Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Ten: Challenges

“Wait.” Maggie stopped, stunned. “Why are we going to the Leannán Sídhe?”

“Leana has been around a long time, and she knows power,” Frey explained. “She’s given it away, she’s taken it, and her memory doesn’t blur with time. If anyone on the continent knows what these things are, it’s her.”

“Besides,” Vera added, smirking back at Maggie. “She’s just so much fun.”

Darius leaned in next to Maggie, speaking in a low tone. “You know the rules around our auntie, don’t you?” 

“Of course. Don’t give her anything without asking for something specific in return, and don’t accept anything unless she says it’s mine without obligation,” Maggie said. “I know. I’ve met the Leannán Sídhe.” Regardless of what the team did, she wasn’t going to use any cutesy nicknames. Call her what they liked, ‘Aunt Leanna’, ‘The godmother’, or any other of a million alternatives, it didn’t make the Leannán Sídhe any less dangerous. 

“And?” Darius asked.

Maggie frowned, noting that the whole group had stopped, looking back at her expectantly. 

“I left empty handed.” she looked away, dismissing the route that the conversation was taking. “Nothing happened.” 

“Something always happens,” Vera said. She didn’t add, ‘You’re lying to us’, but it was implied. 

“I didn’t like the terms she offered,” Maggie clarified, giving the minimum amount of information necessary to stop talking about it. “So I walked. I don’t really like the Leannán Sídhe.” 

“Well, like her or not, we’re going to see her,” Frey said, looking away and continuing to walk. “If you can’t be civil, go find something else to do.”

“I can be civil.” Maggie hustled to get alongside the rest of the group. “I’m only saying I don’t care for how she does business. It gives the rest of us a bad name.” 

They exited the tramway station and entered the old town. Compared to the neat, deliberate construction of the newer parts of the city, the old town was very much a free for all. Large, hollowed out chunks of cave had been excavated, and then buildings had been stacked back inside, built on top of each other to maximize space. 

There was more wood construction in old town than the rest of the city combined, despite it being a quarter the size. Shops, sometimes built out from old homes or just built as blocky things out in the street, were scattered all around. 

Maggie ignored the vendors. This close to the train station, they were effectively in a tourist trap. Nothing of value would be sold around here.

“Right over there,” Frey said, pointing to a shop of knickknacks as they passed it. “Is where I bought my sword. I tell you, Mia can find anything if you’ve got the coin.”

Grumbling, Maggie kept her head down and kept walking. 

Fortunately, nobody harassed them. Even the most aggressive of merchants were keen enough to avoid hawking their wares to a team of well armed warriors moving through the street with a purpose. Only Twig stopped, bartering for a moment to buy some sort of street food on a stick. Glancing back, Maggie read the sign and saw it was something called ‘Kkul-tarae’, a name she didn’t recognize, though the bee on the label told her it was probably made from honey.

Some things were the same across all the Fae. Maggie rolled her eyes. 

“You’re a stereotype, you know,” she told Twig as the svartálfr caught up to the group. 

Twig shrugged, unconcerned, and bit into the snack. 

The Leannán Sídhe’s temple was deeper into old town, but the singing was audible well before the temple could be seen, echoing through the streets at a pitch that carried over the vendors. The song was enchanting, both in the sense that it was the most hauntingly beautiful melody that most people would hear in their life, and in the sense that it literally carried magic—though, only to those within the temple.  

Maggie kept her head down, focused on things besides the music, and kept her hands on the hilts of her swords. She wasn’t worried about a fight, so much as a thief who might try to lift one of the weapons and disappear into the crowd before she could pursue. The spearhead in its pouch over her shoulder would be harder to snatch and grab, but she kept an eye on it, too. 

Either her strategy worked, or nobody was trying to steal her swords. Either way, they made it to the temple in peace. 

It was unlike the other buildings in old town, hewn from stone with an artist’s touch. The temple hadn’t been built, exactly, but rather it had been carved out from the old bedrock. Everything was a single, uniform piece, without a single seam or mortar line to be seen. Naturally, there was a statue of the Leannán Sídhe carved out in the front, showing her in all her smooth, feline grace and splendor. 

Show off, Maggie thought, as they walked around the statue and into the temple. She lagged behind the team, staying for a moment to look up at the stone. 

“She builds herself a statue and calls herself a goddess,” Maggie commented, dryly. 

“Oh?” A sprightly looking elf in long robes turned and raised an eyebrow at her comment. She looked like a supplicant, someone who came to the Leannán Sídhe to beg for some kind of blessing or boon. 

Leave now, Maggie thought. It’s never worth the cost. Out loud, she said, “A lot of things can live for millenia. Being old and arrogant doesn’t make you a goddess, it just makes you insufferable.” 

“You speak awfully freely for someone in her temple,” the supplicant said. “Are you not worried about the consequences of an insult?” 

“I haven’t insulted anyone,” Maggie said. 

“You said the mother of muses is no true goddess, you called her arrogant, insufferable.” The woman cocked an eyebrow. “Is that not an insult to you?” 

“Maggie,” Frey snapped, looking back, only catching the end of the conversation. “What are you doing?” 

Maggie smirked, looking over at Frey. “We came to talk to her, didn’t we?” Then, looking at the Leannán Sídhe, she added, “You know I never said those things. I was careful with my words.” 

The supplicant—that is, the Leannán Sídhe—didn’t skip a beat. “You were, and you’re quick,” she said. “Most don’t notice.”

“Wait, hold on a moment, what?” Darius asked, frowning. 

“Isn’t it obvious?” Maggie asked. “She’s literally standing right next to a statue of herself. Just because she’s dressed down and she’s not ten feet tall doesn’t change what she looks like.” 

“Let’s take this inside,” the Leannán Sídhe said, smiling. “You’ve grown quicker since the last time we met, Margaret Cartwright.” 

“I’ve got some basic pattern recognition skills,” Maggie replied. “Anyways, I’m not here for you. She is.” She gestured to Frey.

Frey was scowling, but when she turned her gaze to the Leannán Sídhe she smiled. “It’s an honor to speak with you.” 

“And you as well, Olive Frey Amelia-Rose,” the semi-goddess replied, sashaying into her temple with a knowing smile.

Maggie raised an eyebrow. Olive? 

Then, she felt her stomach drop as she interpreted the smile. She already knows what she wants from us.

The Leannán Sídhe was ‘subtle’, but she wasn’t subtle. If she was already smirking before the conversation, it was because she knew how the conversation was going to play out, and she liked what she was going to get from it. 

