“Erin?” I said. “Erin, are you there?”
There was a brief pause, followed by the sound of running footsteps. “Sorry,” she said. “I had the shot, and it was too good not to take. Anyway, where were we?”
“You were giving me advice about dealing with Blind Keith,” I said, trying to ignore the fact that she’d just murdered somebody. Things were busy right now, I told myself. She couldn’t have the free time to be doing freelance work, which meant that her mark had died because Conn wanted him dead. Conn wouldn’t have given the order unless he deserved it.
Right. I believed that.
“Oh, yeah,” Erin said. “Try to stay on his good side if you can. If he comes after you, he’ll probably bring the Wild Hunt, so plan for that. And whatever you do, don’t run. You run from him, you’re as good as dead.”
“Great,” I said dismally. So far, all stuff I’d already guessed, and none of it helpful for actually beating him if it came to it. “Anything I can actually use?”
There was a short pause. I wasn’t sure whether she was thinking, or she had to evade the cops or something. “He’ll try to turn out the lights,” she said. “I don’t know how he senses his prey, but he doesn’t need light to do it. He’s vulnerable to iron, but in the same way as most of the Sidhe. I don’t think it hurts him, exactly, but it makes him lose control, somehow. Be careful with it.” She hesitated, and this time I knew it was deliberate. “He knew your mother. I don’t know how, but they knew each other.”
“Great,” I groaned. “This just gets better and better.” I sighed. “Thanks, Erin. Good luck with the killing people.”
“I don’t need luck,” she sniffed. “I’ve got skills.”
I hung up and dropped the phone back into my pocket. Aiko wandered over to stand next to me, looking curious. “What’s the matter? You look like somebody just ran over your puppy.”
“Blind Keith is a lot scarier than I was giving him credit for,” I said sourly. “And he also knew my mother.”
“Ah,” she said. “Yeah, I can see how that might be awkward.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “Does it seem like Kyi is taking a while?” she asked. “Because it sure seems like it to me.”
I frowned. “Yeah. Yeah, it does.” I took a step towards the trees, intending to look for her.
I was interrupted when Kyi appeared from behind an aspen that I would have sworn was too thin to conceal her. “Jarl,” she said. “You are finished with your call, I take it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’ve been checking out the new talent, I heard?”
She grimaced, and the expression told me all I needed to know. “I’ve been checking out the new recruits,” she said. “Talent? That’s another question.”
“I see,” I said. “Not good?”
She shrugged. “They have decent training. Some of them have useful skills—Nóttolfr’s smooth, Thraslaug’s a berserker. But they don’t have the experience, they don’t know how to deal with unusual enemies or improvise, and they don’t know how this world works. Give me some time and I could turn them into something you could use, maybe.”
Give her time.
Time, it seemed, was something that I did not have in plentitude. She would not have the chance to make them into a usable fighting force.
“I might not be able to,” I said quietly. “And I might need to use them anyway.”
Kyi was watching me, her eyes flat and unreadable within their nest of tattoos. “If you do,” she said, “they won’t hold up. Some of them will die.”
“Yes,” I said, even more softly. “I know.” They would die, but they could create a hole that other, more capable forces could exploit. Drawing enemies out of position, leaving them open to attack. Sacrificing a pawn to take a rook.
The jötnar were the pawns in that comparison. Expendable. I was looking at them as resources, rather than people. Hell, I couldn’t even remember most of their names.
Kyi was still looking at me, and I got the impression that she knew everything that had just run through my mind from those three words. “We are your housecarls, my jarl,” she said. “We will serve.” Then she turned and walked back into the trees.
I’d often felt like the world was stacked against me, like nothing I did could really make progress. Try to fix things, try to be something other than what I was, and it was like swimming upstream. One step forward, two steps back. Use the powers I had, and I could make headway, but the act changed me, making me less of who I wanted to be.
Let the wolf inside my skin off the leash, and I was stronger, faster, filled with certainty of purpose, but the wolf would never again be leashed quite as thoroughly as it had been. Use the Second Sight and I could see through the masks that were meant to fool me, but what I saw damaged me. Make a deal with Loki or Scáthach, and I got what I needed, the secrets and the power, but something was taken in return.
The pattern, overwhelmingly, had been that I could get what I wanted, but it wasn’t ever free. If I wanted to accomplish something, I had to give up something else.
I’d never tried anything on this level. Nothing even close.
