The room was fairly small, and it was weird. For one thing, it was made of silver. Literally made of silver, the walls and floor and ceiling all sheets of metal. Unlike the hallway leading here, it was brightly lit, pure white light shining off every surface from no apparent source. The place was a peculiar mix of cutting-edge technology and ancient magic; hospital equipment and computer screens stood side-by-side with magical fetishes and ritual objects. Runes and other, less identifiable symbols were painted on the walls, almost covering the metal with how thickly they were arranged on the walls.
Everything—the hospital equipment, the ritual objects, the runes—it was all arranged around a bed on the other side of the room. It looked a little like a hospital bed, but it was larger, and looked at least marginally more comfortable.
Aiko was lying in the bed, and she looked terrible. Her knees were thicker than her thighs, and I could not only count her ribs from across the room, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I could count vertebrae. Her eyes were closed, and for a second I was scared that she was dead, but after a moment I saw that she was still breathing, just very quietly.
As much as I hated to admit it, though, my attention was mostly focused on the person sitting next to her. There was something about her that drew the eye like a magnet, irresistibly.
It was hard to say why. She was small, probably barely five feet, and hunched over in her chair so that she looked even smaller. She was wrapped in black cloth, except it went further than just black. It was almost like she was clothed in darkness made manifest. The light that filled the room and left every other surface gleaming didn’t seem to touch her. Every inch of skin was shrouded in that fabric, her face lost in shadows under a deep hood. I couldn’t even say why I got the impression of femininity from her, except that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was female.
Looking at her, I was struck with a feeling so intense that it was almost a vision. There was a feeling of the wind blowing over vast steppes, stars wheeling in the sky against the backdrop of the ever-shifting moon, the slow passing of years dragging on into a blur as the stars themselves shifted in their orbits. There was a feeling of power, so vast and fundamental that it permeated the entire island. I’d been smelling it since I first set foot within the castle, I just hadn’t recognized its source.
I blinked, and stared at her, almost dazed. I couldn’t remember having ever seen this much power in one place before. Excepting Loki and Coyote, probably, but they were a hell of a lot more subtle about it.
“Come in,” she said. Her voice was a rasp, sending chills down my spine; I shivered a little at the sound, involuntarily. “Sit down.”
I obeyed, without even thinking about it. I had a guess, just the tiniest guess, about who this was, and if I was even close to right, there was no point in arguing with her.
I stepped inside the room, wincing a little at how much silver there was. It was burning my feet a little, even through the boots, and I was itching within seconds. Kyra whined quietly with pain as she followed, but she followed. Both of the kitsune came in, and Snowflake was pressed tight against my shins, her fear humming in the back of my head. She’d picked up enough of my thoughts on this situation to be absolutely terrified of the person sitting in here.
I walked until I was facing her at a comfortable conversational distance, then sat, fully confident that there would be something for me to sit on by the time I got there.
I wasn’t wrong. A wooden chair appeared underneath me, all hard angles and a bit too low for comfort. Similar chairs appeared for the two kitsune, while simple wooden benches were provided for the canines. Kyra jumped up gratefully; the silver was still intensely uncomfortable, but getting out of direct contact with it did a lot to limit the pain. A small wooden table appeared between me and the woman in black.
All of the wood was the same blacker-than-black color as her clothing, darker than even the finest ebony. This was no natural wood.
“Who am I?” the woman asked.
I swallowed hard. “I don’t know,” I said.
She reached out and cuffed me on the head. I never saw her move, but suddenly something hit me on the side of the head, and I was knocked sprawling to the ground. It wasn’t painful, exactly—she wasn’t hitting me to hurt—but it dazed me for a second, and being knocked to the silver floor wasn’t doing me a whole lot of good.
I pushed myself back to my feet and sat down again. Notably, no one made any kind of complaint, not even Snowflake. We were that scared of this creature. “What was that for?” I asked, making sure that my tone was in no way aggressive or whining.
“Don’t play stupid with me,” she rasped. “You may not know, but you can guess.”
I swallowed again. “Yeah,” I admitted. “From what I’ve seen…yeah. I’m guessing you’re the eldest queen of the Midnight Court.”
She inclined her cowled head very, very slightly. “Correct,” she said in that same rasping voice.
I shivered again, not so much from the voice as from what she’d said.
The Crone of Midnight. The Grandmother of the Unseelie Sidhe.
