The shrine’s appearance changed as the road to it changed. Against the murky red horizon, the trees which once looked full of life have been stripped of their leaves. Sharp fingers flit against the trees’ naked branches. Rather than a collection of portraits, the statues lined the road with faces that seemed perpetually agonized, their mouths open toward the sky like round holes in the sky. The road itself was foggy and dark. A blaze of wax adorned the sidewalk that led to the stairway that rose up to the shrine’s gates. There were pools of black inky liquid as the liquid dripped from the stairs. Observing Apricot as she climbed the stairs, two-winged animals sat atop the red arch, bars of incisors spangled in an open snarl.
As she reached the top, she saw the reaper squatting in the courtyard with his back to her, moving his hands. Her attention was drawn to the creatures atop the gateway. With closer inspection, she saw their razor teeth more clearly. The two-winged beasts dropped in front of her roaring when she stepped in front of the archway. With a long boney arm, one creature slashed at Apricot. When the wind of its fingertips brushed against her nose, she jumped back. On her feet she sprung forward with her blazing hand, unleashing a bolt of fire directly into the creature’s head. Upon impact, the skull of the creature bowed, crushed. After slamming into the ground like a rag doll, the creature fell limp.
Apricot withdrew her arm from the fallen body, holding the flame like a blade. As the other creature stepped forward he struck at her, but she avoided the sharp claw by tapping away its arm. Her arm retracted, and another assault was launched for her side. The flaming blade of Apricot glided along its other arm. The blade sliced the arm in half, splintering down the middle. Holding the mangled arm, it screamed. She slashed with a clean strike from the creature’s head to its pelvis without wasting a moment. Sprouting blood, the split monster turned into blue orbs before falling aside.
She paused, her gaze fixed on the reaper. Passing through the red gate, she entered the courtyard of the shrine. She felt her mind race with fear. She knew that this was the end and that he had the power to kill her with a snap of his fingers. In her first meeting with him, she had no idea how he performed that trick and had hoped it was just a trick. After repositioning his arms in front of his chest, the reaper turned to face Apricot. “My thou has’t the fury of a devil burning in thy eyes. What is it that thee plan on doing with that blazing fire of yours?”
He was in the sights of her blade. The flaming blade parts are dripping onto the ground as they impact. “I have come to kill you once and for all!” Apricot proclaimed. A small chuckle escaped his lips.
“A motley-minded endeavor. Thee cannot killeth me. I can understandeth the sentiment though. I too findeth this world a horrible lodging as well. Thee art still blind.” he said, extending his hand towards Apricot. “Cometh walketh with me.”
Apricot shook her head in protest, crying and afraid of death. “The time for talk is over!“ She shouted, tears rolling down her cheeks. Even the mere heat of his presence caused the tears to dry before falling from her face.
Apricot saw the astonished as he lowered his head towards her in what seemed like a solum stance. “Peradventure mine method wast too harsh. I apologize but I hadst to has’t thee understandeth the true nature of this world. It’s retched festering evil. So I hath sent thee on this journey, to gain wisdom. Now I giveth thee a new journey.”
“What are you on about?about?about? Apricot croaked, still pointing the blade at him. Bringing the blade closer as he glided toward Apricot, she prepared to stab him.
“Understandeth me Apricot. From the beginning I hath brought thee through the nightmare.” His voice was soothing, slow, and serene. Apricot hated the thought of it more than anything else. There was a wicked magic that filled his tone. “Thee knoweth the rate of thy friends. Thee seen the deepest torment of those above. The cries of those sacrificed in vain. Now thee art eft to taketh a rightful lodging. To end this chaos, tis in thy hands now. Thee alone has’t the choice to save this world or alloweth it to rot eternally.”
Apricot replied, “I don’t understand?”
The reaper slowed as it neared her landing. As he bowed, he lowered his head. “At which hour we first hath met. Thee wast a fool. Thee hadst no knowledge of the real world. The truth of this city. The ruling powers who abused its people. Thee didst not knoweth about the vile criminals who harm the people.
Now thou has’t seen the reality of the gangs and their overlords. Thou has’t seen the poor folk trodden upon and given nothing but misery. The royals who treat those below those folk as livestock for slaughter. The unruly demons who haunt this world.
The wars and those who maketh wars. The uncaring hearts of the hath lost. The savage minds of the abusers. The dreams, stolen from valorous people. See this truth Apricot. Together we can changeth this all. Join me, beest the god this world needeth.
By thy hands those gents don’t needeth to die. We can save all those who died. Those who were undone to this world beest hath brought to death. All those sacrificed given new life. In a paradise which thee shalt rule. All thou has’t to doth is allow me to bringeth thee across the threshold. We can cease all this evil.” The reaper said as he stuck out his clawed hand at Apricot. “So doth thee chooseth life or doth thee chooseth death?”
As Apricot’s eyes fill with tears, he lets out a sigh. “Why me!” she cries in despair.
“The Okabe abused mine plan. Instead, those gents tormented people for their own selfish gain. Those gents hath used me as a nexus for power. Urias, that gent is a madman. Kyo, the lady too wast hath lost. The ones ere thee, those gents hath lost their minds. Thou has’t endured. Tis thee I searched for and forged from hellfire. Cometh Apricot, tis time.” Apricot hesitated a bit as she entered the seal. Her steps were like those of a child. Looking up at the reaper, she saw the eyes that were behind the mask. The eyes were like a machine, fixed like dead eyes. “Very valorous, I am glad thou has’t madeth the right choice.”
As Apricot lifted her hand, she placed it among the reapers. Just above his claws, her fingertips hovered. A roar erupted from her as she brought forth a flame and quickly stabbed her blade into his chest. “You are a liar!” The reaper backed away from Apricot and howled. He stared at the blazing blade in her hand. “You’re no better than the Okabe. You murder and scheme and manipulate people. You’re no righteous god! You are a devil.”
Under his breath, the reaper growled. An enormous gash covers his chest, and his claws extend below the sliced fabric into the metal casing. “I am not flesh. This is a manifestation of me. If ‘t be true this how it must beest, then I shalt taketh what is mine by force. Apricot thee shalt beest mine, willing or as mine unwilling host. I shalt ride thee as a horse if ‘t be true I must!”
While his claws aimed at her heart, he lunged toward her. By sidestepping the reaper, Apricot blocked his assault with an arm. “You want to strip people of their will. Even me, the one you desire to change the world. You want to strip my will from me.” Apricot avoided his next punch over her head. As she hit him upward, she severed his mechanical prosthetic. Upon being knocked to the ground, the twitching leg reveals cables and hanging cords.
“Every world is not complete without a god and a devil. Thither cannot beest valorous without evil. Balance is the key.” The reaper slashed Apricot’s shoulder, blood spurting out and the pain radiating from her muscles. She let out a cry of pain and tried to back away from him.
Despite rolling off the blow, Apricot was shaking from the exhausting pain. “Balance is a lie! Evil always wants balance because it is nothing against good. Evil is evil and good is good! The only ones who try to blur the lines are the evil ones!” Apricot roared sharply as she sliced the reaper’s face with her flaming blade. The mask crumbled. They reveal a mechanical manikin
Mechanically, the reaper shook. For Apricot, it seemed like the machine was falling apart. She seized this opportunity and cut effortlessly through the torso and left arm of the reaper. The upper body of the machine floated out in front of her and grinned artificially. “Flesh is undone by mine spirit. So I has’t addressed thee with the spirit of phantoms. Wherefore doth thee bethink I hadst thee hunt those folk and gaveth thee the power to absorb their energy. That is wherefore thy soul blade hath grown stronger. Now thee art eft to beest wed with mine spirit. Alloweth me in!”
Appricot sprang away. “You want to possess me?”
He nodded his head. “Forsooth. You art mine vessel. That is what you art destined to beest. Now surrender yourself. I has’t damaged thee enough already.” The flying body charged Apricot, ejecting black fluid. Apricot attempted to sidestep, but he was moving too fast. A silver rod whipped between the reaper’s claw and Apricot. Her heart pounded as she saw Shiori forcefully pressing the rod against the reaper, glaring into its eyes. “Shiori wherefore doth thee cease me? We hadst a deal!”
“Don’t you know when you have been doublecrossed?” Shiori muttered, throwing the reaper to the ground. Using his teeth, Shiori removed the white glove covering his hand. “Run Apricot. Get outside the seal.” He commanded as he rammed his hand into the reaper’s back. In a flash, Shiori was covered in a red glow as though struck by lightning.
“What has’t thee done!” he barked. “It’s over for you.”
Initially, Apricot hesitated. The mechanical body went lifeless and she suddenly became terrified. “Shiori, what is happening?”
“Apricot, help me. The reaper is in me. Come help me out of the lock!” Shiori gasped, his mouth foaming.
Appricot stepped carefully towards him as he shook his head. “Apricot no!” a familiar voice called out. “Don’t touch him.” Hunter was standing at the threshold of the seal when she turned her head. “Get out of the seal!”
“But Shiori.” Apricot whimpered. Her eyes went wide as his skin sliced, his body decaying in front of her. “Shiori, I am sorry.” she said. Tears rolled down Shiori’s cheek as he smiled. As Apricot escaped, Shiori bowed to the side. Hunter held up his hand as Shiori’s body jerked attempting to move but instead held in place.
as the pieces fall; its artificial blue eyes and blond white hair dangle from the jester’s cap. “Nothing about you is real.”
“Thee wench! Cometh back thee wench! Don’t leaveth me! Thee art going to rid the world! No, this cannot beest! Shiori, thee fool. Doth thee very much expect to survive. We art going to beest trapped in the dead world! Is this what thee wanteth?” The reaper screamed from Shiori’s mouth.
As Hunter placed his hand on the rim of the seal, Shiori cynically commented, “Let’s see what your world is like.” The symbols and signs formed as the ground turned pitch black. While the symbols exploded with a thunderous roar, Shiori got sucked into the darkness. Apricot looked up to see Hunter holding her arm as the two escaped the powerful vacuum winds. After one last boom, the grounds vanished, reappearing as a deep chasm at the temple’s center.
Apricot rose from the ground and walked toward the destroyed temple’s courtyard, where the polished bricks once lay. It caused her heart to beat faster. There was no sign of him. He had been taken to that horrible place. “Shiori!“Shiori!“Shiori!”, she screamed with tears streaming down her face. She shook her head, clutching her face. “Why did it have to end like this?” She sniffled. “What the hell Shiori?” She looked toward Hunter. With his back turned toward the pit, he watched as the city’s glow faded into a vague haze.
“You!” Apricot screamed. “You did this! You knew! You knew he would die! Didn’t you?” She waited for his reply, but it never arrived. Without another word, he walked to the stairs. “Don’t ignore me.” He sat down at the top of the step. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
As he pats the ground adjacent to him, Hunter frowns. “Because, you would not have allowed us to do it,” he replied sourly. Apricot walked up to the staircase and sat down next to him. “Don’t be mad at me. He made me swear not to tell you. I knew, and he did too.”
The first rays of morning light showed up over the horizon, and the two could see the sounds of battle had disappeared. Instead, sirens descended from every street. “It’s over now,” Apricot said, making his way towards Hunter who was also sobbing. She grabbed at his shoulder and pulled him in for a hug. In the early morning light, the two waited for hours. After the sirens subsided, Apricot and Hunter left together.
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There was concrete and rubble along the sidewalk. A city once engulfed by skylines that stretched to the heavens appeared more like a junkyard to Apricot. While walking the blood-stained streets, she took in the sights of a freshly infected nightmare. Armed soldiers were removing bodies from the destroyed buildings along the long stretch of road. In the street, she saw a pair of men hoisting a body into the back of a large convoy truck. Inside, she saw an unbelievable number of dead eyes looking back at her. Stacked on top of one another like lumber.
A wise decision or a poor one? Did the reaper lie? That had to be the case. Suddenly, the world was without hope. Here they stood, the price of a new day. Without these wicked haunts, there will be peace. Despite any doubts in her mind, she knew that she had made the right decision. A teenaged Uchellen boy wearing a green shirt stared out the window. She saw her face meet his, and she knew they were both thinking the same thing. How do we proceed from here?
As she watched, a group of soldiers armed with guns marched past her. They paid her hardly any attention. It seemed everyone was focused on cleaning up. “I guess that is all we can do. Pick up the pieces and carry on regardless of what happened.” Apricot mused. She sees a group of young kids pick up small pieces of metal and carry them over to a dumpster, where their parents help them toss the scraps in.
She heard a woman weeping in the distance, probably in a state of regret over losing a loved one. The ending was not what Apricot hoped for. Sure, the threat was eliminated, but its mark will live on forever. But, lo and behold, there it was. It was a line, with people walking the streets as they should. There were no more ruins or rubble. Untouched by the terror that befell the city that dreadful night. Apricot was relieved to find that. Family, her family! Her eyes gleamed as she raced to her neighborhood as fast as she could.
When she opened the gate to her house, everything appeared in order. It was as if a warmth was filling her as she reached for the doorknob. As she wrangled her hand around the knob, she opened the front door. “Thank goodness.” she thought to herself. “Mom, Dad,” Apricot called out. “Jasper!” as she took a few steps inside, she shut the door behind her to see that the house was exactly in its place. As she walked down the hall, she looked into the kitchen. Upon peeking inside, there were no dishes in the sink. “Everyone must be still asleep.” she concluded.
Apricot opened the cupboard to grab a clean glass from the cupboard. Her first stop was the sink, where she poured a glass of cool water. While drinking, she leaned against the sideboard. There was something refreshing about the slight chill on her lips. When she glanced toward the hallway, she saw a shadow pass over the wall. “Jasper?” she called out.
There was no response. Having put the glass down on the sideboard, Apricot turned to enter the hallway. She could see a faint ripple in the morning sunlight in the living room. As the shadow slowly disappeared across the wall, she watched. Turning from the kitchen, she looked into the living room from the hallway. Her view was restricted by the entryway, and she had to approach more closely. She called out, “Mom,” as she stepped forward. Still no reply. “Dad?” she questioned. The moment she stepped into the living room, she turned her head to see a disfigured humanoid holding Jasper in its claw. Both her parents were tied together in the corner of the room. As she stared up at the thing, part of its face was missing. Its lower lip hangs several feet from its head, exposing its sharp teeth. Its neck stretched out as if it had dislocated, like a gooseneck faucet. Its eyes were hollow and white with blood. The other side of its mouth was on its throat and one arm was missing. Although it looked as though his body flesh was melting like wax, it was still clearly flesh.
“Hello, apostle.” Urias said in an eerie voice. The girl’s eyes grew wide. She had no idea what to make of it. “I was waiting for you.” He said raspily.
Apricot clenched her fist. It was as though she had locked eyes with the horror in front of her. “Let my family go.” she insisted.
Absent pupils, she could not tell how his eyes were looking. “I can’t sense the black god anymore.” he groaned. “Where is he?”
She furrowed her brow in irritation. “Put my little brother down now.”
“I don’t think he is here anymore. I think, you made him go away.” He grinned, exposing his gums above his teeth in the process. “I think, you are responsible for all this. You ruined everything,” he mused.
“How are you alive?” Apricot asked.
A childish laugh emanated from Urias. “Oh, I didn’t. I have been dead for a long time. Join me,” He exclaimed throwing Jasper from his grasp. He screamed as he crashed into the wall and knocked pictures down with him. Using one clawed hand, Urias charged at Apricot. After a short hesitation, she jumped into the hallway. As he moved, he snapped his many mouths. Drool dripped from their mouths and reminded her of weeping sores.
Another lunge from Urias was directed at Apricot. The girl dodged his arm, backing into the kitchen. He sauntered into the room quickly. “I expected more from you Apricot. It seems you have lost your powers. Mmmmm, no more favors from the black god aye?” he cackled. On the counter, Apricot pulled a pair of knives from a wood block. “Oooo,” Urias groaned. “You sure about wanting to fight me? But then again I am sure your blood will be enough to call him back.”
Taking both knives, Apricot charged at Urais with a shrill scream. Kicking her in the thigh, she tumbled backwards. Urias regarded her with a cocked head as she covered herself. He took a swipe at her, catching her by surprise, and she slashed at his throat. Using both hands, she blocked his claw-like fingers. After snapping back his claw, he nicked her in the ribs. A loud noise of meat ripping filled Apricot’s ears. It was intense, but not enough to cause any significant damage. After ducking low for another strike, she was grabbed by his hand, Urias’s arm pinning her to the ground.
After that, he picked up her body and threw it against the wall. His follow-through on her arm left her with no time to recover after he was standing over her. Her body ached while holding the gaping wound with exposed muscles oozing. As she snapped her head up and saw Urias standing over her, she struck him once more. Her swing through the open air was completely missed because he stepped back. As she went round for another strike, Urias sidestepped her attack and raked his claws across her back. Her jacket was sliced open, exposing her shirt and torn skin underneath.
Urias came at her again, causing her to bend over as she suffered from the pain. She grabbed his wrist and held it up. By raking the other knife against his pale stomach, she penetrated the flesh. It became sliced open, releasing an awful odor. Stepping back, he examined her with an open jaw. With his lower lip dangling, he gazed at her. The little spear-like points of his teeth reminded her of a fish’s mouth. As she gazes into his damaged body, she can see that his insides are writhing with life. Black bubbling blood seeped out from the center like sap dropping from a tree.
Apricot was hit by Urias as she was standing on the counter top and several objects fell on the ground. Urias eventually latched on to Apricot’s throat. Taking both knives, she stabbed them into his wrist, ripping through his forearm. Urias released the grip, but he did not back away. Using the counter, Apricot kicked him in the face, causing him to fly through the air and into her refrigerator. She let out a groan as the burning pain in her stomach sent her off the counter onto her feet.
Urias leapt toward her again, reaching out a split hand for her neck. As Apricot dropped to her knees, she stabbed both knives into his lower calves, raising them up the length of his legs. The man fell backward onto the ground screaming in pain. When Apricot collapsed onto his horrid body, he slashed both knives against his throat, cutting off his head. As Urias turned up, he let out a shrill gasp.
After rising to her feet, Apricot looked down at the head that was gripped by gasps. Seeing the desperate movements, she raised her foot and stomped on his skull as if it were a grapefruit. Taking several puffs of air, Apricot caught her breath, feeling her body seethe with rage. As Apricot walked into her living room covered in blood, she saw her parents taped up in the corner. “I think it’s over now.”
Apricot’s mind flashed images of a dull burgundy glow as she rubbed her eyes in slumber. In the background, an annoying buzzing continued to ring in her ears. After a period of deep sleep, she opened her eyes and saw a red glow and a shade of purple obscuring her room. While ignoring the time, her head turned to her alarm clock and she touched the alarm button with her hand. When she removed her covers, she felt the slab patches on her. Looking out of the window, she saw blue skies. “It’s nice to see the morning without fear again,” she said.
Rolling out of bed Apricot strolled to her closet looking through her clothes. She grabbed a red and white striped shirt throwing it onto her bed along with a pair of black jeans with several fashionable tears down the legs. She looked over at her clothes giving a soft smile.
First time eating breakfast at home since she was released from the hospital. Upon walking down the stairs, she noticed the familiar aroma of her mother’s home-cooked salmon and green onion miso. Shyly, she stepped into the kitchen. “Good morning,” Apricot said incapable of looking at her family.
Her mother entered the living room with a plate of cooked rice. “Apricot can you get the soup kettle?” Her father was already seated at the table next to Jasper. Apricot lowered her eyes to the floor with a smile as she placed a kettle on the table. Sitting next to her mother, Apricot bowed her head.
As Apricot glanced back at Jasper, a smile was beaming on his face. Jasper was wearing a white collar around his neck. “Are you like a superhero or something?”
“No,” Apricot softly replied.
“Well, you saved our lives. I consider you my hero.” Jasper said with a smile. His eyes welled up with tears. Apricot furrowed her brow in surprise.
In an attempt to control the feelings welling up inside of her, she snapped, “That is not very manly little boy.”
Her response caused Jasper’s jaw to drop. “What! I am a man.” Apricot smiled. It was, indeed, home. “Dad tell her!”
Apricot was filled with joy as she heard the morning banter. Her eyes were ablaze as she marveled at this moment. She felt comforted as she listened to the mundane conversation of her parents. Jasper’s little nerd remarks were amusing. Exactly how it was supposed to be. After all, the nightmare was over.
The vibrations from her leg prompted her to draw out her phone from her side and see the words “Okabe Government” displayed. Closing her eyes, she realized how fast good things ended. The moment of serenity had gone.
White marble floors glistened like silver throughout the Okabe capitol building. Each of them was immaculately polished. As she walked the hall alone, she admired the pictures and artwork that lined the walls. However, they left her feeling uncomfortable. She tried to forget the faces of those whose lives she had ended. Additionally, the odor of the building was uncomfortable. It was hard for her to identify it, but it reminded her of something like pepper. Her throat closed as she approached the high council’s conference room, just as it had done before.
Weirdly, they allowed her to turn up voluntarily. Even if she wanted to escape, she couldn’t. Upon entering the courtroom, she was plunged into black and white. There was a silver gray and black palette everywhere. The large light fixtures above rendered the room pure white, their light nearly blinding Apricot. A circle of long, metallic desks surrounded the room’s floor. They sat a few young children at each of them. The middle child is probably around the age of thirteen.
“Apricot Signa, thank you for your cooperation,” he said firmly.
Apricot inspected each member of the council and found no one older than the boy in the middle. Would children be making decisions about her life? Could this be possible? “Your welcome, pardon, but I do not know how to address you,” she said, unsure of what she was in for.
“Forgive me, I am not familiar with these formalities myself. My name is Yushio Okabe. I am the inaugurate emperor.” He sighed. “These circumstances are, unusual. I ask that you bear with me.”
