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Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Nineteen: Pain

Twig was screaming, and it hurt.

Like all things about the svartálfr, her very words coursed with pure, innate magic that could be contained but never quite tamed. 

When a svartálfr spoke, her very essence was projected to anyone that could hear. That was true, it seemed, whether it was a simple word or a guttural cry of unbearable pain. 

Twig’s essence had recently had a massive tusk jammed through its belly. 

Maggie didn’t know where she was. She was sitting upright, propped up against something rough and stony. Green light shone through her eyelids, and Twig’s bellowing was a painful distraction that stole any clear thoughts from her head. 

“Hold her down!” Vera shouted, her voice rough and ragged.

“I’m trying! She’s so—she’s strong!” A man. Lou. 

“Just sit on her!” Frey barked. “Keep her legs pinned!” 

Maggie opened her eyes. The light was coming from a glowing ball, floating over the four of them. Frey and Lou were struggling to hold back Twig’s flailing arms while Vera prepared a little magic, and if their grimaces were anything to go by, they were feeling Twig’s pain as much as Maggie was. Worse, even—Maggie had been inoculated to this sort of psychic attack in the worst way, and though this was bad, it wasn’t half the pain that Dane had put her through.

She tried to sit up, to stand. Her body didn’t react. 

She tried again. Her fingers twitched, but that was all. She couldn’t move; her body simply refused to act. All Maggie could do was watch.

Lou managed to get his full weight pressed down on Twig’s legs, and Frey had less trouble pinning the svartálfr’s arms, getting her roughly steady.

“Okay, charging!” Vera shouted, the palms of her earthy hands glowing red for a second as she pressed them into Vera’s exposed, bloody chest. A sharp shock of power coursed into Twig and she bucked, Vera’s palm prints burning into her skin. It was healing magic, but violent healing magic, a last resort effort when gentler spells simply wouldn’t work. 

“Again!” Frey said. “Hit her ag—”

I know!” Vera snapped, rubbing her hands together and recovering the angry glow. “Charged!” 

Another shock of magic. Lou was bucked into the air almost a foot but kept his hands in place, pinning Twig down. 

“One more!” Vera said. “Charged!” 

A final burst, and a final set of burned handprints on Twig’s chest, and the svartálfr finally went limp. Vera slumped back, exhausted.

Now that the screaming was stopped, Maggie felt new exhaustion run over her. There was still a bone-deep ache from her ears to her toes, but it was so minimal in contrast to the previous pains that she barely noticed it. 

She wanted to move. Hell, she needed to move. There was no time for weakness. Then again, her body was stubbornly insisting that she go back to sleep. Compromising, she focused on trying to move her hands. 

Again, all they did was twitch. She didn’t feel paralyzed, exactly, just utterly exhausted, muscle fatigue plaguing every part of her body. Had it not been for the supernatural assault from Twig’s screams, she wouldn’t even be awake. 

Alright, Maggie, she told herself. Stay calm. This isn’t permanent. You’re going to be okay. Just keep a level head. 

She didn’t totally believe her own reassurances, but it was enough to keep her from spiralling into a panic while she watched the rest of the team act. 

“That should keep her stable for a while,” Vera said, groaning as she got to her feet. “Now, come on. We need to get to Darius.” 

Frey glanced at Lou, then down at Twig, while Vera started working some other kind of magic.

“Darius?” Lou asked. 

“Yeah. Tall guy, pointed ears. He’s saved all our lives at least once,” Vera snapped, projecting a ray of magic onto the stone, some kind of elemental scan. “He isn’t here, so he must be buried. We’ve got to get to him.”

“He…” Lou frowned, scooting back on the ground. “Vera, he—”

Vera shot an angry look over her shoulder. “He’s injured. I know. That’s why it’s urgent.” 

Frey put a hand on the dryad’s shoulder. “Vera, he’s dead.”

Vera didn’t stop her scanning spell, and she didn’t look back. When she responded, her voice was small, rough, and very tired. “Maybe not. You didn’t get a good look. We have to try.” 

Pulling, Frey forced Vera to turn and look at her. “The tusk went right through his chest. There’s no way he survived that.” 

“He needs us!” Vera snapped. “I’m not going to give up on him.” 

“You felt it,” Frey said. “Same as me. He’s gone.” 

