Maud grit her teeth as the long elevator sped downwards, through a shaft carved in the heart of the mountain. Getting the sticky coffee mess out of her hair took forever. Getting it off her armor took even longer. She had no time to apply any cosmetics or make herself in any way presentable.
She was never fond of caking makeup on her face, but she always loved the eye shadow and mascara. In exile, mascara became an unattainable luxury and often a hinderance. Having mascara bleed into your eyes while you sweated buckets trying to kill an opponent twice your size before she did you in wasn’t exactly a winning strategy. But as soon as Maud got to the Inn, Dina invited her to raid her makeup stash. Maud had worn eye shadow, mascara, and a light lipstick every day since landing on this planet. Now, her face was bare, her hair was wet, because she didn’t dare to waste three minutes drying it, and she still, somehow, smelled of that damn coffee.
Maud tapped her foot. The elevator refused to descend faster.
This was not the way she intended to appear at the hunt. If the hunts she’d attended were anything to go by, this would be an almost ceremonial occasion. Everyone would look their best, as they rode in a procession. Armor polished, weapons ready, hair styled. When they finally tracked down whatever they were hunting, the strikers would move forward and close in for the kill. The strikers were determined in advance. To be chosen was an honor, and she was sure the strikers for this hunt would be the groom, the bride, possibly Arland, Otubar, Ilemina or Karat. Whoever was chosen from House Krahr would be there solely to make sure the bride and groom got the kill. Everyone would cheer and record the event, so later it could be shown to family and friends. Then, the whole party would turn around and go home.
All she had to do was get to the stables on time, ride in the middle of the procession, exchanging pleasantries and looking well put together, express admiration at the strategic moment, then ride back. She couldn’t even manage that. She was at least ten minutes late. More like fifteen. And that’s if they left on time.
Maud tapped her foot again. The elevator kept going with a soft whisper. She’d checked the message from Helen again. Her daughter’s excited face flashed before her, projected from her personal unit. “Hurry up, mommy. We’re going on a hunt.”
A message from Ilemina had followed. “I have your child with me.” Which didn’t sound ominous at all. Maud heaved a sigh. Damn vampires.
The elevator finally stopped. The doors parted, revealing a tunnel leading to wide open doors. Daylight flooded the doorway. Maud broke into a jog and emerged into the sunshine.
A wide pathway, completely straight and paved with flat stones, rolled out before her, leading to a gate. On both sides of her, large corrals lined the path, secured by massive fences. Behind each rows of corrals, lay a large stable.
The corrals were empty.
The vihr, the big-boned massive mounts that vampires preferred, were gone.
She spun around and saw the Stablemaster off to the side. Middle aged, huge, grizzled, with a mane of reddish hair going to grey, he scowled, checking something on his personal unit. A younger male vampire with greyish skin and jet-black hair stood next to him with a long-suffering expression. Maud strode to them.
“Salutations,” Maud said. “Where is the hunting party?”
The Stablemaster didn’t look up. “Gone.”
He stopped and gave her a flat look. “Hunting.”
“In which direction?”
“I need a mount.”
The chatty Cathy of the vampire world favored her with another look. “I don’t have any.”
“You were supposed to hold a vihr for me.”
“Someone took it. Hunting. North.”
Maud summoned the last reserves of her will power and kept her voice calm. “Do you have any other mounts that I could ride?”
Okay. “Do you have any mounts at all here? Anything that can run fast?”
The young stable hand glanced at her. “We have savoks. But you can’t ride the damn things.” He looked at the Stablemaster. “Why do we even have them?”
“They were a gift from the Horde, after Nexus,” the Stablemaster said.
Maud’s heart sped up. The otrokar of the Hope Crushing Horde lived in the saddle. They prized mounts like treasure. They wouldn’t offer a gift of anything less than spectacular.
“I’ll take a savok,” she said.
“The hell you will,” the Stablemaster growled. “They will throw you, trample you, gut you with those claws, and bite your head off. And then I’ll never hear the end of it from the Marshal.”
That did it. She didn’t have time to argue this. “You had orders to provide me with a mount. Bring the savoks or I’ll get them myself.”
