicity is a good thing. We become better people when we do that.” Her next series of questions make her uncomfortable. She breathes deeply and speaks. “I was wondering if you might be able to speak with me about the tension between Uchella and Arslana. According to the Sotaro clans, Kubebna ships have been passing through their waters to reach the demilitarized zone. How accurate are these claims?”
“I’ve heard the rumors as well. I believe them. Kubebna, Stezyl, and Tvekala have positioned themselves as possible aggressors in Uchellan waters. As you may already be aware, we have had several naval standoffs. A military alliance has been formed between Akiyama, Iori, Kinjo, and Sotaro in the event that Arslana escalates the situation. As of now, the Tatsumi and Okabe families have not gotten involved. In contrast, Armaryol and Tortau have been moving vessels through western waters. I’m afraid we’ll have to begin military operations against the Aristocracies of Arslana if this trend continues. Almost certainly, the Uchellan Empire would unite to defend her lands if that were to happen.” The smile that had once been so bright was now fading. Although it wasn’t much, Apricot noticed.
Apricot diligently wrote his words. She glanced up from her page. “Off the record, just out of curiosity between us. What do the Ietsuna believe?”
The man smirked as he sat back in the large padded chair. “That’s intuitive of you to notice that I haven’t offered you that. You can record this. Our lands should not be invaded, and our support for the Empire is unwavering; we are the Empire. While they are small and easy to deal with, the northern clans are still our people. Uchella, the ancient dragon, will awaken if Arslana thinks they will violate our sovereignty.”
Slowly, Apricot nodded. “What about Castor?” Apricots asked. “Would the Uchellan Empire make an alliance with Castor?”
“No. To maintain our borders, we do not need invitations from other countries. And we don’t want them either.” He asserted firmly.
“I suppose you feel the same way about Estarus.” Apricot replied.
Lord Ietsuna nodded toward her in a measured manner. “Estarus is a peculiar case,” he said. “We have an agreement of non-indulgence. We remain on our lands and they remain on theirs. This is what we prefer. We do things our way.”
“So, what are your thoughts on Okabe’s robust immigration policy?” she inquired, no longer paying attention to her notes.
Ietsuna’s eyes changed, and he seemed to be filled with a positive light. As he smiled warmly, he said, “I am proud of Okabe’s openness to foreigners. Their presence makes our community more colorful. Discovering novel things requires fresh eyes. As long as it stays in Okabe, I don’t see anything wrong with this experiment.”
She extended a handshake to him, which he warmly accepted. “I really appreciate you taking the time.” She said. “I think that’s all I need to ask. Is there anything you would like me to strike out?” Apricot asked the man as she presented her notes. Normally, she would not do such a thing, but a man in this position could easily ruin her family. Having examined the pad, he gives it back to Apricot.
“This is fine with me. Journalists rarely feel any responsibility toward the subjects they interview these days. They’re more inclined to go for big scoops than the truth.”
Apricot replied, “I try my best.”
This is how Apricot’s life continued. After meeting those strange men, her life appeared to have returned to something reasonable, ordinary, and completely free of curiosity. After class, she headed to the gym and exercised, then returned home to prepare essays and finish her studies. A few times a week, she conducted a casual interview with a member of the community when she had investigations to perform. The interviewees were usually government officials or local celebrities. On weekends, she spent time with her friends. Since then, several months have passed.
After the sun had set, however, in the evening…
A strong smell of mildew and dust emanated from the abandoned building. Apricot emerged from the hall into a ruined auditorium. The stadium was littered with torn-up chairs and bleachers covered in layers of dust. The stage was adorned with a few props that were leftover from whatever was held before the shutdown. A gray-scale humanoid with wings and a horn that grew from the front of his head and sat atop a splintered piano. Apricot thought he looked gargoyle-like. A starry night sky could be seen through the open, destroyed ceiling of the room. “So we finally meet,” he said in a deep voice, rising from his stance.
“I’m glad the reports were true about you.” She pulled a pistol from her side and replied, “I can talk to you.”
The creature snorted at her in response. “I am different from my peers.” He roared so loudly that the wooden bleachers burst into fragments. Apricot veered to the side just in time to avoid being directly hit by the blast. Several pieces of wood, however, cut her arm partially. “Yes, you are pretty fast, aren’t you?” Apricot looked down at the rubies that gushed across her skin, cascading down her arm. An iron odor filled the air. With Apricot clearly wounded, the gargoyle grinned proudly, “But it’s not fast enough.”
