Frey swung her sword like a scythe, wide and powerful, in a guarding sweep to force the beasts away. She held her stance, low and terrifying, like a mother wolf protecting her young.
“Dammit, Maggie!” She bellowed. “Get on your feet!”
Five seconds ago, Maggie had been convinced she was about to die, and her body hadn’t yet caught up to the program. It took a force of will to kick herself back into gear, pushing up and raising her knife in a tight fist.
The petraforms seemed disinterested in attacking for the moment. They’d retreated, slightly, into a ring around the queen. Two warriors, it seemed, were enough to make them cautious.
“Where’s Darius?” Maggie tentatively put weight down on her hurt leg to see how it would hold, never taking her eyes off the cautious petraforms.
As if on cue, a rumbling explosion echoed from the pit, and the former head of containment zipped out on a grapple line. He didn’t leap gracefully off the line, but instead just pulled himself all the way up, clipping to the basketball goal he’d grappled to.
“That should buy us thirty seconds!” he shouted down, unslinging the sniper rifle from his back.
More explosions boomed out of the hole, each one making the gym floor shake.
“How many?” Maggie asked, tightening her grip on the knife. Her voice was wavering. “How many are coming?”
“Best I can figure,” Frey replied, holding out her sword. “The whole nest.”
Eyes darting around the room, Maggie located her swords. One was behind the ring of hissing monsters, but the other was over next to the upright bleachers.
“I’ll be right back.” Moving slowly, not wanting to startle the petraforms into action, she began edging towards it. If she could get a proper blade before the music started again, their odds of making it out alive would be significantly higher.
As she edged towards the bleachers, a razor-clawed hand reached out of the pit. A petraform clambered out, shuffling forward on all fours to join the defensive ring around the queen.
Another came up behind it, and another. Five more. Ten. An army of densely packed claws, teeth, and stony armor.
Maggie’s foot bumped the edge of the bleachers, and she stole a glance down. Her sword was a couple feet to the side, and she knelt, scooping it up, slipping her knife back in its pouch. That done, she began shuffling back towards Frey.
The monsters didn’t charge. Even as the stream of reinforcements slowed to a trickle and the wall of petraforms grew to be four layers thick, the petraforms stayed defensive.
“What are they doing?” Maggie asked quietly.
Frey glanced up. “Darius, got any ideas?”
He was looking from target to target with his rifle, but not firing. “I can’t tell,” he said. “What’s that thing in the big one’s back?”
“It’s what remains of my spear,” Maggie said. “I pricked the queen good, but she’s too hardy to go down to just one hit.”
“The queen,” Darius repeated, rolling around the name for a moment. “Okay, that works. What’s our bugout plan if this all goes pear shaped?”
Frey glanced at Maggie. “Don’t need one. We can take them.”
Maggie started to reply to the negative, but she quickly got what Frey really meant.
They couldn’t evacuate and run. They were the line of defense against these monsters, and if they bugged out, nothing would stop the petraforms from rolling through Kansas City Below and killing as they pleased.
As this thought crossed her mind, though, the other interpretation of Frey’s statement hit her. The patter of light feet and combat boots sounded from the doorway behind them, and she turned her head just enough to glance that way.
The cavalry, as it were, was riding over the hill. Twig sprinted on ahead, joining their lineup in the front, while Vera stayed back to offer magical support. The whole gang was together.
“I count fifty-two hostiles, including the big one,” Darius shouted down from his perch. “That’s only ten to one.”
“That’s ten to one,” Vera called. “Why are they holding back?”
Maggie paused in thought, then shifted her weight forward and turned her blade to make the gym’s fluorescent light flash off the steel.
The wave of bristling claws and chitin moved like a single unit, their posture shifting to face Maggie, to make sure there were as many bodies as possible between her and…
“The queen,” Maggie said. “They’re protecting the queen. They’re going to retreat.”
“Piss on that,” Darius said. “They don’t get to come and go as they please.”
“We could use the chance to regroup, don’t be too excited for a fight,” Frey cautioned, watching the mass of monsters.
While she said it, the queen started shuffling backwards, taking a lumbering step towards the pit. Her guard moved with her, shifting a couple feet at a time, watching its exit. The back of the swarm moved around the edge of the pit as they reached it, extending the wall of bodies so that the queen had a clean exit path.
“I’m with Darius,” Vera called from the back of the room. “All respect, ma’am, you haven’t seen the extent of the damage. They don’t get to leave.”
Frey glanced between Twig and Maggie. Twig gave a short, curt nod. Maggie set her jaw in defiance.
“We need a plan, then,” Frey said. “Maggie, are you confident in a wedge formation?”
“No,” Maggie said, eyeing the spearhead still jutting out of the queen’s back. She wanted it back, and they wouldn’t be prying it free of the queen if it was alive.
Frey followed her gaze, her face flashing with insight. “Twig. You know how to put in a tent stake?”
Twig flashed her teeth in a defiant smile, waited for a nod from Frey, and then leaped into the air.
