As soon as Anya had registered what the projectiles were, she heard a scuttling noise behind her. It was the rapid tap-tapping she had heard hundreds of times in or around her apartment: the quick, scurrying, tiny tipped feet of cockroaches. She didn’t sense any additional heat sources around her, but the sound was enough to tell her that something was closing fast.

She spun on her armored boot and her stomach twisted in disgust at the thing that crawled out from under a fallen dining table. It was the size of a corgi, already several times larger than the egg would have allowed, and it was still growing as Anya stared. It had the slick, chitinous brownish exoskeleton of a roach, and the head of a malformed human infant. It opened its eyes to reveal black, segmented surfaces, and a mewling mouth lined with needle-sharp teeth that drooled a clear viscous fluid. It had stubby centipede legs that clattered on the wet tile floor, and the arching tail of a scorpion. It was something from a nightmare.

And there were at least a dozen of them in the store right now.

“Guuuuulll,” the creature cooed and rushed at Anya. It was now the size of a pitbull, but it seemed to have stopped growing there. It was still much too big for Anya’s liking and she blasted it with a surge of flame and force that materialized out of the air in front of her on raw instinct.

The nightmarish fridge-spawn shrieked as it was consumed in an instant, exploded, and reduced to ashes. Anya let out a sigh, relieved it was so easy, and then grunted as something slammed into her from behind. The fridge had rushed her while she had been distracted by the spawn and slammed into her with the force of a freight train. Anya cried out and was flung across the store and through a far wall.

She crashed through the concrete wall and landed with a heavy thud on the ground of a storage area. She couldn’t feel her legs, couldn’t feel anything below her abdomen, and had the horrible realization that her back had been broken. How hard had that damn fridge hit her, that it went through her armor, her kinetic absorption, and still had enough left over to knock her through a wall and break her spine?

The paralyzation only lasted a few moments as her regeneration kicked in and knit her vertebrae back together. She grunted as her back popped and a flood of pins and needles tingled along her legs. She jumped to her feet and then fell back again as another one of those fetal-headed monstrosities scuttled through the hole she had just made. It spat the clear liquid at her foot and the substance hardened at once and stuck her to the floor.

Anya swore at the grotesque thing and sliced it in two with her glaive. It split open, spilling its putrid, pale guts onto the ground with a bubbling hiss. A cloud of thick green smoke rose up from its guts, spilling out of a balloon-like organ near its center. Anya recalled what Gary had said about the mailbox poisoning the other two hosts with some kind of gas and held her breath. She tried to back away, but the glue-like substance on her boot held her fast. She yanked her leg up with all her might and tore out a piece of the concrete floor as she managed to jump back. Two more of the vile fridge-spawn appeared through the hole just as she backed away and scuttled around their fallen kin.

“Fuck off!” Anya snarled and ignited the air around the two creatures at once. They squealed and then exploded, and Anya saw that the green gas wafting up from the bisected fridge-spawn caught and ignited in a tiny noxious burst.

Anya broke the concrete off her boot and then leapt back through the hole and into the store. Samaira had been pushed back, forced to focus on almost a dozen of the hellish fridge-spawn as they closed on her. She fired an arrow away from the alien and its spawn and when it had soared across the store, she vanished just as the spawn leaped at her and reappeared at the arrow’s location. The spawn regrouped and rushed at her again without missing a beat.

Chandrali had one of her paws stuck to a sofa cushion and was awkwardly swiping at any approaching spawn with her other paw while trying to defend Samaira. Both of them had to avoid the fridge as it either rushed at them or took lightning fast strikes with its tentacles.

Anya had a horrible vision of Samaira getting stuck to the floor, and the fridge running her down and smearing her across the floor. She couldn’t let her die like Carl or the cops. She wouldn’t.

Anya forced a burst of heat and flame out the bottom of her feet along with a nudge of flight power and soared across the length of the store like a rocket. She swung her feet around and kicked the fridge in the back as hard as she could and unleashed another explosive burst through her feet. The boom was tremendous, and sent the fridge flying across the store, away from Samaira and over the side of a guardrail around an escalator. The fridge squealed in shock and fury as it plummeted down to the floor below and landed with a deafening bang.

Samaira knocked another arrow and released it, and the single glowing blue lance split into several smaller projectiles. Each one homed in on the fridge-spawn and impaled them before exploding. Chandrali backed away from the poisonous gas that emerged from their bodies as she shredded the sofa cushion off her paw as best she could. Anya ignited the various deadly green clouds with a single spark of heat, and a dozen tiny explosions boomed to life before fading harmlessly into smoke.