“It’s nothing devil,” Apricot growled, looking away from her arm. “Before I kill you, tell me something.”
“The hunter of my kin seeks an audience with me. Child, I am a lord of vengeful spirits! Why should you have this privilege?” he asked.
As Apricot walked down the aisle of the auditorium. “This can turn out either way. It can go peacefully, or it can become brutal.”
As Apricot neared, the creature opened his wings and cried, “I prefer the second.” She dove to her side and pulled the trigger, shooting precisely in mid-air. After impact, the bullet fizzles as it burns into the creature’s skin like acid. “It burns!” he shrieked.
Apricot snarled, “Silver bullet,” as the monster tumbled through rows of benches. The bleachers covered his body in splinters as he arose from the ground, grasping at his arm. He ripped at the injured arm with a roar. The wet bursts caused his skin to pop, revealing the muscle beneath as the tendons thinned. A torrent of blood poured from the limb after he severed his arm. Apricot winced at the sight of blood. He flung his useless part to the ground. As Apricot looked at the maimed creature, she remarked, “That is dedication.” The creature looked surprised by her comment. “What is your purpose here?” Apricot asked.
From across the room, laughter echoed as his gaze engulfed her. When he took a step forward, his blood flowed to the ground in measured beats. “We’ve been here a long time,” he said. “The wait was long. We came first. The intrusion came from you. Now, our world must unite with yours. As they merge, everyone will be able to see the real world.” As he approached, Apricot pointed her gun at him.
“Sure,” Apricot replied as she squeezed the trigger. When the monster flicked its arm, an invisible force flung the gun out of her grasp. With his drooling fangs out, he charged at her in a fury. A vicious slash comes from his clawed hand, forcing Apricot back a step. The nails on his claws barely missed her chest as she backed away from him. She pulled a baton from her side and struck the creature in the face. Similar to Shiori’s rod, a burn appeared on its face. She tried to strike the monster again with the baton, but it grabbed it instead. Shivering, he gripped the rod in his hand. He ripped the smoking baton from her grasp, then threw it away.
“Even silver can’t save you, girl,” he growled, spreading his fangs as he opened his jaws and lunged for her throat. As her hand glistens purple with fire, she punched the creature. Besides shattering the creature’s spine, the flames burned through its stomach. Apricot extended her arm and cut its upper body in half. Within a second, the monster was divided into two halves. She watched the creature disappear into the open air, leaving no trace of its existence behind.
With her teeth clenched, Apricot breathes hard. She looked down at the ground with wide, furrowed eyes. The sound of clapping on the other side of the room made her sigh and think, “Not tonight.” She felt a shiver run down her spine.
Her head snapped rapidly when the clapping man emerged from the shadows, and a familiar voice called out, “I thought you were a goner. It has been a while, reporter girl.”
She was drawn to the man’s shabby appearance. He is immediately recognizable to her. “Cortez?” Images of the train ride flow through her mind. The alley where he spat blood. She remembers the camera he gave her, too.
“Yeah, you remembered me this time.” Cortez laughed. “I didn’t think you were a mage, but look at you. There’s more to you than meets the eye.” He jumped off the stage and walked to the bleachers. “So, you handled everything yourself,” he exclaimed. “Heh, wow. Never would have guessed you were capable. I assume you have done this before. At least experienced enough to bring silver.”
“Do you know about all this?” Apricot asked, puzzled.
“No, not really. To be honest, I probably do as much as you do. Come on, let’s grab a bite, shall we? Is that alright with you?” replied Cortez. Apricot was thrown into an ocean of confusion. His audacity, acting as if they were friends. Of all times, too.
“What are you crazy?” Apricot shouted.
A sigh escaped Cortez’s lips. “No, I am hungry. After that fight, I’m sure you are, too.”
Despite Apricot’s indignation, Cortez was right. Apricot was hungry, and the idea sounded intriguing, to say the least. “Sure, whatever,” she replied.
“Yes, I have a place where we can eat and it is private, too.”
