Continued from Part 1 …
Scarlett ran. Never in her six years as a hunter had she run from a fight, but as the ground began to shake beneath her feet to the thundering beat of hundred shifting legs moving in time, terror won out over training.
Her cloak fanned behind her, and her hood slipped off. She yanked it back up, desperate to protect her head—though Oscar’s armor hadn’t fared well. She tried not to wonder whether the Ōmukade would pause to eat part of Oscar before pursuing her. She looked back when she reached the cliff’s edge. It was still coming, legs rippling like an ocean wave, front to back, red pincers dripping with blood and venom, and Oscar’s leg disappearing into its maw, shoe and all. She drew her gun and emptied the clip. Each shot ricocheted off the head and into the trees. The orange, pupiless eyes bored into her, and she almost slipped as she began her descent down the rock face. She relied on the grip of her boots and scrambled down without giving thought to finding the ideal handholds. Ten feet from the ground, she jumped and rolled out of the fall.
Hardly feeling the pain of the impact in her ankles and shoulder, she sprinted for the car. She could hear its legs on the rock face, clicking, tapping, shuffling. She waved her arms wildly at Taiyō, hoping he’d get the hint. Behind her, a tree snapped in half with a crack like a gunshot.
Inside the car, Taiyō took up a chant of, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” when he saw Scarlett charging out of the trees, her eyes bulging, arms flailing like one of those ridiculous balloon men used car salesmen found so appealing. The little forest swayed at her back. The car began to bounce and rock, jolted by the steps of a hundred giant feet.
He did his best to concentrate on the cuffs as he reached inside his chest for the power he harbored there like a miniature sun—warm and glowing and lethal. He spoke the unlocking charm aloud, and the cuffs glowed blue, burning his wrists. He swore; the worst he could think of. Iron-reinforced, magic-proof cuffs. Of course.
He tried to pop the door lock. No luck. The thing was rigged like a cop car. Scarlett freed the keys from her jeans and unlocked the door just before she threw it open and jammed the keys in the ignition. She got the car in reverse just as the Ōmukade’s red head breached the canopy of the trees. Its curled antennae searched, its eyes unable to find its intended prey.
“What the hell did you do?” Taiyō shouted.
“Oscar’s dead,” Scarlett shouted back as she whipped the car around and drove backward up the truck ramp.
“Why aren’t you getting on the road?!” Taiyō leaned forward, shouting in her ear. “Drive! Drive!”
“There are civilians everywhere!”
The Ōmukade was already appraising the handful of cars that blazed by, many of them gunning it to dangerous speeds on the windy slope when the drivers caught a glimpse of the giant insect. One Toyota, however, screeched to a halt in shock, and the Chevy behind it crashed into the Toyota’s rear. Both didn’t bother getting out of their cars and forced their battered vehicles onward.
“If you’re staying here, uncuff me, damn it,” said Taiyō, waving his hands in front of her face. She leaned to one side to extract the key from her back pocket and tossed it at him. He lost it momentarily in the floorboard, and as he searched, she took a deep breath and said, “I’m going out there.”
“Are you crazy?” said Taiyō. “Call for backup.” He found the little key and picked it up awkwardly.
“No time. No one close enough. You’re my backup.”
She reached around and placed her hand on top of both of his as he struggled to maneuver the key toward the lock. They locked eyes, and she said, slow and steady, “You’re my backup, Taiyō.”
Before he could draw his eyes from hers, she took the key and popped open the cuffs.
“Please help me,” she said, eyes like mystic emeralds holding him in place.
Taiyō pulled his hands away, and hurt and disappointment flashed across her face. But he gave her a crooked grin and made lightning dance and crackle between his fingers.
“What are you waiting for?” he said. “Start spitting on those knives of yours.”
Scarlett laughed and kicked open the car door, sai blades drawn. The Ōmukade had unfurled its antennae and was hovering them over the road, sensing the vibration of the next oncoming car, but one flicked toward the concealed BMW as Scarlett emerged. The Ōmukade’s crimson head turned and the pincers snapped in anticipation.
As Taiyō exited the car, Scarlett looked sidelong at him and said, “Here goes nothing.” She spat on the long, thin blades protruding from between her middle and ring fingers. She stared at the frothy saliva. “Do I have to, like, rub it in?”
The Ōmukade took three steps and was on them, legs like saplings stabbing down at them. Scarlett rolled right, slicing at a leg as she righted herself. The blade deflected, like striking stone. Scarlett swore and spat on the blades again, making sure to cover every inch, thinking in the back of her mind that this was easily the dumbest thing she’d ever done.
Taiyō ducked the pincers and thrust both hands forward, and two bolts shot from his palms and exploded on the underside of the Ōmukade’s head. The beast didn’t flinch. No mark was left on its shiny black exoskeleton. The pincers grabbed for Taiyō again, droplets of clear venom nearly the size of Taiyō’s head leaking from them and sizzling in the grass inches from his feet as he dodged again.