Apricot bowed knowingly. “Of course.” she said. Inaugurate, that’s right. Kyo was gone. It was impossible to establish a formal emperor at this point in time. Therefore, this young boy was forced into the position. This made sense, but no sense was made by the other children.
“The events that have unfolded in the last few months have been a long series of unfortunate events. The results of which have ravaged the lives of everyone living in Okabe. You are one of the few people living to have first-hand knowledge of these events.” Apricot felt her hands tingle a bit. “There are holes in our investigation. You see, the last administration did not leave us clear records. We do have a thorough understanding of your role in this. Empress Kyo had a clear interest in you, and Shiori of the Kinjo clan as well. Do you have any knowledge of this?”
“I do.” Apricot said, acknowledging the need to be honest.
His head nodded in agreement. “Good, well, I understand they arrested you for an act of terrorism against the Okabe government. Shiori Kinjo, along with a small group of people attempted to usurp the rightful rule of the Okabe family. Were you in fact a willing participant in that act?”
She bowed sheepishly without saying a word.
“Interesting. What you may not be aware of, perhaps you are, Empress Kyo murdered my grand uncle. Mitsura Okabe. She was in fact a rebel herself. Her actions were vile. Look around Apricot. All of us were touched intimately by these events. This is what remains of the Okabe empire. We are children, not rulers. Everyone else however is dead. It is left for us to uphold the family name and carry on a lasting tradition.” His face remained stone cold. “We understand our history. You have spent years investigating those subjects. A skill I am quiet aware that you hold a degree in. You must have known at that time of the corruption that found a home in our household.” Apricot hesitates. “Our council has spent several hours deliberating on what exactly to do with you. You are a liability.” he said to Apricot.
As her chest tightened, she felt a sharp pain. She felt as if someone was squeezing every vein in her body at once. “I will make a deal with you. I will offer you a complete and total pardon for all the crimes you have committed. In return, you will never talk about the reality of the incident to anyone ever again. Do I have your agreement?”
“That sounds fair, I agree.” Apricot said feeling like she dodged a bullet.
He nodded. “I foresee no further action from the Okabe government regarding you. For your comfort, I will inform you that we are dismantling everything Kyo and Mitsura had assembled. While there was disagreement among the council regarding my planned actions, we agree that what they tried to achieve was pure madness. There will be no more insane projects going forward while under my rule. However, on another note. We have yet to locate Shiori Kinjo, who is of particular interest to us. You would not know of his whereabouts?”
“I do not.” Apricot solemnly said. While seated next to the young boy, he glanced over at the girl next to him.
“She is telling the truth.” Looking into a screen, the girl remarked.
“All right,” he groaned wearyly. “Our conclusions must be true. Shiori has escaped in secret back to the Kinjo clan. Apricot, I have restored your citizenship to Okabe. Your social credit has been restored to its former value as well. Your jade marks have also been returned to you in full. Your license as a journalist has been permanently revoked. You are prohibited from participating in any form of journalism. I hope you understand seeing as how things are. I would consider you a hero if not for the circumstances that led up to these events.” Apricot swallowed hard and felt a lump in her throat. While holding back tears, she knew that her future had just been ripped away. However, she realized journalism was something she couldn’t return to after what she had experienced. “However, as a consolation, I have arranged for you to receive your full pension as though you had fulfilled your duty as a state journalist. I suggest you pursue a life abroad or whatever life you would have wanted instead of journalism. You may leave.”
Apricot sat surrounded by her friends with a half-savored burger in her hands. A burrito was wrapped around Machi’s mouth as she struggled to bite into the steak inside. “So, as I said, I got this new issue of Eerie Truths! No more Claw Fingers sightings, but check this one!” Bonni tossed the mag onto the picnic table. “The valkyrie of Okabe!”, the headline read. Although there are a number of images of a girl, their static made it virtually impossible to see any details. “It’s like we got a superhero!” Bonni exclaimed.
As Apricot smiled to herself, she remained silent. “Thank goodness for Akagi.”
Snapping her head back, Machi swallows the wad down as she chews her food. “Bonni, you can’t even see anything in the pictures! It could be just some random person.” She barked.
“Pshh! Like whatever Machi!” Bonni retorted. “A monster could slap you in the face and you would deny it even existed. What about the monsters who attacked the city a few weeks ago?”
“Everyone knows it was a chemical hallucination. People just erupted into a frenzy.“ Machi responded to Bonni. Solenne gave Apricot a knowing smile. The blush that Apricot wore on her face diminished as she realized Solenne could not be lied to anymore. That, for some reason, made her feel comforted.
“Girls, girls, does it really matter?” Sato said, attempting to diffuse the situation.
“Shut up, Sato!” the two yelled at him together.
“Well, that is something they agree on.” Apricot laughed.
Sato rubbed his head, smirking. “So what do you say we go to a late-night movie?”
From the other side of the street, Hunter gave a slight nod to her and then climbed into the shadows of an ally. A smile appeared on Apricot’s face. “Sorry Sato, but I got a night shift again; clean up duty. You know how it is.”
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By pressing the microswitch, Solenne released the electronic cuffs. As a mechanical hiss filled the air, Apricot was released from the pole onto the plated floor. After tossing the cuffs aside, Solenne moved over to Hunter. “It’s all right, baby,” Solenne said. “We’ll get you down.”
As Apricot glanced at Shiori wriggling his arms, he flashed her coy eyes. “Care to help me down?” he asked jokingly. Apricot reached behind Shiori and grabbed her steel cuffs. After examining the metal device, she noticed the switch on his wrist. With the assistance of the switch, she released Shiori from the cuffs. Having gotten off that pole, he deflected his gaze to Solenne. “Boy, am I glad to see you again.”
In the meantime, Solenne had helped Hunter free himself of his restraints. “How did you know where to look?” Apricot asked Solenne.
Although Solenne’s eyes were full of tears, her expression was flat as she weaved together her words. Apricot noticed that her hands were shaking. “I did not feel right. The way they treated you. I followed the car to a really sketchy run-down building.” Hunter glanced over at Shiori and nodded. Apricot watched as the pair walked toward the entrance together. Then I followed the truck to the subway station, where they blindfolded your group and brought you underground. Even as I kept my distance from the guards, I sensed that something was wrong. Then that guy over there…” Solenne pointed to Urias’s dead body on the ground with his mask lying close by. “He made people explode by looking at them.” The blonde shivered. “I have never seen anything like that. I kept following him down after. He was mumbling about black gods and all this weird talk.” Solenne shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t know, Apricot, what is going on?”
She embraced Solenne with both of her arms. “You did a good thing. We can’t talk about it right now Solenne. There are still things we have to do. So, can you help us get back to the surface? We need to get to the shrine to end all this.”
When she reached the entrance, Shiori stepped back. He looked at the machine and said, “You two can continue without me.” It made that horrible droning noise regardless. “Someone still has to stop the machine. Might as well be me. I can’t do anything about the seal or the reaper anyway.”
As Apricot nodded confidently, Shiori nodded back as well. As Hunter started down the dark corridor, he called back to the, “We have to hurry. That machine is active and who knows what the surface looks like now.”
“What do you mean?” Apricot asked curiously.
“He means the ability for phantoms to cross over effortlessly.” Shiori turned his attention to the gate. Since the machine has been running for so long, the city has probably been teeming with manifestations. There are probably enough of them to cause real damage to the city.”
“Phantoms?” Solenne asked as her voice shook. “What are those?”
Apricot said, “Monsters.”
“A little further up there.” Solenne said, as the group ran up the ramp. The group had entered a tunnel in a subway system. “They hid it pretty well.” She said, leading the pair in the right direction. Upon approaching the tunnel’s edge, the lights began to flicker and flash as though the power was about to cut out. Despite her nervousness, Apricot glanced back at Hunter. He narrowed his eyes in the direction of the corridor. Apricot then noticed Solenne froze on the threshold motionless like a statue as she glanced at the metro platform.
Apricot paused in front of Solenne, stunned to see a sight that sent shivers down her spine. An enormous snake-like monster stood on all fours. Overlapping scales decorated its body. Its brassy eyes adorned the sides of its head, opened wide and displaying their vibrant colors. With jerky movements, the thing cocked its head back and forth on the platform, snapping its tail that reached to the other side. As Solenne tried to grab Hunter’s hand, Hunter released it. Then he whispered, “You should stay back.”
As the creature let out a bone-rattling howl, everyone in the group was trembling. Solenne screamed as she backed slowly away from the pair. Apricot saw her trip and she nearly fell over. “Is that what I was like?” Apricot thought to herself. While the purple flame glowed around her fingers, she focused all her attention on the monster. After seeing Apricot’s sudden fire, Solenne panicked, falling backwards. In the process of running alongside the wall, Hunter jumped onto the platform and dived to the bench. When Hunter approached the creature, it turned its head toward him. “Raaa!” He yelled, watching as the creature responded with a loud roar of its own. The razor jaws had been expanded into a bundle of long tongues, engulfing Hunter. He jumped out of the bench when the phantom’s tongues collided with the seat and snapped it in half. Apricot’s heart pounded.
Hunter shouted to her, “Apricot! I just got to touch it.”
Apricot stared straight at Hunter before running beside the rail. “Hey!” she shouted. The creature’s head turned toward Apricot, snapping the massive tail along the concrete wall that it sliced into. Another scream was emitted as the being slammed its claws down in front of Apricot and blocked her path. Apricot, uttering a shrill shriek as she turned back, did not expect the swiftness of the attack. The creature’s mighty jaws snapped shut behind her during its close shot, generating hot air from its open maw. She caught the smell of its breath as it crept closer to her nostrils.
“BANG! BANG! BANG!” Solenne’s gun roared. She was standing on the other side of the metro, her hand extended, pointing her pistol at him. Her huffing was accompanied by a little bit of grimacing as she watched it stare at her. When it viewed her, its pupils shrank to a dot. Taking an unexpected dive into a wall, Apricot squeaked past the immense scales threatening to crush her. It was then that the beast came rushing toward Solenne.
While the tail whipped toward Hunter, Hunter was socked in the chest, and he collapsed to the ground. After the creature rose its head over Solenne, its tail swept back around. She crumpled up against the wall, her legs becoming weak. Despite her efforts, the snarling beast’s teeth dripped open above her, promising death. The beast’s mouth opened in a snap. In response, Solenne bounded forward as the creature’s jaw crashed into the wall. Behind her, three orange eyes stared back at her, with blacks filling the pupil completely. Solenne kicked her legs against the giant eyes to gain distance from the creature.
“Not today!” Hunter shouted as he stabbed both of his hands into the creature’s side. Hunter’s arms were ablaze as the creature looked up at him. Suddenly, the creature leapt into the air, sending orbs of blue light dissipating about the room. While she huddled up, Solenne kicked her legs in the open air. She screamed as she leapt to her feet. Involuntary shivers shook her body as her hands wriggled wildly. “You asked what a phantom was. That was one.” Hunter chuckled.
When Solenne turned her head she saw Apricot climbing up onto the platform. After walking over to Solenne, Apricot put her arm around her back. “It’s okay. The two of us will get you out of here.” Apricot turned to Hunter with a smirk on her face. “That is a nifty trick you got there. How did you do that without silver?”
As Hunter lifted the sleeves of his coat, he displayed tattoos on his arms. “These are all sigils required for exhortation,” he said. A phantom’s energy can be broken, and they can lose their physical form briefly for a period of time. Before that thing can reassemble, we should move.”
After ascending the subway metro stairs, the group witnessed a red glowing sky for miles in all directions. Lights throughout the city flashed furiously as if a widespread epidemic had swept through. There was a flurry of gunshots all around and screams of people and beasts alike. Blue Ash had turned into a battleground. Smoke and iron dominated the atmosphere. Sirens shrieked for death.
“What is happening!” Solenne asked, looking at the deluge of debris that has piled up in the city.
Taking a deep breath, Apricot released it slowly. “Solenne what part of town are we in?”
Her brows furrowed as she contemplated. “I am not sure, maybe the southside.”
“We need to get to the outer eastern side of town,” Hunter told her. “We have work to finish.”
“What do you mean!??? Solenne pleaded, her voice tainted with fear.
“Solenne, they won’t die from your bullets. To kill them, you must use silver.” Apricot advised. Then, she took her shoe off by removing the sole. “Here.” She made her way back up holding a flat silver knife in her hand. “Go protect yourself with this and inform the others. Anything silver will work. Merely touching them with silver will seriously harm them.”
Her fingers grasped the knife in her hand. “What about you? How will you protect yourself?”
As Apricot smirked, he turned back to Solenne. “I got my own ways of dealing with them.”
“Well, I am coming with you.” replied Solenne.
Hunter and Apricot gazed at each other. “All right, let’s go!” The group headed down the street in an easterly direction. During the battle, Apricot kept seeing specks of glitter in the sky as airships dropped soldiers to fight in overrun places. There were many monsters rummaging through buildings as they ran. Some parts of the city, such as the highways, are bounded by soldiers’ blockades. “I am still wanted. By now, Hunter is probably too.” Apricot remembered that knowledge weighed heavily on her heart.
Solenne couldn’t come, Apricot thought. Both Hunter and her knew it. However, she was definitely not going to let the pair of them go their separate ways. In fact, Solenne had always been loyal even to a fault. Looking at one of the large blockade ahead, Apricot halts. “Solenne, I need your help.”
The skies were covered with strange flying monsters drifting above as if they had an aura of supernatural power. Many of their appendages dangled from their sides, giving their bodies a long, sharp appearance. At the back, a large tail flailed in the air. Compared to their heads, they looked like large cicadas with a hundred eyes each. Fighter jets launched rockets from the wings of their aircraft, lighting up the skies. Screaming loudly, they collided in huge explosions of fire, leaving clouds of smoke in their wake.
The flying creatures waved their arms knocking planes out of the sky and falling in a death spiral, leaving a heavy trail of black burning smoke following their descent. From the mouth of one flying creature came a burst of light which scorched the earth below. A barrage of laser light from the ground struck one of the flying creatures, resulting in bloodshed. As it fell from the sky, its corpse smashed through the towers below, wrecking the buildings.
Numerous mechanical Valkners emerged from the ash and fought the terrors. Meanwhile, blue orbs manifest as creatures as they rise out of the ground. Forms wildly diverse and awful to behold, creatures twisted from nightmares, beasts, and monstrous figures.
People inside a storefront with furniture stacked up against the doors and windows huddle together to watch as the monsters pass by. As two men skulked behind a dumpster in an alley, they slowed together in case two insect-like centipede creatures spotted them. While passing inches from each other, their many segments scratched against the pavement.
A group of armored SDP soldiers was firing their rifles at a monster that stood about twice the height of a normal person. Its head resembled a bulbous thing without a face. Two long tentacles with claw-like hooks at their ends dangled from its side-like arms. Its limbs were thick and slow as the horror lumbered toward the officers; civilians ran by as the soldiers held the line. A quick burst of fire proved ineffective as the slow-moving creature approaching remained unphased by their bullets. The soldiers back away as the monster advanced, still firing at it hoping that a shot will stop it.
The two insect-like creatures appeared from the alley. As they approached, they dived onto the nearest soldier. Screaming, he let out a scream after its jaws ripped through his armor and into his chest. However, the other two soldiers continued firing on the unknowing nightmare. After hearing the blood squeal, one of the soldiers turned his head. Seeing the Centipede-like creatures devouring the officer’s body, he froze in his tracks. “Holy shit!” he screamed in a panic. While his breathing became more rapid, his air hose hissed in response.
His partner, who was facing the wrong way, also stopped firing looking over to the other soldier. “What the hell are you doing!” He yelled, unloading his clip at it. “Raaaa!” he cried. Regardless of how many bullets penetrate its body, the creature does not seem phased in the least. “Damn it!”, he shrieked, as the big hulking monster slashed him with his tentacles. A claw pierced his face mask, piercing through the solid visor. Taking the man’s head and some of his spinal column from his body, the claw lifted up away from the monster.
In front of the last soldier, the monster opened a hole in its chest, sitting on its head. Looking down at the soldier’s armor that was still upright without a head, he was fascinated. The other soldier’s half-eaten body was visible as he turned his back against the side of the building. Pointing his gun at the insects, he began shooting them. In the glare of the bullet sparked off of their bodies, their carapace gleamed. ”Come on, kill me!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet. “Want some? Eat this!” The man roared, pulling an iron rod out of his chest. In the cafe, the explosion shattered the glass, forcing everyone to scream. Eventually, the soldiers and monsters outside disappeared, along with the dust. It’s all left is a smoldering pile of charred ash.
A ring of troops was built around the entire unaffected city to contain the advancing troops. The first layer of the barricade consisted of Valkner mechanical soldiers. Their size towers over the next line of ground troops huddled together.
“Solenne, we stick to our plan,” Apricot grunted her agreement before walking towards the row of soldiers.
Her gaze fell on Hunter whose face was filled with unease. “We can’t do this,” Hunter said.
Nodding her head, she looked back at Solenne, who was about half a block away. “I know, I just told her that so she would not come with us.”
One soldier stopped Solenne when she approached the barricade. “Officer Solenne! What in the world are you doing out here?” The soldier yelled in disbelief.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot explain right now. I must let them through.” Solenne turned to Apricot, but she has vanished.
The man let out a small chuckle. “Everyone is allowed through. Solenne, are you ok?” Her face sunk as she furrowed her brow. “Come on, it’s better on the other side. We will hold the line, you get yourself somewhere safe.”
In sight of a translucent figure crawling out of the wall, Solenne turned to face the barricade’s rear. She points screaming “Look out!” The enormous Valkner couldn’t react before the beast turned into a giant, wolf-like beast with ram-like horns. Using its razor-like jaws, it ripped open the cockpit of the Valkner. On the other side was a giant tangle of thorny tendrils, with scythe-like arms and a large bird-like head. The tendrils ripped through the machine, cutting it open in half. Electrical components on the machine began ablaze. More creatures emerged from the walls and the other three Valkners turned to fire. Several rounds of large ammunition made holes in the creatures, forcing them to retreat.
Those on foot crossed the barriers to the other side. A panic gripped Solenne because of the chaos surrounding her. While talking to her, one of the soldiers grabbed her arm and dragged her away from the mayhem. “This is a nightmare…” Solenne muttered quietly to herself.
In response, the soldiers opened fire, their bullets striking the strange monsters as some rounds struck and caused minor injuries to the creatures while others did little or nothing. “Damn you!” raged the Valkner leader. He blew the beast to pieces, roaring, “We hold the line!”.
To her surprise, Solenne saw the scythe slashing toward her. But she was able to sidestep it as it managed to narrowly miss her chest. The creature’s mandibles were headed straight for her as she watched. Using the knife Apricot gave her, she stabbed its large bulb of an eye directly. As it let out a gasp, the creature spun around sparking. The guns of the officers rattled off several shots into the monster, blowing holes into it until it fell to the ground. Its body illuminated a brilliant blue light leaking into the earth below.
“Are you okay?” an officer asked Solenne. Almost without thinking, Solenne nodded. When her eyes turned to the Valkners, she saw them fighting off a group of creatures that had just attacked. After drawing her weapon, she removed her old clip and replaced it with a new one. After joining in with the other ground officers, she opened fire. One Valkner was knocked to the ground by an entity that caught hold of him. Once Valkner had fallen to the ground, the entity bit into his cockpit and tore him apart. They watched as it twisted its head from front to back, chewing into their flesh. “Fall back! Move back! Back, back, back.” yelled the group’s leader.
Upon receiving orders to run, Solenne turned away from the monsters ripping the officer next to her to shreds. Mist poured from his body as the blood splattered. She felt her heart pumping hard in this situation but she had been trained for these kinds of situations. Those training sessions prepared her for situations such as this. She, she, she never knew there were moments like this. Compared to this, Solenne thought to herself, nightmares, horrors, and wars were all mere mercy. As she ran with the others, she left the gunfire behind her and the screaming behind her. “Is this the end of the world? Apricot, why did you leave me?” She thought to herself.
The puddles of sweat ran down Apricot’s brow as she ran along the torn streets. Apricot traveled as fast as she could. Because of the lack of rails, she had to walk to the shrine. She lamented this sorely. At every major intersection in the city, barricades stood in the way and the creatures were attacking most of them.
“We are going to have to run through a barricade,” Hunter told Apricot, much to apprehension.
It didn’t help that Apricot shrugged her shoulders. “No, we keep running until we find a clear area to cross.” Not willing to recognize the truth.
As Apricot tried to escape, Hunter grabbed her arm. “It will not happen. We need to run through, it’s the only way to get to the shrine.”
It was necessary to find an alternative. Risking capture was not an option. Yet she also had to admit that the longer it took, the less likely it was they could reverse the disastrous situation. Over the chaotic ambiance, Apricot cleared her throat. “What if they stop us?”
“They will be more worried about the monsters tearing them apart. That is what I am going to speculate.” Hunter said. “Look you can keep running but I am going to cross here, now. We have wasted too much time trying to find an opening.” Apricot looked over to see the group firing in the direction of the southern street. He pointed east. Perhaps there was hope. “They won’t be looking if we cross from behind.”
“I don’t know Hunter.” she replied, already considering it.
Slipping from Apricot’s grasp, Hunter ran for the barracade. A sharp pain began to develop in her ankles as she picked up her pace after him. As they approached the line, the sound of their gunfire cut into Apricot’s ears. Each bullet release pounded a sound so loud that it echoed all over the building. Although both of her hands were raised to her ears, she noticed the booms seeping through. As she raced throughout the squad, she attempted not to get noticed.
“Die you Bastards!” yelled a man while holding the trigger. This reverberated through her. Apricate glanced over to the line of bodies these creatures had killed. Still, they fought even though some of them were damaged and bloodied. It was clear that large patches of Volkner’s armor had been scraped off. It was as Hunter had predicted that they paid little attention to them. While they focused only on the phantoms, the two were able to proceed smoothly.