There is a little smoke in the room, and the floor is black and white tiled. The diner is decorated with red and white booths and black tables. To Apricot, it was a strange place. It seemed as if the people sitting around were shady. Even the waitress was wearing a low-cut uniform implied she was a lady of the night. “What kind of place is this?” Apricot inquired.
“Heh, a booth where we can talk and no one cares,” he said, his head resting against the cold window. “I am curious how long you have, you know, worked at it?”
Apricot made sure nobody was paying attention by looking around the room. “For a few months. Around the time I met you.” She shrugged. “I picked up a couple of tricks, but I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“So, how did you do it?” Cortez whispered, leaning closer. Apricot frowned, furrowing her brow. “The thing with the fire. Can you tell me how you did it? Could you show me?”
Apricot shrugged. “I can only do it when those things get close to me. I don’t know how it works. The first time it happened, I nearly died. It kind of clicked after I hunted those things. I’ve killed twelve, well, thirteen tonight.”
“Hmm, you’re pretty tough, right?” he replied. “I had not met any other girls this brave. So what makes you do it?” Cortez asked.
Putting her hand up, Apricot paused. “Wait a minute. I have a few questions of my own. I’m wondering how you know such things.”
“Well, if you insist.” Cortez rolled his eyes.
She lowered her gaze. “Yes, I do. I want to know who I am dealing with.”
“Okay, so this city is pretty shady. Right, so my father was a cop. Great guy. He was an investigator with the SDP. A very smart man whom I respected a lot. Probably about a year ago, maybe closer to two. Like he had this case dragging on. Something about internal corruption among nobles. Apparently, they were kidnapping kids for sacrifice rituals around town. He gets called out one day to respond to an emergency. At the mall, someone had become a gunman. They dispatched my dad and other officers to deal with the situation. The active-shooter got away, but my dad got shot in the face.” said Cortez, gnashing his teeth.
“I am sorry.”
She could see Cortez rolling his eyes. “Save it; I am not done yet. In case of his death, my dad wanted me to keep his records hidden. When the old man came knocking in uniform, I knew dad was dead or gone. Under the floorboards, I tucked his file away. When the police searched for it, they almost destroyed our home. They really wanted it. He told me to burn it. But I didn’t. I looked through it. It contained many horrible things. Little girls with their bodies chopped up like they were in a butcher shop. The floor was soaked in blood. Unending reports of monsters. Okabe’s are to blame. After I got some balls right, I looked for a temple in that area. I found a few scattered around the city in unexpected places.”
Apricot raised her soda to her mouth and sipped out of the long straw. She couldn’t take her eyes off Cortez. “Yeah, well, I found one.” he continued. “In the industrial district, I guess. Man, it was just like any other temple. So, while I’m walking around this temple, I notice it was empty, and it really is an abandoned temple with no groundskeepers or anything. I had the feeling that I was being watched the whole time. Suddenly, something hideous came from the shadows. This was like some type of rat dog creature. It had a big mouth, like half its body.”
“Made of shadows?” Apricot added in a dull tone.
Cortez choked. “Yeah, you saw one too?”
Apricot nodded. “In my kid brother’s room.”
“Shit. “ Cortez’s breathing rasped. “I grabbed anything I could find. A silver rod was hanging from the wall. After striking it, it exploded into dust. I rushed out of there in a flash. I figured there were more of them, but didn’t want to find out. I did a little more digging and discovered there are places around the city where people who know about this congregate. This is one of those places. It’s safe here, and people respect each other enough to keep out of each other’s business. Like all these stories about terrorists, they’re all lies. No bombs, no chemicals. This stuff’s been carrying on for years. And they keep happening. There’s a panic brewing on, and I feel like something big is about to happen.”
“I have felt the same way, too. So what now?” Apricot asked.
On this issue, Cortez remained silent. Outside, a light drizzle fell against the window. He stretched his arms and his back. “Hell if I knew. Keep in touch. After all that, I feel a little uneasy myself.” Cortez said. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulls out a wad of marks, leaving it on the table. “You be careful. If you need help, you know where to find me. Every morning, the train still rolls in.” Apricot nodded as he left the diner. As she sipped her soda, Apricot muses on what she heard just now.
