There was one bright side to being surrounded by monsters, at least that Maggie could see: If they all came to her, she wouldn’t have to hunt them down.
Yeah, keep telling yourself that, she thought. You’ll be fine.
She was standing with her back to Twig’s as the shrieks of gathering petraforms got louder. The queen, a hulking brute that would be intimidating to face all on its own, was stalking towards them, one lumbering footstep at a time.
“If we let them all swarm us, we won’t make it,” Maggie said, adjusting her grip on her swords. The child was still in the corner behind the upturned bleachers. The queen had turned her attention away from her for the moment, focusing instead on Maggie. But they couldn’t get the kid out of the gym until they’d made a path. They’d have to strike, fast and hard, and cut an opening before they could get swarmed. “We’ve got to get aggressive.”
Twig made a clicking sound with her tongue, a sign of acknowledgement.
“Meat or potatoes?” Maggie asked, gesturing between the petraform queen and the doorway they’d come in through, where the shrieking was getting even louder.
Twig snorted, nodding to the doorway.
“Got it.” Maggie turned and charged, meeting the first screeching vermin head-on in the opening between the gym and the hall.
With one quick slice of her blades—snicker-snack—a decapitated petraform slumped to the floor.
Three more were coming up the hall. Maggie thrust her offhand blade at the nearest, driving it back, and slashed to parry a swiping claw from reaching her unprotected face, removing a hand from its arm in the process.
The third one met Twig’s hammer, which struck with enough force to chip the chitin on its shoulder even without any magic steel to reinforce the blow.
Twig leapt at the vulnerable petraform and kept pounding it, bludgeoning it over and over so it couldn’t recover, while Maggie squared off against the other two.
The one with two hands intact seemed more aggressive, but neither were going to charge her outright and take a sword to the face. In other circumstances, Maggie would have been happy to take the reprieve, but they only had a few seconds before the queen and its minions caught up to them and she needed this part of the fight to be over by then. The fray in the doorway was already taking longer than Maggie had wanted.
So, she charged the one she’d wounded, bringing both blades down in an overhand sweep. It tried to dodge to the side, but she’d anticipated the attempt and whirled in response, catching it in the chest and collarbone, splattering ichor through the hall.
While she took it down, though, the one-handed petraform came at her back, slashing through the Kevlar and padding on her back.
It protected her, but she felt something come loose as its claws cut through both strike plates and straps, nearly making it to skin. Her armor shifted on her body as she wrenched her swords free and turned to drive a kick at the beast.
It was unnaturally sturdy. The kick pushed Maggie back as much as the monster, and she stumbled into the open gym door, raising her swords in a guard so the petraform couldn’t pounce on her.
She almost didn’t notice in her peripheral vision that two more of the monsters were coming up from behind her, rocketing forward on all fours across the gym floor, shoving each other to be the first into the fray. Maggie spun and pointed one of her swords out towards them, watching both her flanks, unable to take on one threat without leaving the other—
A powerful, but distinctly un-clawed hand grabbed Maggie by the collar of her armor and yanked her through the doorway. Twig wrapped an arm around her chest, crouched, and jumped, crossing nearly the whole length of the gym, landing on the far bleachers with enough force to dent the aluminum bench seating.
“Thanks,” Maggie said, taking a couple deep breaths while she got her bearings. Her armor was loose and didn’t seem to be belted around her torso properly anymore, but there was no time to fix it. Monsters were coming for her, and the girl was still curled up behind the ruined bleachers across from them. “We have to get that kid out of here.”
In the space of an eye blink, she surveyed the room and came up with a plan.
Three petraforms were at the door on the right that they’d just fled from, four at the far door to her left, and half a dozen were climbing out of the hole in the gym floor, taking the time to help out their companions so they could all attack in unison.
And, of course, there was still the queen in the center, snapping and snarling at them, Maggie’s spear still lodged in its back.
Why hasn’t it charged us?
It was big enough to shrug off her attacks, magical blade or no. Maggie would need to hit it somewhere particularly vulnerable to do any real damage; the throat or an eye.
The other petraforms seemed to have little in the way of self-preservation, favoring nearly pure aggression. Maggie had only seen them flee when victory was utterly hopeless.
