A burning sensation ached within Arachne’s legs.
It was an odd feeling. A foreign feeling. She couldn’t remember the last time she had any ache at all. It was a testament to how hard she was pushing herself.
Allowing herself out of Eva’s sight while there were troublesome events afoot was a horrible idea in hindsight. But she couldn’t help it.
Genoa was just so fun.
She never got to go all out against anything these days. At least not without also worrying over potential collateral damage. Even the zombies from last year had been target practice for Eva.
And Genoa could take it. Getting within range was a somewhat distressingly rare occurrence, but they were the best part. Arachne had nearly torn out Genoa’s throat on one occasion.
The woman just kept on fighting. She wrapped some earth around her throat and downed a potion without breaking her stride. Half the potion spilled out and she didn’t even blink.
Arachne had lost five legs and a good chunk of her abdomen before Genoa finally passed out.
Eva’s professor had teleported the two friends after Arachne failed to pick up Eva that day. Eva teleported herself. Upon finding out what had happened, Eva sat a lethargic Genoa and Arachne down for a long rant about acceptable damage during spars.
Being slightly more careful did not lower the intensity of their fights at all. It proved somewhat enlightening for Arachne. A problem of forcing a ranged opponent to submit without causing excessive physical harm. An interesting thought experiment, though not something Arachne intended to use outside their little spars.
Genoa had altered tactics in an attempt at finding a way to contain Arachne without allowing escape. A deep enough pit with slick walls and a hardened lid might have worked, but Arachne had been getting very good at avoiding sudden pitfalls. Thus far, Genoa had failed.
As successful as Arachne had been as of late, their current battle was not going in her favor thus far.
Her legs pounded into the ground, leaving minor craters with every step. The leg picked up before the dust reached its peak and continued to move like a mechanical piston. Again and again. Brush and weeds disintegrated upon contacting her body.
Arachne ran at top speed yet Genoa was still ahead of her.
Genoa had something of a head start–she blinked out of the prison the moment Nel mentioned an army at Brakket–but she was slowly increasing the distance between the two. It didn’t help that she could blink to the top of a hill whereas Arachne had to use her legs.
It was infuriating. Arachne had no idea how to increase her own speed. Every leg was pumping at maximum capacity.
Times like these made Arachne wish she knew magic.
Nothing to do about it now. They’d be entering the city soon enough. Due to her little one-sided race, she’d almost halved the time it usually took to travel.
She could already see the smoke.
Genoa blinked up to the rooftop of the nearest building.
With a spring of her legs, Arachne joined her. It didn’t take more than a few leaps and blinks before the two stood overlooking the plaza between the Rickenbacker and the Gillet.
Her grin widened all on its own as she stared at the assembled group.
“I guess she wasn’t joking about an army. What are they?”
“You’re asking me?” Genoa glanced to her side. “I figured you would be more informed.”
“They’re not any demons I’ve ever seen and they don’t quite smell like it. Parts of them are? Not sure.”
“We don’t need them alive, do we?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. In fact, I believe that would be detrimental to everyone.”
“Excellent,” Genoa said. She was trying to suppress herself, but Arachne could see the beginnings of a grin mirroring her own. “I’ll take the left fifty, you take the right fifty?”
It was tempting. Arachne wanted nothing more than to jump right in the center of the horde. She would rend all without remorse. It took some effort, but she managed to shake her head. “Nel said that Eva was inside the Rickenbacker dormitory. I can see a good number of the things filing into the front doors.”
The burgeoning grin on Genoa’s face slipped into a frown. “Where’s Juliana?”
“Didn’t ask,” Arachne said as her own smile widened. “You shouldn’t have run off so soon.”
“Hmph.” Genoa crossed her arms. “She’s probably with Eva.”
Arachne just shrugged.
“Fine. We’ll go in. Clear out the dormitory.”
“If we hurry, there may be some of the army left outside.” Arachne pointed a sharp finger off towards the academy building. “Ylva’s making quick work of the ones that get too close, but they seem to be learning that.”
A monster’s limb turned to dust, revealing the pristine form of Ylva as the debris settled. A second monster forced Ylva to back up and sidestep a spray of poison. Or acid. Some caustic liquid that caused steam and boiling asphalt. Red beams swept across the area, forcing another back-step from Ylva.
“Let’s get moving then. Wouldn’t want to keep our kids waiting in this mess.”
Arachne was about to protest the inaccuracy of that statement, but Genoa had already blinked away.
After running and jumping to the roof of the Rickenbacker, Arachne positioned herself straight above the main entrance. A few steps forwards and Arachne was in a complete free fall.
