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Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Five: Affairs In Order

Maggie woke up a little before eleven. She was still tired, and she had very deliberately chosen not to set an alarm. Let her shop be closed all day—she had more serious problems to worry about, like what had dared wake her up when she had intended to sleep in late.

Her replacement phone was ringing, a cheerful little chirping sound.

“Hello?” she asked, trying her best to sound like she hadn’t just woken up.

“Maggie? This is Darius, with the containment unit. We met yesterday.”

“You saved my life,” Maggie remembered. “Do we have a meeting time?” 

“Tomorrow. We’re getting a late start, so be down at the service entrance at ten. We’ll go over debriefing and tactical plans from there.”

“Should I plan on being away for a few days?” Maggie asked, sitting up in bed.

“If you have any pets, you might want to have someone to check in on them, but if all goes well, we’ll be in and out before sundown,” Darius said. 

“All never goes well. I’ll plan on being down for two days,” Maggie said.

That gave her the rest of the day to put her affairs in order.

No, that sounds too morbid.

That gave her two days to prepare for battle. 

Better. 

She got to work.

Her armor was expensive and hadn’t seen much use. She had it made in the eighties, custom cut and fit out of Kevlar to cover her chest, belly, throat, and shoulders, with hardened strike plates in the most sensitive areas. It didn’t restrict her motion, and it’d protect her from disembowelment if one of those things got too close. 

Maggie tried it on, inspecting the fit in the mirror and smiling. Working her body, exercising, and general athleticism had paid off—after forty years, it was still a perfect fit. She barely even needed to adjust the straps.

Transporting her weapons was a little trickier. She would normally load them up in her truck and drive straight there, but since she’d be taking public transportation, carrying around an arsenal of swords wouldn’t be an option. Magic was tricky around the starmetal she forged with, and though she dabbled, Maggie was no expert in glamours. She’d need a mundane solution. 

A bus ride up to the music shop on Broadway solved her problems. Using most of the money she’d gotten from Levi, she picked up a hard case for the largest instrument they had—the double bass. With some judicious use of Velcro, tape, and some old insulation for padding, she made a perfectly serviceable storage solution for all of her weapons that would look discreet in public. 

All that ready, Maggie did some basic exercises to refresh herself on combat styles she hadn’t been practicing, drank three shots of Jim Beam to fall asleep easily, and went to bed before the sun was down. 

In the morning, it was just a quick bus ride to Union Station, and an even quicker walk to the elevator in the back that served as her easiest access to the city below. 

Pushing down the ‘Door close’, ‘door open’, ‘2’, and ‘3’ buttons all at the same time, she waited for a moment, then felt the elevator move down. 

Deep, deep down. 

The city below had a few bits of construction near the surface, but those were out of favor. Humans had dug tunnels around the city back in the day, and every time they intersected with fae architecture, it required new illusions, interventions to hide their work, and the evacuation of the old tunnels. 

Using magic to cut through stone, they’d burrowed deep enough to be free of any human influence. 

Not every fae settlement was like this, and each bloodline had their own preferences. Dryads had built sprawling forest settlements, illusory structures that flitted between trees like wind, and Naiads could hide from humans in the oceans. Some of her cousins, without inhuman physiology, chose simply to live with the humans, blending in among them, and Maggie had adopted that for herself, though in her case it required covering her ears and the occasional bit of magic to hide her true nature. 

Hiding in the earth, though, was the old way, the way that her people favored above all else. 

The elevator rattled as it continued to sink, almost half a mile below the surface. When it settled, Maggie took a breath, stepping out into one of the entry corridors and rolling her instrument case through the quiet access hall. 

Maggie liked the solitude. It might have been quicker to take a more well-worn thoroughfare, but she wanted to keep things straight forward. She wasn’t here to socialize, she was here to fight, get paid, and leave. 

Two back tunnels and another much shorter elevator ride later, and she was back at the service entrance where this whole mess had started to begin with. A few hundred feet past the titanium door was the spot where she’d fought for her life, and a bit past that was the engine and, no doubt, the remains of her truck. 

She’d meant to arrive early, but was the last one there. A team of four other fae in disparate outfits were all setting up for combat; stretching, checking weapons, reviewing battle runes for spells. Maggie spotted Darius in his tactical commando gear, looking a little wearier but no less alert than she remembered. He was standing tall with a laden backpack full of equipment and a sniper rifle, and Maggie approached him, propping up the bass case on its side. 

“You’re leading this shindig?” she asked, sticking out her hand. 

“No ma’am,” he replied, exchanging grips and smiling. “Coordinating, not leading. I’ve got the scout reports from my containment team, but we’re not equipped to go in and exterminate the petraforms.” 

Maggie raised an eyebrow. “Petraforms?” 

From behind Darius, an elf maybe a decade older than Maggie turned away from the map she’d been inspecting. “What we’re calling the monsters. We can’t just keep saying ‘the monsters’ in all our reports. You’re Cartwright?” 

Nodding, Maggie went to shake with her, but instead she got a two-fingered salute by way of greeting. 

“I’m Frey. I’ll be leading the strike team,” she said, lowering her hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Good to have you on board,” Darius added, nodding and returning to prepping his gear.

“Heard good things, I hope,” Maggie said, nodding down to the gilded scabbard on Frey’s belt. “Steel?”

“I’m not just an armchair general,” Frey said, skipping past the first comment and focusing on the second. “I’ll be leading the fight, with you. You’ll be helping me hold the point and deal damage, while the rest of the team gives us support. How much experience do you have fighting in groups?” 

“Mostly theoretical,” Maggie admitted, eyeing the hilt with a hint of curiosity. “But from what I’ve heard, most swords are going to bounce right off. What are you carrying?” 

Frey’s mouth quirked up at a corner. “You’re asking if it’s your steel.”

“Not mine, but… yes.”

The leader drew her blade with a grin, and the rippled steel shimmered in the cheap fluorescent lights of the service tunnel. The metal sang, and Maggie could recognize the craftsmanship at once, even without seeing the eagle etched near the base of the blade; a maker’s mark that she knew almost as well as her own.

She reached out her hand. “May I?” 

Frey gave it eagerly, almost excitedly, passing the hilt to Maggie for inspection. She took it, holding up the blade.

“Cyrus made this,” Maggie said, judging the weight. Perfectly balanced, like she’d known it would be. “It’s old, you must be a prodigy.”

Frey cocked her head ever so slightly, the tips of her ears twitching. “How do you mean?”

“I started apprenticing in my twenties,” Maggie said. “And I don’t recognize the steel. If you earned a blade before then, you had to have been young.” 