“You okay?” Anya called out. Samaira fired one of those healing arrows at Chandrali, and threads of blue light emerged from the sapphire on her tiara and wove around cuts and bruises Samaira had acquired until they healed.

“I’m fine now, I just needed a second away from that fridge. Thank you,” she said. There was angry banging below them and a screech followed by the sound of the fridge launching more of those horrible eggs. There were cracks and then the hiss of water as it snapped off more overhead sprinklers and Anya cursed.

Its armor was vulnerable to heat, and it looked like its insides were vulnerable to everything. Between the electric plug, the spawn, and its speed and ramming power, Anya had no idea how she would be able to force the doors open long enough for Samaira to get a clear shot with one or all of them being overwhelmed or countered.

There was the inevitable SWAT team to consider too. There was no way they or anybody else outside hadn’t heard the number of explosions and crashing from outside. Anya grit her teeth and tightened her grip on her glaive.

“My arrows can’t get through its armor, and neither can Chandrali’s claws. I can take care of the little monsters though, and Chandrali can run interference or act as a decoy,” Samaira said.

“I’ll get its doors open. Don’t kill all the spawn though. Leave me one,” Anya replied.

“Okay?” Samaira cocked an eyebrow at her, but nodded.

“Don’t die,” Anya said as she vaulted over the side of the railing and plunged to the floor below. The sprinklers were in full force and had already soaked the entire floor. Anya thought about ordering some kind of item from the RAC store that would seal the sprinklers, but if she did that the fridge could just knock open the water pipes themselves. It would take too much time to go find the water valve itself and leave Samaira alone with it. If Gary’s robots were up they might be able to but…

Anya refocused and took in the seventh floor of the department store at a glance. There were racks of dresses and other women’s clothing, nothing that would conceal the fridge, but plenty that would hide the spawn. The fridge was out in the open, straight ahead of Anya, and she took another explosive flying leap at it head-on.

She was ready for the ambush, expected it as soon as she saw the fridge standing in the open as if taunting her. The fetal, insectile spawn jumped at her from both sides of the aisle. She caused one to explode in mid-air with little more than a thought and a pulse from her Sun’s Heart, and caught the other one by the neck.

She slammed into the fridge, knocked it back, then flipped behind it and clung to the top as she had before. The fridge-spawn hissed at her and she grinned as it slobbered some of that sticky goop onto her hand. In a second, she tossed it away, ignited the creature, and slapped her goo-coated hand onto the top of the fridge. It stuck, and so did she.

The fridge, knowing what had happened, began to buck and twirl as it prodded her with its plug and shocked her. Anya screamed as the electricity bolted through her, but she stayed on the fridge, the goop holding her fast. She felt her shoulder pop out of socket, but her regeneration put it right back in.

Anya was only just aware of Samaira firing more magical arrows at a small horde of fridge-spawn and Chandrali leaping nimbly between racks. The big cat got close enough to latch her jaws around the fridge handle and started to tug it open. The fridge spun and tried to ram into the cat, but she was too nimble. The fridge was almost blindingly fast, but only in straight lines.It wasn’t dexterous enough to follow the cat’s dodges.

It gave up on shocking Anya and lashed its plug tail out at Chandrali. Anya took the precious second the cat had given her and swept her glaive to the side and aimed for the base of the plug at the rear of the fridge. The plug was armored, but not nearly as much as the fridge itself. Her weapon cut through the thick cord with a single powerful swing and went flying off behind a rack of pantsuits spitting sparks.

The fridge howled and flipped upside down, pinning Anya between it and the floor. It made several quick, brutal hops and crushed Anya beneath it. Anya cursed at the hateful home appliance and turned her swear into a blast of fiery and explosive force from her mouth.

The fridge flew up into the ceiling and Anya pulled on it with her stuck hand so it arced down and slammed hard into the floor with a crack that split the tile and concrete in two. Chandrali pounced on it, her jaws around its handle once more as she tried to force the door open.

The fridge squealed and thrashed, not daring to attack with its tentacles anymore for fear of Chandrali or Anya taking the advantage and forcing its door further open. Anya slammed the tip of her glaive into the tiny opening between the fridge and the door and roared with effort as she began to force it open. Chandrali snarled and helped her force the door open a precious few centimeters.

“Just a little more!” Samaira said as she killed the last of the fridge spawn and readied a magical arrow bigger than she was.

The fridge howled and then flung open its right door, the one that had been closed during their entire fight. The sudden movement unbalanced Anya and caused her glaive to slip to one side. Chandrali was knocked away, and Anya had a brief glimpse of blinding white light from within the fridge’s right side.