Well then. Let’s just hope we can afford to pay. 

They followed her through the temple, past fountains and glittering murals of natural crystal. The Leannán Sídhe’s chamber was behind a doorway filled with flowing silk curtains, there was no furniture save for a single throne, sized for someone of immense proportions.

Only one person was to sit in this room. It made the power imbalance clear. 

As the Leannán Sídhe approached her throne, she grew, her scale increasing to something more befitting a self-styled goddess. Shifting from a mortal of average height, she grew until she was eleven or twelve feet tall, a woven crown shimmering into visibility on her head as she took a seat, her elbow propped on the arm rest and her hand on her chin, inspecting the team.

She was a being of ancient, raw magic. There were legends about how she became so strong, including some who said that she was there for the birth of magic itself.

Maggie was unimpressed by those rumors. Power was just power. It didn’t get any special boost for being old. 

“So, what did you come here for?” the Leannán Sídhe asked.

Frey knelt, looking down at the floor. The rest of the team followed suit, and though Maggie was dubious, she did too. Their leader spoke, a little slowly, as though she were trying to ensure she was using the proper sentence structure. “We come seeking knowledge of an ancient power.” 

“Tell me,” the Leannán Sídhe said. “What ancient power do you speak of?”

“It is… an unknown being,” Frey said, pausing for a moment. “We seek knowledge of its history, and origin, so that we can know if it’s truly been defeated. Surely you felt the power building this morning?” 

“Do you doubt my senses?” the Leannán Sídhe said. 

What is even the point of this show? Maggie wondered. She knows what we want. She knows her price. This is ridiculous. 

“I have no doubts in your ability,” Frey said. “I only seek your knowledge. If I describe a beast and its minions, what would your price be for telling us everything you know of its ilk?”

“The description won’t be necessary, I know the enemy you faced today,” the Leannán Sídhe said. “And for my price, I ask only one thing.” 

Here it comes, Maggie thought. What’s it going to be? 

“A sword, from your smith.” 

“Nope,” Maggie said, getting to her feet and spinning towards the door. “Nope, nope, nope—”

Frey got up and caught Maggie’s arm before she could leave. “Maggie.”

“We don’t need this,” Maggie said. “We already killed most of them. We’ll kill the rest. I’m not giving away a single one of my blades.”

“We’ll pay you for it,” Frey said. “It’s in the budget.” 

“Money’s not the issue,” Maggie said. She could use the money, but it wasn’t worth compromising. 

“Then what?” Frey asked. Looking back at the Leannán Sídhe, she called, “Is that the only price you’ll accept?”

“It is,” the semi-godess replied from atop her ridiculous throne. 

“Is there any way to convince you?” Frey asked. 

“You said I shouldn’t insult her,” Maggie replied, under her breath, but she nodded. “If this goes poorly, don’t blame me.” 

Frey furrowed her brow, but she didn’t say ‘no’. 

Maggie spun and stared the Leannán Sídhe right in the eye as she started to take off her loose armor. “You want one of my blades, then? I will make one for you, designed perfectly for you, but I have my own condition.” 

“What’s that?” the Leannán Sídhe asked, and everyone else seemed to be wondering the same thing.

Maggie drew one of her swords, levelling it at the ancient, powerful being looming in her throne. “You have to show me that you’re worthy. Then, and only then, will I give you leave to buy one of my swords.”

The whole room was already silent, but at her ultimatum, nobody so much as breathed. All eyes went from her, to the Leannán Sídhe.

The goddess laughed, and her voice was rich and golden like a whole chorus of singers. “You want me to fight you in an honor duel?”

“Hell no,” Maggie said. “There’s not going to be much honor in this, I just want you to fight me.” 

The Leannán Sídhe’s eyes flashed, and Maggie recognized something in that expression. Excitement. “I accept.” 

Chapter Eleven 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.

Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Nine: Recovery

June 1933.

Maggie’s heart was racing faster than it had in her life. She parried the attack, swiping her sword with all her strength. The move barely worked, and she had to lunge backwards to avoid the next slashing blow.

Holding the hilt with both hands, she went on the offensive, chopping down with all her strength. The wood swished through the air, meeting her opponent’s training sword and deflecting sharply to the side. 

While she staggered, thrown off by her failed attack, her opponent reached out and hit her with a sucker punch. It wasn’t hard enough to do serious damage, but the sharp blow drove the wind from her lungs and she dropped her weapon.

“That was cheap!” she exclaimed after a moment of wheezing. 

“We’ve talked about this,” Cyrus said. “We’re not in an honor duel here. Our steel is for warriors, not for fops trying to impress their suitors. The goal is to win.” 

He was right. Maggie knew it, but she resented the move anyways. She’d been so close to finally landing a blow, if he just… 

No. I was never close. 

She pulled at the laces on her practice armor with haste, half annoyed, half eager to get out of the hot layers of thick cotton. The day’s lesson was clearly over, and it was time to get back to work setting up the new forge. Their new shop was smaller than the last one, and didn’t have the same view, but it was still close to the river. If Maggie snuck to the roof, she could still see the city at sunset.  

“Why do I need to learn this anyways?” she said, feeling bitter. “I’m not going to be a warrior. I want to make swords, not use them.” 

“And who do you want to make swords for?” Cyrus asked. 

“The best warriors in the world,” Maggie said, repeating what she’d heard her master say a thousand times. “The people fit to use the best steel in the world.”

Cyrus nodded, stretching out his arms. “Our steel matters. It’s got history. If just anyone could come in and buy one of our swords, then it wouldn’t be special.” 

“I’m not arguing with that,” Maggie said. 

“And how do you know if the person who sought you out is the best warrior in the world?” Cyrus asked. 

Maggie had spotted his point already, but she was feeling stubborn. “Ask them what deeds they’ve done.”

“Stories can be exaggerated, if they’re not made up out of whole cloth,” Cyrus said. 

“Ask someone else what deeds they’ve done,” Maggie suggested. 

“Who? Their enemies, or their friends? People they’ve paid to rank them? Who do you think will always give an honest answer?” 

Maggie sighed. “You have to fight them yourself.” 

“You have to fight them yourself,” Cyrus confirmed, seizing a jug of water from the bench by their practice ring. “You have to become the best fighter you can be, and then you only sell a sword to anyone who can beat you blindfolded.”

“You sold a sword to one of Hopkins’ friends,” Maggie pointed out. “He couldn’t beat you if you were blindfolded.”

Cyrus’s expression soured. “He paid in gold, and treble my usual price. You have to make ends meet, sometimes.”  

