Chapter 21: Observation
The dust stinged her nose. The tingling was unbearable, but she had to be quiet. This was of utmost importance. If she made even a noise, her hiding place would be discovered.
Slowly she crawled through the blackness of the attic. The young woman named Miyazaki Yuka tried to avoid the creaking of the planks. Fortunately, she spent the third guard at this place and knew by now exactly which plank was loose. Because the house she was in seemed very old anyway, and the bending and cracking of the walls and floors could be heard all the time, the additional strange noises from the roof did not matter. Nevertheless, Yuka wanted to avoid drawing attention to herself as much as possible.
She felt her upper arms going numb. She had been lying on her stomach for about half an hour, leaning on her limbs. It was by no means a comfortable position. Unfortunately, her team had only been able to discover the attic as a suitable spy spot during the observation. The current inhabitant of the isolated wooden house had never bothered to climb up the ladder and take a closer look at the dusty place. Thus, in a risky action, the group known as Juice=Juice had infiltrated the building and brought in three people. One of them was the leader herself: Miyazaki Yuka.
Her other two comrades rested motionlessly beside her. They had divided themselves into guards. Each of them kept scouting for exactly one hour. This was mainly realized by a crack in a wooden board on the floor. So they had an exact view into the obligatory living room of the person.
"Has something happened, Yukanyan?"
The soft whispering voice reached the ear of the young woman. Despite the darkness, she could make out the shadowy outlines of her friend.
Smiling, the leader replied:
"Not yet. It's the tenth time he's walked up and down."
Then she remarked questioningly:
"But why are you already up, Aarii? You have half an hour left."
The addressed one moved carefully to Yuka. Finally she lay side by side with her leader. The slight glimmer of light that came through the crack was enough to reveal the beautiful, timeless face of the younger one. The dimples at the corners of her mouth were the trademark of the adolescent woman named Uemura Akari. Yuka often envied her for her flawless, pure and so innocent beauty. She put a smile on the face of anyone who saw her.
Akari answered resignedly:
"I'm getting more and more nervous. If something doesn't happen soon..."
The older one nudged her lovingly in the flank.
"Relax. It won't be long now. If the information °C-ute gave us are correct, the meeting should take place today."
Akari uttered a deep sigh.
"The day has just begun. So it's possible that we'll spend a few more hours up here in this confinement."
Yuka puckred the corners of her mouth up as if she was thinking about something for a moment. Then she nodded and spoke with a grin:
"Yes, it's possible."
Her partner let her head hang down with a silent laugh. Yuka knew exactly how to motivate her comrades. But she also enjoyed teasing them mischievously again and again.
Suddenly she noticed shadowy movements in the room below them. Quickly, she stretched her head towards the crack to be able to see what was going on.
A figure wrapped in black clothes was walking, as before, hastily from side to side. It seemed to be plagued by restlessness as well. Then Yuka heard a distant knocking. For a brief moment, the figure was out of sight. Finally it stepped back into the room, together with another masked person. Silently, the two girls watched the events. Voices echoed muffled up to them.
"All preparations were completed. As soon as the order comes, we will strike."
It was definitely a female person, Yuka thought in silence. But because of the fabric in front of her mouth, it was impossible to recognize a clear voice.
At the same moment, the figure who was occupying the house replied:
"Very good! According to the Darganfod, we definitely have the advantage. Duma is eager to know if our strength is sufficient. And whether you are really loyal to us."
The eyes of the leader widened. To her left Akari twitched. So the same thought plagued her. The voice of the observed figure was deep, threatening and seemed monstrously distorted. A Hunter, no doubt!
Meanwhile, the female, definitely human, said calmly:
"I can assure you that you have nothing to worry about. When the time comes, we will not hesitate for a second."
For a moment, nobody spoke a word. The Hunter wandered across the room. Apparently, he was thinking about something. The other person wasn't moving. She stood motionless in the middle of the room and watched her supposed ally. Both Akari and Yuka had held their breath to avoid the slightest noise. Their wrists burned in pain, but they ignored that. What happened just below them was the reason for their observation. They had to absorb every single word and handle it properly. The whole mission depended on it.