She let out a laugh as she felt the satisfying snap of bones, squish of flesh, and more as two things were crushed beneath her bulbous weight. Arachne wasted no time in drawing herself to her full height and assisting Genoa in the clearing of the entryway.
One creature had the tentacles of a carnivean. The coils tightened around one of Arachne’s legs. She almost lashed out. It wouldn’t do to become injured so early. Especially not with Genoa watching.
The creature didn’t have half the strength of a real carnivean. It wasn’t something to laugh at, but a real carnivean would have had her leg twisted off before she could react.
Arachne tugged and pulled the tangled leg. The human body it was attached to lost balance and stumbled right into Arachne’s waiting legs. An audible squelch as her legs sunk into its chest sent feelings of euphoria throughout Arachne.
She immediately turned on the next closest creature. One behind her went flying as she turned. Arachne paid it no mind as it bowled through a group.
The one closest to her looked fun. The human corpse attached to it was bloated beyond compare, but the demonic limbs were easily recognizable to any denizen of Hell. One of the living dolls. A relative of the iron maiden. Not a true demon, but one of Keeper’s creations.
Two nail-studded arms ended in sharp, metallic claws. Two heavy springs anchored the arms to the bloated chest. Getting caught between the arms would easily end Arachne.
Arachne circled around.
It followed. The thing’s waist was something like a turntable. It staggered forwards on mechanical imitations of Arachne’s spider legs. Poor imitations, but she wasn’t about to tell Keeper that.
Why did someone take the doll off and put a human in its place? It wouldn’t be staggering if it wasn’t for the bloated human.
Arachne jumped. High. If it leaned back and snapped its arms shut around her in the right spot, she could easily lose her entire abdomen.
Unable to spin in mid-air, Arachne lashed out with one of her rear legs the moment she landed.
The sound of metal scraping on itself was followed by a sharp sense of pain.
Her leg was off. Again.
She intended to pierce its skull. That had failed. Arachne spun in place–something that was always more difficult when lacking limbs.
Her leg stuck to the nails jutting out of one arm. The thing was already cranking its arms back out to reset the trap.
It shouldn’t have been able to rotate that fast. Something to do with the human torso?
Nothing to do about it now. Arachne wasn’t going to give it the chance to reset.
Arachne charged forwards, gripping the two extended claws with her own before they could spread far enough apart. Keeping them pressed together would have been an exercise in futility had it still had the doll body. As it was now, it was still a strain.
There was a delightful crunch from somewhere inside the bloated torso. A gear tore out the back of the human and went flying through the air. All tension in the arms disappeared as the springs snapped them back together again.
Arachne reached forwards and crushed the human skull without resistance. It slumped as the mechanical legs gave out.
Behind the Keeper’s doll, another creature had crumpled to the ground. A gear stuck out of its head like a circular saw blade. Arachne took a moment to admire the good luck before she heard a cry.
Checking for unseen attackers before turning towards Genoa, Arachne was pleased to find herself given a wide berth.
Genoa stood in the entryway to the Rickenbacker. Two creatures had been impaled by massive spikes made out of the brickwork.
“I’m sealing the door whether or not you’re inside.”
Arachne frowned at the two skewered creatures. Had she not landed on one or two, she would be tied with Genoa. That was simply unacceptable.
Pushing down her ire, Arachne ran towards the dormitory. She shrunk down into her humanoid form as she did so. Walking with only seven legs was somewhat irksome. Still, she left all her remaining legs fully extended and ready for anything.
The moment she crossed the threshold into the Rickenbacker, a heavy wall extended straight into the sky. It stopped just shy of the roof.
At Arachne’s glance, Genoa gave a shrug. “It will keep us from getting surrounded,” she said. “We can clear everything ahead of us and not have to worry about things slipping around our back.”
“Fair enough,” Arachne said. Her grin widened as she spotted her first prey.
The last month or two had really been fun.
— — —
As soon as all natural light vanished from the lobby, Genoa sprinted towards the staircase.
“Where are you going?”
Genoa stopped and turned back to the source of the modulated voice. It didn’t sound real. Like the demon was trying to mimic proper tones and inflections she had heard from humans. Unsuccessfully.
No one else ever mentioned it. Nobody jumped when the demon spoke or when she turned eight red eyes in their direction. Even the twitching limbs jutting out of her backside would have gone ignored by everyone else. They had all gotten used to her.
To tell the truth, Genoa was starting to get used to it as well. She seemed less like a demon and more like a person with every passing day. Only through conscious effort was she able to acknowledge Arachne’s unnaturalness. It wasn’t something Genoa ever planned to forget.
Still, they were allies for now. “Up to their room.”