Whatever drove the small ones, didn’t seem to hold true for the queen. It had been stung once, and wouldn’t risk it again while there were minions to spare.
Most importantly: While the bulk of the beasts were focused on Maggie and Twig, a few latecomers were preferentially favoring easy prey and stalking towards the girl.
No more time for planning. “Get her out of here!” Maggie shouted, getting Twig’s attention with a gesture of her sword.
So, you’re afraid of a fight, eh? Maggie pressed her lips into a furious grin. Let’s make sure you can’t ignore me.
Her swords weren’t designed as a ranged weapon, but she hefted her left-handed blade and threw it at the nearest cluster of monsters anyways. It dealt negligible damage, but the petraforms staggered back from the lethal steel, and Maggie seized the hesitation to charge through, her sword out to the side, barrelling towards the queen.
The other petraforms scrambled to pursue, and once Maggie was in reach, the queen swiped at her with a massive clawed foreleg. Had Maggie been trying to attack its face, she would have been repelled.
Maggie juked to the side, jumped up with her free hand extended, and seized the shaft of the spear that was still embedded in the queen’s back.
It held fast; the spear locked into the chitin it had cracked open.
With the spear as a handle, Maggie could ride the petraform queen like a bizarre windsurfing-Viking hybrid. Just for good measure, she planted her boot on the flared base of the spearhead and shoved her weight into it, driving the steel an inch deeper into the queen’s back.
If that didn’t get the monsters’ attention, nothing would.
The queen howled and bucked, but Maggie had an iron grip on the shaft and stayed upright, if a bit unstable.
All eyes were on her, and the monsters swarmed in her direction, including the ones that had been in the doorway to the hall. Twig’s path to the schoolgirl was open.
Maggie just had one objective: survive until Twig could get the girl to Vera and come back and join the fight. It wouldn’t take long, maybe thirty seconds, maybe a minute, but that could be an eternity in a fight.
Fortunately, Maggie had reach, and she had the high ground. The thrashing, bucking, screaming high ground.
A petraform lunged up at her and Maggie slashed its face, knocking it back. She spun around and kicked in time to knock another one away that was trying to climb up and face her on a level footing, whirling in time to drive a heavy thrust into the shoulder of a third.
She wasn’t fighting, she was thrashing in every direction to keep the beasts at bay.
In her peripheral vision, she saw Twig scoop up the kid and gun it for the open doorway.
Great, now I can-
One of the petraforms got wise. It struck low, and while Maggie jumped back to protect her ankles, she missed its true target. Razor claws cut through the shaft of her spear right at the head, and the handle she’d been relying on for balance was suddenly just a long stick.
Maggie tumbled backward, landing between the queen’s shoulder blades. In a moment of poorly honed instincts, she dropped her sword but held onto the useless spear shaft, clutching it like a security blanket as two petraforms jumped onto the queen’s back.
She pushed with her legs, getting traction off the queen’s layers of chitin and rolling backwards, slipping off and falling down in a heap to the gym floor. Right in front of the queen’s face.
They made a moment of startled eye contact; the queen seeming to be just as surprised as Maggie. If Maggie had kept a hold on her sword, she could have gotten in a sucker attack and cut the beast’s throat right there. Instead, she had a wooden stick.
So she poked it in the eye.
It screamed and Maggie rolled back as it slashed at her, half blind. A petraform jumped off the queen’s back and Maggie had to roll even further. All the while, the ten or so remaining little ones skittered from where they had swarmed around the back of the queen.
Maggie used her stick as support to jump to her feet. She was, once again, wanting for a weapon.
Feeling silly, she pulled her last two options off her belt. A cannister of her homebrew pepper spray, and her knife.
A petraform pounced, and she sprayed it in the eyes, momentarily blinding it, giving her a chance to duck away. Another one got in close and brought its claws down on her wrist, slashing right through the Kevlar guards she wore and drawing blood.
She dropped the pepper spray but got her revenge, stabbing the monster through the eye, jerking the blade free with a sick little shucking sound.
More of them, coming from both sides. Maggie turned to run, but an overachiever had already gotten behind her. She ducked back, spinning, looking for an out.
