“What’s a panda’s favorite food?”
Lilly’s eyebrow twitched. “What?”
“That’s enough out of you!”
Down along the highway, the taxi rolled along speedily.
By the time they left what could confidently be considered the edge of the city, or perhaps even the prefecture – should one want to exaggerate – the moon was reaching above the clouds, trying to pierce the gloomy sky. Mountains and hills rolled past Lilly’s window, dark shapes mostly thanks to the little light the current time offered. Ayase promised they’d be gone for an hour at most, but Lilly was worried if they were able to make good on that. The moon seemed to be racing up towards the stars.
“You still haven’t told me what exactly we’re doing,” Lilly pointed out to Ayase, for what felt like the millionth time. The lack of information was becoming increasingly bothersome. It didn’t help that she’d been talking to the back of her head.
“Ah, I hoped we’d have a clearer night.” Ayase tone of voice paid no attention to Lilly. She might as well have said nothing.
Lilly’s fingers curled into a soft fist. “Hey!” she called out.
Ayase finally turned to her. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”
Can I just yell? Lilly thought, but Ayase’s soft lips folded into a sweet smile, genuinely apologetic. She couldn’t bring herself to get too work up. She dropped it.
Lilly then looked over at the meter by the wordless driver, who had yet to say a word the entire trip. Three red dashes instead of an increasing fare. If that meant this ride was on the house, then fine by her. But that did make her uneasy.
She looked back out her window, watching the moon with her good eye. The fabric on her other eye made her more uneasy.
The ride was quiet, very quiet, since even the sound of tire on road was missing, giving her the illusion that they were gliding to whatever location they were headed. An eerie drive. But it allowed her to retrace her steps from her normal routine to this not-so-normal taxi.
“What do you mean exactly by ‘accompany?’ Lilly inquired.
Ayase waved her hand. Lilly knew by now that meant she wasn’t going to get a clear answer. I’ll make a mental note of prodding you later. A million times if I have to.
“It’s nothing big, it was just good to let you know now. Don’t want you making a bigger mess of things.”
Ayase motioned again. “Here’s the plan. We’ll hold club as usual, and afterwards, you drop Rea off like you usually do, and go back home. As usual. I’ll meet you at your place after an hour or so. Don’t mention anything to Rea.”
“Wait, huh? What are we doing? And what am I supposed to tell my dad?”
“Tell him you have to study at a friend’s place, or something. Bring some schoolwork, you can put it in the back.”
“You didn’t answer my first question. And hold on, how do you know where I live?” Lilly asked.
She answered quickly. “I don’t want to freak you out right now, so that should be the least of your worries.”
Lilly stepped back. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re scarier than you look?”
“Ha ha, excuse me.”
“Miss Akiyama, your leg?”
Lilly suddenly became aware of her body. More specifically, what it was doing. Her leg shook up and down, forming the only source of noise within the car, and Lilly only now noticed it. She must have been like that the whole trip.
With all her might, she forced herself to stop.
“Relax,” Ayase said, “While we’re still in the car, you’re fine.”
“It’d be a lot easier if you could tell me what we’re doing then.”
Ayase patted Lilly’s lap. Her eyes darted right at the contact, fully aware of her presence. And the fact that she was wearing shorts.
They both were in casual wear, Lilly in a dark green sweater and denim shorts, and Ayase in a bright pink hoodie and short track shorts. The word ‘HOT’ was printed across her chest.
Lilly was partially grateful she had the opportunity to change out of her uniform, it helped in making her not as anxious as she could have potentially been.
She was still pretty anxious, though.
“Do you know the story of Alice in Wonderland?” Ayase suddenly asked.
“Huh?” Lilly scratched her head. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” She shrugged.
“I’ve been meaning to say, but it’s not good to do that. Bad manners.”
“Did you have a po-”
“Anyways, what do you think of Alice by the end of the story?”
Lilly wanted to sigh, but she felt that Ayase would comment on that too. “It’s all just a dream, right?” She rested a hand on her face. “To be honest, I kind of envy her.”
Silence settled in the car for a bit. Ayase broke it first. “How so?”
“All those crazy things that happened to her, to the point that she could have even died, and she gets to wake up from it all, with no consequences other than being able to say, ‘what a strange dream.’ I wish I could do that.”
“I know how you feel, Miss Akiyama, but we can’t control the hand that we’ve been dealt. The cards we get.”
“I know. Why bring it up anyways?”
Ayase looked back out her window. “Just curious.”
“Yes, Miss Akiyama. Now, you wanted to know what we’re doing? We’re going to a tea party.”
They both felt the car slow down. “We’re here,” Ayase said, as the taxi began to park.
‘Here’ wasn’t much in the way of being a descript location, with the taxi stopping not even by the side of the road, but right in the middle. They were so far and out that it didn’t matter where they parked. Thick woods now lined up both sides of the road. Lilly looked at the three red dashes on the meter, still unchanged.
By this time it was almost completely dark, Lilly barely making out the shape of her hand as she held it out in front of her. Exiting the car, she followed Ayase by grabbing for her shoulder. The car didn’t depart as they walked off the road towards a forested area.
