Dead of Winter Page 2

—Soon.—

Shit! You told me Vincent camped within days of Death’s castle. I’ve ridden for DAYS.

—Arcana all around.—

I heard their calls, as if from a sound-out. . . .

—Eyes to the skies, lads!— Joules.

—Trapped in the palm of my hand.— Tess.

—I watch you like a hawk.— Gabriel.

—Behold the Bringer of Doubt!— Selena.

—Don’t look at this hand, look at that one.— Finn.

—Crazy like a fox.— Matthew.

—We will love you. In our own way.— The Lovers.

So many Arcana were close. Which meant I was close.

—Terror from the abyss!— Huh?

Before I could ask about the new call, my sense of being watched returned. I jerked my head around.

—Empress, you’re one stone forest and one clearing away. Some . . . obstacles between us.—

Movement. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man skulking from one stack of rocks to the next.

Another man loped to join the first. The armed pair wore fatigues and creepy night-vision goggles. Soldiers of the Lovers’ army?

The stones were for cover, staged as if for a paint-ball course! How long had those men been lying here in wait?

Matthew, I’m in trouble! I slapped the reins against the mare. She whinnied a protest, but increased her speed. Chest heaving, she wound around the stacks.

I craned my head back. Two soldiers had become ten, all with rifles at the ready. Now they walked in plain view. Because I was already surrounded?

As the ground began to flatten, those stacks grew fewer. I raised my hand above my eyes, straining to see. Ahead—the clearing Matthew had spoken of!

My face fell. With no vegetation, it was a quagmire, water and muck pooling in huge craters.

Past that, a wall towered, must be thirty feet high. What lay behind it?

A shot rang out; a bullet whizzed by my head. My mount fled from the sound. “Go, GO!”

In my panic, my nails morphed into thorn claws. The razor-sharp edges sliced through the fingers of my gloves. My glyphs stirred, moving over my skin.

A second gunshot. The near-miss bullet pitted the mud beside the horse’s hooves. She shrieked, trotting faster.

The shooters missed on purpose. They would want me—and the horse—alive.

Women and horses were two valuable A.F. commodities.

Desperate for safety, I squinted at the wall. Men guarded a brightly lit gate.

—Head there, Empress.—

My mare would have to slog through the clearing. It was like a moat fronting that wall. The soldiers would catch me long before then.

A bright color drew my attention. Attached to a post was a handcrafted sign emblazoned with a red skull and crossbones—along with the warning: DANGER! MINES!

And that explained the craters.

Are you kidding, Matthew? Soldiers trailing me; mines ahead. How do I get past a minefield?

An agonized yell sounded behind me.

I dared a glance back. Only nine soldiers followed. They ran toward me at a faster clip. The ones at the edges aimed their guns—off to their sides.

Another horrified yell.

And another.

Open gunfire erupted. Muzzle flashes warred with fog; I couldn’t make out anything.

I turned forward. Screamed.

Three soldiers stood before me, rifles trained on my face. The mare reared, punching hooves at them.

The other gunmen had been pushing me toward these!

Yet behind them, a black beast melded with shadow. One brilliant golden eye gleamed like a lantern.

Cyclops! Had Lark sent her one-eyed wolf to protect me?

Baring dagger-size fangs, the massive beast gave a spine-chilling snarl. The men twisted around—

Cyclops launched himself at the panic-stricken soldiers, knocking them to the ground. His mighty jaws clamped down on limbs and rifles, snapping through bone and metal.

Body parts sailed into the air. Blood spurted like a mall fountain. I winced, though I should be used to seeing stuff like this.

The wolf lifted his head from the carnage and growled at the stupefied soldiers positioned behind me. Those bastards had driven me into a trap; Cyclops ate the trap.

Faced with the beast’s dripping maw, they fled headlong.

For me, Cyclops wagged his scarred tail. “Good damn wolf. Good boy.”

Matthew said: —Ride for the fort! You have to make it to the wall.—What’s behind the wall? For all I knew, Matthew was sending me into the Milovnícis’ camp.

—RIDE!—

Into mines? We’re going to get blown away! Forget my self-healing powers; I couldn’t regenerate from decapitation.

—Go left.—

Directing me around the danger?

I turned to Cyclops. “I don’t know if you can understand me, or if Lark is steering her familiar. But follow my mount carefully unless you want to regrow limbs.” He was still limping from our battle with the Devil Card.

He chuffed, and bubbles of blood formed over his snout. With a swish of his tail, he defiantly snapped up a dismembered arm, carrying it like a chew toy. But he did move behind me.

I’m trusting you, Matthew. I swallowed and guided my horse left.

—MY left!—

Quick correction. Cyclops followed.

—Faster, Empress. Or the Azey will figure out our mine moat maze.—Your what? Who are the Azey?

—A.S.E. Army of the Southeast. Go right for three seconds. Then left.—

Holding my breath, I slapped the reins yet again. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three. I tugged the reins to my right.

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