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Throughout Apricot’s core, the muted touch of slumber permeated. The warmth of her stomach washed over her as she lingered in the darkness of her sleep. Her eyes were shut tightly, and her body rested. Nothingness, broken, by a sharp burning pain in the back. She opened both eyes and mouth in exhalation. Panic pushed her up with its anxious arms. Stumbling from the icy smooth concrete dust-slathered ground, the sharp pain in her side made her fall to her knees.
“You‘re alive,” Cortez coughed. She turns to her left and sees him propped up against a wall, holding on to his side. In a V-shape, his legs were spread. “You got to get that kid. “That cloaked freak is evil.” He covered his stomach with a scarlet river flowing between his legs. “Run before it’s too late.”
Despite seeing spots, Apricot sprung to her feet and made her way down the hallway. After gaining her second wind, her stride changed into a limping trot. It was as if her muscles protested against the pain running through her body. Singing similar to opera filled the corridor leading to the underground city. Apricot had never heard such a language before; it is off-putting to her. As she neared the city, the voice became clearer; it was that of the old man.
On entering the shrine, Apricot saw the old man standing at the altar and a short, black-haired boy lying on top of a concrete slab. “What are you doing!?” Apricot shouted.
“I must thank you. I couldn’t have caught this one on my own.” the old man’s gratitude tasted like poison. “The boy opposes our Lord, the black god. I am glad that you are able to witness this event.”
Her back was still burning from the attack he had inflicted on her earlier. While he grinned at her, she clutched her fist tightly. “Who are you?” she asked as the elder rubbed the edge of his dagger with a childlike curiosity.
“If you must know my name is Urias.” Apricot recoiled from the name and scrunched her face. “You know my name. Brilliant.” Urias laughed with a drawl that sounded like bile. “With the death of this boy, the black god will accept me as his host. Watch me become a god!” he roared, raising his knife to the sky. Apricot’s heart skipped a beat as she lunged across the sanctuary hall and the man plunged the dagger directly toward the boy’s chest. A purple blade of flame emerged from Apricot’s arm, slicing its way through his forearm. When the arm fell to the ground, the fingers spread out to release the dagger. Screaming loudly, the old man steps backwards while holding his bleeding wound.
Taking hold of the boy in both arms, Apricot lifted him off the alter, paying him no mind. While he is heavy, she nevertheless carries him through the ruined cathedral. “It’s gonna be alright, kid,” Apricot murmured, unsure if the boy even heard her. The dragging of Urias’s limp could be heard behind her. He called to her as he said, “Wait, you don’t know what you’re doing! You’ve got to kill the boy.” She ignored the crazed man and kept walking. Taking it for granted, she assumed the crazed occultist was close at hand. The boy was ferried out of the city and to the corridors above so Apricot could return to the others.
The sound of Cortez growling could be heard as she approached. “You owe me more than those damn rubies.”
After hearing Shiori’s laughter, she sighed with relief. “Maybe I should just let you bleed out in that case.”
“Real funny,” Cortez said as he turned to see Apricot. “Hey,” He said then he gently slapped Shiori across the chest.
Shiori turned to Apricot as she set the boy down, smiling at her. “Is he dead?”
She shook her head. “We will take him back.”
“Why not just kill him now?” Shiori asked.
“I agree with Apricot, let’s hear him out first.” Cortez shrugged, still holding his gut. “That man stabbed me. Ranted about how the black god would be so pleased with his catch. That with the death of the boy no one would have the knowledge to stop his greater work.”
“He told me something along those lines as well. That man down there Shiori is Urais Heldric.” Shiori raises an eyebrow. “I think we might have got things wrong.”
“So where is old Urias, anyway?” Shiori asked.
“Bleeding somewhere down there. I cut his arm off with my spirit weapon. Which troubles me a bit. I have never been able to do that before with a human being.” Apricot mused.
She stroked Shiori’s chin as if deep in thought. “It does not much matter. Do you think he is in a condition to follow?”
“If he tries to get up here without treatment, I am pretty sure he will bleed out. I don’t think he will be a problem.” Apricot said coldly. As the boy’s chest rose and fell with heavy strokes, she gazed down at him.
Upon opening his eyes, he immediately tries to sit up. As Shiori lunged at the boy, he slammed his head against the ground while placing his foot on the boy’s neck. “Cool it, kid.”
“I am not a kid!” He screamed while clutching both hands onto Shiori’s leg as he wrestled to remove it. The boy cried out as Shiori pressed harder onto his neck, “Get off me.”
“You’re lucky to be alive. Apricot just saved your ass.” Shiori gestures with his nose to Apricot. “If I had it my way, I would have killed you.”
“I won’t let you summon the black god!” he croaked amidst his struggle. A futile attempt to throw Shiori off of him leads to him trying to kick and buck with his legs.
“Calm down.” Shiori applied more pressure to the kid’s neck, completely suffocating him. His face became red and his eyes watered as his struggles became limp.
“Shiori get off him now! You’re about to kill him.” Apricot shouted, pushing Shiori in the chest. This irritates him, but he does not remove his foot. “He is freaked out. Also, Urias wants him dead too. I want to hear what he has to say.”
As Shiori let go of the boy’s neck, he barked, “I saw what you did. You‘re all murderers. You killed people!” With a look of disgust, Shiori lifted his foot from the boy. He sat up at once and looked around at the group.
Apricot glanced down at the kid. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen. You should have died at the supermarket. I should have known then that you were a servant of the black god.” The boy glances between the group.
Apricot thinks to herself, “The supermarket.” Looking at him, she suddenly recalls the boy she helped when the phantom attacked her three years ago. After so much time, she almost forgot about it. “Hold on, I know you.”
“You’re pretty slow,” he grunted. As Shiori glanced at Cortez, he rolled his eyes.
Despite his rudeness, Apricot ignores it. “What do you mean about being a servant?”
“Don’t play dumb with me! I know you serve the black god! He was with you during the attack.”
Just then, Shiori’s eyes got really wide. Looking directly into the kid’s eyes, he asked, “What’s your name?”
”Hunter.” he said under his breath. “You will regret what you have done. You won’t be forgiven, you are all cursed. You might be able to kill me but he is going to betray you. Then we will see who is laughing.”
Apricot furrowed her brow. “We don’t want to hurt you. Well, at least I don’t want to.”
“Liar!” he screamed.
Shiori yanked Hunter’s hair. “Why are you breaking the seals if you are so worried about the black god”? Suddenly the boy flung his head from Shiori’s grasp and leapt to his feet. When he tried to run, Shiori caught his ankle and pulled him down. As he hit the ground hard, Apricot winced. “Answer me! Why are you trying to break all the seals?!” Shiori pulled Hunter in front of him flipping his body over while viciously grabbing Hunter by the throat and holding him down. “I am done playing! I want answers!”
“It’s what keeps him bound here.” Hunter choked out.
The tightening grip of Shiori around his neck was deafening. “So you are releasing him!” Apricot looked at him in surprise. “What did I tell you!” He is full of that animalist fury she saw once.
“No,” Hunter gasps while struggling against Shiori’s grasp. “It will suck him back into the other world.” Shiori loosened his grip. The Okabe family sealed the black god here many years ago. It feeds off the seals. They are made by sacrificing people and tying them to him. He would not be able to survive without them. The Okabe family is evil. They want to make their own world using him. He, however, is tricking them. They were promised a new world, but really he wants to merge the dead world with the living one. By breaking the barrier between worlds they will sacrifice both worlds. He will become the god of the new world.”
Shiori pondered it. “Why would Urias want you dead?”
“Urias was his pawn. Still is. He went mad. The ritual failed, and the sacrifice was incomplete. The ritual only broke a hole between worlds. But it did not merge them. In spite of this, the inhabitants of that world can now enter ours due to the black god. Having been weak after the ritual, he had to use most of his power to create the hole. After that, he could barely function. As he waited deep beneath the city in the tunnels, he slowly gained strength. He has been feeding on all the pain and tragedy beneath the city for years. He tricked people into believing he was helping them. That energy is held in the seals. Without the seals, he cannot remain here and will fade back into his world. If I break all the seals, he will be defeated.”
Shiori snorted, putting a hand over his eye, letting go of Hunter. He raised his head to look at the ceiling. “So, the reaper is the black god. We have been duped.” Both Cortez and Apricot stare at Shiori with wide eyes. “Think about it. He was fine until these seals broke. Now he is using Cortez’s blood to sustain himself and he has gone dormant. He needs to regain his energy. The kid is our ally.”
“What? What kind of trick is this?” Hunter yelled. “You just tried to kill me!”
Apricot said to Hunter. “We work together. Put an end to this black god. The Okabe family can’t perform their rituals anymore, so they are out of the picture. If we break that last seal, it is all over.”
“The only problem is I don’t know where that last seal is. It will be someplace the black god guards. I was searching the tunnels for the seal. I ran into you though.” Hunter said uncomfortably. “I’m also looking for Urias’s soul device. It’s down here somewhere. If we destroy it, this won’t happen again.” Hunter told the group.
Shiori raised an eyebrow. “The soul device?”
“The machine that caused the Blue Ash Crisis. It’s called the Mantra or soul device. It reaches into other worlds. Thins the barrier between them sort of.” Hunter explained.
“So what we need to do is find the seal and break that machine,” Cortez grumbled. “Do things keep peeling like a damn onion or does this nightmare never end?”
“I think I know where it is.” Apricot chirped, grabbing everyone’s attention. “I mean the seal, it is in the shrine where the reaper sleeps. I think at least. I could be wrong though.” Apricot told them.
“Only one way to know for sure. However, I can‘t investigate it. I will need your help.“ Hunter said.
Shiori turns her head to Hunter with a downturned expression. “Why can’t you investigate it?”
Hunter shook his head and grunted. “You’re not that bright either I see.” Apricot chuckled as she couldn’t recall the last time she heard a stranger talk to Shiori like that.
As for Cortez, he laughed a tiny bit at the same time. “Damn it hurts. Don’t make me laugh.” He moaned.
“If the black god is there, he will kill me.” Hunter grinned. “So you need to be there for me.”
“Of course, I can do it,” Apricot replied immediately.
“Okay, so it always takes the form of a ring. This ring is usually large. Like the summoning circle the Okabe family used for their ritual. Can you recall how that looked? You can take a picture of it and show it to me on your phone. I’ll be able to identify it then. You believe you can do it?” Apricot nods in agreement.
“While you are doing that Apricot, I will get Cortez to a street doc. Hunter, you wait here. Stay away from Urias, please. If you get caught, I swear I will kill you myself.” Shiori threatened. Hunt smiled hesitantly. After that, everyone went their separate ways.
The bricks against Shiori’s back remind him of the cool winters at the shrine where he grew up. His mind drifted to the pure scent of the mountain’s snow. He longed for those mornings again. Passing by the alleyway, he noticed that the street was still quiet, without the usual early morning traffic. Looking back toward Cortez, he heard him rasping his breath as he limped. He said, “Come on. It’s not much further. Try to keep your cough at bay.”
“It better be, I’m feeling a little lightheaded.” Cortez scrambled as he stumbled step by sloppy step leaving a trail of crimson drops behind. As his legs dragged, his stomach tightened, causing Cortez to let out a distressed groan. The deep laceration burned with every painful step.
The sight of Cortez suffering so pathetically made Shiori express a slight leer. Strolling over to Cortez, he lifted him up over his head with his right arm. Assisting or rather pulling Cortez, Shiori quickened the pace. They rush through the crumbling alley, over the cracked and decaying surface. They kept repeating this several times until they stood in front of an old store window full of old appliances from another era.
Shiori pushed the door open first, followed closely by Cortez. “Hey,” Shiori shouted. “I got rice for you.” There was no response in the empty shop.
“Your street doc ain’t here.” He grunts, slumped against the side of a shelf holding himself up as blood drips off his shirt.
As Shiori walked toward the back of the room, he growled, “He isn’t out. Now where the hell is he?” A man in a blue button-up shirt stepped out of the back of the store with a shotgun. “Wo, what is this?”
“Get the hell out,” the man shouted to Shiori.
Shiori shakes his head in frustration. “I have a friend who is bleeding out. I will pay twice the normal rate. Get him patched up for me will you?”
“You are hot,” the man growled. “Get the hell out now, or I’ll send you down a drain.”
A sigh escapes Shiori’s lips. “He is dying. At least treat my friend. I will get gone, ok.”
Cortez smirked slightly at the two fighting. A black spot encroached on his vision and caused it to blur. As he turns to the window, Cortez notices a patrol car slowly coasting down the road. “Hey, we got wet streets outside.”
He stood up and moved to the other side of the shelf. Taking a look at the man, Shiori glanced back over his shoulder. “You enjoy housing fugitives?” Shiori said with a smirk.
“I will turn you in.” the man grumbled.
Shiori grinned confidently while placing his chest against the barrel of the man’s shotgun. “Go for it. After what I have done to the Okabe family, do you think they will let you live?” The man placed the shotgun barrel to his throat. “Let’s gamble.” Shiori snickered. “Care to.”
Sweat dripped from the man’s brow. “That’s what I thought,” Shiori replied, flicking the beads off his head. “Patch up my friend, before I get ugly.”
Dust blows from the polished white stones of the unkempt shrine courtyard. The reaper lies lifeless before the altar where Apricot last saw him. While approaching the object, Apricot thought to herself, “He’s still at rest.” His red and purple colors have almost faded in this state. His beaked mask obscured his face as he hung dangling from his slumped-over form. While exploring the courtyard, Apricot pulled out her phone to snap pictures of the tiles.
Over the ground are several small symbols about the width of a pen. Is this the seal they’re searching for? Did she actually get it right? Grinning, she realizes that she was correct. Static covers the screen of her phone as the surrounding air becomes warmer. The heat grew so quickly that she felt as if she was sweltering out of her clothes. Weakly, the reaper lifted its head. He whispered, “Apricot.”.
Taking a closer look at the object, she turns around. “I see that you’ve woken up,” she said.
“I has’t, little, has’t thee did finish, Okabe?” his voice became more challenging to hear. It was evident his weakness. Apricot nodded slowly. “Is the seal breaker dead?”
Her heart welled up inside her throat as she replied, “No.” She felt a wave of terror wash over her; almost certain that it was the black god. It was clear that he manipulated her for his own ends. In this weakened condition, she still wanted to take his life. As she refused the urge, her anger rose to her fingertips.
Using his metallic claw, he gently touched Apricot’s hand. “Hie swiftly issue. Time runs short.”
Apricot nodded. “I found him.”
“Has’t thee? Wherefore has’t thee not hath killed him?” he growled. “What has’t I command’d of thee! Didst I not instruct thee to end their life! The fate of the ordinary depends on their end.”
Apricot smiled half-heartedly, “I came to report we are tracking him now. He lives below in the tunnels.”
“In the tunnels thee sayeth? Sadly, yond is one lodging I cannot wend. Nevertheless, i am too weak to travel anyways. Beest quick, I am dying and cannot sustain much longer. The ordinary shall falleth into chaos without me holding back the phantoms.”
“Of course. I will return when he is dead.” Apricot told the reaper. The reaper slumped back down lifeless. She looked away from him as she walked away, half expecting him to stab her in the back. At least he can’t read minds, or at least she hopes he can’t.
The street doctor plunges the hot end of a hand-held instrument into Cortez’s skin while he screamed loudly. As his flesh was abruptly burned shut, it sounded like the loud hiss of grilled meat. “Damn you!” He hollered, mouth agape in pain.
“Kid, you’re lucky to be alive with stabs like that. I can’t do much for the torn muscle you just gotta let the machines do their job,” Cortez grunted, pulling the cautery device from his stomach. “Don’t touch it.” The Doc looked up at Shiori. “Put a wet rag on it will ya,” he said as he walked from the metal desk to a nearby refrigerator. “I got derms for you. Expensive but I am sure your friend here can afford it.”
Shiori said sharply while holding a wet towel. “Only the best.” Shiori spread a towel out over the burns. The man jumps up and grabs the towel when he feels the wet towel placed on his stomach. “Contain yourselves!” Shiori commanded, grasping his arms. “You will be fine in a moment. Just bear it.”
“It burns man,” Cortez said, his eyes filled with tears. “It burns like a hot iron.”
“It was a hot iron,” Shiori smirked.
Cortez’s face frowned into a scowl. “The hell man, why don’t you try it?” He said retching his arms away and grasping the iron device.
Taking a step back, Shiori said, “Shit,” as he blew a tiny puff of air.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Cortez growled putting the iron down.
The Doc walked over holding what looks like a large piece of bacon. Almost knocking Cortez off the table, the Doc’s hand slammed into Cortez’s face. The Doc stared at Cortez in shock. “If you touch it again, I’ll shove it down your damn throat.” he roars. “Now lie on the table,” he ordered. “What type of company do you keep “Lord” Kinjo.”
“He is for entertainment value alone,” Shiori said with a smirk.
As the towel is pulled off Cortez’s stomach, the nerve endings on his clean flesh are revealed. Shiori can barely look at the macabre display of porphyria before him. After slapping the flesh on top of Cortez’s stomach, the man skillfully massages it in. Within seconds, the strange material covered Cortez’s stab wounds and molded into his side. The strained expression on Cortez’s face fades away. “Don’t scratch it. Your guts will fall out,” he said. “Also, take a break for a few weeks. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Now get your asses out of my shop.”
As the Doc approached the front door, Cortez got up and walked away from the table. Yet Shiori kept an eye on him. “You will be rewarded greatly for this,” he said. “I guarantee it. After all, this blows over.” The Doc just smiled with a half-grin.
“Don’t sweat it,” he grunted. “I am a good hostage.”
After exiting the room, Shiori entered the main shop. Cortez looked at Shiori with a smirk on his face. Shiori then asked, “What is that smirk for?”
“You saved my life. I thought you cared only about yourself,” Cortez said.
As Shiori looked down his nose, he frowned. “What? Doesn’t a good master not take care of his dog?” He said as he walked by Cortez.
“Is that how it works?” laughed Cortez.
Shiori surveyed the street from her storefront as he watched a rippling wave. A second wave followed. As if a short tide of water floated by the storefront. Before he screamed, his eyes widened. “Get down!”
As Shiori dove on Cortez, he felt Cortez’s head explode as a bullet pierced the space between his eyes. “Cortez!” Shiori shouted in a tearful yelp the warmth of his blood splattering him. As the bullets flew, the room was ripped apart. Cortez’s headless body was spraying blood as he hit the ground hard. “You bastards!” he shrieked. “You Bastards!” Shiori screamed, pulling the segmented staff out of his sleeve.
“No, no, no, no!” Hunter’s worried voice echoed down the hall. Approaching the bend, Apricot rushed down the corridor, her heart sinking. When she came upon Hunter, everything seemed fine at first, except for Hunter’s wandering gaze. When she examined closer, it appeared that his sigils had been destroyed by a series of sharp claw strikes. His eyes grew large as he turned to Apricot. “It’s not safe to be here,” he said in a panic. “The ghosts will come.”
As Apricot shook her head, she sighed. “There is no more running Hunter.” She lowered her gaze. “It’s time we were on the attack. Let’s deal with Claw Fingers.” Apricot looked at him with serious eyes. In the dull light, Hunter’s eyes are teary and glistening.
“Where are we going?” Hunter asked Apricot.
Apricot keeps marching forward, “We are going by train. That shrine I went to check out. It’s the last seal. I am sure of it.” She pulled out her phone and brought up the picture with a few taps on the screen. “The reaper, he is the black god. There is no question anymore. To think he got me into this mess and is orchestrating every detail of my nightmare.” Holding up the screen, Hunter inspects it, his eyes widening in enjoyment. “Don‘t get too excited yet. I don’t think this is going to be all that easy.”
“I know. He will try to kill me. I will need you to distract him while I get ready to perform the breaking.” Hunter explained.
Apricot folded her arms as she walked out of the corridor. “I kind of expected that. Truthfully, I’m not disappointed by that.” Hunter covered his eyes as he reached the surface. “It’s been a while since you have seen sunlight, huh?”
“I suppose you could say that.” Jumping over a barrier, Hunter ran ahead to assist Apricot. He held her hand as she crossed the barrier. Her cheeks began to flush a little bit. Her thoughts turned to how gentlemanly he is. However, he is still too young to develop any kind of interest in her.
Throughout Apricot’s walk, she felt her heart pound. Whenever someone’s gaze met hers, she felt a sense of dread. There is only one hope for her: Akagi is still working hard to keep them from being detected. On that note, she wondered how Cortez and Shiori are doing. For a while, they seemed to disappear from her mind. Despite feeling guilty about that, it was not pertinent now. All they had achieved was laid out before them. Her nightmare would soon be over. Or at least the immediate threat would be over.
Using his hands to pull the hood down over his head, Hunter led the way to the train. “Apricot, what happens afterward?” Hunter asked.
“I was just thinking about that myself,” Apricot said. “I am not sure. I think my life is over but you can still run away from all this.” Hunter’s face fell. “The train platform is not far from here,” Apricot told Hunter trying to get his mind off her rather grim revelation.
There were hardly any passengers on the cart Apricot and Hunter rode this morning. Those at the front are mostly salaried men on their way to work. The ones closest to them had a criminal bent. Apricot leaned back in the spongy seat and felt her ankles burning slowly, a slight stiffness taking control of her. Among the cart’s occupants are three men dressed in commoners’ street clothes. A group of delinquents where chatting with each other. As they kept looking in Apricot’s direction they chittered further. Eventually, they began their trek toward the back of the cart. She tucked her fingers gently into her sleeve, readying a blade. Her fear was a thing of the past; now they are merely an irritation, posing no real danger. As they sat around the pair, Hunter nervously glanced at the group.