“Ugh, what is this,” Lilly complained. Leaves and sticks poked into her leg.
“Please stick close,” Ayase said, not much in acknowledging what Lilly said.
The trees and foliage were less thick than Lilly initially expected, the mass of green thinning out as the girls entered deeper into the forest. Soon enough, they passed through everything and entered a spacious meadow. It was like the trees were a barrier to hide to this place.
Grass still up to their knees, the occasional flower brushing against them as they kept walking. Lilly took in the view, until she realized that she was able to take in a view in the first place. Maybe it was due to the trees behind them that had blocked away any and all light, but now, in this open space, the moon served as a perfect backlight. It hung high over the large but soft rolling hills that was this meadow. If there were more trees on the other side, they were dots from where the girls stood.
“This place is huge,” Lilly commented. She bit her tongue. Wait, duh.
Due to the vastness of the field, it would be easy to see if they weren’t the only ones there. The hairs on Lilly’s neck jumped up when she realized that wasn’t the case.
Two others stood around the relative center of the area. Despite the plethora of room available to them, they were right up to each other, but not in a cute way. If only a second late, Lilly would have walked in on a full-blown fight.
“Late,” one of them said, not facing the girls, keeping their glare forward instead. It was a girl. She looked to be in high school, wearing a blue track jacket and skirt. Her stare was intense, her thick glasses magnetizing them even more.
“If we were late, you would all be in a lot of trouble,” Ayase said in return, her confident tone was something Lilly was already used to.
“That the troublemaker?” the other one asked, popping in. A boy. Probably in college. His arms were crossed. He didn’t bother to break his stare with the girl.
You talking to me? Lilly thought. Also, what is with you two?
“Not this one,” Ayase responded, “They’re a different type of trouble.” They handled their conversation like Lilly was invisible. She was sure that wasn’t a power she had.
Deciding whatever lead up to his standstill with the girl was no longer worth it, the boy turned his attention to Lilly. In response, the girl straightened up, now crossing her arms, her face giving a smug satisfaction.
Like the other girl, he too had glasses, but unlike how hers made her look more serious, the way the light caught the lenses made it harder to gauge his expression. The way he grinned suggested lightheartedness, but in a way that carried a bit of an edge, like a lion playing with its food.
“Dang, if that’s the case, I’d give my condolences. But, you know, schadenfreude.”
Schaden-what? Lilly wanted to say, but he left an intimidating impression. She kept still.
“Hey, one-eye, do a trick for us,” he put a hand behind his back. “How many fingers am I holding behind my back?”
Lilly was a millimeter close to blowing a fuse. “That’s not how that works… And even if that was how it worked, I can’t answer if you keep moving your fingers.”
The boy’s eyes widened in surprise, and soon dropped his hand to his side, as well as his act. The girl beside him turned away and covered her mouth. Her shoulders still shook.
“Shut up,” he said to the girl.
Lilly took advantage of their momentary distraction to lean to Ayase’s ear. “Who are they? You never said there would be others here. Actually, you have yet to say anything regarding this.”
“Hold on, it’s not important,” Ayase said.
“Uh- aren’t you going to introduce me at least?” The last thing Lilly wanted was to be the odd one out, even if that meant having to talk to these two more. “Are they part of your little group thing?”
“Said it’s not important.”
Regaining his composure, the boy directed himself to Ayase again. “Hold up, is it really a good idea to bring her like that, though?” He flicked a hand to Lilly, not looking to her at all. “She’s out in the open.”
“Not much of a choice. Copperhead’s orders,” Ayase said.
The boy clicked his tongue. “Tch. Friggin’ kids. And acting like the boss?” He folded his arms once more, and began tapping his foot.
“Now, now,” the other girl butted in. “That was earned. You could learn something from them, Rii.”
“Wait! We were given work names for a reason!” The boy stomped his foot, crushing the grass under his feet.
“Your name sucks, Rio.”
“Huugh, it’s Riyo, not Rio, at least get that right!” He caught himself too late. “Dammit!”
The girl lifted her chin, and turned the other way. “Whatever, who cares?”
“Who cares? Why did you bring it up, then? What about her?” he pointed to Ayase, “Her’s is Quack. Quack! What kind of name is that!”
Those two stood on the precipice of fight since Lilly got here, but only now did they fall back deeper into their conflict. They charged at each other, and it didn’t look like it would end well.
Ayase went in between the glasses girl and Riyo, disappearing from Lilly’s side and coming in between those two in an instant. She brought a hand out to each of them, stopping them in their tracks. She might have stopped their movement, but she couldn’t stop what they were feeling.
“Come on Tsubasa, Riyo, now’s not the time.” Ayase’s words were cool, not giving way to the fact that she was among those who were more than five years her senior. She noticed that Ayase didn’t use either of their ‘work names,’ too. At most, all Lilly ever felt towards Ayase was a well-deserved trepidation. If there was a time to have any real fear for Midori Ayase, right now was as good as any.
It took a sentence more to snap them out of their spat. “It’s here.”
In a quick second, Tsubasa and Riyo’s bodies tensed up, and Ayase started to stretch her arms. From that much, Lilly knew something was about to happen. Something she wished she had not been taken there to see.
