Open my eyes, and the world went away.
Close them, and things were normal again. I couldn’t see, but I had an awareness of what was going on, I could hear and smell and feel things.
Open, and the world faded. I lost track of anything that might have been happening. I couldn’t see, or hear, or smell, or even think beyond the most basic of concepts. The world was just a blur, passing me by without my really being aware of what was going on.
Okay, I thought, closing my eyes again. I can deal with this.
So what did I know? Well, first off, the Wild Hunt was gone, or more accurately I was gone from it. There was no way I could have missed the sort of constant sensory input that connection provided, and I wasn’t feeling anything of the sort now.
I wasn’t in the forest. Again, I would have known that. There were scents associated with that environment, very distinctive scents, and I wasn’t smelling them. There was no odor of pine, no rich aroma of decaying humus. Instead I got the scents of clean fabric and soap. I was naked, but I could feel cloth against my skin when I moved, something that felt like flannel. Sheets, most likely.
So I’d been moved, and I was in a bed. That could be a very good or a very bad sign, depending upon who’d moved me. I tried to figure that out, and at first I didn’t make much, if any, progress. I could hear voices, but they were quiet enough or distant enough that I couldn’t make out words or meaning. I tried to reach out and feel for any animals that could give me a glimpse of what was going on, but I accidentally opened my eyes partway through getting the magic together, and dashed my concentration to pieces.
Damn, that was annoying. It struck me suddenly that if this kept up for very long at all, I would need some sort of blindfold to hold my eyelids closed. That made me think of Blind Keith, and that reminded me that this might very well not be a temporary problem. He was fae, the most powerful and deadly sort of fae, and a curse from that sort of being had a tendency to be permanent.
I tried not to think about that. I needed to focus right now, needed to keep my mind on track, and if there was one thing that was absolutely guaranteed to make me lose that focus, the idea of being permanently blinded was right up there in terms of what it might be.
I took a breath, forcing myself to keep still and calm in case anyone unfriendly was watching and waiting for me to wake up, and started to gather my magic again. Then I paused, noticing another scent, one which was considerably more welcome than anything else I’d experienced since meeting up with Blind Keith. The main tone was werewolf, with hints of olive oil and oregano, familiar and comforting.
“Anna?” I said. My voice came out as a croak, only barely comprehensible as speech.
A moment later, she hugged me, squeezing hard enough that my ribs wanted to scream. Had they been broken recently enough that it was a problem? I couldn’t remember offhand, which worried me more than if I’d known for a fact that they had.
I’d been warned by a rustle of cloth, and thus I managed to keep from making any noise in response. But I still made the mistake of opening my eyes again as she hugged me, after which it took a few seconds to get them closed again and get my head in gear.
I could really get to hate this. It wasn’t just the blindness, although that was more than bad enough. It was the fact that I had to choose blindness. If I’d had any doubts that Blind Keith was fae to the core, this dispelled them. The way it forced me to choose between bad and worse, the way it took something that should have been good and made it instead a devastating weakness, it was all in line with how the fae did things.
I could really get to hate them.
“Oh, my God,” Anna said, letting me go. “You’re finally awake.”
“Finally?” I said, as flippantly as I could. “How long have I been asleep?” My voice still sounded horrid, but I thought it was getting better.
“Around twelve hours,” she told me. “We were starting to worry whether you’d wake up. And your eyes.”
Anna stopped talking very suddenly at that. I couldn’t see her face, obviously, but I would have bet that she had the classic oh, shit expression on. She’d said something she hadn’t meant to, and she’d very nearly said something that she really hadn’t meant to. And somehow I was very confident that I wanted to hear the next line even less than she wanted to say it.
But what I wanted didn’t have a whole lot to do with what I needed to know. So I took another deep breath and asked, “What’s wrong with my eyes?”
There was another long, quiet pause. “I’m not sure,” she said at last, and now she didn’t sound so happy. “None of us have ever seen anything quite like it before. Not even Edward. It almost makes me think of a broken hollandaise. It’s like everything’s still there, it’s just…not meshing together right.”
“Except this is my eyes,” I said quietly.
“Yeah,” she said. “Except for that.”
“I’m blind, by the way. Or as good as. I’ll need some kind of blindfold, I think. Actually opening my eyes just makes it worse.”
