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.

“Pilot”

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“How’s it going?” 

“Fuel’s running low.”

“What else is new?” 

The truck rumbled down the road, high beams shining in two wide cones that lit the highway from shoulder to shoulder. There wasn’t much to see. Blacktop and retroreflectors stared back at Susan, the driver, and the occasional speed limit sign was visible for a few seconds as the truck roared past, blatantly ignoring the “70” printed in faded ink. 

The details of the truck were hard to work out with only a starry sky to light it. An observer might mistake the navy blue for pure black, might not be able to read the torn bumper sticker, might think that the bits of blood and flesh stuck into the corners of the grill guard were merely mud. 

Country music warbled quietly from the CD player, a dozen songs on repeat that the driver knew by heart. 

Susan adjusted her rearview mirror with three fingers, eyeing her passenger, a lanky girl with pixie cut that had grown shaggy. The girl was lounging across the three rear seats, a bundle of old laundry serving as a pillow. She had to sit up in the narrow backseat bench to stretch her arms, yawning deeply and blinking a few times to clear the sleep from her system. 

“Thanks for taking an extra shift,” she mumbled. “I’ve got the next shift.” 

Lifting her thumb from the steering wheel, Susan eyed the fuel gauge, then looked at the assorted pile of change sitting in the cupholder. “There might not be a next shift, Lily.”

“Liliana,” she corrected, half standing in the backseat. “I’m coming up there.” 

Susan grimaced and leaned to the left as Lily swung one leg over the front seat, then another, briefly straddling the headrest. Her muddy designer shoes stayed at eye level for a moment, then she tumbled into the passenger seat with practiced clumsiness. Spinning in place, she got buckled up.

Leaning so she could see the fuel gauge, Lily asked, “Are we that low on cash?” 

“I’ve got three bucks, plus whatever’s in the cupholder,” Susan explained, twisting the steering wheel to move around a patch of roadkill. “We can maybe get a couple gallons in the tank, but we don’t know how long it’ll be without another gas stop.” 

“We’re not going to get stranded again,” Lily said immediately, leaning down to fish through the backpack at his feet, taking inventory. “Both spare cans are empty, right?” 

Susan nodded “Ran them dry when we decided to skip that last station.”

“And I don’t regret that decision.” Lily pulled out a bag of mixed nuts and chocolate chips, tossed it onto the middle seat by the stick shift, and continued rummaging for a bottle of water to accompany the snack. 

“Is that the last of our food?” Susan asked, raising an eyebrow without looking away from the road. 

Lily dug through her pack for a second longer, then sat back. “Think so.” 

“Hmm.” 

Ripping open the trail mix, Lily poured a handful out and tossed it into her mouth, chewing loudly as she offered the rest of the bag to Susan. Susan shook her head, not hungry.

“Take an inventory,” Susan decided. “Figure out what we’ve got to work with. Maybe there’s something in here we can sell.” 

Lily snorted, almost spitting out of her food. Without swallowing first, she asked, “To who?” 

“Whoever.” Susan shrugged. “Just do the inventory.” 

Rolling her eyes, Lily set the open pouch of trail mix in the open cup holder, washed what she had down with a swig of water, and scooped up the change into her hand, mouthing the numbers as she counted.

“One…” she mumbled, dropping four quarters back in place. “Two… Three… Three fifty… seven. Three fifty-seven. 

“That’s less than seven bucks, with my cash,” Susan said. “Maybe six gallons if the price is low. A fifth of a tank.” 

“Well, shit,” Lily said, dropping the last few pennies into place. Returning to her backpack, she pulled out a cell phone, flipping it open and powering up the device. It chimed cheerfully as the LCD powered on.

Susan stole a glance at the screen, looking away from the road long enough to see the ‘NO SIGNAL’ message flash across the top of the screen in blocky digital letters. She wasn’t surprised, but she scowled anyways. 

“Still nothing, but I’ve got half the battery left,” Lily said, snapping the phone shut and tossing it back into her bag. She came out with his snub-nosed .22, a tiny revolver that could fit in her jacket without sticking out of a pocket. Flicking out the cylinder, she counted on her fingers.

“Three rounds in here,” she said, stuffing the gun into her jacket and leaning to pull the shotgun from its jury-rigged holster on the passenger door. She broke it in half, checking the shells inside, then checking the slots on the outside of the holster. “Five shells.” 

She jammed the shotgun back into place, avoiding the duct tape that held the holster down. 

“Enough to stop a couple someones, then,” Susan said, unconsciously patting the side of her leg, where she’d strapped a nine-inch combat knife. As a backup weapon, it’d seen more than a little use. “Better than nothing.” 

Lily chewed on her thumbnail, mulling over their other supplies. “Spare tire in the back, two empty gas cans, most of your toolbox. We’ve got an axe head but no axe, a shovel, a couple road flares. Nothing we can sell, unless we start ripping parts off the truck.” 

“All in all, nothing new.”

“It’s good to know where we stand, though. We do have one more problem.”

“What’s that?” 

Lily leaned forward and slapped a button on the dash, killing the music. “If I’ve got to listen to Toby Keith sing about himself one more time, I’m going to chuck this CD out the window.” 

Susan slapped Lily’s hand away and turned the CD player back on. It was an aftermarket installation, one that she’d been skeptical of at the time but welcomed now. Tim McGraw began crooning about his failed marriage, and she said, “My turn to drive, my music. When you drive, Lily, you can put on whatever you want.”

“Liliana,” Lily said again. “And I can’t put on anything else when we haven’t got anything else.”

“There’s the radio,” Susan suggested.

“Yeah, right,” Lily said, hand darting forward to press another button before Susan could slap her hand away again. The radio began scanning for FM channels, each one echoing with a slight variation of white noise and static. 

Pursing her lips and sighing, Susan returned to the CD once again. The music hesitated as the player clicked, remembering its place and resuming the last song. 

“And you know the AM sounds exactly the same,” Lily complained. “We’ve got exactly one CD, and it’s got exactly zero good songs.” 

“Well, I like it, so you can suck an egg.” Susan regretted the comment quickly. Lily could always coax childish taunts out of her, bring her down to the girl’s level, and it always made her feel the fool afterwards. 

