I never would have guessed it, but in an odd way, I was actually grateful to be blind. I’d picked up a stray cat on the way to the hospital, and I could have been looking through her eyes, but I wasn’t even doing that. It was easier to be blind.
Blind meant I couldn’t see Snowflake lying in a hospital bed like she was dying.
“She woke up earlier,” the attendant said. “Not for long, but she was awake.”
“Is that a good sign?”
There was a brief hesitation. “I think so?” he said. “I mean, I think it would be a good sign for a human. But I’m not a veterinarian, so I don’t have much experience with animals. I mean, I don’t really have much experience at all, but what I do have is with people.”
That phrasing annoyed me, but it wasn’t worth following up on. “You haven’t been a nurse long, then?” I asked. I wasn’t much good at small talk, typically, but at the moment I’d have done almost anything for a distraction.
“Eight months,” he admitted. “But you learn fast.”
“I’d imagine.” I thought for a moment, weighing and debating various options, and then came to a decision. “Get out, please,” I said.
“Get out of this room,” I repeated. “Far enough away that you can’t hear anything going on in here. Go get lunch or something.”
“Why?” His tone was just a little belligerent, like he was offended that I would think that he was willing to abandon his patient.
“Because I told you to,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster. “And I’m thinking you’ve heard enough stories about me that you know better than to ignore me. Now hurry up.”
There was no reply, but I heard footsteps moving away, followed by the quiet click of the door closing. It was a perfectly normal sound, but context gave it an ominous sense of finality.
I dropped into the cat’s mind now, looking around. This was in part to check whether there was anyone else hiding quietly in the room, and in part because I really didn’t want to be blind for this if it worked, and mostly because it meant that I could put off the next part for a few more seconds.
Empty. There was nothing in the hospital room except for me, Snowflake, and a whole lot of medical equipment. She didn’t have quite so many tubes and monitors hooked up as the last time I’d seen her. That was a good sign, I was hoping.
It just wasn’t good enough.
“Loki,” I said. “Loki Lie-Crafter, Loki Sky-Traveler, Loki Laufeyjarson, I summon you.”
There was a long, pregnant pause. Then a voice behind me said, “Howdy. What can I do for ya?”
A voice. Not Loki’s voice, unless he’d changed it considerably.
I turned around slowly, managing not to jump or show other signs of surprise. I turned to face him more to maintain my image than anything, since I really didn’t need to. I’d already gotten a look at things through the stray cat’s eyes.
The being in the room looked like a man. He had sharp features, darkly tanned skin, and a broad, gap-toothed grin. He was wearing a black cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and a worn, battered leather jacket.
“Coyote,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“You tell me,” he said. “Seein’ as you’re the one that called.”
“Nope,” he agreed. “But Loki’s all tied up just now. He’s in a meetin’ with some of our peers to talk about whether he went too far with his little speech. So I figured I’d step in and see what it is you wanted, since he can’t.”
I frowned, thinking. Coyote had always, in my few interactions with him, come across as an easygoing, pleasant guy. But there was no way that was genuine, not with how old and powerful he was. If he was here, he wanted something.
But it was the only game in town, so I shrugged. “I was hoping I could get an answer from him,” I said. “As per our arrangement.”
“I don’t recall bein’ a part of this arrangement,” Coyote said. “But I hear you’ve done all right by the employee I sent your way. So go ahead and ask your question. Maybe I can help you out.”
“At what cost?”
He grinned a little wider. “Well, now, I reckon that’s going to depend on what you’re asking, don’t you? Come on, ask. We both know you’re gonna.”
I sighed. “What should I do to help her?” I asked, pointing at Snowflake. My aim was off by a few feet at least, but I figured he’d get the idea. “And don’t you dare say I should kill her or something like that. I’m not in the mood.”
Coyote shut his mouth, looking disappointed. “Well, shoot,” he said. “If you know the answer, why’d you ask?” He stood and looked at her for a moment, tapping one finger against his mouth. “I suppose I can handle this for you,” he said. “But you’ll owe me for this one, kid. You’ll owe me a favor, and when I come calling you don’t get to argue. Fair?”
It wasn’t remotely fair. Owing someone an unspecified favor of their choosing was maybe the single worst position to be in, in a bargaining sense. It was a situation I normally avoided like the plague.
But for Snowflake, it was worth it.
“Fair,” I said.
“I thought you’d agree with me,” he said. “Get the dog and let’s go.”
I disconnected Snowflake from the various machines, as carefully as I could, and picked her up. She didn’t stir, not even a little bit. I had the cat jump up onto my shoulder as I did, and then the three of us turned back to Coyote.
He was standing next to an Otherside portal, looking bored. “You ready yet?” he asked. If he was feeling any strain from holding the portal open, it didn’t show in his voice or posture.
“Yeah,” I said. “Where are we going?”
