“Alright, sweet thing,” Maggie said, resting her hand on the copper plate. “Just talk to me, and we’ll get you all better.”
The towering engine didn’t say anything in reply. They never did, not with words, but sometimes Maggie would swear that she could hear the metal sing.
Today, all she got was a quiet grumble.
Maggie shook her head. “Don’t be stubborn. This is for your own good.”
The machine was huge. Eight feet tall and twice as long, bristling with copper coils and runes. When it ran, it could hold a fifty-seat passenger car in the air or accelerate it down a subway tunnel at great speed, handling two kilometers of subterranean tunnels. It was the sort of technology that humans had been struggling to develop for decades. Her people, with a bit of magic, had perfected it a century ago.
It had stopped running, and since public transit through this part of the tunnel was unable to run without it, Maggie was getting paid top dollar to diagnose its problem and fix the damage.
A cool breeze wafted up the tunnel, and the engine shuddered slightly, its many metals contracting.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that. You’re too young for joint pains. What are you, five years old? Ten?”
The metal still glimmered as she looked it up and down. The only iron in the whole construction, a polished flat plate on top to conduct the magnetic lift, looked almost brand new. Given that, it was probably a construction error, some fault by the engineer who’d installed it, leading to undue stress and wear on its internals.
So, Maggie walked back to her truck, where her complete set of tools were waiting to deal with any issue she might face. She’d been able to drive right down into the subway from a maintenance entrance half a kilometer up the tunnel, which was a blessing – it meant she didn’t have to schlep her hundreds of pounds of gear down by hand. Plus, she could use the light rack on her truck instead of setting up a dozen work lights, at least to get started.
Sifting through options, she picked up her flashlight and a thirty-inch crescent wrench. It was steel, but her heavy-duty leather gloves ensured that she wouldn’t break out at the touch. There were non-ferrous tools that were strong enough for the job, but with proper PPE, Maggie never had an issue with iron.
Her tools selected, she put the flashlight in her pocket and walked back to the engine, getting to work on the access panel so she could see what was going on inside.
Maggie had to put in some real grunting and effort, putting her weight into the wrench to free each seized bolt. It was harder work than it should have been, just to get open the access panel, but that gave Maggie a theory of what was wrong. Metal warping could have a lot of causes, and it could cause a lot of malfunctions, from overtight bolts to loose valves to completely nonfunctioning engines.
“Now, let’s see what secrets you’re keeping,” Maggie said as the fourth bolt came free. She set down her wrench, pulled the access plate free, and took out her flashlight to peek inside. The light was magic powered, and with a hint of effort and a word, she brought out a bright point of light.
The inside was torn apart. It looked like a rat had gotten inside and chewed everything up to make a nest, except that rats generally chewed up old linens, not hardened metal gears and conductors.
“What on earth happened to you?” she asked, looking up at the engine with concern. This couldn’t have happened by accident, the engine’s contents were absolutely shredded.
Raising her light, she looked in more carefully, and from deep within, she saw two little red points. An indicator light, perhaps, except… indicator lights didn’t have blinking eyelids.
Pest damage, Maggie realized. A shamworm, maybe, though it’d have to be a particularly big one. Whatever it was, it’d taken up a nest inside the engine, and she’d need to coax it out.
“Hey, there, little guy,” she said, willing the light from her flashlight to get brighter so she could get a better look at it. “What are… you…”
It wasn’t a shamworm. Shamworms didn’t have armored plates of chitin, they didn’t have claws, and they couldn’t scream.
The thing, whatever it was, screamed. Then it lunged, out of the engine and straight towards her face.
Maggie ducked to the side of the access panel before it could take her head off. She dropped her flashlight, spinning to face the thing.
It was cast in silhouette in front of her truck, visible only as a dark outline the size of a wolf, chittering and yowling angrily. Its glowing red eyes were narrowly placed, giving it an almost comical grimace on its oversized body.
Maggie bent her knees, slightly, feeling for-
The creature lunged at her again, and she seized her wrench from off the ground, swing all thirty inches of high carbon steel at its head. The beast had a lot of momentum, but her impact knocked it out of the air mid-leap with force that reverberated up the heavy steel tool, through her gloves, and into her joints.