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The morning rays of light peek over the dark cityscape. Apricot ran along a sidewalk, her backpack skipping with each step. The damp breeze fluttered her skirt as the early traffic passed her. She stopped in front of a large apartment building. Somewhat winded, she took a moment to breathe. Her shoes echoed as she walked up the concrete steps toward a pair of double glass doors. Leaning into the bars of the doors, she found no purchase. Glancing over to the side, she saw a large white box on the wall. It was overwhelming how many rooms were on the panel. After navigating to 15E, she pressed the white square with her digit. With a beep announcing her, she said “Bon Bon! Hey Bon Bon, it’s Apricot. Buzz me in.”
A few seconds passed before the intercom beeped again. “Api, what the heck are you doing here so early?” Bonni replied in a groggy voice.
“Bonni!” Apricot shouted. “Just let me in.” Another pause passed and continued. “Is she not going to let me in?” Apricot pondered.
“Fine,” Bonni sighed as the front door’s automatic latch clicked open. “Come on up.”
The apartment complex is uninspiring inside. The carpet is brown, and the walls were painted several years ago, apparently out of style. It reminded her more of a cheap motel than a place people would live. The immediate scent of cigarette smoke greeted her. “Bonni, what are you doing here?” The entire experience left Apricot contemplating that thought all the way into the elevator.
Upstairs, everything is much the same. Apricot made her way down the musky hall toward 15E. Once there, she knocks. Bonni replies from behind the several times painted door, “It’s open.” Apricot turned the brass doorknob to see a much more pleasant sight. Black coal ceilings with studio lamps, a polished faux stone floor, and clean white walls. It is definitely Bonni’s style. “Good morning!” Apricot said to Bonni, who was covered in a fluffy pink bathrobe.
Her eyes were half shut and her hair was uncombed. “You are awfully spry already. Going to school?” Bonni asked.
“Sure am. Hey, I had a question to ask you?” Apricot smiled as Bonni rolled her eyes.
Bonni walked over towards her noisy coffee maker. “Not yet, girl. Look, I was sleeping. Do you need a ride to school or something?”
“No, no!” Apricot shouted, waving both of her hands. “Nothing like that.”
Bonni took a sip from the black cup of coffee. After the swig, she swallowed and took a deep breath. A slow exhale followed. “Well, what is it then?”
“How many of those Paranormal Monthly’s do you still have?”
“You mean Eerie Truth’s Monthly?” Bonni chuckled. Her demeanor changed. She was awake as she walked up to Apricot, poking her in the chest. “I knew you would get hooked!” Bonni chirped. “You want to borrow some of my past editions?”
Apricot shook her head. “Yeah, if you could, as many of them as you have. I got the latest one, and I could not stop reading it. Did you read the one about the vampire club?” Apricot asked Bonni.
“Yeah, I did. What a weird group of people. You know, I think I met those people once! I was auditioning for a movie.” Bonni trailed off in her conversation as she walked out of the room. Apricot looks around the apartment. She imagined it would not take much effort to make this place look messy. A minimalist style is always so minimal that anything out of place would throw off the entire appeal. A few papers rest on her coffee table. Apricot could not help but take a glance. There is a script for a play or movie, a few bills, and a sci-fi book called Robicon. Glancing out the twin pan windows, Apricot could see a good part of the city. The view is beautiful. It made sense now why Bonni lived in such a place. The lobbies suck, but the apartments are not half bad.
“Here we are,” Bonni said, carrying out a stack of magazines. “I got more, but I figured this is plenty enough to keep you busy.” A wide grin filled Apricot’s face.
She took off her backpack placing it on the floor. Carefully, she slides each magazine inside and zips up the bag. “You are a lifesaver, Bonni,” Apricot hoisted the now heavy backpack onto her shoulders. She slumped backward before regaining her posture.
“Well, you know, I like to help,” Bonni commented. “So you heading off to school?”
“Yeah, sadly I got to,” Apricot told Bonni. Bonni nodded with a smirk. “Have a good day Bon Bon.”
Bonni gave Apricot a parting hug. “You too. We can talk later about the stories!” Apricot nodded before heading out the door.
Class didn’t seem necessary as Apricot listened to Miss Akagi’s lecture. Concentration evaded her as she speculated about that Kinjo noble. He seemed to know what he was doing. So these phenomena cannot be something new, she concluded. If he perceived the crisis was linked to these creatures, then maybe all the nobles recognized this. That might be why they are so desperate to cover it up. It would explain things, but that only left more questions to be answered. If what Chino Tokuma said was correct, then she had much more to consider. Like who was this Urias guy and why would he be eating people. Now that she thought about it, Solenne mentioned something about that the other day at the arcade.
