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“You,” coughs a grotesque thing covered in the cities shadow. “You promised, why? Why has this happened?” sputters a mass of remains resting inside a puddle of inky sludge. It’s throat full of liquid choking and wheezing as it breathes.
“I warned you.” suggests a proud male voice, his slow deliberate footsteps resonate through the alleyway. “Did I not warn you? You should have waited, but you had to make yourself flesh when we’re not ready.”
“Bastard!” thunders the stack of fluids. The man stops in the pond’s face, lowering the tip of his cane onto the pavement with a click.
A snicker creeps from the man‘s pursed grin. “You poor eager soul.”
Out of the puddle rises the necrotic material of skeletal appendages with melting flesh hanging off its inky corpus. Several arms extend from its spine reaching for the man’s leg. “Don’t mock me!” the abomination hisses.
The man hacks his rod at the creature bursting its body back into an unformed pool. “Hush, all is not lost.” He says taking a stride back away from the insidious mess. “You need to feed on the meat of others and you will build the fiber needed for a body.”
“Don’t wander away!” the puddle commands. “I am not through with you.”
The man stands on his heel, the scuff of his shoe echo against the brick walls. “I suppose you are not,” he chuckles then returns to his gate. “Find me, later, or maybe I will find you when you are born into this world.” he continues as he leaves the creature.
Two arms creep from the pond. Its boney fingers dig deep into the solid road clawing its way deeper into the darkness of the alley. “Later you say.”
The low bustle of shoppers, wild ringing registers, and computer generated beeps became the ambiance of Ichigari Grocery. People peruse stocked aisles of shelves full with various foods. Apricot rests on her knees placing milk cartons from a crate onto a refrigerated shelf. “I am in so much trouble.” she thought. “If I was on thin ice when Miss Akagi reports to the Beauro of my actions, they will kick me out for sure.”
She looks at another carton of milk watching a slight measure of condensation dripping off the white cardboard. The carton is heavier this time. “And I will stock shelves for the rest of my life. I won’t amount to anything.” she moans. “And that rotten Jasper will be a famous engineer or something, he will rub it in my face forever! Oh shit, when Mom and Dad find out, I need to focus on the good things. I got one of the best scoops. I was a first-hand witness to a robbery, and I lived. I could be dead right now.” Thoughtlessly Apricot continues stocking the shelf. “I mean I would be dead if not for those officers. I almost died today.” With a clenched jaw Apricot pinches her lips together. “You would think being a hostage would be a good enough excuse for getting off work,” she mumbles to herself.
As a firm hand rests on her back, Apricot nearly jumps out of her skin. She looks up to the pitted face of a middle-aged man. He bends over her grabbing a gallon of milk off the shelf pressing his leg against her face.
“Thanks for shopping at Ichigari Grocery,” Apricot says in a kind tone. The man looks at her with a big goofy grin.
Apricot expects him to move on after but the man just stood gawking at her. “What the heck does this guy want?” Apricot thought but continues ignoring the odd behavior. She reaches for another gallon of milk to replace the one he took.
With the tap of his foot, the man bumbles “And…” in a low tone.
A grumble escapes her mouth as she screams internally. “And have a nice day!” she says flashing wide blue eyes and a massive grin piercing across her face. The man nods his head, places his milk inside a cart and continues through the aisle. Apricot shakes her head. “This is what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life. I want to die! Uhg!”
From behind she hears the distinct clop of her bosses shoes. It is a skipping sound that could be followed through the store. She is not sure if he did it to annoy others or is just oblivious to it. At least it gave her a distinct warning he is approaching. She rolls her eyes knowing from past events he wants to give her new chores. If he appears happy, he wanted something. She figures the illusion of joy is because he is always stretched tight as a wire; at any moment he could snap. She turns her head to look up into an older man dressed in a white button-up with black pants.
“Apricot,” he says ending his speed walk in front of her.
“Oh hey, Mr. Kyabetsu. How are things going?” she raises her pitch to sound chipper.
He taps his feet a couple times “Oh gotta go gotta go gotta go go go!” His balding head is plastered by an artificial smile. He pokes at his clipboard with a pen a few times. “O’ girl, how’s your project?”