I watched Kyi go, and I knew that she’d never look at me quite the same, knowing that I was willing to trade the lives of loyal followers for nothing more than a tactical advantage. Kyi and I hadn’t been friends, exactly, but there had been a certain casualness to our relationship. Less formal than what I had with the other housecarls. She respected me as a person, as well as a jarl. I had a strong suspicion that I had just lost that respect.
What else was I going to have to give, to hold my city together?
Gwynn ap Nud had sent a token with his messenger, a slender piece of wood that served as the focus for a powerful and intricate piece of magic. Once I was finished talking with Kyi, I broke the stick, and an instant later a hole appeared in the world directly in front of me.
I stepped through it, alone. This invitation had been for me and no one else, and I had no intention of upsetting Gwynn by bringing anyone with me. Which pissed Snowflake off immensely—she still wasn’t over being separated from me while I was in prison—but she was smart enough to recognize that getting on a Twilight Prince’s bad side wasn’t worth it.
The portal dropped me in a small corridor, which appeared to have been carved into the bedrock. Clumps of crystals protruded from the stone at odd angles here and there, shedding just enough light that I could see. A human would likely have been blind, or at least nearly so.
I glanced back and saw that the corridor ended just behind me, as though the architect had simply stopped carving. No one else was in sight. I couldn’t smell anything other than stone, the air wasn’t moving, and as far as I could tell there were no animals within a mile.
I shrugged and started walking. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.
Maybe ten minutes later, the corridor opened up into a room, as large as a small stadium, lit only by more of the small crystals. The ceiling was still low, though, almost enough to make me uncomfortable, and I wasn’t a tall guy.
I paused just before crossing the threshold. I couldn’t see anything immediately threatening—no weapons, no tripwires or odd-looking patches of ground, no mystic symbols—but there was something…odd here.
On an impulse, I glanced up, and saw mushrooms sprouting from the ceiling. Classic toadstools only an inch or two high, they grew from bare stone in a perfectly defined line, right at the boundary between the corridor and the room it lead to.
No, I realized. Not a line. It looked straight at a glance, but upon examination there was a very slight curvature to it, as though it were a tiny arc of a much larger circle. A circle, perhaps, that might include the entire room I was looking at.
I stared. Magic circles were simple spells, and not usually difficult ones. It didn’t take that much power to make them work. But the power it did take was dependent upon size, and the relationship was an exponential one. A circle big enough to stand in could be charged easily. A bit of blood, a casual effort by a practiced mage—it didn’t take much. Something the size of a small room was more challenging, requiring concentration. The largest I’d ever managed was a clearing, when I performed the ritual to claim Legion as my familiar, and that had been a very faint circle, just a whisper to block undirected currents of energy.
This was maybe ten times the radius of that clearing, which meant that the circle’s total area was closer to a hundred times that of the one I’d created. Add in the exponential scaling in the actual power expenditure and I estimated that this circle would require somewhere around ten to fifteen thousand times that of the biggest one I’d ever created.
Even if I were to dedicate myself wholly to the task, drawing on the energy of the world around me and drawing on blood magic, it would take a couple orders of magnitude more than what I was capable of just to establish this circle. Actually using it to anchor a ward was…almost unbelievable, something that would take the power of a god.
Or, perhaps, that of a Twilight Prince.
I stopped short of crossing the circle. It was probably safe, given that I was invited, but I thought it wiser not to take the chance. “Winter Wolf-Born,” I said, projecting the words clearly. “Here to seek audience with Gwynn ap Nud.”
Enter and be welcome, as a guest in my hall, a voice said inside my head. It was a beautiful voice, in an odd way, a very inhuman way. There was a sort of delay to it, as though it had to translate each word before it spoke, and then my mind had to translate them again to process their meaning.
That was about as close to a guarantee of safety as I was going to get, so I swallowed hard and stepped over the threshold.
An instant later, the whole world seemed to change. I wasn’t standing in a vast subterranean hall. I was in a similarly vast meadow, the evening sky perfectly clear overhead, stars so bright and pure that they looked like diamonds.
I glanced backwards and saw a of toadstools, almost hidden in the grass. They were on the ground now. Or I was on what had previously been the ceiling. It was hard to tell what was what, under the circumstances.
Was this illusion? The glamour of the fae, that let them mold illusions to their will and make the dream almost more real than reality? Or was it something deeper than that, the power of a demigod to control the world he had built for himself? Which was real—the cavern, the meadow, both, neither, somewhere in between?