If the nobles knew of this and planned a city as a sacrifice for that ritual, what else were they capable of and what would they have planned in the future. She concludes her best choice right now is to investigate the phantoms and carry on as if that is her only goal. To stay open-minded but not veer from her task. If the phantoms were causing all the disturbances, the fewer of them there were, the more stable her situation would become.
“Apricot,” Miss Akagi’s voice boomed. “What are the four tenants of journalism?”
“Seek truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently, and to be accountable.” Her response must have been beyond what Miss Akagi expected, as she gave a slow nod before continuing her lecture. A warm satisfaction filled her knowing she bested her teacher. In all honesty, though, it almost seems trivial considering the more significant issue at hand.
The reaper, how would she find and talk to the reaper. She had questions, and she wanted answers. What exactly is his role in all this? How did she fit in? Clearly, he had one, though that seemed even more mysterious than the role of the Okabe in all this. Her hope for a meeting is a strange encounter at the reaper’s convenience. For now, she just possessed small fragments to follow leads on. From this point forward, things will be different she resolved. Earie Truth’s Monthly would become her roadmap and the path to an ultimate end. To what end, she was not entirely sure, but whatever it was had to be better than this limbo.
After class, Apricot took a detour towards the gym. Once inside, some old acquaintances greeted her she couldn’t quite place the names of. A smile and wave satisfied her as a proper response. Routing towards the aerobic equipment, she began the usual stretches she had learned in primary school. It had been a long time since she was in competitive gymnastics and fencing, but if she would undergo such a dangerous journey; she considered it best to be as prepared as possible. She spent several hours at the gym before picking up her things and heading home.
Tsungdung is always busy. This stretch of road is lined with markets. The enticing aromas of the many different cuisines made anyone’s mouth water. Deep in thought, she glanced beside her to see a polished midnight cruiser driving beside her. The mirror glass side window rolled down. Behind black sunglasses, a man in a black suit peered through the door at her. The man said, “Mam, I need you to step into the car.”
Are these guys related to Ji Li or Shiori? Whatever their relationship, she wouldn’t be getting into that car today. Apricot replied, “I’m not.”
“This is not a request.” the man said, pulling a badge from his pocket that read “Okabi Special Investigative Force #2044”. Apricot felt her chest become heavy, and a cold sweat formed. Upon opening the rear passenger door, a man dressed exactly the same steps out of the car and leads her inside.
Apricot glided across the leather seat. After stepping back inside the vehicle, the other man closed the door as the vehicle continued to coast. Stuffed in the back of this car between two bulky men brought sardines to mind. “Apricot.” The front passenger replied, “I understand you were involved in the Ichigari Grocery incident.”
“Yes,” Apricot replied, knowing that keeping a low profile was best since she had no idea what was happening.
“How have those biologicals affected you? Have you had any strange visions since then? Has your behavior changed?” the man inquired.
“No, not at all.” She lied.
“That’s good to hear,” he replied, although the fakeness and raised tone of his voice indicated he was searching for something more. “So, ever see anything strange on Ikijoji street, perhaps at night, walking home from Ichigari Grocery?” The man leaned his body over the armrest to look back at Apricot. He lowered his glasses to reveal his dark brown eyes.
The words were like daggers into Apricot. “I fell there a few weeks ago,” Apricot replied while trying to maintain a cool demeanor. “Nothing other than that.”
The man raised his glasses back, chewing with his closed mouth. “Nothing out of the ordinary? You did not see any monsters, right?”
“Monsters? What do you mean by monsters? I heard about the murders if that is what you mean. “I saw nothing,” Apricot said, feeling her palms sweat.
Everyone in the car seems almost inanimate, except for the man. “Funny thing…I noticed you purchased a copy of the Erie Truth’s Monthly recently. It’s a bit strange that you bought it out of the blue. Isn’t it, Miss Signa?”
“I was recently shown an issue by a friend of mine. As a journalist, I find them entertaining.” These guys knew everything about her, Apricot realized. As her breath became shallow, she felt as if her throat was about to close on her.
