“You might say that they’ll never see me coming.”
-Dread Empress Malevolent II, announcing the raising of her invisible army
“Your Majesty?” the Deoraithe mage stuttered out.
I leaned down and gently touched his forehead with an armoured finger.
“Don’t resist,” I said. “It’ll be uncomfortable, but not painful.”
Unless he tried to fight me, but in this case the fear that trailed me as much as my cape saw to the matter. The man went rigid as a board. I breathed out mist and Winter crept through my veins. His soul wriggled under the tight grip of my will, as I rifled through vague memories. He had, I thought, a well-organized mind. Shame about the panic tinging it. I found what I needed anyway, the locations of the officer tent’s he’d found as he’d been told.
“You were thorough,” I said, withdrawing my finger. “Well done.”
The fifty riders of the Hunt were too many for so small a tent, and one of the fae casually blew it away with a flick of the wrist before it could tangle the banners. Midnight was no bar to my sight, and what I saw around us was the Watch responding to our sudden arrival with flawless professionalism. Ah, the things I could do with an army’s worth of these. It was almost tempting to hollow out Kegan’s soul, tie puppet strings to the remnants and take them all for my own. I bit my lip until it bled, the flare of pain helping me focus. I reached for my saddlebag, taking out the seal of House Iarsmai I’d asked Kegan to send me months ago. I tossed it into the mage’s hands.
“Validate this,” I ordered.
The man shivered, though I was unsure why. I’d been very polite so far. Murmuring in the mage tongue he traced the tall dead oak on the seal with his fingers, gasping when it glimmered green.
“It’s real,” he said.
Unsheathing my sword, I flicked the blade behind me after gauging the surroundings. Creation folded unto itself, the fairy gate opening thirty feet wide and just as tall. I tied off the threads, giving it a finite lifespan. One of the newer Winter tricks in my arsenal.
“By the authority granted to me by Duchess Kegan Iarsmai, I order the Watch to immediately withdraw,” I called out. “And quick about it, I don’t have the time to hold your hand. You have half an hour before the gate closes.”
Zombie was chomping at the bit, which admittedly was better than chomping at grass I’d probably need to have a goblin dig out of her later. I took a moment to calm myself, then dug into the memories I’d glimpsed. Reorienting myself was the hardest part of figuring it all out, since none of the unconscious markers the mage had used were markers I was familiar with. Masego and I had figured out a way around that through the Observatory with the card I’d been keeping up my – heavily armoured – sleeve, but I was without the benefit of Hierophant tonight. My mind struggled with the discrepancies, until I let through another sliver of Winter and there was a sensation like a spike through my forehead. No pain, though, only terrifyingly clear understanding.
“Riders of the Hunt,” I called out.
All fifty of them turned to me as one with unnatural smoothness.
“Follow,” I laughed. “Tonight we ride.”
“Finally,” Larat hissed, blade in hand. “Sound the horns. Let them hear us coming.”
Banners were raised, not of silk or cloth but crow’s feathers and shadow. Shining coldly like a raven’s eye. A fae with hair like spun gold touched the horn to her lips, and doom screamed across the night. I spurred on Zombie, and felt her devour the distance easily as I guided us by memories not my own. The Watch parted for us, already preparing to retreat, and we fell unto the unprepared camp of the crusaders like hungry wolves. Men shouted out in Chantant, known to me regardless of sight. The heat of them could be felt on the tip of my tongue, the fear that set their hearts aflutter thundering in my ears. It pleased me. It was slaughter, wherever we rode. Men half-dressed and half-awake were torn apart by sword and spear and darker things: hounds of air and darkness, called forth by the horns. I wielded the monster like a knife as my thoughts cooled. The Alamans army closest to us had kept the tents of their officers together and I made them pay for that mistake. Before the hounds even reached them the soldiers I raised my hand and choked them with rings of ice and shade, a dozen dead in a heartbeat. Smiling, I leaned forward.
“Up,” I ordered. “Kill.”
Corpses with broken necks and ugly marks around their throats rose up as the Hunt passed through. Screams followed in our wake. We would begin, I decided, with the outer ring. Princess Malanza’s own host was closer to the centre, but I would let her people feel it coming. Know what was prowling the night for them. We carved our way out of the Alamans army camp, scything through the company of fantassins that tried to form up in our way. Men and women were trampled by horses, terror blooming again in the wake of death as the corpses rose and chaos spread.
