I started to curse Loki, but stopped myself. Getting a reaction out of me would just encourage him. Besides, he was already gone.
And I had bigger issues to worry about. The wintry storm of the Hunt, of my Hunt, was gathering rapidly about me, wreathing my hands and feet, climbing up to surround me completely. It would only be a minute or two before I was entirely shrouded in the freezing fog, and I somehow knew that once that happened, the Wild Hunt would begin in earnest.
Then I felt something else, and my eyes widened. It was the full moon, and I’d been feeling the urge to change into fur for quite a while, but I’d been able to keep it under control. It helped that I’d been in and out of the Otherside so much. Then I’d changed to run across Romania. Running was the next best thing to hunting, and it had done a lot to satisfy the wolf in me.
But now that primal, basic urge was intensifying, the need to change swelling in time with the fog that wrapped itself around me. My hands started to change, twisting into paws, drawing a scream from me as the changing shape came into conflict with the gauntlets I was wearing.
I tried to choke it back down, and I managed it, but the urge was still getting stronger, and for all my discipline, I didn’t think I could keep the change away once the Hunt was here for real. It just wasn’t possible.
I started stripping the armor off with hasty, near-panicked movements, throwing it on the ground carelessly. I thought about keeping my foci, adjusting them to my new skin the way I sometimes did for a fight, but there was no time. By the time my armor was off, I was panting, my fingers fumbling and clumsy. The fog was starting to spread across my chest now, over my face.
With shaking hands I pulled off my clothing, dropping it on the ground in a heap. The jewelry went next, leaving me naked in the moonlight, hidden only by the storm of the Wild Hunt gathered around me.
Naked in Russia on an autumn night, and I wasn’t freezing. I wasn’t even uncomfortable. On the contrary, it felt right, felt natural. This was good.
I stopped resisting and the change hit me like a ton of bricks, smashing me to the ground. I was already starting to twist by the time I hit the ground, limbs warping and shifting, my skin splitting and reforming as the flesh underneath moved around. Joints popped in and out of socket as the bones snapped and then knit themselves back together.
Unusually, there was no pain. Normally the change was agony from start to finish, and while the influence of the full moon eased the pain, there was still pain. This time, there was still sensation, but it was altered, transmuted by the storm and moonlight and the thundering rush of blood in my ears into something entirely less straightforward. I knew what I was feeling was supposed to be painful, but the actual sensation wasn’t there. On the contrary, all I could feel was pleasure, mad, overwhelming, almost orgasmic pleasure, wiping everything else away.
I stood, and I was shaking a little, panting, hyperaware of everything around me. The breeze hit me with the scents of blood and death and I shuddered, barely able to stand, my attention narrowing down to nothing more than that scent and my own intense, overwhelming hunger.
Changing under the full moon was always like a drug, but it was a drug that I knew. This was entirely different, the Wild Hunt’s influence pushing it far beyond what I’d been prepared for. It was like giving someone crack when they were expecting coffee. I couldn’t even think.
This is what it feels like to go moon-crazy, I thought distantly. This is how werewolves go mad.
And then, when I was just beginning to come to grips with the feelings, the mantle of the Wild Hunt finished wrapping itself around me, and added another layer to the madness.
I’d been in the Hunt before, but being the center of it, being the seed crystal that the Hunt grew from, was an entirely different experience. As it finished engulfing me, I felt it snap into place and reach out, trying to make connections with other Hunters.
I couldn’t say why, but somehow I was convinced this was an important moment, a definitional moment. This was my first time as the leader of the Wild Hunt in truth, and in some ways it was when the Wild Hunt decided what that meant. Who it brought to me, who it felt belonged in my Hunt, would in large part decide what that Hunt became.
And there was nothing I could do to influence it. At this point, there was nothing for me to do but sit and watch.
The first person it found was Anna, sitting nearby and watching me curiously. The fog started at her feet and climbed rapidly up her body, first in thin streamers, then coming in heavier, until her fur was completely hidden. I could feel it as she was brought into the Hunt, could feel her excitement and anticipation not quite covering a thin edge of fear. She’d been a part of the Hunt in the past, and while I could feel that she was looking forward to feeling that way again, looking forward to it enough to be a little disturbing, there was also an element of dread. The loss of personal identity, the loss of individual choice, was a frightening prospect even to someone who was otherwise entirely on board with the concept.
