A Court For Crows (Part 40)

“There,” Boss finished. Her eyes closed. Her ears twitched.

I strained, struggling to hear much of anything, but my heart drowned out it all. The gun sluggishly cradled in my fingers seemed even more pathetic than before. Would it even get through the creature’s eldritch empowered skull?

Then Boss took a few steps to the side, a grin on her face. “Then we dance, oaf?”

The beast replied by annihilating the position she’d been a second before, a scream that demanded the energy out of the very world. Like the charge had been devoured whole scale out of the air with a command of some infernal line of code.

Then another move to the right, forming a triangle on the ground of molten holes.

She gave me a grin and gestured towards the stairs. “Time to run, Godling.”

Then she darted forward. The beast demanded Devouring Light and the floor exploded with indignation.

Then the ceiling fell down on the hound, and Boss plucked both of us under her arms, her axe clutched in her teeth.

“She saved me,” Teri muttered, a bit scrambled from hitting the wall.

“Better odds with the three of us?” I guessed.

“Or maybe she actually feels bad about scattering me and causing all of this mess.”

Boss rolled her red eyes in her head when I looked up to see her confirmation, and then we were at the stairs. She growled, drool pouring out of her mouth latched around her weapon, and leapt, clearing the the first arc of stairs in a single bound.

“Shoot it,” She spat, drool coming from her teeth.

Her arms released us on the turn of the stair case, chasmous things overlooking sublevels, and the gun tumbled out of my fingers

Steam and burning smoke rose from the beast’s unhinged maw, teeth charred and tongue spooling back together. From the light streaming in from outside, I could see insectoid trailing tendrils hanging from the top of the creature’s teeth, twitching, burning shrivelling.

Yellow eyes bored into mine.

Another test? Or was Prince tired of games entirely?

As I reached to grab before it fell away, Teri was already firing. Magazine strapped to her body, tugged into place by cloth. Twenty rounds down wind, and the Hound let out an angry howl as it took three across the chest and dove behind the doorway for cover.

I had the gun up and trained on the doorway.

“Keep moving!” Boss barked.

I was up and running the stairs before Teri could finish reloading, and she trailed behind me, eyeing the ground below.

The Hound demanded that universal Devouring Light, and the far wall exploded again. Up up up the stairs.

“There, third floor!” Boss shouted. She leapt up to the last landing and started at the door.

The Hound called.

Devouring Light. Oh purifier of the universe, that which spreads light out of the cosmic dust. Yonder charged particles suspended indefinitely, ended.

The stairs in front of us evaporated from another blast of energy, sending me skidding to a halt until my shoes touched the edge. Burning rubber. Teri tugged me back, but my foot stung from exposure.

Halfway up to the next floor, with the gleam of burning metal and rubber, it might as well have been a mile away. No way to climb something still on fire.

“Alright,” Teri swallowed, turning to look down the stairs. Flicked her gaze back and forth between myself and the burning sizzling gap.

“Go on,” I said, shooing her. “You have to get to the radio tower.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” She said, shaking her head. “I’m not leaving you.”

The Hound was walking now, not running. It knew we’d been cut off. The long shuffling gait looked like a gorilla, but the yellow eyes locked onto my face spoke of a hideous intelligence.

The melted skin and fur drooling out of the accursed jaw spoke of over use of its ability.

Devouring Light had a deleterious effect on the user. That much energy, that much hatred. Evoking such power.

It had a cost.

But now it didn’t need to use it anymore, we were already cut off.

A floor above, Boss destroyed the door to the third floor, and tossed it at the Hound.

A momentary distraction, but long enough for Teri to point the rifle at the stationary beast and rattle rounds off.

They sank with a curious noise into the flesh, exposed. Dark blooms of red and silky fluid on the body.

But it kept walking.

A round from my own pistol buried itself on the beast’s leg. A moment of limping. Nothing more.

But it stopped. Stared at me. A long devilish look. Yellow eyes narrowed.

I couldn’t read minds, but I knew full well that it was planning on returning each and every injury we’d inflicted on it.

Then it leapt right at me. The gun in my hand went off one more time, a blossom of red across the angry singed fur.

Closed my eyes.

“I TOLD YOU TO DIE!”

Something hideously heavy slammed into me, pressing me against the wall. My eyes fluttered open, and I took a step to the side before the beast slammed Boss right where I’d been standing, dust and broken brick raining down around them. Teri squeaked from far below, her wings spread. She’d ducked out of the way to avoid getting scattered.

Then the Hound slugged Boss in the face. A tooth broke, clattered against the ground, and she brought her arms up to guard. Claws dug into her skin, tearing at flesh and fur. A pained whine from Boss’s face.

