“… unavailable right now. Please leave a message after the beep, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
“Come on, Darius, pick up—” Maggie grumbled, before the obnoxiously synthetic BEEP. “Darius! Do not go after the petraforms. You can’t beat them, and if you try to chase them down, you will lose. I’m coming to help, but do not go after the petraforms!”
She hung up, wishing she had her old phone. It had all her contacts in it—including the numbers of several Ministry members who would be able to get her in direct contact with Darius, Frey, and the whole team. As it was, she had Darius’s number from their talk a few days ago, and… not much else.
Maggie shoved her various tools into the cello case and turned her attention to Dane’s sword. She couldn’t haul the whole communication circle around, but she needed it in case she needed to ask more questions.
It’s just aluminum.
A quick dash to the kitchen, and she had a square of aluminum foil. Crumpled around the sword’s handle, it made a simple sleeve that insulated against Dane’s painfully alien mind. It wouldn’t be a perfect seal, but Maggie didn’t want one. She wanted Dane’s thoughts to come through.
She pulled on a beanie that would cover the tips of her ears and ran over a mental checklist. Everything she could hope for on such short notice had been packed into her cello case.
That done, she was ready to go back into battle.
She just had to hope she wasn’t too late.
Dragging the heavy cello case behind her, Maggie moved at a pace between a jog and full run. She didn’t know when the next bus came around, and she couldn’t afford to lose ten minutes waiting because she missed her ride.
Her haste was unwarranted. Maggie arrived with a minute to spare before the next bus came around. In the meantime, she stretched, testing her leg’s flexibility now that the magical healing was complete. It felt like she was at almost a hundred percent. She took that as a reassurance.
Still… What can I do against a creature that big?
Maggie checked the time repeatedly as the bus moved. It hadn’t gotten any slower, and the driver’s route hadn’t gotten more circuitous, but each second seemed to be slipping by faster than it should.
A minute could be life or death in a fight, and if Darius wasn’t answering his phone, they were probably already in the fray. Overwhelmed, surrounded—No. They’re fine, you just need to be quick.
The bus came to a stop just outside of Union Station, and Maggie bolted out of it like a bat out of hell. No time to justify herself to strangers, no time to care about anything. She pushed through humans that were blocking the closest door and ran across the train station’s marble floors with her cello case rolling smoothly behind her.
Four buttons in the elevator, and she was headed down.
Come on, come on…
No time for the calm, isolated back hallways. To get to the service entrance where the team had met up last time, it was a twenty-minute walk or a two-minute tram ride. Maggie turned left and bolted for the tramway station.
This time, it was a narrow thing. She got to the stop just as the tram was pulling up, and had she been a few seconds further behind, she’d have been stuck waiting the four minutes for the next tram to come through.
A bell chimed, and an automated voice said, “Next stop, Westpoint station.”
She had two minutes to wait, and she used every second of it.
Under normal circumstances, the tram would run in a complete circuit around Kansas City Below, but it needed the levitation engines, spaced every mile or so, to run. Maggie had firsthand experience with the damaged engine up ahead, so for now, the stop coming up would be this tram’s last before it would have to turn around and hover back the way it came.
As it was the last stop before reversing direction, the tram was mostly empty, but the few passengers who were there gave her strange looks. Maggie ignored them as she shucked out of her jacket, opened the cello case, and began hastily putting on her armor. The ride was remarkably smooth, as stable as if she were on solid ground, and it wasn’t hard to clad herself in protective gear.
Maybe she wouldn’t need to fight and all this was for nothing. Maybe. But she doubted it.
Armored, she strapped Dane’s sheath to one side of her belt, and her rapier’s sheath to the other. Her claymore went in a holster on her back, and her spear stayed right in her hands.
She felt a bit clumsy carrying all four weapons on her person at the same time, but Maggie’s experience had taught her not to go in with too few weapons. Better to have an extra sword weighing her down, than to be swordless with a petraform chewing on her face.
