Volume 11, Interlude: A Look Into Their Lives

“I’m not surprised you finally moved over here. The Shakai Group controls ninety percent of all major businesses in the region,” Jessica Staccato said, glancing over a resume.

“I’ve known Felicity since high school. Her family has always been strict. Even if her parents aren’t CEO anymore, they’re still involved. I figured things wouldn’t change,” Ko stated.

Ko made a name for herself as an adviser for many budding entrepreneurs. However, the Shakai Group’s influence proved too strong, and many of those small businesses were absorbed into the corporation. To people on the outside, they were allowed their own autonomy. However, there existed rumors that the large company mandated non-negotiable guidelines. There was never any evidence to collaborate such claims.

“Konoe offered you a job. Why did you turn it down?” Jessica questioned.

“It’s not the right fit for me. Besides, I could never work for a company like that. It’s all a little too stuffy for me,” Ko replied.

“And you think my company isn’t?” Jessica pressed her.

“Of course. I’ve worked with enough people to know how you run things. Look, I didn’t graduate with a business degree like Felicity. But, I’ve worked enough places and made enough connections to really help people out when they’re just starting,” Ko responded.

“I do like interesting people. Oh, excuse me, I’m getting a call. Do you mind waiting outside while I take it?” the woman requested.

“Of course,” Ko obliged, walking out of the office.

The head of Sica tapped a button on her board and a frantic voice came through. Staccato didn’t like unscheduled distractions, especially when conducting a job interview. However, the caller on the line only called if it was a real emergency.

“What is it, Doctor Xiao?” Jessica asked.

“Don’t start off by calling me that, Jessica! It’s a serious matter that the company is dealing with. Why am I even involved on the business side when I’m suppose to be a researcher?” the head of the Sica R&D team shouted.

“It must be bad if you’re already using that tone with me,” Jessica remarked.

“Of course it’s a big deal! The Shakai Group is finally making their move!” Doctor Xiao revealed.

“Oh, that’s nothing. Just ignore it and they’ll go away,” Jessica dismissed.

“They’ve already started contacting our shareholders, Jessica. I know they made advances in the past, but this is the most blatant they’ve been about it in the past few years. Are you really not concerned at all?” the researcher said.

Jessica leaned back on her chair, remaining silent. It was true that in the past two years, the Shakai Group made their intentions clear about acquiring Sica. Being the president, she knew what they were capable of when her company agreed to a working partnership with them. The woman had the smallest of hopes that when Konoe was named the new CEO, there would be a culture shift. Still, the Sica head always planned ahead so this sudden surge by the Shakai Group was nothing but a minor annoyance. One that could be dealt with ease.

“Castalia, inform all the shareholders that there will be a meeting tomorrow. Also contact any news outlets and make posts on social media that I’ll hold a press conference in the afternoon addressing the actions of the Shakai Group,” Jessica’s voice turned serious.

“I still don’t know why I’m stuck doing all of this for you. Can you not just hire a full-time secretary to handle these things. I’ll do it but I’m not happy at all,” Castalia grumbled.

“Please, I pay you a bonus every month for being so skillful at doing all of this. You’re a valuable employee and one that’s known me long enough to know all my quirks. Of course I would trust you to perform those kind of menial tasks for me,” Jessica countered.

“Fine! Have it your way. I’ll call back if anything else comes up,” she stated before hanging up.

Ko was called back into the room. She was hired as the leader of the new team that the Sica president just formed. Jessica had kept tabs on the woman ever since Ko worked with the major tech companies during her junior year of college. Ko certainly had eccentricities, but she was a hard worker. Jessica foresaw her move into her area and planned out the new position accordingly even before the woman submitted her application. Sica was too well-run to ever fall into the hands of the Shakai Group.

“So you’re telling me that a younger version of Yuki is back?” Zhang responded in surprise as he played Monster Slayer with Long.

“Yeah. Scared the s*** out of me when she just appeared in my class all of a sudden,” Long said, taking damage as the monster hurled his character across the map.

“Why do I get the feeling that you’re actually telling the truth?” Zhang asked, healing the math instructor before the monster carted him.

“Come on, there’s no reason for me to lie about this,” his friend shot back.

“Yeah, it would really be scummy of you to do that. Watch out for its tail! Let me mount it first. Get your shots ready. So, what do you want from me?” the short man inquired, mashing the A button.

“What do you mean?” Long asked, aiming the bowgun’s reticle at the monster’s head.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to join you or something like that?” Zhang inquired.

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Long remained silent for so long that his friend thought he disconnected from their call. Zhang’s character leaped off the monster and chugged a potion. The lecturer fired rapid shots before switching over to sleep ammunition. He then put the enemy to sleep and placed down barrel bombs around its head.

“Go for it! Yeah, that’s part of the reason why I wanted to play,” Long finally said, leaping back as Zhang swung his blade downward, detonating the explosives.

The monster wriggled around and then victory music played. Long placed his controller down, sighing with relief. He nodded with approval, satisfied with the amount of time they cleared that quest, especially against a high-ranking monster too.

“Can’t believe we actually beat it so fast. Remember to bring traps,” Zhang said.

“Damn, where was my invite?” Shigetzu joined their call.

“We all know you’re too busy to play this regularly anymore,” Long replied.

“Nah, I’m on sometimes. What’s the event going on?” Shigetzu said.

“Just your standard collaboration with Devil Mayhem,” Long informed him.