This was to protect me.

A ripping, like wet velvet, and insectoid tendrils emerged from the Hound’s skin. They gleamed sharp, dangerous. Perhaps sensing a better host.

And I heard the tell tale whispers of the Hound’s favorite word creep into the back of my head.

Boss was down. Teri was down. There was just me.

The Hound.

Boss, about to die.

And the warrior’s axe, half teetering over the molten edge of the stairwell, a moment of discolor touching it from ash, too hot in my hands, searing through the skin of my palms. I’d been written off.

Who could blame the creature? I’d been almost entirely ineffectual.

Well, fuck that.

Fuck being useless.

Fuck being the damsel.

Fuck waiting to be saved.

A moment, completely off balanced, where my muscles ached, burned, seethed, seared. A step forward. Sweat dripped down my brow.

No thoughts, only screams. An arc over my head made the world stop in place, a terrifying thing. Kinetic force multiplied by speed.

DEVOUR-

It felt strangely personal, the spatter of hot blood, the spray of brain matter, and the hissing clicking dismay of the creature as it came to terms with the fact that the axe had neatly embedded into its brain. The slow thumpathumpa of the heartbeat ticking down one last time, the feeling of the beast’s heated body bringing sweat across my skin. Angry yellow eyes flicked over to mine. Some mixture of understanding. Some mixture of hatred.

I didn’t know what to think.

Boss harrumphed and threw the beast off of her when the limbs when slack, her chest heaving. Gore painted her skin and flesh. Long claw marks blossomed like artist brush strokes. She growled, baring her teeth.

“Well,” I breathed out. “We did it.”

Boss held up a paw and stared at the corpse. It rattled. Moved. Nerves slowly springing back to life. “It’s not over that easy.”

The axe shook in the beast’s head.

I’d have to have severed more than half of the lobes in the damn creature’s brain, but it was still moving. It was still shaking, shuddering. Long lines of drool dripped from the half obliterated maw. Was it the knowledge itself trying to escape? Was it some fel creature, doomed to eternal life, with only half a brain?

Then the maw of the beast fell open, and the throat heaved. Rattled, shook.

And the head of a massive insect poked free. Pedipalps twitched angrily, and three sets of eyes glared at the world. Armored chitin.

It hissed, and I took a few steps back towards the melting hole in the stair well. “What in the world?”

“Thrall burrower,” Boss growled. “If it knows what’s good for it, it’ll flee. If not…”

“If not…?”

The bug charged at Boss, seeking another host.

And fell victim to Teri’s rifle as she hurled herself up the stairs, wings spread in a massive halo around her. Three rounds bounced off of the hardened shell, but the last one cracked it. Lymph flew out in a frothy arc as the creature’s heart beat it free.

One last round shattered the skeleton, and the creature twitched a few times.

Dead.

“Good hunt,” Boss said, walking over to the corpse of the other beast.

“What even are you? What even is he?” I muttered, cross.

“Beasts,” Teri said, looking down at the bug. With the butt of her rifle, she smashed it one more time to be sure, then struck it like a golf ball off of the stairwell. It bounced against the side of the stairs half of a floor down, and then disappeared into the darkness.

“Wolves,” Boss said, baring a mouth full of teeth. “He was in their employ a bit longer than I. We don’t care about the use of Command Tongue, but… we frown on murder.”

“You literally were after Jess’s death.” Teri clicked.

“That’s bounty hunting,” Boss sniffed. “Hardly murder.”

It took a few minutes of listening to them bicker for the air to return to my lungs, and the shooting pain across my arms to settle into a work out’s burn. Boss’s massive paws wrapped around the shaft of the axe and tugged it out of the creature’s head.

“Meat’s ruined. Damn the fey.”

I turned away, deciding I didn’t want to think about what she would’ve done if it weren’t ruined.

“Just the radio tower left?”

“And whatever other Hosted troops Prince decides to send after us,” Boss said, spinning the gore off of her axe. Teri clicked. “They might cut their losses soon; there’s not a lot of burrowers left. On account of your missing King, Teri.”

“And do you know what other Hosted there are?”

“No.” Boss grunted. “It was a known loss that whatever they pitted against me would die, despite my efforts to challenge their greatest warriors.”

Teri rolled her eyes. “They didn’t want to see if your axe would do them in.”

“I am the Boss,” Boss said, knowingly. “I end what doesn’t end me.”

I turned and stared at the gap in the stairs in front of me. “Mind helping me across this gap?”

“Of course,” Boss said.

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