Razor-edged talons sunk into the wooden wall next to Genoa’s face. The partially collapsed building groaned, protesting the force, but otherwise stayed intact.
Which was great. Genoa didn’t much care for buildings collapsing on top of her. She had enough of that raiding unstable ruins for the guild.
Though, at least she wasn’t being actively attacked by hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in those ruins. Maybe there was a tomb guardian of some sort, but that usually capped out at one or two.
The only thing that came close to her current situation was necromancers, typically after they decided to wipe a small town off the map. But zombies and skeletons tended to be physically weak. So long as they didn’t catch her off guard or find some way of trapping her, they were no big deal.
These giant bugs tended to be far more robust. They required a good amount of force to dispatch and, even if she hadn’t been hit until now, they looked like they could do a great deal of damage with a single lucky strike.
A faint sensation of pain tingled in her cheek, reminding her that she was in the middle of battle. Not the proper time or place for reminiscing.
It nicked me, Genoa thought as warm blood mixed with sweat before falling from her chin. It actually managed to cut me.
Genoa blinked straight backwards. Now behind the insect, she lifted both of her arms over her head. Tightening her grip on the massive sword in her hands, she plunged it straight downwards.
Iron cleaved the bug into two even halves.
An unnatural whisk of the wind caught Genoa’s attention.
No time to delay. She swung her arm back and upwards. At the same time, metal from her sword flowed up, forming a sharp blade along the length of her arm.
A metal clang rang out as her blade intercepted two talon-tipped arms. Putrid ichor slid down the blade at a steady rate.
It took a moment for the creature to notice. After a moment, a pain filled cry came from the beast in front of her.
Genoa kicked up. Her heavy combat boot met the gaping mouth of the insect, not only silencing it, but sending several sharp teeth straight into the brain.
She blinked again, barely vacating the area in time. A rain of acid ate through the ground where she had stood. She whirled towards the direction the acid had been launched from.
Just in time to see the snake-like worm eat a ball of fire. She raised a shield as the acid-soaked innards scattered into the air. Pieces came down, sliding harmlessly off of the faint bubble surrounding her.
The corner of her eye caught a wave of a black hand up high on one of the few still intact buildings.
Genoa nodded towards her partner in thanks even as she cut to her right with her reformed sword. Her blade sheared part-way through the chitinous armor of one of the bugs. It caught up on one armored plate, requiring Genoa to use both hands to force it the rest of the way through.
There was just no end to them. At least Eva was taking care of most of the acid-spitting worms. Genoa had her hands full with the dog-sized bugs.
Eva’s fighting style brought up bad memories in Genoa. It was far too reminiscent of guild recruits that had far too much confidence in their own shields.
Those recruits would sit back, playing the heavy artillery. Heavy artillery was well and good. Someone capable of unleashing a lot of firepower was quite valuable in a team.
Unfortunately, they tended not to move much. The moment something managed to shatter their shields, they typically wound up as paste on the floor.
Eva did have one thing going for her: she could blink. And she liberally used that ability to dodge volleys of acid or anything that got near her. Surprisingly, not much acid actually went her way. The city hall building was one of the taller buildings, and the clocktower on top taller still, but Genoa was fairly certain that it was still within range.
In addition, she had Arachne’s legs. If nothing else, they were quite adept at catapulting her from one place to another.
Given that she lacked the blood to create one of those powerful shields she had used back in the real world, she should probably thank Arachne for saving her life.
If only that same person–that same demon wasn’t trying to kill them at the moment.
Genoa spun. Her two-handed sword trailed behind her. Two separate dog-type bugs lost their upper limbs. She tilted the iron weapon down slightly, sticking it straight into the skull of a third. Momentum slowed by the limbs and the chitin, her blade stopped halfway through the creature
A rushing dog-bug forced Genoa to blink backwards. The teeth of one of the things she had just disarmed were far too close for comfort.
White hot plasma landed just beneath the rushing dog. It exploded outwards, sending pieces of the dog flying overhead.
And, it conveniently freed Genoa’s attentions so that she could focus on the dog at her backside.
She’d have to remember to thank Eva later. Even just another simple nod in her direction.
Her focus made up most of the hilt of her sword. Swinging it around, a pillar of earth erupted directly underneath the insect. The thing was launched up into the air.
Genoa ignored it in favor of two other fresh combatants approaching her. From prior experience, she knew that launched bug would have broken the rest of its limbs. Assuming the fall failed to kill the thing outright.
Genoa dashed forward, dragging her blade along the ground. She momentarily resized it, shortening the length. Once the length hit the sweet spot, excess kinetic energy acted as a spring, cleaving it straight up through the body.
