The screams reached Maggie’s ears long before she could see the school.
In the densely traveled streets of Kansas City Below, an echo could carry around corners and be heard for hundreds of yards. She wished that the sound wouldn’t carry so much; the screams were causing a panic.
Nobody knew what to do. Some passers-by wanted to run in and help, others were fleeing. The former were worse than the latter—without weapons, they wouldn’t be helping, they’d just be getting in the way.
Twig, at least, had a broad enough frame to shove a path through the dense, panicked elves, making room for Maggie to follow behind her, two swords rattling on her belt, her newly forged main weapon clutched in her hand. She’d lost track of Vera, but the willowy dryad kept popping up in her peripheral vision, slipping through the people like wind.
Even with the svartálfr making a path, it was a struggle. It felt like trying to make it into a stadium when the game just ended, though less drunken and more frantic.
I hope Frey’s route was faster.
She rounded a corner behind Twig, coming into a wide, tall chamber big enough to fit a few houses side by side, with some playground equipment set out. On the far side of the chamber, the wall was painted to look like moss and flowers, with a big sign over a set of double doors. ‘Bree Holds Secondary School’.
It was all designed to mimic an open courtyard and give the school a natural, welcoming feel. With all the sounds of terror coming from inside, Maggie found that the artificiality was only emphasized, making the space feel sinister rather than homey.
The doors were open, and a trio of terror-stricken young elves were scrambling to get out.
Maggie swallowed, afraid of what they were going to see in there. Praying that they’d made it in time.
There were people inside that needed her, so Maggie put aside her fears and charged ahead.
It was laid out like any human junior high school, most resembling the sorts built in the 60s and 70s. A blocky layout, full of long hallways lined with lockers, individual class rooms every thirty feet or so dotted with school spirit flyers and poster boards with announcements.
The entry hall was abandoned, but she could hear shouts deeper in the school, and they were coming closer, echoing around the corner up ahead. Gripping her weapon tightly, she nodded to Twig and Vera, stepping cautiously towards the sound.
Nearly tripping as he came around, a boy in the peak of puberty scrambled around the corner, every breath he took coming out as a scream.
Not half a second behind him, a petraform skidded on the smooth linoleum flooring, gouging out furrows in the floor as it slid past him and slammed into a row of lockers, bouncing free and coming up after the kid with an alien shriek.
Roaring out a challenge, she ran as fast as she could towards the petraform, past the fleeing child. It leapt through the air at her, and Maggie was finally able to put her newest piece of steel to the test.
Her rapier was quick, but lacked power. Her claymore was heavy and had reach, but lacked speed. Her twin sabers took skill she didn’t have to use at their peak.
That’s why she’d made herself a spear.
Bracing herself, Maggie jammed the magically endowed spearhead right into the petraform’s chest. The steel pierced hard, stony chitin, and the wide guard at the base of the head kept the monstrous creature from sliding down the handle or getting stuck on the weapon.
Maggie twisted the blade in her grip, and the creature stopped twitching. Jerking back, she freed her spear, flicked it through the air, and looked back at her two companions.
“We need to start evacuating—”
“Get down!” Vera barked in warning, raising her hands and sending out a pulsing blue burst of magic past Maggie.
Maggie spun, alarmed to see the spell collide into another petraform that had been halfway to chomping the back of her neck. The magical missile didn’t seem to hurt it that much, but it knocked it out of the way, and that was all the opening Maggie needed to strike, catching it between two hard plates on its back.
The lunge put Maggie even further ahead of the other two, in the T intersection where both monsters had come from. Turning to look down the hall, Maggie blinked.
There were a lot of them.
Some of the petraforms were scrabbling with their claws to break down classroom doors, others were stalking towards the sound of the combat, but once she was in their view, they all rounded on her, and Maggie couldn’t help but freeze for a moment as she tried to count them all.
They had no such momentary reaction. At least a dozen petraforms barreled towards her, crossing the distance with terrifying speed. There wasn’t time for Maggie to run, her allies were some twenty feet behind her, and she could only skewer one at a time.
She braced her spear anyways, getting ready to thrust.
From behind her, another bolt of magic seized the first petraform of the pack, launching it back and into two others, while at the same time, Twig jumped in—literally, jumping the whole distance between her and Maggie—and brought an enormous war hammer into direct contact with the face of another monster, sending it down in a daze.
Maggie only watched, surprised, as a backhanded swing from the svartálfr’s hammer hit another petraform with enough force to launch it back and dent a row of lockers. A third monster leapt at her, but a bolt of magic from Vera took it down before it could get close enough to strike.
They fought as a perfect team, Twig handling the front line while Vera protected her with ranged support, but neither had the capacity to finish off the beasts.
Right. That’s my job.
Getting over her moment of battle shock, Maggie lunged in, thrusting the tip of her spear into the closest dazed monster, jerking it free, and whirling in time to skewer another one that was coming at her. Twig brought down one that tried to slash at Maggie’s back, pummeling it to the floor, and she came back with the pointed starmetal tip on the back of the spear’s shaft, finishing it off.
