Chapter 15 – ‘This devil,’

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                “Here we are,” Ayase said, grinning, “Thank you for choosing Midori Airlines for your inter-dimensional travel needs.” Lilly rolled her eyes as she took her hand off Ayase’s shoulder. Dork.

                One hour ago…

                A week since the conclusion of the Yoya Nouko case and Megumi’s article. Lilly and Ayase sat at their table in the club room, facing another girl. A second year. A bright hairclip holding back dark curls. She wore a worried face, and her forehead creased to show it. However, Lilly didn’t quite catch her name and felt too uncomfortable to try and ask for it a second time. Ui, Yui, was it Mugi? So she instead wordlessly listened as Ayase handled the consultation.

                “I understand your story, but do you understand our criteria? Nothing serious that involves the police,” Ayase held up an index finger.

                “I don’t want to trouble his parents if this turns out to be a false alarm. If you can’t find him by tomorrow, I’ll inform them and the police.” The girl ran her fingers along the edge of the table, totally serious about the matters of this case.

                Lilly flipped through a page in the book she was holding. The same book Megumi borrowed from the library that day. She lent it to Lilly and Rea as a belated present for joining the club. Lilly stared at a word, not really reading it. It’s nothing but sharp lines and edges. Fading in and out of concentration of Ayase and this girl, Lilly got the gist of the case. She didn’t like it.

                So, if I got this correctly, your boyfriend’s been missing for the past week, and you want us to find him. He’s a ‘bad boy’ type, thus his parents aren’t too concerned about him not being home every night. But he at least goes to school, but as you said, since he is missing, you’ve haven’t seen him at all for these past five days. Not including weekends. And if we can’t find him by tomorrow, you’ll have to get the police involved. That’s the long and short of it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

                And you’re really coming to us about this? Are you crazy?

                She wanted to kick herself for doing so, but she used her power to see if the girl was telling the truth. She got through this time, but the sound was distorted, like a radio getting a bad signal. Lilly remembered the time with Yuki. This thing is faultier than I thought. It never works when I actually want it to. From what she could piece together, she knew the girl wasn’t lying. I still don’t like it.

                “That puts a lot of responsibility on our end, you know,” Ayase said, voicing both her opinion and Lilly’s. The girl shrunk in her chair. Ayase looked over to Lilly, who gave off a ‘I-just-want-to-home’ vibe. Megumi had cleaning duty after school, and Rea volunteered to help, so it was just Lilly and Ayase this afternoon. Maybe it’s for the best, we don’t want more people involved than necessary. The job wasn’t related to the occult, but this girl truly seemed concerned. She must have her reasons to come to the S.O.L.

                Lilly lowered her head, flipping another page. It was her way of saying, ‘Fine, let’s do it.’

                Ayase turned back to the girl again. “But, we’ll try our best.” The girl glowed.

                Bowing up and down fervently, the girl thanked Ayase and Lilly. As she left, Lilly slumped into her chair, thinking about the past week.

                For Lilly and the rest of the S.O.L., the past week was nothing if not tiring. Aside from homework that teachers all collectively decided to pile on to unsuspecting students, Lilly had to deal with constant pestering about the Yoya Nouko case. The S.O.L. was put on the school’s map, which meant Lilly was put on the school’s map. ‘Did you really see a ghost?’, ‘How scared were you?’, and ‘What are you guys doing now?’ drilled into Lilly for the first few days before class, during lunch and after school. The club room has never been more of a shelter for retreat.

                Lilly wondered if anyone would believe her if she mentioned what Ayase did in that shed.

                With a few words, Lilly was able to get most to leave her alone, but she could only imagine how the others were handling it. Rea was probably reveling in the attention, and Ayase would be more than happy to answer anyone curious enough about the Society of Occult Literature. Megumi, on the other hand, Lilly offered her condolences.

                The increased interest in the club overall also meant an interest in the ‘consultations’ the club provided. Most were silly pranks, like ‘my dog is acting funny’, or ‘a mysterious figure in one of the school’s restrooms is making people choose between red and blue paper’. Ayase took the job of screening them, rejecting all but this one. Considering what may be at stake, it made sense to Lilly.

                After the consultation, the two girls took a train into the city.

                “So, what’s the plan?” Lilly asked, looking around. Just five minutes ago, they left the bustling station towards an alleyway between a bar and video rental store, a place reported by the girl as a popular hangout spot of her boyfriend. Definitely a spot where delinquent types would spend their time. Lilly thanked god there was no one actually in the alley as they went into the gap of the buildings.