Suddenly, Scarlett was in front of him, blades jabbing and slicing. The creature recoiled as the blades pierced the thick exterior of the pincers. Venom droplets fell like rain as the Ōmukade shook its head, and Scarlett used her left arm to throw her cloak over both their bodies. The fabric hardened like a shield on impact, but the venom scarred the material, blackening it and eating away part of the armor.
Taiyō pulled Scarlett back, shouting, “Maybe don’t go for the giant pincers full of venom!”
“My spit is magic!” she cried in response, making him roll his eyes.
The Ōmukade recovered and struck out for them again. They were forced apart as the pincers pierced the earth where they had stood.
“Quit using those toothpicks and take out your sword,” said Taiyō, firing two more bolts at one of the legs, hoping to trip the beast. Again, the Ōmukade didn’t react. He needed more power. He reached down deep with his mind, and lightning traveled up his arms. He needed no incantation to summon the lightning, it was his Heart Spell—a power not learned, but harbored within.
Scarlett flung the sais into the Ōmukade’s side, one above the other, and ran for the leg. She grabbed it like a playground monkey bar and swung herself up to the first blade as the creature writhed in pain. She climbed the blades to stand on the Ōmukade’s back and shouted down, “Toothpicks, huh?”
But the Ōmukade’s tail-end whipped around its body and swatted her off like a fly. Taiyō ran for her as she sailed through the air, searching his brain for a spell that would slow her descent. She wrapped the cloak around her like a cocoon at the same time he muttered the levitation spell. He was not fast enough to fully catch her, but he slowed her just before she hit the ground, her cloak hardening like a space capsule that created a divot in the earth.
Taiyō channeled the power down his arms and formed a crackling ball of lightning that he threw at the front leg once more as the Ōmukade bent for Scarlett, who was emerging from her cloak folds. The leg buckled, and the Ōmukade’s head smashed into the ground, making Taiyō and Scarlett’s knees wobble.
Scarlett pulled the short sword from her back and coated it with saliva, bracing her legs against the tremors. As she rubbed it into the steel, Taiyō observed the centipede’s leg as it floundered on the ground. No marks. Not even a burn.
The Ōmukade righted itself and charged him, its long legs covering ten feet in a single step. He had no time to form a ball and shot a spray of three singular bolts before it was on him, pincers slicing closed. Nowhere to go. Scarlett slammed into him, knocking him clear. Her sword sheared through the pincer, and venom rained down on her hood.
Taiyō rolled to avoid the secondary spray as the Ōmukade shook its great head in pain, but Scarlett was doused. He heard her cry out as the venom splashed on her unprotected hands and dripped down her hood onto her forehead. As she tried to run, a glob fell onto her calf and burned through her jeans. She crumpled under the agony, her body twitching on the grass as the venom took hold, and the Ōmukade fixed her with fiery eyes.
The centipede bore down on her, a front leg raised to stab her through the middle and haul her into its wounded jaws.
Taiyō saw it all in one frame, but only one thought permeated his brain. She saved me.
Taiyō exploded. His Heart Spell ripped from him with a force great enough to make his whole body tingle with a dull heat.
Through the searing pain, Scarlett turned her head toward the sound of crackling lightning. The intense pain threatened to black out her vision, but Taiyō was a beacon engulfed in blue and white bolts. They jumped up his arms and through the spikes in his hair, which had gone white at the tips, as if channeling the power. The pupils of his dark eyes were a blinding blue-white. Scarlett’s thick hair stood on end under the electric current. She had never seen such raw power. Never heard of it in a warlock so young.
Clenching his fists, he screamed a war cry, and a bolt as big as a cannon blasted from his chest and exploded on the Ōmukade’s underbelly with an almighty crack that made Scarlett’s ears ring. The Ōmukade reeled back, blown off its front fifty feet, a scorch mark on its belly. The limbs closest to the blast were blown in half. The force of the centipede’s impact as it fell on its side in the little forest clacked Scarlett’s teeth together.
She couldn’t hear anything but ringing. When hands grabbed her shoulders and rolled her over, she could see only blue-white light. The pain was incredible, all encompassing. Her bones ached. She couldn’t breathe. Something was very wrong with her head. It hurt worst of all.
Taiyō swore at the ruin of Scarlett’s face. The few trickling drops of venom had eaten away the skin of her forehead and part of her right eyebrow, and they were working on the white skull beneath. Her fingers, too, had been eaten to the bone, and her calf was a meaty hole. He could hear and feel the Ōmukade squirming, trying to regain its feet, but he looked only at Scarlett as he put a hand to her head and began the most powerful healing chant he knew—an ancient Japanese spell that had been passed down the male line of his family for centuries. Her screams had turned to desperate whimpers. He prayed to whatever god would listen that he could remember all the words.