The number of visible sharp teeth doubled. “Again, you should have stuck around for Nel’s explanation.”
Genoa moved to adjust her sunglasses. She froze halfway and dropped her arms to her side. A nervous tick and one she was trying to get out of the habit of doing. They were perfectly set on her face anyway.
Instead, Genoa shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She loosened her grip on her knife and waited for an explanation.
Arachne took the hint. She raised one of her spindly fingers and pointed down a hallway opposite from the staircase. “Eva is inside one of the hot springs. They’re on the bottom floor.”
“Alright, where to?”
“Follow the trail of broken furniture and ruined floor.”
That was good enough for Genoa. She blinked ahead of Arachne, eliciting a low growl from the demon. It didn’t matter. Juliana was somewhere in the middle of all this mess. She blinked again, straight to the end of the hallway.
One direction was clear, clean, and undisturbed. The other had two of the monsters slowly making their way down the hall. They paid no attention to their stray limbs bumping into and splintering a picture frame here or knocking over a potted plant there.
If there was any doubt that the creatures were being directed, it evaporated with that sight. At least one should have wandered off down the other hall, but there was not a trace.
Genoa almost blinked straight past them. Arachne would be able to take them without issue. Now that she was inside, Genoa would have to conjure the earth she used–much more taxing than simply tossing it about–or potentially destabilize and destroy the dorms by pulling it out from underneath the floor.
Blinking past could cut off a path to retreat if the hallways ahead were filled with even more of the creatures.
Frowning, Genoa raised her knife. Both had their backs turned towards her. Perfect. An iron rod through each of their skulls before they had the opportunity to react would be best.
Two rods, each the size of Genoa’s arm, formed with an exertion of her magic. They started the size of her pinky finger, but every pass of her magic added one layer after another.
Arachne barreled past with a mad cackle. It was somewhat disconcerting that the most human-like aspect of the demon was a murderous laugh.
Both creatures turned at all the noise. “Damn it.”
Arachne vaulted over one creature. Her claws dug into the shoulders. As soon as her feet hit the ground on the opposite side of the creature, Arachne pulled. One of her legs exploded out of the creature’s chest while its head and neck separated.
The other creature did not stand idle while its companion was dismembered. Slits along its arms opened up. Spines exploded out without any aiming.
It didn’t matter. There were enough to hit everything.
Genoa manipulated the two iron rods into a single sheet in front of her. It was too small to cover her entire body. She had to crouch behind it.
The spines hit an instant after. Some embedded themselves deep into the metal. More than a few poked out the other side.
Genoa stood once the last spine hit her wall. She reformed the iron into a single lance. Spines still poked out from various places. With a flick of her knife, the lance rocketed away from her, embedding itself into the creature’s chest.
She ran up as the thing slumped to the ground. Arachne shoved off the corpse of the first creature. Half of her chest was looking a lot more like a porcupine than any sort of arachnid.
“I could have dispatched them without any trouble.”
“That’s no fun,” she said as she started plucking spines out of her carapace.
“We’re not here for fun. We’re here to rescue our kids.”
“Eva is not my child. Sister might be more accurate.”
Genoa blinked, but shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. We need to get to them.”
They took off again. Together, this time. If Arachne was going to charge around without care for tact or subtlety, it wouldn’t do much good to blink around. Instead, Genoa focused her efforts on conjuring up more iron.
An arm reached out from one of the side rooms. It crossed Genoa’s vision as it arced towards her.
She flicked her eyes to the side. Another creature. Another human torso with its arms replaced.
Genoa started to duck. The arm came fast. Too fast. She didn’t have a second to blink.
Claws raked across her face. Only her enhanced durability kept her from losing it entirely.
The force from the blow made Genoa take an involuntary step backwards to maintain her balance.
A second set of claws used her stagger to scrape against her calves.
She could feel it. That drop in her stomach when gravity reasserted control. Genoa teetered backwards even as she thrust out her knife.
The steel blade found a new sheath inside the first creature’s skull.
That didn’t slow her fall into the waiting arms of the other creature.
Genoa twisted in mid-air, gripping her backup knife as she turned.
Magic coursed through the blade of her new focus. At her command, one partially formed iron rod dropped out of the air. The tiled floor beneath the second creature cracked under the impact. Partially coagulated blood stained the walls and ceiling tiles.
Genoa’s back hit the unmoving remains without injury. She let out a short laugh. “Take that, you bastards!”
In the blink of an eye, eight glowing red eyes appeared above Genoa.
Her smile vanished in an instant. The slowly receding adrenaline in her body jolted into full production. Sweat formed on her hand as her grip on her knife tightened.