“Isn’t that why we moved?” Maggie asked. 

“Times are lean. They’ll get better, soon,” he said. “Don’t forget our legacy. This is how we do things, Maggie. If you don’t want to be the best, you don’t have to be, but first you’ll need to find me another apprentice.”

She blinked. He’d never been that cold with her, no matter how moody she got about the more exhausting parts of their job. 

“Cyrus—”

“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head quickly. “I’m just tired. Let’s get back to work.”  

Present day.

The monorail tram was so smooth that Maggie almost didn’t notice the movement. Her mind was on other things.

Nine people had died that morning. Seven teachers and staff, two kids. Another fifteen were seriously wounded. Mostly people who’d been caught in the hallways, trying to find a place to hide or flee. 

I was too slow. 

Even a minute sooner, she could have saved another life. Maybe several. If she’d been better at fighting, she might have been able to get through the first wave with time enough to save one of the teachers. 

“You’re wrong,” Darius said. 

Maggie looked up at him. He’d taken the seat across from her on the tram. “What?”

“You couldn’t have done better.” He sat forward, his expression mellow.

“I know.” Maggie felt the sting of his words, even if it was meant as a comfort. “I should have trained more. If I was better—”

“Not what I meant.” Darius interrupted, brow furrowing as he searched for the words. “You shouldn’t beat yourself up, you can never save them all. We saved lives today. Let that be enough.”

She sighed, sinking into her seat. “Was it that obvious what I was thinking?” 

He chuckled, though there wasn’t much mirth in it. “We’re all thinking it, but it’s wrong. We did everything we could.” 

Maggie scratched at the bandage on her arm, unconvinced. The magically medicated cotton would have her wounds healed in a matter of hours, but it itched something fierce in the process. Of course, the healers could have patched her up in an instant, but that took energy, and others needed it more than her. She’d gone with the bandage. 

“Can you hear a bright side right now?” Darius asked. 

“Sure,” Maggie said, shaking her head. “Whatever.”

“Including what Frey took care of in the tunnels, we killed a hundred and fifteen of the bastards. The whole nest, give or take a couple stragglers.”

“I want the bastards exterminated,” Maggie said. “No stragglers.” 

“I’ve got my team out scouting,” Darius said. “Loading up the whole tunnel system with motion sensors now that it’s safer to travel through. We’ll be ready to go after them tonight.” 

“Tonight,” Maggie repeated. The few surviving beasts would get one more day to live. It was more than they deserved, but she would have to content herself with that.

“They won’t have a chance to hurt anyone else,” Darius insisted. “If they so much as blink in the direction of the city, my team will catch it and we’ll get there to stop them. I don’t think they can make a hole like that without their queen, though.” 

“Okay.” Maggie sighed, standing up in the tramcar. Her armor was still busted, flapping around on her body when she moved. “I’m… I don’t know. I’m going to go see Frey.” 

She had gotten her other sword back and pried the spearhead out of the queen’s back, wrapping it up in a plastic pouch to carry it around. It would need a new shaft, but the shaft wasn’t made from a priceless alloy and imbued with her spirit. It’d be an easy fix. 

Walking down the car, she got Frey’s attention. The squad leader had her eyes half closed and seemed to be between meditation and sleep, but she looked up when Maggie approached. “I need to retrieve my stuff from the maintenance chamber.” 

“Darius has his people getting it for us,” Frey promised. “Don’t worry about it.” 

Visions of her other swords and gear being lifted and spirited away filled Maggie’s thoughts. It had pained her to leave the metal behind at all, but it had been an emergency. She shook her head. “No offense to his people, but I’d rather get it myself.” 

Frey raised an eyebrow. “If you want to double back and go get it, I won’t stop you, but Darius’s people aren’t the Tribunal’s people. You’re in good hands.”

Maggie was dubious, but leaned against the wall of the car, eyeing Frey’s one blade. 

A few seats down, Vera glanced at Maggie. “This was your first time, right?” 

Maggie shook her head. “I’ve been in fights before.”

“Not like this,” Vera said bluntly. “Life or death; kill or be killed. This is your first time in a real fight.” 

Frowning to one side, Maggie shook her head. “I have a lot of theoretical practice.” 

Vera got up and crossed the car, offering her a hand, overtly going with the human gesture instead of a fae salute. “You did good. Welcome to the team.” 

Shaking her head, Maggie rejected the gesture. “I’m just here until the petraforms are dealt with and I get paid what I’m owed, it’s not a full-time job for me. I’m not joining your crew.” 

“It’s just a paycheck for you?” Vera asked, dubiously. “You put yourself in a lot of risk for someone who doesn’t care.” 

“No,” Maggie conceded. “It’s not just a paycheck, but I’ve got a life to get back to.”

“Uh-huh.” Vera shrugged. “Whatever you say.” 

Before Maggie could respond, the car started to slow down, the change in force making her stumble and grab a hand rail. Over the next fifteen seconds the tram slowed until they’d come to a complete stop at the far end of the city. 

Maggie got out, looking around. She didn’t come to this side of the city very often. It was the old town, the first bit of construction done way back when. 

Frey came out a few steps behind her, carrying a large duffel bag. “If you really want to go get your things, do it now,” Frey said. “We don’t strictly need you along for this, we’re just getting information.” 

“Information?” Maggie asked. “Isn’t that what Darius’s team is for?” 

“Different kind of information,” Frey said. “Darius?”

Darius was a few paces behind them, but hopped off the tram and started filling Maggie in. “When we made first contact, we didn’t know what these things were, and there wasn’t enough information to go off of. Could be a new errekin that’s never been encountered before, or a variant of an old one that we haven’t seen in generations. Too many monsters fall under the blanket of ‘Claws, chitin, aggressive’.”

“But today narrows it down,” Maggie said. “So we’re going to an archive to cross reference that description with a large quadrupedal queen.” 

“Yes, and no,” Darius said. 

Vera was the last off the train, walking with Twig. “We’re going to go see Aunt Leana.”

Maggie frowned. Leana? Isn’t that… “The Leannán Sídhe?” 

Smirking, Vera said, “You really do live with the humans, don’t you?” 

“Let’s get moving,” Frey urged. “I want to get there soon; we don’t know how long this will take. And Maggie?” 

“Yeah?” Maggie asked.

“If you’re coming with us, keep your sword ready. This might get dangerous.” 

Chapter Ten 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.

Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Eight: Long Live the Queen

Frey swung her sword like a scythe, wide and powerful, in a guarding sweep to force the beasts away. She held her stance, low and terrifying, like a mother wolf protecting her young. 