“Hey there, cutie. What are you doing with the kid? He’s your bro or something?” one guy asked. He has rotten teeth and a festering odor that reminded her of spoiled meat.
“I am not her brother,” Hunter said defensively. “Now get lost.”
They chuckle at each other. One of them snarkily commented, “Wow, tough guy.” More laughter ensued.
“Think she is a kiddie fiddler?” Apricot flushed and narrowed her eyes. “Wo, I think she is, man.”
As the man with bad breath barked, “Well, kid you gotten lucky with her?”
“Shut up!” Apricot said the guys laughed and slapped the seats without a second thought. She repeated, “Shut your mouth.”
“Wo, girl, calm down. I am sure the boss has work for a kiddie fiddler like you.” said one of the larger men. The man stood to his full height, an impressive six and a half feet at least. Apricot arched her back into the seat, shielding Hunter. “What, I don’t wanna hurt ya. How about both of you come with me?” He asked taking a step forward into her reach. In a flash, he let out a loud yell as Apricot charged him, pressing a throwing knife against his throat.
“Back the hell up or I’ll slit your throat!” She snarled.
One guy yelled, “Holy shit.”. Apricot was filled with a prideful warmth. Strength. Her strength. As four razor-like claws pierce through the man’s head, her thoughts are shattered. In one powerful throw, the man is hurled through the train window. Before her stood the reaper. “Oh my god!“ screamed the man with bad breath, scrambling to get away from him. As the reaper raised his hand from his side, the man was thrown through the wall of the train with an invisible force.
“Apricot thee has’t did betray me.” Shouted the reaper through his mask. As Hunter screamed, the wind from outside the train tossed his clothes around. It seemed as if everything in her world had faded away; she could only see the reaper before her. “Nay matter, thee still has’t did provide me the lamb I seek to slaughter.”
“No!” Apricot shouted at the reaper.
“T’wast not a request but rather a statement. F’r thy valorous worketh I shalt maketh thy death quick.” Apricot sees the reaper point his hand at her. While she is diving onto the ground, she feels a force like the vibration of a powerful amplifier. It smashes a hole in the back of the train destroying the right corner seat. Hunter dives over the seat and launches a stone at the reaper. As Apricot got back to her feet, the stone exploded into powder. Grabbing the knives under her sleeve Apricot charged the smokey air. She immediately met the reaper in the plume slashing at him vigorously. In response to her stabs, he blocked both her blades with a single hand, pushing her away from him.
With his claw, he stroked his chin as he stood tall. “Is this the length of thy talents? Thee foolish wench. Thither is nothing thee can doth to stand ho me. Thee see, I needeth not thee any more.” Despite the backdraft from the gaping holes in the train, she noticed the temperature was rising. While standing in the reaper’s presence, she felt as if her face was searing.
“You were dying! How did this happen?” Apricot asked.
“An act. Twas a rouse to confuse mine own true enemies. As long as I hath appeared weak, thither wast nay way thee couldst has’t known I did feed from the seals he hath broken. Anon I am just short of a divine creature. I shalt rend the gates open and claim mine own kingdom ov’r both worlds.” Declared the reaper. Apricot jumped as she saw Hunter run by behind her. Spreading his arms, the reaper knocked Apricot backward as a flash of light blinds her. Her head turned, and she caught her last glimpse of Hunter before he fell out the back of the train.
“Hunter!” Apricot screamed. She turned back at the reaper who was charging her. The reaper dodged all of her attacks and blocked them effortlessly.
“Yond’s right. Surprise me. Alloweth it fill thee and infect thy core. Cometh findeth me at the shrine. I shalt beest waiting f’r thee. Enjoy the hell thee unleash’d.” The reaper laughed as he backs away down the train from Apricot. She follows him as quickly as possible. He smashes through every door as if it was nothing. She let out a scream of frustration when she couldn’t keep up with his pace as well as the people around her who now realized what had happened. Immediately upon passing each person, a bloody mess splattered out of them as their corporal forms were turned inside out.
From out the train’s windows, Apricot was overlooking the city’s heavy traffic, the train hurries into the air as it reaches the sky rails. She lunged onto a chair to keep herself from tumbling down the hall of carts. Buildings passed alongside the train track. As the train leveled out, Apricot rushed to the front. When she passed by the bloody remains of the destroyed passengers, her eyes focused on the large door to the front of the train that she opened. The room was largely empty, save for a few switch panels controlled by the conductors in the station. In a panic, she checked the panels looking for any hint to how they worked. To her dismay, the sheer amount of knobs, buttons, switches, and screens made no sense at all to her.
Her attention was caught by the gaping hole as she sprinted to the rear of the train. When she looked out, she saw large drops with rushing streets below. She knew that she wouldn’t make it. Even so, she wasn’t sure if she would die of the fall. There was a lot more traffic than usual on the ground.
“Bang!” The metal roof above her echoed. The sound was repeated several times before a voice commanded, “Put your hands behind your head!”
As soon as she realized what was happening, Apricot leapt from the back of the train, free falling. Tumbling through the air, she screamed. In a split second, a moment of peace overtook her as air soared between her fingertips. When she passed by a pole supporting the rail, she noticed an advertisement banner hanging off the side of it. By pulling at the fabric, the banner tore from the pole. Grabbing the banner tightly, she swung forward at incredible speed. Her momentum was broken as she neared the ground, allowing her to let go and roll onto the sidewalk.
Several curious onlookers gawked at Apricot as she rose to her feet. Their faces are twisted with shock. As she fled, she tried to reach anywhere but here. Apricot continued to run for several blocks. The sound of police sirens grew closer and closer. Looking in the direction of the sirens, she saw a squad of SDP vehicles heading straight for her. Her vision was suddenly blinded by a flash of lights. The street lights ahead of her have begun flashing just like Akagi did, and the buildings in the distance have done the same.
However, this time she was quite sure it was not Akagi doing this. A complete meltdown had taken place. “What’s happening?” she questioned. As her body dribbled blood, faded bloody prints were left behind. In an attempt to escape, Apricot rushes into an alleyway. Her eyes scan all around in an effort to make her way out. Seeing a manhole, she grabbed hold of the metal bars and moved them aside before diving into the sewer below. Tunnels are hotter than open-air above, and they are filled with foul smells.
Her eyes are filled with tears as she walks through the dark. There are many fears and she doesn’t know what to do. In fact, she doesn’t even know if Shiori and the others are alive. Not to mention Hunter, who seemed to be her only hope. Was the reaper really victorious? Is running even worth it?
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The old concrete staircase reminded Apricot of a bomb shelter. With every step she took, a camera groaned, following her. As Apricot stepped in front of the large metal door, she waved her hand at the camera. One by one, the mechanical bolts slid aside. While she walked into the dark basement, a metallic bang is heard as the door behind her closes again. “Hey, guys, you here?”
As Shiori’s voice was overhead, he mumbled “Apricot. We are in the lobby down the hall.” As Apricot approached, she heard Shiori speaking from down the hall, “Well, figured that would happen. My credit chip was just deactivated.” She walked in to find the group seated on a gray sectional, several drinks arranged on a coffee table in front of them. Their backpacks are arranged against the wall. She assumed they are new clothes and other supplies. “Hi, Apricot. What took you so long?” Shiori asked.
“I needed to rest after I fought Natsukawa. I got your message, but I couldn’t find the location. It is really well hidden.” Apricot’s voice was tired after the night’s efforts.
As Sumai rested her head in her hands, she looked up at the concrete ceiling. She gave Apricot a firm glare as she sat up. “Is he still alive?” Apricot bobbed her head sadly. “Then what are we waiting for?” she asked suddenly. “We can’t let him get away with what he did to Togashi.”
“We don’t know where he is,” Shiori uttered with a sad tone of voice. “Even still, we’re not in a position to go search for him. As terrorists, we are being vilified by the media and the police. At this point, we can only focus on completing our mission and stopping the seal breaker.”
Apricot’s face was grim as she cleared her throat, her eyes sunken with dark circles. “I may have some information about that. Natsukawa assumed I was working with him and we were meeting up. He said something about knowing he hid out in “the tunnels”. I am assuming it was the tunnels that were shut down. Maybe even the same tunnel system Cortez found Genova in.”
Shiori glances at the ground while shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, if it is the only thing we have to rely on. Akagi, be useful and take a look at those cameras, maybe you can spot something.”
“It could be a trap. I know that area is crawling with troops right now.” Akagi said. “I mean, Natsukawa might realize we are after him. So he pretended to attack Apricot and… I don’t know anymore.” The young teen, rising from the couch, fiddled with his bag before reaching for a silver gray laptop.
“Shoiri, I’ll go.” Sumai said.
“No, you will stay here with Junko and Akagi,” he commanded firmly.
Sumai gave Shiroi a bit of a side-eye before she said, “I am coming if you like it or not.”
“It’s too many people. Apricot and I will go. Apricot because she can actually fight a phantom if anything pops up and I will go because I happen to know about ritual magic. Which he may employ a number of spells.” Shiori reasoned.
Throughout the room, everyone was alarmed when Sumai banged his fist against the table. “Damn it Shiori!“
“Sumai you’re in no state to go out. You are feeding on rage right now. I can see it.” Junko stands behind Sumai and puts her hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. We’re going to rest right now. We will get him and Kyo for what they did later.”
“I hate to tell you this Shiori but those tunnels have no cameras. They are offline, not from a digital lock but rather physically disconnected. They won‘t even ping. There are twenty-six cameras and every single one of them is missing. I don’t like this guys. They posted last month though, so this was a recent thing.” Apricot noticed Akagi’s worried tone.
Apricot sighs, “I don’t like it much either,” a surge of courage welling up inside her. Sumai’s anger must have stirred her as well. The impact of the situation had yet to be felt by her, but she knows it will soon. Nonetheless, she continues, “We have to move forward. If this is what ends all of this, we have to.” She gripped her fist tightly.
“Can you rig something up to stop us from getting caught?” Shiori asked Akagi resting his hand on his back.
“Mmmmm, I can put all the cameras in the city on a relay so they can‘t see you. As far as the police are concerned, I could try to distract them with fake calls. The maintenance crews will be too busy dealing with those to actually bother tracking you down. That virus I rigged up is really causing damage to the network. They are already busy working on that. If you get stopped, it’s game over. I can‘t do much to help you aside from that.” Akagi looked up from the screen furrowing his brow. “Don’t get caught ok.”
“Cheer up kid. Does it look like we’re planning on getting caught?” Shiori laughed, turning away from the group. “Then it is settled. Apricot, are you armed?” Apricot nodded resting her hand on the hilt of her saber tucked into her pant leg. “Good, let’s try and find Cortez.”
“Cortez?” Apricot questioned.
“He is a tunnel rat. I can make it worth his while to come with us.”
“Shiori I don’t think he will…” with a hand raised Shiori silenced Apricot and continued down the hall, the bolts of the door whining open.
Akagi must be keeping a tight hold on all of the city’s surveillance equipment, Apricot thought to herself. A number of police cruisers pass them by as they walk down the sidewalk thoroughfare, the city alive as ever. Despite being a wanted man, Shiori had a tense air about him, even when he was covered up. Seeing him in a hoodie is not typical of his appearance. It did not suit him.
With his gaze darting from side to side, he resorted to using hand gestures instead of verbal commands. Apricot caught on fast. Open palms meant to stop and folded fingers meant it was time to move. All the while, the couple tried their best to mimic normality, but Apricot thought it was only a poor imitation.
Outside of the metroplex station, they stop. At the gate, boarding passes are scanned to allow entry to the train system. Seeing Shiori staring down the gates, Apricot paused and focused on him. As he made his way through the scanners, he took a deep breath. The red light remained as the camera adjusted itself further, inspecting the pair. “This is taking longer than usual,” she said to herself while chewing her lip. Rather than acknowledge her comment, Shiori stared forward stone-faced. As soon as the light turned green, the gates opened to Apricot’s relief.
It seemed as if Apricot had made it aboard the train with little, if any, recognition, aside from a few glances. Shiori whispered to Apricot, “This is your show.” Apricot nodded and guided him down the abandoned cart path. As the metro began its slow speedup, the morning sun barely illuminated the train. Through the last set of doors, Apricot led Shiori to the rear cart. There Cortez was dressed in a black trench coat resting against the wall. His gaze flickered to Apricot then Shiori. “Ah, hell, you two?” Cortez growled. “I told you I was done. What do you want?”
“A minute of your time and possibly a few hours after that,” Shiori said. “Mind if I take a seat?”
“Heh,“ Cortez rolled his eyes, “Ain’t my train.”
In Cortez’s coat, Apricot saw that a knife was already out. “Put it away, we’re only here to talk.” Cortez raised an eyebrow before scratching his head with both hands. As soon as his hands are lowered, the blade had vanished.
“So if you are not here to screw me up, what are you here for?” Cortez grinned.
On the other side, Shiori takes a seat. “We did it. The family will no longer be an issue. We have one last piece to scrub though. That seal breaker. We think we figured out where our friend was hiding.”
“Yeah, that’s great. What’s that got to do with me?” Cortez pointed upwards like the arrogant prick he can be at times.
“We need your help Cortez, he is in the tunnels. You know how to move around the tunnels and navigate them. Could you help us? It’s not necessary for you to do anything but be our guide.” Apricot hopes to win over his sympathies, if he had any. Even though he wouldn’t admit it, she knew he was terrified. His demeanor, however, suggested there was more to it.
“Maybe if you pay me. That service won’t be cheap. I want twice what you are going to pay her.” Cortez said to Shiori.
As Shiori looked over at Apricot, she returned a nod back to him. “Yeah, well, that is not going to be a problem.”
“I know you’re not good for it Shiori. Your credit stick has been shut off. Your jade marks are deactivated too I bet. So how do you plan on paying me?” Cortez gave him a sly smile.
“How the hell did you know that?” Shiori grunted.
“You turn on a TV at all? Your face is plastered all over it. Kind of pisses me off seeing you all over the place.”
“I got my way. Don’t I always pay my debts?” Shiori retorted.
Cortez shook his head. “You pay me now or else I might just turn you two in for a healthy profit. After all, you are both wanted by the police right now. I am sure your warrants are worth far more than whatever you would pay me.” Shiori flings a cloth satchel in Cortez’s direction with an angry stare. When he opened up the bag, Cortez peeked inside. “You got to be shitting me. Are these real?”
“So you coming with us or not?” Shiori rose from his seat. “I am tired of wasting time here.”
“I’ll lead the way,” Cortez replies with a chipper tone. “We ain’t going down there from the abandoned train station. We are doing it from the trash lands. Safe, less likely to run into some soldiers. Maybe we find Genova and we can put him down too.”
A glint from Cortez’s machine gun could be seen in the dim lighting of the tunnel. In an effort to calm his nerves, he nervously fondles the handle as though in some ritual of seduction. Apricot never felt comfortable with Cortez’s new gun. It was almost like a fetish, the way he held it.
Despite being so far ahead of them, Shiori continued to walk leading the group through the shadows. Occasionally bobbing his head and casting a glance in search of sigils, as he called them. Apricot had not yet figured out how to spot the well-hidden signs, even after spending such a long time with the group. Nevertheless, she was well-versed in how to recognize signs of hoodlums posing as cults to gain support in suburban culture.
Holding out his hand, Shiori halted in his tracks. As his gaze moved over the walls, he said, “Wards.”
“I see nothing.” Cortez said, only to have Shiori point his rod at a symbol written in the cracks of the wall. “Well, who could see that?” Apricot could not help but laugh at Cortez’s embarrassing admission. With a sharp glare, Cortez shut Apricot’s mouth.
Apricot bent down to look at the spiraling series of symbols. “So, what is this for anyway?”
“Wards? They ward things away.” Shiori grinned, causing Cortez and Apricot to roll their eyes. “It is a sign to keep spirits from entering places. I think we are on the right path.” Shiori glanced over his shoulder. “I suggest haste, as I am sure he will notice us soon enough.”
“Doubt it.” Cortez grunted raising Shiori’s eyebrow. “We are heading into the underground city. Should not be too far ahead. Ruins of the old city lay buried beneath the new one. The place is huge. Looking for him down there, pshhh, good damn luck.”
Shiori sighed as he walked down the hall, quickening his stride. The others follow behind. After the corridor, there was a ruin of skeletal buildings. A dusty remnant of urban decay stretched on into the darkness. Apricot pointed at a fire light surrounded by dancing shadows and asked, “What’s that?”.
The ring of a bell called from the building. “Think it is that easy?” Shiori whispered.
“Let’s get this over with. The place smells moldy.” Cortez kept walking past the two, swinging his gun over his shoulder. Shiori followed closely behind him. Apricot doesn’t know what to make of this open invitation. On the other hand, it’s cold down here, so the seal breaker may assume they’re alone. Eventually, they came across the fires within the ruins. The building before them was shattered like the rest of them. It was tall and had a large bell hanging above it. “It used to be a cathedral.” Cortez commented. Enting through the missing twin doors exposed a chapel hall decorated with hand-painted tapestries which Apricot gave little regard. Instead, her focus was on the lumbering man in a red cloak who stood before an altar.
Upon turning toward the group, he revealed his face was painted with a clay mask. His pale, withered white skin stands out in stark contrast to the ruddy red mask. Apricot stepped in the way of Shiori as the masked man displayed a ritual knife. Cortez lifted the rear sight of his gun to his eye as he growls, “I’ll blow your head off if you move.”
“There is no need for that. You are apostles of the black god, aren’t you?” the man warmly states. “You must be to make the pilgrimage down here. Look around you. What do you believe led you here?”
“Pardon my friend here,” Shiori said, placing his hand on the barrel of Cortez’s gun, pushing it to the ground. “Apostles of the black god? Who is this black god?god?god? Apricot and Shiori know what that means. It’s likely that Cortez does too. The ancient evil worshiped by the strange cult Cortez’s father described. He spoke of an undercity in his writings. This was all too harrowing for Apricot.
“Shame, and here I thought, well, nonetheless. Seeing the large mural covering the wall behind the priest, Apricot can’t help but feel a knot forming in her stomach. The city is surrounded by fire as a black, horned entity hovers over it. Despite its crude appearance, it suggested a powerful and unearthly evil.
In this old cathedral that has been hollowed out, it appears a man has taken up residence. Much of it is covered with undisturbed dust. A trail of dust marks where the priests touched. These trails have preserved his movements for how long is impossible to say. Candles burned dry over and over and over again, forming elaborate models of their own as their waxy channels dried.
“You never answered my question.” Apricot looked up at Shiori, who approached the priest with measured steps.
Lowering his head, the priest placed a hand on his covered chin. “Well, the black god has been here since ancient times. Though the city has forgotten its history. He remains still.”
“Does this black god have anything to do with the seals around the city?” Shiori asked the priest.
Behind his mask, Apricot imagined a smile crossing his face as he looked directly at Shiori. “Heh, one could say that he indeed does. Your lot is not an ignorant one I see.”
“We are seeking someone who is destroying those seals,” Shiori said drawing a pistol from his undercoat. “You would not be that person would you.”
The man slowly turned away from Shiori letting out a sigh. “I can hardly walk, I could never make it to the surface.” He lifted his pants leg to reveal a rusted and damaged prostetic leg. Wires hang out the side between shattered plates. “I am trapped down here until the ritual is finished that is. I shall sustain until the time comes. I do however know who you are looking for. You were right to seek him down here, alas he is difficult to catch.”
“Is that so? Does that mean you are after him too?” Cortez remarked.
“He runs too quickly for me to follow him. And yes I am, I seek his death as well. If he accomplishes his task, there will be no future here.” The priest’s stride stopped before the alter. “If you seek to find him I suggest you hurry. He is leaving again. I can feel his presence slipping away.”
Apricot looked back at Shiori as he turned towards Cortez. He nodded at her. As the priest raises his palm, he reveals that his hand is cut, and blood is pouring over the altar. “I shall sustain until the time comes,” he whispers as they rush to the underground entrance.
“Do you think that man tricked us?” Apricot asked, feeling a heavy feeling coming over her as she searched the tunnels without success.
Cortez grunted “I am starting to think so. The man was crazy, I bet he was the one.”
Shiori stops in his tracks, swiveling his head around. “You two, stop it. You saw his leg. He could not run on that thing if his life depended on it.”
“What if he damaged it running away?” Apricot threw her arms behind her back. “It doesn’t matter, let’s keep searching.”
Cortez then said, “I am getting tired and it smells like shit down here.”
An explosion of purple light erupts from the shadows and flies into the group. Apricot narrowly avoids being hit. “Die!” yelled a young man. In the darkness, Cortez points his gun at the man running toward him. Despite firing his gun, the teen dived aside, kicking the wall and retching the gun from Cortez’s hands.
Apricot quickly grabbed a knife from her wrist and threw it at the cloaked man. In one fluid motion, the cloaked man blocked the knife with the side of the gun and threw it aside. A slashing attack from Shiori’s rod wherls in front of the attacker’s face. He flew to the ground gracefully and slipped his leg into Shiori’s. Shiori fell onto the cement as the young man grabs the rod to kick him.
As the phantom force impacts Apricot, she feels a burning pain in her back. As a result, she falls to the floor. As she watches a machine step past her, her vision becomes hazy. One more blast knocks the teenager to the ground. While looking at the stranger, Shiori is struck by another blast. Despite Cortez’s best efforts, the man stabs him in the stomach with a dagger. After trying all she can to get up, Apricot falls limp under the cover of darkness.
