“I don’t know why we’re out here, it’s creepy.” He looked around, conspiratorially, and then leant in close. “She’s creepy.”
Miki lifted her hand, trying not to laugh, trying not to attract the attention of the girl ahead of them as she walked on through the woods, a heavy Adidas bag slung over her shoulder, her unnerving homunculus strolling along at her side, a naked child, face hidden behind a golden mask carved in the likeness of a cherub. These were the ones, Yuusuke thought, still leaning close to his classmate, that he disliked the most, the ones that looked like people.
“She’s not so bad. You should try getting to know her,” Miki said with a smile, and then added playfully, “properly, I mean, not whatever conversation you tried to have with her last time.”
Despite her chiding, her hands remained in the pockets of her thin, dark jacket, he noted, undoubtedly not far from the card that contained the data of her own homunculus, as if she too was uncertain of the older girl’s inclination to protect them from the wild creatures that lurked amongst the trees. Still, Miki’s partner was one of the good ones, one of the not creepy ones, not like the fat, stumbling toddler that followed Lilith Samuels about, its face forever hidden by the mask, its voice a haunting melody.
It wasn’t like she didn’t use other homunculi, he thought unhappily, though perhaps her choices so far weren’t really that much more inspiring; the shadowy owb, a nuclear outline brought to life, the owl-like strigidae, its appearance far too close to its owner for Yuusuke’s taste.
Regardless, she was good at what she did, he supposed, good at convincing homunculi to do what she wanted, and that’s why they were all out in the woods beyond Rivulet Hill with their white Firmament Foundation armbands and their unhappy instructions. He sighed. When they had pissed off the Foundation over the summer, he couldn’t have guessed that it would have ended in them all doing ‘community service’ long into the autumn.
Ah well, at least he got to be with Miki, that was a bonus, and he had his own homunculus, the sturdy and reliable red knight, cniht. It wasn’t much, but it was probably better than what the guardsmen had when they drew similar short straws for similar shitty jobs. They should be grateful, he thought, now there was someone else to do the unrewarding tasks they didn’t want to do, at least for another few months more.
The best years of his life, his father always told him, a wistful look in his eyes, but Yuusuke was pretty sure his dad didn’t have to spend months on end running errands for bored guardsmen and traipsing about the woods trying to politely dissuade the homunculi the Foundation had released into the wild years ago from causing problems on the farms surrounding the town.
“She’s really strong,” Miki said, drawing his attention back to the present and away from his woes. “I think that’s really cool.”
What was the point though, being strong and good with homunculi? Surely you’d only ever need to be one or the other?
As if aware that she was being spoken of, Lilith paused upon the path and looked back at them, her expression stern, the angle of her backwards baseball cap comical.
“Hey,” she called to them, “don’t fall too far behind.”
At her side, the homunculus paused also, the fading radiance of sunlight making the gold of its mask turn deep red. He shuddered, uncomfortable with the connotation.
“Sorry!” Miki cried, rushing forward to catch up with the older girl.
Begrudgingly, Yuusuke quickened his pace also, yet cautiously he remained a step behind them. In the months since they had all drawn the short straw of community service, Yuusuke had thought briefly that he might get on with Lilith, especially after seeing her in a Hanshin Tigers cap. He wasn’t from Osaka himself, but you didn’t have to be from Osaka to know how important a team the Tigers were. It turned out though, that Lilith simply collected baseball caps, and when he asked her about the Tigers, she just looked at him as if he was babbling.
“Are you listening, Hidaka?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder once more.
Clearly, he had not been.
“Yes,” he lied.
She nodded, as if taken in by his rouse, though he doubted she was.
“It’s going to be a big one,” she said, continuing whatever topic of discussion she had started whilst he had been distracted thinking about her cap collection. “Not one of the grubs, but one of the fully-grown ones, the adults, the kind that can walk about. It’s important we don’t let it take us by surprise, so watch our rear.”
Ahead of him, Miki visibly shuddered, and he smiled, suddenly struck by his feelings of warmth for her, yet not enough to quell the distaste at such a job they had been assigned.
Once more, as if she read his thoughts, Lilith glance back and smirked.
“What’s the matter, you think this job is beneath you?”
He squirmed, not wishing to look uncool in front of Miki.
“No, it’s not that, it’s just surely there must be a better way to do this.” His face lit up in excitement. “Like those things, those things you get that you put in the plug socket and they make, like, ultrasonic waves and it freaks out spiders, you know?”
Miki giggled again, but this time, he realised, it wasn’t because he had said something funny, but because he had said something stupid.
“Or maybe not,” he murmured, his face red with blush.
Lilith nodded but did not look at him.
“Yeah. Maybe not.”
The next thing he knew, there was something seizing hold of him, the force of something pushing down against his shoulders, and he remembered Miki crying out in alarm, the thud of Lilith’s bag against the ground as she shouted a warning, and the startled cry of her homunculus.
He staggered and fell, landing face first amidst the twigs and leaves, a mouthful of dirt as he rolled over and onto his back and pulled himself up, the cniht card in his hand, the sleeves of his flannel shirt rolled up to reveal the wooden box bound to his wrist, black oak and rubber.
Around them, from all sides, came the shuffling, crawling movements of insects closing in, bugachugs the size of household cats, and before him was the shape of the adult creature, the mature form, the one responsible for directing all the others, the reason for the summer’s shitty harvest, standing tall on clawed feet, hunched posture, mandibles chattering.
“Fine,” Yuusuke growled, meeting the creature’s gaze, “if you want to play rough, then let’s do this.”