“Ah, but being defeated was always part of my plan! Yet another glorious victory for the Empire.”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful
We’d gotten the usual banter and I’m-going-to-kill-you, no-I’m-going-to-kill-you posturing out of the way, so it was now time to get to the stabbing. Admittedly my favourite part, especially when I wasn’t taking on a hero. This sad sack of smugness might pack a punch, but he wasn’t carrying a solemn promise of victory handed down by the Heavens. If I started chopping of limbs he wasn’t going to get back up with an irritating one-liner about Evil always being defeated. As good ol’ Willy had learned in the end, that wasn’t always true anyway. Sometimes Evil snatched a last moment resurrection, stomped in Good’s skull and went dancing with a good-looking redhead afterwards. Probably not victory the way the Gods Below or the average Dread Emperor conceived it, but I wasn’t going to be taking life lessons from people who’d thought the invisible army plan was a good idea.
The Rider didn’t seem to bother with the same tricks his minions had used, devouring the slope on the way down faster than I believed was actually possible. It occurred to me that most everyone I fought had cavalry while I had to make do with a pack of malevolent goblins, which struck me as pretty unfair. Before I could further lament the fact, I had to unsheathe my sword and brace myself for impact. It would have been a mistake to think of the Rider as a mere lancer, I decided. For one, his murderous unicorn effectively had a second spear jutting out of its forehead. More than that, unlike most horseman, killing his mount was unlikely to slow him down much. The way he’d introduced himself had me guessing he was in some way linked to the state of a horseman, but I doubted taking care of that would knock him out of the fight. Creatures that introduced themselves with fancy titles usually had some power to back up that presumption. That or they died early and bad.
Eyes calm, hands steady, I watched the points of the spear and the horn come for me. The spear would be the dangerous one: it wasn’t like the unicorn could twirl around the horn for a second go once it was past me. I hoped. Letting out a long breath, I adjusted my footing to be able to dash forward without missing a beat just before the Rider got in range. The horn I ducked under, the spear I narrowly avoided – it scraped my left pauldron – and I made to slide under the unicorn to open its belly. The back of the spear hit me right above the nose, knocking me down as I cursed. I rolled to the side, but not quick enough: the unicorn’s hooves came down and caved in my breastplate. Strike one for my plate being anything more than expensive dead weight today, since that could easily have been my ribs. I hated breaking ribs, half the time shards got into my lungs and I ended up coughing blood.
I managed to swing at the spear point before it took my throat, knocking it aside, and rolled before the unicorn could continue dismantling my plate. That thing was being way too bloodthirsty. Sure I hadn’t been a virgin for a few years, but there was no reason for it to take who I brought into my bed so personally.
“Look,” I gasped, managing to get on my feet and hastily backing away from a swing. “He was a fisherman’s son. They swim all the time, do you have any idea how fit they look?”
Murder made horse was not impressed by my protests, if the way it tried to kick me was any indication. The Rider, what little of his face could be seen expressionless, fluidly adjusted his hold and slapped down the spear at my head. Too fast for me, when I was still sidestepping his mount. It dented my helmet, which was a much more acceptable loss than my skull. I took back everything unpleasant I’d said about my armour today. The second strike I parried, but his handhold shifted again and he twisted deftly hitting my sword out of my hand. All right, this was headed nowhere. If I didn’t want to end up an expensively armoured corpse I was going to have to change the beat to this. Before the third strike – this one a lunge – could put me further on the back foot, I managed to get back in front of the unicorn. Predictably, it objected to this state of affairs and with a whinny took a step forward to put its horn through my throat. I was still unarmed, but I did have two free hands.
