Eva was absolutely certain that Arachne wasn’t actually attempting to kill her. She was only mostly certain that Genoa wasn’t trying to kill her. Whatever the case, neither of them was messing around.
Not that Eva could blame them. They all had been told in very plain words exactly what would happen to them should they fail to perform.
Putting her back to a wall, Eva took a moment to catch her breath. Pinned between the mass of insects led by Arachne and the few but elite human mages headed by Genoa, her cadre of demihumans were not faring well at all. In fact, her soldiers were being absolutely slaughtered.
Eva glanced to the thing at her side. Some sort of vampire-cat hybrid with the strengths of neither race. He sat on the tips of his toes with his knees spread and his hands touching the ground in front of him. At least he wasn’t licking his hands and brushing them over his bushy ears.
She rolled her eyes. Like the rest of her army, and the armies of Genoa and Arachne, the construct before her was just that; a construct. Built up by the theater-demon to serve as fodder for their little war. Eva had the distinct impression that she was being made the subject of a very poor joke–her army of mutant hybrids was grossly underpowered in comparison to the other two armies.
“We need to get out from between the two of them,” Eva said. “They can whittle down each other while we wait on the sidelines.”
“So, sound the order to retreat?”
“Understood, ma’am.” After a sloppy salute, the vampire-cat scampered off to relay her orders.
It moved just in time for the wooden wall to splinter inwards.
Eva dove to the side as one of Arachne’s little monstrosities barreled into the building.
The thing was disgusting. It ran on four legs, though the front two were mostly used for stability. Two extra arms stuck out from the carapace on its back, tipped with sharp claws. Teeth and bone spikes seemed to have been spread around the creature haphazardly. It had more teeth than three Arachne smiles.
It turned to her with all those teeth bared.
Eva snarled. Igniting her own claws with thaumaturgical fire, she closed in immediately with a step.
Landing on its back with a grunt, she gripped both of its claw capped arms and wrenched. Two satisfying snaps preceded a brief yelp of pain.
Early on, Eva had learned that those arms were the main danger of the creatures. They could slash out and strike in the blink of an eye. Without their attacking arms, their teeth became their only real weapon.
Their teeth and their powerful legs.
The thing reared back in an attempt to dislodge its rider, knocking Eva into some of the undamaged wall.
One jagged sliver cut into her side, right near the wound left over from Sawyer’s dagger.
Eva cried out in pain. Her hands lost their grip on the creature’s arms.
Its next buck sent Eva rolling across the ground.
Pushing herself for a few extra rolls, Eva managed to scrape by without being landed on.
It still scraped her arm up with its foreclaws as it landed. Dank breath washed over Eva’s face as it let out a roar. She winced back as slimy spittle splattered over her.
Mid-roar, Eva reached up and thrust both hands into its mouth. She gripped its lower and upper jaw, searing its flesh. With a burst of strength, Eva pulled her hands apart.
The jaw snapped open, sending more spittle everywhere.
Eva withdrew her arms and plunged eight of her fingers into eight of its eyes. Only after wiggling her fingers around did the thing finally slump over.
Right on top of Eva.
With a grunt, she shoved the carcass off of her and pulled herself to her feet.
Another of the things was eating a few of her troops. Eva had half a mind to leave them to their fates. Thus far, they had been entirely worthless in any confrontation with Arachne’s bugs.
Unfortunately, Eva had already lost a sizable portion of her allotted force and was fairly certain that reinforcements were not going to show up.
Her hands already ignited, Eva formed the flames up into balls. With a flick of her wrist, she sent the balls slinging at the monstrosity.
The flames exploded against the side of the creature, doing exactly zero damage.
The poor thing that was the creature’s current target may have taken more damage from Eva’s flames than the creature itself.
But, the flames performed their duty of attracting the creature’s attention most admirably.
It whipped its head towards her. Droplets of slime were flung from its mouth with the motion.
Eva took a brief moment to wipe her own face off before the creature charged.
She readied herself, watching for the right moment to step onto its back.
The moment never came. Eva was forced to jump to one side.
The creature continued on, slamming into the wall and knocking another chunk of it down.
Eva was about to step onto its back when a slight motion at the corner of her eye caught her attention. Four of the little goblin-lizard things that she had already dismissed as completely worthless were rapidly slinking up to the momentarily stunned monstrosity.
She paused, watching to see what their tiny little minds had cooked up this time.