After several minutes of silence, the Hunter turned around and spoke coldly:
"In every spare minute I think about the reasons for your actions. But I can't think of any plausible motive why we should trust you, scum."
This was a decisive moment. There was a crackling in the air. Should anyone make a wrong move or say a wrong word, the next thing would be a brutal fight to the death.
But the stranger did not seem intimidated in the least. The muffled voice possessed a confident emphasis:
"You do not need to philosophize about our decisions. We have our reasons. Most likely you would not understand them at all. The only thing you need to know is that we are behind you a hundred percent."
The Hunter stepped threateningly close to the person.
"I will hope for your sake that this is the truth. You don't want to know what we do to traitors."
The stranger did not answer, but the Hunter seemed to be completely satisfied with the reaction. After a menacing pause he turned around, sat down in the armchair near the fireplace and leaned back relaxed. Thus the piercing red eyes were clearly visible to Yuka and Akari. Then his unpleasantly deep voice sounded again:
"It'll be some time before we finally take the initiative. Until then, the sleepers will stay in their cells. Silently. But deadly. Isn't it?"
The arrival bowed slightly and agreed with the statement. Then the person turned on her heel and walked away. Only the Hunter remained sitting still. For quite a while there was silence.
Just as the fire in the fireplace was about to die out, the eerie figure straightened up. He stepped out of the sight of the Juice=Juice members at a deliberate pace. Then they heard the squeaking of the entrance door. And at last, peace followed. The Hunter was gone.
For a few minutes the two young women stayed motionless in their position. When they were sure that their enemy would not return, they decided to leave as well. Yuka asked excitedly into the darkness:
"Karin? Karin, are you awake?"
Immediately a monotone but sweet voice answered her:
"Yes. I overheard it. We should meet up with the others."
Without hesitation, the small figure in the shadows set itself in motion. Suddenly Yuka was dazzled by the glaring light, which was revealed over a large area when Karin opened the attic hatch. The young woman with the shoulder-length hair climbed down the ladder deftly. Akari and Yuka did the same.
The wooden cabin was a long abandoned place. The massive dust on the furniture, the run-down walls and the musty smell were only some of the facts that led to this conclusion. The leader looked around for a moment to regain her orientation. Three days in the dark, narrow attic had left their marks. She automatically stretched her limbs and was glad to finally be able to stand upright again.
The larger Akari landed right next to Yuka and moaned contentedly. She whispered:
" Finally! I thought we'd have to spend the rest of our lives up there. I couldn't have stood that, as much as I love you."
Yuka smiled dully.
"Wasn't it a great experience to cuddle with your leader day in, day out?"
The smallest of them, Miyamoto Karin, made them understand that they shouldn't make a sound. She had leaned against the wall at the front door and listened. Then she waved the other two over to her.
Quietly she pointed to the entrance. Then she formed a walking person with her index and middle finger. Yuka understood. Rapidly she pulled the irritated Akari with her and bent under the windowsill which was right next to Karin.
Then they held their breath. Steps could be heard from outside. They could perceive the creaking of the wooden planks, which clearly signaled that the person outside had entered the veranda. Had the hunter come back? Had he forgotten anything? Or was it the stranger?
The three young women waited paitently. Any slightest noise could now reveal them. All of a sudden, the steps stopped. The person was right next to the front door. Only a few centimetres separated the figure from the intruders. The sweat ran down Yuka's forehead. A quick glance at Akari showed her that she had put both hands in front of her mouth. Her wide open eyes spoke volumes. Only Karin seemed focused as always.
The doorknob moved slowly. A slight click in the mechanism could be heard. Then the wooden door opened in slow motion. Long shadows stretched across the floor. The sunlight flooded the room. Finally the person entered and...
The screeching of a familiar girl's voice echoed through the whole cabin. Karin had started an attack at the right moment, but had stopped just before the clash. The edge of her hand was only millimetres away from the neck of the incoming person, who began to scream in panic. But she was by no means an opponent. It was also a young woman with a pigtail and conspicuous chubby cheeks.
The competitors stared at each other for a few seconds. Then laughter broke out behind them. A fifth person entered the entrance. Her cat-like eyes sparkled with joy and the curved lips formed a broad grin.
