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Max Jolley

Star Steel: Maggie Cartwright, Book One

Star Steel: Maggie Cartwright, Book One

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Maggie Cartwright never expected to find herself as a mercenary, never mind one facing an apocalyptic threat the world hasn’t seen in living memory. A solitary auto mechanic and a smith by trade, she’s more comfortable making blades than using them. Slaying monsters professionally is a difficult, hazardous job that’s as likely to end with fangs in your throat as a solid paycheck, even for professionals working in a team.

But in the land of the fae, fate doesn’t care what she’s comfortable with, and for Maggie, the danger of razor claws and ancient magic pales next to the danger posed by her own people’s politics. Monsters can kill. Manipulation by the fae can do far more damage.

Maggie’s talents as a master smith make her valuable, and her former master’s legacy makes her a target. With a city on the line and hellish monstrosities digging their way up from the deep, Maggie can’t refuse the call to fight, and the battle cannot be won without allies. With the right friends, she could save hundreds of thousands of lives and get paid doing it. But if she can’t learn who to trust, she won’t be the only one who ends up dead.

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Length: 284 pages, 73,000 words

This work contains depictions of verbal abuse, violence and mortal peril, death, mild gore, and peril to teenagers in a school setting. Reader discretion is advised.

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Chapter 1: Bushwhacked

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

The towering engine said nothing in reply. They never did, not with words, but sometimes Maggie swore she could hear the metal sing. 

Today, she only got a quiet grumble. 

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

Eight feet tall and twice as long, the machine bristled with copper coils and runes. The latest design of maglev—magical levitation—engine. It was the sort of technology that humans had been struggling to develop for decades. Her people, the fae, had perfected the necessary technology and enchantments a century prior and had been refining it ever since. 

When it ran, the engine could suspend a fifty-seat passenger car in the air and accelerate it down a subway tunnel at incredible speed, ignoring wind resistance, g-forces, and completely doing away with the need for tracks. 

The stone tunnel it sat in was thirty feet wide, enough room for two subway cars to pass cleanly by each other, with a smooth floor and rough-carved walls, hewn from bedrock far below the surface. With a maglev engine every two kilometers, the fae ran a functional subway at ten times the speed and efficiency of mundane rail transit.

But this engine had stopped running. The demand for transportation didn’t let up no matter the capacity, and things would only get more congested until it got fixed, so Maggie was getting paid top dollar to diagnose its problems and fix the damage as quickly as possible. 

A cool breeze wafted up the tunnel and the engine shuddered slightly, the many metals of its composition flexing with the temperature shift.  

Maggie 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 on the exterior, a polished flat plate on top to conduct the magical-magnetic lift, looked almost brand new. Given its age and appearance, the damage likely came from a fault in the installation. 

Maggie walked back to her truck, where her complete set of tools were available to deal with any issue she might face. Since the subway tunnel had a flat, smooth floor with no tracks, she’d simply taken her truck down a service elevator and drove right to the broken maglev engine, which was a blessing—she didn’t enjoy having to schlep hundreds of pounds of gear down by hand. 

Sifting through options, she picked up a thirty-inch steel crescent wrench. As an elf, the touch of iron was her anathema and bane—or, well, she had a mild allergy to the metal—even if it had been alloyed or diluted. Her heavy-duty leather gloves ensured she wouldn’t break out at the touch, though, and like a cook in a kitchen full of sharp, hot, or otherwise dangerous tools, she knew how to work around it safely. There were non-ferrous tools that were strong enough for the job, but with proper PPE, Maggie never had any problems with iron.

Her tools selected, Maggie tapped into her innate magic and called up a simple werelight, a glowing orb that bobbed above her head. She’d never amount to much of a druid or sorceress, but all fae had at least a little magic, and if nothing else she never needed an assistant on flashlight duty. Tucking her braids over her shoulder, she walked back to the engine and got to work on the access panel. It was time to see what was going on inside. 

Maggie had to expend some real effort and grunting, putting her weight into the wrench to free each seized bolt. It was harder work than it should have been just to get the access panel open, but that gave Maggie a theory of what was wrong: metal warping. Warping could have a lot of causes, and it could cause a lot of malfunctions, but the clue gave her a parameter to work within. 

“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 waved her werelight forward to peek inside.

She blinked. 

The inside looked as though a rat had gotten inside and chewed everything up to make a nest, except 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 machine failure; 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. Indicator lights, perhaps, except… those didn’t have blinking eyelids. 

Pest damage, Maggie realized. A shamworm, maybe, though it’d have to be a big one to do this much damage. Whatever the creature, it’d built a nest inside the engine, and she’d need to lure it out. 

“Hey there, little guy,” she coaxed, willing her werelight brighter to get a better look at the creature. “What are… you…” 

It wasn’t a shamworm. Shamworms didn’t have armored plates of chitin or razor claws. They weren’t six-foot-tall bipeds, and they couldn’t scream. 

The creature screamed so loud Maggie’s pointed ears rang with pain. Then it lunged out of the engine, straight toward her. 

Maggie ducked to the side of the access panel before it took her head off, then spun to face the  whatever-the-hell. 

Her truck’s headlights cast the chittering beast in silhouette, a dark outline the size of a big wolf or a hunched over man. Glowing red eyes were narrowly placed and its teeth spread across its face, giving it an almost comical grimace on its disproportionate body. 

