Ascent, Ch. 10
The swarm crept forward as though to savor the moment. Ten stepped back closer to her teammates, trying to steady her breath and calm her thoughts. She couldn’t gauge the exact size of each creature in the chamber due to the dim lighting, but they were at least as big as she was. That did nothing to stave off her fright.
As Nine and R-6 took ready stances in front and behind her, respectively, the former said to her, “Contact the others. We need help.”
“Okay.” She whipped out the communicator right away and brought it up to her face, but never did her eyes dart away from the mass of monsters before them. “El Seven? We’re, uh—we’re in the queen’s chamber.”
“Thought something sounded funny on your end,” replied the team leader. “Hang on for now. Sel Four and I are on our way.”
“Hurry! We’re surrounded!”
She barely had enough time to stuff the communicator back into its pouch before the first of the queen’s brood spawns leapt at them. Nine sent it flying with a burning swipe, after which Ten chucked a light ball into it. She did the same to the next monster that pounced on them and launched it straight into its siblings. Behind her, R-6 had stepped away far enough to not harm his teammates and let his wings attack the critters freely.
Wait no, thought Ten. Brood spawns. I think that’s what they were called OH CRAP—
Three more flew out of the whole mass. So fast were they that she couldn’t bring up her hands in time to form another couple of light balls—
—then Nine was in front of her, catching all three on his staff before shoving them away. His next strike killed one while another died to a backward thrust from one of R-6’s wings. This gave Ten the opening she needed to form a light ball and shove it into the remaining spawn as soon as she finished casting the spell. The trio moved to the next clear spot they could find at the redhead’s prompting, even though this took them farther from the queen.
During this, Ten managed to catch an exchange between L-7 and M1-11.
“Em! What did you do? What was that message earlier?”
“I… am… not sure. I didn’t expect to trigger a recorded message of all things.” A sigh, and then, “I’ll have to stop the power trick; it’s getting too dangerous to maintain. Concentrate on killing the queen. I’m listening to that message now; it might give us some clue on how to beat her!”
“All right. We’re almost to the queen’s chamber!”
The white-haired girl cocked an eyebrow. I must’ve upped the volume on the comm by accident, she thought, recalling how roughly she had put the device away earlier. And now we won’t have Em’s distraction; shoot… The queen, the queen—there are way too many brood spawns between her and us.
In the brief time it took for all that to go through her head, Ten created two more light balls but didn’t throw them like she’d done with the others. She thought back to when the group had fought R-6 and how she had attempted to pin him down before, except she wasn’t aiming to repeat trick; she just needed to start off the same way. She did this by drawing more magic through her body, her bracelets glowing all the while. This time, the light balls began to spark.
Five brood spawns were practically on top of her by then. Just before they leaped, she unleashed the extra magic she’d poured into the light balls in the form of beams that seemed to scream or whistle. They dissolved not only the five spawns in front of her upon contact but also at least three more behind them. Though the beams dissipated quickly, the light balls from which they’d come remained by their caster’s hands ready to go again.
Ten gawked at the trail of destruction in front of her. Did I seriously just do that?
The thought was gone from her when the next batch of spawns poured over the bodies of their brethren. One of them managed to tackle Nine to the floor, but after he rolled with the impact, a wing from R-6 jutted in and skewered the spawn clean through. The redhead proceeded to throw it into a second incoming group and closed the gap between himself and the staff wielder, who just finished killing three others. Ten dissolved a few more with another beam before she caught up with them, at which point they stood more or less back to back.
“Are you two okay?” she asked.
“I am,” said Nine. “What about you?”
“I’m okay. Startled, but okay. And you, Are Six?”
The redhead gave a nod. “I’m all right.”
The three then braced themselves for the next wave of brood spawns. When the onslaught resumed, Nine was the first to strike an opponent away, followed by R-6. Ten fired off three shots with her spells when she heard a familiar voice in the distance and to her right.
“Hey! Save some for me!”
Seconds later, SEL-4 ran in and jumped towards the brood spawn nearest to her. With her hands already covered in the visages of golden blades, the wild one struck with a stab to the spawn’s gut, then another, causing her target to glow. She finished her attack by ripping her arms apart, and the creature’s dismembered parts dissolved in a semi-golden flash. The spawns coming up from behind her were each downed by a green pelt to the head just as L-7 flew into the room.
