Maggie’s heart was racing faster than it had in her life. She parried the attack, swiping her sword with all her strength. The move barely worked, and she had to lunge backwards to avoid the next slashing blow.
Holding the hilt with both hands, she went on the offensive, chopping down with all her strength. The wood swished through the air, meeting her opponent’s training sword and deflecting sharply to the side.
While she staggered, thrown off by her failed attack, her opponent reached out and hit her with a sucker punch. It wasn’t hard enough to do serious damage, but the sharp blow drove the wind from her lungs and she dropped her weapon.
“That was cheap!” she exclaimed after a moment of wheezing.
“We’ve talked about this,” Cyrus said. “We’re not in an honor duel here. Our steel is for warriors, not for fops trying to impress their suitors. The goal is to win.”
He was right. Maggie knew it, but she resented the move anyways. She’d been so close to finally landing a blow, if he just…
No. I was never close.
She pulled at the laces on her practice armor with haste, half annoyed, half eager to get out of the hot layers of thick cotton. The day’s lesson was clearly over, and it was time to get back to work setting up the new forge. Their new shop was smaller than the last one, and didn’t have the same view, but it was still close to the river. If Maggie snuck to the roof, she could still see the city at sunset.
“Why do I need to learn this anyways?” she said, feeling bitter. “I’m not going to be a warrior. I want to make swords, not use them.”
“And who do you want to make swords for?” Cyrus asked.
“The best warriors in the world,” Maggie said, repeating what she’d heard her master say a thousand times. “The people fit to use the best steel in the world.”
Cyrus nodded, stretching out his arms. “Our steel matters. It’s got history. If just anyone could come in and buy one of our swords, then it wouldn’t be special.”
“I’m not arguing with that,” Maggie said.
“And how do you know if the person who sought you out is the best warrior in the world?” Cyrus asked.
Maggie had spotted his point already, but she was feeling stubborn. “Ask them what deeds they’ve done.”
“Stories can be exaggerated, if they’re not made up out of whole cloth,” Cyrus said.
“Ask someone else what deeds they’ve done,” Maggie suggested.
“Who? Their enemies, or their friends? People they’ve paid to rank them? Who do you think will always give an honest answer?”
Maggie sighed. “You have to fight them yourself.”
“You have to fight them yourself,” Cyrus confirmed, seizing a jug of water from the bench by their practice ring. “You have to become the best fighter you can be, and then you only sell a sword to anyone who can beat you blindfolded.”
“You sold a sword to one of Hopkins’ friends,” Maggie pointed out. “He couldn’t beat you if you were blindfolded.”
Cyrus’s expression soured. “He paid in gold, and treble my usual price. You have to make ends meet, sometimes.”
“Isn’t that why we moved?” Maggie asked.
“Times are lean. They’ll get better, soon,” he said. “Don’t forget our legacy. This is how we do things, Maggie. If you don’t want to be the best, you don’t have to be, but first you’ll need to find me another apprentice.”
She blinked. He’d never been that cold with her, no matter how moody she got about the more exhausting parts of their job.
“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head quickly. “I’m just tired. Let’s get back to work.”
The monorail tram was so smooth that Maggie almost didn’t notice the movement. Her mind was on other things.
Nine people had died that morning. Seven teachers and staff, two kids. Another fifteen were seriously wounded. Mostly people who’d been caught in the hallways, trying to find a place to hide or flee.
I was too slow.
Even a minute sooner, she could have saved another life. Maybe several. If she’d been better at fighting, she might have been able to get through the first wave with time enough to save one of the teachers.
“You’re wrong,” Darius said.
Maggie looked up at him. He’d taken the seat across from her on the tram. “What?”
“You couldn’t have done better.” He sat forward, his expression mellow.
“I know.” Maggie felt the sting of his words, even if it was meant as a comfort. “I should have trained more. If I was better—”
“Not what I meant.” Darius interrupted, brow furrowing as he searched for the words. “You shouldn’t beat yourself up, you can never save them all. We saved lives today. Let that be enough.”
She sighed, sinking into her seat. “Was it that obvious what I was thinking?”
He chuckled, though there wasn’t much mirth in it. “We’re all thinking it, but it’s wrong. We did everything we could.”
Maggie scratched at the bandage on her arm, unconvinced. The magically medicated cotton would have her wounds healed in a matter of hours, but it itched something fierce in the process. Of course, the healers could have patched her up in an instant, but that took energy, and others needed it more than her. She’d gone with the bandage.