“God, I’d kill for an egg right now,” Lily said, jumping the conversation to a completely new track before Susan could start brooding. “Or anything that has a shelf life not measured in decades.” 

Susan squinted into the night, then pointed. “You see that light?” 

“Where?” Lily asked, leaning forward, trying to see what she was pointing at. 

“Behind that rise, I don’t think you can see it now. We’ll come over a ledge in just a sec, keep an eye out.” 

The road tilted up, creating what could generously be called a low hill. “See it!” Lily exclaimed. “Gas station?” 

“Truck stop, if we’re lucky,” Susan replied. “We’ll check it out. Keep an eye out, it could be a trap.” 

They rolled forward in silence. Lily checked her gun twice during the three minutes it took to approach the station, nervously sipping on her water every few moments until the bottle was empty.

The exit sign had been knocked down, and Susan almost missed the off ramp until it was too late. Swerving, she hit the brakes and controlled their turn off the highway. 

“Jesus!” Lily shouted, grabbing the door as she was thrown into her seatbelt. “A little warning next time?” 

“That was an accident,” Susan pointed out. “If I’d had the time give you a warning, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place.” 

“Right,” Lily grumbled, sitting back as they turned right, pulling into the truck stop’s parking lot. 

At the very least, it was well lit. A wave of fog had rolled in, shrouding the outside landscape, but they could see the station itself with ease. The flickering incandescent bulbs kept all eight pumps in stark display. Susan pulled over to a green diesel pump, only remembering to turn off her high beams after accidentally flashing a semi truck parked off to the side and receiving an angry honk in response. 

“We’re not the only ones here.” Lily eyed the semi warily. “Think it’s safe?” 

“I think we don’t have a choice,” Susan replied, shifting to neutral, pulling the parking brake, and finally unbuckling. The music died as she turned off the truck and took her keys, twirling them in her left hand before sticking them in a pocket. The flourish was difficult considering her pinkie and ring fingers were in a makeshift splint, but she managed. “Check and see if the pump takes card. We might get lucky.” 

Lily thumbed the lock on the door, patted her pocket to ensure his pistol was still there, and swung out into the chill air. 

“It’s cold out,” she said, zipping up his jacket.

“Noted.” Susan pocketed her keys and turned to dig out her own jacket from the pile in the backseat. 

Lily walked up to the pump, fishing her wallet out from her jeans pocket, flipping it open, and retrieving a black credit card. On the pump, blue tape had been stuck over the card slot with the words, ‘CARD NOT WORKING’ written in black sharpie. She ripped away the tape, stuck her card into the slot, and waited patiently while the display on the pump processed.

A few seconds passed, then it read, ‘Error: See attendant.’ 

“No luck,” she said, sticking the card back in her wallet. 

“Figures,” Susan said, hopping down onto the pavement. “Let’s see if they can help us inside.” 

Lily nodded, looking over at the semi truck. “Is the truck locked?” 

Susan fished the keys out of her pocket, walked back to the door, and locked it manually. “It is now.” 

They crossed to the truck stop’s entrance quickly, eyes peeled for any danger. Nothing came, and the door was unlocked, so she held it open and let Lily cross inside first. 

The interior of the truck stop smelled like cigarette smoke and dog piss. Susan stepped in a puddle of something as she walked in. Looking down, she saw a yellow puddle right in the doorway.

“Gross,” Lily commented, looking down at the sound of the splash. “Doesn’t this place have a bathroom?” 

From behind a laminated sheet of glass and fencing, a man blew out a cloud of smoke and stubbed out the remains of his cigarette, discarding the butt in an ash tray. “Some dickhead brought his mutt in here,” he explained, already lighting a new one. “Told him to get it out, thing wasn’t trained for shit. Pissed all over the place before he finally left.” 

“And you don’t have a mop?” Lily asked, eyeing the man. He was short and fat, with an unkempt beard and grease marks all over his blue T shirt, matching the stains on his teeth and on the counter he was leaning against. He was a dirty man, and he blended in well with the dirty truck stop. 

“Got to attend to the register,” he said, holding up a book of crossword puzzles to emphasize his point. 

“Right,” Lily said, skeptically, as she looked at the ground and watched her step, making sure there was nothing else unsavory to step in between her and the counter. The stop was lit by cheap fluorescent lights, the kind that buzzed and flickered in time with each other, making her head hurt as she leaned forward.

“Can I get some help? The card reader outside didn’t work.”

“‘Cause they’re broken. Can’t you read, girl?” 

Susan turned away from their conversation, shaking droplets off her boot and scanning the aisles. There were a couple rows of snacks, a shelf of car repair supplies, a rotating display of over-designed knives with iridescent handles, kept behind a locked pane of glass. Old tortilla chips sat in a basket next to a bubbling pot of nacho cheese with a dark orange film slowly solidifying on top, untouched by any outside influences for what looked to be days.

She started scanning the snack aisles, looking for the best combination of calories to price, seeing if it would be possible to make a few meals for two people without spending much money. A loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter would have kept them going for a couple days, but she didn’t see any groceries. Their best bet was going to be snack cakes and beef jerky, with candy to taste. 

Susan longed for something with a few vitamins in it, but their first priority was having the energy to keep driving. Everything else was secondary to that. A healthy protein bar was twice the cost of a Snickers, and the Snickers had more calories. It was a no brainer. 

Of course, all that was moot if Lily’s card was declined. She looked over to see the girl arguing with the cashier, who was staring back impassively, blowing smoke into Lily’s face from behind his grate.

Setting down her handful of snacks, Susan walked over to the counter, placing a firm hand on Lily’s shoulder. She stopped and nearly whirled on Susan, but Susan spoke quickly so she wouldn’t panic at the intrusion on her personal space. 

“What’s the problem?” 

“Card reader’s down,” the attendant explained, sounding bored. 

“Do you have any checks we could fill out?” Susan asked. 

“We only cash local checks.”

Lily threw up her hands. “Local? Who’s that, you and the trucker?” 

“Girl, whinin’s not gonna change our policy,” the attendant said, calmly clicking his pen and noting down a word in his crossword. “G-A-U-R-D. Guard.” 

“You’ve got that backwards,” Susan said, pointing. “It’s ‘U-A.’”

“I think I know what I’m doin’,” the attendant replied. “Anyways, either get cash or get out. Not my problem which you pick.” 

