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.”
“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.”