The walls were splattered with dark ichor before the remaining beasts realized they were outmatched and started to skitter away, screeching something that was either a warning or a cry for help.
All Maggie cared about was that they were easier to hit from the back than the front. Going on the offensive, she pursued, and now Vera took on a different role—instead of throwing the monsters back and playing defense, she tripped them up and held the beasts in place, thin strands of power delaying them long enough for Maggie to catch up and bring more of them down.
None of the monsters got away. With help, Maggie brought down each and every one; fourteen kills in total, including the first two. With terrain that favored small numbers and support, the three of them were all but unstoppable.
It was a long ways from a terrified pursuit in a subway tunnel. Today, Maggie was the predator.
When they had a moment to pause, though, she took a breath and gauged their surroundings. Doors to the classrooms were in various states of being torn down—they were reinforced fire doors, which is why they’d been able to survive the petraform’s assault at all. Fire safety was critically important when there was no ‘outside’ to run to, and it had paid off as monster repellant as well.
Maggie looked to her team. “We need to start getting kids out of here, we’re lucky they haven’t gotten through any doors yet. We can make sure there’s a path to the exit while—” Another scream from deeper in the school interrupted her. More of them. Hefting her spear, she shook her head. “No time. Let’s go.”
Sprinting in the direction of the scream, she rounded another corner and swallowed down nausea.
Blood. Elf blood, splattered high on the walls and even ceiling deeper in the hall, with a pair of petraforms crouched over a prone, twitching—
Maggie screamed in rage and ran in. One beast didn’t even have time to turn in response. The other did, and would have lunged at her while she felled its comrade, but Vera held it back and pinned it to the wall with a spell until Maggie could drive her blade into its chest.
She couldn’t look at the body. A glance told her it was probably a teacher or some of the adult staff, at least.
It wasn’t the only one. Maggie held back the urge to gag as she looked down the rest of the hallway.
They’d been too slow, too late, and there were still monsters about.
“Start evacuating,” she said. “We need to get everyone out.”
“We should focus on taking down the petraforms,” Vera said, stepping up next to her. “Otherwise, those deeper in the school will be easy prey while we evacuate those close to the entrance.”
“I’ll kill them,” Maggie growled. “Don’t worry. You just get the kids clear.”
Vera’s face went still for a moment, and the patterns on her earthy skin rippled. Maggie thought it was an expression of frustration, but she didn’t know dryads well enough to be sure. After the pause, Vera said, “Fine. Twig, stay with her.”
Running back, she started tapping doors with magic, calling out. “We’re here to help! Line up and follow me to the exit!”
“I’d rather have you helping escort them to safety,” Maggie said to the hulking Twig.
Twig nodded in agreement, but stayed by Maggie’s side, clutching her hammer tight.
Breathing heavily, Maggie stepped through the brightly lit hallway, aromas of iron and blood thick in the air. She watched for open doors, and especially for doors that had been broken through. She saw one, ripped completely off its hinges, and held her breath as she peered inside.
It had, at one point, been a teacher’s lounge. Now, there was nothing alive in the room, and Maggie wasn’t even sure how many people had been in there when the door fell.
Taking shallow breaths, she turned away.
This wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Hunting monsters was one thing, but…
Twig whistled, getting her attention and pointing down the hall. There were swinging doors leading to a gymnasium, and through the little windows on the doors Maggie could see a big shape shambling around. It was bigger than the petraforms, but indistinct.
“What do you think?” she asked. “A queen, or something?”
Approaching cautiously, Maggie mentally prepared herself to down the big creature, hoping to take it by surprise. It wasn’t even fighting anymore, it was big game hunting.
Through the gymnasium doors, there was an enormous crash, and then a particularly high scream.
No more time for sneaking. Maggie charged shoulder to shoulder with Twig, slamming through the gym doors and surveying the scene.
A whole rack of bleachers had been knocked on its side, and a small elf girl was backed against the wall behind where the seating had been built. She was the one screaming, and it wasn’t hard to understand why.
The thing that had knocked over the bleachers was huge. Eight feet tall, and twice as long, it looked more like an organic equivalent to a tank than anything else, with row upon row of teeth taking up the whole of its face. Scanning the room, Maggie saw an open hole in the center of the gym, the spot that all the petraforms had come through.
The queen, or whatever it was, lumbered towards the screaming girl. Not enough time to charge, Maggie stepped forward and threw her spear.
It lodged in between two pieces of armor, sticking out like a single quill on a porcupine, and the queen bellowed, whirling and bucking its head to face its attacker. Maggie went for the swords strapped to her belt.
“Ready to take this thing down?” she asked, glancing at Twig while the queen stamped its feet and snarled at them, a low-pitched rumble harmonizing with the girl’s scream.
Twig nodded her head sharply.
Then, a chittering sounded behind her. And more, in front of her. Even more coming from the doors on the far side of the gym.
The queen was calling in reinforcements, summoning every petraform in the school, and more from the hole in the ground.
Maggie and Twig made eye contact. They were surrounded.
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