Bug Hunt (2/3)

It was too late, the card tore through the narrow trench carved into the far side of the wooden box, the inner mechanisms stirring to light and life.

a knight in red armour
illustration by Rei


Hidaka!” he heard Lilith cry in warning.

It was too late, the card tore through the narrow trench carved into the far side of the wooden box, the inner mechanisms stirring to light and life as they read the information compressed within and communed with the vast machine within the Firmament Foundation’s lower levels—the place where all slumbering homunculi resided.

“Apprentice Summoner Yuusuke requests your—”

Abruptly, he felt himself pushed to the side, tiny hands with incredible strength sending him tumbling across the ground, twigs and leaves scratching his face as he rolled to a stop. It didn’t matter, he told himself, he had already begun to call his cniht, he was the hero of this story!

It took a moment for him to register the raised voices, the eerie song. He pulled himself up from the ground and found his eyes drawn with disgust towards Lilith’s homunculus, its pale, chubby flesh, the radiance of its countenance.

From behind the mask, the song grew louder, a chorus of voices rising from the throat of one being as the bugachugs surrounding them were thrown into confusion.

Light flashed once, twice, three times within the narrow slot of the wooden box, a timer indicating the interrupted summoning.

Lilith shot him a glance, her face alive with anger.

“Don’t!” she warned him.

He felt it then, that rebelliousness that all 16-year-old boys know keenly. There was barely a few years’ difference between him and the girl, and yet the distance seemed insurmountable, an ocean that separated their understanding of the situation.

The bugachugs were in disarray, he thought, even the big one was backing off. What harm could it do if he got in on the action?

The specialised card reader upon his wrist timed out, the shape of the card forming from light once more, lifted up by the mechanism within to confirm its inactive status. He pulled it free, turning it over between his fingers.

“Yuusuke—” he heard Miki begin, but he ignored her, because, after all, the way to impress girls was sometimes not to pay attention to them, right?

With a single movement, he tore the card through the reader once more, losing it again in the translation into light and data.

“Apprentice Summoner Yuusuke requests your presence! Cniht! Soldier of iron will!”

As if in tune with these words, the light about the box crackled once more, and he felt waves of energy hardening before into the armoured soldier, the billowing cloak, the simple, featureless helmet of the cniht with its narrow black faceplate of curved glass.

“I will kill you!” Lilith shouted in frustration, the song of her homunculus faltering.

Samael, Yuusuke remembered, that was the horrid creature’s name.

“Cniht!” he cried out. “Fire strike!”

From its side, the homunculus drew forth a glistening blade, a series of runes running down the silver edge of the weapon, the light drawn to it, inexplicability catching fire about it in some magical translation of energy. Not until it was too late did Yuusuke realise that the bugachugs had regrouped, the haunting song of Samael’s psalms no longer holding their attention.

His face fell, and he understood then why Lilith had pushed him out of the way.

The cniht thrust its sword out, the burning red flame twisting as it brought the blade down towards the adult bugachug—and was rebounded! He watched in alarm as the cniht staggered backwards, smoke rising from the forearm of the insect-homunculus, the sole indication that there had been connexion between the blade and their antagonist.

“Armour!” Lilith shouted angrily. “Insects have armour!”

Yuusuke panicked. He tried not to let it appear that he was panicking, but he was. In his excitement, in his eagerness to look cool in front of Miki he had forgotten about the tough exoskeleton of the adult bugachug even though it had been standing there before him. Just as grievous an error, he had also forgotten the fact that such insects were naturally stronger in environments such as woodland; it was their habitat, their ‘field of play’ as the new SUNNY Corporation tech manuals had begun to refer to such elemental areas when discussing the pros and cons of their compliance with Firmament Foundation homunculi.

He heard the song of Lilith’s familiar, yet whatever good it had done previously, the bugachugs were now ignoring it completely, closing ranks about them again, the adult’s attention focused solely on his cniht. He had, he realised, succeeded in royally pissing them off.

“Sword slasher!” Yuusuke commanded, and in response, the cniht lashed out again, a lack of elemental magic this time, the simple desire to cut, to shred, to rend, to keep the advancing insect-thing at arms’ length.

Deftly, the bugachug kept out of range, watching with its swollen red eyes, studying the movements of the cniht, waiting for the right time to strike.

He needed to buy himself time, to push back against the insects.

“Cniht!” he shouted. “Buddha’s palm!”

The armoured figure slammed a foot forwards, thrusting out its left hand, palm flat, aiming for the bugachug’s chest and freezing suddenly as the creature lunged to meet it, seizing hold of the arm with both of its claws, nails digging into the metal, shattering the surface, revealing the dark impermanence of the cniht’s essence within.

He glanced over at Lilith in panic and she glared fiercely back at him, her hands upon the shoulders of her childlike homunculus.

“You got us into this,” she said coldly. “Samael can’t win in a contest of physical strength; this is between you and the bugachug now.”

Panic set in. He was going to lose his cniht, he realised. Just like his classmate, Mauve, had—

Don’t think of that, he chided himself. Think of something that will help, something that will work!

It felt as if his brain was suddenly full of everything that he had seen and felt and heard, the long summer abruptly compressed into flashing images that filled his head as the panic consumed him; the bored guardsmen, the endless errands, the awkward conversations, Lilith’s Hanshin Tigers cap.

Two things happened then. The first felt like a lightning strike of inspiration, the image of Lilith standing in that cap, her face full of disinterest.

“Cniht, drop the sword!” he shouted.

The sword slipped from the grasp of the homunculus, falling to the dirt and grass abandoned. Yuusuke’s lips quivered in a smile.

“Now!” he shouted. “Tiger uppercut!’

With tremendous speed, his homunculus brought its right arm up, its balled fist smashing into the bone of the bugachug’s jaw, lifting it from the ground, forcing it release its grasp on the cniht’s arm.

Yuusuke whooped with delight, an exuberance so loud that he almost did not register the second thing that had happened. Almost.

Behind him, light coalesced.

“Apprentice Summoner Miki requests your presence! Polar Kitten, please protect us!”

order Silver in the Second Temple here | (amazon US, amazon UK)
support us on patreon | buy us coffee via ko-fi