Clean Slate 10.24

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Blind Keith’s realm was dark, and it was cold.

 

I was aware of the cold, in a sense, but it didn’t affect me the way it would a normal person. I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t slowed or clumsy or numb. Almost the opposite, in a way. It felt like I was more awake, more alive, with the cold pressing against me. I felt sharper, more alert, the fatigue and the hunger I had been feeling both receding from my awareness.

 

What was with that? I’d never really been bothered by the cold, but I hadn’t had this reaction, either. Was there somehow more jotun in me than there had been previously? Or was this an effect of Blind Keith’s favor, rather than my own nature?

 

I shook my head, forcing myself to focus. If I wasn’t careful here, death might be the kindest fate I could hope for.

 

The portal had deposited us in the forest, although it wasn’t a forest in the sense I was accustomed to thinking of them in. This was a primeval sort of forest, vast and trackless, the trees towering above on a scale that defied logic. I’d seen a similar effect before, in Inari’s Wood, and the forests of Jotunheim, and the wilder parts of Faerie.

 

The moon was full overhead, casting more than enough light for me to be comfortable, but not much made it through the tree cover. The shadows under the trees were pitch black. Darker than they should be, considering the snow on the ground. It should have been reflecting the moonlight into places it couldn’t reach on its own, but the shadows stayed stubbornly dark.

 

And there, again, I had an odd experience, simultaneously aware of how I should feel and actually feeling something completely different. The ground was covered in snow, much of which had frozen into ice. Even if I didn’t feel the cold, my footing should have been terrible, my feet getting bogged down in snow or slipping on the ice.

 

But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was exactly the opposite. The ice was comfortable, providing exactly enough traction. It was like walking on pavement. The snow was even better, yielding when I wanted it to yield, providing resistance when I wanted something to push against. All told, I was faster and more comfortable in this terrain than I would have been walking down a city street.

 

And I wasn’t even thinking about it. I didn’t even have to think to make the snow be firm here, and soft there. I just walked, following Blind Keith, and my surroundings reshaped themselves to my will.

 

Keith, I noticed, didn’t have the same effect. He was moving as fast as I was or faster, but it was a different kind of speed, a more traditional kind. He was just fast enough to plow through the snow.

 

Not his power helping me, then. Not unless he could do something similar to what I was, and chose not to.

 

As we walked, I could feel and smell and see a familiar effect beginning. Blind Keith’s form was wreathed in mist, light at first, but it grew thicker over the course of a minute or so, until his actual body was hidden within a miniature storm cloud. Sparks of lightning crackled within the cloud, and the snow swirled and danced in his wake, as though he carried a tiny windstorm with him.

 

Neither of us had said a word since entering the portal. He led, and I followed. There seemed to be nothing to say.

 

I glanced at myself, more to confirm a suspicion than anything, and saw exactly what I’d expected. The storm cloud was forming over me as well, slowly but surely. Wisps of cloud drifted over my forearms, my legs. A band stretched from one arm to the other across my torso, and more tendrils extended from that, spreading across my armor.

 

I was a part of the Wild Hunt this time. Not just an observer. Not the prey.

 

In a strange way, I was more worried than I might have been if I were the prey. The Wild Hunt was old magic, something that stretched back to when the world was young. It had a meaning to it, a weight. The only other time I’d seen the Hunt, I’d been a target rather than a participant, and it had still brought the predator in me so far to the forefront of my mind that logical thought became impossible. I could probably expect something similar this time, but to an even greater extent.

 

Oddly, that was the only thing I was really afraid of. The other dangers I was facing right now—Blind Keith, the Wild Hunt, even the things waiting for me back in Colorado to some extent—they were undeniably serious, but at the same time there was something almost comfortable about them. They were things I could understand, things I could deal with. Even if I failed, there was a limit to how bad things could be.

 

This was more like Loki, or the Twilight Court, or even the mysterious all-hands-on-deck situation the Watchers were facing in Russia. It was big, and ominous, and there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could do about it. There were no actions I could take, really, to protect myself.

 

And, much like those threats, it had the potential to do much worse than kill me. If I was lost to the Hunt, I might be lost forever. Still alive, but not me, just enough left of the person I was to be aware of the monster I had become. Forever.

 

I wasn’t afraid to die. But there were so very many fates worse than death out there.

 

I kept walking, kept the fear in check. It was harder, around Blind Keith. I’d thought he made people afraid, but now I realized that wasn’t quite right. What his magic did was exaggerate fear. It was natural to be afraid of something like him, almost inevitable. Now I discovered that it worked on other fear, too. I would have been anxious about the Hunt anyway, had been anxious, but now it was worse. It was a paralyzing sort of dread, almost overwhelming. I had to force myself to keep moving through it.

 

I looked around, trying to distract myself, and realized that we weren’t alone. Other figures moved in the night, hounds and wolves, creatures mounted on horseback. Some were Sidhe, beautiful beyond words, with wild, fey smiles and gleaming weapons. Others were goblins, brutish and ugly creatures with an almost frenzied look to their eyes.