“I didn’t get it from Cyrus,” Frey said, frowning. 

“Ah,” Maggie said, furrowing her brow. “Your swordmaster passed it on to you when they retired?” 

“I bought it,” Frey said, reaching out her hand to take the blade back. “From a collector who had no idea what he’d picked up.” 

Brow furrowing, Maggie looked at the blade a little longer.

Frey kept her hand out, patient, but imploring.

Reluctantly, Maggie passed it back. “Who else have we got?” 

“You already met Darius,” Frey said, sheathing the blade and gesturing to the two in the corner. “Then we’ve got Twig and Vera.” 

On the left, a willowy dryad with deep, mottled brown-and-green skin and hair like ivy was loading up gemstones onto a wrist strap. Next to her stood a fae who was about six foot four, as broad as a bear, and rippling with muscles. Her hair was cut to a narrow buzz, and there was a tattoo of a hammer on her shoulder which Maggie caught a glimpse of before it was covered by some sort of black, flexible armor. 

Technically, Maggie had no way to be certain that the huge woman was a svartálfr, but she’d bet a fair bit on it. Chuckling wryly, she asked, “Which one’s Twig?” 

The svartálfr stepped forward, offering a wordless fae salute in greeting. 

Maggie paused. “Nice to meet you, Twig.” 

Twig nodded, bowing a couple inches, while the dryad—Vera—walked up and offered the greeting salute. 

“I need to see your weapon,” she said bluntly. 

Maggie hesitated. “Why?” 

Vera scowled. “Because I can’t do my job if I don’t see it.” 

“Vera needs to adjust her wards to work around the starmetal,” Frey explained. “Had to do the same thing with my blade.”

“Right,” Maggie said, stepping back to her case and popping it open. “Well, hopefully you’ll be able to work with me if I mix and match. I brought options.” 

Opening it, she revealed her whole arsenal, its combined gleam outshining Frey’s blade by an order of magnitude. The whole room paused, looking on with awe, while she bent to get out her armor and dress for battle. It was as though she’d opened up the case to reveal a secret Monet hidden inside, or maybe a stack of gold bars that were rife for the taking should she fall in battle.

Maggie decided to believe it was the first option. She couldn’t fight with people she didn’t trust, and as long as they had no association with Mich, she had no reason to doubt them. Even Frey had her blade honestly, if not honorably. “What’s the plan of attack?” 

Frey blinked, not hearing the question right away as she looked at the weapons laid out in Maggie’s case. 

“Plan of attack,” Maggie repeated, snapping her fingers. “What is it?”

“Right. Darius has the maps of the tramway tunnels. The new construction has several branching junctions, but his scouting teams got us a good idea of where the petraforms breached and started coming in. We just need to go in and clear out the nest, seal it off behind us, and then sweep the tunnels to catch any stragglers.” She looked away from the case, making eye contact with Maggie. “From the amount we’ve had up in the tunnels, we’re expecting their numbers to be around fifty, maybe a hundred. It’s unlikely to be more than that.” 

“Unlikely,” Maggie noted. “Not impossible.”

“We’ll know when we get to the nest.” 

“How far—”

A red light on Darius’s backpack started blinking, and he frowned, checking a gadget in his pocket. “Trouble,” he said. 

“What sort of trouble?” Frey said, turning. “Hostiles headed this way? If we can thin them out before the nest assault, then—” 

Darius looked ashen as he read out the display. “No. Another breach.” 

“Don’t tell me,” Frey said. “They’re in a tramway tunnel that we never closed. Is it the northern pass? I told them—” 

“No.” Shaking his head, Darius spoke quietly. “They didn’t breach into a new tramway. They started from the one they were already in and went up, into our city. They dug straight into a school.” 

The whole room was quiet for a moment. Maggie, sensing that they were low on time, hurriedly pulled on the rest of her armor, strapping it in place over her shirt. 

“Darius, get us directions,” Frey said. “Fastest way there.” 

Looking at a readout on his device, Darius said, “The fastest way is through the tramway tunnel, so we could come in from behind, but if we get bushwhacked on the way, we could get held up until it’s too late.”

“We split up, then,” Frey decided. “Get the address. Twig, Vera, Maggie, you should know how to get around the city, you take the upper path. Darius, I’m going to need you to lead me through the tunnels. I don’t have the connections memorized.”

“My spells aren’t ready—” Vera started.

“Move!” Frey roared. 

No more questions. The five of them moved. 

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Maggie Cartwright: Chapter Four, Doomed To Repeat It

November 1928. 

The metal sang when Cyrus hit it, letting out a pure tone that hummed in the air for seconds.

When Maggie hit it, the sound was more of an angry ‘clang’.

“No, no,” Cyrus said, stepping forward to stop her from bringing the hammer down again. “You’re not getting it.” 

“The metal is the right shape,” Maggie protested, looking down at the anvil. “It’s exactly like yours.” 

Cyrus sighed, looking out at the river. The rooftop forge he’d put together in the East Bottoms had a great view of the ships coming through, a reminder of the trade that was booming through the city. 

“It’s not just about the physical shape,” Cyrus said. “Any metal can take the shape of a knife, but only ours has the soul of one. Here, I’ll show you again.” 

Reaching out, he waited until Maggie reluctantly passed him the hammer. Despite the flecks of grey in his hair, he was one of the strongest elves she’d ever known, and his muscles rippled as he lifted the tool and brought it down on the steel that was still glowing softly red. 

It hummed, gently. 

“You’ve done magic,” Cyrus said. “You know how to channel our nature. So, channel it into the steel.”

“How?” Maggie asked, feeling frustrated at the lack of specific instructions. “I’m concentrating. I’m trying. The energy won’t go. Do I force it?”

Cyrus shut his eyes, letting the gentle wind flow through his hair and savoring the cool breeze. “You’re not making the power go into the steel, you’re allowing it to flow through the steel,” he said. “It’s a river, not a reservoir.”

“Still, how?” Maggie demanded. “I don’t understand.” 

“Picture a dream,” Cyrus said, looking out at the boats as he spoke. “The future of the blade. The world you want it to create. Your thoughts have to be in tune, same as your body, or you’ll just end up with dull metal.”

“A dream?” Maggie asked. He didn’t get what she was asking for, instructions. It was all vaguery and poetic language that told her nothing about how to make his steel. “So I’ll just fantasize about something while I hit the metal and that will do it?” 

“When I make my swords, I’m not thinking about hitting the metal,” Cyrus said. “I’m thinking about the life that I’m building. The lineage of artists whose skills allowed me to make this steel, and the future I’m going to have here because of it. My swords—our swords—are going to build us a home here in the crossroads of the country. It’s what I want to happen, so I’m going to make it happen. Does that make sense?” 