“Dammit, Maggie!” She bellowed. “Get on your feet!”

Five seconds ago, Maggie had been convinced she was about to die, and her body hadn’t yet caught up to the program. It took a force of will to kick herself back into gear, pushing up and raising her knife in a tight fist.

The petraforms seemed disinterested in attacking for the moment. They’d retreated, slightly, into a ring around the queen. Two warriors, it seemed, were enough to make them cautious. 

“Where’s Darius?” Maggie tentatively put weight down on her hurt leg to see how it would hold, never taking her eyes off the cautious petraforms. 

As if on cue, a rumbling explosion echoed from the pit, and the former head of containment zipped out on a grapple line. He didn’t leap gracefully off the line, but instead just pulled himself all the way up, clipping to the basketball goal he’d grappled to.

“That should buy us thirty seconds!” he shouted down, unslinging the sniper rifle from his back. 

More explosions boomed out of the hole, each one making the gym floor shake.

“How many?” Maggie asked, tightening her grip on the knife. Her voice was wavering. “How many are coming?”

“Best I can figure,” Frey replied, holding out her sword. “The whole nest.” 

Eyes darting around the room, Maggie located her swords. One was behind the ring of hissing monsters, but the other was over next to the upright bleachers. 

“I’ll be right back.” Moving slowly, not wanting to startle the petraforms into action, she began edging towards it. If she could get a proper blade before the music started again, their odds of making it out alive would be significantly higher.

As she edged towards the bleachers, a razor-clawed hand reached out of the pit. A petraform clambered out, shuffling forward on all fours to join the defensive ring around the queen.

Another came up behind it, and another. Five more. Ten. An army of densely packed claws, teeth, and stony armor.

Maggie’s foot bumped the edge of the bleachers, and she stole a glance down. Her sword was a couple feet to the side, and she knelt, scooping it up, slipping her knife back in its pouch. That done, she began shuffling back towards Frey. 

The monsters didn’t charge. Even as the stream of reinforcements slowed to a trickle and the wall of petraforms grew to be four layers thick, the petraforms stayed defensive. 

“What are they doing?” Maggie asked quietly. 

Frey glanced up. “Darius, got any ideas?” 

He was looking from target to target with his rifle, but not firing. “I can’t tell,” he said. “What’s that thing in the big one’s back?”

“It’s what remains of my spear,” Maggie said. “I pricked the queen good, but she’s too hardy to go down to just one hit.” 

“The queen,” Darius repeated, rolling around the name for a moment. “Okay, that works. What’s our bugout plan if this all goes pear shaped?” 

Frey glanced at Maggie. “Don’t need one. We can take them.” 

Maggie started to reply to the negative, but she quickly got what Frey really meant. 

They couldn’t evacuate and run. They were the line of defense against these monsters, and if they bugged out, nothing would stop the petraforms from rolling through Kansas City Below and killing as they pleased.

As this thought crossed her mind, though, the other interpretation of Frey’s statement hit her. The patter of light feet and combat boots sounded from the doorway behind them, and she turned her head just enough to glance that way. 

The cavalry, as it were, was riding over the hill. Twig sprinted on ahead, joining their lineup in the front, while Vera stayed back to offer magical support. The whole gang was together.

“I count fifty-two hostiles, including the big one,” Darius shouted down from his perch. “That’s only ten to one.” 

“That’s ten to one,” Vera called. “Why are they holding back?” 

Maggie paused in thought, then shifted her weight forward and turned her blade to make the gym’s fluorescent light flash off the steel. 

The wave of bristling claws and chitin moved like a single unit, their posture shifting to face Maggie, to make sure there were as many bodies as possible between her and…

“The queen,” Maggie said. “They’re protecting the queen. They’re going to retreat.”

“Piss on that,” Darius said. “They don’t get to come and go as they please.” 

“We could use the chance to regroup, don’t be too excited for a fight,” Frey cautioned, watching the mass of monsters. 

While she said it, the queen started shuffling backwards, taking a lumbering step towards the pit. Her guard moved with her, shifting a couple feet at a time, watching its exit. The back of the swarm moved around the edge of the pit as they reached it, extending the wall of bodies so that the queen had a clean exit path. 

“I’m with Darius,” Vera called from the back of the room. “All respect, ma’am, you haven’t seen the extent of the damage. They don’t get to leave.” 

Frey glanced between Twig and Maggie. Twig gave a short, curt nod. Maggie set her jaw in defiance. 

“We need a plan, then,” Frey said. “Maggie, are you confident in a wedge formation?” 

“No,” Maggie said, eyeing the spearhead still jutting out of the queen’s back. She wanted it back, and they wouldn’t be prying it free of the queen if it was alive. 

Frey followed her gaze, her face flashing with insight. “Twig. You know how to put in a tent stake?” 

Twig flashed her teeth in a defiant smile, waited for a nod from Frey, and then leaped into the air. 

Not for the first time in her life, Maggie was jealous of the svartálfr’s grace. Twig didn’t need a handhold to keep her balance on the queen’s back, she just planted her feet, raising her hammer to strike. 

A single, powerful blow drove the spearhead eight inches deeper into the queen’s back, so far down that the flared base designed to keep the spear from going too deep actually went into the thick chitin, along with the remaining two inches of handle. 

The queen screamed, a sound that made Maggie’s teeth stand on edge, and every single petraform turned and swarmed at Twig.

Jumping preternaturally high, Frey kicked off of nothing, bursts of wind blasting from her shoes as she ran on air to support Twig. From behind, Vera swooped in on a current of power, throwing down bolts of energy to tangle and bind up the swarm. From above, Darius dropped the line that held him clipped up high, swinging down like Tarzan to drop a pair of explosive charges into the deepest parts of the horde before grappling away. 

Maggie hefted her sword, grumbling. Everyone’s got tricks but me.

The horde was focused on revenge for the critical wound Twig had just dealt. It wasn’t just a desire to deal with the greatest threat, they were frenzied and focused with a horrific level of single-mindedness. 

And not a single petraform was looking at Maggie. 

While the rest of the party battled atop or floating above the queen, Maggie started cutting her way in from the back, encountering almost no resistance save for the force she had to exert to drive her sword through chitin. 

She wasn’t a hunter anymore, she was a butcher, hacking through a stony tide to get to the rest of the fighting. 

