Chapter 25 – ‘This variation,’

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                Utilizing incredible speed, the wooden skeleton caught up in just a few steps, and was almost at its own arm’s length to Lilly. She was already wheezing, having to run so hard for so long to try and get away, and her legs were starting to give up.

                “Watch out!” the girl pulling her yelled. She stopped right in her tracks, and Lilly almost bumped into her from her own momentum.

                “Hu-!” The girl caught Lilly before she could actually slam into her. Using her momentum, the girl lifted Lilly above her, flipping her and tossing her some good distance into a soft pile of grass. Like that helped.

                “Ow!” Lilly didn’t land well, hitting the ground on her shoulder and rolling twice before stopping on her stomach. She didn’t have time to question why that had to happen, she saw it with her own eyes.

                Showing off its power, it directed the flames coming from its spine to its arm, before reaching out in front of it and throwing its fire. The girl who was escorting Lilly had tossed her aside to get her out of the way, but the downside was subjecting herself to the scorching attack instead.

                “No!” Lilly cried out.

                She watched as the girl was engulfed completely, her image swallowed by fire. Soon something does cut through the inferno, but it wasn’t what Lilly wanted.

                The creature took a step out of the fire, and then another towards Lilly.

                “How are you not on fire yet?” Lilly muttered, her breath shortened.

                She struggled to get back up, her aching muscles failed her in standing up quickly. Shoot, shoot, shoot!  The best she could do was sit, but that doesn’t help in getting her away from the monster. Her shoulder was particularly pained, and she winced when she grabbed for it. She got on her feet using just her legs, her right arm being massaged by her left.

                Before she could think of her next step, all movement was robbed from her. She was frozen in fear, all she managed was looking up until her neck strained, all from sizing up the monster.

                It towered in front of her. Its wooden skull blocked the moon behind it, shrouding Lilly in an isolating darkness. It swiped at her.

                Lilly felt the ground leave her feet, when in reality she was being lifted from it. Long, slender branches wrapped around her body, tying her legs and arms. She couldn’t even move a finger, she was gripped too tight. In short, she was fully and wholly constrained.

                Her eyes met the empty, dark holes in the creature’s skull.

                No amount of budging was met with a chance of reprieve. The creature was too strong. Too fearsome, for her to make a wholesome effort without its monstrous appearance taking her full attention.

                Lilly screamed.

                As if in response, the creature opened its mouth as well, but a much louder sound exploded out this time. Not a sentence, but a yell.

                It immediately shut Lilly up, but she noticed something. An element, something subtle, in the sound the creature produced. A vocal tinge.

                Something distinctly female.

                It was enough to quicken Lilly’s pulse even more, and she tried harder to move around, and slip out of the creature’s grip. Futile.

                But, before Lilly could realize what was happening, a sudden force rocked the creature down to its knees, and its fingers loosened. Lilly fell.

                Someone grabbed her in midair, stopping her from hitting the ground. Ayase. They landed safely, but Ayase kept running, carrying Lilly. A no-longer surprising amount of girl from a girl of Ayase’s stature.

                “Sorry about that,” she said with a smile, but slightly out of breath, “But as you can see, things are starting to heat up around here.”

                “We, we don’t have the time for that!” Lilly yelled. “What is that thing?!”

                “Sorry, Miss Akiyama,” Ayase said, “That’ll have to come a little later.”

                Ayase maintained her speed, a hard sprint, while barking orders to her other companions.

                “It’s tougher than I thought, but it shouldn’t be too bad! We improvise until we can get it into a better position for sealing!”

                Lilly heard Riyo yell back. “Thanks for pointing out the obvious!”

                The sounds of fighting filled the night sky. Explosions, lasers, fire. Lilly didn’t see any of this coming when Ayase asked her out earlier today.

                Finally, Ayase slowed down, then stopped, and set Lilly down. Lilly immediately put her hands on her knees, and took in every breath she could.

                “I’m sorry that I keep saying ‘I’m sorry,’ Miss Akiyama, but I’ll have to go accompany those two, right now,” Ayase said. “They’ll be lost without me.” The way she was speaking showed no real sense of urgency, like she was talking about having to go out for a quick errand, rather than doing whatever this was.

                “Hold on,” Lilly panted, “Don’t, don’t go.”

                “Don’t worry,” Ayase said. “This shouldn’t take much longer, now that I have a bit more data to work with, now.” She pointed behind Lilly. “Just starting running towards those trees. Just run. Things should be over with before you get all the way to the perimeter.”

                “You sound pretty confident in yourself,” Lilly commented.

                “That’s because I am.”

                “Ugh, fine. But,” Lilly turned, facing where Ayase indicated. “That’s still a bit of a distance.”

                “You’ll be alright. Just run.” There was a quick swish of wind, and when Lilly looked back, Ayase was gone.

                She no longer wasted any time. She ran.

                Lilly pushed herself as hard as she could. But the more she ran, the less progress she seemed to be making. Behind her, it was still loud, no matter how far she got. But she couldn’t afford to look back and observe the fighting. She had her own part to play in all of this.

                Which was to not die.

                Run, run, keep going!

                She kept telling herself that, but she was still so tired. Lilly could only run for so long. Could only sprint for so long. She was beginning to slow down, even if every bit of herself told her not to.

                The sounds, the deep vocal bass of the creature, it kept ringing her ears. Like it was calling out to her. Screaming.