                Businessmen scurrying from one office to another made up a large portion of the people in the area, making the girls seem like ants by comparison. There were some younger people, however, like a girl hanging out with some other older teenagers in front of the video rental store, who caught Lilly’s eye from her angle. Looked to be in high school. Drinking a small juice box. But she flashed such a chilling smile to Lilly, she didn’t help in lightening the atmosphere. As Lilly thought, she wasn’t fond of being here.

                Otherwise, it was still early enough in the day that it wasn’t too dangerous for two girls to be visiting this part of downtown, but Lilly kept close to Ayase anyways. She doubted she could even do anything, but it helped her peace of mind.

                “Hmm, I see,” Ayase muttered.

                See what?

                “Eh, I hate to do this, but,” Ayase looked back at Lilly, “Looks like I have no choice.” There was some hesitation there.

                “I feel like you have plenty of choices,” Lilly countered.

                “Here, this is a good spot,” Ayase said when they got deeper into the alley, “Hold my hand.” She extended out her left hand for Lilly.

                “Wait, why?”

                “I’ll explain when we get there.”

                Get where? Lilly thought. She put her hand on Ayase’s shoulder. She felt it as Ayase shrugged.

                “Suit yourself.” She snapped her fingers. The noisy metropolis stopped in an instant, like someone paused a video. Lilly’s eyes were open, but only for a second, her vision fell into black before coming back, not quite right. The red brick wall on the side of the bar she was staring at was now a softer, greyish red. If someone wasn’t really paying attention, they might say it wasn’t red at all.

                After doing whatever it was she did, Ayase made her remark.

                And that’s how we got to where we are, wherever we are.

                Back to now…

                Lilly snapped back to focus when Ayase called out to her. “Miss Akiyama, please don’t lag behind!” She jogged a bit to catch back up with Ayase.

                Lilly continued observing their surroundings as they left the alley. What was once a clear sky was now grey and muted. No clouds to be seen. The sun was missing too, replaced with a weak glow from up above, not coming from anywhere in particular. The rest of the city was just the same, dark and empty. Lilly gave herself some time to let her eyes adjust. Only she when got a better picture of what she saw, was when she realized:

                There was nobody here.

                Not a soul in sight. Every person Lilly and Ayase walked by on the way here were all gone. As if they were never there in the first place. Even that girl and her friends by the video store’s entrance wasn’t there. Granted, with that look she got from her, Lilly didn’t want to admit that the girl being gone made her feel at ease.

                Lilly followed Ayase down the middle of a street, no real need to walk on the sidewalk. There were no cars either. The buildings overhead loomed like bad omens, she’d rather not be near them.

                “Count to ten?” Ayase suggested to Lilly, “In seconds.”

                “Okay…” Lilly said, confused. “One, two, thr-“

                Before she could finish saying ‘three’, Ayase cut in. “We’re in that breath you took. We’re in between time.”

                You’re saying that like it’s normal. “And what does that mean?” And what are we doing here?

                “Like light, which can be observed as either particles or waves, time can be observed as either fluid or static.” Ayase’s words rang clearly in this space. It wasn’t like the serene silence of Ayase’s Taschenraum, rather it was eerie. Like everything around them had this energy of wanting to get up and move, but couldn’t. Lilly was unable to put it into words. Just a quiet air of restlessness.

                “I’ll just stand here and pretend I know what you’re talking about,” Lilly said.

                “If we take the theory that time is static, like still frames, everyone and everything in the universe’s data is loaded from one frame to the next, constantly leaping forward to the next frame in order to stay in the present. Like a cartoon… I suppose. To simplify, we’re in between two of those twenty-four frames per second.” Ayase opened a pocket on the side of her school bag and took out an apple. She bit into it before continuing.

                “Because of that, we can slip between those frames and not be loaded to the present, well, I can, you can’t.” Ayase munched on her apple. She made sure not to talk while eating.

                “Scratch that. It’s not entirely true, there have been a few cases of people falling into random gaps of data and ending up in this dimensional fracture. But over the entire course of human civilization? I can count those on just one hand.” She held up four fingers.

                “Anyways, what I mean is, while the rest of the world is busy going along with their average Friday, the two of us are the only ones who are behind in time. Stuck in the past. Time doesn’t flow in this dimension, at least not in the traditional sense.”

                Okay, I get it… I think. “But wait,” Lilly ventured, “Us two? Are we not here because we’re trying to find that guy?” She didn’t bother to remember his name.