“Can you hear a bright side right now?” Darius asked.
“Sure,” Maggie said, shaking her head. “Whatever.”
“Including what Frey took care of in the tunnels, we killed a hundred and fifteen of the bastards. The whole nest, give or take a couple stragglers.”
“I want the bastards exterminated,” Maggie said. “No stragglers.”
“I’ve got my team out scouting,” Darius said. “Loading up the whole tunnel system with motion sensors now that it’s safer to travel through. We’ll be ready to go after them tonight.”
“Tonight,” Maggie repeated. The few surviving beasts would get one more day to live. It was more than they deserved, but she would have to content herself with that.
“They won’t have a chance to hurt anyone else,” Darius insisted. “If they so much as blink in the direction of the city, my team will catch it and we’ll get there to stop them. I don’t think they can make a hole like that without their queen, though.”
“Okay.” Maggie sighed, standing up in the tramcar. Her armor was still busted, flapping around on her body when she moved. “I’m… I don’t know. I’m going to go see Frey.”
She had gotten her other sword back and pried the spearhead out of the queen’s back, wrapping it up in a plastic pouch to carry it around. It would need a new shaft, but the shaft wasn’t made from a priceless alloy and imbued with her spirit. It’d be an easy fix.
Walking down the car, she got Frey’s attention. The squad leader had her eyes half closed and seemed to be between meditation and sleep, but she looked up when Maggie approached. “I need to retrieve my stuff from the maintenance chamber.”
“Darius has his people getting it for us,” Frey promised. “Don’t worry about it.”
Visions of her other swords and gear being lifted and spirited away filled Maggie’s thoughts. It had pained her to leave the metal behind at all, but it had been an emergency. She shook her head. “No offense to his people, but I’d rather get it myself.”
Frey raised an eyebrow. “If you want to double back and go get it, I won’t stop you, but Darius’s people aren’t the Tribunal’s people. You’re in good hands.”
Maggie was dubious, but leaned against the wall of the car, eyeing Frey’s one blade.
A few seats down, Vera glanced at Maggie. “This was your first time, right?”
Maggie shook her head. “I’ve been in fights before.”
“Not like this,” Vera said bluntly. “Life or death; kill or be killed. This is your first time in a real fight.”
Frowning to one side, Maggie shook her head. “I have a lot of theoretical practice.”
Vera got up and crossed the car, offering her a hand, overtly going with the human gesture instead of a fae salute. “You did good. Welcome to the team.”
Shaking her head, Maggie rejected the gesture. “I’m just here until the petraforms are dealt with and I get paid what I’m owed, it’s not a full-time job for me. I’m not joining your crew.”
“It’s just a paycheck for you?” Vera asked, dubiously. “You put yourself in a lot of risk for someone who doesn’t care.”
“No,” Maggie conceded. “It’s not just a paycheck, but I’ve got a life to get back to.”
“Uh-huh.” Vera shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
Before Maggie could respond, the car started to slow down, the change in force making her stumble and grab a hand rail. Over the next fifteen seconds the tram slowed until they’d come to a complete stop at the far end of the city.
Maggie got out, looking around. She didn’t come to this side of the city very often. It was the old town, the first bit of construction done way back when.
Frey came out a few steps behind her, carrying a large duffel bag. “If you really want to go get your things, do it now,” Frey said. “We don’t strictly need you along for this, we’re just getting information.”
“Information?” Maggie asked. “Isn’t that what Darius’s team is for?”
“Different kind of information,” Frey said. “Darius?”
Darius was a few paces behind them, but hopped off the tram and started filling Maggie in. “When we made first contact, we didn’t know what these things were, and there wasn’t enough information to go off of. Could be a new errekin that’s never been encountered before, or a variant of an old one that we haven’t seen in generations. Too many monsters fall under the blanket of ‘Claws, chitin, aggressive’.”
“But today narrows it down,” Maggie said. “So we’re going to an archive to cross reference that description with a large quadrupedal queen.”
“Yes, and no,” Darius said.
Vera was the last off the train, walking with Twig. “We’re going to go see Aunt Leana.”
Maggie frowned. Leana? Isn’t that… “The Leannán Sídhe?”
Smirking, Vera said, “You really do live with the humans, don’t you?”
“Let’s get moving,” Frey urged. “I want to get there soon; we don’t know how long this will take. And Maggie?”
“Yeah?” Maggie asked.
“If you’re coming with us, keep your sword ready. This might get dangerous.”
Chapter Ten 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.