“Do you expect us to have any less pride than you? We are your own blood, heirs of the grandsires who named you matron! Yet you’d make us live off the blood of beasts and sickly peasants.”
“Yes, I would.” Aetha, Queen of the Golden Reef, pressed a sword to the man’s throat and made him kneel. She turned the sword in her pale hand, its gold hilt glistening, the obsidian blade shining with magic. Her red lips smiled wide, baring her sharp teeth. “You stole the blood from the mouth of our dear little sister. Nobles, we call ourselves, but what of our nobility? You feed yourself before the least of us.”
“Least of us? You name her sister-queen. She’s your equal, as vicious as you!” He was a sickly man, feeding only on the blood of animals for a decade. All his bright fabrics, these shining blue sashes, these gold and silver buckles, couldn’t hide his pallid shiver. His eyes were pale. His teeth were dull. His hair had fallen out. “She drinks daily of the Reef’s best blood! You drag us all to this feast to watch you drink, yet spare not a cup of your bounty!”
“Please, son of Al’ain. I invited you here to mock you.” Aetha laughed, and the nobles at the grand table laughed with her. Gold on the ceiling and walls had been enchanted to glow with white light. The immense stained-glass windows – portraits of the first Kings and Queens of Al’ain – cast red and blue and green hues over Aetha’s closest allies. They dipped cups in bowls of fine blood and lifted a toast. Aetha’s sister, the frail white-haired Eiri’el, watched Aetha with idolizing fascination.
“What would you have me do?” The kneeling man hissed. “You torment me for having taken but one fine meal-”
“One stolen meal. You steal like the animals and the peasants you abhor.” Aetha flicked her blade across the man’s neck. Not enough to kill, just to cut. Pacing a small circle, she lifted the bloodied obsidian to show it to the room. The well-fed nobles chuckled. The gold-armored guards and white-dressed servants, thin, pale, sick almost to the point of death, contained their grimaces. Aetha said, “None drink but what I tell them to drink. All on the Reef hunger. This, what you call a feast, would have been just a snack to the lowliest of my father’s servants, yet have you ever seen its like during my rule? Only this once, that I might make a statement to any who, like you, think sneaking a cup of my sister’s rations an acceptable crime.”
“A statement?” The kneeling nobleman huffed. “Your parents were great. You oversee our demise. There are so few of us left that you can’t even afford to lose me. So what will you do?”
Aetha spun back and inserted the tip of her blade into the nobleman’s chest, watching dark blood bloom over his fine silks. With her offhand, Aetha proudly tossed her red hair back and adjusted the golden pins that adorned her all-white suit. “You accuse me of opulence in the same breath you tell me I cannot afford to kill you. You cannot give back the blood you’ve stolen; oh, it’s curdled in your accursed body. Still, I’d have you pay with every drop you contain.”
The nobles at the table clapped for Aetha as she slid her blade slowly into the man’s chest. Eiri’el stood carefully – her malnourished body moving so slowly – to get a better look. It was a performance, and Aetha basked in their attention.
“My Queen!” A guard yelled. “From above!”
The guards moved all at once, their gold-plated armored clattering, the bright feathers on their helms a rush of color in the moment before the stained glass to one side burst inward. Aetha didn’t flinch, instinctively tearing her blade free of the noble’s chest and turning toward the sound. Colored glass flew toward her, a huge shadow cast over her. A large red shape fell. Aetha leapt toward the table, crossing the small banquet hall in one bound and landing among the bowls of blood. The feast scattered, but Aetha got her cape up in front of Eiri’el before any glass reached her.
Something massive fell on the half-killed nobleman, crushing him in an instant. It hit so hard that the white marble tiles cracked, the floor shaking and knocking the golden guards off their feet. Aetha barely had time to see the red body, the heavy boots immersed in the gore of a crushed man, before the intruder launched itself toward the table. Glimpsing the swing of a weapon, Aetha matched it with her blade, clashing with something she didn’t yet understand.
The table broke beneath them. Nobles fell. Eiri’el tumbled to one side. The golden guards shouted and got to their feet. Aetha yelled at them, “Leave the beast to me! Get my sister to safety. If she’s hurt, I’ll execute every one of you!” Aetha tensed her powerful muscles, summoning the enchantments in her garments and her blade, and with a surge of magic strength she shouldered into her assailant and sent it flying back.
The red being that landed in the middle of the room was not just a monster. It was a mix of person and beast, a woman with a red body covered in what looked like scales, interrupted in places by scars old and new. Except for heavy metal gauntlets and boots – bloodied now, thanks to the violence of her entrance – she wore only leather bindings upon her hips and torso. And a helmet that completely hid her face, the mask a forward-facing metal blade with decorative braids of blood-stained cloth spilling out the back and hanging almost to her ankles behind her.
“And what in the name of my sires are you meant to be?” Aetha stared wide-eyed as she put herself in front of her assailant, looking over the beast, the woman, that huge body of hard muscle. Double Aetha’s own height, and Aetha was already tall compared to most anthrals. “Some carnivate breed of anthral? Some kind of beast? Monster, no doubt.”
The beastly woman moved her weapon from one hand to another: a machete with a gruesome crescent hook on the tip, but covered in some kind of red substance not unlike the scales on her body. She rolled her head and shoulders, flexed bulging muscles, and growled.
Aetha found her heart beating faster at that sound, fire catching in her veins. “Such a lovely vermillion you are, beast. Yes, I think I’m in the mood for a hunt.” She glanced to a side. “Is Eiri’el safe and unharmed?”
All the nobles had fled by then, along with most of the golden guards to escort them away. Two remaining guards hurried toward her. One said, “She complained of great pain in her arm. She’s being taken to the-”
“Failure!” Aetha whipped her sword through a gap in the golden faceplate, chopping the man’s skull in half. As he fell, the other yelped and backpedaled.
The beast pounced. Aetha rolled away. Glass shards flew between them as the two women passed one another. Red hair, red smile, red eyes wide with excitement, Aetha watched the vermillion-scaled body surge past her and then break through the window behind the shattered table. The beast fled.
“You!” Aetha pointed her sword at the golden guard trembling on the ground, splattered with the blood of his companion. “Comply quickly and I might spare you for your failure. Sound the horn in the watchman’s tower.” She smiled with all her sharp teeth. “It’s time for a hunt.”