If I had been alone in that moment, I probably would have been killed immediately. Standing there flatfooted and with next to zero actual combat experience, all I could do was start to shriek in terror as those dark, evil shapes dropped from the ceiling and plummeted toward me.
But I wasn’t alone. In mid-scream, I felt a hand grab my arm. Avalon’s voice blurted, “Move, idiot!” Then she hauled me away from that spot with a yank that sent me stumbling backwards. An instant later, one of the cockroach-poodles hit the floor where I had been, making a screeing noise of anger.
That single peridle was joined almost immediately by several others, all crawling over each other to get at us. One crawled on top of another and launched itself off of its body, shell opening up to reveal pitiful little wings that it used to propel itself up and forward, its pincer-like mouth opening as it came.
The awful thing was met in mid-air by a glowing, humming blade of energy that neatly bisected the ugly monster, sending bits of foul-smelling goo splattering everywhere. Avalon stood there, arm raised with the lightsaber-like blade extended outward from one of her gauntlets. She’d barely moved.
As I watched, the other girl’s skin began to glow with a pale green light. The glow surrounded her for a brief second before fading, and I saw her give a visible shudder as a murmur of what sounded suspiciously like genuine pleasure escaped her. A second later, she regained focus and remarked to the monstrous bugs who were currently reevaluating their options. “Yeah, this prey has teeth, fuckers.”
While the peridles were busy regrouping, she spoke to me without taking her eyes off of them or lowering her guard. “You have a weapon. Use it. I’ll keep as many as I can off you, but you’re going to have to do some of it yourself. Don’t fucking panic and don’t let them draw you out. Your staff has range to it. Use the power it has to knock them away when they start crowding you too much, but don’t waste it on a single one. Wait for a group. If you need to, use it to get away. Keep your head up, keep turning so they can’t hit you from behind, and for the love of Gabriel, don’t fucking panic.”
I swallowed, tightening my grip on the staff that I actually had forgotten. “You said don’t panic twice.”
“It bears repeating,” she retorted sharply. “Don’t fucking panic. I will help you when I can, but some of it you’re going to have to deal with yourself. Try to kill one right away to get its regeneration.”
By that point, the peridles had decided that waiting was no longer in their best interests. Spread out as they were, they came charging straight in, mandibles clacking in an almost deafening cacophony.
This time, rather than stand there and wait, Avalon rushed forward to meet them. Three steps and she leapt upward. Her arms pointed toward the floor, and a pair of solid-light hammer shapes slammed into the ground, smashing two of the bug-things beneath them before shoving upward to propel her higher.
She flew in an extended leap, spinning in the air. The hammers disappeared, replaced immediately by a long blade from her right hand and some kind of grasping claw-shape from her left. As she twisted, the blade cut through two more of the creatures, and the claw caught a third one in mid-leap toward me. She yanked it backwards, crushing the thing in the grip of the claw before tossing the remains.
Landing on one knee in the middle of the crowd of monster bugs. One leapt at her, but the energy claw instantly reshaped itself into a sturdy shield. Catching the bug on the shield while she remained crouching, I saw Avalon smirk briefly just before a half dozen energy spikes sprouted from the shield, impaling the creature before it could abandon its perch. Immediately afterward, before I had even registered the next bug’s movement, she flipped herself up and around in a weird little sideways twist, planting one of her feet solidly in the face of another creature’s attempt to jump at her. The thing fell onto its back, screeing in panic for a moment just before Avalon landed on her feet and dispatched it with a contemptuous swipe of a blade from one hand. Its screams died with it.
That glow came back then, brighter and more noticeable this time as my roommate was rewarded with the power from all the peridles she had just destroyed. Barely a handful of seconds had passed.
Without seeming to even glance in my direction (which would have provided her with a good look at my expression of utter amazement), the other girl blurted, “Behind you, damn it, pay attention!”
Remembering belatedly that this was not some badass TV show, I spun around in time to see a solitary bug-monster scrambling toward me. Clearly it had decided to seek easier prey. Much easier in my case.
Right, I could do this. With what was supposed to be a powerful bellow but clearly sounded more like the yipping of a puppy, I held the staff at one end and brought the other end down as hard as I could like a hammer, straight toward the charging thing. To my credit, I managed to keep my eyes open.
Unfortunately, keeping my eyes open just meant that I could see the thing neatly sidestep my utterly amateurish blow. It kept coming, barely dignifying my effort with a single (probably mocking) screech.
