Episode Twenty Six - Caustic Conditions
After their successful contract for Lorraine Duvelle, the New Pirates beat out Lightning Royalty and attained the glamorous rank two of Baya.
King Kuro personally invited the entire crew for a congratulatory meeting in the throne room. Of course, this grand opportunity would undoubtedly be a most awkward experience.
And the crew expects no less.
The New Pirates stand quietly as the wide elevator ascends the Citadel tower.
“So is anyone going to mention to King Kuro that three crews ganged up on us? Or are we pretending it didn’t happen?” blurts Juniper, breaking the silence.
The violent injuries of the last hunt run painfully rampant among the crew. Juniper has aches around her head and spine while Renzo struggles with an unsightly welt on his head.
For the past few days, Zylo’s watched them constantly massage the same muscles on their bodies like a new lifestyle. Juniper would massage her left shoulder muscle while eating a bowl of cereal, and Renzo would rub the welt on his head during his naps. Sometimes at the table, they would be massaging each other’s wounds while happily eating pancakes, though interrupted now and then by a sudden scowl of pain.
Kitsune perhaps suffers the worst, but he brings no attention to it. Most of his face is swollen and bruised, only modestly covered by his thin rectangular sunglasses. He’s been acting nonchalant around the crew, but the image of Kitsune’s sad, defeated body slumped under Jacks that day stands vivid in Zylo’s mind.
Compared to his crewmates, Zylo fared the best. Either he didn’t take much of a beating from the fight, or his maddened rage placed him in some invulnerable pain-resistant mode. Nearly every sore and ache on his body recovered the next day, leaving him with only slight inklings of injury.
“No. No one says a word about the hunt,” Kitsune declares in a direct tone. “Don’t bring any attention to it. Just let King Kuro say what he wants to say, and we leave.”
“Fine,” says Juniper.
The strict tone of Kitsune’s voice is strange—he isn’t usually so serious. Something’s wrong, but no one bothers to mention it.
After another minute of silence, the elevator comes to a stop.
They shuffle out in a steady rhythm up the red carpeted steps until reaching the large phoenix inscribed doors. Without any action from the crew, the doors autonomously slide out to the sides and the four Pirates march into the enormous throne room.
The panels along the walls are closed and the only sources of light stream from the glowing white neon rods by the columns. Beside the throne are the same two bodyguards standing in the exact same spots, staring at the crew with the same blank look.
‘This place must be awfully dull without a television and only these two party animals to hang out with.’
The New Pirates walk past the motionless bodyguards toward the first set of small steps. As they approach, King Kuro stands and welcomes them with a light bow. Respectfully, the crew returns the bow in unison, except for Kitsune, Zylo notices.
King Kuro begins, “What a privilege! I’ve been watching the New Pirates rise up the ranks, and so very impressive! In seven and a half months, you’ve gone from rank eight to rank two. Extraordinary.” He smiles and lightly claps his hands. “I guess no matter where I put you two, Kitsune and Renzo, you’ll succeed.”
Kitsune and Renzo are unmoved, keeping silent and composed in the face of the King.
The Grandmaster turns his attention to one specific Pirate, “And who would’ve guessed that you, Zylo, would become such a fine hunter in this short amount of time.”
“The Elder Council has already looked over your progress and is also thoroughly impressed. I will arrange a high bounty for the New Pirates by the next rotation, among other benefits, I assure you.”
The crew gratefully bows, except for Kitsune, who stands tall staring at King Kuro through his shades.
Zylo, Renzo, and Juniper, say aloud, “Thank you.”
The New Pirates recent fame is not without backlash. Even during their short walk back to the dining hall, Flash Dee and Parker Jay of Lightning Royalty scowl in envious contempt.
To this, Juniper promptly responds with an aggressive taunt, “If you wanna fight the champs, let’s go!”
Of course, they wouldn’t. They don’t have the gall to fight the New Pirates. News of their success against three entire crews spread throughout the Citadel, only encouraging the image of their battle prowess. Some crews applaud their accomplishment, while others resent.
The more important message is clear, however. Baya crews are willing to band together to take down the New Pirates.
Easing through the crowded dining hall, the crew snatches a table amid the noisy ruckus. Juniper constantly scans the sides, her paranoia keeping her on light toes. Honestly, she’d rather settle with a fight than put up with all this passive aggression from the other crews.
“Since no one ever explained,” Zylo asks, “what is the Elder Council?”
Renzo is the first to respond, “They are the foundation of the Baya. The entire system of contracts, and hunters, and the laws for the balance of life force are regulated by them.”
“Yeah but, who are they? Where do they live?”
