“One learns more from defeat than victory. Therefore, fear the general that has never won a battle.”
– Isabella the Mad, Proceran general
Masego hadn’t changed a bit since I last saw him. Tall, dark-skinned and boyishly chubby under his loose clothes. His spectacles were fogged by the cold. He’d put on a thick cloak and his trinket-threaded braids were covered by… I was honestly at a loss as to how to describe that abomination. Knitted colourful yarn vaguely shaped like an ugly hat trying to devour an equally awful hat?
“I’m sorry. I’m happy to see you and all but what is that?” I asked, pointing at the inanimate creature squatting over his head.
“My father knitted it,” Apprentice replied, tone defensive. “Didn’t want me to go out in the cold with my ears uncovered.”
I almost asked him which father had committed that crime against anyone with eyes, but I wasn’t sure whether that thing would be more disturbing if made by the Warlock or by an incubus, so I refrained from finding out. Probably the incubus, I morbidly thought. Warlock had always been impeccably dressed every time I saw him. Even the occasional casual worse-than-death threat hadn’t been enough for me to stop noticing how ridiculously attractive the man was. Between him and Malicia, Evil had the whole hot and dangerous thing covered. Though Kilian was all I needed, of course, I loyally added afterwards. Certainly much less likely to kill me, and I’d come to learn that was not a given in relationships when you were a villain.
“Catherine,” Hakram said.
“I’m here,” I hastily replied.
“Masego, you’ve got something?” the orc prompted.
“Yes,” the Soninke mage said, pushing up his spectacles. “The anchor for the blizzard is further inside. I’ve narrowed down a location.”
“You can’t just break the spell from here?” I asked.
“It’s not a spell. And spells cannot be broken, only dispersed,” Apprentice said. “This blizzard is pouring out of Arcadia through a semi-stable gate.”
“Shut the gate, shut the weather,” I said. “Got it.”
“Possibly,” the bespectacled man said. “It depends on how strong the bleed over from Arcadia into Creation was.”
“I’m not having permanent winter in the middle of my city, Masego,” I said. “Broke, demon-tainted and covered in ice is where I draw the line.”
“We take the hard stances,” Hakram said gravely.
The prick. I was about to reply when I caught sight of movement ahead in the storm. Within a heartbeat my sword was back in hand and Adjutant’s axe raised.
“We’ll revisit that later,” I said, taking the lead and moving into the blizzard.
“I’m a rebel,” I heard Hakram tell Masego in a pleased voice.
“And you cheat at shatranj,” Apprentice replied peevishly.
“I don’t even need to, with you,” the orc said.
I sighed. Did heroes have to deal with this much bickering? At least neither of them were prone to monologues, there was that. The howling winds and the snow they carried were blinding but not a problem for my little crew: a bubble of translucent blue power formed the moment we entered, courtesy of Masego. Between that and the warmth he was radiating, this was almost comfortable. Almost. No sight of the movement I’d glimpsed, which I naturally took as a bad sign. Just because I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead didn’t mean the fae could not. For all I knew they were quietly surrounding us even as our boots crunched in the snow. Stealthy we were not.
“Masego,” I said. “If we were surrounded, could you tell?”
“Yes,” he said. “With the right instruments.”
“Do you have the right instruments?” I asked.
He blinked behind his spectacles.
“No,” he said. “With the amount of fae magic flooding the area the best I can currently do is locate the direction of the gate.”
“How long have we been walking?” Hakram frowned.
“I can’t tell,” I said. “That is probably not a good sign.”
“Time dilation inside Arcadia varies wildly from place to place,” Masego contributed helpfully. “In some sections a night could last a century in Creation, in others merely a few heartbeats.”
“We’re not in Arcadia, though,” I said. “Right?”
Apparently howling winds did not make awkward silences any less awkward. You learned something every day. I glanced at Apprentice.
“We’re close to the gate,” he said.
“Should be there soon,” he said.
The chubby Soninke cleared his throat.
“I cannot tell,” he admitted. “To my senses it feels like we are, but that shouldn’t-“
With a quiet ping the javelin punched through the shield bubble and would have taken the mage in the throat if I hadn’t snatched it out of the air by reflex. I glanced down at the weapon. Bronze, covered in runes. That were glowing. I managed to throw it away a moment before it blew up in shards of metal and ice, some of the shrapnel scoring lines on my cheeks.
“We come in peace,” I blatantly lied, calling out into the storm with a sword in hand.
Hakram tried to turn his laugh into a cough.