The tram’s speakers chimed again. “Westpoint station.”
Maggie tugged on the handle of her case, waited for the doors to open, and bolted out.
A large steel wall stood between her and the tunnel she’d almost died in, but the maintenance area was unlocked. Moving at a full clip, Maggie slipped around back, through a short hall and two doors, and ended up in the service entrance where this whole mess had started.
Two elves with faces she didn’t recognize looked up at her. Members of Darius’s team, by their uniforms, though their helmets weren’t the full facemask variety that Darius had worn when they met.
How many people does he have working for him? Maggie wondered, but she shook off the thought. “Where’s the team?”
“Clearing out stragglers in the tunnels,” one of them said. “They should be back soon.”
I’m too late.
“In the tunnels where?” Maggie demanded, refusing to let reality sink in, or to admit that she was not going to make it in time.
“Probably near the far end, next to the construction site. Communication is shaky, but we’ve got scanners tracking motion blips, they’d be following those.”
“Give one to me.” She reached out her hand.
The two troopers glanced at each other, and the one who’d spoken asked, “A… scanner?”
“Or a tracker pad, or whatever, I don’t know how it works,” Maggie said. “Show me what they’re seeing. I need to find the team.”
“They’re walking into an ambush,” Maggie said. “You need to get me to them.”
For a moment, Maggie worried that they would refuse to take her instructions. She wasn’t their boss, after all, and she probably seemed to be a little hysterical. It would be entirely reasonable from their perspective to refuse her.
“Come with me,” the lead one said, looking back at the other. “Try to get a ping to them, a warning to pull back.”
“Thanks. What’s your name?” Maggie asked.
The trooper gave her a fae salute as he picked up a high-powered rifle from the rack by the wall, as well as a touchscreen device. “Lou.”
“Maggie,” she replied, returning the gesture. “We need to hurry.”
“Understood, ma’am,” Lou said, following the map on his touchscreen as he walked out the door.
Lou took the lead with a light jog. The speed infuriated Maggie; she wanted to sprint down the tunnel until she found the team, but he had the map, and it wouldn’t do any good if they ran into a fight exhausted.
Even the lighter pace began to wear on Maggie after a few minutes, though. She’d already had to run for a good long while, and while she wasn’t weak, she didn’t do a lot of aerobic exercises. Fatigue slowly crept in, moment by moment.
She ignored it and kept running, staying behind Lou as they moved deeper into the tunnel, so deep that the only lights were coming from the headlamp on his tactical gear and the subtle glow of his touch screen. It was enough to keep the area lit, at least to Maggie’s keen low-light vision, but the stark shadows were eerie. It got to her, even as she told herself it was just a trick of the light, and Maggie felt her panic continuing to rise.
Eventually, Lou stopped running, pausing as he got to a fork in the tunnel. One way led to a loop that would eventually come all the way back around to the start of the tramway. The other was a branch that led towards new construction.
“Which way?” Maggie called. “Towards the construction?”
He frowned down at his screen. “The last major set of blips was that way, but I’m getting a lot of interference. It looks like there’s more movement to the right, back towards the start of the loop, but there’s too many blips.”
It’s not too many, there are just more than you accounted for, Maggie thought. “Alright, let me check.”
He turned and frowned, but Maggie was busy putting a hand on the hilt of Dane.
Dane, can you hear me?
Do you know where we are?
I can hear my siblings they are close
Maggie gritted her teeth. Out loud, she said, “This is a bad idea.”
Images flashed in her brain, painful and acutely unfamiliar. Images from a hundred sets of eyes, maybe more, pouring out of a hole in the floor. In these visions, she could see perfectly in pitch darkness, but spots of light were blinding and seared her retinas.