“You will go no further,” a man’s voice announced calmly.
I cocked my head to the side. No fear in this one. And such power. Young but scarred, his voice had echoed of faraway Levant. A large man with a war hammer hoisted over his shoulder, burdened with heavy plate. I neither slowed nor ceased, Zombie galloping straight at him. The hero hefted his war hammer and struck with impossible swiftness, aiming to shatter the legs of my mount. With a cold laugh I guided my horse and her wings unfolded, leaping tall above the man as the Hunt streamed around him seamlessly. We rode even as the man screamed of our cowardice, ever onwards. I had not come here to be waylaid by petty sidekicks. The camps had come alive and our prey was moving. It became slower work, picking off officers who’d joined their companies. Frustratingly slow. The riders slaked their blood on those that could be found instead. No surrender was offered and no mercy granted.
Then the sky came down on our heads.
Instinct allowed me to guide Zombie away from the worst of it, but wet earth sprayed over us as a massive gouge split the ground open. Even as it began to rain mud, a woman walked out of the mess. Old, I thought. Neither tall nor short, and she wore no armour aside from a cuirass over long cloth robes. In her hand was a simple sword of oiled steel, and she was rolling her wrists to limber them.
“Saint of Swords,” I said, voice echoing with the howl of blizzards.
“Black Queen,” the old woman said, light tapping the flat of the blade against her shoulder. “Nice of you to visit.”
My will spread, weaving glamour across the sky according to borrowed memories.
“Go,” I told the Hunt. “Fulfil my purpose.”
“Stay,” the Saint grinned. “Die screaming.”
She swung again, and this time I grasped what was being wielded. Not an aspect or a spell. Nothing like the Lone Swordsman’s power or the Gallant Brigand’s. No, I’d only seen this once before: when Ranger had considered killing me seriously enough I’d felt myself die. When the Saint of Swords attacked, she did so with the sharpened intent to kill us. She had hardened her willpower so much that Creation counted no difference between her will and truth, the air howling as it cut itself apart. I drew deep and laughed, ice crashing against the blow with a gargantuan cracking sound. Shards sprayed everywhere as the Hunt obeyed, hounds and riders streaming out in every direction but that of the coming fight. I leapt off Zombie and set her aflight. Her wings made her too valuable to risk here.
“Winter, is it?” the Saint of Swords mused, strolling forward. “Never had that before. Try to make it entertaining.”
“You will make,” I said, “very useful artefacts.”
A quiet voice in the back of my mind howled, screaming that revealing any unknown capacity to the enemy was sheer stupidity. I could not seem to care. It had felt… right to chastise her that way. We closed the distance as one, swords bared. I feinted to the side but she slapped it away contemptuously, a half-step bringing her into my guard and without missing a beat she cut my throat. Red gushed out, but it was more Winter than blood – an exertion of will was all it took to heal the wound. I spat out the blood in my mouth, making distance between us.
“Regenerators,” the Saint sighed. “You never bother to learn how to fight properly, with a crutch like that. Sloppy.”
The nonchalance tasted fouler in my mouth than the blood, called for utter destruction in answer, but I breathed out and smoothed the edges growing ragged. I attacked again, low and quick. Parry, but when she closed in again I was ready: a spear of shadow formed out of my free hand and tore towards her. Snorting, the heroine raked her bare fingers down and tore through the darkness like wet parchment. In the heartbeat where I hesitated, she struck quick as a viper – aiming to cut off my head in full, this time. I ducked under by the barest of margins but she kicked me in the face, and as I rocked back she struck again. My parry was effortlessly turned, blade twisting around to carve through my wrist like it was butter. I pivoted, caught the hand still holding the blade with my other pne and forced it back on even as I avoided a thrust that would have gone through my eye if I’d been a moment slower. Winter flared and the pieces reattached, my fingers twitching as the power skittered through them.
“I can see it,” the Saint mused. “Take the crippling to avoid the killing. There’s a hint of Ranger in there, however diluted. A bastard’s bastard.”
I rolled my shoulders as she watched me indifferently.
“Again,” I said.
“Change of plans,” the old woman smiled.
The spell struck me from the side like than fist of an angry god. I felt my flesh melt off, my blood boil – until I opened the floodgates, and shot out of the fire storm as my face peeled off flake by flake. That had stung.
“Reinforcements, my dear lady,” a man’s voice drawled. “Though you seem to need them not.”