She looks over at the milk crates for a moment and let’s out an internal sigh knowing full well he will ask more of her. “Well, I got this left, then clean up. I got an important article to finish for tomorrow.” she hopes Mr. Kyabetsu might consider her school work.
“Good good good, ok ah, so you’re ’bout done. Hey, one more thing. Could you mop the sidewalks?” He walks away before she can answer. “Good ok that’s great.”
Apricot looks over at the two boxes of milk and sighs. “Can’t I get out on time just once… I was not even supposed to work today!” she cries.
The shine of fluorescents lights the hollow night street. Its glow paints the gray sidewalk faint orange around the edges. Apricot’s black slacks and white oxford style button-up shirt are stained with grease and soda. “Mop that parking lot before you go… it should not take too long,” she fumes under her breath. An empty dented soda can clanks by. It reminds her of troubled laughter; an odd thought she admits. “At least it’s over now,” she says glancing at the vast cityscape the path ending at a large staircase. She stops for a moment to take in the sight from the high vantage point. The city really is pretty at night she thinks to herself. The twinkle of the high-rise buildings, the bright colors of all the advertisements plastered upon every open space. On its own it is annoying but when taken in as a mosaic, it is art; she considers.
In mid-tread, Apricot feels something slam into her leg. She is airborne free falling over the stairs flailing her arms letting out a wail. Apricot cries out in shock as her foot hits a step with a loud crack. Pain surges up her left leg as the ground fast approaches. She slams her eyes shut not willing to see her final demise. All she can do is scream as the inevitable played out.
Apricot squeals again yet did not receive the jolt. After several moments she opens her eyes to see pavement in front of her face. Apricot attempts to squirm but could not. “What?” she speaks a dull cry. “What is happening?” Apricot raises her head to meet a pair of pointed red boots in front of her. “Who…”
“Tis time for thou to make a choice girl. Doeth thou wish to die or wilt thou choose life?” expresses an honorable male voice.
“Who are you?” Apricot gasps. “What do you mean?”
The man taps his foot twice. “Thou find yourself moments before thous curtain call. I hast stood in the way of that death to give thou a choice. Doth thou choose life or doth thou choose death.”
“You’re speaking all weird. What are you trying to tell me?” Apricot yells at the man, she attempts to struggle but finds herself paralyzed.
“Haply ’tis thou that speak the stranger’s tongue. None the less ye are running out of time to make the choice. Doth thou wish to live or die? I tender life as a gift for thou, choose wise as a serpent.” his words were muddled to Apricot but what alternative did she have.
“I choose life!” she yells. Apricot slams into the ground with a violent impact knocking the air out of her. She opens her eyes to catch she has slid several feet. She forces herself up with a considerable strain in her chest. “I must have hit my head.” she shifts to gaze up the staircase to watch a shadow staring at her. “What the hell is that thing?”
“Mineth dear that wouldst be a phantom. Thy trial is not over. Feareth not though. You hast the tools to defeat such a fearsome foe.” says the alien-looking man. Her sight gazes up to a long-nosed mask that reminds her of a beak. His clothing is like a jester’s. Two long striped lilac and red horns crown his head and his fists are like metallic claws. He stays with a very prominent stance that appeared weightless and is six and a half feet tall by Apricot’s estimation. “I wouldst suggesteth thou doth something yarely before that creature notices ye art still alive. I hast left thy power within thou to defeat the phantom. How it manifests is up to thou.” He gestures his bladed claw towards the shadowy creature.
Wide-eyed Apricot shrieks. With a flash, two white eyes appear on the sliding shadow. The blob splashes onto the ground spilling over the stairs. The gentlemanly stranger beside her does not flinch as he watches folding his arms. The stalker rises out of the stairs to expose several dripping arms. Apricot counted eight arms arriving from its back before she turns tail to run. Looking over her shoulder Apricot shrieks as an arm slashes at her face with a blade. The arm is segmented too many times to be a human arm Apricot notes.
She dodges the attack lunging away raising both palms up to her face and backs towards the wall. “Feast of flesh!” the centipede like creature howls baring many knives as it ascends from its pond of black. It’s silvery eyes cut through the blackness with blinding might.