Lily flipped her middle finger at the man, who looked up for just long enough to roll his eyes before taking a drag and returning to his puzzle. Bitterly, Lily trudged outside, skirting the yellow puddle on the floor. 

“Well that’s a crock of shit,” Lily exclaimed, once the door shut behind them. “What are we going to do?” 

“Get six dollars of gas, hope the next station is close,” Susan said. “It’s that, or wait for someone to come through here that’s feeling charitable.” 

“Fat chance,” Lily said, stalking back to the car. “How much cash do you think he has in that register?” 

No.” Susan stopped, keeping her keys in her pocket. “We’re not doing that.” 

“Why not?” Lily asked, trying the truck handle. It resisted, still locked. “Open the door.” 

“We’re not doing that because I said so,” Susan insisted. “If you go in there and pull a two-one-one to take what you want, you don’t get to ride in my truck.” 

Lily threw up her arms, facing Susan. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to fight someone to survive. We don’t even have to worry about cops coming after us, so why—”

“We only do that when we don’t have a choice,” Susan said, gritting her teeth. “When they don’t leave us a choice.” 

“Do we have a choice here?” Lily asked. “It’s starve here, starve on the road, or pray we come across the first friendly soul we’ve ever seen out here.” 

“Besides me.” 

“Besides you.” 

Susan shook her head. “If you don’t want to go, we don’t go, but we’re not going to rob anyone. The law doesn’t go away just because there’s nobody around to enforce it.”

“That’s bullshit,” Lily glowered. Sticking her hand into her pocket, she pulled out the revolver.

Stepping back, Susan raised her hands. “Woah there, wait a minute. We don’t—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m not going to shoot you.” Lily pushed out the cylinder, crossing to her side and pointing at the three empty chambers. “You see that?” 

“You’ve got three rounds left,” Susan agreed. “What’s your point?” 

“You remember how we used the other three?”

Susan sucked in an angry breath between her teeth. “Yes, but—”

“Can you name anything recently that’s gone our way without some kind of bloodshed? Without a fight? Without breaking some kind of law?” 

“No, but we’ve never been instigators, and—”

“That’s how it works out here!” Lily shoved the gun back into her jacket pocket, running her fingers through her unkempt hair. “We don’t get to be the nice guys. The good guys. We don’t get to avoid the fight because it looks dangerous, or mean, or nasty.”

“Fine, but—”

“And besides that, we…” Lily trailed off, facing Susan with a puzzled expression. “What?”

“I said fine,” Susan repeated, gritting her teeth as she added, “You’re right. But we’re not just going to shoot him up.”

“So, what, I hold him at gunpoint while you fill the tank and get a sack full of food?” Lily asked. 

“Something like that, yeah,” Susan agreed. 

“Fine.” Lily looked off her guard, unsure to react now that she’d won the argument. “So…”

“So, I’ll get our cash, and we’ll act like we’re getting some food to buy. You’ll go to the cash register, say you want six bucks in gas, and stick the gun through the window while he’s reaching for the register.” Susan explained. 

“Huh?” 

“You keep him pinned down, make him give you the cash and start the pumps,” Susan explained. “I’ll make sure the pump works and grab all the food I can, you just have to keep him in place.” 

“You’ve planned this out an awful lot.”

Susan pursed her lips. “Isn’t it all just obvious?”  

Lily looked at her gun again, then proffered it out to Susan. “You should do it, it’s your plan.”

“I don’t want to do this in the first place,” Susan said, rejecting the offer. “Besides…frankly, you look a lot more harmless than me. Act cool and you’ll be less suspicious.” 

Lily grumbled and turned, pushing her way back into the truck stop, skirting the puddle once again. Susan trailed behind the girl, and together they endured an uncomfortable stare from the cashier while they walked to the snack aisle. 

“Shit,” Lily whispered, once they were in the aisle. “Did you see that look? He knows we’re up to something.” 

“He’s just a grumpy bastard,” Susan whispered back. “We’re fine, don’t worry about it.” 

Taking two candy bars, Lily walked up from the aisle, approaching the cashier. Susan wasn’t sure if the girl’s hands were shaking, or if just seemed that way from the flickering lights, but either way Lily visibly stopped and took a breath to calm herself down.

Shit, Susan thought. He’s definitely going to know something is up now.

“I’ll get these,” Lily said, tossing down the two candy bars and looking around the little storefront nervously.  “How much?”

The attendant reached forward under the grate and took one of the bars, examining it for a moment before sliding it under a scanner, only glancing away from Lily for long enough to read the scanner’s display. “Two dollars even. Anything else?” 

“Yeah.” Liliana stuck her hand in her pocket, grip tightening on the little revolver. Please work. Please work.

“Give me all the money in the register!” 

Liliana froze, surprised to hear a gruff, unfamiliar voice steal the words from her lips.

To her right, a distinct, rumbling growl echoed into the truck stop, loud enough that Liliana could no longer hear the whine from the lights.

Then, the mechanical Cha-chunk of a slide action shotgun echoed in her ears, and even the growl seemed a small problem by comparison. 

Liliana looked towards the door, and then staggered back as she saw the trucker standing in the doorway. He was huge. At least six feet tall, and built like a brick shithouse and holding a shotgun that had been cut down nearly to stock. His elastic-banded ball cap strained to stay on his head, and the leather jacket he wore looked thick enough to qualify as some kind of medieval armor. 

At his feet, a similarly built black mastiff was snarling angrily, all its teeth showing in a fierce display. It seemed almost cartoonish in its proportions, huge fangs and massive limbs on an emaciated frame, patches of matted fur and raw, red skin where someone had apparently shaved the dog clean with a rusty kitchen knife. 

In other circumstances, Liliana might have pitied the creature, but at the moment she couldn’t think of it as anything other than a monster that was hungry for her blood. It was looking at her, specifically, as though she had done something to personally offend the huge hound and it wanted revenge. 

She stepped back, not wanting to get involved. If anything, she was hoping that the big man would knock out the cashier and leave, leaving the store open to looting. Liliana felt that the she deserved a lucky turn after so long getting the short end of the stick. 

“You, kid,” the man growled, boots splashing in the puddle as he strolled inside. “That your truck outside?” 