At the apex of her swing, Genoa pushed out the metal. The length and end weight of her sword doubled in an instant. Using that weight, Genoa brought the sword down right between the eyes of the second beast.
Immediate area clear, Genoa took a moment to catch her breath. It was a good thing she had sparred so much with Arachne. Their fights had provided plenty of opportunity to sharpen up after having been retired for several years.
Not that Genoa would have considered herself out of shape prior to their daily spars. Just a little rusty.
Catching sight of a shadow from one of the giant beetles moving over her, Genoa blinked straight upwards.
The primary target swapped positions to be directly underfoot. Several feet separated her and the beetle. Several rapidly shrinking feet.
Her entire body’s weight was focused on the tip of her sword as gravity brought her back down. A full half of her sword plunged between armored plates at the beast’s neck. Given that the sword was as tall as she was, a good chunk of it was probably sticking through to the other side.
Before the beetle could do anything, whether that be dying or trying to knock her off, Genoa gripped her sword’s hilt and jumped off. Again, gravity gave her an assist as she swung down beneath the beetle’s head.
The six-foot sword pivoted in place. As soon as Genoa’s feet touched the ground directly under where she had been standing, the head popped off the body with a squelch. Ichorous blood exploded around her. Only a quick reapplication of her shield kept Genoa dry.
She blinked out from beneath the beetle’s torso before it had a chance to collapse on top of her.
“Is it just me,” Eva said at her side, panting slightly, “or are these things tougher than before?”
Genoa scanned the town before answering, updating her mental model of the battlefield.
It wasn’t looking good. Arachne’s forces had systematically destroyed most of the buildings. Very few wooden buildings were left. Some brick buildings were more or less intact. The city hall that she had blinked up to for one. The bank, the metal water tower, the jail, and a train station were a few of the others.
A few of the bus-sized beetles managed to get close to the city hall on occasion. Never for long, but Genoa had needed to patch up more than one hole in the building. Several outcroppings of spiked pillars were keeping most of the smaller bugs at bay.
Losing their height advantage would be somewhat devastating. Not irrecoverable; Genoa could burrow–something that none of Arachne’s swarm had demonstrated the capacity for thus far–but being trapped underground did not sound too appealing.
There were still so many bugs. They crawled over each other. It looked like an ocean made of black carapace.
Luckily, there were no more of the giant beetles in the immediate vicinity. Genoa used the reprieve to dig a few sinkholes and crush anything that fell inside.
She sighed. It was like trying to scoop out a river with a measuring cup.
Finally deciding to answer her earlier question, Genoa turned to Eva. “It’s probably your imagination. We’re getting tired and wearing down. They are not.”
Eva shook her head. Her long hair no longer flowed behind her in the wind. It was matted and clumped up on her back and chest, stuck to the thin layer of sweat that coated her body.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Eva said. “We teamed up. It might not be sporting in the theater-demon’s eyes if Arachne didn’t gain some extra advantage.”
Genoa considered that. It was true that this was far from the longest or most grueling thing she had experienced–it might be close to making its way to the top five, however. Yet her sword had been getting stuck in the chitin plates far more often lately, forcing her to blink out or yank it out of the creatures.
She had attributed that to nothing more than muscle fatigue. But if the theater-demon was upgrading their enemy…
“We’re going to survive this.” She looked out over the ocean of insects again, sinkholing another who-knows how many. “Cut off the head and the snake–or spider–dies, right?”
“Arachne will be hidden away,” Eva said. “The theater-demon knows that she won’t die even if she is killed. It would be less satisfying to him if she was out here from the start. The question is, where?”
“I was in the bank and you were in the jail. So either the train station or the city hall,” Genoa said, pointing downwards at the building they were standing on. “Or…”
Genoa smiled. Taking in a deep breath, she shouted out, “Arachne! During all of our little duels in the real world, I was holding back in every single one of them. You would have been paste on the floor had I been taking them even the slightest bit serious.”
A faint echo of her own voice was all that followed her proclamation. Even the mass of insects quieted down for a moment. It was ominous enough that Genoa started looking around for any hint of the spider-demon.
Eva, on the other hand, took her eyes off the battlefield. Crossing her arms, she looked up at Genoa with an almost incredulous look in those red eyes of hers. “Seriously?”
“I thought it might make her show up,” Genoa said with a shrug.
“I mean, were you or were you not taking your sparring seriously?”
Of course I was, she didn’t say. They were some of the most intense fights Genoa had fought. Part of that came from the uncertainty regarding whether or not Arachne would bother to stop before she died had she slipped up. And after Juliana had been taken…
Well, both of us needed a good outlet for our frustrations.
Fighting the demon was surprisingly cathartic.
Rather than respond Genoa just smiled.