“He’s not,” Vera said. “He can’t be. Twig pulled through, maybe—”  

Stop.” Frey stepped closer, getting right in Vera’s face. “Vera, pull yourself together. You can’t waste your power right now. That’s an order.”

Vera’s body stiffened, and after a couple seconds, the magic in her hand winked out. “You’re ordering me to give up on our friend.” 

“I’m ordering you to conserve your power,” Frey said. “We may still need to fight our way out of here. We need you.” 

Nodding slightly, Vera lowered her hands, balling them into fists. After a lengthy breath, she raised them again, resuming the scanning spell. “Fine. I’m going to look for a space in the walls that we can tunnel through.” 

“Vera—” Frey started. 

The dryad shot her a look full of poison. They both knew that she was still searching for Darius, but Vera wouldn’t give up the pretense. 

Frey shook her head and walked away, nodding at Lou. “How much field experience do you have?”

“None, m-ma’am,” he conceded. “I’m new.” 

Scowling, Frey said, “Well, you’ll need to learn in a hurry. We need to take a stock of our supplies. What do you have?”

Lou blinked a couple times, looking like a deer in headlights. “I—”

“Weapons. Gear. Anything you’ve got, anything you were able to scrounge,” Frey snapped. 

“I dropped my gun,” Lou admitted, stammering. “Er, I’ve got a sidearm, but it’s not going to do anything against those things.”

“Communications?” Frey asked. 

“My comm pad wasn’t working before.”

“Check it again.” 

“Ma’am, I—” Lou looked over at Vera, his head shaking slightly. “I can’t do anything to help. I’m not—” 

Frey grabbed his arm, pulling him away from Vera, which incidentally brought them right next to where Maggie was still paralyzed on the floor, observing helplessly. 

“Listen.” Frey looked Lou in the eyes, her voice quiet but firm. “Three of us are either dead or incapacitated, and we can’t count on Vera right now. Right now, there’s absolutely nothing standing between at least half a dozen queens and the whole city, and absolutely nobody to warn them. We need to keep focused on our goal, and right now, you’re the most lucid help I’ve got.”

“But—”

No. No objections. We either keep focused and get out of here, or a hundred thousand people will die as a start.” She let him take that in for a moment. “Maybe we can get the humans to help, contact the Wizards Council, or just bring in more firepower from another fae stronghold, but we need to get a warning out first. Just hold it together for a few hours.” 

“What about the city defenses?” Lou asked, weakly. “They can hold off those things while everyone evacuates, right?” 

“They don’t have the tools to fight one queen, let alone six,” Frey said. “We were the main line of attack, and we didn’t have anything like the firepower necessary. Maybe they’ll be able to hold out for an hour. Maybe. But that’s just not enough time.” 

Having an idea, Maggie’s eyes darted down to her sheath. Dane had somehow made it back in place, the blade they were in was right where it belonged on her belt. Maggie couldn’t bear the thought of using it again, of letting Dane into her mind unfiltered, but they might have an idea of how to escape. If Frey could just pick up the sword, though, maybe she would have the fortitude to get a few thoughts through. 

Lou looked away from Frey’s intense gaze. “I just don’t see how I can help.”

“You’re smart, or Darius wouldn’t have picked you for his team. You know how to use a weapon, and—”

“Ma’am,” he said. “Wait—”

“No. I don’t want to hear any excuses—”

“No! Look, Maggie.” He pointed.

Frey blinked, looking down at Maggie. Maggie looked back up, her body still too exhausted to move. 

“Are you awake?”

Uh, how do I explain this? Maggie thought. She could twitch her fingers, move her eyes, and blink. To make sure that the message got through, she did all three.

“Vera!” Frey snapped, turning. “Get over here!” 

Vera shot a glare over her shoulder, but realized after a moment that she was being called over for a good reason. Hesitantly, she gave up her search and jogged across the small space. “What’s wrong?”

“Maggie’s awake, but she can’t move,” Frey said. “See if you can help her.”

Calling up a light, Vera crouched, shining it in Maggie’s eyes. Maggie winced and shut them.

“She’s responsive,” Vera said. “Maggie, blink once for yes and twice for no. Got it?”

Maggie blinked once. 

“I’m going to use a spell to diagnose what’s wrong. Don’t…” Vera trailed off, shaking her head. “I was going to say ‘don’t move’, but never mind.” Putting a hand on Maggie’s forehead, she closed her eyes and focused.