“Where we need to be,” he said. “After you, please.”
I grimaced and stepped through.
Unexpectedly, the experience sucked. A lot. I didn’t pass out, the way I used to, but I felt a similar wave of nausea, and developed an instant headache. I staggered on the other side, almost tripping.
What the hell? I thought, trying to figure out what was different about it, why I should suffer this time, when for quite a while now crossing through a portal hadn’t been unpleasant at all.
And then I realized I was blind again, and it became clear. I pulled my mind out of the cat’s, and the feeling went away entirely. Of course. I’d figured out a way to get around the blindness, but now it was just making things worse. It was the same as the dilemma I’d noticed when I first woke up. I had the choice, it was just that both choices were terrible.
I could really get to hate the fae.
“What do you want?” a female voice snapped. “I mean I’m right in the middle of my lunch right now and now I have you here and bloody hell does that dog have a catheter? And that cat just started throwing up on my goddamn floor, do you have any idea how long it took me to get that floor clean?”
I paused. I couldn’t see to confirm it, but there was something about this that was…familiar.
“You’ll deal,” Coyote said. “These two have work for you. On my tab.”
“I hate having to deal with him,” the female said. I presumed that meant Coyote was gone. “Hey, wait. I know you. You’re the one came in a while ago with a kitsune. Poison, right? That was a fucking awful night.”
“I remember,” I said. “But I’m kind of in a rush here.”
“Well let’s take a look at this since apparently now I’m a veterinarian, really wish someone had fucking told me that because you know it really isn’t my area of expertise. Well, hurry up now, put her on the slab. Can’t do a whole hell of a lot just standing here can I?”
I hesitated, but there wasn’t much of a way around it. “I’m actually blind right now,” I said. I really hope it’s just right now, at least, I thought grimly.
“Oh of course you are, because this day just wasn’t bad enough already. I suppose you want me to take care of that in addition to everything the dog needs done?”
“That’d be nice,” I admitted. “But it’s a lower priority right now.”
She snorted rudely. “Well you’re on Coyote’s tab, and I don’t mind saying that I’m just as pleased to charge him through the nose so let’s go ahead and see what we can do while you’re here. But for now I need to take a look at the dog so come here.”
She grabbed my arm roughly, pulling me forward. I jerked away instinctively, caught by surprise, but her grip was surprisingly strong, and I didn’t even come close to shaking her off.
She tugged me on until I walked into the heavy stone slab she used as an operating table, and caught me when I lost my balance at that. I set Snowflake down carefully and backed away, giving her room to work.
“Condition’s stable,” she said after a minute or so. “Don’t know how she’d have done on her own, but I figure I can get her back to shape almost perfectly. Maybe a little brain damage but I’ll have to take a closer look to see for sure on that one and it’s going to take some time. Now get over here so I can see what’s going on with your eyes.”
I started to move, but before I could she’d grabbed me again and started pulling me to the side. I stumbled once or twice, but she caught me and held me up easily, despite being maybe half my size at the most.
“Okay,” she said. “Now lie down on the slab and let me take this cat, not very hygienic but I suppose that isn’t such a problem for you and I can always just splash some disinfectant in your eyes after we’re done, you’re a tough guy so you can take it.”
She snatched the limp weight of the cat off my shoulder, and I felt around for the slab before easing myself onto it. It was hard, and I suspected it would have felt cold to anyone else.
“All right,” she said, talking to herself more than me now. “Pull off the helmet, pull of the blindfold, and what do we have here?” My helmet hit the floor with a metallic clunk, and I felt her start to prod at my eyes. Her fingers, through the latex gloves, were uncomfortably warm, almost hot. I didn’t open them, and she didn’t try to make me. “Interesting bruising here,” she mused. “And a rather odd coloration. How did this happen?”
“I saw what’s under Blind Keith’s blindfold,” I said.
“Fascinating. What’s he look like?”
“I don’t remember.”
She sighed. “Of course not. I’m going to open your eyes now. Try not to do anything stupid.”
She pulled my eyelids up, and once again, the world just sort of…went away. I was drifting, without any real anchor, and I had no idea what was going on. That went on for several seconds as she poked at my eyes. I was aware that I should have found that unpleasant, but I couldn’t actually connect that to a feeling of discomfort.
A few seconds later, she let me go. “Well,” she said, “the good news is I’m pretty sure this is temporary. The bad news is that it’s going to take some time.”
“How much time?” I asked.
I could feel her fingers pull away from my face and then return as she shrugged. “Hard to say. A few months, maybe? Probably less than a year.”
“Months,” I said, with a sinking feeling. “I really can’t afford for this to last for months.”