It didn’t even seem fazed, and as Maggie recovered from the shock of the attack, it came at her again. She raised the tool in a defensive gesture, putting the steel between her and the thing’s gnashing teeth.
It bit at the wrench, ripping it out of her hands and knocking her back into the engine. Hitting the ground on all fours, it shook the tool like a dog with a bone, bit down, and broke it in half with one good chomp.
Maggie decided, then, not to let the creature bite her.
She bolted to her truck. The keys were already in the ignition, half turned while she kept the lights on, so she grabbed them and twisted, revving the engine to life.
A chitinous claw slammed through the ceiling. The first creature was visible in front of her, stalking towards the truck, which meant…
There’s two of them.
Heart racing, Maggie slammed the truck into drive, hit the gas, and accelerated as fast as she could.
Two impacts. First, a solid whump as the front of her truck slammed into the creature. Then, a loud, crunchy WHAM! When the truck and creature both hit the solid metal engine that it had been nesting in.
Her truck had an aluminum frame and was fairly lightweight, but it was still solid and carried plenty of mass, and it was going nearly thirty miles an hour when she crashed, wrapping the front of the truck around the first creature and flinging the second from her roof.
A second too late, the car alarm began to wail, and the airbag kicked in. Maggie flipped out her pocketknife, slashing the inflated bag and shoving it out of the way so she could get free of the truck and see what was going on.
The creature she’d hit was pinned. It didn’t seem injured in the slightest, and was more annoyed at being stuck.
What does it take to kill these things?
The other one pounced, not at Maggie, but onto the hood of her truck, claws ripping to free its friend. Like the thing’s teeth, its claws shredded steel like tissue.
Head ringing, Maggie ran.
The creatures pursued.
Deep in the tunnel, every sound was amplified by echoes, coming from all directions. Her hearing was acute, but with all the noise coming at her—the scraping, the chittering, the wail of the alarm—she couldn’t tell how close they were behind her.
She stole a look back. They were thirty feet behind, but gaining. She put on the speed and stopped looking back.
The maintenance entrance was barely in view up ahead, lights peeking through the open service gate on the left of the tunnel. If Maggie could make it through, close it behind her, and…
Will it even stop them? Those claws…
She could see the light up ahead, peering through the open service gate that she’d driven through not half an hour ago. She was closing on it, but her speed was capped by the limits of muscle and bone.
It seemed that her pursuers didn’t have those limits. When she stole a glance over her shoulder, she could see the red eyes coming closer, too close.
She wasn’t going to escape. Fighting the creatures seemed like a fool’s errand, but they seemed to only have animal intelligence. Maybe, just maybe, she could scare them off.
Legs still pumping away, she considered her options. First, she still had her knife, a trusty tool she never went anywhere without. Second, she had her flashlight, which was really a handle with a crystal and a simple glowing charm. Third, she had…
Is that really it?
It was just those two things, and she scolded herself for not bringing along any real self-defense tools. She’d left herself without much to work with.
Fumbling in her pocket, she got out the flashlight. Thanks to its magical properties, it could shine either like a spotlight or a lamp with equal illumination, and as she flicked her wrist, she called up as bright a werelight as she could, raising it up like an Olympic torch carrier.
The shrieking got louder, and she looked back again to see both of the creatures following behind her, emotions inscrutable on their alien faces.
They were fifteen feet away, running on all fours like horses at a full gallop. She could see their bodies, now, armored in chalky white plate from tip to toe, like soldiers. The only way that these beings could be this fast with chitin that hard is if they were errekin. Magic was reinforcing their muscles, or the bony plates that protected them.
Maggie hoped it was the plates. If the chitin really was just stone-hard, she couldn’t do much about it.
Either way, she had about two seconds before they caught up to her, so she had to act fast.
Pulling the knife from its pocket on her belt, Maggie flipped out the four-inch blade from its handle. Thus armed, she dropped the light from her hand, skidded to a stop, and fell into a solid horse stance.
The creature on the left had visible scrape marks on its chitin from her truck, and either it was more aggressive because she’d hurt it, or maybe it just got a head start on its buddy. Either way, it lunged first, leading with its mouthful of razor teeth, confident that the small knife wouldn’t be able to pierce its armor.
It was wrong.
Maggie had forged the knife herself, decades ago, when she was still learning the art of metalworking. It wasn’t her finest steel, but it was made from starmetal and imbued under the light of a solstice moon. What it lacked in size and refinement, it made up for in the ability to pierce magic like tissue.
