The door creaked open before her, making the dust stir in the air. The sun at her back illuminated the interior of the old house and cast her shadow long in the slow reach of the light.
Her nose wrinkled with distaste, her expression one of decided unhappiness.
“This is the place?” she asked, turning her head. The tiny bell on the velvet choker about her neck chimed with the movement. “This is where you all used to come?”
At her side, the older girl stood with her hands in her huge duster coat, her dark hair pulled back in an untidy ponytail beneath her baseball cap, her smile one of wry amusement.
“This is the place,” she confirmed, nudging the door with the tip of her boot, exciting further protest from the aged wood. Her hands remained in her pockets.
For a moment, Phoenix stared blankly at her, and then, at last, she shook her head, the bell chiming once more.
“You’re kidding me,” she declared, gesturing to the dusty floorboards beyond, the cobwebs that hung from the rafters. “You’re kidding me, right? This place is filthy.”
Lilith’s smile grew marginally wider.
“Would I lie to you?” she asked, raising an eyebrow as she passed, crossing the threshold into the dusty house.
“Yes!” Phoenix protested. “Yes, you would! Yes, you have, in fact. Many times. You’re awful.”
Lilith turned on her heel, the hem of her coat swaying, motes of dust dancing in the air about her.
“You asked to see the place where we used to hang out. Why would I lie about that?”
Hesitantly, Phoenix followed after her, looking about the room with apprehension at the dust covered furniture, the mould that patterned the faded wallpaper by the staircase. She took a step forward, and felt the sole of her jelly sandal sink into something soft. A sense of disgust arose in her as she hastily stepped back, looking down at a trail of slime caught in the shadow beyond the shape of the light.
“Oh, that’s re-volt-ing,” she proclaimed unhappily.
A small laugh escaped Lilith’s lips.
“Yeah, there’s quite a few of psychic slugs around. It’s the atmosphere of the place, or something. Watch where you step, I guess.”
If she had been asked to make a list of favoured homunculi, then Phoenix Delgado would absolutely have ranked psychic slugs right at the bottom, lower even than bugachugs or chugabugs. There was something inherently disgusting about the fat, slithering creatures, the damp shape of them, the bristle of electricity between their feelers.
Even in the best of circumstances, Phoenix was not an especial fan of slugs and snails, and the thought that someone in the Firmament Foundation might have perhaps looked out into their garden one day, seen such creatures merrily ruining the flowers, and decided that yes, that was exactly what the world needed more of and that they should also be able to read minds so as to protect themselves from harm, filled her with a genuine sense of revulsion.
Surely the Firmament Foundation had better things to do than spend their time staring at slugs.
She shook her head as if to dislodge the idea.
“I thought you said this was where owbs gathered, not slugs.”
Her father had been against the idea of what he perceived as her dangerous interest in the machinations of the Foundation. She had been led astray, he had announced to anyone who would listen. Obviously, the company she was keeping were bad influences. Standing in that old haunted house with Lilith Samuels—a girl famous for her exactly the sort of bad influence that her father feared—it was easy to concede such a point. Yet since the events of last summer, Phoenix had accepted that if she didn’t start actively making an effort to broaden her horizons, she would remain the sheltered little rich girl she had been before all this had started.
That was exactly what the whole deal was, she told herself, as if scared of contradiction. It wasn’t anything else, any other sort of feeling, it was totally about getting stronger, and broadening horizons.
“There are,” Lilith confirmed, reaching out with the tip of her boot again, this time prodding at a broken chair, “but they’re not going to come out just because you come to visit. If you want to fight them, you’re going to have to find them and rile them up first.”
Phoenix’s lips twitched.
Fight them, she thought. She didn’t want to fight them, she just wanted to win, to prove that she was as good as Poppy Labyrinth, wherever in the world she was now.
“I should have known it wouldn’t be so easy,” Phoenix sighed, reaching into the back pocket of her jeans to pull free the card wherein the essence of her homunculus was stored.
She held it in her hand for a moment, looking down at the design upon its back: two magpies, their legs entwined, flanking a shield that detailed the four minor arcana suits of the tarot deck.
“Maybe I should start off by clearing out these disgusting slugs,” she mused.
“You could try,” she said.
Phoenix looked up with momentary anger, finding the other girl smiling back at her, and realising she had been too easily baited.
“The owbs are probably easier to deal with than the psychic slugs. They’re only concerned with deceiving you, the psychic slugs might want to get to know you.”
Phoenix shuddered, and though she did not mean to, she found herself voicing her dislike too readily.
Lilith laughed, apparently satisfied with the reaction her comments had elicited.
“Well, you’ve got time to get to learn how to deal with the situation,” she said, placing a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. “Keep coming here, and I’m sure you’ll warm to them.”
“Keep coming here?” Phoenix repeated in alarm.
Again, Lilith laughed, and again she realised she had too readily provided the reaction the other girl as looking for.
“Of course. You don’t think you’re going to get any better with that simurgh just by coming here once, do you? You’ve got to put in the effort.”
Lilith smiled knowingly, and shrugged.
“Or you could just get your dad to buy you a new one, one that someone else has already trained up. That would solve the issue, right?”
Phoenix felt her anger burn bright within her, struggling to keep the emotion from her face.
“I wouldn’t do that,” she growled through gritted teeth, shaking her head, the bell ringing once more.
Lilith’s knowing smile became playful.
“Good. That means we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other.”
Despite herself, Phoenix was unable to hide how uninviting she found such a prospect.