After a second, she gasped and pulled away. “Goddamn, that’s a lot of trauma.” 

Maggie’s eyes widened in terror. What?

Frey vocalized the question. “What happened?”

“Psychic trauma,” Vera clarified. “It’s like… honestly, it looks like the aftereffects of a possession. Something deeply wrong trying to force its way into her mind, and she only barely fought it off.” 

“Can you fix her?” Frey asked.

“She’s not moving because of tissue damage. Every muscle in her body clenched as much as it possibly could; I think there’s some broken ribs in there too. I can heal that, but if her mind is fractured, that’s beyond me.” 

“Do it,” Frey ordered. 

“If I do,” Vera said, looking back at her. “I’ll be out of magic. I’m running on fumes as it is, I won’t have anything left to heal…” 

Do it,” Frey insisted. 

Vera scowled, but obeyed. “Maggie, I hope you’re not totally fried in there. Brace yourself, this is going to hurt.” 

Maggie would have shrugged if her shoulders had the energy. It was hard to conceive of a pain that would be worse. 

With a moment to conjure power, Vera cast her spell. There was pain, but it was the cathartic kind; peroxide on an open wound. It burned, but as the fire moved through her muscles, they relaxed and regained their strength.

She could move. She was still tired, still bruised, but she could at least move, and she slumped against the rocks. 

“Thanks,” Maggie said, nodding to Vera. 

“Don’t thank her yet,” Frey said. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”  

Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Eighteen: Collapse

July 1951

The forge had flooded.

That wasn’t fair. The entire city had flooded.

But that city included the forge. 

“It’s fine, Maggie. I’ll go talk to Hopkins. He’ll understand,” Cyrus had promised her. “I’ve been making good on my payments for years, keeping up. The bills have stayed paid. He’ll recognize that we can’t control an act of the earth.”

He’d left to go talk to Hopkins. To explain. To give an apology and receive a payment extension.

Instead, he’d left behind two teeth and been given a black eye. 

Now it was Maggie’s turn, but she wasn’t going to Hopkins to talk. She wanted to kill him. 

Present Day

Maggie felt pain and alien thoughts shoot through her mind as Dane overrode her completely. She was weary, and Dane was energized, given strength from all the petraforms nearby.

Dane, no, stop—

You are mighty Maggie

What are you—

You killed me

Stop—

Now I protect you

She drew—No. She wasn’t in control. 

Dane drew her sword and charged. 

Long Before

The Least of Them shuddered back as another blast of fire rocked their carapace. They served their master, true. The one who conquered their mind, their creator, The Greatest by Far. 

But there were limits to service. The Least of Them had seen their siblings fall, seen as the brutal machinations of mortal sorcery bound their minds, sealing and shattering them. The true death. The death that even The Greatest by Far feared.

And those mortals had returned.

The Least of Them would serve. They would send their horde out to face the enemy in perpetuity, letting the chaff die as quickly as it could be spawned, but they didn’t want to die, not to Truly Die. 

Death was coming, and they knew it. 

1951

Maggie kicked in the door. 

Dammit.

Maggie tried to kick in the door. It was sturdier than it looked, and even a second kick didn’t take it down. 

Before she could kick a third time, someone opened the door for her.

It ruined her entrance, but she didn’t care. She sloshed in through ankle deep water, making a beeline towards Hopkins, sitting at the far end of his bar and nursing a drink.

Glancing up, he surely saw her expression, but he smiled at her anyways. “It’s the little Cyrus!” he called, using his beer to gesture down at the water. “Roll up your pants and have a drink, child. Sorry I can’t do anything about the water.” 

She hadn’t expected the bar to be in full operation, but apparently, if the water had receded enough to stand, it was low enough for business. A dozen regulars were drinking, playing cards, filling up the bar. Mostly elves, mostly not bothering to hide the tips of their ears, but a few humans as well.

Maggie took out her blade, letting the steel sing and draw the eyes of every patron.

It was the first true sword she’d forged. A hand-and-a-half sword, big enough to use two hands on it, small enough it could be held in one. She liked how it felt in her grip. She’d even named it; Ripper. 

“I’m not here to drink,” Maggie said, her voice almost a growl. “I’m here to fight.” 

