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Midnight Predatorby Amel Atwater Rhodes
Some people use things; they destroy. You're a creator, a builder. The words came unbidden to her mind, completely inappropriate at the moment.
Distracted by the memory, Turquoise missed a block. She hissed in pain as the knife cut deep into the meaty underside of her arm. She caught her attacker's wrist and twisted, sending the young woman attached sprawling to the ground, as her father's words faded from her mind. Once, they might have been right, but now, they could not have been further from the truth.
The woman Turquoise was fighting wasn't clumsy for long. In a near-blur of burgundy hair and black leather, Ravyn Aniketos sprang to her feet.
Turquoise rolled her shoulders, trying to work out the kinks in them, and blinked quickly to clear her tired eyes. This match had been going on for too long. She was bleeding from where Ravyn's knife had sliced through her arm, and she could feel the warm, sticky drip of blood down her back from a second wound on her left shoulder. Ravyn's black leather pants had been slit open in the thigh, and she had a shallow wound low on her jaw, which would probably heal without scarring.
Earlier, there had been other combatants; most slunk out the back door, defeated, within the first few minutes.
The fight was a competition of stealth and hunting ability. In near darkness, the competitors found and marked one another--a quick knife slice, just enough to draw blood. If a hunter was marked three times, he or she was out of the running. Turquoise was pleased to have lasted so long, but only victory would satisfy her pride. Ravyn likely felt the same. The next one of them to land a blow would win, becoming the leader of Crimson, the most elite unit of the Bruja guilds.
Somewhere in the building, a clock struck, once, twice . . .
Turquoise lost track of the clock's tones as she struck again. Ravyn cursed as the blade narrowly missed her stomach, and Turquoise barely managed to evade an answering strike to her cheek.
They were both getting tired, and tired quickly became clumsy. Only the fact that they had both been fighting for hours kept them evenly matched.
The clock finished its song, and left the room in eerie silence, broken only by the ragged, heavy breathing as the two fought.
Turquoise slid a fraction of her attention to the voice but did not allow her gaze to leave Ravyn.
"Sheathe your weapons," Bruja's leader, Sarta, instructed. Someone flipped the switch and both fighters blinked against the sudden light. "I have a feeling that this competition could go on for days if I let it," she announced, "but Bruja law does call for a limit."
Ravyn licked the blade of her knife clean, her cranberry-colored gaze resting on Turquoise all the while, as if daring her to react. Ravyn had no fetish for blood, and she professed to hate vampires, but she did love to give a show.
"Well, Sarta, if you're going to call a halt to our fun, do you also plan to name a winner?" Ravyn was still panting slightly, but not enough to affect the smooth drawl in her voice.
Turquoise wiped her own blade on the leg of her ruined jeans. She didn't speak yet, preferring to catch her breath. If it was ten now, then she and Ravyn had been sparring for almost five hours. This fight had begun at sunrise.
Five hours, and they were left in a draw. Turquoise's muscles ached with fatigue, but she would rather have finished this than stopped now. She wanted the title.
Crimson. It was the most elite of the three Bruja guilds. Cold-blooded as snakes and vicious as hyenas, members of Bruja were the best predators in existence. To be recognized as the guild's leader would fulfill the promise Turquoise had once made. She had sworn that no one would ever mistake her for prey again. If that meant abandoning a few of the social mores of the daylight world, as Bruja members so frequently did, so be it.
The leader of Crimson was second only to Sarta, the leader of all three Bruja guilds. Turquoise had trained and fought and competed for the position. She knew she was the best Crimson had. She could out-stalk and out-fight any vampire and had, many times. She would win this title, whatever it took.
"Rematch," Sarta said simply. "Onyx and Frost still need to compete today. You two are obviously matched evenly with daggers, but a Bruja member needs to be able to use any weapon at his or her command." She paused for dramatic effect. "A tie is decided in a private duel, one month after Challenge, witnessed only by the other leaders. The weapon is decided by the member who has been in the guild the longest--in this case, Ravyn--and the bout goes to third blood."
Ravyn sighed, looking at Turquoise past burgundy lashes. "In one month, and I choose the weapon. In that case . . ." She walked around the room, examining the walls, which were decorated with weapons of all sizes, all shapes, and all designs.
She paused to run a finger down the blade of a broadsword, but then shook her head and moved on. She glanced at the crossbows, but they were the traditional weapon of Crimson's sister guild, Onyx--not appropriate for a Crimson duel. She passed foils, epees and sabers, and did not even pause to glance at the thick wooden staves.
Finally, she pulled down two leather whips, and cracked one expertly. "I choose these."
Ravyn tossed one of them to Turquoise with a sly grin, and Turquoise almost let it fall to the ground before reflex made her catch the handle. Of the entire selection of weapons in the Bruja hall, the whip was the only one she hated. Ravyn could not have made a better choice.
"Turquoise, do you accept the challenge?" Sarta asked.
"I accept." She was grateful that her voice stayed even. She hated whips. She could use one if she needed to, but not with any precision.
"Then get out of here," Sarta ordered. "Come back the day of the next full moon. The match will begin at sunrise."
Turquoise nodded, then turned her back to Sarta and Ravyn, and stalked as gracefully as she could from the fighting floor.
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