My eyes flicked to the side. Three of them. Short man with a leather coat and a casting rod must have been responsible for the flame. An olive-skinned woman with two knives and a red-painted face started walking towards me, while the last was unarmed. Priest, I decided, looking at his ornate robes. Attrition was no longer feasible if they had a healer. On the other hand, now it was four on one. My odds had just gotten a lot better.
“Well,” I grinned, my teeth grown sharp. “Now it’s a party. Have at it, heroes.”
“How uncouth,” the man in leather said, wrinkling his nose.
When the fire came again, erupting in a cone from the rod, I flicked away. Two Knives closed in from the side as the Saint was forced to go around the spell. Eyes following the arms, I let the knife-wielder commit to a cut from the left before half-stepping out of the way, hand snaking up to catch the extended wrist and snapping it. There was a scream, but I slapped her open mouth and filled with ice. She began choking until Light bloomed and melted it. It even streaked down to unsnap the wrist. No matter, I was already past her.
“Damnation,” the spellcaster cursed, seeing me close the distance in the blink of an eye.
A sphere of what looked like liquid flame formed around him, but what was fire to me? I gathered power and struck at it, ripping off a chunk of the protective sphere to get at the terrified man beneath. Instinct warned me and I listened. Leaping above the flames, I narrowly avoided being run through by the Saint – though, twisting halfway up the arcing jump, I shaped a spike of rime and sent it howling after Two Knives. The heroine flickered, as if she’d been an illusion all this time, and what should have torn through her abdomen instead put a hole in the ground twenty feet behind her. Displacement? Useful trick. Too useful to be anything but an aspect. I landed in a crouch.
“Keep away from her, kids,” the Saint ordered. “She’s a few years ahead of what you can handle.”
My eyes flicked to the sky. Of the five glamoured markers I had placed, three were left. I’d have to play with these a little longer, lest they pursue the Hunt. I grimaced. I’d drawn on Winter enough already that anything more was going to starkly affect my judgement instead of just reinforce bad instincts. Until the markers are gone, I told myself. Then retreat. I drew deep, and this time when the Saint struck at me I drowned the world in ice. Massive spinning blades tore through the air and ground, though I felt them shatter within a heartbeat. The hound had teeth. No matter. The creature with Two Knives had retreated to protect the thing that wielded Light, but the spellcaster was vulnerable. I wove around balls of flame effortlessly, parted a burning wall with a flick of my sword and found the human behind it staring back defiantly. It had gathered sorcery before it, a hundred hanging needles that burned the very air around them.
“Dodge that,” the human hissed, and they flew.
Laughing, I formed a gate that swallowed them into Arcadia and closed it just as swiftly. The human was casting again, and I could feel death coming. Light, from the side, and something more dangerous from the hound. I shaped glamour with but a thought, mine own silhouette striving for the spellacasrer as I leapt up shrouded in nothingness. The illusion was broken by a beam of Light, but the hound had caught the scent: even as I landed atop a ring of shade, she cut a wound into the air and ran atop it towards me. I broke the ring and fell as the other humans finally saw through the glamour, slow things that they were. Abandoning the spellcaster, I made for the Light-bearer and its protector. The knife-wielding thing shouted out a word in some foreign tongue that tasted of spice and blood, charging me with blinding speed. Ah, the arrogance of mortals. Gracefully, I stepped around the blow and simply left my sword in her way. It carved through her shoulder, blood spraying as the arm fell to the ground. I took a modified sharper from the satchel and shoved it into the stump, triggering the mechanism inside with a shard of ice. The detonation broke bone and tossed her away even as the Light-wielder shot another brilliant beam at me. My free hand caught it, fingers beginning to melt away, and I forced it to careen aside.
It had slowed me. The gout of flame I avoided with a mere half-step even as my fingers grew back, but the Saint struck harder. Holding the wound she had carved in the sky like a massive blade, she scythed through the side of me. I was quick enough it went through my shoulder instead of my head. In a heartbeat, arm and leg and flank were pulped. Winter hissed in fury, and they began to coalesce anew in ice.
“Not regeneration,” the Saint frowned. “Creationally fixed body. Just pour power until it remakes itself. You’ve turned yourself into proper abomination, girl. If there’s still any of you left in there.”
“Irritating,” I noted, voice echoing with the death of embers.