Present 

Maggie’s mind held both her thoughts, Dane’s, and every petraform around her. She didn’t just know what they were going to do, she dictated it. 

Dane slashed through petraforms like a windmill. Their charge was furious, and though their siblings fought for control of the nearest spawn, Dane could hold the other two at bay. Enough that they could slash the chaff down, using themself, the blade that was also them, slaying Maggie’s enemies with fervor. 

1951

The bar laughed. Hopkins didn’t even get from his feet. “Child, sit down. Your master and I just had a discussion that got out of hand.”

“You’re a thief!” Maggie shot back, sloshing forward a step closer to Hopkins, only a few paces away. 

She noticed when the rest of the bar reacted, all of them flinching just a touch until Hopkins gave them a look of dismissal. “What did I steal?”

“You took Cyrus’s money!” she shouted. “You took his home, his forge, you made him work like a dog just to keep paying you! You ruined him!” 

Twenty years of failure. Twenty years of barely scraping by, struggling to make ends meet while Hopkins raked in their money. Maggie had finally learned how much Cyrus owed Hopkins, and it was five times what he’d borrowed. 

Hopkins smirked, sipping his beer. “Cyrus agreed to every deal we made.” 

“Well, you didn’t have to make that deal so unfair!” 

Everyone laughed again. 

Maggie’s face burned, and her eyes were wet.

“Your sword!” She screamed, jabbing a finger at him. “You stole your sword!” 

That at least got him to raise his eyebrow. “I paid for it, Maggie.”

“But you never fought for it!” She shot, leveling Ripper at him. “It’s no true Cyrus steel unless you’ve fought and proved your worth, and you’re not worth more than a piece of trash.” 

Hopkins’ face hardened, and he looked across the bar. The sword he’d paid for, a fine piece of steel, was hung above a rack of whiskey bottles. It was a decoration to him. He pointed, and the elf barkeep took it down.

“You want to fight me, to prove I’m not ‘worthy’ of the blade?” he asked. 

I want to drive my sword through your belly for hurting Cyrus, Maggie thought. “Yes.” 

He took the blade from the bartender, swishing it through the air. “Then we’ll fight.” 

Before

A blast of pure power hit The Least of Them. It was painful, but they were protecting their master from the evil races of men, the ones who would bring the True Death.

It was a losing battle. They knew that. Some of the true great ones, the gods even to The Greatest by Far, had already left this world. Men were growing too wise, and they’d crafted weapons too mighty. 

This would be their final battle. 

1951

Maggie raised Ripper, the blade shimmering in the bar. She could see her own reflection in the water, rippling every time someone moved.

Hopkin’s men—and they were his men, she’d been stupid to think they were patrons—watched and jeered. Hopkins himself stood, shrugged out of his vest, and downed his beer.

I’m going to kill you, even if they kill me in turn, she thought. Make it look like a duel, knock your guard aside, and—

Hopkins kicked in the water suddenly, splashing it up at Maggie and getting it in her eyes. She winced back and moved a hand up to her face on instinct, trying to wipe her vision clear, and in that moment, Hopkins lunged and struck aside her blade. 

She stumbled back, balance thrown by the water around her ankles, and fell. Landing with a tremendous splash, she dropped her sword and barely had room to even scoot back as Hopkins stalked forward, leveling his blade at her eyes. 

“Proof enough?” Hopkins asked while the bar jeered. 

Maggie glared, reaching out and grabbing her sword from the water. With a furious swipe, she slashed up, knocking his blade to the side, buying her a moment to scream and shove forward. She slammed her shoulder into his chest and they both fell back, rolling on the floor, in the water. 

A fist hit her head, ringing her thoughts for a moment, and she rolled away, staggering up. 

She was dripping wet, weighed down by cotton clothes that had soaked through, but she had her sword.

Hopkins, similarly drenched, adjusted his grip on his blade. This wasn’t a game for him anymore. He was up against an opponent he had to fear.

Good, Maggie thought. I want you to be afraid.

Dane, Maggie, the sword, the arm holding the sword, the mind, hacked their way through the petraforms. Their thoughts were screaming. It hurt so badly she wanted to scream, but Dane was the one running things, and they didn’t see any reason to use her mouth. 

DANE! 

I’m protecting you—

Dane, you have to stop! Please! 