“Catherine,” Masego said, “the fae are unparalleled masters of deception. They’re not going to fall for-“
The blizzard cleared ahead of us, revealing a slender silhouette. A man in a scale armour of woven dead wood and obsidian, horned helmet covering his entire face – even his eyes – save for his chin and mouth. The pale skin revealed under was pale as a corpse’s. A spear in hand, he sat astride what would have been a long-legged shaggy horse if not for the long horn protruding from its forehead.
“I hate it when you do that,” Apprentice muttered.
“Good evening, Lady of Marchford,” the fae said.
My wariness immediately went up a notch. The lesser fairies hadn’t quite managed to sound human when they’d spoken, too melodic and sing-song to be entirely mortal. The deadwood soldiers hadn’t even tried, magic and images dripping from every word. This one, though? He sounded like a person. The most dangerous monsters were always the clever ones.
“That’s me,” I agreed. “And you are?”
“A Rider of the Host,” he replied politely, inclining his head. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
I could feel the capitalized letter in that, the same way you did when someone spoke a Name. This was not headed in a pleasant direction.
“Rider, then,” I said. “I don’t suppose you’re moving people behind us as we speak?”
“You have my word no fae will attack while under truce,” he replied calmly.
That wasn’t a no. I glanced at Masego, who nodded sharply. Whatever was coming at our back when negotiations inevitably broke down – and if I was being entirely honest with myself, there was no real chance they would not – he’d be the one to handle it.
“So you’re in charge of the fae invading my city?” I said.
“I was given command of this host,” the Rider said.
Eh, close enough. The way he’d worded that instead of giving me a yes or no probably meant he was omitting something, but the intricacies of fae politics were something I gave a remarkably low amount of fucks about. Do not make me learn fae politics, you bastards, I silently thought. I can barely handle the human ones.
“I don’t suppose you’d just scamper back into Arcadia if I asked?” I said.
The Rider smiled, revealing a mouthful of milky sharp teeth.
“Are you offering a deal, Lady of Marchford?” he said.
“Gods, am I ever not falling for that one,” I muttered. “Look, whatever you are. I could drum your sorry excuse for an invasion out of my backyard, but I’ll take losses doing it. No getting around that. I’ve got other cats to skin, so why don’t we just call it a night and both walk away?”
“That sounded like a threat,” the Rider noted.
“It was,” I replied frankly. “You’re probably some sort of force to reckon with back in Arcadia, but this is my wheelhouse. I’ve walked away from the corpses of scarier stuff than you.”
“Lady of Marchford, this is home,” he said, smiling.
“Catherine,” Masego whispered.
“I’m a little busy at the m-“
I bit down on that. Last time I’d passed on Apprentice’s advice in a bad spot I’d walked right into demon fun time, swiftly followed by the screaming soul surgery interlude. Learn from your mistakes, Foundling.
“Remember that question you asked me?” he said.
“We are,” he whispered. “They took across a shard of Arcadia.”
Oh, this just kept getting godsdamned better.
“Rider, did you pricks fairy-land the middle of my city?” I growled.
“The truce is over,” the fae replied.
The blizzard swallowed him instantly.
“So that’s a yes,” I said. “Gods Below and Everburning. You bastards are starting to catch up to Heiress on my murder list.”
I didn’t hear them coming, because they didn’t make a sound. It was the kind of instinct my Name gave me, the same that allowed me to catch an arrow in flight or roll out of a building on fire before it collapsed – both of which had happened to be depressingly often since I became a villain. A slender wedge of mounted fae ghosted out of the howling winds, spears at the ready. Like the Rider who’d spoken to me they were astride the murderous-looking cousin of a unicorn, though their own armours lacked the obsidian that had been on the last one’s. Maybe he had been in charge. My eyes narrowed at the sight of their hooves never leaving a mark in the snow. I wouldn’t put that above them, really, but more likely… My wrist snapped up and a spear of shadow coalesced, tearing unfailing through the wind and straight through the lead rider’s chest. He dissipated, the lot of them just a cold mirage.
“Cat,” Hakram said, tone alarmed.
My eyes swivelled where he was pointing his axe, to our left. Another wedge of mounted fae. A trickle of Name power drifted up to my eyes, forcing them to sharpen in the poor light. They weren’t leaving a trail either. Which meant… And would you look at that: another silent wedge was coming up from our back. They, one the other hand, were leaving hoof prints. The answer seemed clear, which two years of dealing with Akua Sahelian had taught me meant they were probably fucking with me. I formed another spear of shadow and swivelled to throw it to our right, the only avenue that they weren’t visibly using. A heartbeat later the faint silhouette of a rider ducking under the spear, pressing against her mount, flickered into visibility for the barest moment. There you are.
“Brace yourself,” Apprentice said.