She shifted her grip, bracing her body and holding out the blade. She didn’t need to stab, she just needed to absorb the shock of the blow and let the creature do the rest. The blade caught it just above where the heart would be on a normal animal, and all its momentum and weight were enough to crack its chitin chest plate in half.
Its teeth made it to only a few inches from her throat before her hand hit the creature’s chest and her low, braced position won out. Her hand smarted with pain similar to that of punching a stone wall, and she thanked her stars that she was wearing gloves.
Maggie had been wrong before. Up until now, the creatures hadn’t been screaming. This was a scream, the kind that made her pointed ears ring in pain, until the blade caught something vital and the creature suddenly stopped making noise.
Her knife was buried halfway up the handle, and she couldn’t yank it free in time to duck the second creature’s attack. Maggie dropped and rolled, mind racing to come up with a plan as it skittered to a stop and whirled to face her.
Even one on one, she couldn’t fight this thing, not without a weapon. Even if she had her knife, the second one wouldn’t just throw itself on her blade.
In the full light, she could see its razor-sharp claws were only a few inches long. It didn’t have inhuman reach, at least. And, though it was fast, it wasn’t pixie quick, darting to and fro quicker than the naked eye could see.
She glanced back at the gate. Maybe-
She almost missed the creature charging at her, and if she hadn’t dodged to the side to put the first one’s body between her and its friend, it would have bowled her down in an instant. Instead, it skidded to a stop, avoiding touching the pooling dark ichor that was spilling out of the other creature.
It panted for a moment, red eyes darting between Maggie and the fallen monster.
Good news. Panting meant that it needed to breathe.
Bad news. Maggie was never much of a wrestler.
It beats pushing up daisies.
She put herself in a fighting stance, waiting.
The creature eyed her, wary of another trick, like the knife. It had a certain level of cunning. That was good. If it were ruled purely by baser instincts, she couldn’t pretend to have another knife up her sleeve, or something similar.
Still, once it came at her, she was going to have to choke out something that was faster than her, stronger than her, and armed with as many knives as it had fingers and teeth. It didn’t look like a winning prospect.
One other option.
“Do you understand me?” she asked.
It tilted its head. No English, but… it recognized speech. Maybe it didn’t understand language, and was reacting like a dog hearing familiar words without understanding the base meaning. But maybe…
She tried again, slipping into the old tongue. “Do you understand me?”
It tilted its head the other way, curious. Then, deciding that the sounds Maggie made were unimportant and she was no longer scary without the steel in her hand, it lowered its body and got ready to finish her off.
A piece of chitin on the side of its head chipped away, followed by the boom of hypersonic rifle fire. Another shot rang out, then, and another, pelting the creature with bullets that pitted the bony armor, piece by piece, exposing its flesh beneath.
Maggie turned, surprised to see a team standing in the service entrance, half a dozen of her people dressed in tactical armor and acting with military precision. She was too far away to make out precisely the weapons they were carrying, but they were clearly some variety of sniper rifle, and with six of them firing, the shots sounded almost like that of an automatic weapon.
They weren’t perfect shots, but their aim was deadly, raining down fire on the creature as it turned, running for its life as bits of ichor began spraying from nicks and cuts that made it through its chitin.
Scrambling clear of the line of fire, Maggie let the squad do their job. It made it halfway back to her truck before the shots finally overwhelmed it and the creature fell to the ground, motionless.
Ears ringing from the screeching and the hail of echoed gunfire, Maggie watched as one of the snipers set aside their gun and started jogging towards her, shouting something indistinct.
They probably wanted her to come along and get to safety. She was more than happy to comply, but first, she needed to do one thing. Walking back to the slumped body of the creature she’d killed, Maggie pushed it over and planted her work boot on its chest, tugging her knife free.
Wiping it off on her ichor-splattered shirt, she started jogging towards the exit.
This was supposed to be a simple repair job. Go in, fix the engine, pocket a check. Nobody had said anything about monsters that needed a firing squad to fend off.
Someone had a lot of explaining to do.
Chapter Two of this story is already up on Patreon, if you can’t wait to read it! I’m trying to get out a chapter a week, so if you’re patient you can read it here in a few days.