Seeing this, Nine yelled over the other noises, “Ten! Are Six! We clear a path to El Seven!”
Wings tore through several more spawns in the next few seconds, allowing Ten’s trio to meet up with their newly arrived teammates. Only during this interim did it look like the sheer number of opponents had begun to dwindle somewhat. More still lurched in the shadows closer to the queen, however, and several others quickly blocked the entrance from which SEL-4 and L-7 had come. On top of that, the bulbs with legs on the ceiling burst apart and released even more spawns.
When all five of them were together, the wild one spoke again. “Seems like you’re all in one piece. So how’d you find this party?”
“The queen dragged me in here with one of her tentacle things, that’s how,” said Nine. “I just barely managed to break free.”
Ten caught each of their eyes, sheepish. “We tried to save him, but, well….” She killed another creature to end her statement.
“Actually, you did save him,” chimed in M1-11’s voice. “If I’m understanding this report correctly, Cele Two might’ve been looking for things to breed with when you found her.”
“Breed? What do you mean by that?”
The automaton sounded noticeably uneasy. “As in, she picks up a male, sticks him with—something—and, er—how do I put this?—makes more little brood spawns with him. Then she eats him.”
“Well, fuck that! I’m not breeding with her!” And Nine punctuated his statement by splitting a creature under his staff.
Grimacing, Ten asked, “Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to breed with a male critter?”
“Er, about that… The report didn’t specify what she could breed with. Or with what she couldn’t. So yeah, Nine and Are Six better be careful.”
The two in question reflected each other’s mutual disgust and disbelief. Ten felt those same emotions as if they were her own—and to a degree, they were—but only up until the next swarm started to bear down on them.
While swatting creatures left and right, Nine spoke through each strike. “What—was the damn point—in making—a super breeding—queen monster?”
“Don’t know; don’t linger on it. Focus!” With that order out of her mouth, L-7 opened fire. She made a minor adjustment to the round flashlight she had near her left shoulder so she could see her various targets, and not once did she miss her mark.
Ten supplemented the team leader’s attacks with a few more beams of light, the shots coming less frequently only because the former needed a second to draw in the magical energy she needed for her spells. Off to the side, she could see SEL-4 tearing through spawn after spawn, laughing even as she suffered a few cuts of her own. R-6 and Nine went to back her up, so Ten and L-7 moved to stay with them.
After clobbering another string of brood spawns, the wild one bounced back to the group, her laughter slow and quiet. “I could do this all day.”
“You can’t and you know that. None of us can,” protested the team leader.
“I don’t know. We seem to be chopping them up pretty good.”
“Yeah, but it’s not taking us any closer to the queen. We need a big enough distraction to keep them off our backs, and then someone has to go destroy her body.”
It was Nine who asked, “You mean her whole body? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but her whole body looks really huge.”
“Just thinking that,” said L-7 through clenched teeth.
Indeed, the fleshy stalagmite that attached the queen to the ceiling was easily half the width of the room at the top. The bulk of it was thick, and none of it looked thin or soft enough to break apart easily. They would have better luck punching through metal, if the white-haired girl had to guess.
But then M1-11’s voice emerged from the communicator again. “All you have to do is cut her body off from the chrysalis. Once you do that, she’ll have no means of sustaining her brood spawns or her nest.”
Ten let loose two more blasts but left her ears open to hear the automaton. “There’s a difference? Between her body and the chrysalis, I mean?”
“Yes. The chrysalis holds the power she uses to make and maintain everything to do with her nest; her body keeps it alive and regulates how that power is used. Separating them should disable all her minions and the nest as a whole. That’s what differentiates Cele Two here from Cele One, according to the report.”
SEL-4 answered in between swipes. “Something about these Celes is kind of familiar—just like this whole destroy-the-nest exercise. Queenie over there even looks like that other one we fought. Don’t you think, El Seven?”
“A little,” came the reply. “The basic shape is definitely the same; this queen’s just much bigger. But if that huge mass is actually two different things attached together—” Three shots downed three spawns each— “then we don’t have to bring down the whole structure.”
“Detach her from the chrysalis,” murmured Ten. “How long will it last without her body?”
“Not long at all,” replied the automaton.
