The banquet hall erupted as every armored vampire jumped to their feet. Maud caught a glimpse of Seveline swinging her sword at someone in the distance.
Maud’s instincts screamed, she jerked out of the way, turning, and saw the father of the bride, huge and raging, lunging at her from his seat. She’d dodged but not fast enough. His steel fingers clamped her right shoulder. He jerked her to him and roared, baring his fangs.
She grabbed a fork from the table with her left hand, jammed it deep into the roof of his mouth, and twisted. The fork snapped in half. Blood poured from his mouth.
The vampire yanked her off her feet and slammed her onto the table, pinning her shoulders with his hands. The impact reverberated through her, shaking her bones. If she didn’t break free now, he would crush her, armor or no. Maud dropped her sword, locked her left hand on his right wrist, and drove her right palm into his elbow. The power of the blow and the sudden pressure on his left elbow forced him to her left, and she hammered her armored knee into his exposed face with a sickening crunch.
He reared above her, breaking her hold, face bloody, nose broken, eyes insane, and ripped his blood mace off his thigh.
Maud rolled left.
The mace slammed into the table with a telltale whine and bounced off.
The engineer was right. These are really good tables.
Maud swiped her sword off the ground, priming it, and lunged right, putting the table between them. The father of the bride gurgled something, letting out the sound of pure rage saturated with blood.
“Use your words.”
His face twisted with fury. He jumped onto the table. She dove under the table, caught herself on its smooth narrow base, and used her momentum to swing around it on the glass-slick floor into a crouch.
The father of the bride leapt down off the table. He’d tried to put some distance into his jump, but he was huge and heavy, and he hit the floor with a thud. For a moment, all of his weight rested on the back of his feet.
Maud lunged. Her blood blade kissed the back of his right ankle, its edge slicing through the segmented armor like it wasn’t even there. She didn’t stop. Instead she rammed her shoulder into the back of his thigh.
The big vampire went down like a felled tree. She scrambled up his back and rammed her blade into the back of his neck, just above the collar of his armor. He jerked once and lie still.
All around her the battle raged. Vampires clashed, blood weapons shrieked, and blood mist filled the air. Roaring and screaming and the sounds weapons clashing filled the hall, and the din nearly deafened her. To her left, Arland tore into two attackers. To the far right, Ilemina and Otubar raged, back to back, as attackers came at them over the bodies of the wounded and dying. On the left, the tachi, their exoskeletons so saturated with color they looked almost black, formed a protective ring around their royal and sliced at anyone who came near. On the dais, the battle chaplain skewered the bridal attendants as they piled onto him. Most of them were unarmored, but his odds were one to twenty. Karat was methodically cutting her way to the dais to assist the outnumbered cleric.
I should help.
Oh my God.
Maud whipped around. Helen scrambled toward her, weaving between combatants, her blonde hair flying.
How? How did she get here? What is she doing here? She is supposed to be planetside.
Her legs were already moving. Maud dashed forward. Nothing else mattered.
Helen dove under a table, slid on her knees, crawled forward, disappearing from Maud’s view.
“Stay! Don’t move!”
A vampire got in her way, her armor marked with Kozor colors. Maud stabbed her in the gut, driving the sword through the armor with detached precision. The vampire groaned, Maud pulled her sword free and kept moving. Nothing mattered except getting to the table.
Another knight lunged at her. Maud leaned back a hair out of the way. The blade whistled through the air fanning her face. She gripped the wrist attached to the hand that held the sword, jerked it up, thrust her blade into the exposed armpit, freed it, shoved the body out of the way, and kept moving. She was almost there.
Two knights, snarling and locked in combat, blocked her view. She halted. They tore into each other and moved to the right.
Onda stood by the table, holding Helen by her throat with one armored hand.
The world screeched to a halt. Maud went ice cold.
Helen dangled from the Kozor woman’s grip like a helpless kitten. Her face was turning blue.
Onda smiled wide and turned to Maud.
Helen jerked her hands up and drove both of her daggers into Onda’s face.
The vampire woman screamed.
A shimmer appeared on the table next to them and snapped into Nuan Cee. The merchant tossed a handful of pale powder into Onda’s ruined face, caught Helen as Onda collapsed, and dashed across the table tops, leaping nimbly over the larger armored fighters like he could walk on air. A blink and he landed among the lees.
“Let me go!” Helen snarled and kicked, but the lees swarmed her petting her hair and making cooing noises.
Maud let out a shuddering breath, exhaling so much pressure, it felt like pain, then something burned her side. She spun out of the way of the pain, turning around.
Seveline grinned at her. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
Maud’s side was on fire. The armor kept most of the blood in and it drenched her, so hot it felt scalding. She yawned. “Bring it, bitch.”