Maggie wasn’t sure, but she extended her hand anyways, asking for the hammer. Cyrus gave it to her. 

What do I want to happen? 

It was a hard question, especially given that this knife wasn’t going to be anything special. It was a practice blade to learn the fundamentals.

I want to learn, then. I want to grow and make a blade worthy of the lineage. 

That seemed good, but Maggie still wasn’t certain. She looked up at Cyrus. The artisan who’d taken her in, offered to teach her the secrets of metalwork that nobody else knew.

I want to make my teacher proud. 

When she hit the steel, it sang. 

Present day. 

Using the side of her knife’s handle as a wedge, Maggie popped the cap off a beer bottle, took a long pull, and got to work on Levi’s order. 

Setting the bottle in a spot where it’d be clear of any dust or hazardous debris, she strapped on a full-face respirator, elbow-length rubber gloves, and a long canvas apron. The ‘pepper spray’ she made for him was a slurry of dangerous chemicals and particulates held in a liquid medium. Iron powder for fae, silver powder for shifters, pickling salt for demons, capsaicin for mortals. Wolfsbane, garlic powder. Levi wouldn’t get any benefit from holy water, so she instead included a few drops of ink from a printing press. 

The list of ingredients was substantial, and each one was just a tiny part of the cocktail. When it came to personal defense, she didn’t skimp, covering as wide a spectrum as she could, arranging all the various reagents and repellants that she could and setting them out on her work table before she even started mixing them together. 

She heard the rumble of Levi’s motorcycle outside just as she finished setting it all out. She took off her facemask and went to unlock the door, pausing for a moment to survey his appearance. A bad scrape on his face, bloodshot eyes, clothes that were tattered and dirty, and based on his posture, he was limping. 

“Levi, you look like crap.” 

“I feel like crap,” he said. “Can I come in?” 

“By all means.” Maggie stepped back, giving him the opportunity to walk over to the loveseat and slump down. “So, who’s trying to kill you? Errekin, or human?” 

He quirked an eyebrow. “Errrekin?”

“Monster,” Maggie clarified. “It’s… It means monster, basically.”

Levi stretched, shaking his head tiredly. “Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about that.” 

“Sure.” Maggie stepped to the side to take a pull from her beer before dropping the mask back over her face and returning to work. 

Levi rubbed at his eyes, sinking deeper into the couch. “I don’t have a lot of brain power for small talk.” 

“Then don’t. I just enjoy the company.” She did a second count of her ingredients, ensuring it was all measured out accurately, that she wasn’t missing anything. Her actions were thorough and precise.

Levi, eventually, broke the silence, looking up from the loveseat. “What are you working on?” 

“Your order,” she said. “Just double checking before I start to mix.” 

He nodded, falling silent while she began to hand-grind a few components in a stone mortar and pestle. 

As she finished that up and moved the powdered reagents into a measuring cup, he asked, “Are you still dealing with any trouble from the mess last summer?”

It was a reference to some other trouble he’d gotten her roped into. She’d run afoul of human wizards during the chaos, which was mostly his fault, though she couldn’t blame him. “Not really. Business has been slow and I think they’ve put me on a blacklist somewhere telling people not to buy from me, but that’s as far as they dare to go. Even if they tried, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on since they aren’t allowed to regulate my shop.”

“They’re not?” He tilted his head, which looked a bit odd from her perspective since he was leaning it on the armrest of the couch. “Why not?” 

“Fae. We’ve been doing magic way longer than any of you,” she pointed out, getting out a large ceramic mixing bowl with a pour spout on one side. “When your commonwealth got started, they tried to make us join, but we were here first. Eventually, they agreed we would be sovereign—we don’t mess with you, you don’t mess with us.”

“That sounds like a good deal for everyone,” Levi said. 

Maggie hesitated. “Eh… It had its downsides. You know the stereotype of fae as greedy tricksters?” 

He bobbed his head in a little nod. 

“Humans made that up, pretty much out of whole cloth. Any human who knew about the Commonwealth of Wizards thought that they’d be able to get wizards to bail them out of magical trouble, so they’d make deals they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow through on, only to find out later that the wizards wouldn’t lift a finger to help them renege on their deals. We took what we were owed, the humans cried about it. It was ‘how can I afford to feed my children when the fae are taking all my money?’, at first, and then, ‘The fae are killing my children’, and it just got more outlandish from there.” She paused, trying not to sound mad. “They were trying to cheat us, and they failed, but somehow that makes us the bad guy.”

Maggie was generations removed from the times when the Commonwealth—or the fae nations, for that matter—were known about by regular mortals, but the frustration lingered in her thoughts, especially as she fought against the reputation for being a con artist or trickster whenever she dealt with humans. “It was never us who were unreliable in a deal. It was always you.” 

“Not me, personally,” Levi objected.

Maggie paused, leaning over to glance at him and to make sure he saw her do it. “How many crystals did you pilfer from my shop?” 

He smiled, sheepishly, and sank deeper into the couch. “I paid you back for that.” 

Maggie chuckled. “Take your shoes off, if you’re going to put your feet up.” 

He did, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. “Still, I get your point. It’s us humans who rip each other off and stab each other in the back, while you’re just trying to get by.”

“We don’t touch humans unless they come at us first,” Maggie confirmed. “Once we have a deal, we keep that deal as long as you keep the deal. You’ve got more to worry about from your friends than from the fae.” 

It was strictly true, though she left out some context. Maggie wanted to be able to say that her people were always above board in their dealings, but that was idealism that she knew wasn’t really true. 

Even so, she wouldn’t stand for being called a con artist any time someone saw the tips of her ears. 

Levi didn’t respond, and they fell into another comfortable silence while Maggie worked. After a while, Maggie heard him start to snore.

Dang. She looked up from her work bench at him. If he can fall asleep on one of those couches, he really is exhausted. 

She was tired, too, but she wasn’t sleepy. Noting that fatigue was setting in, though, she responded with more care, ensuring that she wouldn’t make any avoidable mistakes as she poured a set amount of the toxic slurry into four canisters, and then loaded those canisters into pressurized spray cans, each about three inches long and a little wider than her thumb. 

Three for Levi, and one for herself. It wouldn’t kill one of those creatures in the tunnels, but it would fit on a keychain, and it would probably hold something back like that if she found herself in another desperate survival situation. 

She wouldn’t be going around without a way to defend herself again. 