Two jumped on its back and started to use their surprisingly sharp daggers to hack off its claw-arms. One ran in and gave the creature an uppercut with his dagger while the final one gouged out its eyes.
Eva frowned as they continued to hack away at the monster. The last time she had attempted to send them into battle, they had sat around picking their noses while the enemy demolished them. Not literally, but close enough.
“So what,” Eva mumbled to herself, “they learn?”
“Oh yes,” said the cat-vampire that Eva had been using as a lieutenant–Eva hadn’t bothered to learn his name, if he even had one. She almost put her fist through his face at his sudden appearance, but managed to restrain herself. “We all learn. But we haven’t been able to use your blood magic that you used to dispatch the other mongrels.”
Of course they wouldn’t be able to. They had no bloodstones. Even if they had bloodstones, none of the constructs had usable blood. They didn’t count as real or living to haemomancy.
That was part of the reason Eva was no longer using her own dagger. She only had her own blood left, which wasn’t all that high performance. It had worked for the last few monsters she had seen, but she didn’t want to use enough to go faint in the head.
“You want me to lead from the front? To charge in and teach everyone as we go?”
The cat-vampire’s face turned downwards. “We are few in number,” he said, not at all accusatory. “But we are fast. It isn’t my place to make suggestions, but perhaps we might strike from behind, eliminate a few targets, and flee?”
Eva nodded. It might have been a wise idea to speak with them before, but no sense in dwelling on the past. “Very well. Continue with the strategic withdrawal. We need a better view of what is going on before we commit.”
The lieutenant nodded and brought his hand up to his eyebrow. “Yes ma’am.”
Eva followed her lieutenant out the back door of the small tavern. There was no point in sticking around while Arachne’s army was just on the other side.
It didn’t matter how many of the stupid bugs she killed. Eva knew for a fact that Genoa and her squad-mates had killed more than a few times the amount that Eva had dispatched. As far as she could tell, Arachne had endless resources.
Apart from her one run-in with a member of Genoa’s army, the retired mage-knight had been spending almost all of her efforts fighting Arachne’s bugs. Something which Eva was beyond grateful for.
That single encounter had taken out a quarter of Eva’s army before the mage had been ambushed from behind by Arachne’s forces.
Arachne herself had thus far kept out of sight. Her army was around every corner, but no sign of the spider-demon herself.
Part of Eva was hoping that she was trying to find a way out of the situation. Honestly, Eva doubted that was the case. This was exactly the kind of situation that Arachne would find fun.
A loud crash in the distance pulled Eva out of her thoughts. She needed to focus on the now and not the past.
The lieutenant led her and her few remaining soldiers through the mocked-up western town. They stayed in the backs of buildings, pressing themselves up against the shadows. Eva moved quietly as she kept an ear out for any sign of an enemy.
Not being able to use her blood sense on the constructs was far more inconvenient than she had thought. It was a skill she should have taught herself years ago for use against regular people.
Unfortunately, most of what reached her ears was arguing. Of her own forces. The goblin-lizards were in a fight over who actually dealt the killing blow on the bug-dog-thing.
Eva silenced them with a glare of her glowing red eyes.
Even if they could be useful through learning–and Eva was having strong doubts about that–she would kill them herself if they brought the enemy’s attention to their troupe.
At least the dullahan-bears were quiet. Then again, none of them actually had heads, just the iconic black wisp of smoke pouring out of their necks. They might be quiet out of necessity rather than intelligence.
How intelligent could headless bears be anyway?
“This should be safe enough for now,” Eva’s lieutenant said. His two cat ears twitched in the air. “I don’t hear any skittering nearby and my ears are quite good.”
Eva frowned as she looked at the building. Unlike most of the rest of the town, it wasn’t made of wood. A large shadow of the nearby water tower darkened the heavier gray bricks that made up the building. There was no glass set in the window frames. Just bars. “The town jail? Of course it is, what else would it be?”
Glancing at her lieutenant, Eva noted that the vampire-cat just looked confused. He wouldn’t know about her usual residence. Well, he might if Juliana had told the theater-demon.
In fact, thinking about it more, there was no chance that this was a coincidence. The theater-demon planned this. If not this specific outcome, then to have the lieutenant direct Eva to the prison if she asked for a safe place or a base of some sort.
But, nothing to do about it now.
Eva walked in, checking for any sign of traps around the doorway. There was nothing.
Her forces followed her in as soon as Eva moved out of the way. They settled in with plenty of space left over despite the fact that the entire building was smaller than her women’s ward common room.