“All right, then.” L-7 kicked one brood spawn in the face before killing it and four more afterwards. “We need to open up a clear path to the queen.”
“Just say what you need, Boss!” called the wild one.
By then, L-7 had to shout her orders over the sounds of all their fighting. “Sel Four, you and Nine guard the rear. Are Six, join them after you clear out what’s around us. Ten—after Are Six attacks, destroy everything between us and the queen. I’ll go in and finish her off. Are we clear?”
The others all replied with their own variant of yes, and then Ten pivoted leftward so she would be facing the queen directly. L-7 gave the order to go, and SEL-4 and Nine rushed to protect everyone else’s backs. Meanwhile, R-6 jumped into the air, and when he landed, he unleashed a barrage of ice in all directions—the same maneuver Ten recognized as the one he’d used when he fought the team however long ago. The one difference lay in just who was hit: this time, everyone on the team was barely grazed by any of the flying ice while at least two dozen creatures were bombarded and slaughtered on the spot.
Despite feeling the chilling shockwave, Ten concentrated on drawing in more magic than she had done previously. She finished just as R-6 turned to join SEL-4 and Nine, though his movements were somewhat sluggish. He’s tired, observed the white-haired girl. I am, too… but I have to focus—
Her spell ready at last, she brought the light balls close together in front of her and unloaded the extra magical energy into two large blasts. She didn’t let them dissipate after a second, either; instead, she channeled the magical energy through her body at a constant rate to keep up the strength of the attack. Any brood spawns that came into contact with the beams vaporized on touch.
Focus, focus; don’t let up—starting to hurt—don’t let up—
L-7 passed by her in a shadowed blur, her path apparent only from her flashlight. From what Ten could see, the team leader not only used her super speed to race past most of the brood spawns that had not yet died, she used it to spring from one head to another. Combined with a run on the back wall, this gave her enough leverage to leap high enough to start opening fire on the queen’s body. The shots came out fast, but L-7 slowed her rate of fire once she latched onto the chrysalis only so she could slide down closer to her target. Each hit the queen sustained seemed to make her screeches even louder, but the team leader continued firing upon one spot—the place where the queen’s body met the chrysalis.
Unable to hold her own attack anymore, Ten gasped and stopped the dual beams she’d been firing, feeling aches all over her body. The light balls in her hands vanished, and she stepped forward only to steady herself. She could hear brood spawns dying at a fairly steady rate behind her along with the banter of her teammates, which gave her all the assurance she needed to keep her eyes open for anything that might interrupt L-7’s assault. As soon as Ten raised her head to look, she saw the queen’s tendrils rearing up to attack.
Not when we’re so close—
Gritting her teeth, she drew in a deep breath as well as magical energy. She didn’t have the time or quite the stamina to make the next dual beam attack as powerful as the last one, but it was enough to destroy the tendrils. Not long after, she lowered her arms to take down a few brood spawns that had pounced, but then she had to let the spell dissipate again to catch her breath.
The queen’s spidery arms flailed as she tried to reach for the team leader, screaming the whole time. Just as she was about to go for a grab, the barrage of green pelts finally split her body from the chrysalis. Monstrous, horrid screams reverberated through the whole chamber, only to be cut short when L-7 dumped several green pelts into the queen’s torso and face. When the barrage ended, her remains went completely still.
All at once, the various brood spawns let out screeches of their own that weren’t nearly as ear-splitting. One that had been rushing towards Ten from her left had just raised an arm to swipe at her. By the time the arm finally came down, it fell on her right shoulder without any force. She dropped to her knees anyway but didn’t hesitate to push the blasted thing away as she tried to catch her breath. Every sound in the chamber faded into silence all around, just as the bulbs above lost their lights.
The members of the team were the only ones who made any noise in the time that followed. The white-haired girl rose to her feet, weary, and created a light ball to see where everyone was. Nine, SEL-4, and R-6 were coming towards her; and when the last of the three let his aura and wings fade, Ten’s spell was left as the main source of light. The only other source was L-7’s flashlight, which revealed where she was in the shadows. She hopped down from the chrysalis and joined the group.
“Stupid screaming bitch,” muttered the team leader, rubbing one of her ears. “My ears are still ringing. I think my hearing might be busted.”