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Dim moonlight streams through Shiori’s guest room window and illuminates the deep slumbering Apricot. She rolls under the covers, adjusting her aching body as the cool night air fills her lungs. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her heart absinthe as the horror of what unfolded stained her soul. This marks her as a murderer; she helped kill people. No longer a reluctant participant, she knew that what she had to do was right. Still, she could not stop the endless guilt that prompted the fountains she sailed upon as she sailed into a dreamland.
In the back of her mind, haunting questions echoed. Had tonight been a victory? Her doubts were growing. It was hard to believe that this was the end of their struggles. Rather, it felt like their true battle was just beginning. There was still one seal left, and Kyo was still alive. Her dreams would be written by nightmares. Pictures of death befalling everyone she cared about. Her life as a fugitive. Knowing that she would never return home. By now her parents have seen some semblance of what they have done. Eventually, her name will be attached. She would be labeled a terrorist for slaying the Okabe officials. This would be considered an act of insurrection.
As she sat in bed, her restless mind was tossed asunder as the door to her bedroom slowly opened. While half-dazed from sleep, she is abruptly awoken by the touch of cold steel against the bottom lid of her left eye. Her mouth is gently covered with a firm velvet glove. “I will pierce your broca if you scream.” said a playful honeyed male voice. “It allows you to speak, so screaming won’t be a problem if I cut it.” Apricot is held firmly by this stranger’s hand as he bent over the face of an elderly man with deep wrinkles. His hair was graying black or perhaps dark brown. In the dark, Apricot did not know. “My darling someone has told me to bring you alive, that does not mean intact though. You need to be breathing and plump with blood. Now get dressed.”
His hand became more supple as he released his hold. In a moment, he retracted the knife from Apricot’s eye and got up. But she didn’t catch where he put it. Perhaps inside his coat or up his sleeve. It didn’t matter who this man was or what weapon he was carrying, Apricot knew he was very quick with it. Too quick for her to escape. Her covers fell off her as she sat up cautiously to avoid startling the man, revealing that she was already dressed in a pair of spare clothes Shiori gave her. “My, you’ve dressed already. You make it easy.”
Apricot began to speak before the man covered her mouth once more. “Pshh, no talking remember? If I have to cut out your nerves, I will have to kill everyone in here. Such a dreadful amount of work for these old bones. Now my lamb, follow me.” As he exited the room, Apricot felt a pounding fear as though she were being hit with a hammer. She considered how he moved about so confidently. A separation between the two could trigger an attack, she thought, so it is best to prevent him from getting too far ahead of her.
In the next room, Apricot was sure Togashi would be waiting armed with a gun. Earlier, the group had drawn straws to select the guard for the night. Tragically, it was Togashi who drew the short straw. This man would regret his carelessness if she just waited.
No sign of worry could be seen on the man’s face as he advanced into the hall. As Apricot glanced back toward the guest room, he noticed that the window was closed. But how exactly did he get into the room? Upon seeing the man enter the living room, Apricot felt a sinking feeling. The absence of a commotion lent weight to Apricot’s steps. In a strange way, it was as if she suddenly found herself in concrete. Nevertheless, her question was quickly answered by the horrific image sitting up on the living room couch. A pool of blood soaked the floor as Togashi’s intestines lay open before all eyes. A closer look at the vivisection revealed the contents that were once hidden behind the ribcage, still beating gore. His left eye was filled with an eerie stream running down his cheek. She muffled her gasp as she covered her mouth. Her stomach retched as it tried to empty itself. In the face of such horrors, she was quickly dwarfed by the moment. As she turned to face the man, he is grinning widely at her. He said, “Oh, yes, I can handle knives well. Don’t you agree?” Apricot nodded her head to indicate agreement. “He wasn’t so fast with his gun. Caught his wrist before he could draw it. Shame, it might have been fun if he had.”
The remaining eye of Togashi pivots toward Apricot. A squelch of blood erupts from his exposed tubes. “He is not dead!” Apricot screamed inside.
“A fine work, if I do say so myself.” the man pronounced, opening the front door.
As Apricot emerged from its entrance, a white stretch car was awaiting him, ornate with silver trim and metal sculptures decorating each side of the vehicle. “Come now, darling. I don’t have much patience for loitering.” Stepping inside the open door of the car revealed red seats with gold trim and white interior. A few seconds later, they found themselves directly across from each other. The stranger stretched, and his white suit opened up to reveal a sky blue interior.
“Where are you taking me?” Apricot asked.
“To my dear young lady,” he smirked. A concerto orchestra is heard from the speakers as the car moves. The sophistication of the music unnerved Apricot. Before her, sat such a savage man with a pedigree yet the heart of a demon. “You don’t like the music?”, he asked softly. Her gaze was fixed on him. “A brilliant composer, Galeno Maogagoitia. You are young though, would you care for something more modern? Something more to your, liking.” Apricot did not answer. “You are silent dear, and your eyes spell nothing but fear. Is there any reason to be uncomfortable?”
It’s traumatic to be kidnapped, Apricot mused to herself. There were many things she did not want to talk about, but one nagging question still plagued her. “Who are you?”
As he diverted his attention from Apricot for the first time, he smiled a broad toothy grin. “Well, that is a tricky thing. I get called a lot of things. But I owe you a bit of honesty. I am Natsukawa Okabe.”
Her face was etched with strain, proclaiming her terror. “I’ve heard that name before,” she whispered back.
“O’ I am quite sure you have.” He laughed. Sitting back with a smirk on his face, he asked “May I smoke?” From his coat pocket, he pulled out a stylized pipe from his pocket. Apricot shook her head, unsure of what to do. “Smoking a good stack before I start work always calms the nerves. I don’t need to if you are worried about getting cancer in the old age; though I am sure you have little reason to worry about that. All things considered, that is.” The chuckle that followed assured Apricot that her situation must end with death. However, she is more fearful of the moments before that death.
Having lit his pipe, he gently puffs a few times, letting out a plume of smoke. “Why are you doing this? From what I understand, the clan does not particularly value your presence. It seems like you would not work for the clan. That is what this is right? You‘re capturing me for Empress Kyo, right?”
“Frankly, if you know who I am, I can understand your fear. Someone promised me your skin after they were through with you. Now that I have had a look at you, I think I may want the flesh as well.” Apricot felt her throat closing up around her as her eyes grew wide with horror. “Fair child, you sit upon the bodies of several people right now. Commoners and nobles alike. Unlike my family, I do not see us as nobles. When we are dead, we are all the same.”
Inhaling heavily, Apricot tugged at her shirt to relieve tension in her throat. “You appear breathed. Calm down. You are all right for now. I do not intend to hurt you, yet. I am actually enjoying your company. It is rare that I get to talk with my prey so openly.” Apricot moved back against the corner, trying to put as much distance between her and him as possible. “Most of the time they just scream, and shout, scream and shout, scream, and shout. You on the other hand have engaged me. I would expect as much from a curious reporter.”
Although she wanted to resort to screaming and shouting, she had to speak to him more to gain more information from him. “So, you’re abiding by Kyo’s commands?” Apricot asked. “Seems a bit strange for you. Is my skin really that valuable?”
“You made a lot of faulty assumptions about me,” Natsukawa said. “I am only in this for my own interests. I seek a day when I can openly slaughter as many as I please. I need more material for my art. The human body can be crafted into so many things. Transformation. I seek to see real transformation. Kyo understands this. Except she will transform the world. So of course I would assist her. After all, she is my great great great great grand niece.”
“How old are you?” Apricot asked. Natsukawa just snickered. From the window, Apricot can see that soon they will be approaching a populated area of the city which is very much awake at this late hour. “So, you enjoy killing the phantoms as well?”
“Phantoms hmm, if you mean the things that crossover, of course. No one complains when killing a ghost.” Natsukawa’s smirk displayed his toothy fangs. They remind her of a vampire pretty fitting for his character. “Everyone seems to get upset when you carve up a useless dreg of society. I have you know I only kill those who have already forfeited their life. I am an honorable man.”
“Is that why you will kill me?” Apricot asked.
Natsukawa grinned. “You are a family matter.”
“A family matter what is that supposed to be about?” Apricot asked inquisitively.
“Well, you attacked my family. Humiliated Kyo. So she bartered with me to get you. Actually, the family has grown small. She does not have many people of age she can ask to assist. You might not know of this but your little group is not the only one troubling us. We have been at work collecting witches like you and spending them feverously to build Kyo’s little stone. She believes that stone is the key. The idea of it collecting and growing from the blood it drinks. Now that is a fascinating thing. Don’t you think?”
“It’s macabre.” Apricot snapped back.
“You’re getting comfortable,” Natsukawa said snapping a grin back at her. He drew in a deep breath releasing a long sigh. “So tell me, why are you risking yourself? What is it you think you can accomplish? You are a lamb fighting a pack of vicious wolves. That fire that hides in your arms. It makes me curious to find out what else you hide under there.”
“I did not want this. They forced it upon me. These monsters are your doing. This whole situation is because of your family not being satisfied with being royalty. You will ruin the world for what? You are all insane.” Natsukawa’s eyes lit up as he gave her another toothy smile.
“You are right, now, I can‘t contain myself,” he said with all the excitement of a child looking at a new toy. He flicked a knife from his palm. “Let’s have a look inside that arm. “I’m too curious to wait.” He said lunging at Apricot. Then, she kicked him in the face with both of her feet from the corner in which she found herself. By grabbing the latch to the car door, Apricot quickly opened it so that she could roll out of the moving vehicle. When she hit the side of the road her ribs cracked. Onlookers reacted with startled reactions as Apricot rolled several feet on the pavement.
As Apricot leaped off the black pavement, she ran on foot to escape Natsukawa’s coasting car. She suddenly sprinted towards the crowd of people who were going about their normal routines, many of them unwilling to participate. He laughed the whole time. “You can’t run from me,” he said, standing outside the car. The area was populated and that meant safety. He can’t make his move now, or at least Apricot would bet her life on it. At least she was certain: He wanted her alive. Possibly, it was not even a want, but rather a necessity that he keep her alive. As she watched the white car drive away, she could feel a growing relief. Until she realized he was going in the same direction they came from.
Panic sat on top of her again. Patting her sides down, a lump in her pocket was the grace that she sought. Apricot grabbed the slab from her pocket and called Shiori. Several rings followed before Shiori answered with a sleepy voice. “Why don’t you knock? I am down the damn hall.”
“Shiori, you need to listen to me. Get everyone out of bed and into the living room. Togashi is dead.” Apricot murmured, hoping he won’t be an ass like usual. “Natsukawa kidnapped me and he’s going after you.” The line goes silent abruptly. “Shiori?” Apricot whispered, her heart pounding.
“He is after you and your family. Run.” Shiori coldly said.
The technicolor midnight streets are alive with an intrusive clamor as Apricot ran through them at a sprint, disdaining any consideration for respect. Apricot vowed to herself, “That bastard will not hurt my family.” As she breathed, her heartbeat accelerated. Kiting through alleyways, Apricot was moving as fast as her legs would allow her. “I might be able to get home before him if I take the railway.” Apricot jumped over a pile of litter on the side road hoping to be lucky and have the train leave when she arrived.
She reassured herself, “Just one more block.” Out of the shadows, she encountered a figure that halted her in her tracks. Her eyes catch a glimpse of a knife as the figure takes a lunge at her. She shudders and a loud scream erupted from her. The hand around her neck tightened with tremendous pressure, forcing her down on her knees.
“You little bitch.” Natsukawa grumbled. “I knew you were going to Hunter’s tunnels. He gestured with his knife. “You provided me with all the evidence I needed.” Apricot notices that an empty glass bottle lies on the ground beside her. “What made you think I’d forget to lock the door? You rats are so easy to catch.” His toothy grin contorted into a demon’s face as he snickered. After rapping her fingers around the neck of the bottle, Apricot swung as hard as she can, hitting Natsukawa in the face and shattering the glass. He let her go for the moment that she needed to get back on her feet.
Among the many pieces of glass stuck into his torn cheek, he lifted one large shard with his free hand. Slowly peeling back the shard from his skin, he inspected the blood-drenched shard before flicking it aside. “Ooh, you’re fun. I like this.” He chirped before taking another pass at her. This time she sidesteps him, cutting him against the neck with the bottle. “Gaaa,” he shrieks falling on his face. Apricot wasted no time, diving onto his back, hammering the glass bottle as hard as she can. Her brutal stabs pierced holes in his coat, revealing white that is being eaten away by blood.
With a twist of his body, he flung Apricot off his back onto the ground. Suddenly he was on top of her before she could even look up. Face to face with the bloodied visage of the beast, she could feel his warm, scarlet tears dripping onto her skin as she tried to free herself from his grasp. Unable to free her braced arms, she arched her back and bit into his already sliced throat. Apricot caught a full mouthful of flesh when he pulled away from the burst of wetness. Upon spitting the unsettling bite on the ground, Apricot rose to her feet. Natsukawa glared back at her as he walked away limping. You win tonight, but I enjoy the hunt.” Natsukawa wheezed before taking off at full speed. Huffing for air, she wanted to chase him, but she knew if she chased the bloodied-up Okabe, she would be arrested.
After feeling the pain of the glass shard she gripped so tightly, she realized how intense it was. As she huddled in the alleyway, she dropped the bloodied bottle from her hand.
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It was a quiet room. In the middle of a cluttered apartment, Shiori lay on an office desk. Apricot held onto his curled hand, looking at him with grief. Although he still wore a tough expression, his subtle winces revealed his true feelings. His clothes had been peeled away from his side, exposing ribs that breach through a sea of black and blue. Fresh snowy towels rested under his back as a steady stream of blood pooled there. Several boxes are scattered around the office. They bear labels and logos Apricot could not read. On another desk, a set of monitors showed live data from the stock market and news in green and red numbers. On the other side of the room are a refrigerator and a small kitchen. Blinds were drawn, allowing only a slight amount of light into the room. As a makeshift operation room fixture, two incandescent lights adorn the ceiling above Shiori. A man in a brown shirt and black pants walked out of the kitchen, pinging a needle.
“Looks like we match now.” Apricot joked.
As Shiori turned his head he grumbled, “Not half as much but yeah, I really wish I did not. This will slow me down.”
Apricot smirked, trying to conceal her worry. “You better not. I won’t be carrying you again.” With a slight chuckle, Shiori winced, letting out a grunt.
The man showed Shiori the needle. Apricot noted how long the thing is, about six inches, as she estimates. “This should alleviate your discomfort,” he said. With a haphazard maneuver, the man stuck Shiori in the side. Volting up, he let out a loud yell. As he lies back on the table, he gritted his teeth and let out a few huffs of pain. “You could have told me the damn thing would feel like a spear injecting lava into me.” Shiori let out a huff.
“Mam, you’re not going to want to see the rest of this. I got to ask you to step outside while I get more acquainted with Lord Kinjo’s insides.” Apricot glanced at Shiori who gave her a confident nod.
Immediately following surgery, Apricot helped Shiori into a black sports car that had just arrived. When Apricot had him seated in the passenger seat, she moved to the driver’s side. Apricot thought to herself, He looked awful. Zonked out for much of the ride. His eyes were barely opened, heavy with sedation. On Shinjo Street, she expected the car to stop in front of the Spook House. Rather than approaching the main entrance, it traveled around the back. Apricot was not even aware of the second entrance. The black sports car entered the hidden carport. As the platform raises to the next floor, metal clanking can be heard. A well-organized garage was revealed.
As the car rested inside Apricot looked over at Shiori who did not even know where he was. She stepped out of the car and walked to the other side. Lifting the latch of the black car, she looked down at Shiori, who is nearly frothing at the mouth. He had a dead look in his blue eyes. He mumbled, “Don’t let my teeth fall out of my face.” Apricot couldn’t help but smirk at the odd comment, and at the same time, it was difficult to see him in such a vulnerable state.
The young woman, with her head lowered under his armpit, jokingly said, “Come on, Prince Kinjo.” She lifted him to his feet and assisted him out of the vehicle. It was obvious to her that he was limp and almost fell to the ground. As she braced herself against the car, Shiori was held upright. “Shiori, get up.”
As he slumped over her body, he commented, “Maid lady, my legs feel like jelly.” Apricot let out a sigh as she yanked him from the car toward a pair of polished metal doors. The design reminded her of a pair of elevator doors. “You are a pretty handsy lady, has anyone told you that miss?” Shiori mumbled. The comment made her blush. Once the doors were close enough, they automatically opened, revealing an attractive living room.
As Apricot looked at the ornate decor, her eyes wandered. “Shiori, you have too much money for your own good.” Everything appeared to have a baroque style. The furniture is likely custom-made for him and is one of a kind.
“I would be flattered but a common maid isn’t hard to impress.” A surge of anger overtook Apricot as she nearly fell to the ground, feeling Shiori’s chuckles. However, as she watched him, it was obvious he had no idea where he was or what was going on.
“So where is your room, Mr. Royalty?” Apricot asked dryly.
“Hmmm, that sounds nice. It’s down the hall, anyway.” She’s not sure what he meant by that, but she didn’t really care. A hallway at the back of the marble-floored room led to the other side of the apartment. After walking down the hall, she looked in the first door to see Shiori’s study. The study was a typical high-end office with a great view of the city.
As Apricot walked to the back of the hall, she groaned, “You’re getting fat.” Pushing open the wooden door, she is surprised to find a plain room. The room has a bed in the middle, a vanity against a wall, and an open closet. “I didn’t expect it to be this modest.” Apricot remarked.
She left his room once Shiori was on his bed, allowing him to rest. She marveled at his living room. He had one of the largest personal book collections she had ever seen. Neither a television nor a computer are present in the room. By contrast, the other side of the building had a clear view of the town from its mirror-glazing windows.
While browsing through the books on the large shelf, Apricot picked up a random work. She mouthed the words “The Cihilbil” but had no idea how to pronounce them. The cover was woven, and the pages looked old. Though she had never heard of the title before, she figured it would be a good way to kill some time.
Taking a seat in a leather armchair, she rested both of her legs on the side of the seat. When she reached the first pages of the book, she pawed through the filler pages. As she read the old fairytale, she watched the sun move across the sky. The story is about an arrogant woman who wished to make the prince of the land fall victim to a faerie’s spell. To Apricot, the story is strange. In the story, an unwanted lover repeatedly tried to steal the woman away. It turned out that the unwanted lover was the faerie’s brother. She was deeply invested in the book when a voice broke her concentration. “You’re still here.” Apricot looked up to see Shiori’s dazed gaze meet hers. She nods. “Why?”
The book was placed on her lap as she closed it. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Yeah, I am,” Shiori said. Shiori breathed deeply as he entered the room. “A lot of books, huh?”
“Yeah, it is.” Apricot could tell she was still fumed a little about his maid comment. “I was just reading the Khialbil.”
“Syolbel.” Shiori corrected her on the pronunciation.
Apricot rolled her eyes, “Right.”
“The importance of knowledge cannot be overstated. That distinguishes us from the commoners. The common folk do not seek knowledge, they are content with their lives. Nobles, however, have a duty to guide the masses with their knowledge. It’s not an easy task.” Shiori mused.
Apricot got up from the chair and placed the book back on the shelf. “So what about the guy who is breaking the seals? I can’t find anything about him. Trust me, I have been looking too. Though I found some stuff about the ancient seals. Seems they were used in old times for rituals.”
“I know that troubles me as well. Two more seals were broken after that first one. The whole world noticed. The Okabe family doesn’t even care to hide it anymore. But how can you explain that? Nothing, short of a missile, could explain that kind of event.” Apricot nodded. As Shiori traces his fingers over the spines of books, he rests his hand on a book. “I don’t like the recent developments,” he muttered. “It’s all too public. It won’t be long before Kyo musters the effort to deal with us. The only thing holding her back is my lineage. After she forgets that for a moment, she’ll be on us fast. That machine…”
“What happens if all the seals break?” Shiori did not reply, instead, he kept his gaze on the books. “Shiori what happens if all the seals break?” Apricot asked louder, a bit more authoritatively.
His lips are slightly smirked. “Funny thing, I don’t know. What happens next is a mystery to me. My life was spent studying the mystic arts because I was to become the high priest of the Kinjo Clan. However, I learned that my grandfather had other plans for me. To foil the Okabe’s plans if they tried to carry them out again, he asked me to keep an eye on them in secret.”
Apricot leaned her back against the bookshelf. “Come clean, Shiori. What are the Okabe family’s plans?”
Shiori glances at Apricot but keeps his face turned away from her. “Well, I guess you might as well know everything. A whole new world. This world is going to disappear. Since ancient times, the Okabe family has been a death cult. The war between Uchella and Okabe was settled by treaty. There has been conflict between us for a long time. Legend has it that the Okabe family would summon spirits and monsters from other worlds to fight on their behalf. They wanted a machine to bring forth a new world, but they never succeeded. Neither did they find the devil or the god they sought. Most of the seals were here before the Blue Ash Crisis. Each seal was built up after a sacrifice. This is where their power comes from. In order to protect the seals, buildings are built around them. Make them the center of attention. With only two left, they may be preparing to release something. Perhaps they wanted to make a pact with that god or devil. That is for sure. Some kind of powerful being that has been bound for a long time will be released when they are broken.”
“That’s terrible.” She uttered the words without thinking. Apricot walked a few steps as she mused about what all that meant. As if it mattered at all. Nothing made sense to her. How could they possibly do this? Then another question occurred to her. “What if it’s not the Okabe family destroying seals? What if it’s someone else?”
“What some loner destroying the Okabe family seals.” Shiori contemplates the thought for a few moments. “That might be worse. Could be some crazy who wants to unleash some sort of ancient evil on the world?”
“If the seals are the Okabe family’s source of power, if they broke them wouldn’t that take the Okabe family out of the picture?” Apricot suggested.
Shiori shook his head. “Whoever the seal breaker is, someone must stop him.”
“Then we stop them both. The Okabe family and the seal breaker. Both must be intertwined in some way.”