Her skin began to knit beneath his palm. He looked to her fingers and leg to find the same result. He concentrated harder, not daring a look at the centipede. Only two stanzas left. But her breathing hadn’t improved. He was healing her external wounds, but the venom was still affecting her body. Her breath was short and shallow, like a baby bird. And then, just before he finished the final phrase, it stopped. He held back panic and finished the chant; it was the only way to clear the venom. He checked her throat. No pulse. His hands crackled and sparked, and he jabbed all ten fingers into her chest, resisting the urge to say, “Clear!” Her body jolted and her eyes flew open, a breath ripping through her lungs.
The rumble of the centipede’s steps made him yank her roughly to her feet. He felt his hands zap hers, and she let out a yelp. The Ōmukade staggered like a drunk, thrown off kilter by the loss of its pincer and a few limbs, but it came for them nonetheless. Taiyō risked a glimpse at Scarlett. She was deathly white beneath her many freckles, but even as he watched, she regained color. The spell was still working its magic. He, however, felt completely drained. The lightning that had encompassed his body only remained in his hands.
“You okay?” he asked, as she retrieved her fallen sword.
She didn’t have time to respond. The Ōmukade covered the last bit of ground with a forward lunge, grabbing with its damaged jaws and foremost legs. One leg knocked Taiyō aside and scrambled his brains with the force of the blow. Scarlett leaped, and this time, she swung herself on top of the Ōmukade’s great leg, ran across it like a balance beam and used her embedded sai blades as stepping stones. She ran along the creature’s back. The tail came around again, but she went to her belly on the exoskeleton. The tail ruffled her hair as it went past. She was up in an instant, sword in both hands, poised downward for an executioner’s blow. She jumped and rammed the blade home between the antennae with the whole force of her bodyweight. The antennae bent and twitched, but she grabbed the base of one and rode the dying beast to the ground, rolling off its head on impact.
She grinned wide as she walked to where he lay panting in the grass, propped up on one elbow. He took the hand she extended, a goofy grin of his own forming as she pulled him up.
“Not gonna lie,” he said, “that was pretty badass … for a hunter.”
“I’ll take that as the highest form of compliment from you, warlock,” she said. And only then did she release his hand.
“Can we please get out of here?” he said. He needed a ten hour nap.
“I have to stay and call this in,” said Scarlett, inspecting her blackened cloak and ruined jeans with a frown. “A hunter is dead.”
“Well how am I supposed to get home?” he said.
“You can take the hoverboard,” she said, nonchalant as she headed for the car.
He gaped at her back. “You’re serious?” he said. “You have a hoverboard? A real one, not that lame magnetic thing they hyped up on Youtube a few years ago?”
She turned a conspiratorial grin on him over her shoulder. “Latest standard issue equipment from the Order. Came out a month ago.”
“Okay, I’m no longer mad at you,” he said.
“You were mad at me?”
“Are you kidding? You dragged me out here, which was not part of the deal, and forced me to fight a giant bug made of nightmares. In case you forgot, missy, I’m not a hunter. Thankfully.”
“Call me missy again, and I’m going to be the one who gets mad,” she said, stopping so that he nearly ran into her and then poking him hard in the chest. “But for the record,”—her eyes locked his in place again—“thanks for saving my life.”
He shrugged. “Back at you, I guess. Although I wouldn’t have been in harm’s way if—”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, beeping the car with a button on her key ring. It shifted back into view, the trunk open. “Just take your folder and the hoverboard and get out of here.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” he said, rubbing his hands together as he caught a glimpse of the sleek silver and blue board.
He pulled it out, along with the folder he retrieved from the backseat, and she shoved a helmet on his head and put a small remote in his hand and showed him how to strap in his shoes like a snowboard. When he pressed the correct button on the remote, the twin engines underneath hummed to life with blue light and lifted him off the ground.
“Just lean slightly forward to go,” said Scarlett, watching him with hands on hips, “and then you steer like a skateboard. You can adjust your speed with the up and down arrows on the remote.”
He did a practice lap around the car, his smile making his cheeks ache.
“All right, go,” she said. “Way too many people have seen this thing already. It’s going to be a major cleanup, just like the last few times.”
As if in answer, they heard sirens on the mountain.
“At least no civilians are dead this time around,” said Scarlett with a sigh. “Oh, one more thing.”
She reached into the car for the cloaking device and then strapped it to his chest. With her goggles on, she could still see him.
“Thanks,” he said. “But don’t think you’re getting this board back.”
“Didn’t expect to,” she said with an eye roll. “But in a few days, you’re not going to be able to find it.” She winked at him.
“Hunters,” he said, but only with minimal distaste.
Just before he prompted the board forward, she said, “Taiyō.”
“Yeah?” he said, slightly impatient.
“That thing downtown,” she said, “consider it forgotten. By the entire Order.”
He cocked his head at her, unable to believe it right away, but her face held no trace of a cruel joke.
“Thanks,” he said with a two-fingered soldier’s salute. “Thanks a lot. See you around, Scarlett.”
“I really hope so,” she said with a soft smile.
He coaxed the board forward and took off at top speed. As the wind ruined what was left of his hairdo, he said to no one in particular, “Me too.”