Act 1: Chapter 3, Part 4

Posted on May 07, 2017

That Time Chris Helped Some People Kill Some Bugs

Evan. First Day of School. Story Time.

“Okay,” Chris said, leaning forward, “so we were stopped in Topeka for the night, right? For the whole trip my father reached out to the local Bounty Authorities to see if there was room for me to get up in some action without stepping on any toes. In Topeka, they’ve been having problems with these locusty wilderness Swarms that have gotten too numerous; they’ve been devouring big swaths of the grasslands out there, and a couple times now some have gotten over the outer walls and in among the crops.

“The BA there was—probably still is—running extermination raids outside the walls to try and keep these things’ numbers in check, but they don’t really have enough Light Bearers to guide the squads. They really need two per squad out for these, because it’s just too easy for them to get past the guns, and if the Light Bearer goes down they’re all fucked.”

Megan and Angie were still leaning in, their hands propping up their chins, completely rapt. Ryan was being more casual, but he was still totally focused on Chris. Evan kept watching his friends as much as he did Chris. He was terribly aware of how many eyes were on their table as Chris told his story.

Chris was going on. “So to prevent that they double up inside the gunner’s circle, where they can watch each other’s back, and there’s redundant Light. So they throw me in with this lady, Misae of the Osage tribe, whose normal partner was hurt a few nights before, just so they can get one more squad out. We hop into four wilderness wagons—Jeeps, they do it classic in Topeka—and we head out just before the sun is hitting the horizon. We drive for almost an hour, really get out there, until we’re in a part of the grassland that is all mangy, where the Swarmers haven’t stripped everything, but they’ve clearly been there.”

As Chris spoke, Evan glanced around the room, and noticed that things seemed to be unusually subdued at Lauren’s table. In fact, Lauren was just straight up staring back at him, or at their table at least, a shell-shocked expression on her face. Evan quickly refocused on Chris, regretting having noticed.

“We pull to a stop at the edge of an area that’s stripped pretty bare—want to be able to see them if they go after your ankles, after all—as the sun fully dips below the horizon, and everyone hurries to positions more towards the center of the clearing, all the shotgunners in their warding mantles and masks. You can hear rustling out in the surrounding meadow, and these eerie, croaking chirps that seem to be in multiple octaves at the same time. The militia all have pump-action shotguns, cause those things are too fast for anyone who’s not, like, an Old West gunslinger to hit with single shots.” Ryan, Angie, and Megan all glanced at Evan at this, which made a small spark of pride flare in his chest.

“They arrange themselves in the circle, with Misae and me in the center. She has a specialized weapon for these things, they’ve had to develop it over the years in the Great Plains, this brazier on two sort of medium length handles, with a gyroscope thing that keeps the top, where the Flames are, up, so that she can swing it around to interpose it in the paths of their jumps, or even smash them with it.” As he spoke, he demonstrated, miming as if he were holding a ship’s wheel and using it to swing an attached weapon around. “They’re hard to describe, and they ain’t light, either. I’m not weak, but I couldn’t have swung this thing around like she did. A matter of training too, I’m sure, but still. I’m just using my sword.

“Anyway, she and I are in the middle of this circle of shotgunners. We all have these noise cancelling earbuds in, with these throat mics that are supposed to be shielded from outside noise and mostly just pick up our voices. Misae sparks up the brazier, and as soon as the Light washes across the clearing, these things start bursting out of the grass around us.”

Chris shuddered, not theatrically. “Insectoid Beasts are the creepiest. All Beasts suck, but these things… they did bear a passing resemblance to locusts. They were like a foot and a half long, with these awful, really loud fluttering wings, and too many legs. All the front legs had these serrated claws kind of like a praying mantis, and on their heads, they had like five different mandibles of different sizes all feeding into this awful gaping maw. And their eyes were like compound eyes made out human eyeballs.” Everyone shuddered at that image.

“So fourteen shotguns start going off, and it’s a good thing we had those noise canceling earbuds. It was a lot.” Chris’s gestures thus far had been relatively restrained, but now he started getting more enthusiastic in waving his hands around as he talked. “The Beasts are just small enough that one shotgun blast is enough to shred them, at least enough to disable them, if not kill them completely. So they’re blasting bugs left and right.

“But there’s so many of the damn things, they’re coming faster than the gunners can pump,” Chris continued, miming pumping a shotgun. “And they can jump high enough that some of them are bouncing right over the line, drawn to the Light. To Misae and her Flame.

“And me,” he added. “Both of us in the center. So I swing into an anti-Swarm form, with lots of twists and spins, to keep full awareness of my surroundings and turn to meet many attacks from many directions, and even as many of the things the shotgunners are splattering, I’m still slicing one into two with every step I take.”