Shiori snickered. “You might be right.”
Several large monitors provide dim illumination in the room. The room is strung with cables, and several servers are stacked along the walls. The fight Apricot and Shiori had with the Volkner suit was observed from several perspectives by a few men in suits, a pair of officers, and Empress Kyo. Emperor Kyo watches as Apricot’s arm erupts in flames. A man gasps, “A witch!”
Kyo claps her hands as a smile slowly spreads across her face. The pupil of the Azul around her neck becomes darker until it almost covers the whole eye. “I found you, my witch. Right on time.” Kyo whispers.
Apricot chatted with the guests at the Spook House as she sat at the bar. Meanwhile, Shiori read a book while hanging out behind the bar, while peppering the conversation with off-color comments. As Apricot glanced up, she saw a figure behind the glass doors with a thick file of papers in his arm. The figure is revealed to be Cortez as he opened the front doors. Shiori glanced up from his book. “So you finally scampered on over.” Moving toward the end of the bar, Cortez slammed the file against the bar. Shiori reached over and placed his hands on the papers. “So what is this?”
Cortez hardly glanced at Shiori. “I am done.” He uttered in a calm voice.
“What does that mean?” Shiori grunted. That didn’t sit well with Apricot. Cortez’s face is so dead. They hadn’t spoken since the incident. In fact, she hadn’t even thought about him. Guilt gripped her. That night, he was terrified. Images of him gazing into that light flashed through her mind.
Suddenly, Cortez’s dead eyes opened. “The hell you think it means. I am done.”
He walked away from the bar in the direction of the exit. Shiori quickly grabbed hold of Cortez’s shoulder as he slid over the bar. “Who said you could be done?”
His hand was thrown off by Cortez as he yelled, “I am tired!” which caused everyone in the room to become quiet. “I’m done,” he said, looking back at Apricot. “And you, Apricot, you should be too.”
As Shiori raised his posture, he glanced down at the file, placing his fingers on it. “Okay. Leave.” Shiori watched Cortez walk out of the room with a crooked smile on his face. “Come help me out with this Apricot.” Shiori lifted the file, taking it into the back room with him.
“What am I your assistant now?” Apricot retorted.
Shiori chuckled, “Hardly honey, you’re not cut for the pedigree.”
Multiple documents and notes covered the table, detailing a large network of abductions, sacrifices, tunnels beneath the city, and paranormal activities. In addition, there are notes about the practices and purposes of the rituals. There are numerous photographs of crime scenes in the folder that make Apricot’s stomach turn. Documents are littered with images of open bodies, animal mutilations, and sights around the city where these events took place.
“Shiori listen to this,” Apricot said, reading the paper. “Having witnessed the circles of power in the city, I am convinced that these are ancient monuments. It is through these places that sacrifice is most commonly performed in the city. Those who practice sacrifices claim to do so in the service of the “Black God.” The group that practices these rituals lives below the city. According to their beliefs, the “Black God” founded this city and brought with him prosperity for the small village that existed here before.”
“As I study the papers of Uraias Hilderic, I am becoming increasingly confident that he understood these ancient myths, which was why he chose this site for the Blue Ash project. In my opinion, the circles of power serve to bind the black god to this world. As a result, I am becoming suspicious of the Okabes. It is impossible to ignore the fact that they are at the very least aware of the cult’s activities if not direct participants. The files on Uraias Hilderic have been destroyed. Except for the few documents listing him as the Blue Ash project’s head, there are no public records for this man.”
“If everything I have discovered is true, Uraias Hilderic survived the explosion and is leading the cult’s activities below the city. My suspicion is that these arcane rituals are used by the nobles of Uchella to introduce a new world into existence. It’s a term that keeps popping up. Is it possible they intend to create a new world apart from this one? This appears to be their intention from the way they speak about it. Nonetheless, there are key places around the city that have been designated as sites for the beginning of this new world. Although I have no idea why they choose the sites they do, it is clear they have a method and a reason for doing so. As I learn more about these sites, I will continue to investigate them.”
Shiori smiled. “These documents are what we have been searching for. No wonder Cortez hates the nobles. Pull up a chair honey because by the end of the night we will have read through all these,” Apricot affirms.
Apricot gathered that the phantoms were caused by this cult’s activities. These entities are drawn to this world because the power the cult possesses comes from their world. Among the cult’s goals is merging between worlds to become gods, creating a new world to rule, and sacrificing this world to achieve that. Cortez’s father never figured out how they achieve these things, but he assumed the rituals they perform today are similar if not the same as ancient ones.
Sleepily, Apricot lay in a heap of papers. A small stream of spittle trickled across the papers, slightly wetting them. Her eyes opened to dusty documents and horrific photographs in front of her. After pushing herself up from the table, she sat up straight. She opened her eyes wide and let out a huge yawn as she took her first look around. Still looking at documents, Shiori sat in a corner. Looking at the paper, he commented, “You are up.”
“Sorry.” Apricot apologized. “I did not mean to nod off like that. How long was I out for?”
Shiori smirked. “Several hours. I got some coffee brewing in the kitchen. If you want me to grab you some, I would be happy to.”
Apricot shook her head. “Nah, I think I will step out and get some fresh air though.” She thought to herself that was unusually kind of Shiori.
Shiori nodded his head. “There is news.” Apricot looked up. “Kyo is having a ceremonial dedication tonight.”
When Apricot got up, she stepped over to Shiori who was looking at his phone, where he had a message from Akagi. “What does that mean?”
“Means they are making their move,” Shiori said. “Akagi got all the information on it. They wanted to keep it secret, and they brought several sacrifices for this ritual. However, I think it is a bait to draw us out.”
Apricot shrugged. “Bait to draw us out? What do you mean?”
“Akagi said they normally encrypt this stuff hard. This, however, was very elementary. It did not even take him any effort to decrypt the message. It’s an invitation to us.” Shiori growls. He places his hand on his chin.
“So, we will ignore it.”
Shiori shakes his head. “No, we can’t. If it is a legit ritual, then this could be game over for us if we don’t stop it. If it is bait, then let’s hope that Kyo is there. Either way, this ends tonight. We can put an end to the Okabe family for good. Their aspirations for a new world, at least. They won’t have another chance like this for a long time.”
“Why?” Apricot asked.
“The alignment between the other world and this one. They are close together dimensionally right now. It is the prime time to perform a ritual. After tonight it gets further and further away meaning the power able to be drawn from it is less and less. At least according to these notes.” Shiori smirked. “So in a way it was meant to be this way. Also, guess where they are having this ritual?”
“Where?” Apricot inquired.
“The grand temple garden. Where the biggest seal is located. It’s the oldest one too. So you know who will show up too. It is flawless. This is where it all comes down.” He gets up from his seat. “While I make preparations, would you mind seeing Cortez for me? He won’t answer my calls. It just goes to voice mail. I’m worried about him.”
“Yeah, I can do that,” Apricot said.
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“I don’t know how much more I can take of this.” said one officer to another. “I thought I would be helping people, you know, when I joined the police department. Today it seems like all we do is investigate strange incidents. It’s like this whole city has become the set of some bizarre horror movie.”
“Yeah, first there was the insect swarm, now there are explosions in the ruined part of town. Not to mention the ever-growing population of witches.” Bracing against the wall, the other officer peered around. Swigging his coffee, he continued. “Just be glad, rook, your dispatch. We need to get out and look at this crap. Damn, the city is a madhouse. Last week, I had to deal with people eating each other. People are becoming cannibals. Cannibals! Tch, it’s crazy.”
The younger officer shook his head in disbelief. “Just knowing about all these things is enough to make someone go mad. I never thought the SDP was like this. I imagined we would be going after the more hardened criminals. Not spooks and monsters.”
“You didn’t get the memo kid?” grunts the older officer. “They changed the S to Spectral.” the group of officers laughed. “Sure as hell seems that way at least.”
Over the radio, a voice calls out “Hey, ah, is anyone inside the Valkner room?”
At the desk, the young officer glanced at his display, which showed no heat signatures. He answered, “That’s a negative.”
“Well, there is a lot of noise coming from there. Was one of the Valkners left on?”
“That’s a negative as well. The indicators are displaying them all as inactive.”
“I need backup down here, now. Something is moving around inside that room. It is big and made of metal.”
“I’ll send someone down.” The rookie looks toward the older officer. “Could you?”
“Yeah yeah, I am there.” he retorted, setting his coffee down.
An alarm blared from the console just as the officer was about to leave the room. Looking down at the board, the young officer saw a red light flashing. “Hanger three has just been breached from the inside.”
“Shit, help!” the officer cried out over the radio.
“What the hell is wrong with him?” The words rang in Apricot’s ears. Cortez stared into the pillar of radiance as she gazed up. In addition to the thunder, there were subtle screams. The sensation of her chest pounding was intense. Cortez did little more than moan when she tugged at his arm. Slowly, he turned his head towards her, his eyes brightening with life.
Finally, they were running, following Shiori. The shadows of every object stretched out like long spikes, casting themselves upon every wall. As they raced down the alleyway, they saw the white car approaching. Lights from helicopters streak across the roadways as they give way to the bright night sky.
“What the hell was that! Shiori what was that!” Cortez screams, cowering in the back of the car. While Apricot’s tears were too shellshocked to escape her eyes, she still felt the same anxiety. She hears the car’s roar as it races along the ruined road.
“Things got more complicated,” Shiori whispered.
Cortez shook his head. “What the hell was that?!” Apricot tried to ask the same question, but the words wouldn’t come out. Her throat tightens, and her mouth was dry. “Are you going to say something?” Cortez shouted.
“Yes, I am just thinking.” Shiori calmly said. “That was one of several seals around the city. They are old sights around this region.” Shiori explained. His driving slowed as they arrived on more commonly traveled roads.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean!”
Shiori clears his throat. “I think one of them was just broken.”
The ringing of Apricot’s phone jolted her from her thoughts. Back inside her bedroom, the events of a few weeks ago were still heavy on her mind. Looking down at her table she saw her phone gliding as it vibrated. Grabbing hold of the pink plastic plush case she raised it up to see it was a text from Bonni.
“Wanna do some window shopping?!”
Gunfire echoed in the hall of the SDP’s hanger. Like splattered bugs, the bloody remains of officers are smeared across the pavement. “We must stop it!” shouted an officer hiding behind a support beam. There are two more officers concealed in the adjacent pillar. As the war machine marched down the hallway, the officers keep their pistols pressed against their chests. “These weapons are useless. That is reinforced alloy. We will never be able to penetrate that armor.”.
”What are we supposed to do?” yelled the female officer.
The first officer who was monitoring the machine replied, “We need to run and close the gate.” Looking to his colleagues, he added, “It will give us a few minutes to prepare the special units.”
There was unanimous agreement among the officers. From their cover, they run down the corridor to the end, where the machine lumbers towards them. The female officer reached the other side of the corridor and pressed a memorized set of numbers onto the keypad. A creak accompanied the twin doors as they opened. Watching the doors descend, the machine stopped. “It’s not moving.” said the older officer.
Through the doors, the other officers ran hurriedly. As they stared back at the machine, the metal gates slid shut. “Well, that won’t buy us much time. Especially if it rips through this one like the other two.”
“Let’s get out of here.” suggested the female officer.
A groan could be heard coming from the twin doors as the group turned tail down the corridor. When the officers turned back, they saw the door open once more. The Volkner suit remained where it had been. As the red lights on the suit began to glow again, the female officer exclaimed, “What is this?”
As the suit continues to approach the group, it makes another loud stomp. The older officers shouted, “Run!” as the machine fired its thrusters, leaving a glow of blue-white to burn, propelling itself forward.
It was impossible for Apricot not to see the world differently. Walking down the familiar stretch of shops, her gaze wandered to every corner and every shadow. Her experience was similar to this when she was still in the dark about the phantoms. Just for a few more moments of peace, she denied everything. The darkness had returned. She felt Bonni’s fingers resting on her shoulder. That was comforting. Momentarily at least. Although, the recent events are still ringing in my ears as the local city guard surrounds the quiet mall corridors. Nowadays, instead of police walking around, armored police with long rifles guard each intersection in pairs. On the escalator to the next floor, Bonni said, “I was worried about you.”
“Worried? You?” Apricot asked admiring the murals of party officials lining the walls. “Normally, you are only concerned about yourself, Bonni.”
Bonni’s lips pursed coyly like a cat’s mouth. “Well, I will remember to do it less often,” Apricot smirked. The two shared a giggle for a moment, once it had passed Bonni continued. “So, what is the deal with that cutie Shiori?” Bonni asked, raising an eyebrow. “You two an item?”
Bonni watched Apricot with bulging eyes as she wore a heavy layer of blush on her cheeks. “What!” she barked, shaking her head and lightly tapping Bonni on the shoulder. “It’s not like that. He is just my boss. Nothing more.”
“Really?” Bonni pouted. “What a shame, and here I thought you had landed yourself a fairytale catch. Figures though, I could not see the two of you together, anyway. Common girls like us don’t interest nobles.”
It hurt Apricot to hear those words. While she was a common girl, she never considered that around Shiori. His views on Cortez were influenced by his heritage. Perhaps he felt the same way about her as well. “I think you might be right.”
Bonni gestures towards the skylight in the mall’s center. She asks, “What is that?”
Apricot’s eyes darted up to see a shadow looming over the glassy roof. The shards of glass tumbled down in a brilliant display of crystaline color as the shadow grew. Apricot only had time to raise a hand to her mouth. As the rain of fractures fell, the two girls huddled together, desperate to escape the avalanche. She raised her eyes in surprise when she saw a metallic shadow rising from the rubble. Two long rifles could be seen once it lifted its arms, allowing the glass and framing to cascade from its arms. “Get down!” Apricot shouted before the thunder of bullets rumbled through the environment.
As Apricot leapt over the escalator bars, she grabbed Bonni’s arm. The machine warrior was engaged in combat with several armored police opening fire. Apricot locked her eyes on Bonni who was still curled up on the ground. She places an arm around her screaming “Bonni!”, tugging on her dandy coat. “Get over here!” she ordered, and Bonni complied sheepishly down the escalator. She heard the armored soldiers yelling orders and another gun popping out at the top of the escalator, which she assumed was the police returning fire. A torrent of debris was raining down on the crowd of people on the ground floor. The gunshots have ceased, but the panic has continued. Bonni raised her head to gaze up the escalator as a single whirl, a bullet narrowly missed Bonni. Immediately she fell to her knees. “Bonni! We got to move.” Apricot yelled knowing death was fast approaching. She grasped Bonni’s hand and tried to get her to stand. With one more powerful tug, Bonni was dragged by Apricot like a child.
A soldier gestured in the direction of an emergency exit while shouting, “This way!” Apricot was terrified by the tower-like helmet the man was wearing. With one large red glowing sphere, it looked like a cyclops. Two smaller spheres flanked the larger one in a V-shape. Apricot’s train of thought was interrupted as the man raised his rifle in their direction. Both Apricot and Bonni let out shrieks when he fired a shot past them. Stepping forward, he fired another burst of shots while his gray cape flowed. “Get behind me!” he shouted as he marched past the girls. Apricot glanced back at the Volkner at the top of the stairs. In their direction, she could see the red monocle adjusting its focus and turning its radius.
The large machine turned its body ajar, aiming its right arm at the group. It shot a barrage of bullets that landed all around Apricot and Bonni. The armored soldier dives in front of them, using his own body as a shield. Even though Apricot is almost certain that soldier has just been killed, they had to continue down the hallway. “You stabbed me in the throat!“ Apricot heard a voice groan from within her head. Turning around, she saw the bayonet of the mechanical warrior’s rifle slicing through the soldier. “I shall cleave you in half, servant of the betrayer!” it roared into the small hall causing a painful ringing in Apricot’s head. As the migrant passed through her body, she gritted her teeth. Bonni screamed which was not helping, but the fact she was running faster on account of the giant death-machine certainly did.
“This isn’t happening!” Bonni cried.
As Apricot and Bonni crashed out the exit doors, they are greeted by even more of the Volkners. Apricot froze at the sight of the massive police mecha suits with their guns pointed toward them. “Get behind us!” one of the officers commanded. From behind, the other Volkner chasing them broke through the wall. Apricot turned just in time to see a large slash aimed at her. In a burst of sparks, the blade is caught in midair by the arm of the police’s Volkner. As the gun was ripped from the attacking machine, the SDP mecha held it back. “Run.” the officer yelled. Between the legs of the machine, Apricot and Bonni ran to safety.
Bonni screamed “Help!” to a line of armored officers who had formed a wall with their armored trucks. The mecha’s guns roared against the walls as they thundered across the parking lot. Apricot watched the two mechas as they fought, seeing the familiar phantom fire aiding the attacker.
Apricot’s hand releases Bonni’s fingers as their grips part ways. She watches her dive into the arms of an armored soldier who is directly behind the barricade. After another crack, Apricot turned heel to a frightening sight. The Volkners were still fighting, ripping each other apart. Insects had begun to fly about the mechanical soldiers. However, one broke ranks and flew directly to her. “Hold back!” yelled the armored soldier. The police began shooting at the huge mechanical suit that was rapidly advancing.
“That thing is after me!” Apricot gave Bonni one last glance whose eyes are filled with fear like a small child in a panic. Behind the steel door of a truck, Bonni peeked at the oncoming manifestation of death. Apricot bit her lip, looking straight into Bonni’s eyes. As she nodded to her, it may be the last time Apricot does so. In the midst of running through the makeshift vehicular wall, she heard Bonni’s cry, “Apricot!” She dove past the armored soldiers and sprinted through the stagnant traffic to the other side of the parking lot. A loud boom sounded as the machine burst through the barricade. The heavy clash of metals followed and the high-pitched screeching grated on her nerves. “Please let Bonni be OK.” Several cars are speeding towards the end of the lot trying to escape the Volkner. By jumping the barrier, Apricot plunged into the full flow of traffic, narrowly escaping the speeding automobiles. When she reached the other side of the road, her heart pounded as she saw a drop off to another platform below. Without hesitation, she slid down the concrete and landed hard on her feet.
In the background, an upbeat tune played over a pair of pure white dress shoes atop the wood of a chocolate brown computer desk. Sitting in his office chair, Shiori had opened a book and was casually reading the dusty tome. From the window of his highrise apartment, he had a clear view of the city just past the edge of the book. “Bzzzt Bzzt.” His phone vibrates across the desk. Looking at his phone, Shiori saw the text “Apricot Signa” Letting out a sigh, Shiori placed his book down and lifted the phone to his ear. As soon as he finished he said “Hello Miss,” a barrage of panicked words assaulted him.
“Shioriyougottohelp!Arobotistryingtokillme!Idon’tknowhowmuchlongerIcanrunbutyouneedtodosomethingnow!” The words came so fast it is almost incomprehensible.
Shiori snickered, “You got to slow down, honey. I have no idea what you are saying.”
“Shiori! I have no time for this!” shrieked Apricot.
“Well, if you need my help, that is not the way to go about it.” Shiori snickered again.
Apricot lets out a frustrated growl. “One of those police machines is trying to kill me!”
“That sounds dangerous. I’ll come help you. Keep your phone on, Akagi will locate you.” Shiori said as he clicked his phone. Yawning, he through the slab onto his desk. “That crazy girl, I don’t think she’s even worth the trouble.”
Getting smashed through a car, the mecha suit’s green electronic HUD locks onto Apricot running through an alleyway. Spikes fly from its thrusters as it turns into the stretch of narrow lanes. She uses the passages to her advantage as she jackknifes through the maze of off-roads, trying to lose the machine. From its thrusters, the mecha blew a boom after every turn. Apricot, noticed an open door that led the back of a building.
Apricot ran through the steamy hot room when an older man in a white chefs cloak shouted “Lady, you can’t be here.” A group of waitresses let out a collective gasp as Apricot burst through the double doors open into the dining room. In the front of the building, Apricot could see outside the dining-room window the mecha outside adjusting its arm.
“Get down!” Apricot screamed as the machine unloaded, causing the room to explode into a flurry of steel and wood. There was a lot of ripped fabric flying around the room as the guns tore through everything. “How in the world do I get out of here?” Apricot screamed as she crawled toward a fire door. It was unclear how many people were hurt or if any are still alive, but she could hear moans of agony. Blood painted the waitress as she lay dead. The expression was one of pure terror. Her eyes were like glass. Everything was her fault. She put them in danger. Whatever this thing was, it showed no mercy at all. Could it be Okabe’s doing? It seemed they were slaughtering their own police.
The fire exit allows her to gain a few seconds. The world blurred around her. She ran in the opposite direction until she reached the main intersection. An oncoming white car nearly strikes her as she only has a moment to react. “Get in!” yelled Shiori. Having slid over the hood of his car, Apricot jumped into the passenger seat. Shiori started driving. Pulling the door shut with the handle attached to the still-raised door, Apricot latches it shut. “What the hell is this? It’s all over the news! Why is that Volkner after you? Who is the pilot?”
“It came after me when I was with a friend!” Apricot cried. “I don’t know what the hell it is!”
As Shiori stomped on the gas, he sped past cars appearing in front of him. Apricot realized that they were at risk of a collision at any moment. “Well, way to alienate the rest of the world. This is a problem!” Apricot looked back to see the mechanical warrior close behind him. The device annihilates cars without any regard for the surrounding environment. The armor of the machine has been damaged as the metallic plating has begun to peel off exposing the chasse below. “Where the hell are the cops!” Shiori barked.
Once again, Apricot saw purple flames blazing on her arm. While watching the fire dance, she held out her hand open palmed. “So, there’s a phantom controlling it.”
When Shiori nearly veered off the road yelling “What the hell!” she is jerked out of her seat. “You’re going to kill us. Put that thing out.”
