The green plain flew by as Attura dashed through the grass. The savok hadn’t run for a while, because the moment she gave him free reign, he burst into a gallop. For a few happy breaths, after they had started off from the stables, Maud let all of her anxiety go and lost herself to the exhilaration of the wind, speed, and the power of the beast below her. Attura ran, fueled by the pure joy of it, and she felt that joy, and, swept up in his need to run free, she let him do it and shared in it.
Eventually reality came back like a heavy blanket wrapping around her. She checked her personal unit. They had swung to far to the west, nearing the mesas rising on her left. The hunting party rode through the center of the plain, to the east and just about four miles ahead. Reluctantly, she shifted in the saddle, whistling softly. Attura whined, slowing.
“I know, I know.” She promised herself that the next time she had a few hours, she would bring Attura back out here and let him run himself out. But now they had a hunting party to catch.
The savok settled into a fast canter, which wasn’t really the best term. The canter of Earth horses was a three-beat gait, while the savok launched himself forward with his powerful hind legs and pawed at the ground with his forelimbs. It was a stride more reminiscent of a wolf or a greyhound. But it was one rung slower than his sprint, so she called it canter. Maud steered her mount on an intercept course and soon they found a comfortable rhythm.
She checked her personal unit. It obediently projected the target of the hunt, a large vaguely feline beast the size of a rhinoceros with dark green fur marked by splotches of deep rust red. The House Krahr Huntmaster was tracking it, but the main hunting party, and she, had no idea where it would come from. The vampires didn’t like hunts with training wheels.
It really was a beautiful planet, Maud decided. The soft green grass with flashes of turquoise and gold lined the floor of the plain. The mesas rose on both sides, the grey stone of their walls weathered by rain and sun to almost white. The sky was tinted with emerald green, the golden sun shone bright, and the wind smelled of wildflowers. It was so easy to lose herself in it all and just breathe.
The mesa on her left curved, protruding. Maud rounded it. Far ahead a long procession trotted across the plain, the massive vihr stomping forward like they were trying to crush the ground with every step like oversized tan Clydesdales. She was too far off to hear the hoof beats, but her mind supplied the sound all the same, boom boom boom. They were moving kind of fast. They must have sighted the prey.
Her personal unit chimed, synchronizing and projected a stylized map, tagging the individual vampires in the party. Eight people in the lead represented by red triangles, followed by a larger group of white triangles, followed by a smattering of green circles. Red signified the killing team, white indicated adults, and green was reserved for children.
Among the green circles, one turned yellow. She was in the center of the child group. Likely protected by several sentinels and perfectly safe. Still, the fights were unpredictable.
I really am getting too paranoid.
As if on cue, the hunting party split. The red group at the front peeled off, the slow vihr speeding up. The white group remained steady, holding to their original course.
If she didn’t hurry, she would miss the kill. She couldn’t offer congratulations to the soon-to-be-married couple unless she actually witnessed them bringing the beast down.
Maud gave a short harsh whistle, and Attura surged forward.
A distant roar shook the air. A huge creature burst from between the mesas, running for the killing team, his green fur blurring with the grass. Damn it.
The killing team fanned out, seeking to flank the beast. It would be over in a matter of minutes.
Her personal unit screamed, the shriek of alarm piercing her. Something was happening in the main procession. The formation broke, too chaotic to see. On her display, a big red dot appeared in the mass of green circles.
Panic punched her. Maud threw her weight forward almost lying on Attura’s neck. The beast galloped with all its might.
Individual riders shot out of the procession in all directions. She chanced a quick glance at the projection. There were three red dots now. The children were fleeing, while the adults bunched at the center, trying to contain the threat. The yellow circle indicating Helen angled south west, another green circle in her wake.
Maud shifted her weight to her left, and the savok angled west.
The group of vampires broke, bodies flying, and through the gap Maud glimpsed a creature. Enormous, mottled grey and stained with dirt and reddish clay, the hulking beast bellowed, swinging its huge scaled head side to side. It caught a knight and the force of the blow hurled him off his mount. The orphaned vihr screamed. The beast’s great jaws unhinged and shut on the vihr. The creature swung away and a bloody half of the vihr toppled to the ground.
What the hell was that? It looked like a dragon. A huge scaled dragon.
She had to get to Helen. She had to get to Helen now.
Another dragon, this one pale and yellowed like an old bone, tore out of the clump of the vampires, and charged south west. The two riders on juvenile vihr kept fleeing, oblivious to the danger.
It’s going after the children.
Maud screamed. Helen’s head whipped around. She looked over her shoulder and shrieked.
Maud fused with Attura as if they were one creature, willing him to go faster.