Arachne’s fingers twitched. Her spare legs twitched. Not a sudden twitch, but a constant, nervous twitch.
An effect of whatever the spider had in place of adrenaline? It didn’t matter. Genoa had no intentions of winding up on the receiving end of those fingers ever again.
They stared at one another. Watching. Waiting for one to make a move.
Blood dripped into Genoa’s mouth. Her own blood. The four gashes across her face had started to sting.
And she did nothing about it. She didn’t even blink as part of her vision went red with a trickle of blood over one eye. Genoa was not about to lose their little stare down. She couldn’t afford to.
The first one to blink might wind up with the other’s weapon through their skull.
Still, the strain added up. Genoa could feel her own fingers getting itchy. If this was it, she wasn’t going to let Arachne get the first shot in.
Just as she was about to repurpose the iron rod that had jammed into the tiles, Arachne’s grin widened. Her hand reached out to one side and gripped Genoa’s primary knife.
She wrenched it from the skull of the creature, flipped it in the air, and caught it by the blade. Slowly, she lowered her hand, offering it to Genoa hilt first.
Genoa grit her teeth as she accepted the knife and didn’t unclench her jaw to speak. “Thanks.”
“I figured you needed help,” Arachne said. She kept her arm out, waiting for Genoa to reach forwards and accept her assistance.
Genoa swatted it away and blinked to her feet. She sheathed her backup dagger as soon as she double-checked her primary for any damage.
“You were just sitting there, not getting up. I thou–”
A scream echoed down the hallways. Not a scream of fright or surprise. No. Genoa knew that sound well enough. She made similar noises often enough in her earlier days of mage-knighting.
It was the fingers-on-chalkboard cry of a human in pain.
Both of their heads whipped down the hall as a second cry lasted the full length of someone’s lungs and then some.
“That wasn’t Eva.”
“I don’t think it was Juliana.” She hoped it wasn’t, but there was a chance. Genoa had never heard her daughter cry out in absolute pain. That was something she hoped to never hear.
“Good. Let’s proceed with our objective then.”
“We can’t just leave her.”
“Watch me.” Arachne turned on the sharp spike that made up her heel. The tile cracked as she stalked forwards.
Genoa wiped away a good amount of blood from her face as she sprinted after Arachne.
“I thought you were going to save the worthless human?”
“The scream came from this direction.” If the creatures had jumped into a side room for the purpose of ambushing the two of them, they may have found someone hiding. Someone they might have ignored had she not entered the building.
It wouldn’t be the first unrelated person’s blood on her hands. That didn’t make it right. That didn’t mean she could ignore it.
Genoa checked every room as they made their way down the hall. Most were study rooms.
Arachne marched on, only sparing a glance into the room.
Genoa froze. It was an infirmary. Not a large one. Not big enough for more than two or three patients.
Mage-knights were not an innocent sort. The guild made sure of that before anyone received their pin. Retiring from the guild tended to leave people as shells of their former selves.
A good number didn’t have to worry about that. They never made it to retirement.
Carlos and Juliana helped Genoa avert that fate. Having a sort of callous regard for death, especially towards those Genoa didn’t know, didn’t hurt. While she had retired after only twenty years, Genoa considered herself a veteran–an elite among the elites of the guild. She knew for a fact that others considered her an elite as well.
As such, Genoa had seen things best forgotten at the bottom of a bottle.
That experience all led up to Genoa knowing one thing with absolute certainty.
She needed a drink.
A young-looking woman wearing the standard Brakket nurse uniform lay spread out on the floor.
Very spread out.
Her chest had been torn open. Several organs were arranged in neat piles to one side. Neither leg was attached to her body.
Another of the creatures stood over her. It had three demonic arms; one arm replaced one of its legs and it had a taloned foot in place of the other leg. Several tentacles extended out of the creature’s stomach cavity.
Genoa’s eyes turned back to the corpse on the ground. They drifted up to the face.
It was… familiar. One of Zoe’s friends, if she remembered correctly. They had dinner together once. Not even that long ago. It was shortly before Juliana started school.
Adrenaline fueled rage flowed through Genoa’s veins. She could see her daughter’s face on the corpse. She could see Zoe’s face.
Her face twisted into a snarl as she let out a shout.
Then it was gone.
Genoa lifted her knife with an unnatural calm. She channeled magic straight into the earth beneath the academy as she prepared her attack.
The impassive dissociation she relied on during her mage-knight days resurfaced.
Two massive slabs erupted from the ground. Before the creature could comprehend what happened, the slabs slammed into each other.
Red and black oozed from between the slabs.
Genoa turned from the doorway and stalked down the hallway after Arachne.
That could have been her daughter.
Her daughter was not safe.