There wasn’t one.
Maggie was surrounded, and the situation was—
“—not hopeless at all, we just need to find a solution,” Cyrus said, leaning over his books.
“How much do we need?” Maggie asked, leaning in to peek at the notes her mentor was taking. He’d been working on the books all evening, trying to make them balance.
“We’re running about five hundred dollars in the red every month, give or take. If we downsize and get a cheaper lease, that’ll help.”
Those numbers didn’t make sense to Maggie. Business had been going well. Cyrus’s steel was renowned, and he had more potential buyers than they could keep up with. How were they running so far behind on their bills?
“Didn’t we have money saved?” she asked.
“In a bank, yes,” Cyrus said, pursing his lips. He didn’t quite lose his smile, but it came close. “The bank closed.”
Maggie had never paid much attention to the politics of humans, but now she wished she had. Something had gone horribly wrong, she knew, but the details, the reason why mistakes by men she’d never met could ruin her mentor’s finances, escaped her.
“We might have to go to Hopkins,” Cyrus said, looking over the numbers again. “Take him up on his offer of a partnership.”
Raising an eyebrow, Maggie started to ask, “But you said he was a sna—”
“I know,” Cyrus said. It was almost a snap, but not quite. “But when you’re in trouble, you can’t be picky about whose help you accept. Hopkins has the space we need, and the money to keep us afloat. It’d be temporary, anyways.”
Grimacing, Maggie sat back. “I like the building we have now.”
“Maybe we won’t have to move,” Cyrus said, closing his books and relaxing into his chair. “We might not even need to work with Hopkins. I’ll look into some options tomorrow.”
Maggie was dubious, but Cyrus had been doing this a lot longer than her. She trusted his opinion.
Smiling like he always did before dispensing wisdom, Cyrus said, “Remember, whenever you’re in need, look around. There’s always someone with a helping hand waiting for you.”
Nobody was coming to help Maggie. She knew it, deep down in her bones. Any escape from the monsters who encircled her would have to be her own doing.
At least they’d learned to be wary of her. They were waiting, lining up to form a dense wall, watching to see if she produced yet another weapon from within her arsenal. They wouldn’t strike until all of them—Maggie had lost count and didn’t bother trying to tally them up again—were in position.
Wheeling to face the nearest one, Maggie said, “Boo!”
Then she jumped at it, in a low knee tackle.
She may as well have tackled a statue.
Her plan had been to knock it down and then scramble past. It was a desperate, unlikely move, and it didn’t work. Her hardened shoulder pads hit the chitin of the petraform’s shins and she was stopped cold.
It struck her with a bloody stump of a wrist, and Maggie fell, rolling onto her back.
You again? Maggie thought, remembering the petraform she’d unhanded in the hallway.
It slammed another powerful blow down on her chest with its other forearm, ichor splattering from the severed spot where its left hand should have been. Without armor to distribute the force, it might have killed her, but as it was, it cracked ribs.
She couldn’t run, or even really crawl, so her brain picked up the slack while she covered her face with her arms in a limp, defensive posture.
I didn’t cut off both its hands. So why does it have two stumps?
For that matter, several more petraforms that scurried to strike her downed body seemed to be injured, with a gash across the chest or a crack on a piece of chitin.
Pain burst in her ankle and then on her arm as claws ripped into her body.
Nobody—not Maggie, and certainly not the petraforms—noticed the grappling hook that fired out of the hole in the floor and hooked into a basketball goal that had been raised to the ceiling, until it began to sharply retract and tow up the person on the other end.
Frey burst out of the hole with a flash of steel and a terrifying battle cry. She unclipped from the line and, with a burst of wind magic, crossed the whole room in a single pounce, her sword cleaving a petraform in two.
Crouching over Maggie defensively, Frey snarled at the monsters and they scrambled back.
“Where are the others?” Frey demanded.
“They—evacuating the school!” Maggie stammered, scrambling into a sitting position.
“Shit,” Frey said. “Get up.”
Maggie tested her leg, unsure if the cut would keep her from standing. “I don’t know if—”
“Get up,” Frey snapped. “More are coming.”
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