Near the head of the queen, Frey took her sword and plunged it into the space between two plates, adding to the wounds on the giant beast, and adding to the targets that the petraforms were diving at with a fury. Twig continued knocking them away like a switch hitter at batting practice, and it was looking like they would be able to keep this up easily, keeping the swarm at bay until there weren’t any left standing. 

Maggie made it through the line, clearing the space between her and the queen, making a moment of brief eye contact with the beast. 

It was hard to read an alien face. Its eyes were black pools with deep red veins, and Maggie wasn’t even sure if it had a nose. Still… she thought she recognized a deep, animalistic fear in its face. 

We cut off its flight, she realized, interpreting its expression. It’s desperate. 

The queen roared out a lingering basso cry, and its eyes flared with sudden fire as its body went stiff and it began to work power. 

Maggie had felt the magic when Vera brought it out, but this was deeper. Older. The power it was wielding wasn’t coming from the earth.

Whatever it was trying to do, Maggie didn’t want to stand around and gawk until the spell was complete. As long as it was frozen in a roar, its mouth was open.

She stepped forward, raised her sword, and stabbed it right through the throat, angling her blade up so it’d carve towards where a brain would typically live. 

The queen lurched, stopped, and then the light in its eyes went out.

There were still more than a dozen petraforms swarming to get to the rest of the team, too single minded to notice that they’d already failed in their task. Their queen was dead. Only when the queen’s body slumped forward and settled with a heavy WHUMP did they get the picture.

The petraforms staggered back, confused. For the first time since Maggie had encountered the monsters, they suddenly looked uncertain, maybe even in shock. They didn’t know what to do now that their queen was dead.

The team, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do. Unsteady, hesitant petraforms were easy targets, and Frey kept up her relentless assault against them, supported by the rest of her team. 

Maggie planted a boot on the queen’s chin and pushed, using the leverage to get her blade free. She didn’t need to defend herself; nothing was attacking. Adrenaline was still coursing through her as she took a couple steps back, watching for any monsters that might be coming. 

Only one did, and it appeared to be fleeing more than charging. She cut it down. 

For the rest, she just watched the team work. There wasn’t much else she needed to do.

Her leg started shaking, then stopped taking her weight completely. God, it hurts. When did it get hurt? 

She blinked. She was hurt in a lot of places, she realized. Some injuries she could remember getting, others that she couldn’t. Now that there was no adrenaline coursing through her system and she was safe, her body was sending up pain flares all over. 

One thought struck out to her, though. 

I’m a fool.

Her proposal to Blanche had been ridiculous. There was no way in hell she could have done this all on her own and lived to tell the tale. Maybe, if she played it cautious and engaged them a couple petraforms at a time, but if she’d done that, then nobody would have been around to evacuate the school. 

Not a single petraform got away. Once the coast was clear, and the only monsters in the region were dead, Frey and strode to Maggie’s side. “You need medical?” 

“I’m fine,” Maggie said automatically. After a moment of hesitation, though, she shook her head. “Yes, I do. I can walk, but… yes, I do.” Her thoughts felt a little sluggish, in comparison to the lightning reflexes and energy she’d felt in combat. 

Reaching down, Frey offered her a hand, calling over her shoulder. “How close is medical?” 

Darius dropped to the ground, checking the readout on his wrist. “They’re right outside. Already helping the wounded.” 

Pulling Maggie to her feet, Frey nodded. “If you’re hurt, go get patched up. Otherwise, help me do a sweep for injured and pull them out. We did good, but the day’s not over yet.”

Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Seven: Getting a Hand

There was one bright side to being surrounded by monsters, at least that Maggie could see: If they all came to her, she wouldn’t have to hunt them down. 

Yeah, keep telling yourself that, she thought. You’ll be fine. 

She was standing with her back to Twig’s as the shrieks of gathering petraforms got louder. The queen, a hulking brute that would be intimidating to face all on its own, was stalking towards them, one lumbering footstep at a time. 

“If we let them all swarm us, we won’t make it,” Maggie said, adjusting her grip on her swords. The child was still in the corner behind the upturned bleachers. The queen had turned her attention away from her for the moment, focusing instead on Maggie. But they couldn’t get the kid out of the gym until they’d made a path. They’d have to strike, fast and hard, and cut an opening before they could get swarmed. “We’ve got to get aggressive.”

Twig made a clicking sound with her tongue, a sign of acknowledgement. 

“Meat or potatoes?” Maggie asked, gesturing between the petraform queen and the doorway they’d come in through, where the shrieking was getting even louder. 

Twig snorted, nodding to the doorway. 

“Got it.” Maggie turned and charged, meeting the first screeching vermin head-on in the opening between the gym and the hall. 

With one quick slice of her blades—snicker-snack—a decapitated petraform slumped to the floor. 

Three more were coming up the hall. Maggie thrust her offhand blade at the nearest, driving it back, and slashed to parry a swiping claw from reaching her unprotected face, removing a hand from its arm in the process. 

The third one met Twig’s hammer, which struck with enough force to chip the chitin on its shoulder even without any magic steel to reinforce the blow. 

Twig leapt at the vulnerable petraform and kept pounding it, bludgeoning it over and over so it couldn’t recover, while Maggie squared off against the other two. 

The one with two hands intact seemed more aggressive, but neither were going to charge her outright and take a sword to the face. In other circumstances, Maggie would have been happy to take the reprieve, but they only had a few seconds before the queen and its minions caught up to them and she needed this part of the fight to be over by then. The fray in the doorway was already taking longer than Maggie had wanted. 

So, she charged the one she’d wounded, bringing both blades down in an overhand sweep. It tried to dodge to the side, but she’d anticipated the attempt and whirled in response, catching it in the chest and collarbone, splattering ichor through the hall.

While she took it down, though, the one-handed petraform came at her back, slashing through the Kevlar and padding on her back. 

It protected her, but she felt something come loose as its claws cut through both strike plates and straps, nearly making it to skin. Her armor shifted on her body as she wrenched her swords free and turned to drive a kick at the beast. 

It was unnaturally sturdy. The kick pushed Maggie back as much as the monster, and she stumbled into the open gym door, raising her swords in a guard so the petraform couldn’t pounce on her. 

She almost didn’t notice in her peripheral vision that two more of the monsters were coming up from behind her, rocketing forward on all fours across the gym floor, shoving each other to be the first into the fray. Maggie spun and pointed one of her swords out towards them, watching both her flanks, unable to take on one threat without leaving the other—

A powerful, but distinctly un-clawed hand grabbed Maggie by the collar of her armor and yanked her through the doorway. Twig wrapped an arm around her chest, crouched, and jumped, crossing nearly the whole length of the gym, landing on the far bleachers with enough force to dent the aluminum bench seating.

