Maggie knew the beasts were quick, but the speed with which they crossed eighty yards still shocked her. In maybe five seconds, they were within spitting distance, the leaders of the pack lunging forward to start cutting throats, dozens more hot on their heels.
A grenade from Lou’s gun landed in the dense pack, scattering a few, and Maggie braced her spear to catch the first monster to fly towards her.
“Now!” Frey barked.
Darius reacted instantly, triggering every single explosive and mine he’d arranged on the floor.
Time seemed to slow while Maggie took it all in. The cave echoed with a hundred charges released in sync with each other, rumbling like the inside of a smoothbore cannon. Dust and rock chips flew back at Maggie, the force of the ricochets nearly enough to knock her off her feet.
Unprepared for the blast, the petraforms fared far worse. Some took grapeshot and shrapnel in the eyes, or down their gaping mouths, and went down. Most took the collective blasts on their armor and were thrown back, knocked to their feet, a few even tossed high into the air. Even petraforms that avoided being hit directly were knocked over by their partners, the dense wave ensuring that no single beast could avoid the blowback.
A handful of petraforms were already past the edge of the explosive zone by the time that the charges blew, but that just left them without backup.
Then, time resumed its pace. The petraform that had leapt towards Maggie landed on her spear, and she twisted and kicked it free in time to spin and cleave the head from another’s shoulders. Frey, to her side, wielded her blade like a scalpel, slitting throats and breaking weak points, while Twig looked more like she was chopping wood, splitting monsters in half with every swipe.
As they took out the first line, the petraforms in the blast zone were getting to their feet. That was no good. They needed to—Without a word, Frey and Twig charged the line, knowing what they had to do without any need to think it over. Maggie followed up a second later, rushing in with her spear and taking the monsters apart while they were still finding their footing.
The stunned disarray couldn’t last long. They butchered petraforms while it lasted, but with each passing breath the horde found its footing, found itself more organized, found opportunities to strike.
A blast to Maggie’s side knocked a cluster of petraforms to the ground as Lou’s cover fire came in. She struck one of them down and then had to retreat two paces as six more petraforms menaced her.
She loathed giving ground, but if they surrounded her, she would die. It was as simple as that, so with every strike, she shifted a step back.
Frey and Twig worked like dancers. With grace and precision, Frey would lunge in and slice a devastating blow, then pull free in time for her hulking partner to shatter skull plates in twain.
Even when they grew apart and weren’t close enough to take each other’s foes down, their movements seemed to be in tandem, ensuring that neither ever had an enemy at their back for long enough to matter. The petraforms couldn’t touch either of them, not while they were both standing.
Maggie just had to grit her teeth and go it alone. A staggering grenade from Lou gave her the occasional opportunity to move in and deal a fatal strike to one petraform, but another was always behind it.
And it was worse than just being surrounded on the ground. In the corners of her vision, she saw petraforms scaling the walls, their claws sinking into stone so they could get up high, making their way towards the team from an off-kilter direction that was hard to guard from.
Proximity charges planted by Darius blew some of them back, knocking them free of the wall and crashing down into their tide of peers, but there were more and more coming. When one fell down, another would climb up, and even being knocked off the wall was only a temporary delay.
Darius was doing his damndest to keep the monsters back, but his bag of tricks was running dry. Shaking a canister on his belt, he waited two seconds and lobbed it over the heads of the foremost petraforms where it burst, spraying out a cement-like goop. An object like a flare gun launched compressed nets that expanded and took down two or three targets at a time, costing them precious seconds as they had to rip themselves free, but that ran dry after only half a dozen shots.
From there, all he had left was his grappling hook and his gun. He could use both to their best possible effect, but against such durable, numerous opponents, that effect was hardly noticed.
Another grenade burst near Maggie, too close for comfort. “Watch it!” she yelped, jumping back and skewering a petraform. One monster charged her from the side and she had to drop the spear, whipping out her rapier and sinking the steel into the weak point of chitin at its throat.
She danced back again, abandoning her favored weapon for the rapier. The spear was quickly trampled over by advancing petraforms, taking it out of reach. Damn.
Deep at the back of the line, a queen roared, and Maggie made a mistake that saved her life.
Looking at the source of the roar was foolish. It took her eyes away from the monsters clawing for her throat, splitting her attention, making her vulnerable. Roars and crashes and booms were par for the course on a battlefield, and she shouldn’t have let herself be distracted by just one more noise, but…
She squinted into the hazy, dusty darkness, then yelped in surprise. “Get back!”
Turning, she dove to the side, pulling Frey down with her as she took cover. Twig, a few paces off to the side, would have to fend for herself. An enormous blob of purple-brown goo flew through the air just where her head had been and splashed into stone a few paces behind her. The puddle sizzled and popped, melting into rock like spray paint on Styrofoam.
They had dodged the projectile, but now they were on the ground, vulnerable. They had milliseconds before claws would start shredding into them and then they were done for.
“NOW!” Frey shouted, and Vera finally unleashed her spell.
Time slowed down again, but this time, it wasn’t just a metaphor. Everything around Maggie literally seemed to slow, as though they were moving through tar, but Maggie herself could move just fine. She rolled away and got to her feet, plucking her sword from the ground and taking a step back.