Seveline lunged, opening with a classic overhead stroke. The bitch was fast. Maud dodged left. Seveline reversed the swing, turning into an upward slash. The blood blade grazed Maud’s breastplate. The armor held. Maud danced back.
“Running?” Seveline sneered.
“I want you to feel like you’re doing well.”
“Is that so?”
“You’re so scared, you stabbed me from behind, so I’m trying to boost your confidence.”
Seveline bared her teeth.
Maud struck, lunging fast. Seveline parried. Maud let her blade slide off the other woman’s sword and thrust, aiming at Seveline’s throat. The vampire woman shied back and launched a furious counter attack. They clashed in a flurry of blows and blocks, neither fully committing, their swords meeting and parting to fast to follow.
Seveline ducked, and Maud’s sword whistled over her head. The vampire woman thrust from a near crouch. Maud knocked the blade aside and kicked but missed. They broke apart.
Sweat soaked Seveline’s hair line. Maud held completely still, trying to catch her breath. Her whole side was drenched in pain now. Every movement, even deep breaths, hurt. Fighting Seveline required everything she had and she had attacked and parried on pure instinct. The more she bled, the slower she would be. Time was not on her side.
Seveline charged. Maud parried the slash. The power of the blow traveled up her arm into her shoulder, stabbing the joint. Seveline had switched tactics, banking on her greater strength. The blows rained down on Maud, big, wide, fast. She danced away, dodging and ducking. Her back touched a table. Seveline had backed her into a corner. An electric pulse of alarm burst through Maud.
I will survive this.
The vampire gripped her sword with both hands and brought it down with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Maud angled her blade down, catching Seveline’s sword at just the right place and guided it down, out of the way. The momentum pitched Seveline forward and off balance. Her face was wide open, and Maud hammered a punch into it.
Seveline stumbled back.
The world acquired a slight fuzziness. She was losing too much blood. She needed to end this now, or there would be no time with Helen, no evenings with Arland, and no holidays with Dina.
“You can’t beat me,” Maud said. “You’re not good enough.”
Seveline snarled and marched forward. Maud saw her eyes. Murder burned there, hot and blinding. They clashed again, cold and vicious this time.
Maud thrust her blade past Seveline’s guard. It bit just above the vampire’s hip, piercing armor and flesh. Seveline backhanded her. The blow rang through Maud’s skull. The world turned black for a terrifying second.
Somehow, she knew even through the darkness that Seveline was coming. Maud slashed blindly. Her sword met resistance, and she charged forward, throwing all of her weight into the swing. Her vision cleared. She caught a glimpse of Seveline’s kick right before it landed.
Agony blossomed in her right side, the impact throwing her to the side and knocking the wind out of her. Suddenly there wasn’t enough air. Panic tore through her. Maud scrambled back to her feet, holding her blade out in front of her.
Across from her Seveline gripped her sword with her left hand, her right arm hanging uselessly at her side. The floor around them was slick with blood.
Seveline bared bloody teeth at Maud. “Die.”
Seveline screamed and charged. The world slowed down to a crawl. Maud watched her come, one powerful step after another, face skewed with rage, mouth gaping, fangs on display, her blonde mane streaming behind her.
Her own heart was beating like the toll of massive bell, steady and somehow too slow. Heartbeat… another…
Maud thrust. Seveline lashed at her, but she was too slow. Maud’s blade pierced her chest.
Too low. Missed the heart. Missed my chance.
Seveline dropped her sword, impaled and locked her hands on Maud’s throat. The air in Maud’s lungs turned to fire. Spots exploded in her vision.
There was no way to break the hold. Seveline was too strong. Maud clamped both hands on her sword’s grip and dragged the blade, still buried in Seveline’s chest, upward, through the muscle and bone.
She will not kill me. I will not die here, with her hands around my throat.
Seveline was screaming, loud, so loud, spitting blood into Maud’s face. Maud’s lungs turned to molten lead. She forced the blade up further, sawing through living flesh.
The light dimmed, Seveline’s face swimming out of focus.
With a last desperate jerk, Maud twisted the blade. The hands crushing her neck fell away. Seveline stumbled back and collapsed, her blonde hair fanning out as she fell. Maud dropped to her knees. Her stomach spasmed and she retched.
Red liquid burst from her mouth and she didn’t know if it was wine or blood.
Get up. Get up, get up, get up.
She crawled to Seveline on her hands and knees and locked her hand on her sword. Seveline’s dead face glared at her with empty eyes. Maud forced herself up, into a crouch, then to her feet. She gripped her sword, put her foot on Seveline’s chest and pulled the weapon free.
The fighting around them was drawing to a close. The lees were still holding Helen. Her daughter was alive. She was alive.
Maud spun about, frantic and saw him. Arland walking toward her, armor stained with blood. Their gazes met and suddenly Maud knew that everything would be alright now.