 

The storm was building slowly, wreathing each of us. It was alive, in a way, although not a way that had much in common with humanity. Blind Keith wasn’t creating it, not really. I got the impression that he was more summoning it, bringing it into being in this place, this time.

 

Which was interesting, because what I could see of the magic, the way it smelled, made me think he didn’t have nearly as much control over it as I would have guessed. Legion had said that Blind Keith was supposed to the original leader of the Wild Hunt, but from what I could see I was almost sure that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t creating the storm of the Hunt. Everything I could detect about the relationship there suggested that he was more evoking it, calling it up.

 

This wasn’t his magic. it was in line with his nature, he understood it, he breathed it, but it wasn’t his.

 

I wasn’t sure why, but something about that seemed important.

 

We kept walking, and there was still no discussion, but now it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. It was because there was no need. I didn’t have to look or think to know where every single member of the Hunt was. They were all around us, moving through the forest out of sight, and I knew where they were. I knew what they were going to do before they moved.

 

My practice running multiple bodies let me split off a piece of my mind to analyze that information, looking at the bigger picture from an objective perspective. What that part of me recognized was interesting, in a really scary way. We were moving as a unit. One person moved forward and another swung to the side to compensate, maintaining the same distance, maintaining coverage throughout the area. It was more like watching a single organism moving than a group. In a way, that’s exactly what was happening. I was watching the Wild Hunt, not the hunters.

 

Every member of the Hunt had perfect knowledge of what the rest were doing, and they were coordinated on a level that was considerably deeper than cognitive thought. It was…terrifying, in a way. I knew that I’d only been able to avoid them the last time because they weren’t really trying, but damn. I’d had no idea just how easy it would have been for them to take me down any time they felt like it.

 

I was running on autopilot now, moving at the direction of the Wild Hunt rather than my own desires. It wasn’t like being a puppet, exactly. I was still doing what I wanted. I just happened to want whatever was best for the Hunt as a whole from moment to moment.

 

There were a couple of ways that I could deal with that. I could keep myself separate from my body, let the Wild Hunt have that part of me, and keep my mind relatively clear. There were enough predators around that I would have no trouble finding hosts, and I thought I could insulate myself from the effect by doing that, at least a little.

 

The other alternative was to go with it. Put the predator, the wolf, in charge of things. It was close enough to the Hunt to operate within it, while still being me.

 

I ended up going with a mixture of the two. The wolf inside my skin took over my body, and the difference was profound to watch. There was no single change I could point to and say was responsible. It was in a lot of little things. I was a little more in tune with the Wild Hunt, a little more able to count on the other members of the Hunt for information rather than doing everything myself, a little smoother in how I used the help that the ice and snow was lending me.

 

And the reason I could see that? There was a piece, just a small piece, of my awareness split off on its own. Watching, observing, processing the information coming in from the Hunt. I was riding in my own mind the way I rode in the mind of other animals, aware of the process from both sides at once, and it was the strangest feeling I’d ever had.

 

But it worked. I was moving, I was aware and in control of myself, and I was simultaneously disconnected enough that I could observe things and think things through on a cognitive level rather than a purely instinctive one.

 

I noticed something odd about me, and I told me to take a look at myself. I obeyed me, glancing at myself between steps, and confirmed what I’d thought I’d noticed. The storm around me was different, very slightly, from that around Blind Keith and the rest of the Hunt. It was paler, more a fog than a cloud, cold enough that ice was forming on my armor, and while it still flickered with lightning, there were snowflakes mixed in.

 

A different storm to reflect a different kind of Hunter? It made sense, but the explanation seemed incomplete. There was something more to it than that, something that I wasn’t seeing.

 

The rest of me kept moving. The storm had almost finished wreathing us now, and I knew on a level just below consciousness that that would be the signal for the hunt to start in earnest. It was very nearly time.

 

I knew that another member of the Hunt was coming closer and did nothing, waiting. He stepped up beside me, a wolf walking on two legs, wrapped in fog, snowflakes settling on his shoulders, his face. I couldn’t see him through the cloud, knew it was him only because the Wild Hunt knew. “I told you we’d hunt together one day,” he said, barely whispering. I understood more because I could feel the movement and the intent than because I could hear him.

 

I asserted control over myself long enough to turn my head and look at him, confirming what I’d suspected. The storm around him was very nearly the same as that around me, the pale fog, the snowflakes. Paying more attention to that facet of the information feed I was getting from the Wild Hunt, I realized that there were a handful of others in the crowd that were similar, a few Sidhe, some of the goblins, several of the more animalistic, less easily-categorized ones.

 

Not just a different storm for me, then. Two storms, slightly different but connected. The rational part of me could think of several possible explanations for that, few of which were good. The part of me that was more in tune with the Hunt knew what it meant, but it was on a level so basic that I couldn’t really define it or encapsulate it in words, even for myself.

 

The storm was complete, now. We were all covered, all connected by the power. It was time to hunt.