                And it sounded like it was getting closer.

                I thought Ayase said I’d be alright!

                It was nerve-racking, that she couldn’t turn around to see what was happening.

                She could only see the after-effects.

                A bright light was creeping behind, a glow that was illuminating the grass around her. Blue. The ground was rumbling below her feet, as if just running forward wasn’t already hard enough. She began to stumble.

                With every step, the more intense the light behind her was growing, the more intense rumbling became, nearing the resemblance of an earthquake. Under those circumstances, it was nearly impossible for Lilly to run straight.

                Her right foot landed, but she buckled, and fell.

                The trees were right there, a few more paces away, but she was too spent to move. Hopefully, she had run far enough. She turned.

                It was too bright to see anything. A high-pitch note was beginning to peak, and she felt dizzied and disoriented. She had tried her best. Lilly braced herself, and closed her eyes shut.

                The rumbling becoming stronger, the light more intense.

                “…”

               

                What?

                “Miss Akiyama, you’re safe to open your eyes, now.”

                Slowly, Lilly did just that. She looked up to see Ayase.

                “Do you need a hand?” Ayase asked, extending one out for her.

                Lilly didn’t hesitate in accepting her help. Ayase helped her up.

                Lilly had to huff out her words. “Did… Is… that thing… is it gone?”

                “As gone as it’s going to be,” Riyo said, walking up to the two girls. “That thing was a lot tougher than I expected.”

                Tsubasa joined them right after. “Yeah. As much as I hate to say it, Ayase, but Riyo was right. You seriously miscalculated this one.”

                “Hey, not now,” Ayase lightly pleaded. “Even if you are right, now’s not the time.”

                “Hmph, whatever,” Riyo said. He looked away, back at the center of the meadow.

                The crater was larger than before, with smaller indentations in the dirt from the impacts from the battle that just concluded. It was quiet, now, almost eerily so. A sudden stillness after everything that happened gave Lilly an uneasy sensation. Like it was a false quiet, and something else was about to happen.

                Also, and most importantly, the creature was gone. Nowhere to be found. And it would’ve have been easy to find.

                “What was that thing?” Lilly asked, finally having the opportunity to do so.

                Riyo answered. “You don’t recognize your own nephew? How sad?”

                “Huh, what?” Lilly replied, confused.

                “That’s grossly oversimplifying it, Riyo,” Tsubasa commented. “Come on, you and I can finish cleaning up.”

                “What about the little pipsqueak? Can’t she help?”

                “I believe I owe Miss Akiyama a bit of an explanation,” Ayase explained. “You two can go ahead.”

                Riyo shook his head. “I can’t believe this.” But he didn’t complain any further. He walked away, and Tsubasa followed.

                “Alright,” Lilly said as those two left. “Now it’s officially my turn.”

                “Yes it is,” Ayase said, turning to Lilly and giving her full attention.

                Lilly started, as she brushed away some hair from her eyes. “So, let me ask again. What in the world was that?”

                Ayase inhaled, taking in as much air as she could before answering. “It’s a subspecies of anomalous data that is normally birthed by the societal worries of the collective human conscience.”

                Lilly blinked.

                “Thanks,” she said.

                “To put it simply,” Ayase continued, “It’s a sort of projection, a physical manifestation of the stresses that plague humanity. It’s one of the more common jobs we do as part of our duties. It’s a menial task, but it’s important, otherwise humanity as it stands wouldn’t be here, right now.”

                Lilly was staggered. “Shouldn’t you have mentioned that when you first introduced all of this to me?”

                “Probably. My apologies, Miss Akiyama, but it really is so menial, in my head I didn’t think it was worth mentioning to you.”

                “Me nearly turning into grilled steak is not menial.”

                Ayase looked down, like she was regretting her actions. “I understand.”

                Ah, wait, don’t make that face, now I feel bad!

                “Stop, stop that,” Lilly muttered, “Don’t do that.”

                Ayase looked up, “I suppose there’s no point in dwelling on things like that.”

                “Yeah.” But Lilly was still curious. “Anyways, even if that’s the case, why bring me? And… I really don’t want to consider this, but was that thing after me?”

                Ayase grinned, though a little forlorn. “You caught on, but I’m not surprised, given your sharp eyes.”

                “Less flattery, and more answers, Ayase.”

                “Right, sorry. Yes, that is the case, unfortunately. It was coming after you. In fact, it’s exactly why we had to bring you here in the first place.”

                Lilly asked her next question slowly, worried. “… Why?”

                “Well, it was going after you, we couldn’t have you be in your home. We had to take you somewhere safe, with no one else around.”

                “You used me as bait?”

                “That’s a rather negative way of looking at things,” Ayase commented. “We didn’t have much of a choice.”

                “You couldn’t do any of your weird spatial… magic tricks? You couldn’t snap your fingers and take us elsewhere?”

                Ayase shifted in place, scratching her shoulder. “That’s the thing. Normally, we’d be able to, but it was a lot tougher than it looked. Believe it or not.”

                “Try me.”

                “Like I mentioned, it’s not exactly what we normally go up against, it’s a subspecies. Instead of coming from the collective mindset of the human population, it came from a singular source.”

                “A singular source?”

                “A single human.”

                Lilly was staggered. Again. “And who would that be?”

                “Haruko Rea.”

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