“Fine.” The Stablemaster flicked his fingers at his personal unit. The closest gate in the stable on their left opened. Metal clanged and three savoks galloped into the corral. Two were the typical rust red and one was white, an albino. Incredibly rare. The sun caught the velvety, short hair of their pelts, and they almost shone as they ran. If they were horses, they would be at least eighteen hands at the withers. Muscular, with four sturdy but lean legs, they moved with agility and speed. Their hind legs ended in hoofs, their front had three fused fingers and a raptor like dew claw. Their thick, short necks supported long heads armed with powerful jaws that were not seen on Earth since the extinction of bear dogs and hell pigs.
They thundered past her, the white male flashing her a vicious look from its emerald green eyes, and kept running along the fence, testing the boundaries of the enclosure, their narrow long tails whipping behind them.
They took her breath away. Growing up in her parents’ inn, all three of the Demille children had their own chores. Klaus, with his encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of species, served as the concierge, Dina oversaw the gardens, and she was responsible for the stables. Maud had seen hundreds of otrokar mounts, but none quite like these three.
The savoks came around again, snapping their fangs at them as they passed. The big male drove his shoulder into the fence and bounced off. They galloped on.
“Told you,” the Stablemaster said. “Unrideable.”
They had no idea of these animals’ value. By otrokar standards, these were priceless.
The vampires, with their crushing physical power, evolved on a planet rich in woods. They were ambush predators. They hid and sprang at their prey, overpowering it. They were not great runners or great riders, and their mounts, huge, sturdy vihr, who had more in common with bulls and rhinos then racing horses, served their purpose perfectly. They could be loaded with staggering weight, carry it for hours, and they were guaranteed to deliver you from point A to B. They wouldn’t do it quickly or gracefully, but they would get you where you needed to go.
The otrokar home world was a place of endless plains. The otrokar were lean and tireless, and they could run for miles to exhaust their prey. Their mounts were like them, fast, agile, and tireless. They would eat anything, grass, leftovers, prey they could run to ground, and they were as smart as they were savage.
The savoks kicked the fence. They seemed stir crazy. “When was the last time they were even out?”
“We let them out once a week,” the stable hand said.
Maud resisted the urge to scream. She had to resist very hard.
“Did they provide you with saddles?”
“Yes,” the stable hand said.
“Bring me one. The one that came with the white one.”
“How will I know which one it is?”
She closed her eyes for a few painful seconds. “The one that has white embroidery.”
The stable hand looked at the Stablemaster. The older vampire shrugged. “Go get it.”
She didn’t wait for the saddle. The savoks had halted at the far end of the corral. Maud climbed the heavy metal fence.
“Hey!” The Stablemaster roared.
The white savok saw her and pawed the ground, preparing for a charge.
Maud inhaled and stuck two fingers into her mouth. A shrill whistle cut through the air.
The savoks froze.
The Stablemaster had lumbered over to the fence and was obviously trying to decide if he should grab Maud and pull her back.
When Dina told Maud about brokering a peace on Nexus, she’d mentioned the Khanum, the wife of the Khan and her children. They were northerners; they would train their savoks in the northern way. Maud whistled again, changing the pitch.
The savoks dashed to her. The Stablemaster made a lunge for her, but she jumped off the fence, down into the corral.
The white savok reached her and reared, pawing the air with forelegs. Behind her, the Stablemaster swore.
“So beautiful,” Maud told the savok. “Such sharp claws. Such a pretty boy.” He wouldn’t know what she said but he would recognize and respond to the tone of voice.
She whistled again, a soft ululating sound, and the savoks pranced around her, nudging her with their muzzles and showing off impressive sharp teeth. The white male hopped in place like a wolf dancing in the snow to scare the mice out of hiding.
“So good. So, imposing.”
She whistled again. The white savok bent his knees, laid his head down, and waited. She vaulted onto his back and hugged his neck. He leaped up and took off in a dizzying gallop circling the corral. It took all of her strength to stay on his back. Finally, she whistled him to a slow trot.
The Stablemaster and his helper, a traditional otrokar saddle in his hands, stared at her, open mouthed. She rode the savok and dismounted. “The saddle.”
The stable hand passed it to her through the fence.
“Does the white one have a name?”
Let’s hope he can fly like one. She was so late.