“Not mine,” Liliana said, stepping back, feeling her shoulders press up against the glass display behind her. Jamming a thumb down the aisle at Susan, she said, “Hers.” 

The man’s gun whipped around, leveled at Susan’s chest. “Keys. It got gas?” 

“Thanks,” Susan muttered at Liliana, putting her hand on her pocket. “Got the keys right here, but the tank’s empty.”

“Toss ‘em over, then,” the trucker grumbled. “Gentle, like.” 

Susan nodded. “Nobody’s got to get hurt here. I’m taking them out, now, so don’t shoot.” 

The trucker grunted, hand on the stock. Liliana was ready to move, to run at the first sign of trouble, but the big dog still in the doorway was going to make any flight difficult. 

Hands slowly drawing from her pocket, Susan took out her keys, holding up the ring and flashing them in the shitty fluorescent light. Lowering her hand, she made a little lobbing motion, preparing a gentle toss. Then she flung the metal ring underhanded, straight at the trucker’s face. 

The trucker swore as one of the keys caught him in the eye, squeezing down on the trigger of his shotgun. The blast made Liliana’s ears ring in the confined space, muting out the buzz and growl of her surroundings entirely as her ears tried to adjust to the sudden thunderclap. 

Then, Susan was beside her, kicking hard against the food display. It tumbled forward, sloshing hot cheese and landing against the trucker’s leg as he tried to chamber a new round in his gun. The next moment, Susan was brandishing a tiny canister of pepper spray that Lily didn’t even know she had. 

Thumbing the top, Susan unloaded the spray directly into the trucker’s eyes. 

Liliana was busy digging the gun from her pocket as the trucker roared, raising one arm to shield his eyes, flailing the other out in Susan’s direction, using the stock of his shotgun like a club. By then, the dog had reacted, leaping in from where it had stood at the doorway, charging to defend its master.

Flicking away the safety, Liliana barely aimed before pulling the trigger, gun popping as it fired a small round into the dog. The shot struck home and the mastiff yelped, claws scraping at the tile floor as it reacted to the surprise wound. 

Ignoring the scarcity of rounds for a moment, Liliana pulled the trigger again, and then a third time, all three shots landing square on the target. The beast twitched two more times, recovered, and rounded its snarl to point at her.

“Oh, shi—” she had time to start, before the dog had leapt at her, jaws snapping angrily. Liliana managed to get her arms between herself and the mastiff’s huge teeth, but that only meant that its teeth were dug into the meat of her arm, not of the meat of her throat.

Susan ducked under the trucker’s arm, taking advantage of his pain and rage to get behind him and grab at his neck, trying to establish a locking hold. The huge trucker had her beat on size and muscle, and she expected any solid hits from his flailing fists would be enough to end the fight, but as long as he was blind she had a chance. 

Getting both arms over the trucker, Susan grabbed her own wrist and pulled back, getting her arm flat against his throat and cutting off the circulation. She grinned fiercely, right up until the back of his head smashed into her face, followed by a wild elbow struck her in the side. The blows hit like a sledgehammer, and her grip suddenly vanished as a shock went through her side. She fell, crashing into a shelf of chips that was, in turn, thrown back, sending both her and the chips into a roll. 

Wiping the blood from her mouth, Susan went for her knife. 

Liliana, meanwhile, was kicking and flailing against the huge dog snarling at her person. There was blood spilling from her arm, and no matter how hard she hit, the beast only seemed interested in clamping down, holding steady, and scraping with its claws just in case the biting wasn’t bad enough.

At least her ears were no longer ringing from gunfire, but now all she could hear were her own cries of pain as the dog’s bite dug harder down, nearly cutting to the bone. She tried to punch the mastiff in the snout, but if the dog had shrugged off his bullets quickly, it didn’t seem to even notice the fists. 

Scrabbling at the floor with her feet, Liliana tried to grab with her free arm for anything that could help. There wasn’t much around that would help. She found a snack bar and threw it at the dog’s face, but it seemed to barely notice, so Lily reached out again, hand slapping against a tall glass case.

It would have to do. Yanking hard, she brought the shelf crashing down directly atop her own person, making sure to at least get her head out of the way. It toppled and slammed onto the mastiff, and then the combined weight of the dog and the shelf were both pressed against Liliana’s chest, adding to the pains racking her body. 

Only then did the glass shatter, tiny crystal shards making cuts across her face and hands as dozens of cheap, decorative knives were scattered across the floor.

The dog, for its part, got back onto all fours, growling more angrily than ever.

Liliana grimaced, picking up one of the knives and scrambling to her feet before the hound could charge again. “You have got to be kidding me.” 

Susan’s own blade was a bit more heavy-duty, four and a half inches of high carbon steel that had never let her down before. The trucker had spun to face her and was holding his shotgun by the stock, squinting through red, puffy eyelids. 

As Susan tried to decide how to proceed, he made the decision for her, shouldering the gun and aiming it loosely in her direction. She cried out and jumped forward, grabbing the barrel and jamming it sideways, feeling sudden heat as the gun roared and fired into a gallon of anti-freeze stacked against the wall. 

The trucker wrenched away the gun and swung it at her head, but Susan managed to duck and lunge even closer in, stabbing with her knife as hard as she could. The blade pierced leather, then cotton, and then finally contacted with flesh and cut into the trucker’s chest, too far from his heart to be instantly fatal, but enough to give him something to think about. 

Liliana held out her knife and tried to keep the hound at bay, crouched low and ready to scramble away should the dog actually lunge. It was angry and injured, but still wary enough to know that leaping straight into a blade wouldn’t be a good idea, even if that blade was three inches long and unnecessarily wide and dull. The knife was built for form more than function, but it could stab, and the dog understood that. It circled, and Liliana spun on unsteady feet, ensuring that neither could gain the advantage. 

The roar of the shotgun made Liliana wince away, and given that split-second hesitation, the mastiff jumped in with jaws snapping. Liliana jabbed out the knife in response, but she was too slow to land a solid blow. The dog knocked aside the attack and bit at her hand, and in response Liliana dropped the knife and ran backwards, struggling to stay upright while running on the cheap, sticky tile. 

Claws scratching on the ground, the dog charged at her, and as she passed the end of the aisle, she lunged to the side just in time for the beast to slam into the refrigerator door behind her, shattering the glass and knocking down a shower of plastic soda bottles. The dog shook its head, turned, and charged again. 