I was talking to one of the scariest beings in existence. The eldest Queen of the Midnight Court. This was the oldest and most powerful Faerie Queen from the more violent, predatory side of Faerie. Every wicked stepmother, every crone in the woods, every witch that lured the children in for her dinner, every hag in every fairy tale…they were all, in the end, just echoes of this. They were all pretenders to her throne. She was the eldest and greatest, everything they aspired to be. She was a force of nature as much as a person, so feared that I’d never met a single person who would so much as speak her name.
And she was sitting here talking to me.
Great, I thought sourly. And here I thought declaring war on Scáthach was going to be the most suicidal Sidhe-related thing I did today.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but why are you here?”
“So ungrateful,” she rasped. “Do you so soon forget the favors of the past? Or did you think you found your way here by chance? Did you imagine that it was so easy to reach this sanctum?”
“It’s not that I’m ungrateful, ma’am,” I said. “It’s that I’ve had some experience with such things. In my experience, favors are seldom free, especially when granted by someone of your stature. Such things have consequences.”
“Clever child,” she said. Teeth glinted for a moment in the darkness under her hood; a smile, presumably, although I couldn’t see for sure. “Too clever by half.”
I swallowed again. “Are you here to keep me from killing Scáthach, then?”
“There has always been a Maiden of Midnight,” she said, not answering the question. “Once it was Nemain. Now it is Scáthach. One day it will be another. What care have I for such things?”
“Nemain,” I said. “That’s one of the Morrigan. The old Irish war goddesses.” Or goddess, depending; I was never totally clear on whether it was three deities or one with three aspects.
Teeth glinted within the hood again. Grandmother Midnight said nothing.
“Okay,” I said. “That is incredibly disturbing.”
“You know so little,” she rasped. “So little of what passes about you. So little of the forces which move you. Give me your hands.”
I hesitated. “Will you give them back?”
“That remains to be seen,” she said, with the faintest trace of black, grim amusement in her voice. “Give them, or I will take them.”
I shrugged and extended my hands towards her, across the table. Again, I never saw her move, but she reached out and snatched them, pulling them close. I was tugged forward, almost falling out of the chair; I had to be almost twice her size, but when she pulled, there was no question of me resisting. I could come with, or I could have my arms ripped from their sockets; there wasn’t much in between.
Somehow, her own hands were still concealed beneath the sleeves of the robe. I could feel them, though, as she held my wrists. Her skin was deathly cold, chilly even to me; her fingers were skinny as though there was nothing there but skin and bone. Her nails were long, and sharp.
She tugged my gauntlets off and tossed them carelessly aside, seeming not to care about the iron in the metal in them, then held my hands up before her cowl, examining them closely.
Finally, after an agonizingly long few moments, she let me go. “You are your grandfather’s child,” she said. “Tell me, child, do you wish to know your fate? Would you know your future?”
I started to answer, then hesitated. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think the only way I could know the answer to that is if I already knew my fate. Once that happens it’s already too late.”
Teeth gleamed again in the darkness under her hood. “And you show wisdom as well as cunning,” she murmured in her quiet rasp. She produced a deck of jet-black cards and set them in the center of the table. “Cut,” she said.
I stared at them. The backs of the cards were unmarked, pure black of the same sort as her clothing. “No, thanks,” I said.
“Cut,” she said again, more firmly. I shrugged and took one card off the deck, setting it to the side. I got a glimpse of the face of the card as I did.
It looked the same as the back, utterly black without marking or meaning.
Grandmother Midnight smiled again, momentarily, teeth gleaming for an instant before all was dark again. “Interesting choice,” she said, slipping the card to the bottom of the deck. Then she flipped the top card lightly off the deck, letting it slide across the table until it came to a rest in front of Katsunaga.
The black face of the card glimmered with light, and then a faint tracery of silver spread across it, lines as thin as spiderwebs branching out across it. They faded in and out, making it hard to see quite what they were hinting at, but there were hints. Here was the suggestion of a sword, there a hint of scales.
“Justice,” the crone said simply. The word had a heaviness to it, the simple finality of a tombstone. Katsunaga bowed his head silently; it was impossible to say what he felt at this.
Another card slid across the table, coming to rest in front of Kyra. Again, silver light sparked and flickered across the black surface of the card, alternately revealing and concealing. There were hints of wolves, of water, suggestions of a moon shifting from sliver to circle and back again.