In contrast to even Maggie’s speed, Frey moved like a sped up film reel, nearly blurring as she got to her feet and attacked.
It hit Maggie, then, that time hadn’t been slowed. Rather, she had been sped up, and since Frey wasn’t loaded down with nearly as much preternatural steel as Maggie, she was able to take even greater advantage of the spell.
“You’ve only got a few seconds, real-time, of this!” Vera called. “Don’t waste it!”
Maggie’s brow furrowed. A few seconds real-time seemed to be a long time in the slowed-down state. It might not be enough time to get through the petraforms and make her way free—and, since the spell didn’t seem to effect Lou or Darius, she couldn’t just abandon them anyways—but it was enough time to strike a killing blow.
“I’m going in,” she said, raising her sword and running forward.
Petraforms saw her and reacted, but they moved like they were drugged and underwater. Maggie had speed on her side, and no matter how thick the monsters got, she could duck and weave around their claws with far more grace than she deserved.
She didn’t waste any time on the little ones. In the back, she could see the hulking petraform with a gaping appendage on its back, a fleshy, chitinous cannon, the source of the acid bomb that Maggie had narrowly avoided. It seemed to be wheeling to face her, but its speed was so slow that the motion was barely perceptible, and she was closing on the queen fast.
“Maggie, what are you doing?” Frey’s voice came in her ear at a strangely high pitch.
“Taking out a queen,” Maggie shot back.
Vera cut in. “My spell isn’t that good! You won’t have time to get back!”
“Then I’ll run out the other side and draw them away!” Maggie was only thirty paces away from the queen, her rapier out, ready to dive in and catch it through the eye.
She wasn’t certain if this would take down the queen with the acid cannon for good, but it seemed likely. If the queen didn’t have a chance to use the magic that would transfer its mind away before she poked its head full of holes, then it would just die.
And, if not, she’d have two swords with queen consciousnesses in them.
Twenty paces away now. A few petraforms had realized what she was doing and formed a barrier between her and the queen, but she jumped and kicked off one of their heads, taking advantage of their almost comical slowness. It wasn’t even charging through an enemy line; it was just hopping a low, stony fence.
In the corner of her eye, she saw the other queen. It had no cannon on its back, but spiky protrusions on its face reminded her of a Rhino’s tusks, and more razor lines on its chitin gave her the impression that tangling up close with that queen wouldn’t be a good idea.
I’ll leave you for later, she thought, charging the first one.
Ten paces away. Maggie stormed forward, readying with a strike that would kill a queen, and—
The ground collapsed beneath her. A layer of stone that had seemed identical to all the terrain around it broke under her weight, showing itself to be brittle and wafer thin.
Her momentum carried her forward, thin rock shattering against her armor, sending chips up into her face that stung where they hit. By the time her body collided with solid, firm stone, only her shoulders and up were above ground level, and she had to kick and flail her arms out to keep from falling straight down.
They’d made a hole. Invisible from above, but deadly to fall into, no matter how relatively fast she was moving.
Her sword clattered over the edge and fell. She heard it hit the sides a few times, but there was no resounding clang as it hit bottom. This hole was deep.
Boots scrabbled against the sheer side of the tunnel as she tried to get out, mindful that she was running out of time. There was just nothing to grab onto, and the smooth stone ground offered little traction to pull herself up and free.
Then, the petraforms started moving faster.
It wasn’t an instant thing. Their movements just shifted from ‘moving in tar’ to ‘moving in water’, and got faster from there. Petraforms were lunging towards her, their dives gaining speed in midair, threatening to rip her apart just as soon as they could touch her.
Maggie had no time to escape. Her only fleeting glimpse of hope was to let go.
She took a breath, braced herself, and—“Gotcha!”
A ball of energy wrapped around her chest and yanked her up, a sudden jerk into the air that got her clear just as time snapped back to full speed. Two petraforms narrowly missed her and, instead, dove headfirst into the hole, yowling as they fell.
“Get her back here, now!” Frey said.
“That was the burst I was saving for Lou,” Vera replied, pulling back on her magic and floating Maggie to the front line. “Lou’s gonna need another way down when we run.”
“On it,” Darius said, turning to run towards the scaffolding, his grappling hook out.
From her vantage point in the air as she floated to the team, Maggie could see how deep the petraform lines went.
Only… she couldn’t. Even from up high, with an unobstructed view deep into the corridor, werelight glowing from Vera’s spell… she couldn’t see the end of the lines.
Vera dropped her on the ground. The petraforms had pulled back for a moment, possibly confused by the burst of speed, possibly just to regroup and form a more solid line.
Frey asked a question. Maggie just shook her head. There were far, far too many. They couldn’t make it out, not when they were so horribly outnumbered.
“Your sword!” Frey shouted, grabbing Maggie’s shoulder and shaking her. “Dammit, Maggie, draw your sword!”
Maggie blinked. Right. Moving to obey, she grabbed Dane’s hilt without thinking.
The aluminum wrap on the handle had fallen off in the fighting, and she grabbed the hilt, closing a fist around it.
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