At first, it looked like a shooting star, soaring across the night sky. All hopes of it being that were dashed as the small point progressively became larger. For an instant, Lilly thought the sun was tumbling towards the earth. She took multiple steps back in anticipation, in fear, ready to run. The three others ahead of her didn’t budge.
Whatever it was, it crashed in front of Lilly, between her and the others. A flash of wind gushed in every direction, and she felt the intense heat. On instinct, she brought her arms to her face. It was like standing too close to a bonfire. When enough dust had settled, she was afraid of how accurate that simile was.
It stood in the small crater it made upon impact, still as a stick.
A skeleton of seven meters. Gigantic. But even more frightening about this thing was that it was made of wood. The individual bones that would normally make up the human skeletal system was made up entirely with thick wood. Its joints creaked as it stood upright, sounding like an old wooden door being swung open. Lilly noticed that its skeletal structure didn’t exactly resemble a human’s. It had a single horn protruding from its forehead, and it had claws for fingers and toes. Half-meter spikes also ran down its spine.
With the creaking of wood, it then looked towards Lilly. She expected to at least see eyes, but she instead stared back into two dark, blank spaces. The empty holes contrasted Lilly’s wide stare.
A giant man made of wood. Also, it was on fire.
Tongues of fire covered its head, and the flames reached down to the end of its spine. The heat was intense, with Lilly starting to sweat, and she was a decent distance away. Plumes of smoke started forming out of its body, and reaching out to the sky. Lilly prayed that the smoke would attract attention from someone somewhere, but they were in the middle of nowhere. And, it was so dark already, the black smoke began to dissipate into the night. Other than the moonlight, this creature was the only thing that lit up the meadow.
A giant skeleton made of wood. On fire. Lilly once again thanked her good luck.
As though another surprise was necessary, it lowered its jaw, and actually produced sound. A low drone, barely anything resembling human speech. More like a cruel imitation.
“I am frustration. I will burn all that is here. Mountains and flowers.”
Lilly found herself unable to scared stiff, unable to run away from this thing. What exactly that threat entailed, she didn’t want to be around to find out.
Riyo wasted no more time, crouching forward and lunging into a blur, disappearing entirely.
Although he made a beeline straight to whatever this thing was, it crumpled to its side, the impact sending it flying away perpendicularly from Lilly. Another impact was made on the far side of the field, with another load of dirt and dust being kicked up as the creature crashed there.
The creature stood right back up, without a hint of injury. Apparently, wood is as tough as metal, Lilly thought.
Without wasting another breath, Ayase and Tsubasa rushed towards the thing, joining Riyo. They began to engage with the creature, with Lilly appropriately surmising that they were attempting to take it down.
Lilly was at a loss of what to do, being left alone in the middle of a field without much to protect herself, or even much of an explanation as to why she, or that, was here. As if to answer some of her concerns, a shape quickly appeared in front of her, grabbing her arm and pulling her one way.
“Stay close, I’m in charge of you for now.” It was Tsubasa. Lilly concentrated on not tripping over her own feet, especially with all the tall grass around them. She didn’t have time to think on much else. They ran towards the trees.
When she figured she had a good pace, besides the occasional rough yank from the girl, Lilly tried to look behind her. Even at their distance, the thing was still tall enough to be seen, the flames it was producing off of its body making it all the more discernible. Its wooden arms swiped wildly into the air, presumably to fight off the other two. The others kept out of its range of reach, one was firing beams of light – Lilly figured that was Ayase – and other as knocking it around with physical force.
After he brought it down, hard, Riyo brought his hands outward.
The creature lashed out, throwing an arm, but it stopped mid-swing, hitting some invisible thing. It soon was forced into a crouch, and then on its knees. Its arms pressed against something above it, like it was try to stop something from crushing it. The smoke from its fire started shrouding a small space around it, filling a shape of a cube. It didn’t take long for Lilly to realize that it was being crushed by some sort of force field enclosing it.
With all of its strength, the creature hunched down even further into itself before springing upward into the air, destroying the force field containing it along with Lilly’s hopes that it had been fully contained. Another instance of this particular trend that Lilly despised; her hopes being dashed.
In reaction, Ayase, and Riyo jumped up to intercept it. To no surprise, they ascended to an impressive height. With a front flip, the wooden creature surrounded its entire body in flames, turning into a fireball in midair. It was too hot for the two to handle, so they were forced to get out of the way.
With a loud boom as it landed, the creature ran as soon as it touched ground, getting away from Ayase’s group. It ran with a frightening speed, and its form not unlike an professional sprinter. It didn’t take long for Ayase and Riyo to catch up, and attempt to impede it’s movement with their barrage of attacks.
But that was when Lilly realized something.
Not once did the creature ever attempt to harm or attack Ayase or Riyo, only moving to evade or block whatever they threw at it. Whenever it swiped or threw a punch, it was to get them out of its way. It was moving with a purpose, a goal. Every time Ayase or Riyo tried to force it backwards, it would block or dodge, and keep trying to move forward. It advanced closer towards Lilly and the Tsubasa, significantly closing the gap with every step.
The creature was going after her.