As I’d expected, the Hunt made a beeline for my location, not turning aside at the decoys. Not terribly surprising; they had a very impressive reputation for being, in addition to relentless, extremely hard to fool. No, this wasn’t going to be as easy as dodging a normal hunt, or even a pack of werewolves.
I raced through the trees to a piece of open ground in the middle of the valley, on an old and long-since overgrown logging road, and watched. Behind me the trees closed in, but between me and the Hunt was a long clear stretch, and I could easily watch them coming.
Well, insomuch as I could see them coming, anyway. Each and every rider and hound was shrouded in what looked like dark, grim storm clouds, complete with flickering lightning, making it impossible to pick out individual figures, let alone identify them. That was a problem. I didn’t think I could pull this off if I couldn’t see what I was dealing with.
Under other circumstances, I probably would have agonized and wondered whether it was really worth the price of what I did next. With the impulsiveness of the wolf in control, there was no hesitation. In the same moment that I recognized what I was looking at, I called the Second Sight.
I’d never used the Sight much. Nobody in their right mind does. Just now, I was hoping that it would show me the reality of what I was looking at. That sort of thing was, certainly, a reasonable expectation of the Second Sight. It was a powerful tool—and, like most such tools, at least in the magical world, it was a highly dangerous one.
It showed the truth of what you were looking at—but it also showed The Truth, and there was a limit to how much of that a man could stand to see. Look at the wrong thing too closely, and there won’t be much of your mind left afterward. Even worse, you can’t necessarily guess ahead of time whether something is safe to see ahead of time, making any use of the Second Sight an ongoing process of Russian roulette.
I was pretty damn sure the Wild Hunt wasn’t something a sane person turned the Sight upon. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
It took only a moment. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again the world had changed.
It’s called—among many other names—the Second Sight. But it isn’t sight, not really. It is usually conceived of as a sort of synesthesia, because that’s the only way a mortal brain has to interpret sensations that are so utterly foreign to its nature. But odors played a strong role, for me—no surprise there, given how important they were to my thinking anyway. This was even stronger in my current body, for obvious reasons. It can also manifest as taste, touch, music—anything you can imagine, really, which is to be expected given that it’s really your imagination that determines how you experience it.
There was once a philosopher called Rochefoucald. He lived in seventeenth-century France, as I recall. I’ve often found his writings, although somewhat bleak, to be fairly perceptive. One of my favorites was the claim that “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.”
That, right there, is the height of philosophical greatness. It’s clever, quotable, slightly obscure of meaning, and—best of all—short. I’d never had much reason to argue with that claim, either. It’s true that there are some things the humanish mind is not made to see, or even think about too much.
Tonight I got to add another entry to the list.
I couldn’t look at the Wild Hunt, not really. It was quite simply too much to take in. I could no more understand what the Wild Hunt was than I could define the difference between the way violence smells and the sound of violet to a lizard. For one heartbeat I saw, and Saw, entirely too much for comfort, before I jerked my head away, the image burned into my brain only too clearly.
I was too far away from the hunters to see them clearly. But the Second Sight has little respect for such concerns, and I could pick out each and every figure as easily as if they were a mere twenty feet away. I could still see the storm in which they rode—which, I realized abruptly, was a sort of entity in and of itself, although even considering that was almost enough to make me start shivering again—but I could see through it, as well, to the figures underneath.
There were, I thought, perhaps thirty humanoid figures on horseback, accompanied by a like number of hunting hounds. Or, at least, that was the illusion the shroud was maintaining; looking more closely showed another truth. Some of them were, indeed, the huge faerie hounds I’d fought once before, with fur of black and white and glowing eyes. Others, though, appeared to be normal dogs wreathed in storm, greyhounds and huskies running beside mongrels and mutts.
I saw a couple of werewolves, too, wearing fur and running beside the horses. The size and build were quite distinctive, and anyway when I looked at them I could smell werewolf on the wind. I winced slightly, even as my lip curled up in an instinctive snarl, and hoped there were none of them I knew.
The mounted figures were harder to identify. They all seemed to be wearing helmets, and there was too much to smell for me to sort anything out that way. They were all armed, though; bows and spears seemed to be the order of the day, although I saw plenty of long cavalry swords as well, and a handful carried maces or even axes. That, really, was all I needed to know.
I let the Sight fade, with a whimper of gratitude. I so did not want to see the Wild Hunt any closer up. Even a glimpse was almost more than I could take. As I did, one of the hounds (it was impossible to tell what variety, though I thought not werewolf) bayed, and was answered by another horn.
I howled back my answer, and did a very stupid thing. I charged straight at them.
I should clarify, I suppose, that this was very much a part of my plan. Fleeing was a waste of time, in any case. It would only prolong things, and not very much—it was hard to tell just how fast they were moving, but it was definitely faster than I could run, and I got the distinct impression that they were loafing around even so.