She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you. I mean I can maybe do something to speed it up but this specific curse isn’t one that I’m familiar with so I can’t say for sure what will happen. I’m like seventy percent sure it will speed things up at least a little, so it maybe takes a few weeks instead of months, but the other thirty percent I have no idea what happens. Maybe it cures you instantly, or maybe it makes this permanent.”
I debated for a few seconds, then sighed. As usual, I was borrowing against tomorrow to pay my dues today. But if I didn’t live through the next few months, which might well be the case if I were blind at a key moment, this might as well be permanent.
“Do it,” I said.
“Cool,” she said. “I mean it’s up to you and everything, but I really kinda want to see what happens.” She disappeared, returning several seconds later. “This will hurt,” she said, reaching for my face again.
I didn’t fight as she peeled my eyelids back again, taping them against my forehead. Then she dumped something onto my face.
It hurt. More specifically, it hurt the way I imagined having battery acid dumped straight into your eyes might hurt. And then it got worse. The battery acid was boiling now.
I screamed, and kept screaming until I lost consciousness.
Waking up was easier than I’d expected. Harder in some ways—I couldn’t blink, and that made it feel rather strange—but easier in others. Quicker, if nothing else. I didn’t need to think to remember where I was, or how I’d gotten there.
“How’d it work?” I asked, sitting up. I reached out and found the cat a moment later, giving me enough vision to determine that the doctor was standing by Snowflake doing something inexplicable with a syringe. The cat was watching it with a sort of bored amusement. She’d been fed recently.
“Not bad, not bad at all,” the doctor replied. “I’m like ninety percent that your eyes are getting better now. Faster than I thought they would, too. You should be good to take the bandages off in about a week, and your eyes should be working within a week or two after that. I mean not working perfectly, there’s going to be some sequelae and, you know, side effects and shit like that. But you’ll be able to see, sort of.”
“You,” I muttered, “do not have a comforting bedside manner.”
“Slabside,” she corrected me. “And you know people tell me that sometimes, but I’m still the best at what I do so they keep coming back. I just figure, you know, fuck it. This deal with the dog is going to take a while you know, maybe a week or two? You might as well go, come back later and pick her up.”
“How do I get back here?” I asked, standing up. I was a little dizzy, and my eyes felt like they were the size of tennis balls crammed into sockets that couldn’t begin to hold them, but overall I was better off than I’d expected.
“There’s a room over there, behind the curtain, for people to show up. Open a portal there. You can open a portal right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I can. Thanks.”
“Coyote’s paying,” she said, shrugging. “Oh, and leave the cat. I haven’t had one around in a while. It’s kinda nice you know, and it gives the kids something to cuddle with while I’m cutting them up.”
“I don’t think she’s that great at cuddling.”
“Neither am I,” the doctor said, grabbing a tool off the slab. She pushed a button and it started to spin, something like a tiny buzzsaw.
I decided to leave before I saw what she was planning to do with that. I took the time to study the alcove behind the curtain before I left, making sure I knew it well enough to open a portal there, and I left the cat behind.
“We’ve got them,” Kyi said excitedly. “Both of them, ninety-five percent confidence that we have the location of their headquarters.”
I started to look up, remembered, and borrowed a raven outside to do so instead. It was a little while after noon, early enough that it would be several hours before dusk. “Great,” I said. “We’re hitting Katrin’s base, ASAP. Call Kikuchi, Frishberg, Pellegrini, and the independent mages and see if any of them want to participate. Other than that, I want all of the Inquisition mages and about half the housecarls, the werewolves if they want to come. Leave the other housecarls, the ghouls, Jackal’s people, Jack, and any of the humans who can fight to defend this house.”
“Yes, my jarl,” she said, bowing slightly. “Which of the housecarls do you want with us?”
“You know what we’re likely to be facing here. Use your best judgment,” I said. “Selene!”
“Yes?” the succubus said, from right next to me. Apparently she’d been standing there all along, and I just hadn’t noticed.
I tried not to jump, and reminded myself that apologizing wasn’t something a jarl did. “Get equipment distributed,” I said. “I want everyone going on this raid carrying grenades, light sources, and at least one sharp edge to decapitate a vamp with. Anyone who can reliably use a holy symbol of some kind comes with us, and make sure they’re carrying them. Tindr!”
“Here, jarl,” Tindr said. He was a distance away, but I heard his footsteps approaching rapidly.
“Call every church and place of worship in town,” I said. “Everyone you can get in touch with. I want as much holy water and blessed objects as you can beg, borrow, or steal. Keep it separate, but distribute it out. I want everyone that goes with us to be carrying water balloons, squirt guns, anything you can come up with. Also, figure out a way to get everyone a head of garlic.” I looked around—well, turned my head around, at least. “Move, people!”
They ran off in different directions, all three of them shouting orders to their various underlings. I walked over and sat in my throne, smiling a little.
“Wow,” Aiko said, hugging me casually. “This is it, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “This is it.”