“Thanks,” Maggie said, taking a couple deep breaths while she got her bearings. Her armor was loose and didn’t seem to be belted around her torso properly anymore, but there was no time to fix it. Monsters were coming for her, and the girl was still curled up behind the ruined bleachers across from them. “We have to get that kid out of here.” 

In the space of an eye blink, she surveyed the room and came up with a plan. 

Three petraforms were at the door on the right that they’d just fled from, four at the far door to her left, and half a dozen were climbing out of the hole in the gym floor, taking the time to help out their companions so they could all attack in unison. 

And, of course, there was still the queen in the center, snapping and snarling at them, Maggie’s spear still lodged in its back. 

Why hasn’t it charged us? 

It was big enough to shrug off her attacks, magical blade or no. Maggie would need to hit it somewhere particularly vulnerable to do any real damage; the throat or an eye. 

The other petraforms seemed to have little in the way of self-preservation, favoring nearly pure aggression. Maggie had only seen them flee when victory was utterly hopeless.

Whatever drove the small ones, didn’t seem to hold true for the queen. It had been stung once, and wouldn’t risk it again while there were minions to spare.

Most importantly: While the bulk of the beasts were focused on Maggie and Twig, a few latecomers were preferentially favoring easy prey and stalking towards the girl.

No more time for planning. “Get her out of here!” Maggie shouted, getting Twig’s attention with a gesture of her sword. 

So, you’re afraid of a fight, eh? Maggie pressed her lips into a furious grin. Let’s make sure you can’t ignore me. 

Her swords weren’t designed as a ranged weapon, but she hefted her left-handed blade and threw it at the nearest cluster of monsters anyways. It dealt negligible damage, but the petraforms staggered back from the lethal steel, and Maggie seized the hesitation to charge through, her sword out to the side, barrelling towards the queen.

The other petraforms scrambled to pursue, and once Maggie was in reach, the queen swiped at her with a massive clawed foreleg. Had Maggie been trying to attack its face, she would have been repelled.

She wasn’t. 

Maggie juked to the side, jumped up with her free hand extended, and seized the shaft of the spear that was still embedded in the queen’s back.

It held fast; the spear locked into the chitin it had cracked open.

Perfect.

With the spear as a handle, Maggie could ride the petraform queen like a bizarre windsurfing-Viking hybrid. Just for good measure, she planted her boot on the flared base of the spearhead and shoved her weight into it, driving the steel an inch deeper into the queen’s back.

If that didn’t get the monsters’ attention, nothing would.

The queen howled and bucked, but Maggie had an iron grip on the shaft and stayed upright, if a bit unstable.

All eyes were on her, and the monsters swarmed in her direction, including the ones that had been in the doorway to the hall. Twig’s path to the schoolgirl was open.

Maggie just had one objective: survive until Twig could get the girl to Vera and come back and join the fight. It wouldn’t take long, maybe thirty seconds, maybe a minute, but that could be an eternity in a fight. 

Fortunately, Maggie had reach, and she had the high ground. The thrashing, bucking, screaming high ground. 

A petraform lunged up at her and Maggie slashed its face, knocking it back. She spun around and kicked in time to knock another one away that was trying to climb up and face her on a level footing, whirling in time to drive a heavy thrust into the shoulder of a third.

She wasn’t fighting, she was thrashing in every direction to keep the beasts at bay. 

In her peripheral vision, she saw Twig scoop up the kid and gun it for the open doorway. 

Great, now I can-

One of the petraforms got wise. It struck low, and while Maggie jumped back to protect her ankles, she missed its true target. Razor claws cut through the shaft of her spear right at the head, and the handle she’d been relying on for balance was suddenly just a long stick.

Maggie tumbled backward, landing between the queen’s shoulder blades. In a moment of poorly honed instincts, she dropped her sword but held onto the useless spear shaft, clutching it like a security blanket as two petraforms jumped onto the queen’s back. 

She pushed with her legs, getting traction off the queen’s layers of chitin and rolling backwards, slipping off and falling down in a heap to the gym floor. Right in front of the queen’s face.

They made a moment of startled eye contact; the queen seeming to be just as surprised as Maggie. If Maggie had kept a hold on her sword, she could have gotten in a sucker attack and cut the beast’s throat right there. Instead, she had a wooden stick.

So she poked it in the eye.

It screamed and Maggie rolled back as it slashed at her, half blind. A petraform jumped off the queen’s back and Maggie had to roll even further. All the while, the ten or so remaining little ones skittered from where they had swarmed around the back of the queen.

Maggie used her stick as support to jump to her feet. She was, once again, wanting for a weapon.

Feeling silly, she pulled her last two options off her belt. A cannister of her homebrew pepper spray, and her knife. 

A petraform pounced, and she sprayed it in the eyes, momentarily blinding it, giving her a chance to duck away. Another one got in close and brought its claws down on her wrist, slashing right through the Kevlar guards she wore and drawing blood.

She dropped the pepper spray but got her revenge, stabbing the monster through the eye, jerking the blade free with a sick little shucking sound.

More of them, coming from both sides. Maggie turned to run, but an overachiever had already gotten behind her. She ducked back, spinning, looking for an out.

There wasn’t one.

Maggie was surrounded, and the situation was—

September 1929.

“—not hopeless at all, we just need to find a solution,” Cyrus said, leaning over his books. 

“How much do we need?” Maggie asked, leaning in to peek at the notes her mentor was taking. He’d been working on the books all evening, trying to make them balance.

“We’re running about five hundred dollars in the red every month, give or take. If we downsize and get a cheaper lease, that’ll help.”

Those numbers didn’t make sense to Maggie. Business had been going well. Cyrus’s steel was renowned, and he had more potential buyers than they could keep up with. How were they running so far behind on their bills?

“Didn’t we have money saved?” she asked.

“In a bank, yes,” Cyrus said, pursing his lips. He didn’t quite lose his smile, but it came close. “The bank closed.”

Maggie had never paid much attention to the politics of humans, but now she wished she had. Something had gone horribly wrong, she knew, but the details, the reason why mistakes by men she’d never met could ruin her mentor’s finances, escaped her. 

“We might have to go to Hopkins,” Cyrus said, looking over the numbers again. “Take him up on his offer of a partnership.”

Raising an eyebrow, Maggie started to ask, “But you said he was a sna—”

I know,” Cyrus said. It was almost a snap, but not quite. “But when you’re in trouble, you can’t be picky about whose help you accept. Hopkins has the space we need, and the money to keep us afloat. It’d be temporary, anyways.”