Long sipped tea from his mug, letting Shigetzu select the monster for their next quest. Zhang departed for a bathroom break. The lecturer scrolled through past messages, searching for the link to optimized equipment.

“You think Zhang will join us?” Shigetzu asked.

“Huh? Oh, you mean that. Probably not. He works the night shift. Besides, I don’t think he’ll come back anyways. You’re not all in either, right?” Long answered.

“Still deciding. It’s not everyday you get to jump back into other dimensions and deal with the aftermath,” Shigetzu responded.

“Very true. Your wife isn’t too excited to learn about all of this, I assume?” Long guessed.

“Why did you even ask, Long, when you know the answer?” Shigetzu scrolled through the change log, checking all the updates he missed.

“Should have known,” Long stated.

“What about you, Long? It’s only been what, three or four years, since you’ve come back from that long trip of yours. You ready to get back into the game?” Shigetzu shifted the focus over to him.

“If I’m honest, no, not really. S***’s gonna be worse now that we’re all working full-time. And we’re missing a Gatekeeper,” the man admitted.

“You should do it. You worked with Tess the most. Come on, just do it!” Shigetzu encouraged.

“No way, I can’t handle all of that. I have a much better candidate in mind,” Long refuted.

“What’s going on?” Zhang returned, adjusting his headphones.

“Just talking about the old days. You down to swing that greatsword again? I’m not talking about in-game, Zhang,” Shigetzu asked.

“I’m good. Swinging it in the game is a lot easier. I’m way too out of shape for any of that. I say that now, but Long’s gonna find some dumb way of getting me involved. My answer’s no for now,” Zhang stated.

“I get it. I’m still thinking about it too,” Shigetzu said.

“Alright, let’s actually hunt now. We’ll talk about this soon anyways, Shigetzu,” Long decided.

Long took off his glasses and stretched. It was a rarity for all three men to be online at the same time. So, might as well get a few hunts in while they could. Shigetzu selected the bow for his character, joking it was in honor of Darryl joining them for drinks with everyone. Long contemplated a heavy weapon, but ended up selecting his old favorite, dual blades. Zhang switched his greatsword out for a bug glaive. It wasn’t the original set-up the three people ran when they first played Monster Slayer together, but that didn’t matter. The fun was in figuring out how to take down the monster and at times suffering an excruciating defeat, only to avenge their loss in a thrilling battle the next time.

“How can I help you today?” Yuka greeted a woman walking into the library.

“Yuka! It’s been such a long time!” Manami hugged her right away.

“I didn’t know you were back in town! Sit down, please,” Yuka said, pulling out a chair for her.

“Is this a good time, Yuka?” Manami questioned.

“Yeah. The afternoon rush already ended. I’m just volunteering anyways,” Yuka revealed.

“Volunteering? That makes sense. You still love books as always,” Manami said.

The two woman caught up with each other, exchanging stories. Yuka learned Manami was in the region for a medical conference hosted by the Shakai Group. Ichizen’s cousin relocated after graduating and had not returned in the past four years. She also wanted to visit her cousin’s grave while here and planned to stop by the hospital as well.

“How’s Yuki?” Manami’s voice turned serious.

“No change. The doctors think she’ll stay like that,” Yuka answered.

“I was hoping for better news, but at least she’s stable. When are you free, Yuka? I want to stop by Yuki’s house and talk with her mom,” Manami questioned.

“Let’s me check my schedule. How long are you here for? Mrs. Tomo will be glad to have company when she’s visiting Yuki,” Yuka replied.

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“I’ll be here for two weeks. The Shakai Group has a lot of events going on for this conference,” Manami explained.

“The Shakai Group is keeping busy as always,” Yuka commented.

“In a good or bad way?” Manami asked.

“That depends on who you’re asking. Felicity will always say it’s for everyone’s best interest,” Yuka replied.

“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting you know the president of the Shakai Group. It’s old news by now since she took over a year ago,” Manami said.

“I only message with her occasionally. We don’t talk that much. Oh, this is the perfect book for you. It’s based on a childhood book about a traveling bear,” Yuka said, grabbing a hardcover from a nearby shelf.

“I do love stories about anthropomorphic animals. This is honestly a very appropriate book for Yukie. Her style and manners are impeccable just like the bear,” Manami commented, reading the synopsis.

“Where are you staying, Manami?” Yuka asked.

“The Shakai Group provided rooms for us at a hotel near the convention center. Honestly though, I prefer to stay in my old room whenever I’m back home. But my parents already sold the house so that’s not possible anymore,” Ichizen’s cousin answered.

“Things always change. I’ll let you get to your hotel and relax,” Yuka remarked.

“Don’t forget to message me!” Manami reminded before she departed.

Maka, the SIU director, scanned the area with his abnormality detector. The digital display showed a zero at first but then beeped, flashing a 101. He recorded the measurement in his notebook, comparing it to previous results. Over the past month, a sudden spike occurred, despite the Gatekeeper sealing off the entire Crossroads from where the heroes originated from. Connections to other dimensions were still active but unstable. Travel between different dimensions were sparse but still ongoing. As such, the Special Investigations Unit was still active.

“Rev, can you check something for me?” the director asked.

“What do you need?” his subordinate responded.

“Pull up files on Tess’ team and any information that the Gatekeeper left behind about Crossroad connections to their world,” he requested.

“Got it,” Rev replied.

Maka wasn’t sure if the heroes were returning or not. It had been a decade without any contact. This sudden surge in activity intrigued the man. Whether it was them or another group, he would prepare for a potential arrival.  

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