Centipedes of all sizes cascaded past Xavier and Rachel as they sprinted toward the quaking cliffside—everything from two or three times as big as a normal centipede, to the length of Xavier's arm. Fortunately, the centipedes ignored them entirely. Rachel had to kick some out of her way every few steps, but they weren't trying to bite.
If he'd had time to stop and think about it, this would have made him very nervous, but Xavier was maxed out on fear at the moment and not thinking that clearly.
As the max size of the centipedes started steadily rising, Xavier looked ahead and saw the cliff appear to collapse back away from them. As it did, granite pillars exploded out of the desert up and down the cliffside, rising vertically into the air in a shower of dirt and rocks and then slamming back down in a percussive set of impacts that made Xavier stumble.
"What the—" he began, but then he noticed that the pillars were angled at the top and connected to the rolling cliffside and his perspective shifted: they weren't granite pillars, they were legs.
"Now that is what I'd call a kami-level concentration of nima!" said Princess appreciatively. "Maybe a few hundred years away from great kami, but very impressive nonetheless! Its exterior is mostly solid rock, so far as I can tell, but still kicking!"
"I know! Keep running!"
"But we're running toward it!"
Rachel just dragged him onwards.
"We need a ride—there!" Rachel veered to the left, dragging Xavier inexorably along, and he realized she was angling for a centipede that was easily as large as the monstrosity that decimated the Sundlin soldiers back when he, Yukio, Sumiko, and Kahina were fleeing past the Oumukade Cliffs.
As they neared the monster, Xavier reflexively tried to pull out of Rachel's grasp, but her grip was a vise. The thing was careening toward them, and Xavier screamed and flinched.
Rachel finally let go of Xavier's arm, slipped past the monster's churning legs, and slapped it sharply on the side. The centipede collapsed like a puppet whose strings were just cut.
"Whoops," said Rachel, and ducked out under the thing's now-immobile legs. "Guess we laid that on a little thick." She snatched Xavier's forearm again and scanned the chaos around them. "There's another!"
And they were off, running toward a centipede that was even larger.
"No no no no no no no." Xavier realized he was chanting and shut up. He needed to save his breath, anyway. Rachel never appeared to get tired, but he was fast nearing his limit.
They intercepted the second centipede successfully, and this time Rachel dragged Xavier straight through the thing's legs, before once again slapping it on the side. Unlike the first one, this one just seized up and skidded to a halt, forcing Xavier and Rachel to duck under a leg. A different leg slammed into Xavier at an angle and would have sent him to the ground if Rachel hadn't bodily hauled him right back up. It felt like his shoulder was about to come out of its socket.
The next thing he knew, Rachel was pushing him up the side of the centipede, which stood quivering under him. He wasn't quite sure how, but the two made it up to the centipede's back, and under Rachel's urging he scooted forward towards the head until the two of them were sitting with their feet braced on the second or third pair of legs.
"Alright, we're off! Hold on!" said Rachel, and Xavier barely had a chance to grab her around the waist before the centipede surged forward again.
If he ever got another chance to ride on a giant bug, he was going to run as fast as he could the other direction. The thing moved in a sickening skittering motion that threatened to throw him off first one way and then the other, and there was absolutely no give in the exoskeleton where it collided with his bottom. He was going to be bruised for life, and possibly sick all down Rachel's back.
"Uh, don't look back," said Princess. Fortunately, Xavier wasn't able to. He wasn't sure he could speak without biting off his own tongue, so he kept his mouth grimly shut. "Wow, that's really a big one."
The earth shivered and bucked, tossing the centipede slightly into the air and for one horrifying moment Xavier was mid-air instead of sitting on its back. Then he slammed back down again, hugging himself to Rachel's back hard to keep from sliding off.
"Ooh, look at that. It's pretty slow compared to the little ones, but those are big steps. Guess that's what you get when you convert most of your exoskeleton to rock."
The ground was shaking in an irregular pattern, although thankfully there was sufficient time between the impacts for their current centipede to be able to keep its footing. Xavier tried to sneak a look backward, almost fell off, and desperately grabbed onto Rachel again. All he caught was a glimpse from his peripheral vision of a giant shadow within a huge dust cloud.
"Xavier!" yelled Rachel over her shoulder. "I'm going to need you to pass the mononoke forward, and then make sure I don't fall off! We're going to need its help to bring that thing down, so Sedgewick wants to cure it of its dependence now!"