“With how they look, I’m not surprised,” she said tartly. “How did this even happen?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” I said. Thinking back on it, there was just a gap. I couldn’t remember anything of what happened between the moment Blind Keith lifted his blindfold and the moment I woke up. “But if I had to guess, I looked at something I really shouldn’t have.”
“I thought it was something like that,” she said. She reached out and took my hand, holding it tightly. I couldn’t deny that I was a little grateful for it. I wasn’t normally the type to really express affection physically, but under the circumstances, that connection, that grounding in the rest of the world was very welcome.
“Is the pack all right?” I asked.
There was a pause before she said, “Yeah, we’re fine. Some bruises, but nothing serious. A couple of guys probably got a look at the same thing that put you down, but they woke up after a few hours, and their eyes were fine by this morning.”
So what was that pause about? I wondered. If things were that good, if everyone was fine, then what had made her hesitate to tell me so?
And then I realized that she hadn’t hesitated. She’d nodded, before realizing that that wasn’t enough, that I couldn’t see it. Because I couldn’t see.
There had to be some kind of cure, something I could do about this. This was…I was not prepared to go through life like this.
“So,” Anna said, and there was a hint of anger to her voice that made me sit up a little straighter. “I heard you asked Kyra for help with something back in Colorado. I heard this from Edward, because you specifically told Kyra not to tell me about it.”
I made the mistake of opening my eyes to gauge her expression, and lost another few seconds. “Yeah,” I said sheepishly once I’d managed to get myself together again. “Yeah, I did.” I reached out blindly and grabbed one of the sheets, wrapping it tightly around my face. It wasn’t an ideal blindfold, but it would do for the moment.
“Because I thought that you’d want to help otherwise,” I said quietly. “And you don’t have enough experience to handle this.”
“How am I going to get experience if you won’t let me do anything?” she asked, sounding more exasperated than angry now. “I have to start somewhere, Winter.”
“This isn’t a good place to start. Things are bad right now. Maybe the worst I’ve ever seen.”
“Well, that’s what I have to work with,” she said. “Or do you think this is going to blow over? You think things are going to magically go back to the way they used to be? Because I don’t think that can happen.”
I sighed. “You’re right,” I said reluctantly. “I suppose I could bring you with me when I go back. But you’d have to listen when I tell you to do things.”
“No problem! I’ll go and get everything I need. You won’t regret this, Winter.”
I was already regretting it, but I didn’t say a thing as she scampered out of the room. I just sat there with a sheet wrapped tightly around my face to keep me from opening my eyes by accident, thinking about just how badly things had gone wrong.
A minute or so later, I heard footsteps approaching, followed by a creak as weight settled into the chair next to the bed. “You’re flashing everyone that walks by with how you pulled that blanket off,” Edward said a few moments later. “In case you care.”
I didn’t, really, but I shrugged the blanket back into position on the off chance that someone else would. “What happened after the fight?” I asked. “I sort of lost it there towards the end.”
There was a rustle of cloth suggesting that he’d shrugged. “Nothing much,” he said. “After you went down, the fighting mostly stopped. The Wild Hunt left after a minute or so. They didn’t really care about us, once you were taken out.”
Somehow it didn’t surprise me that he’d recognized the Wild Hunt. “There were no injuries?”
“Nothing major,” he said. “A handful of young wolves tried to handle something they weren’t ready for and got themselves beat up a little, but it’ll heal. That sort of thing happens when young wolves get themselves into messes they can’t handle.”
I sighed. “This is about Anna,” I stated. “You really aren’t good at subtle.”
“Nope,” he said, and I could almost hear him grinning. “But it’s a valid point. You really sure you should take her with you? Might not be doing her any favors, getting her into a fight against these sorts of people.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “But I don’t see what else I can do. She’s young, and she thinks she’s invincible. So she’s going to act like it until she realizes that there are much scarier things out there than werewolves. I’ve seen it before. I don’t really like it, but I figure it’s probably better that she work through that when I’m around in case something goes wrong than if she does it on her own.”
“Maybe,” he said. “God knows I’ve seen enough younglings that think they’re immortal. I don’t like it, but…maybe she’s right. Things aren’t getting better from here, not that I can see. Maybe she does need to learn how to live in the new world.” There was a long, heavy silence after that, before he said, “Take care of my pack, Winter.”
“I will,” I said. “As best I can. Do you know where my stuff is?”
“Right next to you,” he said. “Let me help you into it.”
“Thanks,” I said, sitting up and swinging my legs off the bed. “And…do you have anything I could use for a blindfold? I really don’t think leaving without one is a good idea.”