“Probably somewhere within the Citadel tower…I think.” Juniper massages an ache on the back of her head again. “Chances are, they’re super old, and I don’t think anyone has ever seen them, aside from King Kuro.”
Kitsune abruptly joins the conversation and elaborates, “There’s a transporter platform in the throne room that takes you to the Council’s chamber.”
“Oh,” the crew nods.
Juniper continues her line of questioning, “So, what does the King do in the throne room anyway? Just chills out on his seat all day? I assume he doesn’t hunt anymore.”
“No, he doesn’t hunt. He only acts as the voice for the Elder Council,” Renzo explains, “whatever the Council decides, he puts into action within the hunter crews.”
“Renzo, you don’t have to speak so highly of the King. He’s not watching you right now.” Kitsune abruptly climbs out of his seat. “Any of you guys hungry? Actually, I’m gonna get a drink.” He gracefully shoves his way through the crowd of hunters to the bar.
“Was there something weird with Kitsune before, when we were meeting King Kuro?” Zylo asks.
Juniper leans close to a whisper and glances to the bar, “Before? What about just now?”
Renzo sits with arms crossed, and clears his throat, “We hunted with King Kuro before he was King. They were good friends. Being demoted by him and replaced with Jacks probably left a bitter sore somewhere beneath that tough exterior.”
“Oh,” utters Zylo and Juniper, disappointedly sitting back up.
Renzo adds, “Though I’m sure getting beat up by three crews has something to do with his attitude too.” His hulking body lifts from the seat, “I need to use the restroom,” and he disappears to the other end of the room.
Juniper quickly leans toward Zylo, “So, tell me right now. How did you and Kitsune know about the Spades bounty? How did you know they’d be getting a big one?”
‘I don’t know what to tell ya, Junie.’
“I don’t know what to tell ya, Junie,” Zylo replies nonchalantly.
“Three crews joined up to ambush us. I got my ass beat for this, so if you know what’s going on, you’d better tell me right now!” Juniper passionately yells and fortunately, none of the other hunters seemed to notice.
Zylo doesn’t want to keep any secrets among the crew, and especially not from Juniper. “Okay. Two weeks ago, that night at the sushi place. When Kitsune and I went to the bathroom, we overheard King Kuro and the Spades talk about a bounty. The King was setting one up for them and for some reason, Kitsune wanted to steal it…really badly. Maybe they knew we were eavesdropping and set up the whole thing, I don’t know.”
Juniper sits back and stretches her neck. The loud cracks of her joints pop louder than firecrackers. “Jeez. Neither of you decided to mention this, why?”
“Sorry, I didn’t think we’d get so beat up—”
“Hell yeah we got beat up! I’m still mad.” She aggressively crosses her arms and pouts her lips.
“Aw, you’re so cute when you’re mad.” Zylo lightly pokes her cheek.
Renzo returns from the restroom with an anxious look on his face, if that is even possible. “Hey, guys. We have a new bounty on the board, and I hear it’s a really big one.”
“Huh?” mutters Juniper, while Zylo says, “That’s the second time in five minutes someone’s said, ‘big one’.”
Renzo scans the room. “Where’s Kitsune?”
No one paid any attention, but Kitsune left for some time now.
“Well, let’s go check it out,” Juniper leads the way.
A noisy swarm of hunters are crowded around the bounty board chattering and shouting. Only when the three members of the New Pirates appear does the room dramatically become quieter. A path is slowly cleared as the other hunters glare sternly at the passing Pirates.
“What’s going on?” Zylo follows close behind the tall protective Renzo standing almost a foot higher. Zylo need not be concerned, because Renzo is there, and he will always be there.
Reaching the bounty box, Juniper pulls out the newest contract and lays it out on the table. The three crewmates quickly skim through the details and almost immediately spot the cause of the commotion.
Contract Bounty: Vetus Fei
Bounty Reward: 350,000 Soul
Location: Cherry Maple Road
Default Baya Crew: New Pirates
Contracted for: Obstruction of peace; Contributing to social disorder
Their eyes stop and they exchange anxious looks with one another. Jackpot.
“Three hundred and fifty…thousand?” Juniper whispers. “Holy shit!”
Zylo leans away, “This must be the high reward contract King Kuro set up for us… That was fast. There’ll definitely be a full roster of rivaling crews for this one.”
Then, he notices a strange detail on the contract. “Guilty of…obstruction of peace? Contributing to social disorder? Aren’t the reasons usually…a little more specific?”
“Yes, it’s strange…” Renzo’s eyes closely examine every word of the contract.
Juniper doesn’t care, and smiles excitedly, “Either way, let’s go. This is a huge payout, so let’s get on it.”