A torrent of electrical energy spilled out in glowing tendrils thicker than Anya’s torso. Anya screamed, and she heard Samaira cry out as well as the deadly energy coursed around and through her body. Her brain registered pain and nothing else. No thoughts, no strategies, no fear, just white hot agony as every one of her nerves was lit up and fried down to the root.

A metallic clicking echoed on the escalator behind her. Anya was certain they had killed all of the spawn upstairs before coming down, but it didn’t matter. She heard even more eggs coming out of the fridge’s right side with the hateful electrical torrent that was cooking her alive from the inside out.

Except it didn’t seem as bad as it had a second before. She could think again, could focus on that metallic clicking sound.

A tripod walked down the escalator, a single metallic pole wrapped in copper wire and other elements jutting up from its center. Its three spindly legs hurried down the escalator and the thick bolts of electrical energy were drawn to it, absorbed by it.

A pack of Gary’s robots followed it, each of them running around the electricity-sucking tripod. There was a thumping noise and another pulse and the robots, except the tripod, fell to the ground. The tripod redirected the crackling energy within it, and jolted its mechanical brethren back to life.

The robots deployed spinning machine guns, lasers, and micro-missiles from compartments at their sides and fired upon the rapidly growing fridge-spawn.

“Sorry for the delay!” Gary’s voice issued from a speaker on the tripod. “Had to whip something up after that EMP. Are you all okay?”

“Ugh,” Anya said and then yelped as the fridge spun away and dragged her with it. Chandrali struggled to stand, but Anya couldn’t see Samaira. Anya pulled back on the fridge with her gooey-hand and forced it to rear back. Every tendon and muscle fiber in her arm and shoulder stretched and popped. Anya dug her feet into the tile and concrete of the floor and left trenches behind her as the fridge struggled to run from the renewed onslaught of machines.
“Get the doors open!” Anya shouted and hoped Gary could hear. “It’s weak inside!”

“On it!” Gary replied and three of the robots converged on the fridge. One of them shot metallic cables at the fridge and they wrapped around its handle. The fridge twisted as best it could, but Anya snarled at it as she held it in place. The water from the sprinklers made its metal hide slick, but the spawn’s goo held her other hand fast, and her strength and that alien martial-art she had learned helped her keep her grip.

Gary’s robot deployed some kind of anchors to bolt it to the floor, while the other two scrambled onto the fridge itself and tried to pry the door open. The store was filled with the fridge’s panicked squealing, the rattle and boom of guns and lasers and missiles, and the inhuman gurgling of the spawn. One of Gary’s robots exploded behind a rack, another was swarmed by half a dozen spawn.

God how many are there? Anya thought. They could be crawling over Samaira and Chandrali right now, and if they take out that tripod, Gary’s other robots would be as good as scrap, and then it would just be Anya.

Do or die, Anya thought and took out her remaining Hellfire Jelly grenade.

She didn’t need to get the door all the way open. Just a little. Just for a second. She really hoped the alien didn’t understand English.

“Gary, on three, I need you to get all your robot buddies to help me get the door open, got it?” Anya shouted.

“I’ve got a few protecting Samaira. She’s unconscious. Another pair are guarding the tripod. If it goes down——” Gary replied.

“Keep Samaira safe, but send the others to me. I only need a second!” Anya said.

“I’m trusting you,” Gary said, and another two robots rushed forward and began to yank at the door with claws and cables. The tripod remained mobile, darting away from the spawn as they converged on it, zapping them when they got too close. It was a losing battle though, and Anya grimaced as one of the Spawn slashed one of the tripod’s legs off with its tail.

The fridge hummed in anticipation, readying another EMP that would trash the small squad of robots.

“C’mon!” Anya demanded and pried at the door.

It started to give, cracked open a fraction of an inch.

A beam of blue light shot out from behind a rack of coats, struck the handle, and wrapped around it like an incandescent rope. Samaira had propped herself up on one knee, panting and on the verge of collapse. Chandrali crouched nearby with a remaining robot and kept the spawn away from her while that shimmering translucent shoulder cape of hers shielded her. Samaira grimaced and cried out as she pulled hard on the cord of light and managed to open the fridge’s door a little more.

It was enough.

Anya yanked the pin out of the Hellfire grenade with her teeth and threw it into the fridge.

“Let go!” she shouted and then shoved her glaive through the handles of the fridge so it couldn’t open them again.
The spawn dismantled the tripod, the fridge pulsed as it released its EMP, and Gary’s robots fell to the ground.

The fridge mewled in rage.