My gauntleted hands closed around the horn and I sharply pivoted. Lift with your legs, Cat, I reminded myself. Before the Rider could rearrange my presented spine at spear point, I flooded my limbs with power and pulled. For a single glorious moment I lifted the unicorn, swinging it forward like some kind of wildly failing mace until it reached its apex over my head. At which point the horn snapped. This had not, I mused, been one of my better plans. Below getting into a verbal fight with Heiress at the Tower, though still above letting William go at Summerholm. I hastily threw myself out of the way, seeing the Rider gracefully leap off his mount from the corner of my eye. The moment I got back on my feet I aimed my arm at the downed unicorn – which looked like it had broken a leg on the way down, good for me – and snapped my wrist. The backup knife shot like an arrow, sinking right into its eye. Pickler, you queen among goblins. I can’t believe I argued with you about a second knife being overkill.
I stepped back and picked up my sword, adjusting my cloak around my neck.
“Let the record show I’m not above murdering a unicorn if it looks at me funny,” I announced.
The Rider glanced at his dead mount indifferently.
“A worthy effort,” he conceded. “If ultimately futile.”
I paused for a moment, too many scathing replies on the tip of my tongue for me to be able to settle on a single one, but I ended up having to back away when he tried to run me through. I blinked in surprise: he’d been fast, on the unicorn, but this was something else. Quicker than even the deadwood soldiers had been, and they’d been in a league above me. Was that part of the fae package, then? Sorcery and tricks and swiftness. Not great on the staying power, but if they killed you before it became an endurance match that was hardly a problem. The fairies would be useless as tits on a sparrow if they ever tried to make a shield wall, but that wasn’t the way they fought at all. It was like fighting an army of skirmishers, all of them mages, with a backbone of heavy hitters behind them. That was not a good match for the Fifteenth, or even the Legions of Terror in general.
Sword in hand, I circled the Rider silently. Another flicker and the point was skidding off my arm, leaving a long scar on the steel – I tried to catch the shaft with my free hand but it retreated too quickly. All right, so finesse wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Closing the distance should have been my solution, but I was wary of getting that close to a creature so much faster than me, spear or no spear. I was going to have to take a hit, I realized with a grimace. I could walk it off if it didn’t hit anywhere too lethal, and while his weapon was in my guts it couldn’t defend. I missed the days when the initial parts of my battle strategies hadn’t involved getting my stabbed instead of my opponent. Stepping forward, I kept my eye on the spear. That proved to be a mistake. The Rider took a hand off the shaft and a heartbeat late a gust of chilling wind slammed into me.
I dug in my feet, but it wasn’t enough. The wind intensified and I was sent flying upwards, like I’d been smacked by a god’s invisible hand. The world spun around me but I kept just enough awareness of my surroundings to notice the four javelins of dark ice forming in a loose lozenge ahead of me. About where I would be in a few moments, I assessed with strange clarity. And it was a sucker’s bet that whatever made that ice darker would enable it to punch through plate. Well, couldn’t have that. Fortunately, I still had a few tricks I’d learned since Liesse I’d yet to unpack. My Name flared, in the way it did whenever I formed a spear of shadows, but I went for something more… tangible. The darkness pooled together into a circular pane right in my trajectory, and I twisted so that I would hit it feet first. It was not quite as steady to the touch as solid ground, but it would do. I allowed my knees to bend when I hit the pane and effectively threw myself back down in the opposite direction.
The first ice javelin skimmed the edge of my gorget and I winced. I half-turned, still falling, and saw that two other projectiles were going wide. The last one was headed for the middle of my back, though, which was less promising. I formed an orb of shadow in my palm as it neared and shot it straight into the point at the last moment – the javelin exploded into shards when it hit, and I braced myself for my coming reacquaintance with the ground. Optimism, that. Instead I turned back to face the sight of the Rider with translucent wings sprouting off his back, just as his spear punched through the plate covering my belly. I gasped in pain, writhing around the point, and he tore it off without missing a beat. Kicking me away he fluttered back and I landed bleeding on the ground. My knees gave and I ended up in an ungainly crouch.
“Rise,” I croaked.
Nothing happened, and panic welled up.
“Rise,” I repeated.