"Princess, can you crawl up there?"
"Yeah, yeah, no need to shout. Look, Xavier, on the off chance this doesn't work, and we all die horribly to the oumukade…thanks. I love you."
"You'll be fine! Get up there!" Abject terror was doing nothing for Xavier's ability to process confessions of love from plants.
Princess patted him gently on the cheek, and then crawled over Rachel's shoulder and dropped into her lap, completely removing her vines from Xavier. Rachel bent over the mononoke, and Xavier held on as best he could.
If he ever got home, he was going to squish every centipede he met with extreme prejudice.
An indeterminable amount of time later, Rachel stretched her arms and Xavier snapped out of the horrible fugue state he'd fallen into. He hadn't vomited, thank goodness, but he hurt in places he didn't even know could feel pain, and he honestly wasn't sure how he'd managed to keep them both on top of the centipede.
Rachel glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes widened. "Huh, we lost most of our lead, looks like. Good thing Sedgewick's been juicing this thing up."
"Did it work?" Xavier managed to croak out. His lips and throat were so dry they hurt, but there had been no way to get at his water without falling off the damn undulating centipede.
"Oh, yes. Your mononoke is its own creature. I think we're going to have to change our approach here, though. There's no way we can beat that thing to the Deadlands. Here, hold onto the mononoke for me, it's a little out of it." Rachel passed a limp Princess to Xavier, who managed to stuff the mononoke down his shirt without actually letting go of Rachel with more than one hand at a time. He didn't think he'd be able to keep a grip on both Princess and Rachel at the same time. "Okay, hold on, Xavier. We're going to see if we can climb that thing."
Wait, climb what thing? He didn't like the sound of that at all.
Rachel didn't wait for him to try and work up enough saliva to comment, however. She leaned forward, planted her hands on the back of their centipede, and without any more warning than that the damn thing twisted around and started running at an angle toward the—oh shit, that was what was chasing them?!
Xavier stared. His body was having a hard time figuring out how to react, because the scale was just so crazily off. Although its body was still obscured by the sand and dirt that its legs were kicking up, Xavier finally caught a good look at the oumukade's head. It was hard to tell, but the thing had to be wider than a bus was long, and it appeared to be made almost entirely out of rock. A pair of jagged arm-ish fang things flanked the thing's maw, which was just…absurdly huge. Two stubs of antenna stuck out of the upper corners of its head, although they were both broken off so they didn't sweep out as far as a normal centipede's would relative to its body.
Xavier had thought he would be terrified because centipedes were kind of terrifying on their own, but the scary thing wasn't that it looked like an insect, it was that something that big was moving toward him.
Although as they drew nearer, he realized that the thing was slowing, the rhythmic shockwaves of its legs impacting the ground growing steadily slower.
"What's it doing?!" he called to Rachel.
"Sedgewick stopped dangling bait out for it! It should be a lot safer to get on top of it if it's not moving around, you know?"
"Yeah, he's been tweaking the aura of our centipede to make the big one think it's the world snake. Doubt it would have stirred for much less."
"That makes no sense."
"Yeah, I don't really understand it, either. Can't argue with results, though!"
By this time, they'd closed with the monster, which loomed overhead like some sort of mountain that had reshaped itself into a piece of nightmare. The centipede they were riding didn't appear bothered at all: it simply raced forward, and started climbing directly up the nearest leg.
"Hang on!" shouted Rachel, and it was all Xavier could do to comply. It felt like the damn centipede was completely vertical, although that couldn't be the case or he was pretty sure he would have fallen already.
Then when they were most of the way up, the leg lifted, air whipped past Xavier's face, and the monster set it back down.
The jolt was so strong that even though he'd been expecting it, Xavier was thrown free. "Rachel!" he screamed.
She dove after him, their centipede jackknifing behind her because she'd still somehow managed to keep her legs locked to it even though she shouldn't have had the leverage. The centipede screamed, Rachel tackled Xavier in midair, her hands locked around his chest, and with an almighty crack! the exoskeleton where their centipede was bent broke, leaving them dangling in midair supported only by Rachel's grip with her legs around the limp top half of the centipede.
Xavier's arms were locked around her with a death grip as he swung mostly on his back in midair with her face crushed up against his chest.