“It doesn’t harm physical objects.” Apricot quietly replied. She turned to Shiori, declaring, “I think it’s just a phantom. At least the phantom is controlling it. It told me earlier that it had stabbed its throat.” A shadow crossed in front of the car. In an instant, Shiori slammed on the brakes; his tires came to a screeching halt. An ear-piercing hiss is heard from the machine. A loud clang was heard as a projectile penetrated deep into the hood of the car. “Get out!” Shiori commanded, pulling his door open. Apricot followed suit, diving out just before the car is lifted and thrown into a building.
In front of the mecha, the two stood. Shiori stood to his feet, clicking the small switch to extend the rod. “I do hope you are right, Apricot.” Shiori said. The fires around Apricot’s arm grew brighter as she nodded her head. “There is only one choice.” With a metallic snap, the cables reappear from the car and slide into the hand of the machine. The imposing device dwarfs the pair as it stands about ten feet tall. “You know Apricot. If you are wrong, we’re gonna die, right?”
Without warning, the machine lunged forward at Shiori. After leaping back, he missed its fist aimed directly at him. The powerful machine slammed into the pavement harshly, pelting Shiori with debris. No matter the minor impact, Shiori struck his rod against the fist of the machine, thrusting through the shrapnel. As the metal moiled against the alloy, the rod sparked. “Shit this is useless!” The machine straightened its back as Shiori roared. As Apricot ran by the machine waving her arms, it positioned its other arm in Shiori’s direction. As the hulking metal soldier turned his attention towards her, he shot down his claws at her. Apricot lept over the metallic tethers as the razor claws sail in the air. A second time, the servos were rapidly retracting their lines, narrowly missing her.
After regaining her sight, Apricot caught a glimpse of Shiori directly under the machine. “Have to be creative.” Shiori roared as he stabbed his rod directly into the chestplate of the mecha. He ripped the pilot’s door off with his rod after removing the chest panel from the machine. The open cockpit is crawling with insects of every kind. The carcass of a dead soldier hung out, his mouth open in agony, and his eyes wide. Maggots oozed from the putrid body. There was a purple orb floating inside the cockpit that stretched throughout the whole machine. Shiori lets out a loud cry as the machine’s powerful hand wrapped around his waist. As if he were a rag doll, he was tossed through the air. He rolled several times on the ground, tearing up his clothes as he did so.
“Shiori!“ Apricot shouted. As soon as it saw an opening, the machine raised its fist to smash Apricot to mush. Apricot let out a scream as the fist descended, diving directly into a purple orb held by the mechanical soldier. She slashes it directly. In a flash, the machine falls forward, smashing its fist into the pavement as its aura bursts. The whole thing collapsed. A cloud of insects fell over her. Apricot panted looked up at the body hanging above her still strapped into the suit. His dead eyes are looking at her, but not at her. A pool of blood dripped from his limp, open mouth.
A liquid flowed from Shiori’s mouth onto the ground as he stands up wheezing and coughing. “Well, it didn’t kill me.” He laughed sheepishly. He roared and writhes in pain, “Damn it. That hurts. Looks like you survived as well.” He grunted, letting out another cough. After stepping out of the machine, Apricot nodded her head. “I’d appreciate your assistance.”
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Several boxes lay about the broken and damaged front of the Spook House. Most of the ornate wood is split or riddled with bullets. The railing over the upper loft became nothing more than several sharp spikes of various lengths. The counter remained a ghost, with large chunks removed from its top. Shiori unboxes the brand-new glasses for the freshly replaced wall rack. A knock on the side of his entry alerts him. An older man with slicked black hair and glasses makes his way inside the building. “Master Kinjo, am I interrupting you?”
Shiori rolled his eyes, shaking his head. “You come to do me in too, sir Okabe.”
“Hardly, though it appears to have been a fair, challenging scrap. It’s a shame you do all this alone. Where are your employees?” He asked, taking several steps over the tarnished wooden floor. As he walked, he was careful to avoid the broken slats.
With a grumble, Shiori set down a glass. “Afraid they’ll blow their heads off, I suppose.” Probably that or the bombs. I did not have the chance to call them up and tell them the war is over.” Shiori glanced at the man as he approached a stool and warns him, “My royal guard is still here.
“Well, I see you have not lost your sense of humor. Due to time constraints, I won’t make this long. I have a message from Empress Kyo.”
A chuckle escaped Shiori’s lips. “She’s calling herself Empress now?” Shiori asked. “Ah, so that explains it. The Okabe family did not seat her or dedicate her, but then she killed most of the superior nobles, so what more could be expected? Sure, she is empress all right, no one left to crown her, so she crowns herself. Shiori watches the man intently. “So it was Kyo that killed the others,” he thought to himself. Her young age made this very unlikely, but the man’s eyes confirmed everything: this is Kyo behind all these violent affairs.
“You are aware that the situation between you and the Okabe clan could escalate. I would hate for it to happen, but if the meddling in the Okabe family affairs continues, we will have no choice.”
“Affairs, what affaires?” Shoiri asked.
“I think you understand exactly what I mean. You seem to know a lot about our internal workings. I doubt I need to remind you that spying is a capital crime. We have our suspicions about other subjects. Your silly hologram game has caused our clan an economic nightmare. You have been warned.” The man turned to leave after finishing speaking without giving Shiori a chance to respond.
Shiori reaches over the counter and grabs the man’s shoulder, pulling him face-to-face. “Kyo screwed up. You are shooting blind. I did not deceive the people for who knows how long. You should never have tried to kill me. One call to my clan and an international war breaks out. If that is not enough to get Kyo’s attention, maybe this will. Natsukawa’s crimes would be embarrassing to the public if they became known. You can now go and get lost. Go lick your master’s piddle like a dog.”
The man pulls away from Shiori without missing a beat. His collar is smoothed as he looks at Shiori again. As he leaves through the front doors, He warns once more, “You have been warned.”
“Sis!” Jasper yelled, running into the room. Apricot is curled up on the couch in her living room with a blanket covering her. For the past few hours, a sci-fi movie had consumed her attention. “Look outside!” Apricot turned her head to see a sea of black covering the once blue sky. She pushed the blanket off and got up to see better from the window. “What do you think it is?”
Even complete cloud cover did not trigger the street lights to turn on, and yet they were on. This is very different. Toward the distance, the darkness blended into something like inky smudges in the sky. Outside of the city, blue skies still hung in the air. In a documentary, she had seen something similar. When locusts swarm for food out in the wilderness, this happened occasionally. “Apricot!” Jasper shouted, jerking her out of her trance. But this was not the wilderness and there were no locusts.
“Jasper, stay inside,” she told him as she walked to the front door. She opened the door to see that it was indeed an insect swarm. Its loud buzzing resembled the constant roll of thunder or a heavy engine running at idle. “What in the world?” she asked, as she returned to the house and shut the door. Jasper stares at her in disbelief. “Are all the windows closed?” Jasper looked at Apricot with partially closed eyes while nodding. “Good. Let’s go see what the news has to say about this.”
The two sit on the couch in the living room. A news report was playing in the background. This would normally trigger an alert from the authorities. However, every station she checked was on another topic. The lack of recent news reports on the topic was not subtle. Apricot suspects there was a media blackout on the subject. The resulting punishment would be severe if any journalist or outlet were to cover the subject.
Apricot heard a buzzing on her side and saw images of a monster clinging to her. Before realizing it is her phone, she let out a small chirp. Picking it up, she saw Shiori was calling her. “Hey,” she replied.
“You busy tonight?” Shiori asked.
“You asking for a date?” Apricot snickered.
“Heh, you wish I was that lonely. Nah, I am sure you saw the sky. Well, it is centered on one of the towers owned by the Okabe. I figured we should check it out. You in?” Shiori explained.
Apricot looked over at Jasper. “You‘re not asking, are you?”
“No, I am really not. Cortez is slated to be our navigator. For once, he is useful. We will meet up in about three hours. Can you be here by then?” Shiori asked.
“Yeah, if I must.” Apricot hanged up the call.
“Was that Sato?” Jasper asked.
“Another friend, my boss, actually. Hey Jasper, I have to go out. So you stay inside.” Apricot said.
“Again!?” Jasper moaned. “I thought we were going to hang out while Mom and Dad were not here.”
“Something came up, and I got to work. Don’t worry though. We are going to have a lot of fun soon. Tell you what. I will buy you a model if you don‘t pout.”
Jasper folded his lips up and bounced his head. “Ok, that is fair.”
“Even with this stupid mask on, it smells so horrible down here!here!here! ” Apricot lamented. Shiori trailed behind with a gas mask covering his face. They are knee-deep in mucky sewage lit only by their headlamps.
A western-style sword is held in the hand of Cortez, who led the group. “Hmm, yeah, who came up with this?”
“Tis mine, I got it from my lovely Apricot. It’s not your first time under the city, is it?” Shiori laughs. While they trudged through the thick waters, Apricot’s growl can be heard under her breath. “Well, how else were we going to get past the barricades? Every SDP officer and news outlet is running the circus. This is probably the best plan. Thank goodness Arjun had those extra radiation suits. If I do say so myself, I think it works quite well as a sewer suit.” Shiori said cheerfully. “However stop complaining, the ladder into the building is right there.”
Cortez directed his light toward a ladder leading up an ominous grate. He was at the front of the group. “These bags weigh a ton. What the hell is inside them?” His body ached from carrying so many backpacks.
“Torches, well, improvised torches,” Shiori said before reaching for the ladder’s rungs.
When Cortez saw the bagless prince ascending the ladder, he yelled, “Where are your bags? Can you believe this guy?” He said turning his head to Apricot.
Apricot raised her hands to her chest fidgeting. “Well, actually,” she said turning to the side showing that she too had no bags with her.
“What the hell. Why the hell am I the only one with bags?”
Shiori called down from the top. “I am injured, and she is useful. Makes perfect sense to me.”
“Screw you, man.” Cortez retorted.
Apricot was motioned upward by Cortez. Apricot laughed and shook her head. “You’re not looking up at my butt.”
“Well, shit, there is nothing to look at anyway in these baggy things,” Cortez grumbled grabbing the ladder. “Well, excuse me for being polite.” Tossing the bag out of the hole Cortez crawled from the dark abyss into the open basement of what appears to be a warehouse. Shiori shook his blond hair free of the suit as he peeled it from his skin. Lowering his hand into the dark Cortez helps Apricot.
Apricot immediately removes the suit. She is happy to take the smelly thing off. “Do you hear that?” Apricot asked. Cortez looked around. A low droning echoes through the building.
Shiori was already pawing through the bag grabbing a gas canister and attaching it to a hose. “Here.” He said tossing Cortez the canister.
“Whoa!” shouted Cortez as he grabbed it with the tips of his fingers. “That’s dangerous!”
“You caught it, we’re fine,” Shiori laughed. “Even if you didn’t, I’m sure it wouldn’t blow up.” Shiori reached inside the bag and pulled out a pipe attached to a hose. Turning the knob slightly, he placed the canister on his side and pressed a button to light the end of the torch. “Alright,” he readjusted the torch until it was a nice thin beam. “Now, this will deal with any critters we come across.” He points to the other trigger. “This will shoot out a spray of some mixed chemicals. All you need to know is, if you spray it, it spits fire.”
“But if it is a phantom we are after, the torch won‘t help us much,” Apricot said.
Shiori nodded his head. “Yeah but I am thinking the swarms of bugs on the upper floors have more to do with real-life bugs than the phantom itself. Also including, we don’t know for sure. We’ll see. Perhaps they’ll be burned by fire. I’ve never done it myself.”
Cortez looked down. “I am not about to light fires just to kill a few bugs.”
“Did you see it from outside or did you forget? The sky is black with the swarms around this building.” Shiori begins walking down the hall. “Suit yourself though. I am about to search the upper floors. Cortez, get familiar with the basement. Apricot, you cover the lower floors. We keep heading up after. If anyone has an issue, send a text.” Shiori said with a silver stave slung over his shoulder as he walked into the dark.
“Like I am taking orders from him. Come on, let’s stick together, Apricot,” Cortez said.
“Actually, I like the idea of covering ground fast,” Apricot said as she heads towards a large metal staircase.
“Sure, let’s do that. Come on, let’s split up and let’s all be messed up one by one. Just like in the horror movies. Tcha’, damn,” Drawing his pistol from his side, Cortez holds the firearm close to him.
Shiori crunched into the crusty shell of another bug as he walked across an insect-infested floor. Walking along the dimly lit corridor, he noticed that the walls seemed to be alive. “PSHHHH!” the torch hissed as several insects were ignited by the flames. The relaxed expression on his face was replaced by the contemplative expression of a stoic statue.
He entered a large office filled with many cubicles and the loud humming intensifies. The floor changed; it was previously carpeted in the hall but is now a black and white checkerboard made of stone. “Mmmmm, I didn’t even realize so many insects existed in this city,” Shoiri commented as he looked around the hazy room alive with crawling insects. From somewhere in the dark room, he heard a low beetle like a screech. Shiori thought to himself: “That sound is from something much larger than a bug. Good, I found you,” he said, lowering his rod. A jingle is heard from the rings on the end of the rod. Then he added, “And you are not alone. Maybe an initiation?”
Despite the darkness, he saw two large, glowing red eyes like the eyes of a fly. The creature leapt from the edge of a cubical and was hung by its clawed toes. In the glimmer of firelight that shined on it, the thin body of the creature glistened like a green jewel. Its back was characterized by two large mantis claws. Four humanoid arms with long fingers extend from their sides. Each one of its four mandibles twitched with anticipation.
Slowly, Shiori approached the creature holding up his staff. Inside his head, a searing whisper greeted him. It said, “Fool. Did you come here to die? There are three of you. Where are your friends? They’ll make good meals.” The words rang in his head like an intense migraine.
“So you’re telepathic. Wish Junko was here.” Shiori said as he lunged at the creature with his rod. “Nice trick!” Shiori shouts before slamming his rod into the insect. It is blocked by its mantis-like arm. While Shiori watches the creature push off his silver rod, he widens his eyes. “What are you?! I’ve never met a phantom able to touch silver!”
Shiori’s head echoes with the voice again. “I see. You are like him? Phantoms. Kikikikiki!” the creature cackled. “I am not a phantom but rather a spirit summoned by an agonizing cry!” The creature stands on the edge of the cubicle, spreading its wings. “A young girl was slain above calling out for a god to save her. None answered, so a devil has answered and I intend to fulfill her final prayer, a curse. Sadly for me, the one who slew her has passed. Still, her blood cries out for vengeance against all the nobles. I have no toil with the blood of a Kinjo, it is the Okabe’s blood I seek.”
Shiori clutched the rod nervously. His answer was, “Serves them right.” Bending to Shiori’s level, it stretched out its head. He could feel the warmth and foul odor of the creature’s breath wash over her cheek. “I will leave you to your oath.”
Shiori dove backward to avoid the strike by mere inches as the mantis swung its sharp claw at his chest. “I’ve never promised to let you go.” it declared. “I am going to kill you just for the fun of it!” the creature said jumping off the cubicle wall onto the ground. With its scythes rubbed together, it made a metallic scraping sound while standing to its full height dwarfing Shiori.
Apricot’s nerves twitched as she walked the dark halls alone under the drone of the buzzing insects. Her gaze darted at every slight noise as she grabbed the hilt of her sword, ready to stab at any moment. The idea that this phenomenon might be caused by a phantom weighed heavily on her mind. Never before had she considered that these entities could control other entities. Could this one see through the insects’ eyes? She wondered. A sour expression appeared on her face at the unsettling thought.
“Apricot?” She let out a shriek as the voice startled her. Her chest grew heavy as she turned her head to see Sato standing with a camera in hand. “Hey sorry about scaring you like that. Wow, never thought I would see you here? What’s with the weird clothes? You look like a ninja.” He laughed.
Her heart pounded harder. She was found out. She had to play it cool. After all, she did not know if she had raised suspicion yet. “Oh, my goodness! Sato! You scared the hell out of me. This place is creepy as it is.”
“Oh, excuse me. I just happened to see a dark figure walking down the hall with a sword. What the heck is with all that stuff, anyway?” Sato asked. She could barely make out his perplexed face in the dim glow of the emergency lights.
Apricot nodded her head. “Yeah, I guess this would look kind of weird. It was an old costume I had. Heh, figured the bugs could not crawl down something so tight. The sword well, I did not want to get mugged in here. I have been thinking about that a lot lately. I know I’m a little paranoid but I figured it was better than being at someone’s mercy.”
Sato gave a suspicious nod of agreement, though she could tell he found her response strange. A nervous sigh escaped her lips. “Well, ah I guess I can kind of understand that after all you’ve been through.” Sato took a step forward. “Still why are you here? How did you get in?”
“I am investigating the infestation. I wanted a closer look.” Apricot replied, hoping her ruse would escape suspicion. “How did you get in?”
“Yeah, well, I am kind of here for the same reason. I sneaked past the police. You know this place is under lockdown right now. The police are not even coming in. Actually, from what I hear, there are still people trapped in the building. They have strict orders not to enter though.”
“That is kind of scary to think about. Hope they turn up. Seems like we both have the same idea.” Apricot laughed. Suddenly, she felt a vibration against her leg. Her eyes widen instinctually. She immediately concealed her reflexive action by adopting a dull expression. One of the guys must have spotted something. “Hey Sato, I ah I got to run.”
Sato shook his head. “I am not letting you walk around here alone. It could be dangerous. We should stick together.”
The vibration started again. “Really, Sato, I am fine.”
“I insist,” Sato replied firmly. “I would die of guilt if anything happened to you.” Apricot pursed her lips slightly blowing a puff of air. “What?” Sato asked.
“I don’t need you to babysit me. I am fine on my own,” Apricot said. Sato’s expression told her he was not having any of that. “I have to run,” she said to herself not really wanting to. “Well, Sato. Tell you what. I will let you follow me if you can keep up.” She laughed before disappearing into the shadows of the halls.
“Wait!” Her leg started vibrating again as she took random corners down the hall. “Apricot!” Sato shouted as she turned each corner. After twisting and turning in the halls, she arrived at the stairs.
After continuing up and getting on another fire escape, she assumed that Sato was lost. The buzzing of bugs could be heard in the pitch blackness. The surrounding buzz grew stronger as she proceeded up the fire escape. “Thrack!” It was as if a rock had fallen on her. As she raised her hand to her cheek, Apricot could feel a red irritation beginning to form. “Thwack!” Another, then another, and yet another. She was being pelted by a variety of flying insects. As she looked around in the storm, she felt like she was in a movie. Absolute madness. Her heart pounded at the sight of the flashing lights of the police and the crowds growing, motivating her to run faster.
The razor claws of the insects clashed with the metal of Shiori’s segmented staff. Shiori blocked blow after blow from the mantis monster while alternating between her arms. Rotating the staff, Shiori saw his chance after the next block. Overextending the top segment of his staff, he clubbed the creature in the side of the head, causing it to stumble backward.
When the staff whirled towards the creature’s feet, it leaped out of the way flapping its four wings. In a flash, Shiori retracted, and the segments fly back into his hand just in time to block a strike aimed at his side. It was remarkable how far the monster reaches, he noted. Although he moved quickly, Shiori felt his stamina ebbing away quickly.
Shiori leaped back, extending out his arm from the chain of his staff so that it was aimed directly at the creature’s head. When the monster whipped its arm, several pieces of its carapace fly into the air, knocking the bludgeon to the ground.
Shiori spun the silver rod around his body and unleashed a crushing blow on the insect. The creature stumbled backward with every strike. He forced the monster into a cubicle, the artificial wall tumbled over into a slope over a desk.
Despite Shiori’s best efforts, the creature grabbed the rod, pulling her closer. Within range of the scythe, Shiori dodged left and right as the blades stabbed at his body. The rod was released when Shiori kicked the animal in its abdomen. A shriek erupted as Shiori withdraws his kick, and blood pours from its side. Seeing the creature stagger, Shiori pulled the rod from its grasp.
Both scythes collided with Shiori’s rods, knocking him back a step. As the blades bit into Shiori’s rod, the power was so great he fell to his knees. As Shiori rose to take another step back, he blocked another pair of blades as he slipped out from the attack. A tide of battle is raging between the two, trading blows rapidly without an end in sight.
The creature’s razor scythe slashed through the sheetrock as Shiori rolled aside a wall. It scraped down on the wall as Shiori retreated, leaving a deep fissure in the white wall. Snapping the ignition switch off the handle of the torch, he turned the gas all the way on. An explosion of flame erupted from the nozzle at the same time as the monster pulled his arm from the wall. A scream of agony is emitted by the insect as it was engulfed in flames. After removing the strap from the makeshift flame thrower, Shiori swings the canister at the target, causing it to strike with all the force of a bowling ball. The canister exploded in a blast of billowing flames, igniting the atmosphere around it immediately.
Thousands of insects scurry from the heat as the walls glow, moving and changing shape. The creature leaned against the ground, groaning. His shadow appeared to rise to his feet, a portion of his body blown open and his wings mangled. A powerful roar shook the ground as it turns to charge forward, diving through the flames.
“Shiori!“Shiori!“Shiori!,” Apricot screamed from the shadows as she drew her sword. With long slimy ends, the creature’s cracked carapace slid off its body. Despite being burned and bleeding, the creature crashed into Shiori, knocking him to the ground. It raised its head to snap at his face, only to bite down on his rod. The creature continued to push as its three semifunctional mandibles cut at his face. Seeing the creature dive off Shiori, Apricot lunged toward the open air. As it broke free, its body rotated to dive directly at Apricot.