“The Moon. How apropos.” Kyra whined quietly in response, but I couldn’t have said quite why.
Another card, this one sliding to Kuzunoha. This time the light traced out suggestions of a staff, a key, a pillar.
“The Hierophant. Is that a kindness for you, or a cruelty?”
Kuzunoha just smiled in reply. Her tails flickered briefly through a complex series of movements before going still again. The black hood nodded, very slightly, before reaching for the deck again.
The next card went to Snowflake. This time the light traced out suggestions of something slightly more abstract. There were odd geometric figures, broken lines and odd angles, a hint of something that might have been meant to represent fire.
“The Tower. All things fall in time.” Again, the card was met with silence.
Finally, one of the cards slid to a stop in front of me. Silver light outlined a skull, a scythe, hints of a robe. Even before the word, the nature of the card was clear.
“Death. But not for you, jarl.”
I looked at the card, then looked back to Grandmother Midnight. “I’m surprised you would use Tarot cards, ma’am. They seem too young for you.”
“Young things may still serve a purpose,” she said. Then she laughed.
It was a horrible sound. It caught in her throat and worked its way out only with difficulty, as though straining against its confines. It slipped through the air with the delicate grace of a cat stalking its prey, and brushed against me as tenderly as an assassin’s dagger laid gently against my spine.
I shuddered and pressed myself back in the chair at the sound, just to be slightly further away from that laughter.
“You seek the death of a Queen of Faerie,” she said, while the echoes of that hideous laughter were still fading. “This is far beyond your means. I would have thought you would know this, child; you have seen the unbridled power of a god before.”
“Those were greater deities,” I said. “Ancient even by the standards of the gods. Scáthach is the least of the Queens of the Unseelie Court. She’s not even on the same planet as them in terms of power.”
“Even so, this is not a fight that you can hope to win.”
“Right now, ma’am, I don’t give a damn. I came here knowing it was likely to be a suicide mission. I’m okay with that. There comes a point where you have to draw a line and say to hell with the consequences. I’m not willing to let her get away with this.”
“Indeed.” Grandmother Midnight considered me for a moment. “I could offer you a share of my power for the time. You could be my champion in this matter.”
I froze. “I thought the eldest Queens didn’t keep mortal champions,” I said, very, very carefully.
I thought I saw another gleam of teeth within the cowl. “In the past, we have not.”
I swallowed. “So…why would you now?”
“My reasons are my own, boy, as they always are. The offer has been made; that is all you need know.”
I thought for a second. This was…power on a level I couldn’t even conceive of. Carraig was only Scáthach’s champion, and it had still turned him from a normal man into a killing machine that could take on an entire army and walk away laughing. To be Grandmother Midnight’s champion would mean…I couldn’t even wrap my head around that. It would be the kind of power that could go toe-to-toe with the major players. In one step, it would take fighting Scáthach from suicide to a reasonably fair match.
“No,” I said.
“No,” I said. “Favors have consequences, ma’am. I don’t think I like the consequences of this one.”
“In that case,” she said, “good luck surviving the next few hours. You’re likely to need it. Take your cards with you. You’ll find them useful eventually.”
“Wait,” I said, before she could stand. “How do I wake Aiko up?”
She sighed, a sound nearly as upsetting as her laugh. There was ancient hatred and contempt and weariness and bleak amusement all bound up into a single emotion so complex I couldn’t begin to name it, but I could feel it in her sigh. “Humans,” she said disgustedly. “Always looking past the obvious.”
Then she grabbed me by the neck and physically threw me into the hospital bed with Aiko. My helmet flew off and knocked over a stand of crystal tubes, and my head hit the wall, dazing me. I thought it might have knocked a tooth loose, and it had definitely split my lip; I could taste blood. I slumped forward momentarily, and my face brushed against Aiko’s.
After a couple of seconds, I collected myself enough to push myself back to a half-sitting position, bracing myself against the next attack.
It didn’t come.
A moment later, Aiko’s eyes opened. For a moment there was fear in them, a blind, mad, animal terror that overwhelmed all rational thought.
Then her features returned to their usual devil-may-care mask, hiding any hint of fear beneath. Her tongue flickered out to taste my blood on her lips, and she grinned.
“Damn,” she said, her voice weak but still recognizably hers. “I gotta say, of all the ways to wake up from that fucking nightmare, naked with you on top of me? Not bad.”