At the last second, I managed to lash out with one hand. My fist made contact with the side of the gross thing’s mandibles, and I had a brief flashback to what the lobster had felt like the one time Dad and I had splurged on real sea food. Or as close as Wyoming ever got to the stuff, anyway. The bug was knocked very slightly aside so that its lunge missed me as it landed just to the side. Unfortunately, the pain in my hand made it pretty clear that I’d done more damage to myself than to the monster.
Worse, the thing was still coming. It spun sideways, lashing out at me with a scream of anger. It was met in turn with my own scream of terror as I threw myself backwards away from its lunge, swiping down at the thing with my staff as if it was a rat that I was trying to shoo away with a broom.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon as the other girl flipped over one of the charging bugs, landed on its shell to bring it to the floor with a solid crunch, then spun into a kick that knocked another of the things aside before simultaneously stabbing downward and sideways with both hands to impale both of them on her energy blades. Retracting both, she hopped off the dead bug, tossed her hair a bit to get it out of her eyes, and regarded the remainder for a brief moment while her body glowed once more with the influx of power that she was absorbing from their dead bodies. Once it was done, she raised one hand, turned her palm up, and beckoned for them to come at her again.
I, on the other hand, was barely managing to keep this single peridle away from me. It snapped at my staff a couple times, but couldn’t actually damage it. I was afraid, however, that if it got a decent grip on the thing, it would be able to tear the weapon out of my grasp. So I kept swatting at the ugly monster from either side, doing my best to hurt it while feeling like the complete amateur that I was.
I’m not sure what made me glance behind myself just then, whether simple luck, some kind of sixth sense, or remembering Avalon’s warning not to let myself get too distracted. Whatever it was, my quick turn and glance revealed a second bug skittering along the wall that I was rapidly backing myself up to. The two of them were working together to pin me in a trap between them, at which point I had no delusions about my ability to keep them both off of me. I had to do something beyond waving this staff like the panicked old woman with a broom in one of those old Tom and Jerry cartoons. I was supposed to be a fighter, a warrior, but so far I had done nothing but gape at my utter badass at a roommate. Which, to be fair, she kind of deserved because god damn. Still, I may have been new to all this, but damn it, I had to contribute. Or at least not die pathetically flailing at two of them while Avalon tore her way through dozens. I needed to stop panicking, think about what I could do, and defend myself.
With that thought, I pulled the staff back and twisted perpendicular to my previous position while taking a quick hop backwards to give myself some distance. The move put both of the bugs in front of me. They were on opposite sides, of course, but at least I could see both of them at the same time.
Rather than randomly lash out with the staff again, I held it close and adjusted my grip so that both of my hands were spread equally apart from the middle. With one finger, I pressed the part of the staff that made it begin to charge with kinetic energy. The black ends of the staff began to glow with that blue energy. Then I waited, warning myself to be patient while trying to ignore the pain in one hand that had come from punching the first creature previously. The pain and my own fear kept trying to overwhelm me, but I forced it back and kept my gaze centered.
The two bugs slowed their approach as it became clear that I wasn’t flailing wildly anymore. I could almost hear their thought processes (if such existed) while they reevaluated the situation. The one on the wall made a loud, ugly scree noise once more, clearly trying to grab my attention. At the same time, the other one used its wings to propel itself up and forward in a violent charge to take me off guard.
This time, however, I was ready. Rather than panic, I stood my ground until the thing was well within range. Then I brought the staff up in as vicious a blow as I could manage, twisting my hips so that my weight was thrown into it. The ugly monster’s face was snapped sideways as the staff slammed into it with enough force to send it flying sideways into the wall with a horrible scream.
Oh wait, that was me. I was the one screaming. Right, so maybe not totally professional and cool.
The peridle hit the wall and dropped to the floor, dazed briefly. Before it could recover, I used one foot to somewhat awkwardly kick it onto its back. Then I grasped the staff in both hands near the top and swung it down has hard as I could into the thing’s exposed underside. It screamed (and this time it really was the monster instead of me), its legs kicking frantically. I repeated the motion again, hitting the thing even harder. That time, I felt something in that soft underbelly crack. A third blow, even stronger than the first two, silenced its terrible, nightmare-inducing screams. It was dead.
The exultation that I felt in that moment was a truly physical sensation. It swept over me, a tingle that blossomed into the kind of pleasure that felt almost embarrassingly wonderful. Hoooly crapcakes that felt incredible. A surprised gasp escaped me, and my skin gave off a similar glow to the one that I had seen on Avalon. Mine, however, was a rich gold color rather than green. It felt absolutely amazing, and for a second I almost forgot that there was another bug to deal with. Finally, at the last second I heard the warning shouted by my roommate from somewhere off in the distance. Realizing almost too late what it meant, I threw myself to the side to avoid the bug’s leap. Still, its mandibles caught on my arm a bit, and I felt more pain shoot through my bicep, making me almost drop the staff as I stumbled.