After that, it began reaching farther afield. I could feel the Hunt reaching out in directions that didn’t quite make sense, and after a few moments holes opened in the world, somewhere between Otherside portals and tunnels leading sideways from the world.
A wolf on two legs stepped out of the first one, accompanied by half a dozen faerie hounds. He watched me with an odd, knowing smile as the storm began to wrap itself around him. The next produced four Sidhe on large black horses, wearing dark, delicate-looking armor. Their eyes gleamed with fey light, and their half-smiles were sharp enough to slit a throat. More hounds accompanied them, huge lean animals with blazing eyes. A third, after a few moments, dropped Kyra and Snowflake beside me. Neither one should have been capable of getting there, but the influence of the Wild Hunt changed all that. If Snowflake’s brain wasn’t in shape to direct her movements, the Hunt could do it for her; if Kyra’s leg couldn’t bear her weight, the storm could carry her along.
The next three openings all dropped jötnar onto the hill. Some I recognized as my housecarls, but many were strangers to me. A handful rode horses, and one trio were seated upon unimaginably huge wolves, but most walked. More wolves followed them, easily the size of werewolves if nowhere close to as large as the creatures the other jötnar rode.
The freezing cloud closed around all of them, and I felt the accumulated powers of the Wild Hunt flowing into me. I was stronger, faster, more graceful. There were enough werewolves in the mix that I could smell everything for miles around, enough Hunters that I could feel and see everything in the vicinity.
I debated saying something, decided against it. I could have gotten around my current body easily—if nothing else, the other Hunters would probably understand exactly what I meant even if all I did was snarl a little—but there was nothing to say, nothing that needed said.
I started down the hill towards the fighting, moving at top speed. I was running flat out, and it made our run across Romania look slow. I started at around forty or fifty miles an hour, and sped up from there, until we must have been doing something like seventy through the trees. It should have been suicide, even if I could have managed it, but just now it didn’t matter. I had the grace of the Sidhe, ensuring that every footstep was perfectly placed. Even more, the storm of the Wild Hunt extended close to ten feet from my skin now, painting the world in a thick coat of frost and ice. I could feel everything that fell within that space, and the ice provided exactly the footing I needed from one step to the next.
I was running through a forest without a trail, going at a pace that would have normally been frightening to maintain on an open highway, and it was easy. The rest of the Hunt was following me, but not a one of them could pass me, not even the Sidhe horses.
At such a ridiculous pace, it took only a few moments to reach the beginning of the fighting. Twisted creatures stood in front of me, things that used to be people, but had left that behind long ago. Death had claimed them, but even in death they couldn’t rest.
Something about that made me angry. Not that it mattered—I would have killed them again just for the joy of it, just to taste the blood and feel the moon singing in my ears. But it was good. This was a good hunt.
They fell within my storm and they died. It was as simple as that. They couldn’t see, blinded by fog and frost, but my vision was as clear as it had ever been. They couldn’t move, slipping and stumbling on the ice, but to my feet it was as smooth and certain as an open field.
The rest of the Wild Hunt came behind me, spreading out now into a broad arc, and we swung around, encircling the group of creatures. Trapped, blind, and surrounded, it was only moments before the group was torn to pieces.
Moving on, just as fast. I ran through the midst of the Hunt to reclaim my rightful position at the front, panting and laughing. Bloody drool, tainted with decay and ugly magics, dripped onto my fur, and I didn’t give a damn. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Further, faster. I could hear the sound of fighting now, screaming and gunfire, explosions, the sharp crack of thunder.
The main body of the enemy is in front of us now, hundreds of thousands of walking corpses, monsters with no conception of fear, or pain, or self-preservation. If what Prophet said was true, there might have been millions, everyone who died in the bloodiest battle in history, along with who knew how many people killed between there and here.
I grinned wider at the thought, mad and hungry. Millions of them was good. It meant I wouldn’t run out of prey any time soon.