This time, Liliana was prepared. Her knife was tiny and cheap, but it was the best defense she had. As the huge, rawboned creature leapt at her, she jammed the knife out, striking somewhere around the dog’s ribcage. The blade sunk all the way to the hilt, all three inches of cheap steel lodged in deep enough that Liliana couldn’t pull it out for a second blow. 

If it hurt, though, the dog barely seemed to care. Snarling, it took her to the ground, gnashing at her throat for all it was worth. 

Susan wasn’t quick enough to dodge the trucker’s huge, flailing fists and took a blow to the head, the heavy thud strong enough to make her dizzy and release the handle of her knife. She staggered away, and he did as well, both needing a moment to recover before continuing the brawl. 

She stepped back, giving herself space. If he was going to charge, she wanted room to react. Of course, if he tried to shoot, she’d be farther away and have to close the distance faster, but one way or another she would be screwed, so she trusted her gut to decide which way to go. 

The trucker did as she’d hoped and charged, wet boots planting right in the puddle of sloshing antifreeze. His boots had rubberized slip-resistant soles, but as top-heavy as he was, the unexpected fluid was enough to make him stagger, and Susan was happy to take advantage of his momentary weakness. 

She kicked at the trucker’s knee and grabbed for his gun with both arms, sending the big man toppling to the ground. He flailed to try and catch something, and that gave her all the leverage she needed to pry away the gun, spinning it around so that the barrel was pointed right at the trucker’s head.

Taking one short breath to aim, Susan pulled the trigger.

It clicked, and the ejection port caught halfway with a new shell before the old could be released. 

She only had time to yell “Fuck!” before the trucker had grabbed her ankles and pulled, bringing her down to his level. 

Landing on her back, Susan had no time to be stunned. The trucker was clawing his way towards her, reaching for the gun, getting into a position where he could just throw down punches and elbows until she stopped moving. 

Taking the shotgun by its short barrel, Susan swung as hard as she could from her prone position, hitting the trucker in the face with a satisfying cracking sound. He flinched, and in that time, Susan raised the gun again, bringing it down once more, cracking the stock as it split open his scalp. He roared, and she swung again, shattering the plastic stock against his head. 

He stopped clutching at her, and Susan kicked her feet and pushed with her hands to clamber away, grabbing at one of the standing shelves to pull herself up. 

The trucker groaned, rolling onto his back and feeling for the knife in his chest. Not wanting to stick around and see what he’d do with it, Susan skirted around him and ran for the exit.

Liliana was focused on the fangs about to dig into her throat, but wasn’t so distracted that she didn’t see Susan go. “Susan?” she shouted, eyes wide in alarm. “Susan! Fuck, I could use some help here!” 

The mastiff barked in her face, something that seemed almost as loud as the shotgun blasts, and she tried again to ineffectually shove it back. The knife was still stuck in its chest, and Liliana had no leverage to pull it out with her one good arm. If she tried to get a good handle and yank it out, but in the moment she did that, there would be nothing covering her throat. If that happened, she’d be too busy dying to strike back. 

Kicking with her legs, she tried to get at anything that might help. Maybe she could knock over another shelf, cause a distraction. Maybe the gas station attendant would finally get off his ass and help, for that matter. 

No such luck. Liliana’s flailing legs found nothing but slick tile and cheap, scattered knives that she was too far away to grab.

She jerked away, trying to put more distance between herself and the dog, but her head was already pressed against tile and when she tried to move, shards of broken glass just found their way into the back of her neck and scalp. She had nowhere to go, no way to escape, no— 

BOOM.

Gunfire rang in her ears for the fourth time in a minute, and the dog was thrown to the side, falling off of her with a loud whimper. 

Lily wasn’t about to take chanced. Spinning onto her side and reaching out with her good arm, Lily took a knife from the floor, flicked it open, and brought it down hard somewhere in the black dog’s neck. Spraying blood covered Lily’s face and arms, and she rolled away, staggering to her feet and looking around.

Susan was standing in the doorway, their trusty double barrel held in a tight shooter’s grip. She lowered the weapon long enough to make sure that the dog wasn’t moving, then turned, pointing it down at the trucker. 

She didn’t have any quips, she just pulled the trigger and put an ounce of buckshot between his eyes. The trucker’s body twitched once, then lay still. 

“Jesus!” Lily screamed, leaning back against the counter. “Jesus fucking fuck.” 

Susan looked at her, pulled the lever to fold open the gun, and smoothly reloaded. “You okay?”

“I—” Lily stopped, thinking about the question. She was, mostly. “Dog tore open my arm pretty bad, got some cuts, I’ll be fine.” 

“Good,” Susan said, looking over to the station attendant. The squat man had been cowering behind the counter, and only then stood to face them. “Any chance you’ll take a check now?

The attendant looked at her, then around the store, then shook his head. “You trashed my store! I’ve got half a mind to kick you out for good.”

Lily threw up her arm. “Are you fucking kidding me? We just saved your ass, and now—”

“Lily,” Susan cut her off with a word. “First aid in the back of the truck. Go get yourself fixed up.” 

“But—” Lily spluttered. “He—”

“I’ve got this,” Susan said, crouching by the trucker’s body and yanking her knife from his chest, wiping the blood off on his pants. 

Liliana grumbled and stalked out to the truck, feeling the blood on her face quickly cool in the night air. She crossed his arms in front of his chest, trudging to the truck, dropping the tailgate and pulling out their first aid kit.

Their first kit had started out as a basic set of emergency gear, but it had ballooned in size since they realized how important it was going to be. It now took up an entire utility-sized tackle box, stuffed to the gills with bandages, stitches, superglue, and anything else they could pillage. 

She slipped off her jacket, then paused, gritting her teeth. “Okay, just do it,” Liliana told herself, before yanking her shirt over her head. The night wasn’t below freezing, but without a shirt it was cold, and rubbing an alcoholic wipe over the bite marks on her arm made it flare up with stinging pain. 

“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” she chanted in annoyance, wiping away the blood and tossing the expended wipe on the ground, fishing in the kit for an antibiotic cream. 

Once the wound was clean and she’d done what she could to stop infection, Liliana stuck an adhesive patch over her arm, then walked to the side of the truck to get a new shirt from their pile. Before she could get the door open, she heard footsteps and spun in alarm.