And besides. To flee was to mark myself as prey. That wasn’t good.
I don’t think the Wild Hunt has people charge them very often. In any case, they didn’t seem to expect it. They kept running pell-mell along the logging road, the baying of hounds an almost continual sound now. For myself, I was as nearly silent as I could be. This wasn’t too hard, because my mind was too dazed to really process vocal instructions anyway—damaged, I suppose, by exposure to the Hunt. In any case, the Second Sight seemed to be fading in and out every few moments, resulting in an incredibly disorienting, nerve-jangling experience. I could feel that every animal in the whole damned valley—every single one, from the ants on up—was running in either panic or glee. I could see the trees themselves swaying in the moonlight with the force of the pure, primal magic spinning through their boughs. The Wild Hunt’s horns sounded with thunder and the howling of wolves, rather than any more appropriate sound, and seemed to send a spike of adrenaline through my blood.
More unsettlingly, my own body seemed to morph slightly as I moved, fur fading through every shade from black to white and back again, claws glittering with ice, snow drifting in the air around me, visible only in my peripheral vision. I could feel a low, dull ache in my left thigh, though I knew for a fact I hadn’t been injured, and when I took a moment to glance at it I saw a deep, ugly puncture wound there, as though I’d been stabbed with a sword. Blood ran freely from it, and at a glance I would have said it had been inflicted only moments before.
And then I blinked, and the Sight faded, and my body was whole. I shook my head, dismissed the vision from my mind, and kept going.
In spite of all that, I got to within thirty feet of them without being spotted, and received the next of a great many unpleasant shocks.
It wasn’t Carraig at the head of the pack.
The leader was astride quite possible the largest and scariest-looking horse I had ever seen—imagine a horse the size of a Clydesdale but built like a courser, coal-black in color with eyes that burned like, well, live coals. He was well suited to it, too, being around seven feet tall and fully armored. A lesser beast couldn’t have stood up under his weight, let alone galloped. He was carrying an enormous sword, near as tall as he was, in his right hand, and holding the reins in his left.
I didn’t have time to freeze. They were moving at a breakneck pace, and that thirty feet disappeared fast.
I leapt out in front of them, snarling and growling for all I was worth. Like normal horses, the Hunt’s mounts reacted rather strongly to the sudden appearance of what was, for all practical purposes, an enormous snarling wolf right in front of them. Unlike normal horses, that reaction wasn’t fear or startlement, but eagerness and redoubled speed.
The good news is that I was expecting that.
I wasn’t as strong as the Wild Hunt. In all probability I wasn’t even close to as strong as one of those eldritch riders. But, end of the day, they were still predators, and there isn’t a predator in the world that anticipates the quarry voluntarily seeking them out for a confrontation. Which meant that, for a bare instant, I had the advantage of surprise. And I pressed it for all it was worth.
I slammed power through my foci as hard as I could, throwing out wind and forcing shadow into tangibility. And I focused all of it, everything I could, into a single purpose.
Namely, tripping the leading horse.
He hadn’t thought to ward against that, apparently. The horse looked, for a moment, as though it would simply push through my barrier with raw muscle—but I shoved more magic into the working, and it stumbled, then tripped.
Inertia is a powerful force. Horse and rider—counting in armor and such, it had to come to at least a half-ton between them—hit the ground and kept right on going, their own momentum propelling them forward. Behind them I saw at least one other horse trip and fall, while others pulled up short. This close, I could see that the mask of the Wild Hunt made their eyes look like hollow voids filled with lightning—but they were still quite capable of showing hate.
I bolted, laughing as I went, uphill into the forest. One hound—a true Cu Sith, rather than a mortal dog or werewolf—was quick-thinking enough to get in my way. I lashed out with one paw, slashing at its face, and kept going, not taking the time to see whether it were seriously injured or not. Its howls behind me sounded more furious than pained, in any case.
The chaos was just dying down as I made it into the forest. I could feel a new tension to the air, raising the hair on the back of my neck and making my heart pound even faster. Before, this had just been a hunt—but now the Wild Hunt really wanted to watch me bleed.
That was all to the good. This whole exercise was to get them to respect me, after all. Running wouldn’t do it—but now that I’d bloodied them, they had to take me seriously.
In among the trees, I would have the advantage. The trees were pretty tight together—enough so that I was navigating as much by smell and magic as sight, even with the full moon—which would prevent them from moving en masse the way they appeared to prefer. The confined spaces would prevent the horses from building up to their full speed, and I would be able to use my greater maneuverability to maximum advantage.