Eventually, though, her work was done. She grabbed a cleansing crystal from the back room to complete Levi’s order, set it all out, and pulled a blanket from her closet to drape over him as well. No need to interrupt the rest he so clearly needed.

The conversation was still bouncing around in the back of her head. She hated the reputation that she got stuck with, and she hated that people like Mich were so willing to play into it. Putting other people’s lives and livelihoods at risk for a bit of profit wasn’t supposed to be something her people did. 

Ensuring that Mich didn’t see any gains didn’t seem strong enough of a retribution, and the repayment for her truck wasn’t enough of a balm. She wanted to burn him, figuratively or literally. 

She’d almost died. She’d looked death right in the eye, and been ready for it, and it had all been part of a cheap trick to steal a sword or two from her inventory. 

That’s not how we do things, she thought, marching back to her forge. She slammed the door, then winced, opening it a crack and glancing back. Levi didn’t stir, so she shut the door again, walking up to the forge. 

She couldn’t make a new blade in an evening, but it was possible she could do something small. The preparation of the steel took more time than anything, and she had a half ingot left over from another project. Whatever she made wouldn’t be attuned or blessed under a solstice moon, but that could wait. The monsters in the tunnels didn’t strike her as infernal, so the blessing would be of limited use.

Not enough for a sword, and she didn’t need a knife. Against those creatures, she wanted speed and power, but she also wanted reach, to keep those claws as far as possible from her skin. There was one weapon she had in mind that could work perfectly. 

She fired up the forge and got to work. 

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Maggie Cartwright: Chapter Three

Blanche Walmund, the Justice of War, was old school. Old old school. The decor of her office wasn’t an anachronism or a throwback to tradition; it had just been the same since she was elected more than a century prior, back when she was young. 

That, to Maggie, probably should have been scary. You didn’t get to be in office amongst the fae for a hundred and fifteen years without having serious self-preservation skills and savvy. Back in the day, she’d won her share of honor duels to stave off political rivals. Now she just held onto her title with grit. 

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You want a truck.” 

“I want a replacement for my truck,” Maggie said. “And all the equipment I had loaded onto it, and cash compensation for the job I couldn’t finish.” 

“And in exchange, you’ll kill the creatures that have been plaguing the digging and expansion efforts to the north of the city, not because you have any civic duty, but because you want to ensure Mich doesn’t get the credit.” She pursed her lips, thinking about it. “How long have you been living with humans?” 

Maggie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see why that’s relevant.” 

Blanche’s face was unreadable. “You’re not a warrior.”

“I have the steel to kill them, unlike your team of sharpshooters,” Maggie said. “And I’m no slouch in a fight. I already took down one. With armor, and the time to prepare, I shouldn’t have any trouble.” 

“I’ve already got a team,” Blanche said. “Some freelancers, some on payroll. I’ll put you with them.” 

Maggie shook her head. “I don’t need a team to help me.” 

“Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but if you slip up and get hurt, you’ll want someone to drag you to safety. This isn’t the kind of work you do solo, no matter how good you are.” 

“If you’ve got a team, why would you take me?” Maggie asked. 

No response, except that Blanche raised one eyebrow. 

“Never mind.” Getting to her feet, Maggie extended her hand. “Do we have a deal?” 

Blanche stood, but instead of shaking, she gave Maggie a simple salute, raising her hand and extending her ring and index fingers. “My team will be in touch with you. Clear out the monsters, you’ll get your truck.” 

The quickest way to get between Kansas City Below and her home came up underneath Union Station, and from there it was only a short walk back. 

A short walk, but one that made her fume, because she should have been driving

Maggie didn’t think about what she’d committed to until she was back home, in her conjoined auto body shop and house. She slumped against the wall in her garage. Adrenaline, and then fury, and then a deep, grumbling resentment, had all been fuel while she was moving, but now that she was home, there wasn’t much left to keep her going. 

Putting a hand to her face, she rubbed at her eyes, then tore off the bandana that she wore around humans to cover the points of her ears. 

She hadn’t been afraid, not when she was fighting the monsters, not afterward, especially not when she was committing to fighting them. Only now, taking a moment to consider the weight of what she was up against, did she allow herself a moment of trepidation. 

Don’t be a coward. It’s just exterminating some vermin. You’ve handled worse, and you can’t afford to not do it. 

She looked around her shop. It wasn’t a big garage. The front space, the entrance, where she had a desk and her coffee maker and some chairs for customers. Beyond that, her main workstation, with room enough for one car and her work bench. 

Behind that work space was an enclosed area. Nominally, it was a paint room, and that’s what it looked like from the outside, though, in truth, she never painted cars. It was where she hid her forge. The sealed doors made it impossible to peek inside, and nobody questioned the large ventilation system she’d installed to keep the work area clear of fumes. Beyond that was the space she kept all her magical supplies and products which she sold on the side, and if you went any further, you’d end up in the basement of her house. 

Setting aside her worries, Maggie walked towards the forge, stepping through the steel door and shutting it behind her. 

In the course of her career, she’d made dozens of swords, which sold for exorbitant prices. She could have made them faster—if she wanted, she could have ditched the rest of her career and done nothing but forge—but she took pride in the fact that only masters could wield her blades. Every person who she’d sold a blade to, she knew their name, their face, their style. She tested their skills against her own, and only if her customer could beat her handily would she even consider putting them on the waiting list. 

If Maggie had come to herself as a customer, asking to buy a blade, she would have turned herself down. She didn’t live up to her own standards. Being the smith, though, she owned five. 

Her little knife barely counted, but it was the first piece of proper starmetal that she’d ever forged. Taking it from her pocket, she set it down on her anvil. 

Next was her rapier. A delicate weapon, light and quick, perfect for puncturing enemies. It hung on a rack against the wall, and she took it down, swishing it through the air, making a handful of practice stabs at imagined opponents.

With care and precision, going for the weak points of the carapace, she could pierce flesh without having to force steel through the hardest points. 

Her next weapon of choice was the most visibly impressive, a wide claymore that tapered to a razor point. A forty-five-inch blade with a foot of handle, it was almost as tall as she was, with mass and power that could sheer through… well, just about anything. Reach, power, and sheer intimidation came at the cost of speed, which could be dangerous against creatures as quick and reactive as she’d encountered. 

She moved the sword through the air in a few guarded poses, using both hands to control the heavy tool. The blade rippled in the light, shimmering with a beauty that contrasted with its deadly power. 

Maggie frowned. She didn’t want to get flanked by a quick enemy and left exposed. 

The last two blades on the wall were a matched set; one long, one short, designed to be used together. The short blade served a similar function to a shield, parrying away attacks and warding off enemies, while the longer option could hack and cut with greater reach. 