Susan was holding up an old, ratty blanket, offering it to her. It was covered in dog hair, but looked pretty warm, and she accepted it gratefully.

“Where’d you get this?” Liliana asked, shivering as she pulled the blanket over her shoulders like a cape. 

“Trucker had his keys on him,” Susan explained, holding up a bulging leather rectangle in her hand. “And this has two hundred bucks in cash.”

“Nice,” Liliana said, leaning against the truck. “Get his gun?” 

“Broken, but it’s a twelve gauge, and he had half a box of shells left.” 

“Not a bad stop, then.” Liliana winced, putting a hand to her arm. 

“I’ll go get us food and gas, and I’ll drive the next round,” Susan offered. “That bite looked pretty nasty.” 

“It’s not bad, just—” Liliana started to move her arm to demonstrate that it wasn’t too bad, then winced and shook his head. “Okay, yeah, it’s pretty bad. I can drive fine, though. You should rest.” 

Susan shrugged, sticking a hand into her jacket. “One more thing.”

“What’s that?” Liliana asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Cash wasn’t the only thing he had in that truck.” Susan pulled her hand free, displaying what she’d taken.

“Fuckin A!” Liliana said, grabbing the object enthusiastically. “Oh, I am definitely driving next.” 

“Get a shirt on, then,” Susan said. “We need to get back on the road.” 

Ten minutes later, they were cruising down the highway once again, blasting Down with the Sickness as loud as Susan could tolerate, the trucker’s CD collection getting put to good use. 

Though neither of them noticed, as the music player changed tracks, they passed a milestone. It had been six thousand miles since they started driving together. 

They hadn’t seen the sun in five days. 

They kept driving. 

Enjoying this? Check out the rest of the series on Patreon!

Author Spotlight: R. Lennard

For today’s Author Spotlight, we’re talking to R. Lennard! If you missed last week’s spotlight, check it out here!

M. N.: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What genres do you write in?

R. Lennard: I’m an author, librarian and cosplayer who writes YA epic fantasy. I’m currently writing an eight book series, with book two due out later this year. I got into writing in a very different way to most authors – namely because I couldn’t read properly for the first ten years of my life. My eyesight isn’t great, and it took a new optometrist before I could make out what the squiggles on the pages meant. After that, I devoured the whole library (pretty much – anything fantasy or sci-fi, at least).

M. N.: Cosplaying is fun! What has been your favorite character to cosplay as?

The Girl in the Fireplace

Lennard: My favourite cosplay was Madame De Pompadour from the Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace. The dress was made in three days, with lots of blood, sweat, tears and swear words – mostly when I put a sleeve on upside down and had to re-do it. The dress is quite heavy – it’s known as a ‘backsack dress’ and there’s a great fall of material that hangs from the shoulders to the floor. The character was great – but the dress was constantly getting stepped on.

M. N.: Getting stepped on is no fun, but that dress looks great!

On the subject of Doctor Who, who’s your favorite Doctor and why is it David Tennant?

Lennard: Thank you. *laughing* David Tennant has a depth of character and energy that is very compelling, but my favorite Doctor is Matt Smith, actually. Although I have cosplayed as Tennant. Smith was my first doctor – I love how youthful and crazy he is.

The best Doctor

M. N.: What do you feel are the biggest challenges you face when writing?

Lennard: Time – both my own and keeping the characters timelines straight. In my latest book (that’s with betas at the moment) there’s a whole cast of new characters to keep in order.

M. N.: Do you have any tricks or methods you use to keep the timeline on track? Or to keep your timeline on track, for that matter?

Lennard: Once the book is done, I go through and save a copy under each character’s name, and then delete all the scenes that they aren’t in to make sure that their timeline is working. That’s usually after the beta read-through, and in the second stage of editing.

My timeline – that, I’m still working on. I’m a casual librarian, so my writing is fit around my day job. In the drafting stages, I usually get up around 5am to write before the day starts, and again after 8pm if I’ve been working. I have a set amount of words to write by the end of the week, and so long as I meet that, I’m happy.

M. N.: That’s a really good idea! I might steal that when my own casts start to get too out of control.
You mention that your beta read-through happens before your second stage of editing – Does that mean you do this during your second draft, or your third draft?

Lennard: I may have adapted the idea from another author, so steal away! I draft then edit, creating the second draft. The second draft gets beta read, then I edit again. The third draft goes to an editor, and when it gets back to me, I edit again. The fourth draft goes to a proofreader, then I edit for the fifth draft and format the manuscript, then the final proofread before it goes out into the world.

M. N.: What about your books do you feel is the most special or unique?

Lennard: When I started writing Ronah, there weren’t too many YA fantasy books around with strong female protagonists. That’s no longer the case. I would say that my main character’s lack of a love interest is the most unique part of the book. The series is special because of the world it’s based in – full of magic and possibilities, monsters and heroes, the likes of which hasn’t been seen before.

M. N.: Was the lack of a love interest a deliberate choice from the start? A lot of authors feel like they’ve got to include one whether or not it suits the story they’re telling, so it’s refreshing to see that not everyone has.

Lennard: Yes, and no. In the first cringe-worthy drafts of Ronah, Shari was paired up with different characters, but it felt so forced. She literally doesn’t have the time or energy to attempt to maintain a relationship, and she doesn’t want to either – so why force it? There are other characters who are intrigued by her, or who want to form a connection because of her power, but – spoilers – she’s never going to take them up on it.

M. N.: I’m sure there are plenty of shippers out there sad to hear that, but it’s refreshing to see a character that’s too busy for a relationship who then actually doesn’t get involved in one.

Lennard: Thank you. It’s a pet peeve of mine, so it’s nice to be in control of the story.

M. N.: Was there any particular book or author that made you want to write?

Lennard: I loved fantasy books growing up, but I ran out of things to read. Sometimes, the stories didn’t quite end the way I wanted them too, or the plot was too predictable, so I wanted to change it, but write my own story at the same time.

M. N.: Do you remember the first book where the ending didn’t sit right with you?

Lennard: Not really. I do remember the first book I was never able to finish – one by Dean Koontz. I love his writing, but one of his books messed with my head and I had to put it down and couldn’t pick it up again.
I was also used to reading a lot of different series, and there’s a book by the name of Aida’s Ghost by Patricia Bernard that’s a stand alone – and I desperately wanted more of the story – of all books, that’s probably the one that made me want to write my own the most.