“And Misae, she’s incredible! Spinning as fast as I am, just interposing that two-foot brazier full of Bearer’s Flame in the path of one or two of these nightmare crickets each second, each one just fucking exploding into ash when they pass through the Flames.”

“And your flames?” Megan asked, her voice doing that cute squeaky thing it did when she was excited or embarrassed, “Did you explode them too?” It was nice she still squeaked. It made Evan smile.

“Uh…“ Chris seemed taken off-guard. “My—you know, a brand’s not that big. Not like a big brazier full of Flames. And my technique focuses more on the sword. I probably batted a few away with the brand, but didn’t even need to for the most part, and I didn’t see what happened to the few I did. Uh,” he said again. “So, all the shotgunners hit empty within a second of each other... and that’s when the Mothers burst out of the night!” He was a decent story-teller; Angie and Megan both actually recoiled at that, his cadence lending an abruptness to the line that worked to emphasis the change in circumstances.

“And they’re horrid,” Chris continued, fire in his strange eyes, “Five feet long with even more eyes and maws, and these bloated squirming thoraxes. And these Mothers are smart, smart enough to not blindly fly at the Lightbringer like moths. They’re still enraged by the touch of the Light, but they recognize that the shotgunners are threats too. Three of them explode from the darkness out into the Light and slam into three of the shotgunners, knocking them halfway to the middle of the circle.” He shuddered. “Their screams over the mics were not fun to hear.

“We have to act immediately or these folks are going to get ripped apart, warding mantles be damned. The rest of the shotgunners are trying to reload with one of the big box clips hanging from their belts and keep the little ones off themselves at the same time; they have these heavy gauntlets designed to still allow them to fire the shotguns, and they just grab and rip the bugs off each other. They’re not going to be any help. The Mothers’re all far enough apart that it’ll take movement to get between each one. I hope Misae has a plan, because I’m not going to be able to save more than one guy.

“I spring forward, dive rolling just to cover ground, and end the dive up on one knee, thrusting my blade up through the Mother’s thorax. Fuck it smelled bad! I hated that thing.”

“Dive rolling!” Megan gasped. “With your brand? You could have burned your hair! Or your face!” Her voice held a note of genuine distress.  

Chris stopped in the middle of a word, almost seemed to freeze, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. “Yes,” he said after at least a second. “I did, actually. Burn my hair. That. Not too bad, but enough I had to get an extra short haircut afterward.” He shook his head. “Father wouldn’t even spring for a growth elixir after. Had to buy one myself. Uh, so,” he said, “Then I just had to rip the blade up through its body and kick the bug off the guy, and turn around to get to the other one. If I could, not that there was much chance of being in time.

“But everything was cool, by which I mean hot. Like, on fire. Misae had hardly even moved. She’d just stuck out the brazier and, and launched the Flames off its surface. She’d already ashed the first Mother, and I turned around just in time to see her launch the Flames across the clearing at the second one. Really, it was more like the Flames launched themselves, if you can picture that. They almost sort of floated over, but quickly, like there was an invisible floor in the air with an invisible trail of Bearer’s Oil.

“The Flames split into two fist-wide waves of blazing Bearer’s Flame five feet from the Mother Beast, and one wave slammed into one of its fucking compound eyes, which exploded in this black steam, and the other pierced into its thorax, and the thing went up like it was full of alchemized gas, just igniting in this huge flash from its head and its butt before it met in the middle, leaving behind a cloud of ash and a barely scorched shotgunner.”

Chris leaned back, clearly satisfied with his climax. “Was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Kicks the shit out of all my other stories. Anyway, the rest sickened when the last of the Mothers was slain. They always come in threes, you see. The little ones, without their guiding minds, such as they are, started crawling off to find a new set of Mothers to bond with. It took some time, but we managed to find pretty much all of them, we thought, and smash them. Misae’s Flame would seem to be blown by a breeze in their direction, which was a neat trick.

“The battle itself lasted all of a minute.” Chris stretched his arms above his head, popping his shoulders and back, grinning. “Some of us searched and destroyed while others tended the worst of the wounds or had their wounds tended. Then we headed back to the city gates. We were beat up enough that it would have been folly to try for another Swarm. I wasn’t exactly unscathed either. I came out with a whole bunch of scrapes cuts and bruises, which I’d hardly felt when I got them.” He paused. “That’s not, like, a humblebrag. It was just so much adrenaline, and you have to learn to focus through minor pains when you train to be a Light Bearer.” He fell silent.