Using both at the same time was hard, and Maggie hadn’t kept up practicing with both weapons, but they seemed the ideal choice for general purpose combat. 

Speed, power, or flexibility. Frailty, lethargy, or inexperience. Advantages and tradeoffs, no matter what she went with. 

She set the blades aside. The decision could wait until morning, and there was other work to keep her occupied. Replacing her cell phone, for one—another thing she’d left in her truck. 

That, at least, was simple. Her old flip phone still worked, even if it was a bit slow, and she had it in a drawer somewhere. After a bit of poking around in boxes filled with obsolete cables and technology she didn’t use much anymore, she found the old phone and a charging cable for it. Plugging it in, she just had to get on her computer, contact her service provider, and activate the old device. 

After it was on for a few seconds, it chirped, filling in the messages and emails she’d missed since her phone was turned off. 

Or, probably, ripped to shreds.

Nothing too major. A bill payment reminder that she could cover, but which would leave her bank account looking pretty thin. A couple newsletters she’d subscribed to. The only thing that she might make some money off of was a text from a human she knew, a journalist who called himself Levi. 

‘I need another big cleansing crystal and some of that souped up pepper spray ASAP, do you have any more in stock?’ 

She paused. He’d texted her a few hours prior, but she hadn’t seen it on account of the whole ‘my phone was eaten by monsters’ problem. The cleansing crystal was easy, but the self-defense spray she’d made was a homebrew mix of chemicals that could repel most things supernatural, and she had to make it to order. It wasn’t ‘cover all her bills’ expensive, but it’d keep her in the black for a little longer if she could upsell the product and get it sold quick. 

Besides, she liked Levi. If he needed something urgently, she could make time. 

Typing was difficult using the old number pad, but she wouldn’t stoop to using chatspeak or abbreviations, even if she couldn’t do any punctuation besides periods. ‘I can set the crystal aside for you now spray I can mix tomorrow’. Then, thinking she could make a couple extra bucks, she added, ‘Do you want me to make a couple so you have spares’ 

He responded quickly. ‘Yes, please. What are you doing up?’ 

Maggie frowned, checking the time. It’s past midnight. When did it get so late? 

‘Working on a project’ she sent back, not going into details. Levi wasn’t in-the-know with fairy affairs. Noting the irony, she sent a second message. ‘I could ask the same of you’

‘Can’t sleep. Someone’s trying to kill me again.’ 

Maggie read the text and rolled her eyes. Not that she wasn’t worried for his safety, but knowing Levi, this was danger that he’d brought onto his own head. He had less in common with a victim and more with a big game hunter who was having a close encounter with the story he was hunting. 

Don’t forget, you’re literally going hunting soon, she reminded herself. Stones, glass houses. 

She looked back at the door to her forge. Despite the late hour, she didn’t have any plans to sleep for a while. 

So, she typed out a message to him, mostly on a whim. ‘Do you want to come by’

He responded a minute or so later. ‘Sure.’ 

If you’re enjoying this, consider supporting me on Patreon!, or chipping in a few dollars at Ko-Fi! A chapter of this story is going to come out every week, and Chapter Three is already out so you can skip waiting and find out what happens next right away!

Maggie Cartwright : Chapter Two

The strike squad remained tense and cautious as they escorted her through the exit, constantly checking and rechecking the tunnel behind her until she was through the gate and they were able to seal up the exit. Only once they were sure that the way behind them was well and truly impassable did they start to relax.

Maggie, on the other hand, was just pissed. “What the hell is going on?” 

A particularly tall commando with an upward tilt on his ears looked at her with just a touch of awe. “You killed one.” 

“I killed one what?” Maggie demanded. “And why did you send me to work on that when you knew those things were in there?” 

“I didn’t send you in, ma’am,” he said. “As soon as we heard you were in there, I got my team geared up. I’m just glad we made it in time. How did you kill it?” 

Maggie raised her knife, folding out the blade with her thumb. “With this.” 

Another of the commandos noticed her knife. “Is that Wayland steel?” 

She shook her head. “Cartwright steel.” He didn’t seem to understand, so she pointed a thumb at herself. “Maggie Cartwright. I made it myself.” 

“That’d do it,” the leader said. Sticking out his hand, he said, “Darius. Head of containment.” 

Containment?” Maggie asked, not accepting his offered grip. “What are you containing?” 

When she didn’t shake, he took his hand back and rubbed his neck, sheepishly. “It’s a new role. We’re still, uh, figuring that out.” 

“So those- things, they broke the carrier engine and you’ve had to shut off this whole section of the subway because of them?” Maggie asked. 

“That about sums it up, yes.” He pursed his lips. “Nobody was supposed to be down here without an escort. Why were you down here, anyways?” 

Maggie’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a damned good question.” 

Typically, Maggie didn’t mind doing negotiations and planning over the phone. Sometimes, though, an in-person conversation just couldn’t be beat. For example, you couldn’t kick a door in over the phone. 

Navigating through Kansas City Below was a bit of a maze to anyone who wasn’t native to them, with a design similar to many subway systems across the world, save for the fact that there were no simple, well-illustrated maps and signposts. Maggie chose to live above ground, but she knew the way around well enough to navigate, even if she couldn’t tell anyone the fastest shortcuts.

The tribunal offices were reasonably close, anyways. A twenty-minute walk if she took a main thoroughfare, pushing past other fae who might slow her down. 

The walk gave her time to build up a furious head of steam. 

The tribunal offices were carved out of stone in a wide circle, an aesthetic call to when they’d held council around a fighting ring. Trial by combat was out of practice these days, but much of the iconography still remained of their old ways, even if the hardwood moulding and design had more aesthetic similarities to expensive human offices than classic elf architecture. 

Maggie stormed in through the front door of the tribunal building, feeling like she wanted to bring the old ways back just long enough to kick someone’s ass. 

Noticing her, a secretary got to his feet, but she just stomped past. He sat back down and started quickly dialing a number; stopping her wasn’t his job. 

That’s right, call security, she thought. By the time they get here, I’ll be done anyways. 

There was one tribunal judge she was after in particular, and she made a beeline for his office. It was easy to spot, because the door was emblazoned with a brass hammer – a brass hammer that Maggie was preparing to kick in as she finished concocting in her head what she was going to say. She was undecided on just how many epithets to use, but there were a few particularly colorful ones she already had ready to go, and she was going to season the rest of her rant to taste. 

She got to the door, leaned back to sink her weight into a kick, and—

It opened.