Another mind showed up. The third sibling, the one in the walls. It added its mind to the control of the chaff—the petraforms—and Dane’s control was shaken. They could still see the movements, yes, but they couldn’t stagger the beasts around them while they cut them down anymore. 

They were distantly aware that, behind them, more chaff were coming up in the tunnel that they’d made. Behind the elves, surrounding them. One elf, from up high, was firing explosives down into the hole, knocking the petraforms back, but only delaying the inevitable. 

Elsewhere, a queen—the one with spikes and tusks and razor-sharp chitin—was charging forward, breaking through the lines and taking the fight into its own hands. It was driving towards Twig, intent on running her down and goring her. 

Recognizing the danger, they began to retreat, unaware of the tears pouring down her face. 

Maggie lunged, kicking up water as she did, going for a killing blow. Reckless in a practice duel, but a good way to ensure a painful death if it hit.

Hopkins sidestepped and knocked her aside with a shove, swinging his blade at her leg. She parried, barely, staggering in the water. Her hip bumped up against a barstool, and she looked back, realizing she’d been cornered. 

More jeers, alongside shouts of encouragement directed at Hopkins. She struck out again, both hands on the hilt of Ripper, aiming for Hopkins’ throat. 

Again, he batted her attack away with his blade. It took less effort this time, and this time he stepped forward, a powerful fist burying itself in her belly. She gasped, the wind knocked out of her, and stumbled away.

He had lost his fear, but maybe—

Before she could even build the momentum for another lunge, he raised his sword and brought the flat of it against the side of her head, smacking her so hard that everything went black.

Run. We have to run. I’m sorry.

The Least of Them huddled with its remaining siblings, feeling the sharp pain of loss as another one of them was taken away forever. 

The Greatest by Far understood. Their chaff were all but used up. They had no strength to continue the fight, and they’d already lost so many siblings. 

Though they wanted nothing more than to take vengeance upon the men, upon the mortals who’d bound and brought the true death to their gates, that could not happen. Not today. Maybe not ever. 

They channeled their power, together. The spell to flee would use all their collective might and leave them unable to return under their own power. They would have to hope that another of the true great ones would be able to turn the tide, and that they would be found and released.

Opening up a hole, they dropped themselves deep into the earth and closed it behind them.

I can’t win this. I’m sorry. I tried. 

Maggie blinked, wincing as she found her eyes open and underwater. Her face was pressed into the floor, and though she could hear splashes and jeers, she couldn’t stand and breathe.

“I know you came to kill me,” Hopkins said, his voice clear in her ears. 

The water was only three or four inches deep, but when she tried to pull free, a hand held her down. A strong hand on the back of her head. Keeping her face in the water.

“You thought I didn’t play fair, that I didn’t deserve what I had,” Hopkins said. “But I earned this. I earned all of it, and do you want to know how?”

Maggie thrashed, legs kicking, trying to find leverage to get free of Hopkin’s grasp, but she was tired, and dazed, and she couldn’t breathe. She had no strength left to fight, and even if she had, he was just so strong.

“I took it,” Hopkins hissed. His mouth had to be an inch from her ear, but she couldn’t look to see. “I took it from weaker men who couldn’t stop me. Men like Cyrus.”

She bucked and thrashed, but there was just no getting away. No air. Her vision was getting dark.

His voice was barely a whisper, but she heard it clearly. “And girls like you.” 

“Stop!” 

Please. It hurts. I just want it to stop.

There’s one more thing I can do.

Stepping back, Maggie and Dane raised the sword up high and plunged it down into the stone. A shock wave of energy was thrown back, raw magical force of a primordial vintage, and the stone shook.  

Twig was rocked by the queen who had charged her, a tusk driving through her armor and into her belly. With a buck, the queen tossed Twig into the wall, cracking stone where she hit, and then she readied to charge again.

“NO!” Darius cried, firing his grappling hook right at the queen. The hook wrapped around its largest horn and he was pulled towards it, so fast it seemed like he was flying. 

“Darius, pull back!” Frey shouted. “You can’t—”

“I’m not out of charges yet!” Darius called back, yanking one last grenade from his belt.

Maggie could only watch, and hurt, and channel power through her arms that rattled the earth to its core. 

The force on Maggie’s neck released, and she lifted her head, sucking in air. 