Apricot takes a heavy breath as the creature lurches towards her dripping onto her face as its body extends. A warm light inside Apricot’s arm grows stronger urging her forward. She leaps missing another knife aimed at her face. The image was overwhelming. She huddles up covering her face with one arm and with the other outstretch she shrieks “Stop!” A glow burst from her open palm igniting the creature in a purple beam of light. The creature let out a wet screech of pain. Apricot’s eyes grow wide watching the purple flame blaze from her palm dancing in the wind. She shivers. “What is happening!”
“You bitch!” the creature roars before spreading out many more arms as it dives into the air. Apricot throws her arm allowing the flame to slash through the torso of the creature. It splatters into burning pieces raining ash onto the ground. The parts fizzle and roll at Apricot’s feet until nothing but small orbs of light float into the open air. Apricot holds her burning arm out observing the impossible sight. The fire in her hand extinguishes as the last few wisps disappear. “I don’t believe this is happening.” she says as she grasps her palm.
“Splendid! The ritual is finished.” the masked man whispers.
She blinks unable to believe what she had just seen. “I had to have hit my head.” She turns around and walks away from the masked man. “None of this can be real.” Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the man floating as if wading in water. “You’re not real!” Apricot yells as she scuffles ahead.
“Tis true thou hit thy mazard, but ye art not seeing things. Thou hast defeated the first of many phantoms. Thy method of manifesting thy power was rather unorthodox, but it accomplished thy task none the less.” he says with no inflection.
Her step comes to a final stop echoing around the empty road. She turns toward the stranger observing the thing. The blue light from an LCD screen advertising beer colors Apricot’s medium length fiery brown hair purple. A few papers carried by a breeze shuffles by. “I want to go home after having a long day at work. You expect me to believe you’re real. I just killed a monster by shooting a laser fire thing out of my hand.” She raises her hands to her mouth. “Oh God, I am crazy. I hit my head and now I am crazy. I am talking to a clown in the street at night.”
The masked man floats in front of her and lands on the ground blocking her path. He puts his hands on her shoulders looking into her blue eyes. Apricot can’t see his eyes through the shadowed mask holes. There is something, a slight reflection, maybe glasses, though she could not be sure. “Thou ramble like a daw. Thou hast work to be done. The power I hast given thy is not for free. Nay, I hast a task for thou.”
“A task? What task?” Apricot asks.
“Thou shalt mortal arbitrament the phantoms from the city.” Apricot tries to walk through him. With a powerful thrust, he pushes her back onto the ground. “Doth thou still believe me to be a vision?” he snaps.
Shaking uncontrollably she takes a painful breath. Apricot wipes the street dust off her nose and looks up at him with tearing eyes. “I don’t know what you want from me. Leave me alone!”
“I gave thou that power to hurly-burly with the phantoms from thy city. Tis mine task to remove them from thous ordinary before I can return to mine home.” In a flash, the jester is before Apricot extending his clawed hand to her.
As her soft fingers touch the metal fingers, they clasp around her hand gently assisting Apricot to her feet. Something she did not expect. “What is hurly-burly?”
“To kill the phantoms,” he says in a cold voice.
“What if I don’t?” Apricot says to him.
He snaps her in close to his face; his painted wooden nose poking her cheek. “Then I shall taketh thy soul as the collection for giving thou those powers.”
Apricot scrunches up her face and squints her eyes at him “You can’t do that?” With the flash of his eyes, Apricot goes limp and sees the world tumbling. She looks up at the strange figure before her. The world’s color are sucked away, the air is full of artic chill. She looks to her feet to see her body drooling out a thick foam, mouth gasping; eyes rolled back to the whites as she convulses. The being’s hand opens, and she feels herself go back into her body. Her vision becomes her own again as she rolls on her side spitting up a heavy flow of bile.
“Thou will doth the task I hast given thou. Thou made thy choice. Thou chose life. Anon ’tis time to pay the toll of salvation, Apricot.” he says in a firm tone.
“How do you know my name? I never gave it to you!” She screams at him.
He turns towards her “A reaper knows all names. Goeth, rest for in time thou shalt be called upon to doth thy duty.” Apricot blinks her eyes to see she is the only one standing in the street.
“There is no way any of that could have been real.” She looks up to see a hazed starless sky obscured by the street lights. “I need to get home.”
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