“Maggie!” the willowy bureaucrat said, greeting her with a look of concern on his face. “By the earth, I’m so glad you’re okay. I was so worried when I heard what had happened!” 

Mich wasn’t a warrior, but he could do social judo with the best of them. His preemptive response deflated Maggie’s rant before she could even get started, though she tried anyways. “You- What the hell was that?”

“Come in, have a seat,” he said, stepping back so she could get through the door. His office was particularly garish, with a convincing illusion of a window overlooking Paris projected onto his back wall and a dry bar set to the side, set up with clear bottles full of expensive amber liquids. “Please, let me explain. I thought the monsters were all contained—I mean, we have a containment unit for cripes’ sake, I had no idea they were having such difficulty! If I’d been aware that there was still such a danger, I naturally never would have asked you to come down and work for us.” 

He seemed genuine. Even though Maggie suspected that he was probably bullshitting, she felt a twinge of guilt at the idea of calling him out on it. While she tried to decide what to say, now that her rant had deflated, Mich looked past her and gave the tiniest shake of his head. 

Maggie looked back, noticing the two burly security guards who’d walked in. Upon the signal from Mich, they nodded in reply, turning to step out of the office once again. 

“It’s just been a, frankly, hellish couple of days,” Mich continued, shutting the door behind her and walking back to his desk. “The tribunal’s been working overtime – I’ve barely seen the inside of my home except to go back and shower. We wanted to get this dealt with as fast as possible, and it seems that in all the shuffle, a miscommunication happened. I thought the problem was contained, and wanted to get the subway up and running ASAP, so… I guess what I mean to say is, I’m sorry for not confirming with my colleagues before hiring you.”

Maggie sat down opposite from him, idly reading the engraved nameplate. ‘Tribunal Justice Michal Smith.’ The surname wasn’t one he’d gotten from his parents; it was another anachronism, more akin to a title that denoted his role on the tribunal as the Justice of Assembly. He didn’t do any smithing, and he really didn’t do any judgement either; he was largely in charge of zoning law, permits, and construction. As was often the case with fae, though, the old titles long outlived the point where they had any meaning. 

“I could have been killed,” Maggie said, though the words weren’t as angry as she had intended. “I nearly was.” 

“And it’s a blessing that you weren’t,” Mich replied. “You have no idea how relieved I was when we got word that you’d been escorted out safely.” 

“My truck and gear were all down there.” 

Mich nodded, marking down something on his notepad. “If it’s still down there once the creatures have been dealt with, I’ll make sure it gets returned to you.”

That almost sounded reasonable, and his tone was so placating that it took Maggie a second to realize that it wasn’t. For one, he was the one at fault. For two, her truck was already a wreck, and those creatures seemed to delight in tearing apart metal to nest inside – her truck was probably already scrap by now. 

“Now, wait a minute,” Maggie started, sitting forward. “This is your fault, and I need that gear to work. You need to reimburse me.” 

Mich pursed his lips. “I mean… I can put in a request with the Justice of Finance, but we’re in a budget crisis, and I can’t promise she’ll bend. Maybe, once the creatures are dealt with, but…” He sucked in a breath through his teeth, shaking his head. “It’s just a tough situation.”

Ah, anger. That’s where you went. Maggie leaned forward, jabbing a finger at him. “Now, you listen here—”

“I’m doing everything I can,” he said, leaning back quickly and putting up his hands. “I want you to be treated fairly, Mags, but—” 

“Don’t call me Mags.” 

“Maggie, then, I want you to be treated fairly, but I’m just one justice of nineteen, and the others aren’t going to go for this unless you give me something to work with.” 

He was good with words, but Maggie caught it when they reached the actual point he was driving towards. This whole thing was a setup. He wanted something that only she had, and everything—from asking her to fix the engine, to conveniently ‘misunderstanding’ what the containment squad was doing—was all done to get her over a barrel while remaining just blameless enough that she couldn’t pin it on him in any way that would matter. 

Maggie had a sneaking suspicion she knew what it was he wanted. 

“What sort of ‘something’ were you thinking?” she asked. 

He shrugged. “We need to deal with these errekin creatures before we do anything else. I’d hoped our containment team would be able to deal with them, but it looks like that just isn’t the case – we don’t have the sort of tools we need to—”

“You want my swords,” Maggie cut him off. “Stop bullshitting.” 

He chuckled. “Well, you suggested it. That would be a solution, though, if—”

“I’m not giving you one of my swords,” Maggie said. 

Mich nodded, reasonably. “I never suggested you should. But if you wanted to lend us a couple, just for a few weeks, they’d be returned to you after the fact.”

That was a lie. The swords would certainly be misplaced, or just appropriated and never returned. At best, she’d be reimbursed for a fraction of their value. 

Maggie kept the supply of her hand-forged swords limited for a reason. If she wanted to ramp up production, she could. Maybe not to industrial levels, but certainly to more than one blade a year. She didn’t do that, because they were never meant to be so common that they could be purchased by any two-bit sword fighter who wanted to show off. Her blades were for masters only.

That didn’t stop bureaucrats from trying to get ahold of them, to put them in a storage locker to be passed out like Halloween candy to anyone who asked. Maneuvering to get a few of her blades would be a nice feather in Mich’s cap, politically speaking – he’d be the one responsible for ridding their community of the monsters, putting him above the justice in charge of those matters, and he’d also have scored some tools that he could keep in his back pocket to use as a trump card whenever he pleased.

“You ass,” Maggie said, quietly. “You’d really risk my life to score a couple points in your political game?” 

Mich shrugged, the insult bouncing off him. “It was just a suggestion you’d brought up,” he said. “If you wanted to help out, I could ensure you were paid rental for your swords, and reimbursed for the cost of any equipment you lost.” 

“Who’s in charge of the containment team?” Maggie asked. 

“I don’t see why that’s relevant, seeing as you never engage in politics to begin with, and I can’t even remember the last open court you attended,” Mich said, continuing to suck the air out of the room. “But—” 

“Justice of War, or the Justice of Law? I know it’s one of them.” 

Hesitating for a second, he said, “The Justice of War, but—” 

Maggie shoved back from the desk, her chair scraping on the floor. Getting to her feet, she stormed out of the room, crossing the tribunal’s ring of offices. Mich followed, but not past the end of his office. If he’d pursued, Maggie would have strongly considered slugging him across the face. 

She marched straight towards the door that had a pair of crossed swords emblazoned on the front. Spite was fueling her; the very specific desire to make sure that Mich wouldn’t be able to gain any political favor from this crisis. 

