I was running through the trees. I blinked, and I was standing in a forest, but it was an entirely different forest. The trees were larger, the snow was deeper, and the moon overhead was a huge full circle rather than just a sliver.
“What the hell is going on?” I demanded of no one in particular.
I stepped up next to myself, grinning widely. The new me looked almost exactly like me, except that he wasn’t wreathed in storm and he wasn’t wearing a helmet, presumably so that I would be sure to recognize my own face. “I’m guessing it’s a lot of factors at play,” he said. “If you think about it, you’re something of a special case.”
I blinked again and was running through the forest. There was blood on my mouth, and the fog around me had grown, painting a ten-foot swath of the forest white with frost.
Blink again, and I was standing still beside myself.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, not blinking. It was more a mental exercise than anything. I didn’t need to blink, not really. I didn’t really have eyes here.
“You ever really think about what it means?” my double asked. “What you’re doing right now, to a lesser extent what you do all the time, splitting up your consciousness, moving it out of your body. You ever wonder what you’re really doing to yourself, like that? Whether there’s some kind of damage involved?”
“Of course I do,” I snapped. “Or else my subconscious wouldn’t be asking about it. But what’s that have to do with what’s going on now?”
“Well, if you think about it, there’s a lot of sources of damage,” he said, walking casually along. “You Saw the Hunt last time, remember? That’s the kind of thing that, you know, it’s going to have an effect, right? Or, oh yeah, you died.”
“Pretty sure I’m alive,” I said.
“Nooo,” he said, dragging the word out. “Nope, you definitely died. You got most of your arm torn off by some kind of abomination from the void, you got shot in the chest, and you bled out on the floor of your own house. Sure, Loki brought you back after, but there’s no guarantee he put you back together the way you were.”
“I’m still the same person I was,” I said irritably. “In every way that matters. I’m sorry, did you have a point with all this rambling?”
“I’m just saying,” he said, grinning. “If you think about it, there’s all kinds of things about you that are just messed up, you know? So I figure what happened is when Blind Keith hit you with that magic, making you lose control of your fear, it had a weird interaction with something. It broke you on a level, making this happen.”
I frowned. “Okay,” I said reluctantly. “I can buy that, I guess. So that would make this…the spirit world,” I said, realizing it with a sinking feeling.
He clapped slowly. “Congratulations,” he said, his voice almost dripping with sarcasm. “I mean, it’s not like this is almost the exact same thing that you saw the last time you were trapped on a spiritual level. Or like you know for a fact that the last time you ran into the Wild Hunt you saw them on a spiritual level and it disrupted your ability to distinguish physical and spiritual perceptions. Seriously, there’s no way you could have figured this out more quickly than that.”
“My subconscious is kind of a dick, isn’t it?” I commented.
He snorted. “Again, congrats, Captain Obvious. I feel I should point out that time is still passing while you’re standing there babbling.”
“No pressure,” I muttered to myself. “Okay. So the more animalistic parts of me, the werewolf, it’s running my body. Probably taking the worst of the fear, too, so I can think things through. Make a plan.” I frowned. “Not sure how much I can do here, though. I don’t see a lot of openings I can exploit.”
“It’s not his magic,” my double said, his voice oddly intense. “The Wild Hunt. It isn’t his, not really.”
I frowned and nodded. I’d noticed that—of course I had, or I wouldn’t be telling myself about it—but I hadn’t had a chance to really think through the implications. “He summoned it,” I said, thinking out loud. “But he doesn’t own it. I don’t think he even controls it, really. He brings it to him, but after that it does its own thing. And this time it split in half, sort of. One half looks like the last time I saw it, but the other half is pretty clearly associated with me. My kind of magic, my kind of environment. Which mean…oh, hell no. You have got to be kidding me.”
“There’s nothing funny about this,” my double said. It would have been more convincing if he weren’t grinning from ear to ear.
“The Wild Hunt thinks I should be leading it?”
“Or it thinks you have the potential, at least,” he agreed. “That’s the best explanation I’ve got.”
“Okay,” I said. “This…I don’t know how to deal with this, really.”
“Don’t worry about the implications,” he said. “Worry about right now. What does this mean, in the immediate sense?”
“It’s something I can use,” I said, thinking it through. “A weapon. A dangerous weapon, but that’s the best I’ve got. Now I just need to figure out how to use it.”
It took me a minute to see it, but when I did I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen what I needed to do right away. It was a terrible plan, foolish and self-destructive and very likely to have consequences later on, but I thought it had a decent chance of solving the problem at hand.
In short, it was one of my plans. Now I just had to put it into effect.
I blinked again.
I was running through the forest. My heart was pounding, my lungs were heaving, my mouth was flecked with blood and spittle. Blood oozed from my hip as well, where a razor-sharp blade had slipped through my armor like it wasn’t even there to draw a narrow line of fire on my skin.
I was still human in shape, generally, but not remotely human in thought. There was nothing in my mind but fear. There was nothing to do but to run. Rational thought, planning, any idea of fighting back, they were all impossible.
I looked at this, then turned my attention outwards, to the Hunt as a whole. I could feel that there was still that split in it, with some members being wrapped in a thunderstorm, and others in a freezing fog.
There were fewer of them in “my” storm, now. The Wild Hunt shifting its focus to the candidate it felt was more deserving? Or was it on an individual level, people subconsciously aligning themselves with the person winning the contest? Either was plausible, and it didn’t really matter. The split existed, and that was all I really needed for my plan.
I turned my attention to the magic affecting me. Blind Keith’s magic, rather than the Hunt’s, this time. I could detect the effect, the way it was removing the limits and controls on my emotions. And, having detected it, I could affect it.