That smile almost slipped.
She had had Juliana in her arms. Juliana was safe. Juliana wasn’t part of this death match.
Now all Genoa had to do was get out alive. And kick in the strings of that theater-demon.
Genoa frowned as a few vibrations reached her feet. That was all too familiar of a feeling. Another one of those bus-beetles was getting too close.
“Focus on finding Arachne,” Genoa said. She casted one last round of sinkholes, shored up the city hall’s damage, and refurbished the defensive spikes. “I’ll keep us safe until you do.”
With that said, Genoa blinked off the roof. She had a beetle to decapitate.
— — —
Eva watched the older woman dive back into the fray. Part of her wanted to join Genoa. She could. Her stepping would keep her out of trouble. Her hands were powerful and sharp–at least the one that hadn’t been damaged by acid.
Her wounds were holding her back. Most of the injuries on her back had already healed, save for the one inflicted by Sawyer. But she could feel slivers of wood embedded in her skin. Moving too much dug them in further, or caused them to poke out of her back.
Agitating them hurt.
It wouldn’t be a huge issue to dig them out with creative use of blood magic, but it would be time consuming.
Time she simply lacked at the moment.
So Eva merely watched as the retired mage-knight cut down enemy after enemy, offering only a modicum of support in return.
Eva had to admit one thing, Genoa was a vastly superior minion than even a hundred of the cat-vampires.
Maybe not a minion. Genoa was not beholden to Eva or her orders. Though Eva hadn’t actually tried to order her around. Sniping things from the roof while Genoa ran around dispatching the major threats was more of a mutual suggestion with the initial idea given by Genoa.
At the same time, Eva was certainly not Genoa’s minion. They were partners. A somewhat one-sided partnership with Genoa doing most of the heavy lifting.
Most of it.
Eva brought her hands together, igniting both. Fire flowed down into a compressed ball.
It was her new preferred method of using her thaumaturgy.
So far, it performed admirably in tearing the insects to pieces.
High explosive fireballs. And what more did a good fireball need anyway? Absolutely nothing, that’s what.
The compressed balls of fire could do a better job of actually catching her enemies on fire. As it was, when she released her hold over the magic, it rapidly expanded to the point where the flames were less flames and more of intense heat.
The heat in her hands was intense. Her arms and chest could use a decent sized jar of burn ointment after all this. A proper thaumaturge should be able to direct all the heat away from their body, but Eva was just happy to have made it far enough to have useful fireballs.
She had ended up shielding herself from most of the direct heat by keeping the flames enclosed within one of her hands. The carapace making up her skin was more or less immune to the extreme heat. Actually holding the balls was a strange feeling. Almost like a solid ball so long as she kept her concentration up.
Losing her concentration and having it explode in her face would be unpleasant to say the least.
As such, Eva got rid of them as soon as she could.
Gripping the ball of fire in her hand, she wound up and tossed it out over the crowd. With only a few nudges in this direction or that, the plasma ball sailed true. One of the worms taking aim at Genoa swallowed the ball whole.
She had plenty of practice with aiming and had become quite good at it, in her opinion. It helped that the acid-spitting worms had wide mouths that were almost constantly open.
Acid and viscera rained down on all the nearby bugs. So long as Arachne kept everything grouped up, Eva got massive returns on effort spent. None of the smaller dog-type bugs had any protection to the acid, ending up with her killing a whole lot with a single strike.
As soon as Genoa decapitated the last of the smaller bugs around her, she paused her deadly dance to give a slight wave up in Eva’s direction.
Every time Eva assisted her in some manner, Genoa would do that. A nod or a wave. One of the earlier times, she actually blinked straight back up to give a verbal thanks.
Eva just frowned. It was an unnecessary distraction in the middle of combat. Not one Eva could understand. What did Genoa hope to accomplish? Eva wasn’t going to stop assisting her partner because of a lack of immediate positive reinforcement.
Unless, perhaps, she was worried that Eva would drop the plasma ball on her one of these times. It would be a quick way out of the theater-demon’s domain–assuming he could be trusted to keep his word–but of all the monstrous things people could do to one another, betrayal ranked up at number one.
And I am not a monster.
Eva shook her head. What an annoyance. Couldn’t it take a hint?
You’re destined for far greater things than a puppet of the puppet-master.
“There is no such thing as destiny,” Eva muttered.
Shaking her head again, Eva performed a quick scan of the area around Genoa.
No acid-spitter worms in sight. Good.
That only left the problem of where Arachne actually was. As she had told Genoa, Eva firmly believed that Arachne was hidden away someplace where she was unlikely to be discovered.