“You wouldn’t have been trying to buy a gun at a store called Bullseye’s, would you?“ he asked, holding up a piece of paper. The page featured several screenshots taken from a security camera, captured in grainy, low-resolution photos. “I think you did. You really had that shop owner tangled up.”
Apricot nodded. “I was doing an investigation into illegal gun trades.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re a persistent journalist, aren’t you? Doing some investigative reporting on the ground. I like that kind of reporting. Recently, I read about something similar. Actually, I think it was by you.”
“By me?” Apricot asked.
“Yes, about being a hostage. You don’t have to be reminded of it. You must have had a traumatic experience.” he says. “Well, it seems you don’t remember much, so let me remind you. It’s time to stop your investigation. We considered Chino Tokuma’s visit to be the final straw. Furthermore, you broke into a restricted area, Eastway Park, which you probably learned about from that magazine you got. We wanted you to know, Miss Signa, that we are keeping an eye on you.”
Apricot didn’t even notice the events that followed. One moment she was in the back of an anonymous government car and the next she stood on the sidewalk of Tsungdung street staring off, surrounded by people who had no idea what she was going through. The smells and sounds faded as a phone rested against her ear.
“Hello,” said a gruff male voice over the line.
“Arjun, are you off duty?” Apricot heard the quiver in her own voice.
“Apricot?” Arjun replied, his voice trembling with concern.
“Come get me now, please.” She sniffled.
As Lady Kyo gazed from the private balcony of a crowded theater, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful?” She held the red Azoth in her hand as it gazed back at her. A red-eye, now bare, rolled from side to side. “My baby… a new world will be born for you,” she whispered. In expensive fatigues, an elderly gentleman sits upright opposite her. Several people in black suits surround the two with their arms folded.
Kyo’s own thoughts, as she stares at the thing, drown out the song of an opera singer. She shows the Azoth to the man next to her. “I believe you are now the master of the Okabe family. Given these circumstances, I doubt anyone would object to your ascendancy. Tell me what you have planned for your newly acquired position.”
The jewel was the only thing Kyo paid attention to while she ignored the man’s questions. “Tell me, Hegia, how long have our ancestors been seeking this. How do you interpret it? Take a look around you. We are the privileged few who can really appreciate it. A sense of calm. Take a look at her down there. “Young, brilliant, and beautiful,” Kyo said, turning her attention to the opera singer. “What does her talent mean to you?”
Hegia smirked. “I suppose you will tell me?”
“No. Not at all. Doesn’t matter. All things considered. It won’t save her.” She glanced at Hegia without moving her face. “To answer your question, does it matter if I tell you? It won’t make a difference to you anyway.”
Hegia stiffened, raising a hand to fix his collar. “Lady Kyo?”
“The new world needs none of us. It only needs a mother, and she too can die in labor.” Kyo mused. While he tried to maintain his composure, the look on his face showed his discomfort. Rocking in his seat, he swallowed hard. “All the people in this room are already dead. They just aren’t aware of it yet. The coming age will sacrifice all of us. Just like the previous worlds did. What power do I have then?”
“You envision a new world left to be decided by chance? Who will guide this new world if the nobility is absent?”
Lady Kyo chuckled “You disappoint me Hegia, there is always order out of chaos.”
“The hidden hand guides in that chaos.” Hegia lashed out.
“Foolish Hegia, the hidden hand, has never been the nobility. We simply serve at his pleasure.” With the singer’s song finished, the audience began to applaud. Hegia felt a burning sting across his neck and opened his eyes. An immediate feeling of coldness swept over him as he glanced up to see an agent with a bloody knife. “Goodbye Hegia.” Kyo stood up and an agent placed a black fur cloak around her shoulders.
As the crowd’s applause died down, Lady Kyo glanced at Hegia, whose final shakes had left him. “You are not a worthy sacrifice. We both know what you are after. Hagia, you are the last traitor. You planned to kill me tonight. It wouldn’t be right to throw me off the balcony to save the world. Regardless, the world would be doomed. You have benefited from our work for centuries. Hegia, how old are you? How many lives have prolonged yours? Sadly, the praetorian guard has been slain with you. As you spend your last moments, please appreciate this,” she told Hegia as he closed his eyes for the last time.
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