Grimacing, Maggie sat back. “I like the building we have now.”

“Maybe we won’t have to move,” Cyrus said, closing his books and relaxing into his chair. “We might not even need to work with Hopkins. I’ll look into some options tomorrow.”

Maggie was dubious, but Cyrus had been doing this a lot longer than her. She trusted his opinion.

Smiling like he always did before dispensing wisdom, Cyrus said, “Remember, whenever you’re in need, look around. There’s always someone with a helping hand waiting for you.”

Present day.

Nobody was coming to help Maggie. She knew it, deep down in her bones. Any escape from the monsters who encircled her would have to be her own doing. 

At least they’d learned to be wary of her. They were waiting, lining up to form a dense wall, watching to see if she produced yet another weapon from within her arsenal. They wouldn’t strike until all of them—Maggie had lost count and didn’t bother trying to tally them up again—were in position.

Wheeling to face the nearest one, Maggie said, “Boo!”

Then she jumped at it, in a low knee tackle. 

She may as well have tackled a statue.

Her plan had been to knock it down and then scramble past. It was a desperate, unlikely move, and it didn’t work. Her hardened shoulder pads hit the chitin of the petraform’s shins and she was stopped cold. 

It struck her with a bloody stump of a wrist, and Maggie fell, rolling onto her back. 

You again? Maggie thought, remembering the petraform she’d unhanded in the hallway. 

It slammed another powerful blow down on her chest with its other forearm, ichor splattering from the severed spot where its left hand should have been. Without armor to distribute the force, it might have killed her, but as it was, it cracked ribs.

She couldn’t run, or even really crawl, so her brain picked up the slack while she covered her face with her arms in a limp, defensive posture. 

I didn’t cut off both its hands. So why does it have two stumps? 

For that matter, several more petraforms that scurried to strike her downed body seemed to be injured, with a gash across the chest or a crack on a piece of chitin.

Pain burst in her ankle and then on her arm as claws ripped into her body.

Nobody—not Maggie, and certainly not the petraforms—noticed the grappling hook that fired out of the hole in the floor and hooked into a basketball goal that had been raised to the ceiling, until it began to sharply retract and tow up the person on the other end. 

Frey burst out of the hole with a flash of steel and a terrifying battle cry. She unclipped from the line and, with a burst of wind magic, crossed the whole room in a single pounce, her sword cleaving a petraform in two.

Crouching over Maggie defensively, Frey snarled at the monsters and they scrambled back.

“Where are the others?” Frey demanded.

“They—evacuating the school!” Maggie stammered, scrambling into a sitting position. 

Shit,” Frey said. “Get up.”

Maggie tested her leg, unsure if the cut would keep her from standing. “I don’t know if—” 

Get up,” Frey snapped. “More are coming.” 

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Maggie Cartwright, Chapter Six: School’s Out

The screams reached Maggie’s ears long before she could see the school. 

In the densely traveled streets of Kansas City Below, an echo could carry around corners and be heard for hundreds of yards. She wished that the sound wouldn’t carry so much; the screams were causing a panic. 

Nobody knew what to do. Some passers-by wanted to run in and help, others were fleeing. The former were worse than the latter—without weapons, they wouldn’t be helping, they’d just be getting in the way. 

Twig, at least, had a broad enough frame to shove a path through the dense, panicked elves, making room for Maggie to follow behind her, two swords rattling on her belt, her newly forged main weapon clutched in her hand. She’d lost track of Vera, but the willowy dryad kept popping up in her peripheral vision, slipping through the people like wind. 

Even with the svartálfr making a path, it was a struggle. It felt like trying to make it into a stadium when the game just ended, though less drunken and more frantic.

I hope Frey’s route was faster. 

She rounded a corner behind Twig, coming into a wide, tall chamber big enough to fit a few houses side by side, with some playground equipment set out. On the far side of the chamber, the wall was painted to look like moss and flowers, with a big sign over a set of double doors. ‘Bree Holds Secondary School’.  

It was all designed to mimic an open courtyard and give the school a natural, welcoming feel. With all the sounds of terror coming from inside, Maggie found that the artificiality was only emphasized, making the space feel sinister rather than homey. 

The doors were open, and a trio of terror-stricken young elves were scrambling to get out. 

Maggie swallowed, afraid of what they were going to see in there. Praying that they’d made it in time. 

There were people inside that needed her, so Maggie put aside her fears and charged ahead. 

It was laid out like any human junior high school, most resembling the sorts built in the 60s and 70s. A blocky layout, full of long hallways lined with lockers, individual class rooms every thirty feet or so dotted with school spirit flyers and poster boards with announcements.

The entry hall was abandoned, but she could hear shouts deeper in the school, and they were coming closer, echoing around the corner up ahead. Gripping her weapon tightly, she nodded to Twig and Vera, stepping cautiously towards the sound. 

Nearly tripping as he came around, a boy in the peak of puberty scrambled around the corner, every breath he took coming out as a scream. 

Not half a second behind him, a petraform skidded on the smooth linoleum flooring, gouging out furrows in the floor as it slid past him and slammed into a row of lockers, bouncing free and coming up after the kid with an alien shriek. 

Roaring out a challenge, she ran as fast as she could towards the petraform, past the fleeing child. It leapt through the air at her, and Maggie was finally able to put her newest piece of steel to the test.

Her rapier was quick, but lacked power. Her claymore was heavy and had reach, but lacked speed. Her twin sabers took skill she didn’t have to use at their peak. 

That’s why she’d made herself a spear. 

Bracing herself, Maggie jammed the magically endowed spearhead right into the petraform’s chest. The steel pierced hard, stony chitin, and the wide guard at the base of the head kept the monstrous creature from sliding down the handle or getting stuck on the weapon. 

Maggie twisted the blade in her grip, and the creature stopped twitching. Jerking back, she freed her spear, flicked it through the air, and looked back at her two companions. 

“We need to start evacuating—” 

“Get down!” Vera barked in warning, raising her hands and sending out a pulsing blue burst of magic past Maggie. 

Maggie spun, alarmed to see the spell collide into another petraform that had been halfway to chomping the back of her neck. The magical missile didn’t seem to hurt it that much, but it knocked it out of the way, and that was all the opening Maggie needed to strike, catching it between two hard plates on its back. 

The lunge put Maggie even further ahead of the other two, in the T intersection where both monsters had come from. Turning to look down the hall, Maggie blinked. 

There were a lot of them. 