Regarding her soldiers with a dour expression, Eva felt herself frown once again.
Six goblin-lizards, four dullahan-bears, and three vampire-cats were all that remained of her initial force of about one hundred. And one demon-human, if Eva counted herself. Absolutely zero of the angel-crabs had survived.
“Your orders, ma’am?”
Eva turned to her lieutenant and considered for just a moment before speaking. “What, exactly, is our objective?”
It was more of a question to herself than to her lieutenant.
First and foremost, she needed to get Juliana and escape from the theater-demon.
Not exactly the most achievable task at the moment. She hadn’t even seen the theater-demon since he dropped her off on one side of the old western town. He had disappeared, leaving only the words ‘try to put on a good show and maybe I won’t keep you here forever. Kill one of the others, and whoever is left gets to go free.’
So, Eva supposed, it might be prudent to properly fight Genoa and Arachne. Though she had no intention of invoking the second aspect, she could put on a fighting show at least.
Her lieutenant opened his mouth and mirrored her thoughts. “To defeat the enemy, of course.”
“To fight until they can’t fight back?” The lieutenant cocked his head to one side. “Are you alright, ma’am?”
Eva nodded. “Which among you would serve as the best scouts?”
Her three vampire-cats all stood slightly straighter than they had been standing. “With our hearing and natural agility, we easily surpass the others.”
Eva nodded again. That was expected, though she had been hoping that the goblin-lizards could camouflage themselves somehow. The vampire-cats was probably for the best anyway as they had shown off a far greater mental ability than the goblins.
Not, however, great enough to avoid three of her initial six from perishing at Genoa’s mages’ hands.
“If I order you to scout, are you going to run off and die? Do I need to teach you how not to die?”
The three glanced at one another before the lieutenant turned back to Eva. “I think we can handle that. What do you need?”
“You two,” Eva said, pointing her long fingers at the non-lieutenants, “go out and scout. You are to keep yourselves alive at all costs. You’re looking for pockets of Arachne’s forces–those are the insect-like creatures–somewhere on the edge of the battlefield. No groups larger than five or six. Return when you’ve found a suitable group.”
Both saluted. Before they could carry out their orders, Eva spoke again.
“And if you find Arachne, return here immediately.”
After nodding, both sprinted out the jailhouse door. Eva watched them scale the side of a building and run along the roof in opposite directions of one another.
“And me, ma’am?”
Eva turned to the sole remaining vampire-cat with a smile. “You and I are going to train up this sorry lot,” Eva said with a wave of her hand towards the goblins. “As much as we can in our limited time, anyway. And we’re going to find out what, if anything, the bear-things can do.”
— — —
Arachne tapped her fingers on the edge of her throne. This was something she could get used to.
Well, she could if it were bigger. The tiny room was cramped beyond reason. Half of her wanted to shrink down into her spider form just to get some arm room.
It would be nice if everything were real, too.
It obviously was not.
If she looked close at the members of her swarm, she could see literal strings attached.
Everything here was a combination of Willie’s natural demonic abilities and his interpretation of reality through his domain. It was a pretty good usage of his domain. Arachne doubted she could come up with anything close to realistic.
It took her a good thousand years to get her domain into the rocky crag that she had it at now. It was far easier to turn it into something she had visited before but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted a place to call her own, some place that was her.
Two red blips vanished from her map. They had been inside the tavern if she was reading the infernal map correctly. Those two blips were supposed to have been scouting, not fighting.
Arachne sighed, wishing that any of her soldiers were at least capable of speech.
Dragging a pointed finger across the map, Arachne directed another soldier to investigate. It would take a few minutes for it to arrive, but the other two had likely died to Eva. Genoa’s entire force of four mages plus the mage-knight herself was already under observation by a few of her eyeball soldiers.
Still, there was always the chance those two had died to something else. Arachne couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another element at play. Something that wasn’t just the three of them.
Of course, that element would be the director of this little farce himself.
Arachne sighed as the observation unit failed to update her map. That meant that there was nothing in the tavern or that the theater-demon simply did not want himself to appear on her map.
Again, her fingers tapped against the side of the throne she had been unceremoniously deposited upon.
Directing a battle was actually somewhat fun. Not as fun as being in the thick of it herself, but fun in a different sort of way. The things similar to human computer monitors gave her a crystal clear view of anything her observational units could see.
But it was missing something. The smells. The sounds. The feel of blood splattering over her carapace. None of it existed within the small command center.