                “Sure, that’s what I meant,” Ayase said after she swallowed another bite. “Depends if we’re too late.”

                “Come again?”

                “It was simply a hunch to come by the place Harumi said was his favorite place to hang out, but the closer we got, I sensed it. The tear of data. Residual information from the hole he allegedly fell through to get here. Hastily covered up.” They crossed the street to the empty plaza, not even the fountain was running. Nor were the trees rustling from any wind. Any and all traffic lights were dead, almost completely dark. It really felt like a ghost town. There really is no one here. Maybe for hundreds of thousands of kilometers. This is too much!

                “But here’s the thing, the initial data gap was larger than what would naturally occur. And only those from my organization would know would how to make a hole that big. So that means he didn’t come here accidentally. Someone sent him here forcibly.

                Lilly gulped. Someone who knows about this kind of stuff, and is willing to use that knowledge on those who are essentially civilians?

                “Why? What’s to gain from doing that?” Lilly forced herself to ask. Whatever this was about, it couldn’t be good.

                “I guess that’s what we’re here to find out now. Want a bite?” Ayase offered Lilly her apple. There were only a few bites left.

                “Um, no thanks.”

                “Alrighty then.” Ayase finished the apple, and tossed the core above her. It left a trail of dust behind before disintegrating entirely in midair, not getting a chance to arc downwards. The dust doesn’t even waft away from an atmosphere, it just floated in place as the two walked away.

                I don’t even want get into asking how that makes sense.

                “Anyways, let’s make it quick.” Lilly pulled out her phone. The screen lit up the entire street as they left the plaza and headed down a large intersection. She wiped her eye as it started to itch, probably from the sudden phone light.

                Hmm, it works here. 4:30. It was 4:30 thirty minutes ago.

                “I don’t want to waste any more time here, I’ve got places to be,” Lilly said. Only when that sentence left her mouth does she realize how dumb it was. A low buzz began in surface under Lilly’s consciousness, unknown to her.

                Ayase chuckled a bit. “I agree. Fortunately for you, here he is. What’s left of him, anyways.”

                Lilly looked ahead. Her eyes widen. “What, what is that?”

                Not that, but those. What looked like to be fifty of these things, these creatures that defied any logical existence.

                ‘Grotesque’ wasn’t even close enough to describe them.

                They were about eighty centimeters, or half of Lilly’s height. They looked humanoid in shape, but in the lack of good lighting made it hard to tell. Also, they had no definitive outline. Edges of their bodies phased like smoke, like they were about to fade out of existence at any moment. Slits for eyes, nose, and mouth, their faces had no hair on their pale skin, along with the rest of their wrinkly, naked bodies. Though with that last point their gender, if they had one, was undistinguishable. Just a smooth surface.

                Anatomically, they looked like scrawny, malnourished babies, their heads too big for their bodies, and while their legs were shorter than they should be, their arms seemed to make up for it by being longer than they should be. It’s obvious that nothing about them looked right. Their hands, however, were a different story. As big as baseball gloves, with three long, pencil-thin fingers, including the thumb, which extended out into large sharp claws. They snarled, and when they did they exposed their jagged, equally sharp teeth. The way their sunken chests didn’t move showed that they weren’t breathing, but their twitching and the high shrill sounds they made suggested they were alive. If one could call whatever these things were doing as a state of living.

                About fifty of them, spread out throughout the otherwise deserted street. They stood in place, unmoving aside from their unnatural twitching, and facing random directions. Some were even looking directly at the girls. But they didn’t react upon seeing them. As if they didn’t notice. Or care. These creatures simply stood there. Unmoving. Fear slithered down Lilly’s spine.

                “Don’t worry,” Ayase said coolly, handing Lilly her bag before stretching her arms and legs. “They won’t attack anything that doesn’t provoke them first.” Ayase pointed to a traffic light at the end of the street behind them. “You can go over there. That should be a good distance.”

                “Hold on!” Lilly interrupted, “What’s with all this ‘provoking’ business?”

                Ayase grinned, bouncing on the balls of her feet, clearly itching for action. “Like I said, don’t worry.”

                She lifted her right hand, and formed a pretend gun with her fingers, extending out her index finger and folding the others inward to her palm, while her thumb pointed upwards. Using her other hand she supported the pretend gun as though it was a real pistol. She spread out her legs a bit. The corners of her mouth folded into a mischievous sneer.

                “Let’s jam!”

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