Maggie raised her spear and spun toward the tunnel she’d just come through. There were no petraforms that she could see, not yet, but she felt naked without a weapon raised.
The combat arena was well lit, a mixture of headlamps, work lights, and glowing balls of crackling magical energy ensuring that there was good visibility everywhere.
At the very least, they wouldn’t have trouble seeing as they were overwhelmed and slaughtered.
“Eight queens,” Darius said, unslinging a heavy-duty pack from over his shoulder and digging inside for supplies. “Eight queens. How do you know that?”
“It’s a long story.” Adjusting her grip, Maggie took a step back. “I’ll tell you once we’ve got time.”
Frey stepped up alongside her, her own sword held at the ready. Exhaustion shone plain on her face, and she favored her left leg, but none of that could chip at the determination that was plain in her posture. “I’m glad you’re here, Maggie. It’s good to have another warrior who can deal with these things.”
Maggie nodded and shot a look over her shoulder, where the last two members of the team were recovering. “It’d be better to have three.” The words were like bitter lemons in her mouth, but she knew what was coming. Better to risk a bit of trust and have a chance of survival than to keep everyone at arm’s length and die. “Twig. Do you know how to use a claymore?”
The svartálfr grinned and stepped forward, instantly discarding the construction shovel she’d been wielding.
“I’m lending this,” Maggie said. “It’s not a gift. I expect it back as soon as this fight is over.”
Twig’s grin faltered a touch, but she still smiled as she gave a fae salute in acknowledgement.
Holding her spear in the crook of her arm, Maggie took the heavy sword from her back and reverently offered it to Twig. As strong as she was, Twig could have wielded the blade one-handed, but she gripped it tightly with both hands, testing the weight, demonstrating her control of the blade.
Maggie nodded at her approvingly. Twig might not pass the test to earn her own blade, but she at least knew what she was doing.
“Earpiece,” Darius said, holding it out to Maggie. “So we can talk without shouting. I meant to get you one earlier, but we broke apart in a hurry.”
Maggie took it, popping it in place. The piece molded itself to the contours of her inner ear, fitting comfortably. “Is this working?”
“Loud and clear,” Frey replied, and her voice sounded like it was right in her ear, clear and crisp, without being so loud that it hurt.
“Lou, I wish you weren’t here for this, but since you are, make yourself useful,” Darius snapped, unfolding a compact grenade launcher from his pack. The weapon was barely larger than a P90, but it had a dual drum magazine full of explosive charges, and he checked it out and loaded it up as he spoke. “Get back up on that scaffolding and take up a firing position. These charges won’t kill them, but they’ll knock the petraforms around like bowling pins. Use that to slow them down. Overshoot, don’t fire anything that’ll even come close to us. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” Lou said, taking the diminutive grenade launcher and saluting.
“If you run out of shots, switch to your rifle. A shot to the armor won’t do too much, but if you can land a hit in their eyes or mouth, it’ll hurt,” Darius continued.
“Yes sir,” Lou repeated. “What will you be doing?”
“Close range support,” Darius said, taking more bombs from his pack; directional anti-personnel mines with adhesive strips. He didn’t have to walk around and manually place them; he just turned a dial and let the shaped charges float into the air where he willed, sticking to walls and the floor before their color shifted, becoming indistinguishable from rocks. In seconds, he had dozens of booby traps to slow an advancing horde.
Darius didn’t have the same raw, pure magical power as Vera, but what he did have was supplemented by lots and lots of explosives.
He glanced at Lou, who was still standing at attention. “Get in position, we don’t have much time.”
“Y-yes sir!” Lou said for the third time in thirty seconds, turning to scamper up the scaffolding.
Reaching up, Darius turned off his earpiece for a moment, speaking so that it could only be heard by those nearby. Vera, ten feet back from the rest of the group, would just barely be able to catch what he said. “Keep an eye on him. Vera, if he starts to break down once the fighting gets thick, make sure he doesn’t shoot one of us by accident.”
Vera nodded, sticking out her index and ring fingers on her right hand, but not finishing the salute. She had power in her hands, a wicked red aura that grew more intense by the second. “How many are coming? Another hundred? Two hundred?”
Darius only looked away from his work for a moment, preparing more traps for the petraforms. “Couldn’t say from the readout. At least a hundred, probably more.”
“Is there a way to check?” Vera demanded. “If we’re fighting a hundred, I can go all out. If it’s more, I need to conserve.”
“Let me check,” Maggie said, putting a hand to her hilt.
They are coming for you Maggie they do not like that you killed me
I know. How many of you?