No, it was working I realized. Just slowly. The wound began to close at a snail’s pace, and I could feel it drawing much deeper from that bundle of power than it should have. Shit. Black had warned me, hadn’t he? Borrowed power always turned on its user.
“Your lack of understanding of your own aspects is a marvel to behold,” the Rider commented.
A flicker and he was in front of me, palm thrust out. I forced myself out of the way of the gust of wind, hissing at the pain of my still-closing wound.
“Thrice gifted is your Name,” he said, idly circling me. “Thrice used can your stolen power be, from dusk ‘til dawn.”
Well, that was useful to know. Would have been even better to know it before I’d gotten myself run through twice, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“Thanks for the tip,” I grunted. “While we’re at it, I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me your nefarious plans?”
I readied myself for another rousing round of Catherine-tries-not-to-die, but the attack never came. The Rider was twitching, mouth twisting in discomfort.
“Since you are about to die anyway,” he said reluctantly, through gritted teeth, “I might as well reveal the depths of your failure.”
Wait, what? That never worked. Not even with Heiress and she lived for this stuff. It certainly didn’t look like he wanted to tell me any of this.
“This struggle is but a distraction,” the Rider said. “You are meant to waste time and die here while the true war is fought in Creation.”
Masego had told me once that Arcadia worked according to different rules than Creation. I’d only been pretending to listen when he’d been talking about how that affected the creational laws governing the flow of time – which was, apparently, a classical element. I really needed to learn what those were at some point – but one part had actually been interesting enough I’d tuned back in. Arcadia was, in a lot of ways, rawer than Creation proper. In Creation stories bound only the Named, but in Arcadia everything was a story. It was why everything was so changeable. I was standing in front of an enemy clearly winning against me, at his mercy, and had just prompted him to gloat and reveal his plans. So he had. Even if he didn’t want to.
“Alas, I am in despair,” I badly lied. “Tears, woe is me. Why would you do something so wicked?”
The Rider cursed in a tongue I could barely process as spoken.
“If Summer is at war, so must be Winter,” he said. “The boundaries have been thinned, the host will be assembled.”
I squinted at him.
“You’re insane,” I said slowly. “You’ll… never get away with this?”
The fae looked at me, then at the dead unicorn. There was a long moment of silence. Then he bolted. Just… legged it, as fast as his little fairy feet could manage. I frowned, then raised an arm. I formed a spear of shadows and shot him in the back. The Rider cursed again, though he managed to avoid most of the damage – all I did was clip his shoulder. That might be more of a problem than I’d thought, though: one of his wings burst into existence, then out. Huh. Was this what being a hero felt like? No wonder they were always so overconfident. I caught up within moments. For all that some intangible tide had turned in my favour, he hadn’t gotten any slower. The spear wove elegantly around my sword, but instead of letting him drive me back I forced my way close. His palm shot off, but I was in no mood for a repeat of the flight adventure. I punched his hand, which while not the most elegant of solutions still broke a few fingers with a hard crack. The Rider turned his wounded shoulder to me, and the wing formed a moment later.
I was blown back like I’d been hit by a blast of pure unformed magic – my occasional spars with Masego had taught exactly what that felt like, in unpleasant detail – but pivoted on myself and used the momentum to take a swing. I hacked into his elbow, tearing through the wood and obsidian scales, before having to raise my arm to block a swing of the shaft. I almost made a comment about how the tides had turned, but bit down on my tongue at the last moment. Gloating was for amateurs, and here in Arcadia might have very final consequences. My gauntlet was half-crumpled but that didn’t hurt any less when I swung again, decking him in the face. He flinched back and my sword came down again. Cleaved straight through the elbow this time, the limb flopping to the ground. The lack of blood was a little off-putting, but I didn’t break my stride.