While I ran, I was thinking furiously. It wasn’t Carraig leading the Wild Hunt against me. In fact, it seemed like a pretty inescapable conclusion that it was Pier, his opposite number. (I reflected bitterly that the next time Fenris told me something about a Maiden’s champion, I’d bloody well make sure which one he was talking about.) That, in turn, implied some very strange things I hadn’t realized about the events of the previous several days.
That, of course, didn’t matter in the slightest. If I made it through the night alive, then maybe—just maybe—I would be able to do something about that.
Until then, all that mattered was figuring out how this changed my strategy. This wasn’t too hard, because as far as I could tell, it didn’t. In fact, Pier might be better for me than Carraig; it was distinctly nighttime, which meant that the Daylight champion would be weakened, after all. On top of that, he was less cunning, less unpredictable. Stronger, maybe—but then either one was so much stronger than me that that was a moot point.
Somewhere behind me, I heard the breaking of branches, announcing the entrance of the hunters into the wooded area. I was moving fast, as only a werewolf in his element under the full moon could, so I still had several seconds before the pursuit caught up to me.
I looked around, then my eyes fastened on a nearby pine tree a good bit larger than its neighbors. My jaws parted in a grin, and I trotted over to it.
Everybody knows that canines, including werewolves, can’t climb. And, like a lot of the things that everybody knows, especially about werewolves, it managed to be simultaneously accurate and highly misleading.
Everybody knows that werewolves can’t climb—including the werewolves. Think about that for a minute. We weren’t stupid—even with the wolf in ascendance, I could still think perfectly well, just…differently. Which meant, in turn, that I could compensate for that weakness, rather than just hurl myself at a tree over and over again.
I might not be able to climb, but I could certainly jump.
Again, the improved ratio of strength to weight came to the rescue. I was able, using my powerful hind legs, to launch myself high enough that the branch I was looking for hit me about chest height. A bit of scrabbling later, I was uncomfortably perched on one of the thicker branches, right next to the trunk where it could actually hold me. I’m not huge by werewolf standards, but that still comes to around a hundred and eighty pounds of wolf, and there weren’t very many trees around that could hold that much weight.
Once there, I sat and waited. And waited. As it turned out, it took almost seven seconds for the first of the Hunt to arrive. That might not sound like a long time, but trust me, it felt like forever. I could only tell how little time it actually was by listening to my heartbeats.
He was of a more ordinary size than Pier, and carried a shortbow rather than a sword. He was riding a more normal-looking horse as well, although the Hunt’s shroud concealed enough of the details of the both of them to make it a hard thing to say for sure. Aside from the pine I was sitting in, I couldn’t smell a thing over the reek of storm and magic.
In any case, he got very unlucky. He wandered directly past me, and never thought to look up. I took advantage of this opportunity immediately, dropping out of the tree to hit him from above.
The horse dodged at the last moment. Actually, that’s not quite true; I’d have sworn the last moment was already past, but it lunged forward with uncanny speed, leaving me to hit the forest floor with a grunt of disappointment.
The hunter wheeled to face me, bow coming up as he did. I surged forward, seizing the horse’s foreleg in my jaws and wrenching it sideways. It screamed and collapsed, spoiling his aim, and I danced back. My teeth had broken the skin, and the taste of fresh blood across my tongue was the strongest drug imaginable. It filled me with a sudden surge of hunger, too strong to describe, let alone contain.
The next thing I knew, the horse was on the ground and I was ripping at its abdomen, tearing off great bloody chunks of meat and gulping them down. It felt good, sating a hunger nothing else could ever quite satisfy. A moment later, I felt a hot stinging pain in my side, and turned to see a white-fletched arrow sticking out of my side, just behind the shoulder. Nice shot, although not exactly difficult from such short distance.
Pity for him that it hit at the wrong angle and skipped off my ribs. Oh, I don’t think that it would have been lethal if it hadn’t—werewolves are terribly hard to kill, especially on a full-moon night, and his arrowhead wasn’t silver—but it would have come a lot closer.
As it was, it didn’t even slow me down. I wasn’t sure how he’d managed to not be caught underneath the falling horse—actually, I had pretty much no idea what had happened between that first taste of blood and being shot—but he was standing about ten feet away aiming another arrow my way. I could smell his fear even from that distance, even through the shroud.
I rounded and launched myself at him, leaving the horse to finish dying behind me. Ten feet is not such a long distance to a werewolf. He panicked, an entirely reasonable reaction to seeing a bloodstained werewolf closing on you rapidly, and his first shot went wide. He never got another one, because I was leaping on him and bearing him to the ground. He fumbled at his belt for a knife, but I was biting at the join of his neck and shoulder between helmet and jacket and shortly after that he wasn’t doing anything at all.
It was at about that time that the taste of his blood finally managed to drive home what my nose had been trying to tell me, if only my head hadn’t been too clouded to see it. This wasn’t one of the Sidhe. That was human blood.