I hit them and, again, they died as they came near me. There were far more of them now, and I was surrounded almost instantly, but it didn’t really matter. They couldn’t touch me. They were slipping and stumbling now, falling before I could even pull them down, and it disappointed me but I didn’t allow that to prevent me from biting them while they were down. There was no purpose to targeting vital areas here, but a hard bite to the neck could remove the head, and that was enough to end them.
The other werewolves, the hounds, the wolves, they were all beside me now, running into the crowd and bringing the enemy down. Behind us came the Sidhe and the jötnar, moving through the storm and the snow with the same smooth assurance I felt. They killed many of the fallen dead without even trying, as the hooves of horses crushed skulls and spines, left their victims broken on the ground. Axes and swords and long sharp knives flickered in the moonlight and more of them fell.
One of the mages miscalculated, deliberately or otherwise, and a bolt of lightning fell from the sky onto me. I smelled it coming and reached out through the Wild Hunt on instinct, reaching for the defenses to shield myself. They came in the form of wards spun by the Sidhe to protect themselves from mortal magic. Any one of the wards might not have held against the blast, but all of them together were more than adequate. The lightning ran over me into the ground like water off a fish’s scales.
In the moment of distraction several of the dead struck at me, lashing out with hands, with stones, with ancient rusted guns rendered into makeshift clubs. None of them meant a thing to me. The storm protected me, slowing them, taking much of the force away. The ice on my fur did the rest of the work, absorbing the blow, as good as armor and a hundred times lighter, moving with me.
I didn’t fall down, didn’t so much as hesitate, and all of the prey that struck at me died again within moments. We continued moving, dancing through the ranks of the enemy, cutting a broad swath through them, and they couldn’t touch us.
There were more werewolves beside me, I realized at some point, and they were slipping on the ice, they were slow and clumsy and blind. Not a part of my Hunt, though the Wild Hunt was aware of them. I could feel it reaching out to taste them, could feel the tendrils of the storm gliding over their fur. Without even thinking I stretched out into their minds, feeling the touch from both sides, the gentle, almost insubstantial chill. I shivered in pleasure at the sensation, though that might also have been from the spine I was crushing between my teeth at the time.
It was my choice whether they might hunt beside me, I knew. I was hesitant to share this glorious joy with anyone more than was already here, but there was prey enough for all of us and more here tonight, and so I brought them in, the icy winter storm wrapping around them entirely.
There were more after that, mages of various sorts. Some few I accepted, but most were too alien, too far removed from what it meant to be a Hunter. They were prey, not predator. Most I left alone, there being more than enough prey here to be discriminating in my hunting, but some refused to listen, and these the Wild Hunt fell upon with abandon. I enjoyed the dry, decayed flavor of the dead prey, but the taste of life and fresh blood was beyond compare, a thrill unlike any other.
And there were others as well. Some were things that had no names, so strange that even the Wild Hunt couldn’t begin to grasp their nature. That group walked beside us without joining the Hunt, without needing to join, and where they went strange and terrible things happened to the dead prey, things so horrid and incomprehensible that it hurt to look at them. A group of kitsune joined the Hunt, and a handful of raiju that had been nearby, their lightning lighting the storm from within.
Last of all were a trio of vampires, one that looked like a massive wolf, one that was wrapped in shadow and seemed almost incorporeal, and a third that was human in appearance but killed the dead again with no more than a touch, or even a glance. There was a reluctance in me to accept the vampires, but I could not think of why, and there was no doubt that they were predators and not prey. They joined the storm, and a new element entered the Wild Hunt, a hunger and a profound awareness of the creatures around us.
We kept moving, kept killing, and now we sprawled across the land, a spearhead almost a mile across with me at the very tip. I continued running forward, laughing all the way, and the storm around me laughed with me in a voice of wind and ice and death. Nothing could stand against me, or stand before me and hope to live.
And then there were no more of the dead to kill. Instead, there was a wall of darkness in front of me, the leading edge of the aura of death around the necromancer. From what I’d heard nothing and no one could survive that magic; it would tear the life right out of you just to touch it.
I laughed and ran inside.