The bug hit the floor and pivoted back toward me, but I was already reacting. Pointing the staff at the wall behind myself, I quickly triggered the button that would deposit a kinetic-mine there. Then I focused on the remaining bug. “You want me, asshole?” I blurted, hyping myself up. “Come on!”
With a loud screech, the thing took the bait. It leapt straight up and at me. Just before it would have connected, I dropped into a roll, throwing myself away from the thing. There was a loud explosion of air, accompanied by a disgusting splat as the bug hit the force bomb I had left behind. Pieces of it rained down around me, and I nearly retched at the smell. It was awful.
A second later, I was distracted from the scent as that same incredibly pleasurable feeling washed over me. God, was that going to happen every time we killed one of these things? It was a bit distracting.
And the hand that I had smacked against the first bug didn’t hurt anymore, I realized. The pain there was gone, and there was no bruise or mark where it had been. When I looked at my arm where the second bug had cut me, the bleeding had stopped. It still ached a little bit, but was already improving.
I was alive. I was alive! Two of the bugs were dead because of me. I had killed them. For a second, I let myself feel the amazement at the thought of what I had accomplished. It felt… even better than getting Calvin, my old boss at the theater, arrested for his drug schemes had. Those things had been trying to kill and probably eat me. I had survived. I had killed them. I was… I was a…
“Dumbass!” A shout from Avalon interrupted just before the girl landed near me, stabbing downward to impale the bug that had been coming up on my side. Before she had even withdrawn the energy blade from its corpse, she gave me a smack with her other hand. “I told you to pay attention! Stop patting yourself on the back before you get yourself fucking–”
Yelping at the sight of yet another one of the damn peridles charging in while my roommate was berating me, I brought the staff up, triggering the last of the energy that I had stored up while swinging the weapon straight at the ugly little monster. The blow connected solidly with its body, and the release of the kinetic charge made the thing literally explode, spraying both of us with bits of poodle-roach. Our clothes, hair, and faces were completely drenched in this foul smelling stuff. It was like hitting a pinata full of toxic sewage while standing directly beneath it. It was all I could do not to throw up, which would have just added to the level of utterly disgusting.
Somehow, the fact that I was immediately filled with that sense of briefly blinding pleasure after killing the bug made the whole thing worse. “Ugggnn… sorry.” I muttered, opening my eyes with a wince. I expected to see Avalon glaring hatefully at me for getting bug-innards all over her.
Instead, she just shook her head, knocking some of the gunk away. Then she spat twice. Her nose crinkled up in disgust, but instead of blaming me, she mumbled, “Not gonna chew you out for killing the fucking bug, Chambers. It was the right thing to do.”
The two of us exchanged looks for a second, covered as we were. Then we turned to face the rest of the bugs. So far, between the two of us, we had managed to kill dozens of them (Avalon being responsible for roughly ninety-eight percent of that). However, the room still seemed to be just as filled as it was before, if not even more so.
“There,” Avalon muttered, nodding toward some kind of circle that had been drawn on the ceiling. “That’s a summoning circle. It’s transporting them here. They’ll just keep coming.”
“How do we…” I panted a little. “… get rid of it?”
She grimaced, hesitating before admitting, “I… don’t know.”
By then, the swarm of ugly bugs had regrouped and were approaching a bit more cautiously, spreading out to avoid giving us any more openings. They had learned from the deaths of the others, and I had no doubt that they realized I was the weak link. For all that we (Avalon) had done, there was still too many of them. We were going to be overwhelmed.
In the next second, there was a loud crash from the opposite side of the room. The door was literally blown off its hinges, and I saw both Professor Katarin and Professor Dare practically fly into the room. Both acted quickly. Katarin focused on the summoning circle, producing a long chain that he whipped around once before throwing toward the spot on the ceiling. The tossed chain stuck itself into place over the lines of the circle, and then began to glow red while smoke billowed out of it.
At the same time, Professor Dare drew her sword. Standing there, she raised one gloved hand and swept it around the room. As she did so, I saw a bit of the floor or wall underneath each of the scattered peridles shimmer somewhat, almost like the surface of a lake.
That done, Professor Dare flipped her sword around and dropped to one knee while driving the blade into another of the shimmering spots directly in front of her. As she did so, the blade disappeared into that spot before simultaneously emerging from each and every other shimmer spot that she had created. All of the remaining bugs were killed instantly, and the summoning circle had been destroyed.
And just like that, in the span of a handful of seconds since they had entered the room, it was done. The fight was over, and I had survived my first true conflict with the Strangers.
I really hoped they didn’t all smell this bad.