Maggie bent her knees slightly, feeling for—

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

As Maggie recovered from the shock of the attack, it came at her again, unphased. 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 into the engine. The creature landed on the ground on all fours and shook the tool like a dog with a bone, then chomped down and broke it in half. 

Maggie decided, at that point, not to let the creature bite her. 

She let the werelight wink out and bolted to her truck. The keys were already in the ignition, half turned to keep the headlights on. She grabbed them and revved the engine to life. 

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

There’s two of them.

Heart racing, Maggie slammed the truck into drive and hit the gas. 

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

Her truck carried plenty of mass and momentum when she crashed. The impact wrapped the front of the truck around the first monster and flung the second from her roof. 

A second too late, the car alarm wailed, and the airbag kicked in, pressing her into the driver’s seat. Not interested in waiting around to be monster chow, Maggie flipped out her pocketknife and slashed the inflated bag, shoving it out of the way to get free of the truck and see what was going on.

The creature she’d hit had been pinned to the engine, but it didn’t seem injured in the slightest and was more annoyed at being stuck than anything else. 

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. Teeth and claws shredded steel like tissue. It wouldn’t be long before it got free.

Head ringing, Maggie ran. 

Deep in the tunnel, echoes amplified and distorted every sound. She had acute hearing, but with all the noise coming at her—the scraping, the yowling, the wail of the alarm, all bouncing at her from every direction—she couldn’t tell how close behind they were. 

Against her better judgment, she stole a look back. The beasts were thirty feet behind but gaining. She put on the speed and kept going.

The maintenance entrance, a big garage door built into the side of the subway tunnel, was barely visible up ahead. She just needed to make it through that gate and close it behind her.

Will that even stop them? Those claws don’t seem to care what gets in their way.

She got closer to escape by the second, but her speed was capped by the limits of muscle and bone. 

Her pursuers didn’t seem to have those same limits. When she glanced back again, she saw that the red eyes were closer. Too close. 

She wouldn’t escape in time. Fighting the creatures was likely a fool’s errand, but they seemed to only have animal intelligence. Maybe, just maybe, she could scare them off. 

Legs still pumping just to buy time, she considered her options. First, she still had her knife, a trusty tool she never went anywhere without. Second, she technically had magic, but her spellcasting was limited to the basics, barely anything that even qualified as self-defense. Third, she had…

Well, I guess nothing. 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.

Calling up magic, she flicked her wrist; the werelight returned with all the juice she had to give. The glowing ball shot up above her head, shooting off beams of light like a disco ball to blind and stun the beasts pursuing her. 

The shrieking got louder, and she looked back to see both of the creatures still 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 saw their bodies clearly now, armored in chalky white plates from tip to toe like toy soldiers. The only way that these beings could be this fast with a carapace that hard is if they were errekin. They had magic to amplify their muscles, or to reinforce the bony plates that protected them, or both.

Maggie hoped it was only the plates. If the chitin really was just naturally stone-hard, she couldn’t do much about it, but if its strength came from magic…

One way or another, 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 with her thumb. Thus armed, she skidded to a stop and fell into a solid karate horse stance.

The creature on the left had visible scrape marks on its body 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 Maggie’s little 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 metalsmithing. It wasn’t her finest steel, but it was made from starmetal and imbued under the light of a full 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 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 solid, braced position won out. Her hand smarted with pain similar to that of punching a stone wall, and something oily and viscous spilled out of its chest cavity, slicking down her arm, threatening her grip on the knife. She felt grateful to be wearing gloves for multiple reasons, from the improved grip to the protection it offered.

On another note, Maggie had been wrong before. Up until now, the creatures hadn’t been screaming. This was a scream, the kind that scraped against her very soul with a guttural fear response until the blade caught something vital and the creature suddenly stopped making noise. 

Her knife had buried itself halfway up the handle, and slicked down with the monster’s oily ichor, 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 saw 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 make out. 

Maggie glanced back at the gate. Maybe—  

She almost missed the creature’s charge, and if she hadn’t dodged to the side to put the first one’s body between her and its friend, it would have brought her down in an instant. Instead, it skidded to a stop, almost slipping in the pool of dark, oily ichor that had spilled 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 had never been much of a wrestler. 

It beats pushing up daisies. 

She sank back into a fighting stance, waiting. 

The creature eyed her, wary of another trick, unwilling to leap into another 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 blade up her sleeve. 

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

She had 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 not.

She tried again, slipping into the old tongue, one of the fae’s innate gifts. “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 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 another, and another, pelting the creature with bullets that pitted its bony armor piece by piece, exposing 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. 

Their aim was deadly, raining down fire on the creature as it turned, running for its life as bits of oil began spurting 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 threatening to burst from the screeching and the hail of echoing gunfire, Maggie watched as one sniper set aside their gun and jogged towards her, shouting something indistinct. 

They probably wanted her to come along and get to safety. That would have been the prudent choice, in case more of those things were lurking in the shadows. But first she needed to do one thing. Walking back to the slumped body of the creature she’d killed, Maggie rolled it onto its back and planted her work boot on its chest, tugging her knife free. 

Wiping it off on her oil-splattered shirt, she finally jogged towards the exit. 

She’d been told this would be a simple repair job. Diagnose the problem, fix the engine, pocket a check. Nobody had said anything about monsters or a firing squad to fend them off. 

Someone had a lot of explaining to do.