As was so often the case with the fae, it was hard to say what the answer might be, if there even was an answer. As was also often the case with the fae, although it had taken me longer to realize it, it really didn’t matter what the truth was.
Directly in front of me, in the exact center of the meadow, was a throne, a massive thing carved from granite. I walked towards it. I could see things out of the corner of my eye, glimmers of light and flickers of movement, but I kept my gaze focused on the throne. I was dealing with the fae, after all, and I’d read enough fairy tales to know better than to look at the distractions.
Seemingly between one step and the next, the throne went from being a hundred feet off to right in front of me. Gwynn ap Nud was sitting in it, or so I presumed. I couldn’t quite focus on him, as though my eyes slid from one side to the other, so that I could only see him in my peripheral vision. I got an impression of lean muscle and sharp features, well-worn hunting leathers and a sword, but details just weren’t there.
“You asked me to visit,” I said. Establishing my right to be there, before anything else was said. I’d been welcomed as a guest and that was enough to protect against most dangers, but it was best to be careful. There were all kinds of stories about guests of the fae that wound up getting more than they bargained for.
“Yes,” he said, and I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was hearing him with my ears or my mind. The voice seemed to have the same vagueness to it as his physical appearance, conveying meaning but leaving no memory of what it actually sounded like.
Damn, this was eerie. I’d dealt with Twilight Princes before, but never on their home ground. The difference was striking, unsettling, and more than a little frightening.
“I came,” I said, redundantly, trying to gather my thoughts.
“You have attracted the attention of a powerful being,” he said. “And not a kind one.”
“I have attracted the attention of many. To whom do you refer?”
“You would call him Blind Keith.”
I sighed. “Oh. That being. I don’t suppose you could tell me anything about him?”
“The hunt is an ancient idea,” he said, not answering my question. Unless he was; Blind Keith was a hunter, after all. “It is a primal concept, one that lies at the heart of the world.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The Wild Hunt. I know about it.”
“Yes,” he said, and the wind seemed to sigh the word with him, brushing through the grass and swirling around my ankles. “He is a lord of the hunt.”
“So are you,” I pointed out. “What’s the difference?”
“There are many faces in the hunt,” he said. “Once the fae were as a single people, but eventually it became clear that our differences were too great. Words had been spoken that could not be unsaid, and it was clear to all that there was no hope for reconciliation. Lines were drawn, alliances were formed, and we went our separate ways.”
“And you were there for this?” I asked. It was almost incredible to conceive of. Logically I knew that many of the truly powerful beings of the world were also truly ancient, but it was one thing to know that and it was another to hear one of them discussing it.
“Yes,” he said. “But I tell you this for a reason. On that day, the one you call Blind Keith was there as well. But when it came time to choose sides, he chose not to choose. He stood apart then, as he has stood apart ever since. He is not of the Tylwyth Teg, the Fomorians, the Sidhe, or any of the other great powers. He stand alone, and he does not choose to pursue the aims that others seek.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. As usual, that was the most important question. Powerful beings did nothing without a reason, and they did nothing for free.
“That is not for you to know. What matters is this. I am a hunter, as is Scáthach, and Herne, and Bleiddwn, and all the other masters of the Wild Hunt. And like them, I am more than a hunter; there is more to my story than the hunting. That is not true for Blind Keith. There is nothing in him but the hunt. Do not be fooled into thinking otherwise.”
I wanted to ask again why he was sharing this, but he’d told me I wasn’t supposed to know, and I’d have to be an idiot of monumental proportions to contradict a demigod in the middle of his own private world. So I just bowed my head and said, “I appreciate the advice.”
“Go,” he said, “with my blessing. My agent shall join your struggles shortly, and I shall speak on your behalf.”
The next instant, between blinks, the meadow vanished, as did Gwynn ap Nud and the throne he sat in. I was standing alone in the middle of the cavern, the only light that which came from the luminescent crystals scattered around.
Well, that was one problem down, at least. And resolved pretty well. Sure, it was enigmatic as hell and I was absolutely certain that it was going to bite me in the ass at some point, but he was backing me, and right now that was what mattered.
I wasn’t sure which hallway I’d entered from, so I picked one at random. It looked like what I remembered, and there was a portal waiting at the end, so I figured it was probably right enough, and stepped through.