Some of the images that flashed in her mind showed a dark tunnel with waves of movement. Others were even deeper, ancient caves that hadn’t been worked by any mortal tool. And, in just a few sets of images, she saw blinding light and arcs of crimson magic, the team backed into a corner and fighting desperately, Twig roaring as she worked to tip a backhoe down one of the holes that the petraforms were coming—
Maggie gasped and pulled her hand away. Even with the insulating sheet of foil, her method of communication with the queen hurt.
“The construction site,” she panted. “They’re at the construction site.”
“Ma’am?” Lou asked.
Maggie shook her head and returned to her jogging pace. There was no time to explain, she just had to get to the team before it was too late.
It took another forty seconds before she could see light coming around the bend, and another thirty seconds after that before she saw motion. Four battered fae were fighting amidst the bodies of several dozen petraforms.
Not fighting. Winning.
Darius was up atop a piece of scaffolding, deploying some kind of sonic weapon that the petraforms seemed to hate, judging by their screeches. Twig had given up her hammer in favor of a backhoe shovel, swinging around the massive piece of steel with preternatural speed, sending up chips of petraform chitin where she hit. Vera looked like a red comet, spinning through the air and sending down bolts of tangling power, and Frey was leading the way with her blade, hacking apart any petraform that dared breathe in her presence.
Maggie’s haste to join the fight wasn’t necessary here. Only a few stragglers remained, and though she could see scratches and a few bright red splotches of distinctly non-monstrous blood, the team was alive, and handling the fight well.
Lou called out, signalling with a quick off-on blink from his headlamp. Darius, from his vantage point atop the scaffolding, was the first to wave at his trooper and grapple down to meet them.
“Report!” he called.
“It’s Maggie, sir!” Lou replied, crisply. “She tore through the guard post in a hurry and said she needed to speak with you.”
“Maggie? Is that you?” Darius put a hand up to his eyes, peering at Maggie. From her position behind the bright point of directional light coming from Lou’s helmet, she’d be hard to make out, so she stepped forward.
“We need to get out of here, now!” Maggie called. “I don’t have time to explain.”
Frey pulled her sword from the back of a twitching monster, looking up at Maggie. “We’ve got this under control. It already occurred to us that our estimates were wrong, but these foot soldiers are no problem, even if there’s twice as many.”
“That’s not it!” Maggie said. “The petraforms are ancients.”
“We know,” Vera called, hovering down on a cloud of magic. “Our Auntie told us. Weak ancients, but ancients.”
“How did you know that?” Frey asked.
“I will explain, once we get out of here,” Maggie said. “There is no time. We should already be running!”
Frey stood her ground. “Maggie, I don’t doubt your intentions, but you don’t do this for a living, and you made it very clear that you’re not one of us. So, you can tell us what you found out, or you can trust me when I say that we’re able to handle ourselves, no matter what you think of our abilities.”
Maggie glanced at the team. Darius was uncertain, while Frey and Vera didn’t seem to understand the urgency. Only Twig, looking past Maggie into the unfinished tramway tunnel behind her, seemed ready to run.
“There are eight more queens, each with hundreds of petraform soldiers,” Maggie said. “And they know you’re here. This was bait to pull you in.”
Frey blinked. “You’re certain?”
Maggie nodded. “And it gets worse.”
Looking back at the scene of the fight, Frey nodded her head once. “Then we run.”
“Sir,” Lou called, looking down at his touch screen. “Are you getting this reading?”
Darius glanced at the display on his wrist. “My signal’s not going through the stone down here.”
“It’s interference,” Maggie said, trying to convey urgency with her tone. “Deliberate interference, so you can’t communicate or get a warning.”
“I’ve got a little signal,” Lou said. “Or… maybe it’s a bug, but if not…” He spun the screen around and held it up for Darius to see.
Darius looked at it, and his face hardened. “I see. Frey.”
Frey nodded once, already knowing what he was going to say but asking anyways. “We can’t run?”
“A lot of blips, coming down the tunnel the way we came in. Get ready to fight,” Darius said. “They’re coming.”
Chapter Sixteen 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.