“Beat it, kids,” the hound ordered. “This one’s going to take a lot of killing before she goes down.”
Already the Light-wielder was fixing the creature I had mangled. The hound was an irritant, she must be dealt with before the rest was tended to. I seized threads of glamour and sent them into her mind, but they… broke. That was no soul. It was a sword, and somehow more.
“You hold dominion,” I said.
“Only over the one thing,” the Saint grinned. “But that’s usually enough.”
My eyes flicked to the sky. Another glamoured marker had vanished. Only one left now. And when it did, I would… I frowned. It was hard to remember. The hound took advantage of my distraction, striking anew. I let instinct guide me and steel rang against steel. She batted aside my guard but the spike of frost I shot at her throat forced her to turn her follow-through blow into a parry as I returned on the offensive. Cut high, swept away, but I turned with it and lunged at her back. She caught the tip between two fingers and twisted, the steel shattering. Frost filled the break as I withdrew, tasting her movements in the air. The footing gave her away. Or so I had thought: what should have been a strike at my arm was a slide forward instead, and when I tried a head-butt she met me with her own. We hit halfway through, neither hurt until she raked her fingers across my chest plate and cut through still boiling-hot steel. I let Winter loose, screaming cold winds blowing the both of us back. Some part of me insisted I look at the sky. The rest wanted to carve open that insolent hound and add her entrails to my cape. One was more pleasing than the other.
“Let us test it, then,” I smiled. “The mettle of our domains.”
Darkness fell, and came cold with it. The world fell away. Yet under an ink-black sky stood the Saint of Swords, radiant and unruffled. Unimpressed. I inhaled the scent of it, puzzled.
“Your dominion,” I said. “It is not projected. Only within.”
“Took me a decade of hard killing to get that down,” the hound replied. “But there’s always a fight to be found in Procer, if you know where to look.”
My frown deepened and the cold focused on her, but all it did was cool the blade. It had been forged of great fires, I thought. What coldness I had to offer was insufficient.
“Gods, I’m going to feel this one in the joints,” the Saint grunted.
She had no sword in hand, when she took her stance. I grit my teeth and poured all of my domain into her, but slowed was not stopped. She swung, and the light was blinding. Something… not broke, but it was wounded. Damaged. As I screamed the night fled, and I found myself kneeling over grounds rent asunder by our fight. Returned to Creation. The heroine was panting. Shit, I thought. What the fuck was that? I was feeling like myself again, but I was also feeling my heart beat. Like it actually mattered, like I was human again. The last marker was gone, I saw. And I sure as Hells wasn’t sticking around to take another of whatever in that’d been. Seizing reins gone frail, I called back the Hunt. Fewer than anticipated answered my call, but I realized with ugly surprise it was not rebellion I was dealing with. The heroes must have killed some of them. At least ten were gone, maybe more.
I legged it. No two ways about it, I made like a proper villain and fled the field. The heroine tried to follow and almost caught me around the corner behind a tent, scything straight through with another of those not-blows, but Zombie answered my call and landed just behind. We took flight even as the old woman cursed and carved another wound into the air, immediately running on it after me. Yeah, fuck that. I wasn’t picking a second fight with a Named who could shrug off my full domain. I opened the gate in the sky even higher, seeing the Hunt take flight behind me, and went straight through into Arcadia. I didn’t even stop there, flying Zombie far from the entrance. The Saint, thank the Gods, did not follow. I learned why when another four of the Hunt disappeared from the back of my mind.
I could not help but be thankful she’d chosen to whittle away at my trump card instead of trying to go after me. It might have been possible to trap her in here, but that smelled of the Saint cutting her way back out at the worst possible moment down the line. The Hunt gathered to me, having lost a few feathers, but Headsman had been a success. Not without losses, but I wasn’t entirely opposed to the Hunt being thinned out before they inevitably stabbed me in the back. Larat was the first to address me after I landed, drenched in blood from head to toe. Someone was in a good mood.
“A victory, my queen,” he said.
I looked up at the Arcadian sky and smiled. Sure, it’d been that. But more importantly, it had been a very good distraction. After all, the very moment I’d opened the gate for the Watch someone had come through. And while we were busy being loud and visible?
Thief had been on the prowl.
“All right, saddle up,” I called out. “We need to find the Watch contingent before retreating.”
We needed to hurry. The sooner we got back to camp, the sooner I could ask Hierophant why my skin was capable of bruising again.