Chapter 45

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Instead of a smoking ruin, Joanna could see only bewildered but otherwise unafraid civilians milling around the small town gawking at the three crazed women wielding swords that had sprinted over the hillside. "There... everything looks fine," she gasped out between forced breaths. "Those things must have disappeared somewhere else."

"Or they're waiting for something. Either way, it's probably a bad idea to walk around brandishing these things like we're going to kill everyone," Sophia said. She sheathed her sword and kept her empty hands out where everyone could see them. Joanna and Charlotte followed her lead.

The town was three blocks wide at its widest, with its most noteworthy landmark a three story general store with cracked red paint. Though they had just been holding weapons moments before, seemingly no one paid the trio much mind once they had sheathed them and walked calmly toward the dusty streets below.

"Towns this small, every other woman owns a gun, sword, spear, or something to hunt and defend themselves with," Sophia explained. "We're just three more random nobodies with weapons."

"Remind me never to move this far out into the colonies," Joanna muttered.

"You'd be surprised how safe these towns are though," Charlotte said. "Keep every citizen armed and only the dumbest morons try committing crimes. At best they become an entertaining sideshow on the news."

"I guess," Joanna said.

"That and the Colonies would have revolted if my Grandmother didn't give them certain concessions like freedom to remain armed," Charlotte added.

A ground rumbling quake, unmistakably from artillery fire, shook the entire town just as the trio had caught their breaths. They all exchanged nervous glances. The townspeople, though clearly afraid, shuffled off in a quiet and orderly manner toward various buildings scattered around town. Most likely, the structures they were crawling into had underground bunkers and shelters.

"Shit," Sophia muttered. She, Charlotte, and Joanna were once again jumping and running as fast as they could toward the source of the noise.

Instead of an organized Dannic armored division awaiting them on the arid grassland, the three women saw a scattered mess of a dozen tanks all pointed in different directions with panicking soldiers flailing their limbs like drowning monkeys. With the glare of the midday sun, it took Joanna a while before she could see just why.

The nearly transparent prismatic monsters from the temple were jumping between the terrified soldiers, digging their glass like hands into their chests and ripping out dismembered viscera with virtually no effort. Those few soldiers that had fled or taken cover were firing on the creatures with every gun they could get their hands on. The bullets lodged themselves to varying depths in their bodies but fell out with no lasting effects. Even the occasional rounds which hit their bright glowing hearts bounced off harmlessly.

The battle, really more a one sided massacre, was over within minutes of the three stumbling upon the scene. Joanna reached for her sword but Sophia intercepted her arm.

"Wait," she said. "Don't draw your weapon. Not yet." With empty hands outstretched to her sides, Sophia took a step toward the masses of translucent creatures.

Joanna turned to Charlotte, who seemed to share her confusion.

Before either of them could exchange a word, the creatures had converged on Sophia's position. However, they all walked around her as if she were a tall boulder to avoid. Still bewildered but somewhat encouraged, Joanna took a step forward along with Charlotte. The creatures ignored them too. Soon they had scattered like a roaming herd of grazing animals, leaving the three women alone with a military camp full of dead Dannic soldiers.

"I guess they only attack when they're threatened first?" Joanna said, thinking back to her very first encounter with the creatures.

"I don't think so. Look, those things just killed everyone here indiscriminately," Sophia said. She was pointing to a pile of dead women clutching first aid kits. All of them had medic insignias on their tattered uniforms.

"Not to mention, they left the town behind us unharmed," Charlotte said. "I'm sure there had to have been at least one jumpy civilian with a gun or sword when those things passed by."

"None of those guns or swords have any runesteel in them," Joanna said. She faced her two friends. "Let's see if any of these soldiers had runesteel bullets."

Rummaging through dead bodies was nothing new. Joanna should have long acclimated to the site of blood and dismembered limbs by now. And yet there was something uniquely grotesque about the massacre before her that made her feel like a nauseous new recruit. Nearly every corpse she found had at least some part of it flayed open so wide she could see bits of white bone sticking out. Crumpled masses of internal organs heaped on top of bloodied faces left Joanna feeling chilled, even as the summer sun bore down on her. "This wasn't just a battle. It's like they went out of their way to inflict pain," she said.

"Well you can't expect non-human beasts to follow the same rules as us," Sophia said. "I don't know. Did you find any runesteel? Looks like this was just a regular battalion with lead and incendiary ammo."

"They never stood a chance," Charlotte said. "And even if they were Special Forces, a lot of them would have gone for the head and died anyway."

Joanna furrowed her eyebrows. "Still. You'd think with that stunt Sophia pulled at least some of the people here would have survived."

"The difference is none of them were pure-blooded Angleyans." Sophia held a glowing white flame in her hands. "Those Priestesses always were a pack of xenophobic bitches."

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