Some of the petraforms were scrabbling with their claws to break down classroom doors, others were stalking towards the sound of the combat, but once she was in their view, they all rounded on her, and Maggie couldn’t help but freeze for a moment as she tried to count them all.

They had no such momentary reaction. At least a dozen petraforms barreled towards her, crossing the distance with terrifying speed. There wasn’t time for Maggie to run, her allies were some twenty feet behind her, and she could only skewer one at a time.

She braced her spear anyways, getting ready to thrust. 

From behind her, another bolt of magic seized the first petraform of the pack, launching it back and into two others, while at the same time, Twig jumped in—literally, jumping the whole distance between her and Maggie—and brought an enormous war hammer into direct contact with the face of another monster, sending it down in a daze. 

Maggie only watched, surprised, as a backhanded swing from the svartálfr’s hammer hit another petraform with enough force to launch it back and dent a row of lockers. A third monster leapt at her, but a bolt of magic from Vera took it down before it could get close enough to strike.

They fought as a perfect team, Twig handling the front line while Vera protected her with ranged support, but neither had the capacity to finish off the beasts. 

Right. That’s my job.

Getting over her moment of battle shock, Maggie lunged in, thrusting the tip of her spear into the closest dazed monster, jerking it free, and whirling in time to skewer another one that was coming at her. Twig brought down one that tried to slash at Maggie’s back, pummeling it to the floor, and she came back with the pointed starmetal tip on the back of the spear’s shaft, finishing it off. 

The walls were splattered with dark ichor before the remaining beasts realized they were outmatched and started to skitter away, screeching something that was either a warning or a cry for help.

All Maggie cared about was that they were easier to hit from the back than the front. Going on the offensive, she pursued, and now Vera took on a different role—instead of throwing the monsters back and playing defense, she tripped them up and held the beasts in place, thin strands of power delaying them long enough for Maggie to catch up and bring more of them down. 

None of the monsters got away. With help, Maggie brought down each and every one; fourteen kills in total, including the first two. With terrain that favored small numbers and support, the three of them were all but unstoppable. 

It was a long ways from a terrified pursuit in a subway tunnel. Today, Maggie was the predator. 

When they had a moment to pause, though, she took a breath and gauged their surroundings. Doors to the classrooms were in various states of being torn down—they were reinforced fire doors, which is why they’d been able to survive the petraform’s assault at all. Fire safety was critically important when there was no ‘outside’ to run to, and it had paid off as monster repellant as well. 

Maggie looked to her team. “We need to start getting kids out of here, we’re lucky they haven’t gotten through any doors yet. We can make sure there’s a path to the exit while—” Another scream from deeper in the school interrupted her. More of them. Hefting her spear, she shook her head. “No time. Let’s go.”   

Sprinting in the direction of the scream, she rounded another corner and swallowed down nausea. 

Blood. Elf blood, splattered high on the walls and even ceiling deeper in the hall, with a pair of petraforms crouched over a prone, twitching—

Maggie screamed in rage and ran in. One beast didn’t even have time to turn in response. The other did, and would have lunged at her while she felled its comrade, but Vera held it back and pinned it to the wall with a spell until Maggie could drive her blade into its chest. 

She couldn’t look at the body. A glance told her it was probably a teacher or some of the adult staff, at least. 

It wasn’t the only one. Maggie held back the urge to gag as she looked down the rest of the hallway. 

They’d been too slow, too late, and there were still monsters about. 

“Start evacuating,” she said. “We need to get everyone out.” 

“We should focus on taking down the petraforms,” Vera said, stepping up next to her. “Otherwise, those deeper in the school will be easy prey while we evacuate those close to the entrance.” 

“I’ll kill them,” Maggie growled. “Don’t worry. You just get the kids clear.” 

Vera’s face went still for a moment, and the patterns on her earthy skin rippled. Maggie thought it was an expression of frustration, but she didn’t know dryads well enough to be sure. After the pause, Vera said, “Fine. Twig, stay with her.” 

Running back, she started tapping doors with magic, calling out. “We’re here to help! Line up and follow me to the exit!” 

“I’d rather have you helping escort them to safety,” Maggie said to the hulking Twig. 

Twig nodded in agreement, but stayed by Maggie’s side, clutching her hammer tight. 

Breathing heavily, Maggie stepped through the brightly lit hallway, aromas of iron and blood thick in the air. She watched for open doors, and especially for doors that had been broken through. She saw one, ripped completely off its hinges, and held her breath as she peered inside.

It had, at one point, been a teacher’s lounge. Now, there was nothing alive in the room, and Maggie wasn’t even sure how many people had been in there when the door fell. 

Taking shallow breaths, she turned away. 

This wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Hunting monsters was one thing, but…

Twig whistled, getting her attention and pointing down the hall. There were swinging doors leading to a gymnasium, and through the little windows on the doors Maggie could see a big shape shambling around. It was bigger than the petraforms, but indistinct. 

“What do you think?” she asked. “A queen, or something?” 

Twig shrugged. 

Approaching cautiously, Maggie mentally prepared herself to down the big creature, hoping to take it by surprise. It wasn’t even fighting anymore, it was big game hunting. 

Through the gymnasium doors, there was an enormous crash, and then a particularly high scream.

No more time for sneaking. Maggie charged shoulder to shoulder with Twig, slamming through the gym doors and surveying the scene. 

A whole rack of bleachers had been knocked on its side, and a small elf girl was backed against the wall behind where the seating had been built. She was the one screaming, and it wasn’t hard to understand why.

The thing that had knocked over the bleachers was huge. Eight feet tall, and twice as long, it looked more like an organic equivalent to a tank than anything else, with row upon row of teeth taking up the whole of its face. Scanning the room, Maggie saw an open hole in the center of the gym, the spot that all the petraforms had come through. 

The queen, or whatever it was, lumbered towards the screaming girl. Not enough time to charge, Maggie stepped forward and threw her spear.

It lodged in between two pieces of armor, sticking out like a single quill on a porcupine, and the queen bellowed, whirling and bucking its head to face its attacker. Maggie went for the swords strapped to her belt. 

“Ready to take this thing down?” she asked, glancing at Twig while the queen stamped its feet and snarled at them, a low-pitched rumble harmonizing with the girl’s scream. 

Twig nodded her head sharply. 

Then, a chittering sounded behind her. And more, in front of her. Even more coming from the doors on the far side of the gym. 

The queen was calling in reinforcements, summoning every petraform in the school, and more from the hole in the ground. 

Maggie and Twig made eye contact. They were surrounded. 

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