The beast was struck in the ribs as she evaded. A painful shock traveled through her arm when her blade bounced off its carapace. Watching Apricot stand against the monster, Shiori struggled to stand up with the rod raised. The red eyes of the creature shone through the smokey darkness as it turned back toward Apricot. “How is that possible?” she exclaimed. “The silver did not hurt it!” Apricot screamed in her mind. When the reality of the situation dawned on her, she was terrified. Huffing, the creature squirted dark fluid from its open wound.
As Shiori smashed the creature’s eye with a wet pop, Apricot felt the wind of Shiori’s segmented rod fly past her face. A thick, inky layer of gore painted Apricot’s skin with the juices it contained. Following that, he jabbed the other end of his staff inside the creature’s chest; the rings pressing through a gap in its natural armor. Apricot, escaping her shock, leapt in and attacked the creature’s mouth, its fist slamming into her stomach. The wind was knocked out of her, as Shiori blocked the remaining scythe’s attack aimed at him.
Apricot rolled backward, landing on her back. The room started to rain as the sprinklers hissed. A scream emanated from her as she lunged at the creature again, stabbing it in the throat. The creature was thrown over Shiori’s shoulder as he wrapped the segmented rod around its neck. The blade is ripped free by Apricot mid-swing, and the insect’s upper body collapses. As everything around it disintegrated, its legs twitch and its circulatory system fell to the ground.
Shiori turned around and walked away from the sight. Her stomach lurched, and Apricot pushed up against the wall. As she vomited, a torrent of water splashed at her feet. With an exaggerated huff, Shiori turns his head toward her. “Took you long enough.”
Apricot stared down at her vomit. Rice and fish were clearly visible in it. Another convulsion hit her and she turned her head to feel her chest pound. “It’s alive. It was alive,” she said before puking again. “What is that?” She cried in a panic.
It dematerialized into a purple flame, floated before the two, then disappeared from the building. Taking flight after the wisp as the razor wings of the insects collided with Apricot’s skin, she let out a scream and fell to her knees.
“We need to leave now,” Shiori said.
Apricot looked around. “Where is Cortez?”
“I would like to know that myself,” Shiori said. “Then again, I really couldn’t care less. He is exactly who I expected him to be.”
“Shiori, I am scared… someone saw me and they know me.” Shiori’s gaze shifted uncomfortably toward Apricot’s eyes. She could feel the fear that was shared.
“Looks like all our masks are being removed. Does it chill you to the bone?”
The next chapter is waiting for you, why not read it? Just click the button below to go to the next chapter.
While running through the busy streets, Akagi dodged and weaved through pedestrians. Approaching the twin doors of the Spook House, he grasped their handles with both hands. Despite his tugging, the doors won’t budge. He yelled “Shiori!” at the door. From the wooden ornations surrounding the glass, he noticed Shiori’s office light is on. “He’s in there,” he said. Before kicking the door, he frowned. “He must hear me, too. You jerk.” Akagi looked to the alleyway. “I’ll show him.”
Keeping an eye out for other people, Akagi scanned the crowded streets. When the coast was clear, he slipped down the alley with his computer bag in hand. Approaching the back door, he checked the digital lock. “Now let’s see,” Akagi said as he placed his hand on the keypad. Using his palm, he pressed on each key. An access denied message appeared on the LCD. After a second press, the system displayed the same message. “Come on.” He repeated it again, but this time access denied remains on the screen. After removing his hand, he smiled smugly and backed away.
Eventually, the door opens, revealing Shiori painted with a down-turned face. “What do you want, little brat?” growled Shiori as the alarm blares.
Akagi laughed happily. “I knew the alarm would go off.”
In the end, Shiori pushed Akagi against the wall. He yelled, “You little punk, I’m busy.”
“Nah,” Akagi replied, pulling his computer out of his bag. Shiori leaned over Akagi. “You’ll drop it when I show you what I have.”
“We’ll see,” he growled.
Akagi works the keyboard with his magic hands while sitting at Shiori’s desk, his laptop open. Shiori paces the floor with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “When was the last time you saw Mitsura Okabe?”
Shiori frowned in displeasure. “A couple of days ago,” he recalled, unamused. “Why? You got some compromising pictures of him or something?”
“It was something like that. I received a communication from the inner Okabe family council.” Shiori glances at Akagi, working on his laptop, “I got into their D-Link servers like you asked.” This information raises his eyebrows. “That wasn’t Mitsura you saw the other day, even though you might have thought you did. You saw a digital construct of him.”
Shiori stopped pacing and asked, “What? Are you referring to holograms? He sick or something?”
“Nah, fraid not, he croaked. Half of the council is dead, from what I can tell.” Akagi turned his laptop so Shiori could view the open letters he collected. As Shiori adjusted the screen, his eyes were filled with fascination. “Good work?”
As he continued to read, he smiled as he said, “Damn good work! Akagi, do you realize what we have proof of? This completely changes everything.”
Despite his smirk, Akagi continued. “Mmmhm, the only thing I can’t figure out who’s behind all of this. I keep hearing someone referred to as the high priestess or the empress. The high priestess died about a year ago. Who is this new empress?”
When Shiori became overly interested in something, Akagi never liked the look he got. It reminded him of a vicious wolf looking at its prey. Behind that gaze, there was something sinister, but he was also glad to let it out. “How about a game? My little prodigy, this will be fun. Let’s get this “empress” out to the public.”
Shiori peered out of the window of his high-rise apartment. As he observed the reflection of his television, a smile appeared on his face. He watched a live news broadcast. There are several ministers and officials gathered around a podium where Mitsura will speak. The morning sun reflects off the towers, blocking the beams. He takes a deep breath and his face calms.
Taking his place in front of the crowd, Mitsura bent the microphone closer to his mouth and spoke. Using hand gestures, Mitsura explained Okabe’s hopes for the future. After a few minutes, it happens. Seeing the sun glint in his eyes, Shiori grinned. Mitsura has disappeared, and the hologram has been turned off in front of everyone. The speech continues. Suddenly, the news station shuts down. Anchors immediately try to explain away the situation, their faces covered in horror. A whisper comes from Shiori. He said, “I win.”
Toward a crystal blue sky rose the city of Blue Ash, a city of shining silver towers. While Solenne rode her white and blue police tricoa, the gleaming sun lights the streets with its easy traffic. As she passed each vehicle, she glanced over her digital HUD, dressed in her uniform.
“Another relaxed morning.” Solenne thought to herself. An overpass’s shadow covered her in a chill while she rode under it. The ramp opened to reveal a view of the city as she approached the large police station in Blue Ash City. The regular police and the special defense police are both housed in the same building. The front two-thirds are the property of the regular police, while the rear is exclusively the SDP’s.
A gentleman at the entrance greeted her with a warm smile, “Good morning, Miss Solenne.”
Solenne bowed. “Morning Walter. You look rather rosy.”
A light blush covered his bubbly nose. “Well, it’s always a bright day when I see you.”
Solenne smiled as she walked through the automatic glass doors. The police station’s interior resembled a hospital. The walls are a sterile white color that doesn’t belong. As she continued down the hall toward her office, she gave subtle greetings to other officers along the way. After entering her office, she sat at her desk and looked over her work tray full of papers. “So much for an easy morning,” Solenne complained.
She immediately began her work by typing the usual daily reports. “Hey, you got it too.” said a young man. Solenne glanced over to see a brown-haired man with a toothy grin hanging on her office door. “I got it bad too this morning. Apparently, there was a lot of activity on the south side of town. Lots of missing persons. Not to mention that whole thing with Mitsura Okabe being missing.”
Solenne’s heart immediately skipped a beat at hearing the news. “Mitsura is missing!?”
“Apparently, they have been using a hologram for him speaking. Just got released this morning. No one knows what the hell is going on. The media department is going absolutely nuts trying to handle the situation. It’s going to be a long day.” the man said, taking a swig of coffee.
“Seems like the workload doesn’t get any easier.” Solonne moaned.
“It’s damn near a crisis.” the guy said before looking at the ground. “Heh, well, I will let you get to it.”
“Seeya Joji.” Solenne looked at her keyboard, releasing a deep breath.
A few hours later, Solenne had a stack of papers to file. She shuffled them into a large binder. Opening the binder, she reached for the first page. After lifting a stamp from its well, she pressed it onto the page. It left a red mark that reads SDP Class 7 when she removed the wooden rectangle. As she walked down the long hall, she found herself in a filing room lined with several large computers. With her badge in hand, she placed the stack of papers on top of one of the large white machines. She drew her badge from her side, placing it onto a small glass screen. The machine beeps, allowing her access.
She hastily scanned each page, one after the other. Solenne was about halfway through the stack when she grabbed the keyboard and begins searching the files. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked to see if anyone was watching her. Once she considered herself in the clear, she added a set of files to her print load, then returned to scanning the rest of the documents as if everything was ordinary.
“You could actually get them,” Apricot exclaimed with a huge grin on her face. Solenne hands the folder over sheepishly.
“I feel so dirty.” Solenne groaned.
Apricot shook her head. “Don’t worry.” She flipped through the pages in the manilla folder”It’s not like these aren’t publicly available. It would just have taken me forever to get my hands on all this info.”
Solenne tilted her head. “It really was nothing, right? Why are you writing about the ruling family? Did you know about Mitsura’s disappearance?”
“No, that kind of came as a shock to me. However, the Okabe family has interested me for a long time. They have been here since the feudal era. It is not often we preserve a rich history such as theirs.” Still eyeing the files, Apricot stumbled upon a photo of a person torn to pieces. Splintered and stretched flesh was visible on the stretched organs. Her eyes grow wide as she glances up to see Solenne’s stern eyes.
Solenne frowned. “That, you know what that is a picture of?” Apricot turned, feeling her face fall as she nodded. “That’s the detective you asked me for information on. Sadly, his file was tampered with, but here is a picture of his autopsy. There was no way to reconstruct the body,” she sighs. “According to reports, it hit the department hard. It was before my time, but I can’t imagine if someone I worked with turned up like that.”
“What did the report say happened to Detective Long?” Apricot could feel a lump in her throat forming as the words left her tongue.
“You got all of it in that file.” Solenne’s lips purse into a down-turned frown. “What have you got yourself involved in, Apricot? You have been acting funny lately. I don’t like this. This is not a matter of investigation. Fess up.” Apricot felt her heart tighten. The firm fingers of Solenne’s hand rubbed against Apricot’s shoulder. “I am worried about that neural agent you were exposed to.”
She felt her face scrunch as the words rang empty in her mind. “Neural agent?” she retorted.
“How can you forget? You were ground zero, the market attack!” Solenne barked. “See, this is what I am worried about. It’s not normal Apricot.” As Solenne’s eyes winced, tears flow down her cheeks. “I am worried enough about Arjun. I don’t need this from you either. Tell me what is happening to you, Apricot.”
Without any thought, Apricot replied, “I am just doing my job, Solenne.” The words felt cold, colder than usual. They clearly stung as Solenne removes her hand turning away from Apricot.
“Whatever hun, just get some help or figure stuff out,” Solenne said as she continued walking towards the alleyway. Apricot wanted to reach out to her, but her body was not willing. Solenne stopped and without even a glance said, “I don’t want to know why you needed those files and don’t tell me. This is the last time I help you, though.” The clicking of her heels on the pavement grows more distant as Apricot watched her leave.
“Why are you sulking?” Shiori asked, looking at Apricot across the bar as she walked into the Spook House. She threw the file down in front of Shiori and Cortez, who were seated on stools at the bar. Cortez raised his beer glass to his lips and took a sip. “Well, you pulled through after all.” Shiori laughed. “That is my girl.”
As Apricot sat on the stool next to Cortez, she rested her arms on the counter. “So, you two are friends?”
“Hardly,” Cortez said. “I’m just here for this meeting. Think of it as a favor for helping me out. I hear you had yourself a good run with a phantom.”
Apricot shrugged. “Fifth one this week. Shiori, I really need a day off.”
“We’ll see.” Shiori grabbed the file and quickly parses it. “I see you have the locations I needed,” Shiori said. “Hopefully, from here I will find some of their lesser-known shrines. If they don’t turn up anything, I’m lost. Cortez boy filled me in on your background. Oh, and I didn’t find your monster. It must lurk deep within the depths of that place. Under the city, licking his wounds.” Shiori placed the folder on the table and brought his face close to Apricot’s. “Dear, you never answered me. What’s up with your long face?”
“Shut up Shiori.” she groaned, turning her back against the bar. “You just let me worry about my own problems.”
“So, what do we do now?” Cortez asked.
Shiori smirked as he raised his eyes. “We don’t do anything. After looking through these, I will make a shortlist of places to explore, and then we will arrange to investigate these places. For now, the two of you, don’t be suspicious. Carry on about your lives as if nothing is happening.”
“Tch,” Cortez chuckled. “Right, as if nothing is happening. I got some ghost clown from who knows where telling me the world is going to end if we don’t stop it. My boss has turned into a damn beast. Sounds perfectly normal to me. The gang is probably after me if there is anyone left. Some demon spawns from hell are crawling all around while everyone seems to be oblivious and the nobles are in on it too. Yeah, real damn normal Shiori.”
Shiori shakes his head. “The “Okabe” nobles are in on it.”
“Hell, what’s the difference? They’re the only nobles who matter here, anyway. The damn province is named after them.”
Apricot laid her head down on her arms. “Taking a rest sounds good. Seems like we’ve been doing a lot of getting nowhere. I mean, how many of them have we killed? There is no end to them.”
“For now, but if I am right, and that Claw Fingers was right, we are about to turn the tide in this little war of ours.” Shiori placed a glass next to Apricot. “Here, have a drink and get yourself home for some rest. Cortez, do yourself a favor and get yourself some, too. I think both of you could use it.”
Apricot was engulfed in the smell of the city. It had a sulfurous smell mixed with sweat. Togashi leaned behind the bar, a shining glass in his hands, as she approached from the rainy front doors with a smirk. “So the investigations were fruitless?” Togashi asked. Apricot scratched her head as she slumped onto the bar, her mind filled with frustration. “Eh, we have the saying in our home country. Rain comes when rain comes. A path opens eventually.” Apricot nodded, not particularly interested in hearing Togashi’s little sayings at the moment.
The truth was the group had been investigating the Okabe family for weeks now and still no clear plans have been uncovered. Their tracks are almost completely hidden as if they had no involvement whatsoever. As Apricot contemplated this, she wondered if they were being sent on a rouse for nefarious purposes. There were still plenty of monstrous phantoms to contend with within the city. Beyond Shiori uncovering some sort of internal overthrow, there is absolutely nothing to base conclusions on. But perhaps that is a blessing.
Resting her weary head on the redwood bar, she glanced over to Cortez, who lay on a red leather couch, face tucked down, eyes closed. “How long has he been here?”
Togashi raised his head, glancing in Cortez’s direction. “All day. Sleeping, I think. Is he homeless?“
“No.“ Apricot said. At least she didn’t think so, but then again, she hadn’t thought of that before. In the aftermath of Cortez’s encounter with Genova, he seems to have turned a new leaf. However, the group did not seem to trust him. Although he tolerated Shiori for the most part. There were several occasions when he accompanied the group. Additionally, she had gained the affection of Sumai and the rest of the group, but that is a story for another day. “Hey! Togashi, grab me a drink.”
“Drink, you? That’s new,” Togashi remarked with a puzzled face.
A weathered groan escaped Apricot. She thought of the many ways she could respond to that line of questioning. Some sassy quip. Maybe she wanted to comment on his lack of reading a situation. She ultimately decided against it. If anything, she knew when her own nerves were stretched. She did not need to add to the tension. “Well, a lot has been changing lately.”
The twin doors to the back room opened as Shiori walked out. His eyes were drawn to Apricot immediately. His face lit up with a smile. “Oh, you arrived. I thought I heard you.” Shiori chirped.”Well, did the shrine turn up anything?”
“We are in the dark, Shiori.” Apricot sighed. Search for what seemed like endless shrines. Places of worship, altars and old stone statues, trees of strange shapes, and people of odd appearance. Nothing.
“Could be worse,” Cortez snorted while he arose from his slumber, stretching with a long yawn. Shiori made his way over to the back of the bar next to Togashi. “We could have normal lives with nothing to do.” Apricot rolled her eyes at the constant sarcasm. It grated on her, but then again she was guilty of it too. It seemed stress brought that out, like scraping to find a touch of humor just to lighten things up, even if the sarcasm was its most desperate form.
“Where are Sumai and Junko?” Shiori asked.
Togashi grabbed a bottle of amber liquid and poured a shot. “Sumai and Junko are out hunting,” he replied, handing over the drink to Apricot. “Checking out the lake monster rumor.” Apricot drank from the glass, taking a quick swig. Upon tasting the substance in her mouth, her face turned bitter. Her mouth opened as she swallowed and allowed some air to enter to stop the burning sensation. The glare Shiori gave Togishi could kill a man. “I gave her something light. It’s floral honey bourbon,” he replied quickly.
With a boom, the entrance doors slammed open, startling everyone in the room. As the door opened, a man in vintage warrior clothes entered the room. The way he walked reflected a seriousness of purpose in his strides – like that of a soldier, perhaps. “You two better get out of the way,” Shiori told Apricot as she arose from her seat alongside Cortez. From the corner of her eye, she saw Togashi draw a pistol, cocking it with a click.
Toward the back of the room, Apricot and Cortez made their way. Shiori’s steps seemed to reverberate throughout the room, amidst the dull chatter of unaware clients. With a booming voice, the stranger shouted, “May I have everyone’s attention!” The chatter dulled for the strange old soldier. He turned to Shiori, who had stepped in front of the bar. Apricot imagined the man smirking behind the black mask as he said, “Master Kinjo, I have a message from our lady Kyo.” As the man hollered “Au Ra-voir,” Shiori grabbed a metal baking sheet from the counter to shield his chest and stomach as two black submachine guns rose from the soldier’s side. In an instant, they scream peppering the cast iron plate. Everyone in the building scrambles for any exit they can find.
As Shiori rolled over the counter, he released the pan and took cover. “Why are you running?” he asked. The soldier marched closer, both guns hanging from tethered cables. The man cackled, “Accept your fate!”.
“Run Shiori,” Togashi ordered as he fired another barrage of bullets. The soldier danced as he dodged bullets with impossible movements. Apricot was in awe as she watched the man move. The panic surrounding her slowed to a standstill. He is beautiful, like something from a movie. In spite of this, he flicked his wrists and retrieved two metallic tubes from within his sleeves as reality sinks in. His toss toward the counter launched the two tubes into the air. One fluid motion practiced hundreds of thousands of times before. Now set forth into action. From behind the counter, Togashi grabbed Shiori and propelled him away from the twin objects. As Shiori was pushed beyond the bar, he stopped next to a table. He broke the leg off with a kick as he shielded himself behind the table. The two objects bounce and land about a foot from Togashi. The erupting power caused the counter to shatter into a thousand shards as he tumbles over the bar.
“You have interfered in the Okabe family’s affairs for the last time. Your punishment is death.” The man said again, grabbing a gun from his side and firing again at the table. Shiori rolls out of the way and fires with a thick pistol at the man.
“What the hell! Apricot move!” Cortez growled, grasping her arm. A firm, sudden tug jarred her out of her trance. “We have to go!” Cortez shouted, almost dragging Apricot with him. Watching Togashi fire a few shots at the man, she sees the bullets miss every time. But that is impossible. Apricot then notices that the bullets are fleeing from him. Togashi fires another round of bullets, and it hits the table next to him. While watching, Apricot concludes that the bullets arc away from him. The assassin lept from the balcony to the ground below. “Foolish Kinjo stray!” the man exclaimed before opening fire again. Shiori misses being hit by the volley as he moves back behind the smoking counter.
Apricot and Cortez hide behind an ornate wooden pillar. “Cortez, take action!” Apricot commanded.
Cortez shook his head. “That’s an assassin. I hear they’re specially designed for such things. Ta hell if I’m going to get killed. If we leave him alone, we might make it out of here alive.” Suddenly, the anti-fire system turned on and the building is awash in a steady stream of water.
“Lady Kyo is crazy. What the hell is she up to? A war!” Shiori yelled at Togashi.
Among the black iron cafe tables, Togashi hides from view. “Sir, it is wise to run.” A few bullets bounced off the table, leaving dents.
Shiori’s back is lit by a flash behind the wall, and Apricot gasped. The image of the cloaked troopers at the bank comes to mind. “Shiori behind you!” Before he could turn from the ruins of the counter, static grabbed his throat.
“Your execution is now!” The assassin declared, raking his knife across Shiori’s neck.
“Master Kinjo!” Togashi cried as he rose from his feet.
Shiori grabbed the attacker’s arms and threw him on top of the countertop, hanging him. A spring-loaded blade was released from Shiori’s boot and he kicked the soldier in the head. The dagger sank deep into his body. He repeatedly ripped chunks out of his head, leaving a sickening squelch and crack behind. After looking down, Shiori realizes his foot is half in his head; his brain is nothing more than a lump of meat.
“Shiori!” Apricot cried as she ran across the debris-smeared floor to him. As he looked at Apricot with eyes like a wild beast, he raised a hand to his bleeding throat. She had never seen a look like that from him before. It wasn’t human. “Are you alright?” she screamed. Shiori just grinned as he looked back at the man.
“He thought he had me. Probably died thinking it, too.” He glanced up from the bloodied corpse. “Funny thing. I got dermal sheathing in my neck,” He remarked, poking the hole with his finger to reveal metal plating. “My father insisted,” he snickered nervously. “I thought it was a touch over the top. Guess I was damn wrong about that.”
Cortez snorted. “You had trouble there.”
“When they’re not allergic to silver… I don’t fare so well in the fighting department.” He turned his head as he walked past Apricot and Cortez towards the broken glass bottles. “Well, I got to get myself patched up and then I got some cleaning to do. Would you two care to show yourselves out? Togashi, can you take me to the black clinic?”
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