It wasn’t like she was tied to her chair. She could leave. The exit hatch wasn’t locked or anything.
That didn’t change the fact that she was stuck where she was. The map wasn’t the fold up piece of paper type of map. It was a part of the room. A whole table with models of the town and glowing representations of all of her forces. Any time one of her three observational eyeballs passed over an area or her regular soldiers sat around long enough to relay a message, the map would be updated.
Without her at the monitors and maps, her troops sat around doing nothing. Verbally directing them did nothing. Pointing and other gestures did nothing.
Only the map worked.
She had considered leaving it anyway, running out and fighting on her own was more her style. But, frankly, Genoa’s soldiers were almost on par with the woman herself and she had already been told in no uncertain terms that allying with Eva would lead to both of their demises.
Confident though she was, Arachne wasn’t certain she could fight off all of Genoa’s soldiers and the woman herself at the same time. Sure, she might be able to kill Genoa, but she didn’t like the idea that she could die in the process.
Death did not frighten Arachne. More unnerving was the thought of leaving Eva alone inside another demon’s domain.
Arachne sighed for the third time in as many minutes. They should not have left without a plan. She should have objected. Even delayed Genoa for a few minutes while they discussed a few things about demons and their domains.
And then she foolishly carried out Eva’s desire to sever the strings controlling Juliana. It had been almost reactionary. Her Eva called out orders and she moved.
Had she waited, Genoa would have been the one to notice and sever the strings. Given how Genoa was a part of their little war, it might not have changed anything at all, but at least the theater-demon’s ire would have been directed at someone else.
Shaking her head, Arachne turned her attention back to the monitors. Genoa was still pinned down beneath practically her entire army. The building was well fortified. A bank or something of the sort. And Genoa’s crew had reinforced the walls beyond anything remotely reasonable.
The eyeball drones only seemed to be able to observe from a high angle, unfortunately. Without some heavy damage to the building, she was unable to actually see inside. The only way she knew Genoa was still inside was thanks to the occasional volley of attacks clearing out any of Arachne’s swarm that got too close.
There remained a remote possibility that Genoa was tunneling out of the building. An earth mage of her caliber would have little trouble escaping. Arachne guessed that she did not wish to leave behind her few soldiers or run the possibility of being trapped underground with non-earth mages if Arachne decided to charge in.
Two blips vanished from her map at almost the same time. A third one was quick to follow. Not a big deal; they were just some of the fringe of her swarm. She couldn’t be bothered to manage all of them–her army was huge. Still, she directed her spare observation unit over to the area.
It took a few minutes to get eyes on the situation, but when the third monitor finally changed to show the battlefield, it brought a smile to Arachne’s face.
Eva had decided to quit slouching around.
Her master was in the burnt out husk of some building or other, crouched behind a conveniently placed waist-high wall to avoid acid spit–almost too convenient–and tossed fireballs with some decent precision at the eyes of another three members of Arachne’s swarm.
The balls of fire were not doing much damage on their own, but she had a few of those cat-eared monsters at her side. Eva had improved in her fireball casting since her first year, but those things at her side were in another league. They didn’t need to hit the insects’ eyes to do some damage with their fireballs.
Fireblasts, more like.
The headless bears kept Arachne’s swarm from progressing. One was fighting the same snake-like insect that was being pelted with the most fire while two mauled another of the crawling type of insects.
Arachne frowned as she took note of the final bear and final member of her swarm in the area. The rest of the situation was well in hand from an overhead perspective. Both of the other insects were pinned down and would die before long.
But the final member of her swarm was in active pursuit of the final bear. And gaining. Arachne’s little six armed bugs were surprisingly fast. They looked like they should be far slower.
Yet Eva wasn’t even glancing in the final insect’s direction.
Just as Arachne was about to direct the bug over towards Eva to force her master to take notice, Arachne started grinning.
A whole horde of green-skinned lizard things jumped from the second floor of an adjacent building. Only three of them actually made it on the bug’s back, but those three surprised it enough to force it to a stop. All the lizard things started stabbing it with little knives while the bear stopped, turned, and hammered a heavy paw into the bug’s face.
Three blips all disappeared from her map at roughly the same time.
“Oh, my wonderful Eva,” Arachne said. “You want to play?”
She dragged a finger across her map, selected a small group of her swarm. Nothing that was pinning down Genoa, just some idling fringe bugs. With her units selected, she started tracing a line through the map.
The line ended right in Eva’s flank.