M. N.: Do you have a favorite book, or a list of favorites?

Lennard: Anne McCaffery, Isobell Carmody, R.A. Salvatore and Sara Douglas were my favourite fantasy writers, but I also love Matthew Rielly and Andy McNab. I’ve got a few new favourites now – Jodie Lane, Lynette Noni and Casandra Clare to name a few.

M. N.: Tell me about your current Work In Progress.

Lennard: Rakemyst is book two of the Lissae series, and sees Shari dealing with the fallout of announcing she’s the saviour of their Realm, Lissae. There is, as I mentioned before, a host of new characters, as well as a new Shifting Island to explore and new enemies to defend Lissae from. The biggest lesson for Shari in the book is that people aren’t always what they seem.

Click to Buy

M. N.: A Shifting Island and shifty characters? That sounds like a good combination.

Lennard: I think it is 🙂 There are seven Shifting Islands on Lissae, and they’re all sentient. There are a few shifty characters, one of whom is my favourite. He’s getting his own novella – so stay tuned!

M. N.: I’m curious about your names – Ronah, Rakemyst, Lissae. Do they have a special meaning?

Lennard: Ah, names. My nemesis. Can I share a secret? I’m dyslexic, some of the names in my book are harder to pronounce because my brain jumbled the letters up. Ronah is meant to be the ideal place to live, and I was looking for a name that meant idealistic. The word Lissae is meant to slide off your tongue. Rakemyst is the home of the Ilutri – winged beings, who named their home because the towers rake the clouds. My main character also carries the title of Altoriae, which is a dyslexic version of Latin’s ‘deep sanctuary.’ Fun fact: I studied Ancient Latin for a semester at Uni.

M. N.: What does your writing process look like? Do you outline, do you invent the plot as you go, or do things land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum?

Lennard: Oh, my writing process for Rakemyst looked quite different from Ronah. With Ronah, I was very much a ‘pantser’ – plotting by the seat of my pants. That book took 17 years to write, and went through almost as many drafts. With Rakemyst, each chapter was outlined, and there were plot points that carried over from Ronah. I’m about to outline book three as well, which I’m super excited to start on.

M. N.: That’s a long time! Did you decide to outline so that you would be able to write it faster, or for another reason?

Lennard: To be fair, there was a big chunk of time in there that I wasn’t writing. I started outlining because the story kind of poured out of me. I knew where I wanted it to go, and I knew who the main players who be and what they needed to do. It’s a little hard to get 120’000 words out in one go though.

M. N.: Do you have an good idea what’s going to happen in book three, or are you going to find that out when it comes time to outline?

Lennard: *Cue evil laughter* My biggest stumbling block for Rakemyst was figuring out the antagonist. I know exactly with the antagonist is for book three (and four), and the base outline is in my head – it’s just getting it down on paper and making sure the timelines are right.

M. N.: Can you give us any hints what it’s going to look like?

Click to Buy

Lennard: I can say that the antagonist for book three is not what you’d expect, but I can’t say anything else without spoilers, sweetie. Sorry!

M. N.: If you could go back and give yourself any piece of advice when you first started writing, what would it be?

Lennard: Don’t be afraid to be different. Remember to listen to your gut – and if it feels right, you will remember it.

M. N.: Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve written, or a recommended “starting point” for people looking to get into your work?

Lennard: I currently have a short story in an anthology, The Evil Inside Us, a novella, Guardian, and Ronah available. If you’re wanting to explore the Realm of Lissae and follow Shari on her adventures, I’d start with Guardian.

Click to Buy

M. N.: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Lennard: I feel really honored to be able to write – to not only put words on the page, but to spin a story that people want to read. It’s corny, but true. Please, don’t ever underestimate how much your support means to a writer. There are so many people that have helped me with my journey. Without them, I wouldn’t be writing today.

M. N.: Thank you for joining us today!

Author Spotlight: Kelly Blanchard

As part of a new ongoing project, we at M. N. Jolley Writing are going to be conducting weekly interviews with authors from around the country to talk about their stories and their writing process. First up, we’ve got Kelly Blanchard, a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author from Texas!

M. N.: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What genres do you write in?

Kelly: My name is Kelly Blanchard. I live in Texas in the middle of nowhere with my husband (who’s also my co-writer), our Doberman, and our two cats. I write a blend of fantasy and science fiction. Currently I am publishing my series, The Chronicles of Lorrek, but I’ve already written it completely, so while I continue publishing the rest of that series, I am co-writing with my husband another series in my story universe called ‘The Ceralian Gambit’.

M. N.: What is co-writing like? Do you both write chapters, or does one of you do the writing while the other works on plotting and editing?

Kelly: Each of us have certain characters that we write although sometimes we share characters (depends on who all are in the scene). A lot of people have compared it to RolePlaying, which I suppose it may be. I’ve honestly never done any roleplaying, so I wouldn’t know the comparison. Sometimes there are chapters that involve only the characters that one of us write, so we’ll write it solo, but most of the time we co-write, writing our character’s response and then waiting for them to respond as well. It’s addictively fun!

Someday I'll Be Redeemed [Link]
Click to buy

M. N.: In my experience, roleplaying involves a lot more yelling at plastic cubes and begging the other players not to walk into obvious ambushes. That sounds like a wonderful process, but is it very time consuming to wait for your partner to respond like that?

Kelly: We don’t yell at each other about them walking into an obvious ambush or anything. It’s a bit more planned than that, and we agree on how things should unfold. What we don’t know is what exactly the character will say in response to what our own character says. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s hurtful, which can change the tone of the scene, but usually the scene progresses more or less how we imagined. As for waiting for my co-writer to reply, well, we only manage to write together on his days off (he works as an EMT in the ER of a Level 1 Trauma Center), and it’s a rather swift process when we do get to sit down and write. We tend to average 10k words a day. This is how we managed to finish our second book in less than two weeks!

M. N.: That’s an incredible average! And that’s a cool job for him, too. Do you handle the publishing business and marketing, or is that also a cooperative effort?

Kelly: I handle all the publishing and marketing. He’s far too busy!