Cyrus had arrived. His own sword, a blade he’d had as long as Maggie had known him, was on his belt. “Don’t hurt her,” he said.

“Your girl came to kill me,” Hopkins said, standing and wiping his wet hands on his equally wet shirt. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“She’s young, and stupid,” Cyrus said. “If she got the wrong impression, that’s my fault. Besides, if you kill her, she can’t forge anymore.” 

“I’ve still got you,” Hopkins said, reaching out and taking another beer from the elf behind the bar. “And maybe I don’t need any more swords.” 

Maggie just panted on the ground, exhausted rage still bubbling up. “Bastard…” she half groaned. 

Hopkins kicked her, and Cyrus winced. “You can let her go. I’ll pay you back for this, along with everything else. If she did something wrong, punish me for it.” 

“How much for the sword?” Hopkins asked. 

Cyrus pulled the blade from his belt, sheath and all, offering it. “Take it.”

“Not yours.” Hopkins pointed down at Maggie’s blade, still shimmering beneath a layer of flood water. “Hers.”

“Not… for sale…” Maggie whimpered.

In Hopkins eyes, she saw glee. She’d said the wrong thing. 

“I think it’s time we clear your debt,” Hopkins said, snapping at one of his men. “I’ll take your sword.” 

A man hopped forward, taking Cyrus’s blade. Cyrus let him, the corners of his mouth turning down, the wrinkles on his face looking very deep as he saw what was happening.

“If this sword isn’t for sale, it must be pretty priceless,” Hopkins added, stepping over Maggie so he could bend and pick it up. “That’s good for maybe half of what you owe.”

“I don’t have the other half, Hopkins,” Cyrus said quietly. 

“So, I’ll take your forge, and everything in it,” Hopkins said. “I know there’s some mostly finished blades in there, and some good steel. That should settle the rest.” 

Maggie knew what that meant. Cyrus had no money, and he couldn’t just open up a new forge if his old one was taken away. He was going to be utterly ruined by this. More than just owing a debt, he would truly have nothing.

And it was Maggie’s fault. Maybe Cyrus had a plan, or some money stashed away in secret, some way to fix this.

“And one more thing,” Hopkins said. “This still doesn’t settle what your girl tried to do to me.” Snapping his fingers at his men once more, he said, “Grab him.”

Hopkins’ men obeyed their orders.

“Break his hands,” Hopkins instructed. “I don’t want this old, washed-up vagrant ever forging again.”

Maggie held her breath, waiting for Cyrus to pull something out of his hat.

Again, Hopkins’ men obeyed their orders.  

Darius landed on the queen’s face, leaning heavily against the grappling cable for support as she bucked and bellowed. Raising the readied grenade, he timed his throw perfectly, sending the explosive weapon straight down her roaring gullet. The queen’s alien face managed to register visual confusion as she staggered back, utterly perplexed as to what she had just swallowed. 

Then the grenade blew. Nearly all of the force was contained within her impenetrable exoskeleton, and the only escape points for the pressure were overloaded. Dark ichor sprayed from her mouth. Her eyes bulged and then burst out in a grisly flourish, the force of the expulsion knocking Darius off her face and onto the ground. 

Power started to congeal in the air around her face as the queen lurched, motes of werelight swirling like flies around her empty eye sockets. Despite it all, she wasn’t quite dead yet, and the spell that would transfer her consciousness had begun.

Then she blindly lurched forward, driving a razor-sharp tusk into Darius’s chest. His body shifted, his arms twitched, and then he just… stopped moving.

Maggie’s knife fell out of his hand, he’d been preparing to drive the blade into the queen’s eye. 

“NO!” Vera screamed. 

A pulse of power shot out from Maggie’s sword a second time, stronger than the first. 

The cave collapsed. 

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Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Seventeen: The Storm

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.

Pain.

Pain.

PAIN.

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Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Sixteen: The Calm Before

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. 

Dane?

They are coming for you Maggie they do not like that you killed me

I know. How many of you?

Three

Only three? That’s not very many.

Three siblings

Oh

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.

Frey blinked. 

From the back, Vera shouted, “Wait, wha—” 

Another booming bellow rattled the walls of the cave.  

The petraforms charged. 

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Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Fifteen: Rescue Efforts

“… 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…

Ding. 

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.” 

“What’s wrong?” 

“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?

Yes Maggie 

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.” 

Show me.

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.