Not for the first time in her life, Maggie was jealous of the svartálfr’s grace. Twig didn’t need a handhold to keep her balance on the queen’s back, she just planted her feet, raising her hammer to strike.
A single, powerful blow drove the spearhead eight inches deeper into the queen’s back, so far down that the flared base designed to keep the spear from going too deep actually went into the thick chitin, along with the remaining two inches of handle.
The queen screamed, a sound that made Maggie’s teeth stand on edge, and every single petraform turned and swarmed at Twig.
Jumping preternaturally high, Frey kicked off of nothing, bursts of wind blasting from her shoes as she ran on air to support Twig. From behind, Vera swooped in on a current of power, throwing down bolts of energy to tangle and bind up the swarm. From above, Darius dropped the line that held him clipped up high, swinging down like Tarzan to drop a pair of explosive charges into the deepest parts of the horde before grappling away.
Maggie hefted her sword, grumbling. Everyone’s got tricks but me.
The horde was focused on revenge for the critical wound Twig had just dealt. It wasn’t just a desire to deal with the greatest threat, they were frenzied and focused with a horrific level of single-mindedness.
And not a single petraform was looking at Maggie.
While the rest of the party battled atop or floating above the queen, Maggie started cutting her way in from the back, encountering almost no resistance save for the force she had to exert to drive her sword through chitin.
She wasn’t a hunter anymore, she was a butcher, hacking through a stony tide to get to the rest of the fighting.
Near the head of the queen, Frey took her sword and plunged it into the space between two plates, adding to the wounds on the giant beast, and adding to the targets that the petraforms were diving at with a fury. Twig continued knocking them away like a switch hitter at batting practice, and it was looking like they would be able to keep this up easily, keeping the swarm at bay until there weren’t any left standing.
Maggie made it through the line, clearing the space between her and the queen, making a moment of brief eye contact with the beast.
It was hard to read an alien face. Its eyes were black pools with deep red veins, and Maggie wasn’t even sure if it had a nose. Still… she thought she recognized a deep, animalistic fear in its face.
We cut off its flight, she realized, interpreting its expression. It’s desperate.
The queen roared out a lingering basso cry, and its eyes flared with sudden fire as its body went stiff and it began to work power.
Maggie had felt the magic when Vera brought it out, but this was deeper. Older. The power it was wielding wasn’t coming from the earth.
Whatever it was trying to do, Maggie didn’t want to stand around and gawk until the spell was complete. As long as it was frozen in a roar, its mouth was open.
She stepped forward, raised her sword, and stabbed it right through the throat, angling her blade up so it’d carve towards where a brain would typically live.
The queen lurched, stopped, and then the light in its eyes went out.
There were still more than a dozen petraforms swarming to get to the rest of the team, too single minded to notice that they’d already failed in their task. Their queen was dead. Only when the queen’s body slumped forward and settled with a heavy WHUMP did they get the picture.
The petraforms staggered back, confused. For the first time since Maggie had encountered the monsters, they suddenly looked uncertain, maybe even in shock. They didn’t know what to do now that their queen was dead.
The team, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do. Unsteady, hesitant petraforms were easy targets, and Frey kept up her relentless assault against them, supported by the rest of her team.
Maggie planted a boot on the queen’s chin and pushed, using the leverage to get her blade free. She didn’t need to defend herself; nothing was attacking. Adrenaline was still coursing through her as she took a couple steps back, watching for any monsters that might be coming.
Only one did, and it appeared to be fleeing more than charging. She cut it down.
For the rest, she just watched the team work. There wasn’t much else she needed to do.
Her leg started shaking, then stopped taking her weight completely. God, it hurts. When did it get hurt?
She blinked. She was hurt in a lot of places, she realized. Some injuries she could remember getting, others that she couldn’t. Now that there was no adrenaline coursing through her system and she was safe, her body was sending up pain flares all over.
One thought struck out to her, though.
I’m a fool.
Her proposal to Blanche had been ridiculous. There was no way in hell she could have done this all on her own and lived to tell the tale. Maybe, if she played it cautious and engaged them a couple petraforms at a time, but if she’d done that, then nobody would have been around to evacuate the school.
Not a single petraform got away. Once the coast was clear, and the only monsters in the region were dead, Frey and strode to Maggie’s side. “You need medical?”
“I’m fine,” Maggie said automatically. After a moment of hesitation, though, she shook her head. “Yes, I do. I can walk, but… yes, I do.” Her thoughts felt a little sluggish, in comparison to the lightning reflexes and energy she’d felt in combat.
Reaching down, Frey offered her a hand, calling over her shoulder. “How close is medical?”
Darius dropped to the ground, checking the readout on his wrist. “They’re right outside. Already helping the wounded.”
Pulling Maggie to her feet, Frey nodded. “If you’re hurt, go get patched up. Otherwise, help me do a sweep for injured and pull them out. We did good, but the day’s not over yet.”