 

Blind Keith did something, a twist of power, and the world we walked through grew even darker, the moonlight fading out until nothing was visible at all, and I was navigating based on the knowledge the Wild Hunt was feeding into my brain each second. Reality faded in again a moment later, and now it was a different reality. We weren’t on the Otherside anymore. We were in my reality.

 

More so even than I’d thought, I realized a moment later. I recognized the trees, the hills, and it wasn’t just being in my world, it wasn’t just the influence of the Hunt.

 

I knew this place.

 

It was still fall here, rather than deep winter, and there was no snow on the ground. It didn’t matter. Where I walked the ground was blanketed with frost and ice by the storm, giving me perfect footing, simultaneously making it harder for anyone else.

 

The wolf still walked beside me, wrapped in the same effect. He should have been slipping on his own ice slick, and he wasn’t, and it took a moment for me to realize why. The ice was helping him, much like it helped me. It gave him traction when he wanted it, a smooth and frictionless surface when he didn’t. He had a power like mine, it seemed.

 

No. Not like mine. He had my power, my magic, shared through the connection of the Wild Hunt. In much the same way, reaching out through the storm, I felt the various abilities and magics that the other hunters brought to the table, waiting and ready for me to call upon them.

 

Wait. The Wild Hunt didn’t just share knowledge and sensation, it shared magic? It let individual members tap each other’s powers when they needed to?

 

God damn. I’d known it was a terrifying force, that there was no real winning against it, but I hadn’t even begun to comprehend how much of a threat the Hunt was.

 

We kept moving, moving out of the trees now, and I saw what I’d known I would.

 

The town of Wolf, Wyoming. The first place I’d ever been able to call home in any meaningful way.

 

The streets were largely empty, but that just emphasized the small proportion of people who were out and about. I recognized many of them, and knew what the rest were. These were the werewolves of the town, brought forth by their awareness of the Wild Hunt’s coming. They were just close enough to us in nature that they knew we were there, that they were drawn out of their homes and businesses to join us.

 

Except they weren’t being invited to join. There was no storm gathering about them. I thought about it and knew that they were here to play a different role. They were the prey for this night’s hunt. It was night, now, although the last I’d been aware of it had been dawn in this area. I had lost a day, apparently.

 

I tried to tell myself to stop, that this was going too far, but the Hunt’s influence was stronger now, and I wasn’t inclined to listen to me.

 

The werewolves realized what was going on. Some turned and fled, running further into the town, or at an angle, into the forest, or the plains around town. Others stood their ground, preparing to fight. I recognized Edward, in his human form, pistols ready to hand, but not yet drawn. He didn’t need to draw them yet, not with how fast he was.

 

I felt a twinge at that, paused for half a heartbeat as I walked, then kept going. The more detached part of me noted that Edward wasn’t reacting to my presence, not that I could tell, and I didn’t think he’d be able to mask that particular reaction. Likely he didn’t know I was there, couldn’t see me through the storm. I had to remind myself that it was an obstruction to other people’s vision.

 

Then I saw the wolf standing by his side. She wasn’t particularly large, or really notable at all, except that there was an element of grace to her that most werewolves lacked. Not agility precisely, more that she was in tune with herself, in tune with the wolf, even to some extent in tune with the Hunt. There was no resistance to her own nature, the way there often was with werewolves.

 

Anna, I realized a moment later. The only werewolf I’d ever been responsible for who then turned out to work. The only one whose story hadn’t ended in tragedy.

 

And, if I had my way, it wasn’t going to.

 

This time, I did stop moving. The wolf didn’t understand much, but pack was one of the big ones, and it’s understanding of that was deep enough to push the Hunt aside, letting me reassert control over my own body.

 

“This is wrong,” I said aloud, knowing that the connection of the storm would convey my meaning even to those of the Hunt who couldn’t hear. “These are predators, not prey.” It was the only objection I could think of that might carry weight with the Wild Hunt, without acknowledging that I had a personal relationship to these werewolves.

 

“Of course,” Blind Keith said. I heard him more through my awareness of the Hunt than with my ears. “No baser prey would serve this night.” I could feel him smile, a hundred feet away. “Or do you oppose my choice?”

 

He knew. Fuck me, he knew. I had no idea how, but he knew what these people meant to me, he’d chosen them specifically because of that.

 

Legion had mentioned that his essential nature was that of the fae. He’d mentioned that this also meant that there was an element of the capricious to him. What I hadn’t quite acknowledged, on a conscious level, was that the fae also had an element of…not malice, exactly, but cruelty. Even the gentlest of the fae had a sharper side. Even when they were being kind, handing out gifts, there was always a catch.

 

And Blind Keith was not a gentle fae.

 

“Yes,” I said, knowing what it meant, what the consequence would be. “I oppose your choice.”

 

Blind Keith grinned at me, although I knew only because I felt him through the Wild Hunt. And then he turned his magic on me at full strength. He took every fear I felt, every worry, every niggling doubt and minor concern, the dread I’d been feeling this entire time and the entirely rational terror I felt at crossing him. He took all of them, and on each of them he turned the dial up to eleven.

 

There was no question of fighting back or resisting.

 

I ran.

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