Ten brought a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear. Can you hear me?”
“Yeah, but I’m almost right next to you. At least that confirms I haven’t gone totally deaf, but still.”
“Hey, it’s a plus,” said SEL-4. She let out a big breath and stretched, that smile of hers only slightly less pronounced than usual. “That felt good. Nothing like kicking the crap out of masses of critters to brighten the day.”
“And now we don’t have to worry about these things hounding us on the way up. Though…” L-7 looked down at herself. “We really need to do something about all the clothes we keep ruining.”
This prompted Ten to look at herself and realize she had acquired many cuts from the brood spawns as well as blood stains, though at least some of those was her own. Everyone else shared similar looks to varying degrees, though the wild one and the staff wielder bared the most stains from having to go up close to all their opponents before.
Despite everything, Ten almost laughed aloud. No doubt about it. We’re a mess.
When they were all together, she chanced a glance over at Nine and R-6. They eyed each other for just a second before the former held up a fist and told the latter, “Put your hand up like this.”
R-6 did so, after which Nine lightly bumped it, and the latter went on to do the same gesture with Ten, then SEL-4, and L-7. At that point, the team leader gestured for everyone to follow her out of the chamber. Though she could feel a prickling under her skin from her previous exertions, Ten continued to channel the light ball spell and had it float above and nearby. Eventually, they left through the door.
“Wow, things went quiet on your end real quick,” said M1-11’s voice through both Ten’s communicator and L-7’s. “I take it the queen’s dead now?”
“Yeah. Nest fell silent just like you thought it would,” replied the leader. “Where are you now? Are you still in that power room?”
“Right-o. I figured I’d be better off staying here than trying to find my way to the queen and getting lost. It means you’ll spend less time looking for me.”
“Good thinking. We’ll be heading straight there.”
“Great! Oh— it sounded like you took some hits there, too. We’ll have to double back to the medical room on B Twenty-Four so I can do some proper checks on you all, but at least the nest won’t be a threat anymore.”
Being as close to Ten as he was, Nine raised his voice a bit. “Should we really leave that chrysalis alone? No other queens are going to try and hijack it, are they?”
“No. Not even different kinds of critters would want to venture into the nest. Territorial instincts and all that. Besides, the chrysalis is likely dying along with the rest of the hive right now, if it isn’t already dead. That report also implied they didn’t make any other queens aside from the Celes and their prototypes. But we should still leave as soon as possible—you know, before the nest starts rotting.”
L-7 nodded to that. “Good to know.”
Beside her, SEL-4 laughed quietly. “Yeah. Don’t want to smell like rotting critter. Not that it’d be a big problem. Not for me, at least. It’s not like that’ll breed more critters.”
The staff wielder gave her a glare that could’ve fired blades. “Really? You just had to mention that again?”
“Heh. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”
Nine eyed R-6, who mirrored the disgusted but weary expression.
The group said very little as they made their way through the nest. Ten couldn’t blame anyone for that, considering how much they had fought just now. And in the case of the two boys, they just wanted to stop thinking about nest queens and breeding monsters as soon as possible. To their credit, they seemed to do so quickly if only because of their fatigue.
Then she heard the staff wielder speak up. “Hey… Are Six?”
“Hmm…?” came the worn-out reply.
“Thanks for the backup earlier. You— you’re okay now.”
“Oh… you’re welcome.”
Nine reached over with his free arm. “Lean on me. You’re tired.” He looked over his shoulder and caught Ten’s eye. “You, too.”
The white-haired girl obliged and walked up to his left, after which she put an arm around his waist. The redhead followed suit with a bit more hesitation, but he finally slung an arm over Nine’s shoulder. Though he carried his staff in his left hand, Nine put his arm behind Ten without hitting her with the weapon by accident. He stood taller than both of them despite leaning a bit to the right to better make up for R-6’s shorter stature.
SEL-4 turned around and walked backwards for a few steps, observing the bunched together trio. The smile that crossed her face was actually pleasant this time, and Ten returned the look. Even L-7 glanced back long enough to show a small smile of her own before she and the wild one faced forward once more.
At that point, Ten let herself breathe deep, relieved. Somehow, some way, they had made it out alive.
NOTICE: Ascent will be taking another break next week, so something random will be here in its place. The story will resume on May 3.