Norm guffawed. “What the hell is she thinking? With your gifts, she doesn’t have a chance. It’s like the wheel’s still turning but the hamster died a long time ago.” Well of course he would think that. He didn’t know about my current problem.

But Fletcher did, and he shrunk into his seat. “I don’t think I can watch. My heart can’t take it.”

“There’ll be nothing to watch,” stated Jared. “This is not going to happen.”

I grabbed Jared’s arm. “I have to do it. If I don’t accept the challenge, I’ll look weak.”

He cupped my chin. “And if you do accept it, you’ll look weak. You can’t win this, not without your gifts. You’re strong, baby – so damn strong – but she’s a Pagori. Biology makes her stronger than you.”

“But not more agile. Maybe I can play on that.” I had at the try-outs, and it had worked then.

“Actually, I have an idea,” said Antonio. To Magda, he called out, “Your proposal to honour the tradition is a good one. But I feel that a challenge with Sam would be unfair to you, for she has very offensive gifts.”

“As do I,” said Magda, just as her arm melted into a blade.

I winced. “Not. Good.”

“My Sire was a Bestower, like yourself, your Grandness,” explained Magda. “He once bestowed another gift upon me.”

And wasn’t that just wonderful. The fact was that she had boxed me into a corner. If I didn’t come out clawing, it would be totally against my nature. But I wasn’t too keen on having that blade piercing through my body. She wouldn’t kill me, couldn’t, but she would make a spectacle out of me.

Jared was right; she was a lot stronger, and there was every chance that I wouldn’t beat her. But there was also a chance that I would, because there was more to duelling than the physical side of things. A good strategy was just as important. And Magda wasn’t exactly a full shilling, was she? Strategizing wouldn’t be her strong point.

In any case, I didn’t have a choice. Sighing, I went to stand but Jared put a restraining hand on my thigh. “Baby, don’t.”

“She can’t kill me,” I reminded him.

“But she could hurt you, and I’d rather step down from my position than give her the chance to do that.”

“I know you would, and I love you for it, but this is something I have to do. Not everything comes down to my gifts.” Before he could teleport me away, I called out, “I accept the challenge.” I stood, adding only loud enough for Jared to hear, “And so does Dexter.”

He double-blinked, then smiled a little, but worry still filled his eyes. “That snake better live up to its expectations. If you get seriously hurt, he becomes a purse.”

I gave him a light tap over the head as I past him.

Wes shot me a concerned look, squeezing my hand supportively. “Let Dexter help you. Wind him around your waist, or put him on the ground. Either way, he will do his best to protect you.”

I hoped he was right. Making my way down the stairs, I felt all eyes on me, felt the anticipation of some and the expectations of others. This was so crap. I’d been really enjoying myself up until this point. That fact alone made me want to skin the bitch alive. And there was every chance that my new emerald-green dress would be ruined. If she had a bunny, I’d boil it.

When I came to stand opposite her, keeping a standard thirty feet between us, she gave me a wide, smug smile. She was clearly confident she was going to win this. Unfortunately, she had every reason to be. The only plan I could come up with was to repeatedly dodge her, which would serve two purposes; remaining unharmed, and frustrating her so immensely that she made a mistake.

“I’m looking forward to this, Sam.”

“I’m not the easy target that you think I am, Magda.” Ignoring her snicker, I quietly said, “Novo.” Then Dexter was draped over my shoulders – yeah, he’d gone for a wander from my arm to my shoulders in his tattoo form. There were gasps and sounds of appreciation, but I was more interested in the nervous gasp that flew out of Magda. Ha. Carefully, I placed Dexter on the ground. He didn’t move away from me, just as I knew he wouldn’t.

Most likely in response to my anger and the clear danger of the situation, he turned a dark-red and hissed loudly. His tail was going crazy, too. Much like the black mamba, he was able to raise a third of his body from the floor. Handy.

I returned my attention to Magda then. We stared at each other, feet slightly apart and clenching our fists, much like a pair of cowgirls ready for a shootout. As I always did in a duel, I let everything else around me fade away. I honed every single one of my senses on her, intending to predict her movements as best I could.

“You don’t have a hope in hell of winning this,” taunted Magda. She almost sang the next words. “I will defeat you.”

I gave her a pitying smile. “Oh, you and your wishful thinking.”

That was all it took to make her move. She hadn’t needed to come very close to take a swipe at me with that jagged-blade-for-an-arm. I ducked with vampire speed, making my action blurred, and then stood tall again. Without giving me a reprieve, she attempted to slash at my chest. Bitch.

I dodged the move, smiling in satisfaction as Dexter spat venom at the blade, making it sizzle. Magda cried out in pain and pulled her arm back, quickly changing it back to skin and bone. Oh, so it turned out that even when her arms were steel, she still felt the pain. Interesting. And gratifying.

I watched, morbidly curious, as the blisters slowly healed. Only then did she morph her arm back into a blade and take another swipe at me – this time aiming for my feet. I jumped high, missing the jagged blade by mere inches. Crap, she was a lot faster than me. The reason that I wasn’t separated from my feet was that I had my Sventé agility. A lot of people underestimated it, but having the dexterity of a leopard came in handy at times like this.

Another thing in my favour was that you could always count on a Pagori to stupidly rely on their immense strength. It meant their movements were often a little clumsy. And as Magda’s movements were fuelled by anger, her forceful swings were very clumsy.

“Give it up, Sam. Save yourself the embarrassment of being beaten to a pulp.”

“You’re just upset that I have bigger tits than you.” Apparently those words hit a little too close to home, because her red irises practically smouldered. “Aw, don’t be upset because you like my boobs. Be upset because Jared likes them.”

Tags: Suzanne Wright Deep In Your Veins Vampires