Opening the door, Maggie ensured that the Justice of War was at her desk and spoke without preamble. “I’ve got a proposal for you. How’d you like for someone to deal with your monster problem and give you all the credit?” 

If you’re enjoying this, consider supporting me on Patreon! A chapter of this story is going to come out every week, and Chapter Three is already out so you can skip waiting and find out what happens next right away!

Maggie Cartwright : Chapter One

“Alright, sweet thing,” Maggie said, resting her hand on the copper plate. “Just talk to me, and we’ll get you all better.” 

The towering engine didn’t say anything in reply. They never did, not with words, but sometimes Maggie would swear that she could hear the metal sing. 

Today, all she got was a quiet grumble. 

Maggie shook her head. “Don’t be stubborn. This is for your own good.” 

The machine was huge. Eight feet tall and twice as long, bristling with copper coils and runes. When it ran, it could hold a fifty-seat passenger car in the air or accelerate it down a subway tunnel at great speed, handling two kilometers of subterranean tunnels. It was the sort of technology that humans had been struggling to develop for decades. Her people, with a bit of magic, had perfected it a century ago. 

It had stopped running, and since public transit through this part of the tunnel was unable to run without it, Maggie was getting paid top dollar to diagnose its problem and fix the damage. 

A cool breeze wafted up the tunnel, and the engine shuddered slightly, its many metals contracting. 

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that. You’re too young for joint pains. What are you, five years old? Ten?” 

The metal still glimmered as she looked it up and down. The only iron in the whole construction, a polished flat plate on top to conduct the magnetic lift, looked almost brand new. Given that, it was probably a construction error, some fault by the engineer who’d installed it, leading to undue stress and wear on its internals. 

So, Maggie walked back to her truck, where her complete set of tools were waiting to deal with any issue she might face. She’d been able to drive right down into the subway from a maintenance entrance half a kilometer up the tunnel, which was a blessing – it meant she didn’t have to schlep her hundreds of pounds of gear down by hand. Plus, she could use the light rack on her truck instead of setting up a dozen work lights, at least to get started. 

Sifting through options, she picked up her flashlight and a thirty-inch crescent wrench. It was steel, but her heavy-duty leather gloves ensured that she wouldn’t break out at the touch. There were non-ferrous tools that were strong enough for the job, but with proper PPE, Maggie never had an issue with iron. 

Her tools selected, she put the flashlight in her pocket and walked back to the engine, getting to work on the access panel so she could see what was going on inside. 

Maggie had to put in some real grunting and effort, putting her weight into the wrench to free each seized bolt. It was harder work than it should have been, just to get open the access panel, but that gave Maggie a theory of what was wrong. Metal warping could have a lot of causes, and it could cause a lot of malfunctions, from overtight bolts to loose valves to completely nonfunctioning engines. 

“Now, let’s see what secrets you’re keeping,” Maggie said as the fourth bolt came free. She set down her wrench, pulled the access plate free, and took out her flashlight to peek inside. The light was magic powered, and with a hint of effort and a word, she brought out a bright point of light. 

She blinked. 

The inside was torn apart. It looked like a rat had gotten inside and chewed everything up to make a nest, except that rats generally chewed up old linens, not hardened metal gears and conductors. 

“What on earth happened to you?” she asked, looking up at the engine with concern. This couldn’t have happened by accident, the engine’s contents were absolutely shredded

Raising her light, she looked in more carefully, and from deep within, she saw two little red points. An indicator light, perhaps, except… indicator lights didn’t have blinking eyelids. 

Pest damage, Maggie realized. A shamworm, maybe, though it’d have to be a particularly big one. Whatever it was, it’d taken up a nest inside the engine, and she’d need to coax it out. 

“Hey, there, little guy,” she said, willing the light from her flashlight to get brighter so she could get a better look at it. “What are… you…” 

It wasn’t a shamworm. Shamworms didn’t have armored plates of chitin, they didn’t have claws, and they couldn’t scream. 

The thing, whatever it was, screamed. Then it lunged, out of the engine and straight towards her face. 

Maggie ducked to the side of the access panel before it could take her head off. She dropped her flashlight, spinning to face the thing. 

It was cast in silhouette in front of her truck, visible only as a dark outline the size of a wolf, chittering and yowling angrily. Its glowing red eyes were narrowly placed, giving it an almost comical grimace on its oversized body. 

Maggie bent her knees, slightly, feeling for- 

The creature lunged at her again, and she seized her wrench from off the ground, swing all thirty inches of high carbon steel at its head. The beast had a lot of momentum, but her impact knocked it out of the air mid-leap with force that reverberated up the heavy steel tool, through her gloves, and into her joints. 

It didn’t even seem fazed, and as Maggie recovered from the shock of the attack, it came at her again. She raised the tool in a defensive gesture, putting the steel between her and the thing’s gnashing teeth. 

It bit at the wrench, ripping it out of her hands and knocking her back into the engine. Hitting the ground on all fours, it shook the tool like a dog with a bone, bit down, and broke it in half with one good chomp. 

Maggie decided, then, not to let the creature bite her. 

She bolted to her truck. The keys were already in the ignition, half turned while she kept the lights on, so she grabbed them and twisted, revving the engine to life. 

A chitinous claw slammed through the ceiling. The first creature was visible in front of her, stalking towards the truck, which meant…

There’s two of them.

Heart racing, Maggie slammed the truck into drive, hit the gas, and accelerated as fast as she could. 

Two impacts. First, a solid whump as the front of her truck slammed into the creature. Then, a loud, crunchy WHAM! When the truck and creature both hit the solid metal engine that it had been nesting in. 

Her truck had an aluminum frame and was fairly lightweight, but it was still solid and carried plenty of mass, and it was going nearly thirty miles an hour when she crashed, wrapping the front of the truck around the first creature and flinging the second from her roof. 

 A second too late, the car alarm began to wail, and the airbag kicked in. Maggie flipped out her pocketknife, slashing the inflated bag and shoving it out of the way so she could get free of the truck and see what was going on.

The creature she’d hit was pinned. It didn’t seem injured in the slightest, and was more annoyed at being stuck. 

What does it take to kill these things? 

The other one pounced, not at Maggie, but onto the hood of her truck, claws ripping to free its friend. Like the thing’s teeth, its claws shredded steel like tissue.

Head ringing, Maggie ran. 

The creatures pursued. 

Deep in the tunnel, every sound was amplified by echoes, coming from all directions. Her hearing was acute, but with all the noise coming at her—the scraping, the chittering, the wail of the alarm—she couldn’t tell how close they were behind her. 

She stole a look back. They were thirty feet behind, but gaining. She put on the speed and stopped looking back. 