Only three? That’s not very many.
I want to help let me show you—
The images flashed in Maggie’s head before she could let go. Claws scrabbling forward in darkness, shrieks and calls—Maggie now knew that they were communicating complex information through those shrieks, though the language was still foreign to her—and three hulking brutes shuffling forward, each with their own posse of foot soldiers.
“Three queens,” Maggie gasped, pulling her hand away. “I couldn’t get a count of the horde. Four hundred? Maybe five?”
“Blood and stone,” Vera whispered.
“Damn,” Darius agreed. “I’m resource limited. Once my explosives run dry, I can shoot, but once that’s done, I’m just one guy. A weapon that could hurt them would be nice to have, but I’m no swordfighter.”
Maggie looked down at herself. She had two swords on her belt, as well as her spear. Even if one of those swords was possessed by a malevolent Ancient entity, she had weapons to spare.
Reaching for her belt, she took out her knife and tossed it to him. “If you don’t know how to fight with a sword, you’ll get yourself killed trying. And I want that—”
“Back, I know,” Darius finished, flipping open the blade and looking at it. “Thanks, it’s better than nothing. I’ll still be pretty useless once my ammo runs dry.”
“Same here,” Vera grunted, focused on whatever working she was preparing. “I can’t just throw spells forever. This blast will give us an edge, at least, but once it’s gone, I’ll only be good for bindings.”
“You’re not getting a sword,” Maggie shot at her.
Vera rolled her shoulder, concentrating more power into her hands. “Don’t want one. Your blades screw with my magic.”
“How long can we hold the line?” Maggie asked, looking back at the chaos behind them. Frey’s energy had to be flagging, and even Twig couldn’t go forever.
“As long as we have to,” Frey replied. “We can’t retreat. We hold until there’s an opening, then we push through. Vera, you’ll be responsible for grabbing Lou and pulling him off the scaffolding when that happens, so make sure you keep that much power in reserve.”
“Already planning on it!” Vera called through gritted teeth.
“There’s still the hole behind us,” Darius pointed out. “We might get surrounded if they come up through there.”
Maggie glanced back at the hole. It looked like the one she’d seen at the gym—a nearly perfect circle coming straight up from the earth.
She frowned, taking a few steps back to get a better look, staying wide of Vera so that her ritual wouldn’t be interrupted. There were marks from petraform claws sinking in for traction as they climbed. Something about it bothered her. She could see flashes of the petraforms climbing out of the hole, echoes of the images Dane had shown her, but she couldn’t put a finger on why it bothered her so much.
The hole that Twig had plugged up with a backhoe was the same at a glance, but Maggie’s view of that tunnel was limited. She took another step closer to the one she could see, frowning.
What’s wrong here?
Before she could reach for Dane and get an answer, Frey called out, “I see one!”
Maggie spun and jogged the couple steps back to the front line, peering out. A few skittering forms had entered the edges of the light.
More shapes moved behind them. Dozens more. A swarm. And, unlike in the school, there were no narrow corridors, no cramped spaces that would prevent the numbers from being brought to bear. The cave was at least thirty feet wide and twice as high, not so gaping as to be an open field, but certainly big enough that they’d be surrounded if they weren’t careful.
A low, penetrating roar shook Maggie’s bones, and she felt Dane thrum on her hip. Deep in the shadows, a hulking figure was taking heavy steps behind its line of disposable troops.
“Hold,” Frey said, extending her arm in front of Twig. “Don’t rush in. Let them come to us.”
Twig grunted. The closest of the petraforms were a hundred yards out, skittering forward, taking their time.
Maggie frowned. “One more thing. If you feel the queens trying to use a spell, like they did in the gym, go for the head with either my steel or Cyrus’s. Getting to them with one of our blades is the only way to put them down for good.”
Turning to look at her, Darius widened his eyes. “Wait, what?”
Frey didn’t take her eyes off the petraforms, but still sounded shocked. “Maggie, we’re going to need to have a serious talk about how you know all this stuff that even Leanna couldn’t tell us.”
“I’m not keeping secrets, it’s complicated and we don’t have time,” Maggie said.
The petraforms were eighty yards out and had stopped creeping forward, forming a dense line. Maggie could see two hulking figures in the shadows near the back. She couldn’t see the third.
Frey looked away from the monsters, shifting her full focus to Maggie. “Make time.”
“The queen I killed is living in my sword. I can talk to it,” Maggie said.
From the back, Vera shouted, “Wait, wha—”
Another booming bellow rattled the walls of the cave.
The petraforms charged.
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