She had heard two words: poisoned and medward. She didn’t wait for anything else. She just sprinted. Hallways flew by, the doors flashing one after another. The air in her lungs turned to fire, but she barely noticed. Karat chased her but had fallen far behind.
The medward loomed ahead. There were people in the antechamber, Ilemina, Otubar, Soren, but they might as well have been ghosts. Getting to the door was all that mattered. She tore past them and burst into the triage chamber.
Maud saw it all in an instant, as if the image was seared into her mind in a fraction of a second: Helen lying on a medbed, tiny and pale; a dozen metal arms hovering over her; the spider web of an advanced iv drip; and the medic sitting next to her, his face grim.
She charged to the bed, and then Karat was on top of her, pulling her back with all of her strength, and the medic was in front of her, holding his arms out, saying something. She fought her way forward, dragging Karat, and the medic rammed into her, pushing her back, his voice insistent.
Finally, the words penetrated. “…do not touch…”
She had to stop. It took a few more seconds for her body to catch up with her mind. Maud stopped struggling.
“…stable for now,” the medic said.
Her mouth finally worked. “What happened?”
Karat gently but firmly pushed her back to the antechamber. “Not here.”
“I need to see her.”
“Stop,” the medic said. “Look at yourself.”
Maud forced her gaze away from Helen and looked at her armor. She was smudged with Arland’s blood. She’d washed his arm and sealed the wounds, but some of it must’ve gotten on her when he kissed her.
“I’ve got her stabilized,” the medic said. “You’re carrying a horde of germs and you’re covered in blood. You can’t help her by going in there. You can only hurt her.”
Maud had to walk away. Everything in her screamed to get back in there, as if just walking up to the bed would magically fix everything, and Helen would sit up and say, “Hi, Mommy.” But it wouldn’t. It didn’t seem real. It felt like a dream, like some nightmare, and she wished desperately to wake up. She wanted to undo this. If only there was some button she could press to rewind it all back to normal.
“Come with me,” Karat said.
There was nothing she could do. Maud turned and walked into the antechamber. The medic and Karat followed.
“What happened?” Maud asked again. Her voice sounded strange, like it was coming from someone else.
“Helen was at the lake with other children,” Soren said. “The bugs were there as well, swimming in their designated area. After a while, the chaperones made the children get out of the water to take a break, warm up, and snack. The children ate and decided to play hunt and run.”
Hunt and run was the vampire version of tag. Helen would’ve loved it.
“Helen ran close to the Tachi,” Soren continued.
“Then one of them bit her!” Ilemina snarled.
“Helen collapsed,” Soren said. “She was rushed here, to the medward. The Tachi was apprehended, and the rest of them are confined to their quarters. We tried to question him, but he refuses to talk. None of them are talking to us and harming him is out of the question until we know if Helen will survive.”
That “if” hit Maud like sledgehammer. She wanted to sink to the floor, ball up her fists, and scream. But she had no time.
“He bit a child.” Ilemina’s face was terrible. She bared her fangs, eyes blazing. A primal snarl shook her lips. It was like looking at rage personified. “I will slaughter every single one of them. I will decimate their planet. Their grandchildren will tremble when they see a vampire coming.”
From anybody else, it would seem like grandstanding. But Ilemina meant every word. Otubar snarled in response. Karat gripped her blood sword. The entire room was a hair away from violence. This was how wars started.
“It’s more complicated than that,” the medic said. “We have data on the Tachi venom, but there is a synthetic compound in her system inconsistent with what we know of the Tachi.”
The sharp, jagged pieces snapped together in Maud’s head. Vampires cherished children. There was no greater treasure. They cherished Helen, too. They considered her one of their own. And then a bug bit her, like she was prey. It had awakened a primal response, the collective racial memory of Mukama, of invaders who devoured vampire children.
“Where is the Tachi now?” she asked.
“Across the hall,” Soren told her. “You can’t hurt him, Lady Maud. He may hold the key to your daughter’s recovery.”
“I need to speak with him.” She sank steel into those words.
“Come with me.” Soren marched out of the room and into the hallway, to the door opposite the medward.
Maud followed him, aware of Ilemina, Otubar, Karat, and the medic directly behind her. The door slid open, revealing a small cell. Inside it, a male Tachi sat on the floor, bound in a black captivity suit. Made from tough polymer and weighted to hinder movement, it wrapped around him like a straitjacket. Its exoskeleton had faded to barely visible grey.
Maud marched into the room, dropped to her knees in front of him, and released the lock on the captivity suit. It fell away, and he sprang up to his full height above her.
She jumped to her feet and bowed her head. “Thank you for saving my child.”
The Tachi turned brilliant indigo blue. “You’re welcome, daughter of the Innkeepers.”