Serilda stumbled backward. Before she could even think to raise the sword—ornamental or not—Gild lunged against the attacker. In the flickering torchlight, Serilda saw a flash of gold and the glint of talons. She heard the frantic beating of leathery wings. A drude.
Gild swung the sword, knocking the beast against the wall. It wailed and tumbled to the floor.
A second screech split the air.
Serilda spun around, but she could not pinpoint where the sound had come from.
Then the beast was upon her, diving down from the rafters, its sharp-toothed mouth gaping open. Serilda screamed, but it swung past her and100landed on Gild’s arm, its talons digging through his sleeve. Gild let out a roar. His sword clattered to the ground.
The first drude spread its wings. Hissing, it leaped upward and landed on Gild’s other shoulder. Talons pierced cloth and skin. Its jaw unhinged. It released a horrific scream into Gild’s face.
Gild lurched backward, crashing against the wall. Unarmed, he struggled in vain to knock the drudes free. Sweat beaded on his brow. His expression twisted as the nightmares claimed his mind.
Serilda heard the shriek of a third. She scanned the hall, but the beast was invisible in the darkness.
Stuffing the torch into an empty sconce, she raised her sword. Acting on brutal instinct, she wrapped her forearm around the neck of the drude that clutched Gild’s arm and swiped the blade across its throat.
The monster’s head snapped back, all the way back, so that its slitted eyes were staring straight at her, its face upside down, its pointed tongue flicking at the air as a thick gurgle filled its throat.
Its grip on Gild’s arm loosened. With a grunt, Serilda tore it away and threw its body to the floor.
Gild was no longer fighting. His cheeks were stained with tears, his arms hanging limp at his sides. The first drude was still attached to his shoulder, infiltrating Gild’s mind with its nightmares as blood leaked from his wounds.
With a guttural cry, Serilda threw herself at them and drove the sword through the creature’s back, directly between its veiny wings. She cut upward, the blade barely missing Gild’s shoulder as it impaled the creature.
The drude yowled and thrashed.
Serilda yanked out the blade. Blood, viscous and smelling of rot, splattered across her arms as the beast fell to the floor.
The monster turned and scrabbled for her, claws reaching. Tongue whipping against the air. Wetness slicking the corners of its mouth.
Serilda stepped back as the creature’s strength drained away. It slumped forward, convulsing.
“Gild,” she breathed, stepping over the drude and reaching for his101arm. His linen shirt was covered in blood. His pupils dilated to near black, his gaze unfocused and darting around the hall. His whole body was shaking so hard that he nearly ripped himself out of Serilda’s grasp. “Gild, it’s me!”
A hiss cut her short.
The third drude, bigger than the others, stood at the opening to the corridor, wings outstretched.
With a shuddering breath, Serilda curled her fingers around the sword’s hilt.
The drude launched itself into the air, wings beating. It landed briefly on one of the chandeliers, then jumped to the wall, talons digging into the stonework. Shards of rock clattered and rained onto the carpet as it skittered forward. Up the wall, across the ceiling, like an enormous spider.
She tried to mimic the stance she’d seen Gild take, as the gems from the hilt dug into her palms.
The drude dropped toward her.
She swung. The blade missed, but forced the drude back. It struck a door and clung to it, needle-claws embedded in the wood.
Serilda backed away, her whole body shaking. Daring to remove one hand from the sword’s hilt, she fumbled against the wall. Searching—
The drude screamed and leaped again.
Not at her—at Gild, still in a daze. Lost in whatever nightmare was clouding his thoughts.
Serilda’s hand found cool metal. She pressed on the latch and shoved open the door.
Then she hefted the sword as hard as she could over her shoulder and threw it spearlike at the monster. The point pierced one of the drude’s wings, dragging it down to the floor. The creature howled.