My leg swept his as I rammed my pommel into his chest, but I realized a moment too late that wouldn’t work on this kind of an opponent. His good wing burst into existence, getting back on his feet, and he slammed the bottom of his spear into my chest. Gods, I was basically wearing scrap metal at this point. Even knowing how that had ended up for the Exiled Prince I was tempted to get an enchanted suit of armour. Might not get my ass killed if I used it only the once. I smacked at his hands with my pommel and he dropped the spear. Within a heartbeat a sword of frost had formed in his hand but an orb of shadows had formed in mine: I rammed it through the spell, dissipating it before it could form properly. I heard a grunt and in a spray of crystal-clear water a forearm emerged form the stump to replace the one I’d cut off. Well, there went attrition tactics. I went for a killing stroke instead, side of my sword smashing into the side of his neck.
There was a spray of scales and he fell: I stepped back to adjust my stance for a deeper blow. Both wings flickered into existence, and before I could hit him agains he shot off into the sky. Well, shit. It figured that if he could grow an arm back he could fix whatever I’d done to the shoulder. I was debating how feasible it would be to make a series of shadow platforms to pursue – not very, it ate through my reserves like you wouldn’t believe – when a rope of green smoke slithered its way through the air until it coiled around his foot. The Rider hacked at it with another ice sword but it just went through, cleaving through his boots and doing nothing to the smoke. Which was pulled a moment later, smashing him into the ground like a falling star. Hakram idly walked up to him, burying his axe into the skull repeatedly and with great enthusiasm. I turned to eye Masego, who dismissed the green smoke rope with an idle gesture.
“Catherine,” he greeted me calmly. “I see you’re still alive.”
“Arguably my best skill,” I replied.
The dark-skinned mage blinked.
“Catherine you died. Not even a year ago,” he said.
I might have insulted myself by accident there, I reflected. I cleared my throat.
“Your guys are taken care of?” I asked.
“Most,” Hakram replied, wiping sweat off his brow as he joined us. “Some fled.”
Kill-stealer, I mouthed at him. He grinned back unrepentantly.
“I meant to take a prisoner for interrogation, but they were not inclined to cooperate,” Apprentice said.
I glanced at the corpse of the Rider. With all three of us we might have managed to capture him, but given how dangerous he’d been that would have been risky. Probably for the best he’d gotten the orc treatment.
“I learned a few things from this one,” I said. “This whole fight was bait. They want us to wander around Arcadia while they mass for an assault on Marchford.”
“I suspected as much,” Masego shrugged. “We’re no longer in the shard.”
“How d’you figure that?” I asked.
“We’re not surrounded by blizzard, for one,” he said. “And I cannot feel the boundaries of the shard anymore. We’re in Arcadia Resplendent, that much is certain.”
I sheathed my sword, trying to hide my surprise. He was right, about the blizzard. It was still windy out but visibility was clear. I hadn’t even noticed. When it had gotten easier to move I’d been paying attention to the fight, and must have unconsciously chalked it up to my Name taking care of the problem.
“He said something else that caught my attention,” I said. “Something about Winter having to be at war when Summer is.”
Hakram looked vaguely pained and I felt with him. The idea of there being a whole other breed of these guys out for our blood wasn’t exactly thrilling. Masego looked pleased, naturally, because he wasn’t going to have to rebuild a city that was broke, demon-corrupted, iced in and on fire. I did not care for the way that list kept getting longer.
“That explains a great deal. The Courts of Arcadia are named after the seasons, but they have nothing to do with those same seasons on Creation,” Apprentice said. “Consider them more like states of mind. When Winter and Summer become the two existing courts, it means Arcadia is at its most contrary.”
“If they’re pissed at each other,” I said, “why is Winter making itself my problem?”
“Symmetry, Catherine,” the bespectacled man enthused. “If Summer is at war with an enemy exterior to Arcadia, Winter must be the same. I would say there is no personal enmity behind this invasion, not that fae can truly be personal about anything. The weaker boundary at Marchford simply made it the obvious target.”
“Stop sounding so cheery about creatures trying to murder us,” I requested, then shifted uneasily.