The vihr were running for their lives, the kids bouncing in the saddles, but they weren’t fast enough. The dragon came after them, paw over paw, like a sprinting crocodile, jaws gaping, a forest of fangs wet with its drool.
It was gaining.
They were almost there. Almost. A few dozen yards.
The dragon lunged, roaring.
The little boy’s vihr shied, screaming in panic, and stumbled. The boy and the beast went tumbling into the grass. The dragon loomed over them. Maud saw it all as if in slow motion in painful clarity: Helen’s terrified face, her eyes opened wide, her hands on the vihr’s reins, the vihr turning, obeying her jerk, and then she was on the ground, between the boy and the dragon.
Twenty yards to her daughter.
A sound ripped the air around Maud, so loud it was almost deafening. A small clinical part of her told her she was howling like an animal, trying to make herself into a threat.
Helen drew her blades.
The dragon opened its mouth. Its head plunged down and Helen disappeared.
Something broke inside Maud. Something almost forgotten that lived deep in the very center of her being, in the place where Innkeepers drew their power when they connected to their Inn. She had no Inn. She had nothing, except Helen and Helen was inside the dragon’s mouth. Everything Maud was, every drop of her will, every ounce of her strength, all of it became magic directed through the narrow lens of her desperation. It tore out of her like a laser beam and she saw it, black, and red, and ice cold, committed to one simple purpose: stop!
Time froze. The dragon halted, locked and immobile, the bulge about to travel up its neck stopped in its tracks. The vihr, one fallen, the other about to bolt, stood in place, petrified. The vampire boy sprawled in the grass, unmoving.
This is the magic of ad-hal, that same clinical voice informed her. You shouldn’t be able to do this.
But she was moving through the stillness, her sword in her hand, and as Attura tore into the dragon’s hide, Maud slit a gash in its cheek. Blood gushed, red and hot. Maud thrust her arm into the cut. Her fingers caught hair and she grabbed a fist full of it and pulled. She couldn’t move it, so she planted her feet, dropped her sword, and thrust both arms into the wound. Her hands found fabric. She grasped it and pulled.
The weight shifted under her hands.
The edges of the gaping cut tore wider.
Her daughter fell into the grass, soaked in spit.
Is she dead? Please, please, please, please…
Helen took a deep, shuddering breath and screamed.
The magic shattered.
The dragon roared in pain and swiped at Attura clinging to his neck. The savok went flying, flipped in mid-air, landed on all fours like a cat, and charged back in.
The realization slammed into her like a train. There were two children behind her and she was the only thing between them and the dragon.
She tore at it with all the savagery of a mother forced into a corner. She stabbed it, she cut it, she pierced it, her blood blade the embodiment of her rage. There was no fear left. She’d burned it all in the terrifying instant she saw Helen swallowed. Only fury remained and icy determination.
It struck at her and she dodged. When it caught her with a swipe, she rolled to her feet and came back in, her teeth bared in a feral snarl. She stabbed it in the throat. When it tried to pin her with its claws, she cut off its talons. She wasn’t a whirlwind, she wasn’t a wildfire; she was precise, calculating, and cold, and she cut pieces off of it one by one, while Attura ripped its flesh.
The dragon reared, a bleeding wreck, one eye a bloody hole, paws disfigured, and roared. She must have lost her mind, because she roared back. It came down on her, trying to trap her with its colossal weight. She had a crazy notion of holding her blood blade and letting it impale itself, then something hit her from the side, carrying her out of the way. The dragon smashed into the ground, and in a lightning flash of sanity, Maud realized she would have been crushed.
Arland dropped her to her feet. His mace whined. He charged the dragon, huge, his face a mask of rage, she laughed and dove back into the slaughter.
They cut and slashed and crushed together. At some point she caught a glimpse of the children stabbing at the crippled dragon’s legs. Finally, it swayed like a colossus on sand feet. They drew back and it crashed to the ground. Its eye closed. It lay unmoving.
Maud gripped her sword, unsure if it was over. She had to make sure. She started forward, aiming for its face.
Arland rose out of the gore, jumped up onto the dragon’s head, and raised his mace gripping it with both hands. They hit it at the same time. She sank her blade as deep as it would go in its remaining eye, while he crushed its skull with repeated blows.
They stared at each other, both bloody.
Helen hugged Maud’s leg, her lip trembling. Arland slid off the dragon’s ruined head and clamped them both to him. Nearby, Attura raised his head, pawed the ground and bayed in triumph.
Arland’s voice came out strained. “I thought I lost you both.”
Maud raised her head and kissed him, blood and all, not caring who was watching or what they thought.