“Wake up,” I said. “We have work to do.”
Lights flickered to life in Legion’s eye sockets. The pale blue color seemed a little more intense than usual, a little bit more vivid. “Excellent work, Boss,” he said. His voice was flat and toneless, as always, but somehow I knew that the demon was excited. “You really shook things up, didn’t you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What else?” he asked. “I’m talking about the way you changed the game. I haven’t seen anything this promising for four hundred years. And then the way you dealt with those vampires earlier? Let me tell you, Boss, that really made me proud to work with you?”
“How do you even know about that?” I asked. The other I could understand—the way the world had changed in the last few week or so was extreme enough that even a hibernating demon could plausibly know about it—but the vampire thing had been just a few hours earlier, and it hadn’t been that important in the greater scheme of things.
“This is what I am,” he said, and I knew he was confused by the question. “And you’re the one that did it. How could I not know?”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “We’re going to just pretend that doesn’t have horribly disturbing implications. Moving along now. Tell me about Blind Keith.”
There was a long, ominous silence. “You really are an expert at getting into trouble, aren’t you?” he asked. “Granted, we’ve known this for a long time, but Blind Keith, too? You must have done something really special to get on his bad side.”
“I’m not on his bad side,” I said irritably. “He wants me to go hunting with him. I just want to know what I’m dealing with when I do.”
“Right,” Legion drawled. “Tell you what, Boss. You get back from this hunting trip, and then we can talk about whether you’re on his bad side. Anyway, you know anything about him already? Give me something to work with, maybe?”
“Yeah,” I said, just a little smugly. “I know he’s fae, and he doesn’t belong to any of the current factions. He predates them. He’s powerful enough that he could be a Twilight Prince, but he doesn’t care enough to bother. He’s a hunter, with strong connections to the Wild Hunt, and he inspires fear in anyone who gets close.”
“Sounds like you have the basics down,” Legion said reluctantly. “But you’re understating it a bit. He’s not just a hunter. He’s the spirit of the hunt, the embodiment of it. I’ve even seen some theories saying that he’s the original Wild Hunter, and everyone else is just imitating him. I’m not convinced of that, but he’s definitely old. You mentioned he inspires fear. I’m guessing that means you’ve been around him?”
“Yeah. It was distracting, but I could function through it.”
“Don’t believe it,” Legion said seriously. “Blind Keith has total control over how strongly he affects people. He would have wanted you to think you could resist the effect, but I wouldn’t count on it. He’s an embodiment of the hunt, the interaction between predator and prey. If he decides to make you the prey, it’s going to be very difficult for you to resist that state of mind. That goes double for werewolves, since he has power over animals and hunters.”
“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “So, purely hypothetically, fighting him would be….”
“A very bad idea, yes,” Legion confirmed after I had trailed off. “A lethally bad idea, in fact. If it takes him more than a few seconds to kill you, it’s only because he’s dragging it out to amuse himself. There’s not much you can do to avoid the fight, either.”
“No. Not really. Blind Keith isn’t Sidhe, but he is still fae, which means that there’s an element of caprice to his nature. Maybe things start peacefully, maybe he even likes you, but there’s no guarantee that things will stay that way. And if he does change his mind, it might only take a couple seconds to go from casual conversation to him pulling out your intestines and skipping rope with them.”
I frowned. “But he is fae,” I pointed out. “So if I could get him to swear an oath not to do things like that, he’d keep it.”
“Blind Keith wouldn’t swear an oath like that,” Legion said with perfect confidence. “And trying to get him to is one of the things that might start that fight.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “Just wonderful. So I’ve got an ancient, incredibly powerful fae hunter who may or may not try to kill me as soon as talk to me, and there’s really nothing I can do to defend myself if something goes wrong. And I agreed to go hunting with him.”
“Pretty much,” Legion said cheerfully. “Is that all?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Can you tell me anything which might actually help me?”
“Not really,” he said. “Blind Keith is…pure, maybe, would be the word? There’s no subtlety to him, no delicacy or hidden depths. He is what he is, plain and simple. Clever maneuvers and elaborate plans won’t work on him, not really. He doesn’t have any secret weaknesses that I know of, either, except for what works on any of the fae.”
I sighed. “Okay.”
“Sorry, Boss, but I can’t really help you with this one,” Legion said. “Did you have any other questions?”
“No, not really,” I said, then paused. “Wait, yes, there is one thing. Why am I constantly hungry recently? Food doesn’t seem to help, either. And it’s getting worse.”
“Maybe it’s because you’re a werewolf?”
“Don’t be a smartass,” I said sourly. “I know what a werewolf’s metabolism feels like. I know how much food it should take to keep me going. This isn’t that.”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “the next obvious explanation is that you aren’t actually hungry, per se. You need some other kind of sustenance, but you aren’t accustomed to it, your body and mind don’t know how to interpret that need. So you’re perceiving it as hunger, because that’s the closest analogue you can come up with, but the reality is that you need something completely different.”