Back in Laure, the Ruling Council’s session had been delayed to talk about an incident in Dormer: a handful of Summer fairies making a mess down there, though not a large one. The picture that was putting together was not one I liked at all.
“How likely is it that the courts could be targeting the same enemy?” I asked.
“Impossible,” he said.
Oh, good. That made the mess even more complicated but I’d take it.
“Though, of course, from the fae perspective no nation as we know them would be considered the ‘same enemy’,” he added absent-mindedly. “Making the distinction largely academic.”
Don’t punch him, I told myself. You still need him to get out of this place.
“Should have led with that, warlock’s get,” Hakram said, tone amused.
“Oh,” Masego said.
He glanced at me reproachfully.
“It was a very poorly-phrased question,” he said.
“Quit while you’re ahead,” I advised. “All right. Fine. So Winter’s going to keep attacking as long as Summer does, and we have no idea why it’s attacking or even who specifically.”
“If I was trying to keep you busy and had an understanding of the fae mindset,” Hakram said. “I would provoke a war with Summer, knowing Winter would be forced to mirror the action. Likely at Marchford.”
“Heiress,” I said.
That did sound right up her alley. As Governess of Liesse, even if Summer was at war with her city specifically, I’d still be forced to protect her from the consequences of her actions. It was my duty as a member of the Ruling Council, and her city was full of Callowans to boot. Meanwhile I’d have to deal with an assault on my demesne from an entirely different court, eroding the strength of the Fifteenth while simultaneously forcing me to use other means to deal with Summer. It was the kind of overly complicated plot with massive potential for backfiring that was her bread and butter. Hells, she might as well have signed the whole thing. I clenched my fingers and unclenched them.
“Winter’s got a boss fairy, right?” I said to Masego.
“There will be a king or a queen, yes,” he agreed.
“If I punch it until it dies, that feels like a problem solved,” I grunted. “If Winter stops attacking then Summer would have to as well, no?”
The chubby mage frowned.
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Possibly. Regardless, Catherine, if you attempt to fight the ruler of a court you will get killed. Those creatures qualify as a god by most measures.”
“Dying’s never stopped me before,” I said.
“We lack angels to loot for a resurrection, this time,” Hakram said. “Cat, there’s no need to go at this alone. This is bigger than us. The Tower needs to step in.”
If Malicia gets involved I’m tacitly admitting the Ruling Council can’t run Callow without her help, I thought. I bit my lip. I’d need to think on this more.
“First we get out of here,” I finally said. “Masego, you said we’re no longer in the shard. Does that meant we can’t leave the same way we came in?”
“We’ll need a gate to step through or a fairly powerful fae to open a path,” he said.
“Do your thing, then,” I said. “Where’s the closest gate?”
“Explain the fae to me, Apprentice,” he muttered. “Find me a gate, Apprentice. I could be taking apart a pocket dimension right now, you know. They never ask for anything.”
He just beginning to trace runes in the air when Hakram cleared his throat. I looked at him, then the direction he was pointing at. There were snow-covered hills as far as the eye could see, with the occasional thicket of dead trees and a few distant mountains. There was also a path now, paved in ice. It snaked across the hills towards what looked like a glistening city.
“That wasn’t there a moment ago,” I said.
“We weren’t looking for a gate a moment ago,” Apprentice said.
“Gods, I hate this place,” I cursed.
I eyed the road, which began atop the hill just beyond us and looked as pristine as if it had just been built. For all I knew it had been.
“We’re not using that,” I said. “That is an insultingly obvious trap.”
Hakram clapped my shoulder, amused.
“It would be an easier walk than the snow,” Masego said, just shy of complaining.
“You could use the exercise,” Adjutant said, nudging him.
I blinked. If Hakram was next to him, then who had – I went for my sword, and someone laughed.
“You lot are terrible at not getting killed,” Archer told me cheerfully, hand still on my shoulder.