The maintenance entrance was barely in view up ahead, lights peeking through the open service gate on the left of the tunnel. If Maggie could make it through, close it behind her, and… 

Will it even stop them? Those claws…

She could see the light up ahead, peering through the open service gate that she’d driven through not half an hour ago. She was closing on it, but her speed was capped by the limits of muscle and bone. 

It seemed that her pursuers didn’t have those limits. When she stole a glance over her shoulder, she could see the red eyes coming closer, too close. 

She wasn’t going to escape. Fighting the creatures seemed like a fool’s errand, but they seemed to only have animal intelligence. Maybe, just maybe, she could scare them off. 

Legs still pumping away, she considered her options. First, she still had her knife, a trusty tool she never went anywhere without. Second, she had her flashlight, which was really a handle with a crystal and a simple glowing charm. Third, she had…

Is that really it? 

It was just those two things, and she scolded herself for not bringing along any real self-defense tools. She’d left herself without much to work with.

Fumbling in her pocket, she got out the flashlight. Thanks to its magical properties, it could shine either like a spotlight or a lamp with equal illumination, and as she flicked her wrist, she called up as bright a werelight as she could, raising it up like an Olympic torch carrier.

The shrieking got louder, and she looked back again to see both of the creatures following behind her, emotions inscrutable on their alien faces. 

They were fifteen feet away, running on all fours like horses at a full gallop. She could see their bodies, now, armored in chalky white plate from tip to toe, like soldiers. The only way that these beings could be this fast with chitin that hard is if they were errekin. Magic was reinforcing their muscles, or the bony plates that protected them.

Maggie hoped it was the plates. If the chitin really was just stone-hard, she couldn’t do much about it. 

Either way, she had about two seconds before they caught up to her, so she had to act fast. 

Pulling the knife from its pocket on her belt, Maggie flipped out the four-inch blade from its handle. Thus armed, she dropped the light from her hand, skidded to a stop, and fell into a solid horse stance.

The creature on the left had visible scrape marks on its chitin from her truck, and either it was more aggressive because she’d hurt it, or maybe it just got a head start on its buddy. Either way, it lunged first, leading with its mouthful of razor teeth, confident that the small knife wouldn’t be able to pierce its armor.

It was wrong. 

Maggie had forged the knife herself, decades ago, when she was still learning the art of metalworking. It wasn’t her finest steel, but it was made from starmetal and imbued under the light of a solstice moon. What it lacked in size and refinement, it made up for in the ability to pierce magic like tissue. 

She shifted her grip, bracing her body and holding out the blade. She didn’t need to stab, she just needed to absorb the shock of the blow and let the creature do the rest. The blade caught it just above where the heart would be on a normal animal, and all its momentum and weight were enough to crack its chitin chest plate in half. 

Its teeth made it to only a few inches from her throat before her hand hit the creature’s chest and her low, braced position won out. Her hand smarted with pain similar to that of punching a stone wall, and she thanked her stars that she was wearing gloves. 

Maggie had been wrong before. Up until now, the creatures hadn’t been screaming. This was a scream, the kind that made her pointed ears ring in pain, until the blade caught something vital and the creature suddenly stopped making noise. 

Her knife was buried halfway up the handle, and she couldn’t yank it free in time to duck the second creature’s attack. Maggie dropped and rolled, mind racing to come up with a plan as it skittered to a stop and whirled to face her. 

Even one on one, she couldn’t fight this thing, not without a weapon. Even if she had her knife, the second one wouldn’t just throw itself on her blade. 

In the full light, she could see its razor-sharp claws were only a few inches long. It didn’t have inhuman reach, at least. And, though it was fast, it wasn’t pixie quick, darting to and fro quicker than the naked eye could see. 

She glanced back at the gate. Maybe- 

She almost missed the creature charging at her, and if she hadn’t dodged to the side to put the first one’s body between her and its friend, it would have bowled her down in an instant. Instead, it skidded to a stop, avoiding touching the pooling dark ichor that was spilling out of the other creature. 

It panted for a moment, red eyes darting between Maggie and the fallen monster. 

Good news. Panting meant that it needed to breathe.

Bad news. Maggie was never much of a wrestler. 

It beats pushing up daisies. 

She put herself in a fighting stance, waiting. 

The creature eyed her, wary of another trick, like the knife. It had a certain level of cunning. That was good. If it were ruled purely by baser instincts, she couldn’t pretend to have another knife up her sleeve, or something similar. 

Still, once it came at her, she was going to have to choke out something that was faster than her, stronger than her, and armed with as many knives as it had fingers and teeth. It didn’t look like a winning prospect. 

One other option.

“Do you understand me?” she asked. 

It tilted its head. No English, but… it recognized speech. Maybe it didn’t understand language, and was reacting like a dog hearing familiar words without understanding the base meaning. But maybe…

She tried again, slipping into the old tongue. “Do you understand me?” 

It tilted its head the other way, curious. Then, deciding that the sounds Maggie made were unimportant and she was no longer scary without the steel in her hand, it lowered its body and got ready to finish her off. 

Pop-BAM! 

A piece of chitin on the side of its head chipped away, followed by the boom of hypersonic rifle fire. Another shot rang out, then, and another, pelting the creature with bullets that pitted the bony armor, piece by piece, exposing its flesh beneath. 

Maggie turned, surprised to see a team standing in the service entrance, half a dozen of her people dressed in tactical armor and acting with military precision. She was too far away to make out precisely the weapons they were carrying, but they were clearly some variety of sniper rifle, and with six of them firing, the shots sounded almost like that of an automatic weapon. 

They weren’t perfect shots, but their aim was deadly, raining down fire on the creature as it turned, running for its life as bits of ichor began spraying from nicks and cuts that made it through its chitin. 

Scrambling clear of the line of fire, Maggie let the squad do their job. It made it halfway back to her truck before the shots finally overwhelmed it and the creature fell to the ground, motionless.

Ears ringing from the screeching and the hail of echoed gunfire, Maggie watched as one of the snipers set aside their gun and started jogging towards her, shouting something indistinct. 

They probably wanted her to come along and get to safety. She was more than happy to comply, but first, she needed to do one thing. Walking back to the slumped body of the creature she’d killed, Maggie pushed it over and planted her work boot on its chest, tugging her knife free. 

Wiping it off on her ichor-splattered shirt, she started jogging towards the exit. 

This was supposed to be a simple repair job. Go in, fix the engine, pocket a check. Nobody had said anything about monsters that needed a firing squad to fend off. 

Someone had a lot of explaining to do. 

Chapter Two 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.