Surprisingly, running through the centipedes was significantly easier than fighting, and as they ran with the shouts of the soldiers ringing out behind them Xavier felt a creeping sense of dread.
"Something's missing," he muttered, half to himself.
"Yeah, somewhere to put our feet up and a nice warm bath," said Princess.
"No, I mean this isn't dramatic enough. The centipedes are dangerous. But too small. Whittling us down. Should be crushing us."
"So what happens next, then, if we're in a narrative?"
"Something—" Xavier tried and mostly failed to even out his breathing. "Something big."
«DOWN!» screamed Sumiko, and Xavier reflexively dove for the sand, bugs be damned. One of the smaller centipedes managed to bite him on the hand, which hurt like crazy, but he barely noticed. His attention was instead captured by something shrieking over their heads with a sound like a bird of prey mixed with a jet engine as a wash of heat boiled down over him.
"What a nasty artifact," commented Princess, absent-mindedly slapping a centipede away.
Xavier began to push himself back to his feet, glancing back toward the Sundlin soldiers where the projectile—or whatever it was—had come from, when there was a thumping boom that he could feel deep in his chest.
Rock cascaded down and dust plumed up from the Mukade Cliffs ahead where the projectile had collided. This close to the cliffs, Xavier could make out a veritable rain of curled shapes amid fragments of rock—what must have been the corpses of countless centipedes that had been invisible against the cliff's red rocks now cascading down from the impact site.
Back behind them, some of the Sundlin soldiers were still running their way in small groups spread out across the sand, but at least five of them were all in a clump. It looked like all of them were bracing the soldier in front, who was holding some sort of object. Xavier couldn't make out what it was, though, thanks to distorting effects of a heat haze that shimmered between them. It must have been the artifact that Princess mentioned. It didn't appear to be a gun, at least; the soldier's position was wrong for that.
As Xavier watched, the small groups of soldiers who had been sprinting forward abruptly slowed to a stop, some of them going so far as to back away.
«Oh shit,» said Yukio, and Xavier whirled once again.
The top of the cliff closest to them was undulating, and as Xavier watched in horror an absolutely massive centipede head lifted up from further into the cliffs and turned their way. The head alone must have been the size of a small car, and now the top of the cliff appeared to be sprouting leg after leg after leg. Evidently the top of the cliff here hadn't been red because that was the color of the rocks: it was red because that was the color of the chitin of the monstrosity that had been lying stretched across it.
«Oumukade,» breathed Sumiko from behind Xavier.
"I doubt it," said Princess. "Sure, it's big, but the Vigor density…I mean, yeah, that thing could tear us to shreds, but it's not even a kami yet. No way it birthed this many little monsters. Though hey, Xavier, you're two for two at this point. That definitely qualifies as 'big'."
«Yukio, Sumiko, Zabi!» rumbled Kahina. «Run south, now! South!»
As the monstrous centipede boiled down the cliff face, the two bakuhito, Antean, and human bolted southward.
"Why look, there's a second one!" said Princess. "Though it's only about half the size. Ooh, those soldiers must be pissing themselves; look at them scramble! That'll teach them to fire heavy ordnance at a nest of youkai."
Behind them, there was another shriek, followed by a much quicker boom, and a shrill, inhuman scream of fury.
"…or maybe not. Wow, that really pissed the big one off. If I were them, I maybe wouldn't have aimed right at the most heavily-armored spot on its body. Oh, and uh, not sure how to break this to you, but the smaller of the two youkai evidently decided we're a juicier target. Might want to let the others know."
«Second…youkai! Behind us!» Xavier managed.
Kahina whipped a glance back, and her eyes widened. «Sorry, Zabi-kun,» she grunted, and scooped him up over her left shoulder before pounding off as fast as she could.
Being carried face down over Kahina's shoulder was exquisitely uncomfortable, and Princess's death grip on his hair was not helping. With a Herculean effort, Xavier managed to get both palms flat on Kahina's back and pushed himself up slightly so he could raise his head and look behind her.
He almost wished he hadn't. He couldn't make out what was happening with the biggest of the two monstrous centipedes, but the second one that Princess had mentioned was barreling towards them like a semitruck without brakes down an icy hill, sand billowing up behind it so thickly that Xavier couldn't see much beyond the head weaving back and forth.
That was enough, though. The thing's head was easily as tall as his torso and about twice as wide, and the two prominent antenna that jabbed forward from its brow must have been thicker than his wrist at the base. It kept its head down as it ran, so it wasn't much taller than Xavier's chest, but he imagined it could rear up taller than Kahina if it wanted.