Renzo signs the contract, takes the notice, and the crew makes for the exit.
“Get outta the way!” Juniper threatens, aggressively stomping through the obstructing hunters. Making friends is not a priority with such a large contract on the line.
The three Pirates relocate to an abandoned office building. More energetic than usual, Juniper eagerly leads the way into the street.
The sun hits their eyes, cheerfully marking the beginning of their promising day. Zylo, on the other hand, doesn’t share Juniper’s enthusiasm, and can’t help but feel bothered by the contract. “Neither of you guys think this is weird? At all?”
“I do, somewhat,” Renzo replies.
“Guys,” Juniper paces ahead and walks backward to face them. “Stop worrying about that. After this contract, we’ll all be nearly finished with our Soul requirements. That means new life!”
‘She’s right. The reward for this contract is more than two times the average Soul I make a month. I’d be nearly done after this. For good. I’d finally get my life back for…
For whatever reason.’
Following a winding uphill road, they walk past an archway entering a bright cemetery. The trees and grass are a healthy green, nourished by the sun’s warm and nurturing rays. The gravel road crunches under their feet while a constant breeze cools their warm, sun basked bodies.
“Did you guys know any hunters that successfully revived?” asks Zylo.
“Yes,” answers Renzo. “Lucille, from the Immortal Aces.”
Juniper nods, “Ooh…yeah. She was part of your crew. I’ve seen her picture before, she was cute.”
“…Yes… she was,” Renzo mutters.
Somehow, Zylo feels like he knows who they’re talking about.
“You four were unstoppable,” Juniper adds. “You, Kitsune, Lucille, and King Kuro, before he became King.”
“Lucille could Shield too, just like you, Zylo,” Renzo informs.
“Really? Kitsune’s never mentioned her.” Zylo suddenly realizes he knows little about Kitsune and Renzo. They’ve never revealed much of themselves to him, and he’s only received hints of their past from numerous anecdotes. “You’d think someone would’ve told me sooner.”
Juniper continues, “All of these guys were inseparable.”
“Yes, but she revived. That was the end of that.” Renzo’s voice is clear and noticeably firm. He meant every word but his tone demanded the end to the conversation.
The road passes lush green fields of maple trees and statues of old heroes. This is the well-known Cherry Maple road, a long and straight path that cuts through a string of parks and cemeteries.
Further down the path, long columns of tall, pink cherry blossom trees stretch along both sides of the road, possibly blooming for the first time this year.
The warm sunlight pierces through the cloudy sky, highlighting the pink and white petals fluttering like beautiful winter snowflakes. There are tombstones and graves sprinkled with layers of these delicate petals, forming a peaceful flower wonderland over the ominous cemetery.
Many friends and family would have picnics beside their lost one’s graves, in hopes of enjoying the beauty of spring together.
“How could this bounty be worth three hundred and fifty-thousand? I don’t get this.” Zylo nags again. The issue is clearly annoying him.
‘First Lorraine, and now this one, Vetus Fei. What crimes did they commit? Obstruction of peace? This doesn’t make sense.
But wait! How could I have forgotten to ask? Somehow, I’ve been so caught up with hunting these past few months that I completely forgot the question I’ve had since the very beginning. It was only until Lorraine did I finally remember. Why was I contracted?’
“Renzo,” Zylo starts. “Was it you or Kitsune who picked up my contract?”
Renzo remains silent, eyes staring ahead.
Though reluctant, Renzo replies, “Why do you wish to know?”
Juniper quickly paces ahead of them, keeping distant and silent.
“Because, I want to know why I was contracted, and why I was hunted. The person who took my contract would know.”
“Perhaps when the time is right, you should talk to Kitsune.”
“So, he signed my contract? Not you?” Zylo eases.
“I don’t want to speak for him, but if you must know, then yes. Kitsune took your contract.” Renzo tilts down to Zylo as they walk, “I’m sure he’s wanted to tell you for a long time.”
After a few minutes, the cemetery ends but the cherry blossoms continue. Suddenly, Zylo feels the compelling presence of the bounty’s Soul heavier than any other bounty he’s ever sensed. A gentle warmth wafts over his body and riles his instincts. A constant aura, a presence, lingers beside him every step of the way.
‘This is the Soul of the bounty?Who is this?’
Zylo looks ahead.
The park is calm and tranquil. The road is devoid of people and noise aside from the ruffling of tree leaves and branches in the wind.
Then, as though materialized when no one was looking, the crew notices a peculiar cottage sitting under the sun within a grass field. Even at first glance, Zylo knows.The bounty is there.