“Too late,” Anya said as her glaive held the doors shut despite the fridge’s desperate attempts to throw them open. There was a thud from within, a hiss, and then the Fridge went mad as its insides were coated in liquid fire. Steam rose out of it, and it thrashed in impotent fury and pain. Anya shouted as it threw her around, crushed her against the floor, the wall, and then collapsed.

Dozens of agonized squeals echoed around the store as the fridge spawn spasmed and died and went limp. Anya waited a full thirty seconds, and only took her glaive back when she saw viscous melted gore and cooked flesh leaking out of the fridge. She heated the hand on top of the fridge until the goo was liquid enough to free her from the lifeless appliance.

“Felix? Is it dead?” Anya asked.

“It sure is! Super-duper dead! Way to go! It also emitted another data stream like the one in the park and I’m sorting through it right now.” Felix replied.

“Thank god for that. Samaira?” Anya called out.

“H-here,” a weak voice replied. Anya sighed with relief and hurried over to the voice’s source. Samaira sat with her back to a wall near the changing rooms. Threads of blue light spun out of her tiara and knit around her arms, legs, torso, all over. They were healing her again, and Chandrali too. The cat had returned to its smaller size, and was motionless in Samaira’s lap.

“Is she—?” Anya asked and pointed at the cat.

“Passed out. She got some of the green gas in her mouth, but she’ll be okay,” Samaira said. “So will I, I just need a second. Lot of magic to process during that fight.”

Anya nodded. She could do with a recharge, but now that the fight was done, she could stand to save her Star’s Breath for later. She allowed herself a smile. The mall had been evacuated safely, and neither Samaira nor her cat had died. Gary was still safe in the parking garage, and the only casualties had been his robots.

And the fridge alien.

“It adapted,” Samaira said as she looked past Anya. “It got stronger, changed itself to fight me and Gary specifically. If you hadn’t been here…”

The woman’s voice trailed off and she shook her head as she stroked her cat. Some of the sparkling nighttime radiance had dimmed from Samaira’s hair, and the water from the sprinklers had flattened it against her scalp.

“Even though that thing wasn’t tailored against me, I still couldn’t have taken it out alone,” Anya said. “I owe you, and Gary, and Chandrali.”

“Same goes,” Samaira said and smiled up at Anya. She extended her white-gloved hand and Anya took it and helped her to her feet.

A bang from outside the store and several floors down drew their attention. Boots stomped and echoed across the floor of the mall’s entrance far below, along with shouts identifying the newcomers as the Chicago PD.

“We gotta go,” Anya said. “I’d rather not deal with the police right now.”

“Same,” Samaira said and winced as she limped toward the escalator.

“Lean on me,” Anya said and offered her broad shoulder to the other woman. She rested against her and the two hurried as best they could up and out the way they had come.

A spotlight shone on them as they emerged onto the roof and Anya thought it might be a police helicopter at first, except there was no whir of blades.

“Sorry!” Gary said and the light moved aside. He sat inside his F-150, a huge cannon braced against his shoulder and the window of the truck. He pressed a button on the side and the cannon collapsed into a tall metallic mug he put in the cupholder under the dash. “You both okay?”

“We’re alive, all fingers and toes,” Anya said and helped Samaira into the truck. She cradled her cat and leaned back in the seat as soon as she was in, and Anya got in beside her and closed the door.

“I saw the cops moving in, and it looks like a chopper isn’t too far off. Where’d you park that invisible car of yours?” Gary asked. He flicked a number of switches around the steering wheel that definitely weren’t standard for a Ford, and then turned the ignition. There was a humming rumble of an engine, the loud clank of machinery moving positions, and then the F-150 rose into the air.

“Felix, show him on the map,” Anya said as she leaned back. Her menu’s map popped up in front of her, and Felix had marked the position of the V-187 with a glowing orange dot. Just as he did and Gary turned his flying truck away from the Water Tower Place, Anya’s ear beeped.

“Incoming message from Pan,” Felix said.

“Pan?” Anya asked and a video showing the shy creature appeared before her. His twitching snout was very close to his menu’s “camera,” and his black eyes were wide with distress.

“Tall friend?” Pan asked.

“Are you okay?” Anya asked.

“Ants need to come out and the wall won’t open,” Pan said.

“What?” Gary asked her and raised an eyebrow.

Anya snorted and replied, “He has to take a shit and he’s trapped in my ride.”

Samaira looked at her with narrowed eyes, then broke into a grin and laughed.

“We’re on our way Pan, hold it for a little bit,” Anya said. Gary shook his head and steered them toward the V-187 and the desperate pangolin inside.

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