"Xavier, keep a tight hold!" she said in a muffled voice, and then she began to swing them back and forth.
The exoskeleton of their centipede made some truly horrific-sounding cracking and popping noises, and Xavier realized he was whimpering, but he couldn't seem to stop. At last Rachel gave a heave and suddenly they were flying through the air until they slammed up against the stone leg they'd been climbing. Xavier was completely unsure how Rachel managed to secure a grip, but he found himself crushed up against the rock with her arms and legs on either side of him. Slightly below them, the centipede they had been riding peeled away and fell. After a single glimpse down, Xavier squeezed his eyes shut.
"Xavier?" said Rachel, sounding the most strained he'd ever heard her. "Can you shift your grip just a bit? Yes, there! Now don't let go." And she started dragging the two of them up the damn leg with sheer brute strength. Xavier clung to her and tried not to think about how long it had taken the centipede to fall before it hit the sand.
At long, long last they somehow made it to the top of the monster, and both of them collapsed onto their backs. The outer part of the creature's body was definitely made up of rock, but it wasn't smooth or even. There were huge dips, craters, and jagged pieces; the whole thing was wide enough that when they flopped down near the middle Xavier had absolutely no anxiety about falling off, despite the way the thing moved in huge swoops.
"Hand me the mononoke, would you Xavier?" Rachel was out of breath, but apparently still moving forward with whatever plan she and Sedgewick had come up with. "Then you should drink some water and relax a little, maybe move over to the shade. This will take a bit."
Xavier extracted a rather compressed Princess from his shirt. She limply gripped his hand with a vine, so at least she didn't seem to be badly hurt. Rachel sat up to take her, then casually ripped some nima out of a nearby rock, sending it disintegrating into dust, and shoved it into Princess.
The mononoke sat fully upright, vines flailing everywhere, but Rachel just batted them aside. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you feel like crap, just like the rest of us. But you're the only one who can get down closer to the core of this thing in a reasonable amount of time. Sedgewick wasn't counting on it having ossified quite so badly."
Princess cocked her flower at Rachel, but made no move to stick her vine up against her head. Xavier felt weirdly happy that she wasn't willing to talk to just anyone.
Rachel shrugged, and lightly tossed the mononoke to the rocky surface next to her. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get to it."
The plant made an indefinable gesture, and Xavier could almost hear the snarky comment that must have accompanied it, but then dug its vines downward and somehow began burrowing into the rock.
"Boy, Sedgewick, you were right about that one," Rachel commented to no one in particular. "That thing is way more efficient than we would be."
Xavier dragged his pack off himself, hunted down a canteen, and swallowed a dusty mouthful of water that tasted better than anything he had ever drunk. "What now?"
"Now we wait for a bit. Once the mononoke hits something resembling a nervous system, we'll see if Sedgewick can get our new mount moving in the right direction."
Judging by the sun, it ended up taking a good couple hours for Princess to worm her way sufficiently far into the oumukade for Sedgewick to be able to do…whatever it was he needed to do. Xavier spent the time trying and mostly failing to rest.
Eventually, though, Rachel forced herself back up, dragged her way over to the hole that Princess had dug, and began doing something with nima that Xavier had no good way to track. Soon after, the movement of the giant centipede, which had grown more and more erratic since they'd climbed it, began to pick up again. Its legs really did move slowly—Xavier counted and it took about three to five seconds for any given leg to travel through the air before hitting the grown again—but the monster was so huge that it covered ground fast. The sun hadn't quite made it to the horizon when Rachel sat back on her heels, heaved a sigh, and looked to Xavier. "We're here, Xavier. You ready to go home?"
"What, already? I thought we were days away from the Deadlands!"
"Yeah, if we were moving at our own speed. This thing is quite a bit faster."
"Okay, so what happens now?"
"First off, I need to wait for your mononoke to make its way back out." Rachel patted the rock near the whole where she'd been crouched for the past several hours. "Once it's free, Sedgewick and I will start tearing this thing apart. That big an influx of nima is going to kick up a real storm, so stay close to me, alright? When we get down to the desert, we should be pretty close to where we need to be, but we might need to run for the exact spot. Once we're there, Sedgewick and I will start the shaping that should tear a hole for you and me to go back to our reality, but we're going to need you to pull the nima away and keep it turning."