“Huh,” I said. “That’s…interesting. What kind of sustenance?”
Legion gave the impression of a shrug, though he didn’t move a bone. “Hard to say. There are a lot of things it could be. I couldn’t necessarily say what it is without checking a few dozen possibilities, and even then we could only rule out the most likely answers. If it’s something more obscure it might take weeks to narrow it down. You should be able to make a decent guess based on when it feels worse and when it lightens up.”
“Interesting,” I said again. “But probably not my highest priority.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Legion said sarcastically. “You’ve only got Blind Keith breathing down your neck and the world on fire around you. What could be more important than figuring out why you feel hungry?”
“Thanks, Legion,” I said.
The demon snorted. “Thanking me,” he said to no one in particular. “That’s new.”
I went upstairs and checked on the castle again, doing my rounds. The wards were still strong, the door locked and barred. I couldn’t detect anything amiss in or around the building.
Kyi had wanted to post guards here, but I’d overruled her. I didn’t have the manpower to maintain a guard so far from the real center of my activity. Not right now.
And besides, this was my territory. Mine. I didn’t want the housecarls here, or the mages, or the ghouls. Being jarl had taken over most of my life. If I didn’t keep something to myself, I’d go insane.
I wanted to be back in Colorado, to be doing something. I itched for it, almost literally. But there was nothing to be done right now. I couldn’t take the fight to the vampires in the nighttime, and other than that I’d mostly dealt with the people that would have liked to keep me from claiming the city for my own.
There was still work to be done, but at this point it was mostly work that was better left to other people. Right now it was all about organizing, managing, and recruiting for the group, and those weren’t exactly my specialties. Soon there would be more of my work to do, negotiating with other groups and fighting people that would try to stop us, but for the moment it was out of my hands.
After I got back from Pryce’s I’d mostly just paced around my office until Selene flat out told me that I should leave and get out of their hair. Then I’d gone back to Transylvania to ask Legion questions, thinking that I could at least do something productive with my time. Aiko stayed in Colorado to keep an eye on things, promising to call me if anything came up.
Except now I’d gotten any useful information out of Legion that I was going to right now. Which left me with nothing to do again.
So, once again, I started pacing, this time around the castle. I walked along the halls, up and down the stairs, through the rooms, moving faster and faster, until I was almost running. It didn’t make me feel any better, not really, but it at least gave me something else to focus on besides my own helplessness.
Finally I found myself on the roof of the tower, leaning against the battlements and panting. It was almost dawn, in Transylvania, and I stood there and watched the sun come up, painting the forest and the mountains a delicate gold.
It was a beautiful sunrise.
Afterwards, I went back downstairs and went to bed, pulling the curtains closed around the bed. With our schedule—if you could call something that erratic a schedule, which was doubtful—we often wound up sleeping while the sun was up. But the heavy velvet curtains around the bed blocked any light from coming in, leaving it as dark as if it were midnight.
I laid down and pulled the covers over myself, staring up at nothing.
I felt cold and lonely, to an extent that I hadn’t anticipated. I was used to sharing that bed with Aiko and Snowflake. Without them it was too large, and too empty. It emphasized their absence, bringing images of Snowflake lying near death in a hospital bed and Aiko almost being killed by a rakshasa to the forefront of my mind.
After a few minutes, I broke down and grabbed Aiko’s pillow, holding it close. It smelled like her, fox and spice with a hint of something more floral. Not as good as having her there, but as good as I could get for the moment.
I closed my eyes and drifted off, feeling more at peace than I had in days.
I wasn’t sure what woke me, exactly. Maybe there was some slight sound, a small movement or a breath. Or maybe it was just the awareness of Blind Keith’s sheer presence. Certainly, once I was awake I was acutely aware of it, a faint edge of tension with no explanation.
I sat up and opened the curtain, and there he was, silhouetted against the window by the sunlight coming in from behind him. I couldn’t make out any details, but I knew it was him.
“Blind Keith,” I said, nodding to him.
“Jarl,” he replied, not moving an inch. “It is time.”
“Yes,” I said, grabbing my armor from the floor beside the bed and pulling it on. I put my boots on and stood, draping my cloak over my shoulders. It was still loaded with weapons and tools from before I went to sleep, everything I’d thought of that might help me make it through the next few hours.
“Are you prepared?”
“Yes,” I said again. “Let’s go.”
He nodded once and turned, opening a portal to the Otherside in an instant, without even a whisper of wasted power. He disappeared through it a moment later.
I felt an odd relief as I followed him. I might be about to die, but at least I’d be doing something.