“No problem,” he said, accompanied by a sound of tearing cloth. “Lean forward so I can tie this on.”
I did, and he tied it around my eyes. It was a strip of fabric torn from the sheet, longer than I needed and ragged-edged, but it was a lot more convenient than having the entire sheet trailing behind me, and it would keep me from opening my eyes by mistake.
“Thanks for this,” I said, as he handed me the pants and shirt I’d been wearing under the armor. “For the help, I mean. I didn’t mean to put your pack in any danger, but I had the Wild Hunt after me and I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, helping me into the armor. It was fairly involved process, pretty challenging to do by myself even when I could see all the buckles. “You’ve stuck your neck out for us a few times. As far as I’m concerned you’re as good as pack, and the pack looks out for its own.”
“Still,” I said. “Thanks.” A minute or two passed in silence as I finished donning my armor and checked that everything was on and secure. “Cloak?” I asked.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I frowned, and reached out for it with my magic. I’d made that cloak, and I knew it with an intimacy that was hard to even conceptualize, let alone describe. It wasn’t hard for me to feel it, pooled on the floor beside the bed.
I picked it up and draped it around my shoulders, reshaping it from a puddle back into a cloak, and making sure that all the weapons and tools that were supposed to be in it found their way back to the places I wanted them. The result wasn’t as pretty as it might have been if I’d been able to see, but I thought it was passable.
“Ah,” Edward said. “Cloak. Now I see what you mean.” He pressed something into my hand. By the feel of it, it was round, hard, maybe three feet long, and probably wooden. A cane. “This might help while your eyes are out of it,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, although I didn’t like admitting it. “Thanks for the help.”
“Don’t mention it. Like I said, pack looks out for its own.”
“I know,” I said. “I will.”
Back in Colorado, the mansion looked like it had been the site of a pitched battle. I was looking at things through Anna’s eyes, which made the picture a little blurrier, but I could see enough to recognize that much. The building had taken a fair amount of damage, most of it cosmetic, but some of it structural. Nothing that concerning, in the immediate sense. The forest around the house hadn’t fared so well, with large areas being scarred by bullets, fires, or more exotic defenses.
Anna whined a little at the sight, and I picked up my pace slightly.
Inside, I went straight to the throne, ignoring the hush that fell over the room with my entrance. It wasn’t as busy as it had been a few days earlier, just after Loki’s pronouncement, but there was still a decently large number of people gathered there, talking, working. People read pages, scribbled on them, and then handed them to runners to be conveyed to the next person in line.
But when I walked in, the quiet hum of activity ceased entirely. It was a brief lull, but very noticeable.
I’d barely been on the throne a second before a trio appeared in front of me. Kyi bowed, Selene nodded, and Aiko hugged me tightly, slapped me across one armored cheek, and then sat down next to me.
“Okay,” I said. “What happened here?”
“Newton and his faction of the independents attacked us yesterday,” Selene said instantly. “Then Katrin led a raid on this location. Both attacks were rebuffed easily, and without any casualties or serious injuries.”
“We have people tracking them back to their hideouts?”
“Yes,” Kyi said. “Both groups. The werewolves, Vigdis, and Jackal’s people are all working on localizing them.”
“Good. Aside from those attacks, has anything of note happened?”
“Not really,” Kyi said. “We’ve been focusing primarily on maintaining our current status while you’ve been gone. Some minor skirmishes with the vampires and some independents on our borders, but nothing major. The rakshasas appear to be dead or gone, and the military are still sitting tight on the land they claimed. The cops have an alliance with some of the independent factions that look more favorably on us, and their territories are effectively joined together.”
“Which, considering our alliance with both parties, effectively brings that part of the city under our control,” I noted.
“Very good. And finances?”
“Not great, not terrible,” Selene said. “Tindr’s managed to keep most of your assets afloat, and he’s converted some of them to cash if we need it. But we wiped out a lot of our ready cash hiring those people you sent down here. We’re getting by, but if something big comes up, we might not have enough to handle it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Good work, people. Excellent work. Anna, go with these people. They’ll send you to where Kyra is, and you can help her track our targets down. Selene, I want to be notified if anything changes, or the instant that we have a confirmed location for either of the groups that attacked us.”
“Got it, Boss,” she said. “Where will you be?”
They couldn’t see it, but I was confident my expression wasn’t a happy one. “I’m going to go see Snowflake,” I said.