«How…far…away?» managed Kahina.
Xavier counted a couple seconds in his head and eyeballed the closing distance between them and the monster. «Ten—oof—seconds? Maybe?»
«Fight in…five!» Kahina bellowed. «Five! Four! Three! Two! Turn!»
As she put action to words, Kahina bodily threw Xavier off to her left, and he lost track of what was happening in the sudden bone-jarring landing that sent him rolling across the sand, choking as it flew into his mouth and nose. He scrambled to his feet, crushing a smaller centipede as he did without even registering its presence. The slight weight of Princess was missing from his shoulder, but he saw her bright green vines thrashing in the sand a few feet away. Taking a moment to shrug his pack off, he discovered the kitchen knife Sumiko had given him was missing but had no time to worry about it. Scooping up Princess and roughly depositing her on his shoulder, he raced toward the sound of insectile hissing and yells of bakuhito.
The centipede had evidently slammed into Kahina head-first, but amazingly she hadn't fallen. The monster was reared back slightly, mouth biting and thrusting at Kahina but she held it just barely off herself by gripping the two stubby little arms that framed its jaws. Venom spattered her clothes, and although it was hard to tell with all the dust kicked up, it seemed to be smoking. The hissing he'd heard was coming from the centipede itself, a sound like a furious, carnivorous tea kettle five feet across.
The monster's legs drummed rhythmically into the sand, sending its body undulating forward and with every shove Kahina was pushed backwards slightly. Occasionally she was able to find better footing and hold firm, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the thing got lucky and she tripped and got a chunk taken out of her face or torso for her trouble. Yukio was hacking at its legs and carapace without apparent effect, and Xavier couldn't see Sumiko at all.
"Shit, what do I—"
Princess slapped a vine roughly against Xavier's head, having finally found her balance. "Legs! Its legs, idiot!"
There wasn't time for further thought. Xavier sprinted toward the leg nearest where the thing was reared up into the air. He grabbed it in both hands, felt a rush of Vigor almost on par with what he'd felt when Princess siphoned the Sundlin artifact in Henka, and with a heave tore the leg off at its base.
The centipede screamed and whipped its head toward Xavier so fast that Kahina lost her grip in a spray of blood from her palms as the thing's appendages sliced their way out of her grasp. Xavier was thrown bodily off his feet when the centipede's body collided with him, and landed on his back in the sand just in time for several legs to come knifing down around him as the monster continued to pivot.
Yukio gave a hoarse yell, and a moment later came tumbling underneath the centipede's head as it snapped and grabbed at him with the arms near its mouth. It twisted back his way and for a brief few seconds Yukio distracted it as he dove this way and that.
Sumiko appeared by Xavier's side and pulled him to his feet. «I need to borrow the mononoke, Zabi-kun,» she said. «Sorry.» And with a move he couldn't even track she tore Princess off his shoulder and sprinted for the centipede, Princess's vines whipping through the air in obvious distress.
Xavier could only gape as Sumiko leapt bodily onto the back of the centipede, pushing off one leg as it lowered and another as it raised, and running along its weaving carapace like some sort of anthropomorphic ninja raccoon. When she reached the base of its head, she shoved Princess briefly against its carapace, hurled the mononoke back over her shoulder in Xavier's general direction, and then reached down with both hands and tore the centipede's head half off.
With a furious cracking sound and a shrill scream of agony on the part of the monster, its carapace split in both directions as Sumiko pulled against the base of its head with one hand and the point where its head had formerly joined the first segment of its body with her other. She managed to stretch her arms almost fully extended before a violent convulsion threw her out of sight into the sand on the other side of the centipede.
«Move Zabi-kun!» Kahina's shout brought Xavier to his senses, and with a desperate dash forward he snagged the still-thrashing Princess out of the sand for a second time and took off southward with her cradled in his arms, Vigor cascading into him from where her body was making contact.
Within a few seconds, Xavier found himself flanked by Kahina and Yukio, although Yukio was not moving anywhere near as fast as he usually did, distracted as he was by looking around frantically.
«There!» Kahina exclaimed. And sure enough, Sumiko was rounding the head of the still-thrashing and screaming monster with Xavier's pack of all things in her arms. «Now run!»
They ran. And the front of the cliff seemed to boil in their wake as hundreds upon hundreds of centipedes stampeded toward the dying monstrosity behind them.