“Apprentice Summoner Phoenix requests your presence!”
The light ignited in the darkness, the card between her fingers dissolving into a shower of fireflies as it passed through the vermilion and gold plastic box upon her wrist. At her feet, the dust stirred as she steadied herself, trying to mimic the stance she had seen others adopt.
“Mighty Simurgh,” she called out, her voice echoing within the abandoned rooms, “grace me with your beauty!”
Before her, the shape of her homunculus flashed into existence, a wave of warmth washing over her as energy became matter, the burning outline of the creature summoned from its slumber.
The simurgh had not been her choice of homunculus; rather it had been, like most things, a gift from her father. It’s funny, he had said, because of your name. She had rolled her eyes, and refrained from reminding him that it was his fault that she had been stuck with such a stupid name.
It had been her late mother’s suggestion partially; Phoenix apparently having been the city in which she was conceived. She should be grateful, she supposed, that they had not named her after the hotel instead.
The recollection of her absent mother stirred in her a sort of sadness that she still did not know how to process, even all these years later, and so she simply pushed the matter from her mind, focusing instead on the shape of the simurgh burning away before her, the warmth of its presence comforting.
Her only true friend, she thought bitterly.
Behind her, Lilith stood with her arms crossed, leaning against the door, watching intently but saying nothing.
Phoenix stiffened with discomfort, unhappy about being watched, never having been especially confident when finding herself observed.
“Burn brighter,” she instructed the creature before her, trying to ignore Lilith’s presence.
The flames of the simurgh’s shape intensified, the heat washing from its form growing all the more intense as its body became a pillar of flame in the centre of the room, illuminating the dark surroundings of the old house, yet through the properties of its ethereal existence never burning them away.
This place had been where they had all gathered after Poppy had won that stupid championship. Not her, of course, she hadn’t really known any of them then, save for an instinctive dislike of the manner in which Poppy had presented herself, her indifference coming across as arrogance. She understood now why that had been. Time had passed, and enough had come out—about the Firmament Foundation, about the relationship between Doc Labyrinth’s granddaughter and Eirian’s father, Professor Calohan—, that it was obvious to her in retrospect why the other girl had acted in such a way. Still, it did not make her any more likeable.
Where are you now, Poppy, she thought sadly. Things are boring now that there’s no one to push back against.
In the distance, crouching on the staircase, looking at her with wide eyes, she saw a number of tengu, all of them looking distinctly like Sumire, another member of Poppy’s old team. She ignored them. Tengu were not worth her effort, their bodies too corporeal, too real, unlike the owb, they weren’t the kind of things her simurgh was naturally weak against.
From behind her, she heard Lilith kick away from the door.
“You won’t find them like that,” the older girl called out.
Phoenix’s face contorted in a scowl. She did not turn, did not want to look at Lilith and have her witness the displeasure on her face. Regardless, she found it impossible to keep the impatience from her voice.
“What would you suggest, then?” she snapped.
This was the third day she had spent at the old house, the third day in which she had not seen even the suggestion of an owb, only an endless parade of psychic slugs and little girls that looked too much like Sumire seemingly filling every corner of the house.
“Turn the flames down,” Lilith commanded. “Stop trying to go to them, let them come to you.”
That old meme, Phoenix thought with displeasure, the one with the dog and the frisbee, and the words ‘no throw, only catch,’ that was who she was now.
“Simurgh,” she said regardless, “grow dim.”
The burning creature seemed to growl with displeasure, the strength of its flames dying down, the light retreating inwards. A gas hob turned down to its lowest setting, she thought, and then frowned again, unhappy with herself for making such a banal comparison.
What was left once the flames had faded was not pleasant to look at, a dim, human shape, an anchor for the blistering elemental power of the creature. It unnerved her to see the simurgh in such a fashion, robbed of its majesty, presented as almost-human, pale flesh and smooth features, the chick before its feathers had grown.
Nothing happened, save for the dimming of the light, and for a while, Phoenix just stood there in silence, in darkness, her homunculus sad and naked in the darkness of the old house.
Briefly, she remembered the shape of the huge, disgusting kadmoni that had towered over the Firmament Foundation during the summer now past. Was that what her homunculus was at its heart also? Was that horrible, faceless kadmoni the shape behind all human-like homunculi, the connexion between real people and artificial beings?
A moment passed, another moment, the sound of her own heartbeat deafening in her ears, and then, at last, she became aware of their presence, a knowingness within the substance of the darkness, the owbs buried in the gloom that dwelt within the house.
Her lips curled into a slow smile, a vicious sense of triumph quickening the deafening hammer of her heart.
I have you now, she thought.
“Simurgh,” she said softly, her voice little more than a whisper.
Around her the shadows waxed and waned, the tide washing up against the shore. Her heart continued its thunderous rhythm, excitement mounting, the expectation of triumph.
“Flamethrower!” she shouted with glee.
The shape of her simurgh exploded with impossible brightness, flames pouring forth from its body, washing over the shape of the house, sending the tengu on the stairs scurrying away, catching the slow, insubstantial owbs before her and scattering them as they were forced to assume corporeality.
Her smile became genuine, a sense of pride rising within her, all the annoyance she had felt at Lilith’s suggestions melting away.
See, Poppy, she thought to herself. I can do this shit just as well as you.