Xavier didn't notice the first centipede to approach their group until Yukio leaned over and swiped his knife at the level of the sand leaving behind two pieces of dusky red bug that convulsed once and lay still.
"Shit!" shouted Xavier as he drew even with the carcass, instinctively pulling back. The thing was the largest bug he'd ever seen: it must have been almost as long as his arm outstretched, and its body was as thick as his wrist. Its head had fallen into the sand a few inches away and was a brighter, more orange red than the rest of its body.
«That was probably a scout,» said Yukio over his shoulder without dropping pace. «This far from the cliffs, they don't get much bigger than that, though I've seen a few that were about twice that size. That was only once, and only after killing a whole lot of smaller swarms, fortunately. When you have to fight one, don't bother with the head; especially on the larger bugs it's too heavily armored. Try to crush or cut the body just behind the head instead, and if one starts climbing you, tear it off. Those legs hurt like a bitch when they're all gripping you, but if someone gets immobilized or bitten near a vein we could be in trouble.»
«Lovely,» grumbled Sumiko.
«On the plus side, they're not picky about what they eat, so if you get a big one coming after you wounding it is usually enough. Just stick a hole in it or break a few legs, and the rest of the swarm will finish it off or you. Can give you some good breathing room, for that matter.»
"I don't think I can do this," muttered Xavier under his breath. Princess silently patted him on the head.
Over the next hour, the group drew nearer to the cliffs, Yukio taking them towards them at an oblique angle while the dust cloud behind them drew ever larger and more pronounced. The number of centipedes gradually increased, but as Yukio had predicted they were universally smaller than the first. They were still freakishly large for bugs, but they all died fast beneath Yukio's knife or Kahina's feet.
Kahina had been looking over her shoulder regularly, and finally called to Yukio, who had forged slightly ahead of the group. «I think we need to head for the cliffs, Yukio-san. It's hard to tell with the dunes, but I don't think we have more than 30 minutes until the Sundlin catch up.»
Yukio stopped and looked their way. For the first time since Xavier had met him he looked distinctly nervous. «Nothing for it, then.» He shook himself, almost as if he was settling fur. «Look alive, people, because things are about to get dicey.»
«Zabi-kun, here.» Sumiko handed him one of the knives they used for preparing food. «This isn't much, but just in case.»
Xavier tried to smile, but wasn't sure if he succeeded. «Thanks. I guess.»
Sumiko grinned, startling him. It was the most Yukio-like grin he'd ever seen on her face. «We'll come out of this fine. You'll see.»
"Boundless confidence from the racoon? What's with this? But seriously, she's right. I've been studying these things, and I don't think they have very good vision. They've probably got sharper senses than you in some ways, but they'll mostly be targeting prey based on Vigor, which you haven't got. Just try to keep them off Kahina and let Sumiko and Yukio take care of the rest."
"Easy for you to say," grumbled Xavier. "The rest of us don't get to ride around on someone's shoulder."
"Hey, you could always ask Kahina," said Princess.
Kahina was wrong. The Sundlin soldiers didn't come into sight for almost another hour, and by the time they did, the party was fighting for every step they took.
Things had gone well initially. Yukio changed course to almost directly approach the cliffs, and the four of them drew into a closer huddle. The number of centipedes was indeed on the rise, but it was nothing Yukio and Kahina couldn't handle. Sumiko was starting to get in on the bug-killing occasionally, but as Princess had predicted the bugs seemed oblivious to Xavier.
Then they turned the corner around a dune and stumbled straight into a swarm. A sizable rock was embedded in the sand, and in front of its base were maybe fifty centipedes; not so thick on the ground that Xavier couldn't see the sand, but it was a close thing in places. The turn was sharp enough, unfortunately, that no one in the party noticed them until Yukio was cutting down the those on the leading edge and cursing, at which point three or four of the arm-sized centipedes slithered their way out from a hollow behind the boulder and joined in on the fun.
At long last Xavier got to fight, as well, and he didn't like it one bit. As Yukio and Kahina focused on the biggest threats, Xavier and Sumiko were left to deal with the smaller pests. Xavier frantically stomped about, trying not to think about the crunching sensation coming from under his boots, but one of the larger ones managed to crawl up his boot and partway up his leg before Xavier tore it off him with a shriek. It was surprisingly difficult, as it gripped his pant leg with its numerous feet, but burgeoning panic allowed him to tear it free and hurl it into the larger crowd, all of which at this point were heading towards the bakuhito as fast as they could. Small red bodies swelled and fell in a veritable ocean of chitin.
Princess whipped a vine down behind him, and he felt a small rush of Vigor as several small weights fell free that he hadn't noticed in his preoccupation with the centipede that had been boiling up his leg.
"You watch the front, I'll keep your sides and pack clear," said Princess.
"I hate this I hate this I hate this," chanted Xavier back breathlessly, and then there was no more room for talk; he had to get back to stomping.
He tried using the knife a few times, but eventually just switched it to his left hand and ignored it. The damn centipedes were too fast, most of them were too small, and he was more likely to accidentally stab himself in the leg than do any actual damage to the bugs.
After an interminable several minutes, Kahina flattened the last of the big centipedes, and she, Xavier, and the bakuhito broke free from the swarm, outpacing the remaining centipedes in a quick sprint across the sand. Getting out once the biggest centipedes were dead was almost anticlimactic. Yukio had been dead to rights about them not being picky about their food sources.
As the group slowed to a walk, Xavier sheathed the knife Sumiko had given him and tucked it as best he could into the top of his pack.
«Ugh, that was horrible,» said Xavier to no one in particular.
"Uh, you might want to let everyone know that it's not over yet," said Princess, as a second swarm—this one closer to a couple hundred of centipedes—roiled up in front of them.
It wasn't until they were battling through the fifth and largest swarm of centipedes they'd encountered yet that the soldiers finally came into sight.
Yukio had just killed the largest centipede in the group, giving everyone a slight breather while the waves of bugs temporarily redirected toward its carcass, when Princess shouted, "Behind us!"
Xavier threw a glance over his shoulder, and there were the soldiers at last. They were indeed mounted: a group of 10-15 humans on horses trotting as best they could over the sand.
Kahina spotted them at the same time. «Sundlin!»
«Run for the cliffs!» called Yukio. «We need to scare up a bigger swarm if we're going to distract them enough!»