I pulled away in revulsion. A moment later I saw the Wild Hunt’s stormy mask fall away, revealing, as I’d known it would, a human being.
He was—maybe, at the most—seventeen years old.
I’d never seen someone die with the Second Sight before. It was…bad. Very nearly as terrible as the Wild Hunt, with an added dash of guilt for flavor.
I gagged, and nearly threw up. Then the other part of me, the one that didn’t care about such things, took over again. I turned and yanked the arrow roughly out of my side with my jaws, not worrying about keeping the wound from widening further. It didn’t matter in any case; the moonlight filled the hole, and mere moments later there wasn’t even a scar to show for it.
Behind me, I heard hoof beats rapidly approaching, although they sounded less like normal hooves than tiny cracks of thunder. Turning, I saw a group of perhaps ten riders coming at me from behind, their mounts moving with an entirely unnatural agility through the trees, Pier riding at their head. Apparently his mount hadn’t been seriously injured by the fall. As I watched, one of them raised his bow and sent an arrow flying my way. Considering the circumstances, I was amazed at how accurate he was—had I not moved, I would have eaten an arrow between the eyes. I did move, of course, taking a page from Snowflake’s book and catching it in my jaws instead, but still. No human could have made that shot under these circumstances.
Good. I didn’t feel so bad about killing Sidhe.
I turned and raced deeper into the woods, laughing all the way. Behind me I heard more and more horses converging on the group pursuing me. And, of course, the hounds.
I focused on speed, pouring every fiber of my being into running faster, harder than ever before. I leapt over and dove under fallen trees, ducked through gaps barely wide enough to admit me, took sudden turns, all the time moving far faster than any normal wolf could manage, let alone a human. The whole time the Sight danced behind my eyes, if anything more frequent now than before, dazzling and maddening and wonderful. Several times I glanced back with a mocking laugh and accidentally Saw the Wild Hunt again. Each time hit me the same way, and some part of me wondered what sorts of damage it was doing to me.
The rest didn’t care. This was what I was made for, my element. It was the greatest hunt in the world, and it was worth dying to feel this way. I’d never moved so fast, never felt myself to be so perfectly in harmony with the world. I wasn’t even trying to do magic and the forest around me turned against the Wild Hunt—rocks turned beneath their hooves, branches broke as they rode under, everything that could go wrong for them did.
And yet, in spite of that, in spite of everything I did, in spite of the terrain, the Wild Hunt was gaining. When I’d started they had been perhaps twenty feet away, but within moments that dropped to fifteen, then ten. I wove more barriers of air and shadow to cover my back, but they were alert to that trick now and it hardly even slowed them, while the effort distracted me enough from the running that I judged it actually cost me time. They started shooting at me again, forcing me to dodge, which cost more time.
Right then, I knew that if I didn’t change the game my life was measured in seconds, and not many at that. My ability to dodge was limited, and at some point one of them would get a lucky shot in and cripple me. After that, well, it was all over but the bleeding.
By now the entirety of the Wild Hunt was right on my trail.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I turned hard uphill and kept running, panting now. I was starting to regret those bites of horse, as it felt like I was about to start puking them back up whole—not a fun prospect, especially given that I hadn’t taken the time to chew properly before I swallowed.
I know, I know, karma. Although, in my defense, I feel like I should point out that I wasn’t exactly in my right mind, and that I hadn’t let this side of myself control my actions for years. That’s gotta count for something, right? Right? Anybody?
Anyway, I was running, and they were chasing, when we came to another rock formation. I leapt lightly up onto the boulders, leaving them milling around behind me. Horses aren’t good at boulders. Oh, I don’t doubt that they could have jumped up to join me—this was the Wild Hunt we were talking about, for crying out loud, not a one of them had the limitations they should’ve—but horses don’t do so great on uneven ground, especially at high speeds. If they’d have followed me with their mounts I might well have been able to cripple one or more of them just with the terrain.
I kept running, moving uphill. Behind me I heard several of the hounds jumping up to join me, and I thought that at least one person was dismounting to come up on foot, while others rode around to block me at the other side.
Unfortunately, my luck had finally run out. I wound up in a small, rock-scattered pocket canyon. Two of the three sides were steep and thickly wooded hills, rather than sheer rock, but it wouldn’t matter. Climbing those slopes would slow me down way too much, and I’d be catching an arrow long before I was out to safety.
I turned back to the mouth of the canyon. I was planning, if at all possible, to kill the first one or two pursuers through to cause chaos and then try and bolt. The hills were undoable, but I was hoping that lycanthropic agility and air magic would let me make my way up the rock face, and then the Hunt would have a hell of a time finding their own way round.
It might have worked. It very well might—except for one teeny, tiny little detail.
Snowflake was the first hound through the opening.