Dead of Winter
1 DAY 372 A.F.? (MAYBE 373?) SOMEWHERE IN SLAVER TERRITORY
Inhale exhale inhale exhale
As I raced over the countryside on horseback, I kept hearing deep, ragged breaths.
Rain fell from the black sky, drops pelting my face. Winds whipped my horse’s mane and made my poncho hood flap.
But I still heard breaths.
The tiny hairs on my nape rose. My mare snorted, her ears pricked forward. I didn’t have Lark’s animal keenness or the senses of a huntress like Selena, but I could feel someone—or something—watching me.
I rode harder, pushing myself, pushing my staggering horse, forcing her to navigate the rocky terrain faster than was safe.
I hadn’t slept since fleeing Death’s lair days ago—if you could call them “days” in this never-ending darkness. Sheer will kept me in the saddle. Delirium was taking hold.
Maybe nothing stalked me, and my own breaths sounded foreign to my ears. If I could just rest for a few minutes . . .
Focus, Evie! So much was on the line. Jack’s life was.
I was determined to save him from the Lovers, Vincent and Violet Milovníci.
Sadistic Vincent had captured him; Violet journeyed to meet up with her brother. Once they reunited, those twin serial killers would torture Jack with their contraptions.
I raced to beat Violet, taking untold risks. Even now, I couldn’t believe what I’d done to escape Aric.
Every other minute, a raindrop would hit one of my eyes directly, the sting blurring my vision. I would blink to clear my eyes, and details of my last encounter with Death would blossom in my mind. . . .
The feel of his sword-roughened palms as he’d seized my waist and laid me in his bed. His rasped words: “If you surrender to me, you will be mine alone. My wife in truth. I will do anything to have that.” Even coercing me, promising to save Jack—for a price.
His scent—sandalwood, pine, masculine—had weakened my will like a drug, quelling the heat of battle inside me. Still I’d managed to say: “This won’t work out as you plan.”
His head had inched closer, his amber eyes intent, just before his lips had covered mine. His kiss had a way of muddling my thoughts, making me forget all the things I needed to remember.
“There. That’s better,” he’d murmured as he’d removed my clothes. “Just let me see you . . . touch you.” With his supernatural strength, he must have taken pains not to rip the lace of my panties.
When I lay naked before him, his amber eyes had glittered like stars. Pinpoints of light had mesmerized me. “So lovely, sieva. My gods, you humble me.” He’d given me one of his rare unguarded smiles. “This is joy I feel, is it not?” I’d wanted to sob.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
I shook my head hard. I needed to pay attention. I couldn’t afford to get lost in memories. To get lost at all.
When I’d readied a bug-out bag and my gear in a panic, Matthew had telepathically directed me: —Follow the rushing water upstream
into slaver territory. Find the soot valley, then travel its length. If you reach the mass gravesite, you’ve gone too far. Ascend the next mountain to the stone forest.—
Yet since then, he hadn’t answered any of my calls.
I reached the end of a soot-filled valley and started the climb. Rain began to pour.
Minutes? hours? days? passed. Despite the threat I’d sensed, I could barely stay awake. My head kept dipping. Maybe I could close my eyes—just for a second. I dropped forward, resting my cheek against the horse’s mane, an arm on either side of her neck.
My lids slid shut.
When I opened them, I was at Haven.
The mare was gone. No rain, no winds. The sky was star-strewn black. All around me, that eerie A.F. silence.
Matthew, am I in one of your visions? Every detail felt so real. Bitter ash tinged my tongue. The scent of scorched oaks and sugarcane stung my nose. In the distance, Haven House was a blackened ruin. My mother’s funeral pyre.
I’d burned her body and our home.
Jack had secretly helped her die. I understood why. I didn’t accept how. I couldn’t reconcile after.
How many lies he’d told.
Grief ripped through me, for my mother, for our life before the Flash. My new existence was so brutal and visceral, I wondered if my pre-apocalypse memories were actually a soft and hazy dream.
What was real? Unreal?
Though Matthew had looked away when my mom had died, he could still access scenes from the past. Was he giving me the memory of her death?
A breeze feathered over the ash on the ground, the sound beautiful—like sighing. I heard my mother’s faint voice telling Jack, “Use the pillow. . . .”
No, Matthew! I’m not ready to see this! Not ready—
A wolf’s howl pierced the night.
I jolted awake in the saddle. The rain had dwindled to a foggy drizzle. How long had I been out?
I rubbed my gritty eyes. Almost screamed. I was surrounded by shadowy figures.
Wait, not figures. All around me were towering stacks of rocks, placed like logs for a bonfire. There were so many stacks the area resembled a forest. The stone forest.
Who would waste calories to assemble these? And why did I find them so chilling?
Matthew, are you there?
At last, I felt his presence in my mind! —Empress!—
Has Violet joined her brother yet?
—The Violet is not there.—
Oh, thank God.
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.
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.
Into mines? We’re going to get blown away! Forget my self-healing powers; I couldn’t regenerate from decapitation.
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.
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.
Soon I was galloping through a minefield, a telepathic Arcana in my mind and a giant wolf at my heels.
I could hear those same wet breaths. The wolf had been following me! If I lived through this night, I was so going to owe Lark.
The gate creaked open ahead. I spurred the mare, racing to reach the fort.
With no idea what awaited me . . .