Blinding blue light flared up, his bubble turning into a broad rectangular panel straight in their path. The rider at the tip of the wedge, still closely pressed against her mount, guided her unicorn into leaping over it. And hit another panel with a dull thump, this one entirely invisible. I snorted. That was a new trick. The two wings of cavalry split smoothly, beginning the way around before the lead fae had even hit the ground. The blue panel’s glow intensified before it blew up, detonating in a flash of heat and light.
“Masego, can you tell me where the talker is?” I asked.
“Behind them,” the Soninke replied without missing a beat.
“That’s where I’m going, then,” I said. “You boys try not to get yourself killed – I’m pretty sure I can’t afford a double funeral.”
I began moving before they could reply. I’d barely taken a dozen strides before the protection of whatever ward Apprentice had going on ceased, the wind almost battering me down. I’d gone through the middle, since it was the clearest path, but the riders in the back of the two columns peeled off and went straight for me. So much for the easy way. That made one, two, three… eight in all. Joy. I was going to be feeling this in the morning, wasn’t I? Stilling my breath, I stood my ground with my sword in hand. I’d been taught to deal with mounted men, though not fae. The only dangerous part of a lance is the tip, Black’s voice reminded me. Watch the horse. Cavalry tramples what it can’t skewer. These were spears, not lances, but the principle held. The riders were used to hunting together, I noticed. They silently adjusted their angles so they wouldn’t charge into each other if I managed to avoid them.
Whatever sorcery had made them almost invisible was gone, but I was smelling a rat. So far they hadn’t once used a straightforward attack, there would be more to this. Frowning, I formed a small orb of shadow and shot it at the leftmost rider – who guided his mount a little to the side to avoid it, never breaking stride. Not a fake? There was a flash of flame behind me as Masego got serious and my question answered himself: only half the riders cast a shadow in the sudden light. Gods, I was already starting to hate fighting fae. So, how did one dodge a blow they couldn’t see coming? Don’t be where it hits, if Captain was to be believed. I’d been taught that lesson one hammer swing at a time. Name power trickled into my legs and I pushed off, sending a spray of snow behind me. I kept a low profile, eyeing the spears headed for me across a loose half-circle, and shifted tracks to head under a unicorn before I could be turned into several bloody pieces of Foundling. My sword flashed up, opening the creature’s belly as I slid under it and I winced as the ice-cold water that flooded out of the wound.
I landed in a sprawl behind the faltering beast, forcing myself to my feet and running in the direction Apprentice had told me. I could feel the riders wheeling around for another charge behind me and resisted the urge to blindly shoot a spear of shadows in their direction. My well was deeper since my Name had been restored, but there were still limits to what I could draw on. I couldn’t afford to waste too much power on longshots, not with a hard fight ahead of me. Now, running away from a mounted killer with your back to them and flat fields around you was about the single worst position you could be relative to cavalry. I was not unaware of this, of course, but standing my ground back there with the other two at my side was a losing battle. Our bag of tricks was nothing to sneer at, and had only grown since the Liesse Rebellion, but there was only so long we’d hold our own against creatures that were literally defined by trickery.
No, the way to end this was ahead of me. Cut the head of the snake, other assorted and vaguely violent metaphors. The riders behind me would catch up soon enough, but I was banking on that changing nothing. The silhouette of the Rider of the Host was hard to make out, even with Name sight, but it was there. On a hill, overlooking the scrap and radiating genteel disdain. Yeah, that one had all the little marks of nobility to it. Even in Arcadia, some things were the same. I got to the foot of the hill before the enemy caught up. Glancing at the Rider, I was considering my options while the spears got ever closer when he spoke up.
“Enough,” he said. “I will deal with this. Break the others.”
Ah, there it was. I did love a bit of hubris in my opponents. I’d mouthed off to the big bad fairy and gotten in front of it, of course it was going to want a piece of me. And it wouldn’t want its underlings to get involved, because it was making a point. Probably not about honour, with the fae, but arrogance would do in a pinch. I wasn’t picky.
“Yeah, good luck with that,” I said. “Last time I saw Masego get pissy he torched a demon so hard it melted the stone under it.”
“We are not demons,” the Rider said, raising his spear. “We are not mindless abominations. Our existence has purpose.”
“You’re also supposed to have brains,” I said. “So I genuinely don’t understand why you’re making a mess here. Even if you somehow manage to beat my men, you have to realize the Empire is going to throw all you until you break.”
“These matters are beyond your understanding, Lady of Marchford,” he said.
“I’m going to enjoy punching that line right out of your mouth,” I replied cheerfully, baring my teeth.
The spear lowered, the Rider charged and my Name howled in joy so loudly it drowned out the wind.