I couldn’t stop it. This was Blind Keith, a being on par with Twilight Princes and demigods. I couldn’t hope to overpower his magic, and I didn’t even try.
But I could redirect it.
I stepped in the way, redirecting it slightly, changing what part of me it was targeting.
The world went white.
Fear. Terror. Blind, absolute panic, the kind of fear where thought was impossible, where doing anything to resist the emotion was out of the question. Get hit with this, and you were going to run, and you weren’t going to stop until you literally could not move.
Except I wasn’t moving. I had totally ceded control of my body to another part of my mind, and what I’d done, stepping in to take the effect with the more rational, analytic part, was enough to largely shield that part from the fear.
Parallel processing, I thought dimly, through the haze of terror. Blind Keith could shut me down, but he couldn’t shut all of me down when my consciousness was split this deeply, and he wasn’t paying enough attention to pick and choose what parts of me were affected.
I was still running, but I’d stopped and reversed my direction on the spot. A goblin was close behind me, but it didn’t have the traction on the ice to change direction so swiftly, and it ran right past me, slipping and falling to the ground. The next creature on my trail was a mounted Sidhe, wielding a crystalline blade that crackled with lightning. I ignored the weapon and went for the horse instead, putting one hand on its chest and pushing.
I’d expected to just push it aside a little, maybe cause it to slip on the frost-covered ground.
What I got instead was a surge of power from the Wild Hunt, wolves and blizzard winds howling in my ear, and a push that picked the horse up from the ground and hurled it bodily through the air. A thousand pounds of charging horse, and I tossed it through the air with one hand.
A new note of fear entered the mass already within me, and was promptly magnified a thousandfold by Blind Keith’s magic. I wasn’t supposed to be that strong. Not remotely.
I kept running, borrowing speed from the hounds, grace from the Sidhe, using my knowledge of the Hunters’ locations to navigate. It was easy to run through the forest. I didn’t even have to look. Everything that fell within the storm around me was outlined in my mind, so that I was perfectly aware of every single thing at once. I didn’t even have to think to know when to duck, where to step, when to jump or dodge.
There was a slight shift in the Hunt’s composition, I noticed. A few more on my side, rather than Keith’s. Responding to my success, perhaps?
Moving forward, I sped up, moving even faster. I was going almost as fast as I would have in fur now, slipping back through the middle of the Wild Hunt, and it was so easy. I was stronger, faster, and there was so much knowledge pouring into brain with every second, being processed so quickly, that I could hardly even grasp it all. I was almost prescient.
I could see how this feeling got addictive.
The rest of them had all the same advantage, of course. I was operating on a level I’d hit maybe once or twice in my entire life, and they were still keeping pace with me easily, all around me. Maybe half of them were with me now, wrapped in my fog, coating the world in frost. The other half were solidly on Blind Keith’s side.
Where the two met they clashed, violently. Weapons and magics were turned against the other Hunters, not inflicting much damage, but still very much a battle. Even the different storms seemed to be in conflict, sparking angrily where they met, one melting the frost and ice as fast as the other laid it down.
I could probably have stepped in, altered the course of the conflict. I didn’t, and neither did Blind Keith. It might have been out of some sort of honor, but I doubted it. The Wild Hunt wasn’t about honor, not in any sense that human society recognized as such. No, we were staying out of it because we had other things to do, bigger things to worry about.
In my case, it was getting to my destination. I still had a plan, and the wolf was a part of me, which meant it knew the plan. I had a goal, and getting to it was more important to me than making a small difference in a fight here and there.
Blind Keith had a goal as well, but it was a very different one. He was hunting me, personally.
He was blind, obviously, but I didn’t imagine for a moment that that actually handicapped him at all. He was mounted, and he was far more experienced than I was.
I had two slight advantages over him, though. The first was, ironically, his own magic. Much of the fear was being intercepted by another part of me, but what got through was still enough to spur me to new heights of effort. If you want to run, there’s nothing quite like being terrified for your life to make you run fast.
The second thing was also his fault, in a way. This was my place. I knew it, not just through the Hunt, but also from my own memories. I’d run through these hills and trees more times than I could remember. It had been a long time since I lived here, but I still knew the lay of the land, where the shortcuts were, which way to turn at critical junctures. He’d had the choice of terrain for this little conflict, and he’d chosen one of the most advantageous locations for me possible.
They weren’t big advantages, but they were enough that I had a slight lead as we came into town. I sprinted through the streets, everything put into speed now. The asphalt was smoother than the ground of the forest had been, taking the frost more evenly and thoroughly. Blind Keith had to slow down a little so that the thunderstorm around him could melt the frost, or else risk a fall. He chose the former.
I’d crossed most of town by the time I found the people I was looking for. Edward was still human, Anna was still in fur. I recognized most of the rest, couldn’t put names to them right now.
“Hey,” I said, slowing. It was a struggle to slow, to speak, when I had the Hunt and the fear both pushing me to move, to revert to more primitive, animalistic behaviors. “I…I need help.”
Edward stared at me. “Winter?” he asked. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” I said, pushing the fog away from my face with a struggle. I pulled my helmet off, wincing at the light. It was only a crescent moon and some stars, but it felt like I was staring straight into the sun at high noon. “Yeah, it’s me.”
He looked at me, sniffed the air, and then nodded. “Okay,” he said. “What do you need?”
“To hunt,” I said. “Are you with me?”
“Of course,” he said, sounding almost offended.
I smiled, relieved, and put my helmet back on. I’d been pretty sure he would agree, but pretty sure isn’t really enough for something like that.
“Good,” I said, as the cold, stormy fog began to spread across my face again. “Let’s go.”
The werewolves followed as I walked back towards Blind Keith and the Hunt. As we moved, the storm began to wrap itself around them as well.