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.
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.”
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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