As such, she could rule out the city hall building. Not only was it the biggest and most obvious place, but Arachne had shown clear disregard for the building’s structural integrity. Assuming Arachne was actually in command of the insect army, of course.
With the bank and the jail having been eliminated as possible hiding places, that left the train station.
Are you so sure of that?
“No,” Eva mumbled more to herself than to the voice in her head.
While the train yard was on the outside edge of the town, it was still a brick building with a high roof. In other words, a decent place to take refuge. It would have been too possible for herself or Genoa to take it over, thereby discovering Arachne.
The rest of the town was nothing more than a pile of broken wood and nails.
Frowning, Eva tapped her claws against the hard carapace on her leg.
That wasn’t entirely true. There was one other structure still standing.
Turning back to the field of battle, Eva was pleased to find Genoa standing atop the corpse of her target. A large slab of earth had risen out of the ground and crushed most of the beetle. With a quick lunge with her sword, Genoa sent the blade through the thing’s compound eye.
A moment later, Genoa blinked straight up to Eva’s side.
“Possibly. I’m not going to point or look as I’d rather not tip her off, but would you mind knocking down the water tower?”
Genoa considered for just a moment. She started out facing the same direction as Eva. Raising her sword, Genoa created large sinkholes, eating up more of the bugs. Slowly, she started rotating. The clock tower atop the city hall wasn’t very wide, so she did not have to move much to continue her stream of sinkholes.
At the creaking and crashing sound of a tumbling water tower, Eva turned.
The swarm stilled.
Bingo, Eva thought. She peered deep into the growing cloud of dust, searching for any sign of Arachne.
Not that she was worried or anything. There was no way that Arachne would die from such an insignificant thing as having a water tower collapse with her inside.
Still, she searched.
It didn’t take long. It started out as nothing more than a silhouette. A black shadow moving inside the dust cloud. The shadow thickened into the proper form of Arachne. Each step was slow and steady, filled with menacing power.
As Arachne exited the cloud, Eva found herself giving an involuntary shiver.
Thanks to her arms and legs, she knew the horror of getting dust inside the joints of her exoskeleton. And Arachne definitely had more than a little dust coating her.
The shiny black carapace that normally made up her body had been replaced by a thick layer of dirt and grime.
“Now what?” Genoa asked even as she cast a wary eye around the unmoving swarm.
“Honestly?” Eva said, glancing up at the woman. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. Figure out how to get out of here–”
It didn’t take long to figure out why.
Arachne, in her full-sized mode, landed on the roof. The spot where Genoa had stood caved in beneath the spider’s weight.
Lifting herself off her bulbous abdomen, Arachne pulled herself to her full height. She shot a glare at Genoa–who had blinked backwards to the opposite end of the clock tower roof. That glare turned down on Eva.
Before she could react, Arachne bent down and swept Eva off of her feet.
Eva hung limp against the spider-demon’s chest as her powerful arms pressed in tight.
“Your pyrokinesis is so much better,” Arachne said. Her face was so close to Eva that she could feel sharp teeth moving against her ear. “Perhaps that school isn’t as worthless as I thought.”
Most of that came from practice in that endless hallway, Eva didn’t say. “Arachne, you’re hurting my back. Set me down and we can discuss how to get out of here.”
With one last bone-crushing squeeze, Arachne gently set Eva down. “No need to discuss,” she said. “One of us dies and the others get to leave. I agree to these terms.”
Arachne placed a hand on Eva’s chest and shoved.
Eva flew through the air. She landed hard and rolled once. Only the lip of the roof kept her from plummeting off the edge.
Her back struck the lip causing Eva to cry out in pain.
She clamped down on the feeling, gritting her teeth.
Under control again, she opened her eyes and tried to get her barrings.
Only to find Arachne backhanding Genoa’s iron sword, snapping it off mid-way. The snapped-off segment spun through the air before embedding itself into the roof near Eva.
Far too close for comfort. A few hairs might have been cut short.
But Arachne was not finished. She continued her attack, striking forward with fervor.
Genoa blinked backwards again, leaving a few of her blond hairs behind in Arachne’s grip.
Her target lost, Arachne turned. Eight red eyes turned with her, each glowing with malice.
Eva felt something.
A tremble in her being. Something she had not felt from the spider-demon for a long time. Not since her first few weeks at Brakket, back when she was still adjusting to the idea of Arachne being constantly around, rather than her occasional appearances alongside Devon for a job or treatment.
Eva pressed backwards against the lip of the roof.
Uncertainty mixed with her fear, locking her in inaction.
Arachne advanced. Her powerful legs slammed into the ground. The distance between them dropped to nothing in the blink of an eye.
There was a sickening squelch as chitin pierced flesh.
Hot red blood splattered over Eva’s body.