"Well, you gave each other a big scare. Poor Sayuki."
Somewhat surprised Karin, Yuka and Akari looked at the newcomers. At once, the smallest one set her victim free. The girl named Takagi Sayuki, still frightened, held her neck and said disapprovingly:
"What kind of action was that, Karin? I am on your side!"
The person addressed bowed quickly and shouted:
"Excuse me! Excuse me! Excuse me! Excuse me!"
Immediately the young woman with the pigtail had to laugh too.
"It's all right."
Yuka, on the other hand, joined up with Akari and spoke in amazement:
"What a coincidence. Why are you here already? We were on our way to see you, too."
The woman with the cat-like eyes, her name was Kanazawa Tomoko, nodded to her leader and then answered calmly:
"We could see from our position in the forest how a strange person had gone to the house. But she came out again after a few minutes. A little later the target followed her. Therefore we assumed that the house was empty now. We didn't know how much you heard, so we wanted to get you out of there."
The leader of Juice=Juice gave an understanding nod. Akari, however, asked confusedly:
"So what are our next steps? We've lost sight of the Hunter, haven't we?"
Yuka took up a thoughtful pose.
"We could try to follow him. But since we don't know exactly which path he has taken or even what his new goal is, it would be a dangerous undertaking for us."
Karin raised her hand and said in an emotionless manner:
"I would like to start the pursuit. If he gets away from us, the Surpremes won't like that. After all, he's our only clue."
The leader looked at her with a frown and then asked:
"What about this stranger? Could you, Sayuki, Tomoko, recognize who that was?"
The two mentioned shook their heads wistfully. Sayuki replied:
"Unfortunately not. I wanted to spy on the person but apparently, that person knew exactly what she was doing. Within seconds, she had shaken me off. Although she hadn't noticed me at all."
Akari opened her mouth in surprise.
"How can this be? Your tracking techniques are not from this world, Sayubee. Although... you didn't notice Karin..."
The tortured one screwed up her eyes in a feigned angrily way and shouted:
" Eh! You can't compare that. Tomoko and I assumed you were the only ones left in the cabin. Who'd expect such a kamikaze attack?"
The group laughed about the situation. Yuka quickly recovered and scratched her head before she said:
"Still, it's really bizarre that the stranger was able to get away so quickly. That would make sense if she had been in immediate danger. After all, vessels only detect such a threat when they are directly aware of it."
Tomoko raised her head and stared into the eyes of her leader.
"Are you saying that this person was possibly human?"
Yuka nodded knowingly.
"Exactly! Either that... or..."
She directed her gaze amusedly smiling at Sayuki.
"... it was really just an amateurish mistake and Sayubee is rusty."
Instantly the troupe burst out laughing again, while the young woman with the chubby cheeks screamed her justifications indignantly.
When everyone had calmed down again, they stepped out of the forest hut. The sun was now high in the sky and revealed that noon had come.
Yuka held the palm of her hand to her forehead to avoid being dazzled too much by the light. Motivated, she spoke:
"I think it is the best to return to Haven first. We have a lot to report. Yajima said that we should not overdo it. Hunters are never to be trifled with."
The others, with the exception of Karin, nodded in agreement. Tomoko spoke decisively:
"Besides, at this very moment, the latest audition is taking place at the castle. After the attack a month ago, it would certainly be interesting to know which of our Kenshuusei have progressed because of this terrible experience."
Sayuki clapped her hands enthusiastically.
"Oh yes, I want to see that. Let's go home quickly."
Akari stepped beside Yuka and asked curiously:
" For which group is the audition being held?"
Right away, all eyes were focused on the leader. She noticed the suddenly emerging silence. She knew exactly what was going on in the mind of the others. Juice=Juice was a sworn team. For many years they were able to keep the balance between them. They had never needed reinforcements before. And Yuka knew that this was fine by some of them. Including her.
Slowly, she walked towards the forest while her team members still expected an answer. Finally, she waved them over and replied cheerfully:
"Juice=Juice still remains five."
Immediately, sheer feelings of happiness chased through the common feeling of the group.