Rachel gestured, making a circular motion in front of her with both hands like she was trying to mimic a hurricane. "Sedgewick is pretty sure this will fail unless you can keep the nima flow around us steady, because too much all at once will destabilize the pattern."
"What are you even talking about?"
"Basically, I need you to stand near me and pull off as much nima as you can so that it curves around me rather than moving to me. But don't try to absorb it, alright! Let it go once you've got it moving past, and it should go around us in a circle on its own."
"Don't worry, you've got this. You were doing something similar back when I met you in the Sundlin camp. If you didn't have the skill Sedgewick would have been training you instead of devoting so much of his attention to your mononoke."
"Glad at least one of us is confident," muttered Xavier.
A vine slapped down on the rock near Rachel's hand, and Princess dragged herself free of the hole.
"Oh, good, we can get started," said Rachel.
The mononoke moved sluggishly over to Xavier, who scooped her up out of habit as Rachel began making big scooping motions at the hole she'd come out of. Xavier couldn't quite tell what she was doing until nima suddenly blasted out of the centipede and shot up into the air.
He felt a now-familiar vine settle into place against his head.
"Well, Xavier, I think this is it," said Princess. "I heard a bit of what the world snake is planning, and I need to go to ground. If that crazy friend of yours actually succeeds in destabilizing this kami into a nima storm there's no way I'd survive on the surface."
"Oh. Uh. Right."
Princess crawled up his front, gripping the sides of his head with two vines and placing her flower right in front of his face. "Good-bye, Xavier. Thank you for giving me my self back. If the world snake fails you, I'll find you. "
"Thanks, Princess. Be safe."
She touched her flower lightly to his face, and then swung down to the back of the oumukade and boiled over the edge and out of sight in a mass of vines. Xavier watched until she was out of sight over the edge of the nearest leg.
Rachel carved her way through the back of the oumukade, and around them the nima storm built steadily in fury to the point where Xavier was barely able to keep himself up. At long last, Rachel reached down with both hands and made a giant flinging motion toward the sky. Cracks shattered outward in all directions and nima poured forth in a torrent.
Xavier had no memory of how they made it down. There was the sensation of falling, the feeling of Rachel's grip on his arm, the impact when the body of the oumukade hit the desert, and the pain of landing after being thrown across its rocky back. They must have scrambled down, or perhaps Rachel just carved her way through. There was so much nima in the air that he was having a hard time tracking.
The next thing that really made sense to him was Rachel leaning into his face and screaming at the top of her lungs. "This is it, Xavier! Keep the nima circling!"
He could barely hear her.
And Rachel—or maybe Sedgewick, the world snake—began. Xavier could barely track what exactly the two of them were doing, but nima came flying at them from every direction with much more violence than it had before. Xavier reached out desperately and pulled, and instead of colliding with Rachel, the bulk of the nima curved toward him. In sudden panic he let it go, dropping to the ground as it whistled over his head.
"Don't stop!" screamed Rachel, so he scrambled to his feet and did it again. And again. And again.
As she worked, Xavier began to believe that he could see a shape in the nima behind her, like a snake's head growing steadily larger, but he couldn't focus on it. Whatever she was building appeared to be a sort of lattice of nima that stretched about his own height and double his width.
For an interminable amount of time Rachel built and Xavier frantically pulled, until all at once everything seemed to pause.
Farewell, little hungry ones Xavier thought he heard, and then Rachel was grabbing his arm and shoving him into the space where she'd been working a moment before as nima came cascading toward them from all directions in much greater quantities than before. It hit so hard and fast that Rachel stumbled for just a second and a gust lifted her feet off the ground. Time seemed to slow, her eyes widening, and as she released his arm, Xavier screamed "Rachel!", stretched his awareness of nima to his utmost and ripped it savagely towards him.
Rachel violently collided with him, smack dead in the center of her nima working, which flared incandescent as nima poured into it from all over the Deadlands.
There was a soundless implosion, and the air instantly stilled. Midway across the Deadlands, what remained of the corpse of a giant centipede collapsed in on itself, rock and legs sloughing off as the head gradually shifted, growing more and more to resemble a giant snake. Elsewhere, a small shower of sand plumed into the air as green vines pulled what appeared to be a small flower to the surface, which shook itself and began gamely trekking towards the center.
Otherwise, the sand lay empty and still, with no sign that any humans had ever sullied its surface. And the narrative stopped.