M. N.: Do you ever disagree on where the story should go?

Kelly: How the story should go? No. How a scene should unfold, yes, but it’s rare. Once we had this one scene that we had to brainstorm for almost four hours until we came to an agreement because how it unfolded really affected major parts we wanted later on in the scene. We finally figured out a way to make it unfold with the results that we wanted, and it turned out great.

M. N.: Can you tell us what book that scene was in? I always enjoy getting a peek behind the curtain to see what was going on in the authors’ minds while they were working.

Kelly: I can’t say much without spoiling a major scene, but basically my husband’s character had to go in and slaughter a bunch of people. The character didn’t want to do it, but he had no choice because of different factors I can’t go into. We had to discuss how the scene would unfold. I had a specific idea, but my husband had another idea, and so we had to hammer away at both until we found a compromise that allowed the following scenes to unfold the way we needed them to. It worked out quite nicely.

M. N.: What do you feel are the biggest challenges you face when writing?

Kelly: Honestly, it’s not writing that gives me a challenge as it is marketing.

M. N.: On the subject of marketing, do you have any trouble selling a series that’s a fusion of multiple genres?

Kelly: Some people aren’t sure what to think when I say it’s a fusion of the two genres, but they tend to give them a chance without too much issue, and their concerns of the fusion of genres disappear. However, getting the books in front of people to discover it always a unique challenge!

M. N.: What about your books do you feel is the most special or unique?

Kelly: I believe my books are unique in how they are told. They flow like movies. There are subtle but powerful descriptions, strong characters with immersive stories, witty one-liners, and confident pacing. I take the usual fantasy and science fiction tropes, turn them on their heads, and make them different in a way that they stand out.

M. N.: Playing with tropes can be a lot of fun. Is there an especially interesting twist you’ve done on a trope, that you can tell us about without spoiling your book?

Kelly: In fantasy, there are often the idea of elves. However, I’ve created a new race called the ‘kelliphs’ that are roughly based off elves, but they are unique in that, in addition to their longevity, they have multiple lives. So, even if you manage to kill one, they won’t stay dead for very long. They are very difficult to kill permanently (which is actually a major plot point for Book 5). They also have a unique magical ability to change one material into another (like water into fire or stone into bread or flesh into dust, etc). There are shapeshifting dragons that prefer the shape of a human, and they are not evil and don’t hoard things. They also have magical abilities that are unique to them such as mind magic and magicking (teleporting with magic) to other worlds, and so forth. They usually stay within their own kingdom rather than trying to destroy the surrounding lands, but they tend to aid the humans actually as they are the only other race that has longevity–almost to the point of immortality. And then there’s the whole mix of magic and science too–that’s a lot of fun.

M. N.: Was there any particular book or author that made you want to write?

Kelly: Not really. Stories have been a part of my life since before I could even write.

M. N.: Do you have a favorite book, or a list of favorites?

Kelly: As a rule, I don’t do favorites. I hold Lewis and Tolkien in high regard, and I am friends with a ton of fellow authors, but I have no absolute favorite.

M. N.: Tell me about your current Work In Progress.

Kelly: My husband and I literally just finished the second book of our series the other day, and we are now plotting the next book and will begin writing it soon. Even though this series is in the same story universe as my other series, The Chronicles of Lorrek, it does not have the science fiction elements but is mainly fantasy. It all began with the assassinations of the king and prince of Ceraleo. For too long, Princess Ensula has been a pawn in a political game–being sent away to a strange land for her own safety and betrothed to a foreign prince–but no longer. Now, she returns to introduce a new element to the game and show those in power that she is not a pawn in this long game but rather a queen.

M. N.: I really enjoy stories that blend sci-fi and fantasy elements together. How does that work in your setting?

Kelly: It’s hard to explain how it works. It just does. On this one continent, most of the kingdoms are more medieval and have magic whereas another kingdom has highly advanced technology. Later in the series, there is even space travel, but it all really works together in a way that I am pleased with.

M. N.: Is the technology magic-based, then?

Kelly: On the surface, no. There was only one land that had magic-based technology, but what happened to that land is a long story. But when you pull back the curtain, you realize mathematics, equations, and calculations are a form of magic–just viewed, understood, and applied differently.

M. N.: Since this new book doesn’t have the sci-fi elements, is that because of where it’s set, or because of when it takes place?

Kelly: It’s because it’s on a different continent than the Chronicles of Lorrek. They actually have a different system of magic, and the LORE of magic is so much fun to explore, and it is greatly explored in the series ‘The Ceralian Gambit’. It shows how all different systems of magic and even math and science and really any inspiration all stem from the same magic realm. It’s so interesting.

M. N.: What does your writing process look like? Do you outline, do you invent the plot as you go, or do things land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum?

Kelly: Usually I plot out the most major parts of the story and then wing it from there.

M. N.: Have you ever been surprised by something that happened in your own story?

Kelly: Oh yes! Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an instance right now, but things have surprised me. It’s fantastic.

M. N.: If you could go back and give yourself any piece of advice when you first started writing, what would it be?

Kelly: I would tell my younger self that I might never get a mentor, but that’s okay. I’ll find a lot of support online in the writing community.

They Must Be Stopped [Link]
Click to buy

M. N.: Are there any specific people or groups you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Kelly: Well, there are J. E. Mueller, A. R Harlow, Nan Sampson, Megan Hay, Allen Cheesman, Katie Davis, Annie Twitchell, Jessica Kirkpatrick, Jacquie Tuck, J. R. O’Bryant, Daryl J. Ball, Sarah Elisabeth, and so many more! All of these are writers (not all published yet), and most are superfans of mine. Some are even reading the rough draft of the books my husband and I are writing because they are so enthusiastic about the story universe we’ve created. It is so much fun! So much support and encouragement.

M. N.: Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve written, or a recommended “starting point” for people looking to get into your work?

Kelly: I’d recommend the first book of my Chronicles of Lorrek series, ‘Someday I’ll Be Redeemed’, as a starting point. After my husband and I complete and publish The Ceralian Gambit, the first book of that series would be a good starting point since it takes place a few decades prior to the Chronicles of Lorrek.

M. N.: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Kelly: Not that I can think of. Thanks so much for interviewing me! It is a wonderful opportunity!

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